Fred Mills: Kim Salmon & The Scientists

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And you thought I was done with a mere record review of that awesome Scientists box set.

By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor / Erstwhile Australian Correspondent

Sharp eyes have already spotted yours truly’s extended review of the new box set from Numero Group, A Place Called Bad, documenting the initial career of Australian grunge pioneers The Scientists. In that review, I quoted from a much earlier feature, circa 1990, I published in the late great US fanzine The Bob about the band and its founder, Kim Salmon. Although no Bob material has ever, apparently, graduated to the digital milieu – and for me, that’s just as well, given my amateurish flourishes back in  the day – I still felt that the two-part original Salmon/Sci story was worth posting here at my (cough) sacred forum.

Following my discussion of  that Numero retrospective on the band are the scanned pages, direct from my archives (the one above is the cover to one of the two issues the Salmon feature spanned). Click on the pages to enlarge, or download, then enlarge, at will.

Special thanks to David Gerard of the equally late great Aussie zine Party Fears for doing the original Kim Salmon interview… Where are ya these days, David? Drop a line…

Meanwhile, here’s the breakdown of the new box.

 

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“The Scientists, like the Birthday Party, were fueled on negative energy—a very negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way. I think the result is intense energy, but rather than force things out dynamically and theatrically like the Birthday Party did, we tend to basically unleash. The momentum is there, and we’re able to pick up on it and let it loose.” —Kim Salmon, 1989

Legendary Australian proto-grunge avatars the Scientists enjoyed—well, maybe that’s an overstatement; let’s just say, “indulged”—a career that lasted, initially, from 1978 to 1987. Co-founder/guitarist/chief songwriter Salmon subsequently re-formed the group in 2006 at the behest of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm to play that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and the band additionally has gotten back together a few times since then for events such as the ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series and as opening act for Sonic Youth.

It’s that initial decade-long run, however, that put the “legend” into the “legendary” for the band, the mid-‘80s in particular cementing the quartet’s reputation as uniquely qualified to shoulder the mantle of “heir to…” such brutality merchants as the Stooges, Suicide, the Cramps, Gun Club, and fellow Aussies the Birthday Party. With this particular lineup in place—Salmon, guitarist Tony Thewlis, bassist Boris Sujdovic and drummer Brett Rixon—the scabbily hirsute, silk-shirt adorned Scientists assaulted frequently unprepared audiences with the demented, unfiltered glee of, yes, a mad scientist, charting paranoia, decay, and bad love against a thundering, howling backdrop of swamp-twang and dissonance.

Admittedly, the group’s name recognition factor may be relatively low in terms of how many rock fans, in 2016, have heard of the musicians, much less actually heard them. But for a certain breed of music lover weaned on the aforementioned icons—that would include Jon Spencer, Mark Arm, and Thurston Moore, who were talking up the Scientists years before either of the latter two had to opportunity to extend their direct support—and tuned in to what was happening Down Under during the ‘80s, it’s likely the name continues to loom large. It certainly does for yours truly, having been smitten early on and obsessively collecting each and every official release alongside numerous live tapes; the ’82 Australian 45 “We Had Love” b/w “Swampland” retains a permanent lodging in my singles playbox, with that epochal B-side also a perennial of my Spotify playlists. (The title of this article takes its cue from a brilliant bon mot Salmon sneers in “Swampland”: “In my heart/ There’s a place called Swampland/ Nine parts water/ One part sand.”)

With the release of a comprehensive new four-disc box set by the astute archivists at the Numero Group label, hopes are high that a long-overdue reassessment by consumers of the band lurks in the wings. Following reissues of both The Scientists debut and the 1983 mini-album Blood Red River, Numero now drops A Place Called Bad, and it’s an essential collection. It breaks up the group’s history into three logical segments: “Cheap and Nasty,” covering the group’s somewhat poppier origins on the Perth punk and indie scene (Salmon had a pre-Scientists band circa 1977 called the Cheap Nasties—more on them in a sec); “Set It on Fire,” the fruitful years when they’d relocated to the Eastern edge of the continent, earning steadily-growing audiences, and ultimate making the pilgrimage to England as homelanders the Triffids, the Moodists, and of course the Birthday Party had recently done with reasonable success; and “When Worlds Collide,” the period during which personnel upheaval, clashes with their record label(s), and just plain bad luck all conspired to bring things to a close, although not without some equally compelling recorded output. The fourth disc for A Place Called Bad, “Live Cuts,” contains, logically enough, 23 live cuts recorded at various venues in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney during 1983, and for any right-thinking Scientists fan, they’re pure catnip. (I should know.)

Included with the box is a thick booklet boasting a nicely-annotated discography; photos (posed; why not live shots?) of most of the various Scientists lineups from over the years; a terrific eye-straining family tree done Pete Frame-style (count ‘em: nine separate versions of the group, plus such precursors as the Nasties, the Invaders, the Exterminators, the Mannikins, the Rockets, and the Helicopters, along with offshoots/members-overlapping-peers like the Hoodoo Gurus, the Johnnys, the Beasts of Bourbon, the Dubrovniks, and Salmon’s post-Sci trio, the Surrealists); and copious liner notes by box co-producer Erin Osmon, who managed to get fresh interviews with Salmon and several other principals. Throw in a remarkably handsome graphic design by Chunklet Industries majordomo Henry H. Owings, and you’ve got a box set guaranteed to prompt a Pavlovian drool among collectors.

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Did someone say “drool”? Anyone worth his or her collector salt will have pre-ordered the vinyl edition as well, which replicates said booklet and graphic design in 12” gatefold format, the thick cardboard tip-on sleeve housing two heavy LPs (literally and metaphorically)—which of course means the tracklisting is a distillation of the choicer material contained on the CD box. But assuming you did preorder, you got an advance digital download of the entire thing, PLUS a bonus four-song 7” EP or cassette (!) by Salmon’s Cheap Nasties outfit, pressed on red wax at that, PLUS Cheap Nasties digital-only bonus tracks comprising the band’s entire 10-song demo from back in the day. Somebody please hand me a towel so I can sop up this puddle on my linoleum… I digress…

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Early Sci

“The floor was littered with beer cans and bottles of whatever. We got one full bottle thrown—it sailed by my head, missing by about a foot. We had to sneak out of that gig without getting paid, because there were so many people there that really hated us. There was so much hatred. When I say it was common for people to throw bottles at us, I should say we did set ourselves up for it a bit: We tended to work off it, working off negative energy.” —Kim Salmon, 1984

That interview quote (it refers to one memorable Sydney gig in ’83 that found the Scientists opening for the decidedly UN-Scientific Angels), and the one at the top of the page, come from a 1990 article on Salmon and the Scientists that I collaborated upon with Australian fanzine editor David Gerard, who’d kindly allowed me to work in the bulk of a Salmon feature he’d done for his publication Party Fears. Incorporating information from two other equally esteemed Aussie ‘zines, B Side and D.N.A., the story charted Salmon’s journey to date, starting as a teenager discovering the likes of the Ramones, New York Dolls, and Modern Lovers. Listening to some of those early Scientists tunes on Disc 1 now, it strikes me how effortlessly Salmon and his bandmates absorbed their influences: the almost-jangly “Frantic Romantic” sounds like a cross between the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies, while the rowdier “Shake Together Tonight” could pass for a Dolls outtake. And neither “Pissed on Another Planet” and “Sorry Sorry Sorry” would have been out of place in a UK punk band’s setlist (think: Clash, Eddie & the Hot Rods, etc.).

By way of brief digression: Salmon, speaking to me in a more recent interview (2008, when he’d collaborated with the Died Pretty’s Ron Peno as the rootsier-sounding Darling Downs), elaborated upon a number of the artists who have informed his musical sensibilities, many of whom surface at myriad points in the box set’s material.

Explained Salmon, “Some of it’s well-known to people acquainted with my music—Stooges, Suicide, Beefheart, Creedence always come up, especially for the Scientists. But I liked most of the U.S. punk/CBGB stuff—Ramones, Television, Blondie. Before that I liked British rock like Zeppelin, the Stones, Bowie and King Crimson… and when it was okay after the initial punk purges, I liked them again, ha-ha!

“I’ve also liked jazz since I was a teenager, especially Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner have had as big an influence on my music over the years as any music. Of the blues artists, Howlin’ Wolf is definitely the one who I’ve taken the most from by a long shot, although I do like most blues. I have always felt a greater affinity with jazz and punk than blues, bizarrely, even though a lot of people think of my stuff as blues—which it is not.

“But none of this tells anything, really. Julie London’s in there, along with Nancy Wilson, Leon Russell —fuck, when I was a teenager I was a dog for Joe Cocker! — Hank Williams, Lee Hazelwood, Can, Blue Oyster Cult… the list could go on… British folk-rock stuff, like Cat Stevens, Nick Drake and Jimmy Page.”

Turning back to A Place Called Bad: In the band for most of the material featured on Disc 1, it should be noted, was drummer James Baker, en route to the Hoodoo Gurus, and Baker’s pop-punk inclinations no doubt influenced Salmon to a degree. But by late ’82, where Disc 2 commences via “This Is My Happy Hour,” a radical rethink of the group’s sound had transpired, as the band, and Salmon in particular, now sounded aggravated and very much on edge, with the term “happy hour” clearly meant ironically—or simply sarcastic, a sentiment underscored by “Swampland,” which with its metronomic rhythm, T.Rex-on-twang riffs, and Salmon’s part-moan/part-sneer, being anything but optimistic. From there the disc hits peak after peak (or mental low point after low point, depending on how you choose to psychoanalyze the Scientists): a whooping, ramshackle cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Clear Spot,” the malevolent, chiming minimalism of “Set It on Fire” (Salmon never sounded more desperate as a singer), some fetid swamp-blues for “Blood Red River,” the dissonant, buzzing “Fire Escape”—this is all the sound of a band who, true to Salmon’s words, was not just fueled by negativity—the Scientists personified it. Salmon, Thewlis, Sujdovic, and Rixon sound like men on the run and pursued by bounty hunters who aren’t necessarily going to be bothered with bringing their prey back alive. It’s no wonder that by mid-’85 the lineup was turning unstable.

Disc 3 can’t quite match its predecessor for sheer sonic and psychic oomph, but it’s not for lack of trying. Although in places it suggests a band for whom all that negativity was catching up with them and taking its toll, tracks like the Taxi Driver homage “If It’s the Last Thing I Do” (boasting the eternal lines “Sometimes I feel like Travis Bickle/ Just wanna shoot up all the bad that’s lurking in this town,” it’s a twangygrindingsexy sonic tour de force), punk-rockabilly pastiche “Atom Bomb Baby” (imagine Eddie Cochrane backed by Sonic Youth), and the subterranean rumble that is “A Place Called Bad” (it conjures an anthropomorphic drill press afflicted with a brutal hangover and puking its mechanical guts out), all conspire to send the band out on a high note. And trainspotters will want to know that, yes, the cover of John Fogerty/CCR nugget “It Came Out of the Sky” is undeniably great, simultaneously true to the original spirit while still utterly recognizable as classic Scientists. It’s unlikely that Salmon knew what or where “Moline,” namechecked in the song, was, but he chews the word around and lets it slide off his tongue like a man enjoying a particularly juicy bite of prime rib.

The live CD is a welcome addition to the canon, because while back in the day I’d heard plenty of ’83 shows via my tape traders’ network, having these tracks in official, cleaned-up, remastered format is a real treat. Highlights and left-field delights include a version of “Happy Hour” that completely wipes the original studio version for sheer, er, negativity, and “Set It on Fire” almost does likewise, particularly in Salmon’s edge-of-hysteria shrieks at the mic. There are several intriguing covers as well, including no less than three tips o’ the Sci cap to the Flamin’ Groovies (“Don’t Lie to Me,” “Have You Seen My Baby?” and a somewhat muffled, but revved-up and righteous “Slow Death”), a semi-throwaway take on “I’ve Had It” (originally done by the Bell Notes, it was covered by a number of bands during the punk era), and—just to return full circle to one of Salmon’s earliest inspirations—the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” served up sleek ‘n’ snotty, just like mama ordered.

All in all, A Place Called Bad is everything a good box set is supposed to be: a collection that tells a specific story with coherence, precision, and painstakingly comprehensive detail. This is true for both the music and the overall package (did I mention how sweet that vinyl version is?), and if this is intended to be the final word—not counting the latterday reunions of course—then it hits that goal 110%.

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Perhaps, then, a similar project might be mounted to chronicle Kim Salmon’s numerous projects he’s undertaken since the Scientists’ initial dissolution in ’87, most notably the Surrealists. (There was also Tex Perkins’ Beasts of Bourbon and the Salamander Jim offshoot, the above-mentioned Darling Downs, Kim Salmon & the Business, a number of solo records, and just recently, separate collaborations with erstwhile Scientists drummer Leanne Cowie, aka Leanne Chock, and fellow Aussie legend Spencer P. Jones. You can find plenty of details, not to mention downloads, at his BandCamp page or at his official website.) When I talked to him in 2008, the Scientists had recently completed a handful of reunion gigs, and as he put it to me, “It’s always possible, given the right offer and person to negotiate things, that there could be more Scientists shows.”

Indeed, both anecdotal reports and the 2007 reunion album Sedition, recorded live at the ATP festival in May of the previous year, offer ample testimony that the group hadn’t lost its formidable live powers. If anything, this was a tighter, more focused ensemble that any of the lineups of yore. Salmon confessed to me, though, ambivalence regarding the revived Scientists cutting a new studio album.

“I do think, however, that the set of conditions that made that band work and evolve have passed on forever and that it would be an extremely risky thing to attempt to make another recording of new material with that band. Having reformation shows has been more a matter of setting things up for just long enough for us to recreate what we did have without it going anywhere. I don’t believe we’d go anywhere good if we were allowed to go on for longer than a short time. I haven’t heard any reformation albums that can convince me otherwise, I hate to say.

“It has been great revisiting what the Scientists did, and it has rekindled something that I can pursue with the Surrealists, who never actually broke up and are, I believe, able to grow and evolve. For me, Blood Red River [Scientists, 1983], The Human Jukebox [Scientists, 1987] and Hit Me with the Surreal Feel [Surrealists, 1988] follow a natural path that I got diverted from throughout the nineties. Anyway, it put me back in touch with what I was trying to do back then, and a lot of ideas that have been mulling over in my head for a decade and a half have just fallen into place since doing the Scientists tours…. [And] the Surrealists have just picked up all the ideas and run with them. It’s amazing. We’re definitely going to do another album and it’s going to follow on seamlessly from Hit Me With The Surreal Feel, which was so far ahead in time compared with anything I’ve done subsequently that it won’t be a step back in time.”

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True to his word, Salmon’s Surrealists cut Grand Unifying Theory in 2010, and he has also mounted several brief Scientists reunion tours, including a 35th anniversary tour of Australia in 2015 featuring the group’s earliest lineup and then again a couple of shows in 2015. Maybe there will be more to come? Stay tuned

For the time being, though, A Place Called Bad is a more than worthwhile step back in time. Get ready for some serious negativity—the good kind of negativity.

 

 

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Michael Toland: Throwing Horns Pt. 666.9

Cobalt

Hard rock! Stoner metal! Crustcore! Psychedelia! Grunge! Thrash! Skronk! Black metal! Trash punk! Bad boy boogie! (huh?) Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids, it’s the seventh installment in our latest genre study, with Cobalt (above), Melvins, Death Angel, Candlemass, Dust Moth, Lord Mantis, and more. Go here to read the first episode, Pt. 666.1, here for Pt. 666.2, here for Pt. 666.3, here for Pt. 666.4, here for Pt. 666.5, here for 666.6, here for 666.7 and here for 666.8—if you dare. Incidentally, following the text are links to audio and video of the bands discussed, so check ’em out.

BY METAL MIKE TOLAND

As cult as cult can be, Colorado’s Cobalt records infrequently and tours even less, so the metal community can be forgiven for forgetting the duo still exists. But records like Eater of Birds and Gin are prized by fans like slivers of the true cross (and are about as rare at this point), so any new release comes with the kind of reverential anticipation usually reserved for a Tom Waits album. Slow Forever (Profound Lore), the band’s fourth LP, comes with its own black cloud – singer and founding member Phil McSorley was fired after using racist slurs in an interview, then replaced with Charlie Fell, whose own lyrics with his previous band Lord Mantis have been accused of racial insensitivity. (If you want to know the full tit-for-tat story, Google is your friend.) Regardless of one’s feelings for its creators’ past actions, the album is an exceptional piece of work. Multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder paints an ugly picture, but not one without appeal. Thanks to a tight grasp on arrangements and just enough melody to focus the violence, he spreads the band’s doom-ridden progressive black metal over two disks with no listener fatigue. Fell brings his bloodthirsty A-game to the mic, slashing his larynx with ferocity and slotting into songs intended for McSorley as if the latter had never been present. Psychedelic, dynamic and brutal, “Hunt the Buffalo,” “Slow Forever” and the massive “King Rust” and “Final Will” smash and burn with the best extreme metal of the past decade. Expect Slow Forever to top a lot of 2016 best-of lists.

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Speaking of Lord Mantis, the band’s latest EP Nice Teeth Whore (New Density) is also the debut of its latest iteration, with Indian’s Dylan O’Toole and Will Lindsay joining Mantis’ Andrew Markuszewski and Bill Baumgardner. (The drama surrounding this particular mind-meld, which also tangentially involves Abigail Williams and the disgraced Nachtmystium, is worthy of a soap opera, but we’ll skip it – Google that shit if you gotta know.) Given that both outfits indulged in some of the most angry, hateful and nihilistic death metal ever made by anyone anywhere, it’s not a shock that the four songs here are the same, but moreso. The grinding closer “Final Division” isn’t just the key track on the EP, but practically a primer on this poisonous strain of Chi-town extreme metal.

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Undoubtedly one of the best metal acts going, Tombs follows up 2014’s masterful Savage Gold with the all-too-brief EP All Empires Fall (Relapse). The Brooklyn quintet ostensibly plays black metal, but happily incorporates wild-eyed acid doom, spooky gothic drama and Neurosis-like poundcrunch into its violent aesthetic, always layering in just enough melody to keep from being mere cacophony. Synthesist Fade Kainer adds a new touch to the band’s usual deathcrush, but it’s still visionary Mike Hill’s show via the brilliant, eccentric “Last Days of Sunlight” and “V.” Former Emperor leader Ihsahn has long used black metal merely as a jumping off point – his last album found him hitting a new peak in that regard, and his latest Arktis (Candlelight/Spinefarm) keeps that momentum going. Few artists incorporate prog and psych into extreme metal as well as this Norwegian genius – he effortlessly makes “Pressure,” “My Heart is in the North” and “Mass Darkness” sweeping, jagged, melodic, dissonant and beautiful all at once. Though it has no toes in the extreme metal pool, Canadian duo Sierra also ranges all over the map on its new EP 72 (self-released). The difference is that singer/guitarist Jason Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Carvalho (plus drummer Sam Hill) hop from 70s metal to prog to psych to folk and back within a single beautifully written, arranged and performed 22-minute song.

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The Cavern, the last album from Inter Arma, was also a single( 45-minute) song.The Richmond quintet doesn’t revisit that idea on its new record Paradise Gallows (Relapse), but it throws all its others into this 70-minute epic. IA carefully and considerately combines black metal dissonance, death metal brutality, doom metal dynamics and psychedelic sonic fuckery into lumbering constructions of artful agony and dark power. The band knows when to leaven the mood, via the ethereal arpeggios of “Nomini,” the gothic drama of “Primordial Wound,”the acoustic shimmer of “When the Earth Meets the Sky,” the prog rock majesty of “Potomac.” But that just makes the noise noisier and the loathing more potent – the eclectic journeys of the title track, “Transfiguration” and “The Summer Drones” blaze loudly with horror at humanity’s inhumanity to, well, everything. That the band hits the low points and does it in an artful way puts Inter Arma on its way to rewrite the rules of extreme metal someday. Seattle’s Dust Moth gets just as eclectic, if not as heavy on its first full-length album Scale (The Mylene Sheath). The band’s tricky blend of shimmering gauze pop, melancholy post-prog and psychedelic doom reaches full, expressive flower on the darkly flowing “Up Into Blackness,” the powerful “Corrections” and the enigmatically unwinding “Lift.”

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The Melvins don’t fit comfortably in any bag (King Buzzo’s distinctive hairstyle would stick out, for one thing) under normal circumstances, and on Basses Loaded (Ipecac) it ain’t normal circumstances. With six different bass players (including Krist Novoselic, JD Pinkus of Honky and the Butthole Surfers and Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald, who’s filling the slot on tour) aiding and abetting the bottom-challenged trio, the band traverses all over its personal heavy rock territory, from spacey doom (“Captain Come Down”) and roiling acid metal (“Phyllis Dillard”) to thick grunge (“War Pussy”) and near-pop (“Choco Plumbing”). New Zealand’s Beastwars spins its own metallic web on third LP The Death of All Things (Destroy), plunging neck-deep into a thick ooze blended from doom, sludge, psych, thrash and biker metal. Guitars and rhythms mind-meld in pursuit of massive riffs; Matt Hyde’s carnivorous vocals rain visions of worldwide apocalypse down from the thunderclouds. “Witches,” “The Devil Took Her” and the mighty “Call of the Mountain” reveal meticulous craft under the nearly overwhelming power.

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The future of doom titan Candlemass has looked uncertain for a few years, with singer Robert Lowe’s dismissal and rumors the band had no plans to record again. Clearly, though, any lingering issues have been sorted, as evidenced by EP Death Thy Lover (Napalm), the Swedish quintet’s first record in four years and first with veteran metal singer Mats Levén. Just in time for its 30th anniversary, the band proves it hasn’t lost a jot of its touch on lumbering blasters “Sleeping Giant” and the title track. Japan’s Church of Misery also could’ve thrown in the towel after losing every member but mastermind Tatsu Mikami following 2013’s Thy Kingdom Scum. The surprising choice to replace his countrymen with Americans (metal vets all) seems to have given the serial killer-obsessed outfit new, uh, life – And Then There Were None… (Rise Above) expertly balances melody and groove with brutality and heaviness for one of the long-running quartet’s most accessible LPs.

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Miss Lava pushes its doomcrunch far out into the space/time continuum on Sonic Debris (Small Stone). The Lisbon trio swirls cosmic trippiness into ribcage-crushing doom, going from cruising speed (“Another Beast is Born”) to warp speed (“The Silent Ghost of Doom”) in a heartbeat, pausing to orbit both groovy (“Symptomatic”) and acoustically (“In a Sonic We Shall Burn”) along the way. Brontosaurus licks meet heavenly melodies, and it’s all shaken down until it burns. Dallas’ Wo Fat continues its blues-inflected, acid-soaked odyssey through the doom metal cosmos with Midnight Cometh (Ripple). The threesome’s seventh LP gets groovy (“Le Dilemme De Detenu”), rockin’ (the appropriately-titled “Riffborn”) and, most of all, smoky (“Nightcomer,” “Of Smoke and Fog”) if you know what we mean. Fresno trio Beastmaker brings together two countries’ worth of doom on its debut album Lusus Naturæ (Rise Above), drawing as much from Stateside pioneer Pentagram as from originator Black Sabbath. “Mask of Satan,” “Eyes Are Watching” and the title track do 70s heavy as well as anybody.

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Speaking of that oft-maligned decade, airbrush that Ford Econoline and strap your mane down with a headband, because La Chinga hits town with second record Freewheelin’ (Small Stone). The Vancouver trio giddily grooves up its Me Decade riff rock – while nothing here goes full-on disco (it’s not that 70s), it’s not hard to imagine booties getting shaken during “War Cry” and “Gone Gypsy.” Guitarist Ben Yardley sparks fire with tough but melodic riffs and economic solos, while bassist Carl Spackler keeps the party rolling with beer-and-reefer vocal performances. Song titles “Mother of All Snakeheads” and “White Witchy Black Magic” (that’s the chorus!) nod to a certain self-aware sense of humor, but you’ll be too busy rawking out to acknowledge it.

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Death Angel rose during the original wave of Bay Area thrash in the early 80s, but tends to be overlooked, possibly because the quintet didn’t release an album until 1987. If The Evil Divide (Nuclear Blast) is any indication, it’s also because the band doesn’t much care for the word “compromise.” Death Angel’s eighth album rarely bothers with anthemic hooks, catchy choruses or any of the commercial concessions peers like Metallica and Megadeth eventually traded in. With the exception of the incongruous lighter waver “Lost,” stalwarts Mark Osgueda (vox) and Rob Cavestany (guit) and their current cohorts thrash their fornicating brains out, spraying more squealing solos, savage singing and chuggachug guitar over the landscape than their pals have in twenty years. “The Electric Cell,” “Cause For Alarm” and “Hell to Pay” deftly mix precision strikes and blunt force trauma for old-school thrash that doesn’t sound nostalgic.

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Though it doesn’t have the history that Death Angel does, the Australia-borne/Europe-based Destroyer 666 is no spring chicken, having released its first album in 1997. Wildfire (Season of Mist), the fearsome foursome’s fifth LP and first in seven years, blends fist-pumping melody, charred vokills and whipcrack thrash into a most impressive wall of glaargh on “Live and Burn” and “Hymn to Dionysus.” Philadelphia’s Vektor is even younger, but no less accomplished. Indeed, Terminal Redux (Earache), the quartet’s third record, shows off an impressive level of sheer musicianship without compromising tonnage. Leader Daniel DiSanto’s black metal screech conveys a science fiction story of some sort, but his and Erik Nelson’s python coils-tight six-string work remains the primary attraction.

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A key influence on the early thrash bands, particularly Metallica, England’s Diamond Head has let long periods of inactivity shape its legend, so when it makes yet another comeback, it’s an event. Only the band’s seventh album since its 1979 recorded debut (the “Shoot Out the Lights” single), the quintet’s self-titled LP (Dissonance Productions) keeps the faith with its primary virtues: strong riffs, clear vocals (by Danish-born newcomer Rasmus Bom Anderson) and melodies for miles. Leader Brian Tatler still has the fleetest of fingers and a bottomless bag of licks, but it’s his dedication to hummable tunes that has made the band stand out all these years – of their peers, only Iron Maiden boasts the same devotion. “See You Rise,” “Diamonds” and “Shout at the Devil” boast catchy hooks as well as epic power,while the chugging “Our Time is Now” and “Wizard Sleeve” crank the headbanging energy while still keeping tunesmithery alive. Some might consider Diamond Head old-fashioned, but we prefer the word timeless.

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Grand Magus waves a familiar flag on Sword Songs (Nuclear Blast), the Swedish trio’s eighth album. “We are warriors,” roars singer/guitarist JB on “Varangian,” “defenders of steel!” The band continues the quest exemplified by its last LP Triumph and Power, raising its blades high and conquering all who cross its path. The macho battlelust would be ridiculous if not for Magus’ burly riffology and relentless energy – “Last One to Fall” and “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel” would rampage even if the lyrics were about kittens and angels. “Every Day There’s a Battle to Fight” even works up a nice lighter-waving head of steam.

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NYC legend Prong keeps blasting away from its own unique corner of the metal universe with X: No Absolutes (Steamhammer/SPV). For the most part it follows the usual Prong pattern of headbanging up 80s New Yawk hardcore – “Ultimate Authority,” “Worth Pursuing” and “Belief System” hit as hard and deadly as ever. But attempts to make the trio’s bashcore singalong friendly on songs like “No Absolutes” lead it to resemble Helmet, while “Do Nothing” and “With Dignity” sound like attempts to slot in late 90s radio alongside Breaking Benjamin and Shinedown. Artistic development should always be encouraged, but maybe Prong should just sound like Prong. Further down the East Coast, Miami’s Wrong has more than a little Prong (and Helmet) in ‘em, thanks to hardcore-influenced breakdowns and steely chunkachunk. But on its self-titled debut (Relapse), the quartet – made up of former members of Kylesa, Torche and Capsule – also wallows in drillbit noise metal in the Unsane tradition. The combo of teeth-gritting riffcrack and grinding screeblast reaches maximum potency on the pounding “Boil” and “Stasis” and the blazing “Entourage” and “Turn In.”

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007}

None more black: Savannah powerhouse Black Tusk had a major obstacle to overcome on the way to releasing Pillars of Ash (Relapse) – the death of bassist/vocalist/co-founder Jonathan Athon. Fortunately for band and fans its fifth album was finished before Athon’s untimely motorcycle accident, and it’s a ripper. The trio’s distinctive blend of steely thrash and shoutalong punk – sort of a Southern re-imagining of what Prong does – sets fire to the landscape via blazers “ Beyond the Divide,” “Still Not Well” and “God’s On Vacation.” Out on the other coast, Black Cobra kicks up a sludge-covered ruckus on Imperium Simulacra (Season of Mist) that wouldn’t sound out of place in Tusk’s hometown. The San Fran duo of guitarist/vocalist Jason Landeman and drummer Rafael Martinez digs deep into rifftastic rumblers “Challenger Deep” and “Dark Shine.” Rolling out of Vancouver,

BlackWizardcover_l

Black Wizard goes straight for the doom jugular with New Waste (Listenable), leaving no power chord unstroked nor bong unsmoked on “Eliminator,” “Harsh Time” and “The Priest.” Though it didn’t get the chromatic memo, Red Wizard might be Black Wizard’s California cousins, and not just for being similarly inclined toward sorcery. The San Diego quintet’s debut Cosmosis (Ripple) sinks even deeper into the sticky grass of Sabbath worship – check the mighty “Temple of Tennitus” and the monstrous title tune.

NORTH_LTW_VINYL_1500x1500

Tucson, Arizona may be best known for eccentric root rock & roll, but a darker power lurks underneath the surface. Or so it seems with North, who slowly and painfully unleash Light the Way (Prosthetic). The trio’s follow-up to its “Through Raven’s Eyes” single imagines the epic progressive doom of Neurosis as post rock, roaring hoarsely over waves of riff that are almost symphonic in their grandeur. Tunes like “Weight of All Thoughts,” “Primal Bloom” and the powerhouse “From This Soil” come off kind of like Isis as interpreted by Explosions in the Sky, all furrowed-brow power and ugly beauty. Speaking of Isis, former leader of that band Aaron Turner returns swiftly with What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey) from his new outfit Sumac. The sequel to last year’s debut The Deal, the hour-long monsterpiece pushes Turner, bassist Brian Cook (also of Russian Circles) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) into uglier, meaner territory – the leader in particular sounds nearly livid with rage and loathing. But the trio does it without losing the experimental edge and melodic undercurrent that Turner carries with him to all his projects. “Rigid Man” and the 18-minute, nearly overwhelming “Blackout” prove that art, atmosphere and blackened doom can mix.

Purson-DesiresMagicTheatre_1500px

Funny how some bands find favor mainly with metal audiences, despite a relationship with the genre that’s tangential at best. Thus it is with Great Britain’s Purson. The quintet released its head-turning debut on Cathedral/With the Dead singer Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label, which seems to have cemented its standing with headbanger audiences. Desire’s Magic Theatre (Spinefarm), the long-awaited follow-up, deftly swirls the same distinctive blend of psych rock, prog, electric folk and boogie as its prior platter, but with an even keener edge. Leader Rosalie Cunningham has clearly been honing her songcraft, and it shows on eccentric delights “Dead Dodo Down,” The Window Cleaner” and the striking single “Electric Landlady.” Toronto’s Blood Ceremony connects a bit more firmly to the metal tradition via harder rocking performances and an obsessive interest in the occult. But fourth LP Lord of Misrule (Rise Above) still portrays a band not easily categorized, with progressive rock elements (including frequent use of singer/keyboardist Alia O’Brien’s flute) and a 70s classic rock vibe that puts the heaviness on the lyrics. Regardless, “Flower Phantoms,” “Half Moon Street” and “The Devil’s Widow” rule.

********

Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where he acts “somewhat suspiciously at times,” according to his Lone Star State accomplices, which include media heavy hitters The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV. Coincidentally or not, the BLURT editor once lived in Tucson, which is a kind of sister city to Austin, where similarly strange happenings have taken place over the years. Note that a Tucson metal band is profiled in Toland’s latest column. Perhaps the work of the Illuminati? You be the judge…. Toland can be reached at michael.toland@gmail.com.


Audio/Video:

Beastmaker – “Mask of Satan”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPGzqslFVm4

 

Beastwars – The Death of All Things bandcamp:

https://beastwars.bandcamp.com/

 

Black Cobra – Imperium Simulacra bandcamp:

https://blackcobra.bandcamp.com/album/imperium-simulacra

 

Black Tusk – Pillars of Ash bandcamp:

https://blacktusk.bandcamp.com/album/pillars-of-ash

 

Black Wizard – New Waste bandcamp:

http://blackwizard.bandcamp.com/album/new-waste

 

Candlemass – “Death Thy Lover”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKXP0RIDf6g

 

Cobalt – Slow Forever bandcamp:

https://profoundlorerecords.bandcamp.com/album/slow-forever

 

Death Angel – “Cause For Alarm”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N0UcnswlUQ

 

Destroyer 666 Wildfire bandcamp:

https://destroyer666.bandcamp.com/album/wildfire

 

Diamond Head preview:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFmFG9b0Jjs

 

Dust Moth – Scale bandcamp:

http://dustmoth.bandcamp.com/album/scale

 

Grand Magus – “Varangian”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_9jrowMBz0

 

Ihsahn – “Pressure”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHx2ryUzDx4

 

Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows bandcamp:

https://interarma.bandcamp.com/album/paradise-gallows-2

 

La Chinga – Freewheelin’ bandcamp:

https://smallstone.bandcamp.com/album/freewheelin

 

Lord Mantis – Nice Teeth Whore preview:

https://lordmantis.bandcamp.com/

 

The Melvins – “Hideous Woman”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4w7yVR27RHA

 

Miss Lava – Sonic Debris bandcamp:

https://smallstone.bandcamp.com/album/sonic-debris

 

North – Light the Way bandcamp:

https://north-official.bandcamp.com/album/light-the-way

 

Prong – X: No Absolutes teaser:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HboZDhXdek

 

Purson – “Electric Landlady”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boscR_9EE5Q

 

Red Wizard – Cosmosis bandcamp:

http://ripplemusic.bandcamp.com/album/cosmosis

 

Sierra – 72 bandcamp:

https://sierrariff.bandcamp.com/album/72

 

Sumac – “Rigid Man”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIBZi7G-sSU

 

Tombs – All Empires Fall bandcamp:

https://tombsbklyn.bandcamp.com/album/all-empires-fall

 

Vektor – “Charging the Void”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4e5Jw9T5Zk

 

Wrong – “Boil”:

https://soundcloud.com/relapserecords/wrong-boil

 

Fred Mills: The Economics of Rock Criticism

calculator

Ever wonder why reviewers do what they do when they are actually LOSING money on the deal? (First in a series, collect them all.)

By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor

Lately our writers and staffers have been doing an outstanding job with their record, concert and book reviews, and you may have noticed that some of those reviews have been posting as Features initially (prior to be archived in the respective Reviews sections). They get a bit more attention that way, and since they’re not getting paid for their reviews, it allows me to thank them for occasionally putting in the extra time and sweat to make a review a bit more special.  Plus, while it’s sometimes because the artist in question is relatively high profile and we can potentially grab a few extra eyeballs, it can also be because I just feel the artist being reviewed deserves to be spotlighted.

There’s a related wrinkle to all this. Can we agree that no one is getting rich reviewing records these days? Worse, with even the most DIY of labels moving to digital promotional platforms, eschewing hard copy promos for lo-res MP3s or, worse, horrible sounding digital streams, one could argue that we reviewers now find ourselves in the curious position of PAYING THE LABELS for the privilege of writing about their artists and clients.

Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. Assume, as a base, that a reviewer spends 90 minutes listening to a 45-minute album twice before sitting down to write. Then assume he/she puts in another 90 minutes’ minimum to write, proof, revise and finalize a review. Could be more, could be less, depending on the record. Some reviews practically write themselves because their merits (in the case of a great rec) and deficits (for lemons) are so blindingly obvious. Plus, regarding the lemon contingent, who wants to waste an hour and a half on, I dunno, a John Mayer or (insert whatever is displaying on the Pitchfork home page at any given moment) when you could be out shooting hoops, tending the garden, or banging some hot rock critic groupie. Hey, it happens!

At any rate, now we’re up to three hours. Let’s say a reasonable hourly wage is $15. You’ve just racked up $45 worth of time and sweat equity. Except there’s no equity, because you were reviewing digital files. And if you actually want to keep the album, you’ll probably want to burn it to a CDR, print out some artwork or at least tracklisting, and insert both into a jewel case. That’s at least another buck for the disc, the printer paper, and the ink used printing it. (The writer will NOT have to purchase a jewel case, luckily, because he’s already got boxes and boxes of empties, the result of tossing the discs from the shittier titles among the hard copy promos he got. Well, that’s where the latest John Mayer promo I received went.) Not to mention, I dunno, another 10 minutes spent downloading, organizing, burning, and printing; which, at $15 per hour, or 25 cents per minute, is another $2.50 worth of work you are not getting paid for. We’re at $48.50 now.

I’m tempted to put a dollar value on the amount of time it takes to send the link to the review out in an email to the label or publicist who sent you the digital files – compounded, let us not forget, by the subsequent, inevitable, deluge of emails from same, who, following a cursory “thank you” proceeds to start badgering, er, I mean, pitching all those other artists/clients currently with projects they want to publicize. But that would be mean-spirited of me.

So let me just return to my original premise: by virtue of that $48.50 that he did NOT get paid, the writer has essentially PAID THE LABEL for letting him review the record. And there’s not even an ACTUAL RECORD to show for his trouble – just a bunch of shitty-sounding MP3s clogging up the hard drive, and a CDR copy of the album that may or may not actually play in the future, depending on what CD player is being used. (You wouldn’t believe the number of promo CDRs I get that will play on one player but not on another, especially my car player, as I often preview promos while driving to and from my day job, or while vacationing.)

$48.50: extrapolate that figure across the course of a year, during which any writer worth his or her salt will “spend” at least 50 times. Usually more.

When BLURT became a volunteer operation, I was already aware of all this, but I hadn’t quite “monetized” the notion. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that (a) only a schmuck would review a digital file unless a finished hard copy of the album is also part of the picture when it is ready at the label; (b) those labels that do make it their usual policy to send out hard copies should be acknowledged and thanked, even if the writer can’t necessarily reciprocate with a review (there might be just too damn many promos that have come in around the same time, or the writer simply can’t place a review with a media outlet – I have the deepest admiration for our writers like Lee Zimmerman, Michael Toland and Bill Kopp who somehow are able to crank out scores of reviews practically on a weekly basis; unfortunately, superhumans such as they are a dwindling race); and (c) if a label goes the extra mile and actually SENDS A VINYL COPY OF THE RECORD, you can damn well bet that I’m gonna make that a priority review if at all possible, because the cost of the hard goods and postage for gifting a reviewer with an LP is not negligible… did I mention that COLORED VINYL GETS THE SUPER-DUPER PRIORITY as well?

Anyhow, by way of a semi-digression here, and just to “circle back” (my favorite publicity rep phrase) to the topic at the start of this rant, today at BLURT we posted an extended review of “Blood & Treasure” by Pat Todd & The Rankoutsiders, issued by the Hound Gawd! Records label. Todd of course once fronted the legendary The Lazy Cowgirls. Longtime contributor Barry StVitus penned the review, and we published it in Features, along with some choice audio samples and a killer live clip of the band from this past April. Why? Because, well, Pat Fucking Todd.

Plus, as suggested a moment ago, it will get way more exposure at the top of the home page rather than semi-buried down “below the fold” in the Reviews section. Oh, and because Barry’s a damn good writer, and he puts forth the kind of effort that deserves to be recognized. As do all my writers at BLURT: thanks to every goddam one of you. What’s that saying? Oh yeah – you complete me. Uh…

In all seriousness, we rock writers do this for the fun and the love of the music, not necessarily for the acclaim (right….) or simply to get paid. Well, that and the free records. But as you may recall, those “free records” can sometimes be illusory and actually put you in the hole.

At any rate, by my way of thinking, we at BLURT might as well take that fun when we can get it, and write about the stuff we really care about, and not fret about some weird flavor-of-the-moment Pitchfork shit for 20 year old hipsters and their crappy-sounding earbuds. (Hey you kids, get off my freakin’ lawn!) There’s a lot to be said for supporting the artists who make our lives just a little less grey, and in particular, artists like Pat Todd who have been doing it for as long as I can remember. At this stage in the game, loyalty counts for a lot, you know?

Thanks for listening. Now I must go. I have to start sending out a lot of $48.50 invoices…. HERE is the link, incidentally, to that Todd review and accompanying music samples that set me off in the first place.

 

Bill Kopp: The Blurt Jazz Desk – New Releases

Presenting installment #3 of the Blurt Jazz Desk—go HERE to access the previous editions—and our Jazz Editor’s top picks of some new and recent titles from respected labels Mack Avenue, International Anthem Recording Co., Whaling City Sound, Onyx Productions, Ropeadope, Same Island Music, Okeh, Jazzelm Music, and Orleans Records. Guarantee: all sounds are final—and if you wanna debate that, you can find Dr. Kopp at his Musoscribe blog, natch.

BY BILL KOPP

Brian Bromberg

Full Circle

Mack Avenue Records

Bromberg has recorded at least 12 albums prior to Full Circle. The disc opens with a rare archival recording made some 65 years ago; it features his drummer father with a trumpeter and trombonist. Bromberg has added his bass to the recording; it’s delightful. The rest of the disc is much more in a modern vibe; it swings and is full of energy and intensity. Even more impressive, these recordings feature overdubs – still not so common in jazz – so listeners get to hear Bromberg’s sizzling fretwork and his nimble, propulsive bass playing. Arturo Sandoval guests on “Havana Nights.” – Bill Kopp

 

Mazzarella

Nick Mazzarella Trio

Ultraviolet

International Anthem Recording Co.

This disc of seven originals features the trio of Mazzarella on alto sax plus bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly. The instrumentals fall on various points along the spectrum between hard bop (“Neutron Star”) and the more abstract sounds of Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman (“Abacus and Astrolabe”). “Luminous Dials” might remind rock-oriented listeners of Frank Zappa’s jazz-leaning work. Things get wild and atonal on the title track, then the aptly-named “Outlier” reins things in (but just a bit). The rhythm section’s main role is to provide a canvas upon which Mazarella can apply his splashes of wild saxophone. – Bill Kopp

 

Jason Miles

Jason Miles

To Grover with Love: Live in Japan

Whaling City Sound

Miles is a New York-based keyboardist and bandleader who – among an impressive list of credits – was a trusted collaborator of late-period Miles Davis. This live set captures Jason Miles and his band paying tribute to Grover Washington. At their best – which is most of the disc’s run time – these tunes are funky and engaging. At their weakest – which is not often – the performances lean perilously close to “smooth jazz.” Andy Snitzer and Eric Darius take on the challenge of the sax parts, and Nick Moroch’s fiery guitar solo on “Lorans Dance” is a highlight. – Bill Kopp

 

Triangular

Triangular III

Triangular III

Onyx Productions

This live set was recorded at New Haven CT’s Firehouse 12 in October 2015, and features Ralph Peterson on drums, pianist Zaccai Curtis, and Luques Curtis on bass. The recording has a very live and dynamic feel, capturing the intensity and excitement of this superb trio. As often as not, Z. Curtis’ piano is the centerpiece, but the other two players more than hold their own. A mix of original compositions and the occasional standard (Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”) makes for an engaging set of music. The exotic “Inner Urge” is the most thrilling number, but the entire album is worthwhile. – Bill Kopp

 

Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin

Bye Bye Blackbird

Ropeadope

Some tasty soul jazz in the vein of Les McCann is the order of the day on this set. Those who enjoy Dr. Lonnie Smith and/or The New Mastersounds will dig this set of a half dozen instrumentals from a crack set of jazz players. Alto saxophonist David Sanborn guests on two tracks, but Demos Petropoulos’ expressive Hammond B3 is often the star. And while you could be forgiven for shuddering at the sight of yet another reading of “At Last,” Catalano shines on the track. The band cuts loose for the closer, sounding like they’re recording live for “Shakin’.” – Bill Kopp

 

Pratt

Dan Pratt

Hymn for the Happy Man

Same Island Music

Pratt plays alto and tenor sax, backed by a piano/bass/drums ensemble; bassist Christian McBride is the most high-profile member of the group. The set is varied, featuring challenging numbers like “Gross Blues” and more straight-ahead offerings such as the piano-centric “New Day.” The album’s longest piece, “River” is also its most atmospheric and contemplative. It’s also perhaps the best track. “Speak Low” is occasionally reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s deft combinations of classical and jazz. While the more intense numbers are fascinating, this aggregation seems at its best when the players go for subtlety, as they do on the title track. – Bill Kopp

Theo Croker

Escape Velocity

Okeh

If you’re the kind of listener who was disappointed when the fusion movement petered out and dissolved into soft jazz, then you owe it to yourself to check out this disc. The spoken word intro might conjure memories of Nat Adderley’s early 1970s Soul Zodiac, and there’s a vaguely Bitches Brew-flavored aesthetic at work throughout. But the whole affair sounds decidedly modern and forward-looking. Escape Velocity is informed by many genres: jazz, of course, but rock, reggae and hip hop too; Croker has a strong sense of melody that keeps things rooted in accessibility while still creating an ambitious work. – Bill Kopp

 

Warren Wolf

Warren Wolf

Convergence

Mack Avenue Records

Wolf’s buttery vibes and marimba work are guaranteed ear candy, and here he’s aided and abetted by a group that includes bassist Christian McBride and (on two tracks) guitarist John Scofield. The eleven tracks are very melody-forward; while there’s no great exploration happening here, Convergence is perhaps more consistently enjoying than any recently-released jazz album I’ve had the occasion to hear. The album is assured and thrilling in its low-key sort of way, and while it rewards close, intent listening, it makes tasty background music too. The grooves are often deeper and more soulful than they initially appear to be. – Bill Kopp

 

matt-baker-almost-blue

Matt Baker

Almost Blue

Jazzelm Music

Australian jazz pianist Baker relocated to New York City in 2010, to swim with “the big fishes,” as the liner notes say. This set is greatly influenced by Baker’s love of Herbie Hancock, but the tunes themselves are primarily from the Great American Songbook. Joel Frahm’s sax often takes the spotlight, but Baker’s assured and nimble piano playing is always present. Two very different readings of “Theme from The Apartment” are among the highlights, and Baker sings a romantic version of Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “The End of a Love Affair” is the disc’s most effective track overall. – Bill Kopp

 

Carlo Ditta

What I’m Talkin’ About

Orleans Records

This disc is difficult to classify: sometimes it’s gritty, greasy soul jazz, featuring guitarist/vocalist Ditta backed by a funk band, highlighted by some sexy flute that recalls Herbie Mann. Other times it feels like New Orleans jazz/blues. The production aesthetic is decidedly odd, with certain elements (often Ditta’s voice and/or guitar) far too out-front in the mix; it’s almost as if they skipped the mastering step in production. That makes What I’m Talkin’ About an unnecessarily difficult listen. It’s varied and intriguing throughout, but requires much of the listener. Be warned that this album often sounds quite like a bootleg. – Bill Kopp

Tim Hinely: 15 Questions For… Chunklet’s Henry Owings

Untitled-9_400x400

And… here’s the latest installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind), and HERE for #5 (Fort Lowell).

BY TIM HINELY

I think it was about 1995 when I saw my first issue of Chunklet and I believe it was issue 11. Wait, how did this ultra-cool zine exist for 10 previous issues and me not knowing about it?! The mag got better and better and it was obvious that editor/publisher Henry Owings was some kind of mad genius graphics whiz (self taught, I believe). The empire of Chunklet Industries then began expanding as Owings began selling Chunklet t-shirts (I’ve got a few) and then came the record label. While the releases seemed pretty sporadic early on the past few years have seen a blast activity with a bunch of excellent releases by old favorites Tar as well as (more old favorites) Man or Astroman?, Don Caballero, Obnox, Olivia Tremor Control and, a forthcoming release from Athens’ favorites, Pylon, a live recording of the band in ’83 (along with a limited edition 45). In between one of his 587 projects that he’s currently working on, Owings took some time out to answer some questions about his very active label.

When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration?
It was inspired exclusively by my inability to sit passively back during the first Clinton administration. My interest in money and/or success has been secondary to just getting a few things out that, without my assistance, would never see the light of day. Simple as that.

What was your first release?
My first “real” release was back in’ 93 with The Oblivians and the “Go! Pill Popper!” 7”. However, the label was called Drug Racer and that feels like an eternity ago. The first release on “Chunklet” per se was Les Savy Fav’s “Let’s Stay Friends” LP forever ago.

chunklet4

If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who would it be?
This answer could go one of two ways…

The first answer would be that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have put out records by some of my all time favorite bands: The Jesus Lizard, The Olivia Tremor Control, Tar, Man…or Astro-Man?, Thee Speaking Canaries, and that’s just the bands that I can muster off the top of my head without sounding full of myself. The fact that I’m putting out a 2xLP with Athens band Pylon this year is still something I think of with utter disbelief, so, yeah, I’m absolutely humbled by the company I keep.

Pylon 45

The second version of this answer is a bit more nuanced…

1) I’d love to be at the helm to release an authoratative MC5 box set. Not like the unimaginative garbage that has been put out, but rather, done by fans and meant for fans, but also intended to suck in new fans and preserve their legacy. As much of a fan as I am, everything other than their three ‘proper’ albums all seem pretty warmed over garbage.

2) I have been sniffing around the Atlanta band Smoke for the better part of five years to have their legacy championed. Trying to find a “real” label to springboard it to, but that’s another dream.

3) Another that I’ve been pursuing is the band Synthetic Flying Machine, which preceded both The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel and was probably one of my FAVORITE bands from back in the early days of living in Athens in ’92 and ’93.

4) I’d also want to release as much of the Camberwell band Part Chimp as I possibly could. One of the truly outstanding noise bands that refuse to break up.

5) There’s a local band that just started called Mutual Jerk that I’d love to be involved with somehow.

6) There’s Endless Boogie. God, I absolutely love them and would do anything they asked me to do.

7) And, of course, the band The Bar-B-Q Killers is another that I just would love to see presented to a modern audience. But as you might be able to surmise, the pace is glacial on this stuff.

chunklet5

What has been your best seller to date?
Probably “Dusk at Cubist Castle” by the Olivia Tremor Control. But saying “Best seller” makes it seem like I’m doing this for the money which, let’s be honest, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?
Not really. Just an occasional tweet or Facebook post. Bandcamp. Mailing list.

Is the Atlanta/ Athens music community supportive of the label?
I’ve never given it any thought. Perhaps?

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?
They’ve been significant-ish. Thanks for asking.

Vinyl is Killing the MP3 Industry" - Henry Owings (www.chunklet.com)

Vinyl is Killing the MP3 Industry” – Henry Owings (www.chunklet.com)

Has there actually been a vinyl resurgence the past few years?
Google it. I hear it’s happening.

What is your personal favorite format to release music?
I’d love to put something out on human skin, but I’m sure that Jack White guy has already done it. Bastard.

What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?
I still think Siltbreeze is one of the most consistent labels of the past 25 years. Gerard [Cosloy’s] ear over at 12XU is absolutely sterling. Bill and Lisa Roe’s Trouble In Mind is hitting home run after home run. Ever/Never out of NYC is doing a great job. Mostly “smaller” labels always pique my interest. Homeless out of Australia is cranking out the best jams. Goner, of course, is killing it. Deranged, Ektro and Blackest Ever Black’s catalog are really inspired. However, I’ve never been motivated/interested in a label’s commercial success. To me, it’s all about finding new jams and celebrating them.

Do you accept unsolicited demos?
Sure. But other than a polite “thank you,” it’s usually followed up by hitting the delete button.

41LISsTADbL

Please tell us the story behind the Tar 2x LP. How did it come about.
I’ve known Tar since ’91. They were probably the first band that I became actual friends with when I was in my early 20s. We always remained friends over the subsequent years since their break up in ’95. When the band emailed me about doing a 7” for their PRF BBQ reuinion gig in ‘12, I jumped at the chance. It started a dialogue about uncovering all the tapes from their AmRep and T&G 7”s and comp tracks, their ’91 Peel session and the bits and bobs that make up the 2xLP “1988-1995.”

As a super fan, I was also shocked by how many other super fans (or for them, friends that are super fans as well) that offered up to help get this release done. Without their help, it never would’ve come out. Those people are, specifically, Steve Albini (who went back into the studio and remixed some mixdowns that had gone MIA) and Bob Weston (who did a superior job of mastering and cutting the lacquers). In addition, and it can’t be stressed enough, Drew Crumbaugh was a great digital sleuth and editor to get the live digital component together. His contribution wasn’t necessarily celebrated on the vinyl portion, but the audio he polished/mastered really pushed the release over the top. But to back up for a second, this release took well over a year, but would’ve been impossible without all of the goodwill that Tar generated during their career. So for that, I’m indebted to Mike Greenless and John Mohr (specifically) but the band (entirely) for their interest and time. To have my name on one of their records is a true badge of honor.

chunklet1

Contact points:
www.chunklet.com / @chunklet

1694 May Ave SE
Atlanta GA 30316

——————————

Artists on label:

Pylon
Man…or Astro-Man?
Mugstar
Salad Boys
Les Savy Fav
Harvey Milk
Torche
Part Chimp
Floor
Honey Radar
Tar
Cuntz
The Jesus Lizard
The Corporate Office
Thee Speaking Canaries
Don Caballero
The Olivia Tremor Control
Obnox
Survival Knife
The Rock*A*Teens

 

Fred Mills: THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT.7 (Thomas Anderson)

TA 1

“Hopefully the world is big enough for all us”: The Austin rocker, whose career stretches back to the ‘80s, on his remarkable new album, on death, dying and the afterlife, on the travails of dealing with indie record labels—and on the various other Andersons out there who keep stealing his digital thunder.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours and Green On Red) I’ve opted not to trawl through my personal archives—although, as you’ll learn, my subject today definitely is a favorite part of my journalistic history. Instead, I’m presenting an interview I did recently with an artist I’ve admired since the late ‘80s but who, for reasons that will become clear, I’d lost touch with for a good while. Ladies and gentleman, allow me to (re)introduce Thomas Anderson.

Anderson’s a native of Norman, Oklahoma, but for the majority of his adult life has lived in Austin. If memory serves, I first became aware of him as a journalistic peer; he was writing for the likes of Trouser Press and Musician and was an ace scribe at that. All along, though, he’d been writing songs and finally, in ’89, he decided to move to the other side of the stage lights and release his first album, Alright, It was Frank . . . and He’s Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck via his own Out There label. Critics like Robert Christgau approved, and as was frequently the case back in those days, the record found its way into the hands of such (cough) roccrit tastemakers as moi and my old pal Jud Cost; it’s entirely possible that Jud and I got on the horn and called each other up simultaneously to call “dibs” on reviewing the LP for the rock mag we both scribed for, The Bob. There was something undeniably compelling about Anderson’s Dylan/Reed style of literate rock lyricism, and he also knew his way around a good hook and a catchy riff.

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Nowadays, “singer songwriters” are not even a dime a dozen, more like a nickel a dozen (if that much). But a quarter century ago, at a time when Seattle was starting to breathe down everyone’s neck, it took a lot of huevos to prize actual songcraft over attitude, and to understand that to “kick out the jams” wasn’t a template, but an aesthetic—and that it was okay to have folkier, contemplative material alongside full-tilt rockers. In that, Anderson was clearly a traditionalist, one who didn’t mind wearing his influences on his sleeve while still bringing something absolutely fresh to the table.

Several acclaimed albums would follow, including Blues For the Flying Dutchman (Dutch East India) and Moon Going Down (Marilyn). Meanwhile, I landed in Tucson, and I consider myself fortunate to have struck up a friendship, first via the mail and then later in person when he traveled from Austin to Arizona for some shows. Gifted with an easy-going, self-deprecating manner and a brain containing veritable Wikipedia of musical facts and trivia, Anderson’s the kind of guy you could sidle up to in a bar and within five minutes find yourself deep in conversation about some obscure record or swapping rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes.

Which doesn’t exactly bring us to his new album Heaven (Out There) because Anderson’s put out a number of other records since the early ‘90s, including 1998’s Bolide, 2003’s Norman, Oklahoma and archival releases The Moon in Transit (2012) and On Becoming Human (2013). But Heaven, comprising all-new material (his first such collection in years) does serve to remind me of all the things that appealed to me in the first place. Cheerily billed as “songs about dead people and the afterlife,” it kicks off with the jangly “No Thought For the Morrow” plus a blazing T. Rex/Velvets-style rocker titled “Arguing With the Dead,” and indeed, with lines like “Old man lying in an ICU/ Loved ones around him weep” (the former) and “When I get to Heaven it’ll clear my head/ ‘Cause it’s no use arguing with the dead,” Anderson’s thematic mandate gets fulfilled right from the get-go.

Elsewhere there’s atmospheric ballad “Chelsea Grail,” which with its references to Andy Warhol and Brian Jones makes explicit that Anderson is paying tribute to the late chanteuse Nico; a Bowie-esque slice of wham-bam distorto rock, “All the Cool People Have Left the Party,” lamenting how our heroes, icons and objects of desire are “leavin’ too soon” and in their wake are “nothin’ but some loud and obnoxious goons”; and a folky, seven-minute epic “The Wilderness,” which provides Anderson his chance to ponder, at length, what the afterlife might resemble, his protagonist wandering around on the streets of Heaven, taking in the sights.

There’s plenty more, of course, but you get my point: Anderson remains a scholar of literate and thoughtful tunesmithery while instinctively channeling his rock ‘n’ roll roots, and the result is one of the nicest musical surprises to come down the pike so far this year. I caught up with him via the digital horn, and what follows is the result of the two of us doing some long-overdue commiserating.

TA 2

BLURT: Perhaps a good way to start would be to re-introduce yourself, as I imagine a good chunk of our readership, at least the younger ones, will be unfamiliar with your work. Could you tell us a little about your roots and background?

THOMAS ANDERSON: Well—the Okie roots aren’t much to talk about. Oklahoma is a place that people largely want to get away from. A lot of music has come out of Oklahoma, but with the obvious exception of the Flaming Lips, it’s mostly been made by people once they left there. From Woody Guthrie on.

As for me, I spent the ‘80s writing for music mags such as Trouser Press, Creem, Record and Musician. Around the end of that decade, I released my first album, titled Alright It Was Frank, And He’s Risen From The Dead And Gone Off With His Truck. Since then I’ve released seven more, including Heaven, the new one. There have also been a couple of 45s and some stray tracks on compilations.

So why surface now, in 2016? With the ascent of Donald Trump, a lot of people would appear to be getting ready to go underground and/or move to Canada…

Surface?! I never thought I went under! Really, I just put out records when I can, y’know? It’s always been that way. I have a neurotic fear that at some point—for whatever reason—I won’t be able to do this anymore, so I try to release stuff whenever I can. In the old days, when I was on actual labels, I was kind of at their mercy as to when my stuff got released; but now, I’m always working on the next one.

I remember when you were working at Waterloo, you quipped to me that you try to leave Austin during SXSW. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in your adopted city, both pro and con, in the time you’ve lived there?

I’ve moved to Austin twice. The first time in…1984, I think? Back then I could walk over to the UT campus in the evenings and visit Sterling Morrison in his office. At the time he was working on his thesis on Cynewulf, the Anglo-Saxon poet, and he always appreciated an excuse to put it aside for awhile. Or I could talk to Roky Erickson, who was living with his mom and a black cat named Halloween, in a house with spray-paint all over the walls. The Big Boys had splintered into Poison 13, and the Standing Waves had moved to New York. I used to play at an awful coffeehouse run by some distant relative of Ernest Tubb, and go see the Tail Gators and Brave Combo.

I moved there again around 1993 and basically worked in what I call “yuppie support,” as most of the musicians did. Lotsa minimum-wage jobs to make rent on a ghetto apartment up on Rundberg. It was depressing. On the good side, I played a lot of shows at the Electric Lounge, and had records coming out on Unclean and Propeller in Austin and on labels in Europe. It’s… um… hard to explain. Austin’s great for a lot of people, but maybe not so great for me. It’s kinda like, if I go to a party and no one there is particularly happy to see me, I leave, y’know? Now, I kinda bounce back and forth. When Bob Mould moved there in the ‘90s, a friend of mine asked him what he thought of Austin. He supposedly said, “It’s nice to live in a place where the street don’t smell like piss.” So yeah—Austin has its advantages!

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in the independent music world, bot pro and con, in the time you’ve been part of it?

Um… is Korn still big? No—seriously, I’m the last person in the world to ask about that…. Since I stopped working at record stores, I’m totally in the dark on what’s happening in music. I always figure that if something is great enough, I’ll probably hear about it eventually. Maybe in BLURT. [Damn straight. —Reviews Ed.]

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The new record—”Songs about dead people and the afterlife”: indeed, the songs frequently invoke words like dead, angels, graves, dying, etc. Were there specific incidents or losses that inspired you to go thematic on the record?

Awhile back, I was on a Mark Twain kick. In attempting to read everything available by him, I found a work called Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven, which, as far as I know, has never been published in its entirety. It’s a story about a man’s visit to the afterlife, and who and what he finds there. And how existence works there. And I thought, ‘What a great premise for an album!’ I mean, you can do anything with that–songs about famous dead people, songs about people you’ve known, songs questioning good and evil, songs about the meaning or meaninglessness of life… you can do anything with that concept. And I wrote a ton of songs for it. In addition to the twelve songs on the album, I had songs about Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley… a LOT of songs.

Depressing subject in theory, but in execution, wonderfully contemplative, with gorgeous arrangements. Still, not the easiest “sell” from a marketing standpoint—discuss.

Well, hopefully I’ve kept it entertaining. I dunno… everyone from the Carter Family to the goth groups have been pretty death-obsessed. I’ve tried to keep it light. I mean, my Heaven has a porn star [Savannah, in “Savannah Got Screwed”] a gospel/blues singer [Washington Phillips, “Dolceolo Glory”], a Star Trek actor [Leonard Nimoy, “He’s Dead Jim”], Nico, and Sheb Wooley [“Sheb Wooley Dies in Oklahoma”] Plus, Michael Jackson has a romance with the author of Frankenstein [“Mary Loves Michael”], and Nixon and JFK stroll by [“The Gatekeeper’s Tale”]. Who else is gonna give you a Heaven like that?

Are all the songs of recent vintage, or are any from the archives? And given that you performed all the music yourself, were there any pitfalls in taking the extreme DIY approach?

A lot of it was written around the millennium, some more recently. “All The Cool People Have Left The Party” I wrote after listening to a bunch of Prince 12″ singles. The only pitfall in the DIY approach was that I was using a new digital recorder this time, instead of the 4-track cassette deck I used on the last couple of albums, and I was getting some anomalous sounds when I tried to use a lot of guitar distortion; which might explain why most of the guitars on there are pretty clean. My friend Kels Koch of the Million Sellers said the sound reminded him of The Blue Mask. So I’ll pretend that was the idea!

In that regard, you’ve come full circle/returned to late ‘80s roots, true? Which resonates with me: I basically write about music without getting paid these days, just for the free records and to scratch my creative itch—just like it was all those years ago when I was writing about you for The Bob.

It’s like you start out scratching the creative itch, and it becomes an obsessive thing. Which has led to a lot of mediocre art. I mean, it feels good—terrific even—to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. You know that feeling when it all works—it’s there in journalism just like music—it’s just the best. So you keep scratching that itch. It’s kinda like a gambling addiction, I guess…

You seemed to go on a decade-long hiatus from 2003’s Norman, OK and 2012’s The Moon In Transit. What were you doing during that time? Did you continue to play music and write songs?

Simply put, my label ceased to exist. My stuff had been coming out on a German label called Red River, and they had started working with some new distributors who were jacking them around—telling them what to release and when, not paying them—and eventually the guy who ran the label, a great guy, by the way, just threw in the towel. I had an album ready to be released. It was called Radar Angels—it was recorded, mixed, mastered, the artwork was done… it was ready to go; then the label was gone. One song from it got licensed to Sony in Germany (for a blues compilation—I’m right in between the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Greg Allman), a few more I made available online; but eventually I just started working on a new album. So yeah, there was a little ten year break in there….

Your website doesn’t appear to have been updated since, er, the release of Norman, OK, and the Wikipedia page for you essentially cuts off at 2013’s On Becoming Human. Are there any plans to rectify this info gap for the general public? And how can people get the record, either hard copies or digital?

First of all, that’s not my website. I have no control over that. As for Wikipedia…wait—I’m on Wikipedia?! Where?! I mean, I’ve looked! Dude, send me a link or something! I’ve NEVER found anything on me on Wikipedia—it’s all Paul Thomas Anderson. [Ed. note: Thomas and I have subsequently rectified this, so BLURT is hoping that both the unofficial T.A. site and the Wikipedia page will see updates in the near future.]

People can get Heaven from CD Baby—and they also have the two albums that came out right before it. They have both physical copies and downloads. You can also get downloads from iTunes or Amazon or any of those places. Plus, you can stream the stuff on Deezer or any of those places. Y’know, I think both Unclean and Propeller Records in Austin still have a few original copies of my 45s from twenty years ago. Get ’em before they’re gone, kids!

What’s coming up for you next? More recording? Touring?

Two things—I’m working on a Requiem Mass For Nash The Slash, and I don’t know what the hell I’ll do with that, if anything…. Also, later this year I hope to do a digital reissue of my second album, Blues For The Flying Dutchman. Lately I’ve been dusting off some early demos of some of those songs for possible bonus tracks, and they sound GREAT.

Finally, what would you say to people who search for you on the internet and think that THIS Thomas Anderson, apparently based in CT, is you?

Nope, he’s definitely not me, though I wish I had his guitar. Cool shirt, too. Back in the MySpace days, some girl from Scotland contacted me because she thought I was the Thomas Anderson who sang a song used in the short-lived TV series Shark. I had to break it to her that I wasn’t the Thomas Anderson she loved. Weird girl—she seemed to be drinking or drunk in all of her online pics. She disappeared after awhile. Maybe her parents made her take down her page; she looked like she was about fifteen. But yeah, there are quite a few Thomas Andersons out there. Hopefully, the world is big enough for all of us. [Below: OUR Thomas Anderson. Accept no substitutes…]

TA 4

 

Fred Mills: THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 8 – The Sidewinders

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Dreaming about the bad, crazy sun that gazes down upon Tucson.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red and Thomas Anderson) I’m turning shamelessly nostalgic. My reverie was prompted earlier today when my good friend (and BLURT publisher) Stephen Judge sent me a short video clip from Austin featuring Arizona desert rock legends The Sidewinders performing at our annual day party during SXSW at the Ginger Man Pub. There they were, my old pals Dave Slutes, Rich Hopkins and the gang, ripping through one of my all-time favorite songs by the band, “Doesn’t Anyone Believe.” Cue up (a) a ton of regret for not being able to attend SXSW this year; (b) fond memories of our 2013 day party during SXSW when the band also performed, not to mention even fonder memories of seeing them numerous times in the ‘90s when I was living in Tucson; and (c) about an hour’s worth of revisiting Sidewinders videos, reading old clips on the band, and more. Translation: another unapologetically rambling missive from yours truly. Feel free to change the channel now, but if you harbor even the faintest good memories of the group, I trust you’ll appreciate this one in the spirit with which it is served up. As the saying goes—so it’s truth that you desire? Read on….

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“Now I couldn’t tell you what I know/ It changes like the weather/ But what I know is what I feel/ What I feel is enough to get me / Out of life and everything it means/ None of this is really what it seems…” — “Doesn’t Anyone Believe,” from 1990’s Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall

Sometime around 1987 or ‘88 a record turned up in my mailbox. Hardly an unusual occurrence; at the time I was working as a music critic for a number of regional and national publications. Most likely the package was posted my way in hopes of securing a review in East Coast rock mag The Bob, which at the time had achieved a degree of prominence, both for its championing of the burgeoning alternative rock movement—at the time, in this pre-Nirvana era, we called it “college rock”—and for its inclusion, in each issue, a limited edition flexi record, which to date had included then-unreleased material by everyone from R.E.M. to Camper Van Beethoven to The Church. A lot of bands jostled for coverage back in those so-much-younger-than days.

But unlike much of the musical flotsam and jetsam that arrived on a daily basis, this particular artifact established its sonic prominence from the very moment the needle hit the grooves—clear vinyl grooves, at that. (Side note: a cassette copy of the album was also in the package, thereby allowing me a nice sonic preview of the music in the car on the drive home from the post office.) Titled ¡Cuacha!, the debut from Tucson’s Sidewinders was at once familiar and foreign to my ears, a mélange of part-jangly/part-distorted guitars, tuneful-yet-aggressive vocals and thundering rhythms (the familiar part) and otherworldly ambiance steeped in a subtextual yearning that suggested exotic locales and a romance with purpose (the foreign part).

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Thus began a musical love affair that has endured for nearly three decades, and I’m proud to report that my initial instincts were accurate: in their lifetime the Sidewinders—or Sand Rubies, the other moniker they operated under for a number of years during the ‘90s due to legal issues arising from a dispute with a lawyered-up North Carolina-based cock-rock/Pat Benatar clone band called Sidewinder—would craft some of the most memorable and timeless tunes ever to emerge from the Arizona scene.

Witchdoctor said to me/ ‘You got no heart/ And you got no soul/ And you’ve got no life of your own/ Surrender what’s left/ And then I’ll set you free’…” —“Witchdoctor,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor

Certainly on their earliest recordings, including the aforementioned indie debut, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (both released on RCA via N.C.-based Mammoth), one can hear the vestigial remains of the mid-‘80s college rock scene that initially spawned the band (thank you, R.E.M.). The Sidewinders’ proud D.I.Y. ethos is fully evidenced as well, particularly considering that by the tail end of that decade thousands of bands were already tuning in full time to the nascent, noisy rumblings of the Northwest and those who still dared to wield a jangly riff or to sing in a voice south of a shriek risked excommunication from the Temple Of Hip. (My fellow Tarheel Mitch Easter, reflecting on his own band Let’s Active’s experience, told me that by the late ‘80s, anyone who came out on stage with a 12-string was just asking to have his ass kicked.)

Too, key roots and influences jostled for position in the group’s sonic tableaux, from the brawny pop raveups of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Neil Young’s Crazy Horsian gallop to the undulating psychedelia of the ‘60s-era Bay Area bands and—speaking of hip—the classic singer/songwriterdom of Neil Diamond, whose “Solitary Man” found its way into the Sidewinders’ setlists and soon became a performance mainstay.

Still, as with the proverbial “whole/more than the sum” distinction, what you got from the Sidewinders was considerably greater than what appeared to go into the band. First of all, founders Rich Hopkins (guitar) and Dave Slutes (vocals) carried the torch for immaculately-crafted, dynamically-rendered pop out of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s under the somewhat nebulous but still fitting banner of “desert rock.” 1993’s Sand Rubies album, cut for a short-lived subsidiary of Chrysalis Records and by some measures one of those “great lost…” records of the era thanks to a series of label and management missteps, is one of the most powerful documents of the era, panoramic in its sonic detail, richly evocative in its lyric nuance—and still capable, to this day, of taking the listener’s breath away with its scope and power.

And the Hopkins-Slutes duo, along with their shifting array of bandmates, helped lay the groundwork for similarly-inclined younger artists who, after weathering the ensuing decade’s worth of corporatized alterna-rock and its numerous hyphenated variants, would eventually go about the business of restoring the ideals of self-directed and –sustained D.I.Y. to rock ‘n’ roll. Although the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies would wield their greatest impact regionally—hugely respected by the Arizona music community, they were also very vocal and active boosters for scores of other groups—it wasn’t uncommon to find pockets of rabid fans in other locales across the country and around the globe. (I should know; living on the East Coast at the time, I was one of those fans who’d succumbed to the group’s charms. More on that in a sec.)

This was during the pre-Internet age, when following a band involved a lot more than calling up a Wikipedia entry and a Facebook page or clicking on an MP3 download link, and the resulting degree of devotion could be profound to the point of startling. Even as I was corresponding with the band prior to my 1992 relocation from N.C. to A.Z., writing about them for The Bob, England’s Bucketful of Brains and elsewhere (including the official Trouser Press entry), and swapping live tapes with fellow collectors from all points of the globe, other fans, scribes and collectors were doing likewise. You could label this somewhat naively along lines of “grassroots,” but the bottom line is that the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies built up a huge store of goodwill during their initial music industry foray, and no amount of subsequent rock world ups and downs will ever be able to take that away from us or the band.

Legacies are forged over time, of course, and the years have seen a fair share of personal and professional vicissitudes for both Hopkins and Slutes (one feature written about the band called ‘em “Arizona’s ultimate bad luck story”), with albums typically bookending protracted periods of inactivity for the band. More than once, they’ve played an Arizona “farewell” show, including as recently as 2011. Here in 2016, it strikes me as criminal that they haven’t recorded any new music in well over a decade; the Austin performance at this year’s SXSW mentioned in the intro above is but one of just a handful they’ve done since last year’s SXSW, and gig announcements only come sporadically at their Facebook page. That said, Rich and Dave live in different cities nowadays, so we fans will take what we can get.

But the music they’ve made together is permanently woven into the fabric of America’s grand tapestry of rock. 10, 20 or 30 years from now, when some kid encounters a futuristic variant of the mixtape containing, I dunno, the brooding psych-noir of “Bad Crazy Sun,” lush jangler “We Don’t Do That Anymore,” scathing/searing rocker “Goodbye” (one of the greatest kiss-off songs ever), or even the ethereally romantic Old Pueblo travelogue “Santa Maria Street,” he’ll be inspired to investigate further, and in digging deeper will ensure that the Sidewinders legacy continues to be carried forward.

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A caveat: A portion of the foregoing was adapted from the foreword I penned for the 2011 book Came On Like the Sun: Collected Photographs of the Sidewinders and Sand Rubies, published by Hopkins and Doug Finical. In drafting my commentary, I compiled enough notes to disappear down the proverbial band rabbit-hole that we writers are prone to, having hung out with and interviewed the musicians numerous times over the years, dating back to the time of the arrival of that first Sidewinders album in my mailbox. Sometimes your objectivity gradually dissolves, and I will freely admit to being completely biased when it comes to their music.

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Indeed, more than one friend has heard me talk about the time, circa 1991, when my wife and I were sitting around in our Charlotte, NC, house drinking wine and trying to decide whether it was time to seek out greener pastures, having grown weary and frustrated with our workaday routines in sales for a local shopping mall store chain. One tends to get restless every ten years or so, and thus there we were, literally on the verge of throwing a dart at a map of the United States to see what might be a viable destination. Among our options: New Orleans and Memphis, because we knew it would have to be a music town to make such a move worth cashing in our profit-sharing plans and surrendering our job security.

On the stereo that night were our favorite band, The Sidewinders, and mystically enough, at that precise decision point, “Get Out of That Town” from Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall came on. Against a sturdy backbeat and a bristly-jangly Hopkins guitar riff, vocalist Slutes offered this semi-sage lyrical advice:

“Now I know I’m crazy like a TV evangelist

But that town thinks it’s Los Angeles

And you know what’s worse? It’s trying to be it!

You gotta get out of that town…

And if you don’t know how,

We’ll find a way.

Anything that will allow you

To move out—and get away…

You gotta get out of that town,

Get out of those shopping malls—

C’mon down here!”

Certainly the song was born of the musician’s urging a friend or lover to ditch Phoenix—its sprawl, its plasticity, and yes, its shopping malls—to “c’mon down here” to Tucson. But in that instance, we knew they were surely singing to us as well. Two cross-country fact-finding and house-hunting vacations later, we had hired Mayflower movers to truck us and our stuff out to Tucson. Once we got there, it was not all moonbeams and tequila, of course; no overly romanticized notion ever fulfills itself. But the friends we made were lasting, and the memories we built were permanent. We even decided to have a child, something we’d resisted for ages, feeling that the time just wasn’t yet right for us. In Tucson, though, it finally felt right.

“At night you’ve got to stay awake/ The desert sun won’t even let you think straight…” — “Bad Crazy Sun,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor

Ironically, around the same time we were arriving in Tucson, the Sidewinders were finding themselves in the throes of the aforementioned legal woes, ultimately leading to the name change, a delay in the release of the much-anticipated fourth album, and a series of lineup changes. Within a few years, there would be a breakup and extended hiatus. I distinctly recall feeling, at one point, mildly betrayed: How dare they split after all the energy and emotion I’d put into them.

Maybe that’s why the subsequent Sidewinders reunions have had a certain bittersweet edge for me. Watching that brief video clip of the band live in Austin the other night that Stephen Judge sent me was, well… like I said, I got pretty nostalgic. Happy to see Rich and Dave enjoying themselves (knowing, too, that Stephen was there filming the clip and probably pinching himself with delight), but sad I wasn’t there to be front and center, punching my fist in the air and singing along. Lord knows I have the lyrics to every one of their songs memorized. (Below: a live clip of the band doing “Bad Crazy Sun” from earlier this year.)

Postscript: Years before I moved to the desert, I was dreaming about it. Not just imagining what the desert must be like, or playing back scenes from classic films, but literally: I’d find myself transported to a sandy, saguaro- and yucca-dotted expanse while a bad, crazy sun scorched the back of my neck and an equally blazing brace of guitars played across a background soundtrack like the rumbling of a distant, incoming monsoon. I must have had those dreams for nearly four years before actually arriving in the desert in the summer of ’92, on a wish and a prayer that the physical change in locale—from N.C. to Tucson—would provide me with the psychological change I’d been needing in my life.

It did, and the ten years I spent in the desert remain among my most vivid, productive and alive. For those, and so much more, I have Rich Hopkins, Dave Slutes and the myriad members of their extended family largely to thank. I plan to get back there one of these days.

Every person needs a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to his or her dreams, and the Sidewinders are mine.

“In this corner, by candlelight/ And that’s where we’ll meet/ On Santa Maria Street” —“Santa Maria Street,” from 1993’s Sand Rubies

Bill Kopp / The Blurt Jazz Desk: New Archival Releases

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Thank you, Zev Feldman, of the Resonance and Elemental labels. Examined: Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, João Gilberto & Getz, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Art Pepper.

BY BILL KOPP, BLURT JAZZ DESK EDITOR

Lovers of the classic era in jazz and/or modern jazz owe a debt of gratitude to Zev Feldman. The head of a pair of modern-day jazz labels (Resonance and Elemental) has been exceedingly busy of late, rescuing heretofore unheard recordings of great historical import. Kicking off with a bang a mere four years ago, Feldman unearthed a cache of Wes Montgomery recordings, and released them as Echoes of Indiana Avenue. At the time, the source tapes for that set were thought to be the earliest extant recordings of the acclaimed jazz guitarist. But in 2015 Resonance roared back with In the Beginning, a 2CD set of even more (and even earlier) Montgomery.

Other projects have included a remarkable Bill Evans Trio recording from Greenwich Village (Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate) and a John Coltrane set, Offering: Live at Temple University. The latter earned liner note essayist Ashley Kahn a Grammy award.

But the last several months have seen a flurry of activity from Feldman’s labels that suggests those early successes were merely warm-ups. No less than seven (actually eight) archival releases – all featuring previously-unheard music – have been released by Resonance or Elemental.

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Sarah Vaughan – Live at Rosy’s

The celebrated jazz singer was in her mid-fifties at the time of this recording, taped in New Orleans for an NPR broadcast in May 1978. At the time, Vaughan was enjoying something of a renaissance. Stephen Sondheim‘s “Send in the Clowns” – a reading of which is included on this 2CD set of mostly standards – had become Vaughan’s signature tune. “Sassy” Vaughan had built her reputation fronting big bands, but here she takes a totally different approach form her earlier work. With a spare band – piano, bass and drums – the focus here is wholly on Vaughan and her voice. Because this recording was professionally made for radio broadcast, the sound quality is quite good. The accompanying booklet is generous with both vintage photos and interview content.

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Wes Montgomery – One Night in Indy

Zev Feldman clearly has a thing for the work of Wes Montgomery, and who can blame him? His brief but informative liner note essay tells the story of how he came to release this CD of a 1959 open reel recording. Even with Feldman’s understated description of event, readers will get a sense of the thrill he experienced. And the recording is of more than historical import: playing with The Eddie Higgins Trio, the focus her is squarely on Montgomery’s already fully-developed technique. Those who bemoan his later A&M and Verve outings into reading of pop will appreciate this six-song set of tunes from the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Neal Hefti and more. Sound quality is simply superb for what was clearly an unofficial recording.

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Bill Evans – Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest

Here’s a rare treat. Bill Evans was quite prolific in his day, but until now there have been no studio recordings of his short-lived lineup of his Trio featuring bassist Eddie Gomez (Scott LaFaro‘s different but superb replacement), and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette. These recordings were overseen by MPS head Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the so-called “man from the Black Forest.” As with virtually all recordings made at MPS Studios, the music lives and breathes on this recording. Based on the customary run time of albums at the time these recordings were made (June 1968), had this material been released, it likely would have been spread across two or perhaps three record albums. There’s but one breakdown (“It’s All Right with Me”) and one alternate take (“You’re gonna Hear From Me”). Otherwise it’s all new material, a mix of standards. Some tracks feature the Trio; some are duos, and a few feature Evans alone at the piano. Five days prior to this session, the Trio was in Montreux, Switzerland, performing at the annual jazz festival. Feldman’s brief essay reveals the back story of these tapes, and other essays (from critics, Gomez and DeJohnette) provide all the context one could ever wish for.

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Stan Getz Quartet – Moments in Time

The first of two releases chronicling tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s May 1976 residency at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, this is a thrilling single-disc collection of live music by Getz and his three sidepeople (Joanne Brackeen, piano; Clint Houston, bass; Billy Hart, drums). Superb song selection and even better musicianship are the dual highlights of this timeless set, which sounds (stylewise) as if it could have been recorded any time between the late 1950s and the following three decades. Again, our intrepid jazz archivist Zev Feldman tells the story of how he found these tapes and brought them to current-day listeners. His Q&A with drummer Billy Hart – and a short note from Getz’s son Steve – round out a nice booklet that also contains some good live performance photos. Apparently some “sound restoration” took place on these tapes, but by the sound of them, you’d never know the CDs weren’t sourced from pristine pro tapes stored in some climate-controlled vault for forty-plus years.

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João Gilberto & Stan Getz – Getz/Gilberto ’76

The provenance of these recordings is the same as the above title, and the lineup is the same, with the addition of Brazilian vocalist and guitar sensation João Gilberto, he of “Girl From Ipanema” fame and so much more. The program here is give over almost wholly to Gilberto’s original material (no “Ipanema”) and similar material. By its very nature, this material is far more subdued than the Monents in Time set, and – other than some nice sax solos – Getz’s band rarely takes the spotlight. Feldman includes another whole interview’s worth of conversation with drummer Hart for this set.

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Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra – All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings at The Village Vanguard

Few would make the case that big band jazz was anywhere near its peak in the mid 1960s. But likely you couldn’t tell that to bandleader Jones and drummer Lewis; this set finds the big band playing like their lives depended on it. There’s a swinging vibe that – while not exactly loose – feels miles away from the stiff arrangements and readings sometimes associated with large jazz orchestras. The material is built upon a repertoire of standards, yet has the energetic vibe of Buddy Rich‘s pop-leaning shows of the same era. For this set, Feldman made the unusual decision to package the CDs and book in a larger-than-standard case; apparently this engendered complaints and backlash from OCD-leaning consumers who need their CD sets to be either standard size or a box set (a point of view I appreciate), so he’s vowed not to do it again. That issue aside, this is a wonderful set of music in a lovely package.

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Art Pepper – Live at Fat Tuesday’s

Heading in more dissonant and wild direction than most of the other titles discussed here, this live recording of a 1981 concert in New Your City focuses on material that lends itself to ambitious interpretations: Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” is the best example. And when they slow it down, as on Gordon Jenkins‘ “Goodbye,” thee band shows off their skills in a different manner. Zev Feldman’s in-depth interview with the saxophonist’s widow Laurie Pepper forms the backbone of a characteristically excellent liner note booklet. This is little more than conjecture on my part, but perhaps the reason this title is released on Elemental (as opposed to Resonance, under the umbrella of the not-for-profit organization Rising Jazz Stars) may have to do with Pepper’s estate owning the material. Omnivore Recordings has also released several Pepper titles over the last year or so.

Note that another title, jazz organist Larry Young‘s In Paris: The ORTF Recordings has also been released recently by Resonance; a review copy was not available at the time of this writing.

The release schedule for Feldman’s labels would be impressive by the standards of a mid-sized record label; that these releases come form a tiny label specializing in jazz, and a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization at that – is truly remarkable. Tantalizingly, and judging by Feldman’s regular Facebook dispatches from locations across the globe, there’s every reason to suspect more jazz treasures will be revealed in the near future.

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Bill Kopp is a music journalist, editor of Musoscribe.com, and editor of BLURT‘s newly-launched jazz desk. He has written liner notes for several jazz reissues, including Cannonball Adderley‘s The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free and Music, You All, both due out in May.

Bill Kopp / The Blurt Jazz Desk: Herbie Mann

Herbie Mann (w/ Will Lee)

Previously-unheard 1969 live tapes from jazz flautist and his band make it clear that Mann was nothing if not underrated. “Herbie was pushing the envelope,” says album producer Pat Thomas. “He always had his ear to the ground,” agrees Mann biographer Cary Ginell.

BY BILL KOPP, BLURT JAZZ DESK EDITOR

Nominally a jazz musician, flautist Herbie Mann (1930-2003) enjoyed crossover appeal and success that brought his music to a much wider population than simply jazz aficionados. Mann released dozens of albums, and restlessly explored different styles of music. He sold a lot of records, won numerous DownBeat polls, and was a reliable concert draw for decades. But along the way, his interest in different musical forms sometimes worked against him: today, many regard him as little more than a dilettante at best, and at worst a shameless, commercially-driven hack.

That’s largely unfair. He did churn out some rather disposable pop, especially in the 1970s, with hit singles like “Hijack” (#14 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, and #1 on their Disco Action chart) from 1975’s Discothèque LP), but he was a true innovator, an artist who was always looking for the cross-fertilization of genres that is vital to music’s ongoing development.

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A new 2CD set from Real Gone Music should help rehabilitate Mann’s undeservedly tarnished reputation among jazz lovers, and among musically adventurous listeners in general. Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters compiles previously unreleased tapes from Mann’s week-long engagement at Hollywood’s famed Whisky a Go Go. The set features performances of Mann with his stellar band – bassist Miroslav Vitouš, who would later go on to found Weather Report; vibraphonist Roy Ayers; saxophonist Steve Marcus; drummer Bruno Carr; and avant-jazz electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock. And the set’s second disc includes a rare gem: Sharrock’s wife Linda Sharrock joins the band onstage for some free-form avant-garde vocals that some have likened to the early work of Yoko Ono. By design, this new 2CD set has no overlap with the music released in 1969 as Live at the Whisky A Go Go.

The archival project of rescuing these performances from obscurity came to light thanks to the efforts of Pat Thomas, producer of many reissues and author of Listen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power and (with soul jazz legend Les McCann), Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann.

Thomas explains how the project came about. “I had been a big Herbie Mann fan. And his live albums, of course, are only 30-40 minutes. So it was obvious to me that they didn’t go in and record four songs and leave. I thought that since this was a small club gig, it would be more interesting than, say, a show at Madison Square Garden.”

Thomas “bugged the powers-that-be at Atlantic Records,” but says their response was along the lines of, “’Oh, we can’t find the tapes,’ blah blah blah. So when I moved to L.A. and started doing more reissues and more research, I hooked up with Bill Inglot; he’s done a million research projects for Rhino and other labels. He told me, ‘I found the tapes you’ve been looking for.’”

That entire week of shows at the Whisky had been taped by famed engineer Bill Halverson, who recorded Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young‘s 4 Way Street. “The tapes sounded great, and were really easy to mix,” says Thomas. “We pulled the tapes out of the vault. Brian Kehew – who does a lot of mixing; he mixed that big Yes box set [Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-two] – and I mixed the tapes.”

What they found was that the tapes from the first night didn’t even feature the band’s leader. “That first night, Herbie was sick, so the band played without him,” Thomas says. “I was really hoping that there could be some wild jams, just based on the fact that they didn’t play a real set. But unfortunately, they noodled! They got levels on their instruments and didn’t really play.”

But as Thomas and Kehew dug deeper, their efforts paid off in a big way. They discovered “two versions of “If I Were a Carpenter” that are really just extended jams. I could hear that Herbie was really stretching out. And the most surprising thing was that Linda Sharrock was in the audience, and Herbie brought her up onstage. They did these Sonny and Linda Sharrock songs from the album Black Woman, songs that they had only recorded in the studio three weeks earlier.”

The audience at the Whisky would likely have been mystified by Sharrock’s unexpected and very out-there performance. “Herbie was pushing the envelope,” Thomas chuckles. “The Whisky A Go Go is known for great music, but it’s not exactly an avant-garde jazz haven. So I’m sure there were people in the audience scratching their heads, thinking, ‘What is this Linda Sharrock shit?’”

There was some precedent for the unusual musical direction Mann took his band with Linda Sharrock. “Herbie was very kind to his sidemen,” Thomas points out. “He made sure that all of them wound up putting out a solo album.” That generosity extended to the wife of his guitarist, an avant-garde singer who would release the highly-regarded Black Woman, her first album with husband Sonny, for Mann’s Vortex label, not long after the Whisky dates.

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And Sonny himself was considered by some an unusual choice for Mann’s group. His style is closer in spirit and texture to Jimi Hendrix than, say, Joe Pass. But it’s a major highlight of Herbie Mann’s acclaimed 1969 LP, Memphis Underground.

“In the ‘60s, Herbie wanted to appeal to younger audiences,” observes Cary Ginell, author of several books including The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz. “And the way to do that was through rock ’n’ roll. He always enjoyed challenging his audiences and thumbing his nose at his critics, and when he got a hold of Sonny Sharrock, he did that and more. He was really deliberately antagonizing people by getting the most ‘out’ Hendrix-styled guitarist he could find, and letting him have at it.”

Ginell notes that “Herbie never told his musicians what to play; he figured they knew what they were all about. Sharrock was the first of a run of musicians Herbie hired who stepped out of the jazz mainstream and played from another perspective.”

Real Gone’s Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters puts the exciting, adventurous side of Herbie Mann’s music on full display. “I think this album – for those who are paying attention – is going to establish Herbie more in that Miles Davis camp of groundbreaking progressive jazz,” says Thomas. “That’s a part of his legacy that doesn’t get into the history books, because most people think of him as a sort of pop-jazz hack.”

“Obviously there were points in his career when they did take him seriously,” says Thomas. “But I think that the more casual jazz fans certainly didn’t like the more pop aspects of his work; by the mid-1970s, he went very pop. And then there are these people – I call ’em jazz Nazis – who always tell me that soul-jazz and funk-jazz are not jazz. ‘Oh, Les McCann? That’s not jazz!’ And Herbie Mann gets tossed in that pool.”

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Ginell agrees, noting that “critics never liked Herbie, possibly because he got tired of playing the pigeonhole game. They liked him when he played straight-ahead jazz, and then when he ventured into Afro Cuban jazz. But as soon as he started having crossover success, they started accusing him of selling out.”

Ginell points out that in the 1960s, Mann “started recording covers of songs on the pop charts — things by the Beatles, Donovan, etc. — and that alienated him further from the intelligentsia. Crossover success has never been popular among jazz critics,” he says. “They’ve always wanted jazz to themselves; anyone who is successful is accused of selling out.”

Mann’s abilities as a musician are underrated, too, according to Ginell. His research turned up what he calls “mixed messages on how Herbie was viewed as a musician. Some, like vibraphonist Dave Pike, thought Herbie was a phony with limited talent. [Vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs told me he thought Herbie was a terrible musician. Personally, I don’t see it,” Ginell says. “He had great chops, an excellent rhythmic and melodic sensibility, but could get bogged down in simplistic patterns. Herbie was all about excitement, though, and knew how to be a showman. That was his strength.”

That, and putting together excellent bands, and reaching beyond the confines of his genre. “I think he has been vastly underrated as a musician who expanded jazz’s horizons, most notably in mixing jazz with world music,” says Ginell. “Herbie’s efforts helped call attention to jazz among young listeners. He always had his ear to the ground to see about the new styles of music that were coming into vogue and what young people were listening to.”

Ginell observes that “styles always change, and Herbie never wanted to be pigeonholed or forced to play just one kind of music. For that, purists called him a commercial sellout. He refused to play their game. They wanted him to play straight ahead bebop forever, but he abandoned that in the late ‘50s.”

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Herbie Mann was “the first American to record with Brazilian musicians,” says Ginell. “He used integrated bands with musicians from other countries, he experimented with Japanese, Eastern European, and other musical areas that other jazz musicians wouldn’t touch. He was curious and was a musical explorer.

“But,” Ginell concludes, “he never gets credit for these things, because he was always looking at music with a commercial eye.”

For those who appreciate Herbie Mann’s music, there’s even more on the way. “I just put together a collection of Herbie Mann seven-inch singles for Varese,” says Thomas. “There are some incredible non-LP funk singles in that collection. There’s no release date for that yet; probably late this year or 2017. It’ll be all over the map, because it’s going to have ‘Hijack’ on it along with some pop stuff, but it’s also going to have a funk single circa 1970 that had a rapper over the top of it! That’s something that the fan will want to chew on.”

Pat Thomas says, “I think Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters will help set the record straight. I think people will be pleasantly surprised, for sure.” He smiles and adds, “Projects like this are what get me out of bed in the morning; this is what it’s all about.”

Main photo credit by Tom Marcello, via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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Bill Kopp is a music journalist, editor of Musoscribe.com, and editor of BLURT‘s newly-launched jazz desk. He has written liner notes for several jazz reissues, including Cannonball Adderley‘s The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free and Music, You All, both due out in May.

 

 

Fred Mills: 15 Questions for Fort Lowell Records of Raleigh

Tracy James

And… here’s the fourth installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), and HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind). Coming soon: Chunklet. [Pictured above: James Tritten and Tracy Shedd, presumably in earlier days…]

BY FRED MILLS

As the editor of this fine publication and website, I am frequently surprised and delighted by the gems — obviously gleaming and in the rough — that my crew of contributors unearth for us. Longtime writer Tim Hinely, also a blogger for us, has frequently been the source of such riches, and his ongoing “15 Questions For…” indie label feature has yielded more than its share. Around the time he launched the series I met James Tritten of the Fort Lowell Records label; James and his wife, musician Tracy Shedd, had recently moved from Tucson, Arizona, to Raleigh, North Carolina, where, coincidentally, I was living and working (in addition to doing BLURT) at indie record store Schoolkids Records. We hit it off — not the least of reasons being that I had lived for 10 years in Tucson myself during the ‘90s and we had a number of friends and plenty of landmarks in common — and I always looked forward to our in-depth music conferences whenever he and Tracy would drop by the store to put Fort Lowell items in the bins or just yak about stuff.

(As an aside: My abiding love and respect for indie labels runs deep, as I’ve been writing about their bands and their releases pretty much all of my adult life, at least since the late ‘70s when I was doing my own series of indie rock magazines. I also used to contribute to Magnet magazine’s monthly feature in which an indie label was profiled via a template of more-or-less stock questions that served to get the word out about the label and also to give the readers and consumers a sense of who was actually working behind the scenes to get the label up and running — and of course ongoing. That, then, has gone into what Tim Hinely and I are trying to accomplish with our own series here at BLURT.)

Ergo, this “15 Questions For…” James and Fort Lowell. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve dug, literally, every piece of wax he’s put in my hands. How do I count the ways? From our feature on Saint Maybe, erstwhile Patti Smith Group Oliver Ray’s project, as well as the feature on Tracy Shedd, to reviews of moyamoya (glom onto that sweet colored wax!) and La Cerca and the Good Graces, that’s how. Among many. A couple of ’em also landed on my Top Albums of 2015 list, recently published here at BLURT as part of our 2015 best-of roundup. Yeah, you might say I’m biased. But that’s what love is, ya know?

I’m also pretty damn chuffed about his and Tracy’s new collaboration, Band & The Beat (they’ll be touring in January; dates started in Charlotte on Jan. 9 HERE or after the main text), so in a final flourish of pure unbridled subjectivity, I’d like to kick off the feature with their new single. Enjoy…

BLURT: When did the label form / what was your original inspiration?

JAMES: It was November 2009 in Tucson, AZ, when the idea popped in my head to start up a record label. I was home sick with a Man Cold, sleeping on the couch next to our record collection. The 7inches caught my attention, and I took a sharp turn onto Memory Lane, listening to all of the old singles from my youth of growing up on the East Coast; bands like Common Threat, Greensect, Gizzard, The Raymond Brake, Mercury Birds, #1 Family Mover, Jennyanykind, etc.

Back in the ’90s, everyone released 7inch singles because it was cheap and easy, and it’s just what you did. You’d swap them with other bands on the road like business cards. I remember it costing close to about $1.50 a record to produce, and most of us just recorded the music in our homes. Black and white photocopied covers usually manufactured at your place of employment without your boss knowing; the whole project was very low-fi, and those records are some of my favorite to date.

When my wife Tracy Tritten, otherwise known as singer-songwriter Tracy Shedd (who has released albums with Teen-Beat, Devil In The Woods, Eskimo Kiss Records, and New Granada Records), and I moved to Tucson in 2006, we noticed that not many of the younger local bands were releasing their music on vinyl. Usually they would have a CD-R at best, but most would just tell you to download their music… for free, off of their website. (Music for free?)

It’s not to say no one in Tucson was releasing vinyl. Golden Boots was probably putting out some of the best packaged records, along with Naïm Amor. And yes, of course, Howe Gelb, Giant Sand, and Calexico releases were coming out on vinyl. But the kids, the new bands in town, playing at The Red Room (RIP) or The HangArt were not quite there yet (the whole indie / punk tape craze hadn’t even happened yet).

At that same time, I was coming up on a year anniversary for me driving a Vespa scooter to and from work each day. I had bought a 1976 CJ-5 Jeep with 35″ tires and a 4″ lift a few years earlier when we first moved to Tucson (featured here in Tracy Shedd’s video for “Whatever It Takes”). It was a real “Rock Crawler”: something to do for fun on the weekends. However, with only about 8-miles to the gallon for gas usage, driving that beast to work every day was not the most economically sound choice, so I bought a scooter to handle that daily trek and save some money.

One day as I passed the Jeep that had been parked, unused, for countless weeks, I had a vision of selling the Jeep and putting the money to better use: starting up a record label. I remember standing next to that Jeep and calling Zach Toporek from Young Mothers to pitch the idea of releasing his band as our first record. He said yes, and the Jeep went on the market immediately. The rest is history, as they say.

Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?

The only Fort Lowell Records logo is actually a silhouette of the statue that stands in Fort Lowell Park in Tucson AZ. Fort Lowell was the neighborhood that I lived in while in Tucson, so for me (personally) it made sense to call the record label Fort Lowell Records, to mark that time in my life. I also knew that there was only one Fort Lowell in the world, in Tucson, and I wanted something the city itself could own: a record label that was obviously tied to Tucson (and I believe Cactus Records was already taken).

I felt the label’s logo had to represent the area of town, and there is nothing more iconic that the statue that stands on Craycroft Road. So, I walked outside my house down to the park and snapped a picture of the statue. Then, got onto Photoshop to make it what it is.

It also reminded me of Vanguard Records’ logo, and I am huge fan of Vanguard. Not sure if anyone else knows this, but the band Stereolab actually got a lot of their artistic design for their earlier releases from old Vanguard records. In fact, I am pretty sure that name itself was a term Vanguard used, much like RCA Records’ “Living Stereo” series.

Fort Lowell logo

What was your first release?

It was a 7-inch record for Young Mothers, for a song called “Come On, The Cross.” The B-side features what is still quite possibly my personal favorite song that Fort Lowell Records has released: a track called “Good Sword.” I’ll drop the needle on “Good Sword” from time to time, and I swear life just stands still, it is so captivating. Have you ever heard a song like that; one that just takes over everything within you and around you? Zach Toporek nailed it with that song. He’s even got some twelve-part harmony in there; it’s breathtaking.

I knew Young Mothers were going to be our first release from the first time I saw them. Tracy Shedd (who I play guitar with) was booked with Young Mothers at The Living Room in Tucson. Zach did not know us, and we had never met him. Within the first few strums of his guitar and belts of his huge live vocals, we were hooked. At the time, the music reminded us of our old friends from Austin TX, Silver Scooter; just good old American indie-pop (pure and fun).

The music made me get up and dance. At that moment, they were the best band in the world to me. So when the idea of Fort Lowell Records came about, I knew exactly who I wanted to call first. I think that is how it should be for a label owner: you should be that ‘freak fan’ that just can’t get enough of the band you are releasing. And that’s what a band should want from their label: an overabundance of enthusiastic support.

Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?

Sarah Records, Teen-Beat, Pop-Narcotic, Decoder Ring Records, Magic Eye Singles, as well as the band from Boston – Charlene – and their self-released singles on their own label, SharkAttack!. At the time, it was all about the 7inches, and these labels had it down, especially Sarah Records. Studying their releases really helped me be creative with presenting a professional design for each record, but keeping costs down and staying under or within budget. I spent months researching various options and ideas, yet insuring that quality was never compromised. I’d like to think we were successful with this challenge; I’m very proud of the records we’ve released.

If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who would it be?

Two bands… Schooner and Gross Ghost; both bands from North Carolina. We’ve been fans of each band before ever moving here; we have actually played shows with Schooner in the past when touring through North Carolina. In fact, when we did a show at Slim’s Downtown with Schooner back in 2011, we made a promise to them that if we moved to North Carolina, we’d release a record for them. The delay is totally my own fault, and I am hoping someday to live up to that promise. [Count the BLURT braintrust among the fans of those two bands, James! –Tarheel Ed.]

Both bands are simply amazing and very much underappreciated; more people need to know about these guys. Their music is pure, honest, and simply great. The songwriting is there, the live performance is there. I would love to have an opportunity to record a record with each of them, and welcome them to the Fort Lowell Records family.

What has been your best seller to date?

Hands down, Howe Gelb’s 7-inch record that was part of Record Store Day 2011. It was actually a split release between two of his own projects: ‘Sno Angel, which features a choir from Canada, and Melted Wires, which is a jazz quartet made up of members from Giant Sand and Calexico. Neither track on the 7inch had been released on vinyl before, and they are both simply stunning. “Spiral” is the ‘Sno Angel track, while “Cordoba In Slow Motion” – the Melted Wires song – really showcases Gelb’s Thelonious Monk influence. We technically sold out of the record in three weeks, but then about a year later we had some returns from our distributor. I was actually very thankful to have a few records sent back to us, since there were so many people that missed out on it the first time. Now I’ve seen that record go for up to $40.00 on eBay, which I find somewhat flattering (in a weird way). I’ve bought my fair share of over-priced hard-to-find records on eBay, just because I had to have it.

Honorable mentions for best-selling records go to Young Mothers….music video?, our split between Wet & Reckless and Tracy Shedd, and the Luz de Vida Compilation, all of which have also sold out (from our inventory) over time. (That reminds me, I need to update our website and take some of those down.)

Who is the most famous artist on your label, and why do you think that is?

With the exception of Howe Gelb, which is the obvious answer, there are three artists that share the limelight:

Tracy Shedd has had a lucrative career all on her own, without any influence from Fort Lowell Records. Tracy has a number of albums out with Teen-Beat, as well as a few individual releases with Devil In The Woods, Eskimo Kiss Records, and most recently New Granada Records. She has been featured on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, as well as had her music in one of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ movies. Having Tracy as a part of the Fort Lowell Records’ roster has definitely helped with developing an audience for the label, which we are very thankful for. Tracy is also sharing her latest project with Fort Lowell Records: a duo dream-pop / synth-pop project called Band & The Beat, and their debut release “21 [Digital 45]is Fort Lowell Records’ latest release.

Next would be La Cerca. I learned about La Cerca back in 2001 when Tracy Shedd released her first track on a compilation from The Unlike Label which also featured La Cerca. During the time I lived in Tucson, I would often go on record stating that Andrew Gardner from La Cerca was one of the most under-appreciated songwriters in Tucson. [Amen. –Old Pueblo Ed.] I was over the moon when the opportunity came up for Fort Lowell to release La Cerca’s latest album ‘Sunrise For Everyone.‘ [Go HERE to read the Blurt review of the album.] So the day Andrew called me to tell me that Xemu Records wanted to sign his band and re-release their album, I knew Andrew had finally receive the recognition that he deserved. In no way was I upset; I was simply proud of Andrew, and extremely happy for La Cerca. Being picked up by another label to help grow your career, I feel, is a sign of success. I would never want to hold anyone back from that.

Recently, the Good Graces experienced every band’s dream: having a national artist ask to take you on the road as their opening act, giving you exposure to thousands of people, and not mention an amazing experience altogether. ‘Close to the Sun,’ the Good Graces’ latest album, just happened to get into the hands of The Indigo Girls, who fell in love with their music and asked the Good Graces to join them on the road for their summer tour. The Good Graces had an awesome time, and gained a lot of attention from the opportunity. Since the tour with The Indigo Girls, the Good Graces have been featured on Daytrotter, had a few live television appearances, and are now heading out for a West Coast Tour in 2016. We are looking forward to share more of their successes in the coming years ahead. [Go HERE to read the Blurt review of the album.]

Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?

As stated before, my wife is Tracy Shedd, whom I have been playing guitar with since high school, so I was on her 7inch and Luz de Vida track with Fort Lowell Records. I am also the other half to Tracy’s new duo project, Band & The Beat, which is the newest release for Fort Lowell. Band & The Beat is meant to be a “husband / wife” project, while Tracy Shedd was specifically Tracy’s own songwriting. With Band & The Beat, it is the very first time that I am playing keyboards / synthesizers. We started the project back in June of this year, and I have been diligently learning the ivories ever since. I would not object to partnering with another record label for future Band & The Beat projects, if it made sense. We were simply so excited about Band & The Beat, and the first two recordings: “21” and “Buoy,” we just wanted to get the music out right away to the public.

Regarding social media, which have you used and what to you are the pros and cons of using it?

For social media, I have used it all. From Friendster, to MySpace, to everything that people can’t live without today. It was four years ago when I stopped using Facebook and Instagram with Fort Lowell Records. I decided I was going to only use Twitter to promote the record label. Then, on January 1, 2015, I dropped Twitter as well (I stopped using it, but still have not deleted the account). On the internet, Fort Lowell Records only exists as our website: http://fortlowell.blogspot.com. The website is a blogsite, because I like the format of it. I post things on there, the same way others might do so with social media, and I’ve been much happier; much more focused on what is important.

Is the local music community supportive of the label?

Fort Lowell Records’ success has been the support of the local music communities (note: “communities” being plural). Tucson is where Fort Lowell Records was born, but Tucson is not where we are personally from. Tracy and I are from Jacksonville, FL, but now we are making roots in Raleigh, NC. The local communities of all three areas have actually been extremely supportive of Fort Lowell Records. Tucson will always be home to Fort Lowell Records, and that is what I would want for the label; that is why I gave it an indigenous name. I want to continue to support artists from Tucson, and be involved as best as we can. With the recent release of two bands from Jacksonville, moyamoya and Hey Mandible, the Bold New City of the South has embraced the label with open arms. We recently hosted a label showcase with moyamoya, the Good Graces, Hey Mandible, and the debut of our new project Band & The Beat; the show was billed as Tracy Shedd, but we performed as Band & The Beat. All of the record stores in the Triangle Area (as well as all over the state) of North Carolina have shown great supportof Fort Lowell Records with record sales. Schoolkids Records in Raleigh NC has sold the most copies of La Cerca’s ‘Sunrise For Everyone.’ I think once we get into releasing more North Carolina bands, Band & The Beat being the first, we will start hosting more live performance with label-mates in the region. [Below: La Cerca]

La Cerca

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?

I would have to report the digital sales have been a good continuous revenue stream for Fort Lowell Records. We partner with both The Orchard as our main digital distributor, and we use our own Bandcamp page (which gives direct sales to Fort Lowell Records). Having the digital outlets seems to work well for the out-of-print records too, or for fans overseas; giving people an economical choice. I find having the digital option does not hurt us in any way, which is why I have always made it available. Personally, I don’t buy my music to listen to digitally, but I do understand that there are customers that prefer this service, and I don’t feel we should limit our outlets when it honestly costs our label no extra money to have the digital option available.

For Band & The Beat [pictured below] the release is currently only available as a Digital 45 (or what I like to call a “Virtual 7inch”). This decision was made simply because of the “speed to market”: the track “21” was written, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released all within the month of October (in less than four weeks’ time). Band & The Beat was heading out on tour, and we wanted to have a release out for people to enjoy. I can see doing more Digital 45s with Fort Lowell Records, especially to help bands in similar situations.

Tracy James by John McNicholas

What are your thoughts on the current vinyl resurgence?

I think it is a fantastic thing, although I am also one of those guys (there are a few of us) that find it hard to call a “resurgence;” I believe vinyl never went away. But I get it; no, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy were not carrying vinyl records 5-10 years ago, and now they are, which, again, I think is great. I’ve been buying music on vinyl ever since I was a kid, and I am happy that is so much easier to find vinyl records in almost any store; heck, Guitar Center is carrying them now.

It is a fact that this resurgence, or increase in demand, with vinyl has caused a shift with the manufacturing timeline of the records themselves. This is evolution at its finest; those who will survive will be those that can evolve. You now see a lot of labels going from standard vinyl releases to limited lathe cut releases, simply because they can get a lathe cut record out faster. Cassettes tapes are also receiving a lot of attention and support these days. I attribute this to the longer production times (and increasing costs) for vinyl records; again, evolution. A cassette tape can be manufactured and released much faster, and cheaper (overall). And if the kids are buying it, and they have the tape decks or Walkman units to listen to the music, then evolution is a success, and this vinyl “resurgence” is driving creativity; survival of the fittest. For Fort Lowell Records, you are seeing our very first digital-only release for Band & The Beat, as well a sign of the times.

Hey Mandible vinyl

What is your personal favorite format to release music? Thoughts on other formats?

I like releasing vinyl records, as well as making music available for radio airplay. At our house, this is how we listen to music. There is only a record player hooked up to an amplifier that has a built-in receiver. If we are not listening to an album on wax, we are tuning in the airwaves. We are extremely lucky to live in Raleigh, as Raleigh has what I feel is the best “Indie Rock” radio station in the country: WKNC 88.1FM. Now, let me add, I believe KXCI 91.3FM in Tucson is the best “overall” radio station in America; they are a publicly supported radio station, as opposed to one that is part of a school, college, or university. KXCI is very diverse, and open and supportive to all aspects of their community; KXCI is a major part of the spirit of Tucson AZ. But when it comes to my own personal taste in music, WKNC here in Raleigh, hands-down, spins some of the best new, fresh, solid Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Dream Pop, etc., as well as Hip-Hop, I have ever heard. Every one of my favorite new bands has come from listening to WKNC via the airwaves. I am always happy letting the needle rest and dialing into 88.1FM.

So, when I am not listening to WKNC for new music, I am enjoying music on my turntable; there is nothing else like it. That is my favorite format to use when releasing new music. I’ve been collecting records ever since I was turned onto Echo & The Bunnymen in 6th grade. But it wasn’t until purchasing Stereolab’s “Ping Pong” 7inch back in the early ‘90s that I actually understood the difference. I had already owned their ‘Mars Audiac Quintet’ album on CD at the time, and the 7inch was given to me as a promo. When I got home and heard the single, I noticed that there were elements of the music that I did not recognize with the CD version. I turned around, went back to Now Hear This (record store in Jacksonville, FL; RIP) and bought every Stereolab album on vinyl, and have been purchasing all music on vinyl ever since.

I’ve succumbed to the convenience of MP3s. With Fort Lowell Records, we do offer a digital download with all of the vinyl records, and as a customer, I too enjoying having this added benefit. I keep my latest favorite albums on my phone, and plug in where ever I am, without having to carry around a CD or cassette case filled with albums. I get it; it is much easier to take MP3s with you than CDs or cassettes. Because of this, I’ve dropped all CDs and Cassettes for my personal collection. I do understand that there are customers that still purchase these formats, so I can’t say Fort Lowell Records will never release either. But I have stuck to vinyl and digital formats, along with getting music on the radio, for Fort Lowell Records simply because that is how I personally listen to music.

What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?

I’ve been a big fan of People In A Position To Know (PIAPTK), Captured Tracks, Burger Records, and Trouble In Mind (TIM). I love everything that all of these labels are doing. PIAPTK has been releasing limited edition lathe cut records before anyone even knew how to pronounce the word “lathe.” Their releases are some of the most innovative records cut; I promise you Jack White’s Third Man Records has been taking cues from PIAPTK for years. Captured Tracks simply can’t go wrong with whatever band / artist they release; their taste in music is impeccable. Burger Records is changing the game for everyone, and I love it; they are at the forefront of this evolutionary change that we are all witnessing, and they will be the first to survive. I always admired Trouble In Mind’s direct approach, especially when they first launched their label. TIM would drop a stack of new releases (7inches) for various amazing new unheard-of bands, with no artwork, just TIM’s standard low-fi produced label sleeve ,and each record would blow your mind. Out of nowhere, “BAM!,” TIM was on the scene, killing it. All four of these record labels continue to force feed the world with some of the greatest new music and freshest ideas available.

Do you accept unsolicited demos?

Absolutely!

[Pictured below: Fort Lowell LP by Tucson’s Saint Maybe, featuring Winston Watson and ex-Patti Smith Group guitarist Oliver Ray. The band was profiled at BLURT in 2013.]

Saint Maybe sleeve

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Fort Lowell Records Website: http://fortlowell.blogspot.com

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