Category Archives: Artist Interview

PROGRESSIVE POP FOR PURE PEOPLE: Steven Wilson

Porcupine Tree. No-Man. Blackfield. Storm Corrosion. IEM. Bass Communion. Production work for notable prog and metal acts. Surround-sound remix wizard for everyone from Jethro Tull and King Crimson to Simple Minds and XTC. We’re talking Renaissance Man territory. (No, “Renaissance Man” is not a band, although the day’s still young.) The British rocker talks all this, along with musings on his latest, excellent solo album and why he’s big on videos and performance. “Although the MTV era is certainly over,” notes Wilson, “a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it.”

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Steven Wilson first made a splash in the early nineties as leader of the British band Porcupine Tree. Though the band began as a one-man goof on psychedelic rock (cf. its first LP On the Sunday of Life), it quickly evolved into an actual group, one that took elements of progressive rock, psychedelia, pop, folk, metal and electronica and filtered them through Wilson’s distinctive sense of melody and texture-driven production acumen. Despite a series of strong records, culminating in 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, the Tree’s most critically acclaimed and bestselling LP, the band never quite caught on with the mainstream’s rock-loving fringe in the way its fans expected. That said, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s final album The Incident, Wilson had well established himself as a songwriter, musician and producer of note, one willing to experiment at will without losing a devotion to melody that should be the envy of tunesmiths everywhere.

Those qualities have also stood him in good stead in both his solo career and extracurricular activities. Though he first tested the solo waters while still a PT member with 2008’s Insurgentes, he really began in earnest with 2011’s Grace For Drowning, a double LP in the grand prog rock tradition. 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing was practically the apotheosis of his style, which meant he had to change tack, precipitating the turn toward pop with 2015’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. But working his pop jones didn’t mean a loss of thematic ambition – H.C.E. wears its apprehensions about the alienation of twenty-first century life on its sleeve. The idea that advancing technology creates new barriers even as it knocks down the old ones is a common notion Wilson has grappled with throughout his artistic career.

To the Bone, Wilson’s brand new album, brings those themes even more to the forefront of his concerns, but wraps the bitter pills up in music sweeter than any he’s made before. In the tradition of the ‘ artists he grew up with, from Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk to The The and XTC, Wilson mixes instantly appealing melodies with ideas more aspirant than musings on romantic love or personal introspection – an album that beckons to and braces you at the same time. It’s the kind of record that might very well make Wilson the star he’s been feted to be by fans and critics, but even if it doesn’t, it’ll set a new standard for his future work.

Meanwhile, Wilson quietly but consistently keeps busy even when he’s not making records under his own name. He’s co-led the art pop group No-Man with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness since 1987, issuing a variety of excellent LPs alongside those of Porcupine Tree. He’s collaborated with Swedish progressive death metal act Opeth’s leader Mikael Akerfeldt in the atmospheric prog band Storm Corrosion and Israeli singer Aviv Geffen in the anthemic, still-running Blackfield. He’s made explicitly motorik-based space rock as IEM and haunting ambient music as Bass Communion. He’s worked as a producer for Opeth and Israeli metal act Orphaned Land and made a number of guest appearances with his prog rocking peers. Wilson also works as a remixer, specializing in Surround Sound and DVD-Audio to create new, highly acclaimed versions of classic albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Simple Minds and, most notably, King Crimson and XTC, leading to lasting friendships with those groups’ respective leaders Robert Fripp and Andy Partridge. Happiest when he’s busiest, Wilson has consistently followed his own muse in whatever direction it leads him, confident enough in his own ability and identity to never worry that it will steer him wrong.

We spoke to Wilson by phone from England about making To the Bone, the themes to which he returns from album to album, the importance of visual media to his work and the importance of balancing dark with light.

BLURT: I’ve been listening to the new record and it’s excellent – a new highwater mark in your career. I’m especially impressed with the pop element. You’ve talked about the progressive pop records – Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, that kind of stuff – but it seems to me that what this focuses on is your very distinctive sense of melody. Was there a conscious decision to put the melodies more up front that usual?

STEVEN WILSON: Very much so. I think the press release angle is a bit of a simplification. The reason those records are referenced in the press release is this idea that’s very much out of fashion these days, which is you can make a record that is both accessible and ambitious. There was a period in time, lest we forget, not so long ago in the ‘[P80s, when I think that the art of making accessible but ambitious records was kind of at a peak. You look at records like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode – even Michael Jackson’s records from that period, to an extent. There is something about them that is completely distinctive, very ambitious, but at the same time, very easy to enjoy as just great pop songs. The question you asked was, was there a conscious decision? Yes. There was a conscious decision to focus much more on the art of creating hooks and pop melodies, but without any sense of having to dumb down or compromise in the ambition of the music.


One of the things that makes your music consistently interesting is that even though you have that distinctive sense of melody – you know a Steven Wilson song when you hear it – you’re always pushing yourself, pushing your own boundaries. You’re not just redoing Fear of a Blank Planet over and over again.

No, quite the opposite! I’ve moved further away. I mean, I’m very proud of that record – it was the peak of my interest in metal. You won’t hear anything like that on this record. Although, even as I’m saying that, I’m conscious that some of the lyrical strands off an album like Fear of a Blank Planet are still present in To the Bone – this interest in how technology creates borders between people rather than bringing them together, and that whole thing about how technology essentially creates a lot of alienation in modern life. So that’s still there.

But musically it couldn’t be further away, and to come back to your question, I think that one of the things that always drives me on is that if I’m going to make another record, if I’m going to add to my already substantial back catalog, then there has to be a reason for each album to exist. There’s no point in making a repetition of one that already exists – trying to cater to the existing fanbase’s expectations. I think it’s very important to always be confronting those expectations. Many of my favorite artists over the years have adopted that approach, whether it’s Bowie or Prince or Neil Young or Frank Zappa. These are people that always had a sense of evolution from album to album, and a sense of sometimes having to confront the expectations of their audience. To be fair, a lot of the industry is based on delivering more of the same, and that’s what most artists do. I’m not denigrating that at all, but that’s not right for me. I have to feel like every album has a distinctive place in my catalog.


It always seems to me that an artist has to make himself happy first – if he’s not happy, then how can he make the audience interested?

I think it can even go further – that’s the definition of an artist. An artist is someone who’s essentially very selfish. And I say that in the context of an artist being very distinct from an entertainer. If you want to be an entertainer, give the audience what they want, give them a greatest hits show, that’s fine. But that’s not being an artist. Being an artist is in some ways a very solitary, very selfish thing. But I believe that’s a good thing. I think Radiohead is a great example of a band that could so easily have gone the nostalgia route, and probably would’ve ended up being the new U2 or something by now. Because there was a point when I think they were headed in that direction. But the art – the sense of self-expression – was more important. That’s what being an artist should be, and sometimes I think fans forget that, and they should be more encouraging. Because the bottom line is the old work is always there, isn’t it? You can still go back and listen to the old records.


It seems that this is actually paying off for you. It seems like you get more and more popular every album the more you push yourself in new directions.

The bottom line is you never know. Taking risks sometimes, obviously, can pay off, and other times it can be a disaster to your career. The most important thing, I think, is to make the work in a kind of vacuum, where you don’t think about those things. But you’re right – I have been very lucky. But I’ve also worked very hard making these records. I have to say, every time I make a new record, it seems like you have to work a little bit harder – it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard to stand still. Because there’s too many records in the world, too many people releasing music these day. You have to fight so hard, even when you’re an established artist. In some respects I am established, not in the mainstream, perhaps, but most people at least know who I am and what I do. Every time I have to fight a little bit harder to get the column space in the magazine, or the attention on the Internet, or some radio play, or to sell tickets. I’m working harder than I ever have before in my career. And I’m 50 this year – in some respects I feel I should be able to slow down now. But I’m still ambitious, and as you alluded at the beginning of our conversation, I feel like I’m making my best work. Of course I want that work to reach as many people as possible. So I’ll still go out there and put in the hours and do the work that I need to do to achieve that.


You worked with some new collaborators this time. I’m curious about Paul Stacey – you co-produced it with him, which is unusual for you. Did that open up the sound?

I think that one of the other things you can do as a solo artist that I could never do in the context of a band, is you can change the people around you from album to album. The one thing you can never change is you. All of my kind of clichés and musical tropes and things that I fall back on – they’re always gonna be there. But one of the things that I can do to make things fresh and perhaps take the music in a different direction is to change the people around me. With Paul, it wasn’t planned that he would be the co-producer. It’s one of those situations where I wanted someone really good to engineer the record. I was recommended Paul by a few people, and we got on really well and I hired him to record the record. But about halfway through the process I realized he had obviously gone way beyond that remit, and was having very strong influences on the actual direction of the record, and bringing out performances from myself and the other people involved. Which of course is very much a production role. So it’s almost like he very naturally drifted into that role, and we ended up making the record together. I have to say, I really enjoyed that process. I am a bit of a control freak, which is why I rarely do those kind of things. But when something happens in that organic, natural way, I’m very willing to embrace it, particularly if I think it’s going to make the record better, which I think it has.


You also worked with Andy Partridge, which would be a dream for a lot of people. I assume came out of your remixing of the XTC records.

Certainly that’s how I got to know Andy. I’ve been very fortunate to count him as a friend these days. One of the most amazing things about my career is that I can say that some of the people whose music I grew up with and is very much in my musical DNA have become collaborators and friends. Andy is obviously one of the greatest for me, one of my favorite songwriters of all time. So I think it was almost inevitable that there would come a point where I would say, “Do you want to write a song with me, Andy?” [laughs] There was this one song, which became the title track on the album, where I knew what I wanted it to be about, but I really didn’t know how to go about approaching it. Because it’s almost semi-political, that song “To the Bone.” It’s obviously very much about the post-truth era, about fake news and the Donald Trump era of politicians. And I’m not one who feels very comfortable writing about something like that. Politics is not really my area. Not that the song is overtly political, but it certainly nods its head in that direction. So I didn’t feel necessarily like I knew how to approach it. It became the very obvious thing to call up Andy and say, “Do you wanna do this, Andy?” And he did a fantastic job.


Not too many people can call up Andy Partridge and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea – can you flesh this out for me?” That’s pretty cool.

I know! like I say, that’s one of the greatest privileges of all in my career, to meet these people, and to realize that now, people whose music I grew listening to in my bedroom are my musical contemporaries. That’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? It’s amazing.

Speaking of collaborators, you usually have excellent taste in side musicians. Who are you playing with on this album?

A lot of it is actually me, and one of the reasons why Paul became so integral to the record is because I was doing a lot more playing this time. So most of the guitar, bass and keyboards are me. When you cast yourself more in the role of a performer, you obviously need to rely a lot more on your engineer and your co-producer, which is why Paul was so important. But there are musicians on the record. There’s the two guest singers – Ninet Tayeb, who I’ve worked with before, and also a Swiss singer called Sophie Hunger, who sang on “Song of I” with me. So there’s a very strong vocal female presence on the record. Musicians-wise, a couple of drummers: Jeremy Stacey, Paul’s brother, who’s in the current lineup of King Crimson, and also my regular live drummer Craig Blundell. They pretty much did 50/50 for the record. Adam Holzman, my keyboard player, is on the record, but mostly handling the piano parts this time, as I did most of the synth stuff. A fantastic harmonica played called Mark Feltham, who I wanted to work with because he’s the guy on those old ‘80s Talk Talk records. If you’re familiar with those – Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, The Colour of Spring – you’ll know how harmonica is a very strong part of those records. So I hunted Mark down and was very privileged to have him do some incredible stuff on the record.

Let’s talk a bit about the themes you were mentioning earlier. How technology should be bringing us together, and yet it seems to be pushing us more and more apart. Communication in general seems to be breaking down. Why do you think that is when we have the technology for everyone to be so close?

It’s obviously not the fault of the technology – the technology is extraordinary. The Internet is one of the most extraordinary inventions ever, in some ways even more significant perhaps than the TV. The TV changed the way that people live, but I think the Internet has changed the way people live much more so than even the television – the way we communicate and understand what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, through no fault of the technology, it also taps into the very worst aspects of human nature. There’s a tendency we have to be very passive about the way we interface and engage with the rest of the world and with other people. I think the problem with social networking, because it creates the illusion of being connected to the rest of the world, people tend to be satisfied with that illusion – the illusion of having friends. Friends that you’ve never met! [chuckles] This illusion of having friends, of being connected, of having your whole existence up there on the Internet available for other people to experience and to share. It’s all complete bullshit. Basically we now have potentially seven billion people now who are all critics, who are all celebrities, who can all go on the Internet and share pictures of themselves, share their opinions on anything from movies and music to politics, and unfortunately it taps into a lot of the worst aspects of human nature: ego, narcissism, the need to be heard, the need to be noticed. If that means being negative and critical, or being an Internet troll, then so be it – that’s better than not being noticed at all.

I think the problem is, at the moment, the technology’s so new that we haven’t really learned properly how to make use of it. We’re going through that traditional transitional period in our evolution where we’re not quite sure where the Internet, where cell phones are taking the human race. There’s a lot of negativity – I think that’s easy to see – but there’s also some positivity too. So I think what will become clear is probably not going to become clear for another half a century or so. Then we’ll really see how this technology has influenced the world.

In the meantime, I think it’s important for people like myself and filmmakers to raise our concerns. Because I think one of the great things that art can do is create debates and raise these issues, and kind of hold up the mirror to the rest of the planet, saying, “You know what? This is what I see. Do you think it’s good? Do you recognize yourself in the mirror?” I guess that’s what I try to do, hopefully without being too preachy.

When you’re writing a record like this, do you sit down and say, “Wow, this is getting really dark really fast. I better put something else in there so people understand that I don’t think it’s hopeless.” Or were more positive songs like “Song of Unborn,” “Nowhere Now,” “Permanating” just a natural part of the song cycle?

It’s funny you should ask that, because I think, for the first time, I did say it to myself. “You know what? It would be very easy to allow yourself to make one of the most downer-sounding records of all time, unless you stop yourself from doing that.” Because the truth of the matter is, even in the two-and-a-half years since I made my last record, the world arguably has become even more concerning and worrying. It’s even easier to be down on everything. You look at what’s happening in the U.K. with Brexit, at the whole political scene in America, at what’s going on with the refugees in Europe, the religious fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks that in the space of the last three years have come very much to our doorstep here in the U.K., and in Europe in general. So things have got even worse in that respect. It would have been very easy or natural for me to allow myself to make a record that was even more negative.

But you know what? I don’t think that would have been a true reflection of what I really feel about the world. So I think it was a conscious decision. You mentioned “Song of Unborn” there – that’s a good example, really. Because that song is in a nutshell really what I’m talking about here. The song is basically saying to the unborn child, “You’re looking out to the world right now, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Why the hell would I wanna be born into this crazy, messed-up place?’” And the answer that comes back is, “Because the gift of life is something extraordinary and unique to every individual, and if you choose to, you can make something amazing out of your life, and you can make the arc of your own life profound.” I think that is a very positive message, and an important thing to remember as well. That we can all do something incredible with our lives, and we don’t have to allow all this other stuff to drag us down. It’s easy to get depressed looking at the state of the world, but we can all do something amazing with our lives. The gift of life is something extraordinary and very profound, and I really believe that. Without sounding like a hippy or something, at the end of the day, I do think that’s the reality. It’s a nice way to end the record on a positive note, which I think is important.


I’ve always thought the best dark records are the ones that have at least a glimmer of hope in there, just to balance out. It makes it more realistic. As bad as things get, there’s always good in the world.

Absolutely.


On a lighter note, because you have this ‘80s vibe for the record to a certain extent, I thought it was very fitting that you’ve put out a lot of videos for the album. The time of MTV being any kind of dominant force is over, but it’s very appropriate that you’re putting out videos.

Well, although the MTV era is certainly over, a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it. Of course a lot of people listen to their music through YouTube, which is the world’s most popular streaming service. For all Spotify’s success, and other streaming services, YouTube is still the number one, and YouTube is of course a video-based service, so I think a lot of people expect some kind of visuals. I’ve always been very interested in the combination of music and video, and I think in many respects the combination of sound and visual can be the most powerful combination of all. And I’ve always been very interested in that, and these songs are stories -they lend themselves very well to visual interpretation. So we’re having a lot of fun with it, and we’re gonna do a lot more for the live show, as well. There’ll be a lot of video content, all very, very exclusive and very much fundamental to the presentation of the live show.

In fact, one of the reasons I went solo was because I really wanted to explore that side of my performance more. One of the things that’s difficult when you’re in a band is to go to your band and say, “Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be great if we blow all the money that we make on this tour on some amazing visuals?” Usually, they’ll tell you where to go. So one of the reasons I decided I needed to be a solo artist was so I could explore that side a lot more. Because I’m very good at spending all the money I make [laughs] on video material, because it’s not cheap to do that kind of presentation. But it’s important – that’s part of the magic for me.


What have you got planned for the future besides this tour? Because you seem to never sleep.

I am focusing a lot on the tour, because there is a lot of preparation to do, not just for the visuals, but obviously for the musicians and the audio side. But I’m also doing a lot of promotion right now. There’s a couple of months’ worth of going around the world doing radio and TV and talking to people, which I’m very happy to do – I enjoy doing that stuff very much. In terms of other projects, we touched on it earlier with the XTC thing – I do a lot of working on these amazing remix projects – remixing these classic records, which is both a privilege and very hard work. But I love doing that stuff, and there’s a lot coming in right now, which I’m gonna try and squeeze in before I disappear off on tour. But really most of next year is going to be committed to touring what I hope will be a record that has resonated well with people, and people will be interested in seeing the presentation of the album in a live context.

A WHOLE NEW THING: Michael Rank

The prolific Chapel Hill rocker and Americana maven unexpectedly pivots to classic ‘70s soul and funk. “I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life,” Rank tells BLURT. “I have no interest in writing the same sad ass country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again.”

BY FRED MILLS / PHOTOS BY MISSY MALOUFF

When Michael Rank set about writing his latest solo album—his seventh in just five years—he felt an emotional and stylistic push in a markedly different direction from its predecessors, all of which were, to varying degrees, Americana-informed. 2015’s Horsehair, in particular, featuring Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, was a deep, lingering dip into outlaw folk and Appalachian country territory, McEntire playing Emmylou to Rank’s Gram (or Bonnie to his Clyde, as some observers put it). Americana, in fact, was what Rank has been known for as a solo artist, itself a marked contrast from his previous work with Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink, which, for two stints (late ‘80s/early ‘90s with the original three-piece; then again from 2003-07 in an entirely different configuration), purveyed a singular brand of hi-nrg Stones raunch and Heartbreakers ‘tude. (You can check out my assessment of Snatches elsewhere on this website; by way of spoiler alert, it is titled “Why Snatches of Pink was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s.”)

Yet if one peered closely at his work over the years, it was possible to detect a cornucopia of influences, and stirring occasionally among them was the classic soul and funk of the ‘70s, with artists like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield clearly sharing shelf space in Rank’s music library with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll. For the 24 songs populating the new three-disc (!) album Another Love, then, soul is the operative term. As you’ll read below, those two soul icons, along with several others, loom large here, with Rank’s guitar ditched in favor of Rhodes and Wurlitzer and the live band mostly supplanted by drum programs and keyboards. Crucial to Another Love is co-conspirator Brian Dennis (late of ‘90s outfit DAG), who performed his studio and sonic wizardry upon Rank’s instrumental and vocal tracks; Rank claims the record wouldn’t have happened without Dennis, which is high praise indeed, considering the songwriter’s prolific nature that, since 2012, has seemingly resulted in an album every nine or ten months.

As one might imagine, with 24 tracks to contend with, there are highlights a-plenty on the album, far too many to isolate here. Yours truly’s favorites—as of this writing, and subject to change tomorrow—include the sleek minimalism of “Kings,” what with Rank deploying one of his more emotive vocals, doubletracked at that, a frequent strategy on the album. There’s the relative swagger of “I Do,” a low-down-and-down-low Prince-like confection featuring Dennis on guitar, his old DAG bandmate Bobby Patterson on bass, and guest vocalist Raney Hayes joining Rank at the mic. You want funky? The title track is pure Sly & the Family Stone—maybe a hint of Stevie Wonder too, with Rank (speaking of doubletracked vocals) singing the low and high parts. Hold that thought: Throughout Another Love, Rank relies on his falsetto to underscore the soul component; “Women in Love,” for example, finds him soaring aloft with remarkable passion, like the aforementioned Mayfield or a classic gospel singer. He’s always had the capacity to hit the high notes, but in 2017, he seems to have climbed the mountain.

And on penultimate number “Horses,” possibly the standout, and perhaps the most “live” sounding one as well, Rank, Dennis, and Patterson get their funk/blues band mojo seriously working. It’s an incredibly infectious track with a psychedelic edge, one which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing show-closer in concert, maybe even with a cape-draping finale. (Rank claims that he has no plans to perform the album live, however, but we can always hope.)

The bottom line: Rank has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and then some. (2012’s two-disc Stag, in particular, was a harrowing document of a brutal breakup, but one can trace Rank’s emotional journeys through his early Snatches songs, too.) On the nakedly confessional—and, significantly, ultimately defiant—“Roll Away” he sings:

“Well honey I ain’t wondering why
I ain’t countin’ my time
I feel there’s something goin’ on…
Well baby this ain’t workin’ for me
I think there’s something goin’ on…
Roll up to the window sill
Baby watch you roll away
I’m better off these days
There ain’t nothin’ left to say.”

I would propose, then, that the pure essence of soul—exploring the vicissitudes of love in all its good/bad/transcendent/ugly dimensions—has always informed this man as a songwriter. He really feels it as a concrete thing, not in the abstract.

Rank and I convened recently via email to talk about the new record, and we touched on a number of things, from obvious questions about what inspired him this time around to how he looks back on his early Chapel Hill days. I couldn’t resist asking him about his son, Bowie Ryder, because fatherhood is a topic he and I always seem to slide into whenever we have the chance to get together in person. We’re a long way from those drunken club nights, following a particularly explosive Snatches of Pink gig. (Rank: “Bowie’s ten years old and all cool. Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that. Parenthood is the ride that just keeps on spinning. Here, lately, I feel like it’s just holding a mirror up to all the areas of my personality I need to do a lot of work on(!!!). But shit, better late than never, right?”) Bowie has always gotten a dedication and shout-out on Rank’s record sleeves, a small but telling gift that the young man will surely cherish many decades from now, and Another Love is no exception, with Rank writing, “I love you always… forever and a day.” To me, this is also emblematic of Rank’s current immersion. He really experiences love as a living, breathing, pulsing creature, never less than a constant presence, day or night.

Incidentally, Rank has his entire back catalog available at his Bandcamp page, and in the case of those long out-of-print Snatches of Pink records, you can even grab them as free downloads. (Nice touch, that.) Check ‘em out, and also visit him at his official website and Facebook page.

BLURT: By way of a long-winded first question: Starting with Stag in Feb. 2012, you’ve released seven SOLO full-lengths, which is an average of 1.4 albums per year; broken down another way, we’re talking 65 months and 87 songs that appear on those seven albums, which is an average of 1.34 songs per month. While it’s not unusual for songwriters to be writing constantly, in terms of recording and releasing material, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many who are this prolific—most would have to plead to having a backlog of songs they haven’t finished or haven’t gotten around to properly recording; only Robert Pollard comes to mind as your peer in this regard. Please discuss why you are a statistical outlier.

MICHAEL RANK: Man, whenever I hear the word “outlier” I always imagine a bunch of villagers with torches and shit, snaking through the marshes yelling “Outliiiierrr!!!”. Hunting Frankenstein-monster style… But yeah, I write a lot of tunes. But to be honest, when you do the math like you just did it somehow doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I feel a little let down; seems like it should be more(!!). If I had a “team” like I did in the old days, I’d get them to start fact-checking and re-crunching those numbers(!!). But songwriting is still cheaper than therapy, after all…

On a slightly more serious note: Give me a sense of your writing regimen or habits—do you work on a particular song until you feel it is completely finished, or do you always have several that you’re working on at the same time? Do you ever have material left over after you’ve finished an album?
There were a couple of significant changes for me in regards to the writing for Another Love. This was the very first time in my life where the songs were all written starting with the beat. That was the entry point. All 24 songs. I had never done that before with any song from my past. The other difference is this is the first time in my life that I wrote entirely on keyboards. I haven’t even touched a guitar in well over a year. Everything was created on old drum machines and Rhodes/Wurlitzer keys. I try not to ever have songs stockpiling while I’m writing. I like to write a song and then immediately record it before I move on. And nothing gets carried over. If a track doesn’t make an album then it’s done. Tough love.

It’s a three-disc album, so do you think of each disc as a separate entity, or do you view the songs as one continuous flow? Someone listening to it as a digital download might get a different experience from, say, me, listening to it disc by disc.
I’m someone whose real awareness began in the ‘70s. For everything, but especially music. So for me, album lengths should ideally be 35 minutes or so like back in the day. Maybe a touch longer. The last thing I wanted was to put out a single physical CD that played for 2 hours straight. Ain’t no one got time for that. But I put a lot of thought into working out the sequence for this album so that it would work not only as a triple disc experience, but also as one continuous flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my living room floor for a few weeks there towards the end.

The obvious question is, why the pivot away from your signature Americana-tilting singer-songwriter sound to a classic soul/funk approach? What kinds of records were you listening to leading up to writing and arranging these songs? How about when you were growing up?
The album that completed the circle for me from growing up to the making of Another Love was Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That work has been a constant for me for a long, long time. Arguably my favorite album ever. But other albums that specifically played into the making of Another Love were D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah. Brian Dennis, who created this album with me, and I spent a lot of time with the sounds on those two D’Angelo albums. Bilal, Erykah Badu, Curtis Mayfield, Bernie Worrell, Shuggie Otis, obviously Prince… we dug through all those artists’ sounds and vibes. And in regards to pivoting away from the styles I had been previously working in, I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life. I have no interest in writing the same sad ass Country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again. And don’t get me wrong—I love that shit dearly, but there are plenty of folks already spending a lifetime doing that.

Your singing style on the album doesn’t so much break from the past as it finds you exploring your upper register more. How much of this was a conscious thing, and how much was just a natural reaction to the music you were creating? Were any of the songs originally more in a twang-and-strum style that you wound up remaking/rearranging for this album?
All my favorite singers take the “high road” when it comes to vocal range. D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Eddie Kendricks… and certainly all my favorite Stones’ Mick moments were when he worked his falsetto. It’s a comfortable place for me to exist in. It’s the aesthetic I’ve always dug the most. And again, it’s what I personally want to be hearing. And none of these songs were ever in a different style. They all were born to be exactly who they are.

Pick a few songs on the record that you feel are most representative of the album and your current direction and what you think “works” in them.
“Women In Love”: I know it’s bad form to choose favorites but this one’s probably mine. It’s just got that thing. It bubbles. It’s sexy. It’s like the sound of wet marbles.

“I Love You”/ “40 Days”: Man, I have always dug Disco. I never had any problem going from The Dead Boys to The Bee Gees. And I still don’t. I really dig these two tracks ‘cause they are dusted in that Disco gold. The sound of where I’m headed next.

“Sing”: This was the very last song that got recorded, maybe second to last. I had sent Brian my vocals, keyboard, and the beat for him to add his performances to. When he sent back his files for me to hear I got a message from him saying that he had actually scrapped my keyboard entirely and only used my vocal and beat. Now I’m a Leo, and I was proud of my shit, so when I heard that message in the car I was sitting at a stoplight and I was instantly bummed out and starting to cop an attitude. When the light turned to green I pressed play on the mix he sent me and then totally lost my shit. I was screaming and dancing in the seat and just over the moon. When I hit the next red light and called him back up I was literally hoarse from the five minute party I had just had listening to what he created. True story. I adore this track.

How did you come to work with Brian Dennis? What did he bring to the table? Certainly, employing drum programming instead of a live drummer is a radical shift for you.
It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say this album wouldn’t exist without Brian. Brian was the very first artist in my entire life that I sought out a collaboration with and then handed over the wheel. And anyone that knows me knows I don’t relinquish that wheel when it comes to my creative shit. But with Brian it felt right. I trust Brian. And from very early on, it became crystal clear to me, and to any innocent bystanders, that Brian knew exactly what the songs were asking for. I literally felt like a kid on Christmas morning every single time I’d get his tracks to a song. And I’ll never forget that feeling. He’s as good as it gets, he honestly is. And now, God bless him, he’s tracking the follow-up album with me!

What are your plans for performing the material live?
No plans for any gigging this year. What fulfills me the most is writing songs and creating in the studio. That’s where I’m feeling the most alive. In a perfect world, I woulda dug doing a handful of cool dates but the time and expense involved in putting together a new band is just not where my focus is at right now. I’m already way into the next album at this point.

Looking back on your previous solo albums, which are your favorites now?
Man, I try not to look back too much to old albums. But Horsehair [released in July of 2015] was pretty special. As an artist you are always trying to capture something that often goes beyond any easy definition. Visions are an elusive animal. But I think with Horsehair we got real close.

If we go all the way back to your first solo album, 1993’s Coral, and Snatches of Pink’s Bent With Pray, from 1992, I can definitely hear some early groundwork for Another Love being laid, as both those records steered in a more soulful, atmospheric direction than previous Snatches albums. Is that a fair observation?
Yea, totally. Especially with a track like “Dove” off of Coral. That tune’s got Another Love written all over it. And certainly there were many moments on 2016’s Red Hand (another solo album I really dig) that led right into Another Love.

So how do you remember the original Snatches of Pink period, you, drummer Sara Romweber, and bassist Andy McMillan?
The original Snatches of Pink lineup was my life in a lot of ways. It’s the elephant that never really leaves the room. I only clearly remember it in bits and shards. We were so committed, well beyond the actual music. It was all so proudly worn on our sleeves. So much attitude. It didn’t get to where I dreamed it would have, and that honestly took a piece of me that I’ll never quite recover, but I’ll always feel so proud of what we left out on the field. Day in and day out.

Sara and I still talk every few months and I can’t convey how grateful I am for that. She was so giving and so loyal. We always needed her far more than she ever needed us. She’s beautiful and I’m so grateful I remain in her life. Fred [Jenkins], our long-time road manager, and I still talk every week. We go see concerts together. I still seek out his approval and thoughts with every one of my releases, month after month, year after after year. And Andy has chosen not to talk anymore. At least not to me. And that has really broken my heart. Every memory always begins with him and me. But there are only so many times you can leave a voicemail for someone telling them you love them and that you miss them and then never get a single reply. The last time I saw him I was crossing the street and he saw me, put his head down, and quickly walked to his car and drove away. And I struggle with that. And I struggle with the absence of any explanation… aww shit, man, I’m sorry but I don’t wanna talk about any old news anymore today. That shit just leaves me sad.

Lastly, what’s on the horizon?
Man, it’s all about the next [record] right now. I’ve got another new album entirely written and all my vocals, keyboards, and beats are all tracked. Brian is just about to dive, and hopefully this time I can keep it down to a single disc.

FAREWELL TO THE LINEMAN: Glen Campbell

Fans and admirers of Glen Campbell knew the day was coming; we’d been prepared for it since 2011, when he went public with the news he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, along with details of a farewell tour and plans for releasing some final recordings. Still, that didn’t make the news yesterday, August 8, any less brutal, when Campbell’s publicist at Universal Music released a statement that read, “It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and legendary singer and guitarist, Glen Travis Campbell, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease.” According to the New York Times, in an obituary published late yesterday, on his final tour the musical icon “performed 151 shows over 15 months… [his last one] was in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, and by the spring of 2014 he had moved into a long-term care and treatment center near Nashville.” He’s survived by his wife Kimberly along with eight children, three sisters, two brothers, “and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.”

Speaking personally, I’ve been listening to Glen Campbell since the mid-Sixties and the release of his hit single “Gentle On My Mind”; I still own a battered 45 of that and other Campbell gems, like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” a song that will eternally be in my personal top 20, and one which I found myself playing over and over again this morning. Here at BLURT we’ve covered Campbell on a number of occasions, so I thought it appropriate that we republish a pair of features by A.D. Amorosi and Rick Allen that particularly stand out in my mind as fitting tributes to the man. I hope you enjoy. —Fred Mills, Editor

BY A.D. AMOROSI and RICK ALLEN

A number of years ago longtime BLURT contributing editor A.D. Amorosi was able to sit down with Campbell and talk about his career, his then-new album and the upcoming tour. We published the interview in issue #11 (Winter 2011). The story is one we remain deeply proud of here at BLURT, unquestionably among the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to present.—Ed.

Memory fades. Sifting through images and ideas is no easy process, not for the young or old, not where the distant past and recent immediacy is concerned.

When Glen Campbell announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, would be his last and that his recent tour would put a cap on his long career, the desire to mourn – to treat him differently – kicked in. This was, after all, the golden boy of epically cosmopolitan country pop whose every ‘60s hit from Chris Gantry’s “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” to the soaring subtlety of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” the latter two reminiscent of Bogart’s phrase at the end of Maltese Falcon – “the stuff that dreams are made of” – became the soundtrack to my youth.

These sonic gems were only made bolder by knowing that Campbell – a masterful guitar picker – was a touring Beach Boy that nearly replaced Brian Wilson and had played on hits by Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees and Elvis Presley, the latter a fellow country boy whom Campbell befriended. Campbell’s image, too, is burned into the collective retina as he had starred in the original version of the revenge western True Grit and his own network TV show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Certainly he had his Rimbaud-esque season in Hell – the post ‘60s comedown of boozing, drugging, carousing (notoriously with firebrand country howler Tanya Tucker) and various arrests. Yet, Campbell had commercial hits into the ‘70s and ‘80s with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,” “Sunflower” and “I Have You.” He kept the live fires burning with gigs in Branson, found God, a good woman Kimberly Woolen to whom he’s been married since 1982 with three kids who have their own Arcade Fire-y band (Instant People) currently backing Campbell on tour. This latter day joy – to say nothing of the potency of the deeply etched Ghost and its ruminatively ratcheting lyrics and still expressively clarion vocals – made Alzheimer’s an even more heinous verdict. (Below: Glen and Kim; photo by Scott Weiner)

Look into Campbell’s eyes and despite the lines in his face (he’s 75) and his occasionally forgetful demeanor and you see a man not so much struggling with memory but more alive with the past then the present. This author isn’t trying to soften the blow or demystify the disease but seriously, I have a better grasp on what I did ten years ago then what I did ten minutes ago. Yet here they are, Glen and Kimberly sitting before me, frankly discussing the problem without letting it ruin their future.

Campbell, his producer Justin Raymond (who worked with the singer on his previous recording Meet Glen Campbell) and a crew of instrumentalists such as Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Chris Isaak were already at work on the riveting Ghost when the diagnosis was announced. Suddenly the press made a big deal out of it, something that doesn’t affect the Campbells – as long as the disease doesn’t overshadow the work,

“No. it doesn’t bother me,” says Campbell with a slight cough. “I’m used to it by now. I leave it in God’s hands that it’s gonna be the way He wants.” His wife Kim follows that with an understanding of an audiences’ curiosity – how the disease works, how it affects her husband. “We understand,” she smiles. “But the music is just so good we hope they get to that message as well.”

Mention the contribution of songs from Paul Westerberg, Jakob Dylan and Robert Pollard along with self-penned tracks with Raymond (culled, interestingly enough, from the producer’s daily diaries of what the singer/guitarist said), and you’ve got quite a set of messages. As Campbell starts singing the new album’s title track in a strong burst of melody, he states. “I’m really not a songwriter so if I hear a song, I feel it and like it, I’ll do it. But I’ll make it the way I want to hear it.”

Part of this comes down to asking songwriters if he can turn negatives into positives (“but with their permission of course,” says the gentlemanly Campbell) and accommodating where Campbell’s heart is now. “She’ll be running around the mountain” just doesn’t sound right,” he laughs. “It ain’t the way the song goes. “She’ll be coming around the mountain,” is more like it.”

Campbell slowly and deliberately tells me how he takes songs one a at time and lets the good ones carry him away, the songs of other writers as well as the tunes presented by Raymond, a hands-on laid back producer who, during Meet Glen Campbell, started writing down what the singer said about life, confusion and happiness. “Julian wrote down the meaningful things that Glen would say about being baffled by what was going on in his head, as well as how life was good to him,” says Kim who recognized that Campbell’s memory was slipping during those 2008 recording sessions. “We’re so glad Julian got those meditations down and put those verses to music.”

“I need the ones I love more and more each day.”

“This is not the road I want for us.”

Mention Campbell’s famed sense of perfection and he laughs. “Nah. I may sound like one,” he laughs. “But I want it be natural. If I get a song – a GOOD song – I just sing it the way I hear it in my head. If anybody else wanted to add whistles and bells and chains rattling that’s fine. Just not too much. I actually just do things as straight ahead as possible. You add the ifs, ands or buts.”

To that end, Ghost has the richly orchestrated jangle of Pet Sounds with a country twang.

Campbell knows he’s been blessed with great collaborators and productions, a powerful clear voice that was forever gifted with dynamic songs that suited his vocal range and challenged his playing skills.

“Things turned out pretty well,” says Campbell. (Below photo by  Robert Sebree)

***

Pretty well indeed.

Blame, in part, his having come from a large all-singing all playing Arkansas family who took Glen to church regularly to express him self in song. Other than getting his first guitar at age four, a seminal moment for Campbell came when he nearly drowned at age three: his Army-bound brothers dragged him out of the water, pumped the water and did CPR on the young Glen. “That night back at the house while keeping time to the radio, I didn’t say anything. I just sang. Something had changed me.”

His distinct guitar playing, inspired by the likes of Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt (“Django was my main influence”) gave him the confidence to form western swing bands and, by age twenty-one, head to Los Angeles where he quickly became a sought-after session musician. “I think I mainly got all that work because I was the only guy who could use a capo,” he laughs.

As he was just starting to make his session-man bones, he recorded a single for the Crest label. When I mention that 1961 track to him, “Turn Around Look at Me,” Campbell flashes a big smile. “Well I thought that was ‘it’ you know,” smiles Campbell who starts singing the lines “there is someone/walking behind me” so mellifluously, it’s as if he’s a kid in 1960 again. “Even then I did songs that I liked, never tunes that I didn’t care for. Otherwise it wouldn’t be satisfying.”

Campbell stops, leans into me and turns to his wife. “Excuse me, honey,” says Campbell who then turns from his wife and conspiratorially pulls me forward. His long fingers become a circle with another finger on his other hand barely peeking through the top. He’s made a tiny cock of it all.

“It’s like a guy going into a whorehouse with THIS little thing and the woman says, ‘Well who you going to satisfy with THAT?’ And he says, ‘ME.’ That old joke, that stupid analogy – that’s the best way of describing what I want to do: satisfy me.”

Campbell fast-forwards and says he did things he didn’t want to do: lousy albums, hell-raising backstage antics of cocaine, booze and sex. “I spent some time in Hell,” he smiles. “I got so high I could fart in a Martin box,” he starts slapping his knee. “I’m glad that’s over with – it was a stupid place. I drowned,” he starts to say, realizing that he told me that story before. Then again, perhaps he meant the psychic drowning that led to the rejuvenation of finding God and his wife. (He teases about meeting her on a blind date. “I thought she was blind,” he yuks, then quacks like Daffy Duck.)

Dipping backwards to his session career and “Turn Around,” he mentions how he stayed in the studio and played for the greats so that he stick close to home and make more money doing session work than he could promoting a struggling single on the road. The wrongs of the road remind him of Elvis Presley, an old friend whose “Viva Las Vegas” he played on. “He was a good man but I understood the peril his career had taken on. I didn’t have the luggage he had, that entourage he had to take care of. I should’ve kicked his ass from here to Japan to get some sense in him. His old friends from Memphis were just bringing young girls backstage and crap like that – distracting him.”

Campbell went on to work and play with the Beach Boys and was nearly the front man when Brian Wilson broke down and left in 1965 yet Campbell was more into doing his own music than joining a band (Capitol wound up signing Campbell on the basis of his strong showing with the Beach Boys). “Plus, you know, Mike Love was there. He’s talented, but,” Campbell scrunches his face.

The young Campbell continued to play on records by Frank (“Strangers in the Night”) and Dean (“Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”) guys a generation before him – the establishment – before the counter cultural hippie-dippie movement took hold. He was no hippie but he was a young cat. What was he thinking?

“They were the tops. If you heard their stuff up close and saw them on stage – they were incredible actually,” says Campbell of the Rat Pack titans. “There was no mistaking their voices or their presence.” Campbell was hanging on the musician side of everything, playing guitar by their side. .But he got wise watching those men that singing would get him farther.

Enter guys like Jimmy Webb and John Hartford, songwriters whose best work came through the conduit of Campbell’s rich voice. It was a blast according to Campbell, wonderful those melodies at his ready and those sorts of storytellers in his corner. “If you have guys like this in your corner, you better have your chute together or you won’t get down,” he laughs. In particular, Campbell has a warm long smile reserved for Webb’s longing literate lyrics and winnowing melodies. “My wife will tell you. I pray to the Lord and thank Him for letting me do those songs. When my dad heard those tunes he said “it’s a good thing we didn’t throw you back in the water.” (Kim reminds me how, famously that Webb used to pray, after hearing “Turn around Look at Me,” that Campbell would sing his songs)

Though the Ghostly songs of Westerberg and Pollard aren’t quite the stuff of “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” they are crucial, rare and deeply ruminative. They feel like the contemplative stuff of a finale. At 75 – anybody at 75 – the level of winding down that the Campbell’s plan on doing would seem essential and right. While Kim confides to me that she wishes they did more recording during the Branson days, she also mentions more tracks featuring Campbell and their kids, might be recorded at tour’s end. “We still have a few special tricks up our sleeves. Other than that, we’re happy to go to Hawaii, watch Glen golf and sit by the side as the kids start their career,” says Kim Campbell…

As for Glen Campbell, a singer and guitarist whose recent tour finds him in strong voice and ticklish guitar skills, he’s content to go out with an album as rich as Ghost on the Canvas. “I want to slow down – you know, it’s really about whatever she wants to do – but the record? You throw them out to the world and hope it comes back positive. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did. I have to listen to it, you know.”

***

Also in 2011, shortly after the release of the Ghost On the Canvas album, contributor Rick Allen penned an appreciation of Campbell that we’re also quite proud of. “As the famed guitarist and song stylist prepares for his final bows,” wrote Allen, “let’s pause for a moment and think about what that really means.” Given that those final bows are truly final — Campbell released his final album, titled Adios, just a few weeks ago — now more than ever.  —Ed.

Glen Campbell never became a darling of the too-cool set that embraced Johnny Cash, rightfully, but who could not also see the true folk musician in someone like Merle Haggard. Likewise, Campbell has never been appreciated by the crowd that thinks a performer cannot be popular and valid at the same time; too bad for them.

Campbell is one of the best rock and roll/country guitarists ever, a veteran of the famed collection of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Other Crew members, Carol Kaye, James Burton, Leon Russell, Mac “Dr. John” Rebbenac to name a few, accrued much more hip cachet than he did. Had Campbell continued to record material like “Gentle On My Mind” and even some of the better Jimmy Webb pop classics like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” or Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” he might have done better with the NPR crowd. But his reliance on songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the admittedly artificial and overblown production of it (and others like it) meant that few of Campbell’s albums could be listened to without hitting a “Rhinestone Cowboy” or other such musical bump or two.

On what’s being billed as, most likely, Campbell’s final album, Ghost On The Canvas – which is to be accompanied by a farewell tour; the musician’s been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s – there’s considerably less artifice.

Campbell shows exceptional depth with brilliant takes on “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” written by Jakob Dylan, “Hold On Hope” by Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and some magnificent pieces of California pop music including a Paul Westerberg composition called “Any Trouble.” (The title cut, another Westerberg number, is slo good but marred slightly by so-so lyrics.) Campbell’s voice is as robust and clear as ever and he is likely playing a significant amount of guitar although there are no specified credits. “Strong” reflects (musically) his time with the Beach Boys but the entire album has got “Beatles” written all over it. Producer Julian Raymond seems to have cut his teeth on post-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles music, including the solo albums of Lennon and Harrison. One can imagine Jeff Lynne gnashing his teeth at hearing that someone got this stuff right. The guitar solo on “There Is No Me…Without You,” probably from Billy Corgan, Marty Rifkin, Rick Nielsen, or Brian Setzer who all play guitar on the cut (Setzer, Chris Isaak and Dick Dale also add guitar to Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms”), is an elegant cop of George’s Harrison’s in “Something” while the drums are pure Ringo. The tune extends Beatles-like into infinity a la “A Day in the Life” and provides some of the album’s best moments.

Campbell chose to go out big. The orchestration is big, the production here is big, almost “Rhinestone Cowboy” big, but tempered by taste and restraint, and the album only improves with repeated listening. Most important, the themes are big, life-and-death-big, as is befitting an artist who knows he is near the end of his career. Like a battered athlete he will also outlive it and not necessarily under the best of circumstances. As the world watches Campbell ring down his own curtain will there be a rediscovery, a re-evaluation of a great but often dismissed career? Will people learn about Glen Campbell as they seem to have learned about Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, that a superiorly talented pop artist who doesn’t write much of his or her own material (Campbell did co-wrote several of the cuts here) can be just as great – often greater – as any of the so-called “hipper” acts?

It’s all showbiz folks, all of it. No matter how tattooed, pierced, smack-addled, in-you-face, amped-up-to-10 the act is. Even that bearded, bobbled headed, slacks/vest-wearing emo vocalist singing about growing up in simpler times out in the Midwest is in showbiz. They are all song and dance men (and women), as Bob Dylan once referred to himself. The best of them, like Campbell, realize that and they consider entertaining you to be a worthy pursuit. Sometimes they do it with some damn good songs, too, and underneath the rhinestones is a person concerned with living and dying just like everyone else.

With Ghost On The Canvas Glen Campbell has chosen to share such concerns, but like the pro he is, he’s done so without sacrificing a drop of entertainment value. Campbell is at the top of his game even at closing time. If there’s no more to come then this is as good a spot as any to ring down the curtain.

***

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Agent Orange’s “Living in Darkness”

From the 1981 album of the same name, originally released by the punk-as-fuck Posh Boy label.

 BY TIM HINELY

Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly, and then fast-forwarded to 2000 for John Conley talking about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.” Next came Allen Clapp (of the Orange Peels and Allen Clapp & His Orchestra) and 1994’s “Something Strange Happens” followed by Kenny Chambers, of Moving Targets, on that band’s ’86 classic “Faith.” Now Prof. Hinely lands in 1981 to take a retrospective look with Mike Palm at the title track to Agent Orange’s groundbreaking debut Living in Darkness.

At this point I’ve done several of these song inspiration interviews and  I was thinking “Hmm….who could I ask next?!” Then it dawned on me, Agent Orange’s Mike Palm. He’s still at it, touring like crazy and heck, even skateboarding, too. Palm seems like the eternal Southern California teenager, seemingly always chasing the sun wherever he may go. His band’s classic debut, Living in Darkness, was released 36 years ago, but sounds as fresh today as it did then with a perfect mix of punk,  surf and power pop. The title track is one of my favorites from that record and judging by what Palm states below, a lot of folks favorite as well (maybe even eclipsing their classic debut single “Bloodstains”). Some new material by these guys would be very welcome, but in the meantime go back and listen to said debut if it’s been a while (their two others, 1986’s This is the Voice and ‘96’s Virtually Indestructible, while not the equal of the debut, are no slouches either). Before hitting his next skate park with the band, Palm gave us a few minutes and weighed in on that song.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

MIKE PALM: I was pretty much sleeping all day, and either playing shows or going to clubs every night. There used to be an all night record swap in the Capital Records parking lot. It was great. I hardly ever went out in the day.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

I really can’t remember how long it took to write from start to finish. I do remember it came together smoothly, music and melody first, then the lyrics. Once I got it going it almost wrote itself.

Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)

Everything off of the first album is kind of mandatory. It’s the album title track, so I guess that makes it significant.

Was it a staple of your live sets even years later?

It still is. We only cut it if we need to play a shorter set, like at a festival or whatever.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

Nope. Nothing.

Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?

It was recorded in L.A. at a studio that was owned by the guy who later wrote “Papa Don’t Preach” for Madonna. We cut all the basic tracks in one night, then went back the next night to do minimal overdubs and vocals. When we pulled the track up on the second night, we realized that one of the microphones on the drums was broken, and the rack tom part was missing. They wanted to replace it with hand claps, but I hated the idea. It was a full-on stand-off that held up the session for a long time, until i compromised and let them use metal trash can lids from the alley out back.

How do you feel about it now?

It’s the longest song in our live set, so sometimes it feels like a marathon, but it has a good resolve that ends with a strong positive feel. It works well near the end of the set, just before “The Last Goodbye”.  but that’s another story…

COVERING TIME: Dan Wilson

When the Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic savant and songwriter-to-the-stars started planning his latest solo album, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration—he could tap his own songbook.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Dan Wilson is probably best known by most as the frontman for Semisonic, and Trip Shakespeare before that. He’s been anything but dormant, however, since Semisonic stopped recording and touring in 2001.

Over the years, he’s put out a handful of widely-praised solo albums and managed to morph into a song-writing wunderkind of sorts, lending his talents to singers and bands across a slew of varied genres. For nearly two decades now, Wilson has written or co-written songs for a who’s-who of musicians across the spectrum—a list of A-listers that includes Adele, The Dixie Chicks, Weezer, Taylor Swift, Pink and Nas, among dozens more.

So when he decided to finally cover his own work—all songs of his that had been performed by other artists over the years, but not by him—he had plenty to choose from. The result is Re-Covered, out this week on August 4 via Big Deal Music, a beautiful re-imagining of songs, many you’ve heard plenty of times before, but never like this. (The one exception to that theme being Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” sang and played here with near-reverence.)

Wilson will also release a deluxe edition hardcover book and CD that contains 56 pages of drawings, essays, lyrics, and songwriting observations. The book contains illustrations and stories by Wilson about each Re-Covered song, in addition to each song’s lyrics. This deluxe hardcover book/album will be released on August 25 and includes a physical CD (pre-order via Amazon).

Wilson, who is prepping a solo tour behind the album, spoke with BLURT recently about the project, his ability to easily let go of his songs and the future of Semisonic.

BLURT: Let’s start with how the idea for Re-Covered came about. Obviously, you’ve got a lot of songs out there that you’ve written for others over the years.
DAN WILSON: About seven years ago a friend of mine had the idea and she said, “Dan, you need to make an album of your best songs that you’ve written for other people and you can’t just do it on acoustic guitar and be lazy about it.” I liked that idea, it sounded like a great concept. In 2010, I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that I just didn’t have the right songs at that time; I felt like I needed a couple of more songs that were big songs in the culture and a couple more songs that expressed my ideals about songwriting. So, I waited for a while until I realized I finally had what I wanted.

Was it tough deciding which ones to include and which to leave off?
I liked the idea of having a clear concept of songs that were written for others and that made deciding easier in a way. I did demos of a whole bunch of songs and I made a list of about 40 or 50 songs that could be potentials and I knew that there were 25 that I really liked. So, I did guitar/vocal demos of those just to see if they sounded good. A bunch of the songs just didn’t sound good; my voice sounded too innocent and too bright when it needed to sound darker and bluer on some. They just didn’t sound right. And others were surprisingly perfect. It was the process of elimination.

You recorded most of these in just over a week, right?
Yeah, we did 12 tracks in a week and we mixed them all on a Saturday. A couple months passed and I told Mike Viola (his long-time collaborator and producer of Re-Covered) that we needed a couple more songs. We did a whole bunch more and chose four or five.

Recording in a week, was that out of necessity given schedules?
That was Mike’s idea. When I asked Mike if he would produce this album he said he would but only if we did it live to tape, with live vocals, have everyone in the same room, do it in a short span of time and mix it all in one day. And I thought, ok, that sounds amazing, but why? Here were his reasons: First, you will all have one specific sound because you will all be in the same place at the same time that week. Secondly, we’ll be recording to tapes on old school materials so you won’t be able to tinker with it or do anything to it digitally. It’s going to just leave things as they are if they’re great and you’re going to be so happy because you won’t have to spend months on a record. And I loved those ideas.

You’ve written with and for a lot of other people over the years. Have you ever felt it was difficult to give away a song or hear someone else sing it differently than you intended it to sound?
Well no, for two reasons. The first is sort of philosophical. I feel like hanging on to a song, like hoarding it for yourself, is sort of like betting against yourself. What you’re saying is I will never write a song this good again; I will never write anything this precious again, so I have to hang onto it. But if you give it to someone, it’s almost like saying I will give this song to someone else and then I’ll write another great one. There’s almost a karmic element to letting things go that is positive.

I’ve never thought of it like that.
Yeah and the second thing is I’m fine with recording something someone else has already recorded. The only risk is if someone does a complete heart-stopping incredible version. Even then you can recut it.

How did you get the Kronos Quartet involved in the song “Someone Like You”?
I met the Kronos Quartet at a concert I did that was a tribute to Big Star’s Third album. We did “Give Me Another Chance” and after rehearsal in the basement of that theater the Quartet and I were standing around talking and David (Harrington), the first violinist said “we should collaborate on something. We all love the way your voice sounds with us.” I said, “Oh, man. I’d be honored.” Basically, that was an open invitation and months went by and I was thinking about how I could do a version of “Someone Like You,” that would be different from Adele’s, but wouldn’t be R&B and drums and the typical thing to do. We tried it like that and it didn’t work. I suddenly thought, “Maybe I should do this with The Kronos Quartet.”

“Closing Time” is on here as well and obviously that song is probably most associated with you and Semisonic. It’s a beautiful version; it’s very subdued and almost solemn. Was this how you had originally meant the song to sound when you first wrote it or was this just something different you were trying?
When I first wrote the song, I wrote it on acoustic guitar and everything I had been writing for Semisonic seemed to be played very loudly. So, I just generally assumed everything I wrote for the band would be played loudly, but I wrote them quietly. It was just me on a couch with an acoustic guitar so it was almost like a folk song, but I knew we were going to play it loud. When I decided to record it for this record I just went back to the original vibe which was almost kind of wistful.

Are there plans to do anything new with Semisonic?
We did some shows last month and we’ll certainly do more. I wrote a bunch of songs last year that for the first time in a long time I felt could be great for Semisonic. I’m pretty excited about the prospect. The way things work for me is I have an idea and then turn the idea upside down a few times and then come to a decision. That’s what happened with Re-Covered. I love those guys and I love the sound we make.

Photo Credits: (top) Devin Pedde; (middle) Noah Lamberth

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE NEXT BIG THING?

Checking in with three ’80s icons, many years later, we learn that careers rarely follow the expected trajectories—but they still turn out satisfyingly if one has the right attitude. On the BLURT analysis couch: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.

BY DAVE STEINFELD

Since the beginning of time – or at least the 1950’s – popular music has concerned itself with finding the Next Big Thing.  But the vast majority of music industry suits don’t care much about talent, or even about music.  They just care about money.  Who can we sign and market and sell to the greatest possible number of consumers?  This mentality has always existed but over the years, the amount of money that record companies (at least the majors) pour into new acts has grown.  At the same time, the median age of the consumer has decreased.  Kids listen to the radio, have disposable income and short attention spans.  So most record companies – hell, most businesspeople – target them first.

What all this adds up to is an industry that sinks lots of money into a never ending series of Next Big Things – only to chew them up, spit them out and forget them when it decides their moment has passed.  Sure, the ‘heritage’ artist – one who builds and sustains a career over time – still surfaces now and then (see Bruce Springsteen, among others).  But for the most part, it’s about instant gratification.  Sign an artist, promote the hell out of their album (and video), make ungodly amounts of money off them and then – in most cases – drop them when their sales start to decline or when the Next Bigger Thing comes along.

Which raises the question: what happens to the people who were once pop music’s Next Big Thing?  That varies.  But it’s not always what you think.

For this piece, originally written in 2005 (but unpublished until now), I sat down with three artists: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.  Back in the first half of the ‘80s, each did time as the Next Big Thing, cutting a prolific presence on the radio and MTV.  Now, more than 30 years later, all three are still making music but only one has a record deal – and with an independent label at that.  You won’t see any of these three on TV anymore, unless maybe you’re watching VH1 Classic.  Two of these artists – ironically, the two who used to front bands – are now solo acts, while the one former solo artist of the three is now fronting a band.  None of the three can get their new music played on the radio.  And all of them are making some of the best music of their careers.

Finding the Sunshine

Katrina Leskanich is best known as the frontwoman of Katrina & the Waves.  The Anglo-American quartet hit the charts several times during the ‘80s, but their biggest hit remains their first: 1985’s “Walking on Sunshine.”  It still gets airplay and also pops up in films from time to time.  In 2004, it was even the theme song for John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

“[Kerry’s] people were talking to my people – which is me – about when he won,” Katrina told me at the time.  “I was gonna go to the party and do ‘Walking on Sunshine.’  I was delighted to potentially be involved in that.“ She pauses, reflecting on how the 2004 election turned out.  “Damn!”

Surprisingly, Katrina doesn’t see any royalties from “Walking on Sunshine.”  She may have sung it, but it was Kimberley Rew (the Waves’ guitarist) who wrote it.  “He gets a lot of royalties from ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ but I don’t see a penny,” says Katrina.  “ I make my own way in this world and it suits me just fine.

Be that as it may, London – where the Kansas born Katrina has been based for many years – is an expensive city.  While she hasn’t exactly been reduced to waiting tables, she has had to seek out other means of making a living at times.  For three years after the band split up, Katrina couldn’t perform under her own name because the Waves owned the legal rights to it.  During that time, she hosted a show on BBC Radio and also played the legendary songwriter Ellie Greenwich in the West End production of Leader of the Pack.

But Katrina has also released several solo albums over the years. To these ears, the best was Turn the Tide, which came out more than a decade ago now and h was available through her website, www.katrinasweb.com.  Sadly – and somewhat amazingly – she doesn’t have a deal with a label.  “For many years, I [banged] my head against the wall, trying to get a deal,” says Katrina.  “I sent out 250 CD’s… and heard back from precisely no one… So I took the bull by the horns and decided to form my own company, manufacture my own CD and deliver it to the people.  I lick the envelopes… and I’m a lot happier doing it this way because I’m in control.”

(Below: Katrina now)

Frankly, it’s difficult to understand why 250 companies passed on Katrina’s CD.  For one thing, she has name value, particularly in the UK.  But beyond that, Turn the Tide was an excellent album of mostly mid-tempo pop.  Katrina’s voice still sounds great and most of the songs are very good.  My personal favorite is “Hallowed Ground,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on AC or AAA stations.  There is also a nice cover of the Kirsty MacColl classic “They Don’t Know,” which Katrina does as a ballad.

Unfortunately, though, good music and name value don’t mean much in the music business – especially when you’re in your fifties.  Katy Perry’s voice can’t hold a candle to Katrina’s, but she is a lot younger and appeals to a money-spending demographic. (That said, Katrina continues to perform regularly, and is currently on tour as part of the Retrofutura tour that includes the English Beat, Modern English, Men Without Hats, Paul Young, and Howard Jones.)

After “Walking on Sunshine,” Katrina & the Waves dented the charts a few more times, with songs like “Do You Want Crying,” “Sun Street” and “That’s the Way.”  But they never had another smash, at least not in America.  “’Walking on Sunshine’ was a hard act to follow,” Katrina admits.  “The song became bigger than us.  There was a point where people would say, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Katrina, from Katrina & the Waves.’ Question-mark face. Then [I’d say] ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ ‘Oh yeah! I love that song! Wasn’t that Martha & the Muffins?’ You know, they’re asking me!”

 

A Man At Work

Colin Hay (above, center), the former leader of Men At Work, tells a similar story.  The Men had several bona fide smashes, but none was bigger than “Down Under,” their catchy 1983 song about Australia.  But Hay – who not only sung “Down Under,” but cowrote it – once met a woman who refused to believe it was his song.  “I wrote that song – ‘Down Under!’” he insists.  To which the woman replies, “No you didn’t.  You don’t remind me at all of Sting.”  Ouch!

Another of Hay’s favorite anecdotes is about the couple who showed up at one of his solo performances expecting to hear “The Safety Dance.”  That song – by the Canadian combo Men Without Hats – had nothing to do with Hay’s band, but was popular during the same period.  The punchline in the story is that when the couple finds out it’s not a Men At Work song, the woman still asks Hay if he’ll sing it.  Such is the payback for having a hit during the MTV era.

Few people have experienced the highs and lows of the music business to the extent that Colin Hay has.  It’s one thing to have a hit or two early in your career and then fade.  But Men At Work’s debut album, Business as Usual, was anything but.  In America alone, it topped the charts for an astounding 15 weeks, produced two number-one hits (“Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now”) and won Hay and company a Grammy for Best New Artist.  In 1983, Men At Work was arguably the biggest band in the world.

The music business can be a fickle place, though.  Men At Work avoided the sophomore slump with their second album, Cargo.  That album – while not quite as successful as Business as Usual – still sold very well and produced two top 10 hits.  But the band’s third effort, Two Hearts, was a disaster.  It produced no hits. The band had split into various factions and broke up shortly after its release.  By the late ‘80s, Colin Hay was playing solo – to audiences a fraction of the size of those he’d played to a few years earlier.

“I’ll give you kind of a scale of things,” Hay tells me.  “We culminated playing the Us Festival in California, to maybe 150,000 people.  And that was toward the end of 1983… In ’88, I was back in Melbourne playing to 40 [or] 50 people, solo.  People in Melbourne didn’t really care about Men At Work.  So if you wanna stay in the game, you do what you can.”

Unlike some artists who have hit the big time and then fallen, Hay has no problem talking about his past.  During live performances, as in interviews, he is very open about it – even self-deprecating at times.  Hay has even documented his extraordinary career in some of his songs.  One such track is “My Brilliant Feat,” from his 1998 solo effort, Transcendental Highway.  In that song, he writes:

“Is it a game of chance, or merely circumstances?
A jack to a king and back,
Then you have to pay to play.
The world, it won’t wait for you,
It’s got its own things to do.
The sun’s gonna rise and dry another night away…
Once upon a time, I could do no wrong.
Though the candle flickers, the flame is never gone…”

It bears mentioning that Hay’s lyrics have grown considerably deeper since the mid-‘80s.  Men At Work was a good band, but not an especially deep one; they were fun and catchy and made some great singles.  But Hay has truly evolved from being a pop star to being an artist – which, in a way, is an even more brilliant feat than having your debut album top the charts for 15 weeks.

Over the last decade and change, Hay has built his career back from the ground up. He releases albums roughly every other year (the latest is Fierce Mercy), tours frequently, and was fortunate enough to land one of his songs on the soundtrack to the hit movie Garden State back in the day.  “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” is a sparse, somber ballad that originally appeared on Hay’s Peaks and Valleys disc.  This time around, the song became something of a left-field hit and earned him more attention than he’d seen in years.  He is currently signed to the nifty, Nashville-based label Compass Records.

(Below: Colin Hay now)

“Maybe I won’t ever become as successful or as famous as I used to be,” he says in a tone that suggests he has made peace with this.  “But people come and they see [me perform] and it’s like they’re sharing something with you.  It doesn’t require any hype, any radio station pumping it.  It’s just simply you turn up and they turn up – and it works.  And it’s been a real life-saver for me all these years [given] the frustration of how labels operate – or how they don’t operate.  It’s even a compliment to call it an industry.  Because an industry would suggest that people actually know what they’re doing.” Over the years, Hay and I have shared stories about a former record industry suit who both of us worked with (and grew to dislike) separately.

His ambivalence toward labels was echoed by the other artists I spoke with.  One of the first things that Katrina told me was, “Here’s the thing about record labels: they are Kellogg’s and you are Cornflakes.  Warner Brothers, BMG, Capitol-EMI, all the majors – you are Cornflakes.  And when the brand doesn’t sell [anymore], they find another brand.”

 

Still Got the Feeling

The third artist I spoke with, Irene Cara, has also had an ambivalent relationship with record companies, to say the least.  A major force on the singles chart throughout the ‘80s, Cara’s hits included surging movie themes like “Fame” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” as well as the beautifully vulnerable ballad “Out Here on My Own” (also from Fame).  Her albums weren’t as successful as her singles, though, and by the end of the decade she too found herself without a record deal.  In 1993, Cara won a lawsuit against her former label, Nettwerk Records, for 1.5-million dollars in unpaid royalties.

Since then, Cara has emerged as the leader of Hot Caramel, a large, all-female band based in her adopted home state of Florida.  When I last spoke with her (roughly a decade ago now) Hot Caramel was putting the finishing touches on their first album which Cara hoped will be picked up by a label – a bit ironic, given her history. To the best of my knowledge, that album was released independently in 2011.

Of the three artists I spoke with, Cara is the least inclined to discuss (or perform songs from) her past.  Unlike Katrina, who has no qualms about singing “Walking on Sunshine” 30 years after the fact, or Colin Hay, who mixes old material with new at his shows, Cara prefers to focus on her current band and let go of the past.  She is especially adamant about not dwelling on Fame.  Even though that’s what ultimately made her a household name, she is rarely in touch with her former co-stars from the film and is tired of discussing it.  “People have to realize that you work on a project and then everybody goes their own way,” she explains.  “[Fame] was a moment in history that we all got together to be a part of – and that was it.  It’s not an ongoing part of our lives.”

That said, Cara also makes it clear that she is proud of that period of her career – not just musically, but in terms of its effect on the education system.  “I would love to do a tour that goes to all the performing arts schools across the country,” she says.  “’Fame had a lot to do with so many of them springing up – here and around the world.  That’s a great legacy.”

Cara is quick to distance the women in Hot Caramel from the current barrage of female pop-tarts and such.  And for good reason.  While the music business is quicker to spotlight women than it was 30 years ago, many of these women are not so much musicians as entertainers – and in some cases, they border on being strippers.

“[My music] is grown-up shit,” Cara states emphatically.  “We’re not really targeting the teen market – although I think we’ll appeal to the teen market as well… I think there’s room in music for another kind of image of women that hasn’t been readily promoted or readily seen – certainly not in pop-R&B.“  Interestingly, Cara is quick to give props to the Dixie Chicks.  “Country at least has some great songs and some great artists, who aren’t 11,” she says.  “[Artists] who can play and sing and actually write about something.  I would love for us to be the pop-R&B version of the Dixie Chicks.  That would be the highest compliment to us.”  Whether that happens, of course, remains to be seen.

(Below: Irene now)

***

I have to say again that I find it amazing that these three artists do not have major label record deals (although Hay has enjoyed a productive relationship with Compass, a respected mid-level indie). They are essentially being ignored by the same industry that once made stars of them.  It isn’t fair to relegate artists of their caliber to ‘where-are-they-now’ status when they still have a lot to say –and it’s equally unfair to their fans, who wonder what they are up to and who would likely enjoy their new music.  Nor does it bode well for the current crop of pop stars who dominate radio and MTV.  Look at it this way: if an Irene Cara or a Katrina Leskanich – both of whom can actually sing – can’t get a record deal, where do you think today’s Auto-Tuned singers like Katy Perry and Rihanna will be in 20 years?

© 2005/2017 by Dave Steinfeld, all rights reserved / contact: skinnythai@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Checking in with three ’80s icons, many years later, we learn that careers rarely follow the expected trajectories—but they still turn out satisfyingly if one has the right attitude. On the BLURT analysis couch: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.

 

BY DAVE STEINFELD

Since the beginning of time – or at least the 1950’s – popular music has concerned itself with finding the Next Big Thing.  But the vast majority of music industry suits don’t care much about talent, or even about music.  They just care about money.  Who can we sign and market and sell to the greatest possible number of consumers?  This mentality has always existed but over the years, the amount of money that record companies (at least the majors) pour into new acts has grown.  At the same time, the median age of the consumer has decreased.  Kids listen to the radio, have disposable income and short attention spans.  So most record companies – hell, most businesspeople – target them first.

What all this adds up to is an industry that sinks lots of money into a never ending series of Next Big Things – only to chew them up, spit them out and forget them when it decides their moment has passed.  Sure, the ‘heritage’ artist – one who builds and sustains a career over time – still surfaces now and then (see Bruce Springsteen, among others).  But for the most part, it’s about instant gratification.  Sign an artist, promote the hell out of their album (and video), make ungodly amounts of money off them and then – in most cases – drop them when their sales start to decline or when the Next Bigger Thing comes along.

Which raises the question: what happens to the people who were once pop music’s Next Big Thing?  That varies.  But it’s not always what you think.

For this piece, originally written in 2005 (but unpublished until now), I sat down with three artists: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.  Back in the first half of the ‘80s, each did time as the Next Big Thing, cutting a prolific presence on the radio and MTV.  Now, more than 30 years later, all three are still making music but only one has a record deal – and with an independent label at that.  You won’t see any of these three on TV anymore, unless maybe you’re watching VH1 Classic.  Two of these artists – ironically, the two who used to front bands – are now solo acts, while the one former solo artist of the three is now fronting a band.  None of the three can get their new music played on the radio.  And all of them are making some of the best music of their careers.

Finding the Sunshine

 

 

Katrina Leskanich is best known as the frontwoman of Katrina & the Waves.  The Anglo-American quartet hit the charts several times during the ‘80s, but their biggest hit remains their first: 1985’s “Walking on Sunshine.”  It still gets airplay and also pops up in films from time to time.  In 2004, it was even the theme song for John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

“[Kerry’s] people were talking to my people – which is me – about when he won,” Katrina told me at the time.  “I was gonna go to the party and do ‘Walking on Sunshine.’  I was delighted to potentially be involved in that.“ She pauses, reflecting on how the 2004 election turned out.  “Damn!”

Surprisingly, Katrina doesn’t see any royalties from “Walking on Sunshine.”  She may have sung it, but it was Kimberley Rew (the Waves’ guitarist) who wrote it.  “He gets a lot of royalties from ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ but I don’t see a penny,” says Katrina.  “ I make my own way in this world and it suits me just fine.”

Be that as it may, London – where the Kansas born Katrina has been based for many years – is an expensive city.  While she hasn’t exactly been reduced to waiting tables, she has had to seek out other means of making a living at times.  For three years after the band split up, Katrina couldn’t perform under her own name because the Waves owned the legal rights to it.  During that time, she hosted a show on BBC Radio and also played the legendary songwriter Ellie Greenwich in the West End production of Leader of the Pack.

But Katrina has also released several solo albums over the years. To these ears, the best was Turn the Tide, which came out more than a decade ago now and h was available through her website, www.katrinasweb.com.  Sadly – and somewhat amazingly – she doesn’t have a deal with a label.  “For many years, I [banged] my head against the wall, trying to get a deal,” says Katrina.  “I sent out 250 CD’s… and heard back from precisely no one… So I took the bull by the horns and decided to form my own company, manufacture my own CD and deliver it to the people.  I lick the envelopes… and I’m a lot happier doing it this way because I’m in control.”

Frankly, it’s difficult to understand why 250 companies passed on Katrina’s CD.  For one thing, she has name value, particularly in the UK.  But beyond that, Turn the Tide was an excellent album of mostly mid-tempo pop.  Katrina’s voice still sounds great and most of the songs are very good.  My personal favorite is “Hallowed Ground,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on AC or AAA stations.  There is also a nice cover of the Kirsty MacColl classic “They Don’t Know,” which Katrina does as a ballad.

Unfortunately, though, good music and name value don’t mean much in the music business – especially when you’re in your fifties.  Katy Perry’s voice can’t hold a candle to Katrina’s, but she is a lot younger and appeals to a money-spending demographic.

After “Walking on Sunshine,” Katrina & the Waves dented the charts a few more times, with songs like “Do You Want Crying,” “Sun Street” and “That’s the Way.”  But they never had another smash, at least not in America.  “’Walking on Sunshine’ was a hard act to follow,” Katrina admits.  “The song became bigger than us.  There was a point where people would say, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Katrina, from Katrina & the Waves.’ Question-mark face. Then [I’d say] ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ ‘Oh yeah! I love that song! Wasn’t that Martha & the Muffins?’ You know, they’re asking me!”

A Man At Work

 

Colin Hay, the former leader of Men At Work, tells a similar story.  The Men had several bona fide smashes, but none was bigger than “Down Under,” their catchy 1983 song about Australia.  But Hay – who not only sung “Down Under,” but cowrote it – once met a woman who refused to believe it was his song.  “I wrote that song – ‘Down Under!’” he insists.  To which the woman replies, “No you didn’t.  You don’t remind me at all of Sting.”  Ouch!

Another of Hay’s favorite anecdotes is about the couple who showed up at one of his solo performances expecting to hear “The Safety Dance.”  That song – by the Canadian combo Men Without Hats – had nothing to do with Hay’s band, but was popular during the same period.  The punchline in the story is that when the couple finds out it’s not a Men At Work song, the woman still asks Hay if he’ll sing it.  Such is the payback for having a hit during the MTV era.

Few people have experienced the highs and lows of the music business to the extent that Colin Hay has.  It’s one thing to have a hit or two early in your career and then fade.  But Men At Work’s debut album, Business as Usual, was anything but.  In America alone, it topped the charts for an astounding 15 weeks, produced two number-one hits (“Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now”) and won Hay and company a Grammy for Best New Artist.  In 1983, Men At Work was arguably the biggest band in the world.

The music business can be a fickle place, though.  Men At Work avoided the sophomore slump with their second album, Cargo.  That album – while not quite as successful as Business as Usual – still sold very well and produced two top 10 hits.  But the band’s third effort, Two Hearts, was a disaster.  It produced no hits. The band had split into various factions and broke up shortly after its release.  By the late ‘80s, Colin Hay was playing solo – to audiences a fraction of the size of those he’d played to a few years earlier.

“I’ll give you kind of a scale of things,” Hay tells me.  “We culminated playing the Us Festival in California, to maybe 150,000 people.  And that was toward the end of 1983… In ’88, I was back in Melbourne playing to 40 [or] 50 people, solo.  People in Melbourne didn’t really care about Men At Work.  So if you wanna stay in the game, you do what you can.”

Unlike some artists who have hit the big time and then fallen, Hay has no problem talking about his past.  During live performances, as in interviews, he is very open about it – even self-deprecating at times.  Hay has even documented his extraordinary career in some of his songs.  One such track is “My Brilliant Feat,” from his 1998 solo effort, Transcendental Highway.  In that song, he writes:

“Is it a game of chance, or merely circumstances?

A jack to a king and back,
Then you have to pay to play.

The world, it won’t wait for you,

It’s got its own things to do.

The sun’s gonna rise and dry another night away…

Once upon a time, I could do no wrong.

Though the candle flickers, the flame is never gone…”

It bears mentioning that Hay’s lyrics have grown considerably deeper since the mid-‘80s.  Men At Work was a good band, but not an especially deep one; they were fun and catchy and made some great singles.  But Hay has truly evolved from being a pop star to being an artist – which, in a way, is an even more brilliant feat than having your debut album top the charts for 15 weeks.

Over the last decade and change, Hay has built his career back from the ground up. He releases albums roughly every other year (the latest is Fierce Mercy), tours frequently, and was fortunate enough to land one of his songs on the soundtrack to the hit movie Garden State back in the day.  “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” is a sparse, somber ballad that originally appeared on Hay’s Peaks and Valleys disc.  This time around, the song became something of a left-field hit and earned him more attention than he’d seen in years.  He is currently signed to the nifty, Nashville-based label Compass Records.

“Maybe I won’t ever become as successful or as famous as I used to be,” he says in a tone that suggests he has made peace with this.  “But people come and they see [me perform] and it’s like they’re sharing something with you.  It doesn’t require any hype, any radio station pumping it.  It’s just simply you turn up and they turn up – and it works.  And it’s been a real life-saver for me all these years [given] the frustration of how labels operate – or how they don’t operate.  It’s even a compliment to call it an industry.  Because an industry would suggest that people actually know what they’re doing.” Over the years, Hay and I have shared stories about a former record industry suit who both of us worked with (and grew to dislike) separately.

His ambivalence toward labels was echoed by the other artists I spoke with.  One of the first things that Katrina told me was, “Here’s the thing about record labels: they are Kellogg’s and you are Cornflakes.  Warner Brothers, BMG, Capitol-EMI, all the majors – you are Cornflakes.  And when the brand doesn’t sell [anymore], they find another brand.”

 

Still Got the Feeling

 

The third artist I spoke with, Irene Cara, has also had an ambivalent relationship with record companies, to say the least.  A major force on the singles chart throughout the ‘80s, Cara’s hits included surging movie themes like “Fame” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” as well as the beautifully vulnerable ballad “Out Here on My Own” (also from Fame).  Her albums weren’t as successful as her singles, though, and by the end of the decade she too found herself without a record deal.  In 1993, Cara won a lawsuit against her former label, Nettwerk Records, for 1.5-million dollars in unpaid royalties.

Since then, Cara has emerged as the leader of Hot Caramel, a large, all-female band based in her adopted home state of Florida.  When I last spoke with her (roughly a decade ago now) Hot Caramel was putting the finishing touches on their first album which Cara hoped will be picked up by a label – a bit ironic, given her history. To the best of my knowledge, that album was released independently in 2011.

Of the three artists I spoke with, Cara is the least inclined to discuss (or perform songs from) her past.  Unlike Katrina, who has no qualms about singing “Walking on Sunshine” 30 years after the fact, or Colin Hay, who mixes old material with new at his shows, Cara prefers to focus on her current band and let go of the past.  She is especially adamant about not dwelling on Fame.  Even though that’s what ultimately made her a household name, she is rarely in touch with her former co-stars from the film and is tired of discussing it.  “People have to realize that you work on a project and then everybody goes their own way,” she explains.  “[Fame] was a moment in history that we all got together to be a part of – and that was it.  It’s not an ongoing part of our lives.”

That said, Cara also makes it clear that she is proud of that period of her career – not just musically, but in terms of its effect on the education system.  “I would love to do a tour that goes to all the performing arts schools across the country,” she says.  “’Fame had a lot to do with so many of them springing up – here and around the world.  That’s a great legacy.”

Cara is quick to distance the women in Hot Caramel from the current barrage of female pop-tarts and such.  And for good reason.  While the music business is quicker to spotlight women than it was 30 years ago, many of these women are not so much musicians as entertainers – and in some cases, they border on being strippers.

“[My music] is grown-up shit,” Cara states emphatically.  “We’re not really targeting the teen market – although I think we’ll appeal to the teen market as well… I think there’s room in music for another kind of image of women that hasn’t been readily promoted or readily seen – certainly not in pop-R&B.“  Interestingly, Cara is quick to give props to the Dixie Chicks.  “Country at least has some great songs and some great artists, who aren’t 11,” she says.  “[Artists] who can play and sing and actually write about something.  I would love for us to be the pop-R&B version of the Dixie Chicks.  That would be the highest compliment to us.”  Whether that happens, of course, remains to be seen.

***

 

I have to say again that I find it amazing that these three artists do not have major label record deals (although Hay has enjoyed a productive relationship with Compass, a respected mid-level indie). They are essentially being ignored by the same industry that once made stars of them.  It isn’t fair to relegate artists of their caliber to ‘where-are-they-now’ status when they still have a lot to say –and it’s equally unfair to their fans, who wonder what they are up to and who would likely enjoy their new music.  Nor does it bode well for the current crop of pop stars who dominate radio and MTV.  Look at it this way: if an Irene Cara or a Katrina Leskanich – both of whom can actually sing – can’t get a record deal, where do you think today’s Auto-Tuned singers like Katy Perry and Rihanna will be in 20 years?

© 2005/2017 by Dave Steinfeld, all rights reserved / contact: skinnythai@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAW OF… The Suburbs

Key players on the Amerindie underground of the ‘80s keep rolling with a terrific new Kickstarter-powered album. Chan Poling explains.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Minneapolis churned out a slew of staggeringly talented musicians and bands. From Prince and The Replacements to Husker Du and Soul Asylum, it’s a literal who’s-who of great American bands. Fueled on cheap beer and late nights, these Midwest kids were fairly agnostic to genres, allowing the scene to flourish and cross pollinate blending musical styles and tastes from punk and funk to soul and new wave. At ground zero of this musical movement stood The Suburbs.

A band with a knack for mixing classic rock drums with new wave keyboards, R&B horns and raucous guitar, the group’s self-titled EP was the first ever release on the iconic Twin/Tone label. For a decade, from 1977-1987, The Suburbs turned in half a dozen albums on Twin/Tone as well as the majors (Mercury/Polygram and A&M) before finally calling it a day.

They resurfaced to the surprise of many in 2013 with a new record, Si Sauvage, laying the groundwork for Hey Muse!, their latest full length and a clear signal that they are just as brilliant now as they were four decades prior.

Chan Poling, band co-founder, singer and keyboardist, was kind enough to speak with Blurt recently about why the band got back together, the affirmation of crowdfunding and having his song serve as a gay rights anthem.

BLURT: You guys have played together here and there for the past 10 years or so. What was behind the decision in 2013 to finally put out a new record?
CHAN POLING: Well, I’ll outline it for you. We broke up at the end of the ’80s after really working our asses off and getting to a certain stage with two major label deals, but finally it wore us down, as it does a lot of bands. We realized really quickly that we still enjoyed playing, so we started playing back together again around ’93. We kept it more fun; we’d play outdoor festivals and around our hometown and go to New York every once and a while, but we just played four or five shows a year to keep our chops up.

When we lost Bruce (Allen, guitarist, who died in 2009), we decided to do a memorial show and had to find a guy to do Bruce’s part, so we asked Steve Brantseg, who had been a friend from the old Twin/Tone days and he added in his own panache. At that point, our bass player Michael Halliday had developed arthritis so bad he couldn’t play anymore. We lost two players, so I asked Steve Price if he wanted to join. That was a great fit. Over the years, if people want to play, they play with us. But I was thinking how would we every get someone to replace Beej (Blaine John “Beej” Chaney, guitarist, who stepped away from the band in 2014)? He had a really unique style. We found Jeremy Ylvisaker, who played with Andrew Bird. He’s super talented and he came and joined us. He was an old fan of the band so he was thrilled and he’s just monstrous on guitar, so I was thrilled. The band is just fucking killing it.

You guys finally put out a new album four years ago. Was there less pressure putting out Hey Muse! as you had already had the comeback record out of the way?
Yeah, we were very pleasantly surprised to find that the fans were still there and the record was good. We were proud of it and the reaction was the clincher for us. The Kickstarter was the highest grossing Kickstarter in Minnesota. I write songs all the time and I finally realized that my Suburbs song folder was viable again. When I’m writing, for theater or movies or for the Suburbs, I usually know exactly who it’s meant for. “Hey Muse!” popped into my head when I was sleeping and I woke up and found a little electric keyboard and write down the lead line and verse chords in my pajamas. In fact, I’ve already got two songs for the new record.

You mention Kickstarter. Things have clearly changed a lot in the music world since The Suburbs were last signed to a label. What have you seen as some of the bigger changes since you last put out music with the band?
In the olden days, the model was that the labels had capital to invest in developing their artists. If we got a $300,000 advance from Polygram it wasn’t like they were giving us $300,000. We had to pay that back. The idea of controlling your own operating capital is always intriguing to me. Some bands thrive in that world (with labels). We thrived in that world for a few years and we were making alternative, very personal rock music. We don’t make music that competes with Katie Perry or Taylor Swift. We make music for our own esoteric survival and you need to find ways of funding that like any other business.

When we realized people actually wanted to be part of these crowd funding things, it was a relief. There’s a stigma that you’re asking for money because the labels don’t think you’re viable enough to give you money. The fact of the matter is, we’re making a product. It costs nearly $100 grand to make a good rock record with the studio time and the musicians and the manufacturing. Vinyl is expensive. It’s a large outlay of cash. When I found out we could control our own destiny by offering our record for sell before it’s made, let’s do it. It’s more empowering, it’s about community and it’s a closer tie to the fans.

Is there a case of schadenfreude seeing what the labels are going through now or were you guys always treated well by the record labels?
Now that you mention it, maybe it is a little bit of schadenfreude. But then again, I don’t wish ill will on anyone. It’s always the underdog against the big guy and I’m always for the underdog.

There’s a new book that just came out about the Minneapolis music scene on the ‘70s and ‘80s called Complicated Fun. The Suburbs and a bunch of other bands are covered in it. At the time, did you realize something unique was happening in the city music-wise? [Go HERE to read our review of the book. – Lit. Ed.]
I had no idea, we were just doing our thing. It was awesome for sure. I haven’t read the book, but I definitely lived it.

The song “Love is the Law” is a favorite among many fans of the band. It was also adopted by the Gay Marriage movement in Minneapolis. As a local guy, what was that feeling like that your song was tied to such a historic movement?
I was super proud of that and it was really personal for me because my son is gay and was discussing getting married to his partner of many years. We were wondering where that wedding was going to take place and when we found out that it was able to be done here and that they were using our song to celebrate that, it was really personal to me. I am very proud. The fact that that song can have two different lives is very cool.

You guys have some tour dates online for Minneapolis and a few other places in the Midwest. Any thoughts about touring in other parts of the country?
Oh, yeah. We definitely want to it’s just a matter of inching our way out there and to see what we can afford. The problem with The Suburbs is that we are a completely irresponsible, unwieldy commercial venture; we’ve got three horn players, a back-up singer, five guys, the crew. We just never grew up.

2015 Photo Credit: Jay Smiley / 2017 Live Photo Credit: Brian Grenz / Below, check out a live video of the band performing at this year’s Record Store Day

BLURT’S INDELIBLES (THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT.9): The Windbreakers’ Terminal (1985, Homestead Records)


In which we talk to Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff about their classic ’85 album, recently reissued with bonus material.

BY FRED MILLS

Terminal, by Jackson, Mississippi, power pop legends the Windbreakers, originally released in 1985 by the Homestead label, has been in yours truly’s personal Top 25 ever since it first appeared—we’re talking an LP rubbing shoulders on my shelf with everything from Who’s Next, Let It Bleed, Funhouse, and Daydream Nation to Shake Some Action, Stands for deciBels, Sincerely, and Places That Are Gone. As produced by Mitch Easter at his Winston-Salem Drive-In Studio (six songs) and Randy Everett in the band’s native Mississippi (four songs), Terminal is a timeless slice of Southern-spawned tuneage that sports all the expected power pop influences yet still sounds utterly fresh and unique unto itself.

Yet with one semi-flukey exception which you’ll read about shortly, Terminal has never seen a proper reissue for the CD and digital eras, leaving me and fellow fans to wonder whether or not it will ultimately be consigned to those perennial “whatever happened to…” essays. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear to be on any digital streaming services, although luckily the superb 2003 Windbreakers career overview Time Machine is on both Spotify and Apple Music, and six of the compilation’s 20 tunes were culled from it.

Windbreakers cofounders Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, of course, are not exactly unknown quantities, as both have remained fairly prolific in their post-WBs solo careers—check the Trouser Press entry detailing their work together and separately, as well as this 2015 BLURT interview with Lee about his band at the time, The Tim Lee 3—and although Sutliff’s near-fatal car accident in 2012 served to temporarily put his musical career on hold for awhile, he continues to write and even finds time to collaborate with Montana-based psych=pop monsters Donovan’s Brain. Still, the general public’s obliviousness as regards Terminal seems all the more criminal in 2017 if you actually drop the needle on the platter and allow its pleasures to pour forth anew.

There’s the opening trifecta of “Off & On” (jangly intro, a harpsichord motif, and yearning Sutliff vocals), “Changeless” (a tough, hard-twanging Lee-penned surf/powerpop gem right up there with Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No” and the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep”), and “That Stupid Idea” (more gossamer jangles from Sutliff, whose soaring upper register here is the stuff of the angels). From that point the record simply doesn’t let loose of its grip on the listener, from Lee’s deceptively dark jangler “All That Stuff,” to a remarkable cover of Television’s “Glory” featuring the Rain Parade as the duo’s backing band, to sinewy, sitar-laced rocker (and Sutliff-Lee joint composition) “Running Out of Time,” which closes the record.

It’s a goddam classic album, period—feel free to rewind to paragraph #2, above—with not a single throwaway tune. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful bummer of a power pop album the ‘80s produced, with virtually every song a meditation on the vagaries and vicissitudes of love and all the emotional trauma that phrase implies. Utter the words “windbreakers” and “terminal” to someone at a record store or a concert, and if their face lights up and a knowing smile breaks, you’ve got the equivalent of a sonic secret handshake. We Eighties-college-and-indie-rock fans have more than a few records like that, of course, but the thing is, back then the idea wasn’t to keep our favorite bands secret—we felt it was our mission to proselytize for ‘em.

(Below: front and back sleeves of the original LP, plus the new CD package.)

Enter Italian label Mark, which a few months ago reissued Terminal as a sharp-sounding remaster boasting five bonus tracks, four of them from a 1986 live performance. Also included is a bonus booklet adorned with reviews that originally appeared in the wake of Terminal’s release, and some of those critical observations bear quoting here:

“A brilliant jewel of aural splendor from the goldmine left by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Big Star.” —Option

“Think of them as a genteel Replacements with 12-string guitar, or an R.E.M with clear melodies and lyrics.” —Los Angeles Herald Examiner

“Originals that [evoke] everybody from Dylan to the Byrds, with references to the Beatles, acid-rock and the Left Banke. Sort of a brawnier approach to the Let’s Active sound, and more rural, too.” —Jet Lag

Is this the pop record of 1985, or what??” —Jim Testa, Jersey Beat

Well, yes—yes, Jim, it was. Matter of fact, it still is. In a moment, let’s take a trip back in time and revisit it, courtesy the two men who created it.

***

Regular BLURT readers will recall our ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series in which yours truly has profiled the likes of Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter HoursGreen On Red, Thomas Anderson, and The Sidewinders. Sometimes these are fresh essays and interviews; other times they are features culled from the archives and updated as needed. I got the idea from a regular column titled “Indelibles” that I authored for BLURT precursor Harp magazine from roughly 2005 to the spring of 2008, when it closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and in fact several installments of my “College Rock Chronicles” have been retooled, expanded versions of stories originally published in Harp.

“Indelibles” itself was inspired by those great Mojo features in which a key, critically-significant album from the past was put under the microscope and viewed through a contemporary lens; the records we selected for each of my columns were, typically, just being reissued as expanded remasters, and the idea was to get the artist to discuss the making of the original album, reflect on its trajectory, and frame it within the larger context of what it meant to his or her career. If the artist was actually involved with the reissue, so much the better, and we would also delve into what went into that project, how bonus material was decided upon, etc. As a music fan first and a critic second, I have to say that it was pretty great to be able to geek out over some of my all-time favorite records by the likes of the Dream Syndicate, the dB’s, Let’s Active, the Clash, Wire, Pylon, the Slits, the Gun Club, Dinosaur Jr, etc.—not to mention being able to geek out in front of some of the people who actually created those records, but not as the slobbering fanboy I actually was, and instead under the assumed guise of (cough) a professional journalist and reporter. The truth is finally out.

So with this Windbreakers story, I’m formally re-booting “Indelibles.” Bobby, who lives with his wife Wendy in Columbus, Ohio, and Tim, based with his wife and bandmate Susan in Knoxville, Tennessee, were kind enough to weather my inquisition, and to them I just want to say—salute, gentlemen.

 

Set the stage for Terminal: With the first two EPs (1982’s 7” Meet the Windbreakers and 1983’s 12” Any Monkey With a Typewriter) under your belts, what was your collective state of mind as a band, and what was the music scene in your neck of the woods like circa 1984?
TIM LEE: Actually, shortly after Any Monkey… came out, we kinda ceased being a band for a while. I started another band, Beat Temptation, that lasted a year or so. During that time, though, the EP was getting some attention, and Sam Berger at Homestead asked if we’d be interested in doing a record for them.

Bobby and I had been hanging out during that time, so it was no big deal to start playing songs for each other and get back into it.

BOBBY SUTLIFF: The 1984 local music scene was an interesting hodge-podge. There were quite a few bands doing their own thing. We were all friends for the most part. Tim and I would together, or separately, sit it with them quite often. Tim’s other band, Beat Temptation, was very good and released a fine EP and a full-length LP.

How did you land the deal with Homestead?
TIM: Like I said, Sam Berger was the guy who asked us to make a record, but he left and was replaced by Gerard Cosloy by the time Terminal came out. It was very early in the life of that label, so it kinda felt like they were just getting their feet wet.

You decided to return to the well for the album with Mitch Easter; what had you liked about him and his studio? What did he bring to the table that made you and other artists gravitate to the studio?
TIM: We made the first Windbreakers EP in a gospel studio in Madison, Miss., and it was not a particularly wonderful experience. But we’d read about Mitch in New York Rocker, and we were fans of the songs he did on that Shake to Date compilation (1981 UK album issued by Shake/Albion to document New York Rocker’s Alan Betrock’s indie label as well as Chris Stamey’s Car label), and we knew about the Sneakers and H-Bombs and the dB’s. So we just called directory assistance and got his number.

We talked [to Mitch] a few times and then we made a trip to Winston-Salem and tracked two songs, mixing and everything, in about 20 hours or something like that. The first session with Mitch was so revealing for me, in that I was like, “Okay, this is why they say making records is fun!” He was so creative and so supportive of our goofy ideas, willing to go down any road to come up with something cool.

BOBBY: We were very aware of the dB’s, and by 1980/81 knew about Mitch. It’s actually quite a long way from Mississippi to North Carolina, but the trip was so very much worth it. After about 20 minutes with him in his garage studio—the Drive-In of course!—we knew we had found our mentor/kindred spirit. I remember one musical moment to this day. I pulled out my guitar and played the intro to Big Star’s “Way Out West.” Mitch walked into the room and said, “Oh, you know them?” We were friends for life.

What are some of your most prominent memories from the Drive-In sessions for Terminal? Hanging with Mitch (pictured left, with Tim) Faye Hunter, and Don Dixon? (The latter two guested on bass on selected tracks.)
TIM: Other than going out to eat, we were pretty much nose to the grindstone, but my favorite memory of being at the Drive-In was the sense of possibility. Electric sitar? Let’s do it. Dixon’s coming by today. Cool, let’s get him to play bass. That kind of thing.

BOBBY: Tim mentions going to eat in passing, but I must confess Mitch teaching us about the two different kinds of North Carolina Barbecue was very important! Faye remains one of the finest people I ever met and I miss her so much. (She passed away in 2013) It’s strange, I’ve lived in Ohio for 20 years now and so has Dixon. And oh yeah, early on we drafted Richard Barone into playing some amazing guitar for us.

Favorite songs cut at the Drive-In? Happy accidents? Failures best left on the cutting room floor?
BOBBY: My favorite Windbreakers tune recorded at the Drive-In was “Changeless.” Holy cow, that’s an amazing song—and should have been a massive hit. There are really no failures left behind. Mostly because we were on such a budget we had to use everything!

Tell us a little about working with Randy Everett for the other session back home—I recall spotting his name on more than just your records back in the day, so I’m guessing that he was a valuable guy to that region’s music scene.
TIM: Randy Everett is a guy that we’d just known around town. He was known as a jazz guitarist, but he was just trying his hand at studio engineering at the time. Rick Garner (Terminal co-engineer on the Mississippi session) was a businessman with an interest in music who bought some studio gear and set it up temporarily in his suburban home. That’s where we did the other tracks. As I recall, Bobby traded him a guitar for the studio time.

Randy very much became an important fixture on the recording scene in the South. A lot of folks worked with him, and I worked with him a lot on various sessions. A great friend; I actually saw him just a couple weeks ago. He’s still recording, and he’s also doing some very cool paintings.

BOBBY: Randy Everett is one of those guys other guitar players just hate! He is better than you are ever going to be. And in his own wonderful way he is just as good as anyone else behind the board. And, oh yeah, the guitar I traded him for studio time was a sunburst 1964 Fender Jazzmaster.

You cover Television’s “Glory” with the Rain Parade backing you up on the album; how did that connection happen?
TIM: We knew their record (1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip), we dug it. I was booking shows at this tiny dive bar, and we were able to line them up for one. They stayed with me and (wife) Susan and hung out an extra day. We all just became fast friends. They had a day off coming up the following week, so we made a plan to record that Television song.
I remember all of us sitting at a sandwich shop before the session, mapping out the arrangement on the back of a brown paper bag.

BOBBY: Our entire connection with the Rain Parade was totally Tim and Susan. And wow—was I delighted about that since I was such a huge fan. Later on, I became friends with that other Paisley Pop genius band, True West, and was glad to bring them into our group of friends.

Anything else that was cut for Terminal that you ultimately decided against for whatever reasons?
BOBBY: Quick answer—no. Simply because we had to use everything!

Sonically, what do you think you were going for on Terminal?
TIM: To my mind, we just wanted to make a cool record. That was all. Perhaps Bobby remembers more about that.

BOBBY: Interesting question. I remember that (A) we didn’t want to sound overly dated like perhaps my beloved Flamin’ Groovies did from time to time; and (B) we didn’t want to sound like a “modern” ‘80s band would sound.

I’m struck how almost every single song is about a break-up, or a looming break-up, or looking back at the post-breakup wreckage, running into the girl who broke up with you, etc. Was this by design, or were both of you simultaneously in the throes of heartbreak when you happened to be writing material for the album?
LEE: I was already married, so I’d probably turned my attention to the heartbreak of everyday life, as opposed to any specific romantic strife. (I didn’t mean that to sound as stupid as it did.) (No worries, Tim.—Parenthetical Ed.)

BOBBY: Um, yeah, I kept rewriting the same song over and over. It was of course all about the same person.

What was your reaction when the reviews started rolling in? It was fun to read the ones you selected for the new booklet. I don’t think a lot of young fans can truly appreciate what the fanzine network back then was all about, and how it was “our internet,” along with the occasional breakthrough via a mention in Rolling Stone or Spin. I’ve written in the past about how there was this very special “us against the mainstream” feeling prior to the grunge explosion that has resulted in a bonafide community of friends who still commune on Facebook, etc.
TIM: It’s always gratifying to get good reviews, and most of ours were pretty positive. You’re right, the fanzine network was pretty great. They were physical things, not just something out in cyberspace. It was a very cool scene during the early days of the independent thing.

BOBBY: It’s of course the only reason we ever made a record—to get a good review! I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve got to say this—I met quite a few fellow musicians in those days who are still very close friends. That is so wonderful.

Tell us a little about getting out on the road to promote Terminal, and in particular the 12/26/86 show you culled the reissue’s live bonus tracks from.
TIM: At the time, Bobby wasn’t able to tour, so I put together a band in Atlanta and did an East Coast/Midwest tour. It was a lotta fun. Bobby knows more about that live recording than I do… he’s the very handy archivist of the group.

BOBBY: By the time of the 12/26/86 show, I had been out of the band for quite a while and was well into recording my first solo album – 1987’s Only Ghosts Remain. That show was a Christmastime one-off thing. I don’t think we actually did another Windbreakers show together for a couple of years

Speaking of bonus tracks, any other rarities or oddities out there? You included “Lonely Beach,” from the 1985 Disciples of Agriculture French compilation, here. What was the story on it?
BOBBY: It’s my faux surf instrumental, which was recorded in quite a lo-fi way on my Fostex X-15 4 track cassette deck. I did redo it years later in somewhat higher fidelity on my solo disc On A Ladder, but I’m sure the original is better. I went through everything I could find recently and there remain two unreleased studio tracks from 1982 or so. That’s about it.

How did this reissue come about with the Mark label? (Note: Mark is a subsidiary of Italy’s metal-tilting Minotauro Records and to date has also reissued the Original Sins’ 1989 album The Hardest Way.)
TIM: The short answer is, the Mark label asked about it, and nobody had prior to that. [Previously] the entirety of Terminal was tacked onto the end of the CD of 1989’s At Home with Bobby & Tim because CDs were new and we didn’t feel we could ask people to pay $16 for one record. So we gave them a second one free. The mastering on the current reissue is much, much better.

Update us on any current activities—and what’s the possibility for future Windbreakers projects?
TIM: I stay busy with mine and Susan’s band Bark, plus I end up playing with a wide range of other folks here in Knoxville. Most of the time, I’m busier musically than when I was young.

BOBBY: I’ve been working on perhaps a solo disc for the last year or so—about half way there, I reckon.

TIM: We got together 10 or 12 years ago and recorded a couple of songs. They turned out pretty well, and we had a good time doing it. Around that time, we also recorded a song for a Buffalo Springfield tribute record. I guess we just never had the impetus to keep at it. (Note: Five Way Street: A Tribute To Buffalo Springfield came out on Not Lame in 2006. Details and a stream of the Windbreakers doing “Expecting to Fly” is here at Discogs.)
After Bobby was in that awful accident a few years back, we made a tentative plan to get together with Mitch and record some songs, but that ended up not happening.

BOBBY: I’d be happy to turn over what I’ve got for a new Windbreakers disc. But I totally understand how unimportant that is in the world’s big picture.

***

Ah, Mr. Sutliff, some of us out here in Windbreakersville might opt to differ regarding that last point. Let the cajoling and convincing begin, fellow punters…

 

SURVIVAL OF THE SWEETEST: Matthew Sweet

With a long-awaited new album, the power pop auteur is back in his groove.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Granted, Matthew Sweet didn’t invent power pop. That distinction is best left to earlier auteurs like the Raspberries, the Shoes, Cheap Trick and others that followed the Beatles and Badfinger to carve out a genre all its own. Still, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone who’s done more to advance the cause than Matthew Sweet. Indeed, Sweet’s series of essential early albums — Inside, Earth, Girlfriend, Altered Beast, 100% Fun and Blue Sky on Mars, chief among them — helped assure the power pop trajectory would remain prosperous and plentiful well into the new millennium.

Beginning a decade or so ago, Sweet further affirmed his affinity for all things pop by initiating a series of releases with Bangle Susanna Hoffs which the duo aptly dubbed Under the Covers. There have been three volumes so far (not counting a fourth included on a box set that banded the first three). To date, they’ve covered some of the most indelible songs in the pop canon decade by decade, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, giving listeners a sample of the pair’s earliest influences and a nostalgic trip down memory lane as well.

Still, it’s been six years since Sweet’s offered up an album of all original material, which made the wait for his new effort, Tomorrow Forever cause for great anticipation. All of its songs boast the same ready refrains and instantly engaging melodies that marked earlier Sweet’s earlier triumphs and with all-star array of special guests — Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, added Bangle Debbi Peterson, the Zombies’ Rod Argent and members of the Velvet Crush and the Orange Peels as well, ample attention is well deserved. A move back to his home state of Nebraska and his mother’s passing might have impeded its progress, but clearly Tomorrow Forever can be considered yet another Sweet success.

Blurt recently spoke with Sweet who offered us the opportunity to catch up us on his recent activities…

BLURT: Please give us an idea of how the new album came about.

SWEET: Before I moved from Los Angeles, I had talked about doing some sort of Kickstarter campaign. I always wanted to try it. So once I got back here, after eight or nine months or so, I actually started the campaign while I was out doing shows. It was a lot of fun to try to whip up the excitement about it. The only hitch was that very shortly afterwards, my mother passed away and instead of jumping right into making the record, several months passed before I felt like I could approach it.

Once you did get back into it, how did the writing progress?

Originally the plan was that I would do tons of demos and then pull from those demos to make the full album. I started so late that I felt like it was going to take even longer to approach it that way, so instead I started recording everything I wrote during that time. And one of the ways that I made sure to get a lot of different things was to make multiple batches of recordings. There was an initial batch of like 15 songs, and then after that, I did two more sets, making a total of 38 tracks I recorded for the record. So we had to get it down to 17 songs from 38. a demos download that was sold with the album as part of the Kickstarter campaign and that became a whole satellite album to the main album. I called Tomorrow’s Daughter. It’s kind of a throwback to the bonus release we did to accompany Altered Beast. So that’s another twelve songs that didn’t make the album, but were things that we all kind of liked. I had a group of friends around me and we listened a lot to all the music. We all had to make our favorites list. What made it easy was that everyone more or less picked the same 15 songs. But nobody really wanted to stop there. Everybody wanted to have a list that went up to 20 or 23, and so there were these extra songs that were close to making the cut, and that made it a relief for me to make the Daughter record because I felt those songs could see the light of day. I imagine that we’ll package those properly at some point, but right now the Kickstarter people will be the first to hear them.

Will they come out simultaneously with the release of the album?

Yes. It’s coming soon. I just had a request from the office to send the files so I know we’re getting close to make those downloads available. It’s been a little bit tricky. The record was received really well from my publishing company and they got very excited and got other people involved. So I made a deal where I have my own label called Honeycomb Hideout which comes out through Sony Red distribution. As a result, we wanted to closely align the Kickstarter campaign with the actual release of the record so there wasn’t a big gap where all the Kickstarter people had it and it could float around and get copied before it was available.

What prompted your move from L.A. back to Nebraska?

When the real estate market came back, we had it in our minds that we wanted to cash in on this nest egg that we had built over twenty years because it had tripled in value. So we wanted to move somewhere. We looked all around but it was my wife who suggested we look around in Nebraska.

But with all due respect, isn’t Omaha a bit out of the way in terms of the hotspots of musical activity?

I felt like I could go anywhere. It didn’t really matter. So we happened upon this house in Omaha that caught our fancy. It’s an interesting place that was built in 1937. The front of it looks almost like a Disney kind of take on a French chateau house. The back of it and the interior are more like a craftsman/art deco kind of era, and so it’s just really different and unique. Some of the rooms are built in a kind of honeycomb shape and so that’s where we came up with the name of the label, Honeycomb Hideout. There’s also a room here that was perfect for me to use as a studio room. I’ve always thought to have serious recording studios in my houses but I really always had a set up in a room that was not meant to be a studio necessarily. However there was a space in this house that made sense. It has this wood panelling. It’s almost like an old ship and so I decided to call it Black Squirrel Submarine.

It’s funny to hear you refer to all these island and nautical themes being that you’re in the middle of the country and pretty much landlocked as a result.

(Laughs) It’s a little bit strange. This room that I use is kind of in the bowels of the house, so it’s got that vibe. It came from that. When we first moved in we saw some black squirrels running around. They aren’t super common, but you see them every now and then. So Black Squirrel Submarine became this kind of name that just ended up sticking. It’s funny. There are a lot of businesses around here called Black Squirrel. They’ll be Black Squirrel Industries or Black Squirrel Tattoo Parlour. So there are other industries, but I don’t think there’s another Black Squirrel Recording.

How long had you been gone before you came back?

A really long time. I left when I got out of high school, and then I went to Athens Georgia where I went to school briefly. I mostly skipped school and started doing independent recording and did my first stuff down there. When I got my first record deal, which was sort of a development deal with Columbia Records in New York, they moved me up to New York City and I was introduced to Jules Shear. I wrote some songs with him and spent several months just writing. They gave me money to buy gear and get an apartment up there. So I lived in New York most of the time after I got out of high school which was 1983 until 1993, which is when we moved to Los Angeles. I lived back here a couple of very brief periods in the late ‘80s, but for the most part, I was on the East Coast. I then went right into recording Altered Beast in Los Angeles and kind of got turned on to L.A. by Richard Dashed, the Fleetwood Mac producer who was working on Altered Beast with me. He took me around L.A. and showed me all the cool places. I was pretty into it, and my soon-to-be wife came out when I was finishing up that record in 1993. I was excited about living there, the label, Zoo Entertainment, was based there, and so it all kind of made sense. They were really kind of like a family. I wasn’t with a big label, but Zoo Entertainment was distributed through BMG Entertainment. So we moved there from Princeton where I was living at the time. I like Princeton. We had a great house because I could play drums and make noise all day since it wasn’t near all the other houses. I kind of feel like I’ve lived all over the place.

I interviewed Conor Oberst not too long ago and I was noting the fact that he lives in Nebraska, and with all due respect, it’s not exactly a hub of the music business. What was it like to be back after having lived in the places that were close to the entertainment industry? And we ask that question without trying to put it down.

I understand that. For one thing, Conor and the whole Saddle Creek guy had created a whole music scene here where by the time I moved here, it was known somewhat as a hotbed of music. You were seeing a lot of bands coming out of here.

The new album has some wonderful special guests. Were these all people you had worked with before?

Yes, but not everybody. John Moremen, who played guitar, is from San Francisco. I met him on a tour where his band, the Orange Peels, were opening for us. I heard him play lead and I told him I’d love to have him play lead on one of my records some time. Jason Victor was recommended by my then guitar player, Dennis Taylor, who had been touring with me, but had to take a break due to some personal issues. Dennis saw Jason playing with Dream Syndicate and got it in his head that Jason would be a good fit for playing with me. Jason will be on the road with us this summer. It was very funny and cryptic. I would send him a track and tell him to play whatever he wanted and he would send it back and I loved it.  Val McCallum, who played slide guitar and some other novelty sounds on the record, I had known on and off from Los Angeles, but we had never really worked together. Greg Leisz, who’s a good friend of mine, was playing with Jackson Browne and they were in Sioux City Iowa, which is about 100 miles north of Omaha. So we drove up there and kind of cornered them and asked them to do some stuff on my record. In the end, Greg was too busy. He was out on the road the whole time, but Val was able to cover for both of them. He came through and brought some special stuff to the record. So we got to know each other from working together over the internet.

Out of curiosity, has there ever been any talk about reconvening your great supergroup of sorts, the Thorns? That was a great combination — you, Shawn Mullins and Pete Yorn.

There hasn’t been a lot of talk about doing it, but I do think it would be fun to do. That record happened when the business was still together enough to allow us to sell 175,000 records. It would just be incredible now. It wasn’t quite enough to be a big hit for the record company. We toured for a couple of years and opened some shows for the Dixie Chicks and worked very hard on it, but financially we weren’t really provided for. We wanted to share the advance so we could produce the record ourselves, but the label didn’t agree to do it and then the label option ran out. We still wanted to do a record and we were free, but we also wanted to do our solo stuff. It really came together very quickly without us planning to have a group exactly. I think we did something special and I think we could do that again now, but it would take someone coming along and saying, “Hey guys, make a Thorns record” and we’d need the financial backing to make it happen.

So how would you sum up your progress and your trajectory up until this point?

To some extent, I’m a person who never looks back. Still, I feel really lucky to be able to hang in here and still put out my music.

READY TO STRIKE: Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes

Above: Dean Richardson (left) and Frank Carter (right) performing with the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage

BY JEFF CLEGG

Frank Carter is a tenacious force. It’s been almost 6 years since the hardcore-punk veteran left his former band Gallows, but while you’ve been sleeping, he’s been relentlessly pushing his music into a new direction. Back in January, his current project Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes released their second full-length album titled Modern Ruin that welds together the intensity of Gallows with the vision he had for his previous project called Pure Love. The album is filled with heavy rock anthems that pack a punch, and is a more polished effort compared to the band’s grittier debut Blossom.

In Frank’s words, the album is “all about human relationships. How we interact with our loved ones, with our friends, with enemies, with strangers. And it’s about how you can feel nothing to someone and then through a moment you can suddenly be intertwined with that person for the rest of your life, which is someone that happens to us all of the time as musicians. We might play a gig for someone who had a bad day, and that music can mean more to them than we can ever understand.” However, as the title of the album suggests, a lot of the topics are less optimistic. Much of the album focuses on the problems that modern society is facing, including the relationships between social media and its effects on our mental health. “We’re all avatars now. We have a digital persona and we have reality. It’s terrifying to me, I don’t really know. It’s really weird because technology is obviously doing great things. My daughter is fully fluent in iPad. She’s amazing on it and she’s only two and a half. It’s incredible to see how advanced she is with it until you get to social media.” Dean Richardson, the Rattlesnakes co-founder and guitarist, added, “[Social media] just teaches you to pretend, to mold yourself into things that you’re not.”

Frank Carter met Dean around the time that Gallows ended and Pure Love was being formed. “We actually met when I wanted Dean to make me a website. Dean’s an incredible designer and coder so I asked him to help me out with it years ago, and then we just got talking about music,” he starts. “When my first band Gallows kind of ended, I started this new project called Pure Love and that was around the first time Dean and I talked about doing something together.” Dean even mentions that he and Frank were already sending out demos around the same time. “And [Pure Love] didn’t really work out. A couple of years pass, and then Pure Love ended. And that’s when I was like ‘Okay. I’m here. You’re here. Let’s do this.’ That was it really,” Frank added.

The Rattlesnakes found Frank Carter returning to his hardcore roots, but while keeping some of the more accesible pop sensibilities of Pure Love. Frank wanted to have “some sort of violence and aggression” behind the Rattlesnakes’ sound. The band almost instantly began writing songs, possibly at a faster pace than they had ever experienced. “[Dean] sent me two songs and they were perfect. I immediately began writing lyrics on that day. We had around 2 or 3 songs on the first day we began to write, which is pretty rare.” Dean added, “That’s when I knew that I was excited about the opportunity, but wasn’t really over-thinking it. And after how quickly the first two songs came together, I began to secretely get a bit more excited about how much we could write together. I still never expected it to get to where it is now so quickly. It’s crazy.”

Below: Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage

The band is also gaining attention for their live performances as well, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’re familiar with Frank Carter’s history. Last month the band had to open Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival with a noon set in sweltering weather, which usually isn’t the time slot you’d prefer if you want an energetic and engaged crowd. Yet, despite the conditions, Frank persuaded almost 95 percent of the crowd to start a circle pit. “I’ve played Warped Tour a couple of times so I’m pretty well-versed in 11am rock shows in the heat,” Frank explained. “I also was asleep like 15 minutes before our set. I thought we were on at 3 or 4 o’clock. No one ever mentioned to me the time. It’s in my calendar so I should have just looked, but instead I just went back to bed. Next thing I know Dean is like ‘hey, uhh, it’s 30 minutes until change over,’ and I just laughed at him and said ‘good one.’ Then he said ‘no, really, get off the couch.’”

So, really, get off your couch and check out Modern Ruin. They’re unfortunately finished with their North American tour dates this year, but if you’re in Europe, be sure the check out the band on their extensive European tour lasting until the end of the year.