Category Archives: Artist Interview

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Allen Clapp’s “Something Strange Happens”

The 1994 tune from Clapp’s debut continues to inspire.

 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.” Now Prof. Hinely lands in 1994 and a slice of pure pop perfection, Allen Clapp’s “Something Strange Happens.

It had to be sometime in the early ‘90s that I first heard the music of Allen Clapp. A fresh-faced gent who called the Bay Area home. He began releasing 7”s on several different labels (in our country mostly on Brian Kirk’s Bus Stop label). I booked him at a local café in Santa Rosa, California and it was a pleasure to find out that not only did I love his music, but in person he turned out to be a great guy (I can’t imagine anyone saying a bad thing about him). This particular song came out on his 1994 debut LP (under the name Allen Clapp and his Orchestra…these days he still leads his longtime combo The Orange Peels) called One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain. The song just….hit me! That clap-happy drum beat that opens the song, a purring organ and then Clapp and his boyish vocals and jangly guitar pop in and all added up to a near-perfect pop song. I was curious about the origins of the song so I shot some questions to Mr. Clapp and……

Allen began with, “Just incidentally to this request, the Orange Peels are embarking on the recording of album No. 7 in a few weeks, working again this time with Bryan Hanna, the Minneapolis studio wizard who produced our first album, Square. It’s kind of appropos, because this year is the 20th Anniversary of Square. So, at any rate, the guy who recorded The Orange Peels making our version of Something Strange Happens is flying out to our mountain studio in Boulder Creek to record us again 20 years later. Surreal. And good timing on your part for asking about that particular song!”

What was the initial inspiration for the song?

It’s a song about all sorts of things — everything that’s important to me, realy. But to be more specific, it’s about the quicksilver moment you realize some big life-truth — that lightning bolt from the clear blue sky that you can’t explain, but that changes you in some significant way. You might be realizing for the first time that you’re in love, or that someone or something is more important to you than you previously thought. The moment of realizing something like that. Or it might be a realization of how you fit into the universe. For me, it was all those things. It’s a song from my younger self to my wife Jill, it’s a song to God, it’s a song to the universe, and the seasons. It’s about realizing how dependent I am on them, and how my dependence on them frees me to be who I’m supposed to be.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

No! This is one of those songs that arrived fully formed in the blink of an eye. It’s the kind of thing you always hope will happen to you as a songwriter, and it did not disappoint. It happened while finishing some routine shopping at the market. I loaded the bags into my car (a 1967 Ford Falcon, at the time), opened the door, put the keys into the ignition and boom, it just flooded over me. The melody for the chorus just started playing in my head and I sat there with my hand on the key for what seemed like an hour. I’ve replayed this over and over in my mind a thousand times, and I’m still just amazed by it. So after hearing the song play in my head — the swirling organ in the intro all the way through the hymn-like ending — I finally turned the key, started the car, and drove home where I immediately fired up the Tascam four-track and began making a demo.

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

I think the song has its fans. It appeared on a few indie-pop compilations over the years, and it’s maybe the only one of my songs that’s ever been covered by another artist — Jim Ruiz and Shoestrings recorded a lovely, haunting version of it as a bonus track to Jim’s second album, Sniff. Every once in a while, someone will come up to me and say something about that song, or ask me something about it. So it is a special song to a few people out there.

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

It’s always something we talk about playing. I think I felt obligated to play it for years, and finally the last tour we did in 2015, we just left it off the set list. That felt kind of weird, but liberating too. After playing it for basically 20 years, it was nice to take a break from it. Will it come back on our next tour? Maybe. Probably.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

Well, since I recorded it twice, you’d think the answer would be “no.” The first version, on “One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain,” is everything I wanted it to be. Even on four cassette tracks, it captured that mysterious thing I was after. When we signed to Minty Fresh and they wanted us to re-record it for “Square,” we didn’t really change anything in the arrangement — we just made a different recording of it in a great studio with a great producer. I guess I wish we would have done something a little different the second time around on it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what that would have been at the time. Drop out all the guitars on verse 3? We’ve done that live, and it’s kind of intimate, but who the heck knows. We’ve done a live version with a drum machine for the first verse and chorus with the band slowly entering as the song builds. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a third recording of it someday, or maybe someone else will.

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

The original version was recorded in the spare bedroom of our duplex in Redwood City, and it was a challenge to fit all those ideas onto 4 tracks. I had tried to record the drums in the Youth Room at our church, and it just didn’t feel right. So I took samples from the drum take I had on tape and edited them down so I had a snare, a kick drum, two tom toms and a hi-hat. Then I laid them out on the keyboard and just played the drums back using different keys as triggers. So I used that take to build everything on. For the longest time, I just had the drums, the bass, and the rhythm guitar on 3 tracks, and I knew that bouncing all those together was either going to make or break everything else I added. So that was nerve wracking. I took like a week, just listening every day, trying different levels and EQs. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, I tried just pushing all the faders way up and distorting the channel. I took a stab at the bounce, and that was the sound. Drums, bass and rhythm guitar all distorted a bit and combined onto one track — that’s the sound of that song. Once I had that, I could add the vocals, hammond organ, guitar melodies and finishing touches. I still can’t believe it came out as good as it did. It was the last thing I wrote and recorded for “One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain,” and it really made that song collection feel like an album.

How do you feel about it now?

Grateful. Surprised. Hmmmm . . . proud and humble. It’s a once in a lifetime thing having a song like that just show up. I still feel surprised by it mostly because I didn’t labor over it. I didn’t spend weeks writing it, even days. It just appeared. I feel like it was a gift that showed up and changed my life.

ETERNAL YOUTH: Robyn Hitchcock

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“The music industry pays people to remain frozen children”: The Bard of Prawns on growing old, innate Englishness, living in Nashville, overt eccentricity, the Beatles, Sinatra, and avoiding Bob Dylan’s broadsides.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY

Most fans would agree that Robyn Hitchcock is an eccentric. Indeed, his random musings about life and general happenstance make both his music and his persona as charming as they are challenging. A wordsmith like no other, his wry observations find him both amusing and thoughtful all at the same time, the result of an unrestrained wit expressed on both stage and in song.

That inventive stance made him a perfect performer for Big Ears, the Knoxville Tennessee festival that courts artists who are decidedly out of the ordinary. Consequently, during his two Friday performances, Hitchcock easily lived up to those expectations, fascinating fans and followers with songs from various intervals in his nearly 40 year career. Oddball favorites like “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “Raymond Chandler Evening,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” and “I Want to Destroy You,” a song first sung with his seminal band the Soft Boys back in the day, surfaced during his sets, neither of which found any replication. Less familiar were the songs from his upcoming self-titled set, but the fact that his afternoon performance opened with three covers — Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and a relatively obscure song by the late Syd Barrett, the madcap founder of Pink Floyd — clearly suggested he was returning to his roots.

“Time seems to slow down as we get older, because we’ve been through so much of it already,” he remarked at one point, clearly referencing the older individuals in attendance, he himself included. We could go one step beyond; time seems to stand still when Mr. Hitchcock is at the helm.

BLURT spoke with the affable Mr. Hitchcock over lunch, and though he was obviously famished, he was quite willing to chat, even at the expense of his salad and seafood chowder, especially when the subject turned to other English icons and Bob Dylan, an idol of his own. In person and away from the stage, he’s as clever and quick-witted as ever, and over the course of the next hour he freely shared his observations about life, longevity and his love of music.

Robyn Hitchcock’s new album, Robyn Hitchcock, is out this week via Yep Roc. Go HERE to view his American tour dates—and for a cheap thrill, go HERE to see photos of him a few years ago at BLURT’s SXSW day party at which he received a surprise birthday cake from the BLURT gang.

BLURT: You did a song by the late Syd Barrett today. It’s easy to see how he was an influence on you.

He wasn’t around very long so it’s hard to know what he was or what he would have what he would have been.  We don’t know if he was being ironic or not or simply funny. It’s difficult to know when he said things if they were in quotation marks or not. It’s interesting how we Brits come across. I am very British in a way, more like Nick Lowe than John Lennon, who considered himself more American when he died. Or look at someone like Ray Davies who was our version of Chuck Berry. He was mournful without being dreary. Like Chuck Berry, he was very good with words. Like Lou Reed. Very journalistic and yet quite specific. Bowie, on the other hand, would get quite abstract. Bowie didn’t do microcosms much. He got very widescreen.

 

The Beatles and the Stones transcended all that.

The Beatles and the Stones were quite American. They were British blokes with an American repertoire. Their music was mostly by black artists. It was soul music before they even called it soul. The Beatles were very specific, they had these nice little vignettes like with “Strawberry Fields.” But the Stones were already kind of talking American by the time they got over here. They were recording here in ’64. It always surprised me that the Stones were from south London because they sounded so American, but then again, their whole schtick came from Chicago blues. But it was a weird thing how so many British bands at that time played American music. There was almost nothing British at that time except some of the music hall things that the Kinks and the Beatles did, like “When I’m 64.”  But even that was like ragtime. It’s certainly not British folk. There’s no real elements of British music. There was sort of this trans-Atlantic echo. I never really considered myself British or American. I considered myself part of that genre, with the Beatles and Syd Barrett and the like. And I loved Bob Dylan. I don’t break it down into countries. That may be my persona onstage but I don’t know whether the songs themselves have a nationality to them. Obviously they’re not from the Ukraine.

They’re from you. That overrules everything.

Yes, they’re from me.

It’s your persona above everything else.

I guess whatever my persona is in an act. I’m a trans-Atlantic act. I have been since the beginning. The Beatles never sang in an English accent. Maybe Bowie did. And Syd.

Ray Davies did as well.

But it wasn’t a cockney voice like Bowie. (Affects a Cockney voice for “Well Respected Man”)

And Peter Noone as well.

Peter Noone! He had a big effect over here, didn’t he?

He actually sang in an English accent.

The only thing I remember of him was “I’m Into Something Good.”

He did songs like “East West, “No Milk Today.”

That’s really interesting. I guess I need to listen to him again. But in Britain they were never cool. They never got beyond the teenybopper thing. They never wrote their own stuff. They were kind of like Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.  I guess it’s the same people that would go see Davy Jones. A friend of mine went to see the Monkees and he could count the number of times he was in tears. Mind you, I was the same way when went to see Ringo. If he played “Yellow Submarine,” I’d just be weeping. My God, it’s Ringo Starr singing “Yellow Submarine” and I’m 150 feet away, seeing him at the Ryman. He’s looking fantastic and sounding great. Then the other guys come on and sing their hits from the ‘80s. I first saw them when Levon Helm was with him.

I saw them at various times with John Entwistle and Jack Bruce.

Really! He picked the ones that were going to exit. He should have called his band The Rehabs, but Ringo stuck with it and they didn’t.

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You did an album of Dylan songs, didn’t you? It was kind of an unofficial release?

Yeah, most of what I do is unintentional. It’s not towards an end. I actually had those lying around. And then we did a whole live show where we replicated the Judas gig. Which again was recorded from a mike on the desk. It wasn’t even a desk tape but it sounded even better than a deck tape. I should probably have mixed the two together. I have so many songs lying about. I do so many live shows where I do Dylan songs.

Have you ever met Dylan?

Oh God no! I wouldn’t want to. Too many people want a piece of Dylan. He has to be the most scrutinized person in the world. I know people who have met him and he generally sort of plays with them but he can and because people have kind of treated him like the crown jewels since 1964. He’s said as much in interviews. I don’t have unconditional love for what he’s done, apart from his momentum years when he had momentum. I would totally avoid him.

What if you were told that he wanted to meet you? Would you be up for it?

If he wants to meet me it’s different, but he may want to meet me just to fuck around with me. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t really trust people, and on some level I like that. But I know people who have worked with him and hardly even saw him. So I don’t think I need to meet him and he doesn’t need to meet me. I know that me and many other people will miss him when he goes and I take comfort in the fact that he’s still there. And I like his approach to time. He accepts it. He’s a reverse Paul McCartney. He shows his scars and leaves the knocks and the chips on him. He hasn’t had any facial work which he could easily afford. He likes to be like an old tree or an old chair. He likes to show all the marks of time, and the paint never dries on his songs. If he does play an old song, it’s unrecognizable. I don’t like that, I’d rather watch McCartney do a crispy version of “Penny Lane” than to see Dylan sing some mangled thing that turns out to be “Visions of Johanna.” I can do a better version of that than he can. He’s moved on and I respect the fact that he’s not beholden to his past. Unfortunately, Paul McCartney and me still have to come up with our old songs in a respective way. I saw Ray Davies a few years ago and he sang “Waterloo Sunset” like he’d never sung it before and it was great.  He didn’t try to change notes or alter the style. Donovan’s like that as well.

They’ve really become a brand.

Yes, and that’s why they’ll stay forever young. Keith can be this old fossilized mummy and Dylan, well he was always this old man. He had a voice like an old man early on. Dylan never had the demeanor of a kid, even in the idolized image of his younger self. He’s so scrutinized. There’s never any expression on his face. He’s like a kind of old, withered gargoyle. His expression has long since been obliterated by the winds of time. It’s a rare position. It’s not like there’s anyone to be that, or it’s a position that occurred before. He talks about Sinatra, and I suppose Sinatra was one of the few people he felt competitive with and had respect for. If Frank speaks to me, I will speak back. There are only a few people Dylan respects or is in awe of. Which is one reason why I wouldn’t want to meet him…Oh God, I can’t remember where I was. My mind’s gone. What were we talking about?

We were talking about how Dylan looked up to Sinatra.

Sinatra and Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley are icons and gods who time can erase or replace. Dylan is an oracle and still is. Sinatra and McCartney might make some pithy points about life, but you’re not going to go up to them thinking they might give you the great psychic fortune cookie that will make you say, “Thank you great master. I am now reprogrammed. Only Dylan did that. He has the curse of being the one that unleashes this stuff. For that reason alone, you really have to stand clear, because he made the error on the personal level of giving all this stuff away, and no people expect him to enlighten me, oh master. I’s a weird gift, and not like anything other celebrities have. Maybe like some professors or poets.

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You now reside in Nashville? What brought you there?

Emma (Swift, his girlfriend). Em was living in Nashville. People go there for a record deal or to make contacts. I went there for a relationship. She’s from Sydney. Then she went back to Sydney and I commuted from Sydney to the Isle of Wight for a year. Then our address was a couple of suitcases for about six months and then we moved back to Nashville.

How do you like it?

I think I do much better here than I do in England, and it’s much easier for me to be based in Nashville. All I have to do is get on a plane or drive. I don’t have to block off lots of time to do things in the States. It’s two hours from anywhere east of the Rockies.

Where were you living before?

I was living in London for ages. I’d go live in the Isle of Wight between relationships. It had become a place for gnarly dudes who liked surfing and stuff, but it all began with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. They had a royal residence down there, but I don’t think she went in the sea much. Alfred Tennyson, who was like the Bruce Springsteen of his era, had a house there in the west, where I tended to hang out. Charles Darwin came and stayed there. Em and I actually lived in Charles Darwin’s house for six months. It still had the same plumbing and the same heating. Then there were the big festivals in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, which I went to as a kid. Bob Dylan played there after he was sort of snubbed at Woodstock.

Did you see him there?

I did, and what was especially memorable, was that I saw Jimi Hendrix’s last show. I also saw one of the last Doors gigs. Jim Morrison was very polite. He didn’t reek of imminent doom or anything. They just kind of did a medley of their greatest hits. Hendrix was more alive. He was in a creative arc. I remember seeing a statue of Hendrix at the end of our lane. It made him look very bedraggled.

It must have been very inspiring to live in a place that had such a rich poetic history.

I wrote loads of songs when I lived there. I went there as a kid and I went there for the festivals. My father lived on the island before World War II, so he’d take us there as kids in the ‘60s. So I went to those festivals and then I went back in the ‘80s, and I had a house there on the west end until about ’93. And then I went to Washington D.C. and then London.

What brought you to Washington D.C.?

Cynthia, my partner at the time. She lived there, although we met in San Francisco. So I lived there. But we didn’t last. So then I was back in London, and then on the island and now I’m in Nashville.

Do you miss London?

No. When I moved to Nashville I found it was quicker to get to London from there then it was from the Isle of Wight. Are you okay? I was in a place like that and the same thing happened. It might be my magnetic field. So just blame me. Once I got to Nashville, I spent more time in London. It’s easier to get over there from here. Certainly a lot easily from Sydney, although I like Sydney. London is expensive and damn cold. All the shit that’s happened here has happened there as well.

People also have a certain image of you, certain expectations no doubt. You have this very articulate and witty persona.

It’s sweet of you and I won’t belittle what I do, but it’s only a sort of cult that really knows who I am. I deal with lots of people who expect stuff. When I was on MTV 25 or 30 years ago, I’d go through airports and anybody who was between 25 and 30 years ago would come up to me and say, “Aren’t you Robyn Hitchcock?” They’d want to know the meaning of life, oh master. It slows you down. People are aware of who you are…

Much like now we would guess…

Oh no. Far less. If I’m in a town like this full of people of a certain age, yeah, the people will probably wave and say hello. But they’re not 19 where they’re going to swoon all over your balcony. They’ll nod at you and go back to grazing and doing what they do. It’s really good not to be followed too much.

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Can you imagine yourself at 80?

Well, simply don’t die, that’s all. I’m in a precarious situation. If something goes wrong, I have to be shipped back to Britain to be dismantled. Unless it’s clean kill. I’d rather be cremated here because it’s a lot less expensive.

It’s more about retaining your wit and your persona and moving about in circles with people half your age.

As long as I’m able to function. They might have to freeze your head and remove your whole body. Or be like Stephen Hawking. Jesus. The Me Generation only has five years to go — Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, David Crosby — they’ll all be 80.

They’re in the 70s now, so who would have thought that?

They are have a few quid so I’m sure they’re better off medically than I am. You do what you do and people will enable you to do it. You can always come wheezing in and putting on a show until you start to malfunction. We have all those people who are a dozen years older than me and none of them have packed up. Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe… in a few years they’ll be classics. The surviving Beatles, Dylan, David Crosby… they’re already 75. What I hate is when they start saying 70 years young. I don’t mind saying I’m 64 years old.

Perhaps 80 is the new 60.

The thing is, people of that generation was the first generation not to have to grow up. They were a generation of selfish hippies. It used to be, when I get to 30, I’m going to cut my hair, put on a tie, provide for my family and stop taking drugs. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be come laughing stocks and all that, but the whole schtick of the baby boomers is that you won’t grow up. It’s great that McCartney is still Beatle Paul. And Dylan is still the wise the wise old man. You don’t want the sad old guy with missing hair, and I’m just me. I think the key point here  is that nobody told us we had to grow up> I’m sure there are loads of people back home who say, “Oh God. Poor old Robyn. He never grew up and went off to America. There are people like that who were born after 1940, but there are people who were born in the ‘90s who are now just sort of responsible. The whole point of our generation was that we never grew up.

Eternal youth then.

No, I never grew up. I’m in a business that doesn’t encourage me to grow up. It pays people to remain frozen children. So while Dylan shows time, McCartney defies it. He’s had all the work, he’s had the hair done, you watch him from 200 yards away and he still looks like Beatle Paul. Jagger still moves like Jagger. I saw a video and I thought, this guy moves like Jim Morrison, and it was Jagger. He was aping all his movements. But his dad was a physical education instruction. And with people like Dylan and Keith (Richards), you’re bound to get attention even though they’re gnarly old people with terrible teeth and knotty hair.

Below: Hitchcock with the author.

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THE INDELIBLE SOUND OF… Wire

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“We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread”: Four decades on, a Wire gig—not to mention a new album—continues to be “an event. To mark the recent release of Silver/Lead and the band’s DRILL Los Angeles festival, we cast our minds back to the British band’s boisterous beginnings via an archival interview with vocalist Colin Newman, originally conducted in 2006. (Scroll down for list of upcoming DRILL shows in Europe.)

BY FRED MILLS

Late last month, Wire—original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey (aka Gotobed), plus guitarist-since-2010 Matt Simms—released their latest studio album, Silver/Lead via, as is their custom, via their own Pink Flag label. Yours truly, in a (cough) succinct review, observed thusly:

Silver/Lead, with its immersive sonic immediacy and lack of abrasiveness, plus rich, colorful melodic schema, has a near-irresistible appeal, Right from the get-go, the grand power chords, monolith-like drums, and belching synth lines of “Playing Harp for the Fishes” signal a cinematic ride ahead. Vocalist Colin Newman, figuratively perched at the lip of the stage, fairly leans into your face to dramatically intone words that feel more like commands than lyrics. Later on, with “Sleep on the Wing,” a brace of chiming, echoing guitars and undulating keyboards conjures a purposefully dreamy, kosmiche ambiance. Even the album’s quote-unquote “pop single,” a three-minute, hooky romp titled “Short Elevated Period,” has an almost Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound vibe.

It almost as if Wire set out to make a concept album without actually calling it a concept album, so consistent is the sound throughout, and with subtly recurring melodic themes—compare, for example, the similarity between the main chord progression of “Playing Harp…” and the closing title track. However, given how inscrutable most of the lyrics (penned largely by bassist Graham Lewis) are, some almost haiku-ish or like a series of non sequiturs, it might be hard to make that concept claim stick. The musicians themselves might be aghast at such a label anyway. (Or maybe not. Stay tuned, or scroll downward.)

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Still, the four gentlemen are nothing if not bloody minded. Unlike most of their peers from the class of ’77, they never quite knew when to stop, having indulged numerous hiatuses that weren’t true hiatuses (they would play on each other’s side projects), created a musical collective (Pinkflag.com eventually becoming the official URL) that operates more like a club house than a project, and announced the proverbial “new direction” numerous times while still maintaining a detectable through-line across 14 studio albums and more than a few live releases. Four decades on, with studio album number 15, Wire continues to thwart expectations and defy pigeonholing,

I count myself among the Wire faithful who were with the band practically from the start, having scored a copy of their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, which against all odds had been released in the States on the EMI imprint Harvest. That their U.S. label was one normally associated with British prog and avant-folk artists was an irony lost upon no one—but then, even at the outset, Wire’s art-punk seemed more aligned with the Krautrockers and experimentalists of the day than the safety-pinned brigades, a notion that was seemingly confirmed on ’78 sophomore platter Chairs Missing, and even more so on 1979’s 154. Those three albums continue to inspire fans, and it’s likely a new fanbase was created in 2006 when Pink Flag reissued them in America, additionally releasing the 5-CD box set Wire: 1977 – 1979 containing three original albums plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 and Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978.

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It was on the occasion of that box that I found myself on the horn to London one afternoon, talking to Colin Newman for Harp magazine (for whom I was managing editor and also author of the publication’s “Indelibles” column, which discussed key and classic albums). What follows here is an extended draft of the Wire installment of that column; after that, if you have some extra time to waste, you can read the entire, unfiltered, previously unpublished interview. What was originally going to be about a 20 minute conversation with Newman soon stretched to the better portion of an hour, and he was genuinely one of the most outgoing and gracious musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing.

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Incidentally, Wire just marked the 40th anniversary of the abovementioned Roxy performance, which as it turns out was the band’s official live coming-out party. (There had been a prior performance at a college under a different name than Wire.)  Elsewhere on the BLURT site you can view a photo gallery from DRILL Los Angeles by longtime contributor Susan Moll. We’ve faithfully covered the band in our nearly nine years of existence, and if you have even more time to waste, just enter the term “wire” into the search box on the right-hand side of this page and dive right in. Happy birthday, lads.

APRIL 1, 1977, LONDON: Wire is onstage at the Roxy club, nearing the end of a 17-song set – which, in a flourish of Ramones-like economy, will clock in at barely 25 minutes. Caustic sexual diatribe “12XU” is followed by the fuck-you society rant “Mr. Suit.” Then, with barely a pause between tunes, the band catapults into a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over.” Shorn of its feel-good vibe and delivered at breakneck speed, the ‘60s pop chestnut is reinvented as a punk anthem steeped in irony.

Clearly, this band Wire will be greeted as an upstart conquering hero here at this grotty punk venue (the Roxy was previously a gay club located in London’s Covent Garden section), which has chosen April 1 and 2 to showcase the cream of up-and-coming British combos for a two-day “Punk Festival.” Wire’s in good company, too, sharing a bill with the likes of X-Ray Spex, Slaughter and the Dogs, the Adverts and the Buzzcocks.

“Glad All Over” throttles to its conclusion, and then – dead silence. Nothing. Stunned disbelief on the part of the Roxy audience, outright indifference, or….?

Wire 70s

“There wasn’t anybody there!”

Wire vocalist Colin Newman chortles heartily. Three decades after his band’s official debut as a quartet, his memory, in 2006, of Wire’s early days remains fresh. All the more remarkable, given his band’s fractious career that’s seen more than its share of breakups, reunions, extended hiatuses, and concurrent solo careers.

Part of Newman’s good mood is due to his having recently completed long-after-the-fact postproduction work on live tapes of the Roxy shows – originally recorded by EMI, two Wire songs would be included on 1977 punk compilation The Roxy London WC2 (Jan – Apr 77) and he’s now high-spiritedly framing the scene.

“On the first night we were the opening band – the opening band on a five-band bill in a club holding 100 people,” explains Newman. “That’s pretty lowly! So it has to be pointed out that the reason it’s so quiet between songs is because no one was there [yet] that night. In fact, because the Wire tracks on that live Roxy album were so quiet, a lot of people thought they’d actually been recorded in a studio! On the second night they’d moved us up on the bill because they thought we were quite good, but we still weren’t that high. I think we were still behind X-Ray Spex, who were newer than we were.

“You wouldn’t have imagined anything was happening at this point. It all just sort of happened, really. Less than six months later we were recording Pink Flag.”

pink flag

Ah. Pink Flag. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a modern musical milieu without the DNA strands of Wire and its debut LP winnowing around in the mix – on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the years American heavy hitters as sonically diverse as R.E.M., Mission of Burma, and the Minutemen have enthusiastically cited Wire’s influence, while the current crop of UK neo-postpunkers  — Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Githead et al — could do worse than to simply sign over a portion of their royalties to Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, drummer Robert Gotobed (nee Grey), and bassist Graham Lewis. (Ditto that: In 1995 Britpop upstarts Elastica literally nicked the angular, loping intro to Pink Flag’s “Three Girl Rhumba” and, upon grafting it into their own “Connection,” took the Wire influence directly to the bank; the matter was subsequently settled out of court.)

The road to Pink Flag was paved with, not so much fortuity or luck, as sober-headed deliberation. The group initially began life at Watford art school in 1976 as Overload; lasting one gig, Overload then gradually morphed into Wire after fellow students Newman, Gilbert and guitarist and principal songwriter George Gill recruited Newman and Gotobed, although Gill’s tenure came to an end after only six gigs when the other four determined that pointed, streamlined tunes with an eye towards maximum initial impact trumped Gill’s more traditionally-minded material steeped in solos and extended choruses.

One fortuitous stroke did occur when producer Mike Thorne, who’d overseen the Roxy club recordings for EMI, took a liking to Wire. At Thorne’s urging, EMI offered a contract, and by the fall the band was hard at work in London’s venerable Advision Studios, crafting Pink Flag with Thorne at the helm. EMI no doubt thought it was getting a one-two-three-FOWAHH! punk band for its cash, although in hindsight, signing Wire to its progressive imprint Harvest and not EMI proper has to go down as one of rock’s great Freudian slips.

“Wire were not a punk band,” Newman vehemently maintains. “Any attitudes that would be coming from [punk], we would be of the opposite direction. Secondly, you have people who were really, really serious about the music. To have a record with your name on it, that’s a serious thing and you’re not gonna blow this chance. You’re gonna do it really properly.”

Newman adds that while at this stage the musicianship in Wire wasn’t quite up to, say, Yes or Genesis standards, a lot of thought and strategy went into the making of Pink Flag. “There were a bunch of people with points to prove, including Mike Thorne,” he says. For his part, Thorne proposed that Wire could draw from both the heavy metal and pop fields in order to make a record that was simultaneously accessible and true to its creators’ art school-fueled leanings. The massive wall of guitars – a pair of two-chord sequences overdubbed eight times — that greets listeners’ ears on opening track “Reuters,” for example, reflected the metal aesthetic (Newman recalls band members exclaiming, “Yeah, we like that!” at the playback). Elsewhere, while the album is dotted by numerous cuts that speed abrasively past in under a minute, more tuneful material such as “Ex-Lion Tamer” (a joyful, lyrically absurd romp) and the title track (a kind of upside-down take on Chuck Berry, and one of several overtly political numbers on the album) clearly speak to Wire’s and Thorne’s hunch that the band could be, as Newman puts it, “pop and avant garde at the same time.”

(Newman hastens to point out that, seriousness of intent aside, a lot of humor could be found in Wire: “It was extremely deadpan and all done with a very straight face, so a lot of people didn’t understand that there was humor in it. But listen to the Roxy thing – absolutely hilarious! You understand something about Wire that you can’t necessarily understand listening to Pink Flag. I mean, same band, in the same way, in the same style, doing ‘Glad All Over’?!?”)

Journalist Simon Reynolds, in his insightful 2005 post-punk post-mortem Rip It Up And Start Again, cites Pink Flag’s key attributes: “21 bursts of abstract fury in just 35 minutes,” “enigmatic lyrics and non-linear dream logic” and “songs as exquisitely etched as a finely honed haiku.” Similar plaudits greeted Pink Flag in the UK upon its release in late ’77, and Wire soon found itself doing photo sessions for all the British weeklies. A tour supporting the Tubes further exposed Wire to the masses, and Newman recalls the sense of momentum that began kicking in.

“We did a series of Saturdays at a pub called the Red Cow in Hammersmith. It held 200. We started off the first Saturday with it half full. The second Saturday was three-fourths full, and on the third it was completely full. That fourth Saturday there were as many outsiders who couldn’t get in as there were on the inside. I remember my friends would be like, ‘Wow – this is really happening, man.’ Everyone who was in a band would come and see us and tell us how much they loved us – Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire. A Wire gig was definitely an event.”

Wire’s reception over here was a bit different. Thanks to Pink Flag being released by EMI in America, the band enjoyed a leg up, distribution-wise, that many of its contemporaries weren’t privy to. The record did find its way into stores. Yours truly, however, working in 1977-78 for a record store chain’s distribution center, distinctly recalls spotting several cartons of Pink Flag promos earmarked for the warehouse’s dumpster. Upon rescuing a handful of LPs (I still own a sealed copy) I opened one and played it over the in-house stereo; the looks of horror and outright hostility that warehouse workers immediately directed at me suggested that elsewhere in the American heartland, at that very same moment, similar reactions to Wire might be taking place. As Newman drily puts it upon hearing my anecdote, “We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread.”

Wire didn’t do itself any favors by only coming to the U.S. once during the seventies, and high profile though a five-night residency at CBGB (in July of ’78) may have been in theory, in practice it rendered the band non-starters on these shores. EMI didn’t even bother to release its second album in America. So for the most part it would be up to college radio and the loose network of punk fanzines to get the word out on Wire; both Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus trashed the album, in Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, respectively, so Pink Flag would have to settle for having a delayed, halo effect upon American youth. It would take the hardcore movement of the ‘80s – the SST Records camp, the DC and Boston scenes – to fully appreciate Wire’s minimalist, rejection-of-rock-dogma, approach.

Meanwhile, Wire went about its business at home, touring extensively in Britain and Europe and recording two more groundbreaking albums with producer Thorne, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154. Each represented a huge step forward for the band: Chairs Missing, compared to its predecessor, was lush with keyboards, borderline psychedelic and contained the near-hit single “Outdoor Miner”; 154, densely textured and cloaked in atmosphere, prefigured in places the ambient techno scene of the ‘90s.

Comparing the recording of each album, Newman recalls the debut as being “quite fraught. It wasn’t necessarily grueling but there was a lot of frayed tempers when we were recording the backing tracks. If Robert didn’t keep a steady speed Graham would stop playing and then they’d have a fight and the sticks would go flying across the room. Chairs Missing was fun, and because we could play better we found it easier to put the backing tracks down and there was also more overdubbing. That’s an exciting thing to be able to do, when you first start to get the whole feel of overdubbing, adding parts that were not done in the original and taking a track somewhere. That was obviously a key to how then things developed in the following album.”

Yet by the time of 154 Wire had effectively divided into two camps, the defiantly avant-garde Lewis and Gilbert and the Newman-Gotobed contingent, who Newman says was “still interested in retaining a really broad canvas for the band.” Thorne was stuck in the middle, attempting to extract singles-oriented material from the band in order to appease the powers that be at EMI.

Everything came to a head during the making of 154, says Newman, partly as a result of EMI’s demands, partly due to the band’s collective bloody-mindedness, and to a large degree the byproduct of diverging agendas among the members themselves. “Personal relations in Wire have always been very, very difficult. We’ve never been friends and it’s never been an easy kind of thing. Chairs Missing had been joyful and sunny and the joy of a band discovering they could really play and then just taking that and pushing it further in the studio. Whereas working on 154, it had some very horrible moments, ambition pushing it in different directions.”

Not long after the release of 154 Wire embarked upon an ill-fated tour with Roxy Music that found the group, much to EMI’s displeasure, quitting the tour after only a few shows. Tension between band and label was further fueled when Wire did a series of performance art-heavy concerts in November ’79 that barely featured any of the new 154 material. The following February Wire announced it had left EMI, citing a “breakdown of communication” (e.g., EMI wouldn’t fund some of the group’s ideas for promoting Wire – among those ideas, filming videos).

Wire played a concert on February 29 at London’s Electric Ballroom. Again heavy on multimedia content and performance art, the show was recorded for posterity and eventually released by Rough Trade in 1981 as the Document and Eyewitness album. By that point, however, Wire had been absent for over a year. It would be four more years before anyone would hear from the band.

*****

wire middle

“I look back now and I think… pfffttt, we were pretty damn arrogant, you know?” remarks Colin Newman, of Wire’s burning desire to keep moving forward artistically at the expense of its own commercial fortunes. “We just didn’t give a stuff about what anybody thought. We just felt it was obvious we had to do something else. You’ve got to remember, we were in the first serious, postmodern critical era in terms of what rock music was about. We could say, ‘But what happened to Pink Floyd? Why did they become rubbish?’ Well, they got rubbish because they just did more of the same, but weaker, adding water to their formulas.”

The members of Wire, always determined not to get painted into a Floydian corner, remained musically active during the first half of the ‘80s, Newman issuing string of solo records, Gilbert and Lewis teaming up in various guises (Dome, Duet Emmo He Said, Cupol, Lewis/Gilbert), and Gotobed doing session work. 1985 saw the four men resume operations as Wire for another five years, and then again in 2000, the latter reunion yielded 2003’s stunning Send and a lengthy tour (documented on the CD/DVD package The Scottish Play: 2004). In the fall of 2005, however, Bruce Gilbert gave his notice that he was leaving Wire for good.

“This last version if Wire, the version that did Send, was supposed to be the version that was built to last,” muses Newman. There’s a long pause, followed by an equally long exhalation. “It didn’t happen. That was a great album and that whole thing should have gone some place. Actually, the timing of these re-releases, it was supposed to be Send, and then the re-releases, and then a new Wire album, all like a virtual circle. But it just hasn’t happened.”

Newman diplomatically declines to go into specifics, simply saying, “It’s an incredibly sad story. There were moments when maybe something could’ve been done, but I don’t really know. But anyway, I don’t want to talk it down. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”

Indeed he is. In addition to spearheading the Pink Flag America reissues of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 and penning each disc’s liner notes, Newman has overseen a 5-CD box set, Wire: 1977 – 1979. It includes the three original albums housed in mini-LP sleeves plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 goes all the way back to the beginning, with both Wire sets from the Punk Festival, while Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978 documents one night of Wire’s 1978 CBGB residency. The limited-edition box is available exclusively at Wire’s website, www.PostEverything.com).

“I probably care more than I should,” says Newman, acknowledging his role as de facto curator of the Wire archives. (2004 also saw the release of Wire on the BOX: 1979, a live DVD/CD package.) “Some people in Wire may be nervous about going too far, and it’s the infuriating thing about Wire which makes the internal relationships very difficult. But I just think that Wire deserves, in this late stage in its life, to receive adulation. The amount of love that Wire gets for what it’s achieved, and what it’s achieved in more than one incarnation, well…

“We’re not going to turn into some kind of squidgy, sentimental thing and all of a sudden do ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ or something like that, you know what I mean?”

***

The complete Colin Newman interview is here on the BLURT site.

Wire: The Colin Newman Interview

Wire.1987

The Wire/Colin Newman Interview: This conversation was conducted 5/5/06 via transatlantic phone call to England.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: In 2006 when Wire’s label Pink Flag reissued the first three Wire albums in America, additionally releasing the 5-CD box set Wire: 1977 – 1979 containing three original albums plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 and Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978, I had the pleasure of talking to Colin Newman for Harp magazine (for whom I was managing editor and also author of the publication’s “Indelibles” column, which discussed key and classic albums). On the previous page you can read a new version of that feature along with comments on the new album Silver/Lead and the band’s recent DRILL Los Angeles festival marking the band’s 40th anniversary. Below, read the entire, unfiltered, previously unpublished interview with Newman.

FRED MILLS: You seem to do the lion’s share of interview duties…

COLIN NEWMAN: Wire is a difficult beast, and the internal relationships are not great. I tend to do that simply because some people would see an interview in a completely different light, whereas I take the view that it’s the connection between the art and the public, and it’s quite an important thing to be able to explain something, to understand, to make connections. It’s not just pure commerce, you know? There’s a role for explaining art, although some people are less interested in that. You know? [laughs]

For me it’s all about communication, and I think that’s something I discovered. When I was younger I didn’t really “get” interviews; I didn’t get the point of all that. I mean, I knew it was important to be on the cover of the NME, but I didn’t really know how you got there or anything about that. So over the years I found I have more and more in common with the journalists I was talking to because I was interested in some of the things they were interested in. I mean, I’m a fan of music! I like to analyze how things fit together – what has led to what, and just what’s noticed and what’s unnoticed, and to take a journalistic attitude towards the medium. Certainly journalists find that attractive because I can kind of talk the same language, so to speak. And Wire is certainly not a we’re-all-down-the-bar kind of band, you know? There are different attitudes towards how you do that thing.

I’ll give you a brief anecdote to illustrate how my awareness of Wire evolved. Back when Pink Flag came out I was working in a record chain’s distribution warehouse, and since this is 1977-78, there were a lot of, shall we say, old-school employees with more of a redneck/classic rock mentality. So we got a box of LP promos for Pink Flag and a couple of us who were already into punk and new music grabbed copies for ourselves. One afternoon I and a friend put Pink Flag on the warehouse stereo. The looks of revulsion and horror and anger on some of the faces of those workers was priceless! It was thrilling and I knew we were onto something. At any rate, the residual point here that I came to realize many years later is that, regardless of what the general public’s reaction to Wire may have been compared to those like myself who were in the know, Wire still had a leg up on a lot of other bands of the era because you did have that Capitol Records distribution in the States and you did have the chain warehouses getting those records into the stores. So, in theory, there was a far greater awareness of Wire than a lot of the others. People could choose to ignore you, but you were still there in the stores.

Yes, that was a huge point. In fact, this is one of the things which is kind of strange because there’s a kind of shorthand for a lot of Americans for Pink Flag. A lot of American journalists thought it was a punk album. Well, from a British point of view it certainly was not a punk album and it was never regarded as a punk album. Punk was something that happened a year before – the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned. Wire were something else, and you knew it was something different. Whereas America didn’t get most of that stuff. They got the Sex Pistols, the Clash. But then the rest was all on import only. So obviously that made a huge difference.

So Pink Flag had national distribution in America and that’s what I think really made a big difference in the American story of Wire. The American story and the British story of Wire are two very different things. Because what happened was, the first album got out there, in ’77 and ’78, and it kind of seeped into many areas, being in national distribution. But by the time we got to play there in ’78, certainly the effect had not been that great. We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread.

In fact the first reviews were pretty rubbish in America! I have testament to all that. The two most famous journalists who reviewed Pink Flag thought it was rubbish. Lester Bangs who wrote an incomprehensible review, and basically you got the general information that the LP wasn’t much good. And the other guy was Greil Marcus, which is interesting, because this guy who rubbished Pink Flag in Rolling Stone put the Githead album in his Top 3 for last year!

The second wave of reviews that came through for Pink Flag were more positive. Kind of another generation of reviewers going, “It doesn’t all quite add up…” But the gut reaction of Americans was not very positive towards Wire.

There were punk fanzines that clued into it, and I had one myself a bit later and we loved Wire. I talked to Mike Watt from the Minutemen not long ago and he told me about what a huge impact Wire had on him. He read about it in a fanzine so he went out and grabbed it. So the record did find its way into certain hands.

I think it did. It was that other thing. The reason it was not loved in the beginning is because there’s something quite “other” about it. It doesn’t conform to any of the rules of rock ‘n’ roll as they were at the time. America could understand the Ramones; the Ramones had done that thing of simplifying, but it was a joyous thing. Whereas the Wire approach wasn’t so sympathetic. I personally don’t like rock ‘n’ roll, you see. There you’ve got the core of it. I have a big problem with rock ‘n’ roll as a kind of medium. I always just think of some fat blokes taking the stage going [in lunkhead voice], “Rawk en rawlll….” It’s like, no, no, no – it’s something else. It’s all about art.

In Mojo you were quoted referring to Wire as “contextless.” And rock ‘n’ roll is all about context.

It is all about context. And because of that I really think you could just say that Wire is “differently contexted.” [laughs] Because it always is about context. There’s also a v very British attitude there. We played CBGBs in 1978, and people were coming up to us – this girl came up to me and said, “My 16 year old kid brother can play better than you can.” And I said, “Yeah? Well, I’m standing on stage and he isn’t.” She didn’t really have much to say to that. But there were some people who loved it. Some people were insulted because there was no obvious musicianship on display. There was ensemble playing because the band had always been able to play together, but it wasn’t about virtuosity and it never has been.

It seems like a lot of people tried to characterize it as a lot of short songs and that’s clearly not the case. To this day a lot of people seem to misunderstand Pink Flag.

I think Wire continues to be misunderstood in many ways. A lot of people who imagine Wire did three albums in the ‘70s and then the noble thing to do was to not go on until later – that’s completely wrong, the circumstances were entirely different. If you’ve read that Mojo piece you’ll know a lot more about the truth.

Regarding the shortness, some of them were long and some were short – there just happened to be a lot on one record! From my point of view, that came about in the transition from the five piece to the four piece Wire. When we had to get rid of George Gill and had to come up with new material, one of the things was that I was very much reacting to what George had been about, which was traditional rock ‘n’ roll, solos and all that kind of stuff. We’d already got to the point where we were playing all George’s material, but without the solos, so they were a lot shorter without the solos. Then it became obvious that was a good style to write in. You didn’t need to have any more. Because you’ve got the singer writing the tunes it became about the music being enough to carry what needed to be said in the vocal and not much more. And then there were also other pieces counter to that where it was a bit more of an extended story – say, in “Reuters” or something like that, where there is a bit more of a narrative.

Do you remember your first gig as a four-piece?

Yes, that was the one at the Roxy. April the first, 1977.

What went through your mind when you were listening to those tapes for the box set?

Well, I did quite a lot of work on them, actually because there had to be a good deal of post-production that went into it. They were not geniusly recorded, so I had to up some of the tonal qualities and all that stuff. So I went through them quite a lot, and they are hilarious! Absolutely hilarious. You understand something about Wire by listening to that Roxy thing that you can’t understand by listening to Pink Flag. Because Pink Flag sounds deadly serious. Whereas [on the live tapes] you hear the same band, in the same way, in the same style, doing “Glad All Over.” Which is like, “Now hang on, this is not deadpan humor, but this isn’t quite as serious as we thought it was….” I think it’s a very good key to understanding why Wire always said there was a lot of humor in it and why a lot of people didn’t understand that there was humor in it. Because it was extremely deadpan and all done with a very straight face.

The absolute moment is at the point during the second night when Graham tells a heckler to arse off. [laughs] It’s just hilarious.

Interestingly, Jon Savage, who wrote a review of that show for Sounds and later used it in his book England’s Dreaming, that’s exactly what he had remembered. I talked to him because we’re actually quite good friends and told him I was going to use this from the Roxy, and he knew exactly – “Oh, that bit when Graham tells that heckler to arse off. That was the high spot of the evening!” And I thought, wow, what a memory. And he kind of filled in a lot of details for me exactly what the atmosphere was. Because the Wire tracks used on that Live At the Roxy album was so quiet, a lot of people thought they were recorded in a studio. It has to be pointed out that the reason it’s so quiet between songs is because there wasn’t anybody there! [laughs] On the first night we were the opening band. The opening band on a five-band bill, in a club holding 100 people. That’s pretty lowly. On the second night they’d moved us up because they thought we were quite good. But we weren’t that high – I think we were still before X-Ray Spex, who were newer than we were.

You wouldn’t have imagined anything was happening at that point. It was just, yeah, we’re doing this gig, we’re recording it, we got 50 quid… It all just sort of happened, really. I mean, less than 6 months later we were recording Pink Flag.

And you’ve said, by contrast, the recording of that was very serious, right?

Oh yeah. It had to be taken seriously.

 A lot of bands at that time, punks especially, would just go into the studio and try to bash out and reproduce their live sets but with better fidelity and be done with it.

Well, again, Wire, were not a punk band in the people’s perception, and they certainly weren’t a punk band in their own perception. So any attitude that was coming from [punk] we would be of the opposite attitude. Secondly, you have people, at least half of the band, who were really, really serious about the music, and to have a record with your name on it, that’s a serious thing.

“You’re not going to blow this chance…”

You’re not going to blow this chance. You’re gonna do it really properly. And to be honest, the standard of playing was not that high. But the idea we had was, yeah, we should do an album but not a single. And doing an album meant that all the things had to be there. There had to be some concept behind it. There had to be some thought gone into how we were recording it. And so there were a bunch of people with points to prove, including Mike Thorne.

 What did he bring to the table?

He had two basic ideas that he came with. One was heavy metal and the other was pop.

Heavy metal was where all the massed guitars came from. You make guitars big by double or triple or quadruple tracking them. The thing was, that style was really derived from super-accurate players who weren’t playing rhythm guitar, whereas that whole science was used in Wire to track not hugely competent people playing rhythm guitar. That sort of Queen guitar sound, of multitracked guitar lines by expert players is just exactly the opposite. But the sound of someone playing the same guitar part, two chords recorded eight times, becomes an enormous wall of sound. And we went, “Yeah, we like that!” That was good.

And then Mike would have all these tapes which he’d labeled “pop production.” He had loads of recordings he’d made and he had all these theories about pop. And at that point there was very little fear that we could be pop and we could be avant-garde at the same time – “Who cares? That’s what we are. That’s what we do.”

Do you have good memories of the Pink Flag sessions?

Um, Pink Flag was pretty hard work. It wasn’t necessarily grueling, but there were a lot of frayed tempers when we were recording the backing tracks because Robert was not very confident, and if he didn’t keep a steady speed then Graham would stop playing, and then they’d have a fight and the sticks would go flying across the room… It was quite fraught.

Chairs Missing was more fun. Because we could play better and found it easier to put the backing tracks down, and also there was more overdubbing. It was the start of overdubbing. I remember doing something like the rhythm guitar solo overdub in “Lowdown” [makes “dang-a-dang-a-dang-a-lank…” sound] and I remember thinking, yeah, I wanna to that, then going into the playing room, and playing on top of it that part. And just thinking, “Wow, that’s amazing, I can just do that! I can add this thing and take this track somewhere else!” And that’s an exciting thing to be able to do. It’s like when you first start to get the whole feeling of overdubbing, adding parts that were not in the original when the band played and taking a track. That was the excitement for me, and obviously a key to how then that developed in the following album, 154.

Did you oversee the remastering with Dennis Blackham? Were you present?

No. Dennis is in Skye. He’s a very good friend and he’s remastered every release on Pink Flag and every CD release on Swim (label). So we’re talking at least every other week. Originally these were going to be just EMI releases and the Pink Flag involvement didn’t come along until later in the story. So he says he’s got this job, this EMI thing, and I said we are in the offing of talking to them about it. And I think he knew very well that this had to be the definitive version, and I think he took it – he’s reported to me already that he’s had some journalistic feedback on his remastering which he’s very, very pleased about.

The difference is pretty striking from the previously released Enigma Retro reissues.

Those initial CD re-releases were classic ‘80s CD re-releases, just slapped out. The band had no involvement with them at all. And this was a point when no one was talking to EMI anyway. It was just, bung the album out, don’t worry about the remastering, stick a bunch of extra tracks on, whatever fits time-wise and nothing to do with whether it’s from the right period. Not that those extra tracks are bad, but some of them are really the wrong thing in the wrong place. Back then everyone was getting excited about having 70 minutes to work with: “Oh you have to have extra stuff!” Now we’ve gotten a big more postmodern and people have gone back, in a way, to an album-length CD. You don’t need all that extra stuff on there.

And that’s a different thing, a different project. Maybe we’ll be putting all [the extra material] out later. Who knows? A lot of it is about negotiating rights. [laughs] It’s a pretty remarkable thing that our label Pink Flag is releasing these CDs. This is actually the first US domestic release of Chairs Missing in its original format.

Yeah, I remember having to track the LP down on import.

Basically Capitol were not interested. We’d come in ’78 and played 5 or 6 nights at CBGBs, not even a tour of one city, but a tour of one club! Wire was not present in America – that story happened in the ‘80s when that seepage we mentioned really started to happen, when those hardcore bands, whether you’re talking about Mike Watt and the Minutemen, Black Flag, or the guys over in Boston, the DC scene… It was like, “No, no, Wire – THAT’s the band!” My theory is that what was appealing about it was that hardcore was the first native American rejection of rock history. It was like an attempt to say, no, all that “expert” stuff is crap. We just wanna make a noise that’s in your face. In a way that American punk up until then hadn’t embraced.

And Wire had rejected so much as well.

And the Wire record sleeves were pretty iconoclastic for rock album covers too.

I gave the records to a friend who doesn’t know that much about the history of Wire and she remarked that the covers were beautiful. Again, it’s very sort of unpunk. The difference between the cover of Pink Flag and Never Mind The Bollocks is very stark.

And with the other two albums you certainly presented a message that this was a band who felt its visual aesthetic was very important.

I think that has a certain kind of validity. That’s the justification for what some people would say is pulling a fast one – [reissuing] the same album with less tracks. But this is another thing, going back to the original statement. Pink Flag didn’t have “Dot Dash” or “Options R” on it. Those are things that come later, a different mindset. Pink Flag was very specific. As is Chairs Missing. They’re very, very specific records. So what’s there is what fits with them, and I don’t know if people now have the same concept about making an album, but remember we’re talking mid ‘70s, and the “concept” album may have been derided, but it was still very much an idea which was current. And I think in some ways they are concept albums.

In some ways, people think of concept albums along the lines of Tales From Topographic Oceans: big bloated double album productions in gatefold sleeves. So let’s end the concept of concept albums, so to speak. But you can still do it in a brighter way.

Yes, you can do it in a different way. All that prog bloat [sighs] – those bands were just so absurdly successful too!

Did you think, at the time, that Wire was being heard and understood in England at least?

Oh yeah. I mean, there was a point just after Pink Flag came out, and we did a tour supporting The Tubes. A very strange thing to do. They were very good to us, actually. They really supported us as a band playing with them because we were so different from what they did. It was a stark contrast between their kind of baroque over-the-topness and our stark simplicity. Their lighting guy probably set the tone, for a lot of people, of how they saw Wire onstage. He just kept the lighting really, really simple and made us look great on stage. During that period we did a series of Saturdays at a pub called the Red Cow in Hammersmith, just around the corner from the Hammersmith Odeon. A place where loads of bands played. We started off – it held about 200 – the first Saturday with it half full. The second Saturday it was ¾ full, and on the third Saturday it was completely full. And on the fourth Saturday there were as many outsiders as there were on the inside who couldn’t get in. And in that month you could so feel – I remember my friends would be like [dropping volume to awestruck tone of voice] ‘Wow – this is really happening, man!’

You could just feel that that thing was really developing, and certainly in London. When we got out to the other areas, in the midlands I don’t think they really took to us, but soon as you got north, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, those places, there was solid support. A Wire gig was an event. You met everyone in the bands; anyone who was in a band would come see us and tell us how much they loved us, whether that was Joy Division, or Cabaret Voltaire, or Prefects. Even people who were not so well known would come. The more cheeky bands were the ones from Liverpool; they would never admit to liking anyone – even themselves!

I remember playing the Russell Club, one of the kind of early incarnations of the Hacienda in Manchester, and you really felt like it was an event, with anyone who was anyone at that gig that night. It was a special feeling. So we definitely felt liked. We played quite a lot in Britain, and touring was not easy in Britain so you definitely felt that we were somebody.

Given the big changes that you instituted in the sound between albums, did you ever have fears about alienating your audience?

No. The short answer! [laughs] I look back now and I think… pffft, we were pretty damn arrogant, you know. We just didn’t give a stuff about what anybody thought. We just felt that it was obvious we had to do something else. And as a music fan, my attitude was I didn’t want to have a band do the same record. And you’ve got to remember, we were in the first serious, postmodern critical era in terms of what rock music was about. We could say, “But what happened to Pink Floyd? Why did they become rubbish? Well, they got rubbish because they just did more of the same, but more weak, adding water to their formulas.” So the idea was of going on to something new. And the key track coming into Chairs Missing was “Practice Makes Perfect.” It sent shivers up our spines. And something that makes you feel that good can’t be bad! So that was it, and that’s still a key track.

The first time I heard “I Am The Fly” I think I levitated…so to speak. It was like someone rubbing a silk ribbon across my exposed spinal column.

In a good way? Can I have some of the drugs you’re on? [laughs] It’s an enormous pisstake, it really is. It’s a blues change with the wrong chords: it starts on an E, and then the next chord it goes to is precisely the wrong one. And then it goes on, and if anyone was a blues fan it’s really an insult to the blues. It’s got this shocking metallic guitar sound that sounds as unorganic as you can possibly have. And it made everybody laugh. It was a funny tune, not intended to be entirely serious, very, very tongue in cheek. “I’m not really the bad boy. I’m quite far from being the bad boy! I’m not one of the rock ‘n’ roll rebels. That’s not my character to be like that.”

I’ve read that you personally are not a big fan of 154 – is that correct? “I Should Have Known Better” is one of the great opening cuts…

Some tracks on 154 I love and others I don’t love at all.  But yes, that tune I think is awesome. That was one of the creative high spots of the record. If you ever heard the demo, the way it started out was very heavy metal and I really didn’t like it very much – “This isn’t going to work, it’s not going to make the album. Graham’s going to be really disappointed because everyone’s going to turn around and say, ‘Actually, it’s not really that good…’” Then Robert started doing this kind of reduced disco beat [goes dikka-d-didda-da-dikki-da..] and it suddenly sounded fantastic..

I’ve read that as this point the band was divided into a “pop” and an “anti-pop” camps. You were also having problems with EMI, and I wondered what contributed more to the demise of the band after the release of 154?

It wasn’t really pop versus anti-pop. It was more pop AND anti-pop versus just anti-pop. Half of the band, basically me and Robert, was still interested in retaining a really broad canvas for the band. The other half decided they wanted to do something which was more avant-garde, which couldn’t have worked very well within Wire. Personal relations in Wire have always been very, very difficult too. We’ve never been friends and it’s never been an easy kind of thing. And it kind of came to a head working on 154. It had some very, very horrible moments, whereas Chairs Missing had been joyful and sunny and kind of the joy of a band discovering they could really play and then just taking that and pushing it further in the studio. With 154 the expectation was that it should have all of those elements, but then there was also ambition pushing it in different directions.

Relations with EMI deteriorating then couldn’t have helped either.

Well, Mike arrived at the 154 session with, “We’ve got to make five singles.” That idea got junked pretty fast. But where he was coming from, he’d obviously been meeting with EMI, who was saying, “This band’s not commercial enough.” Wire at that point had no concept of a market. You have to understand, there can be a way to be on a major label and understand nothing about how your music is sold. Because Wire would get advances for every record, they would never sell enough copies to pay off the advance, so the only money you ever saw was the advance at the beginning of the album. So the money you earned, what you saw – and we made no money on the road – had no relationship at all to how successful you were. So there was no culture of understanding, okay, hang on, if you do it this way then perhaps you’re gonna make more money out of it our you’re gonna survive better. On one level, yes, that’s kind of good for an artistic purity, but on another level you have to be aware of the fact that you are working within a commercial medium. This is not state-sponsored or –subsidized art! These are fundamentally pop records released on a label that expects to see its money back.

And in some ways it’s great if you can have a long view. I think that’s one thing nobody expected, that there would be such a longevity in those records. Certainly EMI didn’t expect that! When we were out the door in 1980 that would be the last they’d have to care about us. Suddenly, 10 years later, it’s still going, and 10 years after that it’s still going! That’s the craziness of it. It’s like every generation finds its own relationship to Wire. And each generation that finds Wire imagines that nobody else knows about it. Which is almost perfect, this whole kind of thing. But at the same time it has kind of emerged that American has been the place where Wire has achieved the most in terms of attention and success, record sales and the rest of it.

You once said something to the effect of, Wire, whenever it’s on the verge of success drives the bus right off the cliff.

That’s not me driving that bus! But yeah, it’s absolutely true. And it’s also absolutely infuriating, the infuriating thing about Wire which makes the internal relationships very different. Some people, I think, may be really nervous about getting too far with this, and I just think that Wire deserves, in this late stage in its life, to get and receive the adulation and the kind of love for real. I don’t have a problem about suddenly getting attention is going to turn into some kind of squidgy, sentimental thing – we’re not going to all of a sudden do “Mull  Of Kintyre” or something like that, you know what I mean?

You should see the reviews for 154 at the end of the ‘70s – we were, in Britain, the “best band of our generation.” 154 was “the album Bowie failed to make when he made Lodger.” John Lennon “was listening to 154 not long before he got shot.” Bob Dylan was quoting us. All that. We were seriously accepted. So how you can go from that to being dropped by your label and getting crap reviews for doing a “pretentious” stage show is quite extraordinary as a kind of turnaround. So in hindsight I look at that and go, “No, that was a big mistake.” It’s fine to be reevaluating and thinking and changing direction and doing something else, but there can be too much of that.

Rock ‘n’ roll, there’s too much of that “live fast, die young” kind of rubbish. But it’s just not – it’s an evolved artform now. We’re talking about where someone is going to make their tenth record and it’s gonna be genius, and that’s not necessarily going to happen in any way. It doesn’t conform any more to those James Dean things.

There is a certain thought that, because of Wire’s longevity – “We won!”

Yeah, yeah. “We won the punk rock war.” Whatever. In Britain there is a magazine called Artrocker, and the whole point about that, what he says, is, “Without these guys, we don’t exist.” Artrocker considers themselves more important than they are, but they’re really seriously challenging to be the hip version of the NME. So you’re talking something that really means something in the culture, and a bunch of young bands who say, “That’s our roots – Wire is our roots. Not some other kind of stuff.” And I think, wow, that’s an amazing situation to be in.

I suspect you would have spoken differently back in the ‘80s when Wire refused to play any older material.

I can’t speak for anybody else. But a lot of my attitudes are now shaped by the ‘90s, running a label, seeing how hard it is to break young bands that you know are really good and original. Just knowing a lot more about how the industry works. But at the same time, it was the wrong context – the ‘80s was not about ‘70s rock. That was the whole point. In the mid ‘80s, as far as Britain was concerned – and you have to understand, this is a British band – late ‘70s punk rock was just out, out, out! Nothing more out than that. Whereas in America it was different. It’s interesting that I learned in hindsight about the hardcore thing. I didn’t know anything about it at the time: “Why are these bands playing punk rock?” But the mid ‘80s stuff that came out of Britain, the post-punk of the early ‘80s, sort of came out of disco, just starting with digital, a clean, sound, that was the mid ‘80s sound. Not the sort of dirty punk rock.

What’s interesting is that Wire was, for Americans in the ‘80s, rock, and it was kind of lynchpin for hardcore. By the time you got to the ‘90s, for British bands it was pop.

Right – Elastica and all that.

Yeah. And this is actually a moment in time that hasn’t passed in Britain. The most well-known Wire track, the most-played Wire track if you go to LastFM and look up Wire, is “Three Girl Rhumba.” It’s now the best-known Wire song. It was used in a few different places. A TV program used the Elastic riff from it. So in the ‘90s, British bands would go, “Oh yeah, Wire are famous rock stars, they don’t care about this…” But with the generation of bands now they’re like, “Oh no, Elastica got that completely wrong. They should have really acknowledged their debt to Wire like we’re doing.” That’s a recent trend now in Britain, in this decade.

So it’s all fascinating. It’s culture, evolving culture.

Wire’s current status: Inactive, I hear. And that Bruce officially gave his notice last year.  Is that accurate?

Yep.

So in terms of activity, all we’re to get for now is archival work?

Right now, yeah. It goes through phases from bad to worse to slightly less bad. Last week was bad. Maybe next week will be better, I dunno! [laughs] There were moments when maybe something could’ve been done but I really don’t know. I can’t really imagine that I can do very much with Wire. I can represent it in interviews and I can help promote the back catalog, but when it comes down to it, I can’t be Wire.

Well, the band has resurfaced several times now, against the odds

Yeah, but…. [long pause, long exhale of breath] This last version, the version that did Send, was supposed to be the version that was built to last. It didn’t happen. That was a great album and that whole thing should have gone some place. Actually, the timing of these rereleases was supposed to be very much set. It was supposed to be Send, and then the re-releases, and then a new Wire album, and the whole thing was supposed to be like a virtual circle. But it just hasn’t happened. It’s an incredibly sad story. And I don’t want to talk it down. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved – please edit out anything I’ve said that’s not entirely positive about anyone because I’m not into that.

I look at it from a Wire fan’s point of view. The amount of love that Wire gets for what it’s achieved, and what it’s achieved in more than one incarnation, I have to just cry in my boots and say, “Okay, I’ve got another band.” That’s what I’ve got and I can’t be Wire, but I can be in a different band and it can produce music which I value very, very highly, and continue the dialogue in that way.

I think the fans will treat the box set as a huge gift too. Fans will always want the archival stuff.

They will. And there were all these embarrassing production delays. Believe me, I feel the weight of hundreds of Wire fans: “Oh, we want to get the box set! Where is it!?! Why can’t I buy it now?!?” [in mock-wailing voice, then laughing] I feel for those people.

We’re not officially allowed to promote it in Britain, but in America of course, because we’re the American licensee, we can. And the American press has picked up on it. We are just the U.S. licensee – in Britain they are the EMI versions. It’s a subtle game. Pink Flag is the U.S. licensee for the EMI re-release. EMI has it for the rest of the world. We hope to do well in America with those, because if you can imagine we’re not on a very good royalty from EMI. It’s the same product, apart from the fact that unlike the three you have, EMI just slapped those things out. They didn’t take care of finishing the artwork nicely. We actually did some work making sure the artwork looked good before it got printed, so the Pink Flag versions look superior.

And the box set is something else altogether. That’s been completely taken apart and put together again by our star designers. A different level. Every single aspect that could be improved has been improved. And I am proud of it. The re-releases for me personally have been a nightmare. Very hard to do with EMI. Not because they’re a bad, evil mega-corporation. But because they’re a major label and therefore are much more inefficient than indie people. Even just getting the parts so we had something to release became a nightmare that should never have been. Departments don’t talk to each other; you can’t just go to someone and tell them you need something ready by such and such time because it’s their product. We’re not paying them. Just a whole different ballgame.

I don’t want to just be bitching though because the people have been pretty nice and helpful. They get a certain amount of kudos for that and I think the people that work there are mature enough to realize that perhaps it hasn’t done EMI any harm at all having Wire in their back catalog. They’re not stupid – those records didn’t stop selling.

Funny how to this day EMI and Wire butt heads. I like what you said a minute ago about you feeling the weight of hundreds of Wire fans.

Yeah, I probably care more than I should what people think about the band. I know its reputation is high and I know not everybody in the band cares that much about what the fans think. Different attitudes. That’s to do with some people feeling that artists need to be more pure and to not care what other people think, and it’s a point of view. For me I see the fans as people and I don’t devalue them saying, “They’re just fans.”

 

STEEP GRADE: Mipso

 

Mipso

The Chapel Hill-based Americana quartet’s female singer holds forth on their ambitious, just-released new album, life on the road, favorite bands (Phish!) and authors, and more.

BY DANIEL MATTI

Outside the Woodlands Tavern in Columbus, Ohio, Libby Rodenbough and the band stood before the venue they were going to play later that night. Before the load in I spoke with Libby on the phone about the new album Coming Down the Mountain that was about to drop in just a couple days and how they passed the time in the van.

If you’re not familiar with the band Mipso they started off as a three piece in the city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina with members Jacob Sharp, Joseph Terrell, and Wood Robinson. Starting off with open mics and playing around town they later branched off into playing what was known as Mipso Trio. They went on to record an album titled Long, Long Gone under the name and from there they grew among the locals and their college friends who they had grown up with and moved out of North Carolina increasing their fan base to a larger scale. The following year Libby joined the band to add fiddle and powerful harmonizing vocals on the album Dark Holler Pop and, later on, Old Time Reverie.

(Below, listen to new track Hurt So Good.)

 

BLURT: How long have you all been on the road?

LIBBY: We’ve been in the Midwest for about a week and half and it’s been typical Midwestern rainy and gray and now we just got out of the car and the sun has broken.

 

That’s great to hear! Midwestern weather can be quite a drag. Congrats on the new album by the way! Did you all have a concept or idea for the new album Coming Down the Mountain going in to the studio?

The concept was just we didn’t want to overthink so I guess that’s the absent of a concept. We had songs and we didn’t want to overdue them we wanted to create space and track simply and track most of the stuff live and just get it down and you know just not over complicate it. It’s easy nowadays to do want to do a bunch of drafts and then.

 

 Is that something you have tried to do in the past?

I don’t think we have spent as much time as we did but we definitely put time into crafting the songs. This one I feel like is the most livest.

 

One of the best tracks on the album is “Monterey County” is there a significance behind that song?

I think that was just because we were driving highway 1 out west and it was just a super evocative landscape and I think the images got into Joseph’s head and he wrote that one. It was the landscape that reflected out mid twenties angst.

 

 For this album album did anyone take more charge of writing?

I did more writing on this one than in the past. Were all pretty interested in songwriting so it seems to be pretty collaborative.

 

Any favorite albums you have been playing on repeat recently?

Our friend Jake Xerxes Fussell just dropped an album a couple days ago so I’ve been listening to that a ton. As we were driving up to the venue we were blasting some Blink-182. So I’m the one exception to this but all my band mates were high-school Phish heads. So sometimes when we need to get in sync we throw it on. Even though I don’t know any of that stuff. So there’s the contagious positive energy while listening to it

(So there it is. One of Mipso’s biggest influences is Phish.)

Other than listening to Phish albums in the van is there anything else you guys do for fun in the van?

Yeah I’m very fortunate I have had time to read a lot more. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. We have this mobile hotspot with us so it’s very easy for us to sit our laptops for six hours. Reading a lot more novels now since college for me is key

 

 Is there anything that you are now reading that you are now saying to yourself why haven’t I read this already?

I just found this one author name Nell Zink. Really great authorial voice. She writes irreverent dark humor but their also filled with great characters. Through an interview with Nell Zink I found this book called The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. It’s from a woman’s point of view during communism during the ‘30s-‘50s. Strong intelligent female voices. It’s all about communism and it’s about the collapse through the eyes of female characters.

***

Make sure to grab Mipso’s new album Coming Down the Mountain out on CD/LP/MP3, released today, April 7.

 

LIFE’S A GAS: feedtime

Feedtime Sydney Opera House

With a much-heralded new album out—the first from the Sydney trio in over 20 years, and pressed on colored vinyl to boot—and with fans salivating over the prospect of additional activity, let’s take a plunge into ye olde editor’s Aussie archives.

BY FRED MILLS

Among fans of Australian independent rock, the name feedtime looms large, some devotees even going so far as to include the Sydney trio alongside such iconic names as Radio Birdman, the Saints, Cosmic Psychos, and Scientists. Part of the reason is no doubt related to the whole live fast/leave a pretty corpse angle, as feedtime burned brightly in the ‘80s then exited stage left before any rot had a chance to set in. You’ll shortly read what subsequently went down with these scuzz-blooze-rawk merchants. Indeed, some rather recent video evidence, below, speaks a zillion words:

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of breaking news: America’s own In The Red Records has just released a brand new album by what the label calls “Australia’s favorite misanthropic noise-makers” (wish I’d said that), and Gas finds Rick, Al, and Tom (no last names, please—guitar/vox, bass/vox, and drums, respectively) sounding every bit as beautifully brutal as on its four predecessors, 1985’s feedtime, 1986’s Shovel, 1988’s Cooper-S, and 1989’s Suction. (Consumer-wise, all of those were reissued in 2012 as part of the Sub Pop box set The Aberrant Years. There was also a brief reunion in 1996 that yielded the Billy album featuring a different lineup.)

Feedtime 2012 in Minneapolis

Indeed, from Side A’s ready-to-rumble murky-roar of opening track “Any Good Thing” and the slide-guit/barked-vocals sonic maelstrom that is “Hopeful Blues,” to the sheer locomotive aggression powering “Fifty Eight” (more slide) and the hypnotic, pulsing, verging-on-anthemic (term used loosely) “Grass,” Gas is pure feedtime—sounding for all the world like the band simply dipped out the side door for a quick smoke then popped back in, picked up their instruments, and continued the set. Three decades seem not to have diminished the lads in any way, and with Mikey Young (Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring) at the studio helm, the sonic chaos isn’t reigned in a whit; Young, who also recorded the 2015 one-off reunion single for Sub Pop, “Flatiron” / “Stick Up Jack,” has a keen intuition for what makes feedtime tick. That single, incidentally, is not included on the album for some reason, but with 14 fine tracks here, seven per side on a gorgeous emerald/splatter vinyl LP, no one’s getting shortchanged.

***

So. As long as we are celebrating the return of feedtime—no word yet on a tour, but we can all dream, eh?—let us peer into the BLURT archives for some relevant verbiage on the band. I consider myself eternally honored to be a card-carrying feedtime fan from Day 1—please, keep your envy to a minimum—having both reviewed and interviewed the band back in the day. More recently, a few years ago, in 2012, BLURT published a kind of mini-roundup of relatively new Australian bands we felt were worth keeping an eye on. Among them was feedtime, definitely not a newcomer. But because Sub Pop had just released the box set, and plans were afoot for a brief reunion tour to promote the box, a profile of the band seemed in order. (Below, a clip of the band live at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern in 2012, with guest Mark Arm.)

I duly conducted an email interview with feedtime’s Rick plus their friend and old Aberrant Records label boss Bruce Griffith to get the lowdown on the box as well as concurrent outtakes/unreleased compilation titled This Is Friday on the S.S. label, not to mention the possibility of a fulltime reunion and extended tour for the original trio. At the time they were adamant that wasn’t going to happen, and as Griffith put it, “There are no feedtime plans beyond the 2012 US tour. This is it, folks. If you wanna see feedtime, you need to attend one of these shows.”

But then 2015 rolled around. Against all odds, feedtime was once again back, having followed up the brief 2012 American tour with some Australian shows in 2014 (above is a live clip from a Brisbane show supporting Mudhoney; also read a revealing interview with all three of them that year for Mess and Noise HERE), planning a fresh Australian tour with the Oblivians, and with new studio material, the group’s first in two decades, via the aforementioned “Flatiron” single. So at the time, prospects for a full-length seemed good. It took a couple of years, but here in 2017, it’s finally arrived in the form of Gas, so for everyone who arrived late to the feedtime table, allow me to peel back the years for your edification….

feedtime records

The trio of feedtime– Rick, Al, and Tom, and for publishing purposes the surnames listed on the Sub Pop single read Johnson, Larkin and Sturm—on guitar, bass and drums, respectively, originally formed in Sydney circa ’79 and went on to cut four hugely influential albums in the ‘80s before splitting at the end of the decade: feedtime, Shovel, Cooper-S and Suction, all released in Australia via Bruce Griffiths’ iconoclastic punk/noise label Aberrant (Rough Trade released the latter 3 in the US). The group’s 1989 breakup came on the eve of an American tour, Rick years later admitting in an interview with Seattle’s The Stranger, “feedtime broke up because I was having a breakdown, that’s all. There was a lot of anger and darkness that underlaid a lot of feedtime’s makeup. I had to remake myself or die. Allen felt that he might have to do some repair work as well…. Some stuff about feedtime involves very hard stuff and needs to be left alone.”

There was also a brief reunion with a slightly different lineup (Tom replaced by a new drummer) in the mid ‘90s that resulted in the Billy album for Amphetamine Reptile, and then they were no longer once again.

Though feedtime never toured the US during its initial heyday, American fans of pure, primal, skronky blooze-noise eagerly embraced the band—Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, for example, was a very vocal supporter—and they became a mainstay of the fanzine underground. Yours truly can testify to the trio’s prowess; during the ‘80s I authored an Australian music column for east coast rock zine The Bob, and feedtime was a fixture in the column. I also oversaw the release of a 7-song, 10-inch Australian flexidisc for issue #34 of The Bob, and feedtime’s “Trouble” was one of the key tracks. The accompanying interview I did with the band remains one of my fondest memories from that journalistic period: Far from being the thuggish neanderthals that their heavier-than-heaven sound might have conveyed, they were funny and engaging, humble to a fault, and eager to reach out to their fanbase while remaining clear-eyed about their overall position in the music world. (Below, check out a unique version of “Paint It Black,” described by the YouTube uploader as “The Rolling Stones as only feedtime could play them. Recorded live at French’s Tavern, Oxford St, Sydney, Australia, September 26, 1986 by Peter Newberry of Painkillers. A version of this cover appeared on the band’s 1988 LP ‘Cooper-S’,”)

 When Sub Pop announced the four-CD The Aberrant Years, then, it was like manna from heaven for longtime fans of the band. Three of the discs contained bonus tracks, and a thick booklet completed the picture. As the label put it:

This burning energy existed for some ten years and produced some of the most powerful, creative and personal rock and roll music we are ever likely to hear. The songs are out there to discover and relate to and when they hit they explode and you’re never the same again, but you’re grateful for the experience. This isn’t “noise rock,” this is a groundbreaking FORM of music that knows its roots but applies the lessons to a wider scope than their peers.

It’s heavy but life is too and some of us know this and we channel that power into art and sometimes beautiful things are created. Sometimes it’s too heavy and nothing seems to work out. Sometimes you just need to laugh it off and stand at the back of the room for a while. This is perfect sound and pure art. Avant-garde pub-rock. All hail the concrete urban blues.

Hail hail indeed. But as you might surmise from the subsequent arrival of the Sub Pop single and the news about the Oz tour with The Oblivians, things changed. The one-off nature of the 2012 tour for The Aberrant Years apparently laid the groundwork for something more long term, and perhaps more substantial. In that Mess and Noise interview with the three musicians, Tom observed how, for him, nowadays, “the intensity is the same but with less desperation than there was 25 years ago, certainly at least on my part. I like to think the intensity is the same, but I think maybe 25 years ago it was a crutch that held me up, whereas now, it’s a thing that’s pretty good to do and every time you do it, it evokes something in you.”

Al agreed, adding, “I think collectively, when you’ve got three people creating a single thing, that’s what’s special. And I think the joy you get when that happens is fantastic. And I’m almost thinking when I hear us rehearse or play these days that we’re playing even better than we ever were.”

And Rick summed up the difference between then and now, saying, “You’re not palliating a preexisting painful condition, the meaning of it has changed I think. It’s not an act of divesting yourself of pain or putting a lid on it and shouting about something, it’s just opening up and narrowing down into a focus.”

Here’s that 2012 interview, never published before in its entirety. (Below photo by the inimitable Caroline Birkett, Oz photog extraordinaire.)

 

 Feedtime early 2

 BLURT: What the hell has everyone been doing in the years since feedtime disappeared?

RICK: We been just mutting along doin’ stuff.

 

Why feedtime in 2012? I thought we buried you guys good and proper…

RICK: Scott Soriano, of S.S. Records, asked us to a birthday party in 2011… and Sub Pop’s Mr. Poneman was interviewed one day said he’d have done shovel if he had the chance. Bruce got in contact, and off we go!

BRUCE: In late 2010 I received an email from Scott Soriano, asking if there was any chance feedtime would play the label’s 10th anniversary weekend in May 2011 if he covered airfares and accommodation.  He’d long been a fan, and the band was part of his “dream 10th anniversary line-up,” and as much as it was a massive long-shot, he had to at least ask.  Much to his surprise, the band said yes.

A little before that, and entirely unconnected, Carmel, drummer Tom’s wife, heard Jonathan from Sub Pop being interviewed on national “youth” radio station, Triple J, discussing the five albums he wished Sub Pop had released.  Shovel was one of them.  Carmel tipped me off and, as we were looking for someone to remaster and reissue the Aberrant feedtime albums and Sub Pop was literally the “dream label” (and their natural home), I sent Jon an email – “Would you like to…” – and immediately received a “YES.”

The [anniversary show in San Francisco], a “one-off,” was so good that Dean from Sub Pop, who’d traveled down for it, took me aside afterwards and asked what the chance was of an 8-10 gig tour in 2012 to promote The Aberrant Years re-releases. The guys liked what was proposed and what’s actually an 11-gig 2012 tour is the result.

 

What is the Australian press—and fans—saying about feedtime? Long memories? Fond memories? I know you guys were, in a sense, the “odd men out” of the scene back in the day when I covered you for The Bob and other US mags, yet your very underground nature seems to be what has made your legacy, as it were, endure.

RICK: The Australian press is ignoring us completely, except for the mighty Murray Engleheart who writes for Brag mag. But we made some people happy enough when we played in September [at the S.S. Records show]. You can see some on YouTube… feedtime sando.
BRUCE: There seems to be a lot of excitement among fans—old and new, and there seem to be a lot of new—about the re-issues. Deservedly, they sound amazing.  I know some people aren’t keen on ‘remastering’, but going back to the original analog masters and hearing them, and comparing them to the ‘80s pressings, I was astounded by how much was lost [with the original pressings].  The master tapes sound way better than the releases of the day.  The new versions are absolutely true to the recordings – everything is there.  It’s the full glory and as the recordings get better – as they do progressively over the albums – the reissues sound increasingly amazing. The leap in just feedtime is already considerable, but by the time you get to suction, with Trafalgar Studios production values and Butch Vig mixing – woah.

The press never got behind feedtime here, and nothing has changed in that regard.  Murray is their sole supporter. Incidentally, we highly recommend Murray’s book Blood, Sweat & Beers; essentially the story of Rose Tattoo and X, along with The Angels, Billy Thorpe & The Aztec, Coloured Balls, Buffalo.  A great read which captures the era and feel of the music brilliantly.  If that music’s of interest, it’s a must.

Today

Could you give me some more info on the [Sub Pop approved] feedtime “outtakes & unreleased’ album, Today is Friday, that S.S. Records has released?
BRUCE: It was never a condition of playing SS10, but Scott Soriano was keen to have a feedtime release and asked if we had anything lying around. I knew we did – I had high quality cassettes of the full feedtime session, the full shovel session, Cooper S outtakes, and eight reels of quarter inch tape, their contents largely unknown.  Sub Pop wanted to keep the boxed sets ‘pure’ – precisely as the releases were originally issued, track-wise, with bonus tracks restricted to actual Aberrant releases, hence the singles, B-sides, giveaway tracks, etc.). So they gave their blessing to Scott doing a release of “lost” stuff.

One of the reels contained mixed tracks recorded for shovel, which were only left off because of the limitations, time-wise, of the LP format. The feedtime session produced an entire side’s worth of recordings of songs which didn’t end up on feedtime – again, for time/length reasons – which were re-recorded for shovel.  So there are shovel tracks with feedtime sonic feel, kind of a ‘third side’ of feedtime.  Several of the reels were recorded live at the infamous (and violent) Central Markets Hotel, and we lifted some tracks from them, along with a version of Flipper’s “Life”, recorded in The Pit, a rehearsal/recording space Adrian Symes had dug beneath the floor of the house his was renting at the time.

Among the titles, you’ll spot previously unreleased songs ‘Ebgd’, ‘Garbage Scow’, ‘Tatts Willie’, ‘Life’ (Flipper) and ‘I Don’t Care About You’ (FEAR).  Of the released titles, we made sure to pick versions that offered something unique and different to the previously released versions.

Incidentally, the cover art for Today is Friday is a drawing by Tom’s daughter, Mandie, when she was about five I think.  Scott asked if we had anything like the feedtime cover, which was drawn by original drummer Dave’s son, so Tom and Carmel knew exactly the thing.

Where, if anywhere, is the Billy album in all this?

RICK: Billy‘s no place in this.

BRUCE: Billy wasn’t released on Aberrant and features a different line-up. It’s a solid album, we like it, it’s just not part of the Aberrant era.

Why the initial breakup, the reformation, then the next breakup?

BRUCE: It’s a complex [thing]. The ‘89 breakup they always say was because Rick and Al needed to put down the mindset that enabled them to create feedtime music. As feedtime was as much, if not more, about feel than a hostile view of the world, they’re able to do feedtime in 2012 but it still requires going to dark places, mentally—especially for Rick. Hence this will be a very short-term reunion.

***

Ed. Note: Well, that was 2012, this is now. Things change. We’ve got Gas, literally, and as the saying goes, this is feedtime’s world; we just live in it. All respect to Rick, Al, and Tom, along with the mighty Bruce Griffiths of Aberrant fame, and the Sub Pop, S.S., and In The Red labels for carrying the torch forward. Order Gas from In The Red or seek it out at your local independent record store so you can score that sweet green vinyl LP, pictured below.

Feedtime colored wax

SIREN’S SONG: Steve Hackett

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2016, all rights reserved.

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2016, all rights reserved.

In which we resume our conversation with the British guitar maestro. Go here to read our 2016 interview. New album The Night Siren arrives March 24. Tour dates for 2017 are here.

BY BILL KOPP

During his time with Genesis, guitarist Steve Hackett released one solo album, 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte. That album featured two of his then-current band mates – bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins – helping out, and only one track featured Hackett’s vocals. So after the unassuming Hackett left Genesis in 1977, it may have come as a bit of a surprise to that group’s fans that he would embark on a successful and prolific solo career. His latest album, The Night Siren (set for release March 24) is Hackett’s 25th solo album. (In contrast, Genesis released only 15 albums of new studio material in its nearly 30 years as a functioning group.)

And while he was always a superb instrumentalist – one listen to his sublime guitar solo on “Firth of Fifth” from Genesis’ 1973 LP Selling England By the Pound is all the proof one could need – Hackett has grown immeasurably in the past few decades as a musician, a composer, and a vocalist. And at age 67, Steve Hackett may have just made the finest record of his career in The Night Siren.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Hackett twice before: in 2010, shortly after the release of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, and again in 2016 on the eve of a North American tour. In that first interview, we discussed the backstory of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth: the painful dissolution of Hackett’s second marriage, and the development of a new relationship – one that is both personal and creative – in its wake. In our second conversation we focused on two topics: the documentary film Genesis: Sum of the Parts and Hackett’s ongoing “Genesis Revisited” live and studio projects.

For our third conversation, the main topic would be The Night Siren and his development as an artist. The following is an edited transcript of our interview, which took place in mid-January 2017.

BLURT: The underlying theme of The Night Siren is a call for unity in divisive times. Can you tell me a bit about what led you toward that theme?

Well, I think more and more it seems that the world seems to be heading towards right-wing politics. The refugee crisis seems to have gotten to the point whereby the rest of the world seems to be adopting a kind of fortress mentality, instead of assimilating the people and trying to fix the problem that we’ve created in the first place. It just so happens I have friends from all over the world, and I have two working on this album – one from Israel, one from Palestine – and I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible for people to do what musicians have done naturally for years and years and years. We naturally cross borders; this is what we do. Music is a great big melting pot and I think that – at the very least – music is an ambassador for peace. And we’re showing people that there is a common language, and it’s the language of the heart.

You often record at home using your home studio; other musicians will often send their tracks digitally. Was that the method that you used on this album as well?

Yes, but it’s part of it. Some of it was done on location in different studios with different people, but I did quite a lot of it at home but then I did get a lot of facilities as well to record other people. For instance, Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan was recording in Budapest. Some stuff was recorded in Miami; Nick D’Virgilio was recording there. Many people sent in their stuff, but sometimes I went to them. So, yes … it’s a bit like making a movie on location. But sometimes you don’t even have to visit that location, of course. The “second camera unit” is out there. We file share, but we also have conversations face-to-face.

Time was, musicians would all show up in a studio together and work on an album; do you think those days are pretty well gone for good now?

No, I don’t think so. I think bands still function like that, but technology affords you the facility of being able to work face-to-face yet remotely. It means that people get their parts right, and then they send you something that they’re happy with instead of people interfering with each other’s performances before the other guy really knows the song. So you have a chance to perfect it, to send someone something that’s in time and in tune with the song.NightSirenAlbumCover

I’m a big fan of Nick D’Virgilio’s work back when he was with Spock’s Beard. How did you come to know of his work and bring him into the project?

I first heard about him via Genesis [D’Virgilio was a member of Genesis in the group’s post-Phil Collins era; he played on the final Genesis album Calling All Stations – ed.], but funnily enough I first saw him playing with Cirque Du Soleil in London. I was very impressed with him. And I went to meet him, I think, halfway through that show. He’s just sent us an extraordinarily impressive drum check for one of the songs, “Martian Sea.” He’s a great player.

One of the things I’ve found sort of curiously interesting about him is that his career trajectory is a little bit like Phil Collins: he was the drummer in a band, then the singer left and he ended up being the lead singer … and then he left.

Yes. Well sometimes it works like that. I think we were lucky with Genesis to have two fine singers. I wasn’t doing vocals at that time … I was a slow starter, but I do quite a bit of that myself these days.

Speaking of which … as much as I like your vocals on your previous albums, there seems to be kind of a leap forward in the vocal texture and everything on this one.

Yes, I think I’m looking at vocals in the same way that I look at guitars, so I interact with it and insist on certain effects on the voice and I don’t leave it to chance. When you sing a vocal it’s like, where do you want it to come from? Do you want [the vocal] to be right in front of you? Do you want it to be at a distance? And at what distance? So I think the more confident that you get, you can get a better product out of it. If you treat it just like an instrument.

It becomes more specific with time. You think, “I’m looking for that character; I’m looking for something where I can sing it low and hard with a lot of reverb on it, and then sing the melody up the octave.” That’s a vocal style that I started off with many years ago, and I didn’t really follow it through. And I realize that I took exactly the same approach on “Behind The Smoke,” and in a way that’s the vocal style that I think really moves me. I love the idea of it starting out as one thing and perhaps acoustically, and then it becomes something else and builds and builds.

There is a sweeping, dramatic feel to a lot of the tracks on The Night Siren, even more than on some of your previous work. And I’d argue that you’re very, very effective at establishing, shall we say, sort of an emotional backdrop, even before the lyrics come in. So I’m curious: as you’re writing and arranging, is it a conscious goal of yours to create music that serves as sort of a sympathetic or complementary basis for the lyrics?

I’ll tell you what: when I think of the people that I’ve been influenced by, I’ve noticed that there’s something in the way that they use the instruments. And I’m thinking of two acts in particular: the Beatles and Jimmy Webb, particularly Webb’s work with Art Garfunkel on the album Watermark. It’s as if everything has been discussed, everything has been thought about and there’s nothing in there by chance. When those arrangements work like that, you’ll find that it’s hugely influential for certain people.

I know that with Genesis, we all did an interview where we’re talking to Melody Maker at the time and saying that our favorite single was “MacArthur Park.” It was four out of five that said that; we had no idea that each of the others had felt the same way! Jimmy Webb was a template for that, also the Beatles [were]. I think there are some things about that and the work with George Martin where – sometimes – the orchestral dress was as important as the tune.

I had the pleasure of seeing you in Atlanta on the tour last year. The way that you split the concert into two parts was very effective; the audience absolutely loved it. Are you going to take a similar approach on this tour?

Yes. The idea of Genesis Revisited as an ongoing brand is something that I feel is hugely emotional for me. To do that – to re-present those songs that we all fought hard for back in the day – it’s great. But at the same time, I don’t want to be pensioned off into that “Oh, yes: this is what he once did, and this is his most famous thing,” being comfortably retired and keeping the museum doors open for glorious exhibits.

That’s a great thing to do, but on the other hand there is vital music. And the responses to the new stuff that I’ve done have been very, very good, both at concerts and also with record sales. So I can’t complain of that, but I think that Genesis always did open the door for me in a sense.

The concert – one set of your solo music and another of Genesis classics – is a bit like seeing two different shows.

You’re absolutely right, and it is like two separate shows, or two separate films in a way. A film for the ear. But that’s how it feels: that music is very visual, and the Genesis stuff is held in such high esteem by an otherwise disenfranchised following of early Genesis, which included Peter Gabriel as well as Phil Collins as singers. I think it was a very interesting line-up from 1971, when we had both Phil and Pete in the same band at the same time, and of course Pete was the original vocalist.

You stay quite busy; you’ve been releasing an album a year since 2011 or so.

I’ve tried to keep that up, yes. And we’re doing a lot of touring. More and more territories are opening up to us – me and my band – and we’re going to new places we haven’t been before, such as New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. South America as well. So it’s a very, very interesting time. We’re doing the East Coast tour first of all, and then we come back and we do the U.K., we do Europe. We just keep motoring throughout the year.

Is there any chance that you’ll do an additional North American leg after the run of dates that conclude in May?

That may happen later this year. I’m hoping that we’ll come back and, having concentrated more on the East Coast, we may be able to concentrate on the more inner Mid-West and West Coast. But that’s all in an ideal world. Deals have to be done, brokered and all of that, and it’s whatever [management and booking] come up with.

You’re taking part in the Cruise to the Edge again this year. How many of those have you done now?

I’ve done two of them and so this will be the third. I didn’t do the last one but looking forward to that but I’ll be sad to be doing that without the late great Chris Squire, of course.

What do you like best about the floating festivals?

That’s very interesting. It’s a very good way of putting it, “floating festival.” Well, quite apart from people cracking jokes … the first time we ever did it saying, “Well, we’re all in the same boat, ha, ha, ha.” But it’s more than that; these things are huge. They are like floating palaces or floating towns, and everyone goes off. And it’s a microcosm, isn’t it? For a while, and it’s a life on the ocean waves. You either like being on boats or you don’t, and it so happens I do. You get to visit places, you get to meet people, you hang out with the whole crowd, and people loosen up. Bands start to join each other and sit in with each other, and it’s a little bit of jamming that goes on. And that’s very nice.

Photo credit: Tina Korhonen

 

BACK TO THE WELL: Old 97s

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For their latest album, the long-running band decided that recording in a familiar-yet-fresh surrounding was more than just a game plan—it could unlock musical magic anew. Frontman Rhett Miller explains.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

It’s been 20 years since the Old 97’s recorded their breakthrough record, Too Far To Care. Their third album and first for a major label, that 1997 record spawned “Time Bomb,” “Barrier Reef” and a slew of other songs that have gone on to become set staples for the band.

It was recorded at the unassuming Village Productions studio in a little Texas border town not that far from El Paso, tucked amongst 2,000 acres of pecan trees. Not exactly the glam you’d expect from a band newly-flush with record label money.

In the two decades since, the band has toured the globe countless times, put out seven more releases and managed to help pioneer the alt country movement in the process. So, it seems an odd move that the Old 97’s would choose to return to that small studio to record their latest, Graveyard Whistling (ATO Records), rather than opt for some state-of-the-art alternative elsewhere.

One track into the new record, though, and you can see the logic behind the plan as the band emerged with one of their most consistently-satisfying records since, possibly, Too Far To Care.

Frontman Rhett Miller spoke with BLURT recently about the choice to return to Tornillo, Texas to record, what had changed and the note he found in the nightstand there.

BLURT: What made you decide to go back to Tornillo, Texas to record this record?
MILLER: In the two decades since we recorded Too Far To Care at Village Productions outside El Paso, the studio changed its name to Sonic Ranch, tripled in size, and became a bona fide world-class studio. We’ve wanted to return there for years, but it took a nudge from Vance Powell, Graveyard Whistling’s producer, to bring us back into those dusty pecan farms along the Mexican border.

As soon as we pulled up to the Hacienda we knew it was the perfect time for us to return to this magical place that had haunted our dreams for two decades.

Obviously, a lot has changed with the band since you were last there. How much had the studio changed during the time?
Despite the studio having grown in size and stature, many things remained the same. The room where we cut Too Far all those years ago was virtually unchanged, as were the hacienda bedrooms. We each stayed in the room we’d occupied during the Too Far sessions. I can’t understate how the surreal the sensation was of having blinked and seen two decades disappear.

Can you talk about the note you found in the nightstand?
My craziest time-machine moment was when I opened the bedside table drawer and found two handwritten notes I’d left there twenty years earlier. Suffice to say I had to sit down and collect myself.

You mentioned that you recorded Too Far To Care there. By going back to that studio, did you guys want to capture a similar vibe to what was on that album?
Too Far, our third album as a band and first for a major label, has always been something of a touchstone record for us. Fans and band alike point to those songs and performances as the distillation of what is good about the 97’s.

So, the idea of returning to that room and seeing if there was any residual magic appealed to us. Turns out the place was full of magic.

I can’t help but notice the back-to-back songs “Jesus Loves You” and “Good With God.” As a native Texan, I know it’s hard to escape religion there. Can you talk about the meaning behind these two songs?
I grew up in Texas going to church constantly – singing in choirs, serving as an altar boy and acolyte, sometimes just nodding off in the pew. I loved the music. The rest of it got a little complicated. As the songs on this record revealed themselves, I sensed a theme of culpability, of sins coming home to roost.

“Jesus Loves You” is a bawdy sentiment, but definitely wrestles with questions of the spiritual versus the prurient. “Good With God” is more about hubris in the face of karma, which seems like a dangerous proposition to me.

This record is a follow up to Most Messed Up which was your highest charting record. Did it add any more pressure when you started working on the follow up?
Yes. It was a strange sensation for me to have our eleventh album come with such heightened expectations. It definitely made me conscious of making it a different album, a progression rather than more of the same.

You’ve got the new record coming up and a tour. What’s next for you?
I’m working on writing songs, poems, long-form fiction and instructional prose on the craft of songwriting. Like a shark, I must swim or die.

OLD_97S_round4_colors.indd

The band will be hosting the “County Fair 2017” in Dallas next month:

DATE: Saturday April 8th

Location: Main St Garden Park in Downtown Dallas

Lineup:

Old 97s
Lucinda Williams
Mavis Staples
The Jayhawks
Jonathan Tyler
Lydia Loveless
The Vandoliers
Texas Gentlemen
The Gordon Keith Band

Amenities:

45 foot Ferris Wheel
Midway Games
Food Trucks
Kids 10 Under Free
Dog Friendly

 

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… California Oranges’ “John Hughes” (2000)

california oranges

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. Now Prof. Hinely dials the wayback machine to 2000, as John Conley talks about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.”

BY TIM HINELY

You’d think that being two hours east of San Francisco that Sacramento would be a veritable wasteland of musical talent. Ah…but you’d be wrong. Oddly enough for the capitol city of the Golden State (with a population of under 500,000) this hamlet has produced some of the best indie rock music out there. From Tiger Trap to Rocketship to Baby Grand to Arts & Leisure to too many others (you’ll see ‘em below). Well, a big part of that fabric is the music of the crew of John Conley and his sister Katie, the Levine Brothers (Ross and his brother Matt) and Verna Brock (who was also in Rocketship for a time as well as doing her solo project under the name of Beanpole). They’ve been spread out amongst bands like Holiday Flyer, Desario and Soft Science, but there was one band that all of them had passed through at one point: California Oranges.

For their self-titled debut from 2000 (On Darla Records) the band was a trio of John, Verna and Ross. For later albums both Katie and Matt came aboard to make the band a 5-piece, but this particular song, “John Hughes” was from the previously mentioned debut.

For those of us used to the (mostly) very soft sounds of Holiday Flyer, “John Hughes” came popping out of the speakers like an M-80 stuffed inside a high school locker. A joyous blast of unbridled melody. The song is all about a guy trying to get the courage to ask a girl out, which, as we males know, in those high school years were the mostly nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing experience (personally I had to know 100% that the girl liked me before I would even ask her out and even then I’d be ready to have a heart attack while other guys in school, those with no fear at all of rejection, would walk up to any girl an ask them out, usually getting shot down and laugh about it).

“John Hughes” is one of my favorite songs by the California Oranges and I was curious about its origins. I shot some questions over to John Conley and he was more than happy to give me some answers.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

CONLEY: Well, I guess John Hughes and his films. As I teenager I could really identify with the characters. I must have been re-watching at the time. I was also really into Kevin Smith (he is referenced is the song) and his films reminded of the Hughes.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

If I remember correctly, it came together pretty quick.

I think it was one of the last songs I wrote for the first album.

I had the main guitar riff and the melody and first verse.

I remember showing the song to Verna and Ross, and they both really liked it.

I think we knew at that point it would start the album.

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

I’m pretty sure it was one of our most popular songs. I was going to be featured in a documentary about John Hughes. Ross Levine and I were interview for the movie and the band rerecorded the song to be included on the soundtrack. We were told we made it through the 3rd or 4th cut of the film. During the editing process of the movie John Hughes passed away and the music portion of the movie was shortened.

Here are some links about the film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0fPLN459_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don’t_You_Forget_About_Me_(film)

john conley

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

It stayed in the live set up through the 3rd album.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

No, I think it’s a good snapshot of where I was as a songwriter at the time.

I wanted to do something very different from Holiday Flyer. I feel we mostly succeed. When the band started playing live, one comparisons we got was Belle and Sebastian meets Ramones.

I always liked that.

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

I think the recording came out cool. We wrote and recorded that album very quickly. Verna (Brock) and I each had 5 song ideas. We rehearsed with Ross (Levine) 3 or 4 times and recorded and mixed the record in the evenings or a week. JH is my favorite song on that album. I do have some problems with the production on that album as a whole, but “John Hughes” came out great. We also recorded a cover of Vanilla Blue by Naked  Raygun during that session that is one of my favorite recordings California Orange did.

 How do you feel about it now?
I still really like this song. It’s so different from what I’m doing now in Desario, but I’m proud of this period in my music career.

 

A NEW SOUND FOR KIDS THAT’S COOL: StevenSteven

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Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips) and Steve Burns (“Blues Clues”) join forces and make music everyone can enjoy.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Children’s music is often shunned by those who look for sounds of a more “serious” variety. For those who are don’t have kids of their own, or whose kids have matured beyond the early adolescent state, it means music of a specialized nature, great for weaning infants but hardly the kind of thing to share as an everyday pastime.

These days though, that may be an outmoded notion. More and more artists who once provided  the soundtracks for emerging maturity and the everyday challenges of love, life and the consequences of being a grown up in an oppressive world, have now turned their attention to making music for the younger set, achieving respectable results in the process.

Even so, Steven Drozd, best known as Flaming Lips’s multi-instrumentalist — a band that’s built a reputation on being avant-garde experimenters of the decidedly eccentric variety — and Steve Burns, the host of the children’s program “Blues Clues,” have joined forces under the all-too-appropriate handle StevenSteven. Their recently released debut album, Foreverywhere, does the improbable, offering up songs about princesses and unicorns that the kids can enjoy with adroit and intriguing melodies that adults will find immediately accessible as well. This isn’t your parent’s children’s music, or anything like the sounds us adults might have been nurtured on early on. It is instead, remarkably enticing, a set of songs that ought to appeal to Flaming Lips fans, and anyone else that prefers music with a decidedly progressive posture.

BLURT recently spoke with the two Stevens – depending on how one interpret text fonts, the duo could arguably be called Steve N Steven, which in fact is how one of their videos is listed –  and asked them to share the backstory of how their collaboration came about.

BLURT: For starters, how did you guys hit it off so quickly?

DROZD: I think it’s a testament to what a stellar human being Burns is. We met in late 2001 at Tarbox Road Studios in Fredonia, New York, The session was set up by Dave Fridmann, long-time Flaming Lips producer, and I only had a few of Burns’ demos to go on. I didn’t really know of “Blues Clues” (this was before I had kids), and I just had no idea what the vibe would be. Burns disarmed me within fifteen minutes and we were instantly laughing and talking about absurd, stupid, silly things. I knew immediately that we were going to work great together.

BURNS: We share a similar sense of humor — dark, but goofy, Steven is a remarkably unpretentious guy. He’s a very open book. We also shared a surprising amount of musical favorites, and that’s always a trusty barometer of potential friendship. Plus you have to remember that the (Flaming Lips album) The Soft Bulletin was — and still is — my favorite album of all time, so he probably could have poured a glass of chocolate milk over my head and smacked me in the face with a trout and I would have been completely accepting of it.

BLURT: Had either of you tried making kids music individually before this?

DROZD: I had made a couple of silly songs for kinds of my friends, but nothing too substantial.

BURNS: I hadn’t, but recording the songs of “Blue’s Clues” episodes was always my favorite part of the day. I love the process of making and recording music…more than performing it really. I just find it so fascinating.

BLURT: Was this project intimidating at all, knowing you had a very specific young audience you were trying to reach?

DROZD: By the time we decided to make the record, we had received such positive feedback for  our song “I Hog The Ground” that it felt like we were meant to make this music! It was mostly fun — Burns had the kid friendly educational content to consider. But I just got to make music that I was very comfortable making

BURNS: I think children are a very difficult and demanding audience if you’re serious at all about being sincere with them. I’ve always sort of made it my mission not to talk down to kids with the entertainment I provide them, and that’s much easier said than done.

BLURT: What is it about Foreverywhere that finds such appeal with both kids and adults? Is that a difficult divide?

DROZD: I guess it can be difficult, but there really is a long history of music that is loved by both kids and adults that isn’t just kid music. The Beatles, Vince Guaraldi, “Sesame Street,” etc. – I guess we were trying to connect the things we loved as kids to what we could listen to now and also have our kids love. I think it has worked in that way as I hear from a lot of people that specific things on the album remind them of their own childhood.

BURNS: I don’t think there has to be such a division between what makes great music for children and what makes great music for adults. Drozd mentioned Vince Guaraldi, and I think it’s a terrific example of music that is both. There’s plenty of overlapping space to explore.

BLURT: Still, most family friendly music these days seems to be aimed wholly at children. Why do you think that is? Why does it not engage adults as well?

DROZD: There is just so much music in general these days. We are inundated on a very regular basis with so much stuff. It’s like the Onion headline from a few years back — “U.S. children born with 1,000 songs on their iPods!” Haha… it’s true, though. My kids know #so much# music and they’re still very young. So, I think the children-specific idea is to try to make a mark in a sea of new stuff. But, we want the kids and their parents to connect…

BLURT: The kids market has become huge in the last decade…How have you seen it evolve? Was the fact that the market has really embraced it an impetus for the two of you to dive in?

DROZD: We did the song “I Hog The Ground” back in 2006-2007, and it felt like this big wave was happening. I thought the wave would crest, but it seems as though it just flooded and then became a whole new market, which is great timing for us…

BURNS: It does seem like there is an impulse out there to return to children’s entertainment that works on many levels at once. I grew up on the Muppets and Electric Company. I might not have understood all the jokes with actual clarity, but I knew they were inherently “funny,” and all of that informed my sense of humor in a positive way.  I think people are coming back around to multi-level content in general.

BLURT: What is it that each of you brings to this project that was specifically gleaned from what you had done before — specifically “Blue’s Clues” and the Flaming Lips?

DROZD: I just make a lot of music, and I like to make music for different things and with different people and projects. Working with Burns is fun and pretty rewarding. We’re on the same exact plane 95% of the time. I’ve fooled him into thinking I’m a musical genius and he is an actual genius.

BURNS: I feel like the curricular parts of the record are pretty relaxed and from the hip, but Drozd keeps reminding me that I was a total stickler for the details of the content and lyrics. That’s #definitely# a vestige of my time on “Blue’s Clues,” which was so painstakingly researched and considered.

BLURT: How do you think the fans of your previous work will take to this? What’s been the reaction so far?

DROZD: There’s been a lot of great support from so many different people. I think Flaming Lips fans that like certain elements of The Lips hear things that they recognize and respond to.

BURNS: What’s freaking me out, truly, truly blowing my mind, is that fans of my previous work have spawned new fans of my previous work, and that sometimes both present and previous fans of my previous work are fans of our present work at the same time. In the present.

BLURT: What was the overall idea/concept at the heart of this album?

DROZD: Wondering is wonderful. Being excited and having your mind expanded and your heart open at all times is what to strive for.

BURNS: Yup. What he said. That, and never giving up. There is often great beauty in the struggle!

BLURT: How difficult is this to replicate on stage? Is there a lot of storytelling involved? Did you model your touring show after any particular precedent, such as Disney, “Sesame Street,” etc.?

DROZD: We are figuring out the live show literally right now. There is storytelling, puppetry, rock n roll hootchie koo, sadness, epic wonder. All of those things. Hopefully it’s gonna work!

BLURT: So what’s next? Will you continue to work together, and if so, will it be a challenge to balance it against your “day jobs?”

DROZD: We will definitely continue to work together, and, if the upcoming Brooklyn Bowl show goes well, we will definitely find a way to perform together whenever we both have any free time.

BURNS: I want to do a Bing Crosby/David Bowie-esque holiday album that’s part music, part radio theater, full of sound effects and characters from our first album and stuff. That’s my idea, so please don’t steal it if you’re reading this. Thanks.