From Lifeboat, Tackle Box, and beyond, the indie rock auteur spills the beans. (This interview originally appeared in Dr. Hinely’s most excellent Dagger ‘zine.)
BY TIM HINELY
I had met Greg “Skeggie” Kendall as a person before I even knew about his music. Sort of. He was road managing The Chills when I saw them in about 1989/1990 or so. I was backstage doing an interview with The Chills’ Martin Phillipps (for my zine, DAGGER) and Skeggie brought him a big salad (not “the big salad” like on Seinfeld but a big salad nonetheless) and faked this posh British accent when he put it down in front of Martin and stated, “Your dinner sir.” I laughed and Skeggie and I chatted bit that evening. He seemed like a real friendly, jovial type, completely unlike some other road managers types I had met throughout the years.
So I’d already missed the boat on his band Lifeboat though I’d heard of them and was sure I’d heard some Lifeboat songs. Then missed his next band, Tackle Box until my pal Jeremy Grites told me I had to hear them which was in the late 90’s or maybe 2000. I picked up copies of those cds, On and Grand Hotel (both released in 1993, if I have my story straight, and both on the Rockville label. They also released “The Wheat Penny Single” 7” the same year on Rockville. Fun fact: his rhythm section on those records, Brian Dunton and Sean King Devlin went on to work with Mary Timony in Helium) and both are filled with the kind of at times loud/ at times soft rock music that too many people missed but really should have heard. As you’ll read below he’s done plenty of other stuff, musically speaking.
You know I like to dig a little deeper, go for some more obscure folks to interview, and it was on a whim that I’d reached out to Skeggie to see if he might want to answer a few questions. Thankfully he did and by reading below you’ll learn about the long strange trip that Mr. Greg Kendall has been on all these years. Long live Skeggie!
Where were you born? Did you grow up in the Boston area?
I was born in Norwalk, CT. In the three years following, my family moved to as many states: from Norwalk to Santa Barbara, CA.; Santa Barbara to Red Hook, in upstate NY; Red Hook to Huntsville, AL. I mostly grew up in Huntsville, but our family did weird satellite missions to other places for awkward fragments of school years. There was half of third grade in Atlantic Beach on Long Island, and before that, a 1968 Cocoa Beach summer at the Del-Ray Motel that stretched beyond the first day of school because my father worked for the space program at Cape Canaveral. Eight months for eighth grade in Gaithersburg, MD, then washing up in Middletown, RI in 1973. So, to answer your question, no, I did not grow up in the Boston area. I moved there in 1981, when I was 21.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
I was lucky to have an older brother who was way into music, so I was exposed to scads of great music from very early on. Simply, AM top forty radio WAS my childhood. I tried, but didn’t buy the first record I wanted to buy. There are many tales of the infamous Columbia Record Club. Our family returned from a vacation in what, 1968?, to find a package at our front door I’d ordered from the back of a magazine. “The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees” is the one I remember. My parents were pissed and had to undo the bad deal and returned that record and the other two that were delivered. I eventually bought that album, and of course loved it. The Monkees are the best band ever.
When did you first pick up an instrument? Was it a guitar?
5 years old. Ukulele. Soon after, the guitar. Cat gut string. My first gig was in kindergarten in Huntsville singing “My Old Kentucky Home” with my brother and sister. There are some uncomfortable lyrics in that tune for three little kids to be singing in 1965 Alabama. (It was only recently that I discovered the origin and intent of the song. Interesting history.)
Was Tackle Box your first band? If not tell us about bands prior to it.
Lots of bands before Tackle Box. That was like 1992-93. It’s hard to list the catalogue without supplying background in order to provide fun context. You gotta understand that back in the day we were in the middle of the suburban punk rock expansion explosion, jumping off of what we were gleaning from the CBGB’s scene of the late 1970s and the Detroit thing of MC5 and the Stooges, and also Blue Oyster Cult’s early stuff, not to mention most importantly Lou Reed. I worked backward from “Rock n Roll Animal” to the Velvet Underground in 1975-76. It was mind-blowing. It’s impossible to encapsulate in a brief answer. I moved into the upstairs of a nightclub in Newport RI in 1978. I lived there for two years. I was like 18 and 19 years old. I saw a load of wild shit, ingested a ton of drugs, and had a lot of fun. Johnny Thunders was a regular. I hung out with Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, J.B. Hutto, and Max Romeo. I held court with Carl Perkins. I played regularly with Jonathan Richman, Mission of Burma, Human Sexual Response, and The Neighborhoods. What else can I say, except that I’m sure there’s a bunch of cool stuff that I can’t remember, plus can’t believe I don’t have Hep C or some other nasty affliction. Our band, Bob Lawton’s Boots —look it up—we were there from the git-go of punk rock. Just sayin’.
Tell us about seeing bands in Boston the 80’s? With the amount of amazing talent there back then you must have had some magical nights!
Yes. Some great nights were involved. “Magical” is a good adjective. I moved to Boston in 1981. It was an exciting time in local music to be there. “Magical” because one had to invent one’s scene if you didn’t dovetail easily into an existing one. A Boston rock scene was in full play, with the ‘Hoods, Mission Burma, Lyres, Neats, Del Fuegos, etc, etc., but to bust into that world required stamina and songs, particularly if you were in a jangly pop band like mine —Arms Akimbo, which became Lifeboat. We had much more in common with the North Carolina and Georgia music scenes than the grittier Boston sound. We had to work hard to prove ourselves, and we pretty much did. That band broke up in 1987.
How did Tackle Box come about?
The Brothers Kendall were a thing after Lifeboat’s varied successes and failures. My brother Bobby and I wrote a bunch of songs and played a bunch of gigs in 1988-89, maybe 90? I don’t know. We made a record for Bar None with Peter Holsapple from the dBs that never came out, mostly because the record sucked, (through no fault of Peter’s). But, tell you what, I loved that band. We made some music I’m quite proud of. The core of that band became Tackle Box. Shawn Devlin is an amazing drummer I’ve been playing with since the Newport days; Mike Leahy is a genius guitarist (he’s played with Juliana Hatfield, Buffalo Tom, and Pell Mell, among others); and bassist Brian Dunton, (with Devlin, the original Helium rhythm section) are great to work with.
When I (briefly) met you back then you were a tour manager for The Chills. Had you been making your living doing that? If so what other bands did you tour manage?
Wow! Where/when did we meet? That was a goofy gig. If anyone ever asks you, “Hey, should I consider a cross-country tour that requires road managing, driving the van, being the sole roadie and — get this—opening solo act?,” you’re answer should be, “No, definitely don’t do that.”
I also went out as a roadie for the bands Big Dipper, The Feelies, and for the longest stretch, Throwing Muses. I love all of them, very much. So many tales to tell.
How did the deal with Rockville Records come about? Who ran that label (I only knew about Homestead back then).
Jeff Pachman signed us. It just happened I guess because he heard our songs and liked us. I honestly don’t know any other reason.
When/ why did Tackle Box end? Did you have any bands after that?
We all got busy with other stuff, and honestly I was becoming ambivalent about what had started to feel like asking people if they liked me through music. After all those years, I guess hit sort of a mental roadblock. I had a new family, with back-to-back sons, and that had an impact I’m sure on my commitment to touring and other time-consuming aspects of being in a band. But I found a new musical outlet when I fell into scoring film. Doug Macmillan from the band the Connells introduced me to director John Schultz, who enlisted me to write songs for his film Bandwagon, and then asked me to score it. The film screened and was bought at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, which eventually led me to score Schultz’s 1998 Drive Me Crazy for 20th Century Fox. It was a fun, exciting and satisfying time, despite the steep learning curve.
Who are some of your favorite current bands or musicians?
My son’s projects are what I’d like to talk about.
DJ Lucas https://soundcloud.com/djlucasma
Weird Dane https://soundcloud.com/weirddane
They’ve got a whole lot stuff going on. Their collective, called Dark World, is knee-deep in music making, video projects and fashion design.
Care to tell us your top 10 desert island discs?
It’s hard to get it down to ten, but let’s go with…
Velvet Underground (self-titled third album)
Velvet Underground “Loaded”
New York Dolls “New York Dolls”
New York Dolls “Too Much Too Soon”
Jean Jacques Perry “The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sound Of Jean Jacques Perry”
Yo La Tengo “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One”
Joni Mitchell “Blue”
Chet Baker “ Let’s Get Lost”
David Bowie “Hunky Dory”
Brian Eno “Music For Airports”
(Plus any and all releases from Gram Parsons)
Tell us about the reunion gig that Tackle Box recently played. Will there be more?
That was super-fun. I hope for more. I love those guys, and I think we rock real nice together. We fell into playing together as if we hadn’t taken over twenty years off.
What is it that you do now? Something in the film industry?
From 2002-2012, my wife Connie White and I booked documentary films into cinemas as Balcony Releasing. We distributed over twenty films in that period. Currently, I’m working with my wife’s company Balcony Booking. She’s the film buyer for eighteen independent art houses and three film festivals.
Check out our new site here: https://www.balconyfilm.com/
Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
It’s been a long and interesting trip, including my recent graduation from college in May 2016. With all that music stuff going on, I completely forgot to go to college, so I entered in 2012, and graduated four years later from UMass Amherst with a self-designed BA in Historical New England Documentary Studies.
Also, I’m about to embark on a new musical adventure— or I should say, a potential adventure. I’m going to Raleigh, NC to hang with my buddy Doug MacMillan from the Connells. If it works out, we’re thinking about planning a two-hander that explores the odd lives we’ve led in the music business, including stories and songs in a fun and reflective show. We’ll see. I hope it happens. I love those Connells songs.
BONUS QUESTION: Did you ever hear from Mark Lindsay about the song “Mark Lindsay’s Ponytail?”
I have a signed copy from Mark Lindsay of the Tackle Box “Wheat Penny” single that has “Ponytail” on the B-side. He says he liked it. I’m proud to say that one of my songs, “Eeenie Meenie Miney Moe,” originally recorded with Tuffskins, (a fun post-Tackle Box mini-project) was rehearsed by the fantastic Los Straitjackets with vocals by Mark Lindsay for consideration on an album. Alas, a release was not to be. But still, that feels really good, and the song was eventually recorded and released as a single by Rochester, NY garage-rockers Ian and the Aztecs. So, all’s well, that ends well.
A striking new album from the songwriter pulls music out of the ether.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
“I’m one part psychedelic gypsy and three parts blue-eyed refugee,” Mike Scott sings on his new album, and indeed that description gives some small insight into his musical persona. Yet it doesn’t tell all. Not by a long shot.
The fact is, Scott has never lacked for ambition. As both the erstwhile leader of the Waterboys and a journeyman all on his own, he’s specialised in sweeping widescreen epochs that draw on his Scottish origins by recalling the grace and grandeur of his homeland’s rugged windswept environs. The band’s archetypical classics This Is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues set the standard, but in the 30 years since, Scott has never stopped challenging himself or those who await every note with breathless anticipation.
Nevertheless, Scott remains something of an anomaly, a perennial troubadour ever in search of his musical roots. Evocative, inspired and imbued with spiritual essence, Scott strives to connect the music of his Scottish forebears with the appeal necessary to lure a contemporary audience.
Scott’s latest effort under the Waterboys moniker is entitled Out of All This Blue, a sprawling two record set (Three in the deluxe version) that finds him paying homage to certain cities visited on his last American tour — New York, Nashville and Santa Fe in particular — while also experimenting with new rhythms that drive his music into new and more experimental realms. It’s a remarkable ambitious effort, created mostly by Scott himself with studio assists from veteran bassist David Hood, ongoing compatriot, fiddler Steve Wickham, Brother Paul on keys and Zach Ernst on lead guitar. Stunning in its scope, it’s easily Scott’s most diverse set yet.
Blurt recently had the opportunity to speak to Scott from New York where we found him in the midst of a series of press interviews for the new album. He graciously gave of his time in sharing insights into the new album and his career overall.
BLURT: So how are you doing Mike?
SCOTT: I’m fine. I just arrived here in New York last night.
Apparently you love New York, at least according to that song on your new album, “New York, I Love You.”.
I’m a downtown dude, but I’m here in Midtown so I feel like I’m in a foreign country.
Your latest album is wonderful as always. So what went into the writing of these songs? How long have they been gestating, so to speak?
They were written in a period from April 2015 to the end of 2016. It was recorded quickly in between concert tours and festivals. I worked with some hip-hop and funk beats which I manipulated to get just the way I wanted them. I was working on my own mostly, but I did bring members of the band in for individual sessions. Much of the work was done solitary at my home studio. To me, it sounds like a departure, leading into a more funk or pop region, which is somewhere in the background of the Waterboys’ music. It’s kind of like “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandelas. I never realized how big an influence on me that it was. And now it’s all come to the fore on this record.
So how did this all come about? What have you been listening to specifically that might have had an impact on you?
I never listen to rock music at all. What I listen to is jazz and soul music. A lot of music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s… Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Booker T and the MGs, Marvin Gaye, Motown singles, King Curtis. That’s my speed, man. So now I’m trying to make music like that for the first time. I’m actually channelling those influences.
At one point, you opted to go solo and you branded your albums with your name only. Yet, the band is still centered around you, and so at this point, how much of the Waterboys is about you, and how much is about the band?
It’s a blur. It is me and I’m the center of the operation. The last album, Modern Blues, was a band album, and so we do come together and record as a band. But this album, it’s mostly me. And yet, the other musicians are a big part of it. Steve Wickham was my great musical advisor on this record. He was one of the go to guys that would be give me feedback when I needed it, when I wanted to test an arrangement or direction. Steve only plays on half the album with his fiddle, but his musical ear was involved on the whole record. I also used several Americans on this record and they had a huge influence on my writing because I felt as if I was writing the songs for them to play. A lot of American people are Anglophiles who think life is greener on the other side of the Atlantic, but it’s the other way around for me and other people from Britain. We think American music is the “It.” We are so enamoured of places like New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Nashville – the cradle of all these great kinds of American music. So having these American guys in the band was a great thrill, especially David Hood. David Hood was part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He played with James Brown. He played on “Loves Me like a Rock” with Paul Simon. He played with the Staple Singers and now he’s in my band! So that was a big inspiration for me, to think I’m writing songs for those guys to play. There was big influences from the band members even if they didn’t play on the whole thing.
American music has always seemed to be a big lure for musicians from other parts of the world. But English music is a fascination for us over here, and one of the things that has always been so fascinating about the Waterboys are those Celtic sounds that were so integral to the early music.
They’re still there, but they are very much in the background at the moment. They’re like a band member who is back in the shadows and comes forward to do a solo. The next record which I’ve already started on goes much further into the world of beats and hip hop production values. But I’ve also used some Celtic material on the next record and matched it with the hip hop sounds.
This new album shows your obvious infatuation with the States based on the titles alone. For example, “New York, I Love You,” “Santa Fe,” Nashville, Tennessee”… Was this album intended to be a love letter to America?
Not consciously, no. Those three songs were the first songs written for the record. They all came after a big American tour when my head was filled with the sights and sounds of the U.S.A. Nashville was written on a flight from Atlanta to Nashville, when we played at Third and Lindsey last year. We did the song as our encore. I taught it to the band during our soundcheck. I whipped it up on the plane coming over, wrote it down on a piece of paper and when we did it as an encore, the audience cheered in all the right places. And of course, when I mentioned Nashville Tennessee, they all went crazy. That version is on the bonus disc of the album. You can hear the audience participation.
It sounds like some of the songs came rather quickly and some had been around since the last album.
They began in the summer of 2015 and they all came rather quickly. I do have several years of backed up songs, but that wasn’t the case here. These are all new recordings.
Were there songs that weren’t used this time around? Songs that didn’t make the cut?
Yes, there were three or four that were good enough for the record, but I didn’t get it down to the right version. Those will be on the next record, including the title track, “Out of All This Blue.”
Was the fact that you had a wealth of quality material that inspired you to make this a double album? Was there any initial thought as to making it a single album?
I had the conviction to make it a double album. I wanted to take the band into the studio for two weeks and do a double. It was time. So I kept writing, and fortunately for me, the songs kept coming, and they came fast. And then something happened in my mind to change the plan. When we finished our tour at the end of 2015, I realized that we hadn’t made any money. We had only broken even. So I didn’t have a budget to go into the studio, which had been my plan. I didn’t want to wait, although I could have waited through another summer festival season and made money that way. But it would have been too hard to wait and I wanted to go into the studio straight away. So I started working at home with beats and loops. Fortunately, our drummer, who is one of the top drummers in the U.K. — we’re very lucky to have him — made one of these drum collections like drummers do. I asked for a copy, and he said fine. But unfortunately, due to technology, you can only get it through the drum loop website. So he sent me to this place called producerloops.com and it had thousands of super cool hip-hop beats. I spent a lot of time going through them, and the ones I got were the dirtiest, funkiest things that I could find. So it gave me many, many grooves for this album. I loved the loops so much I just kept using them. As I said, I didn’t have a budget for this album so it worked out really well.
It appears that throughout your career, you’ve never lost your inspiration. You’ve gone from peak to peak. After some 35 years, you still seem to be as inspired as always. How are you able to sustain that enthusiasm?
I’ve been asked this question a lot and I don’t mind it at all. It’s a good question. The real answer is that I don’t know. I’m still hungry and I’m still turned on by music. I’m not sure why and I don’t know any other way to be. I don’t know why it is the way it is for me. If I could speculate, I would say that there have been a few times throughout my musical life where I could have compromised and done what people wanted me to do. But it would have gone contrary to my musical instincts and cost me big time in terms of my inspiration. It’s that inspiration that helps me to keep going. That’s not to say that I occasionally lose it. I’ve had a few years where I didn’t have any new songs. But when that happens, I don’t get hung up on it. I just wait for the muse to reappear again and it always does.
You had great success early on — with albums such as This Is the Sea and Dream Harder in particular. You sold a lot of records, had great success on the charts, and it was at a relatively early stage in your career. Did that set that a high bar that you felt compelled to exceed every time out after that?
No, I didn’t at all. I don’t think much about chart positions. Of course, I’m very happy when my songs are successful. When they’re hits, it’s a wonderful feeling. I want the maximum number of people to hear them. So I’m not just making records for myself in my cave. I’m making them with the audience in mind. But I still do what I do regardless of whether it falls into fashion and whether the critics and the public go out and buy the record. I’m still going to do it anyway. In ’85 to ’93 when the records went into the charts, it was great, but I think this record is better than any of those records, and maybe the last one was too. And maybe the one before that as well. But I think part of it was because I was a young artist, and I had an awareness of myself. Everybody likes writing about new artists who they can claim to have discovered or can take kudos for having discovered. It’s very difficult to get that attention when there’s not that newness any more. But I love making records regardless. And even the success that I had during that period was mainly in the U.K. and Europe. I didn’t really have a big American record. I still want that. That keeps me motivated because I feel that I still have something to prove. I think I’m as good a singer, writer, and artist as anyone of my generation. Some have done better than me, but I think I’m as good as them in a competitive way. So I think I still have something to prove.
What sort of feedback do you get back from fans? Do you have an opportunity to interact?
Yes, of course. I’m active on the internet, on social media. I’m on twitter, so people are always tweeting me about my music and Donald Trump.
Your Dear Mr. Yates album, based on the work of the poet of the same name, was very interesting. Out of curiosity, is there some other literary influence that might inspire a similar album in the future?
I don’t think so. I think it’s possible I might do a themed album along those lines, a specific topic album, but not a poet’s work again, no. Only Yates had that effect on me.
You just mentioned Trump and the tweets. Do you have an interest in politics or the state of the world to such an extent it might influence your direction?
Anything that I feel strongly about is up for songwriting, but so far, even though I have strong feelings about Trump and his fake government, I haven’t written anything about that. I did write two songs with some topical interest however. One is called “Eye Candy for the Ladies,” which is written from Donald’s point of view. (sings) “Oh man, I’m eye candy for the ladies, oh man I’m a beautiful thing.” It went on like that, but it wasn’t good enough. So I gave up on singing about Donald Trump. It just wasn’t any fun. Then I had another one called “Pink in America, White,” which was inspired by those idiots who gathered in the south with burning torches and all their ideas about white supremacy. It was good, but it didn’t quite meet my standards. So until one does, I ain’t going to be writing about it.
As someone from the U.K. who has spent a lot of time in the States, how do you see what’s going on over here? Has your view of the U.S. changed at all?
I think there’s an identity crisis going on for America. America is a young country. It’s 241 years old and it’s relatively young. So I see America as a relatively young and gifted teenager, but one that’s going through an identity crisis. Isn’t America supposed to be a multicultural, give me your people yearning to be free kind of place, or is it actually a paranoid, right wing, white supremacist nation with those fanatics, the evangelical Christians? Which is it? America hasn’t decided yet?
It seemed like the country had decided until certain elements came into play.
Yes, but the bonkers, religious right wing has been growing since the ‘70s. I remember the moral majority and all that. It got stronger and stronger and became the Tea Party, and now there’s Trump. It’s been there a long time. It’s part of America’s DNA and they’re up for a revolution. That’s what I think. A transformation.
It’s a little scary.
Yes, very scary.
Getting back to the subject of music, let’s go back a bit. What were your early influences? Were you raised in a musical family? What were you listening to growing up?
My mum and dad had a record player. I can still see it now. It was one of those polished wood gramophones with a radio. It was actually called a radiogram. You’d open a little door and there was actually a sweet smelling little record deck inside and there was a panel where you could store your LPs. I remember we had Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. And they had 78s as well and I used to play those. Then I got turned on to the pop charts when I was about nine years old, and mum and dad would buy me a single every week.
Your parents nurtured your musical interest. That was nice.
So at what point did you decide that this was what you wanted to do?
When I was 12 years old.
That’s early on!
Yes. My dad gave me a guitar for my tenth birthday and it leaned against the wall for about 18 months until a friend of mine showed me three chords – E, A and B7. So at first I could play “At the Hop,” “Ride a White Swan,” “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Long Tall Sally,” any of those old tracks. So that’s what I did in my bedroom.
You seem to have a very spiritual sensibility about you, and it’s always been present in your music, whether it’s at the surface or not. How does that spirituality inform you, musically, personally or otherwise?
There’s just seems to be a sense of enlightenment about what you do.
Well, thank you.
It seems like you look to a higher plain. And that seems to have been an element in the Waterboys’ music since the beginning. There’s that upward glance. Is that something you can talk about? Where does it come from? Is it inspired by the music, or the other way around? Is it a desire to share some part of the universe?
It’s hard for me to get perspective on it because I don’t know anything else. I think you put it correctly when you said maybe it comes naturally and I don’t think about it. I don’t belong to any specific religion. I was never interested in Christianity when I was growing up. The form of Christianity that I knew in Scotland was very gray and very boring. Singing hymns and going to church never interested me at all. I think I learned more about life and living by reading the Narnia books than anything that I’ve read since. I wouldn’t say the Narnia books are a Christian allegory or anything, because I don’t think the author, C.S. Lewis, was bound by his Christianity. He transcended it. He managed to manage to articulate wisdom and spiritual truth that are common to all the world’s great religions. If I was to meet C.S. Lewis, I would disagree with him about Christianity, but I would agree with him about love. What I learned about his books was the power of love. There’s a line in one of my new songs called “If the Answer is Yeah,” and the guy in the song has to answer the question, “Do you own your own shadow?” I’ve learned that if I want to progress as a human being you’ve got to own your own shadow. I have to look into my own darkest corners, see what’s there and own my own problems. Yes, that was me and when I do that, I can recognize my own light. So that’s a constant daily thing to work on, and now that I’m a dad for the first time at the age of 54 — my sons are age four and seven months — these are things that I will teach them as they grow up.
There’s a lot of spiritual profundity in what you just said. It’s very profound and that’s what I was referring to. You share a lot of insight through your music. There’s an awareness that’s always been a hallmark of your music since the beginning.
In my career, there have been times when that’s come right to the forefront of my music, and it’s very costly to do that. When I began my solo career in the mid ‘90s, I did so in a way that was very counterproductive. When George Michael went solo, after he had a lot of success with Wham, he had his greatest commercial success with “Careless Whisper,” which was recorded in an American studio with the great Jerry Wexler and the cream of America’s session musicians. It had a super cool saxophone riff. And it was so well produced and well promoted and that’s how he started his solo career. It was like a home run. I started my solo career making a one man, acoustic, spiritual album in a spiritual community and playing all the instruments myself. I couldn’t have done it in a more different way than George. And it cost me commercially. I don’t mind because it’s what I had to do at the time. So what I’m saying is, sometimes these things come right to the front of the music. These days. I don’t feel the need to write about those topics. Still, they always sink into the lyrics a little bit. They’re always informing the lyrics. So I can see how you pick up on that.
There’s a certain mystique that accompanies your music, and that’s what creates great anticipation for every new album. It will always have that uplifting element to it.
So what’s the plan going forward from here?
I’m going to tour in the U.K. and Europe in six weeks’ time with a nine piece band! We have a couple of backup singers as well as the lead guitarist from the band Royal Southern Brotherhood. A really cool player. Then we’ll have a little bit of a break and then in the spring and after that we’re going to tour again in Britain. Then I hope to come back to the U.S.A. and Japan as well. And then I hope to finish the next record as well.
Above: Scott with his fiddler Steve Wickham. Below, a video clip of the duo performing in Austin during SXSW 2013 at BLURT’s annual day party.
Songwriter, guitarist, singer, artist, a mentor, an inspiration—a spark.
BY FRED MILLS
Dynamic Nashville indie rockers Those Darlins broke up last year, but the garagey and totally rock ‘n’ roll outfit left behind a memorable decade-long legacy. Simply stated, and as we put it in a 2013 feature on the band, the group served up “tough, fully realized songs; muscular, rocking playing; smart arrangements; convincing singing—the whole package.”
So… this week brought the immensely sad news that one of Those Darlins’ two frontwomen, Jessi Zazu, has passed away from cervical cancer, leaving a huge hole in the collective heart of we here at BLURT, and no doubt in the hearts of fans across the globe. The Tennessean reported that she died Tuesday, September 12, at Nashville’s Centennial hospital. She had family members and friend with her at the time of her passing.
The gifted, witty musician was only 28, which makes the loss all the more poignant. She was raised a musical family (her uncle was country star Steve Wariner), telling us, in that 2013 interview, “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
Zazu, fellow guitarist Nikki Kvarnes, and bassist Kelley Anderson formed the band in ’06, eventually drafting drummer Linwood Regensburg after the release of their 2009 self-titled debut, and with the release of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the critical floodgates—not to mention the public’s adoration—poured forth. Early on, the word was that the almost-all-gal band was a distaff take on the venerable insurgent country ethos (as epitomized by the Bloodshot Recs stable of mavericks). Which was fair enough; twang ‘n’ drawl was certainly a large part of the band’s sound, abetted by telling covers of both A.P. Carter and Uncle Dave Macon, and it was also pretty hard to overlook their moniker and their record label name (the delightfully blue collar-sounding Oh Wow Dang Records) in terms of presuming some serious hillbilly action going on. But by the time of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the group’s garage-punk roots were also on clear display, with reverby electric guitars as prominent as strummed acoustics, and some serious ‘60s girl-group vocals creeping into the mix as well.
Though Anderson left the following year, to be replaced by Adrian Barrera (from Gentlemen Jesse & His Men), Those Darlins lost no momentum, leading to 2013’s Roger Moutenot-produced Blur the Line, which figured highly—and in many cases, topped—that year’s best-of lists from critics and fans. (Pick to click: The sexysaucycool, almost T.Rex-like “In the Wilderness,” accompanied by an even sexier and cooler video.) It was a bold, mature, genre-traversing album beholden to no single factor other than talent. Sadly, the group wouldn’t last to cut a fourth album although for Record Store Day 2015 they did appear on a split album with Diarrhea Planet, Live at Pickathon.
“On December 9, 2015, the band announced, via its Facebook page, that it was going on hiatus. “We’re here to deliver some unfortunate news… Those Darlins will be taking an indefinite hiatus effective after our final tour in January. We’ve had a really great run together, but the time has come for us to move in different directions. We really appreciate all the love and support from our friends, fans, and family over the years.”
Zazu subsequently turned to working on her art; according to The Tennessean, she mounted a display in June at the Julia Martin Gallery that included works from her mother Kathy Wariner. And she also made public her battle with cancer, having been diagnosed in early 2016. She created a striking tee-shirt design reading “Ain’t Afraid” in order to raise funds for her chemotherapy, and as Those Darlins had been one of Nashville’s most popular indie rock groups, the fanbase responded accordingly. A recent John Prine tribute concert in Nashville even wound up being a Zazu fundraiser—those Darlins had previously appeared on a Prine tribute album—when the organizers announced they were donating the proceeds to her medical fund.
As of this writing no announcement had been made regarding a funeral or memorial.
“Zazu was a rock star in her hometown, but one completely free of attitude. She lifted up her peers and always welcomed newcomers. As an integral part of Southern Girls Rock Camp, she devoted herself to convincing girls that they could talk about anything, through music and also through visual art, her other medium. Small in stature, Jessi lived her message that creativity can make a person — especially a young woman — heroic, though she’d never use such a self-inflating term. Jessi was more playful and ever-curious, a 21st-century female version of Jack conquering the beanstalk — always climbing higher, killing giants, enlarging her worldview.
“More remarkably, she never stopped creating. In her last year, she produced enough drawings, ceramics and other artworks to stage two major exhibitions, recorded an as-yet unreleased album, and kept coming up with new projects… Fundamentally, she was a spark. She started things, connected people, lit the ignition in our sometimes tired minds and hearts. Her slogan was “Ain’t Afraid” — and she wasn’t, because there was no darkness that her brilliance couldn’t cut through, or at least make light enough to live in. The fiery particle that was the gift she gave us will never burn out.”
In the aforementioned 2013 interview, Zazu offered contributor Steven Wilson a number of memorable quotes regarding her roots and her approach to music. They bear repeating here. After that, check out some more of the band’s delightful videos as well as some choice live clips.
Jessi Zazu on…
…her childhood and path to music: “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. My parents were artists. I was around creativity my whole life… I never considered many other options. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
…John Fogerty & Creedence: “I was a huge fan of John Fogerty when I was a little girl. I love his guitar playing. When I [first] heard Creedence on the radio I said, ‘Mom, who is this?’ I loved the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Creedence’s Chronicle. Those were the two first albums I got into. So much of that is still alive in my songwriting.”
…Neil Young: We listened to a lot of Neil Young. We read his book Waging Heavy Peace, and listened to Zuma—well, most of his albums actually!”
…Patti Smith: “Nikki and I were listening to a lot of Patti Smith [before cutting Blur the Lines]… we had read her book Just Kids and sort of went on a Patti kick… [And the Velvet Underground] “was a connecting point.”
…musical influences in general: “We do have a lot of influences from the past, not a lot of current influences [but] part of what I wanted to accomplish was to take our influences and make something meant for now.”
… being based in Nashville, where relationships can often be adversarial: “Everybody’s played a million shows, everybody has the best gear, everybody’s better than you are.”
…her philosophy of music-making: I want to be really honest in everything we’re doing, especially in the lyrics, because honesty is the only way to be original. [So] I have to check myself and I want to be as brutally honest as I can right now. Part of the goal with this album was to be about now, not the past, not the future. The inability to be ‘in the now’ is the cause of the modern identity crisis we all have. I get irritated when people say, ‘I wasn’t made for these times.’ You were made for these times because you were born in these times!”
At the time of the Rain Parade’s 1984 mini-album Explosions in the Glass Palace, the California psychedelic argonauts had slimmed from a quintet to a four-piece, founding member David Roback having split following the previous year’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip to form Opal. With guitarist Matt Piucci now helming the group—which included at the time bassist Stephen Roback, drummer Eddie Kalwa, and violinist/keyboardist Will Glenn—the group seemed more focused than ever.
That five-songer was recently reissued, in fact, and its sonic strengths are legion. BLURT’s own Michael Toland, reviewing EITGP, wrote that there’s “not a loser in the bunch. “Blue” and “You Are My Friend” present more perfectly crafted pop, while “Prisoners” and “Broken Horse” delve into overtly acid-drenched mini-epics. The EP ends with the anthemic powerhouse “No Easy Way Down,” then as now the band’s definitive track.”
Indeed, the record has held up over time and still stands as one of THE classic artifacts of the early ‘80s Amerindie underground. It certainly cemented the group’s reputation, and following a lineup shuffle that found Kalwa being replaced by drummer Mark Marcum and guitarist John Thoman joining the fold, the Rain Parade signed with Island Records and released a powerhouse of a live-in-Japan album, Beyond the Sunset.
Appearing on both EITGP and the live record is the haunting, midtempo ballad “Blue,” a touch-of-jangledom gem that became a fan favorite, so much so that it got picked up by at least two other bands. In our latest “The Inspiration Behind…” episode, Piucci discusses that and reveals the song’s origins.
The tune’s lyrics bear reprinting here, for as you’ll read, “Blue” has a very specific memory attached to it for Piucci.
Down that street
Just like people you might meet
On her face
The loneliness she can’t escape
Who could ever take her place?
Her little one
Seemed like life had just begun
On the phone
Then we knew we were all alone
But all our tears wouldn’t bring her home.”
What was the initial inspiration for the song?
I worked at Peter West Datsun on Santa Monica as a cashier before Rain Parade started touring. The gal that worked with me was named Charlotte, she was my only real colleague there. First turned me on to the Thriller album, which I like. One day she didn’t show up. They found her dead in the trunk of her car a week later. Never found out what happened.
Did it take long to finish writing it?
Not really. I was in the process of stealing a chord progression from Michael Quercio and had been messing with the music. The words came all at once.
Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)
I would not know for sure, but an English review of Explosions said it was the weakest song. Americans seem to like it better. Both the Blue Aeroplanes and Buffalo Tom thought enough of it to record it, and it seems to get a good response.
Was it a staple of your live sets even years later?
Still play it today in basically every group I am in.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
Dan Stuart [Green On Red] said that I should have played the rhythm guitar on a Tele and not a Ric. He is probably right.
Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
Piece of cake. Not sure where exactly. Explosions was recorded at several places. Steven’s bass riff after the first instrumental break is wonderful.
With an eagerly-anticipated new album finally in the bins, the quartet is stronger than ever. Photo: Travis Shinn
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been eight years since Living Colour put out their last album, but they didn’t expect it to be that long.
In fact, they mentioned that Shade, their sixth and latest LP, was close to being completed back in 2014. But, ultimately the band just thought the album could be better, so they kept at it for a few more years.
The band’s perfectionism proved worth it, though, as you’d have to go back decades to their 1988 debut to find an album just as consistently strong, track for track. It’s one of their most political, socially aware albums, with themes of gun violence and racial profiling throughout. One of the high points is a rock re-imagining of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya.”
Along with rock and metal, there are plenty of blues influences throughout the record, notably Robert Johnson’s timeless “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”.
Drummer Will Calhoun spoke recently about their experiment to deconstruct the blues on Shade, the delay in releasing the album and why they still haven’t grown tired of playing “Cult of Personality” for the past 30 years. The band: Calhoun, vocalist Corey Glover, bassist Doug Wimbish, and guitarist Vernon Reid.
BLURT: The new album is great. I read that the concept was a 21st century deconstruction of the blues. Can you talk about what that means?
CALHOUN: The blues is our life story. We are deconstructing the traditional aspects of the blues and inserting present day issues and concepts. Much of the story unfortunately remains the same, however we want to tell our story in the frame work of the ‘Living Colour Experience.’
Was it difficult to get everyone on board with the concept?
Absolutely not. But it took a lot of work to realize the concept completely and get it right where we wanted it!
The “Who Shot Ya” cover is sadly appropriate given the times we live in now. You initially put the song put on a mixtape last year – did you get any push back for putting that song out? No, quite the opposite. Our fans and the general music public welcomed the track and subsequent video.
It’s been eight years since the last record and I believe there were hints that Shade was close to being finished as of 2014. Why did this one take so long to come to fruition? Obstacles with new and old management, producer direction, track selections, and scheduling. Also, honesty. When we thought we were done, the record simply didn’t sound complete. So, we went back to work on other ideas.
You guys went back to Andre Betts to produce this one. You last worked with him in ’93; What was the experience like working with him again?
Great and challenging. He had a concept to play 8 to 32 bars of a groove at a certain tempo, stop, then move onto another groove. We cut roughly 20 of these grooves. Dre assembled the ideas and arrangements. Once he created a form, we went back to those grooves and began working on melodies, lyrics and group parts. This is a different approach then previous recordings. Normally we bring mostly completed songs to the table, tweak a few parts in pre-production, possibly play the new ideas in front of people in a regular pub, take some notes, then record the tunes. Dre did an amazing job of challenging us and pushing us out of our comfort zone. Knowing the band members individually and collectively gave him a historic edge.
Vivid is amazing debut record, but you guys have had some really great albums in the years since. Do you ever get frustrated that some of those later efforts get eclipsed by people wanting to hear songs from Vivid? No, not at all. In the life cycle of a band, people like what they like. Vivid had a huge impact on the entire music industry. No one could have predicted the immediate success and impact of that record. Also, it’s our debut album. People get attached to debuts, you know it’s the “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” syndrome. We enjoy pulling tunes from our catalogue in a live performance. The material is vast, and always interesting to perform.
Do you have plans to tour behind Shade?
Yes. We’re in Holland for a festival and the UK for a proper tour in September. And then we plan to hit the States throughout the remainder of 2017 and into next year. Please check LIVINGCOLOUR.com for all tour dates.
What’s next for you?
Right now, Living Colour and Shade is the focus.
Can bassist and sonic provocateur was a potent musical force from the ‘70s all the way through the present.
BY FRED MILLS
The music world has lost another giant: Holger Czukay, of Krautrock pioneers Can, has passed away from as-yet-undisclosed causes. He was 79.
According to The Guardian, Czukay “was found by a neighbour at his apartment, converted from Can’s old studio in Weilerswist near Cologne.” His body was discovered yesterday, Sept. 5.
Czukay was born in Poland in 1938, his family expelled after WWII. While growing up he took a job at a radio repair shop and became familiar with engineering and electronics, in particular shortwave radio. Later he studied music under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1963 to 1966 and eventually became a fan of underground rock music—which of course would lead to co-founding Can, for whom he oversaw most of their recordings as primary engineer.
Among the great German bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s none stand taller than Can. The group’s groundbreaking sound, a throbbing cauldron of psychedelia, dub/funk, jazz improv and warped worldbeat, influenced artists as diverse as The Fall, Gang of Four, PiL, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, and the group’s back catalog continues to inspire new generations who whiff Can’s rare essence.
Speaking to me in 1999 in an interview to promote the archival release Can Box Czukay observed how in the band’s time, “Can was never very successful, commercial-wise. But as I said at the very beginning to all the others, ‘This, what we do here, will become one day our life insurance that we give our children, and you don’t need to make insurance contracts with insurers. Just this music will do.’ And it turned out exactly this way.”
Indeed. Although he was speaking to me from overseas, I could picture him grinning broadly as we talked, offering a mischievous little giggle from time to time as he reflected on his work over the years and his ultimate legacy, of which he was deeply proud—but there was no hint of ego or vanity, for the easy-going way we conversed suggested he was a man very much comfortable in his own skin. (Below, watch the videos for his “Good Morning Story” and “Cool In the Pool,” both of which showcase Czukay’s delightfully whimsical sense of humor.)
Can came together circa 1968 at the hands of double bassist Czukay, classically trained pianist Irmin Schmidt (also a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen), free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and rock guitarist Michael Karoli. Initially the group’s vocalist was American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, although he was soon replaced by Japanese street busker Damo Suzuki. Such diverse backgrounds, plus a collective appreciation for the underground sounds of Hendrix, Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, meant that Can’s goal of fusing leftfield and oftentimes incongruous musical elements just might be attainable.
That the world outside Can’s rehearsal space, an old castle near Cologne, was undergoing huge social and political upheavals meant the Can aesthetic was nothing less than an artistic imperative. And from the outset, boundary pushing marked Can recordings and performances. The former’s outlines and textures were shaped by Czukay’s mad-scientist tape-editing techniques (must-hear early Can: 1971’s sprawling, psychedelic Tago Mago), while the latter frequently left audiences so stunned they didn’t know how to react. (A striking display of Can’s live prowess is the Peter Przygodda-filmed “Can Free Concert,” from Cologne ’72, included on 2003’s Can DVD.)
Can’s reputation soon spread beyond Germany’s borders – in ’72 the song “Spoon” became a hit single in Britain — even as the group evolved at a rapid pace. With 1973’s Future Days, Can arguably introduced ambient music to the rock world; 1975’s Landed was a then-unlikely collision of electronica, heavy metal, fake reggae and protopunk.
Still, internal pressures gradually mounted. Suzuki had left in ’73 to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving behind a hole that was never fully filled. Czukay, whose attentions were turning towards non-traditional instrumentation (e.g., short-wave radios, Dictaphones), quit in ’77 not long after the arrival of bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, both from English band Traffic. The original Can chemistry had been permanently altered, and as 1978 came to a close the decision was made to disband. (Go HERE at the Blurt site to download a pair of good sounding Can concerts from 1975 and 1976.)
The members subsequently took up their own projects, although they did come back together for a one-off reunion to record 1989’s Rite Time (documentary footage of the sessions is on Can DVD). Over the years Can aficionados have also been privy to such treats as Liebezeit’s Phantomband and Club Off Chaos ensembles; Karoli’s Sofortkontakt combo plus collaborations with Damo Suzuki; Czukay in a dizzying array of solo and collaborative guises (see below); and Schmidt’s film scores, his Gormenghast opera and his work with producer/deejay KUMO.
1999 saw the release of the above-mentioned Can Box, an elaborate book/video/live CD package. Neatly coinciding with that were “The Can Concerts” in Germany: Schmidt, Czukay, Karoli and Liebezeit each presenting his then-current solo project on the same stage — although, significantly, they did not perform together as a unit. Karoli performed with Sofortkontakt, Liebezeit as Club Off Chaos, Schmidt as Kumo and Czukay with experimental vocalist U-She. During 2004-06 the group’s back catalog was reissued as remastered SACDs, while 2012 saw the release of The Lost Tapes, a box set comprising previously unreleased material. And in 2014 the group’s back catalog was reissued on vinyl.
Czukay’s non-Can projects over the years were nothing if not intriguing. 1981 solo album On the Way to the Peak of Normal remains a critical favorite (the psychedelic gem was reissued in 2013). Other notable solo releases were 1991’s shortwave-as-live-instrument Radio Wave Surfer and 1999’s Good Morning Story featuring U-She on vocals. Two collaborations with David Sylvian were also well-regarded, as was the album Snake Charmer that he recorded with Jah Wobble, The Edge, and DJ Francois Kevorkian. He also worked with Brian Eno, Trio, and U.N.K.L.E. And 2013 brought the reissue of the uber-obscure Les Vampyrettes, an esoteric 1980 recording of Czukay and Can producer Conny Plank described along the lines of “a metallic and ghostly voice in a state of nocturnal intoxication welcomes us to a sonic backdrop of hallmark krautrock pings, drones, susurrations and clatters.”
Czukay’s beloved wife Ursula passed away this past July. Can guitarist Karoli previously died, in 2001. And Liebezeit died in January from pneumonia. Czukay’s impact upon music was profound and lasting—he will be deeply missed.
On their ambitious new album, the Chapel Hill trio aims for emotional involvement.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Emotion has always been the essential element when it comes to crafting great songs. Indeed, when all else fails, it’s those seductive sentiments that lead to the most memorable music. The trio that refers to themselves as Happy Abandon expressly echo that mantra, crafting an expansive sound that reflects the obstacles and perils that confront us all in everyday life, often at times when they’re least expected. The Chapel Hill-based trio — consisting of long time friends Peter Vance (vocals, guitar, songs), Jake Waits (drums) and Justin Ellis (bass) — make a habit of sharing their feelings through music, while spinning a rich melange of atmosphere and ambiance in the process.
Facepaint, the trio’s debut album, stirs those sentiments with a knowing aplomb, a propulsive, populist sound that leaves no possibility unturned when it comes to their decidedly bittersweet narratives. Loneliness, abandonment, family frailties and even an ultimate demise work their way into the material, only to leave listeners gasping in amazement at the honesty and earnestness that Happy Abandon brings to the fore.
Consequently, we couldn’t help but be intrigued. As a result, we took the opportunity to ask the three men about their motivation for making music and their apparent desire to elevate their intents. (Full disclosure: Facepaint is the first full-length on the Schoolkids Records label, formerly called Second Motion. Schoolkids, along with the three-store North Carolina record store chain, is BLURT’s sister business. And, I hasten to add, we have dug the band from the beginning, even inviting them to perform at our annual day party in Austin during SXSW. —Ed.)
BLURT: For starters, give us an idea of where you get your inspiration for these songs. You seem to have some very lofty ideas. So how do you translate those thoughts to your material?
Peter Vance: The inspiration for the songs are simply the most pivotal emotions and feelings I’m feeling at a specific time. All of these songs represent a mindset I found myself in, and that’s how it influenced my choices and perspective. Each song stands independently as an idea, though they work together to paint a broad picture of exposure to loss.
Production seems to be a major additive in your presentation. So tell us how you come up with the arrangements and, in turn, what it takes to bring these songs from start to fruition?
Justin Ellis: It’s very much a collaborative process. Peter usually writes the bones of the song alone on acoustic guitar or piano, and he’ll tinker with it for months before he shows it to us. We then typically jam to the song with electric guitar, bass, and drums to properly fit the dynamics of the song’s structure. Then the fun part comes in; this is where we figure out what the sonic icing might be. Typically whenever Alex (Thompson, keyboards and arrangements) is in town, that means adding loads of keyboards, piano, and synth tones, or we may start arranging string parts. We almost always add three-part harmony to the songs, but the songs aren’t really done, in my mind, until they’re recorded. Sometimes it’s because the lyrics aren’t done until it’s time to record, and sometimes it’s because there’s a violin part we discover by accident while recording, and we then must find a way to incorporate the part on another instrument so it’s present in the live show. Sometimes it’s just that the mood or energy of the song is kinda hard to pin down until it’s committed to wax, as it were. But on the flip side, the songs that we’re working on that aren’t recorded yet are really fun to work on, because nothing is concrete, and they could go through infinite permutations before we settle on the finished product.
Please give us an idea of your influences, past and present.
Peter Vance: My musical influences stem from artists who exude a combination of incredible lyricism and complex composition. I find that the one artist that has influenced me the most in both aspects — and is a nostalgic idol for me — is Sufjan Stevens. He and a few other bands/musicians (Belle and Sebastian, Andrew Bird, Bettie Serveert) exposed me to what can be accomplished when one takes chances and only uses musical tropes when it is tastefully implemented, rather than using the same formula with different variables.
As far as contextual influences go, well that comes from my background in literature and theater. My focus in college was theater, and in my earlier years I was fortunate enough to spend my time as a working actor in the Washington, DC theatre scene. This exposed me to many different playwrights who used many different writing techniques to move a plot forward. I found myself liking and disliking different writing styles, and was able to use the ones that I liked in my songs. I use a lot of imagery and alliteration because I think the combination of the two is very fun and ear catching.
Justin Ellis: I absolutely love what Alt-J, Fleet Foxes, and Local Natives have been doing lately; specifically, being able to make catchy, engaging music that is fairly popular while also having its own defined sound. I also love what those bands do with vocal harmony, and I think a lot of their musical philosophies rub off on Happy Abandon. I’m also a huge classic rock head, with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Queen being absolutely massive to my own musical formation.
Jake Waits: I came up in the school bands, the orchestra, the drum line, playing in the pits for musicals. I studied world percussion and classical percussion. Learning to play all that sheet music informed my repertoire and influenced my style — I actually had to break out of the rigidity that was drilled into me with marching drum music and learn how to relax and groove in the pocket more. Along with bands and artists across many genres. I grew up loving classic rock, and I got into some heavier metal music for a good few angst-ridden teen years. Lately, my ears have been perking up to jazz. Anything with a good beat gets me going.
You are also said to have a very dramatic stage presence in live performance. Can you describe it for us? Does it take a lot of effort and expense to make it all happen?
Jake Waits: We don’t always perform with our light show, but when we do, it adds a visual energy to our presence that encompasses the emotional energy coming from the songs. We look for ways to add colors and visual effects that enhance our set and connect the songs in ways that couldn’t be done through sound.
What was it like going into the studio for the first time? Was it an easy transition or did you find you had to make a lot of adjustment to convey your live sound to the recordings?
Justin Ellis: We have all been in bands before, and Peter, Alex, and I all studied audio production at the University of North Carolina, so I’d say we feel rather at home when we record. Facepaint was a really “homey” record to make, as we lived in Jason’s (Merritt, producer) lake house for about a week nonstop, just getting up every morning, making eggs and coffee, then playing music all day and into the night. We all play several instruments, so it was a lot of fun to just try ideas out on instruments that never make it to our shows, like banjos, mandolins, penny whistles, gongs, tubular bells, timpani… although I certainly wouldn’t rule out incorporating those in our live concert one day.
How was it that you three were able to coalesce so quickly? Did you find that your individual ideas were mostly always in sync?
Justin Ellis: I think what sets us apart from most bands is that our shared background isn’t being in rock bands since we were in high school when we met. We all studied theater at some point, and I think the work ethic you need to make theatre happen rubbed off very decidedly in this band. We take rehearsals seriously, we make sure all our voices are heard, and we know when to back down for the good of the song or the overall project. Plus, as a three-piece, we all kinda have to overplay to fill the sound in live performance, so it’s not like we ever feel boxed in. It’s really nice.
Can you share some insights into maybe four or five songs from the album that have particular significance for you?
Peter Vance: Oh man, it’s Sophie’s Choice here…
“Take Me,” “Severed Seams,” “If I Stare,” “Stop Taking Care of Me,” and “Cursed or Worse” are some of my favorites off the album. Each one not only delves into different contexts of loss, but also gives different perspectives. They’re all a bit dark, but “Take Me” ends on a bit of a brighter note, stating that if you can’t take anything from the situation, well, you can at least take me. “Severed Seams” also ends on a brighter note, but not because things worked out for everyone. It ends with the realization that things won’t work out. That in itself is an accomplishment. “If I Stare” takes a more aggressive approach to the idea of coping, where “Stop Taking Care of Me” is a plea. Finally, “Cursed or Worse” rambles through thoughts and feelings that are hard to take hold of after a traumatizing experience.
Peter is the principal songwriter—how much input does everyone else have in the crafting of the material?
Justin Ellis: I’d say we all have a pretty equal stake. Jake and I almost never have anything we want to change with Peter’s songs at their core, but sometimes we’ll suggest a slight lyric or feel change, and we go with that for a bit and see how we end up feeling as a group. But generally, because Peter spends so much time refining his songs, for the most part all we have to do is help arrange it and flesh it out once he shows them to us. We all write our own parts and backing harmonies, etc., but there is a lot of communication that goes on to make sure all the ideas suggested are at least attempted without drastically affecting the initial energy of the song.
You experienced three deaths of people that you were close to late last year. Who were the people who passed, and how did you deal with these tragedies? How did it reflect in your music?
Peter Vance: All three were incredible, beautiful people. One was a friend from middle and high school whose death was fairly prepared for by friends and family simply because of the context of the situation. However, this did not make it any easier. The other two came completely unexpectedly, and struck everyone with such force that people are still feeling the repercussions.
Jake Waits: One was my buddy since second grade. We had more adventures than I can count. He was thoughtful and loyal, and he always had a way to cheer you up. A friendly word or some sage advice he gathered from his travels would always help, whatever the trouble. He was a hell of a singer/songwriter, too. And he was number one on my Zombie Apocalypse team if it had ever come to that first.
How do you temper those more reflective elements with the more populist sentiments that you bring to the stage? Given some of these themes, you could have emerged as a very downcast outfit, no?
Justin Ellis: I think duality is important in a band. The band name itself is a little oxymoronic, and plenty of bands before us have made “happy” sounding music with “sad” lyrics. Just look at The Smiths and The Cure. You could argue that these two different identities can cancel each other out, but I feel being a large, loud-sounding band with really introspective songwriting isn’t mutually exclusive.
How many songs were left over from the recording sessions, and will any of them surface later?
Justin Ellis: Only about four songs from our current live set didn’t make the cut for Facepaint, but they all had a similar, perhaps more “rock” vibe that didn’t quite fit the mood of the record. Still, they’re great songs and we’re proud of them, and it’s likely we’ll record and release them in some capacity. We also have about ten sketches in various stages of completion that will eventually all become songs too hopefully.
What are the challenges facing a new band like yours? What have been the peaks? And what, if any, have been the low points so far in the trajectory?
Justin Ellis: We’ve all been in bands before, which was helpful going into this project, because we all knew what to expect. Sure, making rent is tough sometimes, and sometimes we play to nobody when we’re miles away from home. Sometimes, the van breaks down, like it has three times. But before we put out this record, we got a chance to tour in five countries, play almost every major U.S. and Canadian city on the East coast, play in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, and play most of North Carolina’s major music venues. The good definitely outweighs the bad for us… and we’re really lucky to be in that position.
So what’s the plan going forward?
Justin Ellis: We’ll be touring the West Coast this fall for the very first time, with tentative plans to return to Europe at some point between late October and March 2018. We’ll probably head to SXSW in the spring as well. As the album gets written about and listened to, all we can do is keep ourselves onstage, ready for any opportunities that may come our way.
Happy Abandon performs this week in Raleigh at the annual Hopscotch Music Festival, that will also include an appearance at the Schoolkids Records day party. Then on September 18 they’ll hit the road headed west. Check tour dates at their official website and at their Facebook page..
It’s the band that refuses to die, still touring strong despite no longer having the services of the original guitarist and principal songwriter. Herewith, a 2002 interview with Mark Farner and Don Brewer, culled from ye olde editor’s archives. So sue me!
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. Note: It was recently brought to my attention that Grand Funk Railroad—yes, THAT Grand Funk Railroad—has been particularly active this summer, and judging by the tour dates listed at GrandFunkRailroad.com, the five-piece isn’t easing off this fall, either. Now, I know that plenty of you reading this are already snickering. That’s okay; the group didn’t get a whole lot of critical respect back during its ‘70s heyday, either. But speaking as someone who was really, really into the band back then—as a teenager, GFR albums were a regular part of my musical diet, and I probably saw GFR live at least 10 times—I never bought into that whole “the heartland masses have not taste” argument. And as an adult, I’ve tried to rein in my own musical snobbery whenever I find myself chuckling about this or that artist’s mainstream popularity.
It was with that attitude that, in 2002, I interviewed former GFR guitarist Mark Farner, plus drummer Don Brewer, who along with original bassist Mel Schacher and three additional members (vocalist Max Carl, from .38 Special; guitarist Bruce Kulick, from KISS; keyboardist Tim Cashion, late of Bob Seger’s band as well as Robert Palmer’s), revived the group in the late ‘90s. For his part, Farner declined to rejoin his erstwhile bandmates, having been part of a short-lived 1996-97 reunion that apparently served to rekindle lingering issues between him and Brewer. But upon the occasion of my interviews, it was to promote Capitol Records’ remastering of the first three Grand Funk records along with a new live-in-’71 album, so while they insisted on doing the interviews separately, they at least were willing to hold forth in depth and candidly. (I also talked to Capitol-EMI archivist David Tedds about his work in overseeing the reissues, which involved unearthing bonus material, as well as band biographer Billy James, who authored 1999’s An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad.
My Grand Funk Railroad piece subsequently ran as the cover story of the August 14, 2002 issue of weekly paper the Detroit Metro Times (“Still In a Grand Funk”). It was well received—Detroit being more or less ground zero for the band anyway—and as I also had a lot of fun revisiting my teenage years, I will always owe my editor at the time, Brian Smith, a ton of thanks. So I hope you enjoy this flashback from a decade and a half ago. In the words of GFR themselves:
“Are you ready? You can trust me all the way.
Are you ready? Well, then let me hear you say
That you’re ready, and the world will know it’s right.
Yes, you’re ready, and you know it’s out of sight!”
It’s a sunny spring morning in the Motor City but the wind whipping across the Detroit River makes it feel a lot more like winter. Not that the huge mass of people shuffling and milling about in the arena parking lot care; they’re stoked on adrenaline and anticipation. When a bored-looking ticket-seller in the Cobo box-office booth flips the sign from “Closed” to “Open” at exactly 9 a.m., the surge of bodies raises temperatures even higher.
Before even two hours have elapsed, every ticket is gone. Phhhhtt! The box-office sign is hastily flipped back to “Closed.” Several thousand would-be ticket purchasers now find their adrenaline mixing with frustration, then anger. Suddenly there’s a second forward surge. The sounds of angry voices, fists slamming against doors, bottles breaking. Around at the rear of the venue a window is smashed, followed by another, then another …
Luckless parents of ’N Sync fans, crazed by the realization that they’ll be facing the wrath of their little brats? A mob of Red Bull-swilling mooks shut out from an upcoming nu-metal show and employing the Durst Directive to “break stuff”?
Hardly. We’re back in 1971, and 12,000 tickets for Grand Funk Railroad’s April 30 Cobo Hall concert have just been snapped up in record time. Nobody can recall an event ever selling out that fast before in Detroit. The local media, never given to understatement, labels it a riot.
And, speaking of understatement, Grand Funk’s ’71 tour is shaping up to be quite interesting. It opened at the L.A. Forum on Feb. 27 and 28; a hysterical crowd at the latter show forced an unplanned, additional encore. A few months after the Detroit incident, a free concert held in London’s Hyde Park drew 100,000 people, more than twice the original estimate. And when tickets went on sale for the July 9 show at New York’s Shea Stadium, an unbelievable 21,000 fans turned out to snap up all 55,000 seats in record time, demolishing the Beatles’ old record. By the end of the year Grand Funk — guitarist/vocalist Mark Farner, drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher — will be the hottest ticket on the planet. Not bad for a little garage band from Flint.
Brewer and Farner still recall the period with undisguised awe.
“I remember getting off the plane the first time we went to Japan,” says Brewer, a chuckle rising quickly in his throat, “and here’s all these screaming fans at the Tokyo airport — it was just like watching a Beatles movie! That’s what it felt like! It was all coming and going so fast I can’t even really remember specific shows a lot now. But coming out of Flint, Michigan, seeing the Beatles or seeing the Dave Clark 5 or these other acts get this kind of response, then all of a sudden you’re there, it’s like, ‘Yeah!’ That’s what you wanted. That’s what you’d always strived for.”
“Yeah, we were definitely into it,” Farner agrees, also laughing at the memories. “Loving it! I didn’t let it go to my head, ultimately, but I did at the time. I was a young kid — shit, I couldn’t find a hat that would fit my head! We didn’t want to believe it wasn’t real. I had no idea we’d attain the level of success that we did, of course. But in retrospect — no one does. There’s no way of knowing. Period.”
Talking to Brewer and Farner now, their recollections are, unfortunately, tainted by lingering ego clashes and business disputes.
Happier times. These days neither Brewer nor Farner will even enter the same room — hence separate interviews — with lawyers handling any communication. Since his last performance with Grand Funk in November 1998, having reunited with his former bandmates for the first time in 20 years in 1996, Farner has kept busy with his solo career. Brewer and Schacher still tour as Grand Funk Railroad with three additional members.
Farner, who lays composer’s claim to roughly 90 percent of original Grand Funk compositions, isn’t enamored of his erstwhile bandmates’ current career arc, saying it deceives fans. Brewer, who also contributed material to GFR, including its biggest hit, “We’re An American Band,” contends otherwise, citing an obligation to fans to keep the Funk flag flying.
Both men’s arguments have their merits, but the impasse is a shame, really. Particularly in light of what is gearing up to be a significant GFR resurgence. A previously unreleased concert album, Live: The 1971 Tour, was issued by Capitol Records on July 3, followed shortly after by the new Classic Masters best-of CD. Aug. 13 saw the rerelease of the first four Grand Funk albums (1969’s On Time and Grand Funk, 1970’s Closer to Home and Live Album), complete with 24-bit remastering, bonus tracks and new liner notes. By early 2003, the rest of the band’s Capitol catalog should be in the stores with similar treatments.
Similar archival campaigns have helped salve old wounds and kick start reunions for other bands. Since forming in 1969, Grand Funk has broken up and gotten back together on two separate occasions. Is a third time in the cards?
Inside Looking Out
“I’ll tell you what made Grand Funk Railroad special to the youth of America,” says Billy James, author of the 1999 biography An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad. “At the time, most of the ‘hard rock’ groups of the day were coming out of Europe, particularly in England. In 1970 to 1974, the heavy rockers were Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Yes, Pink Floyd … the list goes on. Who did we have in that time frame? Grand Funk, Alice Cooper Group, Johnny Winter, Mountain and only a few others. So I think the raw energy of the band was appealing.”
James, who has also written books on Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa, Michael Bruce (Alice Cooper Group), Zoot Horn Rollo (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) and Peter Banks (Yes), recalls being turned on by a best friend to Grand Funk in ’71 and subsequently nurturing a lifelong passion for the band’s music. After seeing the band, undiminished by time, on its ’96 reunion tour, he was inspired to do his book: “This was an important band in America’s musical history, and their story needed to be preserved.”
The GFR saga, meticulously researched and rendered by James, is a classic American rock-to-riches story. Brewer, now 53, was raised in Swartz Creek (near Flint) and initially hooked up in the mid-’60s with Farner (also 53, from Flint) in the popular regional R&B/pop group, Terry Knight & The Pack. After Knight’s departure, The Pack (aka The Fabulous Pack) mutated through several lineups; by early ’69 it had whittled down to Brewer, Farner and new bassist Mel Schacher (now 51 and also from Flint, he was plucked from ? and the Mysterians). Embarking upon a more underground/psychedelic direction, with Knight resurfacing in the role of manager-producer, Grand Funk Railroad left the station.
Brewer and Farner look back on their formative years with affection, Brewer in particular pinpointing their melting-pot roots as key to the hybrid style that would manifest itself in Grand Funk’s sound:
“A lot of people from the South moved up to work in the [Detroit area] factories, and along with them they brought a lot of their blues influences to music — and R&B especially — when they got there and Motown happened. It just really fed into music; we all grew up listening to black music on the radio stations. We’d listen to the Top 40 stuff, but it wasn’t as cool. That really had a lot to do with it. I know Bob Seger was really influenced by it. You couldn’t help it! But then there’s this raw edge that would come out of there, in the Michigan thing, and I think that’s that factory-worker thing — the tough guy thing, so it’s not just sweet R&B, it’s hard.”
Hard indeed. Heavy, even. Signing to Capitol Records, and with Knight clearing the tracks with his in-your-face promotional hand (such as a massive Times Square billboard, unheard of at the time for a rock band), Farner, Brewer and Schacher steamed through the first three years. Six top-selling records were released during this time, while concert sellouts became the norm. Doubtless the success tasted all the sweeter whenever the band touched down on home turf.
From the May 17, 1970, Detroit Free Press: “Grand Funk is the biggest rock act out of the fertile fields of Detroit. Ironically, their hometown has yet to discover them. The guys live here but the $1 million they’ll earn in 1970 will be for music made everywhere in the world but Michigan. The trio … were full of pride about being from Michigan and being able to take Michigan music and show it to other parts of the world …. Trade magazines like Billboard,Record World and Cash Box praised their recordings and show. But at home, nothing good. Creem magazine, a Detroit-based national rock publication, has twice slammed Grand Funk and its members, artistically and otherwise.”
Recalls Brewer, “The Detroit music scene always kind of looked at us like, ‘Oh. It’s Grand Funk.’ And I don’t know whether it was because we were from Flint. We weren’t really a ‘Detroit band.’ You know, because of all the years that we were The Pack, that was the hard thing we had breaking out. The old local agents and promoters were just, ‘Oh, Grand Funk, it’s just The Pack.’ And then we left and made it in Georgia, Florida, New York and all these other places. And suddenly those guys are, ‘Oh, yeah! Grand Funk — they’re from HERE!’ [laughing] And I don’t hold that against anybody. I just think it’s funny.”
Or as Farner points out, “We didn’t play Michigan for the first couple of years as Grand Funk. Then when we got back [after national success], it was really good for us. It was almost like we had to go prove to the rest of the world who we were and then we would be accepted in our hometown.”
As is often the case, however, after success hit, discontent set in. In ’72 Grand Funk sued manager Knight over perceived accounting irregularities, spawning a countersuit from Knight and resulting in a bitter divorce that played out endlessly in the national press. The expensive legal case was eventually settled, Grand Funk permanently severing ties with Knight and going on to even greater commercial success during the next several years. (Knight, who was not available to be interviewed for this article, won ownership of all the group’s early publishing, a fact that still rankles Farner, who gets no royalties from his songwriting: “Terry told me I had to publish all my songs through his company. Publishing still goes to Terry … a skunk in my book.”)
Between ’72 and ’76, Grand Funk issued six more albums on Capitol and, having signed on keyboardist Craig Frost to help flesh out what was becoming a more AOR/pop-oriented sound, spawned such hits as “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and, of course, the ultimate rock party anthem, “We’re An American Band.” By 1976, however, the well was running dry. A move to MCA for the Frank Zappa-produced Good Singin’ Good Playin’ failed to ignite the charts. This time around it was lack of success that brewed discontent, and the band called it quits, Farner going solo, and Brewer and Schacher forming the combo Flint. A Schacher-less reunion took place in the early ’80s that yielded a pair of spotty albums, and Grand Funk was ultimately laid to rest once again.
Foot Stompin’ Music
Fans, of course, have long memories when it comes to their favorite bands, and Grand Funk fans are no exception. Until now the general consensus has been that Capitol’s treatment of the band’s back catalog during the CD era has been shoddy at best: poorly mastered, thin-sounding CDs; the second album, Grand Funk, never earning a proper release in the United States (a Canadian-based label licensed it); an atrociously edited version of the live Caught in the Act; and titles drifting in and out of print, frequently as expensive import editions.
There is perhaps no bigger GFR devotee on the planet than David Tedds, producer and compiler of the 1999 box set anthology Thirty Years of Funk 1969–1999, who is currently aiming to put things right by heading up the archival campaign for Capitol.
Says Tedds, “Capitol had sort of been balking [at doing remastered editions]. I kept pounding on doors there; finally they decided to go ahead with it and I started formulating plans. Prior to that, I’d thought that doing the box set would be a good way to draw attention, we’d have some unreleased stuff on it, and then we’d do the catalog. So my pitch to them was, ‘Well, obviously, several years down the line we’ve lost any momentum that the box set had given us.’ So we needed something to get people excited all over again. In the research I’d done, I’d listened to these tapes from a section of the ’71 tour and said we ought to do this live album to get people interested.”
While neither Farner nor Brewer was directly involved, both offer high marks for Tedds’ exhaustive efforts. (Farner remains ambivalent toward Capitol due to an incident where the label reneged on a promise to give him some music for his own record label, Lissmark, which has reissued his solo material as well as the two ’80s-era Grand Funk albums.) Brewer, citing numerous mixing and EQ flaws in prior CD editions, says, “I told David, ‘Just make them true to the albums — and make sure you’re not having some engineer who happens to like certain frequencies!’ But he has a great ear, and he’s very meticulous. He would call me and say, ‘Go and see what you can find.’ So I’d call Mel and we’d look through everything, come up with a few things — but David, going through the Capitol vaults, would find better stuff by digging.” [See accompanying story that follows.]
In 1972, Fusion scribe (and future Angry Samoan) Mike Saunders observed that, when at its best, GFR tapped into the same rock vein that nourished outfits such as the MC5, Stooges and Flamin’ Groovies. Hailing sixth album E Pluribus Funk a masterpiece, he wrote, “I’d frame it next to Here’s Little Richard. Simply because it’s that brand of raw, 100 percent rock and roll that penetrates to the bone. No compromises.”
More recently, noted pop critic Homer S. Simpson was heard chiding nonbelievers thusly: “You guys don’t know Grand Funk? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bone-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drumwork of Don Brewer?”
Saunders’ and Simpson’s kudos aside, however, over the years pointy-headed rock critics have mostly treated GFR like a bad musical punch line, eschewing genuine discourse in favor of blatant mudslinging. In his An American Band bio, James offers this routine sample, taken from a ’70 review of Closer to Home: “Grand Funk has continued to be an unprecedented phenomena despite the utter worthlessness of its music. And it isn’t so much that the group is that bad (which it is), but it’s so incredibly boring.”
Why the character assassination? Good question. Determined, journeymen rockers lucky enough to strike gold, Grand Funk initially employed a nonvirtuoso, brawny, blues-based, soul/funk-informed power-trio approach. Critics who previously had given the likes of Cream a free pass on the same format deemed Grand Funk’s version “simplistic.” Too, Farner’s “wild shirtless lyrics” about parties, politics and populism steered clear of the sort of drug-addled hooey and cosmic Moody Bluesian ruminations that passed for “deep” among the literati (no “newspaper taxis appear on the shore” for Farner). And by tapping the teenage zeitgeist, rapidly selling a lot of records and being promoted in classic Colonel Parker fashion by manager Knight, GFR was perceived as overhyped and deficient in the dues-paying department. Not to mention that the image of this blue-collar “people’s band” was anything but exotic — nary a Limey accent among ’em.
“That’s exactly right,” observes Brewer now. “The number-one thing was that we were American. Just local guys. And for the English guys, the press was like, ‘Oh, they’re great! They’re from England!’ That was the thing. But here’s these American guys, from Flint, Michigan, no less, causing a stir. I think a lot of the critics were just frustrated musicians, or for some reason you’re not up to their standard, so they like to rake you over the coals. And yet I’ll always admit it — and we always did admit it! — we weren’t some great bunch of musicians. We were a garage band, and we liked being a garage band. Just guys out in the Midwest wanting to play music. But just because we weren’t technically great musicians didn’t mean we didn’t know how to play from the heart and from the soul and put together something that people liked. That’s what [the critics] didn’t get.
“And on top of that our manager just loved shoving everything down the reporters’ throats. He was a firm believer in ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ If they don’t love you, make ’em hate you and they’ll write about you just as much. That attitude kinda pissed off the guys in the press, and so they would come after us. It became a personal rub, and Terry loved to rub it in their faces too. He actually took out an ad in Billboard one Christmas giving everybody the finger! At the same time, it really hurt us. I’d read a review and go, ‘God, was this guy even there last night? He couldn’t have possibly seen that audience and seen this band play and give us a bad review!’”
On April 26, 1996, the three original members of Grand Funk, who hadn’t been onstage together in 20 years, accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Motor City Music Awards, held at Detroit’s State Theatre. And they got up to play.
Farner’s authorized biography From Grand Funk to Grace — written with Farner’s involvement by journalist Kristofer Engelhardt and published in 2001— tells the Grand Funk story through the guitarist’s eyes, additionally recounting his lengthy solo career and personal saga as a born-again Christian. Farner proudly recalled that evening, saying, “What an honor it was to be recognized with an award by people from our home state. We performed ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’ It was such a hoot being up on stage with them all.”
As it turns out, Farner, Brewer and Schacher had already convened, on a lark, for some informal jamming — only to discover, as Farner said in his book, that “the magic and chemistry were intact.” And so throughout 1996-98 a reunited Grand Funk toured (taking the place of Craig Frost on keyboards was Howard Eddy, from Farner’s Christian band The God Rockers). One key highlight during this period came in early ’97: a series of benefit concerts held in New York, LA and Detroit to raise funds for Bosnia-Herzegovina orphans, featuring GFR backed by a Paul Schaffer-conducted symphony orchestra (the Detroit show was released as the two-disc Bosnia). The band also recorded a handful of new songs that would appear on Thirty Years of Funk, and around the same time as the anthology’s release, a VH1 “Behind the Music” installment on the band was aired.
Things came to a halt in 2000, however, when Brewer and Schacher approached Farner about mounting another GFR tour. He informed them that he wasn’t interested, preferring to concentrate on his solo career. After much deliberation, Brewer and Schacher opted to resume touring as Grand Funk Railroad, hiring guitarist Bruce Kulick (ex-Kiss), vocalist Max Carl (Jack Mack & the Heart Attack, .38 Special) and keyboardist Tim Cashion (from Bob Seger’s band).
That lineup is what fans get when they purchase a ticket in 2002. No half-baked tribute act, GFR by all accounts puts on a high-velocity show that has recently seen new originals being eased into the set list alongside old favorites. Brewer indicates they are in the process of readying the material for a possible CD or DVD release.
Brewer is also aware that some old-school GFR fans have a tough time accepting a Farner-less Grand Funk. “A lot of it just has to do with the mind-set. Some people aren’t going to turn that corner no matter what. Then other people are more, like, ‘It’s still a good band.’ I understand that. People have their preferences, and that’s fine — I don’t have any problem with that. We really enjoy it, and it’s a great band.”
When asked to comment about the breakdown in relations between the Farner and Funk camps, Brewer remains diplomatic.
“All I know is that Mark really just kind of announced, ‘I’m going solo.’ And that was the end of it. And Mel and I were just kind of sitting there twiddling our thumbs, and here comes the anthology and here comes the VH1 special. That’s really when Capitol was poised to start doing the reissues and doing the whole deal. And we were flabbergasted. We said, ‘Well, you know, Mark, if that’s what you really want to do — then that’s what you want to do!’ Again, I’m not gonna go into the details. And I’ve read this from a lot of other bands too — there’s a privacy area that needs to remain among the band guys, and that falls within that. Other than that — and people don’t need to know all the details — the basic gist of the whole thing is that Mark chose to go solo.”
Farner, on the other hand, is as outspoken now as he was in the early days. His Web site contains a lengthy editorial on GFR, and he quickly broaches the subject now. During the 1996-98 reunion the three principals apparently formed a limited liability corporation as Grand Funk Railroad, with two-thirds majority vote sufficient for business decisions. Farner, however, says that when he signed his ownership of the GFR trademark into the corporation, he never envisioned Brewer and Schacher might go out on the road using — quite legally — the band name, and that, in effect, he was “tricked” into signing.
Explains Farner, “Initially we agreed to go out for two years. Because they wanted me to stop touring solo so there would be no competition for it, the Grand Funk dates … I continued on for an additional year and then when I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna go back and do my solo stuff now,’ they just said, ‘No, no, you’re not, man — you’re gonna play with us!’ They tried to force me: They said, ‘We are two-thirds of the corporation and WE say that you’re gonna do this.’ Well, you can’t force me to do that! … That’s the wrong button to push. [So] they voted me right out. I’m no longer an officer of the corporation even though I own a third of it!”
Contending that audiences come to see bands, not corporations, Farner continues, “For them to go out as Grand Funk Railroad is actually misleading the fans to believe that they’re gonna come see me. And I know for a fact, because I saw an ad. A fan sent me a paper from Reno that has my picture, my comments — and it’s those guys playing … I have never bothered them. Really. I just asked them to please be, ah, for the sake of the fans, be honest. Just be honest! Say it’s ‘Don and Mel of Grand Funk Railroad.’ Or ‘Grand Funk Railroad Without Mark Farner.’ Just be honest! But no, they can’t … I’m sorry that they had to stoop down there.”
Brewer was given an opportunity to respond to Farner’s allegations, but at press time he had not and presumably stands by his earlier comments.
Closer to Home
Bands form, band break up, some bands make it. Shit happens. Initially, though, there’s always a get-in-the-van, let’s-show-the-world mentality that spawns camaraderie. For Grand Funk, the early bond among members was very real.
“I like to think of myself as a very lucky individual: a garage band that made it good,” says Farner. “We were young kids, 20 years old when Grand Funk started. Mel and I had gone to the same high school. And Brewer and I had gone through all that stuff. Deejays would come out and hire bands. We’d do dances, hops, wedding receptions. There were a lot of places for a group to play — try your stuff out, hone your skills — where we had to pass the hat to make enough money to get home on gas money. It was great, a great experience.
“And then [following Grand Funk’s initial success] we all got raped by our manager! I mean, we all had like a vendetta, man. We wanted to show that sucker that we didn’t need him to make it. We went out and did the Phoenix album and did several albums after and had greater success. I think because [we] had gone through all that, that was the camaraderie we had, initially, as Grand Funk. But after the success, we really saw what each person was made of.”
He indicates that the likelihood of a GFR reunion is remote. Plus, he enjoys the genuine camaraderie he’s found in the Mark Farner Band (Rick Farner, Lawrence Buckner, Paul Ojibway, Hubert Crawford). “I want to be around people I enjoy. You know? Why be around people where there’s contention and there’s animosity and jealousy and all this? I don’t need that in my life. Money’s not worth it to me. I’ve gotta enjoy what I’m doing or I can’t do it.”
In addition to playing and recording with his band, Farner keeps a full calendar. This summer he toured in Alan Parsons-helmed Beatles tribute “A Walk Down Abbey Road.” His Lissmark label recently released an EP, Red White & Blue Forever!, a patriotic-themed disc (it also includes an acoustic version of GFR classic “Closer to Home”) aimed at raising funds and awareness for the USO. He’s been talking to Christopher Cross, Felix Cavaliere, Lou Gramm, Zak Starkey, Billy Preston and Jack Bruce about a collaborative project. And with an overseas label set to issue a retrospective CD of The Pack, the Farner-Curt Johnson-Bobby Caldwell-Herm Jackson lineup of the ’60s band is planning some low-key reunion shows to mark the occasion.
Brewer, for all the differences with his former bandmate, is similar in tone when reminiscing about what originally fueled Grand Funk.
Says Brewer, “It was being in the same place at the same time, having the same beliefs about music, having a strong desire to want to make it, having a strong feeling of, ‘We don’t care if people think we’re just a nobody band from Flint, Michigan — we know we’re better than that and we’re gonna prove it.’ And I think that’s the kind of thing we had as guys, and I think it happens in just about all bands. That’s what makes them go forward, that closeness between the unit. The unit becomes one; you’re not looking at this guy and what this guy wants; they’re all looking at what do we the band want for everybody. That’s what makes bands work. Because you put a bunch of people together and you get ’em all in the same frame of mind, and it’s a very powerful thing.”
Does he ever miss the old bond, the chemistry?
“Absolutely. But I think there was a breakdown in that many, many years ago, even during the time period that we were out in the reunion thing. That band that existed in the ’70s, those guys, that camaraderie, was not the same. … They still respect each other and respect their past friendships with each other and so forth. But people grow up and they change. They go in different directions.”
Rock & Roll Soul
“There are many reasons why the group imploded,” muses biographer James, who in his book suggested that subtle ego clashes between Farner and Brewer as well as distinctly different business approaches may have fueled conflict. “There are probably old wounds there. Hearsay and rumors and accusations flying around from other people. I think the musical paths the three have chosen is where they should be at this point in time, and I think they will have a reunion again. But until then, they continue to make music and bring light into people’s lives.”
“Will there be another reunion? Nobody would love to see that more than me, but, no, my guess is probably not,” says David Tedds. “As far as the problems that the two camps have among themselves, these guys have known each other since junior high school, and there’s so much water under the bridge there that we’re not privy to and never will be. It’s just stuff they gotta work out among themselves, and I don’t think it’s really anybody’s business but these guys’. If they can work it out, great; if they can’t, that’s the way it goes.
“It’s a drag, because when they played together some three-four years ago, it wasn’t like watching some band that was once proud and mighty do this weak-ass comeback. They were still kicking ass! And watching Mark on his last couple of [solo] tours, and watching Grand Funk too — the three principals are still playing as good as they did in their heyday. I mean, if you’d gone to see them and it was like, ‘Well, Farner just stands there and his voice isn’t what it was, Brewer can’t play half as heavy, and Mel too …’ Then it’s probably best they don’t further tarnish the legacy. But they all still play great.
“That is what the drag is — when you think that during these last three years these guys could have been putting on some slammin’ shows together.”
David Tedds, 46, grew up a teenage AM radio fiend in Redford. He got a copy of Grand Funk’s On Time for Christmas 1969 and later, by a stroke of luck, he found himself in London for Grand Funk’s 1971 Hyde Park concert.
A lifelong obsession was born.
Tedds moved to LA about 20 years ago to work in the record industry. In 1998, he was employed by the Capitol-EMI catalog and marketing division, and his first pet project became Grand Funk.
For Capitol’s GFR remasters, Tedds was keen to include unreleased material from Capitol’s vaults that hadn’t already been used for Thirty Years of Funk. The only problem, as Tedds relates, was that “there wasn’t much! When I looked at the studio logs for each of those first few albums, they did the backing tracks, the vocals, guitar solos, keyboards and anything else, the entire album top-to-bottom in three days. As Don Brewer [GFR drummer] told me, ‘We wrote 10 songs, we recorded 10 songs, and 10 songs came out on the album.’”
For On Time, Grand Funk and Closer to Home, Tedds did unearth a handful of tracks bearing subtle differences from the album versions. Those, Tedds says, were completely remixed from the multi-tracks by Capitol engineering whiz Jimmy Hoyson. “But we didn’t remix the albums themselves,” Tedds quickly adds, anticipating purists’ outcries. “That’s fucking with history. We just remastered the two-track masters for the albums.”
He also included the original demo for “Nothing is the Same,” recorded during the second album’s sessions, which would subsequently be redone on Closer to Home. And since the two-LP Live Album’s running time precluded any additions, Tedds tagged onto Closer to Home three live cuts (“In Need,” “Heartbreaker,” “Mean Mistreater”) recorded during the same string of June ’70 Florida concerts that yielded Live Album’s material.
Speaking of concert recordings, the new Live: The 1971 Tour is a dynamic set that’s sonically superior to its 1970 predecessor. It was originally conceived as a document of the June 9 Shea Stadium gig, which was filmed by David and Albert Maysles (of Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter infamy) for a TV special that was never broadcast. After reviewing the tapes, however, Tedds and the band members agreed that better ’71 recordings were available, particularly the April 29-30 Detroit Cobo Hall shows, which take up nearly an hour of the disc’s 79-minute running time. (Four Shea Stadium numbers made the final cut, as did one from the May 1 Chicago concert.)
Tedds: “Terry Knight had taken the Maysles brothers on the road with them for several weeks prior to Shea Stadium. Apparently those were filmed and recorded [by Kenneth Hamann of Cleveland Recording company] too; they were logged into the Capitol database. Not counting Shea Stadium, there were probably half a dozen shows [in the vault]. There was some good stuff from Shea, but the band was pretty upfront about the fact that, ‘Here we are at Shea Stadium, the audience is half a mile away from us across the infield, we’re playing to 55,000 people, and we’re just overwhelmed. It probably wasn’t the best show we did.’ So I’m listening to some stuff recorded a few weeks prior to that and going, ‘Wow, these Detroit shows just blow away Shea!’”
There you have it, hometown fans. Anybody who was at the Cobo Hall shows feel like throwing in their two cents’ worth?
Porcupine Tree. No-Man. Blackfield. Storm Corrosion. IEM. Bass Communion. Production work for notable prog and metal acts. Surround-sound remix wizard for everyone from Jethro Tull and King Crimson to Simple Minds and XTC. We’re talking Renaissance Man territory. (No, “Renaissance Man” is not a band, although the day’s still young.) The British rocker talks all this, along with musings on his latest, excellent solo album and why he’s big on videos and performance. “Although the MTV era is certainly over,” notes Wilson, “a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it.”
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Steven Wilson first made a splash in the early nineties as leader of the British band Porcupine Tree. Though the band began as a one-man goof on psychedelic rock (cf. its first LP On the Sunday of Life), it quickly evolved into an actual group, one that took elements of progressive rock, psychedelia, pop, folk, metal and electronica and filtered them through Wilson’s distinctive sense of melody and texture-driven production acumen. Despite a series of strong records, culminating in 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, the Tree’s most critically acclaimed and bestselling LP, the band never quite caught on with the mainstream’s rock-loving fringe in the way its fans expected. That said, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s final album The Incident, Wilson had well established himself as a songwriter, musician and producer of note, one willing to experiment at will without losing a devotion to melody that should be the envy of tunesmiths everywhere.
Those qualities have also stood him in good stead in both his solo career and extracurricular activities. Though he first tested the solo waters while still a PT member with 2008’s Insurgentes, he really began in earnest with 2011’s Grace For Drowning, a double LP in the grand prog rock tradition. 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing was practically the apotheosis of his style, which meant he had to change tack, precipitating the turn toward pop with 2015’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. But working his pop jones didn’t mean a loss of thematic ambition – H.C.E. wears its apprehensions about the alienation of twenty-first century life on its sleeve. The idea that advancing technology creates new barriers even as it knocks down the old ones is a common notion Wilson has grappled with throughout his artistic career.
To the Bone, Wilson’s brand new album, brings those themes even more to the forefront of his concerns, but wraps the bitter pills up in music sweeter than any he’s made before. In the tradition of the ‘ artists he grew up with, from Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk to The The and XTC, Wilson mixes instantly appealing melodies with ideas more aspirant than musings on romantic love or personal introspection – an album that beckons to and braces you at the same time. It’s the kind of record that might very well make Wilson the star he’s been feted to be by fans and critics, but even if it doesn’t, it’ll set a new standard for his future work.
Meanwhile, Wilson quietly but consistently keeps busy even when he’s not making records under his own name. He’s co-led the art pop group No-Man with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness since 1987, issuing a variety of excellent LPs alongside those of Porcupine Tree. He’s collaborated with Swedish progressive death metal act Opeth’s leader Mikael Akerfeldt in the atmospheric prog band Storm Corrosion and Israeli singer Aviv Geffen in the anthemic, still-running Blackfield. He’s made explicitly motorik-based space rock as IEM and haunting ambient music as Bass Communion. He’s worked as a producer for Opeth and Israeli metal act Orphaned Land and made a number of guest appearances with his prog rocking peers. Wilson also works as a remixer, specializing in Surround Sound and DVD-Audio to create new, highly acclaimed versions of classic albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Simple Minds and, most notably, King Crimson and XTC, leading to lasting friendships with those groups’ respective leaders Robert Fripp and Andy Partridge. Happiest when he’s busiest, Wilson has consistently followed his own muse in whatever direction it leads him, confident enough in his own ability and identity to never worry that it will steer him wrong.
We spoke to Wilson by phone from England about making To the Bone, the themes to which he returns from album to album, the importance of visual media to his work and the importance of balancing dark with light.
BLURT: I’ve been listening to the new record and it’s excellent – a new highwater mark in your career. I’m especially impressed with the pop element. You’ve talked about the progressive pop records – Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, that kind of stuff – but it seems to me that what this focuses on is your very distinctive sense of melody. Was there a conscious decision to put the melodies more up front that usual?
STEVEN WILSON: Very much so. I think the press release angle is a bit of a simplification. The reason those records are referenced in the press release is this idea that’s very much out of fashion these days, which is you can make a record that is both accessible and ambitious. There was a period in time, lest we forget, not so long ago in the ‘[P80s, when I think that the art of making accessible but ambitious records was kind of at a peak. You look at records like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode – even Michael Jackson’s records from that period, to an extent. There is something about them that is completely distinctive, very ambitious, but at the same time, very easy to enjoy as just great pop songs. The question you asked was, was there a conscious decision? Yes. There was a conscious decision to focus much more on the art of creating hooks and pop melodies, but without any sense of having to dumb down or compromise in the ambition of the music.
One of the things that makes your music consistently interesting is that even though you have that distinctive sense of melody – you know a Steven Wilson song when you hear it – you’re always pushing yourself, pushing your own boundaries. You’re not just redoing Fear of a Blank Planet over and over again.
No, quite the opposite! I’ve moved further away. I mean, I’m very proud of that record – it was the peak of my interest in metal. You won’t hear anything like that on this record. Although, even as I’m saying that, I’m conscious that some of the lyrical strands off an album like Fear of a Blank Planet are still present in To the Bone – this interest in how technology creates borders between people rather than bringing them together, and that whole thing about how technology essentially creates a lot of alienation in modern life. So that’s still there.
But musically it couldn’t be further away, and to come back to your question, I think that one of the things that always drives me on is that if I’m going to make another record, if I’m going to add to my already substantial back catalog, then there has to be a reason for each album to exist. There’s no point in making a repetition of one that already exists – trying to cater to the existing fanbase’s expectations. I think it’s very important to always be confronting those expectations. Many of my favorite artists over the years have adopted that approach, whether it’s Bowie or Prince or Neil Young or Frank Zappa. These are people that always had a sense of evolution from album to album, and a sense of sometimes having to confront the expectations of their audience. To be fair, a lot of the industry is based on delivering more of the same, and that’s what most artists do. I’m not denigrating that at all, but that’s not right for me. I have to feel like every album has a distinctive place in my catalog.
It always seems to me that an artist has to make himself happy first – if he’s not happy, then how can he make the audience interested?
I think it can even go further – that’s the definition of an artist. An artist is someone who’s essentially very selfish. And I say that in the context of an artist being very distinct from an entertainer. If you want to be an entertainer, give the audience what they want, give them a greatest hits show, that’s fine. But that’s not being an artist. Being an artist is in some ways a very solitary, very selfish thing. But I believe that’s a good thing. I think Radiohead is a great example of a band that could so easily have gone the nostalgia route, and probably would’ve ended up being the new U2 or something by now. Because there was a point when I think they were headed in that direction. But the art – the sense of self-expression – was more important. That’s what being an artist should be, and sometimes I think fans forget that, and they should be more encouraging. Because the bottom line is the old work is always there, isn’t it? You can still go back and listen to the old records.
It seems that this is actually paying off for you. It seems like you get more and more popular every album the more you push yourself in new directions.
The bottom line is you never know. Taking risks sometimes, obviously, can pay off, and other times it can be a disaster to your career. The most important thing, I think, is to make the work in a kind of vacuum, where you don’t think about those things. But you’re right – I have been very lucky. But I’ve also worked very hard making these records. I have to say, every time I make a new record, it seems like you have to work a little bit harder – it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard to stand still. Because there’s too many records in the world, too many people releasing music these day. You have to fight so hard, even when you’re an established artist. In some respects I am established, not in the mainstream, perhaps, but most people at least know who I am and what I do. Every time I have to fight a little bit harder to get the column space in the magazine, or the attention on the Internet, or some radio play, or to sell tickets. I’m working harder than I ever have before in my career. And I’m 50 this year – in some respects I feel I should be able to slow down now. But I’m still ambitious, and as you alluded at the beginning of our conversation, I feel like I’m making my best work. Of course I want that work to reach as many people as possible. So I’ll still go out there and put in the hours and do the work that I need to do to achieve that.
You worked with some new collaborators this time. I’m curious about Paul Stacey – you co-produced it with him, which is unusual for you. Did that open up the sound?
I think that one of the other things you can do as a solo artist that I could never do in the context of a band, is you can change the people around you from album to album. The one thing you can never change is you. All of my kind of clichés and musical tropes and things that I fall back on – they’re always gonna be there. But one of the things that I can do to make things fresh and perhaps take the music in a different direction is to change the people around me. With Paul, it wasn’t planned that he would be the co-producer. It’s one of those situations where I wanted someone really good to engineer the record. I was recommended Paul by a few people, and we got on really well and I hired him to record the record. But about halfway through the process I realized he had obviously gone way beyond that remit, and was having very strong influences on the actual direction of the record, and bringing out performances from myself and the other people involved. Which of course is very much a production role. So it’s almost like he very naturally drifted into that role, and we ended up making the record together. I have to say, I really enjoyed that process. I am a bit of a control freak, which is why I rarely do those kind of things. But when something happens in that organic, natural way, I’m very willing to embrace it, particularly if I think it’s going to make the record better, which I think it has.
You also worked with Andy Partridge, which would be a dream for a lot of people. I assume came out of your remixing of the XTC records.
Certainly that’s how I got to know Andy. I’ve been very fortunate to count him as a friend these days. One of the most amazing things about my career is that I can say that some of the people whose music I grew up with and is very much in my musical DNA have become collaborators and friends. Andy is obviously one of the greatest for me, one of my favorite songwriters of all time. So I think it was almost inevitable that there would come a point where I would say, “Do you want to write a song with me, Andy?” [laughs] There was this one song, which became the title track on the album, where I knew what I wanted it to be about, but I really didn’t know how to go about approaching it. Because it’s almost semi-political, that song “To the Bone.” It’s obviously very much about the post-truth era, about fake news and the Donald Trump era of politicians. And I’m not one who feels very comfortable writing about something like that. Politics is not really my area. Not that the song is overtly political, but it certainly nods its head in that direction. So I didn’t feel necessarily like I knew how to approach it. It became the very obvious thing to call up Andy and say, “Do you wanna do this, Andy?” And he did a fantastic job.
Not too many people can call up Andy Partridge and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea – can you flesh this out for me?” That’s pretty cool.
I know! like I say, that’s one of the greatest privileges of all in my career, to meet these people, and to realize that now, people whose music I grew listening to in my bedroom are my musical contemporaries. That’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? It’s amazing.
Speaking of collaborators, you usually have excellent taste in side musicians. Who are you playing with on this album?
A lot of it is actually me, and one of the reasons why Paul became so integral to the record is because I was doing a lot more playing this time. So most of the guitar, bass and keyboards are me. When you cast yourself more in the role of a performer, you obviously need to rely a lot more on your engineer and your co-producer, which is why Paul was so important. But there are musicians on the record. There’s the two guest singers – Ninet Tayeb, who I’ve worked with before, and also a Swiss singer called Sophie Hunger, who sang on “Song of I” with me. So there’s a very strong vocal female presence on the record. Musicians-wise, a couple of drummers: Jeremy Stacey, Paul’s brother, who’s in the current lineup of King Crimson, and also my regular live drummer Craig Blundell. They pretty much did 50/50 for the record. Adam Holzman, my keyboard player, is on the record, but mostly handling the piano parts this time, as I did most of the synth stuff. A fantastic harmonica played called Mark Feltham, who I wanted to work with because he’s the guy on those old ‘80s Talk Talk records. If you’re familiar with those – Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, The Colour of Spring – you’ll know how harmonica is a very strong part of those records. So I hunted Mark down and was very privileged to have him do some incredible stuff on the record.
Let’s talk a bit about the themes you were mentioning earlier. How technology should be bringing us together, and yet it seems to be pushing us more and more apart. Communication in general seems to be breaking down. Why do you think that is when we have the technology for everyone to be so close?
It’s obviously not the fault of the technology – the technology is extraordinary. The Internet is one of the most extraordinary inventions ever, in some ways even more significant perhaps than the TV. The TV changed the way that people live, but I think the Internet has changed the way people live much more so than even the television – the way we communicate and understand what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, through no fault of the technology, it also taps into the very worst aspects of human nature. There’s a tendency we have to be very passive about the way we interface and engage with the rest of the world and with other people. I think the problem with social networking, because it creates the illusion of being connected to the rest of the world, people tend to be satisfied with that illusion – the illusion of having friends. Friends that you’ve never met! [chuckles] This illusion of having friends, of being connected, of having your whole existence up there on the Internet available for other people to experience and to share. It’s all complete bullshit. Basically we now have potentially seven billion people now who are all critics, who are all celebrities, who can all go on the Internet and share pictures of themselves, share their opinions on anything from movies and music to politics, and unfortunately it taps into a lot of the worst aspects of human nature: ego, narcissism, the need to be heard, the need to be noticed. If that means being negative and critical, or being an Internet troll, then so be it – that’s better than not being noticed at all.
I think the problem is, at the moment, the technology’s so new that we haven’t really learned properly how to make use of it. We’re going through that traditional transitional period in our evolution where we’re not quite sure where the Internet, where cell phones are taking the human race. There’s a lot of negativity – I think that’s easy to see – but there’s also some positivity too. So I think what will become clear is probably not going to become clear for another half a century or so. Then we’ll really see how this technology has influenced the world.
In the meantime, I think it’s important for people like myself and filmmakers to raise our concerns. Because I think one of the great things that art can do is create debates and raise these issues, and kind of hold up the mirror to the rest of the planet, saying, “You know what? This is what I see. Do you think it’s good? Do you recognize yourself in the mirror?” I guess that’s what I try to do, hopefully without being too preachy.
When you’re writing a record like this, do you sit down and say, “Wow, this is getting really dark really fast. I better put something else in there so people understand that I don’t think it’s hopeless.” Or were more positive songs like “Song of Unborn,” “Nowhere Now,” “Permanating” just a natural part of the song cycle?
It’s funny you should ask that, because I think, for the first time, I did say it to myself. “You know what? It would be very easy to allow yourself to make one of the most downer-sounding records of all time, unless you stop yourself from doing that.” Because the truth of the matter is, even in the two-and-a-half years since I made my last record, the world arguably has become even more concerning and worrying. It’s even easier to be down on everything. You look at what’s happening in the U.K. with Brexit, at the whole political scene in America, at what’s going on with the refugees in Europe, the religious fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks that in the space of the last three years have come very much to our doorstep here in the U.K., and in Europe in general. So things have got even worse in that respect. It would have been very easy or natural for me to allow myself to make a record that was even more negative.
But you know what? I don’t think that would have been a true reflection of what I really feel about the world. So I think it was a conscious decision. You mentioned “Song of Unborn” there – that’s a good example, really. Because that song is in a nutshell really what I’m talking about here. The song is basically saying to the unborn child, “You’re looking out to the world right now, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Why the hell would I wanna be born into this crazy, messed-up place?’” And the answer that comes back is, “Because the gift of life is something extraordinary and unique to every individual, and if you choose to, you can make something amazing out of your life, and you can make the arc of your own life profound.” I think that is a very positive message, and an important thing to remember as well. That we can all do something incredible with our lives, and we don’t have to allow all this other stuff to drag us down. It’s easy to get depressed looking at the state of the world, but we can all do something amazing with our lives. The gift of life is something extraordinary and very profound, and I really believe that. Without sounding like a hippy or something, at the end of the day, I do think that’s the reality. It’s a nice way to end the record on a positive note, which I think is important.
I’ve always thought the best dark records are the ones that have at least a glimmer of hope in there, just to balance out. It makes it more realistic. As bad as things get, there’s always good in the world.
On a lighter note, because you have this ‘80s vibe for the record to a certain extent, I thought it was very fitting that you’ve put out a lot of videos for the album. The time of MTV being any kind of dominant force is over, but it’s very appropriate that you’re putting out videos.
Well, although the MTV era is certainly over, a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it. Of course a lot of people listen to their music through YouTube, which is the world’s most popular streaming service. For all Spotify’s success, and other streaming services, YouTube is still the number one, and YouTube is of course a video-based service, so I think a lot of people expect some kind of visuals. I’ve always been very interested in the combination of music and video, and I think in many respects the combination of sound and visual can be the most powerful combination of all. And I’ve always been very interested in that, and these songs are stories -they lend themselves very well to visual interpretation. So we’re having a lot of fun with it, and we’re gonna do a lot more for the live show, as well. There’ll be a lot of video content, all very, very exclusive and very much fundamental to the presentation of the live show.
In fact, one of the reasons I went solo was because I really wanted to explore that side of my performance more. One of the things that’s difficult when you’re in a band is to go to your band and say, “Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be great if we blow all the money that we make on this tour on some amazing visuals?” Usually, they’ll tell you where to go. So one of the reasons I decided I needed to be a solo artist was so I could explore that side a lot more. Because I’m very good at spending all the money I make [laughs] on video material, because it’s not cheap to do that kind of presentation. But it’s important – that’s part of the magic for me.
What have you got planned for the future besides this tour? Because you seem to never sleep.
I am focusing a lot on the tour, because there is a lot of preparation to do, not just for the visuals, but obviously for the musicians and the audio side. But I’m also doing a lot of promotion right now. There’s a couple of months’ worth of going around the world doing radio and TV and talking to people, which I’m very happy to do – I enjoy doing that stuff very much. In terms of other projects, we touched on it earlier with the XTC thing – I do a lot of working on these amazing remix projects – remixing these classic records, which is both a privilege and very hard work. But I love doing that stuff, and there’s a lot coming in right now, which I’m gonna try and squeeze in before I disappear off on tour. But really most of next year is going to be committed to touring what I hope will be a record that has resonated well with people, and people will be interested in seeing the presentation of the album in a live context.
The prolific Chapel Hill rocker and Americana maven unexpectedly pivots to classic ‘70s soul and funk. “I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life,” Rank tells BLURT. “I have no interest in writing the same sad ass country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again.”
BY FRED MILLS / PHOTOS BY MISSY MALOUFF
When Michael Rank set about writing his latest solo album—his seventh in just five years—he felt an emotional and stylistic push in a markedly different direction from its predecessors, all of which were, to varying degrees, Americana-informed. 2015’s Horsehair, in particular, featuring Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, was a deep, lingering dip into outlaw folk and Appalachian country territory, McEntire playing Emmylou to Rank’s Gram (or Bonnie to his Clyde, as some observers put it). Americana, in fact, was what Rank has been known for as a solo artist, itself a marked contrast from his previous work with Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink, which, for two stints (late ‘80s/early ‘90s with the original three-piece; then again from 2003-07 in an entirely different configuration), purveyed a singular brand of hi-nrg Stones raunch and Heartbreakers ‘tude. (You can check out my assessment of Snatches elsewhere on this website; by way of spoiler alert, it is titled “Why Snatches of Pink was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s.”)
Yet if one peered closely at his work over the years, it was possible to detect a cornucopia of influences, and stirring occasionally among them was the classic soul and funk of the ‘70s, with artists like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield clearly sharing shelf space in Rank’s music library with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll. For the 24 songs populating the new three-disc (!) album Another Love, then, soul is the operative term. As you’ll read below, those two soul icons, along with several others, loom large here, with Rank’s guitar ditched in favor of Rhodes and Wurlitzer and the live band mostly supplanted by drum programs and keyboards. Crucial to Another Love is co-conspirator Brian Dennis (late of ‘90s outfit DAG), who performed his studio and sonic wizardry upon Rank’s instrumental and vocal tracks; Rank claims the record wouldn’t have happened without Dennis, which is high praise indeed, considering the songwriter’s prolific nature that, since 2012, has seemingly resulted in an album every nine or ten months.
As one might imagine, with 24 tracks to contend with, there are highlights a-plenty on the album, far too many to isolate here. Yours truly’s favorites—as of this writing, and subject to change tomorrow—include the sleek minimalism of “Kings,” what with Rank deploying one of his more emotive vocals, doubletracked at that, a frequent strategy on the album. There’s the relative swagger of “I Do,” a low-down-and-down-low Prince-like confection featuring Dennis on guitar, his old DAG bandmate Bobby Patterson on bass, and guest vocalist Raney Hayes joining Rank at the mic. You want funky? The title track is pure Sly & the Family Stone—maybe a hint of Stevie Wonder too, with Rank (speaking of doubletracked vocals) singing the low and high parts. Hold that thought: Throughout Another Love, Rank relies on his falsetto to underscore the soul component; “Women in Love,” for example, finds him soaring aloft with remarkable passion, like the aforementioned Mayfield or a classic gospel singer. He’s always had the capacity to hit the high notes, but in 2017, he seems to have climbed the mountain.
And on penultimate number “Horses,” possibly the standout, and perhaps the most “live” sounding one as well, Rank, Dennis, and Patterson get their funk/blues band mojo seriously working. It’s an incredibly infectious track with a psychedelic edge, one which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing show-closer in concert, maybe even with a cape-draping finale. (Rank claims that he has no plans to perform the album live, however, but we can always hope.)
The bottom line: Rank has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and then some. (2012’s two-disc Stag, in particular, was a harrowing document of a brutal breakup, but one can trace Rank’s emotional journeys through his early Snatches songs, too.) On the nakedly confessional—and, significantly, ultimately defiant—“Roll Away” he sings:
“Well honey I ain’t wondering why
I ain’t countin’ my time
I feel there’s something goin’ on…
Well baby this ain’t workin’ for me
I think there’s something goin’ on…
Roll up to the window sill
Baby watch you roll away
I’m better off these days
There ain’t nothin’ left to say.”
I would propose, then, that the pure essence of soul—exploring the vicissitudes of love in all its good/bad/transcendent/ugly dimensions—has always informed this man as a songwriter. He really feels it as a concrete thing, not in the abstract.
Rank and I convened recently via email to talk about the new record, and we touched on a number of things, from obvious questions about what inspired him this time around to how he looks back on his early Chapel Hill days. I couldn’t resist asking him about his son, Bowie Ryder, because fatherhood is a topic he and I always seem to slide into whenever we have the chance to get together in person. We’re a long way from those drunken club nights, following a particularly explosive Snatches of Pink gig. (Rank: “Bowie’s ten years old and all cool. Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that. Parenthood is the ride that just keeps on spinning. Here, lately, I feel like it’s just holding a mirror up to all the areas of my personality I need to do a lot of work on(!!!). But shit, better late than never, right?”) Bowie has always gotten a dedication and shout-out on Rank’s record sleeves, a small but telling gift that the young man will surely cherish many decades from now, and Another Love is no exception, with Rank writing, “I love you always… forever and a day.” To me, this is also emblematic of Rank’s current immersion. He really experiences love as a living, breathing, pulsing creature, never less than a constant presence, day or night.
Incidentally, Rank has his entire back catalog available at his Bandcamp page, and in the case of those long out-of-print Snatches of Pink records, you can even grab them as free downloads. (Nice touch, that.) Check ‘em out, and also visit him at his official website and Facebook page.
BLURT: By way of a long-winded first question: Starting with Stag in Feb. 2012, you’ve released seven SOLO full-lengths, which is an average of 1.4 albums per year; broken down another way, we’re talking 65 months and 87 songs that appear on those seven albums, which is an average of 1.34 songs per month. While it’s not unusual for songwriters to be writing constantly, in terms of recording and releasing material, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many who are this prolific—most would have to plead to having a backlog of songs they haven’t finished or haven’t gotten around to properly recording; only Robert Pollard comes to mind as your peer in this regard. Please discuss why you are a statistical outlier.
MICHAEL RANK: Man, whenever I hear the word “outlier” I always imagine a bunch of villagers with torches and shit, snaking through the marshes yelling “Outliiiierrr!!!”. Hunting Frankenstein-monster style… But yeah, I write a lot of tunes. But to be honest, when you do the math like you just did it somehow doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I feel a little let down; seems like it should be more(!!). If I had a “team” like I did in the old days, I’d get them to start fact-checking and re-crunching those numbers(!!). But songwriting is still cheaper than therapy, after all…
On a slightly more serious note: Give me a sense of your writing regimen or habits—do you work on a particular song until you feel it is completely finished, or do you always have several that you’re working on at the same time? Do you ever have material left over after you’ve finished an album? There were a couple of significant changes for me in regards to the writing for Another Love. This was the very first time in my life where the songs were all written starting with the beat. That was the entry point. All 24 songs. I had never done that before with any song from my past. The other difference is this is the first time in my life that I wrote entirely on keyboards. I haven’t even touched a guitar in well over a year. Everything was created on old drum machines and Rhodes/Wurlitzer keys. I try not to ever have songs stockpiling while I’m writing. I like to write a song and then immediately record it before I move on. And nothing gets carried over. If a track doesn’t make an album then it’s done. Tough love.
It’s a three-disc album, so do you think of each disc as a separate entity, or do you view the songs as one continuous flow? Someone listening to it as a digital download might get a different experience from, say, me, listening to it disc by disc. I’m someone whose real awareness began in the ‘70s. For everything, but especially music. So for me, album lengths should ideally be 35 minutes or so like back in the day. Maybe a touch longer. The last thing I wanted was to put out a single physical CD that played for 2 hours straight. Ain’t no one got time for that. But I put a lot of thought into working out the sequence for this album so that it would work not only as a triple disc experience, but also as one continuous flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my living room floor for a few weeks there towards the end.
The obvious question is, why the pivot away from your signature Americana-tilting singer-songwriter sound to a classic soul/funk approach? What kinds of records were you listening to leading up to writing and arranging these songs?How about when you were growing up? The album that completed the circle for me from growing up to the making of Another Love was Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That work has been a constant for me for a long, long time. Arguably my favorite album ever. But other albums that specifically played into the making of Another Love were D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah. Brian Dennis, who created this album with me, and I spent a lot of time with the sounds on those two D’Angelo albums. Bilal, Erykah Badu, Curtis Mayfield, Bernie Worrell, Shuggie Otis, obviously Prince… we dug through all those artists’ sounds and vibes. And in regards to pivoting away from the styles I had been previously working in, I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life. I have no interest in writing the same sad ass Country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again. And don’t get me wrong—I love that shit dearly, but there are plenty of folks already spending a lifetime doing that.
Your singing style on the album doesn’t so much break from the past as it finds you exploring your upper register more. How much of this was a conscious thing, and how much was just a natural reaction to the music you were creating? Were any of the songs originally more in a twang-and-strum style that you wound up remaking/rearranging for this album? All my favorite singers take the “high road” when it comes to vocal range. D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Eddie Kendricks… and certainly all my favorite Stones’ Mick moments were when he worked his falsetto. It’s a comfortable place for me to exist in. It’s the aesthetic I’ve always dug the most. And again, it’s what I personally want to be hearing. And none of these songs were ever in a different style. They all were born to be exactly who they are.
Pick a few songs on the record that you feel are most representative of the album and your current direction and what you think “works” in them. “Women In Love”: I know it’s bad form to choose favorites but this one’s probably mine. It’s just got that thing. It bubbles. It’s sexy. It’s like the sound of wet marbles.
“I Love You”/ “40 Days”: Man, I have always dug Disco. I never had any problem going from The Dead Boys to The Bee Gees. And I still don’t. I really dig these two tracks ‘cause they are dusted in that Disco gold. The sound of where I’m headed next.
“Sing”: This was the very last song that got recorded, maybe second to last. I had sent Brian my vocals, keyboard, and the beat for him to add his performances to. When he sent back his files for me to hear I got a message from him saying that he had actually scrapped my keyboard entirely and only used my vocal and beat. Now I’m a Leo, and I was proud of my shit, so when I heard that message in the car I was sitting at a stoplight and I was instantly bummed out and starting to cop an attitude. When the light turned to green I pressed play on the mix he sent me and then totally lost my shit. I was screaming and dancing in the seat and just over the moon. When I hit the next red light and called him back up I was literally hoarse from the five minute party I had just had listening to what he created. True story. I adore this track.
How did you come to work with Brian Dennis? What did he bring to the table? Certainly, employing drum programming instead of a live drummer is a radical shift for you. It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say this album wouldn’t exist without Brian. Brian was the very first artist in my entire life that I sought out a collaboration with and then handed over the wheel. And anyone that knows me knows I don’t relinquish that wheel when it comes to my creative shit. But with Brian it felt right. I trust Brian. And from very early on, it became crystal clear to me, and to any innocent bystanders, that Brian knew exactly what the songs were asking for. I literally felt like a kid on Christmas morning every single time I’d get his tracks to a song. And I’ll never forget that feeling. He’s as good as it gets, he honestly is. And now, God bless him, he’s tracking the follow-up album with me!
What are your plans for performing the material live? No plans for any gigging this year. What fulfills me the most is writing songs and creating in the studio. That’s where I’m feeling the most alive. In a perfect world, I woulda dug doing a handful of cool dates but the time and expense involved in putting together a new band is just not where my focus is at right now. I’m already way into the next album at this point.
Looking back on your previous solo albums, which are your favorites now? Man, I try not to look back too much to old albums. But Horsehair [released in July of 2015] was pretty special. As an artist you are always trying to capture something that often goes beyond any easy definition. Visions are an elusive animal. But I think with Horsehair we got real close.
If we go all the way back to your first solo album, 1993’s Coral, and Snatches of Pink’s Bent With Pray, from 1992, I can definitely hear some early groundwork for Another Love being laid, as both those records steered in a more soulful, atmospheric direction than previous Snatches albums. Is that a fair observation? Yea, totally. Especially with a track like “Dove” off of Coral. That tune’s got Another Love written all over it. And certainly there were many moments on 2016’s Red Hand (another solo album I really dig) that led right into Another Love.
So how do you remember the original Snatches of Pink period, you, drummer Sara Romweber, and bassist Andy McMillan? The original Snatches of Pink lineup was my life in a lot of ways. It’s the elephant that never really leaves the room. I only clearly remember it in bits and shards. We were so committed, well beyond the actual music. It was all so proudly worn on our sleeves. So much attitude. It didn’t get to where I dreamed it would have, and that honestly took a piece of me that I’ll never quite recover, but I’ll always feel so proud of what we left out on the field. Day in and day out.
Sara and I still talk every few months and I can’t convey how grateful I am for that. She was so giving and so loyal. We always needed her far more than she ever needed us. She’s beautiful and I’m so grateful I remain in her life. Fred [Jenkins], our long-time road manager, and I still talk every week. We go see concerts together. I still seek out his approval and thoughts with every one of my releases, month after month, year after after year. And Andy has chosen not to talk anymore. At least not to me. And that has really broken my heart. Every memory always begins with him and me. But there are only so many times you can leave a voicemail for someone telling them you love them and that you miss them and then never get a single reply. The last time I saw him I was crossing the street and he saw me, put his head down, and quickly walked to his car and drove away. And I struggle with that. And I struggle with the absence of any explanation… aww shit, man, I’m sorry but I don’t wanna talk about any old news anymore today. That shit just leaves me sad.
Lastly, what’s on the horizon? Man, it’s all about the next [record] right now. I’ve got another new album entirely written and all my vocals, keyboards, and beats are all tracked. Brian is just about to dive, and hopefully this time I can keep it down to a single disc.
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