Guarantee: no Muppets were harmed during the filming of this interview.
By Robin E. Cook
Jim Henson, in his wildest fever dreams, could never have imagined the intra-band dramas of Austin’s Fragile Rock Band. Then again, he wasn’t around to witness the rise of emo. For their SXSW show, the band wore their hearts on their felt sleeves while singing songs about Ms. Pac-Man and frontman Milo S.’s new crush, the actress Fairuza Balk. Milo was conspicuously absent for the interview the afternoon before the show, but the rest of the band proved quite lively.
The singer-songwriter discusses her new EP, her love of Norah Jones and Francoise Hardy, the cultural differences between Europe and the U.S., and how her Italian roots have informed her craft.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Italian singer-songwriter Violetta Zironi took the SXSW stage at Stephen F’s Bar, an elegant Austin venue that was an ideal place for her intimate, country-inflected folk-pop. Her new EP, Half Moon Lane, reflects her love for American music (noted below), particularly on songs like “Toast” and “Muddy Fields.” It’s fitting, then, that she finished her set with a rousing cover of the American folk song “Little Liza Jane.” In her interview with Blurt, she shared road trip stories and explained how she blends European and American styles in her music.
BLURT:I understand at one point you took a road trip throughout the US. Tell me a bit about that.
ZIRONI: Well, it was a couple of years ago. I was changing the direction I was going musically, and I was looking for a new one. Before then, I was still based in Italy, where the market is very different to the rest of the world, I would say. And I had just moved to London, and I thought I wanted to go see where my favorite music came from, because I’m really passionate about folk music and country and blues, Americana. I was looking for my sound as well as a musician. I decided to go see where it came from, and so that’s why we took a road trip. We went to New Orleans and then Nashville, Memphis, Arkansas, Austin.
But the main thing I realized was that I came from a completely different background, which is European. And there was no point in me trying too hard to do something that didn’t belong to me. So that really helped me, finding my sound. Because I still keep that Americana influence that I love, but I really, really embrace my roots, European, Italian, songwriters, sixties. That is a big part of my sound.
Are there any memories that really stood out?
Well, I had the chance to write songs while I was here, in Nashville, for example, even though I didn’t plan anything really. I just met new people and we just decided to write songs together. Especially this Nashville-based songwriter called Joseph LeMay. I remember finding him on a Spotify playlist a year before and becoming a huge fan of him. So I looked him up on Facebook and I just sent him an e-mail, and I said, “Hey, I’m coming to the US in a few months. I’d love to meet you.” He said, “Oh my God, I’ve checked you out. I love your music. Let’s write a song together.” And so we just met up for a song.
Tell me a bit about how you got started as a performer. You mentioned some of the acts you grew up with. Which specific European artists did you listen to?
There’s a big bunch of songwriters from Italy that developed through the Sixties, as in Paolo Conte, Luigi Tenco, even Ennio Morricone, who does all the soundtracks for the spaghetti Western movies. He is Italian, and still he worked internationally. He found a way of doing something that would be very much appreciated all over the world, but an Italian style, I would say. I listened to all these artists. They are really, how do you say, they’re really good with melody. The melody of Italian songwriters, because of the Italian language, it doesn’t allow you to do short and straight bars, where you need a million words to say something in Italian. It’s really a complicated language. Hence why melodies are very articulated and dynamic. Therefore you need good melodies. I keep that factor in writing English.
You mention Ennio Morricone. He also worked American influences into this Italian sound. Like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Absolutely. I take a lot of inspiration from him. It just became a thing all over the world. The spaghetti Western is a really popular, really famous thing. And it’s Italian. And in Italy, for example, no one realizes that, which is strange.
You mentioned that you lived in London for a while. What was that like?
That was my first home outside of home. So when I moved out of Italy and went to London, I really, really enjoyed it. A really inspirational place to be, full of amazing musicians and songwriters. I wrote a lot of songs there. That used to be my home for the first year when I started traveling a lot. So I have really good memories attached to that place.
And it seems that in Europe it’s just easier to get exposure to different countries and different sounds than it is in the US. Would you agree with that?
I think so, because obviously there’s so many countries. The continent is just as big as the US, so within an hour on the plane, you can get to a completely different country where they speak a completely different language. That is really, really, really humbling for someone who’s looking for inspiration about people, about different places and backgrounds. But obviously in America there’s so many cultures gathered into this huge country, so there are different influences. But yeah, the networking bit is easier, I think, in Europe, because everyone is so close and so different at the same time.
I hear your music and there seems to be an English folk influence as well. Is that an influence on your songwriting?
Yeah, definitely, well, English, British music is a bit part of my background, what I would listen to when I was growing up. It’s just history. The Brits are just amazing at doing music all the time, so yeah, sure.
And as far as singers, which would be the singers who really inspired you?
I’m a big, big fan of Norah Jones. I just love her tone of voice and how she interprets songs. Really simple, really honest, not too virtuoso, like she’s not trying too hard. But really genuine music. It really gets to me. I really love Emmylou Harris. I love her tone of voice. And Francoise Hardy. I really love her simplicity as well in singing. It’s almost like she’s talking rather than singing. Just like she’s chatting to you.
What’s the big difference between performing for European audiences vs. American audiences?
I can’t really say yet, because I haven’t done as many gigs in the US, yet. But so far, the ones I’ve done have been really, really good. The people are so nice and respectful. They’re really interested and sort of charmed by the fact that I’m not from here. So they seem really intrigued. And therefore they pay a lot a lot of attention. And whenever they come up to me after the show, they talk to me, and I understand they really, really listen. And they maybe tell me about details of my stuff that someone else would take for granted. So I really appreciate that.
In Europe it’s also amazing. I love playing in Germany. People love music so much in Germany. They’re so passionate about music. Italy, it’s a strange one, because usually listening to music is something that you do while you’re eating, just like everything else in Italy (laughs). No, I’m joking. But usually, you play over dinner and stuff like that. Again, in Europe, it changes a lot, whether you’re in Germany, Italy, UK, France. Everyone is so different.
Our correspondent caught up with the Detroit singer-songwriter during SXSW to talk about her city, her stint in grad school, becoming a bandleader, and of course her new album. Burch will be playing selected dates through early may—check her itinerary here.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
With a sly, confident smile, Anna Burch took the stage at Valhalla on the first night of this year’s SXSW. Quit the Curse (Polyvinyl) is the solo debut for the Detroit singer-songwriter. But as she explains, it’s the latest in a winding music journey that includes a stint in bands like Frontier Ruckus, another SXSW stint ten years ago, and a detour in grad school at the University of Chicago (where she earned an M.A.). Returning to music, Burch created the breezy, sweetly melodic pop-rock that would become Quit the Curse. The year 2018 finds her blossoming in the role of songwriter and frontwoman.
You were in bands for several years. Were you always writing songs during that time?
Actually, I didn’t really write my first song until I was probably 24, and I didn’t really write again until maybe 27. And that’s when I started really writing for the record.
Can you give me an overview of your musical history?
I joined Frontier Ruckus when I was 18 in college, and I played in that band for several years, and we started touring a lot, and then I left the band for a while, for a few years. And yeah, wasn’t doing much with music, went to grad school. And then I kind of came back around to music, and rejoined that band, and then around that time I started writing my own stuff.
You mentioned onstage that you were at SXSW a decade ago. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?
I went with Frontier Ruckus in 2008. I mean, I don’t remember it a whole lot, honestly. We were so young. I don’t think I was 21 yet. I wasn’t 21 yet. We were just kind of running around. And I don’t remember how many showcases we played, but we went to the Lou Reed tribute show and snuck back into the VIP tent and got kicked out promptly. (laughs) But yeah, it was fun!
What does it feel like to be back at SXSW as a solo act?
It’s very different. It feels way more scheduled and business-oriented, I suppose, but yeah, it’s fun! It’s good fun. About 10 years ago, it’s kind of hard to, like, really place where my head was at back then, but yeah, a lot’s changed since then for me too.
As a bandleader and a frontwoman, do you feel there’s sort of a learning curve after being in a band? You’re now center stage.
Being a leader is something that I maybe took for granted. I don’t think I really thought about that. There’s a lot, like, managing people and expectations and needs and wants, trying to keep everything moving. I don’t have a tour manager or anything like that, so I’m the point person for almost everything. So it can be a lot. But it’s also really rewarding. I feel more engaged than I did in previous tours with other bands where I could kind of like just check out. It was nice to have that break. But at the same time I would feel kind of like aimless a little bit. Sort of like, “What am I doing? What’s the point?” Now I feel like I have a very clear sort of trajectory.
You were in graduate school for a few years. Tell me about that. What drew you back to making music?
I guess the grad school thing had a lot to do with quitting the band and trying to figure out what I was good at outside of music. And I knew that I was a pretty good student and undergrad and I enjoyed my studies. I was looking for a niche, I guess. Something I could feel accomplished in. So I went to grad school at University of Chicago. And then I kind of realized, I don’t know, it’s just as competitive and just as unclear.
What did you study?
I was in the humanities. I studied film, English, film studies. But it seemed just as difficult to think about getting a job as a professor after doing a Ph.D. and all that stuff as it would to just do something like music. It was sort of more of an immediate joy.
Once you actually started writing songs, did you find that you had to sort of push yourself to keep on doing it and start performing again?
No, the songs came in a way that it just kind of clicked, I guess. And once I started, I kind of just wanted to keep doing it. I was getting encouragement from friends that I was collaborating with and started recording just, like, demos and it was all very exciting and new. I felt it was just very self-confidence-building. I was getting a lot out of it, so it was easy. Emotionally, I was at a point where it all sort of just channeled. There were just a lot of things that came together and it just kind of happened somehow.
About the music scene in Detroit, what’s it like these days? It seems as though it’s associated with gritty garage rock now, but I’m sure there’s more to the city than that.
Yeah, definitely. There’s the garage rock vibe, the garage rock scene for sure. But there’s a lot of DJs actually, a lot of electronic dance music, a lot of vinyl DJs and dance nights. But yeah, there’s a few solid indie rock bands that I feel like are really perfecting their craft and are getting some good national attention. Bonny Doon is one that’s coming up. Fred Thomas is kind of a fixture in the southeast Michigan scene as well. It’s a small scene, but I think a lot of artists there have figured out a way to focus on it and live relatively cheaply. And there’s a good amount of visibility in Detroit because it’s a small scene but it’s also got a lot of national attention. Obviously, it’s a very historic music scene, so I think people continue to look to Detroit to see what’s going on.
The soul queen talks fame, finesse and success—and her new album of Dylan songs.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
“Could you call me back in ten minutes, baby. I’m running a bit behind,” Bettye LaVette says as she answers the phone. Naturally, we’re only too happy to oblige. With Things Have a Changed, her wonderful new collection of Bob Dylan songs ready for release, it’s only natural that a day set aside for press interviews would find her very busy.
Surprisingly enough, we don’t have to make the call because she calls us back. And when I note that my surname is Zimmerman, the given name of one Bob Dylan, she begins laughing hysterically. “I love it! That’s wonderful,” she replies. “He’s haunting me!”
The truth is, she’s the one haunting these songs. As her website states so unabashedly, “Bettye LaVette is no mere singer. She’s not a songwriter, nor is she a ‘cover artist.’ She is an interpreter of the highest order.”
That indeed is what she’s been doing to great acclaim since her re-emergence in 2003 with the album A Woman Like Me, which netted her the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Comeback Blues Album of the Year.” Her profile rose even higher with subsequent albums released on the edgy Anti-label, all of which found her adapting her classic soul style to songs of both classic and contemporary vintage. I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, released in 2005, found singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry behind the boards for an album of songs composed entirely by women. Its follow-up, 2007‘s The Scene of the Crime was recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and featured instrumental support from Drive-By Truckers. A performance at the Kennedy Center Honors that featured her performing “Love, Reign O’er Me” as a salute to the Who led to 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, a collection of British Invasion standards. In the interim, she garnered an array of prestigious honors and appearances, culminating with a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album of 2016 for her aptly named album Worthy.
Ironically, the kudos she’s been accorded have come late in life. He began recording in 1962 at age 16, when her first single “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man” hit the R&B top ten. She subsequently toured with such stars as Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Otis Redding and Barbara Lynn, and later, she briefly joined the James Brown Revue. An ever-shifting array of record deals followed, but the album that could have provided her big breakhrough, Child of the Seventies, recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, was shelved. (In 2000 the tapes, thought to have been destroyed in a fire, were unearthed and issued on CD on the Art & Soul label as Souvenirs; Rhino Handmade subsequently released the material, along with some bonus tracks, in 2006 under the original name, with the Real Gone label reissuing it once again on CD in 2015. And now, there is a campaign by vinyl reissue specialists Run Out Groove to release it as a vinyl LP under the name The 1972 Muscle Shoals Sessions; fans are currently voting on whether the label will release that or one of two other proposed titles.) After a short stint recording in Nashville in the early ‘80s at the behest of Motown, she took a hiatus, opting to perform on Broadway as one of the leads in the hit musical Bubbling Brown Sugar.
Consequently, LaVette is still waiting for the wider recognition she’s pursued her entire career. Blurt spoke to her from home in New Jersey while covering an array of topics, but that desire to be considered in the same league as her contemporaries was never far from her thoughts.
BLURT: Your new album is inspiring. How did you manage to reinvent these songs which are so closely identified with Dylan and then make it your own?
BETTYE LAVETTE: I discovered them… You guys have got to stop doing this. They’re just songs. They’re obviously written by Bob Dylan, but they’re still just words on a piece of paper. Which do you think would be more difficult for me to do — to sound like me or to sound like Bob Dylan?
To sound like him presumably.
So when people say you’re making them your own, all you have to do to make them your own is to sing them the way you would sing them. That is what I am doing. Singing them the way I would sing them. He is a songwriter, just like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and I sing their songs as well. And I’m sure I don’t sing them the way they did when they took them in to their publisher, or the way anyone else would have sung them at first. So I sing them the way I would have sung them. That’s all I can do. I don’t hear them any other way. There’s no overt effort to sing or sound different. That’s just the way that I hear them. If I like them, I hear them the way that I would do them.
In saying that though, are there no lingering impressions that you have in your head after hearing the familiar, well known renditions?
No, no, no, no no. No,no, no, no. I wouldn’t let that happen. When I introduce myself to the songs and decide what I’m going to sing, it’s the way I heard the words and the way I would sing them. I’m not hearing the person that’s singing them. Then, after I write the words down on a piece of paper or my husband looks them up and prints them, I get a fuller impression. It helps more when I write them down, because when you put the handle back on the record, you learn them as you’re writing them down. The moment I have the songs down on a piece of paper, in whatever form, I don’t want to hear the other person anymore. After I have the melody in my head, it’s easier to remember, because it’s repetitive, but the words keep changing. So if I learn the melody, then I start looking at the words and sing them the way I want them to go because I now know the melody. So all I have to do is sing them the way I want them to go.
You’re obviously well versed in that technique. You’ve reinterpreted a lot of people’s material.
It’s like the Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” (included on her album I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise. After we got all the changes, it became (sings) “Oh my sister, you better listen to me.” That’s the way I heard it.
Is it at all intimidating to take on these songs, especially when the composer is someone like Bob Dylan? Do you feel like you have to reach a certain standard in order to do them justice, or do you just forget about all that?
All I have to do is hold them up to the standards that people are expecting of me. I don’t have to hold up to his standards. I’m not as good a songwriter. Nobody’s offered me a Nobel Prize. But I know how Bettye LaVette sings a song, and I try to sing it as best as Bettye LaVette can, and I try to sing songs that I really believe in and feel in my heart. If songs are silly songs, I try to make them as funny as possible. But I don’t sing songs that have words I would never say. I don’t use the word “boy” unless I’m using it to insult a man. So far I haven’t run into that yet. And I never say, if you do this, I’ll die. Because there would be nothing you could do to kill me. You do know I’m 72 years old, right?
Yes we do know that, Ms. LaVette.
And Bob Dylan’s first record came out around the same time as my first record came out.
We know that as well.
So what should be intimidating to me about him?
A lot of people look at Bob Dylan as…
Are you married?
Yes I am.
How much critique did you do on your wife?
She critiques me more than I critique her.
So I’m getting ready to do the same things with these songs that you do with your wife. I live with them, love them, make love to them, marry them, marry them with me. And I don’t need other people’s opinions about that. I draw my own conclusions.
It was said that your husband Kevin listened to literally hundreds of Dylan songs, and then narrowed down the choice to somewhere around 100 for you to choose from. How did you further narrow them down? Was it simply by the way you related to them?
Yes, it’s how I related to them. There was one song that had 96 verses. Bob Dylan will say something over and over. It’s almost like a really nagging broad. “Let me tell it to you like this, or do you understand it better this way?” So I got it down to the line that everyone would understand. That’s what I did. I captured as many things as he said and then got to the point, which is what a black woman will do. I’m now calling myself the finisher of these songs, because he will take you all the way to the ledge and say jump off. But I’ll push you if we’ve gone that far. (laughs) So that is what I do with his songs. I just go ahead and push people off the ledge. The tender ones especially. “Emotionally Yours” now makes me cry. “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”… when I listened to the verses, it was like oh my God, and then I sat here with a bottle of champagne (begins to sing) and I said, “Oh I like that!” And the next thing I knew, I was crying. He’s been hiding that tenderness from me behind this classic song for all these years. (Sings “I will always be emotionally yours.”) I like it. I like it, and I ain’t gonna say no more.
Didn’t you add some lyrics of your own to some of these songs?
Yeah. On “Seeing the Real You at Last,” he was talking about Clark Gable and somebody else of that era, and I said, “No!” Only 20 percent of the people who are alive now know who that is. I’m fortunate enough to know, because I’m on my last legs. I’m part of the 20 percent. I put Betty Jo Haskins, my own real name in there. And Tina Turner. His manager loved it and gave me license to do anything I wanted to do. So now I’m thinking like a child. I’m thinking euphemistically that (whispers) maybe Bob will love it.
We read that you met Dylan once backstage very briefly and he came over and gave you a big kiss. So maybe now this record will lead to a second, more lengthy encounter.
We’ve been calling it “The kiss.” There were no words. Now we’re waiting for the words. It was just a kiss, so maybe the lyrics are yet to come. (laughs)
Larry Campbell is on the new album with you, and of course, Larry Campbell famously plays with Dylan. Did he offer any input into the material or the arrangements? Did he say anything like, well Bob meant it to sound like this?”
No, he really didn’t. But he did say he was so happy to be involved with this project and play them in a different way. My producer, who is Steve Jordan, is the person who speaks on my behalf. I don’t talk to anybody.
So what exactly did Steve Jordan bring to the table in terms of the production?
With a brilliant producer like Steve Jordan, he understood every word I said. I’m not going to sing anything the way you tell me to sing it. Steve came to my house and I made jambalaya for him and we got with my keyboard player and we worked out the moods and the thoughts and the feelings. Steve took those moods and feelings and put rules to them, and Larry took his parts and gave Pino (Palladino) and Leon (Pendarvis) their parts. I sing for the piano, but being black, the drums kick me every time. Still, I sing for the piano and Leon Pendarvis was there to help with everything I wanted to say vocally. It was a magical recording, it really was. We did it all in three days. Everybody understood exactly where I was going, and they knew that I knew where I was going. That was one of the things that speeded it up. The only thing that we recorded twice was “It Ain’t Me Babe.” We recorded it one way, and then I took the recording at home and listened to it and I came back the next day and I said, “Steve, you can actually skip to this.” And I held his hand and we actually skipped across the floor. I said, “You can’t actually tell people to jump off the ledge while you’re skipping.” One of the things that came into my mind was Jimmy Reed. (Starts singing “Come lightly to the ledge…”) I wanted to do it like that. And the moment I started to sing it differently, they started to play it differently.
Keith Richards makes an appearance on this album. Had you known Keith for awhile?
No, I don’t know any of my contemporaries. Even though I’m from Detroit, I haven’t seen Aretha or Smokey since my career started taking off. All my contemporaries — even though I started first — all of them are millionaires. So, no, I hadn’t known Keith Richards. I told him, “You’re now a boy scout because you’re helping an old lady cross the street.” We sat there together with our legs crossed on the couch because we’re both about the same size, and I laid my head on his feet and he played his solo and he blew smoke in my mouth, and I blew smoke in his mouth and he had his drink and I had my champagne and it was 11 o’clock in the morning. (laughs)
Well, now you’re qualifying it. You were off to an early start.
I know! (laughs) But I said to him, “You know, you and I are contemporaries and we could have gotten into lots of trouble together. And he said, “I know. I know.”
You have so many admirers now. We don’t have to call it a comeback, but 12 or 13 years ago, your career was reborn. How did that feel at the time?
I call it “coming up out of the crypt.”
Were you thinking, “Where have you all been? I haven’t been away.” Or did it feel like you were getting a second chance?
I felt like I was coming up out of the crypt. (laughs)
That sounds a little dark.
Well, it was dark at that point because I had gotten to be 60 years old and that was the magic number. But prior to that, I had learned to tap dance and had done some things on Broadway, and I’ve always managed to secure some kind of record deal. It depends how much money was spent as to whether you heard it or not, but it came out and it was heard somewhere. I was glad that my husband Kevin, when I met him, he was already a Betty LaVette fan. He has a compilation of everything that has ever happened in my entire life, and I am so grateful for that. So it wasn’t like a second chance. It was like my fifth chance, and that’s why I call it my fifth career. All those other times — when I signed with Motown, when I signed with CBS, when I did “Bubbling Brown Sugar” — all those were starts, like “she’s going to be on Broadway, she’s going to be a star on Columbia…” It’s like when I went to Nashville. “Oh she’s going to be a star in Nashville. She’s going to be a black Nashville star!” So no, this is my fifth career!
And this is the career that really seems to have taken hold.
I learned so much from each of those earlier careers. And I’m so different from each of my contemporaries. I’ve been directed. I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve worked and recorded in Nashville. I’ve worked and recorded in New York. I’ve worked and recorded in Detroit. So now I look so odd and different, when they say we need something different, I say sure!
Are there still things that are still left on your bucket list at this point?
Just the Grammy and some money. Those are the only two things I haven’t been able to achieve. I’ve sung for two presidents. I’ve done the Kennedy Center Honors thing. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do except to get the darn Grammy.
This record may do it for you. It’s really a transcendent effort.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. I certainly felt this way when my first record came out in 1962. But this is the first time I’ve had all of the ducks in a row. They say this is the greatest record company in the world. This is the greatest songwriter in the world. Steve Jordan is one of the best producers in the world. I’ve got the best manager in the world in Danny Goldberg. I’ve got the best booking agency in the world. Now they say I’m one of the best song stylists in the world. I’m gonna start taking this shit personally.
Speaking of the Kennedy Center, is it true that Pete Townshend was in tears when you sang “Love Reign O’er Me” at the salute to the Who?
All you have to do is go to YouTube and see that he is. I have several frames of it attached to my wall. (laughs) My husband is Irish and grew up here in New Jersey and he was a great fan of theirs and all the rock stars. I really feel that the British Invasion put a great dent in black music in America. Especially when you see the graciousness that B.B. King expressed and the graciousness that Muddy Waters had when you see them talking to the Rolling Stones and talking to whomever. B.B. King barely escaped dying piss poor. He barely escaped it. He wasn’t that rich but he wasn’t piss poor, but he would have been much better off if that British Invasion thing hadn’t happen. But how are you going to resent artists just like yourself, when we’re trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do, but when your own country overthrows you like that and goes overseas… there isn’t another black artist in this country who doesn’t feel the same way. So this thing that is happening to me now is allowing me the opportunity to, not necessarily pay them back, because there’s no way in the world that I will ever have Paul McCartney’s money, but to give them a chance to hear me. I tell my husband that I’m being airbrushed into my past. Every time I take a picture with Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr or somebody, I put it on the wall and say I was airbrushed into that. (laughs)
Still, it’s ironic that the British artists who took black music and reinterpreted it their way, are now getting the same treatment from you on your records. When you did your album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, it brought the cycle full circle. You’re doing it on the new album, bringing these great songs to new ears in your own particular way.
That is the way that it’s going to be looked at. I really hope that it’s going to be given as much credence. I really need the money now. I don’t necessarily need any more critical acclaim. But I do hope the acclaim will be just what you said.
How is that campaign to release your long lost Muscle Shoals album on vinyl going?
Kevin has been talking to someone — I don’t know. I almost don’t talk to anybody — but Kevin is talking to someone and it sounds really, really hopeful. It would be so interesting. During that time, when I came from Muscle Shoals and went back to Detroit, when you went to somebody’s house, they had the stereo and the albums propped up all over the floor, leaning against the furniture and you’d see albums like Dusty in Memphis and whatever. I always wanted to see my album there. We had our names it, we had taken pictures, and then Atlantic decided not to release it. So now, for it to be released in vinyl would let me prop that album on my living room floor… I’m sure people don’t do that anymore but if you come to my house, you’ll see it.
Originally released in 1991 by esteemed indie label Frontier (and distributed via RCA), the Cali outfit’s fifth studio album may not have sold bucketloads, but it was still filled to the brim with powerful, tuneful rock subversion and resilient emotional fortitude. With a key reissue program now underway for the guitar band, now is an apt time to examine what made Thin White Rope so special—and, for many of us out here in the Amerindie-rock hinterlands, so beloved.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
In 1991 Thin White Rope set about to record their critically acclaimed album The Ruby Sea, which would subsequently be released on Frontier Records. Hailing from Davis, California, the band were able to hone their unique blend, of punk, country and rock into a deeply satisfying record that at times has a ferocious intensity, punctuated by a stark and lonely widescreen sentimentality. The album feels like the equivalent of driving all day, looking for accommodations in a tiny two-horse town and then hitting the local roadhouse for a cold beer. With a Miller in hand, you and the three other patrons witness a band play a show so devastating that you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon America’s best kept secret. I’ve spent the last quarter century evangelizing to friends about how they need to own a copy of The Ruby Sea. I’m gearing up for the next 25.
I’m from the Southwest—the starry sky, the sunsets, and the panoramas ‘round each bend permeate my dreams and have worked their way into my DNA. What Thin White Rope accomplished on this album was to create an aural roadmap of their world.
Guy Kyser’s vocals are part-crazed gold rush preacher, the other part a tortured balladeer. I’ll say this, though: No one conveys the American west quite like he does. Listening to the stormy swirls his voice creates, you can feel the sand stripping the enamel on your teeth, which makes for quite a harrowing journey. Meanwhile, Roger Kunkel’s deft guitar playing is both gritty and full of nuanced layers. The album had critical hosannas thrown at it from certain sectors of the British press as well as the likes of CMJ, not to mention the Amerindie fanzine underground. It proved to be an antidote of sorts to the laughable haircuts and poor song-smithery that plagued “alternative music” at the time.
All one has to do is listen to opener “The Ruby Sea,” where the muscular drums and angular, aggression laced guitar work is cut with Kyser’s haunted vocals, to get a sense that you’re heading to a place riddled with emotional potholes. Cherry-picking my way through the album, “Puppet Dog” has the feeling of making several wrong turns in some rural backwater unable to find your way to civilization; the beginning of the song, with its childlike dreaminess, quickly turns troubled, the key then changes, and Kyser sings “Puppet dog, whoever made you years ago, knew how bad I’d needa friend. Puppet dog, your felt red mouth and bells for eyes, scare the devils off again.” It’s an amazing track that threads the listener through the needle into another person’s world. “The Lady Vanishes” is an evocative number that, in the space of two brief minutes, transports us deeper into Kyser’s haunted world. “Hunter’s Moon” is the album’s centerpiece, a story of longing, pursuit and ultimately redemption, that by its end of it will either have you stomping your foot or waving your fist in the air. “Christmas Skies” is a wistful country ballad that tells the story of a ghost who’s recalling Christmas as a child. I recall being drawn into the song’s orbit late one night in my Fudan University dorm room, where it transported me a million miles away from my Chinese reality to somewhere familiar and friendly, and it’s these distilled yet brief moments, punctuated throughout the record, that make it such an immense pleasure to listen to.
Then there’s “The Fish Song,” which is hands down one of the most kickass songs ever laid down by the band. Its menacing vocals, stretched over a relentless pounding rhythm, is cinematic in scope and a one two punch to the cranium. Once you hear this song you feel like you can take on the world. “The Clown Song”, which closes the record, is another brief, yet very powerful, song. Kyser sings, “Seems I have been a clown more than a friend/ A clockwork response to tokens you spend/ And when you stop and when I run down/ I’m frozen and cannot escape from the clown.”
The album takes the listener on a tense, turmoil-filled journey, its emotional heft being one of the reasons why it has never left my side. I find myself still unable to completely comprehend the power of The Ruby Sea—which is why I’m hooked. While I mourn the fact that the band no longer exists, I believe that their musical catalog will only continue to add new legions of fans as people discover their immense talent.
I managed to hunt down lead singer/guitarist Guy Kyser and guitarist Roger Kunkel to give BLURT readers the skinny on the making of the album. Guy, in an email to me, said they answered my questions “Rashomon Style” (Kurosawa fans please take note).
Roger has also offered BLURT an exclusive link to hear the band’s demo from November 21, 1982 which until now has never been released; the four songs on the demo, originally preserved on cassette and recorded by the late Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family fame, are “Not Your Fault,” “Macy’s Window,” “Soundtrack,” and “Black Rose.”
In my quest for extra archival material, I got in touch with Frontier Records head honcho Lisa Fancher, who offered up her own perspective on the album as well as an exclusive track for Blurt readers from the forthcoming remastered release of The Ruby Sea.
So please check out the interviews that follow, and while you’re at it, chew on this bit of news: Frontier Records has announced that the band’s first five albums will be reissued on heavy-weight 180-gram colored vinyl. (Which should only worsen my editor’s very public vinyl porn addiction.) (Ya got that right, brutha. Just put in my orders, in fact. —Vinyl Ed.) The first two LPs, 1985’s Exploring the Axis and 1987’s Moonhead, are already out, with the rest to follow later this year. Click the link for details; note that ordering the vinyl—including special edition mail-order-only editions—also gets you an immediate digital download. Each title will also be available to order on CD or as a download.
(Below: screen shots from a video of the band performing in 1992 at the Roskilde Fest)
THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH GUY KYSER AND ROGER KUNKEL
BLURT: Where and when was The Ruby Sea(TRS), recorded?
Roger Kunkel: Fidelity Studios, Studio City, CA which is near Universal Studios, east end of Ventura Blvd. We’d worked in that area before at a different studio for the Moonhead and Spanish Cave records.
Who produced and mixed the record?
RK: The producer was Bill Noland of Wall of Voodoo and Human Hands. The engineer’s name was Dave Lopez. This was in May of 1991. Interesting side note: Originally, Butch Vig wanted to produce the record. It was before he was hired to produce Nirvana’s Nevermind. He wanted us to come to his studio in Madison, but we weren’t keen on spending a few weeks in Wisconsin, and we decided to do it in LA where we knew people and could have a good time while being there. By the time we were in LA, we’d heard that Butch was doing the Nirvana record in LA at the same time. Since they’d been signed to Geffen and had a big budget, they flew him out. It happened that we were friends with their manager, John Silva, so he introduced us and even suggested we make guest appearances on each other’s albums. That didn’t happen because neither group was excited about the idea. We did go out to a Butthole Surfers show and got quite drunk together. Remember, at this time they were just another indie band. Months later that changed quickly.
What were you guys listening to back then? Any of those bands influence your direction on this record?
Guy Kyser: I must’ve been listening to a lot of Wire. I don’t recall trying to sound like them but looking back I can really hear the influence. Roger introduced me to a lot of country music over time, so there’s that. And of course, we had that Velvet Underground trying to sneak in there.
RK: We always had a wide breadth of influences largely older stuff from the blues, country worlds. Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, Slim Harpo (One of Guy’s favorites). Also, the classic late 60’s rock stuff: Stooges, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Can, Sabbath. Newer bands: Pixies, the Fall, Wire. This record I think was focused on Guy’s poetic visions of landscapes and loss. The Country influence is fully uncloaked, at least on a couple of tracks, but mostly I feel the record was just twr without conscious outside influences.
What do you recall about the recording sessions, was it a smooth process, or were there debates about the direction of some of the songs?
GK: The songs were pretty much complete, but we hadn’t had a chance yet to listen to some of the details from the outside, so to speak… so sometimes during the recording we’d discover things that didn’t work. For example, there was one place in “Up To Midnight” where our guitars seemed to be in conflict, rhythmically, and we had to isolate the tracks and figure out who was throwing things off (it was me, hah!).
RK: Most songs were pretty well worked out beforehand. We had our preferred methods of recording by this time. We knew we wanted a more polished end result this time around. There were some debates about drums. Matt wanted huge sounding drums. I like drums to sound natural and more 60’s where they sit in the mix instead of summon the Valkyries with thunder, so I wasn’t happy with that.
What was the hardest song to nail for the record?
GK: For me it was “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. Those are simple country-style songs but very difficult to get an authentic feel out of them. I had trouble playing with just the right amount of swing.
RK: Honestly, it’s hard to remember, but I think Hunter’s Moon took some time. It was one that wasn’t fully baked arrangement wise. The build of it started to become apparent and we worked from there to create a steady build that, I think imparts the idea of inevitability.
(Below: producer Bill Nolan and engineer Dave Lopez’ session tracking notes)
Can you guys speak to how you went about recording the record, were things worked out in the studio or did you have skeletons of ideas ready?
GK: We always had limited studio time when recording, so we did most of the arranging beforehand. Depending on what instruments and effects the studio might have available, we would add things just for the hell of it. Like, there’s a piano here – let’s use it on the break in “The Fish Song”. Or the producer knows where to rent a guitarrón – might be a good sound for “Christmas Skies”.
RK: Guy reserved a few tunes to do in a way that would set them apart. Christmas Skies and Dinosaur. I don’t think we’d worked on them much as a band before the recording. And The Clown Song he did solo.
Guy, did you have lyrics worked out in advance or was this something you altered as the song took shape in the studio? Where were you pulling from emotionally when you created some of these songs?
GK: The lyrics were all written beforehand, except “The Clown Song” which was composed during the recording session. I wrote several of the songs & lyrics during a short road trip I took to get away from work, the band, and everything. I got good and lonesome, wandered the hills by night, and somehow got poison oak on my privates. But came home with songs.
How many songs were recorded for the album and if any were left off what became of them?
GK: All the songs we recorded for the album went onto the album. We may have recorded a couple extras for a later EP, but there were also a couple of EP-only recording sessions around that time and I don’t remember which track came out of which session.
RK: We did a couple other tracks in this studio with Bill Noland, but I think it was a separate session. One was “Burn the Flames” for a Roky Erickson tribute album. And two tracks for a Byrds tribute album.
Was there a concept for the album before you all started to record it?
GK: Not really, except that “The Ruby Sea” and “The Fish Song” were both kind of water-related… we did joke around that this might help counteract our desert image.
There’s a wonderful western vibe that permeates the record, can you guys talk about how where you’re from has influenced the music on TRS?
GK: For me, a lot of it comes down to movies. Geography predisposed me to like Westerns, so I got infatuated with Morricone’s scores. [I] also was a big fan of Marty Robbins’ Outlaw Ballads. Onearlier albums, not so much on Ruby Sea, we went through phases of trying to create the ultimate Western Tune. This was fun, but we got a reputation as a ‘desert band’ which came to seem like a millstone sometimes.
RK: That was pretty much always part of the band’s DNA. It didn’t always show up, but Guy, our original bassist, Steve Tesluk, and myself were all classic country and blues fans.
Were all of the songs written specifically for the record or had some been around during other records and you decided to finally include them on this album?
GK: All the songs were written just for this album. Except, kind of, “Tina and Glen”… that song was an idea I’d been kicking around for about 10 years, but I could never make it work until I decided to throw out most of the lyrics and make it an instrumental.
What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was written that was on the record?
GK: See [previous question]. “Tina and Glen” was based on a time when my motorcycle broke down on Highway 99 in central California and I had to spend the night in a farm shed. The host family had two kids whose names were… wait for it…
Who came up with the running order for the album?
GK:I remember that as a collaborative effort. I did want to have “Fish” & “Clown” last, though.
How long did the recording of the album take?
GK: I think it was 4 or 5 days recording, maybe 3 days mixing.
RK: I believe it was two weeks, which was typical for us.
When the album was finally in the can, what was the feeling when you guys finally heard the finished work?
GK: Hard to describe. I had a deep feeling of accomplishment and was very happy with the album, but there was some sadness mixed in because it felt like an ending. I also had a dawning realization that neither this album nor any other we were likely to make was going to see enough success to make us a self-sustaining band. Maybe that is partly hindsight.
RK: A little mixed. It’s also hard to accept that a work is done and is what it’s going to be. When you’re working in a high-end studio and your listening off of two-inch tape through the world’s greatest monitors, things sound so impressive that you can lose a little perspective.
Did you hold a record release party to celebrate?
GK: I think we all went home and slept for a week.
RK: Nothing real formal that I remember. We just started a long tour, as usual.
Who created the cover art?
GK: Our friend Clay Babcock, an artist who lives in LA. He grew up in the same desert town I did, and I’ve known him since second grade or so.
The album was released on LP, cassette and CD on Frontier Records. What about in Europe? Was the album licensed to any labels and did they press up their own editions? Was there a special mix done for the Frontier LP edition?
RK: I don’t think any special mixes or masters were made. Frontier had a distribution deal with BMG at that time, so I think the European product was the same as the US. Earlier records were produced by Demon Records (UK) and distributed by Rough Trade in Europe.
How did the album sell in the US and in Europe?
RK: I don’t know the numbers. I know it wasn’t enough to get us into the black and making money.
Did you record any of the shows you did touring the record?
GK: I don’t remember recording any shows during the official Ruby Sea tour, but we did a final tour the following year and recorded & released the entire final show (The One That Got Away). I was really proud of that recording, a 2-hour-show, it sounded pretty tight.
RK: Of course, there’s the final concert which became The One that Got Away. That was a very good multitrack recording of our last ever show in Ghent, Belgium. It may actually be my favorite twr recording.
Set-list ise, did you play all of the songs at one point or another live or were there some that you never played at all in a live setting?
GK: I don’t think we ever performed “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. “Dinosaur” was too quiet and too dependent on sound processing. We might have done “The Lady Vanishes” and “Up to Midnight” once or twice, when we could get a guest vocalist.
RK: Some were never played (I think): Dinosaur, Christmas Skies (maybe).
What were the core songs from this album that were played in almost every set at the time?
GK: “The Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glen”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “The Fish Song”, “The Clown Song”. Sometimes “Puppet Dog”.
I recall reading a glowing review in Melody Maker at the time and wondered given that this was at the height of the Manchester movement, how did audiences react to your music?
GK: I don’t think anyone was comparing us with the Smiths… I think we were considered rustic headbangers from an uncivilized part of the world, not particularly stylish or trendy. But most of our shows in north-central English cities were well-attended and enthusiastic.
RK: We had a steadily growing following in England, I really enjoyed touring there. We played the Reading Festival on our last trip.
On a blog written by Michael Compton he mentions that, “One of the three weekly music newspapers in England, Melody Maker, took a strong liking to us, but because of that, the other two, Sounds and New Musical Express, decided that we weren’t to be bothered with.” What was it like being in that situation for the band, and how did it affect Demon records ability to promote you guys? Any anecdotes you wish to add regarding the petulant British press?
GK: I don’t know how it affected Demon, but it was kind of a roller coaster for us. The British scene had a lot of infighting, a lot of bands currying favor with this or that fanzine. And we’d get an interview with someone from one of the “other” papers, the interview would go great, and then the piece would be printed with a negative slant. One guy in particular, who was kind of a trendsetter, would mention us only so that he could go on to talk about bands he liked better. Usually American Music Club. For which I bear them no ill will.
RK: I guess on the first couple of trips there we were a kind of secret cool band that MM would write about. We had a few packed shows in small venues that were a lot of fun. NME did a spread with a picture at Stonehenge, so they didn’t ignore us. I don’t recall any bad reviews, but maybe I was oblivious to them.
Who did you guys tour with in Europe for TRS shows?
GK: I’m fuzzy on the timelines – may have been for earlier albums – but we did several shows with the Pixies (mostly Netherlands), the Walkabouts (Germany), and Babes in Toyland (Austria). On our last two tours we played festivals (Reading 1991, Roskilde 1992) with lineups including Iggy Pop, Nirvana, and lots of other acts.
RK: We seldom did shows in support of another band, at least not a string of shows. We had a great show with the Pixies in Rotterdam. We play the Reading and the Roskilde festivals, with so many great bands: Nirvana, Blur, Sonic Youth, American Music Club, even Townes Van Zandt.
Tell me how “Hunter’s Moon” came about. I can only imagine that this song must’ve detonated the room when it was played live. Was this song a fixture of your sets back then?
GK: Yes, this was one of our standards. This song is a very literal transcript from my road trip. I like how simple it is, and there’s something sort of backwards about the chord sequence.
The “Fish Song” hits hard with a biblical one-two punch to the gut. What was the genesis (no pun intended) of this song?
GK: TFS is based on a short, near-miss relationship. I turned it into a kind of Moby Dick story, minus the wooden leg.
Since Thin White Rope, what have the two of you been doing musically?
GK: After TWR I was in a band called Mummydogs with my wife and other Davis musicians. We made one album but didn’t tour. One track was used in the Las Vegas campaign for “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Then I played banjo in bluegrass bands with Roger and others, doing the farmers market circuit.
RK: In the 90s I had an eclectic instrumental band called the Acme Rocket Quartet. We made 3 CDs but didn’t tour. (Own those records as wel! -Archival Ed.) I sometimes still hear it as transition music on NPR. I got into bluegrass and old time playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar. Guy and I had a gigging bluegrass band going for a while called Doc Holler. I studied computer science in college. Currently, I play telecaster in a honkytonk, classic country band called Mike Blanchard and the Californios. I’m also occasionally in a band called Toadmortons. We are currently working on a new album. I have a casual acoustic duo called the Smoke Shovelers. I’m interested in solo guitar lately and I’m hoping to record that and make my first solo album this year.
What do you guys do for day jobs?
GK: During the day I am a specialist with UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, doing research on management of invasive plants in rangeland and natural areas.
GK: I haven’t thought too much about the back catalog, but I’m glad to see Moonhead rereleased because for some reason I didn’t have a copy. The oldest songs sound pretty adolescent to me – I’m glad they’re out there but it’s like they were written by a different person.
RK : My favorite TWR recordings have been Moonhead, Sackful, and the covers we did. However, they all have their endearing qualities. I went a long time not listening to any. I’m hearing that the remasters are really good, so I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with them.
What place does The Ruby Sea hold for you guys when considering your whole discography?
GK: The best songs on Ruby Sea are my favorites from the whole band’s career, but there are some weak spots too.
Any possibility that you guys would ever pull the band back together for some one-off shows or even a new record?
GK: I would feel pretty uncomfortable trying to revisit stuff I was doing in my twenties…
RK: A TWR reunion has been discussed before but seems unlikely.
Below: Roger Kunkel unearthed photos from a very early studio demo session featuring the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) producing. Pictured areScott Miller, Kevin Staydohar on bass, Guy Kyser with lambchops, Roger Kunkel “standing around” and Jozef Becker on drums. The third photo is of Kunkel’s cassette of the Nov. 21, 1982, four-song session.
THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH LISA FANCHER OF FRONTIER RECORDS
BLURT: Please describe your role at Frontier Records for our readers?
Lisa Fancher: I founded Frontier Records in 1980 and I still own the label and run it with the indispensable Julie Masi.
How did The Ruby Sea sell?
LF: Not terribly well, none of their records sold particularly well compared to the Frontier punk titles, but TWR is my legacy band and I’m desperately interested in the entire world discovering their greatness.
How many pressings have there been of the vinyl?
LF: The LP was pressed once when I was with BMG, I never made more.
Were there differences between the Frontier edition and European pressings?
LF: There were no differences between US and UK editions, no.
What’s your opinion of the record in relation to their entire catalog?
LF: I can find no fault in anything that TWR ever did, so I can’t really be objective where it stands. It was the further evolution of Guy’s songwriting, trying to branch out more musically, and also signaling the end of his desire to be in band, and to live a life in one place with Johanna. That’s what I get from it… I’m just sad because it’s TWR last studio album!
Did Frontier finance the recording?
LF: Yes. The only record paid not paid for by me was Sack Full of Silver, I did a licensing deal with RCA Records.
What was your reaction the first time you heard the finished recording?
LF: I was there most of the time while they recorded [The] Ruby Sea and much of the time when Noland mixed it. I was giddy with awe, still am.
What’s your favorite and least favorite track on the record?
LF: I have no least favorite track, but “The Fish Song” is probably my favorite.
When the album came out what was the general reaction you were getting?
LF: It’s hard to remember if there was a negative reaction, I don’t think so. TWR had their fervent journalist fans but had a hard time taking it to the next level of “success”, whatever that is. Decades later the critics all jerk off to the Black Angels and Floorian etc., [who] owe so much to TWR sonically. I think the response would have been more shrill in terms of SUPPORT THIS BAND, DAMN YOU if writers knew that it was their last album, TWR’s greatness was very much taken fo granted.
Was there a difference between how the British press reacted to the album versus the US music press?
LF: The US press was not terribly enthusiastic overall though the band did have strong support in the fanzine and Alternative Press-size magazine world. SPIN was an early backer, but then when it got super corporate, they turned their backs. I could have spent a billion advertising dollars but writers either got the band or they didn’t. In the UK, there’s not this pressure for pay to play, so there was always unabashed raves in Melody Maker and Sounds and large, crazed audiences. When Guy appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, I thought I would die from pride! NME didn’t have much time for TWR because the other two papers loved them, but that’s okay. They never did a Peel session either, it’s time I got over these things.
I know that a remastered edition is slated to come out; who’s doing the remastering? Will there be any expanded liner notes and or art used on the remastered release?
LF: Exploring the Axis and Moonhead were re-released on 3/9/18 and the other three studio records will come out in the coming months. If these reissues do okay, then I’ll consider a definitive odd and ends record and remastering the double live LP.
Paul duGré does all my remastering, he’s an absolute shaman with guitar-based rock. When you hear the re-releases, you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s possible to hear things on these versions that were inaudible on the previous versions. No, they are not expanded versions in terms of art or notes because I tried to keep them at the original price, so people would buy them without hesitation. Changing packaging and added booklets, etc., make the price go up by many dollars. We did put Guy’s lyrics in the LPs, they were previously only available as a booklet to fan club members.
Is the band involved with the remastering?
LF: They were not.
(Below, original 1991 Frontier press release for the album.)
Any anecdotes good or bad related to this record that you care to share?
LF: I will save those memories for when I write my book. All of [them] drank excessively after the sessions but they were total pros in [the] studio, no matter how hungover. I tried to get Kurt Cobain to play guitar on a song or sing on “The Fish Song” as the band was making Nevermind in the valley, but it was vetoed by his people even though he was a big fan. I think perhaps a few more people would have bought [The]Ruby Sea if it was sanctioned by Kurt!
Any future TWR projects slated for release on Frontier?
LF: I’ll have to wait and see how the reissues go as I need funds to do more, but I certainly hope so– now or anywhere in the future. Guy knows that I’d have a stroke if he ever wrote a new TWR song and/or if he formed a new band of any kind. (He briefly had a bluegrass band with Roger and I drove up to SF alone the instant that I heard they were playing!) My most fervent dream in life is that Guy will return to music, but mostly I want him to be happy in life whether it includes writing or playing music. It’s just that I’d like for Guy and Roger to finally get their due, something Guy could care less about, I’m sure!
(Below: Photos of the tape reel box details for The Ruby Sea, courtesy Frontier)
(Pictured above, L-R: Billy Chevalier, Dylan Matteisen, Matt Chevalier)
Tiny Moving Parts are a group from “middle of nowhere” Benson, Minnesota who like to call themselves a “family band.” In fact, bass player Matthew Chevalier and drummer Billy Chevalier are brothers, while Dylan Mattheisen, who sings and plays the guitar is their cousin.
They have been playing together since they were kids, and their latest record, Swell, is yet another great album from one of the scene’s most consistent bands. They are the perfect blend of math-influenced guitar, neurotic drums, and Blink-182-esque pop-punk hooks.
We got to have a chat with them on before their set a couple of weeks ago at the Marquis Theater in Denver, Colorado while on tour with Birdhouse View, Oso Oso, and Mom Jeans, who we also spoke to before the show.
BLURT: Tell us about where you’re from. How was the band formed?
Dylan Mattheisen: We’re from Benson, Minnesota. A really small town of only 3000 people. Matt and Billy, they’re brothers, and I’m their cousin. We’re just a good ole family band, playing forever together.
BLURT: I’ve seen that your original band name was the D-Cups. What made you start with that as a name, and why the change to Tiny Moving Parts?
Dylan: Oh, yeah! We were just a cover band. We were writing a couple songs here and there, but we were like, 14.
Matt Chevalier: It was a joke high school band. Then we’re like, “Oh, let’s try to do real stuff,” so we became Tiny Moving Parts and started writing real music.
BLURT: What was one of your earliest favorite artists that inspired you to start the band?
Dylan: Blink 182 was a big one for sure. I mean, Dude Ranch and Enema of the State. Those are great records! Early Blink is what kind of got us going.
BLURT: Taking a step back further, what inspired you guys to be musicians? Being from a family band, is your family musical?
Billy Chevalier: Not really! It was literally the Blink 182 thing. We were obsessed with Blink when we were kids. The D-Cups started off more as a Blink 182 cover band.
BLURT: I just visited Minneapolis for the first time to go to a show at First Avenue and loved it. What’s your favorite thing about Minnesota?
Matt: The nice weather…
Dylan: Honestly though, the winters are brutal and cold, but we get all four seasons nicely. The summers are warm. The fall’s beautiful and it’s great golfing weather. We love to go golfing back home. Golfing’s probably one of our favorite things to do when not on tour.
Billy: It’s awesome having lakes everywhere, too.
Matt: It’s cool going to the lake. Lakes and golfing. We love golfing.
BLURT: I’m absolutely terrible at golf, but I love it, too! How often do you guys have the chance to play?
Billy: Last summer we had a good amount of time off. We were going, probably three to five times a week. It was the only thing we had to do. It was like, “Hey, yeah. Let’s go golf again. Let’s go golf again.” And don’t worry, we’re not very good either.
BLURT: You guys have a fantastic new album out called Swell. I’m continuously impressed by how consistent you all have been ever since you started Tiny Moving Parts. What inspired the album and what was recording it like?
Dylan: We recorded it with our friend Greg Lindholm. He’s done basically all of our stuff except for Pleasant Living. He’s just been a good friend of ours for so long. We really trust him, and it was really comforting going to his place. We were at his place for like, 40 days. In the middle of it we had to do a week run with Circa Survive for a little tour. Which was sick, we love that band.
BLURT: I missed that! I love Circa Survive as well and bet that was a blast! I’ve recently gotten into the band Jetty Bones and came across the song where Dylan provides guest vocals. What’s the best collaboration that any of you have done?
Dylan: Honestly, we haven’t done too many collaborations with anybody. I have done some guest vocals for some friends’ bands and stuff. The Jetty Bones song was the most fun because I wrote all the instrumentation, and then she did all the lyrics. Except I did my verse, but it was really cool. I’ve never done that before, and we kind of did it in a day or a day and a half. It was just a cool experience. It turned out great!
BLURT: If you guys had the chance to collaborate with anyone else, who would be your ideal band or artist to work with?
Dylan: Paramore would be awesome.
Matt: Paramore’s just one of those bands that’s consistently put out good records. It would be fun to tour with them or just do anything in a studio with them.
BLURT: Speaking of touring, how often do you guys play Denver? Do you have any stories or experiences to share about playing out here in Colorado?
Billy: Sadly, every time we play Denver, it’s always between Kansas City and Salt Lake or something like that. This time it’s Salt Lake, then Denver, then Lawrence. We get here, play the show, and then we have to start the night drive. Riot Fest was probably our best time here because we got to be here the whole weekend. That was a lot of fun.
Dylan: We played Friday that year, so on Saturday and Sunday we had no responsibilities. There was free booze and food and we just partied. It was so much fun.
BLURT: How’s the current tour going? How is it with Oso Oso, Birdhouse View, and Mom Jeans?
Dylan: It’s been amazing.
Matt: Yeah. This is the last day so everyone’s kind of like, “Oh, it’s wrapping up.”
Dylan: There’s been a lot of sold out shows, I think, including tonight. There’s only two that haven’t sold out of the 32 shows. It’s just been insane. It’s been nothing but great vibes.
BLURT: You have another tour coming up with Tigers Jaw and Wonder Years. How excited are you guys about that?
Dylan: That will be awesome! We’ll be the second of four bands to play so we’re only playing for half an hour. It’s less stress than doing the headliner tour like this one, where we’re playing for an hour and saying to ourselves, “All the people are here to watch this set. Let’s not screw it up.” It’ll be less pressure but just as much fun!
Now Enter: Mom Jeans
(Pictured above, L-R: Gabe Paganin, Eric Butler, Austin Carango)
If you haven’t heard of the California-based band Mom Jeans. (yes, that period is supposed to be there), they might just be your next favorite emo/pop-punk band. They released their first full-length album, Best Buds, in 2016 through independent label Counter Intuitive Records, but despite the silly band name and song titles, their music is not a comedic effort. Some of these songs are so painfully honest and dreadful that you’ll probably cry instead of laugh.
Before their set, which included songs about smoking weed in your car and how disappointing Grey’s Anatomy season 9 was, BLURT sat down with them to talk grow Colorado grow houses, strange concert experiences, and anime.
BLURT: For the readers not familiar with Mom Jeans, tell us a little about yourselves, where you’re from, and how the band was formed.
Eric Butler: Cool. My name’s Eric, I play guitar in the band. I’m from Northern California, live in Livermore like 45 minutes outside of San Francisco in the East Bay.
Austin Carango: I’m Austin, I play drums in the band. I grew up in Agoura Hills, California which is in the LA area, sort of by Malibu Calabasas, in that zone.
Eric: We met in college. We were floor mates in the dorms. Austin and I both skateboarded, and that’s how we started hanging out. We started listening to each other’s music on iTunes and stuff. We were just really good friends and we were like, “We should start a band, ’cause no one else likes this kind of music out of all my friends.” We sort of bonded over that. It was easy since then.
BLURT: What were some of the bands you guys were listening to during college that inspired you to start a band?
Eric: Oh man, Joyce Manor, Modern Baseball, a lot of the big guys…
Austin: I know one of my favorites is definitely Transit. I like that band. Algernon Cadwallader and Glocca Morra are really good, too. I fuck with all those guys.
Eric: I liked Marietta a lot. I was really into them at the time.
BLURT: So, what’s the story behind the name? Why Mom Jeans?
Eric: We just thought it was funny. We were hanging out, getting drunk and stoned, and I was like, “Yo, Austin, you know what would be a funny name for a band? Mom Jeans.” Austin was like, “yeah,” and then we just did it and I guess never got any wiser. Now here we are with a shitty, stupid-ass band name.
BLURT: Your album Best Buds has been back in my rotation again recently. I love that album, so good job!
Eric: Thank you, we tried.
BLURT: What’s the story behind the album?
Eric: It wasn’t so much a story as it was just, we really wanted to be a band and we really wanted to play shows. We had done some previous recordings, like demos and stuff, that we put out which are pretty much straight rip offs of Modern Baseball and Front Bottoms songs. Obviously, no one took us seriously with those because it was basically like stealing music. So, we said, “Okay, we really need to write our own songs and find our own sound.” I guess the driving force behind that album was trying to make something that felt like it was ours. It was original, and you can tell we really tried our best to just do something ourselves without any outside influence. I like to think that we achieved that. We were really happy with how it came out. As long as we’re stoked about it and we think it’s sick, then we can do no wrong. So, if everyone else hates it, we can be like, “Fuck you, I think it sounds cool.” Because we’re the ones that play the songs and have to tour them.
BLURT: Is there any new material in the works?
Eric: Oh yeah, we’re working on a new record right now. I have it written already. We’ve actually been playing a new song on this tour from the new record!
BLURT: That’s awesome! Has it been announced yet? Do you have an anticipated release date that you’re aiming for?
Eric: It hasn’t been announced yet. We’re still figuring out what we’re going to do.
Austin: Well, there was a little teaser about it. We announced the SideOneDummy thing and mentioned we were writing it and that it would be out in 2018.
Eric: Yeah, but other than that, people don’t really know when to expect it. We’re still figuring out who’s going to put it out and how we’re going to do vinyl and stuff like that. We’re aiming for mid-Summer, so early July is when I want to put it out, but it all just comes down to how long the recording process takes and if everything goes according to plan. It should be no problem to do it by then. Speed bumps happen frequently, though, and often push back times, so I’m trying to remain both optimistic and realistic at the same time.
BLURT: I noticed you were involved in a compilation called Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 420 and I saw the album artwork for your split with Graduating Life… I take it you’re pumped that you’re in Colorado tonight?
Eric: Oh yeah! We took a tour of a grow house today before this. It was fucking sick.
Austin: That was crazy. It was my first time seeing a bunch of fuckin’ weed plants in a massive, industrial facility.
Eric: Yeah, it’s a fuckin’ warehouse full of weed.
Austin: The smell was crazy! It was like nothing I would have imagined.
BLURT: That sounds dope. What was this place called?
Eric: It was called The Dab by Next Harvest.
BLURT: That sounds amazing. I’m here for one more week, so I need to go do that myself.
Eric: Yeah, our new friend Mason just hit us up on Twitter and said, “Yo we’re gonna grow, do you wanna come take a tour?” And we were like, “Yes, absolutely!” I mean, we always go to the dispensary, like pretty much anytime we’re in a state where there are dispensaries. Just ‘cause it’s fun. It’s neat. California also just legalized it, but it’s still super expensive out there. So, when you come to Colorado, the weed you can get for the price is just so insane, comparatively. It’s really awesome. We always tend to get a little bit too fucked up when we’re in Denver because of the altitude, so we always have to pace ourselves and take it easy. I think you come to Denver, especially if you’re on the tail end of a US tour and you’re coming home from the Midwest and just played Iowa and Nebraska and all these places that are death zones for weed. By the time you finally get to Denver after that, you just wanna smoke your brains out. Then you just end up on the toilet passed out cause you’re too fuckin’ zonked.
Austin: True story.
Eric: No, yeah, true story. They first time we were ever in Denver I passed out on the toilet because I was just so fucked up from the altitude. I was just drinking all this beer and smoking all this weed and eating all this rich food. All of the things that you’re supposed to pace yourself when you’re at high altitudes, which I was just like, not doing. Just playing a set and loading gear and all this shit. I thought my heart was probably gonna explode.
BLURT: That’s half the reason I’m dead today. I definitely didn’t pace myself at the Municipal Waste and Exodus show last night at Summit Music Hall. I went just as hard as I do over on the East Coast and realized too late, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Eric: And you wake up and you’re like, “Oh my god … I’m on hangover island, right now.”
BLURT: What’s the best Denver show you’ve played?
Eric: I think tonight’s show is going to be one of the best ever shows I’ve done here, but I mean, anytime we’ve played Denver has been great. We have friends in a band called Old Sport that usually book all the shows whenever we’re in town. Honestly, anytime that we have played Denver it’s been awesome. We’ve played Seventh Circle, The Yellow, Lost Lake… I don’t even remember them all. Every single show that we’ve played in Denver has been booked and run super well and we always get to play with our friends. It’s kind of hard to pick a favorite. I think this is going to be by far the most people that we’ve played for in Denver. We’re actually coming back in two days and playing on a Monday because, why not?
BLURT: What’s the strangest show you’ve ever played?
Austin: The Maryland one!
Eric: So, we needed a show the day after Christmas because we were doing a full US tour over winter break. It was the only time we had off from school that we could do a tour. We eventually booked a show for the day after Christmas and, unbeknownst to us, it was basically just kids whose parents were away for the weekend and they had a party. Like a high school party, in their garage, and Mom Jeans was the headlining band for it. We kind of realized it the second we got there, but we were like, “Okay, we haven’t played a show in two days and the show we played two days ago was not that good. We need to try and sell some merch. We can’t just dip on this show because we’re going to be running out of money otherwise.” The vibes were super weird. It was just 100 kids packed into a garage and one 30-pack going around. You know what I mean? And like, one bottle of shitty vodka. Everyone’s wasted and it’s just a placebo effect all the way around. I think the kids passed a hat around and we made like, $9 in change. They basically refused to pay us. It was not sick. It was rough. Then, what pushed me over the edge, after all of this, while we’re loading up our stuff and all these kids are still partying, one kid that looks like he’s only 16-years old comes up to me with a half-empty bottle of Captain Morgan and says, “Hey man, gonna do a shot for Harambe?” I was just like, “get me out of this fucking state.”
Austin: Tied for the #1 spot for weirdest show has to be that Acid Boys show in…
Eric: Oh, in Iowa! Some dude that lived at the house and had nothing to do with the show, who was also on acid, basically tried to get 60 bucks out of us so that he could buy blow. And he was really bad at hiding it. He was basically trying to say that because we were staying at the house we were playing in, he needed seven bucks from each of the people that were staying there to cover the cost of us staying there. He just said, “Okay, it’s seven times eight people, okay, so that’s just like, 60 bucks.”
Austin: Well, the funny part of the story is…
Eric: He’s talking about trying to buy drugs when our friend was walking by and was like, “Yeah, is that going to be an issue?” And our friend Shawn was like, “Yeah, no. We’re not doing that.” It was just so stupid.
BLURT: Imagine you’re watching a concert and one of the band members spontaneously combusts. You get called up to the stage to replace that band member. What is the band?
Eric: Oh, what is that band? Oh man… that’s a good question … shit. I would be the dancer from Mighty Mighty Bosstones. He doesn’t play any instruments or do any vocals or anything, he just dresses up like all them and dances on stage, so I would be perfect at it. All you have to do is skank across stage.
Austin: I’d be fuckin’ Travis Barker. Crossing my fingers.
Eric: Travis Barker from Blink-182 or Aquabats Travis Barker?
Austin: Both. I mean, if I have to pick between the two I’d go Blink 182 because you can do the drum solo on the crane that goes over the crowd and turns upside down.
Eric: What about you, Gabe?
Gabe Paganin: Oh, I don’t know. I think I’m going to pass on this one.
Austin: He wants to be in the Gorillaz.
Gabe: I want to be the gorilla that does the stomping and Clint Eastwood comes out of the ground all dressed up and I’m fuckin’ doin’ my monkey walk. Just hanging low.
BLURT: I didn’t expect the answers to be that good! What’s your favorite non-musical thing to do on tour?
Eric: I guess eat.
Eric: Eat and sleep. I mean, we sleep a lot. Bart, our touring guitar player, gets really mad at us because he’s an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person and we’ll sleep in as late as humanly possible. Like, if we can find a hotel room that will let us check out at like, 4 pm, and sleep until 3:30, we’d fuckin’ do that. Totally. Just sleep all day. At least for me, I don’t sleep well in a van, so if we’re not driving, I’m sleepin’. We all get pretty cranky when we’re not well-rested, so coffee, sleep, and food are the three main priorities.
Austin: And we watch anime, too, when we get a chance.
BLURT: I’m actually kind of bummed because back in Durham, NC, there’s a classic anime event going on at a local theater all weekend. My roommate saw Akira there last night.
Austin: Oh, that’s sick!
Go check out both bands, and also be sure to catch Tiny Moving Parts when they go on tour with The Wonder Years, Tigers Jaw, and Worriers!
With the country/folk/Americana artist’s star in full ascendance, his early days fronting a Kentucky rock band are finally getting some well-deserved attention. (Above photo: Michael Wilson)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Years before Jeremy Pinnell became one of the most talked about new voices in authentic country music, he was a member of the underrated Kentucky rock bands The Light Wires. And thanks to Pinnell’s current record label, SofaBurn (which released his acclaimed solo album Ties of Blood & Affection, and you can listen to a track from it here at BLURT), his early group’s two hard-to-find albums have just gotten a proper vinyl re-release.
Along with Pinnell, The Light Wires comprised drummer Rick McCarty, guitarist Andy Hittle and bassist Mike Montgomery. SofaBurn has packaged their self-titled debut and the, until now, unreleased follow up, The Invisible Hand, into a beautiful gatefold 140-gram/color vinyl 2-LP set. The packaging nods to the original album art and contains lyrics, new liner notes and previously unreleased pics. (It’s reviewed here at BLURT.)
As the album set comes out, Pinnell spoke with Blurt about his former band, their output and why he drifted toward country music.
BLURT: There are a lot of great acoustic country/folk/Americana artists who started out in much louder bands. People like Chuck Ragan, Cory Branan and Frank Turner. Was your evolution to the more country sound you have now gradual?
PINNELL: I believe it’s always been inevitable. It was suggested by a friend to play country music. It’s where my heart has been for a long time.
How did The Light Wires first come together?
I went in to record some songs with Mike Montgomery and he suggested to bring in Rick McCarty to play drums and then Andy Hittle came in on the guitar and that’s how The Light Wires were formed. We didn’t record the second album till a few years after.
And what brought about the national re-release from SofaBurn Records?
We did release the albums locally years ago. My friend Chris Mueller wanted to see these records get some attention, hence the double vinyl.
The self-titled record and The Invisible Hand have two very distinct sounds. Was that a conscious decision or had your influences and sound just changed over the course of the band?
I was just a kid on the first record and I believe I thought I knew something. The second album is a realization that I wasn’t what I thought I was. Unfortunately, it was a painful experience for many, not just myself. I think I had a naive idea of how the world was and my writing on the first record shows that. When you have an awakening of how dark life can be the writing changes quite a bit.
Your two solo albums have gotten strong, positive response from critics and fans. Were you pretty confident that these songs would find an audience so quickly?
You never have any idea that anyone will like it. That’s not why you make music. People have been real kind. We have been lucky.
You’re currently touring through the spring. Plans to be out on the road for the summer yet?
We should be on the road mid-year. (Tour dates are here.)
Do you ever play any of the music from The Light Wires in your shows nowadays?
I usually play “Two Caretakers.” I like the simplicity in two chords. It’s a love song between two friends.
No you’re not. You’re the beloved singer-songwriter and mod housewife. For her new album, time had arrived to tip her bonnet to the lifers—among which she finds herself, in 2018, part of the gang. And she never felt more inspired and invigorated than now. (Photo by Ted Barron. Rigby starts her tour this week and will be on tour now through the end of March, and then again during May and June. Dates and info HERE.)
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Amy Rigby wrote the title track to her latest album around four years ago, when she noticed that many of the mentors and sidemen and even fans who had supported her early on were starting to pass away.
“I don’t know if you read the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, but he talks about losing Clarence Clemons and about this bond that you have with people that you make music with. It is a spiritual thing,” says Rigby. “I felt really strongly, the loss of the first person who I recorded with who made me think that I was good. To just think that, wow, if all these people are gone, who’s going to tell me that? Will I still believe it?”
So in some ways The Old Guys is her tribute to the lifers, the grizzled veterans with their battered gear who load in week after week, year after year, in the service of the music they make. It’s a group that’s largely male, for whatever reasons, but one that Rigby feels a kinship with. Asked why there weren’t more “old girls,” she laughs. “I guess I’m the old girl.”
Amy Rigby has been making music since the 1980s, at first with Last Roundup and NYC urban folk heroes the Shams, and later, from the mid-1990s on, as a solo artist. Her landmark album, Diary of a Mod Housewife, won her Spin’s “Songwriter of the Year” title in 1996. Originally a CD-only release, it was reissued on vinyl last year to celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary. For the past decade, she has mostly been recording with her husband Wreckless Eric (Goulden), though. Her last solo album, Little Fugitive, came out a dozen years ago in 2005. (Find out more about Rigby at her official website and Facebook page.)
“It just took a while to get together,” Rigby admits when asked about the gap. “I didn’t want to repeat myself. Too much time had gone by and I’d gone too far in life to do a retread of something I’d already done.”
In the driver’s seat
Rigby worked with her husband Wreckless Eric, who played bass, electric guitar, and keyboards, on The Old Guys, as well as producing and engineering. The process, says Rigby, was both similar and different than on the joint albums. “We never actually wrote together,” she explains. “We both felt pretty strongly about the other’s writer’s voice in their songs and neither of us felt comfortable tampering with that. But at the same time, I guess we approached those more like we were in a band, and how would we play those live? It was more of a democratic kind of band type of thing.”
For the solo record, Rigby was in the driver’s seat. “I felt more that the responsibility all on me as far as going, well, like, what songs go together? What sort of statement do I want to make?” she says. “Not to say that it had to be a big concept album, but it does feel more like a personal statement. The only way that anyone will hear the record is if I’m going to go out and play. So what could I feel strongly enough that I could stand up by myself, not even with a band, and just get up and share with people?”
The album was mostly new material, but once she had her theme, Rigby found a few older songs that fit into its reminiscent vibe. One of these was “Bob,” which sketches an older fan, spotted at a show, excited to see her and then gone. Rigby had recorded the song on a tour-only CD more than a decade ago, but never felt it was finished. During The Old Guys sessions, she wrote a bridge for it. Artie Barbato wrote the trumpet solo which is now one of her favorite sounds on the album. “I love when the trumpet comes in in ‘Bob.’ That always kind of gets me, I guess because my mom just loved Herb Alpert records and Bert Bacharach records. It has a little bit of that feeling for me.”
Famous writers and anti-heroes
Other songs are contemporary, like the opening “From Philiproth at Gmail to Rzimmerman at AOL,” which imagines Philip Roth writing to Bob Dylan on the occasion of his Nobel Prize for Literature. Rigby wrote it at a songwriting camp she was teaching, when her fellow teacher assigned everyone in the class scenarios intended to provoke indignation.
“At first I thought, oh my god, how am I going to do this? Can’t you give me the one about the neighbor who’s like, stop parking your car in my space?” Rigby laughs. “But it gave me this little power jolt to get to pretend I was this mighty author.”
Rigby had sympathy for both viewpoints. She’s been writing prose as long as she’s been writing songs and keeps a very literate and interesting blog at https://diaryofamyrigby.wordpress.com/. But she’s also a Dylan fan, well acquainted with the satisfaction of performing, rather than publishing, written work.
“So I was thinking about Dylan and thinking about this serious writer, Philip Roth, but I was also thinking about myself and that gratification of getting up on stage and just how lonely actually writing words, just one word after another is,” she says. “It seems more pure somehow than getting up in front of people to play a song where the music part’s doing half the work for you anyway.”
“New Sheriff” is another song with very contemporary references, which reveal a taste for high end television — and revenge. “In my mind, I’m Knucky Thompson/In my mind, I’m Tony Soprano/In my mind, I’m Walter White,” sings Rigby, who is probably not very much like any of these people. “I guess that it felt good to be able to picture myself as any of those people — just like if I could only not be a meek little mouse,” she says. “But having watched all of those episodes of those shows fairly recently, they do start to creep into your consciousness and your subconscious. You feel like you’re in the show.”
Rigby admits that it’s surprisingly satisfying to let loose in the song, “just imagining myself just going in with a blowtorch” but, she adds, “at the same time, I felt like, it wouldn’t be honest not to pull back at the end and say it was really just a fantasy.”
Folk music on Mars
Rigby’s music took shape in the home studio she shares with Wreckless Eric, with her husband on bass, plus three drummers — Doug Wygal (of the late, great Individuals and other outfits), who played on Diary of a Mod Housewife, Jeremy Grites, who has played with Wreckless Eric, and Greg Roberson of the Reigning Sound and Tiger High—and Rigby herself on acoustic and electric six-string guitars, organ, piano, and a Danelectro 12-string electric guitar. (Brian Dewan played synthesizers on a few tracks as well.) That guitar, a present from her husband, has changed her sound. “I’ve played guitar for years but I’ve never considered myself an electric guitarist, even though I like to be plugged in and playing an electric guitar,” she says. “But the electric 12-string, I just feel like it expresses something.”
“Danelectro guitars are always kind of copies of what they were in the 1960s, these quirky 1960s guitars,” she says. “But there was that very brief period of Danelectro 12-strings that sound really great. They’re really inexpensive but whatever pick-ups they used…they just sound really good. It just adds another tone to everything. It has this majesty to it. One strum on a 12-string, you don’t really have to do much more for another two bars.”
“The word people usually use is ‘chiming,’” she adds. “If you grew up in the 1960s, hearing pop radio, and the sound of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by the Byrds through a transistor radio, there’s just something about it. It is like kind of from outer space. It sounded like English folk music bounced off another planet.”
Amy Rigby is heading out on the road with her new album this spring, navigating a physical and digital environment that has changed dramatically since her last solo record. “The last time I put out a solo album, there was no Facebook, and there was no Twitter. It’s not just like ‘Oh, it would be good to do that.’ It’s like you are kind of obligated to create events for everything and tell everybody and keep telling everybody and all of that. It feels like it’s a lot,” says Rigby.
She’s also hitting the circuit as that rarest of phenomena, the older woman artist. As an artist who has always admired the “old guys,” Rigby now finds herself in a similar, but lonelier position. “I guess I am the old girl,” she says.
“I remember people used to always say, and this was when I was in my late 30s, and people would say, ‘But Bonnie Raitt…’ And then, there’s Joan Jett. But she’s almost more like a caricature,” she muses, looking for peers with grey in their hair. “Honestly, though, if I was an academic I would love to go and figure out, do a study of what happens to women in that wilderness years of going through menopause. I mean I know it’s not a topic that anyone even wants to hear about or talk about and certainly it’s not related to music. But I think it would be so interesting to know…”
It’s a touchy topic, she recognizes. At a Planned Parenthood benefit late last year, she let it slip, while speaking, that she doesn’t need birth control any more (though her daughter does). “And a woman’s voice said, ‘TMI.’ And it was like…it’s Planned Parenthood! I don’t think it’s TMI. I think it’s kind of obvious,” she says.
“So is it really so gross that you can’t dare saying something up there that’s so obvious?” she asks. “But I do wonder how it affects writers and artists and musicians to go through this period of, you know, like, it’s a complete change of everything you ever thought about. I know it affects everybody differently but I think it’s got to have some kind of effect on how you perceive and can you continue and what are you interested in after you go through this transition.”
30 years ago the Cowboy Junkies struck gold with The Trinity Session. With a vinyl reissue of the iconic album, a new record on the horizon, and a sold-out American tour in progress, they’re mining it again. Below, read a CJ story about Trinity and its aftermath from the BLURT editor’s archives.
BY FRED MILLS
This past weekend I was privy to one of the most intimate-yet-expansive, brilliantly engaging, shows in my nearly half-century of concertgoing. On March 2 Canada’s Cowboy Junkies, currently on their “All That Reckoning” North American spring tour, performed at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina, a two-set concert essentially bookended by familiar tunes l from the band’s classic 1988 sophomore effort The Trinity Session (“Sweet Jane” in particular was staggeringly great; below is a solid version from another tour) and featuring material from the group’s upcoming studio album, their first since 2012’s Nomad Series Vol. 4: The Wilderness (reviewed here), plus selected faves from their extensive back catalog. Though the essential Cowboy Junkies formula remains the same in 2018—atmospheric, at times meditative, wraiths of sound and spotlighted by guitarist Michael Timmins’ trademark clean, bluesy, just-a-hint-of-reverb riffs and leads, alongside sister Margo’s breathy, ethereal vocals—it’s anything but formulaic, instead rich, resonant, luminous, and haunting, the kind of music that follows you for days afterwards.
The concert in this small, acoustically perfect venue sold out weeks ago, and the transfixed audience (which clearly tilted towards an older demographic; I’d be surprised if there was anyone there under 30) was both reverent to the point of being hushed for long periods of time, and wildly enthusiastic. That the band came out afterwards to greet well-wishers, sign records and pose for photos, and of course move plenty of merch only cemented the bond, which for two hours was profound. (Below: Load-out in Asheville; via the band’s Facebook page.)
In addition to the forthcoming record, The Trinity Session recently saw a 30th anniversary Canadian reissue as a two-LP vinyl edition (upon its original ’88 appearance the vinyl was extremely limited and primarily released only in Canada and Europe) boasting a gatefold sleeve, slightly different artwork, and extensive liner notes detailing the inception and the making of the album. Collectors could also snag it in different shades of wax, either limited edition white or red, or the more widely available black. Long one of my favorite albums, it prompted me to revisit a story I did on the band in 2008 for BLURT predecessor Harp magazine, where I served as Managing Editor and also penned the archivally-minded “Indelibles” column. Occasioned by the CD/DVD release of Trinity Revisited, a document of the CJ’s return to the original church where they recorded their 1988 opus and were joined at the sessions by Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant, and Vic Chesnutt. Michael Timmins proved an engaging interview subject, hardly matching the image I’d had of him being relatively non-forthcoming in interviews (based on other journalists’ reports), seemingly willing to answer questions he’d no doubt fielded scores of times in the past and also apparently eager to set the record straight on a number of points. “You got kind of exhausted by it,” Timmins told me, in response to my query about always being asked in interviews about Trinity. “But you very quickly learned after a few years that it was a very important record that launched our careers and got us into the spotlight internationally and onto so many people’s radars. It allowed us to continue on—it was a vehicle to enable people to explore the rest of our music when they might never have heard of us otherwise. So we got a kind of perspective on that record pretty quickly: ‘This is an important record for us and we should not dismiss it.’”
Indeed—the record’s timeless, and people will always be interested in hearing about it. They clearly were interested in 2008 when the band did selected conc erts during which they performed the entire album from start to finish, such as THIS Feb. 23, 2008 concert in Toronto, broadcast over the radio.n So now seems as good a time as any to resurrect the conversation. To Michael, thanks for your time 10 years ago, and to the entire band, thanks for three decades-plus of music and memories. The Asheville show marked only the third time I’d seen the Cowboy Junkies perform—it definitely won’t be my last. (Below: The band performs a phenomenal 10-minute “Working On a Building” in Toronto in 2008 during a concert featuring them covering “Trinity” in its entirety.)
CHARLOTTE, NC, 1990: The Cowboy Junkies have just taken the stage of Spirit Square, an old church renovated into a performance venue. As the Canadian band eases into the familiar bluesy lope of “I Don’t Get It”—from 1988’s acclaimed The Trinity Session, recorded at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity—your future HARP correspondent gazes around the intimate room, marveling at its visual beauty (the original stained glass windows are still in place) and perfect acoustics.
“That was a special show—that was a nice little space,” says guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins, on the phone from Toronto. I’m surprised he remembers it; perhaps he also looked around the room that night and said to himself, this is like returning to Trinity.
We’re here to discuss his band’s literal return to Trinity, in November of 2006. That’s when Timmins, his vocalist sister Margo and their drummer brother Peter, along with bassist Alan Anton and harmonica/mandolin player Jeff Bird plus guests Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt, convened at the church to re-cut the dozen songs that comprised The Trinity Session for a 20th anniversary edition CD/DVD. Trinity Revisited benefits from better circumstances—the earlier recording was done in 14 hours, with a single mic and no overdubs, while this time they spent three days and brought along a full audio and film crew—yet as Timmins points out, the intention was not “to redo it or improve upon it. We just wanted to revisit it, just sort of go back and see where all the songs are 20 years later.”
Some quick backtracking is in order. In 1987 the Cowboy Junkies were essentially unknown outside Canada; a year earlier they’d self-released their debut LP, Whites Off Earth Now! which sold modestly and remained import-only in the U.S. Now, their close friend and producer Peter Moore was suggesting that for their sophomore effort they give the acoustically-sublime Trinity church a try.
“Peter had done some recording in the church before, a little jazz combo and some orchestral stuff, and he thought it might work for us,” says Timmins. He pauses, then chuckles at one particular memory. “But at the time we were an unknown entity, and although the church was pretty progressive he wasn’t sure whether booking a rock band called Cowboy Junkies would fly! So he just figured, ‘Oh, I’ll play it easy, tell them it’s a group called The Timmins Family…’”
Call it a case of strategic serendipity. Timmins recalls going over to his sister’s apartment the next morning with the Trinity tape and playing it for her and their mother who’d dropped by for coffee. “I said, here, you gotta listen to this, and we put it on, and it was… amazing! [My mother] turned to Margot and said, ‘You know, your life is never going to be the same.’ She’s not some big music aficionado. But she heard something in there.”
Mom was right. A career-making album by any measure, Trinity was initially self-released like its predecessor. But its seamless blend of opiated swamp-rock and ethereal twang, plus some downright haunting interpretations of Hank Williams, Elvis, Patsy Cline and the Velvet Underground, caught the ear of RCA, who released the album in the U.S. The record quickly struck a deep chord among critics, radio programmers (the Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane” became a Top Ten hit) and the burgeoning alt-country scene. Since its release the Junkies have toured the globe and issued eleven studio albums, steadily growing and expanding their musical palette. But all along, Trinity material has remained in their setlists, and from time to time fans and friends would raise the question of why hadn’t they ever gone back to that Toronto church to recapture some of its sonic—holy—magic.
“We’d thought, well, let’s just leave good enough alone. But then the anniversary was coming up,” explains Timmins. “I dunno, I guess we just felt we’d moved far enough from it that we could revisit it with some perspective. And we thought that having the guests would definitely bring a new perspective to it. As we’ve moved along, more and more people have mentioned how important a record that was to them—these three being some of them.”
“These three”: far from the walk-ons that we’ve come to expect from guest star-laden projects, Adams, Merchant and Chesnutt literally joined the band for the making of Trinity Revisited. All eight msicians set up in a circle to achieve—as captured on cameras by filmmakers Pierre and François Lamoureux—an uncommon intimacy to the music. Chesnutt’s ancient mariner’s croak; Merchant’s woodsy warble; Adams’ lilting yelp; all three voices pierce these familiar songs, but not intrusively, instead lending fresh nuance to the material. There’s also a newfound intensity in spots, such as during a midsong Timmins-Adams guitar duel in “I Don’t Get It.”
At one point Margo Timmins glances around at her accompanists: it’s a look of pure pleasure, a kind of I’m-pinching-myself-this-is-so-good look.
And now, in reflecting upon the trio’s contributions, her brother’s enthusiasm is palpable; his voice actually rises in pitch as he recalls how uniquely the personalities blended. “We had no clue how they would work together,” he says. “But we just said, let’s go for it and we’ll see where it lands. And we’re ecstatic how it turned out! The guests brought their own edges to [the songs] that added the next level of newness to them for us.”
The Cowboy Junkies performed Trinity in its entirety last October at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As of this writing, plans were to do it again in February in Toronto. (Adams guested in London and was scheduled to come up to Canada for the Toronto show along with the Band’s Garth Hudson.) Timmins indicates that they might mount a few more Trinity showcases but that they are adamant about not touring it per se (“I think we’d get bored pretty quick…”) so they didn’t risk diluting its specialness. Hearing this, I ask him if that 1988 album had ever felt like an albatross for the band: Oh no, here comes another question about the church…
“Well, yeah, on that level, it did,” he replies. “But we quickly learned that it was a very important record that got us onto so many people’s radars. We were once doing an interview in the mid ‘90s, and the questions inevitably came back to The Trinity Session. We did our dutiful best [laughs] without rolling our eyes, and afterwards Jeff Byrd sort of turned to us and said, ‘You know, I realize that you only get one story in life. Trinity is your story!’
“And it’s very true. That is our story.”
MICHAEL TIMMINS—THE HARP INTERVIEW
[Editor’s Note: What follows is the complete transcript of our conversation with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins in which he expands upon some of the topics covered above and touches upon others.Below, watch a kind of “Trinity Revisited” trailer created by a fan – it would seem that the band and/or their label has been quite proficient at taking down audio and video not specifically uploaded by them.)
HARP: You are still a Toronto resident, right? I was wondering if you’d see the church from time to time and think to yourself, “What if…?”
MICHAEL TIMMINS: I still live in Toronto, yeah, but there was no real reason to go to the church. I mean, I’ve driven by it a lot, and walked by it, but for whatever reason never stepped inside it.
HARP: In 1990 I saw you guys play—Townes Van Zandt was on the tour with you—at this place called Spirit Square in Charlotte. An old converted church, stained glass windows and everything. I remember thinking at the time that this would be the closest I’d ever get to seeing the band in a setting remotely similar to the one for Trinity. Lo and behold: now I’ve got a DVD of you performing a return engagement in the Trinity church.
MT: That was a special show—that was a nice little space. I remember it! It was maybe a little bit smaller than Trinity Church.
HARP: So a devil’s advocate question: As great as the new recording is, why mess with perfection?
MT: Oh yeah, that’s definitely a question we asked ourselves, and probably the reason we’d never touched it before. Nevermind going over the material—we’d never even gone back to Trinity Church to record something else. It was just this perfect moment in time which we captured back then and thought, well, let’s just leave good enough alone and move on.
But then the anniversary was coming up, and this was suggested to us—and the idea of bringing in guest musicians was suggested. I guess we just felt, as a band, we’d moved far enough from it that we could revisit it with some perspective. And we thought that having the guests would definitely bring a new perspective to it. As we’ve moved along, more and more people—obviously music fans, but musicians as well—have mentioned how important a record that was to them. These three being some of them. And it was just, I dunno, I just thought of it as an opportunity and a challenge. We weren’t attempting to redo it or improve upon it; we just wanted to revisit it, just sort of go back and see where all the songs are in the spaces 20 years later. And as I said, bring in some guests this time.
HARP: Why these particular guests? Did you already have a relationship with Ryan, Natalie and Vic?
MT: Not really. Vic, we’d done some touring with over the years. We’d never met Ryan but were big fans of him. Natalie we’d never worked with but we’d certainly crossed paths with over the years. All of them had some connection, though; they were all fans of that album specifically, and of the band in general. We, more importantly, were fans of what they were doing and what they’ve done over the years. And it was just an odd mixture of people; we had no clue how they would work together. But we just said, let’s go for it [laughs] and we’ll see where it lands.
It was a big risk on many, many levels. Certainly the least of which was screwing with this record. But we just thought, as I said, we were far enough away from it and had enough experience and perspective now, so let’s see where these songs are and where this record fits. I’m really glad we did it and we’re ecstatic how it turned out. We never want anyone to think we were trying to redo it or recreate it. It’s a different record, you know? Same songs, different record. And it’s part of what you do onstage every night too. You play the same songs over and over again. But this is just a way of bringing them all together and going back to the same space. I dunno, it was a project and I think it worked out well.
HARP: Most albums with guests just do it more as “walk ons” where they sing this or that song. It was unusual for you to integrate them into the ensemble.
MT: Yeah, that was a big part of it. We wanted to get players who had the ability to do that, and more importantly were interested in doing that and not just “come on and do the song.” It was kind of like the way we approached the first recording in a sense; we invited guests back then, too—not famous people, but they were guests—and incorporated them into what we were doing.
So we just sort of ran through these songs, and it was very similar [to the original session] how we approached it. We charted things out kind of loosely at the start, had a brief rehearsal, and then just went for it, doing the songs two or three times and recording them. Just like last time. That was a very important part of it, too. We wanted to make sure that the people who were going to join us weren’t just going to learn a song and come in and do it, but rather become a part of the band for that day of the recording.
HARP: Over the years song arrangements evolve and change. Was there a temptation to “go back” to the old songs? “Okay, this is how we used to do this song, let’s do it that way…” That sort of self-editing?
MT: Not really. We kind of stuck to how we were playing the songs now, and that was part of the whole deal of not wanting to try to recreate it. It was more this being twenty years down the line, where we were, and some of the songs are still the same while others have a bit more edge to them because we play them with a different attitude now. We wanted to bring that to the new recording so it would be a new recording. All these songs, to a certain degree, we’ve played on and off through the years, so we kind of kept them where they were. And the guests brought their own edges to them, so that added the next level of newness to them for us. So no, we didn’t really go back. The only reason I would go back was when I was putting together the rough outline of who was gonna sing what, because I knew that [album] was what the guests would be referring to. So in listening to the songs I wanted to explain to them “this doesn’t work like this anymore, it works like that…”—so it was more of a reference.
HARP: There’s a moment in the bonus documentary on the DVD where you and Ryan are working on one of the songs and he’s suggesting to try something for the spinout of the song, so you do. And to me that signified that it wasn’t carved in stone for you.
MT: Oh yeah. That was a big part of it. And again, 20 years down the line, we’re not precious about the record or about our music. We love having guests come in whether it be onstage or recording, bringing their perspective and their ideas. We’ve always approached our music like that from the beginning, really—the original Trinity Session being a perfect example of that, you know? We brought in all those guests to bring their talent and their voices with their instruments.
So there’s no difference with this. Ryan had lots of ideas, as did Natalie and Vic, and everything was listened to and tried and experimented with. Some were used, some weren’t, but it all shifted stuff slightly. And, as I say, it brought their personalities to the record, which was very important.
HARP: Such unusual sounding voices. They brought different nuances of the songs to the surface at times.
MT: Yeah, yeah. That’s true. And we had no clue how their voices would work together! I mean, Vic is such a unique artist, his voice and his playing, and obviously his songs; his singing and his playing are totally “outside” and that’s what I’ve always loved about him. Natalie has a voice we’ve always loved—and Margot has actually referred to her voice many times when we were recording, sort of trying to do something “more Natalie-like.” [laughs] She’s always been a presence in our music. And Ryan, I think what we were most amazed bout him, because we’ve always loved his music and his songs and his recording, in person it was just how amazing his voice was. He can sing anything! And there’s so much confidence behind it, which is an incredible thing.
So it was a real joy to do it. As these guys began to play it was really fun.
HARP: During “Working on a Building,” I believe, Ryan, Natalie and Margot are all harmonizing together at one point and it’s an amazing stack of harmonies.
MT: Yeah, exactly. And that’s the sort of thing that we didn’t know whether it would work. I don’t have enough musical technical knowledge to be able to listen to the recordings and figure out where they fit within their range. It was just a matter of getting them together and hoping for the best. Yeah, their vocals stack up great.
HARP: It was interesting watching the documentary where you guys sit around reminiscing with your original producer Peter Moore. What was it like getting back together with him, or had you kept touch?
MT: Oh, I’ve been working with Peter ever since that record. A couple of the other records he co-produced, he mixed others, and he’s mastered most of our records. I work with him on a lot of independent stuff too, so Peter’s been a part of what we do for a long time. He’s also a great wealth of knowledge on technical and recording equipment; as we built our studio and done more recording, I’ve always referred to him.
HARP: Tell me the story of Peter booking the church to do the original recording—“The Timmins Family.”
MT: [laughs] Peter had done some recording in the church before. Not an electric band, but a little jazz combo and some orchestral church. That’s how we knew about the church, and he thought it might work with us. We weren’t sure how the drums and bass would work, but he liked the sound of it. But at the time we were an unknown entity, and although at the time the church was pretty progressive, he wasn’t sure whether booking a rock band called the “Cowboy Junkies” would fly! So he just figured, “Oh, I’ll just play it easy, go in there and tell them I’m recording a session for the CBC”—which is our national radio station—“and it’s a group called The Timmins Family.” [laughs] Just a way of getting us in there and not having to hassle over the name Cowboy Junkies.
HARP: “Oh! Like the Von Trapp Family Singers! Like the Sound Of Music! Sure! Bring them on in!” Smart move on Peter’s part. There’s another story I’ve heard about the morning after the first Trinity was recorded and your mother was over at Margot’s place having coffee when you came in with the tapes…
MT: It was a very weird situation because of the way Trinity was recorded. It was done; the day we walked out of the church, it was finished. No mixing. A live recording to two-track, just on a DAT tape. So I had the actual master tape, and probably a dub onto a cassette. We’d gone home that night after the recording, and Pete was living in the same house at the time so we listened to it and we were blown away. You know, we walked out of the church thinking that was a great day, but not knowing what it sounded like on tape.
So the next morning, Margot was living a couple of blocks away, and I went over with the tape and said, “My God, you’ve got to hear this!” My mother happened to be there, which is very unusual; she’d come downtown to do something and stopped in at Margot’s. I said, here, you gotta listen to this, and we put it on, and it was.. [stammers, then laughs]… amazing! She turned to Margot and said, “You know, your life is never going to be the same.’ [laughs] It was really weird, because she’s not some big music aficionado. But she just heard something in there — which I guess a lot of people wound up hearing. So that was an interesting comment.
HARP: Barbara Walters question: How does a band stay together for 20 years? What’s the chemistry, aside from the familial connection?
MT: That’s a big part of it. We’ve always had a way of knowing how to deal with each other. Even Alan, I’ve been friends with him since before Pete was born. So we’re all very tight and have a shared background. Shared musical tastes, we all shared record collections, and that includes Alan. I guess we fought as kids and made up because we had to live in the same house, and so now we sort of… know each other’s spaces, which buttons not to push at certain times. And I think we sort of have shared values as far as what we want to get out of being a band and making music. We all enjoy the same things; it’s not like one person wants to become a rock star and the other person wants to be whatever. We just enjoy being in a band and playing music together and we kind of glom on to that. When things are bad or we’re kind of troubled, we go back to that: “We like playing music. We don’t want to lose that.”
HARP: A lot of bands will tell me that when times get tough they sometimes cast back to when they were stuck in the van together, get a chuckle out of it, and they can appreciate where they are now.
MT: Sure, sure. There’s a shared history, and the longer you go the longer that history becomes. With the family history and the Alan as a friend history, we have a lot joining the four of us together.
HARP: What are your plans for your next studio album?
MT: Well, I’m going to start… today! After this interview I’m going to go meet a guy about this place: when I start to sit down and conceptualize and write a new record, I try to get out of town and isolate myself. I don’t have my own space so I rent places up in the country, say, an hour or two hours out of Toronto. I’m calling this guy today because I think I have a lead on a place where I can do that this month. That’s the start of it, and you never know where it can lead from there. [Ed. note: In 2010 the band would finally release the fruits of their latest recording sessions, volume 1 of “The Nomad Series,” Renmin Park.]
I tend to get a place for a few months and that kickstarts the writing process. I try and gather material and ideas and hopefully finish some songs. Then I bring the band into the process from there. Things can go really quickly from there, or they can get spread out over the course of a year. So I dunno; we’ll still be touring a lot in the coming year, so I’d like to get some songs that we can play live and go from there.
HARP: I always thought you were very fortunate to have a “voice” through which you could write—Margot’s voice. It reminds me, oddly enough, of how Pete Townshend had a voice he could write through—Roger Daltrey’s. It’s a very special relationship for a songwriter to have with his material, filtering it through another voice.
MT: Yeah, it makes the whole process very interesting. The way I look at it is that once I finish a song and hand it over, I feel really removed from it. So I can almost write the songs on a very personal level and not even think of how they’re going to be expressed, because Margo takes them and they become her songs. [laughs] It’s kind of a neat thing. And of course having the ability to have Margot sing them adds a new level of meaning to them. It can be a nice surprise when we’re working on the songs.
HARP: Getting back to Trinity just a bit more: Did you ever perform the album in its entirety from the stage?
MT: We never did in the past. Just a couple of gigs after [recording Trinity Revisited]. In October  we did it at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Ryan actually joined us for that. And then we’re doing it again at Massey Hall in Toronto next month [February]. Ryan’s coming up for that and we’re hoping Garth Hudson will join us too.
But we never toured it. There’s no real temptation to do that either. I can see us doing it maybe once or twice more. You know, it begins to smack a little of nostalgia, and it’s kind of fun in a way. Having Ryan there makes it exciting and different for us because the whole show has a different vibe with the extra musician onstage. Garth would make it really fun. But just for the five of us or the four of us to go around on tour with it… I’m not saying we won’t do it a few more times, but we wouldn’t do a full tour with it. I think we’d get really bored pretty quick, and with our shows we’ve always changed them around night to night and carried a full repertoire of songs. It’s what we do; we do a lot of touring and we like changing things around.
HARP: Whites Off Earth didn’t come out in the U.S. initially, so for the majority of the record buying public, Trinity was your debut. Did it ever become an albatross? “Oh no, here comes another question about the church…”?
MT: Well, yeah, on that level, it did. You got kind of exhausted by it. But you very quickly learned after a few years that it was a very important record that launched our careers and got us into the spotlight internationally and onto so many people’s radars. It allowed us to continue on—it was a vehicle to enable people to explore the rest of our music when they might never have heard of us otherwise. So we got a kind of perspective on that record pretty quickly: “This is an important record for us and we should not dismiss it.” It is what it is.
Sure, you get tired of it, but you have to respect it. We were once doing an interview in the mid ‘90s, a radio show, me, Margot and Jeff Byrd. I think we were promoting Lay It Down, our sixth or seventh record, and the questions inevitably came back to The Trinity Session. We did our dutiful best [laughs] without rolling our eyes, and afterwards Jeff sort of turned to us and said, ‘You know, I realize that you only get one story in life. Trinity is your story!’ [laughs]
And it’s very true. That is our story. No matter what you do, people are always gonna refer back to it. And that’s true too. The majority of reviews we get, no matter what the record, there’s always a reference back to Trinity: “It’s the same/better/worse than…” Or whatever; it’s always referred back to. But we’ve kind of been around long enough to realize it is what it is and we know how to deal with it.
HARP: Better that than some big tragedy or drug/booze-powered flameout to be “your story” or the coda to every review.
Forty years on, a new album reflects a classic simple mindset. Frontman Jim Kerr explains. Watch a complete 2018 concert by the band, below.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Forty years is an extraordinarily long time in the music biz, especially given the fact that the public always seems fixated on the latest sensation at the expense of those that have come before. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, holding to a continuum is a challenge at best, and all but impossible at worst.
Given that fact, credit Simple Minds for staying true to a sounds and style and that’s shifted slightly over the years, but never followed any fashion other than their own. They’ve had their hits — “Promised You a Miracle,” “Speed Your Love to Me,” “Alive and Kicking,” and, most notably, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” — but have also maintained their integrity through a consistent flow of new releases and a steady succession of tours and high profile performances that have secured their presence on both sides of the Atlantic. Though typecast at times as New Romantics, dance devotees, Celtic mystics and powerful pundits of anthemic proportions, they’ve always remained true to their muse, wherever it takes them.
The longevity is even more impressive given the seemingly constant change in musician membership over the years, a steady shift that’s left singer and songwriter Jim Kerr and guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Charlie Burchill as the only constants. Indeed, the band’s new album Walk Between Worlds, released in early February and their 19th studio album to date, finds a sonic merger of past and present, emerging as one of their best efforts of recent times.
Blurt recently had the opportunity to speak with Kerr from his home in Scotland. Amiable and expressive, he was all too willing to share his thoughts about the band’s past, present and future. (Below, watch the band’s recent Berlin concert.)
BLURT: Congratulations on the new album, Mr. Kerr. Tell us a bit about what went into it.
JIM KERR: It’s the result of a head of steam that we’ve been building up over the last five or six years. I felt buoyed by the success of Big Music, the last real studio album we did, and I was further propelled by that. When we finished our last tour, we had a spare week or so, so we used it to our advantage to see what we had on hand. We always have a backlog of stuff, and before we knew it, we were up and running. In between, we also did an acoustic record. So everything came together over a year and a half.
The new album finds a spirit of optimism. Song titles like “Magic,” “In Dreams,” “Sense of Discovery,” and “Utopia” suggest that you haven’t given in to despair.
I think we do have an ability to transcend. We are in a bubble, this musical place that just makes us feel good. There are still things to consider. We are parents and grandparents and we have to believe that there’s something more. We have to believe that a lot of this stuff we’re experiencing now is cyclical.
How then have you managed to maintain that momentum for four decades?
We love doing what we do, and we appreciate the good fortune we’ve had in doing it. We have never taken it for granted. We’ve not always been on top of the game for 40 years, but then again, when you do something for 40 years, there are periods where you’re not always on top. Some records maybe don’t quite fulfil that promise. And when you do it for 40 years, it’s much more than a career. It becomes part of your life, and subject to all the other things that are a part of your life. We may be luckier than many, but nobody gets a free ride. (chuckles)
With all your ups and downs, how do you maintain your mindset when you find yourself in a bit of a slump?
For us, it all comes round again, and in the last few years, the band has been an absolute priority. Even when you feel like you’re beaten up, you can learn certain things about yourself. You don’t want to keep doing something simply because you don’t know what else to do. You’ll end up like a punch drunk boxer. It’s more like, hang on, the wheels may have fallen off, but let’s try to get them back on. Let’s see if we can get the engines going and get this thing on the road and take it as far as we can. That’s what we’ve done for the last six or seven years. We’re all about maximizing this thing that we have here. This is just what we do, this is who we are.
Speaking of which, your first hit here in the States was “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” your contribution to the John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club.” Ironically, it was one of the only songs that you didn’t write yourselves.
It was strange indeed. We had had success in other places, but not the States. College radio was great and we did well in some places like New York and L.A. but we weren’t getting mainstream radio play because we hadn’t had a hit, that big time radio play. We were starting to think maybe it would never happen. Our record label A&M came to us and all but admitted that they had failed. So they assured us that they would push our next record properly, but that in the meantime they needed something new. We tried to tell them we didn’t have anything prepared at that point. So they said, “There is this thing. This guy called John Hughes wants to use you in his film, and we’ve got the song for you. We objected and we made it clear that we only record songs that we write.
How did they convince you?
They insisted that the song they had in mind was written for the script. And when we spoke to John Hughes, he was a lovely fellow. So Keith Forsey, who had written the song, came over to visit us and told us how much he loved the band. He hung around and watched us while in rehearsal and became like our best mate. Finally he said, “Why don’t we take a crack at this thing and we’ll get the record company off your back? So we said, okay, and then we came up with those la-la-las and all the hey-hey-heys, and elevated it with that big sound. The rest is history.
Is it ever a challenge to maintain the signature sound that your fans expect, while also keeping your creative urges intact?
It’s not easy. If you’re a band of a certain vintage, you’ve got a certain style that you’re known for. With every album people will say, make it a classic Simple Minds album. But so too, they’ll tell you to make it sound contemporary? So there’s the contradiction. By definition, they’re telling you to go back to the past, but also insisting that it should sound like something new. You want to show off the DNA, but you want to be able to keep it fresh. The easiest thing would be to do the same old same old, but no way could we do that. We would be bored. So you have to do those things in right measure, and always fit things in the right boxes at the same time.
Doesn’t that mean that you’re constantly looking over your shoulders?
As soon as a record comes out, it’s judged in comparison to the earlier albums. But you just have to accept that challenge and tell yourself we’re going to do something great. At the end of a project, the outside world will let you know what it thinks. So you become more aware of your past and learn to reconcile with it. You do your best on it and then move on.
Even so, Simple Minds has seen a steady shift in styles over its 40 years. How do you view that transition?
When people ask me to describe Simple Minds, I have to ask, which Simple Minds? Are you referring to the New Romantic thing, the dance band, the stadium rock outfit, or our spiritual side? Maybe you mean the band we were back during the MTV years. The interesting thing to me is that we have that diversity and it’s a credit to the guys we worked with that they could play with such diversity. We managed to try all those things, but never lost our identity. It always seems to feel like Simple Minds. So when people come to define us, I’d simply say Simple Minds is a great band. It makes great music. They make music of their time.
After 40 years, that’s quite an accomplishment
When you’re in a good place and you have a clear run, you go with it. On the other hand, as you get older, you can’t guarantee that everything is going to pan out, or that you’re going to have the energy to continue. When you get a clear run, you have to get as much work done as you can knowing that other things in your life may eventually take priority. You never know when there’s going to be a parting in the road or even a bend in the road you weren’t thinking about.
Are you nostalgic? Ever find yourself reminiscing about all the history that’s behind you?
I’m nearly 60 and at this point in life, one does tend to have an internal dialogue about where you’ve been and where things are now. That does lead to a certain kind of nostalgic. I never wish for things to be as they were, and I’m grateful, because it would seem a little forlorn. Yet at the same time, I feel these are the good times. I still look forward to what’s over the hill. I enjoy so much of what we do and I still love performing love. We had some great ups and we had some great downs, but we always manage to roll with it either way.
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea