The Philly wunderkind behind the beloved Photon Band talks songwriting, pop and punk, the Lilys and other fellow City of Brotherly Love bands, and upcoming plans.
BY TIM HINELY
Art DiFuria first came on my radar in the mid-‘80s when I saw him in a band called Tons of Nuns on stage at the Kennel Club in Philly. He seemed kinda like me, a “normal” punk (no mohawk, leather jacket, etc.) but I noticed his choice of footwear was cool. He had slippers on which I thought was about the most punk rock thing you could do (I wore mine in public a few times after that and got some odd looks/comments). A few years later I saw him in Uptown Bones and remember him being the same guy in Tons of Nuns and made a mental note. Fast forward a few years (early/mid-‘90s by now) and I had left the east coast for the west coast and began hearing rumblings of a band called Photon Band who began releasing singles in 1995-ish (yes, the Lilys, who Art played with for a time, have a record called Eccsame the Photon Band and as far as who inspired who well……read below).
The stuff I’d heard by Photon Band seemed to be a real inspired stew of whatever was/is in Art’s head at the time. A wiggy blend of psychedelic rawk with illegal u-turns all over the place. The stuff is good. On paper it could seem like the workings of a shot-out guy whose brain was addled by Clorox and Pop Rocks who lives in his mother’s basement and jams for jams sake, but no. These are honest to goodness songs by a truly talented songwriter and regarding Photon Band there’s more to come (again see below).
I shot Art some questions and he was more than happy to spill the beans on his childhood as well as what Philly band should’ve made it (also what was was more hardcore, the Ardmore, PA or Exton, PA scene). Thanks so much to Art for really making this interview come to life (or “Pop!” as the kids say). Take it away….
Where did you grow up? Was it in the city of Philly or a suburb?
I grew up in a place that was basically “nowhere,” culturally speaking: Exton PA. Its redeeming quality was that there were endless woods and creeks out there. It wasn’t as developed as it is now and so you could get on your bike and just ride or walk forever, and just think and dream.
Did your parents or any siblings influence musically?
There was always all kinds of music playing in our house. We had this gigantic TV / Stereo system with this posh turntable and huge speakers. On Sundays, after church and before the Eagles games, my dad played a lot of Perry Como, Al Martino, and of course Sinatra. Hearing those big, fluffy recordings on a deluxe stereo was mesmerizing, even though the music wasn’t really my thing. My mom could play the piano, too. We had one in our house (which is now in my huse!). But my sisters were the biggest influence. They would eventually take over the stereo from my dad by whining about the old goombah music and they’d put some Beatles on. Of course, in my little kid mind I was like “holy SHIT, what is THIS?” That was all a huge influence. My sisters are older than me by 7 and 10 years and they could both play guitar. The one closer to me in age majored in music in college, so she was always talking about music all through junior high and high school. It was the early 70s, so it was a very folky thing that she and my oldest sister were into, that whole heaviness-with-an-acoustic-guitar scene was very big then. And our local Catholic church, trying to be hip, dispensed with the organ and had a “guitar group” play the hymns. 10 or so teenagers looking wholesome on the outside but seeming a bit fiendish below the surface, as all teenagers do, was really cool to me. I was really little and hated going to church already, but I did like the sound of the guitars being tuned as we walked into the church. In my little kid mind I associated the big crucifix over the altar with the sound of guitars being tuned. It seemed ominous, like there was something profound about to happen. My sisters also had the first three Monkees albums, which made an indelible impression on me.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought with your own money?
Well, my folks were giving me records from an early age. They gave me “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” in 1973 and I had my own little turntable to play it on. I wore the grooves out on “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce and also the Raspberry’s “Go All the Way.” My first purchase, I remember very well because it pissed off my dad. I bought “The Who Sing My Generation.” I had become obsessed with them because I had seen footage of Townshend smashing his guitar and Keith Moon going nuts on drums. I had just seen the commercial for The Kids are Alright on TV on a Friday night and was supposed to do some yard work for my dad on that Saturday. He gave me the money in advance of the work because he had some errands to run. Then my sister invited me to go to the mall with her. Of course, I ditched the yard work and went to the mall and spent the money without having done any of the work. When I came back with the album my dad was waiting for me. Man, the tongue lashing that followed was intense.
Where was your first punk show? Love Hall? Somewhere else? Who played and what year was it?
We could get to Philly pretty easily on the R5 and by the early 80s, we were taking it upon ourselves to do so. The “other” record store at the mall, called Grand Records, was way better than the establishment one, Sam Goody’s. Grand Records actually carried the SST catalog, which was my entre into punk. I had Land Speed Record and The Punch Line because of that store. You could buy buttons and patches there that said “The Jam!” and “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance!” on them. They also had a little bulletin board with show posters and flyers. It was mostly new wave stuff, all pink and day-glo, about shows at the old Latin Casino, which had been renamed Emerald City. But one day, there was this black and white “xerox” flyer for a show at Love Hall with Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. I had to go! It said that Love Hall was on Broad and South so I knew I could find it easily. I went by myself. I was scared shitless, this 16 year old kid with a new buzz cut so as to not look lame, wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and combat boots just purchased from I.Goldberg’s. I scuffed them up on purpose right after I got them so they didn’t look too shiny and new. I was a LONG way from home. Once I got there, I didn’t talk to anyone. I just made myself invisible and watched the whole thing happen. Those bands were way better than I could have ever imagined. I left that show with a whole new concept of music. I think I went to see the Born Again era Black Sabbath that same fall and there was no contest in my mind as to which show was the real thing. But there was nobody at my high school that could relate to my Love Hall experience. They were all either wishing John Bonham hadn’t died, or to decide whether or not Rush’s Signals was a betrayal or a master stroke. Those are valid pursuits, too, and I didn’t become a punk overnight, or ever, really; becoming one narrow thing seemed dumb to me. But I did become a huge fan of it because of those bands.
I first saw you in Tons of Nuns in 1985 or maybe ’86. Was that your first band?
I had played in cover bands in Exton, which is how I learned to play “live” instead of just playing along with records at home. But yep, the Nuns was my first real band. It started as Bernadette Rappold on guitar, Brian Sussman on drums, and Mike Logan (aka Spayce Mann, who currently plays with Brother JT) on bass. Then Mike decided to bail and Bern switched to bass. That sort of became our identity, that trio. And that was how I learned to play guitar in a trio: trust the other two.
What was next, Uptown Bones? How long did that last?
Between Tons of Nuns and Uptown Bones, there was Holy Smoke. Tons of Nuns started to feel too kooky, too gimmicky. I could’ve stayed in it and slowly changed that, but I had my head up my ass. It started to feel like it wasn’t growing, but that’s probably because I wasn’t willing to give it a chance. So I told those guys I wanted out. They stayed together and got Bill Rudolph to play guitar. He later founded Rotgut and then Rear Admiral. They also got a really great guitarist named Dan who could play circles around me. Brian and Bern turned the Nuns into a much better band after I left. I think my leaving gave them a burst of energy, like “we’ll show him!!” And it was probably a lot more fun for them without this pain-in-the-ass brooding perfectionist around who wanted things to be more serious. When Mike Logan heard I left the Nuns, he wanted to jam again. We were very tight buds and quickly got songs together with a drummer named Jay Jurina who was also in Sky Grits. We felt like Holy Smoke had no limits; we used to do long instrumentals, ballads, really fast stuff, heavy Sabbath sounding tunes, you name it. And we had a lot of gigs in a really short time during the spring and summer of 87. But then Mike left Philly without really explaining why. Jay and I tried to keep the band going, but I was really thrown for a loop. I had lost my best friend and didn’t know why. I sort of blamed myself and thought, “well, all I’ve really done is start this kooky band that got better after I left, and then started this other one that wasn’t good enough for its co-founder. I must suck at this.” So I decided to lay low and not be a front man. I went to see the Uptown Bones whenever they played. They were guys who came to Temple a year after I did. They were a spunky little band with super spazzy energy. Plus, they were tight with Eric DeJesus (the Raw Pogo on the Scaffold / Easy Pop Art guy, and eventual best man at my wedding) who had been showing me his poems and stories which were so fucking excellent I couldn’t believe it. They were, in my mind, a “real rock band.” And I could see right away that Rich Fravel, the singer, was probably the best front man I’d ever get to play with. We all sort of spoke a language that nobody else understood. We were like a little scene of our own, wherever we went. When their original bassist Scooter drifted away from them, I stepped in. We started to click right away. That momentum lasted from the spring of ’88 through to our last tour in France in the summer of 93; two full length albums, three tours, and a bunch of singles. But then, we grew tired of each other and could see that it wasn’t going anywhere. We opted out.
Tell me about your involvement in the Lilys? Had you known Kurt previously? How long was your tenure in the band?
I had been messing around with this totally spontaneous band called the Psychic Enemies. It was me, Wayne Hamilton from Suffacox, and Simon Nagle, future Photon Band drummer. We purposefully avoided writing songs. We would jam for hours and never repeat a riff. We’d show up at gigs and do the same. But after awhile, we just couldn’t sustain it. Somehow, all that freedom felt like a dead end. So I was sort of putting word out there that I was looking for a gig. I had my hand inside a turkey on Thanksgiving eve 1993 and Bryan Dilworth and Mike Lenert came up the stairs of my warehouse and said “you’re playing in the Lilys.” I had heard In the Presence of Nothing and Amazing Letdowns and was pretty impressed. And I loved Bryan and Mike. So I said “yes.” We had a gig in DC like a week later. I didn’t know Kurt when I joined, but we instantly got along and had all sorts of things to talk about. I thought the Lilys were set up to do a lot more than we did. We had three songwriters and access to two cool recording studios in Philadelphia because I had my own 16-track and the drummer, Dave Frank (who had been in the Wishniaks) was co-owner of Studio Red with Adam Lasus. I figured we would just be recording our White Album for the next 15 years or so, you know? At least, that’s how I wanted it to work. But it wasn’t my band, and so I respected Kurt’s way of doing it which was to stay true to whatever his inner ear told him to do with his songs. That usually didn’t involve us.
Am I missing any bands in between? Did you do a stint in Robert Hazard & the Heroes that we don’t know about?
Ha…never hung with Hazard or the A’s or the Hooters, heaven help us. But I did play with a lot of other bands. I can’t remember them all, but here are the main things: I played with Baby Flamehead, which was such a breath of fresh air for me, such a pleasure. From about 94 to 2010 when I moved to Savannah, I also played either guitar, bass, or drums in a bunch of John Terlesky’s projects: Suffacox, Vibrolux, Brother JT, and even late period Original Sins. In the mid-2000s, I also played drums for We Have Heaven (Eric DeJesus’s band) and Ex Reverie. The latter is Gillian Chadwick’s prog vehicle. I loved those drumming gigs so much. I was sad to have to bow out of Ex Rev especially, because I had too many other commitments.
How/when did the Photon Band come about? Did you have a vision for it?
Even though I pulled back from being “the guy” after Tons of Nuns, I couldn’t stop the flow of ideas for songs. It seemed to be on the increase. Sometimes, they were so complete when I’d hear them in my head or dream them that I thought it was a cosmic phenomenon of some sort, like there are songs flying around out there in the ether and they choose people. And for some reason I was receiving more and more songs. I had been amassing cassette tapes of song ideas. At the same time, I’m really into astrology because my mother had been into that when I was a kid and it fascinated me. So I picked up this astrology magazine and there was an article in it by a woman named Barbara Hand Clow stating that since around 1962, the earth had gradually been entering into this band of photonic matter that would ultimately encompass our world and blow consciousness wide open. It made sense to me because I felt like that was happening to me. “Photon Band!” I thought. “If I ever start a band, that’s what I’ll call it and anything I write or record will go under that name. Its identity will be that it encompasses all the variety that comes out of me.” At the time, I was in the Lilys and my hopes for that band to become a vehicle for me and Mike Lenert as well as Kurt was dissipating. I left in late ’94 and told Kurt I wanted to start my own band under the name Photon Band. It was an amicable parting. He named the next Lilys album to honor that idea. That Lilys album, Eccsame the Photon Band and the first Photon Band single, “Sitting on the Sunn” came out at around the same time.
I know in the Photon Band you play all or most of the instruments. Did you learn all of those as a kid or pick them up along the way?
I taught myself guitar. Bass wasn’t hard to do after that. And drums came together just by sneaking behind the kit before practice, during break, and after practice and getting a few minutes in here and there. I love playing drums but man, if I don’t keep practicing, the next time I sit down, the drop off is more severe than it is with either bass or guitar. And whether it’s live or in the studio, I really need Jeff Tanner there. His ear understands where I’m trying to go better than anyone I know. His approach to playing bass is really important. And when we were a four piece, what he was doing on guitar was starting to take on its own identity that was re-shaping the songs. As far as drumming goes, Simon, Brendan, and Patrick have done all the best drum parts on our records. It’s only very occasionally that whatever I’m able to do on drums has worked better than them. I’m lucky to have had those guys as willing foils.
Is Photon Band still going? If so what’s next?
Yes. Since I moved to Savannah, I still record, and we still gig, though much less frequently. Pure Photonic Matter Volume 1 came out in 2013 and Songs of Rapture and Hatred came out in 2015, thanks to Nod and Smile Records. We did release shows for both and a few gigs before and after. In fact, from the fall of 15 through the fall of 16, we played three gigs. I think those three gigs were the most we played over a single year’s span since I left for Savannah. But then I had to finish this book I’ve been working on for quite some time. The publisher was getting antsy, so I had to put the music aside. The next thing will be two albums; one will be the next installment in the Pure Photonic Matter series. Another, probably done around the same time, will be an album of very long songs, sloppy, poppy, noisy, and primitive, with lots of jamming (think White Light White Heat). I’m also putting together a live album from all of the recordings I’ve got from over the years. And I’m going through all of the old DATS and cassettes. There are a number of songs that I’ve earmarked for another album of singles, comp tracks, and outtakes album: Our Own ESP Driven Scene:part II, I suppose. But I’ve also discovered a huge number of tunes that are either finished or nearly finished that I never released, plus also totally different versions of some of the songs that have come out. So over the next few years, I’m going to release an archive of sorts, probably on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
How did you land in Savannah, GA? Are you involved in any kind of music/art scene down there?
I’m an art historian. I was teaching at Moore College of Art and Design in Philly but started looking around for a better gig. The money there wasn’t great and there was quite a bit of dysfunction and acrimony between faculty and administration. I got a very good offer from Savannah College of Art and Design and off we went. The job, raising two kids, and going forward with my plan to publish the work I had been doing on a sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist named Maarten van Heemskerck have effectively kept me from getting out and involving myself in the scene down here. But now, I have basically taken care of Maarten (that’s the book I mentioned above). I feel like there will come a time soon when I can start saying “ya know any good drummers?” or “ya need a guitar player?” I’d like to get something together down here, another three-piece, sort of a Photon Band South. But what I’d also really like to do even more is just become the guitarist for a really good, no nonsense rock and roll band where I don’t write the songs.
Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Weeding through the shit to get to the good stuff requires time, doesn’t it? It’s good that there are some nice places to hang out here in Savannah that let their younger staff choose the music, otherwise I might have no idea. Some of the Ariel Pink I’ve heard, I really like. The Dear Hunter has made some albums I like and so has Ty Segall. But those are by now, pretty old, right? I like bands that do interesting things with guitars, so I really loved the first Garden State album, also pretty old by now. I haven’t heard anything by them since then that suggests that they’re still committed to weaving together guitar lines the way they did on that first album. Sheer Mag’s guitarists do that really well! On Dead Waves have some good songs, and I like everything I’ve heard by Bass Drum of Death. I really like that song called La La La by Hoops, too. It’s a never-ending quest, isn’t it? There are plenty more bands who have a song or two that blow my mind: the Wavves, the Panic Buttons, Suzi Chunk, Eagulls, to name a few.
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
Oh shit! Okay…
Neil Young: Time Fades Away
John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band
Stones: Beggars Banquet
Stooges: Fun House
The ho: Live at Leeds (the expanded version, because it has more tunes on it)
Stereolab: ABC Music
Flying Burrito Brothers: Gilded Palace of Sin
MC5: High Time
Rites of Spring
That’s nine. Then I’d lay the following four albums on the floor, have someone mix them up, and pick one blindfolded:
Sun Ra: We Travel the Spaceways from Planet to Planet
Mr. Airplane Man: Come on DJ
Thenew Ty Segall album
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Pig Lib.
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Hmmmm…well, to close the loop on the Mike Logan / Spayce Mann story, all these years later, he came into JT’s orbit and now he has the role that I once had in JT’s band. We’ve reconnected and it feels so good to have that whole thing come full circle in such a cosmic way. It’s not just that we understand each other. We reconnected because he’s playing music with someone whose music is dear to us both. That’s our shared musical DNA, the stuff that resonates with our souls, determining our paths and bringing us in contact with the right people. That’s cosmic.
BONUS QUESTION; What is one Philly band that really shoud’ve made it?
I know the popular answers are Ruin and the Electric Love Muffin, and that’s definitely true, especially the latter. The Muffin were so important for a lot of people, especially me, and they were as good as, or better than, any of their contemporaries. But in a better world, the real answer is either the early period of the Original Sins, or F.O.D. There’s no question that of all the bands of my lifetime that the industry missed, they sure did blow it with the Sins. JT should have a huge audience. If the industry was less shallow, either the Sins or JT would’ve “made it.” And to me, F.O.D. are the Experience, the Who, the Minutemen, the Sex Pistols, and Sun Ra’s Arkestra all in one brilliant three piece. I don’t think there’s a live band that can touch them.
The original indie pop prodigy holds forth on everything from the current state of the music industry to Mark Lanegan filling in for Siouxsie Sioux and Johnette Napolitano to, naturally, his addictive new album, Fresh Flesh.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been more than two decades since Jonny Polonsky put out his stellar indie pop debut, Hi My Name is Jonny. Since then, he’s added one interesting chapter after another to his life’s work. He’s toured and recorded with a slew of diverse musicians over the years that seemingly have no obvious imilarities, everyone from Neil Diamond and Pusifer to Audioslave and Johnny Cash.
All the while, he’s continued to put out his own records, including his latest, Fresh Flesh, a smart, fun rush of British Post Punk and Polonsky’s fantastically addictive wry wordsmithing. A spur of the moment recording, Polonsky and crew spent all of two days in the studio recording Fresh Flesh, but the result is anything but slapdash.
Polonsky was kind enough to trade some questions back and forth over e-mail recently.
BLURT: This album sounds a bit different than some of your other records. Was that a conscious decision?
POLONSKY: This album really just fell together almost by accident and had no premeditation at all. I had put a band together, we worked up a bunch of new songs and were playing lots of shows in Los Angeles. We were offered free studio time, and we took it.
You have to work with what you’ve got in any situation, no matter the limitations of time, money or materials. That’s something I learned from David Lynch. We had two days to make the record. I knew we could just go in and play our live set and it would sound good. Because we had such little time, I knew it wasn’t gonna sound like The Joshua Tree, so I went into it knowing it would be kind of loose and raw. No click tracks, no auto tune, no drum edits. Just lay it down and smack ‘em yack ‘em.
We recorded all the songs, most of them first takes; I did a few overdubs, most of the vocals were one or two takes, and bada bing – a bouncing baby record! At the time I was really into a lot of English punk and post punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, X-Ray Spex… and also really liked how smooth and dreamy some of the Horrors’ records sounded, particularly Skying. That was the general aesthetic – hopefully not the general anesthetic, for those of you still with me… But it wasn’t really planned. It’s more like looking in your fridge to see what you can cobble together for a meal.
I like making records where you really labor over everything too, but this way is a lot of fun because you don’t overthink anything.
I’ve been a fan since the first album and, while I love that you aren’t constantly writing the same album over and over, I still listen to Hi My Name Is Jonny all the time. It’s been decades since you first worked on that one. Do you still identify with that record or is it just too different from where you are now?
It’s a corny analogy, but true, that it’s like looking at old photos of yourself. You know it’s you, you remember how you felt back then about certain things, little details about your life and personality… it’s you, but it’s not you anymore. I still have tons of great memories and a lot of fondness for those songs and that record, but it feels kind of faraway now. Every once in a while, I’ll do one of those songs if I’m doing a solo show and someone wants to hear it, but it feels like I’m covering someone else’s song.
Kevin Haskins plays on this new record. You had mentioning getting into a lot of post-punk; was/is Bauhaus a big influence on your music?
I love Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, and Tones on Tail. They’re all really imaginative bands that know how to create a mood, and not paint themselves into any corners. They get labeled as goth for obvious reasons, but the music is really diverse, dynamic and multi-dimensional.
Kevin and I first met a few years back through Zander Schloss. Zander was the guitar player in Joe Strummer’s first solo band, post-Clash. [Also a member of the Circle Jerks and Weirdos, along with a respected indie film actor. —Strummer Ed.] When I was a teenager, I bugged Zander on the phone and would send him tapes of my stuff because I loved his guitar playing. Still do. Anyway, Zander had set up a tribute show to Joe Strummer. Kevin and I were part of the house band. We did one or two more Strummer tributes over the years, and I also played on a horror film soundtrack that Kevin scored. He and I became buddies over the years, and I was real excited to have him play on that song—he gave it the perfect extra lift.
Lovely guy and great drummer. Poptone [Haskins’ band with Bauhaus’ Daniel Ash] is awesome too. I saw them last year and they were great.
Did you always envision Mark Lanegan for the voice over the intros “Solar Child”?
Actually, I initially wanted a woman to do the intro. I put out feelers for Siouxsie, Diamanda Galas, and Johnette Napolitano, but didn’t get anywhere. I love Mark Lanegan, he’s a huge hero to me. Incredible singer, great writer. A mutual friend connected us, and he agreed immediately. Wouldn’t let me pay him, either. Pure class. Gargoyle was one of my favorite records from last year. [Lanegan songs] “Goodbye to Beauty”… “Old Swan”… forget it.
You started out in the music business in the mid’-‘90s—obviously a very different time than now for the industry. What are some of the pros and cons of where record labels are now?
Honestly, I really haven’t had anything to do with a record label in years. But the benefit of being on a label is money, if they have it (duh). Making records can be expensive, touring is very expensive, publicity is very expensive. The downside is if they don’t want to spend that money, then what’s the point of being involved with them? Unless you are fortunate enough to be hooked up with some really smart, visionary people who can offer more than cash—like good ideas, clout, new adventures, red wine, dark chocolate, hiking, no hookups… I’m so sorry! My Bumble app just went off.
Anyway, the benefit of doing everything yourself is total freedom of expression. The downside is you have to find a way to pay for everything, and you have to find a way to reach your listeners. You just have to be crafty, frugal, patient, and have realistic expectations.
Any plans to tour when the record comes out?
There are a couple shows planned for Los Angeles. [Polonsky performed Jan. 29 at Love Song Bar and Feb. 9 at Hotel Café; the video above and the photo below is from the latter gig, courtesy of Polonsky’s Facebook page.] But nothing on the books after that. I’m working on some ideas to get us on the road.
What’s next for you? Are you working on or with anyone else?
I’m not working with anyone right now. I haven’t done any work as a side musician in several years. I love playing with other people, but I really want to concentrate on my thing. I’ve got lots of new songs. I’ve been doing some recording with a drummer friend, but I don’t know what will happen with those tracks, we’ll see.
I’m also doing a bunch of recording at home. I’ve got a couple albums’ worth of good songs, we’ll just see where it all lands.
Mini-tour, 1983, San Francisco. photo by Jon Shines
With two of hardcore outfit MIA’s seminal albums newly reissued, the band’s guitarist looks back on his his—and the hardcore scene’s—early years.
BY TIM HINELY
I think it must have been the Summer of 1985 when my pal Bill, who had been turning me on to a lot of music at the time, handed me a cassette with the new MIA record on it, Notes From the Underground. I loved it immediately. It was similar to a lot of the hardcore I had been listening to, but ….different. Darker, moodier but still just as melodic and hard hitting. I ended up finding their previous record, Murder in a Foreign Place (from 1984) and loved that one as well. I then was really blown away by what would be the band’s last record, 1987’s After the Fact, a gorgeous melodic masterpiece (Flipside Records). I ended up seeing the band once in the ‘80s at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ where they put on a terrific set and then….that was it. I never heard about the band again and had heard they’d broken up. In 2001 the Alternative Tentacles label released Lost Boys, a compilation of the band’s early material and then I’d heard the sad news that vocalist/guitarist Mike Conley had died in early 2008.
Fast forward to earlier this year when I’d gotten an email from James Agren at Darla Records stating that he was going to be reissuing two of the band’s records, Notes From…. And After the Fact (he’d said he got interested in the band again after I’d posted a song on Facebook earlier in the year). One of us, (probably James) suggested that I interview guitarist Nick Adams who is a working musicians/photographer now living in Utah. I jumped at the chance and Nick was more than happy to answer any questions I threw his way. Gracious all the way through. Thanks so much to James for helping set up the interview (and for the reissues) and especially to Nick. Read on and find out about the early days of Las Vegas and SoCal hardcore….
Where were you and raised in Las Vegas? If so were your parents in the casino business?
I was raised by a single mother (kind of a punk thing to do in the 60s!), and she was a high school teacher. Growing up in Vegas the casinos, even the slot machines in grocery stores, were no big deal to me, just a part of life that was around me but not interesting. On my street I think most of the parents were not involved in the gaming industry, they were Nevada Test Site workers, accountants, car dealers, etc. When I left Vegas in 1980 it had maybe 200,000 residents, now it is ten times that, and the gaming industry is bigger than ever, so a lot of the people I know, people I went to school with, are involved in it. But it’s also like any other city, there are teachers, doctors, lawyers, beggars, thieves, everything.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
Meet the Beatles in early 1967. I was five.
When did you first pick up an instrument? Was it a guitar?
I first got a toy drum kit, but that was not popular around the house. Soon after I got a guitar, a small Decca classical acoustic, I think I was 7 or 8. But I didn’t really get serious until I got into high school.
How did the punk rock bug bite you? Was it early on? Was there much of a scene in Vegas?
We were a bit culturally isolated in Vegas, and it was before the internet so ideas and movements traveled much more slowly. I was always into rock music – Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Zeppelin, Elton John (my first concert in ‘75), stuff that got played on the radio, and I would stretch a little with what I saw in Circus Magazine or Creem. They had photos and stories about Bowie and Iggy Pop, along with the stuff I was more familiar with. I remember seeing a photo of Iggy probably right after Raw Power came out, that freaky one where he has long straight white hair, white pants and no shirt, screaming at the camera. Later I bought it, took me a while to wrap my head around it. I remember when the Sex Pistols were touring the U.S. in ‘78, I was barely 16, and it was on the TV national news, my mom said, “I don’t care WHAT you do, just don’t get mixed up in that punk rock.” Heh, heh. I heard that album and was blown away, instant fan.
How/when did you meet Mike Conley?
Mike was an instigator. He was a few years older than me, really scrappy with a lot of street smarts (which I never had). He was the guy you wanted by your side in a fight. He was always scheming, thinking, and bringing people together. He was industrious. He became a great songwriter and musician through sheer force of will. I was 18, out of high school and in the process of dropping out of my first semester of college. Paul (M.I.A. bassist) and I were in a band together that was loud and loose, somewhere in between rock and punk, and we rented a room over an office building in a real seedy part of town. Other bands rented rooms there too. One evening we were practicing and heard a knock, it was Mike, he wanted to find out who it was that had the coolest sounding amp in town (it was my 77 Marshall JMP 100w half stack, crunchy and louder than shit). He invited me over to hear his band, The Swell. They had gone all out decorating their rehearsal space, painting a floor-to-ceiling Union Jack on one wall, and hanging cool fliers and posters everywhere. That alone made a big first impression. Mike played bass, Chris Moon (who was in the very first Vegas punk band, Bad Habits, with Vegas legend Eric Hill) was on drums, Todd Sampson was on vocals (Todd looked just like Johnny Rotten, and was pretty menacing for a 16-year-old kid), and a guy named Jim on guitar. They were looking to replace him, or at least his amp. So Mike asked if I would sit in one night. It was really fun, I was hooked. I joined when they asked. (Below: Nick in Guerneville, CA / photo by Rhoda Rohnstock)
Tell us about the beginnings of M.I.A. At what point did you leave Vegas for Southern California?
Shortly after I started playing with The Swell, we decided to change our name to M.I.A. We rehearsed a lot and played a party or two, not really much. But being in a punk band and dropping out college made things difficult for me at home. When a musician friend invited me to room with him in San Diego, I took the opportunity and moved there and M.I.A. broke up. I had only been there about two weeks when my friend got an offer to play in a band somewhere up in LA, so I ended up being poor and alone in San Diego. A few miserable months later I got a call from Mike – he and Chris had moved to Newport Beach, and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come live with us.” So I did. We started going to the Cuckoo’s Nest whenever we could and up to LA for some big shows, and we started playing again, only Todd was still 16 and couldn’t move out from Vegas. We tried out some singers (Mike was still on bass) when finally Mike said he would sing and we’d look for a bass player. I called Paul, I knew he was a great bass player and musician, and convinced him to move to OC with us, and that was the band that recorded Last Rites. This all happened within about 6 months of my moving from Vegas, and really it turned out great because I don’t think as a band we would’ve ever moved to California together, we had never talked about it, though Chris says he and Mike did. The OC and LA scenes down there were so influential and I feel lucky to have been a part of them, as well as part of the nascent Las Vegas scene.
Anything notable happen during the recording of any of your records? Do you still listen to them these days?
Our first demo was made in 1981 with a $300 donation from friends. We wanted to record something that maybe Rodney Bingenheimer might play on his Rodney on the ROQ show, you know, decent sound quality. We walked into a local studio at the beach, JEL, and said we wanted to record 9 songs and walk out with a finished tape. Bill Trousdale was the engineer, he said, “no way, you might get two.” So using eight tracks we blasted through nine songs, and mixed seven before we ran out of money (if you listen too carefully you can tell that the last two songs on Last Rites were mixed by someone else). We played it for a friend, Bad Otis Link, and he said he could get us a show in Reno. So we got a show in Reno with 7 Seconds and The Wrecks! How lucky is that? From that show our demo tape wound up in the hands of folks at Maximum Rock n Roll, Bomp and Smoke 7, and suddenly we were on records.
Murder In A Foreign Place was made in the same studio with a larger budget (plus a new drummer, Larry Pearson, that Mike recruited), and a solid record deal from Alternative Tentacles, which was cool. It was a distribution deal, which meant that we handled all of the recording, artwork, album cover jacket printing, mastering and album pressing ourselves, and the finished product got drop-shipped to AT for distribution. I did a lot of the footwork myself with our financier, Jon Shines. It was a great learning experience and very true to the DIY ethic of the time. Biafra and AT have always been great to us.
Notes From the Underground took us in a moody direction, I think reflecting some conflict in the band, helped along by the darker post-punk tones of 1985. It has some great songs on it, though, and has us exploring some different sounds with Thom Wilson producing. One of his favorite songs from the session was Write Myself A Letter and he put a little extra time into it, and it turned into a slightly psychedelic jangle. My favorite song from that album is Shadows, one that Mike and I wrote from an idea he had. It was a great live song back in the day and I still love to play it. I’ve been listening to Notes a lot lately because we are working on the reissue, and there is a lot of really great stuff going on there.
Did you do much touring back then? Overseas? I’m guessing you played with every notable So. Cal punk band?
Never made it overseas. We did a lot of small regional tours – you could hit a few cities over a few days, so we’d do Vegas-Phoenix-Tucson-San Diego, or Reno-Sacramento-San Francisco-Santa Cruz-Santa Barbara. That helped us get a decent regional following. Sometimes we would do these regional tours with other bands, like TSOL, Circle Jerks, Angry Samoans or Dead Kennedys. Sometimes we would take our Vegas pals, Subterfuge, or double bill with other great bands like Decry or Mad Parade. I remember watching Ron Emory (TSOL) at soundchecks, I would always try to be there because he would pull out some great Hendrix riffs or blues stuff. His technique was inspiring. Ron has so much depth as a player, he’s one of my heroes. We did another one of these regional tours in Northern California with Dead Kennedys and Butthole Surfers, that was amazing. I was glad we didn’t have to go on after the Butthole Surfers, their show was insane at that time. There were so many great bands back then, and we got to play with many of them. We played a bunch of the big Goldenvoice shows in and around L.A. too.
When Murder in A Foreign Place came out in the spring of 1984 we had friends at Goldenvoice and they were starting to book national tours, so we did a three month summer tour of the US and Canada, booked by Jim Guerinot and Mike Vraney, both legendary guys. Only trouble was, the punk scene was still very young in many areas of the country – sometimes we would pull up to the venue and find it boarded up, or sometimes a whole string of shows would be canceled. We’d have to buy paper city maps and look for phone booths to make calls and hope to catch someone, there was no voicemail. It was a very rough tour, but we had loads of fun and when we came home we were battle-hardened and road tight, we were a kick-ass live band by the end of that tour.
We did another US tour just before recording Notes From the Underground. A tour had been booked for Social Distortion and they had to back out, so it was given to us. It was a winter tour, so it had different challenges, but we hit a lot of cities we hadn’t been to on our first tour. I loved being on tour. M.I.A. did one last national tour supporting After the Fact in 1987. (below photo by Rhoda Rohnstock)
How did M.I.A. end?
It ended with infighting and disagreement, like bands usually end. Shortly after recording Notes From the Underground things came to a head and I walked away. Mike was angry at me, I was angry at him. But one thing about Mike, any kind of adversity like that just made him try harder. He brought M.I.A. back with a vengeance and made M.I.A.’s 4th album, After the Fact with Chris Moon (the drummer on Last Rites), Mark Arnold and Frank Daly (both would later form the great OC band Big Drill Car). He came to me and asked me to record a guitar part, he said he wanted something noisy and atonal with whammy bar dives like I did in Used to Know Me from the Murder album. I was actually a little annoyed but he insisted. I’m so glad he did – that is what opens the album, and it serves as a kind of meaningful transition from the old band to the new, and to what Mike would go on to do later. A lot of the lyrics on that album are very personal to me because I feel like Mike is singing about us, our conflict, the bitterness, the feelings of betrayal. There is a lot of me on that album even though I didn’t participate in making it, save for that intro. It took me a while to come to terms with it, and now I love it – it is a great album, and Frank and Mark were really good on it, as was Chris. Mike really grew as a songwriter, but he also held a lot of control in the band. After this version of M.I.A. toured, Frank and Mark wanted to be more involved in songwriting, so they left to form Big Drill Car. After M.I.A. Mike made a couple of great bands, Naked Soul and Jigsaw, there are videos online if you search for them.
Tell us about a few of the bands you were in post-M.I.A. (Arab and the Suburban Turbans?)
Arab and the Suburban Turbans was kind of a way for some of us to explore different musical influences. It had varying membership over the years, but the core was Arab (Love Canal), Jeff Newlin, Bob Gnarly (Plain Wrap), Dallas Don Burnet (Plain Wrap, later Lutefisk), Raggs Adams and me. We played some traditional blues and soul covers, plus we turned some punk into blues and we also had a few stellar originals. We recorded Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown, which was selected for a Flipside Vinyl Fanzine compilation, but the person who owned the publishing had a beef with the record label (not Flipside) and would not allow it. But we played some great shows with the likes of Jane’s Addiction and Thelonius Monster, and we actually got accepted into the Long Beach Blues Festival, quite a mean feat. They were bummed because we ended up being more punk than they imagined and kind of crashed the mellow vibe. We had a great crowd response though!
I was in another band in 1989-90 called Flatbed with Bob Thomson (Big Drill Car) on bass and Miles Gillette (El Groupo Sexo, Fluf) on drums. Kinda grungy, I guess. Those two were the best musicians I have ever played with. I played in several other projects with notable players (Don Burnet, Sean Greaves, Mark Stern, Bad Otis, Chuck Biscuits) but nothing that stuck.
Tell us about the M.I.A. reunion? I’m guessing Mike’s death is still a shock to you all.
Mike’s death was so unexpected, it was a huge shock. He had worked so hard to build a really cool bar in Costa Mesa, the Avalon. He had so many friends, so many people that loved him. He just had that great kind of personality — gregarious, friendly, thoughtful. He helped people, and they were and still are, after nearly ten years, very loyal to him. So his death was a huge loss for many people. I was astonished at the number of people who came to his memorial on the beach, it was amazing. I was standing there dumbfounded when this guy walked up in a suit wearing reflective aviators walked up and said, “Are you Nick Adams?” It was Jello Biafra. Hadn’t seen him in over 20 years, I couldn’t believe he made the effort to be there.
As it turned out, Mike’s girlfriend and kids were left in a bad way financially from his death, so we were approached to do a fundraising reunion. Joe Sib (SideOneDummy Records) helped set it up, and worked with Jim Guerinot (Time Bomb Records) to get Social Distortion on the bill. They played an amazing acoustic set. Also on the bill were Cadillac Tramps, and tributes to two of Mike’s later bands, Jigsaw and Naked Soul. It was a stellar night for sure. As for M.I.A., we had our original Vegas singer Todd Sampson do vocals, supplemented with Kevin Seconds on a few songs and Jello Biafra on a few more. We also got to play a few Dead Kennedys songs, which was unreal! Biafra was so cool, he let us pick the Dead Kennedys songs we wanted to do.
We continued to play a few shows with Todd on vocals, but then he died of heat stroke after a show in Vegas in 2011. That sucked. Now we play as a three piece with me handling most of the vocals, Paul doing a few. It’s actually a good band, and though we can never replace Mike’s energy, voice and creativity, I think that it is the best compromise that stays true to the band. In other words, we’re not trying to replace Mike, we are just trying to stay true to the music and let people hear it. We got a great reception at Punk Rock Bowling in 2016.
..and tying in to the above question, how about the upcoming reissues on Darla? How did that come about? Did you know James?
I’m very excited to get the last two M.I.A. records re-released. They need to be heard! I met James Agren (Darla Records) in the summer of ‘83 or ‘84 I think. We were roommates for a bit at the beach with a mutual friend. A while back he contacted me on social media about the possibility of re-releasing Notes From the Underground and After the Fact. Since I knew him from way back and I could tell he was really professional (plus he was persistent!), I agreed. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to work with James, he has great attention to detail and is treating these two albums with the utmost respect. It’s a very personal relationship, even though we are hundreds of miles away. I can’t say enough good things about James. The remastered tracks (by Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab) sound amazing, exceeding the original releases in my opinion – a lot more depth and nuance, you can hear each instrument with more clarity. And there are some bonus tracks too.
Who are some of your favorite current bands or musicians?
I’m all over the map, and not super current. Back in ‘82 I fell in love with the Birthday Party and Tom Waits (Waits inspired the song Murder In A Foreign Place) and have been a fan ever since. Saw Nick Cave perform last month, it was great. I saw the Damned on their most recent tour – twice! – and that was amazing. Iron and Wine, Black Keys, Jack White, Off!, Paul Westerberg. Things have changed so much in terms of how we get exposed to new music and how it is delivered that it is pretty overwhelming sometimes. Add to that the sheer volume of music that has been long out of print coming back. It’s a great time to be a music listener! But also, with the ubiquity of technology and how quickly information spreads, I wonder if anything like the punk scene we experienced could ever emerge again.
Please tell us about your career as a photographer.
After M.I.A. I went back to school and earned a degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley, graduated in ‘93. I was planning to go to grad school when I got into photography by accident. I had a job at a cabinet shop that I was not cut out for, so I applied at the local newspaper for a menial desk job in the photo department. I was in the right place, right time; within a year I was a full time staff photographer. It was great, I got to shoot every day, learning photography while getting paid for it! Being a photojournalist was interesting and fun, but also very hard and sometimes difficult work. I photographed presidents and senators, but also tragedies, homeless people, city council meetings and kids at the fair. Around 2004 I started my own business, and I’m still doing it – mostly portraits and magazine work nowadays.
Care to tell us your top 10 desert island discs?
In no particular order (and if you asked me next week it would likely be different):
The Damned – Strawberries
Bowie – Hunky Dory
The Germs – (GI)
Stooges – Funhouse
Rolling Stones – Beggar’s Banquet
Tom Waits – Bad As Me
The Birthday Party – Prayers On Fire
Gun Club – Fire of Love
Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground
Roy Orbison – Greatest Hits
Radiohead – Amnesiac
BONUS QUESTION- Do you have a favorite of the M.I.A. records?
Though I love the raw, stripped down sound of Last Rites, and the fan favorite seems to be Murder In A Foreign Place (which I love), right now I would have to go with Notes From the Underground. It’s not as even as Murder, but it has some stellar moments and it moves me.
BONUS QUESTION TWO- Did you ever meet Genocide’s Bobby Ebz? He’s sort of a NJ legend (I’m originally from NJ).
No, we never met any of the Genocide guys. I’d like to!
“All you can do is bust your ass to make good music”: With new album Top of the World and a re-release of their Steve Earle-produced masterpiece, High Hat, this seminal Americana band from North Carolina marks another new beginning.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
There’s a certain truth to the saying “timing is everything.” And there’s no more pertinent application to that adage than in the music biz. Being on top of trends, recognizing relevant topics, and tuning in to an audience’s interests and expectations are absolutely essential when it comes to maintaining a viable and prolific career.
Consequently, when North Carolina’s 6 String Drag made their bow and formed in 1993, it seemed an ideal time in terms of fertile possibilities. The boundaries between rock, pop, punk and country were breaking down, and bands like Uncle Tupelo in particular were opening the door in hopes of encouraging that slow but steady transition. 6 String Drag’s archival influences were obvious — Van Morrison, the Replacements, the Stones, the Kinks and George Jones all made the cut — but the rough-hewn sound they crafted was all inclusive, one that could appeal to anyone with a devil- may-care attitude as well as a taste for homegrown sensibilities.
All was well and good, but despite a razor-sharp sound, a contract with Steve Earle’s E-Squared Records, two strong seminal albums (their self-titled 1995 debut and its excellent successor, High Hat, which followed in ’97 and was co-produced by Earle), the band never got the traction they deserved. In late 1998 founders Kenny Roby and Rob Keller went their separate ways in pursuit of their individual careers and the other band members dispersed as well. Roby in particular went on to a prolific solo career, releasing five solo albums — Mercury Blues (1999), Black River Sides (1999), Rather Not Know (2002), The Mercy Filter (2006) and Memories & Birds (2013; reviewed HERE) — but though he garnered his fair share of critical kudos, the absence between albums served to stifle his momentum.
Indeed, timing is the one thing that 6 String Drag always seemed to lack. Although the elements seemed stacked in their favor, their early masterpiece High Hat failed to win them the attention that outside observers reckoned that they had coming.
“I felt like we were changing the world…making Sgt. Pepper,” Keller’s been quoted as saying. “High Hat was not received like Sgt. Pepper. It was critically acclaimed, yet it did not sell as well as was expected.”
Roby has his own reasons for the failure of the band to maintain its forward progress. “I can’t go out and scream ‘give me some love,’” he insists. “There’s no telling what people listen to or why they listen to something, or why things catch hold or don’t catch hold. Or for that matter, what things come together to sell a band. We kind of broke up as we were on the upward mobility slant or whatever you want to call it. By the time 6 String Drag had a gotten a little bit of press recognition and some radio, and the record had come out, we were opening for Son Volt. We were post- the Uncle Tupelo world, but pre- the 2000 Americana explosion, the Avett Brothers and all that. So we were kind of in a bit of a lull.
“Do I wish I could make a little more money doing music? Yeah, probably. And have a quote-unquote career? Yeah, I guess. But you can’t change just one part of your life, ya know.”
Could the fact that the band only put out a pair of albums before breaking up and reforming some 17 years later have had anything to do with it? Maybe, Roby says. “But 6 String Drag at the time wasn’t much of a ‘pop’ band. If you listen to High Hat, it doesn’t sound like total pop music. We could have gotten into a little niche probably. It wasn’t quite as poppy as a Whiskeytown kind of thing, and it wasn’t as super country twangy as a lot of the country bands were at that time. I guess if I had to come up with an answer, I’d have to say that it wasn’t country enough for country and it wasn’t twangy enough for Americana.”
He pauses to reflect on that.
“I thought we were like a Doug Sahm kind of band, although we didn’t sound like Doug Sahm or the Sir Douglas Quintet,” he continues. “We were like a bar band that liked to embrace all kinds of music and the contemporary music of the ‘80s and ‘90s as well. Like a NRBQ or the Band. We have just as much fun playing to an intimate crowd at a corner bar dive with a bunch of people who like our music and sing along as we do on a theater stage. We’d love $30 a head and 2,000 people, but we’re totally comfortable being a bar band, a pub band. That’s when we’re at our best, just being loose and having fun.”
Likewise, he has a hard time coming up with a precise definition of exactly where the band fit in musically at the time. The explanation eludes him even today.
“We were like a lot of bands around that time, bands that took their cues from the Replacements and the Stones and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, kind of on the rootsier side of rock,” he suggests. “A lot of us grew up listening to punk rock and then getting into country rock. It was very similar to bands like Uncle Tupelo. That’s the kind of thing that appealed to us. I go back and listen to it now and of course I still like it. It’s like that slogan ‘three chords and the truth,’ which helped define punk rock. It’s like three chords and the truth for country, or three chords and the truth for blues…although sometimes there’s four. Maybe that was it. It was all the same to us. I never got into the super sophistication of bluegrass. I was never into progressive rock. I was into the Clash and Black Flag and the Bad Brains and Buck Owens and George Jones. It was always pretty simple, but it was also easy enough for me to do. I didn’t know enough about guitars or songwriting to play more complicated music than that. We didn’t think we were doing anything groundbreaking. It’s just these different waves of whatever’s popular. In the 2000s, they came up with this Americana thing. I thought Americana was a description for furniture.”
“We listen to a lot of different kinds of music and of course that rubs off on us,” Keller notes. “We get on this wavelength where we will get into things all at the same time. Recently, it’s been on the pop rockier side, from ‘60s Kinks to ‘70s glam rock, to ‘80s punk, and power pop. We probably would’ve made more records had we stuck together all these years because we’ve always been into this type of music.”
The sound he’s describing comes full circle on the band’s new album, Top of the World, due for release this March on Schoolkids Records. (Full disclosure: Schoolkids is BLURT’s sister business.) It’s their first undertaking since their initial post-breakup reunion, releasing the Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll album in 2015 (reviewed HERE). It also finds Roby and Heller still at the helm, with recent recruits — guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Luis Rodriguez, drummer Dan Davis, and producer Jason Merritt — offering able assistance. The album, clearly the band’s most effusive and assertive offering in terms of a genuinely accessible sound, follows the label’s vinyl (limited edition white vinyl at that) recent re-release of High Hat.
Roby, for one, is clearly excited about the new record’s direction.
“We recorded a lot of it at the same studio where we recorded the last one,” he explains. “But it’s more of a rock and pop record than the last one was. Real quick, real simple, ‘50s and ‘60s style songs. We tracked the record in four days. There were very few overdubs. For the most part the record was done by the time we walked out of the studio, except for the horns and the live vocals. Oddly enough, that’s the way we recorded High Hat, but High Hat was more of a rock record. We did basic tracks just like a basic rock band in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we spread out the recording a little longer back then to give us time to absorb the songs. Some of it is done the same way, but some things were done differently. It’s got elements of all of our records, but also the contributions that the new guys bring. I can’t always put my finger on what that is, as far as stylistically, but it does sound a little more layered. It’s a little more mature, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing for rock ‘n’ roll or Americana.”
As far as the re-release of High Hat is concerned, Keller sees that as a valuable additive that helps underscore the band’s re-emergence. “High Hat has been out of print, so we really needed it in our present catalog,” he says. “Also, it being 20 years makes it a good time to celebrate it. We always want to look forward in creating, so we just coincidentally have this new record at the same time.”
As Keller tells it, he and Roby have always kept in touch over the years, and have even occasionally played some shows together. Still, Roby suggests that the extent of the band’s ongoing efforts has a lot to do with practicality, saying, “We’ll play weekends. We’ve been playing on weekends for the last two years since the last record came out… actually, before the last record came out. We’ve even been doing some weeklong stints. Luis has been with us since we laid down the last album and Danny has been with us for the last year. So we’ve played a good amount of shows. We’ll start playing here and there and get out of the immediate area. But I don’t know how we could go out on the road all the time. With guys in their 40s… I don’t know.
Likewise, Roby is realistic when it comes to measuring the band’s prospects for success this time around. “We still have a lot of fun doing it and the carrot is just to get better at it,” he maintains. “As far as recognition is concerned, you just have to do the best you can as far as making records. You can only do so much. You can work your ass off and nothing will happen. Or you can do nothing, and something will happen. I don’t know what that ‘something’ is.” (Below, “something” happening for the band a couple of months ago.)
Ultimately, Roby remains pragmatic. “Hopefully you have good records,” he muses. “When someone turns around to look at you, hopefully you did your best and you have some good work for them to notice. With us, we haven’t sold a ton of records, so a lot of this resurgence is about looking back and maybe checking out one of the earlier albums or a record from my solo career or whatever. You always want to have good work, because you don’t want people to say, ‘What’s all that bullshit hype about?’
“All you can do is bust your ass to make good music. I’d rather make good music than have more fans. It would be nice to have more fans, but the carrot is still to make the next record the best you can make.”
Still heavier than Heaven, the British metal icons talk about their ambitious new album, how they keep their songwriting fresh, classic horror films and the contemporary era’s take on horror, and more.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When metal fans want to bang their heads slowly, there’s no shortage of bands practicing brutally heavy riffs, crawling rhythms and darkened atmosphere – the art of doom. Few, however, have honed their craft to as fine a point as Electric Wizard. The Southern England quartet has bludgeoned its amps and eardrums for a quarter of a century, longer than many of their pers, and its distinctive blend of riffs – both musically, in the Black Sabbath/Blue Cheer tradition, and lyrically, in borrowing imagery from horror films and trash cinema of all kinds – has been as much of an influence on subsequent generations of doom metalheads as their forebears.
Recorded in guitarists Jus Oborn and Liz Buckingham’s home studio, the band’s ninth LP Wizard Bloody Wizard represents a step forward in its evolution, evoking a homegrown vibe and a more melodic, sensual take, without stinting on the group’s signature heavy. We spoke to Buckingham and band founder Oborn via e-mail about the new album, its seeds, and the way the band uses its signature B-film fetish in its songwriting. (Below: the band’s single “See You in Hell”)
BLURT: The new LP has a clarity to the production and is more direct in general, with a bluesier tone to some of the songs. Was that a deliberate contrast to the lengthier Time to Die?
JUS OBORN: Yeah obviously. It’s a new line-up and that always affects the sound of the band. You always try to play to the strengths of everyone involved. Time To Die has a very muddy production and we weren’t that happy with the sound of it, which is one of the reasons we decided we had to do it ourselves this time. The directness is probably down to our decision to make it fit onto a single piece of vinyl – y’know, 20-22 mins per side. We just felt it would be a challenge to try and tighten up our sound a bit.
EW records always have a very sensual sound to them – even as dark, heavy and aggressive as you can be, it’s not abrasive. It makes the records contrast with other “metal” records.
JO: Haha! Yeah, I guess a lot of metal these days has lost its “sexiness.” I think we have always had this more visceral sound. I always considered us a really, really heavy rock band, and rock was always meant to be more sensual. I mean, in the ’50s, “rock & roll” was basically a euphemism for fucking.
Was it more fun recording in your own studio at your own pace? Not that you’ve ever seemed to feel any pressure before.
LIZ BUCKINGHAM: Not necessarily more fun, but definitely better. Previously we had to travel quite far to the other studios, and time would be limited. Doing it at our own house has obvious benefits. We had more time to experiment, the atmosphere was more conducive to creating, and it generally just felt right recording in the West Country.
JO: Fun isn’t a word I would associate with Electric Wizard, but it is definitely more satisfying.
Jus, you’re usually seen as the leader and visionary, but you, Liz, have been in the band for longer than anyone except him. What is the songwriting and creative process like for the two of you?
LB: Jus and I create everything together. We’ve got a rather classic songwriting duo relationship. When I joined, I wanted to add to his vision, not change it, so we work well together in that we both generally desire the same end result. All sorts of things inspire me and I will either write it down or record it, then discuss/share it with Justin, then proceed in the creation together. A lot of stuff we create, we do jointly. Even artwork – a lot is half done by me, half by Justin. It’s just how we work. I’m not egotistically driven – I place more importance on the end result as a whole of Electric Wizard.
EW music often dwells in the darkness, but it never seems to be for the sake of depression or pessimism. It’s cathartic, artistic, even defiant. How do dark subjects help with your artistic self-expression?
LB: We create things we love. Our motives are for pleasure. We like dark things, they give us pleasure, so it’s always a celebration of these things. We hate maudlin “poor me” music. When we’re angry it’s aimed at creating music that makes you want to rise out of it and be like “fuck you,” not wallowing in self-pity.
JO: Yeah definitely. I never saw this type of music as depressing. We try to play dark and heavy music that touches on taboo subjects, and it’s a challenge to write music which is “evil,” but not slip into any minor key clichés. I think wringing those kind of emotions is a bit of a cop-out, it’s like Hollywood. Honestly, the music I find most depressing is country and indie type stuff.
The record begins and ends with “See you in hell” – a closing of the circle. Was that planned in advance, or was it a coincidence?
JO: It kinda happened as we went along. We thought it made sense to make the theme cyclical. I hope it pulls together the whole concept of the LP. I like the idea that it hints that maybe this is it – the end. Or are we doomed to just repeat our mistakes forever? The lyrics are definitely more existential on this LP – autobiographical even.
Which songs on the record are the ones you’re most proud of?
JO: Well, it’s a new LP, so right now we are proud of them all. I guess I’m pretty proud we got a solid Detroit groove on “Necromania.”
You’ve made records for over 20 years now. Did you think EW would last this long?
Do you feel any kinship to the rest of the heavy rock scene? Even when EW was lumped in with the so-called “stoner rock” bands, y’all stood out on your own.
JO: We play with a lot of cool bands that we dig a lot, and like I said, we consider ourselves just a really dark and heavy rock band. I guess I feel a lot more of a kinship with older bands, though: Stooges, Venom, Cooper, Sabbath, Hellhammer, etc. But yeah, I guess we have always tried to do our own thing. I never liked the idea that we should be attached to a scene or genre – maybe it’s a geographical thing? The music I like is usually unique and reflects the band and their environment.
The band is well-known for its love of vintage horror movies. What are some favorites?
JO: Well, we love mainly exploitation and sleazy movies, not just horror – I guess what would be called “drive-in” movies. It covers a lot of subjects, y’know – biker movies, women in prison, drugs, kung fu, porno etc. Favorites would be a list of at least a couple hundred movies. All-time greats would include: Psychomania, The Dunwich Horror, The Sinful Dwarf, All The Colors Of The Dark, Vampyros Lesbos, The Devil Rides Out, The Last House On The Left, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue [AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Don’t Open the Window], Devil’s Angels, Witchfinder General, The Touchables, Vampyres, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, Defiance of Good, Simon, King Of The Witches, The Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism [AKA The Blood Demon, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum and Castle of the Walking Dead], etc., etc…Honestly, it’s impossible.
LB: …Scream…And Die! [AKA The House That Vanished], Deviation, Alice Or The Last Escapade, Shiver Of The Vampire, Ich, Ein Groupie [AKA Higher and Higher], Mephisto Waltz, Switchblade Sisters, Bury Me An Angel, The Witches Mountain (El monte de las brujas), Le Diable Probablement, The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave, Invocation Of My Demon Brother…
Do you pick out certain movies and decide to write a song based on them, or is your horror movie knowledge more of a general background that always informs the writing?
JO: I don’t think we ever try to write a song based on a movie. It’s more metaphorical – the lyrics are more about us, really. For instance “Dunwich” [from 2007’s Witchcult Today] was meant to use the theme from Lovecraft’s book as a metaphor for isolationism and teenage rebellion in a small rural town, which is where I was raised. I hope our lyrics have a deeper and darker meaning – we are probably more influenced by horror comics and occultists like Aleister Crowley, etc. I think we dig the aesthetic of old horror movies, especially the more psychedelic and tripped out ones, and I really dig the poster art and advertising blurbs: “Cool as the grave from which they rise” – “fighting for survival in the decayed remains of diseased universe” – that kinda stuff.
Horror seems to be having a resurgence in the public consciousness, though it’s a different style than the old-school 60s and 70s horror flicks. What do you think of today’s horror movies, like It Follows, The Babadook, It Comes At Night, The Witch, etc.
JO: No, sorry, I don’t really care for those movies. Some were ok, but I guess it’s not what I like in horror films. I wanna see dungeons, laboratories, hunchbacks, werewolves, screaming virgins – -that kinda stuff. I also prefer a more unhealthy combination of sex and violence – haha!
LB: I saw The Witch, which was alright. I liked the end scene the best. A lot of those movies don’t really have the things that appeal to me. I prefer a more subtle creepy, spookiness and mystery. I don’t like the modern shock tactics or the subject matter a lot of the time.
Liz, you had your own musical history prior to joining EW, including Sourvein. How was joining EW different than your past experience?
LB: Well, my previous bands were bands that either I started myself and/or was the only guitar player and primary songwriter. Even with Sourvein, that had existed in another form before me, I had to start from scratch writing songs, etc. Electric Wizard was already a well-established band, so I came in having to learn someone else’s songs, and there was baggage from the past – two things I wasn’t used to. But other than that, it wasn’t that different. Once I started to contribute creatively, it wasn’t all that different to past experiences.
“It can’t be all music/all the time”:The L.A.-based singer/songwriter—and, it turns out, certified EMT—weighs in on the importance of hobbies, spare time, and personal goals. (First in a new series at BLURT in which we talk to artists about everything BUT music.)
BY G. KAYA
Balance is arguably the most important ingredient to a fulfilling life. Some consider straying from their career to pursue other hobbies and interests (success-suicide), while others consider it an integral part of their creative process. The practice of walking away and letting go to give your brain time to form healthy strategies to accomplish goals is paramount. For instance, many great thinkers, artists, and business gurus have shared how important their morning rituals are; journaling, meditating, soaking in freezing cold water for ten seconds before starting the day, and even playing video games have been said to improve mental capacity.
This art of not obsessing… or rather, the art of taking yourself out of your obsessiveness when it arises, is as important as what you’re obsessing about. A common correlation amongst the greats seem to be the way they spend their spare time. I invited Eva Misle to share some of her thoughts on the subject. (Below, listen to Misle’s hit “Over U.”)
BLURT: How important are your ‘other interests’ and hobbies, outside of your music career? EVA MISLE: If you’re like me and you have many different interests, you have to do your best to keep up and satiate those other interests so that you feel like you’re getting the most out of life. My favorite things outside of music are hiking, going to the movies, happy hour with friends… I have done some acting and improv—I love comedy, also love martial arts. I’ve done kickboxing, boxing, Muay Thai, Krav Maga, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I like painting pottery, crocheting blankets, and I’ve been known to make some awesomely unique bedazzled shoes. I’m an artsy person, I think it’s a lifestyle. Any art form requires constant practice and learning. Whether I’m doing martial arts, creating things with my hands, or practicing piano or vocals, I think it all exercises the “artsy” part of the brain. It helps keep you sharp and motivated.
Is that where you draw inspiration? How important are your hobbies to the musical process? I draw inspiration from everywhere. Every person needs some positive outlets outside of their career. It can’t be all music/all the time for me. You need breaks to recharge and explore other interests. Other unrelated forms of art can actually be indirectly helpful to the music. You need a healthy balance between career and personal life, especially in this business, which can be more emotional—with those big highs and lows and constantly feeling on the edge, it can be quickly draining. You need to have that healthy balance.
Can you give an example of an extreme high? An extreme low? When my song Not My Daddy feat. Gucci Mane reached #8 on the Billboard dance charts and I received a plaque that’s still hanging in my kitchen. And a big low would be expecting to go on a huge tour opening for a big name but didn’t happen. But it helps to grow thicker skin. I’ve learned not to get too excited until you know it’s 100% happening.
Are there any spiritual exercises you do when you’re feeling down or overexcited to come back to earth and keep a steady stride? I have to stay busy and attempt to keep some balance of other things to keep me distracted from my own obsessive thoughts. I need to get inspired to get out of the circus in my head. I enjoy volunteering, I like feeding the homeless, I love working as an EMT and helping others in a fast-paced emergency situation. It definitely helps give me more purpose in life when I put my energy toward greater causes. It’s inspiring and motivating when you can get out there, do something different, make a change, and see the world from other perspectives. Finding a higher cause that is greater than yourself can be life-changing if you put your energy toward the right opportunities.
Can you offer any tips for how to deal with the extreme highs? Extreme lows? Everyone needs to have some positive coping mechanisms in their lives. Even if just some temporary distraction from whatever is going on, you need to keep a balance. For me, I like to have other stuff going on besides just music, big or small; it’s helpful, because that way I’m not fully sucked in at all times. Like my craftiness, I like to make things with my hands. Or set a fitness goal to work toward like a triathlon, hike challenge, or engaging in other part-time interests, like working as an EMT or volunteering with the fire department. For the extreme highs, I’ve learned that you have to really soak in and live in those moments. Appreciating those high times are important because they come and go, but holding onto them will help keep you motivated.
If you had to pick one other career path other than music, what would it be? It’s completely different from music, but I really enjoy being a first responder in emergency situations. I am currently a certified EMT, and if I weren’t doing music I’d probably continue on to become a paramedic in the fire department.
Any personal goals you’ve set for yourself recently? I’ve been dying to go to the taping of an Ellen DeGeneres show!
The pop auteur passed away this week at the age of 59, breaking the hearts of his many friends, fans, and peers—but he leaves behind an inordinately rich catalog of music stretching back to the late’70s that’s destined to stand the test of time. By way of tribute, we’ve assembled a selection of interviews from our archives that show the songwriter as an insightful, introspective person who lived and breathed rock ‘n’ roll his entire life. (Photos via TommyKeene.com unless otherwise noted.)
BY FRED MILLS
In a year that has already seen far more than its usual share of unexpected passings in the music community, losing Tommy Keene is among the hardest to process. Not just because he’d been a rock ‘n’ roll hero to many since the late ‘70s— he was a core member of the BLURT extended family, having released his last five albums on our sister business, the Second Motion Records label (rechristened last year as Schoolkids Records). I got the call on Thanksgiving about Tommy, and just listening to the message from my pal and BLURT/Schoolkids owner Stephen Judge, I could tell by his voice that something awful had happened even before I returned the call. We talked for a long time about his dear friend: how much Tommy meant to his extremely loyal fan base; how he’d been writing new material and some of his and Stephen’s plans for 2018; how cool it had been to host a set by Tommy at the Schoolkids store a couple of years ago and what a nice guy he genuinely was; and how cruel life can be, particularly to Tommy’s longtime partner Michael Lundsgaard. (According to the official statement, Tommy passed away Wednesday night, Nov. 22, peacefully in his sleep, at their Los Angeles home.)
For my part, I’ve been a fan ever since hearing his early D.C.-area band, The Razz, and eagerly snapping up his first brace of solo records such as ’82 debut Strange Alliance and a pair of 12” Eps for North Carolina’s Dolphin label, Places That Are Gone and Back Again (Try…) — which of course led to his signing to Geffen and a long, prolific career that also included stints with Velvet Crush, Paul Westerberg, and Robert Pollard. In 2015 I was honored to write Tommy’s press bio to accompany the album Laugh in the Dark, so to contextualize that career, please enjoy an extended version of the bio, below, bolstered by additional quotes that didn’t make it into the official version.
Since opening our doors in 2008, BLURT has frequently covered Tommy, so after my essay you’ll also find a selection of interviews that we’ve published: “Blurting With… Tommy Keene,” from 2009, written by Matt Hickey; “Places That Are Found,” 2010, by Mark Jenkins; “Guitar Pop Is Dead, Long Live Guitar Pop,” 2011 by Nick Zaino; and “Damn! Wish I’d Written That Song,” 2013, penned, fittingly enough, by Tommy Keene himself.
Near the end of my interview with Tommy for the bio, I suggested that, from the outside looking in, he clearly seemed to be on the proverbial “creative roll,” as since 2009 he’d been releasing an album every two years. I wondered if he felt that was an accurate assessment, and if so, what fueled his tireless artistic work ethic? His response now seems eerily prophetic.
“With the way the music business is heading,” said Tommy, “I do feel a sense of time urgency, as if the clock is ticking. I have had some major upheavals in my life the last few years—financially, relationship-wise, and health scares. A lot of things have headed south. Between you and me, though, I don’t think I want to spell this out too specifically and have people ask me a lot of questions about it.
“In any event, this record (Laugh in the Dark) certainly documents that, so let’s just leave it as ‘issues’ that, hopefully, everyone can relate to. And I do want to keep on making records and playing music as long as I can—and as long as labels will release these records and people will still come to see me play.”
Godspeed, Tommy. You are already deeply missed.
Below: Keene and his band live in Japan earlier this year.
The Tommy Keene Story (2015)
Tommy Keene initially pinged the public radar in 1982 with the release of Strange Alliance on his own Avenue label, although prior to that, in the late ‘70s, he’d been a member of D.C.-area cmbos The Rage and, later, The Razz. (He was originally from Illinois and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland.) But it wasn’t until 1984, when a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) appeared, that Keene figured prominently on both the influential CMJ charts and in the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop year-end poll.
It certainly attracted the attention of the majors. Signing to Geffen for 1986’s Geoff Emerick-produced Songs from the Film, Tommy wound up on MTV and landed on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. 1986 also brought the Run Now EP, its title track turning up in the Anthony Michal Hall movie Out of Bounds. But after releasing that EP, the original Tommy Keene group disbanded, so Tommy would next go down to Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy at Ardent Studios for Based on Happy Times (Geffen, 1989). Following that, he took an extended break from recording, eventually signing with Matador for 1996’s Ten Years After and 1998’s Isolation Party, which featured guests Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett from Wilco and former Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. During this period he also briefly spent time in Paul Westerberg’s touring band, although in later years he would downplay his stint with the erstwhile Replacements mainman, even opting to excise that resume detail from his official bio. Then between 2000 and 2004 he released the live album Showtunes (Parasol), studio set The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt), and a 20 years’ worth of rarities/demos/unreleased-tracks collection titled Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame).
(above photo by Al Myers, from the Milestone Club, Charlotte NC 1986)
A 2004 road trek opening for Guided By Voices’ farewell tour subsequently yielded a fruitful alliance with Robert Pollard, and Tommy would join Pollard’s post-GbV band, The Ascended Masters, for their 2006 tour and, later, Pollard’s Boston Spaceships. Meanwhile, 2006 also saw the release of Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), a home-recorded solo album in the truest sense of the word. Next came yet another collaboration with Pollard, Blues and Boogie Shoes, billed as “The Keene Brothers.” The rocker was nothing if not busy during this period.
Then in 2009 Tommy signed with the Second Motion label, a collaboration that would endure for years to come, starting with In the Late Bright, plus a 40-song, two-CD career overview, Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. (He would quip in interviews that he could have compiled a four-disc anthology, but his sales figures to date dissuaded him from indulging his artistic ego to that degree.) Two years later, Second Motion released Behind the Parade, which was universally admired by critics—many of whom called it his best album ever, thanks to its compelling blend of earworm-inducing pop hooks, muscular arrangements, and a deliberately ‘60s vibe.
Perhaps that sensibility prompted 2013’s Excitement at Your Feet, which found Tommy plundering his extensive record collection in order to serve up 11 choice cover tunes. Here he lovingly essayed such key influences as Big Star, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Bee Gees and Roxy Music, along with a handful of his New Wave inspirations—Echo & The Bunnymen, Television, Mink Deville, Flamin’ Groovies—but eschewing the “hits” in favor of lesser-known songs. There was also a left-field version of Guided By Voices. Tommy liked to refer to Excitement as an “unobvious covers” set.
Arriving in 2015—some eleven full-lengths, four EPs, three compilations, and one live album into the game—is Laugh in the Dark, also on Second Motion. The songwriter demonstrates no intention of slowing down, and it also would be no hyperbole to assert that he’s on an extended creative roll, what with five releases in the space of just six years.
Now, compared to some contemporary artists who post new material to the web practically on a weekly or monthly basis, this might not seem to be such a fast clip. But can those same contemporary artists claim to demonstrate the same quality control in both the songwriting and recording departments as Tommy Keene? Can they say they’ve consistently delivered songs boasting instantly memorable hooks, boldly introspective and heartfelt lyrics, and world-class production values? Do they even know the difference between a knocked-off brain blip and an undeniable keeper, one that is destined to still be standing long after the flavor-of-the-month dust has settled?
Laugh in the Dark comprises ten freshly-penned gems meticulously assembled over the course of six months in 2014 and perhaps energized by Tommy’s excursion into other songwriters’ oeuvres. The new record, while characterized as always by his distinctive flair for meaty, melodic guitar-driven rock and power pop, marks a subtle shift in his songwriting modus operandi in that, unlike most of his previous albums, Laugh in the Dark’s songs are all of recent vintage.
As Tommy explains, “There are always songs that are left over from the last project, or ideas, that haven’t been fleshed out. What I’ve done in the past before starting to write for a new record would be to demo a cover or resurrect an old song of mine that I liked but never made the final cut for an album. An example of this would be before writing the songs for the ‘98 record Isolation Party: I did a demo of Mission Of Burma’s ‘Einstein’s Day’ just to try and get in the groove. It was, ‘Hey, here’s one great song, now let’s get going!’ After Excitement At Your Feet—I’d love to do another one, but I don’t think sales were that great—I took a while off writing songs; I always do that. I know when it’s time that I can sit down and feel confident that I will be able to come up with ten really good songs and not waste my time.
“So, that said, I do believe I started with a fresh slate on this one and that all the songs on Laugh In The Dark were started and finished in a six month period last year from April through October.”
Indeed, he cites the experience of doing an entire album’s worth of other artists’ material as being key to that “fresh slate”—a clean palette, if you will, and possibly even some freshly-inspired creative avenues to explore.
“That’s really true,” agrees Tommy. “Somehow, making the covers album freed me up to not be so overly hypersensitive as to my influences. In fact, I didn’t even worry at all about songs, melodies, etcetera, that might borrow too obviously from my main muses. Hence you have a direct concoction of The Beatles meet The Who by way of Big Star, with a little Stones for good measure. When you’re younger, I think you go out of your way to try and disguise whatever is inspiring you at the moment, but you’re usually fooling no one. At this stage of te game I really couldn’t give a damn if people think I’m aping something too much. Basically, I’m writing songs and making records for myself because no one else is doing it!”
To that end, Laugh in the Dark sounds utterly free while still remaining true to Tommy’s aforementioned lifelong inspirations. Opening track “Out of My Mind,” with its brashly melodic power chords and anthemic vibe, subtly conjures image of vintage Who, while “Last of the Twilight Girls” has a Radio City-worthy opening riff and a succinct, meaty solo to remind listeners that Keene is nothing if not a stellar lead guitarist. Likewise, the title tune’s jangly invocations and wistful choruses speak to his, er, keen instincts as a pop classicist. Penultimate track “Go Back Home,” with its acoustic framework spiked by sleek slide guitar, suggests a marriage between Led Zeppelin III and Let It Bleed. And album closer “All Gone Away” is overtly Beatlesque, from its “Dear Prudence”-inspired melody to the psychedelic guitar and keyboard flourishes to a generally epic feel.
“You are totally right on all of those,” says Tommy. “I fretted about them for a nanosecond, but it’s basically riffs, not melodies or whole songs so… Yeah, ‘Go Back Home’ is one I’m most tickled with, it’s got that bluesy Zep III thing going, along with some Stonesy guitars but it’s still ‘a Tommy Keene song.’ I also love ‘Belong To You’: it has this insidious melody that I couldn’t get out of my head and it was driving me crazy when I was working on it. Hopefully others will feel the same way. And you mentioned ‘All Gone Away’—it is epic, what can I say? Very much Beatles inspired and obviously a great album- and show-closer. I think of those things when I’m writing an album, beginning, middle and end.”
It’s still a uniquely Keene project from start to finish, however, awash in buoyant melodies as well as introspective—and at times, dark—lyrical ruminations. “I have had some major upheavals in my life the last few years,” confesses Tommy, and it’s not hard to detect echoes of those issues in this collection of songs if one listens closely.
“When I’m writing an album, I look for a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he adds. “Not necessarily in a thematic sense. Sometimes I’ve tried to be thematic, and sometimes I’ve tried to be thematic on the back end—say, with Songs From the Film, the songs seemed to have that visual quality from start to finish, and also on Based on Happy Times, which was the darker, more introspective bookish album. But, usually I just try to get ten or so songs that represent where I am at the present time and hope they feel consistent. When I write lyrics, they always come from my subconscious, really. It’s as if I’m not actually thinking, but blindly writing words that suddenly make sense in retrospect.”
And about that album title?
“The title of the record comes from a ride at an amusement park, Glen Echo, on the outskirts of DC. It was kind of a crazy ride in the dark where your car ran on tracks and zipped around with crazy screams and laughs going on, while every once in a while a strobe light would illuminate you in the car in front of a mirror. This same park is where the cover photo from the Dolphin EP Places That Are Gone was taken, in front of the shooting gallery.”
He pauses, and smiles at the memory, no doubt aware of the completing-the-circle sentiment he’s just expressed.
The songwriter on his new album, on working with Robert Pollard, on coming out as a gay man, and on, er, miming to Spoon songs.
BY MATT HICKEY (2009)
When I first interviewed guitar-pop singer/songwriter Tommy Keene almost 11 years ago, he brought up the notion that he might quit the music business, at least as far as making records. The Bethesda, Md., native turned L.A. resident would continue to be a hired gun (having previously done so for Paul Westerberg and Velvet Crush), but the travails of a critically respected, commercially hit-and-miss career were wearing on him.
A couple of funny things happened in that article’s wake. First, Keene has been more active in the last decade-plus than he was in the previous, releasing four solo LPs, including the excellent new In the Late Bright (Second Motion), an outtakes compilation, a live record and a collaboration with Robert Pollard (Blues and Boogie Shoes, billed as the Keene Brothers), and toured in two incarnations of Pollard’s backing band, most recently Boston Spaceships. And
second, whenever the press bothered to pay enough attention, writers kept asking him why he hadn’t yet retired.
On the eve of heading off to Europe for another sideman job, this time playing bass (for the first time onstage) with British pop songstress Sally Crewe, Keene spoke about how things have gone for him lately-and his possible new gig moonlighting in commercials.
BLURT: Let’s talk about that article a decade ago, where you mentioned retirement.
TOMMY KEENE: You zoomed right in on that angle.
Yeah, I did. And you obviously didn’t stop. How do you feel about your career now?
At this point, I’m doing it to amuse myself. I don’t mean to sound catty. But as long as I feel like I’m being productive and writing good songs and playing with good musicians and songwriters and having a good time, then I’m going to keep doing it.
In one of the articles that referenced the retirement stuff, you claimed that I simply caught you on a bad day. That’s not true, is it?
No, that’s actually very true. Sometimes you look at your career and you think, “Why am I
doing this?” Other times you think, “Of course I’m doing this, this is what I love to do.” It’s difficult being the sort-of unproven, unsold artist. You’re always going to doubt yourself.
When I hear unproven, I think…
OK, unknown to 99.9 percent of the population on Earth. (Laughs) How’s that for pessimism?
That’s pretty good. You must be having another bad day.
No, I’m having a good day.
What was the Boston Spaceships tour with Pollard like? I had a great time. I love the Boston Spaceships record (Brown Submarine), and I really like Bob’s last record, Off to Business. We did about four songs from the second Boston Spaceships record (The Planets Are Blasted), which I think is really great. I hadn’t been out that long for a while, as Bob hadn’t, and I think it was a little difficult for both of us. But I kind of adapt naturally to those situations.
As someone with more than a passing interest in the Keene Brothers, give me the odds of another record. I would say better than one would think, but nothing has been scheduled or hinted at. Bob did tell me that this time it’s going to be called the Pollard Brothers. That’s
“The Right Time to Fly” on In the Late Bright is a Keene Brothers instrumental track that wasn’t used. Are the rest of the songs new, or are any of them also things you had
All new, with the exception of “Hide Your Eyes.” That was written in 1984. It’s always been a song I really liked, and I always wanted to record it. I even presented it to Paul Westerberg the one night we got together in 1987 to try to write songs. He liked the riff and came up with a lyric: “Watch the lucky ones flop.” I wonder now if he was directing that at me or himself.
What period of the day is the “late bright”?
The late bright is the early morning hours or the late-evening hours. It’s the time of day that I usually find most productive. I write a lot in the afternoon, but when everyone goes to sleep and I’m left to my own devices, that’s the time I enjoy recording and working on records.
Have you always been on that kind of late-night schedule? I’ve always been a late-night person. I think it started when I was little. My parents would reward me for good behavior by letting me to stay up late and watch horror films on this local D.C. station. In high school, my band would play frat parties at the University of Maryland, probably about three or four times a month. We would play from 9 o’clock to 2 in the morning. We would do four sets in the basement of these frat houses, and they’d supply us with beer and stuff. I was 15, 16, 17. By the time we finished and loaded the equipment and drove home and unloaded it at the guitar player’s house, I’d get home at 4 in the morning, and I’d have to get up at 6:45 to go to high school. My parents were cool with it.
A lot of the Crashing the Ether reviews said, “This is more of the usual Tommy Keene stuff,” even though I know you tried to do some different things. Given the general laziness of the rock press, I imagine you’ll hear some of the same things with Late Bright. I was wondering if that bothered you or if you’re resigned to it.
I’m totally resigned to it. Hey, my stuff’s not groundbreaking. It’s just fun. It’s just good music and good songs. At this point, who fucking wants to reinvent the wheel? There aren’t enough people out there doing what I do or what Bob Pollard does-just making great rock and roll records, or trying to. There are too many idiots experimenting and not getting it.
During that last round of press, you also talked for the first time about being gay. I was wondering what the reaction was. Did anyone care? Did anyone say anything?
No, zilch. Gay men are unfortunately pretty stereotypical in their tastes. They like dance music. Madonna. Beyoncé. Or they like the flavor of the month in rock bands, like the Scissor Sisters or Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire. They think, “Wow, this is cool, this is cutting edge. I have to get in on this.” Gays have always been ahead of the trends, but I don’t think a lot of gay guys like power pop, which to me is the Beatles, the Byrds, the Replacements, Guided By Voices. That to them is about as fashionable as last year’s diva. But, no, that admission didn’t make a blip, which I knew it wouldn’t. And that’s fine.
I asked you in that first interview, what you would be doing if you did retire from music, and I believe you said you would maybe try acting or something like that. Fast forward to today: if you gave up music, do you have any clue what you might do?
At this age, I don’t know. But last week, through a friend of mine, I auditioned for a TV commercial. Dig this, man. It was a national commercial. The role was a guy playing guitar, singing a song.
Right. At the end, people from the company – I’ll leave out the name [Editor’s note: It was controversial managed health care organization Kaiser Permanente.] – they come out and go, “The company and you, we rock together.” Guess what the song was that I had to mime to? It’s not what will be in the commercial, though.
I have no idea.
Spoon: “Don’t Make Me a Target.” [Laughs] A woman came up to me afterward and said, “I like your moves.” I was just doing my thing, moving with a guitar and miming to Britt Daniel. I got up in front of a camera and jumped around to a Spoon song for 40 seconds. I don’t think I got it, though. I haven’t heard anything. Maybe I was too realistic.
With a sparkling new career retrospective in stores, the pop auteur is comfortable in his own skin and with cult artist status. And he still gets excited about playing.
BY MARK JENKINS (2010)
As he’s the first to admit, Tommy Keene is not a rock’n’roll star. But the singer-guitarist is beginning to feel like a success.
“I’ve never sold a lot of records, obviously,” says Keene by phone from Los Angeles, where the Washington, D.C. native has lived since 1988. “But I feel that as I get older — maybe because I’m persistent and keep putting out records — I get a little more accepted, and a little more respect.”
The occasion for such musing is Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective, 1983-2009 (Second Motion), a 41-song compilation that covers most of his career. (It excludes his 1982
solo debut, Strange Alliance, and his work with such late-’70s bands as The Razz and The Rage.) Keene’s style has sometimes been dubbed “power pop,” but these songs toughen jangly rhythm guitar with assertive lead, and counter upbeat melodies with melancholy lyrics. The result is music that’s immediately accessible, yet a bit more complex than the Knack’s.
The two-CD set includes material originally released by a half-dozen companies, including Geffen, with whom Keene had a classic major-label misadventure. He’s now philosophical about Geffen, which released 1986’s Songs from the Film and 1989’s Based on Happy Times. “Starting a band in D.C., attracting an audience, getting played on the radio, and then getting the Geffen deal was just an experience I went through,” he says. “Looking back, it wasn’t that
Tommy Keene You Hear Me includes seven songs each from Songs from the Film (expensively and controversially produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick) and Based on Happy Times.
While the former was finally released on CD in 1998, the latter has never been reissued. Keene estimates that only 1,000 CD copies were pressed, making it as much of a collectible as his early tiny-label singles and EPs.
Programming the compilation “was really difficult,” Keene says. “I went back and forth with 50 drafts. I have a lot of demos, a lot of unreleased songs. I could have put out a four-CD thing, which doesn’t really make sense for an artist who sells the amount of records that I do.”
Ultimately, he explains, “I put together the track listing for myself. Songs that I was proud of, or wanted as the legacy of this period of my career. I left off some obvious songs.”
When surveying his musical past, Keene notes, “I’m my worst critic, and my biggest fan. I vacillate. I can tell you what’s wrong with every song. And I can tell you why I like most of them.”
In part because of their fuller sound, the musician prefers the compilation’s more recent selections. “I’m actually most pleased with the second half of the second disc,” he says. “It’s sometimes hard to be objective about the older stuff. The complaints about production, I share with a lot of people.”
These days Keene records in a home studio, where “it’s so much easier to get great sounds” than in the kinds of places he worked in the Geffen days. “I wish we had back then what I have now.”
At 51, Keene allows, he’s less driven. “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘I want to do this and I want to do that,’ and you can’t see the big picture. I’m a musician. This is what I do. I love to make records, I love to write songs, I love to go out and play live. If some people enjoy it, then it’s worthwhile.”
“It’s sort of like the pressure’s off,” he says, of his cult-artist status. “I can just enjoy myself, and put everything I can into it, without having to worry. Plus, the whole music business has completely changed. People get music for free. It makes it almost easier.”
In “Underworld,” a song from Film, Keene claims “right now I really know my place,” and that’s not necessarily in the spotlight. He’s played guitar or bass with Velvet Crush, Paul
Westerberg, Robert Pollard, Suzanne Fellini, Adam Schmitt, and, most recently, Sally Crewe. “I love playing with other people.” he says. “Not having the responsibility of being the lead singer. I wish there were more people I could collaborate with.”
Keene has always insisted, in fact, that a solo career was not his long-term plan. “When I was in Razz, I was the guitar player who wrote songs and sang backup, and I was perfectly comfortable in that role. The reason why I ‘went solo’ in the first place was because I couldn’t find anyone in the D.C. area to form a band with. I couldn’t find a lead singer to make it work.”
It’s early June, and Keene has just returned home from playing a show marking the 30th anniversary show of D.C.’s 9:30 Club. He was joined onstage by two members of his ’80s band, guitarist Billy Connelly and drummer Doug Tull, and reconnected with old comrades.
“I tell people in L.A. about the 9:30 Club, and all the bands that really were a community. The fact that the guys in Fugazi liked my stuff. Everyone’s very respectful in D.C. It’s a great group of people. And it could not happen in a city like Los Angeles. It’s too spread-out, there are too many subgenres, and it’s under the eye of the music industry.”
Living with his partner of 19 years — which frees him from being “the major breadwinner” — Keene is comfortable in L.A., saying, “I like living here. I know a lot of musicians. But it doesn’t compare to D.C.”
Keene didn’t always seem so relaxed in Washington, where he penned such uneasy tunes as “Places That Are Gone” and “Back to Zero Now.” Asked about these songs’ characteristically
wistful lyrics, he chuckles and says, “Maybe I saw the future.”
But, lack of rock stardom aside, the future didn’t turn out all that bad. These days, he explains, “I’m just a little more comfortable in my own skin, because I’ve been doing it this long.”
“It’s definitely a different motivation now,” Keene says, of making Beatles- and Who-inspired rock in a tween-pop age. “But I still get excited about playing. And on stage I still act like I’m 27.”
The timeless tunesmith on his new album, on coming out in 2006, on his role as both a bandleader and a sideman, on the biggest mistakes of his career, and much more.
BY NICK A. ZAINO III (2011)
Anyone who thinks guitar pop is dead hasn’t heard Tommy Keene’s latest album Behind the Parade (Second Motion). Or seen the power he can muster live, hitting those big, ringing chords on his Telecaster and pulling from a catalogue of nearly 30 years of melodic rock ‘n’ roll. He has worked up a sweat on his latest tour, thumping through new songs like “Deep Six Saturday” and “Behind the Parade” and older material like “Back to Zero” and “Places That Are Gone.”
We spoke with Keene about a range of subjects, from his new work (and the oddball synth track on the Behind the Parade) to the 50th anniversary of Decca’s declaration to the Beatles that guitar groups were passé. He started the interview talking about North Carolina,
where much of BLURT’s editorial staff is based. Though he got his start in Washington, D.C., people would sometimes mistake him for being from North Carolina, partially because of the way he talks, and partially because of his association with the Durham-based Dolphin Records.
BLURT: Did people associate you with any particular scene when you started, other than mistaking you for being from North Carolina?
TOMMY KEENE: Well I think it’s probably the only time in my career where what I was doing was kind of in vogue was right around that time, and you know, early ‘80s you had R.E.M., you had the dBs, you had Let’s Active, so there was this whole sort of mid-Atlantic, southern pop kind of jangly guitar scene. That was sort of the rage for a nanosecond. And everyone was going around trying to find jangly pop bands. So that’s the only time I’ve been in vogue, ever. It was short-lived. I mean, you know, R.E.M. went on to become huge. But it was a trend and I think that’s how we sort of got recognized because we got included in that whole thing.
In December, we’re going to be celebrating 50 years since Decca passed on the Beatles telling them that guitar groups were on their way out. And here you are making guitar-driven rock and pop, even with all of these other styles swirling around you. What do you think makes that format or that idea so durable?
Well, it’s a very classic approach, I think. And there’s no denying that when I was five years old I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. So they kind of started the whole thing. And I was very influenced by them and probably still am. I always wonder, because there were bands playing sort of around that same time. I mean, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how great they were, what great songwriters, entertaining and funny and charismatic they were, but what was it that set them apart? I mean at the very beginning. You know what I mean? If you read all the Beatles books, they’re playing the Cavern, Epstein’s managing them, and then “Love Me Do” goes to number 46, and then two months later, they took over the whole country. I mean, what was it about them? They were so great, but you would think it would have been easy for them to sort of get lost.
It’s a fair question. I’m not sure if you compare the songwriting that early…
Right. That early, they were still doing all those covers. You know what I mean? And they had maybe five really good songs. Not even. “Please, Please Me,” “Love Me Do,” “She Loves You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and “It Won’t Be Long” or something.
They weren’t far from covering “The Sheik of Araby.”
Oh, I know, and that was pretty jivey. “Besame Mucho?” “Till There Was You?” The fact they put that on their debut album is real cheese. But that was McCartney, right? The showman. They even did it on Ed Sullivan!
I don’t know what made me think of the guitar quote, but I thought of it after listening to the new record.
Now who did that guy sign after he turned them down? Was it the Animals or the Stones? Or someone else?
It’s probably Herman’s Hermits or somebody.
Right. He said, “Oh, I lost out on that,” and he signed someone else. He probably signed the next twenty things.
Everybody with a guitar. I was thinking about guitar-centered rock and pop music listening to the album. You look at all the other genres going on right now, what’s popular on the charts and what’s getting sort of pushed at you, and you realize there’s still a lot of great guitar-centric rock and roll happening, no, but it’s sort of under the radar a lot. Is there really? I question that. I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for this record and I think, I can’t remember what the question was, but my answer was, in a way I’m still doing this because, obviously I enjoy it. But I kind of write these songs and put out these records because no one else is.
No one else is doing it the way you’re doing it, or not too many people are. But if I look at just solid, good guitar rock and roll…
What, Kings of Leon?
Drive-By Truckers, I think, is what I’m thinking of.
Oh, okay. They’re a little more in the southern tradition. But yeah, you’re right, it’s guitar-driven rock and roll.
Do you have any influences that would surprise people or anybody you listen to a lot that would be incongruous to what you actually play?
Well, on some of the later stuff, I think you would maybe pick up on this. But some of the early stuff you’d go, “huh?” One of my favorite bands is Roxy Music. And I’m sure I tried to write songs like Roxy Music at one point. I think in the later, last couple of records, I kind of succeed as far as… There’s a track on the last new album called “Elevated,” and it was a sort of psychedelic spacey guitar thing. And on this new record, I have this song “La Castana,” which is sort of orchestral and symphonic. That is completely the second side of Low by Bowie. So, yeah, there’s an example where I fool around with the keyboards. I [recorded] it last Halloween. I started at eight o’clock and by five in the morning I was done. You would never think that I was into Eno and Bowie, The Berlin Trilogy, or whatever they were.
I was going to ask if you had secret ambitions, because of that track, to join Kraftwerk or Vangelis.
No, that track, it does have all that… I don’t think it’s quite Kraftwerk or that proggy. It’s very atmospheric but it has a basic almost kind of show tune melody to it. It’s sort of symphonic, almost the entr’acte to a Broadway musical or something. A very moody one.
Did the holiday influence it? Where did it come from?
No. I never go out on Halloween. Haven’t in a long time because in Los Angeles, everyone goes down to West Hollywood. They close the streets down. It’s impossible to park and there’s about 50,000 people and everyone dresses up and they wander around the streets. I just, I never liked dressing up at Halloween. So it’s like New Year’s Eve to me. I will not go out and deal with that. It was funny, because when I looked at the track sheet, I always write the date when I started a song or when I came up with the initial idea for it, and it was October 31. So that was how I spent my Halloween.
Are you that disciplined about the ideas, that you have them all organized and you know when you came up with them?
Yeah. Well, you know, this record… Last year there was a two-disc anthology, the best Tommy Keene songs, that came out, Tommy Keene You Hear Me, and I kind of thought, “What am I going to do now? Okay, am I going to ride off into the sunset? Or make another record?” And I didn’t want to take the usual two to three years which is usually not the artist’s fault, it’s more the record release schedule. By the time you get it done, they’re like, oh, we’ve got this coming out or coming up.
But getting back to the original question, I was sort of inspired, because I’d written a couple of really good songs that year, meaning 2010, and I thought, what if I can just knock a record out? And get ten really good songs and get it out next year. So I had a release in ’09, a release in ‘10, and a release in ’11. And I thought, it’s good to kind of keep your profile out there. You go away for two and a half years and people are like, huh? They sort of forget you. It’s the quickest record I’ve ever done. So I was sort of taking special note of when I started each track and dates and stuff.
Did that start with this album or have you done that all along?
It started when I really got my own studio together about ’03 and now I’ve done four records. I did Crashing the Ether, I did The Keene Brothers with Bob Pollard, I did In the Late Bright, and now I’ve done the new album, Behind the Parade. Before, I would pay exorbitant amounts of money to go to people’s studios and sit there overdubbing rhythm guitar parts, spending so much money per hour. And I think the technology, even for kind of an idiot like myself – I have a computer, but I don’t have a computer hooked up to my studio. It’s sort of old school, I have an Alesis 24-track digital machine which has a hard drive. And I have a board, and I have one real y good/expensive mic recompressor and I have a really great mic, which is a Sony from the ‘60s – it was Jim Morrison’s favorite mic. And that’s really all you need now to do everything but record the drums and mix. So the last record that I did at outside studios was The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down and that was recorded in 2000 and came out in 2002. But since then, yes, I’ve been sort of recording everything at home.
Did putting out the retrospective bring anything up for you? Was there any thought about that being the end of a certain era, and now you’ll begin something else?
Well, that would seem very logical… Not really. I definitely have a style that’s distinctive. I mean, I always say that, until you become really successful with one particular style, it’s really bogus to go up and go, “Okay, now I’m going to do my electronica record.” Look at Elvis Costello. He made so many great rock records and he was probably bored. So he said, I’m going to do the Juliet Letters or I’m going to do a record with Bacharach or I’m going to do a country album. You know what I mean? I just think it would be sort of bogus for me to try to do something like that. I mean, I haven’t made a pop rock record that’s sold over 12,000 copies. But this is, it’s what I do, you know, the music I love. It all stems from my guitar playing. The style of my guitar playing sort of dictates what songs I write. It’s a very rhythm guitar-oriented approach, where I’ll come up with a chord sequence or am arpeggiated riff or something. Everyone has a difference approach.
Do you ever feel like you want to just see what happened if you tried something else?
I don’t know. Would people dig that? Maybe I can find a whole new audience. An even bigger audience!
If you leave the audience out of it, just in terms of your own curiosity, just to see…
I’d love to, but would someone put that out? I doubt it. I mean, I could just put it out on the web. Mixing is still expensive. That’s the one thing – to pay people to get a really great mix, it’s still a little pricey. I mean, if you don’t record drums, you just do rough mixes yourself, you can do it for nothing. But I think I would probably have to have someone mix it, that knows what they’re doing.
I don’t think fans ever think of the expense of putting out an album.
I don’t think they do. That’s why a lot of people don’t feel bad about downloading albums for free. Right? It’s just music. It’s just a rock record. Yeah, indie situations, labels that I’m in, the artist is really paying for it.
People probably think you buy a laptop and a couple of mics and you can do whatever you want.
You can do that. I’m sure there are certain people who have sold a lot of records that have done that. I think there’s probably some indie rock bands on their way up, first couple of records, that they did for incredibly cheap. But then it’s the whole, now we have to break out to a wider audience and this low-fi crap is not cutting it.
I’ll give you an example – Bob Pollard, Alien Lanes, which is [Guided By Voices’] biggest selling record, you know how much that cost to make? $9.99. Two high-bias 60-minute cassette tapes. And I think they got an outrageous amount of money by a label to put that out. His big thing is, “never been dropped, never recouped.” Which is funny. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth.
Can’t wait for the remaster of that.
Oh yeah! Let’s go back to those cassettes! Right, right.
Hope he still has them.
Oh, I’m sure he does. That’s funny. It doesn’t matter if you use the master tapes for that. It’s probably better that you don’t. They’re probably all out of phase and corroded. Remember cassettes that you’d play a million times, and the high end would drop out and they’d phase in and out?
I wanted to ask about labels and the term “power pop,” which is one I know you haven’t liked in the past, but I’m told maybe you’ve come to peace with that? Yeah. My problem with most power pop bands – and I hope I don’t, and I don’t think I fall into this category – is that it’s all about emulating something. We’re going to emulate the spirit of the Beach Boys! It’s gonna sound like Pet Sounds! Or we’re going to wear striped shirts like a New Wave band and play Rickenbacker guitars and wear these Beau Brummels like they did in the ‘60s. I don’t write songs about cars and girls. I might have written a few. But I think a lot of that music that most people refer to as “power pop” is very lightweight. Very disposable. And I’d like to think my music isn’t quite like that. I have written some kind of dumb, romantic, anthemic pop songs about relationships. But if you look at the big picture, I’ve been sort of fighting that from maybe day one.
Is there a description you’re more comfortable with?
Pop rock. Pop rock. Melodic rock ‘n’ roll.
Was it gratifying that Robert Pollard deferred to you to record as The Keene Brothers rather than the Pollard Brothers?
Well, it’s a funny story. He came up with that name. He’s like, “Let’s call it The Keene Brothers.” And I said, that’s cool, because Bobby and Tommy Keene – my older brother, my only sibling, is Bobby Keene. And a couple of years later, I was out with him playing with this group the Boston Spaceships and there was some talk about doing another record, and he said, “But this time, it’s going to be the Pollard Brothers.” It was his idea, I was like, fine.
That begs the question, what happens if you make a third record?
I don’t even think we’re going to make a second, so I don’t think we have to worry about that.
When you worked as a sideman for Paul Westerberg and Pollard, did you have to take much of a backseat? Were you able to contribute your own ideas or were you just taking direction?
Well first of all, I love taking a backseat. I’m playing guitar in a lot of instances, lead guitar, so it’s not going to be a backseat in like a tambourine player in the back. But I also play guitar with that band Velvet Crush, who are from Providence and Boston. I love playing with other people because the pressure’s off and I can just play guitar and have a blast. And especially, these are all people whose songs I loved and people I admired. So that was sort of an added bonus. It’s all different. Bob will give you free reign. “Yeah, that’s great! Do it, do it!” Paul is more, “I want you to play exactly this, and if you don’t, I’m going to get upset. Just the way I play it.” Paul was a little more nitpicky.
Did that matter to you?
No. As George [Harrison] said, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play or I won’t play at all.” I’m glad to try to play what you hear. I wish every band member that was ever in my band felt that way. You know what I mean? I want to really play what you’re hearing. Exactly the way you want it.
Once you come back to your own band, is that a strange dynamic? Now you have to tell other people what to do?
A little bit. I don’t like being hard ass on people. I don’t like yelling at people, I never do. Well, some drummers I’ve gotten a little upset with, like in the middle of a show, playing the wrong tempo or sleeping back there. But, no, I more like people to bring their own dishes to the table. That, to me, is more interesting. Sometimes when I’m making a record, I’ll be more satisfied if I play most of the guitars or all of the guitars. But, at the same time, it’s always good to have other personalities brought into the mix. Sometimes I think some of those early Prince records where he played everything, they sound really flat to me. Play the drums, play the keyboards, play guitar. Did all the vocals. Probably played saxophone. They sound really flat to me. But no, I’ve always liked to bounce ideas off people, I like people who bring in their own ideas and parts. I just think the music benefits from it a lot.
Did your coming out affect your fans at all? Did you get any feedback about that?
Not a peep. I don’t know, there might have been a few people who went, “Ooh, fag, I don’t want to listen to this anymore.” I don’t think so. And the one thing I knew it wouldn’t do was gain any other fans that may not have heard of me. I did an interview in The Advocate, and aside from one of my second-removed cousins e-mailing me and going, “It runs in the family!” that didn’t do a thing. I don’t want to get into gay-bashing here, but most of the gay men that I’ve known throughout my life don’t really like this kind of music. Gay men like dance music they can go party at a disco to, and they like the trendiest, newest, cutting edge buzz bands.
People said, why didn’t you do this earlier? It’s because no one cared. No one asked me. I mean, everyone I worked with knew. I mean, I don’t really have a story to tell.
Was there a particular reason why you came out when you did?
Yeah. My publicist said, “Can I work the gay press?” I said sure, on that record in ’06. That was it.
That’s the most anti-climactic coming out story I’ve ever heard.
I did an interview in Magnet, which actually ran before The Advocate, so Magnet got the scoop. And I told the writer, people don’t care who I sleep with or what I do, because I’m not a celebrity and I’m not very well known. People always want to know about Tom Cruise or Michael Stipe, people who are huge and in the spotlight because there’s rumors and this and that. Who knows? That’s what people are curious about.
If you could go back to 1980 or 1982 and give yourself some advice, what would that be? Oh god. I know the answer. It wouldn’t be ’82, it would be ’84, ’85. And I made two mistakes that people talked me into which I think greatly affected – well, I say this, but you never know. But these two things seem to have been mistakes. One was, we did this record with Don Dixon and T Bone Burnett, it was called Songs From the Film. Dixon was hot, he’d done the first two R.E.M. records. T Bone was kind of hot, he’d just done Los Lobos, the Dolphin [Records] EP was top ten on CMJ, and we had pretty decent support from college radio. And in the meantime, Geffen Records comes along, and just out of the fact that they had nothing to do with it, they said, “If you release this record on Dolphin, the full-length record, the deal is off. We’re not going to sign you.”
I started playing with this band when I was in D.C., The Razz, when I was 19. And everyone was a bit older than me. Two of the guys were eight, nine years older and the other two were four years older. We were the biggest band in town. We played in front of every major label. Either we went to New York or they came down to see us. And everyone passed. That’s what you had to do in those days. We put out our little indie records and we put out a live EP and two singles, very D.I.Y. But that was the end of that band because we could not get a deal. There was nowhere else to go. So when someone’s dangling that carrot in front of you, what are you going to do? And it wasn’t as if I had a bidding war. There was interest from Arista. Interest, not, “We’re going to sign you.” And Geffen, they snuck down to D.C. to see us live and the main dude turned to his assistant in the first 25 seconds and said, “Yes.” And 25 seconds into the first song. So we had to go along with it.
And the second thing they made me do, they made me fire my manager that I’d been with for two or three years. We were really good friends. Who is now a hugely successful concert promoter. But he was a bit unorthodox, the way he dealt with people, and he kind of stuck his foot in his mouth a couple of times with the Geffen people, and they weren’t having any of that. I was naïve and I thought, oh, this is going to hurt me, because I have this manager they don’t like. But in hindsight, they didn’t want him there because he would challenge them, and they just wanted to control me and push all my buttons and pull my strings. And I shouldn’t have fired him.
Those two things were big mistakes. And I had to make those decisions myself. At the end of the day, I was the one who had to say, okay, we’re not putting this record out, and fire him. It all fell on me. Everyone around me was either yea or nay, but their careers, their lives weren’t hanging in the balance. It was all on my head and shoulders. And it was really difficult. So I would go back and say to myself, do this, don’t do that. Everything else I did was probably just what I thought I should do.
Our favorite songwriters spill the beans on what makes ‘em turn green with envy; the only stipulation was that they couldn’t pick songs which they’ve previously recorded. This month: a power pop auteur who’s penned his share of classics.
BY TOMMY KEENE (2013)
“In My Life” – The Beatles
Not necessarily one of my favorite top five Beatles songs but one of the most poignant, endearing and timeless of the John Lennon canon. In perhaps my most famous song I was inspired—or stole?—lyrics for the title: “There are places I remember, some are gone and some remain.” A beautiful song and a precursor to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Lennon reminisces about people, places, lovers and things that went before. This song will surely be played at weddings, funerals and the like for centuries to come.
“Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
Possibly the greatest rock riff of all time, and played through one of the first fuzz boxes on record, that I remember. The lyrics of “Satisfaction alone” would make it one of the best rock and roll songs ever written. But Charlie’s relentless martial drum beat (don’t forget the tambourine hitting on the 3-4-5 of the 4/4 beat) will resonate forever, recalling the thrill of that summer day when I first heard it blasting out of the AM radio speaker in my Dad’s car.
“My Generation” – The Who Pretty much a simple blues romp sped up at the suggestion of Kit Lambert, Townsend’s young man blues epic is the ultimate Who song and also the quintessential teenage anthem of all time! Serving as the stage-ending, mind-blowing finale during which they performed the ritual of smashing their gear, this song will never die even if we all do get old.
“I Could Have Danced All Night” – Lerner and Loewe
Anyone who knows me knows I love Show Tunes, so much that I named The Tommy Keene Live Album just that. We have always used any number of Show Tunes as intro music to come on stage to. Throughout the years you might have heard “My Favorite Things,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” or the Paul Lynde ode to Ed Sullivan, “Hymn For A Sunday Evening” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Besides rock and roll, Broadway musicals were melodically some of the most influential sources for me as a songwriter. This song is one of my favorites from the musical My Fair Lady. The climax of the song when Eliza sings “I only know”—where the melody line stays on one note while the strings underneath form a descending pattern—is one of the most beautiful moments in any song ever written!
“The 59th Street Bridge Song/Feelin’ Groovy” – Paul Simon& “Growing Up” – Bruce Springsteen
This could be a mashup: it’s obvious that whether he knows it or not, Springsteen used the basic chord sequence from the Simon composition for his song “Growing Up” (from his debut album). “Feelin’ Groovy” reminds me of my first trip ever to Southern California. My Dad took my brother and me along on a business trip where we visited Disneyland, which is what I think of anytime I hear the song. And it’s Harpers Bizarre’s version that was the hit in 1966, not Simon and Garfunkel’s. It’s just a happy song full of good feelings that I remember innocently as a kid.
Lyrically, “Growing Up” by the Boss is one of his best: “I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade, I combed my hair ‘til it was just right and commanded the night brigade.” Yeah!!!! Also some of Bruce’s best monologues from early shows took place in the middle of “Growing Up,” the best being from the Roxy in LA in ‘78. Talking to his parents who were in the audience he proclaims, “Well, one of you wanted a lawyer, one of you wanted an author, well tonight you’re both gonna have to just settle for rock and roll!!!”
“If you want to be part of MY world, I’ll accept you with open arms”: We say farewell to the late Northwest punk/garage legend and lifelong champion of the DIY aesthetic. (Above photo by Michael Passman exclusively for BLURT.)
BY FRED MILLS
When the final chapter is writ, one of my greatest regrets will be having never seen Fred Cole perform live. Sure, I have all the records—from the Clackamas, Oregon, rocker’s ‘60s garage outfits The Weeds and Lollipop Shoppe, through his legendary two-decade run fronting Dead Moon, to Pierced Arrows, which ran from 2007 to 2016, at which point his increasingly poor health dictated that he finally call it quits.
In rock ‘n’ roll, of course, we never say “never,” always holding out hope for another encore, just one more song. With Cole’s passing this week at the age of 69, that hope is permanently dashed. (Go elsewhere on the BLURT site to read our Cole obituary; he’d recently experienced a serious scare involving bleeding in his liver, and According to Willamette Week, despite treatment had remained “still very ill.”) Cole’s passing was announced at the Facebook pages for Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows:
I’m so sorry to have to let you know that Fred lost his battle with cancer & passed away peacefully in his sleep last night, Nov 9, 2017. Thanks you one & all for all the years & memories we all shared together, for being friends first & business partners second, so proud to be a part of your lives.
Fred had that quality of being “immortal” and I believe his songs & recordings will make it so. We can always hear his voice & his passion there and remember it like it was only yesterday & will go on forever. I love you all, Toody
“The last train is leaving
Can’t you read the signals in my eyes
And I’m standing on the platform
Waiting for the ones I’ve left behind”
Losing our musical heroes has become increasingly, depressingly, commonplace, and each of us deal with it in different ways—pulling out the albums, of course, or attending a candlelight vigil at a relevant shrine, or even organizing a tribute concert where other musicians can also work through their grief. In one sense, then, I’m luckier than many fans, because as a music journalist since the late ‘70s I’ve sometimes had the privilege of interviewing the deceased, and as a result, those earlier one-on-ones take on a deeper and richer resonance for me—and additional salve for the grief, a way to pull close to the artist one last time.
What follows, then, is a pair of interviews I conducted with Fred Cole, along with his wife and longtime bass-playing musical foil in both Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows, Toody Cole. The first conversation with the couple, conducted by phone for Harp magazine, to Oregon in July of 2006, was on the occasion of the impending release of a two-CD anthology from Sub Pop, Echoes of the Past, that essayed the trio’s recorded career to date, most of which the Coles had released (in lathe-cut mono, no less) on their own Tombstone label. Concurrent with Echoes was the DVD release of a documentary on the band, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, so for the story I also talked to Jason Summers and Kate Fix of Magic Umbrella Films, both of whom proved invaluable resources.
One quote that sticks out in my memory from that ’06 interview was from Toody Cole, who spoke of her husband in terms both peer-admiring and industry-defiant: “Fred was going to be great at whatever he did. He’s also the kind of guy that you don’t tell him he can’t do something. If you do – he’s so there. He’s a great inspiration.”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Dead Moon was on its last legs. A few months after the release of the CD and the film, in December, Fred Cole posted an announcement on the Sub Pop website, writing, “After 20 yrs, Dead Moon is retiring. It has been a journey we will always treasure and feel that a worldwide family has emerged in its place. Dead Moon became much bigger than the band itself, it became a DYI underground hopeful for a lot of people. The candle is still burning!” So that was that. Although it soon became clear that Fred and Toody remained very much a personal and musical unit, because while drummer Andrew Loomis was now out of the picture (sadly, in 2016 he would pass away, from lung cancer), by May of the following year the Coles were back in business as Pierced Arrows, tapping Kelly Haliburton for kit duties. By 2008 there was a Tombstone-issued Pierced Arrows album, with more records to come.
Then in early 2010 I’m on the phone again, this time for Stomp and Stammer zine, with Fred and Toody, getting the state-of-Pierced-Arrows broken down for me. That feature, along with the prior one for Harp, appears below—both stories in, you guessed it, director’s cut/expanded form, as I was able to locate my original interview transcripts. What was once around 3500 words is now nearly 9000.
To any Fred Cole devotees out there—and particularly to Toody Cole, if she ever comes across this appreciation—this one’s for you.
And for me, too.
In 1990, a package with an Oregon return address arrived in the mail: Dead Moon’s third album on Tombstone, Defiance. Included was a hand-written note on brown stationery from Fred Cole, thanking me for the reviews I’d written of his band’s previous records. I still have the LP and, of course, the note. Years later, as our 2006 interview was winding down, Fred mentioned that he’d always remembered those early reviews because of our shared first name, and how nice it was to finally connect directly over the phone.
Then he thanked me profusely for being one of the writers who had stuck with the band over the years. I’ll never forget how he put it to me, simply but sincerely:
“Fred, thank you for digging the scene after all this time, and for being into Dead Moon, for this many years.”
R.I.P., Fred Cole. May the angels of Heaven all sing in mono.
DEAD MOON: The Whole Story (Originally from Harp magazine, Sept./Oct. 2006, here expanded with previously unpublished quotes.)
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but had he been around in ’87 he might’ve revised that oft-quoted statement. Because that’s when the first stirrings of Dead Moon were heard—and the second stirrings of Fred Cole. Slithering outta the Portland, Ore., garage/punk underground to chart a purposeful trajectory into the Amerindie scene’s consciousness, Dead Moon – singer/guitarist Cole, his wife Toody on bass and vocals, drummer Andrew Loomis – has been in the national and international spotlight ever since.
Jason Summers, of Magic Umbrella Films, which did the 2004 documentary Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, first heard the band around ’91 and summarizes the band’s sonic appeal thusly: “That was back when Nirvana was starting to get big and Dead Moon just sounded nothing like what was becoming college alternative pop — kinda creepy, more rootsy, and somehow having a vein that went way back in history. No matter what style they play, it’s got their signature style. It could be a country song or a ballad or a screaming punk song, but it’s always got some kind of cobwebs on it.”
“We don’t care anymore!” cackles Cole, from his home in Clackamas, near Portland, when I ask him what motivates him year after year, but you sense his flippancy’s a self-deprecating ruse. For Cole, he of the leather-lunged, Arthur Lee-meets-Roky Erickson howl, serial killer riffs and outside-of-society lyrics, and a staunch DIY lifer, these past two decades must have been a hugely gratifying second act.
Addressing the rabid core of fans that snap up Dead Moon’s independently-released records and pack punk rock clubs whenever the band tours, Cole adds, “Come see us live again, soon. Come and see a fat old fuck play some real rock ‘n’ roll!”
He laughs again, this time proudly. Yeah, he cares. A lot.
Despite his contemporary project’s tenure and popularity, Fred Cole’s first time around in the music biz was in no way an inauspicious one. Born in Tacoma in 1948, as a teen Cole wound up in Las Vegas where he worked with several bands – among them, the otherwise all-black R&B band Deep Soul Cole and Top 40 covers outfit The Lords – before notching some regional success in 1965 as the lead singer for the more garage-leaning The Weeds. The following year saw the band relocate to Portland – to evade the Vietnam draft, they’d headed off for Canada, only to have their van break down en route – and they began gigging regularly up and down the West Coast, sharing bills with the likes of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Seeds, Chocolate Watchband, Buffalo Springfield, Love and the Doors.
The Weeds subsequently changed their name to the more teen-palatable Lollipop Shoppe and, signing with UNI Records, released an album (1968’s Just Colour) and scored a hit single (“You Must Be A Witch,” which would become an oft-covered staple of the garage/psych genre ripe for rediscovery during the Nuggets milieu). By ’69, though, the band had run its course.
Cole continued to make music in Portland, but meanwhile, he was also enjoying the domestic life. When the Weeds first landed in Portland in ’66, he’d caught the eye of Kathleen “Toody” Connor, a young, dark-haired beauty fresh out of Catholic high school, and intrigued by “this tall, skinny lead singer in the hottest band in town.” Love at first sight?
“Oh God, yeah,” gushes Toody. “Well, it was attraction at first sight. You gotta understand, I was a sweet Catholic girl, and he had a notorious reputation. So it was an oil and water thing. I totally expected him to be the biggest egocentric airhead from hell. But once we actually got together and talked, which we did a lot of, it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re nothing like I imagined you would be…’ Once you actually get to know somebody…”
“I just wanted to do the ‘please don’t’ with her!” interjects Fred, referring to a certain carnal Dead Moon lyric of his from the song “Poor Born.” “But no, she just knocked my socks off. And she was so arrogant and just thought, ‘Oh God…’ and wouldn’t let me touch her. So every night either before or after a gig she and I would go up to the park and talk and eat red liquorish – I was on a band budget, making about 80 cents a day to eat, and saving up our money to record, so I’d buy a big package of Red Vines, and that’s basically what happened for two months. Everybody would say, ‘Fred – pffftt, forget about it, there’s no way this is gonna work out.’ Her parents thought she was a lesbian because she didn’t hang out with guys. I remember when her dad finally met me, and I stuck my head in his car window and all he saw was all my hair, and his eyes got real wide, like on the Little Rascals.”
Fred and Toody married on June 14, 1967, a little fact they had to hide from Fred’s image- and career-conscious bandmates. Says Fred, “People would’ve freaked. In ’67, if you’re the lead singer in a band and you’re married, you can forget about it!”
The Cole-Connor union (which recently celebrated its 39th anniversary and to date has resulted in three children and seven grandkids) would yield more than just marital bliss. In 1976, on the heels of several underappreciated bands — notably hard rock quartet Zipper, which released an eponymous LP in ’74 on Cole’s fledgling Whizeagle label – Cole, inspired by the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the rest of the punk explosion, put together hi-octane trio the Rats. The band lasted until 1983 and issued three albums on Whizeagle, a Spinal Tap-esque drummer scenario ultimately deep-sixing the popular outfit’s aspirations. But with Toody tapped by Fred for bass chores in the Rats, one of indiedom’s most enduring musical partnerships was forged.
“I always had a thing about getting up on stage and always thought it would be drama or something like that, but it never worked out,” says Toody. “So Fred did me one of the biggest favors anybody can do: ‘Hey, get your ass up there, I know it’s gonna make you crazy, but…’ It took me a lot of years to get comfortable. But I just love it! So he picked the right time, and started me with something pretty basic. He hadn’t played that much guitar at that point himself. He just kinda wanted a bunch of amateurs to get up there, hammer away, and see what happens. Luckily for me he pressured me into it.”
What happened, of course, would be Dead Moon.
After the Rats’ demise Fred briefly indulged a Country & Western fetish with cowpunk trio Western Front, but his garage roots soon beckoned. One night in ’87, while on vacation and driving across the desert, Fred gazed up at a crimson-hued moon and suggested Red Moon as a good moniker for the back-to-basics combo they’d recently been brainstorming. Toody countered with Dead Moon, and the name stuck. Fred remembered a talented Portland drummer, Andrew Loomis, late of a Plimsouls-like new wave combo called the Boy Wonders, then working at local punk club Satyricon, and an audition was arranged.
“Now that was love at first sight,” recalls Toody. “Andrew had been coming to see us when we had the Rats and we didn’t even realize he was a big fan of ours. Instant chemistry. And we’d had so much trouble in the Rats trying to keep a drummer, so we thought, hey, we’ve got something that works, and Fred had been through breakups with the Weeds/Lollipop Shoppe, so when you’ve waited for 25 years to get it back again, you ain’t gonna let it go again the second time. It’s like falling in love, getting married, and then realizing that it’s a working relationship; sometimes things fuck up, but you don’t just say hey, hit the door jack.”
Now, even at their most vibrant, local music scenes can be pitiless towards new bands, even those fronted by a more or less known quantity such as Fred Cole. And Dead Moon definitely paid their dues early on, playing mostly cover tunes and taking gigs at any regional dive that would have them. Remembers Toody, “We played in this one place and came on after the local amateur comics finished doing their spiels – oh my God, it was unbelievable! But in a lot of ways it made us who we are. It was a very humbling experience, and to this day we appreciate it when people show up.”
But with the release, in 1988, of their first couple of 45s, “Don’t Burn the Fires” b/w “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Parchment [sic] Farm” b/w “Hey Joe,” and debut album In The Graveyard, both on the Coles’ second homegrown label, Tombstone, the Dead Moon snowball began rolling. Wildly enthusiastic national reviews ensued for this “music too tough to die” (as the Tombstone motto defiantly proclaimed) – primarily from the fanzine sector, where yours truly, writing for The Bob, drooled over Dead Moon’s “incendiary rumble” and “feral yowlps” of “primitive garage-rock fuggit-all.” Ahem.
Hype-laden wordsmithery aside, reviewers consistently hailed the group’s primitive yet incendiary sound and took due note of the band’s steadfast avoidance of effects such as reverb and echo, not to mention their preference for recording in monophonic. For his birthday one year, Toody bought Fred a vintage mono lathe, reportedly the same one the Kingsmen had used years earlier to cut “Louie, Louie”; to the notoriously frugal Fred, saving money by cutting his own record masters was a no-brainer. This turned out to be a telling aesthetic/practicality factoid not lost upon other reviewers, including Spin’s Byron Coley and the influential editor of Britain’s Bucketful of Brains, Jon Storey. Second and third albums Unknown Passage (1989) and Defiance (1990) followed in short order, each to similar underground press raves.
The aforementioned snowball turned into an avalanche upon Dead Moon’s inaugural overseas trek, which came at the instigation of Hans Kesteloo, owner of Germany’s Music Maniac label. Kesteloo, a die-hard garage freak a Fred Cole fan, had met Greg Sage of the Wipers while on tour in Europe; Sage, who knew the Coles from their Rats days and also frequented their Portland instrument store, Tombstone Music, agreed to put Kesteloo in touch with Dead Moon. Kesteloo subsequently licensed some Dead Moon tracks for a pair of Music Maniac compilations, and when the band landed in Europe in 1990, Fred, Toody and Andrew were treated like conquering heroes. (The Music Maniac alliance for Tombstone’s European market continues to this day.)
Fred, devoted to the one guitar/one amp school of touring, still marvels at the reception they got. “Our tour manager over there had toured with all the biggest bands – he had been doing the Lemonheads, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed. He showed up at the airport with this huge fucking van and 14 guitar stands in the back. ‘Dude, I only bring one guitar…’ The van was probably 3 times bigger than what we needed for the little bit of gear we carry!”
Toody notes, of the European market, “They accepted us like gangbusters over there! Same with a lot of different bands, like the Gories, that would go over and the Europeans just loved.” Dead Moon would return to Europe time after time in the years to follow; nowadays both Coles will eagerly single out certain cities where they have the equivalent of an extended family they look forward to seeing on each overseas trek. Meanwhile, having a loyal European fanbase allows them to return home with a profit, which partly explains why U.S. Dead Moon tours, while not necessarily rare, are neither as frequent nor as extensive.
“I always look forward to touring, especially Europe,” says Toody. “You know what hard work it’s going to be, what it’s going to take out of you, and it’s not like those early years when it’s so fresh and new that everything’s a surprise and you’re riding so high on emotion. We used to have this rep for playing three hour shows! But there’s another quality you gain from experience, so you try to give every audience the best you’re capable of every night because you realize that this many people are willing to pay the ticket price to see you.”
Such loyalty to their fans mirrors the loyalty that Fred, Toody and Loomis demonstrate towards one another; long ago it was decided that the Dead Moon brand would be retired if for any reason one of the three couldn’t continue. Fans observe this devotion each night when the band undertakes a pre-performance ritual. With just a candle jammed into a Jack Daniels bottle for illumination, the trio gathers at Loomis’ drum kit, leans in to one another, and firmly clasps hands.
“Fred’s very much into ritual and superstitious stuff, repeating things over and over again. He still laughs how as a kid he’d keep going back and touching the top of the door jamb 20 times just to make sure he had a good day that day,” explains Toody. “So we do The Handshake. It’s like, all is forgiven, whatever happened yesterday is in the rearview mirror and does not matter, let’s just go forward. The Handshake is a way to touch bases and let us all know that we love each other.”
Back home, in between tours, the Coles devote their energies to running their record label, operating a maze of other income-generating businesses (Tombstone Music, their instrument shop; Tombstone General Store, a convenience-type mart; and several nearby rental properties), and of course recording Dead Moon records. In mono, natch.
“Basically,” recalls Toody, “we started Tombstone for ourselves just like we did with Whizeagle Records. Then it became almost like a mentoring thing. Locals would ask us how they could get a 45 out, get gigs and all that, so we pressed up local bands, doing it on the cheap, and we got our street creds, so to speak. Then we had bands from all over wanted to have records out on Tombstone. But we haven’t done anything for quite awhile because we’ve been so busy. But we still have people asking all the time. Fred will have a continual lifelong affair with vinyl. He wants someone to listen not to the first song on a CD, but to listen to the whole first side of the record and want to turn it over to see what happens next.”
And the whole Fred Cole-Tombstone Records mono thing? This throwback touch was partly due to Fred’s steadily mounting hearing loss over the years, but it was also borne out of serendipity, explains Toody.
“That just happens to be the lathe he has, an old ’54 model lathe and that’s all it does. And hey, we all grew up with mono, and for him it’s like, ‘I’m deaf anyway, so all I’ve got to do is put two signals in one direction and, bam, they’re there.’ He hates effects, obviously, and there’s the old thing about stereo panning and all this other stuff. He figures, ‘I’m a vocalist, I write these songs, I’m not a guitar god.’ It all goes back to that old crunch of Bob Dylan: keep it simple, and let the songs speak for themselves. If the songs are good, it doesn’t really matter.
“So there’s no frills: you either love it or hate it. For a lot of people, mono is irritating as hell, and for the other half, hey, they love it, so it’s great. You hear all that reverb and compression on records from the ‘80s, and that’s his biggest beef. The reason we sing live and on records with completely dry vocals, no reverb, is so you don’t have to compensate for that. Just let your voice do what it’s supposed to do. He’s a pure naturalist, he really is. To him, effects are cheating. When it gets so homogenized, anybody can sound good. But how can you tell what they really sound like?”
In September Sub Pop, which along with other indie tastemakers such as Sympathy, Empty and Australia’s Dog Meat has occasionally played patron over the years to Dead Moon’s ever-growing back catalog, issues the two-CD Dead Moon career overview Echoes of the Past. Personally compiled by the Coles, it provides a compelling series of snapshots, stretching back to In the Graveyard and running up through 2001’s Trash & Burn – the most recent release is ’04 studio album Dead Ahead – and with a full Sub Pop roll-out slated for the set, it should also boost Dead Moon’s domestic profile considerably.
“The Dead Moon-Sub Pop northwest connection seemed important and valid,” agrees Toody. “And in a way it’s been a godsend that Sub Pop wanted to do this, because, you know, we think everything’s gonna last forever, but once Fred sent back and started messing with these old tapes – whew, you forget how old tapes start disintegrating after awhile. He was going crazy, having to keep re-cleaning the tape heads in order to go back and get what he wanted. He’s like the absent minded professor, so half the tapes he ever had were recordings in boxes, sometimes labeled with what songs and in what order, sometimes with nothing written on there. So a lot of it was disorganization on our part. And as I said, with the Sub Pop thing now, it’s great to know that in a way all of this is going to be saved if those tapes are at some point completely unusable. And thank god we have the technology to salvage them.
“We didn’t do any true remixing, but there was a lot of balancing and computer programming to try to even out tones, bring out the bass or drums on certain tracks. I mean, our tapes are – cough – sorrily lacking anyway! Between the different eras, and where we were recording and how we were recording it — and because Fred’s deaf as a post, treble frequencies are lost, so when we are recording he tends to mix the treble up really hot so what he hears sounds right to him. We got our copies a few weeks ago and I’m really impressed. Fred and one of his old bandmates worked on it here, and also Sub Pop went in and tweaked it out again, so they really did a nice job ‘given the quality of workmanship’! [laughs] So in a way the stuff sounds dated – as it should! We did this 15 or 20 years ago.”
“Lo-fi and DIY,” says Fred, firmly, a note of satisfaction in his voice.
Favorite Dead Moon records or songs?
“Oh God,” sighs Toody. Even getting the Sub Pop thing together was tough. Same thing going back and putting together a song list for this upcoming European tour. I love the fact that at different points we don’t listen to our own material that often that it impresses me like crazy all over again. But if I had to pick all over again: What we did on Unknown Passage, between “54-40” and “My Escape,” which happens to be one of my favorite songs. And Defiance, I’m especially proud of “Trash & Burn.” At different points it gets really difficult to pick a favorite.
“Trust me, Fred’s biggest fear, growing up in the ‘60s, there was X amount of bands that had one or two songs and you went out and spent your hard earned money to buy this album and you love this one song so you’re hoping the whole album is awesome – but usually it’s that one song and a lot of filler. So that’s been one of his biggest fears as an avid music fan. Just remembering that. And it was a bonus bonanza when the whole album was great.”
I ask the Coles if they encountered any surprises while sifting through their tape archives, or did they find themselves cringing at any of the old stuff…
“A lot of stuff we hadn’t heard in a long time,” admits Toody, “so honestly, the hardest part was having to pick out what would fit on two discs, and we left out a lot of stuff we wished could go on there. We left off [the first 45] because they were cover songs. And our cover songs, we’ve always kind of done them from memory – ‘Oh yeah, I think it goes like this…’ – and we always get it wrong, which is great, so it’s never a true cover song. It becomes a Dead Moon song. As an added bonus, Fred got the title wrong – it was “Parchman Farm,” not “parchment”! But hey, that’s our style! Our version of “Play With Fire,” which I sang, we left a whole verse out – ‘Whatever, it’s our song!’ [laughs] AC/DC’s “Long Way To The Top,” we got that whole rhythm wrong too, so it’s our song and the way we do it.
“And yes, sometimes I do [cringe] personally, to this day. But hey, that’s one of the unique things about us, and that’s why we say we’re ‘entertainers.’ We’re not ‘musicians’; we learned how to be adequate on our instruments with a certain flair and style, and the chemistry just happens to be magical. Name just about anybody and they can play rings around us. But that’s kinda cool. Part of having that constant struggle where it’s not one of these unbelievable natural born talents – you have to work at it, and that kind comes through. And I think people love the fact that it doesn’t look too easy when we do it.”
“We’re not an all-star band,” interjects Fred.
Agreeing, Toddy adds, “And that’s why we’re amazed that we have so many musicians that are fans. At any point at least 30-50% of people out in front of us at shows are musicians. And we are what you see – this is the real deal meal.”
Fred: “And you better not expect a guitar solo that lasts more than two or three bars, either!”
Both musicians are quick to point out that the gig’s the thing and always has been. Toody, elaborating, recalls wrapping up a particularly memorable, extended 2004 tour.
“And when we got back, I had tendonitis in my left wrist. So we took 9 or 10 months off and didn’t play at all. I was in a brace and basically let it heal. So we played a local gig here, rehearsed once, a fly by the seat of your pants thing. And we got up onstage and we basically fell in love with it all over again. Because at certain points, when you’ve done this many shows, when you know you need to stop is when you get to the point of, ‘Oh my God, this is becoming a job and I’d rather be doing anything else tonight…’
“So this show in Portland, we worried if anybody would remember us and show up, but the house packed out, and my mom, who’s 84, came to the show with my three brothers, and we honestly just had one of those magic nights.
“There’s been other shows like that. Shows at Vera, in Groningen, our second hometown, for example – shows where you feel not just the electricity in the audience but when that electricity and chemistry happens to be working between all three of you. It’s like basketball players being in this zone where they make 15 three pointers in the same game. And you know you can’t do that every night. But when you do, oh my God, there’s not a better high than that. And certain cities just work their magic with us too.”
One of the more intriguing recent twists in the Dead Moon saga is Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, the feature-length documentary from Magic Umbrella Films, aka North Carolina’s Jason Summers and Kate Fix. The pair initially got the idea to make a film about Dead Moon while working in the film and television industry in New York in the late ‘90s. Fix, who’d attended college in Portland, was already a big fan of Dead Moon and a friend of drummer Loomis; Summers was exposed to the band’s records as a deejay at UNC-Chapel Hill’s WXYC-FM but had never seen Dead Moon live until one night in ’98 when he and Fix spotted a flyer announcing the first-ever NYC Dead Moon gig. After the show, which Summers says “completely blew me away – even Jon Spencer was there in the front row, going nuts,” they invited the band back to their apartment and subsequently kept in touch.
“We’d get these long letters from them on Tombstone letterhead stationery,” recalls Summers, “which seemed to speak volumes about them even before we started broaching the subject [of the film]. We figured if they were that way with us then they must be really genuine.
Fix agrees, saying, “They have such sharp, sharp memories for everything, especially for the number of people they’ve encountered over the years. People are so excited to talk to them and you’re just amazed they can remember meeting someone once for just five minutes.”
Fascinated by both the band’s music and by the musicians as people, Summers and Fix eventually broached the idea of a documentary to Fred; already impressed by some of the Super-8 live video the pair shot of Dead Moon in New York, he agreed, much to their surprise – and delight.
Explains Summers, “We’d become more and more intrigued. Their music had gotten us. But it was the other parts of their lives that really got us. They were so quirky, so eccentric, so many projects going on all the time that it seemed like to them the music was kind of like a derelict hobby. I tend to think that musicians who don’t think of themselves as superstars, there’s something more there to that, about having a lifestyle where you can take all the things you love and build a working life.” Summers mentions the 1969 Robert Elfstrom documentary on Johnny Cash, The Man, His World, His Music, as a “brilliant piece of cinema verite” that influenced him as he and Fix were editing their film.
Indeed, Unknown Passage, while loaded with riveting concert footage, is equally weighted with intimate interviews (including Loomis and the Coles’ three children) and segments showing the Coles going about their daily activities at home and at their businesses, essentially painting a portrait of a couple at peace with the lifestyle they’ve carved out for themselves. A wealth of archival material outlines Fred Cole’s lengthy musical resume – there’s a priceless live clip of the Rats appearing on a Portland cable access TV program in the late ‘70s – while glowing Cole testimonials from the likes of Music Maniac’s Kesteloo, the Kingsmen’s Mike Mitchell and Mudhoney’s Steve Turner add additional context.
One intimate scene has Fred Cole displaying the Dead Moon album masters and casually tossing them around, not heeding the potential for damaging them. Summers says that’s his favorite part of the movie. “It reminds me of William Blake or something etching his little copper plates. Fred looks like Ben Franklin in his dirty robe with his bi-focals on, going through tape after tape after tape, getting these ancient machines working.”
Summers recalls their initial filming sessions of the band as being a literal trial by concert-trail fire. Fred, shortly after giving his blessing to the project, called the filmmakers up and asked them if they wanted to join them, 11th-hour style, on a European tour. The next thing they knew, Summers and Fix were getting off a plane in Amsterdam. “We’re in the parking lot going to get into the rental van,” says Summers, laughing at the memory, “and Fred got us in headlocks and made everybody get into a huddle. He says, ‘All right, if anybody fucks with you, you’re not with us – you’re in Dead Moon now. Do you understand? You’re IN the band!’ Then we broke the huddle and went into our first play – in the van, and go!”
“We tried to stay quiet and out of the way while rolling,” observes Fix. “In fact, our presences made it more fun for them. We felt like we were the honored guests, being shown around Europe, being introduced to all their many friends they’ve made while touring over there.”
Adds Toody Cole, “It worked out great – we loved the film. And we became really good friends with Jason and Kate, too.”
The self-financed film took approximately four years, from inception to final editing, to complete; in 2004 it was screened extensively at film festivals (a pair of memorable screenings in Australia and New Zealand featured live performances from Dead Moon!) and reviews were unanimous in their praise. Fix suggests that ultimately their budget restrictions worked in their favor. “It was just the two of us, no audio person, a real basic run-and-gun setup. But if we’d had a huge crew I think we would have sacrificed a great deal just in terms of the whole feeling and spirit of the project – and the intimacy we were able to achieve with the three of them.”
Hopefully timed to come out close to the Sub Pop anthology is a DVD of the film, most likely as a joint Magic Umbrella/Tombstone release (see: www.MagicUmbrella.com or www.DeadMoonUSA.com). Unknown Passage is not the first documentary treatment of Dead Moon; in 1995 Dutch fan Wilko Bello made the 50-minute You’ll Love Them All the Same, included on a CD-ROM with ’97 album Hard Wired in Ljubljana. But with a wealth of DVD extras, from songs to archival goodies to interview outtakes and ephemera (one priceless segment captures a snooty tour manager for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club kicking Dead Moon off the stage and a subsequent screaming match between him and Loomis), it will undoubtedly stand as definitive.
Prominent in the film whenever the Magic Umbrella lenses zero in on Fred Cole is a Dead Moon tattoo, the trademark band logo depicting a deathly, grinning skull protruding from a crescent moon. Not just any tattoo – it’s on his right cheek, a highly visible symbol of the man’s devotion to his band and to his craft.
This will probably preclude the man’s ever taking a job as a Wal-Mart greeter when his senior citizenship beckons, but predictably, both Fred and Toody have no intention of entering their twilight years quietly (although Fred, in a not-unwise concession to the drumbeat of age, recently got fitted for a new, high-tech pair of hearing aids).
The tattoo’s also physical testimony to Fred Cole’s bloody-mindedness as an individual. Ironically, despite the band’s seemingly tireless work ethic and massive musical output (at last count, roughly 13 studio and live albums and 14 singles and EPs), Dead Moon has been its own worst enemy in terms of any huge commercial break-throughs it might have achieved. Fred Cole still stubbornly insists on recording in mono, of course, with the digitizing of a Dead Moon vinyl releases barely an afterthought; and after all these years, Dead Moon remains a self-produced project. (With luck, the Sub Pop release should go a fair ways towards raising the band’s profile.)
Plus, he’s notorious for shrugging off – or outright running from – any overtures the mainstream might cast in his direction. Toody notes that Fred “kinda gets into this deer-in-headlights mode when shit gets intense.”
Pausing for a moment, she then relates an incident in the early ‘90s when the band, on tour in Europe, found themselves courted by Britain’s influential weekly Melody Maker. At the time, anything from the American northwest was blowing up and the paper wanted to send over a reporter and a photographer for a cover story – but at Dead Moon’s label’s expense.
“So Hans [owner of Music Maniac] runs it by me and says it would be a great career move: ‘All we have to do is fly this Everett True and his photographer over here to Europe, put them up in a hotel, and they’ll come and interview you and it’s just going to make you guys.’ Fred was like, ‘Oh, this just so smacks of payola. Ah, no. No, we’re not going to do it that way. If they think we’re such hot shit, fine. They can come over here [on their own] and I’ll talk to them.’
“You know, Fred has been so disillusioned by the music business in general and how it works, he just thinks, ‘If I’m worth the story, I’m worth the story.’ This is important to him: ‘I just want to know I did it on my own.’”
Hearing his wife say that, Fred thinks about it for a moment, then softly agrees.
“That’s right. I mean, hey, we grew up in the ‘60s and found out how the world works then. So, okay, I refuse to be part of it. I’m not gonna go there.
“But if you want to be part of my world — cool. I’ll accept you with open arms.”
PIERCED ARROWS: “Not Just Righteous, But Right” (From Stomp and Stammer zine, March 2010)
The letter is still here, tucked inside the jacket of a Dead Moon LP, on brown Tombstone Music stationary and bearing a July 1990 postmark. It’s a handwritten note from Dead Moon guitarist Fred Cole that begins, “Dear Fred, thanks for the reviews. You’re one of the core of people who started the ball rolling…”
Only hubris would allow me to think that I really had anything to do with Dead Moon’s rise from unruly Oregon punk/garage trio to international prominence as one of the fiercest, most uncompromising underground bands of the last two decades; by the time Cole formed the band in ’87, he already had enough experience under his belt to know exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. Just the same, helping get the word out about the band was something I and a number of my fanzine-scribbling peers approached with a missionary-like zeal, and it was gratifying to know that Cole appreciated the effort
In fact, although I never met him or his wife and bandmate Toody face to face (Dead Moon tours rarely seemed to be routed through wherever I happened to be living), we corresponded quite a bit, so when we convened via telephone in the summer of 2006 for Harp magazine dissection of their career to date, the occasion being the impending release of Sub Pop’s two-CD Dead Moon anthology Echoes of the Past, the interview took more the form of a conversation among old friends than a journalist grilling two musicians.
And then the band promptly broke up.
Cut to 2010: “You know, it wasn’t your fault…” Toody Cole lets her words trail off, then chuckles loudly into the phone.
I’d half-jokingly suggested that perhaps I’d placed a curse on the band by publishing the 2006 article; the laughter dies down, and she explains that after doing Dead Moon for two decades, “We kind of got trapped in a box, especially for Fred and his songwriting, and everybody wanted to hear the same 20-30 songs over and over again. But he’s one of these people who’s like, ‘It’s whatever I’m doing now, and not what I did then or when.’”
What the Coles are doing now is the Pierced Arrows, which they put together in surprisingly short order following the demise of Dead Moon. According to Toody (who, due to Fred’s deafness, handles the bulk of interview duties, fielding the questions and turning to Fred for clarification as needed), her husband had actually been thinking about closing the book on Dead Moon for some time; the band played its final gig in Groningen on Nov. 26, 2006. “And I pretty much had to talk him into coming back after that break anyway,” she continues, “because he was done at that point. Originally we were going to wait six months to a year, but it turned out to be about three or four [months] instead — just long enough to realize how much we missed it!”
Outwardly at least, the Pierced Arrows bear such a close resemblance to Dead Moon that some fans may have wondered why even bother with the name change and potentially squander the group’s momentum. Like Dead Moon, the Arrows are a three-piece, with Kelly Haliburton (ex-Murder Disco X) taking DM drummer Andrew Loomis’ place behind the kit; Fred Cole still spews his manifesto-like punk anthems in an unhinged, Arthur Lee-like howl while unleashing furious bursts of serrated riffs; Toody Cole still wields her precision basslines and shares occasional vocal duties with Fred; and just as Dead Moon did, before each gig the trio convenes onstage in a tight semi-circle whose physical closeness signifies both a musical and personal camaraderie.
Yet as Toody told me in 2006, in an unintentional foreshadowing what was to come, “We decided a long time ago that if any one of us three is not replaceable, then that will be the end of Dead Moon. Maybe something else will come up down the line, but it will be a different name.”
Hence, with drummer Andrew Loomis leaving the Dead Moon fold, the Pierced Arrows. The Coles knew Halliburton from his turning up at Dead Moon shows (his father had also played in a band with Fred in the ‘70s), so when they got the itch to resume playing, Fred invited him over for some informal rehearsals. Things clicked, and the Arrows played their first gig in May of 2007 with Poison Idea in Portland on the anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. “We’d only been rehearsing for about 4-6 weeks,” says Toody, “and we only had about a half hour’s worth of material. But it was just phenomenal, really over the top. We’d figured we’d have to start up the ladder again like we had done in Dead Moon, but that gig went so well things just took off from there.”
Indeed they did. Since that first show the band has toured regularly and scored great press coverage. Yours truly, reviewing debut LP (on Cole’s long-running Tombstone label), enthused thusly:
The Coles are as garage-shock defiant and hell-bent for leather as ever. Yeah, they sound a lot like Dead Moon — Fred Cole’s unhinged, Arthur Lee-like vocals and keep-it-simple chord structures ensure that — with the main break from the past being a shift away from Dead Moon’s signature lo-fi/mono aesthetic by recording in a real studio with a producer. Improved sonics aside, Straight To the Heart is aimed directly at faithful D.M. fans, notably the grinding, malevolent anti-war screed “Guns Of Thunder,” punk thrasher “Walking Wounded” (featuring a nice Fred-Toody vocal duet), a thunderous romp through Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” and a bluesy slab of alienation (one of Fred’s favorite song topics) rock called “C-U.” Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Cole.
For their second album, the just-issued Descending Shadows, Pierced Arrows inked a deal with über-tastemaker Vice Records. Wisely, the Coles and Haliburton don’t fuck with their established formula too much, either; in a mere 11 tracks, the band plows forth with such feral viscosity and velocity that you’re left clutching your chest when the record’s done.
In classic Fred Cole form, the album opens with a manifesto-like anthem, “This Is the Day,” a churning slab of sinewy guitars and rhythm section thud that finds the singer bemoaning all the ugliness he’s seen — and spawned — in the past and trying to find the inner strength to rise above from this point onward: “If only I could change the way I’ve become through all these years/ I wouldn’t be watching you holding back your tears.” The creepy, noirish “Buried Alive” comes next, Fred chronicling a modern-life-is-suffocating-me viewpoint via a science-gone-terribly-wrong metaphor. That’s followed a few tracks later by the even more horrific “Paranoia” that utilizes metronomic bass, abrasive, serrated swipes of guitar, and appropriately unhinged lyric images of “creaking floors,” “evil in the night” and “the sound of blades just before they carve.” And “On the Move” finds the Coles, against a thick backdrop of dark riffage, swapping vocal lines about an impending apocalypse (literal, mental or perhaps both) that’s propelling the two protagonists to flee ahead of the coming storm.
Fred Cole has been compared in the past to Love’s Arthur Lee, and sometimes to Roky Erickson as well, but on this album he sounds uncannily like a cross between late vocal greats Bon Scott and Alex Harvey, moaning and gurgling and blustering and spitting into the mic as if through clenched teeth while reeling from a significant flesh wound. Animalistic, by any measure.
Too, like a radically minimalist AC/DC, the band locks into some of the most primal grooves imaginable, Toody and Halliburton adopting a no-frills approach that’s propulsive yet steady, and this economy of motion additionally frees Fred to unleash a heady mixture of steel-lined riffs alongside psychedelic sound effects. There’s even an unexpected foray into British punk territory, “Zip My Lip,” that has Toody adopting a Johnny Rotten-like sneer as Fred deploys proto-metal buzzsaw licks to great effect.
The net result is a set of tunes simultaneously spilling forth on a chaotic veneer of sonics while remaining powerfully and purposefully focused.
In its time, Dead Moon became a Northwest institution, based out of Clackamas, Oregon, and amassing a core rabid fanbase that extended to pockets all across the U.S. and, in particular, Europe. From 1987-2006 the band issued 15 albums (plus the Sub Pop compilation), many of them on their own Tombstone label — official motto for their lo-fi aesthetic: “music too tough to die” — and pressed in glorious mono courtesy Fred’s vintage mono lathe.
Fred’s musical roots, likewise, extended to an earlier era: as a member of Las Vegas teenbeat combo the Weeds and later the Portland-based Lollipop Shoppe, he’d enjoyed some chart success in the ‘60s, notably with the latter’s hit single “You Must Be a Witch.” By 1976 he was fronting a hi-octane punk combo called The Rats, the first in what would a succession of bands featuring Toody (whom he married in ’67) on bass. Dead Moon was the charm, however, and while the band never sold records by the truckload it still built up a huge stockpile of indie cred during its tenure, with fellow NW bands like the Wipers, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam singing the group’s praises. Pearl Jam has frequently covered Dead Moon songs in concert, while singer Eddie Vedder recently composed an endorsement of the Coles for Spinner.com that reads, in part, “In a day and age when authenticity is harder to come by than an honest Republican, legends Fred and Toody Cole deliver on every record and at every show… [They] epitomize the true potential and pure meaning of straight-no-chaser rock ‘n’ roll. Not just righteous, but right.”
Toody and Fred had offered a telling anecdote when I interviewed them in 2006 that illustrates the authenticity and purity Vedder’s suggesting. They were touring Europe at a point in the early ‘90s which coincided with the overseas press going ga-ga for anything remotely Sub Pop-related or Northwest-based. Melody Maker wanted to come over and do a cover story on the band — but on the record label’s dime. Fred, smelling payola, flatly refused, saying, “If they think we’re such hot shit, fine. They can come over here [on their own] and I’ll talk to them.” As Toody explained, “Fred wanted to know that he did it on his own.”
Remembering that part of our earlier conversation now, I can’t help but wondering how on earth Pierced Arrows wound up on Vice, hipster haven to such acts as Chromeo, the Raveonettes, King Khan & the Shrines and, most notoriously, the Black Lips. For 2008’s Straight to the Heart, the Coles self-released, but for the followup, the decision was made to shop for a label. The timing was apt, as around the same time the Arrows toured with the Black Lips.
“That’s how we ended up dealing with Vice,” explains Toody. “We were thinking about asking around, and Sub Pop’s docket was completely full, so we said, well, let’s give Vice a shot and see what happens. We sat down with them to talk about licensing Descending Shadows and they had ideas about promotion, etcetera, so we told them we’d be willing to do that within reason. It’s something we need to do on our part to support all the work they’ve put in, and so far it’s been a really great experience.” She adds that they’re scheduled to do a split single with the Black Lips and that Vice will be flying the band out in April to record it in a New York studio.
Working with a high profile record label isn’t the only thing the Coles are doing differently this time around. Whereas most Dead Moon records were self-recorded and -produced, for both Pierced Arrows albums they’ve opted to record in professional Portland facilities (Straight to the Heart was even done digitally). The yield thus far has been a far more expansive sound and boasting greater clarity than the signature Dead Moon lo-fi aesthetic — although true to habit, Fred Cole still cuts the vinyl masters with his mono lathe.
Of the decision to work with outside producers, Toody says, “I think we’ve gotten more comfortable in the studio, and also at this point Fred’s [hearing] has gotten so bad that he realized that he can’t record and self-mix anymore; he can’t hear the frequencies anymore. Still, we’re working with first, second or third takes, so it’s also a bit of the same-old, same-old. It was a lot easier this time around and less intimidating than it used to be. And very relaxing from the fact that Fred wasn’t rattled trying to figure out, ‘Okay, which room should we use…’ and trying to roll tape and keep headphones on and play at the same time, stopping the take – it just got too ridiculous.”
Truth be told, the Pierced Arrows, though perhaps demonstrating more complexity in their arrangements than Dead Moon did (Toody also has a greater singing role in the new band), still ooze a primal ferocity that’s instantly identifiable. One detects echoes of everyone from AC/DC to the Sex Pistols to classic NW garageshock, but there’s no question you’re getting Fred Cole & Co. within the first few seconds of hearing a Pierced Arrows song. The net result is a powerfully delivered and purposefully focused sonic collision that’s as thrilling as ever.
“One of the nice things about having this new band is that you’re not so tied down to the regimen of what you’re ‘expected’ to do,” says Toody. “With Dead Moon, everything was always like, ‘It’s just this way. Don’t deviate. Nothing different.’ You know? With the Pierced Arrows, though, Fred is happy as a clam because it’s the natural direction he was leaning in anyway, but for whatever reason Dead Moon couldn’t pull it off.
“We have a whole new energy — a whole new jazz.”
I can dig it, Toody. Just don’t break up before I get to see you play this time. Cool?
The erstwhile bassist for the Go-Betweens talks about a life in music, from early days growing up in Brisbane, Australia, to his eventual career as a much-respected independent publicist.(This interview originally appears in the most excellent Dagger ‘zine.)
BY TIM HINELY
To most people Robert Vickers is known as the bass player for Australia’s late, great Go-Betweens, but as you’ll read below he’s done a lot more. The first Go-Betweens record I bought was Tallulah when it came out in 1987, and from that point I worked my way backwards and got their earlier stuff. The cover showed an arty looking bunch of folks in what looked like an old living room—guy sitting on the couch with the black hat is Robert Vickers, almost as if he’s saying “You gonna take the picture or what, dude?”
As you’ll read below, Vickers had gained some notoriety prior to the Go-Betweens when he was playing music as a resident of NYC for the first time. After leaving the Go-Betweens, following the release of Tallulah, he played with a handful of people, including the Hamish Kilgour/Lisa Siegel band The Mad Scene. I first met Rob, in fact, after booking one of that group’s shows in California in 1995. He was a great chap and happily answered all of my gushing questions that night. Since then, he’s worked in the music industry as a publicist for close to two decades, currently running independent PR firm Proxy Media. He’s a low-key guy—I’m really glad I reached out to him for this interview—who has some great stories, but you’ve got to read the interview to find them out. Take it away, sir.
BLURT: What part of Brisbane did you grow up in? VICKERS: I grew up in the Brisbane suburb of Oxley. It was unfashionably working class but not without charm as it still retained a bit of its rural past in late ‘60s early ‘70s. Ed Keupper of The Saints grew up a few streets away. A number of other bands and musicians from that period also come from the general area.
Was your family supportive of your music? Any musical siblings? My mother played the piano but that was about all the musical activity at our house. The family was very supportive but they would probably have been supportive of any path I took. I was lucky to have fairly open minded parents. My father once welded the tuning peg of my bass back on after it broke off. You can’t get much more supportive than that.
Was Brisbane an interesting place to grow up? Could you compare it to any American cities? At the time I didn’t think it was interesting. It seemed like the ends of the earth. I couldn’t wait to get out. Provincial didn’t begin to describe it. The N.M.E. took a month to arrive by sea mail. There were no restaurants. Well, maybe one or two in the center of the city but that’s it. It was a cultural desert. It’s a different place now of course. It’s become a very livable city. I’d compare it to Houston in the US; hot and humid, a cattle town. There are similarities to LA as well in that they are both hilly and car dominated with water close by.
What was the first instrument that you picked up? What bands did you listern to during your teenage years? The first band I listened to was The Beatles. Our next door neighbors had a wind up record player with steel needles and we played those early singles till they fell apart. I listened mostly to the radio, 60s and 70s top 40, everything from Johnny Horton to David Bowie. When we got a stereo I started buying Bob Dylan’s back catalog second hand. That led to wanting to play the guitar so I got an old nylon string acoustic and strummed away.
Were The Riptdes your first band? How/when did they begin? Yes, but we were called The Numbers at that time. After I finished High School I spent all of 1976 working at Woolworths and saved enough money to get out of Brisbane. I went to London and travelled around Europe and North Africa in the beginning of 77. When I got back to London I realized this musical revolution was happening and the fact that The Saints, someone from my own neighborhood was at the forefront of it was really exciting. I wanted to get in a band and be part of it but I had to decide whether to stay in London where so much was happening but I knew no-one and had no job or place to live, or go back to Brisbane where I had heard that a good friend of mine from school was in a band. I felt I had a better chance of getting something started with him so I got on a plane. The band he was in was The Numbers and I soon joined playing bass which of course I had no idea how to do. We recorded a single right away and played around Brisbane. This is where I met Robert (Forster) and Grant (McLennan) from the Go-Betweens. The Numbers single ’77 Sunset Strip’ came out around the same time as The Go-Betweens ‘Lee Remick’ and I actually took both singles around the southern states of Australia to distribute them to record stores on my vacation.
Is it true that you moved to NYC when you were 19? Were you terrified? Did you have any friends there? What was your first apartment like? I had actually turned 20 when I arrived in New York in early 1979. The Numbers had kicked me out because they didn’t think I was up to their level of musicianship. This wasn’t so bad because I was sick of Brisbane again and wanted to travel in America on my way back to London. After some interesting adventures in Guatemala and on Greyhounds across the US I ended up in New York. I wasn’t terrified; I had been in Morocco so I had some experience with dangerous places. I had a place to stay short term and planned to see something of the CBGB’s/Max’s music scene I had been reading about in the NME, then head off to London. The second night I was there I went by myself to CB’s to see the band DNA and by the end of a very long night I was in a band called The Colors and had a place to live. The apartment was a $30 a month storefront without a shower or bathtub on Rivington St just off The Bowery. This was before it was a bad drug block but still a place you had to have your guard up at all times.
Tell me about The Colors? How did they form? Did they have big fan base? I don’t think The Colors had played live before I joined them, just practiced. The guitarist Paul was technically way ahead of anyone I had even seen play before but ate nothing but Aspirin and Coke-a-Cola and listened to Eno and Kraftwerk. The singer Tommy was from the projects downtown and worshipped The Bay City Rollers. It was a strange mixture. We got a drummer from the storefront across the street and started playing. Paul and I wrote the songs and what came out was pop punk; fast, short and melodic. We developed a fan base of mostly teenage Manhattan girls. They were an interesting bunch coming from families of actors, artists, film directors, diplomats and real estate tycoons.
Did you spend a lot of time at CBGB’s and/or or Max’s Kansas City during those days? We first played at club called Tier 3 in Soho. We got a couple of shows at CBs and Max’s but then the owner of CBs, Hilly Kristal, took an interest in us. Also the drummer from Blondie, Clem Burke saw us and wanted to produce a record. So with Hilly managing us and Clem producing we soon had an indie label winning to put out a single. We then played CBs a lot and as we got free drinks there it became our second home. I went there almost every night for years and saw literally thousands of bands. As we were one of Hilly’s bands Max’s stopped booking us much but we still went there a lot. It was within walking distance so it was possible to go back and forth on the same night. CBs was a friendlier and more down home, Max’s was the remnants of the New York Dolls scene with a dash of Warhol still wafting around.
What do you remember most about NYC in those days? Downtown was pretty deserted. Not just Tribeca and Soho but even the East Village was very quiet. Not a lot of people on the streets day or night.
Had you known Grant and Robert before you joined the Go-Betweens? If so how? I was there the first night they played in public. They asked if they could play a few songs and a drummer from another band sat in with them. I think they played Lee Remick and 8 Pictures. It was pretty stunning so I had to talk to them. I saw a lot of them around that time and later Grant visited me for a wild month when I was living in New York.
How did you come to be in the Go-Betweens? They were in London at the time, right? I was playing with the Colors in New York and had brought a friend from Brisbane, Peter Milton Walsh over to play guitar in that band. The Colors were coming to an end and one day Peter said he was going to move to London to play bass with The Laughing Clowns and suggested I should contact The Go-Betweens because they might be looking for a bass player too. So I did.
I’ve seen in interviews where Robert described those years in London as being very difficult. Was it the same for you? London was tough. We were always short of money and the bleak weather didn’t help. It was a hard life living out of a suitcase for years at a time. We got away to Australia on tour which kept us going and the proximity of Europe was a plus but the living conditions in London were basic at best.
Why/when did you leave the Go-Betweens? At the end of 1987 we finished the US tour in New York and I stayed. I was worn out by five years of touring and wanted a permanent address for a while. I knew The Go-Betweens was always going to be Robert and Grant’s band, I was happy with my contribution but felt it was time to move on. It was a tough decision.
Was it after you left the Go-Betweens that you decided to move back to NYC? If so when was that? In my last year in the Go-Betweens I was essentially commuting between London and New York. Whenever we had downtime I would fly one of those cheap ‘80s airlines back to New York. The feeling in the band in 1987 was that we should move from London to Sydney for the next record. I could see the sense in that but my girlfriend was in New York and I couldn’t commute between Sydney and New York
I met you when you were with the Mad Scene. How did you join that band? I met Hamish Kilgour, the drummer of New Zealand band The Clean and he had a band in New York called The Mad Scene and it just seemed like a good fit so I joined them. We got a deal with Merge and made a couple of what I think are very good albums. It was a good experience with both the band and Merge.
In between leaving the Go-Betweens and joining Mad Scene were you still playing music? Yes, I had toured with Lloyd Cole and Yo La Tengo and done some recording with various people like Spike Priggen (Dumptruck) and Malcolm Ross (Josef K, Orange Juice). Nothing had been quite right though. The Mad Scene was more what I was looking for especially as I was getting some of my own songs done. However I may have been spoiled by having been in The Go-Betweens. Robert and Grant were extraordinary songwriters who allowed me a lot freedom in what I played. As a musician to get that kind of freedom to work on songs of that quality was unusual and unlikely to happen again. The other thing was that my songwriting output which had been quite high prior to The Go-Betweens had dropped away to very little. That was a creative problem I wasn’t sure how to solve.
How did you begin doing publicity? Did you think you’d still be doing it all these years? When I left The Go-Betweens I found that New York had become more expensive and I would have to get an actual job. The only other thing I’d done besides play in a band was travel so started to work in travel part time while still playing with various bands as I have mentioned. After about ten years of this I realized I wasn’t really interested in being a full time musician for hire and I wasn’t going to be able to support myself in an indie rock band so I decided I should work in the music industry where I had more interest and connections than I had in the travel industry. Lloyd Cole had a friend who had a label in New York called Jetset Records and he introduced us. I went to work there and just fell into doing publicity. I liked doing it so eventually I left the label and started my own company. I’ve got to help out with so many great releases over the years I’m glad I have been able to keep doing it even as the money has gradually leaked out of the music industry.
Are you playing in any bands these days? No, I haven’t for a long time. I did play with Lindy (Morrison) and Amanda (Brown) from the Go-Betweens at an awards show in Brisbane a couple of years ago so I keep my hand in, but nothing regular. I think bands are only great when everybody is fully committed and I can’t do that anymore. I was never very good at the ‘playing in five bands at once’ thing that some people do.
Do you get recognized on the streets of NYC on occasion? Only by the few friends I have left who still live in the East Village!
What are your top 10 desert island discs? The Saints – I’m Stranded
Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis
Blondie – Blondie
Sarah Vaughan – Sassy
Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – The Good Son
Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure
The Ramones – The Ramones
The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go
Any closing words/ Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
No, I think you covered it! I do want to mention that a feature length Go-Betweens documentary, Right Here, directed by Kriv Stenders [premiered] at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
With a new, self-produced album just out, the Cincy outfit aims to keep rockin’ “whether or not anyone gives a shit.” Pictured above: Zach and Andy Gabbard.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers tried things a little bit different with their eighth album. Going it alone without a producer, they holed up at their Howler Hills Farm recording studio and just let the songs roll out.
If that meant the levels were a little off or the feedback a little loud, so be it. It was going to be their record, made their way. And it’s hard to argue with the results. Alive And Well In Ohio (Alive Naturalsound Records) though very much like their earlier albums in spirit—the group’s been together since 2006—has a little more organic feel to it. There’s still that psychedelic, stoner rock vibe, with snatches of blues and pop, but the feel is a bit rawer, as well.Singer/guitarist Andy Gabbard spoke with BLURT recently about the making of Alive And Well In Ohio, flying solo in the studio and what lies ahead.
BLURT: You took a little more time than usual following up Heavy Reverie and Fireball of Sulk (both released in 2014). Was that a conscious decision?
Nope. Not a conscious decision. We just worked on one or two songs at a time. We were recording it ourselves so were learning a lot of things along the way. We wanted to keep going and make a double LP but we realized we were taking too long (laughs).
You guys recorded this at your studio on Howler Hills Farm. Was this your first time recording there? How did that experience compare to going to just a standard recording studio?
First album we’ve recorded ourselves at the studio, yes. It’s a lot different. It’s your own gear and resources, your own time, you’re not paying by the hour (laughs).
It was a different experience as far as creating our songs as well, because we could do what we wanted. Didn’t have to follow the rules. Recorded things in the red and left feedback in the song. It’s a bit more work but the final result is more satisfying.
In writing and putting together Alive And Well in Ohio, was there a specific sound or vibe you were going for?
We never have a vibe in mind. We just have the songs and we try our best to give them as much life as possible. We try to make our instruments and vocals complement each other. We always keep the take with the best energy and try and make the songs flow well throughout the entire piece.
Is it tougher working without an outside producer?
Working without a producer is a lot easier, actually. Having an outsider tell you what to do with your song kinda sucks unless it’s someone you really trust and respect. But you can learn a lot from a producer I guess?
Were you guys listening to anything in particular around the time you started working on this new one that had an influence on the record?
Nothing really had a direct influence on the music we were making. I mean, we love the Beatles. Those albums are something we listen to as inspiration on how to play and record amongst other things.
I can’t recall exactly what I was geeking out on at the time. Probably Once And Future Band or Thundercat.
What’s next for you guys?
We’re gonna play and promote this album for the rest of the year I assume. Beyond that we’re just gonna keep doing our thing. As long as the songs keep coming, we’ll keep playing and making albums whether or not anyone gives a shit (laughs).
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizzard leak their own album, "Gumboot Soup," due 4/13 on colored vinyl (ATO)!
Hear new MOON DUO cover of Suicide's "Jukebox Babe (out now on white vinyl via Sacred Bones
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Chuck Prophet, Stephanie Finch & The Mission Express - Tom Petty's The Waiting (San Francisco Oct. 6, 2017)
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Husker Du - MC5's Ramblin' Rose (Hoboken 4/11/86), from Complete Covers Collection
Blurt Video Exclusive: Twinkle Star "Wasting Life Together"/"Release Yourself"