The world seemed like it was on fire. His entire band quit on him. He was contending with being a new dad. So B.J. Barham decided he was up to the challenges—literal, existential, logistical, emotional—and created the album of a lifetime.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Last year BJ Barham, frontman for the North Carolina Americana outfit American Aquarium, was set to head out on the Lower 48 Tour – a wildly ambitious trek that would see him hitting up at least one show in every state (sans Hawaii and Alaska). And then his band quit.
Every single member. And all at once.
He understandably felt blindsided. What was the point now?
But just a few weeks after absorbing the psychological blow of having all five members of his band walk out at the same time, his wife gave him some frank advice: “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.”
And that statement become the overarching theme of Things Change, his latest record and easily, with little room for argument, his best collection of songs to date. (Amen. That goes for everyone else here at BLURT, too. – Ed.)
Oh, and he did embark on that exhaustive tour, solo, a little over a month after the dissolution of that version of American Aquarium.
Just a week before the June 1 release of Things Change, with a brand-new band and a new baby at home, Barham was kind enough to talk to Blurt, revisiting the great exodus of 2017, discussing the new record and the politics and optimism that are woven into the new music.
BLURT: I’ve been looking forward to interviewing you for a while now and thought I lost the chance when it looked like the band was broken up. So, I guess, thanks for keeping it together?
BARHAM: Ah, man, I am way too stubborn to give up.
Let’s talk about what happened with your band. You’ve said that everyone just left. Was that a surprise to you or did you see it coming?
It was a surprise because I didn’t expect it to come when it came, and it all happened at the same time. I’ve had over 30 members of this band since 2006. It’s been a lot of turnover, but I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a core of the band for the last eight years, but I’ve never made the same record with the same band back to back; every record has had either someone quit, or someone replaced, so I’m used to turnover. If it had been one person, it would have been a regular day at the office. If it had been two that would have been a little harder… but, I had five guys walk into a room and all quit. It was a mutiny aboard the ship. All the signs were there, I just ignored them. It was just general unhappiness.
We all started this band when we were in college. We wanted the same things, we wanted to tour everywhere, we wanted to play music for a living. We believed in this awesome plan, but over the course of nearly a decade people’s interests and people’s lives change and they go in different directions. What they used to be in love with they no longer care for and what they used to believe in has changed. By the end of that Wolves tour, it got to be that the show was the least important part of the day to those guys. They were worried about what they were going to do before the show or after the show. Those 90 minutes on the stage, that I still wake up in the morning for and live for, became an afterthought for them. And when they quit, I had about two or three weeks of sulking and then my wife said, “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.” And that’s one of the central themes of the record.
I went out and I got lucky. I was on the Lower 48 Tour and ran into a mutual friend from Austin and he said “Hey man, I heard about the band quitting. Can I put a band together for you?” I said, “Sure man, whatever,” and he put together just a crack band of guys that have been doing this for 10, 20 years. I fly into Texas for that first rehearsal and everyone knew every single song from start to finish. We took this thing on the road last fall as a trial run to see how we do with each other and it went gangbusters. It was amazing. We went to the studio and made a record together and things went great. (Below: the smoke-colored vinyl LP version of the album.)
This new record, the first track (“The World is on Fire”) grabs you right away. You didn’t waste any time getting in to what you wanted to discuss with this album.
Every artist says this about every new project because we’re vain immature children, but I feel like this is the best thing I have done so far. And a lot of friends who are honest with me – the ones who would tell me “this one sucks” or “good luck trying to get this one going” – everyone has been super supportive. I think creatively and musically we took a step forward with this one and I think that’s all you can ask for as an artist; make the thing that you put out better than the last thing and I think we did that this time.
As a father, “The World is on Fire” really struck a chord with me. You realize whatever is going on right now doesn’t just affect you, but your kids as well.
Exactly. That’s where that third verse really came from. That song was such a progression of 2017 for me simply because I wrote that first verse the day after the election, just anger fear and I had so many questions. I had no idea how to explain what I just watched. I put it aside because I didn’t want this record to be about fear, to be about hate because every other thing that has changed in my life since Wolves (his 2015 album) has been pretty positive so I didn’t want to write a record around this. I wrote the second verse after I had been on tour for a while and talking to people at the merch table after the shows – people from the left and the right and people who didn’t vote – and I regained a lot of faith in humanity. I realized not everyone is a bigoted, misogynistic hatemonger, but some people are in just desperate situations and the right has done nothing for them and the left has done nothing for them and they voted for a wildcard. I started to become a little more empathetic and just to listen to others instead of just pointing my finger at them and telling them why they were wrong or why they were right. I think this last election is the result, the epitome of people just wanting to be heard.
I had no chorus and two verses at this point and just sat on it for a while. During that tour me and my wife realized we were having a child and that just immediately changed my perspective. No matter how much my generation does to fuck things up, we’ve still got hope in that next generation. As long as a majority of us teach (our children) to be good, honest people we have nothing to worry about and that’s where that third verse came from. Don’t just bitch and complain about change, do something and inspire that change. Once we finished that song it was a no brainer that it would lead off the album. Some records warm you up, but this one gets it going right out of the gate.
Jason Isbell’s last record was probably his most political one so far. The same with Superchunk and just about any band that’s known for thoughtful lyrics putting out records since the last election. Was there any part of you that was nervous about alienating fans by talking about these issues?
Of course. I think anybody would be. You’re talking about alienating up to half of your audience, so you have to approach the topic intelligently; you have to approach the topic conversationally. You can’t come out and say you are all a bunch of fucking idiots. They’ll turn the radio off and throw out your records and say, “fuck that band!” But if you come at it with the attitude, “Hey man, we both love NASCAR, we both love fried chicken, we both love college football. I just want to know why you feel this way about this thing.” Letting folks know we’re the same people, we come from the same places. We disagree on this one thing, so how can we have an open dialogue about it. If anybody listens to this record and walk away thinking, “man, he’s way too political” then they’re missing the point. That first song isn’t about politics at all. It’s about finding hope in dark situations.
I don’t care what area of life you want to apply that to, but it should affect every American right now. And the third song, “Tough Folks,” if you walk away from that thinking, “Man, that’s just about his politics, he lost it,” then you’re not listening to the song. That’s a song about perseverance, hard work; that’s a song that says no matter how bad today is you can work yourself out of it. I think people from both sides should be able to get behind both of those themes that run through this record.
So, have you thought yet about how you go about introducing these songs from the stage yet?
Yeah, of course. We’ve played them live a few times and I just let everybody know this is a song about finding light in darkness, this is a song about not giving up hope, this is a song about either complaining about your situation or changing your situation. This whole record is a living tangible testament about a guy who was at rock bottom last year when my entire band quit. I could sit at home and complain about it, writing mean songs or I could pull my bootstraps up and keep this thing going and try to be positive, try to fix this fracture in our country. To a lot of people who listen to these records, politics may just be the one thing that’s different. I just want to make people aware that we may be way off base on this one thing but think of the hundred other things that we are right beside each other on.
There are a lot of mainstream country artists that aren’t speaking out and I can understand that because for the longest time I didn’t speak out because I thought people would judge me for it, but I think I’m approaching this record with almost a humble approach. We all grew up the same, I’m just trying to figure how we all grew apart. That’s the hope of this record, that people hear it and try and start a dialogue about it. Try and heal a fracture.
There does seem to be an optimistic thread that runs throughout the record. And I don’t know if that’s because you’re a new dad.
You know, I spent years of my life complaining and blaming all of my problems on other people and this record, more so than any I’ve written before, is me saying most of the problems I’ve seen in my own personal life, I’m going to take responsibility before and write just as honestly about how I’ve messed up my life just as much as I think others might have. It’s harder to take blame than to just put it on someone else. I think it’s a mix of me being married, me having a new child and me just growing up.
I just turned 34 and I’m looking at where I am now compared to where I was three years ago when we recorded Wolves. It’s night and day.
With a reunion tour under their belt and a career-spanning vinyl box set in stores, the British outfit’s is feeling righteously recharged. Let’s cast back to one memorable evening in 1990 when the BLURT editor crossed paths with them and lived to write about it. (Photos of Thee Hypnotics in Charlotte by Kerry McCaskill.)
BY FRED MILLS
About three years ago, this magazine published an exclusive interview with Ray Hanson, erstwhile guitarist for Thee Hypnotics, who blazed a memorable 1985-99 hard rock trail across their native UK as well as the US and Europe, releasing three studio albums and a live one, plus several singles and Eps, before burning out and splitting up. The occasion of our Hanson interview, which was conducted by my fellow Thee Hypnotics devotee Jonathan Levitt, was to examine the making and aftermath of what most fans still consider to be their classic LP, 1991’s Soul Glitter & Sin. At the time Hanson had plenty of work on his hands with his band the Whores of Babylon, and of course vocalist Jim Jones was working on his own projects, including the Jim Jones Revue and, later, Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind. But when asked the inevitable reunion question, Hanson certainly didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “You never know!”
As it turns out, the reunion not only became a possibility, but also a reality. Earlier this year the band commenced doing live gigs, and an official press release trumpeted the news in wonderfully florid fashion:
“Taking their cues from the Detroit militancy of The MC5, the corrupting output of The Stooges and the gospel according to The Cramps, Thee Hypnotics’ devastating brand of rock’n’roll was propelled by near punishing decibel levels and a fervour bordering on the evangelical. Blazing a devastating trail of high-octane thrills and annihilation, Thee Hypnotics occupied a bizarre hinterland that sat somewhere between the British neo-psychedelic scene of the late 80s and the detonation of garage-influenced rock from the Pacific northwest of the early 90s. Little wonder that a band that shone so bright would burn out before the end of the century.
“And now they’re back…
“For the first time in 20 years, the classic line-up of co-founders Jim Jones (vocals) and Ray Hanson (guitar), with Phil Smith (drums) and Jeremy Cottingham (bass), is set to hit the road with all the power of a Viking raiding party. Still harbouring an intense belief in assaultive rock’n’roll as liberation, and delivering their sonic payload with a savage intensity, this influential and legendary group is back to testify one more time.”
Also announced was that the members were additionally overseeing a career-spanning vinyl box set featuring all three studio albums—1990’s Come Down Heavy, the aforementioned SG&S and 1993’s Chris Robinson-produced The Very Crystal Speed Machine—plus a bonus rarities album, In A Trance (Thee Early Daze 86-89). Immaculately designed, the 4LP box, Righteously Re-Charged, released by Beggars Arkive, ably provides snapshots of the group’s every stage, from humble indie beginnings as a Motor City-fixated outfit with a fetish for leather jackets, aviator shades, and tight pants, to widescreen rockers on a cinematic, noirish trip, to full-bore, druggy Seventies worshipers. Nary a dull moment, either, for while charting a steady (and impressive) musical evolution, the box also vividly displays songwriting chops and attitudinal swagger that, for its time, was well outside the British norm. No happy Mondays for these lads; every night’s a 2AM Saturday.
The 12-page booklet is the perfect listening companion, too, stuffed to the gills with rare photos, a new interview and a pair of impressionistic essays—and, I’m not so humble as to not mention, Mr. Levitt’s BLURT interview with Hanson (yours truly is also given thanks from the band, but all I did was edit and publish, it’s all Jonathan and Ray, so thanks to both of you, gents). Oh, and the LPs are all on different colors of vinyl: purple, red, white, and clear. Nice touch, that.
Below, watch the trailer for the documentary film about the band that drummer Phil Smith has assembled.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to resurrect an article from deep in my archives, a 1990 profile/interview of the band originally published in the late fall of that year in The Bob magazine and titled half men, half boys (all beasts) in a (somewhat) clever nod to a Thee Hypnotics songtitle. I was living in Charlotte, NC, in 1990 and that spring the band came through town with then-labelmates Tad; their LP debut actually was prior to Come Down Heavy, the part-live album Live’r Than God, which in the US was released by Sub Pop. I was already a fan, having been gifted a copy of their first single by a female friend (Cindy, if you’re out there, I still owe you a big thank-you) who’d traveled to England recently and knew the band’s manager, Steve Langdon. I had also been gifted a demo tape of the band and subsequently reviewed the single in The Bob, making sure Langdon got a copy, and when I had learned they would in fact be coming to Charlotte, I quickly set up an interview through the manager.
Indeed, upon meeting me at soundcheck the afternoon of the show, I was greeted like an old friend—I’m pretty sure I was one of the first American journalists to write about Thee Hypnotics—and the first question after the handshakes was, “Where can we get some liquor?” I promptly got in the van with Langdon and we headed off to the store to round up plenty of refreshments. During the ride London played me a tape of some rough studio mixes to get me revved up for the show.
Later that evening, following a hilarious dinner with the Tad guys and incendiary sets from both groups, I settled down in their dressing room to, ahem, help them go through a few bottles of Jack Daniels and ostensibly conduct an interview. Jones, though, decided instead to run off with a mysterious young lady, so Hanson and bassist Will Pepper opted to head out with me to a nearby all-night diner for some grub and convo.
As I was somewhat worse for the wear in the wake of the booze, the interview went about as well as might be expected, something I learned the next morning when I played back portions of the interview cassette. Clearly the two musicians had been more than generous with their time and tolerant of their de facto host; put another way, it was definitely not the most insightful (or lucid) interview I’d done. But I was determined to make lemons out of lemonade, not to mention live up to my promise of getting the band some U.S. ink, so I went ahead filed the following text and even admitted to my general lack of professionalism in the story. Read on—but consider yourself duly warned.
Thee Hypnotics—The Bob Interview (1990)
Or, how to salvage an interview in several E-Z steps.
Back in March, Sub Pop sent Thee Hypnotics around on tour with Tad, in support of their Live’r Than God! album. The English band had already signed to Beggars Banquet Records for their next album, so this initial American jaunt was merely to lay some groundwork for subsequent headlining tours.
The March 29 show in Charlotte left me, as the saying goes, completely blown away by the sheer hard rock power the band evinced and the total energy transfer that took place between band and audience. Seemingly not caring that there were only around 50 people at the show (despite having among their fanbase the likes of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, they were not in any way well-known yet in the States), Thee Hypnotics throttled the stage for nearly an hour, the rhythm section setting in motion a nonstop, malevolent, grunting rumble, while the guitarist peeled off screams of wah-wah, distortion, and feedback amid fat power-chord chunkage.
Three of the guys, I might add, were decked out in vintage rock star garb: boots, purple flares, crushed velvet jackets—a direct lineage to Your Satanic Majesty or Mr. Hendrix. The singer opted for a different but no less striking form of cool: a polka-dot shirt later discarded to reveal his John Lee Hooker teeshirt underneath.
And he howled like the delta bluesman himself, possessed of low-down tremblin’ shakes and knowing that his deal with the devil was soon to come to term. He stamped the mic stand in fury, dropped to his knees out of sheer desperation, rolled around near the edge, then leaped back up in time for the final chorus. Consummate professionals, they were; and if you hear someone making those Stooges comparisons, don’t necessary ignore or deplore, because the Detroit Rock City sound has been reborn but its reputation has in no way been sullied.
Now, before the gig, manager Steve Langdon requested directions to the local liquor store, so I hopped in the tour van and duly directed. While he was in the store I remained in the van listening to some mighty potent rough mixes of some forthcoming music. This was the beginning of my downfall, and it wouldn’t help that the gig itself would be so overwhelming; already primed beforehand with this secret sonic knowledge, indulgence mode kicked in and I would indeed indulge over the course of the evening. Cue up decibels, several cups of wine during the show, and numerous swigs from the band’s Jack Daniels bottle afterward.
Memo to fellow writers: ALWAYS DO YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFORE THE GIGS. Just before Lester Bangs could pull off drinking like a fish prior to the interview does not mean you can do likewise and conduct your interview following the show. You may, of course, wind up with a few good quotes. But it’s definitely a crapshoot—as we shall soon learn. But first, an introduction.
Thee Hypnotics formed around ’87 in High Wycombe, north of London. The initial lineup of Jim Jones (vocals), Ray “Sonic” Hanson (guitars), Chris Dennis (bass), and mark Thompson (drums) recorded a demo which led to going into the studio with producer Dave Goodman, of Sex Pistols infamy, for their first single, “Love in a Different Vein” b/w “Al Night Long” (Hipsville Records). By ’88 they’d toured the UK with Spacemen 3, Zodiac Mindwarp, the Damned, and others, and slowly began getting noticed for their singular brand of ooogah.
Signing with Situation Two Records, Thee Hypnotics picked up a new bassist, Will Pepper, then in ’89 released a 12-inch single (“Justice in Freedom,” “Preachin’ & Ramblin’,” “Choose My Own Way”) as well as the mini-album Live’r Than God! The US Sub Pop version, a compilation of studio tracks plus four-fifths of the British Live’r, came out several months later.
This year, 1990, saw the recording of new Thee Hypnotics material, and a new drummer, Phil Smith (ex-Bambi Slam), signed up as well. The tape I heard in the tour van had undergone severe remixing, and interestingly enough, some months later when I heard the resulting CD, I noticed that it was produced by the band and Dave Garland but omitted the sleeve info on the LP version regarding Seattle’s Jack Endino’s hand in the mixing. Regardless, word has it that Come Down Heavy is getting the proverbial “big push” from Beggars Banquet/RCA in the United States.
Now, let’s find out how badly yours truly can conduct an interview at 1:30 in the morning.
Along with a couple of friends, one of them my photographer, escort Pepper and Hanson to an all-night eatery. The singer has long since disappeared with a lady in black, while the drummer and manager have retired to the hotel to rest up for the early-AM drive that looms in just a few hours. We sit down in a booth and glance around at various cops, prostitutes, and winos. We feel completely at home (at least I do; Will and Ray haven’t rendered judgment just yet).
The conversation begins with a discussion of grilled cheese sandwiches, alcohol consumption, and fellow Brit Nikki Sudden, who had also appeared in Charlotte recently and who’d also shared a bottle or two with this writer. (Before you ask: Yes, I did the interview at soundcheck, not after the show.)
Will: He just wants to live his life like Nick Cave. Ray: And Johnny Thunders… Will: I know he worships Nick Cave. I’ve heard his records and I know what he’s getting at, but he’s not quite good enough yet.
A waitress comes up and eyes our group suspiciously. Your journalist is obviously the worst for the wear after scamming so much of the band’s bottles. Only after the coffee arrives does any semblance of non-mushmouthed interview technique emerge from me, and the musicians may actually still be wondering when the interview is going to begin and the blather is going to end.
Me (pointing at Live’r Than God!): So what’s all this psychedelic shit, is it English or American, this record sleeve?
Will: That’s Sub Pop that did it. The English one’s okay. That’s out of date anyway.
Me: Here’s an early tape of the band, what about these songs? You’ve got one called “Resurrection Joe” but The Cult have that already…
Will (scrutinizing the track listing): “Astral Rising,” we haven’t played that for years! What the fuck is “The Blues”? “Snake Charmer Girl”… “Soul Trader”… “Resurrection Joe”… Ours is so much better than The Cult’s. Theirs is sort of like a hip-hop thing. These songs weren’t produced or engineered, they were just taped straight for demos.
Ray: “The Blues,” I don’t know what that is either, must be from a lie gig. How the fuck did this get to you?
Me (brandishing the 45 and the tape): This record actually made me come in my pants. If nothing else, anybody that puts [a photo of] the Black Panthers on the back of the record sleeve, since I was actually around in those days, is definitely a band kicking butt and it makes major points with me.
Will: Huey Newton got shot awhile back, didn’t he?
Me: See, back then, I was getting my first dose of cultural consciousness [outside my white Southern boy upbringing], and I was reading Newton’s book too. What was going on? Later, though, something went wrong, and including the music—it took a wrong turn. So are you guys trying to correct that? Because as far as tonight was concerned, I saw “it” happening all over again in the music.
Will: The music or the politics? The music, definitely, yeah. The political thing, well, it’s a different scene these days, isn’t it?
Ray: Very realistically, all we can offer from that time is the music. We can’t offer anything else. It would be contrived. You can’t be political. A lot of bands would like to think they are political, but they haven’t got any control, they haven’t got any power, they’ve got nothing, and it’s pointless. Unless their music is good and powerful. Because there’s too many of those bands. You can only take rock music so far. It can’t change the world and all that shit. It can maybe provoke a few people.
Will: Have a go at it, though. I guess they can raise a bit of cash here and there, like for Live Aid. In England, when Live Aid was done, I always wondered why Bob Geldof was walking around in a bad mood all the time. Apparently they did the show—I don’t know how much money they made, but as an example, say ten million—and the government says, “You’ve made ten million there. We’ve given some already.” So they taxed them on that ten million, kept seven million for the government. A lot of that money never reached where it was meant to reach. It’s a crooked world.
I guess in the ‘60s it seemed really crooked, racism and all that. But it’s still crooked these days, isn’t it, with different… Maybe that’s not a main issue. There’s other things that have taken over the issues, but there are still very crooked things. I don’t know if the money [from benefits] reaches the places. We did one Miners gig once, and we did a Communist festival thing in Italy.
Ray: For the Italian thing, it didn’t raise any consciousness. It was a gig in the name of the Communist Party. But nobody noticed that. They would have come to see us whether we were aligned with that cause or not. Those people that believe music can change the world—it can move people, but it can’t change people’s ways of thinking. People have tried it and failed.
Will: People are separated from each other. They can’t come together and fight against it. They think, “The neighbor’s not doing it, so I’m not gonna bother.” And the neighbor next door’s thinking, “He’s not gonna do it so I’m not gonna bother.”
Ray: It’s exactly what’s going on in England at this very moment. They’ve introduced a Poll Tax. It’s a very different form of taxation for British people. They’ve been going for 50 years with this normal tax, and suddenly this has been introduced. What it basically does is make the rich better off and the poor poorer.
Will: People are in an uproar about it! They are demonstrating in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But they’ll never get anything done, because when they get home from the demonstration they’ll wonder what the neighbors are doing. And the neighbors are so uptight, just like them, and they’re gonna pay this Poll Tax whether it affects them or not. Ran and I, all of us in the band, we were on the dole when we were in Wickham. We were getting like 800 pounds a year from the dole people. And now most of that has to be paid in Poll Tax. It’s a flat rate thing. England used to be quite socialist, you know, you’d pay to your means. This is different, like 400 pounds a year.
Ray: The rich pay their 400 pounds, and their wage is so much higher that the percentage of the tax on that would have been quite a lot compared to the flat rate that they’ve been paying now. So they’re thinking, “Ah! We’re only paying 400 a year, that’s better than 1,000 a year or more.” And the poor, they have to pay 400 as well, the same rate, and they have to take it out of their dole checks, their welfare. A flat rate at the end of the year.
Me (apparently not completely grasping the issue): So how hard is it going to hit you? You’re going from being on an independent [label] to being on a major, Beggars Banquet/RCA.
Will: We’re still broke. RCA, it’s not like we’re signing a piece of paper that says, “Bring us some money.”
Me: Let me ask you at least one proper journalistic question for the evening. The whole Loop/Walkingseeds/Spacemen 3/Crazyhead etc.—current British stuff—and you guys came out at about the same time. Are there connections? Or is it just the English press hype lumping bands together into this post-psychedelic bandwagon?
Ray: I think it all happened at the same time. It is press hype. Everyone’s from different parts of the country anyway.
Will: Let’s just say that the only time I heard of the Walkingseeds was once, when they supported us; and twice, when they were mentioned in one of our reviews.
Me: In a review I read that you once did “Rollercoaster” like Spacemen 3. What did you think of that band, the drug thing? Sonic Boom is legendary for his heroin and methadone exploits.
Will: That review was a mistake. Edwin Pouncey’s review, yeah. That was our first national press review. At Riverside. When Jim should’ve got his cock out. Our first review, with Spacemen 3, and it was a total slag-off. Edwin loves us now. We sent him a copy of “Justice In Freedom” and he liked it, decided he was gonna patronize us. And he did! Apparently he’s quite cool; he does the artwork for Sonic Youth, album covers and everything [as Savage Pencil].
Pete—you know, Sonic Boom—he’s the typical classical only-child sort of public-education kid. You can’t do anything legendary with someone who’s not a legend! He couldn’t be a legend in a million years! He’s just so lifeless, so fucking flat.
Me (laughing): Hey, I paid 20 bucks for his Spectrum album when it came out, just so I could look at the little pinwheel. And I paid 18 bucks for the CD version of Live’r Than God! just to get that one extra live track not on the American LP. (lapsing into a digression) Most of the stuff I get sent for free goes straight to the Record Exchange so I can buy the stuff I really want—you get all these folks calling you up to write about a bunch of bands when, really, you just want to be left alone to listen to and write about the bands you’re willing to pay money for, like Thee Hypnotics.
So, do you guys listen to much recent music?
Will: Tad! Sonic Youth, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Birthday Party.
Me: Flaming Lips?
Will: Oh yeah! They did a cover tune on that Neil Young [tribute album], The Bridge. That was cool.
Me: First time the Lips played here in Charlotte, at the very last minute, the very final chord played, the power went off in the club. It was like the hand of God reached down and cut them off.
Will: It wasn’t the hand of God, it was just bad fucking electricians. Bad connectors. I mean, really…
Me: Hey, I’m from the Bible Belt. I believe in this stuff!
(At this point the conversation turns to the quality of the meal just finished and the out-of-order cigarette machine that is causing much consternation among the musicians. The writer, sensing that the time is right to get his records autographed while the musicians’ senses are “heightened,” produces his Thee Hypnotics collection.)
Me: I just happen to have one of those rock star silver ink pens you see at record signing parties and in-stores…
Ray: I just happen to be able to write in English. Where can we get some cigarettes?
Me: Probably back at the hotel.
Will: So we should go on and do the interview, then?
Me: That was it.
And at this point Ray and Will sort of rolled their eyes, then went outside to pose for photos next to a police cruiser, and we bade them farewell, Upon waking the next morning, the writer played back portions of the “interview” and decided that it would be prudent, in the future, to avoid consuming quite so much of a band’s liquor-of-choice—at least prior to conducting an interview. You never know if you’ll get another chance at it, especially if (a) the band breaks up; (b) someone in the band dies; (c) you die; or (d) most likely option, that the band figures you’re a complete drunken idiot and steers clear of you in the future.
But rest assured that this publication remains a supporter of Thee Hypnotics, regardless of any of its writers’ personal shortcomings.
Below: A pair of Thee Hypnotics, plus the writer and unnamed friend. Yes, I know what he’s laughing about.
As the band marks their thirtieth anniversary, Posies principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a long look back. (Photos by Dot Pierson)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s no exaggeration to label the Posies as the quintessential power pop band. Over the course of their three-decade career, both as a band and as the mother ship for a series of solo albums procured by its two principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the group has created a sound brimming with effusive hooks, flawless harmonies, adroit execution, and the kind of ringing melodies tailor made to leave an everlasting impression. While fans have absorbed and admired the sounds that resulted, sadly the wider world has yet to take notice. Chalk it up to a series of setbacks — a shifting series of record label affiliations, changes within the band’s line-up, and what Stringfellow sees as the lack of a distinct public persona.
“We discovered that a band with two singers was hard to get their heads around,” Stringfellow says. “It’s easier if you have one Axel Rose doing crazy stuff, and you can point the finger at him and make him the focal point. People were thinking, let’s focus in on Ken Stringfellow, or let’s focus in on Jon Auer. It was hard for them to think, let’s focus in on these two guys for whatever reason. We’re not the easiest thing to describe.”
Yet, at the same time, Stringfellow tends to blame the band itself for its lack of wider recognition.
“We were diverted into other realms,” he admits. “I don’t think we had as much faith in ourselves as we should have. We gave up too soon in many ways. That initial breakup in 1998…Anybody can say if I had to do things over again, I’d do it differently. I could say I should have been more mature at an earlier age, because of course I wasn’t. I had the tools that I had and did the best I could with them. Record to record, we had different line-ups and slight variations in the sound, and with all the different projects I’ve been involved with, we are hard to get a bead on. If we were a metal band, it would be so easy. Here’s a metal band, they play metal. They play metal festivals, they play metal festivals…the marketing is done. With us, we’re a very melodic rock band, but in that sense, so is Boston and so is Coldplay.”
Such is speculation of course, but now, as the band celebrates their 30th anniversary, they are getting a second chance of sorts to bring their music full circle and remind both fans and those unawares of the great music that the Posies made out over the years. The campaign is set to start with the reissues of three seminal albums originally released on Geffen imprint DGC — Frosting on the Beater, Dear 23 and Amazing Disgrace, each replete with what Stringfellow refers to as a “shit ton of bonus tracks.” In addition, the band is about to launch an extensive tour that will feature the original band responsible for the Frosting on the Beater album — Auer, Stringfellow, drummer Mike Musberger, and bassist Dave Fox. It amounts to a full-scale reunion of the band’s seminal line-up, and one in which the two principals are eager and excited to unveil.
Blurt spoke with Auer and Stringfellow from their base in Seattle only a few days before the tour was set to get underway. (Tour dates can be viewed at the Posies.net website.) Both men were clearly filled with anticipation and delighted at the prospects of revisiting the Posies’ earlier glories.
BLURT: For starters, tell us about the plans you have in store to mark this auspicious anniversary.
KEN STRINGFELLOW: We’ll be hitting the road with the vintage line-up and playing a retrospective collection of music from all parts of our catalog. Plus, our catalog is being given a sonic upgrade and made available again. Our releases have been only spottily available in recent years. Many of our CDs are out of print and the vinyl is long out of print as well, so it’s nice that the music is getting a renewed focus and be in a place where people can come to it and actually hear it properly…even better than in its original sonic glory.
JON AUER: We’re putting some effort into — I don’t want to say, “capitalize” because I don’t like that word. It sounds too commercial and it doesn’t sit well with me — but I think what is interesting is that organically, what’s occurring with the reissues has completely coincided with the fact that legitimately, some people are actually celebrating the 30th anniversary of our band. To be honest, there were some delays in trying to get those reissues ready for public consumption, and there were some business-related issues with the old labels we had to deal with and with new labels anxious to get involved. So I think that there’s some cosmic kismet going on here… without getting too hokey about it. It does feel like good things have converged at this moment in time for us. It’s also interesting that there are a lot of younger music fans, fans of music of the ‘90s, who are looking at us now. It’s kind of come full circle. On the last couple of tours that we’ve done, we’ve noticed that there are younger fans coming out…people in their late teens and early twenties. I’m amazed by it, and super happy about it. Of course we love all our fans, but it’s nice when you’ve been around as long as we have to have people that didn’t know you the first time around and now, because they’ve discovered the music, they’re making an effort to come out and see us. They’re very vocal about it.
BLURT: Do you have the rights to the earlier releases? Or did you have to purchase the masters? KS:They kept the music in print for awhile, but as we moved away from the physical era, it became harder to find. Universal still owns the rights, but Omnivore leases the albums from Universal.
JA: We left it to Omnivore because they have the relationship with Universal. It was a little challenging at times because, obviously, we’re not the biggest fish in the pond. We had to generate some money upfront in terms of licensing, and that’s why we did a PledgeMusic campaign. That’s fair enough, but even before we sold a copy, the company wants to get paid for the licensing on all the physical product. We’re not doing this to make a bunch of extra money. We’re doing this to put these records out again in this great format.
BLURT:What’s the timing for the re-releases to come out?
KS: Dear 23 which was originally released in 1990, and it‘s coming next month. Frosting on the Beater, which was released in 1993, will come out in August. And Amazing Disgrace, which originally came out in 1996, is coming at the end of September.
BLURT:That’s three of eight albums. What about the others?
Our first album, Failure, was rereleased a few years ago. That’s still around and they did a great job with that. (Read the review HERE and listen to a track from the album HERE.) Then there’s Success. That album has its 20th anniversary this year, so there’s been some talk of getting that one out again as well. That one we do have the rights to. The next two on Rykodisc, Every Kind of Light and Blood Candy (reviewed HERE) are out of print amazingly enough. I’d like to see those two made available, but that might take awhile. Originally, we thought this would follow right on the heels of the Failure rerelease which we did in 2014. But here we are in 2018 and timed to our 30th anniversary, so I guess that was kismet right there. (Read the review of 2016 album Solid States HERE.)
BLURT: After the box set a few years ago, and the bonus tracks added to Failure, will you be completely exhausting the archives at this point?
KS: At this point, we’ve put out everything that’s interesting and worth listening to. Most of the stuff you’re going to get on these re-releases was not on the box set that came out in 2000. We found way more stuff. We were a little more organized this time around, so it’s incredible how much stuff there is. It’s probably six CDs of album material worth of non-album material from three albums. It’s kind of crazy. We were very prolific in those days, especially when we made Failure and re-released it as a cassette and quickly found Rick Roberts and Mike Musberger to join the band. We were just starting to play live as a full band. We didn’t really tour for Failure, just a couple of West Coast runs, and we were all living in the same house. So we were really cranking out tunes because we had a lot of time. We were doing the band full time, and touring wasn’t taking up all that much time yet. It took a year to make Frosting on the Beater, so during that time we were writing a lot of songs. We eventually got a little more efficient and started touring more, but it’s funny how much less prolific we became at that point.
BLURT: Were you amazed at what you were discovering when you checked out some of this stuff for the first time in so many years? Did it kind of make your jaw drop in amazement?
JA: There were moments when the proverbial dropping of the jaw did occur. What was most interesting was that sometimes you recognize these things differently with that much distance from it. Not hearing something for awhile, and then going back and actually hearing it from the source is almost like looking at old pictures of yourself and going, “That’s how I looked?” So now it’s, “That’s how we sounded?” We have enough distance on them now that it’s almost like listening to somebody else sometimes. I was so pleasantly surprised and pleased that we wouldn’t simply have to repackage the stuff we already put out to have the excuse to make these reissues. There is stuff here that was released before, but half of it is stuff bootleggers have, but no one’s ever heard it with this quality. Even the bootleggers don’t have what we found. It feels good that we’re putting this stuff out. We’re putting the final touches on the masters of the bonus tracks for Frosting on the Beater, like literally right now. The liner notes are done. There are 27 bonus tracks. There’s great photos. There are liner notes from Ken and me. It all coalesces. It’s a pretty amazing package. It’s got the attention to quality that a label like Omnivore puts into their releases. They really know what they’re doing and they’re really easy to work with. We love those guys.
When does the tour kick off?
KS: We’re taking the Frosting line-up of Jon, myself, Mike Musberger on drums and Dave Fox on bass and we’re starting in Victoria Canada and working our way around in a big circle and before we end up back up in the northwest in early July at a show in Seattle on July 7. Then we’ll be playing some festivals in Europe around Labor Day weekend and we’ll be doing a European club tour that starts in Barcelona on September 29 and wraps up in Sweden around November 6.
BLURT: Are you looking forward to going out again?
JA: In 2016, we were on the road for 4 1/2 months, and though we won’t be out as much this year, playing with the guys from the Frosting on the Beater band is one of our peaks. That was a live band that had a great chemistry and we were on fire that point. Everything was falling into place anyway. I’m not a nostalgic trip kind of guy, but I can’t help but feel look back at that era with a great deal of pride. I’m also looking forward to hanging out with these guys. Musberger is a drummer’s drummer. Talk about jaw dropping.
BLURT:Are you thinking that with the 30th anniversary, this is an opportune time to wake people up to the fact that the Posies remain vital and active, and maybe stir some interest with folks that didn’t give you the recognition the first time around? Is that part of the strategy, this reintroduction?
KS: I don’t know how much new audience we’re going to get. It would take a sympathetic journalist such as yourself to talk about it and say now is the time, especially if you’ve never heard this band before. You have no more excuses because here is the classic music. It’s a valid point. I feel that even the people that loved the music can now here it the way it was meant to be heard. I hate to admit it, but the Dear 23 CDs of 1990 just did not sound very good. The math was still being worked out on how to transfer audio to digital. If you liked that record and loved all the songs, you wouldn’t have realized how good they sounded until now, because the original tape masters are a lot more flattering than the CDs that were released at that time.
BLURT: Hopefully this campaign will make a lot of people sit up and take notice. KS: I feel that we came up at a time when screaming was more in fashion. The things we do with the harmonics in our vocals are really cool, and I don’t think that anybody else really does that kind of thing. There are other melodic bands that are great, but the concept of the Everly Brothers fronting an indie band is kind of a strange idea and a unique one, and I hope that people will still enjoy it.
BLURT: It does seem like this is really a new beginning for you guys. An opportunity to pull it all together to remake and remodel.
JA: We’re a band that’s rested on the laurels of our classic records, and there has been a lot of quality as a result of the way we’ve challenged ourselves. But to be able to take stock of it now and have the timing work out the way it did is invigorating in a way. So I think this will set the stage for something new after this period.
BLURT: Is there any talk about going back into the studio and making some new Posies music?
JA: There’s talk and I’m sure it will happen at some point. We’re focusing on the matters at hand, but especially after doing the last record, it’s totally viable that we will do some new stuff. It’s not just about celebrating this anniversary. However, I feel it is invigorating and we might still have some good records left in us. We’ve lost some band mates along the way so that’s not lost on us either. We’re not going to be around forever, so we should do it while we can.
BLURT: What’s the status of your solo projects these days?
KS: I’ve been involved with a lot of genre explorations. I did a country record with Holly Munoz a few years ago and I did something with the Disciplines which was kind of like a garage band sort of thing. My solo records have all different flavors. My last solo album is several years old now, so between the country record, the last Disciplines record, the retrospective tour and these reissues, I’d like to get another album out sooner rather than later. It kind of seems like I haven’t left a lot of space for the solo thing. Who knows?
JA: I’m always working on things other than Posies projects, as is Ken. I’m currently working on three or four projects for other people, although now that I’m on the road, they’re going to get some last minute mixes. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a record of mine called Songs from the Year of Our Demise, but that was a record that did a lot for me and a lot of other people really enjoyed it. It was a very personal record. I play nearly everything on it. I tried very hard and I put a lot of work into it. I had a project in the last couple of years called 6 1/2 and though it was really left of center of the Posies, it was also more of a collaboration too in the sense that it was really unexpected. The Posies was the first band for all of us, so it was the one that got us to where we wanted to go, or close to where we wanted to go. But at the same time, there’s so much longevity in this group that when we do things outside it, where it might have hurt us before, now it only helps us and it informs it, and it also allows us to do things on our own which is just as important, especially when you have a long-term relationship. You have to keep things fresh and exciting. You have to try to do other things besides the norm, the things you’ve always done. It’s important.
BLURT: So how do you rate the importance of doing your own things? Is it of equal stature, or do you see them simply as side ventures?
JA: I’m a Libra, so not to get all cosmic and stuff, I do listen to other people’s opinion a lot. But it’s like trying to pick your favorite song. They’re different things. The majority of people were introduced to us via the Posies. There’s an attachment there — it’s also about where people were when they heard certain records, when they turned 21, when they first heard Frost on the Beater, or they got married to Dear 23…those are formative memories and I can see how people want to remember us like that. But I’ve had people who have never heard the Posies who have heard my solo records and Ken has people like that. There are people who were introduced to the Posies through his work. And there are people who know my work as well. It really depends when you joined the conversation. At this point, I wouldn’t want to just do the Posies, that’s for sure.
BLURT:It would make sense that you really have to focus on the Posies at this point, no? KS:I kind of agree. I feel like we had some really good momentum going on with the last tours we did in 2016 and had a great vibe. So it makes sense to kind of carry on and make more music. It’s kind of got it all in a sense. The solo thing I do corners certain areas. Usually when I play, it’s solo and it’s quiet and intense, but here we can do duo tours where we get down and really quiet, or we can do these rock band tours, so it kind of covers all the bases that I would do in my solo work and more, so I’m intent on sticking with it. It’s a good brand.
JA: If people just want the Posies, they can always have that. I do think that what occurs outside of it is quality as well. I do understand that there’s special about the Posies and it’s based on the relationship of me and Ken. But when add something to this relationship, it seems to work. I don’t think that whatever we do outside of it isn’t special as well. As an example, there are things on various Posies records that I didn’t play on and things that Ken didn’t play on and people still think it’s the Posies. It might be my demo and it’s all me. And there are other songs where I didn’t play one note! People come up and say, “Oh, what gorgeous harmonies, but it’s just one of us.”
BLURT: Ken, when you toured with REM and Big Star, it must have felt like you were being lured into a whole new chapter of your career, no?
KS: With REM, I couldn’t rely on something that would always be there. That was just a tour to tour thing and how they wanted to put their band together. They kept asking me back, but I didn’t have any delusions that it was a permanent thing. That was just a fascinating and wonderful opportunity to play with one of my favorite bands until they changed their minds and went in a different direction. So I spent about ten years playing with them. It was great. The Posies split that took place in 1998 was because Jon quit, and he didn’t want to do anything more. He went through some hard times and just had to figure out some stuff. So he kind if dropped out for awhile. I would have gone on with the Posies, but without him, there was no way to go forward. So when REM came along, they presented themselves right at that moment and it was the perfect segueway for me. Okay, here is the next chapter presenting itself. Here’s a chapter at Posies central closing itself. I had no choice, but it was a great recovery.
BLURT:So when you were playing with those bands, were there lessons you learned that you were able to take back to the mother ship?
KS: Yes, for sure. They were much less precious and much more spontaneous in the studio than we ever were. Considering what was at stake for them every time, that they were following up a multimillion selling album and had multimillion dollar budgets, they went the opposite way you’d expect with that kind of pressure. They kind of were wonderfully cavalier, and that’s how they had always been, and they didn’t want to start becoming more calculated. They were becoming less calculated, which I think was fantastic. Sometimes, when REM was in the studio and taking a break, we might start jamming and come up with an entirely new tune on the spot and come up with words for it, and then have an entirely new song that night. We never did anything like that in the Posies. Everything was demoed and then re-demoed, and then we’d choose our bonus tracks from all the various demos we went through for each album. Four track demos, eight track demos, and so on. But REM was never like that, so I learned that you don’t have to be so formal, even if you’re making an expensive record. Especially if you’re making an expensive record. It’s much better with the more spontaneity you put in there.
BLURT:And what is the status of Big Star?
KS: Last year we released this live recording and did a theatrical release as well. It’s an amazing concert film. (The DVD is reviewed HERE.) The performances are absolutely jaw-dropping and it’s got a great cast of musicians — Mike from REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Pat Sansone, Jeff Tweedy, the Kronos Quartet who did the strings… Big Star’s 3rd: Alive and More is the name of that. It’s amazing. (BLURT covered several of the BS3 shows: Chicago 6/28/13, and Memphis 7/5/14.)
BLURT:Any chance that group will reconvene? It must be like herding cats to pull all the players together.
KS: It’s all possible. It’s just that it’s expensive to herd those cats. It takes a minimum of a dozen people to do the show the way Chris would like to do it. It takes a special festival situation to have the cache to make that happen, regardless of attendance.
BLURT: Still, when the two of you join forces within the Posies context… that sets the bar.
JA: The only bar that we have to meet is in the songwriting department. That’s the only standard that we have to meet…whether we think the songs are up to snuff. The rest of it is just window dressing in a way — the arrangements, the production… with a good song, you can do any production on it, and it will still shine through as a good song. That’s the only standard we really adhere to, and honestly, we also have a responsibility to ourselves. It’s not just to our fans or to give the audience what they might expect. Actually, if there are people who didn’t like the direction we were taking, or didn’t think we had enough guitars on a record for example, after awhile they got into it and would appreciate the fact that we weren’t just giving them the same stuff, and that we would change and evolve. There’s something to be said for that. In answer to your question, the only thing we have to adhere to in terms of standards is that the songs are up to snuff and that they’re good songs.
KS: Even if you like at every record we’ve done, there’s no Dear 23 Part Two or Frost on the Beater Part Two. Everything we did, for better or worse, even if you were trying to judge it, we could never be accused of trying to give the people what they want. At the same time, we tried to be diverse and still be the essence of who we are. We’re songwriters and vocalists and musicians. So I think the songs and the vocals are the threads that run through all the music the Posies make. That’s really what defines us — our abilities in those departments — and we’re good musicians. We play pretty well, and we’ve had some incredible musicians in our band, lots of different ones. There’s definitely something good going on here.
JA: Can you imagine the shock people must have had when they heard a Beatles record like “Hard Day’s Night” and then got Revolver? Did the same band that did “I Want to Hold Your Hand” really come out with “Yer Blues?” Sometimes the audience has to catch up too. It’s not an insult to the audience but when there’s something you’re used to, you have to acclimate yourself to something new. It’s like that with food, a new haircut. You have to get used to new things. It’s part of human nature.
In 2010 BLURT published an extensive interview with Ken Stringfellow. Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.)
Fri., May 18 – Victoria, BC @ Capital Ballroom
Sat., May 19 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
Sun., May 20 – Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall
Mon., May 21 – Bend, OR @ Volcanic Theatre Pub
Tues., May 22 – Sacramento, CA @ Harlow’s
Wed., May 23 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
Thurs., May 24 – San Juan Capistrano, CA @ Coach House
Fri., May 25 – Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater
Sat., May 26 – San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
Mon., May 28 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Wed., May 30 – Santa Fe, NM @ Santa Fe Brewing Co.
Thurs., May 31 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
Fri., June 1 – San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
Sat., June 2 – Austin, TX @ The Parish
Sun., June 3 – Houston, TX @ Bronze Peacock at House of Blues
Mon. June 4 – Little Rock, AR @ Capitol View Studios
Tues., June 5 – Memphis TN @ Layfayette’s Music Room
Wed., June 6 – New Orleans, LA @ The Parish at House of Blues
Thurs., June 7 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
Fri., June 8 – Birmingham, AL @ Saturn
Sat., June 9 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
Sun., June 10 – Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theatre
Mon., June 11 – Annapolis, MD @ Ram’s Head On Stage
Wed., June 13 – Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
Thurs., June 14 – Fairfield, CT @ Stage One at Fairfield Theatre
Fri., June 15 – Somerville, MA @ ONCE Somerville
Sat., June 16 – Washington, DC @ The Hamilton
Sun., June 17 – New York, NY @ The Bowery Ballroom
Tues., June 19 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
Wed., June 20 – Cleveland, OH @ Music Box Supper Club
Thurs., June 21 – Kalamazoo, MI @ Bell’s Eccentric Cafe
Fri., June 22 – Detroit, MI @ The Magic Bag
Sat., June 23 – Chicago, IL @ Park West
Sun., June 24 – Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
Mon., June 25 – Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
Tues., June 26 – St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
Thurs., June 28 – Milwaukee, WI
Sat., June 30 – Denver, CO @ Levitt Pavilion
Sun., July 1 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
Fri., July 6 – Bellingham, WA @ Wild Buffalo
Sat., July 7 – Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre
Fri., Aug. 31 – Vlieland, NETHERLANDS @ Into the Great Wide Open Festival (sold out)
Sat., Sept. 1 – Hoogwoud, NETHERLANDS @ Zomerpop Festival
Sun., Sept. 2 – Wiltshire, UK @ End of the Road Festival
Sat., Sept. 29 – Barcelona, SPAIN @ Upload
Sun., Sept. 30 – Zaragoza, SPAIN @ La Lata de Bombillas
Mon., Oct. 1 – Cordoba, SPAIN @ Hangar Cordoba
Tues., Oct. 2 – Cadiz SPAIN @ Aulario de la Bomba,
Wed., Oct. 3 – Granada, SPAIN @ Lemon Rock
Thurs., Oct. 4 – Valencia, SPAIN @ 16 Toneladas
Fri., Oct. 5 – Madrid, SPAIN @ Sala Caracol
Sat., Oct. 6 – Pontevedra, SPAIN @ Teatro Principal
Sun., Oct. 7 – Azpeitia, SPAIN @ San Augustin Kulturgunea
Tues., Oct. 9 – Paris, FRANCE @ La Maroquinerie
Wed., Oct. 10 – Utrecht, NETHERLANDS @ Tivoli
Thurs., Oct. 11 – Groningen, NETHERLANDS @ Vera
Fri., Oct. 12 – Heerlen, NETHERLANDS @ Poppodium Nieuwe Nor
Sat., Oct. 13 – Alkmaar, NETHERLANDS @ Podium Victorie
Sun., Oct. 14 – Hengelo, NETHERLANDS @ Metropol
Tues., Oct. 16 – Düsseldorf, GERMANY @ Zakk
Wed., Oct. 17 – Kortrijk, BELGIUM @ Wilde Westen
Thurs., Oct. 18 – Mechelen, BELGIUM @ Cultuurcentrum Mechelen
Fri., Oct. 19 – London, UK @ The Garage
Sat., Oct. 20 – Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
Sun., Oct. 21 – Glasgow, UK @ King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
Tues., Oct. 23 – Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute
Thurs., Oct. 25 – Bremen, GERMANY @ Tower
Fri., Oct. 26 – Hamburg, GERMANY @ Häkken
Sat., Oct. 27 – Berlin, GERMANY @ Berghain Kantine
Mon., Oct. 29 – Helsinki, FINLAND @ Savoy Theatre
Wed., Oct. 31 – Larvik, NORWAY @ Sanden Kafe at Kulturhuset Bølgen
Thurs., Nov. 1 – Stavanger, NORWAY @ Folken
Fri., Nov. 2 – Bergen, NORWAY @ Madam Felle
Sat., Nov. 3 – Trondheim, NORWAY @ Teaterhuset Avant Garden
Sun., Nov. 4 – Oslo, NORWAY @ John Dee
Tues., Nov. 6 – Gothenburg, SWEDEN @ Pustervik
Wed., Nov. 7 – Stockholm, SWEDEN @ Fasching
Thurs., Nov. 8 – Malmö, SWEDEN @ Inkonst
The indie rock hero, in-demand keyboardist, and all around good guy talks about his first solo release in nearly a decade. (Photo by Tim Manning)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Roger Manning, Jr. has had a remarkably varied career so far.
He was co-founder of the brilliant San Francisco Power Pop band Jellyfish; since their break up, he’s played in a mix of influential rock and synth bands like Imperial Drag, The Moog Cookbook and TV Eyes. Manning has long been Beck’s go-to keyboardist and in between he’s been able to finish three remarkably distinct solo records.
Unfortunately, given other commitments, his solo work has been on the backburner for a while. A decade, in fact. But thanks to a major Pledge Music campaign, Manning is about to release his latest EP, Glamping, along with re-introducing his classic solo releases with a slew of extras. The campaign, which allows fans to pre-order the music, comes with a number of creatively inventive items they can bid on, like Manning’s 1960’s bell bottoms, his keyboards and record shopping trips.
A week or so before the new EP comes out, Manning got on the phone to talk through the campaign, the 10-year delay between solo albums and why you won’t have to wait very long for the new one.
It’s been about a decade since your last solo record. Why did now seem like the right time to finally make this happen?
Well, one year after my last solo record seemed like the right time, but life had other plans in store for me. Doing a solo record is always a challenge, particularly if you’re not a well-known artist because you have to pull together the finances. So, I did solo albums back to back in ’06 and ’08, but the cold hard fact is that those records required so much time to get them right – the way I wanted them to sound – that I was happy that I just broke even. Certainly, in Japan we had a great run and did some shows and sold some records, but my A&R person was so happy that we didn’t lose any money.
In 2007, I put out my electronica record (Robo-Sapiens) on Malibu, but that coupled with some life changes and personal things, I started Glamping somewhere around 2012/2013. Freelance work and touring with Beck has taken up the rest of my musical time. Frankly I get more of my bills paid that way and I enjoy it, but my solo works does start to fall through the cracks and I got to the point where I thought I’m never going to finish this if I don’t do something about it. Then a friend said, “Hey, just put an EP out. Finish that first.” That simplified everything, and the good news is I’ve got eight more songs that are more than halfway done.
Depending on how this Pledge campaign goes, every nine months or less, I want to put out a new batch of material. The whole point of this launch is to corral all my fans across the world into one place and go “here’s the deal, I’ve got plenty of music for you guys and will continue to write my butt off if you make it known what you like.” This is my first love, it’s how I got started in the business and I’ve got plenty to share.
You mentioned the Pledge Music campaign. Over the past year or two more and more artists are using this as opposed to traditional labels and some – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum was one – have mentioned that it was difficult at first to go to the fans and get them to help finance the records, this way. Did you have any reservations?
I think I was just like Dave. In fact, we’re around the same age and both had bands in a similar era and both of our projects have had peaks and valleys. I agree, the whole concept out of the gate seemed bizarre to me until it was explained to me. Unlike the last record company model, if anything this brings you closer to people. You’re cultivating relationships you already have and just going deeper with the community that’s interested in music.
The whole point is to try and bring more people to the party and when I started looking at it differently, letting go of the old model so to speak, I really saw the potential for this and what it means for me as a songwriter for the rest of my life, regardless of what the record label model is doing, which you know if continuing to be turned on its head.
Through your solo work and the bands you’ve been in, you’ve worked with a number of different record labels – big, small, indie and major. Is there any part of you that feels a sense of schadenfreude as a musician at the current state of record labels?
I have a small opinion on this. There were certainly some injustices on behalf of the artists with the old model. There were a lot of upsides too. Each model has its pros and cons. I fortunately was taught early on to look at the labels as nothing more than a loan agency. If I want to buy a house, like it or not I have to go through a mortgage company and I’ve got to pay out the ass in interest. That’s the game that’s in place in our society in 2018. Like it or not, that model helps me get into a home that’s way beyond our means.
The record label took an unknown band form San Francisco and they did their dance with MTV and they did their dance with radio all over the world and I watched it all happen. Basically, back then you had to win the lottery. There were a hundred bands at any given moment vying for a record label’s attention and maybe five percent of them were given a shot. And even then, if the record company was promoting 10 of those groups in a release season, maybe they were only concentrating on three or four of them. Also, you had A&R people in the ‘70s and ‘80s who were not really in fear of their jobs. There was an aspect of job security. If the first band you signed didn’t have a hit record, you weren’t fired the next week.
Labels, although they all wanted big smash hits, they were into cultivating bands back then. I joke that if U2 were signed in the last 10 years they would have been dropped already. There first few albums hardly sold in the U.S. in the beginning. They would have been dropped nowadays and their A&R man would have been fired… Now it’s just a fear-based community with everybody trying to copy the songs that made some noise last week on the radio. You have an artist and an artistic community that seem to not be phased by their one-dimensionality lack of variety environment. I’m not dissing any of these bands in the top 40, but I was spoiled. I grew up in a different era.
So, with Pledge music, you can put out whatever music you want without anyone telling you to trim the song lengths or change things around…
Exactly. I quickly learned that this campaign was only going to have as much success as I was applying myself to doing the day-to-day work. Suddenly I was my own A&R man, I was now making creative decisions out of the music world that I wasn’t used to making – day-to-day business stuff. That’s fine because I was feeling impowered, but it takes up time.
After all these years, I’m enjoying the empowerment of self-reliance and I’m learning things this time around that I know I’m going to do differently with the next campaign. I just love the fact that the Internet, pledge campaigns and certain aspects of the industry now allow for this… For me, there’s more pros than cons. I am so thankful for this community of folks for hanging in with me as long as they have. As part of that thank you, let’s do this some more.
“We felt we were doing something different”: With a fresh refill of the Spacemen 3 prescription due this week, courtesy the Superior Viaduct label, let’s flash back to their most iconic album, along with its latterday sibling. Rolling the spliffs for us: Sonic Boom. (Below, listen to the reissue as well as watch a live concert from 1989.)
BY FRED MILLS
This week Superior Viaduct resumes its Spacemen 3 vinyl reissue series with a 2LP reissue of the 1990 quasi-bootleg Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, originally released by rock scribe Byron Coley’s eclectic Father Yod label and subsequently re-quasi-bootlegged several times in expanded format by the Bomp! and Space Age Recordings labels as well as by Father Yod itself in the form of a 2LP deluxe reissue in 2010. This new iteration arrives with a bonus track to expand the tracklisting to 15 (the original single LP release contained seven tracks), with Superior Viaduct describing it thusly:
“In the swirl of kaleidoscopic recordings that is Spacemen 3‘s discography, Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To occupies a pivotal position – one at the nexus between their garage beginnings and expansionist future. Spacemen 3 capture the inspired spark of mid-’80s psychedelia, offering a distinct variation on high pop through layered feedback, a formidable rhythm section and shining vocals.
“Taking Drugs features the legendary Northampton demos, which secured the band’s first record deal with Glass. While much of this material would be expanded upon on their first two albums, Sound Of Confusion and The Perfect Prescription, many devotees consider these early 1986 demos to be the vital document of Spacemen 3 at this primal stage.
“With urgent, minimally treated versions of “Sound Of Confusion” (aka “Walkin’ With Jesus”), “Losing Touch With My Mind” and “Come Down Easy,” this double LP collection serves to exalt the strength of Spacemen 3‘s songwriting over the deep-dive, sonic ruminations that would permeate their later studio efforts.”
The reissue does not come without a bit of controversy, which seems to be par for the course these days with any S3-related release; recall last year’s dust-up between the bandmembers and Space Age’s Gerald Palmer, whom they accused of manufacturing colored vinyl S3 reissues without their permission. In this case, erstwhile bassist Pete Bassman recently posted to his blog some musings about Superior Viaduct neglecting to obtain permission for its reissues, although it appears that he has subsequently removed several of his postings, writing “I have been accused of airing dirty laundry in public, of bullying, of making ill-informed comments, and more… I am doing this as a gesture of appeasement, to help deflate the unhealthy atmosphere that has evolved around the commercial exploitation of Spacemen 3 and the individuals involved.”
That all aside, Taking Drugs… is a must-own for anyone wanted a glimpse of nascent Spacemen 3, and I say that as a ground zero fan of the band, having picked up their first EP and going on to become a passionate fan and collector—1987’s The Perfect Prescription being one of my personal desert island discs since its initial release. Over the years I’ve been privileged to have interviewed all the former members, talking with Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember on multiple occasions. Below, then, read my S3 story and Kember interview that I conducted in 2003 on the occasion of the release of Forged Prescriptions, which collected demos, alternate mixes, and outtakes from the Perfect Rx sessions. It was originally published by the Seattle Weekly.
Oh, and while you do, take a listen to Taking Drugs… in its entirety…
RUGBY, ENGLAND, SPRING ’87: Four scruffy twentysomethings are sprawled across secondhand bed mattresses arranged at asymmetrical angles on the floor of VHF Studios. The smoke from their roll-ups and spliffs gets so thick that the engineer routinely disconnects the facility’s smoke alarm prior to each day’s session, which can range from intensely focused overdubbing to jam-until-the-tape-runs-out free-for-alls to simply lying around in candlelit darkness and passing comment on playbacks of the previous day’s work. Ultimately, from this near-womblike setting will emerge one of the greatest psychedelic albums of all time.
You are getting very sleepy: Spacemen 3.
“Dope and then some!” is how former Spacemen 3 guitarist Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember characterizes the making of The Perfect Prescription. According to Kember, he, fellow guitarist Jason Pierce, drummer Rosco, and bassist Pete Bassman were seeking the same spiritual and musical liberation as their heroes the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Suicide, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, etc. and certainly on a chemical level as well. “We had mattresses for the best possible recording and playback positioning,” he recalls, with a cackle, “and some days we would just get blitzed and spend a day just listening in situ, so to speak. Think of it like the testing done before releasing a new drugha ha!”
I’ve just dropped in to see what condition Kember’s prescription is in, the occasion being a two-CD collection of Perfect Rx demos, outtakes, and alternate mixes titled Forged Prescriptions (Space Age Recordings). The set has been long in coming, having weathered a nearly seven-year series of contractual delays which wouldn’t necessarily be of significance, except for the fact that Perfect Rx itself, an album that’s been hailed by the likes of Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and a critics’ mainstay of desert-island-discs lists, has come to cast a long, legendary shadow over the years.
The Perfect Prescription went virtually unnoticed, particularly by the British press, when it first appeared in August of ’87, on tiny U.K. indie Glass. An ad hoc fraternity of psych aficionados and fanzine writers took note, however, and while that fraternity is frequently prone to hyperbole and, er, a lack of discrimination, this time around, the aesthetic and cultural significance of a recording became a matter of near-universal underground accord. One need not be reminded of the Velvet Underground Effect – one great album begets a hundred bands, who in turn beget a thousand more bands – to understand how time, opinion, and recorded artifacts have a funny way of eventually aligning.
A concept record that aurally chronicles the highs, lows, and heavenly blows of a virtual drug trip, Perfect Rx is (to quote from one of my own reviews) “an unqualified masterpiece of shimmering, beatific melodies, rhythmic/dynamic tension, and stylistic contrasts.” More florid but just as accurate are these comments from the liner notes of the first CD edition (1989, Fire), labeling S3 revolutionary artists in the tradition of Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, Arthur Parker, and Paul Gauguin and calling the album “an untrumpeted classic, an arcane, apocryphal document . . . telegraphing a message of unconcerned hope in a world hypnotized by guilt-ridden social-work rock.” Indeed, whether fueled by hemp, adrenaline, or other substances, the band expertly channeled full-bore garage shock (“Take Me to the Other Side”) alongside proto-ambient dronescapery (“Ecstasy Symphony”), additionally taking time to pay ace tribute to Lou Reed (“Ode to Street Hassle”) and the Red Krayola (“Transparent Radiation”).
Recalling how the social climate of 1987 was overwhelmingly Thatcherite/ Reaganite repressive, Kember suggests that Spacemen 3’s agenda was benevolently subversive: “We felt there would be other people who felt like us out there, people who lived their lives like us the antithesis of the yuppie. Certainly, we hoped the renaissance that was washing in on a wave of ecstasy would be fertile ground for us. Religion, drugs, and sexual taboos were all areas that needed some comment from a more liberal source than was mostly heard back then.”
Forged Prescriptions, then, represents a vital glimpse behind the Perfect Rx curtain. Notable is a tune like “Walkin’ With Jesus,” which on the original album was dreamy and minimalist but now has additional guitar tracks feedback, tremolo, etc. newly restored. Apparently, a number of tunes had been shorn of excess guitar in order to help ease the material’s transition to the stage. (“Jason was in favor of more complex arrangements,” says Kember, “but ultimately agreed we didn’t need it for the songs to work well.”) Another track, “Ecstasy Symphony,” originally served as a languid intro for “Transparent Radiation”; it’s now a nine-minute hissing/droning instrumental with a much hotter mix. In fact, the entire first disc of Forged Prescriptions, with the alternate versions and a different song sequence from the parent album, represents, says Kember, “a ‘could also have been’ situation,” adding that he likes the material “at least as much [as], if not more [than],” that of Perfect Rx.
Disc 2 is also a treat for S3-heads, featuring demo recordings of album songs as well as three unreleased tunes: a rollicking, groove-laden Velvet Underground homage titled, helpfully, “Velvet Jam,” plus two covers a churning, wah-wah-filled take of the MC5’s “I Want You Right Now” and a surprisingly tender, dreamy interpretation of Roky Erickson’s pre-13th Floor Elevators outfit the Spades’ “We Sell Soul.”
Worth noting for fans, too, is the Forged Prescriptions artwork: It diligently reproduces the psychedelic spirals motifs and text font design that graced the sleeve of Perfect Rx, adding an alternate picture of Kember and Pierce taken at the original album photo session.
The eight-year tenure of Spacemen 3 has always been viewed from the outside as a fragile alliance between Kember and Pierce. To a degree that’s true, although Kember is quick to point out that while S3’s creative mojo was in maximum tumescence during the making of Perfect Rx, cracks in the group’s foundation began appearing shortly thereafter: “They [Rosco and Pete Bassman] were always less committed to it than Jason and myself, and they weren’t prepared to put in the practice and effort needed. They also ran away with themselves on tour, getting too drunk to play well, etc.” As a revolving cast of additional players began infiltrating the S3 universe, Kember and Pierce gradually grew apart to such a degree that sessions for the fourth and final studio album, 1990’s Recurring, were attended separately by the two songwriters. The two haven’t spoken directly since the early ’90s, and Kember, the proud keeper of the S3 flame, now regards the situation with regret. (Below: the band live in 1989.)
“There was a healthy collaboration and competition between us to deliver the goods,” admits Kember. “Mainly for ourselves, but also for those we hoped would find it useful in their lives. I hope I’m big enough to sideline my feelings about what happened at the end of Spacemen 3, and Jason’s role in that, and to give him credit he is due for this. His songwriting, his singing, his guitar and other instruments please me as much now as they did then. I’m very sad that we seem unable to communicate. I’ve heard no comment from Jason about [Forged Prescriptions], and it was my project in that sense he isn’t interested in seeing that side of Spacemen 3 maintained. He is very hard, by his choice, to contact, and that’s his choice, fair enough. I do feel that I lost a great musical partner and friend. Along with the destruction of the band, it was pretty devastating to me. It’s a very large part of my life, not just something I do for kicks as an aside.”
Pierce, of course, went on to much success with Spiritualized. For his part, Kember has kept busy with an array of frequently overlapping projects, most notably the ambient/electronic Experimental Audio Research and the comparatively more straightforward Spectrum. The latter, in fact, toured across America in 2001, with set lists heavily weighted toward old S3 tunes. Kember hopes to repeat that trek later this year once the new Spectrum album is completed. He indicates he’s been working with Randall Nieman, guitar whiz for Detroit-area experimental-psych combo Fuxa, and that the material is shaping up along guitar/bass/drums/organ lines not dissimilar to vintage S3. (Kember also traveled to Los Angeles recently to work with electronic-rock artist Alex Gordon for a projected EP to be titled Dead Man, due this fall.)
Meanwhile, there’s a possibility that further archival offerings from the S3 vaults will be exhumed. A couple of years ago, Space Age reissued the group’s third album, 1989’s Playing With Fire, featuring a bonus disc of session demos, and Kember notes that he has a lot of live tapes, in particular “some early live stuff that is pretty devastating which might see light one day.”
But even if the world had never again heard from the Rugby players, we’d still have their timeless gem in our hands. It’s often said that groups can’t possibly set out to paint their masterpieces, that only hindsight can be the true arbiter in such matters. Just the same . . .
“We felt we were doing something different,” insists Kember solemnly, “and we were very proud of it. We knew it was what we were aiming for.”
An interview with the popular—and essential—SXSW showcase’s producer P-C Rae.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Each year, the British Music Embassy showcase introduces dozens of UK artists to new potential fans and opportunities at South by Southwest. As producer P-C Rae explains, the showcase is a collaboration between disparate UK government offices and private industry. This year Austin’s Latitude 30 was transformed into headquarters for afternoon and evening performances by British rising talent. Rae explained the logistics of bringing dozens of artists to the States, as well as what they can once they’re here (e.g., a lot of time on the road).
BLURT: Could you tell me about your role with the British Music Embassy showcase?
RAE: I coordinate this event with the massive government and rights-holder organizations that help put it together. It’s funded by BBC and the PRS, PPL, AIM, and the UK government – and lots and lots of other people that all put in money to bring sixty-something UK bands over here for a week to South by Southwest and hopefully give them the best showcase platform in town.
So basically you’re working with the British government?
We don’t have a music export office like France or Canada or Australia. They have a dedicated export office. Ours is a bit more of a mish-mash of people. But we’re all working together to do the same thing. And we’re also supported by UK manufacturers. So our desk is a British desk from Allan & Heath, and our PA is British speakers from Tannoy. And our crew, they’re all British, ‘cause we want to give the full British show experience. And our stage manager is British. The only thing that we don’t have that’s British is microphones. There is no British microphone manufacturer. Very sad.
What exactly do you hope to accomplish with showcases like this here at South by Southwest?
The artists come in here. Some of them come as part of an album campaign. They have a release out that they’re looking to promote here. Other artists come in because they want to try and fill out their team. They’re looking for a booking agent or a publicist or a record deal. I’ve brought artists here for both of those reasons or just one of them. Lots of people have different motivations. Some of these artists, they’re on a tour. But a lot of them, it’s their first ever show in the United States.
What specifically do you do to help the newer ones who are playing here for the first time? What do you hope to accomplish for them?
We hope to help them get a foothold in the US so they can come back and do repeat business here. We have a little book that we distribute that has all the info about the acts—who their management is and how to get in touch with them. We have a publicist that blasts all this stuff and helps us get listed in all the right places.
I’m curious—when you’re dealing with American bookers or American businesspeople, do you find that there is any sort of culture clash between, say, you and them?
That’s a little bit of a tough question, because we’ve been doing this for eleven years. I think maybe there was a culture clash in the beginning and we just got used to the different way that you approach things, perhaps a little bit, in the US. And every market has its nuances, you know. The way you talk to people, the way you interact with people over time becomes natural.
I remember reading interviews with Radiohead, for example, and they had to get used to things like meet and greets, back when there were still the big box record stores, going in and doing the signings.
That kind of stuff, that’s changed a little with the way the music’s distributed now, very digital. Big box stores in Europe, they’re not really a thing so much anymore. We’re very about Swedish streaming services in particular–one that just launched on the stock exchange here to some great fanfare. You can’t really sign something over Spotify, you know? But I think what artists do have to get used to here is distances. That’s the number one hurdle. An American artist driving themselves, they’ll be used to doing an eight-hour drive. Eight hours, you can drive from one end of the UK to the other. You can’t drive from one end of Texas to the other in eight hours.
Also with the American audiences, I imagine for them it’s kind of overwhelming to be playing in some cases their first international audiences.
Well, we try and give them a soft landing and one of the things an artist is going to worry about most is their technical setup. And if the technical setup is good and stress-free, then that’s going to make them comfortable playing to anybody. Also, we try and make sure the room is full all the time, so they’re not looking out at an empty at their first ever US show, playing to two men and a dog. To try and make the artist comfortable with the technical setup and they’re playing to a nice, full room, then it doesn’t really matter whether they’re American or European people. Those worries for an artist are exactly the same.
You want to present a specific image of Britain or its music scene at showcase like this? Our music is good. Please buy it.
That sounds pretty basic!
That’s what it is! It is a capitalist thing, even though it’s art. You are trying to sell something and I think one in six records sold around the world is a British record. So there is a global market for every kind of artist, every shape and color and sound that there is.
How do you think Brexit will affect how British artists and people like you do business in the music industry?
Brexit is the dumbest thing in human history. Well, perhaps not quite the dumbest thing in human history, but near enough. And a lot of people are gonna have to work very, very hard to try and make sure the kind of barriers that UK artists have coming into the States–like with immigration and visas and all that stuff, which is very expensive, and time-consuming, and sometimes doesn’t work–that we don’t have that situation where artists try to go to Germany and they also have fill in thousands of dollars’ worth of paperwork. That’s gonna put a kibosh on a lot of people’s touring setup.
A right hand man is also a righteously rockin’ man…
TEXT BY TIM HINELY/ PHOTOS BY MARY GARITO
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Jeremy Grites but in the late 80’s/early 90’s he began drumming for a friend’s band called Noise Museum (a play on the name of a local museum in South Jersey). The friend stated that he had “found this amazing drummer who is like 15 or 16 years old!” After Grites tenure in that band ended I’d seen him at a handful of local gigs before I left for greener pastures in the Summer of ’92 (California) but he and I kept in touch and he eventually became my right hand man at DAGGER, helping with reviews, interviews and loads of encouragement. I even made it out to Brooklyn once in the mid or late 90’s and saw his pad that was stocked with records and instruments and he showed me his ‘hood. Over the years he’s seemed to bounce between NYC, Philly and his native South Jersey seemingly playing with (or at least seeing) every musician alive. Fast forward to 2017 and we even had the pleasure to chit chat over drinks on the deck of a restaurant/bar in South Jersey on my trip there last summer and had a chance to meet his lovely girlfriend Mary (who took most of the pics for this interview) and even his dad. I’d thought about interviewing him (email stylee, of course) for the past few years as he’s had a helluva history/run these past few decades and he shows no signs of slowing down. These days he’s mostly playing drums in Philly/Jersey combo The Improbables (check out their full length, Object To Be Destroyed on the Hidden Volume label) as well as occasionally playing with Wreckless Eric/Amy Rigby (see below). The guy simply doesn’t stop but took some time out to answer my questions with in-depth answers (if anyone knows what the DAGGER readers want it’s him). He’s also one of the nicest guys around so if you ever see him, go up and introduce yourself (but then you’ll have to buy him a beer) and chat music at the guy’s a textbook on all sorts of genres. So grab a birch beer, sit down and read on, you just might learn something.
Did you grow up in Absecon, NJ? Any punks in that town?
Although I was born in Baltimore, MD, I did grow up in Absecon, starting in the late 70’s and through the 80’s. In a way it was nice because there were a lot of woods and trails and the beach was only 10 minutes away. Culturally however, it was (and still pretty much remains) a nightmarish wasteland. People in that area don’t trust anything remotely different from what they have known their entire lives – and they usually reacted vehemently against those differences with a provincial-yet-smug sort of attitude. Anything new or different in any way is a threat to their normalcy and they had to ridicule it – at the very least. Subsequently, there were very few punks / new wavers, and the few that existed kept a pretty low profile in the interest of self-preservation. We did have some skinheads for a minute, but most of them were in jail by the time I was out of high school. Fortunately I met the few misfits around town through skateboarding and surfing and that helped me survive and also find new music.
Do you remember the first song you heard that was weird (punk, new wave, etc.?) that made you think there was other kinds of music out there?
Well, it’s odd because I remember seeing Blondie on the show Solid Gold with my parents and loving them. They were definitely ‘different’, but also one of the biggest bands in the world – likewise bands like the Police and Kiss who I already liked. I was also really into the Go-Go’s and Devo as a kid, but before I actually understood the history of all that stuff or what it meant or represented. It was just fun, catchy music. I had already become a huge British Invasion fan and begun my record collection around 6 years old. I had nearly every Beatles / Stones record in both mono and stereo and would spend hours digging through LPs and 45’s at flea markets while my parents shopped for antiques. I was a weird little kid. That was a good way to learn though, and my dad taught me how to haggle with the record dealers way back then. (Same priciples still apply.) Anyway, I think when I was about twelve I got ahold of the standard 80’s “Starter Kit” of underground bands like Big Star, the B-52’s, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, the Damned, Rain Parade, XTC, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Modern Lovers, the Stooges, Ramones, REM, the Smiths, Minutemen etc through some mixtapes from older friends. That’s when the switch flipped. After that I lost all interest in anything that was on the radio or what kids in my school liked. I basically set my mind to meeting and befriending older kids/adults and milking them for as much musical knowledge as I could get. That eventually led me to hanging out with students and community members that were on WLFR, the college station in our area – the most important of which were Champagne Bob Portella and Paul Glaser. Their far-reaching musical knowledge and influence is still me with me to this day. Anyway, I wormed my way onto some shows at WLFR while I was 14, and by 15 I was the yougest FCC liscenced DJ in the country and wound up with my own radio show. After that I was off to the races.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought with your own money?
Well, technically the Flea market buys would be the first, but I remember the first records I ever bought in a store were Paul McCartney “Tug of War,” and John Cougar “American Fool.” I believe I got them at a Kmart with some birthday money from my aunt or grandparents. That was before I really knew about record stores as actual stand-alone places where kids would go to hang out. I thought you just got records at the supermarket or the record counter in Sears or Caldor. I totally didn’t get it. Once I figured out that there were independent stores that could order records for you and had cool, older kids working in them, then that was all I wanted to do. I would hang out in the shops for hours listening and even taking notes. I had a little notebook with records to try to find and ‘band family trees’ etc – trying to learn my history. Super nerdy.
Did your parents encourage you to learn musical instruments? Were drums the first?
Ha! No, they did not encourage it at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were sort of on board with my skateboarding, but playing music was definitely an annoyance that were not keen on. Actually, I think I asked for instruments and/or lessons and was refused, which is why I got a job at such an early age. I bought a used drum kit off a guy out of the newspaper and convinced him to drive it to my house because I was only 14 at the time. Once the drums were there and paid for with my own money, there wasn’t a lot my parents could do. I got them dropped off and put them in my room while no one was home – poof! Instant drumkit! Hahaha. I did the same thing a year later with a guitar and amplifier. It wasn’t until after I got into some bands and played some shows that my parents started to come around to it a little bit. Once they saw I was actually doing something with it, and was decent at it, they didn’t mind as much. Later, they embraced it fully because I think they figured out it wasn’t going to stop – so why not pretend to be proud…
First gig you ever went to?
I was lucky and got to see a lot of concerts when I was a little kid because we had neighbors that seemed to always have spare tickets to things. So, I got to see the Beach Boys (with ALL of the Wilson brothers) and people like Johnny Cash and Dionne Warwick etc as early as like 5-6 years old in small theatres in Atlantic City. I also saw lower tier bands play at the nearby college where my dad taught, so it’s tough to say really. I can’t even remember the first punk show I went to because it all started so early for me. Could’ve been 7 Seconds and a bunch of ther bands at the Omni? Or it could’ve been the Dead Milkmen at the AC Elks or something? I wish I could remember. One of my weirdo friends from school and I used to take the bus from AC to Philly (which was scary) and walk from the (scary) bus station down to Old City (which was also scary) and watch bands from the sidewalk at a place called the Khyber Pass (dirty and scary). That was a famous Philly venue with the stage basically in this huge bay window right on the sidewalk – facing in of course. So we would just go sit or stand on the sidewalk and watch shows from behind the band because we were so far underage – there was no way we were sneaking in or passing a fake ID. I saw a lot of great stuff that way though – the Magnolias, GG Allin, the Wishniaks, Throwing Muses etc. That was definitely an experience and traveling around unsupervised was definitely part of the fun. Much later in life I became good friends with all of the guys in the Wishniaks and they remembered the two little kids out on the sidewalk for shows. That was me.
Tell me about Noise Museum? Was that your first band? How old were, you, like 16?
Yeah, Noise Museum was the first sort of ‘real’ band I was ever in, although it was pretty Busch-League in retrospect. I joined when I was 15 and had been playing drums for about a year, so I was a babe in the woods in every way. Prior to that I would just play along to records in my big, 70’s headphones – I’ve never had a lesson, on any instrument. I would just try to learn every stop and fill on the records I loved and that’s how I learned to play with ‘people.’ I spent a lot of time with the Replacements and Husker Du LPs, plus Sonic Youth and the Who. Those LPs really shaped how I played for about the first 10 years, until I discovered the Meters and James Brown. Anyway, nearly all of the output from that band is fairly embarrassing to me, but it is definitely where all the ‘Firsts’ happened. First gigs, then first gigs out of state, first terrible drunken gig, first heckling, first time recording, then the first time recording in a real studio, first piece of vinyl I was ever on etc etc. All that stuff happened in that band, but I stayed in it way too long and it became a very detrimental and damaging situation. Worst of all, I had almost no creative input – I wasn’t allowed to write songs or help arrange them, I had to compromise the drum parts all of the time – it became a real drag. I did at least come away with meeting 2 or 3 life-long, important and invaluable friends through that band though, which is the only saving grace. After I quit I promised myself that any bands that I would ever join from then on had to be fun, or I was out the door. That’s why Swivel Chairs started when I was 19.
Was Marlin Spikes next? Swivel Chairs? The latter is your solo project, right? Tell me a little about each of them.
In the early days Swivel Chairs was always a duo – it was me and my college roomate Jason Brown. We started on acoustic guitars and a four-track cassette recorder and kept plugging away all through college. During that time we ended up playing OUR first shows and doing cassette releases etc. It was all super home-made and fun. When we graduated, I moved to NYC and Jay moved to Philly so there was a little bit of a break. (I actually self released a boxed set of those early recordings in an edition of 50 and gave them to friends for a laugh) That’s when I started making home recordings by myself on an 8 track machine and did a couple more cassette releases all under different names. Marling Spikes started around that time as well with my new roomate in NYC, Matt Wilbur. (Unlike me, Matt had been given music lessons his whole life and was a great guitar and piano player.) That wasn’t even supposed to be a band really – it was just an accident, or what we’d do on the weekends. But then it sort of turned into a band and so Jay joined up and we took a break from Swivel Chairs for a short bit. The best part of that group was that everyone could play everything, so we’d all write and switch instruments all the time etc. After being stifled earlier, I wanted everyone to be able to do whatever they wanted to. We had some wildly careening nights in Brooklyn and in AC at McGuire’s Erin Bar during the summers. It was a fun distraction, but I really wish we’d come up with a better name though. haha.
How/when did you make it up to New York to live?
I moved to NY about 2-3 weeks after college graduation and was seriously floating around from couch to couch for a little while, but then settled in Williamsburg Brooklyn in 1995. I am still there today, although it is virtually unrecognizable from when I moved in. Living and working in NY back then (and now to a certain extent) was an absolute goldmine of culture. Aside from the obvious stuff like architecture, galleries and museums, there was just so much going on everywhere. There were shows every night all over the place, there were huge loft parties, artists and musicians everywhere, awesome grafitti, street musicians, you name it – and it was still cheap to live there. I used to cut wood for Steve Keene in his studio and get paid in paintings – that was a thrill because he knew Sonic Youth and Pavement and did famous LP covers. It was a hard place to get used to at first, and I was poor as shit, but it was a non-stop blast. Some of the shows I saw were legendary and you could literally stay out all night. Sometimes it was the simply random things that would happen like standing behind Lou Reed in a deli, playing pool with Elliot Smith every week at our local bar in the East Village, seeing Robert Quinne working in a guitar shop or having David Byrne almost run you over on his bicycle. Plus, when you’re 21 everyone and everything is new to you and it all seems so cool, so it was a lot fun.
How did the gig with Fontaine Toups come about? What happened to that band?
I suppose I have DAGGER to thank for that actually because Hinely asked me to interview them! So, we met up at our mutal friend Laura (Rogers, from the Rogers Sisters)’s bar and just started hanging out, having beers together, telling stories and sort of becoming friends. I managed to do an interview in between all of that and, while we are settling our enormous tab, they asked me if I knew any drummers because they had kicked theirs out. I said that the only available drummer I knew was ME, which was completely true, and they suggested a try-out. So, I went home and memorized their record just like I did when I was a kid. Couple days later I auditioned and was accepted – possibly as much for my drinking prowess as my drumming – but either way, I was in and we all became great friends. We had so much fun and I really love them all dearly. In fact, I think that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing with people in my life. Plus, being adopted into the whole, extended Versus, Plus Minus, Teenbeat family was amazing and mind expanding. That whole crew are some of the smartest, nicest, coolest and most talented people I’ve ever known. No joke. Plus, the shows were killer and we got to do some fun things like open for +/- and Unrest at the Teenbeat 20 festival in DC – which remains one of my favorite weekends I’ve ever had in my life.
Tie up some loose ends for us….I know you’ve played with many other musicians. Fill us in.
Well, all during the late 90’s and early-mid Oughts Jay and I were always doing Swivel Chairs on some level and we managed to put out a few records in between all the other stuff – not to mention our day jobs. Those were a lot of fun to make because we did them all at my house in Brooklyn and had a ton of guest musicians come through and play on tracks etc. – people like Bliss Blood from the Pain Teens and the Reverend Vince Anderson who was a legend in BK back then. At the same time I was spending a ton of time in Philadelphia with my girlfriendwife Mary Garito and her band Audible (who were fantastic). I got to play with them a little bit towards the end of their run and fullfilled my dream of being a full-time tamborine player for an indie rock band! Plus, I got to fill in on drums for their last-ever live performance – which is still a highlight for me. Later, in the mid oughts, our friend Jim from Transit of Venus Records actually signed Swivel Chairs to his label right when TFT was going on hiatus, so I boosted half of Audible and they became ‘Chairs for a few years! It was great actually because it was another love-fest of a band to be in. We all just loved hanging out and playing music and they were all ringers. Getting to be on ToV put us in some nice company too – Photon Band, Like a Fox, Trolleyvox etc. were all labelmates. It was definitely a fun club to be part of. Eventually everyone started getting married and having kids (also partially why we never did any touring), so Swivel Chairs packed it in. It was a good way to go out though, and we played some good shows – our last show was opening for the dear sweet Barbara Manning! I can’t tell if I answered your question or not.
How did The Improbables rope you into playing with them? That latest album (Object To Be Destroyed on Hidden Volume) is a scorcher.
They’re clever those Improbables, aren’t they? Well, to start, Kevin and Dave and I have been friends since we were all probably 18 or 19. I knew them from bands and DJ’ing back then and we had always kept in touch. I had not been playing much of anything for the better part of a year, (least of all drums), but I had started doing weekly DJ nights and having a lot of fun with that. Sort of back to my roots as they were… Eventually, I started having Kevin and Dave both come and spin records with me – because they have amazing record collections and are two of the finest DJ’s in Philly actually. So one night at the 700 Club Dave told me that their drummer quit and they have a show booked in 8 days and that they’re going to look like assholes if they cancel – would I fill in? Now at this point, I hadn’t even played drums at all for almost 7 years because I stole Audible’s amazing drummer Steve Cawley for Swivel Chairs and didn’t have to play anymore, haha. So, I felt like I was gonna fall on my face, but I said yes anyway and we had 3 practices in 7 days to get 10 songs down. It was really tough for me and I was super nervous – plus every Philly drummer that I admire was there that night watching me – it was brutal! The Hidden Volume folks were there that night too, so it was a bit crazy. Fortunately I got through it and about a week or so later they called me to meet up and asked me if I would join for real. I really tried not to, but it’s a really fun band with great songs and two of my oldest friends, so there was really no way I could say no. haha. So, we started learning the old stuff and gradually started writing new songs together and it turned into a good unit. Due in part, no doubt, by some good bonding moments like being dance-heckled playing a pizza joint or by having our practice space burnt to the ground by an arsonist (not kidding). But, nonetheless, we rallied and soon after I joined Scott Sugiuchi asked us to sign up with Hidden Volume. We were psyched to be part of that whole growing family and burgeoning scene for sure. We had a great summer recording and fall, mixing that LP with our friend Mike Kennedy (the mastermind behind the aforementioned Audible) who produced and recorded it. We have a follow up 45 due out later this year on HiVo and then we start work on the 2nd full length, so it’s going quite well. Plus, we are playing the HiVo Field Trip festival in Florida in February which is gonna be killer! The Imps are probably the only band that I’ve ever been in where it feels like more than the sum of its parts, which is pretty cool.
Tell us about your involvement with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby.
Yeah – leave it to me to not play drums for 7 years and then join 3 bands as the drummer, haha. I actually disavow any knowledge of or involvement with Wreckless Eric whatsoever. (I’m just kidding, I put that in here just to see if he’d actually read this far into the interview.) I literally met Eric through the magic of the internet and we somehow went from being virtual friends to actual friends. It started through his painting site actually (some people may not realize, but Eric is a wonderful painter). Anyway, he had a show in Philadelphia that wasn’t properly promoted or advertised which sounded like kind of a disaster and afterwards the club refused to pay him. He was really pissed and wrote a whole post about how terrible it was online – I contacted him the same day. I said, “If you ever want to try Philly again, let me set it up – I think you will have fun and get a better idea of what Philly can really be like.” To my surprise, he accepted the challenge and we put together a show with the Improbables and another great Philly band called AM Mills and sold the motherfucker out. Everybody had a blast and he called me about 2 weeks later and asked if I’d like to play on his next record. I was a little surprised and a bit intimidated, but said yes anyway. So I went to his studio a few times and ended up being on the record that became “amERICa.” It was a lot of fun and he is a human master-class in every aspect of music – history, writing, recording, performing, booking, fixing instruments – everything. I’ve learned an immense amount from him and he doesn’t seem to have an “OFF” switch so I’m going to keep taking notes. He’s got stories for miles and there have been lots of nights sitting at the dining room table laughing ‘til 3am. After “amERICa” came out we did some local shows and then he did a massive solo tour. When he came home he immediately started working on his wife Amy Rigby’s new record, as well as stuff he had written along the way for his next record. They invited me along so, I started going to their studio periodically and began working on both records at the same time with them. It was a really interesting experience to do these albums because the two of them work so differently. It was challenging, but it was great fun –And I’ll tell you what – Amy Rigby knows how to write a goddamn song! I’m not kidding, she’s one of the most clever and adept songwriters I’ve ever played with. Both of those albums are coming out in February and March respectively and we are going to do some shows for each I believe. I’m really lucky to have met them and become such great friends, they’re absolutely terrific people and very lenient bosses.
Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Randomly off the top of my head: Bully, Night Beats, Olympians, Cactus Blossoms, Preservation Hall Jaz Band, Shopping, Field Music, Proper Ornaments, AM Mills, the Jay Vons, Slowey and the Boats, Courtney Barnett, I Think Like Midnight, Blank Realm, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Swedish Taboo, James Hunter, Dead Ghosts, Menehan Street Band, Mystery Lights, Pow Wows, Reigning Sound
Also older bands with new stuff: Superchunk, Dream Syndicate, Spoon, Robyn Hitchcock, the Bats, the I Don’t Cares, the Chills
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
No order top 10:
Big Star – radio city
The Clean – vehicle
Duke Ellington – money jungle
Versus – the stars are insane
Mickey Baker – the wildest guitar
Superchunk – majesty shredding
Kinks – village green preservation society
Minutemen – double nickels on the dime
Frank Sinatra – live at the Sands
John Fahey – blind joe death (1st lp)
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about all of the great records that came out in the “CD era” of the late 90’s – late ‘oughts that never saw a vinyl release due to lack of interest or funds. There were so many fantastic albums that have sort of been forgotten and would sound amazing on wax. So I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I’d love to see re-issued now that people buy records again. It’s a selfish list, but the records are derserving nonetheless. Here goes:
Audible – In Simple Intervals
– Sky Signal
The Deathray Davies – the kick and the snare
the day of the ray
Whysall Lane – s/t
Scrawl – velvet hammer
Bigger Lovers – honey in the hive
– this affair never happened…
Hensley Sturgis – open lanes
Jenny Toomey – tempting
Carolyn Mark – terrible hostess
The Essex Green – the cannibal sea
Mazarin – we’re already there
Lucksmiths – why that doesn’t surprise me
Bon Mots – le main drag
The Swimmers – fighting trees
the Handsome Family – in the air
the last days of wonder
the Sneetches – blow out the sun
Wayne Hancock – A town blues
The Feminie Complex – complete recordings
Leftys Deceiver – cheats
Photon band – back dow to earth
Legendary Jim Ruiz Group – oh brother where art thou?
Tsunami – a brilliant mistake
Matt Suggs – golden days before they end
Apex manor – the year of magical drinking
BONUS QUESTION- You had as long stint as a writer for DAGGER. Did Hinely pay you top dollar?
Hinely only ever paid me in compliments, but they were exceptional compliments so that was enough.
ALL PHOTOS BY MARY GARITO (EXCEPT THE REAL EARLY ONES, NO ONE KNOWS WHO TOOK THOSE).
The indie music world received very sad news this week: Tony Kinman, a pioneering West Coast ground-zero punk in the late ‘70s with The Dils, and a pioneering alternative country twanger in the ‘80s with Rank And File, passed away at the age of 63. The cause of death was listed as cancer, his brother and bandmate Chip Kinman announcing the news on Facebook on May 4. Writing at his Facebook page a day prior, Chip explained, “Tony is home with his family. He is no longer receiving treatment and is comfortable and at peace. I have read him everything that people are posting and he is very moved. I will let everyone know when it is done. I love you all. Thank you, Chip.” (According to the LA Times, Kinman “was diagnosed with cancer in March, and had begun what had been expected to be a six-month program of chemotherapy, according to the CaringBridge page Chip’s wife, Lisa Kinman, created to keep fans informed. But the cancer turned out to be extremely aggressive.”)
The news of Tony Kinman’s death was particularly hard on the Americana community, for the Kinmans were more than just “pioneering” with Rank And File—they were a key influence upon and godfathers to the burgeoning alt-country movement that would commence picking up steam in the late ‘80s, by which time the band had broken up following three albums and several U.S. tours.
Yours truly was fortunate enough to see R&F on their first cross-country trek supporting 1983 debut Sundown—I still have my LP signed by the band—and I still have fond memories of hanging out and sharing drinks with the members during soundcheck and after the show. I hadn’t really kept close tab on the Kinmans following the band’s demise, although I did enjoy their post-R&F activities, including Blackbird and Cowboy Nation. More recently, Tony had worked with brother Chip on Chip’s latest band, Ford Madox Ford. There was a genuine lifelong bond between the two brothers as profound as any you’d care to cite.
Then in 2003 word arrived that Rhino Handmade was reissuing their two albums, along with bonus tracks, as a remastered CD, so I jumped at the opportunity to write about them for my column that appeared regularly in Harp magazine, “Indelibles,” in which I zeroed in on classic or influential albums that were finally seeing reissue in the digital era. So I consider myself even more fortunate to have been able to renew my acquaintance with Tony Kinman, if only for an hour or so over the phone. What follows below, then, by way of a remembrance of Kinman now, is an expanded version of the “Indelibles” profile. I found him to be more than affable, and quite willing to reflect on his old band’s fortunes—the good times as well as the less-than-good ones. He was rightfully proud of the music he and his brother and the other members (one of whom was Alejandro Escovedo—you may have heard of him) made together, stating simply, “I know what Rank and File was and I know what we did in terms of pioneering.”
A lot of us out here also know what you did, Tony, and we’re all immensely proud of you. Rest in peace, sir.
From Harp magazine, 2003: Nowadays, spotting lapsed punks hooked on twang is commonplace (just ask Ryan Adams or Jesse Malin). But back in the early ‘80s, when two alumni of West Coast punks The Dils – aka “the American Clash” – turned up sporting wide-brimmed Stetsons, singing about trains, sundowns and border crossings and emitting a hard-edged but distinctively country rock sound, the sight was alien, to say the least. Some clever critic dubbed Rank And File “cowpunk”; the label stuck, subsequently being applied to the likes of Jason & the Scorchers, Green On Red, Lone Justice, etc.
Looking for an escape from punk’s “faster/louder” orthodoxy, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman (bass and guitar, respectively) had formed the band with another ex-punk, guitarist Alejandro Escovedo (late of San Fran’s Nuns), and after migrating to Austin and picking up a drummer, Slim Evans, began rehearsing and songwriting with a military-like dedication.
“You know how badly it can sound when people are just going, ‘Hey, even I can do a country song!’’ recalls Tony Kinman. “We didn’t want that. Plus, if you’re gonna say you play country music, you’re gonna come up against guys who can play and sing the pants off you. So you better be able to play. And we wanted to bring some life, skill and imagination into it.”
The diligence paid off; after a tour opening for The Blasters, Rank And File landed a deal with Slash, and recording sessions (with producer David Kahne) for Sundown quickly commenced. Upon its release in late ’82, critics wet themselves, as much for the record’s unique-for-its-time sound as for its obvious musical merits – visceral, twangy rock choogle fueled by some of the sleekest fretwork since the cosmic cowboy duels of Roger McGuinn and Clarence White, not to mention harmony vocals that conjured everyone from the Beatles and Eagles to the Brothers Everly and Righteous.
Muses Kinman, “I thought it was a good record. None of us had any experience in recording, and we were on such a low budget that the only way David could afford to bring it in under budget was to have us come in [to the studio] late at night after everyone else was done! But reviewers weren’t really ready for how good the material was – ‘Wow, this is pretty strong!’ – and that was gratifying.”
Rank And File promoted its album heavily, even landing a choice TV appearance on Austin City Limits. The schedule took its toll, however, and after the tour was over Escovedo took his leave, eventually embarking on a notable solo career. For a brief unrecorded spell, future guit-steel virtuoso Junior Brown was Escovedo’s replacement. (Kinman says Brown “was phenomenal even back then and he knocked ‘em dead, but wasn’t challenged enough” in the band.) Drummer Evans left too, so it was a two-man Rank And File that went into the studio in January of ’84 to work on a sophomore album, sessions that Kinman now admits were “definitely strange. It wasn’t the ‘all-for-one’ thing like the first one. Al was gone, Slim had gotten married and left the band as well, so it was just Chip and I. But we got it done.”
Rank And File may have been unstable personnel-wise, but musically speaking, Long Gone Dead is every bit as strong as its predecessor. Somewhat slicker in feel due to the presence of session players (including Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch) and with additional country flavorings (prominently featured were pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and slide guitar), it still sounds fresh today, more “cow” than “punk.” As Kinman quips, “We almost invented the modern country sound of today, what gets on the radio. Country-sounding, but with a drive to it, like our version of [Lefty Frizzell’s] ‘I’m An Old, Old Man.’”
Reviews once again were terrific. Except, ironically, the one that appeared in Slash’s hometown paper, the L.A. Times, which Kinman says sparked an odd bit of tension between band and label. In fact, once the Long Gone Dead national tour (guitarist Jeff Ross and drummer Bob Kahr were now in the band) was over and it was time to begin work on the third Rank And File album, Slash waffled over everything from studio scheduling to producer choices – at one point Van Dyke Parks was on board – for nearly two years.
In 1987 Rank And File was recorded and released, but the delays had taken the wind out of the band’s sails and it was a substandard effort. Says Kinman, “Basically everything went to hell, and my attitude, Chip’s attitude, everyone’s attitude was getting more and more like, ‘Aw, screw it.’ And that’s basically why that third album sounds like it does. It’s a record that has some good songs on it, but the whole idea behind it was just wrong, like, heavy metal and hard rock or something, and by the time we got in to make it we just didn’t care anymore.”
Following a final tour, Rank And File called it a day. The Kinmans went on to the duo-plus-drum-machine Blackbird, subsequently picked up acclaim for yet another Stetsons-and-twang project, Cowboy Nation. Now, with the Rhino Handmade expanded/remastered reissue of the first two Rank And File albums on one CD as The Slash Years (see sidebar, below, for details), Kinman hopes his former band’s precedent-busting efforts in the pre-No Depression/alt-country era will finally get their due.
Admits Kinman, “For awhile it used to bother me that it was almost like we’d never existed — like, the only Rank And File ever got mentioned at all was in an Alejandro Escovedo article A lot of younger people playing now simply never had the chance to hear us. They make the jump from, say, Gram Parsons to the Knitters – or Uncle Tupelo. And there’s this whole void there, and I think it’s simply because our stuff was not around.”
“But,” he adds, with undisguised pride, “I know what Rank and File was and I know what we did in terms of pioneering.”
Rank And File: The Slash Years (Rhino/Handmade RHM27816; 2003). Personnel: Chip Kinman, Tony Kinman, Alejandro Escovedo, Slim Evans
1982 saw Rank And File debut with the David Kahne-produced Sundown (Slash SR114); appearing in 1984 was Long Gone Dead (Slash/Warner Bros. 25087), produced by Jeff Eyrich. Plans were made years ago, then delayed several times, to reissue both LPs on CD. Finally, with the Slash label’s back catalog controlled by Warner Strategic Marketing, under which Rhino now operates, Rhino Senior V.P Gary Stewart – a huge R&F fan, not so coincidentally – got involved, shifted the project to Rhino’s Internet-only collectors’ imprint Handmade, and co-produced the CD along with the Kinman brothers. The Slash Years is a numbered/limited edition of 2500 copies (www.rhinohandmade.com ).
In addition to remastered sound, a 16-page booklet with incisive liner notes penned by veteran journalist Jimmy Guterman and a separate mini-booklet of lyrics and gig poster repros, The Slash Years includes four non-album bonus tracks. Three of them hail from the Sundown recording sessions: edgy anti-racism screed “Klansman,” an early staple of the band’s live sets; a cover of old-school country standard “Wabash Cannonball”; and twangy gem “Post Office,” which previously appeared on the cassette of Sundown and a Warners rarities compilation, Revenge Of The Killer B’s. The final bonus cut is a spirited (if slightly muddy-sounding) live recording from ’87, “White Lightnin,” a J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper) penned drinkin’ ‘n’ stinkin’ recorded over the years by everyone from Waylon Jennings and George Jones to the Fall and the Waco Brothers.
The Slash Years, as noted, was a limited edition. It quickly sold out, and is considered relatively rare nowadays; at the time of this writing, the lone copy listed at Discogs was going for $99. In 2005 the Collectors’ Choice label reissued all three R&F albums on CD, minus any bonus tracks; this marked the first time 1987’s Rank And File was available on CD. And here in 2018, The Slash Years is available for streaming at Spotify.
It was the self-titled debut in 2000 that was released on Kindercore that initially got me interested. I loved most everything on that label so when a CD by a band called Great Lakes popped into my P.O. box, I was excited to check it out. Like a few of the others under the Elephant 6 moniker (Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.), it exuded a sort-of grandiose ‘60s pop charm with bits of psychedelia, and some beautiful noise a la Pavement, too. Other records followed (including the brand spankin’ new, and very good, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge), and along the way, Crum lended his skills to bands such as Ladybug Transistor and the Essex Green.
The more recent Great Lakes records have been a bit darker, more guitar-heavy (less sunshine pop) than previous records, but still with excellent songwriting and an overflow of hooks. I wanted to know a bit about Crum and what made him tick, and when I shot some questions his way he was more than happy to expound and expand on his life from the early days until present day. If you’ve never heard the music of Great Lakes, then by all means check out one of their many releases—each one with its own distinct personality. Visit the band’s Facebook page, then read on, dear fans….
Mt. Airy, Maryland, though I finished high school in suburban Atlanta.
What was the first band that made you take notice?
The Descendents was really the first band that I was in to. I mean, I was discovering classic rock at the same time, but that 80s punk stuff was big for me. I came to them through skateboarding videos. They’re still one of my favorite bands, though I confess I haven’t kept up with their latest music. Fugazi was also an early big one for me. That first EP especially. I also loved, and still love, The Misfits.
When did you first pick up an instrument? Was it a guitar?
I was required by my mother, who played piano, to take piano lessons. She made me practice right after school. While sitting at the piano practicing my scales I could hear the other neighborhood kids playing and having fun. I found it miserable at the time. But my piano teacher let me come early to the lessons. She had a giant leather recliner and a nice stereo system with headphones. She’d let me play whatever records I wanted to listen to. That was my introduction to CCR. The main lick from “Down On the Corner” really grabbed me as a kid. That and the lead guitar part from “Up Around the Bend” had really caught my attention.
By middle school I chose to be in the school band. That lasted about one year. I think I mainly did it because I didn’t like the other options. I “played” saxophone. When I was about 14 I was watching Maryland public TV and I saw the One Night WithYou movie with Elvis. It’s taken from the 68 Comeback Special. I still love that stuff. I got out my mom’s old nylon string guitar and started teaching myself to play. I begged my parents to let me trade my sax for a steel string Guild acoustic. I took a few lessons, but those didn’t really take. I learned to play “Dust In the Wind” though.
What was your introduction to independent music? Was it hardcore? New wave? Something else?
I used to have a skateboard ramp in my backyard. All kinds of people would hear about it and come to my house to skate. There was an older dude who had a hardcore band and he gave me his 7 inch when I was about 15. That must’ve planted the seed in my mind that independently putting music out was something I could do. Before then, I don’t think it had occurred to me.
What was your first band? And how/when did Great Lakes come about? That was in Athens, GA, right?
It’s all kinda related, to me. The way I got started in doing music was that during breaks from college, around 92-93, I started getting together with high school friend, Dan Donahue, when we were both visiting our parents in Atlanta. We would write songs and record them on 4 track. We liked Galaxie 500/early Luna, The Flaming Lips, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. And I remember he liked The Chickasaw Mudpuppies a lot and got me in to that stuff. He didn’t really play an instrument, though in the early days neither did I, really, so we both played whatever we could. He liked writing lyrics, though. That was his main thing. It always felt like a chore to me, and I was happy to have him be the lyricist. We called ourselves The Patty Melts. We had a song called “I’m Alive” that was kind of a fictional blues about how bad life was for the narrator, but the idea was that at least he was alive. A choice nugget of the lyrics, referring the guy’s wife, went: “ she’s a briarpatch with an eyepatch”, and later the narrator says: “…gettin’ my ass up is a damn chore.” We made a pretty cool 4 track recording of that song. I had this homemade 4 string fretless instrument that my dad and brother had built. I’ve still got it. It was made out of paneling for the body and a piece of molding for the neck. The tuners were eye screws, screwed right into the wood. I tuned it to an open chord and played slide on it with a screwdriver as the slide. So we made this Chickasaw Mudpuppies-inspired song with that. By about 94 I started visiting Dan in Athens, where he was in college, and we would write songs and try to record them. Jamey Huggins, who was then in high school but came to Athens a lot on breaks and weekends, joined us on drums. We were all really into Teenage Fanclub by that time, and one night we stayed up all night and wrote a song that we thought was so good that we had to start a band one day. Even then, I was focused on the recording. Unless we had a cool recording of a song, it was as if it almost didn’t really exist. I think we all felt that way. I still do.
Meanwhile, I was in a band in college in Birmingham, Alabama with some friends. We were first called a few different names that I’ve forgotten, but when we started playing shows we were calling ourselves Wonderock, like a superhero or something. We had a couple good songs, actually. I remember getting some encouragement from the sound guy when we played our first show at The Nick. He was a pretty grizzled old guy, Johnny Mack, and he came up to us after our set and said begrudgingly, “Well, my toe was tapping and my toe don’t lie to me…” One of the members of that band, Craig Ceravolo, moved to Athens with me in 96 and went on to play in the earliest version of Great Lakes. Another member of that band formed a band called Three Finger Cowboy. They were on Amy Ray’s label and, I think, did a tour or two opening for The Indigo Girls. After that band I had a short-lived band with Craig, Jason Hamric, and Jamey, called Alaska. Craig, Jason, and I all lived together in Southside, and Jamey had come to Birmingham to stay with us for the summer. I think we chose the name because of that line in “Stephanie Says:, “It’s such an icy feeling / It’s so cold in Alaska”. We also called ourselves Cherry Valence for a bit (this was back before there was a band called The Cherry Valence). Anyway, that band had 3 members of what would become Great Lakes in it. I tried to convince Jason Hamric to leave Birmingham and move to Athens with us, but he wasn’t into that idea. He definitely would have been in Great Lakes, though, if he had moved with us. Great player, and great guy. So, anyway, in Athens, Dan joined us as a lyricist, and we merged Alaska/Cherry Valence and Wheelie Ride and The Patty Melts and became Great Lakes. And then Great Lakes evolved over time. But it wasn’t until 2009 or so that the current iteration, the longest running consistent lineup the band has ever had, came together. But Great Lakes is really more than a band to me. It’s what I consider my life’s work as an artist.
Tell me about your tenure in both the Ladybug Transistor and the Essex Green.
Well, when I got to Athens I arrived right as the Elephant 6 thing was coalescing. The first Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control records had just come out and they blew me away. Elf Power, too. All those guys were into 4 track recording, like us, but, of course, they were way more advanced. We became friends with that whole group of people. And then, after years of recording (including really learning how to record), the first Great Lakes album came out on Kindercore/E6. Ladybug Transistor had a connection to E6. Their album The Albemarle Sound had certainly caught nearly everyone’s attention that year. I mean, if you liked Love and The Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle and stuff like that, then that record was pretty much made for you. We loved it. That and that Lilys record that sounded like The Kinks (Better Can’t Make Your Life Better). Through E6 connections some of the people in Ladybug asked the Kindercore guys to release the first record by their other band, Essex Green. Kindercore happily did. We played a show or two together with Essex Green and Ladybug in Athens, which was fun. We hung out and kinda bonded over shared musical tastes, they way you can only really do when you’re in your 20s, it seems like. A few years later when I moved to Brooklyn they were some of the only people I knew. Jeff Baron, of both bands, immediately asked me to get together with him and Mike Barrett and play some music. We quickly realized that not only did we all love 60s psych and pop, but we also really loved old country music and the whole Flying Burrito Brothers style of country rock. Because we each knew so many country songs, and because we just loved to play, we would get together and play a lot. Mike and Jeff lived together, and had a cool little low volume set up in their apartment, and we’d hand out and play for hours, swapping instruments and trading off singing lead on all kinds of stuff. Eventually we started doing some of Mike’s originals, and Jeff and I would do some tunes. We talked about making a record, possibly of Mike’s original songs, and probably should have. But for some reason we ended up not doing that. But, like I said, we had a bunch of fun. It was also like some kind of music school for me, in a way. Jeff and Mike helped me train my ear to hear the changes, and to improvise. Previously, a live show for me had been about basically just executing what I’d written beforehand; but I came to see music differently through that experience of playing with those guys. I mean, with them, nothing ever sounded the same way twice, and I learned to love that. Then, soon after, Essex Green didn’t have a bass player for a tour they had booked, so they invited me to play. Tim Barnes (Silver Jews, Royal Trux) was on drums for the first tour or two that I did with them, and between Jeff’s great guitar playing and Tim’s incredible drumming and way of listening and responding, it was a great experience. That lineup of that band was definitely one of the best bands I ever played in. We did a tour or two with other drummers, and despite the fact that the Essex Green songs are great and I love playing with them, there came a point when I decided to bow out and focus on a new Great Lakes record, which became Diamond Times. But after that album came out Gary of Ladybug found himself without a guitarist. I guess Jeff didn’t want to do it at that point, so I started playing guitar with him. We did several tours, sometimes with Ladybug Transistor and Great Lakes on the same bill, and then we made what I call the Buckingham Kicks album together (officially titled Can’t Wait Another Day). I wanted to change the band name to Buckingham Kicks and release a self-titled debut, because the album we did was so different from previous LT albums, but Gary decided against that. The great thing about joining Ladybug Transistor, apart from playing with Gary, who is one of the better singers around, was that I got to play with longtime Ladybug drummer San Fadyl. He was another fantastic drummer, and he taught me tons as a musician. After he died tragically, my days in that band were numbered. But Gary soldiered on and made another record, and he’s still doing stuff now. I think he’ll keep making great records for a long time. I’d like to think that I’ll do more stuff together with the Essex Green/Ladybug Transistor folks. We’ve talked about wanting to do something, but logistically it’s a little tough. Maybe one day, though. There’s a new Essex Green coming out soon, though. I’ve been listening to it and it’s great.
When did you move to Brooklyn? What prompted the move?
I moved in 2002. I think I stayed in Athens a little too long for me. I’m not saying people shouldn’t stay in Athens. It’s a great place and I love it. But I was there 6 years, and it’s a small southern town, you know? That has its up and downsides. I think I should have left a little before then, but I didn’t for some reason. The way I actually ended up moving is that my girlfriend at the time was moving and I came along. We promptly broke up, but I stayed in New York because I liked it. Though New York is expensive, it’s a fun place to raise a family. We got to the Catskills, we have a great beach nearby, and we live in a community that is progressive politically. That goes a long way.
Tell us about the new Great Lakes record, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge. Where was it recorded? Who played on it?
Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, the 6th Great Lakes record, ended up being the third in a series of three records that sort of share a lyrical theme. The previous two, Ways of Escape and Wild Vision, are much more country-inflected, however. I think those two are good records, but they’re kinda heavy in terms of the moods and subject matter. This new one feels more fun to me. The subject matter is still pretty heavy, but the songs are back in major keys again. I think it’s a really strong batch of songs. I’m proud of it. I think with Ways of Escape I finally really found myself as a songwriter. I think the stuff I’ve done since that record has been my best work, and this new one feels very strong to me.
The lineup is pretty much the same as played on the previous two records. The drummer is Kevin Shea. He’s been with me for over 10 years now. Suzanne Nienaber sings with me again. Kenny Wachtel plays some guitar. Joe McGinty is back on keys, and Dave Gould on bass. There are a couple other people who played on a song here and there, Luis Leal played mellotron on a aong, and Andrew Rieger did a guest vocal on one song. They’re great musicians, all of them. And just nice, easy-going people. I have no intention to shake up that lineup. As long as those lovely people want to play with me, they’ve got the gig. Of course, it’s different when you’re in your late 30s and early 40s. We’re not trying to tour the world, and I really don’t have ambitions beyond making what I think are good records, and maybe playing the occasional show.
As for the recording of Dreaming, the drums were recorded at Brian Eno’s old space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I think Martin Bisi has been there for 30 years or more. There’s a documentary film about the place. It’s now called Seizure’s Palace (when Jason LaFarge is behind the desk). It’s a huge room, but Jason’s got a great handle on getting good drum sounds in that space. A Boredoms record or two were done there, as well as several Swans records. It’s a great and really weird space. The keyboards were tracked at Joe McGinty’s vintage keys studio, Carousel, in Greenpoint. I played with him and got to know him through Ladybug Transistor (especially when we were rehearsing with Kevin Ayers, but he was also a good friend of San’s, too). Nearly everything else was done in my home studio. And I went to Don Piper’s Brooklyn studio to track vocals. He’s got a Neve desk there, and gets nice sounds. The record was mixed by Steve Silverstein, who mixed each of the last three records. Steve and I have a long relationship of working together, and he’s great.
Is Loose Trucks your own label? Do you release other music other than your own on it?
Yes. My old friends Andrew and Laura of Elf Power run Orange Twin Records in Athens. They put out a couple Great Lakes records, but for Wild Vision, the 5th record, Andrew suggested to me that there was really no reason anymore to give them a cut of the money. He just hooked me up with their distributor and I started my own label. So far, so good. But I teamed up with Mike Turner (of HHBTM Records, and the guy who released the first ever Great Lakes 7”) to help me with distribution this time. I think that’ll be a positive thing. The truth is, I’d never want to start a label, necessarily, but it just made sense for me to do it.
I haven’t released anything else on the label except the last two Great Lakes records, and I really don’t have any desire to do so.
Who are some of your favorite current bands or musicians?
Steve Gunn. I especially love Way Out Weather. That’s the modern record that I’ve listened to the most in recent years. I love the Fahey meets drone-y raga thing; but it’s the strength of the compositions and the melodies that I find elevates it above other records in that style. I also think David-Ivar from the band Herman Dune is one of the most criminally underrated songwriters around these days. And Bill Callahan has long been a favorite of mine. I think he’s peerless.
What is one musician you’d say who’s had the biggest impact on your music?
My biggest influence as a guitar player is/was Dean Wareham. First, I always thought his sound was really cool. And his solos and lead playing, from Galaxie 500 on, has all been consistently great. I mean, as a beginning guitar player I’d sing along with the guitar solos. It doesn’t happen that often, when the long guitar solo or outro is the highlight of a song, or just as good as the singing part. Wareham was kind of my guitar teacher in a sense, because the way he plays, it’s not super fast. It’s about the melodies and the feeling and the mood. Because his stuff wasn’t very technical, I was able to play along with his solos and lead parts pretty easily and figure out what he does and how he does it. Every now and again I still kind of think to myself, “What would Dean Wareham do on this song?” if I’m stuck trying to figure out a guitar part for a song.
Tell us about your day job as a teacher. How does it fit into your lifestyle? Any of the other teachers know that you’re a musician?
Well, I don’t have a very wild lifestyle, I can tell you that. I’ve got a 7 year old son and a 1 year old daughter. With a full-time job as a third grade teacher, I’ve got my hands full. Lots of responsibility. But I still find the time to play a handful of shows each year, and to release records regularly. I’ve kind of gotten into a pattern of working, that works for me. During the school year I write songs when inspiration hits. But then I have the summers off. That’s when I have more time to work on music. If I can get all the songs for a new record written, revised and ready to record by August, I can track drums for an album. And then the cycle of overdubbing on the recordings, while also writing new songs, can begin again. That’s really my pattern.
People I work with know I write and play music, and put out records. Sometimes they’ll come to the shows. Some of my student’s parent’s have actualy looked me up and bought my records. I leave a guitar in my class and we sing all the time. The parents know me as this gentle teacher who sings Paul Simon and Cat Stevens songs with their kids, but I could tell by the way they some of them talked to me about my music that they were a bit surprised, after hearing my music, at how thematically dark some of my stuff is. It’s not children’s music that I’m making, you know? If they’d asked me I’d have warned them.
As a teacher, I think about Robert Pollard a lot. He’s not only one of my favorite songwriters, but he made a bunch of his best records while he was working full-time as a 3rd grade teacher. It’s really not hard to balance teaching and music. The hours can be tough, though. I have to be on point at 8am when I have to face a class of 8 year olds. One of my regular working times is between 4am and 6am. It’s been less this way since we had our second kid, because I’m really tired from having a baby, a 7 year old, and a demanding job. But I made most of the previous two records, and a lot of Dreaming, between the hours of 4am and 6am. That’s when my brain works best, anyway, I don’t even set an alarm. I just wake up naturally when I’m feeling inspired to work. It’s nice. The house is quiet, and I’ve got a tried-and-true system for recording electric guitars, bass, and keyboards silently. My wife is also very supportive, and often graciously allows me weekend mornings off of childcare duty so I can get some recording work done. I’m one of those people that if I’m not recording and getting work done, I’m kind of irritable and feel unsettled. So it’s probably in her best interest to do that… (haha)
You’re the only remaining original member of the band., then? What’s that like?
Yeah. I’ve been the only original member of the band for over 10 years now. But it was really only for the first 2 records that the original members were a big part of the band, anyway, to be honest. And even then it was really just the first one that was the product of genuine collaboration. Back then it was me and Dan writing songs together, but by the time the first record came out we’d put together a big band that also featured Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, Scott Spillane from Neutral Milk Hotel/Olivia Tremor Control, Bryan Poole from Elf Power, and Derek Almstead, Dottie Alexander, Heather McIntosh, and Jamey Huggins as a multi-instrumentalist and our main drummer. Jamey and I really collaborated very closely on the first record, in terms of working out the instrumentation on the songs. That was a really good, positive collaboration. And, truthfully, it hurt me when he chose to pretty much leave the band and focus on Of Montreal. But I understood his decision. They were getting really popular, and I couldn’t blame him. Then, in 2002, I moved to Brooklyn and Dan followed not long after, and once we’d both left Athens that was basically the end of the original lineup. Dan and I kept writing songs together, though, with him writing the lyrics and me writing the music. We went back to Athens to record Diamond Times, and a bunch of the old crew pitched in and played on the record, but by that point I’d formed a pretty strong connection with Jeff Baron of Essex Green and Ladybug Transistor, and had convinced him to come down from Brooklyn to Athens with me for the recording sessions. He ended up playing a big role in terms of making that album what it became.
The last released songs that Dan and I co-wrote, apart from one that made it onto Ways of Escape, came out on Diamond Times in 2006. After that album came out, I put together a 3-piece lineup of the band in New York, to tour behind that album. We did a long tour of the US, opening for The Clientele. It was Kevin Shea on drums, and Kyle Forester, who I also roped into The Ladybug Transistor as a keyboardist, on bass. We did a few tours of Europe with that lineup, too. What’s strange is that, though it’s not the original lineup, we played more shows together as a 3-piece than any previous or later Great Lakes lineup ever played, yet the three of us never made a record. Kyle left right before we began recording the 4th record, Ways of Escape. Around then Dan and I had a disagreement over the musical direction of the band and he abruptly moved back to Athens. Him leaving really turned out to be a great thing for me. Kevin Shea was happy to keep playing drums with me, and I wrangled a bunch of great NYC-based players to help me make that record. Towards the end of that process, Suzanne Nienaber started singing with me. As soon as we started doing stuff together I thought it sounded great. That lineup ended up being the players I’ve continued to work with for a decade and counting. We made Wild Vision together, which, to me, really felt like a highlight in the band’s discography, and then we made the new record, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, together, too.
Looking back, I think I went out on my own at just the right time. I was feeling weird about singing somebody else’s words. And it felt so much better to sing my own. Dan also just wanted more say over the music than I was willing to give him. I think a lot of artists reach a point where they get fed up with making art by committee. At a certain point, you need control to really realize your vision. I’ve done 6 Great Lakes records now, with the most recent 3 being made without any other original band members. And it’s the 3 I’ve done on my own that I feel most proud of, to be honest. I’ll never disavow the early stuff, and if you’re a fan of unabashed 60s psych-pop then that’s the Great Lakes stuff for you.
The thing about bands continuing on without original members is tricky. A lot of times those bands aren’t very good without the original lineup. But I always think about The Byrds when this subject comes up. My favorite Byrds records are the ones Roger McGuinn made without Gene Clark and David Crosby. I mean, I love the Gene Clark solo stuff, and that first David Crosby solo record, too. And of course the early Byrds stuff is great. But those late Byrds records are the ones I like the most. I like to think of Great Lakes like that. Maybe some people prefer the early stuff, and that’s fine. But I’m just going to keep on doing my own thing, regardless of what anybody else thinks.
Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
I’m always focused on what I’m doing next. I’m working on the 7th Great Lakes record now. More and more, I find myself drawing on more of my influences from the time when I was starting to play music, lthe stuff I was into in my early 20s. Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Sebadoh, Luna/Galaxie 500, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Built to Spill. Not that there’s a cohesive sound there, but that combination of sounds is really where my heart is lately. I’m working on the next record now and I can feel it going in that direction. It’s not at all thematically connected to the other records. I feel like it’s going to be good.
Thanks for your interest in my music, Tim. I appreciate it. (L-r in the top black-and-white photo: That’s Kevin Shea, Suzanne Nienaber, Kenny Wachtel, Chris Talsness and me.)
All photos by jami craig except the daytime outside shot, which is by Diego Britt.
Our correspondent—who you may know from a little old Athens, Georgia, band called Pylon, and subsequent related outfits—converses with the British legends about their new band, their legacy, the recent XTC documentary film, an epochal (to Georgians, at least) early, concert summit between XTC and R.E.M., and plenty more. Note: A version of this story also appeared earlier this month at Athens’ Flagpole magazine. (Photos of Moulding and Chambers by Geoff Winn.)
BY VANESSA BRISCOE HAY
In which XTC’sColin Moulding & original drummer Terry Chambers discuss: Great Aspirations, a new EP from their project TC & I; XTC’s This Is Pop rockumentary. What have they been up to and where have they been? I love the work of Andy Partridge, but I wanted to know more about the other members of XTC than I saw unfold through This is Pop... Plus, read a few memories of a legendary Athens, GA show 37 years ago that paired the legendary British band XTC with a very young R.E.M. A show that many fans of both bands wish that they could take a time machine back to. Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers were both very generous with their time and answered every single question I asked. A fan couldn’t ask for anything more!
2018 marks the 40-year anniversary of XTC’s first studio album White Musicthat spawned the Andy Partridge penned singles “This is Pop,” a manifesto proclaiming that punk was no different than pop and “Statue of Liberty.” I was delighted recently to chat with the formidable rhythm section of XTC’s bassist Colin Moulding and original drummer Terry Chambers about their current project TC&I. Colin and Terry with some help from their friends have recently released an EP, Great Aspirations, via PledgeMusic. Great Aspirations harkens a bit back to the early glory days of XTC, but how could it not with this pedigree. Most people don’t understand how important the drummer really is to a songs pattern and flow – and with the songwriting skills of Colin Moulding, the EP is a delight to listen to. The four songs on Great Aspirations include adult themes about things like conservation and happily facing mortality.The XTC documentary This Is Popjust aired to rave reviews from fans on Showtime (trailer is belowI).
Last year, TheXTC Bumper Book of Fun, an anthology of articles from XTC’s fanzine published between 1982-1992 with new material for 2017 came out to rave reviews from fans. (Loved the Limelight zine! And hey, whatever happened to The Little Express XTC zine out of Canada? – Archival Ed.)
VANESSA BRISCOE HAY: For someone who is semi-retired, you seem busier than ever. There seems a sense of both looking back and forward.
Colin Moulding: I always like to be able to look forward to something musically, so the new stuff is where it’s at for me …. but of course, I’m very proud of what we’ve done too with the chaps over the years. Something new and experimental musically keeps me going in my ‘dotage.’
VBH: I’m right there with you on that. I briefly met you and Andy Partridge in January 1980 while passing through the Hotel Iroquois lobby. A lot of bands who were booked by Frontier Booking International or FBI stayed there – I also ran into other bands like The Clash, The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and The Police. Randy Bewley (guitarist for Pylon) spied you two sitting in the lobby doing an interview and asked me to give you our first single because he was too shy. I know that you don’t remember us, but we were thrilled!
CM: I hope we were courteous when we met. I remember the cockroaches at the Iroquois… they were certainly friendly. (laughs)
VBH:You both were very nice. I can’t say the same for the cockroaches. On April 24, 1981,XTC performed in Athens, GA and the opening band was none other than R.E.M. My band Pylon were out on the road at the time, so I missed it.
CM: I don’t remember too much about that particular show. But I know the reception we got in general across America was nearly always good. The size of the portions at meal times certainly made an impression on me! It was a great time to be young and into music.
VBH: Please tell me how your new project TC&I with former XTC drummer Terry Chambers came to be.
CM: Well, as you may know, Terry left the band in 1982 and moved to Australia to be with his wife at that time. He had made previous visits to the U.K., but this time it was different. When he came over in 2016 for a family wedding he expressed a wish that he would like to come back to England on a permanent basis. He was. I think having personal problems and saw his future back in the U.K., so the novelty of it all was too much to resist. I asked him there and then whether he fancied playing on some new songs of mine that I was contemplating recording and one thing led to another …and then we formed TC&I. A very enjoyable few months we had too, recording and having fun.
VBH: Had you been in contact with him or worked with him since he left XTC in 1982 (during the sessions for Mummer)?
CM: No not really —he would come back for family events and stuff, and maybe I would see him on occasions when our schedules would allow, but generally we were like ships in the night.
VBH: Are there plans for TC&I to perform live?
CM: We may do (that), but you must remember we pretty much played most of the stuff on the record between ourselves, so as such, we don’t have a band. Fnding players who are sympathetic to our sensibilities won’t be easy, but if we click with some other musicians then yes, it’s a possibility-I think quite soon we’d like to do some more recording too. Fitting it all in is difficult.
VBH: Apart from the existing ‘Scatter Me’ video, will there be another video forthcoming?
CM: We were going to do another for “Greatness” but it’s such a difficult subject to find tangible visuals for, so it may happen- depending on suitable visuals. We have some shots for it, but nothing we are happy with thus far
VBH: I have read that Terry Chambers’ son is a drummer like his father. Can Terry tell us anything about that?
TC: My son Kai plays in an Australian band called October Rage. They have a deal with a record company in Salt Lake City, Utah called Aircastle and they regularly play the U.S.- mainly in the mid-West. They are a fairly heavy rock band.
VBH: Are you writing new material together for this project with plans to record it?
CM: After ‘Great Aspirations,” there is plans to do more. Terry doesn’t write per se, so I have to have time off to formulate ideas for us to record. At the moment we’re doing promo for the EP, so I am not settled into this process yet. Besides, we want to keep them special and fun. The conveyor belt of the old days doesn’t apply anymore.
VBH: The documentary This Is Pop was great! I would have liked to have seen a little more about the other members’ background. I really love Andy Partridge’s work, but I love the other members work too.
CM: I think documentary film making is a certain (type of) art. The director must entertain, inform and keep his backers happy too. Andy’s breakdown and his subsequent refusal to tour was headline news -so there you have it. There were other tributaries that the story could certainly have taken, but in the interest of holding a (story) thread and keeping a strong central core, it was told this way.
VBH: What attracted you to music initially and what was your first instrument?
TC: At first, I wanted to play piano for some unknown reason. That idea never came to fruition. I think maybe because I became obsessed with rock music in late 1968-69 and suddenly thought …drums! I was 14 years old. I had an inspired moment and sought out a drum kit reasonably priced at Kempsters, a music shop in Swindon. I think the kit cost around £35-50* which was bought from money that I had saved from my after-school job stacking shelves at a local grocery store. The kit was a lovely blue coloured Broadway drum kit made by John Gray. When I got the kit home, I didn’t even know how to set it up and had no idea how to play. I learned to play by listening to my sister’s records on an old mono record player hitting parts of the kit that seemed to sound like what was on the records. For example: that sounds like this one – then hitting the snare drum, bass drum etc.
I hope that this helps to explain my perhaps unorthodox playing style rather than the usual text book style.
*Note: This was about $80-115 in US dollars at the1975 exchange rate – which is now worth about $380-540 adjusting for 2018 inflation. A lot of stacking shelves, I’m sure!
CM: I first noticed being moved by hymns at school, but I couldn’t work out why some moved me, and others didn’t. What was that thing that gave me a lump in my throat? “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” still moves me today. * This coincided with hearing pop music on the TV and radio-The Beatles in particular, as well as The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, and Spencer Davis. I loved the melodies of it all. My first instrument was the bass guitar-right from the start. I thought that it would quickly get me into a band and make me popular with girls. In fact, we knew people who just carried a guitar around with them most of the time, without a clue as how to play it, just for that purpose.
*Note: This hymn originates from a poem penned by Sir Spencer Rice which was adapted by Holst to music from his work Jupiter.
VBH: Who was an early influence on your style?
CM: A chap called Andy Frasier. You may recognize the name. He played in the band Free, of which I was a huge fan. I thought the sound of his bass was very unusual-like an elastic band or something.
Free played in a very empty sort of way which appealed to me a lot more so than power chords. I’ve thought that less is more ever since…
VBH: Were your family supportive?
CM: Not to begin with-no. You see I had forsaken my education to do music which rather horrified my parents. Indeed, I had five very dispiriting years after I had ‘dropped out’ where nothing much happened. So, I was beginning to come around to the assumption that they had been right all along, but the calling was too strong for me. You see one thinks that it’s all going to happen overnight when one has made up one’s mind what to do, but it very rarely does. Then along came punk rock and rather saved the day…it got us in.
VBH:Yay, punk rock!Did you have a childhood hobby?
CM: I was rather taken with astronomy and studied it for a number of years. I also had an interest in maps, which stays with me to this day. I still have my original copy of sheet 157 OS of my local area somewhere in the house.
*Note: Referring to an “Ordnance Survey” map with scale of one inch to one mile. 157 is the sheet number and refers to his hometown of Swindon, UK.
VBH: I’ve never been to Swindon, but I originally came from a town which is much smaller than Swindon. Did you know the other members of XTC growing up? How do the townspeople or the town feel about their most famous product?
CM: I Knew Andy at school because we grew up close by. The other members I met later in pubs and stuff, or in music shops. We are known to some in our town, and even revered and respected in some quarters. But, I’m sure to others they wouldn’t know who the hell we are, you see, for some, unless you come from London or New York you can’t possibly be that good!
VBH: I know that at one point in the 2000’s you washed your hands of music. I suspect that it was the business more than music because you became involved in some prog rock projects in LA. I must confess to having had a sweet tooth for this type of music in my teen years when I loved bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd and Renaissance.Tell me a little about your involvement with this genre.
CM: When the band fizzled out I went down like a wounded horse. It had been such a big part of my life that I couldn’t face starting anything new. Very much like when a romance comes to an end, one is still emotionally attached. I had to give it time before I could ‘love again.’ So, I think I just watched TV for two years, and made myself a nuisance at the local tennis club. Then, I began to get offers from a guy in LA named Billy Sherwood who was well in with a clique of musicians that I knew from my prog rock record buying days. He asked, “Did I fancy having a go at contributing to this stuff?” So, I thought, what the hell. Billy actually plays bass in YES now, and tours live with them due to the untimely death of Chris Squire.
VBH: Are there any prog rock recordings that you were involved in that we should look for?
CM: Yes, my favourites are: “The Man Who Died Two Times,” from (LA prog rock band) Days Between Stations concept album In Extremis and “Just Galileo and Me,” from Billy Sherwood’s solo album Citizen.
VBH:What is it like to work with Rick Wakeman?
CM: Rick, I believe, was on a track that I worked on from Billy’ Sherwood’s Citizen record. Files were compiled and sent down the line and assembled at his end, so I never got to be in the same room. It was all very impersonal – but that’s the industry for you. You can work intensely in a room together for three months with a person and then never see them again – or be at the end of a computer in different towns. Well, they say the internet has drawn people closer together …. Well this would seem the opposite wouldn’t you think?
VBH: I have done very little work like that, but I would agree. You are known for earnest, yet indirect at times pop lyrics and song writing. I know that the first three songs to chart for XTC were penned by you. The first single that I bought by XTC was “Life Begins at The Hop”. A highlight of the album Drums and Wires was “Making Plans for Nigel.” Perhaps my favorite XTC song is “Generals and Majors.” Many drummers have cited the sound on the 4th XTC album Black Sea as the best sound recording of a drummer. There is a little discussion of that in the documentary This Is Pop. To me the whole band sounds very full and clear and the rhythm section is killer.
How did XTC and your producer Steve Lillywhite achieve the sound separation during the recording process of Black Sea?
CM: That sound is the sound of the stone room at Virgin’s “Town House Studios” in Goldhawk Road, London. Not long built when we got to work there-In fact we may have been among the first to use it. We had done Drums and Wires there the year before and the big sound was being worked on even then. Later it was developed even more for Back Sea. It’s the sound you hear on Phil Collins’ ‘‘In the air tonight’…and on the Peter Gabriel album from around that time. Hugh Padham was the house engineer, and together with Steve, they developed it. Essentially the drummer is locked away in a room of his own that is made of stone.
VBH:Amazing. That explains a lot.Do you feel that you are coming full circle with your latest project TC &I with Terry Chambers?
CM: No, because a circle would indicate that we had arrived back where we started and that’s not right. I feel the stuff on (the TC &I EP) Great Aspirations is breaking new ground. To write about death in a positive way (“Scatter Me”) is a hard thing to do – plus others like ‘Kenny’ and ‘Comrades of Pop’ is largely storytelling over fanfares and riffs with sound effects. I’m more a narrator than a tunesmith in these instances. I thought it was something we hadn’t done.
VBH: I see that you play bass, guitar, keys and sing lead vocals and that you wrote the songs as well. Who are the other players on this project?
CM: We had some local players that sang and played the saxophone and trumpet, but essentially Terry and I played everything – more out of necessity than design. You see we didn’t have the big budgets that we had on the XTC records. Susannah Bevington is from a local choir and Alan Bateman has played brass for many people locally. Mikey Rowe is the exception; he plays Keyboards for Noel Gallagher’s band High Flying Birds.
VBH: Is it self-produced?
CM: Yes – and we have a saying in England…’cheap as chips’ – that’s what music has become. Considering the amount of time and expense that one has to go through, it’s a wonder anyone produces anything at all.
VBH: Where did you record it?
CM: It was recorded at my house. I have a facility in my garage. We would run long lines into the house to record things that needed separation like brass and the soprano voice that you hear on ‘Scatter Me’. When you record yourself, one doesn’t have the pressure that one has at the big studios where the clock is ticking……the pressure to get it right within a short space of time is immense. One shouldn’t subject oneself to such pressure. Yes, it was all very ‘Joe Meek’, but I figured that at least we were going to have a record that sounded different. Sure, you will make mistakes – but good things happen when you don’t know what you’re doing…. trust me.
VBH: What technology did you use to record it?
CM: I like the Otari Radar because the converters are so good. Then we transferred it all to Logic Pro. We had a very good mixer chap by the name of Stuart Rowe who rapped our knuckles when we got a bit wayward with the sound, so he was our guardian angel really. I only hope that we can afford him next year.
VBH: Are there plans for further XTC projects?
CM: Well, certainly no new ones, that’s for sure.
VBH:How involved are you with the reissues?
CM: None whatsoever – they are totally Andy’s babies. He chooses what goes on them and it is his choice alone. I don’t think he appreciates any outside interference, so I don’t bother anymore. My feeling towards them is this: They most certainly have saved us from the bargain bins, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m not a believer in (the release of) demos of any great number. You see for me, ‘the extension should never be bigger than the house.’ in my view it rather dilutes the magic. He says the fans want them; I say the fans have had them.
VBH:Do you think that you will ever tour with XTC again?
CM: Extremely unlikely I’d say……. the individuals are far too disparate in thought for it ever to happen. But then I’m not sure whether I would want to …. I think I might feel uncomfortable being in their company after so long…
VBH: Okay, I have two questions for you Colin, from two friends who also love your music:
Jason NeSmith:“Do you have a favorite plant (or type of plant) in your garden?”
CM: I’m very fond of my box plants…which I clip to a topiary shape…. very therapeutic…. i can contemplate the world whilst doing it….
Marianna Silva: “As I live in Brazil, I’m still waiting for my TC&I EP to arrive, so I haven’t heard it yet… But, it’s fantastic to hear Colin and Terry playing together once again. I’d like to know if there is a song or songs that he wrote (from the XTC catalog such as “Nigel”) that he wished that he had done differently on listening to it/them today?”
CM: Probably lots….certainly some of the later stuff which didn’t get done all that well….as I think we knew we were breaking up…like the last days of Rome or something….but going back further…I think ‘Cynical Days’ got some rough justice…it’s far too lounge-y and the clatter of the snare drum on the choruses is not quite right…..but if I went through it all I’m sure it would distress me too much….best not to think about it…
Here are a few memories or comments from some of my fellow Athenians about XTC or that XTC / R.E.M. at the B & L Warehouse on April 24, 1981:
When I was touring Europe with Sugar, we had a truly excellent sound engineer from the UK by the name of Mick Brown. It is typical for a touring sound engineer to tune each venue’s PA with a recording with which they are very familiar and hold in high regard. Every single day of that tour, Mick’s choice was XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” It was constantly stuck in my head, but I never minded. Great song. Great production. Great band. — David Barbe (Chief Engineer & Producer at Chase Park Transduction, Director of UGA Music Business Program, Mercyland, Sugar, The Quick Hooks, Bar-B-Q Killers, Drive-By Truckers)
The show R.E.M. did with XTC at the B&L Warehouse was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had, and XTC were as hot as any band I ever saw. The crowd simply would not let them stop playing, and I think they were as surprised at the multiple encores as they were happy to play them. The musicianship of Colin and Andy, and the power of the band, gave us something to shoot for. —Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
I remember thinking that this was the first time I had seen R.E.M. in color… there was a “tree” of colored lights on the stage and R.E.M. looked like a real, pro band! Also, I remember that XTC had a projector projecting words and dots on a screen behind them – “Cuba” “Generals and Majors” etc. The other random memory from that night was that a big old football player-sized frat boy took my chair from me when I stood up to dance saying “get your coat off of my chair, boy” – Bryan Cook (Time Toy)
In 1981 I was a very young student at UGA, living in Reed Hall. Since the previous year my friends and I had been seeing R.E.M. whenever we could, and we were always on the lookout for their next show. We were excited to learn they’d be opening for XTC, we’d been hearing “Life Begins at the Hop” and “Making Plans for Nigel” on WUOG and thought it was cool that our local heroes were opening for a big-time band. At the time our ideas about what constituted “New Wave” were vague at best; none of us had much access to the music press or records, but we thought of UK punk as having kicked things off and of UK bands as being on the leading edge. The night of the show we walked over to the B&L Warehouse from the dorm, crossing the railroad tracks behind the art building. The venue felt big compared to Tyrone’s, which is what we were used to, but the same crowd seemed to be there. R.E.M. did their usual energetic set, much to our satisfaction, but when XTC came out it was instantly obvious which was the better band. They were tighter, they had better sound, and their songs and arrangements were on an entirely different level. It was the show of the year for us and helped us realize that what was going on in Athens really was part of something bigger. Black Sea is still my favorite XTC album. – Brad Cahoon (Athens resident since 1979, Retired)
There was great energy in the room that night, the audience was enthusiastic, and I think the bands picked up on that. I just recall having fun from start to finish – Jeff Hollis (UGA Alumnus, Attorney)
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