Category Archives: Artist Interview

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Michael Fennelly’s (Crabby Appleton) “Go Back” (1970)


Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). Now we dip way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly.


At this stage in the game we probably don’t have to tell you that the early ‘70s was a breeding ground for the genre we’ve come to know and love as power pop—Big Star, the Raspberries, and the Nazz being just three of the more prominent progenitors. Count L.A.’s Crabby Appleton—vocalist Michael Fennelly (late of Millennium) plus a group popular on the local scene called Stonehenge: Felix “Flaco” Falcon (percussion), Casey Foutz (keyboards), Hank Harvey (bass), and Phil Jones (drums)—among those icons, too. Although the group managed to land insistent, hooky Fennelly composition “Go Back” in the Billboard Top 40 in 1970 and tour nationally on the strength of their eponymous Don Gallucci-produced debut album, the couldn’t maintain their momentum and wound up splitting following the release of their poorly-selling 1971 followup, Rotten to the Core. Fennelly would go on to a lengthy career as a songwriter and solo artist, and we recently caught up with him at his home in Portland, Oregon, to take a quick trip down memory lane to the “Go Back” period—and a musical legacy that’s still cherished by power pop fans across the globe.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song? 
FENNELLY: There wasn’t a particular incident or person as inspiration. I wrote songs all the time. Sometimes they were personal, and sometimes they were attempts at commercial placement. Some songs seem to write themselves. Go Back was one of those. Sitting playing my big old Gibson acoustic 12 string. Stoned. Out it came. Probably took less than a half hour.

  Any idea how your long-time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)
It’s the song more people know about than any of my others. A lot of people really liked it upon its release and many remember it fondly and comment how it was among their favorite of the era. So, in some respects it’s a fan favorite, although people who are familiar with my catalog over the years might have other choices for their faves.


Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later? 
After Crabby Appleton, I didn’t play “Go Back”. Many years later, in the ‘80s, my bands would include it – sometimes as an encore. It was fun to revisit.

Is there anything about the song you’d change? 
Nope. It came out just as it should have.


Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
“Go Back” was among songs I’d written before Crabby Appleton. We worked up our version in rehearsal. When we recorded it, producer Don Gallucci suggested the keyboard be a Farfisa Organ. It was a nice suggestion, I think. When we ran into problems was when we were close to finished mixing the album, and Don felt strongly that Go Back should not be on the album. He’s been involved with heavier concept album stuff (Touch) and though the song was too light and kind of bubblegummy.  Of course it did have elements of that genre, but I felt they were well offset by the minor-to-major changes in the chording, and the power of the overall sound. I also felt VERY strongly that “Go Back” was to be Crabby’s hit. We got in a shouting match in Elektra’s VP’s office over it. I won. [Below: Fennelly’s original demo for the song.]

How do you feel about it now? 
I like the song – I like Crabby rendition of it. And I feel a fondness for it as my one-hit wonder. Having a song and record that many people know and love is indeed a wonder! And “Go Back” opened all sorts of doors for Crabby and for me. It got us on American Bandstand [watch the performance, below), and had us playing arenas and pop festivals. We used to hear it come on the radio as we were driving to gigs across the US. That was a thrill.

I’ve attached the original scrawled lyrics, and a link to the original pre-crabby guitar/voice demo.







The New Pornographers guitarist talks about his new album, writing for television, disco angels, and more.


If you know his name at all it  is probably as being the low-key guitarist for Canadian popster’s New Pornographers but Todd Fancey has an alter ego (sort of). He’s released a handful of records under his last name. Yup, Fancey. While the New Pornos add some more glitter n’ drive to their pop confections Fancey heads back to that blighted decade known as the 70’s where he gleans inspiration from those AM radio pop records that his parents might’ve played (start with David Gates’ Bread and head westward). On his latest record,  Love Mirage (out this week, Jan. 27, on his own  Stoner Disco label) he goes a few steps further…..further into the world of soft pop and even disco. Cuts like “Baby Sunshine,” “Disco Angel’ and the title track and too shiny for words. We caught up with Todd and asked him about his long absence, the new record and who he’s currently digging on right now.

BLURT: 10 years is a long time since your last full-length , Schmancey. What have you been doing?

FANCEY: Aside from touring and recording with the New Pornographers I did a few songs for television – most notably “That One Night” with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupinsky for the “Dinner Party” episode of The Office.  I also watched a few prospective solo albums collapse under the weight of their own mediocrity as I learned how to do a lot of the editing and recording myself.  I started Love Mirage in 2015.

,How did the songs on Love Mirage come together? Was it 10 years of working on them?

Some of the songs on Love Mirage are remnants of the aforementioned failed projects that I tried to get off the ground artistically.  Luckily a romantic break-up or two came along in the interim to give me a more focused lyrical direction!

Did you do anything different in the studio this time from previous records?

Yes I did a lot different things in the studio this time, using an actual producer- Allan Rodger.  He wanted us to try and attain what he calls “supermarket grade” which means keeping the sound friendly and warm at all times….that was the goal!  I got similar advice from my friend Gary Mallaber who drummed on Steve Miller’s hits.  Gary plays percussion on the album.

Tell us about “Disco Angel.” Where’d the inspiration from that one come from?

Disco Angel was inspired by the way people used to “waltz” in the disco-era to a song like Kiss’ “Beth” or “Sharing the Night Together” by Dr. Hook.  Basically two people slowly turning around to the music under the mirror ball…just an excuse for polyester to bond.

Will you be touring for the record at all (specifically the states)?
I have no plans to tour the record at the moment.  I wanted it to be a truly studio album like the am radio stuff of the ’70s…faceless music with no worries about how it would be done live.  Not ruling it out though.


Is the New Pornographers still keeping you busy?

Yes the New Pornographers is keeping me busy, we’re going to release our new album in the spring and there will be lots of international touring.

Who are some of your favorite current artists?

I can name at least three modern recording acts that prove stellar music is still being made: Tame Impala, Neon Indian, and MGMT.




UPDATE JAN. 19: We just learned from Abercrombie’s label, ECM, that the musician, in his early 70s, has been hospitalized with pneumonia. All currently scheduled tour dates have been canceled for the time being and we will republish this interview when rescheduled dates are announced. And our heartfelt prayers and support to Abercrombie, his family, and his fellow bandmembers.


With the recent release of a retrospective of his first Quartet and a new album from his latest four-piece (pictured above),  plus an extensive U.S. tour looming, the jazz guitar legend talks about his long, celebrated career. Tour dates follow the interview.


When talk turns to great jazz guitarists, certain names always come up: Jim Hall, Barney Kessell, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield. Though not the household name of his predecessors and peers, John Abercrombie belongs in that pantheon. Steeped in the traditions of Hall and Montgomery while constantly stretching their boundaries, Abercrombie brings a perfect balance of technical skill, soulful feel and fertile imagination to his projects. That balance has earned him four decades’ worth of gigs with everyone from Gato Barbieri, Gil Evans and Billy Cobham to Charles Lloyd, Jack DeJohnette and Kenny Wheeler.

But it’s as a leader in his own right that’s truly put Abercrombie on the map. During a 40-plus stint with Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records, Abercrombie has recorded in many different contexts, from the fusion of his 1974 debut Timeless and the orchestral electronics of 1989’s Animato to his guitar duets with fellow ECM mainstay Ralph Towner and his reimagination of the organ trio in his mid-90s record with Hammond master Dan Wall. That’s not to mention the ethereal dynamics of Gateway, his collective with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, and his late ‘80s trio with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine.

It is Abercrombie’s quartet work, however, that is perhaps most celebrated. Recently collected in the three-disk box The First Quartet, the records made by his first four-piece band – with pianist Richard Beirbach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald – represented a step forward for his musical vision, and his return to the quartet format in the 2000s with Johnson, drummer Joey Baron and violinist Marc Feldman was hailed as some of the best work of his career. Debuting in 2013 with 39 Steps, Abercrombie’s latest foursome with Baron, bassist Drew Gress and old friend Marc Copland on piano continues the guitarist’s upward creative arc. Up and Coming, the band’s new album, comes on the eve of a U.S. tour, and is one of Abercrombie’s most tasteful and imaginative works.

We spoke to Abercrombie the day before Christmas Eve about the album’s creation, his early development as a musician, and more.


BLURT: Congratulations on Up and Coming. It’s a beautiful recording.
ABERCROMBIE: Thanks a lot.

How was the recording experience for that album?
It was very relaxed. It was just four musicians, the engineer James Farber and, of course, the producer Manfred Eicher. It was a very quick session. For some reason it just seemed to zip on by. A couple things we recorded, when we listened back to them, we didn’t like them, so we didn’t use them. We didn’t belabor it and so we wound up with what we wound up with. So overall it was very relaxed. We did it in two days. We mixed it on the third day. Manfred is very fast. We mixed it in about four hours and then it was done. I guess all I had to do was come up with titles. Sometimes it’s easier to write the song than think of what to call it – you just write the song and it doesn’t necessarily have a meaning to you. It’s not about a sunny day or a pretty girl – it’s just a song and you don’t know what to call it. Sometimes you just have to make up funny titles, and every once in a while something just comes to you that seems to suit the song.

I’ve often wondered how people who aren’t writing lyrics and choruses come up with the titles for these things.
It’s tricky. You go through a lot of possibilities. Everyone does it personally. Some people like very fantastic titles or romantic titles. I tend to like titles that are sort of tongue and cheek or might have a couple of meanings. Like “Up and Coming” – there’s two meanings to that title. It has a melody and chord progression that ascends, it’s kinda going up – it’s coming up, actually. Since it’s a new cd from this band, I had to call it Up and Coming. Sometimes there’s reasons and sometimes there’s not (laughs)

What’s your favorite song on the album?
I like the second tune on the record “Flip Side.” It’s very short. It’s a rehearsal take. We didn’t even know we were being recorded. We were just running the tune down and getting on the same page, and we did a few more takes. Manfred said, “You should listen to this other take,” which we didn’t know was recorded, because we played the tune from beginning to end and we took solos and it was a little on the short side. But I think it’s one of my favorite tunes on the record. Then I also like the thing called “Sunday School.”


When you sit down with a group of musicians, especially your current quartet, do you know which direction the music is going to go, or do you just go in and it just comes out when you start performing?
I have a basic idea of how I want the tune to go – approximately what kind of feeling I want the tune to have rhythmically. I usually have basic things like the feeling, the tempo, maybe – other than that I don’t put in a lot. When I write these things, I just put sketches on paper. It is the song – it’s got all the melody, notes and chords. I guess most of the rhythms and the melody are close, but I’m in a hurry and I jot them down and I don’t make the rhythms or the melody exact. I just get them on paper so I have something to show somebody. And then they say, “Well, how do you want this melody phrased?” Then I will say, “This is how I kinda hear it.” Because if I play the melodies by myself, I can play them any way that I want. I’m not trying to play them with somebody. Then we usually run the tunes down and I’m always wide open for anything a musician, especially these guys, would have to say about the tune in terms of how to perform or not perform it. If somebody said a really negative response to the tune, I don’t want to force the tune on somebody. I’ll save it for another time.

Do you ever have that?
No, I’ve never really had that, but I’ve had tunes that I felt that way about. After I’ve performed them or rehearsed them, I’ve said, “Yeah, I’m not as crazy about this tune as some other tune.” So I just don’t play it. So I’ve got maybe about ten tunes like that, sitting around that never got recorded and hardly ever get played, but every once in a while I’ll play one of them.

Just to see if you still feel the same way about it?
Yeah. If you leave time, you might actually realize, “Well, this is actually a pretty good song. I don’t know why I didn’t like it in the first place.”

You’re grounded in the jazz tradition, but you’re also constantly pushing the grounds of what that means. How do you achieve that balance between having one foot in the tradition and the other always going in your own way?
I think the traditional part of it comes from what I experienced when I first started to play jazz. I didn’t start out playing jazz. I started out in the late 50’s playing rock and roll – listening to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and all these people. When I first heard jazz, I decided I wanted to play that. I went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and was listening to music, hearing live music, playing music and that’s where the traditional part got formed, and in those days that’s all there was. There wasn’t fusion – music hadn’t started to melt together in this big pot. Basically I wanted to become a jazz musician and that’s all I put my time into. I didn’t listen to rock and roll. I didn’t listen to Indian music, but that came later in the 60’s. People started listening to all that music, so I thought there must be something to it. So I jumped on the bandwagon and started listening. I found myself playing in a lot of fusion bands and then later, free bands and bands that did ethnic music. They mixed things up a lot and I kinda lost track of the jazz, but I was starting to develop something else. I was playing folk music, I was playing rock music, different kinds of things. I think that early experience of playing different types of music opened my head up and made me start to mix things together and try to find new or other ways to play anything.

Those days if you wanted to play jazz guitar, you could go to a recording of Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall or Tal Farlow and there was a reference point on how to play that music. But when I started playing in these situations I was getting involved with, there was no reference point really for guitarists. People were writing their own music and you just had to fit into it. When you have to fit into something that you don’t understand and you’re just trying to make it work, you come up with interesting chord voicings, techniques, sounds. This is where the more far-reaching aspect comes in.

My first real love is jazz. If I had to say this one thing, I’d say I like jazz. Mostly I like from the 60s on. I like the earlier jazz a lot, too, but I don’t listen to it a whole lot, so I tend to listen to Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Coltrane and Jim Hall. The people that were on the scene and making newer music when I was coming up.

This current band is on its second album together. But you’ve been playing with Joey Baron and Marc Copland for a decades. How did this particular band of players come together as a group?
I’ve known Marc the longest. I played with him back in the early 70s when he was playing saxophone with Chico Hamilton’s band. Then Joey I met in California – when he moved to New York, we would get together at my house and just improv and do jam sessions at my loft in New York. The band before this one was with Mark Feldman playing violin and Joey Baron and Marc Johnson, and I had been playing with Marc, so he was a logical choice and then I just called Joey Baron and he was totally into it, and that became a band for five years or so.

When I decided to start this new band, Marc [Copland] and I had a relation playing guitar and piano. I had recorded on several of his little projects. So I said, “Let’s just try this and see what it sounds like and feels like.” So we got our agency in Europe to set up a tour. We hadn’t planned on particularly recording it. We were just doing a tour, just having some gigs and some fun. Manfred came to a gig we got in Switzerland. After the set he just came rushing up and said, “We must record this band.” I said OK. I enjoyed it, but I hadn’t thought about presenting it to him as a project, particularly. I didn’t know how it was going to work out because it was the first time we were all playing together in this configuration.

Drew Gress came about largely because of my affiliation with Marc Copland. Marc knew Drew from a period when Marc lived around Washington and Baltimore and that’s about where Drew went to school. So Marc introduced me to Drew and I immediately liked the way Drew played. I found it very refreshing. That’s why I put these four people together for the tour. When Manfred got very excited about the music, then we got serious about it, and then I said, “I’ll write some tunes. I’ll write some things and as soon as I have anything that looks decent, I’ll get in touch with you and we’ll try to set up a record date,” and that’s what happened. That’s when we did 39 Steps.

Is this group giving you something that previous groups didn’t?
I used to have a piano quartet way back in the late 70’s with Richie Beirbach and George Mraz and a drummer named Peter Donald, and they recently reissued the three recordings of that band. So I have had this instrumentation before, but since then I’ve gone on to mostly piano-less groups. Although I have worked with Hammond organ, which I like very much. But I think one of the things I get from it is having the support of a harmonic player like Copland. He’s there to support me, so I can play off of the sound of the harmony as well as playing off of the bass and drums. I can hear the notes I choose against the harmonies and that’s something I really like. Even though it would seem like the guitar is the main upfront voice of the band, it’s not really that way. I feel everybody is a little more equal in this band. I like the interplay and the way people listen, and I think the new record really captures that. I think it captures it maybe more than [39 Steps]. There’s some very interesting things on it. Maybe more interesting for me than an average listener, because I know how the songs are constructed and I hear funny things going on, and guys interacting and leaving certain things out.

One place, we actually forget where we were in the tune, but we left it that way. Nobody was lost, the tune didn’t fall apart and it sounded really good, so we just left it. But there’s a couple of spaces where you can’t tell who’s playing, but it sounds nice. We’re sort of trying to decide who’s gonna take the reins now and we’re all sort of holding back a little bit, and so I do it. That’s in “Up and Coming” – there’s these little spaces. It’s right after the piano solo. You’ll hear this little pause where I think Drew is probably gonna jump in because he starts to play something that sounds like he’s gonna take a solo, but then he backs off. So I come in and play something and he thinks I’m gonna play a solo and I’m just sorta accompanying him, and about a half a chorus goes by where nobody is really in the foreground, and then all of the sudden then I say, “Well, I better take it, because I don’t think Drew is gonna take it.” It was very relaxed. I wasn’t angry. I knew if it did fall apart, we’d just do another take. It’s no big deal. Listening back to it, I thought it sounded pretty cool.

Those are the things that make music sound human.
You make what might be construed as a mistake, but it’s really not. You’re listening so well, and there’s such a democracy in the whole thing. I’m waiting for him to play, he’s waiting for me to play, so “After you, my good man, you go ahead.” It’s being polite, too, and very aware of the other people and what they are contributing, and trying to allow that to happen. So it’s not just playing the same way every night. It always comes out a little bit different, which I thought was always the point of this music anyway.

Especially when you’re improvising on a tune, you have something that most classical musicians don’t do. There’s a composed piece of music and they just to interpret it and express it, which is great, but they don’t improvise on a Beethoven sonata. But we do. We improvise on these structures and songs that I set up or Marc set up, so we have to really know how the harmony and melody and rhythm of everything is working, because we’re using all of this when we improvise, which is tricky.

You’ve had a very long association with ECM records as both a leader and session player. What makes ECM special and why have you stayed with them for so long?
They’re special because Manfred is a real producer. He’s doesn’t want you to play just something that’s going to be popular or try to fit into a current type of music. He wants you to play what you play, and he’s always been very encouraging to me and supportive of me. I did my first record in 1974, so that’s quite a long time. One of the reasons that I stay with ECM is that I know I’m going to get to do what I want to do, pretty much. I have to take advice from Manfred from time to time, and I’m willing to do that. But I know I’m gonna get basically to do what I want to do with the musicians I want to do it with, and it’s gonna get recorded beautifully and be beautifully presented. I don’t think that would happen with any other [jazz] label, because there’s not even that many labels left. Most of the labels around are small, and don’t really have the bucks to do stuff.

I know most of the younger musicians now do everything themselves. Which means they have complete control over what they do, but as far as them ever making any money from it? It’s pretty iffy. You need to have the recording to try to get work so that you can play and keep doing what it is that you’re doing. That’s how I look at the recordings – they’re sort of like documents, but they are also passports to work. People see a new recording and they say, “Oh, this guy has made another record, wow!” And when it’s new, there’s more excitement. People tend to listen to it more and then you get work, hopefully.

Speaking of some of your ECM compatriots, I spoke to Jack DeJohnette just about a week ago. When I first starting listening to jazz around the mid- to late 80’s, one of the first three or four jazz albums that I bought was Gateway 2. That was a huge influence on my jazz listening and one of the reasons I’ve been so fond of both your music. Do you think there might ever be more Gateway music at some point in the future?

I don’t know. I would like to think that there could be. If we could all just find a period where we are free at the same time and want to do it, it could come together very quickly. All it would take would be a short rehearsal, some ideas for tunes, and going in to record it.

I haven’t been in touch very much in the last few years with Jack or Dave. We’ve all been doing our own things. Jack is usually doing a million different things. I’m not really quite sure what Dave’s band is doing right now. I think the last I heard it was with Kevin Eubanks. Similar instrumentation with my group, except Craig Taborn played electric instruments a lot. We started out when we were probably in our late 30s, and now we’re considerably older. It would be nice to come back and do one more before we’re no longer here. Maybe if I speak to Jack, I’m the sure the topic would come up.

You’ve played with Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton, Billy Cobham’s fusion band, John Scofield, Charles Lloyd, Kenny Wheeler – all these amazing musicians. Outside of your own records, what was the most memorable musical experience for you?
Playing with Gateway and Ralph Towner was memorable. I really loved playing with Kenny Wheeler, because I just loved his music, his playing. His compositions and Ralph Towner’s always struck me as being sort of perfect. They influenced me a lot – when I first met Ralph, I tried to write compositions like he was writing. The same when I met Kenny and I realized I had a strong connection to the way they played and wrote.

Charles Lloyd was a great experience for me almost from the opposite point of view, because Charles gave me so much freedom. His compositions were usually pretty simple for the most part, except “Forest Flower” is really a tricky tune, and I think it’s his best tune. He just had a lot of these very open little tunes that didn’t have a lot of harmony or a lot of stuff to do on it, and so there was no instructions for me. I figured out a way to play behind him and he liked it. I found it a great experience and that came later in my life – I was already in my 60s. Maybe I was in my late 50s. Billy Higgins was the drummer at the time, and he was probably as old as Charles. Then we had Marc Johnson, who was the baby in the band – he was the youngest guy and he was already in his 40s. But I had a lot of freedom in that band. That band taught me how to use that free aspect of not being told what to do and just figuring it out. I loved Charles’ sound and the way he played. It was very natural for me to play with him. It didn’t feel like a hard gig – it immediately felt comfortable to me.

You’ve played with all of these giants and icons, and now do you feel like one of the giants yourself?
No, I never feel that way. I just feel like I’m a good musician who’s been around a long time. I’ve been really blessed by meeting Manfred Eicher at ECM and being able to have played all these years with all these tremendous players. I don’t see myself as anything other than a good guitar player who wants to get better and still has things to do. I never think about that aspect of it at all, but I know that there are people that are influenced by what I’ve done. They tell me and I’m really appreciative when people tell me things like that, but it kinda goes in one ear and out the other. I appreciate hearing it, but I don’t want to dwell on it, because it’s not that important to me.

What younger musicians do you listen to now? What more recent musicians have impressed you?
There’s so many good guitar players now. There’s Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Moreno, Peter Bernstein, who’s a little bit maybe older than some of those guys. Ben Monder, and this guy Gilad Hekselman – I’ve heard him play on Youtube, I’ve never heard him play live. Lage Lund – I did a recording with him and Peter Bernstein, a tribute to Jim Hall that came out about three months ago called Inspired. It was done under Artistshare, which is the label that Jim Hall was recording for before he passed away.

I’ve heard all these guys. Some of them live, but most of them on recordings. I don’t get a chance to go in [New York] and hang out and listen to music. I’m about an hour and fifteen minutes north of the city, so by the time I drive in and park the car and then come home, it’s a long trip for me, so I tend not to go and hear a lot of people live. Craig Taborn really impressed me. Chris Cheek, some of these young saxophone players. Chris Potter. There’s a few Chrises. There’s a lot of players that I’ve heard. If you told me their names, I would probably say, “Yes, I’ve heard them play,” or “No, I haven’t.” Some people you just don’t get around to hearing.

Compared to when I came up, the young musicians are better than we were. They’re more equipped. They’ve been around more music, they’ve been exposed to more music because of the internet and the speed of everything. They’re kind of like whiz kids. They learn and develop very fast. Whereas my generation learned more slowly and we developed slowly. I think that’s the big difference. They’re better than we were, and that’s good, because they should be. That means the music is getting better. I’m all for it, just as long as they don’t take away my gigs. That’s the nice thing about being older and established. They can’t really take away my gigs, because my gigs are mostly as a leader or with special projects like Gateway. There’s no way they can take that away from me.

You’ve already accomplished a huge amount in your career. What have you not done yet that you’d still like to do?
This is something a lot of jazz musicians always think about doing if you talk to them. I’d always like to record with a real orchestra, and I have, but not on my own project. I did a thing once with a composer named Vince Mendoza. We did a thing with the London Symphony. It featured Kenny Wheeler and me and a couple of other English musicians, and Mike Brecker was on it. But I did it live in a studio in London, and it was such a thrill to play with the orchestra – with the strings especially, just to hear the guitar with strings.

I think Manfred would be into it if he trusted the composer. He’d have to know his work. I did another project with Mendoza, and we wanted to use a small chamber orchestra, but Manfred didn’t want to spend the money at the time because he didn’t know Vince was such a good writer. So we wound up doing it with synthesizers. It’s a record called Animato. It came out 20 years ago. It’s a very nice record and we used Jon Christensen from Oslo to add a rhythmic input to it.

But what I would like to do would be with somebody – it wouldn’t have to be Vince, but I would think of him first – but somebody that could really integrate a small chamber orchestra around a guitar/bass/drums trio. We would play improvised sections and with the orchestra – but not a huge orchestra, maybe just like a chamber orchestra. Charlie Parker always wanted to record with strings and he finally got to do it, and I think a lot of jazz musicians have that hidden fantasy of recording with an orchestra. I’m no different. I would love to record with a small chamber orchestra but with a trio, so I could still play jazz and improvise. I’d have the bass and drums to support me in that, and I’d have the orchestra to color everything. That’s one thing I’d like to do.


January 21 – Cambridge, MA @ Regattabar

January 24-28 – New York, NY @ Birdland

January 31 – Washington DC @ Blues Alley

February 17-18 – Denver, CO @ DazzleJazz

February 19 – Portland, OR @ Portland Jazz Festival

February 22 – Saratoga, CA @ Café Pink House

February 23 – San Francisco, CA @ SFJAZZ (ECM@SFJAZZ II)

I THINK I’M FALLING… Aberdeen’s John Girgus


The L.A. pop auteur brings the noise!


John Girgus is no household name, but in the world of indie pop music this ultra-talented musician made his name as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles-based band Aberdeen, his and Beth Arzy’s brainchild. That band was one of the few American bands signed to the UK label Sarah Records. Just being on that label would give a band legendary status among many of Sarah’s ardent fans. Aberdeen came, went, came again and then left us, but left us with some beautiful, excellent recordings (which you’ll read about below). In addition to that band Girgus has played with…well, a ton of folks. His latest musical project is the melodic-yet-occasionally-haunting Legendary House Cats; they can be fun, too. I’m assuming that Girgus has a job though, for some reason I picture him as this guy who doesn’t work and hangs around a studio all day with music filling his head and then it all comes spilling out in whatever instrument he happens to be picking up. This isn’t to imply that the guy’s lazy or anything, on  the contrary, he’s got an obsession and he has to get it out. I also picture him not sleeping much either (again, music filling his head). We flew Girgus in on the private DAGGER jet and stuck a mic in front of his face. He was equal parts guarded and forthright, but mostly the latter. He also brought croissants for the very hungry staff. Take it away, John. (Ed. Note: this interview originally appeared in Dr. Hinely’s most excellent ‘zine, DAGGER.)


Did you grow up in Los Angeles proper? If not, where?

Not at all, I grew up in the Coachella Valley, pretty much every city out there, Palm Springs, Yucca Valley, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio, also for a short time in Long Island, NY. I’ve lived in LA for about 17 years now. Most of my adult life.

Was music big in your house growing up? What was the first instrument that you picked up?

It was on in the car a lot, but I don’t know about any more or less than anyone else. Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, The Beatles, were popular on the 8-track, Billy Joel, Jethro Tull, Paul Simon, were the cassettes, then of course later they’d let us listen to our tapes, probably a bad idea. There were audio systems in the house, but they weren’t really centerpieces. The car was probably where most of it was played. Nobody played instruments or anything though.

The first instrument I had, was a Casio PT-82. (I just looked that up.) It’s a tiny little 25-micro key keyboard, with a built in speaker, that had what they called a ROM-Pack which were like data cartridges that had MIDI versions of like “Greensleeves” with instruction in the form of LEDs that followed the keys. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. A few years after I forgot about that, I got a bass guitar. A short scale Cort, an inexpensive beginner. That was to play in a band.

How did you first discover different music? Was it punk first? New wave? Power pop?

I remember being in Vancouver once, as a kid, and hearing the radio and feeling bad for them because they had this grating, third-rate sounding music playing, clearly tell was inferior to the radio back home, (probably mostly slick power ballads at the time). A few years later I heard the same song again, listening to a borrowed cassette copy of “Standing on a Beach” in a whole new way, of course. Punk and all that eventually followed, I bought and sold records trying to reconcile changing tastes, probably same as anyone, but The Cure always had that place. They started it.

Also, I hate power pop.

When you first began writing songs who were you influenced by?

A lot of friends at the time, bandmates, as songwriting largely collaborative. A lot of the time, it was just making up riffs or having parts written on one instrument, kind of half-songs, and you’d form words as part of the music and all that. I’d be bringing my Steven Severin lead bass riff to a guy who was mostly listening to “…And Justice For All” and another guy who maybe into thrash, sometimes you’d just create with only the direction that was directly before it, luckily we were creative enough where that didn’t get in the way too much.

I had maybe one friend who really wrote songs a little later on. By that time, I was working out my own ideas and arrangements much more realized via drum machine and 4-track. I was also listening to the shoegazers, Cocteau Twins, many of the Sarah bands, some of the more obscure Creation bands and songwriters. There were a lot of jazz chords in that, anyway, the one friend of ours, Aron Alcala, a very encouraging, talented songwriter (who actually played briefly in Aberdeen), was very into jazz and noise in addition to melody and alternative music. The introduction to a jazzier chords in addition to the open chords I’d been using, that was pretty instrumental.

I still don’t even know if I write songs. I think what I write are more like themes or something. They can be songs, but I don’t walk around singing songs strumming the guitar at parties either. I sit and listen more than anything.

Was Aberdeen your first band?  If not tell us about your first band?

No, but sort of. Aberdeen was part of an evolution of bands. My first real band was with the guys that I just mentioned. We didn’t even think to do covers, we just started playing our own ideas. Sort of jamming, but more just collaborative writing. That band was called The Void, which was my terrible 14 year-old idea of a name that came from Siouxsie & The Banshees “Love In a Void”. I have a tape archived. I’ve thought about cleaning it up and posting it… maybe I will now! It’s mostly instrumentals recorded live into a boom box. It’s very rudimentary, but also kind of diverse and weirdly ambitious.

How did Aberdeen come together as a band? How did you first meet Beth?

That band did really get up to much besides the Chris the drummer, and Ryan the guitarist’s garage. Maybe like one backyard party. I think Chris got into more important things and Ryan and I just kinda kept playing, trying to write, hanging out. I started learning guitar more. I was getting more into punk, him metal, but I don’ think either one of us owned or operated a distortion (or any) pedal. Everything we wrote was pretty twee. About then I was hanging out with another friend who had started playing drums, Frank. I met Beth probably shortly after that, about the same time I was giving up on trying to sing.

Beth just walked up to me in high school one day with her best friend. There was a total of about a dozen goth kids at the high school, so we all knew of each other at the least. She was one of the more extroverted of the bunch. At some point she told me she wrote poems and wanted to sing in a band. I remember actually trying to write music to a few poems. It was pretty awkward, but when we did the music first, it was much better. I guess we all talked eventually and agreed to give a band a try. It was pretty random,s in terms of music tastes, but pretty much nothing else to do, so I think we just committed to the idea, made it work. And again, the first thing we did was start writing. That would have been Ryan, Frank, Beth and I in Frank’s folks’ living room (later garage), which is now a beautified desert sidewalk.

That band, Beth called Black Star Carnival, which she took from the Primal Scream song, but if you weren’t familiar with early Primal Scream, it sounded like some sort of goth circus act. We actually played out a lot. We’d recorded in a few local studios and some Aberdeen songs were actually written at that time. Another nice kid named Ryan joined on guitar, we got into a bigger sounding thing, a pedal or two, as shoegaze was happening. He actually gave me my cassette copy of “Loveless”, because he didn’t like it. I got a lot of records that way. I remember Chris actually re-joining the band briefly when Frank left, but eventually everybody lost interest and it was pretty much me and Beth. I had a guitar, a 4-track, and a newly acquired Boss DR-550 Dr. Rhythm drum machine. Beth picked up the bass and renamed the band Aberdeen, which had actually been one of our songs. We didn’t so much come together as a band, but kind of fall apart into one.

How did the folks at Sarah Records contact you about wanting to release your records? Were you guys over the moon?

I think Beth and Matt were already writing. She’d sent them a demo (maybe one of our infamous “Prong tapes” even). They may have even been written via fax at that time, so… probably fax! Beth had moved to Los Angeles by then, I was living in Indio, where I did most of the writing and recording for those songs. Beth called me on the phone, at a job I hated, both to tell me she’d sent the tape, and that they liked it and wanted to do a single. I was pretty over the moon, yeah. It gave me a lot of hope.

With Sarah Records, was it hard being an American band on a U.K. label? Those bands doing tours over in England, I’m sure you wanted to be part of it.

In all honesty, I barely felt a part of it at all. Beth was much more social, she’d write to everyone. I’d seen a few nice ‘zine reviews, but she kind of gave me the impression we weren’t one of the beloved bands. Like Sarah’s step-kids, one of ‘the later bands’. Maybe that’s true, maybe time has been kind, it still surprises me when I hear someone say we were amongst their favorites. I think she also spent a lot of time in the chat rooms and message boards later, too. I was never into that, really. I still don’t feel like a part of it. The only connection I really have to it is the music itself.

There were a few instances, like getting a fan postcard from Keith Girdler of Blueboy. It would have been great to be a part of those tours, but I barely knew they were happening. When any of the bands would play here, we’d get a call and usually the opening spot which was nice. We played with Heavenly and Boyracer, probably the only bands brave enough to make it to the US. Learning about the rifts was fun. We assumed they were all friends, and had been doing a Brighter cover “Half-Hearted”, when we opened for Heavenly at the Crocodile Lounge in Santa Monica. After the set pretty they all walked up to us, super nice, told us they loved the set… except they “could’ve done without the Brighter cover” and we’re like “you don’t like Brighter?” and they just pointed thumbs down and pulled faces!

Did Aberdeen break up in between the Sarah Recordings and 2002’s Homesick and Happy to be Here or did the band exist the whole time?

The first one is correct. That was a real break up. A relationship break up. The relationship was not good and by then it was pretty unbearable. I wanted to do the band still, but we weren’t writing, we weren’t finishing anything, Sarah had just announced their end, we were just playing shows around LA which kinda sucked back then, a revolving door of bandmates, like surrogates filling an imaginary space. There was no way the band was going to survive that kind of break up. She recorded “Marine Parade” mostly on her own, for a commitment to March Records’ “Pop, American Style”, but that was pretty much it for a bit.

I moved around a few times after that and pretty much quit music altogether. When I moved back to LA in ’98 I was playing in a few different projects, revisiting those Aberdeen tapes, and started reaching out. That was about the time what would become “Homesick” began to develop.

Why did you decide to release It Was the Rain: Lost Recordings 1993-1995?

I felt like I had to. Those tapes are some of our most important recorded material. Somewhere there are faxes from Matt (Sarah Records) giving us production notes about the studio recordings of “Byron”, basically telling us to find what we lost from those “demos”. Sarah did nobody any favors. They’ve passed on demos by Pale Saints, Manic Street Preachers, favorites amongst my favorite bands. What he loved about our music was contained in those recordings. Our friends loved them. I didn’t just set up a couple mics and track an existing band. That’s how I made and probably still make music. The song is written on the chromium oxide! Those recordings kind of are Aberdeen.

There were some cool unreleased songs too, that I thought deserved to see the light of day, like Jenni and Adam’s songs. Those don’t really exist anywhere else, but I just thought they were great. Adam’s “Self Evidence” is the only one I added instruments to. We did that in a night on Moog and guitar, so it seemed like a nice close to add a little bass and a synth and kind of be like. . . this is sort of where we were heading at the time.

The masters though, they were full of noise, degrading in storage, the multi-tracks in danger of physical damage. The ideas themselves fragile in their only existing state. Trying to keep them safe was becoming a burden. I found a Marantz 4-track recorded in a pawn shop for $100, it had 4 outputs and did multi-speed, at about the time I had a pretty nice but very old Pro Tools rig which has nice sounding inputs. I just digitized everything from my drawer of tapes. I was also starting to get into the newer more up to date recording rig I have now, which has some pretty slick noise, mastering, and mixing tools. I tried a couple of the songs that were finished and previously mixed, just cleaning up noise and mastering mostly. It started to work really well and sound really nice. I just got caught up in it, as I do when a project starts to work, and finished it in a couple weeks. I had everything we did, some songs that were missing for years, all pretty reasonably listenable. I booked a day to master with Uly Noriega’s studio The Laundry Room, but that turned into 2-3 days of mixing and mastering. At that point there wasn’t much choice, really. Everything else had been on Bandcamp anyway.

The entire program ran pretty well over an hour, so I thought a cassette would be a nice souvenir. The songs were recorded onto cassette, they were originally distributed on cassette, and then remastered on cassette. I did a shorter version on CD later, because so many people complained about the cassette, though!

I guess, I just don’t want the very existence of my music, being so vulnerable to fate or chance. With Aberdeen, at least, I’ve always thought that if I didn’t take the effort to keep the music out there, nobody would.


Tell us about your current band, the Legendary House Cats. When and how did it come about?

It’s a solo project. I just didn’t want to name it John Girgus. It will probably end up there eventually, but I like having the name to apply when needed. My most recent effort, a cover of The Softies “Hello Rain” for “Constant and True: The Songs of Rose Melberg” is credited to John Girgus & The Legendary House Cats. A remix might be credited as “Legendary House Cats Remix”, where a collaborative credit, I can just use my name. Starting up a new project is difficult, I’m just trying to connect myself to my efforts over the years, and have some fun with it.

It was kind of this or nothing. I’ve started, driven and played in a good few bands. It always gets to a point where it becomes almost physically impossible to continue making music. When the idea is built around collaboration, it’s very existence is so delicate. I was working with a few bands a couple years ago, and I just saw a lot of bad decisions, a lot of energy selling the song, not so much writing it. I realized at one point I couldn’t do anything about it. I could put so much work into it, but the outcome was pretty much a pattern and a pattern I recognized a little too well! I just was like “if you keep doing this you’re the idiot”. My goal has always been to make good music, relatively consistently and that was just never happening. I hate the idea of working solo, it’s scary and difficult. It’s not the ideal situation to me, but I’d rather do that then not make music, or have some weekender, jam day and beers thing or conducting someone’s stalled ego train. Music has never been about ‘hangin’ with muh buds’ or any of that. It’s just what I do.

The focus lately has been more on composing for TV, ads… work. The artist thing is really secondary to that. There are projects I still want to do, there are songs I want to finish, but like, the idea of being this age, and thinking you’re going to make a record and it’s going to be big, doing all this set up, spending money on PR, social media content, the whole a band identity, it just feels a little vain. Nobody really cares. It’s the music that’s important. I’m happy posting songs on the internet for now, if I get any cool offers, I have a vehicle. I can take shows, I can contribute to comps, do remixes, collab. The Legendary House Cats isn’t trying to be a poster on a teenage wall, it’s a way for me to work with a degree of stability.

Tell us about any bands I might be missing in between Aberdeen and the Legendary House Cats.

“Well, let’s see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. . .”

From ‘96-2000ish there wasn’t too much. I played in Timonium for a minute. Later in about ’99 I played bass in an alt-rock band called Gingersol some people know. I didn’t make it to any recordings, though.

In 2003, I was actually in Trembling Blue Stars as Aberdeen served as Bob’s band for several shows. Later in 2007 I played guitar on “The Last Holy Writer”. 4 people saw those shows, but there are some clips on Youtube.

After the Aberdeen single “Florida” was released in 2004, it didn’t make much sense to pursue. I had actually started working on songs on my own, but there was just no support for those songs and I lost confidence pretty fast. I had met Ale Cohen then, Marcos of Languis, an Argentine electronic duo with a recent addition Stephen Swesey, who was in Tristeza. They needed a “fourth mind” and I signed up. We managed to get one EP, well regarded by a few people at least, “Other Desert Cities”. Shelflife re-released it on 10″ a couple years back, that’s worth checking out, I’m sure there are a few left. There were a lot of creative moments. We even scored an room at The Los Angeles Natural History Museum (which they let us record in the building, after hours). Ale has most of it released his label Simballrec’s Bancamp page.

Towards the end of my time with them, I had started writing and recording with a youngish singer, a co-worker form a job I had briefly at the American Apparel Factory in Downtown LA. It started as this this sort of charming, hipster, weirdo pop, eventually called Spider Problem. We made a pretty good racket playing live LA for several years, eventually opening a short tour for a reunited Germs (Shane West was a friend of the singer). We’d evolved into this four piece rock thing, eventually playing what would become these notoriously physical, even violent stage shows. It was novel, it brought us attention, but the music suffered though, and the recorded output leaves a lot to be desired, unfortunately. I was actually kicked out of the band while working on an album that we never finished. Almost like two different bands, they fizzled out in a very forgettable scene here. That band upset a few of my friends, but it was strange because the people who knew me from there… they’d never heard or cared about of any of my other projects. The earlier recordings are still on iTunes, but here’s little relevance for them now. It was a pretty good chunk of time, but you could probably skip it.

Somewhere in that same time I had a job playing bass for a guy named William Tell, who was a member of the band Something Corporate. They wore flip flops. I ended up on a lot of fangirl Myspace pages, a music video, some Youtube live clips and I think some of my production made it to at least one released recording; a song called “Break” written but ultimately rejected for the Will Smith movie “Seven Pounds”, I think.

After that, Chris McRitchie and Dave McKay and I started the band Non Ultra Joy. Chris’ band Big Stone City had hit a wall, and Dave’s band Driveblind (who were actually from Aberdeen, Scotland) they were on Geffen, but also had some big personnel problems. I’d been writing with Chris for years, and Dave had played in William’s band with towards the end. We had a shared work ethic, various frustrations, and a hankering to rock. They let me bring a keyboard. We made 2 EPs, but I think it was a really bad time to be playing rock in LA though. Everything was going “indie”, which at the time meant putting a bunch of drum kits at the front of the stage and chanting in unison over sample triggers. I’m very proud of both of those EPs. They are both on Bandcamp.

That would all be up to around 2011, where I also briefly joined an electric ukele driven elevator jazz inspired ensemble that did mostly covers called Sartre’s Lobster with Dave Lewty who was in called The Cheaters, Steve Harvey of Medium Medium and a singer named Amy Archibald, who went by The Soothsayer for one-off cover of The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” for an episode of True Blood (I am credited to Dick Isreal). Gary Calamar, the music supervisor got us on the soundtrack for that season, but a collaboration between Nick Cave and Nico Case beat us for the episode. Kind of a flattering defeat. . .

There’s other projects I’ve got on record out there… various collaborations with a producer named Colin C. Allrich, who puts all his music his label called Confusion Inc. (also has a Bandcamp), his aliases include Slighter, Horrorfall, usually very electronic/industrial. We’ve had a fair amount used in TV too.

In 2012-13 I’d produced for a few bands that are probably better known in the current LA scene, Paper Pilots, Tennis System, some album demos with Western Lows. I did a single with The City & Horses, called “Youth”, I’ve been a fan of Marc’s since we were Myspace friends. I did an official remix of The Who’s “Eminence Front” with Gary Calamar and Willie Aron, C.A.G.E., we called it. The Calamar / Aron / Girgus / Experience! Although I’ve kinda given up on the idea of producing, I’ll still produce solo material for Chris McRitchie, which you can hear on his Soundcloud, and I’ve been working recently with a singer named Christopher Mowodd of the LA band The Mo-Odds on something, still in very early stages. We just recorded recently at David Newton’s. Dave and I have also worked on a few TV cues recently. I’ve got a couple remixes out for Tracy Shedd and Jimmy’s Band & The Beat, one more coming for the band Skytone via the ever supportive Wally of The Beautiful Music label.

Sometimes I work on multiple projects a day. I usually prefer to just define it later, but that can lead to a lot of scattered projects. I’ve tried to maintain pages for that, but even I have a hard time keeping track. With producing or collaborating, people don’t always credit you as they should, releases get neglected, bands just die, and even Allmusic, and Discogs doesn’t work. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few projects.


What are your top 10 desert island discs?

“Strange Free World” Kitchens of Distinction

“Seventeen Stars” The Montgolfier Brothers

“I Could Live in Hope” Low

“Endtroducing” DJ Shadow

“The Sound of” The Hit Parade

“Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the” Sex Pistols

“The Top” The Cure

“Thursday Afternoon” Brian Eno

“Poor Fricky” East River Pipe

“Master of Puppets” Metallica


Who are some of your current musical favorites?

I don’t listen to too much new music. I recently bought a few newer releases for a DJ gig I didn’t get to play, maybe they’ll work here. “Open Your Eyes” by School of Seven Bells, Cigarettes After Sex, on recommendation of the guys at Third Outing (who I’ve written for), The Radio Dept. is really nice.

I’ve been doing mastering work for a band called Lemonade Kid from the UK. I have to listen to their songs for days at a time, I don’t mind it a bit either, you could check them out.

Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?

Thanks for taking the time to put the questions together. There’s a few words out there about the band out there, They aren’t always accurate. Although it’s difficult and this is probably the last interview I ever want to do, it’s nice to get the chance to talk about.

Also, I hate power pop.

BONUS QUESTION:  Being in L.A., who is the biggest celebrity that has shown up at one of your gigs?

I played in this one guy’s band (much more actually), and I know Emma Stone came to at least one show because she was going out with the dude’s friend, teen pop star Teddy Geiger, who I think was actually playing drums that night. So I actually kinda knew her, and kinda got into it with her friend Martha MacIsaac (I looked that up), the “blowy j” girl from Superbad, who she brought to see us at the Silverlake Lounge. The were both under 21, and wanted to hang out inside the bar like any normal Hollywood star would probably be allowed to do, only the Lounge at least at the time, was run by dudes who probably didn’t care so much, so they’d just do their usual ID rounds before doors. I was like, “look, just stay in the back until doors so we don’t all get kicked out and can’t play” and she’s like “ugh, who is this annoying idiot”. Then again, I played on Carson Daly once, too. . .

BONUS QUESTION 2- What’s your all-time favorite fanzine?

I know, more doctors prefer DAGGER than any other brand of ‘zine. I trust science.








The British musician made his mark, initially, with Gallon Drunk, with whom he continues to tour and record. Most recently, he’s been an integral part of PJ Harvey’s band and played on her Grammy-nominated Hope Six Demolition Project. Now, he has an ambitious solo album that is already stirring rumblings among music critics about year-end best-of list placement.


Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston has produced something timeless with his debut solo album The Starless Room, from Clouds Hill Records, based in Hamburg, Germany. The starkness of Johnston’s photo gracing the cover revealing nothing but the man himself, is a wonderful metaphor for the album as a whole. Here, he opens his heart and lets it flow like never before. This is a sweeping culmination of the musical moments we’ve heard punctuated throughout his career—which includes work with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Faust, and, currently, PJ Harvey—as well as a fascinating new step into an artistic space that he’s finally ready to inhabit.

As I did last year for our Gallon Drunk From The Heart Of Town piece for our The Story Behind The Album piece, I contacted James who was more than willing to sit down and answer my questions about the new record and the amazing year he’s had. (Ed. note: Sharp-eyed BLURT readers no doubt spotted the exclusive track he offered us recently, a live version of the new album’s “Heart and Soul” recorded by Linda Gerdes back in 2015 at the Clouds Hill festival. You can listen to that track below. Meanwhile, Johnston has also created a series of videos in which he discusses the writing of each track on the album. Go HERE for the “Track by Track” section of his YouTube channel.)

BLURT: Why at this stage of your career do a solo record?

JAMES JOHNSTON: I needed to do something different, I wanted to try something fresh, something I wasn’t familiar with. Something that reflected more what I like to listen to myself. It just developed from there, encouraged and helped along by Johann Scheerer, the producer. We’d just done two Gallon Drunk albums in fairly quick succession, and it needed to go somewhere new. I’d skulked about behind a curtain of noise for ages, I wanted to see what it was like without it for once, take the comfort blanket away. [Below: Johnston and producer/Cloud Hills owner Scheerer]


How long have the songs on the album been kicking around, and how long did it take to record the album?

Everything was written specifically for the album. I hate coming back to troublesome old demos, all the same indecisions rear their ugly heads back up immediately, sends me out of my mind hearing stagnant old ideas that I overworked or overthought. Garageband drum loops, hearing some of them again makes me want to weep, throttle myself, or smash my computer, so I tried to stay as far away from anything like that as possible this time for the sake of my sanity. If something’s not working it gets erased immediately. I tend to start everything as an improvisation, just see what comes out. Often I keep the form of the improv intact and build on that. The first half of “Dark Water” was done like that, and the last track, a lot of it was.

We did three session for the record, initial recording, then overdubs, the choir, the strings, and then a mixing session a while later. I’ve no real idea how long it took. It’s easy to lose track of time at the studio, Clouds Hill, as it’s a residential studio, meaning you live there too. It’s very easy to just get lost in the whole process, I barely went into Hamburg once throughout the entire recording.

Who decided the running order?

That was me. I spent a long time working on it – as usual, but certain things were always set in stone for me. “When The Wolf Calls” was always going to be the last track, for example. “Dark Water” was the center, so having those in place made it a bit easier. Trying to keep tracks apart that are in the same key. I enjoy albums that have a definite musical and lyrical flow and work as a complete piece, so mostly I was hoping to achieve something like that with the running order. Just listen to it until it felt complete. Probably the same as it is for everyone putting a record together.

How many songs did you record in total, and which were the hardest to nail?

There were only a couple that didn’t make it, one called “The Wild Sky” that I really like, but it just didn’t fit in the running order. The most difficult ones were where I’d embellished the demo too much, and we were trying to recreate that, or build on that rather than start afresh. “Heart and Soul” was like that. Completely different to the demo. We ended up totally stripping out the idea, changing the key, and then slowing it right down, after which Johann further slowed the tape down so it has that odd ambience. The drum part especially. The demo was an up-tempo cross between Dr. John and Ennio Morricone, totally overblown, bombastic, and impossible to recreate, but we still felt it could really work as a song, and I was really happy with how the lyrics turned out. I’m so very glad Johann suggested starting from scratch with that one, as otherwise it was heading towards the bin, and I love the ghostly way it ended up. It fitted the nature of the words so much better than the original track did. So much better than the demo, and more part of the record in its overall atmosphere.

By far the easiest was “When The Wolf Calls,” one take and that was it.


 “Cold Morning Light” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and to be honest, I was sad when it ended. What was the seed of an idea that set you on a course to write this gem of a song?

It was originally going to be an instrumental, and I was completely happy with it that way. It was Polly who suggested I try singing on it so I tried it out at home, sounds to me now like I’d been listening to The Doors, which I probably had been! I wanted the whole track to develop, layer upon layer, so it was logical for the vocal to be the last entry, hence the form of the song that leaves you hanging at the end. Also, it works as a break from the more traditional song structures on some of the rest of the album. Live, we’ve stretched the intro out longer, but on the record, I generally tried to keep things more succinct.

“St. Martha’s” I loved when I first heard it—how did this song come about? (Ed. note: A live version of the track, recorded at the above-mentioned Clouds Hill festival, appeared on a 12” single that featured Peter Doherty on the flipside. The limited edition vinyl-only item was released for the 2016 Record Store Day in the UK.)

That’s a favourite of mine too. The music came first. Then the lyric was triggered by looking through a box of very old photos. It’s about a very specific place that has huge emotional resonance for me, it’s out in the country. But hopefully as a song, it could be about anywhere that someone holds precious, hazy memories both good and painful, we’ve all got them! I’ve tried writing about that sort of thing before, but I could never get the tone of it right. Probably the saddest track on there.

Do you have plans for another solo record, or will a Gallon Drunk record come next?

Everything is very much open, I really enjoyed the freshness of recording the album, and I’d very much like to keep that sense of newness going, whatever it may be. The feedback will always be there if needed, it’s just waiting inside a Big Muff for a while.


Tell us about Johann Scheerer’s [pictured above, with Johnston] involvement as producer and bassist—what discussions did you have regarding the sound you wanted?  What’s he like to work with?

First and foremost, Johann’s a friend. We’ve worked together on two Gallon Drunk records now, and a Faust album, and now The Starless Room. Knowing someone that well can be totally key to trying something new; you have to have that trust, the freedom to try anything, regardless of whether it’ll work or not, and not rely on your usual methods. Johann is great at that, and I’ve seen him develop that level of trust very quickly with other bands in the studio too.

It started with my emailing him a blizzard of demos, sometimes one a day, and this went on for a long time. He’d respond immediately with what he thought, good or bad, and I’d take it from there. They weren’t finished songs, just chord patterns and rough vocal ideas. It really helped to bounce ideas off someone, and gave me confidence to follow my instinct with some songs I might not have ever shown anyone, and also to ditch some things immediately. It gradually became obvious what style was working best, and that a group of songs was developing.

Most of the discussions about the actual sound came in the studio; we both had ideas for every song, so we’d just try them out with Ian [White; pictured below] on drums, and see what worked. Ian plays beautifully on the record, and obviously, that brought something new to respond to as well. Generally, we all tried to let our enthusiasm and instinct take the lead, try different approaches until it felt right, then move on quickly.


Strings are tricky to employ without sounding cloying and overly emotional, and on the album, they seem rather restrained. Was this something you thought about when trying to fill out the core layers of the songs?

Well, I certainly didn’t want it to be like one of those “Hank Williams and Strings” type albums where the strings are poured on as a sweetener. The string arranger, Sebastian Hoffmann, was extremely sympathetic to what I wanted and what was needed. We listed to loads of arrangements I like. From Massive Attack to Serge Gainsbourg, [John] Cale, Lee Hazlewood, and even Vaughan Williams, all sorts of stuff. The overall tone of the whole record is one of restraint, so the strings are part of that mood and he achieved it beautifully, a lot of subtle counter-melodies like the gorgeous tune on “Cold Morning Light,” and then on the last track it’s just improvised harmonics and a very delicate drone was all that was needed, barely there.

 On this record, you seem to be the most emotionally vulnerable we’ve seen you. Were you at all worried how this would play with your Gallon Drunk fan base, who were more used to the visceral edge of your songs?

The nature of the songs demanded something open and vulnerable, exposed, something markedly different, so the lyrics had to match that. I really needed that too, I needed change. As usual I wrote the music first, with a vocal melody, then fitted the lyrics to that. You can’t really worry about how people will respond or you’d never finish anything, I know I wouldn’t. I find it hard enough to start with, without setting up even more barriers and things to consider.  Again, I just went with what felt right at the time. I was still basically just responding to the music, in the same way as I would with Gallon Drunk, except this time more based around melody, and the vocal taking the lead in the song.

You’ve spent a good part of this year touring with PJ Harvey, who counts Mick Harvey also as one of her band members. What influence has playing with these people had on your music?

I know Mick really well from playing in The Bad Seeds, and in his solo band, so that feels totally comfortable, and I really enjoy it, the same with Terry from Gallon Drunk who’s also in the band. It’s a big band, ten including Polly, so we’re all reacting to one another, and playing off and around one another the whole time. It has to be sympathetic to the song, what’s needed, or as is often the case in music in general, what space needs to be left. One big difference for me has been playing the violin again after years of it sitting sadly in its case, ignored. I took it into the recording sessions on the off-chance it might be of use, even if someone else were playing it, and now I’m playing as much violin as guitar on tour.

What does the Grammy nomination for Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project mean to you since this is also partially your work?

The Grammy nomination is for Polly, it’s her record in every way, but being involved with the album has been an amazing experience, which has now spread out over time to include the tour that now continues on through 2017. Mainly it helps draw more attention to the album, and the timing has been great as the North American dates have just been announced. But also, I’m very proud to play on the album, and it’s meant working closely with friends old and new. The first gig where Polly and I were on the same bill was a Gallon Drunk gig in 1992 in a London pub The White Horse. We subsequently went on to tour together for about a year. It’s always been a great memory; we were all young and very fresh to it all. So, it’s been great to work together, and really reconnect properly as friends.

 Will you be touring for your record? Any chance of a stop in Asheville, North Carolina so our esteemed editor, Fred Mills, can catch you?

I played Asheville a few years ago while I was in Faust, loved it, still have the tinnitus to remember it by. I hope to do some shows in the States for the album, so we’ll see. Sadly, we’re not stopping in Asheville on the upcoming Harvey tour or I could have done an impromptu gig somewhere in town that had a piano. (Damn. Well, next time then, mate! – Ed. Fred)

Last time we spoke for our piece on Gallon Drunk, you were looking forward to 2016 and all your various musical endeavors, now that we are at the end of the year, take stock for us as to what this year has meant to you, and what next year holds in store for James Johnston?

Well, a lot [has] happened for me with music this year, and there’s been a lot of travelling. To put it simply, next year looks the same, and I’m very, very grateful for it being that way.


Photos by Steve Gullick

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade” (1992)


Ed note: With BLURT’s newest series, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Response from readers was immediate, and enthusiastic; Matthews himself was appreciative, and fans are encouraged to check out his new single (details HERE). For our latest spotlight, Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). Scroll to the end for details about the band’s upcoming 25th anniversary shows for the album.


In the late ‘80s, Massachusetts trio Buffalo Tom burst onto the scene with a very good self-titled, J. Mascis-produced debut that was initially released in Europe on the Megadisc label in 1988, subsequently getting picked up in the States by SST the following year. They followed it up with Birdbrain in 1990, by now signed to Beggars Banquet, another very good effort, but the band really hit it out of the park on record number three, 1992’s Let Me Come Over, also on Beggars, and one of the best records of that year. It’s still a favorite among Buffalo Tom fans. The band—the same three guys: Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn and Tom Maginnis—still get together for occasional tours and recording (their latest, 2011’s Skins, is among their best). I tossed a few questions at vocalist/guitarist Janovitz to get the skinny on one of the band’s most popular songs and he was kind enough to give it up for the BLURT readers.

 BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

BILL JANOVITZ: This one, as with most of my songs, started with the music. I think I just started humming out a melody and the first verse came. The second verse was taken from a newspaper story about a girl who goes to hide as a hermit after her family would not allow him to marry the man she loved. I believe this was in Romania. The third verse is a summary, tying the three together. Cappy Dick is a reference to a Sunday comics character from when I was growing up.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

The song, with melody and chords came quickly, all at once. The first verse was likely culled from the initial mumbling I was doing. The second verse was just sitting around in a notebook, though in different meter. I think I pulled the whole writing part together in a day or so. I started on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. I could go in there and play a little because it was the furthest away from my girlfriend while she slept in our bedroom in our tiny apartment. I would record into a boom box.


Any idea how your longtime fans feel about it—i.e., would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?

Certainly yes. It is kind of our signature number.

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

We have played no shows without it, I think.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

The actual writing? No.

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

Recorded at Dreamland, a converted church in Bearsville, NY, near Woodstock. Amazing spot. Then we overdubbed guitars, vocals, etc., at Fort Apache in Cambridge, all with Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie co-producing. It was mixed by Ron St. Germain. I think every performer listens to recordings of themselves and hears things they would change or improve, if not just cringing outright. So, yeah, I would change a few things. But nothing glaring.

How do you feel about it now?

I still feel deeply about the song, especially when singing it. But I would never have predicted it would be a song so many people latched onto, never mind be a single or a song that still resonates for so many fans. I’m grateful to have one song like that, if nothing else.

Buffalo Tom recently announced they will be doing some shows next year to mark the 25th anniversary of Le Me Come Over, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and London.

Janovitz on the web:  /

 Buffalo Tom on the web:  /


 Suggestions for a potential “Inspiration Behind…” profile? Let us know in the comments section, below. If we take your suggestion and the artist, in turn, takes us up on it, we’ll acknowledge your editorial input in the feature (and maybe even give the artist your contact info so he can thank you – or sue you – for making the suggestion).



Only Lovers Left Alive event at Heaven, London, 06 February 2014

The NYC psych outfit spills the beans on their influences, on Krautrock in general, on their hometown scene, their upcoming album, and more. Below, listen to key tracks.


White Hills, who hail from New York City are, sad to say, one of the bands it took me until 2016 to finally hear. Since I didn’t know much about the band, I decided to contact Dave W. for a quick interrogation. The band has graciously offered Blurt readers an exclusive link to the triumphant and otherworldly, “Before Leaving Earth”, from their Oddity III: Basic Information CDR. The music is the aural equivalent of liquid propellant being forced through the shuttle’s, booster rocket O-rings, before consuming itself and spinning back to earth. So strap yourself in because it’s one hell of a ride. (Visit the band at their Facebook page HERE or at their label, Thrill Jockey.)

How long have you all been together and could you introduce the members of the band?

DW: We’ve been together since 2006. The only other constant member other than myself has been Ego Sensation.

Seeing that your ep No Game to Play was released in September what’s next for the band?

DW: No Game To Play was the first release under the name WHITE HILLS. It was re-issued, for the first time on vinyl, by the San Francisco based label 300mics. It was originally released only as a CD-r with a different sequence and mix under the title They’ve Got Like We’ve Got Blood on Julian Cope’s short-lived label Fuck Off & Di label in 2006. The vinyl version is the original sequence and mix of the album.

Presently we are working on a new album, title STOP! Mute Defeat, that will see the light of day on Thrill Jockey records in mid May of 2017.

Tell us about some of the bands that have influenced your music?

W: I am the collective sum of all music that has been dear to me. I wouldn’t say any one has more influence on me than another.  Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Dub, James Brown and various bands from a scene out of Sheffield in the late 70’s/early 80’s; groups like Hula, Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire and Chakk.

What’s the New York Psych music scene like? Any bands from the scene that you’re into?

DW: I couldn’t tell you to be honest. I’ve never been one to pigeonhole myself, or prescribe to a certain scene.  I like to immerse myself in anything and everything. That is easy to do living in NYC. What I can say is that when I started the band “Psych” was a dirty word, now it’s the catch phrase of the month. Some other genre will replace it soon enough.

Some bands I dig in NYC at the moment include The Space Merchants, The Netherlands, Insect Ark, One Prayer One Sin, SQURL, Psychic Ills and Anasazi (although I’m not sure if they are still together which is a shame if that is the case.)


Do you guys use any vintage gear?

 DW: We aren’t gear heads of any sort. We like to use what sounds pleasing to our ears. If you can make an instrument sing it doesn’t matter whether it’s old or new, does it?

What’s the last record you purchased?

DW: Wovenhand’s Star Treatment. Definitely worth looking into if you haven’t yet. They never disappoint.

Name 5 Krautrock albums that you feel are essential listening?

DW: I think the whole Krautrock thing has been touched on enough at this point in time. The only band that I might be able to shed some light onto that many might not be familiar with is Ton Steine Scherben. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they were not spacey, but heavier in the same way that the MC5 & The Stooges were to their contemporaries.

I’ve always been found of music that comes out of Germany. Lately I’ve been listening to bands like Abwärts, Deutsch Amerikanishce Fruendschaft (D.A.F.), Die Krupps, Palais Schaumburg, S.Y.P.H., Blumfeld and DIN A Testbild, and am more interested in the post-punk and experimental scenes that came out of the late 70’s/early 80’s.

What’s the reception to your music in Europe versus the US?

DW: We spend more time touring Europe, so I’d say we are better received there. We do tour the US, but more offers come in from Europe.

Have you ever played in Asia?

DW: Not yet. There have been a few chances but they’ve never materialized.

I’m new to your music but my gateway drug was the album Oddity III can you tell us a little about the genesis of this record?

DW: Oddity III: Basic Information is part of a series of limited edition self released CD-r’s that are only available from us when we are on tour.  Each release is made up of unreleased tracks that are collected from studio, live and rehearsal recordings. The material corresponds to the new album we have at the time. I see the series as a look into our process for that album. The tracks on this release were accumulated from sessions that gave birth to the album H-p1.

 Any tours planned at the moment?

DW: At the moment we are in the process of finishing up our next record. Outside of a random show here and there, touring won’t really kick in for us until the spring of 2017.

What does 2016 mean to you all at this point in time?

DW: Today, it seems that the collective human conscious is choosing to head towards a time of uncertainty, the potential destruction of our planet and ourselves in the process.  The further we evolve the further away we get from moving forward in a positive non-harmful way. We’re smart enough to have invented all kinds of technology that we perceive makes life better for us now than it was in years past, but we aren’t smart enough to realize in the process that we are polluting the earth’s resources faster than they can be naturally detoxified and in doing so have tilted the balance of nature.

Balance is the key. The pendulum cannot swing to heavy one way or the other without a problem. At this point in time the pendulum weighs too heavy to one side. That is why all seems so tumultuous at this time. Humans will continue down a destructive path, until we don’t exist anymore, unless the collective conscious realizes that we need to live within harmony of all things. It’s not brain surgery. If we continue to destroy what gives us life, we in turn are only destroying ourselves. The earth could care less about humans and it will do what it needs to do in order to heal itself. It is time we get off our high horse and realize we aren’t as great as we think we are. Only then we will be able to move forward in a positive direction for all things and not destroy ourselves in the process.


Photo credits (top to bottom): Simona Dalla Valle, Marylene May, Chris Carlone



The Prog legends’ drummer talks about the notion of a supergroup “brand”; pre-Emerson, Lake & Palmer group Atomic Rooster; the distinctions between pop, folk, and Prog; the new remixes and remasters of ELP albums; and of course his late bandmates. Above: Palmer with his own group in 2014.


Late-breaking Author’s Note: Very shortly after I turned in this feature for publication, news broke that Greg Lake had succumbed to cancer at age 69. Carl Palmer and I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing Greg specifically, but Carl did, as you’ll see, make repeated references to Greg’s “choirboy voice.” I like to think that Greg Lake would appreciate being remembered that way. – bk

I grew up on the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. When I was in high school, appreciation of ELP’s music was one of the few things that gave me any sort of connection with my fellow students. And my love of that music has continued. I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Greg Lake in 2012, and then saw him in concert a few months later. In 2014, I saw Keith Emerson in what would turn out to be one of his final performances; tagging along with him and his crew for much of the following day, I got the chance to conduct a brief interview with the virtuoso keyboardist.

I haven’t yet seen Carl Palmer in concert. But in 2016 I did “complete the set” and sit for an extensive interview with him. The ostensible reason for this particular interview was the reissue of three expanded-version ELP albums and a 3CD anthology. But we talked about much more. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

BLURT: The new mixes of the first album and Tarkus were done in 2012. Can you tell me how ELP came to work with Steven Wilson?
CARL PALMER – Steven Wilson had created a bit of a name for himself here in England, coming from the band Porcupine Tree. We heard some stuff that he was doing. He was very, very good and very, very keen on what was going on in his certain area, as it were. We were approached by the record company: would we like to have the remixes done by someone outside the group? So we said, “Look, the music’s great anyway; whatever anyone does to it, you know, it’s going to be one opinion against another opinion. It might be good, it might be average, it might be ok. Who knows?”

I mean, it was great music to start off with so, literally, all you could do is make it better or ruin it. Or just produce something which is pretty much the same as the original. But we thought we’d give it a go. When [the first one] came back, we were … ok with it. It wasn’t … it didn’t light us up. It was good; there’s no doubt about that. But as I said, it was good anyway, so this was just a different good, if you see what I mean. So we decided we’d have another go, and that’s how it worked, really. We were very casual about it.

One of the things that is often noted about Steven Wilson’s remixes is that he brings out things that were sometimes kind of buried in the original mixes. As you’ve listened to the new mixes, have you heard anything that you hadn’t heard in the original mixes?
You’ve only got so many tracks, anyway. So, when he goes to mix it, he’s not going to have more tracks available. Whatever was there in the first place, that’s what’s available to him. What’s he got is more refinery to play with; there’s more outboard gear, and you can “mature” the sounds. The EQs are a lot more sophisticated, the distribution spanned across the stereo is a lot better. With ProTools, you can even correct some stuff.

When you mix something in ten years’ time, it’s going to be better than something that you mix today – if you know what you’re doing – because you’re going to have more permutations at your fingertips to play around with. So that’s what he had. Yes, there were some things which sounded better. Some things … I kind of lived with them for so many years the wrong way, [so] it was hard to change. I was on both sides of the fence, really. As I said, I didn’t get overexcited; I just could appreciate what was being done.

I understand that King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk took over the task of doing the remasters of the other albums going forward. Do you know when we might see new releases of those?
I was not involved with that at all, to tell you the truth. I wanted to do it at BMG; we had a great relationship with them. We always have over many, many years. We will just see, you know, what happens and how that progresses and just take it from there, really.

Most record companies, now, when they get a catalog that’s been strong as what ELP’s has been over the years, everyone is always looking at how can we improve it. Obviously, technology is better today than yesterday; what can we do? There are certain names that if you immediately add to Emerson Lake & Palmer – like, say, Steven Wilson – start to bring in a different audience. Maybe younger prog fans start to listen to it. So you’ve got to understand there’s an area of commerce here which gets crossed as well. There’s a reason for doing things.

Obviously we’re keen on the sound being good, and if it’s a different way of mixing it on that day, then that’s fine. As long as it’s not any worse than what we’ve got, if it’s better, or if it’s slightly different, or a different version of a good version, then we’re up for it. We will all carry on going ’round with this, I would imagine, and see where we get with it.


Here’s a question to take you back to the earliest days of Emerson Lake & Palmer. How did the guys in Atomic Rooster (above) take the news when you told them you were leaving to form ELP?
It was a little bit sad, because I had just finished up recording with Atomic Rooster; we had recorded a single, “Tomorrow Night.” “Tomorrow Night” was the only number one single that Atomic Rooster had, so I had to dub the demo which was now going to be turned into a master and I suddenly jumped ship, as it were. Obviously, you know, when the guy kind of leading the band decides to leave, because I had formed Atomic Rooster, it gets a little bit knotty.

The situation was very, very simple. I said to Vincent Crane, “Look, I’m going to do this. You will need to re-record those tracks that I’ve done, and I wish you well, but I’m going to do this.” And I had decided, once I’d spoken to Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records. I was managed by Robert Stigwood at the time, and Keith and Greg were being managed by EG, so it meant that ELP had three managers. It was quite a complicated sort of setup.

But Vincent took it as a great friend as he always was, God bless him, and I moved over. And that was it. But, six months down the road, I was sitting in rehearsals, and Atomic Rooster were number one and I was still rehearsing with Greg and Keith. So I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.

elpThe term “supergroup” was just coming into use around the time ELP got started. And it certainly applied to you three, since each of you had achieved success in previous projects. I would imagine there were expectations placed upon you by the music press and so forth. Did that reality intimidate you at all, or did it encourage you in a way?
Well, to be honest with you, Keith and I were mentioned in a supergroup in 1968 by Chris Welch. He used to write for Melody Maker magazine. He put four [imaginary] supergroups together. It was Keith, myself, Stevie Winwood, and … who else was it? Someone else; lead guitar player or bass player – I can’t remember. And then there was another group, and another. So this supergroup kind of branding, which is really a journalistic sort of phrase, came very early, came way before ELP.

ELP really wasn’t happening until two years later, almost, 1970. So, I was kind of used to having that branding; there was no problem there. I think where it got out of hand was when journalists started to write that [Jimi] Hendrix was going to join ELP, which was not true, because I never saw Hendrix at any time in any of the periods that I personally played in ELP. He was not there at the beginning; he was not there at all. So this was just something made up by the journalists because they could call the band “HELP.”

Chris Welch dreamed it up. You have to realize that at the time he was an extremely well-thought-of writer in the music industry here in Europe, at the time especially in England. He just put those groups together [in his mind].

The ironic thing was that I had actually played with Steve Winwood when I was 12 years old. I hadn’t seen him since, and suddenly 10 years down the line or whatever it was, there I am, in the paper in a supergroup with him. And with Keith Emerson who I went on to play with 2 years later. So some of the bands actually came true! I can’t remember the other groups; I’ve got a clipping here somewhere…

But, yes, it was something that was basically generated by this one guy who really loved music. He knew all of these people and he thought that this was the combination that would work.

We went along with this for a long time, but basically it was all complete rubbish, you know. Nothing ever happened with Hendrix, even though I think Keith might have played with him one night in some club in Central London. But there was never any talk amongst the three of us about Hendrix joining.

Speaking of labels … to your mind, was ELP a progressive rock group, a pop group, a power trio, or something else? You trafficked in a lot of styles.
Keith was by far the better writer than any of us as far as directional concepts, that type of writing. If you wanted two or three chords for the folk song, something really simple, Greg definitely had the upper hand on Keith and myself. So we were very lucky to have two very strong writers in the band going in different directions and being able to put it together.

You have to understand one thing here – and I wish to make this quite clear – they always call Emerson Lake & Palmer a prog rock group. I’m still playing Emerson Lake & Palmer music today with my group, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. I’m still playing this music and it’s given me a great, great thrill. But if you go back to the original group, we had more hits with folk songs: “C’est la Vie,” “From the Beginning,” “Still … You Turn Me On,” “Lucky Man,” “Footprints in the Snow.” These are all big hits.

Until we had a hit on a commercial front with a simple kind of folk song, the first one being “Lucky Man,” we wouldn’t get people to go into the album and go three or four tracks deep and listen to the actual complexity and the diversity and the eclectics of flavor the group had. Because we were European, we weren’t American, we were keyboard driven, we didn’t play blues, we didn’t really play out-and-out rock and roll, even. We played a European, sort-of rock music with classical adaptations and a few original folk songs thrown into the mix.

That makes a lot of sense. In one sense, you were very much a pop group if you look at it from the standpoint of the singles.

Yes, and we were very much a prog group as well, because we had all of the latest technology; we really pushed the Moog synthesizer to the front. One of the all-time great Moog solos on a pop tune – which became one of the iconic prog rock solos – is “Lucky Man,” the solo at the end. So we crossed a lot of bridges all at the same time.

They used to call us a prog group, but it was really only half the story. And then you had all the technical expertise: everyone was a really great player, almost a master of his trade, so we had a lot going. [Greg Lake’s voice] wasn’t a blues or rock voice. It was an English choirboy-sounding voice. We went against the grain all the way. I didn’t play like an out-and-out rock drummer, because I had quite a lot of classical training. So I could bring in the tuned percussion – vibraphone, glockenspiel, bells, tympani, whatever – in, and we had a bigger sound as three people.

There was a lot going on in those days. It was very different, and we were very, very surprised that it took off in America, but it did. In hindsight when you look back on it, you can see why: because it was totally different to anything else that was happening.


The name of the band – equal billing for the three of you – suggests a kind of democracy. In practice, did it feel like an equal partnership?

There was never any doubt about that with ELP. Everything has always been split three ways. The partnership has been 100% like that. It was just the way it was. ELP never, never ever argued over money. We never argued over women, or what restaurant we should go to. The only thing we ever argued over would be four bars of music. And we would argue over those four bars of music for four years. [laughs] That’s the way ELP was.

From a commercial standpoint, was your collective point of view – assuming there was a consensus – a goal of creating each album as a free-standing creative expression?
We just tried to do the best we could every time. What came out, came out. When it went wrong, it went horribly wrong, like Love Beach in ’78. When it was right, you had something like Brain Salad Surgery. When it was absolutely laying the blueprint down for prog rock, you had Tarkus. The very first album, which had the drum solo on it, has “Lucky Man.” It has a classical variation, “The Barbarian,” by of Béla Bartók; not even written by the band. Then on the B-side of the vinyl – ’cause it was vinyl in those days – there’s three pieces of music: “The Three Fates,” with Keith playing a church organ on his own. I mean, what kind of band is that? That shows you how eclectic it was from the get-go. We just didn’t care; we did what we wanted at the time, and it worked. And we’re very lucky. As we went on, we did get more progressive; we did evolve with technology.

With the benefit of studio technology, bands in the early ’70s could overdub and make really dense, layered albums. Reproducing that sound onstage was another matter, especially for a three-piece, I would imagine …

Of course we didn’t have MIDI in those days, so we couldn’t trigger more than one keyboard at a time. [Now] you can play one keyboard, and have four or five of them firing off, and they can sound a lot bigger and fatter, more orchestral sounding. We couldn’t do that then. So when we did overdub on an album – say, like Trilogy – you ended up having something that couldn’t be reproduced onstage, because the technical aspect wasn’t available. The technology wasn’t there; we couldn’t do it.

We were always way in front. The first electronic drum solo is on a piece by Alberto Ginastera on the Brain Salad Surgery album, a piece called “Toccata.” People thought it was the keyboard that was doing that, but it was all from the drums! They were made to trigger electronic sounds from the drum; these were all preset sounds, and they could be changed by an octave divider. The drum solo was really abstract, and we thought it worked really well. We didn’t advertise, “This is an electronic drum solo,” because we weren’t about that. We were about producing a wall of sound our way. We didn’t care what people thought, as long as we knew that we were always one step in front. And we always were, to tell you the truth. Until, as I say, we got to Love Beach.

It seems that – with the possible exception of Trilogy – a lot of the music that you put together was something that you could more or less recreate live onstage. Was that a conscious goal?
No. It wasn’t a conscious goal. Our goal was pretty much the same goal as I carry on until today. I play a lot of ELP music; I play Pictures at an Exhibition and Tarkus, and I play them all instrumentally with virtuoso musicians. I don’t have any keyboards; I have two guitars. And they’re sensational. And all I’m doing today is exactly the same premise, the same thing that ELP laid down when we made those tracks. We said that if the backing track does not sound like a dynamite, explosive instrumental before we put a voice on it, something’s wrong. And that’s the way ELP conducted itself. So the backing tracks were always fabulous anyway, even before the vocal went on. So then when we put the vocal on top, then you had another gain again. The backing track had to sound like a killer instrumental. And most of the time, we succeeded.

Which ELP album is your favorite, and why?
I would say Brain Salad Surgery, mainly because we were at the creative pinnacle of our powers. We never played all of it onstage, incidentally. Not because we couldn’t; it just didn’t work in a live situation as well as it worked as a recording. Mainly because of technology, and the limitations we had of not being able to sound as “big” as we needed it to with three people. Because that was another album which was heavily overdubbed.

On the other hand, I would say to you Trilogy, as well. And Pictures at an Exhibition; probably those three. Trilogy is heavily overdubbed. What happened is, we came off the rails. We started adding a bunch of stuff, saying, “Yeah! We got it!” And then we’d say, “But if we add another line, another melody going up the back of the chorus the second time around, going into the middle eight before the instrumental section, that would just tie it up!” And before you know it, Keith would go out into the studio, and he would play 6 or 7 lines, and they would make you cry. You wouldn’t know which one to pick. We’d pick one and put it on, and before you know it, we’re in overdubbing mode. And we know we can’t reproduce this onstage unless we had auxiliary musicians. Which we never did, but we could have done. Because it was becoming a music industry standard; Pink Floyd have had backing musicians; the Rolling Stones, the Who … you name it. But we didn’t do that, unfortunately. When we did do it, we took out a whole orchestra! 54 people! We messed up. But that’s another story.

You mentioned Love Beach, which is of course notoriously unpopular among fans. As the story goes, that’s when things went a bit sideways for ELP. But I have to say: listening to the new 3CD set The Anthology, when the title track from Love Beach came up, I didn’t have the track listing in front of me. And once I realized what it was, I thought to myself, “Y’know, this is better than I remember.”
Well, that’s nice. Listen: music has got legs. This music will be around for a long, long, long time. And it’s all in the writing; the lyrics are incredibly mature. I have no problem telling people that I don’t like something [we did]. And we weren’t sure [about it] when Love Beach came out. But if you play certain tracks, you might say, “Wow, yeah.” It’s not exactly prog rock or cutting-edge, but … great tunes played really well.

There’s a piece on there by [Joaquin] Rodrigo, “Canario,” a classical piece. We absolutely nail it; it’s unbelievable! I still play it today; I haven’t played it this year, but I played it last year as part of the repertoire. So there are so many great, great things. If you listen to Brain Salad Surgery, there’s a lot of depth in that. I wouldn’t say that just because I’ve been in the band, and had a great time in the band.

There’s been a lot of controversy over the years with myself, Keith and Greg. They had even got another drummer [Cozy Powell] in for awhile. But at the end of the day, I can truthfully say that the music that was made when I was there is here to stay.

ELP had an amazing run in the 1970s. With all that you accomplished, do you ever look back and think there was anything that ELP left undone, didn’t quite realize a goal?
The only thing that I can say to you – you know, unfortunately Keith committed suicide the beginning of this year, which was extremely tragic – we were going to play together this year. Not as a group; Keith was going to come along and be in my band, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. He liked the group, and he said he would come along and play maybe one night somewhere.

There is a tribute to Keith that is coming out on DVD, with people like Steve Hackett on guitar, and Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge singing, a choir singing “Jerusalem,” and a contemporary dance group. One of the things that ELP talked about – which is why I used dancers and things – was getting involved with ballet or dance, and orchestra and auxiliary musicians. We talked about that, but it never really happened. So I did some of the stuff which we talked about but didn’t do. But ELP, I would say, fulfilled most of its dreams very quickly, but there was the odd thing which we didn’t do. We did do the orchestra thing, but unfortunately we didn’t do it for very long: three weeks. It should have been six weeks, but things weren’t going our way as far as selling tickets, so we had to look at the situation. But all in all, I would say we completed most of our dreams. (Below: Palmer live in 2010 with ELP)


Photos via Bill Kopp is editor of BLURT’s Jazz Desk. Postscript: After Greg Lake died last week, Palmer posted this memorial to his old bandmate at his official website:

 It is with great sadness that I must now say goodbye to my friend and fellow band-mate, Greg Lake. Greg’s soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music and recordings made with ELP and King Crimson. I have fond memories of those great years we had in the 1970s and many memorable shows we performed together.

Having lost Keith this year as well, has made this particularly hard for all of us. As Greg sang at the end of Pictures At An Exhibition, “death is life.” His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him.

Carl Palmer
December 8, 2016

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Eric Matthews’ “Fanfare” (1995)


With BLURT’s new feature, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Coming soon: Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems.


 BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?
ERIC MATTHEWS: Here’s what happened. Cardinal was debuting and the first single off the album was in the UK, “Dream Figure” (Flydaddy/Dedicated). And because the A-side was a song I wrote, we thought it would be cool if I wrote the B-side for the next single that would come out here domestically and in the UK, a Richard Davies composition. “If You Believe In Christmas Trees” was the single, and I was sent off to write a B-side, and came up with “Fanfare.” It was a slow acoustic dirge more like the “Reprise” version at the end of It’s Heavy.

Well, after I wrote it, I pretty much pulled a move where I said, “No, I am keeping this one for my first album.” It caused some friction between Richard and I, but I was a selfish prick about it. And frankly, I think it turned out all for the best because of course, it worked well for me—but way more to the point, we got “Say The Words Impossible” from Richard for the B-side, and that is one of the best songs he ever wrote.

Cardinal recording “Fanfare” would not have worked, really, too small a room. I needed Jason Falkner for it to have worked. “Dream Figure,” my only song on the Cardinal debut, I was all alone on it, just me and the drummer. That song took 3 hours to complete recording from start to finish, and that is the rush job that “Fanfare” would have gotten, and my career might not look nearly as good, such as it’s been.

Did it take long to finish writing it?
Not at all. I actually used the same tuning on guitar that I used on “Dream Figure,” and it just shot out of me. The lyrics may have taken an hour, but yeah, it was a quick put-together. The trumpet was automatic, and helped me name the song, whose title has nothing to do with the lyric.


Any idea how your long-time fans feel about it—would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?
I am starting to get the message at this point that people really regard it [highly]; that it was a major sound for them when it came out. Remember, at the time [in the mid ‘90s] the stuff on the radio and MTV was all hard, jagged, and loud. I used elements of that in my production of it, wanted to make it a “rocker.” But something about perhaps the softness of my voice and the blasting trumpets, the vocal harmonies… it’s like Chet Baker made a pop record, and yeah, it seems to have really sunken in for people as a benchmark song. It helped sell the record, where really there are far more meaty songs.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?
Well, not really. That said, when it was all finished and I handed over lots of space for Jason Falkner to play all those awesome moving guitar lines. And just sitting back to how hard we as a trio (Jason, Steven Hanford, and I) rocked, the insane groove of the thing, I did feel as if the song itself sort of got lost in the big mix. So, very late in the game, I got the idea to do that condensed acoustic version of the song “Fanfare (Reprise)” and tack it at the end of the album. I love that I did that—show people the warmth, quiet, and breath of the thing.

Tell me a little about the recording of it—where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
We recorded “Fanfare” downtown Portland, Oregon, at White Horse Studios (gone now) in early 1995. It was recorded quickly; we only did three takes as a trio and pretty much just nailed it. Me on guitar, Jason on bass, and Steven on drums. Vocals took me an hour, trumpets an hour, and Jason an hour of guitar overdubs. I mean, three punk rock guys just laying it down.

Mixing was probably an eight hour affair. It’s all in “post.” No big moments to speak of. My studio environment is pretty no-nonsense. We have fun, but only with the music. It’s all business, everything mapped out and planned to the dime. I am as much executive as I am musical producer. And lucky for me, Tony Lash, my then-production partner was very much like me, a creature of focus and discipline. He made “the band” sound good and we just rocked out. Jason was given the assignment of “lead guitar” and I only told him about essentially filling spaces with movement. I had come to know very well his creative melodic approach to guitar work, especially on [The Grays’ 1994] Ro Sham Bo album. He stepped up and had those melodies at the ready and kicked as—took the song to the next level in my opinion.

At the end of the day, we all looked around and it sounded like it belonged on radio. And the album title came from Jason. We were in the control room listening to a take of the live trio. Jason turned to me and said, “I think we achieved total heaviosity.”

How do you feel about it now?
I feel that the song got people to check out the whole album. That album is what it’s all about. The single is always the bait. And clearly, it worked, people got it, got me. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the song and album, and it came back out, a reissue where Sub Pop and Lo-Fidelity jointly released the album. The reissue gave people an opportunity to get deluxe vinyl and bonus tracks, that whole kind of thing. And best of all, that reissue got me back on track, as I did a deal with Lo-Fidelity, my new champion Jeffrey Kotthoff, signed me to a multi-year deal. I have a single coming out just after thanksgiving and a new album, Too Much World, coming out in February, 2017.

So, you can look back, and Jon Poneman from Sub Pop would say he gave me that deal because of my work on the Cardinal album. But yeah, it’s “Fanfare” that people heard in their cars, at the record shops, on college campuses, etc. Everything starts at that point for me, my childhood smile…





Ed. Note: With the recent release of The Out of Towners by Austin cowpunks the Hickoids, we duly note that the six-song mini-album represents the final recordings of the band’s beloved guitarist Davy Jones. It’s reviewed HERE by yours truly and is highly recommended, particularly if you love your indigenous Texas music. Meanwhile, we thought it appropriate to pay further tribute to Jones and the band by republishing one of our favorite interviews, from one of our 2013 print issues, original title: “TOO ARTLESS FOR ART, NOT ROOTSY ENOUGH FOR ROOTS”. Hope you enjoy.


Hickoids from site

Lurching towards their 30th anniversary and with a long-overdue new album in stores, the legendary Austin cowpunk combo may be older and wiser—but they still don’t give a fuck.


From the vantage point of 1987, no one would’ve deemed the Hickoids built to last. Their squalling, beer-logged collision of punk rock and degenerate country was the raw embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s quote – later favored by Hunter Thompson—about getting rid of the pain of being a man by making a beast of oneself.


Assuming they showed up to play, the Hickoids could be transcendent arbiters of the low-rent shamble that epitomized mid-‘80s Austin or a spectacular trainwreck of feedback, fisticuffs and junk-flashing that culminated in the ritualized obliteration of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Either way, you got your money’s worth.

Vocalist Jeff Smith and guitarist Davy Jones, the two remaining members from the Hickoids’ classic line-up, don’t recall much about the composition of “Brand New Way” from 1989’s Waltz A-Cross-Dress Texas. Maybe that’s because they were living the low-rent anthem out loud at the time:


Got a brand new way of livin’

Down here in Austin, Texas

Drink Budweiser every day

Show the girls our peckers

Don’t need clocks for tellin’ time

“Hillbillies” on at a half past nine

Got a brand new way of livin’

Not surprisingly, the beast eventually started to eat itself. By 1992, the Hickoids had sputtered into a hiatus punctuated only by the odd reunion show.


“If we weren’t so saturated at that period of time, then we could’ve build it up…,” says Jones now.

“…but we wouldn’t be alive,” finishes Smith. By Smith’s count, 27 people have been in the Hickoids over the years. Three of them, including longtime bassist Richard “Dick” Hays, have died.

Hays, who had heart arrhythmia, died in 2001 at age 45. His legacy is a focal point of Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit, the Hickoids’ first full-length album in nearly 25 years. That’s Hays on the cover, removing a Charlton Heston-style ape mask as he walks along a deserted beach with shuttered San Antonio punk haven Tacoland and a collapsing Tower of the Americas in the background.



Yet for all its veneration of fallen fellow travelers like Hays, Loco Gringos guitarist/vocalist Tom “Pepe Lopez” Foote and Tacoland proprietor Ram Herrera who are no longer around to drive the freak van, Chafin’ is more than a ghost ride. The current Hickoids line-up of Smith, Jones, guitarist Tom Trusnovic, bassist Rice Moorehead and drummer Lance Farley brings extra meat and shelf stability to the original template. From the gringos-gone-awry border misadventures depicted in “TJ” to the roadside marriage counseling doled out in “Side By Side Doublewides,” the Hickoids have somehow managed to channel the raucous spirit of drunk rock through the wizened lens of sobriety.


“We went from hardcore meets hard country to more of a funny punk thing, says Smith. “Now I’d describe us as just a straight-up rock band. Now that everything has a nine-word description, I think it’s more seditious to just call yourself a rock band.” (Below: “Fruit Fly,” from the new album, performed live)


Hatched in 1983 by Smith and founding lead guitarist Jukebox, the Hickoids never quite fit in with all the other chickens. Their first gig was a San Antonio date with Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, but their Salvation Army pearl snaps and garish “Cajun Realtor” outfits confounded everyone from cowboys to skinheads.


“We weren’t roots enough to be in the roots scene,” recalls Smith. “When we first started out, those guys would smoke dope with us and snort coke with us and drink with us, but they didn’t consider us musicians. There was still that divide.

“Then on the other hand, because every song wasn’t 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, we didn’t really fit in on the punk circuit, either. And because we were so wasted, we were too artless for the art circuit.”

As the Hickoids ventured beyond Central Texas, they forged bonds with spiritual cousins like Dallas’s Loco Gringos and L.A.’s Tex and the Horseheads. The latter band figured prominently in one of the Hickoids’ more infamous tour stories, which later birthed the song, “Queen of the BBQ.”


“We were out there in West Hollywood, staying with Texacala Jones at a place she had called Castle Greyskull,” recalls Jones. “We were inspired by whatever liquor and substances we were on to dress up like women and have a drag race.”


Smith picks up the story here:


“We had opened a show for the Butthole Surfers at the Variety Arts Center in L.A. We’d been staying at Texacala’s house all week. After the show, we had a keg party. And we’re just yelling, singing and stomping on the floor and everything in this old fourplex off of Hollywood Blvd. Tex didn’t know that their upstairs neighbor was a sheriff’s deputy.


“So they waited until everybody in the whole house was asleep. There’s probably about 12 people sleeping there. They kicked in the door at about 10 in the morning. I heard them kick in the door. I was asleep with my girlfriend in the back bedroom. My girlfriend and I just played possum. The cops yelled, ‘Alright, get up!’ And Wade Driver, our drummer at the time, is covered up in a sleeping bag. They’re poking him with a nightstick and they told me, ‘Get your friend up!’ And Wade said, ‘I’m not getting up until you quit poking me with that fuckin’ stick!’ I said, ‘Wade, get up!’ So he gets out of the sleeping back and he’s wearing one of Texacala’s red lace dresses.

“Me and my girlfriend are naked and they’ve got us all with our hands behind our heads, on our knees, with their guns drawn. They’re saying, ‘You think you have rights, but you don’t have any rights. This is Los Angeles and we own Los Angeles.’ Then they left. Nobody got arrested. They just harassed us.”

Then there’s the gig in Athens, Ga. where the only two audience members were R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Jones’ dad. And the drive to a Fourth of July date in Dallas with the Loco Gringos where a country cop ticketed Jones for not wearing a seatbelt while overlooking a felonious cache of psychedelics. And the “12-haybale” show during SXSW that made much of Austin’s Sixth Street resemble a high school ag fair.


The weight of expectations fostered by such war stories isn’t lost on Smith and Jones. It’s part of why Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit—which the band first tried to record back in 1989—took so long to materialize. A 2008 version of the album was scrapped right as the master went to the pressing plant.


“When I listened to it… I won’t say that I cried, but I was about to cry,” Jones remembers.

“I think a lot of it was that we were maybe trying a little too hard,” adds Smith. “It’s a difficult tradition to maintain when you’re known as a drunk rock band and you get sober but you want to remain true to the band and have a humorous element to it but still be true to yourself and not just go for the layups on the songwriting.”


This combination of humor and weight is evident throughout the album’s 10 tracks. “You Knee’d Me” builds a bumper sticker punch line into a yowling slab of grizzled balladry. The R-rated ribaldry of “Stop It (You’re Killing Me)” flowers into a seven-minute rawk anthem. Loose ends are nowhere to be found.


Now coming up on their 30th anniversary, the Hickoids carry the cowpunk torch with the integrity of men on a mission. They’re living down their onetime reputation as the “no-show ‘oids” while simultaneously educating a new generation on what happens when the New York Dolls get crosswise with George Jones. They even made it across the pond this spring, braving unseasonably cold weather to play 10 European dates in 11 days.

(Below: Hickoids’ current lineup of, L-R, Tom Trusnovic, Jeff Smith, Davy Jones, Rice Moorehead, Lance Farley; plus photos of Smith and Jones)

Hickoids 1



“In a lot of these punk clubs, playing to young kids over there in places like Germany, their definition of punk is a lot more modern,” says Jones. “They’re dressed in Misfits T-shirts because that’s what they know. So it feels like we have to school them on what our definition of punk rock is. Guess what? You’re allowed to do any fucking thing you want! You’re allowed to dress any way you want! It doesn’t have to be a Misfits T-shirt!”


Hickoids Euro poster

Photos credit: Maurice Eagle.