Category Archives: Artist Interview

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Agent Orange’s “Living in Darkness”

From the 1981 album of the same name, originally released by the punk-as-fuck Posh Boy label.

 BY TIM HINELY

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). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly, and then fast-forwarded to 2000 for John Conley talking about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.” Next came Allen Clapp (of the Orange Peels and Allen Clapp & His Orchestra) and 1994’s “Something Strange Happens” followed by Kenny Chambers, of Moving Targets, on that band’s ’86 classic “Faith.” Now Prof. Hinely lands in 1981 to take a retrospective look with Mike Palm at the title track to Agent Orange’s groundbreaking debut Living in Darkness.

At this point I’ve done several of these song inspiration interviews and  I was thinking “Hmm….who could I ask next?!” Then it dawned on me, Agent Orange’s Mike Palm. He’s still at it, touring like crazy and heck, even skateboarding, too. Palm seems like the eternal Southern California teenager, seemingly always chasing the sun wherever he may go. His band’s classic debut, Living in Darkness, was released 36 years ago, but sounds as fresh today as it did then with a perfect mix of punk,  surf and power pop. The title track is one of my favorites from that record and judging by what Palm states below, a lot of folks favorite as well (maybe even eclipsing their classic debut single “Bloodstains”). Some new material by these guys would be very welcome, but in the meantime go back and listen to said debut if it’s been a while (their two others, 1986’s This is the Voice and ‘96’s Virtually Indestructible, while not the equal of the debut, are no slouches either). Before hitting his next skate park with the band, Palm gave us a few minutes and weighed in on that song.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

MIKE PALM: I was pretty much sleeping all day, and either playing shows or going to clubs every night. There used to be an all night record swap in the Capital Records parking lot. It was great. I hardly ever went out in the day.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

I really can’t remember how long it took to write from start to finish. I do remember it came together smoothly, music and melody first, then the lyrics. Once I got it going it almost wrote itself.

Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)

Everything off of the first album is kind of mandatory. It’s the album title track, so I guess that makes it significant.

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

It still is. We only cut it if we need to play a shorter set, like at a festival or whatever.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

Nope. Nothing.

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

It was recorded in L.A. at a studio that was owned by the guy who later wrote “Papa Don’t Preach” for Madonna. We cut all the basic tracks in one night, then went back the next night to do minimal overdubs and vocals. When we pulled the track up on the second night, we realized that one of the microphones on the drums was broken, and the rack tom part was missing. They wanted to replace it with hand claps, but I hated the idea. It was a full-on stand-off that held up the session for a long time, until i compromised and let them use metal trash can lids from the alley out back.

How do you feel about it now?

It’s the longest song in our live set, so sometimes it feels like a marathon, but it has a good resolve that ends with a strong positive feel. It works well near the end of the set, just before “The Last Goodbye”.  but that’s another story…

COVERING TIME: Dan Wilson

When the Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic savant and songwriter-to-the-stars started planning his latest solo album, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration—he could tap his own songbook.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Dan Wilson is probably best known by most as the frontman for Semisonic, and Trip Shakespeare before that. He’s been anything but dormant, however, since Semisonic stopped recording and touring in 2001.

Over the years, he’s put out a handful of widely-praised solo albums and managed to morph into a song-writing wunderkind of sorts, lending his talents to singers and bands across a slew of varied genres. For nearly two decades now, Wilson has written or co-written songs for a who’s-who of musicians across the spectrum—a list of A-listers that includes Adele, The Dixie Chicks, Weezer, Taylor Swift, Pink and Nas, among dozens more.

So when he decided to finally cover his own work—all songs of his that had been performed by other artists over the years, but not by him—he had plenty to choose from. The result is Re-Covered, out this week on August 4 via Big Deal Music, a beautiful re-imagining of songs, many you’ve heard plenty of times before, but never like this. (The one exception to that theme being Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” sang and played here with near-reverence.)

Wilson will also release a deluxe edition hardcover book and CD that contains 56 pages of drawings, essays, lyrics, and songwriting observations. The book contains illustrations and stories by Wilson about each Re-Covered song, in addition to each song’s lyrics. This deluxe hardcover book/album will be released on August 25 and includes a physical CD (pre-order via Amazon).

Wilson, who is prepping a solo tour behind the album, spoke with BLURT recently about the project, his ability to easily let go of his songs and the future of Semisonic.

BLURT: Let’s start with how the idea for Re-Covered came about. Obviously, you’ve got a lot of songs out there that you’ve written for others over the years.
DAN WILSON: About seven years ago a friend of mine had the idea and she said, “Dan, you need to make an album of your best songs that you’ve written for other people and you can’t just do it on acoustic guitar and be lazy about it.” I liked that idea, it sounded like a great concept. In 2010, I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that I just didn’t have the right songs at that time; I felt like I needed a couple of more songs that were big songs in the culture and a couple more songs that expressed my ideals about songwriting. So, I waited for a while until I realized I finally had what I wanted.

Was it tough deciding which ones to include and which to leave off?
I liked the idea of having a clear concept of songs that were written for others and that made deciding easier in a way. I did demos of a whole bunch of songs and I made a list of about 40 or 50 songs that could be potentials and I knew that there were 25 that I really liked. So, I did guitar/vocal demos of those just to see if they sounded good. A bunch of the songs just didn’t sound good; my voice sounded too innocent and too bright when it needed to sound darker and bluer on some. They just didn’t sound right. And others were surprisingly perfect. It was the process of elimination.

You recorded most of these in just over a week, right?
Yeah, we did 12 tracks in a week and we mixed them all on a Saturday. A couple months passed and I told Mike Viola (his long-time collaborator and producer of Re-Covered) that we needed a couple more songs. We did a whole bunch more and chose four or five.

Recording in a week, was that out of necessity given schedules?
That was Mike’s idea. When I asked Mike if he would produce this album he said he would but only if we did it live to tape, with live vocals, have everyone in the same room, do it in a short span of time and mix it all in one day. And I thought, ok, that sounds amazing, but why? Here were his reasons: First, you will all have one specific sound because you will all be in the same place at the same time that week. Secondly, we’ll be recording to tapes on old school materials so you won’t be able to tinker with it or do anything to it digitally. It’s going to just leave things as they are if they’re great and you’re going to be so happy because you won’t have to spend months on a record. And I loved those ideas.

You’ve written with and for a lot of other people over the years. Have you ever felt it was difficult to give away a song or hear someone else sing it differently than you intended it to sound?
Well no, for two reasons. The first is sort of philosophical. I feel like hanging on to a song, like hoarding it for yourself, is sort of like betting against yourself. What you’re saying is I will never write a song this good again; I will never write anything this precious again, so I have to hang onto it. But if you give it to someone, it’s almost like saying I will give this song to someone else and then I’ll write another great one. There’s almost a karmic element to letting things go that is positive.

I’ve never thought of it like that.
Yeah and the second thing is I’m fine with recording something someone else has already recorded. The only risk is if someone does a complete heart-stopping incredible version. Even then you can recut it.

How did you get the Kronos Quartet involved in the song “Someone Like You”?
I met the Kronos Quartet at a concert I did that was a tribute to Big Star’s Third album. We did “Give Me Another Chance” and after rehearsal in the basement of that theater the Quartet and I were standing around talking and David (Harrington), the first violinist said “we should collaborate on something. We all love the way your voice sounds with us.” I said, “Oh, man. I’d be honored.” Basically, that was an open invitation and months went by and I was thinking about how I could do a version of “Someone Like You,” that would be different from Adele’s, but wouldn’t be R&B and drums and the typical thing to do. We tried it like that and it didn’t work. I suddenly thought, “Maybe I should do this with The Kronos Quartet.”

“Closing Time” is on here as well and obviously that song is probably most associated with you and Semisonic. It’s a beautiful version; it’s very subdued and almost solemn. Was this how you had originally meant the song to sound when you first wrote it or was this just something different you were trying?
When I first wrote the song, I wrote it on acoustic guitar and everything I had been writing for Semisonic seemed to be played very loudly. So, I just generally assumed everything I wrote for the band would be played loudly, but I wrote them quietly. It was just me on a couch with an acoustic guitar so it was almost like a folk song, but I knew we were going to play it loud. When I decided to record it for this record I just went back to the original vibe which was almost kind of wistful.

Are there plans to do anything new with Semisonic?
We did some shows last month and we’ll certainly do more. I wrote a bunch of songs last year that for the first time in a long time I felt could be great for Semisonic. I’m pretty excited about the prospect. The way things work for me is I have an idea and then turn the idea upside down a few times and then come to a decision. That’s what happened with Re-Covered. I love those guys and I love the sound we make.

Photo Credits: (top) Devin Pedde; (middle) Noah Lamberth

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE NEXT BIG THING?

Checking in with three ’80s icons, many years later, we learn that careers rarely follow the expected trajectories—but they still turn out satisfyingly if one has the right attitude. On the BLURT analysis couch: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.

BY DAVE STEINFELD

Since the beginning of time – or at least the 1950’s – popular music has concerned itself with finding the Next Big Thing.  But the vast majority of music industry suits don’t care much about talent, or even about music.  They just care about money.  Who can we sign and market and sell to the greatest possible number of consumers?  This mentality has always existed but over the years, the amount of money that record companies (at least the majors) pour into new acts has grown.  At the same time, the median age of the consumer has decreased.  Kids listen to the radio, have disposable income and short attention spans.  So most record companies – hell, most businesspeople – target them first.

What all this adds up to is an industry that sinks lots of money into a never ending series of Next Big Things – only to chew them up, spit them out and forget them when it decides their moment has passed.  Sure, the ‘heritage’ artist – one who builds and sustains a career over time – still surfaces now and then (see Bruce Springsteen, among others).  But for the most part, it’s about instant gratification.  Sign an artist, promote the hell out of their album (and video), make ungodly amounts of money off them and then – in most cases – drop them when their sales start to decline or when the Next Bigger Thing comes along.

Which raises the question: what happens to the people who were once pop music’s Next Big Thing?  That varies.  But it’s not always what you think.

For this piece, originally written in 2005 (but unpublished until now), I sat down with three artists: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.  Back in the first half of the ‘80s, each did time as the Next Big Thing, cutting a prolific presence on the radio and MTV.  Now, more than 30 years later, all three are still making music but only one has a record deal – and with an independent label at that.  You won’t see any of these three on TV anymore, unless maybe you’re watching VH1 Classic.  Two of these artists – ironically, the two who used to front bands – are now solo acts, while the one former solo artist of the three is now fronting a band.  None of the three can get their new music played on the radio.  And all of them are making some of the best music of their careers.

Finding the Sunshine

Katrina Leskanich is best known as the frontwoman of Katrina & the Waves.  The Anglo-American quartet hit the charts several times during the ‘80s, but their biggest hit remains their first: 1985’s “Walking on Sunshine.”  It still gets airplay and also pops up in films from time to time.  In 2004, it was even the theme song for John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

“[Kerry’s] people were talking to my people – which is me – about when he won,” Katrina told me at the time.  “I was gonna go to the party and do ‘Walking on Sunshine.’  I was delighted to potentially be involved in that.“ She pauses, reflecting on how the 2004 election turned out.  “Damn!”

Surprisingly, Katrina doesn’t see any royalties from “Walking on Sunshine.”  She may have sung it, but it was Kimberley Rew (the Waves’ guitarist) who wrote it.  “He gets a lot of royalties from ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ but I don’t see a penny,” says Katrina.  “ I make my own way in this world and it suits me just fine.

Be that as it may, London – where the Kansas born Katrina has been based for many years – is an expensive city.  While she hasn’t exactly been reduced to waiting tables, she has had to seek out other means of making a living at times.  For three years after the band split up, Katrina couldn’t perform under her own name because the Waves owned the legal rights to it.  During that time, she hosted a show on BBC Radio and also played the legendary songwriter Ellie Greenwich in the West End production of Leader of the Pack.

But Katrina has also released several solo albums over the years. To these ears, the best was Turn the Tide, which came out more than a decade ago now and h was available through her website, www.katrinasweb.com.  Sadly – and somewhat amazingly – she doesn’t have a deal with a label.  “For many years, I [banged] my head against the wall, trying to get a deal,” says Katrina.  “I sent out 250 CD’s… and heard back from precisely no one… So I took the bull by the horns and decided to form my own company, manufacture my own CD and deliver it to the people.  I lick the envelopes… and I’m a lot happier doing it this way because I’m in control.”

(Below: Katrina now)

Frankly, it’s difficult to understand why 250 companies passed on Katrina’s CD.  For one thing, she has name value, particularly in the UK.  But beyond that, Turn the Tide was an excellent album of mostly mid-tempo pop.  Katrina’s voice still sounds great and most of the songs are very good.  My personal favorite is “Hallowed Ground,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on AC or AAA stations.  There is also a nice cover of the Kirsty MacColl classic “They Don’t Know,” which Katrina does as a ballad.

Unfortunately, though, good music and name value don’t mean much in the music business – especially when you’re in your fifties.  Katy Perry’s voice can’t hold a candle to Katrina’s, but she is a lot younger and appeals to a money-spending demographic. (That said, Katrina continues to perform regularly, and is currently on tour as part of the Retrofutura tour that includes the English Beat, Modern English, Men Without Hats, Paul Young, and Howard Jones.)

After “Walking on Sunshine,” Katrina & the Waves dented the charts a few more times, with songs like “Do You Want Crying,” “Sun Street” and “That’s the Way.”  But they never had another smash, at least not in America.  “’Walking on Sunshine’ was a hard act to follow,” Katrina admits.  “The song became bigger than us.  There was a point where people would say, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Katrina, from Katrina & the Waves.’ Question-mark face. Then [I’d say] ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ ‘Oh yeah! I love that song! Wasn’t that Martha & the Muffins?’ You know, they’re asking me!”

 

A Man At Work

Colin Hay (above, center), the former leader of Men At Work, tells a similar story.  The Men had several bona fide smashes, but none was bigger than “Down Under,” their catchy 1983 song about Australia.  But Hay – who not only sung “Down Under,” but cowrote it – once met a woman who refused to believe it was his song.  “I wrote that song – ‘Down Under!’” he insists.  To which the woman replies, “No you didn’t.  You don’t remind me at all of Sting.”  Ouch!

Another of Hay’s favorite anecdotes is about the couple who showed up at one of his solo performances expecting to hear “The Safety Dance.”  That song – by the Canadian combo Men Without Hats – had nothing to do with Hay’s band, but was popular during the same period.  The punchline in the story is that when the couple finds out it’s not a Men At Work song, the woman still asks Hay if he’ll sing it.  Such is the payback for having a hit during the MTV era.

Few people have experienced the highs and lows of the music business to the extent that Colin Hay has.  It’s one thing to have a hit or two early in your career and then fade.  But Men At Work’s debut album, Business as Usual, was anything but.  In America alone, it topped the charts for an astounding 15 weeks, produced two number-one hits (“Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now”) and won Hay and company a Grammy for Best New Artist.  In 1983, Men At Work was arguably the biggest band in the world.

The music business can be a fickle place, though.  Men At Work avoided the sophomore slump with their second album, Cargo.  That album – while not quite as successful as Business as Usual – still sold very well and produced two top 10 hits.  But the band’s third effort, Two Hearts, was a disaster.  It produced no hits. The band had split into various factions and broke up shortly after its release.  By the late ‘80s, Colin Hay was playing solo – to audiences a fraction of the size of those he’d played to a few years earlier.

“I’ll give you kind of a scale of things,” Hay tells me.  “We culminated playing the Us Festival in California, to maybe 150,000 people.  And that was toward the end of 1983… In ’88, I was back in Melbourne playing to 40 [or] 50 people, solo.  People in Melbourne didn’t really care about Men At Work.  So if you wanna stay in the game, you do what you can.”

Unlike some artists who have hit the big time and then fallen, Hay has no problem talking about his past.  During live performances, as in interviews, he is very open about it – even self-deprecating at times.  Hay has even documented his extraordinary career in some of his songs.  One such track is “My Brilliant Feat,” from his 1998 solo effort, Transcendental Highway.  In that song, he writes:

“Is it a game of chance, or merely circumstances?
A jack to a king and back,
Then you have to pay to play.
The world, it won’t wait for you,
It’s got its own things to do.
The sun’s gonna rise and dry another night away…
Once upon a time, I could do no wrong.
Though the candle flickers, the flame is never gone…”

It bears mentioning that Hay’s lyrics have grown considerably deeper since the mid-‘80s.  Men At Work was a good band, but not an especially deep one; they were fun and catchy and made some great singles.  But Hay has truly evolved from being a pop star to being an artist – which, in a way, is an even more brilliant feat than having your debut album top the charts for 15 weeks.

Over the last decade and change, Hay has built his career back from the ground up. He releases albums roughly every other year (the latest is Fierce Mercy), tours frequently, and was fortunate enough to land one of his songs on the soundtrack to the hit movie Garden State back in the day.  “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” is a sparse, somber ballad that originally appeared on Hay’s Peaks and Valleys disc.  This time around, the song became something of a left-field hit and earned him more attention than he’d seen in years.  He is currently signed to the nifty, Nashville-based label Compass Records.

(Below: Colin Hay now)

“Maybe I won’t ever become as successful or as famous as I used to be,” he says in a tone that suggests he has made peace with this.  “But people come and they see [me perform] and it’s like they’re sharing something with you.  It doesn’t require any hype, any radio station pumping it.  It’s just simply you turn up and they turn up – and it works.  And it’s been a real life-saver for me all these years [given] the frustration of how labels operate – or how they don’t operate.  It’s even a compliment to call it an industry.  Because an industry would suggest that people actually know what they’re doing.” Over the years, Hay and I have shared stories about a former record industry suit who both of us worked with (and grew to dislike) separately.

His ambivalence toward labels was echoed by the other artists I spoke with.  One of the first things that Katrina told me was, “Here’s the thing about record labels: they are Kellogg’s and you are Cornflakes.  Warner Brothers, BMG, Capitol-EMI, all the majors – you are Cornflakes.  And when the brand doesn’t sell [anymore], they find another brand.”

 

Still Got the Feeling

The third artist I spoke with, Irene Cara, has also had an ambivalent relationship with record companies, to say the least.  A major force on the singles chart throughout the ‘80s, Cara’s hits included surging movie themes like “Fame” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” as well as the beautifully vulnerable ballad “Out Here on My Own” (also from Fame).  Her albums weren’t as successful as her singles, though, and by the end of the decade she too found herself without a record deal.  In 1993, Cara won a lawsuit against her former label, Nettwerk Records, for 1.5-million dollars in unpaid royalties.

Since then, Cara has emerged as the leader of Hot Caramel, a large, all-female band based in her adopted home state of Florida.  When I last spoke with her (roughly a decade ago now) Hot Caramel was putting the finishing touches on their first album which Cara hoped will be picked up by a label – a bit ironic, given her history. To the best of my knowledge, that album was released independently in 2011.

Of the three artists I spoke with, Cara is the least inclined to discuss (or perform songs from) her past.  Unlike Katrina, who has no qualms about singing “Walking on Sunshine” 30 years after the fact, or Colin Hay, who mixes old material with new at his shows, Cara prefers to focus on her current band and let go of the past.  She is especially adamant about not dwelling on Fame.  Even though that’s what ultimately made her a household name, she is rarely in touch with her former co-stars from the film and is tired of discussing it.  “People have to realize that you work on a project and then everybody goes their own way,” she explains.  “[Fame] was a moment in history that we all got together to be a part of – and that was it.  It’s not an ongoing part of our lives.”

That said, Cara also makes it clear that she is proud of that period of her career – not just musically, but in terms of its effect on the education system.  “I would love to do a tour that goes to all the performing arts schools across the country,” she says.  “’Fame had a lot to do with so many of them springing up – here and around the world.  That’s a great legacy.”

Cara is quick to distance the women in Hot Caramel from the current barrage of female pop-tarts and such.  And for good reason.  While the music business is quicker to spotlight women than it was 30 years ago, many of these women are not so much musicians as entertainers – and in some cases, they border on being strippers.

“[My music] is grown-up shit,” Cara states emphatically.  “We’re not really targeting the teen market – although I think we’ll appeal to the teen market as well… I think there’s room in music for another kind of image of women that hasn’t been readily promoted or readily seen – certainly not in pop-R&B.“  Interestingly, Cara is quick to give props to the Dixie Chicks.  “Country at least has some great songs and some great artists, who aren’t 11,” she says.  “[Artists] who can play and sing and actually write about something.  I would love for us to be the pop-R&B version of the Dixie Chicks.  That would be the highest compliment to us.”  Whether that happens, of course, remains to be seen.

(Below: Irene now)

***

I have to say again that I find it amazing that these three artists do not have major label record deals (although Hay has enjoyed a productive relationship with Compass, a respected mid-level indie). They are essentially being ignored by the same industry that once made stars of them.  It isn’t fair to relegate artists of their caliber to ‘where-are-they-now’ status when they still have a lot to say –and it’s equally unfair to their fans, who wonder what they are up to and who would likely enjoy their new music.  Nor does it bode well for the current crop of pop stars who dominate radio and MTV.  Look at it this way: if an Irene Cara or a Katrina Leskanich – both of whom can actually sing – can’t get a record deal, where do you think today’s Auto-Tuned singers like Katy Perry and Rihanna will be in 20 years?

© 2005/2017 by Dave Steinfeld, all rights reserved / contact: skinnythai@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Checking in with three ’80s icons, many years later, we learn that careers rarely follow the expected trajectories—but they still turn out satisfyingly if one has the right attitude. On the BLURT analysis couch: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.

 

BY DAVE STEINFELD

Since the beginning of time – or at least the 1950’s – popular music has concerned itself with finding the Next Big Thing.  But the vast majority of music industry suits don’t care much about talent, or even about music.  They just care about money.  Who can we sign and market and sell to the greatest possible number of consumers?  This mentality has always existed but over the years, the amount of money that record companies (at least the majors) pour into new acts has grown.  At the same time, the median age of the consumer has decreased.  Kids listen to the radio, have disposable income and short attention spans.  So most record companies – hell, most businesspeople – target them first.

What all this adds up to is an industry that sinks lots of money into a never ending series of Next Big Things – only to chew them up, spit them out and forget them when it decides their moment has passed.  Sure, the ‘heritage’ artist – one who builds and sustains a career over time – still surfaces now and then (see Bruce Springsteen, among others).  But for the most part, it’s about instant gratification.  Sign an artist, promote the hell out of their album (and video), make ungodly amounts of money off them and then – in most cases – drop them when their sales start to decline or when the Next Bigger Thing comes along.

Which raises the question: what happens to the people who were once pop music’s Next Big Thing?  That varies.  But it’s not always what you think.

For this piece, originally written in 2005 (but unpublished until now), I sat down with three artists: Katrina Leskanich of Katrina & the Waves; Colin Hay, former frontman of Men At Work; and Irene Cara.  Back in the first half of the ‘80s, each did time as the Next Big Thing, cutting a prolific presence on the radio and MTV.  Now, more than 30 years later, all three are still making music but only one has a record deal – and with an independent label at that.  You won’t see any of these three on TV anymore, unless maybe you’re watching VH1 Classic.  Two of these artists – ironically, the two who used to front bands – are now solo acts, while the one former solo artist of the three is now fronting a band.  None of the three can get their new music played on the radio.  And all of them are making some of the best music of their careers.

Finding the Sunshine

 

 

Katrina Leskanich is best known as the frontwoman of Katrina & the Waves.  The Anglo-American quartet hit the charts several times during the ‘80s, but their biggest hit remains their first: 1985’s “Walking on Sunshine.”  It still gets airplay and also pops up in films from time to time.  In 2004, it was even the theme song for John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

“[Kerry’s] people were talking to my people – which is me – about when he won,” Katrina told me at the time.  “I was gonna go to the party and do ‘Walking on Sunshine.’  I was delighted to potentially be involved in that.“ She pauses, reflecting on how the 2004 election turned out.  “Damn!”

Surprisingly, Katrina doesn’t see any royalties from “Walking on Sunshine.”  She may have sung it, but it was Kimberley Rew (the Waves’ guitarist) who wrote it.  “He gets a lot of royalties from ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ but I don’t see a penny,” says Katrina.  “ I make my own way in this world and it suits me just fine.”

Be that as it may, London – where the Kansas born Katrina has been based for many years – is an expensive city.  While she hasn’t exactly been reduced to waiting tables, she has had to seek out other means of making a living at times.  For three years after the band split up, Katrina couldn’t perform under her own name because the Waves owned the legal rights to it.  During that time, she hosted a show on BBC Radio and also played the legendary songwriter Ellie Greenwich in the West End production of Leader of the Pack.

But Katrina has also released several solo albums over the years. To these ears, the best was Turn the Tide, which came out more than a decade ago now and h was available through her website, www.katrinasweb.com.  Sadly – and somewhat amazingly – she doesn’t have a deal with a label.  “For many years, I [banged] my head against the wall, trying to get a deal,” says Katrina.  “I sent out 250 CD’s… and heard back from precisely no one… So I took the bull by the horns and decided to form my own company, manufacture my own CD and deliver it to the people.  I lick the envelopes… and I’m a lot happier doing it this way because I’m in control.”

Frankly, it’s difficult to understand why 250 companies passed on Katrina’s CD.  For one thing, she has name value, particularly in the UK.  But beyond that, Turn the Tide was an excellent album of mostly mid-tempo pop.  Katrina’s voice still sounds great and most of the songs are very good.  My personal favorite is “Hallowed Ground,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on AC or AAA stations.  There is also a nice cover of the Kirsty MacColl classic “They Don’t Know,” which Katrina does as a ballad.

Unfortunately, though, good music and name value don’t mean much in the music business – especially when you’re in your fifties.  Katy Perry’s voice can’t hold a candle to Katrina’s, but she is a lot younger and appeals to a money-spending demographic.

After “Walking on Sunshine,” Katrina & the Waves dented the charts a few more times, with songs like “Do You Want Crying,” “Sun Street” and “That’s the Way.”  But they never had another smash, at least not in America.  “’Walking on Sunshine’ was a hard act to follow,” Katrina admits.  “The song became bigger than us.  There was a point where people would say, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Katrina, from Katrina & the Waves.’ Question-mark face. Then [I’d say] ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ ‘Oh yeah! I love that song! Wasn’t that Martha & the Muffins?’ You know, they’re asking me!”

A Man At Work

 

Colin Hay, the former leader of Men At Work, tells a similar story.  The Men had several bona fide smashes, but none was bigger than “Down Under,” their catchy 1983 song about Australia.  But Hay – who not only sung “Down Under,” but cowrote it – once met a woman who refused to believe it was his song.  “I wrote that song – ‘Down Under!’” he insists.  To which the woman replies, “No you didn’t.  You don’t remind me at all of Sting.”  Ouch!

Another of Hay’s favorite anecdotes is about the couple who showed up at one of his solo performances expecting to hear “The Safety Dance.”  That song – by the Canadian combo Men Without Hats – had nothing to do with Hay’s band, but was popular during the same period.  The punchline in the story is that when the couple finds out it’s not a Men At Work song, the woman still asks Hay if he’ll sing it.  Such is the payback for having a hit during the MTV era.

Few people have experienced the highs and lows of the music business to the extent that Colin Hay has.  It’s one thing to have a hit or two early in your career and then fade.  But Men At Work’s debut album, Business as Usual, was anything but.  In America alone, it topped the charts for an astounding 15 weeks, produced two number-one hits (“Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now”) and won Hay and company a Grammy for Best New Artist.  In 1983, Men At Work was arguably the biggest band in the world.

The music business can be a fickle place, though.  Men At Work avoided the sophomore slump with their second album, Cargo.  That album – while not quite as successful as Business as Usual – still sold very well and produced two top 10 hits.  But the band’s third effort, Two Hearts, was a disaster.  It produced no hits. The band had split into various factions and broke up shortly after its release.  By the late ‘80s, Colin Hay was playing solo – to audiences a fraction of the size of those he’d played to a few years earlier.

“I’ll give you kind of a scale of things,” Hay tells me.  “We culminated playing the Us Festival in California, to maybe 150,000 people.  And that was toward the end of 1983… In ’88, I was back in Melbourne playing to 40 [or] 50 people, solo.  People in Melbourne didn’t really care about Men At Work.  So if you wanna stay in the game, you do what you can.”

Unlike some artists who have hit the big time and then fallen, Hay has no problem talking about his past.  During live performances, as in interviews, he is very open about it – even self-deprecating at times.  Hay has even documented his extraordinary career in some of his songs.  One such track is “My Brilliant Feat,” from his 1998 solo effort, Transcendental Highway.  In that song, he writes:

“Is it a game of chance, or merely circumstances?

A jack to a king and back,
Then you have to pay to play.

The world, it won’t wait for you,

It’s got its own things to do.

The sun’s gonna rise and dry another night away…

Once upon a time, I could do no wrong.

Though the candle flickers, the flame is never gone…”

It bears mentioning that Hay’s lyrics have grown considerably deeper since the mid-‘80s.  Men At Work was a good band, but not an especially deep one; they were fun and catchy and made some great singles.  But Hay has truly evolved from being a pop star to being an artist – which, in a way, is an even more brilliant feat than having your debut album top the charts for 15 weeks.

Over the last decade and change, Hay has built his career back from the ground up. He releases albums roughly every other year (the latest is Fierce Mercy), tours frequently, and was fortunate enough to land one of his songs on the soundtrack to the hit movie Garden State back in the day.  “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” is a sparse, somber ballad that originally appeared on Hay’s Peaks and Valleys disc.  This time around, the song became something of a left-field hit and earned him more attention than he’d seen in years.  He is currently signed to the nifty, Nashville-based label Compass Records.

“Maybe I won’t ever become as successful or as famous as I used to be,” he says in a tone that suggests he has made peace with this.  “But people come and they see [me perform] and it’s like they’re sharing something with you.  It doesn’t require any hype, any radio station pumping it.  It’s just simply you turn up and they turn up – and it works.  And it’s been a real life-saver for me all these years [given] the frustration of how labels operate – or how they don’t operate.  It’s even a compliment to call it an industry.  Because an industry would suggest that people actually know what they’re doing.” Over the years, Hay and I have shared stories about a former record industry suit who both of us worked with (and grew to dislike) separately.

His ambivalence toward labels was echoed by the other artists I spoke with.  One of the first things that Katrina told me was, “Here’s the thing about record labels: they are Kellogg’s and you are Cornflakes.  Warner Brothers, BMG, Capitol-EMI, all the majors – you are Cornflakes.  And when the brand doesn’t sell [anymore], they find another brand.”

 

Still Got the Feeling

 

The third artist I spoke with, Irene Cara, has also had an ambivalent relationship with record companies, to say the least.  A major force on the singles chart throughout the ‘80s, Cara’s hits included surging movie themes like “Fame” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” as well as the beautifully vulnerable ballad “Out Here on My Own” (also from Fame).  Her albums weren’t as successful as her singles, though, and by the end of the decade she too found herself without a record deal.  In 1993, Cara won a lawsuit against her former label, Nettwerk Records, for 1.5-million dollars in unpaid royalties.

Since then, Cara has emerged as the leader of Hot Caramel, a large, all-female band based in her adopted home state of Florida.  When I last spoke with her (roughly a decade ago now) Hot Caramel was putting the finishing touches on their first album which Cara hoped will be picked up by a label – a bit ironic, given her history. To the best of my knowledge, that album was released independently in 2011.

Of the three artists I spoke with, Cara is the least inclined to discuss (or perform songs from) her past.  Unlike Katrina, who has no qualms about singing “Walking on Sunshine” 30 years after the fact, or Colin Hay, who mixes old material with new at his shows, Cara prefers to focus on her current band and let go of the past.  She is especially adamant about not dwelling on Fame.  Even though that’s what ultimately made her a household name, she is rarely in touch with her former co-stars from the film and is tired of discussing it.  “People have to realize that you work on a project and then everybody goes their own way,” she explains.  “[Fame] was a moment in history that we all got together to be a part of – and that was it.  It’s not an ongoing part of our lives.”

That said, Cara also makes it clear that she is proud of that period of her career – not just musically, but in terms of its effect on the education system.  “I would love to do a tour that goes to all the performing arts schools across the country,” she says.  “’Fame had a lot to do with so many of them springing up – here and around the world.  That’s a great legacy.”

Cara is quick to distance the women in Hot Caramel from the current barrage of female pop-tarts and such.  And for good reason.  While the music business is quicker to spotlight women than it was 30 years ago, many of these women are not so much musicians as entertainers – and in some cases, they border on being strippers.

“[My music] is grown-up shit,” Cara states emphatically.  “We’re not really targeting the teen market – although I think we’ll appeal to the teen market as well… I think there’s room in music for another kind of image of women that hasn’t been readily promoted or readily seen – certainly not in pop-R&B.“  Interestingly, Cara is quick to give props to the Dixie Chicks.  “Country at least has some great songs and some great artists, who aren’t 11,” she says.  “[Artists] who can play and sing and actually write about something.  I would love for us to be the pop-R&B version of the Dixie Chicks.  That would be the highest compliment to us.”  Whether that happens, of course, remains to be seen.

***

 

I have to say again that I find it amazing that these three artists do not have major label record deals (although Hay has enjoyed a productive relationship with Compass, a respected mid-level indie). They are essentially being ignored by the same industry that once made stars of them.  It isn’t fair to relegate artists of their caliber to ‘where-are-they-now’ status when they still have a lot to say –and it’s equally unfair to their fans, who wonder what they are up to and who would likely enjoy their new music.  Nor does it bode well for the current crop of pop stars who dominate radio and MTV.  Look at it this way: if an Irene Cara or a Katrina Leskanich – both of whom can actually sing – can’t get a record deal, where do you think today’s Auto-Tuned singers like Katy Perry and Rihanna will be in 20 years?

© 2005/2017 by Dave Steinfeld, all rights reserved / contact: skinnythai@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAW OF… The Suburbs

Key players on the Amerindie underground of the ‘80s keep rolling with a terrific new Kickstarter-powered album. Chan Poling explains.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Minneapolis churned out a slew of staggeringly talented musicians and bands. From Prince and The Replacements to Husker Du and Soul Asylum, it’s a literal who’s-who of great American bands. Fueled on cheap beer and late nights, these Midwest kids were fairly agnostic to genres, allowing the scene to flourish and cross pollinate blending musical styles and tastes from punk and funk to soul and new wave. At ground zero of this musical movement stood The Suburbs.

A band with a knack for mixing classic rock drums with new wave keyboards, R&B horns and raucous guitar, the group’s self-titled EP was the first ever release on the iconic Twin/Tone label. For a decade, from 1977-1987, The Suburbs turned in half a dozen albums on Twin/Tone as well as the majors (Mercury/Polygram and A&M) before finally calling it a day.

They resurfaced to the surprise of many in 2013 with a new record, Si Sauvage, laying the groundwork for Hey Muse!, their latest full length and a clear signal that they are just as brilliant now as they were four decades prior.

Chan Poling, band co-founder, singer and keyboardist, was kind enough to speak with Blurt recently about why the band got back together, the affirmation of crowdfunding and having his song serve as a gay rights anthem.

BLURT: You guys have played together here and there for the past 10 years or so. What was behind the decision in 2013 to finally put out a new record?
CHAN POLING: Well, I’ll outline it for you. We broke up at the end of the ’80s after really working our asses off and getting to a certain stage with two major label deals, but finally it wore us down, as it does a lot of bands. We realized really quickly that we still enjoyed playing, so we started playing back together again around ’93. We kept it more fun; we’d play outdoor festivals and around our hometown and go to New York every once and a while, but we just played four or five shows a year to keep our chops up.

When we lost Bruce (Allen, guitarist, who died in 2009), we decided to do a memorial show and had to find a guy to do Bruce’s part, so we asked Steve Brantseg, who had been a friend from the old Twin/Tone days and he added in his own panache. At that point, our bass player Michael Halliday had developed arthritis so bad he couldn’t play anymore. We lost two players, so I asked Steve Price if he wanted to join. That was a great fit. Over the years, if people want to play, they play with us. But I was thinking how would we every get someone to replace Beej (Blaine John “Beej” Chaney, guitarist, who stepped away from the band in 2014)? He had a really unique style. We found Jeremy Ylvisaker, who played with Andrew Bird. He’s super talented and he came and joined us. He was an old fan of the band so he was thrilled and he’s just monstrous on guitar, so I was thrilled. The band is just fucking killing it.

You guys finally put out a new album four years ago. Was there less pressure putting out Hey Muse! as you had already had the comeback record out of the way?
Yeah, we were very pleasantly surprised to find that the fans were still there and the record was good. We were proud of it and the reaction was the clincher for us. The Kickstarter was the highest grossing Kickstarter in Minnesota. I write songs all the time and I finally realized that my Suburbs song folder was viable again. When I’m writing, for theater or movies or for the Suburbs, I usually know exactly who it’s meant for. “Hey Muse!” popped into my head when I was sleeping and I woke up and found a little electric keyboard and write down the lead line and verse chords in my pajamas. In fact, I’ve already got two songs for the new record.

You mention Kickstarter. Things have clearly changed a lot in the music world since The Suburbs were last signed to a label. What have you seen as some of the bigger changes since you last put out music with the band?
In the olden days, the model was that the labels had capital to invest in developing their artists. If we got a $300,000 advance from Polygram it wasn’t like they were giving us $300,000. We had to pay that back. The idea of controlling your own operating capital is always intriguing to me. Some bands thrive in that world (with labels). We thrived in that world for a few years and we were making alternative, very personal rock music. We don’t make music that competes with Katie Perry or Taylor Swift. We make music for our own esoteric survival and you need to find ways of funding that like any other business.

When we realized people actually wanted to be part of these crowd funding things, it was a relief. There’s a stigma that you’re asking for money because the labels don’t think you’re viable enough to give you money. The fact of the matter is, we’re making a product. It costs nearly $100 grand to make a good rock record with the studio time and the musicians and the manufacturing. Vinyl is expensive. It’s a large outlay of cash. When I found out we could control our own destiny by offering our record for sell before it’s made, let’s do it. It’s more empowering, it’s about community and it’s a closer tie to the fans.

Is there a case of schadenfreude seeing what the labels are going through now or were you guys always treated well by the record labels?
Now that you mention it, maybe it is a little bit of schadenfreude. But then again, I don’t wish ill will on anyone. It’s always the underdog against the big guy and I’m always for the underdog.

There’s a new book that just came out about the Minneapolis music scene on the ‘70s and ‘80s called Complicated Fun. The Suburbs and a bunch of other bands are covered in it. At the time, did you realize something unique was happening in the city music-wise? [Go HERE to read our review of the book. – Lit. Ed.]
I had no idea, we were just doing our thing. It was awesome for sure. I haven’t read the book, but I definitely lived it.

The song “Love is the Law” is a favorite among many fans of the band. It was also adopted by the Gay Marriage movement in Minneapolis. As a local guy, what was that feeling like that your song was tied to such a historic movement?
I was super proud of that and it was really personal for me because my son is gay and was discussing getting married to his partner of many years. We were wondering where that wedding was going to take place and when we found out that it was able to be done here and that they were using our song to celebrate that, it was really personal to me. I am very proud. The fact that that song can have two different lives is very cool.

You guys have some tour dates online for Minneapolis and a few other places in the Midwest. Any thoughts about touring in other parts of the country?
Oh, yeah. We definitely want to it’s just a matter of inching our way out there and to see what we can afford. The problem with The Suburbs is that we are a completely irresponsible, unwieldy commercial venture; we’ve got three horn players, a back-up singer, five guys, the crew. We just never grew up.

2015 Photo Credit: Jay Smiley / 2017 Live Photo Credit: Brian Grenz / Below, check out a live video of the band performing at this year’s Record Store Day

BLURT’S INDELIBLES (THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT.9): The Windbreakers’ Terminal (1985, Homestead Records)


In which we talk to Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff about their classic ’85 album, recently reissued with bonus material.

BY FRED MILLS

Terminal, by Jackson, Mississippi, power pop legends the Windbreakers, originally released in 1985 by the Homestead label, has been in yours truly’s personal Top 25 ever since it first appeared—we’re talking an LP rubbing shoulders on my shelf with everything from Who’s Next, Let It Bleed, Funhouse, and Daydream Nation to Shake Some Action, Stands for deciBels, Sincerely, and Places That Are Gone. As produced by Mitch Easter at his Winston-Salem Drive-In Studio (six songs) and Randy Everett in the band’s native Mississippi (four songs), Terminal is a timeless slice of Southern-spawned tuneage that sports all the expected power pop influences yet still sounds utterly fresh and unique unto itself.

Yet with one semi-flukey exception which you’ll read about shortly, Terminal has never seen a proper reissue for the CD and digital eras, leaving me and fellow fans to wonder whether or not it will ultimately be consigned to those perennial “whatever happened to…” essays. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear to be on any digital streaming services, although luckily the superb 2003 Windbreakers career overview Time Machine is on both Spotify and Apple Music, and six of the compilation’s 20 tunes were culled from it.

Windbreakers cofounders Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, of course, are not exactly unknown quantities, as both have remained fairly prolific in their post-WBs solo careers—check the Trouser Press entry detailing their work together and separately, as well as this 2015 BLURT interview with Lee about his band at the time, The Tim Lee 3—and although Sutliff’s near-fatal car accident in 2012 served to temporarily put his musical career on hold for awhile, he continues to write and even finds time to collaborate with Montana-based psych=pop monsters Donovan’s Brain. Still, the general public’s obliviousness as regards Terminal seems all the more criminal in 2017 if you actually drop the needle on the platter and allow its pleasures to pour forth anew.

There’s the opening trifecta of “Off & On” (jangly intro, a harpsichord motif, and yearning Sutliff vocals), “Changeless” (a tough, hard-twanging Lee-penned surf/powerpop gem right up there with Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No” and the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep”), and “That Stupid Idea” (more gossamer jangles from Sutliff, whose soaring upper register here is the stuff of the angels). From that point the record simply doesn’t let loose of its grip on the listener, from Lee’s deceptively dark jangler “All That Stuff,” to a remarkable cover of Television’s “Glory” featuring the Rain Parade as the duo’s backing band, to sinewy, sitar-laced rocker (and Sutliff-Lee joint composition) “Running Out of Time,” which closes the record.

It’s a goddam classic album, period—feel free to rewind to paragraph #2, above—with not a single throwaway tune. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful bummer of a power pop album the ‘80s produced, with virtually every song a meditation on the vagaries and vicissitudes of love and all the emotional trauma that phrase implies. Utter the words “windbreakers” and “terminal” to someone at a record store or a concert, and if their face lights up and a knowing smile breaks, you’ve got the equivalent of a sonic secret handshake. We Eighties-college-and-indie-rock fans have more than a few records like that, of course, but the thing is, back then the idea wasn’t to keep our favorite bands secret—we felt it was our mission to proselytize for ‘em.

(Below: front and back sleeves of the original LP, plus the new CD package.)

Enter Italian label Mark, which a few months ago reissued Terminal as a sharp-sounding remaster boasting five bonus tracks, four of them from a 1986 live performance. Also included is a bonus booklet adorned with reviews that originally appeared in the wake of Terminal’s release, and some of those critical observations bear quoting here:

“A brilliant jewel of aural splendor from the goldmine left by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Big Star.” —Option

“Think of them as a genteel Replacements with 12-string guitar, or an R.E.M with clear melodies and lyrics.” —Los Angeles Herald Examiner

“Originals that [evoke] everybody from Dylan to the Byrds, with references to the Beatles, acid-rock and the Left Banke. Sort of a brawnier approach to the Let’s Active sound, and more rural, too.” —Jet Lag

Is this the pop record of 1985, or what??” —Jim Testa, Jersey Beat

Well, yes—yes, Jim, it was. Matter of fact, it still is. In a moment, let’s take a trip back in time and revisit it, courtesy the two men who created it.

***

Regular BLURT readers will recall our ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series in which yours truly has profiled the likes of Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter HoursGreen On Red, Thomas Anderson, and The Sidewinders. Sometimes these are fresh essays and interviews; other times they are features culled from the archives and updated as needed. I got the idea from a regular column titled “Indelibles” that I authored for BLURT precursor Harp magazine from roughly 2005 to the spring of 2008, when it closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and in fact several installments of my “College Rock Chronicles” have been retooled, expanded versions of stories originally published in Harp.

“Indelibles” itself was inspired by those great Mojo features in which a key, critically-significant album from the past was put under the microscope and viewed through a contemporary lens; the records we selected for each of my columns were, typically, just being reissued as expanded remasters, and the idea was to get the artist to discuss the making of the original album, reflect on its trajectory, and frame it within the larger context of what it meant to his or her career. If the artist was actually involved with the reissue, so much the better, and we would also delve into what went into that project, how bonus material was decided upon, etc. As a music fan first and a critic second, I have to say that it was pretty great to be able to geek out over some of my all-time favorite records by the likes of the Dream Syndicate, the dB’s, Let’s Active, the Clash, Wire, Pylon, the Slits, the Gun Club, Dinosaur Jr, etc.—not to mention being able to geek out in front of some of the people who actually created those records, but not as the slobbering fanboy I actually was, and instead under the assumed guise of (cough) a professional journalist and reporter. The truth is finally out.

So with this Windbreakers story, I’m formally re-booting “Indelibles.” Bobby, who lives with his wife Wendy in Columbus, Ohio, and Tim, based with his wife and bandmate Susan in Knoxville, Tennessee, were kind enough to weather my inquisition, and to them I just want to say—salute, gentlemen.

 

Set the stage for Terminal: With the first two EPs (1982’s 7” Meet the Windbreakers and 1983’s 12” Any Monkey With a Typewriter) under your belts, what was your collective state of mind as a band, and what was the music scene in your neck of the woods like circa 1984?
TIM LEE: Actually, shortly after Any Monkey… came out, we kinda ceased being a band for a while. I started another band, Beat Temptation, that lasted a year or so. During that time, though, the EP was getting some attention, and Sam Berger at Homestead asked if we’d be interested in doing a record for them.

Bobby and I had been hanging out during that time, so it was no big deal to start playing songs for each other and get back into it.

BOBBY SUTLIFF: The 1984 local music scene was an interesting hodge-podge. There were quite a few bands doing their own thing. We were all friends for the most part. Tim and I would together, or separately, sit it with them quite often. Tim’s other band, Beat Temptation, was very good and released a fine EP and a full-length LP.

How did you land the deal with Homestead?
TIM: Like I said, Sam Berger was the guy who asked us to make a record, but he left and was replaced by Gerard Cosloy by the time Terminal came out. It was very early in the life of that label, so it kinda felt like they were just getting their feet wet.

You decided to return to the well for the album with Mitch Easter; what had you liked about him and his studio? What did he bring to the table that made you and other artists gravitate to the studio?
TIM: We made the first Windbreakers EP in a gospel studio in Madison, Miss., and it was not a particularly wonderful experience. But we’d read about Mitch in New York Rocker, and we were fans of the songs he did on that Shake to Date compilation (1981 UK album issued by Shake/Albion to document New York Rocker’s Alan Betrock’s indie label as well as Chris Stamey’s Car label), and we knew about the Sneakers and H-Bombs and the dB’s. So we just called directory assistance and got his number.

We talked [to Mitch] a few times and then we made a trip to Winston-Salem and tracked two songs, mixing and everything, in about 20 hours or something like that. The first session with Mitch was so revealing for me, in that I was like, “Okay, this is why they say making records is fun!” He was so creative and so supportive of our goofy ideas, willing to go down any road to come up with something cool.

BOBBY: We were very aware of the dB’s, and by 1980/81 knew about Mitch. It’s actually quite a long way from Mississippi to North Carolina, but the trip was so very much worth it. After about 20 minutes with him in his garage studio—the Drive-In of course!—we knew we had found our mentor/kindred spirit. I remember one musical moment to this day. I pulled out my guitar and played the intro to Big Star’s “Way Out West.” Mitch walked into the room and said, “Oh, you know them?” We were friends for life.

What are some of your most prominent memories from the Drive-In sessions for Terminal? Hanging with Mitch (pictured left, with Tim) Faye Hunter, and Don Dixon? (The latter two guested on bass on selected tracks.)
TIM: Other than going out to eat, we were pretty much nose to the grindstone, but my favorite memory of being at the Drive-In was the sense of possibility. Electric sitar? Let’s do it. Dixon’s coming by today. Cool, let’s get him to play bass. That kind of thing.

BOBBY: Tim mentions going to eat in passing, but I must confess Mitch teaching us about the two different kinds of North Carolina Barbecue was very important! Faye remains one of the finest people I ever met and I miss her so much. (She passed away in 2013) It’s strange, I’ve lived in Ohio for 20 years now and so has Dixon. And oh yeah, early on we drafted Richard Barone into playing some amazing guitar for us.

Favorite songs cut at the Drive-In? Happy accidents? Failures best left on the cutting room floor?
BOBBY: My favorite Windbreakers tune recorded at the Drive-In was “Changeless.” Holy cow, that’s an amazing song—and should have been a massive hit. There are really no failures left behind. Mostly because we were on such a budget we had to use everything!

Tell us a little about working with Randy Everett for the other session back home—I recall spotting his name on more than just your records back in the day, so I’m guessing that he was a valuable guy to that region’s music scene.
TIM: Randy Everett is a guy that we’d just known around town. He was known as a jazz guitarist, but he was just trying his hand at studio engineering at the time. Rick Garner (Terminal co-engineer on the Mississippi session) was a businessman with an interest in music who bought some studio gear and set it up temporarily in his suburban home. That’s where we did the other tracks. As I recall, Bobby traded him a guitar for the studio time.

Randy very much became an important fixture on the recording scene in the South. A lot of folks worked with him, and I worked with him a lot on various sessions. A great friend; I actually saw him just a couple weeks ago. He’s still recording, and he’s also doing some very cool paintings.

BOBBY: Randy Everett is one of those guys other guitar players just hate! He is better than you are ever going to be. And in his own wonderful way he is just as good as anyone else behind the board. And, oh yeah, the guitar I traded him for studio time was a sunburst 1964 Fender Jazzmaster.

You cover Television’s “Glory” with the Rain Parade backing you up on the album; how did that connection happen?
TIM: We knew their record (1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip), we dug it. I was booking shows at this tiny dive bar, and we were able to line them up for one. They stayed with me and (wife) Susan and hung out an extra day. We all just became fast friends. They had a day off coming up the following week, so we made a plan to record that Television song.
I remember all of us sitting at a sandwich shop before the session, mapping out the arrangement on the back of a brown paper bag.

BOBBY: Our entire connection with the Rain Parade was totally Tim and Susan. And wow—was I delighted about that since I was such a huge fan. Later on, I became friends with that other Paisley Pop genius band, True West, and was glad to bring them into our group of friends.

Anything else that was cut for Terminal that you ultimately decided against for whatever reasons?
BOBBY: Quick answer—no. Simply because we had to use everything!

Sonically, what do you think you were going for on Terminal?
TIM: To my mind, we just wanted to make a cool record. That was all. Perhaps Bobby remembers more about that.

BOBBY: Interesting question. I remember that (A) we didn’t want to sound overly dated like perhaps my beloved Flamin’ Groovies did from time to time; and (B) we didn’t want to sound like a “modern” ‘80s band would sound.

I’m struck how almost every single song is about a break-up, or a looming break-up, or looking back at the post-breakup wreckage, running into the girl who broke up with you, etc. Was this by design, or were both of you simultaneously in the throes of heartbreak when you happened to be writing material for the album?
LEE: I was already married, so I’d probably turned my attention to the heartbreak of everyday life, as opposed to any specific romantic strife. (I didn’t mean that to sound as stupid as it did.) (No worries, Tim.—Parenthetical Ed.)

BOBBY: Um, yeah, I kept rewriting the same song over and over. It was of course all about the same person.

What was your reaction when the reviews started rolling in? It was fun to read the ones you selected for the new booklet. I don’t think a lot of young fans can truly appreciate what the fanzine network back then was all about, and how it was “our internet,” along with the occasional breakthrough via a mention in Rolling Stone or Spin. I’ve written in the past about how there was this very special “us against the mainstream” feeling prior to the grunge explosion that has resulted in a bonafide community of friends who still commune on Facebook, etc.
TIM: It’s always gratifying to get good reviews, and most of ours were pretty positive. You’re right, the fanzine network was pretty great. They were physical things, not just something out in cyberspace. It was a very cool scene during the early days of the independent thing.

BOBBY: It’s of course the only reason we ever made a record—to get a good review! I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve got to say this—I met quite a few fellow musicians in those days who are still very close friends. That is so wonderful.

Tell us a little about getting out on the road to promote Terminal, and in particular the 12/26/86 show you culled the reissue’s live bonus tracks from.
TIM: At the time, Bobby wasn’t able to tour, so I put together a band in Atlanta and did an East Coast/Midwest tour. It was a lotta fun. Bobby knows more about that live recording than I do… he’s the very handy archivist of the group.

BOBBY: By the time of the 12/26/86 show, I had been out of the band for quite a while and was well into recording my first solo album – 1987’s Only Ghosts Remain. That show was a Christmastime one-off thing. I don’t think we actually did another Windbreakers show together for a couple of years

Speaking of bonus tracks, any other rarities or oddities out there? You included “Lonely Beach,” from the 1985 Disciples of Agriculture French compilation, here. What was the story on it?
BOBBY: It’s my faux surf instrumental, which was recorded in quite a lo-fi way on my Fostex X-15 4 track cassette deck. I did redo it years later in somewhat higher fidelity on my solo disc On A Ladder, but I’m sure the original is better. I went through everything I could find recently and there remain two unreleased studio tracks from 1982 or so. That’s about it.

How did this reissue come about with the Mark label? (Note: Mark is a subsidiary of Italy’s metal-tilting Minotauro Records and to date has also reissued the Original Sins’ 1989 album The Hardest Way.)
TIM: The short answer is, the Mark label asked about it, and nobody had prior to that. [Previously] the entirety of Terminal was tacked onto the end of the CD of 1989’s At Home with Bobby & Tim because CDs were new and we didn’t feel we could ask people to pay $16 for one record. So we gave them a second one free. The mastering on the current reissue is much, much better.

Update us on any current activities—and what’s the possibility for future Windbreakers projects?
TIM: I stay busy with mine and Susan’s band Bark, plus I end up playing with a wide range of other folks here in Knoxville. Most of the time, I’m busier musically than when I was young.

BOBBY: I’ve been working on perhaps a solo disc for the last year or so—about half way there, I reckon.

TIM: We got together 10 or 12 years ago and recorded a couple of songs. They turned out pretty well, and we had a good time doing it. Around that time, we also recorded a song for a Buffalo Springfield tribute record. I guess we just never had the impetus to keep at it. (Note: Five Way Street: A Tribute To Buffalo Springfield came out on Not Lame in 2006. Details and a stream of the Windbreakers doing “Expecting to Fly” is here at Discogs.)
After Bobby was in that awful accident a few years back, we made a tentative plan to get together with Mitch and record some songs, but that ended up not happening.

BOBBY: I’d be happy to turn over what I’ve got for a new Windbreakers disc. But I totally understand how unimportant that is in the world’s big picture.

***

Ah, Mr. Sutliff, some of us out here in Windbreakersville might opt to differ regarding that last point. Let the cajoling and convincing begin, fellow punters…

 

SURVIVAL OF THE SWEETEST: Matthew Sweet

With a long-awaited new album, the power pop auteur is back in his groove.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Granted, Matthew Sweet didn’t invent power pop. That distinction is best left to earlier auteurs like the Raspberries, the Shoes, Cheap Trick and others that followed the Beatles and Badfinger to carve out a genre all its own. Still, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone who’s done more to advance the cause than Matthew Sweet. Indeed, Sweet’s series of essential early albums — Inside, Earth, Girlfriend, Altered Beast, 100% Fun and Blue Sky on Mars, chief among them — helped assure the power pop trajectory would remain prosperous and plentiful well into the new millennium.

Beginning a decade or so ago, Sweet further affirmed his affinity for all things pop by initiating a series of releases with Bangle Susanna Hoffs which the duo aptly dubbed Under the Covers. There have been three volumes so far (not counting a fourth included on a box set that banded the first three). To date, they’ve covered some of the most indelible songs in the pop canon decade by decade, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, giving listeners a sample of the pair’s earliest influences and a nostalgic trip down memory lane as well.

Still, it’s been six years since Sweet’s offered up an album of all original material, which made the wait for his new effort, Tomorrow Forever cause for great anticipation. All of its songs boast the same ready refrains and instantly engaging melodies that marked earlier Sweet’s earlier triumphs and with all-star array of special guests — Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, added Bangle Debbi Peterson, the Zombies’ Rod Argent and members of the Velvet Crush and the Orange Peels as well, ample attention is well deserved. A move back to his home state of Nebraska and his mother’s passing might have impeded its progress, but clearly Tomorrow Forever can be considered yet another Sweet success.

Blurt recently spoke with Sweet who offered us the opportunity to catch up us on his recent activities…

BLURT: Please give us an idea of how the new album came about.

SWEET: Before I moved from Los Angeles, I had talked about doing some sort of Kickstarter campaign. I always wanted to try it. So once I got back here, after eight or nine months or so, I actually started the campaign while I was out doing shows. It was a lot of fun to try to whip up the excitement about it. The only hitch was that very shortly afterwards, my mother passed away and instead of jumping right into making the record, several months passed before I felt like I could approach it.

Once you did get back into it, how did the writing progress?

Originally the plan was that I would do tons of demos and then pull from those demos to make the full album. I started so late that I felt like it was going to take even longer to approach it that way, so instead I started recording everything I wrote during that time. And one of the ways that I made sure to get a lot of different things was to make multiple batches of recordings. There was an initial batch of like 15 songs, and then after that, I did two more sets, making a total of 38 tracks I recorded for the record. So we had to get it down to 17 songs from 38. a demos download that was sold with the album as part of the Kickstarter campaign and that became a whole satellite album to the main album. I called Tomorrow’s Daughter. It’s kind of a throwback to the bonus release we did to accompany Altered Beast. So that’s another twelve songs that didn’t make the album, but were things that we all kind of liked. I had a group of friends around me and we listened a lot to all the music. We all had to make our favorites list. What made it easy was that everyone more or less picked the same 15 songs. But nobody really wanted to stop there. Everybody wanted to have a list that went up to 20 or 23, and so there were these extra songs that were close to making the cut, and that made it a relief for me to make the Daughter record because I felt those songs could see the light of day. I imagine that we’ll package those properly at some point, but right now the Kickstarter people will be the first to hear them.

Will they come out simultaneously with the release of the album?

Yes. It’s coming soon. I just had a request from the office to send the files so I know we’re getting close to make those downloads available. It’s been a little bit tricky. The record was received really well from my publishing company and they got very excited and got other people involved. So I made a deal where I have my own label called Honeycomb Hideout which comes out through Sony Red distribution. As a result, we wanted to closely align the Kickstarter campaign with the actual release of the record so there wasn’t a big gap where all the Kickstarter people had it and it could float around and get copied before it was available.

What prompted your move from L.A. back to Nebraska?

When the real estate market came back, we had it in our minds that we wanted to cash in on this nest egg that we had built over twenty years because it had tripled in value. So we wanted to move somewhere. We looked all around but it was my wife who suggested we look around in Nebraska.

But with all due respect, isn’t Omaha a bit out of the way in terms of the hotspots of musical activity?

I felt like I could go anywhere. It didn’t really matter. So we happened upon this house in Omaha that caught our fancy. It’s an interesting place that was built in 1937. The front of it looks almost like a Disney kind of take on a French chateau house. The back of it and the interior are more like a craftsman/art deco kind of era, and so it’s just really different and unique. Some of the rooms are built in a kind of honeycomb shape and so that’s where we came up with the name of the label, Honeycomb Hideout. There’s also a room here that was perfect for me to use as a studio room. I’ve always thought to have serious recording studios in my houses but I really always had a set up in a room that was not meant to be a studio necessarily. However there was a space in this house that made sense. It has this wood panelling. It’s almost like an old ship and so I decided to call it Black Squirrel Submarine.

It’s funny to hear you refer to all these island and nautical themes being that you’re in the middle of the country and pretty much landlocked as a result.

(Laughs) It’s a little bit strange. This room that I use is kind of in the bowels of the house, so it’s got that vibe. It came from that. When we first moved in we saw some black squirrels running around. They aren’t super common, but you see them every now and then. So Black Squirrel Submarine became this kind of name that just ended up sticking. It’s funny. There are a lot of businesses around here called Black Squirrel. They’ll be Black Squirrel Industries or Black Squirrel Tattoo Parlour. So there are other industries, but I don’t think there’s another Black Squirrel Recording.

How long had you been gone before you came back?

A really long time. I left when I got out of high school, and then I went to Athens Georgia where I went to school briefly. I mostly skipped school and started doing independent recording and did my first stuff down there. When I got my first record deal, which was sort of a development deal with Columbia Records in New York, they moved me up to New York City and I was introduced to Jules Shear. I wrote some songs with him and spent several months just writing. They gave me money to buy gear and get an apartment up there. So I lived in New York most of the time after I got out of high school which was 1983 until 1993, which is when we moved to Los Angeles. I lived back here a couple of very brief periods in the late ‘80s, but for the most part, I was on the East Coast. I then went right into recording Altered Beast in Los Angeles and kind of got turned on to L.A. by Richard Dashed, the Fleetwood Mac producer who was working on Altered Beast with me. He took me around L.A. and showed me all the cool places. I was pretty into it, and my soon-to-be wife came out when I was finishing up that record in 1993. I was excited about living there, the label, Zoo Entertainment, was based there, and so it all kind of made sense. They were really kind of like a family. I wasn’t with a big label, but Zoo Entertainment was distributed through BMG Entertainment. So we moved there from Princeton where I was living at the time. I like Princeton. We had a great house because I could play drums and make noise all day since it wasn’t near all the other houses. I kind of feel like I’ve lived all over the place.

I interviewed Conor Oberst not too long ago and I was noting the fact that he lives in Nebraska, and with all due respect, it’s not exactly a hub of the music business. What was it like to be back after having lived in the places that were close to the entertainment industry? And we ask that question without trying to put it down.

I understand that. For one thing, Conor and the whole Saddle Creek guy had created a whole music scene here where by the time I moved here, it was known somewhat as a hotbed of music. You were seeing a lot of bands coming out of here.

The new album has some wonderful special guests. Were these all people you had worked with before?

Yes, but not everybody. John Moremen, who played guitar, is from San Francisco. I met him on a tour where his band, the Orange Peels, were opening for us. I heard him play lead and I told him I’d love to have him play lead on one of my records some time. Jason Victor was recommended by my then guitar player, Dennis Taylor, who had been touring with me, but had to take a break due to some personal issues. Dennis saw Jason playing with Dream Syndicate and got it in his head that Jason would be a good fit for playing with me. Jason will be on the road with us this summer. It was very funny and cryptic. I would send him a track and tell him to play whatever he wanted and he would send it back and I loved it.  Val McCallum, who played slide guitar and some other novelty sounds on the record, I had known on and off from Los Angeles, but we had never really worked together. Greg Leisz, who’s a good friend of mine, was playing with Jackson Browne and they were in Sioux City Iowa, which is about 100 miles north of Omaha. So we drove up there and kind of cornered them and asked them to do some stuff on my record. In the end, Greg was too busy. He was out on the road the whole time, but Val was able to cover for both of them. He came through and brought some special stuff to the record. So we got to know each other from working together over the internet.

Out of curiosity, has there ever been any talk about reconvening your great supergroup of sorts, the Thorns? That was a great combination — you, Shawn Mullins and Pete Yorn.

There hasn’t been a lot of talk about doing it, but I do think it would be fun to do. That record happened when the business was still together enough to allow us to sell 175,000 records. It would just be incredible now. It wasn’t quite enough to be a big hit for the record company. We toured for a couple of years and opened some shows for the Dixie Chicks and worked very hard on it, but financially we weren’t really provided for. We wanted to share the advance so we could produce the record ourselves, but the label didn’t agree to do it and then the label option ran out. We still wanted to do a record and we were free, but we also wanted to do our solo stuff. It really came together very quickly without us planning to have a group exactly. I think we did something special and I think we could do that again now, but it would take someone coming along and saying, “Hey guys, make a Thorns record” and we’d need the financial backing to make it happen.

So how would you sum up your progress and your trajectory up until this point?

To some extent, I’m a person who never looks back. Still, I feel really lucky to be able to hang in here and still put out my music.

READY TO STRIKE: Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes

Above: Dean Richardson (left) and Frank Carter (right) performing with the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage

BY JEFF CLEGG

Frank Carter is a tenacious force. It’s been almost 6 years since the hardcore-punk veteran left his former band Gallows, but while you’ve been sleeping, he’s been relentlessly pushing his music into a new direction. Back in January, his current project Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes released their second full-length album titled Modern Ruin that welds together the intensity of Gallows with the vision he had for his previous project called Pure Love. The album is filled with heavy rock anthems that pack a punch, and is a more polished effort compared to the band’s grittier debut Blossom.

In Frank’s words, the album is “all about human relationships. How we interact with our loved ones, with our friends, with enemies, with strangers. And it’s about how you can feel nothing to someone and then through a moment you can suddenly be intertwined with that person for the rest of your life, which is someone that happens to us all of the time as musicians. We might play a gig for someone who had a bad day, and that music can mean more to them than we can ever understand.” However, as the title of the album suggests, a lot of the topics are less optimistic. Much of the album focuses on the problems that modern society is facing, including the relationships between social media and its effects on our mental health. “We’re all avatars now. We have a digital persona and we have reality. It’s terrifying to me, I don’t really know. It’s really weird because technology is obviously doing great things. My daughter is fully fluent in iPad. She’s amazing on it and she’s only two and a half. It’s incredible to see how advanced she is with it until you get to social media.” Dean Richardson, the Rattlesnakes co-founder and guitarist, added, “[Social media] just teaches you to pretend, to mold yourself into things that you’re not.”

Frank Carter met Dean around the time that Gallows ended and Pure Love was being formed. “We actually met when I wanted Dean to make me a website. Dean’s an incredible designer and coder so I asked him to help me out with it years ago, and then we just got talking about music,” he starts. “When my first band Gallows kind of ended, I started this new project called Pure Love and that was around the first time Dean and I talked about doing something together.” Dean even mentions that he and Frank were already sending out demos around the same time. “And [Pure Love] didn’t really work out. A couple of years pass, and then Pure Love ended. And that’s when I was like ‘Okay. I’m here. You’re here. Let’s do this.’ That was it really,” Frank added.

The Rattlesnakes found Frank Carter returning to his hardcore roots, but while keeping some of the more accesible pop sensibilities of Pure Love. Frank wanted to have “some sort of violence and aggression” behind the Rattlesnakes’ sound. The band almost instantly began writing songs, possibly at a faster pace than they had ever experienced. “[Dean] sent me two songs and they were perfect. I immediately began writing lyrics on that day. We had around 2 or 3 songs on the first day we began to write, which is pretty rare.” Dean added, “That’s when I knew that I was excited about the opportunity, but wasn’t really over-thinking it. And after how quickly the first two songs came together, I began to secretely get a bit more excited about how much we could write together. I still never expected it to get to where it is now so quickly. It’s crazy.”

Below: Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage

The band is also gaining attention for their live performances as well, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’re familiar with Frank Carter’s history. Last month the band had to open Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival with a noon set in sweltering weather, which usually isn’t the time slot you’d prefer if you want an energetic and engaged crowd. Yet, despite the conditions, Frank persuaded almost 95 percent of the crowd to start a circle pit. “I’ve played Warped Tour a couple of times so I’m pretty well-versed in 11am rock shows in the heat,” Frank explained. “I also was asleep like 15 minutes before our set. I thought we were on at 3 or 4 o’clock. No one ever mentioned to me the time. It’s in my calendar so I should have just looked, but instead I just went back to bed. Next thing I know Dean is like ‘hey, uhh, it’s 30 minutes until change over,’ and I just laughed at him and said ‘good one.’ Then he said ‘no, really, get off the couch.’”

So, really, get off your couch and check out Modern Ruin. They’re unfortunately finished with their North American tour dates this year, but if you’re in Europe, be sure the check out the band on their extensive European tour lasting until the end of the year.

 

AGENT ORANGE REPORTING FOR DUTY: Corky Carroll

Friends, Casuals, Piranhas, Funk Dogs… the Orange County musical wizard’s colorful life, explained.

BY TIM HINELY

Corky Carroll is a true renaissance man. Oh sure, you know him from being a champion surfer (and a tireless spokesperson for the sport) as well as being on a Lite beer commercial but did you also know that he’s written several books (on surfing) and in addition opened a surf school in Southern California and has designed/shaped boards as well. In addition (and why we here at BLURT wanted to talk to him in the first place) he has recorded several albums over the years (many recently reissued on the Darla Records label out of Southern California) and has mined several different styles of music on those albums. As you’ll read below, surfing was his first love, but music was always a close second. He’s assembled numerous bands over the years and played solo as well. These days, though he writes a column in the Orange County Register newspaper he no longer lives in California, instead opting for a lush beach community in Mexico where he runs surf adventures (and, of course, still plays music).  I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to have take me on a surf adventure. Carroll has lived a colorful life (to say the least) and he was more than happy to answer the questions I tossed his way.

BLURT: Where did you grow up?

CARROLL: I grew up in the small beach community of Surfside Colony on the far north end of Orange County.  We were just south of Seal Beach.  There were about 100 old beach houses along a little strip of oceanfront, not quite what you would call shacks, but close to it.  Our house was so close to the water that I got to the point that I could tell what the surf would be like without even having to open my eyes, I could tell by the sound.  It was a great place to grow up, especially for a surfer.

What was the first record you remember buying with your own money?

In 1958 I went to see my first surf movie.  They were 16mm films that were usually narrated live by the guy who made the film and he would have a soundtrack on a tape recorder going into a couple of Voice of the Theater speakers for max volume.  The movie was called “Surf Safari” by John Severson.  I remember vividly when the big wave sequence came on, it is one of those frozen in time memories; the music was the Theme from Peter Gunn.  That beat stuck in my head; in fact it’s still stuck in my head.  Shortly after that I got my mom to buy me a record player for my birthday and I saved up my paper route money to buy records.  My first purchases where the Peter Gunn album by Henry Mancini and a blues album by Jimmy Reed.  Shortly after I started buying 45s and had a little set list in my room which included Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, Elvis and Buddy Holly among others.  (Below: in 1968 Corky appeared in a Jantzen ad – the perfect beach bum, eh?)

 

What was the first instrument you picked up?

When I was about seven or eight years old we moved up the beach from a tiny one-bedroom place into a little bigger 3-bedroom place so I could have my own room.  I had been sleeping in a little loft in my parents room and I think I was cramping their style a bit.  Our new place came with an upright piano.  My mom had been a singer when she was younger and sang on the radio back in the days of “live” radio.  She had made a record, too; this is in the days of tin records.  She came from a musical family.  Her two brothers were professional musicians, one a concert violinist and the other a drummer in a popular jazz band of the 30’s and 40’s.  She insisted that I take piano lessons.  At first I was all for it and was ready to rock, but she hired the local pastor’s wife to teach me and it was a strict regime of classical and similar type music.  I wanted to learn to play popular stuff that I could feel, but she was totally against that.  For five years I struggled with that teacher and had no desire to learn or put in any practice time.  I just wanted to go surfing.  A couple of times somebody would show me how to play a little something I liked and that would kinda keep me going for awhile.  Like when I learned how to play “What I’d Say,” by Ray Charles.  That song had a kind of basic little riff to it and that sort of thing became kind of the base of a lot of later “surf” music.  Then one time we went to Tijuana for the day and my dad bought me a cheapo guitar.  That was really more my style, I loved that thing.  I don’t think it even tuned correctly, but I would just bang away on it and it made me feel good.  In about the eighth grade I had a pal who lived down the street and he got an electric guitar.  Now THAT was really cool and I had to have one too.  So I saved up a bit and asked my dad to buy me one.  Not knowing anything about guitars and music he bought a crude homemade thing with a small Gibson amp that had a blown speaker.  This had to be the cheapest thing he could find.  Nonetheless I dug it and me and the kid down the street would spend zillions of hours working out the current instrumental surf songs of the time.  Another friend of mine was learning to play the drums and I would go over to his house and bang away as loud as I could with him.  His name is Tris Imboyden and he went on to become a great drummer, first with a wonderful band named HONK and then with Kenny Loggins and Chicago.  My surfing career got in the way of my musical development for a number of years though and I didn’t take it much further at that time.  It wasn’t until around 1969 or so that I got a nice acoustic guitar and decided to actually learn how to play the thing.  Eventually I wandered back to electric, but have more or less kept a finger style of playing.  I like the way Mark Knopfler does it so I kind of lean that way when I am looking for tones.

Were the Beatles a huge influence for you? Beach Boys? Anyone else?

I was a huge Beatles fan and even more so of the Rolling Stones.  I played both of their albums until they melted.  At first I didn’t like the Beach Boys and thought the “surfin’ bop dipty dipty dip” thing was really lame.  I was much more a fan of pop, R & B, and the traditional instrumental surf music of people like Dick Dale, but as the Beach Boys’ music evolved I could not help but like the beat and the good vibrations of it.  It was a shock to me when I went to England in 1967 that for the most part the Beach Boys were more popular there than the Beatles.  Then I got a chance to work with them on a little promotional film they did and got to be friends with Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston.  They actually asked me if I would go on tour with them as it would be an asset to have a “real surfer” in the band.  At that time all my energy was into being a professional surfer and I was not even close to being skilled enough to play or sing with those guys, so I passed.  I would have only embarrassed myself, which is something that I never seemed to back down from, but right then it didn’t seem like a good idea.  I did become a big fan of their music and even more so as time went on and I understood more about it.  In the long run though I would have to say that the bigger influence on my music came from the Stones.  And later a little bit from Jimmy Buffet, who I am a huge fan of.

At what point did you start writing songs and recording?  What was your first release?

At first I only played guitar and didn’t sing.  My first album was done with a bunch of friends who were also surfers that played music.  It was called Corky Carroll and Friends and came out in 1971.  I did a few sort of mellow acoustic guitar instrumentals.  At about that same time I got offered a gig playing the off nights at a little restaurant and bar.  So I learned some songs and started singing.  Many questioned that decision too.  I was not a good singer at first, but I forged ahead at it and over the years had a lot of voice training and eventually found my way on key.  It took awhile though and after many, many years, like in the late 1990’s, at it I found out that I had some ear problems that were really holding me back.  When I found out that I needed to use headphones my voice finally really came to me and opened up.  Without them my hearing is all wrong.  I also have to use hearing aids on a day-to-day basis.  So I use full on headphones on stage when I perform, not just the in ear monitors.  Sometimes people ask me why I have them on and my favorite answer is “I’m listening to the game.”  It doesn’t even surprise me when they believe it. After a few years of playing in bars I put together a project called the Funk Dog Surf Band.  We did a show of really absurd surf and skate related songs and included three great looking backup singers called the “Corkettes.”  We had a single released in the U.S. and in England that was recorded by Dennis Dragon at his studio in Malibu called “Skateboard Bill.”  We also were on the Gong Show two times, one time we won and the other time we got gonged.  I like to think that this was my “learning” band.

(Below: Funk Dog Surf Band)

Was the Coolwater Casuals your first band? If so how’d that come together?

After awhile the Funk Dog band mistakenly thought we needed a cooler name so we changed it to the “Tropics.”  Eventually that ran it’s course and while I was sort of in between things I was introduced to a fantastic musician named Chris Darrow by a mutual friend, Rick Griffin.  Rick was an amazing artist who started out doing surfing cartoons and then went on to concert posters and Grateful Deal album covers and a number of other good things. Chris had been a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Kaleidoscope and was the leader of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band, among a zillion other things.  He was a big leaguer and he also had just moved to the beach and was learning to surf.  He and I clicked right off the bat and became pals.  He worked on my musicianship and I worked on his surfing.  He put together the Coolwater Casuals and together we wrote songs and put together a show.  We imported the Corkettes too.  Where the Funk Dog band had been fun and silly, and meant to be that way, the Casuals were a damn solid rock band.  I loved that feeling.  I loved being on stage with both of those bands, but in a different way.  The Funk Dog Band was a novelty and intended to entertain and make people laugh and I liked that part.  I want to come back as a stand up comedian in a later life, it feels so good to get a room laughing, but the Coolwater Casuals rocked and that really felt right to me.  Chester Crill was in that band too, one of the great electric violin guys ever.

 How did you end up recording with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees for the “Tan Punks on Boards’ single”?  

The record company, Criminal Records, which released my first single, “Skateboard Bill,” in England, heard a demo tape from a rehearsal with the Casuals.  Chris and I had just written “Tan Punks on Boards” and it was the opening song to our set.  They liked it and wanted us to record it.  Chris was pals with Mike Nesmith who owned his own label up in Carmel called Pacific Arts.  Mike got involved and we recorded “Tan Punks…” at Lyon Studios in Newport Beach.  It was released shortly after as a single on Pacific Arts.  Not long after that we put out the “Surfer for President” LP. (Below: related photo of Carroll, courtesy Art Brewer.)  Most of that album was recorded on a TEAC 4 track in my garage.

What was next? Corky Carroll and the Piranhas?

No, that is just recently since I signed with Darla Records.  After the Coolwater Casuals ran its course I didn’t perform much for a number of years.  But then a small label in Switzerland signed me for a “Best of” album and one more after that.  This led to a series of CD’s on European labels and I started my own little independent label to release small quantities of a number of albums that I recorded in my home studio either totally solo or with Chris Darrow.  And I went back to doing solo gigs in local bars in Southern California.  My main gig was being house musician at Duke’s on the Huntington Beach Pier for a number of years before I moved to Mexico in 2003.  Since then I have been doing occasional dinner concerts at local cantinas and writing new material.  

How did you hook up with James at Darla Records who started reissuing your records?

He found me on Facebook and asked why he couldn’t find any of my music online.  This sort of led to him finding some of the old stuff and wanting to reissue most of them plus do a new “Best Of” followed by a totally new album, which I recorded last summer.  That is the Blue Mango album, which the Piranha plays on.  This is a really great group of extremely fun and talented musicians that I was lucky to be able to put together for this project.  I love the connection with Darla Records and with James himself.  The dude surfs and we have a lot in common, plus he is a really good guy.  And Darla is a very lovely label, it says that right on their stationary.

 

I notice a lot of your songs talk about different environmental issues. What current issue is the most critical?

Well there is always something isn’t there.  I used to get more into that kind of thing but lately have tended to write more about things within my current experience or that I am feeling right now.  Sometimes the environment falls into that, sometimes it’s about a chicken standing on the side of the road debating about crossing in traffic or Surf Zombies.  I am a fan of those really bad horror movies that are so stupid they’re good: Mega Piranha, Zombeavers, Sharknado – that kind of thing.  Sometimes there just seems like there are so many things to be concerned about that I just go into alternative realities and ignore current events – or I just go surfing and forget about them.  This only works for as long as I am in the water though.  It’s turning on the TV that’s dangerous.  The world is not the safest place these days.  I just wrote a song called “Holy Moley.”  It’s about turning in the TV looking for cartoons, but all I see are blood and guts and gore and ragin’ ruins.  Don’t swipe my lyrics here kids, hahaha.

How did the column in the Orange County Register come about? Is it weekly? Is it mostly music?

They approached me to write a weekly column about 25 years ago and it’s still alive and going.  I actually do two a week, one is a question and answer and the other is whatever I feel like writing about.  Mostly it’s surfing related or beach lifestyle in one way or another.  Sometimes I write about music too, but the main topics are more about surfing.  At times I do cover musicians who surf such as Jackson Browne or Jack Johnson or surfers who do music such as Tom Curren or Donavon Frankenreiter.  All these guys are examples of just because you are good at one thing does not mean that you can’t be been at another.  Sometimes people don’t want to give somebody credit for that because they assume that just because you are well know as a surfer you certainly can’t be all that great of a musician, or the other way around.

Tell us about your current band members, Matt Magiera and Matt Marshall? How long has this lineup been together? 

Matt Magiera was the original drummer back in the Funk Dog Surf Band.  He was a teenager and still in High School then.  We used to have to get a note from is parents to get him into the clubs we played at most of the time.  He was already really good then and went on to become outstanding.  He introduced me to Matt Marshall.  That Matt works with his brother Phil Marshall doing big time movie scores and he has also worked with my friend Henry Kapono.  We were lucky that he was available the week I was in California recording the Blue Mango album.  Super clean bass player, I hope to do a lot more with both of these dudes in the future. (Below: Corky with core Piranhas Matt Magiera, Richard Stekol, and Douglas Miller.)

 

How about some of the guys you’ve played with over the years. Brad Fiedel, Chris Darrow, Richard Stekol and Doug Miller. How about something interesting about each one.

As I have mentioned Chris Darrow and I have been playing together and recording together since the late 1970s.  He would be my main musical influence and mentor.  He got me into branching out and becoming a multi-instrumentalist.  Chris and I just jell perfectly when we put songs together.  And Doug Miller was also the lead violinist in the Funk Dog Surf Band and worked with me as a duo playing in bars and clubs in the early days.  Brad Fiedel and I met when he started coming to Mexico to surf maybe ten years ago.  He built a house near ours and he stayed with us while it was going up.  He is a super musician having done well over 100 big movie scores as well has having toured with Hall and Oats.  We would sometimes jam when he was at our house and I was stoked when he agreed to do the keyboards on Blue Mango.  One of the movie scores he did was for a horror flick called Fright Night.  Fantastic score.  I had this song called “Surf Zombie”, which was just begging for some of that good Brad Fiedel/Fright Night kinda vibe.  He also helped me do the final mix before we sent it off to Nate Wood to master.  This was the first time that I actually got to work with Richard Stekol although we have known each other since the early 70s when he was playing with HONK.  They were, and are, one of my all time favorite bands and I have always been a fan of his guitar work.  When I was putting together the players for the album a great songwriter friend of both of ours, Jack Tempchin, heard a few of the new songs and suggested I ask Richard to do some guitar tracks.  Thankfully he agreed and his work on this album really brings a lot of magic to the songs.  The Piranha are a really unique mixture of players and I could not have asked for a more perfect lineup.  When we were discussing band names and the “Piranha” came up it was Richard who said, “Hey, it’s perfect.  After all, everybody’s gotta eat.”  That sort of became our band motto.

With you being in Mexico and your band mates in California how often do you play shows and/or tour?

Together, not yet.  But, that said, thanks to modern technology I am able to perform by myself and use the tracks from the album that I have recorded into a little box.  I can do the songs from the album that way, I just leave out my tracks and play them live and sing live.  I do this with my whole set, but the other songs I record myself in my home studio and use them as backing while my guitar and voice are live.  It has a harmonizer too so I can thicken the songs with harmony.  I can do a Beach Boys medley this way.  Thanks to Chris for getting me to be able to play most of the instruments myself.

Who are some of your biggest influences, musically speaking?

I like the Stones and Jimmy Buffet.  Also am a big fan of Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Jack Tempchin.  The HONK band is at the top of my list.  Chris Darrow too, his own albums are super cool and his personal input into my entire musical life has been enormous.

Of all the records you’ve released over the years could you pick a favorite?

By far it’s the new BLUE MANGO album.  I love this work and am very proud of the final product.  Some of the songs on Visions of Paradise stand out too.

What’s next? Shows? A new record?

Definitely more shows.  Am working on a concert in Florida and trying to get one going in Texas and in Southern California later this year.  And I will continue to do shows here in Mexico – it’s how I get to try out new material and keep sharp musically.  I am not sure about plans for another album as of yet. Blue Mango is still relatively new on the market right now.  Of course I would like to do another one for sure.  I just wrote a couple of new songs I like a lot but have a ways to go to have enough material solid enough to record yet.  Hopefully next year.  The Piranha are on notice.  It will help the cause if ALL of you who might be reading this buy Blue Mango right now.  You will obviously love it and want to tell all your friends too.  Come on, just do it.

Any final comments? Words of wisdom? Anything you wanted to mention that I forgot to ask?

Well, I feel that I have been really lucky to have been able to pursue the things I love most – surfing and music.  They have so much in common.  The late Timothy Leary once told me that we are all surfers of sorts riding different waves through the universe.  Sound waves, cosmic waves, permanent waves, whatever.  Riding through a guitar solo or singing is much like riding a wave on surfboard.  You’re climbing and dropping and tucking into little sections and it’s a lot of ad-lib and expression.  I love the feel both give me.  Performing is a rush and I like that, but I also just love being by myself and plugged in.  I can close my eyes and wander through new universes all the time.  In surfing you gotta keep the eyes open or you will wind up on the rocks.  But in music you can just soar without looking, just feeling.  Of course you can always wind up on the rocks doing that too, that’s what puts the thrill into it.  The only thing that bleeds is your soul.

Online:

www.corkysurfco.com

www.darla.com

Special thanks to James Agren at Darla Records for the help on this piece.

ROQUE ON! The Upper Crust

Lord Bendover holds court with our resident Whig, revealing his thoughts on formal stage attire, the allure of outlandish concert rider demands, and why the current King, er, we mean, President, is a bloody vulgarian. Following the interview, check out a must-see documentary, “Let Them Eat Rock,” on the band from a few years ago.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

While it has never been confirmed that the legendary aristocratic foppish hard rock band, The Upper Crust, dust their wigs with cocaine, based on the blazing licks that spark off their flying Vs, it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.

Although it’s been almost a decade since the Boston-based foursome – comprised of Lord Bendover, Count Bassie, The Duc D’istortion and Jackie Kickassis – last put out a full-length album, Delusions of Grandeur more than makes up for the wait. And it’s not like they didn’t want to record. Like most of the 1%, they simply haven’t been forced to adapt to things like work ethic or schedules.

Pinkies raised firmly in the air, the band, dressed in full 18th century finery have spent much of the spring interacting with the common folk touring the U.S. On a rare break, singer/guitarist Lord Bendover was kind enough to entertain few questions from BLURT and discuss their hiatus from the music world, Donald Trump and some of the finer points of their tour rider.

Rocque on!

BLURT: It’s been almost eight years since you last put out a studio album – why the delay? What has the band been up to? 

LORD BENDOVER: We are gentlemen of leisure, given to indolence, intemperance, and very occasionally, frivolity, but only if it doesn’t require any effort. So, we have been doing hardly anything at all to speak of, except for satisfying our baser appetites and rocquing and rolling in various places.

For a band composed of aristocrats, Hard Rock seems like an odd choice. Hard Rock always felt more like a genre for the underdogs.

We have always felt that it’s high time that an oeuvre as important, exacting and aesthetically challenging as hard rock – or better, “Rocque” – ought to be appropriated by the upper class. After all, we’ve appropriated everything else of value. (Ed. note: the video for “Little Castrato” is below, and yes, it does indeed sound like a cross between classic Motley Crue and, uh, the Beach Boys, with some Ramones thrown in for good measure.)

Obviously, you take the time to dress up for your shows. What do you usually see when you look out into the audience?

 Sometimes we are pleased to find that the audience has dressed themselves appropriately for a formal rocque concerto, but all too often we are crestfallen to see that they appear, to all intents and purposes, to be a bunch of stumblebums. Yet one can’t judge a book by its cover… perhaps they are merely slumming and failed to note the dress code.

Let’s move on to politics. With Trump in the White House, why is now the right time for more music from a band like The Upper Crust?

 We ourselves are hardly Trump supporters—he is not called a vulgarian without reason. And yet it is gratifying to know that he is all in favor of consolidating wealth at the very top of high society, at the expense of the poorer classes, whilst all the while proclaiming his affinity for the common man. But to address the substance of your question, it is always the right time for The Upper Crust.

I’d be interested to know what’s on your tour rider – any outlandish demands?

 Nothing too outlandish. Though if we are ever again presented with what purports to be “real Siamese twins” who on closer inspection have been conjoined with Krazy Glue we shall be quite put out.

It’s hard to find a band to compare you guys to. What are some of the oddest show bills you’ve ever been put on?

Bookers are forever pairing us with costume and comedy rock bands, as if there was anything funny or make-believe about The Upper Crust. The only truly great thematic band we’ve played with, and we’ve played with them enough to know, are San Francisco’s Grannies. Though we will always remember Aerosmith, whom we played with one New Year’s Eve in Boston, coming out onstage dressed more or less exactly like us. An homage.

What’s next for the band?

 Next, we intend to find a way to crack the inscrutable Orient. Whilst that develops, we also intend to return to the Continent. Any continent will do really.
Those are all the questions I have. Anything else you want to cover? 

 We are great lovers of the nude figure in Art. That is all.

Photos credit: Ben Stas

Video Exclusive: Live Song + Interview by China’s Twinkle Star

Live in Beijing China, May 6th 2017, Yugong Yishan Club

By Jonathan Levitt

A while back I introduced Blurt readers to the Chinese band Twinkle Star. A chance ride in lead guitarist Zhang Shuai’s car has led to a close friendship with the band. As they were wrapping up their tour for their latest and greatest record Full of Hope they made a stop in their hometown to bring the house down at the Yugong Yishan Club in central Beijing. Zhou Jialin, who is now the sole member of the Blurt Beijing team (as I’m now stateside) brought along her Taiwanese friend A Pei to shoot some of the concert for Blurt readers and what a killer show it was as evidenced by the footage that I edited together for the song “To Be With You”.

My heart on sleeve plea is that I really hope that Blurt readers can explore more of the band’s musical offerings and hopefully someone out there can help make their dream of playing stateside a reality!

Catch up with the band online: https://www.facebook.com/TwinklestarbandCN/

Photo credits: All photos by Zhou Jialin are marked ZJL / All photos by Pei marked Pei / Bottom photo of Zhou Jialin by Pei