Category Archives: Artist Interview

WAKING UP TOGETHER: Great Lakes’ Ben Crum

The indie rock auteur discusses the different lives of his much-loved band. Hear some music here: www.greatlakesbencrum.bandcamp.com.

BY TIM HINELY

It was the self-titled debut in 2000 that was released on Kindercore that initially got me interested. I loved most everything on that label so when a CD by a band called Great Lakes popped into my P.O. box, I was excited to check it out. Like a few of the others under the Elephant 6 moniker (Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.), it exuded a sort-of grandiose ‘60s pop charm with bits of psychedelia, and some beautiful noise a la Pavement, too. Other records followed (including the brand spankin’ new, and very good, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge), and along the way, Crum lended his skills to bands such as Ladybug Transistor and the Essex Green.

The more recent Great Lakes records have been a bit darker, more guitar-heavy (less sunshine pop) than previous records, but still with excellent songwriting and an overflow of hooks. I wanted to know a bit about Crum and what made him tick, and when I shot some questions his way he was more than happy to expound and expand on his life from the early days until present day. If you’ve never heard the music of Great Lakes, then by all means check out one of their many releases—each one with its own distinct personality. Visit the band’s Facebook page, then read on, dear fans….

Check out the full album stream via our good friends at The Big Takeover.

Where did you grow up?

Mt. Airy, Maryland, though I finished high school in suburban Atlanta.

What was the first band that made you take notice?

The Descendents was really the first band that I was in to. I mean, I was discovering classic rock at the same time, but that 80s punk stuff was big for me. I came to them through skateboarding videos. They’re still one of my favorite bands, though I confess I haven’t kept up with their latest music. Fugazi was also an early big one for me. That first EP especially. I also loved, and still love, The Misfits.

When did you first pick up an instrument? Was it a guitar?

I was required by my mother, who played piano, to take piano lessons. She made me practice right after school. While sitting at the piano practicing my scales I could hear the other neighborhood kids playing and having fun. I found it miserable at the time. But my piano teacher let me come early to the lessons. She had a giant leather recliner and a nice stereo system with headphones. She’d let me play whatever records I wanted to listen to. That was my introduction to CCR. The main lick from “Down On the Corner” really grabbed me as a kid. That and the lead guitar part from “Up Around the Bend” had really caught my attention.

By middle school I chose to be in the school band. That lasted about one year. I think I mainly did it because I didn’t like the other options. I “played” saxophone. When I was about 14 I was watching Maryland public TV and I saw the One Night With You movie with Elvis. It’s taken from the 68 Comeback Special. I still love that stuff. I got out my mom’s old nylon string guitar and started teaching myself to play. I begged my parents to let me trade my sax for a steel string Guild acoustic. I took a few lessons, but those didn’t really take. I learned to play “Dust In the Wind” though.

What was your introduction to independent music? Was it hardcore? New wave? Something else?

I used to have a skateboard ramp in my backyard. All kinds of people would hear about it and come to my house to skate. There was an older dude who had a hardcore band and he gave me his 7 inch when I was about 15. That must’ve planted the seed in my mind that independently putting music out was something I could do. Before then, I don’t think it had occurred to me.

What was your first band? And how/when did Great Lakes come about? That was in Athens, GA, right?

It’s all kinda related, to me. The way I got started in doing music was that during breaks from college, around 92-93, I started getting together with high school friend, Dan Donahue, when we were both visiting our parents in Atlanta. We would write songs and record them on 4 track. We liked Galaxie 500/early Luna, The Flaming Lips, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. And I remember he liked The Chickasaw Mudpuppies a lot and got me in to that stuff. He didn’t really play an instrument, though in the early days neither did I, really, so we both played whatever we could. He liked writing lyrics, though. That was his main thing. It always felt like a chore to me, and I was happy to have him be the lyricist. We called ourselves The Patty Melts. We had a song called “I’m Alive” that was kind of a fictional blues about how bad life was for the narrator, but the idea was that at least he was alive. A choice nugget of the lyrics, referring the guy’s wife, went: “ she’s a briarpatch with an eyepatch”, and later the narrator says:  “…gettin’ my ass up is a damn chore.” We made a pretty cool 4 track recording of that song. I had this homemade 4 string fretless instrument that my dad and brother had built. I’ve still got it. It was made out of paneling for the body and a piece of molding for the neck. The tuners were eye screws, screwed right into the wood. I tuned it to an open chord and played slide on it with a screwdriver as the slide. So we made this Chickasaw Mudpuppies-inspired song with that. By about 94 I started visiting Dan in Athens, where he was in college, and we would write songs and try to record them. Jamey Huggins, who was then in high school but came to Athens a lot on breaks and weekends, joined us on drums. We were all really into Teenage Fanclub by that time, and one night we stayed up all night and wrote a song that we thought was so good that we had to start a band one day. Even then, I was focused on the recording. Unless we had a cool recording of a song, it was as if it almost didn’t really exist. I think we all felt that way. I still do.

Meanwhile, I was in a band in college in Birmingham, Alabama with some friends. We were first called a few different names that I’ve forgotten, but when we started playing shows we were calling ourselves Wonderock, like a superhero or something. We had a couple good songs, actually. I remember getting some encouragement from the sound guy when we played our first show at The Nick. He was a pretty grizzled old guy, Johnny Mack, and he came up to us after our set and said begrudgingly, “Well, my toe was tapping and my toe don’t lie to me…” One of the members of that band, Craig Ceravolo, moved to Athens with me in 96 and went on to play in the earliest version of Great Lakes. Another member of that band formed a band called Three Finger Cowboy. They were on Amy Ray’s label and, I think, did a tour or two opening for The Indigo Girls. After that band I had a short-lived band with Craig, Jason Hamric, and Jamey, called Alaska. Craig, Jason, and I all lived together in Southside, and Jamey had come to Birmingham to stay with us for the summer. I think we chose the name because of that line in “Stephanie Says:, “It’s such an icy feeling / It’s so cold in Alaska”. We also called ourselves Cherry Valence for a bit (this was back before there was a band called The Cherry Valence). Anyway, that band had 3 members of what would become Great Lakes in it. I tried to convince Jason Hamric to leave Birmingham and move to Athens with us, but he wasn’t into that idea. He definitely would have been in Great Lakes, though, if he had moved with us. Great player, and great guy. So, anyway, in Athens, Dan joined us as a lyricist, and we merged Alaska/Cherry Valence and Wheelie Ride and The Patty Melts and became Great Lakes. And then Great Lakes evolved over time. But it wasn’t until 2009 or so that the current iteration, the longest running consistent lineup the band has ever had, came together. But Great Lakes is really more than a band to me. It’s what I consider my life’s work as an artist.

Tell me about your tenure in both the Ladybug Transistor and the Essex Green.

Well, when I got to Athens I arrived right as the Elephant 6 thing was coalescing. The first Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control records had just come out and they blew me away. Elf Power, too. All those guys were into 4 track recording, like us, but, of course, they were way more advanced. We became friends with that whole group of people. And then, after years of recording (including really learning how to record), the first Great Lakes album came out on Kindercore/E6. Ladybug Transistor had a connection to E6. Their album The Albemarle Sound had certainly caught nearly everyone’s attention that year. I mean, if you liked Love and The Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle and stuff like that, then that record was pretty much made for you. We loved it. That and that Lilys record that sounded like The Kinks (Better Can’t Make Your Life Better). Through E6 connections some of the people in Ladybug asked the Kindercore guys to release the first record by their other band, Essex Green. Kindercore happily did. We played a show or two together with Essex Green and Ladybug in Athens, which was fun. We hung out and kinda bonded over shared musical tastes, they way you can only really do when you’re in your 20s, it seems like. A few years later when I moved to Brooklyn they were some of the only people I knew. Jeff Baron, of both bands, immediately asked me to get together with him and Mike Barrett and play some music. We quickly realized that not only did we all love 60s psych and pop, but we also really loved old country music and the whole Flying Burrito Brothers style of country rock. Because we each knew so many country songs, and because we just loved to play, we would get together and play a lot. Mike and Jeff lived together, and had a cool little low volume set up in their apartment, and we’d hand out and play for hours, swapping instruments and trading off singing lead on all kinds of stuff. Eventually we started doing some of Mike’s originals, and Jeff and I would do some tunes. We talked about making a record, possibly of Mike’s original songs, and probably should have. But for some reason we ended up not doing that. But, like I said, we had a bunch of fun. It was also like some kind of music school for me, in a way. Jeff and Mike helped me train my ear to hear the changes, and to improvise. Previously, a live show for me had been about basically just executing what I’d written beforehand; but I came to see music differently through that experience of playing with those guys. I mean, with them, nothing ever sounded the same way twice, and I learned to love that. Then, soon after, Essex Green didn’t have a bass player for a tour they had booked, so they invited me to play. Tim Barnes (Silver Jews, Royal Trux) was on drums for the first tour or two that I did with them, and between Jeff’s great guitar playing and Tim’s incredible drumming and way of listening and responding, it was a great experience. That lineup of that band was definitely one of the best bands I ever played in. We did a tour or two with other drummers, and despite the fact that the Essex Green songs are great and I love playing with them, there came a point when I decided to bow out and focus on a new Great Lakes record, which became Diamond Times. But after that album came out Gary of Ladybug found himself without a guitarist. I guess Jeff didn’t want to do it at that point, so I started playing guitar with him. We did several tours, sometimes with Ladybug Transistor and Great Lakes on the same bill, and then we made what I call the Buckingham Kicks album together (officially titled Can’t Wait Another Day). I wanted to change the band name to Buckingham Kicks and release a self-titled debut, because the album we did was so different from previous LT albums, but Gary decided against that. The great thing about joining Ladybug Transistor, apart from playing with Gary, who is one of the better singers around, was that I got to play with longtime Ladybug drummer San Fadyl. He was another fantastic drummer, and he taught me tons as a musician. After he died tragically, my days in that band were numbered. But Gary soldiered on and made another record, and he’s still doing stuff now. I think he’ll keep making great records for a long time. I’d like to think that I’ll do more stuff together with the Essex Green/Ladybug Transistor folks. We’ve talked about wanting to do something, but logistically it’s a little tough. Maybe one day, though. There’s a new Essex Green coming out soon, though. I’ve been listening to it and it’s great.

When did you move to Brooklyn? What prompted the move?

I moved in 2002. I think I stayed in Athens a little too long for me. I’m not saying people shouldn’t stay in Athens. It’s a great place and I love it. But I was there 6 years, and it’s a small southern town, you know? That has its up and downsides. I think I should have left a little before then, but I didn’t for some reason. The way I actually ended up moving is that my girlfriend at the time was moving and I came along. We promptly broke up, but I stayed in New York because I liked it. Though New York is expensive, it’s a fun place to raise a family. We got to the Catskills, we have a great beach nearby, and we live in a community that is progressive politically. That goes a long way.

Tell us about the new Great Lakes record, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge. Where was it recorded? Who played on it?

Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, the 6th Great Lakes record, ended up being the third in a series of three records that sort of share a lyrical theme. The previous two, Ways of Escape and Wild Vision, are much more country-inflected, however. I think those two are good records, but they’re kinda heavy in terms of the moods and subject matter. This new one feels more fun to me. The subject matter is still pretty heavy, but the songs are back in major keys again. I think it’s a really strong batch of songs. I’m proud of it. I think with Ways of Escape I finally really found myself as a songwriter. I think the stuff I’ve done since that record has been my best work, and this new one feels very strong to me.

The lineup is pretty much the same as played on the previous two records. The drummer is Kevin Shea. He’s been with me for over 10 years now. Suzanne Nienaber sings with me again. Kenny Wachtel plays some guitar. Joe McGinty is back on keys, and Dave Gould on bass. There are a couple other people who played on a song here and there, Luis Leal played mellotron on a aong, and Andrew Rieger did a guest vocal on one song. They’re great musicians, all of them. And just nice, easy-going people. I have no intention to shake up that lineup. As long as those lovely people want to play with me, they’ve got the gig. Of course, it’s different when you’re in your late 30s and early 40s. We’re not trying to tour the world, and I really don’t have ambitions beyond making what I think are good records, and maybe playing the occasional show.

As for the recording of Dreaming, the drums were recorded at Brian Eno’s old space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I think Martin Bisi has been there for 30 years or more. There’s a documentary film about the place. It’s now called Seizure’s Palace (when Jason LaFarge is behind the desk). It’s a huge room, but Jason’s got a great handle on getting good drum sounds in that space. A Boredoms record or two were done there, as well as several Swans records. It’s a great and really weird space. The keyboards were tracked at Joe McGinty’s vintage keys studio, Carousel, in Greenpoint. I played with him and got to know him through Ladybug Transistor (especially when we were rehearsing with Kevin Ayers, but he was also a good friend of San’s, too). Nearly everything else was done in my home studio. And I went to Don Piper’s Brooklyn studio to track vocals. He’s got a Neve desk there, and gets nice sounds. The record was mixed by Steve Silverstein, who mixed each of the last three records. Steve and I have a long relationship of working together, and he’s great.

Is Loose Trucks your own label? Do you release other music other than your own on it?

Yes. My old friends Andrew and Laura of Elf Power run Orange Twin Records in Athens. They put out a couple Great Lakes records, but for Wild Vision, the 5th record, Andrew suggested to me that there was really no reason anymore to give them a cut of the money. He just hooked me up with their distributor and I started my own label. So far, so good. But I teamed up with Mike Turner (of HHBTM Records, and the guy who released the first ever Great Lakes 7”) to help me with distribution this time. I think that’ll be a positive thing. The truth is, I’d never want to start a label, necessarily, but it just made sense for me to do it.

I haven’t released anything else on the label except the last two Great Lakes records, and I really don’t have any desire to do so.

Who are some of your favorite current bands or musicians?

Steve Gunn. I especially love Way Out Weather. That’s the modern record that I’ve listened to the most in recent years. I love the Fahey meets drone-y raga thing; but it’s the strength of the compositions and the melodies that I find elevates it above other records in that style. I also think David-Ivar from the band Herman Dune is one of the most criminally underrated songwriters around these days. And Bill Callahan has long been a favorite of mine. I think he’s peerless.

What is one musician you’d say who’s had the biggest impact on your music?

My biggest influence as a guitar player is/was Dean Wareham. First, I always thought his sound was really cool. And his solos and lead playing, from Galaxie 500 on, has all been consistently great. I mean, as a beginning guitar player I’d sing along with the guitar solos. It doesn’t happen that often, when the long guitar solo or outro is the highlight of a song, or just as good as the singing part. Wareham was kind of my guitar teacher in a sense, because the way he plays, it’s not super fast. It’s about the melodies and the feeling and the mood. Because his stuff wasn’t very technical, I was able to play along with his solos and lead parts pretty easily and figure out what he does and how he does it. Every now and again I still kind of think to myself, “What would Dean Wareham do on this song?” if I’m stuck trying to figure out a guitar part for a song.

Tell us about your day job as a teacher. How does it fit into your lifestyle? Any of the other teachers know that you’re a musician?

Well, I don’t have a very wild lifestyle, I can tell you that. I’ve got a 7 year old son and a 1 year old daughter. With a full-time job as a third grade teacher, I’ve got my hands full. Lots of responsibility. But I still find the time to play a handful of shows each year, and to release records regularly. I’ve kind of gotten into a pattern of working, that works for me. During the school year I write songs when inspiration hits. But then I have the summers off. That’s when I have more time to work on music. If I can get all the songs for a new record written, revised and ready to record by August, I can track drums for an album. And then the cycle of overdubbing on the recordings, while also writing new songs, can begin again. That’s really my pattern.

People I work with know I write and play music, and put out records. Sometimes they’ll come to the shows. Some of my student’s parent’s have actualy looked me up and bought my records. I leave a guitar in my class and we sing all the time. The parents know me as this gentle teacher who sings Paul Simon and Cat Stevens songs with their kids, but I could tell by the way they some of them talked to me about my music that they were a bit surprised, after hearing my music, at how thematically dark some of my stuff is. It’s not children’s music that I’m making, you know? If they’d asked me I’d have warned them.

As a teacher, I think about Robert Pollard a lot. He’s not only one of my favorite songwriters, but he made a bunch of his best records while he was working full-time as a 3rd grade teacher. It’s really not hard to balance teaching and music. The hours can be tough, though. I have to be on point at 8am when I have to face a class of 8 year olds. One of my regular working times is between 4am and 6am. It’s been less this way since we had our second kid, because I’m really tired from having a baby,  a 7 year old, and a demanding job. But I made most of the previous two records, and a lot of Dreaming, between the hours of 4am and 6am. That’s when my brain works best, anyway, I don’t even set an alarm. I just wake up naturally when I’m feeling inspired to work. It’s nice. The house is quiet, and I’ve got a tried-and-true system for recording electric guitars, bass, and keyboards silently. My wife is also very supportive, and often graciously allows me weekend mornings off of childcare duty so I can get some recording work done.  I’m one of those people that if I’m not recording and getting work done, I’m kind of irritable and feel unsettled. So it’s probably in her best interest to do that… (haha)

You’re the only remaining original member of the band., then? What’s that like?

Yeah. I’ve been the only original member of the band for over 10 years now. But it was really only for the first 2 records that the original members were a big part of the band, anyway, to be honest. And even then it was really just the first one that was the product of genuine collaboration. Back then it was me and Dan writing songs together, but by the time the first record came out we’d put together a big band that also featured Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, Scott Spillane from Neutral Milk Hotel/Olivia Tremor Control, Bryan Poole from Elf Power, and Derek Almstead, Dottie Alexander, Heather McIntosh, and Jamey Huggins as a multi-instrumentalist and our main drummer. Jamey and I really collaborated very closely on the first record, in terms of working out the instrumentation on the songs. That was a really good, positive collaboration. And, truthfully, it hurt me when he chose to pretty much leave the band and focus on Of Montreal. But I understood his decision. They were getting really popular, and I couldn’t blame him. Then, in 2002, I moved to Brooklyn and Dan followed not long after, and once we’d both left Athens that was basically the end of the original lineup. Dan and I kept writing songs together, though, with him writing the lyrics and me writing the music. We went back to Athens to record Diamond Times, and a bunch of the old crew pitched in and played on the record, but by that point I’d formed a pretty strong connection with Jeff Baron of Essex Green and Ladybug Transistor, and had convinced him to come down from Brooklyn to Athens with me for the recording sessions. He ended up playing a big role in terms of making that album what it became.

The last released songs that Dan and I co-wrote, apart from one that made it onto Ways of Escape, came out on Diamond Times in 2006. After that album came out, I put together a 3-piece lineup of the band in New York, to tour behind that album. We did a long tour of the US, opening for The Clientele. It was Kevin Shea on drums, and Kyle Forester, who I also roped into The Ladybug Transistor as a keyboardist, on bass. We did a few tours of Europe with that lineup, too. What’s strange is that, though it’s not the original lineup, we played more shows together as a 3-piece than any previous or later Great Lakes lineup ever played, yet the three of us never made a record. Kyle left right before we began recording the 4th record, Ways of Escape. Around then Dan and I had a disagreement over the musical direction of the band and he abruptly moved back to Athens. Him leaving really turned out to be a great thing for me. Kevin Shea was happy to keep playing drums with me, and I wrangled a bunch of great NYC-based players to help me make that record. Towards the end of that process, Suzanne Nienaber started singing with me. As soon as we started doing stuff together I thought it sounded great. That lineup ended up being the players I’ve continued to work with for a decade and counting. We made Wild Vision together, which, to me, really felt like a highlight in the band’s discography, and then we made the new record, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, together, too.

Looking back, I think I went out on my own at just the right time. I was feeling weird about singing somebody else’s words. And it felt so much better to sing my own. Dan also just wanted more say over the music than I was willing to give him. I think a lot of artists reach a point where they get fed up with making art by committee. At a certain point, you need control to really realize your vision. I’ve done 6 Great Lakes records now, with the most recent 3 being made without any other original band members. And it’s the 3 I’ve done on my own that I feel most proud of, to be honest. I’ll never disavow the early stuff, and if you’re a fan of unabashed 60s psych-pop then that’s the Great Lakes stuff for you.

The thing about bands continuing on without original members is tricky. A lot of times those bands aren’t very good without the original lineup. But I always think about The Byrds when this subject comes up. My favorite Byrds records are the ones Roger McGuinn made without Gene Clark and David Crosby. I mean, I love the Gene Clark solo stuff, and that first David Crosby solo record, too. And of course the early Byrds stuff is great. But those late Byrds records are the ones I like the most. I like to think of Great Lakes like that. Maybe some people prefer the early stuff, and that’s fine. But I’m just going to keep on doing my own thing, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?

I’m always focused on what I’m doing next. I’m working on the 7th Great Lakes record now. More and more, I find myself drawing on more of my influences from the time when I was starting to play music, lthe stuff I was into in my early 20s. Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Sebadoh, Luna/Galaxie 500, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Built to Spill. Not that there’s a cohesive sound there, but that combination of sounds is really where my heart is lately. I’m working on the next record now and I can feel it going in that direction. It’s not at all thematically connected to the other records. I feel like it’s going to be good.

Thanks for your interest in my music, Tim. I appreciate it. (L-r in the top black-and-white photo: That’s Kevin Shea, Suzanne Nienaber, Kenny Wachtel, Chris Talsness and me.)

All photos by jami craig except the daytime outside shot, which is by Diego Britt. 

 

 

 

 

NOT TOO OLD-FASHIONED TO ASPIRE: TC&I (a/k/a XTC’s Colin Moulding & Terry Chambers)

Our correspondent—who you may know from a little old Athens, Georgia, band called Pylon, and subsequent related outfits—converses with the British legends about their new band, their legacy, the recent XTC documentary film, an epochal (to Georgians, at least) early, concert summit between XTC and R.E.M., and plenty more. Note: A version of this story also appeared earlier this month at Athens’ Flagpole magazine.  (Photos of Moulding and Chambers by Geoff Winn.)

 BY VANESSA BRISCOE HAY

In which XTC’s Colin Moulding & original drummer Terry Chambers discuss: Great Aspirations, a new EP from their project TC & I; XTC’s This Is Pop rockumentary. What have they been up to and where have they been?  I love the work of Andy Partridge, but I wanted to know more about the other members of XTC than I saw unfold through This is Pop... Plus, read a few memories of a legendary Athens, GA show 37 years ago that paired the legendary British band XTC with a very young R.E.M. A show that many fans of both bands wish that they could take a time machine back to. Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers were both very generous with their time and answered every single question I asked. A fan couldn’t ask for anything more!

 2018 marks the 40-year anniversary of XTC’s first studio album White Music that spawned the Andy Partridge penned singlesThis is Pop,” a manifesto proclaiming that punk was no different than pop andStatue of Liberty.” I was delighted recently to chat with the formidable rhythm section of XTC’s bassist Colin Moulding and original drummer Terry Chambers about their current project TC&I. Colin and Terry with some help from their friends have recently released an EP, Great Aspirations, via PledgeMusic. Great Aspirations harkens a bit back to the early glory days of XTC, but how could it not with this pedigree. Most people don’t understand how important the drummer really is to a songs pattern and flow – and with the songwriting skills of Colin Moulding, the EP is a delight to listen to. The four songs on Great Aspirations include adult themes about things like conservation and happily facing mortality.The XTC documentary This Is Pop just aired to rave reviews from fans on Showtime (trailer is belowI).

Last year, The XTC Bumper Book of Fun, an anthology of articles from XTC’s fanzine published between 1982-1992 with new material for 2017 came out to rave reviews from fans. (Loved the Limelight zine! And hey, whatever happened to The Little Express XTC zine out of Canada? – Archival Ed.)

VANESSA BRISCOE HAY: For someone who is semi-retired, you seem busier than ever. There seems a sense of both looking back and forward.

 Colin Moulding: I always like to be able to look forward to something musically, so the new stuff is where it’s at for me …. but of course, I’m very proud of what we’ve done too with the chaps over the years. Something new and experimental musically keeps me going in my ‘dotage.’

VBH: I’m right there with you on that. I briefly met you and Andy Partridge in January 1980 while passing through the Hotel Iroquois lobby. A lot of bands who were booked by Frontier Booking International or FBI stayed there – I also ran into other bands like The Clash, The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and The Police. Randy Bewley (guitarist for Pylon) spied you two sitting in the lobby doing an interview and asked me to give you our first single because he was too shy. I know that you don’t remember us, but we were thrilled!

CM: I hope we were courteous when we met.  I remember the cockroaches at the Iroquois… they were certainly friendly. (laughs)

VBH: You both were very nice. I can’t say the same for the cockroaches. On April 24, 1981, XTC performed in Athens, GA and the opening band was none other than R.E.M. My band Pylon were out on the road at the time, so I missed it.

CM: I don’t remember too much about that particular show.  But I know the reception we got in general across America was nearly always good. The size of the portions at meal times certainly made an impression on me! It was a great time to be young and into music.

VBH: Please tell me how your new project TC&I with former XTC drummer Terry Chambers came to be.

CM: Well, as you may know, Terry left the band in 1982 and moved to Australia to be with his wife at that time. He had made previous visits to the U.K., but this time it was different. When he came over in 2016 for a family wedding he expressed a wish that he would like to come back to England on a permanent basis.  He was. I think having personal problems and saw his future back in the U.K., so the novelty of it all was too much to resist.  I asked him there and then whether he fancied playing on some new songs of mine that I was contemplating recording and one thing led to another …and then we formed TC&I. A very enjoyable few months we had too, recording and having fun.

VBH: Had you been in contact with him or worked with him since he left XTC in 1982 (during the sessions for Mummer)?

CM: No not really —he would come back for family events and stuff, and maybe I would see him on occasions when our schedules would allow, but generally we were like ships in the night.

VBH: Are there plans for TC&I to perform live?

CM: We may do (that), but you must remember we pretty much played most of the stuff on the record between ourselves, so as such, we don’t have a band. Fnding players who are sympathetic to our sensibilities won’t be easy, but if we click with some other musicians then yes, it’s a possibility-I think quite soon we’d like to do some more recording too.  Fitting it all in is difficult.

VBH: Apart from the existing ‘Scatter Me’ video, will there be another video forthcoming?

 CM: We were going to do another for “Greatness” but it’s such a difficult subject to find tangible visuals for, so it may happen- depending on suitable visuals. We have some shots for it, but nothing we are happy with thus far

VBH: I have read that Terry Chambers’ son is a drummer like his father. Can Terry tell us anything about that?

TC:  My son Kai plays in an Australian band called October Rage.  They have a deal with a record company in Salt Lake City, Utah called Aircastle and they regularly play the U.S.- mainly in the mid-West.  They are a fairly heavy rock band.

VBH: Are you writing new material together for this project with plans to record it?

 CM: After ‘Great Aspirations,” there is plans to do more. Terry doesn’t write per se, so I have to have time off to formulate ideas for us to record. At the moment we’re doing promo for the EP, so I am not settled into this process yet. Besides, we want to keep them special and fun. The conveyor belt of the old days doesn’t apply anymore.

***

VBH: The documentary This Is Pop was great! I would have liked to have seen a little more about the other members’ background. I really love Andy Partridge’s work, but I love the other members work too.

 CM: I think documentary film making is a certain (type of) art. The director must entertain, inform and keep his backers happy too. Andy’s breakdown and his subsequent refusal to tour was headline news -so there you have it. There were other tributaries that the story could certainly have taken, but in the interest of holding a (story) thread and keeping a strong central core, it was told this way.


VBH:
What attracted you to music initially and what was your first instrument?

TC: At first, I wanted to play piano for some unknown reason.  That idea never came to fruition.  I think maybe because I became obsessed with rock music in late 1968-69 and suddenly thought …drums! I was 14 years old. I had an inspired moment and sought out a drum kit reasonably priced at Kempsters, a music shop in Swindon. I think the kit cost around £35-50* which was bought from money that I had saved from my after-school job stacking shelves at a local grocery store.  The kit was a lovely blue coloured Broadway drum kit made by John Gray. When I got the kit home, I didn’t even know how to set it up and had no idea how to play.  I learned to play by listening to my sister’s records on an old mono record player hitting parts of the kit that seemed to sound like what was on the records. For example: that sounds like this one – then hitting the snare drum, bass drum etc.

I hope that this helps to explain my perhaps unorthodox playing style rather than the usual text book style.

*Note: This was about $80-115 in US dollars at the1975 exchange rate – which is now worth about $380-540 adjusting for 2018 inflation. A lot of stacking shelves, I’m sure!

CM: I first noticed being moved by hymns at school, but I couldn’t work out why some moved me, and others didn’t. What was that thing that gave me a lump in my throat?  “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” still moves me today. * This coincided with hearing pop music on the TV and radio-The Beatles in particular, as well as The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, and Spencer Davis. I loved the melodies of it all. My first instrument was the bass guitar-right from the start. I thought that it would quickly get me into a band and make me popular with girls. In fact, we knew people who just carried a guitar around with them most of the time, without a clue as how to play it, just for that purpose.

*Note: This hymn originates from a poem penned by Sir Spencer Rice which was adapted by Holst to music from his work Jupiter.

 VBH: Who was an early influence on your style?

CM: A chap called Andy Frasier. You may recognize the name. He played in the band Free, of which I was a huge fan. I thought the sound of his bass was very unusual-like an elastic band or something.

Free played in a very empty sort of way which appealed to me a lot more so than power chords. I’ve thought that less is more ever since…

VBH: Were your family supportive?

 CM: Not to begin with-no. You see I had forsaken my education to do music which rather horrified my parents. Indeed, I had five very dispiriting years after I had ‘dropped out’ where nothing much happened. So, I was beginning to come around to the assumption that they had been right all along, but the calling was too strong for me. You see one thinks that it’s all going to happen overnight when one has made up one’s mind what to do, but it very rarely does. Then along came punk rock and rather saved the day…it got us in.

 VBH: Yay, punk rock! Did you have a childhood hobby?

 CM: I was rather taken with astronomy and studied it for a number of years. I also had an interest in maps, which stays with me to this day. I still have my original copy of sheet 157 OS of my local area somewhere in the house.

*Note: Referring to an “Ordnance Survey” map with scale of one inch to one mile. 157 is the sheet number and refers to his hometown of Swindon, UK.

  VBH: I’ve never been to Swindon, but I originally came from a town which is much smaller than Swindon. Did you know the other members of XTC growing up?  How do the townspeople or the town feel about their most famous product?

 CM: I Knew Andy at school because we grew up close by.  The other members I met later in pubs and stuff, or in music shops. We are known to some in our town, and even revered and respected in some quarters. But, I’m sure to others they wouldn’t know who the hell we are, you see, for some, unless you come from London or New York you can’t possibly be that good!

VBH: I know that at one point in the 2000’s you washed your hands of music. I suspect that it was the business more than music because you became involved in some prog rock projects in LA. I must confess to having had a sweet tooth for this type of music in my teen years when I loved bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd and Renaissance.  Tell me a little about your involvement with this genre.

 CM: When the band fizzled out I went down like a wounded horse. It had been such a big part of my life that I couldn’t face starting anything new. Very much like when a romance comes to an end, one is still emotionally attached. I had to give it time before I could ‘love again.’ So, I think I just watched TV for two years, and made myself a nuisance at the local tennis club. Then, I began to get offers from a guy in LA named Billy Sherwood who was well in with a clique of musicians that I knew from my prog rock record buying days. He asked, “Did I fancy having a go at contributing to this stuff?”  So, I thought, what the hell. Billy actually plays bass in YES now, and tours live with them due to the untimely death of Chris Squire.

VBH: Are there any prog rock recordings that you were involved in that we should look for?

CM: Yes, my favourites are: “The Man Who Died Two Times,” from (LA prog rock band) Days Between Stations concept album In Extremis and “Just Galileo and Me,” from Billy Sherwood’s solo album Citizen.

VBH: What is it like to work with Rick Wakeman?

CM: Rick, I believe, was on a track that I worked on from Billy’ Sherwood’s Citizen record. Files were compiled and sent down the line and assembled at his end, so I never got to be in the same room. It was all very impersonal – but that’s the industry for you. You can work intensely in a room together for three months with a person and then never see them again – or be at the end of a computer in different towns. Well, they say the internet has drawn people closer together …. Well this would seem the opposite wouldn’t you think?

VBH: I have done very little work like that, but I would agree. You are known for earnest, yet indirect at times pop lyrics and song writing. I know that the first three songs to chart for XTC were penned by you.  The first single that I bought by XTC was “Life Begins at The Hop”. A highlight of the album Drums and Wires was “Making Plans for Nigel.” Perhaps my favorite XTC song is “Generals and Majors.” Many drummers have cited the sound on the 4th XTC album Black Sea as the best sound recording of a drummer.  There is a little discussion of that in the documentary This Is Pop. To me the whole band sounds very full and clear and the rhythm section is killer.

How did XTC and your producer Steve Lillywhite achieve the sound separation during the recording process of Black Sea?

 CM: That sound is the sound of the stone room at Virgin’s “Town House Studios” in Goldhawk Road, London. Not long built when we got to work there-In fact we may have been among the first to use it. We had done Drums and Wires there the year before and the big sound was being worked on even then. Later it was developed even more for Back Sea. It’s the sound you hear on Phil Collins’ ‘‘In the air tonight’…and on the Peter Gabriel album from around that time. Hugh Padham was the house engineer, and together with Steve, they developed it. Essentially the drummer is locked away in a room of his own that is made of stone.

VBH: Amazing. That explains a lot. Do you feel that you are coming full circle with your latest project TC &I with Terry Chambers?

 CM: No, because a circle would indicate that we had arrived back where we started and that’s not right. I feel the stuff on (the TC &I EP) Great Aspirations is breaking new ground.  To write about death in a positive way (“Scatter Me”) is a hard thing to do – plus others like ‘Kenny’ and ‘Comrades of Pop’ is largely storytelling over fanfares and riffs with sound effects. I’m more a narrator than a tunesmith in these instances. I thought it was something we hadn’t done.

 VBH: I see that you play bass, guitar, keys and sing lead vocals and that you wrote the songs as well. Who are the other players on this project?

 CM: We had some local players that sang and played the saxophone and trumpet, but essentially Terry and I played everything – more out of necessity than design.  You see we didn’t have the big budgets that we had on the XTC records. Susannah Bevington is from a local choir and Alan Bateman has played brass for many people locally. Mikey Rowe is the exception; he plays Keyboards for Noel Gallagher’s band High Flying Birds.

 VBH: Is it self-produced?

 CM: Yes – and we have a saying in England…’cheap as chips’ – that’s what music has become.  Considering the amount of time and expense that one has to go through, it’s a wonder anyone produces anything at all.

 VBH: Where did you record it?

 CM: It was recorded at my house. I have a facility in my garage. We would run long lines into the house to record things that needed separation like brass and the soprano voice that you hear on ‘Scatter Me’. When you record yourself, one doesn’t have the pressure that one has at the big studios where the clock is ticking……the pressure to get it right within a short space of time is immense. One shouldn’t subject oneself to such pressure. Yes, it was all very ‘Joe Meek’, but I figured that at least we were going to have a record that sounded different. Sure, you will make mistakes – but good things happen when you don’t know what you’re doing…. trust me.

 VBH: What technology did you use to record it?

 CM: I like the Otari Radar because the converters are so good. Then we transferred it all to Logic Pro. We had a very good mixer chap by the name of Stuart Rowe who rapped our knuckles when we got a bit wayward with the sound, so he was our guardian angel really. I only hope that we can afford him next year.

 VBH: Are there plans for further XTC projects?

CM: Well, certainly no new ones, that’s for sure.

VBH: How involved are you with the reissues?

CM: None whatsoever – they are totally Andy’s babies. He chooses what goes on them and it is his choice alone. I don’t think he appreciates any outside interference, so I don’t bother anymore. My feeling towards them is this:   They most certainly have saved us from the bargain bins, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m not a believer in (the release of) demos of any great number.   You see for me, ‘the extension should never be bigger than the house.’ in my view it rather dilutes the magic. He says the fans want them; I say the fans have had them.

VBH: Do you think that you will ever tour with XTC again?

CM: Extremely unlikely I’d say……. the individuals are far too disparate in thought for it ever to happen. But then I’m not sure whether I would want to …. I think I might feel uncomfortable being in their company after so long…

VBH: Okay, I have two questions for you Colin, from two friends who also love your music:

Jason NeSmith: “Do you have a favorite plant (or type of plant) in your garden?” 

CM: I’m very fond of my box plants…which I clip to a topiary shape…. very therapeutic…. i can contemplate the world whilst doing it….

Marianna Silva: “As I live in Brazil, I’m still waiting for my TC&I EP to arrive, so I haven’t heard it yet… But, it’s fantastic to hear Colin and Terry playing together once again. I’d like to know if there is a song or songs that he wrote (from the XTC catalog such as “Nigel”) that he wished that he had done differently on listening to it/them today?”

CM: Probably lots….certainly some of the later stuff which didn’t get done all that well….as I think we knew we were breaking up…like the last days of Rome or something….but going back further…I think ‘Cynical Days’ got some rough justice…it’s far too lounge-y and the clatter of the snare drum on the choruses is not quite right…..but if I went through it all I’m sure it would distress me too much….best not to think about it…

——————

 Here are a few memories or comments from some of my fellow Athenians about XTC or that  XTC / R.E.M. at the B & L Warehouse on April 24, 1981:

When I was touring Europe with Sugar, we had a truly excellent sound engineer from the UK by the name of Mick Brown.  It is typical for a touring sound engineer to tune each venue’s PA with a recording with which they are very familiar and hold in high regard.  Every single day of that tour, Mick’s choice was XTC’s The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.”   It was constantly stuck in my head, but I never minded.  Great song. Great production. Great band. — David Barbe (Chief Engineer & Producer at Chase Park Transduction, Director of UGA Music Business Program, Mercyland, Sugar, The Quick Hooks, Bar-B-Q Killers, Drive-By Truckers)

——————

The show R.E.M. did with XTC at the B&L Warehouse was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had, and XTC were as hot as any band I ever saw. The crowd simply would not let them stop playing, and I think they were as surprised at the multiple encores as they were happy to play them. The musicianship of Colin and Andy, and the power of the band, gave us something to shoot for. — Mike Mills  (R.E.M.)

_____________

I remember thinking that this was the first time I had seen R.E.M. in color… there was a “tree” of colored lights on the stage and R.E.M. looked like a real, pro band! Also, I remember that XTC had a projector projecting words and dots on a screen behind them – “Cuba” “Generals and Majors” etc. The other random memory from that night was that a big old football player-sized frat boy took my chair from me when I stood up to dance saying “get your coat off of my chair, boy” – Bryan Cook (Time Toy)

 ___________

 In 1981 I was a very young student at UGA, living in Reed Hall. Since the previous year my friends and I had been seeing R.E.M. whenever we could, and we were always on the lookout for their next show. We were excited to learn they’d be opening for XTC, we’d been hearing “Life Begins at the Hop” and “Making Plans for Nigel” on WUOG and thought it was cool that our local heroes were opening for a big-time band. At the time our ideas about what constituted “New Wave” were vague at best; none of us had much access to the music press or records, but we thought of UK punk as having kicked things off and of UK bands as being on the leading edge. The night of the show we walked over to the B&L Warehouse from the dorm, crossing the railroad tracks behind the art building. The venue felt big compared to Tyrone’s, which is what we were used to, but the same crowd seemed to be there. R.E.M. did their usual energetic set, much to our satisfaction, but when XTC came out it was instantly obvious which was the better band. They were tighter, they had better sound, and their songs and arrangements were on an entirely different level. It was the show of the year for us and helped us realize that what was going on in Athens really was part of something bigger. Black Sea is still my favorite XTC album. – Brad Cahoon (Athens resident since 1979, Retired)

—————–

There was great energy in the room that night, the audience was enthusiastic, and I think the bands picked up on that. I just recall having fun from start to finish – Jeff Hollis (UGA Alumnus, Attorney)

 

 

SERIOUS FUN WITH… Giant Kitty

Now on their second full-length, the Houston postpunk/riot grrrl outfit talk about their home city and living in a redder-then-red state, about the experiences of Muslims as well as trans citizens in America—and about the influence of… drumroll, please… Keanu Reeves on their music and their art. (Above photo: via the band’s Facebook page / by Trish Badger Photography.

BY ROBIN E. COOK

Houston’s Giant Kitty blends fun and political awareness seamlessly. They observed Trump’s inauguration alongside other Houston bands with an ACLU benefit: “We Belong: Houstonians of Muslim Descent Dissent.” (Singer Miriam Hakim is a Syrian-American Muslim.) On the thundering “This Stupid Stuff,” the band explores everyday prejudice and stereotyping, and the video amplifies the message via Post-Its. The topic is personal not only for Hakim but for her bandmates. Guitarist Cassandra Chiles and drummer Trinity Quirk are transgender women (they also tied the knot onstage in 2016), while the band’s newest member, bassist Roger Medina, is Mexican.

But then the band changes gears and pays tribute to Keanu Reeves on “Don’t Stop That Bus,” with a video that recreates scenes from his most famous movies. For their second album, Rampage, Giant Kitty mixes charged commentary, searing riffs, and just the right amount of sass to make it a blast to listen to.

BLURT: Could you give me some background on the band?

Cassandra Chiles: The band was founded about five years ago. We started as kind of a riot grrl band, and kind of morphed into more of a punk-ish…

Miriam Hakim: We have a riot grrrl attitude. Whatever the hell music we’re making is what we’re making.

Roger Medina: Punk rock.

MH: Yeah, we’re punk rock. Some people might argue, but it doesn’t matter.

RM: It’s like alternative punk, a lot of different styles.

MH: We draw from a lot of different influences, but I think ultimately, you know, we’re just sort of writing personal songs about things we care about and are relevant to us, and I feel like that’s pretty punk rock.

RM: We’re a band for the people, yo!

CC: I think there’s a good balance between the serious issues and the humor element that a lot of bands don’t have.

I noticed that too, like, for instance, your recent videos, like “This Stupid Stuff” for instance.

MH: I think there’s that quote, “The personal is political,” right? And really for us, I feel like that’s kind of our mantra. We write very personal songs, and because of our identities and our experiences, sometimes those personal songs end up being a wider message, like “This Stupid Stuff.” But ultimately what we’re really doing is we’re writing about our experiences and hoping that somebody else can connect to them too.

I have a question about Houston. It’s definitely thought of as being a pretty liberal city, isn’t it?

MH: Definitely. I think we were the first major American city to have a gay mayor, Annise Parker, a few years ago.

And I think that really goes against the image people have of Texas as being this totally redneck state, because you do have places like Austin and Houston.

Trinity Quirk: We’re still a red state no matter what at this point, so we’ve got our share, definitely.

MH: It’s true, and I think a lot of the northern-southern divide is more of an urban-rural divide. Texas has some of the biggest cities in the United States. Not just Austin, but Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and everywhere in the Valley, they all vote Democrat and have for a long time. So I think it’s really just a matter of how the districts are drawn in Texas. That’s why it goes red. But it’s not necessarily as solid red as maybe people outside of Texas would understand.

CC: Even Dallas, which tends to be more conservative . . . it’s really almost a dead middle ground area, at least I find it to be.

MH: I’m from Dallas, and I would say, yeah. And also, there’s something to be said for being more lefty people, like we are, from a red state. Because there’s some sort of camaraderie that we have and this sort of underdog mentality that in some sense I feel like, you know, the things we’re passionate about, maybe when we visit a blue state, they’ve sort of already won that battle, right? And for us, we’re still fighting, we’re still passionate about it. And we still understand like the day-to-day effect that it has. So me being a lefty person who’s lived in a red state all my life, I feel like it gives a little different perspective on it.

You did a show of bands with other Muslim members, a fundraiser for the ACLU. Could you tell me about that?

MH: I organized that with a couple of other people in Houston from the band Ruiners. The lead singer, Shan [Parsha], he’s half-Pakistani, I’m half-Syrian. And, you know, the day after the election, we were really upset, and we felt really betrayed. Both of us grew up in the United States. I guess both of our parents are Americans now, but we have parents from another country that’s kind of vilified, and both of us are Muslim. And so we just felt really helpless and really, like I said, betrayed.

We were chatting on Facebook, like what can we do to feel better and help others feel better. And we decided is that Houston has so many bands with members from Muslim families that why don’t we, on Inauguration Day, throw a big concert and get all the bands that we can with members from Muslim families together?

We specifically wanted to raise money from the ACLU, because they don’t just fight for rights for Muslim people. We wanted something that would fight for everybody. And so yeah, we threw this big, very affirming concert, and thankfully all these people were on board with it. That was Roger’s first show with us, which I feel is really appropriate and meaningful and that was a dark day for a lot of us. And the fact that we did that and we raise almost $2,000 for the ACLU, I mean, maybe it’s a drop in the bucket, but I feel like for a lot of us that were there that day it helped us feel like at least we did something.

Do you feel like trans rights after the election took one step forward, two steps back?

CC: I think that there is a backlash because . . . basically, when Trump got elected, I think a lot of people were very shocked that he actually won the election. And because that empowered the extreme right backlash on all minority groups whether they’re not Americans, they’re not white, or they’re not cis, or they’re trans or gay, I think there was a pushback.

As far as the actual rights . . . it’s inevitable. I mean, they can cry all they want to, the extreme right, about trans rights, gay rights, or immigrants or anything, but the deed is done. It’s going to keep pushing on, pushing forth. If you look at the whole of history, history always moves toward the left, progressively, and always continues to evolve and we’re here. We’re not going anywhere.

And the whole idea that trans people have just recently popped up is a bunch of garbage also. I was from the Renee Richards generation in the seventies. Before me it was Christine Jorgensen generation of trans people.

And I think that’s the biggest thing I can say to anyone who is trans or even questioning or even in the middle of gender or genderqueer people or anything is that, you know, just be yourself and just keep on pushing.

Getting back to the red state/blue state divide, I remember reading an essay by Samantha Allen, a columnist for The Daily Beast. And she was writing about how in these seemingly conservative areas you find these communities, these LGBT communities. Do you agree with that?

CC: Oh, absolutely. All you have to do is look at someone like Caitlin Jenner, who comes out late in and is assertively right wing. It seems from even an outside point of view it’s counterproductive to her own benefit and well-being. And even now, as she finally comes out and admits that Trump has set back the trans community—in her opinion, not mine—twenty-plus years, she still is an adamant supporter of this right-wing GOP agenda. So I think the thing to keep in mind here with that too is that you can be LGBT and still be across the political spectrum. And I think that’s what frightens red people the most, is that someone who is hardcore Republican and gay.

MH: People can emerge in places you don’t necessarily expect because of how different the development’s been there. So, I mean, there’s lots of statistics about what parts of the country queer women congregate, what parts of the country queer men congregate. And because of the gender pay gap, based on gender and race and all these intersections about pay gaps, because of how those happen, you actually see a disproportionate number of queer women living in Southern areas and rural areas. People congregate in places that maybe intellectually one wouldn’t think would happen.

And you guys still have a sense of fun with your music. I’m reminded of your video for “Don’t Stop the Bus.”

MH (points at TQ and CC): Those two made the whole thing! The whole thing they made by hand! (Chiles laughs) I feel like, what was it, two months? Every free moment you had, you were making that damn video! It’s incredible.

(to TQ and CC) So you guys are the Keanu Reeves fans in the group?

CC: I think all of us are.

MH: We’re all Keanu Reeves fans, but they’re the ones who took it to the next level and made an intricate video about it.

TQ: That was just one day of rehearsal. I can’t remember how that came about, but we started talking about it, and they’re like, “We should write a song.” It came together in about 30 minutes and it was hilarious.

CC: We wanted to make a couple of videos. We had no money, so we scraped together every favor from every friend we could find. It was just, you know, “What do we have?” Well, I have an art background, so I can make these puppets I used to make as a kid. Our manager at the time, he was excited about it, so we just kind of went with it, but we had no idea if it was just going to look ridiculous or we were gonna pull it off. I think we pulled it off pretty well, for what it was.

MH: And you all had a lot of fun making it.

CC: It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun in the end.

Below: The band performs “American Dad,” which hails from 2016 but, in light of the Bill Cosby news this week, is more relevant than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: Watch Blurt’s SXSW 2018 Fragile Rock Video Interview

Guarantee: no Muppets were harmed during the filming of this interview.

By Robin E. Cook

Jim Henson, in his wildest fever dreams, could never have imagined the intra-band dramas of Austin’s Fragile Rock Band. Then again, he wasn’t around to witness the rise of emo. For their SXSW show, the band wore their hearts on their felt sleeves while singing songs about Ms. Pac-Man and frontman Milo S.’s new crush, the actress Fairuza Balk. Milo was conspicuously absent for the interview the afternoon before the show, but the rest of the band proved quite lively.

FOREIGN EXPOSURE: Violetta Zironi

The singer-songwriter discusses her new EP, her love of Norah Jones and Francoise Hardy, the cultural differences between Europe and the U.S., and how her Italian roots have informed her craft.

BY ROBIN E. COOK

Italian singer-songwriter Violetta Zironi took the SXSW stage at Stephen F’s Bar, an elegant Austin venue that was an ideal place for her intimate, country-inflected folk-pop. Her new EP, Half Moon Lane, reflects her love for American music (noted below), particularly on songs like “Toast” and “Muddy Fields.” It’s fitting, then, that she finished her set with a rousing cover of the American folk song “Little Liza Jane.” In her interview with Blurt, she shared road trip stories and explained how she blends European and American styles in her music.

 BLURT: I understand at one point you took a road trip throughout the US. Tell me a bit about that.

ZIRONI: Well, it was a couple of years ago. I was changing the direction I was going musically, and I was looking for a new one. Before then, I was still based in Italy, where the market is very different to the rest of the world, I would say. And I had just moved to London, and I thought I wanted to go see where my favorite music came from, because I’m really passionate about folk music and country and blues, Americana. I was looking for my sound as well as a musician. I decided to go see where it came from, and so that’s why we took a road trip. We went to New Orleans and then Nashville, Memphis, Arkansas, Austin.

But the main thing I realized was that I came from a completely different background, which is European. And there was no point in me trying too hard to do something that didn’t belong to me. So that really helped me, finding my sound. Because I still keep that Americana influence that I love, but I really, really embrace my roots, European, Italian, songwriters, sixties. That is a big part of my sound.

Are there any memories that really stood out?

Well, I had the chance to write songs while I was here, in Nashville, for example, even though I didn’t plan anything really. I just met new people and we just decided to write songs together. Especially this Nashville-based songwriter called Joseph LeMay. I remember finding him on a Spotify playlist a year before and becoming a huge fan of him. So I looked him up on Facebook and I just sent him an e-mail, and I said, “Hey, I’m coming to the US in a few months. I’d love to meet you.” He said, “Oh my God, I’ve checked you out. I love your music. Let’s write a song together.” And so we just met up for a song.

Tell me a bit about how you got started as a performer. You mentioned some of the acts you grew up with. Which specific European artists did you listen to?

There’s a big bunch of songwriters from Italy that developed through the Sixties, as in Paolo Conte, Luigi Tenco, even Ennio Morricone, who does all the soundtracks for the spaghetti Western movies. He is Italian, and still he worked internationally. He found a way of doing something that would be very much appreciated all over the world, but an Italian style, I would say. I listened to all these artists. They are really, how do you say, they’re really good with melody. The melody of Italian songwriters, because of the Italian language, it doesn’t allow you to do short and straight bars, where you need a million words to say something in Italian. It’s really a complicated language. Hence why melodies are very articulated and dynamic. Therefore you need good melodies. I keep that factor in writing English.

You mention Ennio Morricone. He also worked American influences into this Italian sound. Like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Absolutely. I take a lot of inspiration from him. It just became a thing all over the world. The spaghetti Western is a really popular, really famous thing. And it’s Italian. And in Italy, for example, no one realizes that, which is strange.

You mentioned that you lived in London for a while. What was that like?

That was my first home outside of home. So when I moved out of Italy and went to London, I really, really enjoyed it. A really inspirational place to be, full of amazing musicians and songwriters. I wrote a lot of songs there. That used to be my home for the first year when I started traveling a lot. So I have really good memories attached to that place.

And it seems that in Europe it’s just easier to get exposure to different countries and different sounds than it is in the US. Would you agree with that?

I think so, because obviously there’s so many countries. The continent is just as big as the US, so within an hour on the plane, you can get to a completely different country where they speak a completely different language. That is really, really, really humbling for someone who’s looking for inspiration about people, about different places and backgrounds. But obviously in America there’s so many cultures gathered into this huge country, so there are different influences. But yeah, the networking bit is easier, I think, in Europe, because everyone is so close and so different at the same time.

I hear your music and there seems to be an English folk influence as well. Is that an influence on your songwriting?

Yeah, definitely, well, English, British music is a bit part of my background, what I would listen to when I was growing up. It’s just history. The Brits are just amazing at doing music all the time, so yeah, sure.

And as far as singers, which would be the singers who really inspired you?

I’m a big, big fan of Norah Jones. I just love her tone of voice and how she interprets songs. Really simple, really honest, not too virtuoso, like she’s not trying too hard. But really genuine music. It really gets to me. I really love Emmylou Harris. I love her tone of voice. And Francoise Hardy. I really love her simplicity as well in singing. It’s almost like she’s talking rather than singing. Just like she’s chatting to you.

What’s the big difference between performing for European audiences vs. American audiences?

I can’t really say yet, because I haven’t done as many gigs in the US, yet. But so far, the ones I’ve done have been really, really good. The people are so nice and respectful. They’re really interested and sort of charmed by the fact that I’m not from here. So they seem really intrigued. And therefore they pay a lot a lot of attention. And whenever they come up to me after the show, they talk to me, and I understand they really, really listen. And they maybe tell me about details of my stuff that someone else would take for granted. So I really appreciate that.

In Europe it’s also amazing. I love playing in Germany. People love music so much in Germany. They’re so passionate about music. Italy, it’s a strange one, because usually listening to music is something that you do while you’re eating, just like everything else in Italy (laughs). No, I’m joking. But usually, you play over dinner and stuff like that. Again, in Europe, it changes a lot, whether you’re in Germany, Italy, UK, France. Everyone is so different.

Photos credit: Via Violetta Zironi’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 

TOO COOL: Anna Burch

Our correspondent caught up with the Detroit singer-songwriter during SXSW to talk about her city, her stint in grad school, becoming a bandleader, and of course her new album. Burch will be playing selected dates through early may—check her itinerary here.

BY ROBIN E. COOK

With a sly, confident smile, Anna Burch took the stage at Valhalla on the first night of this year’s SXSW. Quit the Curse (Polyvinyl) is the solo debut for the Detroit singer-songwriter. But as she explains, it’s the latest in a winding music journey that includes a stint in bands like Frontier Ruckus, another SXSW stint ten years ago, and a detour in grad school at the University of Chicago (where she earned an M.A.). Returning to music, Burch created the breezy, sweetly melodic pop-rock that would become Quit the Curse. The year 2018 finds her blossoming in the role of songwriter and frontwoman.

You were in bands for several years. Were you always writing songs during that time?

Actually, I didn’t really write my first song until I was probably 24, and I didn’t really write again until maybe 27. And that’s when I started really writing for the record.

Can you give me an overview of your musical history?

I joined Frontier Ruckus when I was 18 in college, and I played in that band for several years, and we started touring a lot, and then I left the band for a while, for a few years. And yeah, wasn’t doing much with music, went to grad school. And then I kind of came back around to music, and rejoined that band, and then around that time I started writing my own stuff.

You mentioned onstage that you were at SXSW a decade ago. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?

I went with Frontier Ruckus in 2008. I mean, I don’t remember it a whole lot, honestly. We were so young. I don’t think I was 21 yet. I wasn’t 21 yet. We were just kind of running around. And I don’t remember how many showcases we played, but we went to the Lou Reed tribute show and snuck back into the VIP tent and got kicked out promptly. (laughs) But yeah, it was fun!

What does it feel like to be back at SXSW as a solo act?

It’s very different. It feels way more scheduled and business-oriented, I suppose, but yeah, it’s fun! It’s good fun. About 10 years ago, it’s kind of hard to, like, really place where my head was at back then, but yeah, a lot’s changed since then for me too.

As a bandleader and a frontwoman, do you feel there’s sort of a learning curve after being in a band? You’re now center stage.

Being a leader is something that I maybe took for granted. I don’t think I really thought about that. There’s a lot, like, managing people and expectations and needs and wants, trying to keep everything moving. I don’t have a tour manager or anything like that, so I’m the point person for almost everything. So it can be a lot. But it’s also really rewarding. I feel more engaged than I did in previous tours with other bands where I could kind of like just check out. It was nice to have that break. But at the same time I would feel kind of like aimless a little bit. Sort of like, “What am I doing? What’s the point?” Now I feel like I have a very clear sort of trajectory.

You were in graduate school for a few years. Tell me about that. What drew you back to making music?

I guess the grad school thing had a lot to do with quitting the band and trying to figure out what I was good at outside of music. And I knew that I was a pretty good student and undergrad and I enjoyed my studies. I was looking for a niche, I guess. Something I could feel accomplished in. So I went to grad school at University of Chicago. And then I kind of realized, I don’t know, it’s just as competitive and just as unclear.

What did you study?

I was in the humanities. I studied film, English, film studies. But it seemed just as difficult to think about getting a job as a professor after doing a Ph.D. and all that stuff as it would to just do something like music. It was sort of more of an immediate joy.

Once you actually started writing songs, did you find that you had to sort of push yourself to keep on doing it and start performing again?

No, the songs came in a way that it just kind of clicked, I guess. And once I started, I kind of just wanted to keep doing it. I was getting encouragement from friends that I was collaborating with and started recording just, like, demos and it was all very exciting and new. I felt it was just very self-confidence-building. I was getting a lot out of it, so it was easy. Emotionally, I was at a point where it all sort of just channeled. There were just a lot of things that came together and it just kind of happened somehow.

About the music scene in Detroit, what’s it like these days? It seems as though it’s associated with gritty garage rock now, but I’m sure there’s more to the city than that.

Yeah, definitely. There’s the garage rock vibe, the garage rock scene for sure. But there’s a lot of DJs actually, a lot of electronic dance music, a lot of vinyl DJs and dance nights. But yeah, there’s a few solid indie rock bands that I feel like are really perfecting their craft and are getting some good national attention. Bonny Doon is one that’s coming up. Fred Thomas is kind of a fixture in the southeast Michigan scene as well. It’s a small scene, but I think a lot of artists there have figured out a way to focus on it and live relatively cheaply. And there’s a good amount of visibility in Detroit because it’s a small scene but it’s also got a lot of national attention. Obviously, it’s a very historic music scene, so I think people continue to look to Detroit to see what’s going on.

Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz

THE INTERPRETER: Bettye LaVette

The soul queen talks fame, finesse and success—and her new album of Dylan songs.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

“Could you call me back in ten minutes, baby. I’m running a bit behind,” Bettye LaVette says as she answers the phone. Naturally, we’re only too happy to oblige. With Things Have a Changed, her wonderful new collection of Bob Dylan songs ready for release, it’s only natural that a day set aside for press interviews would find her very busy.

Surprisingly enough, we don’t have to make the call because she calls us back. And when I note that my surname is Zimmerman, the given name of one Bob Dylan, she begins laughing hysterically. “I love it! That’s wonderful,” she replies. “He’s haunting me!”

The truth is, she’s the one haunting these songs. As her website states so unabashedly, “Bettye LaVette is no mere singer. She’s not a songwriter, nor is she a ‘cover artist.’ She is an interpreter of the highest order.”

That indeed is what she’s been doing to great acclaim since her re-emergence in 2003 with the album A Woman Like Me, which netted her the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Comeback Blues Album of the Year.” Her profile rose even higher with subsequent albums released on the edgy Anti-label, all of which found her adapting her classic soul style to songs of both classic and contemporary vintage. I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, released in 2005, found singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry behind the boards for an album of songs composed entirely by women. Its follow-up, 2007‘s The Scene of the Crime was recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and featured instrumental support from Drive-By Truckers. A performance at the Kennedy Center Honors that featured her performing “Love, Reign O’er Me” as a salute to the Who led to 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, a collection of British Invasion standards. In the interim, she garnered an array of prestigious honors and appearances, culminating with a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album of 2016 for her aptly named album Worthy.

Ironically, the kudos she’s been accorded have come late in life. He began recording in 1962 at age 16, when her first single “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man” hit the R&B top ten. She subsequently toured with such stars as Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Otis Redding and Barbara Lynn, and later, she briefly joined the James Brown Revue. An ever-shifting array of record deals followed, but the album that could have provided her big breakhrough, Child of the Seventies, recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, was shelved. (In 2000 the tapes, thought to have been destroyed in a fire, were unearthed and issued on CD on the Art & Soul label as Souvenirs; Rhino Handmade subsequently released the material, along with some bonus tracks, in 2006 under the original name, with the Real Gone label reissuing it once again on CD in 2015. And now, there is a campaign by vinyl reissue specialists Run Out Groove to release it as a vinyl LP under the name The 1972 Muscle Shoals Sessions; fans are currently voting on whether the label will release that or one of two other proposed titles.) After a short stint recording in Nashville in the early ‘80s at the behest of Motown, she took a hiatus, opting to perform on Broadway as one of the leads in the hit musical Bubbling Brown Sugar.

Consequently, LaVette is still waiting for the wider recognition she’s pursued her entire career. Blurt spoke to her from home in New Jersey while covering an array of topics, but that desire to be considered in the same league as her contemporaries was never far from her thoughts.

BLURT: Your new album is inspiring. How did you manage to reinvent these songs which are so closely identified with Dylan and then make it your own?

BETTYE LAVETTE: I discovered them… You guys have got to stop doing this. They’re just songs. They’re obviously written by Bob Dylan, but they’re still just words on a piece of paper. Which do you think would be more difficult for me to do — to sound like me or to sound like Bob Dylan?

To sound like him presumably.

So when people say you’re making them your own, all you have to do to make them your own is to sing them the way you would sing them. That is what I am doing. Singing them the way I would sing them. He is a songwriter, just like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and I sing their songs as well. And I’m sure I don’t sing them the way they did when they took them in to their publisher, or the way anyone else would have sung them at first. So I sing them the way I would have sung them. That’s all I can do. I don’t hear them any other way. There’s no overt effort to sing or sound different. That’s just the way that I hear them. If I like them, I hear them the way that I would do them.

In saying that though, are there no lingering impressions that you have in your head after hearing the familiar, well known renditions?

No, no, no, no no. No,no, no, no. I wouldn’t let that happen. When I introduce myself to the songs and decide what I’m going to sing, it’s the way I heard the words and the way I would sing them. I’m not hearing the person that’s singing them. Then, after I write the words down on a piece of paper or my husband looks them up and prints them, I get a fuller impression. It helps more when I write them down, because when you put the handle back on the record, you learn them as you’re writing them down. The moment I have the songs down on a piece of paper, in whatever form, I don’t want to hear the other person anymore. After I have the melody in my head, it’s easier to remember, because it’s repetitive, but the words keep changing. So if I learn the melody, then I start looking at the words and sing them the way I want them to go because I now know the melody. So all I have to do is sing them the way I want them to go.

You’re obviously well versed in that technique. You’ve reinterpreted a lot of people’s material.

It’s like the Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” (included on her album I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise. After we got all the changes, it became (sings) “Oh my sister, you better listen to me.” That’s the way I heard it.

Is it at all intimidating to take on these songs, especially when the composer is someone like Bob Dylan? Do you feel like you have to reach a certain standard in order to do them justice, or do you just forget about all that?

All I have to do is hold them up to the standards that people are expecting of me. I don’t have to hold up to his standards. I’m not as good a songwriter. Nobody’s offered me a Nobel Prize. But I know how Bettye LaVette sings a song, and I try to sing it as best as Bettye LaVette can, and I try to sing songs that I really believe in and feel in my heart. If songs are silly songs, I try to make them as funny as possible. But I don’t sing songs that have words I would never say. I don’t use the word “boy” unless I’m using it to insult a man. So far I haven’t run into that yet. And I never say, if you do this, I’ll die. Because there would be nothing you could do to kill me. You do know I’m 72 years old, right?

Yes we do know that, Ms. LaVette.

And Bob Dylan’s first record came out around the same time as my first record came out.

We know that as well.

So what should be intimidating to me about him?

A lot of people look at Bob Dylan as…

Are you married?

Yes I am.

How much critique did you do on your wife?

She critiques me more than I critique her.

So I’m getting ready to do the same things with these songs that you do with your wife. I live with them, love them, make love to them, marry them, marry them with me. And I don’t need other people’s opinions about that. I draw my own conclusions.

It was said that your husband Kevin listened to literally hundreds of Dylan songs, and then narrowed down the choice to somewhere around 100 for you to choose from. How did you further narrow them down?  Was it simply by the way you related to them?

Yes, it’s how I related to them. There was one song that had 96 verses. Bob Dylan will say something over and over. It’s almost like a really nagging broad. “Let me tell it to you like this, or do you understand it better this way?” So I got it down to the line that everyone would understand. That’s what I did. I captured as many things as he said and then got to the point, which is what a black woman will do. I’m now calling myself the finisher of these songs, because he will take you all the way to the ledge and say jump off. But I’ll push you if we’ve gone that far. (laughs) So that is what I do with his songs. I just go ahead and push people off the ledge. The tender ones especially. “Emotionally Yours” now makes me cry. “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”… when I listened to the verses, it was like oh my God, and then I sat here with a bottle of champagne (begins to sing) and I said, “Oh I like that!” And the next thing I knew, I was crying. He’s been hiding that tenderness from me behind this classic song for all these years. (Sings “I will always be emotionally yours.”) I like it. I like it, and I ain’t gonna say no more.

Didn’t you add some lyrics of your own to some of these songs?

Yeah. On “Seeing the Real You at Last,” he was talking about Clark Gable and somebody else of that era, and I said, “No!” Only 20 percent of the people who are alive now know who that is. I’m fortunate enough to know, because I’m on my last legs. I’m part of the 20 percent. I put Betty Jo Haskins, my own real name in there. And Tina Turner. His manager loved it and gave me license to do anything I wanted to do. So now I’m thinking like a child. I’m thinking euphemistically that (whispers) maybe Bob will love it.

We read that you met Dylan once backstage very briefly and he came over and gave you a big kiss. So maybe now this record will lead to a second, more lengthy encounter.

We’ve been calling it “The kiss.” There were no words. Now we’re waiting for the words. It was just a kiss, so maybe the lyrics are yet to come. (laughs)

Larry Campbell is on the new album with you, and of course, Larry Campbell famously plays with Dylan. Did he offer any input into the material or the arrangements? Did he say anything like, well Bob meant it to sound like this?”

No, he really didn’t. But he did say he was so happy to be involved with this project and play them in a different way. My producer, who is Steve Jordan, is the person who speaks on my behalf. I don’t talk to anybody.

So what exactly did Steve Jordan bring to the table in terms of the production?

With a brilliant producer like Steve Jordan, he understood every word I said. I’m not going to sing anything the way you tell me to sing it. Steve came to my house and I made jambalaya for him and we got with my keyboard player and we worked out the moods and the thoughts and the feelings. Steve took those moods and feelings and put rules to them, and Larry took his parts and gave Pino (Palladino) and Leon (Pendarvis) their parts. I sing for the piano, but being black, the drums kick me every time. Still, I sing for the piano and Leon Pendarvis was there to help with everything I wanted to say vocally. It was a magical recording, it really was. We did it all in three days. Everybody understood exactly where I was going, and they knew that I knew where I was going. That was one of the things that speeded it up. The only thing that we recorded twice was “It Ain’t Me Babe.” We recorded it one way, and then I took the recording at home and listened to it and I came back the next day and I said, “Steve, you can actually skip to this.” And I held his hand and we actually skipped across the floor. I said, “You can’t actually tell people to jump off the ledge while you’re skipping.” One of the things that came into my mind was Jimmy Reed. (Starts singing “Come lightly to the ledge…”) I wanted to do it like that. And the moment I started to sing it differently, they started to play it differently.

Keith Richards makes an appearance on this album. Had you known Keith for awhile?

No, I don’t know any of my contemporaries. Even though I’m from Detroit, I haven’t seen Aretha or Smokey since my career started taking off. All my contemporaries — even though I started first — all of them are millionaires. So, no, I hadn’t known Keith Richards. I told him, “You’re now a boy scout because you’re helping an old lady cross the street.” We sat there together with our legs crossed on the couch because we’re both about the same size, and I laid my head on his feet and he played his solo and he blew smoke in my mouth, and I blew smoke in his mouth and he had his drink and I had my champagne and it was 11 o’clock in the morning. (laughs)

Well, now you’re qualifying it. You were off to an early start.

I know! (laughs) But I said to him, “You know, you and I are contemporaries and we could have gotten into lots of trouble together. And he said, “I know. I know.”

You have so many admirers now. We don’t have to call it a comeback, but 12 or 13 years ago, your career was reborn. How did that feel at the time?

I call it “coming up out of the crypt.”

Were you thinking, “Where have you all been? I haven’t been away.” Or did it feel like you were getting a second chance?

I felt like I was coming up out of the crypt. (laughs)

That sounds a little dark.

Well, it was dark at that point because I had gotten to be 60 years old and that was the magic number. But prior to that, I had learned to tap dance and had done some things on Broadway, and I’ve always managed to secure some kind of record deal. It depends how much money was spent as to whether you heard it or not, but it came out and it was heard somewhere. I was glad that my husband Kevin, when I met him, he was already a Betty LaVette fan. He has a compilation of everything that has ever happened in my entire life, and I am so grateful for that. So it wasn’t like a second chance. It was like my fifth chance, and that’s why I call it my fifth career. All those other times — when I signed with Motown, when I signed with CBS, when I did “Bubbling Brown Sugar” — all those were starts, like “she’s going to be on Broadway, she’s going to be a star on Columbia…” It’s like when I went to Nashville. “Oh she’s going to be a star in Nashville. She’s going to be a black Nashville star!” So no, this is my fifth career!

And this is the career that really seems to have taken hold.

I learned so much from each of those earlier careers. And I’m so different from each of my contemporaries. I’ve been directed. I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve worked and recorded in Nashville. I’ve worked and recorded in New York. I’ve worked and recorded in Detroit. So now I look so odd and different, when they say we need something different, I say sure!

Are there still things that are still left on your bucket list at this point?

Just the Grammy and some money. Those are the only two things I haven’t been able to achieve. I’ve sung for two presidents. I’ve done the Kennedy Center Honors thing. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do except to get the darn Grammy.

This record may do it for you. It’s really a transcendent effort.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. I certainly felt this way when my first record came out in 1962. But this is the first time I’ve had all of the ducks in a row. They say this is the greatest record company in the world. This is the greatest songwriter in the world. Steve Jordan is one of the best producers in the world. I’ve got the best manager in the world in Danny Goldberg. I’ve got the best booking agency in the world. Now they say I’m one of the best song stylists in the world. I’m gonna start taking this shit personally.

Speaking of the Kennedy Center, is it true that Pete Townshend was in tears when you sang “Love Reign O’er Me” at the salute to the Who?

All you have to do is go to YouTube and see that he is. I have several frames of it attached to my wall. (laughs) My husband is Irish and grew up here in New Jersey and he was a great fan of theirs and all the rock stars. I really feel that the British Invasion put a great dent in black music in America. Especially when you see the graciousness that B.B. King expressed and the graciousness that Muddy Waters had when you see them talking to the Rolling Stones and talking to whomever. B.B. King barely escaped dying piss poor. He barely escaped it. He wasn’t that rich but he wasn’t piss poor, but he would have been much better off if that British Invasion thing hadn’t happen. But how are you going to resent artists just like yourself, when we’re trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do, but when your own country overthrows you like that and goes overseas… there isn’t another black artist in this country who doesn’t feel the same way. So this thing that is happening to me now is allowing me the opportunity to, not necessarily pay them back, because there’s no way in the world that I will ever have Paul McCartney’s money, but to give them a chance to hear me. I tell my husband that I’m being airbrushed into my past. Every time I take a picture with Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr or somebody, I put it on the wall and say I was airbrushed into that. (laughs)

Still, it’s ironic that the British artists who took black music and reinterpreted it their way, are now getting the same treatment from you on your records. When you did your album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, it brought the cycle full circle. You’re doing it on the new album, bringing these great songs to new ears in your own particular way.

That is the way that it’s going to be looked at. I really hope that it’s going to be given as much credence. I really need the money now. I don’t necessarily need any more critical acclaim. But I do hope the acclaim will be just what you said.

How is that campaign to release your long lost Muscle Shoals album on vinyl going?

Kevin has been talking to someone — I don’t know. I almost don’t talk to anybody — but Kevin is talking to someone and it sounds really, really hopeful. It would be so interesting. During that time, when I came from Muscle Shoals and went back to Detroit, when you went to somebody’s house, they had the stereo and the albums propped up all over the floor, leaning against the furniture and you’d see albums like Dusty in Memphis and whatever. I always wanted to see my album there. We had our names it, we had taken pictures, and then Atlantic decided not to release it. So now, for it to be released in vinyl would let me prop that album on my living room floor… I’m sure people don’t do that anymore but if you come to my house, you’ll see it.

 

THE STORY BEHIND THE ALBUM: The Ruby Sea by Thin White Rope

Originally released in 1991 by esteemed indie label Frontier (and distributed via RCA), the Cali outfit’s fifth studio album may not have sold bucketloads, but it was still filled to the brim with powerful, tuneful rock subversion and resilient emotional fortitude. With a key reissue program now underway for the guitar band, now is an apt time to examine what made Thin White Rope so special—and, for many of us out here in the Amerindie-rock hinterlands, so beloved.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

In 1991 Thin White Rope set about to record their critically acclaimed album The Ruby Sea, which would subsequently be released on Frontier Records. Hailing from Davis, California, the band were able to hone their unique blend, of punk, country and rock into a deeply satisfying record that at times has a ferocious intensity, punctuated by a stark and lonely widescreen sentimentality. The album feels like the equivalent of driving all day, looking for accommodations in a tiny two-horse town and then hitting the local roadhouse for a cold beer. With a Miller in hand, you and the three other patrons witness a band play a show so devastating that you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon America’s best kept secret. I’ve spent the last quarter century evangelizing to friends about how they need to own a copy of The Ruby Sea. I’m gearing up for the next 25.

I’m from the Southwest—the starry sky, the sunsets, and the panoramas ‘round each bend permeate my dreams and have worked their way into my DNA. What Thin White Rope accomplished on this album was to create an aural roadmap of their world.

Guy Kyser’s vocals are part-crazed gold rush preacher, the other part a tortured balladeer. I’ll say this, though: No one conveys the American west quite like he does. Listening to the stormy swirls his voice creates, you can feel the sand stripping the enamel on your teeth, which makes for quite a harrowing journey. Meanwhile, Roger Kunkel’s deft guitar playing is both gritty and full of nuanced layers. The album had critical hosannas thrown at it from certain sectors of the British press as well as the likes of CMJ, not to mention the Amerindie fanzine underground. It proved to be an antidote of sorts to the laughable haircuts and poor song-smithery that plagued “alternative music” at the time.

All one has to do is listen to opener “The Ruby Sea,” where the muscular drums and angular, aggression laced guitar work is cut with Kyser’s haunted vocals, to get a sense that you’re heading to a place riddled with emotional potholes. Cherry-picking my way through the album, “Puppet Dog” has the feeling of making several wrong turns in some rural backwater unable to find your way to civilization; the beginning of the song, with its childlike dreaminess, quickly turns troubled, the key then changes, and Kyser sings “Puppet dog, whoever made you years ago, knew how bad I’d needa friend. Puppet dog, your felt red mouth and bells for eyes, scare the devils off again.” It’s an amazing track that threads the listener through the needle into another person’s world. “The Lady Vanishes” is an evocative number that, in the space of two brief minutes, transports us deeper into Kyser’s haunted world. “Hunter’s Moon” is the album’s centerpiece, a story of longing, pursuit and ultimately redemption, that by its end of it will either have you stomping your foot or waving your fist in the air. “Christmas Skies” is a wistful country ballad that tells the story of a ghost who’s recalling Christmas as a child. I recall being drawn into the song’s orbit late one night in my Fudan University dorm room, where it transported me a million miles away from my Chinese reality to somewhere familiar and friendly, and it’s these distilled yet brief moments, punctuated throughout the record, that make it such an immense pleasure to listen to.

Then there’s “The Fish Song,” which is hands down one of the most kickass songs ever laid down by the band. Its menacing vocals, stretched over a relentless pounding rhythm, is cinematic in scope and a one two punch to the cranium. Once you hear this song you feel like you can take on the world. “The Clown Song”, which closes the record, is another brief, yet very powerful, song. Kyser sings, “Seems I have been a clown more than a friend/ A clockwork response to tokens you spend/ And when you stop and when I run down/ I’m frozen and cannot escape from the clown.”

The album takes the listener on a tense, turmoil-filled journey, its emotional heft being one of the reasons why it has never left my side. I find myself still unable to completely comprehend the power of The Ruby Sea—which is why I’m hooked. While I mourn the fact that the band no longer exists, I believe that their musical catalog will only continue to add new legions of fans as people discover their immense talent.

I managed to hunt down lead singer/guitarist Guy Kyser and guitarist Roger Kunkel to give BLURT readers the skinny on the making of the album. Guy, in an email to me, said they answered my questions “Rashomon Style” (Kurosawa fans please take note).

Roger has also offered BLURT an exclusive link to hear the band’s demo from November 21, 1982 which until now has never been released; the four songs on the demo, originally preserved on cassette and recorded by the late Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family fame, are “Not Your Fault,” “Macy’s Window,” “Soundtrack,” and “Black Rose.”

In my quest for extra archival material, I got in touch with Frontier Records head honcho Lisa Fancher, who offered up her own perspective on the album as well as an exclusive track for Blurt readers from the forthcoming remastered release of The Ruby Sea.

So please check out the interviews that follow, and while you’re at it, chew on this bit of news: Frontier Records has announced that the band’s first five albums will be reissued on heavy-weight 180-gram colored vinyl. (Which should only worsen my editor’s very public vinyl porn addiction.) (Ya got that right, brutha. Just put in my orders, in fact. —Vinyl Ed.) The first two LPs, 1985’s Exploring the Axis and 1987’s Moonhead, are already out, with the rest to follow later this year. Click the link for details; note that ordering the vinyl—including special edition mail-order-only editions—also gets you an immediate digital download. Each title will also be available to order on CD or as a download.

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(Below: screen shots from a video of the band performing in 1992 at the Roskilde Fest)

THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH GUY KYSER AND ROGER KUNKEL

BLURT: Where and when was The Ruby Sea (TRS), recorded?

Roger Kunkel: Fidelity Studios, Studio City, CA which is near Universal Studios, east end of Ventura Blvd. We’d worked in that area before at a different studio for the Moonhead and Spanish Cave records.

Who produced and mixed the record?

RK: The producer was Bill Noland of Wall of Voodoo and Human Hands. The engineer’s name was Dave Lopez. This was in May of 1991.  Interesting side note: Originally, Butch Vig wanted to produce the record. It was before he was hired to produce Nirvana’s Nevermind. He wanted us to come to his studio in Madison, but we weren’t keen on spending a few weeks in Wisconsin, and we decided to do it in LA where we knew people and could have a good time while being there. By the time we were in LA, we’d heard that Butch was doing the Nirvana record in LA at the same time. Since they’d been signed to Geffen and had a big budget, they flew him out. It happened that we were friends with their manager, John Silva, so he introduced us and even suggested we make guest appearances on each other’s albums. That didn’t happen because neither group was excited about the idea. We did go out to a Butthole Surfers show and got quite drunk together. Remember, at this time they were just another indie band. Months later that changed quickly.

What were you guys listening to back then? Any of those bands influence your direction on this record?

Guy Kyser: I must’ve been listening to a lot of Wire. I don’t recall trying to sound like them but looking back I can really hear the influence. Roger introduced me to a lot of country music over time, so there’s that. And of course, we had that Velvet Underground trying to sneak in there.

RK: We always had a wide breadth of influences largely older stuff from the blues, country worlds. Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, Slim Harpo (One of Guy’s favorites). Also, the classic late 60’s rock stuff: Stooges, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Can, Sabbath. Newer bands: Pixies, the Fall, Wire.  This record I think was focused on Guy’s poetic visions of landscapes and loss. The Country influence is fully uncloaked, at least on a couple of tracks, but mostly I feel the record was just twr without conscious outside influences.

What do you recall about the recording sessions, was it a smooth process, or were there debates about the direction of some of the songs?

 GK: The songs were pretty much complete, but we hadn’t had a chance yet to listen to some of the details from the outside, so to speak… so sometimes during the recording we’d discover things that didn’t work. For example, there was one place in “Up To Midnight” where our guitars seemed to be in conflict, rhythmically, and we had to isolate the tracks and figure out who was throwing things off (it was me, hah!).

RK: Most songs were pretty well worked out beforehand. We had our preferred methods of recording by this time. We knew we wanted a more polished end result this time around. There were some debates about drums. Matt wanted huge sounding drums. I like drums to sound natural and more 60’s where they sit in the mix instead of summon the ​Valkyries with thunder, so I wasn’t happy with that.

What was the hardest song to nail for the record?

GK: For me it was “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. Those are simple country-style songs but very difficult to get an authentic feel out of them. I had trouble playing with just the right amount of swing.

RK: Honestly, it’s hard to remember, but I think Hunter’s Moon took some time. It was one that wasn’t fully baked arrangement wise. The build of it started to become apparent and we worked from there to create a steady build that, I think imparts the idea of inevitability.

(Below: producer Bill Nolan and engineer Dave Lopez’ session tracking notes)

Can you guys speak to how you went about recording the record, were things worked out in the studio or did you have skeletons of ideas ready?

GK: We always had limited studio time when recording, so we did most of the arranging beforehand. Depending on what instruments and effects the studio might have available, we would add things just for the hell of it. Like, there’s a piano here – let’s use it on the break in “The Fish Song”. Or the producer knows where to rent a guitarrón – might be a good sound for “Christmas Skies”.

RK: Guy reserved a few tunes to do in a way that would set them apart. Christmas Skies and Dinosaur.  I don’t think we’d worked on them much as a band before the recording. And The Clown Song he did solo.

Guy, did you have lyrics worked out in advance or was this something you altered as the song took shape in the studio? Where were you pulling from emotionally when you created some of these songs?

GK: The lyrics were all written beforehand, except “The Clown Song” which was composed during the recording session. I wrote several of the songs & lyrics during a short road trip I took to get away from work, the band, and everything. I got good and lonesome, wandered the hills by night, and somehow got poison oak on my privates. But came home with songs.

How many songs were recorded for the album and if any were left off what became of them?

GK: All the songs we recorded for the album went onto the album. We may have recorded a couple extras for a later EP, but there were also a couple of EP-only recording sessions around that time and I don’t remember which track came out of which session.

RK: We did a couple other tracks in this studio with Bill Noland, but I think it was a separate session. One was “Burn the Flames” for a Roky Erickson tribute album. And two tracks for a Byrds tribute album.

Was there a concept for the album before you all started to record it?

GK: Not really, except that “The Ruby Sea” and “The Fish Song” were both kind of water-related… we did joke around that this might help counteract our desert image.

There’s a wonderful western vibe that permeates the record, can you guys talk about how where you’re from has influenced the music on TRS?

GK: For me, a lot of it comes down to movies. Geography predisposed me to like Westerns, so I got infatuated with Morricone’s scores. [I] also was a big fan of Marty Robbins’ Outlaw Ballads. Onearlier albums, not so much on Ruby Sea, we went through phases of trying to create the ultimate Western Tune. This was fun, but we got a reputation as a ‘desert band’ which came to seem like a millstone sometimes.

RK: That was pretty much always part of the band’s DNA. It didn’t always show up, but Guy, our original bassist, Steve Tesluk, and myself were all classic country and blues fans.

Were all of the songs written specifically for the record or had some been around during other records and you decided to finally include them on this album?

GK: All the songs were written just for this album. Except, kind of, “Tina and Glen”… that song was an idea I’d been kicking around for about 10 years, but I could never make it work until I decided to throw out most of the lyrics and make it an instrumental.

What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was written that was on the record?

GK: See [previous question]. “Tina and Glen” was based on a time when my motorcycle broke down on Highway 99 in central California and I had to spend the night in a farm shed. The host family had two kids whose names were… wait for it…

Who came up with the running order for the album?

GK:I remember that as a collaborative effort. I did want to have “Fish” & “Clown” last, though.

How long did the recording of the album take?

GK: I think it was 4 or 5 days recording, maybe 3 days mixing.

RK: I believe it was two weeks, which was typical for us.

When the album was finally in the can, what was the feeling when you guys finally heard the finished work?

GK: Hard to describe. I had a deep feeling of accomplishment and was very happy with the album, but there was some sadness mixed in because it felt like an ending. I also had a dawning realization that neither this album nor any other we were likely to make was going to see enough success to make us a self-sustaining band. Maybe that is partly hindsight.

RK: A little mixed. It’s also hard to accept that a work is done and is what it’s going to be. When you’re working in a high-end studio and your listening off of two-inch tape through the world’s greatest monitors, things sound so impressive that you can lose a little perspective.

Did you hold a record release party to celebrate?

GK: I think we all went home and slept for a week.

RK: Nothing real formal that I remember. We just started a long tour, as usual.

Who created the cover art?

GK: Our friend Clay Babcock, an artist who lives in LA. He grew up in the same desert town I did, and I’ve known him since second grade or so.

The album was released on LP, cassette and CD on Frontier Records. What about in Europe? Was the album licensed to any labels and did they press up their own editions? Was there a special mix done for the Frontier LP edition?

RK: I don’t think any special mixes or masters were made. Frontier had a distribution deal with BMG at that time, so I think the European product was the same as the US. Earlier records were produced by Demon Records (UK) and distributed by Rough Trade in Europe.

How did the album sell in the US and in Europe?

RK: I don’t know the numbers. I know it wasn’t enough to get us into the black and making money.

Did you record any of the shows you did touring the record?

GK: I don’t remember recording any shows during the official Ruby Sea tour, but we did a final tour the following year and recorded & released the entire final show (The One That Got Away). I was really proud of that recording, a 2-hour-show, it sounded pretty tight.

RK: Of course, there’s the final concert which became The One that Got Away. That was a very good multitrack recording of our last ever show in Ghent, Belgium. It may actually be my favorite twr recording.

Set-list ise, did you play all of the songs at one point or another live or were there some that you never played at all in a live setting?

GK: I don’t think we ever performed “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. “Dinosaur” was too quiet and too dependent on sound processing. We might have done “The Lady Vanishes” and “Up to Midnight” once or twice, when we could get a guest vocalist.

RK: Some were never played (I think): Dinosaur, Christmas Skies (maybe).

What were the core songs from this album that were played in almost every set at the time?

GK: “The Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glen”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “The Fish Song”, “The Clown Song”. Sometimes “Puppet Dog”.

RK: “Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glenn”, “[The] Fish [Song]”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “Puppet Dog”.

I recall reading a glowing review in Melody Maker at the time and wondered given that this was at the height of the Manchester movement, how did audiences react to your music?

GK: I don’t think anyone was comparing us with the Smiths… I think we were considered rustic headbangers from an uncivilized part of the world, not particularly stylish or trendy. But most of our shows in north-central English cities were well-attended and enthusiastic.

RK: We had a steadily growing following in England, I really enjoyed touring there. We played the Reading Festival on our last trip.

On a blog written by Michael Compton he mentions that, “One of the three weekly music newspapers in England, Melody Maker, took a strong liking to us, but because of that, the other two, Sounds and New Musical Express, decided that we weren’t to be bothered with.” What was it like being in that situation for the band, and how did it affect Demon records ability to promote you guys?  Any anecdotes you wish to add regarding the petulant British press?

GK: I don’t know how it affected Demon, but it was kind of a roller coaster for us. The British scene had a lot of infighting, a lot of bands currying favor with this or that fanzine. And we’d get an interview with someone from one of the “other” papers, the interview would go great, and then the piece would be printed with a negative slant. One guy in particular, who was kind of a trendsetter, would mention us only so that he could go on to talk about bands he liked better. Usually American Music Club. For which I bear them no ill will.

RK: I guess on the first couple of trips there we were a kind of secret cool band that MM would write about. We had a few packed shows in small venues that were a lot of fun. NME did a spread with a picture at Stonehenge, so they didn’t ignore us. I don’t recall any bad reviews, but maybe I was oblivious to them.

Who did you guys tour with in Europe for TRS shows?

GK: I’m fuzzy on the timelines – may have been for earlier albums – but we did several shows with the Pixies (mostly Netherlands), the Walkabouts (Germany), and Babes in Toyland (Austria). On our last two tours we played festivals (Reading 1991, Roskilde 1992) with lineups including Iggy Pop, Nirvana, and lots of other acts.

RK: We seldom did shows in support of another band, at least not a string of shows. We had a great show with the Pixies in Rotterdam. We play the Reading and the Roskilde festivals, with so many great bands: Nirvana, Blur, Sonic Youth, American Music Club, even Townes Van Zandt.

 Tell me how “Hunter’s Moon” came about. I can only imagine that this song must’ve detonated the room when it was played live. Was this song a fixture of your sets back then?

GK: Yes, this was one of our standards. This song is a very literal transcript from my road trip. I like how simple it is, and there’s something sort of backwards about the chord sequence.

The “Fish Song” hits hard with a biblical one-two punch to the gut. What was the genesis (no pun intended) of this song?

GK: TFS is based on a short, near-miss relationship. I turned it into a kind of Moby Dick story, minus the wooden leg.

Since Thin White Rope, what have the two of you been doing musically?

GK: After TWR I was in a band called Mummydogs with my wife and other Davis musicians. We made one album but didn’t tour.  One track was used in the Las Vegas campaign for “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Then I played banjo in bluegrass bands with Roger and others, doing the farmers market circuit.

RK: In the 90s I had an eclectic instrumental band called the Acme Rocket Quartet. We made 3 CDs but didn’t tour. (Own those records as wel! -Archival Ed.) I sometimes still hear it as transition music on NPR. I got into bluegrass and old time playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar. Guy and I had a gigging bluegrass band going for a while called Doc Holler. I studied computer science in college. Currently, I play telecaster in a honkytonk, classic country band called Mike Blanchard and the Californios. I’m also occasionally in a band called Toadmortons. We are currently working on a new album. I have a casual acoustic duo called the Smoke Shovelers. I’m interested in solo guitar lately and I’m hoping to record that and make my first solo album this year.

What do you guys do for day jobs?

GK: During the day I am a specialist with UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, doing research on management of invasive plants in rangeland and natural areas.

RK: I’ve worked for UC Davis for 18 years now.

Now that Frontier Records is slated to release your back catalog, how does it feel looking back on the albums you guys created? (Details on the reissues: https://frontierrecords-thinwhiterope.bandcamp.com)

GK:  I haven’t thought too much about the back catalog, but I’m glad to see Moonhead rereleased because for some reason I didn’t have a copy. The oldest songs sound pretty adolescent to me – I’m glad they’re out there but it’s like they were written by a different person.

RK : My favorite TWR recordings have been Moonhead, Sackful, and the covers we did. However, they all have their endearing qualities. I went a long time not listening to any. I’m hearing that the remasters are really good, so I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with them.

What place does The Ruby Sea hold for you guys when considering your whole discography?

GK: The best songs on Ruby Sea are my favorites from the whole band’s career, but there are some weak spots too.

Any possibility that you guys would ever pull the band back together for some one-off shows or even a new record?

GK:  I would feel pretty uncomfortable trying to revisit stuff I was doing in my twenties…

RK: A TWR reunion has been discussed before but seems unlikely.

Below: Roger Kunkel unearthed photos from a very early studio demo session featuring the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) producing. Pictured are Scott Miller, Kevin Staydohar on bass, Guy Kyser with lambchops, Roger Kunkel “standing around” and Jozef Becker on drums. The third photo is of Kunkel’s cassette of the Nov. 21, 1982, four-song session.

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THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH LISA FANCHER OF FRONTIER RECORDS

BLURT: Please describe your role at Frontier Records for our readers?

Lisa Fancher: I founded Frontier Records in 1980 and I still own the label and run it with the indispensable Julie Masi.

How did The Ruby Sea sell?

LF: Not terribly well, none of their records sold particularly well compared to the Frontier punk titles, but TWR is my legacy band and I’m desperately interested in the entire world discovering their greatness.

How many pressings have there been of the vinyl?

LF: The LP was pressed once when I was with BMG, I never made more.

Were there differences between the Frontier edition and European pressings?

LF: There were no differences between US and UK editions, no.

What’s your opinion of the record in relation to their entire catalog?

LF: I can find no fault in anything that TWR ever did, so I can’t really be objective where it stands. It was the further evolution of Guy’s songwriting, trying to branch out more musically, and also signaling the end of his desire to be in band, and to live a life in one place with Johanna. That’s what I get from it… I’m just sad because it’s TWR last studio album!

Did Frontier finance the recording?

LF: Yes. The only record paid not paid for by me was Sack Full of Silver, I did a licensing deal with RCA Records.

What was your reaction the first time you heard the finished recording?

LF: I was there most of the time while they recorded [The] Ruby Sea and much of the time when Noland mixed it. I was giddy with awe, still am.

What’s your favorite and least favorite track on the record?

LF: I have no least favorite track, but “The Fish Song” is probably my favorite.

When the album came out what was the general reaction you were getting?

LF: It’s hard to remember if there was a negative reaction, I don’t think so. TWR had their fervent journalist fans but had a hard time taking it to the next level of “success”, whatever that is. Decades later the critics all jerk off to the Black Angels and Floorian etc., [who] owe so much to TWR sonically. I think the response would have been more shrill in terms of SUPPORT THIS BAND, DAMN YOU if writers knew that it was their last album, TWR’s greatness was very much taken fo granted.

Was there a difference between how the British press reacted to the album versus the US music press?

LF: The US press was not terribly enthusiastic overall though the band did have strong support in the fanzine and Alternative Press-size magazine world. SPIN was an early backer, but then when it got super corporate, they turned their backs. I could have spent a billion advertising dollars but writers either got the band or they didn’t. In the UK, there’s not this pressure for pay to play, so there was always unabashed raves in Melody Maker and Sounds and large, crazed audiences. When Guy appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, I thought I would die from pride! NME didn’t have much time for TWR because the other two papers loved them, but that’s okay. They never did a Peel session either, it’s time I got over these things.

I know that a remastered edition is slated to come out; who’s doing the remastering? Will there be any expanded liner notes and or art used on the remastered release?

LF: Exploring the Axis and Moonhead were re-released on 3/9/18 and the other three studio records will come out in the coming months. If these reissues do okay, then I’ll consider a definitive odd and ends record and remastering the double live LP.

Paul duGré does all my remastering, he’s an absolute shaman with guitar-based rock. When you hear the re-releases, you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s possible to hear things on these versions that were inaudible on the previous versions. No, they are not expanded versions in terms of art or notes because I tried to keep them at the original price, so people would buy them without hesitation. Changing packaging and added booklets, etc., make the price go up by many dollars. We did put Guy’s lyrics in the LPs, they were previously only available as a booklet to fan club members.

Is the band involved with the remastering?

LF: They were not.

(Below, original 1991 Frontier press release for the album.)

Any anecdotes good or bad related to this record that you care to share?

LF: I will save those memories for when I write my book. All of [them] drank excessively after the sessions but they were total pros in [the] studio, no matter how hungover. I tried to get Kurt Cobain to play guitar on a song or sing on “The Fish Song” as the band was making Nevermind in the valley, but it was vetoed by his people even though he was a big fan. I think perhaps a few more people would have bought [The]Ruby Sea if it was sanctioned by Kurt!

Any future TWR projects slated for release on Frontier?

LF: I’ll have to wait and see how the reissues go as I need funds to do more, but I certainly hope so– now or anywhere in the future. Guy knows that I’d have a stroke if he ever wrote a new TWR song and/or if he formed a new band of any kind. (He briefly had a bluegrass band with Roger and I drove up to SF alone the instant that I heard they were playing!) My most fervent dream in life is that Guy will return to music, but mostly I want him to be happy in life whether it includes writing or playing music. It’s just that I’d like for Guy and Roger to finally get their due, something Guy could care less about, I’m sure!

(Below: Photos of the tape reel box details for The Ruby Sea, courtesy Frontier)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MILE HIGH WITH… Tiny Moving Parts & Mom Jeans

BY JEFF CLEGG

First Up: Tiny Moving Parts

(Pictured above, L-R: Billy Chevalier, Dylan Matteisen, Matt Chevalier)

Tiny Moving Parts are a group from “middle of nowhere” Benson, Minnesota who like to call themselves a “family band.” In fact, bass player Matthew Chevalier and drummer Billy Chevalier are brothers, while Dylan Mattheisen, who sings and plays the guitar is their cousin.

They have been playing together since they were kids, and their latest record, Swell, is yet another great album from one of the scene’s most consistent bands. They are the perfect blend of math-influenced guitar, neurotic drums, and Blink-182-esque pop-punk hooks.

We got to have a chat with them on before their set a couple of weeks ago at the Marquis Theater in Denver, Colorado while on tour with Birdhouse View, Oso Oso, and Mom Jeans, who we also spoke to before the show.

BLURT: Tell us about where you’re from. How was the band formed?

Dylan Mattheisen: We’re from Benson, Minnesota. A really small town of only 3000 people. Matt and Billy, they’re brothers, and I’m their cousin. We’re just a good ole family band, playing forever together.

BLURT: I’ve seen that your original band name was the D-Cups. What made you start with that as a name, and why the change to Tiny Moving Parts?

Dylan: Oh, yeah! We were just a cover band. We were writing a couple songs here and there, but we were like, 14.

Matt Chevalier: It was a joke high school band. Then we’re like, “Oh, let’s try to do real stuff,” so we became Tiny Moving Parts and started writing real music.

BLURT: What was one of your earliest favorite artists that inspired you to start the band?

Dylan: Blink 182 was a big one for sure. I mean, Dude Ranch and Enema of the State. Those are great records! Early Blink is what kind of got us going.

BLURT: Taking a step back further, what inspired you guys to be musicians? Being from a family band, is your family musical?

Billy Chevalier: Not really! It was literally the Blink 182 thing. We were obsessed with Blink when we were kids. The D-Cups started off more as a Blink 182 cover band.

BLURT: I just visited Minneapolis for the first time to go to a show at First Avenue and loved it. What’s your favorite thing about Minnesota?

Matt: The nice weather…

Dylan: Honestly though, the winters are brutal and cold, but we get all four seasons nicely. The summers are warm. The fall’s beautiful and it’s great golfing weather. We love to go golfing back home. Golfing’s probably one of our favorite things to do when not on tour.

Billy: It’s awesome having lakes everywhere, too.

Matt: It’s cool going to the lake. Lakes and golfing. We love golfing.

BLURT: I’m absolutely terrible at golf, but I love it, too! How often do you guys have the chance to play?

Billy: Last summer we had a good amount of time off. We were going, probably three to five times a week. It was the only thing we had to do. It was like, “Hey, yeah. Let’s go golf again. Let’s go golf again.” And don’t worry, we’re not very good either.

BLURT: You guys have a fantastic new album out called Swell. I’m continuously impressed by how consistent you all have been ever since you started Tiny Moving Parts. What inspired the album and what was recording it like?

Dylan: We recorded it with our friend Greg Lindholm. He’s done basically all of our stuff except for Pleasant Living. He’s just been a good friend of ours for so long. We really trust him, and it was really comforting going to his place. We were at his place for like, 40 days. In the middle of it we had to do a week run with Circa Survive for a little tour. Which was sick, we love that band.

BLURT: I missed that! I love Circa Survive as well and bet that was a blast! I’ve recently gotten into the band Jetty Bones and came across the song where Dylan provides guest vocals. What’s the best collaboration that any of you have done?

Dylan: Honestly, we haven’t done too many collaborations with anybody. I have done some guest vocals for some friends’ bands and stuff. The Jetty Bones song was the most fun because I wrote all the instrumentation, and then she did all the lyrics. Except I did my verse, but it was really cool. I’ve never done that before, and we kind of did it in a day or a day and a half. It was just a cool experience. It turned out great!

BLURT: If you guys had the chance to collaborate with anyone else, who would be your ideal band or artist to work with?

Dylan: Paramore would be awesome.

Matt: Paramore’s just one of those bands that’s consistently put out good records. It would be fun to tour with them or just do anything in a studio with them.

BLURT: Speaking of touring, how often do you guys play Denver? Do you have any stories or experiences to share about playing out here in Colorado?

Billy: Sadly, every time we play Denver, it’s always between Kansas City and Salt Lake or something like that. This time it’s Salt Lake, then Denver, then Lawrence. We get here, play the show, and then we have to start the night drive. Riot Fest was probably our best time here because we got to be here the whole weekend. That was a lot of fun.

Dylan: We played Friday that year, so on Saturday and Sunday we had no responsibilities. There was free booze and food and we just partied. It was so much fun.

BLURT: How’s the current tour going? How is it with Oso Oso, Birdhouse View, and Mom Jeans?

Dylan: It’s been amazing.

Matt: Yeah. This is the last day so everyone’s kind of like, “Oh, it’s wrapping up.”

Dylan: There’s been a lot of sold out shows, I think, including tonight. There’s only two that haven’t sold out of the 32 shows. It’s just been insane. It’s been nothing but great vibes.

BLURT: You have another tour coming up with Tigers Jaw and Wonder Years. How excited are you guys about that?

Dylan: That will be awesome! We’ll be the second of four bands to play so we’re only playing for half an hour. It’s less stress than doing the headliner tour like this one, where we’re playing for an hour and saying to ourselves, “All the people are here to watch this set. Let’s not screw it up.” It’ll be less pressure but just as much fun!

Now Enter: Mom Jeans

 (Pictured above, L-R: Gabe Paganin, Eric Butler, Austin Carango)

If you haven’t heard of the California-based band Mom Jeans. (yes, that period is supposed to be there), they might just be your next favorite emo/pop-punk band. They released their first full-length album, Best Buds, in 2016 through independent label Counter Intuitive Records, but despite the silly band name and song titles, their music is not a comedic effort. Some of these songs are so painfully honest and dreadful that you’ll probably cry instead of laugh.

Before their set, which included songs about smoking weed in your car and how disappointing Grey’s Anatomy season 9 was, BLURT sat down with them to talk grow Colorado grow houses, strange concert experiences, and anime.

BLURT: For the readers not familiar with Mom Jeans, tell us a little about yourselves, where you’re from, and how the band was formed.

Eric Butler: Cool. My name’s Eric, I play guitar in the band. I’m from Northern California, live in Livermore like 45 minutes outside of San Francisco in the East Bay.

Austin Carango: I’m Austin, I play drums in the band. I grew up in Agoura Hills, California which is in the LA area, sort of by Malibu Calabasas, in that zone.

Eric: We met in college. We were floor mates in the dorms. Austin and I both skateboarded, and that’s how we started hanging out. We started listening to each other’s music on iTunes and stuff. We were just really good friends and we were like, “We should start a band, ’cause no one else likes this kind of music out of all my friends.” We sort of bonded over that. It was easy since then.

BLURT: What were some of the bands you guys were listening to during college that inspired you to start a band?

Eric: Oh man, Joyce Manor, Modern Baseball, a lot of the big guys…

Austin: I know one of my favorites is definitely Transit. I like that band. Algernon Cadwallader and Glocca Morra are really good, too. I fuck with all those guys.

Eric: I liked Marietta a lot. I was really into them at the time.

BLURT: So, what’s the story behind the name? Why Mom Jeans?

Eric: We just thought it was funny. We were hanging out, getting drunk and stoned, and I was like, “Yo, Austin, you know what would be a funny name for a band? Mom Jeans.” Austin was like, “yeah,” and then we just did it and I guess never got any wiser. Now here we are with a shitty, stupid-ass band name.

BLURT: Your album Best Buds has been back in my rotation again recently. I love that album, so good job!

Eric: Thank you, we tried.

BLURT: What’s the story behind the album?

Eric: It wasn’t so much a story as it was just, we really wanted to be a band and we really wanted to play shows. We had done some previous recordings, like demos and stuff, that we put out which are pretty much straight rip offs of Modern Baseball and Front Bottoms songs. Obviously, no one took us seriously with those because it was basically like stealing music. So, we said, “Okay, we really need to write our own songs and find our own sound.” I guess the driving force behind that album was trying to make something that felt like it was ours. It was original, and you can tell we really tried our best to just do something ourselves without any outside influence. I like to think that we achieved that. We were really happy with how it came out. As long as we’re stoked about it and we think it’s sick, then we can do no wrong. So, if everyone else hates it, we can be like, “Fuck you, I think it sounds cool.” Because we’re the ones that play the songs and have to tour them.

BLURT: Is there any new material in the works?

Eric: Oh yeah, we’re working on a new record right now. I have it written already. We’ve actually been playing a new song on this tour from the new record!

BLURT: That’s awesome! Has it been announced yet? Do you have an anticipated release date that you’re aiming for?

Eric: It hasn’t been announced yet. We’re still figuring out what we’re going to do.

Austin: Well, there was a little teaser about it. We announced the SideOneDummy thing and mentioned we were writing it and that it would be out in 2018.

Eric: Yeah, but other than that, people don’t really know when to expect it. We’re still figuring out who’s going to put it out and how we’re going to do vinyl and stuff like that. We’re aiming for mid-Summer, so early July is when I want to put it out, but it all just comes down to how long the recording process takes and if everything goes according to plan. It should be no problem to do it by then. Speed bumps happen frequently, though, and often push back times, so I’m trying to remain both optimistic and realistic at the same time.

BLURT: I noticed you were involved in a compilation called Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 420 and I saw the album artwork for your split with Graduating Life… I take it you’re pumped that you’re in Colorado tonight?

Eric: Oh yeah! We took a tour of a grow house today before this. It was fucking sick.

Austin: That was crazy. It was my first time seeing a bunch of fuckin’ weed plants in a massive, industrial facility.

Eric: Yeah, it’s a fuckin’ warehouse full of weed.

Austin: The smell was crazy! It was like nothing I would have imagined.

BLURT: That sounds dope. What was this place called?

Eric: It was called The Dab by Next Harvest.

BLURT: That sounds amazing. I’m here for one more week, so I need to go do that myself.

Eric: Yeah, our new friend Mason just hit us up on Twitter and said, “Yo we’re gonna grow, do you wanna come take a tour?” And we were like, “Yes, absolutely!” I mean, we always go to the dispensary, like pretty much anytime we’re in a state where there are dispensaries. Just ‘cause it’s fun. It’s neat. California also just legalized it, but it’s still super expensive out there. So, when you come to Colorado, the weed you can get for the price is just so insane, comparatively. It’s really awesome. We always tend to get a little bit too fucked up when we’re in Denver because of the altitude, so we always have to pace ourselves and take it easy. I think you come to Denver, especially if you’re on the tail end of a US tour and you’re coming home from the Midwest and just played Iowa and Nebraska and all these places that are death zones for weed. By the time you finally get to Denver after that, you just wanna smoke your brains out. Then you just end up on the toilet passed out cause you’re too fuckin’ zonked.

Austin: True story.

Eric: No, yeah, true story. They first time we were ever in Denver I passed out on the toilet because I was just so fucked up from the altitude. I was just drinking all this beer and smoking all this weed and eating all this rich food. All of the things that you’re supposed to pace yourself when you’re at high altitudes, which I was just like, not doing. Just playing a set and loading gear and all this shit. I thought my heart was probably gonna explode.

BLURT: That’s half the reason I’m dead today. I definitely didn’t pace myself at the Municipal Waste and Exodus show last night at Summit Music Hall. I went just as hard as I do over on the East Coast and realized too late, “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Eric: And you wake up and you’re like, “Oh my god … I’m on hangover island, right now.”

BLURT: What’s the best Denver show you’ve played?

Eric: I think tonight’s show is going to be one of the best ever shows I’ve done here, but I mean, anytime we’ve played Denver has been great. We have friends in a band called Old Sport that usually book all the shows whenever we’re in town. Honestly, anytime that we have played Denver it’s been awesome. We’ve played Seventh Circle, The Yellow, Lost Lake… I don’t even remember them all. Every single show that we’ve played in Denver has been booked and run super well and we always get to play with our friends. It’s kind of hard to pick a favorite. I think this is going to be by far the most people that we’ve played for in Denver. We’re actually coming back in two days and playing on a Monday because, why not?

BLURT: What’s the strangest show you’ve ever played?

Austin: The Maryland one!

Eric: So, we needed a show the day after Christmas because we were doing a full US tour over winter break. It was the only time we had off from school that we could do a tour. We eventually booked a show for the day after Christmas and, unbeknownst to us, it was basically just kids whose parents were away for the weekend and they had a party. Like a high school party, in their garage, and Mom Jeans was the headlining band for it. We kind of realized it the second we got there, but we were like, “Okay, we haven’t played a show in two days and the show we played two days ago was not that good. We need to try and sell some merch. We can’t just dip on this show because we’re going to be running out of money otherwise.” The vibes were super weird. It was just 100 kids packed into a garage and one 30-pack going around. You know what I mean? And like, one bottle of shitty vodka. Everyone’s wasted and it’s just a placebo effect all the way around. I think the kids passed a hat around and we made like, $9 in change. They basically refused to pay us. It was not sick. It was rough. Then, what pushed me over the edge, after all of this, while we’re loading up our stuff and all these kids are still partying, one kid  that looks like he’s only 16-years old comes up to me with a half-empty bottle of Captain Morgan and says, “Hey man, gonna do a shot for Harambe?” I was just like, “get me out of this fucking state.”

Austin: Tied for the #1 spot for weirdest show has to be that Acid Boys show in…

Eric: Oh, in Iowa! Some dude that lived at the house and had nothing to do with the show, who was also on acid, basically tried to get 60 bucks out of us so that he could buy blow. And he was really bad at hiding it. He was basically trying to say that because we were staying at the house we were playing in, he needed seven bucks from each of the people that were staying there to cover the cost of us staying there. He just said, “Okay, it’s seven times eight people, okay, so that’s just like, 60 bucks.”

Austin: Well, the funny part of the story is…

Eric: He’s talking about trying to buy drugs when our friend was walking by and was like, “Yeah, is that going to be an issue?” And our friend Shawn was like, “Yeah, no. We’re not doing that.” It was just so stupid.

BLURT: Imagine you’re watching a concert and one of the band members spontaneously combusts. You get called up to the stage to replace that band member. What is the band?

Eric: Oh, what is that band? Oh man… that’s a good question … shit. I would be the dancer from Mighty Mighty Bosstones. He doesn’t play any instruments or do any vocals or anything, he just dresses up like all them and dances on stage, so I would be perfect at it. All you have to do is skank across stage.

Austin: I’d be fuckin’ Travis Barker. Crossing my fingers.

Eric: Travis Barker from Blink-182 or Aquabats Travis Barker?

Austin: Both. I mean, if I have to pick between the two I’d go Blink 182 because you can do the drum solo on the crane that goes over the crowd and turns upside down.

Eric: What about you, Gabe?

Gabe Paganin: Oh, I don’t know. I think I’m going to pass on this one.

Austin: He wants to be in the Gorillaz.

Gabe: I want to be the gorilla that does the stomping and Clint Eastwood comes out of the ground all dressed up and I’m fuckin’ doin’ my monkey walk. Just hanging low.

BLURT: I didn’t expect the answers to be that good! What’s your favorite non-musical thing to do on tour?

Eric: I guess eat.

Austin: Yep.

Eric: Eat and sleep. I mean, we sleep a lot. Bart, our touring guitar player, gets really mad at us because he’s an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person and we’ll sleep in as late as humanly possible. Like, if we can find a hotel room that will let us check out at like, 4 pm, and sleep until 3:30, we’d fuckin’ do that. Totally. Just sleep all day. At least for me, I don’t sleep well in a van, so if we’re not driving, I’m sleepin’. We all get pretty cranky when we’re not well-rested, so coffee, sleep, and food are the three main priorities.

Austin: And we watch anime, too, when we get a chance.

BLURT: I’m actually kind of bummed because back in Durham, NC, there’s a classic anime event going on at a local theater all weekend. My roommate saw Akira there last night.

Austin: Oh, that’s sick!

***

Go check out both bands, and also be sure to catch Tiny Moving Parts when they go on tour with The Wonder Years, Tigers Jaw, and Worriers!

RIGHTEOUS: The Light Wires & Jeremy Pinnell

With the country/folk/Americana artist’s star in full ascendance, his early days fronting a Kentucky rock band are finally getting some well-deserved attention. (Above photo: Michael Wilson)

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Years before Jeremy Pinnell became one of the most talked about new voices in authentic country music, he was a member of the underrated Kentucky rock bands The Light Wires. And thanks to Pinnell’s current record label, SofaBurn (which released his acclaimed solo album Ties of Blood & Affection, and you can listen to a track from it here at BLURT), his early group’s two hard-to-find albums have just gotten a proper vinyl re-release.

Along with Pinnell, The Light Wires comprised drummer Rick McCarty, guitarist Andy Hittle and bassist Mike Montgomery. SofaBurn has packaged their self-titled debut and the, until now, unreleased follow up, The Invisible Hand, into a beautiful gatefold 140-gram/color vinyl 2-LP set. The packaging nods to the original album art and contains lyrics, new liner notes and previously unreleased pics. (It’s reviewed here at BLURT.)

As the album set comes out, Pinnell spoke with Blurt about his former band, their output and why he drifted toward country music.

BLURT: There are a lot of great acoustic country/folk/Americana artists who started out in much louder bands. People like Chuck Ragan, Cory Branan and Frank Turner. Was your evolution to the more country sound you have now gradual?

PINNELL: I believe it’s always been inevitable. It was suggested by a friend to play country music. It’s where my heart has been for a long time.

How did The Light Wires first come together?

I went in to record some songs with Mike Montgomery and he suggested to bring in Rick McCarty to play drums and then Andy Hittle came in on the guitar and that’s how The Light Wires were formed. We didn’t record the second album till a few years after.

And what brought about the national re-release from SofaBurn Records?

We did release the albums locally years ago. My friend Chris Mueller wanted to see these records get some attention, hence the double vinyl.

The self-titled record and The Invisible Hand have two very distinct sounds. Was that a conscious decision or had your influences and sound just changed over the course of the band?

I was just a kid on the first record and I believe I thought I knew something. The second album is a realization that I wasn’t what I thought I was. Unfortunately, it was a painful experience for many, not just myself. I think I had a naive idea of how the world was and my writing on the first record shows that. When you have an awakening of how dark life can be the writing changes quite a bit. 

Your two solo albums have gotten strong, positive response from critics and fans. Were you pretty confident that these songs would find an audience so quickly?

You never have any idea that anyone will like it. That’s not why you make music. People have been real kind. We have been lucky.

You’re currently touring through the spring. Plans to be out on the road for the summer yet?

We should be on the road mid-year. (Tour dates are here.)

Do you ever play any of the music from The Light Wires in your shows nowadays?

I usually play “Two Caretakers.” I like the simplicity in two chords. It’s a love song between two friends.

What’s next for you? 

I like being home for now.

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