In which Macca’s critically underrated, but commercially toppermost, 1973 album is re-assessed via UMe’s new mega-expanded edition.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
After Paul McCartney’s somewhat tepid debut with his new band, Wings, many would have forgiven him if he’d just decided to jettison his bandmates and go back to being a solo artist.
Thankfully he didn’t.
Just two years after releasing that debut, Wildlife, McCartney and Wings turned in the stunningly impressive Red Rose Speedway, up there with Band on the Run as the group’s peak of brilliance.
Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) has just re-released a jaw-dropping box set version of Red Rose Speedway (along with Wildlife and a massive 11-disc Paul McCartney and Wings 1971-73).Red Rose Speedway is a hefty 6-disc affair: 3 CDs, 2 DVDs, and 1 Blu-ray. Each limited edition box is numbered and also comes with a hardcover book, crammed with plenty of photos.
Released in 1973, just eight months before Band on the Run, Red Rose Speedway’s first single, “My Love,” put the former Beatle back in comfortable territory, reaching #1 on the U.S. charts. The song, sweet without the saccharine that used to cling to many pop love songs in the early ‘70s, still endures today. While none of the other eight tracks on the album charted, it’s still packed with some great songs, like the funky opening track, “Big Barn Bed,” and the bluesy “When the Night,” a song that gets better and better with each listen.
The limited edition deluxe includes the original record, remastered at Abbey Road (naturally!). The second and third CDs include 35 bonus tracks – most importantly – a reconstruction of the double-album version of Red Rose Speedway (how it was originally supposed to be released), as well as various singles, B-sides, alternate mixes and a handful of previously unreleased tracks. In addition, the aforementioned DVDs plus the Blu-ray boast rare and, in many cases, previously unseen, footage. Of particular interest is “Live and Let Die,” filmed live in Liverpool, and the James Paul McCartney TV Special and The Bruce McMouse Show.
As if this massive cache of audio and video weren’t enough, they also come with a folio containing 14 replica hand-drawn original character sketches by McCartney (very cool!) and facsimile dialogue sheets for the film. The hardcover book houses some previously unpublished images by Linda McCartney, plus expanded album and single artwork from the archives, and the story behind the album. The book alone is a brilliant keepsake.
Finally, a proper re-release for one of Wings’ greatest records—which, by our critical rating system, rates a 5-stars-out-of-5. Believe it.
SoCal kings of cool serve up another winner – not to mention a stunning looking slab o’ wax.
By John B. Moore
If Blurt had a house band, there’s a pretty good chance the laidback, LA-based Indie Pop band GospelbeacH would be in the running. No less than our editor Fred Mills called last year’s sumptuous sophomore platter,Another Summer of Love, “not only perfectly titled, it’s a study in both perfect conception and perfect execution”; longtime contributor Barry St. Vitus described 2015’s Pacific Surf Line as a classic release as“viewed through the lens of the Buffalo Springfield, Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Darrow and others who pioneered the sound and glorified So-Cal’s gilded palace of sin and sun with a country spin early on.”
So imagine how stoked we were to be asked to premiere the song “ Runnin’ Blind,” off their soon-to-be-released Another Winter Alive.
“‘Runnin’ Blind’ is our attempt to blend Krautrock with The Everly Brothers…lyrically it’s one of those prophetic songs that weren’t real at the time but life ended up imitating art,” said singer-songwriter Brent Rademaker.
The album features five previously unreleased studio tracks recorded during the band’s sessions for Another Summer Of Love plus five live songs recorded in London during their California Fantasy tour, revisiting stripped-down live versions of songs from their debut album Pacific Surf Line.
GospelbeacH’s Another Winter Alive will be available on Limited Edition Vinyl, CD, digital and streaming formats on November 30th via Alive Naturalsound Records.
On October 26th Jah Wobble and his Invaders of the Heart took the stage at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere club and proceeded to give one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. The crowd was made up of mainly music industry insiders and a smattering of musicians from both the US and Japan. Jah Wobble who was the bassist for PIL was not only hilarious with his banter but fronted a smoking hot group of musicians that just blew me away.
The drummer was pure military precision, and extremely versatile as well. The guitarist could play anything and make it sound great. The keyboardist was a virtuoso on the instrument and perfectly punctuated certain moments in the songs. Jah showed what an amazing player he is as well veering from dub, to the world music transcendental meditations to a bit of comedy between numbers. Jah even managed to throw some PIL songs into the mix.
The show ended with Bill Laswell joining the Invaders of the heart for two songs of throb-heavy psychedelic jazzified mind-bending music. The sound in the club was amazing. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I could hear every instrument tunneling through to me. The mix was incredible because as the sounds hit you they morphed into this groovy organic mass that made you wanna live forever in the moment.
Through the kindness of Jah’s people I was able to get some incredible footage, below, to share with Blurt readers. Jah is currently recording his new album with Bill Laswell in New Jersey. If you get a chance to see Señor Wobble in concert it is an unforgettable experience.
The Sharp Things mainman and noted music industry p.r. maven dips into his literary inspirations and comes up holding a handful of Hornby via a Tucker Crowe-approved set of original tunes. “I was totally intrigued by the idea of an album [by] bands that don’t exist,” admits Serpa.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Over the years, Charles Bukowski and Chuck Palahniuk have become almost mandatory touchstones to punk rock kids everywhere. But, Nick Hornby is probably the closest thing just about every other rock and pop musician out there has to a literary patron saint
From High Fidelity to About a Boy (just consider the title alone), Hornby has endeared himself to a generation of songwriters thanks to his obvious passion for music and deep cuts knowledge. And 2009’s Juliet, Naked is one of his strongest music-based novels to date, following an obsessed music fan and his girlfriend to a pilgrimage to find a reclusive American musician. The book is populated with references to a slew of singers and bands and even goes into details about a tribute album dedicated to the fictional musician Tucker Crowe.
Now, Perry Serpa, singer/songwriter best known for his work with the brilliant indie pop band The Sharp Things (profiled in 2014 at BLURT), has brought fiction to life with his latest project: Wherefore Art Thou? Songs Inspired By Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. Admittedly we’re treading pretty close to Being John Malkovich territory here, but Perry’s record (10 songs, just as described in the book) is simply sublime. Getting help from a number of his friends, Perry was even able to convince Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5) to guest on a track. McCaughey, fittingly, is one of the musicians mentioned in Hornby’s book who played on the (fictional) Tucker Crowe tribute album… take a moment to let that sink in.
Serpa’s record arrived digitally worldwide on October 5; a UK and EU-only CD release is set for November 2; and a worldwide vinyl release is planned for November 23.
Serpa, also happens to be one of the coolest guys in music PR, currently servings as Principal for Tell All Your Friends PR. He was nice enough to take some questions recently via e-mail about this project.
BLURT: You’ve said that you first read Nick’s book about 9 years ago. At what point did you decide to start putting together this album?
SERPA: Pretty soon afterwards, actually! This is gonna sound a little “shiny shiny,” but I was totally intrigued by the idea of an album explained in detail in a book that you never really hear. I had fantasized over the years about creating, then publicizing bands that don’t exist, mainly to see how many folks would jump on the bandwagon and lie about being at their shows. I also had this idea for a film about a song that changes the characters’ lives that we never really hear. So, Juliet, Naked was right up my alley.
As soon as I read it, with all of the stated, hysterical influences- Dylan, actually Bob and Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Camus, Springsteen, Beckett, Dolly Parton, I started wondering about what these songs would sound like. And that was it. I had to write it.
How long did it ultimately take to write and record? Every thought of giving it up at some point?
I think of giving up everything I’ve been doing for a while, but this… no. I figured that, at some point, I would finish the album, which was an already predestined 10 songs. There were discernible presets to a number of the songs. Premeditated time units, so it wasn’t exactly the same as writing your “own” album where you can easily over-write. You know, the cliché of entering the studio with 25 songs and walking out with a 12-song record. That wasn’t this. There was an end to be seen. And there was no real deadline. It was my own self-inflicted project. No one told me to start, and thankfully, no one told me to stop, so I just kept doing it until it was done.
How did you go about figuring out what kind of sound Tucker Crowe would have? What musicians did you see inspiring his sound besides those he mentioned?
A lot of that was already in the book, at least in terms of the critical comparisons- really those aforementioned. I thought of Crowe as someone who had aesthetic inclinations that encompassed all of these classic influencers, so in a lot of ways, as a songwriter, he was all over the place. He wasn’t 100% Springsteen, but you can definitely hear some of that in “We’re In Trouble,” and maybe “In Too Deep.” He wasn’t 100% Leonard Cohen, but I made sure you can feel (more than hear) that influence in “You And Your Perfect Life.” “Dirty Dishes” obviously addresses the Johnny Cash/Dolly Parton tendency, Curtis Mayfield with “Who Do You Love?”, “And You Are?” definitely Dylan (Bob). And then I think I threw in a bit of Alex Chilton, the Replacements, Pink Floyd, Scott Walker, Nick Cave, and others, and addressed the literal influences mainly in the lyrics. It was a true collaboration between me and that character (and Nick).
How did you get Scott McCaughey involved in the album?
Here’s the thing. The album that you’ve heard is actually the tribute album of Juliet, the fictional album from the book, and not the original, which thickens the plot- and is certainly ridiculous. In the book, that tribute record is called, Wherefore Art Thou? as Hornby then describes a few contributors to the said Tucker Crowe tribute record. One of them is the Minus 5, a band I’ve been into for a while, and the other I can remember is Coldplay.
I reached out to Scott with the premise of creating this tribute album like, “You’re already in the book.” It was like, “You HAVE to do this.” (although I didn’t say that). But he, also a Hornby fan, had read the book and knew exactly what I was talking about. I gave him a choice of a few songs to sing, and he chose, “And You Are?” and it was perfect and brilliant. I can’t even imagine anyone else, including myself, singing that song.
I wanted Chris Martin to sing “In Too Deep” as Coldplay was name checked as having “contributed” to the album, as well, but he was understandably too busy. So, I figured I’d just ask folks who worked for the songs, had some history with Nick, or who I knew would understand what I was doing. I got through the short list and realized I would have to wait forever for some of the folks’ schedules to clear, so I just did my own thing, sang the songs, pulled my friends into it and enjoyed the process. That was why I started into it anyway.
Did you ever consider sending it on to Nick Hornby, an admitted huge fan of music?
Oh, yeah, of course. I had been sending music to him since 2007. I wrote a song called “The Jumpers” based on his book A Long Way Down. The song was the faux-operatic, baroque, chamber music shorty about jumping off a building, aka: tower block. It featured Michael Cerveris on lead vocals, and it kicked off The Sharp Things’ third album, A Moveable Feast. I mean, I had to send it to him.
He took a minute to check it out, but he finally did, and he liked it enough to check out the rest of our catalog. So, there, I was enabled! I wasn’t into the process of writing the songs for Juliet for very long before I started sending those to Nick, too. Each time he would say something short, but encouraging. Like, “Great! Good luck with it!” It wasn’t until “And You Are?” actually premiered with Consequence Of Sound last year that he actually got effusive about it. I was psyched, though.
Any interest in playing these songs live?
I’m actually starting to think about that. I probably wouldn’t except that the release schedule for this album is sort of long tail. We’re putting it out digitally through Shifty Disco in the UK and EU and Schoolkids Records, everywhere else on October 5th, then Shifty is doing a CD release in early November, then It’ll be a special release for Record Store Day Black Friday (11/23), so there will be good momentum, and that kinda justifies putting something together to play out for me.
We’ll see, though. Keeping folks together is hard these days. The people I would ask to play with me all have jobs and kids, etc. So, it could be tricky.
Was it just coincidental that the movie is coming out this year?
Good question! Yes, totally. In fact, I’m still kinda amused by the consequence of it all. I had been fits and starts working on this record for five, maybe six years before I even knew there was a film in the works. By the time I’d heard about it, I’d had pretty much all of the songs written, but in various stages of development. I think there were five of them already tracked in some way and I was planning sessions and guests for the rest of it.
My initial reaction to it was weird. It was this irrational feeling like someone was encroaching on my turf since I’d been living this story for so long. But, that quickly turned to delight, and that was compounded by the fact that two old friends were involved in the film- the director, Jesse Peretz and the film’s composer, Nathan Larson. Nathan was actually in Shudder To Think and Hot One, for whom I did publicity back in the day. So, we’ve been pretty close throughout the years. There wasn’t really room for this music in their film as they had decided to address that overall part of it in a different way, but I was nonetheless excited that there was all of this creative energy around Nick’s deserving story.
As I was finishing the mixing process, I started to realize when it would all finally wrap up, and that my release plans could possibly coincide with theirs. Months later, and here we are, kind of overlapping each other.
On to a different topic, are The Sharp Things planning any more music?
When it comes to The Sharp Things, I’ve learned to never say never. After 20-plus years of making music together, I think of every attempt to make another record or doing another show as a family reunion. Despite the really kind words we’ve gotten throughout our existence, it’s never really been a “career” for any of us in that we spent far more money than we ever made.
No matter what the face of it is, there was never any significant business going on, so it was ours to pick up and put down. Any “break up” saga was just pretentiousness, or us just messing around trying to have a “real band” history. Had we had the good or bad fortune of being a big band, I would have a more specific answer, but all I can say is that I still very much love the enduring band members and I remain proud of what we’ve been able to create together, so the idea of playing music with them always puts a smile on my face. And, honestly, we get better at it every time we reconvene.
So, what’s next for you?
Loaded question! I’ll address the music making side of that ‘cos I’m a dad and a business person, so I could go forever: In the past year, I’ve lost both of my parents. It’s brought up a very distinct urge within me to be creative, possibly because my mom and dad both always encouraged that in me. There were not two people on the planet more supportive of my efforts as a songwriter and music maker than them. So, I feel the need to finish things I started years ago (like the Juliet album), and to continue giving attention to those bits and pieces that fly into my head regularly. Beyond the record at hand, I’ve been working on dozens of other songs. I’ve written more than what should comprise a few more albums. So, I guess I’ll just follow that and see where it leads me.
Sending a clear “Message’ via their recently released, Ray Charles-inspired album, the Austin Americana kings take an ambitious step forward. (Above photo from the band’s Facebook page, where you can also pick up on tour dates, or at their official website.)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
To call the 2016 U.S. presidential election polarizing is a bit of an understatement. It’s akin to saying, “people seem to like The Beatles” or “Keith Moon was a bit restless.” And while the Trump Administration’s policies have likely launched more punk bands in a year and a half than Reagan’s eight years combined, Austin-based Americana greats The Band of Heathens couldn’t help but focus on how politics have pulled the country apart.
“We were on the road somewhere in New England when the topic of conversation drifted toward the troubled social climate in the country,” writes the band, in a recent press release. “We related similar experiences with how divisiveness was affecting those around us, how families were being torn apart over political and social issues.”
Looking for a much-needed distraction, the band turned to an out-of-print Ray Charles album which immediately spoke to their sense of unease and discontent. “With the first notes of the opening track ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’, Ray had our undivided attention.”
That track was off of Charles’ 1972 LP, A Message from the People and seemed to be speaking directly to the band and the current political climate. The Band of Heathens started messing around with the other songs on the record and hit on the idea of recording the album, track for track, as a sort of musical salve for the entire country.
The result, A Message From The People Revisited, came out on September 14th and the band plans on donating proceeds from the record to Rock the Vote, in an effort to amplify the voice of the people.
Co-frontman Gordy Quist – who is joined by Ed Jurdi, Trevor Nealon, Richard Millsap, and Scott Davis – took some time recently to speak with Blurt about this ambitious record.
BLURT: Do you remember when and where you first heard the original album?
GORDY QUIST: The first time I heard Ray Charles’ A Message From the People in its entirety was in late 2016 when the presidential election was getting really ugly. We were seeing the left versus right, us versus them politics split families apart from each other. The record sounded like Ray speaking to us from the past telling us, “Everything is gonna be ok.”
Were there any songs in particular that were harder to play than they sound?
There were some difficult choices to make in terms of how many liberties we felt comfortable taking to make the material our own. Some songs we tried to honor and keep close to the original arrangements and others we really took for a spin. The last track on the album – also the last song we recorded – is Ray’s version of “America the Beautiful.” It was daunting to record because Ray’s version is almost untouchable. For about an hour over dinner we debated whether to really take it out and do something different with it, or whether to stay close to honoring the original. After deciding we were over-thinking it, we ended up hitting record and cutting it live pretty close to the original arrangement.
This is a pretty heavy record. Did you ever have any second thoughts between coming up with the idea and actually recording it?
I had a lot of questions whether we’d be able to pull off recording the entire album start to finish, and have it sound believable. I wasn’t sure the same messaging from 1972 coming from Ray Charles would translate well coming from us today. We did it as a hopeful experiment to see if we could do it. If only half of it had turned out well, we would have put out an EP.
If only a song or two had turned out well, we would have put out a couple singles. If none of had turned out well, nobody would have ever known. At the time I had recently bought into and taken over a studio, so we had the means to make a record if we could make the time. We found four or five days we were all going to be in town with some down time, so it was really low pressure. Somehow, we pulled it off, and I think the whole record works. It just goes to show the power and timelessness of those songs.
What message to you want to send by putting this record out?
I’d like for all of us as Americans to embrace the notion that we’re in this together and that we can work out our differences through civil dialogue and love and respect for one another.
How did you decide which charity to donate to with some of the proceeds?
We feel that supporting a movement to get people out to vote, specifically in the upcoming midterms, is in line with A Message From the People. The most effective way for us as Americans to have our voice and our message heard is to vote. We’re not saying who you should vote for. You should stay educated on issues, follow your conscience and your heart, and get out in vote.
Any plans to play this album live – or incorporate any of the songs into your sets?
We’ll definitely work some of this material into the set.
(Below photo by Greg Giannukos)
What’s next for the band?
We’ll do some touring this Fall and then start working on another album of our original material in the new year.
Anything else you wanted to touch on?
Our dear friend and mentor George Reiff passed away last year and I recently took over his recording studio, the Finishing School. We’ve made records there in the past with George at the helm, but this is the first album we completed in the studio since he’s been physically gone. We’ve dedicated this album to George.
(A note from the Editor: I met George in Austin during SXSW many years ago, and while I cannot claim to have known him well, I can say that in subsequent encounters—sometimes random one-on-ones via mutual friends, other times from the audience, as he was a fixture on local stages, a guy who added class (and rhythm) to every band he sat in or jammed with—I could tell he was one of the most right-on of right-on guys the city had. R.I.P. – Fred Mills)
A Message From The People Revisitedis available for purchase HERE. A portion of the proceeds will go to benefit Rock The Vote. Below, listen to a key track from the original Ray Charles album.
Rather than stay in bed, the Tar Heel power pop icon got up, hit the recording studio, and put in some serious sweat equity to craft what is destined to be one of the year’s most enduring, endearing releases. Visit Holsapple’s blog to check out his personal musings, details on live dates (he’s promoting the album with a handful of dates as the Peter Holsapple Combo), and future plans. Incidentally, he’ll also be releasing The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton in October via Omnivore.
BY FRED MILLS
Last year, with the release of the “Don’t Mention the War” b/w “Cinderella Style” 45, North Carolina rocker Peter Holsapple set in motion a domino effect set of expectations among his fanbase—most of whom had been following the songwriter since his power pop dB’s days (and some of us since his prior tenure with Chapel Hill garage outfit the H-Bombs, or his even earlier high school bands in Winston-Salem). It had been quite some time since Holsapple had issued anything as a solo artist, yet at the time of the single, he opted to demur when questions about a full-length cropped up. As I subsequently wrote in my review of the single, “He told me that he opted for doing a single because he wasn’t quite sure he should thrust a full album’s worth of new material into the market, given music consumers’ relatively short attention spans and tendency to favor tracks over albums nowadays.”
But it would appear that the good Mr. H was indeed eyeing the long game. Ergo, Game Day (Omnivore), his first full-length solo rec in over two decades, a bakers-dozen worth of tunes, plus a bonus track and two “super bonus” tracks. Indeed, it has been 21 years since the release of the wonderful Out of My Way, although he hasn’t exactly been a recluse in the interim, having teamed with his old dB’s pal Chris Stamey for 2009’s Here And Now (a kind of belated followup to the duo’s ’91 album Mavericks) and a pair of singles; released several titles with the Continental Drifters; and of course reunited with the dB’s in 2012 for the Falling Off the Sky album and Revolution of the Mind 12” EP.
Still, this new album marks a welcome re-emergence precisely because Holsapple’s musical choices over the years have always been studied and deliberate, never random, and certainly not in the service of simply getting some “product” into the bins. (Peter, here’s the point where we can hear you saying, in your best John Cleese voice, “What’s wrong with putting product in the bins?” –Tar Heel Ed.)
He states his intentions at the beginning, in “Game Day”:
“My horoscope read,
‘You oughta stay in bed.’
My doctor said,
‘It’s all in your head;
It’s only rock ‘n’ roll;
It’s not getting old;
There’s no reason to quit;
So you better get used to it…’”
Indeed, Game Day is a deeply personal album, rife with self-scrutiny and autobiography, from that title track (a thrumming, anthemic number that also references times spent in the van with fellow bandmembers) and caustic garage rocker “In Too Deep” (a kind of self-j’accuse alluding to a litany of unspecified personal sins); to a strummy, insistent confessional called “The Better Man” that at times brings to mind midperiod Ray Davies, and the remarkably naked—speaking of confessionals—“Yelling At Clouds,” whose deployment of a waltzing, elegant, almost baroque arrangement can’t disguise the songwriter’s insecurities and frustrations. And dB’s devotees will cheer the arrival of “Not Right Now,” a spooky, shimmering slice of psychedelic-tinged power pop that sounds like it could have been plucked from the group’s early ‘80s repertoire. Listen closely and you’ll also hear sonic and lyrical echoes of “Sealed With a Kiss,” a 1962 hit single by pop artist Brian Hyland, and a tune that Holsapple undoubtedly heard as a kid scores of times on AM radio in the early ‘60s.
It’s a mature, songwriter’s songwriter album, although not one so deliberately omniscient and wise-beyond-the-years that you would call it Dad Rock. Instead, it’s the logical extension of such memorable Holsapple moments as the deeply moving “The Child in You” (from the aforementioned Mavericks collab with Stamey), the frustrated/self-effacing “Spitting In the Wind” (on dB’s 1984 album Like This), and the downcast “We Were Happy There” (1981’s Repercussion).
Over the years Holsapple has typically nurtured his lyrical introspection, as befits a fan of such iconic navel-gazers as Alex Chilton and Todd Rundgren, often mounting a buoyant sonic arrangement to soften his concurrent natural cynicism, and always managing to achieve the perfect balance upon the sonic/emotional tightrope he toes. Game Day is rife with musical gems—it includes both sides of the 2017 single mentioned above (as the “super bonus tracks”) along with a rowdy cover of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes”—guaranteed to charm even the most cynical indie rock devotee down out of their tribal treehouse. It’s also a solo record in the truest sense of the word, Holsapple having cut nearly all of it by himself (at, ahem, the popular “Bill Ding Studio,” proof that the guy’s no blockhead at the mixing desk), with only a handful of assists from friends ‘n’ family.
The closing track “The Smartest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” a terrific slice of indie rock rich with vocal harmonies and twang/surf guitar, serves as a kind of musical mini-memoir for the songwriter, who flips through the pages of his mental photo album, pausing here and there to reflect on some of the missteps he’s made over the years. Sings Holsapple, in an off-the-cuff, semi-sarcastic manner:
“There is no sense in what I say, what I’ve done, or what I try to do;
It took a good long while to get me here, standing here in front of you.
I travel, live, and learn, giving back the ways I could—
Sometimes that sounds pretty good to me.
And there is no reason to rejoice, I was just born without a voice;
The words spill out from my mouth, so to sort the meanings out.
And I’ve been told a thousand times by people better than myself
That this was not the smartest thing that I’ve ever done.
No, not so smart—I agree!”
And with that, he ties together everything that he set in motion 12 songs earlier, in deeply satisfying fashion, a guy who enjoys what he does and who’s apparently pretty damned comfortable in his own skin—which is more than a lot of people are willing to accept or admit to. Which is also one of the qualities longtime fans have always prized about Holsapple, both as a songwriter and as a person; we probably surrendered our objectivity many moons ago, and that’s okay. When the artist suggests, in his liner notes, that maybe we can “find a small place in our heads” for the album, he clearly underestimates what his four-decade-long contributions to the proverbial great rock tapestry truly represent to us.
We’ve reserved a place in our hearts, too.
Above live photo of the Peter Holsapple Combo (L-R Holsapple, Will Rigby, Glenn Jones) borrowed from his Facebook page.
“I gave birth to these songs, and the village raised them”: A frank, revealing discussion with the North Carolina singer-songwriter on her career to date, the acclaim and attention surrounding her recent album and award-winning video, and the pros and cons of trying to earn a living as a musician in the ever-booming Asheville. She has a new single due out this Friday, August 31.
BY FRED MILLS
Sometimes, just sometimes, a rock critic’s discovery of new music is completely random in its serendipity. We get a lot of music thrust at us, unsolicited, from the dozens of packages that arrive in the mail every week, to the discs and demo tapes slipped to us in person while out at a show and attending conferences like SXSW, to the scores of downloads and streams that turn up in our morning inboxes. But once in awhile there’s a chance encounter, or out-of-the-blue recommendation, that does the trick. And in a sense, it’s perhaps all the more meaningful precisely because of its unexpected, unscripted nature.
Such was the case with Reverie, by Asheville singer-songwriter Carly Taich. Not long ago I was at a gathering of area arts professionals, and during the lunch break I spotted a friend seated at a table across the outdoor courtyard so I wandered over and sat down. He was chatting with a young lady, who introduced herself as Carly. I learned she was a local musician as we exchanged business cards. End of story, right?
Not quite. As it turns out, I already knew her music. I just didn’t realize it. Less than a week earlier, while driving in my car I had caught the tail end of a segment on a local radio station about an area songstress; I liked what I heard, and mental note to check the station’s website for more details when I got home—a mental note I promptly forgot. Until, that is, after the aforementioned encounter. And wow, did I really like what I heard online at her Bandcamp page.
So sometimes coincidence leads to serendipity.
Reverie is, without a doubt, one of the most delightful records I’ve heard this year so far. (It was released late last year, so I’m moderately red-faced at not having discovered it earlier.) It’s so obviously far and above even many of the nationally-released, major-label-helmed titles of 2018 that I will make a prediction that it will get picked up by a major or a major indie.
Certainly, I’m biased on a couple of levels: First, Taich is from Asheville, where I’ve lived on and off for nearly two decades, and I know firsthand what a quality music scene we have here. Second, when you can put a face and a handshake directly to a piece of music, it lends the music a certain additional intimacy, and we become fans of music in the first place because music is all about the listener-artist relationship.
By way of background, Taich found her way to Asheville about three or four years ago, having already released a full-length, 2012’s Beginners, and 2013’s Live From Straight Street EP, plus a single. (You can hear them all at the above Bandcamp link.) She hooked up with producer Mike Johnson to record at Sedgwick Studios, along with melodic foil Alex Travers on violin, plus members of local outfit Midnight Snack—Johnson on bass and keys, Jack Victor on drums, and Zack Kardon on electric guitar—and Reverie was the result. And while Taich has been rightfully compared to well-known artists such as Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and Neko Case—full-throated, powerful women, all—her indie-folk, baroque-pop music is so immediate-yet-subtle, so vulnerable-yet-wise-beyond-the-years, that it nearly defies easy referencing.
From the elegant, swaying, violin-powered swoon that is opening track “WISE (When It’s So Easy)” and tingly atmospheric ballad “Roaming Stars,” to the Knopfleresque-twangy, gently rolling Americana of “Dusty” and the thrumming, bring-up-the-handclaps “Give Me A Likeness” (the anthemic vibe is not unlike U2’s “Beautiful Day”), Reverie is a start-to-finish, no-filler/all-killer gem—a veritable calling card to greatness if enough ears find it. The latter tune’s lyrics bear additional attention:
“Amidst all the muck and the torment / the tossing and turning / the wondering what wanting more meant / she’s made up her mind / some people are not worth the pain / what on earth has she got to gain looking for insight from behind closed eyes / so out with the tragic / in with the magic / something feels different now…”
Read those words again, closely; there’s a remarkable degree of self-scrutiny present, a psychic escape hatch from inner turmoil that most of us never find—in with the magic, indeed. Throughout the album Taich challenges herself to do more and to be more than just a tourist on this planet, viewing relationships and even mundane daily encounters as opportunities to grow, maybe even evolve, and then to share the wealth/wisdom that comes from that evolution.
She’s as pure and prescient a young songwriter as they come. And I’ve heard a lot of ‘em. I’m hardly alone in that assessment, either. Earlier this year, Taich landed a couple of significant, very public kudos: The video for “Give Me A Likeness,” directed by Nathan Rivers Chesky, took home Best Soundtrack honors at the 2018 Music Video Asheville awards ceremony; and at the fifth annual LEAF Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition, presented by NewSong Music, she was named winner, and, along with seven other finalist singer-songwriter solo and duo acts, was selected from more than 500 entries to this year’s contest, which means she’ll have a high-profile performance slot in at the popular Western Carolina outdoor music and arts festival’s fall 2018 event taking place October 18-21 in Black Mountain, NC, near Asheville.
This week, Taich is releasing a new single, “My Own Stages,” which will be available on multiple digital platforms. (Visit herCarlyTaich.com or her Facebook page or go directly to the track at her Bandcamp page or Soundcloud account.) Featuring the same players as appeared on Reverie, she describes it thusly:
“A musical montage that glimpses into a simpler and more romantic past the singer is not so sure ever existed. Retro-folk, pop that dives into unexpectedly deep territory, hitting our nostalgic nerves along the way.”
The song has an immediacy that draws the listener in from the get-go, wholly consistent with the album’s indie pop sound and style, while adding more prominent background vocals, a spoken-word, answering machine segment in French, and a subtle country rock vibe. Declares Taich, in her trademark lilt, “Birds have wings/ People have pages/ I sing on my own stages.”
With the song fresh in my head, I connected with the artist to learn about her background and her approach to making music. Carly was more than forthcoming with her answers—she clearly thinks a lot about what she’s doing, how/why she’s doing it, and how lucky she is to have so many people taking notice of her. We started off with a couple of obvious queries, and she immediately took the ball and ran with. At the closing of my queries, a simple “What’s next?”, she noted that she has “a couple more singles up my sleeve that I’m hoping to release in the next few months.”
Here’s one fan, music journalist, and Asheville resident who will be watching for them. Everyone else should, too.
BLURT: What got you started in music? Training? Notable influences or inspirations as a kid? Any lightbulb moments where you went, “I think I could get up there on the stage and do this too”?
My mom is a wonderful singer, songwriter and artist and my dad has always been really passionate about music, memorizing lyrics, collecting instruments and CDs. I am the youngest child, so I had a lot of time to myself to be play and creativity was highly encouraged in my house. I started writing songs before I had anything to write about. I always knew I had the potential to be a singer, after my first solo for a church play around age 7, but didn’t admit it to anyone until much later. I wanted to be a singer badly enough to not want my dreams crushed by critics.
My older sisters introduced me to a lot of indie music I never would have found otherwise like Elliott Smith, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, and (I must mention Schoolkids artist) Angie Aparo. My dad played a lot of The Andrew Sisters, Sam Cooke, and Leonard Cohen, and we watched musicals together. When I was 14 I had the amazing opportunity to go to a small “music industry” camp for teens in LA for two weeks. It totally changed me, and when I got home I began writing complete songs with guitar—and the rest is history. Luckily, the high school I went to had a fantastic choir and theater program. So good, in fact, that the kids who usually got the roles were theater veterans. Not being an experienced actor gave me the opportunity to shine in other areas, and I found that writing my own songs was like starting my own business. I was my own boss—I could be creative on my terms.
I started taking voice lessons shortly after joining choir and continued throughout college as a music minor at Appalachian State (in Boone, NC). Voice training gave me invaluable confidence. I always say my first love was drawing, and there was a significant moment my senior year of high school where I chose to put down the graphite pencil and pursue music full force.
What should our readers know about the 2012-13 music you released? It seems like even that early you had a clear idea of what you wanted your sound to be like. For example, “L’Chaim,” from Beginners, would not sound out of place on the Reverie album, and I love the live version too.
“L’Chaim” is actually the only song on that album that I still perform! And I’ll bring back “Love To Break It To You” cause it’s so damn feisty. The way Beginners came about was much like the way Reverie came about. For both records I had a handful of songs and a good producer friend who said, why don’t you just make an album out of these? If I had a clear idea of how I wanted that album to sound, I didn’t know it. It’s good that it came across that way. I think maybe my writing style was maturing and becoming more clearly defined, and the songs were strung together by a common feeling/phase of life.
You arrived in Asheville about 3 years ago. What brought you here? What keeps you here? Has the area music scene been welcoming/nurturing, or is there ever a sense that, with the huge and steady influx of people over the past few years, the pie slices are getting cut thinner and thinner for musicians.
What brought me to Asheville was a need to leave Boone, which was getting too small. Half my family moved to Hendersonville from Charlotte (where I grew up), so I figured I’d move in with them and try applying to “real” jobs. I had a degree in Advertising so I thought that’s what you do—apply to work in your degree field. I felt totally under-qualified and disoriented. Pursuing music had been the plan for so long, but that felt like a thousand miles away. I was in a new town, in a long-distance relationship, and living with my mom after a breakup with my band of two years. I started meeting musicians in Asheville and was fairly blown away by their hospitality. There was so much energy and professionalism in this niche music scene—particularly by the band Midnight Snack, who were also newcomers from Berklee School of Music and welcomed me in warmly. It was a natural move. I was encouraged by a big win at the Brown Bag Songwriting Competition just months after arriving, which led to multiple recording sessions at the esteemed Echo Mountain and lots of new connections. For the first time, most of my friends were songwriters and producers, and everyone wanted to collaborate with each other. I’m still here three years later because that flame hasn’t died.
The scene has already grown so much that I can’t keep track of all the bands. I try to make it to my friends’ concerts and half the time am singing in them, so there’s little time left to see new ones. That’s definitely a goal of mine—to hear more live music. Professionalism and competition in music is growing here. It’s not oversaturated like Nashville or L.A, so there’s still a freshness, an attitude of “your success is my success.” We celebrate the arts and want to keep that alive. But just like the fear that Asheville itself is being loved to death, there is the likelihood of musicians using Asheville as more of a stepping stone, where they can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond and not “loving” it back. And that’s where we lose some of the authenticity that makes us great.
It can be hard for musicians in Asheville to survive. You have to be really thrifty. Most everyone’s working multiple jobs while the cost of living goes up. There is so much talent, but unfortunately you can’t make much money playing original music. This year I’ve been a little disturbed by how low the audience turnout has been on some incredible shows. Where were all the people who were drawn to Asheville for our thriving arts scene? Is it because, as you said, the pie slices are getting smaller and too many choices? If people don’t show up to support us, we—the music community as it is—won’t survive. That being said, there are tons of people and organizations that are dedicated to supporting the arts, and without them, I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have!
How did you connect with Alex and the other musicians who are on Reverie? Tell me a few things about writing and recording the album that are personally significant to you, or even that might surprise your fans?
I met Alex in college at the music school and he actually played on a few songs for Beginners. We lost touch for a few years while he was in Nashville, then one day he happened to walk past the store where I was working downtown. I was like, “Hey I know you!” We’ve been collaborating ever since. I actually met Jack of Midnight Snack online before meeting him in person. I was considering a move to Asheville when my friend, who was bartending at Foggy Mountain, saw them perform there and told me to check them out. I realized I had actually seen them before on YouTube—both of our bands had done Arcade Fire covers. Eventually Jack Victor, Mike Johnson, and Zack Kardon ended up grouping with me. I needed a band for some live performances. Once we had put together all these full-band arrangements, it made sense to record them.
Something significant about Reverie, I’d say, is the collaboration aspect. I gave birth to these songs, and the village raised them. The band and I tried to present the songs in the most authentic way possible. Together, we probably made a million decisions about arrangement, production, release, etc. So I got to oversee every tiny detail. I’m not sure if all artists can say that. It was truly DIY. I hired my friends, who happen to be incredible, professional musicians, and we handled every piece of the project with care and integrity. I felt that the songs were in the best hands not just because they are super talented, but because these guys are genuine—they do everything for the good of the music. (On a side note: Katie Richter and Peter Brownlee, the rest of Midnight Snack, also played a part
In the production and release of the record.)
What songs on the album are your favorites? Which ones are the most gratifying to do live?
I’m proud of the way “Give Me A Likeness” turned out—that one went through soooo many revisions from start to finish that it was in danger of being overworked, but I feel in the end it captured what it was meant to. “Let It Shine” was special because it just sort of “fell off the bone” when it came to arranging and recording, too. We recorded it live, meaning all instruments at the same time, including vocals. At the end section when my vocals go all over the place on “come morning, let it shine”, that was totally off the cuff.
I enjoy playing that one live because it creates such a mood. I love the easy, pop nature of “Pity.” That was the first song we ever arranged as a band. “Anatomy of an Illusion” is probably my favorite to do live—there is usually an audible response from the crowd that says “Damn, I just got punched in the gut!” It’s always a good show when people feel they were punched in the gut. Oh, and “Roaming Stars” is a really fun one live because it creates this sort of meditative place for everyone in the room. We can all get weird to that one. Did I just mention half the album?
Do you feel the response to Reverie has been encouraging? Any misconceptions about you and the album? Because reviewers are notoriously tunnel-visioned at times, it’s easy for us to get things wrong even when being well-intentioned.
I have been really encouraged by responses to Reverie. Of course, after putting so much energy into something, you want more people to hear it and buy it, you want more monthly listeners on Spotify…
Recently, someone told me they were going through a breakup and my album was on repeat in their car, helping them through it. It’s stuff like that that reminds me, “Oh yeah, that’s what’s important. That’s why I do this!”
Still, I wouldn’t mind if there were more of those people. I know they’re out there, but they don’t necessarily know I am.
So far, I haven’t experienced much tunnel-vision on behalf of reviewers. I feel that Reverie has been pretty well represented and I enjoy hearing what other people pick up from it. There’s almost always a small detail or two that ends up getting twisted—a photograph not properly cited, an instrument I don’t play, an exaggeration of some past event… thankfully nothing too disastrous.
Thoughts on winning the “Best Soundtrack” at the 2018 Asheville Music Video award for you and Nathan? I assume you were present – did you think your name was going to be called?
Oh my gosh. I didn’t know “Best Soundtrack” was a category until they started announcing the nominees. We were actually nominated for that and Best Cinematography. I am so thrilled to have won, especially after having no expectations whatsoever. It was an honor to work with Nathan Rivers Chesky, and to see all the work he put into that video and my band put into that song, getting recognition was a really rewarding and humbling experience.
I was actually sitting way up on the balcony wearing heels and hoping I didn’t win anything because I didn’t know how to get down to the stage! All the winners were making speeches, too. I didn’t have anything prepared. By the time I got down there, I don’t even know what I said. Michael Selverne, a beloved producer and mentor (Welcome To Mars is his production company) who was one of the judges at the Brown Bag the year I won, also happened to be the announcer for that award. Midnight Snack [also] won Judge’s Choice for their amazing animation, “Magic.” It was a magical, full-circle night.
And then shortly after that, you won producer Gar Ragland’s NewSong LEAF festival competition…
I love Gar! Yeah, the LEAF competition was crazy. I was just blown away at winning. I’m stoked to play LEAF with my band next month as part of the prize, and now have Bonnaroo, which we played for the first time in June, on my resume. A lot has happened this year. It encourages me. These people I admire and respect are telling me I’m doing something right. That makes it easier to keep going.
Tell us about “My Own Stages.” Was that done at the Reverie sessions or completely new? (Above: an earlier live performance of “My Own Stages.”)
I wrote it before releasing, but after recording, Reverie. It seemed to stand on its own, stylistically, hence why I’m putting it out as a single. But I also feel like it is an extension of Reverie. More of that daydreaming… Mike Johnson drafted up a MIDI arrangement of it as an example of how he would implement country-western vibes into an indie-pop song, but then the overall reaction was, “Can we use that?”
I am truly pleased with the way this one turned out. Longing for a simpler time then questioning if that time ever really existed. That’s me in the French voicemail, expressing sentiments like, “It’s been a long time since we last talked, I hope you’re doing well…”
Photos credits: Cameron Smith (live), Shonie Joy Kuykendall
David Hawkins and Aaron Bakker enlist Ken Stringfellow, Pete Thomas, and Gary Louris to craft one of the year’s brightest records. Hawkins and Stringfellow sit down to fill us in.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Full disclosure: I’d never heard of HAWK until earlier this year when a press release about the band landed in my inbox. It was one of the few that stood out among the hundreds of emails I get each week, if for no other reason than the impressive resume of the band members. In addition to lead singer and songwriter David Hawkins and longtime guitarist Aaron Bakker, the lineup on their latest album, Bomb Pop, includes Posies co-leader Ken Stringfellow on bass, keyboards and additional guitar; Pete Thomas (original members of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Graham Parker, Elliot Smith) on drums; and Jayhawks leader Gary Louris on additional vocals.
Though I was expecting a straight power pop disc, Bomb Pop is actually more diverse than that. Admittedly, “Allison’s Gone” (the opening track) starts things off on that note and sounds like it should be a classic. It’s a tight, catchy tune that echoes both the sunshine pop of the ’60s and the garage rock revival of the ‘80s. But the album goes in various directions from there. “I Lied,” among other songs, incorporates psychedelia while the final track, “Dry Your Eyes,” is a country lament of the Velvet Underground variety. But pop fans won’t be disappointed; if no other song on Bomb Pop is an instant classic on the level of “Allison’s Gone,” then “Around the Sun” and “Mrs. Anderson” come close.
The members of HAWK are — literally — all over the map! David Hawkins himself hails from the Midwest but is based in California these days. Fellow Midwesterner Gary Louris currently makes his home in North Carolina. Pete Thomas is an Englishman but has been based in LA for years. And Ken Stringfellow grew up in various parts of America (notably Seattle, where he and Jon Auer formed The Posies) but now lives in France! So most of this album was recorded in different places, at different times, and then pieced together by Hawkins in his studio.
While this was my first exposure to HAWK, they are not a new band; this is actually their fourth studio effort. And though that initial press release described Hawkins — who also has his side project, Be — as “enigmatic,” that wasn’t my impression of him from our conversation. He was a friendly guy and I enjoyed speaking with him and Stringfellow for this piece.
BLURT: This CD was really my introduction to your music even though I was familiar with some of the other players. When and how did you you start putting Bomb Pop together?
DH: Well, it all kinda happened naturally. Ken and I were already making a lot of music together… We really kind of clicked. Since we started, he’s played on over 60 of my songs at this point. We’ve been super productive, just working through a lot of material which will come out in different projects.
So we had been in the midst of that, and one of our sessions in Seattle, at his studio, he mentioned that he was going to be doing a session with Pete [Thomas]. He was really excited about it and so was I– one of my favorite drummers. After he did that session, i [asked how it went] and he said, “Great.” I said, “Do you think there’s any chance he would join us on one of the things we’re working on, on a pop record?” And he goes, “Ask him!” So I reached out to [Pete] and sent him some of my music — two HAWK records and two Be Records. He liked it and said, “Yeah!” So I was really excited.
Meanwhile, I had been thinking of Gary a lot. [The Jayhawks] had released Paging Mr. Proust, which I just thought was fantastic. Such a great record. I’ve known him for years, so I reached out to him to see if he’d [mind] singing on some songs. And he agreed too! It’s such an honor to have these guys.
It really is like a dream band.
DH: It is! It’s been a real thrill working with these guys.
Ken, I wanted to ask more about your specific contributions. It seems like you played a lot of different instruments on this album.
KS: Yeah. Basically, [David would] kind of send me tracks and instruct me to play whatever I felt like playing. There were so many sessions with him that I never knew which record we were working on! There’s still a whole other [album] that’s been recorded. And we’re doing another session next month. So there’s been a lot.
But basically, I play all the bass. Pretty much all the lead guitar. A lotta keyboards, backing vocals and you know — percussion, bells, whistles, sleigh bells and whatnot.
So a lot of it was put together in different phases. You guys weren’t always in the studio at the same time?
KS: I’ve never been in the studio with anyone [besides David] — and even that only happened once. He came to my studio in Seattle three years ago. All the other stuff that I’ve worked on was done at my studio in France, just remotely. I do have a session coming up in Seattle next month, but he won’t be there! It’s all fine, in a way. I have really come to enjoy being left to my own devices. You know, then it’s a surprise track at the end of the day.
What was it like working with Pete Thomas? If I understand, you kind of brought Pete into the project.
KS: Well, kind of. Pete played on this record; that happened without me being there. I worked on a record for another artist that Pete played on. And I was like, “You can just hire this guy? Really?!?” I didn’t really have anything on my own that was coming up but I wanted to work with him. I was producing a record for this artist named Holly Munoz. I did an album of country duets with Holly and now I was producing her next solo album, which has actually never come out. But we did cut a session with me and Pete, where I was the bass player, and that’s pretty fucking dreamy. To be a great drummer’s bass player, to walk in and figure out how they do what they do, is a wonderful experience.
So, you know, I had something posted on my Instagram of me and Pete. That’s when David [said] ‘Hey, I wanna work with him!’ I was like, “Well, here he is, he’s looking for stuff to do.”
The first song is fantastic. I’m definitely a power pop guy anyway — but “Alison’s Gone” just hooked me right away. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about the inspiration for that or why you chose to put it first on the album.
DH: Thanks. That’s one of my favorites too. It’s funny; it was always first because alphabetically, in that group of songs, it happened to be first. So even at that stage, before I had sequenced it, it was first. And it seems like it should be first. It’s that kinda song, you know? Really powerful and concise.
The sense of loss in the song “Allison’s Gone”? I think everything comes indirectly or directly from an experience I had in ’95. My longtime girlfriend died suddenly.
Oh man, I’m sorry.
DH: Yeah, it was devastating to say the least. And I came home to find her dead. So it was a pretty traumatic experience.
That said, it’s been a long time so the emotions — I’ve worked through them. But it still sometimes comes up — that sense of unexpected loss. I think you can read the song, though, as we broke up. Or a lot of people respond to the music. And I hope that it’s true — that it becomes their song. But that’s where it came from originally.
Who were some of your [musical] influences? You grew up in the Chicago area, from what I read.
DH: I grew up down the state. I did move up to Chicago after school but I actually grew up in the Bloomington—Normal area. In the town of Normal, of all places, right in the middle of the cornfields. There’s a college there but otherwise, it’s just all farms. Not far from where Jeff Tweedy grew up. And Michael Stipe actually went to high school in the St. Louis area for awhile… Which is funny because they both ended up being huge influences on me.
But in general, I’m a Dylan disciple. At a certain point, I found Dylan — probably in college — and just immersed myself in his songs. And then started tracing the lineage back — you know, Woody [Guthrie] and Leadbelly. It was a fascinating journey. My process was peeling the onion, you know, going back [to] all the stuff that came down from Dylan. Simultaneously, coming back from Dylan — who he influenced were like The Byrds, Tom Petty, that lineage. REM and Wilco and those guys. Naturally, they’re still my favorite bands.
Ken, You’re living in France these days. That’s a long way from Seattle. What is French life like from an American’s point of view?
KS: Perhaps I’m the wrong guy to ask — the wrong American anyway. I don’t feel like an American living in France, and I don’t feel like a Frenchman either. But for all the emphasis on “family values” in the US, and all the hubbub of the sanctity of marriage, France is hundreds of times more supportive of families. The whole of French society is built around how to make modern working life possible for people with families. Medical care. Education. Social welfare. Vacation. Yes, it’s inefficient. Yes, it’s not as productive or competitive as working 100+ hours a week in a sweatshop. But it’s showing a commitment to life and living as opposed to the US, which all about work and having stuff. I can also say this: French people drink more delicious wine and eat more wholesome food, they live longer, and [they] divorce less than Americans. If I get any more “love it or leave it” emails [at] my website after this, my answer is: “I LEFT.”
David, not being familiar with Be, let me ask you real quick — how does that band compare to HAWK? How are the two bands different?
DH: Good question. In the beginning, HAWK held all of my songs. But as the music evolved, HAWK became more of a rock band. The soft songs started becoming more complex and more orchestrated. And there was a point where they just didn’t fit together anymore. I started Be so that I could develop and release the more introverted, melancholy songs.
You know the sacred and profane? That duality? I guess I would say that HAWK is profane and Be is sacred. HAWK is extroverted and Be is introverted.
On a separate note, Ken — tell me about what’s happening with The Posies now, with you and Jon and [drummer] Mike Musberger and [bassist] Dave Fox. How has it been playing with the old rhythm section?
KS: Yeah! Well, we’re scouring around the country for our 30th anniversary. The tour kicked off last month in Victoria, Canada [and] we wrap up in Seattle on July 7th. Then at the end of September, we kick it off in Europe for the club tour in Spain and wrap [that] up mid-November in Sweden. So it’s a lot of dates.
It’s been great. I mean, the passage of time has been very kind to all of us. Everybody’s in good mental and physical shape. Their chops are all good. Dave Fox is the one member of the band who’s not a full-time musician — but, you know, he’s right there with us. This is the first time he’s been on the road significantly in 25 years! So it’s great to see that we’re all holding up well and the attitude is good.
That’s something that was always difficult with a bunch of hard partying 20-somethings. You know, we were all immature. The mood was not always very good back in the day. [Now] everybody’s got their shit together — and that just makes going from Point A to Point B so much smoother. It’s like night and day.
The Giant Sand mainman realizes ambition without excess energy even as he assembles a remake/remodel of the band’s classic 1985 debut. “I’m probably the laziest bastard in show business,” confesses Gelb. (Scroll to the bottom for links to some of our previous Gelb features, and go HERE to read our review of “Returns to Valley of Rain.”)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
After more than 35 years of procuring music under several different handles and in a variety of fashion and forms, it’s not surprising to find Howe Gelb is again on the move. He’s touting a new Giant Sand album, a revisit to the band’s seminal effort entitled Returns to Valley of Rain. Originally released in ’85 on his own Black Sand label and distributed by Enigma, the track-by-track re-recording was issued on August 10 on digital, CD, black vinyl, and limited edition blue vinyl by Britain’s Fire label. (Read the BLURT review of RtVoRelsewhere on our site.)
But today’s excursion is more of the travelling kind, a trip that takes him his home in Tucson to Southern California where he’s visiting his son, a nephew, his daughters, and the children of his late friend, legendary musician and dearly departed mentor, Rainier Ptacek—who, in fact, are part of the Gelb extended family.
It’s a busy schedule, what with the many stops along the way, but Gelb takes the journey in stride, much the same way as he approaches everything else in a career that’s not only seen him bending boundaries as far as styles and sounds go, but also in a lo-fi approach that’s found him interacting with other artists as well, from those with commercial clout (K.T. Kunstall) to indie auteurs such as M. Ward, Paul Westerberg, and John Doe. Little wonder, then, that it’s hard to put a handle on Mr. Gelb, which we find, is exactly the way he likes it.
Nowadays, Gelb works under a variety of different handles—Giant Sand of course, precursor outfit Giant Sandworms, and a kind of expanded version called Giant Giant Sand; every decade or so, The Band of Blacky Ranchette; Howe Gelb & A Band of Gypsies; Arizona Amp & Alternator; OP8. And while all have some similarity in terms of an insurgent identity, all follow different directions, as dictated by whatever whim seems to strike his fancy. Likewise, he’s also released any number of solo albums, the latest of which, 2016’s Future Standards, found him exploring the realms of solo piano-based mood music, something he says he needed to do to clear the clutter both musically and mentally. (That album was informally credited to The Howe Gelb Piano Trio and featured duets with fellow singer-songwriter Lonna Kelley; a subsequent release the next year, Further Standards, was jointly credited to Gelb and Kelley and featured several Giant Sand-ers backing them in the studio.)
Deliberately soft spoken and subtle as far as his sly sense of humor, Gelb seems only too happy to share his thoughts this particular Sunday as he makes his way between stops to catch up with his kin. We suggest that he’s following an ambitious schedule, but he denies it’s taxing him in any way.
“It’s pretty easy,” he demurs. “And between all this, I get to talk to you.”
Talk it is, for more than an hour until he arrives at his next destination. Not wishing to waste any time, we get right to it.
BLURT: You’ve put out dozens of albums over the course of your career. Do you have any idea how many you’ve tallied so far?
HOWE GELB: I don’t have an exact number, but I think it’s around 60. (Ed. Note: for a comprehensive Gelb discography, including Giant Sand and the myriad side projects, check out the Sa-Wa-Ro database.)
That’s an impressive amount, and between that and all the different handles you have— Giant Sand, Blacky et. al.—it’s all the more astounding. So where does all the ambition and motivation and energy come from?
It’s none of those three things.
So what is it then? You may be the hardest working man in show business.
It may seem that way when you look at the stats on paper, but it’s exactly not that. I’m probably the laziest bastard in show business.
So how do you reconcile that with the fact that you have all these projects going on seemingly simultaneously?
“Projects” is a loose term. There’s no other qualifying name for it, so we call them projects. If you go back to the beginning of all this and look at the trajectory of how anyone gets into what anyone is doing, that usually illuminates the path they’re on, and why they’re doing it. For me, I accidentally released my first two albums for licensing purposes, but I didn’t mean to do it. That’s what was handed to me. Someone somehow got wind of my first album and offered me a three year license. I didn’t know what that was. They said they’d get me a $1,000 advance, but I only spent $400 on making the album, and they said in three years’ time, I’d get the rights back. I didn’t know anything about anything, but I knew I had nothing to lose.
So I went with that and, sure enough, the next thing happened with my next album which was a country/punk album by The Band of Blacky Ranchette, and the very next thing happened with the next record, which was by Giant Sand, and that happened overseas. The equivalent of that was where they would give you money up front but they wouldn’t pay for the recording. But it would give you distribution. That’s what set me up. By doing it that way, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
o no, I had no qualifying template, no issue about how I went about things. So if I wanted to release a record every few months, I could. If I wanted to release incomplete songs, I could. If I wanted to be at war with any of the production trends of the era, I could do that too. I could make a bunch of noise and jams, and it was like a license to kill. The upside is that I make all these records because I do it a different way than most people. The downside is because there are no labels that have exclusive contract—no label that buys my material outright—it’s in their best interest to market it accordingly. I’m relatively unknown, so the people that know me primarily are other musicians. That’s my legacy. (Pictured below: the latest iteration of Giant Sand that recordedReturns to Valley of Rain. L-R Gabriel Sullivan, Annie Dolan, Thoger Lund, Gelb, Winston Watson.)
So at the same time you were shifting your moniker, from Blacky to Giant Sand and back again.
At a point I just kept the name Giant Sand because it was becoming a little confusing for me.
For you? For the rest of us as well.
After a while, it really didn’t matter. What I really wanted to do in the very beginning—it was a performing artist mentality—was to keep the album title the same, and then change the name of the band and I wanted to change the name of the band to encompass every letter in the alphabet. So eventually, towards the end, every slot would be taken. That was my idea, but nobody liked it.
It might have gotten confusing. As it is, by our count, you already had released 10 or 12 albums within the span of your first five years. That’s pretty overwhelming already.
Yeah. There is a label in England called Fire Records and they put out a box set of my solo albums, and then they did a box set of Giant Sand albums on vinyl and it overwhelmed them! But it also overwhelms any potential listener. You can’t expect anyone at this point to go back and collect all those records with that big a catalog. So you have to acquire them on a curve, and every now and then go back in. You may want to sample, find something you like and then buy the vinyl for your collection. (Ed. note: In addition to releasing new Gelb and Giant Sand records, Fire has also been mounting an impressive back catalog reissue program—for both CD and vinyl— that has included the archival vinyl box Gelb referred to, The Sun Set Vol. 1, which is an 8-LP collection covering six Giant Sand titles, each bearing fresh liner notes from Gelb; two more such boxes are being planned. There was also the Little Sand Box CD box set of Gelb solo albums the label did in 2013.)
You are also responsible for discovering and developing any number of artists — Grandaddy, M Ward, Rainer Ptacek, and you also produced records for K.T. Tunstall and John Doe as well. That’s a pretty impressive track record.
There’s no explanation. There’s no real pattern. You gravitate towards circumstance, and you just don’t deal with stuff you don’t like. So whatever is in front of you that you do like, you kind of gravitate towards it.
So what do you bring to the table as far as these productions are concerned, and what do you take away? Do you come in with specific ideas?
Everything that I’ve done has been based on a process of elimination. You kind of eliminate the things that don’t appeal to you. When you build the song up, you eliminate parts of the song that don’t fit the song. Somehow, I allow happenstance to dictate. Things will come up I wouldn’t have thought of, but they’re making themselves known to me and I know what to do with them. I recognize them.
Any of those artists you mentioned that feel comfortable with somebody like me, with a mentality like mine, finds a good combination. K.T.’s material tended to be overproduced, and she needed to compensate by having something that was underproduced. What I find is that anybody can produce themselves for the most part, and so it’s really about assisting in the work flow and making it easier, and there’s a psychology involved where people come with their emotions and their troubles and their ideas and their celebrations, and you have to try to keep it all in a safe harbor, to make sure that something happens and not let anything stop it. That’s all.
That’s true for anybody. You try to treat them in a pretty loving way. We all have so much in common I think, so that when we afford each other the time, we can congregate on the common ground.
So you’re clearly not an overbearing kind of guy. You’re very supportive and nurturing.
Thanks. That’s on a good day.
You could put that on your resume and maybe that will get you the gig.
All of a sudden that sounds terrible.
Sorry. So let’s switch subjects. We’re also fascinated by your diversity, how you seem to shift between styles with such apparent ease. What takes you in any particular direction at any particular time?
There’s this obvious thread in this kind of punk ethic. It’s always been encoded in what has become the music that lingers the longest. Johnny Cash. Thelonious Monk. Mott the Hoople. Jimmie Rogers. There’s a little bit of a dangerous coil embedded where these people did something that no one else was doing at the time, but when you hear them do it, it sounds like it’s always been there. That kind of abandonment and confidence comes about because you’re not worried about what people might think. You kind of know it’s good for you and you’re delivering it to the world at large, and you believe in it. That thing that is so many forms of music is in all genres. It’s a common thread.
It’s insurgent and defiant.
And it sticks around.
And it also kind of defines you and these other artists you mentioned. To hell with it: You’re following your own muse, and of course it makes it difficult to typecast you, which you would only want to do for commercial purposes anyway.
Yeah, I gave up on that a long time ago.
With all these handles that you operate under, how do you decide what’s going where?
(Pauses and sighs) I kind of do it ass backwards. As I’m getting older, I changed somewhat, but I like to not know what I’m doing beforehand. I like to follow my hunch. If something is beginning to excite me, I don’t take the time to explain it to myself or anyone else. Then I go ahead with it.
These days — meaning in the last ten years or so — I often don’t record in a single session. I prefer to go in for a day and maybe do a song or five and sort things out. Or just suss things out, and I’ll collect these sessions daily and then I’ll go back and revisit them later. And in revisiting them, maybe I’ll extract a lyric or two, or I’ll take out a section that doesn’t need to be there. I’ll hear something that’s rough and realize that it was good. And then I’ll have an idea of what was happening, sort of a bouquet. It blooms and then I take it to market.
There are a few exceptions, like when I got involved with a gospel choir or flamenco gypsies, or as with my last album, the standards selections, and I’ll get focused on that flavor. Everything kind of happens and I enjoy that flavor when it does that too. Other times I like it when the songs are different and it sounds like the soundtrack to a film. There’s no coherency.
Which brings us to the new Giant Sand album, Returns to Valley of Rain….
I knew I wanted to revisit those songs because they were unique from anything I had done after that. We had a birthday party for me when I turned 60, and I invited a bunch of friends to come down. I was a little jet-lagged, and I never had a set list, and I was trying to think about who was there in the wings, and who I could bring up at the last second. In doing that, I was lucky enough that it sounded okay. We got a film too, so it was a sweet memento. One of the things that went horribly wrong was that the original bass player came in to play a song from Valley of Rain and I played it so poorly, and I played it on a guitar I had given my daughter. So when I started playing it, I realized all the things that were wrong with that guitar. It was notoriously out of tune, and so between that and the bassist not really knowing the song that well, it was one of those really typical things that happen during a Giant Sand show where things go horribly wrong. It’s kind of like a slow motion train wreck every now and then. (Below: Watch clips from the October 22, 2016 Gelb birthday show, most of which can be viewed at the Giant Sand Official YouTube Channel.)
So the new album is a redo of your seminal set.
It’s the older me getting to produce the younger me.
The circle is complete. For some people, that might suggest a chapter is ending. Is that the idea?
It seemed like a good time to go back and do this. We started by playing one or two songs live with the band and we were having fun with that old material. It was good to go back and examine how this all began. Beyond that, there was no real plan to it.
Tell us about your daughter Patsy and her band Patsy’s Rats. Did you give her any advice, offer her any suggestions or direction?
We share travel tips mostly. That’s where the real art is. The art is staying alive. How do you stay alive with this stuff? A lot of that has to do with touring. So how do you get through? How do you make it affordable? How do you deliver the goods? Everything else comes from proximity. When you’re hanging out with each other, you pick up on a kind of unspoken understanding. There’s not too much verbiage. You just kind of get it. That’s how I learned to play guitar. That’s how I started this band. It’s just all I know. (Pictured right: Patsy’s Rats)
Are you a stage dad? Were you pleased when she told you she wanted to follow in your footsteps? Were you wary? What was your reaction?
I know how to survive with this. I know how to raise three kids, to have the house and the cars, so I have all that information. We saw a way to do it overseas and we’re still alive and in good standing and I’m able to teach her all this. As a parent, to be able to offer anything your kids find useful is kind of a great satisfaction. On the other hand, my son is a jock, so I get to live vicariously through him. My oldest daughter Patsy has her own sound and her mother [Paula Jean Brown] was just the coolest bass player I ever played with as far as just this simple sound was concerned. She had this way of locking in with the drums, and it was so cool playing lead guitar on top of it.
So my daughter has those elements and her own elements. My youngest daughter can dance, she can act, she’s something else. She accidentally got all the talent. She just turned 16.
It seems like you have all the crucial elements together. Your kids have direction. You’re able to make music and tour with it. It sounds you have a nice personal and professional cottage industry going on.
That’s not the essence of it though.
So what is the essence?
Exactly. What is the essence?
That’s a rhetorical question then. Are you satisfied with the course of your career, doing what you’re doing?
Yeah, I am. The only lament is, now that I get older, the new stuff is more intimate and geared towards the individual listener as opposed to the communal listener. It’s not geared towards festivals or restaurants or any place where there’s a lot of people gathering. Ii’s like when you’re traveling in the desert, or anywhere on your own, walking in the middle of town, but with your earplugs on. It’s just there for you. It’s geared towards the solitary listener as opposed to the communal listener.
So looking back on it now, as I get older, it would be nice to do some benefits and be a little more helpful now, making some money for certain causes that need it. If I had made more headway in popularity that way, I could provide more assistance for people that need it on the planet. So basically, I ended up taking care of myself, not asking anyone for anything, working in my little corner of the world, and I’m good and I’ve struck out on my own path. But what I didn’t do is maybe going beyond that capacity—which I’m not sure that I was capable of doing or else I would have done it—and make something more resounding on a larger scale. Maybe make $10,000 for starving people in Africa or something.
I think that when we get to a certain age, one realizes that it’s one thing to put negative energy out, but how much positive energy can you put out to not only help heal, but to help remedy the ills of existence, especially the way they’re playing out these days.
It must be really fulfilling to have had the opportunity to travel overseas and play in Europe as frequently as you do.
It’s hilarious in the sense that, once you’re okay to travel every day and putting in so many miles, you go to these places with other people who have spent so much money to get there, and you’re being paid to go there and you may get upgraded to business class because you can pick up 100,000 miles in one year. They just want you to stay alive at that point and that’s why they upgrade you. It becomes useful to them.
So there’s that wonderful dichotomy, that contrast, and it is weird. I could have had a successful job and worked my ass off and made tons of money and then I could have bought these tickets and gone to these places even if I didn’t go as often. But now I’m poor as fuck like any other indie rocker, but I have all these perks as if I had a bunch of money.
With a striking new album in the bins, the Memphis band’s frontman talks about the “ghosts” of their past, present, and future… Incidentally, we official declare this to be Lucero Day at BLURT!
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been two decades since Lucero decided that marrying punk rock with country and playing those songs night after night – from cramped bars and sweaty clubs, to 1,000-plus seat venues – was a far better fate than getting real jobs. To celebrate their 20th year together, the boys from Memphis have turned in Among The Ghosts, a brilliant, aural Southern Gothic trip, and one of their most creative release in years.
Frontman Ben Nichols has already had a pretty stellar couple of years leading up to the release of the album; he got married, he and his wife had a baby and earlier this year, as the band was celebrating their annual Block Party, the mayor of Memphis declared it “Lucero Day”.
On the eve of releasing Among The Ghosts, Nichols spoke about that honor, the new record and how his band managed to stick it out for 20 years.
BLURT: You guys are coming up on 20 years together. Why do you think the band has been able to last this long?
BEN NICHOLS: We desperately wanted to avoid having to get real jobs. So much so that we were willing to put up with each other no matter what. And after 20 years everyone is basically family. We all know exactly what to expect from each other and everyone knows when to give people their space. We all know how to compromise. And it just so happens that right now we are playing the best songs we’ve written in a while and they are really fun to sing every night… so that helps.
At the Lucero family Block Party this year Memphis’ Mayor declared it Lucero Day. What did that mean to you guys?
It definitely feels good to be recognized like that by your hometown. Memphis has been such a big part of the band our entire career. I can’t imagine the band being what it is and being from anywhere else. The history and the studios and the musicians all make it a unique place. It is completely different from Nashville. It doesn’t have the money or the prestige or the traffic. Memphis has an underdog quality to it that suits us just fine. So, having the mayor declare our very own Lucero Day is an amazing compliment.
The new record sound is a little different than all the others, especially with the absence of horns. Was that a conscious decision?
Jim Spake shows up playing sax on the closing track “For the Lonely Ones,” so it’s not a completely horn-less record. He had decided a while back to not go on the road anymore so the band had kind of naturally gravitated back towards a more streamlined sound. With the last few records we’d been exploring a very Memphis-type sound: full horn sections and barrelhouse piano and soul-inspired compositions. On Among the Ghosts we took a step away from that and made a more classic rock inspired album. I wanted to write darker songs that were still rock & roll. I wanted them to be melancholy and cinematic at the same time.
There is a real strong southern Gothic vibe to this record. Are there themes or characters throughout that tie these songs together?
This is the first album I’ve written since getting married and the birth of my daughter. I’m happier than I’ve ever been but there is also more to lose now. I have to care about the future now more than I did. The stakes are higher. I think that led to lyrics that were more serious. Maybe a little darker. The idea of family is probably the strongest theme that runs through the record. Being separated from your family, fighting to protect them, refusing to leave them behind, doing whatever you have to do to make it work… that’s all in there. And I wanted to write about those things using words that had a timeless quality to them. Ghosts and spirits and deals with the devil; soldiers and brothers and thieves and lovers… nights where the dawn never breaks.
Can you talk about the significance of the album title?
“Among the Ghosts” is a lyric from the song of the same title. The full line is “No longer will I walk among the ghosts.” The song is about being away from your home and family and wanting more than anything to get back. Wherever the narrator is, he doesn’t feel like he’s among the living. The real world, the living world, is back home with his family. At least that’s kinda what I was thinking when I wrote it.
You recorded this one at Sam Phillips Recording. Have you recorded there before? Do you feel the history of the place when you’re there?
We recorded a couple tracks at Sam Phillips Recording way back when for the Tennessee album. But we’d never done an entire album there before. The fact that our co-producer and engineer Matt Ross-Spang does a lot of work out of there made it exactly the right fit for us. Mr. Phillips designed the entire building with sound and acoustics in mind. Matt is the kind of engineer/producer that understands and appreciates something like that and can really use it to his advantage. I think he’s using that studio exactly the way Sam Phillips intended it to be used. And I credit the great sounding album we have 100% to his talent.
What’s next for the band?
Record release day is August 3, so the rest of the year is just lots of touring. We are used to that though. We are also very excited about the short film my brother Jeff Nichols filmed in Memphis and which will be released soon after the album. It’s a video for the song “Long Way Back Home” but in reality, it should more properly be called a short film. His amazing cinematographer Adam Stone came to town to shoot it and we had four amazing actors donate their time and effort. Michael Shannon is in it (he’s in all five of my brother’s feature films) as well as Paul Sparks, Scoot McNairy, and Garrett Hedlund. Amazing actors. The work they all did with my brother on this project is stunning. I can’t wait for people to see this. So: a short film, constant touring, and then I’ve already talked to Matt Ross-Spang about booking more time in the studio to just keep rolling and writing songs.
Any advice on longevity to newer bands just now getting together?
Don’t quit. Don’t stop if some random goal isn’t met within an arbitrary timeframe you’ve created. There are no rules. You can’t fall behind. There is more than one way to get there. As long as you are writing songs that you can’t wait to sing every night everything else will fall into place. It might not happen the way you thought it would or as quickly as you wanted it to, but if the songs are there and you are willing to go on tour and not quit, it will work out.
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