Category Archives: Artist

TIME PASSAGES: Parson Red Heads

With a stunningly great new album about to drop, the Oregon cosmic Americana/power pop auteurs embark upon their most ambitious musical journey to date. Frontman Evan Way details all the changes his group has been through.

BY FRED MILLS

In 2013, BLURT published a story about Portland, Oregon-based outfit the Parson Red Heads. The feature, “Stories They Can Tell,” was on the occasion of the expanded reissue of their 2011 classic, Yearling (via BLURT’s sister business, Second Motion Records, now called Schoolkids Records). As frontman Evan Way explained at the time, “We decided to do it is because we really believe in this album we created, and believe that these songs are powerful enough that they could reach and touch a lot more people than they did the first time around, if given the proper attention.”

Indeed, the band is hugely respected in the indie world, with plenty of fans on both sides of the Atlantic who eagerly snap up its music. As you’ll read below in our new interview with Evan, a lot has happened since then, including the release of an album of all new material, Orb Weaver (reviewed HERE) and the arrival of several young Parson yearlings.

Here in 2017, though, the band is prepping the release of the new album Blurred Harmony, out June 9 on Portland’s Fluff & Gravy label. It’s everything people love about the band—meaningful lyrics that you relate to instinctively, unblemished vocal harmonies to die for, and a musical mélange that’s equal parts cosmic Americana and timeless power pop. For this listener, standout cuts include the subtle intensity of “Time Is A Wheel,” which gradually builds until the listener finds him- or herself enveloped in a heavenly anthem; “Please Come Save Me,” which could pass for the musings of a long-lose Flying Nun band, if Flying Nun bands had pedal steels; jangle popper supreme “Out of Range”; and the brash, Big Star-meets-Beatles “Coming Down.”

Thematically, it’s a record about the passing of time, the memories—both joyous and regretful—we accumulate along the way, and trying to face the future with grace. (It was reportedly inspired, in part, by poet Donald Justice, whose poem “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” is singled out in the Parson bio.) The luminous opening cut “Please Save Me” nicely sums things up, with some of the most gorgeously wistful lyrics I’ve heard in ages:

“Days like this, I remember

Things that I tried to forget

Certain names, certain faces

Things that I’d only regret

They can tell me how I’m still lost

And still lonely

They can show me I cannot live all alone

All of my life I’ve been running

Turning my back to the past

Things still to come cannot hurt me

I cannot miss what I don’t have

The future cannot tell me I’m wrong

Or make me sigh

The future cannot tell me I’m wrong

Please come save me, I’m lost without you

I know alone I cannot change.

Please come save me, I’m lost without you

I know alone I cannot change.”

Recently, Evan and I had a lively email exchange about the band, and he was subsequently gracious enough to sit down one afternoon with a stack of my questions and put some serious thought into his answers—emblematic of the way he approaches his music, perhaps? Clearly, this is a band that cares deeply about its music and how it affects its fanbase. If the Parson Red Heads come anywhere your city, run, don’t walk, to the venue’s ticket office. You’ll be glad you did.

The band: Evan Way (guitar/vox), Brette Marie Way (drums / vox), Robbie Augsburger  (bass), Sam Fowler (electric gtr / vox), Raymond Richards  (pedal steel).

On June 7, 8, and 10 the Parson Red Heads will host a series of album release shows in Oregon and Washington. Dates at their official website. Incidentally, Blurred Harmony will be available digitally, on CD and vinyl, and a special limited edition (100 copies) translucent blue vinyl as well. You can preorder at their Bandcamp page. Lastly, go HERE to listen to a track that BLURT premiered a couple of months ago.

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BLURT: Orb Weaver came out in the fall of 2013 – tell the readers a little about what’s gone down since then, high points and/or low points? I recall that you had an addition to the family…

Since Orb Weaver came out at the end of 2013, we’ve certainly been busy! When we tracked that record, Brette (our drummer and my wife) was pregnant with our first son, George. He was born that September and went on his first tour with us when he was 8 weeks old. We did a lot of traveling and touring to support Orb Weaver and the “6” EP that followed, taking him with us all over the country (and to Spain, as well!). We had our 2nd son in February of 2015, and that slowed down touring quite a bit, though he did come on a few, and we brought him along on a 2 week tour of Spain about a year and a half ago. Our 3rd son was born this last January!

So yes, we are INDEED a family band in many ways. Bringing kids on tour is really challenging, changes the way you have to tour in a lot of ways. It’s also really fun, when it goes well—so fun to be able to show your kids the country and give them all these adventures, and really fun to be able to continue to do and pursue what we love, and sort of bring the kids into that experience.

Also in the past few years we’ve released a 7″ and a retrospective compilation record (consisting of at least one song from every record we’ve released) in Europe, through You Are The Cosmos Records. They’ll be releasing this new record in Europe, too. They’ve been wonderful, and the response and fan-base in Spain, where they are based, is SO encouraging to us. We can’t wait to get back out there and play for them again.

Typically, I’ll see a review of the band that never fails to mention Byrds, Gram Parsons, CSNY and other folk-rock/vocal harmony icons—even the Blurt review of Orb Weaver focused on that. Yet I’ve always heard as much a Big Star and latterday power pop sound in there too. And “Sunday Song” on the new album even has, dare I say it, a kind of drifting/dreamy psych Pink Floyd vibe. So what is YOUR verdict—who would you say are the group’s key influences and heroes, and what do YOU hear when you listen to a playback of a new song?

Yeah, we get the big Byrds and CSNY comparisons so often. It’s funny, because though I DO love the Byrds and all of those classic, iconic folk-rock groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I really don’t hear a lot of that in much of our music. Certainly in a few songs here and there, but in general I wouldn’t feel totally comfortable classifying us as a Byrds-like band, or really anything of the sort. Especially as years have gone on and we’ve grown and come into our own, I feel like there is a lot more power-pop influence, stuff like Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, The dB’s, but also the Paisley Underground and college rock bands of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, like Rain Parade, The Feelies, stuff like that. Our heroes and influences are really wide-ranging, but that is more the stuff that I personally feel comes out in our sound.

In the end it’s a hard question to answer, a hard thing to define. Because some people really do hear The Byrds, Neil Young, Tom Petty in our sound, and that’s great—those are bands that I absolutely love, I won’t complain if those are things people are picking up from hearing our songs!

The previous record was cut in a “proper” studio with Scott McCaughey and Adam Selzer, but for the new one you decided to take a different approach and do it yourselves at Sam’s place— in your bio your comment is “If we were going to make it happen and do it well, we were going to have to track it ourselves.” Could you elaborate a bit on that, what the experience was like this time, and perhaps even offer advice to young bands on the relative pros and cons of both approaches as you have experienced them?

Yes – basically, we realized that with the kid situation as it was, it seemed really unrealistic to get the most out of studio time at a proper studio. Expecting Brette and I to be able to put in a few weeks of 10 hour days at a studio just wouldn’t have been realistic, with two kids under the age of 4. We came to the conclusion that if we tried to track the album at a proper studio, we’d be way too rushed and wouldn’t be allowing ourselves the time we needed to work through the songs—they wouldn’t get the attention they deserved, and we’d leave the studio with a record we weren’t totally satisfied with.

It so happened that at the same time, Sam was really coming into his own with his home recording, tracking a few friends’ albums, and also tracking and producing two of his own solo records. The stuff he was putting out just out of his basement studio was sounding fantastic. And we’d also always just thought it’d be a fun thing to try—to record everything ourselves, to allow ourselves the freedom to take our time with an album, as much as every song needed, to experiment without the pressure of studio time budgets and all that external stuff. So it just seemed the timing was right to try making a record ourselves.

We tracked a majority of it at my house, in our den (which is also our rehearsal space), and then a good batch of it in Sam’s basement, as well. Once it was all tracked we gave the tracks over to our good friend Danny O’Hanlon, who is a producer / engineer / mixer here in town, and he mixed all the songs. He did SUCH a good job, really injected new life and focus into the tracks we gave him.

It was really fun to do, quite a learning experience. As far as advice goes, the best thing I can say is, just take your time—don’t let yourself feel rushed. If something isn’t sounding quite right, keep tweaking, keep experimenting. It inevitably takes longer to dial in sounds, tones, takes, when you’re tracking in a space that isn’t designed to be a studio. When you’re using less gear, home gear, in a space like a living room or a basement—it’s just going to take creativity and time to get things to sound right, whereas in a professional recording studio, those sounds can get dialed in so quickly.

That is a big trade-off. But I think it’s a worthwhile trade-off—it’s so great to not have to worry about how many hours you’ve been spending on a part or on a song, worry about how much you’re paying per hour, things like that. To be able to just get lost in the song and spend however much time you need to capture the right sound and part—that is a luxury, and it can be really, really rewarding.

How long did it take to complete? What were some of the breakthroughs and high points while making it? Any failed experiments that either got left on the cutting room floor or will have to be shelved for revisiting in the future?

From the beginning of tracking through mixing and mastering, the album took just about a year to make. There were times that were very productive, and there were lulls—that is another thing you have to deal with when making a record at your homes, is that life stuff more easily gets in the way and pushes your recording schedule around.

One experiment we tried was simultaneously tracking drums digitally and onto 4-track cassette, with the intention of then blending the two in the mix, so that we could have crispness and more editable digital tracks, with the warmer, punchy and dirty cassette tracks to give character and tone. It just ended up being way too complicated once we got into it, especially with punching in and editing tracks… it just didn’t work like we wanted it to. But it’s not an experiment I want to give up on! I love the idea, and love how it could sound, if done right. I’m a huge fan of cassette recording, and really do have goals to incorporate that more into what we do as a band in the future.

Favorite songs? Which ones are you most excited about to do in concert?

Hard to pick a favorite song. Once you spend this much time on an album, you end up having more favorite moments and parts than favorite songs, I think. For example, I love when the pedal steel makes its entrance at the beginning of “Please Come Save Me”. I love the thick, plunky, pick-bass tone on “What Have I Become,” and 12-string electric guitar line on “Today is the Day.” Maybe my favorite moment is when Sam’s harmony vocal on “Time After Time” becomes the lead vocal on the second verse—such an engaging moment to me.

 Definitely looking forward to playing the closing 4-song medley live [“Today Is the Day,” “Waiting For the Call,” “Out of Range,” “In A Dream”].We’re going to be playing those 4 short songs strung together just like they are on the album (it’s sort of like our little amateur attempt at an homage to side B of Abbey Road), and I’m just really excited for how that is going to come off live. I think it’s going to be really fun and challenging to get it just right.

I’m not familiar with Donald Justice—what’s his story, and what’s his significance to you and/or the band as a whole?

Donald Justice is a poet—I discovered his poetry when I read the book “Hotel New Hampshire” by John Irving. He is definitely my favorite poet; I love everything he has written. As I was writing the album, seeing the threads and themes that tied the songs together, his poem “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” came to mind. It’s a beautiful poem about memory and childhood, sort of about regret but mostly just about looking back. And that is a lot of what the album is about, too. I read the poem and so much of it seemed so relevant to what the songs on this album were communicating. That is sort of where the album title comes from, and I also included a segment of the poem in the artwork.

How did you get hooked up with Fluff & Gravy? I think I have liked anything I’ve heard on the label.

John and Chad, who run the label, are total mainstays in the music scene here in Portland. They’re everywhere, and they are amazing dudes, so we’ve just known them for awhile. My dear friend Kevin Lee Florence released his album through them a couple years back, and so that got me more interested in what they were doing as a label. As time went on it just seemed like the right fit—they have much the same taste in music as we do, and I really felt it was important to release this album on a label local to Portland, on a label that was smaller and more community / family oriented in a way. It just felt like the right move, working with guys we know, guys who really just love good music and good songs, and who work in a really organic, almost grass-roots, way.

Backtracking a bit, you revisited Yearling a few years ago, essentially delivering your personal “director’s cut.” How was that received? Did you ever perform the entire album live, something that bands increasingly seem to enjoy these days when it comes to a classic or beloved album?

Yeah, when Second Motion Records picked up Yearling, we decided to release it as a “Deluxe Edition”—taking the chance to include all the songs that didn’t make the first version of the record due to time-constraints. We just wanted to release it in a form that fully represented that time of our creative output as a band, in a form that showed the full vision of the record. It was really fun to be able to do that! And it was received well. It was really long, but the feedback we got about it was wonderful, I think listeners got what we were trying to do, and the collection of songs was strong enough to withstand maybe being a bit over-long, haha.

I believe we did perform the whole thing live once, here in Portland—one summer we booked three shows, each show we performed one of our albums front to back. I think Yearling was performed in its entirety at The White Eagle at the end of that summer, right before Orb Weaver came out.

We play a few songs from that album quite regularly – “Hazy Dream,” “Seven Years Ago,” “Kids Hanging Out.” We’re playing “When You Love Somebody” these upcoming shows, and that’ll be fun to dust off. It’s hard, we’ve got a lot of songs now, we can never cover everything we’d like to, so we just have to put extra effort into keeping the set lists as varied as we can.

You formed in 2004: What advice, tips, warnings, etc. would you give your younger self and your fellow players if you could pop back to that year?

Oh man, that’s a good question. Hard to say. When we formed, and those first few years in LA, we were having so much fun, but we were also working so hard, playing so much. We played so many shows, rehearsed so much, met so many amazing people and amazing musicians—I don’t know if I’d change a thing.

Honestly, I feel like more often than anything, I hear advice from 2004 Evan, telling me to remember to have fun. To not get too stressed and worked up about things—to remember to enjoy the fact that you get to play music with your friends and loved ones.

That is good advice, and I think that’s advice that 2004 Parsons followed oftentimes better than 2017 Parsons!

 Time is a river

I heard someone say

Time is a river

It’s rushing away

And you don’t have a say

And it don’t care what you have in mind

Time left me waiting

For more time to come

Time left me wanting

Because I got none

And you don’t have a say

And it don’t care what you have in mind

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away

Time left me reeling

At all I had done

Time got me feeling

I hadn’t begun

Yeah, you don’t have a say

And it don’t care what you have in mind

Time’s got me thinking I left you behind

Time’s got me sighing, because I can’t find

All the words to explain what I’m feeling

Feeling inside

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

—“Time Is a Wheel,” by the Parson Red Heads

 

 

 

GIVING IT THEIR ALL: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Best band in the world? Just maybe… Live during the Middle of the Map Fest at KC’s Uptown Theater on May 5, the man and the band wrenched emotion out of thin air while showcasing material both old and from the new album. Below, watch some 2017 live clips.

BY DANNY PHILLIPS

I’m sitting in a dark bar writing about the previous night’s performance of Jason Isbell and his Alabama brothers (and wife Amanda Shires) in the 400 Unit, scribbling my reflections on the back of a Budweiser box with a borrowed pen.

Squinting in the low light of The Rendezvous, my hometown punk rock bar, I try to piece together what I saw at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City with one of my best friends in the world the previous evening.  Prince is blasting from the overly loud jukebox.  I try to think of memories and melody.  I’m waiting for a band called the Creeps, writing about what could be the tightest, best band I’ve ever seen in my life.

In Kansas City, as part of the yearly Middle of the Map Fest, three days of national, regional and local acts of every size, shape and flavor, Isbell and the 400 Unit readied their fans for the upcoming release of Isbell’s The Nashville Sound.  (June 16th on Southeastern Records)

Isbell and his compatriots showed on this Friday night in the barbecue capital of the world, why they should be considered in the conversation for best band in America and Isbell as one of the finest guitarists of the last twenty years.  He and the 400 Unit, a group of topnotch players that have been with Isbell for years, proved that they are some of the best players in any genre, of any band going today.

They hit all the spots, emotional highs and spiritual lows, showing what it means to be human, to feel pain and joy, loss and victory; to know the consequences of your mistakes, and what it feels like to save yourself from yourself, to let love in and put all your faith in someone with no fear.

Isbell, multiple 2016 Grammy winner and former guitarist for Drive-By Truckers, shapes songs out of the things we have all felt: uncontrollable love (“Cover Me Up”), the pressure of passing on something of substance as a father or mother (“Outfit”), being stuck in place you wish was someplace else (“Speed Trap Town”), or the crushing feeling of rejection and loss. (“Songs she Sang in the Shower”)

As a guitarist, lyricist, and musician, Isbell is a man beyond his 38 years.  Emotion, it’s clear, runs deep in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama favorite son.  The South is at the very root of which he is as a person and writer, able to touch something inside those listening; melody, harmony and laying it all out on the table, all things coming together in a way that “country” acts like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan will never get to experience.

Opening with “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest, Isbell and the 400 Unit rolled out a set that would make fans of all stages of Isbell’s career thankful that they went out into the world on a beautiful Midwestern spring night, to share something with a room full of like-minded music lovers.  If you missed it, if you chose to continue the sedentary life, sticking with what you know, never looking at the next page, playing it safe at home with some ice cream, you missed something special.

Those of us inside that beautiful, nearly century-old theater got a taste of the new record, a rougher, bigger, more rock influenced sound with “Cumberland Gap,” the beautifully haunted, sorrowful playing and tone of “If We We’re Vampires.”  There was the pull-yourself-up motivation of “Hope the High Road,” as well as the Drive-by Truckers classic story song, the title track from the 2003 album Decoration Day.

Isbell and the 400 Unit gave it all they had on that stage, leaving behind everything for us to contemplate, carrying on the tradition of blurring the lines between country and rock like Uncle Tupelo, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Rick Nelson, The Bottlerockets, and the Allman Brothers before them.  Leaving into that Missouri night, I was happy down to my soul, gone to ponder and count the days until Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit bring the show back to town.

I know I’ll be there. (Isbell will be touring throughout June and July, starting June 12 in Asheville. Dates at his website.)

Setlist:

Go it Alone

Stockholm

24 Frames

Something More than Free

Decoration Day

Flagship

Codeine

How to Forget

Cumberland Gap

Alabama Pines

Outfit

Speed Trap Town

If it Takes a Lifetime

Cover Me Up

Super 8

If We Were Vampires

Flying Over Water

Never Gonna Change

FALLEN MAN: Anders Parker

A new solo album and a high profile tour with Son Volt finds the erstwhile Space Needle/Varnaline/Anders & Kendall/Gob Iron multitasker doing what he does best—multitasking. Or maybe simply working on his tan out in the desert….

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Anders Parker has never been one to write the same album twice.

Across his eight records as a solo artist, and going back even further to his time in Space Needle and Varnaline, he’s borrowed from Americana, traditional folk, alt country and indie rock. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to many that he decided to experiment with string arrangements and pedal steel on The Man Who Fell From Earth, his latest, released via the delightfully named Recorded & Freed Records label last month. The experiment pays off nicely, with a beautiful album of achingly sincere ballads and some of his most lyrically striking music in years.

In the middle of a tour with Son Volt, which is led by his some-time duet partner Jay Farrar, Parker was kind enough to pick up the phone and talk through the new record, his decision to crowd-source the album and trying to save the planet from Trump’s scorched earth environmental policies one album sale at a time. Incidentally, Parker was a guest at BLURT’s 2013 SXSW day party in Austin, performing as one-half of the wonderful Anders & Kendall duo, featuring Kendall Meade (Sparklehorse, Lloyd Cole, Helium). So consider him part of the BLURT extended family and tell him we said howdy if you get to catch him in concert.

BLURT: How is the tour going so far?

PARKER: The shows have been great so far.

I know you had a band on this record. Did you bring the whole line up on tour?

No, I’m touring solo for most of this one. I’m just playing a couple of acoustic guitars.

You’re playing with Son Volt. Have you and Jay played any songs from Gob Iron on this tour?

No, we haven’t. There’s a certain technical aspect to those songs and some rehearsals we’d have to do before playing them and we haven’t done any of that yet.

You’ve been through a pretty long stretch of not being on the road, at home writing and recording. Is it tough to get back into the groove of loading up the van and being on the road again?

I’m just so used to it after doing it so long. You just have to remind yourself how to do things to stay sane.

And how do you do that?

I’m still figuring that out. (Laughs) Just basic shit like trying to eat well, I try to run pretty regularly and stay busy. Which isn’t that hard when you’re touring solo. I have to do a lot of set up and stuff, so there’s not a lot of time to fuck off.

Let’s talk about the new record. It obviously doesn’t sound a lot like the past few because your sound changes a lot from record to record. Did you go into this one knowing the specific vibe you wanted to create?

I had the idea of doing a record with strings and pedal steel for a long time. It’s been banging around inside my head for a while. I also tend to make records with bands, and economically it’s not easy to tour with a lot of people. So, the idea that had been around of doing something like this with the reality that I usually tend to tour solo and can’t afford to bring a ton of people and electronics and equipment kind of came together at the same time. Sonically, I just wanted to make it as lush and full and with as much high fidelity as possible. That aspect I can’t take too much credit for because I’m not much of an engineer.

I do have a couple of really nice acoustic guitars that sound great, but a lot of credit goes to Josh Druckman who engineered it and Gareth Jones, who mixed it. He lives in England and has done some really interesting stuff. He worked with Depeche Mode and he worked with Nick Cave, some really cool stuff.

Is it tough to recreate a lot of these new songs when you’re out there by yourself up on the stage?

No, not at all, because the songs are the songs. The string arrangements are really beautiful and really fill out the songs, but I wrote these songs to stand on their own. They’ve been translating really well live, so I’m glad about that.

After this tour ends, have you thought about bringing out a full band to play these songs with pedal steel and strings?

Well, I’m doing two New York shows on this tour with a full band and we’re going to be doing a few songs from this new record as well as some older songs. They sound really great with a full band.

You crowd funded this record, right?

I did. It was a combination of crowd funding and my publisher putting up some money.

Was this your first time using a crowd funding site?

I just want to make records and even if you do it super cheap and super close to the bone, which is how I usually do them, it still adds up quickly. The budget I don’t think was lavish by any means, but you want to feel comfortable with the model. I’m not sure yet if I’m 100 percent there, but people really want to help and people who are fans are eager to lend a hand. The way the record industry currently exists this seems like a real viable alternative.

You’re also still managing to give some of the proceeds of the album sales to the Environmental Defense Fund. Why that charity in particular?

My first instinct was Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, but I read that they both got such huge influxes of money…

Thank you President Trump.

Exactly! I also love being outside and I love the natural world. That’s important to me and as we’ve seen in the last few months, the Trump administration rolling back clean air and clean water and rolling back regulations on mining and all this shit. It’s crazy what’s going on. It seems like a worthwhile organization to give to, in my estimation.

You’ve recorded with a number of different folks throughout the years. Have you thought yet about your next project or who you want to record with?

Yes, always. I kind of want to make a super-heavy guitar trio rock record, And I also have the idea for another acoustic record so I’m not quite sure where that’s going to land.

Have you started writing for either one yet?

Yeah, both of them actually. I kind of wrote a whole bunch of acoustic songs after finishing this record and over the past few weeks I’ve been working on these kind of riff-heavy guitar jams, so I’m sort of sifting through all of those now.

CHARMED LIFE: Will Johnson

For his second post-Centro-Matic solo outing, Will Johnson is firmly hitting his stride. (Photo: Sean Dunn)

BY JOHN SCHACHT

When Centro-Matic called it quits in 2014 after two-plus decades in the trenches collecting critical kudos and little else, fans assumed Will Johnson, the band’s prolific songwriter, would simply double down on his typically stark solo fare.  But two records into his post-Centro iteration, something unexpected may be emerging, evident in the subtle new directions taken on Johnson’s latest, the gorgeous Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, released in late March via the Undertow label. (Go HERE to read longtime Blurt contributor Lee Zimmerman’s review of the album.)

Even though its nine tracks clock in at over 42 minutes, Hatteras Night feels like a much tighter listen than his previous solo effort, 2015’s Swan City Vampires.  At that juncture, Johnson was dealing with the death of his mother and the break-up of Centro-Matic, and the songs seemed to grope at sonic answers.

Here, the narrative conceits and sonic aesthetic get conveyed whether the song is a loping country weeper built on pedal steel and haunted singing saw voices (“Childress (To Ogden)”), a lush Lauren Canyon guitar riff from the 70s (“Filled With A Falcon’s Dreams”), or a Califone-like blend of distorted guitars and off-kilter percussion (“Every Single Day of Late”).

Part of that, no doubt, comes from a sense of continuity. Britton Beisenherz (Monahans, Milton Mapes) and Ricky Jay Jackson (Phosphorescent, Steve Earle) were on hand for Swan City Vampires, and long-time Centro-Matic drummer ace Matt Pence rounds out the studio collaborators on this set. But where previous Johnson solo records purposefully contrasted starkness with Centro-Matic’s ‘hail, fellow’ rock anthems, Hatteras Night sounds like a different entity — dare we say, band? — altogether.

Everything being relative, of course. Johnson’s still penning elliptical narratives about misguided attempts at connection or escape, without sacrificing the humanity in even the most fucked-up social misfits. The resulting melancholia is still the coin of his songwriting realm, but it’s the empathy and grace in Johnson’s songs that always stands out, as well as some subtle new sonic directions on Hatteras Night.

Johnson humanizes the stripper in “Ruby Shameless” without resorting to heart-of-gold cliché — she’s “just a little crush of flesh” to her patrons, but amid the swirling organ and guitar arpeggios Johnson offers her a non-judgmental moment of respite and grace in the “sacred light” of a fellow flawed human. Similarly on “Predator,” over its cantering tempo, winking piano fills and big sky pedal steel, Johnson examines the double-edged draw of living —figuratively or literally —on the lam. He concedes that it “has got its limits, and so few ways out,” but knows these memories and behaviors keep coming back around because they’re “like a predator that knew I wanted to be found.” That self-destructive streak is reiterated, with a twist, on the thrummer “Milaak,” where crumpled beats and percussive strumming hammer at the distances we embrace in ourselves and create with others — “everything about this distance is so true/Everything about this distance is all you,” Johnson resignedly sings.

But it’s not until the LP closes with “Hatteras” — a classic dirge of the type Centro-Matic’s side project, South San Gabriel, excelled at — that Johnson finally turns the narrative vantage point exclusively on himself. Over nearly eight minutes of strummed guitar, ribbons of pedal steel and a tick-tock beat, Johnson catalogs the troubadour’s lonely road and what makes riding out these “desperate spells” worth it in the first place.

“And there is a solace in returning to thee/For I have worked/And I have travelled/And I am calloused/And I am beat,” he sings, turning each phrase into a cloud that glides over the musical landscape. “But just as the sun brings new day/I am closer, and closer it seems/To all we have been, my fearless anchor, love and the laughing/And the weight of new peace.”

Whether he’s singing to a loved one, a stabilizing home-life or to the music gods themselves is immaterial—Johnson has tapped into our common humanity again, and done so with renewed vigor and purpose in graceful, memorable melodies.

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Allen Clapp’s “Something Strange Happens”

The 1994 tune from Clapp’s debut continues to inspire.

 BY TIM HINELY

Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly, and then fast-forwarded to 2000 for John Conley talking about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.” Now Prof. Hinely lands in 1994 and a slice of pure pop perfection, Allen Clapp’s “Something Strange Happens.

It had to be sometime in the early ‘90s that I first heard the music of Allen Clapp. A fresh-faced gent who called the Bay Area home. He began releasing 7”s on several different labels (in our country mostly on Brian Kirk’s Bus Stop label). I booked him at a local café in Santa Rosa, California and it was a pleasure to find out that not only did I love his music, but in person he turned out to be a great guy (I can’t imagine anyone saying a bad thing about him). This particular song came out on his 1994 debut LP (under the name Allen Clapp and his Orchestra…these days he still leads his longtime combo The Orange Peels) called One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain. The song just….hit me! That clap-happy drum beat that opens the song, a purring organ and then Clapp and his boyish vocals and jangly guitar pop in and all added up to a near-perfect pop song. I was curious about the origins of the song so I shot some questions to Mr. Clapp and……

Allen began with, “Just incidentally to this request, the Orange Peels are embarking on the recording of album No. 7 in a few weeks, working again this time with Bryan Hanna, the Minneapolis studio wizard who produced our first album, Square. It’s kind of appropos, because this year is the 20th Anniversary of Square. So, at any rate, the guy who recorded The Orange Peels making our version of Something Strange Happens is flying out to our mountain studio in Boulder Creek to record us again 20 years later. Surreal. And good timing on your part for asking about that particular song!”

What was the initial inspiration for the song?

It’s a song about all sorts of things — everything that’s important to me, realy. But to be more specific, it’s about the quicksilver moment you realize some big life-truth — that lightning bolt from the clear blue sky that you can’t explain, but that changes you in some significant way. You might be realizing for the first time that you’re in love, or that someone or something is more important to you than you previously thought. The moment of realizing something like that. Or it might be a realization of how you fit into the universe. For me, it was all those things. It’s a song from my younger self to my wife Jill, it’s a song to God, it’s a song to the universe, and the seasons. It’s about realizing how dependent I am on them, and how my dependence on them frees me to be who I’m supposed to be.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

No! This is one of those songs that arrived fully formed in the blink of an eye. It’s the kind of thing you always hope will happen to you as a songwriter, and it did not disappoint. It happened while finishing some routine shopping at the market. I loaded the bags into my car (a 1967 Ford Falcon, at the time), opened the door, put the keys into the ignition and boom, it just flooded over me. The melody for the chorus just started playing in my head and I sat there with my hand on the key for what seemed like an hour. I’ve replayed this over and over in my mind a thousand times, and I’m still just amazed by it. So after hearing the song play in my head — the swirling organ in the intro all the way through the hymn-like ending — I finally turned the key, started the car, and drove home where I immediately fired up the Tascam four-track and began making a demo.

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

I think the song has its fans. It appeared on a few indie-pop compilations over the years, and it’s maybe the only one of my songs that’s ever been covered by another artist — Jim Ruiz and Shoestrings recorded a lovely, haunting version of it as a bonus track to Jim’s second album, Sniff. Every once in a while, someone will come up to me and say something about that song, or ask me something about it. So it is a special song to a few people out there.

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

It’s always something we talk about playing. I think I felt obligated to play it for years, and finally the last tour we did in 2015, we just left it off the set list. That felt kind of weird, but liberating too. After playing it for basically 20 years, it was nice to take a break from it. Will it come back on our next tour? Maybe. Probably.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

Well, since I recorded it twice, you’d think the answer would be “no.” The first version, on “One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain,” is everything I wanted it to be. Even on four cassette tracks, it captured that mysterious thing I was after. When we signed to Minty Fresh and they wanted us to re-record it for “Square,” we didn’t really change anything in the arrangement — we just made a different recording of it in a great studio with a great producer. I guess I wish we would have done something a little different the second time around on it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what that would have been at the time. Drop out all the guitars on verse 3? We’ve done that live, and it’s kind of intimate, but who the heck knows. We’ve done a live version with a drum machine for the first verse and chorus with the band slowly entering as the song builds. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a third recording of it someday, or maybe someone else will.

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

The original version was recorded in the spare bedroom of our duplex in Redwood City, and it was a challenge to fit all those ideas onto 4 tracks. I had tried to record the drums in the Youth Room at our church, and it just didn’t feel right. So I took samples from the drum take I had on tape and edited them down so I had a snare, a kick drum, two tom toms and a hi-hat. Then I laid them out on the keyboard and just played the drums back using different keys as triggers. So I used that take to build everything on. For the longest time, I just had the drums, the bass, and the rhythm guitar on 3 tracks, and I knew that bouncing all those together was either going to make or break everything else I added. So that was nerve wracking. I took like a week, just listening every day, trying different levels and EQs. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, I tried just pushing all the faders way up and distorting the channel. I took a stab at the bounce, and that was the sound. Drums, bass and rhythm guitar all distorted a bit and combined onto one track — that’s the sound of that song. Once I had that, I could add the vocals, hammond organ, guitar melodies and finishing touches. I still can’t believe it came out as good as it did. It was the last thing I wrote and recorded for “One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain,” and it really made that song collection feel like an album.

How do you feel about it now?

Grateful. Surprised. Hmmmm . . . proud and humble. It’s a once in a lifetime thing having a song like that just show up. I still feel surprised by it mostly because I didn’t labor over it. I didn’t spend weeks writing it, even days. It just appeared. I feel like it was a gift that showed up and changed my life.

WATCH THE SON RISE: Big Star’s Third Live

“An emotional bond there.” (—Jody Stephens): A new concert documentary and accompanying live album document a key Big Star’s Third performance, bringing both catharsis and closure to a long grieving period that’s ultimately transformed into a celebration.

BY FRED MILLS, MICHAEL TOLAND & JOHN B. MOORE

It is, in a very real sense, a culmination. The new DVD/2CD release Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live… and More (Concord Bicyle Music), that is, and a culmination of many things—the trajectory of the troubled (at times near-mythic) third Big Star studio album, originally recorded in 1974 but not released until years after the band had splintered; the subsequent Third (aka Sister Lovers) revival as pushed by Alex Chilton acolytes of the Amerindie ‘80s underground, chief among them members and intimates of The dB’s, whose Chris Stamey had also worked with Chilton; an eventual reunion of Big Star in the ‘90s, with two members of the Posies drafted to bolster Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens in the absence of bassist Andy Hummel and late guitarist Chris Bell—a reunion that came to a tragic end in 2010 when Chilton passed away from a heart attack on the eve of the band performing in Austin at SXSW, thereby ensuring that no one would ever get to hear Chilton himself perform Third; and of course Stamey’s ambitious Big Star’s Third live project, initially mounted at the tail end of 2010 as a concert tribute to the memory of Chilton, and going on to be intermittently staged in numerous cities and countries over the course of the next six years, to much acclaim.

So Big Star’s Third Live brings with it a whiff of finality. Clearly I don’t mean that there won’t be any more artifacts excavated from the vaults; for example, as a recent, exhaustive nine-disc bootleg collection demonstrates, there are a number of tracks that remain officially unreleased, even though the diligent archivists at Omnivore have done some impressive vault-digging themselves as regards material from the Third era. Nor am I suggesting that there won’t be any more live performances of Third or tribute concerts or even potential get-togethers between Stephens and Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer; all that and more is far more likely than not to go down in the future.

No, by “finality” I mean closure for all of us, a means by which to collectively grieve and celebrate, even for those not able to attend one of the live shows. Channeling both those emotions for us, Third Live mainstays Stamey, Stephens, Mitch Easter and Mike Mills—along with string players and a slew of guest vocalists that have included, since 2010, everyone from Matthew Sweet, Robyn Hitchcock and the two Posies, to Stamey’s North Carolina collaborators Brett Harris, Skyler Gudasz (both pictured above), and Django Haskins—brought the music vividly alive at the appropriately named Alex Theatre, in Glendale, Calif., almost exactly one year ago (April 27, 2016), for the camera lenses of director Benno Nelson. As you’ll read below in our  tag-team review treatment, it’s a cathartic home-viewing and –listening experience for any fan of Chilton and Big Star—and, I should add, Chris Bell as well, as Stamey (pictured, below) was mindful to include—and sing, with a gorgeous, emphatic grace—Bell’s timeless “I Am The Cosmos” in the Third Live performances.

It’s particularly gratifying for those of us here at BLURT. We’ve covered Big Star scores of times in the past, of course, via obituaries for both Chilton and Andy Hummel; reviewing the Third reissue as well as the Keep an Eye on the Sky career overview box set; covering and photographing the live Third concerts; writing about Holly George-Warren’s exhaustive biography of Chilton; interviewing Drew DeNicola, director of the 2012 Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me; and more. But the band is perhaps closest to our hearts because of the personal connection we’ve forged over time. Not just as fans of the records—yours truly has had the pleasure of interviewing and writing about Big Star in the past, additionally hanging out with Chilton many years ago (he even played my old acoustic guitar for the MTV cameras once upon a time); our publisher Stephen Judge, who is good friends with Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow, was at SXSW that March of 2010 when the news of Chilton’s death broke and, like so many other fans, he attended the impromptu Chilton tribute that unfolded in Austin in the days that followed; and we also hosted our own little Big Star tribute concert a few years later, also in Austin at SXSW, at our annual day party, wherein Stephens, Stringfellow and Auer, along with several guest players and singers, did a set of the music we all love so deeply. Even more recently, our photographer Sadie Claire attended the special Third concert at the 2017 SXSW; you can view her photo gallery from the festival, including numerous BST shots, here.

As Stephens told Rolling Stone not long after Chilton died, “I can’t see us going out [now] as Big Star… But I would hate to compound the loss of Alex by saying, ‘That’s it’ for Ken and Jon, too. I can’t imagine not playing with them. There’s so much fun—but an emotional bond there too.”

And for us too, Jody. It’s been a long—though not unwarranted—grieving period, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up again multiple times while watching the concert film.  Now, though, let’s celebrate. —Fred Mills, BLURT Editor

***

 Thank You, Friends: The CDs. You’d be hard pressed to find a band more beloved by fellow musicians and music writers while being wildly underrated by the record-buying public, than Memphis-based power pop band Big Star.

With a name that is savagely ironic, seeing as how none of their albums ever sold well on initial release—their debut was even called #1 Record!—and with the deaths of frontman Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens is the only surviving founding member. In the decades since their three-record lifecycle from ’72-to-’78, the band has grown immensely in reputation, managing to become desert island album must-haves to many who now namecheck the band.

Given their place on the Mount Rushmore for fellow talented artists, Thank You, Friends come off more as a genuinely impressive love note to a favorite band rather than a cynical cash grab.

This two-CD set accompanying the concert documentary DVD includes a slew of Big Star fans, like members of Yo La Tengo, Wilco, R.E.M., Semisonic, the dB’s (notably Chris Stamey, the impetus behind the project) and Let’s Active, not to mention Robyn Hitchcock, joining Stephens on stage for an April 2016 show in Glendale, California, highlighting the band’s album Third/Sister Lovers. There are also some fantastic newcomers on the stage, like North Carolina’s Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz, among others. The set also includes a handful of covers from the band’s first two records, like a beautiful take on “In the Street” and “September Gurls.” (Interestingly, the track sequence for the audio portion of the DVD/2CD package is a good bit different than the video, and it also includes “Back of a Car,” which does not appear on the DVD.)

Big Star may never have truly got the respect they deserved with the first go around, but Thank You, Friends is helping to right a few wrongs by bringing Big Star’s music to a broader audience. —John B. Moore, BLURT Senior Editor and Blogger

***

Thank You, Friends: The DVD. Though Big Star’s Third Live is no stranger to stages around the country, it’s still not a project seen by a whole lot of people. Thus the DVD portion of Thank You Friends affords many of us the first chance to see this mini-orchestra in action. And the band does not disappoint. No matter who is at the mic, whether relatively big stars (no pun intended) like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Robyn Hitchcock, cult favorites like the Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins and bandleaders Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter, or up-and-comers like Brett Harris and Skyler Gudasz, everyone lets their love of the material shine through.

There’s no doubt how much the music of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell means to them—it’s right there on each and every face. Singer/songwriter Dan Wilson—late of Semisonic and probably the wealthiest person on the stage, thanks to co-writing Adele’s “Someone Like You”—seems particularly moved to be there, putting aside fame and fortune to pay beautiful tribute with “Give Me Another Chance” and “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Even Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who surprisingly looks like he’s out of his depth, still manages to inject, if not passion, as least conviction into “Kizza Me” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”

But some of the less well-known names are responsible for the best performances. Mills may have gotten “September Gurls,” surely Big Star’s most famous song, but Gudasz delivers an absolutely lovely “Thirteen,” while Haskins brings the perfect amount of tension to the intense “Holocaust.” Harris, whose old-fashioned singer/songwriter pop springs directly from the Big Star legacy, handles “Kanga Roo” with a perfect balance of passion and vulnerability, looking like he might explode at any moment, but never actually doing it. Gudasz and Harris also serve as utility players, providing extra instruments and a ton of harmony vocals alongside nearly everyone else. Continuity with the Chilton era comes from Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who served in the revived Big Star in the ‘90s and ‘aughts, and original drummer Jody Stephens, who takes his turns in the spotlight (“Blue Moon” and “For You”) but otherwise stays with his drum kit, keeping perfect time on these songs he knows better than anyone.

With backdrops and lighting cues kept minimalist, the focus is purely on the performances, and that’s as it should be. Chilton and his band weren’t big on production numbers, and neither is this ensemble. So it’s only appropriate that, a few frankly inconsequential interviews aside, director Benno Nelson concentrates on capturing the music as it happens. No filter, no effects, nothing between the audience and this timeless rock music. —Michael Toland, BLURT Senior Editor & Blogger

***

Below, watch the official film trailer.

 

ETERNAL YOUTH: Robyn Hitchcock

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“The music industry pays people to remain frozen children”: The Bard of Prawns on growing old, innate Englishness, living in Nashville, overt eccentricity, the Beatles, Sinatra, and avoiding Bob Dylan’s broadsides.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY

Most fans would agree that Robyn Hitchcock is an eccentric. Indeed, his random musings about life and general happenstance make both his music and his persona as charming as they are challenging. A wordsmith like no other, his wry observations find him both amusing and thoughtful all at the same time, the result of an unrestrained wit expressed on both stage and in song.

That inventive stance made him a perfect performer for Big Ears, the Knoxville Tennessee festival that courts artists who are decidedly out of the ordinary. Consequently, during his two Friday performances, Hitchcock easily lived up to those expectations, fascinating fans and followers with songs from various intervals in his nearly 40 year career. Oddball favorites like “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “Raymond Chandler Evening,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” and “I Want to Destroy You,” a song first sung with his seminal band the Soft Boys back in the day, surfaced during his sets, neither of which found any replication. Less familiar were the songs from his upcoming self-titled set, but the fact that his afternoon performance opened with three covers — Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and a relatively obscure song by the late Syd Barrett, the madcap founder of Pink Floyd — clearly suggested he was returning to his roots.

“Time seems to slow down as we get older, because we’ve been through so much of it already,” he remarked at one point, clearly referencing the older individuals in attendance, he himself included. We could go one step beyond; time seems to stand still when Mr. Hitchcock is at the helm.

BLURT spoke with the affable Mr. Hitchcock over lunch, and though he was obviously famished, he was quite willing to chat, even at the expense of his salad and seafood chowder, especially when the subject turned to other English icons and Bob Dylan, an idol of his own. In person and away from the stage, he’s as clever and quick-witted as ever, and over the course of the next hour he freely shared his observations about life, longevity and his love of music.

Robyn Hitchcock’s new album, Robyn Hitchcock, is out this week via Yep Roc. Go HERE to view his American tour dates—and for a cheap thrill, go HERE to see photos of him a few years ago at BLURT’s SXSW day party at which he received a surprise birthday cake from the BLURT gang.

BLURT: You did a song by the late Syd Barrett today. It’s easy to see how he was an influence on you.

He wasn’t around very long so it’s hard to know what he was or what he would have what he would have been.  We don’t know if he was being ironic or not or simply funny. It’s difficult to know when he said things if they were in quotation marks or not. It’s interesting how we Brits come across. I am very British in a way, more like Nick Lowe than John Lennon, who considered himself more American when he died. Or look at someone like Ray Davies who was our version of Chuck Berry. He was mournful without being dreary. Like Chuck Berry, he was very good with words. Like Lou Reed. Very journalistic and yet quite specific. Bowie, on the other hand, would get quite abstract. Bowie didn’t do microcosms much. He got very widescreen.

 

The Beatles and the Stones transcended all that.

The Beatles and the Stones were quite American. They were British blokes with an American repertoire. Their music was mostly by black artists. It was soul music before they even called it soul. The Beatles were very specific, they had these nice little vignettes like with “Strawberry Fields.” But the Stones were already kind of talking American by the time they got over here. They were recording here in ’64. It always surprised me that the Stones were from south London because they sounded so American, but then again, their whole schtick came from Chicago blues. But it was a weird thing how so many British bands at that time played American music. There was almost nothing British at that time except some of the music hall things that the Kinks and the Beatles did, like “When I’m 64.”  But even that was like ragtime. It’s certainly not British folk. There’s no real elements of British music. There was sort of this trans-Atlantic echo. I never really considered myself British or American. I considered myself part of that genre, with the Beatles and Syd Barrett and the like. And I loved Bob Dylan. I don’t break it down into countries. That may be my persona onstage but I don’t know whether the songs themselves have a nationality to them. Obviously they’re not from the Ukraine.

They’re from you. That overrules everything.

Yes, they’re from me.

It’s your persona above everything else.

I guess whatever my persona is in an act. I’m a trans-Atlantic act. I have been since the beginning. The Beatles never sang in an English accent. Maybe Bowie did. And Syd.

Ray Davies did as well.

But it wasn’t a cockney voice like Bowie. (Affects a Cockney voice for “Well Respected Man”)

And Peter Noone as well.

Peter Noone! He had a big effect over here, didn’t he?

He actually sang in an English accent.

The only thing I remember of him was “I’m Into Something Good.”

He did songs like “East West, “No Milk Today.”

That’s really interesting. I guess I need to listen to him again. But in Britain they were never cool. They never got beyond the teenybopper thing. They never wrote their own stuff. They were kind of like Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.  I guess it’s the same people that would go see Davy Jones. A friend of mine went to see the Monkees and he could count the number of times he was in tears. Mind you, I was the same way when went to see Ringo. If he played “Yellow Submarine,” I’d just be weeping. My God, it’s Ringo Starr singing “Yellow Submarine” and I’m 150 feet away, seeing him at the Ryman. He’s looking fantastic and sounding great. Then the other guys come on and sing their hits from the ‘80s. I first saw them when Levon Helm was with him.

I saw them at various times with John Entwistle and Jack Bruce.

Really! He picked the ones that were going to exit. He should have called his band The Rehabs, but Ringo stuck with it and they didn’t.

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You did an album of Dylan songs, didn’t you? It was kind of an unofficial release?

Yeah, most of what I do is unintentional. It’s not towards an end. I actually had those lying around. And then we did a whole live show where we replicated the Judas gig. Which again was recorded from a mike on the desk. It wasn’t even a desk tape but it sounded even better than a deck tape. I should probably have mixed the two together. I have so many songs lying about. I do so many live shows where I do Dylan songs.

Have you ever met Dylan?

Oh God no! I wouldn’t want to. Too many people want a piece of Dylan. He has to be the most scrutinized person in the world. I know people who have met him and he generally sort of plays with them but he can and because people have kind of treated him like the crown jewels since 1964. He’s said as much in interviews. I don’t have unconditional love for what he’s done, apart from his momentum years when he had momentum. I would totally avoid him.

What if you were told that he wanted to meet you? Would you be up for it?

If he wants to meet me it’s different, but he may want to meet me just to fuck around with me. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t really trust people, and on some level I like that. But I know people who have worked with him and hardly even saw him. So I don’t think I need to meet him and he doesn’t need to meet me. I know that me and many other people will miss him when he goes and I take comfort in the fact that he’s still there. And I like his approach to time. He accepts it. He’s a reverse Paul McCartney. He shows his scars and leaves the knocks and the chips on him. He hasn’t had any facial work which he could easily afford. He likes to be like an old tree or an old chair. He likes to show all the marks of time, and the paint never dries on his songs. If he does play an old song, it’s unrecognizable. I don’t like that, I’d rather watch McCartney do a crispy version of “Penny Lane” than to see Dylan sing some mangled thing that turns out to be “Visions of Johanna.” I can do a better version of that than he can. He’s moved on and I respect the fact that he’s not beholden to his past. Unfortunately, Paul McCartney and me still have to come up with our old songs in a respective way. I saw Ray Davies a few years ago and he sang “Waterloo Sunset” like he’d never sung it before and it was great.  He didn’t try to change notes or alter the style. Donovan’s like that as well.

They’ve really become a brand.

Yes, and that’s why they’ll stay forever young. Keith can be this old fossilized mummy and Dylan, well he was always this old man. He had a voice like an old man early on. Dylan never had the demeanor of a kid, even in the idolized image of his younger self. He’s so scrutinized. There’s never any expression on his face. He’s like a kind of old, withered gargoyle. His expression has long since been obliterated by the winds of time. It’s a rare position. It’s not like there’s anyone to be that, or it’s a position that occurred before. He talks about Sinatra, and I suppose Sinatra was one of the few people he felt competitive with and had respect for. If Frank speaks to me, I will speak back. There are only a few people Dylan respects or is in awe of. Which is one reason why I wouldn’t want to meet him…Oh God, I can’t remember where I was. My mind’s gone. What were we talking about?

We were talking about how Dylan looked up to Sinatra.

Sinatra and Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley are icons and gods who time can erase or replace. Dylan is an oracle and still is. Sinatra and McCartney might make some pithy points about life, but you’re not going to go up to them thinking they might give you the great psychic fortune cookie that will make you say, “Thank you great master. I am now reprogrammed. Only Dylan did that. He has the curse of being the one that unleashes this stuff. For that reason alone, you really have to stand clear, because he made the error on the personal level of giving all this stuff away, and no people expect him to enlighten me, oh master. I’s a weird gift, and not like anything other celebrities have. Maybe like some professors or poets.

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You now reside in Nashville? What brought you there?

Emma (Swift, his girlfriend). Em was living in Nashville. People go there for a record deal or to make contacts. I went there for a relationship. She’s from Sydney. Then she went back to Sydney and I commuted from Sydney to the Isle of Wight for a year. Then our address was a couple of suitcases for about six months and then we moved back to Nashville.

How do you like it?

I think I do much better here than I do in England, and it’s much easier for me to be based in Nashville. All I have to do is get on a plane or drive. I don’t have to block off lots of time to do things in the States. It’s two hours from anywhere east of the Rockies.

Where were you living before?

I was living in London for ages. I’d go live in the Isle of Wight between relationships. It had become a place for gnarly dudes who liked surfing and stuff, but it all began with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. They had a royal residence down there, but I don’t think she went in the sea much. Alfred Tennyson, who was like the Bruce Springsteen of his era, had a house there in the west, where I tended to hang out. Charles Darwin came and stayed there. Em and I actually lived in Charles Darwin’s house for six months. It still had the same plumbing and the same heating. Then there were the big festivals in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, which I went to as a kid. Bob Dylan played there after he was sort of snubbed at Woodstock.

Did you see him there?

I did, and what was especially memorable, was that I saw Jimi Hendrix’s last show. I also saw one of the last Doors gigs. Jim Morrison was very polite. He didn’t reek of imminent doom or anything. They just kind of did a medley of their greatest hits. Hendrix was more alive. He was in a creative arc. I remember seeing a statue of Hendrix at the end of our lane. It made him look very bedraggled.

It must have been very inspiring to live in a place that had such a rich poetic history.

I wrote loads of songs when I lived there. I went there as a kid and I went there for the festivals. My father lived on the island before World War II, so he’d take us there as kids in the ‘60s. So I went to those festivals and then I went back in the ‘80s, and I had a house there on the west end until about ’93. And then I went to Washington D.C. and then London.

What brought you to Washington D.C.?

Cynthia, my partner at the time. She lived there, although we met in San Francisco. So I lived there. But we didn’t last. So then I was back in London, and then on the island and now I’m in Nashville.

Do you miss London?

No. When I moved to Nashville I found it was quicker to get to London from there then it was from the Isle of Wight. Are you okay? I was in a place like that and the same thing happened. It might be my magnetic field. So just blame me. Once I got to Nashville, I spent more time in London. It’s easier to get over there from here. Certainly a lot easily from Sydney, although I like Sydney. London is expensive and damn cold. All the shit that’s happened here has happened there as well.

People also have a certain image of you, certain expectations no doubt. You have this very articulate and witty persona.

It’s sweet of you and I won’t belittle what I do, but it’s only a sort of cult that really knows who I am. I deal with lots of people who expect stuff. When I was on MTV 25 or 30 years ago, I’d go through airports and anybody who was between 25 and 30 years ago would come up to me and say, “Aren’t you Robyn Hitchcock?” They’d want to know the meaning of life, oh master. It slows you down. People are aware of who you are…

Much like now we would guess…

Oh no. Far less. If I’m in a town like this full of people of a certain age, yeah, the people will probably wave and say hello. But they’re not 19 where they’re going to swoon all over your balcony. They’ll nod at you and go back to grazing and doing what they do. It’s really good not to be followed too much.

13.-CakeBlurt

Can you imagine yourself at 80?

Well, simply don’t die, that’s all. I’m in a precarious situation. If something goes wrong, I have to be shipped back to Britain to be dismantled. Unless it’s clean kill. I’d rather be cremated here because it’s a lot less expensive.

It’s more about retaining your wit and your persona and moving about in circles with people half your age.

As long as I’m able to function. They might have to freeze your head and remove your whole body. Or be like Stephen Hawking. Jesus. The Me Generation only has five years to go — Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, David Crosby — they’ll all be 80.

They’re in the 70s now, so who would have thought that?

They are have a few quid so I’m sure they’re better off medically than I am. You do what you do and people will enable you to do it. You can always come wheezing in and putting on a show until you start to malfunction. We have all those people who are a dozen years older than me and none of them have packed up. Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe… in a few years they’ll be classics. The surviving Beatles, Dylan, David Crosby… they’re already 75. What I hate is when they start saying 70 years young. I don’t mind saying I’m 64 years old.

Perhaps 80 is the new 60.

The thing is, people of that generation was the first generation not to have to grow up. They were a generation of selfish hippies. It used to be, when I get to 30, I’m going to cut my hair, put on a tie, provide for my family and stop taking drugs. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be come laughing stocks and all that, but the whole schtick of the baby boomers is that you won’t grow up. It’s great that McCartney is still Beatle Paul. And Dylan is still the wise the wise old man. You don’t want the sad old guy with missing hair, and I’m just me. I think the key point here  is that nobody told us we had to grow up> I’m sure there are loads of people back home who say, “Oh God. Poor old Robyn. He never grew up and went off to America. There are people like that who were born after 1940, but there are people who were born in the ‘90s who are now just sort of responsible. The whole point of our generation was that we never grew up.

Eternal youth then.

No, I never grew up. I’m in a business that doesn’t encourage me to grow up. It pays people to remain frozen children. So while Dylan shows time, McCartney defies it. He’s had all the work, he’s had the hair done, you watch him from 200 yards away and he still looks like Beatle Paul. Jagger still moves like Jagger. I saw a video and I thought, this guy moves like Jim Morrison, and it was Jagger. He was aping all his movements. But his dad was a physical education instruction. And with people like Dylan and Keith (Richards), you’re bound to get attention even though they’re gnarly old people with terrible teeth and knotty hair.

Below: Hitchcock with the author.

Hitchcock w_Lee

 

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON… Brian Jonestown Massacre

BJM color

BJM may have set the controls for the heart of the sun, ultimate destination unknown, but nobody’s cruising on autopilot here on this psychedelic Krautrock/shoegaze epic—on gorgeous yellow vinyl, to boot.

By FRED MILLS

After Anton Newcombe, the mad genius behind Cali space rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre, relocated (fled? teleported? dematerialized?) to Berlin, he set about assembling a recording complex. The resulting Cobra Studio soon yielded Revelation, followed by Third World Pyramid which, with its trippy mélange of fuzzed-out psych, West Coast-styled modal folk-rock, droney Krautrock, and even the occasional Beatlesque jangle-pop flourish, was one of 2016’s shining avatars of mind-expansion/-immersion music. That the LP’s die-cut sleeve mimicked the old Spacemen 3 numeral logo was certainly no accident, either, considering that Newcombe and erstwhile S3 guitarist Sonic Boom are musical birds of a feather. Raise your hand if you coveted the purplish-tinted vinyl the record was pressed on, too.

Now comes the follow-up, the group’s 16th studio full-length, released as usual on Newcombe’s own A Recordings label, distributed Stateside via Forced Exposure, which should be a TMOQ in any music fan’s book. While it’s almost inconceivable that BJM could top Third World Pyramid, that’s exactly what they’ve done, on all fronts—sonically, stylistically, even design-wise, with two slabs of almost fluorescent yellow 180gm. vinyl housed in a brilliantly-hued gatefold sleeve that depicts circuitry in extreme close-up on the outside and alien-green lyrics littering the inside to resemble code raining down a computer screen a la The Matrix. (Consumer note: download code not included, but the album’s on Spotify. Below, the new album and its predecessor.)

BJM colored vinyl

The 2LP set (or single CD) kicks off already in high gear with “Open Minds Now Close,” an eight-minute, motoric slice of propulsion rock awash in pulsing guitar drones and shimmering synth lines that, indeed, recalls Spacemen 3 at its Sonic Boom-Jason Pierce peak. A couple of tracks later we get the titled-too-perfect-for-its-time “Resist Much Obey Little,” a thrumming, Velvet Underground-esque number. Soon enough “Groove Is in the Heart”—not the early ‘90s Deee-Lite hit—cues up, darkly ominous with shuddery waves of tremolo and deep-space twang, plus Tess Parks’ languid call and response vocals with Shaun Rivers lending a decisively stoned edge to the proceedings.

Whew. Not even halfway through the album and you’ve already taken a series of interdimensional skips. Plenty more to come, from the minimalist, pastoral, mellotron/piano-powered “One Slow Breath” and the pounding, cavernous “Throbbing Gristle” (homage?), which features Parks on lead vocals this time; to the hypnotic, Joy Division/New Order-like “Fact 67” featuring the Charlatan’s Tim Burgess on vocals, and shoegazey instrumental “UFO Paycheck.” Nearly half of the tracks here top the five-minute mark, giving the players plenty of room to stretch out, almost in jamming fashion but typically utilizing repetition of riffs and grooves to lock the listener’s body onto the same wavelength. Here and there BJM also slip off onto odd stylistic tangents—a freeform, sax-led jazzy “Geldenes Herz Menz,” for example, a kind of Madchester rave anthem titled “Acid 2 Me Is No Worse than War,” and a droning final track sung entirely in German, “Ich Bin Klang.” These serve to reinforce the record’s take-a-trip-with-us vibe, because nothing about this band is random; they may have set the controls for the heart of the sun, ultimate destination unknown, but nobody’s cruising on autopilot here.

BJM

Newcombe and bandmates Ricky Maymi, Dann Allaire, Collin Hegna, and Ryan Van Kriedt are joined by TWP alumni Emil Nikolaisen (of Serena-Maneesh) and Parks (who, as before, brings a kind of Nico-meets-Hope Sandoval edge to the songs that she sings on), plus Pete Fraser (Pogues, New Young Pony Club) on sax, and both Rivers and Burgess on vocals. Tellingly, the sleeve also lists “Ghosts” in the personnel credits: There is indeed a ghost or two in this machine, a haunting, haunted probe of the inner eye in all its psychedelic glory.

Below: watch a complete BJM concert from the Caberet Vert festival in France last year – in HD, no less.

FLOWERS’ POWER: Paul McCartney

Paul 1989

The Upshot: Expanded reissue of 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt is the sound of Macca picking himself up after taking some hits on a remarkably diverse (read: hit or miss, and at times downright bizarre) album, now expanded into the usual multi-disc and now-obligatory multi-vinyl iterations.

 BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

The 1980s was a decade of mixed success for Paul McCartney. McCartney II (1980) offered a rare glimpse at his quirky side, while Tug of War (1982) showcased him in fine form. Then things got rocky. There was the decidedly lackluster Pipes of Peace (1983); the success of the “Say Say Say” single (due to his paring up with the biggest star in the world at that time, Michael Jackson); the debacle of the Give My Regards to Broad Street film in 1984 (though the soundtrack yielded a good single in “No More Lonely Nights”); and the puzzling Press (1986), which peaked at #30 (his lowest charting release since — well, ever) and failed to even go gold.

So McCartney took his time before releasing his next major record (he did bang out an album of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, Choba B CCCP — “Back in the USSR” — initially released in Russia only in 1988; worldwide release came in 1991). He even reached for a little outside help on his songs, collaborating with Elvis Costello. The extra effort paid off; 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt was certainly McCartney’s strongest album since Tug of War, and set the stage for his return to live performance.

At the time, much was made over the McCartney/McManus (Costello’s real name) songwriting team. But with one exception, the best songs on Flowers are McCartney’s. That exception is the album’s first song (and single), the poppy “My Brave Face”; it’s about a romantic breakup, but as a song about loss, it’s become more poignant since the death of McCartney’s first wife, Linda. The rest of the pair’s numbers aren’t as successful. In interviews at the time, McCartney loved to say how the collaboration on “You Want Her Too” (where both McCartney and Costello vie for the attentions of the same woman) echoed that of the positive/negative interplay with John Lennon on “Getting Better.” But frankly the McCartney/McManus number sounds forced and drags. Similarly, the Irish-gospel of “That Day is Done” is a painfully slow dirge. Though “Don’t Be Careless,” is interesting because it’s so bizarre; McCartney tortures his voice into a high register as he describes paranoid visions of his loved one being “chopped up into two little pieces.” Substantially darker than “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

On his own, McCartney comes up with good, strong material. “Put It There” is trademark McCartney, a simple, lovely number about a father passing on his wisdom to his son. The funky “Rough Ride” is surprisingly lustful if you take a closer look at the lyrics. Yet the man who once championed “Silly Love Songs” now viewed the subject from a perspective that’s decidedly bittersweet. The gentle “Distractions” is about how love subsides in the face of day-to-day life, while “We Got Married” makes the observation, “It’s not just a loving machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it.” Even the ostensibly catchy “This One” is somewhat regretful in its admission that we don’t often take the time to tell a loved one how much they mean to us.

The rest is more of a mixed bag. “Figure of Eight” is pleasant, but unsubstantial (oddly, McCartney chose this song to open his 1989/90 shows, instead of something more instantly recognizable). The vaguely reggae-ish “How Many People” is an agreeable let’s-make-the-world-a-better place tune. The closer, “Motor of Love” is a dreaded power ballad, sounding even worse due to those awful ’80s production techniques (e.g. processed drums). The original bonus track, “Ou est le Soleil” (“Where is the Sun”) is a bit of fun, McCartney indulging his penchant for dance rock (cue the extended remixes!).

There’s a 2-CD/2-LP version that includes eight original demos between McCartney and Costello, especially interesting as they include demos of songs that didn’t appear on Flowers (“Playboy to a Man” is nicely high spirited). And for the truly indulgent experience, there’s a 3-CD/1-DVD box set, also featuring a 112 book about the making of the album, and some other goodies. The most fun item is a cassette, featuring three of the McCartney/Costello demos. The set’s other CD features even more demos. But someone made the boneheaded decision to have the original Flowers era B-sides and remixes (four of “Ou est le Soleil”!) only available through download, not on a fourth CD. In a bizarre non-interview with SuperDeluxeEdition.com, McCartney’s manager Scott Rodger apparently indicated (SDE’s Paul Sinclair noted, “To stress, these are not direct quotes from Scott and these aren’t necessarily the exact questions I asked, but I’ve created the questions and answers below to try and simplify and clarify the points of view”) that there was a belief that people are more excited about streaming, hence there was no need to have a fourth CD in the set. Wrong. As the commentary on sites like amazon makes clear, people spending over $100 bucks on a set (Flowers’ Super Deluxe is retailing for $117.99 at amazon), would much, much prefer to have everything on CDs (with accompanying downloads available, but not featuring any exclusive material). There are also some complaints that not every Flowers era B-side was used.

Flowers in the Dirt

The DVD is stuffed as well, featuring the numerous videos created for the tracks, back when videos still mattered (including a truly embarrassing one for “My Brave Face,” about an avaricious Japanese collector of Beatles memorabilia); footage of McCartney and Costello working in the studio; and the documentary Put It There. In short, a comprehensive look at Paul McCartney’s professional life in 1989.

Flowers in the Dirt is Paul McCartney picking himself back up after taking some hits. What else could you expect from Mr. Thumbs-Up? You can knock him down, but he’s always going to get right back up again. Good on ya, Paul!

 

THE INDELIBLE SOUND OF… Wire

Wire 2017

“We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread”: Four decades on, a Wire gig—not to mention a new album—continues to be “an event. To mark the recent release of Silver/Lead and the band’s DRILL Los Angeles festival, we cast our minds back to the British band’s boisterous beginnings via an archival interview with vocalist Colin Newman, originally conducted in 2006. (Scroll down for list of upcoming DRILL shows in Europe.)

BY FRED MILLS

Late last month, Wire—original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey (aka Gotobed), plus guitarist-since-2010 Matt Simms—released their latest studio album, Silver/Lead via, as is their custom, via their own Pink Flag label. Yours truly, in a (cough) succinct review, observed thusly:

Silver/Lead, with its immersive sonic immediacy and lack of abrasiveness, plus rich, colorful melodic schema, has a near-irresistible appeal, Right from the get-go, the grand power chords, monolith-like drums, and belching synth lines of “Playing Harp for the Fishes” signal a cinematic ride ahead. Vocalist Colin Newman, figuratively perched at the lip of the stage, fairly leans into your face to dramatically intone words that feel more like commands than lyrics. Later on, with “Sleep on the Wing,” a brace of chiming, echoing guitars and undulating keyboards conjures a purposefully dreamy, kosmiche ambiance. Even the album’s quote-unquote “pop single,” a three-minute, hooky romp titled “Short Elevated Period,” has an almost Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound vibe.

It almost as if Wire set out to make a concept album without actually calling it a concept album, so consistent is the sound throughout, and with subtly recurring melodic themes—compare, for example, the similarity between the main chord progression of “Playing Harp…” and the closing title track. However, given how inscrutable most of the lyrics (penned largely by bassist Graham Lewis) are, some almost haiku-ish or like a series of non sequiturs, it might be hard to make that concept claim stick. The musicians themselves might be aghast at such a label anyway. (Or maybe not. Stay tuned, or scroll downward.)

silver lead

Still, the four gentlemen are nothing if not bloody minded. Unlike most of their peers from the class of ’77, they never quite knew when to stop, having indulged numerous hiatuses that weren’t true hiatuses (they would play on each other’s side projects), created a musical collective (Pinkflag.com eventually becoming the official URL) that operates more like a club house than a project, and announced the proverbial “new direction” numerous times while still maintaining a detectable through-line across 14 studio albums and more than a few live releases. Four decades on, with studio album number 15, Wire continues to thwart expectations and defy pigeonholing,

I count myself among the Wire faithful who were with the band practically from the start, having scored a copy of their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, which against all odds had been released in the States on the EMI imprint Harvest. That their U.S. label was one normally associated with British prog and avant-folk artists was an irony lost upon no one—but then, even at the outset, Wire’s art-punk seemed more aligned with the Krautrockers and experimentalists of the day than the safety-pinned brigades, a notion that was seemingly confirmed on ’78 sophomore platter Chairs Missing, and even more so on 1979’s 154. Those three albums continue to inspire fans, and it’s likely a new fanbase was created in 2006 when Pink Flag reissued them in America, additionally releasing the 5-CD box set Wire: 1977 – 1979 containing three original albums plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 and Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978.

wire box

It was on the occasion of that box that I found myself on the horn to London one afternoon, talking to Colin Newman for Harp magazine (for whom I was managing editor and also author of the publication’s “Indelibles” column, which discussed key and classic albums). What follows here is an extended draft of the Wire installment of that column; after that, if you have some extra time to waste, you can read the entire, unfiltered, previously unpublished interview. What was originally going to be about a 20 minute conversation with Newman soon stretched to the better portion of an hour, and he was genuinely one of the most outgoing and gracious musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing.

drill poster

Incidentally, Wire just marked the 40th anniversary of the abovementioned Roxy performance, which as it turns out was the band’s official live coming-out party. (There had been a prior performance at a college under a different name than Wire.)  Elsewhere on the BLURT site you can view a photo gallery from DRILL Los Angeles by longtime contributor Susan Moll. We’ve faithfully covered the band in our nearly nine years of existence, and if you have even more time to waste, just enter the term “wire” into the search box on the right-hand side of this page and dive right in. Happy birthday, lads.

APRIL 1, 1977, LONDON: Wire is onstage at the Roxy club, nearing the end of a 17-song set – which, in a flourish of Ramones-like economy, will clock in at barely 25 minutes. Caustic sexual diatribe “12XU” is followed by the fuck-you society rant “Mr. Suit.” Then, with barely a pause between tunes, the band catapults into a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over.” Shorn of its feel-good vibe and delivered at breakneck speed, the ‘60s pop chestnut is reinvented as a punk anthem steeped in irony.

Clearly, this band Wire will be greeted as an upstart conquering hero here at this grotty punk venue (the Roxy was previously a gay club located in London’s Covent Garden section), which has chosen April 1 and 2 to showcase the cream of up-and-coming British combos for a two-day “Punk Festival.” Wire’s in good company, too, sharing a bill with the likes of X-Ray Spex, Slaughter and the Dogs, the Adverts and the Buzzcocks.

“Glad All Over” throttles to its conclusion, and then – dead silence. Nothing. Stunned disbelief on the part of the Roxy audience, outright indifference, or….?

Wire 70s

“There wasn’t anybody there!”

Wire vocalist Colin Newman chortles heartily. Three decades after his band’s official debut as a quartet, his memory, in 2006, of Wire’s early days remains fresh. All the more remarkable, given his band’s fractious career that’s seen more than its share of breakups, reunions, extended hiatuses, and concurrent solo careers.

Part of Newman’s good mood is due to his having recently completed long-after-the-fact postproduction work on live tapes of the Roxy shows – originally recorded by EMI, two Wire songs would be included on 1977 punk compilation The Roxy London WC2 (Jan – Apr 77) and he’s now high-spiritedly framing the scene.

“On the first night we were the opening band – the opening band on a five-band bill in a club holding 100 people,” explains Newman. “That’s pretty lowly! So it has to be pointed out that the reason it’s so quiet between songs is because no one was there [yet] that night. In fact, because the Wire tracks on that live Roxy album were so quiet, a lot of people thought they’d actually been recorded in a studio! On the second night they’d moved us up on the bill because they thought we were quite good, but we still weren’t that high. I think we were still behind X-Ray Spex, who were newer than we were.

“You wouldn’t have imagined anything was happening at this point. It all just sort of happened, really. Less than six months later we were recording Pink Flag.”

pink flag

Ah. Pink Flag. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a modern musical milieu without the DNA strands of Wire and its debut LP winnowing around in the mix – on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the years American heavy hitters as sonically diverse as R.E.M., Mission of Burma, and the Minutemen have enthusiastically cited Wire’s influence, while the current crop of UK neo-postpunkers  — Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Githead et al — could do worse than to simply sign over a portion of their royalties to Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, drummer Robert Gotobed (nee Grey), and bassist Graham Lewis. (Ditto that: In 1995 Britpop upstarts Elastica literally nicked the angular, loping intro to Pink Flag’s “Three Girl Rhumba” and, upon grafting it into their own “Connection,” took the Wire influence directly to the bank; the matter was subsequently settled out of court.)

The road to Pink Flag was paved with, not so much fortuity or luck, as sober-headed deliberation. The group initially began life at Watford art school in 1976 as Overload; lasting one gig, Overload then gradually morphed into Wire after fellow students Newman, Gilbert and guitarist and principal songwriter George Gill recruited Newman and Gotobed, although Gill’s tenure came to an end after only six gigs when the other four determined that pointed, streamlined tunes with an eye towards maximum initial impact trumped Gill’s more traditionally-minded material steeped in solos and extended choruses.

One fortuitous stroke did occur when producer Mike Thorne, who’d overseen the Roxy club recordings for EMI, took a liking to Wire. At Thorne’s urging, EMI offered a contract, and by the fall the band was hard at work in London’s venerable Advision Studios, crafting Pink Flag with Thorne at the helm. EMI no doubt thought it was getting a one-two-three-FOWAHH! punk band for its cash, although in hindsight, signing Wire to its progressive imprint Harvest and not EMI proper has to go down as one of rock’s great Freudian slips.

“Wire were not a punk band,” Newman vehemently maintains. “Any attitudes that would be coming from [punk], we would be of the opposite direction. Secondly, you have people who were really, really serious about the music. To have a record with your name on it, that’s a serious thing and you’re not gonna blow this chance. You’re gonna do it really properly.”

Newman adds that while at this stage the musicianship in Wire wasn’t quite up to, say, Yes or Genesis standards, a lot of thought and strategy went into the making of Pink Flag. “There were a bunch of people with points to prove, including Mike Thorne,” he says. For his part, Thorne proposed that Wire could draw from both the heavy metal and pop fields in order to make a record that was simultaneously accessible and true to its creators’ art school-fueled leanings. The massive wall of guitars – a pair of two-chord sequences overdubbed eight times — that greets listeners’ ears on opening track “Reuters,” for example, reflected the metal aesthetic (Newman recalls band members exclaiming, “Yeah, we like that!” at the playback). Elsewhere, while the album is dotted by numerous cuts that speed abrasively past in under a minute, more tuneful material such as “Ex-Lion Tamer” (a joyful, lyrically absurd romp) and the title track (a kind of upside-down take on Chuck Berry, and one of several overtly political numbers on the album) clearly speak to Wire’s and Thorne’s hunch that the band could be, as Newman puts it, “pop and avant garde at the same time.”

(Newman hastens to point out that, seriousness of intent aside, a lot of humor could be found in Wire: “It was extremely deadpan and all done with a very straight face, so a lot of people didn’t understand that there was humor in it. But listen to the Roxy thing – absolutely hilarious! You understand something about Wire that you can’t necessarily understand listening to Pink Flag. I mean, same band, in the same way, in the same style, doing ‘Glad All Over’?!?”)

Journalist Simon Reynolds, in his insightful 2005 post-punk post-mortem Rip It Up And Start Again, cites Pink Flag’s key attributes: “21 bursts of abstract fury in just 35 minutes,” “enigmatic lyrics and non-linear dream logic” and “songs as exquisitely etched as a finely honed haiku.” Similar plaudits greeted Pink Flag in the UK upon its release in late ’77, and Wire soon found itself doing photo sessions for all the British weeklies. A tour supporting the Tubes further exposed Wire to the masses, and Newman recalls the sense of momentum that began kicking in.

“We did a series of Saturdays at a pub called the Red Cow in Hammersmith. It held 200. We started off the first Saturday with it half full. The second Saturday was three-fourths full, and on the third it was completely full. That fourth Saturday there were as many outsiders who couldn’t get in as there were on the inside. I remember my friends would be like, ‘Wow – this is really happening, man.’ Everyone who was in a band would come and see us and tell us how much they loved us – Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire. A Wire gig was definitely an event.”

Wire’s reception over here was a bit different. Thanks to Pink Flag being released by EMI in America, the band enjoyed a leg up, distribution-wise, that many of its contemporaries weren’t privy to. The record did find its way into stores. Yours truly, however, working in 1977-78 for a record store chain’s distribution center, distinctly recalls spotting several cartons of Pink Flag promos earmarked for the warehouse’s dumpster. Upon rescuing a handful of LPs (I still own a sealed copy) I opened one and played it over the in-house stereo; the looks of horror and outright hostility that warehouse workers immediately directed at me suggested that elsewhere in the American heartland, at that very same moment, similar reactions to Wire might be taking place. As Newman drily puts it upon hearing my anecdote, “We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread.”

Wire didn’t do itself any favors by only coming to the U.S. once during the seventies, and high profile though a five-night residency at CBGB (in July of ’78) may have been in theory, in practice it rendered the band non-starters on these shores. EMI didn’t even bother to release its second album in America. So for the most part it would be up to college radio and the loose network of punk fanzines to get the word out on Wire; both Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus trashed the album, in Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, respectively, so Pink Flag would have to settle for having a delayed, halo effect upon American youth. It would take the hardcore movement of the ‘80s – the SST Records camp, the DC and Boston scenes – to fully appreciate Wire’s minimalist, rejection-of-rock-dogma, approach.

Meanwhile, Wire went about its business at home, touring extensively in Britain and Europe and recording two more groundbreaking albums with producer Thorne, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154. Each represented a huge step forward for the band: Chairs Missing, compared to its predecessor, was lush with keyboards, borderline psychedelic and contained the near-hit single “Outdoor Miner”; 154, densely textured and cloaked in atmosphere, prefigured in places the ambient techno scene of the ‘90s.

Comparing the recording of each album, Newman recalls the debut as being “quite fraught. It wasn’t necessarily grueling but there was a lot of frayed tempers when we were recording the backing tracks. If Robert didn’t keep a steady speed Graham would stop playing and then they’d have a fight and the sticks would go flying across the room. Chairs Missing was fun, and because we could play better we found it easier to put the backing tracks down and there was also more overdubbing. That’s an exciting thing to be able to do, when you first start to get the whole feel of overdubbing, adding parts that were not done in the original and taking a track somewhere. That was obviously a key to how then things developed in the following album.”

Yet by the time of 154 Wire had effectively divided into two camps, the defiantly avant-garde Lewis and Gilbert and the Newman-Gotobed contingent, who Newman says was “still interested in retaining a really broad canvas for the band.” Thorne was stuck in the middle, attempting to extract singles-oriented material from the band in order to appease the powers that be at EMI.

Everything came to a head during the making of 154, says Newman, partly as a result of EMI’s demands, partly due to the band’s collective bloody-mindedness, and to a large degree the byproduct of diverging agendas among the members themselves. “Personal relations in Wire have always been very, very difficult. We’ve never been friends and it’s never been an easy kind of thing. Chairs Missing had been joyful and sunny and the joy of a band discovering they could really play and then just taking that and pushing it further in the studio. Whereas working on 154, it had some very horrible moments, ambition pushing it in different directions.”

Not long after the release of 154 Wire embarked upon an ill-fated tour with Roxy Music that found the group, much to EMI’s displeasure, quitting the tour after only a few shows. Tension between band and label was further fueled when Wire did a series of performance art-heavy concerts in November ’79 that barely featured any of the new 154 material. The following February Wire announced it had left EMI, citing a “breakdown of communication” (e.g., EMI wouldn’t fund some of the group’s ideas for promoting Wire – among those ideas, filming videos).

Wire played a concert on February 29 at London’s Electric Ballroom. Again heavy on multimedia content and performance art, the show was recorded for posterity and eventually released by Rough Trade in 1981 as the Document and Eyewitness album. By that point, however, Wire had been absent for over a year. It would be four more years before anyone would hear from the band.

*****

wire middle

“I look back now and I think… pfffttt, we were pretty damn arrogant, you know?” remarks Colin Newman, of Wire’s burning desire to keep moving forward artistically at the expense of its own commercial fortunes. “We just didn’t give a stuff about what anybody thought. We just felt it was obvious we had to do something else. You’ve got to remember, we were in the first serious, postmodern critical era in terms of what rock music was about. We could say, ‘But what happened to Pink Floyd? Why did they become rubbish?’ Well, they got rubbish because they just did more of the same, but weaker, adding water to their formulas.”

The members of Wire, always determined not to get painted into a Floydian corner, remained musically active during the first half of the ‘80s, Newman issuing string of solo records, Gilbert and Lewis teaming up in various guises (Dome, Duet Emmo He Said, Cupol, Lewis/Gilbert), and Gotobed doing session work. 1985 saw the four men resume operations as Wire for another five years, and then again in 2000, the latter reunion yielded 2003’s stunning Send and a lengthy tour (documented on the CD/DVD package The Scottish Play: 2004). In the fall of 2005, however, Bruce Gilbert gave his notice that he was leaving Wire for good.

“This last version if Wire, the version that did Send, was supposed to be the version that was built to last,” muses Newman. There’s a long pause, followed by an equally long exhalation. “It didn’t happen. That was a great album and that whole thing should have gone some place. Actually, the timing of these re-releases, it was supposed to be Send, and then the re-releases, and then a new Wire album, all like a virtual circle. But it just hasn’t happened.”

Newman diplomatically declines to go into specifics, simply saying, “It’s an incredibly sad story. There were moments when maybe something could’ve been done, but I don’t really know. But anyway, I don’t want to talk it down. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”

Indeed he is. In addition to spearheading the Pink Flag America reissues of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 and penning each disc’s liner notes, Newman has overseen a 5-CD box set, Wire: 1977 – 1979. It includes the three original albums housed in mini-LP sleeves plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 goes all the way back to the beginning, with both Wire sets from the Punk Festival, while Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978 documents one night of Wire’s 1978 CBGB residency. The limited-edition box is available exclusively at Wire’s website, www.PostEverything.com).

“I probably care more than I should,” says Newman, acknowledging his role as de facto curator of the Wire archives. (2004 also saw the release of Wire on the BOX: 1979, a live DVD/CD package.) “Some people in Wire may be nervous about going too far, and it’s the infuriating thing about Wire which makes the internal relationships very difficult. But I just think that Wire deserves, in this late stage in its life, to receive adulation. The amount of love that Wire gets for what it’s achieved, and what it’s achieved in more than one incarnation, well…

“We’re not going to turn into some kind of squidgy, sentimental thing and all of a sudden do ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ or something like that, you know what I mean?”

***

The complete Colin Newman interview is here on the BLURT site.