Key players on the Amerindie underground of the ‘80s keep rolling with a terrific new Kickstarter-powered album. Chan Poling explains.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Minneapolis churned out a slew of staggeringly talented musicians and bands. From Prince and The Replacements to Husker Du and Soul Asylum, it’s a literal who’s-who of great American bands. Fueled on cheap beer and late nights, these Midwest kids were fairly agnostic to genres, allowing the scene to flourish and cross pollinate blending musical styles and tastes from punk and funk to soul and new wave. At ground zero of this musical movement stood The Suburbs.
A band with a knack for mixing classic rock drums with new wave keyboards, R&B horns and raucous guitar, the group’s self-titled EP was the first ever release on the iconic Twin/Tone label. For a decade, from 1977-1987, The Suburbs turned in half a dozen albums on Twin/Tone as well as the majors (Mercury/Polygram and A&M) before finally calling it a day.
They resurfaced to the surprise of many in 2013 with a new record, Si Sauvage, laying the groundwork for Hey Muse!, their latest full length and a clear signal that they are just as brilliant now as they were four decades prior.
Chan Poling, band co-founder, singer and keyboardist, was kind enough to speak with Blurt recently about why the band got back together, the affirmation of crowdfunding and having his song serve as a gay rights anthem.
BLURT: You guys have played together here and there for the past 10 years or so. What was behind the decision in 2013 to finally put out a new record? CHAN POLING: Well, I’ll outline it for you. We broke up at the end of the ’80s after really working our asses off and getting to a certain stage with two major label deals, but finally it wore us down, as it does a lot of bands. We realized really quickly that we still enjoyed playing, so we started playing back together again around ’93. We kept it more fun; we’d play outdoor festivals and around our hometown and go to New York every once and a while, but we just played four or five shows a year to keep our chops up.
When we lost Bruce (Allen, guitarist, who died in 2009), we decided to do a memorial show and had to find a guy to do Bruce’s part, so we asked Steve Brantseg, who had been a friend from the old Twin/Tone days and he added in his own panache. At that point, our bass player Michael Halliday had developed arthritis so bad he couldn’t play anymore. We lost two players, so I asked Steve Price if he wanted to join. That was a great fit. Over the years, if people want to play, they play with us. But I was thinking how would we every get someone to replace Beej (Blaine John “Beej” Chaney, guitarist, who stepped away from the band in 2014)? He had a really unique style. We found Jeremy Ylvisaker, who played with Andrew Bird. He’s super talented and he came and joined us. He was an old fan of the band so he was thrilled and he’s just monstrous on guitar, so I was thrilled. The band is just fucking killing it.
You guys finally put out a new album four years ago. Was there less pressure putting out Hey Muse! as you had already had the comeback record out of the way? Yeah, we were very pleasantly surprised to find that the fans were still there and the record was good. We were proud of it and the reaction was the clincher for us. The Kickstarter was the highest grossing Kickstarter in Minnesota. I write songs all the time and I finally realized that my Suburbs song folder was viable again. When I’m writing, for theater or movies or for the Suburbs, I usually know exactly who it’s meant for. “Hey Muse!” popped into my head when I was sleeping and I woke up and found a little electric keyboard and write down the lead line and verse chords in my pajamas. In fact, I’ve already got two songs for the new record.
You mention Kickstarter. Things have clearly changed a lot in the music world since The Suburbs were last signed to a label. What have you seen as some of the bigger changes since you last put out music with the band? In the olden days, the model was that the labels had capital to invest in developing their artists. If we got a $300,000 advance from Polygram it wasn’t like they were giving us $300,000. We had to pay that back. The idea of controlling your own operating capital is always intriguing to me. Some bands thrive in that world (with labels). We thrived in that world for a few years and we were making alternative, very personal rock music. We don’t make music that competes with Katie Perry or Taylor Swift. We make music for our own esoteric survival and you need to find ways of funding that like any other business.
When we realized people actually wanted to be part of these crowd funding things, it was a relief. There’s a stigma that you’re asking for money because the labels don’t think you’re viable enough to give you money. The fact of the matter is, we’re making a product. It costs nearly $100 grand to make a good rock record with the studio time and the musicians and the manufacturing. Vinyl is expensive. It’s a large outlay of cash. When I found out we could control our own destiny by offering our record for sell before it’s made, let’s do it. It’s more empowering, it’s about community and it’s a closer tie to the fans.
Is there a case of schadenfreude seeing what the labels are going through now or were you guys always treated well by the record labels? Now that you mention it, maybe it is a little bit of schadenfreude. But then again, I don’t wish ill will on anyone. It’s always the underdog against the big guy and I’m always for the underdog.
There’s a new book that just came out about the Minneapolis music scene on the ‘70s and ‘80s called Complicated Fun. The Suburbs and a bunch of other bands are covered in it. At the time, did you realize something unique was happening in the city music-wise? [Go HERE to read our review of the book. – Lit. Ed.] I had no idea, we were just doing our thing. It was awesome for sure. I haven’t read the book, but I definitely lived it.
The song “Love is the Law” is a favorite among many fans of the band. It was also adopted by the Gay Marriage movement in Minneapolis. As a local guy, what was that feeling like that your song was tied to such a historic movement? I was super proud of that and it was really personal for me because my son is gay and was discussing getting married to his partner of many years. We were wondering where that wedding was going to take place and when we found out that it was able to be done here and that they were using our song to celebrate that, it was really personal to me. I am very proud. The fact that that song can have two different lives is very cool.
You guys have some tour dates online for Minneapolis and a few other places in the Midwest. Any thoughts about touring in other parts of the country? Oh, yeah. We definitely want to it’s just a matter of inching our way out there and to see what we can afford. The problem with The Suburbs is that we are a completely irresponsible, unwieldy commercial venture; we’ve got three horn players, a back-up singer, five guys, the crew. We just never grew up.
2015 Photo Credit: Jay Smiley / 2017 Live Photo Credit: Brian Grenz / Below, check out a live video of the band performing at this year’s Record Store Day
Whoahhh… hold on there, Mr. Bugliosi, I was just checkin’ in to see what my condition was in, Charles Manson-wise!
BY UNCLE BLURT
Yeah, I was there—NOT, I hasten to add, at the Tate-LaBianca murders. I was at the local record store, many many many years back in the day, when producer/scenester (and future Gram Parsons body-snatcher) Phil Kaufman and his ad hoc indie label Awareness Records released Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. In 1970 America was in a protracted state of culture shock, and yours truly was only marginally coming to terms with the dissonant notions that one could wave one’s freak flag really fucking high while opposing Vietnam and sundry other Nixon-era ills, and still be not only appalled but downright nauseous that a countercultural opportunist and interloper like Charles Manson was able to shatter the—our—hippie dream merely by dispensing LSD to a bunch of impressionable kids and “suggesting” that the phrase death to pigs was not just a mere jocular implication taken from a Beatles song, but a goddam mandate.
You can get all you need to know about the original LP from its Wikipedia page (although no one seems to have bothered to update it in ages—there’s nominal info about the album’s reissue trajectory, so perhaps click over to the extended Discogs entry). Here, in 2017, we are fortunate to have yet a fresh iteration—and on translucent red vinyl to boot!—via the estimable ESP-Disk label, which actually can trace a “professional relationship” with the album (and whoever may have owned the rights to it at various times) going all the way back to a ’74 vinyl repressing and picking up again during the CD era. (ESP’s 2008 CD Sings expanded the original 14-song tracklisting to a whopping 26. That’s also the version you’ll encounter if you pull the album up on Spotify.)
Why do I say “fortunate”? Well, that’s complicated. Let’s face it, the music itself is, at best, nominal. There’s always been a lot of hoo-hah over the track “Cease to Exist” because it was notoriously turned into the Beach Boys’ “Never Learn Not to Love,” no doubt with the late Dennis Wilson sweating his way through the sessions; it’s decent enough, in an early Tim Buckley vein, but hardly memorable. And who gives a shit whether Rob Zombie, Redd Kross, and the Lemonheads have covered a “hardly memorable” song? “Garbage Dump,” made retroactively prominent by G.G. Allin, is barely listenable, go figure, while “Big Iron Door,” a blink-you-missed-it love song to, uh, prison, is even less so. A few track-skips later, we are left returning to “Look at Your Game Girl,” the album’s opening track and perhaps the tune that convinced Kaufman he might be able to shift a few copies. It’s strummy and has a moderately catchy folk-soul vibe, the kind of song you could do a blindfold test with on any given millennial or hipster and come away feeling pretty smug when your blindfoldee was positive it’s an unreleased Rodriguez track. There, I said it. Charles Manson sounds a lot like Rodriguez, if you need a musical selling point, I guess. Alternatively, maybe you’re simply a Guns N’ Roses fan and this is your entry point.
So, no. Still – “fortunate,” because this is a genuinely priceless cultural artifact that demands to be in the collection of any sentient music collector who gives even a small portion of a damn about rock ‘n’ roll, its history, its undercurrents, its implications, its future. Without an awareness of Charles Manson and the cultural bomb he set off back in the late ‘60s, all you kids out there reading this review are doomed to one day allow another Charles Manson creepy-crawl into the personal spheres of your brothers, sisters, friends, compatriots—and even your children.
The Mansons of the world are still out there; in fact, there’s a good chance several of them are currently strolling the corridors of the West Wing, patiently looking for their openings. The original is by all accounts not long for this world, and it’s unlikely he’ll make it to the age of 92, in 2027, the year he’s up for parole. But don’t for a second think that when that sawed-off little gangster is dead, the toxins that initially spawned him will have been eradicated. They’ve always been in the Amerikkan water system.
Luckily, as long as folks like ESP-Disk are doing their part to revive the conversation and then keep it alive, we have a chance of getting through that whole “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” etc., thing.
When this LP arrived in the mail, a lot of memories came rushing back.
Remember, I lived through the Manson era. I recall, with great clarity, the moment when Woodstock-powered utopianism came crashing down, and the realization gradually dawned that long hair, sandals, love beads, bellbottoms jeans, and tie-dyed teeshirts were no longer instant affirmations of being part of the same club. Worse—for me, at least—it happened before I had even turned legal. In the summer of ’69, when those Manson murders took place, I was only 14 ½ years old. But I was old enough to have begun sketching out a future; in my teenage mind, as soon as Woodstock happened, I had a lot of catching up to do. Well, so much for that, because when news of arrests in the murder case hit the headlines in early December, those idyllic Bryan Adams future memories I’d no doubt been working on a few months earlier came crashing down, too.
Back here in 2017, I caught my breath, shuddered, cracked open the shrink wrap, slowly tugged out the red vinyl repressing, and laid it on my turntable. After a long pause—full disclosure: a longer pause than usual, first to admire the wax, because, well, colored vinyl— I allowed the needle to begin its descent…
Postscript: The last two times this publication posted Manson-related content on the website and put links out to it, we noticed that we were quickly followed on social media by organizations and individuals who were clearly Manson sympathizers. And many years ago, our good friend, the late Joe Young of AntiSeen band fame, released a solo 7” EP, “Bury the Needle,” that had a Manson-sampling track called “Charlie’s Blues” on the flipside. Not long after, he was visited by a couple of folks who identified themselves as members of “The Family.” Joe was somewhat bemused, but also somewhat shaken. It will be interesting to see what kind of feedback BLURT receives for this particular commentary.
In which we talk to Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff about their classic ’85 album, recently reissued with bonus material.
BY FRED MILLS
Terminal, by Jackson, Mississippi, power pop legends the Windbreakers, originally released in 1985 by the Homestead label, has been in yours truly’s personal Top 25 ever since it first appeared—we’re talking an LP rubbing shoulders on my shelf with everything from Who’s Next, Let It Bleed, Funhouse, and Daydream Nation to Shake Some Action, Stands for deciBels, Sincerely, and Places That Are Gone. As produced by Mitch Easter at his Winston-Salem Drive-In Studio (six songs) and Randy Everett in the band’s native Mississippi (four songs), Terminal is a timeless slice of Southern-spawned tuneage that sports all the expected power pop influences yet still sounds utterly fresh and unique unto itself.
Yet with one semi-flukey exception which you’ll read about shortly, Terminal has never seen a proper reissue for the CD and digital eras, leaving me and fellow fans to wonder whether or not it will ultimately be consigned to those perennial “whatever happened to…” essays. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear to be on any digital streaming services, although luckily the superb 2003 Windbreakers career overview Time Machine is on both Spotify and Apple Music, and six of the compilation’s 20 tunes were culled from it.
Windbreakers cofounders Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, of course, are not exactly unknown quantities, as both have remained fairly prolific in their post-WBs solo careers—check the Trouser Press entry detailing their work together and separately, as well as this 2015 BLURT interview with Lee about his band at the time, The Tim Lee 3—and although Sutliff’s near-fatal car accident in 2012 served to temporarily put his musical career on hold for awhile, he continues to write and even finds time to collaborate with Montana-based psych=pop monsters Donovan’s Brain. Still, the general public’s obliviousness as regards Terminal seems all the more criminal in 2017 if you actually drop the needle on the platter and allow its pleasures to pour forth anew.
There’s the opening trifecta of “Off & On” (jangly intro, a harpsichord motif, and yearning Sutliff vocals), “Changeless” (a tough, hard-twanging Lee-penned surf/powerpop gem right up there with Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No” and the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep”), and “That Stupid Idea” (more gossamer jangles from Sutliff, whose soaring upper register here is the stuff of the angels). From that point the record simply doesn’t let loose of its grip on the listener, from Lee’s deceptively dark jangler “All That Stuff,” to a remarkable cover of Television’s “Glory” featuring the Rain Parade as the duo’s backing band, to sinewy, sitar-laced rocker (and Sutliff-Lee joint composition) “Running Out of Time,” which closes the record.
It’s a goddam classic album, period—feel free to rewind to paragraph #2, above—with not a single throwaway tune. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful bummer of a power pop album the ‘80s produced, with virtually every song a meditation on the vagaries and vicissitudes of love and all the emotional trauma that phrase implies. Utter the words “windbreakers” and “terminal” to someone at a record store or a concert, and if their face lights up and a knowing smile breaks, you’ve got the equivalent of a sonic secret handshake. We Eighties-college-and-indie-rock fans have more than a few records like that, of course, but the thing is, back then the idea wasn’t to keep our favorite bands secret—we felt it was our mission to proselytize for ‘em.
(Below: front and back sleeves of the original LP, plus the new CD package.)
Enter Italian label Mark, which a few months ago reissued Terminal as a sharp-sounding remaster boasting five bonus tracks, four of them from a 1986 live performance. Also included is a bonus booklet adorned with reviews that originally appeared in the wake of Terminal’s release, and some of those critical observations bear quoting here:
“A brilliant jewel of aural splendor from the goldmine left by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Big Star.” —Option
“Think of them as a genteel Replacements with 12-string guitar, or an R.E.M with clear melodies and lyrics.” —Los Angeles Herald Examiner
“Originals that [evoke] everybody from Dylan to the Byrds, with references to the Beatles, acid-rock and the Left Banke. Sort of a brawnier approach to the Let’s Active sound, and more rural, too.” —Jet Lag
“Is this the pop record of 1985, or what??” —Jim Testa, Jersey Beat
Well, yes—yes, Jim, it was. Matter of fact, it still is. In a moment, let’s take a trip back in time and revisit it, courtesy the two men who created it.
Regular BLURT readers will recall our ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series in which yours truly has profiled the likes of Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red, Thomas Anderson, and The Sidewinders. Sometimes these are fresh essays and interviews; other times they are features culled from the archives and updated as needed. I got the idea from a regular column titled “Indelibles” that I authored for BLURT precursor Harp magazine from roughly 2005 to the spring of 2008, when it closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and in fact several installments of my “College Rock Chronicles” have been retooled, expanded versions of stories originally published in Harp.
“Indelibles” itself was inspired by those great Mojo features in which a key, critically-significant album from the past was put under the microscope and viewed through a contemporary lens; the records we selected for each of my columns were, typically, just being reissued as expanded remasters, and the idea was to get the artist to discuss the making of the original album, reflect on its trajectory, and frame it within the larger context of what it meant to his or her career. If the artist was actually involved with the reissue, so much the better, and we would also delve into what went into that project, how bonus material was decided upon, etc. As a music fan first and a critic second, I have to say that it was pretty great to be able to geek out over some of my all-time favorite records by the likes of the Dream Syndicate, the dB’s, Let’s Active, the Clash, Wire, Pylon, the Slits, the Gun Club, Dinosaur Jr, etc.—not to mention being able to geek out in front of some of the people who actually created those records, but not as the slobbering fanboy I actually was, and instead under the assumed guise of (cough) a professional journalist and reporter. The truth is finally out.
So with this Windbreakers story, I’m formally re-booting “Indelibles.” Bobby, who lives with his wife Wendy in Columbus, Ohio, and Tim, based with his wife and bandmate Susan in Knoxville, Tennessee, were kind enough to weather my inquisition, and to them I just want to say—salute, gentlemen.
Set the stage for Terminal: With the first two EPs (1982’s 7” Meet the Windbreakers and 1983’s 12” Any Monkey With a Typewriter) under your belts, what was your collective state of mind as a band, and what was the music scene in your neck of the woods like circa 1984? TIM LEE: Actually, shortly after Any Monkey… came out, we kinda ceased being a band for a while. I started another band, Beat Temptation, that lasted a year or so. During that time, though, the EP was getting some attention, and Sam Berger at Homestead asked if we’d be interested in doing a record for them.
Bobby and I had been hanging out during that time, so it was no big deal to start playing songs for each other and get back into it.
BOBBY SUTLIFF: The 1984 local music scene was an interesting hodge-podge. There were quite a few bands doing their own thing. We were all friends for the most part. Tim and I would together, or separately, sit it with them quite often. Tim’s other band, Beat Temptation, was very good and released a fine EP and a full-length LP.
How did you land the deal with Homestead?
TIM: Like I said, Sam Berger was the guy who asked us to make a record, but he left and was replaced by Gerard Cosloy by the time Terminal came out. It was very early in the life of that label, so it kinda felt like they were just getting their feet wet.
You decided to return to the well for the album with Mitch Easter; what had you liked about him and his studio? What did he bring to the table that made you and other artists gravitate to the studio?
TIM: We made the first Windbreakers EP in a gospel studio in Madison, Miss., and it was not a particularly wonderful experience. But we’d read about Mitch in New York Rocker, and we were fans of the songs he did on that Shake to Date compilation (1981 UK album issued by Shake/Albion to document New York Rocker’s Alan Betrock’s indie label as well as Chris Stamey’s Car label), and we knew about the Sneakers and H-Bombs and the dB’s. So we just called directory assistance and got his number.
We talked [to Mitch] a few times and then we made a trip to Winston-Salem and tracked two songs, mixing and everything, in about 20 hours or something like that. The first session with Mitch was so revealing for me, in that I was like, “Okay, this is why they say making records is fun!” He was so creative and so supportive of our goofy ideas, willing to go down any road to come up with something cool.
BOBBY: We were very aware of the dB’s, and by 1980/81 knew about Mitch. It’s actually quite a long way from Mississippi to North Carolina, but the trip was so very much worth it. After about 20 minutes with him in his garage studio—the Drive-In of course!—we knew we had found our mentor/kindred spirit. I remember one musical moment to this day. I pulled out my guitar and played the intro to Big Star’s “Way Out West.” Mitch walked into the room and said, “Oh, you know them?” We were friends for life.
What are some of your most prominent memories from the Drive-In sessions for Terminal? Hanging with Mitch (pictured left, with Tim) Faye Hunter, and Don Dixon? (The latter two guested on bass on selected tracks.)
TIM: Other than going out to eat, we were pretty much nose to the grindstone, but my favorite memory of being at the Drive-In was the sense of possibility. Electric sitar? Let’s do it. Dixon’s coming by today. Cool, let’s get him to play bass. That kind of thing.
BOBBY: Tim mentions going to eat in passing, but I must confess Mitch teaching us about the two different kinds of North Carolina Barbecue was very important! Faye remains one of the finest people I ever met and I miss her so much. (She passed away in 2013) It’s strange, I’ve lived in Ohio for 20 years now and so has Dixon. And oh yeah, early on we drafted Richard Barone into playing some amazing guitar for us.
Favorite songs cut at the Drive-In? Happy accidents? Failures best left on the cutting room floor? BOBBY: My favorite Windbreakers tune recorded at the Drive-In was “Changeless.” Holy cow, that’s an amazing song—and should have been a massive hit. There are really no failures left behind. Mostly because we were on such a budget we had to use everything!
Tell us a little about working with Randy Everett for the other session back home—I recall spotting his name on more than just your records back in the day, so I’m guessing that he was a valuable guy to that region’s music scene.
TIM: Randy Everett is a guy that we’d just known around town. He was known as a jazz guitarist, but he was just trying his hand at studio engineering at the time. Rick Garner (Terminal co-engineer on the Mississippi session) was a businessman with an interest in music who bought some studio gear and set it up temporarily in his suburban home. That’s where we did the other tracks. As I recall, Bobby traded him a guitar for the studio time.
Randy very much became an important fixture on the recording scene in the South. A lot of folks worked with him, and I worked with him a lot on various sessions. A great friend; I actually saw him just a couple weeks ago. He’s still recording, and he’s also doing some very cool paintings.
BOBBY: Randy Everett is one of those guys other guitar players just hate! He is better than you are ever going to be. And in his own wonderful way he is just as good as anyone else behind the board. And, oh yeah, the guitar I traded him for studio time was a sunburst 1964 Fender Jazzmaster.
You cover Television’s “Glory” with the Rain Parade backing you up on the album; how did that connection happen?
TIM: We knew their record (1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip), we dug it. I was booking shows at this tiny dive bar, and we were able to line them up for one. They stayed with me and (wife) Susan and hung out an extra day. We all just became fast friends. They had a day off coming up the following week, so we made a plan to record that Television song.
I remember all of us sitting at a sandwich shop before the session, mapping out the arrangement on the back of a brown paper bag.
BOBBY: Our entire connection with the Rain Parade was totally Tim and Susan. And wow—was I delighted about that since I was such a huge fan. Later on, I became friends with that other Paisley Pop genius band, True West, and was glad to bring them into our group of friends.
Anything else that was cut for Terminal that you ultimately decided against for whatever reasons?
BOBBY: Quick answer—no. Simply because we had to use everything!
Sonically, what do you think you were going for on Terminal?
TIM: To my mind, we just wanted to make a cool record. That was all. Perhaps Bobby remembers more about that.
BOBBY: Interesting question. I remember that (A) we didn’t want to sound overly dated like perhaps my beloved Flamin’ Groovies did from time to time; and (B) we didn’t want to sound like a “modern” ‘80s band would sound.
I’m struck how almost every single song is about a break-up, or a looming break-up, or looking back at the post-breakup wreckage, running into the girl who broke up with you, etc. Was this by design, or were both of you simultaneously in the throes of heartbreak when you happened to be writing material for the album?
LEE: I was already married, so I’d probably turned my attention to the heartbreak of everyday life, as opposed to any specific romantic strife. (I didn’t mean that to sound as stupid as it did.) (No worries, Tim.—Parenthetical Ed.)
BOBBY: Um, yeah, I kept rewriting the same song over and over. It was of course all about the same person.
What was your reaction when the reviews started rolling in? It was fun to read the ones you selected for the new booklet. I don’t think a lot of young fans can truly appreciate what the fanzine network back then was all about, and how it was “our internet,” along with the occasional breakthrough via a mention in Rolling Stone or Spin. I’ve written in the past about how there was this very special “us against the mainstream” feeling prior to the grunge explosion that has resulted in a bonafide community of friends who still commune on Facebook, etc.
TIM: It’s always gratifying to get good reviews, and most of ours were pretty positive. You’re right, the fanzine network was pretty great. They were physical things, not just something out in cyberspace. It was a very cool scene during the early days of the independent thing.
BOBBY: It’s of course the only reason we ever made a record—to get a good review! I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve got to say this—I met quite a few fellow musicians in those days who are still very close friends. That is so wonderful.
Tell us a little about getting out on the road to promote Terminal, and in particular the 12/26/86 show you culled the reissue’s live bonus tracks from. TIM: At the time, Bobby wasn’t able to tour, so I put together a band in Atlanta and did an East Coast/Midwest tour. It was a lotta fun. Bobby knows more about that live recording than I do… he’s the very handy archivist of the group.
BOBBY: By the time of the 12/26/86 show, I had been out of the band for quite a while and was well into recording my first solo album – 1987’s Only Ghosts Remain. That show was a Christmastime one-off thing. I don’t think we actually did another Windbreakers show together for a couple of years
Speaking of bonus tracks, any other rarities or oddities out there? You included “Lonely Beach,” from the 1985 Disciples of Agriculture French compilation, here. What was the story on it?
BOBBY: It’s my faux surf instrumental, which was recorded in quite a lo-fi way on my Fostex X-15 4 track cassette deck. I did redo it years later in somewhat higher fidelity on my solo disc On A Ladder, but I’m sure the original is better. I went through everything I could find recently and there remain two unreleased studio tracks from 1982 or so. That’s about it.
How did this reissue come about with the Mark label? (Note: Mark is a subsidiary of Italy’s metal-tilting Minotauro Records and to date has also reissued the Original Sins’ 1989 album The Hardest Way.) TIM: The short answer is, the Mark label asked about it, and nobody had prior to that. [Previously] the entirety of Terminal was tacked onto the end of the CD of 1989’sAt Home with Bobby & Tim because CDs were new and we didn’t feel we could ask people to pay $16 for one record. So we gave them a second one free. The mastering on the current reissue is much, much better.
Update us on any current activities—and what’s the possibility for future Windbreakers projects?
TIM: I stay busy with mine and Susan’s band Bark, plus I end up playing with a wide range of other folks here in Knoxville. Most of the time, I’m busier musically than when I was young.
BOBBY: I’ve been working on perhaps a solo disc for the last year or so—about half way there, I reckon.
TIM: We got together 10 or 12 years ago and recorded a couple of songs. They turned out pretty well, and we had a good time doing it. Around that time, we also recorded a song for a Buffalo Springfield tribute record. I guess we just never had the impetus to keep at it. (Note: Five Way Street: A Tribute To Buffalo Springfieldcame out on Not Lame in 2006. Details and a stream of the Windbreakers doing “Expecting to Fly” is here at Discogs.) After Bobby was in that awful accident a few years back, we made a tentative plan to get together with Mitch and record some songs, but that ended up not happening.
BOBBY: I’d be happy to turn over what I’ve got for a new Windbreakers disc. But I totally understand how unimportant that is in the world’s big picture.
Ah, Mr. Sutliff, some of us out here in Windbreakersville might opt to differ regarding that last point. Let the cajoling and convincing begin, fellow punters…
Live at the delightfully-named Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on June 14, the Irish boys were back in town, along with (cough) astutely-selected opening act One Republic. The show started in the rain, but by the end, it was, indeed, a beautiful day.
BY STEVE KLINGE
Ruminations on U2 in Tampa
U2 seems to have been in retreat since the public relations fiasco of Songs of Innocence (not every iTunes user wanted an unsolicited download of a mediocre album). The promised partner set, Songs of Experience, has yet to appear, the band claiming that they’re reassessing its relevance in the era of Brexit and Trump, but they have chosen to reclaim their fanbase by commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of their fifth album, The Joshua Tree. Smart move: It’s the Irish band’s most overtly American album, and the one that sank deepest into the hearts of the boomers that would pay $100 or more to sit or stand outdoors.
Raymond James Stadium is the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s a big bowl of an open-air stadium that holds over 60,000 people, with GA standing on the field, sold out for a mostly white, mostly 40 and over audience (although I sat in front of a couple Asian children who seemed to know all the words, and I could see a mini-United Nations of flags waving through the crowd). It was a rainy Wednesday, a gray daylight as patrons in ponchos filled the stadium during One Republic’s opening set of radio-friendly pop-rock. Baseball-capped singer Ryan Tedder bounced around the massive stage, occasionally pounding some chords on a tarp-covered upright piano while most of the other bandmembers played from within pop-up tents or under canopies. The ginormous screen behind the stage—200 by 45 foot—displayed live shots of the band, but the images were out of sync with the sound system enough to be distracting. Tedder made it clear that the band was not One Direction, did a passable cover of “Wonderful World,” and led fans through hits such as “Counting Stars.” (I’d have preferred One Direction.)
Poetry and the Weather.
During the hour between sets, thoughtful and provocative poems by Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Naomi Shihab Nye, Yusef Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander, and others scrolled on the screen; it was a nice blend of artful social consciousness for those not too busy swilling $12 light beers. The rain waned to a drizzle, then stopped; the sun came out; and, before sunset, a full double-rainbow appeared above the stadium. Oh my god, what did it mean? Maybe an omen: it could turn into a beautiful day just for U2.
The Show Begins.
As 9 p.m. neared, the lights dimmed, and the p.a. played The Waterboys’ great “The Whole of the Moon.” Then, a spotlight shined on drummer Larry Mullen at the end of the runway stage, shaped as a shadow of the Joshua tree image on the screen, and extending onto the floor. One by one the rest of the quartet gathered for “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Playing at a remove from the stage and in a relatively tight circle, the band conveyed an intimacy even in the huge space, and they stayed there for the next three songs: a rousing “New Year’s Day,” a steadily pulsing “Bad” (which incorporated a few lines from Paul Simon’s “America”), and an emphatic “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (while a portion of the text of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech scrolled on the screen).
The Edge is amazing. Impassive in his knit cap in the Florida humidity, he casually reels off those iconic, crystalline lines with the ringing, effects-laden tones. They sounded great coursing through the night, and there’s a stirring power in seeing all that sound emanating from that singular guitar. Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton provide the bedrock, leaving lots of space for the Edge, and he fills it with casual brilliance. That moment in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when he shifts to serrated chords still thrills.
Bono 1: The Cheerleader.
The 57-year old’s voice is slightly huskier than in his youth, but it’s still strong and got stronger as the night wore one. I could do without his exhortations for crowd participation (Bono sez: Wave your arms. Bono sez: Clap your hands. Bono sez: Light up your cellphones. And tens of thousands obey). But those self-aggrandizing gestures were minimal (and less obtrusive than the tendency of folks to take cellphone pictures of the video screen of the band).
The Joshua Tree.
The band ascended to the main stage to begin their in-sequence performance of The Joshua Tree, and each song had its own video component, mostly short high-def films by longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn: a spacious desert landscape, a woman hastily painting a US flag on the side of a shed, stoic people donning army helmets, a seemingly endless road (for, of course, “Where the Streets Have No Name”), occasionally a stark red screen or live shots of the band playing. Sometimes the video was so beautiful and huge that it threatened to overshadow the small humans performing in front of it. Knowing what song would come next—the bane of these full-album setlists—minimized the suspense, and the record front-loads its hits: the opening trio of “Streets,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You” could be a triumphant encore in other contexts. But the arrangements stressed the variety: “Bullet the Blue Sky” was stark and metallic, with a screeching Edge solo; the rarely performed “Trip Through Your Wires” emphasized its warped blues roots, complete with Bono harmonica solo. “Red Hill Mining Town”—never performed live before this tour— was synced to video of a Salvation Army band and to tapes of horns. Introducing album side two, Bono noted, “We’re discovering some of these songs. You’ve lived with them more than we have.”
Although the album was recorded in Ireland, it’s U2’s most American work, and Bono interjected comments about the American dream, about diversity and inclusivity, about the hope of Irish immigrants. He dedicated a lovely version of “One Tree Hill” to the memories of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shootings, which happened a year previously in Orlando. The Joshua Tree was born of the Reagan-Thatcher era, and songs like “Mothers of the Disappeared” seem timely now; sure, the show was an exercise in nostalgia, but the album sounded relevant, sometimes implicitly (in its questioning of American dreams and failures) and explicitly (in Bono’s comments and in the images on the screen). During a sprawling, abstract version of “Exit,” they played a clip from a black and white fifties western called Trackdownin which a character named Trump wants to save a town by building a wall but gets shouted down by cries of “You’re a liar, Trump!” Within the song—the most theatrical of the night—Bono also quoted a few prescient lines from Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic novel Wise Blood: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going was never there. Where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”
Bono 2: The Proselytizer Yes, Bono is earnest, moralistic, preachy: He has a platform and he’s going to use it. I saw U2 in a college auditorium in England in January 1981 a few months after Boy came out, and Bono had a cockiness about him even then: It’s a rock and roll convention. But he’s self-aware, and in Tampa he kept his set speeches brief, advocating “people have the power” politics and basic empathy. He declared early on that the country’s ideals of inclusivity should appeal to everyone, whether on the right, the left or in the center: He didn’t want to alienate. Sure, it was self-indulgent when he sang while shining a handheld camera at his own face, and the frequent sweeping generalizations about the American mythos became redundant, but the general sense of idealism and community and hope were uplifting. It’s artifice and propaganda, but it’s still inspiring; it’s good to be reminded of our potential and our need for empathy, and the widescreen nature of the messages fit the music (and the literal wide screen).
The Third Act.
After a short break, the band returned for “Miss Syria (Sarajevo),” a version of “Miss Sarajevo” from the U2/Eno Passengers project. Revamped to focus on the Syrian refugee crisis (but still with a taped operatic vocal), it was accompanied by a film showing the devastating conditions of the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. A huge sheet with a photo of a Syrian refugee passed, hand to hand, around the stadium (a cool moment, but a little too close in method to Triumph of the Will-like rabblerousing). Next came “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from Achtung Baby (the even-better successor to The Joshua Tree). They dedicated the song to their mothers and wives and the other women in their lives, and the screen displayed a roll-call of heroines, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sojourner Truth to Gloria Steinem and Michelle Obama to Pussy Riot and Patti Smith. Then came the overt crowd-pleasers: the anthemic “One,” the joyful “Beautiful Day,” the powerful “Elevation,” the resolute “Vertigo.” All highlights, but especially the straight-up rock and roll of “Elevation,” which featured some gonzo Edge guitar (and some pogoing as he played). The two-hour show omitted lots of hits to make way for all of The Joshua Tree, but that’s inevitable.
U2 can, indeed, still make you believe that it can be a beautiful day.
Go to the BLURT Facebook page to view videos that publisher Stephen Judge filmed while touring Dublin on the day marking the 30th anniversary of the release of The Joshua Tree. Elsewhere on this site you can find a selection of archival content related to U2 since we debuted in 2008 – used the search box on the right.
With a long-awaited new album, the power pop auteur is back in his groove.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Granted, Matthew Sweet didn’t invent power pop. That distinction is best left to earlier auteurs like the Raspberries, the Shoes, Cheap Trick and others that followed the Beatles and Badfinger to carve out a genre all its own. Still, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone who’s done more to advance the cause than Matthew Sweet. Indeed, Sweet’s series of essential early albums — Inside, Earth, Girlfriend, Altered Beast, 100% Fun and Blue Sky on Mars, chief among them — helped assure the power pop trajectory would remain prosperous and plentiful well into the new millennium.
Beginning a decade or so ago, Sweet further affirmed his affinity for all things pop by initiating a series of releases with Bangle Susanna Hoffs which the duo aptly dubbed Under the Covers. There have been three volumes so far (not counting a fourth included on a box set that banded the first three). To date, they’ve covered some of the most indelible songs in the pop canon decade by decade, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, giving listeners a sample of the pair’s earliest influences and a nostalgic trip down memory lane as well.
Still, it’s been six years since Sweet’s offered up an album of all original material, which made the wait for his new effort, Tomorrow Forever cause for great anticipation. All of its songs boast the same ready refrains and instantly engaging melodies that marked earlier Sweet’s earlier triumphs and with all-star array of special guests — Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, added Bangle Debbi Peterson, the Zombies’ Rod Argent and members of the Velvet Crush and the Orange Peels as well, ample attention is well deserved. A move back to his home state of Nebraska and his mother’s passing might have impeded its progress, but clearly Tomorrow Forever can be considered yet another Sweet success.
Blurt recently spoke with Sweet who offered us the opportunity to catch up us on his recent activities…
BLURT: Please give us an idea of how the new album came about.
SWEET: Before I moved from Los Angeles, I had talked about doing some sort of Kickstarter campaign. I always wanted to try it. So once I got back here, after eight or nine months or so, I actually started the campaign while I was out doing shows. It was a lot of fun to try to whip up the excitement about it. The only hitch was that very shortly afterwards, my mother passed away and instead of jumping right into making the record, several months passed before I felt like I could approach it.
Once you did get back into it, how did the writing progress?
Originally the plan was that I would do tons of demos and then pull from those demos to make the full album. I started so late that I felt like it was going to take even longer to approach it that way, so instead I started recording everything I wrote during that time. And one of the ways that I made sure to get a lot of different things was to make multiple batches of recordings. There was an initial batch of like 15 songs, and then after that, I did two more sets, making a total of 38 tracks I recorded for the record. So we had to get it down to 17 songs from 38. a demos download that was sold with the album as part of the Kickstarter campaign and that became a whole satellite album to the main album. I called Tomorrow’s Daughter. It’s kind of a throwback to the bonus release we did to accompany Altered Beast. So that’s another twelve songs that didn’t make the album, but were things that we all kind of liked. I had a group of friends around me and we listened a lot to all the music. We all had to make our favorites list. What made it easy was that everyone more or less picked the same 15 songs. But nobody really wanted to stop there. Everybody wanted to have a list that went up to 20 or 23, and so there were these extra songs that were close to making the cut, and that made it a relief for me to make the Daughter record because I felt those songs could see the light of day. I imagine that we’ll package those properly at some point, but right now the Kickstarter people will be the first to hear them.
Will they come out simultaneously with the release of the album?
Yes. It’s coming soon. I just had a request from the office to send the files so I know we’re getting close to make those downloads available. It’s been a little bit tricky. The record was received really well from my publishing company and they got very excited and got other people involved. So I made a deal where I have my own label called Honeycomb Hideout which comes out through Sony Red distribution. As a result, we wanted to closely align the Kickstarter campaign with the actual release of the record so there wasn’t a big gap where all the Kickstarter people had it and it could float around and get copied before it was available.
What prompted your move from L.A. back to Nebraska?
When the real estate market came back, we had it in our minds that we wanted to cash in on this nest egg that we had built over twenty years because it had tripled in value. So we wanted to move somewhere. We looked all around but it was my wife who suggested we look around in Nebraska.
But with all due respect, isn’t Omaha a bit out of the way in terms of the hotspots of musical activity?
I felt like I could go anywhere. It didn’t really matter. So we happened upon this house in Omaha that caught our fancy. It’s an interesting place that was built in 1937. The front of it looks almost like a Disney kind of take on a French chateau house. The back of it and the interior are more like a craftsman/art deco kind of era, and so it’s just really different and unique. Some of the rooms are built in a kind of honeycomb shape and so that’s where we came up with the name of the label, Honeycomb Hideout. There’s also a room here that was perfect for me to use as a studio room. I’ve always thought to have serious recording studios in my houses but I really always had a set up in a room that was not meant to be a studio necessarily. However there was a space in this house that made sense. It has this wood panelling. It’s almost like an old ship and so I decided to call it Black Squirrel Submarine.
It’s funny to hear you refer to all these island and nautical themes being that you’re in the middle of the country and pretty much landlocked as a result.
(Laughs) It’s a little bit strange. This room that I use is kind of in the bowels of the house, so it’s got that vibe. It came from that. When we first moved in we saw some black squirrels running around. They aren’t super common, but you see them every now and then. So Black Squirrel Submarine became this kind of name that just ended up sticking. It’s funny. There are a lot of businesses around here called Black Squirrel. They’ll be Black Squirrel Industries or Black Squirrel Tattoo Parlour. So there are other industries, but I don’t think there’s another Black Squirrel Recording.
How long had you been gone before you came back?
A really long time. I left when I got out of high school, and then I went to Athens Georgia where I went to school briefly. I mostly skipped school and started doing independent recording and did my first stuff down there. When I got my first record deal, which was sort of a development deal with Columbia Records in New York, they moved me up to New York City and I was introduced to Jules Shear. I wrote some songs with him and spent several months just writing. They gave me money to buy gear and get an apartment up there. So I lived in New York most of the time after I got out of high school which was 1983 until 1993, which is when we moved to Los Angeles. I lived back here a couple of very brief periods in the late ‘80s, but for the most part, I was on the East Coast. I then went right into recording Altered Beast in Los Angeles and kind of got turned on to L.A. by Richard Dashed, the Fleetwood Mac producer who was working on Altered Beast with me. He took me around L.A. and showed me all the cool places. I was pretty into it, and my soon-to-be wife came out when I was finishing up that record in 1993. I was excited about living there, the label, Zoo Entertainment, was based there, and so it all kind of made sense. They were really kind of like a family. I wasn’t with a big label, but Zoo Entertainment was distributed through BMG Entertainment. So we moved there from Princeton where I was living at the time. I like Princeton. We had a great house because I could play drums and make noise all day since it wasn’t near all the other houses. I kind of feel like I’ve lived all over the place.
I interviewed Conor Oberst not too long ago and I was noting the fact that he lives in Nebraska, and with all due respect, it’s not exactly a hub of the music business. What was it like to be back after having lived in the places that were close to the entertainment industry? And we ask that question without trying to put it down.
I understand that. For one thing, Conor and the whole Saddle Creek guy had created a whole music scene here where by the time I moved here, it was known somewhat as a hotbed of music. You were seeing a lot of bands coming out of here.
The new album has some wonderful special guests. Were these all people you had worked with before?
Yes, but not everybody. John Moremen, who played guitar, is from San Francisco. I met him on a tour where his band, the Orange Peels, were opening for us. I heard him play lead and I told him I’d love to have him play lead on one of my records some time. Jason Victor was recommended by my then guitar player, Dennis Taylor, who had been touring with me, but had to take a break due to some personal issues. Dennis saw Jason playing with Dream Syndicate and got it in his head that Jason would be a good fit for playing with me. Jason will be on the road with us this summer. It was very funny and cryptic. I would send him a track and tell him to play whatever he wanted and he would send it back and I loved it. Val McCallum, who played slide guitar and some other novelty sounds on the record, I had known on and off from Los Angeles, but we had never really worked together. Greg Leisz, who’s a good friend of mine, was playing with Jackson Browne and they were in Sioux City Iowa, which is about 100 miles north of Omaha. So we drove up there and kind of cornered them and asked them to do some stuff on my record. In the end, Greg was too busy. He was out on the road the whole time, but Val was able to cover for both of them. He came through and brought some special stuff to the record. So we got to know each other from working together over the internet.
Out of curiosity, has there ever been any talk about reconvening your great supergroup of sorts, the Thorns? That was a great combination — you, Shawn Mullins and Pete Yorn.
There hasn’t been a lot of talk about doing it, but I do think it would be fun to do. That record happened when the business was still together enough to allow us to sell 175,000 records. It would just be incredible now. It wasn’t quite enough to be a big hit for the record company. We toured for a couple of years and opened some shows for the Dixie Chicks and worked very hard on it, but financially we weren’t really provided for. We wanted to share the advance so we could produce the record ourselves, but the label didn’t agree to do it and then the label option ran out. We still wanted to do a record and we were free, but we also wanted to do our solo stuff. It really came together very quickly without us planning to have a group exactly. I think we did something special and I think we could do that again now, but it would take someone coming along and saying, “Hey guys, make a Thorns record” and we’d need the financial backing to make it happen.
So how would you sum up your progress and your trajectory up until this point?
To some extent, I’m a person who never looks back. Still, I feel really lucky to be able to hang in here and still put out my music.
Above: Dean Richardson (left) and Frank Carter (right) performing with the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage
BY JEFF CLEGG
Frank Carter is a tenacious force. It’s been almost 6 years since the hardcore-punk veteran left his former band Gallows, but while you’ve been sleeping, he’s been relentlessly pushing his music into a new direction. Back in January, his current project Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes released their second full-length album titled Modern Ruin that welds together the intensity of Gallows with the vision he had for his previous project called Pure Love. The album is filled with heavy rock anthems that pack a punch, and is a more polished effort compared to the band’s grittier debut Blossom.
In Frank’s words, the album is “all about human relationships. How we interact with our loved ones, with our friends, with enemies, with strangers. And it’s about how you can feel nothing to someone and then through a moment you can suddenly be intertwined with that person for the rest of your life, which is someone that happens to us all of the time as musicians. We might play a gig for someone who had a bad day, and that music can mean more to them than we can ever understand.” However, as the title of the album suggests, a lot of the topics are less optimistic. Much of the album focuses on the problems that modern society is facing, including the relationships between social media and its effects on our mental health. “We’re all avatars now. We have a digital persona and we have reality. It’s terrifying to me, I don’t really know. It’s really weird because technology is obviously doing great things. My daughter is fully fluent in iPad. She’s amazing on it and she’s only two and a half. It’s incredible to see how advanced she is with it until you get to social media.” Dean Richardson, the Rattlesnakes co-founder and guitarist, added, “[Social media] just teaches you to pretend, to mold yourself into things that you’re not.”
Frank Carter met Dean around the time that Gallows ended and Pure Love was being formed. “We actually met when I wanted Dean to make me a website. Dean’s an incredible designer and coder so I asked him to help me out with it years ago, and then we just got talking about music,” he starts. “When my first band Gallows kind of ended, I started this new project called Pure Love and that was around the first time Dean and I talked about doing something together.” Dean even mentions that he and Frank were already sending out demos around the same time. “And [Pure Love] didn’t really work out. A couple of years pass, and then Pure Love ended. And that’s when I was like ‘Okay. I’m here. You’re here. Let’s do this.’ That was it really,” Frank added.
The Rattlesnakes found Frank Carter returning to his hardcore roots, but while keeping some of the more accesible pop sensibilities of Pure Love. Frank wanted to have “some sort of violence and aggression” behind the Rattlesnakes’ sound. The band almost instantly began writing songs, possibly at a faster pace than they had ever experienced. “[Dean] sent me two songs and they were perfect. I immediately began writing lyrics on that day. We had around 2 or 3 songs on the first day we began to write, which is pretty rare.” Dean added, “That’s when I knew that I was excited about the opportunity, but wasn’t really over-thinking it. And after how quickly the first two songs came together, I began to secretely get a bit more excited about how much we could write together. I still never expected it to get to where it is now so quickly. It’s crazy.”
Below: Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage
The band is also gaining attention for their live performances as well, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’re familiar with Frank Carter’s history. Last month the band had to open Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival with a noon set in sweltering weather, which usually isn’t the time slot you’d prefer if you want an energetic and engaged crowd. Yet, despite the conditions, Frank persuaded almost 95 percent of the crowd to start a circle pit. “I’ve played Warped Tour a couple of times so I’m pretty well-versed in 11am rock shows in the heat,” Frank explained. “I also was asleep like 15 minutes before our set. I thought we were on at 3 or 4 o’clock. No one ever mentioned to me the time. It’s in my calendar so I should have just looked, but instead I just went back to bed. Next thing I know Dean is like ‘hey, uhh, it’s 30 minutes until change over,’ and I just laughed at him and said ‘good one.’ Then he said ‘no, really, get off the couch.’”
So, really, get off your couch and check out Modern Ruin. They’re unfortunately finished with their North American tour dates this year, but if you’re in Europe, be sure the check out the band on their extensive European tour lasting until the end of the year.
Friends, Casuals, Piranhas, Funk Dogs… the Orange County musical wizard’s colorful life, explained.
BY TIM HINELY
Corky Carroll is a true renaissance man. Oh sure, you know him from being a champion surfer (and a tireless spokesperson for the sport) as well as being on a Lite beer commercial but did you also know that he’s written several books (on surfing) and in addition opened a surf school in Southern California and has designed/shaped boards as well. In addition (and why we here at BLURT wanted to talk to him in the first place) he has recorded several albums over the years (many recently reissued on the Darla Records label out of Southern California) and has mined several different styles of music on those albums. As you’ll read below, surfing was his first love, but music was always a close second. He’s assembled numerous bands over the years and played solo as well. These days, though he writes a column in the Orange County Register newspaper he no longer lives in California, instead opting for a lush beach community in Mexico where he runs surf adventures (and, of course, still plays music). I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to have take me on a surf adventure. Carroll has lived a colorful life (to say the least) and he was more than happy to answer the questions I tossed his way.
BLURT: Where did you grow up?
CARROLL: I grew up in the small beach community of Surfside Colony on the far north end of Orange County. We were just south of Seal Beach. There were about 100 old beach houses along a little strip of oceanfront, not quite what you would call shacks, but close to it. Our house was so close to the water that I got to the point that I could tell what the surf would be like without even having to open my eyes, I could tell by the sound. It was a great place to grow up, especially for a surfer.
What was the first record you remember buying with your own money?
In 1958 I went to see my first surf movie. They were 16mm films that were usually narrated live by the guy who made the film and he would have a soundtrack on a tape recorder going into a couple of Voice of the Theater speakers for max volume. The movie was called “Surf Safari” by John Severson. I remember vividly when the big wave sequence came on, it is one of those frozen in time memories; the music was the Theme from Peter Gunn. That beat stuck in my head; in fact it’s still stuck in my head. Shortly after that I got my mom to buy me a record player for my birthday and I saved up my paper route money to buy records. My first purchases where the Peter Gunn album by Henry Mancini and a blues album by Jimmy Reed. Shortly after I started buying 45s and had a little set list in my room which included Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, Elvis and Buddy Holly among others. (Below: in 1968 Corky appeared in a Jantzen ad – the perfect beach bum, eh?)
What was the first instrument you picked up?
When I was about seven or eight years old we moved up the beach from a tiny one-bedroom place into a little bigger 3-bedroom place so I could have my own room. I had been sleeping in a little loft in my parents room and I think I was cramping their style a bit. Our new place came with an upright piano. My mom had been a singer when she was younger and sang on the radio back in the days of “live” radio. She had made a record, too; this is in the days of tin records. She came from a musical family. Her two brothers were professional musicians, one a concert violinist and the other a drummer in a popular jazz band of the 30’s and 40’s. She insisted that I take piano lessons. At first I was all for it and was ready to rock, but she hired the local pastor’s wife to teach me and it was a strict regime of classical and similar type music. I wanted to learn to play popular stuff that I could feel, but she was totally against that. For five years I struggled with that teacher and had no desire to learn or put in any practice time. I just wanted to go surfing. A couple of times somebody would show me how to play a little something I liked and that would kinda keep me going for awhile. Like when I learned how to play “What I’d Say,” by Ray Charles. That song had a kind of basic little riff to it and that sort of thing became kind of the base of a lot of later “surf” music. Then one time we went to Tijuana for the day and my dad bought me a cheapo guitar. That was really more my style, I loved that thing. I don’t think it even tuned correctly, but I would just bang away on it and it made me feel good. In about the eighth grade I had a pal who lived down the street and he got an electric guitar. Now THAT was really cool and I had to have one too. So I saved up a bit and asked my dad to buy me one. Not knowing anything about guitars and music he bought a crude homemade thing with a small Gibson amp that had a blown speaker. This had to be the cheapest thing he could find. Nonetheless I dug it and me and the kid down the street would spend zillions of hours working out the current instrumental surf songs of the time. Another friend of mine was learning to play the drums and I would go over to his house and bang away as loud as I could with him. His name is Tris Imboyden and he went on to become a great drummer, first with a wonderful band named HONK and then with Kenny Loggins and Chicago. My surfing career got in the way of my musical development for a number of years though and I didn’t take it much further at that time. It wasn’t until around 1969 or so that I got a nice acoustic guitar and decided to actually learn how to play the thing. Eventually I wandered back to electric, but have more or less kept a finger style of playing. I like the way Mark Knopfler does it so I kind of lean that way when I am looking for tones.
Were the Beatles a huge influence for you? Beach Boys? Anyone else?
I was a huge Beatles fan and even more so of the Rolling Stones. I played both of their albums until they melted. At first I didn’t like the Beach Boys and thought the “surfin’ bop dipty dipty dip” thing was really lame. I was much more a fan of pop, R & B, and the traditional instrumental surf music of people like Dick Dale, but as the Beach Boys’ music evolved I could not help but like the beat and the good vibrations of it. It was a shock to me when I went to England in 1967 that for the most part the Beach Boys were more popular there than the Beatles. Then I got a chance to work with them on a little promotional film they did and got to be friends with Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston. They actually asked me if I would go on tour with them as it would be an asset to have a “real surfer” in the band. At that time all my energy was into being a professional surfer and I was not even close to being skilled enough to play or sing with those guys, so I passed. I would have only embarrassed myself, which is something that I never seemed to back down from, but right then it didn’t seem like a good idea. I did become a big fan of their music and even more so as time went on and I understood more about it. In the long run though I would have to say that the bigger influence on my music came from the Stones. And later a little bit from Jimmy Buffet, who I am a huge fan of.
At what point did you start writing songs and recording? What was your first release?
At first I only played guitar and didn’t sing. My first album was done with a bunch of friends who were also surfers that played music. It was called Corky Carroll and Friends and came out in 1971. I did a few sort of mellow acoustic guitar instrumentals. At about that same time I got offered a gig playing the off nights at a little restaurant and bar. So I learned some songs and started singing. Many questioned that decision too. I was not a good singer at first, but I forged ahead at it and over the years had a lot of voice training and eventually found my way on key. It took awhile though and after many, many years, like in the late 1990’s, at it I found out that I had some ear problems that were really holding me back. When I found out that I needed to use headphones my voice finally really came to me and opened up. Without them my hearing is all wrong. I also have to use hearing aids on a day-to-day basis. So I use full on headphones on stage when I perform, not just the in ear monitors. Sometimes people ask me why I have them on and my favorite answer is “I’m listening to the game.” It doesn’t even surprise me when they believe it. After a few years of playing in bars I put together a project called the Funk Dog Surf Band. We did a show of really absurd surf and skate related songs and included three great looking backup singers called the “Corkettes.” We had a single released in the U.S. and in England that was recorded by Dennis Dragon at his studio in Malibu called “Skateboard Bill.” We also were on the Gong Show two times, one time we won and the other time we got gonged. I like to think that this was my “learning” band.
(Below: Funk Dog Surf Band)
Was the Coolwater Casuals your first band? If so how’d that come together?
After awhile the Funk Dog band mistakenly thought we needed a cooler name so we changed it to the “Tropics.” Eventually that ran it’s course and while I was sort of in between things I was introduced to a fantastic musician named Chris Darrow by a mutual friend, Rick Griffin. Rick was an amazing artist who started out doing surfing cartoons and then went on to concert posters and Grateful Deal album covers and a number of other good things. Chris had been a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Kaleidoscope and was the leader of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band, among a zillion other things. He was a big leaguer and he also had just moved to the beach and was learning to surf. He and I clicked right off the bat and became pals. He worked on my musicianship and I worked on his surfing. He put together the Coolwater Casuals and together we wrote songs and put together a show. We imported the Corkettes too. Where the Funk Dog band had been fun and silly, and meant to be that way, the Casuals were a damn solid rock band. I loved that feeling. I loved being on stage with both of those bands, but in a different way. The Funk Dog Band was a novelty and intended to entertain and make people laugh and I liked that part. I want to come back as a stand up comedian in a later life, it feels so good to get a room laughing, but the Coolwater Casuals rocked and that really felt right to me. Chester Crill was in that band too, one of the great electric violin guys ever.
How did you end up recording with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees for the “Tan Punks on Boards’ single”?
The record company, Criminal Records, which released my first single, “Skateboard Bill,” in England, heard a demo tape from a rehearsal with the Casuals. Chris and I had just written “Tan Punks on Boards” and it was the opening song to our set. They liked it and wanted us to record it. Chris was pals with Mike Nesmith who owned his own label up in Carmel called Pacific Arts. Mike got involved and we recorded “Tan Punks…” at Lyon Studios in Newport Beach. It was released shortly after as a single on Pacific Arts. Not long after that we put out the “Surfer for President” LP. (Below: related photo of Carroll, courtesy Art Brewer.) Most of that album was recorded on a TEAC 4 track in my garage.
What was next? Corky Carroll and the Piranhas?
No, that is just recently since I signed with Darla Records. After the Coolwater Casuals ran its course I didn’t perform much for a number of years. But then a small label in Switzerland signed me for a “Best of” album and one more after that. This led to a series of CD’s on European labels and I started my own little independent label to release small quantities of a number of albums that I recorded in my home studio either totally solo or with Chris Darrow. And I went back to doing solo gigs in local bars in Southern California. My main gig was being house musician at Duke’s on the Huntington Beach Pier for a number of years before I moved to Mexico in 2003. Since then I have been doing occasional dinner concerts at local cantinas and writing new material.
How did you hook up with James at Darla Records who started reissuing your records?
He found me on Facebook and asked why he couldn’t find any of my music online. This sort of led to him finding some of the old stuff and wanting to reissue most of them plus do a new “Best Of” followed by a totally new album, which I recorded last summer. That is the Blue Mango album, which the Piranha plays on. This is a really great group of extremely fun and talented musicians that I was lucky to be able to put together for this project. I love the connection with Darla Records and with James himself. The dude surfs and we have a lot in common, plus he is a really good guy. And Darla is a very lovely label, it says that right on their stationary.
I notice a lot of your songs talk about different environmental issues. What current issue is the most critical?
Well there is always something isn’t there. I used to get more into that kind of thing but lately have tended to write more about things within my current experience or that I am feeling right now. Sometimes the environment falls into that, sometimes it’s about a chicken standing on the side of the road debating about crossing in traffic or Surf Zombies. I am a fan of those really bad horror movies that are so stupid they’re good: Mega Piranha, Zombeavers, Sharknado – that kind of thing. Sometimes there just seems like there are so many things to be concerned about that I just go into alternative realities and ignore current events – or I just go surfing and forget about them. This only works for as long as I am in the water though. It’s turning on the TV that’s dangerous. The world is not the safest place these days. I just wrote a song called “Holy Moley.” It’s about turning in the TV looking for cartoons, but all I see are blood and guts and gore and ragin’ ruins. Don’t swipe my lyrics here kids, hahaha.
How did the column in the Orange County Register come about? Is it weekly? Is it mostly music?
They approached me to write a weekly column about 25 years ago and it’s still alive and going. I actually do two a week, one is a question and answer and the other is whatever I feel like writing about. Mostly it’s surfing related or beach lifestyle in one way or another. Sometimes I write about music too, but the main topics are more about surfing. At times I do cover musicians who surf such as Jackson Browne or Jack Johnson or surfers who do music such as Tom Curren or Donavon Frankenreiter. All these guys are examples of just because you are good at one thing does not mean that you can’t be been at another. Sometimes people don’t want to give somebody credit for that because they assume that just because you are well know as a surfer you certainly can’t be all that great of a musician, or the other way around.
Tell us about your current band members, Matt Magiera and Matt Marshall? How long has this lineup been together?
Matt Magiera was the original drummer back in the Funk Dog Surf Band. He was a teenager and still in High School then. We used to have to get a note from is parents to get him into the clubs we played at most of the time. He was already really good then and went on to become outstanding. He introduced me to Matt Marshall. That Matt works with his brother Phil Marshall doing big time movie scores and he has also worked with my friend Henry Kapono. We were lucky that he was available the week I was in California recording the Blue Mango album. Super clean bass player, I hope to do a lot more with both of these dudes in the future. (Below: Corky with core Piranhas Matt Magiera, Richard Stekol, and Douglas Miller.)
How about some of the guys you’ve played with over the years. Brad Fiedel, Chris Darrow, Richard Stekol and Doug Miller. How about something interesting about each one.
As I have mentioned Chris Darrow and I have been playing together and recording together since the late 1970s. He would be my main musical influence and mentor. He got me into branching out and becoming a multi-instrumentalist. Chris and I just jell perfectly when we put songs together. And Doug Miller was also the lead violinist in the Funk Dog Surf Band and worked with me as a duo playing in bars and clubs in the early days. Brad Fiedel and I met when he started coming to Mexico to surf maybe ten years ago. He built a house near ours and he stayed with us while it was going up. He is a super musician having done well over 100 big movie scores as well has having toured with Hall and Oats. We would sometimes jam when he was at our house and I was stoked when he agreed to do the keyboards on Blue Mango. One of the movie scores he did was for a horror flick called Fright Night. Fantastic score. I had this song called “Surf Zombie”, which was just begging for some of that good Brad Fiedel/Fright Night kinda vibe. He also helped me do the final mix before we sent it off to Nate Wood to master. This was the first time that I actually got to work with Richard Stekol although we have known each other since the early 70s when he was playing with HONK. They were, and are, one of my all time favorite bands and I have always been a fan of his guitar work. When I was putting together the players for the album a great songwriter friend of both of ours, Jack Tempchin, heard a few of the new songs and suggested I ask Richard to do some guitar tracks. Thankfully he agreed and his work on this album really brings a lot of magic to the songs. The Piranha are a really unique mixture of players and I could not have asked for a more perfect lineup. When we were discussing band names and the “Piranha” came up it was Richard who said, “Hey, it’s perfect. After all, everybody’s gotta eat.” That sort of became our band motto.
With you being in Mexico and your band mates in California how often do you play shows and/or tour?
Together, not yet. But, that said, thanks to modern technology I am able to perform by myself and use the tracks from the album that I have recorded into a little box. I can do the songs from the album that way, I just leave out my tracks and play them live and sing live. I do this with my whole set, but the other songs I record myself in my home studio and use them as backing while my guitar and voice are live. It has a harmonizer too so I can thicken the songs with harmony. I can do a Beach Boys medley this way. Thanks to Chris for getting me to be able to play most of the instruments myself.
Who are some of your biggest influences, musically speaking?
I like the Stones and Jimmy Buffet. Also am a big fan of Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Jack Tempchin. The HONK band is at the top of my list. Chris Darrow too, his own albums are super cool and his personal input into my entire musical life has been enormous.
Of all the records you’ve released over the years could you pick a favorite?
By far it’s the new BLUE MANGO album. I love this work and am very proud of the final product. Some of the songs on Visions of Paradise stand out too.
What’s next? Shows? A new record?
Definitely more shows. Am working on a concert in Florida and trying to get one going in Texas and in Southern California later this year. And I will continue to do shows here in Mexico – it’s how I get to try out new material and keep sharp musically. I am not sure about plans for another album as of yet. Blue Mango is still relatively new on the market right now. Of course I would like to do another one for sure. I just wrote a couple of new songs I like a lot but have a ways to go to have enough material solid enough to record yet. Hopefully next year. The Piranha are on notice. It will help the cause if ALL of you who might be reading this buy Blue Mango right now. You will obviously love it and want to tell all your friends too. Come on, just do it.
Any final comments? Words of wisdom? Anything you wanted to mention that I forgot to ask?
Well, I feel that I have been really lucky to have been able to pursue the things I love most – surfing and music. They have so much in common. The late Timothy Leary once told me that we are all surfers of sorts riding different waves through the universe. Sound waves, cosmic waves, permanent waves, whatever. Riding through a guitar solo or singing is much like riding a wave on surfboard. You’re climbing and dropping and tucking into little sections and it’s a lot of ad-lib and expression. I love the feel both give me. Performing is a rush and I like that, but I also just love being by myself and plugged in. I can close my eyes and wander through new universes all the time. In surfing you gotta keep the eyes open or you will wind up on the rocks. But in music you can just soar without looking, just feeling. Of course you can always wind up on the rocks doing that too, that’s what puts the thrill into it. The only thing that bleeds is your soul.
Though more questions are raised than answered, the erstwhile Joy Division/New Order bassist clearly knows his material, and your reaction to it will depend upon where you fall on the purist scale. The albums: Unknown Pleasures Tour 2012: Live at Leeds; Closer Live Tour 2011: Live in Manchester; Movement Tour 2013: Live in Dublin; Power Corruption & Lies Tour 2013: Live in Dublin
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When a prominent member leaves a famous and still-active band and forms a rival outfit, it’s always something of a conundrum. What’s the line between a continuation of the original group’s vision and a cover act that happens to feature an original member? It’s made especially complicated when said rival concentrates on classic material, rather than creating new stuff. One might well ask: what’s the point beyond the initial rush of nostalgia? Especially if that bandmember is the bass player. Unless we’re talking about Geddy Lee, that’s hardly the member most fans want to see spin off into his own thing – after all, it’s usually the singer or perhaps the guitarist who draw the most attention.
For Peter Hook, however, it’s not so simple. After a famously acrimonious parting from New Order, he formed a group called the Light in order to play the Joy Division and New Order songs he loved. An original member of both groups, Hook was a driving musical force in both. His distinctive tone and penchant for playing high on the neck gives each band a unique bottom end – just try to imagine “Love Will Tear Us Apart” without that iconic bass riff. As co-writer and riff-generator, rather than just simply anchor, Hook has as much right to play these songs as anybody, and he’s made a comfortable career for himself performing them for audiences either old enough to miss the good ol’ days or too young to have experienced them live.
But both bands are identified by their lead singers – the flat, emotionally drained insistence of JD’s Ian Curtis and the light, poppy croon of NO’s Bernard Sumner. And the latter continues to tour with New Order, who are also still in the business of making new albums, rather than peddling nostalgia. (Though, let’s face it, NO concerts probably consist of a small handful of new tracks and an endless parade of hits.) Hook is strictly delivering reminiscence. Which begs the question: Does the Light need to make albums when the original albums he’s covering are still readily available?
Hook has decided to find out with a barrage of new releases via Westworld, all live, each devoted to a particular item from his prior acts’ catalogs. Live in Leeds takes on Joy Division’s iconic debut Unknown Pleasures, adding enough JD singles and B-sides to expand into a second disk. Live in Manchester, performed for a hometown crowd, addresses JD’s second and final LP Closer, adding many of the same non-album tracks as bonuses for a two-disk set. The Light proves itself to be a crack band, particularly drummer Paul Kehoe and guitarist Nat Wason, boasting enough reverence to do the material justice and enough energy to give the more aggressive songs a kick in the arse. With a gruff voice in the same range as Ian Curtis’, Hook slips into the late frontman’s role surprisingly well, though he doesn’t have his predecessor’s lived-in gloom. Like the band, Hook seems most comfortable with the pounding end of the JD songbook – “Warsaw,” “Transmission” and “Dead Souls” genuinely smoke. The occasional deep dive turns up songs like the punky “The Drawback,” from the scrapped version of JD’s debut album, or the instrumental “Incubation,” which appears only a posthumous JD live record and opens Manchester. Ending Leeds with “Ceremony,” the first New Order single that was intended to be a Joy Division song, is a nice touch.
The two volumes of Live in Dublin present Hook and co. doing New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies in their entirety. (Released, for some reason, in separate volumes, even though they were recorded at the same show and practically beg for another double disk set.) As the albums NO made before dancefloor dominance became paramount, they’re well-suited to the Light’s less synth-heavy, more rocking approach. The band plays up a storm, attacking these songs like they’re brand new. New six-stringer David Potts’ power chords gives every track balls, while Hook’s bass-playing son Jack Bates holds down the bottom so Hook can essay his usual high-neck plinks. Kehoe keeps the rhythms burning like a line of ash leading to dynamite. The aggression powering “Denial,” “Senses” and “Ultraviolence” may take longtime fans aback, though it’s not so much a radical shift as an aesthetic one. The Light is particularly potent on the non-album tracks – “Everything’s Gone Green” and “Procession” practically leap out of the speakers and at your throat.
The real contrast is in the vocals. Hook’s bluff baritone isn’t remotely close to NO guitarist Bernard Sumner’s choirboy croon, and the former’s frank struggle to keep with the same key as the originals can be a little, shall we say, disconcerting. (“Dreams Never End” and “Doubts Even Here” are excepted, since they were originally sung by Hook in the first place.) The brooding balladry of “Your Silent Face,” grooving dance pop of “True Faith” and unabashed sugar of “Age of Consent” and “Temptation” practically beg for a voice less prone to flatness and grit. It doesn’t help that the first half of the Movement release consists of Joy Division tunes, which suit Hook far better.
No one, including Hook, would ever claim these records are superior to the originals. So once again the question arises: What’s the point? Are they mere souvenirs for diehard fans to take home from concert tours? Considering how hard the band cooks and the obvious love and effort put into the performances, it’s difficult to dismiss these records as just items to take up space on the merch table. And goodness knows it may be the only chance to hear the Joy Division songs played live by someone who was there. In the end, of course, it’s up to the individual listener. For some, no takes on these songs without Ian Curtis or the rest of New Order serves any point. For others, the might of the band and the live energy may be enough to justify the spins. Pick your poison.
Consumer Note: The albums were originally released as limited edition vinyl for this year’s Record Store Day.
Hop into the WayBack machine to 1971-72, and reconsider three key remastered reissues from Hensley, Byron, Box, and the gang. Bullets optional; more cowbell!
BY BILL KOPP
Critical consensus has not been overly kind to Uriah Heep. The British heavy progressive rockers released a string of commercially successful albums in the 1970s – and persist in greatly altered form to this very day – but they often got short shrift from tastemakers. A typical summation of the group and its work can be found in a worn and dog-eared copy of The Rolling Stone Record Guide: “A mutant version of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep has to be considered one of the worst commercially successful bands of the Seventies.” The Guide gives 11 of 14 Uriah Heep albums rated a bullet (“worthless”) while the other three each earn one star (“poor”).
I’m here to call bullshit on that. Uriah Heep hit a creative peak that extended (at least) across three albums: Look at Yourself (1971), Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday (both 1972). Scored on sincerity and profusion of imaginative melodies/riffs, that musical triptych is in fact an exemplar of the era’s hard rock.
And the albums have worn better than one might expect. Though the band’s lineup shifted often (even in the period when these records were made, there were personnel changes), at their peak Uriah Heep had a distinctive sound that was – while perhaps not quite all their own (they did sound a bit like Deep Purple) – identifiable and appealing.
Today, Look at Yourself is the least-remembered of the three records, but it’s filled with memorable hooks, and nobody could ever question the passion with which the band delivered its music. BMG’s recent expanded reissue of the album includes the original seven-cut album on the first CD, with a bonus disc full of 11 tracks – all previously unreleased – including alternate takes/mixes, leftover tracks, single edits and the like.
Even better – much better, in fact, is 1972’s Demons and Wizards. Yes, it includes the band’s most well-known tune, the pile-driving “Easy Livin’,” a number that isn’t especially representative of Uriah Heep’s sound. More typical of the group’s output in that era is “The Wizard” (not the Black Sabbath tune), a number that features David Byron’s dramatic lead vocals, Mick Box’s always inventive guitar work, Ken Hensley’s delightfully grandiloquent and often heavily distorted organ, and an arrangement that wrings every bit of theatricality out of the music. Sure, it’s easy to parody this kind of thing, focused lyrically on Tolkiensque themes yet without the occasional preciousness of, say Jon Anderson’s lyrics. Spinal Tap made a career out of poking fun at the proto-metal, proto-power balladeering of groups like Uriah Heep. But these songs rock in their own way, and are deserving of respect.
The expanded reissue of Demons and Wizards is truly a revelation. The bonus cuts are easily as good as the previously-released ones, suggesting that had Uriah Heep been so bold as to have made Demons and Wizards a double album, it would have been quite a good one. A non-LP cut, “Why” was originally the flip side of “The Wizard.” The new set includes a nearly eight-minute edit of the song that features a thunderous, corkscrew bass line that is truly a hard-rocking thing of beauty. And it’s just one of many tasty tracks on the set. Demons and Wizards would be Uriah Heep’s first Gold Award album in the USA.
And while it didn’t include a hit single on the scale of “Easy Livin’,” The Magician’s Birthday is nearly the equal of Demons and Wizards. For whatever reason, the band was firing on all cylinders in 1971 and ’72, cranking out more quality material than it had space to release. So the 2CD reissue of The Magician’s Birthday features no less than 15 bonus tracks. Most are alternate versions – which, admittedly can get a bit tiring after a while – but they’re all worthwhile. And like the other two reissue sets, it features excellent and informative liner note essays by Joel McIver, based on band interviews.
Was Uriah Heep’s music over the top? Sure; I’ll grant you that. Was it silly? Sometimes, yeah. C’mon: this is rock ‘n’ roll we’re talking about here. Was it fun? Absolutely, without a doubt. Is it still all of those things? You bet. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must – I for one wear my Heep fandom proudly – but if you value the heavier end of what would come to be known as classic rock, you need these albums in your collection. And if you only have the originals, these 2CD sets are a worthwhile upgrade/addition.
Bill “Lord Byron” Kopp is the BLURT Jazz Desk Editor, additionally vying this month to be our official Prog God Bureau correspondent. Submit your votes, comments, and sundry submissions to his Musoscribe music magazine blog.
Canadian post-rockers return after eight-year hiatus with memorable set of instrumentals.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
The title of the latest from Toronto-based post-rockers Do Make Say Think alludes to the Buddhist notion that all seemingly distinct thoughts and ideas are, in truth, connected to collective subconscious feelings. This may be the most open exploration of that conceit in the band’s 25-year tenure, but for fans it’s been Do Make Say Think’s defining trait—the connective tissue in their vastly diverse sonic explorations is what stocks their records with such emotional power.
Despite a gap of eight years between recordings, Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation) upholds the band’s aesthetic without seeming to miss a two-drum-kits beat. These nine tracks, ranging from glitchy four-minute piano-based lullabies to epic 10-minute guitar workouts, read like an anthology (of sorts) of the band’s holistic approach to instrumental rock.
By and large, Do Make Say Think steer clear of the predictable Mogwai/Explosions in the Sky post-rock theorem—Melody + Tempo over Crescendo, divided by Volume. They’ve also avoided disappearing down the electronic rabbit hole that the genre’s flag-bearers, Tortoise, seem determined to do.
Instead, the band’s multi-instrumentalist core—Ohad Benchetrit (guitar, keyboard, horns), Charles Spearin (bass, guitar, keys, horns), Justin Small (guitar, keys), and drummers Dave Mitchell and James Payment—build their pieces organically, never letting effects hijack melody.
Take the LP’s signature statement, the 10-plus minute “Horripilation.” In the beginning, guitar figures lazily circle each other like summer insects before the bass pulls the tempo forward and the drums began an urgent thrum. The song pares back to reveal two keyboard lines taking the place of the guitars, this time accompanied by subtle strings and later by horn skronks, all of it gelling together with synth squiggles, distortion and lurches of feedback. By the seventh minute the song is in cymbals-crashing high gallop, where DMST then peel back the instrumentation until only the guitar melody remains. It’s a deft reversal, and one that rewards multiple listens.
But memorable moments like that abound. On the “Her Eyes on the Horizon,” the quintet channel the controlled abandon familiar from their parent company, Broken Social Scene, into the collective’s all-for-one, one-for-all crescendos that seem to extol “team concept.” (If this were the NBA, DMST would be the Warriors, not the Raptors—sorry, guys.) A companion piece, “As Far as the Eye Can See,” follows, snare-rolls and trap replacing toms-thunder as guitar glissandos roll in and out of focus until a new melody emerges and spirals off into the distance.
“Murder of Thoughts” taps into a more overtly Western patina, recalling Spearin’s earlier project, Valley of the Giants. Timpani and pedal steel conjure the vast expanses, and by song’s end they drift organically into the sound of a rusty weathercock turning squeakily in the high plains wind.
Another set of companion tunes also highlight DMST’s diverse sonic palette. Oscillating between layered synth burbles and arena-sized riffs, the five minutes of “Bound” terminate in a violent mood swing, courtesy of air raid warning-sized synth blasts which overlap into “And Boundless.” There, roiling drums and horror flick keyboards gradually morph into an unexpected—and beautiful— glissando-rich melody.
At a shade under four minutes, the piano-based “Shlomo’s Son” clocks in as the LP’s most reflective moment, before DMST close things out by doubling back to the multiple-guitar attack on “Return, Return Again.” It opens with one guitarist looping quick-fingered arpeggios while another layers over that an elegant melody. The drums lash those riffs with increasing fervor, until waves of keyboards and a fluttering baritone sax manage to turn what should be cacophony into transcendence. As walk-offs go, it’s a doozy.
Just about the only misstep here is, oddly, the opener, “War on Torpor.” Not only is the title a bit on-the-nose, but the song never really modulates its aggressive guitar attack over its five minute-run. By the end of the assault it sounds like something that would be more at home with prog kings Yes, circa Relayer, than the rest of the LP.
It’s not even close to a deal breaker, though, and arguably enhances by contrast the rest of the LP’s compelling nuance, textures and power. But then not every collective subconscious feeling has to be a good one—it’s just better when the balance of our stubborn and persistent illusions comes out this far ahead in the musical equation.
Consumer Note: The Constellation label has gone the extra mile, packaging- and design-wise, for vinyl collectors. In addition to a credits insert, there’s also a fold-out poster that replicates the outer art on the gatefold sleeve, and both 180gm LPs are housed in deluxe, sleek-lined inner sleeves to minimize any potential scuffs incurred when sliding the records out. And most intriguingly, side D does not contain music, but a series of small nature etchings ringing the surface. This may all seem nominal when judging the music, but it’s indicative of both the label and the band’s desire to present a work of art—something that’s simply not possible when dealing with a digital stream or download. (And digital fans, never fear: A download card is included.)
BAND PHOTO CREDIT: Sandlin Gaither
Ed. note: DMST is performing tonight, June 10, in Toronto at the Danforth Music Hall. You’ll be able to watch the live stream via YouTube – click on the player below for details.
Blurt Exclusive: The Feederz "Stealing" (from new Slope Records 45)
Blurt Exclusive: Parson Red Heads "Coming Down" (from forthcoming June '17 album)
Blurt Video Exclusive: Twinkle Star "Wasting Life Together"/"Release Yourself"
A Blurt Video Boot Exclusive: Vieux Farka Toure - live in Beijing 1/15/17)
Blurt Exclusive: James Johnston "Heart and Soul" (live)