“I focused on the composing”: The gifted, celebrated jazz guitarist talks about her new album 3, additionally outlining her journey to date and the roadblocks—among them, the subtle but inherent sexism that the jazz milieu harbors—she had to overcome. (Photos by Sandrine Lee)
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Jazz guitarist Leni Stern’s musical journey has taken her from her native Germany to Berklee College of Music and the Sahara Desert. She’s a musical omnivore, happily absorbing disparate musical influences. On her new album, 3 (released on CD, vinyl, and digital this past April), Stern taps into African music along with Alioune Faye (djembe, sabar, calabas, backing vocals) and Mamadou Ba (bass). The result is a warm, seamless collaboration—an international sound in the very best sense. Stern talked about her music teachers, her discovery of jazz, and the assumptions that women in jazz still confront today.
BLURT: Could you give me some idea of your background? You were an actress before you became a musician, right?
STERN: Well, I was always a musician, but I also had a love for acting, so I actually had two roles in the acting company that I founded. I was a musical director and I was an actress. And I wrote music for theater and created music for film. But I was always a little singer-songwriter with a guitar and many songs that I wrote. And many Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs that I sang. The theater composing and film composing really took off, so I came to America because I had heard of a school in America—Berklee College of Music. It had an association with a film school, where you could score the student films and you could use all the musicians in the college to write your scores with. So that sounded perfect. And it turned out to be perfect.
So the music sort of took over from the acting. But I still worked as an actress. I was a VJ for BET—Black Entertainment Television—for many years. I went back and forth to do an acting project every once and a while. But it’s really hard to do both at the same time. And I really wanted to perfect my music in many directions, so I would take guitar classes and then I started playing percussion and took percussion classes. And I took singing classes and composition.
And also I married another guitar player—Michael Stern. And he didn’t want to move to Europe. And I actually liked America. I never decided to stop acting. And I would act again if there were an opportunity that is compatible with my music and touring and recording schedule. And right there is…a problem because I am now playing with many bands and I have my own band and many recording projects, so as it is there isn’t enough hours in the day. (laughs)
You’ve been working with African musicians lately. Could you tell me a bit about that?
You know, I had on my bucket list these festivals I want to play, and one of them was the Festival in the Desert, in the Sahara Desert, because it’s four hours away from any civilization. I had seen a film about it. And I said, “Okay, I want to play this festival.” And I got to play at the festival. And I met a lot of African musicians that asked me to play in their bands. So I ended up spending a lot of time in Africa and playing in that style of music, because they were interested in my guitar style. African guitarists play different. It’s not, how should I say? It’s a different kind of guitar, it’s different sound on the guitar. It’s a more percussive sound. They love our rock and blues sound, or jazz soloing. They love that. So they invited me to play in their bands, with them, to create a mixture of styles.
And I just did my best to learn their approach to it. It was a very cool exchange, because they were flipping out over my playing and I was flipping out over theirs. It was a continuous “Show me that!” “No, you show me that!” (laughs) “No, you show me that!”
I started writing in that style and combining our musical principles with theirs. In my band, I have two master musicians from Senegal and they all play in western bands because they’re based in New York. They’re originally from Senegal and they’re familiar with the rhythms of Africa, particularly Senegalese music, which is my project 3, what my new record is all about.
When you first came to American and to Berklee, was there a huge culture shock?
Yes, there was. There was, but I loved America. You know, Germans love American culture, because you liberated us from fascism, and protected us against the Russians. Now you got your own Russian problem, but you know, we were very afraid. I mean, there’d been a war for our main cities. The Americans protected us.
My mother was so happy when I married an American. I mean, I thought she’d be more unhappy about me being far away, but just the fact that I married an American…American culture, especially in Munich, was very present, ‘cause Munich had an army station and it had a big band. And all the musicians in the big band played in the jazz clubs around Munich.
When did you transition to playing jazz guitar?
I always loved jazz. I was a blues guitarist first. My little brother had an immense influence on me because he was an avid record collector. And he was crazy about certain things. If you wanted to make him freak out, you’d scratch one of his records. He would lose it completely. And he had an amazing blues collection. Like John Mayall. The English blues guys. But also like Mississippi John Hurt. He was a keyboard player. He is a keyboard player (laughs). He’s a very good keyboard player! I played the guitar and he played keyboards, so I had first dibs at the blues, because those were guitar records that he was imitating on the piano. And I thought like, “Oh, I win. I got this! I got the blues!” So that’s how it first started.
And then I started hearing Wes Montgomery and jazz musicians. I was very intrigued by the way they could play long solos.
Just curious: was that the first instrument you started playing—the guitar? What was your first instrument?
My first instrument actually was the recorder. All German children played the recorder. And then I played piano. Because that’s also sort of a tradition in Germany, because it allows you the easiest way of understanding harmony. And we have a very big repertoire–classical music–that we’re very proud of. Generally in school, music is like a very important subject in school in Germany. If you flunk music, you have a problem, you know. It’s a major subject in school, just like math or history. And you have to sing in this choir, whether you can sing or not. And so it’s really encouraged to play an instrument. I played piano and classical music, but I always had a love for the guitar. And my mother had a guitar, so I took that guitar and I taught myself how to play it. But then she kind of realized after a while that my love was for the guitar. So she organized for me to have guitar lessons. Classical guitar lessons. But I had a very understanding teacher. She was good with teaching kids. And she said, “What would you like to play?” And I played the blues for her. She said, “Oh, that’s so interesting!” She said, “So expressive”! She was a real artist. She encouraged me to play guitar and sing the blues. And I was like, eleven.
She had her soirees of all her students. Some of them would sing a classical repertoire. And I would get to sing the blues and play guitar. But I still played piano at the same time. But the guitar was always my reward. If I finished my classical repertoire on piano, I could play guitar all I wanted. And then when I was fourteen my mother bought me an electric guitar and an amp to go with it, so that I could play with my brothers. Nobody could hear me in my acoustic guitar. So she bought me an electric guitar.
I know that you’ve been asked this before, but women playing jazz guitar is still very infrequent. Have you had people who ever tried to discourage you?
All the time. All the time. I actually just came from playing in [jazz pianist] Monica Herzig’s band. And we were exchanging stories. And it’s funny how people insist that you are a singer. A guy in the audience came up. It was one of those universities. Monica is a professor at Indiana University. It was one of those university guys that came up and said, “Yeah, I’m here to see Monica Herzig. She’s the singer, right?” I said, “No, she doesn’t sing at all. I don’t even know if she can sing! She’s a pianist and a composer!” And he said, “Really? I thought she was a singer!” And I said, “What makes you think that she’s a singer?” And he said, “Well, I dunno, she’s a singer!”
We think that women are supposed to be singers. Even though there is no recording of Monica ever singing.
I imagine you must have had to learn how to take all that in stride. How did you deal with those reactions from people?
I founded my own band. Because I’m also a composer. Sometimes I think sometimes that’s my biggest gift, is composing. ‘Cause I’ve been composing since I’m very little. I didn’t call it composing, I would call it making songs, when I was six. “Make a song!” (laughs) And I was encouraged by my teachers. I had very, very special teachers. They were great artists themselves. And I guess they were entertained by me. My piano teacher—I really didn’t want to read. I really didn’t like to read. It had nothing to do with the music for me. And she recognized that I felt music deeply. So she didn’t scold me. She said, “What did you do at the piano?” I said, “I make up songs.” And she said, “Oh, so you’re going to be a composer! That’s easy!”
So you know, I focused on the composing. And actually, there’s been a lot of discrimination against women composers, too. Most of the people who know Mahler, for example, didn’t know that his wife was an equally good composer.
I came from a panel at South by Southwest and there was a guy that performed at the same showcase we played last night, and he was very funny. He said, “I was so surprised!” And I said, “How come you were so surprised?” And he said, “You look like a nice mommy, a nice lady, and then you come out onstage and you play like panther!” And I said, “That’s a very nice compliment!”
So I guess people still, when people see me, they assume I’m a nice mommy! Even though I have a side shave and a head tattoo. (laughs) That’s what we’re supposed to be! And they can’t imagine that we would be a complete human being with all sorts of feelings inside ourselves. You know, it’s very difficult. But I see it getting easier for the next generation. Because people like me raised the next generation of children.
Better their hell then, than ours now: The UK legends reflect upon their seminal early ‘90s album and bring us up to date on where things stand in 2018.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
26 years on from its release, Hair and Skin Trading Company’s Jo in Nine G Hell (Situation Two/Beggars Banquet, 1992) is a record that takes the listener on quite a harrowing journey of visceral tribal rhythms, dubnotic pulses, and acid-spattered landscapes. Ex-Loop members John Willis (drums), and Neil MacKay (bass, vocals), augmented by Nigel Webb (guitar) plus the short-tenured keyboardist/sampler player Richard Johnston, were a force to be reckoned with on their debut. Pulling from a vast array of Krautrock influences, the band fused this with a kinetic tribalism and organic sonic chug that, as it contorted and entered the ear canal, managed to elicit a very unsettling and challenging listening experience which was wildly out of step with the early ‘90s.
As fate would have it, the album was found populating the .99 cent bin at many of the record stores that I frequented at the time. Not the first Situation 2 band to suffer this fate, I count The Darkside and Thee Hypnotics among those as facing similar fortunes. So while Americans seemed to let bands like this slip through the cracks, I took it as an opportunity to listen to some of the UK’s best kept secrets. I have immense respect for Peter Kent, Situation Two’s founder, whose team gathered together some of the most unique bands of the time.
Jo in Nine G Hell was produced by Roli Mosimann, who worked with The Swans and Foetus, and the uncompromising nature of the songs were given sonic coherence under his command. So what are some of the songs on this album worth mentioning?
First and foremost, the opener “Elevenate” must be discussed. “Some people deserve to die…” is a menacing enough lyric, but place it over an urgent guitar line and throbbing bass with some muscular drumming thrown in for good measure, and you have a full-on bloodletting about to take place. Thinking back to when I first heard this track, I can recall how excited I was. It was the sonic brutality and snide unadorned voice spitting vitriol that managed to hook me. It was the perfect angry manifesto for someone who was about to be spit out into the real world left to fend for himself. (Below: the author spins the track for you, the discerning Blurt readership.)
“Monkies,” with its nocturnal dub bass line, is another stunner that still blows me away. It’s the oddest mélange of psych/dub/metal that you will ever hear, but these disparate elements work extremely well and are the key to the uneasiness one feels when listening to this record. Then there’s “Where’s Gala,” with its cascade of sonic blips and bleeps, emitting a mournful call through the opium fog signaling that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole is the part of the joy this record offers. “Pipeline,” with its motorik beat, works its magic as it enters your cranium; the meaty bass playing here is what makes this song shine—dare I say, it’s even a tad funky.
“Flat Truck,” with its tribal beat beginning, drifts off into a schizophrenic drug-addled ferocity. Here, the drumming and bass take center stage and act as the core on which the effect-laden guitar line is able to zigzag over. Here, as on much of the album, the rhythm section is front and center, while the guitar and vocals are used to augment the proceedings to chilling effect.
Hair and Skin Trading Company, on this record, took fans of Loop into some difficult, uncharted sonic territory that is well worth giving a listen to. (Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the title is an anagram of the three members’ names (Neil, Nigel, John) as member Richard Johnston quit during the recording.)
Thankfully, I was able to track down bassist MacKay and drummer Willis, who are readying a new record as we speak, for an interview about the genesis of Jo in Nine G Hell—as well as the state of the world.
BLURT: Where did The Hair and Skin Trading Company name come from?
John Willis: It was the name of a real business at the end of the street that I lived [on in] London. We thought it was snappy.
Neil Mackay: The name came from an old closed factory in Falkland road in Turnpike lane North London. John used to live on that street, along with lots of old friends. Robert and Bex from Loop, Lisa, many old friends lived there. That was where John introduced me to the music of Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Ligeti and many other great pieces of music.
Not so much a question, but I want to get your take on whether you see that maybe this record is more suitable for our present condition, given that Donald Trump is in power?
JW: I don’t know about that. There is always a Donald Trump somewhere in power. I mean, when we made the album George W. Bush was in power. Who’d have thought we’d prefer him again!!!! The pre-internet, pre-rolling news and social media world was such a different place. I suppose if the record had any political potency it was about the possibilities [of] world destruction and that hasn’t gone away just yet.
Nigel Webb: Present condition? Possibly – control, power, money, corruption, poverty and so on. Not issues/situations that are at all resolved just yet (worse?) You can get regular updates these days though.
NM: Music is an art form. [It] is also a describer of current times. Although it has changed over the last 20 years and music is now produced for [money] and fame. Musicians now are compliant not creative. A great shame. As to whether this record is more suitable to our present condition I could not say I feel no longer in touch with the mobile telephone / internet addled society where peace, friendliness, compassion, trust, honesty, straightforwardness, transparency seem to all have no meaning any more.
Where was the album recorded?
NW: At Matrix Studios, 35 Little Russel St., in the west end of London. (The Birthday Party, Massive Attack, PIL, African Head Charge and many others have used it.)
NM: The album was recorded in the Matrix studio in Little Russell Street in central London. Originally opened in 1977, seems to still be working. [An] awesome studio I was very pleased to be in such [an] excellent professional space. I knew little about studio work then, still do! Great studio. Long may it last!
Who painted the album cover?
JW: 16th century Milanese artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns, and jokes and were made up from inanimate objects like fruit of books.
NM: We the band chose the main picture, and the creative director at Beggars Banquet, Steve Webbon, contacted the owner of the copyright to the picture (In Italy ) and I think for the price of an expensive bottle of whiskey we were allowed to use the picture. The original artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo. An awesome artist, please check [out] his work!
How much did it cost to record the album?
JW: More than we could afford.
Did sessions with Roli Mosimann go smoothly? In what ways did he alter your sound? Were there any songs that you were of two minds on?
JW: Roli really tidied our sound up more than changed it. He was cool but some songs suffered a little bit from being over-edited, in hindsight. The songs were mostly written by jamming ideas at rehearsals and there was a looseness that got lost, but having said that he did really focus the album. We had never really been “produced” before; we always worked with engineers who we respected. It was an interesting experiment, but we didn’t work with a producer again. I think we are all producers so we just need a great engineer to capture the ideas we have. Our stuff comes together very organically, and bringing in another brain at the end of the process felt strange, but he was pretty sympathetic I think.
NW: Erm no, not initially, Richard Johnston, the samples/keyboard player, walked [out the first day and was still living in my flat afterwards]. Roli implied he was going to do likewise, quit that is, until the studio was re-organized. The cellar [was] cleared out to create an echo chamber for the drums. We had demoed pretty much everything on our own in another studio. Vons, where I used to work, was used by Psychic T.V., Sol Invictus, Bark Psychosis, Silverfish, Terminal Cheesecake, My Bloody Valentine, etc. We were also into playing things [live and often improvised]. Roli had a different approach. We liked his work with The Swans, The Young Gods, and Wiseblood.
NM: Roli had a completely different idea to what we had for the album. He wanted “Chak Chak“ sequenced totally [using a] click track so he could control the sound completely. He wanted to lay the samples down using a computer and we had Richard at the time “playing“ the samples live with no sequencer. Richard flipped out when he found this out and left the studio with all the samples – so we were stuffed from the outset. Absolute drama from the word go. Richard refused to give the samples up. We had spent quite a while getting the sounds together so this was an important part of the songs gone. I contacted Richard and said give us the samples back or there will be trouble. If I remember rightly, I said he would still play parts on the album but no, he walked out there and then. I was sorry to see him go but I was very focused on “our big chance “so [we] went with Roli. Roli changed our sound heaps. The first engineer he had he sacked and got a famous engineer (Kenny Jones) in who made the drums sound big and full. The new engineer fed the drum sound down into a lower basement room to get a huge reverb sound. At the time I thought it was too clinical / clean but I was still very new to the whole thing and just trusted in him. It was an intense time. I was unsure of all of it really. It was the first album I was singing on. I thought of myself as just a bass player and was insecure about my voice / the lyrics / everything, really. I used to cringe when my voice came out of the speakers!
The production in my mind seems to have aged well, what’s your take?
JW: Yes, I agree. At that time studio production was just at the stage of moving from analogue to digital. I really liked that time the best because the music was tracked to tape with all the possibilities that brings – saturation, tape editing and warmth of tape compression – but in the control room there were new machines capable of things new to us. The advance of sampling and ease of syncing a computer to the tape machine was exciting. This was a great age of experimentation which mirrors the advent of multitracking in the 1960s. It had all the best bits of modern recording with the good bits of the restrictions of the past and that keeps the sound modern.
NW: I kind of like the production helped by the SSL super analogue ‘total recall’ mixing desk with two-inch 24-track reel to reel analogue tape machines.
NM: It sounds great. I wish we had used Roli for the subsequent recordings as he suggested. He did a great job. Clear and punchy, using the SSL system was awesome. The problems I have with some of the recordings are down to a lack of investment of time in some of the details!
How long did the album take to complete?
NM: I think the album took two weeks (not totally sure on that). I think the recording side of things was a week. I think Nigel wanted a lot more time to spend on guitar parts, but Roli wanted to spend time on mixing. I remember Nigel going home and pretty much not sleeping, working on new parts – God bless.
What do you recall about the sessions?
JW -The sessions were mostly cool from what I can remember. We had pretty clear ideas about how the songs should sound and had time to do more experimentation in the studio. We worked long hours and I think we might have kept Roli up a bit later than he was used to, but overall a very cool time. It was a new project for us and it felt really free because of that.
NW: Tension, quite a bit of stress, some obsessive behavior, was interesting understanding completely different methods of working, a learning process, working with great engineer Kenny Jones (Tom Waits, The Smiths, etc.) as well as a producer.
NM: I recall that I wanted it to have a bit more of a live feel. That was the only thing I remember really, trying to not get too stoned / out of it, trying to get that correct mix of out of it but still [be] able to play. That was my mind set at the time. Out of it but still able to play. It was quite stressful in a certain way. Roli was [a] strong character. I liked him and thought he did a great job and hope we are still friends. Good to see he is still doing production. I was in awe of his work with The Swans and The Young Gods so I pretty much kept my mouth shut and let him do his work!
Which songs were the hardest to nail?
JW: We’d played most of the songs live and, as far as I remember, we had no real problems getting them recorded.
NW: All pretty much just as easy / difficult.. .except “9/10 of the Law” which we had been playing live very differently and used on the “Ground Zero” B-side.
NM: No, [we] didn’t have any songs that were particularly “hard to nail.” We had rehearsed a fair bit, gigged, and had our setlist and knew the parts we had to play. As I said before, Nigel wanted to change bits and bobs but (he / we) ran out of time for that!
Were these songs explicitly written for this record or had some of them been around for a while?
JW: No, we had them all before we went in the studio
NW: all the tracks – well nearly / almost – everything had been, played, demoed, recorded, or played live in one form or another before going into the studio. The recording [approach] with Roli was very different.
NM: The songs were explicitly written. I am not keen on releasing “demos“ that I’ve had sitting around for a while. I like to work with musicians and create a new album up to date using the musicians and their [ideas]. Working with other musicians is what it is about really. The input they give is invaluable and I always try to listen to them, play with them, against them, whatever. It is a communication thing, really. I think everyone should be involved in music, playing in a group situation with fellow humans. I read somewhere that playing an instrument, singing [in] a group, fires more neurons than meditation! Make your brain good, be creative, create stuff, I don’t care what it is. Go out on a limb be daring. It can be scary. What’s the [worst] that can happen? Someone says your work is shit? Who cares what they say. At least you have done something! At least you have created! That is what important, new creation is!
Did you record any extra songs during those sessions? What became of them?
JW: No just the album.
NW: “9/10 of the Law” and “Crush,” which involved going down to the same cellar, by now converted into an echo chamber and throwing / smashing various metal and other objects and yelling; both B-sides to “Ground Zero.” There are also some instrumental mixes of the songs. (Note: “Ground Zero” sleeve is pictured to the left.)
NM: No extra songs were created for this session. Later we got into writing heaps of stuff. I think and hope Nigel has a few boxes of [unused] old tracks. Do you Nigel? No this album was written and a few gigs were played before we went into the studio. No excess / no leftovers.
Seems Situation 2 was quite the cool label; were they hands off with the recording?
JW: Yes, they were pretty hands off. They put their trust in Roli and [thankfully] left us alone.
NW: They didn’t come down to the studio and were pretty hands off. Maybe [they] popped in? Nice folk[s] though.
NM: Situation 2 – Roger, who we dealt with there, was totally cool, totally – thank you to those guys – awesome! You must remember that at this time Loop was supposedly on a “holiday“ or taking a break from the hectic touring and recording schedule that had left us all exhausted and not wanting to be in each other’s company any more. I wish Loop had got back together, as I was too young and insecure to be the leader of a group. I just wanted to have fun – really, I’ve only just grown up over the last few years! I’m 54 now! When Loop got back together for a meeting a year later or so, we all agreed [that] we [liked what we were currently doing, so] why go back to something that is a pain? That was the end of Loop. If something isn’t fun and rewarding I [don’t] do it, end of story.
There are some bad ass songs on this record; tell me the genesis of the tracks “Monkies,” “Elevenate,” “Where’s Gala,” and “Flat Truck”?
JW: All our songs came together by playing in rehearsal rooms. We’d tape stuff and Neil would take them away and work on the lyrics or one of us would bring in an idea. You know the normal kind of way bands work. The great thing about H and S was the synergy we had. I don’t remember song or music writing being much of a problem [for] us. Sometimes we would decide to not play songs at a gig but just improvise for an hour. For whatever reason it generally worked out. We [might’ve] been more jazz than rock perhaps? We all liked Faust’s approach to music.
NW: “Monkies,” “Flat Truck,” “Elevenate” had all been started at our very first rehearsal session in prime time, London Bridge area, and Neil had demoed “Where’s Gala”, it was a favorite and still is here! These were all started before Richard was involved.
NM: “Monkies” – we are all monkies. Get over the Homo Sapien smart ape thing. We are not really any more “intelligent” than any other species, in my opinion. Other animals build things. Other animals and insects organize their communities much more cleverly than us. I always liked [the image] of a wolf pack moving through a snow-covered ravine. At the front are the oldest and [weakest] members of the pack, then next the strongest, then the main pack and at the back the 2nd strongest group, arranged so the pack moves at the speed of the [weakest among them]. In the human world the strongest would be at the front and bugger anyone else if they can’t keep up! [A] bit cynical, that, but probably true to a large extent. I have more faith in humanity than that, but you [catch] my drift!
At the point when you guys recorded this album, what were you all listening to?
JW: I was listening to Can, Public Image. Steve Reich was a new discovery for me and I devoured his output. I was really into a lot of dub and the Flaming Lips [as] I remember.
NW: Was listening to Einstürzende Neubauten Kollaps, Prince Far I “Nuclear Weapon” (Adrian Sherwood mix) Jello Biafra with D.O.A. Last scream of the missing neighbors CD, Wiseblood Dirtdish LP, Can Monster Movie LP, probably most of the other Can albums. Some Lee Hazlewood and Tom Waits.
NM: Velvet Underground, The Doors, Joy Division, Can, Suicide, Radio Birdman, The Stooges, MC5, and all sorts of garage / psyche obscure stuff, reggae, dub, On-u sound label. Anything weird and different. I had a thing against “commercial music“ in those days. It had to be weird ear candy for me [back] then!
I get the sense, at least in the States by the number of promo CDs I saw in the cut-out bin, that the album didn’t sell well here, what was the situation in the UK and Europe?
JW: We did pretty well in the UK and Europe, touring and festival shows, but the US was a disaster for us. We were dropped by Beggars Banquet just at the start of a coast to coast US tour. So we were in New York, I think, with a tour bus driven by us which had to be returned to an office in Los Angeles. Never understood the logic of that but maybe explains the bargain bins!
NW – Think “Ground Zero” got some indie chart position, not sure about the rest – looked for the CDs in the “bins” in the USA and couldn’t find any myself. I would have brought them back!
NM: I think the album was in the “indie” charts for a short period in the UK, but no, the album “didn’t do well.” I wasn’t that bothered really. What is success? Doing art that you want to do. Getting it out to the world in some small way, that is success in my opinion. Of course I would have liked to have had some money at the time. Same now maybe! We were all pretty poor in those days. We all worked shitty jobs. We lived life pretty much [from] week to week really. I hope Nigel and John [are both living comfortably these days].
How was the album received, both by the UK press and fans of Loop?
JW: I remember it being okay, you know, the normal thing where people hate it and love it equally. It probably polarized Loop fans but we never wanted to be Loop 2, and the more open minded came along.
NW: Some [decent] press UK wise. Not sure on the loop fans, possibly divided I imagine.
NM: That I cannot recall. I think we got a few reviews but nothing really majorly good. I knew Loop fans wouldn’t like it. It sounded so different to loop. Really, I didn’t want to be just a copy of Loop. What’s the point of that? If I had wanted to make money we could have done a dance / techno version of Loop.
Below: the band live in 1992 at the Reading Festival, captured in average sound quality (turn the volume up) but very good video quality for the times.
What songs on Jo in 9 G Hell did you guys play live? What were the hardest ones to render on stage?
JW: We did them all I think except Neil’s song, “Where’s Gala,” which we never did from memory. We used pretty basic technology in those days. Any samples were played back from a porta studio I had by me on stage. We rocked!
NW: We played all of them live at one point or other – but never as the album from start to finish, “Where’s Gala” was more tricky, maybe – it got better each time we tried it. I think, anyway.
NM: From the album the tracks we played live were : “Elevenate,” “Flat track,” “Torque,” “Monkies,” “Ground Zero,” “$1,000 Pledge,” “The Final Nail,” and “Pipeline”. John used to operate a 4-track cassette recorder for the tracks that had a backing. [Is that] lo-fi or what! Anyone who takes a 4-track cassette on stage nowadays would be considered lo-fi indeed!
Did you guys record any shows at the time?
NW: We didn’t as such. I’ve seen some of our very first shows filmed and posted on YouTube, a bit of Reading Festival ’92. Ott, our sound engineer, sort of recorded that too.
NM: No I don’t think we recorded anything live from those days, sadly!
What bands did you guys tour with for this record?
JW: We did a UK tour with The Swans and I think we toured with two other Situation 2 bands in Europe.
NW: We toured with Silverfish, Swans, and Cop Shoot Cop and also The God Machine. All jolly good chaps and chapesses.
NM: We toured quite a lot with the excellent band Sun Carriage at the time. Cannot remember who else we toured with. We played [the] North London scene a fair bit, particularly at the excellent “Sausage Machine“ club and the Falcon and various [other] places in and around London. There was an excellent music “scene” going on at the time. The live music scene has been destroyed now. I hope it makes a comeback. It is up to the youngsters out there to get off their [ass], put their mobile phones down, pick up a musical instrument, get some friends together, and create something beautiful! Later we toured the UK with Silverfish, The Swans, and did a European tour with Medicine. (Below: Swans tour itinerary, along with the HASTCO tour rider.)
What was the cut off the album that they worked to radio?
JW: “Ground Zero.”
NM: Have no idea what the lead cut the label sent out to radio. I didn’t really have a lot to do with any of that stuff. I thought of myself as a musician. I had and still have no idea about that side of things. Probably why I was and never really will be successful! Not my area!
Any DJs champion this record?
JW: John Peel was probably the main one.
NW: I was told that John Peel played it here – not sure on that, though. I think some radio stations we visited [later] in the USA said they had been playing the LP. Can’t be specific on that really.
NM: None as far as I know. I don’t think John Peel liked it much, not sure if he ever played it! He was the main man in those days!
Will the album ever be reissued?
NM: Not sure if it will ever be reissued. I hope so one day. Not heard anything going on, on that front!
In terms of HASTCO output, how do you feel about this record? Are there elements you once disliked that you’ve grown to like now and vice versa?
JW: It was our first release, and from my point of view it was a good start, but we got better at it and further from the gravitational pull of commercialism and closer to orbiting the planet inspiration – which is all you could ask for isn’t it?
NW: Just very different to where we went from there, perhaps. Still think some of it would [be] interesting soundtrack music [for] the appropriate film, which is also what I thought at the time to be honest.
NM: Must admit it’s the first time I’ve listened to the album for ages and ages. I wonder how and why we put the track “Where’s Gala“ on the album. I’m not sure Roli did that track. I think it was a 4- track recording we did! Listening to it for the first time in ages, it actually sounds really good. You know at the time the drugs I / we were taking – I shouldn’t speak about the other guys! – but anyways, I wasn’t in a particularly good head space. The recording seemed to be done so quick it felt like we were in and out of the studio in no time. Roli did a great job. He said at the end of the recording, “You have to do the next album with me!“
It was a [huge] mistake not to use him again, really. We should have built on the sound he got us. He did a great job with what we gave him. I feel personally I was still very young and inexperienced and didn’t know up from down. Life was hard, money was short. I just wanted to do the best I could. I’m proud of our output. We have a new album coming out that I think, as usual, has good ideas, etc. That’s the enduring thing for me. We had great ideas that sounded like no-one else. [We] were not trying to sound like anyone else.
I’m forever grateful to Nigel and John, they are great guys, supremely talented and fun to be with. [They are] very good friends of mine. I sincerely hope we do a few more things. Thank you guys! Was a pleasure to work with you. Sorry I wasn’t the greatest of bandleaders. But I wasn’t really the leader, just a member of the band. I think that was our main problem, really! We could have done great (er) things!
Below: Listen to the brilliant new track “Nihil” which the band graciously supplied to Blurt.
Magic and mayhem coexist—not necessarily peacefully, but certainly with a purposeful deliberateness—in the Atlanta artist’s remarkable new album, bleak beauty. (Scroll to the bottom to hear three key tracks.)
BY KEITH JOYNER
Clay Harper quietly sings into a microphone in the makeshift studio on the ground floor of his Atlanta home. I follow along on an acoustic guitar, creating parts on the fly. It feels like packing up. The last time I was here I had traveled from Los Angeles to say goodbye to Stephanie, Clay’s partner of twenty years, and my best friend from high school. It was both surreal and unthinkable that someone so young and in the prime of her life would be taken so mercilessly. On this day, however, the house is for sale, and there is a noticeable sense of unease. The question hangs heavy in the air: What now?
Clay had casually invited me to play on a new song he was recording. And so, after an impromptu and innocuous invitation to coffee, I found myself learning what would become the song “Pretty Victor,” from the new self-released album, bleak beauty. I devised an interesting, passable part, all the while formulating how I could improve upon it when it came time to record.
“That’s great! I love it,” exclaimed Clay.
It became immediately clear that there was to be no “next take.” That was it.
It is precisely this moment that speaks to a singular talent, an innate ability to recognize an opportunity, and use it, all for the sake of the art. Had it been up to me, I might have recorded multiple takes, and added additional parts. As it happens, Clay stripped away everything but one guitar—flaws and all—and his voice alone. What’s left is a tentative answer to the question hanging over the proceedings. That is, we can’t possibly prepare or know what to do when tragedy strikes. After all, the world at large is cruel and indifferent to our inner suffering. There is nothing left but to carry on.
When we lose someone, there are universal rituals and traditions to help cope with the loss. But I sense that for Clay, they are entirely insufficient. There are too many things left unsaid; sentiments that are private, painful and uncomfortable, and not suited for mixed company. Clay has gone on record to say that the album is not about Stephanie, but, instead, a recounting of his experience in steady chronological order. I wonder if this may be in deference to someone who was a very private, though selfless, person. My earliest memories of her were of someone wholly devoted to the idea of service. To a self-centered teen like myself, I was suspicious. Though Stephanie spent the next thirty years turning words into action. If bleak beauty is not about her, it is certainly for her. (Listen to tracks from the record HERE.)
Many in Atlanta and the Southeast recall Clay Harper as boss man in post-punk provocateurs The Coolies (originally called The Beatles, until receiving the expected Cease and Desist letter), and, later, The Ottoman Empire. He was not then—and still isn’t—averse to mixing combustible elements for maximum effect in both music and performance. That desire more likely stems from a genuine fascination with witnessing the inevitable explosion than it does getting a cheap rise out of people.
But don’t ask the north Georgia cloggers he invited to open the final Coolies show in 1990 about it. Of course, it could have gone either way. When the curtain rose on the unsuspecting dancers as they clogged their way through “New Sensation” by INXS, the sneering punk crowd wasn’t having it. Nor were the Todd Rundgren fans at a more recent show at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Clay was supporting his last album, 2013’s Old Airport Road. Between each song, lurid phone sex recordings were played over the PA until the crowd demanded he leave the stage early, chanting, “Todd Rundgren Now!” Hey, they could have laughed. And really. They should have. Humorless bastards. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Andy Kaufman would’ve been proud.
Given all of this, it’s a curious thing to venture that bleak beauty may be Clay’s most audacious work to date. Its boldness can be found in its quietude and vulnerability. For sure, it is a tone poem of grief, remorse, love and hope. But strangely, there is levity and common truth throughout. Clay’s longtime friend, the artist, erstwhile Clash associate, and self-professed “cultural curator,” Kosmo Vinyl, points out, it is “that realization that the more personal something becomes, the more universal it becomes. Also the realization that there is no substitute for truth and it can rarely, if ever be faked.” From the held-breath salvo of the opening title track to the repeated closing mantra “I’m Not High,” bleak beauty reminds us to take nothing for granted, and accept the inevitable light and shade of this world with resigned grace.
Once again, Clay directs an impressive cast of musicians, including Chaz Jankel (Ian Dury and The Blockheads), Tom Gray (The Brains), and Rick Richards (The Georgia Satellites), among others with the precision of Kubrick, all without playing a single note himself. Brad Quinn (formerly of The Ottoman Empire and the Tommy Keene Band) adds “For someone who, as far as I know, doesn’t particularly play anything, he’s written more great songs and made more records than almost anyone I know.” And bleak beauty is no exception. Each track inhabits a classic space as if you’ve known it your entire life.
In May, Clay Harper and band performed the album in its entirety in an intimate setting at the Avondale Towne Cinema, near Atlanta. When asked what it’s like to revisit the songs in front of an audience, Clay responds, “I would like to do more shows. I’m not sure I would like to perform the record again. I want it to be evaluated as a piece of art. I want people to hear it and find their meaning, but I think it’s there for private consumption. I don’t think it needs to be public entertainment.”
One senses that bleak beauty is just as much about moving on as it is paying respect to a great lost love.
To my mind there are only two types of music: the self-conscious kind, which is certainly not always a pejorative; and the kind that comes from somewhere deep within—the kind that must be released, one way or the other no matter the consequences. Damn the cynics. Or more to the point, as Clay’s friend and frequent collaborator Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ n’ Cryin’) says, “I think that sometimes artists make art for the people, and sometimes artists make art for themselves. This one’s for Clay. It’s true soul music from the cosmos straight to our hearts.”
There is a special kind of alchemy at work when songs such as these, borne of despair and darkness, conspire to conjure something altogether enlivening. After all, to live is to create. And no greater tribute may be paid to a life well-lived than to “rage against the dying of the light.” No, it is not entertainment. But perhaps it’s something to be shared. There is genuine electricity when Clay sings plaintively “Are you the bird? Are you the breeze? Are you the sunshine through the trees?”
I’d like to believe that when we remember, the answer is always yes.
Keith Joyner is a regular BLURT contributor. A member of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Athens pop mavens Seven Simons as well as The The, and, more recently, Twinstar and les biches, the L.A.-by-way-of-Georgia musician previously recounted a memorable evening in the company of David J and Genesis P-Orridge.
A prolific songwriter, spurred on by some notable studio mavens, pulls off a musical hat trick for the ages.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
When Aaron Smart set out to record his debut under the moniker Silverplanes, he didn’t initially set out with an agenda to pull off a wholly ambitious series of releases. He was simply looking to put out an LP.
But, thanks to a prolific nature, a little extra time, and an inspired suggestion by his producer, Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith, The Who and Cheap Trick), he turned in an impressive trio of 5-song EPs, each mixed by a different veteran producer with a combined resume that could fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Gulfstream, the first EP, was mixed by Shelly Yakus, whose extensive resume includes albums with U2, Tom Petty and Lou Reed; Bombardier was mixed by Jay Messina, known for his work with Aerosmith, KISS and Supertramp; The third and final EP, Lear, was released on June 8. It was mixed by Geoff Emerick, who worked on some of the Beatles’ most innovative releases as well as albums by Badfinger, Elvis Costello and Jeff Beck.
Smart, prepping for the final EP release in the series spoke with Blurt recently about this endeavor, how he was able to lure in such an amazing set of behind-the-scenes talent— and how he’s going to top it.
BLURT: So how did you come up with the idea of a series of EPs for your debut? It’s obviously a pretty novel approach.
SMART: We recorded 15 songs for an album and were editing down to 12. We were done with it and shopping for a label to put it out and then we just kept recording. And another nine months went by and we had another 18 songs and realized that things had evolved in a really cool way with Jack’s vision and my tastes and with the music landscape the way it is. Tough for a new band to get heard so figured let’s spread this out and put out most if not all of it
Jack Douglas has an impressive background. How did you convince him to produce you?
I had met Jack nine years before when he worked on a record at my old recording studio. I decided I wanted a badass producer to work on my next project and began searching. During that time Blake, Jack’s son, said why don’t you ask my dad to do it. I answered, “Yeah, sure your dad.” Blake responded, “Send him a few demos and see what he thinks. I think he will be into it.” I emailed him a few and he got back to me. Asking me, “Who is this? Someone you recording at your studio?” I told him, “No, it’s me.” He came back with “Why didn’t we do a record nine years ago?” And that was that.
Did you know all along that you want different engineers for each release?
No, originally, we recorded 15 songs and when we got to the mix time Jack threw around the idea of having Shelly Yakus mix it. But he wasn’t available as he was setting up Aftermaster, his new studio. We kept recording and I said let’s have Shelly mix this and Jack and I had just had dinner with Geoff Emerick in LA and Jay Messina a few weeks later in New York and Jack said this is serendipitous. Let’s have these two and Shelly mix five songs each and you can put them out separately – a 3 EP series. I said “Uh, yes please” (Laughs).
Was it difficult to figure out who you wanted to mix the songs?
No, once Geoff came into the picture. Jack had a long history with Shelly Yakus and Jay Messina.
So, do the trio of EPs tie together under a unifying theme?
Not really a unifying theme like a “concept” or what not but definitely a unifying sound. Vintage meets modern. Jack Douglas’ sonic signature is probably the unifying thread between them all.
Do you plan to tour with a band now that these albums are out?
Yeah have been rehearsing just about to book a debut Los Angeles show.
Now that this project is finished, what’s next? Do you plan to continue recording under the name Silverplanes?
Yes, Silverplanes is just in its infancy. I’m building a new studio in LA with an old friend that used to be at El Dorado. Going to be collaborating with a bunch of friends and tracking a new Silverplanes full length for 2019 release. Gulfstream is out; touring will begin for this second EP Bombardier, which released on March 30th and third EP, Lear, mixed by Geoff Emerick that will he released in mid-May. Then a double vinyl of all the EPs and five new tracks will he released shortly thereafter
How, indeed: by speaking the truth, not lies. Philly’s Fillmore was the scene for this sweat-soaked June 5 evening by Britain’s Frank Turner and his band The Sleeping Souls, and they did not disappoint—not even the Trump-country drunks who took exception to some of Mr. Turner’s more sharpened verbal daggers. Above photo by Ben Morse, via Turner’s Facebook page.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a long time since Frank Turner had to play basement shows and VFW Halls, sleeping on strangers’ floors before loading up the van the next morning and heading to the next show, but he clearly is still every bit as much of that scrappy DIY punk rocker.
Headlining a show in Philly recently, promoting his latest record, Be More Kind, Turner did plenty of crowd surfing, sang enough of his own political punk anthems to please The Clash and encouraged safety in the pit (a plea from just about every punk rock singer with a mic dating back to the early ‘80s).
“First rule tonight, don’t be a dickhead; second rule, if you know the words to these songs you have to sing along – loudly!”
The set, and Turner in particular, was a masterclass in pleasing everyone from diehard fans to the uninitiated dragged to the show by friends. From the moment Turner took to the stage in dark pants, a soon-to-be soaked through with sweat white oxford and a thin black tie, he entertained with a ferocity and passion that belied the fact that he’s been on the road for nearly a month already. Running through a couple of his newer songs up front, he quickly moved into some of the older fan favorites like “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” “If I Ever Stray” and even the B-side “Tattoos.” He and the band also rolled out “Brave Face,” off the new album, for its live show debut.
“I’m not American, but over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time here. I’ve toured 48 states so far,” Turner said before launching into the remarkably appropriate song, “Make America Great Again,” a pitch perfect rebuke on Trump and all of the racists who have crawled out from under their rocks since his election. “A friend told me you’re not going to have the balls to play this song in America. I said, ‘Americans are fucking adults and they can understand a song about politics.’”
The song was met with loud cheers as the sold-out crowd sang along to every verse. Well, almost everyone, one of the exceptions being the drunk stranger who leaned over to me and croaked out “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people coming into our country and telling us what’s wrong with our politics. Amirite?” When I disagreed, he hugged me (that’s odd, right?) and then walked out of the venue and into the night, like a Red State Michael Landon from a Highway to Heaven reboot for the Trump era. No one else seemed to have a problem singing along loudly and proudly to the chorus (“Let’s make America great again/let’s make racists ashamed again”).
Turner closed off the show with a spirited encore that included the rapturous “I Still Believe” and the should-be punk rock anthem “Four Simple Words.”
Below: The King in action, followed by his doppelganger Turner making things great, in a pair of official videos.
Frank Turner will be spending a good amount of time touring North America this summer and into the fall. Dates are HERE. Our suggestion: borrow your redneck Republican neighbor’s MAGA hat and bring it for Turner to sign…
The world seemed like it was on fire. His entire band quit on him. He was contending with being a new dad. So B.J. Barham decided he was up to the challenges—literal, existential, logistical, emotional—and created the album of a lifetime.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Last year BJ Barham, frontman for the North Carolina Americana outfit American Aquarium, was set to head out on the Lower 48 Tour – a wildly ambitious trek that would see him hitting up at least one show in every state (sans Hawaii and Alaska). And then his band quit.
Every single member. And all at once.
He understandably felt blindsided. What was the point now?
But just a few weeks after absorbing the psychological blow of having all five members of his band walk out at the same time, his wife gave him some frank advice: “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.”
And that statement become the overarching theme of Things Change, his latest record and easily, with little room for argument, his best collection of songs to date. (Amen. That goes for everyone else here at BLURT, too. – Ed.)
Oh, and he did embark on that exhaustive tour, solo, a little over a month after the dissolution of that version of American Aquarium.
Just a week before the June 1 release of Things Change, with a brand-new band and a new baby at home, Barham was kind enough to talk to Blurt, revisiting the great exodus of 2017, discussing the new record and the politics and optimism that are woven into the new music.
BLURT: I’ve been looking forward to interviewing you for a while now and thought I lost the chance when it looked like the band was broken up. So, I guess, thanks for keeping it together?
BARHAM: Ah, man, I am way too stubborn to give up.
Let’s talk about what happened with your band. You’ve said that everyone just left. Was that a surprise to you or did you see it coming?
It was a surprise because I didn’t expect it to come when it came, and it all happened at the same time. I’ve had over 30 members of this band since 2006. It’s been a lot of turnover, but I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a core of the band for the last eight years, but I’ve never made the same record with the same band back to back; every record has had either someone quit, or someone replaced, so I’m used to turnover. If it had been one person, it would have been a regular day at the office. If it had been two that would have been a little harder… but, I had five guys walk into a room and all quit. It was a mutiny aboard the ship. All the signs were there, I just ignored them. It was just general unhappiness.
We all started this band when we were in college. We wanted the same things, we wanted to tour everywhere, we wanted to play music for a living. We believed in this awesome plan, but over the course of nearly a decade people’s interests and people’s lives change and they go in different directions. What they used to be in love with they no longer care for and what they used to believe in has changed. By the end of that Wolves tour, it got to be that the show was the least important part of the day to those guys. They were worried about what they were going to do before the show or after the show. Those 90 minutes on the stage, that I still wake up in the morning for and live for, became an afterthought for them. And when they quit, I had about two or three weeks of sulking and then my wife said, “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.” And that’s one of the central themes of the record.
I went out and I got lucky. I was on the Lower 48 Tour and ran into a mutual friend from Austin and he said “Hey man, I heard about the band quitting. Can I put a band together for you?” I said, “Sure man, whatever,” and he put together just a crack band of guys that have been doing this for 10, 20 years. I fly into Texas for that first rehearsal and everyone knew every single song from start to finish. We took this thing on the road last fall as a trial run to see how we do with each other and it went gangbusters. It was amazing. We went to the studio and made a record together and things went great. (Below: the smoke-colored vinyl LP version of the album.)
This new record, the first track (“The World is on Fire”) grabs you right away. You didn’t waste any time getting in to what you wanted to discuss with this album.
Every artist says this about every new project because we’re vain immature children, but I feel like this is the best thing I have done so far. And a lot of friends who are honest with me – the ones who would tell me “this one sucks” or “good luck trying to get this one going” – everyone has been super supportive. I think creatively and musically we took a step forward with this one and I think that’s all you can ask for as an artist; make the thing that you put out better than the last thing and I think we did that this time.
As a father, “The World is on Fire” really struck a chord with me. You realize whatever is going on right now doesn’t just affect you, but your kids as well.
Exactly. That’s where that third verse really came from. That song was such a progression of 2017 for me simply because I wrote that first verse the day after the election, just anger fear and I had so many questions. I had no idea how to explain what I just watched. I put it aside because I didn’t want this record to be about fear, to be about hate because every other thing that has changed in my life since Wolves (his 2015 album) has been pretty positive so I didn’t want to write a record around this. I wrote the second verse after I had been on tour for a while and talking to people at the merch table after the shows – people from the left and the right and people who didn’t vote – and I regained a lot of faith in humanity. I realized not everyone is a bigoted, misogynistic hatemonger, but some people are in just desperate situations and the right has done nothing for them and the left has done nothing for them and they voted for a wildcard. I started to become a little more empathetic and just to listen to others instead of just pointing my finger at them and telling them why they were wrong or why they were right. I think this last election is the result, the epitome of people just wanting to be heard.
I had no chorus and two verses at this point and just sat on it for a while. During that tour me and my wife realized we were having a child and that just immediately changed my perspective. No matter how much my generation does to fuck things up, we’ve still got hope in that next generation. As long as a majority of us teach (our children) to be good, honest people we have nothing to worry about and that’s where that third verse came from. Don’t just bitch and complain about change, do something and inspire that change. Once we finished that song it was a no brainer that it would lead off the album. Some records warm you up, but this one gets it going right out of the gate.
Jason Isbell’s last record was probably his most political one so far. The same with Superchunk and just about any band that’s known for thoughtful lyrics putting out records since the last election. Was there any part of you that was nervous about alienating fans by talking about these issues?
Of course. I think anybody would be. You’re talking about alienating up to half of your audience, so you have to approach the topic intelligently; you have to approach the topic conversationally. You can’t come out and say you are all a bunch of fucking idiots. They’ll turn the radio off and throw out your records and say, “fuck that band!” But if you come at it with the attitude, “Hey man, we both love NASCAR, we both love fried chicken, we both love college football. I just want to know why you feel this way about this thing.” Letting folks know we’re the same people, we come from the same places. We disagree on this one thing, so how can we have an open dialogue about it. If anybody listens to this record and walk away thinking, “man, he’s way too political” then they’re missing the point. That first song isn’t about politics at all. It’s about finding hope in dark situations.
I don’t care what area of life you want to apply that to, but it should affect every American right now. And the third song, “Tough Folks,” if you walk away from that thinking, “Man, that’s just about his politics, he lost it,” then you’re not listening to the song. That’s a song about perseverance, hard work; that’s a song that says no matter how bad today is you can work yourself out of it. I think people from both sides should be able to get behind both of those themes that run through this record.
So, have you thought yet about how you go about introducing these songs from the stage yet?
Yeah, of course. We’ve played them live a few times and I just let everybody know this is a song about finding light in darkness, this is a song about not giving up hope, this is a song about either complaining about your situation or changing your situation. This whole record is a living tangible testament about a guy who was at rock bottom last year when my entire band quit. I could sit at home and complain about it, writing mean songs or I could pull my bootstraps up and keep this thing going and try to be positive, try to fix this fracture in our country. To a lot of people who listen to these records, politics may just be the one thing that’s different. I just want to make people aware that we may be way off base on this one thing but think of the hundred other things that we are right beside each other on.
There are a lot of mainstream country artists that aren’t speaking out and I can understand that because for the longest time I didn’t speak out because I thought people would judge me for it, but I think I’m approaching this record with almost a humble approach. We all grew up the same, I’m just trying to figure how we all grew apart. That’s the hope of this record, that people hear it and try and start a dialogue about it. Try and heal a fracture.
There does seem to be an optimistic thread that runs throughout the record. And I don’t know if that’s because you’re a new dad.
You know, I spent years of my life complaining and blaming all of my problems on other people and this record, more so than any I’ve written before, is me saying most of the problems I’ve seen in my own personal life, I’m going to take responsibility before and write just as honestly about how I’ve messed up my life just as much as I think others might have. It’s harder to take blame than to just put it on someone else. I think it’s a mix of me being married, me having a new child and me just growing up.
I just turned 34 and I’m looking at where I am now compared to where I was three years ago when we recorded Wolves. It’s night and day.
With a reunion tour under their belt and a career-spanning vinyl box set in stores, the British outfit’s is feeling righteously recharged. Let’s cast back to one memorable evening in 1990 when the BLURT editor crossed paths with them and lived to write about it. (Photos of Thee Hypnotics in Charlotte by Kerry McCaskill.)
BY FRED MILLS
About three years ago, this magazine published an exclusive interview with Ray Hanson, erstwhile guitarist for Thee Hypnotics, who blazed a memorable 1985-99 hard rock trail across their native UK as well as the US and Europe, releasing three studio albums and a live one, plus several singles and Eps, before burning out and splitting up. The occasion of our Hanson interview, which was conducted by my fellow Thee Hypnotics devotee Jonathan Levitt, was to examine the making and aftermath of what most fans still consider to be their classic LP, 1991’s Soul Glitter & Sin. At the time Hanson had plenty of work on his hands with his band the Whores of Babylon, and of course vocalist Jim Jones was working on his own projects, including the Jim Jones Revue and, later, Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind. But when asked the inevitable reunion question, Hanson certainly didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “You never know!”
As it turns out, the reunion not only became a possibility, but also a reality. Earlier this year the band commenced doing live gigs, and an official press release trumpeted the news in wonderfully florid fashion:
“Taking their cues from the Detroit militancy of The MC5, the corrupting output of The Stooges and the gospel according to The Cramps, Thee Hypnotics’ devastating brand of rock’n’roll was propelled by near punishing decibel levels and a fervour bordering on the evangelical. Blazing a devastating trail of high-octane thrills and annihilation, Thee Hypnotics occupied a bizarre hinterland that sat somewhere between the British neo-psychedelic scene of the late 80s and the detonation of garage-influenced rock from the Pacific northwest of the early 90s. Little wonder that a band that shone so bright would burn out before the end of the century.
“And now they’re back…
“For the first time in 20 years, the classic line-up of co-founders Jim Jones (vocals) and Ray Hanson (guitar), with Phil Smith (drums) and Jeremy Cottingham (bass), is set to hit the road with all the power of a Viking raiding party. Still harbouring an intense belief in assaultive rock’n’roll as liberation, and delivering their sonic payload with a savage intensity, this influential and legendary group is back to testify one more time.”
Also announced was that the members were additionally overseeing a career-spanning vinyl box set featuring all three studio albums—1990’s Come Down Heavy, the aforementioned SG&S and 1993’s Chris Robinson-produced The Very Crystal Speed Machine—plus a bonus rarities album, In A Trance (Thee Early Daze 86-89). Immaculately designed, the 4LP box, Righteously Re-Charged, released by Beggars Arkive, ably provides snapshots of the group’s every stage, from humble indie beginnings as a Motor City-fixated outfit with a fetish for leather jackets, aviator shades, and tight pants, to widescreen rockers on a cinematic, noirish trip, to full-bore, druggy Seventies worshipers. Nary a dull moment, either, for while charting a steady (and impressive) musical evolution, the box also vividly displays songwriting chops and attitudinal swagger that, for its time, was well outside the British norm. No happy Mondays for these lads; every night’s a 2AM Saturday.
The 12-page booklet is the perfect listening companion, too, stuffed to the gills with rare photos, a new interview and a pair of impressionistic essays—and, I’m not so humble as to not mention, Mr. Levitt’s BLURT interview with Hanson (yours truly is also given thanks from the band, but all I did was edit and publish, it’s all Jonathan and Ray, so thanks to both of you, gents). Oh, and the LPs are all on different colors of vinyl: purple, red, white, and clear. Nice touch, that.
Below, watch the trailer for the documentary film about the band that drummer Phil Smith has assembled.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to resurrect an article from deep in my archives, a 1990 profile/interview of the band originally published in the late fall of that year in The Bob magazine and titled half men, half boys (all beasts) in a (somewhat) clever nod to a Thee Hypnotics songtitle. I was living in Charlotte, NC, in 1990 and that spring the band came through town with then-labelmates Tad; their LP debut actually was prior to Come Down Heavy, the part-live album Live’r Than God, which in the US was released by Sub Pop. I was already a fan, having been gifted a copy of their first single by a female friend (Cindy, if you’re out there, I still owe you a big thank-you) who’d traveled to England recently and knew the band’s manager, Steve Langdon. I had also been gifted a demo tape of the band and subsequently reviewed the single in The Bob, making sure Langdon got a copy, and when I had learned they would in fact be coming to Charlotte, I quickly set up an interview through the manager.
Indeed, upon meeting me at soundcheck the afternoon of the show, I was greeted like an old friend—I’m pretty sure I was one of the first American journalists to write about Thee Hypnotics—and the first question after the handshakes was, “Where can we get some liquor?” I promptly got in the van with Langdon and we headed off to the store to round up plenty of refreshments. During the ride London played me a tape of some rough studio mixes to get me revved up for the show.
Later that evening, following a hilarious dinner with the Tad guys and incendiary sets from both groups, I settled down in their dressing room to, ahem, help them go through a few bottles of Jack Daniels and ostensibly conduct an interview. Jones, though, decided instead to run off with a mysterious young lady, so Hanson and bassist Will Pepper opted to head out with me to a nearby all-night diner for some grub and convo.
As I was somewhat worse for the wear in the wake of the booze, the interview went about as well as might be expected, something I learned the next morning when I played back portions of the interview cassette. Clearly the two musicians had been more than generous with their time and tolerant of their de facto host; put another way, it was definitely not the most insightful (or lucid) interview I’d done. But I was determined to make lemons out of lemonade, not to mention live up to my promise of getting the band some U.S. ink, so I went ahead filed the following text and even admitted to my general lack of professionalism in the story. Read on—but consider yourself duly warned.
Thee Hypnotics—The Bob Interview (1990)
Or, how to salvage an interview in several E-Z steps.
Back in March, Sub Pop sent Thee Hypnotics around on tour with Tad, in support of their Live’r Than God! album. The English band had already signed to Beggars Banquet Records for their next album, so this initial American jaunt was merely to lay some groundwork for subsequent headlining tours.
The March 29 show in Charlotte left me, as the saying goes, completely blown away by the sheer hard rock power the band evinced and the total energy transfer that took place between band and audience. Seemingly not caring that there were only around 50 people at the show (despite having among their fanbase the likes of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, they were not in any way well-known yet in the States), Thee Hypnotics throttled the stage for nearly an hour, the rhythm section setting in motion a nonstop, malevolent, grunting rumble, while the guitarist peeled off screams of wah-wah, distortion, and feedback amid fat power-chord chunkage.
Three of the guys, I might add, were decked out in vintage rock star garb: boots, purple flares, crushed velvet jackets—a direct lineage to Your Satanic Majesty or Mr. Hendrix. The singer opted for a different but no less striking form of cool: a polka-dot shirt later discarded to reveal his John Lee Hooker teeshirt underneath.
And he howled like the delta bluesman himself, possessed of low-down tremblin’ shakes and knowing that his deal with the devil was soon to come to term. He stamped the mic stand in fury, dropped to his knees out of sheer desperation, rolled around near the edge, then leaped back up in time for the final chorus. Consummate professionals, they were; and if you hear someone making those Stooges comparisons, don’t necessary ignore or deplore, because the Detroit Rock City sound has been reborn but its reputation has in no way been sullied.
Now, before the gig, manager Steve Langdon requested directions to the local liquor store, so I hopped in the tour van and duly directed. While he was in the store I remained in the van listening to some mighty potent rough mixes of some forthcoming music. This was the beginning of my downfall, and it wouldn’t help that the gig itself would be so overwhelming; already primed beforehand with this secret sonic knowledge, indulgence mode kicked in and I would indeed indulge over the course of the evening. Cue up decibels, several cups of wine during the show, and numerous swigs from the band’s Jack Daniels bottle afterward.
Memo to fellow writers: ALWAYS DO YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFORE THE GIGS. Just before Lester Bangs could pull off drinking like a fish prior to the interview does not mean you can do likewise and conduct your interview following the show. You may, of course, wind up with a few good quotes. But it’s definitely a crapshoot—as we shall soon learn. But first, an introduction.
Thee Hypnotics formed around ’87 in High Wycombe, north of London. The initial lineup of Jim Jones (vocals), Ray “Sonic” Hanson (guitars), Chris Dennis (bass), and mark Thompson (drums) recorded a demo which led to going into the studio with producer Dave Goodman, of Sex Pistols infamy, for their first single, “Love in a Different Vein” b/w “Al Night Long” (Hipsville Records). By ’88 they’d toured the UK with Spacemen 3, Zodiac Mindwarp, the Damned, and others, and slowly began getting noticed for their singular brand of ooogah.
Signing with Situation Two Records, Thee Hypnotics picked up a new bassist, Will Pepper, then in ’89 released a 12-inch single (“Justice in Freedom,” “Preachin’ & Ramblin’,” “Choose My Own Way”) as well as the mini-album Live’r Than God! The US Sub Pop version, a compilation of studio tracks plus four-fifths of the British Live’r, came out several months later.
This year, 1990, saw the recording of new Thee Hypnotics material, and a new drummer, Phil Smith (ex-Bambi Slam), signed up as well. The tape I heard in the tour van had undergone severe remixing, and interestingly enough, some months later when I heard the resulting CD, I noticed that it was produced by the band and Dave Garland but omitted the sleeve info on the LP version regarding Seattle’s Jack Endino’s hand in the mixing. Regardless, word has it that Come Down Heavy is getting the proverbial “big push” from Beggars Banquet/RCA in the United States.
Now, let’s find out how badly yours truly can conduct an interview at 1:30 in the morning.
Along with a couple of friends, one of them my photographer, escort Pepper and Hanson to an all-night eatery. The singer has long since disappeared with a lady in black, while the drummer and manager have retired to the hotel to rest up for the early-AM drive that looms in just a few hours. We sit down in a booth and glance around at various cops, prostitutes, and winos. We feel completely at home (at least I do; Will and Ray haven’t rendered judgment just yet).
The conversation begins with a discussion of grilled cheese sandwiches, alcohol consumption, and fellow Brit Nikki Sudden, who had also appeared in Charlotte recently and who’d also shared a bottle or two with this writer. (Before you ask: Yes, I did the interview at soundcheck, not after the show.)
Will: He just wants to live his life like Nick Cave. Ray: And Johnny Thunders… Will: I know he worships Nick Cave. I’ve heard his records and I know what he’s getting at, but he’s not quite good enough yet.
A waitress comes up and eyes our group suspiciously. Your journalist is obviously the worst for the wear after scamming so much of the band’s bottles. Only after the coffee arrives does any semblance of non-mushmouthed interview technique emerge from me, and the musicians may actually still be wondering when the interview is going to begin and the blather is going to end.
Me (pointing at Live’r Than God!): So what’s all this psychedelic shit, is it English or American, this record sleeve?
Will: That’s Sub Pop that did it. The English one’s okay. That’s out of date anyway.
Me: Here’s an early tape of the band, what about these songs? You’ve got one called “Resurrection Joe” but The Cult have that already…
Will (scrutinizing the track listing): “Astral Rising,” we haven’t played that for years! What the fuck is “The Blues”? “Snake Charmer Girl”… “Soul Trader”… “Resurrection Joe”… Ours is so much better than The Cult’s. Theirs is sort of like a hip-hop thing. These songs weren’t produced or engineered, they were just taped straight for demos.
Ray: “The Blues,” I don’t know what that is either, must be from a lie gig. How the fuck did this get to you?
Me (brandishing the 45 and the tape): This record actually made me come in my pants. If nothing else, anybody that puts [a photo of] the Black Panthers on the back of the record sleeve, since I was actually around in those days, is definitely a band kicking butt and it makes major points with me.
Will: Huey Newton got shot awhile back, didn’t he?
Me: See, back then, I was getting my first dose of cultural consciousness [outside my white Southern boy upbringing], and I was reading Newton’s book too. What was going on? Later, though, something went wrong, and including the music—it took a wrong turn. So are you guys trying to correct that? Because as far as tonight was concerned, I saw “it” happening all over again in the music.
Will: The music or the politics? The music, definitely, yeah. The political thing, well, it’s a different scene these days, isn’t it?
Ray: Very realistically, all we can offer from that time is the music. We can’t offer anything else. It would be contrived. You can’t be political. A lot of bands would like to think they are political, but they haven’t got any control, they haven’t got any power, they’ve got nothing, and it’s pointless. Unless their music is good and powerful. Because there’s too many of those bands. You can only take rock music so far. It can’t change the world and all that shit. It can maybe provoke a few people.
Will: Have a go at it, though. I guess they can raise a bit of cash here and there, like for Live Aid. In England, when Live Aid was done, I always wondered why Bob Geldof was walking around in a bad mood all the time. Apparently they did the show—I don’t know how much money they made, but as an example, say ten million—and the government says, “You’ve made ten million there. We’ve given some already.” So they taxed them on that ten million, kept seven million for the government. A lot of that money never reached where it was meant to reach. It’s a crooked world.
I guess in the ‘60s it seemed really crooked, racism and all that. But it’s still crooked these days, isn’t it, with different… Maybe that’s not a main issue. There’s other things that have taken over the issues, but there are still very crooked things. I don’t know if the money [from benefits] reaches the places. We did one Miners gig once, and we did a Communist festival thing in Italy.
Ray: For the Italian thing, it didn’t raise any consciousness. It was a gig in the name of the Communist Party. But nobody noticed that. They would have come to see us whether we were aligned with that cause or not. Those people that believe music can change the world—it can move people, but it can’t change people’s ways of thinking. People have tried it and failed.
Will: People are separated from each other. They can’t come together and fight against it. They think, “The neighbor’s not doing it, so I’m not gonna bother.” And the neighbor next door’s thinking, “He’s not gonna do it so I’m not gonna bother.”
Ray: It’s exactly what’s going on in England at this very moment. They’ve introduced a Poll Tax. It’s a very different form of taxation for British people. They’ve been going for 50 years with this normal tax, and suddenly this has been introduced. What it basically does is make the rich better off and the poor poorer.
Will: People are in an uproar about it! They are demonstrating in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But they’ll never get anything done, because when they get home from the demonstration they’ll wonder what the neighbors are doing. And the neighbors are so uptight, just like them, and they’re gonna pay this Poll Tax whether it affects them or not. Ran and I, all of us in the band, we were on the dole when we were in Wickham. We were getting like 800 pounds a year from the dole people. And now most of that has to be paid in Poll Tax. It’s a flat rate thing. England used to be quite socialist, you know, you’d pay to your means. This is different, like 400 pounds a year.
Ray: The rich pay their 400 pounds, and their wage is so much higher that the percentage of the tax on that would have been quite a lot compared to the flat rate that they’ve been paying now. So they’re thinking, “Ah! We’re only paying 400 a year, that’s better than 1,000 a year or more.” And the poor, they have to pay 400 as well, the same rate, and they have to take it out of their dole checks, their welfare. A flat rate at the end of the year.
Me (apparently not completely grasping the issue): So how hard is it going to hit you? You’re going from being on an independent [label] to being on a major, Beggars Banquet/RCA.
Will: We’re still broke. RCA, it’s not like we’re signing a piece of paper that says, “Bring us some money.”
Me: Let me ask you at least one proper journalistic question for the evening. The whole Loop/Walkingseeds/Spacemen 3/Crazyhead etc.—current British stuff—and you guys came out at about the same time. Are there connections? Or is it just the English press hype lumping bands together into this post-psychedelic bandwagon?
Ray: I think it all happened at the same time. It is press hype. Everyone’s from different parts of the country anyway.
Will: Let’s just say that the only time I heard of the Walkingseeds was once, when they supported us; and twice, when they were mentioned in one of our reviews.
Me: In a review I read that you once did “Rollercoaster” like Spacemen 3. What did you think of that band, the drug thing? Sonic Boom is legendary for his heroin and methadone exploits.
Will: That review was a mistake. Edwin Pouncey’s review, yeah. That was our first national press review. At Riverside. When Jim should’ve got his cock out. Our first review, with Spacemen 3, and it was a total slag-off. Edwin loves us now. We sent him a copy of “Justice In Freedom” and he liked it, decided he was gonna patronize us. And he did! Apparently he’s quite cool; he does the artwork for Sonic Youth, album covers and everything [as Savage Pencil].
Pete—you know, Sonic Boom—he’s the typical classical only-child sort of public-education kid. You can’t do anything legendary with someone who’s not a legend! He couldn’t be a legend in a million years! He’s just so lifeless, so fucking flat.
Me (laughing): Hey, I paid 20 bucks for his Spectrum album when it came out, just so I could look at the little pinwheel. And I paid 18 bucks for the CD version of Live’r Than God! just to get that one extra live track not on the American LP. (lapsing into a digression) Most of the stuff I get sent for free goes straight to the Record Exchange so I can buy the stuff I really want—you get all these folks calling you up to write about a bunch of bands when, really, you just want to be left alone to listen to and write about the bands you’re willing to pay money for, like Thee Hypnotics.
So, do you guys listen to much recent music?
Will: Tad! Sonic Youth, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Birthday Party.
Me: Flaming Lips?
Will: Oh yeah! They did a cover tune on that Neil Young [tribute album], The Bridge. That was cool.
Me: First time the Lips played here in Charlotte, at the very last minute, the very final chord played, the power went off in the club. It was like the hand of God reached down and cut them off.
Will: It wasn’t the hand of God, it was just bad fucking electricians. Bad connectors. I mean, really…
Me: Hey, I’m from the Bible Belt. I believe in this stuff!
(At this point the conversation turns to the quality of the meal just finished and the out-of-order cigarette machine that is causing much consternation among the musicians. The writer, sensing that the time is right to get his records autographed while the musicians’ senses are “heightened,” produces his Thee Hypnotics collection.)
Me: I just happen to have one of those rock star silver ink pens you see at record signing parties and in-stores…
Ray: I just happen to be able to write in English. Where can we get some cigarettes?
Me: Probably back at the hotel.
Will: So we should go on and do the interview, then?
Me: That was it.
And at this point Ray and Will sort of rolled their eyes, then went outside to pose for photos next to a police cruiser, and we bade them farewell, Upon waking the next morning, the writer played back portions of the “interview” and decided that it would be prudent, in the future, to avoid consuming quite so much of a band’s liquor-of-choice—at least prior to conducting an interview. You never know if you’ll get another chance at it, especially if (a) the band breaks up; (b) someone in the band dies; (c) you die; or (d) most likely option, that the band figures you’re a complete drunken idiot and steers clear of you in the future.
But rest assured that this publication remains a supporter of Thee Hypnotics, regardless of any of its writers’ personal shortcomings.
Below: A pair of Thee Hypnotics, plus the writer and unnamed friend. Yes, I know what he’s laughing about.
As the band marks their thirtieth anniversary, Posies principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a long look back. (Photos by Dot Pierson)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s no exaggeration to label the Posies as the quintessential power pop band. Over the course of their three-decade career, both as a band and as the mother ship for a series of solo albums procured by its two principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the group has created a sound brimming with effusive hooks, flawless harmonies, adroit execution, and the kind of ringing melodies tailor made to leave an everlasting impression. While fans have absorbed and admired the sounds that resulted, sadly the wider world has yet to take notice. Chalk it up to a series of setbacks — a shifting series of record label affiliations, changes within the band’s line-up, and what Stringfellow sees as the lack of a distinct public persona.
“We discovered that a band with two singers was hard to get their heads around,” Stringfellow says. “It’s easier if you have one Axel Rose doing crazy stuff, and you can point the finger at him and make him the focal point. People were thinking, let’s focus in on Ken Stringfellow, or let’s focus in on Jon Auer. It was hard for them to think, let’s focus in on these two guys for whatever reason. We’re not the easiest thing to describe.”
Yet, at the same time, Stringfellow tends to blame the band itself for its lack of wider recognition.
“We were diverted into other realms,” he admits. “I don’t think we had as much faith in ourselves as we should have. We gave up too soon in many ways. That initial breakup in 1998…Anybody can say if I had to do things over again, I’d do it differently. I could say I should have been more mature at an earlier age, because of course I wasn’t. I had the tools that I had and did the best I could with them. Record to record, we had different line-ups and slight variations in the sound, and with all the different projects I’ve been involved with, we are hard to get a bead on. If we were a metal band, it would be so easy. Here’s a metal band, they play metal. They play metal festivals, they play metal festivals…the marketing is done. With us, we’re a very melodic rock band, but in that sense, so is Boston and so is Coldplay.”
Such is speculation of course, but now, as the band celebrates their 30th anniversary, they are getting a second chance of sorts to bring their music full circle and remind both fans and those unawares of the great music that the Posies made out over the years. The campaign is set to start with the reissues of three seminal albums originally released on Geffen imprint DGC — Frosting on the Beater, Dear 23 and Amazing Disgrace, each replete with what Stringfellow refers to as a “shit ton of bonus tracks.” In addition, the band is about to launch an extensive tour that will feature the original band responsible for the Frosting on the Beater album — Auer, Stringfellow, drummer Mike Musberger, and bassist Dave Fox. It amounts to a full-scale reunion of the band’s seminal line-up, and one in which the two principals are eager and excited to unveil.
Blurt spoke with Auer and Stringfellow from their base in Seattle only a few days before the tour was set to get underway. (Tour dates can be viewed at the Posies.net website.) Both men were clearly filled with anticipation and delighted at the prospects of revisiting the Posies’ earlier glories.
BLURT: For starters, tell us about the plans you have in store to mark this auspicious anniversary.
KEN STRINGFELLOW: We’ll be hitting the road with the vintage line-up and playing a retrospective collection of music from all parts of our catalog. Plus, our catalog is being given a sonic upgrade and made available again. Our releases have been only spottily available in recent years. Many of our CDs are out of print and the vinyl is long out of print as well, so it’s nice that the music is getting a renewed focus and be in a place where people can come to it and actually hear it properly…even better than in its original sonic glory.
JON AUER: We’re putting some effort into — I don’t want to say, “capitalize” because I don’t like that word. It sounds too commercial and it doesn’t sit well with me — but I think what is interesting is that organically, what’s occurring with the reissues has completely coincided with the fact that legitimately, some people are actually celebrating the 30th anniversary of our band. To be honest, there were some delays in trying to get those reissues ready for public consumption, and there were some business-related issues with the old labels we had to deal with and with new labels anxious to get involved. So I think that there’s some cosmic kismet going on here… without getting too hokey about it. It does feel like good things have converged at this moment in time for us. It’s also interesting that there are a lot of younger music fans, fans of music of the ‘90s, who are looking at us now. It’s kind of come full circle. On the last couple of tours that we’ve done, we’ve noticed that there are younger fans coming out…people in their late teens and early twenties. I’m amazed by it, and super happy about it. Of course we love all our fans, but it’s nice when you’ve been around as long as we have to have people that didn’t know you the first time around and now, because they’ve discovered the music, they’re making an effort to come out and see us. They’re very vocal about it.
BLURT: Do you have the rights to the earlier releases? Or did you have to purchase the masters? KS:They kept the music in print for awhile, but as we moved away from the physical era, it became harder to find. Universal still owns the rights, but Omnivore leases the albums from Universal.
JA: We left it to Omnivore because they have the relationship with Universal. It was a little challenging at times because, obviously, we’re not the biggest fish in the pond. We had to generate some money upfront in terms of licensing, and that’s why we did a PledgeMusic campaign. That’s fair enough, but even before we sold a copy, the company wants to get paid for the licensing on all the physical product. We’re not doing this to make a bunch of extra money. We’re doing this to put these records out again in this great format.
BLURT:What’s the timing for the re-releases to come out?
KS: Dear 23 which was originally released in 1990, and it‘s coming next month. Frosting on the Beater, which was released in 1993, will come out in August. And Amazing Disgrace, which originally came out in 1996, is coming at the end of September.
BLURT:That’s three of eight albums. What about the others?
Our first album, Failure, was rereleased a few years ago. That’s still around and they did a great job with that. (Read the review HERE and listen to a track from the album HERE.) Then there’s Success. That album has its 20th anniversary this year, so there’s been some talk of getting that one out again as well. That one we do have the rights to. The next two on Rykodisc, Every Kind of Light and Blood Candy (reviewed HERE) are out of print amazingly enough. I’d like to see those two made available, but that might take awhile. Originally, we thought this would follow right on the heels of the Failure rerelease which we did in 2014. But here we are in 2018 and timed to our 30th anniversary, so I guess that was kismet right there. (Read the review of 2016 album Solid States HERE.)
BLURT: After the box set a few years ago, and the bonus tracks added to Failure, will you be completely exhausting the archives at this point?
KS: At this point, we’ve put out everything that’s interesting and worth listening to. Most of the stuff you’re going to get on these re-releases was not on the box set that came out in 2000. We found way more stuff. We were a little more organized this time around, so it’s incredible how much stuff there is. It’s probably six CDs of album material worth of non-album material from three albums. It’s kind of crazy. We were very prolific in those days, especially when we made Failure and re-released it as a cassette and quickly found Rick Roberts and Mike Musberger to join the band. We were just starting to play live as a full band. We didn’t really tour for Failure, just a couple of West Coast runs, and we were all living in the same house. So we were really cranking out tunes because we had a lot of time. We were doing the band full time, and touring wasn’t taking up all that much time yet. It took a year to make Frosting on the Beater, so during that time we were writing a lot of songs. We eventually got a little more efficient and started touring more, but it’s funny how much less prolific we became at that point.
BLURT: Were you amazed at what you were discovering when you checked out some of this stuff for the first time in so many years? Did it kind of make your jaw drop in amazement?
JA: There were moments when the proverbial dropping of the jaw did occur. What was most interesting was that sometimes you recognize these things differently with that much distance from it. Not hearing something for awhile, and then going back and actually hearing it from the source is almost like looking at old pictures of yourself and going, “That’s how I looked?” So now it’s, “That’s how we sounded?” We have enough distance on them now that it’s almost like listening to somebody else sometimes. I was so pleasantly surprised and pleased that we wouldn’t simply have to repackage the stuff we already put out to have the excuse to make these reissues. There is stuff here that was released before, but half of it is stuff bootleggers have, but no one’s ever heard it with this quality. Even the bootleggers don’t have what we found. It feels good that we’re putting this stuff out. We’re putting the final touches on the masters of the bonus tracks for Frosting on the Beater, like literally right now. The liner notes are done. There are 27 bonus tracks. There’s great photos. There are liner notes from Ken and me. It all coalesces. It’s a pretty amazing package. It’s got the attention to quality that a label like Omnivore puts into their releases. They really know what they’re doing and they’re really easy to work with. We love those guys.
When does the tour kick off?
KS: We’re taking the Frosting line-up of Jon, myself, Mike Musberger on drums and Dave Fox on bass and we’re starting in Victoria Canada and working our way around in a big circle and before we end up back up in the northwest in early July at a show in Seattle on July 7. Then we’ll be playing some festivals in Europe around Labor Day weekend and we’ll be doing a European club tour that starts in Barcelona on September 29 and wraps up in Sweden around November 6.
BLURT: Are you looking forward to going out again?
JA: In 2016, we were on the road for 4 1/2 months, and though we won’t be out as much this year, playing with the guys from the Frosting on the Beater band is one of our peaks. That was a live band that had a great chemistry and we were on fire that point. Everything was falling into place anyway. I’m not a nostalgic trip kind of guy, but I can’t help but feel look back at that era with a great deal of pride. I’m also looking forward to hanging out with these guys. Musberger is a drummer’s drummer. Talk about jaw dropping.
BLURT:Are you thinking that with the 30th anniversary, this is an opportune time to wake people up to the fact that the Posies remain vital and active, and maybe stir some interest with folks that didn’t give you the recognition the first time around? Is that part of the strategy, this reintroduction?
KS: I don’t know how much new audience we’re going to get. It would take a sympathetic journalist such as yourself to talk about it and say now is the time, especially if you’ve never heard this band before. You have no more excuses because here is the classic music. It’s a valid point. I feel that even the people that loved the music can now here it the way it was meant to be heard. I hate to admit it, but the Dear 23 CDs of 1990 just did not sound very good. The math was still being worked out on how to transfer audio to digital. If you liked that record and loved all the songs, you wouldn’t have realized how good they sounded until now, because the original tape masters are a lot more flattering than the CDs that were released at that time.
BLURT: Hopefully this campaign will make a lot of people sit up and take notice. KS: I feel that we came up at a time when screaming was more in fashion. The things we do with the harmonics in our vocals are really cool, and I don’t think that anybody else really does that kind of thing. There are other melodic bands that are great, but the concept of the Everly Brothers fronting an indie band is kind of a strange idea and a unique one, and I hope that people will still enjoy it.
BLURT: It does seem like this is really a new beginning for you guys. An opportunity to pull it all together to remake and remodel.
JA: We’re a band that’s rested on the laurels of our classic records, and there has been a lot of quality as a result of the way we’ve challenged ourselves. But to be able to take stock of it now and have the timing work out the way it did is invigorating in a way. So I think this will set the stage for something new after this period.
BLURT: Is there any talk about going back into the studio and making some new Posies music?
JA: There’s talk and I’m sure it will happen at some point. We’re focusing on the matters at hand, but especially after doing the last record, it’s totally viable that we will do some new stuff. It’s not just about celebrating this anniversary. However, I feel it is invigorating and we might still have some good records left in us. We’ve lost some band mates along the way so that’s not lost on us either. We’re not going to be around forever, so we should do it while we can.
BLURT: What’s the status of your solo projects these days?
KS: I’ve been involved with a lot of genre explorations. I did a country record with Holly Munoz a few years ago and I did something with the Disciplines which was kind of like a garage band sort of thing. My solo records have all different flavors. My last solo album is several years old now, so between the country record, the last Disciplines record, the retrospective tour and these reissues, I’d like to get another album out sooner rather than later. It kind of seems like I haven’t left a lot of space for the solo thing. Who knows?
JA: I’m always working on things other than Posies projects, as is Ken. I’m currently working on three or four projects for other people, although now that I’m on the road, they’re going to get some last minute mixes. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a record of mine called Songs from the Year of Our Demise, but that was a record that did a lot for me and a lot of other people really enjoyed it. It was a very personal record. I play nearly everything on it. I tried very hard and I put a lot of work into it. I had a project in the last couple of years called 6 1/2 and though it was really left of center of the Posies, it was also more of a collaboration too in the sense that it was really unexpected. The Posies was the first band for all of us, so it was the one that got us to where we wanted to go, or close to where we wanted to go. But at the same time, there’s so much longevity in this group that when we do things outside it, where it might have hurt us before, now it only helps us and it informs it, and it also allows us to do things on our own which is just as important, especially when you have a long-term relationship. You have to keep things fresh and exciting. You have to try to do other things besides the norm, the things you’ve always done. It’s important.
BLURT: So how do you rate the importance of doing your own things? Is it of equal stature, or do you see them simply as side ventures?
JA: I’m a Libra, so not to get all cosmic and stuff, I do listen to other people’s opinion a lot. But it’s like trying to pick your favorite song. They’re different things. The majority of people were introduced to us via the Posies. There’s an attachment there — it’s also about where people were when they heard certain records, when they turned 21, when they first heard Frost on the Beater, or they got married to Dear 23…those are formative memories and I can see how people want to remember us like that. But I’ve had people who have never heard the Posies who have heard my solo records and Ken has people like that. There are people who were introduced to the Posies through his work. And there are people who know my work as well. It really depends when you joined the conversation. At this point, I wouldn’t want to just do the Posies, that’s for sure.
BLURT:It would make sense that you really have to focus on the Posies at this point, no? KS:I kind of agree. I feel like we had some really good momentum going on with the last tours we did in 2016 and had a great vibe. So it makes sense to kind of carry on and make more music. It’s kind of got it all in a sense. The solo thing I do corners certain areas. Usually when I play, it’s solo and it’s quiet and intense, but here we can do duo tours where we get down and really quiet, or we can do these rock band tours, so it kind of covers all the bases that I would do in my solo work and more, so I’m intent on sticking with it. It’s a good brand.
JA: If people just want the Posies, they can always have that. I do think that what occurs outside of it is quality as well. I do understand that there’s special about the Posies and it’s based on the relationship of me and Ken. But when add something to this relationship, it seems to work. I don’t think that whatever we do outside of it isn’t special as well. As an example, there are things on various Posies records that I didn’t play on and things that Ken didn’t play on and people still think it’s the Posies. It might be my demo and it’s all me. And there are other songs where I didn’t play one note! People come up and say, “Oh, what gorgeous harmonies, but it’s just one of us.”
BLURT: Ken, when you toured with REM and Big Star, it must have felt like you were being lured into a whole new chapter of your career, no?
KS: With REM, I couldn’t rely on something that would always be there. That was just a tour to tour thing and how they wanted to put their band together. They kept asking me back, but I didn’t have any delusions that it was a permanent thing. That was just a fascinating and wonderful opportunity to play with one of my favorite bands until they changed their minds and went in a different direction. So I spent about ten years playing with them. It was great. The Posies split that took place in 1998 was because Jon quit, and he didn’t want to do anything more. He went through some hard times and just had to figure out some stuff. So he kind if dropped out for awhile. I would have gone on with the Posies, but without him, there was no way to go forward. So when REM came along, they presented themselves right at that moment and it was the perfect segueway for me. Okay, here is the next chapter presenting itself. Here’s a chapter at Posies central closing itself. I had no choice, but it was a great recovery.
BLURT:So when you were playing with those bands, were there lessons you learned that you were able to take back to the mother ship?
KS: Yes, for sure. They were much less precious and much more spontaneous in the studio than we ever were. Considering what was at stake for them every time, that they were following up a multimillion selling album and had multimillion dollar budgets, they went the opposite way you’d expect with that kind of pressure. They kind of were wonderfully cavalier, and that’s how they had always been, and they didn’t want to start becoming more calculated. They were becoming less calculated, which I think was fantastic. Sometimes, when REM was in the studio and taking a break, we might start jamming and come up with an entirely new tune on the spot and come up with words for it, and then have an entirely new song that night. We never did anything like that in the Posies. Everything was demoed and then re-demoed, and then we’d choose our bonus tracks from all the various demos we went through for each album. Four track demos, eight track demos, and so on. But REM was never like that, so I learned that you don’t have to be so formal, even if you’re making an expensive record. Especially if you’re making an expensive record. It’s much better with the more spontaneity you put in there.
BLURT:And what is the status of Big Star?
KS: Last year we released this live recording and did a theatrical release as well. It’s an amazing concert film. (The DVD is reviewed HERE.) The performances are absolutely jaw-dropping and it’s got a great cast of musicians — Mike from REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Pat Sansone, Jeff Tweedy, the Kronos Quartet who did the strings… Big Star’s 3rd: Alive and More is the name of that. It’s amazing. (BLURT covered several of the BS3 shows: Chicago 6/28/13, and Memphis 7/5/14.)
BLURT:Any chance that group will reconvene? It must be like herding cats to pull all the players together.
KS: It’s all possible. It’s just that it’s expensive to herd those cats. It takes a minimum of a dozen people to do the show the way Chris would like to do it. It takes a special festival situation to have the cache to make that happen, regardless of attendance.
BLURT: Still, when the two of you join forces within the Posies context… that sets the bar.
JA: The only bar that we have to meet is in the songwriting department. That’s the only standard that we have to meet…whether we think the songs are up to snuff. The rest of it is just window dressing in a way — the arrangements, the production… with a good song, you can do any production on it, and it will still shine through as a good song. That’s the only standard we really adhere to, and honestly, we also have a responsibility to ourselves. It’s not just to our fans or to give the audience what they might expect. Actually, if there are people who didn’t like the direction we were taking, or didn’t think we had enough guitars on a record for example, after awhile they got into it and would appreciate the fact that we weren’t just giving them the same stuff, and that we would change and evolve. There’s something to be said for that. In answer to your question, the only thing we have to adhere to in terms of standards is that the songs are up to snuff and that they’re good songs.
KS: Even if you like at every record we’ve done, there’s no Dear 23 Part Two or Frost on the Beater Part Two. Everything we did, for better or worse, even if you were trying to judge it, we could never be accused of trying to give the people what they want. At the same time, we tried to be diverse and still be the essence of who we are. We’re songwriters and vocalists and musicians. So I think the songs and the vocals are the threads that run through all the music the Posies make. That’s really what defines us — our abilities in those departments — and we’re good musicians. We play pretty well, and we’ve had some incredible musicians in our band, lots of different ones. There’s definitely something good going on here.
JA: Can you imagine the shock people must have had when they heard a Beatles record like “Hard Day’s Night” and then got Revolver? Did the same band that did “I Want to Hold Your Hand” really come out with “Yer Blues?” Sometimes the audience has to catch up too. It’s not an insult to the audience but when there’s something you’re used to, you have to acclimate yourself to something new. It’s like that with food, a new haircut. You have to get used to new things. It’s part of human nature.
In 2010 BLURT published an extensive interview with Ken Stringfellow. Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.)
Fri., May 18 – Victoria, BC @ Capital Ballroom
Sat., May 19 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
Sun., May 20 – Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall
Mon., May 21 – Bend, OR @ Volcanic Theatre Pub
Tues., May 22 – Sacramento, CA @ Harlow’s
Wed., May 23 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
Thurs., May 24 – San Juan Capistrano, CA @ Coach House
Fri., May 25 – Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater
Sat., May 26 – San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
Mon., May 28 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Wed., May 30 – Santa Fe, NM @ Santa Fe Brewing Co.
Thurs., May 31 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
Fri., June 1 – San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
Sat., June 2 – Austin, TX @ The Parish
Sun., June 3 – Houston, TX @ Bronze Peacock at House of Blues
Mon. June 4 – Little Rock, AR @ Capitol View Studios
Tues., June 5 – Memphis TN @ Layfayette’s Music Room
Wed., June 6 – New Orleans, LA @ The Parish at House of Blues
Thurs., June 7 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
Fri., June 8 – Birmingham, AL @ Saturn
Sat., June 9 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
Sun., June 10 – Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theatre
Mon., June 11 – Annapolis, MD @ Ram’s Head On Stage
Wed., June 13 – Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
Thurs., June 14 – Fairfield, CT @ Stage One at Fairfield Theatre
Fri., June 15 – Somerville, MA @ ONCE Somerville
Sat., June 16 – Washington, DC @ The Hamilton
Sun., June 17 – New York, NY @ The Bowery Ballroom
Tues., June 19 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
Wed., June 20 – Cleveland, OH @ Music Box Supper Club
Thurs., June 21 – Kalamazoo, MI @ Bell’s Eccentric Cafe
Fri., June 22 – Detroit, MI @ The Magic Bag
Sat., June 23 – Chicago, IL @ Park West
Sun., June 24 – Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
Mon., June 25 – Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
Tues., June 26 – St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
Thurs., June 28 – Milwaukee, WI
Sat., June 30 – Denver, CO @ Levitt Pavilion
Sun., July 1 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
Fri., July 6 – Bellingham, WA @ Wild Buffalo
Sat., July 7 – Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre
Fri., Aug. 31 – Vlieland, NETHERLANDS @ Into the Great Wide Open Festival (sold out)
Sat., Sept. 1 – Hoogwoud, NETHERLANDS @ Zomerpop Festival
Sun., Sept. 2 – Wiltshire, UK @ End of the Road Festival
Sat., Sept. 29 – Barcelona, SPAIN @ Upload
Sun., Sept. 30 – Zaragoza, SPAIN @ La Lata de Bombillas
Mon., Oct. 1 – Cordoba, SPAIN @ Hangar Cordoba
Tues., Oct. 2 – Cadiz SPAIN @ Aulario de la Bomba,
Wed., Oct. 3 – Granada, SPAIN @ Lemon Rock
Thurs., Oct. 4 – Valencia, SPAIN @ 16 Toneladas
Fri., Oct. 5 – Madrid, SPAIN @ Sala Caracol
Sat., Oct. 6 – Pontevedra, SPAIN @ Teatro Principal
Sun., Oct. 7 – Azpeitia, SPAIN @ San Augustin Kulturgunea
Tues., Oct. 9 – Paris, FRANCE @ La Maroquinerie
Wed., Oct. 10 – Utrecht, NETHERLANDS @ Tivoli
Thurs., Oct. 11 – Groningen, NETHERLANDS @ Vera
Fri., Oct. 12 – Heerlen, NETHERLANDS @ Poppodium Nieuwe Nor
Sat., Oct. 13 – Alkmaar, NETHERLANDS @ Podium Victorie
Sun., Oct. 14 – Hengelo, NETHERLANDS @ Metropol
Tues., Oct. 16 – Düsseldorf, GERMANY @ Zakk
Wed., Oct. 17 – Kortrijk, BELGIUM @ Wilde Westen
Thurs., Oct. 18 – Mechelen, BELGIUM @ Cultuurcentrum Mechelen
Fri., Oct. 19 – London, UK @ The Garage
Sat., Oct. 20 – Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
Sun., Oct. 21 – Glasgow, UK @ King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
Tues., Oct. 23 – Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute
Thurs., Oct. 25 – Bremen, GERMANY @ Tower
Fri., Oct. 26 – Hamburg, GERMANY @ Häkken
Sat., Oct. 27 – Berlin, GERMANY @ Berghain Kantine
Mon., Oct. 29 – Helsinki, FINLAND @ Savoy Theatre
Wed., Oct. 31 – Larvik, NORWAY @ Sanden Kafe at Kulturhuset Bølgen
Thurs., Nov. 1 – Stavanger, NORWAY @ Folken
Fri., Nov. 2 – Bergen, NORWAY @ Madam Felle
Sat., Nov. 3 – Trondheim, NORWAY @ Teaterhuset Avant Garden
Sun., Nov. 4 – Oslo, NORWAY @ John Dee
Tues., Nov. 6 – Gothenburg, SWEDEN @ Pustervik
Wed., Nov. 7 – Stockholm, SWEDEN @ Fasching
Thurs., Nov. 8 – Malmö, SWEDEN @ Inkonst
The indie rock hero, in-demand keyboardist, and all around good guy talks about his first solo release in nearly a decade. (Photo by Tim Manning)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Roger Manning, Jr. has had a remarkably varied career so far.
He was co-founder of the brilliant San Francisco Power Pop band Jellyfish; since their break up, he’s played in a mix of influential rock and synth bands like Imperial Drag, The Moog Cookbook and TV Eyes. Manning has long been Beck’s go-to keyboardist and in between he’s been able to finish three remarkably distinct solo records.
Unfortunately, given other commitments, his solo work has been on the backburner for a while. A decade, in fact. But thanks to a major Pledge Music campaign, Manning is about to release his latest EP, Glamping, along with re-introducing his classic solo releases with a slew of extras. The campaign, which allows fans to pre-order the music, comes with a number of creatively inventive items they can bid on, like Manning’s 1960’s bell bottoms, his keyboards and record shopping trips.
A week or so before the new EP comes out, Manning got on the phone to talk through the campaign, the 10-year delay between solo albums and why you won’t have to wait very long for the new one.
It’s been about a decade since your last solo record. Why did now seem like the right time to finally make this happen?
Well, one year after my last solo record seemed like the right time, but life had other plans in store for me. Doing a solo record is always a challenge, particularly if you’re not a well-known artist because you have to pull together the finances. So, I did solo albums back to back in ’06 and ’08, but the cold hard fact is that those records required so much time to get them right – the way I wanted them to sound – that I was happy that I just broke even. Certainly, in Japan we had a great run and did some shows and sold some records, but my A&R person was so happy that we didn’t lose any money.
In 2007, I put out my electronica record (Robo-Sapiens) on Malibu, but that coupled with some life changes and personal things, I started Glamping somewhere around 2012/2013. Freelance work and touring with Beck has taken up the rest of my musical time. Frankly I get more of my bills paid that way and I enjoy it, but my solo works does start to fall through the cracks and I got to the point where I thought I’m never going to finish this if I don’t do something about it. Then a friend said, “Hey, just put an EP out. Finish that first.” That simplified everything, and the good news is I’ve got eight more songs that are more than halfway done.
Depending on how this Pledge campaign goes, every nine months or less, I want to put out a new batch of material. The whole point of this launch is to corral all my fans across the world into one place and go “here’s the deal, I’ve got plenty of music for you guys and will continue to write my butt off if you make it known what you like.” This is my first love, it’s how I got started in the business and I’ve got plenty to share.
You mentioned the Pledge Music campaign. Over the past year or two more and more artists are using this as opposed to traditional labels and some – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum was one – have mentioned that it was difficult at first to go to the fans and get them to help finance the records, this way. Did you have any reservations?
I think I was just like Dave. In fact, we’re around the same age and both had bands in a similar era and both of our projects have had peaks and valleys. I agree, the whole concept out of the gate seemed bizarre to me until it was explained to me. Unlike the last record company model, if anything this brings you closer to people. You’re cultivating relationships you already have and just going deeper with the community that’s interested in music.
The whole point is to try and bring more people to the party and when I started looking at it differently, letting go of the old model so to speak, I really saw the potential for this and what it means for me as a songwriter for the rest of my life, regardless of what the record label model is doing, which you know if continuing to be turned on its head.
Through your solo work and the bands you’ve been in, you’ve worked with a number of different record labels – big, small, indie and major. Is there any part of you that feels a sense of schadenfreude as a musician at the current state of record labels?
I have a small opinion on this. There were certainly some injustices on behalf of the artists with the old model. There were a lot of upsides too. Each model has its pros and cons. I fortunately was taught early on to look at the labels as nothing more than a loan agency. If I want to buy a house, like it or not I have to go through a mortgage company and I’ve got to pay out the ass in interest. That’s the game that’s in place in our society in 2018. Like it or not, that model helps me get into a home that’s way beyond our means.
The record label took an unknown band form San Francisco and they did their dance with MTV and they did their dance with radio all over the world and I watched it all happen. Basically, back then you had to win the lottery. There were a hundred bands at any given moment vying for a record label’s attention and maybe five percent of them were given a shot. And even then, if the record company was promoting 10 of those groups in a release season, maybe they were only concentrating on three or four of them. Also, you had A&R people in the ‘70s and ‘80s who were not really in fear of their jobs. There was an aspect of job security. If the first band you signed didn’t have a hit record, you weren’t fired the next week.
Labels, although they all wanted big smash hits, they were into cultivating bands back then. I joke that if U2 were signed in the last 10 years they would have been dropped already. There first few albums hardly sold in the U.S. in the beginning. They would have been dropped nowadays and their A&R man would have been fired… Now it’s just a fear-based community with everybody trying to copy the songs that made some noise last week on the radio. You have an artist and an artistic community that seem to not be phased by their one-dimensionality lack of variety environment. I’m not dissing any of these bands in the top 40, but I was spoiled. I grew up in a different era.
So, with Pledge music, you can put out whatever music you want without anyone telling you to trim the song lengths or change things around…
Exactly. I quickly learned that this campaign was only going to have as much success as I was applying myself to doing the day-to-day work. Suddenly I was my own A&R man, I was now making creative decisions out of the music world that I wasn’t used to making – day-to-day business stuff. That’s fine because I was feeling impowered, but it takes up time.
After all these years, I’m enjoying the empowerment of self-reliance and I’m learning things this time around that I know I’m going to do differently with the next campaign. I just love the fact that the Internet, pledge campaigns and certain aspects of the industry now allow for this… For me, there’s more pros than cons. I am so thankful for this community of folks for hanging in with me as long as they have. As part of that thank you, let’s do this some more.
And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock, and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. Go HERE to read Dr. Denim’s first installment of the series, HERE for Pt. 2, HERE for Pt. 3, and HERE for Pt. 4 (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.) Pictured above: Boston’s Prefab Messiahs.
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
Here in the Rockin department of Blurt, Inc., we tend to celebrate the variations of rock style by style. But that does an injustice to those acts that don’t bother to make distinction – punk, pop, psych, glam, etc. are all grist for the musical mill. Professor and the Madman is an excellent example. Comprised of veterans of the American and British punk rock wars, the Southern California quartet doesn’t waste time trying to stick to a formula on its first CD (following two digital-only releases) Disintegrate Me (FullerTone). Singers/guitarists Alfie Agnew and Sean Elliott, both ex-D.I., write songs that emphasize melody and hooks over genre loyalties, and the killer rhythm section of Paul Gray (the Damned, Eddie & the Hot Rods, U.F.O.) and Rat Scabies (the Damned) support every direction like a tap-dancing clock.
The quartet careens from seething punk (“Machines,” “Nightmare”) and high-voltage power pop (“Wishes,” “Faces”) to medium-tempo rock (“Useless”) and wayward psych (“Space Walrus,” “Electroconvulsive Therapy”), with the occasional dip into Monkeesish country rock (“Demented Love Song”) and whatever the droning “The Mirror” is. The variety isn’t a sign of dilettantism, however – the band applies the same keen sense of craft and loving charge of energy to every tune, nurturing the same spine. Disintegrate Me is an unexpected gem, and one that doesn’t require knowledge of its creators’ prior work to love.
Though France’s Guts Guttercat has long kept the same faith with Rolling Stones feel (and decadence) as Nikki Sudden, Dave Kusworth and the like, he too has no desire to simply catalog the styles he likes. For Follow Your Instinct (Pop the Balloon/Beluga), the fourth LP from his long-running Paris outfit Guttercats, he weaves strands of all the music he likes – street rock, psychedelia, glam, jangle pop – into a sensuous, ambitious tapestry that’s head-and-shoulders over anything he’s done before. The vocal harmonies on “I Promise You,” the off-kilter arrangement of “Down in the Hole” and the rich, Springsteenesque (or is that Street Hassle-esque?) drama of the title track give the band new dimensions. That’s not to say the group has forgotten its roots – check the ballad “Don’t Cry On My Shoulder” or the rocker “(Beyond the Limits) Before I Die” for old school delights. But Follow Your Instinct shows Guttercats to be a band finding its own sound in the beloved bric-a-brac of its leader’s loves.
Will garage rock – and by that we mean bands whose musical sensibilities haven’t evolved beyond the aesthetics of the Nuggets comps, not the term for anything with guitars and drums that popped up in the new millennium – ever go out of style? As long as older, junkier musical equipment remains (relatively) cheaply had and hormones continue to rage, the answer is clearly no. Especially coming out of the mouths of Thee Wylde Oscars. On its third album Rosalita! (Off the Hip), the Australian quartet needs little more than three chords, a foamy organ and a batch of songs that could just as easily be found on a compilation of regional 60s one-single wonders as on a CD made in the mid-’aughties. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you need more of this stuff in your life, but if you do, you can’t go wrong with “I Dig the Night-Time,” “Funny As a Heart Attack” or “Deja Voodoo.” Or you can skip right to “Wylde-Ass Twist” for immediate Oscarian indoctrination.
The Prefab Messiahs knocked around during the original early 80s garage revivalist explosion, but never managed to get an album out. Listening to the band’s Psychsploitation…Today! (Lolipop/Burger), it’s hard to think why. The New England band’s acid-tinged rock/pop is as tough and tuneful as anything else from the era, with the right balance between nostalgic reverence and cheeky humor. Check out “Having a Rave Up” (you can also view the awesome video for the track right here at BLURT) and “Monster Riff” (a clever recasting of the “Slow Death” riff) to hear the band hit those marks, or “Warmsinkingfeeling” and “The Man Who Killed Reality” for more blunt kicks. The Laissez Fairs also boast links to the original garage psych revival in bandmember John Fallon, late of the Steppes. The band’s second record Empire of Mars (Rum Bar) emulates the mid-60s era when the Beatles and the Stones were just starting to evolve into psychedelia – not yet full on acid casualties (a spot at which the Stones never arrived, of course), but adding touches like sitars, tablas and generous echo to their melodic rock & roll. The band goes whole hog into the other side here and there (the title track being a good example), but keeps the switch on “mildly trippy” for appealing, rockist tunes like “Wanna Make You Mine,” “Again Again Again” and “Almost Got You Made.”
We’ve waxed rhapsodic about Dirty Truckers leader Tom Baker before. In celebration of the attention his no-frills r’n’r has gotten lately, the band assembles “Best of” (Rum Bar), a primer on how to turbocharge the legacy of folk, country and early rock. With the assistance of not only his stalwart bandmates, but also Dave Minehan of the Neighborhoods (and the latter-day ‘Mats) and former Zulus/Human Sexual Response/Frank Black/etc. axeman Rich Gilbert, Baker jettisons trends to just play a passel of catchy, forthright three-chorders with absolute conviction. There’s way too much power here for the Truckers to be thrown under the Americana bus, but just enough familiarity with American tradition to make songs like “Off the Hook” and “Crosscutting Concerns” more than just bar-band rave-ups. The band’s choice of covers slip us the key: the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” and Steve Earle’s “Hardcore Troubadour.” Boston-to-Austin singer/songwriter Buckley (J.D. to his buds) also amps up roots rock on his second solo album Las Cruces (Rum Bar). The former leader of the Gilded Splinters almost slavishly apes Neil Young at times, from the Crazy Horse stomp of “Bakersfield” to the 70s country rock of “Devil Slide,” but plays it all with exactly the right feel. Besides, when the distortion cranks on a singalong anthem like “Three Chiefs,” it’s churlish to complain. [Full disclosure: your humble correspondent was born in the titular New Mexico town.]
Spain loves its American rock, power pop and punk, so it’s no surprise that the country has plenty of homegrown imitators. K7s distill that love down to its essence with Take 1 (Rum Bar), twenty-seven minutes of poppy punk that veers between the energetically sweet (“Listen to My Heart,” “Your Lips Met Mine”) to the blazingly pissy (“It’s the CIA,” “I Want You to Know” – “there’s no tomorrow,” that is). There’s plenty of lyrical treacle here – seriously, folks, it’s 2018, and no one should be writing songs about listening to hearts, yours or mine. But effortlessly catchy hooks and enough turbopower to indicate an unhealthy mixture of sugar and amphetamines mostly keep the band out of trouble. How many other songs called “Never-ending Love” make you want to smash stuff?
Boston’s Watts follows up its kick-ass LP The Black Heart of Rock n Roll with All Done With Rock ‘n’ Roll (Rum Bar), a four-songer that seemingly contradicts its predecessor’s message. The Boston quartet does, in fact, ease back on the throttle a bit – “Hi Definition,” “Sunlight Alleys” and the world-weary title track emphasize hooks over the band’s usual overpowering rawk attack. It’s a surprising turn, but one that works out due to the groups’ rock-solid songwriting and affinity for melody. Besides, “Tear It Up” brings back the wildfire, just in case we think Watts has forgotten its roots.
The Bonnevilles broke out of their homebase in Ireland a couple of years ago with their fourth albumArrow Pierce My Heart. Album number five Dirty Photographs (Alive Naturalsound) continues the duo’s work splicing Chess Records with Nuggets, with more of an emphasis on the latter. Indeed, “By My Side,” “The Good Bastards” and the title track (a paean to singer/guitarist Andrew McGibbon Jr.’s wife’s, um, hindquarters) smile and wave as they kick over the furniture. Even at the pair’s bluesiest (“Don’t Curse the Darkness,” “Fear of the New Zealot”), they have little interest in despair.
It’s always nice to hear a combo that remembers where all this rock & roll stuff originally came from. The Heartbrokers call up the spirit of the late, great Chuck Berry (plus a bit of punk rock attitude) on “Dance Motherfucker,” the second track on its debut Vol. 10 (Off the Hip). Led by singer/songwriter Van Walker, the Australian collective also bashes through wistful folk rock (“Rank Outsider”), horn-enhanced roots rock (“Love Your Enemy”), Midwestern hard rock (“I Am the Devil”), Southern rock (“Eye in the Keyhole”), brash boogie (“Trouble in Paradise”) and even a cover of Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down,” all done with enthusiasm and skill. If it rocks, the Heartbrokers love it, and do it well.
Easy to forget, but the guitar isn’t the only instrument primed for rock & roll. San Antonio’s Harvey McLaughlin reminds us of this by tickling the ivories on his debut album Tabloid News (Saustex). As might be suspected from the title, he also tickles a few ribs along the way – you don’t click over to a song called “Bigfootsville” or “Must’ve Been Elvis” expecting a serious treatise on the human condition. Like Randy Newman, McLaughlin’s playing is rooted in New Orleans pre-rock R&B, which gives his tunes rolling melody lines that would sound comfortable next to Fats Domino on a specialty radio show. “Mysterioso Blues” and “November 1st” demonstrate an excellent feel for Southern styles without coming close to pastiche. McLaughlin never brings his songs to the brink of chaos – to do so would obscure the wit threaded through his lyrics – but he builds up nice heads of steam on “Tunguska,” “My Baby’s Too Good (For the 515)” and the wordless “All’s Well in Roswell.” It’s been a long time since a singer/songwriter like McLaughlin’s come down the pike, and he’s a welcome breath of fresh air.
Check out selected audio and video from the records discussed above: