Category Archives: Interview

THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 5: Dwight Twilley & Phil Seymour

Twilley Band

“I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented music and for the craftsmanship of a great pop record”: Truer words were never spoken. We hereby pay tribute to the power pop auteur and his late musical partner.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club and Green On Red) I’m paying tribute to perhaps my favorite ever power pop group, The Dwight Twilley Band. Steered by the titular songwriter and his drumming/singing foil Phil Seymour, the group released only two albums before both men embarked on solo careers, but those two records—1976’s Sincerely and 1977’s Twilley Don’t Mind—remain etched in pop devotees’ minds. No better evidence of that is the just issued Twilley Won’t Mind tribute album, comprising material from that mid/late ‘70s period. Coincidentally, a posthumous live Seymour album, Phil Seymour In Concert! has also just arrived, so as you might surmise, ye olde editor’s pop fiend gears started turning and I decided to excavate portions of a 2002 interview I did with Twilley to flesh out my musings on the two new releases. Enjoy. – FM

 We power pop acolytes can be a long-suffering bunch. Many is the time when our heroes have seemed on the cusp of breaking big, only to be shoved aside by a more mainstream-stroking bandwagon-hopper or, worse, discovering that their supporters at the label were gone (or, even worse, the label itself had shuttered). This tends to leave us, the lonely fans, casting our hosannas year after year to the utter indifference of friends, family, foils and foes. Still, we persist, viewing our unconditional love as a noble cause. Yes, we are sad bastards.

Just the same, submitted for your consideration: Dwight Twilley and his early musical partner, Phil Seymour. In the summer of ’75 the inordinately handsome 24-year old Okie with a joint Sun Records/Elvis and British Invasion/Beatles fixation vaulted from out of nowhere into the Top 20 with the chiming/throbbing radio anthem “I’m On Fire.” Credited to The Dwight Twilley Band, it was the brainchild of Mrs. Twilley’s kid and Seymour, who by that point had been working together for nearly a decade. Back then no one outside a select circle of Tulsa, Okla., musicians and Twilley and Seymour’s Shelter Records label bosses, Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, had even heard of the upstart songwriters, but as the summer unfolded and the song blared from car radios everywhere, it looked to be the start of a beautiful career for the duo.

Twilley Band 2

At the time, though, neither Twilley nor Seymour seemed all that concerned with how the music biz operated, to the extent that the band rarely performed live, the pair preferring to hole up in the relative isolation of their Tulsa studio and craft the songs that would eventually grace their debut. They presumed, in their youthful arrogance, that every song they recorded was a potential hit followup to “I’m On Fire.”

“Oh, we were so naïve,” Twilley told me years later in a 2002 interview, laughing somewhat ruefully at the memories. “We thought we were indestructible – and were proven wrong really quick.”

Indeed, many of Twilley’s subsequent activities fell prey to bad timing; Sincerely, the album containing the hit single, was delayed for a year, at which time Shelter was already in the process of going under, so following a second Twilley Band album for the Arista label he and Seymour both went solo. There were also bad business decisions: in ’86 Twilley signed with a CBS affiliate for his sixth album, Wild Dogs, only to see the shady president of his label become embroiled in a huge payola scandal, effectively killing the album upon its release; meanwhile, Seymour enjoyed moderate success with the single “Precious to Me” but the label he had signed with, Boardwalk, folded shortly after his second album was released. And then there were just plain bad breaks; after forming his own Big Oak label, in 2001 Twilley prepared to released The Luck , but its release two weeks after September 11 ensured that everyone’s attention was directed elsewhere.

However, the Twilley story isn’t strictly a cautionary tale. To the contrary: Twilley’s been luckier than most, and a lot of musicians would kill to have the same level of respect and recognition that he’s amassed over the years. Critics consistently vote Sincerely and its ’77 follow-up Twilley Don’t Mind onto their All-Time Greatest Powerpop Albums lists. Tragically, Seymour passed away in ’93 from lymphoma, but Twilley has consistently persevered, with his two most recent albums, Green Blimp (reviewed HERE at Blurt and Always (reviewed HERE), maintaining the high standards he and Seymour set nearly four decades earlier. “I definitely feel like I have my little spot, and I’m proud of what I do,” Twilley insisted to me. “I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented music and for the craftsmanship of a great pop record.” (Following this text is more of my 2002 conversation with Twilley.)

Phil Seymour CD

Under discussion today: a pair of Twilley Band related releases. First, Phil Seymour In Concert!, no less than the third installment in the Phil Seymour Archive Series, issued by Airline Records (distributed by Ingrooves). Vols. 1 and 2 were released by quirky reissue specialist Fuel 2000 and offered up, respectively, an expanded version of Seymour’s superb 1980 eponymous debut (recorded shortly after the original Twilley Band had split), and its somewhat less inspired—though still quite enjoyable—followup, 1982’s 2. This time around we get a 2CD set with pair of live concerts from L.A. in 1979 and 1980.

The ’79 performance of Seymour and The Feel at the Hong Kong Café is high on energy but suffers from just average sonic quality, a kind of flat soundboard feel, something that actually won’t bother Seymour collectors since medium fidelity tapes swapped rabidly over the years have already primed the ears to settle for what we can get. Two obvious highlights are “Looking For the Magic,” from the classic Twilley-Seymour partnership that won us over in the first place all those years ago, and a cover of the Supremes’ “Can’t Hurry Love.” Indeed, the set is heavy on covers, including tunes from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Bobby Fuller and Nick Lowe; as such, it suggests that Seymour, along with his band at the time, The Feel, was still working out his identity as a bandleader. The ’80 show is much better, from the setlist to the sound (it was originally recorded at Gazzari’s for an FM broadcast) to the musicians backing up Seymour. Gone is the hastily-assembled The Feel, and taking their place is a far more accomplished ensemble that includes the mighty Bill Pitcock IV, from the Twilley band, natch, on lead guitar. The set is accordingly frontloaded with Twilley/Seymour-centric material, notably Twilley’s luscious “Then We Go Up,” Seymour’s surprise hit single “Precious to Me” and a “Peter Gunne”-like thumper penned by Pitcock titled “Don’t Blow Your Life Away.” Among the covers are Lieber & Stoller, Bobby Fuller (again) and go-to power pop femme Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s.

By this point Seymour has become a more confident frontman, partly due no doubt to having more seasoned players surrounding him and partly because with the success of “Precious to Me” he was staking his own turf rather than being simply “the other guy” onstage with Twilley. At times you can hear him taking on a bit of a McCartney persona, animated and clearly enjoying himself. (For proof see the live video of “Precious to Me,” above, although not that is not from the Gazzari’s show.) Sadly, Seymour’s record label would fold shortly after the release of the second album, effectively squelching whatever momentum he had, although he continued to work for another decade (notably as a member of the Textones, with Carla Olson) until his death in ‘93.

twilley_pack

As sweet as it is to have previously unreleased Seymour in the record bins, most of us know that you ain’t been properly memorialized until a tribute album is recorded. Enter the power pop fanatics of Australia’s Zero Hour who’ve assembled a host of international indieites to redo some 23 tracks hailing from the Sincerely and Twilley Don’t Mind era. And while we all know that tribs tend to be spotty, if not outright compromised, when it’s your personal fave getting the proverbial musical hat-tip, it’s easy to be generous if you already love the material and enough of the performances are solid.

For the most part, Twilley Won’t Mind is exactly that. With 23 tunes, it’s inevitable that some of ‘em are gonna fall flat; several tracks are overly earnest, overtly schmaltzy, or just plain poorly recorded. But with such killer readings as Honeychain’s sleek, sexy and seamless “I’m On Fire,” Donovan’s Brain’s unbelievably accurate (right down to the backwards guitar), 12-string powered “Sincerely,” Michael Carpenter’s rousing handclapathon “Here She Comes” and the Slapbacks’ urgently buoyant “Looking For the Magic” it’s easy not only to be generous, but seduced. The musicians on the album have clearly studied and loved those two albums and their creators over the years, and the inspiration comes through in their recreations.

Writes journalist/archivist John M. Borack in his liner notes, “The Dwight Twilley Band [was] a true collaborative effort. No power pop duo could match the chemistry created when Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour played and sang together. Sincerely could have been subtitled ‘The Beatles Meet Elvis and the Byrds in Tulsa… a record for the ages. [And] Twilley Don’t Mind is nearly as perfect as the debut. Enjoy these covers, then go back and listen to the originals, too. You won’t have to look hard to find the magic.”

It’s perhaps significant that Borack and Bobby Sutliff from the Windbreakers perform on two of the tracks I’ve singled out above. Knowing both men’s deep, abiding love for power pop, I feel confident in saying that as long as they and their compatriots are around, the early Twilley Band’s estimable legacy will be in good hands. A hearty salute all around, gentlemen.

Below: Around 1977 the Dwight Twilley Band, which featured Bill Pitcock IV on guitar and guest Tom Petty on bass, popped up a number of times on American TV. Here they are doing “That I Remember” and “Looking For the Magic.” Nice lip-synching, lads!

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Dwight Twilley: The Interview

 BLURT: When you and Phil hit with “I’m On Fire,” did you have an awareness of being thrust into the belly of the music industry beast, so to speak?

DWIGHT TWILLEY: Oh, we were so naïve, too naive to be aware of anything like that. We thought we were indestructible. And we were proven wrong really quick! We had so many problems right from the get-go. The album didn’t even come out until a year after “I’m On Fire,” and it would have gone gold if it had come out then. They believed in it so much they were going to release two more singles before it came out. They released the second single and then the company went under. That’s when Leon and Denny parted company. So what do you do about that?

And you guys weren’t really touring at first anyway. You were more of a studio outfit. Did you have to play catch-up to get out there and tour?

Essentially, yeah. In a way. We could have been a stronger live act. We were so strong in the studio that I don’t think we could match what we did in the studio live.

How were you marketed? By the time Sincerely came out “new wave” was slowly becoming a buzzword… and then there was “power pop,” which some artists seem to be ambivalent towards.

Oh, I’ve had all those titles! About 20 of them! I have no problem with power pop. But would you really say “I’m On Fire” is a power pop record? To me it’s a rock record. I do pop music, but I also do rock music. So I dunno, that’s the kind of thing you leave to the writers and critics to decide. I’ll float along with it…

Twilley Band 3

What was going through your head after Phil left the band and you started moving towards the MTV era? Did you have a game plan? Because you actually shelved two albums.

Well, I had a ton of legal problems. I got bogged down for several years and it really took a toll on me. I have people tell me I’d never have another hit, and it was almost the same thing again – I was determined that I would.

Then MTV waved my flag. It said I wasn’t gone. But then again, once I stood up I got knocked down again by that payola scandal. I had my big followup album, which I thought was a good album. But boy, after that payola scandal I was, pffft, really almost blacklisted. A lot of fans didn’t even know it was out. Which is a little bit like what’s happened with The Luck. It was released 2 weeks after 9/11, so a lot of our press for that record was really blanketed. Not only were the press and everyone else walking around like zombies at the time, but so were we. Nobody did anything for about 2 months and that really killed our momentum.

It seems that a lot of American pop artists dropped off the radar in the late ‘80s also. Was there that much of a seachange in the business or in the public’s taste?

Well, I think there was that. And at that point in the music business, that was when it was starting to be uncool if you’d had hits. And I literally had people say that they would sign me if I wasn’t Dwight Twilley! It was kind of the A&R thing too: if you signed Dwight Twilley and he had a hit, what a talented guy that Dwight Twilley is, but if you were an A&R man who signed [some unknown artist] and he got a hit, what a genius the A&R guy is. That was the syndrome.

Quite a Catch-22.

Yeah, it really was. And can you believe that things actually got worse? I spent several years with a chip on my shoulder, not believing that I didn’t have a major label record deal. Yet today, I wouldn’t take one if you shoved it in my face.

People forget that a number of these bands had good deals, reasonable backing, then all of a sudden were persona non grata. We were moving into the flannel shirt era where notions of “authenticity” took over from notions of “classic songwriting.”

And I heard for years that “pop is coming back.” [bitter laugh] You hear that every once in awhile. And people would come to me and say, ‘We just need somebody to lead it, and you should be the guy!’ No such thing ever happened! And if it came back at all, I guess it came back in the form of the homogenized songs that all these little girls and boy bands are doing. I don’t think there’s a venue for it now – there’s hardly any stations that will play it.

Going all the way back to “I’m On Fire,” though, you’ve plugged into a classic style and sound that a lot of people can relate to.

And fortunately I’m still able to actually sing my hits! [laughs] And they come off pretty well live. We always like to do “TV” [from Sincerely]. I revitalize the words every two or three years, so now when I do it there’s lyrics about Pay-Per-View, VCRs, computer screens, that whole thing. It’s always a fun song – it would have been great if Elvis could have covered that! It was being talked about at one point before he died… I’m playing at least one song from every record I’ve put out. Some of the old stuff just sounds amazing, really authentic. It’s really fresh for us. You won’t hear a tired, played-out thing that we’ve been doing forever.

What do you think is the appeal, the enduring strength of American pop music?

I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented music. For people that really understand the craftsmanship of a great pop record, great pop songs. Music and lyrics tied together.

Do you feel you slot into that tradition? Ever feel like walking away from music altogether?

I dunno, I definitely feel like I have my little spot and I’m proud of what I do. And you know, there was that long period where I wasn’t doing anything, and then I put out Tulsa [1999] and it really took me by surprise how much people appreciate when I go and make a record.

So it really kind of made me want to make some more records. I was really fortunate.

Twilley now

Dwight Twilley online: http://www.dwighttwilley.com/

 

15 QUESTIONS FOR… Mike Schulman of Slumberland Records

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Announcing a new BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon.

BY TIM HINELY

For over two decades Slumberland Records has been releasing some of the best indie rock/pop, shoegaze and dream pop. Staunchly independent, the label is—and for the most part (see first question) always has been—a one-man show by its leader, Mike Schulman. He’s gotten by the old-fashioned way, on good taste and hard work. Schulman was nice enough to answer some questions from the Slumberland HQ in sunny Oakland, CA. (Pictured below: Black Hearted Brother, whose Stars Are Our Home was released in October of 2013. L-R are Nick Holton, Neil Halstead and Mark Van Hoen. Read our interview with the band here.)

 Black Hearted Brother

BLURT: When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration?

MIKE SCHULMAN: Slumberland started in December 1989 as a collective effort by people in the bands Big Jesus Trash Can, Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine and Powderburns. We were all total novices inspired by lower east side NYC noise, No Wave, Post-Punk, K Records, Creation Records, Postcard Records, Factory, Rough Trade, William S Burroughs, Marcel Duchamp, The Jesus And Mary Chain, etc. etc. Most of us had never even picked up an instrument before starting the aforementioned bands, but were fired up enough by the fertile mid-‘80s DIY scene to give it a shot. After playing local shows and getting a bit better established it made sense to document what we were doing, and hence Slumberland.

Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?

The current logo was designed by Crayola from Sarandon. We’ve gone through at least 5 or 6 logos over the years; Crayola’s is probably our longest lived at this point.

What was your first release?

A 3 band compilation 7” called “What Kind of Heaven Do You Want?” It featured one song each from Velocity Girl, Powderburns and Black Tambourine. All recorded on 4-track, lo-fi sludgy noise. The engineer at the studio that we went to to mix onto DAT thought we were insane.

Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?

Definitely: K, Postcard, Rough Trade, Fast Product, Creation, Sarah, Factory, Flying Nun.

What difficulties did you realize come with running a label?

Getting people to pay attention, to take us seriously, to actually buy the releases. Honestly, none of that has changed at all in the last 25 years. It’s still a real challenge. (Below: Withered Hand’s Dan Willson and Pam Berry, whose New Gods album is released March 25.)

 Withered Hand by Pierre Antone

If there is one band, current or past, you could release a record by, who would it be?

Saint Etienne.

What has been your best seller to date?

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s first album.

Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?

Yes and yes, but I always feel a bit weird about it. I’m not a very serious musician, so I feel sort of guilty spending resources on my own bands.

What are your thoughts on having a presence at the major conventions like SXSW, CMJ, etc.? Have you done them before and if not, would you like to?

I have done them on and off over the years. To be honest I don’t think they’re that useful unless you already have a buzz for the bands. There’s just too much going on simultaneously and too much competition. For a label the size of Slumberland, it’s rarely worth the expense.

Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?

Yep, we’re quite active on Facebook and Twitter. It’s one of the few even semi-reliable ways we have of communicating with the fans at this point. (Below: Terry Malts, whose Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere album was released in September of 2013. L-R is Nathan Sweatt, Philip Benson, Corey Cunningham)

 TerryMaltsPress01-Web

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?

For the bigger selling titles the digital sales can be significant, but for the most part Slumberland fans are still more interested in physical media.

What are your feelings on vinyl? Have you always offered your releases on vinyl?

Vinyl is and always been our primary interest, and I’m quite proud to say that unlike almost all of our peer labels we never stopped releasing LPs. It’s been quite gratifying to see interest in vinyl bouncing back, though it’s anyone’s guess how long the bump will last.

What is your personal favorite format to release music?

7” single, which sadly is all but dead.

What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?

To be honest most of the labels that I follow are on the dance music side of things: Wild Oats, Sound Signature, KDJ/Mahogani, Perlon, Sushitech, FXHE. When it comes to rock stuff there are definitely individual bands that I really like, but they tend to be scattered across a bunch of different labels.

Do you accept unsolicited demos?

I do, but with the caveat that we’re a very small label and almost never pick up new bands based on demos. I think a lot of people imagine that since we’ve been around as long as we have and have had some success that we’re some sort of cash-generating mini-major just looking for ways to keep the money moving around, but in reality we’re just a one-man show, hustling to keep things going in a challenging and saturated market. (Below: Tony Molina, whose Dissed and Dismissed album is due March 25.)

 Tony Molina

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CONTACT INFO:

Slumberland

PO Box 19029 Oakland, CA 94619

URL: www.slumberlandrecords.com

Email: slr@slumberlandrecords.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/SlumberlandRecords

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SlumberlandRecs

 

REINTRODUCING THE BAND: Luscious Jackson

Luscious Jackson by Doug Seymour

Jill Cunniff talks about the return of her ‘90s group, their new album, and not being tethered to the music industry.

 BY ROBERT FULTON

Let’s take a minute to reintroduce the world to Luscious Jackson: all-girl alt-rock group formed in New York in the early ‘90s; discovered by the Beastie Boys; signed to the Beastie’s Grand Royal label; had a mega-hit with 1996’s “Naked Eye”; broke up at the turn of the century after four albums.

 Not much had been heard from Luscious Jackson since. Now the trio of Jill Cunniff (lead vocals, bass), Gabby Glaser (vocals, guitar), and Kate Schellenbach (drums) are back with a new album and a handful of appearances. (Keyboardist Vivian Trimble left the band in the late ’90s and is not participating in the reunion. Below, the band as it looked in the ’90s.)

Luscious Jackson 90s

 The group’s Magic Hour dropped November 5, and was funded through PledgeMusic, a Kickstarter-type website designed for bands to crowd-fund projects. The 10 danceable songs tackle topics from the 2012 passing of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (“We Go Back”) to more lighthearted fare in the derrière-inspired “#1 Bum.” At the time of this interview the band only has two dates announced in New York (Dec. 7, including an appearance on the Letterman show)) and Philadelphia (Nov. 23) but more should follow.

 Jill Cunniff, 47, took a few minutes to speak with BLURT from her home in New York about the new album, the band regrouping, and making it all work.

BLURT: I imagine you’ve been pretty busy with everything going on.

JILL CUNNIFF: Unbelievably busy. I think more busy than I’ve ever been in my whole life.

 Really? That’s interesting. Even busier than when your career was starting out?

Yes. Now we have families and kids and jobs. All I do is the band and my kids. Kate has a job. Gabby has a part-time thing. We all have full lives. Then we’re attempting to launch our band again, so we’re working around the clock.

 I saw an Instagram of Ikea bags filled with envelopes.

That was my week.

 You had to mail all those out?

Basically, we did the pledge drive, and one of the items is the CD.

 You got an intern to do it?

No. Easier said than done, right? When you have an intern you have to provide them an educational experience. It’s not that simple. So we didn’t get an intern. I had several—I call them my packing parties. And friends came over and we did labels and we did packing. The worst was the international shipments. I had no idea what that was. That was like four hours in the post office. We had to fill out each single shipment, right? And then they have to fill it out again. You can imagine how that was.

 What country did you mail to that surprised you the most, or what was the most far-flung you had to mail something to?

It’s all places we’ve been. The only place I noticed that had a lot that we’ve never been was Brazil. I’ve also noticed a lot of Brazil comments on Facebook. There’s this whole Brazilian interest there for us. We’ve never been there. Of course we’d love to go there. It’s not on the agenda yet, but I did notice that.

 In creating Magic Hour, why did you decide to go the PledgeMusic route?

It’s an appealing route because you don’t have to go and try and get a record deal. You don’t have to sign a bad record deal, which most of them are now. A 360 deal. We’re not a mainstream product right now. We’re older. We’re not touring around the clock. We’re not available on the level that an artist needs to be for that.

      It’s been really perfect for us. We did this at my home. I engineered and recorded at my home for the last year with Gabby, and Kate would send us stuff from L.A. We really enjoyed ourselves. There was no pressure because we already received the funding and basically, the fans who pledged, they just want a good record. That’s all we had to think about. Let’s make a great record. Let’s just make this how we want to make it. There’s no one sniffing around telling us how to do this. You can imagine how much fun that was and how great that felt. For our band, this is like a perfect storm of opportunities to self release.

 It looks like on the PledgeMusic site you had overwhelming support. You went way beyond your fund raising goal. What was your reaction to that?

It was really wonderful, and I think that enthusiasm infused the album. It’s a very positive album. It’s very fun and young. We really felt like we connected that youthful energy that we had. Not that we’re so old or anything. When we got back together, we reconnected with that energy that we had even as teenagers. I guess that’s the magic part of it. We’re like goofy kids.

 You touched upon this: Kate lives in L.A., and you and Gabby are in New York. What was the recording process like?

We basically had to work with the drums that she recorded. Either we would send her material, and she would play to it and send it back. Or she’d send us a lot of stuff that she played and we worked off of that, so that’s how that worked.

 What were some of the inspirations in writing Magic Hour?

They came out of left field. New York City’s still a big inspiration. “#1 Bum” was a song Gabby thought of about butts. That was just a total surprise to me. We had this great music sitting there. She comes up with butts. The song ended up being a really funny song.

      Adam Yauch passing away, we did a song called “We Go Back,” about our very old friendship with Adam from when we were teens. We’ve all known each other since like 13 years old. Adam Horowitz contributed a musical track called “So Rock On.” That’s one of my favorites.

 Those are good songs.

We were all so devastated for a good chunk of time there and shocked. We weren’t really expecting it. There wasn’t a lot of news about his health. So when it came, it was very shocking. We’ve known him so long that I don’t associate him with later years of life. I associate him with the earlier years of life.

 I notice you only have a couple of dates announced or lined up. Can we expect a tour?

What we’re going to do is isolated shows, special events, so that’s why we haven’t announced a tour. We’ll do specific cities that can work out. That kind of thing. It’s a little more complicated than a regular tour. We’re really focusing, we really need to get our name back out there and reintroduce ourselves.

 Like you mentioned earlier, with families and jobs, it’s a little harder to put it all together.

We’re still figuring out how to schedule things to make it work. Most important we need to get our name out there and tell people we’re doing it.

 Why get back together? What inspired this?

Gabby and I live near each other. We were making kids’ music, and we’re going to make some more kids’ music. The pledge drive came along. We realized we suddenly had all these opportunities. I was kind of like, I don’t know if I want to do any music. I was very cynical about the music business. I love making music. I’ve been songwriting for many years. I just was feeling cynical about the way it is right now. You can put in a ton of work, and you can lose money. You don’t really want to invest your own money into the music business. But when you have the opportunity to have a pledge drive, it’s not coming out your savings. We’re suddenly like, oh, there is a way to do this. That’s the big difference. I was not interested in record companies and record deals. They’re just very constricting now. It’s not appealing for us.

 Is the children’s album coming out?

That’s coming out November 12. A lot of our fans do have kids. [Baby D.J. is currently available at iTunes—see video, below.]

 Why is Vivian not part of this project?

She’s moved to New Hampshire, very happy, so it’s not really her thing.

 This whole thing, is this a temporary thing, or are you back together for the long haul?

We’d like to be back together for the long haul. We hope it’s the beginning of a whole new series for us. I think that would be amazing.

 Photo credit: Doug Seymour

THE TRIUMPHS AND CHALLENGES OF BEING… Tom Jones

Tom Jones promo

With a superb new album to his credit, the reigning King of Croon proves he’s not ready to retire yet. Not by a long shot…


BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Of all the accolades Tom Jones has been accorded over the course of his career — a Grammy, an MTV Video Music Award, two Brit awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Order of the British Empire honours bestowed by the Queen of England, a song included in the soundtrack to… ahem… Little Fockers… (Okay, maybe that last one’s a bit dubious) — none seems more impressive than the title bestowed upon him this year and last by Britain’s Glamour Magazine, that of “Sexiest Man Alive.” Granted, any well-groomed individual with a show biz pedigree could generally be considered a contender, but the fact that Mr. Jones turns 73 this year kinda makes us younger guys somewhat flush with envy.

 

Perhaps Glamour was according that title based on performance alone, both in the bedroom and onstage — although hopefully not after judging that stamina in both circumstances simultaneously. However now, with a career in its sixth decade, the former Thomas John Woodward, born to working class parents in the mining country of Wales, has achieved every pinnacle of success the entertainment world has to offer — consistent hit records from the mid ‘60s to the present day (36 that landed in the Top 40), an uncanny ability to keep current with evolving musical trends, stints in Vegas (where he met and hung out with Elvis), a namesake TV show in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as well as the devotion of millions of female fans, many of whom have made the tossing of undergarments a regular ritual of his live performances.

 

Granted, it’s criminal that he’s still snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but given his age and continued appeal, that fact almost seems insignificant at this juncture. Though older, greyer and slightly wizened, Mr; Jones still maintains his manic pace, and shows no sign of slowing down. A regular on the U.K. version of “The Voice,” he had the honour of singing at last year’s Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace, part of an exhausting concert schedule that still keeps him on the road a good part of the year.

 

When BLURT was given the opportunity to interview him just prior to the release of his brilliant new album, Spirit in the Room, we couldn’t help but be impressed by his humility and down to earth demeanour. Still speaking in his soft Welsh burr, an accent still evident even after several decades of living in L.A., he expressed appreciation for complements that were tossed his way, and was seemingly amused when certain incidents were brought up as well. Mostly though, he was sweet, sincere and quite pleased to answer any inquiries…

 

 BLURT: With your last few albums, you’ve taken a whole different approach, stripping away the lavish arrangements and putting the focus on your voice entirely. What prompted this change in direction?

TOM JONES: Well, the last two albums all had to do with meeting Ethan Johns really. I didn’t know what kind of album I wanted to do, and so when I met with Ethan, he was the one that made the most sense. He wanted do something that I hadn’t done before on record. “You’ve done all kinds of songs,” he said. “I know all the kinds of things you’ve done but I’d like to do something different. I’d like to get you stripped down and go in and you tell me what songs you want to do and I’ll toss some in that I think you should do.  We’ll just have a couple of musicians and move things around. So what do you think?” And I thought it sounded great. It sounded very interesting to me. When I started in Wales, I had a rhythm section and I would go singing in pubs and clubs and dance halls and stuff with just a few musicians. That’s what we used to do, take songs from the radio in those days, but do them a little different, my own way. So he said, why don’t we do that? Just get in there and move stuff around and see what happens.

 

So was it at all intimidating and unnerving to kind let yourself be laid bare without the protective sheen of the big arrangements you might have been used to?

No, not at all. It was refreshing. Because times change, and the way you record changes. When I first started recording, you’d get everything done outside the recording studio. You’d find the song, then you’d set the key and you’d get with an arranger, do an arrangement, and then you’d go into the studio and you’d record it. And that was it. Once the arrangement was done, there wasn’t much you could do to change it. In those days, we used to do three songs in three hours. It was a three hour session and that’s what you had to do. But nowadays, you don’t have to do that. You can rent the studio and use it for a week if you like, or a month. It’s up to you. It seems to be a lot easier, a lot looser. You’re not so restricted and that’s a great thing. And it’s exciting because you don’t know what’s going to transpire.

 

So who chose the songs?

We did an album before called Praise and Blame, so we said, well, what approach do we take? So Ethan said to me, “What if we do songs from songwriters that you like? You tell me the songwriters that are interesting to you. Maybe you’ve never done a song by them before or maybe you have.” So I started talking about songwriters and we settled on Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney and we also talked about Odetta. We didn’t know much about Odetta but that she was a folksinger and sang with Harry Belafonte, but I liked what she did and we listened to this song called “Hit or Miss” that she had done live. She had done it in the studio, but the live version is the one I liked. So we listened to that. And I also said I’d like to do something Paul Simon had written. And of course, there’s Blind Willie Johnson, which is the Blues side of it. So we picked “Soul of a Man” from him. And I always wanted to do a Tom Waits song. And Richard Thompson… So it was people that I liked as songwriters.

 

And how about the Low Anthem song, “Charlie Darwin?” That was an inspired choice.

I didn’t know them. But Ethan asked if I had heard of them and I said no. So he said, “Have a listen to this song and see what you think. You might like what you hear.” And when he played me this “Charlie Darwin,” I said, “My God, that’s a great song!” It’s interesting. It’s unbelievable to me. And I said I’d love to try it, so we did.

 

Given the list of the songs and songwriters, this is a very hip playlist.

Thank you (chuckles)

 

Not a lot of people would go this far in depth. Even the Paul Simon song (“Love and Blessings”) is a bit obscure.

Paul has written so many things that I hadn’t heard. So Ethan played it for me and said, “What do you think of this song that Paul wrote?” And I said, wow, sounds great.

 

What’s really amazing, even as much as the choices you made, is that you take these songs and make them sound like they came from your own pen, and from your own soul. They sound so personal.

Well, that’s what I was looking for. I tried to look for songs that could be about me, so it would sound like me singing about it. Well, maybe not all the experiences. I mean I wasn’t on the Mayflower in “Charlie Darwin” (chuckles), but I could relate to the frustration of people who believe that the world is fucked up and doesn’t work, because Charlie Darwin already told us that. You know what I mean? But it still sounds like it’s coming from me, like we’ve got to do something about this. Look what’s happening to the world here. Let’s try and do something. So the songs have to sound real, like they’re coming from me.

 

They do. It sounds like you could have penned some of these songs, Even the Leonard Cohen song, which is one of his signature tracks, sounds like you might have written it.

Well there you go, my friend. One reason my hair is grey. It sounds so true. (chuckles)

Tom Jones live 3

Tom Jones live 2 

It’s hard to think of another artist who has varied his template so consistently over the course of a career. You’ve maintained your career for 50 years, and yet you’ve successfully evolved, stayed current with trends and remained so relevant. You could have chosen to simply rehash your greatest hits, continue to play Vegas, stuck to the cabaret circuit and been very comfortable with that. What drove you to keep exploring and tackling new challenges?

It’s the same thing that drove me from day one. I wanted to try and sing everything that’s inside me. Everything that I think about. Sometimes I get with songwriters and throw some ideas in there of my own. I want to continually express myself. The fire has not gone out. The flame is very much lit, and in order to keep that fire burning, I have to do new things and sing new songs. I don’t want to keep repeating myself.

 

That’s admirable. When you look at certain other artists of your generation – the Stones for example – they’re still doing what they’ve always done. The Stones will always sound like the Stones for the most part.

That’s what they do.

Still, it’s pretty amazing how your voice is able to adapt, from doing a cover, of say, a Prince song to these deeply spiritual ballads that you’re doing now. The album that you did with Jools Holland, where you were just digging into primal rock ‘n’ roll was another example of that sheer versatility.

Thanks! (chuckle) It’s just me doing what I do and loving it. I love to sing and sometimes it’s hard to know which way to take. You need somebody that sees something in you that maybe you’re not thinking about. And that was Ethan. “I want people to get inside you,” he said. “I want people to know what you feel. If there’s any doubt about what you can do, let’s do it and surprise some people.”

You must be doing something right, because it looks like you’re in pretty great shape all round. We can’t help but mention that you were recently named one of the world’s sexiest men. No bad for a guy in his seventies.

(Chuckles) yeah, well I work out. I work out quite a bit and stay as healthy as I can. I don’t indulge. I don’t drink too much. I drink a little wine. I like a nice glass of beer, but thank God I never had to use it as a crutch. Some people have to have a little something before they go onstage, but I don’t. I need a clear head when I sing. I’ll drink afterwards but not before. All those things save you, I think. You have to get enough sleep. You can’t run on empty or you’ll hurt yourself.

You must have had some kind of self control, because coming up in the ‘60s the drug culture must have been pretty prevalent. There’s a picture on the internet from your TV show singing with Janis Joplin. If anyone is an example of how drugs can ravage an individual, she’s certainly one. So you must have known some notorious characters in that regard.

Oh Christ, I’ve been at parties where I’ve seen all kinds of stuff going on. But it never interested me. I enjoy a drink, but only when I want to relax, when I’ve done what I’ve had to do. Then I’ll have a drink. I love to have a glass of wine with dinner and maybe a glass of cognac afterwards. But you have to watch the clock. You’ve got to know that if you have to do something the following day, then you’ve got to get some sleep. You can’t burn the candle at both ends. It’s an old saying, but it’s true.

Did you get any of that discipline through your upbringing? Because you can from humble beginnings.
Yeah. Yeah, that had something to do with it. Because I was brought up with people that were drinkers and drank in pubs. It was a social thing. I didn’t know any alcoholics when I was growing up in Wales. They just enjoyed a drink of beer on the weekends. I come from that background, but I think its trial and error. When you see things when you’re in show business and you see the effect that having on people, you learn from experience. Not that you have to take it, but you see the effect it’s having on other people. I’m not going to bother with that. (laughs) That doesn’t seem to be working for anyone here!

So what’s on the bucket list at this point? Is there anything you’ve yet to accomplish?

(Chuckles) I don’t know. I just want to sing until I drop. I’m not tired yet. I hope I get tired before my voice gives out. I would hate to still want to do it but my voice won’t let me. You know what I mean? I would hate to get to that point. I hope I get tired and say, “Oh my God, I just can’t do this anymore. (laughs) Maybe I’ll get like that when I’m old. (laughs)

 [Live photos via Jones’ Facebook page; taken at Sandown Park Racecourse by Hayley Bray Photography Ltd.]

THE JOY OF EXCESS: Besnard Lakes

THE JOY OF EXCESS The Besnard Lakes

 

The Canadian group is abducted by an Imperceptible UFO and lives to sing about it…

BY SUSAN MOLL

 Are we alone? The Besnard Lakes don’t think so, and for good reason, too. Not long ago, their drummer, Kevin Laing, was relaxing beneath the night sky on the terrace of his Montreal apartment, where he spends many evenings. Everything was fine—until he looked up.

“He saw a UFO!” says singer and guitarist Jace Lasek, barely able to contain his excitement. “He lives on the second floor of an apartment and he has a terrace. Up in the sky, in the horizon above the buildings, he saw four—and then a fifth one—yellow, orange, glowing orbs. They were there for, like, five or six minutes! He was like, ‘I don’t want anybody to think that I’m totally nuts! I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t high. I was sober as a judge.’”

Such bizarre and unexplained visitations are nothing new for the Besnard Lakes, whose music mirrors their passion for all things paranormal and unexplained. Strange phenomena haunt them wherever they go, even when they’re touring. At their 2011 show within the aged walls of Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum, the band found itself in unexpected company.

“I think that there was actually a ghost onstage with us,” says Lasek’s musical and marital better half, Olga Goreas, whom he affectionately calls “Oggy.”  “During one of the songs, we had a really quiet part, and I heard this voice yell, ‘Kevin!’ I looked behind my bass amp to see if anyone was there fooling with us, and there was nothing there. We went to the caretakers of the museum and asked, ‘Have there been any weird experiences here, any hauntings?’ One of the janitors said there have been people who say they can hear someone sweeping the stage when there’s no one there.”

Between the four of them, the Besnard Lakes have had so many similar experiences that they’re practically a medium now. Three albums into their recording career, they’ve grown used to the ghosts in their machine. Growing up on the plains of middle Canada (where there really is a Besnard Lake), Lasek found excitement hard to come by. Motivated by what he remembers as “pure boredom,” he developed a keen interest in things that go bump in the night.

“We used to go ghost hunting,” he recalls. “We’d get drunk and get someone to drive us out to these abandoned churches. We never saw ghosts, but we would try to find a place that was haunted in Saskatchewan and go there at night to see if we could see anything.”  He deadpans.  “We never saw anything.”

That magnetic allure of the unknown and the mysterious inspires one of Lasek’s many other fascinations: shortwave spy numbers-station broadcasts of the kind collected on The Conet Project. Coded in series of letters, words or numerals recited by an anonymous voice in a clandestine location, they’re three-minute enigmas shrouded in static and secrecy. The companion video for “Albatross,” easily the most heart-stopping moment on their last record, … Are the Roaring Night, makes for a compelling, if disturbing, visual introduction.

“I have a shortwave radio that I bought when we did Roaring Night,” Lasek reminisces. “I recorded some of those numbers-station things, and they’re creepy. You could be listening to a message that’s telling someone to assassinate somebody.” He pauses. “Or it could be total bullshit.”

Either way, they’re scary business, especially when you’re home alone late at night, and they lend an eerie touch to the Besnard Lakes’ already-unsettling mix of droning guitars, piano, strings and Lasek’s laser beam of a falsetto. It’s the essence of their mystique: beautiful and, at times, terrifying. “In our music, we try to create this ugliness and this eeriness and turn it into something really beautiful and textured and large and grand,” he reveals.

 

[jwplayer mediaid=”33419″]

 

On the just-released Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO (Jagjaguwar), the Besnard Lakes have devised just that: an absorbing, powerful record of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. Lasek appreciates the (David) Lynch-ian kind of beauty” that permeates songs like “And Her Eyes Were Painted Gold.”   A narrative of—what else?—a close encounter of the third kind, it begins with celestial magic. But when the trembling strings subside and the foreboding guitars enter the picture, things take a turn for the ominous, only to return to the heavenly place from whence they came. “The uncomfortable atmosphere and then having that [type of] resolve happen is something we’re always working on,” he says.

The songs on  Imperceptible UFO, like those that came before them, were written entirely within the walls of Breakglass Studios, whose operations commit Lasek to a time-pressed schedule. He’s more likely to be found there, working with other bands, than strumming away in his and Goreas’ living room.  “I wish I had more time to sit around and do that,” he laments. “We just bought a house, so we have a garage now. So I’m obsessing over the idea of having a bass amp and a drum set in the garage.”

In short, the Besnard Lakes aren’t cut out to be a garage band, for the time being, anyway. Writing in the studio makes for a high-pressure situation, but one that reduces the risk of what Lasek calls “demo-itis.” He’s undoubtedly seen his fair share of moderate to severe cases from behind the boards at Breakglass.

“You create demos in pre-production and have recordings of songs as you’re building them,” he says, “Then you go into a studio and re-record them. Then everybody gets bummed out, ‘cause there’s certain elements of the demo that they really like that isn’t there anymore.”

Not so for the Besnard Lakes, who have developed an efficient way to prevent that. “Our demo becomes our finished song,” Lasek says. “The song gets discovered in the studio and completed that way.”   It’s not until the band takes the tracks on the road that they slip the surly bonds of earth and take on true life. “We’ve become like a cover band of our own music,” he adds, laughing. “We write the songs before we learn them. When we hit the road, we’re still discovering them for the next year and a half, which makes them a little more fun to play.”

If Lasek is the mind of the Besnard Lakes, Goreas is their feminine heart. While the two maintain an egalitarian split when it comes to songwriting, her presence grows more prominent with each album. Lasek’s voice may have ushered in Roaring Night, but it’s hers that begins Imperceptible UFO. “I’ve definitely contributed more in terms of singing and having more of a presence that way,” she says. “I’ve become more comfortable in my skin to sing. It’s always been a bit more of a struggle for me rather than just playing bass.”

Massive-sounding, anthemic album standout “People of the Sticks” chronicles Goreas’ days as a “skate Betty,” and while she never mastered the half-pipe (“I tried to drop in once and I just landed on my ass!”), she was introduced to the artists that would lead her to take up the bass, particularly the Pixies and Sonic Youth.  “I was enthralled by this music I was hearing, and strong female personas,” she reflects.

There’s no telling whether Kim Deal or Kim Gordon have ever encountered the mysterious happenings that shadow Goreas, but both she and Lasek believe the answers lurk not only in their music, but in their  imagery. “Every time we make a record, something really fucked happens!” laughs Lasek. Shortly after the painting of the fiery steed that appeared on the cover of 2007’s …Are the Dark Horse was finished, Laing suffered serious burns to his face in an occupational accident.  “Then Oggy—when Roaring Night came out—she had a weird dream that the water of the cover of our album was black. Then, we woke up the next morning and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill had happened.”

“There’s something really iconic and enigmatic about those covers,” Goreas adds. “It just triggers something. There’s this weird phenomenon that’s hard to discount otherwise. Hopefully people don’t think it’s crazy.”

She laughs. “It seems real to us, and I accept it as such.”

If Imperceptible UFO is any indication, it’s a safe bet that the Besnard Lakes will have no shortage of spectral beings to haunt them or covert communications to guide them. “I do try to be as skeptical about these things as I possibly can,” Goreas assures. “But at a point when you’ve experienced this kind of pile-up, you have to accept that perhaps there is a certain amount of truth to it.”

And the truth, as we all know, is out there.

A version of this story originally appeared in our favorite Southern music magazine, Atlanta’s venerable Stomp & Stammer. Visit them on the web at www.stompandstammer.com . Below, watch a clip of the band performing in Austin at this year’s SXSW—and many thanks to the band for being part of our annual BLURT day party during SXSW, too!

[Photo Credit: Richard Lam]

 

[jwplayer mediaid=”33423″]

ROCK, ROLL & THE ART OF DISCIPLINE Kenny Roby

 

ROCK, ROLL & THE ART OF DISCIPLINE Kenny Roby

 

On his new, long-in-the-making solo album the versatile North Carolina songwriter gets personal.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Most musicians, when they release a record, will follow it with some promotion and a tour — these days the latter is just about the only way to make recording costs back. But when Kenny Roby — who first got our attention with 6 String Drag’s alt-country gem High Hat in 1997 — released his third solo record, 2006’s The Mercy Filter, he chose a different path.

“Of course, the perfect Kenny Roby business move, I make a record and right when it comes out stop playing music and go get a real job,” the gregarious 41-year-old North Carolinian says. “No big career decision there.”

But judging by what Roby had percolating in the interim between The Mercy Filter and his stunning new record, Memories & Birds (issued by Brooklyn’s Little Criminal Records), putting the business of touring and promotion on hold was the right choice. Not that there’s anything wrong with what came before, but the eight thematically related tracks on Memories & Birds represent a serious songwriting and arranging growth spurt, one that may even move Roby into the upper echelon of American songwriters.

Roby has always been a versatile songwriter. After High Hat pigeon-holed him with the rest of the country-rock songwriters of the 90s, Roby’s solo records — The Mercy Filter, 2000’s Mercury Blues and 2002’s Rather Not Know —were united by his ease with lyrics, an often dark sense of humor, and an ability to channel everybody from the Beatles and Elvis Costello to Doug Sahm and the old country masters into his own unique vision.

“The records are crazy from one to the next, or even within the record – ‘God, he’s all over the place’,” Roby says, laughing at some of the critical backhanded compliments he’s received. “But a lot of the stuff I like is like that. I’ve always been, apparently, a little bit manic, a little bit spazzy.”

Maybe, but on Memories & Birds what emerges most is an individual vision that happens to embrace some familiar Roby influences — here, though, they seem to form a natural bridge to sonic layers we’ve not heard before.

“It went from simple chords, punk rock, and straight rock & roll mixed with these country influences, to pushing it,” Roby says, providing a quick career arc from his early days as frontman for Carolina punk act The Lubricators to the present. “Before you know it, it’s King Oliver, Snooks Eaglin. There’s that transition — I’ve always liked that stuff, now I’m going to get more luscious and start doing some of those arrangements on the slicker side, or the more metropolitan side of the country equation.”

But Memories & Birds transcends simple countrypolitan influences. Roby makes judicious use of horns and strings to expand his sonic palette beyond anything he’s tried previously. From the sinister flute-and-clarinet-accented gun-for-hire tale “Colorado” and the beats-prominent self-laceration of “Me & the Monkey” to more trad fare like the Motown-flavored “Tired of Being In Love” and Randy Newman-like title track, the record reads like a career retrospective that uses the past as a springboard to fertile new territory.

Blurt sat down with Roby before a gig at Asheville’s Grey Eagle to check in with Roby and his new sounds and outlook. (Click on the link to view the haunting official video for the title track to Roby’s Memories & Birds: http://vimeo.com/60424619)

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell us about the genesis of this record – it’s been seven years since the last one, The Mercy Filter.

ROBY: I started to write a little bit more in ‘06 – of course, the perfect Kenny Roby business move, I make a record and right when it comes out stop playing music and go get a real job. No big career decision there. No, it just got to the point where I couldn’t afford it — mentally —anymore. It’s not that I’m crying about the music business, this isn’t about the business. It was just I needed the discipline. I’d kind of gotten my head straight, not really partying or drinking anymore — I don’t want to go into that too much, I’m light about it because I’m not going to sit there and talk about addiction in the press — I’ve got a family, you know? I’m not saying you can’t write it, but I just mean this isn’t going to be like my Steve Earle comeback, any of that kind of stuff. The war stories are not the story, to me. To me it’s more I just got away from that side of things — nightclubs, hanging out and staying up, that part of the music scene. And when I did, I realized I just didn’t enjoy being around it that much anymore. And now I have a 15 year old, he’s almost 16, and a 13-year-old. And this decision was almost nine years ago; I mean The Mercy Filter was more the quit-drinking and partying record, self-evaluation kind of thing. The ‘clean’ record or whatever you want to say.

What do you mean by discipline?  

Back then I didn’t have a lot of discipline, things to do every day. I needed to support my family a little better, and I needed to be around them. It’s not like I thought about it all the time, I just felt that. So I got a job working in the mailroom at an insurance company. The mailroom story — you can do the Bukowksi thing! No. The sober version of Bukowksi: ‘Twisted aging man goes to join freaky people in mailroom.’ I was there for a little bit, and then moved up a couple steps. Learned some computer stuff on my own, got another job. I stayed there for like six years. And about a year before I left the job I went to massage therapy school. I had a little hip problem, and just decided I was fascinated by human anatomy. I’ve been a practicing therapist now for a year-and-a-half.

Were you writing that whole time?

Oddly enough, when I started doing all that all of a sudden I started writing again, pulling back old songs — and I think maybe the focus of working and school kind of got my head into writing focus. You know about writers, it’s a discipline; you’ve got to do it every day. If you’re a songwriter, you’ve got to do it Tom T. Hall style, or any novelist — even if it sucks, they work. It’s not like, ‘oh I thought of this great idea while I was working on something else.’ You just don’t walk around and shit just comes to you — when you’re in the creative process it does, but you’ve been thinking about it. You’re percolating, fermenting or whatever. When I left the job, I felt I had enough material — some old songs, some things I’d fixed up, some newer stuff — to give it another shot.

What was the moment you realized you had something special and different this time?

“Colorado” was the song that got the record going. I wrote that and I was like, ‘fucking holy shit, I’m a songwriter.’ I played it acoustic in front of like 50 people who would not shut the fuck up and I did the song and it was crickets – you could hear cars going by the place. It was like, ‘where the fuck did that come from?’ So I started getting more into, not even just what characters were saying, but it was more like their emotional aspects, feeling a little bit of what was going on with the characters.

When did these themes emerge?

I’d recorded songs before the record, like “Short Mile,” I’d done it, written it the year before. But I realized with “Colorado,” ‘there’s a thread, a little bit.’ On the record, it’s not a conscious effort, but in the sequence it is — songs that go together. I imagine that this guy would do that, or this song was a reaction to that thing. It’s laid out conceptually, or like a song-cycle, but it wasn’t like, ‘oh, now I have to write one of these songs.’ It was a little bit after the fact. But the characters have a current, just like in a book. Though I’ve never written a novel or short stories, I imagine the characters often walk into the story — and I think that’s what they did here. So, “I’m Tired of Being In Love,” that was older too, it was more of a rockin’ song that I’d done way back with my old band, but that one and others I said,  ‘I want this to fit.’

Tell me about the title track – the one Citizen Cope was so blown away by… [Ed. note: In an interview with American Songwriter last year, Cope was quoted as saying, “I recently heard a song called “Memories and Birds” by a North Carolina songwriter named Kenny Roby that floored me.”]

“Memories & Birds” I wrote at a coffee shop where I’d written a lot of older songs back in the day — I’d go at 7 in the morning when I was half-awake and go have some coffee and sit in a corner and look at people and wait for shit to happen. Try to tap it loose. But I was actually driving to the coffee shop, and I was on an iPod that had a voice-recorder, and I started humming a little bit, then I had a line — and I left it alone. I was writing something else —you know you always write the best stuff when you’re supposed to be writing something else — as I’m driving, singing some melodies, blah-blah-blah. In the coffee shop, I start writing that song, and I need a line — and all of a sudden it was, “wrote a letter to my mother.” Okay. And then I literally wrote that song in half an hour. Front to back. Drove home with the melody for it, while I was writing the melody was kind of coming to me. Sat down, recorded on acoustic, piano, drums, vocals — and by noon that day I was done with the arrangement of the song. It wasn’t the real recording, it was the demo, but I’d recorded four instruments and played a little bit on the piano.

It reminded me of Boatman’s Call, like Nick Cave, the way I did it, because it was real simple, nothing complex, just acoustic strumming, a little synth bass on a computer, and I sat there playing a little soft drumbeat along with it. Just enough to make a demo. But I don’t think I changed anything — just one of those things, you know, ‘lightning? Grab that one!’

What were some of the inspirations for this one?

I really had the whole Border Trilogy in my head for “Colorado.” I think I read No Country for Old Men and I read The Road right after that — so it was that kind of under-current that you feel when you read Cormac McCarthy books. It’s not anything he would say in his books, it’s not like that kind of thing: it was, ‘this is dark and I’m not going to figure out what’s going on. Is this guy a decent guy, or is he a killer? Is he a hired killer? I imagine that he’s been a hired killer who wants to get away, doesn’t want to get caught. “Stay Down,” is what he’s telling the girl — I see them outside a bar, just people that got into trouble together, the co-dependent kind of thing. She’s like his young lover, like a classic movie scene where they work together, just in a really sketchy way — ‘Let’s get rid of this fucking body and get out of here and go to Colorado — and you’re probably getting dumped off somewhere on the way.’ That’s the vibe that I had. He’s reluctant about it, but it’s what he does now. Maybe he’s only done it once or twice or whatever, but he’s been on the dark side and he didn’t get there overnight. He’s not the cold-blooded killer, he’s got some redeeming qualities deep down, or used to. He’s maybe between Javier Bardem and some of the guys in The Crossing or All the Pretty Horses: somebody who grew up a little fucked-up and has just kept going.

How does it relate to the theme, then?

It was building, in my mind — like “The Craziest Kid” thing; nobody paid attention to him and he had this weird mountain upbringing, all these strange and dark people in his town. And probably from reading Chuck Palahniuk books, too. So it’s gonna be dark, twisted, and a little funny sometimes. I imagined they were from the same town — a lot of this is like a fucked-up Our Town.

 

[jwplayer mediaid=”33411″]

 

When did you decide on the arrangement of “Colorado?” They’re so stark, and really put the emphasis on the story – was there anyone or anything you were channeling?

It’s got elements enough of the cliché Western thing, the Native American influence, without being too cliché. It’s got the flute in there, for one, and that evokes something in our subconscious that’s there, we’ve grown up with — but I had to have like a weird aspect of that. Instrumentally, you could throw that in one of the Cormac movies, or a Western, a weird version of a John Ford movie. And I love Randy Newman’s early arrangements — (Creates Something New Under the Sun), “Cowboy” —that him and his uncle did. And he was 21 when it came out. ‘Really, you’re 21?’ You look at Springsteen, he had a great sense of things, pretty mature for his age, and he had a rhyming dictionary — as he says himself for the first couple records before Landau created the myth with him. But comparing that, to me, to Randy Newman’s first record is not even close, as far as way beyond his years. You could have somebody 65 years old who had been writing all their life arranging those songs, and still not even touch that record. It still blows me away. Not even Brian Wilson had it that young — how do you have the complete package at 21, you know?

That arrangement is just one of many that sort of signal a whole new approach for you, yes?

The first thing we recorded, Scott McCall (Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt) and I were thinking, like on “Our Fading Fighter,” of a dark acoustic record. He had twins a year ago, he was just busy, so he pulled away from the project, just didn’t have the time. So it went back into my lap, and I was like, what do I want to do with this stuff and what is it calling for? With “Colorado,” I realized I can do it because of modern technology, to some degree. I suppose I could have scored it on piano, but I don’t score, I don’t read or write music. But because of having learned modern midi stuff keyboards, I was able to play the parts out and come up with the melodies and tell them to other people later – some of it I did on midi, like the intro to “Colorado,” I grabbed the flute part, grabbed a whatever, and made up the melodies and harmonies that work together that I thought moved me. I didn’t totally know why it was working, but it was.

Then we got into the studio and did it with all the string players and woodwinds doing overdubs, Matt Douglas did some pretty cool things on the flutes and clarinets, those weird harmonies on the “fucking up a plan” part, the ascending things. But a lot that stuff was them just copying what I’d done on the computer. Or, I would say, right here, on this verse, I’m going to have you guys do this, and then this.’ It’s not what a real arranger may have done, but it works and there’s some tension in there. And that’s part of it — it needed to be cinematic, it needed to paint a picture, and it needed to have the right tension at the right times. It couldn’t be ‘we have strings because we can, or woodwinds because we have them.’ They had to paint it.

Ever find yourself changed by living with a song that intensely?

On this record, for sure. You’ve got to watch out on this record (laughs). “Memories & Birds,” I always pictured this kid’s like 14 or 15 — he’s not mature, he’s infatuated. He’s depressed and he doesn’t know why, because he’s 14 or 15, so who knows? I see it taking place in, like, an 1870 church — it could be whenever, but I always picture it there. You know, there’s a church, everybody meets at the country church. And he’s sitting there looking at her, but he’s too young, that’s why he says, ‘I thought of you there in church, but it wasn’t in that way.’ He’s young. Very, easily, he could be the kid in “The Craziest Kid,” who could’ve been nine, or 14, or he could be in “Colorado” when he’s 26, or 18 or 19.

Is this the guy who ends up as the Fading Fighter?

That one could be any of them. It could be the guy in “Tired of Being in Love.” “Short Mile” and that one kind of go together — “Tired” is the woman, the veteran’s wife, and “Short Mile” is the shell-shocked husband; ‘I can’t explain to you why I’m this way, why I’m this dark, why I can’t do anything for you or anybody else.’

What was the impetus for “Short Mile?”

It was probably personal, but it’s a little bit like an artist trying to explain to someone — it’s trying to use things that don’t make sense to explain how you are. “It’s the cough that won’t go away/chasing, chronic ache/itching skin for no reason/a fear that won’t break you.” It’s bad enough, it’s not going to kill you, but it’s like this undercurrent – “flutter in your ear/deeper than any fear/that you were not made to hear/and I can’t sing that low.” In other words, I can’t explain it. But that also works for the guy who’s come back from war — ‘I just can’t explain this stuff to you, I just can’t tell you what’s going on with me. I have no idea.’ If you don’t know, you don’t know.

Kind of ironic that as you felt better, your songs reflected these wonderfully damaged characters…

I think that might be why. Because I’m more disciplined, I don’t have to be a wreck —they can be wrecks, and I can write about the wrecks. Also just being one of those people – no matter how happy I am, there’s that undercurrent of a dark soul just rolling around. There’s always that thought — it’s not suicidal, nothing like that — but maybe everything’s not okay. And not because of things, just because of feelings about it. As a friend of mine said about another friend of ours, ‘he can find the dark cloud inside any silver lining.’ You can find the negative in anything, or that there is some darkness in everything.

“Tired of Being Alone” – that could’ve fit comfortably on previous Kenny Roby LPs, but then you’ve got this other stuff…

That could’ve been rocked-out, straight version, you know, Richard Thompson doing a rock song. At one point I had that vibe in my head — “I Feel So Good” — could’ve gone that route, or the Tom Petty route, just a straightforward rock pop song. But it’s kind of like that one idea pushes the next idea pushes the next idea, and a lot of that stuff started to have a real 50s vibe, 50s-60s pop, R&B. Then I was like, a lot of these characters could be from the 40s, 50s, 60s — a little noir. “Memories & Birds” can be anything, you can make up whatever, but what I pictured originally when I wrote it is different from whatever it was later. “Tired” was Korean War to me, not Vietnam. It was WWII or Korea — 40s or 50s, returning from war. It kind of had that vibe. The 50s thing after Korea, you didn’t talk about it. So what would the man be doing? He’d be in the other room, or with his buddies, not talking about it. He’d just be a shell. And the woman would be at the counter, listening to pop music, holding the baby, making dinner — ‘Why am I falling apart? Where’s mommy’s little helper?’ It wasn’t spoken about – this woman is this wreck, but the irony is the gloss of the bubble gum. That’s why it works. You never know if it’s going to come across, though —all artists think they’re too smart for their audience.

What struck me is how well this sticks together – it feels to me ‘of a piece.’

Doesn’t matter if I tell you there is or is not on this one. I didn’t have to tell you. It still feels like a song cycle.

Your voice seems to have really come into its own on this one, like these arrangements really fit your style…

It’s probably no coincidence, but I’ve always loved early rock & roll and rockabilly and those guys who sing at deeper keys, a little croonier. When I was at work I’d listen to, the only modern stuff I listened to was Stephen Merritt and Magnetic Fields. A little bit of that when I wasn’t writing that much but was listening some after The Mercy Filter. The National, too. At first I thought the record was going to be a little more modern like that, but it just didn’t want to. I was like, ‘fuck it, it’s got to go where it’s going to go.’ “The Craziest Kid Around,” we did this weird “Tomorrow Never Knows”-meets-Tinariwen kind of tribal beat with all this weird stuff, almost sitar-like parts. (Drummer) David Kim and Shawn Lynch (bass) came in and did these weird drum parts, and I was like, ‘this kid would not like this music.’ And that’s part of how the arrangements came about — now with the way the record’s going, it’s cool, but it just doesn’t match what the song is about.

You didn’t really promote The Mercy Filter, but what are your plans for this one?I played this record for my manager and he said, ‘You’ve got to do this right. We’ve got to find somebody to put this out, like a national and world-wide level.’ He’s loved my stuff for years, but he was like, ‘this is going to be different audience.’ Some of the same audiences, still NPR stuff but not going to be in that pocket necessarily. You could put “Memories & Birds” on a local jazz program – not that I’m a jazz guy, but it’s stylistically similar. When Citizen Cope heard it, he said, “I’ve never heard that song, but I’ve heard that song.” It was classic without sounding like anybody else. He said ‘it’s like I’ve heard it since I was a kid.’ To paraphrase what he told me. To me, I tried to make a classic record without being retro — that’s the vibe I wanted.

 

ALIEN COLLECTIVE: Animal Collective

 

ALIEN COLLECTIVE Animal Collective

 

Knit together by close personal relationships and a shared aesthetic vision, the A.C. guys still find ways to get weird.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

[Ed. note: everybody’s favorite post-freak/folk anthropomorphilites– you know, the ones who don’t use the word “deer” in their bandname – just announced the postponement of their U.S. tour. Writing in a press release, Avey Tare detailed a sudden illness: “To all of the AC fans out there. I feel its best you hear it right from the horses mouth. It kills me to have to postpone all these shows and it’s something I could never even have imagined happening. I’m positive that we were as excited as you all to visit all of your towns and have a good time together. But because of the strain on my voice that’s being caused by an intense case of strep throat, I am unable to play any of these shows. Unfortunately, I wasn’t diagnosed soon enough and haven’t been able to kick this in the right amount of time. We promise you all that we are doing everything we can to reschedule all these shows asap and we will be visiting your cities. We hope you can all understand and sympathize with the situation. It’s been really fun for all of us to be playing these days and the energy you all give us makes us want to take it further and further with you and give it right back. Hopefully, we can continue to do this together soon. Until then. Stay Well.” Never fear, gentle BLURT readers, as we have this feature on the band, expanded from its original appearance in our 13th issue (Grizzly Bear cover), to help tide you over. Enjoy!]

 ***

Animal Collective used to be a simpler proposition for the first ten years of its existence, despite its florid experimenting, noise mongering and genre hopping. They were quiet guys with quaint funny nicknames and concerns who had gone to grade school and high school with each other in different formations and played in or opened for each other’s bands before they collected themselves animalistic-ly.

Avey Tare (in reality, David Portner), Panda Bear (the shy Noah Lennox, who moved to Lisbon), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Joshua Dibb, who left AC in 2009 only to rejoin the fold for their newest album) were borne-of-Baltimore County bastard sons of Flaming Lips — or was it Holy Modal Rounders? or Steely Dan? or DNA?  or Silver Apples? you get the drift… They are also known as the Paw Tracks label owners, hosts to Ariel Pink as well as their own prolific solo output.

As Animal Collective, since ’98 the band etched its own numbly humming brand of busy drama across a small slew of albums, EPs, collaborations with Vashti Bunyan and Arto Lindsay until they hit upon 2009’s  Merriweather Post Pavilion , the eighth full length. All of a sudden their child-like voices and newly found love of samplers made for an approachable experimentation that turned Animal Collective into blogosphere superstars and record sellers. And yay them.

Now, they’re at their ninth album and the happy crossroads of  Centipede Hz  (Domino), recorded in their old home town with all the original band members, and song titles touching upon apt near-middle age themes such as “New Town Burnout,” “Gotham” and “Father Time.” The entire album just buzzes with an insistent through line of radio static, bugged out twitchiness and panicky rhythms the likes of which make them sound more nervous than they are, truth be told.

“That panicky sound is a reaction to the last album, I think,” says Noah Lennox during a relaxed afternoon chat in New York City about  Centipede Hz ’s abashedly aghast soundtrack. “The last group of songs that we did, where it was just three of us not four, found us using a bunch of samplers. The songs were built around samplers and we became, kinda like, slaves to the sounds of the machines, so to speak.” He knows that’s a cheesy way of putting it, but Lennox has a disarming, ebullient charm to his manner of speech that would make it possible for him to read aloud from  Mein Kampf  and still seem like a gently playful soul. “The human element was missing from Merriweather Post Pavilion and our tour that followed it. Or maybe it was a little more disguised. All I know is that we would play shows where we’d get off the stage and realize that we hadn’t even worked up a sweat.”

So then Animal Collective just wanted to sweat more?

“We hadn’t really gotten physical with the music,” laughs Lennox at my damp focus. “Or it with us for that matter. We missed having that sort of experience. For me personally I hadn’t sat down at a drum kit in eight years. That was my immediate goal, regarding this new album, that I wanted us to do something more physical and visceral. I think me getting behind the drums, with all of us back in the old home, all crammed up against each other—everybody’s instinct was to just get loud. I think that new proximity gave all the songs on Centipede a forceful intense quality.”

So they wanted to sweat near each other and be loud. But what about that radio static? Put a radio near sweat and somebody is bound to get shocked.

“The radio noise was an image we had in our head,” says Lennox. “There was an idea that we spoke about at  Centipede ’s start of radio waves bouncing in space, a band in space, an alien band hearing all these surges of radio noise coming off the earth and how they might regurgitate that noise if they came near our hemisphere; all these different sounds from literally around the globe. If they formed a band what type of music might they make? That type of thing.”

Lennox pauses from his enthusiastic reverie. “I know that all sounds a bit silly but we were really psyched on that idea.”

Who wouldn’t be psyched about a sweaty alien band?

Lennox says that there was also a familiarity — albeit one created with Merriweather — that they wanted to break through, one equitable with the band’s first decade of experimentation. ”Let’s try to push these new songs into an alien foreign vibe that we might not be quite comfortable with. All the radio identification noises and squiggly sounds all crammed against each other really fast: that intensity was definitely inspirational.”

A big part of Centipede Hz’s newfound alien vibrancy was its one-time vibrancy and the participation of Deakin (vocals, baritone guitar, sampler, percussion) who as noted above left the Animal Collective fold before 2009. There was nothing horrible about his departure. It wasn’t even as if he didn’t play with Animal Collective, as he was part of the band’s  ODDSAC  film, its original music and the band’s curatorial efforts in the name of a Guggenheim Museum exhibition tied to that music. “He just was not into being into the band for a minute,” states Lennox in regard to his old bandmate. “Animal Collective was all-consuming and he just needed to do something else, think about other things in his life for a little bit. But he was part of the visual album called ODDSAC, he was always around; and after Merriweather, when we knew that we wanted to do something pretty different, having him back full time wasn’t so strange.” And then again, it was completely strange, which was the entire point of Centipede’s anxiously daunted crawl — to make a new musical language that was both a seamless transition and a bizarre break from anything they’d accomplished previously.

But if Deakin could leave and come back without fissure in the Animal Collective aesthetic, would the same thing hold true if Lennox or Portner—both armed with several solo albums between them—left the Collective for a minute? Could it still be an Animal Collective without Lennox?

His answer is yes. Absolutely. David and Noah may be the only single members to be on every Animal Collective recording since its start, but that doesn’t mean the Collective couldn’t exist with a missing member for a minute. “I could totally see an Animal Collective without David or I,” says Lennox. “In a way, I kind of consider that all of the solo material that we’ve gathered apart from the band is yet another section of Animal Collective, in that the stuff I work on by myself is always totally informed by the stuff I do with the band. For me personally, everything that we do apart feels like part of the same creative trajectory that we have together.”

In a sense, that togetherness is based on the notion that there is a tone to everything Animal Collective does, something that Lennox can’t quite describe (“Honestly, I can’t out my finger on it”) but knows when he hears it during a self-sequestered writing session or a group rehearsal. Lennox knows—or has to know—when a song he’s penned has room, literally and figuratively, for other Animal members. “If I’m writing for the band, it has to be one of four parts and it has to have room not for another sound BUT for another personality entirely.”

Ultimately though, Animal Collective doesn’t know what they sound like until each album is done. Like the band who moved from Baltimore to Brooklyn and changed their sound from show to show, it is an unspoken part of their collective mentality that they play first then talk about the process, if it all. “That’s always the way it’s been, from the start through to Centipede,” laughs Lennox. “We don’t like to be too mental or academic about making music. David and I used to get on stage back when we started out and not say two words to each other until after the gig. We work on instinct.”

Though they live apart and away from each other, Lennox states the band is as close as it’s ever felt and as knit together by its aesthetic vision as they’ve always been. “The bond between us personally is strong, but like any intimate relationship, you never solve the mystery of what makes it good. You just work through it.”