Category Archives: The Inspiration Behind

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

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

 BY TIM HINELY

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

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

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

What was the initial inspiration for the song?

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

Did it take long to finish writing it?

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

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

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

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

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

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

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

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

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

How do you feel about it now?

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

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… California Oranges’ “John Hughes” (2000)

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

BY TIM HINELY

You’d think that being two hours east of San Francisco that Sacramento would be a veritable wasteland of musical talent. Ah…but you’d be wrong. Oddly enough for the capitol city of the Golden State (with a population of under 500,000) this hamlet has produced some of the best indie rock music out there. From Tiger Trap to Rocketship to Baby Grand to Arts & Leisure to too many others (you’ll see ‘em below). Well, a big part of that fabric is the music of the crew of John Conley and his sister Katie, the Levine Brothers (Ross and his brother Matt) and Verna Brock (who was also in Rocketship for a time as well as doing her solo project under the name of Beanpole). They’ve been spread out amongst bands like Holiday Flyer, Desario and Soft Science, but there was one band that all of them had passed through at one point: California Oranges.

For their self-titled debut from 2000 (On Darla Records) the band was a trio of John, Verna and Ross. For later albums both Katie and Matt came aboard to make the band a 5-piece, but this particular song, “John Hughes” was from the previously mentioned debut.

For those of us used to the (mostly) very soft sounds of Holiday Flyer, “John Hughes” came popping out of the speakers like an M-80 stuffed inside a high school locker. A joyous blast of unbridled melody. The song is all about a guy trying to get the courage to ask a girl out, which, as we males know, in those high school years were the mostly nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing experience (personally I had to know 100% that the girl liked me before I would even ask her out and even then I’d be ready to have a heart attack while other guys in school, those with no fear at all of rejection, would walk up to any girl an ask them out, usually getting shot down and laugh about it).

“John Hughes” is one of my favorite songs by the California Oranges and I was curious about its origins. I shot some questions over to John Conley and he was more than happy to give me some answers.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

CONLEY: Well, I guess John Hughes and his films. As I teenager I could really identify with the characters. I must have been re-watching at the time. I was also really into Kevin Smith (he is referenced is the song) and his films reminded of the Hughes.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

If I remember correctly, it came together pretty quick.

I think it was one of the last songs I wrote for the first album.

I had the main guitar riff and the melody and first verse.

I remember showing the song to Verna and Ross, and they both really liked it.

I think we knew at that point it would start the album.

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

I’m pretty sure it was one of our most popular songs. I was going to be featured in a documentary about John Hughes. Ross Levine and I were interview for the movie and the band rerecorded the song to be included on the soundtrack. We were told we made it through the 3rd or 4th cut of the film. During the editing process of the movie John Hughes passed away and the music portion of the movie was shortened.

Here are some links about the film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0fPLN459_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don’t_You_Forget_About_Me_(film)

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

It stayed in the live set up through the 3rd album.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

No, I think it’s a good snapshot of where I was as a songwriter at the time.

I wanted to do something very different from Holiday Flyer. I feel we mostly succeed. When the band started playing live, one comparisons we got was Belle and Sebastian meets Ramones.

I always liked that.

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

I think the recording came out cool. We wrote and recorded that album very quickly. Verna (Brock) and I each had 5 song ideas. We rehearsed with Ross (Levine) 3 or 4 times and recorded and mixed the record in the evenings or a week. JH is my favorite song on that album. I do have some problems with the production on that album as a whole, but “John Hughes” came out great. We also recorded a cover of Vanilla Blue by Naked  Raygun during that session that is one of my favorite recordings California Orange did.

 How do you feel about it now?
I still really like this song. It’s so different from what I’m doing now in Desario, but I’m proud of this period in my music career.

 

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade” (1992)

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Ed note: With BLURT’s newest series, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Response from readers was immediate, and enthusiastic; Matthews himself was appreciative, and fans are encouraged to check out his new single (details HERE). For our latest spotlight, Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). Scroll to the end for details about the band’s upcoming 25th anniversary shows for the album.

BY TIM HINELY

In the late ‘80s, Massachusetts trio Buffalo Tom burst onto the scene with a very good self-titled, J. Mascis-produced debut that was initially released in Europe on the Megadisc label in 1988, subsequently getting picked up in the States by SST the following year. They followed it up with Birdbrain in 1990, by now signed to Beggars Banquet, another very good effort, but the band really hit it out of the park on record number three, 1992’s Let Me Come Over, also on Beggars, and one of the best records of that year. It’s still a favorite among Buffalo Tom fans. The band—the same three guys: Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn and Tom Maginnis—still get together for occasional tours and recording (their latest, 2011’s Skins, is among their best). I tossed a few questions at vocalist/guitarist Janovitz to get the skinny on one of the band’s most popular songs and he was kind enough to give it up for the BLURT readers.

 BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

BILL JANOVITZ: This one, as with most of my songs, started with the music. I think I just started humming out a melody and the first verse came. The second verse was taken from a newspaper story about a girl who goes to hide as a hermit after her family would not allow him to marry the man she loved. I believe this was in Romania. The third verse is a summary, tying the three together. Cappy Dick is a reference to a Sunday comics character from when I was growing up.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

The song, with melody and chords came quickly, all at once. The first verse was likely culled from the initial mumbling I was doing. The second verse was just sitting around in a notebook, though in different meter. I think I pulled the whole writing part together in a day or so. I started on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. I could go in there and play a little because it was the furthest away from my girlfriend while she slept in our bedroom in our tiny apartment. I would record into a boom box.

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Any idea how your longtime fans feel about it—i.e., would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?

Certainly yes. It is kind of our signature number.

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

We have played no shows without it, I think.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

The actual writing? No.

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

Recorded at Dreamland, a converted church in Bearsville, NY, near Woodstock. Amazing spot. Then we overdubbed guitars, vocals, etc., at Fort Apache in Cambridge, all with Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie co-producing. It was mixed by Ron St. Germain. I think every performer listens to recordings of themselves and hears things they would change or improve, if not just cringing outright. So, yeah, I would change a few things. But nothing glaring.

How do you feel about it now?

I still feel deeply about the song, especially when singing it. But I would never have predicted it would be a song so many people latched onto, never mind be a single or a song that still resonates for so many fans. I’m grateful to have one song like that, if nothing else.

Buffalo Tom recently announced they will be doing some shows next year to mark the 25th anniversary of Le Me Come Over, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and London.

Janovitz on the web: http://billjanovitz.com/blog/  / https://www.facebook.com/Bill-Janovitz-37654950807/

 Buffalo Tom on the web: http://www.buffalotom.com/  / https://www.facebook.com/buffalotomband/

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 Suggestions for a potential “Inspiration Behind…” profile? Let us know in the comments section, below. If we take your suggestion and the artist, in turn, takes us up on it, we’ll acknowledge your editorial input in the feature (and maybe even give the artist your contact info so he can thank you – or sue you – for making the suggestion).

 

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Eric Matthews’ “Fanfare” (1995)

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With BLURT’s new feature, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Coming soon: Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems.

BY TIM HINELY

 BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?
ERIC MATTHEWS: Here’s what happened. Cardinal was debuting and the first single off the album was in the UK, “Dream Figure” (Flydaddy/Dedicated). And because the A-side was a song I wrote, we thought it would be cool if I wrote the B-side for the next single that would come out here domestically and in the UK, a Richard Davies composition. “If You Believe In Christmas Trees” was the single, and I was sent off to write a B-side, and came up with “Fanfare.” It was a slow acoustic dirge more like the “Reprise” version at the end of It’s Heavy.

Well, after I wrote it, I pretty much pulled a move where I said, “No, I am keeping this one for my first album.” It caused some friction between Richard and I, but I was a selfish prick about it. And frankly, I think it turned out all for the best because of course, it worked well for me—but way more to the point, we got “Say The Words Impossible” from Richard for the B-side, and that is one of the best songs he ever wrote.

Cardinal recording “Fanfare” would not have worked, really, too small a room. I needed Jason Falkner for it to have worked. “Dream Figure,” my only song on the Cardinal debut, I was all alone on it, just me and the drummer. That song took 3 hours to complete recording from start to finish, and that is the rush job that “Fanfare” would have gotten, and my career might not look nearly as good, such as it’s been.

Did it take long to finish writing it?
Not at all. I actually used the same tuning on guitar that I used on “Dream Figure,” and it just shot out of me. The lyrics may have taken an hour, but yeah, it was a quick put-together. The trumpet was automatic, and helped me name the song, whose title has nothing to do with the lyric.

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Any idea how your long-time fans feel about it—would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?
I am starting to get the message at this point that people really regard it [highly]; that it was a major sound for them when it came out. Remember, at the time [in the mid ‘90s] the stuff on the radio and MTV was all hard, jagged, and loud. I used elements of that in my production of it, wanted to make it a “rocker.” But something about perhaps the softness of my voice and the blasting trumpets, the vocal harmonies… it’s like Chet Baker made a pop record, and yeah, it seems to have really sunken in for people as a benchmark song. It helped sell the record, where really there are far more meaty songs.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?
Well, not really. That said, when it was all finished and I handed over lots of space for Jason Falkner to play all those awesome moving guitar lines. And just sitting back to how hard we as a trio (Jason, Steven Hanford, and I) rocked, the insane groove of the thing, I did feel as if the song itself sort of got lost in the big mix. So, very late in the game, I got the idea to do that condensed acoustic version of the song “Fanfare (Reprise)” and tack it at the end of the album. I love that I did that—show people the warmth, quiet, and breath of the thing.

Tell me a little about the recording of it—where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
We recorded “Fanfare” downtown Portland, Oregon, at White Horse Studios (gone now) in early 1995. It was recorded quickly; we only did three takes as a trio and pretty much just nailed it. Me on guitar, Jason on bass, and Steven on drums. Vocals took me an hour, trumpets an hour, and Jason an hour of guitar overdubs. I mean, three punk rock guys just laying it down.

Mixing was probably an eight hour affair. It’s all in “post.” No big moments to speak of. My studio environment is pretty no-nonsense. We have fun, but only with the music. It’s all business, everything mapped out and planned to the dime. I am as much executive as I am musical producer. And lucky for me, Tony Lash, my then-production partner was very much like me, a creature of focus and discipline. He made “the band” sound good and we just rocked out. Jason was given the assignment of “lead guitar” and I only told him about essentially filling spaces with movement. I had come to know very well his creative melodic approach to guitar work, especially on [The Grays’ 1994] Ro Sham Bo album. He stepped up and had those melodies at the ready and kicked as—took the song to the next level in my opinion.

At the end of the day, we all looked around and it sounded like it belonged on radio. And the album title came from Jason. We were in the control room listening to a take of the live trio. Jason turned to me and said, “I think we achieved total heaviosity.”

How do you feel about it now?
I feel that the song got people to check out the whole album. That album is what it’s all about. The single is always the bait. And clearly, it worked, people got it, got me. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the song and album, and it came back out, a reissue where Sub Pop and Lo-Fidelity jointly released the album. The reissue gave people an opportunity to get deluxe vinyl and bonus tracks, that whole kind of thing. And best of all, that reissue got me back on track, as I did a deal with Lo-Fidelity, my new champion Jeffrey Kotthoff, signed me to a multi-year deal. I have a single coming out just after thanksgiving and a new album, Too Much World, coming out in February, 2017.

So, you can look back, and Jon Poneman from Sub Pop would say he gave me that deal because of my work on the Cardinal album. But yeah, it’s “Fanfare” that people heard in their cars, at the record shops, on college campuses, etc. Everything starts at that point for me, my childhood smile…

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