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STRING ‘EM UP: Bohemian Guitars

Bohemia Guitars 2

It’s one of the music world’s more notable recent start-up successes: the young guitar company creates eye-catching designs out of recycled oil cans.

 BY ROBIN COOK

 Bohemian Guitars was founded in 2012 by South African-born brothers Adam and Shaun Lee.  They’ve lived in Atlanta since 1998, but are still inspired by the inventiveness of South Africa’s township musicians.  Bohemian Guitars reflects that spirit, creating and selling guitars made from recycled oil cans.  In 2013, the brothers raised money for the company via Kickstarter and flew to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest’s Gear Expo, where I interviewed Adam Lee.

BLURT: Could you give me a history of the company?

ADAM LEE: My brother and I are from Johannesburg, South Africa. And in the townships in South Africa, people are pretty resourceful.  They repurpose pretty much anything they can get their hands on into functional instruments. It inspired my brother to try and take it to another level and make an electric oil can guitar.  He built his first guitar early last year out of an oil can.  He’d been building regular instruments for quite a while.  And we got such a tremendous reception we decided to start selling them at festivals and markets and demand grew and grew.  Throughout the year we set some milestones for ourselves which culminated in us starting a Kickstarter campaign beginning of 2013 which was a success. We finished 165 percent funded over 32 days.

Where do you go about finding some of the oil cans?

At first we were recycling old instrument parts and old oil cans and we would go to antique shops or look online where collectors sell their items. But after a while we found out that they’re rather expensive and they’re rather rare and difficult to find. So the Kickstarter route allowed us to create our own lower price point with our own Bohemian branding oil cans. And that will allow us to allocate some funds to dedicate to the recycling program in Dumpsters and old recycling shops just like that show American Pickers.

And this is all based on what they do in the townships.  Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

You walk through, for example, the townships in Soweto, Johannesburg, no one there has any money.  They make homes out of whatever sheet metal they can find, and scraps they can find.  And if you walk through there and see people playing the drums out of buckets or out of old trash cans and instruments from Coke cans that they create. And it’s kind of turned into a novelty item where some South Africans have created tourist products that people buy when they visit South Africa. An oil can guitar just happens to be one of those.  We give credence to South Africa for inspiring us. You walk around the markets at Cape Town and they’ve got all sorts of instruments that they’ve made out of whatever they can get their hands on, scrap wood or scrap metal.

What is the next step for Bohemian Guitars?

The next step is to…eventually gain some investments so we can grow the company and the brand, bring the price point down a little so we can start distributing them on a wholesale level.

And these are for professional musicians?

Yeah, these are fully functional electric guitars, six-strings.  Back in November of last year the band Of Monsters and Men just played our guitar live in Atlanta on stage. We’ve also got Australian multi-instrumentalist Jonti….He’s been playing our instruments.  He’s actually opted for our $299 instrument over his $4,500 Fender.

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT Bettie Serveert

The Blurt Bully Pulpit - Bettie Serveert

 

In which the Dutch indie-rockers’ visit to Tokyo involves earthquakes, terrorist attacks and food poisoning; floods, fish eyes and the flu; and suspicious undergarments.

 BY PETER VISSER

 Our band was invited to play at the MIDEM Festival in Cannes, France.

Just 2 hours before show time Carol, our singer, got the 48-hour-flu, with heavy stomach-pains, high fever and all. Doctor came and we had to cancel the show.

 Now, in the audience there were some Japanese people. They were there to check out our band, but since we didn’t play they started to get curious about us and decided to invite us to Japan to do some shows. So some time later we flew over to Tokyo and got off the plane, welcomed by the very friendly people from the Japanese record company and a slap in the face from the overwhelming heat and 100% humidity. We got a hotel with tiny rooms on the 11th floor with the toilets with all the modern gadgets.

 Next morning I woke up to a roaring sound and the bed was shaking.

 On the ceiling there was a lamp hanging, perfectly still, but the room itself was moving from the left to the right: it was an earthquake. Scary!

 That day we played our first gig. When we left the venue after the show we were welcomed by hundreds of flashlights from people who were waiting outside for photos and autographs. They also brought homemade gifts. We were very moved by all this.

 After the show we went back to the hotel with the subway.

 Later we found out that the next day there was a terrorist gas-attack on the very same subway where we were the day before. Jet lag added a surrealtouch.

 A day later we had dinner with the people from the record company.

During the second show, while playing, I saw that Herman, our bass player, was looking very pale, uncomfortable and sweaty. Turned out he had food poisoning of a very severe kind. We had to drag him to the hotel and into his bed. Not a single bucket to be found in the entire hotel. We called for a doctor, but doctors don’t make house calls in Japan, as it turned out. Poor guy: while he was suffering we were exploring the Tokyo nightlife.

 The itinerary was filled in by the minute. If our Japanese driver would be late for a couple of minutes he could be sacked. The following day we had an in-store in a big record shop. We got stuck in traffic. The driver got very nervous. In the store the power was shut down. Nobody dared to turn it on: afraid to get fired. So we did it ourselves. The people that came to see us were drilled like in a military fashion, to watch, to walk a certain path to get the autographs and finally to leave the store.

 Later, while walking in the city, we saw a guy standing on a car with a megaphone, shouting very fanatically to the people passing by. We asked our translator what this man was talking about. Seemed he was ranting fascist slogans. Then we were informed about the flood that came towards Tokyo; the papers and radio warned the citizens that in worst-case scenario, the city had to be evacuated. Herman was still in bed, sweating like a pig, looking green en throwing up all the time. The next morning we had to carry him to the elevator, into a cab, towards the nearest doctor. “It’s food poisoning,” the doctor said, and Herman could go.

 That night we had the farewell dinner party in a traditional Japanese restaurant with the folks from the record company. So we all sat on the floor with the low tables. Small plates with what looked like hairy spiders or hairy-what-ever-creatureswere served.  Carol, our singer, didn’t dare to put it in her mouth. “If you don’t eat it, the people who are taking us to dinner will be very offended.” Not sure how she did it but the hairy creature disappeared. A bigger platter with a big fish was served. The skin of the fish was removed, except for the head that was still intact. You could see the eyes of the fish looking nervously into every direction. The fish was still alive, sort of.

 A lot of sake was on the table. We never had sake before. It was warm and also very strong. Our hosts were used to it, but it also had an impact on them: they took their chopsticks and started poking in the eyes of the fish, while laughing hysterically.

 Next morning we had to leave for the airport to get back home. We said goodbye to the people from the record company.  One of them was a very friendly girl who had accompanied us all week, so we knew her a bit. While saying goodbye, Herman gave her a kiss on the cheek: a very modest way of saying goodbye, because in Holland it’s usually 3 kisses on the cheeks. The girl felt very uncomfortable and blushed. In Japan it means you’re supposed to get married.

 On the airport I randomly bought a Japanese magazine. On the plane I opened it to find out that there was a section of pages about dead corpses dug out of the ground, photos of knickers of 14 year old girls candidly photographed, a “humor” section, and about 12 pages of Japanese people in power or in government attacked with swords etc. I didn’t feel good after seeing all this so I put the magazine away.

 We’d been away for less than a week. It felt like years. When I got back my girlfriend asked: “How was it?” I answered: “ You’re not going to believe this!”

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Peter Visser is the guitarist for Bettie Serveert, and he is joined by vocalist/guitarist Carol van Dyk, bassist Herman Bunskoeke and drummer Joppe Molenaar. Their new album is called Oh, Mayhem! and it’s out now on Second Motion Records (BLURT’s sister business). Below, watch the Betties’ eye-popping video for key track “Had2BYou.”

[jwplayer mediaid=”33587″]

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)

 

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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.”

 

 

SWEET SMELL OF… Yeasayer

It’s a fragrant world
– literally (check the album title) and metaphorically – for the Brooklyn indie heroes.

BY SELENA FRAGASSI
Two years ago, blog aggregator The Hype Machine claimed thatBrooklyn indie group Yeasayer was the most
blogged about artist of 2010, a feat even frontman Chris Keating had to question.
“How is that possible when there’s Kanye?” he laughs, when we catch up over the phone as the band traverses Europe on its latest tour. While Keating claims to have read some of the online material, he admits the only thing he found shocking in the posts was the really bad grammar. “I would have loved to have seen something crazy written about us, like that I have a fetish for small animals or something.” Instead, most outlets-online and print-have done little but lavish heaps of praise on the relatively young outfit, whose first two
experimental releases, 2007’s All Hour Cymbals and 2010’s Odd Blood, set the trajectory for becoming one of the premiere faces of modern music. This year, the group (Keating, founding members Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder as well as Jason Trammell and Ahmed Gallab) returned with third album Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian), a release markedly darker than their earlier pop-infused albums.
Named for a dystopian concept of a world with no smell and as a consequence less memory (since the two are scientifically linked), the title hints at Keating’s mindframe when piecing the album together. His writing is just as bleak, focused on front-page issues of environmental crises, apocalyptic fears and a historical figure named Henrietta Lacks who is the cornerstone of the album’s first single “Henrietta.”

Yeasayer – “Henrietta” by Secretly Canadian
“I heard the story originally on a radio program a couple of years ago,” Keating recalls as he relays the story of Lacks whose death from cancer in the 1950s led to a host of medical vaccination research using her cell material. “The medical world was using her genes over and over again, manufacturing a deceased human. It was very upsetting yet very moving to me.”
Moreso when Keating discovered Lacks was from his town of Baltimore, making the issue hit closer to home. It is here that he first met bandmate Wilder years ago; and as the two remained close, they regrouped with college mate Tuton in New York in 2005. The rest as they say is, well, history.
“It’s been a good progression,” Keating notes of the band’s path to stardom belying any talk of Yeasayer’s so-called breakthrough moment at the glorified 2007 SXSW showcases. “We often joke about how we played this so-called great show but then for three tours after that there was nobody coming to our shows.” Yet that’s just the way he wanted it to happen. “I’m very distrustful of any band that makes it big overnight and doesn’t go through these growing pains of having to play for nobody first.”
In the beginning, it took awhile for people to grasp on to the band’s eclectic sound, self-described as “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel” music.
“When we started out, we knew that we wanted to embrace a lot of different influences and try out different things; many bands try to rip off something from the past and that’s just kind of played out to me. I like
the originals, I don’t need new ones,” he says.
In a way everything about the band has been original, from its marketing tactics (randomly snail mailing out 200 copies of the “Henrietta” single to fans across the world) to its dazzling light shows, which Keating has referred to as being close to a “religious experience” live.
“Light art installations are some of the most powerful stuff I’ve ever seen,” he says, “and in the same way I want to make music that is just as unique or startling or at the very least engaging.” And if the blogs
are to be believed, the rest of the World is catching on.
[Photo Credit: Mikeal Gregorsky]
A version of this story also appears in issue #13 of the print edition of BLURT. Yeasayer wraps
up its US tour tonight at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, then heads to the UK
next week. Tour dates here: http://www.yeasayer.net/tour/


Yeasayer – Fingers Never Bleed (Enclave Remix) by enclave


Eyes Wide Open (Yeasayer remix) by Gotye

IT TAKES A PRISM Beth Orton

Pour a little sugar on
her: the British folk/jazz chanteuse returns after a six-year layoff.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Norwich,
England’s Beth
Orton has been the queen of wispy folk-tronica for so long that you almost
didn’t realize that she wasn’t there for a minute. The softly shredding Brit,
famed first for her work with electro producing boys William Orbit and the
Chemical Brothers, was so much a part of our steady musical diet – between
1996’s Trailer Park to 2006’s Comfort of Strangers – that her break
went without much notice, as if she paused between breaths in a sentence. Her
first release in several seasons, this autumn’s Sugaring Season, felt like just that: a freeing gentle gasp.

 

That’s not because Orton’s tensely coiled words and open air
arrangements aren’t noticed or noticeable. And that’s not to say she wasn’t
missed, even if she didn’t much miss the music business.

 

“At least not the interview process,” teases Orton during
our transatlantic chat. Instead, her tender web-spun voice, her deep
bass-driven tones, and her sense of domestic lyrical turmoil are so
conversational we thought that she was simply clearing her throat.

 

Why she took time away from recording and touring has no
simple answering according to Orton, a lively chatter who jumps at every chance
to plumb her depths and to laugh at
every step. “It’s a very deep question if you think about – why didn’t I make
music for some time,” she say.

 

There’s a daughter named Nancy, a son named Arthur and a
husband in folk musician/singer Sam Amidon, to start. She wrote fewer songs
with those responsibilities.

“I just kept
putting it off if you want to know the truth,” she says matter-of-factly. “I do
feel as if the time away was useful, though I couldn’t truly tell you why,” she
laughs. “I did have a record deal in place (with Anti-) for a while now so I
actually could have made a record two years ago. I guess I just didn’t want
to.”

 

She used to want to. A lot.

 

Her initial rush of success well pleased Orton, Not because
she got cold hard cash for her klatch of trip-hop induced songs pushed along by
a voice so ethereal angels cried when they heard her. It’s because she wanted
to break through; she wanted to dazzle people quietly. “I remember the
experience of being heard with Trailer
Park
and that’s what was most extraaaaaaaaordinarrrry.” she jokes. “That so
many people could be so unquestioningly interested in what I’d done and might
have to say that it was mesmerizing. It was as if I could take the piss and
everyone was fine with it.”

Other than making the music and knowing how audiences appreciated Trailer Park, its stripped down jazzy
followup Central Reservation and her
somber Daybreaker, she doesn’t recall
much more about the rushed-by decade than the music itself. Her life story has,
in her mind, become dislodged with countless versions of that time at career’s
start flying at her like glow sticks at a rave. “A lot of that part of my life
has become a blur and I don’t have my story down pat enough even if some people
in the press seem to,” she giggles. “There are so many different perspectives
that I haven’t settled on one good one. But I do enjoy that I’m open to
interpretation.”

 

While discussing the idea of interpretation, your humble
narrator gives Orton his view of her lyrical style, one that slips through
reality and dream, fact and fiction, with lots of breast beating soulful
moments of personal exposition – but not too breast beaten. It’s true of her
past stanzas. It’s true of Sugaring
Season
. At first she’s not too keen on my take that her lyrical mien is a
mess mixed up in one bowl and served up elegantly.

 

“My gut reaction is to disagree,” she sighs dramatically.
“But on the other hand,” she announces, “it’s a viable option
especially when you consider that writing this new record has been like being
in a prism – that’s a P R I S M and not a P R I S O N – in that there’s so many
angles through which I’ve looked at things.” What Orton always wants to do is
find the truth. Yet what she has found throughout the last many years is that
there is never only one truth. “It would be so much nicer if it was that but it
isn’t that, is that? Then again, I quite enjoy exploring things from different
sides. I did it with my life and my children – why not with songs?”

 

Writing songs for Sugaring
Season
was like a slow spinning of that prism while sorting out her
subjects and sharpening each angle. Willing to accept
other people’s angles with pleasure, she says that she’s found herself immersed
in the business of her last two producers, Jim O’Rourke (of Sonic Youth fame)
who handled 2006’s Comfort of Strangers and Sugaring Season‘s Tucker Martine,
the one-time producer of The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, and Laura Veirs.

 

“The biggest challenge was finding how to do the thing I
love and move onward,” says Orton. “Anyone who would help me do that was OK by
me.” With immersion a two way street, she thought highly of O’Rourke’s
everything-done-in-two-weeks take on the album making process. “Writing,
recording, mixing, no overdubbing; he’s a bit of a genius, Jim is.” As for
Martine, Orton calls him a different beast than O’Rourke, talented and
immediate but more interested in beauty of the music than the process of the
heated rush. For Sugaring Season‘s
jazz folksy feel she imaged the sound of Roberta Flack and Pentangle’s earliest
albums in her head and went from there. Having jazz-bos like guitarist Marc
Ribot and drummer Brian Blade made the jazz side easier without ghettoizing the
process to a skiddlee-bop drop dead jam. String arranging maximum minimalist
Nico Muhly and viola player Eyvind Kang brought a classical gas to the Sugaring proceedings. But it was a song that Orton had brought in on an acoustic
guitar demo that co-composer M. Ward added a piano break to that made
“Something More Beautiful” as epically soulful as any later period Aretha
Franklin-at-Atlantic song could be.

 

“The whole record really was about serendipity in that you
weren’t exactly certain as to what would happen next,” says Orton. “Most of the
songs had been gestating for several years, two and three at best. But
“Something More Beautiful” was even older.” For the most part, save for the
interaction of this new crew of musicians, her slate of Season songs hadn’t changed much from their first versions. Neither
did “Something More Beautiful” until she played the track for a friend. “‘Come
on with that,’ my friend said. ‘That song screams for some soul,'” laughs Orton,
who then built “Something More Beautiful” up with the band in the studio and
snagged from. M. Ward a simple piano bit that made all the difference.

 

“I dangled the bait and they drove it home,” says Orton.
“That’s why it’s so important to have feedback, encouragement and
interpretation.” She stops when she says that last word, considering what we’d
discussed earlier.

 

“Oh yeah… interpretation.” 

 

 

 

Beth Orton will be
touring Europe and the UK
throughout November and December. View tour dates here.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Jo Metson Scott]

STILL COOL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS Richard Barone

The Bongos founder replays
his seminal classic
Cool Blue Halo two and a half decades after its live debut.

 

BY
LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Richard
Barone proved himself a pioneer of sorts when, in 1987, he took a momentary
detour away from his former band, the Bongos, and walked into New York’s Bottom
Line armed with a mostly new batch of material and a couple of accompanying
players from outside Rock realms to perform a set of songs that would later be
released as the landmark album Cool
Blue Halo. The
effort would prove a landmark of sorts, a recording that would initiate the
subset known as Chamber Pop and continue to prove its mettle some 25 years
later.

 

The
success of that album would eventually cause Barone to leave the Bongos — a
power pop outfit that helped establish the viability of the Hoboken New Jersey
musical scene, one which also spawned the equally influential dBs and
Smithereens — and carve out a respectable solo career that led to other
individual outings, a prodigious stage and studio producer resume and
currently, a tenure at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. At NYU the
latter assignment came about as a result of a well received 2007 tell-all, Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth,
a definitive guide to understanding how image and allusion tend to permeate Rock
‘n’ Roll realms.

 

Barone’s
currently focused on a pair of projects, the expanded re-release of the
original Cool
Blue Halo, and
perhaps more significantly, a double CD/DVD set that captures
the 25th Anniversary Concert that brought the same cast of musicians together
last May at the City Winery in New
York City. Retracing the original set list — one that
included choice covers (“The Visit” by Marc Bolan, David Bowie’s “The Man Who
Sold the World,” the Beatles “Cry Baby Cry”), a handful of retooled Bongos
songs and, naturally, his first crop of solo entries — the package was
expanded to include other material, a behind the scenes documentary, a book of
essays and some surprising cameos from the Band’s Garth Hudson and renowned
producer/musician Tony Visconti.

BLURT recently took the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Barone, who talked
enthusiastically about the project, the original effort and what’s transpired
in his career ever since.

 

 

 

 

 

BLURT:
It’s really hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the original release
of Cool
Blue Halo.

BARONE: That’s
why I don’t believe in time. It doesn’t seem possible to me either that it’s
been 25 years. It was really Jay Frank at the record label that brought up the
idea of the 25th anniversary when I was at South By Southwest last year. He
came backstage and asked me what I was doing to mark the anniversary. I really
hadn’t thought of it. In a way, it was a wake-up call to the fact that it had
been that long.

 

Was
this album always special for you?

Yes, and there
were a few reasons why. For one, it was, of all my albums up to that point, the
most spontaneous. I tend to be what you might call a studio geek. I look the
idea of overdubbing in the studio and creating the studio experience. But this
album was done in just one evening, and the mix took place over just one
weekend, so the album took only three days to make, instead of three months. So
that was always special for me in that it had a spontaneity that you can’t get
any other way other than doing it the way we did it. We approached the new
album — The
Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary
album — in the same way, because I couldn’t think of any other way to do it
since that’s how the music was made originally. There was a lot of
improvisation on it, a tremendous amount of spontaneity throughout and I wanted
the musicians to play the music how they felt it. Because of that, we only did
a minimum amount of rehearsing before taking it to the stage. That was the same
way we did it 25 years ago.

 

So
did the songs all come back to you?

Yes, they
did for me because I perform quite a lot and these songs have whirled their way
into my sets over the years. So I can do “I Belong to Me” because I’ve done it
over the years and in many different styles. The songs are pretty much in my
blood, so it wasn’t a difficult thing for me. The interesting thing was the
Marc Bolan song that I covered. It’s a love song to an alien from another
planet. That’s why I picked it. (laughs)
I can relate to that in some weird way.

 

How
do you relate to that?

Some
people I meet are very much like aliens… something along those lines.  And we’ll leave it at that (laughs).

 

Are
you referring to a significant other?

Well, all
of my significant others are like aliens to me at some time or another, But
really, I love Marc Bolan and I love his imagery and that’s why I picked that
song. It’s deeply romantic but the setting is extraterrestrial, so I thought
that was unique. I know that was the one song of Marc Bolan that I had never
heard covered by anyone else. As was, at the time, “The Man Who Sold the World”
by David Bowies. I loved that song and the only other time it was covered
before I did it was by Lulu, the British pop girl. She did it in ’71 or ’72. It
had been more than a decade until I did that someone else had touched it. And I
had never heard anyone do the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry” either. On the original
album, I tried to do songs by three of my influences and people I loved, and I
wanted to cover songs that no one had done before. That was my goal.

 

Was
it always your idea to record the original Cool Blue Halo live?

Yes, because
of the musicians I had on that album, Jane Scarpantoni and Valerie Naranjo. The
rest of us were kind of pop rockers, guitar-playing guys. Jane’s capabilities
were more in the classical sense, perhaps more avant-garde. Her playing covered
a lot of ground. Valerie was also more of a jazz musician and she was all about
world music. She was well-versed in African rhythms and so forth, so I wanted
them to just let loose and play and I thought the live stage was the best place
to let that happen, instead of trying to overly analyze it in the studio. It
was always planned as a live performance that we would be record, and a lot of
those songs I never recorded in the studio.

 

It’s
funny, because one never really thinks of Cool Blue Halo as a live album per se.

And we
mixed it that way, especially on the original. This new one has a little more
of a live flavor because the audience knew the songs. When we first did it, you
could here a pin drop while the songs were playing, because people had never
heard them before. On the new recording, the audience knew the songs and they
knew when the solos came in and they applauded. So we left that in. We decided
to let the audience be heard because they were great, and they become part of
the song.

 

How
did you bill that original performance 25 years ago? Was it like, “Richard
Barone performs his new album?

One of my
friends is New York
radio personality Vin Scelsa, and he presented me in a show at the Bottom Line.
He’d do live performances for his radio show and he’d have two or three artists
on the bill, so that night it was just Richard Barone on Vin Scelsa’s show. That’s
how it was recorded originally.

 

So
there was no particular set-up?

Nope. Just
a lot of new material. There were Bongos songs, but they didn’t sound like
Bongos songs… Like “The Bulrushes.” It’s pretty primitive. There’s no
backbeat, not even on the entire album.

 

Were
people prepared for that? Because they knew you from the Bongos, were they
expecting to hear more of the band’s music?

Absolutely.
That was the late ‘80s and the Bongos were still active. We were still playing
large venues around the time I made this album. So I think people were
surprised. I don’t think they had any idea about this album. But I also think
they were thrilled afterwards. I write about that in the book that comes with
the box set. I wouldn’t say writing my essay was agonising, but I really had to
think about what it was like to make this album and I was trying to remember
all the elements about how it came together. There were a lot of surprise
elements. And I think that helped a lot because it was so different than what
people expected from me. There was no Rickenbacker guitar, there was no snare drum,
no bass, and it wasn’t really a pop rock concert. It felt more like a chamber
concert.

 

And
it kind of set a standard for some things that came after… the whole chamber
rock genre for example.

That
phrase was coined in the review of that album for Rolling Stone. That was the first time that
phrase was used. Chamber Rock in quotation marks.

 

Were
these songs written specifically for this album, and did you always have these
arrangements in mind?

Thank you
for asking! At that point I had been writing songs for the Bongos for almost
seven years and I always wrote those songs knowing it was a point of view of a
group of guys. The views and emotions that in those songs had to cross lines, and
they had to represent all the guys, not just me. It was very rare in the Bongos
albums that I was able to get very personal. So when I did “I Belong to Me,” it
was a starting point. All of them were. “I Belong to Me” wasn’t just about
independence in a relationship, but independence in a band, specifically the
band I was in. So these songs had a lot of meaning for me on different levels.
The Bongos songs I chose also had meaning — like “The Bulrushes” — because I
thought, let’s get back to Biblical times here. That was a good starting point
on the timeline for me. And ending the album with “Numbers with Wings” was a
really good way to end the album because it was really spiritual. And in the
middle, it’s the journey. I had a dream where Marc Bolan asked me if I was
making an album or just a collection of songs, and I woke up and remembered
that. He had already been dead for ten years, but he was always on my mind, and
one of my favorite rock personas. So that stayed with me. And that’s when I got
very specific. I had the benchmarks in those three covers and in the three
Bongos songs. And the new songs I had were sort of dispersed between those
pillars. I wrote them from my own point of view without the filter of the band.
That’s what those songs were about for me and that’s what that album was about
over-all. Getting to the heart of the songwriter. When you’re in a rock band,
there are so many ways to get lost. One way is in your writing, because you’re
writing for the audience or for the band and not from your own point of view.
And that’s what this was all about. It was on an indie label and the Bongos
were still signed to RCA. So it was also a freedom from the corporate scenario.
Everything sort of went through the filter of RCA records. So this was not
through that filter. I could write in “Flew a Falcon” about kissing a guy
without anyone telling me I couldn’t or shouldn’t.

 

Is
that what led to the Bongos’ demise?

We were
still doing concerts for many months throughout the release of Cool Blue Halo, large scale shows too.
But then this sort of took off internationally, so I went to Europe
to promote it and that’s when the schedule became impossible. I was touring
with Suzanne Vega, and I was on the road for two years with this album, and
during that time, all the guys in the group started doing different things. It
was a very gentle parting. There was no arguing or disastrous scenes or embarrassments.
We’re all friends. We’ve done a few benefits. When it’s right, we’ll get
together for a special occasion.

 

Any
talk of making a reunion album, like the dBs did recently?

Anything
is possible. We’ve never had a problem with that if the time is right. Actually
there are several unreleased Bongos albums, so putting them out could very well
happen. That wouldn’t be a problem. One was a concert that was recorded for RCA
in 1985 and it’s a great album.

 

How
did you meet Tony Visconti?

Well, we
met many times over the years. I met him when I did a 12 inch version of a T
Rex song called “Mambo Sun” in ’80 or something. Tony heard it and called me
from England.
I wanted him to produce the Bongos when we got signed to RCA. Tony wanted us to
record at his Good Earth studio in England
and we wanted to go, but RCA wanted to keep us where they could watch us in New York. So they
wouldn’t let us to so it. And Tony told them that that is where he produced, in
his own studio, and they couldn’t come to terms and work it out. So we stayed
and Richard Gottehrer produced us. So Tony and I finally met when Tony moved
back to New York
in the late ‘90s, and we were both on the bill at a T Rex tribute concert. We
started talking and then we started writing songs together. And those songs
ended up on the Glow album. That was a real labor
of love to do that album with Tony.

 

 

 

 

It
seems like you’ve worked with a lot of amazing people.

I’m very fortunate
to have worked with many of my heroes, besides great pals and friends. Many of
them have been my mentors from afar.

 

How
were you able to get yourself into those circles? You’re work with such a
diverse cast of characters.

(Laughs) It is diverse. I think it’s
because I put myself out there and I like meeting people. I do a lot of
different types of shows and I work with a lot of actors. When I did my book
tour in 2007 and 2008, Joyce Dewitt appeared as me, the reader of the book. I
played guitar and accompanied her as she read from my book. It was pretty cool.
I just get around and I meet people. I’m not shy about asking people to
collaborate because I love to collaborate and I think most artists like to as
well.

 

You
produced Liza Minnelli. That must have seemed like an unusual collaboration.

I love
Liza. I did a project with her with a big band and I produced it and it came
out great. When we did it live in the studio, I brought in the big band because
I knew she was a great live performer.

 

It’s kind of interesting how a lot of artists are revisiting
their earlier work – The Who are touring behind Quadrophenia,
Peter Frampton is celebrating the 35th anniversary of Frampton
Comes Alive, Ian Anderson recently did a sequel to Thick
as a Brick, and here you are celebrating a milestone of your own.

I was just listening to “5:15” from Quadrophenia last
night. I was at a club and they were playing it really loud and I was singing
it quite loudly too. One thing I think is interesting about revisiting those
old albums is that the meanings change. For The Who, it was originally about
the Mods and the Rockers days. For me it was interesting to go back to my early
twenties and my views and emotional state of mind at that time and think about
what has changed and what hasn’t changed, especially the way I approach
relationships, the way I talk about myself and the other people I’m talking
about in those songs. It’s really an interesting and emotional journey to go
back to now, and I think for anybody going back to their earlier work, you
really see it through different eyes. For me, a lot of it was, wow, how did I
know I would feel that way, because a lot of it is how I feel now as opposed to
how I felt then. I often wondered what advice I would give my younger self, but
it’s actually my younger self giving me advice for the future. It’s like that
phrase, if I only knew then what I knew now. It was emotional for me, doing
those songs again with the same musicians.

 

The next time you went into the studio following the
release of Cool Blue Halo, did you find it a
bit intimidating to have to top it? The bar was raised pretty high at that
point.

That’s
why I didn’t try to duplicate that album with my next one. Primal
Dream
was a rock album. I brought in the same musicians but I added drums and bass
and Ivan Julian from Richard Hell’s band on guitar. And I made a loud rock
album. All of the albums I’ve made so far have been quite different from each
other, and one of the reasons was just like what you just said. I didn’t want
to feel I had to top myself or copy myself in any way. I like for things to
stay different. As a solo artist you have more leeway to do things that way.
When you have a band, people expect the band sound. You expect REM to sound
like REM and you expect the Bongos to sound like the Bongos, or the dBs, or
Soundgarden or Coldplay or whoever. But as a solo artist, you do have the
ability to change and I have made a point of exploiting that to the fullest.

Take an artist
like Neil Young. He’s not always well received, but just the fact that he did a
record like Trans was pretty cool. I always admire artists
that go out on a limb. Lou Reed is one of my favorites. Not only do I know Lou,
and he’s taught me a lot over the years – even though he doesn’t realize how
much he’s taught me – Lou has always impressed me with the variety of work that
he does. He’s always been super gracious to me.

 

So what’s next for you now? Are you going to take this
album out on the road?

I have been performing a lot actually, especially in the New York region – New York,
New Jersey, Connecticut
– and rediscovering the state of New
York. I’ve played near Woodstock and some small towns upstate,
sometimes solo, sometimes with one or two other musicians. I’m always
performing in some way, and somehow and I think I will be touring with this
album. And some of it may be solo because that’s another way to hear these
songs.

 

 [Photos credit: Mick Rock. Top – Barone and Garth Hudson; middle, Barone and Tony Visconti.]

NIHILISTIC SEA SHANTIES AND BUSKER JAMS FROM THE SUBWAY TO HELL Alvarius B.

The Sun
City Girls’ younger Bishop brother has his twisted ’98 classic
remade, remodeled and reissued.

 

BY RON HART

 

Since crawling from a scorpion hole in the Arizona desert
nearly 35 years with his brother, guitar great Sir Richard Bishop, and late
drummer Charles Gocher as the Sun City Girls, Alan Bishop has been rubbing the
American music landscape rawer than hamburger meat. Though getting his
start as a card-carrying member of the Phoenix skate punk scene alongside the
likes of the Meat Puppets and Jodie Foster’s Army, the younger Bishop sibling abandoned
the conventional idea of the scene’s anti-establishment ethos early on and he
and his fellow Girls began to infuse free jazz, tape loops, surf guitar and a
smorgasbord of Middle Eastern, Northern African and Southeast Asian musical
elements into their seemingly bottomless cache of material. They conspired
musically from 1984 until Gocher succumbed to his valiant battle with cancer in
2007, putting an immediate end to the group as an active entity. 

 

But as a solo artist, Alan Bishop really lets his freak flag
fly, especially whilst recording under his Alvarius B. moniker. And perhaps his
most definitive statement as an act under his own accord is his second
eponymous full-length from 1998, which now enjoys a long overdue makeover
courtesy of the SCG-helmed Abduction Records label.

 

 


alvarius b. – alvarius b. (album preview) by experimedia

 

“I think its fair to say that in AB we have the most inspiring and
wholesome, cussing, violent and truthful music interpenetrator of the psychic
Realities that has probably ever graced this fair and fucked land,” hails
former Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance in his impassioned liner notes for
this two-CD revamp of Alvarius B, first released as a limited edition
vinyl 2LP set back in the day. Truer sentiments could not be expressed better
in the context of the original 39 tracks, a twisted cache of nihilistic sea
shanties and busker jams from the subway to hell that pushed the boundaries of
public tolerance to the limit, evidenced on tracks like “Blood Baby”
and “The Great Fuck Inaccessible.” This updated edition of B. adds
six new bonus tunes from the initial recording sessions, done between the years
1994 and 1996 on a portable tape recorder in Seattle, Washington.
Judging by the sound of disc one’s buggy “Insect Dilemma” and disc
two’s “Crackled Witch,” with its “brainwashed skulls in a
shrunken pot,” the extra material is as equally damaged as any of its
final cut counterparts.

Alvarius B. is a masterpiece of apocalyptic
death folk that is indeed not for the faint at heart, with all of its
avant-garde discordance and vulgarity. But if you have the abstract gumption to appreciate the kind of ravenous
deconstructionism Bishop brought to the table in spades here, this is up there
with and the 1990 Sun City Girls classic Torch of the Mystics and
his brother’s Salvador Kali as a must-own addition to your music
library.


 

SONIC REDUCER / CARL HANNI

 

Last Train to Memphis:
The Rise of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick)

 

By Carl Hanni

 

Like my last posting here at
Sonic Reducer, this one is considerably after the fact; this mighty book about
the early life of Elvis Presley was first published in 1998, so it’s got 18
years of hair on it, but don’t let that take any of the shine off; it’s still
as fresh and impossible to put down as the day it was published. 

 

Last Train to Memphis tracks the life and career of Elvis Presley from his birth in 1935 until his
induction into the army in 1958, at the early peak of his career. A second
book, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, picks up the story
where this one left off, up until Presley’s death in 1977. 

 

All celebrities of Presley’s
caliber – a highly select and finite group – should be as lucky as Presley to
have a writer of Guralnick’s caliber take such a sympathetic and comprehensive
look at their life and work. The scope of the book is staggering – 488 pages on
the first 23 years of Presley’s life. That kind of coverage allows for
literally a day by day (or even hour by hour) exploration of a life that few
biographies can match. Last Train to Memphis (and presumably Careless Love, which I haven’t read) is a masterwork
of research that will likely stand for all time as the definitive book(s) about
Elvis Presley; it’s impossible to imagine anyone topping it in any
fashion. 

 

With Last Train to Memphis, Guralnick
takes on the super-human task of humanizing Elvis Presley and trying separate
the man from the myth. This is no easy task; Presley may be the single most
iconographic American figure of the 20th Century, a person whose image has so
over-saturated the culture that it’s hard to see him as anything more than a
series of images, some vital and vibrant and others sad and embarrassing.
Guralnick goes into this knowing full well that to many Presley was a joke, to
others an outrage and to others something akin to a deity. No matter what you
feel about Elvis Presley going in, you’re almost bound to come out of it
feeling differently after reading his book.

 

Guralnick – the author of other
highly acclaimed books on American culture and music like Lost Highway, Feel Like Going
Home
and several others – is a writer of unnatural skill and grace. The
narrative flows in a way that is so natural that it borders on the aquatic. His
gifts for evocation brings the past alive in a way that is so pronounced that
you can practically smell it and feel it. This is particularly true of Elvis’s
teenage years in Memphis, where his family moved
from Tupelo, MS, in 1948, when Elvis was thirteen.
Guralnick lays out central Memphis
street by street, then moves Presley, his family
and friends around in it over several years before his sudden, wildly
improbable rise to super-stardom. He follows Presley on his forays to Hollywood and Las
Vegas, and on his numerous tours around the South and
East, and right on into the army. Always, they return to Memphis. 

 

It’s unlikely that Elvis Presley
would have existed as he did without Memphis,
and without his earlier upbringing in Tupelo.
As a dirt poor, post-World War II child of the South, Elvis was raised in
an environment where poor blacks and whites rubbed shoulders with each other,
and where music – gospel, blues, hillbilly, country and later R&B – was
everywhere. Memphis – along with Nashville and New
Orleans – was one of the great bastions of Southern
music, with powerful and influential radio stations (and radio personalities,
like Elvis’ early booster Dewey Phillips), night clubs and concert halls,
jamborees, gospel revivals, record stores, local musical legends and local
labels and recording studios. And where, as the story has been told over and
over, local studio owner and fledgling label owner Sam Phillips, saw something
in a oddball kid who kept hanging
around his Sun Studios and let him cut a couple of tracks. The rest is, indeed,
history. 

 

The big picture facts of Elvis’
life during this time are public record, but no one has gotten into the
miniature of it in the way that Guralnick does. He seems to have spoken to
everyone who ever encountered Presley, and recaptures
their memories with sparkling detail and clarity. But much more importantly is
how deeply he digs into, and peels back the layer of Presley’s personality and
reveals the young man underneath. What he finds, and conveys with infinite care
and sympathy, is fascinating and eye-opening. Young Presley emerges as a fairly
simple, straightforward guy; but of course he’s also infinitely complex. He’s
completely devoted to his parents, especially his mother (to the point of being
a classic mama’s boy, really). He’s an oddball in school, especially high
school, but still has a local gang in the Memphis
housing project that he spent his high school years in that he’s loyal to. He
starts cultivating an image as a young teenager that eventually becomes a look
and an attitude that sets American culture on its ear. He shows so little
promise as a musician as a young man that his eventual stardom floors everyone
who knew him.  He seems completely racially color blind. He’s neither a
natural leader or a follower, really a sort of perpetual outsider that somehow
became one of the biggest selling, most controversial and polarizing, and then
most famous entertainers of his time. 

 

The whole story is wildly
improbable, but Guralnick makes it plausible by breaking it down day by day and
showing EXACTLY what happened. Elvis meets Dewey Phillips; Elvis meets Sam
Phillips, finally convinces him to let him record something; Dewey Phillips
plays it on WHBQ; it takes off like wildfire, and within a year local misfit
Elvis Presley is the hottest thing in ‘Hillbilly’ music in the region. Then the
whole South. Then the country. Then Hollywood
beckons.

 

No one had ever seen anything
like it. And, with the exception of
Beatlemania a few years later, ever did again, or likely ever will. Talk about
being the right guy at the right place at the right time; Elvis Presley
uncovered a need that no one knew existed until it rolled over the top of them.
He struck a chord in the teenage psyche of the country that (apparently) was
just lying there waiting to be struck, and it unleashed a culture changing
floodgate of hysteria that’s hard to understand today. To fully comprehend it,
check out the earliest footage of Presley that you can find; the best I’ve ever
seen are a few short clips that are featured on the excellent “History of Rock
& Roll” series that Time/Life put together several years ago, and I covered
in considerable detail in a previous Sonic Reducer. It’s mind-boggling: Presley
is a man possessed and the action from the crowds has to be seen to be
believed.

 

Aside from the story itself and
the look into Presley’s psyche, the other greatest virtue of Last Train To
Memphis
is the way that Guralnick illuminates multiple aspects of American
culture in the 1940s and 50s. It’s most likely hard for anyone considerably
younger to understand how fundamentally different America was when Presley first
broke in the mid 1950s. It many ways it really was a far more innocent (or
perhaps naive) time. Reading about Presley and his pals is like stepping into
an episode of “Happy Days:” kids (at least these kids) went out on chaste
double dates, went to the movies or the park, sipped Cokes, obeyed their
parents, went to church on Sundays, played football, gathered around the radio
to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride (this was the south,
after all). Sure, there were a few hoods and greasers, a few teen pregnancies,
always the possibility of the draft and the threat of The Bomb (and if you were
black, the KKK); but seriously, reading the day by day of this era is not
unlike a Dixie-fried “Mayberry RFD,” the difference being that Presley and his
pals were poor, and just around the corner was Beale St., the beating heart of
Memphis’ black culture.

 

Presley was devoutly religious
and ascribed his talent to being ‘a gift from God.’  He would just as soon
sing spirituals around the piano with family and friends, much to the dismay of
a young Natalie Wood who came out for a four day stay and only lasted two,
bored and discomfited by all the homeliness. Herein lays the contradiction of
Elvis Presley: the seemingly lascivious, dangerously sexy character who really
DID induce mass sexual frenzy amongst his teenage fans was just a homeboy at
heart, who REALLY wanted nothing more than to please his mother and make her
proud. The public Elvis was known for his gyrations, outrageous clothes and
cross-over music; but the one thing that literally everybody who ever met Elvis
even in passing first says is how polite and humble he was. Elvis (at this
point anyway) didn’t drink, smoke, use drugs, forbid profanity in front of
women, donated to charities, sent flowers, tirelessly signed autographs –
stopped and helped strangers change tires, for Christ’s sake. Of course he also
screwed his way through Hollywood, Las Vegas and Memphis,
but also seems to have kept
genuinely chaste relationships with at least most of the numerous young women
he dated (sometimes 2 or 3 at a time) during this time. You know, the good
girls. The ones you marry. 

 

Finally, and just as full of
insights, stories and lore, Guralnick gives us indelible portraits of seemingly
everyone in Presley’s orbit from the time he was born. His dad Vernon and
prematurely sad mother Gladys (she just couldn’t stop worrying about Elvis),
his extended family, all of his neighbors and high school pals, his
shape-shifting Memphis posse (including several cousins) and his later posse additions
from Las Vegas and Hollywood are drawn in sharp relief. Of course much ink is
spilled on Col. Tom Parker, the former carny turned promoter who grabbed Elvis
and ran with him all the way to Hollywood
and to the bank. Several banks, really. But also every DJ, record producer and
engineer, A&R man, local promoter, RCA Records staff member who ever worked
with him, session musician and every soda jerk or car hop who ever served Elvis
seems to have been interviewed by Guralnick and included in the book. It should
be exhausting, but it’s not; it’s exhilarating. 

 

As he should, Guralnick pays
special attention to the three folks that really played the most in forming
Elvis Presley: Sam Phillips and Elvis’ original two band-mates, guitarist
Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. It’s entirely possible that the
phenomenon of ‘Elvis Presley’ never would have happened without Scotty and
Bill; if he was the look and the voice, they were the sound. Their two-person,
hopped-up combo of hillbilly twang and blues punch had never quite been heard
before, and they lit the fire under Elvis that blew up with such a startling
roar. It’s incredibly sad to see them slowly but surely marginalized, then
squeezed out of the picture altogether, and as generous as Elvis could be he
never seemed to realize that he wasn’t taking care of these two fellas from the
neighborhood that made it all happen. There’s more than a few warnings in their
story for anyone contemplating a life in the music business.

 

Sam Phillips was the guy who really
made the young Elvis Presley and boy does he know it. A world class character,
self made man and kingmaker for Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy
Orbison, Charlie Rich, Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88″ and others in addition to
Elvis, Phillips is a true American original, the guy who molded the key to the
kingdom of rock & roll. Fortunately for us all, Phillips was as color blind
as Presley, and between the two of them they kicked started a cultural
revolution that is still winding out today. 

 

Really, no kidding. Read it to
believe it.

 

 

***

 

Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist, DJ, disc jockey,
book hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He hosts “The
B-Side” program on KXCI (streamed live on Tuesday nights 10-12 pm at
KXCI.org) and spins around Southern Arizona on
a regular basis. He currently writes for Blurt and Tucson Weekly.

 

 

TIME GOES BY SO QUICKLY The Distractions

A 30-year layoff
hasn’t dimmed the Mancunian post-punkers’ enthusiasm or talent.

 

BY DAVE STEINFELD

 

This past summer, while thumbing through an issue of Uncut one night, I noticed a very short piece about a band called The
Distractions. I had to read it twice to make sure it was the same band I was
thinking of and that I wasn’t imagining things. Blessed with an excruciatingly
limited discography and no members who went on to big things, The Distractions
were obscure even in their native England.
But to a small but rabid group of fans, this Manchester
quintet was considered one of the great lost bands of the New Wave era. As
recently as last year, I looked for news about them online and found very
little, which led me to wonder whatever happened to the band members.

 

What a difference a year makes. This item in Uncut said
that a new album by The Distractions was imminent — more than three decades
after the last one! I was stunned.

 

For the uninitiated… The Distractions were part of the late
’70s post-punk scene in Northern England.
After a few singles and the wonderfully titled EP You’re Not Going Out
Dressed Like That,
the band released their one proper album, Nobody’s
Perfect,
in 1980. The disc featured 14 songs and covered a broad musical
spectrum. “Waiting for Lorraine,”
the opener, was an angry song about unrequited love in the form of an
unreturned phone call, a theme revisited later on the album, literally, in the
track “Still it Doesn’t Ring.” Other highlights include “Looking
for a Ghost,” which UK journalist
David Quantick once aptly described as
“the greatest sleepwalking nightmare ballad ever,” and a rocking anthem of
independence titled “Untitled.” Most of the tunes on Nobody’s
Perfect
were written by guitarist Steve Perrin, some in collaboration with
singer Mike Finney. But a couple were penned by second guitarist Adrian Wright.
The Distractions were rounded out by a rhythm section that may have had the
best names in all of rock history: bassist Pip Nicholls and drummer Alec
Sidebottom.

 

Nobody’s Perfect was loved by almost everyone who
heard it — but unfortunately, few people did! There are various theories as to
why The Distractions never made it, ranging from the fact that a little band
called U2 was signed by the same label (Island Records) around the same time; to,
as another UK journalist, Ian Cranna
once wrote, “bands fronted by overweight and bespectacled singers were not
the stuff of which legends were made.” Whatever the case, The Distractions
weren’t long for this world and Nobody’s Perfect remains one of the
ultimate “cult” albums of the post-punk period. Ironically, the
band’s best known song didn’t even appear on the album. The wonderful single
“Time Goes By So Slow,” released in late 1979 by the tastemakers at
Factory Records and a popular track on college radio here in the states, was
their (relative) moment in the sun, an incredibly sad lyric married to an
infectious melody.

 

Unlike some stories in rock and roll (say, that of The
Tourists, an English band who came up around the same time as The Distractions
and had very marginal success but whose singer was one Annie Lennox), this tale
doesn’t have a happy ending — at least in the sense that the band members did
not go on to achieve greater success after their breakup. None of the
Distractions ever became a household name and most of them currently have day
jobs. In this case, the happy ending is simply that three decades and change
after Nobody’s Perfect, they’re still alive and well, and indeed they
finally released their sophomore set, The End of the Pier, in late
August.

 

The band’s current lineup finds Finney and Perrin joined by
Nick Halliwell, Granite
Shore guitarist,
owner of Occultation Recordings and catalyst for the reunion; bassist Arash
Torabi of The June Brides; and drummer Mike Kellie, whose extensive resume
includes stints with both The Only Ones and Spooky Tooth.

 

In contrast to Nobody’s Perfect, The End of the Pier, while
still a Distractions record, is a more concise, unified album. There are only
10 songs this time around. Also unlike Nobody’s Perfect, the subject
matter of these songs isn’t quite as varied. Throughout End of the Pier, there’s
a sense that time is short; indeed, the first line on the album is “We’re
running out of time.” (Incidentally, Finney sings the hell out of that
song, “I Don’t Have Time,” in a voice that recalls World Party leader
Karl Wallinger.)  This theme is echoed in
tracks like “Too Late to Change” and “The Last Song” which,
appropriately, closes the disc. Even the title of the album can be taken as a
reference to time running out. These days, it seems, time doesn’t go by so
slow.

 

The Distractions celebrated the release of The End of the
Pier
with exactly two live dates, in the Manchester
borough of Salford. This may seem
strange but the fact is, it’s miraculous that these dates happened at all. The
band members no longer live in Manchester
these days; rather, they’re spread throughout England,
and Perrin is based in Australia. So
it was no small feat for them to come together for these gigs. This writer
lives in America and wasn’t lucky enough to attend either of the Salford dates
— but I was lucky enough to be the one to write about them on these
shores, a result of seeing that short piece in Uncut and then tracking
the unassuming Mike Finney down online. For this piece, I spoke with Finney,
Perrin and Halliwell, all of whom were great interviews. [Pictured in the
photo above, L-R: Perrin, Finney and Halliwell.]

 

 


The Distractions: The Summer I Met You by OccultationUK

 

 

 

BLURT: Tell me a
little about what each of you was up to during “the 30-year break” —
either musically or otherwise.

 

STEVE PERRIN (SP): It was actually
two 15-year breaks as we played together for a while in the mid-1990s. Apart
from that, my only involvement in music was briefly working for an independent
record label in Italy in the late
’80s. Otherwise, I’ve spent more time writing academic papers and a PhD thesis
than I have writing songs. It’s good to be writing songs again.

 

MIKE FINNEY (MF): I had a band
called the Secret Seven straight after The Distractions in 1983, but it was
short-lived. [Later that year], I recorded a vocal track for the first Art Of
Noise single. It was originally called “Close to The Edge,” but came
out as “Close to the Edit.” 
I’m the Edit!

     I was [also] in a band called The First
Circle, with Alex [Sidebottom] as drummer and some of Mancunian band Dr Filth.
Sort of country-rock, as was the vogue in the mid-‘80s. Then I stopped singing
until Steve and I restarted The Distractions in ’95, stopped again and
restarted in 2010. In the meantime, I am currently employed as an International
Trade consultant for the Croda Chemical Group. A global company but UK headquartered.

 

 

Nick, you’re credited
with getting The Distractions back together even though you weren’t a member of
the original band. Tell me a bit about how that happened — how you got Steve
and Mike to agree to another album and perhaps what The Distractions meant to
you in the first place.

 

NICK HALLIWELL (NH): The
Distractions have been one of my favourite bands since 1978; beautifully
crafted songs and one of the all-time great singers. I wrote something about
them on the Granite
Shore website, Mike
contacted me [and] then put me in touch with Steve. I was bemoaning the fact
that one of the finest English singers of our generation had made so few
records and Steve said, “You’ve got a label. When it makes you a million,
stick him in a studio.”  I suggested
I could spare a few hundred quid straight away [and] asked him if he’d write a
couple of songs. [Steve] conferred with Mike, then got back to me saying, “I’ll
be in the UK in June!” So I
booked a studio. At some point along the way, the two of them told me it’d be a
Distractions record – that had to come from them rather than from me. We
recorded the Come Home EP
in Liverpool in two days in June 2010,
having met for the first time at the studio. Hearing Mike sing the song I’d
written for it was a very special moment.

        The next logical step was an album.
Steve wrote about half of it and sent the demos to me, I chipped in with a song
(Wise”), then [we] came up with a few more between us. It was
important to have something cohesive, so Steve and I worked together closely. I
tried to pick up on the themes he’d established in his songs.

 

 

Tell me how The
Distractions first came together and also a bit about what the music scene in Manchester was like during the mid to late ‘70s.

 

SP: 
Mike and I met on a college course and he kept
singing, so I suggested that we form a band in an attempt
to shut him up. That worked — but only briefly. We were messing around for a
while but when punk started to happen, it gave us an outlet as a number of
small clubs started to put on punk nights.

        It was a very small scene in Manchester, though — I would guess no more than 100
people to start with [and] very incestuous. We found a bass player because Pip
applied too late for the job with Buzzcocks.  So Pete Shelley passed
on [his] phone number to us.

 

MF: Steve and I met at college
in 1975 in Stockport. We were on the
same course on day release. We used to go to the pub afterwards and I would
sing along to the jukebox – Buddy Holly, Roxy Music, Elvis, whatever was
playing — and Steve said we should start a band. He says it was just to shut
me up but I think it was because he could see the girls in the pub swooning.

 

 

Mike, who are some of
the vocalists who you count as inspirations or personal favorites?

 

MF: It’s quite a mix, really. My
very early childhood favorites were Elvis, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin,
followed by John Lennon (“This Boy” is still a favourite). Then
somebody played me Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha, Sam & Dave, Levi
Stubbs [and] Sam Cooke and I knew what they meant.

 

 

On the new album, The
End of the Pier
, several of the songs deal with aging, the past and/or a
sense of time running out. Coincidence or not?

SP: 
We finished recording Nobody’s Perfect on my 23rd birthday so all
the material on there was written between the ages of 20 and 22. When I started
writing songs for The End of the Pier, the one thing I knew for sure was
that I couldn’t pretend to be 22. Having said that, I wasn’t initially sure
what the album was going to be about. Most of the songs came from musical ideas
and a couple of them started out with completely different sets of lyrics. Then
I had a conversation with Nick about Mike’s voice in which one of us — I can’t
remember who — said that if we were going to record him at his best, we had to
do it now as the voice changes due to bodily developments. That seemed to spark
something off and all this stuff started pouring out.

Also, it was a conscious decision to
make an album with a coherent theme as Nobody’s Perfect doesn’t have
that; it’s just a collection of songs we had at the time.

 

MF: We’re older and time is not
getting any longer.

 

 

 

 

How were the recent
gigs in Salford?

 

MF: Fab! Thoroughly enjoyed the
gigs. It was great to see so many friends, a lot of whom I hadn’t seen for 30
years [and] also seeing Steve as I only see him once a year.  My 10-year-old son was wearing my silver
jacket that I hadn’t worn since playing [New York City
club] Hurrah! in 1980. He got onstage to prove it! Both my sons got to see me
do what I love most and I never thought they would, so [that was] a huge bonus.

        Apart from those few ’95 gigs, we
hadn’t played since 1980. We did “Time Goes By So Slow,”
“Waiting for Lorraine,” “Leave You to Dream,” “It
Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Valerie” together for the first time in
32 years. It was a good feeling. Joni Mitchell was half right: Whilst you don’t
know what you’ve got till it’s gone, you don’t really know until you
have it restored.

 

NH:  Everyone I’ve spoken to has been very
complimentary and it feels like an achievement in retrospect. I’ve been mixing
the recordings and we’re astonishingly tight considering we only had one short
rehearsal the day before. The current line-up has one hell of a rhythm section
in Arash Torabi and Mike Kellie, Steve and I have an uncannily shared sense of
timing and Mike was on jaw-dropping form.

 

 

What are the other
three former Distractions (Pip, Alec and Adrian)
up to these days? Also, is it true that Adrian
was the writer of “Time Goes By So Slow?”

SP: Yes, Adrian
wrote “Time Goes By So Slow,” but whoever designed the label [of the single]
got the credits the wrong way round and we’ve been trying to sort that out for
years. He’s not involved in music anymore.

        Pip continues to do solo stuff which
can be heard on MySpace. Alec leads the Republic of Swing
samba band, which is a serious live proposition.

 

MF:  I haven’t seen Pip for 15 or 16 years but I
believe that [he] is living in Warrington
(between Manchester and Liverpool). I haven’t seen Ade since way back in the ‘80s,
but I spoke to him briefly in ’95 when we had a get-together to record [some
songs and do] three or four gigs. Three songs that came out on the Occultation Black Velvet EP were from that
time. He was contacted again in 2010. Whilst he still didn’t want to be in the
band, he sent copies of some live recordings, which we enjoyed hearing again.

 

 

One of my favorites
from Nobody’s Perfect is the opening track, “Waiting for Lorraine.” If you would, tell me a bit about the
inspiration for that or any memories you associate with it.

SP: 
In Manchester, the early punk
scene was closely tied [in] with the gay scene largely due to the fact that
only gay clubs would let in unconventionally dressed individuals. If I remember
correctly, I had three consecutive girlfriends who decided after a relatively
short time in my company that they preferred women. This left me rather
confused but at least I got a song out of it.

 

 

Any plans for the
immediate future — either as The Distractions or individually?

 

SP: 
We’ve tentatively talked about a third — and probably final — album.
It has a working title and I think I know what the subject matter is but
nothing is actually written yet. I’m guessing that Nick will make a Granite Shore album first on which I’m
hoping to do some backing vocals.

 

MF: No plans individually, but
I’ll be happy to do some more with the boys if [they] are available.

        Neil Storey, the man behind Hidden
Masters, was the press officer at Island Records all those years ago. Me and
Steve have known him since 1979 and he’s been a fan and friend for a long time.
He plans to release a retrospective of The Distractions next year with all the
old records and some unreleased stuff he’s found in the Universal vaults. I
can’t wait to hear them!

 

NH: As far as The Distractions
go, it’s up to Steve and Mike though I’d love to do another album. I’m now
working on a Granite Shore LP, I’d also like to do some more producing and
there’s Occultation Recordings to run. We’re reissuing the Wild Swans album, The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years,
next year, with a vinyl version at long last, and there are a few other
projects in the pipeline.

 

 

What was it like
recording and performing together again after more than 30 years?

 

MF: The recording seemed very
natural. After Steve left in 1980, well…it was never really quite right when he
wasn’t there, so we just picked up where we left it.

 

SP: It felt completely normal. It’s
the rest of life that feels pretty weird!