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PROGRESSIVE POP FOR PURE PEOPLE: Steven Wilson

Porcupine Tree. No-Man. Blackfield. Storm Corrosion. IEM. Bass Communion. Production work for notable prog and metal acts. Surround-sound remix wizard for everyone from Jethro Tull and King Crimson to Simple Minds and XTC. We’re talking Renaissance Man territory. (No, “Renaissance Man” is not a band, although the day’s still young.) The British rocker talks all this, along with musings on his latest, excellent solo album and why he’s big on videos and performance. “Although the MTV era is certainly over,” notes Wilson, “a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it.”

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Steven Wilson first made a splash in the early nineties as leader of the British band Porcupine Tree. Though the band began as a one-man goof on psychedelic rock (cf. its first LP On the Sunday of Life), it quickly evolved into an actual group, one that took elements of progressive rock, psychedelia, pop, folk, metal and electronica and filtered them through Wilson’s distinctive sense of melody and texture-driven production acumen. Despite a series of strong records, culminating in 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, the Tree’s most critically acclaimed and bestselling LP, the band never quite caught on with the mainstream’s rock-loving fringe in the way its fans expected. That said, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s final album The Incident, Wilson had well established himself as a songwriter, musician and producer of note, one willing to experiment at will without losing a devotion to melody that should be the envy of tunesmiths everywhere.

Those qualities have also stood him in good stead in both his solo career and extracurricular activities. Though he first tested the solo waters while still a PT member with 2008’s Insurgentes, he really began in earnest with 2011’s Grace For Drowning, a double LP in the grand prog rock tradition. 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing was practically the apotheosis of his style, which meant he had to change tack, precipitating the turn toward pop with 2015’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. But working his pop jones didn’t mean a loss of thematic ambition – H.C.E. wears its apprehensions about the alienation of twenty-first century life on its sleeve. The idea that advancing technology creates new barriers even as it knocks down the old ones is a common notion Wilson has grappled with throughout his artistic career.

To the Bone, Wilson’s brand new album, brings those themes even more to the forefront of his concerns, but wraps the bitter pills up in music sweeter than any he’s made before. In the tradition of the ‘ artists he grew up with, from Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk to The The and XTC, Wilson mixes instantly appealing melodies with ideas more aspirant than musings on romantic love or personal introspection – an album that beckons to and braces you at the same time. It’s the kind of record that might very well make Wilson the star he’s been feted to be by fans and critics, but even if it doesn’t, it’ll set a new standard for his future work.

Meanwhile, Wilson quietly but consistently keeps busy even when he’s not making records under his own name. He’s co-led the art pop group No-Man with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness since 1987, issuing a variety of excellent LPs alongside those of Porcupine Tree. He’s collaborated with Swedish progressive death metal act Opeth’s leader Mikael Akerfeldt in the atmospheric prog band Storm Corrosion and Israeli singer Aviv Geffen in the anthemic, still-running Blackfield. He’s made explicitly motorik-based space rock as IEM and haunting ambient music as Bass Communion. He’s worked as a producer for Opeth and Israeli metal act Orphaned Land and made a number of guest appearances with his prog rocking peers. Wilson also works as a remixer, specializing in Surround Sound and DVD-Audio to create new, highly acclaimed versions of classic albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Simple Minds and, most notably, King Crimson and XTC, leading to lasting friendships with those groups’ respective leaders Robert Fripp and Andy Partridge. Happiest when he’s busiest, Wilson has consistently followed his own muse in whatever direction it leads him, confident enough in his own ability and identity to never worry that it will steer him wrong.

We spoke to Wilson by phone from England about making To the Bone, the themes to which he returns from album to album, the importance of visual media to his work and the importance of balancing dark with light.

BLURT: I’ve been listening to the new record and it’s excellent – a new highwater mark in your career. I’m especially impressed with the pop element. You’ve talked about the progressive pop records – Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, that kind of stuff – but it seems to me that what this focuses on is your very distinctive sense of melody. Was there a conscious decision to put the melodies more up front that usual?

STEVEN WILSON: Very much so. I think the press release angle is a bit of a simplification. The reason those records are referenced in the press release is this idea that’s very much out of fashion these days, which is you can make a record that is both accessible and ambitious. There was a period in time, lest we forget, not so long ago in the ‘[P80s, when I think that the art of making accessible but ambitious records was kind of at a peak. You look at records like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode – even Michael Jackson’s records from that period, to an extent. There is something about them that is completely distinctive, very ambitious, but at the same time, very easy to enjoy as just great pop songs. The question you asked was, was there a conscious decision? Yes. There was a conscious decision to focus much more on the art of creating hooks and pop melodies, but without any sense of having to dumb down or compromise in the ambition of the music.


One of the things that makes your music consistently interesting is that even though you have that distinctive sense of melody – you know a Steven Wilson song when you hear it – you’re always pushing yourself, pushing your own boundaries. You’re not just redoing Fear of a Blank Planet over and over again.

No, quite the opposite! I’ve moved further away. I mean, I’m very proud of that record – it was the peak of my interest in metal. You won’t hear anything like that on this record. Although, even as I’m saying that, I’m conscious that some of the lyrical strands off an album like Fear of a Blank Planet are still present in To the Bone – this interest in how technology creates borders between people rather than bringing them together, and that whole thing about how technology essentially creates a lot of alienation in modern life. So that’s still there.

But musically it couldn’t be further away, and to come back to your question, I think that one of the things that always drives me on is that if I’m going to make another record, if I’m going to add to my already substantial back catalog, then there has to be a reason for each album to exist. There’s no point in making a repetition of one that already exists – trying to cater to the existing fanbase’s expectations. I think it’s very important to always be confronting those expectations. Many of my favorite artists over the years have adopted that approach, whether it’s Bowie or Prince or Neil Young or Frank Zappa. These are people that always had a sense of evolution from album to album, and a sense of sometimes having to confront the expectations of their audience. To be fair, a lot of the industry is based on delivering more of the same, and that’s what most artists do. I’m not denigrating that at all, but that’s not right for me. I have to feel like every album has a distinctive place in my catalog.


It always seems to me that an artist has to make himself happy first – if he’s not happy, then how can he make the audience interested?

I think it can even go further – that’s the definition of an artist. An artist is someone who’s essentially very selfish. And I say that in the context of an artist being very distinct from an entertainer. If you want to be an entertainer, give the audience what they want, give them a greatest hits show, that’s fine. But that’s not being an artist. Being an artist is in some ways a very solitary, very selfish thing. But I believe that’s a good thing. I think Radiohead is a great example of a band that could so easily have gone the nostalgia route, and probably would’ve ended up being the new U2 or something by now. Because there was a point when I think they were headed in that direction. But the art – the sense of self-expression – was more important. That’s what being an artist should be, and sometimes I think fans forget that, and they should be more encouraging. Because the bottom line is the old work is always there, isn’t it? You can still go back and listen to the old records.


It seems that this is actually paying off for you. It seems like you get more and more popular every album the more you push yourself in new directions.

The bottom line is you never know. Taking risks sometimes, obviously, can pay off, and other times it can be a disaster to your career. The most important thing, I think, is to make the work in a kind of vacuum, where you don’t think about those things. But you’re right – I have been very lucky. But I’ve also worked very hard making these records. I have to say, every time I make a new record, it seems like you have to work a little bit harder – it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard to stand still. Because there’s too many records in the world, too many people releasing music these day. You have to fight so hard, even when you’re an established artist. In some respects I am established, not in the mainstream, perhaps, but most people at least know who I am and what I do. Every time I have to fight a little bit harder to get the column space in the magazine, or the attention on the Internet, or some radio play, or to sell tickets. I’m working harder than I ever have before in my career. And I’m 50 this year – in some respects I feel I should be able to slow down now. But I’m still ambitious, and as you alluded at the beginning of our conversation, I feel like I’m making my best work. Of course I want that work to reach as many people as possible. So I’ll still go out there and put in the hours and do the work that I need to do to achieve that.


You worked with some new collaborators this time. I’m curious about Paul Stacey – you co-produced it with him, which is unusual for you. Did that open up the sound?

I think that one of the other things you can do as a solo artist that I could never do in the context of a band, is you can change the people around you from album to album. The one thing you can never change is you. All of my kind of clichés and musical tropes and things that I fall back on – they’re always gonna be there. But one of the things that I can do to make things fresh and perhaps take the music in a different direction is to change the people around me. With Paul, it wasn’t planned that he would be the co-producer. It’s one of those situations where I wanted someone really good to engineer the record. I was recommended Paul by a few people, and we got on really well and I hired him to record the record. But about halfway through the process I realized he had obviously gone way beyond that remit, and was having very strong influences on the actual direction of the record, and bringing out performances from myself and the other people involved. Which of course is very much a production role. So it’s almost like he very naturally drifted into that role, and we ended up making the record together. I have to say, I really enjoyed that process. I am a bit of a control freak, which is why I rarely do those kind of things. But when something happens in that organic, natural way, I’m very willing to embrace it, particularly if I think it’s going to make the record better, which I think it has.


You also worked with Andy Partridge, which would be a dream for a lot of people. I assume came out of your remixing of the XTC records.

Certainly that’s how I got to know Andy. I’ve been very fortunate to count him as a friend these days. One of the most amazing things about my career is that I can say that some of the people whose music I grew up with and is very much in my musical DNA have become collaborators and friends. Andy is obviously one of the greatest for me, one of my favorite songwriters of all time. So I think it was almost inevitable that there would come a point where I would say, “Do you want to write a song with me, Andy?” [laughs] There was this one song, which became the title track on the album, where I knew what I wanted it to be about, but I really didn’t know how to go about approaching it. Because it’s almost semi-political, that song “To the Bone.” It’s obviously very much about the post-truth era, about fake news and the Donald Trump era of politicians. And I’m not one who feels very comfortable writing about something like that. Politics is not really my area. Not that the song is overtly political, but it certainly nods its head in that direction. So I didn’t feel necessarily like I knew how to approach it. It became the very obvious thing to call up Andy and say, “Do you wanna do this, Andy?” And he did a fantastic job.


Not too many people can call up Andy Partridge and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea – can you flesh this out for me?” That’s pretty cool.

I know! like I say, that’s one of the greatest privileges of all in my career, to meet these people, and to realize that now, people whose music I grew listening to in my bedroom are my musical contemporaries. That’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? It’s amazing.

Speaking of collaborators, you usually have excellent taste in side musicians. Who are you playing with on this album?

A lot of it is actually me, and one of the reasons why Paul became so integral to the record is because I was doing a lot more playing this time. So most of the guitar, bass and keyboards are me. When you cast yourself more in the role of a performer, you obviously need to rely a lot more on your engineer and your co-producer, which is why Paul was so important. But there are musicians on the record. There’s the two guest singers – Ninet Tayeb, who I’ve worked with before, and also a Swiss singer called Sophie Hunger, who sang on “Song of I” with me. So there’s a very strong vocal female presence on the record. Musicians-wise, a couple of drummers: Jeremy Stacey, Paul’s brother, who’s in the current lineup of King Crimson, and also my regular live drummer Craig Blundell. They pretty much did 50/50 for the record. Adam Holzman, my keyboard player, is on the record, but mostly handling the piano parts this time, as I did most of the synth stuff. A fantastic harmonica played called Mark Feltham, who I wanted to work with because he’s the guy on those old ‘80s Talk Talk records. If you’re familiar with those – Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, The Colour of Spring – you’ll know how harmonica is a very strong part of those records. So I hunted Mark down and was very privileged to have him do some incredible stuff on the record.

Let’s talk a bit about the themes you were mentioning earlier. How technology should be bringing us together, and yet it seems to be pushing us more and more apart. Communication in general seems to be breaking down. Why do you think that is when we have the technology for everyone to be so close?

It’s obviously not the fault of the technology – the technology is extraordinary. The Internet is one of the most extraordinary inventions ever, in some ways even more significant perhaps than the TV. The TV changed the way that people live, but I think the Internet has changed the way people live much more so than even the television – the way we communicate and understand what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, through no fault of the technology, it also taps into the very worst aspects of human nature. There’s a tendency we have to be very passive about the way we interface and engage with the rest of the world and with other people. I think the problem with social networking, because it creates the illusion of being connected to the rest of the world, people tend to be satisfied with that illusion – the illusion of having friends. Friends that you’ve never met! [chuckles] This illusion of having friends, of being connected, of having your whole existence up there on the Internet available for other people to experience and to share. It’s all complete bullshit. Basically we now have potentially seven billion people now who are all critics, who are all celebrities, who can all go on the Internet and share pictures of themselves, share their opinions on anything from movies and music to politics, and unfortunately it taps into a lot of the worst aspects of human nature: ego, narcissism, the need to be heard, the need to be noticed. If that means being negative and critical, or being an Internet troll, then so be it – that’s better than not being noticed at all.

I think the problem is, at the moment, the technology’s so new that we haven’t really learned properly how to make use of it. We’re going through that traditional transitional period in our evolution where we’re not quite sure where the Internet, where cell phones are taking the human race. There’s a lot of negativity – I think that’s easy to see – but there’s also some positivity too. So I think what will become clear is probably not going to become clear for another half a century or so. Then we’ll really see how this technology has influenced the world.

In the meantime, I think it’s important for people like myself and filmmakers to raise our concerns. Because I think one of the great things that art can do is create debates and raise these issues, and kind of hold up the mirror to the rest of the planet, saying, “You know what? This is what I see. Do you think it’s good? Do you recognize yourself in the mirror?” I guess that’s what I try to do, hopefully without being too preachy.

When you’re writing a record like this, do you sit down and say, “Wow, this is getting really dark really fast. I better put something else in there so people understand that I don’t think it’s hopeless.” Or were more positive songs like “Song of Unborn,” “Nowhere Now,” “Permanating” just a natural part of the song cycle?

It’s funny you should ask that, because I think, for the first time, I did say it to myself. “You know what? It would be very easy to allow yourself to make one of the most downer-sounding records of all time, unless you stop yourself from doing that.” Because the truth of the matter is, even in the two-and-a-half years since I made my last record, the world arguably has become even more concerning and worrying. It’s even easier to be down on everything. You look at what’s happening in the U.K. with Brexit, at the whole political scene in America, at what’s going on with the refugees in Europe, the religious fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks that in the space of the last three years have come very much to our doorstep here in the U.K., and in Europe in general. So things have got even worse in that respect. It would have been very easy or natural for me to allow myself to make a record that was even more negative.

But you know what? I don’t think that would have been a true reflection of what I really feel about the world. So I think it was a conscious decision. You mentioned “Song of Unborn” there – that’s a good example, really. Because that song is in a nutshell really what I’m talking about here. The song is basically saying to the unborn child, “You’re looking out to the world right now, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Why the hell would I wanna be born into this crazy, messed-up place?’” And the answer that comes back is, “Because the gift of life is something extraordinary and unique to every individual, and if you choose to, you can make something amazing out of your life, and you can make the arc of your own life profound.” I think that is a very positive message, and an important thing to remember as well. That we can all do something incredible with our lives, and we don’t have to allow all this other stuff to drag us down. It’s easy to get depressed looking at the state of the world, but we can all do something amazing with our lives. The gift of life is something extraordinary and very profound, and I really believe that. Without sounding like a hippy or something, at the end of the day, I do think that’s the reality. It’s a nice way to end the record on a positive note, which I think is important.


I’ve always thought the best dark records are the ones that have at least a glimmer of hope in there, just to balance out. It makes it more realistic. As bad as things get, there’s always good in the world.

Absolutely.


On a lighter note, because you have this ‘80s vibe for the record to a certain extent, I thought it was very fitting that you’ve put out a lot of videos for the album. The time of MTV being any kind of dominant force is over, but it’s very appropriate that you’re putting out videos.

Well, although the MTV era is certainly over, a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it. Of course a lot of people listen to their music through YouTube, which is the world’s most popular streaming service. For all Spotify’s success, and other streaming services, YouTube is still the number one, and YouTube is of course a video-based service, so I think a lot of people expect some kind of visuals. I’ve always been very interested in the combination of music and video, and I think in many respects the combination of sound and visual can be the most powerful combination of all. And I’ve always been very interested in that, and these songs are stories -they lend themselves very well to visual interpretation. So we’re having a lot of fun with it, and we’re gonna do a lot more for the live show, as well. There’ll be a lot of video content, all very, very exclusive and very much fundamental to the presentation of the live show.

In fact, one of the reasons I went solo was because I really wanted to explore that side of my performance more. One of the things that’s difficult when you’re in a band is to go to your band and say, “Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be great if we blow all the money that we make on this tour on some amazing visuals?” Usually, they’ll tell you where to go. So one of the reasons I decided I needed to be a solo artist was so I could explore that side a lot more. Because I’m very good at spending all the money I make [laughs] on video material, because it’s not cheap to do that kind of presentation. But it’s important – that’s part of the magic for me.


What have you got planned for the future besides this tour? Because you seem to never sleep.

I am focusing a lot on the tour, because there is a lot of preparation to do, not just for the visuals, but obviously for the musicians and the audio side. But I’m also doing a lot of promotion right now. There’s a couple of months’ worth of going around the world doing radio and TV and talking to people, which I’m very happy to do – I enjoy doing that stuff very much. In terms of other projects, we touched on it earlier with the XTC thing – I do a lot of working on these amazing remix projects – remixing these classic records, which is both a privilege and very hard work. But I love doing that stuff, and there’s a lot coming in right now, which I’m gonna try and squeeze in before I disappear off on tour. But really most of next year is going to be committed to touring what I hope will be a record that has resonated well with people, and people will be interested in seeing the presentation of the album in a live context.

ROCKIN’ ON THE ROAD: Memphis—Music (and Elvis) City USA

In which our Travel Editor—and resident Elvis authority—gives you the lowdown on where you gotta go and what you gotta see if you are serious about making your pilgrimage to one of the unquestioned cradles of modern musical civilization. Pictured above: Elvis is still rocking on Beale Street in Memphis.  (Additional reading: “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” Gaar’s guide to Hawaii’s  finest mixology establishments.)

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

August 16 marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. By then, the annual event known as “Elvis Week” will be in full swing; a week’s worth of panel discussions, music events, and an immersion into full-on Elvis-ness. The biggest gathering of the faithful will come on August 15 at the annual Candlelight Service, when fans bearing candles will march solemnly up the driveway of Graceland to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother Minnie Mae are buried, to pay their respects. With this year expected to draw record crowds, it’s a procession that will last through the night.

Graceland is certainly the Memphis site most associated with Elvis. But there’s a lot more to experience in the city if you’re an El-fan — or simply a music fan, for Memphis is a city rich in musical history: the blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s take a look at some of the places in the city with an Elvis connection that a visitor shouldn’t miss.

Graceland  The King’s castle is pictured above (courtesy Graceland.com). Where better to start? You don’t have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy visiting Graceland (and certainly every El-fan should make a pilgrimage to Elvis’ home at least once in their life); I think anyone with an interest in pop culture will get a kick out of seeing the most famous of rock star mansions. Graceland was opened to the public nearly five years after Elvis’ death, on June 7, 1982, and was an instant success, going on to become the second-most visited home in the U.S., after the White House. On November 7, 1991, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

In the interest of managing the crowds, tours start across the street at the new Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex (more on that in a bit), where you board a shuttle which takes you over to the mansion. The mansion’s exterior looks like something out of Gone With the Wind, but what strikes you the most when you first go inside is how small the place actually is. The living room, to your right as you enter, is large enough to contain the pristine white 15-foot sofa, but it’s not much bigger than that. The dining room, to the left, whose most ornate touch is a chandelier, is of a similar size. The rooms are big, but not oversized; this is no mega-mansion.

Don’t touch that dial: the sharp color scheme of the TV Room:

The homiest place in a house is often the kitchen, and Graceland is no exception; it’s a room so cozy you can readily imagine sitting down at the counter for a snack of snickerdoodles and lemonade. But it also seems frozen in time in the ‘70s: brown-patterned carpet, wood-paneled cabinetry, Tiffany lamp shades (part of a vintage craze of the era). Though a bit more elaborate than the average kitchen (there are two ranges), it still has the kind of suburban look that wouldn’t be out of place on The Brady Bunch.

The comfy confines of the vintage ‘70s-era Pool Room:

No one’s allowed to see the other most personal area in a home — Elvis’ bedroom — but you are able to see the rooms that fully illustrate the excessive side of his nature. Climbing down a dizzying stairwell lined in mirrors (hold on to the handrails), you’ll find the TV Room, starkly decorated in yellow, dark blue, and white: a dark blue couch with white and yellow sparkly accent pillows; a yellow wet bar; Elvis’ trademark “TCB” logo — a lightning bolt — zigzagging down one wall; a mirrored ceiling. You barely notice the three TVs amidst all the bright primary colors. Next door is the Pool Room (as in pool table), swathed in yards of gingham-style fabric that hangs from the walls and the ceiling. Back up on the main floor is the famed “Jungle Room” (which only got that name after Elvis’ death), with its heavy, elaborately carved wooden chairs, waterfall that trickles down one wall, numerous animal figurines (a tiger, a ram’s head, a lion), and green shag carpet, both on the floor and the ceiling (Elvis actually recorded two albums in this room, From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and Moody Blue).

The kitschy delight of the “Jungle Room” (Photo courtesy Graceland.com):

That’s the most dazzling — if somewhat claustrophobic — part of the mansion experience. The rest of the tour encompasses the office used by Elvis’ father, Vernon, and the Racquetball Building that Elvis had built in 1975 (trivia: early in the morning on the day of his death, Elvis hit a few balls in the court along with his cousin, Billy Smith, then sat down at the piano and played a few songs, the last being Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”). And there’s a new display in the Trophy Room building, which previously displayed artifacts from Elvis’ career; now it focuses on the Presley family and items related to Graceland itself — everything from his grandmother’s passport to the silver Tiffany cups Lisa Marie received as a birthday present.

Elvis and kin in the Meditation Garden:

The tour ends at the Meditation Garden, a tranquil area next to the (again, surprisingly small) swimming pool, designed by a friend for Elvis in the mid-1960s, when he took up what we’d now call “New Age” interests. After his death, Elvis was initially interred in a mausoleum in nearby Forest Hills Cemetery with his mother. But because of security concerns, Vernon petitioned the city to have their bodies moved back home to Graceland.

Dipped in leather: the fabulous black suit Elvis wore during his 1968 “comeback” TV special, Elvis:


It’s well worth the time to see more than just the mansion, for the full Elvis Experience. Ticket packages offer the opportunity to get inside Elvis’ planes (the famous Lisa Marie and the smaller Hound Dog II), and inside the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex, where you’ll find museums dedicated to every aspect of Elvis’ life. It’s a story of great fame, and great consumption, with Elvis apparently hanging on to everything he ever owned (not to mention the thousands of items that were added to the collection when Elvis Presley Enterprises acquired the archives of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker).

The most famous Cadillac in the world:

The new complex is five times as large as the previous Graceland Plaza exhibit area, so there’s much more to see. Of course it’s a thrill to see such iconic items as Elvis’ famous pink Cadillac, the black leather suit he wore during his 1968 TV special Elvis, or the bejeweled jumpsuit he wore for his “Aloha From Hawaii” live broadcast. There’s poignancy too, in seeing the jumpsuit he wore for his very last show, on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis, Indiana. This is the only place in the world that has as many artifacts to draw from in illustrating Elvis’ life story. Revel in the bounty.

Elvis has left the building: Elvis wore this Mexican Sundial jumpsuit for his last ever concert, June 26, 1977:

Tip: Most mornings, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., you’re allowed to walk up Graceland’s driveway to the Meditation Garden, for free; well worth doing if you want to miss the crowds. During Elvis Week, there’s also an evening walk up, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., when you’ll find the gravesite overflowing with floral tributes sent in from around the world.

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The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll:

Sun Studio  This is the Memphis site most associated with Elvis after Graceland — though of course he wasn’t the only one admitted into that hallowed space. Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Rufus Thomas were among the legendary talents that recorded in this unprepossessing room, which has been open to the public since 1987. Tours are offered every hour on the half hour, where you first go to a small museum above the studio, which displays such choice artifacts as the tape deck Sam used to record all those great sounds, while the tour guide relates the history of the studio (with appropriate sound clips).

 

The Elvis Microphone:

Then it’s back downstairs to the room itself, where it’s no hyperbole at all to say rock ‘n’ roll was born; what many historians consider to be the first rock ‘n’ roll single, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (including one Ike Turner) was recorded in this very space. There’s a framed photo of the “Million Dollar Quartet” (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash) on the wall, but otherwise the room looks much like it did back in the 1950s. A vintage microphone, said to have been used by the King himself, is on display, inspiring a flurry of selfie-taking. You don’t get inside the control room (it’s still a working studio), but you do see the outer office, where owner Sam Phillips’ business partner and office manager, Marion Keisker, held court. She’s the unsung hero of Elvis’ story, the one who kept urging Sam to give him a call, after he’d come in to make a few personal acetates. After recording him when he made his first acetate (of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”), she took down Elvis’ name and number and added the note, “Good ballad singer. Hold.”

Tip: There’s a free shuttle that leaves from the taxi stand at Graceland at the top of the hour, that stops at Sun, then goes on to the Memphis Rock n Soul Museum.

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The gates of 1034 Audubon Drive, Elvis’ home prior to Graceland:

Memphis Road Tours  The hands down, best book on Elvis sites in Memphis is Memphis Elvis-Style, by Mike Freeman and his then-wife Cindy Hazen (sadly out of print, but readily available used on amazon.com or abebooks.com; yes, I urged Mike it’s time for an update!). No site is too small to be overlooked in this book (like the former site of the grocery store where Elvis used to hang out while visiting his cousin who worked there), but if you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, Freeman offers private tours, and he’s an expert guide (as he likes to say, other tours offer you an “Elvis 101” experience; his is the graduate level course). Freeman knows his subject literally inside out — he and his former wife lived for a time at 1034 Audubon Drive, the first home Elvis ever bought, just prior to moving into Graceland. He’s also a member of the Shelby County Historical Commission and has had a hand in writing a number of the historical markers in front of Elvis-related sites, such as Humes High School, and Lauderdale Courts (his next marker will honor Marion Keisker).

His connections will also get you into places other tours can’t. Lauderdale Courts (above) was once public housing, and was the first place the Presleys lived where they had their own bathroom. The apartment the family lived in, #328, is now available for overnight stays (and tours are offered during Elvis Week), but if the apartment is unoccupied on the day of your tour, Mike can take you inside.

Elvis played one of his first shows here, on July 30, 1954, when the venue was known as the Overton Shell. Memphis Road Tours owner Mike Freeman is on the left:

During my recent visit to Memphis, we roamed all over the city, taking in the First Assembly of God church (now the Alpha Church), where Elvis met his first serious girlfriend; the site where the much-missed Poplar Tunes record shop once stood; the Overton Park Shell (now Levitt Shell) and Lamar-Airways Shopping Center, where Elvis played some early shows; the site where the legendary American Sound Studio once stood (it’s where Elvis recorded “Suspicious Minds”); the Mid-South Coliseum, where he performed his last Memphis show in 1976; the mausoleum (pictured below) he shared with his mother at Forest Hill Cemetery, before they were both moved to Graceland.

It’s the closest you’ll get to walking in Elvis’ footsteps. And you quickly see that no matter how big a city is, the circles a person moves in are generally much smaller; it’s easy to imagine Elvis racing the short distance from his home on Alabama Ave. to Sun Studio when Sam Phillips called and asked him to come by, once you see how short the distance is between the two places. Unlike other stars, Elvis never permanently relocated to New York or LA when he made it big; though he had homes in California, Memphis was always where his heart was. When he returned from the army in 1960 and was asked what he missed most about Memphis, he said, “Everything.” And Mike’s tour gives you a real appreciation for the city that Elvis loved. (He also offers a daylong trip to Tupelo, where Elvis was born, among other tours).

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You’re on Beale St. — drink up!

Beale Street  At one time, Beale was known as the “Main Street of Negro America,” one place in a highly segregated city where blacks could come and go freely. It’s where Elvis would go to check out the hip fashions at Lansky Bros. clothing store, or take in the sounds wafting from the nightclubs.

It’s not quite like it was in Elvis’ day (though A. Schwab’s Dry Goods likely is; established in 1876, its motto is “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it”). Now it’s an entertainment district for tourists, closed to vehicles (with some exceptions; when I visited, a plethora of motorcycles lined both sides of the street), and with open carry — of alcohol — allowed. Yes, if you’re of legal age you can stroll on up to a window, order a “Big Ass Beer to Go” (32 oz. cup for $5.25), and ramble on down the street with your drink in hand as you partake of the sights and sounds around you. There are pieces of history all around. Musical notes bearing the name of a music legend are embedded in the sidewalk. You’ll find the original Stax Studio sign at Alfred’s On Beale. The work of legendary African-American photographer Ernst Withers can be found at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Elvis’ hep cat clothier, Lansky Bros., can be found in its original location (though now tucked inside the Hard Rock Café; other branches are in the nearby Peabody Hotel). W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” never lived on Beale, but his house was moved there as a tourist attraction nonetheless.

B.B. King’s Blues Club and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café & Honky Tonk are also on Beale; I enjoyed the Catfish Dinner (fried catfish, hush puppies, French fries, cole slaw) and “Jerry Lee’s Million Dollar Margarita” at the latter. Among the displays of Jerry Lee artifacts, the most startling is a 1983 Cadillac El Ballero, once owned by the Killer, cut into thirds, with one of those thirds mounted on the wall (you’ll find another third at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, pictured below). I also stopped in at Wet Willie’s, which specializes in alcohol-laced slushies; I chose the “Attitude Improvement” (“A tangy orange taste complemented by 190° grain alcohol, Bacardi rum, and Bacardi Select”).

The most intriguing place I found was the Absinthe Room, above the King’s Palace Café. As I maneuvered along the sidewalk among crowds similarly improving their attitudes, I spied a door lined with green neon that everyone else was simply passing by. Beyond the door, I spied a steep stairway, also lit by green neon. Curious, I made my way up the stairs, feeling like I was walking into a David Lynch film.

Once I left the chaos of Beale behind, I found huge, cool rooms, and a mere smattering of patrons. The bartender, ensconced in another room watching TV, came back to the bar to serve me. When I noted how quiet it was, he told me, “Most people don’t get here until eleven.” I didn’t mind; it was nice to know I’d found a rare island of tranquility.

Tip: Don’t overlook the Elvis statue at the corner of Beale and S. 2nd St, pictured at the top of the page.

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The gold coat and colorful trunks of Memphis wrestler Sputnik Monroe at the Rock N Soul Museum:

Memphis Rock n Soul Museum  Not only is Beale St. central to downtown, there are a number of museums in the immediate vicinity to visit as well. This museum, created by the Smithsonian Institution, puts Elvis’ story in context, as just one of part of Memphis’ long and storied music history. The galleries start back in the days when the area was largely rural; as farm work increasingly became done by machines, people were then drawn to the city for work. The music created at Sun Studio helped bring the rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll to national attention, followed by the success of soul-based labels like Stax, Hi, and Satellite. There’s a terrific range of items on display from all these eras: a 1936 radio owned by Willie Smith, who played saxophone in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra; a spangly gold jacket and boots worn as a costume by the infamous Memphis wrestler Sputnik; a transmitter used by WHER, the first radio station with all female disc jockeys (“1000 Beautiful Watts”); a mink coat owned by Isaac Hayes. Audio guides allow you to access first hand interviews and play selections on the jukeboxes in each gallery, which really help bring the story to life.

Tip: If you want take a tour of Beale Street at your own pace, you can pick up an audio guide at the Museum, which will lead you through your own walking tour.

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 Mark James wrote Elvis’ classic hit “Suspicious Minds” on this organ:

Memphis Music Hall of Fame  This museum celebrates the cream of the crop of Memphis music folk; think of it as a “greatest hits” approach. There are plenty of interesting artifacts to examine: a black pinstripe suit owned by Johnny Cash, and purchased at the original Lansky Bros. shop that was once in this very building; a test pressing of the “Theme from Shaft”; one of Elvis’ karate outfits; and that other third of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cadillac. The most unique item has to be a baby grand piano, salvaged from Stax Studio and left fully exposed to the elements at producer Jim Dickinson’s “Zebra Ranch” in Coldwater, Mississippi. Be sure to check out the interactive displays, where you can listen to music of artists you’re not familiar with.

The beautifully disintegrating Stax piano:

Tip: If you’re planning to visit both the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, you can purchase a combo ticket that offers a reduced rate.

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Stax’s famous marquee was re-created for the new museum:

Stax  Stax was the last professional studio in Memphis that Elvis recorded in, in July and October 1973, when he recorded tracks for the albums Raised On Rock, Good Times, and Promised Land. The original Stax studio was in a former movie theater; when the label went bankrupt in 1975, the building was sold to the Southside Church of God in Christ, but due to neglect it was eventually torn down in 1989 — a sorry end to an enormously influential label. But a rebirth was in the cards, and after two years of construction, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was opened in May 2003 (the site now also hosts the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School).

The Stax historical marker:

The first exhibit brings you back to the real home of soul — it’s a replica of a turn of the century country church. There’s also a replica of Stax’s Studio A, featuring a sloped floor like the original studio had (remember, it was once a movie theater). It’s also one of the few museums that has a dance floor so you can get down and boogie a little, while clips from Soul Train are projected on the walls around you. The most notable artifact is Isaac Hayes’ 1972 Cadillac El Dorado (those Memphis musicians did love their caddys!). Check their website for other events, like live music concerts in Studio A.

Royal Studios, home of Hi Records:

Tip: The former location of Royal Sound Studio is in the same neighborhood, at 1329 S. Lauderdale St. Bill Black’s Combo, headed up by Elvis’ first bass player, recorded their hit song “Smokie — Part 2” here.

Bonus tip: Check out Boulevard Souvenirs at 3706 Elvis Presley Blvd. for a great range of Elvis items — and signed copies of my Elvis books.

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All photos by Gillian G. Gaar except where otherwise noted. Gillian G. Gaar has written three books on Elvis: Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback; 100 Things Elvis Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die; and Elvis: The Legend (previously published as Elvis Remembered). She loves introducing people to one of Elvis’ lesser known songs, “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”

A WHOLE NEW THING: Michael Rank

The prolific Chapel Hill rocker and Americana maven unexpectedly pivots to classic ‘70s soul and funk. “I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life,” Rank tells BLURT. “I have no interest in writing the same sad ass country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again.”

BY FRED MILLS / PHOTOS BY MISSY MALOUFF

When Michael Rank set about writing his latest solo album—his seventh in just five years—he felt an emotional and stylistic push in a markedly different direction from its predecessors, all of which were, to varying degrees, Americana-informed. 2015’s Horsehair, in particular, featuring Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, was a deep, lingering dip into outlaw folk and Appalachian country territory, McEntire playing Emmylou to Rank’s Gram (or Bonnie to his Clyde, as some observers put it). Americana, in fact, was what Rank has been known for as a solo artist, itself a marked contrast from his previous work with Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink, which, for two stints (late ‘80s/early ‘90s with the original three-piece; then again from 2003-07 in an entirely different configuration), purveyed a singular brand of hi-nrg Stones raunch and Heartbreakers ‘tude. (You can check out my assessment of Snatches elsewhere on this website; by way of spoiler alert, it is titled “Why Snatches of Pink was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s.”)

Yet if one peered closely at his work over the years, it was possible to detect a cornucopia of influences, and stirring occasionally among them was the classic soul and funk of the ‘70s, with artists like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield clearly sharing shelf space in Rank’s music library with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll. For the 24 songs populating the new three-disc (!) album Another Love, then, soul is the operative term. As you’ll read below, those two soul icons, along with several others, loom large here, with Rank’s guitar ditched in favor of Rhodes and Wurlitzer and the live band mostly supplanted by drum programs and keyboards. Crucial to Another Love is co-conspirator Brian Dennis (late of ‘90s outfit DAG), who performed his studio and sonic wizardry upon Rank’s instrumental and vocal tracks; Rank claims the record wouldn’t have happened without Dennis, which is high praise indeed, considering the songwriter’s prolific nature that, since 2012, has seemingly resulted in an album every nine or ten months.

As one might imagine, with 24 tracks to contend with, there are highlights a-plenty on the album, far too many to isolate here. Yours truly’s favorites—as of this writing, and subject to change tomorrow—include the sleek minimalism of “Kings,” what with Rank deploying one of his more emotive vocals, doubletracked at that, a frequent strategy on the album. There’s the relative swagger of “I Do,” a low-down-and-down-low Prince-like confection featuring Dennis on guitar, his old DAG bandmate Bobby Patterson on bass, and guest vocalist Raney Hayes joining Rank at the mic. You want funky? The title track is pure Sly & the Family Stone—maybe a hint of Stevie Wonder too, with Rank (speaking of doubletracked vocals) singing the low and high parts. Hold that thought: Throughout Another Love, Rank relies on his falsetto to underscore the soul component; “Women in Love,” for example, finds him soaring aloft with remarkable passion, like the aforementioned Mayfield or a classic gospel singer. He’s always had the capacity to hit the high notes, but in 2017, he seems to have climbed the mountain.

And on penultimate number “Horses,” possibly the standout, and perhaps the most “live” sounding one as well, Rank, Dennis, and Patterson get their funk/blues band mojo seriously working. It’s an incredibly infectious track with a psychedelic edge, one which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing show-closer in concert, maybe even with a cape-draping finale. (Rank claims that he has no plans to perform the album live, however, but we can always hope.)

The bottom line: Rank has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and then some. (2012’s two-disc Stag, in particular, was a harrowing document of a brutal breakup, but one can trace Rank’s emotional journeys through his early Snatches songs, too.) On the nakedly confessional—and, significantly, ultimately defiant—“Roll Away” he sings:

“Well honey I ain’t wondering why
I ain’t countin’ my time
I feel there’s something goin’ on…
Well baby this ain’t workin’ for me
I think there’s something goin’ on…
Roll up to the window sill
Baby watch you roll away
I’m better off these days
There ain’t nothin’ left to say.”

I would propose, then, that the pure essence of soul—exploring the vicissitudes of love in all its good/bad/transcendent/ugly dimensions—has always informed this man as a songwriter. He really feels it as a concrete thing, not in the abstract.

Rank and I convened recently via email to talk about the new record, and we touched on a number of things, from obvious questions about what inspired him this time around to how he looks back on his early Chapel Hill days. I couldn’t resist asking him about his son, Bowie Ryder, because fatherhood is a topic he and I always seem to slide into whenever we have the chance to get together in person. We’re a long way from those drunken club nights, following a particularly explosive Snatches of Pink gig. (Rank: “Bowie’s ten years old and all cool. Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that. Parenthood is the ride that just keeps on spinning. Here, lately, I feel like it’s just holding a mirror up to all the areas of my personality I need to do a lot of work on(!!!). But shit, better late than never, right?”) Bowie has always gotten a dedication and shout-out on Rank’s record sleeves, a small but telling gift that the young man will surely cherish many decades from now, and Another Love is no exception, with Rank writing, “I love you always… forever and a day.” To me, this is also emblematic of Rank’s current immersion. He really experiences love as a living, breathing, pulsing creature, never less than a constant presence, day or night.

Incidentally, Rank has his entire back catalog available at his Bandcamp page, and in the case of those long out-of-print Snatches of Pink records, you can even grab them as free downloads. (Nice touch, that.) Check ‘em out, and also visit him at his official website and Facebook page.

BLURT: By way of a long-winded first question: Starting with Stag in Feb. 2012, you’ve released seven SOLO full-lengths, which is an average of 1.4 albums per year; broken down another way, we’re talking 65 months and 87 songs that appear on those seven albums, which is an average of 1.34 songs per month. While it’s not unusual for songwriters to be writing constantly, in terms of recording and releasing material, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many who are this prolific—most would have to plead to having a backlog of songs they haven’t finished or haven’t gotten around to properly recording; only Robert Pollard comes to mind as your peer in this regard. Please discuss why you are a statistical outlier.

MICHAEL RANK: Man, whenever I hear the word “outlier” I always imagine a bunch of villagers with torches and shit, snaking through the marshes yelling “Outliiiierrr!!!”. Hunting Frankenstein-monster style… But yeah, I write a lot of tunes. But to be honest, when you do the math like you just did it somehow doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I feel a little let down; seems like it should be more(!!). If I had a “team” like I did in the old days, I’d get them to start fact-checking and re-crunching those numbers(!!). But songwriting is still cheaper than therapy, after all…

On a slightly more serious note: Give me a sense of your writing regimen or habits—do you work on a particular song until you feel it is completely finished, or do you always have several that you’re working on at the same time? Do you ever have material left over after you’ve finished an album?
There were a couple of significant changes for me in regards to the writing for Another Love. This was the very first time in my life where the songs were all written starting with the beat. That was the entry point. All 24 songs. I had never done that before with any song from my past. The other difference is this is the first time in my life that I wrote entirely on keyboards. I haven’t even touched a guitar in well over a year. Everything was created on old drum machines and Rhodes/Wurlitzer keys. I try not to ever have songs stockpiling while I’m writing. I like to write a song and then immediately record it before I move on. And nothing gets carried over. If a track doesn’t make an album then it’s done. Tough love.

It’s a three-disc album, so do you think of each disc as a separate entity, or do you view the songs as one continuous flow? Someone listening to it as a digital download might get a different experience from, say, me, listening to it disc by disc.
I’m someone whose real awareness began in the ‘70s. For everything, but especially music. So for me, album lengths should ideally be 35 minutes or so like back in the day. Maybe a touch longer. The last thing I wanted was to put out a single physical CD that played for 2 hours straight. Ain’t no one got time for that. But I put a lot of thought into working out the sequence for this album so that it would work not only as a triple disc experience, but also as one continuous flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my living room floor for a few weeks there towards the end.

The obvious question is, why the pivot away from your signature Americana-tilting singer-songwriter sound to a classic soul/funk approach? What kinds of records were you listening to leading up to writing and arranging these songs? How about when you were growing up?
The album that completed the circle for me from growing up to the making of Another Love was Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That work has been a constant for me for a long, long time. Arguably my favorite album ever. But other albums that specifically played into the making of Another Love were D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah. Brian Dennis, who created this album with me, and I spent a lot of time with the sounds on those two D’Angelo albums. Bilal, Erykah Badu, Curtis Mayfield, Bernie Worrell, Shuggie Otis, obviously Prince… we dug through all those artists’ sounds and vibes. And in regards to pivoting away from the styles I had been previously working in, I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life. I have no interest in writing the same sad ass Country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again. And don’t get me wrong—I love that shit dearly, but there are plenty of folks already spending a lifetime doing that.

Your singing style on the album doesn’t so much break from the past as it finds you exploring your upper register more. How much of this was a conscious thing, and how much was just a natural reaction to the music you were creating? Were any of the songs originally more in a twang-and-strum style that you wound up remaking/rearranging for this album?
All my favorite singers take the “high road” when it comes to vocal range. D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Eddie Kendricks… and certainly all my favorite Stones’ Mick moments were when he worked his falsetto. It’s a comfortable place for me to exist in. It’s the aesthetic I’ve always dug the most. And again, it’s what I personally want to be hearing. And none of these songs were ever in a different style. They all were born to be exactly who they are.

Pick a few songs on the record that you feel are most representative of the album and your current direction and what you think “works” in them.
“Women In Love”: I know it’s bad form to choose favorites but this one’s probably mine. It’s just got that thing. It bubbles. It’s sexy. It’s like the sound of wet marbles.

“I Love You”/ “40 Days”: Man, I have always dug Disco. I never had any problem going from The Dead Boys to The Bee Gees. And I still don’t. I really dig these two tracks ‘cause they are dusted in that Disco gold. The sound of where I’m headed next.

“Sing”: This was the very last song that got recorded, maybe second to last. I had sent Brian my vocals, keyboard, and the beat for him to add his performances to. When he sent back his files for me to hear I got a message from him saying that he had actually scrapped my keyboard entirely and only used my vocal and beat. Now I’m a Leo, and I was proud of my shit, so when I heard that message in the car I was sitting at a stoplight and I was instantly bummed out and starting to cop an attitude. When the light turned to green I pressed play on the mix he sent me and then totally lost my shit. I was screaming and dancing in the seat and just over the moon. When I hit the next red light and called him back up I was literally hoarse from the five minute party I had just had listening to what he created. True story. I adore this track.

How did you come to work with Brian Dennis? What did he bring to the table? Certainly, employing drum programming instead of a live drummer is a radical shift for you.
It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say this album wouldn’t exist without Brian. Brian was the very first artist in my entire life that I sought out a collaboration with and then handed over the wheel. And anyone that knows me knows I don’t relinquish that wheel when it comes to my creative shit. But with Brian it felt right. I trust Brian. And from very early on, it became crystal clear to me, and to any innocent bystanders, that Brian knew exactly what the songs were asking for. I literally felt like a kid on Christmas morning every single time I’d get his tracks to a song. And I’ll never forget that feeling. He’s as good as it gets, he honestly is. And now, God bless him, he’s tracking the follow-up album with me!

What are your plans for performing the material live?
No plans for any gigging this year. What fulfills me the most is writing songs and creating in the studio. That’s where I’m feeling the most alive. In a perfect world, I woulda dug doing a handful of cool dates but the time and expense involved in putting together a new band is just not where my focus is at right now. I’m already way into the next album at this point.

Looking back on your previous solo albums, which are your favorites now?
Man, I try not to look back too much to old albums. But Horsehair [released in July of 2015] was pretty special. As an artist you are always trying to capture something that often goes beyond any easy definition. Visions are an elusive animal. But I think with Horsehair we got real close.

If we go all the way back to your first solo album, 1993’s Coral, and Snatches of Pink’s Bent With Pray, from 1992, I can definitely hear some early groundwork for Another Love being laid, as both those records steered in a more soulful, atmospheric direction than previous Snatches albums. Is that a fair observation?
Yea, totally. Especially with a track like “Dove” off of Coral. That tune’s got Another Love written all over it. And certainly there were many moments on 2016’s Red Hand (another solo album I really dig) that led right into Another Love.

So how do you remember the original Snatches of Pink period, you, drummer Sara Romweber, and bassist Andy McMillan?
The original Snatches of Pink lineup was my life in a lot of ways. It’s the elephant that never really leaves the room. I only clearly remember it in bits and shards. We were so committed, well beyond the actual music. It was all so proudly worn on our sleeves. So much attitude. It didn’t get to where I dreamed it would have, and that honestly took a piece of me that I’ll never quite recover, but I’ll always feel so proud of what we left out on the field. Day in and day out.

Sara and I still talk every few months and I can’t convey how grateful I am for that. She was so giving and so loyal. We always needed her far more than she ever needed us. She’s beautiful and I’m so grateful I remain in her life. Fred [Jenkins], our long-time road manager, and I still talk every week. We go see concerts together. I still seek out his approval and thoughts with every one of my releases, month after month, year after after year. And Andy has chosen not to talk anymore. At least not to me. And that has really broken my heart. Every memory always begins with him and me. But there are only so many times you can leave a voicemail for someone telling them you love them and that you miss them and then never get a single reply. The last time I saw him I was crossing the street and he saw me, put his head down, and quickly walked to his car and drove away. And I struggle with that. And I struggle with the absence of any explanation… aww shit, man, I’m sorry but I don’t wanna talk about any old news anymore today. That shit just leaves me sad.

Lastly, what’s on the horizon?
Man, it’s all about the next [record] right now. I’ve got another new album entirely written and all my vocals, keyboards, and beats are all tracked. Brian is just about to dive, and hopefully this time I can keep it down to a single disc.

FAREWELL TO THE LINEMAN: Glen Campbell

Fans and admirers of Glen Campbell knew the day was coming; we’d been prepared for it since 2011, when he went public with the news he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, along with details of a farewell tour and plans for releasing some final recordings. Still, that didn’t make the news yesterday, August 8, any less brutal, when Campbell’s publicist at Universal Music released a statement that read, “It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and legendary singer and guitarist, Glen Travis Campbell, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease.” According to the New York Times, in an obituary published late yesterday, on his final tour the musical icon “performed 151 shows over 15 months… [his last one] was in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, and by the spring of 2014 he had moved into a long-term care and treatment center near Nashville.” He’s survived by his wife Kimberly along with eight children, three sisters, two brothers, “and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.”

Speaking personally, I’ve been listening to Glen Campbell since the mid-Sixties and the release of his hit single “Gentle On My Mind”; I still own a battered 45 of that and other Campbell gems, like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” a song that will eternally be in my personal top 20, and one which I found myself playing over and over again this morning. Here at BLURT we’ve covered Campbell on a number of occasions, so I thought it appropriate that we republish a pair of features by A.D. Amorosi and Rick Allen that particularly stand out in my mind as fitting tributes to the man. I hope you enjoy. —Fred Mills, Editor

BY A.D. AMOROSI and RICK ALLEN

A number of years ago longtime BLURT contributing editor A.D. Amorosi was able to sit down with Campbell and talk about his career, his then-new album and the upcoming tour. We published the interview in issue #11 (Winter 2011). The story is one we remain deeply proud of here at BLURT, unquestionably among the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to present.—Ed.

Memory fades. Sifting through images and ideas is no easy process, not for the young or old, not where the distant past and recent immediacy is concerned.

When Glen Campbell announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, would be his last and that his recent tour would put a cap on his long career, the desire to mourn – to treat him differently – kicked in. This was, after all, the golden boy of epically cosmopolitan country pop whose every ‘60s hit from Chris Gantry’s “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” to the soaring subtlety of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” the latter two reminiscent of Bogart’s phrase at the end of Maltese Falcon – “the stuff that dreams are made of” – became the soundtrack to my youth.

These sonic gems were only made bolder by knowing that Campbell – a masterful guitar picker – was a touring Beach Boy that nearly replaced Brian Wilson and had played on hits by Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees and Elvis Presley, the latter a fellow country boy whom Campbell befriended. Campbell’s image, too, is burned into the collective retina as he had starred in the original version of the revenge western True Grit and his own network TV show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Certainly he had his Rimbaud-esque season in Hell – the post ‘60s comedown of boozing, drugging, carousing (notoriously with firebrand country howler Tanya Tucker) and various arrests. Yet, Campbell had commercial hits into the ‘70s and ‘80s with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,” “Sunflower” and “I Have You.” He kept the live fires burning with gigs in Branson, found God, a good woman Kimberly Woolen to whom he’s been married since 1982 with three kids who have their own Arcade Fire-y band (Instant People) currently backing Campbell on tour. This latter day joy – to say nothing of the potency of the deeply etched Ghost and its ruminatively ratcheting lyrics and still expressively clarion vocals – made Alzheimer’s an even more heinous verdict. (Below: Glen and Kim; photo by Scott Weiner)

Look into Campbell’s eyes and despite the lines in his face (he’s 75) and his occasionally forgetful demeanor and you see a man not so much struggling with memory but more alive with the past then the present. This author isn’t trying to soften the blow or demystify the disease but seriously, I have a better grasp on what I did ten years ago then what I did ten minutes ago. Yet here they are, Glen and Kimberly sitting before me, frankly discussing the problem without letting it ruin their future.

Campbell, his producer Justin Raymond (who worked with the singer on his previous recording Meet Glen Campbell) and a crew of instrumentalists such as Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Chris Isaak were already at work on the riveting Ghost when the diagnosis was announced. Suddenly the press made a big deal out of it, something that doesn’t affect the Campbells – as long as the disease doesn’t overshadow the work,

“No. it doesn’t bother me,” says Campbell with a slight cough. “I’m used to it by now. I leave it in God’s hands that it’s gonna be the way He wants.” His wife Kim follows that with an understanding of an audiences’ curiosity – how the disease works, how it affects her husband. “We understand,” she smiles. “But the music is just so good we hope they get to that message as well.”

Mention the contribution of songs from Paul Westerberg, Jakob Dylan and Robert Pollard along with self-penned tracks with Raymond (culled, interestingly enough, from the producer’s daily diaries of what the singer/guitarist said), and you’ve got quite a set of messages. As Campbell starts singing the new album’s title track in a strong burst of melody, he states. “I’m really not a songwriter so if I hear a song, I feel it and like it, I’ll do it. But I’ll make it the way I want to hear it.”

Part of this comes down to asking songwriters if he can turn negatives into positives (“but with their permission of course,” says the gentlemanly Campbell) and accommodating where Campbell’s heart is now. “She’ll be running around the mountain” just doesn’t sound right,” he laughs. “It ain’t the way the song goes. “She’ll be coming around the mountain,” is more like it.”

Campbell slowly and deliberately tells me how he takes songs one a at time and lets the good ones carry him away, the songs of other writers as well as the tunes presented by Raymond, a hands-on laid back producer who, during Meet Glen Campbell, started writing down what the singer said about life, confusion and happiness. “Julian wrote down the meaningful things that Glen would say about being baffled by what was going on in his head, as well as how life was good to him,” says Kim who recognized that Campbell’s memory was slipping during those 2008 recording sessions. “We’re so glad Julian got those meditations down and put those verses to music.”

“I need the ones I love more and more each day.”

“This is not the road I want for us.”

Mention Campbell’s famed sense of perfection and he laughs. “Nah. I may sound like one,” he laughs. “But I want it be natural. If I get a song – a GOOD song – I just sing it the way I hear it in my head. If anybody else wanted to add whistles and bells and chains rattling that’s fine. Just not too much. I actually just do things as straight ahead as possible. You add the ifs, ands or buts.”

To that end, Ghost has the richly orchestrated jangle of Pet Sounds with a country twang.

Campbell knows he’s been blessed with great collaborators and productions, a powerful clear voice that was forever gifted with dynamic songs that suited his vocal range and challenged his playing skills.

“Things turned out pretty well,” says Campbell. (Below photo by  Robert Sebree)

***

Pretty well indeed.

Blame, in part, his having come from a large all-singing all playing Arkansas family who took Glen to church regularly to express him self in song. Other than getting his first guitar at age four, a seminal moment for Campbell came when he nearly drowned at age three: his Army-bound brothers dragged him out of the water, pumped the water and did CPR on the young Glen. “That night back at the house while keeping time to the radio, I didn’t say anything. I just sang. Something had changed me.”

His distinct guitar playing, inspired by the likes of Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt (“Django was my main influence”) gave him the confidence to form western swing bands and, by age twenty-one, head to Los Angeles where he quickly became a sought-after session musician. “I think I mainly got all that work because I was the only guy who could use a capo,” he laughs.

As he was just starting to make his session-man bones, he recorded a single for the Crest label. When I mention that 1961 track to him, “Turn Around Look at Me,” Campbell flashes a big smile. “Well I thought that was ‘it’ you know,” smiles Campbell who starts singing the lines “there is someone/walking behind me” so mellifluously, it’s as if he’s a kid in 1960 again. “Even then I did songs that I liked, never tunes that I didn’t care for. Otherwise it wouldn’t be satisfying.”

Campbell stops, leans into me and turns to his wife. “Excuse me, honey,” says Campbell who then turns from his wife and conspiratorially pulls me forward. His long fingers become a circle with another finger on his other hand barely peeking through the top. He’s made a tiny cock of it all.

“It’s like a guy going into a whorehouse with THIS little thing and the woman says, ‘Well who you going to satisfy with THAT?’ And he says, ‘ME.’ That old joke, that stupid analogy – that’s the best way of describing what I want to do: satisfy me.”

Campbell fast-forwards and says he did things he didn’t want to do: lousy albums, hell-raising backstage antics of cocaine, booze and sex. “I spent some time in Hell,” he smiles. “I got so high I could fart in a Martin box,” he starts slapping his knee. “I’m glad that’s over with – it was a stupid place. I drowned,” he starts to say, realizing that he told me that story before. Then again, perhaps he meant the psychic drowning that led to the rejuvenation of finding God and his wife. (He teases about meeting her on a blind date. “I thought she was blind,” he yuks, then quacks like Daffy Duck.)

Dipping backwards to his session career and “Turn Around,” he mentions how he stayed in the studio and played for the greats so that he stick close to home and make more money doing session work than he could promoting a struggling single on the road. The wrongs of the road remind him of Elvis Presley, an old friend whose “Viva Las Vegas” he played on. “He was a good man but I understood the peril his career had taken on. I didn’t have the luggage he had, that entourage he had to take care of. I should’ve kicked his ass from here to Japan to get some sense in him. His old friends from Memphis were just bringing young girls backstage and crap like that – distracting him.”

Campbell went on to work and play with the Beach Boys and was nearly the front man when Brian Wilson broke down and left in 1965 yet Campbell was more into doing his own music than joining a band (Capitol wound up signing Campbell on the basis of his strong showing with the Beach Boys). “Plus, you know, Mike Love was there. He’s talented, but,” Campbell scrunches his face.

The young Campbell continued to play on records by Frank (“Strangers in the Night”) and Dean (“Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”) guys a generation before him – the establishment – before the counter cultural hippie-dippie movement took hold. He was no hippie but he was a young cat. What was he thinking?

“They were the tops. If you heard their stuff up close and saw them on stage – they were incredible actually,” says Campbell of the Rat Pack titans. “There was no mistaking their voices or their presence.” Campbell was hanging on the musician side of everything, playing guitar by their side. .But he got wise watching those men that singing would get him farther.

Enter guys like Jimmy Webb and John Hartford, songwriters whose best work came through the conduit of Campbell’s rich voice. It was a blast according to Campbell, wonderful those melodies at his ready and those sorts of storytellers in his corner. “If you have guys like this in your corner, you better have your chute together or you won’t get down,” he laughs. In particular, Campbell has a warm long smile reserved for Webb’s longing literate lyrics and winnowing melodies. “My wife will tell you. I pray to the Lord and thank Him for letting me do those songs. When my dad heard those tunes he said “it’s a good thing we didn’t throw you back in the water.” (Kim reminds me how, famously that Webb used to pray, after hearing “Turn around Look at Me,” that Campbell would sing his songs)

Though the Ghostly songs of Westerberg and Pollard aren’t quite the stuff of “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” they are crucial, rare and deeply ruminative. They feel like the contemplative stuff of a finale. At 75 – anybody at 75 – the level of winding down that the Campbell’s plan on doing would seem essential and right. While Kim confides to me that she wishes they did more recording during the Branson days, she also mentions more tracks featuring Campbell and their kids, might be recorded at tour’s end. “We still have a few special tricks up our sleeves. Other than that, we’re happy to go to Hawaii, watch Glen golf and sit by the side as the kids start their career,” says Kim Campbell…

As for Glen Campbell, a singer and guitarist whose recent tour finds him in strong voice and ticklish guitar skills, he’s content to go out with an album as rich as Ghost on the Canvas. “I want to slow down – you know, it’s really about whatever she wants to do – but the record? You throw them out to the world and hope it comes back positive. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did. I have to listen to it, you know.”

***

Also in 2011, shortly after the release of the Ghost On the Canvas album, contributor Rick Allen penned an appreciation of Campbell that we’re also quite proud of. “As the famed guitarist and song stylist prepares for his final bows,” wrote Allen, “let’s pause for a moment and think about what that really means.” Given that those final bows are truly final — Campbell released his final album, titled Adios, just a few weeks ago — now more than ever.  —Ed.

Glen Campbell never became a darling of the too-cool set that embraced Johnny Cash, rightfully, but who could not also see the true folk musician in someone like Merle Haggard. Likewise, Campbell has never been appreciated by the crowd that thinks a performer cannot be popular and valid at the same time; too bad for them.

Campbell is one of the best rock and roll/country guitarists ever, a veteran of the famed collection of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Other Crew members, Carol Kaye, James Burton, Leon Russell, Mac “Dr. John” Rebbenac to name a few, accrued much more hip cachet than he did. Had Campbell continued to record material like “Gentle On My Mind” and even some of the better Jimmy Webb pop classics like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” or Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” he might have done better with the NPR crowd. But his reliance on songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the admittedly artificial and overblown production of it (and others like it) meant that few of Campbell’s albums could be listened to without hitting a “Rhinestone Cowboy” or other such musical bump or two.

On what’s being billed as, most likely, Campbell’s final album, Ghost On The Canvas – which is to be accompanied by a farewell tour; the musician’s been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s – there’s considerably less artifice.

Campbell shows exceptional depth with brilliant takes on “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” written by Jakob Dylan, “Hold On Hope” by Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and some magnificent pieces of California pop music including a Paul Westerberg composition called “Any Trouble.” (The title cut, another Westerberg number, is slo good but marred slightly by so-so lyrics.) Campbell’s voice is as robust and clear as ever and he is likely playing a significant amount of guitar although there are no specified credits. “Strong” reflects (musically) his time with the Beach Boys but the entire album has got “Beatles” written all over it. Producer Julian Raymond seems to have cut his teeth on post-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles music, including the solo albums of Lennon and Harrison. One can imagine Jeff Lynne gnashing his teeth at hearing that someone got this stuff right. The guitar solo on “There Is No Me…Without You,” probably from Billy Corgan, Marty Rifkin, Rick Nielsen, or Brian Setzer who all play guitar on the cut (Setzer, Chris Isaak and Dick Dale also add guitar to Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms”), is an elegant cop of George’s Harrison’s in “Something” while the drums are pure Ringo. The tune extends Beatles-like into infinity a la “A Day in the Life” and provides some of the album’s best moments.

Campbell chose to go out big. The orchestration is big, the production here is big, almost “Rhinestone Cowboy” big, but tempered by taste and restraint, and the album only improves with repeated listening. Most important, the themes are big, life-and-death-big, as is befitting an artist who knows he is near the end of his career. Like a battered athlete he will also outlive it and not necessarily under the best of circumstances. As the world watches Campbell ring down his own curtain will there be a rediscovery, a re-evaluation of a great but often dismissed career? Will people learn about Glen Campbell as they seem to have learned about Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, that a superiorly talented pop artist who doesn’t write much of his or her own material (Campbell did co-wrote several of the cuts here) can be just as great – often greater – as any of the so-called “hipper” acts?

It’s all showbiz folks, all of it. No matter how tattooed, pierced, smack-addled, in-you-face, amped-up-to-10 the act is. Even that bearded, bobbled headed, slacks/vest-wearing emo vocalist singing about growing up in simpler times out in the Midwest is in showbiz. They are all song and dance men (and women), as Bob Dylan once referred to himself. The best of them, like Campbell, realize that and they consider entertaining you to be a worthy pursuit. Sometimes they do it with some damn good songs, too, and underneath the rhinestones is a person concerned with living and dying just like everyone else.

With Ghost On The Canvas Glen Campbell has chosen to share such concerns, but like the pro he is, he’s done so without sacrificing a drop of entertainment value. Campbell is at the top of his game even at closing time. If there’s no more to come then this is as good a spot as any to ring down the curtain.

***

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Agent Orange’s “Living in Darkness”

From the 1981 album of the same name, originally released by the punk-as-fuck Posh Boy label.

 BY TIM HINELY

Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly, and then fast-forwarded to 2000 for John Conley talking about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.” Next came Allen Clapp (of the Orange Peels and Allen Clapp & His Orchestra) and 1994’s “Something Strange Happens” followed by Kenny Chambers, of Moving Targets, on that band’s ’86 classic “Faith.” Now Prof. Hinely lands in 1981 to take a retrospective look with Mike Palm at the title track to Agent Orange’s groundbreaking debut Living in Darkness.

At this point I’ve done several of these song inspiration interviews and  I was thinking “Hmm….who could I ask next?!” Then it dawned on me, Agent Orange’s Mike Palm. He’s still at it, touring like crazy and heck, even skateboarding, too. Palm seems like the eternal Southern California teenager, seemingly always chasing the sun wherever he may go. His band’s classic debut, Living in Darkness, was released 36 years ago, but sounds as fresh today as it did then with a perfect mix of punk,  surf and power pop. The title track is one of my favorites from that record and judging by what Palm states below, a lot of folks favorite as well (maybe even eclipsing their classic debut single “Bloodstains”). Some new material by these guys would be very welcome, but in the meantime go back and listen to said debut if it’s been a while (their two others, 1986’s This is the Voice and ‘96’s Virtually Indestructible, while not the equal of the debut, are no slouches either). Before hitting his next skate park with the band, Palm gave us a few minutes and weighed in on that song.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

MIKE PALM: I was pretty much sleeping all day, and either playing shows or going to clubs every night. There used to be an all night record swap in the Capital Records parking lot. It was great. I hardly ever went out in the day.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

I really can’t remember how long it took to write from start to finish. I do remember it came together smoothly, music and melody first, then the lyrics. Once I got it going it almost wrote itself.

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

Everything off of the first album is kind of mandatory. It’s the album title track, so I guess that makes it significant.

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

It still is. We only cut it if we need to play a shorter set, like at a festival or whatever.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

Nope. Nothing.

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

It was recorded in L.A. at a studio that was owned by the guy who later wrote “Papa Don’t Preach” for Madonna. We cut all the basic tracks in one night, then went back the next night to do minimal overdubs and vocals. When we pulled the track up on the second night, we realized that one of the microphones on the drums was broken, and the rack tom part was missing. They wanted to replace it with hand claps, but I hated the idea. It was a full-on stand-off that held up the session for a long time, until i compromised and let them use metal trash can lids from the alley out back.

How do you feel about it now?

It’s the longest song in our live set, so sometimes it feels like a marathon, but it has a good resolve that ends with a strong positive feel. It works well near the end of the set, just before “The Last Goodbye”.  but that’s another story…

SHOWDOWN AT THE SLOWDOWN: Steve Earle & the Dukes Live

 

Onstage at The Slowdown, the rock ‘n’ roll gunslinger had an Omaha showdown to prove he is, indeed, one of our finest living elder statesmen.

TEXT/PHOTOS BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS

Steve Earle is a hardcore son of a bitch.

For the better part of four decades, he has blazed a trail of truths that few, if any, in music today will even broach, let alone have the lyrical prowess to hang with Mr. Earle.  Finally, after years of fandom, I was getting to see Steve Earle live, the man himself in action and it was everything I thought it would be.  The intimate setting of The Slowdown, a venue situated  in downtown Omaha next to an Urban Outfitters, holding 800 strong in attendance, was the perfect place to see Earle and his band The Dukes, weave tales of lost love, immigrant strife, a drunken week, or the Holy City of Jerusalem.

On the road supporting the exceptional new record, Steve Earle and the Dukes’ So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, Steve and the Dukes showed why they should be considered in the “best of” conversation; stacking the 25-song-strong setlist with the most standout tracks from the new record, notably “Goodbye Michelangelo” (written in memory of the recently departed mentor/songwriting great Guy Clark), the shout out to all the “hot shots” out there battling the ever present wildfires (“Firebreak Line”) or the sound of a man at peace with his choices in life, at peace with his place, his future. (“Fixin’ to Die”).

Where Earle stands above the rest as a songwriter is his ability to convey heartbreak, a sincerity that is strong to a fault, and the joy he seems to find with the creation of art that will stand long after he has shaken loose this mortal coil.  He has mined the self-doubt and resignation that hangs above those that staff the death houses in America’s prisons (“Ellis Unit One”) and Earle’s stance on the deeply flawed culture built around retribution, the misguided belief that two wrongs make a right.  He’s told stories of moonshiners (“Copperhead Road”), confusing religion with God (“Jerusalem”), gunslingers (“Hardin Wouldn’t Run”), immigration (“City of Immigrants”), segregation (“Taneytown”), or what happens when you turn your back on responsibility and head for the border (“A Week of Living Dangerously”).

Steve has spent his life telling those who would listen what he believes in, even as he fell deeper and deeper into his own demons, channeling the frustration that comes with the hells of addiction, the soul shattering bottoms and otherworldly highs, all the while becoming one of America’s greatest songsmiths.  Earle helped create a genre, blending country aspects and rock n roll spirit, and on this August Midwestern night, as he has done on countless nights in endless towns before, he proved that he is not planning to go quietly into that good night.

Building a legend through his words, marathon length shows, surviving seven marriages (twice to the same woman), sixteen records, and a drug intake that rivalled Keith Richards, the granddaddy of rock star excess, he survived it all and still has very moving stories to tell.  For those that focus on the legendary wild times and the even wilder truths, they are missing the point.

Earle’s body of work stands higher than the stories, his approach to writing, drawing from his personal heroes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, helped lay the bricks for a road that he shares with Dylan, Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young in terms of songwriting ability and lyrical superiority.  This, my friends, is a road that faux country stars like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert, and every other joker out there claiming to be country, insisting to all that will listen to be outlaw, will never see, much less tread.  When all those are washed away by time and changing fads, Earle’s work will stand above the wreckage as an example of how to write and song and rise above chaos to leave an indelible mark on the world.

The Steve Earle that took the stage this night is not the Steve Earle of old.  This man on the stage was older, wiser, happier, and somehow better than he was in his so-called glory days of “Guitar Town”; he’s accepted that he is doing what he was put here to do and that he does it better than most anyone out there running today.  He has aged into an elder statesman of country injected rock n roll, a champion for all those left behind or oppressed.  Much like Cash before him, he speaks to the common man, speaking for those that have no voice.

Steve Earle is a hardcore son of a bitch, he speaks the truth and I am glad I finally had the chance to hear it.

DESERT STALLIONS: Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers

The Phoenix-area rocker talks his band’s 10th album, their annual Mexican sojourn, their personal brand of tequila, and more.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Roger Clyne and his crew, The Peacemakers, have managed to crack the code.

While a generation of musicians are still trying to cope in a new world where fans don’t buy music, but simply stream it, this Arizona desert rock/Americana outfit has managed to slowly build up a devout global following. Their fans buy the albums (put out on their own Emma Java Records label), they cross the border into Mexico every year to take part in the group’s four-day music festival, Circus Mexicus. And then there’s Mexican Moonshine Tequila, Clyne’s own brand of liquor. All of this is of course anchored by a cannon of fantastic escapist songs that perfectly meld the best of rock and Americana.

Even if you’ve never heard of Clyne’s work with The Peacemakers, you’ve heard his music before. In the ‘90s, he put out two tragically underrated albums under The Refreshments moniker (1996’s “Banditos” was their one big hit, but far from being the band’s best song). He also wrote the instrumental theme song to the King of the Hill TV show. In 1998, Clyne and drummer P.H. Naffah, renamed the group and started life as Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers.

They’ve just released Native Heart, their 10th album and have capped off another successful Circus Mexicus, playing nightly in Puerto Penasco to a crowd of 5,000. As they were about to pack up the bus for another endless tour, Clyne was kind enough to answer some questions recently talking about the band, the shows and the tequila, naturally.

 

BLURT: You just finished up the latest Circus Mexicus. It seems like a lot of work to pull together – what keeps you doing it year after year?
ROGER CLYNE: Four days of tunes, tacos, tequila in a Mexican beach town… The event draws about 5,000 fiesta-going Peacemakers from around the World. We also do a lot of community and charity work. Pretty good reasons to do the heavy lifting required to make it go off!

I know you guys just did some east coast shows not that long ago and you’re back on the road again. How long do you usually spend playing touring each year? Any thoughts of slowing it down?
We are right now in the middle of a 51-day tour on a new record. We will probably do about 200 performances this year. It may sometimes get a little tiring, but it’s never dull!  And if we ever get to retire, we will probably form a touring rock ‘n’ roll band.

Speaking of, congrats on the new record. Have you started playing any of these new songs live yet? What type of response are you getting?
Gracias!  We are about two weeks into playing all of the songs on the album live. The response to the new music in the live setting has been nothing short of vivacious! Even the slower songs, in the midst of a fiesta-like live setting, seem to be met with very deep appreciation.

Along with putting on your own music festival, you guys have also put out most of your albums on your own as well. Do you think traditional labels still serve a purpose in 2017?
Yes, I do. An artist and or a band will need to be lucky enough to have a label team who respects their material, direction, and cooperates to nurture and develop that band or artist. That can be a tough ticket to fill in the ferociously-commercial and shallow-attentioned public showcase.

You’ve also got your own brand of tequila, which is brilliant! Anything thing else you’d like to try your hand at?
Gracias!  Our tequila, Mexican Moonshine, is a labor of love. But I think we found the one other industry more competitive and perhaps more corrupt than the music industry. We absolutely love stewarding our tequila and sharing our spirit with our fans and newcomers. Thankfully, it is awesome, world-class stuff and the simple reward sipping and sharing is worth the labor.

Anything you guys have tried to start that ended up not taking off?
I’m certain we have had plenty of little projects or chapters throughout the last two decades that weren’t quite as successful… We just try to look up on them as learning experiences and get better with each endeavor.

There was a documentary about your last band, The Story of the Refreshments, that came out not too long ago. How did that come about?
That was the one project in the last couple of decades that we actually didn’t have to organize and fund. We were lucky that Taylor (Morden) from Pop Motion was a fan and wanted to tell the story. I think he did an amazing job and I’m glad that the backstory of the Refreshments and the runway to becoming Peacemakers is finally not a mystery to the public.

What’s next for you?
We have a full year of U.S. touring on the books. I may take a break in Tempe during September to play a residency and a small club to celebrate the 20th year anniversary of The Bottle & Fresh Horses, (An album by The Refreshments); looking at plans to visit Europe and Japan in the early spring 2018.

Between then and now, I’ll try to get in a little camping, desert walking, singing, strumming and writing… basically fiesta, siesta, repeat.

Those are all the questions I had. Anything else you want to cover?
No, thanks for the chance to fly our flag with you awhile.

(Ed. Note: I rarely interject commentary into our contributors’ work, but I feel compelled to offer my own personal tip o’ the sombrero to Clyne. He formed the Refreshments in the early ‘90s not long after I had moved to Arizona, and the band quickly become local heroes on the Phoenix-area scene. In particular, the record chain I worked for, Zia Record Exchange, was a big supporter of the Refreshments and peers like the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop—as well as Clyne and his Peacemakers a few years later. I was fortunate, then, to see Clyne perform early on, and have remained a fan ever since. He’s a rare talent indeed. —FM)

WHAT THEY’VE DONE TO YOUR MIND: Rain Parade

As evidenced on a key new reissue, the Paisley Underground flagbearer’s combination of accessible melodies, trippy production touches and rock muscle set a blueprint that many indie psych rockers have followed since.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

This is what we talk about when we talk about the Paisley Underground.

As fans of the mid-‘80s psychedelic scene in California (and beyond) know, the Paisley Underground was more a collection of friends than a roll-call of soundalikes. Everyone has their own definition of what psychedelia means, and the variety in that particular scene showed it, from the harmony-rich jangle pop of the Bangles and the twee psych-pop of the Three O’Clock to the deep ‘n’ dark Southwesternisms of True West and the Velvets/Crazy Horse frenzy of the Dream Syndicate. (Not to mention the gonzoid ‘60s worship of Milwaukee’s Plasticland…we could go on. Ask this site’s editor for a full rundown.) (Indeed. He was there and knew ‘em all. –Site Editor Ed.)

But for many folks, when we hear the words “Paisley Underground,” we think of Los Angeles-based Rain Parade. The band’s combination of accessible melodies, trippy production touches and rock muscle set a blueprint that many indie psych rockers have followed since. The band wasn’t the best known of the scene’s acts, even as it was one of the first—indeed, it may be best remembered as the launching pad for singer/guitarist David Roback, later of Mazzy Star. But the band recorded some of the signature albums of the Paisley Underground, two of which are now getting the remaster/reissue treatment: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip and Explosions in the Glass Palace, via Real Gone Music.

Emergency Third Rail Power Trip has, for nearly 35 years, stood as one of the scene’s major statements. At first listen it seems almost modest—after all, the combo of singalong melodies and mildly acidic arrangements was hardly new, then or now. But that’s not the point; the band was just damn good at what it did. Fronted by a trio of equally talented singer/songwriters (David Roback, his bassist brother Steven, guitarist Matt Piucci) and enhanced and augmented by keyboard/violin colorist Will Glenn and jazz-inflected drummer Eddie Kalwa, the group had a potent combo that knocked out one gem after another.

The timeless pop tunes “I Look Around,” “This Can’t Be Today” and “What She’s Done to Your Mind” would be staples of sixties collections had they been issued back in Ye Olden Dayes. “Saturday’s Asylum,” “1 Hour ½ Ago” and the gloriously tripped-out “Kaleidoscope” dive deep into the liquid lightshow side of the scene’s personality, and avoid sounding dated while they do so. Even “Look Both Ways,” an overtly garagey folk rocker originally issued on the British version of the album, shakes off any mold that might gather and just gets down to business. ETRPT holds up better now than a lot of the sixties albums that inspired it.

Despite that triumph, the mercurial David Roback quit the band after its first national tour, leaving the remaining foursome to reorganize around the EP Explosions in the Glass Palace. Though far too short at only five songs, that quintet of cuts hasn’t a loser in the bunch. “Blue” and “You Are My Friend” present more perfectly crafted pop, while “Prisoners” and “Broken Horse” delve into overtly acid-drenched mini-epics. The EP ends with the anthemic powerhouse “No Easy Way Down,” then as now the band’s definitive track.

Without arguing about whether or not these albums are the best the scene had to offer, it seems clear that they’re probably the definitive representations of what the Paisley Underground meant at the time. (Archivist and journalist Pat Thomas makes the case quite convincingly in his liner notes as well.) That they hold up so well decades later is a testament to the writing and performance skills of the band. Still as rich and accessible now as they were when they were released, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip/Explosions in the Glass Palace wave the flag of psych rock’s continued relevancy proudly.

(Below, watch a clip of the band live in 1985, doing “You Are My Friend.”)

COVERING TIME: Dan Wilson

When the Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic savant and songwriter-to-the-stars started planning his latest solo album, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration—he could tap his own songbook.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Dan Wilson is probably best known by most as the frontman for Semisonic, and Trip Shakespeare before that. He’s been anything but dormant, however, since Semisonic stopped recording and touring in 2001.

Over the years, he’s put out a handful of widely-praised solo albums and managed to morph into a song-writing wunderkind of sorts, lending his talents to singers and bands across a slew of varied genres. For nearly two decades now, Wilson has written or co-written songs for a who’s-who of musicians across the spectrum—a list of A-listers that includes Adele, The Dixie Chicks, Weezer, Taylor Swift, Pink and Nas, among dozens more.

So when he decided to finally cover his own work—all songs of his that had been performed by other artists over the years, but not by him—he had plenty to choose from. The result is Re-Covered, out this week on August 4 via Big Deal Music, a beautiful re-imagining of songs, many you’ve heard plenty of times before, but never like this. (The one exception to that theme being Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” sang and played here with near-reverence.)

Wilson will also release a deluxe edition hardcover book and CD that contains 56 pages of drawings, essays, lyrics, and songwriting observations. The book contains illustrations and stories by Wilson about each Re-Covered song, in addition to each song’s lyrics. This deluxe hardcover book/album will be released on August 25 and includes a physical CD (pre-order via Amazon).

Wilson, who is prepping a solo tour behind the album, spoke with BLURT recently about the project, his ability to easily let go of his songs and the future of Semisonic.

BLURT: Let’s start with how the idea for Re-Covered came about. Obviously, you’ve got a lot of songs out there that you’ve written for others over the years.
DAN WILSON: About seven years ago a friend of mine had the idea and she said, “Dan, you need to make an album of your best songs that you’ve written for other people and you can’t just do it on acoustic guitar and be lazy about it.” I liked that idea, it sounded like a great concept. In 2010, I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that I just didn’t have the right songs at that time; I felt like I needed a couple of more songs that were big songs in the culture and a couple more songs that expressed my ideals about songwriting. So, I waited for a while until I realized I finally had what I wanted.

Was it tough deciding which ones to include and which to leave off?
I liked the idea of having a clear concept of songs that were written for others and that made deciding easier in a way. I did demos of a whole bunch of songs and I made a list of about 40 or 50 songs that could be potentials and I knew that there were 25 that I really liked. So, I did guitar/vocal demos of those just to see if they sounded good. A bunch of the songs just didn’t sound good; my voice sounded too innocent and too bright when it needed to sound darker and bluer on some. They just didn’t sound right. And others were surprisingly perfect. It was the process of elimination.

You recorded most of these in just over a week, right?
Yeah, we did 12 tracks in a week and we mixed them all on a Saturday. A couple months passed and I told Mike Viola (his long-time collaborator and producer of Re-Covered) that we needed a couple more songs. We did a whole bunch more and chose four or five.

Recording in a week, was that out of necessity given schedules?
That was Mike’s idea. When I asked Mike if he would produce this album he said he would but only if we did it live to tape, with live vocals, have everyone in the same room, do it in a short span of time and mix it all in one day. And I thought, ok, that sounds amazing, but why? Here were his reasons: First, you will all have one specific sound because you will all be in the same place at the same time that week. Secondly, we’ll be recording to tapes on old school materials so you won’t be able to tinker with it or do anything to it digitally. It’s going to just leave things as they are if they’re great and you’re going to be so happy because you won’t have to spend months on a record. And I loved those ideas.

You’ve written with and for a lot of other people over the years. Have you ever felt it was difficult to give away a song or hear someone else sing it differently than you intended it to sound?
Well no, for two reasons. The first is sort of philosophical. I feel like hanging on to a song, like hoarding it for yourself, is sort of like betting against yourself. What you’re saying is I will never write a song this good again; I will never write anything this precious again, so I have to hang onto it. But if you give it to someone, it’s almost like saying I will give this song to someone else and then I’ll write another great one. There’s almost a karmic element to letting things go that is positive.

I’ve never thought of it like that.
Yeah and the second thing is I’m fine with recording something someone else has already recorded. The only risk is if someone does a complete heart-stopping incredible version. Even then you can recut it.

How did you get the Kronos Quartet involved in the song “Someone Like You”?
I met the Kronos Quartet at a concert I did that was a tribute to Big Star’s Third album. We did “Give Me Another Chance” and after rehearsal in the basement of that theater the Quartet and I were standing around talking and David (Harrington), the first violinist said “we should collaborate on something. We all love the way your voice sounds with us.” I said, “Oh, man. I’d be honored.” Basically, that was an open invitation and months went by and I was thinking about how I could do a version of “Someone Like You,” that would be different from Adele’s, but wouldn’t be R&B and drums and the typical thing to do. We tried it like that and it didn’t work. I suddenly thought, “Maybe I should do this with The Kronos Quartet.”

“Closing Time” is on here as well and obviously that song is probably most associated with you and Semisonic. It’s a beautiful version; it’s very subdued and almost solemn. Was this how you had originally meant the song to sound when you first wrote it or was this just something different you were trying?
When I first wrote the song, I wrote it on acoustic guitar and everything I had been writing for Semisonic seemed to be played very loudly. So, I just generally assumed everything I wrote for the band would be played loudly, but I wrote them quietly. It was just me on a couch with an acoustic guitar so it was almost like a folk song, but I knew we were going to play it loud. When I decided to record it for this record I just went back to the original vibe which was almost kind of wistful.

Are there plans to do anything new with Semisonic?
We did some shows last month and we’ll certainly do more. I wrote a bunch of songs last year that for the first time in a long time I felt could be great for Semisonic. I’m pretty excited about the prospect. The way things work for me is I have an idea and then turn the idea upside down a few times and then come to a decision. That’s what happened with Re-Covered. I love those guys and I love the sound we make.

Photo Credits: (top) Devin Pedde; (middle) Noah Lamberth

GUARDIANS OF THE INDIE GALAXY: Lo Tom

David Bazan and some old pals crank the volume without losing the narrative nuance the ex-Pedro the Lion leader is known for. Check the tour dates, below.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Lo Tom cheekily bill themselves as an indie rock super group, featuring David Bazan and a trio of even lesser-known dudes—Trey Many (Velour 100, Starflyer 59), TW Walsh (Pedro the Lion, The Soft Drugs) and Jason Martin (Starflyer 59)—who’ve played in bands together since they were kids.

In that spirit, their eponymous debut, released on July 14 by Barsuk, was thrown together with minimal fuss—reportedly over just two weekends—using frill-free jam session instrumentation: two guitars, bass and drums. The results rocks harder than most of Bazan’s back catalog and contrasts starkly with his earlier 2017 release, the synth-and-programmed-beats Care.

The trade-off here is gut-punch immediacy for considered sonic depth, and it’s a theme Bazan acknowledges on “Lower Down.” The song opens in full Crazy Horse grinding guitar mode, and highlights Bazan’s snarled chorus, “you don’t need to chase the sound/if it comes from lower down.” Lo Tom‘s seven other songs embrace that edict and build around guitar riffage suggestive of classic rock’s hallmark licks. “Find the Shrine” even recalls the opening chords barrage of AC/DC’s “TNT.”

But this isn’t praise-the-blow and bring-on-the-groupies rock. (“Down comes the mountain with some breaking news/of what becomes of me, and what becomes of you,” Bazan warns—over those AC/DC riffs—of the dust-to-dust fate that awaits us all.)  While the publicity for Lo Tom insists “no one is in charge,” the narrative themes echo the same ones Bazan’s been exploring in fertile detail since he founded Pedro the Lion in the mid-90s. The draw of his songs has always been spiritual ambivalence, specifically re: Christianity. The pull of pride or a good time—via drugs, sex or any gluttonous combo thereof—is leavened by acknowledging the high cost of sin.

These themes still resonate for non-believers because they take their psychic toll, too. Over the years, Bazan’s uncorked some wicked lines calling out hypocrisy and the folly of pride (or the folly of just about any human endeavor). Yet the finger-pointing has always started in the mirror with Bazan—and in that tension is where his songs shine brightest, no matter the stylistic differences.

On “Bubblegum,” for instance, over another sinister riff, Bazan uses the sticky mess/rotting teeth hangover metaphor to chide the subject for their usual “day after” vows to change. Recovery is hard work, the “crooked lines just aren’t that easy to plot,” Bazan warns, and so it’s way easier to give in: “All the old fight is so quickly forgotten/So raise ’em up high to really hoping you stop…or get caught.” The lens widens over the dynamic riff of “Covered Wagon” to include our obsessive phone culture and the tribal devolution it encourages, while the three-minute rocker “Another Mistake” laments the folly of our leaders’ hubris—and the folly of pledging loyalty to them in the first place.

The buy-in with Bazan usually comes with the songs that capture human relationships at their most fraught moments. The hotel room argument between lovers in “Bad Luck Charm”—”She’s not coming out of the bathroom or texting back”—is heartbreaking, and “Overboard” only raises the emotional stakes.

Over a prominent bass line and overlapping guitar lines, Bazan recounts the aftermath of a failed relationship with a hook worthy of peak-era Lemonheads. Evan Dando, though, was an emotional piker by comparison, so the moment of implosion when Bazan “finally understood my place in that sycamore tree” carving is as devastating as when he confesses, “it just takes a while for me to un-feel a thing/and the opposite of what you think for that bell to un-ring.”

But as in “Lower Down,” the power of music—and here on Lo Tom, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, in particular—offers a life vest. Straining at the top of his raspy range on the bridge, Bazan raises the hair on our necks when he urges us on “Overboard” to “sing that song at the top of your lungs, don’t listen to the static/just listen to the drums.” For a guy who used to draw in charcoals and now tends to favor the digital realm, it’s great to hear Bazan and his pals paint in these big splashy primary colors.

Upcoming Shows:

11 Aug

Allston MA  @ Brighton Music Hall

12 Aug

Brooklyn NY  @ Rough Trade

17 Aug

Santa Ana CA  @ Constellation Room

18 Aug

Los Angeles CA  @ Bootleg Theater

19 Aug

Seattle WA  @ Tractor Tavern