The songwriter’s ever-widening circle of
friends includes the Dirtbombs, Sonny & the Sunsets, Echo & the
Bunnymen and Nuggets-era rocker Pete Miller.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Kelley Stoltz is not normally big on covers.
In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to his one-off CD
Crock-A-Dials, a tribute to his beloved Echo & the Bunnymen to find
much in the way of other people’s songs in Stoltz’s catalogue. His own five
full-lengths are full of allusions to older songwriters – Beatles,
Kinks, Beach Boys and others – but freshened up and touched with a sweet,
faintly goofy intelligence that is all Stoltz’s own.
That’s why it’s so surprising that To Dreamers,
Stoltz’s sixth album (released earlier this fall by Sub Pop), has a cover right at its heart.
The song “Baby, I’ve Got News for You,” was written by Pete Miller, a Nuggets-era rocker, who ended up playing
guitar for Stoltz on the track.
“It was just such an
incredible song,” Stoltz remembers, explaining that his Australian guitar
player Mike Young had turned him onto it. “Mike and I couldn’t believe it was
really from 1965. There were elements of Troggs, but then other parts that
sounded so advanced. We thought maybe it was an internet hoax…somebody from now
putting on a 1960s persona.”
Through the internet, Stoltz began putting Miller’s story
together. “He had recorded with Joe Meek in the 1950s and played 130-odd shows
with the Beatles,” said Stoltz. Even odder, it turned out that Miller had moved
to San Francisco
in 1970. He had opened a recording studio and recorded early Bay Area punks
like the Avengers.
Stoltz tracked Miller down and started bugging him, finally
getting him to sit in when he recorded “Baby I Got News for You” for his new
album. “He’s a real inspiration, still making records of his stuff and popping
out new songs and ideas,” said Stoltz. “He’s still chasing his muse.”
So is Stoltz, as it turns out. His latest album is full of the wistful,
1960s drenched pop songs that have always been his trademark, but there are
also some rockers. For those, you can
thank the Dirtbombs, who brought Stoltz out on tour with them in 2008. “For a guy like me to try and keep up with
them, it was tough,” said Stoltz. “They have an open-minded fan base so 50% of
the people were into it every night. But still, I knew if I had a 45-minute set
of uptempo rock songs, it would go over.”
When he returned to the Bay Area, he played more shows with
more rock bands and – through a process that he calls partly conscious and
partly osmosis – started to rock out a little himself. The album version of “I Like, I Like” is
downright rowdy, an inebriated, all-hands-on-deck romp through one of Stoltz’s
“I was also listening to a lot of Stiff records stuff,” Stoltz
recalled, in trying to explain his raucous new songs. “I was just kind of interested in punk
rifferies…with maybe a little bit of songwriter’s craft.”
But if Stoltz seems more enamored of rocking rhythms lately,
it might be because of his side work.
“I’ve been playing a lot of drums for other people which has been
awesome because I think it’s the instrument that I was really meant to play,”
Stoltz has been drumming on his own records from the
beginning. He learned on a borrowed drum
set that a punk rocking roommate left unattended in the apartment. These days, you can hear Stoltz playing drums
on Stephanie Finch’s new album Cry
Tomorrow, recorded with Stoltz, her husband Chuck Prophet and Rusty Miller
about a year ago. You can also catch him
slinging the sticks for Sonny and the Sunsets, a band fronted by his long-time
friend Sonny Smith. “We always have listened to each other’s stuff and adding
this and that, and so he asked me to be his drummer. That’s been a real blast, too,” he said.
“I just love playing
drums,” he said. “Everybody plays guitar
and bass to me is just more boring guitar, guitar without any of the
thrill. If you like doing the same
thing, over and over again, then you’re a bass player. But the drums… it’s just fun. You get to live out your Ringo Starr
fantasies instead of the Paul McCartney ones.”
And speaking of rock ‘n roll fantasies, Stoltz is still
beaming about his recent gig opening for long-time heroes Echo & the Bunnymen. “That happened because I just stalked them
for years…well, not stalked but just professed my love in public since 1984,”
he said. It got to the point where he
would meet up with the band whenever they played San Francisco and take them around the local
bars. Then in May of 2010, out of the
blue, Stoltz got a call from Echo & the Bunnymen’s manager who was then at
Coachella. That was Friday. The band was playing the Fillmore in San Francisco on
Monday. The openers were stuck in
transit due to volcano ash fall-out.
Could Stoltz step in? For the
Stoltz dropped everything – and got his backing back to drop
everything, too. By Tuesday they were
flying to Chicago
as Echo & the Bunnymen’s opening band.
“It was so cool,” he said. “because
Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant. They’re
my heroes. They were the people that
made me want to play music and play guitar.”
One night Ian McCulloch came to Stoltz’s sound check – and
complimented him on his songwriting.
“That was surreal,” said Stoltz.
“I had their posters on my wall as a kid. As a kid I used to buy bootleg cassettes from
this record shop in Detroit,
and I would memorize stuff he would say.
I even had my hair like him, sprayed up with aqua-net, and wore a
trenchcoat. And now here he was giving
me compliments. It was like a teen dream
Kelley Stoltz is on
tour in England with Stephanie Finch & the Company Men (Nov. 30 – Dec. 3)
and then with Echo & the Bunnymen (Dec. 4 – 12). Tour dates at his official
[Photo Credit: Rich Hirneisen]