Archives

SURVIVAL OF THE SWEETEST: Matthew Sweet

With a long-awaited new album, the power pop auteur is back in his groove.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Granted, Matthew Sweet didn’t invent power pop. That distinction is best left to earlier auteurs like the Raspberries, the Shoes, Cheap Trick and others that followed the Beatles and Badfinger to carve out a genre all its own. Still, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone who’s done more to advance the cause than Matthew Sweet. Indeed, Sweet’s series of essential early albums — Inside, Earth, Girlfriend, Altered Beast, 100% Fun and Blue Sky on Mars, chief among them — helped assure the power pop trajectory would remain prosperous and plentiful well into the new millennium.

Beginning a decade or so ago, Sweet further affirmed his affinity for all things pop by initiating a series of releases with Bangle Susanna Hoffs which the duo aptly dubbed Under the Covers. There have been three volumes so far (not counting a fourth included on a box set that banded the first three). To date, they’ve covered some of the most indelible songs in the pop canon decade by decade, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, giving listeners a sample of the pair’s earliest influences and a nostalgic trip down memory lane as well.

Still, it’s been six years since Sweet’s offered up an album of all original material, which made the wait for his new effort, Tomorrow Forever cause for great anticipation. All of its songs boast the same ready refrains and instantly engaging melodies that marked earlier Sweet’s earlier triumphs and with all-star array of special guests — Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, added Bangle Debbi Peterson, the Zombies’ Rod Argent and members of the Velvet Crush and the Orange Peels as well, ample attention is well deserved. A move back to his home state of Nebraska and his mother’s passing might have impeded its progress, but clearly Tomorrow Forever can be considered yet another Sweet success.

Blurt recently spoke with Sweet who offered us the opportunity to catch up us on his recent activities…

BLURT: Please give us an idea of how the new album came about.

SWEET: Before I moved from Los Angeles, I had talked about doing some sort of Kickstarter campaign. I always wanted to try it. So once I got back here, after eight or nine months or so, I actually started the campaign while I was out doing shows. It was a lot of fun to try to whip up the excitement about it. The only hitch was that very shortly afterwards, my mother passed away and instead of jumping right into making the record, several months passed before I felt like I could approach it.

Once you did get back into it, how did the writing progress?

Originally the plan was that I would do tons of demos and then pull from those demos to make the full album. I started so late that I felt like it was going to take even longer to approach it that way, so instead I started recording everything I wrote during that time. And one of the ways that I made sure to get a lot of different things was to make multiple batches of recordings. There was an initial batch of like 15 songs, and then after that, I did two more sets, making a total of 38 tracks I recorded for the record. So we had to get it down to 17 songs from 38. a demos download that was sold with the album as part of the Kickstarter campaign and that became a whole satellite album to the main album. I called Tomorrow’s Daughter. It’s kind of a throwback to the bonus release we did to accompany Altered Beast. So that’s another twelve songs that didn’t make the album, but were things that we all kind of liked. I had a group of friends around me and we listened a lot to all the music. We all had to make our favorites list. What made it easy was that everyone more or less picked the same 15 songs. But nobody really wanted to stop there. Everybody wanted to have a list that went up to 20 or 23, and so there were these extra songs that were close to making the cut, and that made it a relief for me to make the Daughter record because I felt those songs could see the light of day. I imagine that we’ll package those properly at some point, but right now the Kickstarter people will be the first to hear them.

Will they come out simultaneously with the release of the album?

Yes. It’s coming soon. I just had a request from the office to send the files so I know we’re getting close to make those downloads available. It’s been a little bit tricky. The record was received really well from my publishing company and they got very excited and got other people involved. So I made a deal where I have my own label called Honeycomb Hideout which comes out through Sony Red distribution. As a result, we wanted to closely align the Kickstarter campaign with the actual release of the record so there wasn’t a big gap where all the Kickstarter people had it and it could float around and get copied before it was available.

What prompted your move from L.A. back to Nebraska?

When the real estate market came back, we had it in our minds that we wanted to cash in on this nest egg that we had built over twenty years because it had tripled in value. So we wanted to move somewhere. We looked all around but it was my wife who suggested we look around in Nebraska.

But with all due respect, isn’t Omaha a bit out of the way in terms of the hotspots of musical activity?

I felt like I could go anywhere. It didn’t really matter. So we happened upon this house in Omaha that caught our fancy. It’s an interesting place that was built in 1937. The front of it looks almost like a Disney kind of take on a French chateau house. The back of it and the interior are more like a craftsman/art deco kind of era, and so it’s just really different and unique. Some of the rooms are built in a kind of honeycomb shape and so that’s where we came up with the name of the label, Honeycomb Hideout. There’s also a room here that was perfect for me to use as a studio room. I’ve always thought to have serious recording studios in my houses but I really always had a set up in a room that was not meant to be a studio necessarily. However there was a space in this house that made sense. It has this wood panelling. It’s almost like an old ship and so I decided to call it Black Squirrel Submarine.

It’s funny to hear you refer to all these island and nautical themes being that you’re in the middle of the country and pretty much landlocked as a result.

(Laughs) It’s a little bit strange. This room that I use is kind of in the bowels of the house, so it’s got that vibe. It came from that. When we first moved in we saw some black squirrels running around. They aren’t super common, but you see them every now and then. So Black Squirrel Submarine became this kind of name that just ended up sticking. It’s funny. There are a lot of businesses around here called Black Squirrel. They’ll be Black Squirrel Industries or Black Squirrel Tattoo Parlour. So there are other industries, but I don’t think there’s another Black Squirrel Recording.

How long had you been gone before you came back?

A really long time. I left when I got out of high school, and then I went to Athens Georgia where I went to school briefly. I mostly skipped school and started doing independent recording and did my first stuff down there. When I got my first record deal, which was sort of a development deal with Columbia Records in New York, they moved me up to New York City and I was introduced to Jules Shear. I wrote some songs with him and spent several months just writing. They gave me money to buy gear and get an apartment up there. So I lived in New York most of the time after I got out of high school which was 1983 until 1993, which is when we moved to Los Angeles. I lived back here a couple of very brief periods in the late ‘80s, but for the most part, I was on the East Coast. I then went right into recording Altered Beast in Los Angeles and kind of got turned on to L.A. by Richard Dashed, the Fleetwood Mac producer who was working on Altered Beast with me. He took me around L.A. and showed me all the cool places. I was pretty into it, and my soon-to-be wife came out when I was finishing up that record in 1993. I was excited about living there, the label, Zoo Entertainment, was based there, and so it all kind of made sense. They were really kind of like a family. I wasn’t with a big label, but Zoo Entertainment was distributed through BMG Entertainment. So we moved there from Princeton where I was living at the time. I like Princeton. We had a great house because I could play drums and make noise all day since it wasn’t near all the other houses. I kind of feel like I’ve lived all over the place.

I interviewed Conor Oberst not too long ago and I was noting the fact that he lives in Nebraska, and with all due respect, it’s not exactly a hub of the music business. What was it like to be back after having lived in the places that were close to the entertainment industry? And we ask that question without trying to put it down.

I understand that. For one thing, Conor and the whole Saddle Creek guy had created a whole music scene here where by the time I moved here, it was known somewhat as a hotbed of music. You were seeing a lot of bands coming out of here.

The new album has some wonderful special guests. Were these all people you had worked with before?

Yes, but not everybody. John Moremen, who played guitar, is from San Francisco. I met him on a tour where his band, the Orange Peels, were opening for us. I heard him play lead and I told him I’d love to have him play lead on one of my records some time. Jason Victor was recommended by my then guitar player, Dennis Taylor, who had been touring with me, but had to take a break due to some personal issues. Dennis saw Jason playing with Dream Syndicate and got it in his head that Jason would be a good fit for playing with me. Jason will be on the road with us this summer. It was very funny and cryptic. I would send him a track and tell him to play whatever he wanted and he would send it back and I loved it.  Val McCallum, who played slide guitar and some other novelty sounds on the record, I had known on and off from Los Angeles, but we had never really worked together. Greg Leisz, who’s a good friend of mine, was playing with Jackson Browne and they were in Sioux City Iowa, which is about 100 miles north of Omaha. So we drove up there and kind of cornered them and asked them to do some stuff on my record. In the end, Greg was too busy. He was out on the road the whole time, but Val was able to cover for both of them. He came through and brought some special stuff to the record. So we got to know each other from working together over the internet.

Out of curiosity, has there ever been any talk about reconvening your great supergroup of sorts, the Thorns? That was a great combination — you, Shawn Mullins and Pete Yorn.

There hasn’t been a lot of talk about doing it, but I do think it would be fun to do. That record happened when the business was still together enough to allow us to sell 175,000 records. It would just be incredible now. It wasn’t quite enough to be a big hit for the record company. We toured for a couple of years and opened some shows for the Dixie Chicks and worked very hard on it, but financially we weren’t really provided for. We wanted to share the advance so we could produce the record ourselves, but the label didn’t agree to do it and then the label option ran out. We still wanted to do a record and we were free, but we also wanted to do our solo stuff. It really came together very quickly without us planning to have a group exactly. I think we did something special and I think we could do that again now, but it would take someone coming along and saying, “Hey guys, make a Thorns record” and we’d need the financial backing to make it happen.

So how would you sum up your progress and your trajectory up until this point?

To some extent, I’m a person who never looks back. Still, I feel really lucky to be able to hang in here and still put out my music.

READY TO STRIKE: Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes

Above: Dean Richardson (left) and Frank Carter (right) performing with the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage

BY JEFF CLEGG

Frank Carter is a tenacious force. It’s been almost 6 years since the hardcore-punk veteran left his former band Gallows, but while you’ve been sleeping, he’s been relentlessly pushing his music into a new direction. Back in January, his current project Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes released their second full-length album titled Modern Ruin that welds together the intensity of Gallows with the vision he had for his previous project called Pure Love. The album is filled with heavy rock anthems that pack a punch, and is a more polished effort compared to the band’s grittier debut Blossom.

In Frank’s words, the album is “all about human relationships. How we interact with our loved ones, with our friends, with enemies, with strangers. And it’s about how you can feel nothing to someone and then through a moment you can suddenly be intertwined with that person for the rest of your life, which is someone that happens to us all of the time as musicians. We might play a gig for someone who had a bad day, and that music can mean more to them than we can ever understand.” However, as the title of the album suggests, a lot of the topics are less optimistic. Much of the album focuses on the problems that modern society is facing, including the relationships between social media and its effects on our mental health. “We’re all avatars now. We have a digital persona and we have reality. It’s terrifying to me, I don’t really know. It’s really weird because technology is obviously doing great things. My daughter is fully fluent in iPad. She’s amazing on it and she’s only two and a half. It’s incredible to see how advanced she is with it until you get to social media.” Dean Richardson, the Rattlesnakes co-founder and guitarist, added, “[Social media] just teaches you to pretend, to mold yourself into things that you’re not.”

Frank Carter met Dean around the time that Gallows ended and Pure Love was being formed. “We actually met when I wanted Dean to make me a website. Dean’s an incredible designer and coder so I asked him to help me out with it years ago, and then we just got talking about music,” he starts. “When my first band Gallows kind of ended, I started this new project called Pure Love and that was around the first time Dean and I talked about doing something together.” Dean even mentions that he and Frank were already sending out demos around the same time. “And [Pure Love] didn’t really work out. A couple of years pass, and then Pure Love ended. And that’s when I was like ‘Okay. I’m here. You’re here. Let’s do this.’ That was it really,” Frank added.

The Rattlesnakes found Frank Carter returning to his hardcore roots, but while keeping some of the more accesible pop sensibilities of Pure Love. Frank wanted to have “some sort of violence and aggression” behind the Rattlesnakes’ sound. The band almost instantly began writing songs, possibly at a faster pace than they had ever experienced. “[Dean] sent me two songs and they were perfect. I immediately began writing lyrics on that day. We had around 2 or 3 songs on the first day we began to write, which is pretty rare.” Dean added, “That’s when I knew that I was excited about the opportunity, but wasn’t really over-thinking it. And after how quickly the first two songs came together, I began to secretely get a bit more excited about how much we could write together. I still never expected it to get to where it is now so quickly. It’s crazy.”

Below: Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes at Shaky Knees Festival 2017. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage

The band is also gaining attention for their live performances as well, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’re familiar with Frank Carter’s history. Last month the band had to open Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival with a noon set in sweltering weather, which usually isn’t the time slot you’d prefer if you want an energetic and engaged crowd. Yet, despite the conditions, Frank persuaded almost 95 percent of the crowd to start a circle pit. “I’ve played Warped Tour a couple of times so I’m pretty well-versed in 11am rock shows in the heat,” Frank explained. “I also was asleep like 15 minutes before our set. I thought we were on at 3 or 4 o’clock. No one ever mentioned to me the time. It’s in my calendar so I should have just looked, but instead I just went back to bed. Next thing I know Dean is like ‘hey, uhh, it’s 30 minutes until change over,’ and I just laughed at him and said ‘good one.’ Then he said ‘no, really, get off the couch.’”

So, really, get off your couch and check out Modern Ruin. They’re unfortunately finished with their North American tour dates this year, but if you’re in Europe, be sure the check out the band on their extensive European tour lasting until the end of the year.

 

AGENT ORANGE REPORTING FOR DUTY: Corky Carroll

Friends, Casuals, Piranhas, Funk Dogs… the Orange County musical wizard’s colorful life, explained.

BY TIM HINELY

Corky Carroll is a true renaissance man. Oh sure, you know him from being a champion surfer (and a tireless spokesperson for the sport) as well as being on a Lite beer commercial but did you also know that he’s written several books (on surfing) and in addition opened a surf school in Southern California and has designed/shaped boards as well. In addition (and why we here at BLURT wanted to talk to him in the first place) he has recorded several albums over the years (many recently reissued on the Darla Records label out of Southern California) and has mined several different styles of music on those albums. As you’ll read below, surfing was his first love, but music was always a close second. He’s assembled numerous bands over the years and played solo as well. These days, though he writes a column in the Orange County Register newspaper he no longer lives in California, instead opting for a lush beach community in Mexico where he runs surf adventures (and, of course, still plays music).  I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to have take me on a surf adventure. Carroll has lived a colorful life (to say the least) and he was more than happy to answer the questions I tossed his way.

BLURT: Where did you grow up?

CARROLL: I grew up in the small beach community of Surfside Colony on the far north end of Orange County.  We were just south of Seal Beach.  There were about 100 old beach houses along a little strip of oceanfront, not quite what you would call shacks, but close to it.  Our house was so close to the water that I got to the point that I could tell what the surf would be like without even having to open my eyes, I could tell by the sound.  It was a great place to grow up, especially for a surfer.

What was the first record you remember buying with your own money?

In 1958 I went to see my first surf movie.  They were 16mm films that were usually narrated live by the guy who made the film and he would have a soundtrack on a tape recorder going into a couple of Voice of the Theater speakers for max volume.  The movie was called “Surf Safari” by John Severson.  I remember vividly when the big wave sequence came on, it is one of those frozen in time memories; the music was the Theme from Peter Gunn.  That beat stuck in my head; in fact it’s still stuck in my head.  Shortly after that I got my mom to buy me a record player for my birthday and I saved up my paper route money to buy records.  My first purchases where the Peter Gunn album by Henry Mancini and a blues album by Jimmy Reed.  Shortly after I started buying 45s and had a little set list in my room which included Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, Elvis and Buddy Holly among others.  (Below: in 1968 Corky appeared in a Jantzen ad – the perfect beach bum, eh?)

 

What was the first instrument you picked up?

When I was about seven or eight years old we moved up the beach from a tiny one-bedroom place into a little bigger 3-bedroom place so I could have my own room.  I had been sleeping in a little loft in my parents room and I think I was cramping their style a bit.  Our new place came with an upright piano.  My mom had been a singer when she was younger and sang on the radio back in the days of “live” radio.  She had made a record, too; this is in the days of tin records.  She came from a musical family.  Her two brothers were professional musicians, one a concert violinist and the other a drummer in a popular jazz band of the 30’s and 40’s.  She insisted that I take piano lessons.  At first I was all for it and was ready to rock, but she hired the local pastor’s wife to teach me and it was a strict regime of classical and similar type music.  I wanted to learn to play popular stuff that I could feel, but she was totally against that.  For five years I struggled with that teacher and had no desire to learn or put in any practice time.  I just wanted to go surfing.  A couple of times somebody would show me how to play a little something I liked and that would kinda keep me going for awhile.  Like when I learned how to play “What I’d Say,” by Ray Charles.  That song had a kind of basic little riff to it and that sort of thing became kind of the base of a lot of later “surf” music.  Then one time we went to Tijuana for the day and my dad bought me a cheapo guitar.  That was really more my style, I loved that thing.  I don’t think it even tuned correctly, but I would just bang away on it and it made me feel good.  In about the eighth grade I had a pal who lived down the street and he got an electric guitar.  Now THAT was really cool and I had to have one too.  So I saved up a bit and asked my dad to buy me one.  Not knowing anything about guitars and music he bought a crude homemade thing with a small Gibson amp that had a blown speaker.  This had to be the cheapest thing he could find.  Nonetheless I dug it and me and the kid down the street would spend zillions of hours working out the current instrumental surf songs of the time.  Another friend of mine was learning to play the drums and I would go over to his house and bang away as loud as I could with him.  His name is Tris Imboyden and he went on to become a great drummer, first with a wonderful band named HONK and then with Kenny Loggins and Chicago.  My surfing career got in the way of my musical development for a number of years though and I didn’t take it much further at that time.  It wasn’t until around 1969 or so that I got a nice acoustic guitar and decided to actually learn how to play the thing.  Eventually I wandered back to electric, but have more or less kept a finger style of playing.  I like the way Mark Knopfler does it so I kind of lean that way when I am looking for tones.

Were the Beatles a huge influence for you? Beach Boys? Anyone else?

I was a huge Beatles fan and even more so of the Rolling Stones.  I played both of their albums until they melted.  At first I didn’t like the Beach Boys and thought the “surfin’ bop dipty dipty dip” thing was really lame.  I was much more a fan of pop, R & B, and the traditional instrumental surf music of people like Dick Dale, but as the Beach Boys’ music evolved I could not help but like the beat and the good vibrations of it.  It was a shock to me when I went to England in 1967 that for the most part the Beach Boys were more popular there than the Beatles.  Then I got a chance to work with them on a little promotional film they did and got to be friends with Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston.  They actually asked me if I would go on tour with them as it would be an asset to have a “real surfer” in the band.  At that time all my energy was into being a professional surfer and I was not even close to being skilled enough to play or sing with those guys, so I passed.  I would have only embarrassed myself, which is something that I never seemed to back down from, but right then it didn’t seem like a good idea.  I did become a big fan of their music and even more so as time went on and I understood more about it.  In the long run though I would have to say that the bigger influence on my music came from the Stones.  And later a little bit from Jimmy Buffet, who I am a huge fan of.

At what point did you start writing songs and recording?  What was your first release?

At first I only played guitar and didn’t sing.  My first album was done with a bunch of friends who were also surfers that played music.  It was called Corky Carroll and Friends and came out in 1971.  I did a few sort of mellow acoustic guitar instrumentals.  At about that same time I got offered a gig playing the off nights at a little restaurant and bar.  So I learned some songs and started singing.  Many questioned that decision too.  I was not a good singer at first, but I forged ahead at it and over the years had a lot of voice training and eventually found my way on key.  It took awhile though and after many, many years, like in the late 1990’s, at it I found out that I had some ear problems that were really holding me back.  When I found out that I needed to use headphones my voice finally really came to me and opened up.  Without them my hearing is all wrong.  I also have to use hearing aids on a day-to-day basis.  So I use full on headphones on stage when I perform, not just the in ear monitors.  Sometimes people ask me why I have them on and my favorite answer is “I’m listening to the game.”  It doesn’t even surprise me when they believe it. After a few years of playing in bars I put together a project called the Funk Dog Surf Band.  We did a show of really absurd surf and skate related songs and included three great looking backup singers called the “Corkettes.”  We had a single released in the U.S. and in England that was recorded by Dennis Dragon at his studio in Malibu called “Skateboard Bill.”  We also were on the Gong Show two times, one time we won and the other time we got gonged.  I like to think that this was my “learning” band.

(Below: Funk Dog Surf Band)

Was the Coolwater Casuals your first band? If so how’d that come together?

After awhile the Funk Dog band mistakenly thought we needed a cooler name so we changed it to the “Tropics.”  Eventually that ran it’s course and while I was sort of in between things I was introduced to a fantastic musician named Chris Darrow by a mutual friend, Rick Griffin.  Rick was an amazing artist who started out doing surfing cartoons and then went on to concert posters and Grateful Deal album covers and a number of other good things. Chris had been a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Kaleidoscope and was the leader of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band, among a zillion other things.  He was a big leaguer and he also had just moved to the beach and was learning to surf.  He and I clicked right off the bat and became pals.  He worked on my musicianship and I worked on his surfing.  He put together the Coolwater Casuals and together we wrote songs and put together a show.  We imported the Corkettes too.  Where the Funk Dog band had been fun and silly, and meant to be that way, the Casuals were a damn solid rock band.  I loved that feeling.  I loved being on stage with both of those bands, but in a different way.  The Funk Dog Band was a novelty and intended to entertain and make people laugh and I liked that part.  I want to come back as a stand up comedian in a later life, it feels so good to get a room laughing, but the Coolwater Casuals rocked and that really felt right to me.  Chester Crill was in that band too, one of the great electric violin guys ever.

 How did you end up recording with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees for the “Tan Punks on Boards’ single”?  

The record company, Criminal Records, which released my first single, “Skateboard Bill,” in England, heard a demo tape from a rehearsal with the Casuals.  Chris and I had just written “Tan Punks on Boards” and it was the opening song to our set.  They liked it and wanted us to record it.  Chris was pals with Mike Nesmith who owned his own label up in Carmel called Pacific Arts.  Mike got involved and we recorded “Tan Punks…” at Lyon Studios in Newport Beach.  It was released shortly after as a single on Pacific Arts.  Not long after that we put out the “Surfer for President” LP. (Below: related photo of Carroll, courtesy Art Brewer.)  Most of that album was recorded on a TEAC 4 track in my garage.

What was next? Corky Carroll and the Piranhas?

No, that is just recently since I signed with Darla Records.  After the Coolwater Casuals ran its course I didn’t perform much for a number of years.  But then a small label in Switzerland signed me for a “Best of” album and one more after that.  This led to a series of CD’s on European labels and I started my own little independent label to release small quantities of a number of albums that I recorded in my home studio either totally solo or with Chris Darrow.  And I went back to doing solo gigs in local bars in Southern California.  My main gig was being house musician at Duke’s on the Huntington Beach Pier for a number of years before I moved to Mexico in 2003.  Since then I have been doing occasional dinner concerts at local cantinas and writing new material.  

How did you hook up with James at Darla Records who started reissuing your records?

He found me on Facebook and asked why he couldn’t find any of my music online.  This sort of led to him finding some of the old stuff and wanting to reissue most of them plus do a new “Best Of” followed by a totally new album, which I recorded last summer.  That is the Blue Mango album, which the Piranha plays on.  This is a really great group of extremely fun and talented musicians that I was lucky to be able to put together for this project.  I love the connection with Darla Records and with James himself.  The dude surfs and we have a lot in common, plus he is a really good guy.  And Darla is a very lovely label, it says that right on their stationary.

 

I notice a lot of your songs talk about different environmental issues. What current issue is the most critical?

Well there is always something isn’t there.  I used to get more into that kind of thing but lately have tended to write more about things within my current experience or that I am feeling right now.  Sometimes the environment falls into that, sometimes it’s about a chicken standing on the side of the road debating about crossing in traffic or Surf Zombies.  I am a fan of those really bad horror movies that are so stupid they’re good: Mega Piranha, Zombeavers, Sharknado – that kind of thing.  Sometimes there just seems like there are so many things to be concerned about that I just go into alternative realities and ignore current events – or I just go surfing and forget about them.  This only works for as long as I am in the water though.  It’s turning on the TV that’s dangerous.  The world is not the safest place these days.  I just wrote a song called “Holy Moley.”  It’s about turning in the TV looking for cartoons, but all I see are blood and guts and gore and ragin’ ruins.  Don’t swipe my lyrics here kids, hahaha.

How did the column in the Orange County Register come about? Is it weekly? Is it mostly music?

They approached me to write a weekly column about 25 years ago and it’s still alive and going.  I actually do two a week, one is a question and answer and the other is whatever I feel like writing about.  Mostly it’s surfing related or beach lifestyle in one way or another.  Sometimes I write about music too, but the main topics are more about surfing.  At times I do cover musicians who surf such as Jackson Browne or Jack Johnson or surfers who do music such as Tom Curren or Donavon Frankenreiter.  All these guys are examples of just because you are good at one thing does not mean that you can’t be been at another.  Sometimes people don’t want to give somebody credit for that because they assume that just because you are well know as a surfer you certainly can’t be all that great of a musician, or the other way around.

Tell us about your current band members, Matt Magiera and Matt Marshall? How long has this lineup been together? 

Matt Magiera was the original drummer back in the Funk Dog Surf Band.  He was a teenager and still in High School then.  We used to have to get a note from is parents to get him into the clubs we played at most of the time.  He was already really good then and went on to become outstanding.  He introduced me to Matt Marshall.  That Matt works with his brother Phil Marshall doing big time movie scores and he has also worked with my friend Henry Kapono.  We were lucky that he was available the week I was in California recording the Blue Mango album.  Super clean bass player, I hope to do a lot more with both of these dudes in the future. (Below: Corky with core Piranhas Matt Magiera, Richard Stekol, and Douglas Miller.)

 

How about some of the guys you’ve played with over the years. Brad Fiedel, Chris Darrow, Richard Stekol and Doug Miller. How about something interesting about each one.

As I have mentioned Chris Darrow and I have been playing together and recording together since the late 1970s.  He would be my main musical influence and mentor.  He got me into branching out and becoming a multi-instrumentalist.  Chris and I just jell perfectly when we put songs together.  And Doug Miller was also the lead violinist in the Funk Dog Surf Band and worked with me as a duo playing in bars and clubs in the early days.  Brad Fiedel and I met when he started coming to Mexico to surf maybe ten years ago.  He built a house near ours and he stayed with us while it was going up.  He is a super musician having done well over 100 big movie scores as well has having toured with Hall and Oats.  We would sometimes jam when he was at our house and I was stoked when he agreed to do the keyboards on Blue Mango.  One of the movie scores he did was for a horror flick called Fright Night.  Fantastic score.  I had this song called “Surf Zombie”, which was just begging for some of that good Brad Fiedel/Fright Night kinda vibe.  He also helped me do the final mix before we sent it off to Nate Wood to master.  This was the first time that I actually got to work with Richard Stekol although we have known each other since the early 70s when he was playing with HONK.  They were, and are, one of my all time favorite bands and I have always been a fan of his guitar work.  When I was putting together the players for the album a great songwriter friend of both of ours, Jack Tempchin, heard a few of the new songs and suggested I ask Richard to do some guitar tracks.  Thankfully he agreed and his work on this album really brings a lot of magic to the songs.  The Piranha are a really unique mixture of players and I could not have asked for a more perfect lineup.  When we were discussing band names and the “Piranha” came up it was Richard who said, “Hey, it’s perfect.  After all, everybody’s gotta eat.”  That sort of became our band motto.

With you being in Mexico and your band mates in California how often do you play shows and/or tour?

Together, not yet.  But, that said, thanks to modern technology I am able to perform by myself and use the tracks from the album that I have recorded into a little box.  I can do the songs from the album that way, I just leave out my tracks and play them live and sing live.  I do this with my whole set, but the other songs I record myself in my home studio and use them as backing while my guitar and voice are live.  It has a harmonizer too so I can thicken the songs with harmony.  I can do a Beach Boys medley this way.  Thanks to Chris for getting me to be able to play most of the instruments myself.

Who are some of your biggest influences, musically speaking?

I like the Stones and Jimmy Buffet.  Also am a big fan of Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Jack Tempchin.  The HONK band is at the top of my list.  Chris Darrow too, his own albums are super cool and his personal input into my entire musical life has been enormous.

Of all the records you’ve released over the years could you pick a favorite?

By far it’s the new BLUE MANGO album.  I love this work and am very proud of the final product.  Some of the songs on Visions of Paradise stand out too.

What’s next? Shows? A new record?

Definitely more shows.  Am working on a concert in Florida and trying to get one going in Texas and in Southern California later this year.  And I will continue to do shows here in Mexico – it’s how I get to try out new material and keep sharp musically.  I am not sure about plans for another album as of yet. Blue Mango is still relatively new on the market right now.  Of course I would like to do another one for sure.  I just wrote a couple of new songs I like a lot but have a ways to go to have enough material solid enough to record yet.  Hopefully next year.  The Piranha are on notice.  It will help the cause if ALL of you who might be reading this buy Blue Mango right now.  You will obviously love it and want to tell all your friends too.  Come on, just do it.

Any final comments? Words of wisdom? Anything you wanted to mention that I forgot to ask?

Well, I feel that I have been really lucky to have been able to pursue the things I love most – surfing and music.  They have so much in common.  The late Timothy Leary once told me that we are all surfers of sorts riding different waves through the universe.  Sound waves, cosmic waves, permanent waves, whatever.  Riding through a guitar solo or singing is much like riding a wave on surfboard.  You’re climbing and dropping and tucking into little sections and it’s a lot of ad-lib and expression.  I love the feel both give me.  Performing is a rush and I like that, but I also just love being by myself and plugged in.  I can close my eyes and wander through new universes all the time.  In surfing you gotta keep the eyes open or you will wind up on the rocks.  But in music you can just soar without looking, just feeling.  Of course you can always wind up on the rocks doing that too, that’s what puts the thrill into it.  The only thing that bleeds is your soul.

Online:

www.corkysurfco.com

www.darla.com

Special thanks to James Agren at Darla Records for the help on this piece.

KNOWN PLEASURES: Peter Hook & the Light

Though more questions are raised than answered, the erstwhile Joy Division/New Order bassist clearly knows his material, and your reaction to it will depend upon where you fall on the purist scale. The albums: Unknown Pleasures Tour 2012: Live at Leeds; Closer Live Tour 2011: Live in Manchester; Movement Tour 2013: Live in Dublin; Power Corruption & Lies Tour 2013: Live in Dublin

 BY MICHAEL TOLAND

When a prominent member leaves a famous and still-active band and forms a rival outfit, it’s always something of a conundrum. What’s the line between a continuation of the original group’s vision and a cover act that happens to feature an original member? It’s made especially complicated when said rival concentrates on classic material, rather than creating new stuff. One might well ask: what’s the point beyond the initial rush of nostalgia? Especially if that bandmember is the bass player. Unless we’re talking about Geddy Lee, that’s hardly the member most fans want to see spin off into his own thing – after all, it’s usually the singer or perhaps the guitarist who draw the most attention.

For Peter Hook, however, it’s not so simple. After a famously acrimonious parting from New Order, he formed a group called the Light in order to play the Joy Division and New Order songs he loved. An original member of both groups, Hook was a driving musical force in both. His distinctive tone and penchant for playing high on the neck gives each band a unique bottom end – just try to imagine “Love Will Tear Us Apart” without that iconic bass riff. As co-writer and riff-generator, rather than just simply anchor, Hook has as much right to play these songs as anybody, and he’s made a comfortable career for himself performing them for audiences either old enough to miss the good ol’ days or too young to have experienced them live.

But both bands are identified by their lead singers – the flat, emotionally drained insistence of JD’s Ian Curtis and the light, poppy croon of NO’s Bernard Sumner. And the latter continues to tour with New Order, who are also still in the business of making new albums, rather than peddling nostalgia. (Though, let’s face it, NO concerts probably consist of a small handful of new tracks and an endless parade of hits.) Hook is strictly delivering reminiscence. Which begs the question: Does the Light need to make albums when the original albums he’s covering are still readily available?

Hook has decided to find out with a barrage of new releases via Westworld, all live, each devoted to a particular item from his prior acts’ catalogs. Live in Leeds takes on Joy Division’s iconic debut Unknown Pleasures, adding enough JD singles and B-sides to expand into a second disk. Live in Manchester, performed for a hometown crowd, addresses JD’s second and final LP Closer, adding many of the same non-album tracks as bonuses for a two-disk set. The Light proves itself to be a crack band, particularly drummer Paul Kehoe and guitarist Nat Wason, boasting enough reverence to do the material justice and enough energy to give the more aggressive songs a kick in the arse. With a gruff voice in the same range as Ian Curtis’, Hook slips into the late frontman’s role surprisingly well, though he doesn’t have his predecessor’s lived-in gloom. Like the band, Hook seems most comfortable with the pounding end of the JD songbook – “Warsaw,” “Transmission” and “Dead Souls” genuinely smoke. The occasional deep dive turns up songs like the punky “The Drawback,” from the scrapped version of JD’s debut album, or the instrumental “Incubation,” which appears only a posthumous JD live record and opens Manchester. Ending Leeds with “Ceremony,” the first New Order single that was intended to be a Joy Division song, is a nice touch.

The two volumes of Live in Dublin present Hook and co. doing New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies in their entirety. (Released, for some reason, in separate volumes, even though they were recorded at the same show and practically beg for another double disk set.) As the albums NO made before dancefloor dominance became paramount, they’re well-suited to the Light’s less synth-heavy, more rocking approach. The band plays up a storm, attacking these songs like they’re brand new. New six-stringer David Potts’ power chords gives every track balls, while Hook’s bass-playing son Jack Bates holds down the bottom so Hook can essay his usual high-neck plinks. Kehoe keeps the rhythms burning like a line of ash leading to dynamite. The aggression powering “Denial,” “Senses” and “Ultraviolence” may take longtime fans aback, though it’s not so much a radical shift as an aesthetic one. The Light is particularly potent on the non-album tracks – “Everything’s Gone Green” and “Procession” practically leap out of the speakers and at your throat.

The real contrast is in the vocals. Hook’s bluff baritone isn’t remotely close to NO guitarist Bernard Sumner’s choirboy croon, and the former’s frank struggle to keep with the same key as the originals can be a little, shall we say, disconcerting. (“Dreams Never End” and “Doubts Even Here” are excepted, since they were originally sung by Hook in the first place.) The brooding balladry of “Your Silent Face,” grooving dance pop of “True Faith” and unabashed sugar of “Age of Consent” and “Temptation” practically beg for a voice less prone to flatness and grit. It doesn’t help that the first half of the Movement release consists of Joy Division tunes, which suit Hook far better.

No one, including Hook, would ever claim these records are superior to the originals. So once again the question arises: What’s the point? Are they mere souvenirs for diehard fans to take home from concert tours? Considering how hard the band cooks and the obvious love and effort put into the performances, it’s difficult to dismiss these records as just items to take up space on the merch table. And goodness knows it may be the only chance to hear the Joy Division songs played live by someone who was there. In the end, of course, it’s up to the individual listener. For some, no takes on these songs without Ian Curtis or the rest of New Order serves any point. For others, the might of the band and the live energy may be enough to justify the spins. Pick your poison.

Consumer Note: The albums were originally released as limited edition vinyl for this year’s Record Store Day.

A HEAP O’ FUN: Uriah Heep

Hop into the WayBack machine to 1971-72, and reconsider three key remastered reissues from Hensley, Byron, Box, and the gang. Bullets optional; more cowbell!

BY BILL KOPP

Critical consensus has not been overly kind to Uriah Heep. The British heavy progressive rockers released a string of commercially successful albums in the 1970s – and persist in greatly altered form to this very day – but they often got short shrift from tastemakers. A typical summation of the group and its work can be found in a worn and dog-eared copy of The Rolling Stone Record Guide: “A mutant version of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep has to be considered one of the worst commercially successful bands of the Seventies.” The Guide gives 11 of 14 Uriah Heep albums rated a bullet (“worthless”) while the other three each earn one star (“poor”).

I’m here to call bullshit on that. Uriah Heep hit a creative peak that extended (at least) across three albums: Look at Yourself (1971), Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday (both 1972). Scored on sincerity and profusion of imaginative melodies/riffs, that musical triptych is in fact an exemplar of the era’s hard rock.

And the albums have worn better than one might expect. Though the band’s lineup shifted often (even in the period when these records were made, there were personnel changes), at their peak Uriah Heep had a distinctive sound that was – while perhaps not quite all their own (they did sound a bit like Deep Purple) – identifiable and appealing.

Today, Look at Yourself is the least-remembered of the three records, but it’s filled with memorable hooks, and nobody could ever question the passion with which the band delivered its music. BMG’s recent expanded reissue of the album includes the original seven-cut album on the first CD, with a bonus disc full of 11 tracks – all previously unreleased – including alternate takes/mixes, leftover tracks, single edits and the like.

Even better – much better, in fact, is 1972’s Demons and Wizards. Yes, it includes the band’s most well-known tune, the pile-driving “Easy Livin’,” a number that isn’t especially representative of Uriah Heep’s sound. More typical of the group’s output in that era is “The Wizard” (not the Black Sabbath tune), a number that features David Byron’s dramatic lead vocals, Mick Box’s always inventive guitar work, Ken Hensley’s delightfully grandiloquent and often heavily distorted organ, and an arrangement that wrings every bit of theatricality out of the music. Sure, it’s easy to parody this kind of thing, focused lyrically on Tolkiensque themes yet without the occasional preciousness of, say Jon Anderson’s lyrics. Spinal Tap made a career out of poking fun at the proto-metal, proto-power balladeering of groups like Uriah Heep. But these songs rock in their own way, and are deserving of respect.

The expanded reissue of Demons and Wizards is truly a revelation. The bonus cuts are easily as good as the previously-released ones, suggesting that had Uriah Heep been so bold as to have made Demons and Wizards a double album, it would have been quite a good one. A non-LP cut, “Why” was originally the flip side of “The Wizard.” The new set includes a nearly eight-minute edit of the song that features a thunderous, corkscrew bass line that is truly a hard-rocking thing of beauty. And it’s just one of many tasty tracks on the set. Demons and Wizards would be Uriah Heep’s first Gold Award album in the USA.

And while it didn’t include a hit single on the scale of “Easy Livin’,” The Magician’s Birthday is nearly the equal of Demons and Wizards. For whatever reason, the band was firing on all cylinders in 1971 and ’72, cranking out more quality material than it had space to release. So the 2CD reissue of The Magician’s Birthday features no less than 15 bonus tracks. Most are alternate versions – which, admittedly can get a bit tiring after a while – but they’re all worthwhile. And like the other two reissue sets, it features excellent and informative liner note essays by Joel McIver, based on band interviews.

Was Uriah Heep’s music over the top? Sure; I’ll grant you that. Was it silly? Sometimes, yeah. C’mon: this is rock ‘n’ roll we’re talking about here. Was it fun? Absolutely, without a doubt. Is it still all of those things? You bet. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must – I for one wear my Heep fandom proudly – but if you value the heavier end of what would come to be known as classic rock, you need these albums in your collection. And if you only have the originals, these 2CD sets are a worthwhile upgrade/addition.

***

Bill “Lord Byron” Kopp is the BLURT Jazz Desk Editor, additionally vying this month to be our official Prog God Bureau correspondent. Submit your votes, comments, and sundry submissions to his Musoscribe music magazine blog.

STILL STUBBORN, STILL PERSISTENT: Do Make Say Think

Canadian post-rockers return after eight-year hiatus with memorable set of instrumentals.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

The title of the latest from Toronto-based post-rockers Do Make Say Think alludes to the Buddhist notion that all seemingly distinct thoughts and ideas are, in truth, connected to collective subconscious feelings. This may be the most open exploration of that conceit in the band’s 25-year tenure, but for fans it’s been Do Make Say Think’s defining trait—the connective tissue in their vastly diverse sonic explorations is what stocks their records with such emotional power.

Despite a gap of eight years between recordings, Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation) upholds the band’s aesthetic without seeming to miss a two-drum-kits beat.  These nine tracks, ranging from glitchy four-minute piano-based lullabies to epic 10-minute guitar workouts, read like an anthology (of sorts) of the band’s holistic approach to instrumental rock.

By and large, Do Make Say Think steer clear of the predictable Mogwai/Explosions in the Sky post-rock theorem—Melody + Tempo over Crescendo, divided by Volume. They’ve also avoided disappearing down the electronic rabbit hole that the genre’s flag-bearers, Tortoise, seem determined to do.

Instead, the band’s multi-instrumentalist core—Ohad Benchetrit (guitar, keyboard, horns), Charles Spearin (bass, guitar, keys, horns), Justin Small (guitar, keys), and drummers Dave Mitchell and James Payment—build their pieces organically, never letting effects hijack melody.

Take the LP’s signature statement, the 10-plus minute “Horripilation.” In the beginning, guitar figures lazily circle each other like summer insects before the bass pulls the tempo forward and the drums began an urgent thrum. The song pares back to reveal two keyboard lines taking the place of the guitars, this time accompanied by subtle strings and later by horn skronks, all of it gelling together with synth squiggles, distortion and lurches of feedback. By the seventh minute the song is in cymbals-crashing high gallop, where DMST then peel back the instrumentation until only the guitar melody remains. It’s a deft reversal, and one that rewards multiple listens.

But memorable moments like that abound. On the “Her Eyes on the Horizon,” the quintet channel the controlled abandon familiar from their parent company, Broken Social Scene, into the collective’s all-for-one, one-for-all crescendos that seem to extol “team concept.” (If this were the NBA, DMST would be the Warriors, not the Raptors—sorry, guys.) A companion piece, “As Far as the Eye Can See,” follows, snare-rolls and trap replacing toms-thunder as guitar glissandos roll in and out of focus until a new melody emerges and spirals off into the distance.

“Murder of Thoughts” taps into a more overtly Western patina, recalling Spearin’s earlier project, Valley of the Giants. Timpani and pedal steel conjure the vast expanses, and by song’s end they drift organically into the sound of a rusty weathercock turning squeakily in the high plains wind.

Another set of companion tunes also highlight DMST’s diverse sonic palette. Oscillating between layered synth burbles and arena-sized riffs, the five minutes of “Bound” terminate in a violent mood swing, courtesy of air raid warning-sized synth blasts which overlap into “And Boundless.” There, roiling drums and horror flick keyboards gradually morph into an unexpected—and beautiful— glissando-rich melody.

At a shade under four minutes, the piano-based “Shlomo’s Son” clocks in as the LP’s most reflective moment, before DMST close things out by doubling back to the multiple-guitar attack on “Return, Return Again.” It opens with one guitarist looping quick-fingered arpeggios while another layers over that an elegant melody. The drums lash those riffs with increasing fervor, until waves of keyboards and a fluttering baritone sax manage to turn what should be cacophony into transcendence. As walk-offs go, it’s a doozy.

Just about the only misstep here is, oddly, the opener, “War on Torpor.” Not only is the title a bit on-the-nose, but the song never really modulates its aggressive guitar attack over its five minute-run. By the end of the assault it sounds like something that would be more at home with prog kings Yes, circa Relayer, than the rest of the LP.

It’s not even close to a deal breaker, though, and arguably enhances by contrast the rest of the LP’s compelling nuance, textures and power. But then not every collective subconscious feeling has to be a good one—it’s just better when the balance of our stubborn and persistent illusions comes out this far ahead in the musical equation.

Consumer Note: The Constellation label has gone the extra mile, packaging- and design-wise, for vinyl collectors. In addition to a credits insert, there’s also a fold-out poster that replicates the outer art on the gatefold sleeve, and both 180gm LPs are housed in deluxe, sleek-lined inner sleeves to minimize any potential scuffs incurred when sliding the records out. And most intriguingly, side D does not contain music, but a series of small nature etchings ringing the surface. This may all seem nominal when judging the music, but it’s indicative of both the label and the band’s desire to present a work of art—something that’s simply not possible when dealing with a digital stream or download. (And digital fans, never fear: A download card is included.)

BAND PHOTO CREDIT: Sandlin Gaither

***

Ed. note: DMST is performing tonight, June 10, in Toronto at the Danforth Music Hall. You’ll be able to watch the live stream via YouTube – click on the player below for details.

ROQUE ON! The Upper Crust

Lord Bendover holds court with our resident Whig, revealing his thoughts on formal stage attire, the allure of outlandish concert rider demands, and why the current King, er, we mean, President, is a bloody vulgarian. Following the interview, check out a must-see documentary, “Let Them Eat Rock,” on the band from a few years ago.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

While it has never been confirmed that the legendary aristocratic foppish hard rock band, The Upper Crust, dust their wigs with cocaine, based on the blazing licks that spark off their flying Vs, it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.

Although it’s been almost a decade since the Boston-based foursome – comprised of Lord Bendover, Count Bassie, The Duc D’istortion and Jackie Kickassis – last put out a full-length album, Delusions of Grandeur more than makes up for the wait. And it’s not like they didn’t want to record. Like most of the 1%, they simply haven’t been forced to adapt to things like work ethic or schedules.

Pinkies raised firmly in the air, the band, dressed in full 18th century finery have spent much of the spring interacting with the common folk touring the U.S. On a rare break, singer/guitarist Lord Bendover was kind enough to entertain few questions from BLURT and discuss their hiatus from the music world, Donald Trump and some of the finer points of their tour rider.

Rocque on!

BLURT: It’s been almost eight years since you last put out a studio album – why the delay? What has the band been up to? 

LORD BENDOVER: We are gentlemen of leisure, given to indolence, intemperance, and very occasionally, frivolity, but only if it doesn’t require any effort. So, we have been doing hardly anything at all to speak of, except for satisfying our baser appetites and rocquing and rolling in various places.

For a band composed of aristocrats, Hard Rock seems like an odd choice. Hard Rock always felt more like a genre for the underdogs.

We have always felt that it’s high time that an oeuvre as important, exacting and aesthetically challenging as hard rock – or better, “Rocque” – ought to be appropriated by the upper class. After all, we’ve appropriated everything else of value. (Ed. note: the video for “Little Castrato” is below, and yes, it does indeed sound like a cross between classic Motley Crue and, uh, the Beach Boys, with some Ramones thrown in for good measure.)

Obviously, you take the time to dress up for your shows. What do you usually see when you look out into the audience?

 Sometimes we are pleased to find that the audience has dressed themselves appropriately for a formal rocque concerto, but all too often we are crestfallen to see that they appear, to all intents and purposes, to be a bunch of stumblebums. Yet one can’t judge a book by its cover… perhaps they are merely slumming and failed to note the dress code.

Let’s move on to politics. With Trump in the White House, why is now the right time for more music from a band like The Upper Crust?

 We ourselves are hardly Trump supporters—he is not called a vulgarian without reason. And yet it is gratifying to know that he is all in favor of consolidating wealth at the very top of high society, at the expense of the poorer classes, whilst all the while proclaiming his affinity for the common man. But to address the substance of your question, it is always the right time for The Upper Crust.

I’d be interested to know what’s on your tour rider – any outlandish demands?

 Nothing too outlandish. Though if we are ever again presented with what purports to be “real Siamese twins” who on closer inspection have been conjoined with Krazy Glue we shall be quite put out.

It’s hard to find a band to compare you guys to. What are some of the oddest show bills you’ve ever been put on?

Bookers are forever pairing us with costume and comedy rock bands, as if there was anything funny or make-believe about The Upper Crust. The only truly great thematic band we’ve played with, and we’ve played with them enough to know, are San Francisco’s Grannies. Though we will always remember Aerosmith, whom we played with one New Year’s Eve in Boston, coming out onstage dressed more or less exactly like us. An homage.

What’s next for the band?

 Next, we intend to find a way to crack the inscrutable Orient. Whilst that develops, we also intend to return to the Continent. Any continent will do really.
Those are all the questions I have. Anything else you want to cover? 

 We are great lovers of the nude figure in Art. That is all.

Photos credit: Ben Stas

REMEMBERING… Fleetwood Mac’s Bob Welch

With the fifth anniversary of his death arriving this week, we pay tribute to the underrated guitarist.

BY DAVE STEINFELD

When I heard about Bob Welch’s death on June 7th — allegedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound — I was both sad and shocked. But it went beyond that. First, June 7th happens to be my birthday. Second, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob more than once. The first time was when I was writing a daily oldies music service for a well-known radio network. After the interview, my boss decided she didn’t want to run a piece on him after all. I challenged her but she was the boss and she won; the piece never ran and we never gave Bob the attention he deserved. It’s been a recurring theme in his career. Frankly, I’ve been appalled at the coverage — or, more accurately, the lack of coverage — of his death. Though he wasn’t a household name, Bob was far from obscure. (Agreed. BLURT published an obituary at the time, but it didn’t seem like many other music outlets took notice. –Ed.)

He was best known, of course, for his tenure with Fleetwood Mac. As a guitarist and singer-songwriter, Bob basically led the band during the first half of the ’70s — after their stint as a blues-rock combo fronted by Peter Green but before they became one of the biggest bands of all time with the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Bob was the first American to join the band, and his song “Future Games” became the title track of their 1971 album (his first with the band). He stayed with them through four more albums in as many years before leaving on good terms and striking out on his own. There’s sometimes a misconception that Bob was ousted and replaced by Buckingham but this wasn’t the case. It’s just ironic that right after he left, Fleetwood Mac became very successful on the basis of their self-titled 1975 disc and then massive two years later with the release of Rumours.

Still, if the Welch years weren’t Fleetwood Mac’s greatest period, they produced some fine moments. The best one may have been “Hypnotized,” a gorgeous, jazz-influenced tune from 1973’s Mystery to Me. “I’ve always been interested in ‘out there’ subjects,” Bob told me, explaining the song’s genesis. “I’d been doing a lot of reading about astral travel and the whole Carlos Castaneda thing. Also, I had a friend from North Carolina who had a very strange experience while riding dirt bikes in the woods. [He] came upon this weird sort of crater — him and about five friends. Right in the middle of the woods! He said it was the weirdest thing they’d ever seen and they immediately got the feeling that they should get out of there. This time-stopped type of feeling. So he told me that story and I sort of incorporated all the images about it into that song.”

Bob seemed somewhat mixed about leaving the Mac when he did. “I wonder sometimes how my life would have been different had I stayed,” he admitted. “I had success on my own but they had quantum success beyond that — which in those days translated into a lot of partying. I think I would have gone off a cliff on my motorcycle [had I stayed]. So in that sense, I’m glad I didn’t. It would [have been] fun to see what would have resulted from my musical input with Stevie and Lindsey. Sometimes I wonder about that. But I don’t have any [other] regrets.”

Bob was incredibly prolific in the decade after he left Fleetwood Mac. Initially, he led a hard-rock trio called Paris and released two albums with them. But what really put him on the map was his 1977 solo debut, French Kiss. Bob always said that French Kiss was a blatant attempt to write hits — and boy, did it work! The disc was a smash, producing three chart singles. The biggest was a remake of his beautiful ballad “Sentimental Lady,” which originally appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees album. The new version featured Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and even Buckingham and scored Bob a Top 10 hit. The follow-up, a rocker called “Ebony Eyes,” was nearly as popular.

His sophomore set, Three Hearts, appeared in 1979 during the height of the disco craze. While not as successful as French Kiss, it did more than respectably, spawning a hit with “Precious Love.” He would issue four more solo releases between 1980 and 1983. None produced a hit, which is a bit mystifying considering both his previous track record and the quality of the music. After Eye Contact, his final studio outing for RCA, Bob didn’t release another album until the late 1990s. That disc, Bob Welch Looks at Bop, was a jazz album of all things. By this time, he had been through many ups and downs, musically and personally, and was less interested in trying to write hits than in following his muse.

Around that same time, Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to the band’s classic lineup (Fleetwood, John and Christine McVie, Buckingham and Nicks), all their major guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer) were inducted — except Bob Welch. It was a glaring and inexplicable omission and Bob was hurt. That said, it wasn’t as if he hated his former bandmates. When I spoke with him in 2003, the Mac had just released Say You Will, their first album in years. Though it didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, Bob was unequivocal in praising it. “I absolutely love it,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing they’ve done in a long time. Lindsey’s just all over the place [with] layers and textures and stuff. I was knocked out by it.”

We went on to discuss the sad state of commercial radio in the 21st century. “Radio used to be [better] in the days of the AM stations,” he said. “They’d play Dionne Warwick, then they’d play The Beatles, then they’d play the MC5, then they’d play Tony Bennett. I think the fragmentation [of music] has added to the fragmentation and divisiveness of our society. Up until the point where we’ve got — well, you know what we’ve got, being from New York. One side hates the other.” He was right, of course.

RIP, Bob. You were a great guy and a talented, underrated musician who deserved better.

MICHAEL TOLAND: 3 ECM PIANO TRIOS—Collin Vallon, Benedikt Jahnel Trio, Julia Hülsmann Trio

Today at the BLURT Jazz Desk we have guest columnist and blogger Michael Toland weighing in on three recent piano trio releases from the venerable ECM label. Take it away, Prof. Toland. – Fred Mills & Bill Kopp

 

COLIN VALLON – Danse (3 out of 5 stars; released Jan. 27)

BENEDIKT JAHNEL TRIO – The Invariant (4 stars; released Feb. 17

JULIA HÜLSMANN TRIO – Sooner and Later (4 stars; released March 10)

(ECM) http://ecmrecords.com

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

The piano trio is one of the bedrock supports of jazz, a vehicle seemingly perfectly designed for the balance of composition and improvisation that drives the genre. Whether inadvertently or by design, ECM released in the first quarter a, ahem, trio of records by contemporary piano threesomes, all based in Europe, that deserve a close look.

Swiss keyboard-ticker Colin Vallon sounds like he’s putting a classical education to use on Danse, his fifth album. Joined by bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Julian Sartorious, the Lausanne native concentrates on minimalist melody, moving his digits toward accessible chord sequences and stripped-down licks rather than complicated fingerings or improvisatory flights of fancy. “Kid,” “Morn” and “Sisyphe” don’t push musical boundaries – they simply lay out Vallon’s tuneship as directly as possible. That doesn’t mean he’s crossed the line into new age dreck, however. Sartorious’ frisky cymbal work keeps the rhythms percolating, and the band shifts to more adventurous waters on the complexly structured “L’Onde” and the tensely stretched “Tinguely” (composed by Moret), even going for what sounds like free improv on the title track. While it would’ve been cool to hear the three push themselves a bit more in that vein, it’s also nice to hear a clearly skilled player this comfortable with the direct approach.

Berlin pianist Benedikt Jahnel takes a more traditionally jazz-oriented approach on his third LP The Invariant. Joined by telepathically swinging bassist Antonio Miguel and drummer Owen Howard, Jahnel takes liberties with his melodies, spiraling around them as often as playing them straight through. His nimble keyboard work enhances the tunes powering “Interpolation One” and “Further Consequences,” stopping just short of busy while still letting his technique shine. “Part of the Game” builds on a galloping bassline and almost conga-like drumming for a Latin-tinged, polyrhythmic exercise in making a song dance. “For the Encore” and “En passant” take the opposite tack, relaxing the tempo and arrangement to keep the musicians out of the tunes’ way. The nine-and-a-half minute “Mirrors” shows the trio at its most ambitious, performing a multi-part suite whose sections interlock so smoothly it sounds like it was written as it was being played. A preternaturally sympatico rhythm section and Jahnel’s compositional leadership make The Invariant a delight from start to finish.

As a follow-up to the remarkable quartet album A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America, German pianist Julia Hülsmann (born in Bonn, based in Berlin) returns to the trio format for the first time in six years with Sooner and Later. Hülsmann is a more exploratory pianist than either Vallon or Jahnel – she likes to meander around inside her compositions, checking out the alleys, poking around in the corners and generally enjoying the feel of her own work. That doesn’t mean the tracks come off as unfocused or sloppy, however – “From Afar,” “Soon” and “J.J.” wander with purpose, boasting a playful and relaxed feel that comes from confidence in the durability of the compositions. Bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling contribute pieces as well – the latter’s “You & You” and “Later” sound like the Vince Guaraldi Trio interpreting Pat Metheny tunes, while the former’s “The Poet (For Ali)” shimmers gently like the dawn peeking over the horizon. The trio also covers Radiohead’s “All I Need” with exquisite feel and taste. Throughout the focus stays on Hülsmann, whether she’s comping atmospheric chords or tapping out angular riffs that chop through the arrangements. Sooner and Later brings the Hülsmann Trio back home, and it’s like they never left.

DOWNLOAD: “L’Onde” (Vallon), “Mirrors” (Jahmel), “Soon” (Hulsmann)

 

14 STEPS: Garland Jeffreys Live

Hugh’s Room Live was the scene, and the man delivered. Boy, did he ever.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM

I’ve never met the Pope. But I’ve met Garland Jeffreys and I’m expecting the experience to be similar. Aside from the man’s 47+ years of show business credentials and endless library of exceptional songs, he appears to stand for everything that matters in this world, embracing an absolute love of his fellow man with a buoyant, upbeat positivity that would make Julie Andrews blush – everything you’d expect of a proper pontiff. Completely approachable and extremely fan-friendly, the extra time he invested into the end of his evening turned out to be as lengthy as the 16-song set he and his Coney Island Playboys had just laid out for a full, adoring house of forever fans. Long after most artists would’ve been justifiably hotel-bound, Garland Jeffreys sincerely cares to go that extra mile.

Touring his latest (14th) release, the 12-track 14 Steps To Harlem, Jeffreys was quick to keep things moving forward, proving that one of New York’s finest poets is as relevant today as he ever was –possibly more so. A lifetime of smart, socially-conscious songs and brilliant covers – dipped in loving portions of rock, R&B, blues and reggae – has resulted in the creation of music defying simple categorization. Born to an African American father and a Puerto-Rican mother, the tough neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn made him the butt of rampant racism, paying dearly for being neither fully white or black. Jeffreys fought back with love and music, penning countless songs to document his painful, isolated journey in his efforts to right the wrongs of the world without ever once pulling the victim card. In so doing, he grew all the more invincible for his efforts, earning the respect – and friendship – of powerful people.

So, for many of us, Garland Jeffreys is more than a successful musician with an impressive career (who, by the way, still sounds and acts as freshly-squeezed as he did when he first started). He’s a modern-day hero, if not an icon for beating the odds and winning over negativity with compassion and positive action. And…. let’s not forget the fruit of his labor – his inimitable catalogue. Beginning with a track from 2011’s The King of In Between, “Coney Island Winter”, Jeffreys and band slowly built up momentum as the small Hugh’s Room stage had its sound adjusted.

Rolling Stone’s Best New Artist of the Year (’77) followed this with “’til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” from the same record, a tough-sounding blue boogie in the spirit of the master. Yet it took the slowed down version of the Stones-like “The Contortionist” (The King of In Between) to truly appreciate the ageless quality of Jeffreys’ rich vocals. The significant live skills of his band members are not to be discounted, integral to Jeffreys’ secret recipe. Keyboardist and longtime band member, Charly Roth, plays a key role in adding flesh to each composition while the fat-bottomed rhythm section of drummer Tom Curiano and bassist Brian Stanley are crucial to the foot-tapping nature of every Jeffreys song. Guitarist Justin “J.J.” Jordan proved a wizard with many surprises – from dizzying lead solos and special effects across a range of stringed instruments.

The highly effervescent “Venus” (from 14 Steps To Harlem) is a natural fit to Jeffreys’ repertoire – a “summer song” if you’ve ever heard one, causing the artist to ask the crowd if he had a hit on his hands. “Yes”, came the immediate vote. Harlem’s ”Reggae On Broadway” fed fans their fix of that earthy collision of New York via Jamaica. Yet it was two tracks from ‘77s Ghost Writer that quickly elevated the temperature of the room: the infectious “35 Millimeter Dreams” was manna from heaven while the sweetly soulful “Spanish Town” benefited from Jordan’s deft Spanish guitar accompaniment and Jeffreys’ emotional mastery over the Latin-esque ballad. Chili dogs have never sounded so appetizing.

The newer, rockier “When You Call My Name” (Harlem) followed with supportive vocals from band members and a heavily, keyboard-led groove. A heartfelt story about meeting John Lennon (a like-minded advocate of right over wrong) led to a slowed-down, graceful remake of The Beatles’ ”Help” (14 Steps). The quirky “Harlem Bound”, from his self-titled ’73 release, took flight, nourished by Roth’s lovely piano and powered by Stanley’s funky bass contributions, before segueing into the powerful “14 Steps to Harlem”. A tribute to Dylan’s influence came in the form of “She Belongs To Me” merged into his tribute to fellow Syracuse University classmate, Lou Reed, and an aggressive, harder-edged cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man”. Far from an artist feeling the need to ‘milk the oldies’, “Ghost Writer” has become a must-play and the audience was treated to this sensual, if not penultimate Jeffreys track which, again, revisited elements of “14 Steps to Harlem” to stunning effect. Ghost Writer’s “New York Skyline” was another essential flashback as Jeffreys updated it with a “We’re All Equal” rap that also boasted one of Jordan’s most effective guitar solos.

And, from the school of Ending the Show with a Bang, an uproariously funky treatment of “Hail Hail Rock’n’Roll” (from Don’t Call Me Buckwheat) was a talk-sung barn-burner – not before closing with an equally powerful cover of one of his strongest covers – ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” (from Escape Artist), featuring some impressive B3 from Roth’s keyboard. Sweating up a storm and in a clearly rambunctious mood – nourished by an audience who couldn’t quite get enough of Pope Garland – this night was clearly as much fun for the spry performer as it was for the party faithful. Jokingly, he reminded us that, should anyone ask what the ruckus was all about, “tell them Elvis was in the building. ‘

There was no “Wild In The Streets”, “Cool Down Boy” or “I May Not Be Your Kind” – but there didn’t need to be. Essential? Vital? Legendary? Crucial? You can’t help but gain a reassuring handle on your world given the realization that New York’s proudest son continues to perform like a man on a mission. Even better, despite all that he’s endured, Jeffreys feels truly blessed in his role to make the world a better place. Hail, hail indeed.

Postscript” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know Garland Jeffreys or doesn’t understand his musical contribution, there’s good news in the form of a feature documentary that’s in the works. Interviews with Laurie Anderson, Graham Parker and Harvey Keitel are already in the can as this project grows. You can get involved via the crowd-funding site, below:

http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/whoisgarlandjeffreys