How, indeed: by speaking the truth, not lies. Philly’s Fillmore was the scene for this sweat-soaked June 5 evening by Britain’s Frank Turner and his band The Sleeping Souls, and they did not disappoint—not even the Trump-country drunks who took exception to some of Mr. Turner’s more sharpened verbal daggers. Above photo by Ben Morse, via Turner’s Facebook page.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a long time since Frank Turner had to play basement shows and VFW Halls, sleeping on strangers’ floors before loading up the van the next morning and heading to the next show, but he clearly is still every bit as much of that scrappy DIY punk rocker.
Headlining a show in Philly recently, promoting his latest record, Be More Kind, Turner did plenty of crowd surfing, sang enough of his own political punk anthems to please The Clash and encouraged safety in the pit (a plea from just about every punk rock singer with a mic dating back to the early ‘80s).
“First rule tonight, don’t be a dickhead; second rule, if you know the words to these songs you have to sing along – loudly!”
The set, and Turner in particular, was a masterclass in pleasing everyone from diehard fans to the uninitiated dragged to the show by friends. From the moment Turner took to the stage in dark pants, a soon-to-be soaked through with sweat white oxford and a thin black tie, he entertained with a ferocity and passion that belied the fact that he’s been on the road for nearly a month already. Running through a couple of his newer songs up front, he quickly moved into some of the older fan favorites like “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” “If I Ever Stray” and even the B-side “Tattoos.” He and the band also rolled out “Brave Face,” off the new album, for its live show debut.
“I’m not American, but over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time here. I’ve toured 48 states so far,” Turner said before launching into the remarkably appropriate song, “Make America Great Again,” a pitch perfect rebuke on Trump and all of the racists who have crawled out from under their rocks since his election. “A friend told me you’re not going to have the balls to play this song in America. I said, ‘Americans are fucking adults and they can understand a song about politics.’”
The song was met with loud cheers as the sold-out crowd sang along to every verse. Well, almost everyone, one of the exceptions being the drunk stranger who leaned over to me and croaked out “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people coming into our country and telling us what’s wrong with our politics. Amirite?” When I disagreed, he hugged me (that’s odd, right?) and then walked out of the venue and into the night, like a Red State Michael Landon from a Highway to Heaven reboot for the Trump era. No one else seemed to have a problem singing along loudly and proudly to the chorus (“Let’s make America great again/let’s make racists ashamed again”).
Turner closed off the show with a spirited encore that included the rapturous “I Still Believe” and the should-be punk rock anthem “Four Simple Words.”
Below: The King in action, followed by his doppelganger Turner making things great, in a pair of official videos.
Frank Turner will be spending a good amount of time touring North America this summer and into the fall. Dates are HERE. Our suggestion: borrow your redneck Republican neighbor’s MAGA hat and bring it for Turner to sign…
With a reunion tour under their belt and a career-spanning vinyl box set in stores, the British outfit’s is feeling righteously recharged. Let’s cast back to one memorable evening in 1990 when the BLURT editor crossed paths with them and lived to write about it. (Photos of Thee Hypnotics in Charlotte by Kerry McCaskill.)
BY FRED MILLS
About three years ago, this magazine published an exclusive interview with Ray Hanson, erstwhile guitarist for Thee Hypnotics, who blazed a memorable 1985-99 hard rock trail across their native UK as well as the US and Europe, releasing three studio albums and a live one, plus several singles and Eps, before burning out and splitting up. The occasion of our Hanson interview, which was conducted by my fellow Thee Hypnotics devotee Jonathan Levitt, was to examine the making and aftermath of what most fans still consider to be their classic LP, 1991’s Soul Glitter & Sin. At the time Hanson had plenty of work on his hands with his band the Whores of Babylon, and of course vocalist Jim Jones was working on his own projects, including the Jim Jones Revue and, later, Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind. But when asked the inevitable reunion question, Hanson certainly didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “You never know!”
As it turns out, the reunion not only became a possibility, but also a reality. Earlier this year the band commenced doing live gigs, and an official press release trumpeted the news in wonderfully florid fashion:
“Taking their cues from the Detroit militancy of The MC5, the corrupting output of The Stooges and the gospel according to The Cramps, Thee Hypnotics’ devastating brand of rock’n’roll was propelled by near punishing decibel levels and a fervour bordering on the evangelical. Blazing a devastating trail of high-octane thrills and annihilation, Thee Hypnotics occupied a bizarre hinterland that sat somewhere between the British neo-psychedelic scene of the late 80s and the detonation of garage-influenced rock from the Pacific northwest of the early 90s. Little wonder that a band that shone so bright would burn out before the end of the century.
“And now they’re back…
“For the first time in 20 years, the classic line-up of co-founders Jim Jones (vocals) and Ray Hanson (guitar), with Phil Smith (drums) and Jeremy Cottingham (bass), is set to hit the road with all the power of a Viking raiding party. Still harbouring an intense belief in assaultive rock’n’roll as liberation, and delivering their sonic payload with a savage intensity, this influential and legendary group is back to testify one more time.”
Also announced was that the members were additionally overseeing a career-spanning vinyl box set featuring all three studio albums—1990’s Come Down Heavy, the aforementioned SG&S and 1993’s Chris Robinson-produced The Very Crystal Speed Machine—plus a bonus rarities album, In A Trance (Thee Early Daze 86-89). Immaculately designed, the 4LP box, Righteously Re-Charged, released by Beggars Arkive, ably provides snapshots of the group’s every stage, from humble indie beginnings as a Motor City-fixated outfit with a fetish for leather jackets, aviator shades, and tight pants, to widescreen rockers on a cinematic, noirish trip, to full-bore, druggy Seventies worshipers. Nary a dull moment, either, for while charting a steady (and impressive) musical evolution, the box also vividly displays songwriting chops and attitudinal swagger that, for its time, was well outside the British norm. No happy Mondays for these lads; every night’s a 2AM Saturday.
The 12-page booklet is the perfect listening companion, too, stuffed to the gills with rare photos, a new interview and a pair of impressionistic essays—and, I’m not so humble as to not mention, Mr. Levitt’s BLURT interview with Hanson (yours truly is also given thanks from the band, but all I did was edit and publish, it’s all Jonathan and Ray, so thanks to both of you, gents). Oh, and the LPs are all on different colors of vinyl: purple, red, white, and clear. Nice touch, that.
Below, watch the trailer for the documentary film about the band that drummer Phil Smith has assembled.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to resurrect an article from deep in my archives, a 1990 profile/interview of the band originally published in the late fall of that year in The Bob magazine and titled half men, half boys (all beasts) in a (somewhat) clever nod to a Thee Hypnotics songtitle. I was living in Charlotte, NC, in 1990 and that spring the band came through town with then-labelmates Tad; their LP debut actually was prior to Come Down Heavy, the part-live album Live’r Than God, which in the US was released by Sub Pop. I was already a fan, having been gifted a copy of their first single by a female friend (Cindy, if you’re out there, I still owe you a big thank-you) who’d traveled to England recently and knew the band’s manager, Steve Langdon. I had also been gifted a demo tape of the band and subsequently reviewed the single in The Bob, making sure Langdon got a copy, and when I had learned they would in fact be coming to Charlotte, I quickly set up an interview through the manager.
Indeed, upon meeting me at soundcheck the afternoon of the show, I was greeted like an old friend—I’m pretty sure I was one of the first American journalists to write about Thee Hypnotics—and the first question after the handshakes was, “Where can we get some liquor?” I promptly got in the van with Langdon and we headed off to the store to round up plenty of refreshments. During the ride London played me a tape of some rough studio mixes to get me revved up for the show.
Later that evening, following a hilarious dinner with the Tad guys and incendiary sets from both groups, I settled down in their dressing room to, ahem, help them go through a few bottles of Jack Daniels and ostensibly conduct an interview. Jones, though, decided instead to run off with a mysterious young lady, so Hanson and bassist Will Pepper opted to head out with me to a nearby all-night diner for some grub and convo.
As I was somewhat worse for the wear in the wake of the booze, the interview went about as well as might be expected, something I learned the next morning when I played back portions of the interview cassette. Clearly the two musicians had been more than generous with their time and tolerant of their de facto host; put another way, it was definitely not the most insightful (or lucid) interview I’d done. But I was determined to make lemons out of lemonade, not to mention live up to my promise of getting the band some U.S. ink, so I went ahead filed the following text and even admitted to my general lack of professionalism in the story. Read on—but consider yourself duly warned.
Thee Hypnotics—The Bob Interview (1990)
Or, how to salvage an interview in several E-Z steps.
Back in March, Sub Pop sent Thee Hypnotics around on tour with Tad, in support of their Live’r Than God! album. The English band had already signed to Beggars Banquet Records for their next album, so this initial American jaunt was merely to lay some groundwork for subsequent headlining tours.
The March 29 show in Charlotte left me, as the saying goes, completely blown away by the sheer hard rock power the band evinced and the total energy transfer that took place between band and audience. Seemingly not caring that there were only around 50 people at the show (despite having among their fanbase the likes of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, they were not in any way well-known yet in the States), Thee Hypnotics throttled the stage for nearly an hour, the rhythm section setting in motion a nonstop, malevolent, grunting rumble, while the guitarist peeled off screams of wah-wah, distortion, and feedback amid fat power-chord chunkage.
Three of the guys, I might add, were decked out in vintage rock star garb: boots, purple flares, crushed velvet jackets—a direct lineage to Your Satanic Majesty or Mr. Hendrix. The singer opted for a different but no less striking form of cool: a polka-dot shirt later discarded to reveal his John Lee Hooker teeshirt underneath.
And he howled like the delta bluesman himself, possessed of low-down tremblin’ shakes and knowing that his deal with the devil was soon to come to term. He stamped the mic stand in fury, dropped to his knees out of sheer desperation, rolled around near the edge, then leaped back up in time for the final chorus. Consummate professionals, they were; and if you hear someone making those Stooges comparisons, don’t necessary ignore or deplore, because the Detroit Rock City sound has been reborn but its reputation has in no way been sullied.
Now, before the gig, manager Steve Langdon requested directions to the local liquor store, so I hopped in the tour van and duly directed. While he was in the store I remained in the van listening to some mighty potent rough mixes of some forthcoming music. This was the beginning of my downfall, and it wouldn’t help that the gig itself would be so overwhelming; already primed beforehand with this secret sonic knowledge, indulgence mode kicked in and I would indeed indulge over the course of the evening. Cue up decibels, several cups of wine during the show, and numerous swigs from the band’s Jack Daniels bottle afterward.
Memo to fellow writers: ALWAYS DO YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFORE THE GIGS. Just before Lester Bangs could pull off drinking like a fish prior to the interview does not mean you can do likewise and conduct your interview following the show. You may, of course, wind up with a few good quotes. But it’s definitely a crapshoot—as we shall soon learn. But first, an introduction.
Thee Hypnotics formed around ’87 in High Wycombe, north of London. The initial lineup of Jim Jones (vocals), Ray “Sonic” Hanson (guitars), Chris Dennis (bass), and mark Thompson (drums) recorded a demo which led to going into the studio with producer Dave Goodman, of Sex Pistols infamy, for their first single, “Love in a Different Vein” b/w “Al Night Long” (Hipsville Records). By ’88 they’d toured the UK with Spacemen 3, Zodiac Mindwarp, the Damned, and others, and slowly began getting noticed for their singular brand of ooogah.
Signing with Situation Two Records, Thee Hypnotics picked up a new bassist, Will Pepper, then in ’89 released a 12-inch single (“Justice in Freedom,” “Preachin’ & Ramblin’,” “Choose My Own Way”) as well as the mini-album Live’r Than God! The US Sub Pop version, a compilation of studio tracks plus four-fifths of the British Live’r, came out several months later.
This year, 1990, saw the recording of new Thee Hypnotics material, and a new drummer, Phil Smith (ex-Bambi Slam), signed up as well. The tape I heard in the tour van had undergone severe remixing, and interestingly enough, some months later when I heard the resulting CD, I noticed that it was produced by the band and Dave Garland but omitted the sleeve info on the LP version regarding Seattle’s Jack Endino’s hand in the mixing. Regardless, word has it that Come Down Heavy is getting the proverbial “big push” from Beggars Banquet/RCA in the United States.
Now, let’s find out how badly yours truly can conduct an interview at 1:30 in the morning.
Along with a couple of friends, one of them my photographer, escort Pepper and Hanson to an all-night eatery. The singer has long since disappeared with a lady in black, while the drummer and manager have retired to the hotel to rest up for the early-AM drive that looms in just a few hours. We sit down in a booth and glance around at various cops, prostitutes, and winos. We feel completely at home (at least I do; Will and Ray haven’t rendered judgment just yet).
The conversation begins with a discussion of grilled cheese sandwiches, alcohol consumption, and fellow Brit Nikki Sudden, who had also appeared in Charlotte recently and who’d also shared a bottle or two with this writer. (Before you ask: Yes, I did the interview at soundcheck, not after the show.)
Will: He just wants to live his life like Nick Cave. Ray: And Johnny Thunders… Will: I know he worships Nick Cave. I’ve heard his records and I know what he’s getting at, but he’s not quite good enough yet.
A waitress comes up and eyes our group suspiciously. Your journalist is obviously the worst for the wear after scamming so much of the band’s bottles. Only after the coffee arrives does any semblance of non-mushmouthed interview technique emerge from me, and the musicians may actually still be wondering when the interview is going to begin and the blather is going to end.
Me (pointing at Live’r Than God!): So what’s all this psychedelic shit, is it English or American, this record sleeve?
Will: That’s Sub Pop that did it. The English one’s okay. That’s out of date anyway.
Me: Here’s an early tape of the band, what about these songs? You’ve got one called “Resurrection Joe” but The Cult have that already…
Will (scrutinizing the track listing): “Astral Rising,” we haven’t played that for years! What the fuck is “The Blues”? “Snake Charmer Girl”… “Soul Trader”… “Resurrection Joe”… Ours is so much better than The Cult’s. Theirs is sort of like a hip-hop thing. These songs weren’t produced or engineered, they were just taped straight for demos.
Ray: “The Blues,” I don’t know what that is either, must be from a lie gig. How the fuck did this get to you?
Me (brandishing the 45 and the tape): This record actually made me come in my pants. If nothing else, anybody that puts [a photo of] the Black Panthers on the back of the record sleeve, since I was actually around in those days, is definitely a band kicking butt and it makes major points with me.
Will: Huey Newton got shot awhile back, didn’t he?
Me: See, back then, I was getting my first dose of cultural consciousness [outside my white Southern boy upbringing], and I was reading Newton’s book too. What was going on? Later, though, something went wrong, and including the music—it took a wrong turn. So are you guys trying to correct that? Because as far as tonight was concerned, I saw “it” happening all over again in the music.
Will: The music or the politics? The music, definitely, yeah. The political thing, well, it’s a different scene these days, isn’t it?
Ray: Very realistically, all we can offer from that time is the music. We can’t offer anything else. It would be contrived. You can’t be political. A lot of bands would like to think they are political, but they haven’t got any control, they haven’t got any power, they’ve got nothing, and it’s pointless. Unless their music is good and powerful. Because there’s too many of those bands. You can only take rock music so far. It can’t change the world and all that shit. It can maybe provoke a few people.
Will: Have a go at it, though. I guess they can raise a bit of cash here and there, like for Live Aid. In England, when Live Aid was done, I always wondered why Bob Geldof was walking around in a bad mood all the time. Apparently they did the show—I don’t know how much money they made, but as an example, say ten million—and the government says, “You’ve made ten million there. We’ve given some already.” So they taxed them on that ten million, kept seven million for the government. A lot of that money never reached where it was meant to reach. It’s a crooked world.
I guess in the ‘60s it seemed really crooked, racism and all that. But it’s still crooked these days, isn’t it, with different… Maybe that’s not a main issue. There’s other things that have taken over the issues, but there are still very crooked things. I don’t know if the money [from benefits] reaches the places. We did one Miners gig once, and we did a Communist festival thing in Italy.
Ray: For the Italian thing, it didn’t raise any consciousness. It was a gig in the name of the Communist Party. But nobody noticed that. They would have come to see us whether we were aligned with that cause or not. Those people that believe music can change the world—it can move people, but it can’t change people’s ways of thinking. People have tried it and failed.
Will: People are separated from each other. They can’t come together and fight against it. They think, “The neighbor’s not doing it, so I’m not gonna bother.” And the neighbor next door’s thinking, “He’s not gonna do it so I’m not gonna bother.”
Ray: It’s exactly what’s going on in England at this very moment. They’ve introduced a Poll Tax. It’s a very different form of taxation for British people. They’ve been going for 50 years with this normal tax, and suddenly this has been introduced. What it basically does is make the rich better off and the poor poorer.
Will: People are in an uproar about it! They are demonstrating in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But they’ll never get anything done, because when they get home from the demonstration they’ll wonder what the neighbors are doing. And the neighbors are so uptight, just like them, and they’re gonna pay this Poll Tax whether it affects them or not. Ran and I, all of us in the band, we were on the dole when we were in Wickham. We were getting like 800 pounds a year from the dole people. And now most of that has to be paid in Poll Tax. It’s a flat rate thing. England used to be quite socialist, you know, you’d pay to your means. This is different, like 400 pounds a year.
Ray: The rich pay their 400 pounds, and their wage is so much higher that the percentage of the tax on that would have been quite a lot compared to the flat rate that they’ve been paying now. So they’re thinking, “Ah! We’re only paying 400 a year, that’s better than 1,000 a year or more.” And the poor, they have to pay 400 as well, the same rate, and they have to take it out of their dole checks, their welfare. A flat rate at the end of the year.
Me (apparently not completely grasping the issue): So how hard is it going to hit you? You’re going from being on an independent [label] to being on a major, Beggars Banquet/RCA.
Will: We’re still broke. RCA, it’s not like we’re signing a piece of paper that says, “Bring us some money.”
Me: Let me ask you at least one proper journalistic question for the evening. The whole Loop/Walkingseeds/Spacemen 3/Crazyhead etc.—current British stuff—and you guys came out at about the same time. Are there connections? Or is it just the English press hype lumping bands together into this post-psychedelic bandwagon?
Ray: I think it all happened at the same time. It is press hype. Everyone’s from different parts of the country anyway.
Will: Let’s just say that the only time I heard of the Walkingseeds was once, when they supported us; and twice, when they were mentioned in one of our reviews.
Me: In a review I read that you once did “Rollercoaster” like Spacemen 3. What did you think of that band, the drug thing? Sonic Boom is legendary for his heroin and methadone exploits.
Will: That review was a mistake. Edwin Pouncey’s review, yeah. That was our first national press review. At Riverside. When Jim should’ve got his cock out. Our first review, with Spacemen 3, and it was a total slag-off. Edwin loves us now. We sent him a copy of “Justice In Freedom” and he liked it, decided he was gonna patronize us. And he did! Apparently he’s quite cool; he does the artwork for Sonic Youth, album covers and everything [as Savage Pencil].
Pete—you know, Sonic Boom—he’s the typical classical only-child sort of public-education kid. You can’t do anything legendary with someone who’s not a legend! He couldn’t be a legend in a million years! He’s just so lifeless, so fucking flat.
Me (laughing): Hey, I paid 20 bucks for his Spectrum album when it came out, just so I could look at the little pinwheel. And I paid 18 bucks for the CD version of Live’r Than God! just to get that one extra live track not on the American LP. (lapsing into a digression) Most of the stuff I get sent for free goes straight to the Record Exchange so I can buy the stuff I really want—you get all these folks calling you up to write about a bunch of bands when, really, you just want to be left alone to listen to and write about the bands you’re willing to pay money for, like Thee Hypnotics.
So, do you guys listen to much recent music?
Will: Tad! Sonic Youth, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Birthday Party.
Me: Flaming Lips?
Will: Oh yeah! They did a cover tune on that Neil Young [tribute album], The Bridge. That was cool.
Me: First time the Lips played here in Charlotte, at the very last minute, the very final chord played, the power went off in the club. It was like the hand of God reached down and cut them off.
Will: It wasn’t the hand of God, it was just bad fucking electricians. Bad connectors. I mean, really…
Me: Hey, I’m from the Bible Belt. I believe in this stuff!
(At this point the conversation turns to the quality of the meal just finished and the out-of-order cigarette machine that is causing much consternation among the musicians. The writer, sensing that the time is right to get his records autographed while the musicians’ senses are “heightened,” produces his Thee Hypnotics collection.)
Me: I just happen to have one of those rock star silver ink pens you see at record signing parties and in-stores…
Ray: I just happen to be able to write in English. Where can we get some cigarettes?
Me: Probably back at the hotel.
Will: So we should go on and do the interview, then?
Me: That was it.
And at this point Ray and Will sort of rolled their eyes, then went outside to pose for photos next to a police cruiser, and we bade them farewell, Upon waking the next morning, the writer played back portions of the “interview” and decided that it would be prudent, in the future, to avoid consuming quite so much of a band’s liquor-of-choice—at least prior to conducting an interview. You never know if you’ll get another chance at it, especially if (a) the band breaks up; (b) someone in the band dies; (c) you die; or (d) most likely option, that the band figures you’re a complete drunken idiot and steers clear of you in the future.
But rest assured that this publication remains a supporter of Thee Hypnotics, regardless of any of its writers’ personal shortcomings.
Below: A pair of Thee Hypnotics, plus the writer and unnamed friend. Yes, I know what he’s laughing about.
Live at The Root Cellar one fine May evening, 5/16/18, indie rock and hip-hop/punk — courtesy opening act Nnamdi Ogbonnaya—ruled, okay!
BY JENNIFER KELLY
An odd pairing, the hyper-verbal, slant-riffed, feminist indie pop of Speedy Ortiz and the complicated hip hop/punk/math rock adventures of Chicagoan Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, but that’s what’s on tap at the Root Cellar on a mid-May evening in bucolic Greenfield, Massachusetts, and we’re lucky to have it.
I arrive with Ogbonnaya already mid-set, bouncing antically through the first few rows of the audience with a mic cord trailing. Ogbonnaya made a big splash last year with his full-length Drool, a slinky, slippery, verbally dexterous set of songs anchored around the performer’s voice, but lavished with all manner of instruments and samples. It seems to have been a rule, somehow, that all writers, no matter how much they liked the record, had to include the word “weird” in the lede, so let’s just get it out there, Ogbonnaya has carved out a very eccentric niche.
Sadie Dupuis explains later on that Drool was one of her favorite albums last year, but that Ogbonnaya set is very different — equally wonderful, but its own thing— and indeed, for much of the set, what Ogbonnaya and his band are doing is more like math-y punk rock than hip hop. It is complicated and frenetic, anchored by a good drummer and bass player and with one guitar and sometimes two (Ogbonnaya plays guitar sometimes), very much in the rock idiom. Because of the acoustics, it’s hard to hear the lyrics, and so, hard to pinpoint which songs he played, but the set gains momentum as it goes and the last three songs are awesome.
Then it’s on to Speedy Ortiz, whose Twerp Verse, released in late April, is a sharper, sweeter, more pop-friendly iteration of the band’s off-kilter art. It’s a home field, more or less, for Sadie Dupuis, who earned an MFA in poetry at nearby U. Mass Amherst and lived for a while in Northampton. As always she channels the vibe of liberal arts prof crossed with the smartest tweener you ever met, long pigtails trailing, short shorts and pink and aqua tinted guitars at the ready. Her band includes bassist Darl Fem, her long-time drummer Mike Falcone and new guitarist Andy Monholt (Devin McKnight has gone on to form Maneka).
The set begins as Twerp Verse does with the churning, buzzing bass of “Buck Me Off,” that’s tall, striking Fem, who midway through the cut joins Dupuis in exultant full-body hops, straight up and down. It’s as good an introduction as any to Speedy Ortiz’s latest album, with its meandering verse and big pop pay-off, the whole thing knocked silly and sideways by the way that Falcone whales on the drums. Dupuis nimbly injects feminist discourse and cultural references into her effervescent songs, skewering digital dating mores in “Buck Me Off” and giving Sheryl Sanders the side-eye in “Lean in When I Suffer.” Yet though politically pointed, the songs are anything but didactic. In the big single “Lucky 88,” Dupuis trades vocals with Fem, her acerbic asides punctuated with the bassist’s high girlish counterpoints.
The set borrows heavily from the latest album, but takes a detour towards the past with “The Graduates” from 2015’s Foil Deer and “Plough” from her long-player debut Major Arcana. This latter song she wrote while living nearby in Northampton, she explains, though it was mostly about drinking at the Boston pub, The Plough and Stars.
The rest of the show mixes old and new, the simmering vulnerability of “No Below,” the stretchy tempo’d snap and pop of “I’m Blessed,” the blaring punk rock fuzz of early single “Taylor Swift” and the off-balance tunefulness of Twerp Verse’s “You Hate the Title.” Heard side by side, the old songs sound leaner, tougher, less ingratiating than the new material; the new songs are giddier and more euphoric. And yet, even at their fizziest, Speedy Ortiz’s songs carry a sting. They’re smart, articulate and absolutely onto male/female foolishness, even as they bounce and entice.
As the band marks their thirtieth anniversary, Posies principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a long look back. (Photos by Dot Pierson)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s no exaggeration to label the Posies as the quintessential power pop band. Over the course of their three-decade career, both as a band and as the mother ship for a series of solo albums procured by its two principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the group has created a sound brimming with effusive hooks, flawless harmonies, adroit execution, and the kind of ringing melodies tailor made to leave an everlasting impression. While fans have absorbed and admired the sounds that resulted, sadly the wider world has yet to take notice. Chalk it up to a series of setbacks — a shifting series of record label affiliations, changes within the band’s line-up, and what Stringfellow sees as the lack of a distinct public persona.
“We discovered that a band with two singers was hard to get their heads around,” Stringfellow says. “It’s easier if you have one Axel Rose doing crazy stuff, and you can point the finger at him and make him the focal point. People were thinking, let’s focus in on Ken Stringfellow, or let’s focus in on Jon Auer. It was hard for them to think, let’s focus in on these two guys for whatever reason. We’re not the easiest thing to describe.”
Yet, at the same time, Stringfellow tends to blame the band itself for its lack of wider recognition.
“We were diverted into other realms,” he admits. “I don’t think we had as much faith in ourselves as we should have. We gave up too soon in many ways. That initial breakup in 1998…Anybody can say if I had to do things over again, I’d do it differently. I could say I should have been more mature at an earlier age, because of course I wasn’t. I had the tools that I had and did the best I could with them. Record to record, we had different line-ups and slight variations in the sound, and with all the different projects I’ve been involved with, we are hard to get a bead on. If we were a metal band, it would be so easy. Here’s a metal band, they play metal. They play metal festivals, they play metal festivals…the marketing is done. With us, we’re a very melodic rock band, but in that sense, so is Boston and so is Coldplay.”
Such is speculation of course, but now, as the band celebrates their 30th anniversary, they are getting a second chance of sorts to bring their music full circle and remind both fans and those unawares of the great music that the Posies made out over the years. The campaign is set to start with the reissues of three seminal albums originally released on Geffen imprint DGC — Frosting on the Beater, Dear 23 and Amazing Disgrace, each replete with what Stringfellow refers to as a “shit ton of bonus tracks.” In addition, the band is about to launch an extensive tour that will feature the original band responsible for the Frosting on the Beater album — Auer, Stringfellow, drummer Mike Musberger, and bassist Dave Fox. It amounts to a full-scale reunion of the band’s seminal line-up, and one in which the two principals are eager and excited to unveil.
Blurt spoke with Auer and Stringfellow from their base in Seattle only a few days before the tour was set to get underway. (Tour dates can be viewed at the Posies.net website.) Both men were clearly filled with anticipation and delighted at the prospects of revisiting the Posies’ earlier glories.
BLURT: For starters, tell us about the plans you have in store to mark this auspicious anniversary.
KEN STRINGFELLOW: We’ll be hitting the road with the vintage line-up and playing a retrospective collection of music from all parts of our catalog. Plus, our catalog is being given a sonic upgrade and made available again. Our releases have been only spottily available in recent years. Many of our CDs are out of print and the vinyl is long out of print as well, so it’s nice that the music is getting a renewed focus and be in a place where people can come to it and actually hear it properly…even better than in its original sonic glory.
JON AUER: We’re putting some effort into — I don’t want to say, “capitalize” because I don’t like that word. It sounds too commercial and it doesn’t sit well with me — but I think what is interesting is that organically, what’s occurring with the reissues has completely coincided with the fact that legitimately, some people are actually celebrating the 30th anniversary of our band. To be honest, there were some delays in trying to get those reissues ready for public consumption, and there were some business-related issues with the old labels we had to deal with and with new labels anxious to get involved. So I think that there’s some cosmic kismet going on here… without getting too hokey about it. It does feel like good things have converged at this moment in time for us. It’s also interesting that there are a lot of younger music fans, fans of music of the ‘90s, who are looking at us now. It’s kind of come full circle. On the last couple of tours that we’ve done, we’ve noticed that there are younger fans coming out…people in their late teens and early twenties. I’m amazed by it, and super happy about it. Of course we love all our fans, but it’s nice when you’ve been around as long as we have to have people that didn’t know you the first time around and now, because they’ve discovered the music, they’re making an effort to come out and see us. They’re very vocal about it.
BLURT: Do you have the rights to the earlier releases? Or did you have to purchase the masters? KS:They kept the music in print for awhile, but as we moved away from the physical era, it became harder to find. Universal still owns the rights, but Omnivore leases the albums from Universal.
JA: We left it to Omnivore because they have the relationship with Universal. It was a little challenging at times because, obviously, we’re not the biggest fish in the pond. We had to generate some money upfront in terms of licensing, and that’s why we did a PledgeMusic campaign. That’s fair enough, but even before we sold a copy, the company wants to get paid for the licensing on all the physical product. We’re not doing this to make a bunch of extra money. We’re doing this to put these records out again in this great format.
BLURT:What’s the timing for the re-releases to come out?
KS: Dear 23 which was originally released in 1990, and it‘s coming next month. Frosting on the Beater, which was released in 1993, will come out in August. And Amazing Disgrace, which originally came out in 1996, is coming at the end of September.
BLURT:That’s three of eight albums. What about the others?
Our first album, Failure, was rereleased a few years ago. That’s still around and they did a great job with that. (Read the review HERE and listen to a track from the album HERE.) Then there’s Success. That album has its 20th anniversary this year, so there’s been some talk of getting that one out again as well. That one we do have the rights to. The next two on Rykodisc, Every Kind of Light and Blood Candy (reviewed HERE) are out of print amazingly enough. I’d like to see those two made available, but that might take awhile. Originally, we thought this would follow right on the heels of the Failure rerelease which we did in 2014. But here we are in 2018 and timed to our 30th anniversary, so I guess that was kismet right there. (Read the review of 2016 album Solid States HERE.)
BLURT: After the box set a few years ago, and the bonus tracks added to Failure, will you be completely exhausting the archives at this point?
KS: At this point, we’ve put out everything that’s interesting and worth listening to. Most of the stuff you’re going to get on these re-releases was not on the box set that came out in 2000. We found way more stuff. We were a little more organized this time around, so it’s incredible how much stuff there is. It’s probably six CDs of album material worth of non-album material from three albums. It’s kind of crazy. We were very prolific in those days, especially when we made Failure and re-released it as a cassette and quickly found Rick Roberts and Mike Musberger to join the band. We were just starting to play live as a full band. We didn’t really tour for Failure, just a couple of West Coast runs, and we were all living in the same house. So we were really cranking out tunes because we had a lot of time. We were doing the band full time, and touring wasn’t taking up all that much time yet. It took a year to make Frosting on the Beater, so during that time we were writing a lot of songs. We eventually got a little more efficient and started touring more, but it’s funny how much less prolific we became at that point.
BLURT: Were you amazed at what you were discovering when you checked out some of this stuff for the first time in so many years? Did it kind of make your jaw drop in amazement?
JA: There were moments when the proverbial dropping of the jaw did occur. What was most interesting was that sometimes you recognize these things differently with that much distance from it. Not hearing something for awhile, and then going back and actually hearing it from the source is almost like looking at old pictures of yourself and going, “That’s how I looked?” So now it’s, “That’s how we sounded?” We have enough distance on them now that it’s almost like listening to somebody else sometimes. I was so pleasantly surprised and pleased that we wouldn’t simply have to repackage the stuff we already put out to have the excuse to make these reissues. There is stuff here that was released before, but half of it is stuff bootleggers have, but no one’s ever heard it with this quality. Even the bootleggers don’t have what we found. It feels good that we’re putting this stuff out. We’re putting the final touches on the masters of the bonus tracks for Frosting on the Beater, like literally right now. The liner notes are done. There are 27 bonus tracks. There’s great photos. There are liner notes from Ken and me. It all coalesces. It’s a pretty amazing package. It’s got the attention to quality that a label like Omnivore puts into their releases. They really know what they’re doing and they’re really easy to work with. We love those guys.
When does the tour kick off?
KS: We’re taking the Frosting line-up of Jon, myself, Mike Musberger on drums and Dave Fox on bass and we’re starting in Victoria Canada and working our way around in a big circle and before we end up back up in the northwest in early July at a show in Seattle on July 7. Then we’ll be playing some festivals in Europe around Labor Day weekend and we’ll be doing a European club tour that starts in Barcelona on September 29 and wraps up in Sweden around November 6.
BLURT: Are you looking forward to going out again?
JA: In 2016, we were on the road for 4 1/2 months, and though we won’t be out as much this year, playing with the guys from the Frosting on the Beater band is one of our peaks. That was a live band that had a great chemistry and we were on fire that point. Everything was falling into place anyway. I’m not a nostalgic trip kind of guy, but I can’t help but feel look back at that era with a great deal of pride. I’m also looking forward to hanging out with these guys. Musberger is a drummer’s drummer. Talk about jaw dropping.
BLURT:Are you thinking that with the 30th anniversary, this is an opportune time to wake people up to the fact that the Posies remain vital and active, and maybe stir some interest with folks that didn’t give you the recognition the first time around? Is that part of the strategy, this reintroduction?
KS: I don’t know how much new audience we’re going to get. It would take a sympathetic journalist such as yourself to talk about it and say now is the time, especially if you’ve never heard this band before. You have no more excuses because here is the classic music. It’s a valid point. I feel that even the people that loved the music can now here it the way it was meant to be heard. I hate to admit it, but the Dear 23 CDs of 1990 just did not sound very good. The math was still being worked out on how to transfer audio to digital. If you liked that record and loved all the songs, you wouldn’t have realized how good they sounded until now, because the original tape masters are a lot more flattering than the CDs that were released at that time.
BLURT: Hopefully this campaign will make a lot of people sit up and take notice. KS: I feel that we came up at a time when screaming was more in fashion. The things we do with the harmonics in our vocals are really cool, and I don’t think that anybody else really does that kind of thing. There are other melodic bands that are great, but the concept of the Everly Brothers fronting an indie band is kind of a strange idea and a unique one, and I hope that people will still enjoy it.
BLURT: It does seem like this is really a new beginning for you guys. An opportunity to pull it all together to remake and remodel.
JA: We’re a band that’s rested on the laurels of our classic records, and there has been a lot of quality as a result of the way we’ve challenged ourselves. But to be able to take stock of it now and have the timing work out the way it did is invigorating in a way. So I think this will set the stage for something new after this period.
BLURT: Is there any talk about going back into the studio and making some new Posies music?
JA: There’s talk and I’m sure it will happen at some point. We’re focusing on the matters at hand, but especially after doing the last record, it’s totally viable that we will do some new stuff. It’s not just about celebrating this anniversary. However, I feel it is invigorating and we might still have some good records left in us. We’ve lost some band mates along the way so that’s not lost on us either. We’re not going to be around forever, so we should do it while we can.
BLURT: What’s the status of your solo projects these days?
KS: I’ve been involved with a lot of genre explorations. I did a country record with Holly Munoz a few years ago and I did something with the Disciplines which was kind of like a garage band sort of thing. My solo records have all different flavors. My last solo album is several years old now, so between the country record, the last Disciplines record, the retrospective tour and these reissues, I’d like to get another album out sooner rather than later. It kind of seems like I haven’t left a lot of space for the solo thing. Who knows?
JA: I’m always working on things other than Posies projects, as is Ken. I’m currently working on three or four projects for other people, although now that I’m on the road, they’re going to get some last minute mixes. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a record of mine called Songs from the Year of Our Demise, but that was a record that did a lot for me and a lot of other people really enjoyed it. It was a very personal record. I play nearly everything on it. I tried very hard and I put a lot of work into it. I had a project in the last couple of years called 6 1/2 and though it was really left of center of the Posies, it was also more of a collaboration too in the sense that it was really unexpected. The Posies was the first band for all of us, so it was the one that got us to where we wanted to go, or close to where we wanted to go. But at the same time, there’s so much longevity in this group that when we do things outside it, where it might have hurt us before, now it only helps us and it informs it, and it also allows us to do things on our own which is just as important, especially when you have a long-term relationship. You have to keep things fresh and exciting. You have to try to do other things besides the norm, the things you’ve always done. It’s important.
BLURT: So how do you rate the importance of doing your own things? Is it of equal stature, or do you see them simply as side ventures?
JA: I’m a Libra, so not to get all cosmic and stuff, I do listen to other people’s opinion a lot. But it’s like trying to pick your favorite song. They’re different things. The majority of people were introduced to us via the Posies. There’s an attachment there — it’s also about where people were when they heard certain records, when they turned 21, when they first heard Frost on the Beater, or they got married to Dear 23…those are formative memories and I can see how people want to remember us like that. But I’ve had people who have never heard the Posies who have heard my solo records and Ken has people like that. There are people who were introduced to the Posies through his work. And there are people who know my work as well. It really depends when you joined the conversation. At this point, I wouldn’t want to just do the Posies, that’s for sure.
BLURT:It would make sense that you really have to focus on the Posies at this point, no? KS:I kind of agree. I feel like we had some really good momentum going on with the last tours we did in 2016 and had a great vibe. So it makes sense to kind of carry on and make more music. It’s kind of got it all in a sense. The solo thing I do corners certain areas. Usually when I play, it’s solo and it’s quiet and intense, but here we can do duo tours where we get down and really quiet, or we can do these rock band tours, so it kind of covers all the bases that I would do in my solo work and more, so I’m intent on sticking with it. It’s a good brand.
JA: If people just want the Posies, they can always have that. I do think that what occurs outside of it is quality as well. I do understand that there’s special about the Posies and it’s based on the relationship of me and Ken. But when add something to this relationship, it seems to work. I don’t think that whatever we do outside of it isn’t special as well. As an example, there are things on various Posies records that I didn’t play on and things that Ken didn’t play on and people still think it’s the Posies. It might be my demo and it’s all me. And there are other songs where I didn’t play one note! People come up and say, “Oh, what gorgeous harmonies, but it’s just one of us.”
BLURT: Ken, when you toured with REM and Big Star, it must have felt like you were being lured into a whole new chapter of your career, no?
KS: With REM, I couldn’t rely on something that would always be there. That was just a tour to tour thing and how they wanted to put their band together. They kept asking me back, but I didn’t have any delusions that it was a permanent thing. That was just a fascinating and wonderful opportunity to play with one of my favorite bands until they changed their minds and went in a different direction. So I spent about ten years playing with them. It was great. The Posies split that took place in 1998 was because Jon quit, and he didn’t want to do anything more. He went through some hard times and just had to figure out some stuff. So he kind if dropped out for awhile. I would have gone on with the Posies, but without him, there was no way to go forward. So when REM came along, they presented themselves right at that moment and it was the perfect segueway for me. Okay, here is the next chapter presenting itself. Here’s a chapter at Posies central closing itself. I had no choice, but it was a great recovery.
BLURT:So when you were playing with those bands, were there lessons you learned that you were able to take back to the mother ship?
KS: Yes, for sure. They were much less precious and much more spontaneous in the studio than we ever were. Considering what was at stake for them every time, that they were following up a multimillion selling album and had multimillion dollar budgets, they went the opposite way you’d expect with that kind of pressure. They kind of were wonderfully cavalier, and that’s how they had always been, and they didn’t want to start becoming more calculated. They were becoming less calculated, which I think was fantastic. Sometimes, when REM was in the studio and taking a break, we might start jamming and come up with an entirely new tune on the spot and come up with words for it, and then have an entirely new song that night. We never did anything like that in the Posies. Everything was demoed and then re-demoed, and then we’d choose our bonus tracks from all the various demos we went through for each album. Four track demos, eight track demos, and so on. But REM was never like that, so I learned that you don’t have to be so formal, even if you’re making an expensive record. Especially if you’re making an expensive record. It’s much better with the more spontaneity you put in there.
BLURT:And what is the status of Big Star?
KS: Last year we released this live recording and did a theatrical release as well. It’s an amazing concert film. (The DVD is reviewed HERE.) The performances are absolutely jaw-dropping and it’s got a great cast of musicians — Mike from REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Pat Sansone, Jeff Tweedy, the Kronos Quartet who did the strings… Big Star’s 3rd: Alive and More is the name of that. It’s amazing. (BLURT covered several of the BS3 shows: Chicago 6/28/13, and Memphis 7/5/14.)
BLURT:Any chance that group will reconvene? It must be like herding cats to pull all the players together.
KS: It’s all possible. It’s just that it’s expensive to herd those cats. It takes a minimum of a dozen people to do the show the way Chris would like to do it. It takes a special festival situation to have the cache to make that happen, regardless of attendance.
BLURT: Still, when the two of you join forces within the Posies context… that sets the bar.
JA: The only bar that we have to meet is in the songwriting department. That’s the only standard that we have to meet…whether we think the songs are up to snuff. The rest of it is just window dressing in a way — the arrangements, the production… with a good song, you can do any production on it, and it will still shine through as a good song. That’s the only standard we really adhere to, and honestly, we also have a responsibility to ourselves. It’s not just to our fans or to give the audience what they might expect. Actually, if there are people who didn’t like the direction we were taking, or didn’t think we had enough guitars on a record for example, after awhile they got into it and would appreciate the fact that we weren’t just giving them the same stuff, and that we would change and evolve. There’s something to be said for that. In answer to your question, the only thing we have to adhere to in terms of standards is that the songs are up to snuff and that they’re good songs.
KS: Even if you like at every record we’ve done, there’s no Dear 23 Part Two or Frost on the Beater Part Two. Everything we did, for better or worse, even if you were trying to judge it, we could never be accused of trying to give the people what they want. At the same time, we tried to be diverse and still be the essence of who we are. We’re songwriters and vocalists and musicians. So I think the songs and the vocals are the threads that run through all the music the Posies make. That’s really what defines us — our abilities in those departments — and we’re good musicians. We play pretty well, and we’ve had some incredible musicians in our band, lots of different ones. There’s definitely something good going on here.
JA: Can you imagine the shock people must have had when they heard a Beatles record like “Hard Day’s Night” and then got Revolver? Did the same band that did “I Want to Hold Your Hand” really come out with “Yer Blues?” Sometimes the audience has to catch up too. It’s not an insult to the audience but when there’s something you’re used to, you have to acclimate yourself to something new. It’s like that with food, a new haircut. You have to get used to new things. It’s part of human nature.
In 2010 BLURT published an extensive interview with Ken Stringfellow. Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.)
Fri., May 18 – Victoria, BC @ Capital Ballroom
Sat., May 19 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
Sun., May 20 – Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall
Mon., May 21 – Bend, OR @ Volcanic Theatre Pub
Tues., May 22 – Sacramento, CA @ Harlow’s
Wed., May 23 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
Thurs., May 24 – San Juan Capistrano, CA @ Coach House
Fri., May 25 – Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater
Sat., May 26 – San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
Mon., May 28 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Wed., May 30 – Santa Fe, NM @ Santa Fe Brewing Co.
Thurs., May 31 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
Fri., June 1 – San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
Sat., June 2 – Austin, TX @ The Parish
Sun., June 3 – Houston, TX @ Bronze Peacock at House of Blues
Mon. June 4 – Little Rock, AR @ Capitol View Studios
Tues., June 5 – Memphis TN @ Layfayette’s Music Room
Wed., June 6 – New Orleans, LA @ The Parish at House of Blues
Thurs., June 7 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
Fri., June 8 – Birmingham, AL @ Saturn
Sat., June 9 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
Sun., June 10 – Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theatre
Mon., June 11 – Annapolis, MD @ Ram’s Head On Stage
Wed., June 13 – Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
Thurs., June 14 – Fairfield, CT @ Stage One at Fairfield Theatre
Fri., June 15 – Somerville, MA @ ONCE Somerville
Sat., June 16 – Washington, DC @ The Hamilton
Sun., June 17 – New York, NY @ The Bowery Ballroom
Tues., June 19 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
Wed., June 20 – Cleveland, OH @ Music Box Supper Club
Thurs., June 21 – Kalamazoo, MI @ Bell’s Eccentric Cafe
Fri., June 22 – Detroit, MI @ The Magic Bag
Sat., June 23 – Chicago, IL @ Park West
Sun., June 24 – Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
Mon., June 25 – Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
Tues., June 26 – St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
Thurs., June 28 – Milwaukee, WI
Sat., June 30 – Denver, CO @ Levitt Pavilion
Sun., July 1 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
Fri., July 6 – Bellingham, WA @ Wild Buffalo
Sat., July 7 – Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre
Fri., Aug. 31 – Vlieland, NETHERLANDS @ Into the Great Wide Open Festival (sold out)
Sat., Sept. 1 – Hoogwoud, NETHERLANDS @ Zomerpop Festival
Sun., Sept. 2 – Wiltshire, UK @ End of the Road Festival
Sat., Sept. 29 – Barcelona, SPAIN @ Upload
Sun., Sept. 30 – Zaragoza, SPAIN @ La Lata de Bombillas
Mon., Oct. 1 – Cordoba, SPAIN @ Hangar Cordoba
Tues., Oct. 2 – Cadiz SPAIN @ Aulario de la Bomba,
Wed., Oct. 3 – Granada, SPAIN @ Lemon Rock
Thurs., Oct. 4 – Valencia, SPAIN @ 16 Toneladas
Fri., Oct. 5 – Madrid, SPAIN @ Sala Caracol
Sat., Oct. 6 – Pontevedra, SPAIN @ Teatro Principal
Sun., Oct. 7 – Azpeitia, SPAIN @ San Augustin Kulturgunea
Tues., Oct. 9 – Paris, FRANCE @ La Maroquinerie
Wed., Oct. 10 – Utrecht, NETHERLANDS @ Tivoli
Thurs., Oct. 11 – Groningen, NETHERLANDS @ Vera
Fri., Oct. 12 – Heerlen, NETHERLANDS @ Poppodium Nieuwe Nor
Sat., Oct. 13 – Alkmaar, NETHERLANDS @ Podium Victorie
Sun., Oct. 14 – Hengelo, NETHERLANDS @ Metropol
Tues., Oct. 16 – Düsseldorf, GERMANY @ Zakk
Wed., Oct. 17 – Kortrijk, BELGIUM @ Wilde Westen
Thurs., Oct. 18 – Mechelen, BELGIUM @ Cultuurcentrum Mechelen
Fri., Oct. 19 – London, UK @ The Garage
Sat., Oct. 20 – Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
Sun., Oct. 21 – Glasgow, UK @ King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
Tues., Oct. 23 – Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute
Thurs., Oct. 25 – Bremen, GERMANY @ Tower
Fri., Oct. 26 – Hamburg, GERMANY @ Häkken
Sat., Oct. 27 – Berlin, GERMANY @ Berghain Kantine
Mon., Oct. 29 – Helsinki, FINLAND @ Savoy Theatre
Wed., Oct. 31 – Larvik, NORWAY @ Sanden Kafe at Kulturhuset Bølgen
Thurs., Nov. 1 – Stavanger, NORWAY @ Folken
Fri., Nov. 2 – Bergen, NORWAY @ Madam Felle
Sat., Nov. 3 – Trondheim, NORWAY @ Teaterhuset Avant Garden
Sun., Nov. 4 – Oslo, NORWAY @ John Dee
Tues., Nov. 6 – Gothenburg, SWEDEN @ Pustervik
Wed., Nov. 7 – Stockholm, SWEDEN @ Fasching
Thurs., Nov. 8 – Malmö, SWEDEN @ Inkonst
The indie rock hero, in-demand keyboardist, and all around good guy talks about his first solo release in nearly a decade. (Photo by Tim Manning)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Roger Manning, Jr. has had a remarkably varied career so far.
He was co-founder of the brilliant San Francisco Power Pop band Jellyfish; since their break up, he’s played in a mix of influential rock and synth bands like Imperial Drag, The Moog Cookbook and TV Eyes. Manning has long been Beck’s go-to keyboardist and in between he’s been able to finish three remarkably distinct solo records.
Unfortunately, given other commitments, his solo work has been on the backburner for a while. A decade, in fact. But thanks to a major Pledge Music campaign, Manning is about to release his latest EP, Glamping, along with re-introducing his classic solo releases with a slew of extras. The campaign, which allows fans to pre-order the music, comes with a number of creatively inventive items they can bid on, like Manning’s 1960’s bell bottoms, his keyboards and record shopping trips.
A week or so before the new EP comes out, Manning got on the phone to talk through the campaign, the 10-year delay between solo albums and why you won’t have to wait very long for the new one.
It’s been about a decade since your last solo record. Why did now seem like the right time to finally make this happen?
Well, one year after my last solo record seemed like the right time, but life had other plans in store for me. Doing a solo record is always a challenge, particularly if you’re not a well-known artist because you have to pull together the finances. So, I did solo albums back to back in ’06 and ’08, but the cold hard fact is that those records required so much time to get them right – the way I wanted them to sound – that I was happy that I just broke even. Certainly, in Japan we had a great run and did some shows and sold some records, but my A&R person was so happy that we didn’t lose any money.
In 2007, I put out my electronica record (Robo-Sapiens) on Malibu, but that coupled with some life changes and personal things, I started Glamping somewhere around 2012/2013. Freelance work and touring with Beck has taken up the rest of my musical time. Frankly I get more of my bills paid that way and I enjoy it, but my solo works does start to fall through the cracks and I got to the point where I thought I’m never going to finish this if I don’t do something about it. Then a friend said, “Hey, just put an EP out. Finish that first.” That simplified everything, and the good news is I’ve got eight more songs that are more than halfway done.
Depending on how this Pledge campaign goes, every nine months or less, I want to put out a new batch of material. The whole point of this launch is to corral all my fans across the world into one place and go “here’s the deal, I’ve got plenty of music for you guys and will continue to write my butt off if you make it known what you like.” This is my first love, it’s how I got started in the business and I’ve got plenty to share.
You mentioned the Pledge Music campaign. Over the past year or two more and more artists are using this as opposed to traditional labels and some – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum was one – have mentioned that it was difficult at first to go to the fans and get them to help finance the records, this way. Did you have any reservations?
I think I was just like Dave. In fact, we’re around the same age and both had bands in a similar era and both of our projects have had peaks and valleys. I agree, the whole concept out of the gate seemed bizarre to me until it was explained to me. Unlike the last record company model, if anything this brings you closer to people. You’re cultivating relationships you already have and just going deeper with the community that’s interested in music.
The whole point is to try and bring more people to the party and when I started looking at it differently, letting go of the old model so to speak, I really saw the potential for this and what it means for me as a songwriter for the rest of my life, regardless of what the record label model is doing, which you know if continuing to be turned on its head.
Through your solo work and the bands you’ve been in, you’ve worked with a number of different record labels – big, small, indie and major. Is there any part of you that feels a sense of schadenfreude as a musician at the current state of record labels?
I have a small opinion on this. There were certainly some injustices on behalf of the artists with the old model. There were a lot of upsides too. Each model has its pros and cons. I fortunately was taught early on to look at the labels as nothing more than a loan agency. If I want to buy a house, like it or not I have to go through a mortgage company and I’ve got to pay out the ass in interest. That’s the game that’s in place in our society in 2018. Like it or not, that model helps me get into a home that’s way beyond our means.
The record label took an unknown band form San Francisco and they did their dance with MTV and they did their dance with radio all over the world and I watched it all happen. Basically, back then you had to win the lottery. There were a hundred bands at any given moment vying for a record label’s attention and maybe five percent of them were given a shot. And even then, if the record company was promoting 10 of those groups in a release season, maybe they were only concentrating on three or four of them. Also, you had A&R people in the ‘70s and ‘80s who were not really in fear of their jobs. There was an aspect of job security. If the first band you signed didn’t have a hit record, you weren’t fired the next week.
Labels, although they all wanted big smash hits, they were into cultivating bands back then. I joke that if U2 were signed in the last 10 years they would have been dropped already. There first few albums hardly sold in the U.S. in the beginning. They would have been dropped nowadays and their A&R man would have been fired… Now it’s just a fear-based community with everybody trying to copy the songs that made some noise last week on the radio. You have an artist and an artistic community that seem to not be phased by their one-dimensionality lack of variety environment. I’m not dissing any of these bands in the top 40, but I was spoiled. I grew up in a different era.
So, with Pledge music, you can put out whatever music you want without anyone telling you to trim the song lengths or change things around…
Exactly. I quickly learned that this campaign was only going to have as much success as I was applying myself to doing the day-to-day work. Suddenly I was my own A&R man, I was now making creative decisions out of the music world that I wasn’t used to making – day-to-day business stuff. That’s fine because I was feeling impowered, but it takes up time.
After all these years, I’m enjoying the empowerment of self-reliance and I’m learning things this time around that I know I’m going to do differently with the next campaign. I just love the fact that the Internet, pledge campaigns and certain aspects of the industry now allow for this… For me, there’s more pros than cons. I am so thankful for this community of folks for hanging in with me as long as they have. As part of that thank you, let’s do this some more.
“We felt we were doing something different”: With a fresh refill of the Spacemen 3 prescription due this week, courtesy the Superior Viaduct label, let’s flash back to their most iconic album, along with its latterday sibling. Rolling the spliffs for us: Sonic Boom. (Below, listen to the reissue as well as watch a live concert from 1989.)
BY FRED MILLS
This week Superior Viaduct resumes its Spacemen 3 vinyl reissue series with a 2LP reissue of the 1990 quasi-bootleg Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, originally released by rock scribe Byron Coley’s eclectic Father Yod label and subsequently re-quasi-bootlegged several times in expanded format by the Bomp! and Space Age Recordings labels as well as by Father Yod itself in the form of a 2LP deluxe reissue in 2010. This new iteration arrives with a bonus track to expand the tracklisting to 15 (the original single LP release contained seven tracks), with Superior Viaduct describing it thusly:
“In the swirl of kaleidoscopic recordings that is Spacemen 3‘s discography, Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To occupies a pivotal position – one at the nexus between their garage beginnings and expansionist future. Spacemen 3 capture the inspired spark of mid-’80s psychedelia, offering a distinct variation on high pop through layered feedback, a formidable rhythm section and shining vocals.
“Taking Drugs features the legendary Northampton demos, which secured the band’s first record deal with Glass. While much of this material would be expanded upon on their first two albums, Sound Of Confusion and The Perfect Prescription, many devotees consider these early 1986 demos to be the vital document of Spacemen 3 at this primal stage.
“With urgent, minimally treated versions of “Sound Of Confusion” (aka “Walkin’ With Jesus”), “Losing Touch With My Mind” and “Come Down Easy,” this double LP collection serves to exalt the strength of Spacemen 3‘s songwriting over the deep-dive, sonic ruminations that would permeate their later studio efforts.”
The reissue does not come without a bit of controversy, which seems to be par for the course these days with any S3-related release; recall last year’s dust-up between the bandmembers and Space Age’s Gerald Palmer, whom they accused of manufacturing colored vinyl S3 reissues without their permission. In this case, erstwhile bassist Pete Bassman recently posted to his blog some musings about Superior Viaduct neglecting to obtain permission for its reissues, although it appears that he has subsequently removed several of his postings, writing “I have been accused of airing dirty laundry in public, of bullying, of making ill-informed comments, and more… I am doing this as a gesture of appeasement, to help deflate the unhealthy atmosphere that has evolved around the commercial exploitation of Spacemen 3 and the individuals involved.”
That all aside, Taking Drugs… is a must-own for anyone wanted a glimpse of nascent Spacemen 3, and I say that as a ground zero fan of the band, having picked up their first EP and going on to become a passionate fan and collector—1987’s The Perfect Prescription being one of my personal desert island discs since its initial release. Over the years I’ve been privileged to have interviewed all the former members, talking with Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember on multiple occasions. Below, then, read my S3 story and Kember interview that I conducted in 2003 on the occasion of the release of Forged Prescriptions, which collected demos, alternate mixes, and outtakes from the Perfect Rx sessions. It was originally published by the Seattle Weekly.
Oh, and while you do, take a listen to Taking Drugs… in its entirety…
RUGBY, ENGLAND, SPRING ’87: Four scruffy twentysomethings are sprawled across secondhand bed mattresses arranged at asymmetrical angles on the floor of VHF Studios. The smoke from their roll-ups and spliffs gets so thick that the engineer routinely disconnects the facility’s smoke alarm prior to each day’s session, which can range from intensely focused overdubbing to jam-until-the-tape-runs-out free-for-alls to simply lying around in candlelit darkness and passing comment on playbacks of the previous day’s work. Ultimately, from this near-womblike setting will emerge one of the greatest psychedelic albums of all time.
You are getting very sleepy: Spacemen 3.
“Dope and then some!” is how former Spacemen 3 guitarist Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember characterizes the making of The Perfect Prescription. According to Kember, he, fellow guitarist Jason Pierce, drummer Rosco, and bassist Pete Bassman were seeking the same spiritual and musical liberation as their heroes the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Suicide, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, etc. and certainly on a chemical level as well. “We had mattresses for the best possible recording and playback positioning,” he recalls, with a cackle, “and some days we would just get blitzed and spend a day just listening in situ, so to speak. Think of it like the testing done before releasing a new drugha ha!”
I’ve just dropped in to see what condition Kember’s prescription is in, the occasion being a two-CD collection of Perfect Rx demos, outtakes, and alternate mixes titled Forged Prescriptions (Space Age Recordings). The set has been long in coming, having weathered a nearly seven-year series of contractual delays which wouldn’t necessarily be of significance, except for the fact that Perfect Rx itself, an album that’s been hailed by the likes of Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and a critics’ mainstay of desert-island-discs lists, has come to cast a long, legendary shadow over the years.
The Perfect Prescription went virtually unnoticed, particularly by the British press, when it first appeared in August of ’87, on tiny U.K. indie Glass. An ad hoc fraternity of psych aficionados and fanzine writers took note, however, and while that fraternity is frequently prone to hyperbole and, er, a lack of discrimination, this time around, the aesthetic and cultural significance of a recording became a matter of near-universal underground accord. One need not be reminded of the Velvet Underground Effect – one great album begets a hundred bands, who in turn beget a thousand more bands – to understand how time, opinion, and recorded artifacts have a funny way of eventually aligning.
A concept record that aurally chronicles the highs, lows, and heavenly blows of a virtual drug trip, Perfect Rx is (to quote from one of my own reviews) “an unqualified masterpiece of shimmering, beatific melodies, rhythmic/dynamic tension, and stylistic contrasts.” More florid but just as accurate are these comments from the liner notes of the first CD edition (1989, Fire), labeling S3 revolutionary artists in the tradition of Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, Arthur Parker, and Paul Gauguin and calling the album “an untrumpeted classic, an arcane, apocryphal document . . . telegraphing a message of unconcerned hope in a world hypnotized by guilt-ridden social-work rock.” Indeed, whether fueled by hemp, adrenaline, or other substances, the band expertly channeled full-bore garage shock (“Take Me to the Other Side”) alongside proto-ambient dronescapery (“Ecstasy Symphony”), additionally taking time to pay ace tribute to Lou Reed (“Ode to Street Hassle”) and the Red Krayola (“Transparent Radiation”).
Recalling how the social climate of 1987 was overwhelmingly Thatcherite/ Reaganite repressive, Kember suggests that Spacemen 3’s agenda was benevolently subversive: “We felt there would be other people who felt like us out there, people who lived their lives like us the antithesis of the yuppie. Certainly, we hoped the renaissance that was washing in on a wave of ecstasy would be fertile ground for us. Religion, drugs, and sexual taboos were all areas that needed some comment from a more liberal source than was mostly heard back then.”
Forged Prescriptions, then, represents a vital glimpse behind the Perfect Rx curtain. Notable is a tune like “Walkin’ With Jesus,” which on the original album was dreamy and minimalist but now has additional guitar tracks feedback, tremolo, etc. newly restored. Apparently, a number of tunes had been shorn of excess guitar in order to help ease the material’s transition to the stage. (“Jason was in favor of more complex arrangements,” says Kember, “but ultimately agreed we didn’t need it for the songs to work well.”) Another track, “Ecstasy Symphony,” originally served as a languid intro for “Transparent Radiation”; it’s now a nine-minute hissing/droning instrumental with a much hotter mix. In fact, the entire first disc of Forged Prescriptions, with the alternate versions and a different song sequence from the parent album, represents, says Kember, “a ‘could also have been’ situation,” adding that he likes the material “at least as much [as], if not more [than],” that of Perfect Rx.
Disc 2 is also a treat for S3-heads, featuring demo recordings of album songs as well as three unreleased tunes: a rollicking, groove-laden Velvet Underground homage titled, helpfully, “Velvet Jam,” plus two covers a churning, wah-wah-filled take of the MC5’s “I Want You Right Now” and a surprisingly tender, dreamy interpretation of Roky Erickson’s pre-13th Floor Elevators outfit the Spades’ “We Sell Soul.”
Worth noting for fans, too, is the Forged Prescriptions artwork: It diligently reproduces the psychedelic spirals motifs and text font design that graced the sleeve of Perfect Rx, adding an alternate picture of Kember and Pierce taken at the original album photo session.
The eight-year tenure of Spacemen 3 has always been viewed from the outside as a fragile alliance between Kember and Pierce. To a degree that’s true, although Kember is quick to point out that while S3’s creative mojo was in maximum tumescence during the making of Perfect Rx, cracks in the group’s foundation began appearing shortly thereafter: “They [Rosco and Pete Bassman] were always less committed to it than Jason and myself, and they weren’t prepared to put in the practice and effort needed. They also ran away with themselves on tour, getting too drunk to play well, etc.” As a revolving cast of additional players began infiltrating the S3 universe, Kember and Pierce gradually grew apart to such a degree that sessions for the fourth and final studio album, 1990’s Recurring, were attended separately by the two songwriters. The two haven’t spoken directly since the early ’90s, and Kember, the proud keeper of the S3 flame, now regards the situation with regret. (Below: the band live in 1989.)
“There was a healthy collaboration and competition between us to deliver the goods,” admits Kember. “Mainly for ourselves, but also for those we hoped would find it useful in their lives. I hope I’m big enough to sideline my feelings about what happened at the end of Spacemen 3, and Jason’s role in that, and to give him credit he is due for this. His songwriting, his singing, his guitar and other instruments please me as much now as they did then. I’m very sad that we seem unable to communicate. I’ve heard no comment from Jason about [Forged Prescriptions], and it was my project in that sense he isn’t interested in seeing that side of Spacemen 3 maintained. He is very hard, by his choice, to contact, and that’s his choice, fair enough. I do feel that I lost a great musical partner and friend. Along with the destruction of the band, it was pretty devastating to me. It’s a very large part of my life, not just something I do for kicks as an aside.”
Pierce, of course, went on to much success with Spiritualized. For his part, Kember has kept busy with an array of frequently overlapping projects, most notably the ambient/electronic Experimental Audio Research and the comparatively more straightforward Spectrum. The latter, in fact, toured across America in 2001, with set lists heavily weighted toward old S3 tunes. Kember hopes to repeat that trek later this year once the new Spectrum album is completed. He indicates he’s been working with Randall Nieman, guitar whiz for Detroit-area experimental-psych combo Fuxa, and that the material is shaping up along guitar/bass/drums/organ lines not dissimilar to vintage S3. (Kember also traveled to Los Angeles recently to work with electronic-rock artist Alex Gordon for a projected EP to be titled Dead Man, due this fall.)
Meanwhile, there’s a possibility that further archival offerings from the S3 vaults will be exhumed. A couple of years ago, Space Age reissued the group’s third album, 1989’s Playing With Fire, featuring a bonus disc of session demos, and Kember notes that he has a lot of live tapes, in particular “some early live stuff that is pretty devastating which might see light one day.”
But even if the world had never again heard from the Rugby players, we’d still have their timeless gem in our hands. It’s often said that groups can’t possibly set out to paint their masterpieces, that only hindsight can be the true arbiter in such matters. Just the same . . .
“We felt we were doing something different,” insists Kember solemnly, “and we were very proud of it. We knew it was what we were aiming for.”
An interview with the popular—and essential—SXSW showcase’s producer P-C Rae.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Each year, the British Music Embassy showcase introduces dozens of UK artists to new potential fans and opportunities at South by Southwest. As producer P-C Rae explains, the showcase is a collaboration between disparate UK government offices and private industry. This year Austin’s Latitude 30 was transformed into headquarters for afternoon and evening performances by British rising talent. Rae explained the logistics of bringing dozens of artists to the States, as well as what they can once they’re here (e.g., a lot of time on the road).
BLURT: Could you tell me about your role with the British Music Embassy showcase?
RAE: I coordinate this event with the massive government and rights-holder organizations that help put it together. It’s funded by BBC and the PRS, PPL, AIM, and the UK government – and lots and lots of other people that all put in money to bring sixty-something UK bands over here for a week to South by Southwest and hopefully give them the best showcase platform in town.
So basically you’re working with the British government?
We don’t have a music export office like France or Canada or Australia. They have a dedicated export office. Ours is a bit more of a mish-mash of people. But we’re all working together to do the same thing. And we’re also supported by UK manufacturers. So our desk is a British desk from Allan & Heath, and our PA is British speakers from Tannoy. And our crew, they’re all British, ‘cause we want to give the full British show experience. And our stage manager is British. The only thing that we don’t have that’s British is microphones. There is no British microphone manufacturer. Very sad.
What exactly do you hope to accomplish with showcases like this here at South by Southwest?
The artists come in here. Some of them come as part of an album campaign. They have a release out that they’re looking to promote here. Other artists come in because they want to try and fill out their team. They’re looking for a booking agent or a publicist or a record deal. I’ve brought artists here for both of those reasons or just one of them. Lots of people have different motivations. Some of these artists, they’re on a tour. But a lot of them, it’s their first ever show in the United States.
What specifically do you do to help the newer ones who are playing here for the first time? What do you hope to accomplish for them?
We hope to help them get a foothold in the US so they can come back and do repeat business here. We have a little book that we distribute that has all the info about the acts—who their management is and how to get in touch with them. We have a publicist that blasts all this stuff and helps us get listed in all the right places.
I’m curious—when you’re dealing with American bookers or American businesspeople, do you find that there is any sort of culture clash between, say, you and them?
That’s a little bit of a tough question, because we’ve been doing this for eleven years. I think maybe there was a culture clash in the beginning and we just got used to the different way that you approach things, perhaps a little bit, in the US. And every market has its nuances, you know. The way you talk to people, the way you interact with people over time becomes natural.
I remember reading interviews with Radiohead, for example, and they had to get used to things like meet and greets, back when there were still the big box record stores, going in and doing the signings.
That kind of stuff, that’s changed a little with the way the music’s distributed now, very digital. Big box stores in Europe, they’re not really a thing so much anymore. We’re very about Swedish streaming services in particular–one that just launched on the stock exchange here to some great fanfare. You can’t really sign something over Spotify, you know? But I think what artists do have to get used to here is distances. That’s the number one hurdle. An American artist driving themselves, they’ll be used to doing an eight-hour drive. Eight hours, you can drive from one end of the UK to the other. You can’t drive from one end of Texas to the other in eight hours.
Also with the American audiences, I imagine for them it’s kind of overwhelming to be playing in some cases their first international audiences.
Well, we try and give them a soft landing and one of the things an artist is going to worry about most is their technical setup. And if the technical setup is good and stress-free, then that’s going to make them comfortable playing to anybody. Also, we try and make sure the room is full all the time, so they’re not looking out at an empty at their first ever US show, playing to two men and a dog. To try and make the artist comfortable with the technical setup and they’re playing to a nice, full room, then it doesn’t really matter whether they’re American or European people. Those worries for an artist are exactly the same.
You want to present a specific image of Britain or its music scene at showcase like this? Our music is good. Please buy it.
That sounds pretty basic!
That’s what it is! It is a capitalist thing, even though it’s art. You are trying to sell something and I think one in six records sold around the world is a British record. So there is a global market for every kind of artist, every shape and color and sound that there is.
How do you think Brexit will affect how British artists and people like you do business in the music industry?
Brexit is the dumbest thing in human history. Well, perhaps not quite the dumbest thing in human history, but near enough. And a lot of people are gonna have to work very, very hard to try and make sure the kind of barriers that UK artists have coming into the States–like with immigration and visas and all that stuff, which is very expensive, and time-consuming, and sometimes doesn’t work–that we don’t have that situation where artists try to go to Germany and they also have fill in thousands of dollars’ worth of paperwork. That’s gonna put a kibosh on a lot of people’s touring setup.
A right hand man is also a righteously rockin’ man…
TEXT BY TIM HINELY/ PHOTOS BY MARY GARITO
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Jeremy Grites but in the late 80’s/early 90’s he began drumming for a friend’s band called Noise Museum (a play on the name of a local museum in South Jersey). The friend stated that he had “found this amazing drummer who is like 15 or 16 years old!” After Grites tenure in that band ended I’d seen him at a handful of local gigs before I left for greener pastures in the Summer of ’92 (California) but he and I kept in touch and he eventually became my right hand man at DAGGER, helping with reviews, interviews and loads of encouragement. I even made it out to Brooklyn once in the mid or late 90’s and saw his pad that was stocked with records and instruments and he showed me his ‘hood. Over the years he’s seemed to bounce between NYC, Philly and his native South Jersey seemingly playing with (or at least seeing) every musician alive. Fast forward to 2017 and we even had the pleasure to chit chat over drinks on the deck of a restaurant/bar in South Jersey on my trip there last summer and had a chance to meet his lovely girlfriend Mary (who took most of the pics for this interview) and even his dad. I’d thought about interviewing him (email stylee, of course) for the past few years as he’s had a helluva history/run these past few decades and he shows no signs of slowing down. These days he’s mostly playing drums in Philly/Jersey combo The Improbables (check out their full length, Object To Be Destroyed on the Hidden Volume label) as well as occasionally playing with Wreckless Eric/Amy Rigby (see below). The guy simply doesn’t stop but took some time out to answer my questions with in-depth answers (if anyone knows what the DAGGER readers want it’s him). He’s also one of the nicest guys around so if you ever see him, go up and introduce yourself (but then you’ll have to buy him a beer) and chat music at the guy’s a textbook on all sorts of genres. So grab a birch beer, sit down and read on, you just might learn something.
Did you grow up in Absecon, NJ? Any punks in that town?
Although I was born in Baltimore, MD, I did grow up in Absecon, starting in the late 70’s and through the 80’s. In a way it was nice because there were a lot of woods and trails and the beach was only 10 minutes away. Culturally however, it was (and still pretty much remains) a nightmarish wasteland. People in that area don’t trust anything remotely different from what they have known their entire lives – and they usually reacted vehemently against those differences with a provincial-yet-smug sort of attitude. Anything new or different in any way is a threat to their normalcy and they had to ridicule it – at the very least. Subsequently, there were very few punks / new wavers, and the few that existed kept a pretty low profile in the interest of self-preservation. We did have some skinheads for a minute, but most of them were in jail by the time I was out of high school. Fortunately I met the few misfits around town through skateboarding and surfing and that helped me survive and also find new music.
Do you remember the first song you heard that was weird (punk, new wave, etc.?) that made you think there was other kinds of music out there?
Well, it’s odd because I remember seeing Blondie on the show Solid Gold with my parents and loving them. They were definitely ‘different’, but also one of the biggest bands in the world – likewise bands like the Police and Kiss who I already liked. I was also really into the Go-Go’s and Devo as a kid, but before I actually understood the history of all that stuff or what it meant or represented. It was just fun, catchy music. I had already become a huge British Invasion fan and begun my record collection around 6 years old. I had nearly every Beatles / Stones record in both mono and stereo and would spend hours digging through LPs and 45’s at flea markets while my parents shopped for antiques. I was a weird little kid. That was a good way to learn though, and my dad taught me how to haggle with the record dealers way back then. (Same priciples still apply.) Anyway, I think when I was about twelve I got ahold of the standard 80’s “Starter Kit” of underground bands like Big Star, the B-52’s, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, the Damned, Rain Parade, XTC, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Modern Lovers, the Stooges, Ramones, REM, the Smiths, Minutemen etc through some mixtapes from older friends. That’s when the switch flipped. After that I lost all interest in anything that was on the radio or what kids in my school liked. I basically set my mind to meeting and befriending older kids/adults and milking them for as much musical knowledge as I could get. That eventually led me to hanging out with students and community members that were on WLFR, the college station in our area – the most important of which were Champagne Bob Portella and Paul Glaser. Their far-reaching musical knowledge and influence is still me with me to this day. Anyway, I wormed my way onto some shows at WLFR while I was 14, and by 15 I was the yougest FCC liscenced DJ in the country and wound up with my own radio show. After that I was off to the races.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought with your own money?
Well, technically the Flea market buys would be the first, but I remember the first records I ever bought in a store were Paul McCartney “Tug of War,” and John Cougar “American Fool.” I believe I got them at a Kmart with some birthday money from my aunt or grandparents. That was before I really knew about record stores as actual stand-alone places where kids would go to hang out. I thought you just got records at the supermarket or the record counter in Sears or Caldor. I totally didn’t get it. Once I figured out that there were independent stores that could order records for you and had cool, older kids working in them, then that was all I wanted to do. I would hang out in the shops for hours listening and even taking notes. I had a little notebook with records to try to find and ‘band family trees’ etc – trying to learn my history. Super nerdy.
Did your parents encourage you to learn musical instruments? Were drums the first?
Ha! No, they did not encourage it at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were sort of on board with my skateboarding, but playing music was definitely an annoyance that were not keen on. Actually, I think I asked for instruments and/or lessons and was refused, which is why I got a job at such an early age. I bought a used drum kit off a guy out of the newspaper and convinced him to drive it to my house because I was only 14 at the time. Once the drums were there and paid for with my own money, there wasn’t a lot my parents could do. I got them dropped off and put them in my room while no one was home – poof! Instant drumkit! Hahaha. I did the same thing a year later with a guitar and amplifier. It wasn’t until after I got into some bands and played some shows that my parents started to come around to it a little bit. Once they saw I was actually doing something with it, and was decent at it, they didn’t mind as much. Later, they embraced it fully because I think they figured out it wasn’t going to stop – so why not pretend to be proud…
First gig you ever went to?
I was lucky and got to see a lot of concerts when I was a little kid because we had neighbors that seemed to always have spare tickets to things. So, I got to see the Beach Boys (with ALL of the Wilson brothers) and people like Johnny Cash and Dionne Warwick etc as early as like 5-6 years old in small theatres in Atlantic City. I also saw lower tier bands play at the nearby college where my dad taught, so it’s tough to say really. I can’t even remember the first punk show I went to because it all started so early for me. Could’ve been 7 Seconds and a bunch of ther bands at the Omni? Or it could’ve been the Dead Milkmen at the AC Elks or something? I wish I could remember. One of my weirdo friends from school and I used to take the bus from AC to Philly (which was scary) and walk from the (scary) bus station down to Old City (which was also scary) and watch bands from the sidewalk at a place called the Khyber Pass (dirty and scary). That was a famous Philly venue with the stage basically in this huge bay window right on the sidewalk – facing in of course. So we would just go sit or stand on the sidewalk and watch shows from behind the band because we were so far underage – there was no way we were sneaking in or passing a fake ID. I saw a lot of great stuff that way though – the Magnolias, GG Allin, the Wishniaks, Throwing Muses etc. That was definitely an experience and traveling around unsupervised was definitely part of the fun. Much later in life I became good friends with all of the guys in the Wishniaks and they remembered the two little kids out on the sidewalk for shows. That was me.
Tell me about Noise Museum? Was that your first band? How old were, you, like 16?
Yeah, Noise Museum was the first sort of ‘real’ band I was ever in, although it was pretty Busch-League in retrospect. I joined when I was 15 and had been playing drums for about a year, so I was a babe in the woods in every way. Prior to that I would just play along to records in my big, 70’s headphones – I’ve never had a lesson, on any instrument. I would just try to learn every stop and fill on the records I loved and that’s how I learned to play with ‘people.’ I spent a lot of time with the Replacements and Husker Du LPs, plus Sonic Youth and the Who. Those LPs really shaped how I played for about the first 10 years, until I discovered the Meters and James Brown. Anyway, nearly all of the output from that band is fairly embarrassing to me, but it is definitely where all the ‘Firsts’ happened. First gigs, then first gigs out of state, first terrible drunken gig, first heckling, first time recording, then the first time recording in a real studio, first piece of vinyl I was ever on etc etc. All that stuff happened in that band, but I stayed in it way too long and it became a very detrimental and damaging situation. Worst of all, I had almost no creative input – I wasn’t allowed to write songs or help arrange them, I had to compromise the drum parts all of the time – it became a real drag. I did at least come away with meeting 2 or 3 life-long, important and invaluable friends through that band though, which is the only saving grace. After I quit I promised myself that any bands that I would ever join from then on had to be fun, or I was out the door. That’s why Swivel Chairs started when I was 19.
Was Marlin Spikes next? Swivel Chairs? The latter is your solo project, right? Tell me a little about each of them.
In the early days Swivel Chairs was always a duo – it was me and my college roomate Jason Brown. We started on acoustic guitars and a four-track cassette recorder and kept plugging away all through college. During that time we ended up playing OUR first shows and doing cassette releases etc. It was all super home-made and fun. When we graduated, I moved to NYC and Jay moved to Philly so there was a little bit of a break. (I actually self released a boxed set of those early recordings in an edition of 50 and gave them to friends for a laugh) That’s when I started making home recordings by myself on an 8 track machine and did a couple more cassette releases all under different names. Marling Spikes started around that time as well with my new roomate in NYC, Matt Wilbur. (Unlike me, Matt had been given music lessons his whole life and was a great guitar and piano player.) That wasn’t even supposed to be a band really – it was just an accident, or what we’d do on the weekends. But then it sort of turned into a band and so Jay joined up and we took a break from Swivel Chairs for a short bit. The best part of that group was that everyone could play everything, so we’d all write and switch instruments all the time etc. After being stifled earlier, I wanted everyone to be able to do whatever they wanted to. We had some wildly careening nights in Brooklyn and in AC at McGuire’s Erin Bar during the summers. It was a fun distraction, but I really wish we’d come up with a better name though. haha.
How/when did you make it up to New York to live?
I moved to NY about 2-3 weeks after college graduation and was seriously floating around from couch to couch for a little while, but then settled in Williamsburg Brooklyn in 1995. I am still there today, although it is virtually unrecognizable from when I moved in. Living and working in NY back then (and now to a certain extent) was an absolute goldmine of culture. Aside from the obvious stuff like architecture, galleries and museums, there was just so much going on everywhere. There were shows every night all over the place, there were huge loft parties, artists and musicians everywhere, awesome grafitti, street musicians, you name it – and it was still cheap to live there. I used to cut wood for Steve Keene in his studio and get paid in paintings – that was a thrill because he knew Sonic Youth and Pavement and did famous LP covers. It was a hard place to get used to at first, and I was poor as shit, but it was a non-stop blast. Some of the shows I saw were legendary and you could literally stay out all night. Sometimes it was the simply random things that would happen like standing behind Lou Reed in a deli, playing pool with Elliot Smith every week at our local bar in the East Village, seeing Robert Quinne working in a guitar shop or having David Byrne almost run you over on his bicycle. Plus, when you’re 21 everyone and everything is new to you and it all seems so cool, so it was a lot fun.
How did the gig with Fontaine Toups come about? What happened to that band?
I suppose I have DAGGER to thank for that actually because Hinely asked me to interview them! So, we met up at our mutal friend Laura (Rogers, from the Rogers Sisters)’s bar and just started hanging out, having beers together, telling stories and sort of becoming friends. I managed to do an interview in between all of that and, while we are settling our enormous tab, they asked me if I knew any drummers because they had kicked theirs out. I said that the only available drummer I knew was ME, which was completely true, and they suggested a try-out. So, I went home and memorized their record just like I did when I was a kid. Couple days later I auditioned and was accepted – possibly as much for my drinking prowess as my drumming – but either way, I was in and we all became great friends. We had so much fun and I really love them all dearly. In fact, I think that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing with people in my life. Plus, being adopted into the whole, extended Versus, Plus Minus, Teenbeat family was amazing and mind expanding. That whole crew are some of the smartest, nicest, coolest and most talented people I’ve ever known. No joke. Plus, the shows were killer and we got to do some fun things like open for +/- and Unrest at the Teenbeat 20 festival in DC – which remains one of my favorite weekends I’ve ever had in my life.
Tie up some loose ends for us….I know you’ve played with many other musicians. Fill us in.
Well, all during the late 90’s and early-mid Oughts Jay and I were always doing Swivel Chairs on some level and we managed to put out a few records in between all the other stuff – not to mention our day jobs. Those were a lot of fun to make because we did them all at my house in Brooklyn and had a ton of guest musicians come through and play on tracks etc. – people like Bliss Blood from the Pain Teens and the Reverend Vince Anderson who was a legend in BK back then. At the same time I was spending a ton of time in Philadelphia with my girlfriendwife Mary Garito and her band Audible (who were fantastic). I got to play with them a little bit towards the end of their run and fullfilled my dream of being a full-time tamborine player for an indie rock band! Plus, I got to fill in on drums for their last-ever live performance – which is still a highlight for me. Later, in the mid oughts, our friend Jim from Transit of Venus Records actually signed Swivel Chairs to his label right when TFT was going on hiatus, so I boosted half of Audible and they became ‘Chairs for a few years! It was great actually because it was another love-fest of a band to be in. We all just loved hanging out and playing music and they were all ringers. Getting to be on ToV put us in some nice company too – Photon Band, Like a Fox, Trolleyvox etc. were all labelmates. It was definitely a fun club to be part of. Eventually everyone started getting married and having kids (also partially why we never did any touring), so Swivel Chairs packed it in. It was a good way to go out though, and we played some good shows – our last show was opening for the dear sweet Barbara Manning! I can’t tell if I answered your question or not.
How did The Improbables rope you into playing with them? That latest album (Object To Be Destroyed on Hidden Volume) is a scorcher.
They’re clever those Improbables, aren’t they? Well, to start, Kevin and Dave and I have been friends since we were all probably 18 or 19. I knew them from bands and DJ’ing back then and we had always kept in touch. I had not been playing much of anything for the better part of a year, (least of all drums), but I had started doing weekly DJ nights and having a lot of fun with that. Sort of back to my roots as they were… Eventually, I started having Kevin and Dave both come and spin records with me – because they have amazing record collections and are two of the finest DJ’s in Philly actually. So one night at the 700 Club Dave told me that their drummer quit and they have a show booked in 8 days and that they’re going to look like assholes if they cancel – would I fill in? Now at this point, I hadn’t even played drums at all for almost 7 years because I stole Audible’s amazing drummer Steve Cawley for Swivel Chairs and didn’t have to play anymore, haha. So, I felt like I was gonna fall on my face, but I said yes anyway and we had 3 practices in 7 days to get 10 songs down. It was really tough for me and I was super nervous – plus every Philly drummer that I admire was there that night watching me – it was brutal! The Hidden Volume folks were there that night too, so it was a bit crazy. Fortunately I got through it and about a week or so later they called me to meet up and asked me if I would join for real. I really tried not to, but it’s a really fun band with great songs and two of my oldest friends, so there was really no way I could say no. haha. So, we started learning the old stuff and gradually started writing new songs together and it turned into a good unit. Due in part, no doubt, by some good bonding moments like being dance-heckled playing a pizza joint or by having our practice space burnt to the ground by an arsonist (not kidding). But, nonetheless, we rallied and soon after I joined Scott Sugiuchi asked us to sign up with Hidden Volume. We were psyched to be part of that whole growing family and burgeoning scene for sure. We had a great summer recording and fall, mixing that LP with our friend Mike Kennedy (the mastermind behind the aforementioned Audible) who produced and recorded it. We have a follow up 45 due out later this year on HiVo and then we start work on the 2nd full length, so it’s going quite well. Plus, we are playing the HiVo Field Trip festival in Florida in February which is gonna be killer! The Imps are probably the only band that I’ve ever been in where it feels like more than the sum of its parts, which is pretty cool.
Tell us about your involvement with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby.
Yeah – leave it to me to not play drums for 7 years and then join 3 bands as the drummer, haha. I actually disavow any knowledge of or involvement with Wreckless Eric whatsoever. (I’m just kidding, I put that in here just to see if he’d actually read this far into the interview.) I literally met Eric through the magic of the internet and we somehow went from being virtual friends to actual friends. It started through his painting site actually (some people may not realize, but Eric is a wonderful painter). Anyway, he had a show in Philadelphia that wasn’t properly promoted or advertised which sounded like kind of a disaster and afterwards the club refused to pay him. He was really pissed and wrote a whole post about how terrible it was online – I contacted him the same day. I said, “If you ever want to try Philly again, let me set it up – I think you will have fun and get a better idea of what Philly can really be like.” To my surprise, he accepted the challenge and we put together a show with the Improbables and another great Philly band called AM Mills and sold the motherfucker out. Everybody had a blast and he called me about 2 weeks later and asked if I’d like to play on his next record. I was a little surprised and a bit intimidated, but said yes anyway. So I went to his studio a few times and ended up being on the record that became “amERICa.” It was a lot of fun and he is a human master-class in every aspect of music – history, writing, recording, performing, booking, fixing instruments – everything. I’ve learned an immense amount from him and he doesn’t seem to have an “OFF” switch so I’m going to keep taking notes. He’s got stories for miles and there have been lots of nights sitting at the dining room table laughing ‘til 3am. After “amERICa” came out we did some local shows and then he did a massive solo tour. When he came home he immediately started working on his wife Amy Rigby’s new record, as well as stuff he had written along the way for his next record. They invited me along so, I started going to their studio periodically and began working on both records at the same time with them. It was a really interesting experience to do these albums because the two of them work so differently. It was challenging, but it was great fun –And I’ll tell you what – Amy Rigby knows how to write a goddamn song! I’m not kidding, she’s one of the most clever and adept songwriters I’ve ever played with. Both of those albums are coming out in February and March respectively and we are going to do some shows for each I believe. I’m really lucky to have met them and become such great friends, they’re absolutely terrific people and very lenient bosses.
Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Randomly off the top of my head: Bully, Night Beats, Olympians, Cactus Blossoms, Preservation Hall Jaz Band, Shopping, Field Music, Proper Ornaments, AM Mills, the Jay Vons, Slowey and the Boats, Courtney Barnett, I Think Like Midnight, Blank Realm, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Swedish Taboo, James Hunter, Dead Ghosts, Menehan Street Band, Mystery Lights, Pow Wows, Reigning Sound
Also older bands with new stuff: Superchunk, Dream Syndicate, Spoon, Robyn Hitchcock, the Bats, the I Don’t Cares, the Chills
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
No order top 10:
Big Star – radio city
The Clean – vehicle
Duke Ellington – money jungle
Versus – the stars are insane
Mickey Baker – the wildest guitar
Superchunk – majesty shredding
Kinks – village green preservation society
Minutemen – double nickels on the dime
Frank Sinatra – live at the Sands
John Fahey – blind joe death (1st lp)
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about all of the great records that came out in the “CD era” of the late 90’s – late ‘oughts that never saw a vinyl release due to lack of interest or funds. There were so many fantastic albums that have sort of been forgotten and would sound amazing on wax. So I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I’d love to see re-issued now that people buy records again. It’s a selfish list, but the records are derserving nonetheless. Here goes:
Audible – In Simple Intervals
– Sky Signal
The Deathray Davies – the kick and the snare
the day of the ray
Whysall Lane – s/t
Scrawl – velvet hammer
Bigger Lovers – honey in the hive
– this affair never happened…
Hensley Sturgis – open lanes
Jenny Toomey – tempting
Carolyn Mark – terrible hostess
The Essex Green – the cannibal sea
Mazarin – we’re already there
Lucksmiths – why that doesn’t surprise me
Bon Mots – le main drag
The Swimmers – fighting trees
the Handsome Family – in the air
the last days of wonder
the Sneetches – blow out the sun
Wayne Hancock – A town blues
The Feminie Complex – complete recordings
Leftys Deceiver – cheats
Photon band – back dow to earth
Legendary Jim Ruiz Group – oh brother where art thou?
Tsunami – a brilliant mistake
Matt Suggs – golden days before they end
Apex manor – the year of magical drinking
BONUS QUESTION- You had as long stint as a writer for DAGGER. Did Hinely pay you top dollar?
Hinely only ever paid me in compliments, but they were exceptional compliments so that was enough.
ALL PHOTOS BY MARY GARITO (EXCEPT THE REAL EARLY ONES, NO ONE KNOWS WHO TOOK THOSE).
The indie music world received very sad news this week: Tony Kinman, a pioneering West Coast ground-zero punk in the late ‘70s with The Dils, and a pioneering alternative country twanger in the ‘80s with Rank And File, passed away at the age of 63. The cause of death was listed as cancer, his brother and bandmate Chip Kinman announcing the news on Facebook on May 4. Writing at his Facebook page a day prior, Chip explained, “Tony is home with his family. He is no longer receiving treatment and is comfortable and at peace. I have read him everything that people are posting and he is very moved. I will let everyone know when it is done. I love you all. Thank you, Chip.” (According to the LA Times, Kinman “was diagnosed with cancer in March, and had begun what had been expected to be a six-month program of chemotherapy, according to the CaringBridge page Chip’s wife, Lisa Kinman, created to keep fans informed. But the cancer turned out to be extremely aggressive.”)
The news of Tony Kinman’s death was particularly hard on the Americana community, for the Kinmans were more than just “pioneering” with Rank And File—they were a key influence upon and godfathers to the burgeoning alt-country movement that would commence picking up steam in the late ‘80s, by which time the band had broken up following three albums and several U.S. tours.
Yours truly was fortunate enough to see R&F on their first cross-country trek supporting 1983 debut Sundown—I still have my LP signed by the band—and I still have fond memories of hanging out and sharing drinks with the members during soundcheck and after the show. I hadn’t really kept close tab on the Kinmans following the band’s demise, although I did enjoy their post-R&F activities, including Blackbird and Cowboy Nation. More recently, Tony had worked with brother Chip on Chip’s latest band, Ford Madox Ford. There was a genuine lifelong bond between the two brothers as profound as any you’d care to cite.
Then in 2003 word arrived that Rhino Handmade was reissuing their two albums, along with bonus tracks, as a remastered CD, so I jumped at the opportunity to write about them for my column that appeared regularly in Harp magazine, “Indelibles,” in which I zeroed in on classic or influential albums that were finally seeing reissue in the digital era. So I consider myself even more fortunate to have been able to renew my acquaintance with Tony Kinman, if only for an hour or so over the phone. What follows below, then, by way of a remembrance of Kinman now, is an expanded version of the “Indelibles” profile. I found him to be more than affable, and quite willing to reflect on his old band’s fortunes—the good times as well as the less-than-good ones. He was rightfully proud of the music he and his brother and the other members (one of whom was Alejandro Escovedo—you may have heard of him) made together, stating simply, “I know what Rank and File was and I know what we did in terms of pioneering.”
A lot of us out here also know what you did, Tony, and we’re all immensely proud of you. Rest in peace, sir.
From Harp magazine, 2003: Nowadays, spotting lapsed punks hooked on twang is commonplace (just ask Ryan Adams or Jesse Malin). But back in the early ‘80s, when two alumni of West Coast punks The Dils – aka “the American Clash” – turned up sporting wide-brimmed Stetsons, singing about trains, sundowns and border crossings and emitting a hard-edged but distinctively country rock sound, the sight was alien, to say the least. Some clever critic dubbed Rank And File “cowpunk”; the label stuck, subsequently being applied to the likes of Jason & the Scorchers, Green On Red, Lone Justice, etc.
Looking for an escape from punk’s “faster/louder” orthodoxy, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman (bass and guitar, respectively) had formed the band with another ex-punk, guitarist Alejandro Escovedo (late of San Fran’s Nuns), and after migrating to Austin and picking up a drummer, Slim Evans, began rehearsing and songwriting with a military-like dedication.
“You know how badly it can sound when people are just going, ‘Hey, even I can do a country song!’’ recalls Tony Kinman. “We didn’t want that. Plus, if you’re gonna say you play country music, you’re gonna come up against guys who can play and sing the pants off you. So you better be able to play. And we wanted to bring some life, skill and imagination into it.”
The diligence paid off; after a tour opening for The Blasters, Rank And File landed a deal with Slash, and recording sessions (with producer David Kahne) for Sundown quickly commenced. Upon its release in late ’82, critics wet themselves, as much for the record’s unique-for-its-time sound as for its obvious musical merits – visceral, twangy rock choogle fueled by some of the sleekest fretwork since the cosmic cowboy duels of Roger McGuinn and Clarence White, not to mention harmony vocals that conjured everyone from the Beatles and Eagles to the Brothers Everly and Righteous.
Muses Kinman, “I thought it was a good record. None of us had any experience in recording, and we were on such a low budget that the only way David could afford to bring it in under budget was to have us come in [to the studio] late at night after everyone else was done! But reviewers weren’t really ready for how good the material was – ‘Wow, this is pretty strong!’ – and that was gratifying.”
Rank And File promoted its album heavily, even landing a choice TV appearance on Austin City Limits. The schedule took its toll, however, and after the tour was over Escovedo took his leave, eventually embarking on a notable solo career. For a brief unrecorded spell, future guit-steel virtuoso Junior Brown was Escovedo’s replacement. (Kinman says Brown “was phenomenal even back then and he knocked ‘em dead, but wasn’t challenged enough” in the band.) Drummer Evans left too, so it was a two-man Rank And File that went into the studio in January of ’84 to work on a sophomore album, sessions that Kinman now admits were “definitely strange. It wasn’t the ‘all-for-one’ thing like the first one. Al was gone, Slim had gotten married and left the band as well, so it was just Chip and I. But we got it done.”
Rank And File may have been unstable personnel-wise, but musically speaking, Long Gone Dead is every bit as strong as its predecessor. Somewhat slicker in feel due to the presence of session players (including Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch) and with additional country flavorings (prominently featured were pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and slide guitar), it still sounds fresh today, more “cow” than “punk.” As Kinman quips, “We almost invented the modern country sound of today, what gets on the radio. Country-sounding, but with a drive to it, like our version of [Lefty Frizzell’s] ‘I’m An Old, Old Man.’”
Reviews once again were terrific. Except, ironically, the one that appeared in Slash’s hometown paper, the L.A. Times, which Kinman says sparked an odd bit of tension between band and label. In fact, once the Long Gone Dead national tour (guitarist Jeff Ross and drummer Bob Kahr were now in the band) was over and it was time to begin work on the third Rank And File album, Slash waffled over everything from studio scheduling to producer choices – at one point Van Dyke Parks was on board – for nearly two years.
In 1987 Rank And File was recorded and released, but the delays had taken the wind out of the band’s sails and it was a substandard effort. Says Kinman, “Basically everything went to hell, and my attitude, Chip’s attitude, everyone’s attitude was getting more and more like, ‘Aw, screw it.’ And that’s basically why that third album sounds like it does. It’s a record that has some good songs on it, but the whole idea behind it was just wrong, like, heavy metal and hard rock or something, and by the time we got in to make it we just didn’t care anymore.”
Following a final tour, Rank And File called it a day. The Kinmans went on to the duo-plus-drum-machine Blackbird, subsequently picked up acclaim for yet another Stetsons-and-twang project, Cowboy Nation. Now, with the Rhino Handmade expanded/remastered reissue of the first two Rank And File albums on one CD as The Slash Years (see sidebar, below, for details), Kinman hopes his former band’s precedent-busting efforts in the pre-No Depression/alt-country era will finally get their due.
Admits Kinman, “For awhile it used to bother me that it was almost like we’d never existed — like, the only Rank And File ever got mentioned at all was in an Alejandro Escovedo article A lot of younger people playing now simply never had the chance to hear us. They make the jump from, say, Gram Parsons to the Knitters – or Uncle Tupelo. And there’s this whole void there, and I think it’s simply because our stuff was not around.”
“But,” he adds, with undisguised pride, “I know what Rank and File was and I know what we did in terms of pioneering.”
Rank And File: The Slash Years (Rhino/Handmade RHM27816; 2003). Personnel: Chip Kinman, Tony Kinman, Alejandro Escovedo, Slim Evans
1982 saw Rank And File debut with the David Kahne-produced Sundown (Slash SR114); appearing in 1984 was Long Gone Dead (Slash/Warner Bros. 25087), produced by Jeff Eyrich. Plans were made years ago, then delayed several times, to reissue both LPs on CD. Finally, with the Slash label’s back catalog controlled by Warner Strategic Marketing, under which Rhino now operates, Rhino Senior V.P Gary Stewart – a huge R&F fan, not so coincidentally – got involved, shifted the project to Rhino’s Internet-only collectors’ imprint Handmade, and co-produced the CD along with the Kinman brothers. The Slash Years is a numbered/limited edition of 2500 copies (www.rhinohandmade.com ).
In addition to remastered sound, a 16-page booklet with incisive liner notes penned by veteran journalist Jimmy Guterman and a separate mini-booklet of lyrics and gig poster repros, The Slash Years includes four non-album bonus tracks. Three of them hail from the Sundown recording sessions: edgy anti-racism screed “Klansman,” an early staple of the band’s live sets; a cover of old-school country standard “Wabash Cannonball”; and twangy gem “Post Office,” which previously appeared on the cassette of Sundown and a Warners rarities compilation, Revenge Of The Killer B’s. The final bonus cut is a spirited (if slightly muddy-sounding) live recording from ’87, “White Lightnin,” a J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper) penned drinkin’ ‘n’ stinkin’ recorded over the years by everyone from Waylon Jennings and George Jones to the Fall and the Waco Brothers.
The Slash Years, as noted, was a limited edition. It quickly sold out, and is considered relatively rare nowadays; at the time of this writing, the lone copy listed at Discogs was going for $99. In 2005 the Collectors’ Choice label reissued all three R&F albums on CD, minus any bonus tracks; this marked the first time 1987’s Rank And File was available on CD. And here in 2018, The Slash Years is available for streaming at Spotify.
The songwriter stepped outside the Dream Syndicate mothership for his first two solo albums, originally released in the early ‘90s, which now get the expanded reissue treatment courtesy the archival maestros at Omnivore. (Watch a Wynn concert from 1992 following the text.)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
In the late eighties, Steve Wynn was best known as leader of the mighty Dream Syndicate, and as such was associated with a certain sound. Though the band had begun to cross its own boundaries before its final record Ghost Stories, the Syndicate was still thought of as one thing: a semi-crazed guitar band that crossed the Velvet Underground with Crazy Horse. But Wynn was more ambitious in his vision, so it was only natural that he would put his latest batch of songs in different settings on Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display, his first solo albums.
Originally released on Rhino Records in 1990, Kerosene Man opens up Wynn’s sound with colorful arrangements and thick, even lush instrumentation. Producer Joe Chiccarelli encouraged Wynn to look outside of his circle of friends and consider session cats. It’s a move that might be construed as an attempt to make Wynn’s songs commercial, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Wynn’s writing has always been fairly straightforward – verses, choruses, melodies, hooks – and giving them production that, while hardly slick, wouldn’t sound out of place on the evolving Adult Album Alternative format would hopefully increase his audience. The single “Carolyn,” a tune that went back to the early Syndicate days, goes alt.country before alt.country was cool, while “Something to Remember Me By” enhances its dirty rock with female backup vocals (courtesy an overdubbed Julie Christensen of Divine Horsemen/Leonard Cohen infamy). “Conspiracy of the Heart” (a co-write and duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano) and “Here On Earth As Well” essay gorgeous balladry with easy grace, unleashing a new facet of Wynn’s talent. With its jangling 12-string, crunchy solo and rousing chorus, opener “Tears Won’t Help” posits Wynn as the classic rocker that was always hiding under the Syndicate’s wall of feedback.
None of that’s to say Wynn doesn’t work his more eccentric mojo. “The Blue Drifter” indulges in his Lou Reed side, complete with saxophone coda, “Under the Weather” waits under the streetlight at midnight for a cool slice of noir rock, and the title track rollicks like a great bar band trying to cover Bob Dylan and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” at the same time. The gnarled “Younger” – guest-starring Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and future Continental Drifter Robert Mache duking it out on guitar – sounds more like an unused Dream Syndicate track than Nü-Steve. But the overall feel of Kerosene Man is smoother and more radio-ready than Wynn’s previous work, though it’s a sheen motivated more by a desire to get a set of strong songs in the vicinity of friendly ears than it is shifting units.
The Omnivore edition comes with a half-dozen bonus tracks, all recorded either in clubs or on the radio with his band at the time. A mix of originals and covers, the bonus cuts boast aggressive takes on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Graveyard Train” and Bob Dylan’s “The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” and an absolutely molten version of “Younger.”
Wynn quickly followed up Kerosene Man with Dazzling Display, made with the same core team and originally issued in 1992. With a bigger budget, extra musicians and a year’s worth of experience on the road as a solo artist, Wynn was able to make what’s probably the most diverse and colorful record of his career. The first two cuts tell it: alongside the same studio band as on the last record, the bright, groovy pop of “Drag” features Three O’Clock/Mary’s Danish guitarist Louis Gutierrez, a horn section and a small army of backing vocalists, while the frisky folk/pop of “Tuesday” includes Gutierrez, Peter Buck, John Wesley Harding, string players and, on backing vocals, Flo & Eddie (the Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman) and the Psycho Sisters (the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson and the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill – soon to join Wynn guitarist Robert Mache and bassist Mark Walton in the Continental Drifters). It looks excessive on the page, but by the grace of Wynn’s tasteful and efficient writing, his contagious enthusiasm for taking advantage of the studio environment and the skill of the players themselves, these top-heavy creations don’t fall on their faces.
Though the number of musicians on the rest of the tracks rarely reaches the same levels, they’re still presented in busier arrangements and shinier production than even Kerosene Man. But that works like a charm, suiting this particular set of Wynn songs well. The glittery pop of “Dandy in Disguise” and “When She Comes Around,” propulsive psychedelia of “Grace” and angry rock of “405” and the title track find their melodies buttressed by the arrangements, rather than obscured, and Wynn sounds confident and engaged amidst all the industry. Above all, it sounds like a natural evolution from the debut. Hardcore fans of The Days of Wine and Roses might blanch at first, but anyone following the road from 1982 to 1992 will be satisfied.
As with Kerosene Man, the Omnivore version includes six in-concert bonus cuts, recorded with Wynn’s touring band. The mini-set boasts a lovely “Conspiracy of the Heart,” with Johnette Napolitano reprising her studio role, and a hard-rocking version of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” as highlights.
Wynn continued exploring this pop-friendly direction in later records, but it’s on these long out-of-print gems that he truly signaled his desire to never be hemmed in by expectations, his own or others. Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display are well worth rediscovery.
Photo by Greg Allen
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Psychedelic Furs "Only You and I" (Live Costa Mesa CA 7-19-18
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea