Tag Archives: rock

Fred Mills: Old Loyalties, New Music, and Boise’s Like A Rocket

For a music journalist, there’s no better feeling than finding out your initial instincts were correct. Meet one of Idaho’s best bands.

BY FRED MILLS

Musically speaking, Idaho tends to ping the national radar only occasionally; for the indie-rock milieu, Josh Ritter and Doug Martsch (Built to Spill) are probably the best-known Idaho native sons. Yet the state does in fact have a thriving music scene, with plenty of bars and breweries on hand to play host. You can count Boise’s Like A Rocket among the extant talent, championing regional breweries and arriving soon with their third full-length, High John The Conqueror.

The trio— guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Bobby “Speedy” Gray, bassist Andy Cenarrusa, drummer Max Klymenko—powers straight outta the gate with raucous, roots-rock raveup “Ain’t It All A Work Song” (it’s below, and also at their Bandcamp page for purchase as first single from the album), sending a sonic statement from the get-go they are here to kick up some dust and kick some ass. Sinewy yet deeply melodic Americana is the name of the game, from the twangy, Georgia Satellites-esque “Follow Me Down (to the party by the river)” and slide guit-powered stomper “The Devil of T.V. Paul’s” to the straight-up country rock of “Tuxedo and Anna Leigh” and lovely, Latin-infused cowboy ballad “Magdalena.”

There’s also the album’s psychological centerpiece, “Dark Blood.” Following the stage-setting, 30-second title track, a rippling acoustic guitar instrumental, this rumbling, brooding blues unfolds as a fatalistic tale of mortal sin and retribution: the former, at the hands of Gray’s haunted protagonist; the latter, courtesy album namesake High John, a living, breathing hellhound on the singer’s trail. Classic blues imagery abounds—roosters that are crowing, muddy waters that keep flowing, slaves on the block, “Tarrytown,” ropes dangling from trees—as Gray, voice framed amid a steadily rising chorus of snarling psychedelic guitars and tense martial percussion, realizes his time is near (“Brother, dear brother, take my fine young wife/ ‘cos I got a meeting comin’ with High John’s knife”). It’s a masterful performance, part Steve Earle, part “Sympathy”-era Stones, part Robert Johnson, all Like A Rocket.

As a band, this is a fluid, flexible beast, shifting easily between multiple styles while maintaining a taut, focused core. (A perfect example of this style-shifting is “Cry Baby Cry” which, with its low, echoey, shantylike vibe, initially suggests classic cosmic twang; but as the tune progresses, it ascends and turns anthemic, a marriage of gospel-inspired vocals and power pop guitars.) With songwriter Gray as their not-so-secret weapon—he seems to have absorbed a lifetime’s worth of influences yet instinctively knows when to put them on display and when to deploy them subtly, and nuanced—the three men also demonstrate a collective gift for arrangements that allows them to transcend the physical limits of a “mere” trio.

Ultimately, with High John The Conqueror, Like A Rocket is—pardon the painfully obvious cliché—clearly poised to take off.

***

Full disclosure: For yours truly, there’s a bit of a personal connection here. During the mid/late ‘80s, in my capacity as music editor for a Charlotte, NC, alt-weekly, I covered Gray’s early band, Helpless Dancer, on multiple occasions, and I instinctively gravitated to their glammy, hard-edged brand of power pop. (I still own a 45 they released during that time.) Their fan base was broad, and devoted. By that point Gray was already a scene veteran with serious chops he’d honed as a teenager touring as part of a gospel group, and after Helpless Dancer he wasted no time in forming a terrific post-punk group dubbed The Dollmakers. After I moved to the Southwest, however, I lost tabs on him, so to not only discover his current outfit now, many years later, but also learn that he made a similar move westward, also in need of a change of scenery, not long after I did makes for an oddly satisfying bit of synchronicity.

See, I’ve always felt that time and distance shouldn’t diminish memories or undermine old loyalties. Support the home team, so to speak. Here in 2017, I frequently encounter favorite musicians from back in the day who are still making stellar art, and in a weird way, having that type of insider knowledge about their backgrounds seems to subtly enhance my appreciation of their current efforts. It’s not necessarily a matter of comparing one incarnation to another one, but rather of having something relevant in common, and I’d reckon anyone can identify with that.

To all the rest of you, there’s plenty about Like A Rocket that, if you have an appreciation for honest, well-wrought, immensely tuneful American rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll be able to identify with. Crank up the stereo (you can get a quick taste at the aforementioned Bandcamp page, including a five-song EP, Raucous, comprising additional material cut during the album sessions) and make up for lost time—just like I’m doing now.

Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com

 

Fred Mills: One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Pleasure

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Ye Olde Blurte Editore reflects on his 1987-92 musical romp across the Charlotte, NC, skyline…

BY FRED MILLS

Sweet memes are made of this: I recently met a fellow North Carolinian who, it turns out, was living in Charlotte during part of the same time I lived there. We apparently did not know each other, but we did have a mutual friend, photographer Don “Bongo” Swan, who passed away in 1995, so it was natural to share stories with one another. Don was loved by pretty much everybody in Charlotte, and I had the good fortune of working with him on numerous occasions in my capacity as Music Editor for alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. The conversation left me feeling more than a tad nostalgic, so I did a search online and found a story I wrote for the Loaf in 1997 to mark the paper’s 10th anniversary. Rereading it now, a lot of memories came back, including plenty of Don. He took the photo pictured above, in case you were wondering, of my editor John Grooms, the Domino’s pizza noid, and me as we took part in an attempt to land the Guinness Book record for “most guitarists playing ‘Louie Louie’ at the same time,” go figure. (Somewhere in my files I also have the original image that Don gave me. I need to get that framed.) So at the risk of seeming hopelessly self-indulgent, I thought I’d republish the article here for posterity. Let me just add – this one’s for you, Bongo.

***

Rock through the first five years

Charlotte music from 1987-1992

If, as historians advise us, eras have their defining moments, then so, too, do smaller periods contain their own seeds of identity and character.

Looking back at the first five years of Creative Loafing, during which I served as the paper’s music editor, I get the sense that there were a number of “defining moments.” Viewed as separate points on a time line or as linked incidents on a continuum that has now stretched to 10 years (and counting), these moments do seem to paint CL in a myriad of hues and shadings. Put metaphorically, if Charlotte’s daily newspaper is black and white (and, like the musty joke adds, “read all over”), then this city’s alternative weekly is as colorful and rich in depth as a Hockney painting. And at times, suitable for framing.

One such event that will always represent, to me at least, what CL — as an alternative to the mainstream — was all about transpired in January of 1990. For weeks Charlotte had been fudging its undies over Tom Cruise and the filming of Days Of Thunder at the Speedway. The Observer in particular was a lighter shade of brown at the time, logging the star’s real and imagined movements around town as if he were Mother Teresa touring local leprosy wards. Imagine the chagrin, then, of the daily paper when we reported from the front lines and even buttonholed Cruise for an exclusive interview.

Seems that the Belmont Playboys got the wrap party gig, and the band smuggled me in as their roadie. I duly reported the arrival of Robert Duvall, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, not to mention the impromptu jam session involving the Playboys and the Duvall entourage (Cash was particularly smitten by the band’s version of his “Rock & Roll Ruby”). More importantly, and sensing my duty as a journalist, I engaged Tom Cruise for our “exclusive interview.” The entire interview went thusly: “What did you think of the Playboys, Tom?” “Man, they were rockin’!”

Yessir, Creative Loafing (not to mention its worldly music critic) had finally arrived into high society. Of course, we had to come through the back door with the servants and hired help, but still …

Damn. Time flies. Here it is, seven years later, and I’m browsing a Tucson record hole when I spot a CD called Wolf Patrol by none other than my ad hoc employer, the Belmont Playboys!

Even though talent naturally rises, it’s hard not to feel like CL had at least a small hand in boosting the band’s career. One of our prime directives from the git-go was “support local music.” Before our first issue was published in April of ’87, editor John Grooms and I had lengthy discussions over what role the paper should play with regards to the area’s music scene. It had always rubbed both of us the wrong way that the media powers-that-be (including Charlotte’s candy-ass radio stations) tended to treat local bands with the same kind of embarrassed condescension usually reserved for that eccentric, flamboyant relative who turns up tipsy and in a feather boa at the family reunion. To that end, we set out to champion our rock ‘n’ roll underground — what the hell, let’s crash the party and get drunk with the rest of the freaks! — and challenge the rest of the populace to keep up with us.

A poorly kept secret around the Loafing office is that Break, the entertainment tab started up in 1987 by the Observer in order to complete directly with CL for advertising revenue (let’s face it, it sure wasn’t for prestige), tried to hire me as a music writer. As the editrix schmoozed me over instant coffee and stale donuts, I inquired as to the level of music coverage Break had in mind.

“There’s a Billy Joel show coming next month to the Coliseum. I think our readers would enjoy a 750 word profile on the man.”

When I mentioned that Antiseen and Fetchin Bones had gigs coming up too, I was met with a blank look. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll admit it, we were as arrogant as we were hip. Case in point: taking it upon ourselves to paint Charlotte’s Springfest celebration in its true colors — a crashing bore or a yuppie circle jerk — we proceeded to muscle a local rock and blues stage into the annual goings-on for a couple of years. When Springfest organizers tried to water down our efforts, we opted out entirely and put on our own Nightfest (the name we judiciously picked over “Counterfest” and “Screw You Springfest”) in ’90, staging bands after sundown in three clubs during Springfest weekend. The idea seemed to fly despite some territorial pissing among competing club owners (don’t ask), so in ’91 we put the call out en masse and wound up with three nights, seven clubs and 27 local acts. The entire spectrum of Charlotte talent was showcased: folk, blues, heavy metal, alternative, punk, psychedelic, etc.

And whether or not any of the bands and performers went on to bigger and better things isn’t the point — what matters is that someone was taking local talent seriously, not as minor league players. (You want serious? Seven months later CL threw its weight behind striking members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and helped put together a fundraiser for the out-of-work musicians. The sight of our beloved Spongetones onstage, backed by seven string and three horn players, as they played a dead-on set of Beatles songs was one of the best Christmas presents we ever received.)

Nowadays, of course, judging by the club ads and CL “Soundboard” listings, it seems that on any given night of the week you can catch a reasonably hot gig. But for those with short memories, let me assure you that there was a point in time when Charlotte’s idea of a thriving club scene meant folksingers doing Kenny Loggins and Eagles covers, blues bands who performed entire sets sitting down, and multiracial reggae-cum-fusion outfits listlessly jamming on Fridays after five on the watering holes’ outside decks.

Likewise, 10 years ago it was simply not an option for a local band to release a CD; I recall a Major Event being defined as so-and-so putting out a three-song demo cassette, and when a regional compilation like Statements Vol. 1 or Metal Mythos appeared in the stores, declaring a civic holiday was in order.

So even though the term “thriving” is relative (and probably cyclical as well), Charlotte would be a far poorer community had it not been for the efforts of a small but dedicated network of musicians, club bookers, fanzine editors, record store owners, independent label and recording studio heads, even the occasional radio visionaries (you may all turn in the direction of Spindale and genuflect). I’d like to think that CL helped transform the scene — oh, screw modesty, I know we did, as anyone who’s ever turned to the “Music Menu” or filled out a ballot for our annual “Best of Charlotte” knows.

Defining moments aren’t necessarily positive in nature. Sometimes they can be downright notorious. (Just ask people who attended the dung-flinging ’87 appearance at the Church of Musical Awareness by punk nihilist G.G. Allin.) No recounting of our first five years would be complete without mention of the Great GWAR Obscenity Bust in September 1990. The incident has long since passed into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll lore, and the band itself has even been immortalized in song and on video the night when Charlotte vice and ALE agents, acting on a “tip” provided by scanning the CL Music Menu concert preview, raided the 4808 Club and toted vocalist Oderus Urungus and his two-and-a-half foot long penis (in two separate paddy wagons) off to jail.

Not to romanticize the event unnecessarily, but a bit of local innocence was lost that night as well. 4808 had long gotten up the noses of local authorities anyway, staging all-ages punk and hard rock shows right in the heart of the downtown area. (Unlike the Milestone Club, which garnered some negative reactions over the years but was “lucky” enough to be located across town on the other side of the tracks, so to speak.) So hosting GWAR, with the show’s explicit, if cartoonish, sexual content, simply blew out the fuses, and when the dust cleared, 4808’s owner had been charged alongside the band with disseminating obscenity, ultimately getting his beer license revoked. The club closed, and Charlotte seemed just a little less friendly a place to be for working musicians. Maybe the arts community too; is it my imagination, or did a theater production have a similar clash with the prevailing Bible Belt mentality around here less than a year ago?

In my own arrogance, it was a rude awakening. I actually believed it was my duty to further the subversive agenda of latex-covered, heavy metal practitioners of sodomy and ritual disembowelment. Antiseen’s as well.

Ah well. In the words of CL‘s staff photog at the time, the late Don Swan, “Fuck ’em, man.”

People and personalities also defined the paper and its first five years. Too many to list here, including the bums who entertained us with their grunts and moans of alcoholic lust as they previewed skin magazines at the convenience store across the street from our South Boulevard location. Don Swan, though, was quite the bon vivant, and I was proud to have worked with him on assignments. In 1995, John Grooms called me with the news that Don had died and asked me to pen a brief remembrance for the paper’s farewell to him. The first thing that came to mind was of one night when Don and I were covering the Scorpions at the Coliseum. I made the observation that “there’s something kinda weird about a 40-year-old man dressed in spandex and wiggling his butt and making goofy faces.” Don thought for a second, then turned to me and stated matter-of-factly, “Yeah, but I bet he gets laid tonight.”

Now that was rock ‘n’ roll. I would end up naming a kitten I’d adopted around the time Don passed away Bongo, in his honor.

I could produce a laundry list the length of Oderus Urungus’ erstwhile member of moments sublime and surreal that stand out in my mind as significant during my tenure at Creative Loafing. Come to think of it, I already did, in the April 18, 1992, fifth anniversary issue.

But overall, what the experience meant to me was being able to treat music and music culture with the kind of respect, passion, and yeah, adolescent irreverence that I thought it deserved. I mean, what could be more pointless yet life-affirming than spending weeks debating behind closed doors with Grooms, then proudly writing a cover story called “The 100 Greatest Intro Guitar Riffs Of All Time”? Or heading south to the Gaffney Peachoid with Swan and Grooms, to help break the record for most people playing the three chords from “Louie Louie” over and over?

When I surrendered my duties at this paper in ’92 to move to Tucson I received two retirement gifts. One was a lifetime (theoretically) gratis subscription to Creative Loafing. Reading it from afar, I’m proud to have watched it grow in size, scope, and just plain huevos.

The other gift was a colorful T-shirt custom-designed by none other than Rene Escarcha, aka Renelvis, aka the only known Charlotte-based Filipino Elvis impersonator. Displayed on the back of the shirt is the music column I wrote in which CL “discovered” Renelvis during his residency as the floor show of a local Chinese eatery — clearly, in tone and texture, one of the paper’s singular defining moments.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to sum up five years worth of rock ‘n’ roll memories. See the concert, get the T-shirt.

John B. Moore: Shovels & Rope

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“It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches”: the sonically pugilistic Americana duo shows its moves to the BLURT braintrust.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

The Americana duo Shovels & Rope is an anomaly in music these days: a critically-hyped band that actually manages to live up to all of the effusive praise.

Charleston-based husband and wife team Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst originally had no intention of combining forces, both seemingly content as separate solo acts. But a couple of fortuitous gigs in which each act served as the other’s sideman, years ago at a North Carolina club, got the pair thinking about the benefits of combining forces. Three albums (including their latest, 2014’s frankly amazing Swimmin’ Time, released on the Dualtone label), a handful of awards, and millions of fans later, Trent and Hearst are still living up to the hype.

The two took some time recently to talk to BLURT about the band’s beginnings, making a documentary and holding their own at festivals.

BLURT: I’m sure you’ve heard this question a lot over the years, so I apologize for you having to hear it again: You both started out as solo musicians; how did you decide to come together as a band?

TRENT: We had made a record while we were still very much doing things on our own and that record ended up being titled Shovels & Rope, so it was already like we had a toe in already. We hadn’t planned on every being a touring act or anything, but people would respond to that in a way that was different to the way they responded to the other things we were doing. At some point, there was one specific weekend when I had a gig in Charlotte at a club called the Evening Muse and Cary was my back up for that gig, and the very next weekend she had a gig at the same place and I was her sideman. It just seemed ridiculous at that point – we could probably put on one pretty good show between the two of us. We could actually stay out on the road for a while if it was both of us doing it together.

How much did that change the way you go about writing your music? Obviously when you’re solo you don’t have to run a song by anyone else to get their buy in.

HEARST: It doesn’t change the way we write together, but sometimes Michael will write by himself and sometimes with other band members; I, 99% of the time, wrote by myself and so before we started touring really hard we co-wrote the first Shovels & Rope record together – he brought in some songs and I brought in some songs… When we started touring together, we’d spend all of our time together and realized it was fun to write together. We still write separately and together for records.

Do you ever feel you have to stand up for a song that the other one doesn’t like?

TRENT: Usually one of us is standing up for a song that the other person wrote, that they don’t really like,

HEARST: That’s exactly right.

TRENT: We’ll have a very honest conversation with each other: “You have to show me all of them, even the ones you may not think are any good.” A lot of times, it’s those (songs) that end up striking a real chord with the other person and end up turning into special songs.

I love my wife dearly, but could never imagine working a job with her every single day. Being married and in a band together, did you ever have a discussion up front on how to make it work?

TRENT: We thought the exact same thing, so don’t count yourself out.

HEARST: Yeah, it wasn’t either of our ideas as the ideal thing to do, spending that much time together.

TRENT: But it has actually worked out and we give each other space when we need it. At this point, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way. But at first, we were both like “no, we shouldn’t do this.” It took a minute before we both came around to the idea, primarily because we’d both been doing our own thing for so long that it would be weird to go in with someone else, especially your spouse… It’s been great.

HEARST: Ever since we got married, and we’d been together a real long time before that, we’ve been traveling ever since our honeymoon. We’ve been on the road ever since, so we honestly don’t know any different.

Can you talk a little bit about the documentary, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope?

HEARST: The documentary is a super precious, awesome experience that we cherish. We’re also humbled by watching ourselves. I think some people really love to see themselves on camera and neither of us, even someone who is as big a ham as I tend to be, neither of us really love to watch ourselves when that deep dark mirror is shining back on you. You say stupid things and don’t realize it until afterward.

TRENT: The way it all came about in the first place, when we first decided we were going to do this, that we were going to be a band called Shovels & Rope, we heard about these guys and did some live videos with them, so that we would have something to put on our website so that we could get gigs. We spent a day with them and just made all kinds of videos. A couple of weeks later they called us back and had this idea that they wanted to do a documentary about us. We didn’t have anything going on at the time. Nothing.

They just sort of wanted to document the way a family band was just working, how we did our thing. It was supposed to a couple of months and then it ended up lasting a year and then two years. Things just kept popping up. They ended up following us around for about three years when all was said and done.

HEARST: Yeah, we really became great friends with them… the fella that produced it ended up becoming our manager during the course of making the documentary. Those guys are great artists and we had a really great time working with them… We’ll be so gratefully to have this looking back 40 or 50 years. We’ll be able to prove to our grandchildren what we did.

So is this just the first step on your path to a reality show?

HEARST: Oh yeah (sarcastically). It’ll be called Take My Eyes Out with a Dull Spoon.

You guys have a very packed summer, based on your tour schedule. You’re also playing a lot of festivals. Do you enjoy those are or they kind of a necessary evil at this point?

TRENT: It’s just different and every festival is different from each other. The smaller ones definitely feel a little more special. The big ones can be such a spectacle, there’s so much going on and so many people, I sort of feel like it’s harder to connect than if you’re playing in a club. You’re also playing to all these other bands’ audiences as well as your own. Whereas headlining show all of those people are there to see you.

It’s a neat opportunity, it’s just a little different.

HEARST: It’s trial by fire. You’re standing before the gun line and you give everything you have and you only have half the time to do it. Thank you Cleveland!

Have you ever had the situation where you’re playing to a crowd and you guys just don’t fit it?

HEARST: Oh yeah! But I will say that we’ve also played in front of crowds that we don’t necessary get into, but I will argue that we hang pretty tough. We’ve never gotten the idea that anybody is like “I hate this band. Get them off the stage.” People will let you know that they like you and they’ll also let you know that they’re just waiting for the band you’re opening for. That’s ok. That’s just part of the game. It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches.

TRENT: We’ve got to go all 12 rounds.

Photo Credit: Molly Hayes

John B. Moore: Andy Gill of Gang Of Four

GO4-Photo Credit Leo Cackett

Though down to only one original member, the legendary UK post-punk band remains as complex and powerful as ever. “We are a vibrant, dynamic, evolving project,” declares guitarist Andy Gill.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

The wildly influential post-punk band Gang of Four have been written off before. They first called it quits in the ‘80s and again in the late ‘90s. But when vocalist and co-founder Jon King decided to leave the band recently, it seemed like the final chapter. The group was beginning work on the follow up to 2011’s Content at the time.

But Andy Gill, guitarist/vocalist and King’s partner since day one, simply saw the departure as an opportunity to reinvent the band’s sound. Soldiering on, he called in a handful of musicians to help take turns on the mic, including Alison Mosshart from The Kills, Robbie Furze from The Big Pink, Gail Ann Dorsey and Herbert Gronemeyer. Japanese guitarist Hotei put his mark on a song as well.

The result can be heard on the new What Happens Next (Metropolis), a complex and powerful entry to Gang of Four’s already storied musical canon. Gill, preparing for the band’s U.S. tour, spoke recently about the record, opening Gang of Four up to others and the group’s future.

***

BLURT: This is your first record without Jon on vocals. Did you consider singing all of these songs yourself or auditioning full-time singers as a replacement?

GILL: Well I always sing on a number of songs on any Gang of Four album and one of the favorite Gang of Four formats is where there is a back-and-forth between different voices; so there are different voices, sometimes a narrator who have a dialogue or one comments on what the other is saying. But at no point did think I would do all the singing.

I had wanted to do a record for some time that involved collaborations but that didn’t fly with Jon King, so with this record it seem natural to do the collaboration thing. And yes, it did cross my mind that I might have to do a bunch of auditions for the main singing role.

As I worked on the early songs on this record, I wanted someone who would come and sing them, initially I thought as demos, and I asked my manager for ideas. Gaoler [John Sterry] just popped down to the studio one day, I had never met him, to give me a hand singing my vocals in a better way – for quite a long time he was a session singer for me. As I got to know him better, I liked him more and more, and I really liked his voice and it seemed to be a natural thought to maybe try doing a gig with him. We did a little semi-secret gig in London at the Lexington and it went very well; we’ve now been all over the world with him.

It was a pretty novel idea to use an array of different voices – and it worked out very well. How difficult was it to find the right people and lineup everyone’s schedules?

I’m glad you feel it worked out well. The process of working with the other individuals seem to happen very simply; the process was quite intuitive for me. It was not thought out. I had done a little bit of work with the Kills in the studio and Alison (Mosshart) just sprang to mind when I was thinking about someone to sing “Broken Talk.” She was very happy to come down to the studio and sing a couple of the songs.

I loved that song “Dominoes” that the Big Pink did a few years back. I got in touch with Robbie Furze and asked him if he wanted to sing on this track I was working on and he came down to the studio a few times and sang this wonderfully hard edged, “geometric” vocal

Gail Ann Dorsey is a very old friend and she of course has been in different Gang of Four lineups over the years as a bass player. She is a fantastic musician and a great, great singer. The song she sings on, “First World Citizen,” was simply crying out for her voice.

Herbert’s [Gronemeyer] a friend – I’ve known him at least 20 years – Anton Corbijn introduced us back then. I was talking to Herbert about the new record, I guess 18 months ago, and he wondered if I would like him to sing something on it. The particular thing that he does that I really love are the rather ‘angst’ melancholy ballads. I knew I had to write a song which could incorporate that particular aspect of his character so, more than any other track, it really had to be tailor-made and I can tell you it was difficult. I had to work at that and I went down a lot of blind alleys until I came up with the music of the dying rays. It was quite an extraordinary experience hearing him sing it as I had heard it in my head – only, better than I had heard it in my head.

Tomoyasu Hotei is Japan’s biggest rock guitarist; he spends quite a bit of time going round Japanese stadiums. Anyway, he’s always been a big fan of my guitar playing and we got to know each other. Eventually, we decided to write something together. The opening riff of “Dead Souls” is pure Hotei.

Gang of Four CD

Was it odd to be working on a Gang of Four album without Jon?

Jon can be an absolute genius when it comes to lyrics, but I didn’t feel he had been bringing a whole lot to the records for some time. After Content was released, we had only done a few gigs at the point when Jon signaled it was over for him; he wanted to focus on his advertising career. As I began working on this new record, I felt reinvigorated and seized the opportunity to reimagine Gang of Four from the ground up. To an outsider, the writing process would have looked little different: I’ve always written and produced all the music, with Jon coming in with some of the lyrics, and I always wrote Gang of Four lyrics too, about half of them. But right from the first song I began to interrogate everything I was doing more rigorously and take creative inspiration more widely. What Happens Next is very obviously a Gang of Four record but I found myself approaching it with the energy and daring of a first album

I read somewhere where you also let go of the reins a bit on this one and rather than handling everything yourself – from writing to mixing – you worked with others. What brought about that decision?

I think it makes so much sense to have some kind of producer or co-producer helping with the process, that’s why everybody does it! When I am songwriting in the studio it often just seamlessly morphs into recording the final master, which I think is the main reason that in recent years I’ve not worked with a co-producer; at what point do you bring someone in? This time I did get someone in to have, in a way that kind of role; Joshua Rumble, but it wasn’t till quite late on in the record. I did really want to have somebody else mix it and I think Simon Gogerley did a fantastic job and I’m really pleased I went with that decision to use him

Gang of Four has been cited by many, many musicians over the years as a major influence. What is your reaction when a band calls out your guitar style or songwriting as inspiration?

I’m grateful for the good things that other artists that I respect enormously say about me and the band, it’s kind of them. Gang of Four is a vibrant, dynamic, evolving project, and the band is continuously picking up new and younger audiences. I think it’s partly to do with the bands that have been influenced by Gang of Four in the first place – it was bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s like Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine and Kurt Cobain. But then there was a new and younger set of bands like Bloc Party, Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand that were always name checking Gang of Four – and that draws a younger audience towards the band which I’m glad about. Over the last year I’ve been really interested in what St Vincent is getting up to and so I was completely surprised, and delighted, when she recently named me as her favorite guitarist.

Andy Gill by Tom Sheehan

Have you ever been surprised by some of the bands who cite you and Gang of Four as an influence?

No not really. I tend to like, to a greater or lesser extent, the bands that have been influenced to whatever extent by Gang of Four or in particular by me as a guitarist and songwriter. There are plenty of bands that I really don’t like at all and none of those have even the tiniest bit of tasty Gang of Four influence in there

Do you see Gang of Four continuing to make music after this record?

Absolutely. There are one or two collaborations which are in the works now and the next record already has five or six fairly advanced songs done.

Are you working on any other projects?

What has happened with this record and the previous record, Content, is that I get to a point where it becomes obvious that unless I work 100% full on at the record it just won’t get finished. But once that process is over I become a little more open to working with other artists who interest me.

Gill photo by Tom Sheehan; band photo by Leo Cackett. Below: vintage GoF from 1983.

Fred Mills: George Clinton & the Birth of Funkadelic

funkadelic

Once upon a time, in a funky galaxy far far away, there was… Funkadelic. Years later, in April of 2002, a future BLURT editor would talk with the legendary founding member, George Clinton, about how the group came to be and the circumstances surrounding debut album Funkadelic, released in 1970. The interview was conducted via telephone from Denver one evening following a Clinton recording session and was subsequently published in Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper. What follows below is an extended version with additional interview content never before published.

BY FRED MILLS

“If you will suck my soul

I will lick your funky emotions…” (- from “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?”)

On the eighty day God inhaled deeply and, amid a bloozy haze of Hendrixian goo, fuck-throb bass, nappy harp gulps and lysergically altered vocals, created Funkadelic.

By 1970 the age of Aquarius had been machine-gunned by Manson, Altamont, ghetto riots and the squirrelly little cocksucker they called Tricky Dick. That year would generate its share of not-insubstantial missives — Band of Gypsys, Morrison Hotel, Fun House, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, etc. — but perhaps no other LP captured the underground vibe quite so perfectly as Funkadelic’s self-titled debut.

Funkadelic was the brainchild of George Clinton, a North Carolina-born, New Jersey-bred leader of doo-wop outfit The Parliaments who’d moved to Detroit in ’64 to work for Motown’s songwriting factory while trying to land a deal for his group. Eventually the Parliaments did taste success with their 1967 soul hit “(I Wanna) Testify,” but ironically, Clinton was about to get his consciousness raised. Scarred by the New Jersey and Detroit riots of ’67, seared by Jimi Hendrix’s super spade psychedelia, and smarter by at least a barrel-hit or two of orange sunshine, he began plotting a musical agenda that was uncompromising, asymmetrical, and thoroughly freaky.

“Yeah, it was all of that,” says Clinton now, with a knowing chuckle. “See, we was leaving Motown. ‘I Wanna Testify,’ you know, after having been singing for years, just about the time we got our first hit record the whole industry was changing. So we had to make a quick turnabout ‘cos the rock ‘n’ roll was coming out again – which was the music I had listened to in school. Blues was my parents’ music. So I had to go through that again, you know? We just said, well, we’ll do the music that was the nasty music I listened to in school. We’ll do that funky music, we’ll do that nasty music!”

This was born Funkadelic. Recruited into the fold – the Parliaments at the time included vocalists Clinton, Fuzzy Haskins, Grady Thomas, Calvin Simon and Ray Davis, plus guitarist William Nelson – were guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross (changing instruments, Nelson became “Billy Bass”), organist Mikey Atkins and drummer Tiki Fulwood. Nelson came up with the dead-on descriptive name “Funkadelic” for their so-called “nasty music,” and soon enough the band had its mojo working in earnest on the Detroit scene, sharing management and concert bills with the Amboy Dukes, Stooges and MC5. (Clinton: “We all had the same agency, Diversified Management Agency, DMA. It was called ‘The Bad Boys Of Ann Arbor.’ We all played, tried to get John Sinclair out of jail…”)

Although the group’s original home Motown was still pretty conservative at this point, Detroit circa ’69 was decidedly not. Clinton recalls having “the best of both worlds” for the band, booking the Parliaments one night in a soul palace like the Twenty Grand and Funkadelic the next night into the rock venues of the day – the Birmingham, the Palladium, Grande Ballroom. (In fact, a powerful document of the era exists by way of ’96 CD Funkadelic Live, recorded in Rochester, Michigan, on Sept. 12, 1971.)

Soon enough the newly-christened Funkadelic went into the studio to record for upstart label Westbound Records, founded by Detroit record distributor Armen Boladian. Prior contractual problems, in fact, actually prevented the Parliaments from recording under their name at the time. As Clinton explains it, “We couldn’t record as Parliament so we started freakin’ out as Funkadelic, dropping acid. The first album, two days, really, just went in the studio and stayed in there for two whole days. We took all the vamps and things we did on the stage and just went from vamp to vamp, did everything we could think of.”

The debut Funkadelic single “Music For My Mother” was released that summer, followed by “I’ll Bet You” (an old Parliaments track funked-up and rerecorded) with both 45s doing respectably on the R&B charts. But early the following year Funkadelic appeared in stores as Westbound #2000, and the group became an underground sensation.

Clinton, operating in a songwriting and production capacity (he also sang lead vocals on two cuts), had marshaled his funkateers along with several moonlighting Motown session players to commence broadcasting directly from the freak zone. Any doubts as to whether the Clinton crew had turned on and tuned in were dispelled by Funkadelic‘s opening cut “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?,” all nine bluesy, sensual, LSD-gobbling minutes of it:

“I am Funkadelic, dedicated to the feeling of good

Let me play with your emotions, for nothing is good unless you play with it

Fly on baby

It’s called Funkadelic music

It will blow your funky mind.”

Funkadelic early 3

Explains Clinton, “The concept would become ‘free your mind and your ass will follow,’ like the second album says. Because we were late in the psychedelic thing, we had to do it twice as much as anybody else had did it. We had to overdo it because we was late! Because, you know, Jimi Hendrix, when he was Jimmy James and the Flames, with King Curtis, the Isley Brothers – once we heard those things [with him], we said, ‘Aw shit. We’s late. Let’s catch up!’ When we played with the Vanilla Fudge one time, we heard the sound: ‘Okay, that’s what it is!’ Went out and bought a whole ton of amps and just turned ‘em up and played the blues, played funky grooves, and talked shit! [laughs]

“Eddie had learned guitar pretty good, the blues. And [as the main songwriter] I was just humming in the microphone and they would play, following basically whatever I was humming. [Goes “mmmm-muuumm-hmmmm”] We’d just let ‘em trip, and the engineers would freak it out. People like Martha and the Vandellas would come by and we’d have them in the background singing, and they didn’t know what they was singing! They was like, ‘What the hell are y’all doing?’ We were playing our ass off!”

The man ain’t kidding. From the aforementioned “Mommy…” and the jazz-blues psychedelic chain-gang grooves of “Music For My Mother” to the freaked-up soul of “I Bet You” and the wigged-out sassy funk template “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody Got A Thing,” Funkadelic broke significant new ground. By today’s digital standards it may sound primitive, yet its raw immediacy and head-warping sonics outweighs any technical considerations. (Clinton: “One [radio station] said, ‘If you would take the airplanes out of your songs we could play ‘em!’ You know, all the tape loops and [mimics weird sound] ‘mmwwhhmm’!”)

Lyrically, too, there was an undeniable cohesiveness afoot that, intended or not, marked Funkadelic as a concept album whose signifiers planted open-minded listeners squarely at the intersection of Woodstock Ave. and Watts Blvd. Clinton’s proto-raps in both “Mommy…” and its album-closing counterpart “What Is Soul” were both slyly subversive and funny as a muhfuh, particularly the former’s autobiographical thrust (“I recall when I left a little town in North Carolina/ I tried to escape this music… But I had no groove, hehhehheh…”) and the latter’s itemizing of what exactly constitutes “soul” (“a hamhock in your cornflakes… a joint rolled in toilet paper… rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps… Soul is you, big mama!”).

Meanwhile, “Music For My Mother” is a narrative about consciousness raising in which the protagonist hears “something like raw funk” while traveling down South and, in the aftermath of this revelation, is left triumphantly and defiantly chanting, James Brown-style, “Say it loud! I’m funky and I’m proud!” And in “I Got A Thing” the combined counterculture/black power interface is made explicit: “You don’t drink what I drink/ You don’t smoke what I smoke/ You don’t think like I think/ You don’t joke like I joke/ Everybody got a thing/ When we get together, doin’ our thing/ In order to help each other/ In order to help your brother.”

Funkadelic early 4

Clinton acknowledges that his early schooling as a songwriter for Motown came in handy when it came time to craft his conceptual piece. “In the very beginning, yeah, I was writing at Motown first and they was like very strict of how lyrics had to be, to make sense and tell stories and things. By the time we started doing [Funkadelic] it was puns and nonsensical, stream of consciousness – we’d do all of that and it was very intentional. Even if a song started off like that, I would make it general, with the population, into our people or a very feeling type thing, where you could emotionally feel it. We did a few of ‘em like that, you know, love songs. But mostly it was like – just funkin’! We was in love with the funk at the time. Very stream of consciousness. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we was stuck on ‘stupid’ and we would try trickery! [laughs]

“Basically, I was talking about doing a concept that would last from then on, you know, right ‘til now, today. That we was gonna embrace the funk the way rock ‘n’ roll had been embraced, and we was never gonna change it. No matter what the industry, which was always changing the names – R&B, to ‘urban,’ all of that. We did funk and we kept it that way! Right through to the Parliaments, the Mother Ship and all of that. But right from the very beginning, we started off – because Jamerson and them, you know, Motown, they called us ‘The Young Funk Brothers’ – Billy, Eddie, Tiki, Bernie, Tawl… you know what I’m saying? The Young Funk Brothers. So we kept it like that. The concept of funky music as the thing.

(Concept or not, some of the folks involved with the first couple of Funkadelic albums didn’t necessarily get with it, for as Clinton points out engineers Russ and Ralph Terrana didn’t want their names listed on the records and would soon move over to the presumably saner territory of Motown where they became the label’s main engineers. Likewise with some of the studio musicians the group enlisted: “They didn’t want to be connected with it because it was so crazy! They was going on out and saying, ‘I hate that!’”)

Just to place the album in its proper context: it would be another year before Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On or Sly & the Family Stone issued There’s A Riot Goin’ On. In short, the revolution wasn’t gonna be televised – it was about to be funkadelicized.

Funk book

In his 2001 consumer-guide encyclopedia Funk, journalist Dave Thompson rates Funkadelic a “10” and describes it as “a shattering blend of R&B sensibilities and acid soaked rock effects. The production treats the studio like one giant toy box and the feedback is a living creature. Play it loud.” Likewise, author and noted funk deejay Rickey Vincent, in his 1996 book also called Funk (which contains a foreword penned by Clinton), calls the album “a blues-rock classic that serves to introduce the Funkadelic concept with perfect clarity… [It captures] the gritty realism and urban blight of black rock in 1970.”

It didn’t matter if you purchased your albums from a shiny suburban record mart or out of a dusty bin tucked away in the corner of some urban wig store. Funkadelic, from the mysterious record sleeve depicting a lone black face kaleidoscoped into eight stoned stares to the brain-waffling, stanky matrix of sound within, made the connection regardless of race, creed, size of bellbottoms or kink of hair. Yours truly, an aspiring young teenage hippie exiled deep in the redneck south, was so seared by the album that I can still conjure up every telltale ka-chunk of the eight-track tape’s channel changes as I listened to it over and over while sprawled across the front seat of my mom’s old blue Buick.

As both the Thompson and Vincent funk books point out, the album also extended its reach into the hip-hop era. While most observers are quick to cite Parliament or solo Clinton tracks (say “woof!” if you haven’t heard an “Atomic Dog” sample) as rap DNA, Funkadelic’s influence is undeniable. The Beastie Boys and Ice-T sampled “I Bet You”; De La Soul and Kool G. Rap tagged “Mommy…”; and a zillion rappers including 2 Pac, The D.O.C. and Ice Cube have leaned heavily on “Good Old Music.”

It’s the equivalent of a classic jazz album, providing inspiration to generation after generation of musicians who find themselves (not just) knee-deep in its hypnotic grooves, irresistible beats, whacked-out vocals and expansive arrangements. It’s also every bit as classic a soul record as platters cut a half-decade earlier, telling a story via edgy, athletic vocal performances. And like the most groundbreaking psychedelic tomes, it has the capacity to peel back one’s inner eyelid, shove the listener through the looking glass and allow one to view the world through altered-state refraction.

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George Clinton’s subsequent, estimable exploits and accomplishments aside, this album was a genuine vehicle towards enlightenment. Funkadelic might’ve titled its next album Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow, but anyone who heard Funkadelic first had already been delivered.