Monthly Archives: December 2009

METAL FASHION GÜRU Rob Halford of Judas Priest

“An old metalhead
hurtling towards 60” talks about his new clothing line and why Christmas carols
are the original heavy metal anthems.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

Über metallurgists Judas Priest
have endured for four decades now, and 2009 has been a particularly busy year
for the man known to the faithful as “The Metal God” (Rob Halford to
his mum). A tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of British Steel saw Priest gigging extensively around the United
States and Europe, but Halford has also been engaged in some of his own
projects: combining the business of metal and metal as business, he’s
diversified his Metal God Entertainment brand with a new record label and,
intriguingly, a clothing line (Metal God Apparel).

 

Judas Priest set the standard for
heavy metal theatricality and laid the foundations for an S&M-inspired
aesthetic that generations of bands and fans alike have adopted to varying
degrees. Given this attention to visual style and presentation, it’s perhaps
not surprising that Halford should have developed his own metal-themed
collection of clothing, which launched this fall.

 

And also just in time for the
holiday season comes a new solo release, Halford
3: Winter Songs
, an album of festive tunes (some traditional, others
original) mostly done in vintage headbanging style. For Halford, this is no
novelty record but his own genuinely affectionate take on some timeless songs
that have always had a strong emotional pull for him.

 

BLURT dons leather chaps, straddles its Harley and goes
beyond the realms of death for a quiet chat with the charming, down-to-earth
Metal God, covering clothes, carols and the meaning of Christmas – and why you
won’t find him screaming for vengeance any time soon.

 

***

 

BLURT: I turned on
the TV the other morning and was surprised to see you on WPIX (New York City)
doing a sort of
mini-fashion show
for your Metal God Apparel shirt collection.

 

HALFORD: That nearly killed me,
that did. I had a wake-up call at four in the morning. I was staggering around my hotel room. I’d only had about three
hours’ sleep, and I was still jet-lagged because I’d just flown in from Los
Angeles the night before.

 

Going to work that
early is very un-rock, isn’t it? I mean, what happened to “Living After
Midnight”?

 

Yeah [laughs], I
sometimes say to myself, “This isn’t why I got into rock’n’roll – having
to get up in the middle of the night to go to work!” But it turned out
quite well. You know, it took about three hours to get it together for a less
than three-minute piece, but that’s the way the business works. It was well
worth the effort, but I hope I don’t have to do it again in the foreseeable
future….

 

Let’s talk about the
new clothing line, then. Obviously, Priest defined a paradigmatic metal look,
but are you actually interested in clothes and fashion?

 

Well, more in a theatrical sense than something related to
fashion per se. It’s just an
extension of what I like to do onstage. Part of what I do as a singer –
primarily in Priest, the band that leads me in my life – is dress up. I love to
dress up. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by how you can express
yourself that way. In terms of choice, with Metal God Apparel, I’m just
offering something that’s a bit different from what everybody else is offering,
or at least I’d like to think that’s what we’re doing. That’s why we worked
hard to put together some very original designs. I don’t think there’s anything
else out there like it. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point in doing it.

 

And the apparel line
was part of a broader initiative.

 

Yeah, this was just another venture coming out of Metal God
Entertainment that we’d planned over quite a period of time: the Metal God
record label, putting out the Halford and Fight CDs and DVDs and the clothing
line. It’s still all brand new, but it’s doing quite well, which is quite an
incentive. We’re going to move ahead and try to expand it a little bit more
next year. But so far so good.

 

With the clothing,
have you been involved in the whole creative process?

 

Pretty much. In terms of the visual design, Marc Sasso is the illustrator. I suppose
I’m in the mix of the creative process inasmuch as Marc knows me really well.
He knows the music and he comes to the shows, and he knows the lyrics and all
the things that you’d utilize for inspiration and ideas for the designs. And as
he comes up with his ideas, we go into a huddle: we talk about adding things
and taking things out, and we think about what else we can do. It’s like making
a record, really. It really is a team effort.

 

So the imagery on the
shirts is connected to your lyrics?

 

Yeah, that’s why we’ve given the shirts names from the
Halford records. You just take the dynamics of certain lyrics and try to
visualize how that would look in terms of graphic illustration. That’s primarily
what Marc does in professional terms as an illustrator. He’s very talented. I’m
lucky to have him in the mix.

 

The shirts are in the
$60 range. This isn’t any old rubbish – it’s high-end stuff.

 

Yeah, right, and a lot of my friends went, “Fuck, Rob,
why are you charging us an arm and a leg?” And I said, “Well, I’m not
really because it’s no different from wherever you buy your stuff.” I
mean, these aren’t just rock’n’roll merch shirts, just banged out of a machine.
This is really good quality stuff that’ll last. And you know, I can’t put my
name to something that’s going to fall apart after a couple of washes. That’s
all part of the pitch. I think we’re competitively priced. I’m not the only
person doing this. I’m in the company of some great talent, and I think we’re in the same world financially.

 

Having your own brand
and reaching a wider audience underscores the popularization and mainstreaming
of metal that’s taken place since the ’80s. Do you see it that way?

 

Yes, very much. It’s been amazing to watch. Metal used to
get looked down upon. People used to say, “It’s not going to last because
it’s rubbish” and all that. I think we proved everybody wrong because the
essence of anything that maintains its success is the quality of the work. And
I think the vast majority of the bands that you see being successful today are
doing it on their own terms and on their own merit. It’s simple: they’re good
musicians making good songs. Coming from Brum [Birmingham], as you know, us and
Sabbath, we’re still looked upon as the originators, getting this music around
the planet. And to see where it’s at now, it’s amazing. I think what the music
does and the way it touches people, the way it expresses itself, it just fits
from one generation to the next, so it’s never really going to diminish. In
terms of the popularity and looking at all the other business aspects of it,
it’s everywhere now, crossing into the mainstream imagination, mainstream life
– with brands like Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Monster Energy Drinks.

 

And presumably you’ve
seen your fan base change considerably over the years.

 

On the Nostradamus tour, Priest went back to what was the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Standing on
the same stage we stood on 25 years earlier, it was the same vibe, but it was a
much broader based crowd: from kids barely in their teens to people from our
own generation. It was a completely different set of demographics from before.
It was great. If I’m in New York and I’m walking down the street, all kinds of
people stop and say, “Hey Rob, what’s going on?” And that’s the power
of this music. It even appeals to people you wouldn’t classify as metalheads.
There’s just something about the vibe of it, the stance, the attitude.
Everybody wants to be a metalhead, quite frankly [laughs].

 

Until the mid-’80s, really, metal was still relatively homogenous,
but it’s become an incredibly broad church. The differences between Priest and,
say, Pelican, OM or a band like Sunn 0))) are enormous. What makes them all
metal?

 

Yeah, it’s so diverse, isn’t it?
But we’re all connected. What makes them all metal is the connection with
emotion. It’s an emotionally charged feeling that strong metal gives you,
relative to where you might be in your life, as a teenager or whatever. And
it’s the testosterone, yet it’s not just for men, it’s for women too. In my
opinion, it was always meant to be that way, but, for a time, it wasn’t like
that. Now the girls are as intense as the guys. Metal’s about a musical emotion
that’s accessible to people from all walks of life. There’s gonna be no other
Sabbath, there’s gonna be no other Priest, there’s gonna be no other AC/DC:
those bands have happened, and you’re never going to see that ever, ever again,
but you’ll always have a constant supply of new talent coming through and being
successful.

 

Winter Songs is a Christmas record with some old
chestnuts like “We Three Kings” and “O Come, All Ye
Faithful” alongside new, festively themed Halford numbers. Was there any
worry that your fans would dismiss this as a novelty record?

 

No, I think you have to be fearless as a musician. You can’t
sit around wondering what this person or that person is going to think. What’s
the point? No matter what you do, whether you’re writing a song, making a
movie, writing a book or whatever, you’re just driven by your own ideas and
fantasies and dreams, aren’t you? You can’t stop it. And when you release it
and you’re off out into the world with it, it’s in the lap of the gods. You
never know where it’s going to take you. It never crossed my mind that the
album was a risk. It never crossed my mind that it might blow up in my face
just because I was relating to the music in a really sincere, genuine way. You
have to empathize with the lyrics of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and
“We Three Kings” – you’ve got to believe in what you’re singing. And
as long as it’s coming from the right place when you’re performing it, that’s
all that matters.

 

Listening to the
record, it struck me that Christmas carols like “O Come, All Ye
Faithful” are actually ready-made metal anthems – they already have a big,
epic quality.

 

I was out on the road with Priest for the last 18 months,
almost two years, so I just left [guitarist] Roy Z. and the rest of the guys
from the Halford band to get on with it. And when they presented me with the
arrangement for “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – before I put my vocals on
it – the first thing I thought of when I heard it was,
“God, this sounds like the Band of the Coldstream
Guards
at Buckingham Palace!” I could just hear a British military band
– with all those big bass drums and the military snares and the big cymbals. It
would be fun to do a video like that, actually…. But every track on the album
is a bit different.

 

Most of the Winter Songs material inevitably has a religious resonance. Do you take some ironic
pleasure in that, given the demonization of metal, particularly by Christian
fundamentalists?

 

I have to be perfectly honest, until you brought that up….
I’ve spoken to so many journalists in the past few weeks, and you’re the first
person to mention that. It’s a valuable view. Yes…. I imagine some of those
people might think, “Fucking hell, he’s made us look like the idiots we
are.” But if you know me well enough, you know that that’s not part of my
nature. Do I believe in revenge? I think revenge is a pretty negative thing.
But however people want to take this album, fine…. In terms of any message, people
have asked me if I think metalheads will be a bit turned off by this, and I think, no, not really. I mean, these songs are
around us all the time, and they were around me when I was a kid growing up. I
think that whether you believe in the religious message or not is irrelevant,
quite frankly. They’re just great songs, aren’t they? They’re wonderful songs, and that’s all that really matters. On a personal
level, they do mean a lot to me. That’s just the way I am.

 

Did you sing carols
as a kid?

 

Oh yeah. The funny thing is that, ironically enough, when I
was a little kid at school I actually sang “We Three Kings” in a
Christmas nativity play – dressed up as one of the kings. Is that bizarre or
what? I didn’t even think about it until after I’d recorded it and my sister
Sue reminded me. I showed her a list of the songs we’d done and she said,
“You’ve done ‘We Three Kings’? You did that one 50 years ago!” And I
thought, “Oh my God, history’s repeating itself.”

 

Since we’re talking
about Christmas, how does the Metal God celebrate?

 

I’ll be back in the UK with my mum and dad, God bless ’em –
they’re in their ’80s, still alive and kicking. And my brother, my sisters and
friends and relatives will be coming in and out of the house on Christmas Eve,
Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It’ll be great. I think most of us look forward
to that moment. We’ve just had Thanksgiving, which I don’t celebrate. It’s a
big deal here so, with Christmas, Americans get to celebrate twice. We’ve just
got Christmas and that’s good enough for us Brits, isn’t it? So I’m looking
forward to being home.

 

Is there anything
special you want for Christmas?

 

I’m an old metalhead hurtling towards 60, and I’m just happy and thankful to have all my
parts working! As you become an older man your body has a tendency to go off in
a direction you don’t want it to [laughs]. But I count my blessings. I’m a
lucky guy. I’m just looking forward to being with my family and enjoying it.

 

EARTH SUMMIT The Feelies Vs. Rick Moody

The celebrated novelist
and Wingdale Community Singers rocker interviews his favorite band. Blurt takes
notes.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The growing, ongoing Feelies revival began last year when
the 1980s-era New Jersey band – whose rhythmically incessant, disciplined rock
minimalism and mysteriously allusive lyrics defined the future of indie rock
while also honoring its Velvet Underground origins – reunited after 16 years
apart.

 

It gained further traction this year when the Feelies played
their masterful 1980 debut, Crazy
Rhythms,
it its entirety as part of the “Don’t Look Back” showcase at the All
Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York. And in September, Bar/None Records
re-released Rhythms and its
follow-up, 1986’s The Good Earth, on
CD and vinyl with deluxe packaging. Bonus material has been included via
digital download cards to preserve the actual albums in the form the Feelies
originally wanted.

 

There are many reasons for the Feelies’ status as such a
beloved band. But one is that many writers, critics and artists have always
taken the Feelies’ oeuvre seriously
as art. One of the most important to do so is novelist Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Purple America).
He wrote his first novel, 1992’s Garden
State
, while living in Hoboken
and incessantly listening to The Good
Earth.
The novel is about young people adrift and constantly slipping into
something foreboding in an industrially decaying New Jersey. Moody credited the
band as an inspiration in his introduction.

 

Moody has remained a huge Feelies fan, even as he himself
has ventured into rock ‘n’ roll as a member/lyricist of the Wingdale Community
Singers, a moody alt-folk group that also includes David Grubbs, Hannah Marcus
and Nina Katchadourian. With that group celebrating release of its new album on
Scarlet Shame Records, Spirit Duplicator (reviewed
here at BLURT), it seemed an appropriate occasion to bring Moody together with
Feelies’ creative lynchpins, Glenn Mercer and Bill Million. (The other band
members participating in Feelies reunion gigs are Dave
Weckerman, Brenda Sauter, and Stanley Demeski.)

 

The three agreed to share a phone line to talk about music
and related topics with Blurt. What
follows has been edited and shaped into a feature:

 

“I have a funny story about what happened when I sent the
introduction [to Garden State] to
Bill that I bet Bill doesn’t remember,” Moody says. He then addresses Million:
“I sent [it] right when Time for a
Witness
came out, and I Fed Exed it to you for some reason. You called and
said, ‘You woke me up.'”

 

Million replies that he doesn’t remember that and then Moody
adds, “So I felt very guilty for waking you up.” There is a slightly awkward
silence after that, which Moody breaks by asking about the Feelies’ performance
at New York’s Town Hall in 1991, which he attended.

 

This causes Mercer to bring up a comment from a critic who
recalled the show’s evident tension – the band broke up shortly afterward. Million,
for his part, then mentions how another writer recently noted that at the
reunited band’s shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, the members still looked like they didn’t enjoy each other’s company.

 

“I thought that was a complete misinterpretation,” he says.
“I mean, if we didn’t like playing with each other, we wouldn’t be up there. I
think sometimes people are taken aback because there’s not a lot of interaction
with the audience – rather, it’s the music itself.”

 

Moody interjects, “And you have been playing 30+ years,
right? So you don’t have to have a lot of onstage patter between yourselves to
prove you’re acquainted.”

 

At this point Mercer offers some insight into the Feelies’
whole musical worldview: “Plus, we don’t really smile on stage, so people tend
to think we’re not enjoying it. We have what’s been described as a workmanlike
way of performing – it’s a job and we go about performing it.”

 

 Moody probes a
bit:  “Does it feel that way to you,
Glenn, or is that just other people’s interpretation?”

 

“I think that, a little bit contrary to a lot of bands, it’s
sort of not so much about having a good-time party atmosphere for us,” replies
Mercer. “A lot of bands have that – ‘Hey, how you all doing out there?’ We’ve
never felt that need to express that attitude.”

 

That’s a performance approach that Moody, who appears before
audiences both as an author and a musician, can understand. “In terms of
playing music in our little band, we have even less stage presence than the
Feelies,” he says. “I mean, it’s like an anti-stage persona to the point of
being painfully awkward sometimes. That’s fine with me – I’m only interested in
the music part of it. I arrive at that because I always felt that way about
bands that I liked. It seems they’re more interested in making the song happen
live than in making the audience happy, somehow. Like Big Star, Leonard Cohen,
the Feelies or the Velvet Underground.”

 

Mercer tells Moody, ‘‘Over time I’ve become more comfortable
onstage, but it’s always been a struggle. It’s not a naturally comfortable
place for me to be.”

 

Moody explains that the love writers feel for the Feelies
isn’t about a stage presence or lack of one. It’s about the band’s songs and
sound. “Partly, its because the records are great – that goes without saying –
but partly it’s because the lyrics are so oblique,” he says.

 

“That’s a very literary approach to lyric writing,” he continues.
“You can’t parse them easily. It’s the same way that Animal Collective and
Joanna Newsom are very lyrically cagey and hard to pin down – writers find them
interesting. I suspect you can make an argument that their lyrics are more
poeticized in that they are not easily interpreted. And that has inherent
literary value for writers who like music.”

 

Mercer says he has difficulty discussing this topic. “It’s
always been hard for me to talk about lyrics. The idea is to try to say as much
as you can with as few words. The lyrics always come after the chords. I can’t
imagine having to fit the melody to the words.”

 

Moody says how inspired he was by one particularly imagist
lyric in a Feelies’ song – the reference to “empty cars out on the highway” from “The Last Roundup” on The Good Earth. “But you did see an
empty car on the highway?” he asks.

 

“Hasn’t everyone? But it was burning,” Mercer replies.

 

“That image I used about eight times in “Garden State,”
Moody says. “I kept stealing it from you again and again. It’s actually central
to the novel.”

 

 

KEEP YOUR PECKER UP Geoff Barrow/BEAK>

The Portishead auteur spills the beans on his latest project, and lots
more.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

After Portishead’s second album, Geoff
Barrow quit music for five years. Since the 2008 release of Third, though, he’s remained active, as
boss of the Invada label, as a producer (The Horrors’ Primary Colours) and now as a member of BEAK>, a Bristol trio
featuring Billy Fuller (Fuzz Against Junk) and Matt Williams (Team Brick).

 

Whereas
nearly eleven years passed between the second and third Portishead albums,
BEAK> hatched their debut in just twelve days (reviewed here) An exercise in what Barrow
calls “instantaneous writing,” this is a Krautrock-influenced affair,
infused with a touch of proggy weirdness, some drones and out-there noise and a
bit of doom-metal heft. Although BEAK> shares a few influences with Portishead’s last album, particularly an affinity
for Simeon Coxe’s Silver Apples, Barrow also sees BEAK> and Portishead as
worlds apart. Exploring a largely different creative process, traveling to gigs
on budget airlines, carrying his own gear and playing small venues all add up
to a welcome change, one that he finds re-energizing.

 

Barrow
spoke to BLURT about working with BEAK> and, among other things, his love of
Can, his ambivalent relationship with Bristol and the difficulties posed by
being a singing drummer.

 

***

 

BLURT: As an expat Bristolian, I was
immediately struck by the track titles on the BEAK> album, many of which are
the names of places around Bristol. Is that just playful or is there a link to
the music?

 

GEOFF
BARROW: It was very playful but, at the same time, we kind of said, “No,
no that doesn’t sound like [the village,] Pill – that one sounds like Barrow
Gurney.” So there was a connection, but it was definitely a playful
connection. But when I think of the place, Pill, I do think of that tune
[“Pill”], and when I think of Barrow Gurney, I do think of that tune,
cos it’s a sort of mad synthesizer tune.

 

Yeah, the sound is pretty manic – so the
title “Barrow Gurney” refers to the Barrow Gurney psychiatric
hospital, rather than the village of Barrow Gurney itself? When my grandfather was frustrated with us he used
to say, “You’ll drive me out Barrow Gurney, you will.”

 

Yeah, right. I know a lot of people who went to Barrow Gurney
and a few mates of mine worked there as well, as mental health nurses. It’s
closed now. It’s all Care in the Community now. They all do crack…. That was
Thatcher for you.

 

And is “The Cornubia” a reference
to the Cornubia pub in Bristol?

 

Yeah,
it’s a proper Real Ale pub…. As I was saying that, I felt like a proper Real
Ale drinker [laughs]. We had an Invada night at the Cornubia and we got banned
from putting on gigs there again. It’s a good pub. It’s one of the only real
pubs left standing in Bristol. I think it actually survived the bombing in the
[Second World] War. If you see pictures of it, it literally
stands alone
. It’s the most peculiar kind of setting because
everything else was destroyed either side of it, in front of it and behind it,
and it just stood.

 

Bristol was bombed heavily in the Blitz. My
mum’s house actually took a direct hit, killing most of her family.

 

Bloody hell! Bristol
got hit badly during the War. If you look at photos of how it was before the
War and afterwards, you can really see it. It’s pretty different.

 

A lot of Bristol musicians have stayed in the
area. Do you feel a strong connection to the West Country?

 

I don’t know really.
I just haven’t really been anywhere else. It’s home. At times I don’t like
Bristolians and I don’t like what the city’s become. I don’t really like the
history of the city, either, but this is where I live.

 

When you mention the history, are you
referring to the slave trade in particular? [In the 18th century, Bristol prospered as a key British port in the
triangular trade.]

 

Yeah, and the
corruption. It’s always been corrupt. Do you know that book, A Darker History of Bristol by Derek
Robinson? It’s a thin book that takes you on a little historical trip into why
Bristolians are the way they are. They’re pretty apathetic. They don’t really
want to join any side. They just want to get pissed and have an all right time,
really. It’s got that kind of port mentality, you know? Like Liverpool. It’s got that about it. People just can’t
be bothered down here, really. The only people who can be bothered are thieves
and mercenaries.

 

You recently organized a big event at the
Colston Hall in Bristol featuring bands on your Invada label. There’s been
controversy surrounding that venue because it’s named after the Bristol
merchant Edward Colston, a prominent figure in the slave trade. Do you think
the name will actually get changed or do people not give a shit?

 

Bristolians
don’t give a shit about it, but the middle classes do. So it will change its
name eventually because it’s like having a place called the Hitler Rooms. It doesn’t sound great,
does it? Or the Goebbels Village Hall.

 

It doesn’t really have a good ring to it.

 

Maybe
the Goebbels Community Center? I
think it’s got to change and eventually it’ll just happen. It’s just a name,
but you’ve got to move forward. So yeah, we did the Invada Invasion there. We took the place over with Mogwai and a
load of other bands. It was a really good night for people into alternative
music. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in Bristol, and we just thought,
“Right, we’ll do it.”

 

Was BEAK> a collaboration that had been on
the cards for some time?

 

I think we’d all
always liked what each other did. I’ve always liked Billy and his bass playing
and stuff, and I’ve always been a fan of Matt’s. I mean, that’s the reason I
put out their records on Invada. And we played together at a New Year’s Eve
party, and me and Billy said it’d be great to do it again – and that was two
years ago. Then we bumped into each other and said it again. And Matt (as Team
Brick) had played on the last Portishead record and we had this bit of free
time, so we did it. But there was no discussion about it, really. We just went
in there and set up the microphones, and the first thing we played was
basically the first track on the record, “Backwell.” As you hear it,
it’s pretty much the first time we played together, which was really
refreshing.

 

So was the record largely put together from
improvisation and, for want of a better word, jamming?

 

It all
came about in that way, although I’m not really into the term
“jamming” – it was more about a kind of instantaneous writing,
really. Cos jamming, to me, reminds me of bands that stick on a chord and play
a solo for a couple of days, do you know what I mean? Like the saxophone player
goes [approximates ostentatious jazzy sax solo] and it’s all about getting your
chops in, and it’s just bollocks. For me, it was about being sat there and
being aware of the space you’re in and the sound you’re creating: being totally
aware of it and then moving things forward and just trying to write
instantaneously. It was like a flow of consciousness, really – whether it’s
lyrics or melodies or whatever. We actually played things a couple of times
when we said, “Yeah, that’s a really good idea, but it completely went and
fucked up there. Shall we just have another go at it?” And it wouldn’t be
a couple of days later, it would be in the same half an hour. But in the end
we’d usually go back to the first take and say, “Oh, it had something
about it.” So, like I said, there wasn’t really that much discussion. We’d
listen to a track after we’d played it and it’d be like, “Well, that’s
done!” And there wasn’t a sense of it being throwaway, it was more like it
just being refreshing. I mean, the album’s got bits that fuck up on it, but
that’s what gives it its character – rather than it being put on Pro Tools and
some bloke moving the snare drum so it’s in time. It’s not that kind of music,
you know.

 

Do you think the experience of the way you
work with BEAK> will feed back into how you do things with Portishead?

 

Well, the thing is that Portishead
has actually always had that aspect of it. Like the song “Numb” on Dummy – it was written by me being sat
in one room with a sampler and Ade [Adrian Utley], Gary [Baldwin] and Clive
[Deamer] basically doing the same thing that BEAK> does. But that came from
a hip-hop loop mentality. So it would be like, “Yeah, play that
again,” and I’d just stick it in the sampler and loop it up. So Portishead
have always had that, really. It’s just that people get a different impression
because we’ve taken so long over records. Because of that, people perceive that
it’s a more traditional setup. Portishead is weird – it can be instantaneous.
Like sometimes the riff is written in an afternoon, but the beat takes twelve
months. It’s just kind of fucked. And anything that can help my brain to be
more productive in a writing way is great, but you can’t leave one record, do
nothing and then start a new record without feeding your brain. That’s why I gave
up music for five years, really, after the second Portishead tour, because I
was kind of empty of ideas. I didn’t want to prove anything, didn’t want to
move forward.

 

In addition to
improvising the music, you also made up the lyrics as you recorded the BEAK>
tracks. When you play live, do you invent new ones?

 

Yeah, basically, there’s a general vibe with the lyrics;
there’s always one word that fits in it – like the sound of the pronunciation,
how it suits the mood – and then you just kind of make it up. It’s interesting
because playing drums and singing, it’s odd anyway.

 

You’re now part of a
great tradition of singing drummers: Robert Wyatt, This Heat’s Charles Hayward,
er, Karen Carpenter…. Is it difficult?

 

Yeah, it’s pretty mad, singing drummers [laughs]. You know, I’ve never done it
before. It’s not too bad. It can throw you a bit. Thinking about the lyrics at
the same time as you’re playing, it’s like tapping your head and rubbing your
tummy at the same time or playing keepie-uppie with a football.

 

You’ve said that you don’t really enjoy
playing live with Portishead. Are you enjoying it more with BEAK>?

 

I am, yeah, to be honest. Recently
we’ve been playing not gigs, but little places – like we played a gallery the
other day, without a PA. We’ve been playing most of the gigs like that, without
a PA. We just set up and it’s refreshing; there’s no real pressure. There’s a
huge difference between that and playing Coachella, you know what I mean? I
engineer the drum sound when Portishead play live and me and Ade are like the
MDs of it. And with BEAK> it’s a very simple kind of setup: playing live is
pretty much as we recorded the album. There’s a couple of echo boxes we use to
get that kind of dark, deep reverb sound, and it works and I’m not stressing
over it. So, yeah, it has been really
enjoyable. I mean, setting up your own kit and setting up your own sound and
all that kind of stuff has been quite funny as well. When you compare touring
with Portishead, with a crew of eighteen, to BEAK> on an easyJet flight with
a synth in a suitcase and a snare drum in your pants, then basically it’s a
different vibe. But it’s all really refreshing and gives you a different take
on things.

 

So doing BEAK> has been re-energizing for you,
musically?

 

Yeah, it has been. I think Ade finds it incredibly
refreshing to play with other people. And Beth [Gibbons], as she’s writing her
songs, it comes from a different part anyway – so it’s all good for feeding us.
Our brains being fed like that was what brought the last Portishead record
about.

 

Some of the influences I heard on the
BEAK> album were, maybe, “Church of Anthrax,” Tony Conrad and
Faust, Silver Apples, Can. Are these things you’ve all been listening to?

 

What was that first
one?

 

“Church of Anthrax,” a track by
Terry Riley and John Cale, from 1971 – very much in a Krautrock vein….

 

I don’t
know it, but it sounds great! [laughs] We’re definitely into lots and
lots of different music, especially the Can thing. I think we’re definitely
influenced by them. I think they’re an incredible
band, and if we’ve got anywhere near to where they were…that’s just
brilliant. We didn’t try to sound like them, though. It’s just where I’ve found
myself rhythmically, coming out of being influenced by hip hop and electronic music
and having a vibe where it’s got a beat and it’s heavy, but heavy in the right
way – it’s not heavy sonically, like, “I’m gonna smash your head in with
this sound.” Our influences are pretty wide, especially what Billy and
Matt are into. Matt’s really into the Cardiacs and Billy’s really into bands
like Plastic People of the Universe, and I’m into that as well: music that’s
really out there, but that still retains melody and rhythm. I really like
Moondog, too – that was a big influence on the last Portishead record.

 

And Silver Apples….

 

Yeah, yeah – I’m
actually interviewing Simeon for a magazine. We met at All Tomorrow’s Parties and it was really weird because he was
playing in Bristol and he asked me to play the drums, but I didn’t do it. If it
was now, I would have done it, but back then I hadn’t played drums in quite a
long time. So maybe we’ll just arrange it again. Maybe I’ll see if he wants to
play again. But yeah, our influences are there. We’re not embarrassed by them.
We think they’re brilliant bands.

 

Some musicians I’ve interviewed emphasize
that they don’t listen to any other music, so as to avoid being influenced.
That’s not the case with you, then?

 

Well,
it’s really strange because I actually listen to very, very little music. An
incredibly small amount. Like I’ll get into a Silver Apples track or one Can
album, Ege Bamyasi, and I don’t want
to hear any more. I just want to hear that one.
I think it’s just a perfect record. It’s weird: I’ve always made more music
than I’ve ever listened to. I don’t know much about other artists and I don’t
know about their techniques or anything – I’d like to! – but Ade’s kind of the
opposite. He’s a walking encyclopedia of music, but I just like to make music,
really. And he does as well, of course. Ege
Bamyasi
is an absolutely genius record. I first heard Can on [BBC] Radio 1.
It was Mark E. Smith on Radio 1 talking about his favorite tracks. It was
around 1990 or something, when I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest and Gang
Starr and stuff like that. And Can’s “Vitamin C” came on and I was
bowled over. It was just like the first time I ever heard Public Enemy as a
kid. I thought Can were a new band, and I thought they were the greatest band that ever lived [laughs]. I still think that
tune is just unbelievable. No one’s even gone close to it, really.

 

Talking of Can, did you see that recent BBC
documentary,
Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany?

 

Yeah!
What I absolutely loved about everybody in it was their true feeling that they
were just doing it because they were doing it – for no financial gain or
anything else. They were just really solid in their musical form, and they were
still there. Which is a really lovely thing.

 

MASTERS OF THE FU-NIVERSE Fu Manchu

Infinite! It’s 20
years and counting for the torchbearers of stoner rock.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Though their name refers to a mustachioed celluloid villain,
Fu Manchu is more like Jeff Spicoli, Ron Slater, and David Wooderson. They
symbolize the older, ostensibly cooler, dudes we grew up around-or saw in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused-and wanted to
emulate, because they had the laid-back demeanor, cool car (or custom van) and
mystical manner of attracting women. Fu frontdude Scott Hill concurs, to a
point.

 

“As a young kid in the ‘70s,” he says, “there was always that
older dude living on your street, the guy, 18 years old, with a custom van
painted all nice, surfing, skating. That was the dude you wanted to be; that was The Guy.”

 

Like Spicoli, Hill lived near-nay, at-the Southern California beach
his entire life. His older sisters ensured Hill had plenty of similar role
models. “I’d always be around the long-haired stoner dudes,” he recalls, “and I
looked up to them.” That’s why Fu Manchu’s music-generally labeled stoner
rock-is silly with references to muscle cars, custom vans, babes, pinball,
skateboarding, marijuana and far-out space shit. But, Hill says, “That’s just
how I grew up. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna cop that image’; it’s what I
know.”

 

That palette has served Fu Manchu well in their 20 years
together, because we relate to those arche-/stereotypical denizens of the
Fu-niverse. Whether we’re like them or not, we relate to those crazy stoner
dudes and their puff-puff-passive resistance to authority (Spicoli), skewed
worldviews (as Slater said, “George [Washington]
toked”), and cool confidence even in the face of their own douchebaggery, as
with Wooderson’s appraisal of jailbait: “I get older, they stay the same age.” Pinball,
skateboarding, sex, drugs and sci-fi are just cool. And when you set that stuff
to music-fuzzy, 4/4, hard rock-it’s like thunder from the mountain, the Word of
God.

 

Hill remembers the thunder that resounded around the beach:
“They’d always be blaring Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, Kiss. That’s where I got
exposed to music, early on.” His biggest musical epiphany, though, came in 1980
when a friend showed up with a cassette tape that veered the custom van off its
course. The blank tape had “live Circle Jerks on one side and live Black Flag
on the other. I’d never heard punk before, and was like, ‘What’s this?!’ The singer was drunk, slurring
words. It was just fast, and loud… the sound of the guitars and the
aggressiveness. And I liked the real short, to-the-point songs.”

 

His friends experienced the same reaction. The ‘70s rock was
summarily dismissed from their minds, at least for a while, as they laid waste
to their wax stacks. “My friends would skip their old Kiss records down the
street,” says Hill. “I was smart; I put all mine in the back of the closet. But
I sure enjoyed throwing theirs.”  

 

Soon the beach morphed into something different, with a new
soundtrack and slightly different heroes. Hill immersed himself in punk rock,
sneaking out to shows and pestering record stores about their punk sections. By
1985, when he became the older guy on the beach, starting his own band, he was
pure punk. Virulence released its first album in 1989, but by then Hill heard a
new sound that brought him full circle back to that 1970s beach.

 

“I started hearing Tad and Nirvana,” he says. “The rawness
of it reminded me of punk, but it was slowed down.” When personnel and their name
changed-here is where they became Fu Manchu-the band gravitated toward a new
sound. “I wanted to slow down but still keep the songs short.” The monolithic,
groovin’ music Fu Manchu came up with became its trademark, and the band built
a following alongside musical kindred spirits Kyuss, Monster Magnet, St. Vitus,
The Melvins and Clutch. Twenty years later, as Fu prepares to release their
tenth album, Signs of Infinite Power (Century
Media), they’re as strong as ever.

 

It’s because Fu Manchu hasn’t created a sound so much as a
fully-formed identity. We know, from listening to songs like “King of the
Road,” “Boogie Van,” “Ojo Rojo,” “Regal Begal,” “Neptune’s Convoy” and “El
Busta” that their muse-all that Cool Shit-that their muse is constant and a
reliable source of escape, perhaps to sunnier days when we still had someone to
look up to, and we anticipated the spoils of adulthood with baited breath.

 

Maybe it’s not realistic to live our entire lives as
Spicolis and Slaters and Woodersons, and we don’t have a kickass custom van with
dingle balls and a waterbed in the back; we’ve grown up. But for three or four
minutes at a time, we can pretend.

 

 

 

 

 

SOFTLY, SOFTLY CATCHEE MONKEY Dave Rawlings Machine

In which the gifted songwriter holds
forth on a life in music, working as artistic foil to Gillian Welch, and his
new role as frontman
.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“When I got to
Berklee, I decided to enroll in a songwriting course ‘cause I’d been so focused
to that point on my guitar playing, but I dropped out immediately when I found
out that each student had to write a song and play it for the class.”

 

Dave Rawlings
smiles widely before taking a bite of his avocado sandwich courtesy of the
legendary Greenblatt’s Deli. It’s a
quiet Monday afternoon at the renowned West Hollywood delicatessen, and
Rawlings is recalling the panic he felt when confronted with the challenge of a
blank page for the first time upon enrolling at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music.

 

“It terrified
me,” he admits. “Too much pressure for me. Come to think of it, that probably
contributed to why it took me so long to put out an album of my own.”

 

A Friend Of A Friend, Rawlings’ debut as frontman of the Dave Rawlings Machine after
serving as Gillian Welch’s guitar-playing co-conspirator for the better part of the past 15 years, is a sublime
nine-track effort that benefits from the years the Rhode Island native waited to make it. If
he’d made this album five or 10 years ago, Rawlings may have simply mimicked
the successful formula he’s developed with Welch or foolishly fallen prey to the
guitar player’s common pitfall of making an album spotlighting their guitar
prowess. Instead, Rawlings has crafted a beautifully diverse set of nine songs
that spotlight his songwriting and vocal talents and incorporate his various
musical influences: rock, country, bluegrass, soul and folk music.

 

“I’m really
pleased that it feels more like a singer-songwriter debut record than a guitar
player record,” says Welch. “I think that speaks very highly of Dave’s more
hidden talents. Like the rest of the world, I thought Dave’s record was gonna
be closer to what my records sound like. Like a duet, but with the lead vocal
reversed. As we got into it, it didn’t seem right to do our duet thing. Our
guitar duet thing kind of evolved and was tailor-made around my lead vocals,
and one of the things we discovered in the studio with Dave is that there are
better ways for him to record than that. I feel like he gets a lot of respect
for the guitar playing, but I don’t think people were really aware of what a
well-rounded artist he really is.”

 

“My real joy in
life is to play with other people, live and preferably unrehearsed, and Dave’s
always willing to go for that,” says Benmont Tench (Tom Petty
& the Heartbreakers), who plays keys on A
Friend Of A Friend
. “Like the great boogie-woogie piano player Pete
Johnson, David dances the notes. I find myself laughing sometimes at what he’s
playing, just laughing in delight at the audacity. It never strikes me as being
a showoff thing. The music always calls for it, and David brings it. He’s a
great guitar player. I’ve played practically my whole life with Mike Campbell,
so I know a good guitar player when I hear one, and David’s got it.”

 

Recorded
in Nashville’s illustrious RCA
Studio B
, A Friend Of A Friend features seven
songs Rawlings wrote or co-wrote, all recorded around a single microphone and
backed by familiar company: Welch, Tench, Old Crow Medicine
Show
, Bright Eyes’ Nate
Walcott
and drummer Karl
Himmel
(Neil Young, J.J. Cale). But it may be his cover of the traditional “Monkey and the Engineer” that reveals the most about Rawlings’ emergence as a solo artist.

 

“We’d never done
it before,” Welch confesses. “It just occurred to him to do it while everyone
was getting settled in the studio. I knew he was spontaneous- that’s one of Dave’s
strengths – but the fact that he’s capable of getting masters on a single take
of a song that we’d never played together was incredible.”

 

“That was a fun
song,” Rawlings says. “And it made sense in a way. The monkey watched the
engineer drive the train day after day until one day he took the wheel when the
engineer went to get a sandwich.”

 

Popping the last
bite of his lunch into his mouth, Rawlings allows a slight grin to creep across
his bearded face while considering the irony in the song’s obvious analogy to
his own musical career before bursting into laughter.

 

“I can kinda
relate to that.”  

 

***

 

BLURT: Many thanks for the time today.
I’ve really enjoyed listening to this record and was excited to learn that it
was coming out. I know a lot of fans were anxiously awaiting this day…

RAWLINGS Well,
I’m glad that someone was anxiously awaiting…

 

You hope so, I guess…

Well, not really
that but more that I wasn’t really anxiously awaiting it. (Laughs)

 

Wanted to start off by asking you for
your first musical memory?

That’s a good
question. (Pauses) It’s hard to put
stuff in a timeline sometimes, as you know. I played the saxophone in grade
school. Third or fourth grade…something like that. I remember playing at this
Christmas concert and changing one of the lines, like adding a different line
to the song just ‘cause I wanted to hear what it would sound like. The lady who
was our conductor was briefly confused, and I remember her looking around
trying to figure out who was playing it from the conductor stand, like “Who’s
playing this? That’s not written down anywhere.” (Laughs) She ended up liking it and let me keep playing it.

 

I spent some of
my childhood summers on a lake and swam all the time. We’d have contests to see
who could hold their breath the longest. When I got back to school in the fall,
my lungs would be in really good shape. The band teacher would have everyone
play a note and hold it for as long as you could. I still hold the record for
the longest note. (Laughs) It’s
written down on this super-faded piece of construction paper. 122 seconds or
something like that. (Laughs)

 

Were there musicians in your family?

My mother sang
in church but there weren’t any musicians in my family. There weren’t really
any musicians that we knew. I didn’t know I was going to be a musician until
much later, so my first musical memories were likely songs I heard on the
radio. I have specific memories from being young and hearing different songs on
the radio and being crazy about them, be it pop songs or some kind of country
folk crossover story song. I was always singing songs to myself in my head.

 

What were some of those songs you heard
early on?

It really was
from across the board, ‘cause that’s how radio was back then. I remember
hearing some of that urban cowboy country music that was around – “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “The Gambler” and some of
those other hits from that era. I remember hearing Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in
the World”
and thinking it was the weirdest, saddest song in the world.
That steel note always made me feel so sad. I didn’t know what it was, but that
part always made me feel so sad. (Laughs)

 

I always liked
story songs. I liked songs with a lot of words. I remember my father calling me
into the house one day saying he wanted me to hear this song. I ran into the
house and heard the last minute of “Subterranean Homesick
Blues.”
I wasn’t really that young at the time – maybe 13 or 14 years old –
but I remembering noting that my Dad liked this guy named Bob Dylan. When his
next birthday came around, I got him Dylan’s Greatest Hits. I think he had that
cassette a week before I took it, and it disappeared into my world. (Laughs)

 

Right after
that, I found out my friend Glenn’s dad had a Dylan album, which was Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth
record. Glenn made me a mix tape of Another
Side of Bob Dylan
on one side, and a bunch of Crosby Stills Nash and Young
on the other side. The second tape he gave me was Neil Young from across his
albums.

 

When did you pick up the guitar?

Shortly after
that, Glenn told me that I was going to ask for a guitar for Christmas and he
was going to ask for a harmonica, ‘cause he wanted to play “Heart of Gold” at
the talent show. That’s how I started playing guitar – my friend told me to so
we could enter the talent show. I had no inclination to do it myself. But as
soon as I picked it up, I got it. Within a day, I knew I was good at it. It
made sense to me pretty immediately. The only thing I can credit for that
instant hand-eye coordination that came naturally to me playing the guitar was
video games. I played a lot of video games as a kid, so when I picked up the
guitar, it was like, “Ok, when I touch this, it does this. Great.” I
remembering going through the Mel
Bay guitar book that
first day and being like, “Page one, do this. Ok. Page two, try this. Ok.” It
came really easily. I wasn’t amazing by any means right off the bat, but I
understood it and loved it. I recognized pretty early on that I could be good
at it.

 

How’d the talent show end up?

Well, it was too
early for me to learn “Heart of Gold.” (Laughs)
The Mel Bay books only really show you how to
play notes, so I was left wondering how Neil Young was playing these big
chords. That’s when I found out my friend Matt’s father used to teach guitar
lessons. I had to beg him to teach me. It was a real Mr. Miyagi moment. He
made me promise that if he came out of retirement to teach me, I had to commit
to working very hard and not mess around. It was so hard-core. (Laughs) He remains the best teacher I
ever had, though, hands-down. Like a lot of good teachers, he was a good
guitarist but not great. He could play the finger-style stuff that he liked to
play very well, but teachers and players are two different things. He had this
serious approach to the instrument and was really supportive of me in the right
ways, getting me through two pretty complicated classical guitar books fairly
quickly. I took lessons from him for maybe a year, and then one day he looked
at me and said, “Well, you’re better than I am now. I can’t teach you anymore.”
Glenn, Matt and I played “Heart of Gold” that year at the talent show. We
didn’t win – got second place.

 

Where did it go from there?

After that, I
started playing around in these little alternative-rock and punk bands with
some friends, covering the Pixies and stuff like that. We weren’t bad, but we
weren’t that good. I started wondering if I could make some money playing
guitar in other bands. I checked out the wanted ads in the back of the Providence paper and
found an ad for a country band looking for a guitar player. I didn’t know a
thing about country music, but I called the guy and he told me to come down. I
went in and played some guitar for the guy, and the first thing out of his
mouth was, “You can play the guitar, but you don’t know anything about country
music.” (Laughs) He gave me a tape
with six songs on it and told me to learn the songs and come back next week.
I’ll never forget that the first song on the tape was an Emmylou Harris song
called “In My Dreams,” which ironically enough was written by a guy named Paul Kennerley who ended
up becoming one of my best friends in Nashville.
I went back the next week, played the songs and got the gig, so for the rest of
my time in high school, I played lead guitar in this country band three nights
a week and during the summer making sixty bucks a night. That was around the
time of the big boom in country music, so people would come out in their cowboy
boots and cowboy hats and line dance. We played these little bars near naval
bases, and the sailors would come out, get drunk and fight. It was crazy.

 

How’d you end up at Berklee?

Well, I didn’t
start out there. I got a scholarship offer to the University of Richmond,
so I went there first. Being an idiot, I still didn’t know at that point that I
was gonna be a musician by any stretch. I just knew I loved it, but I wasn’t
bright enough to realize that that’s what you do. I figured I had to do something
for a living that I didn’t like. (Laughs)

 

Part of the deal
with the scholarship I received at the University Richmond was that I had the
academic freedom to choose what classes I wanted to take, so I just took all
the music classes. Midway through the second semester, I was asked to select my
classes for the next semester and discovered that I had taken all the music
classes available. I didn’t know what to do.

 

It was time to take math…

Yeah, exactly. I
was always pretty good at school, but I was just burned out. So I started
checking out music schools. Some friends at Richmond told me about Berklee, so I went up
for a visit and ended up getting in. When I got to Berklee, I started playing
with a better country band out of Boston
that played a lot of the classic country and Top 40 hits. Most of the
guitarists at Berklee were better than I was. I had only been playing about
three years by the time I got there, so everyone was better than I was. But I’d
played out a lot. I’d see these people that were a lot better than me trying to
play a recital in 1W for 30 people, and they couldn’t get onstage because they
were too scared to play.

 

When did you meet Gill?

We met at the
audition for the country ensemble at Berklee. This guy, Bob Stanton, had a
weekly country band class, and we both got in. There was a group of singers,
guitar players, drummers and bass players. Most of the songs that the singers
brought in kinda sucked, but I remember thinking the first song that Gillian
brought in to play was ok. (Laughs)
We didn’t play together exclusively or anything. Everyone played with everyone,
really.

 

Around that
time, I got into bluegrass music and the music that pre-dates it. It was only
later at these picking circles with our friends in Nashville that Gill and I discovered that we
sounded so much better when we did two-part harmonies instead of three and four
and we played with only our two instruments.

 

Tell me about those early years in Nashville.

Gill hadn’t
played out much by that point. From my time at Berklee, I learned that playing
live was essential, so I encouraged her to checkout the paper every day for any
open mic she could and just play. Go out three, four nights a week. Whenever I
wasn’t playing with somebody else trying to make money in country bands in Nashville, which is
impossible, I’d go and back her up.

 

It took a while
to solidify that Gillian and I were gonna play together. Her first Bluebird
show, my friend Porter played lead guitar and sang tenor. I know people talk a
lot about our vocal blend but I remember distinctly there were two guys back at
Berklee – Ben Wilburn, who was a fiddle player that went on to play with
Freddie Fender and lives in Reno now, and my friend Porter, who plays with
Tanya Tucker – who both had better vocal blends with Gill than I did. I guess
if you work at something for years, you sort of work it out. (Laughs)

 

Do you remember the first time you sang
together?

The first thing
we sang together was “Long
Black Veil”
in my kitchen. We both looked at each other after we finished
the song and said, “Well, it wasn’t terrible.” (Laughs) But we recognized that our voices weren’t incompatible.
What we did have more than any of the other people we were hanging out with was
we had very unified tastes. Still to this day, if we finish a song, it’s never
happened that one of us is unhappy with some part of it. We may argue about
everything along the line while we’re making it, but we both know when it’s
done. I think that’s why we’ve been able to work together for so long.

 

I gradually
started working a little bit on her songs with her. A few songs got picked up
by Tim and
Molly O’Brien
and the Nashville
Bluegrass Band
, which was huge. Peter Rowan gave us a shot
opening for him at the Station Inn,
which was huge. We moved up through the Bluebird system and eventually got a Sunday evening show, which was, again, huge. Some
publishers started seeing us. I remember Janice
Ian
being one of the earliest people to see us. It was interesting how that
bloomed into what we began doing.

 

Let’s talk about the record for a bit. I
read in your bio that this album wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for some
covers you recorded that fell to the cutting room floor.

Right. Two
things happened: one, I came out to Los Angeles and started spending time with
some friends I’d made out here through Conor (Oberst): Jenny Lewis, the guys in Rilo Kiley…just a lot of
very cool people. I started writing some on my own and playing these songs with
some of these people. It wasn’t disastrous, and my voice started sounding
better to me.

 

The second thing
was that we started doing these Machine shows, which was basically me doing
covers along with a few original songs Gill wanted to work on. Through doing
those shows, we found that some of the covers sounded pretty good, so we went
into the studio and recorded a few of those over the course of a couple weeks.
We got five or six things that were good, but it just didn’t feel right to
release an album of covers ‘cause I had started writing on my own. I figured if
I was going to release an album, I should try and do it myself. And all of
those covers were just duet recordings with just Gillian and me, and I was
writing songs that had more parts and instruments. Some of it may still see the
light of day. I may try and sneak a few out or just hold on to them and do a
covers record one day. That’s always been a part of something I’ve done –
interpret other people’s music. We’ll see.

 

Did you get a good take of your cover of “Queen
Jane Approximately?”

We did get a
good take of it with just me and Gill, but I quite liked playing it with the
whole band on the Big Surprise Tour this summer. The Beacon in particular was a
good version. We had Ben(mont
Tench) out playing on it. Check that one out – it’s on YouTube. I really
like the way it sounds on that camera phone. It actually sounds great. I can
guarantee it sounds better than any recording I have of the show. You learn
that after a while – you see this stuff on YouTube, and it just sounds dope.
It’s ‘cause it’s capturing the sound of the room. That’s why I’ve always liked
bootlegs rather than board tapes.

 

I’m glad I
haven’t released a version yet, ‘cause eventually I’d like to record it with a
full ensemble. I like playing it and love singing it. It’s a great song. It
just popped into my head at one of our first Machine shows and I’ve sang it
ever since. That’s what happens. Obviously, I roll pretty deep with Dylan. (Laughs)

 

How’d you meet Benmont?

I met him when I
moved out here. We’ve played together a lot at picking parties at his house and
over at Largo. I’ve played
a lot with Ben, and I love playing with him. He’s very sensitive, just a really
good guy to play with – especially on acoustic stuff. He’s a great listener. It
was a thrill to have him play on this. I just felt so lucky to have him come
out and spend some time with us in Nashville.
He’s a great player. I think there are very few situations where you could put
him in where he’s not going to contribute a lot. I’ve also gotta mention Nate
Wilcott from Bright Eyes, who played horn and the Hammond B3 with us as well.
Nate brought a lot to this record when Benmont had to go to his day job. (Laughs)

 

Tell me about your relationship with Old
Crow Medicine Show. What do they do as a backing band for you that wouldn’t
otherwise be fulfilled?

I’ve always felt
a wonderful musical kinship with them from the first time we had them out
opening for us. Obviously, that grew when I started playing banjo with them
before Critter joined. We like a lot of the same records. If I was gonna start
singing a song like “The
Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
” or “John Wesley Harding,” they know what I’m doing. Morgan has always played great bass. He and Gill lock
up really well, and they always have. That’s why Gill played a little snare
drum on a few songs on those Crows records we did – they have a nice pocket
when they play together. Vocally, I love singing with Ketch and Willie and like
what they bring as another additional aggressive rhythmic element. It was very
natural to me. But most important, I wanted people around me who I felt
comfortable with, mainly because I wasn’t sure if this thing was ever gonna get
finished or even made. The only person on the record that I hadn’t spent a
significant amount of time around was Karl Himmel, and that really happened at
the very end. Levon Helm was supposed to come in and play with us for a couple of days. He was finishing
his tour in Oklahoma City and was gonna drop in
for a day or two on his way back up to Woodstock.
Unfortunately, Levon got sick – laryngitis, I think. Everyone was nervous
‘cause he lost his voice, so he headed home to see the doctor. We called
another old buddy, Jim
Keltner
. Jim was busy but he recommended Karl, which turned out to be
amazing. Karl was great to work with. He’s around Tennessee, so it worked logistically. He
ended up being the perfect guy.

 

In an interview I read that you did, you
said that hearing Neil
Young’s “Cortez the Killer”
for the first time changed the way you heard
music.

I think that’s
true. That’s when my friend gave me that Neil Young mix tape. I was like 14 or
15 years old. We were at his house listening to his brother’s vinyl on the
turntable. I think it was Decade; I
don’t think it was Zuma. If they had Zuma, I’m pretty sure that’s not what we
would have been listening to…yet. I remember lying on the floor and listening
to the space and the sound of that track and thinking it was the craziest thing
– how long it was before he sang and just the pace of it. I responded to it
immediately. It’s influenced the records that Gillian and I have made, and the
soundscape of them. I never sat down and learned how to play any of “Cortez the
Killer” – it just sort of soaked in. That’s why when it popped out of my mouth
one night when I was doing “Method
Acting,”
I was like, “Well, I know this song.” I’ve never checked to see if
I got the words all right ‘cause I’ve just relied on what’s in my head. But
it’s definitely a moment I can go back to in my head and remember exactly the
circumstances when I first heard that song.

 

You’ve shown an interest throughout your
career in interpreting other people’s music. What’s the balance you take in
making sure that you’re present artistically in the interpretation but that
you’re honoring the song’s original intent?

I feel like in a
live situation, sometimes you just do it. You do it sorta the way they did it.
They’re not there, and you are. People want to hear the song, and that’s all
ok. When you’re talking about releasing something, I think you want to inject
something into the emotional feeling.

 

When you think
about Joe Cocker doing
“With A Little Help From My Friends,”
it’s pretty obvious that he has
different friends than Ringo
Starr
. (Laughs)

 

That’s great (Laughs). I never thought of it that way. Makes total sense…

Yeah. It’s like
if someone told you they actually had the same set of friends, you’d be like,
“There’s no point.”

 

Let’s talk about a few of the songs. Tell
me about “Ruby.”

That song
happened sorta quickly. Gillian had started playing with a few things – some
chord progressions and whatnot. She sat down and played it for me, and we were
both really excited about the melody she came up with. It had a little soul
flavor to it. It got finished lyrically over the course of three or four days,
which for us is very quick. I didn’t really know exactly how it was gonna turn
out, but it was one of the first songs we did with the Crows (Old Crow Medicine
Show).  We did one test song to warm up
and get levels – “This Wheel’s
on Fire”
– and I think that’s where we got the idea for the four-part
harmony on “‘Ruby.” For that song, Gil sang above me, Willie sang below me and
Ketch sang almost a bass part, so when we started in on “Ruby,” that
immediately happened again, and I became very excited about the texture of the
four voices. It reminded me of The Band a lot and some other things I like.

 

Lyrically, it’s
obviously about something, but I’m not exactly sure what. (Laughs) It’s got a sense of longing to it, but in a way it’s
indecipherable exactly what’s happening.

 

I think those are my favorite sorts of
songs – where the story is left up to the imagination of the listener.

Yeah, I was
really happy with how that turned out. Vocally, we did a duet version with just
me and Gill, but it didn’t seem to fit with the whole flavor of the record.

 

“Bells of Harlem”
is maybe my favorite track on the record. It’s really a beautiful piece of
music. Tell me about it.

I started that
one in the wintertime – either really late ’07 or early in ‘08. The melody just
popped into my head one day, so I sat down and started playing some chords to
see where it might go. Over the course of an hour or so, I came up with the
chorus and as I got to the end, Gillian showed up. She heard what I was doing
and said, “Bells of Harlem. That’s what that makes me think of.” I thought that
was cool, so we had a title in mind and the music to it. That’s all there was.
I was sure when I started playing it that I wanted that kind of walking feeling
to it. It also had kind of an oddly optimistic lilt to it even though it felt
pretty lonesome. I worked on the lyric for a while, and that song got written
and re-written several times. When I finally sat down to record it, I took bits
of each of the different re-writes – lyrics from this version, chords from
another version – and pulled them all together for the final take. All of the
sudden it was there and it was right, and that was the first time I really saw
the song. The same thing happened with “Ruby.” Both became what they were as
songs when I finally started to record them.

 

The decision to
put strings on “Ruby” was so last minute that Jimmy Haskell, who did a beautiful job
with the arrangements, was up all night the night before the session getting
the parts done. And Jimmy’s 75 years old! (Laughs)
Gillian, Jimmy and I were re-arranging the string parts to “Bells of Harlem” up
until the very last minute before we handed it over to the musicians. It was a
really fever-pitched experience – we had all these people waiting, the studio
was so expensive and these musicians were going to get up and close their cases
at 6 p.m. whether we were in the middle of a take or not – so the nice payback
to all of that was that it came out just as we’d hoped.

 

Those two songs serve as really nice
bookends to the album.

That’s really
great to hear. I was very pleased with both those songs. It’s interesting – I
was never sure of “Ruby” as the album opener.

 

That seems strange to me ‘cause it makes
perfect sense to open your debut solo album with your voice…

Well, good, I’m
glad to hear that. I guess it seemed like an odd choice to start the record,
but somehow once it was there, it made sense. Especially with the coda at the
end of “Bells of Harlem,” which is the last track. The song was always gonna
fade, but when I heard the coda, I thought it had this beautiful ending that I
decided to just keep all of it. It sounds a little quick and clumsy at the end,
but that’s because what you really hear at the very end of that song is the
tape transferring to the leader. It was just another happy accident that I
guess worked out.

 

I think it works really well because it
serves as a nice intro when it loops back around to “Ruby” at the start of the
record…

I’ve always felt
that the most important piece of sequencing on any record is tail to top. All
the great records that I love just roll around in my car, playing over and over
again. I’m also really particular about the spacing between songs, and the guys
who handled mastering this record really did a great job with the spacing. I
maybe only made one or two changes to their work.

 

I’ve gotta ask about the story behind “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad,
Is To Be High).”

It’s foggy. (Laughs) I think it’s less foggy for me
than it is for Ryan. (Laughs) We’d become friendly at the Sessions at West 54th Street for a Gram Parsons tribute show. We hung out later that night, drank
some whiskey and sang some sad songs. Ryan was living in Nashville at the time, so he would come over
to the house I was staying at and play music. On one of those nights, we ended
up having a bunch of people over. It was a party, so stuff was going on. (Laughs) I remember Ryan started singing
this song, which I thought was like the Stones’ “Prodigal Son” but he was adding his own words. It sounded familiar to me, so I didn’t know it
was a song he was writing. But I thought it was really cool. The next day, I
woke up and managed to remember that song. It somehow stuck in my head. (Laughs) I talked to Ryan a few days
later and mentioned that we should take a crack at finishing that song he was
singing at the party. And he was like, “What song?” (Laughs) Granted the events of that night are pretty foggy, but
that’s how I remember it at least – I wrote part of that song but rescued all
of it. (Laughs)

 

We’ve talked some about how you approach
other people’s music, but what did you learn about your own music in the making
of this record?

I guess I
assumed there’d be more of the duet thing with Gillian on here, but at some
point in the making of this record, I realized that the music I’ve done with
Gillian wasn’t going to be that applicable. Playing these songs as duets wasn’t
going to be satisfying to me in my mind as a listener. I just didn’t think
people would be that into it. So I really approached it like, “Let’s record
these songs the way I’m hearing them in my head, and if when I listen back to
them I think people won’t hate it, then let’s use it.” So it honestly didn’t
really come out at all like I thought it would. It probably has more of a
rollicking, old-time flavor to it than I might have initially expected, but I’m
really happy with how it turned out. There are a lot of unexpected surprises
for me on this record.

 

What’s your proudest moment on this
record?

Interesting…that’s
a good question. I’m glad that people haven’t reacted badly to the singing, ‘cause
that’s what I was probably the most worried about. I would have to say…
probably something tied up in that “I Hear Them All” is a solo thing, and it
works. Mainly ‘cause that was the most unexpected. Either that or it’s some of
the work we did on the fly changing the string arrangements and working with
Jimmy. I mean, you can’t go to one of these string players and say, “Ok, second
verse, I want you to do this.” It’s gotta be, “On the 54th bar…”
Some of that stuff really worked well and was so mentally challenging on the
fly. Reworking “Bells of Harlem” right before it goes to tape and it being
right…wow. That’s happened with other songs, but not really under those
circumstances.

 

Honestly, the
craziest thing was finishing up that last song and realizing we had nine songs
done and it was like, “Well, it’s 40 minutes long. I guess we should master
this thing and talk about putting it out.” (Laughs)

 

[Photo Credit:
Andy Tennille]

 

 

THAT SOUTHERN ACCENT: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Petty Box

 

With a career-spanning CD/DVD boxed set of live material, the iconic rocker finds new reasons to believe.

BY FRED MILLS

 

Writers whose roots extend below the Mason-Dixon line have long dwelled on matters of heritage. Even those who preach the occasional necessity of getting out in order to make a life for oneself understand how roots run deep, and you can no more escape that heritage than you can declare your back yard a sovereign nation and secede from the Union. So to speak.

 

Tom Petty’s a writer, of songs, and while he’s a textbook example of a southern boy who got out and, in the parlance, done real good for hisself, in those songs there’s always been a lyrical tension between the past and the present that gives his material an autobiographical undercurrent, an ambiance, a vibe, peculiar to southern writers. I’m a writer, too, and the longer I do it the more I discover my own regional idiosyncrasies creeping in to my work; I suspect they were always there and I just didn’t recognize them as such. Finding parallels between Petty’s life and mine isn’t particularly hard, either. Both of us came of age in the sixties, he in upstate Florida and me in a textile mill region of North Carolina, right at the NC-SC line — which, if you know much about those two regions, suggests a distinct lack of cultural opportunities, so a person was usually left casting a wide net utilizing whatever resources could be found.

 

“Well she was an American girl

Raised on promises

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there

Was a little more to life

Somewhere else

After all it was a great big world

With lots of places to run to…”

 

As Petty pointed out in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, his best-known song “American Girl” is not about a specific girl: “I was creating a girl like I knew in Gainesville, the kind who knows there’s more out there than the cards she’s drawn.” But he was also subliminally sketching himself into the character, articulating what he had felt growing up in Gainesville. This is why the tune strikes a chord regardless of whether you’re a male or a female; the yearning is universal, and it’s not necessary limited to teenagers either.

 

In our mutual quests to find a little more to life Petty and I both eschewed high school sports for books, movies and, most particularly, music, and because of that our role models tended to be a few years older, typically long-haired and liberal-tilting types (and with good weed connections) who gave us the kind of encouragement we didn’t necessarily get from our peer group. Both of us took a lot of grief when we began growing our own hair out, including thumpings from local good ol’ boys who took exception to our appearance, and such incidents fueled streaks of anger, defiance and righteousness. Petty, for example, told Rolling Stone that during his early years as a musician he was harassed by rednecks and even refused service at truck stops and it helped him understand and sympathize with what African-Americans went through on a daily basis. On my end, I was on the receiving end of redneck taunts myself, and I still wince at the memory of the time when a couple of my so-called friends cornered me one afternoon following school, one of them holding me down while the other one took a pair of scissors to my hair (which, let’s be clear here, was only a little ways past my collar and hardly “dirty hippie” length). Not to mention fielding racial epithets because my mom was on the local school board during the protracted period of desegregation and therefore our family was perceived to be among the “nigger lovers” aiming to upend the social order.

Those angry, defiant and righteous feelings continue to manifest in us as adults.

 

And Petty and I both finally got out, too: he traveled far, to L.A., and embarked upon one of rock’s more storied careers; I made it to college, and in a roundabout way, not always financially fruitful but still aesthetically satisfying, to a life in music, too. All along, although the two of us have met just once and then only very briefly, our southern heritage has continued to link us in ways that gives his music a resonance that is deeper and more enduring than that of pretty much any other artist I admire.

 

***

 

One day in late 1979 I wandered into a Chapel Hill, NC, record store. Spying among the new releases a copy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I wondered who this leather-jacketed guy on the sleeve was. The shoulder-length blonde hair painted him a traditional ‘70s rock type, yet the jacket and half-smirk/half-sneer creasing his face suggested he was more aligned with punk, which by then I was already enthusiastically embracing. The guy behind the counter played a couple of songs, notably the Byrdsian raveup “American Girl,” and I was sold. It would be over-romanticizing matters for me to claim I converted, on the spot, to fan-for-life status — it was only Petty’s first album, after all — but I can confess, in all sincerity, that the net result was the same.

 

Other albums would similarly floor me — 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, 1985’s Southern Accents, 1994’s Wild Flowers (billed as a solo Petty release), even 2002’s The Last DJ, which did well commercially but took a drubbing from critics — while songs from all of Petty’s releases would find their way into regular mixtape rotation in the car, on the home stereo, and eventually on the iPod and smartphone, too. I recall buying the 45 of “Refugee” because it had a non-album B-side, “Casa Dega,” a spooky-sounding slow-burn number that referenced a strange little Florida town (it’s actually spelled Cassadaga) populated by psychics. The lyrics, mysterious yet open-endedly romantic, have always gotten under my skin, like a partially-remembered dream that lingers and haunts you long after you’ve awaken:

 

“She said to me as she holds my hand

And reads the lines of a stranger

Yeah, and she knows my name, yeah, she knows my plan

In the past, in the present, and for the future…

‘Baby fools pay the price of a whisper in the night

In Casa Dega

Time rolls by, night is only night

Can I save you?’”

 

Of course it was the live Petty experience that would cement my fanship. I’ll never forget squeezing down front at an outdoor amphitheater in Charlotte in the early ‘80s to watch the Heartbreakers blaze through a set in the summer’s heat; I was surrounded by so many gorgeous, sweat-drenched, dancing, screaming females that I got a first-hand sense of what Beatlemania might have been like. Later that evening at the nearby hotel, who should I run into at the elevator but keyboardist Benmont Tench; upon learning that we had a close mutual friend, he paused to chat a few moments then invited me up to say hello to Petty, as the band was about to check out early and drive through the night on their bus to the next gig. Starstruck, I wound up mumbling at them something about “owning all the records” and “when are you going to start making better music videos,” thus ensuring that Petty and Tench quickly found excuses to go finish their packing before I could get around to asking for an autograph. But hey, at least I got to shake their hands.

 

Another time was in Phoenix in the mid ‘90s, at a point when the Heartbreakers had skillfully merged both their own songs and Petty’s solo material to craft what was unquestionably one of the most dynamic stage shows by one of the most formidable live acts in the business. In particular, they brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which had earlier been an MTV staple thanks to the goofy Alice In Wonderland-styled vid, but in concert was transformed into a psychedelic epic complete with an eye-popping, potentially seizure-inducing, lights and strobe production.

 

But the Petty concert I’ll always remember most vividly was in 1990, once again in Charlotte. [Jan. 29 to be precise, with Lenny Kravitz opening.In] April of the previous year Petty had released his first solo LP, the Jeff Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever, so he was spotlighting a good chunk of that record even though with the exception of guitarist Mike Campbell the members of the Heartbreakers only had cameos on FMF. The band was also doing a lot of the Southern Accents album, from 1985, and much of the same stage design (plantation mansion columns, assorted antebellum/southern touches, etc.) from the Southern Accents tour was still being used. It was during the “Rebels” song that something totally out of the blue happened.

 

A certain yahoo element had already been making its presence in the crowd known, emitting whoops and raising beer cups whenever Petty would make a regional reference. It was starting to feel like a NASCAR rally in the arena. Now, as the band eased into the song’s signature piano intro, somebody tossed a folded-up object onto the stage. Petty walked over, picked it up, and started unfolding it: a rebel flag, symbol of the Confederacy — and of a whole lot more. He froze, uncertain as to what he should do. Well, wave it proudly at all your fellow Southerners, you could almost hear the collective thought ripple through the air. Instead, Petty walked back to the mic, still holding the flag, and slowly began to speak, talking about how on the Southern Accents tour a few years ago they’d included a Confederate flag as part of the stage set, but since then he’d been thinking about it and decided that it had been a mistake because he understood maybe it wasn’t just a rebel image to some folks. As a low rumble of boos and a few catcalls came out of the crowd, Petty carefully wadded the flag up and concluded, “So we don’t do” — nodding at the flag — “this anymore.” Glaring at it one last time and then chucking it back down, he glanced at the band then launched directly into the next song.

 

Driving home from the concert that night I still could feel the combined chill and thrill I’d gotten earlier. A lesser performer wouldn’t have been able to pull off a simultaneous refutation and affirmation, and in the unexpected duality of sentiment and expectations of the moment, Petty and his Heartbreakers had gone on to perform the song with a visceral resolve imbued equally with grace and grit I hadn’t detected at previous concerts.

 

Turning on the radio, I heard the local classic rock deejay talking about the incident in disparaging terms and inviting listeners to call in and “let Tom Petty know just what we think about him.” In that moment, I felt the anger and defiance of my younger self return, and I wanted to punch the dashboard. Just a few blocks from my house, in my distraction I ran a stop sign, got pulled over by a cop, and received a ticket that led me to having to take a series of classes on highway safety in order to have it dismissed. Thanks, y’all.

 

***

 

It’s these memories that steer me to The Live Anthology (Reprise), a five-CD, three-DVD, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers box. Arriving as a kind of two-year coda to 2007’s Peter Bogdanovich-directed TP&THB documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream and the accompanying book and multiple-DVD/CD set, it’s a dream date all on its own terms, stuffed to its 12” x 12” x 2”, Shepard Fairey-art-adorned gills with all manner of goodies and memorabilia. There are facsimiles of tour posters and backstage passes; a thick LP-sized booklet boasting detailed track annotations and commentary plus extensive liners from Petty, Warren Zanes and a host of music journalists; a pocket-sized TP “notebook”; and a reproduction of the 1977 promotional-only 12” EP Official Live ‘Leg that Shelter Records distributed to radio stations (the repro even duplicates the way the original had the same four songs pressed on both sides; incidentally, the nine-minute “Dog On the Run” is a must-hear). In short, pure collector catnip.

 

Sound- and vision-wise, Petty’s not just fucking around with a high-ticket item suitable for holiday shopping, either. One of the DVDs contains all of the live audio material in the high-resolution Blu-ray format, meaning that if you have a Blu-ray player and harbor an audio geek side, you’re in clover. Meanwhile, the two video discs nicely complement the other Petty DVDs in your collection (there have been quite a few, including RDAD, to date). Live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was professionally filmed at the Heartbreakers’ Dec. 31, 1978 concert, and it’s every bit as intense and celebratory as a New Year’s Eve show should be. That it captures the band on the cusp of — but not quite there yet — huge international stardom, a good nine months before the release of Damn the Torpedoes, therefore giving you a long-form look at a group still hungry and fueled by an almost punkish combativeness, makes for a revealing and rewarding viewing experience. Several as-yet-unreleased songs were already in the setlist at the time, notably “Refugee” and “Casa Dega,” and the closing Isley Brothers cover “Shout” completely smokes the version that appeared on 1985’s concert album and film Pack Up the Plantations: Live!

 

The third DVD is titled 400 Days, a documentary film directed by Martyn Atkins. Atkins had been introduced to Petty by Rick Rubin during the making of Wildflowers, and he accumulated footage of Petty and the Heartbreakers in the studio and on the subsequent 1995 tour – essentially a chronicle of 400 days in the life of an artist and a rock band. It’s an engaging portrait, necessarily less comprehensive but in places more intimate than the Bogdanovich film, with a number of the performance clips in particular demanding repeated attention.

 

Everything circles back to the live CDS, however. And while the thought of over five hours’ worth of concert material is daunting by any standard, as a live album in the truest, most classic sense — think the Who’s Live at Leeds, the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East, Gov’t Mule’s Live… With a Little Help from Our Friends, etc. — this surely ranks high. Petty told Rolling Stone that he put a lot of effort into sequencing the material in order to make each disc represent “a whole program,” like an individual concert set. Acknowledging the fracturing of artistic intent that iTunes represents and how people will undoubtedly cherry-pick the individual tunes they want to hear, he added, “But there’s somebody out there who will sit down and take it as the work it is.”

 

And what a work it is: a series of five emotional journeys (four, if you opt for the standard, budget-conscious 4CD edition, but I encourage you to be brave, hock your kid’s bike at the nearest pawn shop, and go for the full unexpurgated Kahuna), arranged not chronologically but in order to reveal, as Petty writes in his liners, “mood first… a band capable of thinking on its feet… one moment leading to the next.”

 

If you’ve had the patience to read this far you’re obviously a Petty fan and probably don’t need me to sell you on the music. I will say that, given the sheer quantity here, 62 songs in all, it’s damned remarkable that there’s nary a shred of excess on display. Even at their most demonstrative, say on a 2001 wig-out on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or the extended boogie/raveup/anthem that is 1993’s “Drivin’ Down To Georgia,” the Heartbreakers demonstrate a cool restraint that keeps the focus on the actual songs. They also, via a healthy sampling of cover material (my faves: Peter Green & Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” from Bonnaroo ’06, and Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” from the famed 1997 Fillmore residency), open the doors wide to an in-action view of the band’s roots, influences and inspirations.

 

And for a collection of tapes that spans three decades, the sonic consistency and flow across the discs amount to an achievement that’s equally remarkable. For example, the aforementioned “DCAHNM” is followed immediately by a 1978 recording of “Too Much Ain’t Enough,” but they sound like they could have come from the same show. Another memorable pairing juxtaposes “Southern Accents” with Wildflowers standout “Crawling Back to You,” confirming a notion I’ve long held, that the Southern Accents and Wildflowers albums, though separated by a decade, are linked musically and thematically in Petty’s mind. And in one of the most striking sequences, one that almost singlehandedly sums up the Petty musical and thematic aesthetic, you get “Even the Losers”/”Here Comes My Girl” (1980) followed by “A Thing About You” (1981), “I’m In Love” (1982), “I’m A Man” (2006) and “Straight Into Darkness” (1982) — an entire lifetime’s worth of defiance, bliss, celebration, swagger and heartbreak rolled into a 25-minute mini-set.

 

In the latter tune, originally from 1982’s Long After Dark, Petty sings:

 

There was a little girl, I used to know her

I still think about her, time to time

There was a moment when I really loved her

Then one day the feeling just died…

I don’t believe the good times are over

I don’t believe the thrill is all gone

Real love is a man’s salvation

The weak ones fall, the strong carry on…”

 

It’s a telling number that, like “American Girl,” has a universality sunk deep into its sonic and lyric hooks, and it’s emblematic of the many musical riches contained on The Live Anthology. Listening to the box is like immersing oneself in a sea of sense memories. Indeed, as a songwriter Petty’s sometimes been accused of having an unvarnished nostalgic streak. (You could make a similar case for Springsteen.) But there’s a difference in nostalgia for the sake of cheap, fleeting emotion, and nostalgia that seeks to extract something that’s true and pure from a previous life in order to find clarity within the present one. The present’s never quite as clear-cut as we like to tell ourselves it is.

 

I reckon that’s something else Petty and I have in common. We both realize that to survive and move forward you often have to escape your current circumstances — after all, it’s a great big world, with lots of places to run to — but only a fool would try to erase the past.

Luckily, I’ll always have my southern accent to remind me of mine.

 

“There’s a southern accent, where I come from

The young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb

I got my own way of talkin’ but everything is done

With a southern accent where I come from…”

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I'VE EVER SEEN: Idle Hands

In which the band’s Ciaran
Daly yarns the lore and legend of crazy shits on big bikes.

 

BY CIARAN DALY

 

A Knight’s Tale: There’s a place in Minneapolis called The Hard Times Cafe on the West Bank which has its own body of lore and legend.
Crazy shit goes down there with alarming frequency, staff tell stories of
hauntings, there was a rumor it used to be a morgue, I could go on. If you need
vegan food at 4am it’s about
the only option in town and so a lot of touring bands end up going there, after
they load out at the end of the night. The food is great but like I said it is
the epicenter of crazy.

 

I
forget which show this was after, I think we may have been playing with a
Scandinavian band and they were all vegans or something but I remember leaving
and walking down the block with my friend Al. It’s late and I’m pretty beat at
this point and so I’m not entirely prepared for what I see next.

 

When
crazy shit happens on the street the first thing you notice is all the people
slowing down as they walk past, the ripples of attention from the epicenter. If
it’s really bad they move on, if it’s entertaining they’re drawn in. And people
are most certainly being drawn in. Lots of them, of all ages and walks of life.
A couple guys are tossing dice and laying bets on what is about to go down.

 

And
what is about to go down is this: about a block down and kitty corner from the
Hard Times there is a big parking lot for the U of M, not far from the college
radio station. In it, two crusty punk kids are facing each other across the
concrete expanse. They are about twenty feet up in the air, each of them,
mounted on enormously tall bikes made of composite welded frames. The biggest
tall bikes I have ever seen, and for a while there was a bit of a cult of these
bikes in these parts so I’ve seen quite a few of these monstrosities.

 

Neither
of these dudes is wearing any kind of protective gear whatsofuckingever, but
they are carrying lances. Yeah, read that again, I’m not kidding. Lances.
Somewhere, these two and their insane urban scavenger friends have found ten
foot lengths of pick pipe and wrapped the ends in what looks like about twenty
packets worth of saran wrap, so that they resemble giant Q-Tips. It is with
these weapons that the two of them clearly intend to joust, and settle what I
can only assume must be a fairly dire matter of honor, because getting knocked
off one of those things with a giant PVC dildo you are most certainly in for a
world of hurt. One of them is already bleeding from his elbow, fairly
profusely. 

 

A
word about the West Bank: it’s a fairly tough
neighborhood, as Minneapolis
neighborhoods go. It sits squarely on the border of multiple intersecting gang
territories, and people there are not the sorts to stand in the street and just
gawp at shit gratuitously. There are some hard faces in this crowd that bear
the marks of hard lives. But every last one of them is wearing a look of either
awe, or joy, or bemusement, or wonder, as they stare at these two combatants on
their high horses.

 

I’m
not sure what could have inspired this thing; I’m not sure I want to know. From
the looks of them maybe it involved the theft of some Refused vinyl, or the
custody of a badly starved dog. If it was the honor of a lady, she must have
been the hardcore Helen of Troy. But now the two of them are pretty much done
with the lazy pedaling in circles required to keep their bikes from tipping
over, and look like they are squaring off. One guy calls a taunt to the
bleeding guy, and he just smiles and starts pumping his skinny legs and drives
his steed at his enemy. All I can think is, May
he live to be a thousand
.

 

The
faces of the crowd are beautiful. A haggard man in his sixties, maybe older, is
slowing down to watch as the two riders clash. All the weariness in him lifts
for a moment and a wide, gap toothed smile splits his grey-stubbled face. He
shakes his head as he catches my eye.

 

“MAN!”
he says, “If I live to be a hundred years old, that is the most FUCKED UP
thing I will ever see.”

 

 

Minneapolis‘ Idle Hands
can be found at their MySpace page: www.myspace.com/theidlehands.
Their new album is out now on Pretty Kids Collective entitled
The
Hearts We Broke On The Way To The Show and
they hope you love it madly.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Melissa Johnson]

 

ONCE IN A LIFETIME Lambchop

As
documented in a new concert film, Kurt Wagner & Co. transformed  XXMerge into a magical event.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

If you’re lucky, over the course of your concert-going life
you’ll attend a few shows whose legendary status begins before the final note
is even struck. Yet when Lambchop played the five-day festival celebrating Merge
Records’ 20th anniversary in Chapel Hill last July, even diehard
fans would’ve conceded that of the 35 acts playing, Kurt Wagner’s Nashville
outfit probably wouldn’t have topped the list of those most likely to steal the
show.

 

But steal it, they did. Forget everything you thought you
knew about the band beforehand, because Lambchop rocked the roof off of the venerable
Cat’s Cradle that night. And now you can see and hear how they pulled it off because
Merge has released the “digital DVD” Lambchop Live
at XXMerge
, which does a solid job recreating most everything about that magical
night but your buzz.

 

Directed by Matt Boyd and shot in warm color, multiple
cameras capture an 11-member version of Lambchop in peak form during a 45-minute
set that wisely collects the funkiest, most up-tempo numbers from the band’s
two-decade-plus career. The 10-song set-list may have been brief – there were
six bands on that night’s bill – but it packed more energy than most shows
twice that length. That set-list tilted toward the band’s best-loved records —
2000’s incomparable Nixon (three
songs) and 1997’s Thriller (two
songs), as well two more taken from Wagner’s latest off-kilter opus, 2008’s OH (Ohio) – but all 10 hit their mark
that special night.

 

The opening number, then, comes off as more ice-breaker than
mood-setter; “I Will Drive Slowly,” from the band’s 1994 debut, I Hope You’re Sitting Down, unfurls elegantly
as the cast establishes a rich tableau of textures – three distinct keyboards,
a reed and horn section, and three guitars — to accompany Wagner’s simple love
song. The gentle pace suggests the typical laid-back Lambchop gig of recent
years (remember the strings-augmented Damaged tour, or this year’s docile OH tour?),
but the tide begins to turn when the band reaches the ferocious crescendo for Is A Woman‘s “The New Cobweb Summer.”

 

That 2002 record was the first to feature guitarist William
Tyler, whose subtle delay effects, Fahey finger-picking and Eddie Willis funk
syncopations raised Lambchop’s live game and are a highlight here throughout. “Grumpus”
and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King” kick the tempo up another gear, and
Wagner’s Curtis Mayfield fixation gets fully fleshed out on “What Else Could It
Be?” with assistance from the crackling horn section. Tony Crow’s rich, gospel-flavored
piano fills prove much stronger than his brief mid-set comedy routine (“with
each joke a song goes by the wayside,” Wagner needles), before the band heads
into even more sublime territory.

 

In fact, the final four-song stretch attains something very
close to rock ‘n’ roll nirvana, as each subsequent song sends the audience
further into an ecstatic state. Beginning with the pulsing, F.M. Cornog-penned cut
from Thriller, “Hey, Where’s Your
Girl?” the whole ensemble enters the pocket and remains right there through stunning versions of “Your Fucking Sunny Day”
and “Up with People.” Scott Martin’s swinging beat, as well as the additional keys
and guitars, power the head-long rush of the first two, while the Stax horns and
multi-member harmonies raise the latter into a secular hymn.

 

But it’s the interplay between the core group – Swanson, Martin,
Crow, Tyler – that allows Wagner’s curious blend of rock, funk and country to realize
these marvelous shapes. Even before Wagner begins his speaking-in-tongues rap
on the finale, “Give It,” an obscure track he recorded with the British
electronica group X-Press 2, the audience has been whipped into such a frenzy
you can’t imagine that there’s yet another level.

 

Oh, but is there. Setting aside his guitar, Wagner morphs
into a revivalist preacher, rising from his chair as though possessed to exhort
his followers to come along on the narrative’s Autumnal circuit. Tyler’s guitar, which begins
like a sea of wind chimes, transforms into thick waves of distortion buffeting
the quickening tempo (as do the other guitars). Swanson’s intricate-but-never-indulgent
bass figures become lifelines in the growing gale, locked into Martin’s
marching percussion which eventually resembles Keith Moon flurries. Crow’s mid-register
gospel chords climb into the keyboard’s right corner with increasing urgency,
mirroring Preacher Wagner’s by-now frantic admonitions.

 

Three minutes in, the transcendent crescendo begins in
earnest and the melody registers a slight shift into something you recognize
but can’t quite finger until Wagner solves the riddle and sings “and you may
find yourself living in a shotgun shack,” the opening line from the Talking
Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime.”  The
juxtaposition of the possessed Wagner with David Byrne’s spastic dance from the
iconic 30-year-old video is more than mere homage; it’s a tangible link to the
independent spirit that always run counter to mainstream music trends through
rock’s history. And that couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to Merge’s 20-year-long,
music-first mission statement.

 

The quiet coda afterward comes like a collective exhale, but
only so the packed house can really let loose when Wagner announces “that’s it”
and introduces the band, and the crowd goes bat-shit crazy with appreciation
(kudos to the woman with the wall-rattling scream).  Even if you weren’t there you come away from
the viewing experience floored by the band’s prowess, exhilarated by the collective joy that
resulted, and more than a little transformed. 

 

As solid as the band is, the film has a couple of flaws that
keep it up from living up to the music’s lofty standards. On the plus side, there
are evocative close-ups that even front row-views don’t afford, made even
warmer by the effective color saturation. Tyler,
for instance, gets such rich textures from his Telecaster because he’s playing
with five picks; i.e., five long finger-picking nails. It would appear Wagner
polishes his nails for added strength, since he occasionally uses the back-side
of his thumbnail for ascending glissandos. Swanson’s Doctor Octopus act on the
bass makes more sense when you see the size of his hands, and Martin’s
stick-work – on the too-rare occasions he’s shown – is even more impressive
close-up. When the cameras capture the occasional smile, or Wagner in his
“Co-Op Horse Feeds” cap in euphoric, mid-song rapture, you can’t help but think
how much goddamn fun it must be to play in Lambchop.

 

But some of those observations came only with multiple
viewings (not a bad thing, by the way), and many were fleshed out by having just
seen the core sextet twice on its recent swing through North Carolina performing a similar set-list.
On the film, Boyd’s editing is heavy handed, some sections as jumpy as a video
made by an ADD sufferer. There are, for instance, 110 (unofficial) cuts during
the 380 seconds of “The New Cobweb Summer,” many lasting little longer than
eye-blinks. When the tempo redlines, Boyd’s cuts really get frantic – with 11
music-makers, you sense Boyd and company decided that was inevitable.

 

It didn’t have to be. As informative as the close-ups are,
an over-reliance on them versus mid-range, multiple-member shots undermines a
bit of what makes this not just the strongest Lambchop collective yet, but
arguably one of the best bands going – how unbelievably tight this unit is. A
few more static shots before cutting away after three or four seconds would let
the viewer really appreciate how these musicians’ considerable chops integrate
into such a rich whole. There aren’t many “wrong instrument” edits here since
Lambchop is not about solo-noodling in any case, but there are a couple —
Swanson’s ridiculous bass runs on “Hey, Where’s Your Girl?” being the most
egregious omission — that you can’t help but wish you could see.  

 

Finally, there is only one crowd shot near the end of the
set. While that means the focus is predominantly where it should be, if Boyd
was going to include so many short-duration shots, why not throw in a few more audience
reaction shots earlier in the set to see the growing ecstasy each number evokes?

 

In the end, these are minor quibbles – the music is so
unique and the band so in the pocket, it’d be near-impossible not to get across
those qualities and the joy they engendered for the lucky fuckers in attendance
that night. Boyd and his camera people may not have been quite as perfect as
Lambchop – but there’s no shame in that.  

 

[Photo Credit: Brian Vetter]

 

Lambchop
– Live at XXMerge is available from the Merge Store in three formats: Audio MP3s
+ high-definition video download; Audio MP3s + standard definition video
download; Limited Edition CD + high-definition video download.

 

A RIGHTEOUS MAN John Darnielle/Mountain Goats

The
indie icon and brainy songwriter takes on the biggest topic of all – the Bible.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Since he formed The Mountain Goats in 1991 with nothing but
an acoustic guitar and a boombox, John Darnielle has always been a focused
lyricist, digging deeply into his subjects with a novelist’s eye for detail. And
since 2002, when Darnielle abandoned the boombox for real recording studios,
those subjects have often been pretty heavy.

 

After issuing concept albums about divorce (Tallahassee),
drug abuse (We Shall All Be Healed)
and his abusive stepfather (The Sunset
Tree
), Darnielle is taking on his biggest subject yet: the Bible. Written
as he dealt with his own health problems and watched loved ones get sick and
even die, the twelve songs on  The Life of the World to Come use
Biblical stories as jumping off points for Darnielle to explore love, loss,
faith, doubt and “things from which people don’t and can’t recover.”

 

We talked with Darnielle about his struggles with religion
and his embrace of the Bible.

 

***

 

BLURT: You
turned to the Bible to help you cope with health problems and the death of
friends and loved ones. Were you surprised to find it so comforting?

DARNIELLE: Well, I’m not sure that I did find it comforting
– I think the Bible is a text I turn to, or a place I go, looking for one thing
and ending up getting another. One thinks of comfort as a soothed or placated
state, but there’s also the comfort of just knowing where you stand. I get that
from the Psalms, and from some of the prophets, and from the parables of the
New Testament, sometimes. And there’s also the comfort of paradox, which you
also get in the parables, and in the Pentateuch. 
  

What is
it about the Bible that you’re drawn to?

That’s a very broad question. The Bible is a whole field
unto itself: drama, intrigue, philosophy, history, object-lesson, cautionary
tale, example of what’s wrong with doctrines in general & simultaneously a
possible example of some of what’s right with them. I guess I would say its
breadth is a big part of the appeal. It compares to Shakespeare or Chaucer for
me in that way, but of course it’s a lot bigger: people don’t, overnight, cast
off the lives they lead and take up “The Tempest.” So it has this really
powerful weight that comes prepackaged with it. I don’t think it can be
treated just as literature. Or, if it can, it demonstrates
that literature is a lot more than some subject to be studied: it changes
people, lives, history.

 

 You’ve
described yourself in the past as a non-believer. Would you still say that?

Yes, I guess. I would prefer to believe. I wish I did. I am
ready at any time to be converted, but honestly, it’s not in me to get there, I
don’t think. 

 

It
seems that whenever a musician focuses too much on religion they become
marginalized by being put in the “Christian” category. Were you at all worried
about that?

Not really. If you’re any kind of a writer at all, you have
to write from what inspires you. I learned that from The Sunset Tree. I get the good stuff if I listen to what my
writing urges are telling me and just follow them. Writing The Sunset Tree, I assumed that everyone was going to hate it.
Before that album came out, I was applying for day jobs, because I thought,
this is it; when that record comes out it’s over for me. But people liked it
better than anything I’d ever done. So the lesson to me was – this is corny
sounding – write from the heart or the gut or whatever blood-level place you
can reach deepest down to. And for me, right now, that was in Biblical images
and ideas, in liturgical moods. 

 

You’re
also a big fan of metal, where musicians write far more about Satan than God.
Why is it OK to write about Satan, yet if you write about God, people are
immediately suspicious?

You’re transgressing if you write about Satan or evil, and
transgression is the natural home of writing. Also, God kind of has a corner on
the market, and a lot of the people pushing a God agenda are really tiresome
and insufferable. … I think, in a country where nominal Christians are passing
laws making it illegal to marry the person you love, it’s reasonable for people
to say “you know, I don’t want to really hear about this God, if his
followers are so hateful.”

 

 What
do you hope fans take away from this album?

The main thing, and this sounds like a stock answer but it’s
true, is always: I hope people are entertained; I hope people spend the better
part of an hour really caught up in the stories and the sounds. Beyond that, I
think the sort of pressure points of the album are “Matthew 25:21”, “Isaiah
45:23”, and “Hebrews 11:40”, and I hope that people find some comfort for pain
in those songs. Those are songs about pain and self-hate and grief and fighting
to keep from becoming bitter, to hold onto what makes you human, and I think a
lot of people like me have struggled with those sorts of emotions. I hope my
band and I manage to illuminate some tiny corner for a couple of people with
those songs – that someone finds something that casts a light somewhere for
them, for a minute or two.

 

That to me seems like a big thing to hope for, but I do hope
it.

 

[Pictured above, L-R: Jon Wurster, John Darnielle, Peter
Hughes. Photo by Chrissy Piper]