Monthly Archives: March 2010

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: Jen Olive

From Los Angeles
to Albuquerque to Swindon, England:
one songwriter’s travels, with XTC’s Andy Partridge as her virtual guide.

 

BY
JEN OLIVE

 

I’ve
spent most of my life moving from one state to another, one town to another,
one apartment to another.  By the time I
was 15, I’d lived in 34 different places in four different states. I developed
an odd habit of using different names and different accents for each new
place…at least to start out. My favorite by far was “Rebecca.” She was
English. I spoke in a Mary Poppins accent for two solid weeks once. I realize
now that I wasn’t fooling anyone, but it amused me anyway. As an adult, I seem
to have carried on the tradition of resisting permanence and getting on to the
next adventure. So, three years ago when I was invited to come and stay in New Mexico, I thought,
“Why not?”  I’d had enough of Los Angeles and the
legions of “beautiful people” and fake boobs and traffic and smog…I was fed
up with just about everything, and the desert seemed like the perfect remedy.
So I packed up all the essentials and headed for New Mexico.

 

Now
then, it was only a couple of months before my escape to New Mexico that I’d sent some demos to one
Mr. Andy Partridge, and I heard back from him rather quickly.  He said he was interested in hearing more if
I was interested in sending more. I felt an immediate connection with him. Of
course, I said yes, that I would send more as soon as I was settled into my new
digs in the desert. Needless to say, I was a little concerned at this point
that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew, what with an impending
divorce, two kids, a move to a new state, no job and now the possibility of
recording an album…all at once.  But
apparently I like a challenge, so I just went with it. All of it.

 

Anyway,
Andy was curious when and if I was planning to record.  I had been looking at some local studios, and
even recorded in one, but it wasn’t quite working out as I’d hoped. Andy
suggested I might have a go on my own. It had only ever vaguely occurred to me
that I could make a complete album on my own with all the instrumentation,
etc., but the idea was quite appealing, and I did have some idea of what to do
– I’d self-recorded many times over the years, though nothing to this
extent.  For this, I’d need proper
supplies. My zip-drive digital 8-track was probably not going to cut it. I’d
need a computer and a proper microphone. I’d also need some drums and maybe a
couple bass guitars as well. (I had to try fretless!) I sold everything that
didn’t matter and then rallied all of my long-time supporters and friends,
explaining the situation. Everyone was eager to donate to the cause. (Yes, I
have amazing friends.) Even my ex-husband was willing to pitch in to see this
get done.  In the back of my house there
was a cabin-style Jacuzzi room that had only been used for storage in the last
few years. It was empty. It was private (sort of). It would do. I loaded it up
with all my new gear and got started.

 

When
I had a few songs done, I sent them to Andy. He liked what I was up to but
could tell I needed a little help. So he offered to mix them and gave me little
recording tips as I went along. Pretty soon we were on a roll but don’t be
mistaken – it wasn’t quite that easy.

 

I
was in New Mexico, and New Mexico is a strange place. It’s basically
rural with two major cities, and neither of them is really all that major. Santa Fe is the capitol.
It’s the smaller, lovelier of the two cities, aesthetically beautiful, gorgeous
actually. It’s culturally “correct,” quintessentially Southwest. It’s
progressive politically, environmentally friendly. There are lots of sculptors
and painters and little shops and galleries. There is The Opera and The Plaza.
There are also lots of all-grown-up trust-fund babies who don’t have a clue
what it means to hold a job – but hey, they can sit in a cafe and expound on
their own brilliance, their technique, their method…their aaaaaart…all damn
day.  Pretentious and annoying at best.
It’s why people to the south call it “Santa Fake.” By south I mean the other
city, Albuquerque.

 

Albuquerque is thought of as Santa Fe’s fat, ugly sister. Albuquerque is known for its stratospheric
teen pregnancy rates. It’s number one for drunk driving. There’s a tattoo parlor
on practically every corner, and let’s not forget the property crime.  They say you should prepare to get robbed if
you live in Albuquerque.
Now, I personally haven’t been robbed here (not yet, anyway), but I have had a
legless man in a wheelchair roll up on my front lawn and demand lunch and iced
tea. I’ve met lots of people fresh out of jail and asking for money so they
could get liquor. I’ve had a drug addict bang on my door at 1 a.m. wanting to
“use the phone.” And let’s see – there was the Vietnam veteran working on my roof
who’d show up at any time of the day or night and just start hammering. That
one was especially annoying because I’d be in the middle of a perfect take and
suddenly he’d be walking through the yard with some kind of power tool buzzing,
and no matter how many times I asked him to pleeeease come up with a schedule
so we could work around each other – I was trying to make a record for
chrissakes – he never did. “Only a couple more days there Joan and
uhhh…I’ll be outta your way” (yeah, well, a couple more days in New Mexico means “whenever I feel like
finishing”…they call it the Mañana
State for a reason). And
then there was his crazy, screaming wife eating a Snickers bar in one bite and
chewing with her mouth open. I mean reeeeally open. But that’s a whole other
story.

 

In
spite of all that, Albuquerque
is a really beautiful and soulful place. It’s deep.  It forces you in and out of yourself. It
destroys a lot of preconceptions you might have about yourself and others. On
the surface, it sounds like any other ghetto, but it isn’t. The context is
completely singular. It’s hard, yeah. Mean sometimes. But it’s also warm. It’s
friendly. It’s tolerant in a completely authentic way. It isn’t judgmental.
It’s real. And I don’t care what Jessica Alba says, the food here is GOOD…I
have developed a serious addiction to green chile and sopapillas! So yeah, it’s
a dive, but I live in Albuquerque, my record was
written and recorded in Albuquerque,
and it’s informed as much by this city as it is by my life.

 

I
started in mid-March of 2008. Slowly but surely I’d gotten the hang of things
and my creativity was always boiling. 
I’d gone into it with the same feeling I go into everything, which is,
“How hard can it really be?” and “Rules? What rules?” So, I was
trying any and everything. I was playing whatever I could get my hands on, from
rocks and bottles to the chairs and the walls. I love puzzles and I love mathy
guitar riffs, so working out bass parts and percussion parts to fill in the
holes was a thrill. Funny story: I‘d done quite a few tracks of percussion for
the song “So Funny,” which has some odd time signatures in it. I had
to actually count the beats in it to play it. I got an email from Andy later on
saying, “Jen, try not to count out loud when you’re recording the
percussion.” Buried in there somewhere there’s a whisper of me counting,
“1,2,3,4-1,2,3,4,5,6,7″…I was rather mortified, but thinking back, I guess
it’s pretty hilarious.

 

By
July, I was about halfway done. I was struggling a lot less with the recording
process and was on a real writing streak. Things were going well but it was
easily over 100 degrees in the daytime, and in my “shack,” as I called it, it
was even hotter. I’d run the air conditioner to cool it down and then I’d turn
it off quickly to record, trying my best to get it in the first two takes
before the shack started to heat up again. But my computer was shutting down
from the heat and I was feeling like I’d pass out every five minutes, so I
finally opted to record after dark instead. 
Around 9 p.m. every night I’d down a pot of coffee and head out. I’d sit
back there in the shack, perched on a stool, the world’s biggest cockroaches
running around below me, and I’d write. Then I’d record, and – like I’d been
doing for months – I’d send what I recorded, track by track, across the pond to
the UK
and into the hands of my co-conspirator, Andy Partridge.

 

Back
in Swindon, which I’m told is the English equivalent of Albuquerque (although
when I visited Swindon, I gotta say I didn’t see it), Andy would be mixing and
fixing the things I’d sent, adding a touch here and a sparkle there. As we got
to know each other through the work, the songs started to reflect that. For
instance, Andy didn’t add much to the first song I sent, “Franscrams!”.
The bass drum was replaced by a better sounding one and there was a percussion
thing at the top…a little edit at the end. In contrast, the song
“Pieces” has quite a few additions, including a great mellotron
squeezebox (among other things). The thing was that without telling Andy – but
very much on purpose – I had begun leaving open spaces in the songs in the
hopes that he would fill them with something. And he wouId. And it was always
spot-on.

 

I
started to really live for the thrill of Andy’s “NEW MIX” email.
Things continued to get better and better all the way around. My recordings
were sounding cleaner, and Andy was reading me easily now. We went on like that
for quite some time with few troubles, if any. 
For months we just kept at it, emailing back and forth, rarely even
speaking on the phone. It was very bizarre. Very focused. Almost cosmic, if you
go for that kinda thing. Andy was absolutely brilliant to work with. He was
very respectful and attentive, and just smart as hell. He nudged me down the
road, kicking things out of the way so I could get by. You know…the coat over
the mud puddle? It was like that.  I
learned a lot through that. I would listen to the mixes and the next time I
sent something I would try to copy what he’d done, as far as the panning and
the arranging. If he put the bass at 10 o’clock then I’d put the bass at 10 o‘clock…that
sort of thing. 

 

By
November of 2008, the recording started to wrap up. I had to move…again. So,
the final two songs were recorded in new shack in a new house, and by the new
year, I was done with my part.  We made
it all official in February of 2009, after which time I took a long breather to
process it all. In December, with the release getting closer, I decided to fly
out to England
and meet the mysterious Mr. Partridge face-to-face.

 

It
wasn’t nearly as weird or as mysterious as I thought it’d be. It was, in fact,
very normal-feeling. It was lovely.

 

Today
is the day my record, Warm Robot will
be officially released. I’ll be in England again in less than a week
to play some shows and promote it. From Los Angeles
to Albuquerque to Swindon,
it’s been quite a trip and I’m only now just taking off.

 

Round
and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows….

 

Jen Olive’s Warm Robot is out this week on Andy Partridge’s Ape
House label
. Songs, news, tour dates (a UK tour starts next week) and more
are at her official website.

 

 

PROG-ROCK SUPERGROUP ALERT! Transatlantic

All star summit among
members of Dream Theatre, Marillion, Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings yields
pure prog gold.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

Back around the turn of the century, your humble scribe was
known to comment, half in jest, that there were only nine guys playing prog-rock
music at the time, but that together they comprised something on the order of
two-dozen bands. The joke was on me, actually, and definitely on all those
other rockcrit types that perpetually turned up their collective noses at any
sniff of “progressive rock.” In the decade since, however, acclaimed rockers
like the Mars Volta, Muse, and even Radiohead have made waves by embracing a
“prog” aesthetic, while bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theatre
mainstreamed 1970s-styled prog-rock (the former) and progressive metal (the
latter).

 

Transatlantic is one of those bands made up of guys from
other bands, a prog-rock “supergroup” if you will that was founded by
Dream Theater’s drummer Mike Portnoy – perhaps prog’s biggest cheerleader in
the press – with the multi-instrumental talent Neal Morse (solo artist and
Spock’s Beard founder), guitarist Roine Stolt (Sweden’s Flower Kings), and bassist
Pete Trewavas (English prog-folk legends Marillion). Transatlantic released its
debut album SMPTe in 2000, following
it up with Bridge Across Forever a
year later, and since that time have made their presence felt on the growing
prog-rock scene with a couple of epic tours, a pair of acclaimed live albums,
and a full-length DVD release for the faithful.

 

Transatlantic’s various members would go on to other musical
projects through the end of the decade, but when Morse contacted Portnoy about
an exciting new composition called “The Whirlwind” that had
“Transatlantic” written all over it, they called up the other guys
and got the band back together one more time. Convening in Morse’s Tennessee studio, the
four talents collaborated and expanded upon Morse’s original concept, building
it into a lengthy twelve-part, almost 78-minute song-cycle that is ambitious in
scope and breathtaking in its execution.

 

The new set, The
Whirlwind
(Radiant Records/Metal Blade), kicks off with a brief atmospheric
intro – a jumble of voices, pastoral music, crashing waves – before swelling
into an instrumental tsunami of whirling synths, exploding drumbeats, and
cutting guitar. The nine-minute-plus title track sounds like Return To Forever
meets King Crimson, with angular, almost jazzy fretwork, slashing keyboard
runs, heavy melodic basslines, and some of the most blustery, badass drumming
that will ever punch your eardrums into submission. As the lyrical storyline
unfolds across the songs, the soundtrack never falters. The four band members
share vocals and back up one another’s voices, and the chemistry between these
virtuoso instrumentalists matches their passion, resulting in a seamless
integration of sound and harmony.

 

Throughout the wild musical ride that is The Whirlwind, the engaged listener will
pick up strains of Beatlesque melodies, Genesis-styled folk-rock, King
Crimson’s avant-experimentation, the soaring harmonics of Yes, and much, much
more. The synthesizer work-out at the beginning of the machine-gun paced
“On The Prowl” sounds like nothing so much as a Rick Wakeman/Keith
Emerson swordfight, but when the song lapses into vocal mode, enchanting
harmonies are bolstered by Stolt’s raging six-string, and fluid keyboard/synth
textures. The song changes musical directions so frequently and at such
breakneck speed that you’d have to place your head on a swivel to catch it all
in one sitting.

 

Portnoy’s madman drumming leads into “A Man Can Feel,”
the gloomy, atmospheric intro sounding like something from Peter Gabriel’s
worst nightmares before metamorphosing into a glorious example of neo-prog
excess, with rampant keyboard runs, thundering rhythms, lightning-fast time
signature changes, and bursts of Stolt’s razor-sharp guitarplay. “Lay Down
Your Life” staggers out of the gate with a plodding, discordant menace as syncopated
drumbeats, screeching classical stringplay, and chainsaw riffs create an alien
soundscape that is quickly wrestled to the ground by the band’s joyfully
reckless harmonies and a roller-coaster ride of instrumental mayhem.

 

As is the style these days, The Whirlwind is available in a number of various configurations,
and the prog-rock true believer will want to pony up the extra shekels for the
two-disc version which includes a bonus CD of songs from the session that
didn’t make the first disc, or something to that effect. An extra-special,
three-disc edition includes a DVD with “behind the scenes” footage
that, while interesting upon initial viewing, is probably only really
attractive to the sort of obsessive that alphabetizes and catalogs their music
(ahem…).

 

As for the eight bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of The Whirlwind, they’re of just as high a
quality as anything on the twelve-track regular album, they just didn’t fit
into the grandiose fabric of those performances. The songs here on disc two
showcase the more pop-oriented side of the band, featuring four originals and four
inspired covers that highlight both individual member’s songwriting chops, but
also the band’s overall flexibility. Stolt’s “Spinning” is a charming
pop/rock confection with lovely fretwork, a catchy melody, and an aggressive
keyboards/synthesizer segment that redefines the meaning of “shock and awe.”

 

Morse’s “For Such A Time” is a commanding ballad
with gentle vocals, shining guitarwork, thoughtful lyrics and emotion, and such
a carefree toppling of folk-rock conventions that it puts the efforts of a
hundred simpering, beardo indie-rock troubadours to shame. As for the covers,
the early Genesis song “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” is as
whimsical as the original, while a shot at Procol Harum’s “A Salty
Dog” falls a little short of the mark – enjoyable, but ultimately
negligible in improving upon the original. While a cover of America’s “I Need You”
may seem a stretch, the band’s innate melodic sense and vocal harmonies provide
just the right amount of winsome emotion to pull it off in spades.

 

It’s the raucous Transatlantic take on Santana’s “Soul
Sacrifice” that really drives this over the top, though, with Portnoy’s
imaginative percussive work mimicking the original song, but adding stylized
and powerful improvements. Stolt’s guitarwork is stunning, incorporating
Santana’s Latin influences while taking solos into entirely new territory with
slashing chords and flying one-off notes. I’m guessing that Morse and Trewavas
are helping out with some bang-a-gong of their own in the percussion
department, and the entire song is an energetic reminder that these guys are
all true classic rock fiends at heart.

 

And that, gentle reader, is what cements Transatlantic’s
status as modern prog-rock royalty…more than the sum of each band member’s
talents, or the influences of their individual, groundbreaking bands, these
four guys have a pitch-perfect sense of where rock music has been, which allows
them together to build upon the past and take the music into exciting new
directions. The Whirlwind is a
masterpiece of progressive rock, but it is also a return to values such as
melody, harmony, instrumental talent, and intelligent lyricism that is sadly
missing from much of what dominates the charts and radio airplay these days.
It’s also why prog-rock continues to grow in popularity and ambition. Much as
they did at the dawn of the new millennium, Transatlantic continues to lead the
way….    

 

[Photo Credit: Radu Catrina/ www.thedwarf.com.au; courtesy Wikipedia
Creative Commons]

 

SECOND LIFE EXPERIENCE

Conquering the music
universe, one virtual world at a time.

 

BY NICK A. ZAINO III

 

I am staring at the back of my cartoon head, and beyond
that, a group of avatars have gathered to watch me, or at least my alter ego,
Nick Northman, play a place called the Aquastar Lounge. People are dancing, so
it seems like they’re enjoying themselves. But what they are really doing is
chatting with their friends in the chat box – I can see the onscreen conversations
as I am playing – or just letting their avatar dance while they pay bills or
surf the Internet at their desk at home.

 

This is live music in Second Life. For any musician who
plays live in real life, performing in SL can be a startling experience at
first. There is no scanning the faces in the crowd to see how you’re going
over. All the body language is predetermined, animated repetition. And you have
no idea where the real-life audience is – someone might be at their laptop in
the kitchen, someone else might be behind their desk in Germany. Which makes
it tough to make that all-important connection with an audience.

 

Before a friend hipped me to the music scene in Second Life,
my views on the online virtual world were almost entirely formed by an episode
of Law & Order in which a man stalked
a woman’s avatar and then found her in real life. Not the most positive of
identifications. What convinced me to join was the fact that it’s free, and
that I could earn a bit of money in tips for playing from home, testing new
material in a low pressure environment.

 

I did feel some pressure
at my first SL show. There is no easy way to monitor your sound, because there
is a delay of around thirty seconds. And there was no way to predict what
people were thinking or how they were reacting to my songs. Plus, the
technology involved can be confusing: at a real life gig, you soundcheck by
having someone going out into the audience; but in Second Life, you have to
worry about what bit rate to set your streaming software to, and it’s not
uncommon for someone to tell you in the chat box that you are only coming
through in mono. I also have to keep my dog quiet while I play and I shut my
phone off so it doesn’t ring during the more intimate moments.

 

According to Second Life official statistics, more than ten thousand live music events happen
there each month. After two months, I have played a few dozen gigs at tip
venues in SL, additionally circulating a bio for Nick Northman that includes my
virtual and real world credits, and trying to get more people to join the group
I’ve created for gig announcements. Just like any other real world musician, I
am working my way up from tip concerts to paying gigs, networking with the SL
club owners who book the couple of hundred concerts that happen on an average
day.

 

But I’ll be honest: I’m actually having a ball and playing
more often than I ever have.

 

(In the real world,
Nick Zaino can be found at www.MySpace.com/zainomusic.)

 

ROCK & ROLL SURVIVOR Joe Grushecky

No surrender: now 100%
independent as a recording/touring artist, Pittsburgh’s favorite son looks back on three
decades in the biz.

 

BY REV. KEITH A GORDON

 

Joe Grushecky is a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor, the talented
singer, songwriter, and guitarist first bursting onto the scene in 1979 with
his band the Iron City Houserockers and their critically-acclaimed debut album,
Love’s So Tough. By the time the band
released a follow-up in 1980’s Have A
Good Time But Get Out Alive
, Grushecky had sharpened his songwriting skills
to a razor’s edge, and his intelligent blue-collar anthems mixed muscular,
guitar-driven rock with elements of blues and soul like nobody before or since.

 

After two more albums that earned great reviews but sold few
copies, the Iron City Houserockers called it a day. Grushecky, a Pittsburgh
native, returned home to Steeltown and resumed his day job as a teacher working
with at-risk youth, a position that he has pretty much held ever since. He
stayed out of music for the better part of a decade, returning with a new band
– Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers – which included his old ICH bandmate Art
Nardini on bass, and released the acclaimed Swimming
With The Sharks
album.

 

Twenty years and eight albums later, Joe Grushecky is still
rocking at an age where many musicians have retired and started collecting
social security checks. He hasn’t had a label deal in 15 years, Grushecky and
his long-time manager and his compatriots the Houserockers going it on their
own, braving the tidal changes that have assaulted the music industry by
rocking harder. Through the years, Grushecky has continued to hone his craft as
a songwriter, and if fame and fortune have eluded him, he remains committed to
music as a powerful creative force. Meeting him in 1995, and asking why a
50-year-old man would give up his job to hit the road with a band (for his American Babylon album), Grushecky
simply smiled and said, “it’s rock ‘n’ roll, man, it’s rock ‘n’
roll….”

 

East Carson Street is Grushecky’s first album since 2006’s A
Good Life
, and his first with long-time band the Houserockers in six years.
After venturing out on his own for an album, what did Grushecky want to
accomplish with East Carson Street?
“I wanted to have a really good band record,” says Grushecky. “I
approach every record the same, try to make it the best record that I can at
that particular time. I got lucky this time because I’d been on a hot streak
writing, and it was a very relaxed record to do.”

 

Grushecky also took a different tack in the recording of
this album, which is also the first in years to feature a new band line-up.
“We took our time and worked on it, and were under no pressure to deliver
it,” he says. “I wanted a record to showcase the talent of the band,
especially since we’d gone through our first personnel changes in a while. We
lost three guys and brought two guys in, my son being one of them.” Gone
are guitarist Billy Toms, percussionist Bernie Herr, and harmonica player Marc
Reisman, who also dated back to the Iron City Houserockers days. The addition
of guitarists Johnny Grushecky and Danny Gochnour has brought an even heavier
rock ‘n’ roll sound to Grushecky’s songs.

 

Of the new line-up, Grushecky says “the rhythm section
is great, we have a certain feel, and we play like a band. This time the guys
really expanded a little. We approached the record differently, recording this
time…I don’t want to compare myself to Bob Dylan, but the last couple records
that we recorded with the Houserockers, we wouldn’t rehearse them. I’d go in
and write the song the night before and we’d record without rehearsing, which
made the guys more nervous than it made me. This time, I gave them all the
songs in advance and we worked on them.”

 

The different strategy towards recording East Carson Street resulted in uniformly
consistent and inspired performances by the band on what might be Grushecky’s
strongest set of songs to date. With the songwriting, too, Grushecky changed
his usual modus operandi and collaborated on material with a number of outside
writers. For the first time, he has also traveled to Nashville to hook up with some of the city’s
more talented wordsmiths.

 

“One of my friends, John Esposito, is the head of
Warner Brothers in Nashville,” says
Grushecky, “he’s a Pittsburgh
guy, and he and I are friends, and we’ve been talking about me trying to bust
into the songwriting thing. I went down there a little more than a year ago,
and I was down there for three hours and was already writing songs with Big
Kenny and Debbie Allen. Since then I’ve been going back and writing with Al
Anderson [formerly of N.R.B.Q.], he’s probably the best-known guy; James House;
and a bunch of other people. It’s been fun and I’ve been enjoying it. I didn’t
know if I’d like it or not, but it’s been a positive experience so far.”

 

One of Grushecky’s past collaborators – some guy by the name
of Springsteen – makes a re-appearance on East
Carson Street
, co-writing the song “Another Thin Line” as well as
singing on the song and playing guitar on two other tracks. The two have
frequently put their heads together on songs, and they share a GrammyTM award
for their 2004 song “Code of Silence.” “He casts a long
shadow,” says Grushecky of Springsteen. “When you play with Bruce,
you have to be pretty confident in what you’re doing or else he’ll overwhelm it
– not that he attempts to – with the strength of his personality. We always
have a blast when we play together.”

 

East Carson Street was released by Schoolhouse Records, Grushecky’s independent label. Through his
lengthy career, Grushecky has been signed to major labels, indie labels, and
done it himself (with a little help from his friends). Although this
independence brings a certain amount of creative freedom, it also has its
drawbacks. “Being independent is a huge plus for me, but the drawback is
that you don’t have anybody working your record,” he says. “Your
chances of getting on radio are diminished, your chances of being in any major
publications get slimmer…especially once you get to be a certain age, I think
that a lot of people look at people our age and think that ‘their best days
have come and gone.'”

 

In the 30 years since the release of the first Iron City
Houserockers album, Grushecky has seen drastic changes in the music industry. “The
music industry is in a state of flux, but music itself is more popular than
ever,” he says. “There’s probably more music than ever being sold,
more music consumed, it’s just not in the formats that we have known all these
years. The digital thing has pretty much taken over.”

 

“It’s been pretty interesting, watching it all develop,”
he adds. “I do this thing with kids every year at a middle school, so it’s
14-and-15-year-olds, and when I first started about ten years ago, barely
anybody downloaded…if they did download, they were hesitant to admit it, but
the majority of kids purchased CDs. Last year I did it, and out of 200
students, only about six people said they bought CDs. I went on this spiel
about having the physical thing in your hand, do you enjoy the artwork and the
lyrics, and they said ‘naw, we just want a back-up of the ones we like in case
our computer crashes.'”

 

Luckily, the changes in the music industry caused by the new
digital era can be beneficial to indie artists like Grushecky. “The Internet
keeps guys like myself in business,” he says. “Anybody can email me,
say anything…good and bad, but people contact me on a weekly basis and make
nice comments about how much the music has meant to them through the years.
With this record, I got a lot of European orders and orders from all over the
United States, so it’s been really working well.”

 

The addition of his son Johnny to the Houserockers band has
proven to be a smart move on the part of the veteran rocker. “It’s been
great,” he says of Johnny. “Watching him play in his own band, it
makes you realize why you picked up a guitar in the first place. They love to
play music, they want to hear their sound, they want to be creative.” As
for Johnny’s role in the band, Grushecky adds “he brings an incredible
amount of energy and excitement to the band. The cool thing about it is that
you get to see two generations of musicians up there on stage.”

 

Although he may never enjoy commercial success commensurate
with the critical acclaim that he’s received through the years, Grushecky is
satisfied with the work that he’s done. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be
able to write good songs,” he says. “This record in particular, I had
a lot of confidence in the songs that I was writing.” Looking back over a
career that can boast of better than a dozen great albums, Pittsburgh’s favorite son concludes, “this
new record is as good as any record that I’ve done.”

 

 

 

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Popa Chubby

The blues legend
recount sweathoggin’ days in Queens, and how
it was often less
Welcome Back, Kotter than a dramatic movie-of-the-week.

 

BY POPA CHUBBY

 

Flushing High School in Queens,
New York is now a hall of fine
education complete with towering walls and a mostly Asian student body. I went
there from 1975-78 during the height of the worst period the New York school system ever saw. I am
talking anything from Welcome Back Kotter pranks to movie-of-the-week drama. I remember desks set on fire, hallway
extortions, beatdowns, and dodgy security guards-but that’s not the worst of
it.

 

I was dubbed a loser, mostly because I preferred to sit on
the school lawn smoking weed and playing Led Zeppelin songs on my acoustic
guitar than go to class.

 

Gym was my favorite class to cut because in that class
anything could-and probably would-happen. One day someone would take a
basketball to the head, another day there would be a locker-room beatdown.
Occasionally, the creepy gym teacher groped a kid. And the locker rooms were an
indignity no kid should have to endure. All in all gym was a humiliating
experience that could leave you gasping for breath or sobbing like a baby. You
can see why smoking dope and playing music seemed like a much better idea.

 

One day while roaming the halls, I came upon a girl being
molested by two guys in a stairwell. Jill Costanza was a year older than me
with long raven hair, a tight sweater and sultry brown eyes. She was one of the
most beautiful-and well-endowed girls in school. To say she’d ever noticed me
would be an overstatement, but that afternoon fate brought us together in a way
neither of us would forget.

 

As they groped and manhandled her, I yelled and ran at them.
They promptly fled, but I recognized one of the attackers as Tiny Sanchez, the
younger brother of the head of a notorious Queens
gang called The Savage Skulls. Tiny weighed about 220 and wore the trademark
cut-off denim jacket that signified he was a Skulls pledge. The gang was known to
carry golf clubs and use them in ways Tiger Woods would have never considered.
I knew if Tiny told his big brother that I’d seen him that he’d schedule a tee
time with my head.

 

Jill and I were hauled into the dean’s office and questioned
separately. Dean Hirsch had it in for me. I’d already spent many a day in his
office listening to him declare me a lost cause. I loathed his fetid tobacco
breath and wannabe greaser hairdo, and I could see my credibility problem in
his bloodshot eyes. If I talked, he wouldn’t believe me. So I said nothing.

 

Later that evening, as I sat in a fog of marijuana smoke
trying to figure out what to do, Jill called. She begged me not to tell. I told
her not to worry, that I’d kept my mouth shut. Also, I knew her boyfriend-a
major jock-would deal with it.

 

Sure enough, the next day Tiny was lumped up bad. All
evidence, and my already stellar reputation with Dean Hirsch, pointed to me as
the lumper, even though it was Jill’s boyfriend who beat the punk up. Again, I
was hauled down to the dean’s office.

 

I’ll never forget this bullying hunk of stinking shit trying
everything-including slapping me senseless-to get me to tell. He circled behind
my chair like a Nazi commandant, interrogating me. ‘Tell us vhat you know!’ Then, pow!,
he cracked me in the back of the head. ‘Ze
beatings vill continue und-til morale improvez!’

 

Once more I kept my mouth shut. Justice had taken its
course, as far I was concerned. As it turned out, Tiny’s brother found out what
he did and beat him down again. Alas, I may have been off the hook with the
Skulls, but not with Dean Hirsch. Anything I said or didn’t say would have been
held against me.

 

After a week of harassment I was suspended from school-and I
never went back. Instead, I joined a local band and played Stones and Zeppelin
covers when I should have been graduating. I think in the long run they did me
a favor.

 

Dean Hirsch, I wish you a happy time in Hell!

 

Popa Chubby occupies a
unique circle of hell with his fire ‘n’ brimstone blues fretwork (and more… trust us!).
His latest album is
The Fight Is On,
released by Blind Pig. Details, music, videos and tour dates at his MySpace
page.

 

 [Photo Credit: Michael Kurgansky]

 

DECEMBER BOYS GOT IT BAD Alex Chilton

Through his music, the
Big Star mainman and solo iconoclast broke our hearts. With his passing, he
left a hole in them, too.

 

BY BARBARA MITCHELL

 

I’ll be honest. The afternoon that Alex Chilton died (Dec. 28, 1950-March 17, 2010) – possibly
at the precise minute of his death – I was threatening to break both his
kneecaps if I ran into him at South By Southwest. 

I had the privilege – and sometimes the frustration – of
working with Big Star from 2000 – 2005, when I was managing the Posies. 
I’m good at logistics and it helped Jody Stephens to have someone to coordinate
that end of things so he could focus on the music.

The incident that inspired my rant happened backstage at the Benicassim
Festival in Spain
in 2001. At a quarter to midnight – 15 minutes before Big Star took the stage –
on a Sunday night in a Catholic country with one computer whose internet
connection was quite probably powered by hamsters, he turned to me.

“Barbara,” he drawled with a sly grin. “About those flights y’all are getting
on tomorrow morning -I won’t be joining you. You’ll figure something out.”

Said flights departed at 8 am.  Figuring something out – after months and
months of making sure that was the flight he wanted to be on – not only meant
no sleep and monumental effort, but missing the opportunity to see PJ Harvey
from the side of the stage.

But I didn’t bat an eyelash and I did figure it out. Working with Alex was a
test and I don’t fail.

I also vowed to exact revenge someday, so score another win for Mr. Chilton.

I heard about his passing on Wednesday night of SXSW via text message. It was a
surreal moment made more surreal by the fact that a guy who spent the better
part of his life giving the middle finger to the music industry passed away in
the middle of today’s single biggest industry event – one he was scheduled to
play three days later. So much for going quietly into the night. Score one for…
someone.

 
There are tortured artists and then there are conflicted ones. Alex was definitely
the latter.  He lived off of – and simultaneously tried to destroy – his
own legacy.

The guy was a monumental talent and an honor to work with. He was also
perverse, arrogant and a provocateur extraordinaire.

And sometimes an utter sweetheart. A
Sphinx without a riddle, as former Chills guitarist Steven Schayer described
him.

I spent SXSW attempting to deconstruct Alex with everyone from the Zeros’
Javier Escovedo to rock critic friends like Shockhound‘s
Dan Epstein. (Talk about an exercise in futility…) There’s consensus that
Alex’s teenage success was responsible for his distrust of (and, let’s be
honest, disdain for) humanity. The guy was smart enough to know at an early age
that for a lot of people, fame is a powerful aphrodisiac that has nothing to do
with the actual human being attached to it and he developed fangs as a coping
mechanism.

In fact, if you ever met Alex you were probably given a graduate-level class in
the fact that you should separate the art from the artist. Stories of awkward
and/or awful Alex encounters are legion.

It was a curriculum that devastated a lot of the weak-hearted, but it was a
test I think some of us kind of relished. I had the pleasure of being in Dublin with Big Star in
August ’01 when they walked backstage before the encore and Alex nonchalantly
tossed off an obscure disco number he wanted to play and some vague directions.
Jody, Jon and Ken nailed it.

It was incredible to watch him truly realize the level of talent on stage with
him. I don’t think anyone was more surprised than the band when Alex – from
stage – subsequently and nonchalantly announced that Big Star would be doing a
new album.

It was a typical Alex maneuver. Curveballs were his specialty.

He threw his last one by passing away last week. Maybe it was his way of
avoiding all the hoopla and accolades that were planned around Big Star’s SXSW
performance. He cared for that kind of thing almost as much as he cared about
soundchecks.

Big Star’s performance slot was turned into a tribute, with folks like original
bassist Andy Hummel, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, John Doe, Chris Stamey and Sondre
Lerche filling in. (Read the BLURT report on the tribute concert here.) I’m not
sure what Alex would’ve made of a heartfelt, emotional tribute to him and his
music, although I’m fairly sure there would have been some choice snide
comments, but he lost his veto power when he passed away.

“I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this before so I’m just
improvising how to deal with it all,” Jon Auer tells me. “It’s most certainly a
life changer, completely unexpected. We played with Alex for 17 years and
became friends so I can’t quite accept he won’t be around anymore.  Part
of me keeps thinking he’s going to show up, or call me and say ‘Why didn’t anyone
tell me what time the gig was?’ I’d be a lot happier if he did.”

Alex never seemed particularly interested in doing what would make other people
happy (and having written that, I think that might be the understatement of the
century). If I were going to pick a song for his memorial, it’d definitely be
Sinatra’s “My Way.” I’ve never met anyone less concerned about what other
people thought.

Unless, of course, he was actually acutely aware of what we thought and just
trying to provoke us by doing exactly the opposite – or just constantly
attempting to keep us on our toes. That’s also a possibility.

Part of being a good manager/tour manager is getting a read on the people
you’re dealing with. I can tell you what makes Jody, Jon and Ken tick, but I
could honestly never get a handle on Alex. I even asked Jody about him and he
didn’t have any answers for me. He was genuinely a Sphinx without a riddle.

It was fascinating being at a music convention during the immediate aftermath
of Alex’s death. So many people felt so much for and through his music. He left
a tremendous impression and an amazing catalog – he’d probably hate this term,
but a genuine legacy.

I’ve spent almost a week trying to compose this, because I want to do real
justice to the guy (and not earn myself a haunting…). Alex was one of the most
complicated, fascinating and frustrating people I’ve ever met. He seemed, as my
friend Steven Schayer said, resentful of his abilities – and those abilities
were incredible.

He wasn’t – and never tried to be – a hero. He was a guy who made some great
music. Sometimes he was a dick.

Alex gave us his art but he never gave us himself. Score another one for Mr.
Chilton.

And while we’re talking about scores, let me settle one. Alex hated
compliments, so here’s one of the highest variety from Mr. Mike Mills. Take
that for making me miss PJ Harvey.

“Alex was one of a kind. A great singer, songwriter, and guitar player, he
wrote and sang many of the songs that mean the most to me. I will miss him and
his music.”

Alex -through his music – broke our hearts, and his passing leaves behind a
huge hole. That doesn’t mean that if I ever encounter him again on some level
of existence, I won’t break his kneecaps.

 

 

Photo Credit: via
Wikimedia Commons/Philippe Brizard (author)

 

HAPPY ACCIDENTS Fyfe Dangerfield

The Guillemots
frontman went in to the studio for a quick demo break and emerged with a
full-blown solo album.

 

BY AARON PASSMAN

 

I’ve got my facts wrong, and Fyfe Dangerfield isn’t shy
about letting me know it.

 

The falsity in question comes from the fact that a number of
articles regarding his solo debut, Fly
Yellow Moon
(released in U.K.
in January and in the U.S.
last week) claim the tracks were written in quick succession during a
tumultuous love affair.

 

“It’s just a record,” he says, explaining that the press
release for the record mentioned that these songs were written in the
love-fueled rush of a new relationship, and “suddenly it’s become that
everything that’s written about the record is that it’s a record about a
relationship.”

 

He continues: “It’s not really, but I was in a relationship when I wrote it, and I guess it charts some
of the ups and downs of it,” an arc that’s somewhat present on the finished
product.

 

However you classify it, the solo debut from Dangerfield – born
Fyfe Antony Dangerfield Hutchins, he’s best known for fronting the eccentric British indie-pop
quartet Guillemots – was written in
what he calls “snatched moments” found here and there, and the bulk of it
recorded over merely five days. He’s big on doing things quickly and getting it
over with, rather than belaboring the point.

 

“I often find that, if you know you’ve only got 20 minutes
or something, then you’re more likely to write something good than if you’ve
got four hours,” says Dangerfield, offering the example that that one song was
written just after an argument, another penned during a quick 10-minute trip
home. “Most of the songs on the record weren’t generally songs that were
labored over; it came out very quickly.”

 

While Guillemots have never shied from throwing as many
elements into their music as possible, according to Dangerfield these songs
were always meant to be simpler so it was hard to view them as Guillemots
tracks. He knew in the writing process how he wanted them to sound, including
simple beats and simple bass lines.

 

“I knew some of the songs only needed one voice and a
guitar,” he says, noting that it “would’ve been a bit boring for the band to
do.” Add to that the fact that he had a feeling of where his band would go
next, and this wasn’t that direction.

 

“We’d finished touring at the end of 2008 and had a bit of
time, so I went and booked five days in the studio with my friend Adam and said
let’s just demo some songs. We weren’t really going into it, Let’s make a record – we just wanted to
record things, and at the end of five days we had a record and a bunch of other
tracks that ended up as bonus tracks; It just seemed kind of daft to say,
‘Let’s make these demos for the next Guillemots record.'”

 

The end result, Fly
Yellow Moon
, has racked up positive reviews in Britain and is on a similar track here
in the States (including with this BLURT review).

 

“I just really wanted it to sound not old, but classic in a
way,” says Dangerfield. “I didn’t want to spend hours trying to get a great
drum sound; I just wanted it to sound how it sounds.” That includes bits culled
from across the musical spectrum, including the Nilsson-esque outro to “High On
The Tide,” the disco-tinged “She Needs Me” or the synth-pop of album closer
“Any Direction.”

 

Still, that range of sounds and styles wasn’t the intent.

 

“If anything, I wanted it to be the opposite. The last
Guillemots album [2008’s Red] I
thought weirded people out by being so schizophrenic, and if anything I wanted
this whole record to be stuff like [the hushed, acoustic track] ‘Livewire’ –
this kind of Nick Drake-y record. I just like lots of different stuff, and I’d
love to make a record where everything sounds the same – it’d make my life a
lot easier.”

 

In addition to what’s on the finished product, there’s an
entire album’s worth of bonus tracks – 10 in all – that didn’t make the cut,
ranging from more hushed acoustics to one song that comes across almost like a
house track. As he explains, “I think if I’d recorded the songs in a different
month it would’ve sounded completely different. I just wanted it to be like a
scrapbook, a snapshot of a moment.”

 

Dangerfield has played a few solo shows to promote the
record at home in the UK, and a short American tour in winter was cancelled at
the last minute due to visa issues, but a string of SXSW dates were subsequently
lined up for March. Beyond that, he’s already largely transitioned back to
Guillemots, who are in the process of searching for a producer for their next
LP and will likely begin recording in April.

 

Fly Yellow Moon,
he says, “was always meant to be a record that would just hopefully get a life
of its own over a couple months.”

 

 

REELIN’ AND ROCKIN’ The T.A.M.I. Show

Rolling
Stones, Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Supremes – all captured at a
“golden moment” in rock and roll history, and a pivotal point in race
relations.

 

BY RICK ALLEN

 

In many ways, Shout! Facotory’s T.A.M.I show DVD of
the legendary 1964 multi-superstar laden concert is a filmed representation of
a promise almost fulfilled. The mega-show features a lineup of stars and
superstars – and, in the Barbarians a one-hit wonder – who are presented and
received without regard to age, race and even hipness factor. Most of the time
it is an exciting show that, presented here as “uncut” and seemingly played out
in real time, almost never stops rocking. There are lulls to be sure; The Barbarians
only had one hit “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?” – and they don’t even do it
or its cult favorite B-side about their one-handed drummer “Moulty” here. But
their time on stage is mercifully brief; one and done. On the other hand, the
much more talented and bigger selling Gore is on too long. She gets six songs
and two, one after another, are pretty obscure. Had she cut it down to the four
big hits she also does, her set, particularly because of the halftime finale,
would have been a highlight. The DVD release is enhanced visually and remixed
for optimum sound quality and there are DVD extras including a Dick Clark
special about the show’s 10th anniversary. But it may be a while
before you get to them since the concert footage cries out for endless
re-watching.

 

After a brief Monkees show-styled montage opening
featuring the rather cheesy and slightly inaccurate theme song – “the Rolling
Stones from Liverpool” – and an intro
from surf-rockers Jan and Dean the show goes into one of its finest sequences.
None other than Chuck Berry starts things off with a couple of his classics;
“Johnny Be Goode” followed by “Maybelline.” As Berry is singing, amps and
equipment are being set up to his left and five players come in, pick up their
instruments and take up the song about midway as the camera swings over to
reveal Gerry and the Pacemakers who finish “Maybelline” and then swing into one
of their big hits after which the camera pans back to Berry and he sings
another one of his, the two acts trading hits for another three songs each! One
of the better if not necessarily one of the hardest rocking of the Brian
Epstein’s pop stable, Gerry Marsden and his band remind us that working the
Liverpool pub circuit was as demanding a way to make your rock and roll bones
as working the chitlin’ circuit was for artists like Berry in the States; if
you couldn’t rock you wouldn’t work. The Pacemakers prove to be as well-oiled a
band who ever learned to Make Show to avoid becoming targets of critical
opinion expressed via tossed beer bottles. At the time of the T.A.M.I. show Berry is just 38,
Marsden 22. They seem at their peak, so vital that it is hard to believe that
within the next six years or so both would be relegated to the Oldies bin.
Marsden’s last significant hit in the U.S. – “Girl On A  Swing” – would come only two years later; By
the end of 1964 Berry would be at the start of a hitless streak that would
break briefly in 1972 with his first and only #1 Billboard single, “My
Ding-A-Ling” and a live “Reelin’ and Rockin'” which would reach # 27. But in ‘64,
Berry would crack the Pop Top 40 three times (with “Promised Land” reaching
#41) and the U.S R&B Top 20 three times with “No Particular Place to Go”
hitting #2.

 

There is significance to those statistics which
the T.A.M.I. show brings home; Billboard magazine had only started using the designation “R&B” since 1958, six
earlier. Until then music by black artists which apppealed or, rather, which
sold or was marketed to black audiences was called “race music.”  Berry’s enormous appeal and the airplay he
received from pioneering rock and roll disc jockeys did a great deal to erase
the line between the races in the musical arena and bands like the Pacemakers
and other acts made up of R&B crazed British teens did their part too.

 

Rock and roll’s detractors claimed that it would
cause teens to rebel against their lockstep embrace of the social status quo,
become sexually active and socialize with people outside of their own ethnic
circle. Exactly. That’s what was so
great about it.

 

In the early 1960’s AM Top 40 radio stations
blasted out hits from artists with the same disregard to categorization as the
T.A.M.I. show did; “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” would be followed by
Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody”, Nancy Wilson’s “(You Don’t Know) How
Glad I Am”, Roger Miller’s “Dang Me”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” from the
Supremes – and then things would swing right back to Liverpool for the Beatles’
“Ticket To Ride” or London (not Liverpool) from
the Rolling Stones’ “Tell Me.” If you lived in a big city you had your
choice of at least two rock and roll stations so you might go back and forth;
but other factors, from having limited choice to your parents telling you to
quit pushing those damn buttons to plain old curiosity, meant you got exposed
to many different artists and types of music; enlightenment, even of the
subconscious kind, was always a possibility.

 

Though the AM stations’ motivations were economic,
as rock and roll became more autonomous and as songs got longer and more
experimental rock music moved over to the FM dial. There was no real lack of
financial motivation there but being the home of classical music fringe
programming like educational programs, the owners of stations, who sometimes
owned the local Top 40 outlets as well, considered them a write-off and figured
“what the hell, let’s let the kids have it.”

 

Not following were “adult” pop acts like Sinatra
and the Supremes (who were heading that way), most country, and some but
certainly not all R&B. But joining the new music were blues and a little
bit of jazz, and for a brief glorious period one could hear Bob Dylan, Marvin
Gaye, Love, Muddy Waters, Leon Thomas and the Beatles and Stones on the same
station.

 

In the early 1970’s FM radio programmers like Lee
Abrams began the new balkanization of radio, dropping all black artists except
a tiny few like Jimi Hendrix and War. By the 1980s even Hendrix would be down
to 3 or 4 songs and the first wave of British Invasion artists like the
Pacemakers were quickly phased out. Calling the music they played “rock”
instead of rock and roll they began to concentrate on acts whose R&B roots
– if any – were so obscured as to seem non-existent.

 

Though bands like the Stones and the Rascals
fought the good fight, demanding that the lineup of their shows would disregard
age, race and sex as criteria even if their audiences for the most part did
not, it was a stance that pretty much did in the Rascals and it was a hard one
for acts without the Stones’ clout to take for very long if not at all.

 

So, the T.A.M.I show, which featured the clean cut
Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, the “scruffy” Stones, the polished Supremes,
the irresistible Marvin Gaye and the indescribably awesome James Brown, represents
a golden moment in rock and roll time. Not only did it have solid pop hitmakers
of the time in Leslie Gore, Jan and Dean, Marsden and Billy J. Kramer, it had
true rock and roll immortality of Olympian proportions in Gaye, the Supremes,
Stones, Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and something above even
that, something primordial in Brown and Chuck Berry.

 

Most of the audience seemed to get it too. Berry is received with
so much enthusiasm that he is overcome with emotion and can’t get out a couple
of the first lines of “Johnny Be Goode” and looks around the stage as if
searching for someone to whom he can say “Can you believe this!” Remember, even though 1964 would be a good year for
him in terms of record sales, he had only been released from prison for a
questionable Mann Act conviction less than a year before this show; it isn’t
hard to imagine that he might have been a particular target of parents and
others as a symbol of all they hated about rock and roll and he might have had
some trepidation about facing a large racially mixed audience.

 

There are teenaged black girls screaming for
Jagger and the Stones and the Beach Boys, teenaged white girls swooning for
Marvin Gaye and everyone going out of
their minds for James Brown. Well, almost everyone. As the camera pans the
crowd there are little but noticeable pockets of kids who are sitting on their
hands. Either they are dumbfounded and awed – a strong possibility – or,
equally likely, they just don’t get it. Lee Abrams would have been too young to
be among them but his spiritual kindred were certainly there.

 

At the end of the first half of the show, Smokey
and the Miracles, Jan and Dean, Berry and the others who have done sets come
out and backup Gore on one of her hits; all in a line behind her they dance and
clown and seem to be having the time of their lives. For the finale, after the
Stones have done a more credible job of following the impossible-to-follow
James Brown than they or some critics would have you believe (though the
realization that demanding to be the closing act after Brown was a big mistake
can be read on their nervous barely post-adolescent faces), everyone comes out
and dances together: white British pop stars, black American R&B greats,
surfer boys and Go Go girls (including a young Toni Basil and Terri Garr) all
celebrating the Joyous Noise. If you are a damaged old rocker who genuinely
believed that music, specifically rock and roll was going to blow away the lies
and hate behind America’s
race problem – like the person writing this – it may bring the hint of a tear
because, well, it’s just that beautiful to see.

 

At one point there is a shot of three teenaged
boys shoulder to shoulder: from left to right, a young black kid, a
button-downed white kid and another white kid with hair down to his shoulders,
an extremely radical statement in 1964. It’s like looking at a triptych of the
progression of the music and the culture behind it; a picture of the promise
almost fulfilled. It should have been the cover shot for the DVD.

 

For a
complete list of performances and special features on the DVD, visit the Shout!
Factory website.

 

THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, VICKI AND ME Drive-By Truckers

It’s their damn silver
jubilee: After 25 years, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are finally respectable.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“Here.”

 

Vicki Knopfler reached into her purse, grabbed two jewel
cases out and handed them over the cubicle wall that divided our desks in the
decrepitly depressing newsroom of the High Point Enterprise.

 

Vicki was more than twice my twenty-three years of age and
although she was the paper’s long-time arts & entertainment editor, I was
admittedly a little wary of taking music recommendations from someone old
enough to have lived through disco.

 

“I don’t care if you burn them, but just get them back to
me,” she said as I checked out the cover art of Pizza Deliverance and Gangstabilly.
“And play them loud.”

 

In an era when so much of our musical consumption is done
electronically, it’s rare that we can pinpoint the exact moment when we were
introduced to a band. Songs pop up arbitrarily on an iPod on Shuffle or we hear
something in passing on Pandora, but I can say definitively that the day I was
introduced to the Drive-By Truckers was Day 2 of my first job out of college as
a cub reporter at a small-town North Carolina newspaper in January 2001.

 

Vicki brought the discs after we’d sufficiently sniffed
musical butts the day before over lunch. After determining my tastes were up to
snuff (Whiskeytown > Ryan Adams), Vicki regaled me with tales of these guys named
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley from north Alabama living in Athens, Georgia,
who were writing a rock opera about growing up in the South. When the band came
to town a few weeks later, Vicki asked if I wanted to go.

 

“Sounds like some kinda weird Skynyrd thing,” I said
dismissively.

 

“It’s gonna be great,” Vicki promised.

 

The band that walked onstage that night at The Garage looked
like they could’ve robbed banks. This was the pre-Jason Isbell Truckers, with Brad
Morgan on drums, Rob Malone on bass and Cooley on a perpetually out-of-tune
Flying V. Earl Hicks – still a few years away from joining the band on bass –
ran sound. Patterson Hood was as charismatic as ever, the wide-smiling Cheshire
cat with a Pabst Blue Ribbon hat. Though they weren’t the well-oiled musicians
they are today, there was something about the way these bizarre redneck rock
savants told stories about George Wallace, Molly Hatchet and eighteen-wheelers
that made them totally captivating. I was hooked.

 

Nearly 10 years and countless interviews with the band
later, and I’ll still willingly cram into a crowded, sweaty, beer-soaked bar
for the Rock Show, just as I did on a recent wintery night in Raleigh. The
Lincoln Theatre was packed when we got there as the lights dimmed and the hoots
and howls began. It’d been a few years since Vicki’s last show. Glancing out into
the audience after a few songs, Patterson found her in the crowd and a sly grin
crept across his bearded face.

 

“This one’s for Vicki,” he said with a smile as the band
launched into a note-perfect version of “Bulldozers and Dirt.” Musically, they
may be as savvy as ever, but like all true Southern gentlemen, the Truckers
have never forgotten the friends they met along the way.

 

The Big To-Do, the
band’s eighth studio album (issued this week on ATO Records), is aptly named,
for whenever the Truckers pop the tent, the circus has surely come to town.

 

 

***

 

 

BLURT: Where’s the
Grammy? (Ed. Note: The Truckers took home
a Grammy for their work on 2009’s
Potato Hole with Booker T. Jones)

 

Patterson Hood: Booker’s got it.

 

Mike Cooley: Yeah, Booker took it.

 

PH: Booker gets the Grammy. We can buy a plaque.

 

 

Really? You have to
buy your Grammy.

 

PH: Fifty bucks.

 

MC: Yeah, I got an email about that. I am not paying for an
award. Fifty bucks isn’t a lot of money, but it’s the principle of the whole
thing.

 

 

Did anyone go to the
awards show?

 

MC: Nah.

 

PH: I went a few years ago when we were nominated with Betty
(LaVette) ‘cause [David] Barbe and I co-produced it. It was awful. It might
have been one of the worst days of that year.

 

MC: It’s painful to watch on TV and at least then I can get
up and walk out of the room.

 

PH: They don’t sell beer. They do not sell beer. It lasts
all day and all night, and they do not sell beer. They completely shut down the
bars in the venue. It was awful. If ever I needed a beer, it was sitting
through Taylor Swift. (Laughs)

 

 

Y’all said something
from the stage last night that surprised me. “Girls Who Smoke” was co-written
by both of you?

 

MC: Well, sort of. We were all kinda throwing out random
bullshit.

 

PH: We were talking shit, so I started writing it down.
Cooley said something, and I was like, “There’s a first verse.”

 

MC: We were in England, so of course, you’ve got hours to
kill at these festivals. You’re sitting there lookin’ out the window, and you
people watch and make up stories about them. “Looka here, check out this chick
with some fucked-up British teeth.” Stuff like that.

 

 

Is this the first
step towards doing some co-songwriting? I remember in the first interview I
ever did with you guys that you said there’d be blood on the floor if y’all
ever wrote a song together. Might we see more songs like “Girls Who Smoke?”

 

PH: It was fun. I like the song. When you play together this
long, you try all kinds of stuff, but generally, writing is a solitary thing
for me.

 

MC: Yeah, it’s something I do by myself. That’s one of the
things I like about it. I get to bounce ideas off my multiple personalities. (Laughs) I get to work with the person I
love the most. (Laughs)

 

PH: You don’t love that asshole. (Laughs)

 

 

The new one – The Big To-Do – is a big rock record. Is
that in reaction to the music on Brighter
Than Creation’s Dark
?

 

PH: I think we were just ready. I’ve wanted to do another
big rock record for a while, but sometimes those songs don’t come. I’d really
gotten into the idea of seeing how far I could go with the narrative writing we
were doing. I guess I finally got good enough at it where I felt comfortable
trying to apply it to a bigger rock sound. I don’t know, I don’t know…

 

MC: It’s hard to put your finger on that. When you’re
sitting down to write, you’re normally by yourself with a guitar on your couch
or something and you naturally gravitate to mellower stuff. So it’s kinda hard
to say we were trying for big rock songs when they start like that.

 

PH: A lot of Brighter
Than Creation’s Dark
was written at home with small children asleep in the
next room, so the songs had to be written quietly. That’s the reality in which
they were created. Sometimes stuff like that has as much influence on how a
record comes out than anything. The kids are a little older now, so they’re a
little more ready for the rock. (Laughs)
Also, I think if you look at our catalogue, there’s always been that
trajectory. 

 

The first two records were essentially one big record’s
worth of writing that got split into two records. Then we did the punk rock
live record and next came Southern Rock
Opera
. Decoration Day was sort of
a return to the kind of songs on Pizza
Deliverance
, except it’s probably a more mature version. We were a little
older and had been through a lot of hell. Dirty
South
was almost like a sequel to Southern
Rock Opera
, not literally, but musically. A Blessing And A Curse was us trying to make a different type of
record that we wanted to be able to make. I don’t think we nailed it, but it
was an attempt at something. The reaction to that was Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which was this sprawling,
all-over-the-map double album. I will always have a soft spot for that record.
To me, that record was like our rebirth as a band. It’s a real important one to
me. I think all of us would agree on that. Turning that record into a live show
was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done in this band. It was such an
introverted album. A lot of our ability to earn a living is made by playing
rock shows, so figuring out how to tour that record and play big shows was
really hard.

 

Having toured behind that record for two years, all of us
were ready to make a rock record. I remember thinking I wanted the next one to
just gallop out of the gate. I think we got it.

 

 

Talk to me about this
group of songs. When were they written?

 

PH: A lot of my songs were written on the road, which is the
first time I’ve really done that. I’ve attempted before, and in a lot of cases,
I might not have finished them ‘cause there’s just too much going on when we’re
on tour. But I had solid enough ideas this time that I could go back and finish
them later. We kinda knew pretty early on. We had the title way before we had
most of the songs. Shonna came up with the title while we were looking for a
title for the last one, but it didn’t fit that record. So I told her to save it
for the next one, when we do the big rock record.

 

 

Cooley, how about
you? When did you write your songs for the record?

 

MC: All of that was written right before we went into to
make the record. I’d been dry for a while and had nothing in the tank. It’d
gotten a little stressful, ‘cause as the time crept up to when we were gonna go
on, I had nothing. I wasn’t worried about the band having enough material for
the album, but everyone wants to bring in something new. That’s part of our
deal as a band – everyone’s got a voice. All those songs were written right
down to the wire.

 

 

Are you a streaky
songwriter? Do they come in bunches for you?

 

MC: Kind of, but a bunch for me is like five.

 

 

Do you have to have a
deadline?

 

MC: Not necessarily. When there is one, I kinda get off on
that, ‘cause it challenges me and makes me jump into it. Right now would be a
good time for me to be writing. I kind of feel like it, ‘cause the record’s
done and I’m not trying to think about how it’s gonna fit into anything else. I
can just let whatever happens happen.

 

PH: That said, my favorite song on the album is “Birthday
Boy.” It’s my favorite song on the record. The album was already mastered when
he wrote that.

 

 

How’d that happen?

 

MC: I finished it and recorded a demo of it at home. We were
planning on going back in later that year to record some stuff for the next
record, so I was happy to have that one for those sessions. I’d had only one or
two songs on The Big To-Do before
that, and then I get this call from Barbe, and he says that everyone in the
band and at the label wanted to have at least one more of my songs on the
album. I’d just gotten my mastered copy and thought it would be the perfect
thirteenth song for this album. I mailed him a copy of the demo and we went in
and cut it.

 

PH: When I got the copy of the demo, I knew it was the
missing piece. It felt like a puzzle with the missing piece.

 

 

Why?

 

PH: We needed a third song on the album that kicked ass in a
certain way and was a Cooley song. I’m obsessed with sequencing. That’s one of
my roles in the band. I love doing it and kind of obsess over it during the
process of making a record. I love seeing how things will fit together. The
third song on a record is such a key thing, and there was a gaping hole there.
It’s like what happened with “Righteous Path” on the last record. That was the
third song on that record, and I wrote it during the very last minutes of
making that album. There’s something about that spot.

 

 

Tell me about
“Birthday Boy.” Where did that song come from?

 

MC: It was two different parts. I’ve had the music and
lyrics on the last half of it – what sounds like a bridge – for a long time, maybe
a year or more. I kept coming back to them ‘cause I thought it was cool. I’d
written the first two verses later on and didn’t really know where to go. I
knew I was onto something, but it wasn’t until I realized I could take that
stuff I’d been playing with for a year and put it with this other stuff. Shit,
it worked.

 

PH: That bridge is the best bridge in our 25-year existence.

 

 

You mentioned that
some of your songs were written while out on the road. “The Wig He Made Her
Wear” sounds like something you saw on the local news somewhere. Where did that
one come from?

 

PH: It was a news story, a big international news story. We
were in Norway when that story broke on BBC or whatever. I was watching the
story on this TV in a hotel room and kept thinking that it sounded like some
crazy shit from home. Turns out it happened in Selmer, TN, which is like 35
miles from our hometown. It’s the same town that Buford Pusser came from. When
I realized that, I didn’t want to write another song about that poor town ‘cause
I got all kinds of hate mail from Dawn Pusser. So I didn’t write anything. A
year passes, and I’m in a motel room in northern Mississippi with Rebecca and Ava
(wife and daughter) and Court TV is
on the television. And it’s that trial. I couldn’t believe it. I was literally
watching it on Court TV when they pulled out Exhibit A: the go-go boots and the
wig and the little slutty outfit that he made her dress up in to get his rocks
off. It was like seeing an old episode of Perry Mason when they hold up the
exhibit and the whole courtroom goes, “aaah” – you could literally hear the
audible gasp. I knew right then that I was gonna write the song. I was gonna
call it “The Audible Gasp.” That’s what the song was gonna be about. It took
another year or two to write it, and when it was done, it morphed into “The Wig
He Made Her Wear.” I’m real proud of it. It was so strange because here’s this
thing that happened 35 miles from home, and I’m all the way on the other side
of the world hearing about it, and they’re making a huge deal out of it. They
were treating this crazy thing that happens all the time in my hometown like an
international news story. There’s always a preacher killing his wife, or a
woman killing her preacher husband.

 

MC: That kind of stuff don’t happen over in Norway, you
know? (Laughs) They don’t have Church
of Christ preachers.

 

 

“Drag the Lake,
Charlie” has a similar feel to it. Was it also inspired by something you read
or saw?

 

PH: I have no idea where that one came from. It just kinda
appeared in my head. I wrote it before “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” but the way
those two songs connect with “Birthday Boy,” which is about something totally
different and came from an entirely separate sick mind, is really my favorite
thing about the band. Album after album, we’ve managed to have that happen.
It’s one of those things where I don’t understand it, I don’t question it, I’m
glad it happens and I hope it continues to.

 

 

It’s funny – a few
years ago, my wife gave me this poster
of all the characters that have appeared on The
Simpsons
over the years
. I think you guys could do that with all the
characters you’ve created in your songs for the last 25 years.

 

MC: We could do that with bass players and managers, too. (Laughs) It’d be like a mural. You could
paint that on the side of a subway station. (Laughs)

 

PH: He speaks the truth. (Laughs)

 

 

You guys have both
shown great skill at writing from the third perspective in your songs.

 

PH: And we do it very differently. My day-to-day life is
pretty mundane. I could write “Daddy Needs a Drink,” but overall, I’m not
really out searching for adventure when I’m at home. I have enough when we’re
out on tour. But I’ve got plenty of imagination and plenty of baggage from back
in the old days when life wasn’t so mundane to tap into. The important thing to
do is to be able to at least empathize with the character I’m writing about or
writing from. I don’t have to agree with them, ‘cause I usually don’t, but I
have to at least understand the motivation of the characters. I don’t ever want
to be perceived as talking down to the characters I’m writing about. I’ve
always been real conscious of that. I probably came close to crossing that line
on “The Wig He Made Her Wear,’ but goddamn, it was just so ripe for the
picking. It was like that song was following me around just asking me to write
about it. I mean, shit, I don’t watch Court TV! The only time I’ve ever watched
Court TV in my entire life happened to be that trial. It was obvious I was
supposed to write about it.

 

 

You used to always
talk about writing more prose. What kind of stuff do you want to write?

 

PH: Well, I’ve got a book I’ve been working on for a few
years. I don’t know if I’ll get lucky and finish it or not. Maybe I won’t, but
I’ll write another one. I love writing. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I
can write the non-musical stuff on the bus because all the activity doesn’t
bother me. Whereas if I’m trying to write a song, I probably need the iPod to
be off, which would mean that a whole section of the bus wouldn’t have music.

 

 

Let’s talk about
“Eyes Like Glue.” That song feels like this album’s “World of Hurt.” How did
that turn out to be the last song?

 

MC: It just depends on who writes it. More often than not,
the last song is obvious. I’ve seen several times when we were listening to a
playback of a song, and everyone in the room goes, “That’s the last song.” That
was how that one went.

 

That song is pretty much exactly what it is. I wanted to
write that song for this record. I didn’t know exactly what it would be, but I
wanted to get into how the role of fatherhood was fitting into this whole rock
‘n roll thing and how I fit into it, too. It sounds like I’m talking directly to
a kid, but I openly acknowledge that I’m not paying any attention to them. So
I’m really just talking to myself and other dads.

 

 

So After the Scene Dies finally made a
record. I hoped to see it on the last one.

 

PH: (Laughs) Yeah,
and it made the right record, too. We cut a version for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and then erased it. It wasn’t the
right version. It wasn’t the record for it. It didn’t fit. The last thing that
album needed was another song. It was fun to go in this time with a different
outlook and cut it from scratch. Whereas the first time we cut it, we worked on
it all day and it didn’t really happen and we got frustrated with it, this time
around we pulled it out and cut it in one take. It was obviously meant to be.

 

 

I love the circus
organ intro to “Flying Wallendas” last night. I guess it allows you to get a
quick piss break in. (Laughs)

 

PH: Yeah, I had to hurry. I’m getting too old to pee that
quick I’m afraid. (Laugh) I told Jay
last night, “Can you make that a little longer?” (Laughs)

 

 

Was that conceived
when recording the song or was it something that just popped up one day?

 

PH: That’s straight from [keyboardist] Jay Gonzalez’s head.
He’s great, man. I wanted there to be an intro to that song, so it made sense
to do the circus thing. It gives him a chance to show off some, too. We’ve got
all these guitars going, and Jay’s kinda stuck back in that corner. Everyone
thinks he’s sleeping ‘cause he looks so narcoleptic. When he first started
playing with us, we were touring Europe. It was the same tour we wrote “Girls
Who Smoke.” We’d played earlier in the day, and he and I were walking around
this festival together afterwards and this Scottish guy comes up and goes,
“You’re fucking great! You guys are fucking great!” Then he turns to Jay and
goes, “Man, you need to slow down with whatever you’re doing, man. You were
falling asleep up there.” This guy just gave him hell for being all fucked up
until I finally had to tell him that’s just how Jay is.

 

MC: I’m the one who’s fucked up, man. (Laughs)

 

 

You’ve said the
Truckers are in the best place as a band that they’ve ever been, and that this
lineup has a lot to do with it. What does this lineup do musically that perhaps
some of the earlier incarnations of the band didn’t do?

 

PH: Everybody really listens to each other. There’s no one
with their own agenda trying to prove that they’re the best player. There’s no
showboating or anything like that. It’s all about the song. This band can do
anything. I can’t imagine anything that I could dream up that this band
couldn’t play. That’s really cool as a songwriter ‘cause it gives me so much to
work with. If the song calls for it, we’ve got it. Jay’s been a great addition.
He’s like the final piece of the puzzle. He’s been a lot of fun to work with.

 

 

Seems like Jay helps
you out a lot with vocals.

 

PH: A lot. He’s got a limitless range in what he can do. His
sense of melody is very much like mine but even better. We’re very compatible.
If I hear a harmony in my head, it’s usually the same one he’s going to come up
with on his own, or he’ll have something that works even better.

 

 

How has John Neff’s
role evolved since coming back to the band after Jason’s departure? It seems
like at first he played a lot of electric guitar, but he played a lot of pedal
steel last night…

 

PH: More than usual.

 

MC: We played a lot more of the songs where he plays the
pedal steel on. When we got him back, it was great having him play electric
guitar, but it’s been really nice to see him play more steel and acoustic. It
makes writing set lists challenging, because we have to remember what
instrument he’s gonna play and don’t want to make him switch every song.

 

PH: Johnny’s great. He just keeps getting better and better.
His style of guitar playing is very different than his style of pedal steel
playing, and he does them both really well.

 

 

Let’s talk about your
producer David Barbe. In our chat about the last record, I asked you guys if
you could ever envision doing a record without Barbe, and you said you couldn’t.
Is that still the case?

 

MC: I’d still want him involved in some way. If he wanted to
play on a record and not really sit behind a console all day, ok, yeah, I’d be
fine with that. I want him around even if someone else were manning the helm.

 

PH: His presence is a very important thing to this band. For
us to work with someone else at this point, it would have to be a situation
where whoever we worked with brought something to the table that we want that
Barbe couldn’t give us. If Booker (T. Jones) asked to produce us, or something
like that where the person brought something totally unique to us, that might
be cool, but I’d still want David involved. We’re not the kind of band that
goes looking for the most modern recording techniques. Most of the records made
today that I love generally sound like they were made 40 years ago. Those are
the sounds that I like. I don’t like the modern shit. With Barbe, it’s all tube
preamps and tube compressors and reel-to-reel tape, and that’s what we like.
The challenge in the studio then becomes all about how the band plays, not some
studio trick or technique.

 

 

What’s the thing
you’re most proud of about this record?

 

MC: That’s a good question. I don’t know.

 

PH: I’m proud about everything on this record. It was a fun
experience to make. We had a good time making this record, and we cut 32 or 33
songs as a part of these sessions. The other songs will go on the next record,
which is radically different than this one.

 

 

How?

 

PH: It’s the polar opposite of what we do. All of the things
we’d say to describe The Big To-Do,
none of them would apply to Go Go Boots.
It’s all over the place. It’s got some country-sounding stuff and some R&B
songs. It’s got an R&B murder ballad. Instead of releasing another behemoth
album, we split the songs in two. I think it worked out better, and it stays
true to how we work and operate. I gotta also say that I was pleasantly
surprised that the label (ATO Records) didn’t freak out. They didn’t take it as
us wronging them in some way, which was great. They actually took it as a good
thing.

 

MC: We went in for those first sessions and cut a bunch of
songs, even more than we anticipated. When they heard about it, they were like,
“Dang, they’ve done how many songs? Well, let ‘em keep running with it. If they
want to do two records, we’d be into that.” I was blown away. It was like,
“Really?” That’s the first time I’ve heard something sensible come from a
record label (Laughs).

 

 

Yeah, you guys could
add record labels to that poster of bass players and managers. The two of you
have been playing music together now for 25 years…

 

MC: 25 fucking years, man. Jesus Christ.

 

PH: It’s our damn silver jubilee. (Laughs) We’re respectable. It’s like the scene from Chinatown where John Huston’s character
says. “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last
long enough.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Danny Clinch]

 

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: Anaïs Mitchell

The acclaimed
singer-songwriter on Vermont,
living there, and the origins of her recent album
Hadestown.

 

BY ANAÏS
MITCHELL

 

I always thought I would move to a big urban center like New
York, but I now live in a 200-year-old farmhouse in rural Vermont (which is the
state I was born and raised in), not far from the Northeast Kingdom, where
Bread & Puppet Circus is. It’s a very radical part of the state: tons of
anarchists and puppeteers and stuff. There are a lot of fiercely independent
creative people in the area, including Ben Matchstick and Michael Chorney, my
collaborators on Hadestown.

 

Vermont
is a very special place, totally beautiful, but it’s easy to feel cut off from
the rest of the country up there, especially during the long cold winter. A lot
of us are trying to homestead in one way or another, and it takes a certain
kind of crazy mindset. We have a dozen chickens and two cats. Almost everyone
on our road has a big vegetable garden. We’re learning how to grow our own food
and put it by for the winter. We have to rely on friends and neighbors a lot-we
help each other out stacking wood, digging a garden, or whatever needs to be
done. Being so far out we also kinda have to make our own fun. We don’t have a
television. We have a wood stove-that’s the television of rural Vermont. We don’t live
in New York,
there aren’t a majillion things to do on any given night, so we have to come up
with stuff ourselves. I don’t know if a thing like Hadestown could have
gotten off the ground someplace else. I don’t know if people elsewhere would
have been as game, but in Vermont
it was pretty natural; it was like friends and neighbors coming together to
help each other out and make some fun: “Oh, there’s a pile of wood in your driveway?
I’ll help you stack it” leads to “Oh, you want to write an opera? Sure, I’ll be
Hades!”

 

on the first run…

 

When I first started writing the songs for Hadestown I had a few friends in mind to sing the parts, mostly singers from different
bands around Vermont,
and they ended up being the original cast. We rehearsed in a frenzy in the
evenings during what I think was a two-week period. Our rehearsal space, and
the first place we mounted the show, was the old labor hall in Barre, Vt.,
a beautiful old historical building where a lot of union organizing went on in
the thirties. There was so much about those first shows that was flawed (at
least writing-wise, on my end, in my own opinion) but they were some of the
most magical moments of my creative life so far. Ben Matchstick created a whole
world, a whole visual vocabulary for the show, in just a couple weeks. He’s a
real magician, an eleventh-hour genius; he has the ability to make something
out of nothing-no budget, no time, a rabbit from a hat. Then, of course, the
collaboration with Michael Chorney, who wrote some of the most haunting and
beautiful arrangements I’ve ever heard on any songs. One crazy thing about
Michael is he doesn’t use any composing software, and he doesn’t play the
arrangements on a keyboard as he writes them; he really just hears them in his
head and writes them down with a pencil on staff paper-so a lot of the music he
hadn’t actually heard out loud until the band got together a few days before
the show! The band was Michael’s project at the time, Magic City;
they had started out as a Sun Ra tribute band but were quickly evolving into
something bigger. There was really a sense from the beginning of the
collaboration that the Hadestown show had three voices in it: my
songwriting voice, Ben’s visual/theatrical voice, and Michael’s orchestral
voice. It was a sum-greater-than-the-parts kind of thing.

 

on the second run…

 

The feedback we got from those shows was pretty
overwhelming. It felt like we had struck some kind of nerve. Still, there was
so much missing from the story; people were saying things like, “Hey, I was so
moved by that … What was going on?” So when we decided to mount a second draft
of the show Ben and I really made an effort to flesh out the story with the
lyrics and staging-not just the metaphoric emotional stuff, but the characters,
the plot, the arc. I’d say writing-wise the show took many steps forward, but a
couple steps back, during that second edition. I spent months writing very
expositional lyrics that eventually got cut. There was constant tension in my
mind between getting the story across and preserving the poetry of the songs:
not just the purdy language, but the metaphors. It really dawned on me during
this process that Hadestown was never gonna be a Broadway-style show. I
was watching all kinds of Broadway stuff on video, classic musicals, trying to
get a feel for story arc and so on. Everything is so clear and crude in those
shows. The protagonist comes out onstage and the first number is him going “This
is who I am, and this is what I want, and this is what is standing in my way,
la la la…”  But as much as I love a
clear-cut story, this show just didn’t want to go there, at least not all the
way.

 

To me, from a writing standpoint, the second draft of the
show was kind of stuck in a netherworld; it was surely more focused than the
first draft, but there was also a bit of expositional overstretch … which did
not in fact make the story more understandable. For example, we really went
deep into the post-apocalyptic stuff in the second draft. The idea was that
Hades had broken his contract with Persephone-instead of letting her go above
ground for half the year, he traps her in Hadestown, so the seasons are out of
whack, and the above-ground world is nearly uninhabitable. There was this one
song-“Epic,” it was called-which took forever to write, and attempted to
tell that backstory. It was very dense and poetic and it was the battleground
where I played out the exposition-vs.-poetry conflict for months as I edited it
and re-edited it. It’s where I learned firsthand this lesson I heard in an
address Sondheim gave where he said, “You have to understand that an audience
hears a song in real time. It doesn’t matter how clever or beautiful your
lyrics are, if they pass by too quickly for the audience to comprehend, it’s
not working.” After the second run I’d ask people, “So didja get the thing
about Persephone being trapped in the underworld, blah blah?” and they’d be
like “Nope, didn’t catch that. So anyway…” 
It really blew my mind. I’d gotten into a place where I was concerned
with trees and not forests. I was changing lyrics right up till opening
night-which I see now was unnecessary, not to mention stressful.

 

As for the staging, the second time round we had more money
and more time (though not by much!). The cast was expanded; Ben had pulled
together some crazy awesome stuff with lights and this “utility chorus” that
moved sets around on stage and populated the world he’d created. He really
wrote some crazy beautiful staging sequences for that second draft of the show.
As for Michael’s arrangements, he added an instrument (viola) to the band
during that second year, and made all kinds of changes and improvements and
additions to the score. There were a handful of new songs, intros, bridges. His
was a hard position to be in vis-a-vis the collaboration because as the story
was changing and Ben and I were rethinking plot points, lyrics, etc., there was
plenty of perfectly gorgeous score that had to be modified or even scrapped to
accommodate the changes. It’s hard to edit lyrics and staging, but probably
even harder to edit a score for six instruments!

 

That year we had a more ambitious tour schedule put together
in conjunction with Alex Crothers of Higher Ground Music: kind of a Vermont legend, he runs the one rock room in Vermont where nationally
touring bands play. We actually did “tour” around Vermont
and then down to Boston.
We were driving this old school bus painted silver that used to belong to a
local circus company. We were loading the entire set, the sound and light
equipment, onto this bus and setting it up on different stages. We were crazy
to try and tour a theater show like that. It was full-on winter and there were
white-out blizzards a couple of nights. I lost a bunch of money on that tour,
because of a few very dead towns, but a lot of the shows were really fantastic.

 

on the guest singers…

 

After the second run, there were again a lot of changes I
wanted to make. I wanted to go a step further toward fully-realized characters,
and a step backward toward the simplicity of the story in the very first show
we did. I wanted to let go of some stuff that had never really sat right with
me as a lyricist. We talked briefly about trying to mount another run the
following year but the consensus seemed to be that to finish the songs,
the song-cycle, should be the priority before staging again, and what better
motivation to do that than booking studio time to commit the stuff to tape
forever and ever? I worked real hard in advance of the recording but it was not
as easy as I’d thought it might be to get things to a finished place. It felt a
little like doing a crossword puzzle where there’s just a few squares missing,
and it can only be one very specific thing. That is, we’d created a world, and
now I had to be consistent within it, lyric-wise, music-wise. “Wedding
Song,”  “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song),”  “Nothing Changes,” and “I Raise my Cup” were
all new additions. “Wait,” “If It’s True,” and the two “Epics”  also underwent major changes. I cut a song
that had had a gorgeous score, and one that people were sorry to see let go. It
was pretty tough!

 

But there was a crazy motivating factor, and that was, one
by one these guest singers were getting on board. Ani DiFranco was the first,
and I owe much of the momentum of the recording to her faith and belief in the
project. I don’t think she’d even heard the Persephone songs when she said
she’d sing them. That’s brave! Then there was Greg Brown: I’d imagined him
singing the Hades part for a long time but still whenever I hear his voice
coming in on “Hey, Little Songbird” I laugh for joy. His voice is subterranean,
it has strange overtones, I feel it in my belly almost before my ears. He and
Ani were both early songwriting heroes of mine. … Then there’s Justin Vernon:
That was kind of a cosmic casting situation. Justin and his manager reached out
of the blue and asked if I wanted to open the Bon Iver tour of Europe. They’d never met me; they had just heard my
record once and liked it, and they thought, Let’s have her open the tour! It’s unthinkable, really. The very first night of the tour, when I heard Justin
sing “Stacks” in Newcastle in the UK, my heart
exploded; I thought, “He HAS to be Orpheus.” I wrote my manager Slim [Moon] and
Todd [Sickafoose] the producer: “He is the Orpheus of the century!” I loved the
idea that Orpheus, as a supernatural figure, could sing with many voices at the
same time. But I had to have a stern little talk with myself that night; I was
like, “This guy doesn’t even know you, and he’s already doing you a huge favor
having you on the tour; you can’t ask him right away, you might weird him out,
wait till the end of the tour and then see if it’s the right thing to
ask him…”  But the second night of the
tour we were on a ferryboat from Scotland to Norway and I’d had a couple
glasses of wine and I couldn’t bear it any longer-I just blurted it all out in
a rush: the opera, the record, will you please please please be Orpheus? and Justin just said, “yes.”

 

 

on the record…

 

The first thing we recorded was Michael’s orchestral
arrangements, and it was a powerful thing to hear them in the clarity of the
studio rather than the rush of the stage. They positively soared. We recorded
them with some incredible musicians mostly from Todd’s Brooklyn scene: Jim
Black on drums, Michael of course on guitar and Todd on bass, Josh Roseman on
trombone, Marika Hughes on cello, Tanya Kolmanovitch on viola, and at some
point Rob Burger popped in and laid down some mind-boggling accordion and
piano. We were in a beautiful and expensive studio so we had to act fast to
record all twenty tracks or whatever it was. Todd is a great producer, able to
hear everything at once, able to know if a take was “there” or not, able to encourage
everyone to feel the same things, breathe together, breathe magic into things,
even in studio world. He was marvelous in that stressful situation. Then he
laid down all sorts of other instruments, sometimes following the notes of
Michael’s score but in another “voice” or register, sometimes supporting the
score from beneath with a lushness and weirdness. He recorded some very weird
stuff: a glass orchestra, a trumpet player who mostly played percussively, and
at one point he said something about how he was hunting for “vintage futurism”
sounds. “Vintage futurism” is how I had once described the Hadestown story. Together we sorted through the vocals-from New
Orleans, Iowa City, Eau Claire, Los Angeles, Vermont-at Todd’s home studio in Carroll Gardens.
Todd is patient, totally discerning, and totally open at the same time.

 

themes of Hadestown

 

I think it’s safe to say all three of us-Ben, Michael, and
I-are pretty influenced by the work of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Brecht
seems to approach the same tough theme in Threepenny Opera and Mother
Courage
: morality ceasing to exist in desperate conditions. “First you
must feed us, then we’ll all behave…”
” When the Chips are Down” is really
kind of an homage to that idea. “You can have your principles / when you’ve
got a bellyful.”
To me this is also the whole theme of the Joker in The
Dark Knight
and maybe the other Batman movies I haven’t seen. The Joker
sets up horrific little test scenarios with human subjects to try and prove
that people who are scared and desperate will turn on their fellow man. It’s a
tough theme because we all recognize that capacity in ourselves-but that’s not all we have a capacity for, as the Joker finds out.

 

To me the essence of “Why We Build the Wall” is, it’s meant
to provoke the question. Take global warming to its terrifying logical
conclusion and imagine part of the world becomes uninhabitable and there are
masses of hungry poor people looking for higher ground. Then imagine you are
lucky enough to live in relative wealth and security, though maybe you’ve
sacrificed some freedoms to live that way. When the hordes are at the door, who
among us would not be behind a big fence? These conditions exist
already, but most of us don’t have to acknowledge them in a real way. I really
and truly had no specific place in mind when I wrote “Why We Build the Wall.”
People often say, “Oh, that’s just like Israel/Palestine, or that’s just like
the US/Mexico border,'” and maybe it is, but the song was written more
archetypally.

 

One funny thing is, the first song ideas came as long ago as
2004-5. I didn’t get deep into it till ’06 when we started working on the
production, but in any case, the Depression-era stuff was part of the show long
before the US
economy tanked. I remember Ben and I watching Matewan together to get
ideas about poverty, company towns, mining, etc. The whole show became
uncannily relevant in the past year or so, which I didn’t expect. When I play Hadestown songs in my own shows, I usually introduce the show as quick as I can saying,
“It’s based on the Orpheus myth, and set in a post-apocalyptic American
Depression era …” At some point in the past year I noticed people were laughing
pretty loud when I said that-it was so close to home!

 

The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re
fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and
make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone
sings at the end of the show: “Some birds sing when the sun shines bright /
my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise
my cup to him.”
 

 

 

Mitchell’s new album Hadestown
is out now on Righteous Babe Records. She
is all over Austin
at SXSW this week, then she’s off on a lengthy North American tour. Info, song
samples and tour dates at her MySpace page.

 

[Photo Credit: Alicia J. Rose]