Monthly Archives: May 2010

WHAT’S IN A PUBLIC IMAGE? John Lydon

With the North
American PiL reunion tour finally having wrapped, let’s put the group’s
frontman on the Blurt examining couch.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

In 2007 I spoke with John Lydon – better known as Sex
Pistols frontguy Johnny Rotten – for Blurt‘s
previous incarnation, Harp. When
representing the notorious punk rock band, Lydon (as he prefers to be called)
knows people expect a certain shtick from him. He’s in his fifties, but we want
him to behave like a petulant child.

 

The interview was for Harp‘s “Words of Wisdom” feature, which consisted
of a short introduction followed by the interview’s standout quotes. Rotten – Lydon
– seemed prepared for it, popping off chestnuts like:

 

“Years
ago I donated my body to charity. I hope some very fine trainee surgeons have a
field day operating on the carcass. They may find out a thing or two. I’m very
sensual alive. Imagine what I’m like dead! They should sell tickets for it.
Come and have a fondle!”

 

Even as he played to type, Lydon demonstrated a sensitivity
not usually associated with “Johnny Rotten.” Granted, Rotten wept for Sid
Vicious in the Pistols doc The Filth and
the Fury
, but it’s not like he’s a sociopath, immune to grief. It’s when he
waxes philosophical, almost breathlessly, that it seems wonky. For example,
Lydon appeared on the UK
television show The Meaning of Life saying, “Life is a series of lucky, lucky, lucky moments and incidences. And
sometimes, not. But you know, when you get the chance, grab it. You too could be
a Sex Pistol.”

 

Wot?! That kind of
Oprah mush, coming from the man that told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to
shove its accolade, ain’t just wonky – it’s pod-people freaky. We do expect the
filth and the fury from Rotten and the Sex Pistols. Nobody ever put on Never Mind the Bollocks… looking to be
soothed. It’s angry, snotty, revolutionary music. But the notion that his becoming
a Sex Pistol could be soundtracked by Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance,”
like it was serendipity swaddled in pink chenille, is auditory ipecac. Blecch!

 

In a way, so is the idea that beneath Rotten’s gruff
exterior lies a real person. But he’s there, and it’s more interesting to see
him in three dimensions than in two – like in Harp, when he threw sentimental grenades in among his
thought-bombs.

 

“You gotta look at life with a smile. Let’s get off this “woe is me”
stuff. I’m not one to do that. I mean, I nearly died of meningitis when I was
young. I was in a coma for four months. But you won’t get my harping on about
it.”

 

It’s not fair to hold anyone to any perception – nor is it
rewarding. ‘Peel an onion,’ they say. It’s a cliché, but an apt caption to our
picture of Rotten, the crazy-eyed guy with the pungent personality. Except
there’s no real peeling necessary with him; it’s more ‘what you see is what you
get’ and, if you pay attention, Rotten/Lydon shows a lot.

 

Speaking with Blurt in advance of a Salt Lake City
performance by his reunited “other” band Public Image Ltd., Lydon fondly
recalls a 1992 antic he pulled when PiL performed at the Utah State
Fairgrounds. During PiL’s set, Lydon gleefully pulled up his T-shirt to reveal
a bushy thicket centered on his surf shorts, and repeatedly thrust it at the
audience. The gag referenced the cover art of PiL’s then-current (and, for now,
final) album That What Is Not, and it
got big laughs. Incidentally, the song was “Acid Drops,” a screed against
censorship that asks, “What is not dirty,
what is not clean/What should we not hear, what shouldn’t be seen?”

 

“I went on Dennis Miller’s show – before he became a
Republican – and he wouldn’t interview me wearing those shorts,” says Lydon. “It’s
ridiculous, isn’t it? The world we live in.”

 

The episode involving what Miller called “Johnny Rotten’s
fannypack” frustrates Lydon. He feels the comedian misplaced his sense of humor
– perhaps due to misconceptions about his guest. It was a gag, says Lydon, who
says he prefers to inject comedy into his work because “just being nasty and
violent” doesn’t get anyone anywhere. “I don’t live in this world to make
enemies. I certainly don’t like being judged, and judged erroneously.”

 

So if we must judge John Lydon, then lets not base our opinion
on who he was in the Sex Pistols, but rather in PiL. He enjoys a lack of
“animosity” and “doubt” among guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and
drummer Bruce Smith and says with the “right blend of personalities” in the
band he feels “supported,” and that there’s “a real sense of trust.” Creatively,
PiL is Lydon’s muse – the group made eight times as many albums as the Sex
Pistols and stretched far beyond punk rock into dub, Krautrock, and musique concrete. “[Pistols] songs are
so rigid… you can’t expand them. They’re great songs, but I like PiL. Much more. Because I can express such
deeper emotions and truer feelings.”

 

And personally, in PiL, the man who told Harp “Rotten. It’s as good a name as
any, innit?” can be more John Lydon –

 

“- than a caricature. Yeah. Rotten can become a caricature,
if I’m not careful. ‘Mr. Lydon’, that’s a human being, there. Harder work, but
more enjoyable.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Viliam Hrubovcak / copyright Public Image Ltd.
2009]

 

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I’VE EVER SEEN The Art of Shooting

A pet rabbit, a spaz
dog, and a cleavage-loving baby chick create mayhem. Guarantee: no animals were
injured during the penning of this story.

 

BY KELLY IRENE CORSON

 

First of all, thank you for being interested in just what it
is I’d think about anything. That in and of itself is much more attention than
I ever thought I’d get.

 

On the topic of the most fucked up think I’ve ever seen, 1)
There is not just one singular most fucked up thing I have ever seen. There are
hundreds, and really, if I tell you about them directly, I think that would be
one less song I could write, and I don’t want that. I really don’t even think I
have it in me to share these stories with a large audience without getting
cryptic in an effort to protect myself from rocking back and forth in a chair
and lets face it folks, I’m three days off smokes and I don’t’ need that kind
of pressure.

 

What I can do is share a little anecdote about a really
silly sitcom like type thing.

 

When I was ten years old, I lived on a mountain in a hunting
community in a hunting cabin with my parents, my three year old sister, and two
pets. The pets were a lop eared rabbit with one bum leg with the ever prolific
name of “Baby Bunny,” and a golden retriever pup in Olympically
trained condition named “Alex,” that I ripped from Punky Brewster. While I loved Alex he
was an unmanageable spaz, and the rabbit was my pet that I was all about. Keep
in mind, I was ten. We kept my rabbit outside in a hutch on top of a four foot
tree stump and one day, it got out. Who knows how? We assumed it got eaten by a
snake or flew away on a magic rabbit carpet, but all we knew is that the thing
wasn’t there. It was either dead or out in the woods. In the deep creepy ass
woods with snakes and critters and creepy crawlies. This metropolitan rabbit,
from Detroit originally, who usually had nothing to fear but my little sister
and who had known nothing better than cages and carpets and chewing through
chords and pooping on paper, was now loose in the woods with a bum leg. I lost
my kid mind, but kind of accepted she was a goner.

 

At school, one of our school projects was to incubate an egg
to bring about the life of a little motherless chick and watch the process of
hatching the chickie and then pass the thing around on weekends to make sure it
didn’t die. I offered up my family for this because well, my rabbit was gone,
and I was a mess. Now, this seemed like a good idea at the time, but when we
got the lil bugger home, it would not
stop
peeping, and I am talking the long sort of distressful panicked sound
of precious Chickie peeping equivalent to that only of  cat in heat or screaming colicky baby. This
thing would not can it! After some time and many scientifically approved
tactics, we found that the only thing that made that Chickie shut up was to
stash it in my mom’s cleavage. The thing was only contented hanging out in my mother’s
tube top. Nestled happily between her boobs. My mom didn’t care for this so
much, but it was a better alternative than listening to the thing peep the
whole weekend. She’s got a good sense of humor, so she went nearly a whole
weekend with a Chickie in her bra.

 

What do these things have to do with one another you ask?
Well, I will attempt to tie them in together to bring about the climax. Let me
explain one more thing first. In this strange little hunting community, some
people just lived there. Generally older folks retired there or what have you
and some had these lovely little cottages, and at the same time some of them
had penchants for keeping exotic birds. (This bizarre hobby is the premise for
my song The Birdcage) So while we had this little Chickie in distress, my
mother took myself, my sister, the dog on a leash, and the Chickie in her
cleavage down to the nice neighbors’ house to see if they had any sage advice
for Chickie manageability. They did not, we left disheartened.

 

On the walk back, I was walking the dog, and my mom was
holding my little sisters hand and the Chickie. All of a sudden, my dog gets an
idea and rips the leash out of my hand and goes completely tearing into the
woods all bat out of hell style. We’re freaked out cuz “Oh, great, another
ridiculous metropolitan born and raised pet lost into the wild.” But then
all of a sudden the dog pops back out of the woods in hot wild pursuit of MY
RABBIT. The thing had somehow lived 4 days in the wilderness only to be outed
by my spastic golden retrieved who didn’t necessarily recognize it as a buddy,
but probably more as food. I see the rabbit, and start screaming and crying, my
sister freaks out and starts screaming and we’re all running around trying to
get the dog not to kill the rabbit, my mom trips and falls and almost crushes
the Chickie, but no. Pandemonium breaks loose, I am chasing the dog who is
chasing the rabbit, who is running for dear life. Now I am chasing the rabbit,
and my mom is chasing my sister and the dog and whoa! The Chickie falls out of its cleavage home, and now the dog
is after the Chickie, my sister is after the Chickie, my mom is after them all,
I am still after the rabbit, END SCENE.

 

Where are Laverne and Shirley for more antics right now I
ask you!

 

Unlike a lot of my stories, yeah. This one has a happy
ending. Dog, mom, sister, Chickie, and rabbit, all return home safely. The
Chickie, gets returned to school with some wild stories to tell, my rabbit goes
on to live another 4 off years to the great old rabbit age of eight, and we
eventually had to leave Alex on top of the hill in the great escape of ’89.

 

Alls well that ends well I suppose. I like to keep things
light when I talk and dark when I sing. Listen to “Birdcage” for more details on the mountain. Every
word in it is true.

 

 

Kelly Irene Corson
sings and plays guitar for THE ART OF SHOOTING, who released their debut
full-length
Traveling Show last
month. Check out the group at their official website and their MySpace page.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Jen McManus]

 

 

SQUARE (WELL, ACTUALLY, HIP…) PEGS The Black Keys

Thwarting
expectations on album and in concert – of the latter, adding bass/keyboards to
the mix – ain’t no big thing for the Akron
duo.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

The Black Keys were always more than the traditional
garage-y blues rock, guitar/drums duo they’ve been pegged as. If their output
over the last two years hasn’t proved that, nothing will. 2008’s tour de force,
Attack and Release, found the band
partnering with Danger Mouse and using the studio as an instrument for the
first time. After that came Blackroc,
a collaboration with rappers like RZA, Mos Def and Q-Tip. Their latest, Brothers, was recorded at Alabama’s legendary
Muscle Shoals studio, and if the band was hoping to soak up the classic soul
and R&B that’s in the ether there, they succeeded.

 

We talked with singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach about the album
and the state of his long-running combo.

 

***

 

BLURT: The
first thing people will notice about Brothers is that it has much less guitar and much more of an R&B feel. What made you
want to go in that direction?

AUERBACH: I don’t know. I think the album is a broad mix
that doesn’t stick to one particular style. There is some heavy stuff, like
“Howlin’ for You” and “She’s Long Gone.” But we’re capable of doing other
things. We don’t have meetings about what we’re going to do. We just do it.

 

But
there must have come a point when you realized you were going down a different
path.

We knew we were doing things we’d never done before. We knew
we had songs that were just real heavy grooves without fuzz guitar. I knew I
was singing in falsetto for the first time as a lead vocal. But you just do it.
At the time, I was listening to more soul music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s
– like The Invincibles, Lou Johnson, and The Impressions. It must have had an
impact.

 

Were
you worried about throwing your fans a curveball?

Not at all. I’ve seen a couple of reviews. Some say it’s
totally different; others say “more of the same from The Black Keys.” (laughs). You can’t think about what
other people think.

 

With
all the different sounds on this album, how will you play the songs live?

We can play some of the songs already as a two piece. We’re
going to bring musicians out to play Farfisa and bass on some of the stuff.
Most of the show will be guitar and drums, but we’ll bring them out for a few
songs

 

Was it
a hard decision to add musicians to the band?

We did realize that we’ve been playing for 10 years as a
duo. But just like with reviews, we can’t pay attention to what anyone else
thinks. We just do what seems like fun to us. There’s a time and a place for
everything.

 

You and
drummer Patrick Carney each recently did solo projects. What did you learn from
yours that you brought to the band?

I’m always making music and producing records or recording
them. The solo album was another one. I learn some tricks every time I work
with other people. It keeps things exciting.

 

What
was a recent trick you learned?  

On the solo tour, we used the Farfisa a bunch and I ended up
using it on the Black Keys record. I also started to open up more in my songwriting.
I started writing story songs. I never did that before. I started having fun
lyrically. I never did that before either.  

 

What do
you mean by having fun lyrically?

I mean be ridiculous, tell stories or maybe just not make
sense. The same thing we do with our instruments. We started when we were kids.
Back then, I had no idea how to construct a song. Now, I’m finally starting to
think about it differently. It never dawned on me before that there are no
rules when it comes to songwriting.

 

How did
working with rappers like RZA and Mos Def affect you?

The thing that impressed me most was how they change when
they get on the mic. They jump into character. I got to see them come in and
take control of the mic and really sell themselves in way I never saw. Rock ‘n’
roll people tend to be timid and insecure. Rap dudes know who they are. They
have their own personas and let it all hang out. I’m not sure I would have sung
falsetto if I hadn’t just gotten done with Blackroc.
It gave me the courage to explore what I was capable of doing vocally.

 

Did you
always like hip-hop or was it something you grew to love recently?

That’s why Patrick and I got together. We loved Wu-Tang and
wanted to make mixtapes that sounded like RZA’s productions. The demo we sent
to labels had a bunch of samples on it. Only later did we realize that RZA was
sampling old soul and rock ‘n’ roll and blues stuff.

 

So,
your original goal was to make a hip-hop record but with live instruments
instead of samples?

We wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll record with the
sensibility of RZA.  We got signed to
Alive Records, and the head of the label was a real MC5, rock ‘n’ roll kind of
guy. He made us take the samples off.

 

Why didn’t
you use samples on your next album when you moved to another label?

When we made the second record, we were starting to play
live and wanted to make something we could easily do onstage. We recorded it in
one day. Twelve songs in one day in the basement.  We never thought we’d do hip-hop onstage. When
we made our first record, we had never played a show.

 

What
did you learn from working with Danger Mouse?

Danger Mouse has a great ear for melody. He showed us how to
have fun in a proper studio. When I was talking about letting loose with
writing and vocals, he showed us how to do that with arrangements. His attitude
is throw anything on there you think will make song sound better. Give it a go.
If it doesn’t work, you can always peel it off.

 

Seeing
you play live, I’m amazed at how you and Patrick seem to have a sort of
telepathy where you instinctively know what the other will do. What is that
like?

I just turned 31. I started playing with Patrick when I was
16. That’s a long time. We’ve seen bands come and go; we’ve just maintained. We’ve
toured more than most bands will ever tour. That combined with the fact that we
have a natural connection. One of things I learned working with other musicians
is that when Pat and I work together, it’s completely effortless. You can take
that for granted. If we didn’t work with other people, we wouldn’t know how
good we have it.

 

Between
touring with bands like Pearl Jam and Kings of Leon and appearing on the Twilight soundtrack, it seems like
you’re setting out to reach a larger audience. Do you see this as your moment
to break through?

I don’t know, but it feels good. Most bands get really big
on their first or second record. This is our sixth or seventh record [depending
on whether you count Blackroc].  We have a fan base that goes to see us play. It’s
exciting because of that. When we started, we did a tour with Beck all over the
States; we played with Pearl Jam in Europe. It
does feel different this time, but we haven’t really changed anything.

 

What
are you most proud of when you look back?

I’m proud of how hard we’ve worked. We’ve worked harder than
any band. We’re just driven people. We’re in love with music and are driven to
be as good at it as we can be.

 

 

 

 

AMAZING GRACE Jeff Buckley Pt. 2

As 1993 unfolded the singer’s career was shifting from
cruise control to hyper speed. Within four years, he’d be dead.

 

BY JEFF APTER

 

Buckley died 13 years ago this week, on May 29, 1997,
in a tragic drowning accident in Memphis.
We hereby pay tribute to the late troubadour via this book excerpt from
A
Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley, written by Jeff Apter and published in
March of 2009 by Backbeat Books. This excerpt originally appeared last
summer in the second print edition of BLURT
. This is the second
of two parts; go here to read  Part 1. –
The editors.

 

 

Buckley’s first
move was to recruit bassist Mick Grondahl,
whom he’d met briefly in March,
after a show at Columbia
University’s Post Crypt
Café. Though born in Denmark,
the 25-year-old Grondahl had grown up in New
York, where he was raised by his divorced mother, who
owned a cosmetics business. Although Grondahl was never so crass as to talk
about wealth, there were suggestions that he came from a ‘monied’ family. And
he wasn’t the most upbeat of characters; he was described to me as ‘gripey and
complain-ey’ and ‘snobbish’. ‘Mick… was a little bit of a shit. He was a
little too cool for everyone, he was more of a snob than the rest of them,’
said Mark Naficy, Buckley’s long-time soundman. (During our lengthy interview,
it would be fair to describe Grondahl as polite yet detached.) Just like Mary
Guibert, Grondahl’s mother was an avid music fan, and introduced her
cherubic-faced son to what would now be called ‘world music’, which Grondahl
described as ‘bazuki, flamenco, Middle Eastern music’. At the same time she
would also play him Talking Heads’ groundbreaking LP Fear Of Music. ‘She had a very open ear to new stuff,’ he said.4

 

Grondahl started playing the drums at 12, and shifted to
bass when he was 16. He’d met a lot of wannabe guitarists, so he figured that
there had to be vacancies for reasonably skilled bassists. Influenced by such
classy players as jazzman Stanley Clarke, it also didn’t take him long to
figure out that ‘there is a whole range of things you can do with the
instrument’. Almost immediately he was playing in high school bands, but most
of them stayed in the garage. ‘We couldn’t get into bars, not even in New
York,’ he said. While studying fine arts at college in Saratoga Springs,
majoring in art history but also dabbling in sculpture (especially stone
carving) and photography, Grondahl continued playing, mainly in a band that
mixed funk and reggae standards with covers. Already he was showing the type of
anything-goes musical spirit that would prove useful when backing Buckley. His
attitude, even then, was: ‘Have fun with it, improvise, let’s see what
happens.’ But music was still a hobby for Grondahl; it wasn’t until he returned
to New York, after graduating, that he considered it as a possible career,
answering some ‘bass player wanted’ ads in the Village Voice. But nothing gelled for him. ‘I would be in the band
for a while,’ said the softly spoken Grondahl, ‘and if I wasn’t happy with it,
I would immediately quit. I was kind of disenchanted.’

 

At the time he met Buckley, Grondahl was in another
dead-end band named Glories, who shared rehearsal space with Daniel Harnett’s group
Glim, who were also on the Columbia University bill with Buckley. Grondahl
tagged along, primarily to see his friend’s band play. He watched Buckley’s set
for around an hour, more out of curiosity than anything else. ‘I knew nothing
about him,’ Grondahl told me in 2007. He didn’t link Buckley to his famous
father until they met again, soon after, at a party. But even Tim Buckley
didn’t register that strongly with Grondahl. ‘I knew him a little bit from
sightings in the record bins and stuff,’ he said off-handedly. And Tim Buckley
certainly wasn’t a point of discussion between him and Jeff at the party.
Grondahl recalled how they chatted about ‘Howling Wolf or something’.

 

In July, Grondahl spotted Buckley’s name in the Village Voice; he was playing a solo set
at Fez as part of the New Music Seminar. Although he didn’t have any cash,
Grondahl dropped by the venue, with his friend Cynthia in tow. His luck was in:
Buckley saw Grondahl and snuck him into the gig. ‘Jeff just popped out of
nowhere,’ he recalled, ‘recognised me and we exchanged numbers.’ This time
around, Grondahl was far more impressed by Buckley’s one-man-and-a-Fender
approach. ‘He’d improved enormously in that time; he’d made huge advances. It
was better than the first show; I was knocked out.’ In 2007, when asked what
was his most vivid memory of Buckley, Grondahl cited this Fez set. ‘He walked out with such
determination,’ said Grondahl, ‘and got to the mic and started pounding his
feet and doing this rhythm, while singing “Johnny Lee”. And he kept pounding
his feet and singing. There was nobody talking; nothing. It was just so
powerful.’

 

Grondahl made the next move, calling Buckley a few weeks
later and suggesting a jam. (In 1995, Buckley admitted that Grondahl was ‘so
honest, frank and sincere that I knew I’d have to call him back’.5 They got together very late in Buckley’s apartment for what turned out to be
the most inspired jamming of Grondahl’s career. ‘It was magical,’ he told me.
‘I really felt, without sounding too airy-fairy, that there were angels present
in the apartment while we were playing.’ What amazed Grondahl was the fact that
they barely knew each other yet ‘there was this strong connection that I’d
never felt with anyone else. It just seemed like a dream, mythic.’ The pair
recorded their noodling, on a new Mini Disc recorder that Buckley had scammed
from Sony. Known in Buckley folklore as ‘The Angel Tape’, Grondahl still has a
copy, even thought it’s barely audible. (Buckley was wary of the neighbours, it
being the middle of the night and all.) ‘It ended up on really low volume on
the tape,’ recalled Grondahl, ‘and I still wonder whether it did really happen
at all, without sounding too strange or obscure. It just had this huge
impression on me.’

 

Speaking in June 1994, Buckley was just as enthused,
describing their jam as ‘two-o’clock-in-the-morning-type-music’. ‘He had all
the qualities I dug,’ said Buckley. ‘There are bass players all over the city
that can play rings around him in terms of technique, but nobody else could
ever make the music he makes. And that’s more powerful.’6 According
to Grondahl, Buckley admired his ability to keep things ‘low key’. ‘He said
he’d experienced a lot of busy bass players and he liked the fact that I was
more simple, more methodical in constructing bass figures. When I started out
with Jeff I felt that he needed to stay “in front”, there was already so much
in his voice and guitar. I tried to stay out as much as possible, but when I
did come in, I felt that it was mostly to support him. Once that was
established I could meander a bit and explore the tonal range.’

 

The hiring of Grondahl typified Buckley’s attitude towards
his band. While he could have easily hired road-hardened ‘cats’, who could
match him note-for-note, he seemed intent on finding players that he could
connect with personally and musically – and, although he didn’t say it out
loud, he was probably also looking for musos that would give him the necessary
room on-stage to let him work his magic. These guys weren’t likely to compete
with Buckley; they were there to support him, not challenge him. Gary Lucas
considered them to be some ‘hand-picked band of young acolytes’. Leah Reid, for
one, could see that these guys weren’t quite on Buckley’s level as players.
‘Mick wasn’t the greatest songwriter or musician and he felt that maybe he
would never get this chance again. Michael [Tighe] would never become a
road-weary session guy, and Matt [Johnson] wasn’t the best drummer. But it
worked.’ And it must have pleased his label enormously that the group of
20-somethings he hired all possessed brooding good looks, making them an
easier, if not necessarily easy, sell.

 

Grondahl may have been turned on by the chance to play
alongside Buckley, but when he was hired, and then told that he had all of six
weeks to get in shape for the Grace recording
sessions at Woodstock, he started to doubt himself. On two separate occasions
he said to Buckley, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, you may need to get someone
better.’ Buckley paused, and in a gesture that dispelled all of Grondahl’s
fears, looked him straight in the eyes and stated: ‘No, you’re the man.’ ‘He
could tell I was down for the ride,’ said Grondahl, ‘and that’s what he was
looking for in musicians.’

 

Grondahl, however, remains unsure whether Buckley’s choice
as drummer, Matt Johnson – the first tub-thumper to audition, incidentally –
was totally ‘down for the ride’. Described by Leah Reid as ‘ warm and kind and
generous, [with] this great smile,’ Johnson was a Hollywood-handsome 22-year-old
Texan, who’d been living in New York for only four years, playing in a band
called the Choosy Mothers and also drumming for singer Dorothy Scott, who’d
helped Buckley score his Sin-E residency. A friend of Rebecca Moore had
recommended him to Buckley. After finding a message on his answering machine
from ‘a raspy-voiced Jeff Buckley’, as he recalled in The Making Of Grace EPK, Johnson first met with Grondahl and
Buckley in Context, a New York
rehearsal space.

 

Though not as ‘magical’ as the ‘angel jam’ between Buckley
and Grondahl, there were sparks, nonetheless: the framework of the track ‘Dream
Brother’ came to them within the first couple of hours of playing. (Buckley had
a knack for writing songs during first meetings: he’d also done this with Gary
Lucas and later on with Michael Tighe.) It began when Buckley turned to
Grondahl and asked: ‘Do you have any grooves?’ The bassist started to play
something he’d actually discarded from a previous jam, and Johnson settled into
what Grondahl described as ‘this really nice cymbal and snare and bass drum
kind of figure’7 Buckley then began to play a ‘snakelike pattern’.
Grondahl, for one, wasn’t sure that the song was flying – his initial reaction
was ‘Oh God, this form sounds really bad’, partly because he was using a
‘crappy’ amp and was also having trouble muting his strings – but they
continued, and the jam, in Grondahl’s words, ‘started to take off more and
more’. Straight away, Buckley knew he’d found his guy; as the instrumental
wound down he told Johnson he should join the band. ‘I asked Matt what he was
doing the next few months,’ Buckley said in The
Making Of Grace
, ‘and he said nothing was going on, which wasn’t quite
true. Maybe nothing special, but he had this whole life that I was upsetting.
So was Mick. Things were happening fast and I kind of ruined their lives and
made a new one.’8

 

The Grifters’ Dave Shouse, soon to become a Buckley
insider, recalled hearing a story from Johnson about that jam. ‘[Johnson] said
that the first time all three of them played, Jeff didn’t play any songs or
sing, he just did these weird guitar pattern things, because he wanted to make
sure that he took a person’s safety net out of play,’ he said. ‘Sometimes being
a really good musician doesn’t always cut it. Jeff wasn’t sure who he was
playing with and kind of said, “Let’s all be green at once.” Intuition, that’s
what he was looking for.’

 

A few days after that night at Context, Leah Reid
collected Buckley to drive him to a gig in Philadelphia. ‘He had a mini disc,’
she said, ‘and he told me, “I jammed with Matt Johnson.” And in my head I was
thinking, “The guy from The The?” I
didn’t want to not be cool, but I just couldn’t understand why he’d be playing
the drums with Jeff.’ This just went to show that while Johnson may have been a
drummer of repute in certain dark corners of New York, he was no Keith Moon.

 

Yet almost immediately, Grondahl, at least, sensed that
Johnson’s attitude towards the band differed to his. ‘Part of the situation
with Matt Johnson,’ he said to me, ‘was that he wasn’t necessarily down for the
ride in the long term. He was more focused on doing this for a while and then
moving onto another thing.’ (In hindsight, Grondahl was spot on: Johnson has
since played with Rufus Wainwright, Joan Wasser, Beth Orton and many others and
is now one of the most in-demand timekeepers in modern rock.) Grondahl’s
attitude towards Buckley was different. ‘We wanted to be like The Beatles and
continue on and on,’ he said. ‘So that was an issue.’

 

Grondahl, however, stressed that Johnson was ‘super
talented’ and ‘easy to work with musically’. And even though they came from
very different places on the map – Europe and New York in Grondahl’s case,
‘trailer trash’ California with Buckley, and Texas and Ohio, in the case of Johnson
– they ‘shared the same sense of humour,’ according to Grondahl. ‘There were
some differences, but we related really well, laughed a lot and felt good about
each other’s playing.’ He emphasised that the ‘deeper part’ of their connection
happened through music, not some craving for chicks and dope, like so many
bands (although Grondahl would have trouble with the latter in the near
future). ‘[Music] was the thing that stitched us together,’ he said.

 

One thing that Johnson did share with Grondahl, at least
at the start of their Grace odyssey, was a sense of panic: the trio was now
only weeks away from heading to Bearsville studio in Woodstock and starting
work on Buckley’s ‘proper’ debut. ‘It was very, very quick, very shocking,’ he
said in The Making Of Grace, ‘to go
from meeting someone to playing with them and then recording a few weeks later.
It was really scary.’ If anything, Columbia’s Berkowitz was relieved when
Johnson was hired. ‘[Until then] I was concerned a lot as to where he would
find a drummer that could hang with him,’ he confessed.9 Mike Webb,
Berkowitz’s assistant, gives due credit to his boss for allowing Buckley to
hire such a bunch of greenhorns. ‘Within himself he knew Jeff could choose
better guys but within his heart he wanted Jeff to make the album he wanted to
make.’

 

Grondahl once described their six weeks shut away in New
York’s Context Studio as a ‘kamikaze mission’, but he tones that down today. ‘I
think what I meant by that was that it was too strong; we were just very
full-on, we lived and breathed that music for six weeks. [But] it was exciting
to work with him. We were all constantly discovering new things and new
approaches, new ways to attack the songs, and that kept us going.’ Producer
Andy Wallace dropped by Context two or three times a week. ‘We’d be blasting
away, jamming, and he’d be taking notes,’ Grondahl recalled. At one stage,
Wallace turned to Buckley and asked: ‘Is this song meant to be 15 minutes
long?’ Buckley smiled and replied: ‘Well, could be, right?’ Wallace admitted
that it very well could be the case, but he didn’t hear the structure. Not yet,
anyway. ‘It was clear after talking with Jeff about it that they were just
jamming. He was, at the same time, I think, really trying to grab things that
worked arrangement-wise.’10 Wallace was too polite – or possibly too
scared of the possible response – to ask the key question: ‘Where are the
songs?’

 

Within a few months, Jeff Buckley’s career had shifted
from cruise control to hyper-speed: he’d gone from a Monday night residency at
Sin-E hanging with Tree Man to near boiling point. He barely had times to shake
hands with Grondahl and Johnson before they were to be shut away in one of the
most renowned (and expensive) studios in the USA. And it’s worth bearing in mind
that Johnson and Grondahl were as ‘green’ as Buckley when it came to working in
a major studio like Bearsville. ‘We weren’t seasoned professionals,’ said
Grondahl. ‘I’d had some experience, but more home-made studios and what not,
not 24-track studios.’ Established in 1969 by the imposing figure of Albert
Grossman, Bob Dylan’s first manager, Bearsville studio had been instrumental
(pun intended) in the creation of such albums as R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People and Green,
The Band’s Cahoots and Get Close from The Pretenders. It wasn’t
the kind of space that was used by novices. It was a massive risk on the part
of Columbia: there was every chance they’d be kissing several hundred thousand
dollars goodbye, and if it fell apart it could have spelled the end of very
brief musical careers for Buckley, Grondahl and Johnson. And Buckley certainly
didn’t have an album’s worth of new material ready for recording; he was
incredibly fortunate that the nucleus for ‘Dream Brother’ emerged from his
first jam with Johnson.

 

Nonetheless, Buckley’s stock was very much on the rise
within the corridors of ‘Black Rock’. Leah Reid witnessed that first hand
during one of Buckley’s regular visits to her office. It was her birthday, and
a cake had been organised. ‘He came and got me from my office – and everyone
swarmed all over him. It was like, “ooh, that’s weird”.’ The key-jangling guy
who until recently had been studiously ignored by staffers was suddenly a very
hot property. According to Mike Webb, ‘The women at Columbia were all giddy
about the guy.’ It was like Sin-E all over again.

 

***

 

Late September 1993 wasn’t too bad a time to be alive.
Execs at Columbia, for one, were chuffed; no less than three of their
hit-makers – Billy Joel, Mariah Carey and scruffy rockers Soul Asylum – were
riding high in the US Top 20 with ‘River Of Dreams’, ‘Dreamlover’ and ‘Runaway
Train’, respectively. And the scrawny 26-year-old who could well be their next
superstar was unpacking his bags and taking the country air in Woodstock, a
rural retreat with a weighty musical history. Bob Dylan, who had broken his
neck there, had made some of his finest music with The Band at Big Pink, their
Woodstock HQ (as heard on the legendary Basement
Tapes
). There was also the music festival at nearby Bethel in 1969, ‘three
days of peace and love and joy’, as the heady, epic Woodstock rockumentary informed those who weren’t amongst the
half-million or so mud-caked hippies who witnessed career-defining sets by Joe
Cocker, Santana, Country Joe McDonald, The Who and many others.

 

But the area’s musical past wasn’t necessarily the reason
that Bearsville Studio was chosen for the Grace sessions, at least not in the case of Buckley. ‘Somebody Jeff ‘s age and
temperament,’ producer Andy Wallace told me with a very significant pause, when
we spoke in 2002, ‘well, there was bound to be plenty of distractions in the
city.’ (Buckley backed this up in The
Making Of Grace
. ‘I’m an easily distracted person,’ he admitted, as Ernie
Fritz’s camera tried to keep up as he wandered along some rustic Woodstock back
road. ‘So this is great.’) Wallace, who’d worked at Bearsville with R.E.M.,
also had more traditional reasons for choosing Bearsville. ‘There’s a real
music history there,’ Wallace said. ‘And the main building is huge; it has two
studios and a residential apartment. Studio A has a huge live room –
airplane-hangar huge. It’s a beautiful sounding room.’ Buckley summed it up
neatly when he sat down, looked around him, uttered a few words to test Studio
A’s acoustics and said, simply: ‘This room is awesome.’

 

Producer Steve Addabbo, who’d recorded a solo Buckley in
New York, wasn’t entirely sure that Bearsville was the right choice. ‘It’s a
very big studio and it can be very impersonal, the room is about 40 by 80 with
this huge ceiling. Very cavernous. It’s on a grand scale and to go up there for
your first record… The thing that is great is that you’re living there all
together. I love that atmosphere, that woodshedding, an isolated, concentrated
environment.’

 

For the band, Bearsville and Woodstock, despite its
distance from New York, was actually a relief after the intense sessions at
Context. This type of cabin fever was far preferable. ‘It was late September,’
said Grondahl, ‘and the leaves were changing, we were living together, getting
to know each other, listening to The Cocteau Twins and whatever music we liked.
And we were sharing time together, which we hadn’t the time to before, when we
were really thrown together. It was good to have a change of scene,’ he added.
‘Going to Bearsville was fantastic.’

 

Buckley, Johnson and Grondahl would record with Wallace on
weekdays, while at the weekends, the producer left Bearsville to see his
family, so they’d either check out their surroundings or return to New York.
‘It was a really fun time,’ said Grondahl. ‘We were trekking around, seeing the
deer walking along the creek. It was quite cosy, a welcome change. It was
perfect for where we were at then: we could focus on the music but we were
close enough to New York to resume our social life.’

 

The ever-savvy Wallace worked hard to create the right
mood in the studio, so he arranged to have several distinctly different
‘set-ups’ available to Buckley at all times. ‘There was a loud, electric
set-up,’ said Steve Berkowitz in The
Making Of Grace
, ‘an acoustic set-up and like a one-person folk club
set-up. And everything was miked.’11 The concept was ideal: Buckley
could either work out songs with the band and Wallace – most of the writing and
arranging took place in Woodstock – or cool off by playing covers and curios,
just as he had at Sin-E. And Buckley’s attitude was definitely anything goes:
one morning Wallace clocked on for duty and Buckley was tearing a hole through
‘Hocus Pocus’, a chaotic collision of yodelling and soloing from Dutch
prog-rockers Focus.

 

All up, Buckley recorded at least an album’s worth of
covers while in Bearsville, including numerous stabs at Dylan’s ‘Mama, You’ve
Been On My Mind’, ‘Just Like A Woman’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, along
with takes on Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (also in several different flavours), Led
Zep’s ‘Night Flight’, the blues chestnuts ‘Parchman Farm Blues’ and ‘Dink’s
Song’, plus his gravel-and-sand assault on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘Alligator
Wine’, a rave-up that clearly gave Buckley the chance to blow off any built-up
steam. Most of the covers were done in the morning, before Buckley attempted to
nail vocal takes on the album’s ‘proper’ songs. ‘He’d do that more or less to
warm up and get his voice started,’ said Grondahl. (Or, in the case of
‘Alligator Wine’, discover if it really was possible to cough up a lung while
singing.) ‘He did a lot of covers,’ said Wallace, ‘and a couple of very funny
things, [including] a take of an old Delta blues that had us cracking up.’12 (It wasn’t all laughs in the studio, though; Wallace was nicknamed ‘The Fist’
for his habit of illustrating a point by thumping the console.)

 

A few weeks in, Leah Reid swung by Bearsville, with
director Ernie Fritz and his film crew in tow. As she recalled, her luck was
in: Buckley was attempting to cut definitive vocals for ‘Grace’ and
‘Hallelujah’. ‘It was a good day,’ she laughed. Buckley’s perfectionist streak
was on full display; after swooning and crooning his way through a remarkable
‘Hallelujah’, he turned to the awestruck production crew, who were filming
everything for the Sony EPK, shrugged and said: ‘It was OK.’ Reid laughed it
off as typical Buckley. ‘These guys are blown away and he thought it was OK,’
she said. ‘It was an incredible opportunity to experience him doing that in the
studio but at the same time, with the camera crew there, he felt the presence
of “the machine”. He was very aware. There were uncomfortable moments for him,
where he thought, “Oh, oh, it’s starting.” So it was a day of mixed blessings.
He performed this magical song but then we’d be strapping a microphone on him
so we could walk up this gravel road in Woodstock and do an interview.’

 

Another Bearsville drop-in was guitarist Gary Lucas.
Buckley, in another demonstration of his almost over-powering sense of loyalty,
invited his former bandmate to place his avant-garde stamp on ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo
Pin’, despite the messy falling out they’d had at the end of Gods And Monsters.
(Admittedly, Lucas co-wrote both songs, so there was also some payback
involved.) While Lucas was in the studio, Buckley began working on the vocals
for the album’s title track. ‘He came out of the booth with this sheepish,
little boy look, like “Did I do good?”‘ Lucas recalled. ‘He knew it was fucking
great.’13*

 

* King Buzzo, of psychedelic grunge band the Melvins,
became an unlikely friend of Buckley’s when he dropped by the studio.

 

Karl Berger, an acclaimed Woodstock-based jazz composer,
arranger, pianist and vibraphonist, also dropped by, adding sweeping string
arrangements to several Grace tracks.
Buckley was in awe of the 58-year-old peer and pal of jazzman Ornette Coleman,
whose greying temples and glasses suggested a college professor rather than a
jazz great. As Buckley declared, ‘It’s like having a regal visitation, having
someone arrange for strings. He can do, you know, a chord progression with
strings that makes [a song] completely different. It was a really great treat.’14

 

The recording of ‘Mojo Pin’, which came about three weeks
into the sessions, was a key moment for Buckley and the band: it finally seemed
that, after a few hit-and-miss weeks, some sonic sparks had started to fly. But
this discovery didn’t come to them in the studio; instead, it sunk in as they
motored around Woodstock in a rented van, listening closely to a cassette
(their preferred method of reviewing works-in-progress). ‘It was such a
privilege,’ Grondahl said, ‘because you could drive around listening to it in
such a precise, acute way. You could just hear it so much better – it was a really
good gauge of what the song was doing, whether it needed anything more.’
Grondahl recalled how they felt that ‘Mojo Pin’ – which was cut in one take –
‘was the point when all of a sudden things turned into something more. Before
that it was coming along, but now you could hear a certain potential for how
other songs could be defined.’ Steve Berkowitz agreed. He was amazed how this
song that stretched to almost five minutes felt anything but drawn out. It was
almost Dylan-esque.

 

Speaking in Everybody
Here Wants You
, Berkowitz felt that this was really the leaping-off point
for the making of Grace (although
Grondahl felt that Berkowitz was exaggerating when I repeated the following
statement to him). ‘This volcanic eruption of artistry came booming out of him,
that was just wild,’ said Berkowitz, with the type of fervour usually reserved
for political rallies. ‘It was hundreds of ideas, guitar parts, vocal parts,
backwards parts, extra drum parts and tablas – baboom!’15

 

Drummer Johnson didn’t share Berkowitz’s unbridled
enthusiasm, as he admitted in the same documentary. ‘As I was playing I was
thinking, this is so over-the-top, this has got to be sucking. Then I’d listen
back and think, this is kind of garish, that voice going up really high like
that at the end, dragging along with this outro, with these descending chords
and this high vibrato on the voice. Then I went, no, this is really great.’16 ‘Mojo Pin’ may have been a
major moment for Grondahl, but Johnson felt that ‘Dream Brother’, even in its
vocal-less, lyric-less form, was his personal turning point. ‘I thought it’d
never make the record,’ he confessed. ‘It was this droney, Eastern thing, like
a backing music for a mantra or some big Led Zeppelin thing. When he came up
with that melody, I heard it over the headphones and I thought it was amazing,
so beautiful. I never would have thought of that melody in a million years.’17

 

Five weeks in, though, as the Grace sessions drew to a close, something unspoken lingered in the
air at Woodstock:
Buckley simply didn’t have sufficient material to fill an album; certainly not
enough originals, anyway. (By this stage they’d recorded ‘Mojo Pin’, ‘Grace’,
‘Last Goodbye’, ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’, ‘Eternal Life’ and ‘Forget
Her’, which failed to make the final cut.) As Johnson reflected, ‘We didn’t
have enough songs to make a, you know, “Jeff Buckley wrote every song kind of
record”. At least he didn’t have enough songs that he liked. He might have had
them but he didn’t pull them out.’18

 

Buckley’s stump-speech, when the album was finally done,
was that he decided to include the numerous covers – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Corpus
Christi Carol’ and ‘Lilac Wine’ – in a concerted attempt to ‘link this album to
my past’. While there’s little doubt that Columbia always intended for some
Sin-E era songs to make the record, the reality was more likely that Buckley
was either reluctant to unveil any new songs he had – or possibly he had
nothing left, just as Johnson suggested. The mixture of his stifling creative
inertia, and relentless perfectionism, which would really come into full view a
couple of years later when attempting a follow-up to Grace, was obviously a problem for Buckley as early as 1993. Lee
Underwood believed that Jeff suffered a sort of ‘neurotic inner division’ when
he wrote; in short, he feared being compared to his father. Underwood wrote
about this in private notes for his book Blue
Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered
. ‘It seems to me that if Jeff paid his
respects to Tim and did it honestly, opened his arms to Tim, embraced Tim with
love and acceptance and appreciation, that he would heal this terrible wound
that is dividing him and setting him at war – not against Tim – but against
himself. If he does acknowledge his biological and musical influences, he reunites
himself with his father, stops alienating everyone who liked Tim, and, most
importantly, frees himself from this rather sad, self-destructive, neurotic
inner division.’19 (Underwood, nonetheless, remains a huge admirer
of Buckley’s work, praising his voice, ‘his intensity’ and his ‘improvisational
courage’. ‘He’s not getting all this recognition for nothing,’ he wrote while
Buckley was still alive. ‘He’s a first-rate contemporary artist and deserves
every ounce of respect and appreciation he receives from audiences and the
press.’)

 

The closest that Buckley ever came to addressing this
turmoil was when he referred to the overall album as ‘an elegy, sort of a
child’s coffin… full of past ghosts, exorcised in song’.20-22 Certainly none of his bandmates were bold – or tacky – enough to ask about the
impact, positive or otherwise, his father had on his work. ‘I had the suspicion
that to talk about that would have been bad taste,’ Grondahl figured. ‘I
wouldn’t feel inclined to go up to Ziggy Marley and go, “Rastaman Vibration is the greatest album”.’ A few years later,
though, Buckley did sit down with Grondahl and talk through his ‘father
issues’. ‘He forgave his father and didn’t want to hold this anger, this
weight, against him,’ Grondahl told me. ‘He was very sincere about that.’
Grondahl wasn’t so sure that Buckley had resolved his concerns with his mother,
however. ‘I feel like he still had some difficulty with her, right up until he
passed away.’

 

***

 

Though still a song or two shy of a completed album, the
Bearsville sessions had been rewarding enough for Buckley and his new band, as
they packed away their gear in late October and returned to the city. Wallace
had added the necessary brawn and brain to Buckley’s originals, especially the
emphatic ‘Eternal Life’, at the same time keeping most of his covers in a
relatively pristine state. Meanwhile, back at Black Rock, Sony boss Don Ienner
was impressed by the rough mixes being sent down from Woodstock. ‘He was always
supportive of Jeff,’ said Leah Reid, ‘but that’s when he sensed there was a
commercial potential. It was a genius move to get Andy Wallace for that record.
So it was at that point that Donny got vocal. It was one of those things that
people sensed; he’d mention Jeff ‘s name in a meeting and you’d go, “That’s who
he likes.” Once Donny was in, everyone wanted a piece of it.’

 

Not everyone at Columbia HQ shared this opinion, though.
Mike Webb, who’d listen to the rough mixes with Berkowitz, could see what
Wallace was doing with Buckley’s songs: he was giving them a radio-friendly
sheen. The first thing he and Berkowitz heard were rough tapes of Buckley
playing solo, followed by basic band recordings, ‘and that was great stuff.
Then we heard the Andy Wallace mixes and we went… hmmm. He clogged the sound right into the middle [of the mix], for
radio. What I heard before was much bigger and better than what Andy did.’ He
cited the removal of a guitar part from ‘Eternal Life’ as one example of
Wallace’s sonic intervention. ‘Andy should not have done what he did,’ Webb
said. (He nominated Daniel Lanois or Hal Willner as producers who might have
done a better job. ‘Jeff needed someone very creative, someone who could make
sure the tape was rolling and then encourage him: “Go for it! Go for it!” ‘)

 

Buckley, Grondahl and Johnson had clearly formed a bond
during the past few months; while they weren’t necessarily ready for group
hugs, there was a chemistry building between them that would truly come to
fruition once they took this album on the road (with the addition of guitarist
Michael Tighe, who’d soon get on board). But all this was still some way in the
future: right now, Buckley had to journey back to his past and start talking up
Live At Sin-E. He was also about to
have an uncomfortable encounter with his biggest idol of all, Bob Dylan, in a
poorly handled reminder that he may not have been Sony’s golden-haired boy
after all.

 

[Photo Credit: Merri
Cyr/courtesy Backbeat Books]

 

Notes:

1. Berkowitz, Steve: Liner notes, Live At Sin-E, Legacy Edition, 2003 Columbia Records

2. Fritz, Ernie: Columbia Records: Grace EPK

3. See note 2

4. Keleman, Gayle: Mick Grondahl interview, www.jeffbuckley.com, November 2, 1995

5. Perret, Philippe: Get Your Soul Out, Les Inrockuptibles

6. Diehl, Matt: The Son Also Rises… Rolling Stone, October 20, 1994

7. See note 2

8. See note 4

9. See note 2

10. See note 2

11. See note 2

12. Irvin, Jim: It’s Never Over, Mojo, August 1997

13. See note 12

14. See note 2

15. BBC2 Everybody
Here Wants You
documentary

16. See note 15

17. See note 15

18. See note 2

19. Underwood, Lee: Blue
Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered
, Backbeat Books, 2002

20. Smith, Andrew: His Father’s Son, The Sunday Times, June 8, 1997

21. Creswell, Toby: Grace Under Fire, Juice, February 1996

22. www.jeffbuckley.com

 

AMAZING GRACE Jeff Buckley Pt. 1

As 1993 unfolded the singer’s career was shifting from
cruise control to hyper speed. Within four years, he’d be dead.

 

BY JEFF APTER

 

Buckley
died 13 years ago this week, on May 29, 1997, in a tragic drowning accident in Memphis. We hereby pay
tribute to the late troubadour via this book excerpt from
A Pure Drop: The
Life of Jeff Buckley, written by Jeff
Apter and published in March of 2009 by Backbeat Books. This excerpt originally
appeared last summer in the second print edition of BLURT
. This is the first of two parts – Pt. 2 will
appear tomorrow. – The editors.

 

Jeff Buckley wasn’t a prolific songwriter. In fact,
throughout his all-too-brief career he suffered from a sort of creative
inertia, writing only a handful of great tunes – co-writing, in some cases –
and even they were along time coming. Many of his Sin-E peers doubted his
ability to create anything truly original, even though they had total and utter
respect for his heaven-sent musicality, on-stage charisma and humble
personality. Even Columbia staffers weren’t so
sure how many tunes Buckley actually had up his plaid-shirted sleeve: Leah Reid
spent one night at Fez,
sitting alongside Rebecca Moore, asking her after each song, ‘Was that a cover?
Or was that an original?’ Others suspected that the younger Buckley was always
comparing his few originals with those of his father, a prolific, freewheeling
artiste who pumped out nine studio albums in roughly the same time it takes Axl
Rose to hire a drummer. Lee Underwood, Tim’s guitarist, who’d had two
tumultuous ‘sitdowns’ with Buckley back in 1989, clearly felt that was the
case, but sensed there was also a deeper dilemma within Buckley.

 

‘Jeff felt uncertain of his musical direction, not only
after signing with Columbia,
but before signing, and all the way to the end,’ Underwood wrote in an email in
2007. ‘He did not know himself – which musical direction he might want to
commit himself to, because taking a stand, making a commitment to a direction,
or even to composing and then successfully completing the recording of a single
song, was extremely difficult for him. On the one hand, creativity was his
calling. On the other hand, any creative gesture that offered the possibility
of success terrified him. Hence, his creative inertia, his inability to write
very much or very often, his inability to make a commitment to any given take
in the studio; his inability to keep appointments, show up on time, respect
corporate officials, or even to complete a second recording successfully.’

 

Columbia’s
Mike Webb had a different, though equally valid, opinion. ‘He was a great
mimic, and maybe that came more naturally to him,’ he figured. ‘He could
perform someone else’s songs and you felt like he wrote it himself – he could
get all the emotions out. But if he’s doing it himself, maybe he was touching
places that were too painful.’ Buckley cast some of those chronic doubts aside,
and possibly said his goodbyes to Rebecca Moore, when he casually strode into
Sin-E on a spring afternoon in June 1993. It was the occasion of yet another
recording for Nicholas Hill’s ‘The Music Faucet’ program, broadcast live. Hill
had invited Glen Hansard, who was on one of his many trips to New York, and iconic, wheelchair-bound
singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. He also asked Buckley to turn up and play,
although, as he told me, ‘It was not a sure thing he would show’, which was
hardly out of character. ‘It was afternoon,’ Hill recalled, ‘and there were more
folks on the street than in the room.’ This was also the first time that WFMU
had broadcast from Sin-E, so it turned out to be an afternoon of firsts.

 

Hansard opened the show, followed by Chesnutt. Then
Buckley started to play, singing ‘Sweet Thing’ with Hansard, just as they’d
done during their one-night stand while moonlighting from The Commitments.
‘Glen’s harmonizing was not a real solid thing,’ said Hill, ‘but the idea was
nice.’ Buckley then sang ‘Lilac Wine’ before springing a huge surprise on the few
people in the room and gathered outside: he started strumming a completely new
song, entitled ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’. Hansard, for one, was
completely gobsmacked. ‘Back then Jeff was slightly weakened in my eyes,’ he
admitted, ‘because he didn’t write his songs fully.’ (Hansard told me that his
‘holy trinity’ of songwriters is Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, all
hard acts to follow.) ‘I couldn’t understand why this guy couldn’t go off with
a guitar and write his own tunes. But when he sang “Lover, You Should Have Come
Over”, it was fucking incredible. That was the first time I went, “OK, dude,
you can write songs”. Maybe subconsciously I was measuring him against Tim, who
was amazing.’

 

Mark Geary, Buckley’s Irish buddy and fellow Sin-E
regular, had similar misgivings. ‘I always wondered about the quality of his
actual songs,’ he said. ‘But he was so good at what he did at Sin-E that it
took a long time to separate myself from that and recognise his songwriting
talent. One is being incredibly picky, though, to say, “unbelievable guitar
player and singer, but are the songs up to it?” ‘ ‘Lover’, at least for the
time being, dispelled any misgivings Buckley’s peers had.

 

Nicholas Hill knew that he was witnessing a moment of
history, because Buckley had been extremely reluctant to play any new tunes
since the derailment of Gods And Monsters. (It was also further proof, as Hill
says elsewhere, that Buckley ‘very much used the airwaves’ to his advantage:
what better way to debut a song than to a radio audience?) ‘The whole time he
was woodshedding at Sin-E, and throughout the whole courtship thing with the
record labels, he didn’t perform any of his own material, at least for a year,’
said Hill, who believed Buckley was using the music of others to find his own
voice. Hill was ecstatic about getting all this down on tape – he’d already
recorded the brief sets of Hansard and Chesnutt – but just as Buckley began to
sing ‘Lover’, he struck some technical difficulties. ‘Oddly, out of hundreds of
shows, this is the one that got away,’ he shrugged. When he saw that his
recorder wasn’t picking up a signal, he tried to record the song off a radio in
the café’s kitchen, but the reception was poor, with another station’s signal
bleeding through. Hill was ready to slash his wrists when Waterboy Mike Scott
then strolled into Sin-E, also with a tune to debut, a ‘really great topical
song’, according to Hill, called ‘Going Down To Waco’. ‘Mike wasn’t booked,’
Hill added, ‘he just happened to be walking by. These were very casual
affairs.’

 

As potent as Scott’s protest song undoubtedly was, the
debut of Buckley’s ‘Lover’, historically speaking, overshadowed everything else
heard that afternoon in Sin-E. Even in its bare-boned acoustic form, devoid of
the heavenly gospel choir and lush arrangement that can be heard on Grace, this was clearly a great song, a
bittersweet valentine, an outpouring of emotion, beautifully expressed and sung
in a voice rarely heard this side of, well, his father. Buckley, as always, would
be cagey when pushed for an explanation of the lyric. ‘I wrote this song while
lying [and] listening to the telephone in my apartment,’ he said on-stage in Italy during
1995, revealing very little. ‘But she never called.’

 

If the woman in question was Moore,
which certainly could be the case, maybe she’d caught wind of Buckley’s
nocturnal adventures in the East
Village. There was
definitely a heavy serving of guilt in Buckley’s lyrics, especially when he
sang: ‘Sometimes a man gets carried away/When he feels like he should be having
his fun/And much too blind to see the damage he’s done/Sometimes a man must
awake to find that, really/He has no-one.’ There’s enough pathos present in the
lyrics of ‘Lover’ to fill several Morrissey purges.

 

Yet when Buckley finally agreed to record something for
his debut Columbia
release, it was a flashback to his Sin-E woodshedding. July 19, 1993 was locked
in as the day that Buckley would return to the venue and try to recapture some
of the magic of his Monday night sets, for release as a live EP. The theory was
sound: as Berkowitz stated, it would ‘diffuse’ the expectations surrounding his
major label debut, and it would also (hopefully) document a key moment for
someone Columbia
believed would become the next Dylan and/or Springsteen. A live EP was also a
throwback to an era when ‘artist development’ meant more than a big budget, an
MTV-ready video and a hefty promo push; there was something authentic and
rootsy about the concept. According to Leah Reid, ‘It allowed us to tell his
story, you know, this is who he is, this is where he came from, this is how it
worked in New York. There was no commercial expectation, it was just a great
setup and in hindsight the only way it could have worked.’

 

***

 

Photographer Merri Cyr was one of the few Buckley
confidantes to know about the planned Sin-E recording. But Cyr was doing her
best to avoid getting involved with the project, despite repeated requests from
Columbia’s new
star. For several days, she’d come home to her apartment and find yet another
message from Buckley on her answering machine: ‘Merri, Merri,’ he’d implore in
a sing-songy voice, ‘you have to call me right away about this Sony thing on
Monday.’ She was pissed off at Buckley at the time, but finally caved after he’d
left something like 10 messages in a row, all with the same request: ‘Please
come to Sin-E’, followed by what Cyr described as ‘all this gooey shit’.

 

They’d known each other for less than a year, but already
their relationship was taking some weird turns. She’d photographed him for Paper magazine the year before; Rebecca
Moore, who had some connections at the mag, helped set up this very early
coverage of her then boyfriend. Straight away, Cyr was taken by Buckley, not
because he was a serious music talent – she hadn’t seen him play yet – but
because ‘he was a big ham,’ she laughed. ‘[At that first shoot] we had a lot of
fun, he was very energetic and was really engaged with me. He was sort of
challenging me in a way sometimes.’ This was unlike so many other musicians
that Cyr had shot. Typically, they rated being photographed with having a tooth
pulled or lugging their own gear. Cyr’s curiosity was piqued enough to go and
see Buckley play at Sin-E. She was totally overwhelmed by the intimacy of the
experience, especially when he crooned ‘Hallelujah’. ‘I’d never seen any
performance like that before,’ she said. ‘I had to stop myself from sobbing.’

 

But it wasn’t just this career-maker of a cover version
that impressed Cyr. Buckley was truly unique; he could move seamlessly between
musical styles and could also alter the mood in a room quicker than you could
say ‘Hello, Sin-E’. ‘In the course of one performance he could be soft,
accessible, angry – and sometimes his anger, which he had plenty of, would pop
up,’ she said. ‘I [also] saw a lot of performances where he wouldn’t try and
overpower rowdy crowds. Instead, he’d start with a just barely audible, really
light tone, and it would increase very slowly. I’ve never seen an audience shut
up so fast. They could hear this weird sound and they’d shut up trying to work
out what it is. Sometimes, within 20 seconds, a rowdy crowd would be turned
into this gathering where you could hear a pin drop.’ Buckley wouldn’t walk on
stage and start singing immediately; instead he’d scan the audience ‘and sort
of sniff them out, like a dog smelling the wind,’ Cyr said. ‘He’d pull you into
his space,’ she said. ‘That’s how he’d rein an audience in and take them where
he wanted to go.’

 

By the time of the Sin-E recording (and requisite photo
shoot), Buckley had alienated Cyr, for reasons that she’s long since forgotten.
By now she’d learned that he was volatile and provocative. ‘You’d have
conflicts [with him]; he’d have those in his personal relationships with
people. He’d piss you off and you’d be like, “Fuck off, I’m not going to talk
to you anymore, you dick”. That was how I felt about him at the time it came to
shoot the Sin-E cover: “Ah, fuck that guy, he’s an arsehole”.’

 

It’s not surprising that Buckley displayed the many sides
of his temperament to Cyr early on; the relationship between a ‘star’ and a
photographer can be both intimate and highly volatile. And, as Cyr admitted to
me, her friendship with Buckley was a little unclear, intimacy-wise. ‘I wasn’t
his girlfriend or anything, but that line was a little fuzzy sometimes. And I
didn’t want to be seen like a groupie.’ Buckley liked to challenge people,
pushing them until they either told him to go fuck himself (as Cyr had done) or
bend over and let him have his way. ‘You were being tested,’ Cyr said. ‘Then it
was a challenge for him to win you back. This was a process I went through with
him a lot.’ But Cyr admits that Buckley’s ample supply of charm and charisma
made him almost impossible to hate forever. ‘He respected you only if he
thought you’d stand up to him. If you rolled over he wouldn’t give you the time
of day.’

 

There was an additional complication with the Sin-E shoot:
Columbia had
already hired a photographer. When Cyr did return Buckley’s call, he told her
to get to the label’s office straight away. First up, Columbia staffers wanted to see her
portfolio, and if they were happy with her work, Buckley needed to get someone
at the label to ‘un-hire’ the other photographer. And quick. ‘I had to watch
this guy fire her over the phone,’ Cyr recalled. ‘That was on Friday and Monday
was the day of the shoot.’*

 

* Cyr was puzzled by her brief trip to Black Rock, Sony’s
imposing HQ: she spotted one of her images, framed and hanging on the art
director’s wall, yet he’d never bothered returning her calls until she started
working with Buckley. Like her subject, she was learning a lot about the
machinations of the corporate world.

 

It was a day of firsts: it was Buckley’s initial foray
into the world of a major label and it was Cyr’s debut shoot for a
multi-national. Sin-E owner Shane Doyle was bemused, to say the least, as
various Sony staff arrived in the morning, and a mobile recording unit was set
up in the bar a few doors down. There were cords and cable running in all directions,
as a few locals started to drift in, wondering what the hell was going on. ‘The
recording was never acknowledged,’ insisted Leah Reid. ‘It was more a case of
we press the buttons and you do what you do.’

 

At one point, Shane Doyle grabbed Buckley and asked: ‘How
does this work? I’m supposed to get paid for this, right?’ Quick as a flash,
Buckley replied: ‘Charge whatever you like, Shane, it’s Sony Records.’ When it
was decided that a second day of recording was required, Doyle put in a call to
Berkowitz. He said: ‘What’s the story with this? I guess I’ll have to charge
you the same amount.’ When Berkowitz challenged him, saying that the exposure
was surely worth far more, Doyle replied: ‘I don’t need it. You’ll have to pay
me for another gig.’*

 

* Today Doyle admits that he had no idea how significant
an artist Buckley would become, or how his name would be forever linked to
Sin-E. ‘In any event I never capitalised upon it, you know?’

 

Interestingly, Doyle had never considered recording any of
the Sin-E action before. The way he saw it, that ran contrary to the spirit of
the venue. ‘There was no playing for the camera or a recording device,’ he
said. ‘No one had any inhibitions; you could act the clown, you could be any
way you wanted, you didn’t have to think about it.’ In some ways, Live At Sin-E marked the end of an era
for Buckley and the venue. Both were now public property.

 

***

 

Even though Buckley had played enough shows at Sin-E to
sing the setlist in his sleep, something didn’t gel on the first day of
recording, which comprised an afternoon and an evening set. It may well have
been a simple case of jitters: after all, as Cyr recalled, at the start of the
day she was the only person in the room not employed by Sony. ‘He was scared of
the company, he was scared of doing this first project, there were a bunch of
business people there breathing down his neck,’ she said. ‘It was one of the
biggest days of his life. And he was really afraid of failing. It was a very
intense experience.’ (Leah Reid disagrees with this. ‘He wasn’t being pressured
to do anything,’ she told me. ‘At that point he realised it wasn’t so much
about a label as the people inside a label, people he could trust. It wasn’t
until later on that the pressure of Columbia Records became more of his
day-to-day. Back then they gave him the time to be nurtured.’)

 

During the first set the room was virtually empty, but by
the evening Sin-E was packed with Buckley friends and fans. ‘There were people
spilling out the doors,’ recalled Cyr. ‘At that point he’d developed quite a
following,’ added Leah Reid. ‘The afternoon shows were really just warm-ups, so
it wasn’t full by any means, just random people, but each night the shows were
packed. There were more Columbia
people than ever before, but there were also punters there, too.’ Between the
two sets, Buckley retired to Anseo, the bar two doors down from Sin-E, spread
himself across a couple of stools and duly fell asleep, with his head resting
in Cyr’s lap. ‘I remember feeling very protective of him,’ said Cyr. ‘I’m only
a year and a half older than him but he just seemed so young and vulnerable.’

 

All the time, Cyr kept snapping away, documenting
everything. During a break, the two walked to nearby Tompkins Square
Park, where Cyr shot some
images of Buckley that are now rated amongst the most candid portraits ever
taken of the man. (And around which Cyr has built a formidable photographic
career.) The one shot that summed up Buckley’s first attempt to document his
‘café days’ was the image eventually used for the EP cover, another clear
statement from Buckley that he was doing his best to stay in control of his
career: the shot was incredibly revealing and laugh-out-loud funny. Early in
the day, Cyr somehow found herself inside the venue, perched on a ladder – to
this day she has no idea where it came from – while cradling a panoramic camera
and a very wide lens. A soulful Buckley, strumming Janine Nichols’ Fender
(still on loan), appeared to be looking to the heavens for divine inspiration.
A huge Sin-E banner was positioned behind him. So far, so obvious. But on
closer examination, you can spot a Sin-E regular, within arm’s reach of
Buckley, flicking through his morning newspaper, totally oblivious to whatever,
or whoever, this skinny white guy was channelling.

 

‘It’s hysterical,’ Cyr said, ‘he didn’t give a shit. That
was very brave of Jeff to pick that shot, but it also reflected how he felt. He
saw himself as this dweeby guy. I think that changed later when he realised he
could manipulate people, and get what he wanted, sex and stuff like that, but
at that moment he was wide-eyed, a real goober, you know? He didn’t want to be
a Chris Isaak lookalike. He was this fucking goofball.’ (To Cyr, Buckley was a
mass of contradictions: he was a control freak, musical marvel, friend,
employer, and a constant source of frustration. ‘Musically, he was very mature,
but emotionally he wasn’t. That was confusing in relating to him because you
would assume a certain maturity that he didn’t possess.’)

 

Amongst the cuts Buckley attempted during those two sets
was a pair of originals – ‘Eternal Life’ and ‘Unforgiven’ – plus the usual slew
of covers, including ‘Strange Fruit’, Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ and
Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. The latter pair
were revealing choices for a guy at the end of his first ‘real’ relationship;
one a savage putdown, the other a heartbreaking post mortem of a dead romance.

 

In the liner notes for the expanded Legacy edition of Live At Sin-E, Berkowitz wrote how
Buckley was ‘in pursuit of a lot of things… the pursuit of beauty,
communication, sex, coffee, laughs, music, the pursuit of self.’1 But
Berkowitz didn’t necessarily feel that much of this wild beauty was caught on
the tapes from the original sessions. He convinced Buckley to return to Sin-E
and try again, on a Tuesday, August 17, just to see what happened, even though
the label – and Buckley, of course – was already many thousand production
dollars down the drain. But Buckley also knew something was amiss; he told Hal
Willner that he thought the Sin-E tapes stank. He said something similar to
Kathryn Grimm, his old Group Therapy bandmate. ‘Sin-E, well, he wasn’t really
thrilled about it,’ she said. ‘He was so critical of himself that he could hear
every note that was out of tune.’

 

***

 

It was a vastly more confident and assured Buckley that
was caught on tape the second time around. Barely taking the time to ‘smell the
room’, he launched into a driving, sexy version of Nina Simone’s ‘Be Your
Husband’, powered by nothing more than his mad-dog howl and stomping Doc
Martens. There was no chirpy hello, no nervous patter, no jokes – he truly let
his voice (and boots) do the talking.

 

Buckley proceeded to work through what could best be
called a Sin-E’s ‘greatest hits’ set, including almost all of the songs he’d
attempted three weeks back, as well as Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’, and
‘Dink’s Song’, a hangover from his Gods And Monsters days, plus a much-improved
run-through of ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’, a lean, stunning ‘Mojo Pin’
and his reading of ‘The Man That Got Away’, ‘borrowed’ from Judy Garland’s
version first heard on the film A Star Is
Born
. He also produced a stark rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ and dazzling
versions of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ and ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. Led
Zeppelin’s ‘Night Flight’, a hidden gem from their Physical Graffiti album that Buckley had actually shelved a few
months back, was another standout, ditto ‘Calling You’, which now actually
sounded more like a valentine to Sin-E – ‘coffee machine that needs some
fixing/at a little café just ’round the bend’ – than a lift from a popular
‘fish out of water’ indie flick.

 

Once he’d set the mood, Buckley quite visibly relaxed, and
the ‘human jukebox’ switched on. He searched for a missing chord to a Duane
Eddy tune (helped out by an audience member), and experimented with reverb,
which led to a quick strum through The Doors’ ‘The End’, delivered Nico-style,
where he playfully swapped the ‘mother’ of the lyric with ‘Sony’ (as in ‘Jeff?’
‘Yes, Sony?’ ‘I want to aaaahhhhhhh you’).
This could have turned very ugly, but Buckley managed to avoid turning a cheeky
piss-take into a very public slap in the face. Possibly there was some
antipathy simmering under the surface, or maybe it was just another of
Buckley’s tests: how far could he push his new bosses until someone told him to
back off? This he’d find out soon enough.

 

Buckley also toyed with the faithful when he went into his
usual ‘Nusrat is my Elvis’ spiel. Initially, the crowd thought it was another
example of Buckley’s playfulness, but then he dropped into a near-flawless
impression of the almost-impossible-to-impersonate Pakistani. (The piece was
called ‘Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai’, in case you needed to know, Buckley’s
first introduction to Nusrat.) When he finally stopped wailing, several
bewildering minutes later, you could almost hear the sound of numerous jaws
dropping to the floor. It was that powerful.

 

Columbia’s
Leah Reid, who was looking on, knew that the Sin-E recording, when it finally
reached the stores, was the ideal introduction to the label’s new signing – and
it would also provide the breathing space Buckley needed to write and find the
band that he was so desperately seeking. ‘We did get to capture the moment, but
we also took the pressure off [his first studio recording],’ said Reid. ‘We
were able to work more organically, more grassroots. It’s not like the radio
promo department [was going] to get a song from the Sin-E record on the radio.’ Sony’s president Don Ienner, however,
nixed Buckley’s plan to name the Sin-E EP Café
Days
, as a nod to a line from his beloved Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Last Time I
Saw Richard’. When a mock-up crossed Ienner’s desk, he put a large slash
through the proposed title, and declared that it should henceforth be known as Live At Sin-E. Clearly Buckley’s
creative control didn’t extend into marketing. (Incidentally, the round coffee
mug stain on the Sin-E cover is real;
it was scanned from a coaster saved by a Sony staffer who was at the show.)

 

Buckley held back ‘Hallelujah’, now the centrepiece of his
set, until the very end of that second recording. The version that would be
heard on 2003’s complete Sin-E, while
lacking the sonic bells and whistles of the ‘definitive’ Grace take, was near-flawless, Buckley wringing every last drop of
emotion from both his almost-spent voice (and a guitar that drifted in and out
of tune) and Cohen’s wise, witty, occasionally baffling lyric. It was the
perfect song with which to sign off his café days. ‘That’s all, man,’ he
managed to utter at the end. ‘Let’s go drink and sleep.’

 

***

 

Buckley may have struggled with songwriting and fidelity,
but he was always moving forward, seeking out new sensations and directions.
Cyr was amongst those who felt it confirmed Buckley’s suspicion that, just like
his father, he wasn’t destined for a life of ‘three-score-years-and-ten’. ‘I
believed that he felt he had a limited time. I think he was trying to shove a
lot of stuff into his short life, to get as much experience as he could,’ she
said. ‘He wanted to have all these relationships in a full intense way, but in
a short time, so I think when he was with somebody he was totally with them.’

 

With that in mind, and the Sin-E recording finally in the
bag, he started to seek out a band in earnest. After several months of
scratching around, Buckley was now operating in fast-forward. As Buckley
himself admitted in the EPK that helped promote Grace, ‘I was dying to be with the band, dying for the relationship.
You know, the chemistry, people, warm bodies, male, female, you know, bass,
drums, dulcimer, tuba, anything, anyway that the band would work out – marching
bass drum, whatever.’2

 

In June, he and Berkowitz had met with producer Andy
Wallace, who’d first broken through with his work on the 1986 Aerosmith/Run DMC
rap/rock crossover smash ‘Walk This Way’. He was best known for his mix of
Nirvana’s Nevermind, an album that
had transformed three straggly-looking punks into unlikely solid-gold
superstars (at Sin-E, Buckley had somehow managed to turn their ‘Smells Like
Teen Spirit’ into a qawwali chant – Nusrat Nirvana). But the bearded,
avuncular, 46-year-old Wallace was anticipating a Buckley record along the
lines of Sin-E; a vocal showcase, in short. As a solo act, he found Buckley
‘magnetic and magical’. But this wasn’t what Buckley had in mind, because he’d
just kissed his one-man-band days goodbye. Wallace confessed his uncertainty.
‘It was very tempting to say, “Yeah, it’s got to be all about that”, but Jeff,
thankfully, was very convinced about doing the band and moving to the next
place he had to move to.’3

 

To be continued.

 

[Photo Credit: Merri Cyr/courtesy Backbeat Books]

 

Notes:

1. Berkowitz, Steve: Liner notes, Live At Sin-E, Legacy Edition, 2003 Columbia Records

2. Fritz, Ernie: Columbia
Records: Grace EPK

3. See note 2

 

CHANNELING PENNY RIMBAUD Titus Andronicus

On
Civil War reenactors and Big Country fans, shitty MP3 sound and shitty
Pitchfork hegemony, punk anarchists Crass versus punk capitalism at Hot Topic,
and more.

 

BY RON HART

 

Formed in 2005 out of the North Jersey
suburb of Glen Rock, Titus Andronicus have grown into one of the most exciting
and original punk bands to come out of the East Coast in quite some time. The Monitor, the group’s anticipated
follow-up to their critically acclaimed Seinfeld-honoring debut The Airing of Grievances, is a
quasi-concept album loosely based on The Civil War that, since its March 9
release, has been gaining steam with each passing day in both critical acclaim
and with the band’s ever-increasing fanbase.

 

In fact, according to frontman Patrick Stickles (writing on
the Titus MySpace page), that actual day the new album came out also served as
the 148th year anniversary of when its namesake, decorated Union Navy
warship the USS Monitor, fought in the historic Battle of Hampton Roads naval
fight against the Confederate vessel the CSS Virginia. But for all you hardcore
social studies buffs and Civil War reenactors out there, this album is
certainly not an indie rock Cliff’s Notes on the Ken Burns documentary. According
to Stickles, The Civil War serves as an “extended metaphor” for the travels of
a young protagonist who relocates to Boston from
New Jersey and
the perils he faces in “trying to live decently in indecent times.”  

 

The group is currently engaged in a European tour before
heading back to North America for a summer filled with dates across the
Northeast and Midwest. BLURT was lucky enough
to catch up with Mr. Stickles in the midst of his hectic schedule to pontificate
on the new album, recording up in historic New Paltz, NY, American complacency,
record shops, cassettes, the perils of downloading, the Loudness Wars, the
monopolization of Pitchfork Media, and adhering to the principles of UK anarchy
punk greats Crass.  The Monitor is available at smarter retail outlets now. But if you
prefer to get your music online, check out the fan site Titus Andronic.us for a killer fan-made
compilation of b-sides, live cuts and rarities available free to download here.

 

***

 

BLURT:
You guys recorded The Monitor in New Paltz, NY.
How did you like it up there in Ulster
County?

Stickles:  Oh, it was
great. The mountains are beautiful, and the people who work downtown and hang
out there are really nice.

 

 Did you hang out in town a lot when you were
recording?

 We took a few trips
into town to go to the video store, the pizza place, Taco Shack…

 

 Yea, my friend Kevin Sharp runs Taco Shack.
It’s a great place to eat.

 No kidding, the one
next to the beer distributor?

 

 Yea, that’s the one.

 Yea, man. Most of our
trips to town ended up at those two places. Pretty much the one stop shop, that
little strip there (laughs).

 

 Did you make it to the great record shops
downtown, Rhino Records and Jack’s Rhythms?

 I’ve never shopped
there, but one time when we were mixing our record we went and saw this band
play at Rhino Records. They had a little outdoor fun summertime thing. That was
about as much as I checked out of Rhino.

 

 Do you remember the band you saw who played?

 This band called
Frankie and his Fingers, ever heard of ‘em?

 

 No, any good?

 Ah, well, you know
(laughs)…I can’t say whether they were good or not.

 

 How did you like recording at Marcata
[Recording, the former Harlem recording space
of The Walkmen before it was taken over by the studio’s house engineer Kevin
McMahon and relocated to New Paltz]?

 It was great. It’s
kinda between two worlds. It’s up in a barn. It’s pretty bare to the elements;
there’s not really heat or the absence of heat when you want it. But it’s also
a great paradise, a great place to hang out and just goof off and rock. It was
a cool little clubhouse for us for a month or so last year.

 

 You were up there for about a month?

 Yea, pretty much for
the whole month of August we were up there.

 

 You’re Irish, right?

 Well, I’m American,
but my ancestors are from Ireland.

 

 The reason I ask is because I definitely hear
a little bit of the Irish in the Titus Andronicus sound.

 You know, I’ve been
told that before.

 

 Are you a big fan of Irish music?

 Well, just like the
usual stuff-The Pogues and whatnot. And the band Parts & Labor. I really
like them a lot and they kind of have that Celtic thing going on a little, too.
And, of course, Big Country. You remember that band from the 80s?

 

 Of course. Those guys are Scottish, though,
right? In any case, The Crossing is
one of the great albums of the 1980s.

 The Crossing is such a killer album. We listened to that one a lot
when we were making our record. Our producer, Kevin McMahon, actually went on
tour with them back in the 90s. He was the sound guy for their opening band. So
it started out we would just play Big Country a lot to bust his balls, and
through that we found out that Big Country was actually awesome as it turns
out.

 

 Some of these unsung bands from the 1980s are
just now starting to get their just due as the sources of inspiration that they
are, like Talk Talk and OMD…

 OMD is good. Eric,
who plays drums in our band, has a lot of old OMD cassettes that he plays in
the van all the time.

 

 You guys are still fans of cassettes?

 Well, we’ve only got
a cassette player in the van. Typically we’ll listen to the iPod through a
cassette adapter, but I think its fun when we go to record stores to try and
get some old tapes to play in the van.

 

 The record shop is still important to you?

 Well, you know, the
record store is a very important institution. If you don’t have a place like
that in your community, the only places to buy music will be Barnes & Noble
and Wal-Mart or whatever. I mean, you’re not going to find a Naked Raygun album
at Target.

 

 Do you feel record shops are being purposely
phased out?

 They are pretty
specialized and it serves a very specific part of the community, and I guess
for a lot of people it would be pretty useless. But then again, everybody loves
music. I guess most people just like music they could just as easily get online
or at Barnes & Noble; and while they are there they can get some Starbucks
coffee as well. But if you want to get some kind of punk album, you’re pretty
much out of luck.

 

 The
Monitor
got leaked early online. What are your thoughts on that?

 Well, it would be
nice if [everyone who downloaded it] bought the album, too. But at the same
time, I know what it was like at 16. I’ve stolen them all. It was great going
online and stealing all of that music and listening to it and enjoying it. But
I’m paying for it in karma now (laughs).

 

  There
is something to be said about the quality of a real hard copy of an album at
the same time. Those MP3s don’t always cut it, especially the ones at that
128kps bit rate.

 Yea, that’s true. It
doesn’t sound as good as records, or even cassettes for that matter.

 

 However, given the case that so many kids
listen to music in that lossy format, do you think it will soon come to be
universally accepted?

 Besides the fact that
we’re making records these days that are so much louder than they used to be,
it’s pretty much a whole lotta static on [albums today].

 

 Why do you think that is?

 My understanding is
that it kinda started with the Loudness Wars – there’s quite a bit of
literature on the Internet about them. The first time I heard about it was that
Oasis album, (What’s the Story) Morning
Glory
. When that album came out, it was supposedly the loudest album that
had been out on a major label. Their thought that year was that when Oasis
would come on the jukebox, it would sound louder than everything else, so
people would, I dunno, pay attention to it. Now we’re all listening to the iPod
Shuffles and nobody wants to be the quieter thing that’s boring and gets
skipped over.   I guess they feel they have to compete for
some reason. They’re not doing themselves any favors. There’s not a lot of
dynamic range on modern records, unfortunately.

 

 With that said, how did you guys go about
approaching the sound on The Monitor?

 We made a conscious
decision, not so much when we were recording it, but when we were having it
mastered, that we weren’t gonna try to make it as loud or louder than “Big
Record X”. There were times when the guy who was doing the mastering was like,
“Uh, do you guys want to make it louder?” And we were like, “No way!” That was
idea of punk rebellion-the mastering process. I figured, you know if you want
it to be louder, you’ve got a volume knob on your stereo. You gotta leave a
little room to move.

 

 Now the Civil War theme on The Monitor is strictly a metaphorical
thing, right?

 Oh yea, most
certainly. It’s not like historical fiction or anything like that. It’s not the
story of Private Joe Smith of the 82nd Calvary Regiment.

 

  If you do listen to certain people on the
radio and on the Internet, your Alex Joneses of the world, they are convinced
this country is headed towards a second Civil War. Graham Parker just wrote a
song about the concept on his new album, actually.

 Well, I don’t
necessarily disagree, although I don’t think we’ll have another war about it.
However, we definitely have got a lot of the same problems or modern versions
of the same problems that led to [the Civil War] – just people disagreeing about what
America is supposed to be. You know, refusing to try and see other people’s
perspectives, big fish eating the little one, my God is bigger than your God
and so on and so forth.

 

 It’s definitely more of a passive-aggressive
battlefield these days.

 Yea, and that’s the
thing. One of the concepts I was thinking about in making the record was that
we’ve become so numb to our own feelings that we couldn’t have another thing
like The Civil War now, because we’re all just too bored and lazy. Too much
mind numbing crap to numb crappy minds, as Penny Rimbaud would say. Are you a
fan of the band Crass?

 

 I have a couple of their albums.

 Crass is definitely,
for me anyway, the most ethically excellent band that’s yet existed. I try to
take more ideological cues from them than musical, however. I respect them and
their message so much that I actually had their logo tattooed on my body, so as
to be a constant reminder for me to always strive for ethical excellence like
they did.

 

 That’s pretty cool a guy your age is into
Crass, because your generation grew up with stuff like Simple Plan and New
Found Glory and shit…

 And not even just New
Found Glory and all that, but any of the lame fashion punk bands of the early ‘00s
that you could get at Hot Topic. There were always these punk kids in Glen Rock
who we thought were, like, posers. They would wear Crass shirts and have Crass
patches on their jackets. So for a bunch of years, I thought Crass was just
another lame band some fake punk dude would have on his jacket. So I never
bothered to listen to them or learn anything about them until recently. Same
thing with that band Cocksparrer, you ever listen to them?

 

 I have a friend who is way into them.
Cocksparrer are definitely not a band you would hear about on Pitchfork, which
seems to have a bit of a stranglehold on youth culture these days, don’t you
think?

  My roommate and I were actually just talking
about that – how a lot of people worry about them having a monopoly on the
alternative or indie rock base. I’m wondering myself sometimes what there is
out there besides what’s on Pitchfork.

 

 And then you’ve got these other sites and
blogs who just essentially follow Pitchfork’s lead and crow about all the same
things, you know?

 True, they tend to
follow along with whatever the current wave of popular opinion is at any given
time. Do you really need a hundred different Web sites that post the same
video?

 

 Your last album, The Airing of Grievances, was named after a famous Seinfeld
reference. What’s your favorite episode?

 Favorite episode?
That’s really hard – they’re all awesome.  I would say “The Keys”, which was the last
episode of Season 3. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be probably that
one. It was the episode where Kramer’s got Jerry’s spare keys to his apartment.
But he’s abusing it, taking baths and having girls over. So Jerry takes away
the keys and Kramer realizes he’s in this existential crisis and he confesses
that he’s living in a fantasy world. There’s a great scene with him and George
at the coffee shop, and Kramer is talking about how he and George need to get
their lives together-that their lives were just meaningless. It was a deep,
profoundly upsetting but beautiful episode of Seinfeld.

 

 Kramer was a deep cat.

 True. Kramer was very
much the goof on that show. But he was also the most profound one, kind of in
the old Shakespearean tradition of the fool who knows more than the wise man.

 

 

 

ORGANIC GROWTH Plants and Animals

Indie rock? Jam band?
Nobody’s ready to vote this Juno-nominated Canadian outfit off the island yet.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Plants and Animals, out of Montreal, have been on the road almost
continuously since their first full length Parc Avenue got the “next big
thing” tag in 2008. A glowing Pitchfork review, shortlisting for the Polaris Music Prize, and a Juno nomination: all
might have convinced a less hard-working band to sit back and bask in the glory.
But not Plants and Animals, a threesome that has used the two-year interval to
hone a harder-edged, more rocking and distinctly more “live” sound for a second
album La La Land (Secret City; read review here) – and to connect with
audiences.

 

“If you get a big review early on, you still have to
represent,” says Warren Spicer, the band’s singer and guitarist. “You still
have to go out and play shows for people. Because if you’re a shitty band and
you get a great review, you’ll probably get a bunch of attention for a while. But
the only way to gauge what’s going on is really by performing, being with an
audience.”

 

Plants and Animals began, modestly, in Halifax, when two of its three members met in
seventh grade.  Spicer, already playing
guitar, was deep into Hendrix and classic rock. Matthew “Woody” Woodley was
taking fencing lessons with Spicer’s brother.  They started playing together as
pre-teenagers, mostly rock at first, until they met a saxophone player named
Danny Orr, who got them into jazz. Spicer remembers busking in downtown Halifax, and for the
three of them, “It actually was really profitable.”

 

Spicer and Woodley headed to Montreal
for university, enrolling at Concordia
University for
electro-acoustic music composition. There they met Nicolas Basque, who now
plays guitar, bass and keyboards in the band.  The trio had begun to develop an interest in Chicago’s post-rock
sound, bands like Tortoise and musicians like Jim O’Rourke. “We were trading
CDs and stuff and then we ended up collaborating on a bunch of compositions,”
says Spicer.

 

At the time their academic focus was on abstract experiments
Spicer describes as “music without instruments and no meter and no time, just sound.”
Yet as he finished his studies, he found himself hankering for the kind of
song-based compositions that he could share with friends. “Nobody enjoyed it,”
he says, of his electro-acoustic output. “I couldn’t play it for anyone. It
became clear that it wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue. It would have
been too lonely.”

 

So, he returned to the classic rock of his early teens. “I
went full circle,” he says. “I started out when I was a kid playing Bob Dylan
songs on my guitar.  Then I went to
university and got heavy into weird, experimental, academic head music. I got
my fill of that and slowly started getting back to songs.”

 

Post-university, Spicer successfully applied for a Canada
Council grant with a series of demos. With the grant money, he got Woodley and
Basque to help him flesh out his ideas. The first self-titled Plants and
Animals
album came out of these sessions. It was all instrumentals, no
vocals at first, but Spicer says that the singing came about organically. “We were
just living and playing music with lots of different people and we started
singing,” he remembers. “I guess it might have been something I’d always wanted
to do but was afraid.”  

 

As they coalesced into a band, the three members of Plants
and Animals began working on their second album Parc Avenue. Fitting
sessions in between day jobs, paying for studio time themselves, it took
several years to complete. “It’s all over the place,” says Spicer. “There’s
stuff on that record that was recorded two years or three years before the
record came out.”

 

Parc Avenue was a surprise success, winning the band positive attention in Canada
and beyond. They were nominated for a Juno Prize, Canada’s Grammy equivalent and
shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. Plants and Animals took to the road, and as
they played night after night, their sound began to change. “We were playing
loud and getting into it equipment wise and really working towards a sound on
the road for a couple of years while we toured Parc Avenue,” Spicer says. “We’d really gotten away from what we were
doing in the studio with Parc Avenue,
which was a lot more acoustic guitars and more laid back.”

 

So, when Plants and Animals regrouped to record the followup,
they were a subtly different band. “There’s a lot more road references,” says
Spicer. “There’s a lot more about this new lifestyle that we’ve had to adopt. I
think a lot of the lyrical material came from looking out a van window – and
coming home from being away for a couple of months.”

 

The way they played, too, was shaped by months on the road. Spicer
says that one thing he likes about records by Canadian forebears like the Band
and Neil Young is that “they tend to be very natural. Not a lot of hiding
behind studio equipment. That definitely was part of how we made records. We
certainly keep it, like, kind of real as we can.”

 

The band also makes room for improvisation, both in the songwriting
and in live performance. “When we rehearse, we dedicate a certain amount of
time – not that we actually consciously do this – but we rehearse the songs but
we also will take one of the songs and just play it for like 20 minutes,” says
Spicer.  

 

Why? Spicer explains that it opens up the songs and keeps
them interesting. “You shake up all your expectations of what you can do with a
song, and you just kind of pull it apart. After you do that for a while,
there’s all this new information about how you can perform a song. It might not
be evident to the listener, because it’s not like you change the format of the
song.  Still, you learn that there are
all these other secret doors in various places. If you just play the tune the
same way over and over again, you just get really good at it, but it’s not as
exciting.”

 

Because of this open-ended tendency – and a shared set of
blues, country and classic rock influences – Plants and Animals sometimes gets
lumped in with the jam band contingent, a comparison that bemuses Spicer.
Spicer says that, at 14, he went to see the Jerry Garcia Band with his father,
on a trip to San Francisco,
and that the whole experience was “pretty amazing.” Still, he doesn’t think
that the term really applies to his own band. “There are elements of jam in our
sound. We could go there if we wanted to go there more,” he says. “But one way
or the other, we haven’t really attached ourselves to it or dismissed ourselves
from it. We’re not a part of it. But if somebody thinks we’re a jam band, it
doesn’t really matter.”

 

A good deal of the road’s raucous energy can be heard in
tracks like “Tom Cruz,” the album’s opener. “We just kind of banged that one
out one night. We were really psyched and there was just some kind of musical
energy that made us think that we were Tom Cruise. It just made sense.”

 

“Swinging Bells,” partly inspired by a video gaming machine,
deals with the uncertainties that face a young band – or any emerging artist
trying to make a go of things. Spicer claims he was thinking about an actor
friend in LA, who was trying to break into the movies when he wrote that song,
as well as his own band. And “American Idol,” one of the album’s highlights,
borrows a metaphor from mass culture to voice Plants and Animals’ own
challenges. “It’s not really about American
Idol
,” says Spicer. “It’s about approval, really, being approved. And again,
it has to do with adopting this new life as a band that releases records and
has to wait for people to vote you off the island or not.”

 

Spicer is mixing reality show metaphors a little, but the
message is clear:  Plants and Animals
want to make their case to you, on the road and via La La Land.

 

Asked if their relative lack of gimmicks might hold them
back, Spicer answered, “We’ll connect to who we connect to and those people
will appreciate us because of what we have to give.  That’s the important thing.”

 

 

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT Patrick & Eugene

From the birds and the
bees to llamas and other ungulets: the strange world of the beloved British
band.

 

BY PATRICK DAWES

 

I first met Eugene in
the spring of 1993, and along with his friend Toby, the three of us
would busk in the town centre of Kingston-upon-Thames,
a leafy suburb South-West of London,  close to where we live.  It was
a cheery affair, the music a bright and breezy sax led trad jazz style with
Toby’s guitar (although his main instrument is trumpet) and myself on bongos.
 Quaint, you might say, except for our scruffy demeanor which
both amused and bemused passers by. Finishing my exams at Kingston University
and with no intention on using my degree, I was gearing myself up to
set out to find work in the music biz.  

 

I started out playing percussion alongside DJs in
the burgeoning rave scene. I originally got the idea of playing
bongos, etc., with DJs from traveling with my flat mates to various raves
in warehouses around London
and beyond such as those put on by ‘Spiral Tribe’. (A law has since been passed
to stop similar events by limiting the number of people allowed in one place
listening to music involving ‘repetitive beats’.)  After some
success I got to play some of the main House music venues in London. One example
was a gig at the Ministry of Sound on New Year’s Eve of 1993/4
when I played virtually non-stop from 11pm until 12 noon the
following day. I still work in this area but not until so early in
the morning and not for such long sessions. 

 

Eugene,
Toby and I would still busk occasionally and even do the odd gig in one of the
local bars called ‘The Saucy Kettle’ in nearby Surbiton.  Also, it was
around this time that I was touring Europe and the US with hip hop
band The Herbaliser.  Most daytimes I was busy setting up some
studio gear in my bedroom and got to work trying to make sense of it all.
Attempts to write hip hop or dance music were not that successful
so I decided to go in another direction.

 

Fast forward to the summer of 2000 and I’m finishing
off my first album of percussion music.  Five years in the
making, I was pulling my hair out trying out experimental percussion
music as well as feeling the need to improve its potential
accessibility by screaming and yodeling over the top.  Tim ‘Love’ Lee of
Tummy Touch Records was an early fan of this anarchic style.  Circus Train was released in April 2001
to hostile reviewers who loathed it pretty much.  This led to a long
period of disappointment, although I stand by this album as some of the best
work I’ve done.

 

There was one track on the album – a collaboration with
Eugene – that
seemed to light the way to a more successful path.  This was the title
track, which went on to appear on our first album Postcard from Summerisle and acted as a starting point for our
project.

 

It’s difficult to say exactly what our influences were.
 Eugene
brought jazz and a keen interest in early comedy music such as Spike Jones and
The Bonzo Dog Band.  My influences for this project were more the Beatles,
Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks and George Formby, although to be fair we’ve both
listened to many styles of music that our influences are fairly limitless. I
had just started touring with Groove Armada, both with the live band and with
some of their DJ sets but was keen not to let the possibilities of our
collaboration go astray. However, my experiences of working with Groove Armada
did imbue the music with a certain dance pop sensibility to make sure each
track kept your head nodding from start to finish.  

 

In the summer of 2002 we wrote ‘The Birds and the
Bees’.  This started out as a percussion track entitled ‘The Garden of
Love’.  I took a section of it and got my friend Samantha to add banjo,
bass and trombone.  (She has been working with us ever since, playing an
array of instruments as well as collaborating with us as a writer.)  I
wanted to try my hand at producing a pop record. There were a lot of pop tracks
around at the time that utilized vocal snippets from old records. Eugene hadn’t done a lot
of singing before but agreed to give it a go.  I suggested we call the
track ‘The Birds and the Bees’ and create our own original verse which Eugene completed. The
vocals worked well so we decided to do more vocal tracks. It was simplicity we
were going for but also the kind of record that makes you want to jump up in
the morning and find reasons to be cheerful.  I enjoy listening to music
from Sun Ra to the Wurzels so I had no issue over the lack of
sophistication. Some people might view this track as an inclusion into the
frightening world of the novelty record but I like to view it more as
a sunshine pop song.

 

When Tim suggested we do some covers, ‘Feelin’
Groovy’ came to mind but more the sunshine pop versions of The Free Design
and Harper’s Bizarre than the Simon and Garfunkel original. We recorded the
backing track for this along with the two other covers – ‘Crazy in
Love’ by Beyonce and ‘I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ by Kylie Minogue –
 with a small group of musicians in the now sadly deceased recording studio
at The Exchange in Camden. It contained loads of old mics, plate reverbs,
etc., and somewhat incongruously, Simply Red’s Mick Hucknell’s old mixing
desk. They built it as a ‘floating’ room to reduce the noise pollution, but
the neighbors failed to agree. (Fortunately, their famous mastering
studios still live on.)

 

The album was released in 2004 to muted interest
but I was delighted when in 2005 Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South
chose the album as his ‘Buried Treasure’ for Mojo magazine. This spurred us on to do another – Everything and Everyone – which
came out in 2008. There are more vocal tracks and harmony vocals on this
record.  A particular favorite of mine is ‘Llama’. On making the
initial decision to write a song about Llamas, Eugene ingeniously posed the question,
‘What’s your favorite ungulet?’ I’m also very fond of our cover of the
Arctic Monkey’s ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.’ Matt from the label
heard back that they didn’t care for it much but I’m not surprised as
it is totally at odds with their style.

 

Our music gained some popularity in the US, and so at
the beginning of this year we released a compilation of our most popular tracks
entitled Altogether Now (Birds Bees
Flowers Trees)
.

 

We are both still working on projects – Eugene a solo record, myself alongside
Samantha and Toby – so expect to hear more music from us in the near future.

 

As you may have surmised, Patrick Dawes and Eugene Bezodis comprise the
titular Patrick & Eugene.
Altogether Now (Birds Bees Flowers Trees) was
released earlier this year on Tummy Touch – more details can be gleaned at
their official
website
and their MySpace page. At the latter you can hear the aforementioned
Arctic Monkeys cover, which for our money, wipes the, er, dancefloor with the
Monkeys’ version.

 

CHAT IN THE NEON LIGHT PT.2 Veil Veil Vanish

The San Fran quintet weighs in on inspirations, favorite albums,
songwriting strategies and what makes for “cookie cutter” pop.

 

BY GIL MACIAS

 

As mentioned last month, we continue our conversation with Veil Veil
Vanish. (Read part one at BLURT here.) This time the whole band chimes in:

 

Cameron Ray – Guitar
Keven Tecon – Vox/Guitar
Amy Rosenoff – Bass
Robert Marzio – Drums
Justin Anastasi – Keys

 

BLURT: So what inspired you to pick up your very first instrument and why
did you choose the main instrument that you’re playing now?

RAY: For me, it was the piano.
I took 8 years of lessons. My mom was very insistent on me playing the piano. I
wasn’t actually allowed to get a guitar until I graduated. The day I graduated
from high school I got a guitar. I was about 18.

MARZIO: I kind of started the
same way, I started on piano. But in my home growing up, music was everywhere,
everybody played something. I started with piano then went to guitar and then I
played bass and now I play drums. I’ve musically evolved. I ended up picking up
drums this time because some people needed a drummer. That’s how I came to be
with these guys.

TECON: I actually started
playing drums.

MARZIO: No way!

TECON: Yea. I had a lot of
energy when I was a kid and it was a good way to get it out. But I couldn’t
afford a drum kit. I bought sticks and I would just use them for practice. So
eventually I just started playing guitar—that’s my exciting story. [Laughs]

ROSENOFF: My family was pretty
musical as well. My mom has always played piano and she still does. I started
taken piano lessons, stopped for a while, then I picked up a violin on my own
and started taking lessons. Then I dropped that and picked up bass when I
started playing with my previous band, so it sort of stuck. I like playing
bass.

ANASTASI: Normally I play bass
as well, that’s my normal instrument. I started playing keyboards for these
guys. I didn’t know that Cameron had 8 years of piano lessons [Looks at Cameron]. No wonder you’re
always riding me!

[Laughter]

MARZIO: Justin’s actually an
incredible bass player.

ANASTASI: I got inspired by
early punk bands. I just wanted to play. It was a pure need to let out
aggression.

 

 It sounds like you all play a
variety of instruments. For most bands, when you read the liner notes in a CD,
it usually only mentions the one instrument that a particular band member plays
and that sort of becomes their permanent fixture. Do you ever plan to mix it up
or trade instruments on certain tracks?

MARZIO: Well, Keven played
several instruments just on this album.

TECON: Personally, I don’t
have any kind of fixed idea on a particular instrument. I primarily play guitar
but I wouldn’t mind playing some other things. I think it’s kind of exciting to
play other instruments. I have been writing with other instruments because it’s
kind of helped me be a little more creative. It helps break up getting stuck on
a particular instrument.

 

 So what band, song or album would
you say changed your life?

RAY: Two or three bands for
me. Jane’s Addiction is definitely one. Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. I
grew up listening to punk rock. I dated a girl that loved Cocteau Twins and The
Cure. Actually, I used to fucking hate The Cure. [Laughs] Seriously, I did. Still, I’m not the biggest fan, but
they’re alright. And I liked Slowdive.

MARZIO: For me, The Cure, The
Pixies, and The Smiths. They just hit me at the right time when I was 15. Totally
changed my life and reaffirmed my faith in humanity. That’s why I thought music
was important.

TECON: A band that changed my
life would be Neurosis.

RAY: Fuck yes, dude! Fuck yes!

TECON: They were so intense.
Just seeing them live was a barrage of sounds and images. They had lots of
projections onstage. I saw them more recently. You can see the guy working all
the images behind the band, layering all these textures. The music was all textures
and so were the visuals. It changed my idea of live shows.

ROSENOFF: Discovering the
darker music scene was pretty influential to me. The Cure, I’m just a huge fan.
Faith and Pornography are still my top favorite albums. Simon Gallup is an
amazing bass player. And the first Cocteau Twins album blows me away every time
I hear it.

ANASTASI: Obviously, I was a
big Siouxsie fan. I got into her pretty early. But I also got into the first
wave of the punk bands. That’s what made me get into music.

 

 Are there any albums in your
personal collections that might shock or surprise fans? Any guilty pleasures?

RAY: The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds. [Laughs]

MARZIO: Al Green and Marvin
Gaye. They’re amazing to me.

RAY: I’m also a huge Phil
Collins fan.

ROSENOFF: I’m a huge pop music
fans. [Laughs]

 

 Yea, Justin and Keven told me that
before.

ROSENOFF: I like Lady Gaga. I
just love pop music. That’s definitely my guilty pleasure. [Laughs]

TECON: Randomly, I’ll put on a
dance station.

[Band Laughter]

What’s it called? The party
station? [Laughs] It cheers you up.

 

 Mine would be Roxette.

[Laughter]

 

I’m a diehard Roxette fan. I have all their albums.

ANASTASI: That’s a really good
question. I’m really trying to think. Maybe Hall and Oates? [Laughs]

 

 I asked Keven and Justin this
question before, so for the rest of you—How long do you see yourselves making
music?

RAY: I don’t have a choice.
This is what I do.

MARZIO: I find there’s a
difference between people who are artists who have a studio. They go in there
and they do a painting—and people who kind of just make art as they go
through life. They’ll just draw shit on a wall or wherever they can while
they’re walking around. To me, that’s what making music is like. I’m always
going to be doing something with music, no matter if it’s on a professional
level or just happening day to day. I can’t think of life without music.

RAY: I like the canvas idea.

MARZIO: Yea, I don’t go
somewhere and just make music to be a product. Music is just part of everything
that I do. If I didn’t have music to listen to or to play—I can’t imagine
what that would be like.

ROSENOFF: Music is always
going to be part of my life. It’s not going to go away. I don’t know what
direction it’ll take me in, which is an exciting part of the process.

 

 Some bands and solo artists are
obsessed with being on the charts. They want that #1 single, they want that
Grammy nomination. Do you care about stuff like that or plan to make
achievements like that a top priority?

RAY: I personally don’t think
we write songs to make that happen. If it happens—awesome.

ANASTASI: I don’t think any of
us trip about charts.

TECON: I personally feel so
detached from that. It seems like a completely different world to me. When I
was growing up, charting or things like the Grammys were the most meaningless
thing to me.

MARZIO:  Every once in a while, I get fooled into
thinking that it matters and that it’s something that we should be concerned
about, but then I realize that I don’t choose bands that I like based on how
well they chart. I never look at a chart and decide who I listen to. So it
doesn’t really matter to me.

 

 That’s why I am not a fan of
someone like Mariah Carey. She’s broken so many records and has come so close
to breaking the all-time #1 hit record, her output is all about quantity over
quality now. She keeps cranking out these singles that are obviously designed
to score that next #1 hit.

MARZIO: Oh, it’s a formula,
man. Pop music has been designed to a point where you almost can’t tell the
difference between pop artists anymore. It’s so formulaic and packaged as a product. It’s all one cookie cutter
type of thing now.

ANASTASI: Honestly, is there
were no charts and no system at all, I know we’d still be doing this anyway.

MARZIO:  We’d be doing exactly the same thing.

 

 So do you have any input on the
next album you want to share? How do you all get together and write a song?

TECON: It depends on each
song, that’s what makes it kind of exciting. Sometimes it’ll start off with a
bassline, or a drumline or even a keyboard line. “Wilderness” actually started
with vocals first before anything else. We never really write in the same exact
process, like let’s do the guitar line first, then the drumline. We don’t
really work that way.

 

 There are 5 of you, so I imagine
there are times when 3 of you might hate how a song is coming out, and 2 of you
love it.

RAY: Oh, definitely.

[Band Laughter]

 

 How do you come to an agreement on
when a song’s finished or not?

TECON: We always know a song
is going to be good when Cameron doesn’t like it.

[Laughter]

RAY: That’s pretty true!

ANASASI: That’s the formula!

 

 So Cameron, are you happy with the
9 final tracks on the album?

RAY: I’m totally happy with
everything we have. But it is actually kind of funny.

 

 So there’s a democratic process
then? You guys vote until you all agree a song is finished?

MARZIO: It’s very democratic
as bands go. Generally speaking, one or two of us will have an idea and bring
it to the table and the rest of us will fill in our own parts. So it’s never
like one person wrote everything and hands out the parts. Everyone’s involved
in some way.

TECON: We don’t write in a way
where we write a whole bunch of songs and pick the best ones. Each one is like
our own little kin and we really work on it. There’s only one song that we
wrote that didn’t make it on the album.

 

 So how many songs did you make?
Some bands might make like 20 tracks, but then narrow it down to 10 for the
album.

TECON: We made 10 and put out
9. That was it.

 

 So no b-sides then?

ANASTASI: Yea man, where are
the b-sides?

TECON: Next time, I’m hoping
we’ll be a little more prolific and have b-sides and stuff like that.

RAY: I’m really excited to start writing again, really excited. I think this next record is going to be extremely
good. I’m excited. I have a lot of ideas. Keven has a lot of ideas and I’m
excited to hear them. I think it’s going to be fucking brilliant!

 

 

MILE A MINUTE Juliette Lewis

Kicking off a major
European tour this week, the actress-turned-rocker shifts into high gear once
again.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

The only person who speaks quicker than I and with a greater
rate of conversational shift is Juliette Lewis.

 

That’s only fair.

 

Since 2005, the actress known for roles in Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers has been carrying on at a breakneck speed with
her hyperkinetic garage band Juliette and The Licks and records from a raucous
debut EP …Like a Bolt of Lightning to
a racy, aptly-titled Four on the Floor CD.

 

At 36, it’s not that she’s slowed.

 

After being mostly away from the big screen so to tend to speed
demonizing rock ‘n’ roll, this year she’s appearing in the real life, Drew
Barrymore-directed femme roller derby scene flick Whip It, the eighties true crime drama Betty Anne Waters with Hilary Swank, Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut
Sympathy for Delicious and the oddly
conventional romance-comedy The Baster with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Anniston.

 

Rather, it’s the music that’s calmed; taken on differing
temperatures, tones and textures courtesy Lewis’ solo debut Terra Incognita. Produced and played
mostly by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, its irked slurring ambience and shirking
prog-punk shifts emulate his band, The Mars Volta’s recent recordings. On Terra Incognita, there’s oozing watery
tonic tunes such as “Romeo” where the usually growling Lewis rings high and
angelic, the cleaving and groovy (“All Is for God”) the chiming and
Byrds-y (“Fantasy Bar”) the liltingly poppy and kissable (“Uh Huh”)
and the vulnerably naked finale (“Suicide Dive Bombers”) where just Juliette
and Rodriguez-Lopez’s acoustic guitar make their mark.

 

Yet, here she is driving on a Los Angeles freeway while we speak, running
down her voodoo at 70 MPH.

“I like to do things illegally and if it’s a problem, I’ll
pull over,” laughs Lewis.

 

But what of, The Licks, the band she fronted for five years?
Since Terra Incognita is in fact the
proverbial solo debut, this must mean the Licks couldn’t lick Lewis’ newer
material.

 

“From the outside, it looks very simplistic like, oh, I changed
the band and said goodbye,” says Lewis. Instead, it sounds as if one of the
boys wanted his own thing, one wanted out, period, and the other two she’d
never written with. “So the spirit was fractured. I could not write the music I
was looking to write, or, resuscitate the heart of the thing.”

 

Feeling broken, abandoned, displaced and not knowing what
she was doing led her to play and write on piano, an instrument she hadn’t hit
since she was nine. She created a strong, exciting vibe with the Licks that was
mainly about energy hooks, the live show and feather headdresses. (Google some
photos.) “So now,” she continues, “I wanted to make a record as complex as my
own emotional life and nature. Then I thought oh fuck, I’m never gonna find one
guy who can, you know, produce the blues woman and the haunted woman and the
soul singing woman. I thought I’d have to three producers until I found Omar,
and figured out that he was the shit.”

 

Look at Lewis: all-complex-emotions and such. Was she ready
to pull an Iggy, the Pop who earlier this year said that rock was dead and that
guitar music was shit? (At least until he picked up where he left off with erstwhile
Stooges six stringer James Williamson for their reunion this autumn.) Lewis
laughs at the Iggy comparison. “He’s had it hard and fun for forty-some odd
years. No, my record very much has the spirit of the rock-and-roll animal, but
there’s more dimension and duality.”

 

That multi-dimensional sway could come from the fact that
she and her producer talked Terra out
in ways she hadn’t with the Licks-the space in the music, what Lewis calls her
lyrical story’s emotional life, the vocal instrument being as powerful as
electric guitar. “We talked about the guitars being mercurial and sinister and
then the drums being fat, heavy boulders of earth,” says Lewis. “Everything in
this record is a manifestation of the contrasts that live within this duality. You
kind of bounce back and forth…it’s celebratory, the lyrics are very cynical in
this pursuit of a perfect night.”

There’s some theatre up in this shit; that some of the distance she’s felt from
Hollywood
within the decade has closed and the drama-or the need for that drama-has
returned. She’s not starring in four films back to back because Lewis hates
acting even if she did push movie-making aside for four years while Licks-ing.

 

“I’ve never taken a break,” she says starting a rush of
words. “Now, maybe I’ve had unsuccessful movies, and maybe no one saw a movie
of mine for four years, but I never took a break from film for that long since
I began. So that was a very big thing for me, like I’m unplugging the umbilical
cord, and I had to go for broke to see if I had a future in music, and what I
did was that I toured the world three and four times over, and I created an
audience.”

Now that she’s got the music down, the films can move forward in a big way.
“This is the blood that pumps through my heart, drama and music.”

 

Even if she’s dissing Hollywood’s
Sunset Boulevard calamity as she does during the snot-nosed glam slam of
“Fantasy Bar?”

“Yeah, but I wrote it after going to Fashion Week in New York so I gave an
equal shout to the East coast and the West. There’s discontented souls on all
sides.”

***

 

The relationship with Rodriguez-Lopez came about in Japan
at the Fuji Rock Festival not so very long after Lewis’ manager had suggested
the Mars-man in passing. She recalls her initial reaction: “He wouldn’t have anything
to do with me. He’s too good for me.” When she relented and called, he was
completely enthusiastic and the two bonded over Fellini movies and the relationship
between cinema and music. In Rodriguez-Lopez, Lewis claims she found someone
who validated her decidedly non-academic musical language.

 

“He would ask me, like for ‘Noche Sin Fin,’ he’d say, ‘So,
Juliette, what do you want the drums to do in this part?’ I did this long,
lengthy metaphor: Zeus waking up from a nap, and there being a rumbling and a
clearing the clouds. [I was] very passionately describing this scenario. He
then whispered something to his drummer, and the drummer played, and that’s
exactly how it sounded to me.”

I have to look for Zeus on “Noche Sin Fin,” now.

 

“If I want it more pink, or I want it to feel velvety, or…
this is my language,” laughs Lewis.

 

Hushed songs like “Romeo”-as high as she hits-were about
letting her vocal go un-exposed. “It’s so uncorrupted” she says. “Truth be
told, I have more courage now, five years later, with music than I did when I
first started. They’re all like truths, these voices. I like moments of quiet, I
like moments of sheer angst-I know, that’s such a juvenile term. I also like
sheer torment, and celebration, that rah-rah spirit.”

 

Another part of her language, other than the one that
portrays women burning as witches in the darkly humorous “Female Persecution,” were
the guttural one-take rants like “Hard Lovin’ Woman,” and “Suicide Dive
Bombers” where Rodriguez-Lopez refused to cut in or change tack. Her lyrics for
the latter tune, some of which she started in a park in San Francisco at age 21, were finished upon
this recording. It’s these speed raps, sung as coarsely and sweetly and tenderly
as anything within Terra, that speak
to all the voices within Lewis’s head; the ones that motivate her to make
dramatic leaps in films and drive fast while talking with a fellow loudmouth.

 

Keep your eyes on the road.

 

Check Lewis’ MySpace
page
for info, updates and tour itinerary.

 

[Photo Credit: Rama (by permission, Wikipedia Creative
Commons)]