Monthly Archives: June 2010

THE THOUSAND-MILE OIL CHANGE We Are Scientists

After
riding the major label bus for two albums and nearly five years, for their latest
effort the NYC buzzband opted for a new set of wheels.

 

BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA

 

“Obviously, it’s no secret that labels have not done great
financially in the last couple of years,” says We Are Scientists’ Chris Cain,
“and to give them the benefit of the doubt, may be entirely due to the MP3, piracy
and theft, [which] may have to do with their failure to adapt to those things
and take advantage of opportunities, but let’s
just say it was not their fault.”

 

So begins the tale of the indie-rock outfit’s departure from
Virgin Records and its parent company, EMI, in the fall of 2009. In “dire
financial straits,” says Cain, the label, like many others sporting financial
black-eyes, had a hard time supporting their years-old contracts, attempting to
hold back the cash while trying to cash in – and this was enough to make the Brooklyn
(by way of California) act jump ship. “It’s a combination of them not wanting
to cough up the money that our contract entitled us to and them wanting more
from us – wanting a piece of merch, wanting a piece of touring, the ‘360-deal’,”
says the 33-year old, Utah-born bassist. “And they wanted it in perpetuity
after we fought the label for something like three years. So it was just all
kinds of crazy plans.”

 

Their reason for leaving their label shouldn’t come as a
surprise to those following the current anemic condition of the music industry.
With labels seemingly unaware of how to coexist monetarily in this heavy
digital age, the increasingly frequent contractual inclusion of the “360-deal”
(aka “Multiple Rights Deals”) that Cain mentioned is leaving a bitter taste in
artists’ mouths. And while labels assert these deals allow the signing of
various artists instead on focusing on insta-hits and larger profits alone,
it’s not iniquitous to say it seems more like a reaction to their pecuniary
woes, is it?

 

“That’s the kind of deals labels are making right now
because they need to have a serious investment in the bands, so if they do put
money into it, they’re gonna reap a real substantial portion of their rewards,”
says Cain, “but it just didn’t make sense for a band at our spot on the ladder.
Unfortunately, a label has already done the most important thing for us, which
is dump a whole lot of money into the initial album, and help you get known. So
now we got the fanbase, we don’t really need a label anymore.”

 

According to the band’s salt-and-pepper shaggy-haired vocalist/guitarist
Keith Murray, We Are Scientists was fortunate enough to lawfully leave the
label, “due to a contract renegotiation” involving their switch from technically-defunct
Virgin US to EMI’s Virgin UK. This “break
up”  left them open to delve into other possibilities
and, ultimately, the group decided to release their fourth studio effort, Barbara, on their own label, Masterswan
Recordings, with June 15 (US) and June 14 (UK) street dates.

 

The first album to be recorded with ex-Razorlight drummer
Andy Burrows (Burrows and interim drummer Danny Allen will tour with the band),
Barbara is a sort of exodus from the danceable but down-trodden workings
of their last two records – 2005’s official debut With Love and Squalor and
2008’s  Brain Thrust Mastery. (WAS originally debuted in 2002 with
the self-released Safety, Fun, and Learning [In That Order], which, Cain
says, was a result of ” a
band in their early stages fucking around with recording and kind of giving
fans something to take home… but it wasn’t really a well-considered
record.”)  Written entirely in Athens, Georgia by Murray (New York,
he says, was “over-stimulating”), and recorded in Los Angeles, New York and
London to coincide with Burrows’ schedule, Barbara ultimately consumed
three full months of studio time with lengthy breaks in between sessions. It’s
the auditory equivalent of a metaphorical weight lifted off the shoulders,
nearly forty minutes’ worth of fresh air, with the band trading in the
worrisome cadence that previously dotted refrains such as With Love and
Squalor
‘s “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” and Brain Thrust Mastery‘s “Ghouls” for bright symphonies, even while shifting from ardent mid-tempo numbers
(“Pittsburgh,” “Foreign Kicks”) to poppy dancefloor anthems (“Break It Up,”
“Rules Don’t Stop,” “I Don’t Bite,” “Jack and Ginger”).

 

For the cropped, dark-haired Cain, who sports glasses and neaten
threads, the breaks between each session gave them an opportunity to reevaluate
what was previously laid down and rerecord anything not up to par. Also, he
says, the different studios provided different vibes, so much so that they
rerecorded drums in New York that they’d done
earlier London
because “the room sounded kind of cool for certain few songs.”

 

“[Barbara’s]
definitely gone beyond my initial intentions,” says the modish Murray. “The band mandate
at the beginning of the writing process was to create an album of short,
up-beat, danceable, hook-laden tunes, and nothing more. That the final
vibe has as much breadth as it does, vibe-wise, was a pleasant surprise.”

 

“I feel pretty amazing about Barbara,” he goes on.  “I am normally fairly shy about
self-promotion and tend to be apologetic for forcing my work upon the world,
but the fact that I’m legitimately slightly cocky about this record is a good
sign, I think.”

 

But why release Barbara on Masterswan rather than sign with a new label? According to Murray, when
shopping the record, smaller labels didn’t offer services that We Are
Scientists wasn’t capable of performing and, despite the financial temptations,
signing to another major wouldn’t mend the issues they faced with EMI. “I guess
that contracts like the one we signed with Virgin in 2005 just don’t exist
anymore,” says the 32-year-old native Floridian. “It makes sense that advances
would have to come down, and that’s fine for us, but newer aspects of the
industry, like those truly odious 360-deals…simply [are] a no-go for us. We
weren’t even willing to have that kind of discussion.”

 

And, as Murray
implies, there is a certain freedom involved with taking your fate into your
own hands. “We’re lucky that our success, especially in the UK, allowed us to
hire an enthusiastic, top-tier gang of distributors, PR agents, radio
promoters, marketing teams, etc., who essentially do the work that your
ordinary label might, but, in this case, we’re ultimately in charge. Which is
nice, obviously,” he says.

 

This consequential label separation is, of course, not unique
to We Are Scientists – erstwhile labelmates Radiohead departed EMI nearly four
years ago, citing the label’s new ownership as the cause, according to a
December 2007 article in the UK’s
Observer Music Monthly. The British
act then self-released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, as a pay-what-you-wish type music download, and
following it with a physical release (2003’s Hail to the Thief was their last record for EMI). But despite the
number of artists cutting the master strings and pursuing other ventures, is
the type of deal that Cain and Murray walked away from detrimental to new bands
signing into it?

 

“Not necessarily,” says Cain. “I think a label, when it
effectively works a band, it definitely turn[s] a band that would have never
made a dollar into a very popular band. There are projects that are perfect for
labels.”

 

“Oils are changing, as they have to,” the musician continues.
“I think they’re becoming more and more about working smaller bands for smaller
rewards and just at a smaller level. For a long time, there was tons of money
[spent] on a lot of different bands and there was the assumption that when 10
percent of those bands get fairly big, that would more than make up for all the
expenditure. I think it used to [be true], but now if they just did the same
thing they did even five years ago – I mean, nowadays, selling a million
records is really a huge, huge deal. It really was not in the ‘90s.”

 

[Photo Credit: Dan Monick]

 

BUSKIN’ OUT Playing For Change

With a tour kicking off this week for The
PFC Band, Mark Johnson’s ongoing efforts to bring unknown street musicians to
the masses pick up steam.

 

BY NANCY DUNHAM

 

Almost a decade
ago, while en route to work at the legendary Hit Factory, Grammy Award-winning engineer/producer
Mark Johnson stopped in his tracks. Two monks, painted white from head to toe, were
singing in a New York City
subway station, accompanied only by the ragged notes of a nylon-string guitar. He
wasn’t alone. The monks had attracted an audience of hundreds, many of whom
were weeping.

 

“[We] were blown
away by the performance; the music was jaw-dropping,” says Johnson. “I realized
some of the best music I have ever heard in my life may have been in the street
or just in life outside the studio.”

 

That experience
returned to Johnson six years later when, on the opposite end of the country in
Santa Monica, he
saw a street musician singing Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” That’s when Johnson
decided to put his ideas into action. He gathered backers for Playing for
Change, a project that would take him around the world to record more than 100
unknown musicians from New Orleans to the Middle East. In April of 2009 he released the music in a CD/DVD
set aptly titled Playing For Change –
Songs Around the World
, raising money for such projects such as a music
school in Gugulethu, South Africa. This was followed a
few months later by the Playing For
Change – Peace Through Music
documentary. As it did that day in NYC, the
music resonated with many – to the tune of 30 million YouTube hits alone for a
“Stand By Me” video Johnson and his crew created.

 

Johnson
subsequently put together a group of musicians he dubbed The PFC Band and took
them to such disparate locales as Los Angeles, Vancouver, Madrid and Britain’s
Glastonbury Festival, documenting the tour for another CD/DVD combo, Playing For Change Live, just out via
the Concord Music Group and featuring guest performances from Keb’ Mo’,
Tinariwen, Toots Hibbert and Ziggy Marley. It’s a timely release, as The PFC
Band’s 2010 tour kicked off this week on June 14 and will run through July 18.

 

“This is an
amazing way to show people the power of music,” says Johnson. “It’s also a very
humbling experience to watch how people use music not just as a way to
entertain themselves but literally to survive.”

 

 

AND LOADS OF ROCKABILLY Imelda May

Her U.S. tour with Jeff Beck already in full swing, the
U.K.
songstress prepares to move forward into “Mayhem”.

 

BY NANCY DUNHAM

 

It’s difficult not to love Imelda May. Forget the
rockabilly/blues she sings with such abandon, the Irish woman is truly one of
the most exuberant, energetic, friendly people you’ll likely meet. Remember
seeing her on the Grammy Awards and thinking how nice she seemed? She really is
just that way – chatty, happy, and very forthcoming.

 

Let’s face it – anyone whose music has caught the ear of
Jeff Beck not to mention the ears of music fans in her home country and throughout
the U.K. – has the right to sport a huge ego. But even after the guitar legend
tapped her to sing “Lilac Wine” on his album Emotion & Commotion and perform with him at the Grammys, May seems
willing to talk about the musical sensation she has generated as almost a
matter of Irish luck and some perseverance.

 

Of course everyone knows that it’s May’s incredible talent
that brought her music to the forefront. Get prepared for lot more buzz when
her new album is released in the U.S., most likely later this year
or early 2001.

 

But just who is Imelda May, really? To find out, BLURT spoke
the woman about her influences, career and how a crow named Dave helped her get
the career break of a lifetime.

 

***

 

BLURT: How did you
discover that you wanted a career in music?

 

MAY: Funny enough I was already doing it before I realized
what I wanted to do. I was 16 when I started singing in a blues club in Dublin. They used to sneak
me into these places and the security man would turn a blind eye because he
knew I was singing in there. I was at that teenage age trying to figure out
what I wanted to do with me life. I was already doing it. It had just never
dawned on me that it was something you could do as a career. It was something
that I loved and I was doing it trying to get gigs, sitting in on jam session
with fantastic musicians on Monday evenings, and we’d play late. I’d be there
’til four or five in the morning. My poor parents would be tearing their hair
out wondering where I was and I’d be sitting in front of a band or jumping up
on stage.

 

 That’s great that the music community was so
open, that they welcomed you in.

 

 I was probably a
novelty to them, because I absolutely loved it. 
I went to college just for one year, for a foundation. And you get a
little bit of everything. I loved that but it wasn’t something I wanted to do.
It felt like a chore. So I rarely did my work and then I thought, “Hang on a
second. I’m doing the wrong thing.” I was about 17 when it dawned on me what I
wanted to do. I was already in deep. I am glad I got into music because I
absolutely love it. It definitely is a calling. Sometimes I wouldn’t get paid
at gigs and I’d find a way to make it work.

 

 It’s nice to be paid though.

 

 Next week is my uncle
Patty’s 80th birthday and I’m flying back to Dublin for It. It was him that gave me words
of wisdom when I was 17. I was sitting in a newspaper van — he sold and
delivered the newspapers around – and he asked me if I was busy. I said, “Yeah,
I’m really busy.” And he asked me what gigs I was doing and I said, “I’m doing
this gig and that gig and this one.” And he said to me, “Are you getting paid?”
And I said, “No, no, no I’m just really glad to be on.” And he looked at me and
he said, “If you’re that cheap, you’ll never be idle.” That was when I started
to think about asking some kind of a fee.

 

 Tell me about your first gig

 

 My brother-in-law was
a musician and he had me singing a bluesy number and I went down where he was
doing a gig in a little pub, downstairs in this pub in Dublin. I was there with my sister and my
brother to see my brother in law play. And then he called me up to sing the
song on the stage, and that’s when I was about 16 and I never left.

 

 Were you nervous?

 

 I remember my knees
were literally knocking. And it was a really long song with six verses in it
and I forgot them all and I just sang one verse six times, and everyone in the
pub cheered really loudly. I went down every week from there. They had jam
sessions so it was a great way of learning and seeing lots of different styles
and I was just addicted then. And from there I’d meet people and they’d say, “I
have a gig; why don’t you come to that and sing a couple of numbers with us?” I
figured out the keys to the songs and I’d write them on me hand and then I’d go
to the gigs with all these keys written on me hand.

      Sunday afternoon
there used to be jam sessions in a little café and my other brother used to
bring me. He’s a taxi driver so he’d bring me and then come and collect me. My
family was very supportive. They come down and keep an eye and make sure I was
all right.

 

 Is that when you started to write music?

 

  I was 14 years old
when I started to write. Rubbish I have to say. They weren’t fabulous songs I
have to say – “Walking hand in hand in the sand.” They were real rubbish. I
started at that age and it was just from listening to all kinds of music and
just kept going and didn’t actually perform me own songs ’til I got this band
together three or four years ago. I was always in other people’s bands but I always
wrote. Sometimes I gave my songs to other people to do but I never did them
myself. I wanted to write songs for somebody and give to them to do. Then I
started my own band and I never looked back. I was so delighted. I feel
fulfilled to be able to do my own songs eventually, at last, and I remember the
excitement of it.

 

 Why did you start your own band?

 

 It was the right
time. I needed to do my own thing. I really, really wanted to do my own songs.
One night we were in France and I was signing with [a band] and I was back
stage with the bass player. I sang one of my songs to him after I told him I gave
it to someone else. He said, “What are you giving that away for?” I said, “I
don’t know.  I wrote it and thought a man
should sing it, not a woman.” He told me I was wrong. So I left the band I was
in and asked some friends would they be interested in joining and they said
yes, and I never looked back. It’s grown wings and taken flight, if you will. I
wish I had done it years ago.

 

 How did you begin to work with Jeff Beck?

 

 My husband had worked
with him before. Later we were doing a gig and Jeff came to the gig. I had a
pet crow that I rescued from local pack and we were raising him. He needed
somewhere to go because he was starting to fly and I wanted him to go back to
the wild. And Jeff Beck’s wife was there and she rescues animals and they had a
crow and came to have a look at Dave, our crow. She said, “Funny enough, I have
an aviary space available at the moment. I would love to take the crow off your
hands. Come down to the house and see if you want to give him to us.”

      So after the gig we went down to their house
and then they took Dave and we ended up staying there for the weekend and had
lots of tea and drank lots of gin and sang songs and Jeff said we have to do
some stuff together and before we knew it we were recording.

 

 I can’t even imagine working with someone like
Jeff Beck.

 

 He is a genius. One
night he took the comb from my back pocket and played a song with my comb and
it sounded fantastic. He tried to show me some chords [on the guitar] but I
have normal human fingers and he has these magic fingers that can fly all over
the place. I laughed my head off because one thing he was showing me he said
was really simple. It was easy – for him. It breaks your heart some of the
songs he plays; they are fantastic. Oh my God. On his new album he asked me to
sing “Lilac Wine.” With “Lilac Wine” I wanted to keep it simple and sweet so
people could just hear the song as it is.

 

 You knocked them dead at The Grammy Awards.

 

The Grammys were amazing. It was almost like I had dreamt it
all.  Jeff had mentioned it before but
you don’t want to let yourself believe you might actually get there and you
think that’s too good to be true. A week before Jeff said yes, you’re going.
You’ll be on.

      I tried to
scramble and get my dress together. When we got there we went straight to sound
check and then to the hotel to sleep. Then the next morning they were getting
camera angles and stuff. Then we did loads of interviews, rehearsals, watched
the Grammys, then I was on, then we did the Red Carpet somewhere in the middle
of all that. We went back to the hotel to sleep, went to bed, got up early in
the morning, hopped on a flight home and the next thing I know I’m lying in my
own bed. I think, “Did I just dream all of that?” It was so fast! But it was
fantastic. It was weird looking back. I think, “Did I really do it?”

      I was glad in
the way the day was manic because I didn’t get to think about it. If I had
thought about it I would have gotten myself in an awful knot. Someone told me
how many million viewers and I thought, “Oh my God.” But this way you just do
what you do and enjoy it without thinking too much on it and just enjoy it with
the music really and to play with Jeff is magnificent really and to get to do a
Les Paul tribute for me — and I know for Jeff — was a huge honor.

 

 Your album Love
Tattoo
has been out for a while. When can we expect your next album?

 

 I’m sitting in the
studio now waiting do the last couple tweaks of a couple songs [for the next
album]. In England and in Ireland it will be out in September but [released]
later in the States. You know, we like to tour when an album is released.
That’s more fun for us anyway. As soon as we can get over there we’ll get it
out there.

 

 Can you tell me about it? The title and how
the music perhaps differs from your other albums?

 

 I’m going to call it Mayhem. It still has a lot of the same
influences [of past albums]. It has a little bit more rockabilly and lots of
blues — because obviously I started singing the blues so I’ll always have that
— little bit of jazz, little bit of country. It has the same diversity the
last album has.

 

 Those different influences are what make your
music so rich.

 

 Actually I used to
get knocked for that. People said you couldn’t do all that styling; you have to
pick one or the other. I’m glad I am stubborn and I’m glad I didn’t listen to
anybody. I was also told by a few people get rid of the rockabilly, it’s the
kiss of death.

      And once again
I’m glad I’m a stubborn, fiery Irish woman who completely ignored everybody and
did my own thing because I’m absolutely loving it to bits. I’m really enjoying
what I’m doing with the next album.  It
does have a few more influences like a bit of Blondie and The Pretenders and
that kind of sound. So there are a few songs like that [but] the rest is blues,
jazz  – and loads of rockabilly.

 

 

 

BLONDE ON BONDS Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

After a period of
doubt, their soulful, self-titled third album finds them returning, regrouping
and reinventing themselves.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

“Hold on,” Grace Potter tells her interviewer abruptly,
before yelling to the unexpected guest at her door. “I’m doing an interview. I’ll talk to you in a little bit.”

 

Message delivered, she returns to the business at hand. “My
dad just knocked on the door,” she explains. “He has a bucket of ash that he’s
going to put out on the trail. It’s very slippery outside our house right now.
He’s surprised, because I’m never on the phone.”

 

That momentary exchange says a lot about Grace Potter, who,
up until recently, was simply a small town girl testing her fortunes at the
helm of a college combo, dubbed the Nocturnals due to their forced late night
rehearsal schedule. At the time she was a budding singer hoping to transform a
homegrown sound mined from rustic influences like Dylan, the Band, Neil Young
and other roots-relevant predecessors into something that she and her comrades
could call their own.

 

“That’s what I grew up listening too,” Potter confides,
referencing her dad who presumably is out in the yard emptying the contents of
his pail on her pathway. “My parents had impeccable taste in music and that was
my idea of what was hip, so I’m glad it comes through. In fact, I never knew
Bob Dylan was such a popular artist early on because I kind of discovered him
around Nashville Skyline.  So to me Nashville
Skyline
was his natural voice. One of my biggest eye-opening moments was –
here, she goes into a mock Dylan drawl – that
this guy really sang like this
. It was really wild for me. That kind of
taught me that you can reinvent yourself and you can change.” She then proceeds
to lay out a roll call of early influences: “The Band, the Allman Brothers,
Spooky Tooth, Steeleye Span… a lot of stuff around that time, like King
Crimson, Jethro Tull… “

 

Admittedly, it’s a surprisingly eclectic list, especially
coming from the lips of one who was presumably too young to have even been born
around the era being referenced, specifically, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

 

“Me and my dad bonded over music when I was going through my
adolescent phase,” Potter explains. “It was great to sit down and realize I
didn’t have to go to the record store to pick up the cool stuff. I was the cool
kid in class who would make these really obscure mix tapes and my classmates
would go ‘Jethro Who?’ My folks headed up this cool little production company
called Dream On Productions – it was a precursor to MTV — so they could write
off their record purchases. So I had a lot of that visual/musical experience
going on as a kid, and it certainly carried over because now I visualize my
songs, and I think about all my songs as movies.”

 

She chuckles, sensing she’s starting to sound a bit
dramatic.

 

“But maybe that’s just my ego.”

 

Ego seems out of sync for a small town girl who still lives
near her parents in the idyllic environs of the Madrigal Valley situated in the
center of Vermont. “This is perfect terrain this time of year,” she said of the
January winter at the time when Blurt spoke with her. “There’s not as many tourists and it’s a nice time of year for
me to be anonymous. It’s a small town, but I can go about my daily schedule and
not be, you know, scared off by the crowds. 
There are three ski areas that surround the valley that I live in… it’s
very artist heavy. And very snow bunny heavy on the mountain. It’s gorgeous.”

 

So gorgeous apparently that Potter’s never left. And while
that hardly befits the image of an emerging rock star whose vocal reach falls
midway between, say, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Bramlett, she does admit to one
diva-esque indulgence. “My biological clock is set to a different setting than
most people,” she concedes. “I sleep ridiculously late. I’m a very late sleeper. By the time I wake
up, the sun is setting. The night time is the right time, what I can say?”

 

Potter claims she’s been singing since she was a toddler,
when she would trade vocals with her cousin in her grandparents’ backyard. “My
grandparents would be sitting in the hammocks and we would be singing in each
other’s faces and pretending we were having a singing competition for the
world’s greatest singer. My cousin has a great voice but I was loud, like in
the ‘Annie’ category. I was aggressive from the get-go, but I went through a
phase of being really quiet. I was a hushed vocalist when Matt (Burr), our
original drummer, an original Nocturnal, first saw me singing Joni Mitchell and
Neil Young songs in a café with a piano and kind of crying into my drink. That
was my hushed phase, kind of post-9/11, when everybody wanted that sort of
soothing sound, like the Norah Jones kind of thing… and it felt like the right
thing to do, to sing this subtle careful music. But after the band formed and
we got amplifiers, that’s when I started singing loud again because I had to
sing over everybody.  However, I first
sang that way as a kid and later during my adolescent years, my early college
years, and then it went away again. Eventually though, I just became the loud
grave digger I’ve always been.”

 

The Nocturnals’ first two albums – Nothing But the Water (2005) and This Is Somewhere (2007) – took their cue from the rustic
influences bestowed by The Band, Neil Young, and the more homegrown elements
that populated her parent’s record library. “We were digging into the roots and
taking the time-tested examples,” she recalls. “When we were recording our
first couple of records, we would sit there with our Band and Neil Young
records and play them to our engineer, and say, ‘Make it sound as much like
this as possible.’ Now we don’t think in those terms anymore. It’s about
inventing something that’s completely fresh and untouched. It’s a natural
progression, although it feels so exciting. I know every artist goes through
it, but to me, you don’t know until you get there, because if you asked me four
years ago I would say, ‘Oh no, I’m going to write songs from the perspective of
a 55 year old woman forever because that’s what works for me and I like playing
that character and blah, blah, blah.’ 
But I played that character and that was one thing and this is another,
and I’ve lived a little bit of life now and I have my own stories to tell.”

 

Indeed, that’s evident in their new album, aptly self-titled
as if to reflect the band’s rebirth. Working with a new producer, Mark Batson
(Dr. Dre, Dave Matthews Band, Alicia Keys, Eminem etc.), the Nocturnals opted
to abruptly shift their stance. Consequently, Potter channels her inner Joplin,
while the newly expanded Nocturnals morph from a rural communal aggregate into
a combo fueled by soulful bluster. Always a powerhouse in terms of her gritty
delivery, Potter ups the ante in terms of crafting a more powerful presence,
wailing away on sinewy, soulful manifestos like “Paris,” “Oasis,” “Only Love”
and “One Short Night” while the rest of the outfit responds with an equally
emphatic delivery, rummaging through 13 tracks with a wail and wallop that’s
bound to make longtime listeners take notice.

 

For her part, Potter tends to agree with that
assessment.  “Sure. Absolutely. We took
so many risks, and we did a couple of things that made us say, ‘What were we
doing? We really went out there!’ I do hope those risks pay off.”

 

The evolution of Grace
Potter and the Nocturnals
was initially precipitated by the material, which
first found Potter writing on her own, and then, at her record label’s urging,
in tandem with Batson.  It also followed the
departure of longtime bassist Bryan Dondero, which nearly had a devastating
affect of the group’s psyche.  “Right
around the time that Bryan left the band, I was working in L.A., working on
songs and feeling very aimless, aimless in terms of the record – when it was
going to happen, how it was going to happen and who was going to play on it? I
was thinking like, do I even have a band?”

 

“So Mark and I started writing songs in the midst of all
that. It was a very short time that we sat writing together, but we turned out
14 songs. We would write two or three a day. We were insanely prolific and I
had never co-written in my life with anybody, so I was nervous, I was worried,
I didn’t want to give away that piece of myself as a really capable songwriter,
like a piece of my own skin. But within five minutes, we had this completely
symbiotic work sense, so it was really perfect. He’s done a lot of co-writing
but he’s been perceived mainly as a producer and at first our relationship was
purely songwriting for four months or so, through the spring and into the
summer.”

 

Meanwhile, the singer had also accepted an offer to work
with famed producer (and Americana guru) T Bone Burnett
. Recalls Potter, “It
seemed like a great time for me to jump on an amazing opportunity to work with
a legend and his amazing team of studio musicians – Jim Keltner, Mark Ribot and
Dennis Crouch.” She goes on to describe the ensuing sessions as “magical. It
was like taking a masters class in studio recording. But, as the sessions
developed, it became clear that this project was more of a solo album. I’m
incredibly blessed to have worked with T Bone and I feel a lifelong connection
to him. It’s a rare privilege to do a project like that, and I look forward to
a time when I can share it with the world.”

 

Shortly thereafter, the Nocturnals drafted two new members –
Catherine Popper on bass, replacing the departed Dondero, and Benny Yuro, who
started sharing guitar duties with original recruit Scott Tournet. This set the
stage for recording with Batson, for as Potter explains, “Later in the summer
when I started touring with the new lineup, my label saw some video of us at
Bonnaroo, and I got a call the next week saying, ‘We need to capture this
energy. You guys wanna go into the studio and bang out a few demos?’ Then the
demos quickly materialized into a full-length record with Mark.”

 

Adds Potter, “I think the real change was the new band
members. It was a slow epiphany. It certainly wasn’t a moment. These two new
musicians came into the picture and I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going
to change with that. I think that a lot of bands go through that. You lose a
member, you add a member, you add a new sound, you add a number – it went from
a four-piece band to a five-piece band. That one addition changed so much about
what we do and what kind of music we’re playing and the epiphany was the really
fresh sound.  It was a new
direction.  Over time, over the years,
you keep on adding people, but you can only capture the lightning in a bottle
once ever, and it was just really exciting and magical to be able to do that
with these guys.

 

“When Bryan left, it was a somewhat tricky and emotional
time in the band’s career,” Potter continues. “Not to say the band fell apart,
or that me and Scott and Matt said, ‘Okay, we’re going to disband and there’s
not going to be a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals,’ but within the band, it
felt very much like a hole in the entire future of our group, so the idea of
replacing Bryan was not in our mind at the time. Yet, we had some gigs we were
already committed to and so we needed to fill in for him for those shows and
for a VH1 Woodstock movie documentary (Woodstock:
Then and Now
, for which the group recorded Jefferson Airplane’s “White
Rabbit,” which later showed up in the Alice
in Wonderland
soundtrack as well). So the whole changeover in the band was
kind of an emotional time and it was a time of not knowing what was going to
happen next.  And what happened next was
Catherine Popper was looking for a job and it was either us or Led Zeppelin (laughs), so she said ‘I’ll come in and
do a quick audition and whatever.’ Benny had already been in rock bands that
had played with us, so he already knew our songs. And we just pulled it
together for that VH1 movie and at the end of the session, we all just looked
at each other and said, ‘My God, we have a band!’  As we got going and the band formed,
everything kind of happened at once and there was this kind of sliding scale of
experiences where you can hear it in the lyrics of the songs – it changed from
‘Tiny Lights,’ which was one of the first songs we wrote, to ‘Hot Summer
Night,’ which was one of the last songs we wrote. Things were really heating up
and we breezed through the record.”

 

Still, for all the factors that transpired simultaneously,
Potter says the elements fell in place in a completely organic manner. “It was
just completely natural and it all just sort of happened,” she maintains. “I’m
telling you, some of these songs fell out of us so quickly like I’ve never seen
or ever hope to be able to see again. The demo for the song ‘Oasis’ was a
reggae song or a hip-hop thing, and we thought, ‘How is this going to make
sense to our fans that have heard us for years?’  Benny and Scott had this guitar piece going
that was so endearing and wonderful, and all of a sudden, the hook just formed
and the song took shape and we were ready to record it. And every single song
on this album was the second or third take at the very least. ‘White Rabbit’ we
recorded in the same session and that was the first take. There were a lot of
first takes on this record. The word synergy can’t be overused to describe what
was happening.  In fact, I don’t know if
we went into the studio now if it would come out just the same.”

 

Given this change in m.o., Potter is the first to admit that
her band has never fit comfortably into a single narrow divide.  Elements of country rock, R&B, Americana
and a jam band instinct have all been tossed out to describe the group in the
past. In fact, for many bands, the inability to be narrow cast would likely be
considered a handicap, especially when attempting to market them to a specific
audience. 

 

“I think that’s a blessing,” Potter counters. “It’s tricky
because we’re that gray area band. We don’t fit into a perfect sock – ‘Oh, this
is a Coachella band or this is a band that we could put on MTV, or let’s have
them cut a video for Japan and have them tour over there forever.’ There’s no
simple way to put us and there’s so much possibility, but in terms of being a
crossover act, all those possibilities can become mind-boggling and you don’t
know what path to choose. So that’s been the case over the past seven years.
You just follow whatever path it’s going to be and see what happens. But I
never look back and wonder what would have happened. Certainly every step has
become more fundamental in where we eventually wound up.”

 

While the trajectory may be tricky, Potter has no doubt as
to their goals. “I plan on world domination myself,” she declares without
hesitation. “I have utter faith. I’d like to start with Europe because I always
wanted to tour over there and travel. I lived in Spain – when my parents
couldn’t handle me anymore they just said, ‘God, put her on a plane and put her
somewhere away from us.’ So Europe is a big one for me. I’d love to get to
Asia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland and we did a mini tour over there. We
played St. Patrick’s Day week and we had a great time.”

 

Regardless of future destinations, Potter insists she’s
pleased with the progress so far.  “I
grew up an artist’s kid and my parents raised me right and I feel really,
really lucky to be coming from that place. It’s much harder when you’ve had to
fight against the current. My folks have been incredibly supportive of me since
the beginning, so that’s where the pride comes from.”

 

 

BONNAROO MUST BE DESTROYED! Oderus Urungus & GWAR

“Some people are glad I’m spewing cum on
them”: concertgoers at this week’s Bonnaroo festival will get their chance to
share the love.

 

BY MICHAEL G.
PLUMIDES, JR.

 

It’s been a
banner year for interplanetary (by way of Richmond, VA) heavy metal merchants
GWAR, what with the release of their 12th album, Lust In Space, in the process reuniting
with their old label Metal Blade; launching a major tour, which included a
week-long “Crack-A-Thon” held in April in Brooklyn featuring numerous special
guests; and of course frontman Oderus Urungus’ ongoing gig as a correspondent
for Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld-hosted Red Eye program. What’s surely a career capper for the band, however, is the upcoming
appearance at Bonnaroo, on Saturday night (June 12), on The Other Tent stage. GWAR’s
newfound Bonnaroo headliner status elevates the group to a level on par with
such previous superstar appearances as Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, the Police
and Kanye West even as it raises eyebrows among GWAR’s rabid fanbase. World
domination clearly awaits.

 

Anyway, herein
find a candid conversation conducted with Urungus (a/k/a David Brockie), who discussed
a number of issues and subjects ranging from the Bonnaroo gig and Metal Blade
to the band’s notorious 1990 obscenity bust and issues stemming from walking
around for 25 years with the massive Cuttlefish of C’thulhu dangling between
his legs. And for those readers needing more GWAR (of course you need
more GWAR; who doesn’t?) you can check it out elsewhere on
the BLURT website
.

 

***

 

BLURT: Do you feel that playing Bonnaroo
is validating? How do you feel about all the Americana acts going on earlier?

 

ODERUS: That’s
fine with me, all the drunkest most fucked-up people will be there. As far as
the opening acts, I must say that I am neither aware or concerned, though I
would like to see the Steve Martin banjo band.

 

How about your relationship with Greg
Gutfeld and Fox News –  don’t you think
it’s ironic that some of the same right wingers that wanted to put your lights
out twenty years ago are now capitalizing on your notoriety?

 

Greg’s great and
it’s a ton of fun being on the show. I am part of the Red Eye family and it’s really cool. They love GWAR and I don’t
give a shit that it’s on Fox News.  Most
people end up watching the clips on YouTube anyway. But I would say this is a
good example of us being good businessmen for once. We took a one-shot deal and
turned it into a recurring thing. I hope I am on Red Eye forever – as the Intergalactic Correspondent – as long as i
get my own show at some point.

 

You said something previously about the
Cuttlefish of C’thulhu possibly being to blame for GWAR’s lack of mainstream
success.  Expand on that.

 

I just meant
that me walking around with my dick hanging out for 25 years has impacted GWAR in
both a negative and positive way. Some people are glad I’m spewing cum on them,
and some see my massive girth and are filled with a jealous rage.

 

How many times have you been arrested for
your costume?  And what’s this about
having problems with the Canadian passport office? Being a Canadian National,
why does Canada
hassle you?

 

I have only been
arrested “sans pants” one time but have come close on countless
occasions. The Canadians are fine with GWAR after not being so much so for a
long time. It’s just that their passports expire every five years and it’s a
real pain to get them renewed. That, and I am sure there is a whole file full
of obscene GWAR shit that pops up every time they punch my name into the
computer.

 

Talk about your rekindled relationship
with Brian Slagel and Metal Blade for Lust
in Space
.  Do you attribute your
recent success to the reunion?

 

Partially, I
believe that, yes. I think we had to get away from Metal Blade in order to
understand how much we missed them. There is a lot to be said about a label
that survives 30 years in this world. It’s good to have a home, and without a
decent label behind you, you miss a lot of opportunities that being part of a network
and family brings you.

      It’s super cool seeing bands like
Cannibal Corpse and GWAR getting the success they deserve for keeping it going
so long, and Metal Blade is a big part of that.

 

September will mark the 20th anniversary
of your getting busted for obscenity, following a performance at the 4808 Club
– which I operated – in Charlotte, NC. 1992’s America Must Be Destroyed album was about the Charlotte arrests. And the Grammy-nominated Phallus in Wonderland video was
obviously about your odyssey and ordeal in Charlotte. What are your feelings about what
happened then, and in hindsight would you have done things differently in the
early days?

 

I can’t say I
would have done anything differently; I am pretty satisfied with my life and
the direction it is taking. I maybe wouldn’t have blown all the money my mom
left me on drugs and loose women. But it was fun, hell, and now that I am broke
again I can fully embrace my starving artist roots.

 

You’ve read my book, Kill The Music, documenting the 1990 arrests, right? You and I
were both jailed for the alleged “obscene” performance… 

 

I knew it
wouldn’t be long before you worked yourself into this interview! Yes, I think
you did a fine job, though I didn’t get enough page-time. You left out the
whole scene where we had sex!

 

There’s only so much prison sex I can
discuss in this forum. Anyway, with GWAR melting the polar ice caps by burning
crack 24-7, what forecast does Oderus have for Earth in the near future?

 

I predict at
least another 25 years of GWAR! That, and the oceans will turn into oil.

 

Michael G. Plumides Jr. is the author of
the 2009 memoir
Kill The
Music. An excerpt from the book detailing
the incidents leading up to and surrounding the GWAR obscenity bust appeared in
the third print issue of BLURT.

 

[Photo Credit:
Courtesy Gwar.net]

 

 

JAMMIN’ WITH LEVON John McEuen

Legend meets legend: the
famed Dirt Band multiinstrumentalist helps The Band’s Levon Helm blow out some 70th birthday candles up in Woodstock.

 

BY JOHN McEUEN

 

Oh, What a Night! I
didn’t know “sitting in” at Levon Helm’s 70th birthday party was going
to
remind me what music was about in such a powerful manner, but it did,
song
after song. There were enough musicians for two bands, but everyone
graciously
made room for each other for solos and, although I felt like the guy on
the
lowest rung of the music ladder, they backed me like it was my ladder. 

Levon’s spirited attitude and obvious love of what he is doing
draws you in, as
he sets down the perfect feel for whatever song is played. When I wasn’t
playing, I stood next to his drums, and it was wonderful to hear them in
his
hands – they weren’t loud, but musical. 

Levon Helm has
been one of my favorite music influences since he first opened that
door to mixing up Americana
acoustic sensibilities and singing with drums, piano, and mandolin;
well, rock
and roll in the way that I liked it. I think he saved the Dirt Band back
when
The Band’s Music From Big Pink came
out. 

In 1968 the NGDB was in Baker, Oregon, for
four long months of ‘work’ on Paramount’s
Paint Your Wagon. Jeff and I listened to the just released Pink every day after our 12 hour set
days. It was in the cards, I think, that when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
disbanded after Wagon, and Jeff and I
put it back together 6 months later, that the Big Pink album –
with its half-time drum master showing the way –
would give as a great viewpoint for some our new music. 

Levon’s friendship and hospitality brought me back to that time, the
’60s haze,
when I never thought I could even meet someone of his caliber, and now
we were
playing together. Had not done that since The Band played Wisconsin’s
Mole Lake Bluegrass Festival,
and I opened for them in 1990. That was a great night, and happened not
long
after I had composed the music score for a film Levon was starring in, The
Man Outside
.

They brought David Amram back up to the stage
when I was jamming with the Helm
band with Helm at the helm, as I had invited him to play with me on my
set. He
blew the room away, as usual. 

Even though there were enough
musicians for two bands, everyone graciously made
room for each other for solos. Donald Fagen was great as expected, and
the
4-man horn section killed, as did the B-3 player, standup bass, guitar
pickers
and chick singers. 

Somewhere around hour 2, the horn section
started marching around the room
during a Dixieland style song, and the place went nuts. It actually went
nuts
about every 15-20 minutes over this 3 hour set, with the rest just
getting by
with rousing approval and loud applause.

Bandleader Larry
Campbell was equally masterful fingerpicking acoustic and
searing electric guitars, as well as a variety of vocals in styles all
over the
Americana
musicscape. AND, he played fiddle.. and really did it right. He
suggested we
twin fiddle on one, and then that I sing ‘Circle Be Unbroken’…and we
did.

Double fiddles with ‘Diggy Liggy Lo’ sung and played by
Larry; a ‘Circle/Sunnyside’
medley sung and played by me… ‘The Weight’… All with this incredible
band
behind me of stellar players. You know that if they are playing with
Levon,
they are stellar. And although I felt like the guy on the lowest rung of
the
music ladder, they treated me like it was my ladder while playing
backing me.

The room stood up and sang ‘Circle,’ and I think
the roof raised a bit when the
girl took the lead at the end. It really was chilling and hot at the
same time!
Amram’s tin whistle solos got such a rousing response every time he took
one I
asked him after the show to ‘please play a little less… you’re too
hard to
follow’… and of course we laughed about that.

I had played
with the Band a couple of times, but this was the most fun jamming
since Bill Monroe joined me in a Swiss bar in 1993.

 

But, that’s
another story…

 

John McEuen’s tenure with
the Dirt Band, a/k/a the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is among Americana’s richest and most fruitful. Seriously – did we mention the dude’s a legend? Do we
even need to mention the ground-breaking NGDB-steered album
May The Circle Be Unbroken? His tutelage of ace banjo player Steve
Martin (you may have heard of him…)?  If
you need more convincing, why not check out his “Acoustic Traveller” program
that airs on XM Satellite Radio (“The Village,” channel 15) the first Tuesday
of each month. Oh, and by the way – he plays Bonnaroo this weekend and then
heads off onto a tour that stretches through the end of July. Tour dates at his
MySpace page and his official website.

 

 

 

 

SINGLES (STILL) GOING STEADY Five Hundred 45s

Record collector porn?
Tribute to the subtleties – and vagaries – of sleeve design? A new graphic
history of the 45 is a little bit of both.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

“A single,” writes guitarist and musicologist Lenny Kaye in
his introduction for the truth-in-titling Five
Hundred 45s: A Graphic History of the Seven-Inch Record
(Collins Design), “stands
alone. An album, by its very definition, relies on segue and assemblage, the
emphasis on the artisan. But in a single, the song takes precedence.
Appreciated on its own terms, a single… is a world unto itself.”

 

Kaye further notes how a single’s picture sleeve is “the
dress shirt put on for a special occasion… an adornment chosen with care” – to
which a chorus of visual voices, some 500 strong spread across the book’s 480
pages, offers a hearty, “Amen, brother Kaye.”

 

You know the drill by now, as regards record sleeve
anthologies (cue up memories of the grandaddy of ‘em all, 1977’s iconic Album Cover Album): assemble full-color
repros of the sleeves – typically culled from multiple eras, although some
books zero in on specific time frames or genres – as visual pornography for
record collectors while sequencing the parade of images in such a manner as to
bring out aesthetic or thematic similarities. With the appropriate degree of
internal logic applied, even a pair of sleeves representing wildly different
eras and musical dispositions can appear linked, and for those of us who
consider rock ‘n’ roll to be a continuum rather than a collection of boxes, the
buzz one gets from the lightbulb that starts to flicker above the head is
electric indeed.

 

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the obvious eye candy
aspect of all this; every fan has experienced staring slack-jawed and
occasionally drooling at records he or she maybe wanted but never could find,
or had seen but couldn’t buy, or even owned but hadn’t looked at in a long time
and therefore the rush of familiarity was like running into an old friend…
whew. It’s actually the juxtaposition-of-images element of a book such as this
that’s probably the most delight-inducing, and I’d wager that’s as true for the
editor-compilers as for the readers. Five
Hundred 45s
authors Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz are both creative
directors and graphic designers who’ve worked on album sleeves for everyone
from Bon Jovi, the Beach Boys and U2 to Talking Heads, the Ramones and Lou
Reed, so they’ve certainly got the background that would allow them to discern
even the subtlest design congruencies among disparate source material. It’s not
altogether unlikely they might even be partial to the occasional inside joke
slipped sideways into their book, knowing that only fellow designers or hard-core
collector geeks will pick up on the references.

 

That in mind, some of the image-grouping here is so logical
as to be patently obvious (though no less delightful). Consider the series of
single sleeves from the Beatles, Manfred Mann, Jan & Dean and the Turtles
showing each group posed on a beach. Or two 45s from Frank Sinatra and Nat King
Cole depicting them in lonely/afterhours settings. Or a collection of Christmas
singles from Flat Duo Jets, Band Aid, Untamed Youth and the Cricketones: the
latter, operative over a half-century hence, apparently specialized in
holly-jolly images of Santa and Frosty, who somehow come off creepier than the
alcoholic, maniac ho-ho-hot-rodding Santas of the Jets and Youth sleeves. One
imagines a more in-depth examination of popular record sleeves from the ‘50s
would yield further examples of the repressed id that churned beneath the cultural
surface.

 

Other pairings are so improbable that I’ll wager no one
considered them until the proverbial lightbulb moment happened during a marathon
sleeve-flipping session among the compilers and the collector-benefactors who
pitched in to bring this project to fruition. Pigface’s “Empathy” 45 and a 1982
reissue of Cream’s “Badge,” for example, turn out to be not-so-strange
bedfellows, visually, thanks to the bold use of purple, red and white
geometrics. The members of Grand Funk Railroad and Madness line up behind one
another and fairly march in tandem across two pages, although I’ll lay a side
bet that no one has ever spun the
songs “Walk Like A Man” and “One Step Beyond” back to back. And speaking of
lightbulb moments, someone was clearly on the floor, clutching belly and
laughing hysterically when it was suggested that matching up Ism’s “I Think I
Love You” and an obscure Spanish Steppenwolf EP might be righteous; the almost
rabid look on the stylized wolf’s face that appears on the latter sleeve is weirdly,
uncomfortably similar to the grinning expressions that grace the humping-dog
mockups of David Cassidy and Shirley Jones on the former sleeve (of which more
than one wag has commented that they could never watch The Partridge Family again with a straight face after looking at
Ism’s brand of artistic license).

 

The book’s loaded with “aha!” or smirk-inducing moments such
as those, in fact. Some of my favorites included the similarities between:

 

(1) the Boomtown Rats’ “Rat Trap” and The Jacksons’ “Body,”
both of which show the groups posed semi-pyramid fashion, and with some members
in striped attire;

(2) The Chubbies’ “I’m The King,” featuring frontwoman
Jeannette Kantzalis standing in front of a U.S. flag and wielding a guitar, and
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” 45 sleeve, leading me to presume (but I
can’t be positive) it was a deliberate homage;

(3) a festive-looking El Vez (a/k/a The Mexican Elvis) sleeve
and a Blue Hawaii-related Elvis Presley sleeve – and of course we
know El Vez was paying tribute to The
King;

(4) a stark, black-and-white “Blank Generation” by Richard
Hell & the Voidoids and the Cramps’ original “Drug Train” 45, both records
I still own and cherish as much for the sleeves as for the songs (which I
distinctly recall playing to death);  and

(5) any number of sleeves designed by Kozik, Coop and other
latterday underground-artists who typically rendered their subjects in garish,
almost neon/day-glow colors while depicting them as buxom Satanic babes, cartoonish
monsters and mutant cartoon critters.

 

The book also includes a series of essays penned by designer
John Foster, film producer (and avid singles collector) Stuart Goldman, New
Bomb Turks singer Eric Davidson, Halo Of Flies/Amphetamine Reptile Records
mainman Tom Hazelmyer (no stranger himself to the allure of creating limited
edition collectors’ items), and Bruce Licher of Savage
Republic/Scenic/Independent Project Records fame (discussing his work using
letterpress printing to create some of the modern era’s most striking LP and 45
sleeves). Davidson, who authored the recent We
Never Learn
book about ‘90s punk, gets in some of the best lines as he
writes about the joys – and sorrows – about wandering into a record shop and
suddenly having eyes glaze over upon spotting a much-desired single – and, per
the “sorrows” notation, a much-inflated pricetag. For Davidson, it was a
limited-edition Dwarves 45 on Sub Pop that had him reflexively reaching for his
credit card, then momentarily balking at the price, then growing “flush with
excitement and shame”; for yours truly, it might be some exotic overseas XTC or
Flamin’ Groovies platter; for you, perhaps an elusive Beatles or Stones item.
Regardless, the rush of emotion Davidson describes is something pretty much all
of us can relate to.

 

Thumbing through Five
Hundred 45s: A Graphic History of the Seven-Inch Record
isn’t quite like
flipping through a record bin. But the little jolts of familiarity and
excitement are pretty real.

 

In Lenny Kaye’s introduction to the book he marshals a
capsule history of the artform, which dates back to 1949 when RCA Victor
introduced the 45 (and, for a couple of years, sparking a format war with the
33 1/3 rpm LP, until both configurations were embraced by the music industry).
The 45 progresses through its unquestionable heyday, the Punk explosion of the
late ‘70s, up to the contemporary era where, ironically, 45s are both
anachronistic fetish totems and visual symbols of the download era’s chief
“artifact” – the individual song.

 

“Rock and roll was awaiting the 45,” it seems, according to
Kaye. To that I’d add that rock and roll has never lost its love (and lust) for
the 45, despite periods during which rock has flirted with infidelity. Just
dart into any independent record store on the planet if you need convincing.
Amen, brother Kaye.

 

 

 

VINYL BOOTY CALLS Pirates Press

The music industry
pitches and yaws, merch company Pirates Press comes to the… rescue?

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

With a music industry apocalypse looming, and vinyl rises
like a waxier zombie of the dear, decomposed love of your life, it only makes
sense to mix metaphors and bring up pirates. Allow us to introduce you to Pirates
Press
, a San Francisco-based vinyl/merch company and record label skippered by
Eric “Skippy” Mueller and his motley crew of “fifteen pirates, most here in
S.F., but a couple spread out across the country and two in Prague, as well.”

 

Aaarrr! Mueller
started Pirates Press with the ostensibly ironic intent to “protect independent
labels, bands, artists and businesses from being swindled and handicapped by
big corporate manufacturers who really don’t care about them.” Now PP is the
go-to company for indie and major labels alike looking to manufacture cool,
collectable booty and loot. Vinyl is the specialty, and PP handles everything
from recording to design to fulfillment-but design is their forte; they put out
the good ol’ black wax as well as visually stunning picture discs and
multi-colored, swirly platters that look good enough to eat. They also produce
T-shirts and promo swag-anything a band needs to promote themselves, or just
wants to see their name on because it’s cool. In a short five years, over 2500
entities-bands from Bongzilla to My Chemical Romance, labels from Relapse to
Reprise; comedians from Lewis Black to Brian Posehn – have had their products
Pirated.

 

To explain the success of Pirates Press, Mueller invokes the
ubiquitous business maxim, “You make one happy customer, and they tell ten
others.”

 

Recently, Mueller and crew turned their talents inward and started
a label, releasing music and Pirates products for Cock Sparrer, the Re-Volts,
Lucky Stiffs and The Ratchets. “We’re probably all most proud of the stuff
we’ve put out on our label,” says Mueller, adding it’s tough to choose a
favorite among his babies. “We’re involved in so many amazing projects for
others, and they’re the reason we have the privilege of being a label [too]. That’s
why this business is so amazing.

 

“Vinyl just keeps on keepin’ on,” he continues. “We do all
we can to stay up with trends-and even start ‘em. As the industry changes and realizes how strong it really is, the sky
is the limit. Just wait… Fisher Price will start making turntables again!”

 

BLATANT AND PERVASIVE CHICANERY Warren Cuccurullo

Warren

Missing Persons’ D. Bozzio arrested! Duran Duran’s A. Taylor turns tone deaf! Jacko’s schnozz falls off! Meanwhile, Zappa’s favorite guitarist unveils his new project…

BY GIL MACIAS

Not many guitar players have had as interesting a career as Warren Cuccurullo. In his teens, the Brooklyn born guitar virtuoso got to experience firsthand the tutelage of the legendary Frank Zappa — a rare honor any aspiring guitar player would dream about and something Warren, to this day, greatly cherishes. From there, Cuccurullo went on to form Missing Persons with Dale Bozzio and drummer extraordinaire Terry Bozzio. In 1986 he replaced Duran Duran’s exiting guitarist Andy Taylor and would remain in that position for 16 years. Since 2003, when all of the original Duran Duran members reunited, Cuccurullo has been off the radar working on various experimental projects and running his Italian restaurant, Via Veneto, in Santa Monica, California.

 

Some of his musical projects have been nine years in the making — some not even out yet — while others have been recorded recently and are just becoming available now. One notable project is his new band Chicanery, a duo formed by Cuccurullo and vocalist Neil Carlill. It’s the closest to pop-like project he’s done since leaving Duran Duran. It’s a psychedelic, experimental rock album, chaotic yet controlled, at times sedative, and features abstract, mind-fuck lyrics conjured up by Carlill. Fans of Radiohead’s Kid A and Primal Scream would find this right up their alley. And the best part is, it reunites Cuccurullo and Terry Bozzio, who have always been amazing together.

 

We were able to catch up with the guitarist at his home near Venice Beach, California. We discussed many things including: Chicanery, his rarely talked about meeting with Michael Jackson, looking back at Duran Duran, an encounter with Lady Gaga, and what a long road it’s been getting his music off the ground.

 

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BLURT: So how did Chicanery form?

CUCCURULLO: Chicanery started as a duo. I met Neil Carlill a very, very long time ago in London in 1999. We decided to do a couple of tracks together back then. He was going to sing on this TV Mania project — this other offshoot thing I was doing with Nick Rhodes — which coincidentally is coming out sometime this year. Almost 15 years later. Anyway, Neil was going to be the singer for some of the material we had. I heard this guy’s voice on TV one day, and it was Neil in this band called Delicatessen. So I got in touch with him and started working on a couple of tracks outside of the TV Mania thing. They were sounding great. A few years later, he moved to the States and then I moved to the States — and out of Duran Duran — completely lost touch with him.

In 2003, I decided to go back into the studio and start making music again because I was bored out of my mind. Some of the songs I had done with him were still there so I thought I would get in touch with him so we can do some other stuff and I couldn’t find him. He didn’t surface until a couple years after that, like in 2005 when I had finished up this other project I was working on called Enlighten Up, which still isn’t out yet.

 

You finished something else in 2005 and it’s still not out yet?

[Laughs] The definitive Warren Cuccurullo interview is very difficult because I have been recording since 2003, but the way it’s going right now, the last project I did in the studio, which would’ve been finished in 2005 or 2006, came out first, last year in 2009. The first one I did, called Enlighten Up, is not coming out until later this year in Europe, might not come out in the States this year, but that was the first one I recorded. The second one was Chicanery, which was recorded between Playing with Tongues, the one that was recorded last, but came out first.

 

It’s a little confusing, but I think I’m getting it now…

So it’s going the opposite way now. The last one I recorded came out first, Playing With Tongues on Zappa Records. The second one I recorded, Chicanery, is out now. Thank God [Laughs]. The first one I recorded is coming out last. As it is now, Chicanery was a dormant project. It’s not like the old days where you were signed and you made a record and you had to get it out in 3 or 4 months. There’s no time table. Stuff is sitting on the shelves collecting dust. I started doing more political stuff that I was doing for my website. I wasn’t thinking about getting signed to a label or anything. Neil had been doing interesting music on his own the last few years. All of a sudden, there’s interest in it. We had like 9 songs and we thought we needed more. We made 14 tracks, but put 13 on the album. For me, it sounds like a band. It was done sporadically in bits over many, many years, but it’s got a totally cool identity.

 

When did Simone Cello add his touch to it?

Simone Cello is a producer, guitarist and songwriter I worked on other projects with. It was a thing where we could take an idea, I’d send it to the east coast, then we’d send it back here, Simone would get it, he’d do some stuff to it, and then we’d listen to it and go, “Ok, we can take that to another level,” so it was all interesting. It was like an internet project at the same time.

 

And how did you get Terry Bozzio involved?

I was mixing Chicanery and I heard Terry was coming to town and I was getting into this very Miles Davis-like guitar playing. I had this more horn player approach to guitar. So I wanted to do something very free and quick, go in the studio, jam for a couple of days, edit and make it a record. When I heard he was coming, I booked a studio and I knew I had 4 or 5 days with him. So I thought, the first day, let me get him to play on a few of these Chicanery tracks that could benefit from live drums. I just threw up those tapes to him before he got into the totally loose jamming we were doing. So he got to play on those few tracks.

 

The lyrics on this Chicanery album are a little out there…

A little?

 

I guess that’s an understatement. Are you involved in writing them?

No, no. I wish. That’s Neil’s whole thing. He is an amazing word man. They’re nonsensical but they’re rhythmic and musical. We’re both Captain Beefheart fans, so there’s a little of that there. It’s like instant cut-ups, like David Bowie’s cut-ups. It’s very interesting. If you’re not going to talk about what’s going on in the world, you might as well talk nonsense as far as I’m concerned [laughs]. I’d rather try to find hidden codes in lines like, “lived in Alaska/No dice for Monopoly.” That’s a classic if I ever heard one. I just marvel where people can pull stuff from. I love experimental things. So to take English to its nonsensical limits is pretty interesting.

 

The song that jumps out, for me, is “Hubert Selby Song.”

I love that one too, yea. It seems to be very simple but it has an interesting arrangement. Simone did a beautiful job on that one. It’s just a little guitar riff, but has quite a sound.

 

You’ve had a huge variety of projects since 2003. Do you ultimately plan to form a band that will be a permanent fixture for you, or would you rather keep having all these one-off projects?

It’s a great question. How does a guy like me make me make a living in music today? [Laughs] It’s ridiculous. What I should do if I had a sensible partner is to do Missing Persons correctly. But that didn’t work, like I said, I don’t have a sensible partner. So it’s not a working situation, it’s impossible. As opposed to Duran Duran, we could’ve done it with just me and Simon if Nick ever left, you know? We had the will and everybody was sensible. Everybody knew how to work, could show up, and keep commitments. You can’t get into flakey shit, you can’t.

 

What was your reaction to Dale Bozzio’s recent arrest for animal cruelty? The photos that were released were pretty horrific.

Like I said, I tried to put Missing Persons back together before the end of the year, so I kind of saw her before she went to jail to serve that term. [Pauses] It’s a disease. It’s a disease that needs treatment, that’s all I can say. It’s not nice for animals to be hoarded. It’s not nice for newspapers to be hoarded [laughs], so imagine animals. It’s a disease. I’m sure it can be treated but some people don’t want to be treated.

 

Well, Journey replaced their lead singer. Have you ever thought of looking for a lead singer who looks and sounds like Dale and moving on without her?

It would have to be a tranny. Hung like a horse [Laughs]. Nah, I don’t even think Terry Bozzio is into doing it at all. I wanted to do it because Dale’s voice sounded really good. Plus, I had a bunch of music I wanted to record. I thought it would be a nice 30th anniversary, and here it is, the 30th year and there ain’t no anniversary, baby. It’s just not happening.

 

That’s too bad. You guys have some really great material.

It is too bad. There is really great material. The setlist I had put together was amazing. I had Joe Travers on drums and Scheila Gonzalez on keyboards and sax. It was incredible.

 

I think you should seriously consider replacing Dale. She toured without you guys all those years; I don’t see why you can’t do the same. Maybe do a reality show and find a replacement. Until then, are there any unreleased studio tracks by Missing Persons you plan to put out?

No, but I did have a list of songs I guess we’ll never record. It was a mess. It would’ve been amazing if there was full sanity. You can’t go out and be a flake. I won’t be involved with anyone who is not 100 percent professional. People thought I was nuts for trying to do it with Dale, but I thought, if she did it back then and I’m with her now, maybe it’ll be ok. But it ain’t!

 

I recall during your 2002 reunion tour with you Dale, and Terry, she kept forgetting words onstage.

Forgetting words? Dude, she was fucking forgetting to shower! She was forgetting to bring clothes to the gig. She was forgetting, period. It’s an illness, she needs help.

 

So when you left Duran Duran, did you get hit with a lot of job offers? I would imagine someone with a resume like yours could get into another band easily.

Who would offer me a job? The whole thing is — I’m a writer, I’m a producer. Nobody really wants you in their band unless they want to give you their band.

 

Have you paid attention to the last two Duran Duran albums?

I heard some of the stuff. Obviously, I wasn’t impressed. It was very disappointing. I was hoping for a lot on the first one but it was so bad. And the second one was even worse. Look, when you’re looking for the essence of yourself in other people, outside producers — and I’m talking handfuls of them — handfuls of them for truckloads of cash. It just really doesn’t work. It might work for a young Madonna or a middle-aged David Bowie looking for another image change, you know? I think it’s best to do things — and I told this to Nick Rhodes too — handmade, man. Handmade is the way to go. Do it yourself.

 

Back when it was announced you were leaving Duran, the press as well as the news section on DD.com made it sound like sunshine and rainbows, that you and the guys agreed to part ways and it was a smooth segue into a new era of Duran. Not long after, rumors came out about how there were lots of secret meetings, you were in the dark and that you sort of first heard you were leaving the band through other mouths and not directly from Simon or Nick first. Can you clarify how it all went down?

I didn’t know anything about the reunion. Kind of like a “reunion of the snakes,” is it not? Total secrecy. The amicable factor comes from the fact that we worked out an agreement for the forthcoming album, “Astronot,” where I would be compensated. The other negative rumblings came from the request by DD management, that I not come to any of the shows or backstage. I was shocked. I was really looking forward to hooking up with them. I had my restaurant ready for whenever they wanted to come. I was really crushed and I got the word out. Turns out it was an Andy Taylor insecurity thing. Didn’t know he saw my G Magazine photos.

 

What was your first reaction when you heard that Andy Taylor left the band again?

It was the same old thing again. Exactly like 1986. When you’re in a band, it has to be beyond a serious relationship. He just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. It’s like a family relationship or marriage — you got to be amenable, you can’t be on the edge all the time.

 

After he bailed again, I know a ton of your loyal fans were hoping you would get your job back. Would you have taken it if they offered it to you?

At the time, I probably wouldn’t have. Now, who knows? I don’t know. It’s been a while. It’s been 9 years now. Time flies. But I’ve been writing a lot of music, having a lot of fun, enjoying life, but I lived on the road. So that was a big adjustment for me. Now it’s like I make music and hangout with the cat. Before I made music and went out to sell it. It’s not like that anymore. It costs so much money to go out and play shows. I couldn’t do that, it’s ridiculous.

 

Do you keep in close contact with any of the band members?

Oh yea. I’m mainly in touch with Nick Rhodes because we still have things going on. I got something going on with John Taylor too.

 

Even to this day, on all of the major Duran Duran fan forums, you’ll see the occasional Andy vs. Warren threads break out and the fans go at it. Do you like to peek in and read what the forums are saying about you?

You have to be a paid member on the official site, and I didn’t join any of those, so I can’t see anything. People send me some things though, you know. [Rolls eyes]

 

Not even any of the free major message boards like on the Duran Duran Lizard King site?

I haven’t seen that site in years. On YouTube, in the comments, you see the same kind of shit there too. Anyone in the know knows there’s no contest. [Laughs] It’s obvious. The guy couldn’t even work with them. It wasn’t a good mix. I knew what our priorities were. It’s a difference between a band and a brand. I think what’s become if it is, let’s go off into the sunset and become a brand, and not so much about the band.

 

So when Andy originally left Duran Duran, you had to go in and reinterpret his work and make it your own. Since then, the tables have turned and now Andy [has] translated your work [with the band]. How do you think he did?

He’s incapable of redoing my work. He doesn’t have the ears. He had big, big problems with the songs. The thing is, if you’re a guitar player who, first of all understands Led Zeppelin, which if you’re going to call yourself a “rock” guitar player, you better understand Led Zeppelin — the soft and the hard of Zeppelin. [Warren pretends to play guitar]

So if you’re going to attempt to play “Ordinary World,” which is in the key of C-sharp, you have to use your ears and see where the open strings are occurring. Any guitar player would do it. Once you find the key, C-sharp, you’ll see that you have an open E-string, an open B-string, and if you’re holding it in different positions like in the 7th or 5th position, you say, “Oh, C-sharp minor, here’s the 7th in the top, ok, now I’m playing a B.” [Pauses] He couldn’t find where those parts are, dude! He couldn’t hear the voicings of the chords, man. That means he’s tone deaf and — in a guitaristic sense — lame! Spastic! Because it’s all there. The only way you could play it is like that. And then the voicings that he decided or thought were working in the verses completely screwed up Simon’s melody. I sent an email to Nick with the exact voicings and everything, man. They couldn’t even talk to the guy. It was impossible to even be able to communicate with the guy. Nick’s words were, “Pure rage.” It’s the only thing that would come out of him. So imagine trying to work with somebody like that.

 

Have you ever had a conversation with Andy before or after your time in Duran Duran?

Only before I was in the band. He was in Power Station and I was with Missing Persons. We went to the studio and we were working with Bernard Edwards and he was working with Bernard too. We just hung out there. But damn, I couldn’t believe that a rock guitar player who was English could not find those voicings. You’d think he’d understand Jimmy Page, which I got “Ordinary World” from that Zeppelin land or whatever you want to call it. It’s just shocking to me.

 

“Ordinary World” is one of the few songs he played from your time period that really stood out as not being the same live anymore. So much of your guitar work is so complex.

What I did do all throughout my time in Duran Duran was make sure that anyone who ever tried to do what I did would find it ridiculously difficult. Not for what I just explained, but for the sounds. I took those sounds with me directly from the studio. This was like the beginning of the time where you could take studio gear and switch it from a pedal on the floor. So you’d have the real shit, the real delays, the real expensive stuff, in a rack, and you can change each program and have every sound just like it is in the studio. So I went to the fucking max on that. If you take a song like “Electric Barbarella” — It’s impossible for anyone else to play [laughs]. First of all, they’d have to spend about 30 grand in gear, but just to get that shit together and to do that was—forget it! Go through any record that I did. The guitars are impossible, just on the tonal aspect, to duplicate.

 

That’s one thing about you I missed when I first heard the Chicanery album—that guitar.

Well, as soon as “Hubert Selby Song” comes on, it’s like — that’s what’s missing in Duran Duran. The first 3 notes come on and that’s what you think. What a melody Neil wrote.

 

If you put out a single or make a video, that’s definitely the one.

That’s it, totally agree.

 

 

[ED. NOTE: Check out “Hubert Selby Song” here for free download.]

 

 

 

You were once called in to do some guitar work for Michael Jackson. What was that like?

I’m glad you brought that up, because the day I was working with him, his fucking nose was falling off [Laughs].

 

Really?

Yea, this is really bizarre. I got a call from Chuck Wild, the old keyboard player from Missing Persons. He was working with Bruce Swedien, who was our producer for Rhyme & Reason, who was also Quincy Jones’ engineer who worked on all the Michael Jackson records. So while I am in London, Chuck calls me up and asks when I will be in L.A. and when I can do this thing. So I said, “Yeah, OK, great.” So we set it all up in Los Angeles, my gear all goes to the studio. I’ve got all my stuff set up, my giant pedal board rack and who’s there? We’ve got Bruce Swedien, Chuck Wild, Lisa Marie Presley, and Michael Jackson. He comes in the room, we’re talking, I’m trying to show him what I do, and he’s leaning against the door. And while he’s leaning against the door next to his wife, there’s this clear liquid dripping down from the middle of his nostrils.

Now there’s like 4 or 5 people in this room who have known him for years. And it’s dripping lower and lower and it’s like this long letter “u” of clear glue just hanging there. It’s the equivalent of someone having this huge piece of spinach stuck on the side of their cheek, and this shit is hangin’ there, and nobody said anything. Nobody! Nobody went like, “Hey Michael, do you need a tissue?” There wasn’t even an emergency code word for like his nose is falling off in front of others. [Laughs] So I didn’t say anything either! I figured, well, what the fuck? If Bruce ain’t saying anything and Bruce has known him since he was 4-feet-high, I ain’t going to say anything! [Laughs]

 

Nose dripping aside, what was all of this for anyway?

This was for the HIStory project. And the funniest fucking thing was — that’s all I had to do — was go in and play to nothing. [Laughs] I did get paid. I don’t know what they were doing. I think maybe they were going to take loops of things and use it as a background for something or a voiceover type of thing. Who the fuck knows?

 

Do you plan to make music videos for this Chicanery project?

Well, who the fuck does music videos anymore? What I mean is, there’s really no way unless you’re a hot shit editor yourself and have all the stuff they use now to make a video. I love shooting stuff and I love to edit, but I don’t know how to use the new editing stuff. There is some really cool footage we shot back in 2005 that’s screaming to be put together. Neil might have some stuff that he can put together but it’s not going to be like it used to be — like back in the old video days. And the label wouldn’t do anything like that. The music industry’s not the same anymore.

 

And what do you mean by that?

I know someone who works in music marketing and he tries to find ways for musicians to make a living through music because most bands that are signed nowadays have day jobs. I was like, “What?!” Fuck that. I would have never wanted to be a musician if that was the case. It was always about freedom. You can’t get any more free than I have been the last 9 years—and that’s music keeping you alive. You got to write songs if you want to live in music.

 

So I assume you still get royalties from Duran Duran and Missing Persons music.

That’s what I live on, dude. Really, I haven’t worked in 9 years. “Destination Unknown” in the last 6 months made about $50,000 dollars. Just that song, it’s insane. And I just got 30 grand for this movie called Stay Cool. For some song they want to cover in it. You have got to write your own music and you can’t ever sell your publishing.

 

Are you going to tour this new Chicanery album soon?

We’re basically all ready, but who is going to pay for it? Since 2003, I’ve spent over $100,000 dollars making music. I could’ve gone and bought another house but I said “fuck it.” I needed to make music. I didn’t know what I was going to make, but I knew I was going to make Enlighten Up. I had to story to tell, I went through some shit and I had to write about it. Somebody offered me a deal, it fell through. But anyway, it’s over 100 grand. That’s a commitment. You spend over $30,000 dollars making a whole record with artwork and everything and you’re not even going to get back an advance of $5,000 dollars? It’s worse now.

 

Has the internet or social networking sites helped you get your music out there?

Somebody was telling me about how effective these social networking things are. But I was like, what about Jay Leno, David Letterman, Good Morning America, and all these other shows? I remember being on a major label, in a major band, doing all these TV shows and the next week — the album goes down. So what the fuck is a bunch of Facebook friends going to do? [Laughs]

 

Well, these sites are at least great for discovery.

Discovery is great. You can type in anything and something will pop up. That’s cool. But is someone going to pay for it? Probably not. I think people who really use computers to find music would never pay. There’s no way. They just say “Nah, fuck that,” and go on a computer, they go here, they go there, and get all they need at 128 kbps.

 

Well, we’re in an iPod generation now where people would rather download single tracks at low quality and a low price without buying a high quality physical product. I for one treat CDs like a movie. I like to listen to them from beginning to end as a full experience.

Yea, me too. And I make albums like that. It’s not like that anymore. It’s all about track consumption. They’ll make their own compilations or whatever. It hurts in a lot of ways. I know Pink Floyd just won a lawsuit where you couldn’t take track by track on one of their albums. Film and music are being ripped off left and right now. I can’t go and get a free hamburger anywhere right now, and I’d love one. I can’t go to an In-N-Out Burger and just take the burger and fries and just walk out. So how the fuck can you do that with music? It’s not right. You can’t even buy music at a records store anymore, they’re all gone.

 

Do you keep in contact with your old Zappa bandmates?

Here in L.A., I’ve got it made. I hook up with my old Frank Zappa bandmates often. If you listen to my music on MySpace, I’ve got all these great players. It’s a treat to be able to play with the people I played with 35 years ago. We actually all live within 5 minutes of each other. It’s pretty crazy.

 

So are there any major new bands you’re into or do you have any comments on the current state of radio?

Nah, not really. I’m not into Lady Gaga or anything. Actually, I met her in 2007. She didn’t have anything out except her ass. This was after 9-11. I’m flying back from New York. I did a benefit show for the fire fighters out there and there’s a girl in the lounge. She reminded me of Lamya, the singer who was with Duran for a while — who passed away a couple of years ago by the way. She was only 38 or something, it was horrible — God rest her soul.

Anyway, Lady Gaga reminded me of Lamya. When we got to L.A. and I’m making my way to the baggage claim. I’m like, “There’s no way I’m not talking to this girl.” Every guy was looking. Her skirt was so short you would not believe it. I walk up right behind her, tap her on the shoulder and ask, “What do you do? You look too fucking fabulous.”

She tells me she’s a singer and we start talking. She was really smart and told me she was with Interscope Records, gave me the link to her MySpace and I went and checked it out. And I had a fight with my girlfriend that night [laughs]. I was telling her this chick was pretty cool. She didn’t have anything out but her ass, I mean, it was out. She wasn’t even pretty or anything. She was hot, but she wasn’t a gorgeous chick. She was alluring.

But, I just don’t like that music. I like her fashion sense and her weirdness but I have seen that somewhere before. Her songs: they all sound like the soundtrack to Bruno. Every song.

 

What’s next for Chicanery?

Me and Neil have some more songs. Now that there’s some interest in this we’d like to get another one done. We’ve already got at least 6 tracks on the go, left over from last time, and they sound killer. One of them is called “Wake Up Levitating,” and that sounds like an album title to me. It’s a very experimental piece, I really love that one. He’s so much fun to work with because I never have to think about melody. I can just go experiment with grooves, tones and weird basslines and he can just take it and transform it with these melodies and words. He’s very fast too, so it’s fun. I’d love to get another one done, but I don’t know how this one is going to go.

I think from what I have been reading about it and from me going back and listening to it, I think it should win Best Alcoholic Album this year at the Grammys — if they have that category. I don’t know what it is. It’s got a vintage fermenting going on. It goes really good with a nice cabernet and really good with vodka as well [Laughs].

 

Out of your entire career, what has been your favorite time period?

It’s so hard. When you’re making the millions, you don’t even know it. I would have to say it has to be when Frank Zappa was around. When he was around, my father was still around too. Even though I didn’t know anything — that was everything. I was in Frank’s band. It felt like nothing else could be achieved beyond that. There I was; here in Los Angeles. It was impossible and I was in it. And I didn’t know what tomorrow was and I didn’t care. Sometimes it’s the first thing you ever do. And with that guy? How could it not be the best time?

If I went back, I wouldn’t change the smallest fucking thing.

 

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Warren Cuccurullo on the web:

 

www.chicanerymusic.com

 

www.myspace.com/warrencuccurullo

 

http://www.myspace.com/chicanerymusic

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Snow and Voices

A eulogy for Merce
Cunningham, a broken home, poisoned mash potatoes and a stash of Grateful Dead
LPs.

 

BY LAURI KRANZ

 

“You have to love
dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store
away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be
printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It
is not for unsteady souls.”
– Merce Cunningham

 

The first time I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
perform I was 13 years old. My parents took me to the show and I wished, more
then anything, that I could be one of those dancers. I felt that nothing
outside of that performance hall really existed. Not my bed with the pink and white
checkered bedspread, the feeling of nothingness that filled the grey classrooms
where I went to high school or the fear that things would never turn out okay.
I sat beside my parents watching Merce and his dancers, and for those two
hours, my world was perfect. But, a few months after that performance
everything came apart. My mom had an affair with someone from the hospital
where she worked and my dad ended up marrying her best friend.

 

My stepmother tried to poison me. I’m sure of this, though
she never confessed. She piled a mound of mashed potatoes onto my plate at
dinner one night. I was about to take a bite when my stepbrother asked her for
some. She told him he could not have any and when he argued that she had given
me some, she took the bowl of potatoes and washed them down the drain. “Have
some of mine,” I said to my stepbrother. She took the plate from my hands and
poured that down the drain too. She washed everything the potatoes had touched
with bleach.

 

I was always trying to escape. I would sneak out of the
house when everyone was asleep. I didn’t know where I was going, just that I
wanted to leave. I loved the quiet and how the moon lit a path for me. My
sister, who was two years younger then me, tried to escape once too. One
morning, she left a note at the breakfast table saying that she had run away
from home. Everyone panicked. The police came and a search began. Several hours
into the chaos, I wondered if my sister might still be in the house. She wasn’t
one to travel far. I ran down to the basement. There she was, in the tiny old
bathroom that no one ever used, with a box of Captain Crunch, some bread and a
radio. She was listening to her favorite station, with her hand in the cereal
box.

 

I kept a stash of Grateful Dead albums in a box in the
garage. I took them out and played them for David, the cute boy who lived just
up the street from me. He was a die hard Deadhead and I wanted him to know how
cool I was. He said “Lauri, what are you doing? You are just pretending to like
these songs, you don’t even know them”. He was right. The truth was I liked the
idea of them. I liked the circus feeling that engulfed our town whenever they
traveled through. I would sew bells onto every skirt I owned and stand outside
of the concert hall where they were performing and lose myself in the reverie
for awhile.  

 

I left home the moment I turned eighteen. From the age of
fourteen I prayed for eighteen and its arrival couldn’t come quickly enough. I
lived in several different places before I eventually found my way to New York City. The city
offered me a kind of liberation I’d been waiting for my whole life. I worked
for peanuts at the William
Morris Agency,
but the job came with a great perk: free tickets to almost any dance, theater
or music event in NYC. I saw things that completely blew my mind. Those tickets
were my escape route into new worlds whenever I wanted them. At some point, I
stopped pretending to be the person onstage and lost myself completely in the
performance. In those moments I wanted to be exactly where I was. I’d leave the
show with a feeling that everything was possible.

 

Merce Cunningham died last year at the age of 90. When he
spoke about “that single fleeting moment,” he was speaking about the
perspective of a performer. But it was those sublime moments as a member of the
audience that changed my life forever.

 

I love it when the theater goes dark, just before the
performance begins. That moment holds the promise of what greatness might come.
I never miss it.

 

 

Snow & Voices – Kranz
plus Jebin Bruni – have their latest album,
Anything That Moves, just out on Elastic Ruby Records. Visit
the band at their official site or their MySpace page.

 

[Photo Credit: Annabel Mehran]