Monthly Archives: November 2010

GET…. OFF!

Keith
Morris and cohort Dimitri Coats spill the beans on what exactly went into
assembling their punk supergroup.

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

 

Depending on how you look at it, Dimitri Coats had either
scored one of the most enviable gigs out there for a producer, or stepped into
a role even Sisyphus would pity: agreeing to produce the next Circle Jerks record.

 

For Coats – singer with Burning Brides – the job of helping put
together the first Circle
Jerks record in 15 years became the punk rock equivalent of rolling that bolder
up the hill just to watch it roll back down again. Coats, along with Circle
Jerks frontman Keith Morris – punk rock royalty who also sang for Black Flag in
the beginning – realized early on that the reunion was a lost cause and ended
up finding a pretty solid Plan B: starting their own band.

 

With a few quickie demos, the two went about tracking down
their dream line up of drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless/Hot Snakes/Rocket
From the Crypt) and bassist Steven McDonald (another member of punk rock
royalty, a founding member of Redd Kross). The LA-based punk/hardcore group was
christened OFF! and have just put out their first effort, a four EP box set –
16 songs total) on Vice Records.

 

Morris and Coats were kind enough to take a call recently to
talk about OFF! and the aborted Circle Jerks album. Despite the fact that
Morris’ phone repeatedly kept dying, the two managed to share a lot about the
project.

 

***

 

BLURT: I
know you were working with Keith and the Circle Jerks, producing their record.
Is that where the beginnings of OFF! actually started?

COATS: It probably goes a bit deeper than that. Keith and I
have been friends for quite a few years – about 10. He was a big fan of Burning
Brides and always really supportive of what we were doing. We hit it off right
away. He’s the kind of guy (that) if he likes your band, he’s at the club early
helping you load the gear in; he’ll help you sell your t-shirts while you’re
playing. That’s just the way he always was with us. He was the DJ at my
wedding, so we’re pretty tight. So I was attempting to do the impossible, which
was produce a new Circle Jerks record. Right off the bat, it just seemed like
it wasn’t going to happen. It was tough to get those guys to write together,
which was my intention originally and eventually Keith and I started writing
together, just the two of us, when the other guys wouldn’t show up. It was
explosive! Where we naturally went together was a darker place, more like early
Black Flag, and that excited him.

 

(Morris
calls in.)

 

COATS: Join the party. I’m talking about how we first formed
and first started writing together and going back to our friendship and how
this all kind of happened. We were talking about how we started going into a
bit of a darker record then the one we were working on at the time and how that
excited you.

MORRIS: Right on. Did you tell him that you wanted to kill
three other guys? Now I’m going to jump in. Rather than write music we were
thinking of ways to try and kill people. Kill other musicians… At one point we
got the word that we were on our own and the other guys that were supposed to
participate were too good to participate or they didn’t like the material that
was being created or they were upset that they weren’t playing more of a roll
in the creativity. The word had gone out that you could participate, everything
was going on in my living room, but no one showed up.

 

Did you
realize pretty early on in the process that they weren’t interested and that
you should focus on something else or did you think they would eventually come
around?

COATS: It wasn’t like they didn’t like the songs that we
were creating. We created songs because Keith didn’t want to sing on anything
being created by the other guys, so we started writing songs.

MORRIS: Because you forced me to write lyrics to songs that
I would have listened to maybe once or twice, then tossed out the window. But
you said, “You need to pay closer attention to these songs because they could
become something.” But the fact of the matter is this was probably about a
third of the way through our process. I’d been dealing with these guys for
years and I knew that it was very pedestrian, very mediocre. There was a
mentality that, “We’re so cool that we can write whatever we want to write and
everyone will be excited about it because we are who we are and we can get away
with whatever we want to get away with.” Fuck that mentality.

COATS: I think instead of trying to deal with pieces of
ideas or waiting for something to happen, Keith and I realized when we started
writing together there was a spark and it was something – in our minds – that
was greater than what we were trying to achieve with the other project. (The
Circle Jerks) project obviously fell apart and something far beyond our comprehension
was born as a result of it. I don’t think wither one of us could have imagined
this band on paper. So The Circle Jerks record was necessary because it led to
OFF!

 

So safe
to say, you’re not going back to finish the Circle Jerks record?

MORRIS: The scenario with me, if I ever work together with
those guys in a creative mode again, they would have to get down on their hands
and knees in front of Dimitri’s house in Glendale
and apologize and wash his dishes, mow his lawn and empty his trash. They pretty
much just sabotaged the whole scenario. I was pretty upset.

COATS: We had a deadline. Bad Religion had a new album
coming out and we had a deadline and there weren’t enough songs and the ones we
had just weren’t up to par. At that point it looked like it was going to happen
and let me tell you this, Hetson was really excited about what we were doing… (Editor’s note: Circle Jerks’ guitarist Greg
Hetson also plays in Bad Religion and thanks to the incestuous nature of the LA
punk scene, was also a member of Steven McDonald’s band Redd Kross.)

MORRIS: Let’s move forward about three or four weeks after
(OFF!) recorded our first batch of songs. 
I took them and played them to (Brett) Gurewitz (Epitaph Records founder
and another member of Bad Religion) and he was like, “Whatever you guys want to
do, I’ll do it.” The money situation was good, but it wasn’t even an issue. The
scenario with Brett is that he’s my friend, I’ve known him for years. The fact
of the matter is, Brett was almost as excited as Dimitri and I were. In the
process we continued our writing, but found ourselves in a situation where we
thought, what else is out there for us?  Epitaph
is a great label, a great fit and makes perfect sense, but the fact of the
matter is we’re looking at a bunch of records being released by Epitaph and all
of a sudden we’re just a little black orphan. It’s like Brett could be doing
back flips and somersaults, but when the Social Distortion record comes out (on
Epitaph), everyone is going to work on the fucking Social Distortion record
because it’s going to sell like a zillion copies. We gotta go out and beat
ourselves up playing wherever we can. We thought, if we’re going to do all the
work we need to do, we might as well be playing before people we’ve never
played in front of and that’s the reason why we went with Vice (Records).

 

Did you
consider any other labels besides Epitaph and Vice?

MORRIS: Well we thought, like, United Artists, Warner Bros.,
Columbia, we
wanted to be member of the Columbia Record Club, we were thinking SST, you know
all of them. Sub Pop, Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles. We had a list of,
like, 800 record labels and we whittled it down to two.

COATS: It came down to, what
kind of band did we want to be
? I asked Keith, “Name the type of festivals
you want to play and the type of fantasy bills you want to be a part of.” It
was obvious that we wanted to play against the roots of punk’s strength that
are a part of Keith. Why can’t we play All Tomorrow’s Parties and why can’t we
do a show with Fucked Up and Deerhunter and Neon Indian? Who cares?

 

So when
did Mario and Steven come into the band?

MORRIS: Mario plays in another band called Earthless and
they played at a local venue and after the show my friend ran into Mario and
told him that he was to get in touch with me at his leisure and I got a call
from Mario like three or four days later. I didn’t have to get into any
details…

COATS: We’d played together before, so I had a history with
him.

MORRIS: The situation was that Mario knew both Dimitri and
I, so it was kind of a no-brainer. Mario said, “I’m in,” without even hearing
any of the music. So now we have our dream…

 

(Morris drops off the
call at this point.)

 

COATS: I think that’s his phone dying. Mario and I played
when Burning Brides was on tour with Queens of
the Stone Age. There were a few shows that our drummer couldn’t do, so Mario
filled in for him.  

 

Did you
think of Mario right away for this band?

COATS: Mario and Steven were absolute number one choices. We
thought we’d reach out to those guys first and luckily they both said yes.
There were never any auditions. We never even talked to anyone else about this.
We were just lucky that our dream band came about exactly as we had envisioned
it.

 

(Morris
calls back in)

 

Have
you or Keith worked with Steven before?

MORRIS: My history with Steven goes way back to when he was
11-years-old and he was deciding to be in a band with his brother. They showed
up to a Black Flag rehearsal at The Church – there’s a lot of history in The
Church going back to Black Flag, The Descendents and the Blacks. Jim Lindberg
from Pennywise worked at the dairy across the street, so he sold us beer and
cigarettes. Redd Kross (McDonald’s band
with his brother Jeff and Hetson)
was like Black Flag’s brother band. You
have a lot of bands that always have those who play with them: Black Flag had
the Descendents, Black Flag had Redd Kross, Black Flag had the Minutemen. Steven
and I go all the way back to the ‘70s.

       The situation
with Steven is I ran into him at a Jay Reatard show and he was there with two
of his friends. I said, “Steven, I’m starting a band with Dimitri,” and he just
wasn’t that interested. He had something else he wanted to do, smoke pot, drink
some beers, party with his friends, just something else he had to do. I said, “Mario
Rubalcaba is playing drums.”  And the two
guys he was with almost started pummeling him, saying, “You have to do this band!”
A week and a half later I saw him at another show and he said he was going to
take a cig break, so I went to my car and got him a CD. He called me two days
later and wanted to know when we were going to start rehearsing.

 

(Morris’
phone dies again.)

 

COATS: I’ve heard these stories a million times. I can
finish what he starts.

 

So what
was that first rehearsal like? Was it awkward at all?

COATS: No. You hear these stories about what Led Zeppelin
sounded like when they were first getting together and it really was like “Holy
Shit!” We kind of showed (Rubalcaba and McDonald) the songs on the spot and
they had not heard Keith sing on anything yet, so when we started playing
really loud with Keith on vocals it was really exciting. It still sounds pretty
much the same way (on the EPs) it did that first time. Obviously being in a
band together and playing shows you build confidence and realize people are
into this and you change and you record and you release music, but just that
initial vibe and sound we arrived at that first time hasn’t changed a whole
lot. We were excited and committing to the music physically – I was running
around the room.     

 

(Morris
calls back in a third time.)

 

Did you
start recording right away?

COATS: We pretty much recorded the first and second EPs back
in January, in one day, before we even played a show. And the third and fourth
EPs were recorded in one day in the summer, after we had been a band, played a
few shows and signed to Vice.

 

I
thought it was interesting that you decided to release a series of four song,
7-inch EPs right off the bat rather than a traditional full length. Where did
that idea come from?

MORRIS: Well, the whole thing with vinyl is it’s just more
special than a CD or an MP3. You can actually hold it in your hands and see
some artwork and who wrote what, who produced what, where it was recorded. You
can see some lyrics. We got into this thing where everybody was recording CDs,
like that was the only format and the CD holds 72 minutes of music and you’ve
got some cruddy band recording 72 minutes of music and you’re like, “Are you
kidding? Give me a break.” All of a sudden songs are 16 minutes long.    

 

(Morris’
phone dies yet again.)

 

So when
you and Keith were writing, how did you get in that frame of mind.

COATS: We’d both drink a ton of coffee and get jacked up,
then start listening to all these old bands that inspired him, LA hardcore, and
I’ll put on a few records that get me fired up and ask him about certain things
and let him DJ, then we get to the point where I’m too wired on coffee and
inspired by what we’re listening to and I’ll just grab the guitar and start
hammering on the thing until he has nothing to say anymore. So he sort of
produces my guitar playing and the tables are turned and he’ll say, “What are
you feeling should be sung over this chord progression, these riffs?” And maybe
I’ll give him a phrasing or he comes up with something and then it’s time to
work on the lyrics. I’m pretty hard on him, the same way he lashes out on me
when I’m playing guitar, I do the same to him. We’re making sure that we have
strong choruses. It’s a really great collaboration that I cherish. It’s not
always easy, but the results are usually pretty spectacular. We’re the best of
friends.

 

Did you
guys draw from any current events/situations when it came time for writing the
lyrics?

COATS:  Yeah, Keith is
politically minded and reads the papers a lot. Usually they’ll be newspapers
all on the floor and he’ll write in all capital letters, in Sharpies on the
actual newspaper article that he’s reading. He’s always angry about something
that’s going on in the world.

 

Your
first live show was at SXSW. Is touring something you guys want to do?

COATS: Yes, we definitely do. We want to go to a lot of
places that Keith has never been, like overseas and a lot of bigger situations
he’s never been a part of. I’ve had the chance to open for some bigger bands
and, say, play a hockey arena. He’s said he’d like to experience a lot of these
different things. Thankfully we’ve been invited to play a lot of festivals over
the past year, so our experience has been not one of having to get in a van
night after night, but we hope to do that. It’s been sort of backwards for us.
We’ve been invited to play these super cool festivals and be a part of these
great bills.

       I’m looking
forward to really existing as a band and playing Cleveland one night and driving to the next
town.

 

BABY, WE GOT NEWS FOR YOU Kelley Stoltz

The songwriter’s ever-widening circle of
friends includes the Dirtbombs, Sonny & the Sunsets, Echo & the
Bunnymen and
Nuggets-era rocker Pete Miller.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Kelley Stoltz is not normally big on covers.

 

In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to his one-off CD
Crock-A-Dials, a tribute to his beloved Echo & the Bunnymen to find
much in the way of other people’s songs in Stoltz’s catalogue. His own five
full-lengths are full of allusions to older songwriters – Beatles,
Kinks, Beach Boys and others – but freshened up and touched with a sweet,
faintly goofy intelligence that is all Stoltz’s own.

 

That’s why it’s so surprising that To Dreamers,
Stoltz’s sixth album (released earlier this fall by Sub Pop), has a cover right at its heart.
The song “Baby, I’ve Got News for You,” was written by Pete Miller, a Nuggets-era rocker, who ended up playing
guitar for Stoltz on the track.

 

 “It was just such an
incredible song,” Stoltz remembers, explaining that his Australian guitar
player Mike Young had turned him onto it. “Mike and I couldn’t believe it was
really from 1965. There were elements of Troggs, but then other parts that
sounded so advanced. We thought maybe it was an internet hoax…somebody from now
putting on a 1960s persona.”

 

Through the internet, Stoltz began putting Miller’s story
together. “He had recorded with Joe Meek in the 1950s and played 130-odd shows
with the Beatles,” said Stoltz. Even odder, it turned out that Miller had moved
to San Francisco
in 1970. He had opened a recording studio and recorded early Bay Area punks
like the Avengers.  

 

Stoltz tracked Miller down and started bugging him, finally
getting him to sit in when he recorded “Baby I Got News for You” for his new
album. “He’s a real inspiration, still making records of his stuff and popping
out new songs and ideas,” said Stoltz. “He’s still chasing his muse.”

 

So is Stoltz, as it turns out.  His latest album is full of the wistful,
1960s drenched pop songs that have always been his trademark, but there are
also some rockers.  For those, you can
thank the Dirtbombs, who brought Stoltz out on tour with them in 2008.  “For a guy like me to try and keep up with
them, it was tough,” said Stoltz. “They have an open-minded fan base so 50% of
the people were into it every night. But still, I knew if I had a 45-minute set
of uptempo rock songs, it would go over.” 

 

When he returned to the Bay Area, he played more shows with
more rock bands and – through a process that he calls partly conscious and
partly osmosis – started to rock out a little himself.  The album version of “I Like, I Like” is
downright rowdy, an inebriated, all-hands-on-deck romp through one of Stoltz’s
earthiest compositions. 

 

“I was also listening to a lot of Stiff records stuff,” Stoltz
recalled, in trying to explain his raucous new songs.   “I was just kind of interested in punk
rifferies…with maybe a little bit of songwriter’s craft.”

 

But if Stoltz seems more enamored of rocking rhythms lately,
it might be because of his side work. 
“I’ve been playing a lot of drums for other people which has been
awesome because I think it’s the instrument that I was really meant to play,”
he said. 

 

Stoltz has been drumming on his own records from the
beginning.  He learned on a borrowed drum
set that a punk rocking roommate left unattended in the apartment.  These days, you can hear Stoltz playing drums
on Stephanie Finch’s new album Cry
Tomorrow
, recorded with Stoltz, her husband Chuck Prophet and Rusty Miller
about a year ago.  You can also catch him
slinging the sticks for Sonny and the Sunsets, a band fronted by his long-time
friend Sonny Smith. “We always have listened to each other’s stuff and adding
this and that, and so he asked me to be his drummer.  That’s been a real blast, too,” he said. 

 

 “I just love playing
drums,” he said.  “Everybody plays guitar
and bass to me is just more boring guitar, guitar without any of the
thrill.  If you like doing the same
thing, over and over again, then you’re a bass player.  But the drums… it’s just fun.  You get to live out your Ringo Starr
fantasies instead of the Paul McCartney ones.”

 

And speaking of rock ‘n roll fantasies, Stoltz is still
beaming about his recent gig opening for long-time heroes Echo & the Bunnymen.   “That happened because I just stalked them
for years…well, not stalked but just professed my love in public since 1984,”
he said.  It got to the point where he
would meet up with the band whenever they played San Francisco and take them around the local
bars.  Then in May of 2010, out of the
blue, Stoltz got a call from Echo & the Bunnymen’s manager who was then at
Coachella.  That was Friday.  The band was playing the Fillmore in San Francisco on
Monday.  The openers were stuck in
transit due to volcano ash fall-out. 
Could Stoltz step in?    For the
whole tour?

 

Stoltz dropped everything – and got his backing back to drop
everything, too.  By Tuesday they were
flying to Chicago
as Echo & the Bunnymen’s opening band. 
“It was so cool,” he said.  “because
Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant.  They’re
my heroes.  They were the people that
made me want to play music and play guitar.”

 

One night Ian McCulloch came to Stoltz’s sound check – and
complimented him on his songwriting. 
“That was surreal,” said Stoltz. 
“I had their posters on my wall as a kid.  As a kid I used to buy bootleg cassettes from
this record shop in Detroit,
and I would memorize stuff he would say. 
I even had my hair like him, sprayed up with aqua-net, and wore a
trenchcoat.  And now here he was giving
me compliments.  It was like a teen dream
fulfilled.”

 

Kelley Stoltz is on
tour in England with Stephanie Finch & the Company Men (Nov. 30 – Dec. 3)
and then with Echo & the Bunnymen (Dec. 4 – 12). Tour dates at his official
website
.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Rich Hirneisen]

THE TAPDANCER & THE COOK Grinderman

Nick Cave‘s other band hits it a second time.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

It’s a deathly humid afternoon in Manhattan
with raindrops as thick as boxing gloves and skies as gray as Vladivostok covering the city; a rotten day
to be outside. George Steinbrenner died that day too. For Nick Cave,
it’s not much better inside. Though newly shorn of his maw-hugging mustache,
he’s unwell and looks it. An earache may have manifested itself into an
infection and a doctor’s house call is required. All Jim Sclavunos can do is
hanging by his laptop and bid for vintage microphones on eBay.

 

The pair – the singer/lyricist/guitarist and drummer for the
Bad Seeds and Grinderman – are here, despite all ails and sales, to celebrate Grinderman 2, the second volume of
scorched earth psych-blues from the tight-knit quartet under the Bad Seeds
umbrella. While it shares a name with the band’s eponymous 2007 debut, G2‘s progressive sound is still
raw-knuckled avant-garage rock yet more spaciously expansive, while its
improv-based lyrics have evolved from sex, death and more sex to pernicious
high anxiety, sex, history, sex, violence and sex. Talking about it doesn’t
help Cave, whose speaking voice gets higher when the nagging pain. But by
chat’s end, he and Sclavunos – friends since the days of Cave’s Birthday Party –
hug it out playfully.

 

***

 

BLURT: When did you
guys know there’d be a second Grinderman album? Where did it fall amongst
projects like Bunny Munroe-the book
and music-Bad Seeds’ Dig!!! Lazarus
Dig!!!
and The Road soundtrack?

NICK
CAVE: Pretty much as soon
as we’d done the first one, we really wanted to get on with another record. We
just had that other stuff to do

JIM SCLAVUNOS: The spirit for it was fast and great. But we
didn’t; then we couldn’t; then we did.

.

I heard you on
satellite radio when you mentioned wanting to make G2 more serious than the
last one. The last one was pretty fucking serious, gents. What was that initial
goal?

NC: I think because there was a comic element to that record
a lot of people saw the whole idea as something of a joke. This record then
became about more serious things. Ah, I don’t know if serious is the right
word. This record was meant to be less broadly comic.

 

Blackly humored.
Nothing slapstick. This record also seems more existential than the last one-paranoid
too. “Heathen Child” is downright abusive.

JS: The themes are darker but are more subtly rendered, with
more complex interaction. The musical aims were bumped up a notch.

 

The first record
seemed to have its lessons in my mind; that sex permeates the aging process;
that we are meant to feel as if we’re disappearing as we grow old. Are there
lessons to be learned on this one?

NC: I’d hate to think we were teaching lessons. We’re not
school teachers or pedagogs.

 

Maybe you were taking
the piss during our previous interviews-talking about mid-life crises and how
age makes one often less relevant.

NC: Society’s particularly cruel to the elderly but I don’t
think I’m that old yet, mate. 

JS: That may be true but I’m not sure that message is part
of G1. That might be something deeply inherent in a personae that Nick’s
created and maybe some of that personae overlap into Nick’s idea personally.
But these aren’t philosophical treatises. No matter how sophisticated the ideas
may be there’re elements of ambiguity as well.

 

Why do you think the
2000s have been so much more adventurous and energetically prolific than the
1990s were for you guys?

NC: In the last ten years I’ve felt very freed up about
things; even more so in the last five years. I’m less prone to hesitation about
things than I used to be twenty years ago. I’m not sure why that is. It might
be because I don’t take drugs anymore, although I’m not sure if that‘s the
case. I mean, I used to do just fine on drugs. But I do find that I‘m more
effective at what I do now. I think I got organized. I’m able to produce more
work. I still have doubts – just not the same doubts that I used to have.

 

How important is the
concept of morality within Grinderman? Or is it the lack of morality that makes
Grinderman what it is?

NC: Morality, hmm. The narratives are not so closed off;
it’s not the same as the Bad Seeds. Some of the Bad Seeds is structured on that
classic English ballad where there’s a moral at that end. Grinderman is more
about creating dark atmospheres – dark neurotic anxious atmospheres so it’s
more joyful full-hearted music Grinderman is. There’s a lot of anxiety and
violence. I don’t think there’s room for morality. There used to be a time when
I’d talk like this to journalists and they’d say, “What do I have to be nervous
or angry about?” What kind of beautiful days are we in that there’s no need for
that question now?

 

We all live with
levels of anxiety.

NC: Chewing your fucking arm off levels of anxiety we do.
Now, Jim here has no moral center.

JS: I do. I’m just not judgmental.

NC: You’re just mental

 

You guys are like a
vaudeville act.

JS: No wonder vaudeville died.

NC: He’s the tap dancer. I’m just the fucking cook.

 

I’m not talking about
trend or anything topical but when was the last time something recent crept
into the work. Not to mean to make you seem arcane, but like Bad Seeds,
Grinderman seems untouched by newer influences musical, lyrical and technical,
It’s not as if I expect a Ke$ha record to turn you on or your paean to the oil
spill to follow – but…

JS:  Well, we do
mention Oprah and plasma TV screens. We’re not in an ivory tower or in medieval
times.

NC: I think we are what we love – the music – and we bring
those things into the writing and into the studio.

 

Do you feel as if
this record has more of its male or female characters on top? Certainly you’ve
got “Worm Tamer,” Heathen Child”. I’ll say G2 is more feminine.

NC: I’m really interested in looking at the female role in
songs always. There are songs on the first one that have fixed female
protagonists-“Electric Alice” for example.

JS: There’re songs here about the absence of women.

 

Then you have a song
on the last one, “Love Bomb” where the woman seemingly makes the male
invisible. That was my point about age in your songs.

NC: That was more meant to be about isolation, an inability
to connect with anything, but I see what you’re seeing.

 

Then there’s “When My
Baby Comes” – your Inception if you
will, with stolen dreams and character narratives crashing into the next one.

NC: There’re probably several different narratives at work.
It also plays with shifting times and sexes of the protagonists.

 

I found a surprising
big difference between Grinderman and Bad Seeds on this new album – there are
no ghosts to be found in G2. Bad
Seeds is littered with them.

JS: Do you mean baggage?

No, I’m talking about
spirits. The characters in Grinderman songs are all very vividly alive.

NC: That’s a nice question though. With the Bad Seeds I have
a sense, even when I try not to, of cumulative history. Different people
through different bands; different places that the music has gone. It has and
can be quite daunting – still is – to write for them. The new Grinderman isn’t
that. We come to Grinderman more naked, without ghosts, very much from the
ground up.

 

Is Grinderman an
easier release then?

NC: It’s all taxing. I have to pay the piper one day for all
this

JS: When Nick is doing Grinderman as a lyricist, it starts off
in a more spontaneous place. He’s ad-libbing in the studio. He’s tapping into a
different source for ideas and images rather than being alone and working in
isolation as he does in Bad Seeds. Working in a more fastidious way, he’s got
to deliver words and ideas on the spot during Grinderman sessions. It’s a
different platform for him different wellspring than if he were working alone.
Sorry to speak of you in the third person, Nick.

NC: I feel like I’m in the third person.

JS: Are you falling asleep?

NC: I was with you al the way.

 

You guys seem pretty
inscrutable. What intimidates you?

NC: Illness

Q: OK Maybe it was a bad time to ask. G2s slower in spots and more spacious – I know both bands share
membership. Do you feel that G1 inspired
Dig and in turn opened up G2?

NC: Everything affects everything with these people.

JS: You pick up the threads where you left off. Influence
reverberates in the background.

 

What made you write a
song called “Kitchenette”?

NC: You know that’s not the first time it’s been mentioned
in a song. Brian Eno talks about it in “Cindy Tells Me”. That song came to us
very quickly.

JS: Right out of the raw initial sessions. Pure
unadulterated Grinderman.

 

Is there any Birthday
Party left in you, Nick? I ask only because this record shares some of that
absurdity – the occasional slapdash lyric, the frenzied rhythms.

NC: I did that a long time ago. I’m the same person, yes. Yes.
Does Grinderman sound like that – no.

 

What do you guys
remember most about playing Porter Waggoner’s last show when you both opened
for White Stripes at Madison
Square Garden?

JS: I liked him. The show was sad to watch because he was on
his last legs but he was great. And the Garden was an interesting experience.
It wasn’t our most finessed performance but it had that feel of the old days
where there was a palatable sense of antagonism and resentment, mannered as it
was that night.

NC: Because no one wanted us there.

JS: It was real get-the-fuck-off-the-stage stuff in the
past. People didn’t want to hear our art noise. Audiences are too tolerant now.
I miss the days of having to have netting in front of the stage so you didn’t
get pelted with bottles..

 

That’s the Birthday
Party shit I was thinking about – the wild child stuff. Tell me about
“Bellringer Blues.” It’s my fave from G2.

NC: That’s one of our songs that came from a jam – then we
cut out things. I had a huge amount of lyrics for this song that I edited edited
edited. That’s the mathematic of turning chaos in to a song.

JS: When Nick’s improvising that’s built in. There’s more
ellipsis…

NC: It’s a little on the nose. You know when you spoke
before about how we don’t write or think about anything current. Well, there
was a sense that this song that it was about something more. A statement –
something pedagogic, something didactic – and I don’t feel comfortable with
that. So I edited. And now it’s some more hallucinatory.

JS: That fits the music better – it’s swirly and dazzling.
The lyrics are confused – starts off with questions…where have all my compatriots
gone. The resolution is quite apocalyptic.

NC: Jim is known to be expansive (laughs)

 

How about “What I
Know?”

NC: I think that’s our most texturally beautiful song – a
nice bit of space within the record.

 

Going in to G2 was that the deliberate idea –
improvise then let it breathe with texture and space?

JS: Yes, actually. The live shows required for the first
Grinderman record made it so. We only had only album so when we did festival
dates we extended a lot of the songs.

NC: On stage, it became even more improv. We became
expansive – we had a jamming feeling.

 

That just sounds
weird coming from you guys.

NC: Yes but rather than be indulgent, it removed the need
for us to compact what we were doing. It gave the songs room to breathe. We
could start a song in an abstracted way and move into clearer focus. What
became a way to lengthen the set, taught us to be more free with the structures
of songs for the nest record.

 

It’s psychedelic in
the best way.

JS: Is there a bad way?

 

Yes. Oh yes.

NC: A lot of those bands sucked. Even the psychedelic bands
that weren’t supposed to suck – did suck when you listen to them now.

      Then again
everything sucks on some level.

 

 

Grinderman’s North
American tour resumes tonight in Vancouver and
wraps Nov. 30 in Los Angeles.
Tour dates at the official website. You can read our review of the band’s New York City concert on
Nov. 14, along with exclusive photos, elsewhere on the BLURT site.

 

BLURTING WITH… Rick Miller of Southern Culture On The Skids

Too much fun for just
one fan: with their self-produced, self-released new album, the Tarheel
twangers are still preachin’ the blue-collar gospel.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

There’s no point in beating around the book of journalistic
objectivity: Southern Culture On The Skids can do pretty much no wrong in my
book. But I back up that bias with nearly a quarter-century of firsthand
experience, having seen the Chapel Hill band perform since the days of their
earliest lineup and their earliest shows, shared more than a few bottles of
whiskey with ‘em and even wound up onstage as a guest musician (term used
loosely…) on a number of occasions.

 

Bias aside, though, I’m happy to report that their brand-new
album The Kudzu Ranch (released on
their own Kudzu label) has a little something to offer to everyone who calls
him- or herself a music fan, serving up as it does boatloads of backporch
twang, discombobulated garage/psych/surf licks, and deepfried-in-Dixie
blue-collar anthems. From hard-chooglin’ boogie (“Bone Dry Dirt”) and
kick-up-yer-heels dance moves (“Highlife”); to moody, jazz-tinged noir
(“Montague’s Mystery Theme”) and ear-twisting instrumental rock (“Slinky
Springs Milt”); to deftly-chosen covers, including a riotous take on Neil
Young’s “Are You Ready For the Country” and a killer mashup of Nirvana’s “Come
As You Are” and Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam”; this note’s for you, bubba (and bubbette). Folks who
order the rec direct from the band at the official website also get to nab a
free download featuring alternate versions and demos of some of the album tracks.

 

Southern Culture On The Skids  – guitarist Rick Miller, bassist Mary Huff and
drummer Dave Hartman, plus recent recruit Tim Barnes on second guitar – is a
North Carolina institution, Tarheel rock ‘n’ roll ambassadors determined to
preach the gospel as espoused in that none-too-subtle, ever-evocative moniker.
Put another way, their goddam reputation precedes them, and folks coming out to
a SCOTS show aren’t there because they want to furrow their brows and ponder
the deep metaphysics of life itself (well, unless you’re talking some esoteric
Duane Eddy, Dick Dale or Tony Joe White musical reference; then you’re welcome to go deep).
No, they’re there to shake their asses, and maybe toss a few chunks of fried
chicken back and forth like crispy brown frisbees. Meanwhile, the band has a
whale of a good time preaching that aforementioned gospel, something I was
reminded of once again this past summer when I caught ‘em at an outdoor street
festival, revving up and raving up like nobody’s business and generally inciting
the huge crowd to simply let down its collective hair. As Miller remarked to me
in an interview we conducted a few weeks after the concert, “Yeah, that was a good show, had a really good time.
I got nothing to prove anymore – I don’t care if there’s a hit on the new
record! I just want to have fun.”

 

“Fun,” in fact, has been the operative term for SCOTS
records and shows for as long as I can remember. They resume their fall tour right after Thanksgiving with dates extending into mid-December, so don’t miss
‘em if they head your way.

 

As the interview got underway, Miller and I started off
comparing notes on, of all things, our dogs – we both have border collies – and
our young sons, each of whom are showing interest in playing music. I mention
to Miller that I’m thinking about paying for guitar lessons for my son since to
date he hasn’t had sufficient patience on the instrument to let Daddy show him
some of the rudiments…

 

RICK MILLER: Well, you know, lessons were the opposite for
me. You never can tell. I remember I had one lesson I went to, and it was some
hippies trying to teach me “Greensleeves” when all I wanted was “Sunshine of
Your Love,” ya know? So yeah, the kid’s gotta like it. [laughs] My son Jack is four now, and he’s started a band with Mary
and I. He named it, and it’s called The Surf Creatures. He’s already come up
with some little song things, like – “Saturday, Sunday, no school Fun Day/
Saturday, Sunday, stay at home Play Day…”

    Kids are so funny,
man. We should do a kid’s record and let him write the songs.

 

BLURT: You should. A
lot of musicians in recent years have decided it’s cool to do a kids record and
not worry too much about taking a little holiday from their main thing.

Yeah, I don’t worry too much about being taken seriously. [laughs] That is not an obstacle for me!
And what I’d really love to do is make a record that both the kids and their
parents could listen to. There’s a lot of really bad, inane stuff out there.
But then, the Dan Zanes things are really cool; I love his sound. So if you
just get something that sounded good and had some grooves and beats and stuff,
and then just throw a kids flavor on it, I think it could be a lot of fun.

 

 My son’s favorite band is The Beatles, and
what led him to them when he was barely a year old was Raffi, who had a version
of “Yellow Submarine” on one of his records. Raffi was his gateway drug.

Well, I gotta say, I would never have discovered Eddie
Cochran had it not been for coming across that Blue Cheer album, Vincebus Eruptum, down at the Roses
five-and-dime one afternoon when I was about 10. I took it home and – whoah.
Bought it with my lawn-mowing money. That was where I got my first guitar, too.
Hanging down over the record bin.

 

 We had the same thing in my home down. The local
dime store with a small bin of records over in the corner of the room. Somehow
they started getting in stuff like Disraeli
Gears
and the first Steppenwolf album.

      So tell me a little about this new album
and your new label you’ve launched. Kind of coming full circle since you
essentially self-released your first EP and LP all those years ago. You’ve most
recently been on Yep Roc.

Well, we’ve got Red Eye [handling] the retail stuff for Kudzu Ranch. The Yep Roc deal was record
by record. I think that since we had the production facilities already – and
this really started back with the Geffen deal. We’ve always done our own thing
and recorded our own thing pretty much, but with Geffen we took the advance
money and went out and bought and eight-track half-inch Tascam. The first song
we ever recorded, “Red Beans and Reverb,” it got in a movie called Flirting With Disaster. We literally did
that song in an old garage, in this gas station we used to practice in and
where I lived in for a long time. We thought man, this is kinda the way to go.
And we’ve always kind of done it ourselves, 
managed ourselves, booked ourselves; it was only when it got to where we
couldn’t do it that we actually had the cachet to get someone to work with us.
We’ve been with Billions [booking agency] ever since.

      But then the
whole thing became us building the studio when I got the money, and then I
found a nice place out in the country to put it, and once we had all the means
of production, we really didn’t need any advance money. And when we didn’t need
advance money, we started questioning whether we really needed a label.
Especially with all these record stores folding, not being able to get any
national press and all that. We just thought we should try doing it ourselves when
it came time to do the new record. The numbers just keep going down and down
and down, so if you can sell instead of 25,000 records and making pennies on a
dollar, if you could sell five to ten thousand records and make five bucks a
record, well, you’re making the same amount of money or more, and that’s really
the bottom line for us.

 

 I came across an interview you and I did back
in 1995 and some of the things you’re saying now are echoes of some of the
things you said then, about having the means of your own production. A lot of
what we talked about in that earlier interview, bands are discovering now, in 2010 – but you’ve already been
around that track and have already discovered the logic to being totally
independent. Is that a pretty fair statement?

Oh yeah. I don’t see any change in our outlook since the
inception of the band, really. We’ve always been DIY as much as we could.

 

 And in that interview you also pointed out how
touring was your main source of income – that at that point, you hadn’t had to
work a day job in at least four years, either. Does that still hold true?

Yeah, sure. And now, what we’re hoping, with our own label,
is that we will start to see a bigger cut of merchandise and record sales.
Because being on a record label – even on a big one like Geffen, you just could
not depend on that money. You wouldn’t get it for months, maybe not even for
years because of accounting practices. I also remember how Geffen would take us
off tour to go do these radio shows; some radio guy says, “Oh, I might play
‘Camel Walk’…” or something. So they’d fly us from Minnesota
to Texas, while we’d have to pay our roadie
guy to drive the gear out to Seattle
where we’d hook up with him again – but we’d miss all our shows on the way. So
we’d say, okay, we’ll do this radio show, but if you take us off tour you’re
gonna have to reimburse us for the money we lose. Then I get a call from our
A&R guy saying, “Oh, the radio people are saying you guys are difficult to
work with, you don’t ‘want it,’ blah blah blah…” I said, “What I don’t want is
to go home and have to work at Kinko’s, which I’m gonna do if this keeps up!” [laughs] You know what I mean.

 

 A lot of band bought into – and some still do
– the whole major label plantation system. It was so ingrained because nobody
ever told them there were other ways to do things. It’s taken this long, with
the collapse of record sales, to demonstrate just that to a lot of people. But
there have always been a few along the way like you that understood what was
going on. Recently Amanda Palmer, another person who understands, told us in an
interview that with the blockbuster system crumbling, music is moving to a
working-class economy, that bands deserve to earn an honest living but they
can’t expect to earn at superstar levels. That’s good advice.

Well, that was always my plan and our plan. We never wanted
– we had very realistic goals. We had a business plan as much as a plan on the
music and the schtick and all that stuff. We talked about things and we knew
what we needed to do to quit our day jobs and pursue the music thing. We knew
it would be touring, and maybe it would be some record sales. But yeah, that’s
exactly right. It’s always been that way for us.

 

 Is touring still fun? You are on the road a
lot. Does it ever get to be a grind?

Well, it gets to be tough when you finally have a kid, and
your wife is working, it’s difficult. The first two years we had Jack, they
just packed up and went with us; the first two years of his life was in the
van! But now that he’s older, it’s harder. I mean, I like playing! And I think
all bands that last, they enjoy playing. So no, I don’t have a problem with
touring. I mean, traveling gets old; airlines, the standard gripes. But hey,
what are you gonna do, you know?

 

Have you ever entertained
the idea of stopping performing and just doing production work in the studio?

I did that for a little while when Jack was born and [wife] Sara
wasn’t working. We needed it then; I had to work all the time. But I was lucky
because I got to work with bands I enjoyed and that I liked. They would come to
me. And it’s still that way. Like, I’m going to be working with Mad Tea Party
[from Asheville],
I love those guys. And I just got done with a great band from Charlotte called the Aqualads, just finished
their record. And then Dexter Romweber’s manager just called me and I might be
working with him this winter; he’s always a favorite of mine. So I’ve got
projects lined up. I had kind of quit doing the studio thing for a little while
because I had to get things done with the band, but now I’ve opened things up
again. And I love it – go out on the road for a few months, then come home and
go into the studio in January and February when it’s good to be inside. It
gives me ideas too.

 

Tell me about Tim Barnes,
your guitarist. How did he get involved with the band?

We’ve known Tim for a long time. He played in mostly
bluegrass bands, but he started doing some roadie work for us back when Mojo Box came out. We developed a
working relationship with him over three or four years, and then when he was
roadieing for us on Countrypolitan
Favorites
, which had banjo on a couple of things, we’d get him up to do
some banjo parts. After that record he said, “Well, let me play some guitar.”
And while we’re a three piece, I thought, okay, let’s do it, we’ll try it. And
now I kind of like it because it adds a bigger sound.

 

 You have brought in a fourth member from time to time…

That’s right, we had Michael Kelsh, then Crispy [Chris Bess,
aka “Cousin Crispy”] played keyboards with us. And we started out as a four
piece. It’s kind of nice live at least, because as a three-piece, you can go
wherever you want to go musically, but if you have a bad night everyone knows
it. It’s nice having a second guitar in there…

 

 … and then if you have a bad night, you can
blame Tim!

That’s exactly right! You hit a clunker and just look over
at him. “What did I do?”

 

On to the making of
the new record: Any backstory we need to know?

Mmmm, no, not really. We did that covers record [Countrypolitan Favorites, 2007] when Jack was born.  I thought that would be an easy thing to
tread a little water, but that turned out to be quite the deal. I realized that
to do a cover your own way is like basically rewriting the song, so that took
us a lot longer than I expected and kind of backed us up on starting on our
original material. We got started about two years ago, just kind of fleshed it
out in between touring, and it gave us the chance to play the songs live. So
probably half the songs we’ve been playing now for maybe six months or so.
Also, it was nice having our own studio because we could come in between gigs
and hit it a couple of times; the songs evolved over time, playing them live,
and they got better.

       So it all got
recorded over a couple of years at the Kudzu Ranch. I could not find any
unifying theme on the songs, so we just ended up calling it the Kudzu Ranch, where it was recorded. And
a lot of the songs were about the time I spent in Mebane [NC, near Chapel Hill
and Durham], where
I was living in the country.

 

 Speaking of subject matter, you’ve always had
intriguing titles for your instrumentals – for example on this one, “Slinky
Spring Milt”? Who or what does that refer to?

Oh, well, the studio is kind of in a bottom area, and right
around February or March when you feel the sap starting to rise, you hear all
these damn peepers over there. We were working on that song one night, and I
walked out and I heard all those mating frogs. When we first started it had
kind of a lilt to it, the tune did, and I thought, “Wow, man, ‘milt,’ ‘slinky-springed
milt,’ that’s the title…” Oh, it was so loud over there. And I’ve always been
fascinated by nature in general. I watch a lot of Discovery Channel and
National Geographic.

 

 “Jack’s Tune”: when I first saw the title of
that instrumental, I was thinking, “Oh, must be an old jazz cover or
something…” But I’m guessing you wrote that for your son Jack.

Yeah, it was. Something I was working on when he was small.
And it’s nothing that’s uptempo or jumping around and the same energy levels he
has! It almost has a melancholy feel to it, and I think our kids can bring that
out in you.

 

 Have you road-tested the “Come As You
Are”/”Lucifer Sam” Nirvana-Pink Floyd instrumental medley? And if so, at what
point do the flickers of recognition start to come over the faces in the
audience? Because it unfolds kind of subtly, particularly with the Nirvana part
being the first half of the song, and that’s not something you’d expect from
SCOTS. And then gradually becomes more obvious as you segue into Floyd.

Yeah, we have played it live. Sometimes it goes right over
their heads, but there will always be three or four faces that light up at the
Nirvana song. But then we lose those folks with the Pink Floyd part! [laughs] When we were working on it, we
did a tour with Los Straitjackets last year, and it sorta came from that. They
wanted to do a single of Nirvana covers, so we started listening to some songs
by Nirvana, trying to figure out what we wanted to do. I was listening to “Come
As You Are,” and at the same time, because I always have a copy of the first
Pink Floyd record on hand, I was listening to Nirvana and said to my self,
“God, that is like the same riff. Just one or two notes different.” So that’s
how it happened. It’s amazing when you start dissecting songs how it can be
just a note or a beat or an inflection. It was really fun, just one of those
musical things.

 

 That makes me think of something: your band
started out long before the time when labels had banks of lawyers to scrutinize
a song before its release in order to vet any potential copyright violations –
sampling, and whatnot. And you have always very liberally quoted from other
songs, particularly in instrumentals. Has anyone ever sicced lawyers on you for
something you’ve put out?

Nah, we don’t make enough money. There’s not enough blood in
the water for the sharks to start circling! But who knows, if something blew
up? I mean, “It’s The Music That Makes Me’ [on The Kudzu Ranch], that’s right out of a T. Rex song.

 

 On the new album Mary has some good songs. “High
Life,” for example, when you did it this summer – that was a real crowd
pleaser.

I wanted to get her some originals because she had just been
doing covers pretty much – I was telling her, you gotta sing more and sing some
originals. So we worked quite hard at getting her comfortable with the lyrics
and the songs, and I think the three songs she does on the record are really
good. And there are different versions of “High Life” and “Bad Boys” that she
does too, and they are available as a free download when folks buy the record.

     Folks will ask
me, “How do you choose which versions are going to go on the record?” Sometimes
we’ll play a version that’s not like the one on the record, so I thought it
would be nice to include some of that stuff so people could see what we go
through [in developing] the songs. Like, for “Bad Boys,” we literally had a
hard rocking one, and then we had the garage rock on that wound up on the
record, and we even had a rockabilly version. It wasn’t just a demo – we
tracked the whole song and mixed it. Then in the end, Mary picked the one she
liked best. We did the same thing with “High Life”: we did an acoustic version
then an electric version.

 

 Have you ever considered doing a box set or
rarities collection with a lot of unreleased stuff like that? I know you’re
pretty prolific. And I’ve got tons of cassettes of demos you gave me back in
the early days as well.

Well, I think we’re working towards that. I think the next
thing we want to do is pool a lot of that stuff. Like a lot of bands that have
been around as long as us, we’re digging up all kinds of stuff. And not only
that, after five, seven, ten years, the rights to a lot of your stuff reverts
back to the band. That has happened now with the Geffen stuff, it’s happened
with the TVT stuff. So we can rerecord any of that, or actually use some of the
versions that were on there. So I think we are going to be doing something like
that in the future. We can pull from stuff way back in the day, cassette copies
too – there are so many old cassettes of us.

       With the Internet,
and people being able to download things so easily, I think for fans of the
band they’d dig it.

 

 And you’ve recently remastered Too Much Pork for Just One Fork, right?
A lot of those songs you still play live. Why did it take so long to revisit
that album?
[Note: TMPFJOF was the
band’s second full-length, originally released by Chapel
Hill label Moist in 1991.]

Well, with that, we’ve had the rights for years. We bought
them when Moist went out of business back in the mid ‘90s. But we just never –
you’re always looking to the next thing, you know? It never occurred to me to
spend much time looking backwards until recently. But I think just the way the
music business has gone, the Internet… and also getting the rights back to
other things, you do start thinking about reissuing them. So basically, that’s
what we did.

       We remastered
it down in Charlotte, Dave Harris and I [at Studio B]. That was [recorded] back
in the early days of CDs and it did not sound that good! [laughs]

 

 I listened to it the other day along with the
new album and was thinking “minimalist SCOTS.” It’s a favorite of mine, but
wow, what a difference in sound from then to now.

Yeah, and we’ve gotten a little bit better since then, too! [laughs]
I’ll tell you, though, I love that minimalist sound. And one thing about
getting into your back catalog, in starting to listen to that stuff, I miss
that kind of minimalist aesthetic. I think our next record will be more along
those lines, you know? We’ll see.

 

Pork also was a kind of visual document of the band at that point
in time as well. The photos in the booklet, taken by D. Kent Thompson, are both
candid and, with the live shots, full of action. In my collection I have one of
his classic images from that same period, and it depicts you in the eye of the
storm, with girls all over the stage and dancing frenziedly, one of them with
her eyes squeezed shut and in mid-leap… those were good times.
[Note: see photo at the top of this page.]

Oh, you’re right. Those shows were a ton of fun. My favorite photo shows this guy wearing a headband, he
would always be at the shows, with his arms outstretched like he was bowing
before me. I wonder if kids still have that much fun at shows nowadays?

 

This also brings up
the matter of your self-titled first LP, the vinyl only album, and your 4-song Voodoo Beach Party debut EP on 7-inch
vinyl. Can we expect those to be reissued? Somebody bootlegged the LP and the
EP together onto a single disc back in the late ‘90s – did you know that? I
always thought that was interesting that someone that was crazy enough about
SCOTS to approach that project. Both records are definitely fan favorites.

No, I didn’t know that! Yeah, I’ve seen both of them going
for quite a bit of money. I’ve still got some from the first batch, maybe about
500 that I silk-screened myself. The cover drawing was done by Matt Neal, Bill
Neal’s son, who was seven at the time. So yeah, we’re gonna put it out! I’ve
got a virgin copy of [the album] and I’ve already talked to Dave Harris about
this, we’re going to go down [to Charlotte],
he has a turntable, and we’re going to remaster that LP along with Voodoo Beach Party.

 

With bands being able
to handle their marketing directly to their fanbase these days, it’s gotten a
lot easier and makes sense monetarily to do it. Irmin Schmidt from Can once
told me, in a discussion about the band remastering and reissuing their back
catalog on their own label, how this, their music, was essentially their life
insurance policies that they can pass along to their children and
grandchildren. And I thought that was really astute advice. So many artists
fail to recognize how their music is their creative legacy, but in a very real
sense, it should also be their next egg.

And so many people don’t take care of their back catalog.
For example, someone else winds up owning it. Or it gets lost in the process of
so many record labels going out of business. You have to take an active
interest in your band to make it happen. Because record labels, my God – the
master tapes to our Geffen stuff were still sitting over there at Reflection
Studio in Charlotte.
Who knows where things go, you know? You have to actively pursue your back
catalog, keep tabs on it, and you’re right – it’s like an insurance policy.
Because if you have a legacy or you continue to be a band of some sort, people
will be interested.

 

 What do you think your legacy will be, ultimately, Rick?

Oh, I don’t know… [laughs]

 

 One question I like to ask musicians: If
someone walks into a graveyard 20, 50 years from now and sees a tombstone with
the words “Here lies Southern Culture On The Skids…” what would the rest of the
epitaph read?

[answering without
hesitation
] “No chicken, no show.”

 

Ah, I understand that
the Europeans took that notation on your tour rider quite literally. I think
you told me once how you were over there once and they didn’t quite “get” the
whole Kentucky
Fried deal and instead brought you these baked birds on platters.

Oh, man! It was in Norway, and they had baked us several chickens. And in Norway the
chickens can’t live there because it’s too cold, so it was like having
cigarettes in prison. [laughs] The
crowd started ripping the chickens apart, and I think I stuck one of them –
because they weren’t real big – on the headstock of my guitar. So there I am
with a whole chicken on my headstock and the cook was literally screaming,
coming out trying to choke me onstage.

      Sometimes we
don’t do it, sometimes we do, really depends on the crowd. With festivals we
usually do stuff like [tossing fried chicken into the audience] because it’s
always fun for the audience.

 

 Here’s a quote from 1995 – we were talking
about your shows, some of the songs and some of the humor that can go into them
and the general entertainment factor you aim for. You said, “If you get people
on your side early, they’ll go anywhere with you.”

And that’s true!

 

 But why do so many bands not understand that?
You’ll see them come out and dick around for 15 minutes. But if you get
people’s attention first – it’s like when a teacher goes into the classroom,
she has to get their attention first or they’re not going to learn anything.

Well, I don’t think they’re professionals. Especially some
of what you’d call the more “indie bands.” Maybe they lack confidence.
Sometimes I think they’ve got an issue with entertaining. Some bands think that
their non-professional attitude is a commentary. But it’s a schtick, just like
anything else, and to me, they’re wrong. And you’re right. It kinda goes back
to the whole Pied Piper thing. If you look like you’re enjoying yourself, they
will enjoy themselves.

       Because that is
the secret: to enjoy what you do. I don’t care WHAT you do; if you enjoy it,
the vibe you give off will pull people in. It’s like a magnet. And you can’t
continue to do it without getting something back, too. You can’t be a slave to
the audience either. And we keep making our own original music and doing our
own thing. But like I say, when you play live to a room full of people, c’mon –
it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and people need to have fun. It’s good therapy. For them,
and for me.

 

 Is being in the band your therapy, Rick?

Yeah! I love it! But you know, even before I was in the
band, I was an art major and I always liked making things. I think that’s why I
was drawn to the production end of things too. It’s fun being in the studio,
whether you’re painting or writing or… I just enjoy that time.

 

 

[PHOTO CREDIT: D. Kent Thompson; image taken at the
Milestone Club, Charlotte, NC, in May 1991. “For Editorial Use Only” –
amen to that, brother Kent. I dedicate this SCOTS piece to you
.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, MR. SAKAMOTO Ryuichi Sakamoto

He appreciates “good
noise,” is concerned about climate change, isn’t quite sold on Hawaii, and has
worked with everyone from David Byrne to The Dalai Lama.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Since 1978, Japan’s Ryuichi Sakamoto has been an innovator
in electro-pop circles with Yellow Magic Orchestra, a world fusion artist whose
sonic vision (“neo geo”) has meant seamlessly combining all forms of Eastern
and Western melody and rhythm, a sought-after film composer whose collaborative
score with David Byrne for 1987’s The
Last Emperor
won an Academy Award, and a musical partner to the diverse
likes of William S. Burroughs and The Dalai Lama to say nothing of his teamings
with David Sylvian, Adrian Belew and Iggy Pop. Sakamoto has also crafted operas
and made bossa nova and classical recordings.

 

Currently and willingly he finds himself in the position of
re-introducing himself to American audiences with a 2 CD package – his “self-covers”
album, Playing the Piano and the
self-explanatory Out of Noise, itself
dedicated to ideals laid down by John Cage. During each 2010 tour date,
Sakamoto comes equipped with two Yamaha concert grand pianos – one played by
Sakamoto himself, and the other pre-programmed to play a second part composed
by him. Essentially, he’s playing duets with himself. Sakamoto is also part of
Criterion BluRay’s vividly colorful re-release of Nakisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – the very
first film Sakamoto scored and starred in. (Read our review here.)

 

Plus, from the sight of him at a recent tour stop in Philadelphia, he’s a
damned snappy dresser.

 

***

 

BLURT: On the Noise half of this new album your
most recent version of electronic music borrows some of the field recording
ideas form your Neo Geo period but
find itself less cluttered. What is that about?

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: I wanted to follow the philosophy of John Cage – that there’s
no boundary between sound and noise. I have never been able to accomplish that
before as an artist. I’ve used noise a lot in the past. I think with this, I
have, I hope, truly focused on deconstructing that boundary.

 

 I know Debussy and Satie are inspirations. You
did an aptly-titled album in 1998 called Discord that you made your introduction to classical music. Do you think from that
point on, to say nothing of your backgrounds in pop, do you think classical
audiences look at you with a jaundiced eye? Do you think you bring something to
classical music that hasn’t been there before?
 The classical background of mine is
always there. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others. I feel strange saying
this about myself but I have many aspects to my sound – many faces or sides if
you will. I think my love of techno, world music, bossa nova, whatever – it all
comes out. This is all me. Certain audiences claim me for their own – some from
electro pop, some just soundtracks, There are people who know me for opera. But
even the music of Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was what, some 30 years ago,
you can hear elements of symphonic music.

 

 Why re-introduce yourself with a self covers
record? Or is it that you were just looking to strip your more familiar work to
the bone?

 Maybe it’s been in the past ten years
but every time I play, it’s me and piano and fewer and fewer collaborators. As
I strip down my shows, I strip down the music perhaps. The style I play is very
(simple or) single minded. I’m really am just a composer who plays piano.

 

 I don’t know – you do a pretty nice job.

 Thank you (laughs)

 

 Can we talk about Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence for a moment. Not just because the
film has just been re-released but because so many of its musical themes –
literally and figuratively, its minor and major chords – have lasted through
your work. Plus you perform its theme song on Playing the Piano and in concert. Why was that music – is that
music – so ever-lasting? What is its lingering resonance?

 I really have no
idea. It’s a mystery, always a mystery to me. I can’t imagine why that theme –
beyond even that of The Last Emperor – is so well received. It’s impressive to
see though – even from the first few notes on, a few second in how it grabs
people’s hearts. I want to know (laughs).

 

 What do you remember most about its filming?
 The biggest difference between this and
any other film I’ve been in or made music for was that this was the very first
film music I ever wrote as well as being my first acting experience I would
have. Two firsts in such a monumental project – that’s something you know. My
memories of shooting and pre-shooting with Mr. Oshima are very fond ones.

 

 Oliver Stone, Bertilucci, Brian DePalma,
Aldomovar – you’ve done them all. Why? What do you think you do that no one
else could have done – a sense of invocation perhaps?

 I think I may have
done something to offend other film soundtrack composers, possibly because I am
a musician and composer first. Only sometimes I work a film composer. I make
this music as my own music first. I don’t write according to the film.

 

 Do you feel as if classical audiences in
particular look at you with a jaundiced eye – they’re such purists.

 No.

 

 What’s your take on Bill Evans? The more I
hear you play just piano I hear him in your work?

 Since I was a teen
I’ve been a big fan of Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. Evans is much more
romantic. Since the first time I heard him, I thought there was evidence of
Ravel is his playing.

 You do “Riot in Lagos” and “A Thousand Knives” some of your
oldest electronic pop tracks on the new album. I know that you write mostly on
piano and these were so synthonic. Were they harder to break down?

 Yes, you’re right. I
do compose on piano and yes these were a harder to strip down. Piano gives me
more ideas. It was much more difficult to rearrange these.

 

 How have you liked working with Christian
Fennesz? You’ve done duet records with him in past and he contributes to the Noise album.

 Definitely we share a
heart when it comes to this music. His music is so much noisier (laughs) and louder than mine, but his
standards of music are very good. Very high. Since the first moment we met we
understand each others nature very well.

 

 I understand that you developed your own label
in Japan
– Commons – and that you’ve released records by Tortoise and BOREDOMS.
Christian is noisy. BOREDOMS is more so.

 Much more than
Christian, yes (laughs). I’m enjoying
BOREDOMS. I’ve known them for some time. I’m always been open to any genre –
except country and western and Hawaiian music.

 

 That’s pretty unfair to Hawaii.

 (laughs) I love the state. I just don’t like their resulting music.
There is good and bad music everywhere. There is good noise and bad noise.
BOREDOMS is good noise.

 

 You traveled to Greenland
for inspiration on Noise did you not?

 I have long had
climate concerns and issues and wanted to go to the Arctic Sea.
It’s not but I finally got an invitation; me and scientists together. I didn’t
want to go and be frozen but once I did and I was there I didn’t want to come
back. I left my soul on the glaciers. Obviously it was a huge impact on the
record.

 

 You’ve been making music in so many forms and
formats for so long. Are you comfortable in your skin as an artist?

 I think that I am not
an artist…yet. I am a musician- sometimes a composer, sometimes a player.
Artists are different. Artists break the boundaries. They show new ways of
thinking. I want to be an artist.

 

 Well, sir, I think you’ve managed to at least
bend a few things in your time.

 Thanks.

 

[Photo Credit: Rama]

SHEDDING SOME LIGHT “IN THE DARK” The Birthday Massacre

Definitely not your
mother’s goth: on its fourth album, the Toronto
band gets a chance to flex its creative wings – and soars.

 

BY GIL MACIAS

 

Horror films and gothic music have a lot in common. They
might have huge followings, but both are mostly underappreciated and not
usually taken seriously in their industries. Horror movies get shunned by the
Academy and gothic music has always been the bastard child of genres at the
Grammys, but who cares? The point is, all genres have examples of quality that
stand out amongst the rest and make people think twice about their
pre-conceived notions.

 

The Birthday Massacre is one of those bands who probably (and
wrongfully) get brushed off and slapped with the “Goth” label because of their
dark exterior, when in fact, their music is a mash-up of genres and various
musical styles ranging from dark wave, electronica, synth-rock and in some
cases, pure rock ‘n roll. The Toronto-based band recently released their fourth
studio album titled Pins and Needles – an album that’s a pure revelation, loaded with strong melodies, haunting
vocals, ‘80s influence, and layered with just the right amount darkness.

 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The band has matured a lot
since their debut, the production value has gone up and frontwoman Chibi’s
vocals are more confident and powerful than ever. The album is their best
effort to date and we highly recommend you give it a listen. And to get a taste
of the band’s visual artistic style, check out their new video for “In The
Dark.”

 

The Birthday Massacre is currently on tour (check dates
here) and we were able to have a quick chat with Chibi to talk about the
evolution of the band’s sound and the making of their new album.

 

***

 

BLURT: What’s the
band’s obsession with purple? It’s the color of choice on every album cover.

CHIBI:  I went to
school for fine arts and that’s where I met [band member] Rainbow. We did a lot
of color theory there. The whole band does contrasting things. So, you know,
red is a hot color, blue is a cold color, you put them together and you have
purple, right? So that’s sort of the fancy explanation. But it’s my favorite
color too [Laughs]. 

 

With this new one,
the production value went up quite a few notches. You guys sound more polished
than ever. What caused this leap forward in quality?

That actually means a lot, because we actually self-produced
this one. On Walking With Strangers [2007]
we worked with Dave Ogilvie, he produced it and he’s very talented, but this
time we only brought him in to mix again. But yea, we self-produced Pins and Needles, so it’s really nice to
hear you say that.

 

Your voice also seems
stronger and more in the foreground this time. There are less vocal effects.
Did you do something to strengthen your voice?

That means a lot as well. I think I have definitely grown
singing-wise. I took some vocal coaching a few years ago but it all sort of
goes out the window when you’re on tour. Honestly, I think when you’re touring
and playing so many shows over and over, you’re learning how to perform when
you’re feeling sick, or you’re not feeling like doing it at all – I feel like I
am a much better singer now than I was at the beginning. I used to not be able
to do vocals with anybody in the room. I’d have to be alone. I just hated all
of it. But now I’m so used to doing it and being more confident with it.

 

Are there any
pre-show rituals you do to prepare your voice for a show and going onstage
before a big audience?

[Laughs] Being on
tour means you get to watch a bunch of cool bands every night and that gets you
in the mood to go onstage. So that’s something I always like to do. And
listening to music or having a drink or maybe six…y ou know, that can help too.
[Laughs]

 

How much effort goes
into the band’s onstage look?

Well, we always want to try to look unified. So before we go
on tour, we’ll all plan what we’re going to wear so we can all match and stuff.
It’s important. A lot of our fans dress up when they come out, so we like to
make it fun. We put on an interesting live show, so we can sort of be with the
crowd like that.

 

When you’re
recording, how do you all come to an agreement that a song is complete? Do all
6 of you have to be happy to stamp a song as finished?

Well, there’s 6 of us in the live band, but there are only 3
of us who are the primary songwriters; me, Rainbow and Mike Falcore. It’s kind
of dysfunctional at times and sometimes you do have to sort of do the vote on
what parts of a song sound good. If all 6 of us were writing, I don’t know what
we would do. With the 3 of us, we’ve known each other for years. Mike and
Rainbow grew up together, they’ve known each other since they were kids and
I’ve known both of them for 12 years now, so, we work pretty well together. We
all kind of know what’s going to piss each other off and try not to do that.

 

Where did the concept
for the “In The Dark” video come from? Great video by the way.

Thank you. Mike directed it. His whole thing is film. He was
really excited. I was like, “He’s not gonna direct the video.” [Laughs] I had like no faith, I know him
too well. But he did such a good job. Rue
Morgue
, the horror magazine, they participated as well and co-directed with
him. We all love horror movies and we all grew up in the ‘80s, so there are a
lot of influences there like A Nightmare
on Elm Street
and some Hellraiser stuff
too. It was the first time we ever
directed our own video too. We’ve always worked with this visual artist named Dan Ouellette on our past
videos. But this time it was all of our concept and we didn’t collaborate with
anyone else.

 

What was it about “In The Dark” that
stood out and made that your first choice as a single and music video?

We
picked that song really quickly. They wanted to have a video out almost
immediately when the album was coming out and all that stuff. Unanimously, we
all liked “In The Dark” right away. We were really excited about it, we thought
it was really strong.

 

Do you guys ever feel you’re not taking
seriously because of the band’s look? And do people try to brush you off as
“goth?”

Oh yea, of course. And if you put the stamp “goth” on
something, a lot of people will automatically dismiss it. Just like if you put “country,”
“punk,” or “metal” as a stamp on anything, people get really into their own
genres and get very protective and don’t like anything else. Some people will
say, “I don’t listen to them because they’re so Goth.” And other people say, “they’re not Goth enough.” So, we just try to incorporate
a lot of different things and hopefully no one gets put off by labels.
Everybody gets labeled and it sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it. [Shrugs]

 

Who do you get
compared to that annoys you the most?

[Smiles and clenches
teeth
] A lot of times, well, not so much anymore but we would get compared
to Evanescence, which I totally don’t
understand—at all.  I don’t know. I’m not a huge fan really and
then getting those comparisons would just… [Shakes
head
]. I don’t sound anything like her, the music doesn’t sound anything
like them. I think it’s just because there’s a girl in the band with black
hair. If I had red hair, they’d probably say we sound like Garbage.

 

What musicians would
you say are the most influential to you?

My favorite band growing up was Concrete Blonde. They’re so
good. I love her voice. I always liked Heart as well. And my other favorite
band is Faith No More. I don’t sound anything like Mike Patton, but he’s a
really great performer.

 

I read that you were
trying to channel Ann Wilson while you were recording the title track “Pins and
Needles.”

We were joking around. I was working with Rainbow and doing
to vocals for “Pins and Needles,” and he was like, “Just be strong. Like the
girl from Heart.” And I was like, “Ann Wilson? I don’t sound anything like Ann
Wilson,” and he was like, “Do it anyway!” So I did my best to channel Ann
Wilson. It’s a powerful ballad and it’s got a very ‘80s feel and that’s the way
a lot of Heart’s stuff was. I don’t sound a thing like her, but I tried [laughs].

 

What’s in store for
fans next?

We have a bunch of songs that didn’t make it onto this
album. They’re really, really good but we wanted to save them for later. So hopefully
we’ll grow and develop the sound we’re trying to do next.

 

Do you see this band
going on for years and years to come?

Probably for as long as it makes sense and for as long as
we’re having fun. We’ve always said if it stops being fun, then we’re not going
to do it anymore. If you’re miserable, and you don’t want to be on tour, or you
don’t even like the music anymore, why bother? But we enjoy doing it, we’re a
family and we’ve been together for a long time. We’ll be together as long as it
makes sense. We don’t want to be one of those bands where people go, “Why don’t
they call it quits?!” You know? [Laughs]

 

 

 

Check out the video
for “In The Dark”

WEST COAST SEATTLE BOY Jimi Hendrix

The guitar god’s legacy is reopened, reexamined and
reappraised via a new 4-CD/DVD box. That legacy never felt fresher.

 

BY MARY LEARY

The guy (called, or
calling himself, James, Johnny, Buster, Maurice, or Jimmy before Chas Chandler
suggested “Jimi”) hurtled from one place or activity to the next so often from
the early to mid-‘60s that only a flea could have stayed close enough to track
his evolution. Otherwise, at least to Americans, the being known as Jimi
Hendrix seemed to manifest from thin air, shooting down from the heavens around
the release of Are You Experienced at exactly the right moment for his
unique persona to be embraced by hippies and other open-eared listeners.  

 

Hendrix’s Smash
Hits
collection provided a soundtrack to homework I did or didn’t do on my
bed after school. Who could concentrate? Fresh gusts tinged with psychedelic
glamour blasted from my speakers, demanding attention. Jimi’s music screamed of
something I wasn’t – an adult – and of a lifestyle I longed to embody. I might
not get everything the Beatles had been singing about, but the music managed to
engage everyone. If I was ignorant about heroin addiction and withdrawal pangs,
Neil Young still looked almost huggable in his soft flannel shirts. But Hendrix
was howling very directly about lust (“Fire,” “Foxey Lady”) – and the latter
was about a lady; not a girl. Further, this was an African-American,
unapologetically parading desire and virility. “Manic Depression” and
“Crosstown Traffic” spoke of neuroses I couldn’t identify, but I related to the
anger, the restlessness, the drive. 

 

Never seeing Jimi
Hendrix is one of my life’s smaller tragedies. But hold on: There’s a
chance I heard him, at the age of ten, one August night when the sounds
drifting down the shore from some Nags Head soul shack precluded sleep. The
luminous bass lines, marrow-shaking beat and siren calls of the guitar seemed
to reverberate with the sand around the beach house. Since Hendrix was very
active in 1965 on the “chitlin’ circuit;” paying dues as a journeyman with Jimmy
Norman, Don Covey, and others, I may very well have been listening to the juicy
licks with which he embellished Rosa Lee Brooks’ “My Diary” or Covey’s “Mercy,
Mercy.”  Playing The Icemen’s “(My Girl)
She’s a Fox,” one of the cuts on the first disc of West Coast Seattle Boy (Sony Legacy), provided an “aha moment” as it became clear this was the cut I’d
heard on the radio once in 1966, when I was transfixed by its otherworldliness.
I could never figure out who had done it, which makes plenty of sense – living
in South Carolina, I was listening to a Charleston DJ who may have slipped the cut
into rotation only to have it removed – this is before “deep soul” (bawdy,
suggestive, not cosmetically-refined a la Motown) had made its way into white
markets.

 

“(My Girl) She’s a
Fox,” brims with the unmistakable echoes and frothy reverberations of Jimi’s
guitar. Although Hendrix via his own Experience seemed absolutely new, the
first disc of West Coast Seattle Boy provides more than history for rockologists,
as well as the best newly-compiled tunes on the set. Most intriguingly, it
reveals exactly how Hendrix influenced, and was influenced by, the hardworking
pros who signed his paychecks.

 

Packed with quirky
drama rivaling the most outré maneuvers by James Brown and Little Richard, The
Isley Brothers’ “Testify” (’64) and “Move Over and Let Me Dance” (‘65) may have
provided some of the framework for “Crosstown Traffic,” “Fire,” and other
compositions that would combine an urban sense of urgency with down-home
confidentiality. The track’s volatile, all-over-the-place dynamic probably also
played a part in Jimi’s sense of how far music could go. On “Fire,” Hendrix
quotes “Move Over” with the gleeful “Move over, Rover… and let Jimi take
over.”  For everyone concerned, the young
maverick’s association with the Isleys was especially fruitful: On “Move Over,”
in particular, one hears the space and freedom the brothers donated to
Hendrix’s increasingly colorful licks. And Hendrix, who in The Experience had
to overcome some initial shyness about stepping up to the mic, garnered some of
his intonations and nuances from Kelly. Chitlin’ Circuit players were
accustomed to razor-tough crowds. The only workable response was the
bulletproof confidence with which Kelly’s vocal on “Testify” eases over the
song’s stuttering beats: slow when he feels like it; more hurried when
he feels like it, as in gospel/”testifying.”

 

Although he’d be
chomping at the bit pretty shortly, Hendrix learned how to project restrained
emotions from exacting employers like Little Richard, whose “Dancing All Around
the World” (‘65, also sometimes known as “Dance a Go Go”) is one of the disc’s
highlights.

 

In terms of
detecting blueprints for Hendrix’s originals, “(My Girl) She’s a Fox” is the
biggest eye-opener. It throws weight behind Hendrix’s assertion, “I want to do
with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” The Icemen allowed
Jimmy James (the name he’d adopted at that point) latitude to play circles
around the melody, which appears to be the first time his trademark, delay-echo
and Wah-Wah waves were caught on vinyl. This ambience would be repeated on
“Little Wing,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” and “May This Be Love,” among others.

 

The rest of West
Coast Seattle Boy
‘s audio is given over to alternate and additional takes
of previously-released material, as well as some live tracks and a rather more
digressive set from a ’68 session in a New York hotel room; Paul Caruso
provided harp and back-up vocals for several. Of these, the most riveting is
the duo’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage,” which trundles on too long, owes
a fair amount to The Band’s version, and adds a predictable soulfulness.

 

There’s some good
stuff here, often songs already adored by millions, and often from 1967, when
Hendrix was still basking in acclaim and artistic growth. These include a
blistering, somewhat more meandering (compared to the official release) run
through “Love or Confusion” from a London
studio – the same session yields evocative guitar work on “May This Be Love.”
“The Wind Cries Mary,” from a Stockholm appearance (also available on Stages),
reveals tasty variations. Headphones and/or organic supplementation are not
required but are strongly advised for an extraordinary, six-minute trip into
“Are You Experienced” overseen by Chas Chandler.

Of note is “Little
One,” an instrumental with a bit of a Traffic vibe, partly thanks to Dave
Mason’s involvement on sitar. New to me is the relatively concise (at about
three minutes) shout of “Untitled Basic Track,” which was thrown down in ’68 as
an instrumental; time at the studio ran out before anything else could be
added. Other standouts are similarly grab-baggish, including the “Star Spangled
Banner” that was such a shocker when Hendrix shredded it at Woodstock, a
flaming “Foxey Lady” from the Band of Gypsys at Fillmore East that lends
serious credence to the notion that Hendrix helped sire heavy metal, and the
pairing of “Bolero” with “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” as Jimi intended, a
project overseen by Experience Hendrix (a corporation formed by his family in
‘95) that involved reassembling a multi-track master mysteriously parceled in
‘76. An unexpected pleasure comes via Larry Lee’s “Mastermind.” Lee takes the
lead vocal on the soulful ballad, which is occasionally murked up by
overly-enthusiastic emissions from Jimi. Unless seriously exhibiting signs of
exhaustion or inebriation, tracks like a later, alternate take of “Message to
Love” can reliably bring cold water to a boil.

 

It’s hard to consider the latest mining of Jimi’s trove of
recordings without wondering whether he would have approved. His demand and
need for new material and approaches, along with his perfectionism (he was
known to do exhaustive numbers of takes before being satisfied) throw “No”
votes at the quandary. Also, he might have been dismayed by the feeding frenzy
that’s followed his mortal tenure (even more than the one that raged during his
life). But there’s was a need, coming through records and diary entries
concerning his family, to be a hero and provider.

 

Jimi Hendrix Voodoo
Child
, WCSB‘s other big selling
point, reveals a young man who repeatedly took the high road, choosing
positivity in the face of challenges. Also available on paper and audiobook as In His Own Words, the DVD provides a
heartbreaking expose, touching on Jimi’s childhood in Seattle before charting
his movements from guitar-toting Army volunteer (he didn’t want to go to
Vietnam, let alone brook interruption of the musical career he envisioned)
through his demise in London. It’s an exciting collage of stills, photos of
Jimi’s letters and diary pages, and live footage of incendiary performances,
including a “Voodoo Child” from 1970. After the film covers the influence of
Chuck Berry, we see Jimi slashing through “Johnny B. Goode.”   Bootsy Collins fills in for Jimi’s voice,
relating a surprisingly amusing account of weekly race riots in Memphis, along with his
summation, after shocking audience members’ parents around a misbegotten tour
with the Monkees, “I think they replaced me with Mickey Mouse.”

 

The booklet leads
off with a picture that always makes me start to tear up: the one of an
18-year-old in a red jacket and white shirt who looks thrilled to be holding
his red, single-pickup Silvertone Danelectro in his front yard.

 

I’d
like to think Jimi sees the stream of products purportedly celebrating and
expanding his work and existence as doing exactly that. On the other hand,
after choosing the Experience Hendrix (official) website for a link with this
piece, I repeatedly experienced failure while testing its purchase options.
Every time I tried to click through, whether via “Merch and Music,” “Shop,” or
“Order Now,” I hit a dead page. Since it was on the release date, maybe the
site was just overloaded.

 

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL GOLEM Frank Black

In which the Pixies
frontman takes a surprising – but not unwelcome – detour in into film scoring.

 

BY JASON GROSS

 

In between the ongoing Pixies reunion and his own solo
career, Frank Black decided to take an interesting detour in the spring of 2008
by scoring the classic German horror film The
Golem: How He Came Into the World
for the San Francisco International Film
Festival.  For the story, a medieval
legend about a rabbi that creates a clay monster that comes to life to do his
bidding (with horrible consequences),  FB
was asked not just to provide incidental background music but full songs that
you might hear on one of his own albums. 
He took the task very seriously, writing out the songs from the
perspective of the characters and transforming the end result into an extended
music video, which you can see on his YouTube channel.

 

At the beginning of this year, he released a signed limited
edition box set, including the soundtrack spread over several CDs and a DVD
plus the score and a personalized red wax seal. 
Now, he’s releasing a ‘rock album’ single CD version of the soundtrack
plus a DVD of the film including his soundtrack via his official website.

 

Mr. Black was interrogated by phone while he was at a California café to find
out how this project came about, how he tackled this challenge and how he
burrowed into the head of the characters with his songs.

 

***

 

BLURT: When did you
first see the film and what did you think of it then?

 

FRANK BLACK: I guess it was two or three years ago when I
first saw the film.   I was asked to do
this silent movie soundtrack for a festival in San Francisco.  I think I had heard of the movie which is why
I had selected it or at least I had heard of German expressionism and I
thought, “Well, I sort of enjoyed that thing when I was in the college and I was
hanging out in film classes.” (laughs)

       Like a lot of
modern people, I was fearful that I was gonna be bored because I was watching
an old black and white silent movie.  But
I think that because I had this other reason to watch it, that it gave me some
discipline and some focus to really WATCH it, because I was taking notes, you
know.  And so I think because of that, I
was able to thoroughly enjoy it and love it, the way you would in a class, when
you’re forced to observe something, to read something that maybe you normally
wouldn’t pick up or look at.  And because
you have that context of the discipline, you NEED to look at this.  You need to watch it and you need to pay attention
to it.  Then, you can overcome your lazy
boy tendencies where you’re just watching something because you happen to be in
the same room with it. 

       So I loved it
and I grew to love the actors in it and their stories.  And I still love those people.  And I still look them up on Wikipedia or
Google ’em and think about ’em from time to time (laughs), think about the arch of their lives and all that, and then
I feel connected to those people.

 

 What did you think of the original music
soundtrack for the film?

 

The only one that I was familiar with was the version that
was put on in the early 1980s by a German company.  I think there was a new score done around that
time, which was sort of a symphony orchestra kind of a treatment.  It all seemed perfectly fine but it didn’t
suck me in or anything like that. 

       I’m guessing
that back in the day when this was being shown in theatres, the score would
have been the repertoire of the local band was that was playing at the theatre
along to the film- at least that’s my understanding of that era of cinema movie
houses.  I know that sometimes, films
came with some kind of score with instructions about sound effects and certain
melodies.  I think more often than not,
it wasn’t that organized.  It was just
sort of a situation where you get some musicians in there and they just play.  This is how it was explained to me by the
director of the film festival. (laughs)

 

 But obviously you didn’t take that
approach.  The festival director gave you
some leeway then, right?

 

Yeah, I think he was trying to encourage me to not be too…
film score-y in the modern sense, trying to just create the moody atmospheric
film score music.  He was fine with me
being a rock musician and approaching it that way.  And I’m so glad he told me that because as
soon as he did, I received my permission to just be myself and be a rock
guy. 

 

 So how did you come up with the idea for how
the songs were going to sound like?

 

I think probably my reference would have been stuff like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  That’s really what I had in mind- kind of
midnight movie 1970’s stuff (ED NOTE: Pixies once also recorded “In
Heaven” from Erasehead).  And of course I’m a big fan of that kind of
rock and roll, 70s rock and roll, kind of dry, kind of blown out a little
bit.   

       Also, it’s (the
soundtrack) not far from the epicenter of rock and roll, the 1950’s.  You still hear a lot of saxophone solos.  People still associate the saxophone with a
rock and roll presentation and so I wanted that.  And so we got Ralph Carney (Tin Huey, Tom
Waits) to do horns and put in a lot of saxophones.  And so, yeah, I was really trying to tap into
some sort of 1970s rock and roll, midnight movie Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of feeling.  Period! (laughs)

 

 With the songs you did for the soundtrack,
were you trying to convey inner dialog of the characters also?

 

Oh absolutely, yeah. 
I was really thinking about the character development of all of these
people, including the Golem himself.  But
especially so, the head rabbi, Rabbi Loew. 
Of course, there’s a real Rabbi Loew, an historical figure that the
character in the film is based on, back there in Prague in medieval times.  And so I was not only able to look at the
film but to go back and to read about the life of this rabbi. 

       I drew a lot
from that, especially with him. A lot of the stuff is from his point of
view.  I don’t know whether or not he was
married but I know in the film, there was no wife but there was a
daughter.  So on that note, I imagined
that he was a widower.  She was in not in
any of the scenes so in my mind, she was dead. 
And so, in one of the songs, he is singing to his daughter and of course
when you look at one of your own kids, you see your spouse.  For me, the rabbi was not only seeing his
daughter but he was seeing his wife.  He
was seeing a ghost of his wife, just beyond her, just behind her. 

       And certainly
there’s the story, if you want to call it ‘the love interest,’ between the
rabbi’s daughter and this gentile messenger guy from the emperor and then also
the rabbi’s assistant who was probably more the appropriate pairing, culturally
speaking.  Of course, he (the assistant)
was concerned that she was his girl.  So
there’s that kind of love triangle between those three.  And so frequently, I’m singing from the point
of the view of one of those three people. 
I was totally involved in their lives- both the imagined lives of these
people as portrayed in a film but also to the lesser extent, whatever I could
find out about the real Rabbi Loew from Prague. 

 

 Was there was any particular scene in the film
that you really struggled with to try to figure out ideas for the score?

 

No, not really.  I was
sort of pressed for time, which is usually a good thing for me.  If I’m pressed for time, I’m really forced to
dig deep and I’m usually hoping for a real geyser explosion kind of burst of
creativity or inspiration.  And that’s
exactly what happened.  I was in a hotel
room in San Francisco,
getting up very, very early in the morning before I’d go to session and looking
at all my notes from my viewings of the film and just keep writing.  I didn’t really struggle at all. 

       I felt
really… (exhales)… liberated, if
you will, by the parameter of story, by the parameter of film, by the parameter
of the length of the film, the length of the scenes.  All those kinds of things really helped me to
fit in as opposed to just sort of writing a bunch of music.  Sometimes you’re kind of just in space, you
know? (laughs) You’re just kind of
kicking around in the water, trying to find something to latch onto.  And so I really felt happy that I was able to
latch on to the film. 

       I had that once
before with this record I made called Bluefinger (2007), where I had the story of this guy’s life, the artist Herman Brood, to
kind of latch onto.  That was the first
time I had ever done that, having a unifying theme.  But this soundtrack was even more specific
than that.  I haven’t done it since but
with that moment, I was like ‘oh, this is my new method.  I have to find some ideas to write music to!’
(laughs) It just felt so
automatic.  Everything just sort of
happened.

       So yeah, it was
not challenging at all.  I had been
liberated also by this director of the film festival who told me “don’t
worry about writing a precious film score, just do your thing and write some
rock and roll music.”  And so that’s
what I did.  And of course because it’s a
silent film, you don’t have to pause and stop because someone is talking. You
become the whole sound so that was great. 
I imagine it’s a lot more challenging when you’re trying to write music
to a film where there’s a bunch of sound already.  I’ve never done that before!

 

 You were talking about this before but because
you added full songs and not incidental music, it seems to transform the whole
viewing experience for the film where music is just a strong of a focus as the
visuals.  Any thoughts on that?

 

Yeah, I really felt good about being able to tap into, for
example, the anger and jealousy of the rabbi’s assistant.  He’s just being driven mad by this gentile poofy-poof
blonde, full of himself, evil guy ’cause he’s working for the emperor.  He’s there to tell them, “hey, all Jews
out or we’re gonna kill you!” So he’s so much the enemy!  And he’s moving in on the assistant’s sweetie
and sweetie’s loving it. 

       That’s sort of what I like about her too,
is that she’s not innocent.  She’s just
kind of like “yeah, this guy’s a lot cuter than this boring old rabbi’s
assistant.”  He rides on a white
horse, for God’s sake.  So yeah, that
just sort of turns me on.  And I really
like it that she was just kind of like, “forget the rabbi’s assistant, I
want blondie here!”

       But anyway, the
rabbi’s assistant was so angry.  And my
favorite song from the whole soundtrack is this track that I did of an
instrumental version and also a vocalized version, “You’re Gonna
Pay.”  And I really like that ’cause
he (the assistant) actually manipulates the Golem to kill the messenger
guy.  He’s the enemy and from his point
of view, he was within his rights.  But
it is very violent.  It’s like “I
know what to do. Hey, hey Golem, get that guy and throw him off the roof!”
(laughs)  It’s like out of a Tarantino movie or
something.  So there’s a lot of anger and
righteous anger within that character. 

       So when I wrote
the song “You’re Gonna Pay,” it isn’t just that he hates the
messenger but who he REALLY hates is the girl! 
He’s like, “YOU BITCH!!” 
He can’t kill her but “even better, I’ll kill your new boyfriend.  And I really liked that.

       Yeah, it was
great to be able to have that. It’s really how emotional everybody was in the
movie, all the different characters.  And
so I really felt that I was able to wear each guy’s hat and say “OK, this
guy is really angry and this guy here is feeling very romantic and lustful and
this guy here is feeling world-weary and lonely, like the whole world is on his
shoulder…”  I’m talking about
Rabbi Loew.  Everyone was very emotional
and so yeah, I felt very connected with all that.

ROCK AND ROLL ARCHAEOLOGY Steven Blush & American Hardcore

“It’s the only music
that didn’t sell out. Maybe it’s the only music that
couldn’t sell out.”

 

BY JONAH FLICKER

 

The second edition of Steven Blush’s seminal 2001 book American
Hardcore
was published last month; a firsthand account of the years between
1980 and 1986, it details how a subset of punk rock took over as true American
underground music, and was subsequently turned into a 2006 documentary film
directed by Paul Rachman. Through interviews with band members and scenesters
including Black Flag, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, and the Bad Brains, Blush
tells the story of what he considers to be an oft-ignored chapter in music
history. It’s certainly a compelling story, and Blush and his subjects are
meticulous in detailing the power, energy, and fury of the music, especially at
live shows. He also doesn’t shy away from controversial issues that played a
part in the scene: sexism, racism, homophobia, violence. Ultimately, the power
and spirit of DIY that originated with hardcore remains its legacy, and for
Blush, this is why this story needs telling. I recently caught up with him
during CMJ in New York City to discuss the book. (American Hardcore: A Tribal History – 2nd Edition, is
available from Feral House publishing.)

 

***

 

BLURT: You did a CMJ panel yesterday? What was that
about?

STEVEN BLUSH: I did a panel called “American Hardcore and
the Rise of Modern Rock.” It comes back to my contention that so much of what
is modern music goes back to what Black Flag and Minor Threat and all those
bands set in motion 30 years ago. Namely, the whole DIY notion, the idea of not
sitting around and waiting for that million-dollar record contract. The idea
that you’re never gonna get signed, that you just have to make your own way.
The hardcore bands set up the independent record networks that we have today.
You think about the labels: SST was Black Flag’s label; Touch & Go was
Meatmen,  Necros; Epitaph was Bad
Religion; Dischord was Minor Threat. So these were all real entrepreneurial
things by these misfit kids who were getting their voice out. So my panel was
basically talking about the legacy of all of that in terms of the rise of
modern rock. ‘Cause Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Pepper, Sonic Youth,
everybody has something you can bring back to hardcore.

 

Do you think that bands that are running their own labels
and have that DIY aesthetic now are doing it better? Is it experience, learning
from mistakes?

I think you’re right. I think there’s a few things that go
with that. I think other people paved the groundwork, did the dirty work, they
paved the path. They built the road so now everybody can travel down that road.
I think people are more attuned to this. “DIY” is part of our lexicon now. So I
think people are more receptive to it. And I think they’re better at it. People
really studied it, people went to college, or took some business classes, or
learned and asked lots of questions. I think about the fact that someone like
me, I was booking shows, I had never booked a show before. I put out records, I
had never put out records before. I started a magazine, I had never written a
major article before. So it was just this idea that you could just do it. The
hardcore guys stumbled and fell a lot. Some of them dusted themselves off and
went on to bigger and better things.

 

As far as labels that survived, I guess Dischord is one
of the last standing…

Most of the ones I mentioned, Touch & Go, Epitaph are
major forces in their own way.

 

Is SST currently active?
I wouldn’t really consider them a label at this point. But just how important
they were. I think some people just really had the acumen to do it. I ended up
being a writer. I obviously didn’t have the acumen to really be a businessman.
I was just so inspired by it all.

 

Can you talk about your background?

I was kind of lucky. I was from the suburbs of New Jersey,
but I got turned onto punk rock kind of early. I went to a high school exchange
program in England, so I saw The Clash before they came to America. My
girlfriend, probably the only other punk rocker in town, she had the hip
brother and sister in New York who had tickets to Joy Division before Ian
Curtis killed himself. They were that kind of hipster. So they brought me to
see amazing stuff in retrospect. I saw Kraftwerk, I saw Gang of Four before
they came to America. I saw the whole post-punk thing happen. I was at these
shows.

       Then when I
moved to DC to go to college, I got there in the fall of 1980, early ’81. And
they had the early 9:30 Club, and I was seeing amazing things and no one was
there. So I was going to see Birthday Party with five people there or Bauhaus
with seven people there. I remember I talked to Peter Murphy about it a few
years ago. He said to me, “You’re the first person I talked to in America who I
actually believe saw me back in the day.” Everyone says they saw Bauhaus. There
would have been 50 million people there.

       But to answer
your question, when I was ending my freshman year, I was working at the radio
station. I went to a TSOL show in Clifton, New Jersey. And there I met the Dead
Kennedys manager, Mike Rainey. He was saying, “I work with The Dead Kennedys,
we’re having trouble getting a show in DC. Why don’t we sponsor one through
your radio station and I’ll walk you through it.” So of course I did it. Next
thing you know, I’m putting The Dead Kennedys in my school cafeteria three
blocks from the White House and almost getting thrown out of college. But it
really set me off on this path. All of a sudden, I booked a couple of Minor
Threat shows, I booked the first punk funk show, I did Black Flag, Dead
Kennedys, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, GBH’s first American show, The Faith’s
last show… It was pretty impressive. All these bands crashed on my couch. I
did that for three years. I graduated college.

       The next
summer, I moved to New York, I just kind of moved on. I got into the whole East
Village thing as that was coming up. It was kind of the end of the whole
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Avenue A art gallery thing. But it was still an
incredible time. I started booking shows and promoting and writing. I worked
for Paper Magazine and started my own
Seconds Magazine.

       I totally left
hardcore for ten years, at least. Then there started to be interest in it again
with the rise of Green Day and The Offspring. Everything I started hearing
about it was a little bit wrong. It was like a game of Telephone. Everybody had
heard the story, it was just a little bit off. It kind of bothered me. Then I saw
the History of Rock and Roll series… PBS maybe? Really good. I’m not bagging on it. But it went directly
from The Sex Pistols and The Clash, they may have talked about X, then it went
directly to Nirvana. Like none of this happened. I couldn’t tell if they were
ignoring it, or what I think it was, it wasn’t even considered real music. If
there was a Rolling Stone or Spin article, it was to make fun of it
or talk about the violence, calling everybody a thug. In retrospect, you can
say what you want, but Ian MacKaye or Henry Rollins, they’re not thugs. They’re
very erudite men.

       What attracted
me… I came to Washington, I was probably on a path to become some hot-shit
lawyer. And I was just so moved by this thing. I always liked the punk bands
and post-punk, but I never felt part of it. They were all art students, they
all went to art school and came out of Warhol and Bowie, that kind of thing. I
was like a suburban rock kid who was turned on by the power of it. That’s what
hardcore was. It was called hardcore punk, and it was kind of a sub-sect of
punk. Punk was burning out and turning into new wave, this corporate label
dance music. Talking Heads had moved on, there was only The Ramones left.
Everyone’s telling you it’s over, you missed it. You show up in a leather
jacket at a hip club, people made fun of you. “Don’t you know you’re so
yesterday?” There was a lot of anger and interest in the speed aspect of it.

 

For someone new to this music, can you really get the
experience by just listening to the records, without having been at the shows
and performances?

A lot of this stuff doesn’t stand up, historically,
musically. It was really about, “Were you there?” So there is that huge aspect
of it. I think the success of the book and the film is I do break it down. I
asked my mom to read the book. I wanted to know if it makes sense to her. She
understood what I was getting at. I could convey the story. Whether I can
convey the fury, I’m not so sure. But it was important for me to at least be
able to convey the story, first of all, in a universal way. Sony Picture
Classics and Sundance didn’t pick up the American
Hardcore
film because they loved Minor Threat. They picked it up because
they understood the story.

 

How involved with the film were you?

It probably seems like I did less, but it was really Paul
Rachman and I. We shot everything, I was there for everything, for every edit.
But I certainly defer to him artistically. I am not a filmmaker and I don’t
plan to be. I found it interesting that a lot of things I thought for sure
would be in the film never made it to the film. I think that’s more about story
arc, what fits. It’s a different experience than the book.

       The book, I
could really bring it with my voice and all of the stories and history and
shout-outs. What I’ve learned from making a film is that – by the way, I’m the
producer/writer of American Hardcore [the film] – nobody in rock likes rock films. Nobody liked the Woodstock movie,
no one liked the punk movies… There’s a split audience, I don’t mean nobody.

       It’s kind of a
drag because what I’ve learned is there’s a lot of incredible rock films that
got pushed to the side. We went up to see Sony a couple of months ago and had
this conversation about how the great movies are the ones people are still
talking about five or ten years later. I think we’re on that path. American Hardcore will make more sense
as it goes on because a lot of people are too invested in it now. I watched it
for the first time in three years [recently], and I liked it again. I always
liked it, but I realized how different it was from my book, and I like it. So I
think they accompany each other. The problem for the film for some is that it
really is an intro. I’m just introducing a subculture, and if you want more
information, go to the book.

 

What are the essential hardcore bands for you?

I think everyone has their band. For me, it was Black Flag.
I saw Black Flag about 25 times. I saw them in all their incarnations.

 

What’s your favorite incarnation?

Well, like anything, like a drug fix, sex, the first time is
the best, right? So first time seeing Black Flag launched me into this whole
thing. What I forgot to say was I had come to DC and was still kind of into the
post-punk stuff. Then I saw Valentine’s Day 1981 Black Flag with Dez Cadena
singing. In the crowd was Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye. But that was the most
exciting time for me. All the insiders like to say what was their favorite
singer of Black Flag, and I totally get that. But Henry Rollins is Black Flag.
Henry Rollins carried the weight of that band for five, six years, over 400-500
shows.

 

I didn’t realize until I read the book what kind of
backlash there was against Rollins. For me, that was Black Flag.

And to be honest, nobody outside of Southern California saw
anybody but Rollins. So it’s super insider. I thought it was an interesting
view of how everybody reacts so strongly to this guy; that is what I was trying
to get across. His whole demeanor, that whole intensity is about being fucked
with for five years. I remember standing there, he’s out in his Speedos and
long hair, people are pissed, pulling the hairs out of his legs and lighting
his balls on fire. I have a lot of respect for the guy. He went through a lot.

       Somebody, I
wanna say it was the drummer Bill Stevenson, said he developed into a great
performer. It was trial by fire. He was in the hardest position in the world,
almost. One of the things I try to get across about hardcore in general is it’s
so much more than about music. It’s this whole lifestyle. And Black Flag were
the kingpins of this thing. It was almost like a cult. Anybody who was in that
band or worked for SST, they’re fucked up from it because it was so intense.

        I remember at
that show I was describing talking to Black Flag… First of all, nobody could
go backstage at a show, but there was no bouncer or anything. I had never seen
anything like it. I talked to Chuck Dukowski, the bass player, him and Greg
Ginn. We’re sitting in a circle talking to these guys after a show. They’re talking
to us about success in non-economic terms. I had never thought about that,
especially as a college kid. They really blew my mind. Greg Ginn, for better or
worse, was a really important figure in my life. What I learned from him was to
have no fear. That band used to get arrested. It’s not just like a regular, “I’m
gonna be some hard-ass and be cool.” There was nothing cool about it. Outside
of that cult that loved you, it was war.

 

It seems that Black Flag and a lot of the SST bands
pushed against being shut into the confines of hardcore and what people thought
they should be.

Yes, and that’s part of what killed the insularity of the
scene. These guys were so powerful, and they’re saying, “Fuck your punk rock.
That’s soft. We’re gonna grow our hair.” And I grew my hair. Black Flag did it.
And I learned about Black Sabbath with Dio because of that. What they were
saying and what I loved about them and what Ian MacKaye did and what Jello
Biafra did.

       This is why I
talk about this ’80-’86 arc of hardcore. This is when it was this insular,
cohesive movement. After that, it became another musical form. It was protected
from the rest of the world. Because of the Internet, I don’t know if you could
ever have something like that again. When I did this panel, there were some new
punk rock kids. I said, “I’m not saying your music sucks. I’m saying that you
have a voice and a power to change the world around you. You gotta take it.
Otherwise, you’re not part of this.” Robert Johnson played the blues in the
1930s. That’s the blues. Eric Clapton played it in the ’70s. You could say
there’s a connection there. I bet you most Eric Clapton fans feel that way. I’d
say that there’s not. I dig Sick Of It All and Madball, I dig the energy. It is
the next most intense music form after heavy metal at this point. It’s not a
social movement.

       In ’86 Black
Flag breaks up, Minor Threat breaks up, Dead Kennedys break up, Husker Du signs
to Warner Brothers, which is the end, D. Boon from the Minutemen died. It was
the start of the crossover metal and alternative rock. That’s where you first
had those Boston bands doing the jangly guitar thing. It kind of fits
perfectly. There’s some killer early ’90s hardcore records. I love the first
Hatebreed record. I like the first two or three Sick Of It All albums. Los
Crudos, Avail. There were a bunch of these bands that really had it. They kind
of had the same thing. Born Against… All those bands is how you get to Rage
Against the Machine. That’s the start of all that.

       What I’m
talking about is the social movement, this radical youth movement. What I
figured out is that historically they talk about the history of American
post-war subculture. And it’s the beatniks, the hippies, the punks, and
hip-hop. I think hardcore really fits as part of that continuum.

 

I wanted to ask about specific people in the scene. I
grew up knowing Fugazi before Minor Threat, and my image of Ian MacKaye is so
different from what you describe in the early Teen Idles/Minor Threat days.

What you’re seeing is how they got there. It’s somebody who
was called to action; was kind of like a thug. I remember those guys. When they
started becoming soft and sensitive, it kind of surprised me. But it was part
of their maturity. None of those guys went to college. So by the time they’re
21, 22, they kind of get to a point where it’s over. No more violence. In the
movie, Ian says something like, “I beat up the last person I was ever gonna
beat up at this Minutemen show,” something like that. But it’s coming of age.
Hardcore was a teen coming of age scene. That’s why you had a scene that was an
umbrella of alienated misfit kids of all stripes. Everyone knew something was
wrong with the American dream, but didn’t really have the answers. In the end,
nobody agreed on any answers and moved on and grew up and had their lives. I
describe it at some point in the book as Lord
of the Flies
. It’s this teen society that has to create its own society. At
the beginning it’s really impressive, and then it kind of goes to hell. That’s
the story of hardcore. Another thing about it was one thing that kept it alive
till today was that it got so radicalized. Particularly with Maximum Rock and Roll, that was
preaching Maoist… something on that verge…

 

It seems like you and other people had this very
love/hate relationship with Maximum Rock
and Roll.

Of course, we were enamored with a magazine that created a
scene report. This was how you learned about hardcore all around the world. All
of a sudden, some kid would write in a little thing about Providence, Rhode
Island: “I’m booking shows at the VFW Hall. Here’s my phone number.” It was
really powerful. It was an incredibly unifying force. But for a lot of us… the
part about not agreeing on the answers. If you look at Greg Ginn or Henry Rollins
or Ian MacKaye, Circle Jerks, they’re not really leftists. They’re kind of
alienated patriotic kids. You knew something was wrong with the stuff you were
being taught in school. You were smart enough to know that the hyper-conformity
of your peers and what you were being taught was wrong, government was too in
your life. It was very much like – I don’t wanna say it was libertarian. That’s
like saying Tea Party, and that’s a bad word. But it is kind of that “live free
or die” kind of thing, and very entrepreneurial, which is definitely not
communist.

 

The Bad Brains chapter was really fascinating. I was
wondering, did you try to interview [vocalist] HR for it?

I have a quote from him in there that I got from the film.

 

He sounds kind of bat-shit.

He’s a combination. I’m not a doctor, but he’s kind of like
a manic-depressive. All that bullshit in combination with ungodly amounts of
pot being smoked probably feeds into that paranoia and stuff. That was the
craziness that they were dealing with. My film partner, Paul Rachman, made the
“I Against I” video, he made the “Quickness” video, so he worked with the Bad
Brains. We kept calling and calling. Every few weeks [HR] would stay somewhere
and then burns out his welcome and goes somewhere else. That’s kind of his
life. We tracked him down in LA one time. Some guy called us and said he’s
here. So we ran there and got that interview. I don’t think there’s any
sit-down interviews that exist with HR; you do a sit-down with Darryl or one of
those guys. In between the stuff that he blabbed, there was some… the guy is
a genius, he’s just a mad genius. So the madness is what takes over. Every once
a while, there’s this incredible moment of gravity. So I took what I could get.

 

Have you been going to any of the CMJ shows, or do you go
to shows in general?

I go a little bit. From 1999 to 2006, I was running the club Don Hill’s. I had
worked in clubs as a DJ, I have a long history in clubs. So I did the rock
party. They used to have this party called Squeeze Box, a famous gay rock
party. After that collapsed, I came in and took over. All of a sudden, I was
back in the business and checking out bands again. There’s good stuff, but I’ve
come to realize that what’s happening in music now… If you study art, there’s
a movement and then there’s a post-movement. I think we had rock. Maybe it was
Elvis to be generous, the closing of CBGB. I think it was earlier, but
whatever. Now we’re in a post-rock movement. There’s lots of bands now that use
that term. I think it’s perfect, because that’s really what we’re in. People
are still playing the instruments, it’s still based on the rock form, but it’s
a little bit off. It’s not like Elvis, not like Guns and Roses, not the rock
spirit today.

 

Is there a hardcore spirit today?

This is the great battle in my mind. I go to the shows, I
see the energy, I see the excitement, I see the old bands, I have lots of fun.
But I’m troubled by it. For instance, two days before the CMJ panel, I did a
show at the Knitting Factory, a Sunday matinee. I had Urban Waste play a couple
of New York hardcore bands, Jimmy Gestapo came up and did a song. I loved it, I
saw old friends. But my feeling about modern is mixed. On one hand, I’m
flattered that we had such an influence. On the other hand, you should be
reacting against me and have your own music. So that’s my issue. That’s my
trouble with hardcore today.

 

In today’s indie rock, do you hear hardcore’s influence
at all?

It think, in general, the world has moved away from hardcore
music. That’s not a problem, the world should evolve. And I think these people
appropriate certain elements from it. I went to go see Les Savy Fav. Obviously,
they have it. That dude has his record label, they’re intense and scary and
into playing fucked up music. I was talking with Juan Maclean from DFA. He
comes out of hardcore. I see it, that attitude. His music’s got a lot of
attitude. He was in Six Finger Satellite also. Great band. He’s a smart fucking
guy. That’s smart, subversive music. That’s what I like seeing. I still like
bands that are a little subversive. I like music that makes people squirm.

 

Who do you listen to these days?

It’s hard for me because I’m in the middle of all these
writing and film projects. So all of that is looking back. My new book is a
history of New York rock, this 50-year period which I’ve been describing. But
because of that, I’m listening to all these new bands. I like Les Savy Fav,
Yeasayer. There’s a bunch of bands like that that are kind of like old vocal
groups like Crosby Stills and Nash or Peter Paul and Mary or The Mamas and The
Papas, with that weird Beefheart, fucked-up thing. Like Animal Collective. I do
find that very interesting and subversive. I’m not a lo-fi guy, but I do like
that next step that I’m describing. Akron Family, that kind of stuff.

 

What did you think of the LA melodic hardcore punk scene,
like Bad Religion, Descendents? Was that something you were into?

I was really into it. Back then, I was saying it would be
really great if music went in this direction. Mommy’s Little Monster by Social Distortion is definitely one of my
top ten albums. They were the ones who made it OK to have a melody, almost.
They were more Rolling Stones style. But they were the first ones to do that.
Then the Descendents, of course. I like All. I was a big Adolescents fan.

 

You hear that influence more in modern rock these days
than that of traditional hardcore.

Yeah, I was listening to Blink-182, and I’m hearing parts of
those bands. That’s pretty much how you got the Hot Topic mall punk. They took
the melodic parts of that. They’re good. Offspring is a killer band. But they
do sound like their influences. I don’t think they’d argue about that either.

 

Why did you decide to do a second edition of the book?

When I did the book, it was before the Internet. It was kind
of like archaeology. I could take these relics and build a house, the
constructs of it, and fill it in a little bit. Then after writing the book and
the feedback from that, working on the film and coming back to all these
characters again. Then the 2000s, spending all this time networking on the
Internet, I had so much more information. I had so many different views on
things.

       This might be
one of the only second editions of a book that changes its conclusion. My
conclusion being I was correct about this ’80-’86 arc, historically correct,
but I’m not taking into account the believers, the followers. It’s like writing
a story about Christianity and saying it ended with the death of Christ. It’s
almost like mine was the Old Testament of this, if you’re gonna use that
analogy. It’s the old story. I’m using the morals and conclusions of those
stories as lessons to pass on. I think I’m a little more benevolent.

       That thing I
was describing to you earlier about – it’s a very different world from when I
wrote this book. When I was writing it, people had ignored hardcore and
forgotten it. A big part of my thing was reclaiming and setting the record
straight. So by doing that, you had to be very harsh and lay down the gauntlet.
I say at the intro to the 2010 edition that I let my throat off the neck. I’m a
little more forgiving. I love hardcore, I love the influence of it, and I
showed it a lot of tough love. I think that’s what it took to get it to the
point where it is now. Despite it all, I’m really in awe of the fact that kids
today talk about the music of my youth like it was yesterday. There’s something
very powerful about that. That never happened before in my lifetime. The people
before me, the rock and roll people and hippies and first punk, they never
listened to music from 20 or 30 years ago. That was sacrosanct. You were
reacting against that. The fact that it’s so important to people today is very
powerful.

       But the point
of my book is the lessons of hardcore, how it changed the face of popular
music. 30 years ago, bands were like slick corporate rock, like Van Halen, Styx
or Journey. Bands today don’t look like David Lee Roth or Robert Plant. They
look like Henry Rollins and Harley Flanagan, the tattoos, shaved heads, fast
music. But also the DIY aspect, the disdain for authority and the music
business. These are all things that trace back to hardcore, and that’s the
power of it. Not the mosh pit, but the legacy.

 

Do you think hardcore would flourish if it had come about
in today’s era of social networking and the Internet?

No. The thing that
kept hardcore so strong was that everybody ignored it. There were no agents
showing up to sign the bands. There was no Rolling
Stone
article to break it all. Nobody was interested. I think the fact that
it was ignored is what made it, the insularity of it is what protected its
legacy intact.  Otherwise, it would have
been commercialized like every other music form. I believe that kids today love
hardcore because it’s the only music that didn’t sell out. Maybe it’s the only
music that couldn’t sell out.

 

 

[Photo Credit of Black Flag: Frank Mullen/Wireimage]

COMING CLEAN Justin Townes Earle

Following
a high profile incident and a subsequent stint in rehab, the acclaimed young
songwriter takes stock of who he is and where he came from.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Like many people who come from a broken home and grow up poor
in a tough part of town, Justin Townes Earle has had a difficult time
overcoming his troubled childhood. But unlike most people, Earle, 28, has had
to wrestle with his demons in public, both because he’s the son of Steve Earle
as well as an incredibly talented singer-songwriter in his own right. His
latest album, Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot), adds soul, gospel and Springsteen-style ballads to the country and
rockabilly that make up the core of his sound. It’s his best album to date.

 

But what should have been a triumphant fall tour celebrating
its release instead became another difficult chapter in his life. Earle had to
cancel a month of dates to enter rehab, a stint that was precipitated by his Sept.
16 arrest
after a fight with a club owner and his daughter in Indianapolis. He was charged with battery,
resisting arrest and public intoxication.

 

[EDITOR’S NOTE/UPDATE,
Nov. 17:
Earle’s publicist contacted Blurt regarding online accounts of the
incident, stating that many of them “misrepresented the situation,” although without elaboration. We should note that prior to our publication of this story yesterday we
had contacted the publicist in order to fact-check some of the questions
surrounding Earle’s rehab and were advised that Earle “is not commenting
on specific questions related to his stint in rehab,” which was fair enough; we
respect his right to privacy in that regard. 
Indeed, in the days following the Indianapolis
arrest, online media outlets covered the story with occasionally intrusive,
tabloid-like detail, such as these unflattering accounts at
SavingCountryMusic.com and My Old Kentucky Blog. Others, including American
Songwriter
 
and CMT.com, took a more
measured journalistic approach and updated their sites only as additional facts were verified. On September 21 Earle issued a statement that read, “Unfortunately,
reports surfacing online about the incident in Indianapolis are not accurate,” says Earle.
“I have been advised by counsel that I should not comment on a pending criminal
matter, but suffice to say that I am looking forward to having my day in court.
I would also like to say that I oppose violence against women in any form.”]

 

On Sept. 22 the following post appeared at Earle’s official
website
and was picked up by the media, including the Associated Press:

 

“Justin Townes Earle
has decided to suspend the remaining dates on his tour and enter a rehabilitation
facility. Earle is strongly committed to confronting his on-going struggle with
addiction and thanks his family, friends and fans for their continued support
through this difficult time.”

 

It’s not the first time Earle has sought treatment. Some
time ago he was working as a member of his father’s touring band The Dukes, but
eventually his drug habit became so severe he was forced to come off the road
in order to address his problem. In the process he reexamined his priorities
and redirected his energies into songwriting, and by 2007 his solo career was
in full swing with the release of Yuma, on
Bloodshot.

 

Back in the present, however, the good news is that Earle
has successfully completed this most recent round of rehab and, according to a
post at his website
about a month ago, has rescheduled his fall tour, to
commence Nov. 26 in Nashville.
Upon learning the news, a slew of fans left supportive comments for Earle,
proof that there among the music community there had been a lot of genuine
concern for his welfare. (You can view the list of rescheduled tour dates, along
with those fan comments, at the above link.)

 

We talked with Earle recently as he was putting his life
back together and preparing to get back on the road.

 

***

 

BLURT: How
are you feeling after your stint in rehab?

EARLE: I feel great. It was a little hairy to begin with,
but I definitely feel good now. It usually takes only a few weeks to get the
stuff out of your system.

 

Did
watching your father make you feel like drugs were part of the creative
process?

I don’t think it has anything to do with the creative
process. It has to do with genetics. There’s just something wrong with me. The
abuse I put my body through never once helped me write a song. Luckily, I
haven’t done any permanent damage to my brain. Often, drugs destroy your
creative process.

 

At one
time, did you believe that drugs were part of being a musician?

My heaviest period of abuse was my teen years through my
early 20s. Back then I had some idea that it was part of the creative process –
that you had to be tortured and fucked up in order to write and be
creative.  But I’m glad I was able to put
that lie to rest in my own head. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get clean when
I need to.

 

You
added a lot to your sound on Harlem River
Blues
. What inspired you?

With each record, I try to add a little bit more. Well, sometimes
I add more and sometimes I peel a little more back. It’s funny coming from the
South. Southern people are responsible for creating all forms of American
music. I find it interesting going through and creating each different level of
[that music]. For this album, I was leaning toward Muscle Shoals and Memphis, but also the hills of North Carolina and different forms of gospel
music. I do a lot of research and get myself stuck in one form of music for a
period of time. My records are very much case studies for that research. This
time, I was listening to a lot of Staples Singers and Carter Family.

 

When
you conduct research, do you travel to different places or do you just immerse
yourself in a certain kind of music?

I’ve done a lot of the traveling research already. I lived
in the hills of east Tennessee
for several years when I was younger. It was one of the first places I lived on
my own. A very mystical kind of people live in the hills. They’re a strange
lot. They’re very beautiful people, but they have wild ideas when it comes to
religion. Johnson City
is where snake handling was invented.

       I also spent a
lot of time in Muscle Shoals and the Delta. You get the same thing there, just
without the snakes. They’re dirt poor people. All they have is religion. They
have the church and they have music and that’s what they live for. I spent a
lot of time in those places and it helped me gather information, which I put in
a locker until it was time to use it.

 

At the
same time, the album has a more modern sound that your previous ones.

It has always been my goal to keep two feet in the past and
one foot in the present. The mistakes people make when they try to fuse the
past with current music is that they get too much of the current sound going on
in the mix. I tend to lean a little toward the past, but you have to advance it
otherwise you’re just mimicking. I could make a record that sounds just like Woody
Guthrie, but where would the art be in that?

 

You’ve
always been interested in writing songs that sound simple and old-fashioned. I’d
imagine that’s a lot harder to do than it seems. How do you do it?

I listen to people like Woody Guthrie and even Gram Parsons
and Bruce Springsteen. When Bob Dylan wrote songs, he tried to put as many
words as he could into a phrase. He’d just cram ‘em in there and make it come
out right. I tend to go for the opposite and put as few words as I can into a
phrase. I like to leave a lot of room for imagination for people to paint your
own girl.

 

You
didn’t live with your dad growing up. How did you discover old-time country and
rock music if not through him?

Like most kids of my age, I was a big Nirvana fan. It was
the Unplugged record, where Kurt did
a cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which is a Leadbelly song. When the
record came out, I thought it was a song Kurt had written. It came to my
attention it was this cat named Leadbelly, so I bought my first Leadbelly
record. My whole world changed at that moment. I was 13.

 

How did
your dad’s music influence you?

When I was a kid, my dad was doing Copperhead Road and The Hard Way. He made one record
that was really a rockabilly record and that’s Guitar Town.
Exit 0 started advancing him toward
more of a hard rock sound. Around the time I discovered Leadbelly, my dad made Train A Comin’, which is when he made
his first run at traditional-sounding music. It was a major influence. At that
point, I was living with him. I lived with him for the last year he was using
drugs and about a year after that. It’s still my favorite of my dad’s records.
I have copies of all his records somewhere, but Train A Comin’ and the bluegrass one with Del McCoury [The Mountain] are the only two I have on
my iPod.

 

Did you
feel a lot of pressure to live up to being Steve Earle’s son and being named
after Townes Van Zandt?

I never felt that pressure. I paid attention to the ones
that had come before me – the sons and daughters – and I watched the disaster
and downfall of their careers. It seems the straw that broke the camel’s back
was that they’d constantly feel they had something to live up to. I have two
last names that are insurmountable hills to climb. If you think you’re going to
write songs like Steve Earle, you’ve got another fuckin’ think coming. If you
think you’re going to write songs like Townes Van Zandt you definitely have another fuckin’ think
coming.

       I started out
with the plan to be my own man and not pay attention to what everyone else
said. But these aren’t God-like figures to me. I’ve seen these people throw up
on themselves. They’re average people to me who happen to be able to write
amazing songs. With most things in their lives other than writing songs they
were genuine fuckups. There’s really not much to aspire to. I was looking for
the whole package, not to be what they were. Yet for all of my efforts, I
managed to be just that.

 

 Do you ever worry that all the stories about
your personal life will overshadow your music?

I write my songs the way I live my life. The person I have
the hardest time being honest with is myself. I have no problem being open and
honest and I tend to write same way. My songs aren’t autobiographical, but I
don’t speak about anything I don’t know about. At least I try not to. I don’t
have any worries about it overshadowing [my songs]. I think that’s why people
have grasped a hold of my music so fast is that they’re able to feel a common
hurt, a common joy and a common bond in the music. It’s not necessarily
speaking for them, but I leave them room to, as I said, paint your own girl.

 

[Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins]

 

Earles’s
rescheduled fall tour dates begin on Nov. 26 in Nashville and run through Dec. 19 in D.C.
Full itinerary can be viewed at Earle’s MySpace page.