Monthly Archives: March 2011

¡LATIN INVASION! Latin Alternative Music (Pt. 2)

As Latino musicians continue to
cross musical borders, Latin alternative becomes less “alternative” and more
Latin Invasion.

 

By RANDY
HARWARD

 

In 2007 BLURT,
in our original incarnation, Harp
Magazine,
visited the Latin alternative music scene via a well-received
article by Mario I. Oña titled “Border Radio” (reprinted last week on our
website
, along with a sidebar guide to notable artists then-currently
operative). At the time, that scene was just heating up. Multiculti,
multi-lingual musician/producer Manu
Chao was poised to release La Radiolina,
and make a noteworthy appearance at Coachella. Electro-traditional acts like
Mexican Institute of Sound (M.I.S.) and Nortec Collective were soaking up fans
as they toured the coasts and made return appearances at Austin’s annual music conference South By Southwest.
Tomás Cookman and Josh Norek’s nascent label Nacional
Records and the Latin Alternative Music Conference (happening
again this year on July 6-9 in NYC, www.latinalternative.com),
via digital distribution and ardent marketing, were exposing international audiences
to the aural delights of other acts like Spanish rapper La Mala Rodriguez, Mexican
dub-rock band El Gran Silencio and Spanish laptop rockers The Pinker Tones. Latin
alternative, for all intents and purposes, had arrived.

 

Four
years later, Latin alternative has even more momentum. In that time, Chao’s
six-years-in-the-waiting album saw him become less a cult legend and more a
rock star as, according to Nacional’s Cookman, he played for “a couple million
people on his last tour.” At SXSW that year, The Pinker Tones played five shows
in 36 hours, then every date of the 2008 Vans Warped Tour – and landed songs in
the video games Forza Motorsport 2, Project
Gotham Racing 4, FIFA ’09
and FIFA
’11
. M.I.S. music founds its way into FIFA
’08
and FIFA Soccer 2010 as well
as TV shows (Californication, Ugly Betty), feature films (the 2008
Edward Norton flick Pride and Glory)
and a commercial for Dos Equis beer. Nortec Collective expanded its touring
presence deeper into the U.S.
and performed a night-stealing set at the MoogFest 2010 in North Carolina. Nacional
Records now releases 30-40 new albums per year. (Nortec
deejays Bostich and Fussible are pictured above.)

 

BLURT editor
Fred Mills, in fact, came away from a Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich &
Fussible show last year raving about the group’s “intergalactic Tex-Mex norteño
and Mariachi, with a dose of spaghetti western garage rock for rave culture” –
an improbable mashup of live (guitar, accordion, trumpet, tuba) and electronic
(laptop plus a pair of iPad-looking devices) instrumentation, all delivered
with a devilish, subversive glee. As Mills puts it, “Those guys cross more
borders in a single evening than most folks do in a lifetime of travels.
They’re accessible on so many musical levels and to so many different types of
musical sensibilities, it’s borderline folly to try to categorize them with any label.”

 

Nortec’s
Pepe “Fussible” Mogt explains the appeal of these genre-blending bands simply:
“Just one genre, like punk or rock, gets boring.”

 

But
lately a slew of new bands have popped up that put a new face, and perhaps
name, on Latin alternative. Arts & Crafts, the noteworthy Canadian label
that brought us Broken Social Scene, Feist and Stars, opened Arts & Crafts
México (www.arts-crafts.com.mx) in
2008 in order to mine the country’s burgeoning independent music scene – both
the consumers and creators. The satellite label handles Mexican releases from
its North American roster as well as non-A&C artists like Bright Eyes, M.
Ward, Sonic Youth and Metric, but also snatches up bands like lo-fi indie pop
groups Chikita Violenta and Bam Bam,
and dance-rocker Rey Pila. “I see ourselves as a cutting-edge indie
record label and concert promoter sourcing Mexican and international content
that has no representation in Mexico,”
says the A&C MX’s Humberto Carmona. “We like to think we sign only the
highest quality, most creative and forward-thinking music from Mexico and
overseas.”

 

Even Mou Ortiz,
from Bam Bam, has an indie label, NENE Records (www.nenerecords.net), which has released
music by Hypnomango, Inservibles, Ratas del Vaticano and XYX (a duo featuring
Ortiz and Anhelo Escalante) since 2006. “I’m always looking for new and
exciting bands to publish on my label,” says Ortiz, who notes an abundance of
them in his Monterrey
backyard. “I’ve been lucky to find great bands or have friends with the best
bands around… bands doing their own thing despite the awful musical trends of
today.”

 

“Here,
it’s frightening,” says Mogt, of the growing Mexican music scene. He notes
Mexican rock bands started making music despite knowing that until the
mid-2000s “there wasn’t really a huge scene here. [They] were doing music,
thinking to be here or maybe moving around Latin America or certain cities in
the U.S. where they can have
more of a Latin audience like Los Angeles or Chicago or Miami.
But the majority were doing that because they know they have an audience over
there.”

 

The thing
about many of these bands – the ones on Arts & Crafts México, Nene, and even
Nacional, is they’re not so much Latin alternative bands as they are Latino indie
rockers staging a Latin Invasion.

 

Before Latin
alternative, any rock music by Latinos was called “rock en Español.” In “Border Radio,” the original Latin alternative
feature in Harp, Ernesto Lechner, author of Rock en Español: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion (Chicago
Review Press), said that rock en Español “was born of imitation – from aping
the much better stuff being made in England and the U.S.” Also in the story,
Los Lobos’ Louie Pérez said “bands from Mexico were very derivative-they
all sounded like the Police.”

 

Today, Cookman echoes the sentiment, calling rock en Español an
unfortunate tag as well as ethos. Even in the early days, it bothered Cookman
that so many Latino bands sounded exactly alike, and derivative of The Police,
“with the major difference being [they sang] in Spanish. What the hell
difference is that?”

 

The difference Cookman wanted to see is what fuels Latin
alternative music: the incorporation of traditional Mesoamerican and Latino
rhythms, instrumentation and, naturally, language. Seeing how seamlessly a
merengue or cumbia rhythm blends with house and techno elements, or how
traditional Mexican music sounded through conventional rock instrumentation,
enhances the artistic and cultural contributions of the Latin world, and
underscores its relevance. “I almost imagine the day when young Latino rockers
found a stack of their parents’ LPs and began fusing it with their rock,” Lechner
told Harp, conceiving of a possible
flashpoint for Latin alternative when rock en Español “took on its own, very
seductive personality.”

 

But what
does a word like “alternative” mean anymore? So many of the artists from the
alt-rock explosion of the 1990s now qualify as indie rockers – whether they
were weirdo alt-folkies like Beck, squalling rockers like Dinosaur Jr or grungy
like Nirvana. So perhaps Latin alternative isn’t so “alternative,” and we
should consider how these Latino musicians are simply taking their rightful
place among the music world at large.

 

I live in Mexico City,” says M.I.S. mainman and EMI
México president Camilo Lara. “Whatever ‘Latin alternative’ is, here it is
simply indie music. There has been a big indie scene in Mexico City for the last 10 years or so.
Every day there are more independent labels, more clubs and [it gets] a little  more respect from mainstream media.”

 

Chikita
Violenta’s Andrés Velasco says the Latin alternative/indie scene has “grown
exponentially” in recent years and “there was a boom of new bands” that caused
Mexican media to prick up its ears, and several new venues to open. “It became
quite trendy to go out to the rock shows. Nowadays you have a packed music
agenda here in Mexico City,
with concerts by local and international acts almost every day. In the last
month, for example, besides all the local indie bands’ shows, we had shows by
LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Arcade Fire, Interpol, Pixies, Broken Social Scene, HEALTH, Ra Ra Riot, Cocorosie, Blonde Redhead – just
to name a few.”

 

So as something
of an exchange program goes on, where Mexico opens its doors to American
indie rock and Mexican and South American bands flow into the States, even the
word ‘indie’ is too restrictive. What do we call Rodrigo y Gabriela’s wild
flamenco metal? How do we classify the Mesoamerican Aztec-pride black metal of
Yaotl Mictlan? How does a Puerto Rican-led prog rock band like Coheed and Cambria fit in at the LAMC? Or rappers like La Mala
Rodriguez and Ana Tijoux? They’re simply Latinos playing great rock ‘n’ roll.

 

 “There
is so much richness in our culture and history and bands really do not think
much about revisiting it because it could be cheesy and this is the proof it
that is absurd,” says A&C MX’s Carmona. “The clue here is not to make a
Mexican version of the American indie flavor of the month but to find your own
sound, whatever that is, and wear it with pride. Then kids will follow you
because you are not a knockoff.”

 

Carmona figures it’s a long road ahead “and lots
of work to do” for Latin rock bands to fully assimilate and lose the demographic
tag.

 

“I don’t like when the artists I work with are
tagged with the Latin alternative label because they are from Mexico…
[because] they are making alternative or rock music for the world and not only
for Hispanics or people who like Latin alternative music. Of course there is
nothing wrong with playing for the Hispanic demographic, but why pigeonhole
yourself with one demographic when you can play for the world?”

 

 

To be
continued tomorrow, when we present our guide to nearly two dozen bands
from Mexico, Spain, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Colombia and everywhere
else in Latin America, along with YouTube and MySpace links to what may be some
of your new favorite
songs.

BORDER RADIO Latin Alternative Music (Pt. 1)

The Latinos are
coming. And they’re gonna rock your
cojones off.

 

BY MARIO I. OÑA

 

We first published this story in late 2007, as a
feature-length article in BLURT predecessor
Harp
Magazine, and bearing the following
tagline: “
Whatever you call it
– Rock en Español, Latin Alternative – the Latinos are coming. And they’re
gonna rock your
cojones off.” At the
time, “Latin Alternative” was the increasingly popular term used to describe a
broad-based, multi-hyphenated genre of music being created by young musicians
from Mexico, Latin and South America, Spain, even Brooklyn, that reflected both
their traditional Latino heritage and the infusion of contemporary styles.

 

The article, penned by
veteran music journalist Mario L. O
ña, was a hit, drawing praise from
numerous corners (and, in striking the occasional nerve among purists, it also
attracted some criticism, which was fair enough). In the three years since it
was published there has continued to be a groundswell of activity in and
mainstream acceptance of Latin Alternative – so much so that we have decided to
revisit the topic and see where thing stand in 2011.

 

We’ll publish our
newest look at the Latin Alternative scene, written by Senior Editor Randy
Harward, on Monday at BLURT. Meanwhile, please check out the original 2007
article below –  it’s followed by the
sidebar guide to selected artists that we also published at the time (apologies
in advance for any info that is out of date) – as we remain proud of it and
feel that since
Harp closed up shop a
couple of years ago, “Border Radio” needed to be permanently archived on the
web. – The Editors

 

***

 

Walls are being built on the U.S./Mexico border, but La
Migra can’t stop the music. Thanks to the Digital Age, bands from Mexico, Spain
and South America are pouring into the country
through unpatrolled ear buds and amps in an influx called the Latin alternative
movement.

 

With Franco-Spaniard Manu Chao recently
releasing his anxiously-awaited third album, La Radiolina (Nacional) and appearing at Coachella, Sasquatch! and
Bonnaroo, Colombians Aterciopelados
earning another Grammy nomination for their comeback album Oye (Nacional) and
breakout octet the B*Side Players getting exquisite iTunes placement (not in
iTunes Latino either), the constantly evolving genre has never been more
artistically compelling, more available or more abundant.

 

“Rock en Español [Latin
alternative’s pre-cursor] was born from imitation – from aping the much better
stuff being made in England and the U.S. – but later took its own, very
seductive personality,” says Ernesto Lechner, author of the quintessential back
pocket reference guide Rock en Español:
The Latin alternative Rock Explosion
(Chicago Review Press, 2006). “I
almost imagine the day when young Latino rockers found a stack of their
parents’ LPs and fell in love with that music and began fusing it with their
rock.”

 

Los Lobos’ Louie Pérez also
remembers a time when “bands from Mexico where very derivative – they
all sounded like the Police.” Pérez, who tells HARP that the band is planning
to tour next year behind their critically-acclaimed 1992 album Kiko, says it took Los Lobos ten years
of learning complex folkloric Mexican music to start blending it with rhythm
and blues or rock.

 

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (pictured above), for example, sounded
and looked like influential ska band the Specials, until they traded in their
plaid sounds in the mid ‘90s for more folkloric tango and bombo-pounding murga
rhythms from their native Argentina reinforced with Afro-Brazilian percussive,
carnival samba. The result was instantaneous, pure gratification, leading
Lechner to declare in his book that the Cadillacs or newer bands like Tijuana
norteño electronica DJs Nortec Collective or Monterrey banda hip-hopsters El
Gran Silencio were “more fascinating” than Björk or Massive Attack.

 

Despite its seemingly irresistible
appeal, Latin alternative has failed to cross over to the American non-Spanish
speaking masses. Every year, the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC)
tries to find out why, and by showcasing commercially elusive, but artistically
rich music, it reminds the country that great music comes in all shapes, sizes
and languages.

 

Enrique Lavin, of New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, started the first bona
fide Latin alternative weekly music chart at CMJ and says, “Let’s not forget to
put things in perspective. This is a monolingual, though culturally diverse,
country. There are thousands of alternative bands singing in the national
language that have a tough time breaking through.”

 

Lechner “would love to be wrong”
about his belief that Latin alternative is unlikely to secure a cult following
among non-Spanish speakers but insists “language has very little to do with
it-it’s more about reaching the American sensibility,” citing the
Chinese-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon
movie phenomenon. “To fully understand the cultural codes, sense of
humor and third world magic of Café Tacvba,” he continues, “you have to have
lived in Latin America. But music is universal and for an Anglo, there’s always
the seduction of exoticism, much the same way music from Bollywood promises the
exotic to me.” Gabriel Abarao, president of the Latin Recording Academy, which
oversees the Latin Grammys, agrees that language is a negligible barrier and
points to “La Bamba” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” among others, noting that when they started airing the Latin
Grammys in English, “we were very much impressed by the amount of non-Spanish
speakers who tuned in.”

 

Rock roots and alt-country pioneer
Alejandro Escovedo, whose music arguably can’t get more American, hints at
being marginalized. He remembers radio folks’ reluctance to play his excellent With These Hands album in 1996, not
because it was “good or shitty,” but because as the radio execs told his label
Rykodisc, “We can barely pronounce his name, let alone play his record.” In
some ways, north-of-the-border musicians like Escovedo, who are too gringo to
be Latino and too Hispanic to be Yanks, stand to be doubly marginalized.  

 

Nacional Records label boss and
LAMC founder Tomás Cookman has every reason to be more optimistic. His two-year
old label is leading the way on embracing digital distribution (five Nacional
releases are in the iTunes Latino top 100) and consequently enjoying
counter-cyclical prosperity as many labels are slimming down or going belly-up.
But Cookman also thinks it helps that stereotypes are subsiding: “The days of
people hearing Latin and just thinking fiesta, chili peppers and dancing señoritas
are not as prevalent.”                               

 

LAMC co-founder and Cookman’s
business partner, Josh Norek, adds that Nacional is enjoying new markets in
places like Seattle and D.C. in part because digital distribution, with its
“negligible overhead and minimal… costs,” makes the music accessible to anyone,
anywhere. Conversely, digital distributors like iTunes, Zune, Urge, AOL and
eMusic – who all sponsored or had a presence at the recent LAMC – are finding
that labels like Nacional and events like the LAMC help to attract the elusive
second-generationers who are too Americanized to be courted via
Spanish-speaking media and too Latino to be reached through American mainstream
media.

 

Another question that tends to
send the movement chasing its own tail is ascertaining who’s in and who’s not.
Most musicians, understandably, avoid being pigeonholed. Chao recently told
HARP, “I don’t trust labels. I’m Manu, that’s all.” As Café Tacvba’s Rubén
Albarrán puts it, “Our music is impossible to categorize and not many musicians
will claim that their music is ‘Latin,’ but I suppose it’s sort of like your
name; it’s given to you by someone
else and it identifies you.”

 

Cookman, who’s signed Latin
alternative’s most exciting artists, including Chao and Aterciopelados, and
also new boundary-redefining architects like Barcelona’s
audio-visual electro-lounge stompers the Pinker Tones, one-man cha-cha cumbia
cool factory Mexican Institute of Sound and sultry Bronx
dub-hop duo Pacha Massive, simply says, “Latin alternative is music that is an
alternative to mainstream Latin music. It can be hip-hop, electronica, ska – almost
whatever. Sometimes, it feels more like an attitude than a genre.” Journalist Lavin
similarly defines it, but adds that it’s also a “sentiment” – one that
“continues to make critical observations, be it social or economic, and more
often than not makes thoughtful statements lyrically and sonically.”

 

With Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” becoming a cross-cultural,
international phenomenon and climbing to number 32 in Billboard’s Top 40 in
January 2005, the rise of reggaetón – Latin alternative’s tropical and
lascivious answer to gangsta rap – has stirred up some debate on its place
within the
Latin alternative scene. “With its success, there’s been some watered-down,
overtly commercial acts selling units, but they do nothing for the longevity of
the genre,” says Nacional’s Cookman. “I do feel artists like Tego Calderon and
Calle 13, who don’t take the safe road, keep the genre growing and exploring
new avenues of expression.” In essence, even successful mainstream acts – provided they continuously push the envelope,
like Radiohead – offer an alternative.

Author Lechner, who is
Argentinean-born, has an admittedly subjective definition that goes beyond language
or ethnic make-up of the artist. “If there’s a defining quality about Latin
alternative it’s that it’s absolutely and unequivocally Latin American. It has
that identity.” He dismisses Mexico’s Maná for being “Latino only by country of
origin,” since they are “disguised as arena rockers like Boston and Journey.”
And he thinks Santana being called rock en Español is “grotesque,” because even
though Santana is from Tijuana, his music is absolutely marked by his American
identity.

 

Lechner’s point highlights the
most contested division: whether U.S.-born or U.S.-raised, north-of-the-border
musicians raised on Spider-Man and Wheaties instead of El Santo and Cerelac fit
the bill. By pragmatic definition, Mexican American punk icon Tito Larriva and
his many incarnations (The Plugz, Cruzados, Psychotic Aztecs and currently Tito
& Tarantula), The Mars Volta, Del Castillo and even Los Lobos – with their
Latino heritage and inability to secure a safe haven in the mainstream – would
be shoe-ins. But as Lavin points out, “These bands would have to identify
themselves with the Latin alternative scene.” And most of them do not.

 

The Mars Volta’s Cedric
Bixler-Zavala, for example, admits that they are a “salsa band” trying to make
it back to their roots and that he grew up in a household where there was a
“cross-pollination of destroying both languages that’s bound to come out in
what [he] does,” but that he never believed they “belonged to any of that
[Latin alternative],” until they were invited to the MTV Latin awards in 2003.
Escovedo, who just finished the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s documentary on
Jimmy Carter, says, “I don’t think of myself as Latin alternative because it’s
so broad.” But he then admits, “My parents’ passion for their music – Los
Panchos, Vicente Fernandez, Perez Prado – influenced me. When we lived in
Texas, they’d do go out to the little honky tonks and listen to rancheras and
that filtered into my subconscious.”

 

Singer-songwriter Patricia Vonne,
who has played with Tito & Tarantula and Del Castillo and recently released
her third solo album, Firebird (Bandolera
Records), on the other hand, does identify herself with the movement.
“Alternative means affording a choice to an audience,” she says, “and my music
is bilingual and a diverse mix or roots rock with a south-of-the-border
flavor.” Cookman, who by virtue of being a talent scout for Nacional is
constantly monitoring the movement’s pulse, adds, “We are not discriminatory.
In my book, the Mars Volta, Los Lobos and the Plugz are all Latin alternative.”

 

Formed in L.A. in 1978, The Plugz – widely heralded as
the first Latino punk band, along with The Zeros – are rarely identified with
the Latin alternative or even rock en Español movements, despite singing some
songs in Spanish and their inclusion of indisputably Latino artillery in their
sonic arsenal. But it’s difficult to continue justifying their exclusion,
especially since a then-freshly immigrated Argentinean by the name of Gustavo
Santaolalla produced and even played the charango (a 10-string folkloric Andean
instrument resembling a tiny guitar) on their 1981 album, Better Luck. Today, Santaolalla, who also started a mostly Latin
alternative label called Surco in 1997, has become one of the genre’s most
sought-after music producers. Call him the Rick Rubin of Latin alternative – that
is, if Rubin was also a two-time Oscar-winning film composer. So if for no
other reason, The Plugz are guilty by a very strong association.

 

While it’s true that most
north-of-the-border musicians might be far removed from having third-world
hunger pangs or walking the La Panamericana highway barefoot with blistered
feet, there’s something to be said about a passion fueled by a starvation to
reconnect to your roots. From Louie Pérez proudly claiming: “We wear our
culture on our sleeves – we don’t disguise it or homogenize it, nor do we call
ourselves The Wolves [lobo is Spanish for wolf]” to Escovedo lamenting that he
“went a little too far” in “immersing” himself in the American culture, it
seems fair to ask: Why couldn’t Latin alternative music also come from dissimilating
Americans who also raid their parents’ LPs searching
for their long-lost identity? The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez sums up the
sentiment beautifully: “We are definitely traveling somewhere [musically] so
that we can be closer to our roots when we die.”

 

At the end of the day, the
minutiae matters little. Latin alternative is the
meaty, heart-pounding realization of something completely foreign; the bragging
rights that come with finding something fresh; music that transcends cultural
and language barriers. And the ripe Latin alternative movement, sentiment, sensibility, genre or
whatever you choose to call it is
“more alive than ever,” according to Abarao. “The amount of albums, groups and
alternative bands is amazing.”

 

Lavin concludes, “The movement
seems to have found its place, particularly in this digital era. The music
enjoys a niche market and what non-Latino music consumers may eventually learn
is what Spanish-speaking, bilingual music fans have known all along: we get to
enjoy the best of both worlds – our music libraries are bigger and more diverse
and we’re richer for it.”

 

***

 

¡BANDAS CHINGONES! NEVERMIND LOS LABELS, HERE
ARE SOME BADASS LATINO BANDS.

 

By Mario I. Oña and
Randy Harward

 

Aterciopelados (Bogotá,
Colombia)

www.aterciopelados.com

From raw punks to synergistic
folkrockers to mesmerizing trip-hopsters, this her ‘n’ him duo embraces
Afro-Colombian percussion and accordion-laden vallenato. With each
reincarnation they seem to attain nirvana. Through last year’s Grammy-winning Oye their entire 14-year catalogue is
dud-less, but beware: no two albums sound alike. [MO]

 

Federico Aubele (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

www.myspace.com/aubele

The
DJ-turned-classical guitar virtuoso with a hearty appetite for trip-hop, dub
and the sad-but-sweet sound of the bandoneon (small accordion used in tango) is
realizing that his most disarming weapon is his sinuous baritone. [MO]

 

AUSTIN TV (Mexico
City, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/austintv

Wearing masks, this young
instrumental quintet, whose music could be from anywhere, abruptly jumps off
the Mogwai/Sigur Rós train and explodes into fierce punk diatribes. [MO]

 

Café Tacvba (Naucalpan
de Juárez, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/cafetacvba

A social experiment in what
happens when prolific Mexican musicians high on the Beach Boys, the Cure and
Sex Pistols pick up instruments, but can’t deny their beloved folklore. They’re
one of the most genre-defining Latin alternative bands, if for no other reason
than they outdo themselves with each album. [MO]

 

Chikita Violenta (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.chikitaviolenta.com

Betcha didn’t know
that Broken Social Scene had collaborators this far south. CV’s dreamy,
shoegazey alt-rock (Jesús y Maria Chain, if you will) is English-only and bears
no Latin rhythms or instrumentation-you’d never guess it was a Mexport. [RH]

 

Cuca (Guadalajara,
Mexico)

www.myspace.com/cucaconpelotas

Est. 1989, Cuca’s
towering, fist-pumping, arena metal (think Motörhead meets Metallica’s black
album) is petulant, puerile, and good fun if you know enough Spanish to pick
out the copious Mexican curse words and dirty lyrics. [RH]

 

Dani Umpi (Montevideo,
Uruguay)

www.myspace.com/daniumpi

If he weren’t real, this
flamboyant, colorful cat would be from Oz, Wonderland or Willy Wonka’s
Chocolate Factory. His syrupy-sweet, electro-pop ditties will leave you with a
sugar rush from hell. [MO]

 

Del Castillo/Chingon (Austin, Texas)

www.delcastillomusic.com , www.chingonmusic.com

Rick and Mark del
Castillo’s superhuman flamenco guitar solos power this Latino folk-rock. With
filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi,
From Dusk Till Dawn) they’re Chingon,
which means “badass” in Spanish, and aptly describes their Mexican spaghetti western sound. [RH]

 

Garigoles (Guadalajara, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/garigoles

If you can fathom a
Kinks-Misfits summit at a haunted house from any Scooby-Doo episode, then your
jukebrain can call up any of Garigoles’ poppy, horror-inspired punk song, which
are good to the last sloppy riff. [RH]

 

La Mala Rodriguez (Madrid, Spain)

www.myspace.com/lamalarodriguez

Once a hardcore
rapper, La Mala Rodriguez went mainstream and mellow, though no less sassy. Her
bass still bumps enough to qualify her trancey, stream-of-consciousness jams as
lullaby crunk. [RH]

 

Liquits (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.liquits.com.mx

Liquits blends
skinny-tie power pop, Talking Heads eccentricity and an affinity for sunny,
hooky radio songs (when that wasn’t lame) into irresistible four-minute
wonders. Even if you don’t speak the language, you understand every word. [RH]

 

Los Bunkers (Concepcion,
Chile)

www.myspace.com/losbunkersmusic

Though they admittedly owe much to
the Kinks, the two pairs of brothers and friend formed two years before the
sound-alike Scots of Franz Ferdinand. They distanced themselves with their
impassioned vocals over disco-punk, staccato guitars. [MO]

 

Los Fancy Free (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/losfancyfree

You’d think the
far-out sounds of Wire, Devo and Wall of Voodoo would lose something in
translation, but Los Fancy Free is fluent in that particular column of rock n’
roll oddity, not to mention methods of making the weird palatable. [RH]

 

Mexican Institute of Sound (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/mexicaninstituteofsound.com

Camilo Lara’s
one-man operation purveys sophisticated electronica with sounds and samples
culled from his massive music collection (45,000 LPs, 25,000 CDs). On top, he
hustles and flows en Español. [RH]

 

Monte Negro (Venice
Beach, Calif.)

www.montenegrorocks.com

After years of deliberating over
their sound, brothers Kinski and Rodax, along with pals, have found it:
melancholic guitar and bass melodies reminiscent of Brit mope rock with a need
to scratch that reggae itch. [MO]

 

Nortec Collective (Tijuana,
Mexico)

www.norteccollective.com

DJs Bostich, Clorofila, Fussible,
Hiperboreal and Panoptica come together like Voltron to form a dance-inducing
machine whose elephantastic, blasting brassy Norteño music stitched with
incessant, irresistible break beats will make it impossible for you to remain
seated. [MO]

 

Pacha Massive (New York, New York)

www.pacha.us

Pacha’s trippy drum
‘n’ bass is so sneaky-smooth you don’t even know you’re dancing until somebody
laughs. And whether the vocals are sultry female crooning or suave male raps,
it’s all a siren song. [RH]

 

The Pinker Tones (Barcelona,
Spain) 

www.thepinkertones.com

With electro-lounge beats
bordering on ‘70s porn funk, Mister Furia and Professor Manso serve a sonic
cocktail that’s kitsch, modernist and undeniably hip-notic. And that’s before
intoxicating you with their live audio-visual concoction. [MO]

 

Súperaquello (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

www.myspace.com/superaquello

Súperaquello’s synth-pop, neo-new
wave sound, and penchant for soothing male-female vocals over gushy, pillow-soft
melodies will have you dancing in your sleep and wondering whatever happened to
OMD. [MO]

 

ROCKING THE CAVERN The Cave Singers

With a new album and a new label,
the Seattle
combo turns it up. Way up.

 

BY
JENNIFER KELLY

 

No
Witch
is more ambitious and bigger sounding than anything we’ve done
before,” says Cave Singers drummer Marty Lund, speaking of his band’s third
full-length album, out last month on Jagjaguwar.  

 

“Our last
two albums were a little bit mellow,” he adds. 
“When we’d play those songs live, they would be way more up.  So that’s what we wanted to capture on No
Witch
.  We wanted the album to sound
more like our live show.”

 

The Cave
Singers, out of Seattle,
have always infused backwoods country and blues with a fractious punk
energy.  That’s only natural, given that
the band’s members come from more aggressive outfits, bass player Derek Fudesco
from Pretty Girls Make Graves, singer Pete Quirk out of Hint Hint and Lund from Cobra High.
They started in 2007 and recorded two albums for Matador, Invitation Songs in 2007 and Welcome Joy in 2009. 

 

The band
connected with the Black Mountain family, just up the coast in Vancouver, convincing
Lightning Dust’s Amber and Ashley Webber to guest on their second album, Welcome Joy and touring with their band
in 2009.  For No Witch, they asked
Black Mountain producer Randall Dunn to help
them bring on the rock (Dunn has also worked with heavies like Sun O))) and
Boris). 

 

“The
material we brought to record with Randall was definitely more rock than
before,” says Lund.  “And we knew we wanted to play with more
aggression, too.  Still, the way that
Randall was able to capture the sound was important.   When we listened to some of the songs, they
were just so much bigger than we had anticipated.  It was awesome.”  

 

No
Witch
is the Cave
Singers’ first album on Jagjaguwar, which is, not coincidentally, also the
label that releases Black
Mountain and Lightning
Dust’s material.  “We’ve known the
Jagjaguwar guys, just kind of as acquaintances, for a while.  We stayed at Darius [Van Arman]’s house long
before we were talking about being on their label,” he says.  “Then at SXSW last year, he came up to us and
said, ‘Sounds great.  I’d be interested
in talking to you guys.’  And we thought,
that’s perfect.  What a great label.”

 

Cave
Singers is gearing up for another tour this spring, but it will be hard to
match their road experience last fall. 
In September the band went to China
for two weeks, playing shows in cities including Beijing,
Shanghai, Cheng
Du, Wu Han and  Chung Quing.  “That was amazing,” says Lund. 
“It was definitely the most incredible experience of my life.  I’ve been to Europe and Central
America, but that was completely different. Like a complete
culture shock.”

 

“Every
single minute of every day was different. 
There was nothing the same,” Lund
continues.  “I mean, obviously, people
still eat and talk.  But everything’s
different.  Like just down to the way
people talk.  Obviously, I couldn’t
understand people, but the way people interact with each other.  Personal space is different.  They have a different way with that.  The food. 
For me, I was familiar with Vietnamese food, but I didn’t know a lot
about Chinese food, so every day there was something new.”

 

Because
of the language barrier, Lund
says it was hard to connect with regular people, ordinarily one of his favorite
parts of touring.  Still he does remember
one stilted conversation with a young rock and roll fan at a vintage clothing
store in Shanghai.  “We were just talking about music and how he
liked Aerosmith and stuff,” he says. 
“That is one of my favorite things about traveling, so it was nice, once
in a while, to get to chat with someone.”

 

Lund says he and his bandmates were
blown away by some traditional tourist sites (The Great Wall), as well as some
less expected ones.  “We went to a
trannie bar in one city, where there was a drag show going on,” he says.  “That’s definitely not something that you
expect, and it’s pretty neat that they’re able to have this little enclave
where they could be into that thing and be comfortable.”

 

But
mostly, Lund says, he was fascinated by the
sheer foreign-ness of daily life in China.  “There were times when I would just sit
outside and watch people,” he recalls. 
“Everything is a lot more squeezed in. 
Everything’s more crowded and it creates a different vibe.  I never got tired of it.”    

 

A version of this story also appears in the latest print edition of BLURT.

THE CALCULATION OF LOVERS DeVotchKa

Where were YOU when
you first heard the band? Their latest, on Anti-, adds to the tally.

 

BY SELENA FRAGASSI

 

It could be just an estimate, but 100 Lovers – the name of DeVotchKa’s fifth album (just out on Anti-
Records) – could just as easily be the tally of couples that the worldly-minded
quartet has brought together since its inception more than a decade ago.

 

“People tell us all the time that they’ve met and fell in
love at a DeVotchKa show,” says frontman Nick Urata while walking the streets
of Boise, Idaho where the band (rounded out by Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King, and
Tom Hagerman) has landed for an early date on its national spring tour.” I
think our music sets a mood, and if we can stimulate a little romance with our
music, then maybe we’re worth a ten-second listen.”

 

Ten seconds … or in some cases a lifetime, give or take. In
one of those scenes out of a perfectly timed romcom, Urata says his entourage –
who names Eastern European wedding bands as a primary influence – had an
unlikely proposition at a show in Minneapolis to help a smitten fellow stage
the proposal of a lifetime.

 

“I was on the fence about it. I thought it might be kind of
awkward and cheesy [to stage that a marriage proposal at our show]. But I guess
the couple had met at a Devotchka concert, and he was adamant about it,”
remembers Urata, who says that in the end, the maneuver was very touching … and
worked in the guy’s favor. “How can you say no at that point? I guess that’s
the way to do it. If you’re not sure she’ll say yes, just get her on stage in
front of a bunch of people and ask.”

 

You could say that the Denver-based musicians have always
been in touch with their romantic, feminine side. Hell, their name, translated
in Russian, means “girl” and long before they were playing stages in Minneapolis and Boise,
they were playing house act for professional burlesque shows.

 

“I think it was partially because of our wardrobe we got the
gig,” laughs Urata of being hired by the field’s premiere fetish model, Dita
Von Teese. “That, and we played a lot of horns and exotic music. It actually
turned out to be a great pairing because the people that came to see the
performance had an open mind for music.”

 

An open mind is really at the heart of what has made a band
with an antiquely tuned Romani/Slavic/gypsy/Mariachi style successful in the
landscape of the modern indie pop blitz. And although many of its fans probably
couldn’t identify the band’s eclectic instruments in a lineup (think Theremin,
sousaphone, accordion), Devotchka has found a following nonetheless.

 

“One of the reasons why we kept going in the beginning was
that we always found our music broke down barriers and struck a chord with a
large variety of people from different walks of life who could identify with
it,” says Urata, before offering an unusual example. “I remember this really
big, mean club owner we were scared of coming up to me after a show and hugging
me. His favorite uncle played the accordion and I guess our performance brought
back memories for him. It was one of those times we thought we were going to
get beat up and we were hugged instead.”

 

Another time is what Urata calls the “stroke of blind luck”
when the directors of the wildly successful 2006 feature film Little Miss Sunshine came calling on the
band to score its little film that could. At that time, not many radio stations
had picked up DeVotchKa’s music for their rotation, but of the handful that
did, Santa Monica’s
KCRW turned out to be a good choice.

 

It was on that dial that the Sunshine‘s producers had been introduced to the band’s song “You
Love Me,” and was instantly attracted. The band went on to a Grammy nomination
for the soundtrack and even more widespread acclaim in their own right, nabbing
opening gigs on international tours with the likes of Gogol Bordello and
billing at premiere destinations on the annual festival circuit, including a
hallmark moment at 2006’s Bonnaroo, according to Urata.

 

“We landed a slot on the night before the official festival
started, but it turned out to be great because everyone showed up and took all
their drugs that first night. It’s probably the biggest crowd we’ve faced
before, and they were very receptive.”

 

The welcome wagon has covered yet more terrain in the years
since. In 2008, DeVotchKa released their commercially successful A Mad & Faithful Telling, which
nailed down spots on numerous music charts and portioned out singles to ad
campaigns and shows including Showtime’s Weeds.
After more tours and festivals, the quartet finally found time to begin work on
their follow-up 100 Lovers, which
took a year to refine and brought in new producer Craig Schumacher (Neko Case,
Calexico).

 

For all its loaded meanings, 100 Lovers, was recorded in the least dramatic place possible: the Arizona desert. “I find
it to be very exotic and wide open and big and I hope those elements would come
through in the music,” says Urata of the band’s unconventional destination for
studio space. “It changed perspective for us to get under those big desert
skies.”

 

The trick worked as Urata, Schroder, King, and Hagerman
together developed a narrative of 12 cinematic songs that extrapolate on the
band’s early beginnings and potential, from the poignant “The Man from San Sebastian” to the
electro experimentation of “All the Sand in all the Sea.”

 

Maybe, as Urata says, the musical mitosis was inspired by
the unending horizon of the desert … or perhaps a better rationale is found in
his thoughts on the differences of being in a band versus film scoring: “Films
are a collaborative process based on the director’s vision. Movies develop
their own universe that the music has to fit into. But, you have a little bit
more freedom when you’re just doing it for yourself and your band. I never
realized that before I started scoring films. You put all these limitations on
yourself that you really don’t have to.”

 

As DeVotchKa knows, with less limits comes more
commitment-and even in the prospect of 100
Lovers
the band is ready to settle down with the comfort of finding its newfound
fame and headlining marquees in towns from Boston to, well, Boise. “We’ve done
a lot of opening acts, and it’s always that bridesmaid/bride feeling. Now we
finally get to be the bride.”

BACK IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT Paul Roberts & Sniff ‘n’ the Tears

Back with their first album in
nearly a decade, the artsy British band remains one of the New Wave’s leading
lights.

 

BY DAVE
STEINFELD

 

If you
were listening to the radio in 1979, it was a stellar time – one when there was
much less of a schism between the music that was good and the music that was
popular. Add to that the creative surge that took place in the aftermath of
punk and the fact that a new decade was imminent (Ronald Reagan hadn’t yet set
America on the path that would ultimately send it down the tubes) and you can
understand why there was a genuine sense of excitement and possibility in the
air back then.

 

That
summer and fall, among other things, American radio was happily hijacked by a
group of musicians from the UK who experienced some chart success with a series
of catchy, guitar-based singles. Many of these musicians (though not all) had
been veterans of the London pub rock scene and were now re-emerging as “New
Wave” acts. Popular tunes at the time included Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,”
Ian Gomm’s “Hold On,” Bram Tchaikovsky’s “Girl of My Dreams,” The Records’
“Starry Eyes” and the debut by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, an unforgettable song
called “Driver’s Seat.”

 

Sniff
was led by singer-songwriter Paul Roberts, who was originally from Wales. The
sextet that appeared on the album Fickle
Heart
– which spawned “Driver’s Seat” and the follow-up single, “New Lines
on Love” – was rounded out by guitarists Loz Netto and Mick Dyche, keyboardist
Alan Fealdman, bass player Chris Birkin and Roberts’ longtime friend Luigi
Salvoni on drums. With its cryptic lyrics and grade-A arrangement (including an
eerie synth solo by guest musician Keith Miller), “Driver’s Seat” became a
smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

Sniff
‘n’ the Tears never scored another hit as big as “Driver’s Seat” but they
enjoyed a pretty good run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, releasing four
initial studio discs before disbanding. An accomplished artist as well as
musician, Roberts was responsible for the paintings that graced all four album
covers. (He’s pictured above with some of his typically provocative/sensual artwork; to view an online gallery, go to the Paul
Roberts Paintings website
.)

 

Roberts’
musical output over the past three decades or so has been pretty sporadic. The
last official Sniff ‘n’ the Tears album, Underground, arrived nearly a decade ago. But now the band is back with the release of Downstream. A more consistent and
diverse effort than Underground, the
album begins with “Black Money” – a song inspired by the aftermath of the war
in Iraq which, like many Sniff tunes, is both haunting and infectious simultaneously
– and ends with the title track. In between are 10 top-notch songs that range
from the lovely ballad “These Streets” to rockers like “St. Raphael” and the
topical “Don’t Rectify Me” to the fun, midtempo groove of “Night Owl Prowl.” In
addition to Roberts, the current Sniff lineup includes longtime members Les
Davidson and Nick South on guitar and bass, respectively; drummer Richard
Marcantonio; and keyboardist Robin Langridge.

 

BLURT recently
got a chance to talk with Paul Roberts about the past and present of Sniff ‘n’
the Tears.

 

***

 

BLURT: Close to a decade has
passed since the release of the last Sniff album, Underground. What happened during that period — either in your own
life or in the world at large since it’s been a pretty significant time
globally — that went into the making of this album??

PAUL
ROBERTS: Underground should have been
followed by some live work to raise the profile and let people know that we
were here. I had done a lot of that album myself and although Les [Davidson]
was involved as always, there was no drummer and no bass player; it was an
experiment in some ways to see what I could do [on my own]. As such, I think it
worked within its limitations [but] I would like to put proper drums on it at
some point to do it full justice.

        I became involved with a London gallery
for my painting and in 2003 and 2005 had one-man shows with the gallery, which
kept me pretty busy. I have become somewhat disillusioned with the art world
which I think is now just another branch of celebrity culture, not much more
interesting than fashion and with a lot of the same principles. 

        As a parent, it’s not difficult to be
horrified at the way the world is going. My parents had plenty to worry about
with the cold war, nuclear proliferation and drip-dry shirts. But what seems
particularly awful about these times is how little we seem to have learned from
past mistakes. The Internet is empowering and is becoming a game changer for
both good and ill. The good is that politicians can no longer have it all their
own way and the mobile phone is a revolutionary tool. This album is certainly
preoccupied with the craziness of these times. 

 

I’d like to ask you about a few
specific songs on the album. Reading about “Pray” on your website,
you mention that in this current age of economic meltdown, religious
fundamentalism etc., maybe all we can do is pray. Like you, I’m an atheist. My
question is, who do we pray to when we don’t believe in the traditional God
that organized religion would have us believe in?
 

The
injunction in the song, to pray, is
meant to combine irony with despair. We seem to be at a juncture in human
history when we know the answers but are incapable of acting with any moral
conviction when what are perceived as our own interests are at stake. Those
perceptions will only change when we take responsibility for our actions for
the greater good. You can’t defend democracy as an ideal while at the same time
supporting any tin pot dictator who you consider useful.

        We live in a culture where bankers can
blithely play high stakes roulette with our lives and we are expected to
somehow accept it as inevitable. The dumber and the more preoccupied we
are with the trivia of our lives, the more we can be spoon-fed the lie that we
are all in this together — the reality being that the gap between the haves
and the have-nots has never been greater. The song is about complacency; the
ship’s going down and we’re still planning to be the only people in the
lifeboat.

 

One song that immediately jumped
out at me on Downstream is
“Don’t Rectify Me.” Tell me a bit about what inspired that one. 

Reality
television, the Internet [and] the media in general [tell us that we] are part
of a community, a global community, a consumer community. Countless books and
magazines advise you on how to be a better, more beautiful or more successful
person. A mirror is held up to us which says you are what matters, you are
starring in your own movie, you are whatever you think you are. It’s bullshit,
but we want to believe it. Andy Warhol’s dictum that in the future everybody
will have fifteen minutes of fame is proving remarkably prescient. All I’m
saying in the song is, don’t try and make me into something I’m not. Don’t
educate me for your economy, don’t try and sell me your hair-shirt and don’t
tell what I should like, how I should look and what I should think or believe.

        Having said all that, it’s not meant to
be taken too seriously.

 

“These Streets” is one
of the more upbeat tunes on the album — if not musically than in terms of the
mood it conveys. How did that one come about??

One of
the themes of the album is to do with the “journey through life” as
implied in the title Downstream.
“These Streets” is about the affirmation and celebration of life and of love:
feeling good because you have both.

 

Tell me a little about the music
scene that Sniff ‘n’ the Tears originally came out of and the period between
pub rock and punk rock, as it were. Was the music scene in London as exciting
as it sounds during the mid to late ’70s?

The
first incarnation of Sniff ‘n’ The Tears started in 1972. We were involved in
the pub rock scene in London, which was fun. While ELP and Yes played some
massive stadium, you could pop down to the local boozer and see some great
little band. In 1974, I went to France and ended up staying for two years. When
I came back to London, I asked a friend what was happening and he said
“There’s this band called the Sex Pistols.” Then my old manager, who
had got into promotion, got me down to the Roundhouse to see Patti Smith
supported by The Stranglers.

        In France, I had signed to a record
company who had let me make some demos in London. It was in the making of these
demos that Fickle Heart and “Driver’s
Seat” were born. When we recorded the album in 1977, there was no doubt that
the record industry was wide open to change. [It was] one of those rare
seismic moments when creativity — rather than commerce — is allowed to
flourish because all of the sustainable models have been undermined. This gave
opportunities to a lot of bands that would perhaps have been ignored before punk
upset the apple cart. It got labeled as New Wave, which was a spurious title
for a very loose collective. There was the 2 Tone thing and Madness… We did a
little festival tour in Germany with The Police, Talking Heads, Dr. Feelgood
[and other bands]. It was a time when anything seemed possible [but] it
didn’t last long.

 

Tell me about “Driver’s
Seat.” What inspired the song? Who arranged it?

The
lyrics were inspired by the bewilderment felt in the aftermath of a breakup and
the need to be positive. The basic arrangement was done for the demos [with] me
strumming the chords, which had an unusual rhythmic twist, and everybody
playing along. What made it work was the combination of musicians. This, plus
the fact that the song has a three-chord revolving structure, making it great
for getting into a groove. [That’s] no doubt why it’s been sampled so often by
dance music producers. The main innovations came from the engineers, Steve
Lipson and Bazza, who thought that there was too much going on in the track and
edited out the guitar riff in the verses. This gave the song a lot more air and
dynamics. Luigi [Salvoni] then suggested we did it at a faster tempo.
Suggestions came from everyone in the studio, so I would call it a
collaborative effort arrangement-wise.

 

You’re also a successful painter.
In fact, you were successful in that medium before music. What do you get from
painting a picture that you don’t get from writing a song and vice-versa?

It’s
been a difficult trick to combine the two. Ironically, I was at my most
successful as a painter when Luigi approached me about reforming Sniff. Not
good for my painting career, as it meant I hardly painted for several years.

        I don’t make a connection between the
two [art forms].  For me, painting was a way of exploring visual language
in the way it is used to manipulate, through the media and the arts. Music is
much more personal and emotional for me. I absolutely love music.  The art
world [often] leaves me cold. But I do love the craft of painting and drawing,
trying to create something memorable and beautiful.

 

Are you still in touch with the
other original Tears like Luigi, Mick and Loz and if so, what are they up to
these days??

I speak
to Luigi from time to time but I haven’t seen Loz and Mick for years. They’re
all still playing. I heard Loz had made a blues album.

 

Will you be supporting Downstream with any live dates??
Anything else of note planned for 2011??

The
plan is definitely to get out and play. We just want to get out and enjoy it,
which I think is a benefit of a certain maturity. We’ve got nothing to prove.

 

Sniff ‘n’ the Tears on the web.

EXENE CERVENKA Stream Her New Album “The Excitement of Maybe”

With a new record out
this week and a tour also starting, the songwriter shifts into high gear.

 

BY BLURT STAFF

 

It’s called The
Excitement of Maybe
and it arrives in stores this week via the venerable Bloodshot
label (www.bloodshotrecords.com)
– “it” being Exene Cervenka’s brand new solo album. We’re proud to be able to
present a stream of the entire album for your listening pleasure. Check it out,
below.


The Excitement of Maybe by Exene Cervenka by Bloodshot Records

 

You know the lady: co-founder of legendary L.A. punk outfit
X, co-conspirator in alt-country pioneers The Knitters and latterday punk band
Auntie Christ and the Original Sinners, spoken word performer, acclaimed visual
artist. Excitement of Maybe is the
latest in a string of outstanding solo releases, which have included 1989’s Old Wives’ Tales, 1990’s Running Scared and 2009’s Somewhere Gone, and it features the
contributions of such musical talents as Dave Alvin, Christian McBride and
labelmate Maggie Bjorklund.

 

Writes reviewer (and BLURT contributing editor) Lee Zimmerman
in our latest issue, of the album,

 

It’s a kinder, gentler
Exene that graces the grooves of her latest solo outing, one that embraces
shimmering steel guitars, subtle hints of brass and strings and a sound that
offers a dissertation in the folkier side of Americana. Of course, Exene’s
never been one to shy away from change; following the initial demise of X, she
ventured into various realms that took her from the traditional path of the
Knitters to literary pursuits and a series of sterling solo albums.

 

But with The Excitement
of Maybe she brings truth to the title’s
promise by exploring the possibilities of upping the accessibility factor
without diminishing the drive and drama which shored up her earlier irascible
reputation. Indeed, on songs such as “Already in Love,” “Alone in California”
and “I’ll Admit It Now,” she melds a country caress with undeniable hooks, and
created a classic that’s brought her to the crest of her career.

 

Exene continues to pursue her myriad other interests (X
remains an ongoing proposition as well), but for the immediate future she’ll be
focusing on the new album. A tour kicks off this week in
L.A. then heads over to Austin next week for SXSW, and after that she’ll be
criss-crossing the U.S. well into mid-April. Don’t miss her if she comes
anywhere near your town…

 

[Photo Credit: Maggie Thomas]

 

THE SINGLES SCENE

It’s indie going
steady time at Blurt! Guarantee: all sales are vinyl.

 

BY TIM HINELY

 

Ahh… the 7″ single – you remember those, right? Of course you do. They
(whoever “they” is) say vinyl is making a comeback but as far as I’m concerned
it never went away.

 

Also, I’m sorry folks, but it has to be said: When someone posts a new
single at iTunes it’s not really a single. Oh sure, it may be a new song, but
to truly be a single it has to be a
7′ piece of vinyl (preferably colored) with a sleeve (preferably a
picture). 

 

The ten singles listed below are more of the pop persuasion, some
bands you may have heard of and some you may have not, and while some are
better than others, all are worthy of your time. So you can keep your iPods
running and I won’t flip you any – no iPod for this writer – as long as you
don’t flip me any for keeping my turntable all lubed up and ready to spin… here
goes!

 

***

 

Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Apple Orchard

“A Month of Spring” b/w “The Rainbow’s End” and “She Knows”

(Haymarket Recordings) www.appleorchardpop.com

This Bay Area band is actually brother Ryan and Dale Marquez who have
been creating their hazy pop nuggets for a few years now. Ryan sings and plays
guitar while Dale plays bass and keys (and some guitars, too). The a-side is
noisier than what they usually offer while the two songs on the flip slip back
into a Sarah records-esque groove (especially on “The Rainbow’s End”). Nice.

 

8

Boat

“(I’ll Beat Me Chest Like) King Kong” b/w Le Grande Opening” and
“Forever in Armitron”

(Magic Marker) www.magicmarkerrecords.com

One of the hardest-working (yet most underrated) bands in indie rock
land is Seattle’s
Boat. On this swirly-colored vinyl single they drop a groovy mid-tempo nugget
on the a-side while in the flip offer two more cuts that coulda been AM radio
hits back in 1968 (which was probably before these guys were born), especially
the snappy “Forever in Armitron.” Righteous.

 

8

Bubblegum
Lemonade

“Caroline’s Dream” b/w “Stalling and Laughing” and Looking to the Sun”

(Matinee) www.matineerecordings.com

The Matinee label never seems to slow down in its quest for pop
perfection. The a-side was on their latest record, Sophomore Release and it’s yet another song in the long line of
Scottish pop royalty. The b-side offers 
up two songs; “Stalling and Laughing ” clocks in at just over a minute
and a half and sounds easily tossed off while “Looking to the Sun” cranks up
the fuzz and points more to the Jesus & Mary Chain than Orange Juice (which
is a-ok). Lovely red vinyl.

 

6

Derby

Madeline EP

(Timber Carnival Records) www.timbercarnival.com

Portland quartet Derby seems to have
undergone a change here. The band was once known for its sweet pop but I’d
heard a few years back that there was some sort of upheaval. That is probably
old news by now. Main guy Nat Johnson is still at the helm but these two songs
are darker, moodier. “Don’t Believe in You” slowly unfold and then build with a
solid drumbeat throughout while the flip begins as a dreamy acoustic number
that, quite frankly, should have been the a-side. Just sayin’.

 

6

Dirty Mittens

“Row” b/w “This Here Year”

(Magic Marker records) www.magicmarkerrecords.com

This Portland
bunch, led by vocalist Courtney Morrissey, has been spreading their
good-natured cheer for a few years now and this 2-song single, while not their
best, is still solid pop music. They add horns and keys to the basic
guitar/bass/drums set up but then you have Morrissey’s helium-voiced squeal
which will appeal to some while putting off others. It takes some getting used
to on record but in a live setting she’ll have you eating out of her hand
within minutes.

 

9

Northern Portrait

“Life Returns to Normal”
b/a “Some People”

(Matinee) www.matineerecordings.com

The word on the street on this Danish band is that they love The
Smiths and sound quite a bit like them – and you know what? It’s all true, but
who cares; the songs are superb! The a-side is from their excellent debut
record, Criminal Art Lovers, while
the flip, a Cliff Richard cover, might be even better with a groovier beat and
vocalist Stefan Larsen stretching his pipes out a bit more. Not sold yet? How
about the perfect clear vinyl?

 

6

Paper Fleet

“Baby, We Love Each Other” EP

(Ottomen) www.ottomen.com

This band hails from NYC and got Sex Robots maestro Mario Viele to
produce a 4-song 7″, but while I had not heard the band before they are not
newcomers. Go to their webpage and see they have a previous full-length, an EP
and a few other singles too. This is upbeat, poppy garage rock. The guitar
leads are short and fun while the rhythm section is happily bashing away and
the vocalist sounds like a smart-ass motormouth (in the best way possible).
“The Beach” is my pick to click but all 4 of these cuts are pretty fun.

 

8

Soda Shop

“Farewell” b/w “When You’re Lonely”

(Shelflife) www.shelflife.com

It’s nice to see the Shelflife label back in the swing of releasing 7″
records (and who doesn’t love white vinyl?). This NYC duo is Drew Diver (from
another Shelflife band, Horse Shoes) and Maria Usbeck (from Selebrities) and
here they offer up two terrific pop nuggets. The a-side is pure ‘60s AM radio
stuff (a la She & Him) while the
flip slows it down and saddens it up (if just a bit).  The public demands more.

 

6

Sunshine Factory

“Lower Away” b/w “Tidal Waves”

(Culdesac Kids) www.culdesackidsrecords.com

Had never heard of this Palmdale, Calif.,  quartet previously, and it’s probably because
they’re a fairly new band (never heard of the label before, either). “Lower
Away” is a real laid-back, warm pop tune with lots of silky piano and smooth
vocals. The b-side get a bit folkier and wasn’t as inviting (or as catchy) but
still not a bad song.  Apparently they
have big plans for the future, so have at it, boys.

 

8

Various Artists

Adalita Srsen + Robert Scott – “That’s What I Heard” b/w The Puddle –
“Average Sensual Man”

(Fishrider) www.indiepages.com/fishrider

This split single offers up 2 terrific songs from some New Zealand
legends. The a-side is Robert Scott (of The Bats, of course) and a female
friend laying down the beautiful “That’s What I Heard” with a strummed guitar
and both of them singing. Not unlike what he was doing with The Magick Heads.
The b-side is New Zealand’s
long-running band The Puddle (who have a few full-lengths out on the Fishrider
label) led by Mr. George Henderson, but with a full-band. This tune cuts a warm
groove with viola, accordion and some simmering backing vocals. Nice.

 

 Tim “45 Adapter” Hinely publishes the Portland-based Dagger zine. Visit him on the web at the Dagger website.

HIGH INTENTS Low Anthem

With music as their mantra, they refuse to get
sidetracked by success.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

While calling an
artist an overnight sensation may be the most tiresome cliché ever, in the case
of Low Anthem – Ben Knox Miller, Jocie Adams, Jeff Prystowsky, Mat Davidson – that
tag actually seems to ring true. After all, they reaped the pundits’ applause
with their sophomore set, the brilliant conceptual effort Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and were immediately elevated tagged as the up-and-coming act to watch.
Originally self-released in 2008, OMGCD was  subsequently picked up by Nonesuch
for a full national rollout in 2009.

 

After that initial infatuation, the challenge might
have been to derail any notions they were one hit wonders. Consequently, the
desire to keep the kudos coming could have weighed heavily on the recording of
their third effort, Smart Flesh, also
on Nonesuch. BLURT had an opportunity to chat with co-founder Miller to get his
perspective on Low Anthem’s challenges and triumphs.

 

***

 

BLURT: After the success of Charlie Darwin was it daunting or
intimidating when it came to thinking about a follow up? Were you anxious to
ensure the critical momentum continued? Or were you oblivious to those
concerns?
BEN KNOX MILLER: Good question. I wouldn’t say anxious but I
also wouldn’t say oblivious. We’re savvy to game of things, but the music comes
first. Our recording project had its own parameters and sonic goals, as did the
writing on the Smart Flesh. The rules
are the rules. Once we had parameters like the building and different
experiments we’d schemed and the body of songs we were able to work totally
unconsciously of anything but the tasks at hand – execution. The process of
tracking and mixing Smart Flesh wasn’t so different than listening to our favorite records. We were chasing
that same feeling of excitement. Mixing’s in the bones and the heart if you can
keep your head right. If our recordings are less than %100 aesthetically driven
it’s only out of weakness – evil creeping in despite our watchful eye, as
surely it creeps. The goal is to make music first, and then play the game of
putting it into the world, hopefully in a creative way – or at least a way that
isn’t demeaning or manipulative.

 

Were you surprised by the
success of Charlie Darwin? Did it
convince you that you had arrived as a band?
Yes, we were very surprised. We painted each record jacket
by hand for the release. We expected to sell 2,000, so that’s how many we
painted. 

 

In reading the press
release, it seems pretty clear that your recording locales play a major role in
how your albums are shaped? Do you choose your locale once you know the
direction you’re going to take or is it the other way around – does the studio
dictate the direction?
First, the songs dictated the “studio” choice. We
had a sense of the vibe or sentiment of the record and were looking for the
place that would provide a sonic compliment… a space big enough to go wild
all kinds of vast-scale milking techniques and re-amps but also a space that
would be interesting to live in during the process which lasted three months.
However, once this building seduced us it became an omnipresent force that
devoured and rejected many of the songs we had brought into it. Most of the
faster percussive lyrics and arrangements were swallowed in its caverns,
obscured. We fought hard for a few songs, but it was futile. Some of these
deceased songs were core songs for the record, or so we had thought. Their
disappearance opened unexpected holes in the record, like the toppling of an
ancient tree creating an opening in the canopy. Light shone in and some of the
underdog survivors were able to extend themselves in this vacuum. They began
casting surprising shadows on one another, shadows that had once been
neutralized by the density. So what remained took a shape that none of us had
envisioned… the songs influencing the building choice, and the building
returning the favor. 

 

In that regard, how do you
strategize each new project – does the direction come from the songs – or is
there a deliberate attempt to create a concept first and then the songs follow?
The songs for this album can only exist amidst one another.
There are ideas and imagery that are borrowed across songs. Words appear in
different contexts and chase each other about a vaguely defined web. The
process and the result both are non-linear. Everything is felt out slowly and
unconsciously… painfully slowly… at times suspiciously lazily unconsciously.

 

Is there an overall concept
that underpins Smart Flesh? And if so, were the songs written to
hold to that concept?
There is a rant enclosed in the album booklet and appearing
on our website that attempts to get at this “underpinning.” It goes
like this:

 

“A credible,
edible* collection of 11 songs. Softer than your velvet Elvis and fiercer than
Lady Hate herself. Chapped, naked love songs, lazier than the drifting sun.
Songs of fear, cruelty and redemption. Songs on songs. Essence and nonsense.
Frequencies for sympathetic architects. A church – a black hole – silence –
exit music for thunder. Oooeeee! Herein: that bulbous, intelligent brain flesh
of empty whales. That vacuous and monotonous flesh of the tumor. That taut
flesh of the archer and his drawn bow. That trembling gut of the tightrope,
that humming steel of airplanes. Woe that endless hunt. Woe ye embalmers of
beauty. Woah! That tender and redeemed flesh…

*FOR YOUR EARS ONLY, WITH LOVE.”

 

Where did the title of the
album come from?
We’re talking here about the flesh that wants, as opposed to
the flesh of stones. The flesh that is imbued with knowledge of self, with the
divine. 

 

For that matter – and in the
interest of full disclosure — where did the name Low Anthem come from?
Low Anthem was our given name and like any given name has
plagued us since birth, stretching and bending, resisting our maturation. The
departed band member who came up with it claims it refers to Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

 

For the most part, the album
has a very haunting, sparse, hushed ambiance and arrangement? How do you see
that translating to live performance? Do you think you can capture those
nuances on the stage?
We will do our best to deliver the songs. The album
arrangements will work better in certain rooms and worse in others. For example
at a pounding loud festival next to the dance tent, we may avoid seven minute
dirge waltzes like the title song “Smart Flesh.” But on the record, almost
all the parts are played live, so they are translatable. 

 

In a world where people are
shouting to be heard and pop music is all about flash and frenzy, how does a
band like Low Anthem – a band where nuance and intellect seem so such a swaying
factor — get yourselves heard over the din?
Yeah, what a funny question. I pinch myself every day. Maybe
we’re heard under the din, if we’re heard at all.

 

Would you mind giving us an
idea of your earliest influences?
Here’s a couple for each of us:


Miller – Dylan, Cohen
Davidson – Waits, Young
Adams – Mahler, Gillian
Prystowsky – Mingus, Prine

 

Any chance your first album,
which wasn’t widely distributed, will get a re-release?
We’ve reissued our first record from our website, but it’s
hard to go backwards in time

 

What’s next for the band?
We’re getting ready to go out on the road and do the record
in the flesh. Pardon me.

A version of this interview
also appears in the 10th issue of BLURT, headed to newsstands at
this very moment. Meanwhile,Low Anthem’s North American tour kicked off last
week and continues through March 12, then heads off to Europe.
Tour dates at their official website.

 

[Photo
Credit: Ryan Mastro]

KEEPING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE Mike Watt (Pt. 2)

The bassist talks
about the Stooges, the passing of Captain Beefheart, his recent work with
Jandek, his new record label, and more.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

We continue our
sprawling spiel with the legendary bassist. To read Part 1, please go here.

 

BLURT: The idea of
constantly learning from people – is that something that motivates you to
collaborate with other artists as much as you do?

MIKE WATT: Yeah, and with bass, too, the politics of it is
interesting. You look good making other people look good [laughs]. We’re kinda like the grout between the tiles. Most people
go in the head and they look at the tiles, and I’m the grout between the tiles. It’s kind of a
mysterious thing. Everybody’s different, so you gotta fit to them, and you
learn different ways. Even when you’ve played with somebody before, you don’t
wanna bogart and dominate and stuff; you avoid just rubber-stamping things
where you’ve been. So, each time, I really try to approach it like I’m here for
the first time, thinking, how do I make
an interesting conversation out of thi
s? It is a challenge; it is tough. But it’s worth it. Like on this album, I asked
Tom and Raul to set the direction – I don’t think you can learn everything by
always being the boss. Life is about taking turns.

        You know, no
matter what humans do, it seems the longer they do it, the more they do. But the weird thing about bass is that, often, the
physics punishes us; we get all small, we have too many notes. So it’s always
this big search for the right notes, and that’s why somebody who’s just started
playing can write a great bassline. I’ve been surprised so many times when I
talk to people who’ve just started out. It’s not about more and more with the
bass because of the long wavelengths at the low end…and, of course, it’s a
rhythm thing too. And everybody sees that stuff differently, so it’s good to
have a lot of different teachers.

 

Has it been a learning
experience working with the Stooges? You’ve been doing that for the last eight
years.

The Stooges come from a ’60s sensibility. I was only a boy
then, and I wasn’t playing yet, so playing with the
Stooges, it’s a neat classroom to sit in. It’s the primary source, man. I mean,
now you get it second- or thirdhand with other bands, and these guys are the
daddies. So that’s pretty intense. Ig’s really helped me become a better bass
player. For one thing, he doesn’t work a machine; he’s almost in a conductor
position, and he’s also like a bridge to the gig-goers. He gets the big picture
that us people working the machines don’t get, so he’s given me a lot of
perspective in playing. It’s different than the trios I do, where we’re all
engaged in working our things, and it’s hard to get a big sense of it ‘cuz
you’re so involved with yourself. So Ig’s helped me a lot. Also, Stooge music
is really about feeling; it’s not really about a bunch of complicated parts, so
that’s helped me too.

 

Did you ever go to any
Stooges gigs back in the early days?

I didn’t see the Stooges in the ’70s. We didn’t know about
clubs. We were into arena rock – my first gig was T. Rex. We didn’t know about
clubs until punk, and stuff from the ’60s was long gone by that time. I guess there
was a little of it still up in Hollywood, but we didn’t know about it in Pedro.
I wouldn’t have believed it at all if somebody had told me I’d be playing with
the Stooges one day. It’s pretty much of a mind blow. I love playing with those
guys. I just got back from Australia – the first Stooges gigs of this year. It
was my third Big Day Out tour there. I blew some clams, but I always try my
hardest for the Stooges. It was a little difficult with my knee still hurt. I
dislocated it – last note of the first song, “Raw Power,” at a gig in France,
in July last year.

 

How different is it
with James Williamson playing guitar now, instead of Ron Asheton?

It’s just like when you hear those records – they’re
different Stooges. I know it’s only one different guy, and Ronnie was on bass
on those records, but it was a different band. You know, even though James
didn’t play for a long time, he’s still got the sound. He didn’t play for like
30 years! His son wrote an essay in college called “Coffins in the Corner,” about
the guitars in the house that never came out of their cases. The first practice
I did with James, I could tell right away this was the guy that played on Raw Power – it was that guitar sound.

 

Listening to hyphenated-man, the Beefheart feel
seemed especially strong. He’s always been a big influence, obviously.

Yeah, big time! Minutemen was way into Beefheart. Big time.
When punk came, to us, Beefheart and the Stooges were already doing punk – they
just didn’t call it that yet. Then, the Pop Group was a big influence on us,
too: they took Beefheart and put it with Funkadelic, which to us was almost the
perfect thing. Beefheart really resonated with us. I saw him on the Doc at the Radar Station tour at the
Whisky in Hollywood. My leg was in a cast [laughs]
– I’d just had knee surgery. I even talked to him on the phone once. He was
taking calls on KCRW, and I was the last caller. I was talking about Strictly Personal, and I told him how
[the gatefold photo] used to scare me when you opened up the sleeve, and he
said, “Yeah, it scared me too.” I was wondering if there was something behind
it, and he just said it was stuff he had laying around in his garage.

 

Although he’d been
ill for ages, his death felt like a big deal. He really was a major figure.

It was very heavy. I was doing an interview and the guy had
just heard and he told me about it, and it was hard to talk. I knew he was sick
for a long time but still…. He was Big Daddy. And as way out as he was, he
always had this big blues thing that was very traditional. It was different
than, say, the Zappa prog thing – that was fusion. His way, his vision, was
very personal, but it was grounded in Howlin’ Wolf and stuff. You can hear it
big time. We always thought that was a trippy thing. It’s like writing a book
where you don’t have to invent new words. But it was really original.

 

Talking of unique
artists, you recently played with Jandek at my old school, UC Irvine.

That was a trip. Mr. Jandek – or the Representative from
Corwood Industries – is a very interesting cat. All black clothes and, for the
gig, he had maybe a Stetson. Not a total cowboy hat, but it had a big brim. That
was one of the wildest live gigs I’ve done. It was me and a younger drummer, BJ
Miller from HEALTH. He said to the drummer, “You ever hear of Ginger Baker?
Maybe you should play like that.” He was giving no real direction! I just met
him there the day of the gig. In fact, at one point, he asked me, “So what are
you gonna do?” [laughs] So I said,
“Maybe you want something like a Jack Bruce thing?” And he said, “Yeah! yeah!”
Then I said to him, “I gotta tell you, I’m way into doing this, but I’m a
little bit scared.” And he said, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be right up your
alley” [laughs], and we went into
this 100-minute song that
went to a lot of places
. I kept trying to change the motifs, and the
drummer stayed in this one kind of thing – he’d never done anything like that
before.

        His music is
very interesting. He used effects at this gig on his guitars. He’d never used
effects before. He’s got a trippy way of playing – a lot around D and G – and
that was really interesting to follow. It wasn’t like a guy wanking at the
Guitar Center. It kind of reminded me of some of that Pop Group guitar by
Gareth Sager. Also, he said, “You know, usually I don’t do lyrics live,” but he
ended up doing some lyrics. The people there dug it big time, but he never
really spoke with them. He never introduced us or said thanks or anything – just
started playing. Then, when we were done, we were done. I hugged him at the end
and told him, “Man, any time! I’m there for you.” ‘cuz I really dug it.

 

Without wanting you
to betray any confidences, what did you guys talk about? Did he say anything about
why he’d suddenly started playing live after all these years?

Well, we never talked about any of that stuff. He talked
real regular, not weirded out at all. He didn’t come across like a total hermit
in the mountains. He knew about stuff. I talked to him for maybe three hours,
about playing gigs, about going to Russia. He did know about our scene. He
didn’t ask me about much current stuff, but mainly about the old days. He knew
about Black Flag and the Minutemen days, and he asked me about a Bad Brains
documentary. The closest I got to it was when the drummer was talking about
writers, and I brought up Mr. Pynchon. I mentioned Pynchon on purpose, saying,
“This guy doesn’t like getting his picture taken,” to see if the Representative
would say anything, but he didn’t. You know, I never even heard his name. He
never said it. But if he doesn’t want to say, then he doesn’t want to say it. I
only knew him from the records, and instead of laying some trip on him, I just
wanted to check out the music. He just seemed like a guy who was into music.

 

You’re sure it was
really him?

[laughs] Well, it
seemed like the same guy from the records, ‘cuz Jandek did have his pictures
all over the records, of all different ages…actually, he looked like Thurston
[Moore] a little bit…. But I thought, if that’s the way he wants it, then
that’s good enough. He didn’t wanna talk about that stuff, and I was there to
play with him. That was quite enough for me. Look, I got in trouble once with
Richard Hell on my radio show. He was my first punk hero, and I asked him about
the clothes – ‘cuz I was way into those clothes – and he was all pissed off. He
didn’t want to talk about it. I don’t know why. I felt really bad, too. So
maybe I learned a bit from that. These guys, they’ll let you know what they
wanna talk about.

 

Getting back to hyphenated-man…for this album, you’ve
started up a label again (clenchedwrench).

We had New Alliance in the ’80s, and we put out some
Minutemen records, the first Hüsker Dü album and three Descendents albums, so I
feel like I’ve gone full circle. I’ve got so many projects coming out, and
these times are more copasetic to doing stuff like this yourself. In the old
days, we kind of had to do it ourselves because no one else would put it out.
So now I’ve got like 12 or 13 projects in the pipeline, and I wanna get ’em out
and not have to play the game or anything. I just want it out. They’re all
different. They’re not me just doing the same old thing with different people.
They’re shaped by the people I play with. My trios are my trios, and they’re my
link to my past, but when I do these collaborations it’s a whole different
thing – now you can trade files with people over the internet, and you don’t
even have to be playing with ’em in the same room. So I can do that more now
and not be the one-trick pony. I can make these things have their own lives and
give respect to the people I collaborate with.

 

You seem to gig
endlessly but, in comparison, you haven’t been so prolific in terms of
recordings.

I’ve tried to address that by doing more collaborations,
starting in 2007 with Funanori [a project
with the Go! Team’s
Kaori Tsuchida]. Up till then, apart from the operas, I did some Unknown
Instructors records, a couple of Banyan records, the Stooges record. There’s
not a lot of recorded works, but thousands of gigs. I wanted to get that more
in balance, so I’ve been on a tear recently.

 

Did you used to place
more value on live performances than recording?

I used to think that, big time. The punk thing was so profound
on us. We thought the gig was
everything. Me and D. Boon, we divided the world into two categories: there was
gigs and flyers. Everything that wasn’t a gig was a flyer. Fuck the
recordings! We never thought of them as being here after you’d gone. But I
think of ’em more like that now, like children or something. I never had
children, so this is the closest I get. With gigs, life-in-the-moment is very
important, but they go out there and dissipate into the ether or in people’s
minds, or whatever. But that’s it. If Bosch had just talked about those little
men instead of drawing ’em, I wouldn’t know about ’em. So the work as a
concrete entity is more important to me now. The songs get lives of their own:
when people hear ’em, they get their own ideas about what they’re supposed to
be, away from me.

 

You don’t feel
over-protective about them once they’ve gone on their way?

People have so much control over their lives anyway, so I
don’t wanna put more out there. I don’t wanna put a chain and collar on ’em. I’ve
done it to other people’s songs – I’ve got my own meanings for ’em, and then,
when you talk to the people who wrote ’em, it turns out they weren’t about that
at all! [laughs]

 

You’re about to
embark on another epic tour, doing the bulk of the driving yourself. Do you
ever get tired of being on the road and gigging?

If I didn’t have Pedro to come back to, maybe I would. The
bungee cord snaps you back and you roost, then you roam, and then you roost.
And I’ve always had good guys to tour with, so I don’t have the dramas to deal
with: they know it’s all about doing the gig. It is a little harder now. My
hands get sore from playing, so the vibrations from the steering wheel help me
out a lot. The body ain’t as strong, but I like playing for people. I can still
manage. I ain’t totally lamed out. My knee’s still all stiff, but, fuck, it
could be worse. It could be sawed off!

        Gotta keep it
in perspective.

 

BIG BOSCH MAN Mike Watt (Pt. 1)

Spieling with the
erstwhile Minuteman, current Stooges-man, and the once-and-future hyphenated-man.

 

BY WILSON
NEATE

 

If you’re going to suffer an
excruciating knee injury, you want disaster to strike in the least public of
circumstances, when you’re engaged in something that involves no major
responsibilities so you can collapse discreetly and writhe largely unnoticed.
Mike Watt wasn’t so lucky. Last year, the man from Pedro went down with a major
blowout onstage in front of thousands of people whilst working “the thud
staff” in France with the Stooges. Worse still, it happened during the opening
song of the set (“Raw Power”).

 

But Watt soldiered on, finishing
the gig and the remaining dates. Still not fully recovered – but now operating
without crutches – Watt’s just returned from Stooges dates in Australia and
he’s got a new album out, hyphenated-man (ORG Music/clenchedwrench). Rather than put his feet up, he’s heading out on
the road again for a marathon North American tour in support of the record: 50
shows, 52 days, 31 states, two countries – and he’s doing the driving.

 

Following on from Contemplating the Engine Room (1997) and
The Secondman’s Middle Stand (2004), hyphenated-man is the third in a series
of thematically unified, multi-part works that Watt describes as “operas.”
Recorded with the Missingmen, Tom Watson and Raul Morales (pictured above, with
Watt), this is his most ambitious and idiosyncratic project thus far.
Consciously returning to the super-short song format that was a Minutemen
trademark, Watt’s new 30-track opus
draws inspiration from an array of sources: the composite figures (or
“hyphenated-men”) who populate Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, the experience of
middle age and even The Wizard of Oz are all grist for Watt’s creative mill.

 

Watt’s not only one of the
hardest-working men in show business these days; he’s also one of the most
decent, and it’s always a genuine pleasure to talk to him. In what follows, the
“man in the van with a bass in his hand” spiels in his inimitable, wide-ranging
way about the new record, about jamming econo with the Minutemen, jamming
not-so-econo with the Stooges, and even jamming with cult legend Jandek.

 

*****

 

BLURT: Your new album
is the third one you’ve described as an “opera.” In what sense is it an opera?
What is it about that format that attracts you?

MIKE WATT: We got the opera idea from the Who’s “A Quick
One, While He’s Away” – the idea that you could have one big song be made up of
different little ones. I never really envisioned doing this form at all. I
never thought I’d get into that stuff. With Minutemen, I come from a tradition
of making short, little songs – we
got that idea from Wire – but it seemed like I didn’t have the talent to get
what I wanted to say into just one tune, a regular smaller thing, like D. Boon
did: it had to make a journey. That opera structure – one big song made up of
lots of parts – makes it easier for me to get across the things I’m trying to
talk about. I couldn’t really do it another way. So the first opera was kinda
talking about Minutemen [Contemplating
the Engine Room
], the second one was about the sickness that almost killed
me [The Secondman’s Middle Stand],
and now this one is about midlife. So I call hyphenated-man an opera ‘‘cuz it’s all supposed to be parts of one
song. I’ve got an album coming out with the Black Gang – Nels Cline and Bob Lee
– and that’s about the idea of autumn. I’d call that one more of a concept
album.

 

And when you play hyphenated-man live, you perform it in its entirety, with all the parts in sequence.

Yeah, from start to finish. It’s one piece. But it’s hard to
perform the operas because they’re like 45 minutes to a fuckin’ hour! It’s like
a life, so I live the life of the thing when we perform it. The first one was
really tragic; the second one had a happy ending but with big hell parts that I
actually lived through, and so when I did these things, I’d have to go through
’em. And hyphenated-man is hard
because of all the small parts. There’s a lot of fuckin’ parts and stuff to
remember, but it’s kind of neat to challenge myself like that, I think.
Technically, this one’s the toughest of the three because it’s got so much
stuff to remember. Or maybe my memory’s just worse ‘cuz I’m less young now [laughs]. I did a tour in Japan of the
album last autumn, and that was the first time I did it, and it was tough, man
– especially the first gigs. I think the more I do it, the more I’ll get the
hang of it.

 

So you’re using the
short songs like you did on the Minutemen records, but the difference here is
that they make up a more thematically unified whole.

I hadn’t really listened to Minutemen that much since D.
Boon got killed, ‘cuz it’s heavy and stuff, but when the We Jam Econo documentary was being made, I had to listen to the
music again. They [director Tim Irwin and
producer
Keith Schieron] wanted me to drive around Pedro and spiel about
it, and hearing it again, it was like, Whoa!
This is kind of interesting
– the idea we had of distilling it all down to
little things like that. Like I said, we originally got the idea from Wire, but
then the idea of Bosch making one big thing out of a bunch of little things
also struck a parallel with the Minutemen.

 

Did you find it
difficult making that documentary?

You just have to deal with it. I was thinking, “You know
what? If people see the Minutemen story, maybe they’ll realize that anyone can
start a band.” ‘cuz that was the whole idea: if these bozos can do it…. So, in a way, I got fired up on a
mission – if I tell ’em the thing the way it really was, it can be empowering,
and it’d be part of the debt I feel I owe the punk movement. ‘cuz I don’t know
if we’d ever have done any of what we did if it wasn’t for the punk movement.
I’ve always felt a debt, and it was a way of giving back, by telling the story
of these guys making a band out of nothing, like a lot of people did. I wanted
to show people that it wasn’t just about one time and one place – it can happen
any time. So I got into it like that. Also, those cats who were making the film
never saw Minutemen, and they were learning about us too. That kind of made it
interesting also. They were younger, and they’d seen fIREHOSE, but they didn’t
really know about Minutemen. So it wasn’t like they were coming with an agenda
or trying to put it all into their own context. They were actually just
listening, trying to learn about us.

 

You wrote the new
record on guitar, not bass, which is unusual for you.

Part of this thing was to confront myself musically with
some weird stuff, and I hadn’t written on guitar in a long, long time, so that
was kind of a fresh way to do it. Most of the time, I like writing the bass
first because it gives the other guys a lot of room, but in this case, for this
piece, because of the little songs, I thought, fuck it. ‘cuz one thing about going back to the little song thing
was that I was very concerned with giving respect to Georgie [George Hurley]
and D. Boon. So I thought that to keep it from being too Minutemen-y, I’d get
rid of the only Minuteman. So I didn’t want to write the bass parts first, and
I did some kinda extreme things: when I taught it to Tom and Raul, I didn’t let
’em hear the bass. In the second song, “beak-holding-letter-man,” there’s one
little guitar solo, and that’s Tom’s. All the other things, all the little
melody lines and stuff, he follows the things I wrote.

        Playing with
D. Boon, he wanted the assertive bass, and I kind of developed that thing –
although some of the great players, like Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, a lot
of those guys had an intense influence on me. But I just wanted Tom and Raul to
play together and make the relationship that way, so they’d be playing to each
other and not be so much pulled by the bass. I actually wrote it all on D.
Boon’s black Telecaster. He got it in Kent, Ohio. It’s the only electric guitar
I have – I’m a bass player, I don’t play guitar that much! You can tell if you
hear the demos with just me. They’re pretty palsy. I had to get Tom on there. I
can’t even hold a pick. I learned the guitar off D. Boon, so he’s in there kind
of, but maybe not as strong as if I’d put the bass out there from the start – although
Tom does have some D. Boon influence.

 

And the recording
process itself was different from previous ones, with the guitar and drums
being done first and then the bass and vocals much later.

Yeah, so I had those guys learn the thing without any bass or
singing, and then when we were in the middle of a tour in May 2009, we recorded
guitar and drums for three days at Tony Maimone’s studio in Brooklyn. Then, a
year later, when I had some time off from Stooges touring, I went back to
finish it with the bass and the vocals – which is kind of hard to do, waiting a
year for the bass.

 

You mentioned
Hieronymus Bosch. His paintings provide a sort of frame for this record. You’re
drawing on his major triptychs, with their characters and composite figures –
what you call his “hyphenated-men.”

Yeah, it’s The Garden
of Earthly Delights
, The Last
Judgment
and The Temptation of St.
Anthony
– the main ones. I saw The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado,
in Madrid, when I was touring with the Stooges. That’s when I got the idea of
making a piece about it. Actually, I’ve now been there three times to see it.
Each time I go to Madrid, I go see it. I like the little creatures made of
different parts. We don’t really know what Bosch was saying with those
paintings because he didn’t write anything, so we don’t know his thoughts. Some
people just thought they were visualizations of proverbs and aphorisms and
stuff. Some of it’s really obvious, like the guy blowing his own horn, but I
didn’t know 500-year-old Dutch, so I just made up my own shit, my own meanings.

        In the songs,
most of the amalgamations – the men made out of different parts – they’re the
bad guys; there’s hardly any of the good ones. But my point wasn’t to make
character judgments about the amalgamations. I used it all for inspiration, for
the motifs, music-wise and subject-wise. It helped me focus things. You know,
when I wrote songs in the Minutemen days, and ever since those days, when I
write songs I start with titles because I need some kind of focus – or I end up
just repeating myself. So Bosch helped me like that, but it wasn’t really about
his big statements, it was more about his studies, his little creatures and
little men made out of different parts.

 

So most of the imagery derives from Bosch’s depictions of
torment and damnation, but it’s not as if the album is literally “about” the
paintings.

The way I used Bosch was kind of pragmatic and nuts and
bolts-y, even though it’s all psychological, based heavily in the realm of the
imagination, which I like. But I did get caught up in it a little bit. That was
something I never envisioned until I was sitting there in the studio at the
very end. The record was supposed to end with the track called
“man-shitting-man,” and I told Tony, “Man, I can’t end this thing with this
song.” I got too caught up in the Bosch Last
Judgment
shit – and that’s just not for me. It wasn’t supposed to be like
that, but I don’t know how that happened. So I took [a more positive song] from
the middle of the record – “wheel-bound-man” – and I put that one at the end.

 

Have you always liked
Bosch’s work?

I was intrigued by his little guys as a boy, because it just
looked trippy – like dinosaurs, it was the same kind of thing. It was
otherworldly.

 

OK, to sum up so far,
hyphenated-man is an opera inspired
in different ways by midlife, by Minutemen, by Bosch….

And the other part of it is the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy thing, with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and
the Lion – the farmhands. The way I take that story is that Dorothy is just
trippin’ on what dudes do to be dudes, and even the Man Behind the Curtain says
stuff about that, like, “Oh, you’re smart, where I come from you’d get a
diploma!” or “You’re brave, where I’m from they’d give you a medal” – so he’s
implying that those guys always had the things they want.

 

You’re thinking specifically
about masculinity, from the perspective of middle age?

I hadn’t really thought about it until recently. People
always talked about old and young, and I’d never really thought
about the middle. It seems to me that
a big chunk of the middle age thing –
what they call a crisis – is about
this kind of thing, this questioning, which I think is kind of healthy. People
should do it all the way, but I guess you start doing it because your body starts
getting worse, and you start adding up things, asking what it’s all about,
asking what’s your journey, your mission.

 

Is this Watt’s
midlife crisis album, then?

Well, in a way, my work is a kind of Peter Pan world, but on
this record there is the thing about being older, middle-aged…. I don’t know
if it’s so much a crisis ‘cuz I think
it’s healthy to look at it. It’s more of a crisis when you try to be a
20-year-old again, get a convertible, a young girlfriend and all that stuff –
and try to act like a young guy. That’s more like hitting the panic button,
whereas I was just trying to confront myself on certain things. I probably
always had a crisis! You understand this as a writer: every time you have to go
to the plate and reinvent yourself, that’s a crisis, no matter what age you’re
at. We have to do this all the time when we come up with new pieces. Sometimes
the work does come a little easier, but you always feel, “Whoa, what am I gonna
do?” But maybe it’s like that for all humans when they come up to the middle
part and say, Yea, what is to be done?

        I guess this
is also about our mortality and crap like that, too. I feel my body’s not as
resilient as it was, but on the other hand I have experiences that I didn’t
have; I don’t know if I’d trade that to be all stupid and go through all that
fuckin’ shit again – just for a more resilient body [laughs]. So there’s really no crisis on that end of it. I accept
it. I’m very reconciled with the fact that I’m no longer a younger man. But,
hopefully, I’m not at the end of the road either. Being in the middle’s okay,
in a way. It’s not such a nightmare.

 

What advice would a
middle-aged Watt give to a younger Watt?

Life’s for learning! That’s the one thing that I really wish
would get out from the new piece – and why I put “wheel-bound-man” at the end [the
last lines of the song are: “
I think I’ve learned that life’s for learnin’ as I’m
goin’ through my trips –
me on the
wheel as it’s turnin’ “
]. I
really think that everybody’s got something to teach, and it’s kind of hard ‘cuz
you know everything when you’re younger! Everybody’s got something to teach me:
somebody who’s starting out, somebody who’s done it a long time. I think this
is a good thing to learn. I don’t know if you can tell somebody that. They have to realize it for themselves.

 

To be continued.
Tomorrow: Watt talks about his work with the Stooges, reflects on the passing
of Captain Beefheart, outlines his recent onstage collaboration with cult
legend Jandek, and more.