Monthly Archives: July 2011


trio brings together an eclecto-groove
sound that’s equal parts rock, funk, psych, blues, jam and, er, “Gorgan.”




As previously announced,
the latest selection in our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept Secret” series of new or
under-the-radar artists is Butter, from Durham,
NC.  Butter is our 16th BKS, in fact,
since commencing the program back in 2008.


“Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”: it might be a
purloined lyric – in this instance, overheard from the rock/funk/jazz trio’s
hepcat anthem “I’ve Got Your Back” – but it’s a pretty good summary of the
combo’s musical prowess. Comprising Tarheel indie scene mainstay Brad Newell on
guitar and vocals (raise your hand if you remember the late, great ‘80s college
rock outfit The Graphic, or Newell’s subsequent band 8-Eyes; he is also a
producer, studio operator and film scorer of considerable note), bassist Ken
Vint and drummer Ryan McKellar, Butter has earned not-undeserved comparisons to
Medeski, Martin and Wood, and word has it that the sonic pulchritude of ‘70s
legend Lee Michaels and jazz virtuoso John Scofield figures heavily in the
group’s toolbox of influences.


It is indeed an eclectic vibe the trio puts forth, based on
the tunes we’ve heard to date (an album is in the works, reports Newell). From
the heavy organ-powered bluesadelica of “Pretty” and the slinkysexycool
garage-pop of “Then I Laughed” to the riotous, jammy Prog of “Going, Going
Gone” and the fatback funk of the aforementioned “I’ve Got Your Back,” there’s
more bounce to the ounce being put forth here than is allowed in most jurisdictions.
Oh, and that cool, WTF?!? musical vibe, you ask? Newell’s guitar, we are
advised, “is going through several devices that mix the
guitar sound with a distorted Hammond
organ sound that we call ‘The Gorgan’.”


Newell recently settled in for an email interview in which
he outlined the band’s origins, along with some details on his own musical
history as a mainstay on the Tarheel indie scene. Meanwhile, check out the
Butter MySpace page
for additional details as well as song samples. They’re one
of the good ‘uns, trust us.




BLURT: How long have
you been playing music? Key influences or heroes that made you want to pick up
the guitar?

BRAD NEWELL: I’ve been pickin’ for maybe 30-40 years now.
Original “pick up the guitar influencers – Dylan/Donovan/The Byrds/The
Yardbirds. Later “pick up the guitar again and reinvent yourself
influences – Doc Watson/Wes Montgomery/Charlie Byrd/John Martyn/Bill Frisell/Free/Tom
Verlaine, and of course, many more.


What was the arc of
the Graphic for you, and how do you remember North Carolina’s so-called “college-rock”
scene of the ‘80s? As I am an NC native myself, it seems like we referred to it
as “Comboland” back in the day…

Playing with the Graphic was a 6-7 year long experience
where I learned to write songs, play in front of an audience, and deal with
record companies and rock star personalities for the first time. Basic musician
life skills. By the time I left the band, I had played with tons of
national acts (Chilton/Vega/Living Color/Durans/P-Furs/Donovan/Belew/etc.), and
well as many great locals (dB’s/Arrogance/X-Teens/Othermothers/etc.), worked
with some great producers (Don Dixon/Brad Hodges), and I’d become a pretty prolific
songwriter – 250 songs by closing, if I remember.


How about the years
following the Graphic? In addition to Butter you also operate a record studio,

I immediately went with another band, 8-EYES, which put
out 3-4 CDs, and played locally as well as in NYC (CBGB) for about 10 years or
so. I also put out a CD of an offshoot band called Orchestra 8, which reflected
my love of orchestral pop (Brian Wilson/Millennium/etc.). I currently have two
studios, one in Durham, one in Greensboro, in which I record other folks as
well as my own stuff. I also play a lot of jazz in my group Workbook as well as
teaching 30-40 people a week on guitar/banjo/mandolin and bass.


Tell us a little
about your partners in Butter, Ken and Ryan.

Ken’s played a lot of Prog and fusion, and Ryan’s mainly a
punk rock guy. He’s played with people like Stephen Edgerton (All/Descendents)
before. More to the point, both guys are really good technically, and can deal
with both songforms as well as going out on a limb.


The unique
guitar/organ sound you get which you refer to as “The Gorgan”: explain.

Guitar players are usually pretty conservative as far as
sound, and I just felt as far as my own thing, I wanted to do something
different. I found my first guitar synth at a pawn shop really cheap (I think
they thought it was a fuzzbox), and started using it in my jazz group. Because
jazz players know a lot more about chords than most folks, I was able to come
up with things that were a lot more keyboard oriented. When Butter started, the
combination of rock/funk guitar and organ/keyboard sounds caused a new mutation
we like to call “The Gorgan”.


How has the band been
received to date? I can imagine a welcoming audience for Butter including
funk/soul fans like me and the progressive/fusion wing – John Scofield, Gov’t Mule,
Medeski Martin & Wood, etc. – of the jamband community, plus the occasional
lapsed ‘60s psych head to boot.

You’re right on about the influences. Some other ones are
Lee Michaels/The Black Keys/Atomic Rooster/The Crazy World of Arthur
Brown/The Big Organ Trio. Some these are sonic/musical influences, and some
influence my songwriting. 

        My past
songwriting was much more pop-rock type stuff, and now I’m sort of going in a
more R&B/blues direction. Locally, we seem to be doing pretty well. We’ve
played a lot of big rooms recently (PourHouse/Southland/Deep South), but I
would really like to do more festival work and opening slots for other
bands. Call us up, we’re cheap!


What are your plans
for releasing an album?

We’re about 3/4 through our first CD, so we should have
something out this winter. We’ve been sending out some of our tunes to various
internet radio stations (Crystal Blue/BuzzD/Ruckus Radio/Etc.), and we’ve
gotten a lot of good feedback.


Lastly, as a musical
lifer, how do you view the music business today?

Independent seems to be the key word. Sometimes it seems
it’s up to me and my little computer. While there’s a lot of good music out
there, there’s also a lot of dross. All I look for is that somebody is
unique/good at something, be it writing, singing, playing. If you’re not,
why are you up there? 



This wild woman of rock ain’t done
with you yet. Jack White’s making sure of that.




It’s no
secret that despite becoming a Christian in the ‘70s and releasing The Party Ain’t Over this year, Wanda
Jackson’s career didn’t commence with giving praise to Jesus or working with
Jack White. Jackson, now 73, didn’t even start out with rockabilly, the hoot-and-hollering
brand of rock ‘n’ roll of which she’s been the queen of since recording sassy ‘50s
and ‘60s sides “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama,”
“Let’s Have A Party” and the self-penned “Right Or Wrong.”


started out with a guitar her father bought her, some costumes her mom made her
and the country sounds of the Oklahoma City she came from until she was discovered
by Hank Thompson in 1954 and began dating-albeit briefly-Elvis Presley in 1955
while she was on tour with The King. He encouraged her to go with the wild beat
and naughty lyrics.


But do
not call it the devil’s music that Jackson
did back then and continues to do now, with the newly recorded raunchiness of
“Busted” and “Rip It Up” as two of the revved-up highlights of The Party Ain’t Over.


wasn’t that more in the old days that they used that term?” says Jackson, in a gentle
voice from the town where she grew up in and continues to live with her
husband/manager Wendell Goodman. “I don’t have any devilish spirit in me. This
is just fun music. The lyrics are innocent. I wouldn’t spread any evil message.
I am not divided in my allegiance. I am God’s vehicle. I let Him lead me.”

Jackson says
that devil’s notion plagued Elvis as well as her pal Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis,
she says, was on the verge of becoming a Christian but simply couldn’t
reconnoiter singing about sin while worshipping at Jesus’ altar. “Elvis was
always upset hearing it called the devil’s music. Same with my parents. They
were all for me singing the music of the young people then and saw nothing
wrong with that sound. My parents were contemporary-my mother in particular,
who did happen to be a Christian. They knew that was what the kids wanted.
Still, that charge always hurt Elvis though. The music wasn’t hellish and the
thought of it weighed on him.”


with her choice of Presley’s “Like a Baby” for the new album, Jack White, the producer
(and now former White Stripe), made several fascinating song selections that
ducked back to other parts of past and present. Like the haunting “Dust on the
Bible” during which Jackson’s
swaggering highs sound most comfortable.


“I was
surprised at first that Jack picked that for me until it came to pass that he
did his homework in regards to me; that gospel music was important to me. He’s
a spiritual I think. That music is important to him as well. He recognizes God.
He’s a family man with solid values.” Bob Dylan, a self-confessed Wanda fan,
must’ve known, too, about Jackson’s
gospel singing past, which included hosting a ministry with her husband that
landed them on tour throughout the world preaching the Word of God as well as
on television and radio throughout the States. When White came to talk to Dylan
for a song for Jackson’s
new album, Bob didn’t stall. He chose “Thunder on the Mountain,” trembling
track whose lyrics straddle Heaven and Earth, without hesitation.


“All the
lyrics don’t necessarily make too much sense,” she explains. “But between Jack
rearranging and taking out some lines and me changing lyrics on one verse with
Dylan’s blessing it worked out fine.” She speaks Dylan’s line “Standing beside
the King/I wouldn’t betray that love for any other thing” as if the delicate
prose was hers.


touching is how Jackson speaks of being led by God from the testimonies she
made and the sacred music she recorded throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s back into
the secular sounds of rockabilly; on her first studio album in 20 years, 2003’s
Heart Trouble where she had help from
Elvis Costello and The Cramps (“they were funny people”), to 2011’s Party.


“After a
lot of prayer, consideration and council, Wendell and I felt comfortable; that
God had a different avenue in mind for us,” says Jackson. Being sought out by the likes of
Poison Ivy and Jack White was God’s grand design, especially when you consider
that she was hesitant to work with the Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather musician
fearing that he’d bring a more contemporary brand of rock to her table. “That
wouldn’t have been me be me, and nor would that be very believable,” she
laughs. Luckily the guitarist sought her out and just wanted to embolden Jackson’s sound (much as
he did in with Loretta Lynn’s 2004 album Van
Lear Rose
which he produced) with raw heft and new fangles. Her fans, like
musicians such as White, know that Jackson
is the genuine article; the first gal in to rockabilly; the Queen.


“Oh yes,
I’ve been made aware for the last twenty years or so that ‘hey this is the girl that started it all’.” Jackson speaks with a kind confidence. “That
I was out there on the limb doing this wild music right along with the guys.
I’m all bunched up in that group of originators who did it first. That’s part
of the appeal that draws them to me. Then after I have them in my clutches I
tell them stories and entertain them and it’s all just like new.”



Wanda Jackson just kicked off a
weeklong string of U.S.
dates – go to her official website for the itinerary. (A version of this story originally appeared in issue #10 of BLURT.)




With news arriving this week that his album Tomboy gets
the deluxe box set treatment in Oct., will 2011 turn out to be the Year of
the Panda?



Before Animal Collective’s acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, there
was Panda Bear’s Person Pitch – a near perfect record, itself, by A.C.’s
own Noah Lennox. If you strode anywhere inside indiedom’s gates, from March
2007 henceforth, you had to have heard it. Lennox’s
tenor timbre and studio-as-instrument creations had most of us convinced that
he was indeed the next Brian Wilson. To wit, it’s been ages (specifically: four
years) since last we heard from Panda Bear proper. And in that time, the
basement band Lennox and some other Waldorf kids started in a Baltimore suburb has since become the biggest
little band in the world.


Blurt caught
up with Mr. Bear at two in the morning, Portugal time – he moved there in 2004,
eventually marrying and starting a family – where he had plenty to share about
procrastinating, self-doubt, and, most importantly, his latest record Tomboy,
out via his own Paw Tracks imprint. (See
below for details on the
Tomboy box



BLURT: I guess the first, most
pressing question is: What the hell took so long?

PANDA BEAR: Honestly… [pauses] it was
mostly a matter of pulling double duty between the band and myself.


I would
imagine, seeing as how you guys are scattered throughout the globe now.

There’s certainly that, but maybe there’s a bit of a
timing aspect, too.

How so?
Like I wanted it to be the right time, and on my own
terms. Then again, I think that probably just hearkens back to being pulled in
all these separate directions. I can say, definitively, that making [Tomboy]
was a slower process for me..

Speaking of process, you
made this one like a true working stiff – going into the office, as it were,
everyday there in Lisbon’s old Interpress Building.
That’s a markedly different regimen than the one that wrought Person Pitch.

You’re right, my approach was completely different. But you know, it felt good
to have that kind of routine. Some days you can tell aren’t going to be
productive, however. And in that regard, it’s a lot like work. Everybody has
those moments.

Ah, yes, the do-nothing doldrums. Appropriately enough, they seem to happen
the closer you get to the finish line.

Glad it’s not just me then, I suppose. [laughs]
Even if I wasn’t getting actual, concrete results, I’d still fiddle around with
the guitar or read one of my synth manuals. As long as it was semi-constructive,
I felt okay. Whereas before, I might waste the entire day.  

In essence, Tomboy is your “guitar album.” And yet, it’s not exactly
guitar-like in the way you’ve treated it, what with all the signal processing
and post-production. I’m curious as to how a six-string actually influences the
songwriting process versus, say, a laptop and a set of keys.

For me at least, it’s a much more tactile sensation. There’s a greater
physicality to playing the guitar. When I’m lucky, a song can often just write
itself. I’m not all that great of a guitarist though, so a lot of the time I
have to figure out a way to play the chord I want to hear. Truth be told, I
guess I only know about seven or eight chords.

Was there ever a time you didn’t record a guitar lick for fear of having to
recreate it live?

Yes, actually. There’s this part in [new song] “Alsatian Darn” that I haven’t
been able to execute on stage. I mean, maybe if I worked at it, I could. In the
meantime, I’ve figured out a good alternative to make it happen.

Necessity’s a great inspiration.
True. I can still catch the overall vibe I want on that one.


It was initially reported
that Deakin and Avey Tare were lined up to mix Tomboy. In the end,
however, board duties fell to Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom. What made you make the

I’m not one of those people that listens to music all day, all the time. I
usually just have sports radio on. What I do like about Peter [Kember’s]
production is precisely what I strive for myself. You can tell it’s him, and yet
there’s no overtly large footprint of the familiar, no easily pegged


As with Person
, you’ve lived with a lot of these songs for a while now — releasing
some as limited run singles, playing them live at various places. Why such the
long gestation time? Is it simply a matter of polish, or is there also a need
for a little affirmation?

There’s definitely a bit of both. Doubt’s a big thing
for everyone, of course. But I can’t say it’s held me back in any real way.
I’ll admit to not being the biggest fan of the touring game.


Because of the
wife and kids back home?

Because of a lot of reasons. But the more I play a
song live, in concert, the more I learn about how it should go. From pacing to
the arrangement, the more familiar I get with something, the more obvious it

Sounds a bit like focus-grouping.
I’d never say that, but touring a set of the same
songs for an extended period of time can really show you how they ought to be.
It’s more like working backwards. I do it, as does Animal Collective.


[Photo Credit: Brian DeRan]




The Tomboy deluxe box will be released Oct. 31 on Paw Tracks as a 4-LP
set featuring the original album plus selected mixes and unreleased tracks,
plus a 16-page booklet. It will be limited to 5000 copies, with profits going
to benefit the American Cancer Society.




LP 1:

1 You Can Count on Me
2 Tomboy
3 Slow Motion
4 Surfer’s Hymn
5 Last Night at the Jetty
6 Drone


LP 2:

1 The Preakness
2 Alsatian Darn
3 Scheherazade
4 Friendship Bracelet
5 Afterburner
6 Benfica


LP 3 (Single Mixes):

1 Drone
2 Tomboy
3 Last Night at the Jetty
4 Surfer’s Hymn
5 Scheherazade
6 Benfica
7 Slow Motion
8 Friendship Bracelet
9 Alsatian Darn
10 Bullseye
11 You Can Count on Me


LP 4:

1 Alsatian Darn (Instrumental)
2 Slow Motion (Instrumental)
3 Friendship Bracelet (Instrumental)
4 Drone (Instrumental)
5 Last Night at the Jetty (Instrumental)
6 You Can Count on Me (A Cappella)
7 Alsatian Darn (A Cappella)
8 Slow Motion (A Cappella)
9 Afterburner (A Cappella)
10 Drone (A Cappella)





The Chain and the Gang
frontman (and erstwhile Nation of Ulysses/Make-Up vocalist) comes clean on
music, media and misunderstandings.




Erudite, well-dressed and accomplished, Ian Svenonius is
bigger than life. His career as an art provocateur has spanned more than two
decades, beginning when his band Nation

of Ulysses ignited the flames of the second punk revolution
with their fiery polemics and unruly, physical performances that often landed Svenonius
in the emergency room, right through a number of other philosophically ironic
outfits like the Scene Creamers, Weird War, and the beloved Make-Up.


This spring, he released his second Chain and the Gang
album, Music’s Not For Everyone (K
Records), and if you close your eyes, you’d swear it was 1965-era Mick Jagger
singing on the first cut. From the droll, cool-as-an-oyster delivery of his
internet interview show (, Soft
, to his series of smart, entertaining essays in 2006’s The Psychic Soviet, to his musical
prowess, it’s clear Svenonius has only tapped the surface of what he’s capable
of. Here, he ruminates for BLURT on what’s wrong with rock and roll, street
gangs, and tailor-made suits.




On the Soft Focus web show:

My thing about Soft
was I just didn’t want anybody to feel like I was going to “get
them.” I was just like I want you to reinforce your myth. How I would prepare
for my interviews was I would call the friends of theirs – even if it was
somebody I knew – and asked them what really turned them on. Because all these
people have a lot of like interests that aren’t commonly known. I think letting
them show that other side was what made the show for me.

        I don’t write
proper questions; I just write some keywords. Things to think about. But also I
wanted them to be less of a career roundup kind of thing, but since it was in
real time, I wanted to catch them in the act of being themselves. I think half
of them went really well and half of them didn’t go as well, but I think that
they’re all definitely singular.

        My model for
my technique were these great interviews that that theater critic Kevin Tynan –
who wrote Oh, Calcutta – did. They were just really
conservative and his whole manner was just kind of droll. It just had this kind
of Cold War highbrow kind of feel. The interview subjects are very comfortable
speaking pretentiously, which really aren’t anymore. That’s what I used as the
template. I’m not as cool as Kenneth Tynan. I couldn’t keep my cool. And he
gets to smoke, but he held an unlit cigarette, you know? But I don’t smoke so
that’s another difference, But I’m more high strung than Kenneth Tynan so I
couldn’t really pull it off.


On wearing a suit to
perform in:

I began wearing suits in my first group, Nation of Ulysses.
We wore suits for the mature period. We started as just a terrible group that
was ideologically sound but we just were like a mess. But once we became a
coherent entity we did wear suits, and they weren’t nice suits. They smelled
really bad if you got close to us, but from far away the illusion was intact.

        What do I look
for in a suit? I get my suits made for me, so I just want them to fit, really.
And I want them to be reinforced in the crotch and the shoulders. So I can wear
’em onstage. So I can dance. And I like a nice lining because I think that
thing of like, that even if only God can see it, it still should feel good.


On the rock band as
street gang:

I think that the rock group, people say that it comes from
the blues but really I think that it comes from the street gang. I think that
it’s a post-Industrial Revolution commercial variant of the street gang because
there were thousands and thousands of these street gangs and they didn’t have a
commercial component except for maybe stealing hubcaps, but they performed. It
was about getting attention. And a music group really isn’t really about
performing music. A music group rarely performs music. Maybe on tour you
perform music for maybe an hour a day, but they’re not musicians. Like if you
were to ask any group member to entertain their relatives at a party, they
couldn’t do it. But a real musician could. A real musician could grab a violin
and just entertain people but people in bands can’t because a band is, and the
street gang is an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution.

        Henry Ford
really destroyed the world. The assembly line and then what cars wreaked or
wrought, what they hath wrought on the world with the roads and the exhaust and
then the oil wars. I mean he created the suburbs.

        I think that
the thing that’s missing for music now music is personality. Maybe because of
this Protestant shame thing or this kind of white guilt, but there’s not a lot
of personality in rock and roll. People get really into microphones and they
get really into the craft of songwriting.


Zen and the art of
rock and roll maintenance:

I would never be on a major label for the simple fact that I
find the kind of promotion that you’re asked to do really embarrassing. I still
have a little bit of teenage sensibility where I just think that’s uncool. It’s
more aesthetic than ideological. Who wants to play the Wal-Mart buyers
convention? I would rather be destitute.

        But that being
said, I mean I look at these records being put out by the underground groups
and some of them are cool. But most of them, you can’t even tell what the
group’s called. It just seems like obfuscation for the sake of being
obfuscatory. Or is that obscurantism? Why bury the vocal so nobody can
understand what you say. I like to hear what people say. Even if it’s stupid.
It should be stupid, it’s rock and roll. And how do you expect to make a hit? I
still think when I make music I want to make a song that’s a hit. Even though I
know that’s never going to be a hit and nobody’ll ever buy it.


The Big Rip-Off:

What I do? I mean honestly it is just mimicry and I think a
big part of it is when you’re young you’re so concerned about not copying. You
get hung up on this bourgeois, individualistic, original origination. But
really everything is a copy. Like when people tell you when you’re young that
like, oh, you’re ripping off Black music. It’s true that like rock and roll
comes from Black people, but it’s like they were all ripping each other off. So
once the cat’s out of the bag, once it was introduced into consumer society you
can’t draw a magic line around a certain kind of art and say only these people
can do it. You can do it but then you’re going to have a paucity of expression.
You know like hip-hop, which is concerned with all this bullshit about who’s
allowed to do it and who isn’t. It’s just horrible music because of that.

        You know why I
like old music? Because it’s so, it’s anarchic. It’s just so funny. These bands
that try to be like the ‘60s, they’re missing the point because all that music
was novelty music. It was all trying to get somebody’s attention on the radio.
It’s essentially like you had to drown out the car ad or the ad that was right
next to it so it had to be even more outrageous and weird, and outrage was
really the signature feature of all the songs. I mean besides beautiful


All you need is Love:

I think the reason the Beatles are so resonant is because
people see it as like this great love affair. It’s actually like John and Paul
have this love, they’re lovers essentially, and Paul is obviously the feminine.
So people saw it as this great love affair, and then essentially John just
dumped Paul for Yoko. And it was really traumatic for everybody because when a
couple breaks up it doesn’t just concern them. It concerns everybody around
them. Paul is definitely like the mom of the Beatles because he’s like the one
who would never betray their legacy.

        I really feel
like the Make-Up had a lot to do with the revival of Love. I mean it sounds
really conceited for me to say that but we wrote that song for Arthur Lee,
[“Free Arthur Lee”] and we put out 7-inch single. All I know is I saw Arthur
Lee before we wrote that song, before he went to prison, and he was playing
with the Das Damen guys and it was cool but there was like 20 people in the
room and it was like seeing [Zombies singer] Colin Blunstone now, you know,
just a couple ‘60s enthusiasts. And it’s like “oh, wow, he’s really amazing and
nobody’s here.” I feel like that song had something to do with his artistic resurrections.
I’m not claiming credit for his genius but I really always felt like that song
like had something to do with this kind of revival of the appreciation of
Arthur Lee, or the re-appreciation of.


Can you see the real

I just don’t want anybody to really feel like they have me
pinned. I typed my phone number into the Internet and my name came up. I was
saying what the fuck is that? It’s totally sicko and it’s weird because it
makes you think like man, if I was a stalker. You could get anybody, man.

        I’m writing
this book right now about how to be in the rock and roll, or start a rock and
roll band or something, and I don’t know exactly, but – and that’s one of my
theses – is that communication is the killer. It’s what destroys a band. I mean,
why did the Beatles break up? Because they started communicating. I mean that’s
what the Let It Be movie is about.
Because they were so trendy and they just got into this whole hippie thing of
like speaking to one another. But before that they were a street gang with a
hierarchy. They just did what they had to do. And the Rolling Stones obviously
never speak to one another. That’s why they’re still together. I mean they
speak to each other through an interpreter, like the newspaper. Keith Richards
insults Mick Jagger in the newspaper and that’s how they speak to each other.


Make up or break up:

So why did the Make-Up break up? I don’t know. By our
standards we were pretty successful.  But
it’s like we’d just done what we set out to do. It’s like a five-year plan like
Joseph Stalin. We had done what we had set out to do, so we didn’t have to do
it anymore. All my groups have been around for five years, pretty much. I was
in a band called Weird War, we were in five years, and then was in a band
called Nation of Ulysses, we were probably around for less than that. I think
bands shouldn’t be together that long. I like things to have a beginning and an

        A band is an
ideal for living. That’s why I find it weird that people try to expose the
groups, because it’s like, I mean you can try to debunk the group because it’s
an opposing cult, but the idea that you would be – like, when people are
disappointed by meeting idols it’s like, well, why would you ever confuse what
the group is with the people involved? The people are obviously boring,
tedious, smelly, they’re just humans. But a group is an ideal. So that’s all a
group is supposed to be.


Please don’t let me
be misunderstood, Pt. 1:

I entered the contest to be the Sassiest Boy [1991 contest sponsored by Sassy magazine] on a whim. I haven’t won
anything before or since. I think back to it and I’m like wow, that’s weird
because it’s very out of character for me. I would never do something like that
normally. It was definitely one of those things that at the time in my
community it was considered like really vulgar. Like a kind of really uncool.
There was a lot of like sexual resentment back then if you were in a magazine,
well, number one it was essentially unheard of. I don’t think you can even
imagine how stratifying things were if you weren’t around back then. How
totally stratified the world of the industry was versus the world that we were
in, which was completely underground.

        I think beings
Sassy‘s “Sassiest Boy in America”
signaled this kind of that paradigm shift. Signaled a great divide. Like a year
later it really happened in earnest, with Nirvana. But I think that was part of
that whole thing. It was just kind of a discovery that there was this
burgeoning underground music culture. It’s been going on for ten years
unbeknownst to the mainstream.

        I was not the
face of it at all, I don’t think. But I was definitely a part of it happening.


Going green:

Why do people destroy their hotel room? Why is that such a
rock cliché?  I hate that. I’m real
conservative. Yeah, I’m just really conservative. All I can think of is like
somebody has to clean this up. That’s such a waste of resources.


Please don’t let me
be misunderstood, Pt. 2:

The thing that people always get wrong about me is that they
think I’m taller than I am.


An edited version of
this interview (“Famous Last Words”) appeared in Blurt #10, still on


[Photo Credit: Angel Ceballos]


In which Dredg
guitarist Mark Engles recalls a Kafkaesque experience at an airport in the




It was December of 2001 and we were recording El Cielo at Longview Farms in the Massachusetts
countryside. We were taking a break for Christmas and flying home until after
the new year. Our producer on the record, Ron St. Germain, was an avid aviator
who would fly in and out of a small local airport by the studio often. He knew
of my interest in aviation and had invited me to come along to the airport to
send him off on this cold December night.


When we arrived at the small rural landing strip there
wasn’t a soul around. Protocol in freezing weather meant that we should do a
runway walk down with flashlights checking for ice. Being that it was just
after Sept. 11, I asked if there was someone we should check with before doing
so. Ron was confident, and rightfully so, that he had flown in an out of this
airport and completed this procedure so many times, that it wouldn’t be an


The caretaker, “Bob,” knew Ron well and surely everything
would be fine. We proceeded with our ice-checking walk down the runway until we
got about 1000 yards down. We both heard the sound of an accelerating vehicle
and turned to see bright flood lights blinding us. Ron reassured me it must
just be this “Bob” and he would talk to him. Well, the large SUV came to a
skidding stop 20 yards in front of us and both doors flew open. The sound of
multiple shotguns cracked through the cold night. I almost pissed myself. “On
the fucking ground!” yelled the gun-wielding men.


Ron begins explaining himself to the gentleman, but is cut
off by another: “Get on the fucking ground, now!” We obliged. They tromped over
to us through the snow and shouted further instructions. Face down on the
ground, we were searched and instructed to kneel, in the snow at this point,
with our hands in the air.


The great soul that he is, Ron kept trying to explain and
excuse me from any involvement in the matter. In my head stories of mistaken
identity kept circulating and terrifying my rational logic of us being innocent
and therefore safe. Finally, after some sheer terror and frozen knees, “Bob”
walked out from behind the SUV. “Ron? Fuck.” 


We were cleared of our predicament and everything came to a
reasonable conclusion – especially that small time law officers are sometimes
very happy to do their job. I saw Ron off and returned to the studio for a well
deserved shot of whisky. And we didn’t have to find another guitar player to
finish the tracks on El Cielo.



Dredg’s fifth album, Chuckles
and Mr. Squeezy, is out now on Superball
Music. (






The grace and lust of Nanna Øland Fabricius, currently
in the middle of a U.S.



Svelte Danish
singer/multi-instrumentalist and former ballet dancer Oh Land began her music
career only four years ago after a major back injury put her out of commission
from dancing. But in that short time of trading mediums of self-expression, Oh
Land released an album (2008’s self-produced Fauna), scored a spot at SXSW in 2009, attracted insane industry
and blogger buzz, made numerous “Artists to Watch in 2011” lists, and landed a
major label deal with Epic Records, which issued an EP last fall followed by a
self-titled full-length in March. Bolstered by a series of sexy videos and
equally provocative live appearances, the buzz steadily grew.




Talking with her, it’s not hard to understand why there’s such a magnetic pull
to the burgeoning Brooklyn transplant. Born
Nanna Øland Fabricius, the 25-year-old’s darling vocal accents, adroit
personality (after all, Oh Land is a play on her name and the world she enters when she creates), and electro-burnished
trippy dream-pop are bursting bubbles of rhythmic anarchy and organic sweetness
that are unavoidably infectious. Her songwriting is awash with these blends,
where the strict languid lines of classical music meet the unrestricted desires
of technology and the stimulation of visual arts to form moments of filmic
grace and lust.


“I listened to a lot of
classical music [growing up] because my mum was an opera singer and my dad was
a musician too, so that’s a huge part of my history of music,” she says, “but
then, at the same time, I have this love for electronics and computers and
everything that’s really modern and progressive. My music is very much a result
of those two things. I pull equally from each side.”

But Oh Land is by no means a novice of the industry. While her previous life
was spent devoted to ballet, she only chose it as a loose form of rebellion.
Classical music was an omnipresent force that consumed her family, yet she
didn’t want to follow in her parents’ footsteps so she picked dance as a way of
connection without imitation. She admits, though, to sneaking into the living
room to sing and play piano when no one was around. Now that’s she’s fully
immersed in music as a proprietor of soundscapes rather than swanlike
movements, Oh Land is in control of her future and identity. She’s eternally
grateful to those people who’ve helped her succeed, but creative control is
entirely necessary.


“Growing up dancing, I was
always playing a part in a piece that was already written. With the things I do
now, I write my own plays. I have that urge, I have that need to do that,” she
says. “If I ever feel that’s not the case, I just wither. It just doesn’t work
for me.”

MEN IN THE MIRROR Avett Brothers

With the Avetts
wrapping up their summer U.S. tour this week, we dig back into the BLURT
archives for this interview, originally the cover story of issue #8, fall 2009.




Braggadocio is the realm of rappers. Hubris is for metal
mavens. No audience or critic would deny these sorts of artists any brand of
excessive pride. Conviction is but a byproduct of audacity.  No one gets out of the basement otherwise.


North Carolina’s
Avett Brothers surely got out of their cellar based on the poetic strengths of
their subtly catchy melodies, their richly burnished lyrics and their
occasional bouts of angel-wing laced harmonies. Their dominion, though old
time-y and bluegrass-based from the Avett Brothers’ band name start (we’ll get
to Nemo, their first group, later), has sprung to include a brand of contagious
art pop that’d curl the hair on a Raspberry or a Sparks. It’s an elegant and elegiac sort of
country music (not cosmopolitan country a
Buck Owens) that kicks cleanly with the zeal of the very best pop. Their
lyrical view of romance, ruined and giddy, has a sense of delirious abstraction
that doesn’t find itself shying from its connection with listeners.


Not since the hitmaking ‘60s of Dylan and Buffalo
Springfield have we witnessed the kind of country-fried combination plate’s
bounty that the Avetts have delivered, first on 2002’s long-playing debut Country Was and next-to-last on 2007’s Emotionalism. Maybe it’s just that Scott
and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford sell the A-Bros sound so well with their
sweet-and-sour vocals to say nothing (yet) of their boyish good looks and thick


Their road-tested new CD I
and Love and You
finds them moving from the comfortable boutique label,
Ramseur Records, to Rick Rubin’s Columbia
(and his knob-twiddling as part of the deal) with but an added layer of
maturity and melody added to the mix. It’s the Avetts’ best, only more so-Emotionalism‘s slightly older, barely
wiser brethren. The doubt-riddling of “The Perfect Space,” the love rhythm of
“Kick Drum Heart,” the troubled desire of “January Wedding”; these are
sumptuous moments of song that could be classics if only you’d let them be.


If you were them, you’d like yourself a lot more than you


Then again, Scott Avett likes himself enough for several of
us combined.


“Growing up,” says the Concord,
NC (30 minutes north of Charlotte), native, “I was always ambitious
to get attention, to get in the limelight, to hit the stage and get somebody to
hear me and see me. When I was a kid, I remember staring into the mirror
thinking everyone was watching me attentively following my every move.”


Scott’s younger brother seconds that devotion. “We’ve always
carried ourselves as if we were being watched,” says Seth, with a laugh.


Having witnessed the Avetts in concert several times in the
last six years, “watched” is what they get-by slinky women salivating over them
and tousled-mop men singing their songs as if they’d known them their whole


“We get fans one a time and they stick with us forever” says
Dolph Ramseur, their easy going manager and CEO of Concord-based Ramseur


But it’s at an alternative radio conference in Philadelphia where the
boys seem to have their deepest connection. Spying the A-Bros at that private
event in July, I can proudly and weirdly announce that there was nothing like
watching forty-or-so forty-or-older types turned into puddles when the Avetts
passed them by. “They do have that effect,” laughs Ramseur. “And they know it.”


This is not to say, in regard to our subjects Scott and Seth
Avett, that theirs is a purely boastful existence where combing their hair and
staring into a mirror is an exercise in conceit. And they do have nice hair.


Seth reveals something about what they saw (in themselves)
as a failing of their past before continuing on the golden path that was the
critically acclaimed Emotionalism,
their increasingly-crowded live events, prime opening gigs (like this summer’s
tour slot with the Dave Matthews Band) and the hopefulness surrounding the
impact of I and Love and You. “I
think we overestimated ourselves when we were younger, but, confidence, whether
it was warranted or not, has always been our strong suit.”


That strong suit isn’t such a bad fit when you try the Avetts
on for size.




You wouldn’t guess that in 2009 the cell phone connection
from the Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival in the hills of Arkansas would be
lacking like it was last year. Yet it is. “Let me just get to the bathroom,”
says Scott. “The reception’s better there.”

The older Avett has a voice a wee deeper than his sibling, the
ganglier of the two, and the one whose gentle North Carolinian drawl is just
slightly more pronounced. While Scott calls himself the more coldhearted of the
Avett boys-the one who dressed the “genuinely sweetheart-ed, sensitive” Seth up
in pillow cases and used him as a punching bag-Seth views the early years of
brotherhood differently.


“While I can definitely see where Scott thinks that of our
personalities, I do believe we trade places in the sweet ‘n’ sour department,”
says Seth.


So Seth Avett is a bigger asshole than his big brother led
me to believe?

“No question,” Seth says, with a big laugh.


“And yes, when we got older we beat up on Bob [Crawford,
stand up bassist] and everyone else who joined the band,” jokes Scott.


The jokes come easy. There’s nothing wary or guarded about
these guys, what with just being handed a few skeleton keys to the castle that
is the major label system. They’re not stultified by label jazz. The majors, in
their estimation, are slower to move than the lean mean mobile intelligent unit
of Ramseur, their home for five albums and two EPs. Ramseur’s like concrete-slow
to dry, yet heavy and powerful.


The majors merely mean greater access and more confidence in
what they do.


Confidence; they were raised to have it in spades by a
guitar-slinging pop that put his music career on hold to raise his family and
kept everything from Three Dog Night and Oak Ridge Boys to Tom T. Hall and Willie
Nelson on the 8-track just in case the kids were listening.


They were.


“Which led to Lionel Richie and Hall & Oates,” notes
Scott, the guitarist who turned, in part, to the banjo, for a sense of
individuality in musicianship.


“And I fell in love with Jimmy Page and then Kurt Cobain,”
says Seth, the guitarist. “There’s a lot of heart in Cobain’s playing.”

The rock and roll boot camp that was Led Zeppelin and the Who, to say nothing
of the crusty grunge of Soundgarden and Nirvana-these sounds were about
breaking free from what were the conventions of their background, the Jimmie
Rogers, Charlie Poole and country plucking blues and bluegrass of their
regional upbringing. The rebellion of their youth kicked in.


“I was quote/unquote ‘too
for country; too stubborn and ignorant to get it,” says Scott Avett
with emphasis.


The brothers eschewed that past for the immediacy of
grunge-pop (“it was just… there”) with a hard psychedelic kick for their five
man morass, Nemo.


To understand where the Avetts are at present, to truly get
the snap and crackle of I and Love and
, is to know what Nemo was in 1997 and ‘98. Rambunctious hollered-aloud
grunge-pop without a hint of the hillbilly about it, the brothers and their bud
John Twomey thought they were onto something potent with Nemo. They toured
their native North Carolina with a sugar rush
and got somewhere, if only in North


“We all wanted to be that band-you know-but we just didn’t understand what it took to be famous,” says
Scott Avett. They wanted to get far but just never drove far. “Nemo stayed in North Carolina and
played shows that came to us.”


There was hurt and shame, then, that Nemo didn’t tread
water. Yet, there’s plenty more where that came from. In Scott Avett’s
estimation a song on the new album such as “Perfect Space” could’ve been a Nemo
track if the Avetts switched out its now-down pianos for Nemo’s two
guitar-attack. “More than on our last two records, I and Love and You absolutely has Nemo in its sound,” notes Scott. The
dynamic of taking a hard left turn in the middle of a song like the Avetts do
through their new material? “Very Nemo,” he confirms.


Still, the disappointment felt from Nemo’s dashed dreams
sent the brothers to stripping down their sound, but for the moment, in what
would be called the Back Door sessions. Yet before we head to the back door,
there’s another previous Avetts-band in the mix too on IALAY: their Crazy Horse-like outfit Oh What a Nightmare, who made
a few demos throughout the North
Carolina area.


“As Nemo ended and the push toward the acoustic thing became
a priority we still wanted to express ourselves with electric instruments,”
says Scott, of a band whose raggedy rocking impulses can still be heard
throughout the Avetts’ new catalog. Scott points out how a Nightmare moment
such as “Sweet Green Eyes” was and is clearly a predecessor of “A Slight Figure
of Speech” and the new album’s swing toward fiftiesish rock ‘n’ roll. “We
haven’t seen the last of Oh What a Nightmare,” laughs Scott. “We’re pretty
predictable in our recycling.”


Seth is pragmatic about their 2000-era end to their rock-outs.
Nemo didn’t work out. Nightmare was an experiment.  They were hurt. But both brothers were glad
that there was an actual ending. “It was like breaking up with your high school
sweetheart,” he says.  It meant they
could (or should) move forward. Or backward.


The rebellion of growing up in the country and with the
country kept them from their homespun roots at first. But they found their way
into bluegrass and country pretty quick. They did scads of classic covers while
simplifying their own material to include deeper more personalized lyrics. They
added new textures-like Scott taking up the banjo.


“It was meant as ironic at first, the banjo,” says Scott.
“But then I loved it. It was loud. It was pointed. It was rambunctious. It felt

Seth quickly adds that it opened him up as an acoustic guitarist as well as
flung their songwriting into directions as adventurous as Nemo had. “We’d been
banging our heads together to make an impact on two guitars that you could
continue to keep stripped down,” says Seth. “We found it in 2000.” Bringing in
standup bassist Bob Crawford and hooking up with ex-tennis pro-turned-label guy
Dolph Ramseur helped too.


Their mix of the two forms-the classic and the original-came
when they started writing songs for what became their “Pretty Girl From…”
series.  Scott teases about how 2002’s
“Pretty Girl From Matthews” started of as a song for a specific love interest
that he was too discrete and gentlemanly to discuss by name. “We were also
interested in how Jimmie Rogers and the Blue Yodels or Hank Williams-each who
used the series song form in old time country stuff-got away with it.”

Away they went.


The Back Door sessions that started out of frustration (“Our
songwriting wasn’t going anywhere save for the practice space so we brought the
audience to us,” notes Seth) grew in terms of attendance and attention from all
audiences in the Concord-Charlotte area. But they needed a kick in the bottom
end of their immense (at first) quietude of sound as well as the business end
that Crawford and Ramseur brought, musically and financially. Crawford met them
in a parking lot, commenced a quickie rehearsal that featured “Pretty Girl from
Matthews” and the next thing they knew they were getting booked around the
country. (Eventually cello player Joe Kwon was brought into the fold as well;
though not a full-fledged Avetts Brother, he’s regularly featured on their
recordings and in concert.)


“I remember my mom saw an ad for the Avett guys in the paper
and told me I should go see them,” says Ramseur softly. “But I never really
went for bluegrass. A little goes a long way if you know what I mean.” Yet,
sprinkled amongst their mostly country-covers set (“60 % or thereabouts”) was
plenty of brisk, brusque original cuts. “The bluegrass stuff is something
audiences really loved,” Ramseur continues. “But the 40% original material is
what audiences connected to right off the bat-their songs and their charisma.”


This brings us back to the mirror and the idea that all good
things Avett would come to them.


Before Crawford and Ramseur the Avetts were gathering
songwriting chops and stripped-down arranging skills but never had the drive in
which to move forward. “Seth and I-everything had come to us,” claims Scott.
“We were spoiled, to a point-confident and comfortable. We really thought that
if we stood on our corner somebody would hear us. Eventually they may have, or
maybe not.”


Scott’s narcissistic reveal about the looking glass and the
idea of audiences coming to him and gawking while he and his brother did the
most mundane things (“I used to imagine a thousand people watching while I
brushed my teeth,” he laughed) isn’t just a form of self-love that comes with
the entertainer’s smirk and smile.


“I carried myself like this when no one was watching,” Scott
chuckles. “This ride doesn’t last very long, you know. I’m not ever going to
believe I’ve arrived until I’m done. The mirror? That’s a self-validating thing.
Do people care now? Maybe. But I bet for seventy percent of my life people


In accordance with Ramseur’s “one fan at a time” theory,
people soon did care; for the tragically literary endearingly epic Mignonette, for the craggy sophisticated
Carolina Jubilee, for the fast and
furious The Gleam EPs (two and
counting, as a third is in the planning stages) and the frantic, joyously
head-turning and rustically husky Emotionalism.


At least Rick Rubin’s head was turned.


The CEO of American Recordings, the boss at Columbia Records
and the producer behind classics for The Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Danzig and the Red Hot Chili Peppers heard Emotionalism, heard great things about
their enthusiastic live show and wanted to meet them.


The preacher/revival-ish concerts betray their religious
background, the one Seth cops to after some prodding where their grandfather
was a Methodist church minister and the brothers’ own devoutness was clear if
not loud. “We will not step up on soapboxes and preach undying devotion to
Christianity or turn our shows into bible thumpers, but [we] are religious,”
notes Seth. Rubin saw that in the humble quiet of their shows.


“At the shows I’ve seen, the audience has been louder than
the band,” says Rubin.  “It’s different.
The shows have a spiritual fervor about them. It’s interesting how loud,
active, energetic and rambunctious the audience gets for a relatively quiet
acoustic performance. They have a unique bond with their audience who really
are willing to place themselves in the brothers’ hands and get taken away.”


Yet, it wasn’t so much what the Avetts represented as live
performers, songwriters or lyricists that got him, even though in his
estimation brothers from the Everlys to the Bee Gees are capable of unusually magical


“As soon as I met them, I knew they were special,” says
Rubin. “Meeting them as much as anything promoted our working together.”


As the Avetts write tightly structured songs-ideas/poems
first, music second-Rubin’s goal was find the finest frame for each ripple of
tumult and each roar of joy the brothers hit upon. “We look at how to make the
poems function best as songs and then experiment until we find the best musical
presentation for the story,” he explains. “It was fun seeing the brothers’
versatility, trying a song with Scott on piano and Seth on guitar, and then the
same song with Seth on piano and Scott on banjo, or maybe moving over to drums.
Interesting seeing them decode the sound for each song. Inspiring, really.”


Ramseur sees Columbia’s
signing of the Avetts as but a necessary step from boy to manhood. Doesn’t
matter that his label’s released their records since 2002; Ramseur, who also
serves as their manager, can’t see holding the brothers back.


“We’re an old Volkswagen Beetle bug; around town we’re
really good but on the open highway it’s a different story,” says Ramseur,
whose label is used to the more compact and eclectic than Columbia has on board. The balloon ride and
not the rocket ship is what won them fans for life and his hope for the Avetts
and Columbia is
a meeting of the minds somewhere in mid-air. He’s not concerned of failing or
being a small fish in a small pond either. “These guys cause commotion on a
street corner-and Bob too-just by standing there,” he adds. “I asked Rick to
help us make a classic and to allow us to continue to make the great state of North Carolina proud of
the Avetts.” Ramseur says this with his own unmistakable note of pride in his


The production of I
and Love and You
with Rubin at the helm allowed the Avetts to forge ahead
with what they see as a grown-up esthetic. While Seth calls the new album Emotionalism‘s older brother, Scott
finds it to be more confident in its themes and nuances.


“It was what our game was meant to be,” notes Scott. “We all
did our jobs, brought the craft and let the art lead the way.”


There’s a more tender-hearted approach to how Rubin captured
the clap of “Laundry Room” and the gentle yearning authority of the title
track. Though placid, weary and hungering for acceptance, the title tune’s
lyrics speak to a wry sense of humor in my estimation. When I joke about its
mentions of Brooklyn and entering its doors at a time when every one is leaving
the New York
borough, Seth quizzes me: “Now who’s
the asshole?”


The Avetts allowed themselves to be gently moved into the
very present sound of I and Love and You,
like another brother wrapping his hands around Seth and Scott’s shoulder. Scott
agrees I’m onto something here, that Rubin’s presence provided an audience he
never got that he held dear. “Even though he was very unobtrusive, I suddenly
felt like I was performing for Rick and Bob and a whole group of guys; hell,
even Seth,” says Scott of the gentleman’s agreement that was this bigger,
bountiful sound. “Rick helped us to simplify thing we’d previously made
complicated and frantic. But if we thought something should be there, we pushed
for it.”

And while it’s fair in all estimations that I
and Love and You
is better than something than if either had come up with
it on their own-that second verse of “January Wedding” where the bass gallops
in and comes across like a Willie Nelson stomper, the chorus of “Ten Thousand
Words” so primal yet silken-Scott smiles when I note that this is there’s and
theirs alone.


“Thanks, because we are self made men,” says Scott Avett.
“Our most important objective was to learn from Rick. Hopefully we’d make a
record with him better than one we’d make on our own. But that was icing on the
cake: learning from him, moving on, and figuring out how to make more records
like it or better.”

Beyond the bullshit and trouble of being brothers, the Avetts got love and I and Love and You and wanted to make
each other and it-phew-look and sound good.


“We have each others’ backs,” says Scott. “It’ll always be
that way, no matter what.”



UPSETTING Lee “Scratch” Perry

a new album and the documentary
The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry reveals, the dub/reggae icon is a poet, not a madman.



For nearly fifty years, Lee
“Scratch” Perry has been making some of the most cracked and crucial music to
come out of Jamaica (the world for that matter) as well as producing the finest
that reggae (Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs), punk (The Clash) and experimental
music (Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor) had to offer with the same mysterious
zeal that he brought to his own dub recordings.


At 75, the wily and prolific Mr.
Perry shows no signs of slowing, what with having released his latest CD Rise
(reviewed here at BLURT) with eccentric bassist/producer Bill Laswell
behind the dub box along with legendary Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist
Bernie Worrell and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio. The meeting of
Perry and Laswell should’ve occurred ages ago. It certainly sounds like a dark
and decades-old dub collaboration when you hear Perry muttering over the slow
greasy spacious grind of “Scratch Message” and “Wake the Dead,” to say nothing
of the dippy “Dancehall Kung Fu.”


Beyond the work, new and old, is the
legend of Perry – the Phil Spector-like aura of violence and weirdness that
makes him as much a curiosity as it does a genius. Questions as to whether or
not he burnt down his own Black Ark Studios after a rumored bout with cocaine,
acid, Satan or some unholy mash up of the three; queries as to whether he sold
off Bob Marley’s earliest recordings to the rival Trojan label from under Chris
Blackwell’s nose; the supposedly creepy things he does in his chalet in
Switzerland involving kept samples of urine and feces: these are just a few of
the bugged-out for-instances that make the scatological speaking Perry a modern
marvel of pop oddity.


Oh, and not to forget – the dynamic
subject of the recent documentary narrated by Benicio Del Toro, The
Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry
Director/writers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough (each responsible for films
with hip hop giants Lil Wayne and Damon Dash) had three weeks with the elusive
dub commander at his Swiss home and on tour throughout the United States.
Once there Perry spoke almost unendingly about his work and weird times while
providing the filmmakers unprecedented access to his visual archives.


“He loves to play mad and has pushed
the envelope of madness for brief periods in his life,” says Higbee. “But if
you keep listening to his words he’s speaking the truth about life in its
rawest form.”


“The Upsetter started as an exploration of Lee’s life and the inspiration
that lies behind his music,” say Higbee, of the layers that exist within
Perry’s art. “The goal was to have him tell his story and no one else.  Originally we didn’t want to have any
interviews or voiceover, but we found that we needed a little VO to fill in a
few gaps, but the VO is still quite sparse in comparison to most films. We just
wanted the film to be all Lee in his words and I feel like we’ve accomplished
this.” That VO is the same mumbled voice given to The Usual Suspects,
acclaimed actor Del Toro.


The process of Perry getting involved took over five years,
as the filmmakers had constantly been warned as to how difficult it was to get
to him or even gain an audience with him. 
“I made sure we were ready to start shooting this thing and had at least
the initial financing before I even met with him because I knew he had people
coming at him all the time and I wanted to make sure we were ready to pull the
trigger if he was down,” says Higbee, who hooked up a meeting with Perry in a
Chinese restaurant in London in 2005 after one of his gigs. 


The meeting was hilarious. “He was having a bit of a family
reunion at the restaurant so there were like 15 family members there, it was 3
a.m. in the morning and it was quite loud. I came with a couple grand in cash
in my pocket so he knew we were serious and I sat next to him for 3 hours and
told him my dreams and that I’d been thinking of this for years and he said,
‘Cool, let’s do it.'” Three months later the filmmakers were in Switzerland
with Perry telling them his life story over the course of two weeks on hundreds
of hours of tape.


Certainly there were tales that wound up tough to unfold.
The story of Perry’s Jamaican wife and family was the hardest. “He really
wished to not speak on her and his kids he had with her,” says Higbee. “In the
end he did speak quite a bit on them but we ended up taking much of the family
section out of the film in the last cut because the flow just wasn’t working.”
Of course, there are the bizarre aspects of life with Perry, like the scenes of
the Upsetter – a little gray haired man to begin with – standing next to a
giant bird cage in his Swiss mountain home. “Every morning he goes and speaks
to his birds and they speak back. It was fun to see this ritual play out every
morning. The strangest incident, though, was when we were in San Francisco and Lee got wind that Borat had
taken a shit on the street in his movie.  Lee immediately wanted to stop the car and
have us film him taking a shit on the streets of San Francisco.”


Ultimately, “The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee
“Scratch” Perry
has been committed to celluloid to make more of a
mess of the dub master’s life or legend. The whole thing may look like a mossy
verdant Herzog flick of the 1970s, but it isn’t there to spread ridicule or more
rumors due to the subject’s unendingly unedited rants.


“I think if you really pay attention and listen to his
words,” concludes Higbee, “you realize this man is a poet and not a madman.”


[Photo credit (still from film) by Adrian Boot]




John Flansburgh spills
the beans on quirkiness and accessibility, on kids records and their new rock
album, and, oh yeah, on who’s the REAL brains behind Fountains of Wayne.



There are a multitude of adjectives that might best sum up
They Might Be Giants’ MO, and while quirky, zany, wacky and off kilter often
come to mind, so do such descriptions as melodic, tuneful, inventive and infectious.
Indeed, over the course of a 25-year career, this impetuous duo – childhood
chums John Flansburgh and John Linnell – have concocted the kind of offbeat
offerings that manage to define the very essence of genuine pop perfection.
More often than not, they actually overreach, with rock, pop, folk, vaudeville
and even circus sounds tossed into the mix for good measure.


One of the indie scene’s early success stories, They Might
Be Giants first mined that DIY approach on the early ‘80s with a strategy they
dubbed the Dial A Song service, a phone line that spotlighted a series of songs
written and recorded to garner record label attention. That led to a deal with
Bar/None records and a burgeoning following that grew proportionally with every
release. Their self-titled debut effectively established them as geek gods, a
distinction they’ve proudly maintained ever since. Their next album, Lincoln,
and its accompanying single “Don’t Let’s Start,” honed that slapdash style,
affirming their status as the darlings of the college crowd. A signing to
Elektra Records provided the potential to elevate their cult status and bring
them into the mainstream, a possibility that came close to fruition with their
first label offering, Flood in 1990.
The album went gold and yielded the terrific twosome “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
and “Istanbul
(Not Constantinople).” Both songs went on to become staples of the band’s
catalogue, outstanding examples of the irreverent, infectious and utterly
irresistible sound that’s been the band’s stock and trade from the very


The band never scaled the heights of unadulterated stardom
that clearly seemed their due, and indeed, after those early landmark LPs,
their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. However, that hasn’t negated their
popular appeal. A series of children’s albums, DVDs and soundtrack
contributions have turned They Might Be Giants into unlikely family favorites,
a parallel career they still pursue. However, it’s their new album, Join Us, that has fans excited. A return
to the clever signature sound that stamped Flood and Lincoln, its 18 tracks return them to
their trademark sound. From the effusive opener “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”
through the sunny good vibes of “Old Pine Box,” “Spoiler Alert” and the
riveting rocker “Let Your Hair Hang Down,” and on to the final bizarre freak-outs
of “You Don’t Like Me,” “Three Might Be Duende” and “2082,” Join Us is as enticing as its title


Flansburgh recently spoke with Blurt and offered to share his insights into They Might Be Giants’
oftentimes unlikely trajectory.




BLURT: You’re so prolific – is it ever a challenge coming up with new ideas?
How do you avoid repeating yourselves?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: We have discussed how we’re
running out of nouns. Probably time to move our focus to adverbs. 

wouldn’t want to assume we haven’t done a certain amount of repeating, but it’s
probably not a bad idea for a creative person – especially songwriters – to
give yourself permission to at least repeat some aspects of how you work. Good
songs are often bold and simple, and it would be a mistake to say “I’ve
already done bold and simple. Gotta move on to fragile and fussy.”


When it comes to the songs, how closely do you
guys collaborate in their composition? Can you give any insight into the way
the material is conceived and how the arrangements originate?

We both have home production set ups and write
separately for the most part, but we are the first audience for the other. The
collaboration kind of expands and contracts around the individual songs and
where we’re at as a band. We’ll hand things off to the other. We have written
various things in the traditional music dude/lyric dude way, but we’ve done
things a lot of other ways too. I seriously don’t want to speak for John here,
but personally I’ve always sensed that there is an abstract idea of this band
They Might Be Giants — after years of talking about what we want and don’t
want that band to be about musically — and we’re writing for that concept.


Where do you come up with some of these unusual
subjects that form the core of your songs?

When we started, we had a lot of big ideas
about avoiding stock ideas. No solos, just arranged breaks. Short intros. No
fade-outs. We weren’t too big on writing about love, but we were also probably
pretty shy about the topic too. Just staying away from clichés was the main
thing, and while we have given in to the pleasures of intros, solos and an
occasional fade-out, it’s still the goal. When we started, we weren’t that far
past the new wave moment and short, sharply structured songs of any kind —
whether it was the Residents to Elvis Costello — were infinitely more
appealing to us than the baggy, jammy songs of progressive rock. 


How challenging is it to replicate your songs
on stage, given the unlikely instrumentation and unusual arrangements that
grace the studio versions?

We feel like what we gain is always more than
what we lose playing songs live. But while we put a lot of energy and thought
into how we put songs together live, I’m not certain we always actually have
such profound insight in to how any given arrangement really lands. I mean,
audiences clap at the end of most songs — and we all know that can be

song we have talked about over the years is “Ana Ng.” It was a popular early
track for us, and when we recorded it, we had probably had seven cups of coffee
apiece and were jazzed at being in the studio and working with a new drum
machine. We just kept pushing the tempo up and up, and ended up recording the
song a bit fast. I don’t want to say too fast, because it’s a very successful
recording sonically. But needless to say, in the fullness of time as we have
performed the song hundreds of times, and we came to the conclusion that at a
more moderate tempo “Ana Ng” actually feels much groovier. Now here’s where I can’t help but wonder — if you see a
bunch of old dudes playing their old songs at a slower tempo — doesn’t it seem
likely that as an audience member you’re gonna think, “They’re tired!” Either
bored of this song, or just too damn old to play it at full speed? Now of
course, at any given moment we are all that too — but what we’re doing in our
performance in “Ana Ng” for musical reasons I suspect, could scan in an
entirely different way to an audience member. But who knows?


Early on, you built up a tremendous cult and
college following and with your signing to Elektra. Yet, afterwards, it seemed
like your possibilities for broader success never really reached full
potential. Any thoughts about what transpired?

Well, that really defines a half empty/half
full way of looking at your career. Most bands don’t last five years even with
hits, and I could name two dozen bands that had much bigger hits than us back
then who are now 100% married to that time, and in a sense are forever cast as
an oldies act. We could have definitely worked harder at some key points, but
we could have also broken up. We toured for a solid year behind Flood, and that certainly made some
registers ring, but we were aging like presidents.


Your songs have always been both quirky and accessible.
How do you maintain that balance? Had you opted to write straight pop songs,
you might have been fixtures on the pop charts. 

There is a real generosity in the idea that
we’re just holding back on being a more mainstream band out of restraint or
taste, but what we do is our
mainstream stuff. I suspect it’s because TMBG songs are often melody-driven
that people feel like we’re hiding some kind of musical WMDs. But that final
layer of a super-sincere lyric or the chant-along chorus really does elude our
best efforts. 


After signing to major labels, was there ever
any pressure to downplay the quirkier subject matter and focus on becoming more
commercially viable?

I think it would be a mistake to categorize the
pressure there was to make us a “straighter” act. Quirkiness would be
fine by them. If you really quizzed the smartest folks there I suspect they
would’ve said They Might Be Giants really needed to be a bolder, more current
package: dress in a more costumey way, be more outspoken or outrageous, and
have songs with catchphrases in them — that is the standard “shape”
of a hit band.


Of all the many albums in your catalog, which
do you have the most fondness for?

As we were making The Spine in 2004, there was a real overabundance of spiderwebby, Halloweeny
kind of songs. Some were manic, and some were more pastoral — but as a group,
it seemed like a bit much to put them all on the album, so we left a lot off,
and the overflow became the EP The Spine
Surfs Alone
. When I listen to it now, the EP is wonderfully, if
unintentionally, cohesive and so damn paranoid — it’s a real song cycle.


What inspired the detour into children’s

John and I had both done side project albums,
the movie “Gigantic” was getting made and a box set of our first twenty years
was coming out on Rhino, so it seemed as if TMBG was really finally established
in the culture. It seemed like we could do a one-off without people thinking
the band was forever changing course. So we made the album No! (our
first kids album) during the off hours of doing incidental music for “Malcolm
in the Middle” and “The Daily Show,” and the process was a very low-key,
pleasant diversion compared those far more public gigs. Of course, the
commercial success of No! was the part we hadn’t anticipated. 


Did you ever consider making kid’s music your
path entirely and abandoning the adult audience altogether?

No, although it certainly was available to us.
Even though we were pretty upfront about it — and always kind of hid behind
puppets or animated avatars of ourselves — taking the leap into being full on
children entertainers somehow always loomed in the back of our conversations
with Disney. But you can’t blame ’em — there aren’t many faceless kids acts!


Will you continue to make children’s albums? 

Probably, but who knows? We have done enough
kids albums to do a pretty compelling kids show, and it seems the existing
albums just go and go with new generations of kids. If we were to go right back
to it, it would be nice to get away from the education part of it. As efficient
as it is to write on a topic, it’s fun just to write songs in a more wide-open


Do you have any soundtrack projects in the
works? Is that still a lucrative area for you?

Movie stuff is often more interesting, but
being based out of New York
we don’t get a lot of offers. Most of the incidental music we’ve done has been
for television and advertising. It’s okay money and I think we’re actually
pretty good at it, but often it’s just a huge volume of work, and typically
delivered on very hard deadlines, so it’s really just a high-pressure,
well-compensated job. 


You’re about to embark on a big tour. When was
the last time you played out so extensively? Any thoughts on returning to the
live arena? Any apprehension?

The album is very strong so everybody is very
confident about the quality of the new show. We have a great band and crew, and
the audiences are always fantastic. While it’s tough being away from home and
the show is physically very demanding, touring is also a way to feel fully
alive, so it’s hard not to feel excited.


You seemed unlikely rock stars – in both your
image and your approach. And yet that became your hook of sorts. Any thoughts
about what it was like to evolve as sort of “anti-rock stars?”

We are in fact very often rock-star-style
unreasonable. We are complicated and by standard measure, our goals are often
very abstract. We can be very “just so” about how we’re presented.
While I wouldn’t say we are self-destructive in that typical “Behind the
Music” rock star way, there are many things — like money for instance —
that simply will not be enough to motivate us to do something we don’t want to


Any final thoughts?

I recently flew to do a show in Toronto and had to take
my guitar on the plane. The car service driver was as chatty as I was
exhausted. He couldn’t stop talking about Santana and Jimi Hendrix and guitars,
guitars, guitars. He asked me what band I was in, and I begged him off.
“You don’t know my band,” I said. I just couldn’t get the energy up
to describe the band to a stranger one more time. But he wouldn’t let me off
the hook. As he went on and on, I thought — what would other guys do? — and
my mind drifted to Brian, the drummer in Fountains of Wayne. Brian is a great
practical joker and notorious fibber. So I broke down and told the guy I was a
sideman — the ringer lead guitarist — in Fountains of Wayne. He hadn’t heard
of us! But he wanted to know more! I told him about “Stacy’s Mom.” Told him how
we got our name. Told him I do all the recordings too, “To keep ’em tight —
but I’m not in the pictures.” 

was so liberating not having to tell the truth, and so pleasant pretending to
be someone else. I think next time another interview like this comes up I’m
going to do it as a sideman in Fountains of Wayne.


[Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez]


In which the
singer-songwriter recalls a dalliance with absinthe in Morocco.




Absinthe. There are two kinds. The most popular kind of absinthe
comes from grande wormwood. It’s green, psychoactive, illegal in most
countries, made of anise and sweet fennel and has been notoriously celebrated
by bohemian artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Oscar
Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Baudelaire.


Then there’s the other kind of Absinthe. The kind I had in Morocco in


To be perfectly honest, I can’t actually say it was absinthe.
I was definitely told it was absinthe, but to this day I can’t be sure. I never
drank absinthe again (for reasons you will soon understand), so I have nothing
to compare it to. For simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to it as absinthe because,
well, that’s what I was told it was by the strange man who bought it for me
from the herb store near the Todra Gorge just outside of Tinerhrir.


I was with my friend Chris. We had arrived earlier that
afternoon on an oversized public jalopy from Erfoud that dumped us off at the
mouth of the gorge. We planned to hike and take pictures. That never happened.


We walked from the bus stop, down the street into the only
hotel that was there. It was a one-story tall, crumbling, white stone building
with a small, no-frills restaurant, a few guest rooms and a lot of open windows
where the breeze could lazily move through the curtains all day long. We took
the last room they had available. We dropped our bags on the alarmingly small
bed we were to share that night, washed our faces and hands in the shared
bathroom down the hall, then walked back into the restaurant, hungry for food
and trouble.


We were greeted by a young, relatively stylish local. He was
dressed casually, with sideburns, slicked-back hair and a thin moustache that
lined his upper lip. He seemed very happy to see some American people like us.
Almost too happy.


“Please sit, my friends,” he said warmly as he pointed to a
pile of small red hassocks that surrounded a low, round table. We sat, half
squatting, sipping on mint tea and chatted with him awhile. He asked what we
did for fun in America
and we told him that we kept ourselves busy drinking and chasing women.


He laughed at us, pointing out that in Muslim culture the
only women we could chase were shrouded in hijab and certainly not interested
in Westerners. Also, he said, it was against the Muslim religion to drink. Fun


This smug little Berber hipster wasn’t telling us anything
we didn’t know. Chris and I had discovered quite abruptly how our own social
tendencies didn’t meld with Moroccan traditions. In fact, in an attempt to be
respectful and resourceful, we had reacted to the lack of booze and nightlife
by developing a mild addiction to hashish.


I didn’t want to discuss our unfortunate recreational
situation anymore. I decided to steer the conversation in a more productive
direction. “Do you have any hashish?” I asked.


He smiled wide. Then he said, “Of course I do. But I think
better will be maybe I can get you some local absinthe root from town. I think
you will like it.”


Fifteen minutes later we were staring at a giant, clear
plastic bag filled with what looked like 200 little acorns. He had gone to the
herb man in town and brought it back to the hotel for us. It cost 25 American
dollars; the most expensive thing we bought that entire trip. He told us that
we had to boil the little acorns in tea. He showed us into the kitchen and handed
us an old, metal teapot.


“You should only use about five or six acorns each. That
will be enough. Don’t use any more than that or it will be bad.”


“Okay. Got it,” we said.


He walked out of the room and into the restaurant where he
said he would wait tables for the rest of the night.


Chris and I took a handful of the little acorns, about 10 or
11, and put them in the mouth of the teapot, filled it up with water, and put
it on the stove and waited. We didn’t know how long we were supposed to boil
them for so we waited extra long, just in case.


We poured the yellowish hot water into a cup and took it
into the restaurant. Our hipster friend was there, tending to a couple of
European travelers. He acknowledged us with a head nod and gestured towards an open
table for us to sit at. We sat down and sipped at our fabulous concoction.


After about 20 minutes we had finished what we poured.


We didn’t feel anything.


We walked back into the kitchen where our teapot was and
refilled our cups. We were still optimistic.


We finished that round and poured another.




After that round, our teapot was empty.


We decided to boil another pot of tea, but this time we
threw in about 20 acorns. We waited for the water to boil and for the tea to
turn yellow again, and then we poured it into our glasses.


Round after round, we kept this up for two hours until the
giant bag of acorns wasn’t so giant anymore. We had finished half the bag, had
boiled over 70 acorns, but still didn’t feel anything.


We called our waiter-friend over and told him about the
failed tea. He didn’t understand why it hadn’t worked. He said he had heard
about boiling absinthe root for years, but had never tried it himself. He
apologized sincerely and handed us a few consolatory joints of hashish. We
gladly accepted.


We smoked the joints while continuing to boil and drink the
tea. We had, after all, spent $25 on it, and it didn’t taste too bad. Anyway,
there certainly wasn’t anything else interesting to drink. The night moved
forward, slowly. The breeze continued to blow in through the window from the
dark Saharan night, leaving a cool, calm sense of equanimity. What we thought
was going to be a maniacal evening of epic proportions turned out to be pretty
mellow night.


Then Akbar walked in.


Akbar worked at the restaurant as well, was a friend of the
hipster-waiter and, we soon learned, was quite well versed in the art of
boiling Absinthe root. We were introduced and, seeing there were no other
guests around, he sat down with us and shared a joint and listened to our
woeful tale of disappointment. He quickly declared the following creed:

“You don’t boil the root whole, you must crush it up into a
powder first.”




The next 30 minutes was spent skeptically watching Akbar use
a rolling pin to crush the remaining 50 acorns into a dusty powder. Fifty. He ran it through his fingers a
few times and sprinkled all of it into the teapot with a little water. Eight
minutes later, Chris and I were drinking it.


At this point, we were pretty stoned from the hashish. It
was hard to tell if anything was happening to us at all, as much as we wanted
it to. We finally got bored of waiting and said goodnight.


Akbar and the hipster shook our hands and wished us
goodnight. Looking back at it now, I think I remember a smirk on Akbar’s face.


It’s hard to say what exactly happened next. I wish I could
tell you a tale of hookah smoking in dark Moroccan hallways, belly-dancers
confessing to CIA assassins, and high-speed camel chases through the local
medina. Or that I transcended time and human consciousness while dancing
carelessly in the spiritual and mystical side of the universe… But instead I
have this:


Chris and I walked into our room and prepared ourselves for
bed. (Note: When two heterosexual men are forced to share a bed together, there
are a few more preparations than normal, like casually putting on a second pair
of pants, or an anorak.) In the middle of these preparations, I felt a surge go
through my body that could only be compared to having an orgasm on an electric


A wave of heavy anxiety rushed through my head and I had to
sit down. My eyes started going in and out of focus and my stomach clenched
desperately to itself. My breaths got short and fast and the muscles in my arms
started to flex uncontrollably. I rested my head in my shaky hands for a second
and tried to calm myself down, but couldn’t.


My breathing was frantic. I started sweating cold sweat. I
couldn’t tell if my heartbeat was twice as fast as it should be, or twice as slow.
I couldn’t manage to form words or sentences, so I started to moan. It was my
only available form of communication, a tactical cry for help, a part of my
natural survival instinct. Just as I began to wonder why Chris hadn’t come to
my aid yet, I heard similar moans coming from the other side of the room.


Miraculously I managed to fall into bed next to Chris. I
pissed my pants soon after that.

Then, the severe convulsions started, pulling up from my
insides and out through my twitching hands and feet. There was a burning demon
with a thousand heads pushing itself through each individual pore in my skin.


Then my nose started to bleed. Standing up wasn’t an option,
so I pulled a filthy sock off my foot and held it to my face to slow the
bleeding. By this point my vision was completely gone. I thought it was
possible that my eyes were locked closed, so I used the thumb and
pointer-finger of my left hand to manually force my eyelid open as wide as it




This was Friday night. We woke up on Sunday. Still blind as
bats. And we stayed that way for two more days. When I had to pee I would
squeeze my eyes together as tight as I could and feel my way down the long
hallway that led to the shared bathroom. My shame left a wake in the laughter
of the perfect Moroccan children giggling behind me as I walked.


When we were finally recovered, we packed our suitcases,
unable to look each other in our bloodshot eyes. We threw out the sweaty,
piss-stained clothes we had worn through the experience, leaving them in the
little plastic garbage bin that was in the bathroom. They smelled horribly.


We stumbled back down the street and climbed on the first
bus heading out of the Todra Gorge to Marrakech. It was there where we
eventually tried goat brains for the first time.

I can say with certainty that despite its gray pallor and
bland, veiny taste, it was a definite a step up from the absinthe root.


Chris and I eventually talked about the experience, but not
for a few weeks after. This is the first time either one of us has actually
written about it.


I hope Akbar reads Blurt.


Hey Akbar – screw you.



Jim Bianco’s third
Loudmouth, was funded via
Kickstarter and is available now at