Monthly Archives: September 2011


The NC band continues its eclectic journey, in the process
rewriting more than a few books.




Very few current and
relevant rock bands are able to balance the strange and the sublime quite like
North Carolina’s Megafaun. The trio (multi-instrumentalists Joe Westerlund and
brothers Brad and Phil Cook) have a history that often tends to overwhelm their
press – they used to play in DeYarmond Edison, which featured the talents of
now Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon – and that’s unfortunate. On their first
three releases, dating back to 2008, Megafaun have magically carved out their
own sonic identity, mixing together bluegrass instrumentation, Southern rock
edge, psychedelic studio exploration, and even bits and pieces of full-on free
jazz and musique concréte.


Their 2010 warm-up EP, Heretofore,
was the sound of a band refining its strengths as they stretched their legs;
their new self-titled effort is more natural and refined, even as they continue
their eclectic journey. The wonderful instrumental highlight
“Isadora” finds the band voyaging through Frank Zappa-esque color to
a yearning country climax. On the other hand, “Kill the Horns” is
intimate and aching, little more than tear-streaked piano and fingerpicked
acoustic. As always, they cover their trademark stylistic gamut, but something
about this new effort seems more confident and patient: an exciting group of
musicians playing to their strengths, realizing the only critics they need to
impress are themselves. BLURT recently caught up with Phil Cook, and we
discussed the band’s wonderful new album, their newfound acoustic focus, and
the spiritual themes flowing through the lyrics.




BLURT: One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of your songs is that they
feel very free in terms of tempo and structure, as if Megafaun is recording
without a click track – and possibly improvising at times. Is there any truth
to that?

some stuff we did and some we didn’t depending on the song. We follow
spontaneity most of the time while recording. It usually allows for our
favorite moments on the albums.


This album sounds less self-conscious and maybe even more
relaxed and easy-going than anything you’ve done to date. Is there a reason for

recorded the record in the land that we all grew up in, which is the Chippewa
Valley in northwestern Wisconsin. We were there as fall was ending and winter
was beginning. It was quite cold, and we ate lots of warm and hearty meals. We
ate dinner with our parents almost every night at the studio. We were around
our oldest friends each day. If it sounds relaxed, it’s because we were, in
fact, entirely relaxed.


Certain songs have their complexities, but others, like
“Resurrection,” feel almost written subconsciously – as if you were
sort of writing the song in real-time as it was being recorded. Several tracks
only have a handful of chords and sort of a repeating lyrical motif, almost a
mantra. Were any of these songs born out of just a sketch where you just played
a section over and over until something bloomed?

songs just “happened” on the spot, for instance “Real Slow”
and “State/Meant”. Both of those were tracked as we wrote them for
the most part. Joe’s songs tend to be more planned out than ours, but that’s
still relatively loose. We’d take turns starting our each day with one of our
sketches and usually by mid afternoon we’d have it tracked.


Talk a little bit about the closer, “Everything.” First
of all, who’s singing with you guys on that track, and how did that
collaboration come about? Those added vocals really give the track a mysterious
edge. Also, tell me a little about the lyrics. I was struck by some of the
spiritual themes on this album, and that track is definitely no exception. The
line “I guess everything came from everything, and it’s everything we’re
headed for” really sounds like a loose spiritual outlook

one of my songs, and I asked Frazey Ford to sing on it, and she agreed, which
still sends me reeling. I’m a big fan of her music and of her previous band,
The Be Good Tanyas. The lyrics are very personal for me. I have a hard time
writing lyrics. I’ll add a line here and there, but my main contribution is
instrumentally flushing out all the songs. My biggest problem with writing
lyrics is that as soon as I find an idea, it snowballs immediately into the
meaning of life. I had to come up with something for that song. One day, I was
confiding to Brad that I was paralyzed because everything became everything all
the time. Then, the very next day, I was taking a nap and woke up with those
exact words you quoted in my head. I’m a big picture guy, as I said, and one
thing I see in us is that we see what we want to see. We find what we want to
find. If we’re looking for meaning in anything, then we’ll find meaning in

        At the same time, the world is pretty
overwhelming. I tend, like many suffering artists, to get stuck in my head and
retreat to both the comfort and terror of my own thoughts. The chorus line, to
me, is a shoulder shrug toward that paralyzing tendency. Yeah, so the world’s
going to hell in a hand basket; what else is new? You gonna just sit and watch
it happen or are you gonna go do what you’re meant to do and create a little
happiness for yourself in the meantime?


Another track that introduces some more overt spiritual vibes is
“You are the Light,” and the line, “You are the light of the
Lord.” What does religion mean to you guys? For a lot of musicians, even
if they don’t practice the religion themselves, it’s a concept and thought that
sticks with them for the rest of their lives and in their art.

wrote “You Are The Light.” He grew up in a very religious home. We
all grew up going to church, and our parents still attend church. We stopped
going in our adolescence, but I’m thankful for my experience. The community was
healthy and encouraging. Joe’s wrote the song for his father, who is an amazing
man. I can’t speak fully about the personal weight of it, but they have a close
relationship, and the moment he played the song for his dad was emotional. We
all understand religion though music because they tend operate the same way. We
follow them in similar ways.


That hidden track at the end is absolutely terrifying! I was
listening on headphones late at night, and I had just been almost soothed to
sleep by “Everything,” and then this thing comes on and scares the
hell out of me! First off, it reminded me of “Revolution #9” by The
Beatles – a sort of musique concrete thing, and when I thought about it, this
album is sort of like your White Album. It’s really, really all over the place and self-titled. Any

Joe. Just to be clear, whenever we use tape collage in our music, that’s Joe.
He likely spent about 40 hours carefully placing each and every event in the
hidden track (It’s called “Rooster Egg”), and the voice he cut up is
our friend Graham, who we sat down in front of a mic and let riff for about 15
minutes. The song itself was a one-take stumble where we traded instruments:
Brad on drums, Joe on guitar, and me on fiddle, which I do not play. We were
laughing the whole time. Great memory.


I feel as if I didn’t hear a single electric guitar on this
album. Besides the occasional use of electronics, this album sounds completely
acoustic in nature, from the guitars to (the majority of) the keyboards to the
strings and horns that pop up now and again. Were you consciously trying to
make a more acoustic-styled album, or was that something that just happened
naturally when you got together and started writing?

still base ourselves in acoustic sound. Technology is dated the second it’s
released or updated. That’s why you can still find bluegrass records from the
’80s that don’t seem like it. While we love to use electronics and synthesis
and embrace their strengths, we balance that with acoustic sound. We still play
all acoustic, un-amplified shows, because let’s be honest; every concert until
a hundred years ago was just that. It resonates so modest and true for everyone
involved. Lots of bands have been getting back into it. It shares roots with
urban farming and the vinyl resurgence.


It’s definitely your calling card, but this album definitely
covers so much stylistic ground – from country to bluegrass to free jazz to
psychedelia. You guys also cover a lot of ground from a production/engineering
perspective. Were you conscious of recording things in various ways?

many of our heroes share a common recording philosophy. Be in service to the
song. Follow it. We try and do that too. Also, it helps that BJ Burton has an
instinct for the vibe of each song. He’s completely amazing.


This is a very long album – at 15 tracks and an hour. Did you have
more music left that you didn’t use? Did you ever consider doing a double

recorded about 20 tracks and not only cut five, but cut “Get Right” from 15
minutes down to its current 8-minute length. We know it’s a longer record but
we also know that the fans that meet us halfway and trust our trajectory will
have more to digest and keep in the long run.


I remember in a press release for Heretofore that you
guys were sort of treating that album like a preview, or warm-up, for this
self-titled release. Was that really the case, and what did you learn from that

learned that working in a real studio with good mics and a good sounding room
is ideal. I’m thankful for our “bedroom years,” and they’re not over
with by any stretch, but to work in a studio such as April Base was utterly
inspiring each and every day, and the improvised moments had more depth and the
feeling translated better. We write, by and large, using sketches and building
them up quickly in the studio and sitting with the mixes until we realize what
we can peel away.


What’s a live Megafaun show like? Are the audiences generally OK
with you guys playing the weirder, more abstract stuff live? And do you ever
shy away from that more abstract material?

change up the songs all the time. Night to night, we work on stretching what
needs stretching and compressing what needs compressing. It’s a process and we
follow it like religion. We’re looser live than we are on record, for sure. A
trio can only pull off so much, so we focused on vibe and feeling more then
arrangement in the last few years. Now, we’ve added a fourth member, Nick
Sanborn on bass, and we have more opportunity to work on other areas.


Finally, I wanted to ask you to talk a little about my two
favorite tracks (currently). First off is “These Words.” I absolutely
loved the water sound-effects and the hypnotic atmosphere of this one-the
marimba, that awesome drum pattern.

again, is Joe. Well constructed, thoughtful, and fresh. That’s what you can
expect out of him at all times, and it’s why he’s an amazing bandmate.


Also, there’s “Isadora.” It’s like this acoustic bluegrass
symphony or something, with the double-bass, strings, horns. It’s almost like a
country-prog film score. It’s clearly hard to describe.

Joe. Joe. He wrote the melody and structure. We recorded it live with guitar,
bass, and drums then added the extra instruments. The Bowerbirds’ Mark Paulson
put down the strings in Raleigh. It was all organic in its growth and nature.
It follows our pattern as a band, I think. Slow and steady. Aware. Natural.


Credit: Sara Padgett]


In which the Blurt
staff and contributors cast their minds backwards and attempt to channel their
inner teen spirit.




There’s a semi-famous quote from some semi-famous ‘80s
hair-metal musician that semi-goes, “When Nirvana and all the Seattle grunge bands hit, they essentially
made us superfluous overnight.” I know I’m not getting the quote right; it’s
pretty unlikely that some spandex-attired, Aqua Net-sprayed goober would even
know how to pronounce “superfluous,” much less use it in a sentence. But the
sentiment expressed remains apt, both as a description of how an unexpected
changing of the guard abruptly altered the contemporary musical dynamic, and in
the way it so perfectly – though no doubt unintentionally – underscores how
rock ‘n’ roll has always been about reinvention at the hands of youth.


With the reissue of Nevermind this week we are reminded of how a line was drawn so firmly in the sand 20
years ago that it might as well have been someone setting a blowtorch to steel,
etching a deep imprint destined to be viewable long into the future. And while
that tool wasn’t wielded solely by Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic
– scores of other musicians and scenesters played key roles, including the
folks at Sub Pop and the members of Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam –
there’s usually just one name that springs immediately to mind when discussions
turn to “grunge” or “Seattle” or even “1991,” and that name is Nirvana.


Two decades after the fact, it’s probably irrelevant which
side of the dividing line you fell on, just like it’s irrelevant whether or not
you “got” punk during its Ground Zero years circa 1975-77 or only belatedly/begrudgingly
came to the table some time later. Inspiration works on dual levels: there’s
the first seismic rumble, sometimes even an explosion (think the Beatles on Ed Sullivan
show, or the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show), then come the aftershocks
which can reverberate and repeat over and over again in ways both small and huge.
Your response depends on where you are and what you’re into at the time of the
initial disturbance, of course,  as well
as the events that subsequently unfold over the following months, years and
decades. But I would propose that ultimately it doesn’t matter if you first
heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio in ’91 or if you were still in
kindergarten then and didn’t get turned on to Nirvana until you were a teenager:
it’s what you felt that matters, not
when you felt.


It’s interesting how after all this time, many hard rock
outfits whose shelf-life expired after the ‘80s now claim to have gradually
embraced grunge, some of them even going so far as to say, somewhat
disingenuously, they were big Nirvana fans from the get-go. It’s likely,
however, that in private a lot of them are closer to that line in The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei are talking and Rourke gripes about how
“that Cobain pussy” came along and wiped out all the good music from
the ’80s. The irony, of course, is that by the time Kurt Cobain died the
corporate alternative rock scene was already in full spawn: Nevermind had momentarily opened a
window, but only a precious few genuine innovators slipped inside before it
slammed cruelly shut, leaving the rest of us drowning in a sea of schlock every
bit as ghastly as the one Nirvana originally rescued us from, groups like Bush,
Live, Blind Melon, Candlebox, Stone Temple Pilots – not to mention the incoming
legions of rap-metal mooks (Limp Bizkit, Korn, Slipknot et al) and their effete, post-grunge alterna-brethren (e.g., Creed,
Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind) that would dominate the second half of the ‘90s.


It’s also worth noting that the Nevermind expanded reissue out this week
comes in multiple formats, including a super-duper collector’s edition
containing four CDs and a DVD, priced at $170 and available exclusively at Best Buy until late
October. That’s right: hardcore fans who would normally support their local
independent record store have to traipse over to one of the biggest mega-chains
in America
to get their complete Nirvana fix. That’s something Cobain may or may not have
signed off on if he were stil alive; it’s known that he craved stardom and
success but was still conflicted about it all (this was a guy willing to appear
on the cover of Rolling Stone but
felt compelled to wear an anti-corporate rock tee shirt to the photo shoot).
But the point is moot; he’s not here today to tell us how he feels about it.


Whatever, nevermind. We’re here to
tip our collective hat at one of the great bands, not fret over the lousy ones,
or to complain excessively over modern-day marketing decisions.


Allow us, then, to present a
selection of “where-were-you-when-you-heard-Nirvana?” type testimonials from
the BLURT staffers and contributors. It’s a pretty diverse range of responses,
some of them deeply emotional, some of them more analytical, and some of them
intentionally circumspect. But as best as I can tell, they’re all honest
self-assessments which, though no doubt colored to a degree by the passage of
time, ring absolutely true.


Oh, and that hair metal dude’s
quote about Nirvana and grunge? One of my more archivally-minded writers
informs me that it was Kip Winger who unwittingly authored his scene’s epitaph:
“When the grunge thing hit,” said Winger, “it was like all the
1980s bands were gone. Overnight.”


Of course, that is exactly how it was supposed to happen.





Ron Hart

never forget September 24, 1991: the Tuesday that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. I was a senior
in high school at the time, and it came out on the same day as the Red Hot
Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik as well as the same night a group of friends and I had tickets to see Anthrax
with Public Enemy, Primus and the Young Black Teenagers at the Mid-Hudson Civic
Center in Poughkeepsie. With a whole day to myself on account of skipping
school in anticipation for the concert, I headed over to Rhino Records in New
Paltz to pick up Blood Sugar after
anxiously waiting weeks for its arrival in stores. As soon as I walked in the
door, that iconic black, white, red and silver cover hit me like a ton of
bricks and I quickly grabbed one of the last cassette copies from the “New
Arrivals” shelf and made my way over to the counter to pony up the

        “You’re not picking up Nevermind, too?” the clerk
inquired, as he handed me my bag. 

        “What’s that?” I asked,
obviously oblivious to its existence, as my 18-year-old mind was focused on
ripping open that cellophane and popping that Chili Peppers tape into the car
radio of my 1984 Ford Escort Wagon before getting my face torn off later by the
twin axe attack of Scott Ian and Dan Spitz. 

        “The new Nirvana album,” he proclaimed,
as he gestured over to the iconic cover image of the naked baby chasing the
dollar bill on a fish hook. “You should get it today, because you are only
going to come back and pick it up in two weeks.”

        “I’m cool for now, thanks,” I
scoffed. “But hey, this new Cult album looks good. Ceremony?”

        “Are you fucking kidding me,”
the clerk laughed. “You are going to buy that piece of shit over Nevermind? Just run along, little

        With that, I left my favorite record
store with both Blood Sugar and Ceremony, a bit perplexed, but
nevertheless unfazed. That is, of course, until I put on that God-awful Cult
album and immediately experienced buyer’s regret – a feeling that was
compounded a few days later when I got my first taste of Nirvana after coming
across the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV one random day
after school. The sound of the song hit my senses like a ton of bricks, like
everything I loved about the Beatles, heavy metal and punk rock rolled up into
one trio of scraggly dudes from Seattle. 

        Needless to say, the premonition handed
down by the clerk at Rhino indeed came to fruition as I walked back into the
shop, hat in hand, and purchased that cassette of Nevermind I so ignorantly passed up that September 24th.

        The “I told you so” look on
that dude’s face still haunts me to this day.



Michael Toland

In September 1991, I was 24 years old, living with three
other guys in an apartment in Austin,
Texas. I’d ostensibly moved there
from Houston in order to attend the University of Texas and finish my education. In
reality, I was lured by the same things that attracted other directionless
young people to the River
City: the much-vaunted
music scene and a cheap standard of living. I was, in short, a standard

        The whole
slacker thing was, in truth, driven as much by laziness as anything else. (At
least it was for me.) But the lack of direction on the part of a media-friendly
chunk of my generation wasn’t just a desire not to have to work too hard. There
was a genuine sense of dissatisfaction, of not wanting to follow the
greed-driven guidelines of the ‘80s, and a need for something in life more
meaningful than the pursuit of rent money. But it was unclear to many of us
what that something might be.

        When I first
heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it hooked me for the same reason it hooked
everyone else – it was powerful, insanely catchy and sounded different than
anything else on the radio. Nirvana’s mixture of classic and alternative rock
was like Bob Mould collaborating with AC/DC (with a side of Boston, whose “More Than a Feeling” riff was
twisted into a far more volatile shape). For those of us who grew up in small Texas towns with nothing
but classic rock and Top 40 radio but had made the leap into underground rock,
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” seemed as fresh as milk straight from the cow.

        That said, it
took me a while to warm up to the whole album. I waited until more songs hit
the radio before I took the plunge; a legendary Austin show at Liberty Lunch that I will
forever regret not attending had come and gone by the time I bought Nevermind. But once I did I spun it
endlessly, and its songs ended up on many a mixtape. Sure, I was jumping around
my bedroom playing air guitar, but it was more than just the musical rush that
I craved whenever I put needle to vinyl. I genuinely identified with Kurt
Cobain’s perfectly inchoate bluster. He had no more idea what he wanted than I
did – indeed, he was particularly inarticulate in that regard. But he wailed
his confusion, anger and disengagement from mainstream culture with the kind of
blazing musical torrent that I’d been waiting for all my life, apparently.
Never before had I heard the kind of aimless drift in which I was engaged expressed
with, paradoxically, so much lust for life, even if it was unclear what shape
that life might take.

        Of course, it
wasn’t to last. The combination of personal maturity – I may still be looking
for purpose, but at least I’ve found that elusive sense of direction –  and cultural oversaturation has lessened Nevermind‘s impact over the years. Hell,
I was already burning out on Nirvana when Cobain died. That didn’t stop me from
mourning the loss, of course, and Nevermind remained a cornerstone of my record collection for at least another decade. It
and the rest of Nirvana’s catalog are gone from the N’s now, though. While I
can still appreciate Nevermind for
its musical qualities, its place in rock history and for what it meant in the
life of many former slackers, that appreciation is more academic at this point.
When I want to hear its songs I’m perfectly content to turn on the radio; in
Austin it’s still common for either the classic rock or the commercial
alternative stations to spin “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are” or
“In Bloom” once an hour. But at one time in my life, Nevermind meant a great deal to me. It may be a cliché now, but
when I was 24 – not coincidentally the same age as Kurt Cobain when Nevermind came out – Nirvana’s biggest
success sounded like the proverbial soundtrack to my then-useless, aimless



Zach Bloom

The first time I heard Nirvana was in the fucking Hamptons. I must have
been ten. We were staying with cousins in one of those summer houses with its
garage converted into a game room – a pool table, and appropriated neon beer
signs adorning the walls next to posters of race cars.

       I had MTV to
thank for the introduction. The clearest image I can still recall is of Cobain
studying the business end of the camera, cockeyed, head back slightly,
appearing thick-necked and menacing. (I don’t know how true that image actually
is; I suppose I could check, but my memory seems more real than whatever’s
actually in the video.)

        I was
intimidated, sitting there in this carpeted sun room, half expecting/mostly
wanting to see Jesus Jones. My first impression owes as much credit to Samuel
Bayer, helmer of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, as anyone else. It was
his murky images, crusty browns and mustard yellows, that attacked my hitherto
glammed-out sense of what music videos looked like. Which was, to say,
“Unskinny Bop.”

        Nirvana was
style to me before it was music. The color palette of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
became my ’90s, and it too became cliché. It was Michael Stipe in a knit cap
with a short sleeve t-shirt over a long sleeve t-shirt (one of them striped;
the other waffle?). It was symbols that stood for the end of Reagan’s era, like
creepy old men, long past their utility. It was music videos in general. All
committed to the past now, leaving nothing but the music.



Hal Bienstock

I was in my sophomore year of college when Nevermind came out. For most people, Nevermind is the album that knocked
Michael Jackson from the top of the pop charts. For me, it was the album that
made me realize that, as the old DJ cliché goes, music doesn’t have to be old
to be classic.

        Like many
music lovers, I couldn’t stand what I was hearing on the radio and seeing on
MTV in the late ‘80s and very early ‘90s. Some of us looked to the underground
as an alternative – and while I did that a bit, and became a fan of bands like
The Replacements and Husker Du – I mostly looked back to what I considered the
golden age of music. Like most kids, I worshipped Led Zeppelin by junior high
school. That led me to the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, Creedence and so on,
until a few years later I was crate digging for albums by artists like Captain
Beefheart, the Modern Lovers and Johnny Thunders. With so many interesting bands
from the past to learn about, I largely stopped focusing on new acts.

        Perhaps that’s
why I remember discovering Nirvana’s imagery before I knew much about their
music. When I returned to school in the fall of 1991, I started to see posters
on the walls and t-shirts on the backs of some of my more indie-minded friends.
It actually took me a few weeks to connect that the band I was hearing so much
about was performing the song I’d begun to hear increasingly often, first
through the dorm walls, then on the radio. Soon, it would be inescapable, and
would lead me to learn about a lot of other great bands, like Uncle Tupelo,
Dinosaur Jr, the Meat Puppets and Liz Phair.

        While I wasn’t
– and still am not – a fan of most grunge, the power of Nirvana was impossible
to deny. Even better was the feeling that quality music had toppled the old
order, much as it had during the British Invasion of the ‘60s and to a lesser
extent the punk era of the ‘70s. The biggest lesson for me is that you never
know where or when the next great band is coming, so it’s wise to always keep
your ears open.



Selena Fragassi

I remember making a peanut butter sandwich the day Kurt
Cobain died. It was a weekday and I had just come home from school and Kurt
Loder was on MTV. This was before the days of instantaneous news via Facebook
and Twitter and still the days of my parents getting on my ass for their
engorged phone bill. But like they said, this was an emergency and required me to call up my friend Megan who had just
introduced me to Nevermind not a few
days before – late but better than never. She was what some might call “the bad
seed” at school; she hiked her school uniform skirt up so high that Sr. Marie
had to cut her hem and often found herself in detention for smuggling
cigarettes. But what my folks and the nuns didn’t understand was the Megan was
a cultural inspiration, like Cleopatra. We were twelve and not old enough yet
to drive ourselves to record stores, yet she had all the imports and soon had a
self-conscious seventh grader trading her Boyz II Men tapes for Nirvana CDs.

        In the
posthumous world of Cobain, in the spirit of living life to burn baby, burn and
not fade away, in watching news footage of revelers holding candlelight vigils
and smearing their heavy black eyeliner, Cobain became legend to impressionable
pre-teens and beyond. Nevermind quickly
became the cornerstone of my youth and provided revelations for myself as a
writer and creator – even if my mother despised me for loving “that dead guy.”
I soon planned trips to my grandparents’ house in Madison on the guise of
spending time with my elders but really it was to see the studio where Nirvana
recorded the album with Butch Vig and get dropped off on State Street to rifle
through stacks of used CDs at the record stores where the university kids hung

        Looking back
at Nevermind now, as a journalist and
as a 29 year old, there’s nothing so incredibly enigmatic or satiating about
the album, but I can understand that what it did was provide the hunger. It may
have just been a lot of noise, but no music since has been so romantic.



Fred Mills, Blurt Editor

As BLURT’s official Old Man Of The Sea, I’m theoretically a
good deal more jaded than most of the writers and my fellow editors. Indeed, by
the time of Nevermind‘s release in
the fall of ’91 I had already lived through more than my fair share of music
world milestones, proverbial shots-heard-‘round-the-world, and even that most
dubious of distinctions, utterances from Voices Of A Generation. That’s not to
take away from Nirvana’s unquestionable impact and subsequent influence, and I
certainly don’t intend to undercut any of my younger peers’ enthusiasm or
appreciation; but having grown up on Dylan, the Beatles, Stones and Who,
followed in the next decade by Springsteen, Patti Smith, the Ramones and the
Clash, and then again not long after that by such musical giants-in-the-making as U2, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth and
R.E.M., my admiration for Nirvana is levied, to a degree, in retrospect, not by

        In fact, when
Nirvana first bolted out of the gate with a Sub Pop 45 followed by the Bleach mini-album, my musical tastes,
relative to the nascent grunge explosion, were decidedly tilted in the more
garagey direction of labelmates Mudhoney, and it’s long been a badge of shame
of mine to admit that when Nirvana came to punk venue The Milestone Club, May
of 1990 in Charlotte, NC (where I lived at the time), I passed on the show. A
year and a half later, when Nevermind was released, I didn’t purchase it right away; point of fact, I didn’t even own
a CD unit yet, although I eventually rectified both situations, buying a player
(irony alert: I used funds accrued from selling promotional CDs) and, upon
hearing that this blockbuster Nirvana album contained a hidden CD-only bonus
track called “Endless, Nameless,” finally purchasing Nevermind, along with a copy of the Stooges’ Funhouse owing to my being on a huge Iggy Pop kick at the time.

        Iggy still
trumps Kurt in my book, and I remain somewhat circumspect when discussing Nevermind and its creators. To be
perfectly honest, I have a hard time elevating to “hero” – or Voice Of A
Generation – status anyone who takes the coward’s way out, in the process
betraying the idealism of millions of fans (not to mention leaving a young
child behind to grow up without a father). Cobain’s suicide didn’t
automatically negate Nirvana’s achievement, but it definitely left a permanent
asterisk beside the group’s name. I have precious little patience with the
legions of misguided Cobain apologists who try to deploy the “martyr” label,
too. Jesus – Presley, Lennon, Cobain, Jackson, whoever – may have died for
somebody’s sins, but not mine.

        As a result,
when I listen to Nevermind, I try to
focus on the positives: the adrenalin rush I got the first time I heard “Smells
Like Teen Spirit” (driving in the car, natch – always the best place to hear a
classic song); the sheer brick-in-face smack of pure punk viscosity the first
time I saw that unhinged “Teen Spirit” video for the first time (I suddenly had
an urge to go out and kiss the first cheerleader I saw); and the way the entire
album hangs together from start to finish as a reasonably solid – not flawless,
mind you, but still powerful – collection of rock songs frontloaded with hooks
and imbued with an undeniable visceral energy. (The silly, interminable
“Endless, Nameless” excepted, of course.) You done good, guys – take one last
curtain call.



Barry St. Vitus

For music nuts, there’s no place better to be than working
at a college radio station, what I’ve always considered to be the source of the
Nile, as it were, for new music.

When I was a programmer at college station KALX, Berkeley,
it was almost like Christmas coming in every week and digging through the new
Feature Play bin to see what came in recently and scope out the reviewer’s
comments scribbled on the front. Sometimes these boiled over into weeks-long
battles on more controversial albums, as everyone with an opinion, had to get
their two cents worth in or snipe at other comments. It wasn’t uncommon for
almost the whole front cover of an album to be covered with stickers in an
ongoing war of words and various assessments of an album’s worth. Even though
comments were supposed to be initialed, some of the more heated and opinioned
anonymous back-and- forth’s might be “This album is ace bunny killer! Play!”
“Actually, you’re deluded and this album sucks!” “No, YOU suck!”

       I remember my
first exposure to the band, their cover single of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz.”
It totally floated my boat and many others’, so the release of Bleach later had a ready audience at the
station. As I recall, it got moderate attention and a fair amount of play for a
while. I saw them open for Dinosaur Jr and enjoyed their energy and Kurt’s
vocals, but wasn’t blown away by them. At that time, the “grunge” era was upon
us, and a plethora of music descended from the North West. Bands like Mark Arm’s Green River, then Mudhoney, were embraced as the real
deal, as were the Fastbacks, The Melvins, Screaming Trees and others. Many of
the bands are now forgotten, like Steel Wool and Gas Huffer, not to mention
other NW bands like Portland’s
Hazel and Crackerbash. You would see a label like Sub Pop, or smaller regional
imprints like CZ, eMpty, Estrus or K label and pretty much know that you would
like their offerings. Being the jaded elitists that we were, hugely popular
bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam were generally ignored.

        Which brings
me to the subject at hand, Nevermind. I
thought the smart place to start was at the KALX library for a little detective
work. I called and spoke to the office manager to see if she had time to take a
shot of the cover and email it to me. As it turns out, it had recently come to
their notice that somebody had ripped the whole cover off of the album and
started with new stickered comments, so all the glorious history of
pronouncements and judgments were lost to time. The first go-round, it got
stickered over so fast, some folks never got to see the baby. Nevermind was, of course, critically
acclaimed worldwide and the band is credited for bringing the spotlight onto
indie-rock and making it appealing to the mainstream audience. The consensus
among most of our DJ’s was that it was a tad too commercial, so it ultimately
did not receive heavy airplay.

        By then, they
were the darlings of large commercial stations here like Live 105. I can say
absolutely that R.E.M.’s Murmur caused much more excitement when it hit the play bin. As for me, I still don’t
own a Nirvana album after all these years. Kurt’s tragic suicide struck me as a
final statement by a troubled, very artistic man who loved music and his art,
more than being a deified superstar constricted and smothered by his own fame.
Artists utilize the misery of their lives to create great works of literature,
art or music, but implode when the later success becomes too much to deal with.
One can’t help but wonder where his music would have gone next if he hadn’t
pulled the trigger.



Stephen Judge, Blurt CEO & Second Motion Records

Its hard to believe that is has been 20 years since Nevermind was released.  I would
not even put the album in my top 50 of all time probably but it is hard to deny
its place in history.  For me personally, I grew up listening to the
post-punk era of music, in the early to mid ‘80s.  Music that inspired me
was bands like U2, Split Enz, The Clash, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, The
Replacements, R.E.M. I was religiously paying attention to labels like SST,
Twin/Tone, Stiff, IRS and saw how there was a very healthy and wonderful
underground of music on indie labels that was a refreshing alternative to what
Lennon (and later Bono quoting Lennon) would call “Glossy wallpaper music.”
        In 1990 I got hired at Schoolkids
Records in Raleigh, NC, where I ended up working for 10 years
and cutting my teeth in this business. The CD format was just starting to
explode, and immediately you could feel something there, a brotherhood for us
employees (that still exists today) and a kinship with our customers. One night
in late 1991 a friend of mine who DJ’d at WKNC (NC State’s college radio
station where I attended college) gave me a call: “Hey man, have you heard that
new Nirvana single yet? Tune in tonight… I am going to debut it on my show.”
I sat in my apartment, heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time and
went “whoa”; I was hooked. But then again they were just another band – this
happened all of the time. But I did like it and thought it was brilliant right
        Three weeks later I was fortunate
enough to see them at the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel
Hill, NC (October
4th). And just sat there in awe watching them destroy their instruments after a
blistering 45-50 minute set with no breaks. They hardly said anything to the
crowd, just blew through their set with fierce intensity.
        Two months later? Nevermind was the #1 album in the
country. What was already a healthy time for us, sales started to explode at
the store.  The week I remember more than any other was the week after
Christmas when virtually every kid that got a gift certificate from their
parents came in to buy Nevermind. It
was the classic move: the parents would not buy it for them so they bought it
themselves. I also remember getting tons of trades for boy band records and
they would trade it back for Nirvana and I sat there at the register thinking “this is insane” and “this is good!”
        After that, sales went thru the
roof for just about everything we had at that store. Across the board. When
Pearl Jam’s second album was released we had an $11,000 day at the store,
insane! When you think back and see that most stores today (that are even still
around) are struggling to make $800-$1,000 a day, that’s all you need to know
to see the impact Nirvana had on a culture and an industry.  It was a
culture that was built for years under the surface and just exploded.
 Something you cannot re-create on the internet.
        For me personally, it just
reassured me that people do come around, people can get it. And that there was a legit business in this passion I had;
I already knew that but this just reassured it.  A very important lesson
to learn at 21 years old when you still have mother saying “when are you going
to go down to the law office and get a job”.  It gave me hope and
confidence.  It’s something we all experienced and it may only happen once
in a generation.
        Honestly, if it were not for
Nirvana it’s safe to say that my label Second Motion and even Blurt might not be around. Personally,
U2’s and R.E.M.’s music has had a much more lasting effect on my life and
certainly who I attribute to being the reason I started working in music in the
first place. But there is no denying how important Nevermind was – it was a critical turning point and more than a
mere footnote to history. Recently I found a photo from the Cat’s Cradle show
on the Facebook page of a colleague. I have no idea who took this shot but I
had to have a copy.  What a great memento. I also have a bootleg of the
show that is surprisingly good quality, especially for a tape recorder.
 Two great things to listen to and look at, with the innocence and unknown
of what was about to happen. And I was there watching to all unfold in front of
my eyes.



Logan K. Young

What’s left to write that hasn’t
been wrote already? Nirvana was an incredible band, Cobain as close as we ever
got to another Lennon. And while I still take In Utero (Albini’s mix,
duh) over Nevermind, it’s clear now that the record with the baby penis cover
will, err, go down as their best. Why the hell else would we be doing this?
True, like everyone else, I, too, have a story. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind is bigger than some subjective anecdote. In fact, when a record is that
big, eyewitness accounts are like assholes: everyone’s got one, and no one
thinks their’s stinks. Only I give a shit that I wore a dingy “Kurt Was
Murdered” tee to the first day of high school. And only myself need know that I
cried at the end of About A Son.  
most things, rock ‘n’ roll tends to hear things in waves. Of course, unlike
Shakespeare’s sea, you can’t sense its kind of change as it’s happening. When
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” first came out, it was just another song; the fact
that we’re here blowing Caesar threatens to bury the very spirit of “grunge”
itself. Then again, Cobain was an über-glutton, so maybe he would have wanted this.

        What’s left to say, then? Whatever the
case, here we are waxing on the china anniversary of a record the Library of fucking
Congress added to her stacks more than half-a-decade ago. I mean, Pearl Jam got
their own Cameron Crowe doc for Ten.



1991 CLASS REUNION: Kurt Cobain & Nirvana

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind. In April,
our writer traveled from Aberdeen to Seattle journey for a
series of Nirvana festivities.




Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are: The
Story Of Nirvana
, the author recounts Dave Grohl’s arrival at Sea-Tac
Airport on September 21, 1990 to audition for Nirvana, noting how Grohl
attempted to break the ice with his prospective bandmate, Kurt Cobain, by
offering him an apple. “No thanks,” Cobain replied. “It’ll make my teeth


It’s an
innocuous enough anecdote. But for some reason writers can’t resist changing it
in the retelling. In Mojo Classic‘s
2006 special “Nirvana & The Story Of Grunge,” the meeting is said to have
taken place at “Seattle Sea-Tac,” with Cobain “cryptically” responding, “It
will make my teeth bleed” to Grohl’s offer (notice also the absence of the
contraction). In the version of the story that appears in the 2007 Foo Fighters
edition of Kerrang! Legends, the
meeting now takes place at “Seattle’s
Sea-Tac Club,” and, more dramatically, has Cobain “sneering” his response.


from the lack of basic fact checking (there is no Sea-Tac club in Seattle; Seattle-Tacoma
International Airport
is commonly abbreviated as “Sea-Tac”), it’s surprising that the original story
was changed at all, as it’s reported very straight forwardly in Azerrad’s book.
This is how myths are created, by changing a story little by little over the
years, until its relation to the truth is negligible. Once writing replaced
oral tradition, you could actually track the changes as they happened, and the
arrival of mass communication only speeded up the process. Nowadays I’m no
longer surprised at the wealth in inaccuracies in stories. I’m more surprised
that they get anything right at all.


And when
dealing with a major act like Nirvana, the temptation to mythologize, and thus
stamp a little bit of yourself into the story, is irresistible. And then it’s
only a small step to start grafting on elements that weren’t there to begin
with, in order to take the story in the direction the writer wants it to go.
When Rolling Stone wrote that Cobain
sang “Pain” in the chorus of the last recorded Nirvana song, “You Know You’re
Right,” it neatly tied in to the view of him as the doomed, tortured artist.
But in fact, as the isolated vocal track used in the game Guitar Hero shows, he wasn’t making such a grandiose statement at
all. He was simply singing “Hey.”


story is a constantly evolving one, with writers adding to and broadening it,
first in articles, then in books. And as the Nirvana era recedes further and
further into the past, retelling the story remains the only way to attach
yourself to it. Perhaps that’s the real reason for non-fiction writing; it’s a
chance to make a grab for a little reflected glory while hopefully creating
some glory of your own.


And 2011
is set to be a big year for Nirvana stories, not least because it’s the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind.
This past April 5, the 17th anniversary of Cobain’s death, a
commemorative statue was unveiled in his hometown of Aberdeen, an acknowledgement that the town is
slowly coming to terms with its connection to Cobain. And on April 16, the
retrospective exhibit Nirvana: Taking
Punk To The Masses
opened at Seattle’s
Experience Music Project museum, endeavoring to cut through the myth and simply
tell the Nirvana story through a wealth of artifacts and oral histories.


knows that rock star mythologized story of Nirvana, and that certainly has a
big presence in the exhibit,” says Jacob McMurray, the senior curator at EMP
who put together the Nirvana exhibit (and edited the accompanying book, Taking Punk To The Masses: From Nowhere To
, just published by Fantagraphics). “I mean, there are giant
beautiful mythologized Charles Peterson murals and broken guitars and stuff
like that. But on the other side, there’s lots of really candid shots of them
goofing around. I feel like for a lot of the Nirvana story, it’s become
something that has been distilled down into tragedy and sadness and drug
addiction. And certainly that was a part of it, but what was exciting for me
was finding all of these examples where they’re just being goofballs. My goal
for the exhibition wasn’t to tell Kurt’s story, it was to tell the story of the
band. Of which Kurt was a part, but also to tell that Nirvana story within this
wider context, of the broad evolution of punk rock.”


For me,
looking back on Nirvana’s history also means reliving much of my own. Nirvana
wasn’t just part of my life, they were part of my work as well. Covering them
was part of my job as a staff member at Seattle
music magazine The Rocket during the
years that saw the rise and fall of “grunge” (a word I first used in my review
of Bleach for The Rocket‘s July 1989 issue, and which I now can’t write without
putting in quotes as a gesture of irony). I’ve since written articles about the
band for numerous magazines, authored various books about them, and – full
disclosure – served as “Project Consultant” on the 2004 box set With The Lights Out. (A platinum record
award hangs on the wall for my efforts.)


So the
story has a strong personal resonance for me. I’ve been involved with this band
for half of my life, watching as my own version of the story gets disseminated
and rewritten. And out of all the writing I’ve done, perhaps my most valuable
contributions to Nirvana’s history were purely factual: listing the songs
recorded at the band’s first professional demo session in 1988 in their proper
order; presenting the correct setlists for the 1993 MTV “Live And Loud” show
and Nirvana’s final show on March 1, 1994; covering all the songs recorded at
the band’s last recording session in January 1994. You can debate the merits of
one Nirvana history over another, but a verifiable fact stands for all time.


And I’m
still drawn back to the story, still looking for ways to go over it again (on
April 8, 1994, I was writing a Cobain memorial piece for The Rocket; on this same day 17 years later, I’m still writing
about him). Which was how I found myself in heading to Aberdeen on April 5 to witness the statue
unveiling in the company of Aaron Burckhard, Nirvana’s first drummer.




When the
idea of a commemorative statue to Cobain was first mooted in the wake of his
death, there were mutterings of discontent from Aberdeen’s residents, skeptical about any
effort to honor an admitted drug user, not to mention their resentment at
Cobain’s occasional disparaging comments about the place. And even those close
to Cobain felt uncomfortable; the band’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, has always
expressed discomfort with the “idolatry” aspect of his friend’s death, writing,
“The deity part is not my concern; that’s for people who need the mystique” in
his memoir From Grunge To Government:
Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!


enough time has passed, and enough tourists have trickled in to Aberdeen in search of
Cobain, that such rigid feelings are beginning to soften.


“Welcome To Aberdeen” sign at the town’s east entrance has been embellished
with a second sign reading “Come As You Are” in reference to the Nirvana song
on Nevermind (though a TV interview
shown on April 5 revealed that not all of Aberdeen’s
residents were aware of the connection). [Ed.
note: view our Aberdeen and
related images photo gallery here
] Once they arrive, fans often head first to the Young Street
Bridge, a site that
provided the inspiration for the song “Something In The Way.” Typically, the
nature of that hangout has become a subject for debate, due to the fact that
Cobain originally told Azerrad, for a Rolling
story, that he “lived” under the bridge. Though he scaled that story
back to merely sleeping under the bridge “sometimes” in Come As You Are, some insist Cobain couldn’t have slept there at
all because the tide rises too high. It doesn’t; you can see by the water line
on the bridge supports that there would still be plenty of dry ground left at
high tide. A sign claiming that some of Cobain’s ashes were scattered here will
also surely become a subject for debate. But all accounts do agree it was one
of his hangouts, and given that both his childhood home, and the house where he
first jammed with the band that would become Nirvana are within a few blocks of
the site, he no doubt passed over and under the bridge dozens of times.


When I
first went underneath the bridge in 1994, it was a lot less accessible; you had
to skitter down a narrow path on the side, hoping you wouldn’t tumble into the
murky water of the Wishkah
River. Up where the
bridge supports meet the ground, visitors leave graffiti, while the less
respectful leave trash (beer cans are especially prevalent). The area
immediately adjacent to the bridge was rightly called an “eyesore” by Tori
Kovach, who lives next door. “I just couldn’t bear to keep looking at this pile
of crap over here, which it was,” says Kovach. “Brambles this tall, and it was
strewn with garbage from decades of abuse. And I just made up my mind one day
that I was going to start working on it. That was five, six years ago.”


Once the
area was cleared of brambles and trash, further refurbishments were made, a
result of Kovach’s curiosity about the number of people he saw trekking to the
bridge. “As I worked on this site, it became apparent to me that something was
special here,” he says. “I’d never heard of Kurt. Never heard of his music. But
I’d seen the graffiti under the bridge and I wondered, ‘Who was this guy?’ I didn’t
really like his music, not until I heard his Unplugged album. And that turned me on to who he was. And then as I
studied the man and learned about his family life, learned more about him, I
just figured, why not make a park dedicated to him? That’ll be my mission.”


And so,
visitors now find green grass instead of brambles, a table and benches, and a
gravel path leading under the bridge; on the bridge supports, a sign reading
“In Memorium: From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah” has been posted, in reference
to the live Nirvana album of the same name. There have been a few hiccups; a
plaque embedded in the ground with Cobain quotes drew complaints regarding his
observation that drugs will “fuck you up.” The “uck” has since been removed.
And the new statue, Kovach says proudly, will be the “pièce de résistance” of
the park.


On our
way to the ceremony, we stop at the home of Leland Cobain, Kurt’s grandfather.
As usual, Leland is entertaining Nirvana fans, who routinely arrive on his
doorstep, and send him letters and presents (when I examine a package of coffee
from Kaua’i that he’s been sent, he urges me to take it, saying, “I only use
instant!”). Today, a young man named Nicklas Makinen has turned up, in the
company of his father. Makinen, an artist/actor based in LA, is making his
first pilgrimage to the area, and admits to being “Blown away. I feel like I’m
flying!” by everything he’s seen. Makinen became interested in Cobain following
the release of Gus Van Sant’s 2004 film Last
(loosely based on Cobain’s life). “Everybody kept talking about how I
looked like Kurt and all this stuff,” he explains, reasonably enough, given his
blue eyes, blonde hair, and slight beard. The 2006 film Kurt Cobain: About A Son made him a passionate devotee. “I got it
right as it came out, and started watching it, day in and day out and became
really fascinated with the story,” he says. “And since then I’ve been studying
him, thinking about him, talking about him, reading about him. And I realized
that Kurt is way more than just a rock star. He was an icon, he was a
messenger, he was a prophet, you know?”


it’s rained off and on throughout the day, there’s a welcome break for the
statue unveiling. Instead of a bust, the statue is a Jag-Stang guitar, a
melding of a Jaguar and Mustang that Cobain created shortly before his death.
The concrete, steel-reinforced statue was made by Lora and Kim Malakoff, a
husband and wife team who once lived in Aberdeen.
“We chose the medium that we did because and we wanted to keep it more relaxed
and real,” says Lora, who saw Nirvana when she lived in Seattle. “Because that was the way Kurt was.
No polished shiny yuppie – there was no such thing as that for him. He was
real. And I spent a long time trying to decide how to make it more of a
memorial than just a big guitar. So I started going through his lyrics and
going through his lyrics, and I came up with the one from ‘On A Plain.’ And I
thought, ‘That is so beautiful, the words are just so beautiful. That’s what it
needs to be.'” The lines from the song – “One more special message to go/Then
I’m done and I can go home” – spiral up in a ribbon alongside the guitar.


A crowd
of around 50 or so turn up for the event, the reporters busying themselves by
interviewing Leland Cobain, Aaron Burckhard, and Aberdeen’s mayor Bill Simpson
before the unveiling (though not overly familiar with Nirvana’s songs – “Some
of the words I couldn’t understand, you know” – Simpson diplomatically adds “I
enjoy Kurt’s ability to play and make music”). Burckhard is especially pleased
by the attention he’s receiving. “Most of the reporters ask me, what would I
think Kurt would think about this?” he tells me. “And I said I think he’d just
laugh. He’d giggle. He’d just think it was a kick. He’d tell everybody, ‘Do you
believe this? They put a park there?'”


we make our way to the site of the first Cobain statue to be made in the area,
designed by Randi Hubbard soon after Cobain’s death. Hubbard had hoped a place
for her five-foot-six, 600 pound statue of a seated Unplugged-era Cobain might be found in a local park. But due to
public resistance, the statue was left in a corner of her husband’s business,
Hubb’s Muffler Shop. No one pays attention to us as we troop in, and lift a
black sheet covering the corner where the statue sits in a kind of purgatory.


The rest
of the day is spent chasing ghosts, as we take Makinen to see a few more sites
around town (“This is a billion times better than Vegas!” he enthuses). The
“Kurt Cobain” star in front of the former site of Rosevear’s Music Center,
another of the town’s recent nods to Cobain. The library where Cobain spent
much of his spare time reading. The alley where he once spray-painted graffiti
(since removed). The former site of Maria’s Hair Design, the beauty parlor
owned by Novoselic’s mother, also used by a nascent Nirvana as a practice
space. The former YMCA where Cobain briefly worked. It’s not the same town
Cobain grew up in – there weren’t as many empty storefronts on the main streets
for one thing. But Cobain spent the majority of his life here, and the fans
continue to be drawn to both pay tribute and try and gain a sense of how
growing up in this small, remote community influenced him. 


And we
wind up, unexpectedly, in Olympia,
where Cobain moved in 1987, and where he lived until the release of Nevermind. During the day, we’ve met up
with the owners of the apartment building where Cobain lived, and we’re invited
to see the tiny studio apartment he lived in. We’re then allowed into the
garage, used as a storage space, and now something of a mini-museum, with
posters, artifacts, and musical instruments. Burckhard immediately picks up a
guitar and starts banging away, oblivious to the guitar’s being out of tune,
and is soon joined by Makinen, and Anthony Smith, a Nirvana fan who’s traveled
across the state to attend the statue unveiling, carrying a guitar he won at a
show by the Nirvana tribute band “Nevermind” (which he has Burckhard


As the
three jam together, Makinen’s father turns to me and says, “My son is in heaven
right now. I assure you, he is in heaven.”




Ten days
after our Aberdeen and Olympia
sojourns we reconvene in Seattle
for the Member Preview of EMP’s Nirvana exhibit on April 15 (opening to the
general public the following day). Burckhard is again on hand, as well as the
founders of the Nirvana websites, which offers a wealth of
detail about every live Nirvana show, and, the most
comprehensive Nirvana site on the web. We meet at The Crocodile, where Nirvana
played a secret show opening for Mudhoney in 1992, though the club’s since been
extensively remodeled (and is now co-owned by Alice In Chains’ Sean Kinney). A
huge Charles Peterson photograph of Cobain looks down on us as we consume pizza
and beer.


The Croc
is also within walking distance of EMP, and as we head over, we pass numerous
sites with Nirvana connections for me, adding to the nostalgic feeling of the
evening: one of the Rocket offices;
Bad Animals Studio, where work on With
The Lights Out
was done; the apartment where Novoselic lived, where we
repeatedly spent an evening listening to Cobain’s demo of one of his last
songs, “Do Re Mi,” over and over again; the site of the former Sub Pop offices
where the label first relocated after the grunge windfall; The Funhouse, a club
where Novoselic performed with Flipper (a show I reviewed for Blurt). EMP is on the grounds of the
Seattle Center,
where Nirvana performed their biggest-ever Seattle show at the Coliseum (now Key Arena)
in 1992, and their final US shows at the Arena (now Mercer Arena) in 1994. In
between EMP and the Arena is the Memorial Stadium, built in memory of the Seattle high school
graduates who died during World War II, and most commonly used for high school
football games. Its dedication now has a new poignancy as I arrive at the
Nirvana event: “Youth hold high your torch of truth, justice and tolerance,
lest their sacrifice be forgotten.”


function kicks off the night at 6 pm, with the less VIP members allowed in at 7
pm. In contrast to other openings, which have featured live bands, this event
will only have a few speakers and guest DJs. “I wanted to keep it low-key,” EMP
senior curator Jacob McMurray explains. “Obviously it would be bizarre to have
a cover band or anything like that. The focus is on checking out the exhibition
and having fun, and having drinks, hanging out with your friends.” We’re all
giddy with anticipation as we approach EMP, pausing to have our picture taken
by a sign directing which door to use, giggling like school kids.


checking in, you ascend the stairs to EMP’s galleries. A Charles Peterson shot
of Cobain crowd surfing at a March 8, 1991 show in Canada fills the wall beside
the stairs, accompanied by a quote from Peterson: “It’s when the band and
audience are melded into one that the true nature of what they were trying to
accomplish – the cathartic release of pent up angst and rebellion – reached its
chaotic fruition. I feel fortunate to have been there to capture that.”


Nirvana exhibit [see our photo gallery here] is in a somewhat narrow space that used
to house EMP’s “Northwest Passage” exhibit.
The low key lighting and ambient soundtrack created by Steve Fisk (who produced
a Nirvana session in 1989) give the space a dark, organic feel. The cases for
the exhibit are fashioned from a century-old elm tree that was felled in a wind
storm in front of the Grays River Grange, where Novoselic serves as Grange
Master. “So it connects the exhibition to the environment, but it also has this
tangential connection to Nirvana itself,” McMurray explains. “We’ve really
tried throughout the exhibition to have subtle reference to the Northwest
environment, so that the wood in the casework, some parts are smooth, but some
are kept rough – it has that sort of wooded feeling to it. From grange to


from the ceiling throughout the gallery is a white mobile, using elements also
seen in the logo on the Member Preview invitation, as well the cover of the Taking Punk To The Masses book. It
neatly encapsulates Nirvana’s story: a microphone at the top, above a speaker
flanked by a bass and guitar, above a cloud, above a pair of drumsticks, above
two arrows pointing outwards, above a skull hanging upside that’s dripping with
what could raindrops, tears, or blood, depending on your interpretation.


“It can
be as symbolic as you want, or it can just look cool,” explains Jacob Covey,
who designed the logo. “Like Kurt’s lyrics – some people think they’re utterly
nonsensical, some see larger narratives. It was risky to do something that
doesn’t rely on the visual stereotypes of either grunge or punk, but when I
came up with the idea of icons building up the logo, Jacob [McMurray] and I
both felt like we’d found the look that we wanted. The skull is just a totem of
ROCK with all the baggage that symbol is loaded with. Really, it’s just a
stand-in for the human element. I tend to view that ‘blood’ as sweat, for what
it’s worth. More a nod to sweaty crowds or maybe flying off Cobain as he spins
on his head in that iconic Charles Peterson shot.” Even the type used in ads
for the exhibit, and the cover of the Taking
Punk To The Masses
book, is Nirvana-influenced, the same typeface as the
band’s original logo: Onyx. (At least according to some sources: In yet another
sign of how the tiniest detail in the Nirvana story is worthy of being
scrutinized, Grant Alden, The Rocket‘s
managing editor and chief typesetter, who did the typesetting for Nirvana’s Bleach album, insists it’s Bodoni Extra
Bold Condensed, as Onyx wasn’t available on his machine.)


music fills the gallery, a spooky drone that surrounds you both above and
below. “The music’s deliberately supposed to not rock,” says Fisk. “And it’s not supposed to mimic or sound like
anything coming off the screens,” he adds, referring to the numerous screens
and kiosks throughout the gallery that have film and interview clips. “Notice,
this is in E, this is good old classic E,” he says, pointing to a screen
showing a clip of The Ramones chugging through one of their songs. “And my
music’s in D. The idea was that punk rock or grunge or whatever would be
playing in the space [via the film clips] would hopefully blend better if it
was all tuned to one chord. And the majority of the grunge music was all
dropped-D [tuning], which kind of works with E, kind of works with A. And
there’s no melody. There’s almost no melody in an hour’s worth of music.”
There’s also a subtler narrative at work in Fisk’s soundtrack. “At the top of
the hour there’s this guitar that hits and kind of resonates along the way,” he
says, a reference to both Nirvana’s sudden end, and their lingering influence.
“It’s 2011 and you can still hear it. And it’s still echoing and it’s still
bouncing around space.”


On first
entering the exhibit, you see the instruments from the classic line up of the
band: Cobain’s Mosrite Gospel guitar (which he was playing when the band first
performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in public, at Seattle’s OK Hotel);
Novoselic’s black Gibson Ripper bass, and Grohl’s Tama Rockstar-Pro kit. It
sets the stage for what’s to come, but they’re also the kind of obvious
artifacts you’d find in any exhibit of a major band. The real meat of the show
is further in, and is largely due to the connections McMurray was able to make
with the local community. “When I started out with the exhibit, I wasn’t really
thinking that we were necessarily going to have the involvement of the bands,”
he says. “I was thinking, worst comes to worst, I would entirely draw from the
material that we had in our collection. Which was pretty good to begin with.
But Krist and I got to know each other, and he was really interested in helping
out and I was able to go through his archives. And then also go through the
archives of Shelly Hyrkas [Novoselic’s first wife] and various other people.
And it became such a different exhibit, because all those people had just
really amazing candid photographs, and other documents, letters and things like
that, going as far back as 1983. And so, to me, it changed the whole focus of
the exhibition.”


As a
result, like the use of the elm tree for the cases and Fisk’s soundtrack, the
show that has a very personal touch. And it’s a show that couldn’t have been
done with such sensitivity anywhere else but Seattle. You see the pink suitcase Cobain
used as a drum on his first known demo, with the early band names “Skid Row”
and “Pen Cap Chew” scrawled on the front. A 1986 letter from Buzz Osborne to
Novoselic, lauding another Cobain demo: “Some of his songs are real killer! … I think he could have some kind of future in music if he keeps at
it.” Numerous candid shots of the band members – in t-shirts and jeans, loading
up the van for yet another tour; drummer Chad Channing lounging against one of
the lions in London’s
Trafalgar Square;
the band members sharing backstage desserts with Sonic Youth. A display
documenting a Halloween 1988 show, where Cobain is believed to have smashed his
first guitar, showing two pieces of the guitar, snapshots by Cobain’s
girlfriend of the show, a letter from a fan who attended the show and grabbed
one of the guitar shards, and interview and audio clips, including the moment
at the end of the show where you can hear the guitar being smashed. The
long-sleeved Sounds magazine t-shirt
Cobain is seen wearing in many 1991 photos. A photo strip taken in the instant
photo booth at Seattle’s Re-bar club on the night of Nevermind‘s record release party, the band members all crammed into
the booth, pulling faces, looking excited, happy, and very young.


interview clips alone would take hours to go through; you hear from Novoselic,
Channing, Dan Peters (the Mudhoney drummer who played one memorable show with
Nirvana and recorded the song “Sliver” with them), Dale Crover (the Melvins
drummer who also played on Nirvana’s first professional demo); producers Fisk,
Jack Endino, Butch Vig, Barrett Jones, and Steve Albini; Bruce Pavitt and
Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop; crew members Earnie Bailey and Craig Montgomery.
And that’s just the people with direct connections to the band; others
interviewees discuss the Northwest music scene and the alternative rock scene
that developed across the country in the ‘80s. One display features 20 albums
from Novoselic’s collection that he considers to be especially influential,
from Led Zeppelin to the Stooges, Flipper to The Smithereens, with interview
clips discussing each one. And there are also wonderfully playful moments, as
in the display where Fisk talks about the music scenes in Northwest cities from
Bellingham, Washington to Eugene, Oregon, at one point singing a jingle written
for an Aberdeen Federal Savings & Loan radio ad: “See those trees against
the sky/Northwest breezes blowing by/Life’s so full of good things/Life’s so


At the
end, you can sit in a small theater space where live clips of Nirvana run
continuously. In a little booth off to the side, you can record you own memory
of Nirvana, with the clip then slotted in to play between the live footage. In
a corner is a pedestal with Cobain’s collection of canned meat: Prairie Belt
Smoked Sausages, Gerber Chicken Sticks, and Armour’s appetizingly named “Potted
Meat Food Product.” It’s a nice humorous touch to find at the end of the story.


But on
this night, it’s difficult to get through the exhibit as the gallery quickly
fills up. Servers walk around with drinks and not enough food. Others pass out
bars of the official chocolate for the event, Theo organic and fair trade 70%
dark chocolate in a wrapper featuring yet another of Peterson’s photographs
(greedy collectors snatch up ten bars at a time). I manage to snag a limited
edition bottle of “Thoughtfully Made” Gimbal Gin made especially for this event
by Seattle’s
Westland Distillery; it’s called “In Bloom.”


There are
too many friends to catch up with, and not enough time; “It’s like a bizarre
high school reunion,” says McMurray at one point. As I walk around, I see Jack
Endino talking to Aaron Burckhard and Dave Foster (yet another Nirvana
drummer); Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt; Duff McKagan; former Sounds journalist Keith Cameron,
covering the event for The Guardian;
Nirvana guitar tech Earnie Bailey; Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil; Soundgarden/Alice In
Chains manager Susan Silver; Rocket editor Charles Cross; photographer Alice Wheeler (who shot the pictures on the
cover of the “Love Buzz” single); Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel.
Cobain’s mother Wendy (in attendance with his sister Kim) is seen talking to
her sister Mari (at whose home Cobain recorded his early demos) for the first
time in 17 years.


Guest DJs
for the night include Peterson and Pickerel, among others. But you don’t hear
Nirvana blaring through the common areas, instead, it’s a great mix of cult
favorites (“Ça Plane Pour Moi”) and local acts (pre-grunge stars The U-Men). It
is a night for hanging out, having drinks, enjoying being with your friends.
The VIP crowd was treated to brief remarks, but longer speeches are saved for later
in the evening. The night’s most rock ‘n’ roll moment comes when EMP CEO and
director Christina Orr-Cahall, thanks us for attending and then begins thanking
the sponsors. Standing in front of a large screen displaying not only the
Nirvana exhibit logo but also logos of sponsors like Qwest, Boeing and Wells
Fargo, she’s suddenly interrupted when Burckhard boldly ascends the stage and
shouts, “Corporate America still sucks!” Orr-Cahall is momentarily non-plussed,
but Novoselic neatly defuses the moment with a jocular “Shut up, Aaron!” and
Burckhard good-naturedly leaves.


County Executive Dow Constantine also speaks, with a credibility few other
politicians could manage. For while Constantine has worked with Novoselic on
various political issues, he also has bonafide rock roots, having been a DJ at
local college radio station KCMU, where his longtime girlfriend, Shirley
Carlson, was the first to play a Nirvana song on the radio (“Because it’s in a
book, I’m going to assume it’s true,” he jokes). So Nirvana was part of his
growing up as well, and he recalls falling in love with the band as he listened
to an advance tape of Bleach “while
driving in my parents’ hand-me-down Buick” and realizing “Holy smokes! Those
doofuses that hung around The Melvins were good!” It’s another sign of the
close knit feel of the Seattle
community; it’s hard to think of many other public officials who’d even know
who The Melvins are.


The most
heartfelt remarks come from Novoselic, wearing a brightly patterned shirt made
by his wife. After thanking those in attendance, he gives credit to his
bandmates. “I love Dave,” he says of Grohl. “He released a new record this
week. [Wasting Light] And it rocks!
And he’s out there and he works hard; he’s never lost focus. He’s carrying the
torch, and he’s out there, packing the arenas, speaking to people.”


And then
he speaks of Cobain, and to a greater extent than he usually does publicly;
perhaps a sign of how comfortable he feels here. “Kurt Cobain. Here was a man
who – he would never clean his kitchen or take out the garbage, or do those
kind of chores. But Kurt Cobain was not a lazy person. He was a compelled
artist. He excelled in any form that he wanted to do. Kurt, as you’ve seen in
the exhibit, was an excellent painter. He did cartoons. He was a sculptor. I
have a little sculpture of this writhing, weird spirit man [he did] … He had
a natural talent, and that’s what compelled him to share so many things with so
many people. I walk down the street and even tonight, people walked up to me
and said, ‘Nirvana changed my life.’ And I think that’s a testament to Kurt
Cobain’s vision … I owe him so much, I can’t even start. And so many people owe
Kurt Cobain.”


that’s why we’ve all gathered here tonight. Nirvana’s work touched us all, and
it still does. In his remarks, Constantine
expressed the hope that the exhibit would help people to put the tragedy of
Nirvana behind them, and appreciate their music and their influence anew. But
tragedy is the reason Nirvana’s story has such resonance. It’s the reason it
gets inside your emotions, digs in, and hangs on. Nirvana’s sad end is as much
a part of the tale as their hopeful, hardscrabble beginnings.


And it’s
the acceptance of the tragedy that truly allows you to get past it. The same
way that a scar always remains a part of you, but it gradually stops hurting.
It makes Nirvana: Taking Punk To The
both a celebration and a redemption. “People that are my age that
experienced everything, it’s time to say, ‘Okay, let’s look at this,'” says
Steve Fisk. “This is a cool thing. The crazy stuff’s out of the way, and the
band and the music continues to get influential.” Kurt Cobain’s last guitar
chord is still ringing out, the echo reverberating for many years to come.



article was originally published at Blurt-online in April. Check out official
images from the EMP display here


On his latest album, the Americana maestro mines for
socio-political gold and strikes the motherlode.



Long before Buena Vista Social Club and A
Meeting By the River
, and before all the soundtracks and his acclaimed trio
of California LPs, Ry Cooder, the son of folklorists, canvassed the American
songbook for populist nuggets to include on his early albums.


From his 1970 self-titled debut
through 1976’s Chicken Skin Music,
Cooder swam upstream against rock’s most pretentious, musically overblown era
by recording newly arranged yet faithful cover songs by Sleepy John Estes, Leadbelly,
Woody Guthrie, Lorenzo Barcelata and an Alan Lomax-like number of traditionals.
This wasn’t part of any alt-country movement or movie-inspired Americana
revival, either. It was an ingrained Great Depression/Dust Bowl-era vibe that populated
Cooder’s early work, though the aesthetic has always been there whether he was exploring
Cuban son or Indian ragas.


So it’s no surprise that the
current economic crisis – and the attendant media shift to placate the far
Right and oft-illogical platforms — has stoked Cooder’s pro-working man anger
and sharpened his pen to the point where the new Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch/Perro Verde) ranks not
only among his very best releases, but among the best socio-political albums
ever made.


Cooder explored this territory
before with 2007’s My Name Is Buddy. But
that record was a re-telling of the Great Depression and its aftermath through
anthropomorphic characters that stood in for everyone from Guthrie to J. Edgar
Hoover, Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson. The conceit, while largely successful,
occasionally imposed itself on the songwriting; the record also listed toward acoustic
folk, leaving less room for Cooder’s stronger suits: rock, Tex-Mex corridos,
and blues.


Cooder’s political bent is obvious
on Buddy, but the history lessons
were meant to reverberate into the Bush era and thus indict it implicitly.  The songs on Pull Up Some Dust, on the other hand, brook no such literary distance
– “take this war and shove it up your Crawford, Texas ass,” Cooder sings on the accordion-powered waltz
“Christmastime This Year,” pillorying the hypocritical Neocon hawks for the Walter Reed
Hospital scandal.


By making things explicit (though
never preachy or black and white), these politically loaded songs read more
relevant and biting; they also feel more varied and right in Cooder’s songwriting
wheelhouse. His blistering slide-guitar feels like an appendage of his anger on
the Mephistopheles-as-Right-winger character study “I Want My Crown,” and it washboards
the gospel boogie of “Lord Tell Me Why,” a wonderfully ironic send-up of white
man-fear that features black back-up singers lamenting “why a white man/Ain’t
worth nothin’ in this world no more.” 
Maybe most remarkable is “John Lee Hooker for President,” which finds Cooder
channeling the blues legend – guitar and voice – on a visit to the White House.


That track can’t help but point to
the black man currently living there, of course, and the disappointment many of
us supporters feel as the slow pace of change. But what most impresses
throughout the record is this ability to meld the stickiest current events and
their nuance into these familiar genres without ever sacrificing song-craft or
sounding stale. Lead-off track “No Banker Left Behind” – a jaunty,
mandolin-driven Civil War march – is a scathing indictment of Wall Street greed
and government collusion that makes it an instant working man’s classic like
Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” or Blind Allen Reed’s 1929 “How Can a Poor Man Stand
Such Times and Live?” (Cooder covered both in his 70s heyday).


With Flaco Jimenez’s incomparable accordion
alongside a banda horn-breakdown, “El Corrido de Jesse James” doesn’t make a
Robin Hood figure of the notorious outlaw, but points out that when bankers
“line their pockets well,” Jesse’ll be seeing them in hell. “Quicksand” points out the economic
similarities between immigrants, Coyotes, and Arizona’s vigilantes – is a soul-rocker in
the mode of Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop-era,
though the production is less slick and better suits the rest of this record. Another
highlight is the graceful migrant farmer-love ballad “Dirty Chateau,” which is
made even more luminous by countrypolitan strings, Juliette Commagere’s shadow
harmonies, and the Cooder equivalent of Lovers Rock guitar curlicues.


It’s not all vitriol and
finger-wagging, either. Cooder believes in the essential dignity of the working
man, and ends the record in a quietly upbeat manner. He mixes in some of his
vaunted Hawaiian slack-key playing during the pro-family waltz/homily
“Dreamer,” and on what could be an old school country classic, “Simple
Tools,”  contrasts the home-wrecking speculator
who “makes his living on the telephone” with the “common ordinary workaday
fool” who mends his broken heart through old fashioned hard work.


In the end, Cooder is really
pointing to the chasm between those for whom market ideology justifies the
worst in human behavior and those who, in their imperfect way, want to also nurture
the better angels of our nature by sacrificing for the less fortunate. “Take in
mind the credo of a jackass prospector/take what you need but leave the rest
alone,” he sings on the elegant, pro-environment album-closer “No Hard Feelings,”
while some of the most gorgeous guitar fills he’s ever put to tape drift down like
falling leaves. This simple advice for harmonious living courses through the
record from the first moment to the last. That Cooder has written it into songs
that rival the best in his remarkable four-decade catalog speaks both to his
ageless skill and the timeless justice of this cause.




On the Mercury Prize-winning Let England
Shake, she drapes herself in protest, violence,
passion – and mischievousness. Harvey’s
also just issued an
iTunes Session EP.




20 years of abrasive theatricality, aggressive lyrical forms and concurrent
costume changes, there is nothing that’ll prepare you for the PJ Harvey who fashioned
the tame tones, high voices and feather-filled media that come with Let England Shake.


Maybe we
could dial that down a bit. Peel it back. Maybe that statement comes across as
hyperbolic. Every singer, especially ones that change their clothes and make
up, want you to believe there’s a new them prancing about. I mean, there is, as
always, Harvey’s
usual brand of slaughter in the air throughout Let England Shake – the bloody pulp and circumstance of soldiers
falling like lumps of meat; the drunken beatings; even the way dinars get
thrown around seems hostile.


But there’s
protest in the wind here as well, a heated place that Harvey’s
howl has never hit up previously as England‘s
windswept motion and coolly politicized mien is less directly personal than it
was throughout corrosive back-catalog highlights. There was the frayed
post-feminist art student of 1992 debut Dry and the un-pretty man-scaping poet of Rid
of Me
, fast-tracked for release the following year to capitalize on the
critical acclaim that greeted Dry. (Interviewing
the quietly brash Harvey
then was strange, as she came on like a lovely daydream and went out
chattering, candidly and hard.)


scaled-down trio-bleating post-punk blasts – their sonic Beefheart-ian angles
and absurdist lyrical circlings – served as gateway drug to the more musically
open-ended and grandly story-filled To
Bring You My Love
(1995) along with her cold-eyed cameo on (rumored
paramour) Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads,
as well as 1998’s Is This Desire? She
was the modern bitch/siren on that trio of works, where the music was wonky Waits-y
cabaret and the words were murkily metaphorical. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea brought her back to
aggression lyrically and sonically (well, gem-polished aggression at the very
least), with her deep growling voice appropriating the mood and intent of
chatty characterizations like “Kamikaze” leading the 2000 album’s charge.
Four years later, Uh Huh Her offered
up aggro-pop without the props while 2007’s somewhat misunderstood White Chalk was haughty piano-filled
Hammer horror stuff with funereal glints of genius. You drown your daughter.
You chop up a lover. Hard personal stuff was this, flouncing around dark bits
of slow Pentangle-like folk and Gothic chamber twitches like raw silk against
oak’s bark.


 Quiet. Oh. So. Quiet. Rough hewn and with
self-meaning, this.




“Can you
ever really know what a person is thinking?” muses Polly Jean Harvey, through
the crackle of the wire, speaking from England.


reality, we’re discussing a few things to which that is a response; in previous
interviews I’ve had with her she seemed shyer, then harder, than present. Fo
example: the recent YouTubing of Harvey, all specked in feathers while playing
an autoharp (her new weapon of choice) on a BBC morning talk show as British
Prime Minister Gordon Brown looks on. “Let
England shake/Weighed down
with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again,”
sings Harvey, posing like an onyx
ostrich while Brown stares.


“I don’t
now if I can read people well,” says Harvey,
about any expression gleaned from Mr. Brown’s lovely ardor. “No. I’m not like
that. I can’t begin to guess what he was thinking.”

The key to Harvey’s
Let England
is that you must think something when you walk away from it. It’s her
least passive listen. For all its saxophone’s honk (the only low end here),
floating high-voiced whispers and thrumming autoharp-filled tones touched by
oddly funny sampled riffs (“Istanbul,
Not Constantinople”? Really?!?), the
boldest vision within its stark white walls-her choice in cover art – is that
Harvey has finally opened herself up to the un-scrubbed society at large; the
political ramifications of war and the ages-old ruminations on peace. The idea
that murder can be doubly and deeply personal whether you’re bloodily slaughtering
hundreds or violently stabbing a lover. That God is in the details, whether
it’s “The Glorious Land” or the “Bitter Branches” she’s singing of. That
violence is leveled even when it’s the toss of a hand or the whisk of a
command. That her country is in ruins and that maybe all countries around her
are little more than that.


are bad. Worse than they were when she was whipping her hair around her face
screaming “Sheela-Na-Gig” back in ‘92.


“I think
all of my past projects are equally valid, in terms of teaching me things,”
says Harvey.
Learning is her biggest measure of success – what records of hers taught Harvey the most about the
places she been (emotionally and physically) as well as that which she can
bring forward to her next projects. Certain albums of hers resonate more
clearly and powerfully than others. “To
Bring You my Love, White Chalk, Is This Desire?”
she says slowly. “These
are very strong pieces of work where I had a strong initial idea and I followed
that through to the end. They were clear.”

Other albums of Harvey
didn’t manifest themselves so firmly or resolutely. Uh Huh Her was not fully formed in her eyes or ears. “I didn’t know
where it was heading from the start and I can almost hear the different directions
that I’m pursuing but not necessarily always following through on any… one… moment.
But there are really good songs, very very good songs that peek through. It
didn’t feel quite ready, Uh Huh Her did.”

about it now – and not that I wanted to go so darkly in to her recorded past to
begin with – I should’ve asked her about her first two albums, their passionate
disrepair and sonic dislocation. The most in which we get to discuss that level
of discord comes when I ask Harvey
if that initial Beefheart-ian spark that conjured such devilishly angular noise
is ever within her art or artifice at present. Especially now with her friend
and the good Captain recently passed, is there anything left of the aggressive
abstraction that filled Dry and Rid of Me?


“It is
more his spirit, really, that I feel that I carry with me always,” says Harvey. “He took his work
seriously and he pursued it truthfully; followed it where he thought it had to
go and always honored that direction.”

Whatever direction that was.


“I think it
was so unusual what he did – still now. It was so peculiar and singular. I’m
still constantly amazed by his music and his painting. I will listen to his
music when I feel in doubt of trusting my own instincts. His music reminds me
to do that.”


dedication to quiet and to folk music’s text and tone which fills Let England Shake comes from having
learned to trust her instincts enough to allow herself to write politically,
albeit it an open-ended sense.


White Chalk taught her to whisper. It also
was, as she had stated, the next chapter, with each of her albums being some sort
of continuation of the prior one even though she says she sees no through-line.
“I haven’t analyzed that part of myself yet,” she says.


White Chalk was the time where I
concentrated more on writing the lyrics quite far apart from the music. With
that I wanted to write a narrative that-separately-could be an interesting
short story as if you were to simply pick up a book and start reading.”

Out of that grew the notion that the text that could be as spoken word, “a clear
story that you could tell orally” which, combined with society’s ills and
political pull of wills, would create that which Let England Shake would become. The new record’s narrative, its
lyrical heart, came courtesy her concerns with the political planet and how
she’s been profoundly affected by what is going on in world. “Before this,
honestly, I did not have the confidence to put it all down, get in words what I
was thinking.”

This, from the woman who wrote the zipless fuck of “Man-Size” or the un-pretty
bop of “I Think I’m a Mother.” Perhaps she doth protest too much about her
levels of appropriating the profound.


“Ahh, but
politically you see, I never approached trying to talk about these things
within my writing because I hadn’t felt as if I had reached the stage where I
could do that well. I didn’t have that language and I didn’t want to do a bad
job… that could kill me.”


It wasn’t
so much the timing of world crises rather than the timeliness of her verbiage.
She simply felt as if she’d reached the place in her writing where knowledge
and skill, coupled with the terrors that affected her and her need to address
them, intersected. True, there’s a vagueness as to whether she’s singing of an
apathetic UK or a doomed UK on the title track, or even if she’s singing of
Mother England allegorically for other locations on the map. This cloying
clawing England
could be anywhere and everywhere. Its travails are too.


vagueness is intentional. What’s odd, though, is how songs such as “Written on
the Forehead” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are as confrontational and
aggressive as any in her past, yet here find themselves hung upon a higher
softer coo and tender cushiony melodies. That comes from another first for Harvey in that she started
Let England
with the words.


“I wrote
and I sang the words first unaccompanied,” she says. “I would often walk as I
sang and each poem would slowly reveal its melody to me.”

Images of a wild-haired woman marching through the Moors mouthing the lyrics
about limbs spreading upwards and smashed-up waste (“Hanging in the Wire”)
dance in my head at this point as she talks about how the melodies grew from
there. “The songs that came around the words just fell in to place. They were
very simple in nature.”  


Having no
instruments around will do that. But that organic manner in which the melodies
came was purposeful. It’s about remembering the tunes as she sang-spoke the
words. “I had to find melodies that were conducive to want to sing along with –
especially as these words were already very weighty.”


Do not
get the impression that “In the Dark Places” and its mournful phrases about
putting “up crosses passed through the damned mountains” comes with a
Ke$ha-worthy hum. It’s just that spare solid simplicity became the musical norm
in which to carry the words from the page to the ear. As Harvey puts it, “Music became a way of
lifting the ideas, delivering them to the ear softly so that they could be
absorbed easily.”

The words
inspired where the melody would go. That openness is heard from the click and
yawn of “The Last Living Rose” to the crinkle of “The Colour of the Earth.” Not
having an instrument to lean on when writing then speaking/singing the words
meant that she’d reached into very different melodic airy areas that she might
usually have avoided or simply never knew existed: “I just sang the words
freely. I never did that before.”


virtually live and quietly with Harvey
stalwarts Mick Harvey, John Parrish and such, a few new rules came into play
where Let England Shake is concerned.
“I spent a long time talking with each of them way up front. I read them the
words. I spoke about having a sense of timelessness in the music. Quite pliable,
but without being placed in any particular sound or time.”

Making songs, malleable and fluid, must have been difficult to pin down-more
akin to working with mercury than something musical.

“Exactly,” says Ms. Harvey.




There are
other, singular, elements at play on Let England Shake.
For starters, why the autoharp?

She first began using the many-stringed thing during shows she did around White Chalk. “It moves differently and
is quite a beautiful instrument,” she explains. “Like having a mini-orchestra
at your fingertips. So many strings and so much melody that rings from it. It
is utterly beautiful.” The autoharp does indeed lend itself elegantly to this
body of work to create a shimmering, moving continuum of sound. What about the
saxophone? She used to play previously, although the reed hasn’t been heard
pursed from her lips in some time. Yet here it is, the only low end (not much
bass) that Let England Shake knows.

“I love playing the sax now,” she says with chipper enthusiasm. “I used to play
a lot when I was younger. Well, too. Then I put it down and didn’t play for
nearly twenty years. I don’t play it well now, but that way is even better. I
quite like the sound of it not being played well. There is a honk-i-ness to it.”
Mention the sinister kink of the sax and how it acts as a raw-boned bottom to England‘s
often ethereal ambience and she laughs in agreement that I’m onto something.


the air-iest tones and frostiest vocals of Let
, it is its lyrical tenor that shapes its content. As all politics are
local and personal though, she’s not succinct in her telling of what she’s
seeking to embrace. Let England Shake is outwardly expansive AND ambivalent toward her homeland on the title track.
She seems proud of her Britain
on “The Last Living Rose” then ruminatively forlorn on “England.” Which
land is her land?


“I don’t
think it’s down to me to explain the intention of each piece of work for it to
work,” she says firmly. “Obviously, it’s got to stand on its own with nothing
to do with me. It has nothing to do with me. Rather, though, it’s much more
about presenting of different perspectives; different ways of looking at
things. I wanted the songs to be open enough to bring your own interpretation.”

Certainly, as she has trafficked in blood and passion before, Let England Shake‘s most violent imagery
– of war within the selves and within battling lands, of disgust, of disregard –
must mean something more than it had in the past; her level of the grotesque is
less directly focused and more outwards bound. Before she can say it, I spit
out her answer: “It’s an ugly world, isn’t it?”


Harvey does, then, feel a kinship to the
folk music of protest, the demonstrative language of lyricists that came before
her, their positions against the ravages against the environment and of the
heart. But rather than focus on the contemporary, Harvey states it was the ancients who guided
her as she tuned in to folk music of all ages and all countries.


listened to a lot of very ancient traditional music because it has a lot to
teach us. It also holds so much that could apply today.” She begins to tick off
Afghani folk, Russian, Middle Eastern, Cambodian, Britain,
She mentions, too, the poetry of those countries. Paintings from Goya. Films
like those of Ken Loach’s and Stanley Kubrick’s. She pauses to accentuate how
important Harold Pinter was to her process (“his poetry, not his plays”) and
how inspirational TS Elliot’s “The Wasteland” was. “So much to learn,” she


When I push
to mention certain nuances, like the characters in “The Colour of the Earth,” she
calls it ruinous to try to impart that sort of critical revelation. Mention the
details both vicious and lovely on “The Words That Maketh Murder” (my details
include the rolling of cigarettes, which makes her laugh), she’s coolly willing
to say that it is about the warring campaigns of Gallipoli. Ask if America is as ruined as her England is and
whether or not this album is a lament to our nation as well, she offers mildly,
“It fits if you want it to.”

The only thing that stops her and makes it so she relents with a chuckle is
when I refer to her humor. A once black thing that coated so much of her early
work, it is found in lighter shades within Let
England Shake
, such as using the rollicking coda to “Summertime Blues” as
part of her “The Words that Maketh Murder.” It is so weirdly mischievous and
reminiscent of the girl that used to be.


for you noticing this,” she says. For all the rumination and gloom, there is
frolic. “I laugh out loud a lot at this. Where would we be without comedy?” she
says, then mentions her love of Monty Python, the Blackadder BBC series featuring Rowan Atkinson (“especially Blackadder Goes Forth”), and Flight of
The Concords. “Where Blackadder is
concerned, that’s a prime example of getting the balance just right; a very
serious subject matter dabbed with comedy.”

Yes, folks, she just compared Let England Shake to
Rowan Atkinson. Bloody good.

With each album of hers being some form of next chapter in the annals of who PJ
Harvey is and what her progress might be, she holds no weight or want to
describe the mercurial nature of who she is or what possible backstory all this


“I never
thought of it before,” she says, with genuine pluck. “I don’t know if there is
one thing or if I ever bothered to analyze the thing. I’m just continuing to
learn and to explore. I just want to hit areas that I haven’t before.”




Credit: Seamus Murphy]


This story originally appeared in
BLURT issue #10. Read also: “Mentors and Muses,” our roundup of Harvey’s collaborators.




PJ Harvey exclusive 
iTunes Session EP was released on Sept. 12 and is
available at the
Store (
The EP features seven recently recorded live tracks along with an interview
with the songwriter. The Session includes four songs from her most recent
England Shake as
well as three of her most widely acclaimed songs from past albums. 


Adam Granduciel didn’t
just set out to paint his masterpiece – he succeeded.




Slave Ambient, the
second full-length from Philadelphia’s
The War On Drugs, is at least two albums in one. Heard one way, it’s an opaque,
textural work built on drones, loops and immeasurable layers of guitars both
acoustic and electric. Heard another, it’s an expansive, immersive set of road
songs and heartland anthems. There’s more than a little Dylan in leader Adam
Granduciel’s cadences and inflections, but there’s also a lot of Spacemen 3 and
Can and some Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era
Wilco, and there are DNA affinities with Granduciel’s friend and erstwhile
bandmate Kurt Vile. It’s one of those records that can strike immediately but
that then keeps changing as one listens. It’s sharp and hazy, restless and
shimmering, dense and crystalline, all at once. It’s something special.


Slave Ambient‘s 46
minutes play as a nearly continuous suite; it’s criss-crossed with
instrumentals that form bridges between songs, and there’s an ebb-and-flow to
the listening experience. Songs echo one another lyrically and instrumentally,
so that the album – and Slave Ambient is
definitely meant to be heard as an album – creates its own coherent,
self-referential world. Although it doesn’t sound labored, it’s little surprise
that Granduciel and his bandmates spent years creating it.


“A lot of the stuff went through a lot of transformations;
we were all searching for the right spirit of each song,” says Granduciel,
between a pair of sold-out NYC shows the week of the record’s release. “I
wasn’t really obsessing over it, but I was taking my time because I had an idea
in my head of what I wanted it to be like.”


Granduciel built Slave
from the bottom up, starting by accumulating drones and guitar
fragments that could be turned into loops. Songs grew from some of this work,
but the initial idea was to create a lot of available material to embed within
tracks. Friends and bandmates would end up jamming, and that could turn into a
usable layer, the “ambient” elements of the songs. The effort was intense but
disrupted: Granduciel would convene the band for short tours, or he would go on
the road with Kurt Vile as one of Vile’s Violators. Bassist Dave Hartley worked
on a solo album as Nightlands, too (last year’s excellent Forget The Mantra). At one point, Granduciel had an album ready for
his label, Secretly Canadian, but then withdrew it immediately because he
didn’t feel it was ready.


“I knew right when I turned it in that it wasn’t time yet.
So, I was like, let’s just wait,” says Granduciel. “It was a situation where
the final album did take a long time, but I wanted it to be something special,
and also it took awhile to develop some of the songs. I wanted to make sure all
the songs were strong. It wasn’t like we were unable to wrap our heads around
it. I think everyone understood that there was an idea there that was taking
time to gestate, to go through the necessary failures to the desired end.”


That desired end was something similar to Wagonwheel Blues, the Drugs’ 2008 debut,
but with more intent and artistic focus. Wagonwheel also used instrumental bridges and song reprises (as did the Drugs’ two
pre-album EPs, 2007’s Barrel of Batteries and 2010’s Future Weather), but
Granduciel says they were “almost incidental” and inadvertent. “It was almost
at first a lack of fully realized songwriting,” he says, of Wagonwheel‘s interludes. But the overall
effect, that sonic coherence, of Wagonwheel was something Granduciel wanted to repeat, although on a deeper level.


“I saw I wanted the next War on Drugs one to be similar to
that, kind of expansive, and I like the way on Wagonwheel everything worked off each other, with the reprises and
showing the process of recording a song, in a way,” he says. “And so for this
one, I like the fact that a lot of the songs actually echo each other in weird
melodic ways. They’re all kind of tied together in. It’s not like twelve
individual tracks; they all live together in this weird little family.”




The War on Drugs – Baby Missiles by edin2sun



Ambient is even
more unified than Wagonwheel, and the
songs are more consistent. The creative process was intuitive and unstructured,
at least at first. Granduciel spent a lot of time accumulating fragments and
loops – guitar filigrees, rhythmic fragments, tones and drones – and they ended
up forming the bedrock of a song. Rather than having the textures flow behind a
song, the song fit on top of the textures. The balance between the two is often
equal: foreground and background meet in a wall of sound, especially on the
anthemic set pieces “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Come To The City” and
on the Neu!-like motorik instrumental “Original Slave.” But although he used
the loops to create the songs, sometimes he removed them from the final version
of a song.


“I think it’s key that it’s never a situation where there’s
a song and there’s these things flowing in behind it,” Granduciel explains.
“The songs are written from the ground up. I wouldn’t actually know what song I
was working on for a couple months, just working in the home studio, fucking
with sounds. Then maybe over time I would develop a little sample that was
percussive or obviously the backbone of a song, and then I would start adding
over the top of it and playing with ideas. And then sometimes I’d use those
ideas or maybe try it without all the loops and drones. I’d just try to do a
song in different ways and see what worked best. ‘Come To The City’ was like
that. It has that really intense beat in the background. I did it in a few different
ways, like in a stripped down guitar / drums way; I just kept trying to sort
through all of them and find the right balance. I think that’s what we were
looking for.”


The “we” in the Drugs has fluctuated drastically. Much has
been made of Kurt Vile’s one-time membership in the band, often as if Vile
swore off the Drugs to start a solo career. It’s more a case of a pair of
friends sharing ideas and working together for years, and then each devoting
himself primarily to his own project. Vile still plays on the new record,
although not as extensively as he did on Wagonwheel;
Granduciel plays on Vile’s Smoke Ring For
My Halo
and tours with Kurt when he can.


“The musical relationship that me and him have had over the
years, and the music we’ve made together, I think it’s a really great story in
a way,” says Granduciel. “Sometimes I feel that it’s a really great story
that’s been cheapened consistently, but that’s to be expected nowadays. It’s
not even giving him enough credit really, saying that we started the band
quote-unquote and that he left and had a solo career. That’s cheapening his
work. Because at the end of the day, we made a lot of music together for four
years, five years before anyone knew who my band was or where his music was. We
just did a lot of stuff together because we loved it and learned a lot from
each other. Everyone searches for that one person who when you play together
it’s like a really magical thing. I feel like we have that. That’s why I never
stopped playing in the Violators, because the guitar relationship that me and
him have is really a great thing.”


Granduciel gets frustrated by the misconceptions of their
history and their friendship. He calls it “the Kurt thing.”


“I just feel like that it’s reduced to that we don’t even talk
anymore, like, Are you guys still buddies? Come on, dude, do your research.
I’ve been on tour with him.; it’s still happening. He didn’t quit the band and
start a solo career. It was two friends helping each other out with their
recordings, before we had record deals or people ever came to see us when we
played. I would say, Dude, I got this song, and he would play this awesome
guitar part on top of it. And he’d be like, I’ve got this tune, and I’d play on
top of it. I don’t know if people want that classic rock story of people
quitting and going solo, but it’s lazy work, over the years. But it’s become
fact in a way. You can’t really go around commenting on people’s blogs. You
just got to let it live.”


Vile’s work isn’t as sonically dense as is Granduciel’s
Drugs stuff, and Vile has a stronger slacker element (hence his recent
partnership with J. Mascis). But listening to a song such as Vile’s “Jesus
Fever” with its trebly guitar interplay, it’s easy to hear the affinities.


One can also hear connections in Hartley’s Nightlands work:
although Mantra is a purely solo
work, it’s densely layered and artfully constructed.


“I’d say the Nightlands stuff is probably influenced and
informed by what Adam does, but through the eyes of someone who listens to a lot
of ELO and the Beach Boys and Squeeze and shit like that,” says Hartley.


Currently, Hartley has the longest tenure in the War on
Drugs, having played on a few Wagonwheel tracks. Keyboard player Robbie Bennett and drummer Steven Urgo contributed to
the record and are in the touring band. But Granduciel is the mastermind.


“There’s no question that it’s his baby, and he was the only
one who really knew what the big picture was. We were all instruments of his
vision,” says Hartley. “It’s weird. I feel like the War on Drugs is really
collaborative in the sense that we’re constantly jamming with each other, and
listening and layering. But it’s not collaborative in that there’s not a lot of
discussion about it. There was never like a powwow, like we should go for this
kind of vibe. It just sort of happened, by years of repetition.”


The recording process was so attenuated, with players coming
to Granduciel’s home studio to jam and add ideas which, according to
Granduciel, would sometimes “totally change the direction of the song.” But
ultimately Granduciel and co-producer Jeff Zeigler constructed the songs from
all the formal and informal sessions. Because the process was so extended and
improvisatory, even the players sometimes have trouble hearing themselves in
the final product.


“I could look at the credits and know where I’m credited,
but if I didn’t have that, I would listen to it and say, I don’t know if that’s
me or what because there were so many things recorded,” says Hartley.
“Especially on things like ‘Baby Missiles’ and ‘Come To The City’ and some of
the really really dense ones like ‘Your Love Is Calling My Name’-which has
become my favorite track – I don’t know, I listen to that stuff, and I know I’m
on there somewhere but I couldn’t tell. That’s the cool thing about the
density: it’s really dense but it’s not busy, if that makes sense.”


Rather than layers playing off busy layers, Slave Ambient flows, with those layers
working wave-like together – maybe it’s a wave of sound rather than a wall? – and
details like the slightly out-of-phase double-track vocals on “Brothers” or the
shifting guitars sounds in the Dylanesque ballad “Black Water Falls” adding
depth, even if they’re not noticeable on a casual first listen. Songs weren’t
really finished until the whole album was finished. Some albums feel get there
coherence from an intense burst of work – they were recorded in a few days, and
that focus produced an aesthetically related set of songs – but in this case,
everything slowly accrued at the same pace.


“I don’t know that anybody could have dealt with working on
it all the time with me,” says Granduciel. “A song we started two and a half
years ago, over time we were always adding to it, remixing it. I was always
adding to new songs and old songs; so
if I was working on a new song, putting some guitars down, I was like, oh man,
this tone we got is fucking great, let’s go back to ‘I Was There’ and put a
track down with this sound on that. I was always going back to them and making
little adjustments and adding to the record.”


No wonder the album took a long time to finish. A couple
factors converged to finally get it done. Granduciel knew he was going to be
touring with Kurt Vile in the summer, and the War on Drugs scheduled a tour
opening for Destroyer for the spring, so they needed to finish the album by
March. Co-producer Jeff Zeigler, who’d also co-produced Wagonwheel with Granduciel and Vile, was crucial in the final
stages, says Granduciel.


“He did some recording of it over the years, but the last
six to eight months when I was super-confused, he was like, Dude, let’s finish
this record.  I know it’s close. So, we
worked on it pretty much from September through March, we just buckled down and


And finishing meant not only completing the recording of
individual songs but connecting the dots between them.



The War on Drugs – Come to the City by yvynyl



“Some cool stuff happened at the very end when we were
putting it all together,” says Granduciel. “I had ‘Your Love Is Calling My
Name’ and ‘Come To The City’, and then ‘The Animator’ that goes in between them
was just something I was working on, but it was going to go behind ‘Come To The
City’ because it was in the same key. And I just kind of off-set it and made it
its own thing and went, Oh sweet, we can link these three songs together. Then
we looked at the whole twelve-minute thing and went through and made it so it
didn’t seem like it was just three segues. It wasn’t a sequencing thing like
where they were all done and we just cross-faded. We saw the possibility, and
then approached the whole thing as if we were working on one song, which was


And that resulted in the awesomeness of Slave Ambient as a whole.


“It’s great that it’s reaching a lot of people and that
people are coming out to see us. It’s exciting for me and I think it’s exciting
for the other guys. Maybe year ago the record was in a strange place, but now
it’s out and to see people responding to it, it’s great, it’s awesome.”


The War On Drugs are
currently on tour in Europe. The U.S. tour
resumes again in mid-October. View dates at the official website.



[Photo Credit: Graham Tolbert]


HEAR THEM ROAR The Joy Formidable

With a US tour
currently in progress, the Welsh band aims to get down to business.




Singer-guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist/boyfriend Rhydian
Dafydd started the Joy Formidable in 2007 in Mold, their North
Wales hometown. Later, they relocated to London, adding drummer Matthew Thomas. But Bryan developed her songwriting skills half a world away,
while working some five years ago as an au pair in Washington, D.C.

The job was “very much as a disguise for doing music, because I’m not
particularly maternal,” says Bryan
with a laugh.

Anyone who’s heard the trio’s storming music – aptly described by the title of
its latest album, The Big Roar (Atlantic) – may be surprised that Bryan
was then pursuing “the route of being a singer-songwriter.” But, she
says, the tunes she composed after the kids went to bed were similar to Joy
Formidable material “in terms of the lyrical voice and the melodic
sensibility.” Back in Wales,
Bryan added an
effects-laden guitar style. “We knew we wanted to remain a
three-piece,” she explains, “so I had to develop my guitar playing to
fit that vision. We wanted to be a powerful and dynamic live band. The way the
guitar interacts with the drums and bass creates that wall of sound.”

The Big Roar expands the sonic range
of the group’s eight-song mini-album, A
Balloon Called Moaning
. Both sets were recorded in Bryan and Dafydd’s bedroom studio, but this
time the musicians enlisted the help of their live engineer. Interestingly,
they didn’t have live drums. The band incorporated Thomas’ thumping and some
new parts that evolved while playing the songs live, but didn’t entirely
re-record Moaning songs held over for
TBR. “We didn’t want to lose any
of the soul by polishing it too much,” the guitarist notes.

Despite the trio’s robust attack, there is something singer-songwriterly about
its music: Bryan’s
cryptic, personal lyrics. “I’m definitely a private person,” she
concedes, “but at the same time, the album is emotive. And it’s loaded
with a lot of meaning. It’s just not my style to lay it all out there.”



Go here to view The
Joy Formidable’s tour itinerary. The North American tour runs through September
30, then commences in the UK
on October 13.


In which the TTB’s Mike
Mattison relates a sound foosball drubbing.




the road as a singer with the Derek Trucks Band – and now the Tedeschi Trucks
Band – for a combined total of almost ten years, I have seen some seriously
fucked up shit: Curbside drubbings; colorful, unthinkable racial incidents; a
girl with an actual third-eye and
that dude in Nashville front-and-center who exhaled a hit of crack smoke right
into my face.


the most fucked up things, the stuff that sticks with you, are the minor
emotional tragedies: Aeschylus played in miniature backstage, on the bus, in
the barroom.


of these tragedies happened in Grand Junction, Colorado.


Derek Trucks Band had finished its set in a bar I’m quite sure no longer exists.
Derek and I wandered back into the venue to do what musicians sometimes do in
Grand Junction: Get a drink or have one bought for us.


looked… unappealing. Probably in sweat pants. Derek maybe wearing his signature
“you-don’t-really-see-me” Atlanta Braves brim. Two tired musicians
trying to waste an hour before bus call.


was a guy named “Scott,” drinking whiskey. He recognized Derek,
called him “Trucksie.” A little familiar but, hey, it was almost 1:00 a.m.
“Trucksie,” said Scott, “Loved your show! Let me buy you a shot.”
Scott ordered two shots. Trucksie, always the populist, suggested Scott might
want to order me one, too. Scott complied. He tapped me on the back. He said,
“You’re the keyboard player right?”


I said, “I’m the other black guy onstage.”




I said. Yes, I’m the fuckin’ drummer.


Clink! Down-in-one! Pfffaaaah!


“You guys play foosball?”


was still a little new to touring. I’d done some traveling in my time, but
never as a professional. Never as a person who could be followed from city to
city by looking at my website. Anonymity and I were friends. Still are.


forgets that “Trucksie,” well, people have an eye on him. An eye on
his talent. An eye on his at-oneness with the electric guitar. Ideas about who
he is, you know, inside. That he’s onstage because maybe there is some fluke. That
maybe he’s a douche. Or a secret Republican. Or that he’s human just like us.


again: “Do you guys play foosball?”




gestured at the bar, the smoke, the four other people huddled over their drinks.
“This bar is my bar. This foosball table,” he smacked a goal-handle
and made it whiz, “I own. Nobody
wins here but me.”


was an interesting statement. A statement everyone on earth would like to make
about some aspect in their lives, except maybe masturbation.


and my boy,” Scott grabbed a confused-looking gawker. “Against you
and him.” He pointed at me, the Drummer.


said Derek.


we usually ascribe to guitar-players – the ones that really can play – is an uncanny ability to make the right musical
choices in the midst of a veritable tsunami of beats, chord changes and sonic
anomalies. Aesthetics aside, if you want to jam guitar-style, you’ve got to
have the eye-hand coordination of an NHL goalie. People don’t think about it,
but it’s true. This should be on your mind especially if you own a foosball table in the only
after-hours bar in Grand Junction, Colorado. Use your noggin.


wasn’t pretty. Derek made a show of it, statesman-like, trying to maintain
equilibrium. As a child I had had a foosball table in my basement, but to be
frank I’ve always been a singer – the eyes and hands only move in concert when I’m
trying to get food into my face. I fed Derek from the back-three, the scoring
was up to him.


slammed one home. “Oooh! Trucksie! I
told you
this was my table.”


cringed a little.


kind of started trying and we skunked
them out 10-2.




the fuckin’ Drummer, fake yawning: “I think it’s about my bed-“


girlfriend suddenly appeared. “Jen!,” said Scott, “This is
Derek, the guy who was playing-” he gestured at the stage.


happened next is kind of what happens in The
Three Stooges
when Moe holds Curly’s head at arm’s length while Curly
wheels his arms in a perpetual windmill.


screamed Scott.


about seven of these, Scott’s girlfriend started crying. “Scott, please,


not like we were being nasty. In fact, we tried to excuse ourselves multiple
times. And, for the record, and this sounds condescending, but: Scott was good.




girlfriend started to scratch at his playing hand. “Not during the game, Jen!”


and I even held up our hands and attempted to lose, but by then the slippery
slope of disappointment had already inhabited Scott. It had taken hold of his
person. Also, he had been drinking Old Grandad constantly.


only took an hour. But the foosball table, at 2:00 a.m. MT, Grand Junction, CO,
no longer belonged to Scott.


don’t think there is a moral to this story. There never is, really, in a
tragedy. The night was fated, before we had ever even met, in the stars.



The Tedeschi Trucks
Band’s latest album
is out now on Sony Masterworks.


James Minchin)



Tedeschi Trucks Band –
“Midnight in Harlem”


Young virtuoso
bassist, fueled on Stanley Clark, Flying Lotus and, er, Teenage Mutan Ninja Turtles,
makes good. Listen to stream of his album, below.



Who would have thought the new face of modern music in South
Central Los Angeles would be the bass playing son of a former Temptations
drummer who learned how to use his instrument by practicing to the soundtrack
for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? But
that’s only a fraction of the history of young Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat,
who is bringing his once gang-riddled region of California back to the days when it held
property to one of the West Coast’s most vibrant jazz scenes.


Bruner’s short but storied career has seen him tour Japan
with soul great Leon Ware, log studio time with the likes of Eric Benet, Snoop
Dogg and bass hero Stanley Clarke and join the ranks of Cali thrash greats
Suicidal Tendencies, with whom he remains an active member. However, it took
the goading of good friend Flying Lotus, whose acclaimed 2010 LP Cosmogramma (reviewed here) was made
all the more awesome thanks to Bruner and his lighting quick bass lines, to
release an album of his own compositions did Thundercat finally emerge from
under the bed of tape fright to create his debut full-length.


Entitled The Golden
Age of Apocalypse
and issued earlier this month by the Brainfeeder label, it
has already been hailed by BBC radio guru Gilles Peterson as “the most
essential bass player’s album since Jaco Pastorius’ Jaco Pastorius.” And when you first put the proverbial needle
on this record, you will be instantly aware that’s not just some rote hype
talk. This is an astral traveling explosion of virtuosic swagger that brings
together artful R&B, abstract hip-hop and full-blown fusion jazz, abetted
by co-production from Lotus and accented with contributions from Erykah Badu,
members of the daftly underrated Sa-Ra Creative Partners and ‘Cat’s
Grammy-winning brother Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums. Check out the tracks via
Brainfeeder’s SoundCloud feed:



Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse by BRAINFEEDER



Tracks like “Daylight,” “Fleer Ultra,” “Boat
Cruise” and “Jamboree” definitely may have more in common with
mid-70s Roy Ayers and Weather Report than the urban IDM science thrown down by
Thundercat’s Brainfeeder labelmates Samiyam and The Gaslamp Killer. But the way
by which he approaches that particular era in electric jazz is brought forth
with a similarity that also recalls the beats of MF Doom, whose influence you
can directly hear on the 22-second opening cut “Hoooooo,” which utilizes
the same George Duke sample that the Villainous One utilizes on his Operation: Doomsday banger “I Hear
Voices.” In fact, the very song teased on that intro track, “For Love I
Come,” is given the full coverage treatment on Apocalypse, as Mr. Duke’s otherwise kinetic 1975 funk joint is
slowed down to about half its original speed and transformed into an
intergalactic slow jam that sounds strangely like the incidental music from The Goonies (the scene when Mikey steals
a kiss from his brother’s girl Andy). Bruner’s CTI dreams are further fulfilled
on cuts such as “Is It Love?” and “Goldenboy,” suggesting Squarepusher
sitting in on a lost Idris Muhammad session, while “Walkin'” finds
the Cat muscling into Dâm-Funk territory
by shifting gears into the smoothed out synth-funk of the early-to-mid ‘80s,
harboring the flavor of vintage Shalamar. Meanwhile, the Doom influence comes
full circle on “Mystery Machine (The Golden Age of Apocalypse),” which
makes no secret of Bruner’s love for old Hanna-Barbera cartoons by flipping the
script on the essence of Saturday morning in ways the networks could never


A musician’s musician in every sense of the word, what
Thundercat has created with The Golden
Age of Apocalypse
is the sonic equivalent to a power-packed issue of Wax Poetics, bringing together several
disparate elements of one nation under a groove to build a challenging and
soulful playground for his indelible skills on the bass. If this is the kind of
stuff we should come to expect from a former sideman now transitioning to
center stage, heads are definitely in for some serious fun after the Rapture.


[Photo Credit: / Daniel Zetterstrom]



The timeless tunesmith
on his new album, on coming out in 2006, on his role as both a bandleader and a
sideman, on the biggest mistakes of his career, and much more.




Anyone who thinks guitar pop is dead hasn’t heard Tommy
Keene’s latest album Behind the Parade (Second Motion). Or seen the power he can muster live, hitting those big,
ringing chords on his Telecaster and pulling from a catalogue of nearly 30 years
of melodic rock ‘n’ roll. He has worked up a sweat on his latest tour, thumping
through new songs like “Deep Six Saturday” and “Behind the Parade” and older
material like “Back to Zero” and “Places That Are Gone.” (The final show of the
current tour leg is tonight, Sept. 16, in St. Paul;
check Keene’s official website for concert updates.)


We spoke with Keene about a range of subjects, from his new
work (and the oddball synth track on the Behind
the Parade
) to the 50th anniversary of Decca’s declaration to
the Beatles that guitar groups were passé. He started the interview talking
about North Carolina,
where much of BLURT’s editorial staff is based. Though he got his start in Washington, D.C., people
would sometimes mistake him for being from North Carolina, partially because of the way
he talks, and partially because of his association with the Durham-based
Dolphin Records.




BLURT: Did people
associate you with any particular scene when you started, other than mistaking
you for being from North Carolina?

TOMMY KEENE: Well I think it’s probably the only time in my
career where what I was doing was kind of in vogue was right around that time,
and you know, early ‘80s you had R.E.M., you had the dBs, you had Let’s Active,
so there was this whole sort of mid-Atlantic, southern pop kind of jangly
guitar scene. That was sort of the rage for a nanosecond. And everyone was
going around trying to find jangly pop bands. So that’s the only time I’ve been
in vogue, ever. It was short-lived. I mean, you know, R.E.M. went on to become
huge. But it was a trend and I think that’s how we sort of got recognized
because we got included in that whole thing.


In December, we’re
going to be celebrating 50 years since Decca passed on the Beatles telling them
that guitar groups were on their way out. And here you are making guitar-driven
rock and pop, even with all of these other styles swirling around you. What do
you think makes that format or that idea so durable?

Well, it’s a very classic approach, I think. And there’s no
denying that when I was five years old I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. So they
kind of started the whole thing. And I was very influenced by them and probably
still am. I always wonder, because there were bands playing sort of around that
same time. I mean, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how great they were, what
great songwriters, entertaining and funny and charismatic they were, but what
was it that set them apart? I mean at the very beginning. You know what I mean?
If you read all the Beatles books, they’re playing the Cavern, Epstein’s
managing them, and then “Love Me Do” goes to number 46, and then two months
later, they took over the whole country. I mean, what was it about them? They
were so great, but you would think it would have been easy for them to sort of
get lost.


It’s a fair question.
I’m not sure if you compare the songwriting that early –

Right. That early, they were still doing all those covers.
You know what I mean? And they had maybe five really good songs. Not even.
“Please, Please Me,” “Love Me Do,” “She Loves You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,”
and “It Won’t Be Long” or something.


They weren’t far from
covering “The Sheik of Araby.”

Oh, I know, and that was pretty jivey. “Besame Mucho?” “Till
There Was You?” The fact they put that on their debut album is real cheese. But
that was McCartney, right? The showman. They even did it on Ed Sullivan!


I don’t know what
made me think of the guitar quote, but I thought of it after listening to the
new record.

Now who did that guy sign after he turned them down? Was it
the Animals or the Stones? Or someone else?


It’s probably
Herman’s Hermits or somebody.

Right. He said, “Oh, I lost out on that,” and he signed
someone else. He probably signed the next twenty things.


Everybody with a

Did you just think of that or is BLURT doing a thing on it?


I just thought of it.
I was thinking about guitar-centered rock and pop music, [listening to the
album]. You look at all the other genres going on right now, what’s popular on
the charts and what’s getting sort of pushed at you, and you realize there’s
still a lot of great guitar-centric rock and roll happening, no, but it’s sort
of under the radar a lot.

Is there really? I question that. I mean, I’ve been doing a
lot of interviews for this record and I think, I can’t remember what the
question was, but my answer was, in a way I’m still doing this because,
obviously I enjoy it. But I kind of write these songs and put out these records
because no one else is.


No one else is doing
it the way you’re doing it, or not too many people are. But if I look at just
solid, good guitar rock and roll –

What, Kings of Leon?


Drive-By Truckers, I
think, is what I’m thinking of.

Oh, okay. They’re a little more in the southern tradition.
But yeah, you’re right, it’s guitar-driven rock and roll.


Do you have any
influences that would surprise people or anybody you listen to a lot that would
be incongruous to what you actually play?

Well, on some of the later stuff, I think you would maybe
pick up on this. But some of the early stuff you’d go, “huh?” One of my
favorite bands is Roxy Music. And I’m sure I tried to write songs like Roxy
Music at one point. I think in the later, last couple of records, I kind of
succeed as far as… There’s a track on the last new album called “Elevated,” and
it was a sort of psychedelic spacey guitar thing. And on this new record, I
have this song “La Castana,” which is sort of orchestral and symphonic. That is
completely the second side of Low by
Bowie. So, yeah, there’s an example where I fool around with the keyboards.

        I [recorded]
it last Halloween. I started at eight o’clock and by five in the morning I was
done. You would never think that I was into Eno and Bowie, The Berlin Trilogy,
or whatever they were.


I was going to ask if
you had secret ambitions, because of that track, to join Kreftwerk or Vangelis.

No, that track, it does have all that… I don’t think it’s quite
Kraftwerk or that proggy. It’s very atmospheric but it has a basic almost kind
of show tune melody to it. It’s sort of symphonic, almost the entr’acte to a
Broadway musical or something. A very moody one.


Did the holiday
influence it? Where did it come from?

No. I never go out on Halloween. Haven’t in a long time
because in Los Angeles, everyone goes down to West Hollywood. They close the streets down. It’s
impossible to park and there’s about 50,000 people and everyone dresses up and
they wander around the streets. I just, I never liked dressing up at Halloween.
So it’s like New Year’s Eve to me. I will not go out and deal with that. It was
funny, because when I looked at the track sheet, I always write the date when I
started a song or when I came up with the initial idea for it, and it was
October 31. So that was how I spent my Halloween.


Are you that
disciplined about the ideas, that you have them all organized and you know when
you came up with them?

Yeah. Well, you know, this record… Last year there was a
two-disc anthology, the best Tommy Keene songs, that came out, Tommy Keene You Hear Me, and I kind of
thought, what am I going to do now? Okay, am I going to ride off into the
sunset? Or make another record? And I didn’t want to take the usual two to
three years which is usually not the artist’s fault, it’s more the record
release schedule. By the time you get it done, they’re like, oh, we’ve got this
coming out or coming up.

        But getting
back to the original question, I was sort of inspired, because I’d written a
couple of really good songs that year, meaning 2010, and I thought, what if I
can just knock a record out? And get ten really good songs and get it out next
year. So I had a release in ’09, a release in ‘10, and a release in ’11. And I
thought, it’s good to kind of keep your profile out there. You go away for two
and a half years and people are like, huh? They sort of forget you. It’s the quickest record I’ve ever done. So I was sort
of taking special note of when I started each track and dates and stuff.


Did that start with
this album or have you done that all along?

It started when I really got my own studio together about
’03 and now I’ve done four records. I did Crashing
the Ether
, I did The Keene Brothers with Bob Pollard, I did In the Late
, and now I’ve done the new album, Behind the Parade. Before, I would pay exorbitant amounts of money
to go to people’s studios and sit there overdubbing rhythm guitar parts,
spending so much money per hour. And I think the technology, even for kind of
an idiot like myself – I have a computer, but I don’t have a computer hooked up
to my studio. It’s sort of old school, I have an Alesis 24-track digital
machine which has a hard drive. And I have a board, and I have one really
good/expensive mic recompressor and I have a really great mic, which is a Sony
from the 60s – it was Jim Morrison’s favorite mic. And that’s really all you
need now to do everything but record the drums and mix. So the last record that
I did at outside studios was The Merry-Go-Round
Broke Down
and that was recorded in 2000 and came out in 2002. But since
then, yes, I’ve been sort of recording everything at home.


Did putting out the
retrospective bring anything up for you? Was there any thought about that being
the end of a certain era, and now you’ll begin something else?

Well, that would seem very logical… Not really. I definitely
have a style that’s distinctive. I mean, I always say that, until you become
really successful with one particular style, it’s really bogus to go up and go,
“Okay, now I’m going to do my electronica record.” Look at Elvis Costello. He
made so many great rock records and he was probably bored. So he said, I’m
going to do the Juliet Letters or I’m
going to do a record with Bacharach or I’m going to do a country album. You
know what I mean? I just think it would be sort of bogus for me to try to do
something like that. I mean, I haven’t made a pop rock record that’s sold over
12,000 copies. But this is, it’s what I do, you know, the music I love. It all
stems from my guitar playing. The style of my guitar playing sort of dictates
what songs I write. It’s a very rhythm guitar-oriented approach, where I’ll
come up with a chord sequence or am arpeggiated riff or something. Everyone has
a difference approach.


Do you ever feel like
you want to just see what happened if you tried something else?

I don’t know. Would people dig that? Maybe I can find a
whole new audience. An even bigger audience!


If you leave the
audience out of it, just in terms of your own curiosity, just to see…

I’d love to, but would someone put that out? I doubt it. I mean,
I could just put it out on the Web. Mixing is still expensive. That’s the one
thing – to pay people to get a really great mix, it’s still a little pricey. I
mean, if you don’t record drums, you just do rough mixes yourself, you can do
it for nothing. But I think I would probably have to have someone mix it, that
knows what they’re doing.


I don’t think fans
ever think of the expense of putting out an album.

I don’t think they do. That’s why a lot of people don’t feel
bad about downloading albums for free. Right? It’s just music. It’s just a rock
record. Yeah, indie situations, labels that I’m in, the artist is really paying
for it.


People probably think
you buy a laptop and a couple of mics and you can do whatever you want.

You can do that. I’m sure there are certain people who have
sold a lot of records that have done that. I think there’s probably some indie
rock bands on their way up, first couple of records, that they did for
incredibly cheap. But then it’s the whole, now we have to break out to a wider
audience and this low-fi crap is not cutting it.

        I’ll give you
an example – Bob Pollard, Alien Lanes,
which is [Guided By Voices’] biggest selling record, you know how much that
cost to make? $9.99. Two high-bias
60-minute cassette tapes. And I think they got an outrageous amount of money by
a label to put that out. His big thing is, “never been dropped, never
recouped.” Which is funny. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth.


Can’t wait for the
remaster of that.

Oh yeah! Let’s go back to those cassettes! Right, right.


Hope he still has

Oh, I’m sure he does. That’s funny. It doesn’t matter if you
use the master tapes for that. It’s probably better that you don’t. They’re
probably all out of phase and corroded. Remember cassettes that you’d play a
million times, and the high end would drop out and they’d phase in and out?


“Deep Six Saturday,” from Behind The Parade




I wanted to ask about
labels and the term “power pop,” which is one I know you haven’t liked in the
past, but I’m told maybe you’ve come to peace with that?

Yeah. My problem with most power pop bands – and I hope I
don’t, and I don’t think I fall into this category – is that it’s all about
emulating something. We’re going to emulate the spirit of the Beach Boys! It’s
gonna sound like Pet Sounds! Or we’re
going to wear striped shirts like a New Wave band and play Rickenbacker guitars
and wear these Beau Brummels like they did in the ‘60s.

        I don’t write
songs about cars and girls. I might have written a few. But I think a lot of
that music that most people refer to as “power pop” is very lightweight. Very
disposable. And I’d like to think my music isn’t quite like that. I have
written some kind of dumb, romantic, anthemic pop songs about relationships.
But if you look at the big picture, I’ve been sort of fighting that from maybe
day one.


Is there a
description you’re more comfortable with?

Pop rock. Pop rock. Melodic rock ‘n’ roll.


Was it gratifying
that Robert Pollard deferred to you to record as The Keene Brothers rather than the Pollard

Well, it’s a funny story. He came up with that name. He’s
like, “Let’s call it The Keene Brothers.” And I said, that’s cool, because
Bobby and Tommy Keene – my older brother, my only sibling, is Bobby Keene. And
a couple of years later, I was out with him playing with this group the Boston
Spaceships and there was some talk about doing another record, and he said,
“But this time, it’s going to be the Pollard Brothers.” It was his idea, I was
like, fine.


That begs the
question, what happens if you make a third record?

I don’t even think we’re going to make a second, so I don’t
think we have to worry about that.


When you worked as a
sideman for Paul Westerberg and Pollard, did you have to take much of a backseat?
Were you able to contribute your own ideas or were you just taking direction?

Well first of all, I love taking a backseat. I’m playing
guitar in a lot of instances, lead guitar, so it’s not going to be a backseat
in like a tambourine player in the back. But I also play guitar with that band
Velvet Crush, who are from Providence, Boston. I love playing with other people
because the pressure’s off and I can just play guitar and have a blast. And
especially, these are all people whose songs I loved and people I admired. So
that was sort of an added bonus. It’s all different. Bob will give you free
reign. “Yeah, that’s great! Do it, do it!” Paul is more, “I want you to play
exactly this, and if you don’t, I’m going to get upset. Just the way I play
it.” Paul was a little more nitpicky.  


Did that matter to

No. As George said, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play
or I won’t play at all.” I’m glad to try to play what you hear. I wish every
band member that was ever in my band felt that way. You know what I mean? I
want to really play what you’re hearing. Exactly the way you want it.


Once you come back to
your own band, is that a strange dynamic? Now you have to tell other people
what to do?

A little bit. I don’t like being hard ass on people. I don’t
like yelling at people, I never do. Well, some drummers I’ve gotten a little upset
with, like in the middle of a show, playing the wrong tempo or sleeping back

        But, no, I
more like people to bring their own dishes to the table. That, to me, is more
interesting. Sometimes when I’m making a record, I’ll be more satisfied if I
play most of the guitars or all of the guitars. But, at the same time, it’s
always good to have other personalities brought into the mix. Sometimes I think
some of those early Prince records where he played everything, they sound
really flat to me. Play the drums, play the keyboards, play guitar. Did all the
vocals. Probably played saxophone. They sound really flat to me. But no, I’ve
always liked to bounce ideas off people, I like people who bring in their own
ideas and parts. I just think the music benefits from it a lot.


Did your coming out
affect your fans at all? Did you get any feedback about that?

No a peep. I don’t know, there might have been a few people
who went, “Ooh, fag, I don’t want to listen to this anymore.” I don’t think so.
And the one thing I knew it wouldn’t do was gain any other fans that may not
have heard of me. I did an interview in The
, and aside from one of my second-removed cousins e-mailing me and
going, “It runs in the family!” that didn’t do a thing. I don’t want to get
into gay-bashing here, but most of the gay men that I’ve known throughout my
life don’t really like this kind of music. Gay men like dance music they can go
party at a disco to, and they like the trendiest, newest, cutting edge buzz

        People said,
why didn’t you do this earlier? It’s because no one cared. No one asked me. I
mean, everyone I worked with knew. I mean, I don’t really have a story to tell.


Was there a
particular reason why you came out when you did?

Yeah. My publicist said, “Can I work the gay press?” I said
sure, on that record in ’06. That was it.


That’s the most
anti-climactic coming out story I’ve ever heard.

I did an interview in Magnet,
which actually ran before The Advocate,
so Magnet got the scoop. And I told
the writer, people don’t care who I sleep with or what I do, because I’m not a
celebrity and I’m not very well known. People always want to know about Tom
Cruise or Michael Stipe, people who are huge and in the spotlight because
there’s rumors and this and that. Who knows? That’s what people are curious


If you could go back
to 1980 or 1982 and give yourself some advice, what would that be?

Oh god. I know the answer. It wouldn’t be ’82, it would be
’84, ’85. And I made two mistakes that people talked me into which I think
greatly affected – well, I say this, but you ever know. But these two things
seem to have been mistakes. One was, we did this record with Don Dixon and T
Bone Burnett, it was called Songs From
the Film
. Dixon
was hot, he’d done the first two R.E.M. records. T Bone was kind of hot, he’d
just done Los Lobos, the Dolphin [Records] EP was top ten on CMJ, and we had
pretty decent support from college radio. And in the meantime, Geffen Records
comes along, and just out of the fact that they had nothing to do with it, they
said, “If you release this record on Dolphin, the full-length record, the deal
is off. We’re not going to sign you.”

        I started playing
with this band when I was in D.C., The Ras, when I was 19. And everyone was a
bit older than me. Two of the guys were eight, nine years older and the other
two were four years older. We were the biggest band in town. We played in front
of every major label. Either we went to New York or they came down to see us. And
everyone passed. That’s what you had to do in those days. We put out our little
indie records and we put out a live EP and two singles, very D.I.Y. But that
was the end of that band because we could not get a deal. There was nowhere
else to go. So when someone’s dangling that carrot in front of you, what are
you going to do? And it wasn’t as if I had a bidding war. There was interest
from Arista. Interest, not, “We’re
going to sign you.” And Geffen, they snuck down to D.C. to see us live and the
main dude turned to his assistant in the first 25 seconds and said, “Yes.” And 25 seconds into the first
song. So we had to go along with it.

        And the second
thing they made me do, they made me fire my manager that I’d been with for two
or three years. We were really good friends. Who is now a hugely successful
concert promoter. But he was a bit unorthodox, the way he dealt with people,
and he kind of stuck his foot in his mouth a couple of times with the Geffen
people, and they weren’t having any of that. I was naïve and I thought, oh,
this is going to hurt me, because I have this manager they don’t like. But in
hindsight, they didn’t want him there because he would challenge them, and they
just wanted to control me and push all my buttons and pull my strings. And I
shouldn’t have fired him.

        Those two
things were big mistakes. And I had to make those decisions myself. At the end
of the day, I was the one who had to say, okay, we’re not putting this record
out, and fire him. It all fell on me. Everyone around me was either yea or nay,
but their careers, their lives weren’t hanging in the balance. It was all on my
head and shoulders. And it was really difficult. So I would go back and say to
myself, do this, don’t do that. Everything else I did was probably just what I
thought I should do.