Monthly Archives: November 2011

DAMN NEAR INDESTRUCTIBLE Lydia Loveless

Following some early
misfires, the country-punk twanger is definitely – defiantly – coming into her
own

 

BY NICK A. ZAINO III

 

“Bad Way To Go” kicks off Lydia Loveless’ recent album Indestructible Machine (reviewed here) with
a cacophony of banjos and guitars on the edge of feedback, a pretty little
train wreck the foreshadows a rocky ramble through heartbreak, whiskey, and
survival. Her brash country-punk fits right in on Bloodshot Records, home of
the Bottle Rockets, Scott H. Biram, the Waco Brothers, and Wayne Hancock.

 

That’s somewhat of a happy accident, since the 21-year-old
Loveless didn’t know much about the label at first. “What led me to them was
people telling me that I sounded like I was influenced by those people,” she
says, speaking to BLURT by phone from the road. [Loveless’ current U.S.
tour wraps this week
, on Dec. 3 in Iowa City, then commences again in January.
] “So I kind of had to go find it. I
wouldn’t say that I was really listening to any of those bands. So it was kind
of awesome to discover it that way. People telling you, ‘Oh, well you’re
obviously influenced by the Old 97’s.’ And I was like, ‘Who’s that, dude? I
don’t know who that is.'”

 

Loveless followed an interesting trajectory to her current
sound. Her dad is a musician, and owned a nightclub when she was a kid. She
says she was too young to stick around for the shows, but she would hear the
bands soundcheck, playing mostly rock, metal, and blues. That didn’t grab her,
though. “Mostly I just thought it was really loud and weird,” she says.

 

She knew she wanted to play music early on, she figures
around eight or nine. If she has to pinpoint a moment that solidified her
desire to be a musician, it was a giant mainstream pop star that made the difference,
not some hard-living bluesman in the club. “I think it was probably when I
watched the ‘You Drive Me Crazy’ video by Britney Spears,” she says, “was
probably the ‘a-ha’ moment for me.”

 

She found punk music when she moved from her small hometown,
Cochocton, Ohio, to the big city of Columbus. “I pretty much was hanging out
with punk rockers. So I pretty much latched onto that as much as I could, but I
was maybe even too weird for those people,” she says, laughing. “Maybe I was a
little nerdy, coming from a really small town and being home schooled. Like
everyone probably thought I was a little less grizzled than they were.”

 

To Loveless’ ears, pop and punk were a natural fit. “I guess
listening to punk started with the whole pop/punk blow-up, which a lot of
people hated, but I think it was really useful in connecting kids to, like,
better music,” she says. “So probably Richard Hell was the first person that I
really discovered, which was actually from reading about other crummy punk
bands than actually making my way up the ladder and finding where it all
started.”
 

Loveless had been exposed to country and gospel music as a
kid, artists like Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn, and the continuum of country
to punk was a natural progression. “I think they’re similar in the sense that
they’re both lifestyles and the lyrics are generally about things that most
common people could relate to,” she says. “I think they go hand in hand, and
obviously country is a little easier to listen to. I think what makes punk-country
punk is the lyrics. I think that’s usually what people are talking about.”

 

Her debut album, The
Only Man
, released in 2009 when Loveless was just 19 years old, doesn’t
reflect that sound as clearly as Loveless would have liked. The attitude and
songwriting are there, but it was recorded with a studio band, not her live
band, and she wasn’t in control of the production. 

 

“I don’t want to say that I hate it or anything,” she says. “I
kind of feel like it was an attempt at making me a polished performer. And it
kind of sounded like I failed at that. Not that I can’t be polished, but I felt
like I was sort of straining to be something different. And I guess that’s why
it sounds like I don’t know what I’m doing. But I don’t think it’s necessarily
a bad album. It’s just probably the wrong approach.”

 

That changed with Indestructible
Machine
. “Since I was doing the production and really making all of the
decisions, it obviously got a lot grittier and more personal,” she says. “I
don’t know. I just think that I can listen to Indestructible Machine and think that that’s actually me, as
opposed to listening to The Only Man,
I just feel like I’m still learning, I guess.”

 

The result is an album that has resonated with audiences and
critics, and will likely land on a lot of “Best of 2011” lists. Loveless has
drawn comparisons to a lot of bigger artists, most frequently Lucinda Williams
and Neko Case, which brings its own kind of pressure.

 

Does she shrink from those comparisons or embrace them?
“Yeah, I do probably shrink from them a little bit, not because I find them
offensive or because I dislike them, but because it’s almost a little
embarrassing to just come out and have people immediately comparing you to
people who are clearly at a higher level than you are,” she says. “So it’s
flattering, but after a while it kind of just becomes background noise. ‘Neko
Case, Neko Case.’ Sometimes I feel like I’m reading a Neko Case review. [laughs] It’s weird.”

 

She is also fielding plenty of questions about drinking in
her lyrics. That’s to be expected – it’s part of the tapestry Loveless has
created in the music. She laughs a bit when asked if she’s getting tired of the
questions, but it’s still tiring.

 

“It’s hard to read about it. I think people think that I’m
sort of trying to perpetuate that. I mean, I don’t think anyone wants to say,
‘I’m an alcoholic! Woo!’ And I think that’s what people are trying to get me to
say, but, I don’t know. It’s weird. I’m definitely not proud of it, I don’t
really think about drinking in such a proud, partying way.”

 

Loveless has the advantage of being surrounded by family on
tour. Her husband, Ben, is her bass player and her father is her drummer. But
that can be a difficult dynamic, when you’re the boss. How does she handle it? “Um,
it’s more like how do they handle it, probably,” she says, laughing. “I feel a
little more straightforward with them. They sometimes want to hide under a rock
when I’m talking to them. After getting stressed out or tired or something.”

 

The audiences know her now, and Loveless says they come up
to say hello before a show or request specific songs, a nice change from being
the background noise to someone’s night out at the club. “I think more people
are coming specifically to see us instead of just wandering into a bar and
seeing us, like it used to be,” she says. “It’s a little more exciting to go on
tour.”

 

More exciting, and busier. Which makes it harder for
Loveless to work on new material. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem
nonetheless. “I’m getting better at, like, making time to actually work on
other things,” she says. “I think before, when I would have just huge amounts
of free time, I didn’t really think of time in the same way. But now I’m like,
two days! That’s a lot of time to myself to work on stuff.”

 

Will Loveless change as much between albums two and three as
she did between albums one and two? She’d like to find a happy medium between
the polish and the fire. “It probably won’t be as significant,” she says, “but
I think I definitely will try for a different sound.”

 

[Photo Credit: Paula Masters Travis]

 

THE STORY OF… Giant Sand’s Chore Of Enchantment

A deluxe, expanded
reissue of the 2000 Sand classic prompts us to flip through our back pages.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

With British label
Fire Records’ ongoing overhaul of the Giant Sand back catalog – several “25th Anniversary Edition” expanded remasters were released this year and more are
due in 2012 (details here) – now seems like the perfect time to celebrate anew
Chore
Of Enchantment. Originally released in
2000 by Chicago’s
Thrill Jockey, this month’s Fire reissue (a sprawling two-CD version, no less)
finds it having endured the test of time to become one of the core artifacts in
the Sand oeuvre.

 

Point of fact, it’s
long been one of yours truly’s favorite recordings, and at the time of
Chore‘s initial arrival, I was living in Tucson
where the members of Giant Sand lived so it was easy for me to drop in on band
founder Howe Gelb to talk about the record and the tangled (to put it lightly)
circumstances surrounding its creation. A truncated version of the story that
follows originally appeared in issue #45 of
Magnet magazine but the magazine published such a drastic edit that many of
Gelb’s most revealing disclosures – and indeed, details key to understanding
the inner workings of the band – were left on the cutting room floor. As a
result, several years later I opted to place the complete, unexpurgated version
on Britain’s
desert rock-friendly Sa-Wa-Ro website; what you’ll read below is essentially
the latter take, with some slight tweaking. Be aware that since 2000 many
changes have taken place in the Giant Sand universe – for one thing, Joey Burns
and John Convertino are no longer in the band and now concentrate full time on
Calexico – but as a widescreen snapshot of how things stood at that particular
point in time, I think it still can prove valuable to any true fan of the
group.

 

Incidentally, today on
the BLURT website we’ve also got a detailed Howe Gelb-narrated autodiscography from the same year that, likewise, should be of interest to Giant Sand
aficionados. I hope you enjoy both pieces. – FM

 

***

By most standards, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb should
have thrown in the towel in 1999. That was the year when, coming on the heels
of the death of Gelb’s best friend, an unexpected clash within his band and a
lingering bout with writer’s block and artistic self-doubt, his record label
delivered the mortal blow in the way of dropping him from the roster — right
after he’d turned in what is arguably the most enticing and fully-realized
record of his 20-year career. Same old “independent artist slams into the
major label brick wall” story? Not quite. In the Giant Sand world, things
tend to turn upon their own idiosyncrasies, and those whims rarely align
themselves with the goings-on of the mainstream music biz.

 

Or, as Gelb himself characterizes his band, “It’s been
a training ground for an attitude and healthy perspectives. It dealt with the
not clinging to most of the things that other bands cling to. It didn’t have a
great ambition or a great description of what it was — it tried to sidestep
all of that.”

The Story Thus Far

Even to the outsider, Giant Sand has tended to appear more
familial, almost communal in nature, than musical projects marked by the usual
get-in-the-van boys’-club rock band mentality. Things did start off
traditionally enough for Gelb: Arriving in Arizona from Pennsylvania in the
late ’70s, he soon formed a new waveish garage band, Giant Sandworms, with three talented Tucson musicians,
including RainerPtacek,
who would come to figure heavily in his personal and professional life. But
that group turned into, by Gelb’s own admission, a “four-headed beast”
that quickly saw Ptacek depart following the release of an EP in 1980 and a
decision by the others to temporarily relocate to New York. The move turned out disastrously
(the twin specters of heroin and financial destitution reared up within the
band), and upon returning to Tucson, the Sandworms, through happenstance, initiated
a revolving-door membership policy which would extend beyond the group’s
four-year lifespan and pick up steam in Gelb’s subsequent musical incarnation.

 

The Giant Sand story proper picks up in ’84 when Gelb,
during another temporary exodus from the Old Pueblo, landed in L.A. in order to
live in closer proximity to both his favorite recording studio and Enigma Records, to which he’d recently signed and was set to
release the inaugural  Giant Sand album, Valley
Of Rain
.
Recalling his first night in L.A., Gelb says, “In the van
I had the tapes of both that record and the The
Band Of Blacky Ranchette
album [a country-rock side project he’d
initiated a few months earlier with his old chum from the Sandworms, Ptacek],
and I had a feeling it was gonna get ripped off so I’d taken everything out of
the van but I forgot the tapes! We had the pre-mix and the rough-mix of each
session, and we got back and sure enough, they’d ripped off the van — they’d
somehow stolen one reel of each, leaving me with the rough mix of Blacky and the pre-mix masters of Valley Of Rain.
Those tapes became the two albums. The next day we went down to this ghetto
area and suddenly Scott
Garber
[Giant Sand bassist] goes, ‘Did you see the shit that guy was
wearing?’ And it was a Giant Sandworms shirt that he must have stolen!”

Undeterred, Gelb soldiered on, and with the 1985 release of Valley Of Rain the Giant Sand star
quickly rose among aficionados — including some extremely rabid fans overseas,
such as England’s venerable Bucketful Of
Brains
 magazine (whose review of the record, ironically enough, was
how yours truly first heard of Giant Sand — of the then-burgeoning American
guitar-band scene. Subsequent albums throughout the ’80s and on into the early
’90s solidified the group’s reputation even as Gelb was diversifying his
position. Giant Sand could veer from an introspective folk tune to a full-on
Neil Youngian skronk-fest to a sweet, acoustic guitar/pedal-steel country
number in less time it took to flip an album over on the turntable, and this
unpredictability comprised a major portion of the outfit’s appeal. Gelb clearly
relished the options afforded by letting go of preconceived notions of what
constituted a core “sound.” At one point in late ’86 he even took his
own Rolling Thunder-styled revue to Europe, a morphing six-piece that might
start out a set as Giant Sand, become Blacky Ranchette midway through, and by
show’s end turn into The Band of Giant Blacky or some such imprecise appellation.
A few years later, readying a new Giant Sand release, he consented to issue the
record as a Howe Gelb solo album because his label complained there was too
much recent Sand product to market and promote already! (Gelb: “We’d been
putting them out every six to eight months and they were saying, ‘Please, can
you wait longer between releases!'”)

At any rate, this is old history that’s been recounted in fine detail many times
in the past. In any event, we’ll let Gelb himself touch on selected aspects of
his tenure himself [see the sidebar]. What’s important is where Giant Sand
stands today.

With Gelb, it seems, a working combo or stylistic vision is only as fixed as the
chemistry churning within. And over the years — sixteen and counting for Giant
Sand, which boasts more alumni than Menudo and is now on its 15th album (24th
if you include compilations and side projects) — the Giant Sand chemistry has
yielded some volatile products indeed, the results of a catching-lightning-in-a-bottle
creative aesthetic and a deeply-felt appreciation for how different
combinations of personalities can offer new, challenging, artistic
possibilities. Gelb, as the founding member, songwriter and proud patriarch of
Giant Sand, provides the kind of easygoing, guiding hand — he calls it a
“lack of ambition” — which paradoxically allows a flexible structure
to grow and flourish while still maintaining a necessary philosophical
consistency. Members of the Giant Sand extended family have been known to
wander off and busy themselves elsewhere on other projects; but they’ve always
been welcomed with open arms upon return. The very nature of the beast means
that it can twist around and bite itself on the leg, and, in fact, that’s
precisely what happened without warning in the last few years.

Still, to cite Gelb quoting that paragon of paradox, Buddha, “If you know
you
are walking on a trap, it will be pure joy.”

Tucson, Arizona, 2000

It’s a sunny, beautiful March day in Tucson, and today, at Gelb’s bright blue adobe
digs located squarely in the middle of Tucson’s colorful Barrio Viejo district,
“family” is the operative word. I’m here to probe Gelb about Chore
Of Enchantment
,
the latest Giant Sand album which has just been
released by Chicago’s
Thrill Jockey label. As I wander in the front door I’m warmly greeted by his
wife Sofie, who introduces me to her mother, currently very far away from home
(Denmark)
and visiting her daughter and son-in-law for a spell. Accepting an offer of
fresh coffee, I sit down at the kitchen table, which is occupied by a pair of
visitors with whom I’m already acquainted, Patti and Lili Keating, widow and
daughter of Rainer Ptacek. Sofie ducks into the bedroom to check on the baby,
emerging in a few minutes holding son Luka, who’ll turn one in a matter of
weeks.  Brushing sleep from his eyes, Luka reaches for his juice bottle
and, after a few cursory sucks, glances around the room and smiles winningly
for mom, grandmother and journalist.

By now family pooch Rosa has also
sauntered into the kitchen. Rosa sniffs suspiciously
at the intruder, examines the other occupants of the room for any potential
food handouts, then darts out the door into the back yard where Papa Howe is
finishing up trenching out irrigation basins for the trees and shrubs. Soon
enough filmmaker Bill Carter (of Miss
Sarajevo
fame and currently assembling a Giant Sand documentary) drops by,
as does Giant Sand/Calexico drummer John
Convertino
and young daughter Mia, who wants to watch
“Teletubbies” with Luka and Lili. Numerous times over the course of
the afternoon the Gelb phone will ring: Thrill Jockey label maven Bettina Richards,
reminding Gelb of an interview slated for the following afternoon; guitarist
Nick Luca, recently added to the Giant Sand touring lineup, inquiring about
details regarding an upcoming appearance at South By Southwest.

So it’s no wonder that what started out to be a simple discussion about the new
album winds up turning into a rambling six-hour session with numerous
interruptions. None are unwelcome, however, and an impromptu father-son jam
session (on upright piano and cardboard box drums — you may figure who played
what) is particularly touching. Gelb clearly dotes on the kid. He’s neither
upset nor fazed when Luka, crawling furiously across the floor of Gelb’s music
room, almost knocks over a hi-tech-looking guitar effects box.  Gelb
scoops up his son, smiles, and says, ‘That’s okay. If he breaks it, he’ll just redefine it.”

Major Prospects

“My ultimate goal was to have, for the first time, a universal release
with a company with good distribution,” explains Gelb of his decision to
sign with upstart major label V2 some 3 1/2 years earlier. “We took
months, considering certain things like ‘is the deal applicable and how so is
it?’; I’d met people in four or five offices in different countries and liked
99.9% of those people. It was a brand new company, they had high ideals, really
free-minded, and they were good about paying us health insurance. Everything about
it was healthy.”

Or so it seemed. In a sense, you’d think that Gelb would have been gun shy about
hooking up with V2; his last experience with a major label ended in disaster
when Imago, which issued 1994’s Glum,
collapsed prior to the release of the album in Europe,
traditionally a Giant Sand stronghold and a solid source of touring income for
the band. During the next couple of years a handful of Giant Sand one-offs,
mostly comprising live material, appeared on indie labels. But Gelb, who freely
admits to being fascinated with the way the music business works, still
hungered for that increased exposure for his band that a worldwide release
would bring. Says Gelb with a laugh, “Even if we eventually got dropped,
even the smallest percentage that would still seek us out would be larger than
anything we’d done before — and then we could use our website to reach
them.”

Prior to signing with V2 there had already been an upswing of activity in the Giant
Sand camp: Burns and Convertino’s side project Calexico (nee Spoke); the Sand-Lisa Germano collaboration OP8,
which yielded the critically-acclaimed Slush album; a Rainer Ptacek tribute-benefit album, The Inner Flame, which Gelb and Robert Plant initiated
to help out their ailing friend Ptacek, who was recovering from a brain tumor;
and the beginnings of a Gelb solo album recorded in his living room, primarily
acoustic, with contributions from assorted friends such as Germano, Grandaddy,
Winston Watson, and of course Burns and Convertino (this would eventually be
released on V2 in ’98 as Hisser).
Then, right as a creative nexus seemed to be just over the horizon for Giant
Sand, tragedy struck. Ptacek’s cancer had returned with a vengeance, and was
deemed untreatable. Gelb, who was in the midst of a European tour with Burns, Convertino
and Germano, raced home to Tucson
to help care for his dying friend.

 

At a memorial for Ptacek, held a week or so after his death
in November of  ’97, Gelb and Burns got
up in front of an overflow crowd of mourners crammed into Tucson’s San Pedro Chapel and performed a
gentle, moving song in the late guitarist’s honor. Afterwards, walking up to
Gelb to offer my condolences, I noticed his hands were shaking as they gripped
mine. His voice, too, seemed to have an uncharacteristic shakiness to it.

Back in the present and listening to Gelb recount his friend’s ordeal, I again
detect that same quiver in his voice, at least momentarily, as he nods at a
portrait of Ptacek hanging on the wall next to his piano. “That motherfucker!”
he exclaims, then allows a wry smile. “That’s the taint of it all. He provided
a balance. We could toy with each other’s sensibilities and get tickled by it.
Then, when he was gone, I was spinning out of balance. It was just too weird.
Things didn’t have worth any more. I couldn’t have imagined it beforehand. Once
it happened… [trailing off] … I just didn’t have that ‘juice’ and
confidence: ‘I don’t have it in me now — why is that?'”

Sessions for the next V2 album began in January of ’98 when John Parish (of P.J.
Harvey fame) arrived in Tucson.
By all accounts the relationship clicked — Parish would even wind up choosing
the desert on the outskirts of Tucson
as the site for his wedding — but from a recording standpoint, somehow the old
Giant Sand magic proved elusive, something Gelb freely admits. “I didn’t have
the conviction to say, ‘I’m behind this 100 percent.’ I was still fucked-up
from Rainer’s death, and the recording was in the same place where I’d recorded
Rainer’s last things just days before he died. So I was hearing stuff in the
music, or maybe too aware of my own participation. And the camaraderie in the
band was low because there were different agendas. I didn’t know for sure what
we came up with.”

Indeed, while it was purely happenstance that Gelb’s low ebb coincided with Calexico’s
rising star, one unfortunate result of the confluence was tension that would
remain unresolved for some time to come. Burns and Convertino’s increasing
commitment to their side project, not to mention their sometimes hectic
schedule recording with Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner, Bill Janovitz,
Michael Hurley, etc., meant that Giant Sand duties had to be slotted into that
schedule. Whereas previously Gelb would take his band out on tour, work up new
material on the road, then return home and hit the studio, he now had to
contend with an unintended by-product of the free-wheeling Giant Sand modus
operandi.

And while Gelb now jokes that “it was the damndest thing — the enemy came
from within!”, it’s clear from talking to him that the paternal pride he genuinely
took in seeing his friends growing as musicians and artists was tempered by the
realization that he was now having to compete with 2/3 of his own band.
“The thing about Giant Sand,” says Gelb, “was that it was a
haven or sanctuary away from competition. Didn’t matter what any other band was
doing. We could do anything we wanted and we became our own flavor. And I loved
that! ‘If you want these tones, this attitude, you can only get it here.’ So it
began to aggravate me. The upside of this competition: the quality of the material,
the playmanship and the aesthetics got better. The downside of course: it
fucked with the sanctuary of certain things I held dear, the removal of all
things that had a non-competitive nature, the non-descriptiveness.”

———-Interlude 1:  Burns &
Convertino————–

 

Giant Sand always
seemed flexible enough for each player to enjoy ample space, both within the
group and without. Why, then, do you think your recording and touring with
other artists and doing Calexico messed with the
equation?

Convertino: In a way, I think it was
a relief for Howe, knowing that we were doing music and making a living while
he was still working through Rainer’s death. But then, for so long it was like,
‘What’s up? Are we gonna go on tour?’ It was causing him trouble with us being
gone so much. That trouble being, ‘not together’. We weren’t playing as much as
Giant Sand, and you lose that consistency of what it feels like to play.

Burns: The pressure might have been
on him in another way too: “They don’t need me.” OP8 was on tour,
then we got the call about Rainer, so he leaves the tour. We didn’t know what
we should do, so we carried on and finished the tour, and it was good. So maybe
that OP8 thing started that whole self-doubt thought process, about how much he
was needed. I’ve gone through this myself, carrying a whole ball of low
self-esteem around. You always doubt what you do.

Yet at the same time, the V2 deal should
have been a source of challenge: time to get on with life, look forward to this
new album. Did the label ever fully understand what Giant Sand was about?

Burns: Hell no. Kate Hyman [Giant
Sand’s A&R person at V2] did to an extent; she had the experience of
working with the band for Glum, which is a great record. But at the same time,
maybe she had ideas as far as what she wanted out of the band but couldn’t
verbalize it for Howe. The ideas weren’t being met.

Convertino: Doing this record, there
was a lot of outside influence from V2 and from the producers. For example,
we’d do a take and I’d think I’d like to try it again, but the producer would
say, “No, it’s great.” And it seemed like the record company was
having such a struggle with the band, this dialogue about needing a radio
single and stuff that was going down.

Burns: Howe was trying to get them to
like what he was doing and figure out how we could meet them somewhere in the
middle. It began to feel more like the major label  ideas were being
thought out in New York and paid for in New York. That seemed to
be the furthest extension of what V2 or major label land is all about:
“Whatever it takes.” Well, then you’re crossing state lines as far
where the band is coming from and what the band is all about.

How did you feel when you heard V2 had
dropped the band?

Convertino: I figured as much. The
label, which had been going three years by then, hadn’t had a big hit and it
would have to downsize. So that was the timing. Our record had taken long
enough to finish that we’d crossed that deadline when they had to downsize. And
we were one of those bands.

Burns: I felt bad, mainly for Howe,
because I knew he’d sunk his heart into it. On the other hand, I was like —
“Great! Now let’s do something from the heart. Let’s come back to
something really good.” I didn’t know if anything could be salvaged from
the sessions or not; I figured we’d just go back in and re-record everything.

 

—————————————————

“Too Indie-Sounding”

If things didn’t go immediately from bad to worse for Giant Sand, the group’s orbit
was definitely in the decaying stages.  Gelb, Burns and Convertino wanted
to do a West Coast tour then immediately hole up in Seattle
to record new material; instead, V2 sent them to Memphis in August to record with legendary
producer Jim Dickinson. While Gelb is quick to point out that he was tickled by
the opportunity to study at the feet of an acknowledged master of his craft
(“Just his history, his vibe — he’s part snake-oil salesman, but that’s
okay!”), the sessions were frustrating for the three musicians. Part of
the problem was that Gelb had given the record company a list of six songs he
wanted to concentrate on in Memphis.
When Giant Sand arrived, those were the six songs Dickinson was intent on nailing; Gelb, by
contrast, as he grief had begun to subside somewhat, was emerging from his funk
and coming up with new material. As a consequence, both communication and focus
suffered, and for a second time, Giant Sand left the studio with the
unsettling feeling that something crucial was missing. The record company,
which had been hoping for at least one song it could pitch to radio and didn’t
hear any, was getting nervous. “We didn’t come up with the goods,” is
how Gelb succinctly summarizes.

Enter Kevin Salem. At the suggestion of V2’s Kate Hyman, the noted New York
singer-songwriter and producer rang up Gelb one night. Recalls Gelb, “So Kevin
is talking to me about the record, and out of the blue he said, ‘I want to send
you something. I’ve rerecorded three songs.’ Now the thing that got me, aside
from the fact that some guy I don’t even know has rerecorded my songs, was that
he had picked these three new songs I’d written that I really liked: ‘Blue
Marble Girl,’ ‘X-tra Wide’ and ‘Shiver.’ I’d started ‘Shiver’ in Tucson but in my despair I couldn’t get the track; we’d
tried doing all three in Memphis
but it had no magic.

 “So the DAT from Kevin showed up in the mail; he’d added some guys,
some bass, guitar, extra drums. I took the DAT up to the studio, put down new vocals,
and it was so great to do something brand new — I could waltz in there like
Elvis and just sing because the song was done. I guess I got a thrill out of it
because, as a songwriter, I used to come up with material so we’d have an
excuse to play something, but there would be times where I’d come up with a
good song that I didn’t think we had ‘realized.'”

Tweaked by Salem’s audacity and inspired by his
enthusiasm, Gelb traveled northward to Woodstock
over Christmas where he and Salem
hunkered down in Robbie Robertson’s old cabin studio and put the finishing
touches of the album. For Gelb, this third and final round of sessions went
quickly, “just the way it used to be in the old days, just one other
person there pushing the button and capturing it. It was kind of like we’d been
evolving this way and then I took a deep plunge for other reasons, and now I
was back to where it would have been if we’d continued on. With Parish and
Dickinson, I was inspired by both of them, but I never thought I brought to the
table as much as I could have. But with Kevin, it was long enough after
Rainer’s death, and I was healed enough, more ready for something — and Kevin
was right there to catch it. The juice.”

Call it tragic fate or simply — as Convertino pointed out above – the financial
vicissitudes wrought by the record industry, it is nonetheless darkly ironic
that once Gelb had an album he could live with and be proud of, V2 decided to
cut the tether. The label had already issued Gelb’s Hisser CD and had invested time and money into a two-album Giant
Sand deal — to the point of pressing up advance promos of Chore Of Enchantment. Yet literally, on the day before Gelb was
supposed to fly to New York
and start hatching out release plans with V2, he received a phone call from his
A&R person: the band had decided to drop the band from its roster.
“They had brought over a British guy to ride shotgun over the proceedings
in New York,”
recalls Gelb with a grimace. “That was our demise, ultimately. The record
was ‘too indie-sounding.'”

A Happy Ending

Well, as any good family story should have a happy ending, I’m glad to report that
this one does. (Funny: just as Gelb is getting to the post-V2 portion of our interview,
a small rubber ball rolls from under the door and into the room. Looking down,
I spot a tiny hand reaching under the door as well, accompanied by a loud burst
of giggling. When I glance over at Gelb, he’s giggling too, and sticking his
fingers back under the door. Like father like son…)

Following a period of denial during which Gelb was inclined to simply walk away
from the whole project (“It was enough to be happy about the final delivery
of the thing. I did the work and got through it. I can move on.”) and let
V2 buy the band out of its two-album contract, he eventually decided he wanted
to see the release of  Chore Of
Enchantment
through after all. Demand for the record was already exceeding
his supply of advance promos, which V2 had given Gelb and he was selling via
the Giant Sand website. And while obtaining the rights to the master tapes
would mean accepting less money from V2 in the contract buyout — this at a
point in time when a child was on the way, some much-needed home repairs were
looming and Gelb basically had no steady source of income other than a Tuesday
night solo gig playing piano at a local pub — he would be free and clear to
shop Chore.

At one stage, Atlantic Records expressed interest in Chore; Yves Beauvais, who’d A&R’d the Ptacek The Inner Flame project, was very eager
to work with Gelb again. But ultimately a deal was struck with Thrill Jockey,
whose owner, Bettina Richards, had been friends with the members of Giant Sand
for years. “They’ve got a good sensibility, a good aesthetic and the good
energy to keep the label going,” says Gelb of Thrill Jockey. “They’ve
are a true team who know what’s going on. With Atlantic,
you had a lot more money, and Yves, I love him because he made life so
wonderful for Rainer. But he pointed out how in reality, the people in the
Atlantic marketing department, there’s all this political nonsense. You know
how it is at a major label: when they talk to the artist they have to ‘rephrase
things.’ With Thrill Jockey, there’s no agenda crunch, and there’s no
backpedaling.”

Make no mistake, both the band and its new label came out ahead with the deal; Chore Of Enchantment is, in a word,
enchanting. Seductive. Lush and meditative, sonically fulsome yet with just
enough of the band’s trademark wobble ‘n’ whine to indelibly stamp it
“Giant Sand.” From the slinky barrio
noir
of “(well) Dusted (for the millennium)” and the darkly
ominous, Tom Waitsish “Wolfy” to the funky soul of “Temptation
Of Egg” and the sweet ’50s waltz of “No Reply,” Chore is every bit as satisfying as
Giant Sand’s previous classic, 1994’s Glum. Lyrically, too; while Gelb steadfastly sidesteps attempts on the part of the
interviewer to pin him down about any overriding theme to the album, it’s hard
not to see it, at least partly, as a chronicle of the group’s ordeal. After
all, it begins with a guy who’s been “Dumped by what he thought he knew/
Now he sits slumped and don’t know what to do” (from “Dusted”)
and ends with the narrator reflecting, “When I woke it was a new morning/
I was only sick from the night before.” (The record is dedicated to Rainer
Jaromir Ptacek; touchingly, samples taken from a tape of Ptacek’s favorite
operas are woven into a couple of the songs, and a snippet of Ptacek playing
slide guitar closes the album.)

Another stroke of irony, this time good irony, arrived in the Old Pueblo the very
day Gelb got the call from V2. Bill Carter, the maverick filmmaker of Miss Sarajevo fame who served as U2’s
European war correspondent on the Zooropa tour, landed at Tucson
International Airport
intending to shoot a video with the band for “Shiver.” Undaunted,
Carter proposed turning the project into a Giant Sand documentary.

Gelb: “So I said, ‘If you want to just capture this matter that’s going on
around here, figure out what to do with it later…’ It was an omen, him getting
on the plane the same hour we were dropped. And I needed his energy and take on
life in general. He is all amped-up with energy; me, I’ve always been a low
blood-pressure kind of guy.”

Carter, who wound up moving to Tucson permanently, shot footage of Gelb, Burns
and Convertino under numerous conditions, from candid at-home scenes to live
clips; he also interviewed numerous Tucson locals — detractors included — as
well as such notables in the Giant Sand sphere as Evan Dando, Victoria Williams,
Emmylou Harris, Richard Buckner, Vic Chesnutt, plus producers who worked on Chore and previous records. As Gelb puts
it, the film is to be “entertaining, but in a nonspecific say. I don’t
want people who see this to have to already know anything about the band.”
And as Carter was on hand to capture the band during an admittedly tense period
in its evolution, the film promises to have its own dramatic arc for those who
are familiar with the Giant Sand saga to date.

———Interlude 2: Burns &
Convertino———————

What holds this band
together? Do the members have to invest themselves emotionally to work
together?

Burns: That’s a tricky thing because
— how much do a person’s emotions factor in to creativity? Quite a bit,
really. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Howe, and if there is any
tension from time to time, it does help with the creativity and the energy.

Convertino: You know, Howe and I did
a tour of the States and Europe as a two-piece
in ’89. It was a kind of bash-it-out energy, let’s see how much noise we can
make sort of thing. Now, with Joey, through all these different kinds of music
we’ve been playing, especially the Latin influence, it’s about being able to
tone it down and play the space more. I think the melody is sometimes the
anchor; when Howe goes off, I’ll go off with him, but keeping the melody in my
head so I’ll know where we’re going. And Joey will throw in little splashes of
the melody so we’ll know where we are! There’s a lot of concentration, a lot of
listening.

Burns: One thing we’ve learned [from
working outside Giant Sand] is perspective. You see how different people work
— Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner, Bill Janovitz, Vic Chesnutt, Michael
Hurley… Then we come back around Howe and it’s great because he’s giving us
signs with his guitar almost like a conductor, and we’ve learned them because
we’ve worked with him so long. You learn someone’s language and someone’s cues,
and it just gives you a better perspective, not only on where Howe’s coming
from, it makes you appreciate what he does and how he does it.

Convertino: Giant Sand is so much
what Howe is, you know? We just try to tap
into the spontaneity of it. I know that for people who have seen the band, the
shows are really different from night to night. For me, that’s the fun of playing
in the band. You make the best out of whatever’s coming out of Howe at the
moment. Just try to jump in there.

—————————————–

Moving Forward

What’s next for the band? Following this year’s South By Southwest appearance —
make that “appearances,” as both Giant Sand and Calexico performed –
the band embarked upon a West Coast and Canadian tour. Then in May, a new Calexico
album entitled Hot
Rail
was released, accompanied by a Calexico tour. While Burns and
Convertino were off promoting their record, Gelb used the break to do a series
of solo shows in England and
Europe.

In the meantime, Gelb has several projects in store, not the least of which is
the release of  the second volume of the Giant Sand official bootleg series,
entitled The Rock Opera Years, on his Ow Om label and available
about the time you read this. The 13-song CD includes alternate versions of
songs that appear on Chore (the
Thrill Jockey vinyl edition of Chore also includes a few of these) and material recorded in Tucson — including a cover of Neil Young’s
“Music Arcade” — prior to the V2 deal. Then there’s a forthcoming Gelb
solo album initially intended as two separate sets, one of piano music and
another of songs, but now housed under the inclusive title Confluence. A previously scrapped second OP8 project, this one
recorded a couple of years ago with Juliana Hatfield instead of Lisa Germano,
may eventually see the light of day. And judging by the number of tapes
littering Gelb’s office and spilling out of boxes stacked up in a backyard
storage room, as well as the unreleased material he previewed for me during the
interview, he’s got enough backlog to keep any aspiring, detail-minded
archivist busy for a long time.

For now, though, Gelb is clearly relieved to have lived through his ordeal — this
is a man who once characterized his work to me as being of the “that which
doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” nature — and eager to reestablish his
group’s equilibrium.

“We’re always looking to capture that lightning in a bottle,” says
Gelb. “When it works, it’s invaluable. So that right there is the crux —
and it’s why we suck  sometimes, too. We
know it’s out there and it can happen. When it does, we’re not even that
conscious it just occurred; that comes way later, so we’re just aware that
something feels pretty damn good at the time.

“I do have to contend with being a decade older than the boys, and also
being ‘hampered’ by the things I love. These chores of enchantment. I’ve
collected this house, and now that I have it all, it stops me from going out
and doing as much as I used to do. I kind of miss my instinct, knowing this is
good and trying to maintain it instead of going off with my instinct like I did
so many times before.”

Standing up and motioning at the walls, and, by implication, what lies in the other
rooms, Gelb grins broadly and adds, “But you know what? When I think about
all this, it’s astonishingly great.”

 

***

My conversation with Gelb is starting to wind down when Sofie Gelb knocks softly
on the office door and tells her husband that Patsy, Gelb’s almost-teenage
daughter from his first marriage called and needs a ride. Talk about extended
family — young Patsy’s vocal dexterity was often heard on Giant Sand records
in the late ’80s and early ’90s, while her mother, Paula Jean Brown, served an
extended stint as the Sands’ bassist and continues to this day as a frequent guest
on the group’s records.

This seems a fitting enough juncture to signal the end of the interview so I thank
Gelb for his time, the ladies for the fish tacos, and Luka for the floor show.
Leaving the house, I glance back over my shoulder. Sofie is handing Howe his
son, who clutches daddy with that soft determination peculiar only to babies.
And maybe it’s just the angle of the soon-to-set sun’s rays, but from my
vantage point, it looks like everyone in the house — father, mother, son,
grandmother — is aglow.


AN AMBIVALENT INDICTMENT Simon Reynolds & Retromania

“The
axis of time has flipped, and the past has displaced the future in the cultural
imagination”: the British journalist explains.

 

BY LOGAN K. YOUNG

 

If Greil Marcus were right, ours should have been a true
blank generation. Some twenty years after Lipstick Traces: A Secret History
of the 20th Century
, in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own
Past
, Simon Reynolds sees the fledgling 21st for what it really is. And his
diagnosis may scare you. At 500 scintillating pages, Reynolds’ Retromania is a virtuosic dossier on how, if we don’t push forward, the entirety of
civilized culture will eventually self-destruct. Stuck between the year we make
contact and the year the Mayans have us going silent, indeed, looking back
looks pretty vacant right now.

 

BLURT recently caught up with
Reynolds in between book tours to see if things really are as bleak as they
seem. And because this is Simon Reynolds, he, of course, had a lot to say. (Go here to read our review of Retromania, published earlier this year by Faber
& Faber.)

 

***

 

BLURT: Now that the reviews
are in, what’s the biggest criticism of Retromania that you’ve found
unfair or unfounded?

 SIMON REYNOLDS: That the book is one long
grouch. It’s fairly clear, at least if you’ve actually read it, that I’m as
fascinated and intrigued by retro culture as I am alarmed and disgusted. And as
I make explicit upfront, I am also involved in the culture myself, as a fan who
obsessively pores over rock history and who loves certain retromaniacal
artists, but also professionally, through reviewing reissues, being in rock
docs and so forth. So I would describe the book as “an ambivalent indictment.”

        The
other angle that some reviewers put forth that I find suspect is this notion
that recycling and derivativeness have always part of pop culture. I think this
is symptomatic of the very syndrome I’m critiquing: there’s an inability to
believe or even imagine that there was ever anything unprecedented or out of
the blue in music. But rock history – indeed popular culture history, in
general – is teeming with examples of things that are “new under the sun.” The
artists in question usually start from something – they have primary influences
and sources that they wrestle with – but very quickly they take those
influences to totally unexpected and radically new places. The Beatles,
obviously, but James Brown, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk,  Giorgo Moroder, Talking Heads, Chic, etc. And
whole genres: roots/dub, reggae, electro, techno, jungle, etc.

 

Have you noticed a difference between the
British versus the American response? To wit, your latest book tour is booked
for Spain.

 There were some really intelligent reviews in
Britain but, good or bad, they were generally rather argumentative. Often the
reviewers seemed affronted by the premise. I noticed that this was coming often
from people whose main job is as a newspaper’s chief weekly reviewer of new
releases. Now Retromania is a book that would interfere with the
functioning of that kind of generalist, week-in-week-out reviewer, because to
do that job you need to be relentlessly positive and always convinced that
there’s great stuff out there. I think you’d probably be having to fight
against ennui and “seen it all before” jadedness on a weekly basis, doing that
job, especially at this time.

        The
American reviews have sometimes taken issue with aspects of the book, but
they’ve overall been much more well thought out and balanced. I can’t complain
about the responses, as it is a book designed to provoke debate and
disagreement. I just went to Italy, where the book has received a great
response. I’m hoping to get to France, Germany and the Spanish-reading world
(the book is coming out via a publisher in Argentina) next year.

 

Given your similarly encyclopedic studies of
rave culture, post-punk and even gender in music, when did you first become aware
of “retromania” as an affliction? I can’t imagine the idea came separate from
them?

 My editor in the U.K., Lee Brackstone, said
something at one of the London events about how Retromania was the last
volume in a sort of trilogy that started with Energy Flash (a.k.a. Generation
Ecstasy
) and continued with Rip It Up and Start Again. I had never
thought of that before but it makes sense: Energy Flash is about the
nineties as one long future-rush, and Rip It Up is about growing up
during post-punk, and how that would make me the kind of person who would
embrace rave and techno as a renaissance for the modernist spirit in music. And
then Retromania is about what happened to those energies when we
actually reached the future, which is to say the 21st century. It’s a history
of the present, meaning the 11 or 12 years of the 2000s and early 2010s.

        When
I was looking back over my old writings to see if there was anything I could
re-purpose for Retromania, I was struck by how often – and by how early
– retro had been a preoccupation. Even in an essay on the parlous state of
music in 1985 that I wrote in our fanzine Monitor, there’s a reference
to the glut of reissues. Later on I would be writing in Melody Maker about bands I loved that were very obviously influenced by the sixties, but
trying to imagine them as the start of something new rather than a faint echo
of a lost golden age. That took some rhetorical effort, as you can imagine.
It’s definitely been there as a concern right from almost the start: the accumulating
burden of rock’s own history, and how that becomes an insidious mindset of
reference and reverence. I think my generation inherited a sense of
belatedness, that we were after the sixties and most of us had missed punk,
too.  So there was a kind of struggle to
outflank that condition of being the epigone.

 

You mention artists like Ariel Pink that are
doing a great job of synthesizing influence, but what about those who are truly
blazing a unique path? Any endorsements?

 I think Oneohtrix Point Never has done certain
things that seem to be pretty untaggable, alongside other pieces that are
working with a very eighties sound-palette that recalls at various points: New
Age, space music and Jon Hassell’s Fourth World records. I’m also
digging the albums by Joker and Rustie. I enjoy the sense of scale and
hyper-gloss in their tracks. “Micro” is done with, worn out, as a strategy in
electronic music; it’s time for some Macro. Most of the stuff that catches my
ear and enchants me seems to be stuff that is vaguely evocative of some or
other past – or mingled pasts – but without specifically and consciously
invoking artists or styles from yesteryear. So I really dug the Metronomy album
The English Riviera, which is not exactly new but it’s hard to tag it to
any specific era, and it feels fresh. They remind in that respect of Vampire
Weekend. Also been enjoying music by Laurel Halo and Maria Minerva, which is
equally vague in its evocations.

        That
said, I do really enjoy stuff that is playing games with specific styles from
the past, people like James Ferraro, the artists on Not Not Fun. At the end,
though, I am always craving and searching for that sound that completely
disorients and astounds, which you can’t place in a scheme of reference.
There’s certain footwork tracks on the Bangs & Works compilations that
Planet Mu have done – this subculture of rough, weird beats for very peculiar
dancing, produced by Chicago youngsters – that give me this “shock of the
new/now” sensation. I get that feeling – not so much sonically, but more in
terms of spirit and attitude – from certain of Ke$ha’s records, like “We R Who
We R.”  The eternal present of the
teenage, reinvented for the 21st Century.

 

Indeed, the crisis of looking back is an
existential one. And yet, we’re all – as a culture totale – complicit in
it. What’s the habit we most need to drop, then, to become a highly progressive
people?
 

 Oh, I don’t know. I certainly think critics
could stop making excuses for “non-creative garbage” (to borrow a line from
Monty Python). They could be a bit more stern and judgemental. But the problem
starts at an earlier stage than mediation or critical filtration. Obviously,
the problem is not that people are less talented these days. It’s much more
macro and structural, a change in the base-line conditions in which culture is
made. In an essay I did for The Wire that paralleled the book and
expanded on its themes, I wrote in near mystical terms about how the axis of
time has flipped, and the past has displaced the future in the cultural
imagination. I do think something like that has happened in terms of the
archival universe that is the internet. This is why Bruce Sterling and William
Gibson have been riffing on “atemporality” as a byproduct or effect of network
culture. The internet and digital culture has interfered with our very sense of
culture-time. It’s no longer uni-linear, heading into the future, the unknown.

 

Finally, have you seen Woody Allen’s Midnight
in Paris
? Parts of it sounded just like a page from Retromania.

 I haven’t seen it yet, but it does sound like it
overlaps uncannily with stuff talked about in the prologue, where I’m
discussing the concept of nostalgia. If it had come out a year earlier, it
would have been a gift to me in terms of something to write about in the book.
This cinematic season has seen a couple of releases that chime with Retromania.
Well, more than a couple, if you want to talk about the latest crop of remakes,
but specifically Super 8, which is riddled with “dead media” references,
has the Spielberg-homage/eighties-nostalgia aspect, and is, to use a British
expression, a load of cobblers. And then Drive, which I’ve not seen, but
which sounds like it’s incredibly referential in terms of movie history. Paul
Morley on the U.K. TV show Late Review said it was a movie all about
being cool, and so completely uncool. That had the ring of truth to me. I
suspect it is coming from the Tarantino school: visually ravishing, narratively
thrilling, superbly acted, but utterly empty. A meta-movie.

 

SONDRE IN REAL LIFE Sondre Lerche

From Bergen to Brooklyn, the ever-adventurous Norwegian-born artist
consistently finds new inspiration.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

For a career that’s spanned little more than a decade,
Sondre Lerche has already had a remarkably prolific track record, one that’s
taken him from Bergen, Norway, to Brooklyn New York. While he might have easily been
tagged simply another softly crooning balladeer, Lerche has consistently
resisted any attempt to typecast him, and instead shown his fascination for
varying musical styles, from mainstream pop and edgy rock – to Brazilian beats
and a gentle jazz sway. Consistently melodic, he’s never shied away from
varying his template, making each of his six albums – among them a self scored
soundtrack for the film Dan in Real Life — a singular statement that reflects the lure of an unfailing muse.

 

Lerche’s latest, a self titled effort released this past
spring, is his most cohesive disc to date, one that spotlights his amiable,
breezy vocals and an ability to spin beguiling melodies that form an instant
bond with his listeners. BLURT recently caught up with the 29 year-old Norse
journeyman on the heels of a recent European jaunt and just prior to a brief
Stateside tour that also put him on the road throughout most of November.
Recuperating from a flight delayed more than a day by the freakish October
snowstorm that took the Northeast by surprise, he sounded well rested when we
spoke to him by phone from his Brooklyn home.

 

***

 

BLURT: You’ve had a very prolific and productive
career over the past decade. It’s interesting the way you’ve been able to
incorporate so many different genres into your various albums, be it the
jazzier approach a few albums back and then the harder rock effort you came up
with for the album after. What is it that has you prone to shifting direction
so frequently?

SONDRE LERCHE: I don’t know. I guess it’s really rather selfish because I’m
just trying to keep myself engaged and keep myself sort of… I don’t know. I
feel like the most exciting stuff happens when you’re not quite in your comfort
zone. If you know your roots and you know where you come from and you know what
you’re interested in, it’s really easy to just churn out the same stuff over
and over again and I think it’s really interested to see that all my songs, all
my songwriting is very melodic. It’s very harmonically rich, so a couple of
those records I did that were decidedly different. The challenge was to see in
a way how different the sounds could be in a way without the songs suffering.
The intent was to test the bounds of songwriting, because I believe that if you
write songs in the classic sense — the way I operate — there’s so much you
can do with a song and still retain the core of the song. I like to think that
I write really robust songs. A jazz player could do something with it or you
can play it on acoustic guitar and make it a folk song. I like to think you can
do all sorts of things if the source material is solid enough.

 

Does
that sometimes confuse your fans and critics who may think they have a handle
on your music, and then you go into the opposite direction on them?

Yeah… (chuckles)

 

People
like to pigeonhole people. Which isn’t so good for an artist…

I agree. I definitely think at times it probably is confusing (chuckles) and I
guess it should be. For awhile, I think, in the period of one and a half or two
years I did the Duper Sessions and Phantom Punch albums and then the Dan in Real Life soundtrack, which were
all very different just by the nature of the project and the musical
aesthetics. But I find I’ve been blessed with a very adventurous audience who
try to keep up. And if you put out a record that isn’t quite to everybody’s
liking, they can just take a break and maybe the next one will be relatively
different anyway, so they’ll re-board the ship next time. You make whatever
comes out of you and make the best of that. Hopefully you have an audience that
can come and go as they please in the same way that I as an artist will come
and go. So it’s a two way street. If people find it confusing, that’s totally
understanding and cool.

 

Because
your albums are so different, what comes first, the songs or the concept you
wrap them around?

It always comes from the songs. Therein lies the misconception that I just sit
down and, like, today I’m going to make an opera, which I haven’t done yet –
but it doesn’t happen that way at all. It just happens intuitively and through
the songs. The songs inform wherever it goes, and then of course your frame of
mind or whatever you’re interested in. That will sort of lead you. I think that
with the new album, it was the first time where I didn’t have a very clear
stylistic sense of where things were going. I just wanted to capture the
intensity of the songs and then try to make due with as little arrangement and
as little… as little as possible in the studio basically. I wanted to see how
much excitement and how much intensity I could create around any given song
using as few elements and ingredients as possible, and that became a challenge
that felt really pure and really true. So I have to admit that it felt good to
peel away any sort of stylistic concerns or any sort of direction that I worked
on in the studio on any of my previous albums. The album that I did before this
one, Heartbeat Radio, was very
“maximalist” – there was a lot going on. A lot of colors. So I guess this one
was sort of a reaction to that one.

 

The
lyrics on this album are fairly heavy and deep. On the other hand they seem
somewhat wistful. There are a lot of different levels there.
Yeah,
I think the lyrics were another thing that just sort of demanded more. I left
more space and more room. It would feel very cluttered to force the songs with
too much production or arrangement because the songs to me were more candid
than before. Everything I do is honest, but here it was more to do with reality
than an idealized take on reality. So it became important to maintain that and
to make sure the songs weren’t compromised, because they do deal with a lot of
stuff I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable explaining further. So I did feel
it was necessary for the songs to cover up in terms of the lyrics. I feel in a
lot of the songs the narrative drives the song much more than in the past with
me, so to me that was really exciting, but at the same time really frightening.
I felt very exposed, but that’s just how it goes I guess.

 

What
really made you want to make music your career? And when did you know you could
make it a career and you wouldn’t have to rely on a day job?

I always assumed that making a living from writing songs and performing them
and making records was out of the question. It wasn’t something that I assumed
could be done. So I was very realistic about it, but at the same time it was
the only thing I wanted to do. Music was the only thing that engaged me, and
while I tried to be good at school so I’d have something to fall back on, the
only thing that really drove me was songwriting. So I guess I was lucky that by
the time I finished school at 18, my first album came out and I did well
immediately because I was on a pretty good label and I had a good team around
me. Since then, I’ve made a living from doing what I do so I can’t really
complain. It’s been a blessing and I try to make it worthwhile and earn it by
staying true to what got me here in the first place.

 

Did you
come from a musical family or was there a lot of music played around your
house?

There was always music playing. It wasn’t a particularly musical family, but my
mother would always play pop music in the car and I do have to say that when we
moved into an apartment complex and they had cable TV and MTV, it was my first
encounter with cable TV. So once I had access to MTV – it was probably in the
very late ‘80s – I would watch it for hours and hours at a time. At that time,
MTV played a lot of music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was Nirvana one moment and
then Elton John the next, and a lot of Euro-dance… it was a complete mix of pop
music that hadn’t been formatted to the extent we’re used to now. And of course
now there is no music on MTV. But to me it was so exciting.

          Any music I
heard was exciting, and then you learn what you like and what you don’t like. I
think that played a part.

 

DANCE WITH… The Sounds

Their North American tour in support of Something To Die For (SideOneDummy) comes to an end tonight in Vancouver. Vocalist Maja
Ivarsson talks.

 

BY GIL MACIAS

 

Swedish quintet The Sounds has
been together now for 13 years and has four studio albums to date. Time flies
and it’s hard to believe that the band’s lead singer, Maja Ivarsson, was only
19 years-old when it all began. Now a grown woman at the age of 32, she’s spent
the last decade touring the globe and hasn’t aged a day but has grown immensely
as an artist and proven to be a great live performer.

 

We recently had the pleasure
of talking to Maja before she took the stage at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles.
In our one on one with her, we look back at her career, talk about the latest
album, her thoughts on America, recording, touring, and what the future holds.

 

***

 

BLURT: You guys dipped into an electronic dance sound
in a few of your tracks on Something To
Die For
, which left some fans wanting more. Do you ever plan to do
something drastically different from your traditional pop-rock stuff?

MAJA IVARSSON: The thing is,
we never plan what we’re going to sound like. I remember the first record we
did. We did a demo way back in 1998. It was the first publishing deal we ever
got. We sent them a demo and it was so bad. They were like, “Guys, this is so bad. You need to do something
different.” So we went back home and we were like, “We need to do the complete
opposite of what we’re doing right now.” So that’s when we wrote “Living in
America.” It was the first song we wrote. So we sent that song back to the
label and they were like, “This is it, guys. This is perfect.”  Since then, we kept going and trying to
develop our own sound. Each record is kind of a reaction to the last record.
Our last album, Crossing the Rubicon,
was a little more mellow and emotional. For this new one, the first song we
wrote was “Something To Die For.” And that sort of became a blueprint for the
rest of the songs. I think it’s really weird if you’re in a band and you’re
trying to plan out how you’re going to sound. To me, anything that’s creative
comes from within and it has nothing to do with a master plan. When we did this
record, that’s the way we wanted to sound at that time. I’ve always thought the
demos we’ve done in the past, the pre-production, have always had that great
sound that you can’t recreate. The more times you re-record a song, you lose
that little magic you had at the beginning.

 

You have four albums now.  Do you find that each new album gets harder to
write as you go along?

The thing is, everyone in our
band is really involved in the writing process. For the first two albums, I
wrote a lot more than I did on this one. I think that’s a good thing. Then you
never know what’s going to happen. You never know what the next song is going
to be like. I think it gets easier though, just like with any other profession.
You get better at it. It’s like being onstage. The first couple of times you’re
a little awkward and don’t really know what to do. And in the studio, the more
experience you have in the studio, the more confident you are.

 

But are creative juices flowing as powerful as they were
in the beginning? A lot of musicians have less output and longer gaps between
albums as they get older. I mean, I’m sure you’ve experienced writer’s block at
times.

Of course, we all have. But
that’s just a part of being a creative person. You need to have those
frustrating moments where you’re like “I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing,”
you know? And then sometimes, in two minutes [snaps fingers], you write this line and come up with a melody and
you’re like, “Dude, that’s a fucking hit.” And it happens in 5 minutes.

 

With every album you put out, you add more and more
songs to your catalog which means with every tour, you have tougher choices to
make when doing a live setlist. How hard is that, and does it take to pick a setlist?

[Laughs] You’re absolutely right. That’s the part that’s getting
harder and harder. The thing is, we’re playing for our fans and we have a
pretty close relationship with them. We know what they like and kind of know
what they want to hear. But also for us, it’s fun to play new songs. That’s
when we have to think a little bit, because all the older songs, we know them
so well. We try to play a little more from the latest album because we’re
promoting that one, obviously, but we still play the old school songs I know
people want to hear.

 

Do you pay attention to reviews about your albums? How
do you handle negative criticism?

To be honest, I really don’t
read much about me or the band. I did sometime near the beginning, and someone
wrote something really nasty about me. I just finished high school, I was a
young girl and that hit me really hard. I’m a very emotional person. It broke
my heart. So I’m trained to stay away from that stuff. My manager, sometimes
when he finds a really good review or something that’s cool, he’ll send it to
me like, “check this out.” And I’m like, “Ah man, that’s good.”  But I usually don’t Google myself or anything
like that.

 

During live shows, your fans can get really rowdy,
especially in the pit. You have the fans that want to enjoy the music and have
a good time, then you have the rowdy fans that get sort of lost, don’t realize
they’re accidentally punching someone in the face, and it turns into this
confrontational moshing sort of thing. In fact, I saw you at the Avalon a few
 years ago and I personally had to break
up a fight.

 [Laughs]
Oh my God.

 

This girl didn’t realize she was hitting people, so
when someone called her out on it, she started doing it more on purpose just to
piss us off. So, whose side would you say you’re on? Have you ever had to intervene
and break up a scuffle in your audience, or do you just ignore it?

You know, I totally know what
you mean. Last night, one of our hardcore fans chipped her tooth. This guy was
stage diving and… [Maja makes a smacking noise and swings her head
to the side
] All of a sudden, she was bleeding all over and I was like,
“Ah, girl, I know what it feels like.”  But I don’t know. Sometimes I like when it
gets a little crazy. I think I want to give them the fuel to be even crazier. I
like that. This is going to sound so horrible, but the more people that are
fainting, passing out, or the more people they have to drag over the fence, the
happier I am.

       [Laughs]
It sounds fucking crazy, I know. But I love when people go nuts and have a good
time…. With the older punk rock guys, if somebody fell down in the mosh pit,
you picked them up again. Now, with the younger kids, it’s forgotten. They
don’t know shit like that anymore. [Shakes
head
] You know, there are ethics even in the punk scene.

 

What’s the worst or most unpleasant live experience
you’ve ever had?

I remember I was stage diving
a couple of years ago at Webster Hall in New York. There are so many people in
the audience; you don’t really know who’s touching you. And some people are
touching you very inappropriately. This one guy was not just touching me, he
was digging. It was not my arms or
legs if you know what I mean. [Sighs]
And that’s not cool, dude. When I stage dive, I’m giving them my all. I do that
for every show, I love my audience. But don’t fucking do that. It’s
disrespectful.

 

What’s the one thing you look forward to most when you
come to America?

There are a lot of things,
but most of all, it’s definitely the people. A lot of people in Europe have
this misconception about Americans being ignorant and very stupid. We have that
in Europe as well, trust me. But I think most American people I’ve met are very
giving and generous people. Maybe it’s because I’m a blonde Swedish chick, I
don’t know, but at the same time we have this thing called the American
disease. [Laughs] I get so fed up
with the American food. It gets to me after a while. Everything is fried and
tastes the same. After a while you just can’t eat anymore. I’m like, “I need to
get to Ikea and have some meatballs.”

 

Your bandmate Felix appeared on an American celebrity gossip
website recently. He was in a car with Kat Von D, they were photographed
together and sure enough, it’s all over PerezHilton.com. And of course, people
speculate if there’s a romantic thing going on between the two. How did you all
react to that?

We kind of laugh at it. I
know her. She’s a cool girl and a really good friend of the band. I was singing
with her in New York. She auctioned off this piano she was designing. She
called me up and asked if I wanted to sing “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses. So
we did that. That was the first time I experienced how many people are crazy
about her. I know her as a friend. She’s awesome at what she does. She’s going
to be remembered forever as one of the great female tattoo artists. To me, it’s
really funny when the whole paparazzi thing comes close to you. We don’t have
it too much at home. Over here, it’s different. You guys are crazy with the
celebrity thing.  So we just laughed at
it. It’s kind of funny. What else can you do?

 

Onstage, you keep it simple and sexy. You don’t change
costumes or rely on crazy outfits or spectacles for attention. How do you feel
about someone like Lady Gaga, who even dresses outrageously when she’s not
performing?

I love Lady Gaga for bringing
something new to the table. I mean, I’m impressed that she has the energy to
pull it off every time. I think she brought that craziness back that Madonna was
doing in the ‘80s. I think Lady Gaga is bringing something fresh. All power to
her, absolutely. I think it’s great. The first time I heard her, I thought she
was Euro. We’ve been listening to that type of Euro-techno, Euro-disco sound
since the ‘80s and ‘90s. And it’s not until recently that it’s been a big thing
in America. So the first time I heard Lady Gaga, I thought she was a Belgian
artist or something.

 

Have you ever had a musician you grew up listening to
come up and tell you they are a fan of your band?

Definitely when David Grohl
picked us to be his opening act in Scandinavia. We had just released our first
album and we were so fresh and so young. I remember his booking agent gave him
ten CDs of new bands and he could pick whatever band he wanted to open up for
him and he picked us. The next thing I know, he wanted a T-shirt. I said,
“Well, we just made them ourselves and we can’t afford to give them, can you
buy one?” [Laughs] So he bought two.
Then he wore it in his “Times Like These” video. It was so flattering. Growing
up listening to Nirvana, that was one of those moments where it was like,
“Shit, this is unbelievable.”

 

Do you have any guilty pleasures in your iPod or CD
collection?

Absolutely. But I don’t see
them as guilty pleasures. I’m a big fan of great songs and I think a great song
can come in any kind of package. For instance, right now I love Beyonce’s
“Sweet Dreams.” And I think there are a couple of great songs on the new
Britney Spears album. It’s super-pop, you know? It might not go down in history
as my favorite song of all time, but I enjoy a great pop song. Who doesn’t? But
at the same time, I love all the great artists like Bruce Springsteen, Johnny
Cash or Depeche Mode. I’m just a big fan of great songs.

 

Do you have a goal or a desire to be a huge,
recognizable female pop artist like Beyoncé or Britney? Or do you not care
about that?

I do care about that. I’m
really proud of what we have accomplished so far. It’s been 13 years, that’s
quite a long time. Especially coming from a place like Sweden, there are only 9
million in the whole country, so to actually have a career and make a living
out of this, I’m very proud of that. But I’m not in it to become a small indie
act. I want to be as big as possible. I’m not gonna lie about that. I’d rather
play a huge venue than a shitty pub, you know?

 

If someone in the band was getting tired of all this
and wanted to leave, would you replace them and carry on or just call it quits?
Or would you ever consider a solo act?

That’s a hard question
because you don’t even want to think about that happening. I don’t think we
could replace anyone in the band. We’ve been the same core members since day
one. We wouldn’t sound the same. It would be impossible to replace someone. I
don’t want to sound cocky, but it would be weird to replace me and still call
it The Sounds, I think, but it would be equally as weird to replace Fredrik,
you know?

        I don’t know. Maybe I would do a solo
career or something else creative. I’d find a way to stay busy some way or
another.

IF YOU’RE GOING TO SAN FRANCISCO… Wear Bangles In Your Hair

The jangling Los Angeles combo spends
a manic Tuesday at the Fillmore on November 8. Watch videos, below.

 

BY
JUD COST

 

It
felt like a different kind of evening right from the start when the pre-show
program of pop/rock nuggets blared out through the PA of San Francisco’s
venerable Fillmore Auditorium. While the Bangles were putting on their makeup
backstage, “Hey Joe” by the Leaves, “Him Or Me – What’s It Gonna
Be” by Paul Revere & the Raiders and “Go All The Way” by the
Raspberries bounced off the rafters of the ancient hall that once considered
itself way too hip for that kind of stuff back in the heyday of the Airplane,
the Dead and Janis Joplin.

 

The
Bangles have always done it their own way. Still featuring the core group of
guitarists Sue Hoffs and Vicki Peterson and drummer Debbi Peterson, they were
clearly the most polished of any of the combos associated with the Paisley
Underground, 30 years ago. And the reason is still obvious: They absolutely
nail those three-part harmonies, and each of the three girls sings lead with no
drop-off in quality. In their early days, they tried on punkier moniker “the
Bangs” before deciding the Bangles was a better fit. If the Go-Go’s will
forever be linked to the ’70s punk era, the Bangles, and the other Paisley
combos from the ’80s (Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Green On Red) embraced
psychedelic influences rejected by the punks.

 

It
certainly doesn’t hurt tonight that all three girls, now in their fifties
looked terrific, showing off time well spent in the gym. Sue’s little black
dress was a particular knockout. The trio was accompanied by three guys
(“Guys in an all-girl band? What’s with that!” smirked Debbi). The
testosterone platoon added bass, keyboards and miscellaneous instruments in all
the right places. The set pacing tonight was near perfect, as they alternated
familiar material with songs off their new, Matthew Sweet-produced album, Sweetheart Of The Sun (Model Music Group;
reviewed here at BLURT). “Thanks for your patience,” said Vicki after
a new number. “The rest of you don’t really give a shit.” Sue even
made fun of a recent composition: “Here’s a perky little song about
depression.”

 

 

 

Cherry-picking
covers that fit the girls’ sound helped flesh out the set. “Open My
Eyes,” with its introductory riff lifted from the Who’s “Can’t
Explain,” was a seldom-heard gem from Todd Rundgren’s early days in
Philadelphia band Nazz; it’s the triumphant, closing track on Sweetheart Of The Sun. “In My Own
Time” by The Three O’Clock and Big Star’s “September Gurls” also
sounded especially fine. “That was for Alex,” said Sue of the latter
number, dedicated to the late Alex Chilton. “If we could hug you all in a
group hug, we would.”

 

A
band confident enough to play two of its biggest hits early in the set is rare,
indeed. Their jangling cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of
Winter” has always been folk-rock bliss, and “Manic Monday,”
written by Prince, topped the national charts for the girls in 1986. When the
Bangles headlined S.F.’s Warfield Theatre that same year, they thrilled the
overflow crowd by bringing “the Purple One” onstage with them for
their encore. He was allegedly hot on the trail of Hoffs, who always insisted
he was “just a good friend.”

 

 

 

“Hero
Takes A Fall,” with Sue’s vocals trading licks with Vicki’s blistering
guitar sounded terrific. But it was perfectly clear the biggest shell in the
arsenal was going to be saved for the encore’s closer.

 

With
its vocal lead swapped back and forth by Debbi and Sue, “Walk Like An
Egyptian” has become the Bangles’ signature number for good reason. With
its angular, quirky, Middle-Eastern sound and exotic rhythms, “Egyptian”
is one of those refrains that sticks in your brain all day. Just point your
flat palms, one up one down, in opposite directions, then keep moving them
every which way while walking stiffly and you’ve got the accompanying dance
down pat.

 

 

 

 

Better
shake that crazy skip before you head down the steep steps of the Fillmore on
your way out, though, or you might be the hero taking a fall tonight.

 

[Awesome live videos (and screenshot) from
the San Francisco
show via ConcertKid2 at YouTube. Salute!
]

 

 

MARK LINETT TALKS BEACH BOYS: The Original SMiLE Sessions, Re-assembled

The mythic album,
abandoned by Brian Wilson in 1967, is finally resurrected, a Herculean task
once thought impossible.

 

BY
JUD COST

 

Producer/engineer
Mark Linett has been right there for Brian Wilson’s biggest projects of the
last 20 years: the Pet Sounds box set
in 1995; Wilson’s 2004 re-recording of SMiLE,
the legendary Beach Boys album shelved in 1967; and finally to help assemble
the original parts of the SMiLE sessions from over 75 boxes of tape and put together a cohesive album. A
project once thought all but impossible, the re-assembling of SMiLE took nine months, and the results
speak for themselves. The vintage SMiLE,
now sporting its original artwork, was released on November 1 in multiple
formats: a two-CD and five-CD package; a double-LP with two bonus seven-inch
singles; and both album and box-set digital version. Linett, contacted by
telephone, seemed almost as happy and relieved as Brian Wilson must have been
to finally get SMiLE up and running. (Read the BLURT review of SMiLE here.)

 

***

 

BLURT: It must have been
quite an honor to pull off what was once looked upon as an impossible task,
resurrecting SMiLE.

MARK
LINETT: Yeah, it’s been quite a chore, but not in a bad way. Nobody, including
us, really understood how monumental this was going to turn out to be.

 

How much participation
was there from Brian? Was he with you every step of the way or just at certain
times?

No,
we played him the results at various points, and we got a few changes back. By
and large, I think it’s wise when an artist doesn’t choose to obsessively
revisit his past. That being said, of course, had Brian not done so in 2004
[for the re-recording of SMiLE for
the Nonesuch label] we wouldn’t have been able to do this. I think that’s one
of the things that kept this project from happening a lot sooner. Brian wasn’t
satisfied. He hadn’t completed it until 2004. When that happened, with the
encouragement and positive response it got, that allowed this to happen.
Without what he did in 2004, this would have still been a bunch of little
pieces, nothing resembling a coherent body of music.

 

How did Brian, Mike and
Al get along during this process?

Well,
you know, [that happens] with all groups, all families. They seemed to be
getting along the best I’ve ever seen it in the almost 25 years I’ve been
around. I get the sense that everybody realizes that at a certain point other
things are more important. But what strikes me is we all tend to look at them
as the Beach Boys and to varying degrees they were all friends and family
before they were the Beach Boys. When you remember that, it changes things a
bit.

 

How did you go about
assembling the tracks that make up the SMiLE album on disc one?

We’re
using the best possible pieces we have. Sometimes we used vocals that were
recorded slightly later, things from Smiley
Smile
, the Surf’s Up version that
was released, some of those background vocals. What we’re trying to present on
disc one is the most coherent, listenable presentation for everybody of a Beach
Boys version of this unfinished album.

 

And you’ve done it. It
stacks up very nicely to the version Brian re-recorded in 2004.

It’s
interesting, because that version was created by Brian with Van Dyke revisiting
all the material he’d recorded in ’66-’67 finally putting it into a coherent
body of work. Seven years ago, it was a lot easier to do that than it was in
’66-’67, in part because there were no longer the time limitations of a single
vinyl record. I can’t say this 100 percent, but at the last minute they
wouldn’t have gone, “Oh, this has to be a double-album.” That was
extremely unlikely given the time frame.

        But Brian did that all the time,
recorded stuff that got pushed to another project. In 2004, when they went back
to it, it all fit together. It all was recorded for the project. The decision
of which child to leave behind, as it were, didn’t have to be made. And I have
to say, the experience of 2004 was monumental for Brian. Just as much as we
fans had been, obsessing over this unfinished body of work. I assumed that it
upset him that he hadn’t finished it. He didn’t like being asked about it, but
it was clearly a lot deeper than that. Kind of like an artist who half-finishes
a painting and stares at the outline for 40 years, disappointed that he didn’t
finish it.

 

How did Brian feel about
going back to those sessions
?

He
was very reluctant to revisit it. But he did, and the satisfaction that he
clearly got from finishing the album, he was very satisfied that he was finally
able to do that. It was very significant for him. It showed how real artists
are different from the rest of us. It was a tremendous weight off his
shoulders. For whatever version, I think he’s very proud that all this material
was finally put in a coherent form with the help of Van Dyke and a few others,
that it was no longer just a bunch of scattered pieces he decided to put aside
so long ago. One of the reasons Alan [Boyd, co-producer along with Linett] and
I feel he did this, having spent nine months putting this together, was that
the technology that made it possible for us to do this today, didn’t exist back
then. You had to do crude edits with tape and a razor blade. If Brian had the
ability to shuffle around all the pieces to “Heroes And Villains” the
way we can now, it would have been a lot easier to get the album finished
before it became too overbearing for him.

 

Did you ever get a
chance to ask Brian why didn’t finish it back then?

No,
I don’t feel that that’s my place. My feeling is not that the muse left him.
Listening to the sessions you can hear his laser-like ability to hear
something, change it and alter the arrangements. Faster, slower, add this, take
away that. At some point that started to evade him. The goal got fuzzy. It was
just a monumental task. Pet Sounds, as unbelievably beautiful as it is, is a
relatively conventional album.

 

Sure, and SMiLE is anything but conventional.

When
I interviewed Brian for a film back in 1998 and brought up the subject of SMiLE,
he became very quiet and very sad. And it was evident that he still regarded it
as a failure at that time. When I asked him why didn’t that material come out,
his answer, and I think he believed this, was that it was inappropriate music
for the Beach Boys to make. Somehow that had gotten stuck in his head. When SMiLE
had such an incredible response in 2004, the clouds parted and this gigantic
weight came off of his shoulders. One of the happiest encounters I’ve ever had
with Brian was after taping one of the live performances. He never imagined
that music would get such a positive response from an audience.

 

I always felt the reason
he couldn’t finish SMiLE was with the vast amount of tape he rolled, he just
lost the focus
.

Yeah,
absolutely. He almost would have needed a film editor to finish it. It was all
in such small pieces. Just about every track on the 5-CD package had to be
pieced together from even smaller pieces. Not counting the time it took us to
transfer the material, we spent over nine months assembling the pieces. And
that’s with modern technology. When we did the Pet Sound box set in 1995, it had to be assembled from multiple
tapes that had to be re-synched. The old way of recording was you would record
the basic track on four-track and mix that down with half of it going to
eight-track and do the rest of the recording there. Mix that down, there’s your
record. In some cases, do that a couple of times. For the stereo mix, you
wanted the original four-track in synch with vocals from the second tape. The
problem is the speed is slightly different. To do that in 1995 required using
two digital tape machines, each of which cost about $200 thousand and
laboriously get the speed right. Now the recording systems, themselves, have
the ability to do time-shifting, so you can do it much more easily.

 

The finished version of
“Surf’s Up” on the first disc sounds utterly amazing.

When
the Beach Boys did the finished version of “Surf’s Up” for the Surf’s Up album, they initially tried to
take Brian’s vocals off the piano demo version and slide them into the basic
track. And there’s a reel of tape where they’re trying to do that. The problem
was the two tracks didn’t match, time-wise. It was virtually impossible and they
gave up, and Carl re-sang it. Putting Brian’s vocal into that same track using
today’s technology was a relatively simple process. Something like that would
have been almost equally impossible even seven or eight years ago. Now it took
a few hours.

 

To me, just as
interesting as the music is the studio chatter that you left in.

Oh,
yeah. The sense I get from hearing that stuff kind of contradicts the folklore
that the Beach Boys didn’t understand the project, didn’t like the project.
What seems to be happening is they are trying very hard and succeeding. Some of
the vocal stuff was recorded for this album was just astonishing.

 

I love the little bit
where Brian pretends he’s stuck inside a microphone and they accidentally
electrocute him.

Well,
Brian always had a penchant for humor. It was interesting because some of those
experiments would find their way into the music. Two days after the microphone
skit, he has horn players coming in and doing overdubs on “Surf’s Up”
and he has them doing “Oh, George fell into his French horn,” and he
has them talking to their horns. Then a bit of that ends up as a horn overdub
in the first part of “Surf’s Up.” He does the same thing with chants.
He tries them out on his friends. Then later he has the Beach Boys come in and
do them on an actual track.

 

As you say, the legend
goes that the Beach Boys came into these sessions rolling their eyes and
dragging their heels, but I don’t get that sense when I play this. Brian
whispers to the Beach Boys during a vocal session, “Remember one thing,
there’s no rules to this.”

No,
you have to remember they were coming off the biggest hit of their career,
“Good Vibrations,” which was anything but a conventional record.
Everybody was more than willing to give this all the effort they could. Even
from he label’s point of view, although clearly they were chomping at the bit
for “Where’s the next album?”

        The amount of money spent on this
project was phenomenal.  Brian is trying
anything and everything that comes to mind, leaving the fragments open-ended so
they could be assembled any way he might see it. There was a lot of: Get into
the studio and experiment. Just enormous ability and creativity.

 

[Photo
courtesy Capitol Records Archives. An edited version of this interview appears in issue #11 of BLURT.]

CONJURATIONS TIME Tav Falco/Panther Burns

A journey down memory
lane – literally – with the Memphis
ex-pat and high priest of cool.

 

BY
JUD COST

It
was one of those perfect rock ‘n’ roll days you never could have planned this
well in advance. It just unfolded. A tiny notice in the Sunday pink section of
the San Francisco Chronicle said that
Tav Falco, fronting the latest edition of his Panther Burns band, would be in
town to appear in not one, but two storied venues last week, on Wednesday, Nov.
9.

 

Falco
would do a 6:00 p.m. reading from his recent book, Mondo Memphis, at the revered City Lights Books on Columbus Ave. in North Beach.
Then everyone would move across town to Potrero Hill for a 9:00 p.m. gig at Thee
Parkside on 17th St.
Only a fool wouldn’t put maximum effort into such an endeavor. My wife and I
started loading the car with provisions in case this turned into more than a
one-day event. Or we decided to join the “Occupy San Francisco”
movement. One day, it turned out, was just right.

 

The
Chron referred to Falco as a
“Southern rock cult figure,” something like that. And that would
about be the half of it. You might think of the slim gentleman from Tennessee
as the latest to be passed the torch designating him a member of the
“short little mustache” genius fraternity whose previous members
included “rock stars” no less notable than Charlie Chaplin, Little
Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Adolf Hitler didn’t make the cut. His lip
brush was too short (and he had anger management issues). 

 

Back
in 1981, Falco had cut a mind-altering slice of mysterious, swamp-infested juju
from the heart of the Old South, a mighty LP called Behind The Magnolia Curtain which also featured former Big Star
gazer Alex Chilton. With its slashing, sometimes slightly out-of-tune blend of
guitars and vocals, Panther Burns brought to mind the similarly tortured wail
of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Gun Club. Falco and his boys had permanently altered
the brain cells of all who heard this demented gem that successfully cloned the
brittle sound of the Sears Silvertone guitar tenfold.

 

I
hadn’t seen Falco since he’d made two appearances in California in 1988. He played San Jose’s
long-departed Oasis in St. James Park, then encored later that year at Los
Angeles’ much-derided Coconut Teaszer, the Sunset Strip home for a dumbbell
legion of “hair farmer” bands. At the latter show, while support act
Sid Griffin’s Coal Porters were setting up, I’d briefly spoken with Falco, an
amiable chap, then and still.

 

We
find a parking place in North Beach tonight, never a sure-thing, and inhale the
garlic and basil-laced perfume from nearby Italian trattorias as we hoof it
down to the book emporium once frequented by Beat celebrities (man, they would
have absolutely loathed that term) Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neil
Cassady. City Lights hasn’t changed much since I used to frequent the joint in
my high school days to look for books of poetry by Kenneth Patchen before going
to see John Coltrane, Charles Mingus or Jackie McLean at the Jazz Workshop just
around the corner on Broadway. And there’s still the vague, overcooked aroma of
dank paper product arising from the basement far below.

 

The
store manager is busy setting up a couple dozen chairs for the event, and he
knows his projected audience. The seats are finally filled with bottoms,
leaving about seven or eight stragglers to peer around the corners. Stuck in
traffic, Falco arrives 20 minutes late, toting his guitar in a soft black case,
with Jello Biafra, onetime frontman for notorious local punk rockers the Dead
Kennedys, in tow. Or maybe Biafra had Falco in
tow, hard to tell. His mustache now gone with the wind, Falco begins to read
fascinating selections from Mondo Memphis.
He vividly describes the naming of his perennial backup band after the trapping
of a marauding wildcat in a dry cornfield, when someone set the corn stalks on
fire. “The screams of that panther could be heard for miles,” he
claims.

 

Surrealism
as it applied to French pulp fiction anti-hero Fantômas creeps into the
conversation. Falco briefly details the short time he lived in S.F.’s Mission
district back in the ’80s before finally settling in Vienna, Austria,
his current residence. “I’ve been up since four o’clock,” says Falco,
looking a little baked as he hands Biafra the
mic. Never at a loss for words, Biafra describes his first visit to Memphis, gazing through the fence rails at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s personal mausoleum, without
enough cash to gain admission. The Dead Kennedys, claims Biafra,
were inspired to cut Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” by this long-distance
tourist experience.

 

The
City Lights affair takes on the flavor of a high school reunion, as the crowd
also includes Ken Stringfellow, founding member of sharp Seattle
pop duo the Posies, Scott McCaughey’s Minus Five and former utility infielder
for R.E.M. and the reconstructed version of Memphis wizards, Big Star. Now living in Paris, Stringfellow opens
for Falco tonight as well as playing bass with Panther Burns. Barry Simons, the
“rock ‘n’ roll attorney” is here, too, lamenting that the west coast
version of New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp hasn’t happened as of yet. 

 

As
I wait to have a battered publicity photo from Falco’s brief tenure on L.A.’s Marilyn Records signed, I reminisce with Biafra about the first time I saw the Dead Kennedys, when
they opened for the Clash and the Cramps at seldom-used Kezar Pavilion in 1979.
The Clash didn’t go on until 3:00 a.m. that night, claiming their cabbie
couldn’t find the place. “Hmm, I think it was more like they were busy
looking for other things,” smiles Biafra.
“That was the night the crowd stripped me naked.” Indeed it was, as
well as an early local appearance by the Cramps, whose wildman vocalist, Lux
Interior, climbed to the top of a giant stack of amplifiers, then leaped back
to the stage without any grave bodily injury while guitarist Poison Ivy
Rorschach, resplendent in ripped fishnet stockings, cranked out the inexorable
rockabilly big beat below without batting a heavily mascara-ed eyelash at her
partner’s daredevil escapades.

 

A
quick trip out the 280 lands us at Thee Parkside within 10 minutes. As all the
participants wander in, we chow down on a couple of Cubano sandwiches while
sitting at a picnic table in the back of the joint. Stringfellow warms up the
house with a lovely solo set of originals played quietly on electric guitar. At
times he sings off-mic, then steps down into the crowd to really sing off-mic.

 

Scott
Miller, former Game Theory and Loud Family guru, shows up to check out what
Falco has been up to since he last saw him at the I-Beam in the early ’80s. I
didn’t recognize Miller at first with his shaggy locks shorn to more manageable
proportions. Now 51 and languishing in a self-imposed musical retirement,
Miller should get back in the studio. A talent as fertile as his shouldn’t be
allowed to retire.

 

Finally,
the return of Tav Falco is heralded by an accidental sonic blast from the tiny
bandstand as the guitars are plugging in. It’s probably the same kind of
frightening sound that will appear on Judgment Day when the dead awaken for one
last walkabout. Tav and the boys are dressed in sharp sharkskin jackets with a
slight tinge of electric blue. Falco’s jet black coif has been trimmed a bit
over the years, but the music hasn’t changed much from the halcyon days of
1985’s Sugar Ditch Revisited. A
bang-up job on John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road.” gets things off
to a ripping start before a crowd of about 35.

 

“Here’s
a song from our new album, Conjurations,
called ‘The Lady From Shanghai,’ from the Orson Welles film shot here in San Francisco,”
announces Falco. The band begins to play a slightly familiar refrain, and Biafra bends over from the left and volunteers,
“That sounds suspiciously like the riff from Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch
Fever.'” Then Simons leans over from the right to say, “That movie
starred Rita Hayworth.” It’s nice to be in the company of such experts
willing and able to do a little on-the-fly fact-checking.

 

At
one point during the evening, I did manage to ask Falco why he’d shaved off the
trademark mustache after so many years. He smiled broadly and replied, “It
gave me zits.”

 

[Photo
Credit: Baldo]

 

 

THE RETURN OF… Black Sabbath

The godfathers of heavy metal announce
their reunion, and Blurt is there. Pictured above: Bill Ward, Tony Iommi, Ozzy
Osbourne and Geezer Butler.

 

BY MARCUS BLAKE

 

The date:
November 11, 2011 – 11/11/11, an ominous date indeed.  The American television channel, VH1 Classic,
deemed it, “Heavy Metal Day”.  On social
media sites, they dubbed it, “Nigel Tufnel Day” (named after the Spinal Tap’s
guitar player’s quote, “This one goes to 11.”). 
Perhaps the best and most high profile music event to happen on
11/11/11, however, was the reunion of the original Black Sabbath.

 

About a week
before the event, word was all over the internet that all four original members
of Black Sabbath were to hold a press conference at the famous Los Angeles landmark, The Whisky A Go-Go, to
make an unspecified announcement.  My old
band mate and pal, Henry Rollins was to act as host for the occasion.

 

Sabbath’s last tour with Ozzy was in 2005 and the original lineup last appeared together when
they were inducted into the Rock And
Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006. They attempted to cut a new album with Rick Rubin in 1999, but the sessions
fell apart and Osbourne turned
his attention to his solo career. The second incarnation of the band featuring Ronnie James Dio reunited under the
moniker Heaven & Hell in
2006 but split four years later, after Dio
passed away.

 

So, after much
speculation, all four original members of Black Sabbath – vocalist, Ozzy
Osbourne; guitarist, Tony Iommi; bassist, Geezer Butler and drummer, Bill Ward -convened
at the press conference to announce that they have reunited to record their
first new album of original material in 33 years with Grammy Award winner Rick
Rubin to produce.  The band also
indicated that they will embark on a major would tour in 2012.

 

(I have to admit
that it was pretty damn exciting to be standing 10 feet away from the band
making these announcements on the same stage where they performed exactly 41
years ago, on Nov. 11, 1970.)

 

At exactly 11:11
am, the festivities got underway with a short film showing rare clips of the
band.   Rollins then took the stage and
began to talk about the band, their accomplishments and what Sabbath means to
not only him but to millions of fans.  Stating
the group’s records have sold in excess of 70 million records worldwide,
Rollins proclaimed that they were essentially a blues band that took the blues
into what is now known as heavy metal. 
Rollins:  “When I heard the song,
‘Iron Man’, a song about a guy who gets so mad at everyone he wanted to be
friends with that he goes out and he basically levels them, high school became
powerless over me after that.”  He went
on to talk about the rhythm section, Geezer Butler on bass and Bill Ward on
drums and their jazz instinct and blues confidence.  Let us not forget one of the major things
that this band can do that so many other bands (metal and otherwise) can’t do:
it can swing.  Although the critics generally did not like them
at the time, the audiences always did.

 

Rollins then
brought the facts up into the present. 
As mentioned earlier, he pointed out that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
inductees have reunited to work on their first album of all new material since
1978’s Never Say Die!, to be released
in the fall of 2012.  Sabbath has signed
a new record deal worldwide with Vertigo, the band’s original label, and will
release the upcoming album on that label.

 

Next summer,
Black Sabbath with headline the enormous, multi-day UK
music festival, the Download Festival on June 10th and will headline
their own tour to support the new album in the autumn of 2012.

 

The band then
came out to rapturous applause, followed shortly by legendary producer, Rick
Rubin.

 

Before Henry
Rollins started to ask the Sabs questions, drummer Bill Ward took the mic and
acknowledged that this was the same day as Remembrance Day/Armistice Day/
Veteran’s Day and, on behalf of the band, thanked and honored all of those who
served in the service.

 

***

 

Henry Rollins: 
So, gentlemen, we have assembled here, maybe only one of the super
groups left in the world where the members are all still standing.  You’re going to be making an album and get
back together for a lot of shows next year. 
Why do you feel the need to get back together and make more music?

 

Ozzy Osbourne: 
Well, it was time and the time was right, you know?  For a long time, people were asking to do a
reunion and we’ve got to do an album and it was just time. 

 

Tony Iommi:  I
think it’s now or never for us.  We’re
getting on good.  Everything’s really
good and we’ve got some great music to play.

 

Rollins: 
Was it any one of you who spearheaded the idea of getting back together?
Did anyone of you have the idea of contacting the others?

 

Ozzy:  It just kind of
happened.  Since our split way back when
(people kept asking), “Are you gonna do it? 
Are you gonna do an album?”  As
time goes by, it gets harder and harder. 
If you don’t do an album when you’ve got to do it, you miss that kind of
thing, you know?  (Mumbles) You miss the
boat as they say. It was just time.  We
couldn’t have the reunion any time before but this time, for some magical
reason, we’ve written about 7 or 8 songs so far and they’re really good.  I’m not just saying it.  I’m like, “Whoa!  You know?”

 

Tony:  We’ve always been in
contact anyway so, it’s not like we haven’t spoke for all of these years.  It’s been a constant thing.  So, it’s great that we can all actually be in
a room and start playing together again.

 

Rollins: 
In 1997, when you all reformed and you went out and you did a lot of
shows for a few years but no album came out of it.  I think for a lot of people that was the
great hope that not only would there be this tour but there would be new Black
Sabbath music.  There were two new songs
released but not the full album.  Whose
idea was it to bring in producer Rick Rubin? 
As I said before, there’s no one better for you guys than Rick.

 

Tony:  It was Rick.  He kept phoning us up every five
minutes!  (laughs)

 

Ozzy:  It was the obvious
choice.  I’ve known Rick for many years
and he’d be playing Black Sabbath and The Beatles or whatever and he would say,
“Do you think you’ll ever get back together?” 
He wanted to do it a long time ago…mumble mumble…

 

Rollins: 
Geezer, I’m going to make you speak if it’s the last thing I do.  Are you looking forward to getting into this
endeavor with the other three?

 

Geezer:  Yeah, I’m looking
forward to getting out of bed!  This
time, we’ve come up with absolutely incredible music.  It’s just great to be part of that.  It really is back to the old Sabbath
style.  We tried to do that before and it
just didn’t work.  It was not up to our
standards.  This time, the stuff that
Tony’s been playing, is absolutely brilliant. 
It’s great to be part of it. 
We’re all excited again and we know this time, it’s gonna happen. 

 

Rollins: 
Rick, a question for you.  In
preparation to bring the band in with these songs, do you have any environment
set up for them?  Do you have any
strategy you’re going to employ?  Do you
have any thoughts that you can tell us about what you’re going to be doing with
these guys?

 

Rick Rubin: 
Yeah, it’s just creating an environment where they’re comfortable and it
feels natural and easy… a no pressure situation.  I’ve stood in the room with them when they
played and it sounds remarkably like Black Sabbath and if it sounds like that,
then, we’re on the right track.

 

Rollins:  Do
you have any specific date on when you want to bring the band in (to the
studio)?  Has work begun?

 

Rick:  We’ve been working
on developing the material and we’re probably half way into the writing process
so, hopefully, early next year, we’ll record.

 

Rollins: 
How involved have you been in the writing process?  Are you going to rehearsals with them?  Are you working with them?

 

Rick:  I come to some
rehearsals.  They play me songs.  Then, I tell them what I think… the normal
process.  It’s inspiring hearing what’s
coming out.

 

Rollins: 
Are you gentlemen looking going out into the world next year and into
2013 with, potentially new music and a brand new tour and the four of you
together?  You’ve been touring without
each other for a while but now, back together. 
What do you think about that? 
Excitement? 

 

Geezer:  It’s something to
look forward to.

 

Tony:  You know, when we
all play together, it’s a real magical thing. 
Nobody plays like this band.  When
we all do our individual stuff, it’s never Black Sabbath.

 

Rollins: 
There’s one thing about Black Sabbath that should not be understated: if
Black Sabbath is missing one of their members, it’s no longer Black
Sabbath.  It’s one of those wonderful
bands where it really is a combination of the parts.   It’s not the Ozzy Osbourne show.  It’s not just some big riff.  It really is four component parts.  That’s one of the great things about the
band.  When you see it live, you walk
away thinking, “That’s a damn band playing where the four are making a sound unimpeachably
brilliant.”  I’m so glad that thousands,
or the better part of a million people, will be able to see that. 

 

***

 

At that point
the questions are turned over to the journalists/radio personalities in the
room. 

 

Answering what
his hopes were for the reunion, Tony responded, “It’s just great to be back
together and be able to play and write some great music and be with the guys
I’ve known all me life.  It’s a real
special thing.  We’ve known each other so
long.  It’s like a family.  It’s great to actually work together and be
in a room… it’s great fun and we’re really enjoying it.”

 

Responding to
the question if they had any specific memories of the night when they opened
for Alice Cooper at the Whisky years ago, Iommi stated, “Yeah, we didn’t open
for Alice Cooper!”  Bill Ward chimed it
with, “I think (the press was wrong). We don’t remember Alice Cooper.  It was a great time, we played The Forum for
about 48,000 (people) before that so, for us, it was a continuation of the
party.  So, we showed up (at the Whisky)
in top hat and tails and were all extremely silly but we rocked the place.  It was great, we played a lot of small
theaters and clubs during our first apprenticeship so, coming back to a club, especially
after doing The Forum and some of the other gigs we played in Europe, was a
nice touch.  It was really good and
everybody was just happy to be going.”

 

Tony:  We rented these
white suits.  These top hats and tails
and when we took them back, they wouldn’t have Bill’s back! 

 

Bill: Yes, they were absolutely filthy!  It was so hot in the place and I play pretty
hard and I sweated profusely. I was down to my underpants…

 

Tony: Which is not a nice sight in my opinion!

 

Bill: Yeah, ask him, he’ll tell you.  Yeah, they wouldn’t take my suit back.  As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now.  I’m thinking of giving it to the Hall Of…
something. 

 

Tony: Hall of excrement!

 

Rollins: 
How long have you guys known each other?

 

Ozzy:  I’ve known Tony for
fifty years. 

 

Tony:  We went to school
together. 

 

Rollins: 
What year would that be? 
1840?  (laughs)

 

Tony:  A long time ago.

 

Bill:  And then Tony and I
played in a band.  We were 15, 16 at the
time. 

 

Tony: 16, 17… 

 

Bill:  Yeah, that’s when we
started playing together.  Then we met
and started with Terry and then started with Oz.

 

Rollins: 
It’s a pretty unique relationship the four of you have over so many
decades. What’s it like when you’re in the same room and you see these faces that
you’ve seen, maybe, almost as long as you’ve seen the faces of your parents?

 

Tony:  We have a good
laugh, a good time.  We’re all relaxed
with each other.  We’ve known each other
so long.  It’s like putting on an old
glove, it’s fantastic. 

 

Responding to a
question about the set list and if the band would play any deeper cuts, Tony
came back with, “We haven’t actually got that far yet but I’m sure we’ll be
playing some newer and some different stuff, if that’s an answer.  If you are expecting us to play the same set
as last time, we won’t be.”

 

Answering if
they have any preference in playing indoor or outdoor arenas, Geezer said, “It’s
not really different once you get up on stage apart from when you’re outdoor,
it blows your hair up everywhere and it shows all of your bald spots!” Bill
Ward added, “I think if the band shows up and the audience is there, I don’t
think it makes that much difference from a personal point of view.  Sometimes, when we’re outdoors and it’s a
windy night, the sound actually shifts across the stage.  That can be a little worrisome
sometimes.  But other than that, you just
show up and you play.  We always play 120%.”

 

Responding to
the question of he will sing on the upcoming album, Bill Ward said, “I wouldn’t
think so.  I want to focus with my drums.
That’s my number one priority.  It’s
always a learning process.  I just want
to focus on being the best drummer I can be right now.

 

When answering a
question about if the current, gloomy state of world affairs now inspires the
new music they are making, Geezer said, “We’ve always written what goes on in
the world and our personal lives so, it’s bound to come out somewhere down the
line.”

 

As far as if
they thought about what kind of bands they want to support them on tour, Ozzy
exclaimed, “Not Alice Cooper, that’s for sure!”

 

The final
question asked was when can Australians expect the band Down Under.  Bill Ward replied, “It would be nice to put
that on the schedule.  It’s been a long
time since the original band was in Australia. 
I think it’s a must.  One of our
favorite things to do is to drive cars into the ocean!  I don’t know if we’ll do that next year but
Ozzy and I always used to have a good fight in the waterfall at Kings’ Cross.”
Tony added, “Nobody would take us out to dinner, that’s for sure.” Which
prompted Bill to note, “Yeah, we had a strawberry fight and that killed it but
we’d probably have a good time and we want to rock ‘n’ roll and play some good
music for the Australian fans down there.”

 

Rollins wrapped
things up by saying, “Thank you for getting back together.  Thank you for getting back together with
Rick.  Ladies and gentlemen, Black
Sabbath!”

 

As I walked out
of the Whisky A Go-Go, I looked up in the sky. 
The clouds started to gather and it looked like it was going to
rain.  I could hear the opening notes of
the title track from the band’s first album, Black Sabbath, playing in my
head. 

 

Ozzy was right:
it was the right time…

 

 

TALK ABOUT THEIR PASSION: R.E.M.

On September 21 the music world was stunned when R.E.M. – Michael
Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills – announced they were breaking up after over
three decades; the subsequent news of a 2CD career retrospective, R.E.M.,
Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982 – 2011 (to be released this week
on Warner Bros.), was little consolation to longtime fans and fellow musicians for
whom the group’s trajectory had been, quite literally, the soundtrack of their
lives.

 

Herein,
then, find a selection of testimonials from the group’s peers and
contemporaries. As the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, a latter-day auxiliary member,
no less, puts it so perfectly, “R.E.M. were the secret handshake
that became a global phenomenon – the freemasons of the obscure.” In the
current issue of BLURT (number 11; Wilco cover) you can find a selection of
some of these quotes, but what follow below are the full, unedited versions,
along with contributions from additional artists we didn’t have room for in the magazine.

 

Many thanks to everyone who
so graciously took time out from their busy schedules to weigh in: Chuck
Prophet, Don Dixon, Glen Mercer, Jason Isbell, Jeff Kelly, Jody Stephens, John
Doe, John Stirratt, John Wesley Harding, Marty Willson-Piper, Matt Piucci,
Parker Gispert, Patterson Hood, Dave Schools, Scott McCaughey, Sid Griffin,
Steve Wynn, Ken Stringfellow, Tim Lee.

 

***

 

SID GRIFFIN (Long Ryders, Coal Porters): Media
outlets are already, ho ho ho, saying
it is the end of the world as we know it but… well, I don’t feel fine.

 

DAVE SCHOOLS (Widespread Panic): The first time I
heard R.E.M. was a June night in 1983. I was at my high school graduation party
and a friend (who was attending UGA in Athens,
also my college destination that coming fall) took me aside and said, “You need
to hear these guys. They’re from Athens,
and they’re gonna be huge!” With that, he popped in Chronic Town.
I thought it sounded like jangly pop, but with a haunting and impressive voice
that made me want to hear it again. Four months later, R.E.M.’s music could be
heard echoing out of nearly every dorm on the UGA campus, and I was nearly run
over one night by Michael Stipe riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of
the 40 Watt.

        Some years
later, Peter Buck offered these words of advice to a young Widespread Panic: “Keep
your appointments,” he said. “Play every gig you can: bars, pizza joints, and
bowling alleys. Show up on time and play for anyone who is there.”

        25 years
later, it seems as though Peter was right.

       I’ve always
appreciated R.E.M.’s journeyman ability to work their way to the very top while
at the same time continuing to evolve artistically. They did it without all of
the smoke and mirrors required by so many of their contemporaries.

 

GLENN MERCER (The
Feelies):
I first heard them on record a short while after Chronic Town came out. Steve Fallon from
Maxwells recommended we listen to it while hanging out at the club one night. I
remember being drawn to the overall atmosphere, murky and mysterious, sounding
fresh but familiar at the same time. A few years later, I was at a party at
Steve’s apartment when Peter introduced himself and mentioned he was a fan of
[Feelies 1980 debut LP] Crazy Rhythms.
He then offered to help us out in the studio if and when the Feelies made
another record. We thought it made sense because he played guitar and
understood our aesthetic. [Buck co-produced 1986’s The Good Earth.)

        I have very
fond memories of the times we opened for them during the Pageant Tour. I also recall some great times hanging out at Peter’s
whenever we passed through Athens.
And all the times he came up to play guitar onstage with us. That whole era, in
the ‘80s, was a truly remarkable time for music.

 

JEFF KELLY (Green
Pajamas):
It was a misty autumn evening in the early ‘80s. I had KJET-AM on
the radio, heading east out of West Seattle
toward the Spokane Street
bridge. And there amongst the Bow Wow Wow and Duran Duran songs, something
caught my ear: it was dark and murky and mysterious and I could hear, what I
imagined might be, a 12-string Rickenbacker. And underneath all of that ran a
subtle, haunting melody. It was “Gardening At Night.” That was the
first time I heard R.E.M. and I thought, hmmm, that’s not bad… Little did I
know!

 

MATT PIUCCI (Rain Parade): I really admired those guys. They worked their asses off to
get where they did. I played with Pete Buck a few times, a really nice guy. I’d
say one of the reasons they stayed together for so long was that they split the
songwriting four ways, a very smart move. They saw an early Rain Parade show at
the On Club in L.A.,
right around the time I had a big crush on one of the Peterson sisters, and I
heard afterwards that Stipe said it was one of the best shows he’d ever
seen.

 

PATTERSON HOOD
(Drive-By Truckers):
R.E.M. has always been a class act. They have been one
of my favorite bands since I was a teenager. I actually bought Chronic Town before Murmur came out. Saw them a
dozen+ times including some of my all time favorite shows.

       Their early
albums were the first to actually make me proud to be southern. They reveled in
the weirdness of our region without resorting to rebel flag waving, foolish
pride or guitar pyrotechnics. Only later did I also realize that Peter Buck was
actually one of the most innovative and interesting guitar players of his time.

        They never
repeated themselves and treated their fans with intelligence. They ran their
business in a progressive and innovative way that influenced a generation of
bands, including the bands I have played in. In later years I have become
friends with a couple of them and consider that an honor. Their lesser albums
are interesting and daring and the better ones have stood the test of time as
some of the greatest of the entire Rock Era.

        I wish them
all the best and owe them a lifetime of thanks.

 

PARKER GISPERT (The
Whigs):
R.E.M. exists in a dream. The first show I saw at the original
Georgia Theatre was R.E.M, and the last was Tony
Clifton. It was 2001, my first night in Athens, and The Possibilities were
playing after “Movie Night.” Word on the street was that R.E.M might
perform.  I figured R.E.M was a long shot but was down to enjoy The
Possibilities regardless.  I checked the setlist taped to the stage. 
It had titles such as, “Imitation of Life” and “Man on the Moon.”
Maybe they were playing after all? Before I knew it, I was leaning on the stage
watching Athens’
namesake rock band slingshot me into an alternate reality.  It was the
only time I saw R.E.M.  Love that.  Years later, Tony Clifton rocked
the same Theatre.  A few months later it burnt. If I didn’t still have
that R.E.M setlist, I’d say the whole thing never happened.

 

TIM LEE (Tim Lee 3,
Windbreakers):
I heard R.E.M. early on when I picked up their Hibtone 45 at
Wax n’ Facts in Atlanta
along with several other independent releases. It immediately stood out from
the batch and got played a lot around our house. Then I heard some mixes for Chronic Town when the Windbreakers were
recording at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In a little later. Like a lot of folks who
heard them back then, I really dug their whole sound and approach. It was very
much of a time and place, yet timeless by the same token. Then the first time I
saw them was in a small club in New
Orleans on the Chronic Town tour. They were like a force of
nature, such an amazing energy and charisma, each as individuals and together
as a band. It was pretty undeniable.

        To me, one of the important things
to remember about R.E.M. is that they worked very hard early on to build a
following. As a consequence, they helped blaze a trail that others followed,
especially in the Southeast. That they famously played ‘every pizza joint that
had New Wave Night on Tuesday’ was an important component in the development of
an original music club circuit. Additionally, they always did things their way,
for better or worse. They also were conscious of their ability to direct
attention to other bands they respected, and they did so regularly. It’s cool
that they continued this practice even after they became pretty famous, a
condition that never seemed to diminish their accessibility or hospitality.
They always just seemed like good guys who liked music and art.

 

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER
(The Church):
I remember the early, shadowy, mumbling, hidden R.E.M. that
lasted till “Losing My Religion” rather fondly. After that mega hit they seemed
to struggle, trying to keep one foot in the 40 Watt club while the other was in
the stadiums. Not to say they didn’t have some memorable singles and memorable
songs but success is a shallow friend and has a nasty habit of grabbing hold of
your steering wheel. I also think losing Bill Berry was a blow.

        For Michael
Stipe it must have been tough going from aloof Athens reticent serious arty fellow to
pin-up. The uncomfortable position of “voice of a generation” perhaps didn’t
allow him to get on with the serious business of what he was best at without
being under the microscope – never a good situation trying to be creative with
someone breathing down your neck. Hard to maintain the idealism of the no
pressure years.

        Still, the
critics seemed to have been extremely generous to them throughout their tenure
in the spotlight. I’m sure Peter Buck will continue to be plugged into music
and have many different adventures. I think them breaking up is an exciting
prospect for the individuals’ creative future. I’m very much looking forward to
Michael Stipe’s coming years as an artist in his own right.

 

JOHN STIRRATT
(Wilco):
What I love most about R.E.M. is that they were the conduit in a
pre-Google world to other cool bands, artists and writers, always selflessly
spreading the word. I, like lots of others, heard Wire, Big Star, Television,
etc. probably years before I would have because of them. I would argue that in
the Reagan ‘80s, they were the most visible purveyors of a “bohemian” lifestyle
to the more mainstream American college-aged youth.

 

JOHN DOE (X): I
never really saw R.E.M. live because we were on very different musical paths.
There weren’t festivals back then like there are now where you have an eclectic
mix of bands. At first it was: I don’t get it. What’s so great about all this?
Then I realized there was this mysterious moodiness that would appeal to a
college crowd. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done. Michael is an
awesome guy. We’ve hung out a few times. He and Exene have a lot in common,
even though you wouldn’t think they do. They’re both very reticent public
personalities. But they’ve figured out a way to overcome that.  But the idea of retiring? I hope to follow in
the footsteps of Little Richard or Ray Charles or Wanda Jackson: to play as
long as I can. And I’m sure that they will, in different forms.

 

JASON ISBELL: When
I was a kid, “Losing My Religion” confused the hell out of me. It
wasn’t the southern colloquialism title (I grew up in a small Alabama
town not so different from Athens,
GA) or the strange-looking people
and images in the video. R.E.M. had found some real success and started
dressing like rock stars by then, so they didn’t look very different from
everybody else on MTV. The song itself just didn’t seem like it should’ve been
a hit. It was too long. There were mandolins. There was no chorus, for Christ
sakes!  It was probably the first time I
realized you could have a hit that didn’t sound like anything else on the
radio. Probably one of the last times, too, but that’s neither here nor there.

        I loved the
music R.E.M. made. They were one of a handful of America’s greatest bands. My favorite
related memory comes from a long-ago ‘80s Karaoke night at the Go Bar in Athens. I was drunk
enough to sing “We Belong to the Night,” by Pat Benatar, and when the
insanely high harmony parts came in on the chorus, I heard an angelic voice
behind me nailing every note. I turned around and it was Mike Mills. Wouldn’t
have picked him for a Benatar guy.

 

JOHN WESLEY HARDING: R.E.M.
blazed a career path that was totally unknown before them, have been a great
example and inspiration for countless bands (and humans) since, and, perhaps,
ultimately found life made unmanageable by their own admirable principles. I
felt myself sad but not surprised when I heard the news of their break-up.
R.E.M. at the Hammersmith Apollo on the Green tour was one of the really exciting musical events of my life up until then.

        Peter Buck was
one of the first people I stayed with in the USA – his, and the band’s,
generosity has always been second-to-none. And then another of the players on The Sound Of His Own Voice [JWH’s latest
album], the producer Scott McCaughey, became an extra-ordinary member and that
made R.E.M. better than ever to me. I am not going to say that Around The Sun meant as much to me as,
say, Document, but I will say that
every album made sense to me in the R.E.M. continuum, and you can’t say that
about many bands that have been around 30 years.

        R.E.M. is
dead: long live R.E.M.!

 

KEN STRINGFELLOW
(Posies, R.E.M., The DiSCiPLiNES):
It’s been well documented (on my blog,
on Norwegian TV, etc) that R.E.M. was the band that brought me into the
contemporary music of the ‘80s; they had the momentum and distribution to get
into my small hometown, which ‘til then had been more or less a land of classic
rock. But, lo and behold, I heard “Radio Free Europe” on a rock radio
station, and flipped. It wasn’t back announced either. The 1-4-5 chord
progression of the verse was somewhat old school, I thought maybe it was Dave
Edmunds… but that soaring chorus was not of the earth that I knew-comparing
that to the  “Highway to Hell” environment around me was like
being a caveman seeing an SR-71 slice the sky overhead.

        Then I read an
article about a hot new band, R.E.M. in Rolling
Stone
and thought, this has to be the
band I heard on the radio
. I searched all the record stores in Bellingham, and found a
copy of Murmur on cassette, the only
one in the county. Everything else – SST Records, the British new wave bands – took
another few months to penetrate our neck of the backwoods. So, R.E.M. was an
important friend indeed. Perhaps that’s their legacy: as the highest achieving
band of both the ‘80s college rock years and the ‘90s alterna-years, they have
surely been a doorway to gently and deftly lead many a listener from the
mainstream to the murkier waters below. The secret handshake that became a
global phenomenon-the freemasons of the obscure.

        Fifteen years
later I would actually embark on a decade of performing live and in studio the
band, and found the band I admired so much as a teenager were absolutely who I
thought they would be in person – no disappointments there. They will be
missed, but I am sure for every person reading this there’s a brilliant R.E.M.
album that they have yet to hear, good discoveries await.

 

JODY STEPHENS (Big
Star):
R.E.M. were the kind of band that felt like friends even if you
didn’t know them personally. From start to finish there was always a message in
Michael’s voice (even when the lyrics were playful) and an affirmation in the
echo of Mike’s. What they had was uniquely theirs in songs, performance and
fetching melodies, both in vocals and in Peter’s guitar parts. Bill Berry was
the perfect drummer for this. They were the highlight of my SXSW 2009 with
Scott McCaughey adding guitar and Bill Rieflin on drums. I will miss R.E.M.

 

DON DIXON: i love
R.E.M. – i have from the start…my favorite stuff is on Chronic Town…but as much
as i love their take on rock music, i love their united front as a band with an
activist heart…they stood for things, put their money, fame & time into
things they collectively believed in…
        did they argue? did the Beatles
argue? did the Symbionese Liberation Army argue? does Congress argue? yes, they
probably argued but the point is, they presented a united front for 31
years…pretty amazing…
         while the demise of R.E.M. is
not a surprise to me it still is a bit like a family member that’s been in a
coma for a few years finally passing on…that sounds harsh in a way i don’t
intend it to…”bed-ridden” might be a better way of describing a band
that doesn’t tour…i understand not touring…under the best circumstances it’s a
difficult, mind-numbing grind…not the time on stage, that’s the joy, but
everything else…imagine going to your own wedding reception everyday for a year
(remember, you have to travel overnight to get to it) in a strange town
surround by people you don’t know but who all feel like they know you
intimately…it’s almost impossible to understand if you’ve never lived it…
        i’m not sure that Michael wants
to continue with music but if he does it will certainly be something
esoteric…eccentric like the man…i expect Mike Mills to come out blazing with
a rock band & Peter to continue with his rotating groups containing Scott
McCaughey & Steve Wynn…whatever they do, i’ll be listening…
 these young men had hits on their own
terms…they were the Number One Band in the world…they made the world better
place to live & changed peoples lives…could any band hope for a better
epitaph?

 

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY
(Minus 5, Baseball Project, R.E.M.):
My friend Marty Perez played Chronic Town for me when we were working at Cellophane Square Records in Seattle. It sounded mysterious and sort of
beatnik and not like anything else I really knew. Which attracted me of course.
Thirty or so years later I can’t describe what the band means to me, but if I
did, it’d be like describing the sound of Chronic
Town
… that is, pretty much impossible.

 

STEVE WYNN (Dream
Syndicate, Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, The Baseball Project):
I was
working as the indie music buyer for Rhino Records in Westwood back in 1981 and
had read about R.E.M. in New York Rocker.
Not long after that I was working behind the counter (Nels Cline manning the
day shift with me) when someone brought in the first single on consignment. I
took a chance and picked up 5 copies, most of which stuck around for a while
but eventually sold. I found out years later that the guy who brought in
the singles was actually Peter Buck who has since then been my touring
companion, bandmate and buddy. 
    Peter tells me that he came to a few
Dream Syndicate shows and was there one night at 3a.m. when we recorded a live
session for KPFK but I don’t remember actually meeting him until they played
the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco when I was there recording the Medicine Show in 1983. We stayed up
until well past dawn, geeking out on music and bands and books and life in
general. 
    I loved the first single. I loved the
first EP. I heard Murmur the first
time driving after midnight through Nebraska
and that’s the image that stays in my mind every time I hear that record. But
it wasn’t until we opened an eight-week tour for them in 1984 that I realized
that the keys to their success (creatively and professionally) was their
determination, their consistency, their lack of fear, their ability to play a
great and very different show every night and their focus to the things they
loved and cared about to the exclusion of any kind of outwardly applied
“common sense.” I watched every show on that tour and loved every one
of them.
        Here’s the deal: when every other
band in the ’80s fell prey at some point to missteps, bad production (ah, the
‘80s), bad decisions, it seemed that R.E.M. never faltered and hit their mark
on every record. I had that same Murmur feeling when I heard Out of Time and
again when I heard Automatic for the
People
and even when I heard Monster (a criminally underrated record). But here’s the capper: they just got better
and better as a live act. I saw the band quite a few times in recent years
(partially due to becoming bandmates with Peter, Mike and Scott in the Baseball
Project) and I swear those shows were better than even the best shows back in
1984. 
        I guess that’s why I kinda wish
they could have found a way to stay together. There just aren’t that many great
arena bands anymore. But, then again, my band only lasted 7 years. The Beatles
only lasted 7 years (I’m not drawing comparisons). If you’ve ever been in a
band, you know how hard it is to keep a band together through a dozen gigs let
alone 31 years. They made incredible music, they established the notion of
achieving success on your own terms, working both inside and outside of the
system at the same time. They influenced bands who don’t even know they were
influenced by them. I look at this all from the perspective of a friend and
bandmate but, at the same time, I remain a fan. I think I’ll put on one of
their records right now

 

CHUCK PROPHET (Green
On Red, solo):
First time I met R.E.M. was at the Keystone in Berkeley. My high school
band was opening for them. There were about 75 people there, but there was what
people call a buzz in the air.  My band
played a set that included a cover of the MC5’s “High School.” After the set,
Peter Buck walked up and said, “Hey man, cool set. Great MC5
cover…” And that’s how it was. 

        They were
unique. Stipe had that – voice. It had a vulnerability to it, I suppose.  Like he understood your pain. Let’s Active
were there as well that night. They didn’t play as they’d gotten their wires
crossed – something that happened a lot back in those days. The Let’s Active
dudes were wearing eyeliner, I think. Some things you R.E.M.ember.

        Of course,
R.E.M. got huge and all that. My band Green On Red played a festival in Leeds, England
with them a couple years later. In one of the R.E.M. books, it says I passed
out and Pete filled in on guitar. Saved the day (or the night). I don’t know. I
suppose it’s possible. Some things you can’t R.E.M.ember.

        R.E.M. became
something like role models over the years for other bands. They continued to
grow by doing their thing and for the most part, they kept their same gang of
crazy-ass southern loons around them. And through thick and thicker, they
managed to keep themselves interested in all of it.  Making records, and getting the cover art
together, touring, videos, clothes. (Lots of clothes.) They did their thing,
and they were always searching for new ways to do it.  Each record afforded them the luxury to camp
out in a different town. And they did – Seattle,
Memphis, San Francisco,
London, New
York (I think). And when they made the early records,
they were greasing around Winston-Salem,
NC. They put it on the map along
with Athens.

        I relate to
that – to the greasing around. I made my last record in Mexico City in the middle of what looked like
it might be the black plague. Then I went out and played anywhere anyone would
have me, and that included gigs in Eastern Europe – Serbia,
Croatia,
last winter. I’m somehow addicted to the adventure of it all. And I suppose
when that’s gone, what else is there? So maybe that’s it. Maybe the sense of
adventure is gone for them. Bill Berry grows sod for country clubs that would
never let him in. But he still goes fishing they tell me. And hopefully when
there’s that reunion tour down the road, Bill will find it in his heart to put
down that fishing pole and tread the boards again. That would be cool.

        Yep, they
called it quits. And I don’t really know why. Maybe they got tired of turning
themselves inside out and shaking themselves up. I went out to see the Baseball
Project a couple months ago. They were playing for like a 100 people at a bar
in L.A. I went
right up and chatted with Pete like no time had passed. He held forth about the
importance of merch, and how, if you play two sets, you can sell more merch in
between. Cut the opening band out of the equation. I went away thinking that
Pete was a cool dude. And that I should maybe try the 2 set thing. (We’re doing
it this weekend.)

        Sometimes just
trying to make it all work is enough in and of itself. And the art is making it
happen. Anyway, why get hung up on weird unrealistic expectations? That stuff
is guaranteed to take the joy out of anything for anyone.

        They say it’s
hard to make a relevant dangerous rock and roll record these days. And I took
R.E.M. breaking up harder than I thought I would.  And that it’s all increasingly irrelevant,
but I’m not sure. I do know this: If you’re having fun, and you can wake up in
the AM and be interested in what you’re doing, if you can make any money doing
what you love, and if you’re lucky enough to have someone to share it with, you
got it made.

        People think
all musicians want to get big or whatever. Get to that “next level.”
And that it drives them, and ultimately it takes its toll on people and they
cave. They just fall apart. Become unhinged. I’m not so sure about that.

        I think our
biggest fear is that someone might tell us we have to stop. Writing songs.
Making records. Playing gigs. Driving around in a van with your friends. I
guess my biggest fear is that I won’t have those songs to kick around. And
R.E.M. throwing in the towel made me think about myself. And I got uneasy.

        I’ve admitted
easily – that my greatest fear is that I’ll have to stop. I don’t want to stop.
Is there something wrong with me? Probably not, I’m hoping. If the speed of
light has been challenged, maybe there’s room in the universe for me.

        God, please
let us keep fucking around.  We never
know who to thank, do we? And Otis had been loving you too long to stop now.