Monthly Archives: February 2012

EVERY DAY IS AN ISLANDS DAY Nick Thorburn & Islands

The burgeoning pop maestro
talks his impressive new album, the heartbreak that inspired it, the curse of
Buddy Holly, and more.

 

BY RYAN REED

 

It’s no exaggeration that indie-rock outfit Islands have
sounded like a totally different band on every one of their first three albums.
They’ve played Arcade Fire-esque pop, complete with strings and mountains of
overdubs; they’ve gone full-out art-rock, journeying through weird, proggy song
structures and fractured lyrics; they’ve even stripped everything down to a
throbbing electro-pop core (2009’s Vapours). All of those sonic
reinventions came from logical places: When the band’s line-up expanded around
the time of 2008’s Arm’s Way, the resulting album took on more of a
rocking, full-band feel. The insular minimalism on Vapours came from mastermind
Nick Thorburn’s decision to strip things back a bit and overhaul the roster. But
with A Sleep & A Forgetting, the band’s fourth album, Thorburn has
plunged head-first into dreamy pop balladry and old-fashioned doo-wop – a shift
brought not from member shifts, but from heartbreak, identity crises, and pure
coincidence. (The current incarnation of Islands includes Evan Gordon and Aaron
Harris.)

 

Thorburn started writing A Sleep on Valentine’s Day
of last year, and in a full-circle twist of fate (or, perhaps, good marketing),
the album saw a V-Day release last month. BLURT recently phoned Thorburn to
discuss the dark inspiration behind his new songs – and the challenges of
writing as honestly, as nakedly as possible. But first, let’s take a look at
the insanely clever, skeleton-populated video for album track “Hallways”:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLURT: Hey Nick! Where are you at the moment, and what
are you up to?

NICK THORBURN: Not much is going on. I’m about to get into
rehearsing, the rhythm of rehearsing. Right now, I’m just at my friend’s place.

 

The album’s coming out on Valentine’s Day. Are you ready?

It’s happening, it’s finally happening. The baby’s coming
out!

 

So this album is very personal for you. A lot of these
songs (if not all of them in some way) deal with heartbreak, loss, and
loneliness. I hate to dwell on the past, especially when it might be painful,
but would you care to provide a little more info on what inspired the mood on
your new album?

I mean… (groans)
…it’s funny. I don’t know what way to provide more insight or context that
will make the record more enjoyable. I think the subtext – it’s such a literal
record. Some of the lyrics are so pointed, so direct, that I don’t know if I
can articulate verbally any more.

 

The stark emotional quality of the lyrics is very
powerful on this album. It seems like you’ve mostly moved away from more
abstract imagery in favor of the literal meanings of what you’re feeling.
That’s often difficult for songwriters – was it something that took some getting
used to, or did those words just pour out of you since that’s how you were
feeling?

It was a struggle. I had to really push myself to avoid
using the tricks and devices I’d relied on earlier to really get to the heart
of what I was trying to say. It was definitely a struggle. I was in New York
and left New York after… a change in personal lifestyle and was floating for
a few months with nowhere to go. I had no direction, no home. And I ended up in
Los Angeles four months later and was staying with kind of a benefactor of the
arts – a patron of the arts, rather. This woman who was well off and put up
people who kind of need somewhere to stay for an undetermined period of time.
There was a piano at my disposal and a rehearsal space, so I had all these tools,
and after four months of just kind of spinning out of control, after leaving
New York, it gave me a chance to just stop and reflect on where I’d been and
what I was feeling. I kind of took that time to just go inward and… restore
myself. (laughs)

 

The piano sort of dominates the mood of the album. Did
you know from the beginning that you wanted to emphasize the piano, or was that
just a situation where it was there and you utilized it, almost as fate?

Yeah, I think it was just there, you know? It was just
there. I’m not a piano player by any means. I can use it for basic
compositional purposes, you know, but it was there, and it was… it was
different. I’d been in this mode of writing while I was living in New York and
Montreal of writing with a guitar, an acoustic guitar, so I kind of needed to
break out of that formula, I guess.

 

I really loved the Mister Heavenly album ( 2011’s Out Of Love, cut by Thorburn, Man Man’s
Ryan Kattner and Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer)  and the whole
“doom-wop” idea that you guys were exploring. What I find interesting
about this new Islands album is that it sounds like plain ol’ doo-wop at times,
or at least classic pop in the purest sense possible. The two albums feel sort
of connected in that sense. Did one project influence the other, or vice versa?

There’s a connection because I worked on both, so there’s
definitely, in the most plainest sense, a connection there. But yeah, I think
they’re cousins in a way. I was in guitar mode on that record. Any time you
collaborate with other people like that, you come away with new tricks and
stuff. I never thought of that being the case [the sonic connection], but I
respect that. I appreciate that.

 

One lyric from this album that keeps sticking with me is
from the chorus of “Never Go Solo,” when you sing, “Now that I’m
old, where do my hands go?” What inspired that line (and even that song)
for you?

I don’t know. The way songs happen and lines and all that
stuff, it’s just kind of like being in a train at night, watching the landscape
pass you by. I get a glimpse of something or see something, and then it’s gone.
Shortly after it’s written, it’s kind of gone from my view. These songs are
almost as foreign to me as anyone else. I’ve heard them a bunch, but their
meaning and subtext is gone; it’s lost for me. I don’t know what I was thinking
of when I wrote that line. I can guess. I just imagine that feeling – I don’t
know I can’t articulate it. It’s kind of like trying to look up my own nose. I
don’t think I could identify it. But thank you – I’m glad that resonates with
you. It’s definitely using the idea of being in a band with the idea of being
in a relationship with someone else.

 

I’m very intrigued by the dynamic between music and
lyrics on these tracks. Lyrically, the songs seem to fit the heartbroken
feeling of lots of classic ’50s and ’60s pop ballads, where it’s a dreamy kind
of sadness, almost like the come-down after the initial sadness into some kind
of twilight stage. It’s past the grief and into this bitter-sweet in-between
zone, and the music is very consoling.

I like that. I think that’s a very insightful
interpretation. And I think people can interpret the songs in any way that they
want. It means something to them, and that’s important to me – that people can
have a personal relationship to the music and being their own feelings and own
baggage to it.

 

It’s funny how much of a departure this is from the
earlier albums. Were you channeling any specific influences?

That’s great if that comes across. I don’t know if there
were specific artists or things. There were the standard torchbearers: the
Motown family and the northern soul stuff. That kind of way of dissecting
heartbreak – the really emotional and personal and also at times very
bombastic.

 

You were forced to record the album quickly and with
minimal overdubbing because of financial constraints. These songs are
definitely not overcooked in terms of the arrangements. They’re very direct and
to the point, just like the lyrics are. How much of that was the result of money
issues and how much was intentional from the get-go…

I definitely knew that I wanted to make a much different
record. I wanted to make a record that was sparse and skeletal, really
fragile-sounding, minimal flourishes, not a lot of production design,
especially. So that was a thought going in, and our budget was low, and times
are tough these days, so we really had a constricted budget and we had to work
around it, but the great thing is that I was already kind of thinking in an
economical way because I wanted to make this really stark record. We had a few
weeks in the studio, and every day for two weeks leading up to that, we just
rehearsed and prepared, and when we got in, we were just really ready. We were
a tight unit. There were no additional musicians coming in, minimal overdubs,
and we tracked almost all of it live. We blazed through the album in like a
week-and-a-half. We had an incredible engineer. Evan and I, the other member,
produced it, so we kept it small and kept it really easy and manageable because
there were very few people working on it, and everyone was just working really
fast.

 

As an artist, it’s important to trust your instincts and
to follow your heart, as you’ve done on this new album. But when you were
writing and recording these songs, were you at all concerned about how Islands
fans might respond to it? It’s definitely less immediate than some of your
other albums. I wonder if that ever entered your brain during your creative
process…

I don’t think it crossed my mind. I don’t think I can ever let
those sorts of things affect me. I try to go into each record with a real
stupid naïveté about previous material and treat it like it’s the first album.

 

This album is so soft and reflective, sort of in contrast
to your earlier material. Is that a concern in terms of how you plan on
presenting the album in a live setting?

It is a concern definitely. It is so much easier to play
music that’s upbeat and kind of danceable. I think people respond so much more
immediately to that in a live setting especially. So there is that challenge,
but we’re going to focus on this album, and we’re doing pretty intimate
versions of these songs. We’re going to have a piano at every venue, and most
likely, it’s going to be seated. It’s going to have this very personal and
direct sort of feeling. It’s not going to be like going to rock show. It’s
going to be like going to see a play or a movie. 

 

One track I specifically wanted to ask you about is
“Oh Maria.” Your vocals are great on that one – I don’t remember you
going into a falsetto before. Also the lyrics in that song, and the line,
“If every day is a holy day, then today must be the day of the dead”…

Yeah, it’s kind of my love letter to rock and roll, I guess.
“Oh Maria” – Maria is Buddy Holly’s widow, and it’s about these
dreams about seeing Buddy Holly’s plane crash, being in the field with the
wreckage, and having all these onlookers crowding around her and running past
her. And the line “Holly Day” is such a weird specific trivia, but
when Mark Bolan of T. Rex was killed, he was driving a car and was killed by
driving into a tree. Allegedly, in the glove compartment, they found a little
button that said “Every day is a Holly day.” There’s this rumor in
rock conspiracy – not even rock conspiracy because it’s supernatural, really – that
there’s some kind of curse around Buddy Holly. It’s pretty intense – best not
to listen to Buddy Holly before getting on an airplane.

 

Yeah, that’s crazy. Finally, I have to ask about “Same
Thing.” It feels like the emotional climax of the album, so it’s very
fitting as the closer. The lyric “I loved a girl, and I’ll never love
again” is such a raw expression of heartbreak, and that electronic rhythm
almost feels like a heartbeat. That one almost had me in tears.

That was the last song I wrote before coming into the
studio. And it was kind of written at the depth of whatever I was feeling, very
despondent overall. So yeah, I was really in a low point and just the churn of
that song and the almost – the vocal take is just almost not really singing,
just kind of too bummed out to sing. (laughs)
Even though it kind of closes out the album, it kind of sets the tone for the
album. It’s sort of the centerpiece.

 

110 IN THE SHADE w/BLURT’S BEST KEPT SECRET #18: The Glimmer

“Kind of unique and a
little bit isolated”: talking to
the
Australian twang/surf/rock/noir combo about their debut album, the Down Under
scene, its rich history, and more.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

As previously announced,
the latest selection in our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept
Secret” series of new or under-the-radar artists (www.sonicbids.com/blurtonline)
is The Glimmer, from Newtown, in New South Wales, Australia. This makes our 18th BKS selection since commencing the program of spotlighting new and
under-the-radar artists back in 2008.

 

The group is described in its bio thusly: “The Glimmer is a 4-piece rock ‘n’ roll outfit from Newtown, NSW, influenced
mainly by the raucous rock & roll bands and sassy girl groups of the 1960s.
With a sound that’s grittier than Best
Coast but prettier than
The Dead Weather, ‘The Glimmer are the very model of a certain inner-west indie
band. Bluesy, some frayed country around the edges, and for some flavour, add
some surf guitar buzz and up-to-four-part boy/girl harmonies. Goes with the
requisite rumble and swagger.'”

 

The Start
A Fire
album was released this past June. It was cut with Andrew Beck
(Amiel, Modular Lounge) and the legendary Kramer (of Bongwater, Galaxie 500,
Low, etc. fame) in Australia,
and Kramer subsequently mixed it at his studio in Florida. The press immediately latched onto
the guy-girl vocal mix, not to mention the deep, primal twang that reverberates
through all the songs. And with a pure pop vibe at its core, the group clearly
hearkens back to the mid-‘80s Australian golden age of alternative rock, but
there’s also a distinctive postmodern aesthetic at play too.

 

When BLURT reached out to the band to
request an email interview, they quickly accepted,
and then upon sending the answers back to us, disclosed that rather than sit
down and type out their answers (a task that, typically, falls to either the
acknowledged leader or frontperson or the most motivated/least slacker member),
they rounded up a friend with a digital camera and proceeded to film the
interview, responding to the questions directly, as a group. As you’ll read
below, this yielded a delightful give-and-take to the dialogue, and as they
have also threatened to post the video online at some point in the very near
future, you just may be able to eventually watch and listen to ‘em talking to
Ye Olde BLURT in the (almost) flesh. Thanks, ladies and gents – this turned out
to be one of the most entertaining “Best Kept
Secret” interviews we’ve had so far.

 

The Glimmer: Cassady Maddox, on guitar/vocals; Dereck
Cannon, guitar/vocals; Nikki Ponymeadow, bass/vocals; Jules Hernandez,
drums/vocals. Check out their official website or Facebook page for additional
details as well as song samples.

 

 


Pistols at Dawn by TheGlimmer

 

 

 

***

 

BLURT: I lived in Arizona
for ten years, and if I didn’t know you were from Australia I’d swear you were
from the desert, or at least had spent some formative time there, baking in the
sun and rustling up some Twang-Noir tunes… Giant Sand, Calexico…

 

CASSADY: Well, Australia is kind of a big desert.

NIKKI: Yeah, and I do a bit of baking in the sun.

CASSADY: Yeah, you do. Not me, I’m too pale and pasty white
to go outside, but yeah, doesn’t it have the most desert…?

NIKKI: Most uninhabitable, arid land of any country in the world.

JULES: At least the Southern Hemisphere.

CASSADY: That’s why we have all those weird animals and bugs
that everyone in other countries are so scared of.

NIKKI: But we also have the desert with the ocean.

CASSADY: Which is why we’re Surf Noir… and [Giant Sand’s] Howe
Gelb, we haven’t met him personally but our friends’ band, Wifey, supported him
at The Factory.

CASSADY: We don’t have rattlesnakes –  ‘though, that’d be cool, if we had
rattlesnakes!

DERECK: It’s hot and dry, and a lot of the songs that are on
the album were written in the middle of summer in a little apartment that got
to about forty five degrees.

NIKKI: That’s like what, in Fahrenheit? A hundred and ten?

DERECK: Fuckin’ heaps.

 

 

The basics: Tell me a
little about your respective musical backgrounds – notable collective
influences, previous bands, etc. How and when did the bandmembers meet, and
what were the circumstances that led you to put the Glimmer together?

 

CASSADY: I made Nikki let me be lead guitarist in her band,
that’s how I met Nikki.

NIKKI: Our old band, Ruby Sue… and a lot of substances,
both legal and illegal involved in the stage shows, too much tequila.

DERECK: Tequila is not illegal, it’s performance enhancing.

NIKKI: But then I was also The Charles Manson Experiment’s [Cassady and Dereck’s old band; also check The Mansons] biggest
fan and I went to all their gigs, and luckily I like to say I did away with
their bass player.

DERECK: And that’s probably where a bit of the desert rock
stuff comes from, because The Charles Manson Experiment was a very stoner,
desert rock kind of grungy band.

NIKKI: And we knew Jules through another friend’s band that
Cass and Dereck had moonlighted in, and so we poached him.

JULES: Yeah, you poached me, but I was willing!

DERECK: We’ve played around the scene together in many bands.

JULES: We met on a similar kind of influence.

CASSADY: (laughing)
It sounds just like you’re talking about drugs.

JULES: Drugs, music, whatever…

CASSADY: Rock ‘n’ roll. Party atmosphere, you wanna go and
have fun at a gig. Sometimes you want to stare at your shoes, but you still
wanna have a good time.

NIKKI: And we all seem to have a similar direction when
we’re writing stuff together.

JULES: And when we do jam a new thing, it does tend to
definitely have some kind of a sixties kind of feel.

CASSADY: It’s good if you can dance to it.

DERECK: Get guitars that sound cool, learn the blues, and
play rock ‘n’ roll. That’s something there.

 

 

Was it easy getting
the band off the ground? What was the reaction from fans and the media? Is
there any kind of “scene” of likeminded groups – musically, philosophically, or
otherwise – you feel part of?

 

CASSADY: We wish. We don’t have enough tattoos to be a part
of the rockabilly scene.

NIKKI: Ad we’re not really a kind of indie jangly type of
music, and we’re also not kind of hipster electro-y whatever the hell.

CASSADY: Our wrists aren’t limp enough.

NIKKI: We’re kind of unique and a little bit isolated, but
there’s no shortage of gigs.

CASSADY: We’re not lo-fi either, which is the other thing
that’s popular at the moment and gets mixed with surf sounds. Very much washed
out, cheap reverb, recorded in someone’s garage. We don’t do that, we like to
record properly because otherwise it becomes a struggle, it might be a really
good band but you’ve gotta listen through all this rubbish.

NIKKI: The media and fans have been responsive, we’ve gotten
good feedback, so it’s just for us to really push on and try and get the music
out there as much as we can.

CASSADY: We have kind of a weird thing as well, sometimes we
get pulled into the raucous crowd, the biggest scene that we’re a part of is
the pub scene. But then we get pulled out of our hometown to go and play at
rock ‘n’ roll festivals.

JULES: And it’s a really different crowd, dare I say it,
maybe more appreciative.

NIKKI: I think we take some people back to another time,
maybe a more innocent time.

CASSADY: A more passionate time, I think. Now it’s all like
“Oh, no, I didn’t get an iPhone for Christmas,” but back then it was like “It’s
Christmas and my husband is at war” – y’know, it’s a more emotional time.

JULES: And cars looked better too.

NIKKI: Yeah. And guitars.

 

 

Tell me a little
about recording the Start A Fire album.  What songs on it do you feel are
standouts?

 

NIKKI: That was an incredibly fun week.

JULES: Lots of fun.

CASSADY: We didn’t wanna leave, we wanted to stay there.

NIKKI: We could have just done that every day, really.

CASSADY: Still be doing it now.

NIKKI: We had Andy Beck on board, engineering it, he’s
hilarious.

CASSADY: He’s a really great dude. One of yours actually,
from near Seattle.

NIKKI: And he really made the whole thing just, I don’t
know, a really enjoyable, awesome week.

JULES: It was a fun week but it was a real learning curve.

CASSADY: We had a lot of it mapped out when we went in.

NIKKI: But it was almost like Andy was the fifth band member
who came in and had that extra input.

CASSADY: Definitely. We’d worked with him before, he’s kind
of like that.

NIKKI: And we also has Kramer come in and add his particular
blend of mystery and magic.

CASSADY: And reverb.

JULES: Very cool reverb.

CASSADY: As far as songs go, we’re happy with all of them.

JULES: “Dance With Me” is good.

CASSADY: There’s a couple with violin on them on there,
which is cool, we don’t always have a violinist live.

DERECK: Yeah, adding extra stuff like violin, and the extra
harmonies, it sort of crystallized some of the stuff that you don’t get when
it’s just the four of you all playing at the same time.

CASSADY: “Sleepwalk” was pretty much all of our favorite
song, so to record that cover was a bit of a milestone.

 

 

Tell me a little
about Kramer’s involvement.

 

CASSADY: Kramer contacted us back when we were still The
Mansons ‘cause he’d heard some of our early MySpace recordings, stuff that Andy
Beck had also recorded, and he was coming out to Australia and wanted to work
with us but we couldn’t do it then.

DERECK: That was sort of at the end of The Mansons, really.

CASSADY: It was before The Glimmer was born; we realized we
were going in a different direction and kind of needed a rebirth. Kramer
contacted us and we had this song that we’d written with Simon Day from Ratcat
and Kramer mixed that for us. That was a few years back and we liked it, and
wanted to work with him again. He’s an odd genius, he’s got this strange
obsession with tea.

DERECK: He drinks a lot of tea.

JULES: Brilliant guy.

DERECK: He’s really out of left field and he makes a good
record. He took what we’d recorded for the album back to the States and worked
on it when we weren’t there and it added another layer. There were emails going
back and forth; it’s kind of inconvenient working with someone on the other
side of the world, but it was beautiful.

 

 

What can you tell us
about your live show? I’m intrigued to hear a little about some of the songs
you cover in concert as well.

 

CASSADY: Crazy, a lot people dancing.

DERECK: And tambourines.

CASSADY: They’ll drink to anything. Ooops –  DANCE to anything – slip of the tongue there.

JULES: We do have some kinda sing-along songs, “Into The
Sea,” “Unhappy Hour.” It’s a matter of including everyone.

NIKKI: We do take songs from the sixties, whatever we like
and think will work well.

CASSADY: Absolutely… We like covering “Bombora,” because
it’s an Australian classic, the alternative national anthem, which everyone
knows the words to… it’s an instrumental… We play together pretty naturally
and we can just kinda jam it. Covers are a fun challenge. We’ve recorded a couple
but they’re not quite finished yet – stay tuned.

 

 

And you do everything
from full band gigs at festivals to stripped-down acoustic situations?

 

CASSADY: I love the acoustic gigs, where everyone can hear
what they’re singing.

NIKKI: And what they’re playing, and it gives a different
spin on the song. Some of them sound completely different acoustic and that
makes us hear them in a different way and play them in a different way.

CASSADY: And all of a sudden people are noticing the lyrics,
which I think is always interesting.

NIKKI: So it’s nice to play both… gigs at full volume, and
the stripped back acoustic gigs; it’s a different musical space for people to
be in…

CASSADY: …and it’s a different way of hearing what each
other’s playing as well.

NIKKI: Yeah, like, “Oh that‘s what she’s been
singing!”

 

 

Any plans to come to
the US?
Would love to see you at SXSW… It’s traditionally tough to crack the US market from Australia – any thoughts on that?

 

NIKKI: Sure, buy our tickets and we’ll come!

DERECK: We’d love to be seen at SXSW.

NIKKI: Yep, sure, we’d do it.

DERECK: You don’t know until you’ve tried.

CASSADY: It’s difficult when you’re just a band, when you
don’t have someone pushing you in the U.S. You kinda need – I guess all markets
need hype. I think it’s “pick your place” as well. We have a few people in California and New
York that contact us. And Texas.

 

 

How is the next album
shaping up? What are the plans for the future after that?

 

CASSADY: We’re writing it together, it’s a bit bluesy – the
blues sped up, as it were.

NIKKI: We’re definitely feeling like we’re finding a sound
that’s more “ours”.

CASSADY: Cohesive.

NIKKI: Yeah, cohesive, quite strong in terms of the
atmosphere and the themes.

CASSADY: It’s a vibey way of writing, we just turn up with
no thoughts, no-one’s written a piece, no-one’s written some fabulous, tour-de-force,
great masterpiece of poetry and lyrics and what-not, we just come in and go
“hmmm, jam on E”.

DERECK: If it sounds good, play it again!

NIKKI: And we’ll have input and suggestions for each other.

CASSADY: And then when we’re tired of E, we play… C minor
or some thing.

 

 

Here’s a kind of
broad question, but maybe you can run with it: what can you tell American music
fans about the Australian independent scene that we might not be aware of? And
also about being a working band from Sydney,
since Sydney has a reputation for spawning bands
on par with London or L.A.?

 

NIKKI: Everyone rides
kangaroos.

CASSADY: You can fit so much stuff in the pouches! But
seriously, there are some really good, legendary venues that have been coming
under threat. We lost the Hopetown a few years ago, which was one of those.
We’ve just recently lost the Excelsior, where tons of bands got their start,
and The Annandale has been looking for some time now like it might close.

JULES: With those venues, a lot of them are in prime real
estate where developers see that they can put up apartment buildings instead.
They don’t know that they’re buying out a piece of history.

CASSADY: They don’t care. But, that said, a few venues that
have never had live music, or haven’t had music for a long time, have picked it
up, that’s how we get a lot of our acoustic gigs. You don’t need a license
anymore, up until ten o’clock, so there’s a lot of cafes and smaller bars can
just have acoustic music. They don’t have a big stage or a full P.A.

NIKKI: And with the loss of these iconic places in Sydney, unfortunately
there seems to be a bit of apathy about it, people don’t want to fight to keep
it going.

CASSADY: I have faith, though; the movie Garage Days tried to predict the end of
the live music scene with its “the pokies (slot machines) will take over and
doom, disaster” and that didn’t really pan out the way they foretold.

DERECK: There are still people that want to make good music,
it’ll still keep happening, there are still good bands.

NIKKI: And there are still enough venues to keep the live…

CASSADY: …and punters. I think you get great bands all over
the world.

 

 

A good deal of our
info on Australia
is filtered through the media’s selective lens, and then it depends on which media someone is paying attention
to. For example, at one point in time, the only Oz groups most Americans could
name would have been INXS, the Church and Men At Work. Yet at that same point
in time, I know that those of us who read fanzines and bought import records were
crucially aware of, for example, the Waterfront and Au Go Go records bands and
the many little indie labels that were sprouting by the late ‘80s. In fact, I
reviewed a number of Ratcat records, and I know that you folks have an association
with Simon Day from that band. Other favorites of mine included the
Scientists/Surrealists, Died Pretty, feedtime, Cosmic Psychos, but there are
too many to count, really…

 

CASSADY: Those are all really, really good bands, although I
was surprised to hear the Church as one of the bands that Americans would’ve
heard of from Australia,
and not AC/DC.

JULES: Or even, dare I say, Cold Chisel.

DERECK: From what I’ve heard, a lot of people in the states
don’t know that AC/DC are from Australia.

CASSADY: They’re very Australian.

NIKKI: Bloody Oath.

CASSADY: And can I just say, I’m shocked that people don’t
know who Ratcat are. They were huge here, they were Beatlemania here… and if
you look further back you’ve got The Atlantics, and you’ve got The Easybeats –
I think everyone knows “Friday On My Mind” even if they don’t know where it came
from. We’ve got a really really rich history of influential bands, bands that
don’t necessarily make it big in the U.S. But, like they said about The
Velvet Underground – their album didn’t sell very well, but everyone who got it
started a band. It’s kind of the same here, there’s a lot of bands that just
enough people know about for them to have really made a difference.

 

 


This Day Forward (feat. Simon Day) by TheGlimmer

LISTEN, WHITEY! The Sounds of Black Power

A crucial new compilation
traces the late ‘60s/early ‘70s arc of the movement, through voices such as
Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron and Bob Dylan.

 

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

The first time I heard the rare groove “Who Will Survive
America” by poet, playwright and jazz critic Amiri Baraka (formerly known as
LeRoi Jones), I knew I had to hear it again – immediately.  Not only did the hippity thump of the bass
have me bouncing from there to here, I had to be sure I’d correctly heard the
answer – “Few Americans, very few negroes and no crackers at all” – supplied
by the chorus.

 

Surviving America as a black man caught in a web of white
supremacy has been the substance of Baraka’s work for over 50 years; his black
nationalist poetry and prose blows like a tornado through records by Gil
Scott-Heron, Public Enemy and most recently Kanye West. Surviving America was also
a theme in the speechifying of student organizer/power advocate Stokely
Carmichael, AKA Kwame Ture, remembered for popularizing the Black Power slogan.
Survival programs – supplying food, clothing and medicine – are what the Black
Panthers called their community services. “Survive black man,
survive.  Black woman too,” Baraka
screamed, and still is, mostly on the page and from podiums, as well as on the
last track of Listen Whitey! The Sounds
of Black Power 1967-1974
(Light in the Attic), a collection merging
politics and poetry with folk and funk, cratedug by Pat Thomas, author of the
recently published companion book to this disc, Listen Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power. (Listen to samples of the
songs at the Light in the Attic website; below is a video “sampler” of the
book.)

 

 

 

 

Back in the ’70s, Baraka, Carmichael and Black Panther
Elaine Brown were also recording artists, their albums issued by the Black
Forum label, an imprint of Motown, set up specifically for the release of
material with social and historical relevance and a certain incendiary quality.
Sadly those LPs didn’t survive Motown’s vaults but mercifully, Thomas scored
three Black Forum tracks as well as 13 more sweet sides from Apple, Atlantic
and assorted labels more obscure, from back when music was the message.

 

The set opens with an intriguing salvo, Shahid Quintet’s
“Invitation to Black Power (Parts 1 & 2).” An obscure seven-inch, from
1968 (possibly ’69) and traced to Kansas City origins, “Invitation to
Black Power” speaks to the soul of the movement and its goal of peaceful,
prideful community survival, against a backdrop of violence. Narrators Richard
and Earl Shabazz reject the thug life, wrapping their story around the
teachings of Muhammad. More beatnik-coffeehouse than the tough roots of rap
like the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets (also represented on tracks here),
Shahid Quintet could be the forerunner to the lighter-than-air /teachable flow
of Slick Rick and his humor dialogues with Doug E. Fresh.

 

The remaining selected cuts date mostly from the early ‘70s
with the exception of a 1978 live take of “Winter in America” by former
literary prodigy and recording artist Scott-Heron, who could say more in a few
lines than some entertainers say in a lifetime. Lesser known and less prolific,
but a seriously heavy hitter nonetheless was Gene McDaniels; he sits in with
Eddie Harris during the saxophonist’s Live
at Newport
set for “Silent Majority,” the song that sealed his
fate with Nixon’s White House (they didn’t like him and saw to it that his
career went kaput). Long known for his powers within hip hop (A Tribe Called
Quest and the Beastie Boys both borrowed his beats), McDaniels’ solo work
showcases a substantive singer-songwriter and expert vocalist who, over two
back-to-black solo albums, bridged jazz, rock and soul styles into a visionary
hybrid.

 

Also, working on mash-ups in the pre-synth era was Gylan
Kain, a former member of the Last Poets, accompanied here on the screeching
“I Ain’t Black” by a teenaged Nile Rodgers (who in his own words,
“once jumped to orders of Kathleen Cleaver” as a young Black Panther). Kain
integrates black and white, soul, free jazz and spoken passages, in one breath
and a few bars to create the musical equivalent to mental disintegration.
Insane – in a good way.

 

 

 

Same era, entirely different, is Bob Dylan’s solo acoustic
“George Jackson,” a rare single and topical song devoted to the backstory and
memory of the slain political prisoner. This version of the double A-side
single issued in 1971 was a return to Dylan’s original folk sound and first
recording after an unusual silent period (it’s also the first time this take
has turned up on a compilation or CD). 
For more than 40 years it’s largely been believed that Dylan put aside
topical music after going electric, but the facts are that he rush-released two
versions of this song concerning a real life miscarriage of justice and took it
to number 33 on the singles chart, thereby pretty much blowing the apolitical
myth.

 

As for speeches here – Carmichael holding forth on Black
Panther leader Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver on psychedelic guru Timothy
Leary’s trip, and activist/comedian Dick Gregory riffing on the color of angel
and devil’s food cakes – rather than simply providing context or a nice diversion
from the heaviosity of the music, they serve to underscore the musicality and
poetry of the movement’s oratory. Intentional? 
I hope so!

 

And though the black power movement irrefutably made way for
women’s liberation, only two black female voices – Elaine Brown and Marlena
Shaw – make the tracklist here (Angela Davis is represented by Yoko Ono and
John Lennon’s tribute, “Angela”). Brown bears the distinction of not
only serving a leadership role in the Black Panthers but serving as its
official songwriting and recording artist. Her Black Forum seven-inch, the
title song from the album, Until We’re
Free
, was the only single to ever be released by the label, though while
it’s a rarity, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of her avant
garde-jazz-inspired set for Vault, Seize
the Time
.  Shaw’s live version of
“Woman of the Ghetto” from her Live in
Montreaux
album is no doubt a tour de force but it’s overlong, as is
English folk artist Roy Harper’s live “I Hate the White Man.” And if you
survive that, there is ultimately Baraka’s track, the pièce de résistance,
and prime piece of resistance music if ever there was one, from a time when
songs not only pulled no punches, but packed-in hard news, philosophy,
righteous anger and an abiding love of humanity.

 

So Listen Whitey! and listen good: There’s power in these grooves, but there’s a message too, and
it spells a better day for everyone.

 

 

Denise Sullivan is the
author of
Keep on Pushing; Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. Read the BLURT interview with Sullivan
about her book right here.

 

ANTI-ROCK ‘N’ ROLL Hospitality

For the Brooklyn
indie-popsters, it’s all about the friends (and friendships).

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

It’s a
Tuesday night in late January, and the members of Hospitality are at the end of
a short road trip. Over the course of the five-date jaunt, they have borrowed a
backline of amps and drum kits, but not because their own came to any
unfortunate end on the road. They simply couldn’t fit everything in the rented
mini-van. So rather than upgrade, they banked on getting decent loaners every
night, which seems to have paid off.

 

The
tour itself seems like another gamble. It’s hard enough touring in support of a
release, but Hospitality’s self-titled debut album wasn’t released by Merge
until the last day of January, two weeks after the road trip. So touring in
anticipation of a release, without so much as t-shirt sales to help fill the
gas tank, presents more of a challenge. But the band’s upbeat mood prior to the
show, not to mention their energetic performance, hints that they know exactly
what they’re doing and that greater things will come.

 

The
Hospitality crew isn’t exactly a bunch of newcomers to music anyway. They have
been playing together for five years ago, since guitar/vocalist Amber Papini
and her sister Gia teamed up with drummer Nathan Michel and bassist Brian
Betancourt. (Gia bowed out early on.) Michel has already released several
albums of his own, including two keyboard-heavy works on Tigerbeat6 and one on
Sonig which leans more towards classic pop (The
Beast
). Amber Papini, so the story goes, learned to sing by listening to
the Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk and emanating Richard Butler’s English rasp. While she won’t ever be excused of
pouring on a fake thick accent, the Butler
influence seems to have given here a unique sense of phrasing that requires
close examination of her lyrics.

 

The 10
songs on the album sometimes flow together like a set of individual snapshots
of people who could all be found in New
York City, crossing paths as they make their way
around town.

“I do
feel like they’re sort of scenes,” Papini says. “The songs are based on my
memories of past events. I like to describe moments like that in songs.”

 

In the
case of “Betty Wang,” the lyrics might not be true to life, but the title
character is a real person who Papini knew when she worked at a financial firm.
“I really liked the name Betty Wang and there’s lot of songs with women’s names
in them,” Papini says. “I thought that was a really beautiful name, but she was
just a muse. The song is probably more about me working in a corporate
environment and feeling out of place. It’s not really a feminist song. I’m just
trying to describe feeling like an outsider, an observer in a place where you
don’t belong.”

 

And
Betty is not the type who’d show up at a Hospitality show anyway. “The day
after I wrote the song, I saw her in the bathroom, and I said, ‘Hey, Betty, I
wrote this song about you,'” she recalls. “And she’s a real private person and
she had no idea what this world was like that I was part of. So she looked at
me and smiled politely. I think she really didn’t understand what I had done.”

 

“Eighth Avenue”
kicks off the album with its bright chugging guitars and the story of a night
that begins with the same amount of optimism,
but ultimately comes up short. When the band follows with the stop-start
guitars of “Friends of Friends,” it could either be the same character getting
herself together a day later, or a new protagonist – say, one in the next apartment
– who’s ready to face the world.

 

While
figuring out the album’s running order, they nearly reversed those two tracks,
until they noticed the lyrical repetition. “We did think about that, because we
were worried about the first lines of ‘Eighth Avenue’ are, ‘Met you at seven/ I
didn’t expect your friends,'” Michel says.

“The
disappointment turns into an ‘I Will Survive’ kind of thing,” Betancourt adds,
describing the final decision.

 

As if
to play into the geography of the song, the group made a video for “Friends of
Friends” with the story arc of long distance lovers, one in the Big Apple, the
other in Los Angeles.
Directed by the band’s good friend Scott Jacobson, it stars Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Gabe Delahaye
(of Videogum) as the couple, each tooling around the separate cities, she with
her hipster gal pals at the Statue of Liberty, he with his dudes on the beach.
Like videos of bygone days, it cuts back to Hospitality, who rock out in a
cramped apartment. Along with the video production, Jacobson also helped the
band by introducing them to his friends at Merge Records.

 

 

 

 

While
videos never aspire to accurately capture
a band’s performance, there’s a lot more happening in the song than guitar,
bass and drums can pull off anyway. Keyboard melodies answer Papini’s power
chords, effects-heavy guitars trade brief solo spots with Betancourt’s bass and
low-end saxophones pop up and last just long enough to beef up the sound.
Coupled with Papini’s classic pop chord changes – in some ways recalling Belle
& Sebastian, another touchstone in her storytelling skills too – the band
progressed a great deal since their inception.

The
early days were “way more lo-fi, and Amber played acoustic guitar,” Michel
says. “We were playing small venues. The music was tailored to that. I had a
sort of junky homemade drum set. Not that I was trying to be junky, but that
was all I had. It had a haphazard quality.” They recorded an EP for sale at
shows, which features several tracks that would be remade for the album.

 

Eventually
it became clear that the sound would have to expand. “As we started playing
larger venues, just by necessity, we needed to play louder and acoustic guitar
doesn’t work so well in a lot of these venues,” Michel says. “We gradually made
the transition to electric guitar and I started playing drums with real
drumsticks. So it was kind of an organic thing. We never said we wanted to
constantly change things. But we’re always changing stuff, with how we play
songs.”

Since
the recording was completed, Michel has switched over to second guitar full
time. David Christian has taken his spot behind the drum kit. “Having that
second guitar allows more melodies to happen and we can emulate some of the
spirit of the recording,” Papini says. “It’s not perfect, but we are sort of
going for that.”

 

Whether
or not they reproduce the sound of their album, the four-piece Hospitality
creates a big sound tonight onstage at Pittsburgh’s
Brillobox. On the slow “Julie,” Michel’s sonic sculpture
nearly overpowers the song. Betancourt, conspicuous not only for his Hofner
Beatle bass but for playing it left-handed like the man who made it popular,
combines bright, crisp lines with a melodic quirk that almost sounds like art
rock in one song. In the midst of this stands Papini, who maintains a strong
presence through her vocal delivery and relaxed demeanor.

 

When
asked earlier in the evening about the origin of the band name, the band says
they liked the ambiguity of it. “It was big, a lot of letters. It has multiple
meanings,” Papini says, matter-of-factly.

 

“You
can show someone hospitality, but it’s intangible. Also, it’s almost a cold
sounding word, even though its meaning is warm,” Michel adds. “None of this was
thought of in advance. We think about it when we’re pressed.”

“I like that it’s sort of anti-rock ‘n’ roll,” Papini adds. “There’s no posture
in it. There’s no rebellion in it.”

 

And yet
they still manage to find a little bit of both qualities in their performance.

 

Hospitality resumes touring this weekend,
on Feb. 25 at San Francisco’s
Noisepop Festival. Check the band’s Facebook page for dates.

THE GLAMOROUS LIFE Buxton

It may be business as usual for this Lone Star
State band, but that
business has included plenty of hard work and sacrifice.

 

BY MAX BLAU

 

Houston indie rockers Buxton have been making
music for eight years, but only now does it feel like their time has finally
come. Originally formed as an acoustic trio, the group expanded over the years
into a six piece, slowly but surely tinkering with their setup as well as
fine-tuning their sound. After taking their time to find their musical sweet spot,
they released their third full-length album Nothing
Here Seems Strange
last month, an Americana-laced album that recalls early
My Morning Jacket or fellow Houston
singer-songwriter Robert Ellis.

 

BLURT caught up
with Buxton co-founders Sergio Trevino and Chris Wise last month, where the two
discussed the band’s origins, becoming professional musicians and their New
West debut album. [Buxton hit the road
last week – check tour dates at their website.)

 

 

 

 

BLURT: How did Buxton originally begin?

CHRIS WISE: In
2003, we were still in high school – Sergio had graduated. We were all friends
through proximity, we didn’t really play much… me and Sergio hadn’t played in
any other band before. Jason [Willis] had been in other bands, but for the most
part it was really new to us.

 

At what point did you feel like the
Buxton of today came together?

Wise: We started
writing music and kept at it for a
really long time until eventually we decided we wanted drums and more vocals
and another guitar player. It gradually all grew. It wasn’t so much of a
concerted effort as it was writing for the songs. [For instance], the songs
needed drums [on Nothing Here Seems
Strange
]. On the record before that, we didn’t necessarily need drums.

 

SERGIO TREVINO:
Same thing with Austin [Sepulvado] and Haley [Barnes], we needed more things so
when we recorded we tracked more things. The people that helped us track those
things are the people that were on the album. They are the people that joined
the band.

 

At what point over that period did Buxton
seem like something you could do professionally?

Wise: That’s
kind of a tricky question, because after doing it for so long, it became a
thing where it’s just what we did. I don’t even think we really had high expectations
early on. Me, Sergio and Jason were best friends and we liked making music
together…We take it a lot more seriously now, but that’s just because there’s a
lot more responsibility now.

 

Trevino: As
within the last year, it’s where the big shift has been in that… there’s a
chance where we can actually do this for a living, not just do it for fun. I
think that’s the idea, as an artist you want to make the best thing that you
can. Not for the sake of… the better the songs I put out, the better chance I
have of paying the bills. I just never made the correlation until recently.

        It’s strange because where we’re at
now, we have to invest more of ourselves… we have to pay for it. The band
actually has bills.

 

Wise: It makes
it into a very real thing, you basically try to not have that interfere with
what you want to do creatively as much as possible. It’s different than when
you’d play whatever show you can to now where you have to be particular about
your shows and you have to make sure that what you’re doing is sustainable.

 

Trevino: I have
to give Chris a lot of credit of this one, the business part of music… it’s
very unappealing to me and unromantic. He really allows me to not have to worry
about it too much and focus on songwriting. It takes a lot of the pressure off
of me on that level.

 

Wise: It is true,
though. Some of that stuff is very disheartening, it’s one of those things
where you never perceive that happening and it never plays out the way you
expect it to. It’s weird, but the reality of the situation. It’s not glamorous
all the time, but it’s fun – something we all like to do.

 

It’s the blessing and the curse of being
a musician.

Wise: You can’t
avoid it, you just have to try and distance those things as much as possible.
In our case, that’s split basically between me and Sergio – I try not to have
him worry and make sure things run as smoothly as possible. We have our friend
Aaron who helps out too. It doesn’t contaminate what we’re trying to do – we
try and keep it as separate as possible.

 

Do you consider yourself to write songs
on larger ideas like that or are you more of an introspective writer?

Trevino: I do,
but I generally try and stay away from that. I feel like it says something
about the person writing it, like they have it figured out, when I don’t like
to give that idea off at all. I hear a lot of music that seems… not
opinionated, but just so confident. I generally look down on stuff like that
because I feel like nothing’s absolute and you have to have a sense of humility
when you look at such big topics like life.

 

You mentioned how there’s a songwriter
that you don’t like; who were your influences during the making of this record
(lyrically and musically)?

Trevino: I would
need to think about this a little bit. I was listening to a good amount of Bill
Callahan at the time with (Smog) and his solo stuff… We always listen to stuff
like Wilco or Radiohead, but I guess that’s more of an aesthetic-type of thing.
I love Jeff Tweedy and Thom Yorke lyrically, but I don’t think I really take
too much from their styles of writing. I like Ron Sexsmith as a writer. It’s
hard for me to think of a lot of people right off the top of my head…

 

Wise: Sonically,
around that time I started listening to a lot of Spoon. The way they record sonically
to me, their recordings are some of my favorites because the sound is so
direct. In my mind, sonically I wanted something that clear at the time – It
doesn’t always turn out like that. That’s what me and a couple of others had
been listening to at the time. It’s hard to say whether or not that influences
what you were recording because you want to have it come from as personal of a
place as possible. Granted, influence is going to come through… it’s hard to
say.

 

Talk to me about “Fingertips,” the album’s
second track.

Trevino:
“Fingertips”… it’s this thing about intimacy. This is a narrative type of story
where basically it’s about this guy having this previous relationship with this
girl. He sees her again after escaping this party that the police have raided.
He jumps over the fence and he’s standing next to this person he used to have a
relationship with. It’s kind of like a lost intimacy because…he’s trying to
talk to her in this moment of real potential for intimacy – you’re standing in
the dark hiding from the cops. You’re with someone who you used to be with. But
rather than rekindle something, it’s just being lost by something. In her
particular case, she’s just too far-gone to make any sort of real connection…
[here] in under a sort of influence. It’s just about wanting to connect with
somebody and not being able to connect to them no matter what the situation.

        The title… it’s like how you feel with
your fingertips, he’s not able to connect, he’s not able to feel what’s there.

 

You’re all heading out on tour soon and
to SXSW. I’m curious, have you quit your day jobs yet? If so, where were you
working?

Wise: That’s a
greatly-timed question. Me and Sergio quit our main jobs. I work at a record
store whenever I’m home and Sergio helps out at the record store too.

 

When did both of you leave?

Wise: October?

 

Trevino: Mine
was in November, right before we left for the West Coast [dates]. The day
before?

 

Chris: Mine was
in October and his in early December.

 

Well, congrats to both of you.

Wise: The jobs
were all pretty lenient for a while, but the way this year’s going to be… we
were gone all of October, the first two weeks of December, we’re going to be
out the last two weeks of February, SXSW and hopefully more after that. It
doesn’t make sense for a lot of jobs to keep you, and that’s the reality of
that.

 

 

[Photo Credit:
Paul Moore]

 

 

CITY BARS AND COUNTRY MILES Kevn Kinney

Drivin
N Cryin’s Kinney and Golden Palominos’ Anton Fier make the album the way
they’ve always wanted… and nearly go broke in the process.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“Nobody knows who I am in New York,”
admits Kevn Kinney, the longtime frontman for Atlanta alt-rockers Drivin N Cryin.’ “To me, a good country mile is all about selling
my songs in a bar on a Monday night on the Lower East Side
to people who never heard them before.”

 

Sure, Kinney’s band might have signed with Island Records in
the mid-1980s, notched a gold record with Fly
Me Courageous
in 1991, and shared bills with the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil
Young, but in the late ‘00s, he was starting over again. He was working with
one-time Drivin N Cryin’ producer (and chief Golden Palomino) Anton Fier to
reshape old songs in new ways, to rethink beloved covers and to write new material.

 

The process culminated in a good country mile, Kinney’s first solo album in many years and
the first CD to bear the Golden Palominos name since 1996. But it began very
casually, with two musicians who first hooked up in a race for commercial
success, reconnecting over good songs and mutual respect.

 

Kinney and Fier met first in Atlanta in the late 1980s, when
Fier was called in to produce Drivin N Cryin’s first major label release, Whisper Tames the Lion. Back then, their
partnership was arranged by record executives, a strictly business pairing
intended to produce hits.  “Kevn was kind
of a kid, very raw,” Fier remembers, “but I was struck, even then, by the
quality of his songwriting. My first impression was that he was an important
songwriter, or at least potentially an important songwriter.”

 

On Whisper Tames the
Lion
, Fier says he worked more like an employee than an equal. “I wasn’t
allowed to do it the way I wanted to. You know, I’m being hired to help someone
else achieve a vision, and everybody’s got opinions. Record companies have
opinions, other band members have opinions,” he says.  “But this time, it was more like we’re
starting something together here from scratch, you know, as equals, out of
mutual respect. It was a different relationship.”

 

A quarter century later, Fier and Kinney met again. Fier was
playing with Tony Scherr, a downtown fixture best known for his bass work for
Bill Frisell and Nora Jones. He didn’t even know that Kinney had moved to New York until the
songwriter turned up at a gig one night with Aaron Lee Tasjan (who ended up
playing on the new album). Kinney had been sidelined for years with a growth on
his larynx and had only recently had an operation that allowed him to sing
again. He and Fier were both looking for people to play music with. They
decided to meet, try out some ideas and see where it went.

 

The two men got together once a week for about eight weeks,
slowly developing material and a way of playing together. They began performing
their songs at the Shani Ray Truckstop Series, the two of them plus a bass player
– sometimes Andy Hess (at the time, a member of Govt. Mule), other times John
Popper from Blues Traveler.    

 

Fier had recorded their sessions from the beginning, and as
they developed a sound together, he began thinking about an album. “I would
listen back, and after a while, I would say, ‘You know this stuff is good, and
it doesn’t really sound like anything else.’ It seemed like it should be
documented,” says Fier. “That became the priority. How to get it documented.”

 

The recording started in a drafty armory-turned-studio in
Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Kinney and Fier
laid down drums, bass and guitar onto two-inch tape. “What I love about how
Anton works is that he still records in an old-fashioned way,” says Kinney. “Now,
with digital technology, you can have an almost infinite number of tracks. You
can use hundreds of tracks, whatever. But Anton does it like we used to in the
old days, like he would do one really good track, or punch in as he goes, like,
it was great up to here, let’s pick it up from there. And so there’s not a lot
of clutter.”

 

Kinney gave Fier near total autonomy over how the record
would sound. “Anton has a really fine ear, and he has an engineer that he
really loves,” says Kinney. “I was like, I’d really like to see what he does. He
usually produces things for people or is hired to play on other people’s
records. I didn’t want to make him explain himself. So I wanted this record
just to be his record. “

 

“My goal here was to create the ultimate Kevn Kinney solo
record, according to me,” says Fier. “It was my idea of Kevn. Who I thought
Kevn Kinney was as an artist. I wanted to create that, that vision.”  

 

Fier says that one of his goals was to make Kinney’s songs
sound timeless, like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield records he had grown up
with in the 1960s and 1970s. “I wanted to make a record that wasn’t modern
sounding, but wasn’t retro either,” he explains. “I wanted to make a record
that sounded like it could have been recorded in the 1960s, the 1970s or
yesterday. Or tomorrow. And I believe I did that.” 

 

 


kevn kinney & the golden palominos “Challenge” by Howlin’ Wuelf Media

 

 

Many of the song titles on a good country mile will be familiar to Kinney fans. There are two Drivin
N Cryin’ songs and a few more from Kinney’s earlier solo albums. Yet the songs
on this new record are very different from their original versions,
intentionally so. Kinney says he hates the Drivin N Cryin’ version of “Wild Dog
Blues,” here revisited as “Wild Dog Blues Part 2”.

 

“I was listening to too much Aerosmith the week I wrote that
song,” he says, ruefully. “If you listen to it, you can see…that’s me trying to
be Steven Tyler.” Yet even then, the song had a very pretty coda to it, the
only part of the original arrangement that Kinney retained. The rest, a
Creedence-ish guitar vamp, came through practice sessions with Fier.  

 

The title track, too, is an older composition, originally
written about ten years ago when Kinney’s friend Allen Woody, of Gov’t Mule,
passed away. (Kinney is part of the Mule extended family and a permanent
fixture at Mule frontman Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam concert.) “Bird,”
the album’s triumphant, multi-guitared centerpiece started life as a simple
little folk song, that is, before Fier turned it symphonic.

 

“I cut one guitar track on there that me and Anton recorded
a long time ago. It was the last thing we did back in the cold, cold basement
of Martin Bisi’s studio,” says Kinney. “We started off doing it kind of pretty
and Anton got frustrated, and it just came off really aggressive and built from
there.”

 

Fier says that the original tune, a modal melody without
much harmonic embellishment, reminded him of the Byrds “Eight Miles High.”  He opened it up by bringing in four different
guitar players, and putting on layer on layer of guitar sound. The track mostly
developed through jamming, rather than premeditation, he adds. “I did have a
vision, but the vision was being further defined at each moment in the process
of creating it. The vision changed.”  

 

Kinney says that that song, along with “Set In Stone,” one
of the new ones for this album, are his favorite parts of the new album, but
Fier, though he calls “Bird” the instrumental high point, can’t single out any
favorites. Fier says he loves every moment on the album, and if he hadn’t
believed in it, he would have had ample opportunity to quit. In fact, he and
Kinney took a break mid-way through when they ran out of money. In the midst of
recording a good country mile, they
both decamped to Atlanta to make another Drivin N Cryin’ record, 2009’s
highly-regarded (Whatever Happened to
the) Great American Bubble Factory
.  (Dormant
since the late 1990s, Drivin N Cryin’ had been reactivated; Kinney and his
fellow band members are currently working on an EP of new material.) But
despite all the interruptions and
financial pressures, both of them finally felt that the music was too good to go
unheard.

 

“Everything else that Kevn and myself do in our lives we get
paid for, but unfortunately, on this one, it’s nearly broken us financially,”
he says. “But ultimately, we both believe that …It might be the best record that
either one of us ever makes.”

 

“It was made for all the right reasons,” Fier says. “Out of
love and respect for each other, and love and respect for music, love and
respect for a certain era of music, for our feelings when we were younger about
the way that ‘rock music’ offered hope and possibility. We wanted to make a
record that had an innocence to it and wasn’t calculated in any way. We were
making a record to please ourselves.”

 

Adds Kinney, “The Drivin N Cryin’ experience in the early
days, it was kind of like a competition. It was like a sporting event. Who are
you opening for? Who’s paying attention to you? The hierarchy. The flavor of
the month kind of thing. Whereas now we just make records as art, I guess.”

 

[Photo Credit: Brittny Teree Smith]

 

Kevn
Kinney, along with Fier, Tim Nielsen and Audley Freed, are on the road this
week. Check dates at Kinney’s Facebook page.

ART AND THE POP NARCOTIC Grimes

Talkin’ aesthetics with Claire Boucher, who gets down
and dirty on her major label debut, giving us Visions of an artist about to
break.

 

BY SELENA FRAGASSI

 

With a touch of Blade
Runner
, Run Lola Run, Virgin Suicides, and yes even Glitter, you might think Grimes hit the
Redbox while making Visions, the
Canadian singer/producer extraordinaire’s fourth album (and the first for 4AD
Records) – but you’d be wrong. In actuality, Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) spent
the three-week recording process locked in her bedroom deprived of food,
daylight, and absolutely any form of entertainment.

 

“I definitely derive pleasure out of extremely difficult
things,” she divulges over the phone, with a sadistic snicker in an
I’ve-done-this-before type of confession. “[The label] set a date for Visions and I hadn’t done any work at
all. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ So, I blacked out my windows
and locked myself in my room in a self-imposed cloister. I worked on the record
all day, every day for three weeks.”

 

Well that’s one strategy. Not one you hear of from many
artists, but for Grimes, “It worked really well. If you deprive yourself of the
basics and are totally starving and totally dehydrated and so exhausted beyond
belief and haven’t spoken to anyone in two days, you make really good music
because you’re totally insane.”

 

When she starts talking about how long she had to hold her
pee, we totally buy it. This is a girl who’s crazy for her art.

 

“I have to actually call my manager and beg, please, please
give me the month of April off so I can start writing another record,” she says
in a way that almost implores us to help her defense. To call her productive
would be putting it mildly: in just two years, the 23-year-old has released
four records, which only begin to touch the surface of the “hundreds of songs”
in her repertoire. Yet whereas before, her project had an art house feel not
foreign to the creative community of her newly adopted
city of Montreal (she moved there from Vancouver in 2006), Visions is the first of her releases
that provides a set of rules.

 

“The first records I put out, there was no concept of the music industry or marketing or anything
like that,” she says of previous efforts Geidi
Primes, Halfaxa
and Darkbloom.
“Now there’s all this other shit that has to happen, like make a live show, do
interviews …”

 

The structure of being on a major label is in stark contrast
to her time with Arbutus Records, the home of her first three albums and part
of the larger artist collective Grimes found herself aligned with during her
teenage years. The label grew out of a warehouse performing space known as Lab
Synthese, founded by Grimes’ current touring manager in Montreal
in 2007 to support a burgeoning scene she compares to New York City in the ‘80s. “The city is in a
pretty big recession. No one has a job and mostly just make music and those
that don’t try to set up venues and parties and places for people to play.”
Hence, the birth of L.S.

 

“They started doing shows every weekend and you could get in
for free or at the very most $5, you could smoke and it would go ‘til 4 or 5 in
the morning. Anyone could play and there could be like seven bands in a night.”
Soon enough, Montreal’s
finest caught on and shut the place down but not the Lab’s spirit. “There were
all these bands that played there all the time so we figured why not start a
record label so that these artists can reach beyond the neighborhood of the
same 200 people. And that’s sort of how I started. I felt the pressure that if
I was on a record label then I needed to make a record.”

 

Although times have changed two years after her debut in
2010, Grimes concedes that having a “team” behind her has its advantages. First
they can take care of the grunt work she can so abhors: “I’m not involved in
the administrative stuff because I always fuck it up. I don’t have a phone, I
don’t answer my e-mails; I leave that to the others.” But more importantly
there are the resources to do what she really loves, even admittedly more than
making music: the music video.

 

“I love working on music videos and that’s definitely
something that’s come with the success. It’s a new art form that I have yet to
fully realize,” Grimes says, noting that when she makes music, the only thing
she really thinks about is its visual counterpart. One listen to layered tracks
like “Colour of Moonlight” and “Genesis” and you can start to see how quite
literally Visions became the singer’s
working mantra for the album.

 

“I’ll start the song and get ideas based on its structure,
but usually we’re limited by budgets so the music videos are more what we can
actually do than what would be the dream music video.” That she admits would be
“some crazy Hype Williams-esque thing with great cameras and lighting and whatever
the fuck we want. But that’s okay, though, because stuff driven by necessity
definitely has a vibe to it of energy and sincerity. It’s more difficult to
value something that’s going to be huge and high budget where you have to hire
people from AFTRA and you’re required to have catering because everything is
union and all this crap.”

 

She diverts herself. “I probably sound like some evil baron
or something – I’m definitely not opposed to unions. But there’s something to
working with friends and doing something … like there’s not going to be flying
monkeys or anything, but it’s got heart.”

 

When talking to Grimes, she has this mysterious way of
making you understand the greater world order whether she’s talking about
lighting unions or living in self-imposed restraints to achieve a great
consciousness. It’s all so Zen for someone who is after all, only 23, can
sometimes get a little Valley Girl in her speech, and who not too long ago was
kicked out of her university for not attending.

 

“I’ve always been bad at sitting still or following
directions in any extended way. I think I probably have an attention disorder
or something,” she says, of her schoolgirl woes before getting a little PSA
about the whole issue. “But I do think education is one of the greatest
luxuries and needs to be appreciated more. One of the reasons I didn’t reapply
to university after I got kicked out is because I wasn’t appreciating it. And I
definitely want to finish my degree, but want to at a time when I’m learning things instead of angrily doing
stuff because I really want to get the fuck out of school.”

 

 


Grimes – Oblivion by Arbutus Records

 

 

School or no school, Grimes is a student of the world full
of vast interests (the girl can talk Ghost
in the Shell
and Friends in the
same sentence) and hardening experiences (living in a bubble will do that to
you) she so masterfully blends into one of the most creatively daring albums to
emerge in the last three years. Visions is an album full of so many styles: it is at once stark white, encompassing all
colors of the musical spectrum, yet also dense in its spectral, geometric
shapes that twist and turn around every song’s corner. There’s an ethereal new
age vibe a la School of Seven Bells
on track “Symphonia IX,” while “Oblivion” goes Harajuku two decades better than
Gwen Stefani could ever do it.  The early
‘90s pop platform gets TNT’ed by “Vowels = space and time” that crushes Janet Jackson’s
dancehall rhythm; “Circumambient” beautifully assaults Mariah Carey’s screaming
female talent – in perfect homage of course.

 

“She’s one of the best singers of the last 100 years and I
hate that just because she looks really hot, she’s lumped into being just some
pop musician.” We’ve hit a sensitive spot. “Most of the music I would consider
particularly innovative or important in the last 50 years has been what would
be considered mainstream music. Even rap or hip-hop are not considered high art
even though they’ve completely changed the entire music industry.”

 

And here is the part where Grimes really gets us: “I listen
almost exclusively to Top 40 music and I’m not embarrassed by it. In my
opinion, it’s still great art so it doesn’t matter if it’s just blanket
entertainment.”

 

In Grimes’ opinion, women artists get a bad rap and no one
is immune, not even her. “It comes down to sex and race and presentation way
more than anyone wants to admit,” she says of the creative validation that
sometimes counterbalances the output and detracts from the point. “We live in a
super visual world. It makes music tangible and real and interactive.” Just
like everything else she does, suddenly Visions takes on even more meaning. While Grimes is no over-the-top Gaga, she wouldn’t
exactly be lost in a crowd. With her short Geisha bangs, heavy eye makeup and
fishnet tights tucked into Docs, Grimes has a savvy that even Style Rookie Tavi
Gevinson would admire – or steal.

 

“I feel the need to aestheticize everything; to dye my hair
and not necessarily look beautiful but interesting.” It’s a need that harks
back to her formative and authoritatively testing school years. “My elementary
school made us wear uniforms and it was the worst thing ever. Every single day
I’d wake up and I’d be like I’m so fucking depressed about my school uniform.
So I made sure the hair accessories were big and the shoes too. One time I had
platform shoes and it was a huge scandal. They sent me home.”

 

As stylish as she comes off, Grimes isn’t wasting her
current days picking out outfits for her upcoming national tour (a long-awaited
headlining jaunt after wowing audiences as Lykke Li’s opening act in 2011). Instead,
the singer has become invested in making the handcrafted affair as seamless as
the album she will be promoting.

 

“I’m trying to find a way to mediate between the two,”
Grimes says of her latest challenge, figuring out a means to merge her former
warehouse performance days with the current regulations of more, well, professional venues. “My booking agent
doesn’t like those more ‘out there’ shows, which kind of sucks.” Confirmed will
be two drummers (“I want it to be very aggressive and loud”) and absolutely no
covers (“I can’t do covers because I really can’t play music. I can only play
my songs because I know how they go”).

 

After the tour, it’s back to Montreal to (fingers crossed)
begin a new record, work on her side noise band Membrane, and perhaps embark on
a new career … as a film scorer.

 

“I would love to score movies – that would be my dream. In a
future world if I could just do shit like that and not have to be present and
have clean hair, it would make my life a lot easier.”

 

[Photo Credit: John Londono]

 

 

Go here for a Grimes video plus a review. Over at NPR Music they are streaming the new Grimes album, Visions, in its entirety.

KICK OUT THE JAMS, MIKE Michael Davis, R.I.P.

For the legendary Motor City
band’s bassist, music was – and is – revolution.

 

 

BY BRIAN J. BOWE

 

Michael Davis, who played bass in the extraordinarily influential Detroit proto-punk outfit
The MC5, died Friday at the age of 68.

Davis died of liver failure after a month-long
hospitalization at Enloe Medical Center near
his home in Chico, Calif., according to media reports. He is
the third member of the MC5 to pass away, following the deaths of singer Rob
Tyner in 1991 and Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1994.

 

 

The MC5 mutated the possibilities of what rock ‘n’ roll
could be by combining incendiary revolutionary rhetoric, ear-shattering volume,
feedback, free jazz skronk and R&B precision. The band’s three albums – Kick
Out the Jams, Back in the U.S.A.
and High Time – sold poorly but left a legacy that inspired
countless other musicians.

Davis was born June 5, 1943 and grew up in Northwest Detroit. He was a folkie art student when he
joined the fledgling MC5 in 1965. “Michael was at that time
a rebellious young folksinger; he used to play acoustical guitar and sing
Bob Dylan and I knew if he was into that he was a heavy dude,” MC5
singer Rob Tyner told CREEM Magazine in 1969. “We got Mike in
the band and we continued on our program of playing the weird jams.”
 

Davis’ family
history was quintessential 20th century American Dream. His father Milton came
to America from Yugoslavia in
the steerage of a freighter when he was around six years old. Davis’ mother Edna was
Irish. His father was a big be-bop fan, and Davis constantly listened to his parents’
jazz and swing 78s. This early exposure to jazz not only shaped Davis’ musical consciousness, it also shaped his political
consciousness at a time when racial tensions in Detroit were nearing a boiling point.

 

“I grew up in a time when racism was a common thread in middle-class
society. All the clichés that you’ve ever heard were common in my
childhood,” Davis
said. “And my little friends in the neighborhood would mimic things
their parents said constantly. I felt like an outsider in that world
because in my upbringing in my household, everybody was equal and the
same.”

 

 

That sense of alienation and
devotion to social justice fit well within the MC5’s program of total assault
on the culture by any means necessary. The band, which was affiliated with the
revolutionary White Panther Party, coupled its hard-driving music and flashy
stage presentation with uncompromising political rhetoric. This created a
compelling package that also brought the band pressure from record labels, promoters,
police, and ultimately the FBI. 

 

The pressure took a toll on the band. Davis developed a heroin addiction and was
fired from the MC5 in 1972. The band finally disbanded at the end of that
year. Davis battled
addiction and served time in prison following a drug bust. Between 1977 and
1985, he played with legendary Detroit art-punk
outfit Destroy All Monsters, which also included Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton
and singer Niagara.

 

 

At the turn of the millennium, the MC5 was the focus of
increasing attention. Davis
was featured prominently in the powerful MC5 documentary A True Testimonial, though that film remains unreleased after legal disputes. But in 2003, Davis teamed up with his
surviving bandmates to Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson to tour as DKT-MC5.
That reunion, which happened around the same time as the reunion of The
Stooges, allowed Davis
to see the just how influential his band had become. 

 

 

“It’s surprising to me and
it should be surprising to Iggy and those guys how much influence and effect
our two bands have had on music now,” Davis said. “I’m kind of in awe of it.
We’ve had this kind of effect. And it’s one thing to do something that people
admire a lot, and go, ‘That was really cool stuff,’ but to have this much
influence is really surprising to me.”

 

In recent years, Davis
battled hepatitis and the aftermath of a motorcycle crash. But he also
recommitted himself to his work as a visual artist which he curtailed when he
began playing with the MC5, collaborating with Shepard Fairey and working
toward a bachelor’s degree in art. His devotion to the arts led him to found
the nonprofit Music is Revolution Foundation, which supported the teaching of
the arts in public schools.

 

 

A reflective Davis
contemplated his own mortality when he wrote on his blog (http://svengirly.blogspot.com/2011/03/armageddon.html)
last March: “As I stand here, looking down the last stretch of my own
path, I still see the greatness of being alive. I still see the things that
made it an overwhelming mystical trip. That I played in the MC5 was only one
part of it, but what a part it was! Music is revolution!”

 

 

Davis
is survived by his wife Angela, three sons and one daughter. 

 

 

Go here to view a
selection of MC5 video clips.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Leni
Sinclair
]

 

 

 

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ANIMAL Shearwater

A
conversation with Jonathan Meiburg, who confesses to a Buddist-inspired
approach, a Grizzly bear fetish, and stealth-previewing his music in Austin coffee shops.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

On the opening track to the new Shearwater LP, Jonathan
Meiburg’s choir-cured voice bounds over a heart-hammering pulse like a wild
animal uncaged – by the end of the track, “Animal Life,” it’s clear the singer
is after the same sense of liberation: “I shed the dulling armor plates/That
once collected radiance/And, surging at the blood’s perimeter:/The
half-remembered wild interior/Of an animal life.”

 

Perhaps not a surprising sentiment for a collection bearing
the title Animal Joy and adorned with
a photo of no-nonsense Grizzly claws on its cover. But, what does leave an
impression is the whole-hog commitment to the concept
– to cultivate his more instinctual side – which Meiburg expresses throughout
the 11 songs.

 

To get there, a slew of Shearwater changes followed 2010’s The Golden Archipelago, the third in
what’s been dubbed The Island Arc trilogy after ‘06’s Palo Santo and ‘08’s Rook.
Seeking to beef up what he felt was the band’s ethereal sound, Meiburg added new
recording sidemen, switched producers, employs a new touring band, jumped to a
new record label (Sub Pop) and, above all, sought to give voice to a new
Meiburg.

 

The 34-year-old doesn’t cite a specific emotional gantlet he
had to run, or a cathartic rite-of-passage moment that led him to redefine what
Shearwater would be. Instead, he says it was the gradual awakening that he’d
simply become somebody different. Balancing the vision of himself with the
Meiburgian reality and returning harmony to his existence was a painful one, he
says, and that is what the record tried to recapture.

 

“(The songs) describe being emotionally, and even physically
to some degree, broken open and re-made,” he says. “I had a feeling of being in
my body, of re-inhabiting my body, in a way that I hadn’t in a while. And I
wanted the record to reflect that, by having a body, not just a brain.”

 

That’s translated musically into more “earthy”
sounds aimed at our instincts as much as our higher consciousness. Put more
simply, Animal Joy purges much of the
gossamer touches from recent Shearwater records in favor of a more instinctual
approach. BLURT spoke with Meiburg in January on the first day of publicity for
the new record, when, he joked, he didn’t have all his “prepackaged answers”
down yet.

 


Shearwater – You As You Were by subpop

 

 

 

BLURT: Congrats
on another beautiful record – I noticed that [Matador’s] Gerard Cosloy wrote
the one-sheet. That doesn’t happen too often, does it – one label boss writing
positive publicity for his old band’s new label?

JONATHAN MEIBURG: Yeah, he did. It was really very cool of
him given that we’d left his record label! But it was an amicable parting – they
were great to work with, I’ve got nothing bad to say about them at all. But
Gerard actually lived across the street from me in Austin, and we went around the corner to get
a coffee and I asked him if he’d like to do the bio for this. He kind of looked
up for minute, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”

 

 He wrote about this sonic change – and the music does sound more
stripped back and therefore maybe more urgent; was that a decision going in or
as you went along?

 Absolutely. I felt
with the last three records we’d reached the end of a certain kind of approach.
I wanted to make it far less ethereal and much more earthy. The cover of the
last record has you kind of looking off into the distance at that strange
island that’s far away from you, and in some ways I feel like the record kind
of sounds like that. Which isn’t bad, but it’s like trying to love a statue or
something. And on this record I wanted it to have not just a brain but a body.

 

 More visceral, it sounds like….

 Yeah. I wanted the
rhythm section to feel like it was very up close and with you, rather than
being in a gigantic room 60 feet away from you.

 

 I should ask about the rather striking cover photo of this one, then… those
are Grizzly paws I take it?

 It is a bear, you
have correctly identified it! Most people can’t tell what that is. I saw that
image, it’s Nicholas Kahn, who did our last couple of covers, took that image,
just snapped it with his iPhone, I think. As soon as I saw it I immediately
thought that was the cover.

 

 You went in with producer John Congleton last time; who’d you go in
with this time and why the change?

 This time I worked
with Danny Reisch, who’s in Austin, and we mixed
the record with Peter Katis in Connecticut.
He’s done records with the National, Interpol, he did the Swell Season record –
various groups, but all with more of a pop sensibility than anything we’d had
before.

 

 Is it safe then to call this one ‘the rock record,’ then?

 I guess so, although
on the one hand it feels like a logical extension of who we are as a band, but aesthetically
it’s a very different approach that we’ve taken. I think of it more as like
earth, earth as an element as opposed to air, fire or water.

 

 The last three are often referred to as a triptych;
does that make this one the fourth panel?

 The last three I kind
of feel are one big unit. We played a show last January, which is the last time
we performed live, actually, where we played all three records as one piece,
like they belong together. It was a three-hour concert! (Laughs) We have live
recordings on our Bandcamp page.

 

 Was it a eulogy for that era in a way?

 I would say so. It’s
not like I’ll never play those songs again, but it definitely felt, when we
reached the last note of the last song, that we’d arrived at the end of
something, and that whatever we did after that was going to have to be
something new.

 

 Was that before recording began?

 Yes. I’d done some
demos back in November, but that was before major recording began. But I kind
of knew what was coming. And that was a wonderful way to say goodbye to that
part – there were a lot of people that we’d worked with through the years at
that show, in the Central Presbyterian church in Austin which is a great big beautiful room,
and it was sold out. I put a little 10-minute intermission between each record,
and I was terrified that people would just leave. We’d given them three chances
to leave! But everybody stayed. It was pretty incredible.

 

 I’m envious! At least I got to see you on The Golden Archipelago tour in Chapel Hill
with Wye Oak – speaking of whom, I notice Andy Stack on board for this record.

 Yeah, you get to know
people on tour and sometimes you wind up working together later. I’ve worked
with Andy at the thing at the Whitney
Museum, where we did
those songs for Charles Burchfield, the watercolor artist. And I’d had such fun
working with him, he didn’t play any drums for that stuff, he just manipulated
the sounds of various different insects and creatures that appear in
Burchfield, but I just felt a kindred musical spirit with him. So he came down
for about a week and worked on the record with us over the summer. It was a
great time, Andy’s really special. I was trying to get him on this tour, but I
think they played something like 225 dates last year to support Civilian, so they’re a little tired. At
that point, when you get back you end up having to reinvent yourself and your
home; you’re not the same, and home isn’t the same.

 

 I read something about your records – that you
deal in “indivisible albums.” Is that still the case?

 With this one, it’s
really important to me that the album works as a whole, but I also wanted to
make it easier to find some inroads to individual songs. I’m never going to
write the kind of standard radio pop single, but at the same time I also
thought that this record had some songs that could work sort of in that
capacity. I think the heart of the record is those two songs, “You As You Were”
and “Insolence,” that are back to back on the record, because they describe
being emotionally, and even physically to some degree, broken open and re-made.
I think that happens to a lot of people; you go along in your life for a while
and think that you ought to be one thing, or that you are one thing, and
suddenly it’s revealed to you that you are something else. And then you face
the question, how can you be true to that?

 

 Is it always a typically emotional or
cathartic event that brings change on?

 It varies from person
to person. It’s just sort of a growing realization that suddenly you feel out
of tune with where you are, or even who you are, and efforts to get back – in a
sort of hippie, dippy way – in harmony with the universe, or at least with
yourself is sometimes a really painful process. That’s what this record is
about.

 

 How does it relate then the animal metaphors
and imagery in the album? Even the LP title itself? I have my theories, but I
thought I’d let the guy who wrote it…

 Yours might be more
accurate than mine; after a while you don’t really know exactly why you made
the decisions that you made. Like I said earlier, I had a feeling of being in
my body, and re-inhabiting my body in a way that I hadn’t in a while. And I
wanted the record to have a body, not just a brain.

 

 How does that relate then to the natural world-imagery you use in your
lyrics? There are two sides to that coin, it seems – thinking about those
things abstractly, and then more viscerally…

 Sure. For example,
animals, for the most part, even just a dog or a cat, you know this, they exist
in the moment that they’re in. They’re completely full up with being, right
where they are. And our outsized brain, one of the features of them is that they
create alternative worlds to live in. A lot of them are in the future, or in
the past. Sometimes they bear little resemble to the one that we’re in. And
when I think about animal joy, I think about the fierceness, the urgency of
animal’s lives. Even to the extent of, ‘I’m going to go sleep RIGHT NOW.’ We
are animals, yet we’ve decided to fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t,
but we most certainly are. And the moments when you feel you’re experiencing life
at its fullest are sometimes few and far between, but they can feel like the
truest moments of your life.

 

 It sounds very Taoist – or not very Western, at any rate….

 I guess not, although
when people think of that they think of a remove from the world somehow, and I
think it’s more of a question of fully inhabiting it.

 

 Full engagement?

 Yeah, exactly. Like
when Buddhists talk about ridding ourselves of attachments, it’s not like
you’re floating off the ground, it’s like you become the ground. You become
more grounded – the attachments are the things that are basically phantoms,
they’re not real. You made them up. I felt like the last record had sort of a
meditative, floating quality, and this record I wanted it to not have that. I
wanted it to have a rooted-ness, a grounded-ness. I wanted you to feel it in
your body more, and less appreciate with your head.

        I took the
test pressing down to the local coffee shop the other day and played it on
their turntable, and I really had fun just watching people who were in there,
who weren’t listening to it actively at all, but I could see people sort of
dancing around a little bit, I saw some toes tapping, and you could just see it
worming its way into the subconscious. And that was tremendously exciting. It
was the first time that it had been out in the world. I don’t know that that’s
how more people will respond to it, but that’s my hope.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Shawn
Brackbill
]

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE RUNT Todd Rundgren

A live rendering of 1974’s underrated Todd may not garner new fans, but it’s certain to appeal to longtime
followers and adventurously-minded young pups.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Save for a
loyal but rapidly-graying audience, Todd Rundgren is in danger of being lost
amidst a sea of cookie-cutter indie-rockers that don’t possess an ounce of his
individuality, innovative nature, or sheer musical “chutzpah.” As
close to a true renaissance man as rock ‘n’ roll has created, Rundgren – a
talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, video and multi-media
artist, and tech wizard – has pretty much always done it his way, often with
interesting results, exploring the outer limits of pop, rock, prog, and
electronic music both as a solo artist and with his band Utopia.

 

Although
he’s been making music for better than 40 years now, the anything-goes 1970s
were Rundgren’s era, the prolific musician cranking out eleven
critically-acclaimed albums that hit the charts with varying commercial returns
over the ten year period. The double-disc 1972 album Something/Anything? provided Rundgren with a modicum of pop
stardom, a not entirely-welcome status that the artist quickly denied with the
following year’s difficult-albeit-exciting album A Wizard, a True Star. Featuring nearly 56-minutes of music crammed
onto two sides of vinyl…a technological marvel in and of itself for the time… side
one of the album featured a Beatlesque extended medley of proggish rock, side
two a few pop/rock songs surrounding a ten-minute medley of R&B hits.

 

Against
this backdrop, the release of the double-album Todd in February 1974 found the artist’s fans wondering which Todd
Rundgren would show up in the grooves. While Todd ventured further into the musical experimentation that
Rundgren began with A Wizard, a True Star,
especially considering the artist’s growing fascination with synthesizers and
other technological means to shape music, in truth the album also crossed paths
with Todd’s Something/Anything? era
pop-rock cheap thrills and Utopia’s just-over-the-horizon electronic
adventures.

 

Although Todd didn’t set the woods on fire
commercially [It was still a hands-down
fave at the time of at least one future BLURT editor. – Present-day BLURT Ed.
],  the pricey double-LP did climb to 54 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and
yielded a minor hit (69) in the lofty, ethereal-pop tune “A Dream Goes On
Forever.” Undaunted, Rundgren moved onward and upward with 1975’s
aggressive Initiation, a reckless
synthfest that further pushed the boundaries of vinyl capabilities with better
than 30-minutes of music squeezed onto each side, the album’s electronic-rock soundscape
furthering the artistic sojourn that Rundgren had begun with the release of the
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia album a few
months after Todd.

 

***

 

Whereas Todd Rundgren’s Utopia would initially
best Todd in sales, rising to 34 on
the album chart without the benefit of a hit single, through the years the equally-difficult
Todd has taken on an aura of its own,
the album’s reputation often preceding the actual listening, with gems like the
aforementioned “A Dream Goes On Forever,” rocker “Heavy Metal
Kids,” and Rundgren’s flirtations with Gilbert & Sullivan satisfying
the curious and influencing a generation of like-minded fellow-travelers to
follow in Rundgren’s considerable wake.

 

In 2010,
Rundgren put together a band of various friends, including bassist Kasim Sultan
from Utopia, guitarist Jesse Gress, keyboardist Greg Hawkes (The Cars), drummer
Prairie Prince (The Tubes), and saxophonist Bobby Strickland to perform Todd live, for the first time, in its
entirety. The Philadelphia
show of the special, limited six-date sold-out mini-tour – which also included
a performance of Rundgren’s 1981 album Healing – was recorded and videotaped for subsequent release on CD and DVD. While Healing will be released at a later
date, the live performance of Todd is
more or less a re-creation of that classic album, in spirit if not exactly
musically, minus one song – “In and Out the Chakras We Go.” It’s now
out via Rock Beat Records (www.tr-i.com).

 

While some
of the more technologically-created fantasia from the original album has been
stripped from this live performance, modern electronics allow a lot of the
factory showroom sheen to rise out of songs like “I Think You Know,”
a discordant albeit lovely mid-tempo ballad with shimmering fretwork and
squalls of electronic snowfall. Rundgren’s operatic satire of the music biz,
“An Elpee’s Worth of Toons,” mixes Gilbert & Sullivan with a dash
of Utopia-styled electronica and a pop/rock vibe to deliver its devastating lyrical
message amidst a cacophony of instrumentation and Todd’s best bent vocals.
Changing directions so rapidly that it could give the listener whiplash,
Rundgren and crew slide effortlessly into the ethereal “A Dream Goes On
Forever,” this live version slightly less busy than the studio reading,
but lacking none of the bittersweet melancholy of the original.

 

Rundgren
further indulges in his Gilbert & Sullivan obsession with a spry cover of
“Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song,” evoking memories of Sideshow Bob
from The Simpsons. This performance
is pure delight, Rundgren’s unabashed enthusiasm dripping from his nimble
vocals as Greg Hawkes’ provides the rhythmic backdrop with his chopping piano
play. One of the overlooked gems from the original Todd was the hard rocking “Everybody’s Going to Heaven/King
Kong Reggae” mash-up, the live version pounding at the pavement with
jackhammer ferocity, guitar-drums-bass-keyboards slam-dancing behind Todd’s
strained vocals, the man finally cutting loose with a fire-and-brimstone guitar
solo before breaking down into the monster jam that is “King King
Reggae.”

 

 

 

Another
overlooked cut from Todd was the
smooth-as-silk pop song “Izzat Love?” With an undeniable melodic hook
and harmony vocals rising about the swirl of low-key instrumentation, the song
sounds like something from Todd’s early band Runt, updated with a few modern
flourishes but otherwise a lofty example of Rundgren’s 1960s-styled pop/rock
chops. The song ends abruptly,
descending into madness in an electronic storm, leading into the muscular,
blustery “Heavy Metal Kids,” an up-tempo rocker with malevolent
intentions, crashing drumbeats, and tortured guitarplay. Todd ends with the gospel-tinged pop of “Songs of 1984,”
a perfect showcase for both Rundgren’s songwriting skills but also his immensely
diverse musical sense, the mid-tempo verses brought up a notch by the
uplifting, choir-like choruses.   

 

While it’s
unlikely that this live Todd will
gain Rundgren many new fans, it’s certain to appeal to his horde of longtime
followers… but if a couple of young pups are curious after hearing the live
versions of these songs and decide to check out the originals, or other equally-exciting
entries in Rundgren’s large early catalog – many of which have been repackaged
by British archival label Edsel Records as reasonably-priced double CD sets –
all the better!