Monthly Archives: May 2012

THREE-WAY CONVERSATION Grass Widow

It took
external musings to locate the internal logic of the trio’s delightful new
album. The members explain.

 

BY NICK D’AMORE

 

Between the twists and turns of their interlocked grooves,
beneath their seemingly effortless yet precise harmonies, Grass Widow are
constantly checking in – with each other and, perhaps less directly, with the
listener. Each song feels like a three-way conversation between band members,
with no voice or instrument competing or dominating, only complementing. Grass
Widow’s records are a snapshot of the band at that moment, emotionally,
intellectually, musically. Hence, though the words being sung are not always
clear, the harmonies and melodies always seem to strike certain chords and
pluck specific heartstrings, however briefly as the band’s beautifully
claustrophobic songs allow.

 

The band’s third LP, Internal
Logic
, has just been released on their own label, HLR – the name made up of
the first initial of three band members: bassist/singer Hannah Lew,
drummer/singer Lillian Maring and guitarist/singer Raven Mahon. The trio’s
sense of independence, freedom, and limitlessness is evident in the
otherworldly subjects on the record, from the stark moon cover to songs about
space exploration and discovery.

 

It was
a little bit spontaneous,” says Lew. “When we were writing Internal Logic, a lot of songs had outer space themes. I think
because we were able to see past our immediate situation and into a vaster,
boundless scope of the world.”

 

 


Goldilocks Zone by Grass Widow

 

The fanciful and playful feeling behind the record stands in
stark contrast to the ominous and somewhat darker Past Time, the band’s 2010 Kill Rock Stars LP. While it was a heady
time for the group, being signed to a more established independent label, their
own personal crises did not allow them to fully enjoy the milestone they’d
achieved.

 

“My dad had passed away, right before KRS asked us to do the
record,” Lew recalls. “We didn’t play music for about six months. Lilly had a
boyfriend at the time who was sick and Raven was in Mexico for a while. It was just
inescapable subject matter. It was the only thing on your brain for a while. In
a lot of ways, I’m really glad for that process we had. We had to write the
songs; it had to happen. With the new record, it’s been two or three years
since initial grief, and it’s OK to write songs that feel really good.”

 

While the songs on Past
Time
were therapeutic for the band, they became difficult to play live
night in and night out on tour. Internal
Logic
boasts songs that are consciously more fun for the trio to play and
sing.

 

“[Past Time] was
us figuring out the best way to survive, hitting rock bottom in a way – and we
did that together,” Maring explains. “We decided we wanted to write songs [for Internal Logic] that would feel really
good to play live, singing things that we needed to hear every night while we
were on tour. So we thought why not write songs that have positive affirmation,
that are about the place we’re at, that are about opportunity. The whole album
reflects that feeling and it feels really good.”

 

The opportunity for Grass Widow presently is having complete
autonomy and control over their music – how it’s recorded, how it’s released,
and how it’s promoted. The band looks positively at their experience at Kill
Rock Stars, as a learning experience that allowed them to venture out on their
own. The brief stint on the KRS roster also solidified their desire to be truly
independent.

 

“They acted as a good resource for us,” Maring says. “We had
a lot of questions about a lot of industry stuff. Where money is involved, in
partnerships like that, that’s where we want to have full control over
everything we’re doing, so there’s no cloudiness around the logistics of the
release. It’s not a constant checking-in with someone who may be busy with
someone else-and that’s not specific to KRS; that’s working with any label.”

 

“It made the most sense to do it ourselves,” adds Lew. “We
wanted to do it exactly how we wanted to do it, know exactly who we were
working with, and have full control – and we wanted to go into debt.”

 

Having that power allowed the band to record where they are
most comfortable, San Francisco.

 

“The studio we recorded Internal
Logic
in was my favorite recording experience that we’ve had,” Lew says.
“We got to record at home, as opposed to where we’d been recording in Portland. And we got to
make everything sound exactly how we wanted. We didn’t have to compromise
because of any ear or anything.”

 

With the infinite resources of the internet, it’s much
easier for bands to self-release and promote without being part of a larger
label. Though labels still serve a valuable purpose in the music landscape, and
the Kill Rock Stars experience brought the band many new fans, Lew believes
that record companies are not quite as essential as they may have been in years
past – especially if a band has already made a name for itself.

 

“Record labels and music criticism will always play a role,”
she says. “People who pay attention to that stuff probably always will. If
anything, it’s more of a name-dropping thing: ‘Hey, they’re on that label; it
must be good.’ For us, people know who we are, so we don’t really need the
label to say anything about us. People will probably like us because they
actually like us.”

 

Being able to see their sonic vision fully realized is
important for the band. The songwriting process is painstaking, with each
member collaborating fully and lending her voice and instrument to the bouncy
cacophony of sounds.

 

“We all want to contribute and bring our voice to it,” Lew
explains. “If anything, we all are always thinking about how to bring each
other in. It works well for us because then the subject matter is pretty
universal for anyone who’s listening. Really personal things can be really relatable.”

 

While crafting a song, any of the three can fill in any part
needed, using either her voice or instrument; so, one song may have a
particularly vocal bass line or a particularly percussive vocal line. “We use
our voices and instruments to fill in the blanks,” Maring says. “That’s why
it’s a tightly woven thread.”

 

Grass Widow will begin touring immediately following the release
of Internal Logic. They will be
hitting such homes away from home as Portland
and New York, as well as some new locales,
such as Buffalo and Upstate New York, and the
southern United States,
including Atlanta, Durham,
Memphis and Chattanooga. The initial leg of the tour will
wrap up June 16. The band prefers touring in brief jaunts as opposed to being
road warriors.

 

“We would tour all the time if we didn’t have to work,” Lew
says. “We have boyfriends, jobs, and other passions and hobbies. It’s
definitely a balancing act. When we do it in small doses, it can be really fun;
you travel for free and get to share our music with people.

 

“Even if you’re out there with your best friend, just
traveling and being with people 24 hours a day is kind of a lot.”

 

Grass Widow are, indeed, a tight-knit group. The seeds of
the group were sown almost 10 years ago when Lew and guitarist/singer Raven
Mahon were in a different band. Maring started sitting in on drums and soon the
three hit on something special. “There was a moment when I had this harmony
thing I’d written for three people and we all tried it and were like, “Oh, we
have something here, we can do this,” Lew recalls.

 

“We have moments like that still, some chord progression or
some harmony will come together and it’ll be like, “Oh yeah, that’s the stuff!”

 

An
edited version of this story also appears in the current print issue (#12) of
BLURT. Grass Widow’s tour kicked off this week in Massachusetts. Go to their
official website to view the itinerary.

 

[Photo Credit: Aubree Bernier-Clarke]

 

INSIDE THE JOINT: John Singer Sergeant

Inside the recording of the erstwhile
Deathray Davies frontman’s eponymous debut. Not to be confused with the
early-20th century painter, of course…

 

BY JOHN
DUFILHO

 

I love
recording. I could lock myself in a studio, not come out for months, and be
happy. I’ve made some friends when I’m outside – really talented people.

 

Fortunately
I’ve discovered that most musicians are generous. It’s amazing what people will
do if you just ask. This applies to most things in life.

 

Although I
sing all the time, I don’t really consider myself a singer. I write songs, I
play a few instruments. I was curious: What would they sound like with friends
of mine singing them? Would anyone want to? Do I have any business playing and
recording instruments that I really don’t know how to play? Do I care?

 

The answers,
so far – I’ve found to be: Good, yes, yes, and no.

 

I had a dream
that the cook leaned and shook his fist over the balcony and said yes to
the people. This is a quote from Bob Dylan. I’ll give you ten bucks if you can
tell me where it’s from. A lot of people thought/think he can’t sing. I think
he’s one of the best ever. Truly gifted. It’s all in the expression.

 

I like to play
and record instruments I’ve never picked up before. I want to do everything:
 write, record, mix, master. The only thing I don’t want to do right now
is sing. I don’t hate my voice; we’re just not on good terms.

 

Will Johnson
came in and got right to work. He’s got a good left-hook – keeps his head down
… after two takes, he offers to “try again.” No! We’ve got it. I can’t
believe what a natural he is, inspiring and aggravating all at once. He sings a
harmony line or two and we’re set. At the time he was singing to an acoustic
guitar and a piano. Much later I added drums, bass, tambourines, and a sound I
found that drowns you like you’re smoking opium on a roller coaster.

 

Ben Kweller
sang “Mountains, Oceans, Elephants” at the Magic Shop in NYC. He sent me the
tracks. I loved it so much I had to redo the song, stretch it out a bit, give
it a little room to move around and shake. Ben was born interesting.

 

Robert
Schneider also sent vocal tracks, his came from Lexington, KY. All
the out-of-towners get two stereo mixes from me: an instrumental track for each
singer to sing along with, and another mix with me singing to show
how the melody/words/cadence goes. Also included: instructions to torch the second
mix. You never know what kind of trouble an unintentional vocal take might get
you in. Robert is the only singer who changed my words. I don’t mind, I love
Robert. I have no idea what he’s singing about though, so I printed my words on
the inside of the CD.

 

I met Sir Earl
Toon at a party once. He’s the greatest singer ever, total badass. He was
mentored by a guy named Otis Blackwell, another badass who wrote hit songs
for people like Elvis. I’d like to be mentored by Sir Toon; this lineage thing
seems to be working. He brought his friend Phil along who played the scorching
keyboard lines on “Dizzy Joy.” I can’t wrap my head around how much talent
these two have; it’s staggering.

 

I recorded
Rhett Miller over at Salim Nourallah’s studio. They are much taller and funnier
than people realize. They will be writing and singing songs until their last
melodic breath. I love this about them – lifers. Rhett also sang to an acoustic
guitar and piano track. Later I added a drum beat that I’m proud of; it makes
me feel like Tom Waits would like me.

 

Marcus
Striplin has a much, much lower voice than I do. He turned “Married to the Sea”
into something more interesting than I could have imagined. He tells the story.
It’s a good story – you should listen to him. Marcus can grow a mustache and
still look cool, not ironic cool, just cool. I think I hate him.

 

Sarah Jaffe
was fearless in the studio, willing to try anything. I can’t describe how
amazing this is to witness. Most of us have safety zones built around us like
we’re stuck in an elevator. Not her.

 

“Birdy Num Num”
is a line from a Peter Sellers movie. I love Peter Sellers. I saw Being
There
and then walked around for the next two weeks pretending I was Chance
the gardener. It didn’t work. People thought I’d been hit by a car.

 

My wife,
Danette, is also fearless. I asked her and our artist friend, Letty, to sing
“Birdy Num Num.” Neither of them are singers. “Okay – get us some wine first!” It
was complete reckless fun and went by far too quickly.

 

Brandon Carr
used to sing for a band called The Earlies. He and Dylan Silvers sang, “Why
Does Your Moog Effect Me So?” They stuck around the studio a bit and helped
with the mix. More horns! More phase guitar! Brandon played bass on the song, until I
re-cut it with a 60’s harmony bass. Sorry Brandon.

 

“Kick Your
Feet Up High” is an instruction manual for children. CJ Davis came over to
sing, and in one take, improved the song 100%. He’s got a way of delivering
lines like “you’ll fly like birds” that makes me want to put on a robe and join
the Polyphonic Spree (a band he was once in). He’s an artist as well. He
also beats out everyone in the interesting dept.,
Ben Kweller included. Sorry, Ben.

 

I recorded “Lazy
Days are Good” with Erik Sanden at 9 a.m. one morning in San Antonio. He’d just woken up, I was
splitting town and asked him if we could record something right then and there.
I played guitar, he sang, and we recorded it on a small digital recorder. Later
I added piano, drums, some bells. He sounds like Ira Kaplan meets Ray Davies – two
of my fave singers. Erik’s also one of those guys that truly understands punk
rock.

 

I sent off “Gone
in a Second” to my friend Tony Miller, another musician I know in Lexington, KY. “Gone…” is my version of
what would happen if Burt Bacharach and Getz/Gilberto had a baby. Tony and
Sarah J nailed it + now a lady in NYC named Alice renewed my faith in humanity by making
a video that fits the song perfectly. It’s rare when this happens; it makes me
feel like we’re not so far apart.

 

Chris Walla
and Rachel Demy sang along to a completely different version of “Normal Sounds
Weird.” I’d recorded that song three times, trying to get it
right. Ridiculous. They sent their vocals along with a guitar part Chris
played from above, and I knew I had to get started on version #4. I love the
floor tom. In my head, Mo Tucker and I are best friends.

 

Spyche came in
and recorded “It’s Hard to Run Uphill on Stilts.” It’s the only song on the CD
that’s been recorded before. My band The Deathray Davies put it on a record
called The Day of the Ray. Originally it was supposed to sound like Teenage
Fanclub, but that never happened. Drag. So Spyche says, “I’m gonna sing this,
and if I can get through all the way to the ending, then that’s the one we
keep!” She can pull this kind of thing off.

 

I’m in the
mood to do something punk rock now. Maybe guest drummers with just one fuzz
guitar? It would have to be friends of mine who don’t know how to play the
drums. Much betters that way. Any takers? John Drummer Sergeant has a ring to
it…

 

 

 

“Inside The
Joint” is part of BLURT’s artist-penned series of behind-the-scenes stories.
John Singer Sergeant’s self-titled debut is out now on Kirtland Records.
www.kirtlandrecords.com

 

 

JOHN SINGER
SERGEANT (WITH SARAH JAFFE) – “GONE IN A SECOND”

 

 

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Early Morning Rebel

In which the EMR
guitarist reminisces about the ironic rioting of French soccer hooligans.

 

BY DUSTIN BATH

 

My story of the most fucked up thing I’ve seen ends with
burning cars, gas masks and puking people when I stupidly and suddenly remember
that I’m in a foreign country and don’t speak the hostile natives’ language.

 

I was in Paris
again for whatever reason coincidentally during the semi-finals of the World
Cup, opportunely France
was playing that night and the whole city was going crazy. The whole city was
in the streets watching the game together at café. The moment was alive and
full of tension, excitement and celebration. This was a completely foreign and
new experience for me. You can’t under any circumstances stand in the middle of
the street blocking traffic in Los Angeles;
this is culturally and morally unacceptable. Traffic is already screwed up
enough as it is, the sympathetic Los Angeles “hive mind” just knows that people
have a legitimate right to run over any jackass because Judith Miller in a
dream told them to, we have to deal with people like this all the time and I
swear they see kindness as a weakness! But I digress…

 

Everything was going fantastic until France won the
match. At first it was exciting, cheering and celebration mingled with singing
and chants but as the crowds grew in numbers, they also grew in boredom and
boldness. Singing led to stopping driving cars on tight streets, surrounding
the car with an endless sea of people and then rocking it back and forth while
the driver inside swung back and forth cringing, terrified. 

 

This quickly led to the younger more adventurous Parisians
attempting to flip the random cars now stopped in the street with the driver in
it. After that, traffic began to pile up behind with no escape and several
hundred young hooligans deciding to destroy cars in a bloodthirsty victory riot.
They had all the toys they needed for a fun-filled night of celebration and
destruction, and I was happy to be there and capture this once in a lifetime
experience. 

 

I’ve seen some horrible things in my life, everything from a
homeless man showing me his empty catheter hole and coercing me to give him my
change, to a woman jumping out of a three-story burning building to her death. Understand
this is my favorite story because it’s uniquely beautiful, tragic and ironic. They
are rioting violently because they were happy!

 

Next, a couple of the boys started running and jumping from
car to car smashing the windshield windows with the terrified drivers pinned
inside. It wasn’t long until one of the car owners abandoned the cars
altogether. Soon it was clear what was going to happen next…

 

With many of the windows already shattered in every trapped
car on the street, and many of the people completely shit-faced, a couple of
the guys were jumping in the back seat and acting like they were sleeping or
passed out humorously while the crowd rocked the car from the outside. Then
they started pulling people out of their cars and driving them into the walls
in what little space they had to maneuver. Specifically trying to run over
signs and other things they found funny, like a ramp somebody built out of
debris laying around. It was actually a very inventive and creative moment for
a couple of the kids, I was proud and impressed. 

 

At this point even though this was the best entertainment I
had seen in a long time, witnessing these artist paint their chaos all over Paris, I had a
revelation. At any moment the crowd could turn on me, an American foreigner at
the height of the “War on Terror” who can’t speak their language. It was
perfect timing for a sobering reality check because I remember feeling the
sudden heat of one of the cars behind me being lit on fire. The flames shot up
into the sky and I remember noticing how the sun had apparently gone down
suddenly, allowing the burning car to illuminate the small street with
everyone’s face looking increasingly shadowed and blocked. 

 

I ducked out of the crowd pretty quickly after that, as
self-preservation aggressively occupied my thoughts. Not a minute too late,
coincidentally, because as I tried to maneuver out of the area and crowd I
could hear and see sirens blocking the entrance to the street and a flood of
cops digging their way into the concentrated shielding wall of people watching
the mayhem unfold. It was like a spontaneous gladiatorial arena of lawlessness
and the surrounding people although unwilling to participate in the action,
were more than willing (like me) to watch them perform. 

 

One thing I’ve learned over the years living in LA, is that
the key to dealing with pepper spray is to not be around assholes that are
shooting pepper spray. I could smell and feel the fallout from the cloud of
pepper spray this battalion of cops was spraying indiscriminately into the
crowds almost immediately. First you could hear screams and the sudden change
in the mob’s body language. Like ants when they raise the alarm and start
moving super fast because you dropped a big splash of sugary soda on their ant
hill. I pulled my hood close around my head to block my mouth and started to
quickly run like the rest of the now panicked crowd. All around me people were
puking and coughing people, and a few of the cops had gas masks calmly motioning
us to keep walking, which we gladly obliged. 

 

The last thing I noticed as I limped back to my hotel room
was the core group of original dissenters’ continuing their drunken defiance by
retreating and throwing whatever objects they could find at the cops. Things
calmed down after that on that particular street, but through the entire night
the whole city continued to celebrate. People walked through the streets
stopping all traffic and driving around in trucks waving flags, honking horns,
singing at the top of their lungs for hours. I remember thinking that it was
terribly clear that tonight, Paris
would not sleep. 

 

 

Early Morning Rebel’s Life
Boat EP is out now on Baby Bird Records.

www.earlymorningrebel.com

 

 

 

ARE YOU GONNA BE THERE WITH… The Chocolate Watch Band

 

Nuggetsapproved
garage-rock legends get latterday reissue resurgence via the archival wizards
at Sundazed Records. But is the legend justified?

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

As far as
1960s-era garage-rock goes, the Chocolate Watch Band was influential far beyond
the band’s meager commercial reach. Although they would become West Coast
musical heroes during the mid-to-late-1960s, with a handful of red-hot (and,
later, highly collectible) 45rpm singles to their credit, culminating in a
series of well-received full-length albums, the band suffered from a serious
personality crisis.

 

Their
management and producers would frequently bring in studio players to overdub
the band’s recordings, material would be released under their name that had
little or no connection to the band itself…not entirely heard of in mid-1960s
L.A. but not something that helped define a band identity, either. Regardless, on
the basis of a trio of odd studio albums and a reputation for holding their own
on stage with the likes of the Mothers of Invention and the Yardbirds, by the
mid-1980s, the Chocolate Watch Band (later changed to one word,
“Watchband”) would become bona fide Nuggets-approved garage-rock legends.

 

Formed by
a group of junior college students in Los Altos, California in 1965, the
original Chocolate Watch Band was heavily influenced by the British Invasion
sound of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, later, by the Pretty
Things. They were one of the first wave of what esteemed critic Lester Bangs
would call “punk rockers,” Vox-yielding young hoodlums roaring out of
their garage practice space and into the high school gyms and community centers
of California to make teenage girls swoon at the front of the stage. After the
usual shuffling of band members, the Chocolate Watch Band as known and adored
by collectors of 1960s-era garage-rock treasures included vocalist Dave
Aguilar, guitarists Mike Loomis and Sean Tolby, bassist Bill Flores, and
drummer Gary Andrijasevich.

 

It was
with this line-up that the Chocolate Watch Band recorded its initial singles –
four red-hot slabs o’ R&B-styled proto-rock cheap thrills – as well as
appearing and performing as themselves in the teen exploitation movie Riot on Sunset Strip. With all of this
high-profile activity to hype the band, you’d think that their debut album
would basically record itself and roll off the retail shelves and into the
hands of eager fans. In an era when the “serious adults” in the room
(i.e. managers & producers) often messed around with a young band’s sound
(see: Strawberry Alarm Clock, Electric Prunes, etc), producer Ed Cobb, with
engineers Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper, just couldn’t help but impose their
own agenda on top of the band’s considerably fresh and highly-rocking original
sound.

 

 

 

As such,
Chocolate Watch Band’s1967 debut album, No
Way Out
, although considered by many to be a classic of the garage-rock
era, is not nearly as great as it might have been. The band’s early singles
would have provided a solid foundation on which to build a debut album, but the
production staff saw fit to include only two of these performances – “Are
You Gonna Be There (At The Love In)” and “No Way Out” – in the
final mix. The former is a down-n-dirty R&B-tinged rocker with gang vocals,
an infectious rhythm track, and greasy overdriven guitars that only bolster
Aguilar’s Jaggeresque vocals, the latter is a rock ‘n’ soul hybrid with wiry
fretwork, a slight psychedelic edge (mimicking the fledgling San Francisco
sound), cool snarling vox lost beneath droning, hypnotic instrumentation, and
an overall dangerous vibe that was too cool for school in ’67.

 

The full
band line-up only appears on two other tracks on No Way Out, a meager representation on record that was curious even
by then-current standards. An inspired cover of Chuck Berry’s rollicking
“Come On” is a revved-up hot-rod of mid-60s rock, with echoey,
haunting guitar notes lingering like storm clouds above Aguilar’s rapid-paced,
1950s rockabilly-styled reading of the lyrics. The singer’s original “Gone
And Passes By” offers up exotic instrumental flourishes alongside a bouncy
Bo Diddley beat, Aguilar’s emotional vocals overshadowed by a lush mix that
includes squalls of guitar, bass, and drums creating a maelstrom of sound.

 

Of the
other material on No Way Out, there
are a few gems that emerge in spite of the producer’s interference. “Let’s
Talk About Girls” is a stone cold R&B romp a la early Stones that
would have benefited from Aguilar’s energetic vocal style; for whatever reason,
studio pro Don Bennett’s voice was dubbed over the band frontman’s vocals. The
band’s instrumental track rides low in the mix and features some tasty jolts of
Mark Loomis’s guitar, helping to rescue the song from disaster. Ditto for a
cover of Steve Cropper’s “Midnight Hour,” which succeeds regardless
of Bennett’s flaccid vocals, as the band cleverly injects a soul-drenched
Booker T & the MGs sound with livewire rock ‘n’ roll electricity.

 

Much of
the rest of No Way Out is suspect,
however, as two instrumental songs – the clumsy attempt
at a psychedelic mindtrip that was “Dark Side of the Mushroom” and
the equally spacey pastiche of styles (rockabilly, surf, psyche) that was
“Expo 2000” – were written by engineer and future uber-producer
Richard Podolor and recorded with session players. These songs are
“Chocolate Watch Band” in name only, as they lack the band’s input
and just provide a songwriting royalty for an interfering studio engineer.
Another track, “Gossamer Wings,” was written by singer Bennett, and
uses the basic instrumental track from the band’s 1966 B-side “Loose Lip
Sync Ship” as a backdrop for Bennett’s dull-as-dirt, soft-psyche
performance. 

 

In spite
of its flaws, No Way Out offers
around 60% of the cheap thrills one could expect from a recording of its era,
maybe a C+ or B- grade that could have been a solid B+ had singer Aguilar’s
charismatic voice not been removed from the aforementioned tracks in favor of
the less-talented vocalist. At the heart of the problem was the fact that
producer Ed Cobb had never even seen Chocolate Watch Band perform live, and
didn’t realize the assortment of talents that he had in the studio. An
otherwise talented songwriter and producer that would go on to work with
artists like Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, Cobb imposed his own vision on the
band to mixed effect.

 

*****

 

Although
the Chocolate Watch Band’s debut album No
Way Out
suffered from excessive studio tinkering by producer Ed Cobb, their
sophomore effort – 1968’s effervescent The
Inner Mystique
– was mostly created out of the ether in the studio by
engineer Richard Podolor. The band itself had literally imploded in mid-1967,
guitarist Mark Loomis leaving first to pursue his drug-fueled dreams of creating
psychedelic-folk music with The Tingle Guild, which featured original Watch
Band vocalist Danny Phay.

 

Drummer
Gary Andrijasevich would follow Loomis out the door, with singer Dave Aguilar
right behind him, leaving guitarist Sean Tolby and bassist Bill Flores as the
remaining members. The pair recruited new bandmates to fulfill live bookings,
but by the end of 1967 the band was essential dead in the water. That didn’t
stop Ed Cobb and Richard Podolor, though, neither of whom wanted to leave money
on the table, literally pieced together The
Inner Mystique
from whatever odds ‘n’ ends they found in the studio,
creating the rest, branding it “Chocolate Watch Band” and slipping it
past an unsophisticated, pre-Internet audience that didn’t know any better.

 

The first side
of The Inner Mystique – three of the
album’s meager eight-song tracklist – was entirely Podolor’s show. Using un-credited
studio pros, along with singer Don Bennett, whose unremarkable vocals had been
shoehorned into the grooves of No Way Out without the band’s knowledge or approval, Podolor approximates the
R&B-drenched psychedelic roots of the Chocolate Watch Band with mixed
results. The album-opening “Voyage of the Trieste,” credited to
producer Cobb, is a swirling, raga-touched psychedelic instrumental that stirs
a bit of jazz-rock fusion into the grooves…not entirely uninviting, but it has
nothing to do with the band whatsoever. The same goes for the Cobb-approved
five-minute psyche jam “Inner Mystique,” which offers up some inspired
playing, just not by any real Chocolate Watch Band members, and almost a year
late to catch the initial wave of psychedelic rock fervor.

 

 

 

The
stand-out of side one is a torrid cover of “In The Past,” originally by
fellow garage-rock pioneers We The People. Although Bennett’s vocals are
soft-pedaled in favor of the song’s jangly instrumentation, the result is
pleasant enough and would have been a solid single release at the time. Side
two, however, offers up some prized authentic Watch Band treasures, most
notably in the band’s wired cover of Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody
Else.” With Aguilar’s snarling vocals right up front with Loomis’s taut
fretwork, and with the rhythm section providing a big beat backdrop, the song’s
defiant edge stands among the best performances of the era.

 

The
album-closing “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” showcases the band’s
immense talents, Aguilar coming on strong like an American Eric Burdon on a
slow-burning, R&B-seared mid-tempo rocker with sneering, emotional vocals
matched by some elegant, Spanish-flavored Loomis fretwork and a solid rock ‘n’
roll soundtrack with large drumbeats and heavy bass lines. Two studio outtakes
– the soulful “Medication” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s
Go” – offer Bennett’s vocals overdubbed atop Aguilar’s voice. As for the
former, we should begrudgingly offer Bennett his due for not fudging up the
basic vocal track and delivering as strong a performance as he ever would under
the Watch Band name. He was helped, no doubt, by the spiky, punkish guitar
lines provided the song by Loomis, as well as a rolling rhythm track.

 

The less
said of “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” the better…Bennett’s hoarse,
charmless vocals are thankfully hidden low in the mix while the band slogs away
lazily behind him. The listener is never sure whether this is supposed to be a
traditional blues song, with Otis Spann-styled piano in the background, a big
beat R&B rave-up, or a rockabilly romp, and it fails on every level. Better
is the band’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” a
former B-side that seems to include vocals by both Aguilar (appropriately Memo From Turner period Jagger) and Bennett
(eh) riding atop a busy psychedelic swirl of instruments that reminds of  Flowers era Rolling Stones.

 

Although neither
the Chocolate Watch Band’s No Way Out nor The
Inner Mystique
sold in remarkable quantities, and were anything but
representative of the band’s high-voltage live sound, the two albums would
continue to increase interest in the band. In late 1968, the Chocolate
Watchband would reform with the first recorded line-up mostly intact, Aguilar
replaced by Phay, and with original Watch Band guitarist Ned Torney brought
back into the fold after his stint with the Army. This version, now known as
the Chocolate Watchband, would record 1969’s One Step Beyond, eschewing their earlier Stones-inspired R&B
vibe for a more mellow folk-rock sound similar to Moby Grape or the Charlatans.
Still, it represented the most original Watchband music caught on tape, even if
the band had evolved beyond recognition, and by 1970 even this version of the
band was done.

 

Still,
Chocolate Watch Band’s reputation as flamethrower live performers, along with reissues
of their first two albums, would find a new audience in the post-Nuggets and Pebbles 1980s, influencing a new generation of throwback
garage-rockers like the Lyres, the Chesterfield Kings, and others, while
original vinyl copies of No Way Out and The Inner Mystique would trade on
the collector’s market for premium prices. As a result, several band members,
including singer Aguilar, second line-up replacement guitarist Tim Abbott, and
the rhythm section of bassist Bill Flores and drummer Gary Andrijasevich would
reunite in the late 1990s and begin playing again.

 

This
re-formed Chocolate Watchband recorded a live collection of their original
material, At The Love-In Live! in
1999, followed by an all-new album of mostly Aguilar originals titled Get Away in 2000. They would continue
touring well into the 2000s, and in 2010 the band re-recorded a number of songs
from the first three albums, releasing it as Greatest Hits, the Chocolate Watchband story coming full circle and
providing a happy ending to a saga that began in 1965…

 

 

 

 

SAGE APPROPRIATE Rachael Sage

Helming her record label MPress
and always out to impress, the singer-songwriter is a renaissance women who
seemingly can’t be repressed…

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

There are few things that Rachael Sage doesn’t do, whether
it’s running her own record label, MPress Records, or maintaining a successful
career as a recording artist operating under her own aegis. But then, once her
other credits as a painter, dancer, actress and comedienne are added to the
list… well, suffice it to say that this renaissance woman’s list of
accomplishments start looking pretty dazzling.

 

 


Rachael Sage- Invisible Light by MMMusic

 

 

She’s currently celebrating the release of her tenth album,
the luminous Haunted By You, an
album that delves deeply into the rollercoaster cycle of relationships –
passion, infatuation, loss, longing and all the myriad of emotions that
accompany immediate and long term entanglement – and licking her own wounds at
the same time. The songs were actually inspired by her
separation from her boyfriend of four years, who she calls “the kindest, most
balanced person I’ve ever dated. He was much more traditional than me though… touring
slowly took its toll.”

 

Although the songs aren’t necessarily biographical in the
strictest sense, the album – which also features a cameo from Dar Williams —
was drawn from a personal perspective. “I adopted
that voice to convey the widest range of emotions while exploring the ups and
downs of love over a relatively brief period,” she concedes. “I was ricocheting
from romances that were really amazing, to some I thought were really going to
wreck me.”

 

Considering the accolades that have already come her way, it
seems all the emotional upheaval she endured might have actually been worth it.
If she did indeed suffer for her art, so too it’s safe to say her art is that
much better for it. “We go into our little safety place and come out the other
end and don’t quite know what we have,” she says in retrospect.

 

Of course, Sage is simply being modest. Considering her
accomplishments as both an artist and an entrepreneur – among them, teaching
herself piano at the age of three, winning an ASCAP Pop Songwriting Award by
the time she turned 16, being chosen one of the “top 100 independent artists of
the past 15 years” by a national music journal – Sage has good reason to bask in
her success. Her latest accomplishments have been especially gratifying – most
notably, a recent Grammy nod accorded MPress in the engineering category for
label artist Seth Glier’s The Next Right
Thing
and the successful launch of a new album by veteran artist Melissa
Ferrick. “I’ve always had one foot in business,” she concedes. “Even as a
little kid and then later as a teenager, I had several small businesses where
I’d make things and sell them, and that came naturally to me. I was one of
those young people who was always hustling and trying to put my strengths
forward. But then there are other things I’m always struggling with and they
keep me up half the night. Fortunately, I have a fine team of people and they
help fine-tune everything. Of course, it also helps to enjoy hard work and
survive on very little sleep.”

 

Indeed, over the past decade, MPress has transitioned from a
modest homegrown endeavor she managed out of her own apartment into a
fully-functioning record label that employs a small staff and signs other
artists, Glier and Ferrick included. In fact, the label was initially founded
solely as for the purpose of releasing her first album, Morbidly Romantic, in 1996, but a mere five years into the venture,
she opted to take it to that next level.
At the same time, her artistic career was also beginning to take off, leading
her to share stages shared with Sarah McLachlan, Judy Collins, Marc Cohn, Eric
Burdon, John Lee Hooker, Colin Hay, Ani DiFranco and more. Her confidence grew
accordingly, and eventually she began integrating some comedic commentary into
her performances, while also branching out into acting, dance and art.

 

“I was trying to fill my dance card as much as I could,” she
chuckles.

 

Born in Port Chester, New Jersey,
Sage initially studied drama and ballet before coming under the spell of her
parents’ eclectic record collection. After teaching herself piano, she began
recording her own primitive demos and writing her first songs. She earned a
degree in Drama form Stanford University, took part in the Actors Studio MFA
program, gained admission to the School of American Ballet and eventually
gained her first taste of public recognition when she was accorded honors in
the New York Talent Search competition which won her a place on the Village Stage of the 1997 Lilith Fair. In the
interim, she’s seen her accolades and appeal multiply accordingly

 

“I think I’m allergic to the word ‘satisfied’,” Sage
suggests. “I don’t know if I’m capable of being satisfied. I don’t even know
what that means. But I am extremely grateful for the life this dream has
granted me, and the people who have inspired me and continue to inspire me
constantly. I feel this is just the tip of the iceberg.” 

 

 

 

 

 

TALLY HO! Happy 30th Birthday, Flying Nun Records

After years of
mishandled distribution deals and a crumbling music industry infrastructure, the
venerable New Zealand
label is poised for reinvention. Let’s review.

 

BY RON HART

Talk about indie rock. If there was one record label you
could say defined the very word by which this contrived industry term is rooted
– independence – it would be none other than New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records,
currently in the throes of an extensive and much-deserved 30th anniversary
celebration.

 

You haven’t truly been educated on the history of modern
rock if you have yet to introduce your ears to the multi-layered sonic paradise
that has existed on the island nation in the South Pacific since 1981, when Christchurch record shop
owner Roger Shepherd launched the label amidst social unrest and political
division within his country. The very existence of Flying Nun, born of the very
punk ideals that got the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” banned
from New Zealand
state radio, saw the movement Shepherd was gestating on a local level attain a
heavy amount of heat from the country’s conservative establishment. For this
record label, the very act of releasing music that would deviate from the norms
of white kiwi life of farming, rugby and beer was seen as an act of treason, in
a way. Last time I checked I don’t think Reagan was cracking down on Greg Ginn
for starting SST or Ian Mackaye for Dischord here in the U.S., did he?  Yet once word got out of the imprint’s
Molotov cocktail of post-punk experimentalism and British Invasion psychedelia
that served as the blueprint for many of the acts Shepherd signed, there was no
way to stop the wildfire as groups like The Clean, The Bats, The Chills, The
Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs and The 3Ds began to get distribution and airplay
amongst the international underground, from the campus stations of collegiate
America to the pirate frequencies of Radio Luxembourg. And the rest, they say,
is history.  

 

 

 

 

If you happen to be a novice of the Flying Nun library, you
could find no better place to introduce yourself to its vastness with a recent pair
of anniversary-oriented anthologies. Time
to Go – The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-1986
is tailor made for the
most scrupulous Nun lover, compiled by Bruce Russell of longtime FN act The
Dead C to give a proper chronicle of the label’s early years gestating on the
South Island of New Zealand. “It isn’t a ‘greatest hits’ or a ‘best of’ or
even a ‘most obscure’,” Russell states in his excellent liner notes to the
20-track mix. “It’s a collection of tracks that was obvious at the time
but has been rather lost to subsequent history (and also to that baby-wipe of
history: music journalism).” And when you really dig into this outstanding
compendium, particularly the inclusion of such lost label gems as The Gordons’
“I Just Can’t Stop”, “Obscurity Blues” by The Great
Unwashed, Scorched Earth Policy’s “Since The Accident”, “Junk”
by the Puddle and equally deep cuts from other early signees like Playthings,
The Builders, The Shallows, Max Block and Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive
Stereos among others, you will understand exactly where Mr. Russell is coming
from.

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, the anniversary celebration’s centerpiece,
Tally Ho! Flying Nun Records’ Greatest
Bits
, is a quintessential young person’s guide to the label’s three-decade
run from yesterday to today. It features forty songs by forty acts, split up
strategically by Shepherd himself to showcase the Nun’s uncanny knack for
birthing earworms and eargasms with equal measure. “The first represents acts
and songs that could be seen to fall in the broad category of ‘pop music’, with
some achieving the popular notion of success whether it be by chart action or
radio play,” the label owner explains in his liner notes for Tally Ho! “While, the second disc
explores the other side of Flying Nun, made by artists who tested the
boundaries and did not necessarily sit comfortably within the ‘popular market’.
And while it is great when you get to the songs of the groups you may already
know like The Clean’s “Tally Ho”, “Death and the Maiden” by The Verlaines,
“North by North” from The Bats’ classic album Daddy’s Highway, Bailter Space’s 1989 college radio favorite “Fish
Eye”, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience’s Bleeding
Star
highlight “Breathe” and “Not Given Lightly” from Tall Dwarfs front man
Chris Knox’s solo masterpiece Seizure,
one must not overlook the material on hand across these two discs from the
label’s lesser known acts as well. Particularly in the case of the label’s
current roster of acts, many of whom have just as much to offer the listener of
this anthology as the old faves including DIY indie pop upstart Grayson
Gilmour, the Motorik-inspired Ghost Club, Crowded House-gone-prog outfit The
Phoenix Foundation and Dunedin
psych rockers High Dependency Unit among several others.

 

 

 

 

Just one warning before looking into picking up either of
these new collections: both Time to Go and
Tally Ho! will inspire you to dig
deeper into the Flying Nun chasm by picking up the actual EP and LP releases
from which both titles were crafted, especially for those just getting into the
history of this great label. And being that Shepherd and company are currently
in the midst of re-obtaining the rights to their catalog from years of
mishandled distribution deals and a crumbling music industry infrastructure,
now is a good of a time as any to take the headfirst plunge into one of the
world’s finest purveyors of independent rock ‘n’ roll. 

 

 

Below: Part 1 (of 5)
of the “Anything Could Happen” history of Flying Nun radio documentary.

 

 

Below: Part 1 (of 5) of the “Anything Could Happen” history of Flying Nun radio documentary.

 


Flying Nun Records History – Radio Documentary “Anything Could Happen” Part 1 of 5 by thevault1

BEACON OF LIGHT Spoek Mathambo

Going back in time
with the Sweden-based, South African-born rapper.

 

BY RON HART

 

As a huge fan of his latest album, Father Creeper, which was just released via Sub
Pop Records in March, choosing South African rap futurist
Spoek Mathambo as the subject of a paper I had to write about how education
played a role in the life of someone from a different culture than mine for my
anthropology class was a no-brainer. Getting him to speak about his background,
however, proved to be more of a challenge.

 

Nevertheless, the information the 26-year-old electronic
musician offered did provide some valuable insight into his upbringing, offering
an intriguing look into his youth and young manhood, offering interesting bits
of information that gave me a keen understanding of the experiences that
contributed to his uncanny ability to read and write, which began at an early
age. 

 

“When I was really young, I was into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a
lot of the Roald Dahl stuff,” he explains of the time when he first became
an avid reader around age seven. “I love the way it was written, and I
liked the characters. Before reading those books, reading was something I
didn’t like and that was the first time I got into reading. Then when I was
about ten or eleven I started reading a lot of Maya Angelou.”

 

Mathambo, whose real name is Nthato James Monde Mokgata,
grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, or the
Soweto, an acronym for the “South Western Townships” that was originally a
separate municipality for Black Africans that was formed in 1948 upon the
implementation of apartheid.  The rapper,
who currently resides in Malmo, Sweden with his wife, states that he was too
young to remember the controversial racial segregation imposed by the National
Party that finally began to crumble in 1990, when Mathambo was only five, nor
the official end of apartheid cumulating in the election of Nelson Mandela in
1994, when he was nine. When asked if he either attended or watched the famous
1995 Rugby World Cup that was the subject of Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus, he tells me he’s “not
much of a rugby chap.”

 

 


Spoek Mathambo – Let Them Talk by subpop

 

In terms of his formal schooling, the majority of his
education was based out of Johannesburg, where
he went to Catholic School, Amnesty
School and then the University of Johannesburg
and took a variety of courses.

 

“I don’t know what American schools are like,” he
proclaims. “But we learned everything, man. Geography, math, accounting,
history, science, biology. It was different for the different parts of school.
For early parts of school, there was a lot of stuff with one teacher and
through the different schools I went to different teachers for different
functions.”

 

Though he did go to a Catholic school, Mathambo claimed he
was not a religious person, suggesting that the faith was more of an inevitable
essential to living under his parents’ roof.

 

“My mom, in particular, has always been very church
going, so when I was young I went to church with her,” he explains. And
all the schools I went to except for
one were like church schools. But in general as far as the best schools in South Africa,
they were all church schools.”

 

His primary passion, however, is music, which has been the
main outlet for his creativity since he was a youth. And hip-hop and rap music in
particular: “I grew up listening to Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte,
Yo Yo. Notorious BIG. Snoop Dogg. 2Pac. They were all played on the radio in Johannesburg.” Mathambo
also has a pedigree in jazz: his uncle is legendary South African composer Jonas Mosa Gwangwa, best known for his work
on the Academy Award winning British drama Cry
Freedom
and his partnership with fellow South African jazz legend Abdullah
Ibrahim (the pops of New York rap great Jean Grae), while his father was a
serious record collector and when he left Johannesburg to parts unknown, he
left Spoek with his whole music library.

 

“It was all jazz,” he professed with enthusiasm. “When
I first got into those, I was listening to his be-bop stuff, but after that I
got into the more avant-garde stuff. Cecil Taylor. Charlie Haden. Archie Shepp.
Pharoah Sanders. John Coltrane. I was really into Sun Ra. I think there was
just a point where I was enjoying the weirder records – like the weirder the
better was kind of my policy.”

 

In speaking with Spoek Mathambo, it’s clearly obvious he is
guarded about his private life, especially considering that his stage name is
more of a futuristic caricature of Nthato James Monde Mokgata in a mindset not
unlike Sun Ra, one of the other jazz greats who he had discovered in his
father’s album collection.

 

“I’ve always kind of looked up to people who build up
big personal myths and stories,” he explains. “I can’t stand David
Bowie’s music, but I really like the Ziggy Stardust stuff – the idea of
flipping a character and taking it out there. And how he’d go from lame,
long-haired hippie to defining a lot of glam stuff through that. At the same
time, I like the rawness and realness of Iggy Pop at his most raw and real – not
the ‘70s glam stuff but the dirty days. Stuff that’s not based on costumes, not
based on myths but just based on the most base, base, base human instinct, like
those Stooges records. And also stuff like Suicide, there’d be so much
synthesizer stuff to it but the people doing it were just really real people
and it wasn’t so glamorous.”

 

Yet despite his hesitance at first from revealing too much
about his past in the Townships of Johannesburg, Mathambo did let his guard
down enough to give me a good comprehension of how his rearing helped to shape
the foundation of the larger than life electro-rapper who has the international
blogosphere singing his praises to reveal a highly intelligent young man whose
education in school, at home and on the streets of Soweto helped shape who he
is today. It was most interesting to learn of how much British and American
culture has played a key role in his development, be it the sweet absurdity of Roald
Dahl’s Charlie books or the bebop of
his father’s old jazz records or the boom bap of the East Coast and West Coast
hip-hop that emanated from the speakers of his radio. Perhaps even more so than
his proper education, for that matter.  

 

Towards the end of our conversation, Mathambo mentioned how
he was nervous to play his music for his famous uncle, because he is an
“old school jazz guy.” But chances are that his Uncle Jonas would be
incredibly proud of his nephew, because whether he likes the songs that
comprise Father Creeper or not, Spoek
Mathambo is a beacon of light for a new generation of Black South Africans that
casts a blinding light beyond the oppression and turmoil of their families’
apartheid pasts to reveal that a bright new future is upon them with a sense of
independence that truly shines upon the diverse nature of his educational
background.

 

 

[Photo credit: Sean Metelerkamp]

 

ELECTRONIC ANTHOLOGY PROJECT Dinosaur Jr meets Brett Nelson

The
Built to Spill bassist re-imagines the alt-rock guitar godfather as an ’80s
synth-pop band.

 

BY BRIAN J. BOWE

 

Everything about Dinosaur Jr screams analog.

 

From the sizzling tubes of Marshall
stacks to the gargantuan fuzz of a vintage Big Muff pedal; from gossamer bits
of feedback to the precise pounding of drums, the legendary trio is all about
wood and wire, strong hands and muscular sounds.

 

But that basic equation has been digitally
subverted on a new release by Built to Spill bassist Brett Nelson’s Electronic
Anthology Project. Nelson has re-imagined Dinosaur as an ’80s synth-pop band on
a new album of nine songs from the band’s oeuvre. The album, which features new
vocals by J Mascis himself, is due out April 21 in a limited purple vinyl
edition for Record Store Day, with a wide release to follow.

 

Nelson’s first Electronic Anthology Project
release focused on the work of Built to Spill. So why did he select Dinosaur Jrfor
the second?

 

“I kinda felt the music already had a poppy new
wave [feel] to it, very melodic, always had a hook – the things that the new
wave I liked in the ’80s had, just done with guitars and noisier,” Nelson says.

 

 

 

In March, 2011, Nelson emailed Mascis some demos
and to get his blessing and secure his participation. Then, he began the
painstaking work of choosing which songs to reinterpret. The process took many
months of intense listening and experimentation.

 

“For almost a year straight, all I listened to
was Dinosaur Jr – either my versions or their versions,” Nelson says. “I dreamt
about it. I’d wake up and have ‘Tarpit’ stuck in my head, and I’d go into the
studio and work on it some more.”

 

Sometimes inspiration would come from a
drumbeat, or a bassline, or a guitar passage, Nelson says. But Mascis’ soaring
guitar solos proved particularly problematic for him to replicate with
keyboards, so mostly he didn’t try. Rather, he would search for a melodic line
in the solo that he could pick out and transform.

 

Ultimately, seven of the nine songs were culled
from 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me,
with the beautiful and overlooked “Pond Song” from 1988’s Bug and the hit single “Feel the Pain” from 1994’s Without a Sound (the lone selection not
recorded by the original trio).

 

Nelson says that once he immersed himself in the
music, it was a revelation how complex it is. Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow’s
chords and melodies intertwine to the point where it’s can be difficult to tell
who’s doing what. Murph’s drumming sounds straightforward but is filled with
off-kilter moments – a cymbal hit here, a kick drum stomp there – that are hard
to replicate.

 

“Obviously I knew they were great players, but I
didn’t realize just how complicated it could be,” he says. “I viewed it more as
really good pop music with really good players, where there was a lot more to
it.”

 

One of the creative limitations Nelson placed
upon himself was the use of vintage gear. The backbone of the EAP sound is an
Ensoniq SQ-80 synthesizer with an eight-track sequencer built-in that Nelson
has had for a long time.

 

“I’ve tried to buy new ones that can do more,
and I’ve always went back to the SQ-80 because it’s easy,” Nelson says. “I
guess it would be easier if I took the time to learn something newer, but I
don’t want to because I’m comfortable with that.”

 

Between the Ensoniq and a series of vintage
rack-mount tone generators, Nelson would spend hours trying to create the
sounds he heard in his head. He would take a snare sound from one machine, a
kick drum from another, layer several sounds together or find effects that made
the sounds match his vision. He says he could have found newer gear that may
have approximated those sounds more easily, but the process is where he derived
his enjoyment.

 

“The fun part of doing it is figuring out how to
do it,” Nelson says. “To me, part of that is the challenge of having the older
things …  part of the appeal of doing
this project is challenging myself and having to think.”

 

Built to Spill, like Dinosaur Jr, has built a
career on layered, guitar-based songs with strong melodies. So it would be
natural to assume that Nelson was a guitar geek growing up in Idaho. It turns out, he would have rather
have been in an OMD cover band than a Minutemen cover band – but synthesizers
were expensive and guitars were cheap.

 

In some ways, Nelson’s mutation of guitar-based
post-punk with synth-pop seems like a nostalgic nod to a bygone era where kids
with all manner of weird hairstyles came together to fight the hegemony of
MTV-ruled Top 40 over the musical landscape.

 

“It just seemed like if you didn’t like the
mainstream Top 40, then you were in this other group, which included people who
liked synth stuff and metal and punk rock stuff. To me it all seemed like
almost the same thing – just pop music redone in a different way than the Top
40,” Nelson says.

 

Even though the record is fun, Nelson gets
frustrated when people assume that the project is a goof. “It kinda rubbed me
the wrong way,” Nelson says. “It seemed like a reason to dislike it or dismiss
it as something else.”

 

Nelson will have more opportunities to prove
that it’s not a goof. He’s working with Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch on
two more tracks to flesh out the original EP for a vinyl release. In the near
future, he hopes to do volumes of the EAP with the Pixies and Sebadoh. The
latter desire explains, in part, why none of Lou Barlow’s Dinosaur Jr songs
were selected for this record, Nelson says.

 

A version of this story also appears in issue #12 of BLURT.

HEAD MUSIC Patrick Watson

The
Canadian auteur dives neck-deep into his free-ranging musical “adventures.”

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

When Patrick Watson talks about his gorgeous new record, Adventures In Your Own Backyard, you get
the feeling that, were it not so reminiscent of a run-of-the-mill children’s
book, the Montreal
native might’ve been okay calling it Goose
Bumps
.

 

That’s because goose bumps – those spontaneous and
unfiltered physical indicators of emotional impact – run like a common theme
through Watson’s retelling of the making of Adventures,
his band’s third and most rewarding full-length. Mind you, this isn’t some Ryan
Adams-like braggadocio he’s calling your attention to, but rather true wonder
at what makes some music have that effect on us when so much of it doesn’t.

 

“I just wanted to finish the record and say ‘these are 12
songs that give people goose bumps’,” says the 32-year-old father of two, who
also co-writes songs for The Cinematic Orchestra. “I felt that we needed a
record that was a touching, beautiful, elegant and graceful document that says,
‘we put our foot down here because we’re here to stay.'”

 

(below: Brigitte Henry-directed video for “Into Giants”)

 

 

 

 

 

Watson’s band – comprised of bassist Mishka Stein, guitarist
Simon Angell and drummer Robbie Kuster – has accomplished all of those things
here. Reflecting their title, the dozen songs were recorded over a year in
Watson’s backyard – his Montreal
apartment — and hewn instrumentally closer to the bone. That was unlike his
previous efforts, including the 2007 Polaris award-winning Closer to Paradise (released in
2006), which were sprawling recordings in both studio geography and
instrumentation.

 

Watson and his bandmates have self-produced their records,
which in this digital landscape is an overlooked skill that implies its own
steep learning curve. And Watson admits that, prior to Adventures, the band struggled to make a record as good as their
live show. To them, their influences stuck out as much as much of the
instrumentation didn’t, buried as it often was in grandiose arrangements. But
after getting to a place where they felt more comfortable with the art of
recording – literally and figuratively in Watson’s studio – they’d now divined
what worked and what didn’t.

 

What was effective
was having the patience to go back and record parts without the time
constraints of professional studios. Another key thing they learned? That less
usually results in much, much more.

 

“That’s the secret of the record – when it gets big, it’s
because there’s a lot of room for it to get big because it starts so minimal. So
it almost feels bigger than the other records in a way, but there’s a lot less
stuff involved to make it that big,” Watson explains. “This one, it seems like
the seams are hidden, it’s well-sewn together and smooth. You don’t even notice
all these different styles of music together. I think it’s definitely the
strength of this record for us.”

 

Those strengths translate into some stunning musical
moments, like the opener “Lighthouse.” For three minutes, Watson’s dreamy piano
figures tumble forward under subtle synth mirages and the delicate fiber of his
falsetto – a voice midway twixt Antony
and Rufus Wainwright. Then, with 90 seconds left, the song bursts into a
horns-and-electric-guitar-and-string-section Spaghetti Western crescendo that
emerges as suddenly as a desert flash flood.

 

There are dynamic surprises like that throughout, each one
more evidence that the “adventure” in the title was also a mission statement.
On “Into Giants,” rich harmonies gussy up the mandolin-colored country-folk as
the song shuffles to its quiet destination – re-emerging with a horn
fanfare-coda worthy of the Beatles that garlands the full-bodied “started out
as lovers/don’t know where it’s going to end” chorus. Elsewhere, pedal steel
takes the parlor waltz “Step Out for a While” back to saloon days until the
middle-eight guitar skronk anchors it in modern times; the rich orchestration
and full choirs of “Strange Crooked Road” return to earth as the sparse
piano-and-guitar of “Noisy Sunday.” And so on and on, each dynamic switchback
creating surprise, wonder and an occasional goose bump or two.

 

That sonic adventurism mirrors Watson’s narratives. Adventures is all about rediscovering
the magic in your everyday surroundings when too often in this pan-everything
digital era our focus is on the “big huge topics” and not “the little tiny
amazing details that are all around us.” An easy sentiment, perhaps, but one
that Watson lives by in his songwriting. Staying curious and observant of his
surroundings is the key.

 

“I just have my eyes open, and there’s these little ideas I
collect and put in my pocket and then when I come home they come out and find
their way together,” Watson says. “Then when I improvise, maybe months later,
those little ideas in my pocket will naturally just find root and join together
and create songs.”

 

Since Watson says he almost never stops to write anything
down, that improvisational singing is the foundation of his songwriting. The
lyrics can come like “Words in the Fire,” an atmospheric rocker which first took
shape at a campfire in the middle of Northern Quebec that the band was invited
to post-gig, and which was finished six months later when he pulled those
improvised fire-side pieces back out of his pocket. Or it can show up like
“Quiet Crowd,” where an old musician friend, a bottle of gin, and some drunken
misinterpretations can wind up as a gorgeous ode to the common bonds that link
all but the extremists among us together.

 

It’s not always easy, though, even when the majority of
lyrics show up the first time he calls on them, as they did on “Lighthouse.”
That’s because sometimes three or four missing words can stay lost for months.
By the end of “Lighthouse,” Watson was practically asking every musician he met
what they would say there.

 

“I’m no Bob Dylan or someone who’s got the gift of writing,”
he says. “I definitely work hard for the words I get.”

 

Even after Closer to
Paradise
won the Polaris (beating out Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, for one), Watson wasn’t satisfied with his lyrics. So
he turned to the other album inspiration, the one that he says goes into making
up a worthwhile backyard, too – the inspiring friends and people that we take
for granted all around us. Watson’s good friend, the smoky-voiced singer Lhasa
de Sela, who passed away from breast cancer at age 37 on New Year’s Day, 2010,
told Watson she couldn’t understand what he was saying with his lyrics. She’s
the one who suggested a primer course on Dylan.

 

And so during the making of Adventures, Watson would leave songs on her answering machine and
she’d be honest enough to “tell me if it sucked or not.” He wound up co-writing
the title track with her in the hopes that they’d perform it together at Montreal’s legendary
Jazzfest. They did, but the 2009 date turned out to be her final public singing
performance.

 

Though her chanson-influenced balladry is very different
from Watson’s music and, he confesses, not his musical cup of tea, her
appreciation for life and music had a tremendous impact upon him. Her presence,
albeit in a subtle fashion suiting her work, hovers like a spirit over Adventures and is one likely source of
the record’s beauty.

 

“When (Lhasa)
walked on stage, it was almost like watching an old ghost get on stage – there
was something very special about what she projected,” Watson says. “There was a
lot of magic in her life, in the way just letting magic be a part of life.
‘Magic’ can be a cheesy, tacky word, and I get that. But there’s a lot of
really magical things in life that you can take for granted that happen around you.
If you stop and think – singing in concert, no matter what anybody says, is a
magical thing. You get on stage and you get goose bumps from the tip of your
toes to the top of your head. She understood that.”

 

Judging by Adventures
in Your Own Backyard
, Watson gets it, too.

 

 

[Top photo Credit: Brigitte Henry; video, below, of
“Adventures In Your Own Backyard” SXSW 2012 Session]

 

 

BAD CASE OF LOVIN’… Moon Martin

 

Where are you today,
John David Martin? Get in touch – your long-suffering fans are diggin’ a trove
of your recent reissues.

 

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

 

Back in the late ‘70s, the term “new wave” didn’t refer to a
specific style of music, but an actual new
wave
of rock & roll that followed punk’s stripped-down aesthetic, if
not its search-and-destroy principles. The point was still to take rock back to
a simpler sound and get it away from arena rock bombast and overproduced top 40
pop. One by-product of this sea change was that musicians working in a style
that would now be called Americana found a way back into the rock mainstream
merely by making subtle adjustments to what they were already doing (Nick Lowe,
John Hiatt, Carlene Carter) or, in some cases, no adjustments at all (the Stray
Cats).

 

One such musician was John “Moon” Martin, born in 1950. Prior
to his solo career he was best known (if at all) as a member of early ‘70s
country rock outfit Southwind. But the singer/songwriter has roots in the same
fertile Oklahoma
scene from which sprang Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour, with a love of
rockabilly and a facility for pop hooks that made him a natural for the new
wave ‘70s. While he had only one minor hit of his own, he scored a couple of
others when his compositions found their way into other hands. (More on that
below.) But his work of the era has stood the test of time and deserves
rediscovery, a task helped by the reissues of his first three albums by Culture
Factory USA.

 

Released in 1978, Shots
From a Cold Nightmare
is Martin’s debut solo LP, and arguably his
definitive statement. The record rolls all this strengths into one collection –
rootsy rockers (“Hot Nite in Dallas,” “She’s a Pretender,” the
rockabilly-infused “Cadillac Walk,” later covered by Mink DeVille), soulful
ballads (“Night Thoughts”), midtempo brooders (“Pain Killer,” “You Never Say
You Love Me”). His take on the Beatles’ “All I’ve Got to Do” is an unexpected
delight, but the most immediately striking track is “Bad Case of Loving You,” a
no-nonsense pounder given a feverish (some might say overheated) remake by
Robert Palmer a year later. Fronting a band that includes Phil Seymour,
Blondie’s Gary Valentine and producer Craig Leon on keyboards, Martin proffers
straightforward, uncomplicated arrangements that emphasize the tunes and his
double-tracked red velvet vocals. Shots
From a Cold Nightmare
is arguably a lost 70s classic, now found again.

 

 

 

 

Martin followed Shots up with 1979’s Escape From Domination,
a record which turns up the pop quotient, at least relative to the debut. Thus
alongside the bopping “Hot House Baby” and “Dangerous” and the snarling “Gun
Shy,” we also get the peppy “I’ve Got a Reason” and “She Made a Fool Out of
You.” Ironically, “Rolene,” Martin’s lone top 40 hit (also later covered by
Mink DeVille), is a roots rocker with no concession to pop slickness. Martin
closes the album with a nod to his past in the form of “Bootleg Woman,” written
by his old Southwind bandmate Fontaine Brown. The midtempo “The Feeling’s
Right,” the soft rocking “No Chance” and the creamy ballad “Dreamer” shave off
a few too many edges, with the latter being too close to easy listening for
comfort, but the rest of the record will still please fans of the first one. (Trainspotters
will note the presence of Jude Cole, soon to be of the Records and a future
solo artist, on backup guitar.)

 

 

 

 

1980’s Street Fever cranks up the rock elements, with louder guitars and a predominance of faster
tempos and bolder aggression. (As aggressive as possible with Martin’s
mellifluous voice, anyway.) “Breakout Tonight,” “Pushed Around” and “Love Gone
Bad” stand up nicely to the tough power pop of the era, while “No Dice” grooves
in a way that would become familiar to new wavers in the Reagan years and “Five
Days of Fever” simply rocks harder than anything he’s ever done before. “Cross
Your Fingers,” meanwhile, evokes a Phil Spectorish melody and arrangement
without bombast and “Rollin’ in My Rolls” Rockpiles the record to a close. The
mellow “Whispers,” however, sounds like it should be on a different album, nice
as its harmony beds are. The songwriting occasionally feels slight here, but
overall Street Fever maintains the standards
set by Martin’s previous records.

 

Culture Factory’s limited editions are replicas of the
original vinyl releases, from the credits and the liner notes to the copyright
information and label on the disk itself. As such there are no bonus tracks or
historical notes, though the sound has been remastered, giving the music more
clarity without sacrificing vinyl warmth.