Gonzo guitar god Rick Nielsen talks about his band’s breakthrough album and about revisiting it for a pair of concerts this week—35 years to the day(s) of the original Japanese performances.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
In the late ’70s, when punk rock and arena rock were at odds with each other, Cheap Trick was one of the very few bands that had fans in both camps. The quartet blew out of Rockford, Illinois playing a unique brand of hard rock that combined Beatlesque melodies with power chords and lyrics that were by turns witty and dark. Their first three studio albums were critically acclaimed but Cheap Trick remained more or less an underground band until their fourth effort, Live at Budokan, launched them into the pop stratosphere. It’s rare that a live disc becomes a band’s breakthrough album but Budokan was the exception to the rule, spawning two hits: the original “I Want You to Want Me” and a manic version of the old Fats Domino tune “Ain’t That a Shame.” The band capitalized on Budokan‘s popularity in late 1979 with their fifth album, Dream Police, which included another pair of smashes in the ballad “Voices” and the rocking, dramatic title track.
If Cheap Trick hasn’t maintained that level of popularity in the last three decades and change, they have still recorded frequently, toured incessantly, inspired a ton of bands and even scored a number-one hit in 1988 with “The Flame,” an uncharacteristically commercial love song.The band returns this month with a pair of shows to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their Budokan performances, playing the exact same set lists they played in 1978. The first one was this past Sunday (April 28th) at the John Varvatos Bowery Boutique in New York City, and that’s followed Tuesday night (the 30th) at the El Rey in Los Angeles. BLURT had a chance to chat with guitarist Rick Nielsen on the eve of these shows.
BLURT: To start off with, you guys are gonna be doing two Budokan anniversary shows — one here in New York and one in L.A. [Tell us] more specifically what you’re planning for each one and why now.
RICK NIELSEN: Well, I think we’ve been requested by the Japanese record company to do exactly the same set — the one we did on the 28th of April and the one we did on the 30th of April, in 1978. So we are going to put our brains into memory mode and [try to] remember exactly what we did. We already have those [set] lists. Luckily, they’re all pretty good songs.
The 28th, you’re gonna be here in New York. You guys have had a relationship with the John Varvatos store but you also had a relationship with CBGB. I was wondering what your thoughts are about both venues, now that CB’s is gone.
Well, they kept the bathroom the same, so I’m happy!
John Varvatos is a great guy. You know, he’s a rock historian besides [being a] fashion designer. You feel real comfortable [with] the transition from the old CBGB to John Varvatos. I don’t know if it would have worked in reverse.It’s a little nicer — well, it’s a lot nicer than CBGB’s was but it’s still got that vibe to it. It’s still rock and roll.
[Your] first three studio albums were critically acclaimed. But Budokan really made you guys a commercial force. It’s unusual for a live album to do that for a band. Looking back 35 years, what was so special about those shows?
Well, there’s a whole bunch of things. [The Japanese fans] liked our music, one. And they liked our studio versions, two. And we had just [released] singles in Japan, three. I mean, there were all three things going for us. We weren’t getting so much airplay in the United States [at the time] but we had three number-one singles in Japan.
Whose idea was it to cover “Ain’t That a Shame?” That was the second American single and an amazing cover.
The Japanese asked if we could do a cover song — and that was a good one. We liked the John Lennon version from the Rock and Roll album. For years, we’d done it with every guy having a solo and a long intro. It’s kind of a timeless rock song.
In 1979, a year after we had done that version, Fats Domino’s manager came to a show — I think it was in Salt Lake City — and said, “Fats likes your version so much that he wanted to give you this.” And he gave us the gold single of “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955. We drew straws for it and I got the best straw!
When Cheap Trick first started, what do you think each of the four of you brought to the band that was unique — you, Robin [Zander], Tom [Petersson] and Bun E. [Carlos]?
Well, Robin could really sing, as opposed to screamers and shouters. I think on our first bio, he’s [referred to] as ‘the man of a thousand voices.’ He could go from [being] the guy that’s talking to his girlfriend who he loved to [being] a serial killer — and everywhere in between!
Tom started off as a guitar player. To fill out our sound, he came up with the idea to make a 12-string bass. I mean, nobody had a 12-string bass [at the time]!
And I was never gonna be a cute rock guitar player. I was a songwriter that played guitar. You know, I was kind of a — I hate to say the class clown, but I always had trouble in school. I was smart enough to do stuff but I was too dumb to blend in too well. I was never gonna be the heartthrob.
And Bun E. — where does he fit in? (laughs) It was a great combination.
I understand that Bun E’s not playing with the band right now?
Yeah, he hasn’t toured with us for a number of years now. My son Daxx is playing. About 12 years ago, Bun E. had a back operation and my son played drums with us for three months. After that, he was the drummer for Dick Dale for three years. And he played with A Fine Frenzy and Sheryl Crow. He went all over the world. A couple of years back, we asked if he wanted to tour [with us] and he was thrown back into the fire almost immediately. His first show was Austin City Limits and then South By Southwest. And he just fell right into it.
When Budokan 2 came out, years later, there were a lot of good songs on that album [too]. Some of the stuff on the second volume, like “Downed” and “Auf Wiedersehen,” was fantastic.
That was actually only one concert. We didn’t mix and master all the songs [at first]. We only made it into a single album. People would have [had] a different perception of Cheap Trick had they put out the whole concert because more of the heavier stuff is on the second part.
You know, we had more pop songs, I think, on the first [Budokan]. But the record company was so bright that they waited 20 years to put out the rest of it!
It’s the thrill of the hunt and the ensuing musical meal for the Brooklyn quartet.
BY RON HART
By nature, Brooklyn’s The Men are the root of everything great about New York City rock in 2013. For many who actually grew up around here and not flown in from Ohio, Kansas or Canada, the local underground was always led by the rust and rage of such neighborhood legends as Unsane, Sonic Youth, Swans and The Big Apple is Rotten to the Core compilation. Sunday afternoons at CBGB and Saturday nights on the Bowery when it was far more saltier than it is today. Over the course of three outstanding LPs, 2010’s Immaculada (download it at the Free Music Archive right now), 2011’s Leave Home and 2012’s Open Your Heart, these surly dudes have managed to have managed to bring a little Dinkins-day filth back to the sanitized streets of this rapidly gentrified metropolis by updating its soundtrack to a more ornery era when guys in groups like Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective would’ve been accosted in a dark alley near the underbelly of the Williamsburg Bridge and jacked for their vintage Hush Puppies.
But for this year’s excellent New Moon, The Men scale down the fury of their previous full-lengths to reveal another side of their sound, one rooted in the more subdued moments of Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh and Neil Young + Crazy Horse with a little touch of Tarnation’s understated 1995 classic Gentle Creatures to boot, having expanded its lineup to include new bassist Ben Greenberg and more tellingly Kevin Faulkner on lap-steel guitar. BLURT recently caught up with drummer and chief group spokesman Rich Samis the week of New Moon’s release to talk about the evolution of The Men’s musical mechanics with a detour into the fellas’ favorite pastime: what else, but record shopping. And based on Samis’ responses, these guys relish in the thrill of the hunt. They are The Men, after all.
From The Men: names in this answer response all refer to:
Rich Samis (me)
Chris Hansell (played in the band up to and including Open Your Heart)
[Below: “I Saw Her Face” from New Moon]
BLURT: What inspired the shift in direction for New Moon?
SAMIS: For New Moon we’re dealing in part with a different band here.Ben replaced Chris [Hansell] on bass and entered as a new songwriter and Kevin joined the band full time. Anytime the components change, obviously there’s always going to be a shift in sound. There was also a slight lineup shift between Leave Home and Open… with [founding member] Mark [Perro] moving from drums to guitar and me joining on drums. I think the lineup change aspect has some influence.
At the time of recording New Moon we had a few songs written beforehand and everyone brought pieces of songs up to the house we rented.For a two week span, we created music completely free of distractions.The 24/7 environment was conducive to experimentation so we ended up with a lot of material that really surprised us in a positive way and might not have happened if it wasn’t recorded in such a place. We were living this music all day and keeping everything super loose. Lots of first takes, live vocals, minimal overdubs – that trip.The songs on the record became what they did because of the immediacy of the whole process and the open nature of the recording environment.
To what do you attribute the alt-country bent?
Personally, I think the term “alt-country” is a ridiculous term.What the hell is that supposed to be – a cowboy in a studded leather jacket? As far as country music goes, I think everyone in the band has some sort of interest country music.I’ve not delved too deep into the genre but I think it’s amazing for storytelling. Certainly country music has this traveler/wanderer aspect that I think has mutated with our past year of living on the road and seeped its influence into our songs.
How did you wind up at Big Indian for the recording of New Moon? What inspired you to seek that place out?
Ben does a solo guitar project called Hubble and one of the people from the label that put out the Hubble LP mentioned to Ben that he had a house that we could rent and turn into a studio. We had been kicking around the idea of renting a house to record in for a while. Keep everything live, loose, and control all aspects of the production – from start to finish. Ben and our roadie/tour manager Kyle [Keays-Hagermann] brought all their recording equipment up and turned a vacation house into a full-fledged studio.Everything was recorded straight to tape.The process was equally important as the finished result.
Did you get to explore that area of Ulster County while you were up there in the studio? Did you make it to New Paltz or Woodstock?
Woodstock is surprisingly overpriced, gentrified, and chock full of heinous tie dye shops.We stopped at a restaurant in Woodstock one day that had the exterior of an old rustic barn only to be greatly astonished by the lush interior complete with super expensive dinner plates.Hardly any vegetarian food even! It reminds me of Haight Street in San Francisco: still banking on that hippie dream.
Given the case that New Moon marks a departure from your earlier records, is there a particular group whose own creative shift you find inspiring?
New Moon isn’t a departure, it’s a sonic shift.I’ve always been a fan of Black Flag’s catalogue.The music was always so honest and the band could care less about what anyone else thought of them. Their work aesthetic was astonishing and they took lots of shit for doing what they believed in. Loads of their records that trashed by critics and fans alike have now become revered as classics. That’s the way it always goes.
I know you are all big music collectors. What was the last record or CD you purchased and where?
I just scored the Insulin Reaction LP for $3 at a dusty old record shop in NYC. I checked it out based on the LP design and this is one of the few instances that this has actually worked out for me. This band is pretty interesting since they use no guitar – just two basses, a drummer, and the occasional keyboard. Sounds a bit like Faith-era cure and its two people who used to be in this weirdo punk band called Peace Corpse.
What record shops do you most frequent?
Academy records in Brooklyn and NYC are always worth checking out. The Record Grouch in Brooklyn is worth frequenting if you don’t mind the occasional trashed record.There’s a couple other ones that I won’t mention because every collector’s got their secrets!
How do the finds you pick up during your crate digging adventures filter into your music as The Men?
When we went up to record in upstate NY we all brought up a stack of records to listen to for the two week stay. We all had a laugh when we figured out that multiple people brought copies of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Bob Dylan’s New Morning.
What are your thoughts on Record Store Day?
I’m not really the biggest fan of Record Store Day.The whole thing just seems kind of corny. Sifting through records should be a fun experience.Flipping through LPs in a packed store with a bunch of eBay flippers and Fleetwood Mac Rumours $40 180 g vinyl worshippers – that’s not my idea of fun! Most of those “limited” records seem pointless anyway.
Where do you stand with digital downloads?
Digital downloads are fine.Best case scenario it turns someone on to some great new music.I think the completist collector will try and find the physical copy of a record anyway.Listening to music on a computer is certainly a way different experience than playing the actual record complete with art, lyrics, liner notes – as it was meant to be experienced.Digital downloads, playing music from a computer – I think it’s decreased the attention span though. I think with the internet and the easy accessibility of music and information on bands that a lot of the mystery involved is gone, which sucks.
What shuttered record shop do you miss most and why?
There was a record shop in my hometown of East Meadow on Long Island called Mr. Cheapo’s. Classic pre-internet boom suburban record store. Grateful Dead VHS bootlegs, $25 Nirvana Outcesticide CDs, Blacklight posters, the owner smoked weed in the back room – you know the place! Rare punk/heavy metal/weirdo LPs and cassettes were scattered throughout tons of Boston and Journey LPs so it was always a thrill going there in high school to try and score some great records and tapes. Great place since the really good stuff was priced just as cheap as the throwaway garbage. My friends and I got turned on to lots of great records from just digging in that store.
What is your favorite shop outside of the Metro Area?
Double Decker Records in Allentown, PA is perhaps the best record store in the country.They’re super fair priced, they’ve always got tons of new stock coming in, and their owner Jamie has a heck of a knack for finding amazing records.He’s looking for records like eight days a week and it shows.If there are insane records that Jamie acquires for the store he’ll sell them right in the store as opposed to eBay or the likes.Smart thing, keeps people coming back.
As of today, what has been your biggest find at the record shop?
There was a shop in Valley Stream called Slipped Disc that was owned by this guy Mike who had a real appreciation for punk and heavy metal and started ordering stuff for his store keeping an extra mint copy of every decent record in the back as stock. When the store closed down he let all of that stock go – some he priced high and saved for the record fair circuit and others let go out in the store. I got an Insanity Defense Pilgrim State LP from his store sealed with the inserts for $10 – that includes Xeroxed news clippings from the infamous 1980s Ricky Kasso “Say you love Satan” murders.This record is an ok 80s punk record but the thing I dig the most about it is the band’s direct connection to Long Island, where I grew up.The cover of the LP is a half-toned photo of an abandoned mental institution that my friends and I would creep around on many a bored suburban night. I’ve never seen a copy of this LP anywhere since.
Do you guys ever hit up garage sales and flea markets for music as well? What have been some cool finds you’ve come across on that front?
One time I was driving back home from my grandma’s house and I spotted this super old dumpy house with a bunch of junk strewn across the lawn.The usual broken electronics, out of date clothing, kids toys, etc.Upon further inspection I found two crates of LPs that were just jumping with 80s speed, death, and thrash metal.For $20 they were mine. There was a compilation LP in the stack called Satan’s Revenge Part 2 with a band on it called The Unsane that had an address right in my hometown.I called my friend Ryan about the score and we drove to the address on the LP but all that was there was just a really confused woman.
What out-of-print album do you wish they would reissue?
The Relatively Clean Rivers s/t LP from 1975 and the Virgin Insanity Illusions of the Maintenance Main from 1971 need to be reissued (again).These are excellent private press folk records that make me want to live in the woods in a log cabin without a care in the world.
Was 2012 The Year of Shoes? With a new album and several key vinyl reissues in stores, plus a biography en route, the power pop icons were on the minds of fans and critics across the globe. The band also made a series of rare—and ecstatically received—appearances in Austin during SXSW this past March, including a packed set at BLURT’s annual day party at the Ginger Man Pub (pictured above, as photographed by John Boydston).
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Mention the word “Shoes” to any serious power pop fan and you’re likely to get a response that has nothing to do with footwear.
Hailing from the dry town of Zion, Illinois, the band Shoes consists of guitarist Gary Klebe, guitarist Jeff Murphy, bassist John Murphy — all of whom write and sing — and various drummers. The seeds of the band were sown back in the 1960s when John Murphy and Klebe met in high school. John’s younger brother Jeff would join them a bit later. All three shared an obsession with the music of the British Invasion. By the mid-‘70s, influenced by The Beatles and other bands, they were recording their own music. After releasing a lengthy series of home-made demos and albums — culminating in 1977’s low-fi landmark Black Vinyl Shoes — they scored a major label deal. Present Tense, the first of Shoes’ three albums for Elektra, was released in late 1979 at the height of the power pop explosion. Produced in England by Mike Stone, the album featured a dozen songs including the minor hits “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late.” The band’s sophomore set, 1981’s Tongue Twister, was even better to these ears. The songwriting was top-notch, and more evenly divided among the Murphys and Klebe. From Jeff Murphy’s hyper opening track, “Your Imagination” to John’s closing kiss-off, “Hate to Run,” the quality of the songs didn’t let up. In between you had top-notch tunes like Klebe’s wistful “Yes or No” and his hard-rock blast “She Satisfies,” plus “Girls of Today,” a three-way collaboration between the band members. That song is especially interesting because it contains what sounds like a synth line straight out of the Cars canon — yet the liner notes for Tongue Twister contain two simple words that render that impossible: ‘no keyboards.’
Shoes’ third and final album for Elektra, Boomerang, arrived in 1982. When it failed to produce a hit, the band and the label parted ways. They didn’t sit still for long, however. Having built their own studio (the Short Order Recorder in nearby Winthrop Harbor, Illinois), the band released 1984’s Silhouette on their own. Their next studio effort, 1990’s Stolen Wishes, managed to score a four-star review in Rolling Stone, despite the fact that it too was self-released and went against all the prevalent musical trends of the time. Shoes followed Stolen Wishes four years later with the disc Propeller — not a bad album, certainly, but also not their best work. Propeller proved to be the last studio recording the band would issue for a very long time. Although they did release several collections of demos as well as a live disc, there would not be another album of new material from Shoes — until now.
Ignition, the first new Shoes album in 18 years, arrived in August of last year (reviewed here at BLURT) – and it was well worth the wait. Featuring 15 songs, the album sounds fresher than Propellor did and finds Shoes moving in some interesting new directions while at the same time containing enough familiar-sounding songs to please longtime fans. Jeff Murphy’s lovely “Out of Round,” written for a deceased friend, hearkens back to the more melancholy, orchestrated side of The Beatles. Klebe is in fine form throughout, contributing such instant classics as the catchy “Heaven Help Me” and “Head Vs. Heart,” not to mention the ballad “Nobody to Blame.” But the standout song on the album is probably “Hot Mess.” Written by all three band members and placed right in the center of the disc, it’s like nothing else in the band’s repertoire. “Hot Mess” features a guitar riff nicked from the Rolling Stones via Tom Petty’s “Jammin Me” and raw, off-the-cuff vocals from John. Taken as a whole, it’s not a stretch to say that Ignition is the best Shoes album since the ’80s.
But that’s not all! With a new anthology, 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977 — 2012, due on October 2nd, and a 500+ page biography of the band by Mary Donnelly slated for release early next year, Shoes is suddenly back in a big way. I recently spoke with Jeff and John Murphy and found that in addition to being talented musicians, they’re super nice guys. Here are some excerpts from the two conversations.
[Below: Shoes doing “Hot Mess” at the BLURT SXSW day party.]
BLURT: Tell me about the musical beginnings of Shoes. Was yours a musical family? Were there certain incidents that hooked you on music when you were a kid?
Jeff Murphy: We didn’t have a musical family at all except for the fact that I remember listening to records every day. John and I, being only a year apart — you know, whatever one did the other one [did]. My father used to work for an electronics manufacturer where they made all the Silvertone stuff for Sears. So he would bring home tubes from transistor radios and stuff, which always fascinated me. I remember John and I got a record player for Christmas — probably in ’61. And the first record we got was “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Then in ’64, everything changed. Chicago radio was exploding with the British Invasion. They had a thing in Chicago called “The Silver Dollar Survey” where they played the Top 10 records, and we’d listen to see what Beatles song was gonna be number one that night. You knew it was gonna be a Beatles song, it was just [a question] of which one! It was so exciting.
I loved recording; I was always fascinated with recording tape and what it did. So it was kind of both things happening at the same time: that fascination with electronics and recording and stuff coupled with [everything] that was exploding musically.
In high school, a friend of mine was a bass player. He borrowed some money from my brother to get his car fixed and couldn’t pay him [back] so he gave him his bass. So John sort of became a bass player. John and Gary hooked up with each other in high school, having similar musical tastes. They worked together on a school publication, where they would kind of lampoon the teachers and the underclassmen and that kind of thing. So that’s where the band came from. It was really John and Gary’s idea, in the waning days of high school. John came up with the name. Probably around ’74 was when we started formally trying to write songs.
John Murphy: It was the British Invasion. Beatles stuff, certainly. And just about anything British kinda knocked everything [else] out of the way.
I don’t have a real connection to ’50s rock and roll. I mean, I appreciate it but as a kid, it didn’t mean much to me. Then all of a sudden, all that British stuff — you know, Peter and Gordon, The Hollies. That was what got us riveted to AM radio. Then, of course, when The Beatles broke up, you had to sort of find new music — even though they were still making [solo] records and everyone had a favorite Beatle. It was still more the tuneful rock stuff [that appealed to us]. That’s what we would latch onto, even in the early ’70s.
I talk to so many artists [who] cite The Beatles as the turning point — even musicians that I wouldn’t think would.
Jeff: As a kid, I was on the young side when they were on Ed Sullivan — but I saw them that first night. I mean, everyone [was] so focused on the same thing. How many TV stations did you have at the time? Almost everybody saw it because there was really no one else to watch.
My God, what a ride! Even just the span of ’64 to ’67 — to go from “She Loves You” to “A Day in the Life” — [was] an incredible leap in three years. They were a huge part of my life and they really motivated me to do what I’m doing. And certainly John and Gary too. That’s really our touchstone.
John, what does Jeff bring to Shoes that’s unique? Jeff, reverse question.
John: Boy, that’s a good one. The microphone likes Jeff’s voice. Like the camera likes some people, you know? He’ll just knock it out of the park the first time he’s singing. I mean, I’ll eventually get it [and] I know Gary takes a lot of time with his vocals. But I’ve seen Jeff just walk up there and [nail it]. He has a spontaneity that I think both Gary and I envy. [Another] thing that we’ve discovered when Jeff sings the harmony — when he’s singing with Gary, he sounds like Gary. When he’s singing with me, he sounds like me. Like I’m harmonizing with myself. It’s funny; he’s got almost a chameleon feel to his voice.
Jeff: John is what I would call a true artist. He is the most unconventional in his approach. He’ll do something and I’ll think, “I never would have thought of that!” He’s an artist in that way. It’s so interesting because of that.
Tell me a little about what Gary brings to Shoes that is special… perhaps something that you [two] don’t bring.
John: An attribute I think Gary has in spades is perseverance. Whatever challenges he may face — in any field, not just music — he’ll find a way to overcome it. Gary’s a very focused, determined guy.
Jeff: Being a licensed architect, Gary was very instrumental in designing and building our Short Order Recorder studios [and] also his own home studio, where we recorded Ignition. He’s a bit more reserved and likes to surprise us with new songs. Even the fact that he had built a new studio in his house was a shock to us. Gary tends to make very thought out, measured decisions, where I tend to be more impulsive and John is more tentative.
When you look back, your stuff was always critically acclaimed and [popular] in certain circles — but commercially, you guys didn’t reach the same level as Cheap Trick or The Knack. Does that bother you sometimes or is that water under the bridge at this point?
Jeff: One thing we always strived for — and this was probably because we were self-taught, none of us knows how to read a chart or play a scale — but we always strived to be accepted [by] our peers. We were blessed with great press over the years. My God, the record we did in 1990 in our studio [Stolen Wishes] got a four star review in Rolling Stone! There were people at major labels that were being fired [because of] that! (laughs) It’s that kind of mentality that happens at a record label. But you’re right: we were always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
It’s a double-edged sword. The problem with having a hit, in retrospect — I mean, if you look at a band like The Knack, what are they known for? “My Sharona” was a great song but that becomes a high bar to meet every time you write another [song]. One of the bands that we were very influenced by when we started was Big Star. We would talk about them at the time — this was mid and late ’70s — and people would say, “Big Star? Who’s that?” They never had a hit. But now, they’re respected for having this deep body of work without having that one song to live up to.
Getting to Ignition — amazingly, it’s your first album of new material in 18 years! Why now?
Jeff: We had been doing some things, kind of low-key. I released a solo album in 2007 called Cantilever. It was a private project, sort of like the early Todd Rundgren stuff, where he plays everything. But I still talked to John and Gary about it and played them the tracks. They were still involved [but] in more of an advisory kind of role than hands on. Shortly after I did my solo CD, I was rummaging around looking for photos and artifacts and stuff. I found this picture that caught my attention ’cause it was double exposed. And I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to release a CD called Double Exposure [of] the demos for the Present Tense and Tongue Twister albums?” ‘Cause we recorded everything in our demo studio before we went and did it in a professional studio for Elektra. So we put that out in 2007. So there were things that we did along the way.
We came back from [touring] Japan in 2009. A friend of mine died, tragically, [around] the end of that year. It really shook me up. In the spring, I had [written] this song [“Out of Round”] for him. I eventually made a demo of it and gave it to John and Gary. And Gary said, “Would you like to see my new studio? I just built a studio in my house.” So I went down and this [was] serious business! He really put in a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of great gear. So John and Gary took that song that I’d written about my friend and they kicked it up a notch — and it really changed the feel.
Once we started that song, it went really well. Gary wrote a few, John wrote a few. We had our drummer [John Richardson] come in and lay down tracks. And once we got those drums down for the first four or five songs — we thought, “Okay. We can do this.”
The track “Hot Mess” is definitely a different side [of Shoes]. When I first heard it, I didn’t know which of you was singing. [note: John sings lead]
John: Oh yeah. It was an experiment in the sense of, could we pull it off. It started with those guitars. When I went into the little drum booth, I said, “Let me see what I can do.” And the words I [wrote to] try to make them laugh. So I came out of the booth and they’d be laughing and [asking], “Did you just say this” or “Did you just say that?” When I sang the final verse, I drank a little more than normal, and I asked them, “Can I hold the mic?” Usually, you have mic facing you on a stand and you almost kind of attack it when you’re singing. But in this case, it was like a performance. I remember I’d bend down or back off from it. And I think that helped me be less self-conscious about singing it in that way.
Jeff: It’s really a fun song. It’s not a typical Shoes song but a lot of people are drawn to it. Like I said, that’s part of what we were raised on — that Stones/Beatles/British Invasion stuff. So it comes out like that once in awhile.
And is it just a coincidence that the book’s coming out?
Jeff: The book has been in the works for [over] three years now…. I think the book was a catalyst for us to kind of say, “We’re not dead.” [But writer Mary Donnelly] didn’t know we were recording. We just kinda sprung it on her as “Okay, here’s the ending of [your] book!” So the timing was kind of coincidental.
Below photos, in order: (1) Jeff/John/Skip/Gary early shot; (2) Gary/Jeff/Skip/John during the Elektra era; (3) John/Gary/Jeff circa “Propeller” album in ’94; (4) Shoes now!
The Durham singer-songwriter finds the perfect home at what just might be the perfect North Carolina record label. (Pictured above: Scott Hirsch and MC Taylor of HGM.)
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
A few years back, when Pitchfork.com’s Tom Ewing reviewed Tell Tale Signs, the eighth entry in Bob Dylan’s renowned Bootleg Series, he noted the intimidating nature of writing critically about an artist so gifted with his words: “There’s often an understandable wariness when it comes to criticizing Bob Dylan,” he wrote, “for one thing, he’s better at this words stuff than we are.”
In that regard, writing about Durham, N.C.’s Hiss Golden Messenger might be even more daunting. M.C. Taylor, the profound and precise songwriter at the center of this sonically diverse but traditionally grounded folk-rock outfit, ably dissects the freeing sense of certainty and the conversely constricting dogma that are packaged within all religions — in his case, Christianity — cutting to the quick in a realm that confounds most of his peers; see Dylan’s born-again stretch from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s for examples of how this pursuit can bring the loftiest songwriters crashing back to Earth.
It would be one thing if analyzing Hiss Golden Messenger simply meant rising to Taylor’s level, a mighty task in its own right. But Haw, the band’s wonderful new LP, is also its second for Chapel Hill’s Paradise of Bachelors. The label boasts a compelling approach, releasing new albums from musicians who mine oft-neglected corners of the South’s rich musical history alongside archival offerings that highlight artists who made unheralded contributions to that heritage. The label also has a secret weapon when it comes to relaying these interconnected stories: Brendan Greaves, one of the label’s co-founders, is an eminently skilled folklorist and essayist, and his press releases set a high bar for any features or reviews that they inspire.
“Haw, herein, is an album of eleven songs about family, faith, and an ill-prophesied future, an artifact almost as archaic, lovely and seldom heard today as directional commands for beasts of burden,” He writes in his description of the new release. “M.C. Taylor, who wrote these songs, once lived hard by the [N.C. river] Haw with his wife Abigail and their son Elijah—Well I come from the bottom of the river Haw, he sings—but he doesn’t live there anymore. Having followed the slipstream to the relative bustle of nearby Durham, North Carolina, he has composed a new clutch of tunes that conjure the half-remembered dreams of peace promised by our pasts.”
Few and far between are publicists who wield their words with such dexterity. Equally rare are label owners who possess such penetrating insight into the works of their artists. It’s one of many traits that makes PoB an ideal home for the musicians it attracts.
“They’re the most articulate people that I know in terms of how they present their stuff,” Taylor says. “They’re so careful with just articulating what the music is about, and they just hit it on the nose every time. I mean, Brendan [Greaves, label cofounder] is just the best fucking writer I’ve ever met in my life. He’s insane. He’s sort of a savant. That is a powerful arrow to have in the quiver. It’s one that 99 percent of people who run not only record labels, but anything that’s any entity that’s sort of curating or aesthetically presenting material, whether it be books or whatever — you don’t get a Brendan Greaves very often.”
(Hiss Golden Messenger – music from Haw)
The bard of Durham…
Nor will Greaves come across many musicians so perfectly suited for his label. With Haw and its predecessor, 2011’s Poor Moon (PoB’s first non-archival release), Taylor and his musical partner Scott Hirsch — along with frequent drumming ally Terry Lonergan — create a mercurial folk-rock atmosphere, populating it with sounds that visit by way of other genres and marking it with the sense of simultaneous doubt and triumph that’s conjured by Taylor’s spiritually charged lyrics.
“Red Rose Nantahala” drives through with a purposeful country stomp as Taylor wraps his rough but soothing croon around a fervent plea to worship the way he wants without being threatened or told that he’s wrong. ”Go say whatever prayer you want,” he sings, “To whatever likeness you endorse/ To Jehovah or Yahweh/ Or Red Rose Nantahala.” Psychedelic distortion builds throughout, mirroring Taylor’s passion, climaxing in a blazing guest guitar solo from Nashville’s William Tyler that obliterates the song’s restrained atmosphere, replacing it with wild and fiery cosmic country.
Haw is defined by such subtle but scintillating stylistic fusion. “Busted Note” begins as a sterling country ballad but melts into a reggae-inspired trance during the chorus. “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” moves with a haunted blues gait further complicated by ethereal guitar and strings that trade the grandeur of Nashville’s old-school orchestrations for modern classical menace. In its enthralling religious confusion and its liberated approach to the South’s musical roots, Hiss Golden Messenger’s songs are one of the most intriguing modern expressions of the region’s diverse musical legacy — quite the accomplishment for a man who came to Durham by way of San Francisco — and a fitting cornerstone for PoB’s curatorial pursuit.
“I’m really drawn to Southern music at large just because I love it,” Taylor says. “And I’ve been working towards my own interpretation of it, not slavishly copying my favorite musicians, but rather understanding what it is about living in the South that might inform what some of my favorite musicians do. Then, in turn, trying to figure out if there’s a way that I can draw from my environment that I’ve created around here to communicate something that feels genuine and honest to me but that also tips a hat to all this beautiful music that’s from this area that I love so much.”
A remarkable Tarheel label…
As a label, PoB has similar goals. Founded by Greaves and Jason Perlmutter in 2010, the label was sparked by the pair’s independent inquiries into the music of David Lee, a soul singer, songwriter, producer and label owner who had long toiled in the obscurity of North Carolina’s Cleveland County. Lee actually mistook Greaves for Perlmutter the first time they spoke on the phone — “We were the two young white guys who were talking to him from this area,” Greaves laughs. The two released a collection of his works, Said I Had a Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960–1988, and found they were inspired to keep going.
They released Poor Moon the next year and followed it with a reissue of the self-titled 1969 effort by short-lived interracial psych-funk outfit Plant and See. Shortly thereafter, Perlmutter left the label to pursue his own business collecting and selling vintage vinyl. Greaves pressed on and recruited his friend Christopher Smith as his new business partner. Flush with the new connections that Smith brought to the fold — based in Philadelphia, he once played in the psych-folk band Espers — PoB expanded from simply releasing records forged in North Carolina to curating national material that furthered its exploration of Southern music.
“The regionality of what we do is an overarching rubric, but I don’t think it by any means needs to limit what we do,” Greaves explains. “Ultimately, what we’re dealing with are stories and finding under-recognized stories with a musical component. We’re selling stories as much as records, especially today when physical media, physical records don’t have the same sway in the marketplace. I think to sell a vinyl record today, you better have a story behind it, especially when you’re dealing with historical or reissued material. I certainly don’t have the intention of being willfully obscure when it comes to our choices. But we gravitate towards the less recognized and folks with maybe some kind of untold story or underdog status in the world of music.”
That wider net has allowed PoB to expand its output — after releasing four titles prior to 2013, the label will drop seven records before the end of the year — without forsaking the interconnectedness that makes its releases so appealing.
Take The Red Rippers’ Over There . . . and Over Here, which PoB reissued in January. Recorded by Vietnam veteran Edwin Dale Bankston while he was stationed in Pensacola, Fla., the album pairs chooglin that out-toughs anything produced by CCR with bleak but up-tempo ragers that encapsulate the fear and rage felt by many soldiers during the war. In sound, it’s not far removed from Time Off, the upcoming release from Brooklyn guitarist Steve Gunn, which will see release through PoB in June. The album relishes in extended grooves cut through by Gunn’s guitar, which switches from intricate loops to cutting solos with uncommon dexterity, and psychedelic flourishes, though the mood is far less aggressive than that of the Rippers. These two albums, culled from different eras, deploy similar styles with strikingly different motives, a testament to the way PoB manages to achieve diversity without losing its thematic focus.
“I’m trying to make a point about the world of Southern music,” Greaves says. “There is a way to look at music that pays less attention to the micro-genres and the obsession with scenes and categorization and binaries that we see even more than ever because of the way music is treated on the Internet. Everything has a name attached to it or several names, tags, hashtags. Everything is categorized in these endless ways. And that’s interesting, but it’s also interesting to throw disparate things together and go, ‘Well, what do these superficially or nominally different things have in common?’”
No wonder the guitar wünderkind refuses to slow down. Oh, and he just kicked off another marathon tour this past weekend… ya gonna be there, punters?
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
If exceptional accomplishment alone were enough to inspire widespread recognition, then Derek Trucks would likely have several government buildings and national monuments bearing his name. Considering his lineage alone, it would seem he was destined for great achievement. His uncle, percussionist Butch Trucks, was an original member of the Allman Brothers Band, and the younger Trucks was named for the Eric Clapton album credited to Derek and the Dominoes. Naturally then, Trucks’ musical career appeared preordained. To his credit however, Trucks wasn’t content to simply rely on birthright alone. While still in his mid-teens he was playing with the Allmans, and by the time he was in his 20s, he was also leading his own band and playing a key role in Eric Clapton’s touring band.
Trucks’ current day job finds him at the helm of both The Derek Trucks Band and The Tedeschi Trucks Band – the latter, alongside the equally adept singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, his wife and music collaborator for the past dozen years. After playing on each others individual albums, the two officially joined forces in 2011, releasing the band’s debut album #Revelator#, which garnered a Grammy for Best Blues Album, several top prizes at the prestigious Blues Music Awards, widespread critical acclaim and a top fifteen debut on the Billboard album charts. The band also includes drummer Tyler Greenwell, drummer J.J. Johnson, singer Mike Mattison, singer Mark Rivers, saxophonist Kebbi Williams, trumpeter Maurice Brown, trombonist Saunders Sermons, keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge and bassist George Porter Jr., who recently replaced original member Oteil Burbridge.
Trucks, an incessant multi-tasker, regularly shows up on lists delineating the greatest guitarists of our era, and so it’s no surprise that he’s found himself performing some of the most prestigious gigs imaginable — onstage at the White House, the United Nations, the Grammy Award ceremonies and the all-star tribute to blues great Hubert Sumlin staged at the iconic Apollo Theater. In the process, he’s shared the stage with legends like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder and McCoy Tyner, to name only some. Meanwhile, Everybody’s Talkin’, a double live album released last May, continued the raves garnered the first time around even as it positioned itself on Billboard‘s chart of best selling Blues albums.
As if Trucks and Tedeschi don’t have enough on their plate already, the two recently launched their Sunshine Blues Festival, three day-long Florida festivals featuring the Tedeschi Trucks Band and an array of special guests, including Dr. John, Walter Trout, Sonny Landreth, The Wood Brothers and others. The concerts, slated for late January, expand their roles as entrepreneurs — they already own and operate their own recording studio Swamp Raga located behind their home in Jacksonville Florida — and add to their extensive list of career credits.
BLURT recently had a chance to talk with Trucks by phone during one of his rare days off. Even so, it was obvious that work was still on his mind and this brief respite from the road wouldn’t last long. An amiable individual, his answers were frequently punctuated by laughter. Despite his impressive resume, he still managed to come across as remarkably unaffected and exceedingly down to earth.
BLURT: Let’s start by talking about the festival you’re about to launch. How did that idea come about?
TRUCKS: It’s been an idea we’ve had for a really long time. We’ve really wanted to put a festival together where we hit the road and eventually do it nationwide if we can make it work. So we put some of our favorite bands together that we would want to go see, and this way we can sit out front and watch. We had a long list and we just tried to piece it together. I remembered the Horde tour in the early ‘90s, when I went out with Aquarium Musical Unit and a bunch of different bands who I loved learning from and playing with. Now there’s been a huge influx of different festivals. But with most of them, there are only one or two different bands I really want to see… (laughs)
So you’re very selective.
Yeah, and so we thought it would be fun to do a festival someday where I would want to sit out front all day.
How did you coordinate all the artist schedules?
You just have to start early, maybe a year out or so in advance, and you have to put a wish list together and then start at the top (laughs) and work through it. And starting at the top doesn’t always mean the biggest names… it’s the people you really want on it. We were lucky. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out. We were kind of testing the waters with this to see if it was something we can make work and make fly, and maybe turn it into something more.
So the goal is to eventually take this around the country?
We’d like to. The idea is definitely there, and we’re actively talking about it and kind of feeling it out. It’s a big undertaking, but I bet it will be fun.
You could do something like the Festival Express in the early ‘70s where the Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin and others got on a train and travelled from one end of Canada to another. That would be fun.
Oh yeah. We talked about that too. We did a tour of Europe with our band where we did it by train. An eleven piece band with twenty people in the crew. We took over a whole train car. It got rowdy a few times and I was thinking it could be fun. (laughs)
It seems like fun.
Yeah – 15 bands going country to country or state to state.
It sounds like you’re already having a lot of fun though. You play these incredible gigs… at the White House, at the UN, with all these incredible musicians… You must be on cloud nine.
It’s been an amazing run. When we put this band together we definitely had high hopes for it, but it’s definitely exceeded what we hoped for. It’s definitely an amazing start. Being able to play music you love to play with people you like being around is definitely hard to beat. There’s a lot of hard work, and you’re wrangling a lot of people and things do happen, but in the end, it’s a good day’s work (laughs).
You seem like the ultimate multi-tasker. At one point you were gigging with your own band, you were playing with the Allman Brothers and then Eric Clapton called and you went out on tour with him. How do you keep it all straight? Do you ever start a song and realize you’re playing the wrong tune because you got your gigs confused? Maybe you start playing an Allman song when you’re onstage with Clapton?
Luckily not! (laughs) When you get in that space and you’re surrounded by great players, you learn the tunes and get them in your head. Once the band starts playing, there’s this locomotion that happens and you get on board. (laughs) A lot of times a song will start and you have this one second where you go, “Oh shit, I don’t know if I remember this one!” But once you get into it, it kind of plays itself. A lot of it is just muscle memory that’s always there. But you definitely have to do your homework, especially when it’s the Allman Brothers or Clapton. At one point, I was in three different bands that were touring full time. I would have to listen to the records of whatever bands I was going to play with on the flight over and refresh my memory a bit.
So how do you manage your time? You also have a family and two small children? With all you do, isn’t it a challenge?
For one, it helps being married to someone who understands what you’re doing, because if Susan hadn’t been a musician and understood what the road takes, I don’t know if doing the three bands would even be possible. She understood the opportunities and understands it’s not a 24/7 party. (laughs) When your wife and family are at home, and you’re running all over the world, it’s nice to know that the understanding is out there. So that helps. That’s a big part of it. And when opportunities like that come up, you just have to take them. Those windows don’t open often. So yeah, we really thought about it in ’06 and ’07, when it was nonstop. It was 20-something countries and multiple bands, and that’s when I decide to build a studio in the house. It was a matter of planning ahead and realizing, “This is amazing but I can’t do this every year. We have kids and I want to be home sometimes.” Even when they’re flying out and visiting you, it’s not the same as being home. So building the studio allows me to spend so many more months at home and be productive and work and make records. We’ve been fortunate, but you also have to be pretty proactive to make it work.
You and Susan worked on each other’s records even before you formed the band together. But now that you’re the co-leaders so to speak, has that made a difference in terms of decision making or direction? Do you have to run things by one another and always be in agreement? Is it a big change from doing things individually like before?
It was a big change and it took awhile to adjust to it. You get so used to doing things yourself. The music business and the whole scene can be somewhat cutthroat at times, and it takes awhile to learn you’re in all of it together (laughs) and that even if something may seem a little bit outside your comfort zone, it’s actually in your best interest to have someone look out for you. I think for Susan especially it took awhile to kind of give in a little bit to being in the flow of a massive band and have someone else as a band leader essentially. Still, it’s really been amazing for us personally and musically. It’s been a huge amount of growth and it’s made us closer, and it’s an unbelievable band to be a part of. When you stand on stage and look around and see some of your favorite musicians… to have a band like that and travel with it… especially at our level where we’re just barely getting by with a band like this… people really have to love it and want to be in it and really make it happen. So it’s a good feeling. In a sense, it’s a throwback to a time when people did things because they gave a shit (laughs) and wanted to do things. We’re realists too, and we’ve been on the road a long time, and so we look around and we don’t see a lot of that. We don’t see a lot of bands that are doing it for the right reasons, or artists who are doing it for the right reasons. So when you’re a part of that it feels really good. That’s part of the reason for doing this festival. We try to put like-minded people together who like doing it and feel like it’s important work.
When you and Susan joined forces, you must have had to whittle down some of the players, people that were formerly in her band and people that were in your band. That must have been difficult, right?
It was tough, but when we decided to do it, we needed a break, a change. I had my band 14, 16 years, something like that, so it was time mentally to try something different. So we kind of stopped everything and then restarted. (laughs) But it didn’t feel quite the same. When you play with people that long, it’s a difficult thing to make a move. Everybody was so close in the extended family, so there were a lot of straight, honest conversations, and there was a lot of understanding, even though it was difficult. But it’s worked out amazingly well. I’m still in touch with everybody. When my old band and Susan’s old band found good gigs, we felt really relieved (laughs). We were just kind of hoping it would transition nicely and it’s been pretty great so far.
You did integrate some of the players though.
Well, part of the idea early on was that having the Burbridge brothers together in the band, having Oteil and Koki made a lot of sense.We also wanted to think about a big band, so horns and background singers are always part of the thought process. I love the way Mike writes and sings and so he was a natural fit. Part of it was that even though it wasn’t Susan joining my band, I felt that her having someone from her group that she felt comfortable with was a great way to start it. So that was Falcon, and the way he and J.J. played s well together just out of the gate was magical. So it all happened pretty organically, but every piece had its right place.
Some people find that working with their spouse can be a little weird at times. Do you ever take the band business home with you?
It’s been a lot easier than I thought it would be. I went into it with my eyes open and believing it could cause a lot of added stress. But I think having a big band is almost like having a lot of kids. (laughs) Your attention is often focused on keeping things rolling, and so you don’t have enough time to be annoyed with each other (laughs)
Very diplomatic, sir, Very diplomatic.
(Laughs) But also this group of people is so much fun to be around, and there’s always an outlet, always a place to blow off mild steam if you need too. There are two buses on the road, so there are spontaneous parties starting here and there, and it’s an unusually helpful situation to be in because there’s always a great outlet. It’s oddly healthy too. When I think back to Mad Dogs and Englishmen or Delaney and Bonnie’s band, that was kind of the template for it. But the drug abuse and the whole thing made it harder and more experimental, and it led to a lot of problems in the end. (laughs) I feel like we’ve kind of sanded off a lot of those rough edges but it’s still pretty free-spirited and it still gets crazy, but it never gets destructive.
You’re probably learning a lot from their mistakes.
Well, that was part of the plan all along.
You’ve played with an amazing array of all time greats, Have any of these musicians ever passed on any words of wisdom or, for that matter, any words of caution?
A lot of times it’s just getting time to hang with people like that, and some of the time it’s unspoken and some of the time it’s just really direct. I played in Gregg Allman’s solo band when I was 14 or 15, and he was really open about avoided the potholes that he hit in a way that kind of seared into my brain. Some guys are really open about passing along life lessons, and sometimes it’s just watching how someone goes about his business, rather than having real person to person conversations about their life. They don’t have to say this is what you do and this is what you don’t do, but it’s pretty obviously implied. I think you have to keep your eyes and ears open. I’ve found that most of the true greats I’ve been fortunate enough to be around are really open and want to pass things along. It’s not competitive. Eric knows his place (laughs). He’s not worried about me or any other young guitar player coming along and knocking him off his spot. He’s firmly entrenched where he is, so there’s no hiding the magic. He’s really open with it. It’s that way with B.B. and Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson… the really great ones have this quiet confidence and a lot of times it’s the guys that are maybe one tier or two tiers below that are the real assholes. (laughs) There’s this weirdness, and they get this sense of competition… Alright, no problem.
It’s pretty cool just hearing you refer to them as Eric and B.B…
It’s pretty surreal.
Is it ever intimidating? Playing with B.B. King or performing with Eric Clapton…
From time to time you have those thoughts, but those guys you’re talking about are such open and sweet people that they make you feel like you’ve known them your whole life. There’s none of that separation. And then you go through experiences that kind of steer you to that stuff. I remember when I first played a live show with McCoy Tyner and his band. This was a guy that was in the Miles Davis Quartet and played with some of the most badass musicians on earth. I got thrown in the deep end — it’s like the jazz test — and so I hit the bandstand and they just start calling tunes that you’ve never heard. It’s sink or swim with what you got. At first it’s that deer in the headlights feeling, but then you just relax and you open your ears and you just play music and it goes. Then there’s this wave of acceptance. “You’re alright!” Something like that makes you feel like if there was any fear or any nervousness about sitting in with people you like, it’s alright because I survived McCoy Tyner.
You’re being very modest too. To play with someone like that you have to be at the top of your form. You’ve got to be a real musician’s musician. And the fact that you can just jump into it and go with the flow so easily really speaks to your abilities.
You just have to have your ears open and you can’t just rest on what you think works. You can’t just play inside the box. You have to hear it. I notice that some of my favorite musicians — often unsung musicians, the guys that just have the biggest ears — they can just hear anything and play anything, and it’s not overly flashy. One of the reasons we built this band around Kofi in a way is that he can just play anything. He can play with anybody at any time. You can throw him into the deepest, most turbulent water musically and he can rise above it. And when you’re playing with people like that almost every night, you kind of step up what you do. And then it’s easier to be comfortable in other situations. But I really credit guys like Kofi and Jimmy Herring and guys that I’ve grown up playing with for being able to play that way.
When you’re playing with the Allmans or with Clapton, do you have to stick to the structure of the song in order to please fans that have come to the show to hear a song performed a certain way? Or do you get a bit more latitude?
You always try to walk that line, but I’ve been lucky that in playing with Eric or playing with the Allman Brothers, those guys want you to play you. And I do.
Recovering from a near-death experience, the songwriting auteur and erstwhile Windbreakers co-founder makes a triumphant return to Pop. Above, he’s pictured onstage in Atlanta this past January with his old pal Tim Lee (with band The Tim Lee 3).
BY JENNIFER KELLY / PHOTO BY JOHN BOYDSTON
“I was unconscious for three days. It was four days before they would tell anybody in my family, including my 21-year-old son, whether I had a chance of living,” says Bobby Sutliff, the Windbreakers veteran, recounting the damage from his near fatal car accident last summer. “I had a huge major brain injury that I still suffer from somewhat. But even down to my neck and below, I think from what I understand, I broke 16 bones, including some stuff that could have caused me permanent paralysis. I was lucky.”
Lucky indeed. When I speak to Sutliff, he has just been cleared to work again at the Wal-Mart distribution center near Columbus, Ohio, where he has held a job for 15 years. He is walking again and playing the guitar. Though he still struggles for certain words, proper nouns mostly, he is functioning remarkably well for a man who almost died.
Moreover, Sutliff is lucky in other ways – in the network of Paisley Pop musical legends who have lent their support to him in the months after the accident. A tribute album called Skrang: Sounds Like Bobby Sutliff compiles 18 cover versions from many different phases of Sutliff’s career, from the first Windbreakers EP to a 2002 solo album. The participating artists are good friends, but also well-known artists from the jangle-pop 1980s – among them, Peter Holsapple of The dB’s, Russ Tolman from True West and the Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci. Not to mention Sutliff’s old Windbreakers partner, Tim Lee.
“I will tell you that I’m mostly pissed off,” Sutliff cracks, when asked about the tribute album. “Because almost everything on there is better than me. Having someone from The dB’s, do one of your songs, that’s just not right. And then for it to be so much better, it’s just not right.” [Go here to read the BLURT review of Skrang.]
A little help from my friends…
Tim Lee organized the CD, as well as a benefit concert for Sutliff in Atlanta on January 19th, where long-time associates from the Rain Parade, the Tim Lee 3 and Sutliff himself played (pictured, above).
Lee, who first met Sutliff as a teenager in Jackson, Mississippi, says he looked up to the slightly older musician for years. “The first time we really talked, I’m pretty sure, was on the front row of an Alice Cooper/Suzi Quatro concert,” says Lee. “He was talking about guitars; I was ogling Suzi Quatro’s black leather jumpsuit.”
The two worked together in Windbreakers, on an off, for most of the 1980s. “Bobby was the first guy I hung out with who was serious about writing songs,” says Lee. “I learned a lot from him in the early days. He’s got a way with a hook, either guitar or vocal, that can sink in on the first listen.”
Sutliff and Lee parted as Windbreakers in the mid-1980s, and Sutliff recorded Only Ghosts Remain, his highly regarded solo album, with Mitch Easter in 1987. “It was a great time to be a power pop guy,” Sutliff remembers. “I got written about in Rolling Stone and stupid places, for me. And everybody liked the record. Then I got a call from Tim, and he said, I know you’re successful and you don’t need anything, but do you want to make another record?”
The two teamed up for the 1989 recording At Home with Bobby and Tim and, two years later, the Russ Tolman-produced Electric Landlady. Windbreakers have been on hiatus since then, but Sutliff says another album is in the works and long-time collaborator Mitch Easter has agreed to produce.
As good as ever…
Sutliff has been playing the guitar since about three months after his accident, when his son brought an instrument to the hospital, and he discovered, to his great joy, that he was as capable as ever.
“You’ve got a left side of your brain and a right side of your brain, and they both control completely different things,” Sutliff explains. “One side is speech and memory, and I have a lot of trouble with it. The other side controls your muscles and guitar playing. So after about three months, my son brought me my acoustic guitar to the hospital and I picked it up and was stunned. My fingers were a little bit tired because they hadn’t been exercised for so long, but I remembered how to play. After a couple of days of playing, it was great. I can tell you right now. I play better than I ever did.”
Sutliff says he can sing, too, though curiously, his range has moved a few notes higher than in the old days. When I track him down by phone, he is sitting in his living room, surrounded by half a dozen guitars, picking out songs while watching TV with the volume off. For a man who faced down death, a coma and the possibility of paralysis not too long ago, he sounds astonishingly happy. “Are you kidding me?” he says, when asked if he was relieved when he found he could still play. “Thank you, God, or whoever’s in charge of these things.”
Last fall, when the Tim Lee 3 came through Columbus, Lee invited Sutliff up on stage. He says that the concert remains one of his very favorite memories of playing with his old partner, after half a life-time of trading licks. “It was the first time he’d been on stage since his accident, and he sounded great,” says Lee. “Just a few months earlier, I’d talked my way into the ICU to see him and didn’t even recognize him for several minutes.”
So when Lee began to put together a benefit concert for Sutliff early this year, it made sense to include the man himself in the billing. “It was like old home week. Seeing Matt Piucci, Steven Roback, and the rest of the Rain Parade crew together was awesome,” says Lee. “Bobby sounded great when he played. It was really pretty magical.”
Sutliff spent the evening borrowing old friends’ guitars – and blowing away anyone who thought his injuries might have affected his music. “A lot of people didn’t think I could play,” he remembers. “I was just as good or better than I ever was.”
“Bobby played like a man on fire,” says Ron Sanchez, Sutliff’s partner in Donovan’s Brain (who released a new record, Turned Up Later, on Career Records in March – see review here).
The benefit concert was a success, raising $2500 for Sutliff. The Skrang CD has also done well, with the initial pressing all but sold out. Asked what it’s like to have a tribute album now, while he’s still around, Sutliff answers, “I’m so glad I’m alive so I get to hear it, but it pisses me off that almost everything on there is better than me.”
For their new album the beloved, if perennially under-the-radar, Tarheel combo decided to throw caution to the wind and rock the fuck out…
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“We were joking about how we expected this to be the backlash record,” says songwriter Bill Taylor of the Kingsbury Manx, whose seventh full-length, #The Bronze Age# comes well into the second decade of the band’s career. And while earlier albums caught comparisons to soft-rock icons like the Beach Boys and the Byrds, this one rocks harder.
“We knew that on this record we were going to end up getting into some songs that were more upbeat in tempo and more straight ahead rock than people were probably used to from us – things that were a little out of our comfort zone,” Taylor continues. “I was wondering whether people would say, ‘These guys are really trying something new, that’s great.’ Or, ‘You guys should stick to what you know.’”
Dirt bikes, Zeppelin and beginnings…
The Kingsbury Manx has been a band since the late 1990s, but its roots go back much further than that – to middle school, actually, where the original members first discovered each other and rock instruments. “Bill and I became next door neighbors in Wilson, NC, when we were 11 years old,” says Ryan Richardson, who plays bass and drums and other instruments. “We were both the ‘new kid’ in our school that fall, so we stuck together from the start. I guess I’d say we were pretty typical small-town kids, spending our afternoons shooting hoops in the driveway, jumping ramps on our dirt bikes, kicking a soccer ball, or playing video games.”
But less typically, the boys loved music, too. “We, and all of our middle school buddies (which included original songwriter/guitarist Kenneth Stephenson and cover artist/early band member Scott Myers), were pretty obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll,” says Richardson. “In eighth grade Bill got a guitar for Christmas, and I got a bass. Much Zeppelin ensued.”
(below: “Weird Beart & Black” live)
The four remained friends even when they went to different colleges, two of them to University of North Carolina’s main campus, the other two to UNC Wilmington. “Every other weekend, one set of friends would go visit the other. That’s where the band started,” says Taylor. “We all had guitars, and a couple of the guys got those cassette four-tracks. There was a lot of late night drunken ridiculousness.”
By 1999, all four were out of school, and they regrouped to make demo tapes and CDs and send them out to indie labels. Paul Finn, now the band’s keyboard player, was working at Drag City when he stumbled on the Kingsbury Manx’s first album. He mentioned it to his friend Howard Greynolds, then at Thrill Jockey, but Greynolds had not only heard the album – he was already working on releasing it. It would be the first album on his imprint Overcoat.
“When you listen to dozens of demos every day it gets really easy to discern the quality within the first few seconds,” says Finn, when asked what it was about the Manx’s debut that caught his ear. “If you find yourself continuing to listen (and not having an urge to stop the tape and move on) that usually means something. Rian Murphy (long time Drag City sales guy and all around music guru) and I were on a big Beach Boys kick at the DC office at that time so I think the harmonies are what drew me in. I remember thinking it sounded like a lo-fi Beach Boys and this was a little ahead of the big Beach Boys resurgence.”
With a deal from Overcoat, Taylor, Richardson, Stephenson and Myers headed to a local studio and recorded their debut in four days. Later, Myers, who has created the artwork for all of the Manx’s albums, left to pursue his art full time and Stephenson exited about the same time due to family and work commitments. Meanwhile another drummer and multi-instrumentalist down in Florida had heard the debut and liked it a lot.
“I listened to that first album every day for months and months,” says Clarque Blomquist, who now trades off on bass and drums with Richardson. “Then I met Ryan and we became friends. After they recorded the follow-up, Let You Down, they decided that they needed a fifth guy to play bass for the touring. Ryan suggested they give me a shot at it. “
Meanwhile, Finn had moved down to North Carolina from Chicago. He crashed with a sister for a while, then struck up a friendship with Merge Records’ Martin Hall, who subsequently hired him. Back in Chicago, Howard Greynolds urged him to get in touch with the Kingsbury Manx, so Finn went to a show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. “I started playing with Clarque in his side project, Shallow Be Thy Name,” says Finn. “Not long after that, Clarque told me the Manx were also looking for a full time keyboard player, which was my main instrument. So suddenly I found myself going on tour with the band and now ten years have passed and I’m still in the band and sort of took the torch from Howard to be releasing their records.” (Finn’s Odessa Records has released the last two Kingbury Manx albums.)
Ryan Richardson says that changes in the line-up have been, overall, positive, as the band has evolved over time. “In a lot of ways, I think our basic sound has stayed pretty consistent through the years. Losing Kenneth was a huge blow because he was an integral part of the first three records with his amazing songwriting and spaced-out guitar effects,” he explained. “Luckily, Bill ramped up his songwriting production to fill the void, and Paul was able to make up for the lost guitars with a wide array of organ and synth sounds. If anything, I’d say that maybe the song structures have become more complex over the years, and our work in the studio is bit less haphazard than it was in the early days.”
A rocking Bronze age…
The Kingsbury Manx recorded #Bronze Age# at Sound of Music in Richmond, Virginia, the same studio where the band recorded #Let You Down# in 2001. The band also used Brian Paulson to mix the album; he was the producer on #Let You Down#. “It was like a weird 2001 reunion, where we recorded at Sound of Music again and worked with the same producer, but made vastly different sounding records,” says Taylor. “That’s what I think is fascinating about it, same gear, same producer, same studio, but two completely different sounding records.”
Sound of Music had burned down in the interim and was not entirely reconstructed at the time the Kingsbury Manx entered the studio. (Taylor says that you can hear ladders clanging if you listen closely enough to certain songs.) The band also had to return several times to the studio, as they got money for recording, so the album took almost a year to finish.
Yet despite the length its gestation, #Bronze Age# has an undeniable urgency. It is, by far, the Kingsbury Manx’s loudest, most rocking album to date.
“It just happened naturally. Those were the songs Bill was writing,” says Finn. “We had done a lot of quiet 3/4 songs, so we wanted to try something different. And it’s just fun to rock out. Ryan and I had also been listening to a lot of prog rock like early Genesis in the last few years so I think that kind of rubbed off. “
“We’ve dabbled in rocking out a little a bit on the last three albums but this is the first one where we really went for it,” adds Blomquist. “The biggest difference for me was the tempos. This is the first time in this band where my background playing in punk and metal bands has actually come in handy, with the quick drum beats in some of the songs. Bill has always wanted to cut loose but he’s just now getting around to writing in that style. He and Ryan were little heavy metal kids too so they’ve always had it in them, waiting to be expressed.”
Taylor says that the big fuzzy guitar lead in “Future Hunter” is one of his favorite things on the record (along with Blomquist’s intricately varied drumming on “Weird Beard & Black Wolf”), a rock sound if there ever was one.
“You don’t just throw that crazy, fuzzed-out guitar on there by accident. That was a conscious decision,” he explains. “We were excited about making those and going in that direction. In the live show, there’s an energy that drives that. We’re trying to bring some of that onto a record.”
(below: “Solely Bavaria” live)
Reaching out to the rockers…
Changing up the sound is a risk for any band, especially one with a long-standing loyal fan base like the Kingsbury Manx. Yet Finn says that the band’s fans seem to be okay with the new direction.
“We’ve been lucky to get really great press for our records, but every time there’s a little nervousness like ‘Is this the record people decide to shit on?’”, he explains. “This one was more so because we changed the script a lot, did a lot of upbeat/rocking songs, and people can be surprisingly against change.”
Still, he adds that, “We are blessed with a really great, loyal fan base. They are patient with us, with how long we take. When new record comes out and the mail orders start to come in, I smile to see the same names again from four years ago, and going back to the beginning. We may not have a lot of fans, but the ones we do have make up for it in quality!”
“By flying under the radar for so many years I think we’ve retained underdog status in a lot of people’s minds, so those that know of us are still rooting for us,” says Blomquist. “Nobody is out there trying to knock us down a notch in the reviews, like they certainly would be by now if we had become more widely known.
“When you put out records at the pace we do, there is an entirely new college age crowd out there that probably has never heard of us each time, so it’s always like a fresh start in that way. Maybe one day there will be a generation of kids that we’ll really resonate with and they’ll adopt us as their own. I also think if we could get heard by the baby boomer generation they would dig us, but that’s a little more challenging, because there is no equivalent of college radio for them. It’s one of our goals – reach out to the aging rockers, somehow.”
Haden. The name’s Haden. Charlie’s a cappella-fetishist daughter Petra Haden follows up her acclaimed Who Sell Out re-creation with a tribute to Hollywood soundtracks.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
Petra Haden, whose new album is Petra Goes to the Movies, has a name for the kind of music she makes – and makes better than anyone else right now. It’s called “a cappella voice collages” (according to her record label, Anti-) and Goes to the Movies is a tour de force of it.
Taking mostly instrumental themes from her favorite films, such as Psycho, A Fistful of Dollars, The Social Network, Superman, and Fellini’s 8½, she has arranged them entirely for voice. Patiently overdubbing, she wordlessly “sings” the melody – sometimes by humming, sometimes by using choral and group-harmony vocal techniques – atop her masterful vocal mimicking of instruments. She does actually sing lyrics over her own vocal accompaniment on one a cappella number – “Goldfinger.” And there are three tracks on which she sings the lyrics of movie ballads while jazz musicians (including her father, bassist Charlie Haden, who recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Grammys) assist her.
But the pure collages are the standouts. They not only showcase the beauty of her voice and depth of her imagination, but also remind that a voice is a musical instrument capable of varied and inventive sounds. It’s not just a vessel to carry words. (She is indeed a lovely interpretive singer who coaxes a dreamy sense of reassurance out of the lyrics to Bagdad Café’s “Calling You” and Tootsie’s “It Might Be You.”)
Goes to the Movies follows several other heralded related projects – her largely a cappella first solo album, 1999’s Imaginaryland; her intimate 2003 project of covers with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and 2005’s landmark solo a cappella version of The Who Sell Out.
“I love singing and recording, and doing multi-tracks on my voice,” says Haden, during a recent telephone interview. “When Mike Watt gave me the idea to do the Who Sell Out record, it inspired me even more to record my other favorite music. I really enjoy it.”
Goes to the Movies came about because, in addition to loving to sing, Haden also loves movies. And she found the scores and title themes by famous composers like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver), Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke), Ennio Morricone (A Fistful of Dollars, Cinema Paradiso) and Nino Rota (“Carlotta’s Galop” from 8½) as moving as the films themselves.
“I’ve been listening to Herrmann since I was a kid, and Morricone the same,” she says. “I remember first watching these movies and immediately gravitating toward the music. And I remember thinking one day, ‘I’m going to play this in an orchestra or sing this.’ It’s like living a dream now that I finally did it and I’m really happy with it.”
Haden, 41, is one of bassist Haden’s three triplet daughters. In addition to singing on solo projects, she plays violin and has been involved with several rock bands, most notably That Dog with bassist/vocalist sister Rachel. She also is an active collaborator and session/studio singer – her a cappella rendition of the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” for a Toyota Prius TV commercial in 2009 was enormously popular. The Haden Triplets (also including sister Tanya) currently are recording an album of country songs for producer Ry Cooder.
Haden attributes her interest in chorale music to a love of the Bulgarian State Radio Vocal Choir, whose albums became popular in the U.S. when issued in the late 1980s, followed by a memorable tour. “I listened to them on my Walkman on my way to high school,” Haden says. “That always inspired me.” Another inspiration has been Steve Reich’s 1981 Tehillim, a contemporary classical work based on Hebrew Psalms and arranged for female voices. “It’s so beautiful I would just memorize it,” she says.
This new project has a fundamental difference with Who Sell Out, Haden explains. “When I did the Who record, I was really nervous about singing the guitar parts and getting all the chords right. I wanted to sound like a guitar and that’s how I approached recording (it). But for the Goes to the Movies album, there aren’t really solos that stick out. There are just string sections and horns.”
So this project actually was easier for her, she says. “Something like Psycho was a little challenging because it has lots of different notes and I wanted to get it right. And also ‘Carlotta’s Galop’ from 8½ required a lot of stopping and going back. I really wanted it to be perfect. Justin Burnett (co-producer with Haden) was just great working with, because he really gets my brain. And the same with Woody (Jackson), who recorded ‘Carlotta’s Galop.’ They were patient because they knew at some point I would get it eventually.”
Haden tried to hit all the notes naturally. But Burnett did have to raise the pitch a couple times, to achieve the high-violin sound on Cinema Paradiso and at the scary end of Psycho.
On “It Might Be You,” written by Dave Grusin and Marilyn & Alan Bergman, Haden sings lyrics straightforwardly while Frisell accompanies her on quiet, spare guitar. Brad Mehldau provides piano for Haden’s multi-tracked voice on “Calling You,” written by Robert Telson. And both Frisell and her father join for “This Is Not America,” the darkly ominous ballad – written by Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie – from the espionage thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.
“When I made my list of songs, I knew ‘This Is Not America’ was one I really wanted to do,” Haden says. “And my dad asked, ‘Can I play on it?’ (His Liberation Music Orchestra has recorded it.) So it was perfect.”
The hardest song for Haden to sing was the John Barry-composed title song for “Goldfinger,” since Shirley Bassey’s booming, brassy version has been seared into pop culture’s consciousness ever since first recorded in 1965. Haden sings it in a lower register than is normal for her, because she sensed that it sounded right. But it was difficult to arrive at that decision.
“That took me a long time to do,” Haden explains. “I’d sound like an idiot if I tried to sing like Shirley Bassey. I wasn’t satisfied with my lead vocal and I kept changing it. I even did a version as Edith Bucker just for fun. I was driving myself crazy and I thought, ‘Can I just get this out of my system?’ Finally I thought I’m going to sing this really mellow and relax, because I sing better when I’m not nervous.”
Someday, maybe, that Edith Bunker version will be released.
“There’s no real benefit to stopping!” A conversation with David Lowery.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
I’ve never really agreed with the famous quip (attributed to Martin Mull) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, Nick Kent, and many other fine writers have proven that the subject of music can, in fact, be explored quite effectively on the printed page. However, the California-based band Camper Van Beethoven, a ragtag ensemble celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, stands as Exhibit A of what Mull might have been talking about. Are they gypsy-prog? Folk-punk? Country-ska? Bluegrass-metal? Such attempts at categorization, playful as they might be, fall woefully short of describing the sounds you’ll actually hear on a CVB record.
It is slightly easier to talk about the various components that make up the band. Singer/guitarist David Lowery, with his signature Ralph Stanley-by-way-of Joe Strummer bellow, appears on every album, as does bassist/vocalist Victor Krummenacher. Guitarist Greg Lisher and violinist/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Jonathan Segel each fall one album shy of perfect attendance, yet both musicians are absolutely integral to the Camper sound. Expanding outward from this core combo is a bewilderingly large tribe of current/former/and-or part-time members, including drummers Chris Pedersen and Frank Funaro, as well as jacks-of-all-trades Chris Molla and David Immergluck. There is no “front man” as such, but Lowery sings the majority of the songs. In the early days of the band, the albums were fairly evenly split between short, punchy, vocal-oriented songs and equally short instrumentals of a decidedly improvisational bent. Gradually, the improvisational detours began to work their way into the vocal pieces, resulting in a more cohesive sound that still managed to scrape against the accepted boundaries of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be.
I wish I could say I was one of the cool folks who first got turned on to the band via the propulsive early single “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (This track, which Lowery has described as being “purposely structured so that it would be devoid of meaning,” became an underground hit upon its release in 1985). But no, I–along with many other couch potatoes–discovered Camper Van Beethoven on MTV in 1989, in a video that starred a charismatic slinky. I am of course referring to the clip for “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (a cover of a Status Quo song) which got a lot of people fired up about Camper Van Beethoven just in time for the band to break up.
Listening to Camper’s back catalog in the aftermath of that split, and observing that every single album seemed to contain both the excitement and the tension of The White Album, I wondered less about why they had broken up and more about how they had ever managed to hang together in the first place.
“Our relations were not as hostile as you think,” Lowery says. He is speaking from Athens, GA (where he lives with his wife/manager Velena Vego) on the eve of Camper Van Beethoven’s impending thirtieth anniversary tour. Yes, the once-fractious band is in the midst of a successful second act, and the singer now feels he has a better perspective on the “creative tensions” that pulled the group apart the first time around. “After producing other bands for nearly thirty years, I now think of the disagreements in Camper Van Beethoven as if they were some kind of argument that the Cleaver family had in Leave It to Beaver. That is, compared to the kinds of things that happened in other bands. But I don’t know…for some reason we were more public about it or something. If things are set up right, it’s a very creative ensemble of people.”
A few words on Mr. Lowery before we proceed: In addition to his work with Camper Van Beethoven, he also fronts the band Cracker, which achieved considerable success in the 1990s with the singles “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Low.” Perhaps as a disclaimer to potential interviewers, his website offers the following helpful information: “I know I’m the lead singer of two bands but I am not very extroverted. I am better suited to be the proverbial mad scientist working alone in his laboratory. I do enjoy performing but I don’t party and I’m not much interested in talking about rock music. (mathematics, economics, military history, and amateur radio is another matter). I am grateful to the fans who have made my life so rewarding but sometimes I’m pretty awkward when I have to interact with people. Thanks for your tolerance.”
This statement, coupled with his somewhat strident online persona (he is famous for his stinging takedown of Emily White–the hapless NPR intern who blogged about having only purchased fifteen CDs in her lifetime while ripping thousands of others) made me a little anxious about our impending interview. I worried I might accidentally say something that would put me on his bad side.
But now, as our conversation unfolds, I find the person on the other end to be sweet, engaging, and, if anything, over-eager to discuss music, which is great, because I really want to talk about Lowery’s composition process and the influences that fuel it. Although initially regarded as a quirky, nonsensical writer, by 1989’s Key Lime Pie Lowery had penned the lyrics for the song “Sweethearts,” which ambitiously attempts to map the contours of Ronald Reagan’s inner world. The results of Lowery’s excursion are unsettling, surreal, and oddly beautiful. Some excerpts:
‘Cause he’s living in some B-movie
The lines they are so clearly drawn
In black and white life is so easy
And we’re all coming along on this one
And on a mission over China
The lady opens up her arms
The flowers bloom where you have placed them
And the lady smiles, just like Mom
“I identify with Kurt Vonnegut,” Lowery says. “When he started out he was considered this wacky, kind of humorous, cynical, non-serious science fiction writer. It wasn’t considered serious fiction, but he just kept doing it, he kept refining it, and he got better and deeper and eventually he started writing stuff like Bluebeard. And people were like, ‘This is serious literature.’ I was recently going through some boxes and found a bunch of old reviews of Camper Van Beethoven. They all called us ‘humorous,’ ‘eclectic,’ ‘sarcastic,’–you know, it was in the beginning, right? ‘These wacky guys.’ But the way we have been portrayed over the years has really changed, to the point where you’ve now got people like The Decemberists, Built to Spill, or Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse saying: ‘You’ve gotta check this shit out.’
“I like Thomas Pynchon’s writing, because he would write about shit that was completely over everybody’s head and he wouldn’t care. He would go off on tangents. Camper Van Beethoven is the vehicle where I get to do that. There’s a song on the album Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven where I tell the story of the obscure postal engineer Thomas Flowers, who built the first computer but had to keep it secret his whole life because it was part of the Bletchley code-breaking project in England during World War II. I get to write a song about that guy, and it fits right in.
“Lately the writer that’s freaking me out is this guy Nassim Taleb, who’s sort of a philosopher/derivatives trader/cultural critic. He wrote the book Black Swan (no relation to the movie). He’s real controversial in all kinds of circles; he manages to piss people off. So his new book is called Antifragile and, I mean, you don’t know what he’s talking about unless you’ve read his other two books. And he doesn’t really bother explaining it to you. If he wants to go off on a tangent about how he doesn’t like peaches because they never had them in Lebanon when he was growing up during the civil war, he’ll just talk about peaches for two paragraphs and then get back to his philosophical money/logic/finance/civilization ruminations. Then, if he wants to write the same chapter four chapters later because he didn’t feel like he wrote that chapter four chapters ago right, he just does it. I love people who have the balls to do that. So many people claim to be real artists and claim to be edgy and provocative and challenging of the status quo, but they really aren’t. At times, I want to really break the rules. And other times I don’t; other times I want to stay within the conventions.
“Here’s something I’ve been doing for the last six or seven years: when I come up with an idea for a lyric, I’ll email it to myself. At one point I discovered that, among all the Google Ads that pop up around my message, there’d always be these weird outliers. Sometimes you can get some really amazing stuff out of that, when Google AdWords is amplifying a minor point in your sentence and spinning it off into some random ad.”
I mention that when I first heard the new Camper Van Beethoven song “Too High for the Love-In,” I mistook the lyric to be “I was too high for the lovin'”–which, in my mind, altered the subject matter considerably.
Lowery laughs. “Too high for the lovin’? There was actually a debate about that. Jonathan understood that I was singing ‘too high for the love-in.’ But I think Victor and Greg thought we meant lovin’. We had a debate because it was a great title either way. That’s not the first time something like that has happened. Our first album Telephone Free Landslide Victory was actually supposed to be named Telephone Tree Landslide Victory. When Bruce (Licher, Independent Press Records founder) set the type, he thought our handwriting was an ‘f,’ not a ‘t,’ and he thought that made much more sense. You see what I’m getting at? There’s fun in getting it wrong.
“But back to influences: The magazine American Songwriter asked me who my songwriting heroes are. It’s really hard to say, but mine would have to be: Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Randy Newman, and Captain Beefheart.”
I’ve always admired Lowery’s and his bandmates’ outspoken love for artists who may not be on the typical “approved” list for indie/postpunk bands. During their early days, Camper Van Beethoven extolled the virtues of the Grateful Dead to their stupefied punk peers. They went on the public record, frequently and loudly, with their unashamed loved for prog-rock. In a Musician interview in the early ’90s, Lowery even got a little misty-eyed over the music of Ted Nugent.
I ask David about that prog lineage.
“This is where Jonathan Segel and I really overlap,” he says. “You go way back to Fairport Convention–stuff that was sort of English folk but was leaning towards the prog-rock stuff. And then there was stuff that was kind of blues-rock but leaning towards prog. I’m still really fascinated by that era. Ultimately, though, I think it is probably the other guys who are a little more influenced by straight-up prog rock than I am. But our song ‘Summer Days’ (off the new album La Costa Perdida) is a song in the vein of early Genesis or early King Crimson. We used to just call it ‘King Floyd’ or ‘Pink Crimson.'”
This prompts me to wax philosophical (geeks seek their own level) about the period in the late ’60s and early ’70s before experimental art rock had calcified and become progressive rock: those golden days when Jimi Hendrix wanted to jam with King Crimson and Rick Wakeman played on Lou Reed recordings. I muse aloud that Camper Van Beethoven seems to exhibit that same willful disregard for genre boundaries. This gets David going on the protean, pre-Dark Side of the Moon incarnation of Pink Floyd.
“That earlier Pink Floyd stuff was a big part of what we did. We like that weird, sort of lost Pink Floyd era: Meddle and Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. That, King Crimson, and probably even some Genesis. Yeah, looking back on it, there’s gems from all those bands.”
It could be argued that this collective fervor, seemingly at the cellular level, for obscure and/or certifiably unhip music is what eventually brought the members of Camper Van Beethoven back together. In 2001, in a test-run to see if they could collaborate again, Lowery, Segel, Krummenacher, and Lisher convened to record their own version of Fleetwood Mac’s double-LP Tusk in its entirety. In doing so, they tapped into new wells of madness in an album that was already bonkers to begin with.
“Now (the Fleetwood Mac) Tusk has been resurrected as a great album. But, you know, at the time we did it, it was thought of as a clusterfuck. We were always big supporters of that. Yeah, sure it’s screwed-up, but what’s great about it is they’re getting closer to their inner Syd Barrett. I think it was Johnny (Hickman, from Cracker) who said to me, ‘You have to go beyond inspired to disturbed.’That’s kind of what’s going on with us.”
The Tusk project led to some successful reunion shows as well as a proper new album: 2004’s New Roman Times: a sprawling, gloriously batty and wholly wonderful concept record whose alternate-universe plot vaguely concerns a war between Texas and California.
Now, after another long pause in recording, Camper Van Beethoven are set to roll out the most polished, cohesive, and just-plain-gorgeous collection of songs of their career: La Costa Perdida. Again, it’s a concept record of sorts, but this time the music is bound together by a general theme rather than a storyline.
“The title refers to the Lost Coast,” Lowery says, “which is a really specific geographic area of California that’s north of San Francisco. Sometimes the locals refer to the whole broad northern coast as culturally lost: lost in time, a lost place.”
I ask if it’s true that the somewhat obscure Beach Boys album Holland served as a sort of template.
“Yeah. Jonathan and I had this obsession with that album back in the early days of Camper Van Beethoven. I don’t know if the Beach Boys wrote that stuff at Big Sur or they were just obsessed with Big Sur, but there’s a song on it called Big Sur Trilogy. A couple years ago we were supposed to play in Big Sur, which re-kindled our interest in the album, but the show got rained out and was postponed for a week. So we went back to Oakland to Jonathan’s house and I just hung out and Jonathan and Victor would come over after work and Greg would come over and we would all get together and try to write songs. We thought if we came up with three or four, that would be great, but we came up with this big batch of songs and a general idea of what the lyrics were about. And I think because we were listening to that Big Sur period of Beach Boys and a few other artists from that time, we decided that that would somehow influence the album.
“Big Sur is actually on the central coast. But it fits the Lost Coast idea: it’s one of these weird, isolated places left over from another era. It wasn’t just Henry Miller that lived there. Kerouac and Pynchon had connections to the place. Captain Beefheart went up there. There were just tons of these arty sort of weirdo freaks that we admire and we would like to claim kinship to. But we’re almost a little bit too calculating to truly be freaks. We can pass in regular society to a certain extent.
“We put the title in Spanish because, mixed in with all of that, there are cultural influences from northern Mexico. The state of California, even in the wine country, is so intertwined with the country of Mexico. Musically, too, the two cultures are intertwined.”
With La Costa Perdida, Camper Van Beethoven have learned to blend their disparate ingredients seamlessly. The music is more textured than on previous efforts, due in no small part to the exquisite interplay between Lisher, Krummenacher, and Segel. Lisher lends further cohesion to the album by maintaining a clean, bell-like guitar tone throughout.
“He wanted it to remain the same,” Lowery says. “He literally used the same guitar, the same cord, the same two effects pedals and the same amplifier. He just said, ‘I’m going to do it this way.’ And that’s the thing with Camper Van Beethoven: the rest of us say, ‘Okay, you’ve got to do it that way…so let’s go with it.’ And it’s great. I think it sounds really good. It’s just all in his hands how the tones change and stuff like that. And Greg of course is the man of a million instantaneous riffs. I don’t know if you noticed on this record but so much of the vocal melody is coming from Greg’s guitar riffs. In ‘Northern California Girls’ that whole vocal melody is mapped in the opening guitar line.”
So, I ask, what can we expect during this thirtieth anniversary year?
“Well, with this second stage of Camper Van Beethoven, we have a different philosophy than we had during the first era. We decided that we really shouldn’t make it a full-time band. We’re not going to jump into a van and do 200 dates in the next eighteen months. We said, let’s just not do that anymore and see what happens. But we will play shows. Over the next few months we’ll cover North America and we’ll get to Europe in the summer. I suppose we’ll do something on the actual day of our 30th anniversary, which is sometime in June. And we’ll go to Australia finally. Every time we tried to go before, something bad happened with those Cracker and Camper tours so we got superstitious and stopped trying to go. We’re a strange band. Even though we’re all kind of scientists, we have some deeply ingrained superstitions.”
Does he see himself continuing on with Camper Van Beethoven into the foreseeable future?
“Sure. Why would I stop? There’s no real benefit to stopping.”
Above: RSD 2013 Ambassador Jack White doth proclaimeth it still rocks, dude.
BY JHONI JACKSON
[Ed. Note: the story below was originally published at BLURT last year to mark the 5th annual – anniversary – of Record Store Day. It happens this year tomorrow, April 20, at indie shops all across the land, and if you don’t know about it already, well… you probably aren’t even reading this right now. We will be participating in RSD with our sister business, Schoolkids Records of Raleigh, NC, for the usual dash-for-swag routine, not to mention co-hosting an afternoon’s worth of live performances, including mighty Sub Pop punks Metz, (read our interview with the band here), erstwhile Hobex/Dillon Fence mainman Greg Humphreys, and singer/songwriters Aoife O’Donovan, Caroline Mamoulides and Laura Cortese. At any rate, the sentiments expressed in our 2012 tribute still hold, so, without further adieu… watch RSD Ambassador Jack White’s testimonial, and then go out and support your local record store! –Fred Mills]
It’s a day-to-day outlook for the organizers of Record Store Day, the annual celebration of independent media stores through exclusive releases and in-store shindigs. Considering neighborhood shops are still as susceptible to shuttering as ever, the parallel is appropriate. Keeping the long-term in mind is a must for survival, of course. But RSD has expanded from 200 stores to a staggering 1700 worldwide. That kind of workload demands a one-thing-at-a-time approach.
“We all have more than full-time regular jobs in the world of indie retail,” explains cofounder Carrie Colliton. “Mine happens to be the marketing director for a coalition of 72 stores. As you know, releases happen all the time. Things don’t stop so that I can run RSD. [The event] itself is a full-time job. It’s definitely a labor of love.”
Colliton’s role in RSD is not unlike her daytime gig, and it’s in no way constrained to the rigid bullet points of a job description. She’s in charge of answering emails, monitoring social media, gathering information about releases and disseminating it to stores, answering questions from shop owners, coordinating events, updating the website and whatever else she’s tasked. (Or takes up on her own.)
Sales certainly catapult when a slew of special edition, highly collectible items are available on one particular day. This year, Wayne Coyne upped the ante when he publicly claimed to be collecting the blood of his collaborators on The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends. When the vital fluids of Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, Chris Martin and Ke$ha are for sale in limited quantities, there’s sure to be some thick-pocketed buyers. [Ed note: this year, 2013, the Lips are releasing a limited 4-LP colored vinyl box of their notorious album Zaireeka.]
But besides the benefits of spreading the word about alternatives to major retailers, arduous work doesn’t earn Colliton and company any pay. It’s an entirely pro-bono operation – they don’t even get first dibs on releases.
“[My store] is the same as every other record store in the world. There’s no extra bonus I get as a volunteer,” notes cofounder Eric Levin, who owns Criminal Records in Atlanta, Ga. “We all order 30 of something that they made 500 of. We each might get one…I think it’s cool that we’re screwed on titles just as much as any other store.”
Record Store Day has grown so much, Levin says, it’s become a “tent pole” in the music industry.
“If you’re a label, what do you do the week before, the week after? What do you do with your release schedule? It’s starting to change the way labels think about this time period,” he says.
With RSD’s increased influence comes more involvement from major labels, which for some is a point of contention. A focal point of that criticism is Bruce Springsteen’s Rocky Ground 7-inch. In addition to the Wrecking Ball track is the much beloved Boss outtake “The Promise.” The live take is ripped from the 2010 DVD The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it’s got plenty of critics questioning Columbia Records’ intentions – as well as RSD’s oversight.
“Somebody out there really wants that Springsteen 7-inch,” Levin notes. “There is a different piece of something for everybody… I don’t think there’s any love or special care that’s gone into some of those pieces. But at the same time, look at Light in the Attic’s Lee Hazelwood box set. It’s amazing. It’s just going to be a beautiful piece. There are so many wonderful things down there that were made with love. It’s up to the stores to buy accordingly and the customers to buy accordingly.”
A collection of remixed 311 songs and a one-side-exclusive Katy Perry album don’t seem to be getting much love from traditionalists either. [Ed. note: in 2013, some are questioning the wisdom of a super-limited Dave Matthews vinyl box and a reissue of, uh, Blind Melon’s debut album… this is the “cool” issue that may be eternal, of course.]Colliton, however, disagrees.
“There is no record release that shouldn’t be available to someone who chooses to buy it at an independently owned store,” she says firmly. “We’ve gotten just as many people excited about Katy Perry, Coldplay and Disturbed as we have about some of the smaller independent label releases. There is no one indie record store. There are urban oriented, country oriented, jazz oriented, Latin oriented. Any genre you can think of, there’s an independently owned business that specializes in it. I get a little worked up when people say something is not cool enough to be part of RSD. That’s my take on it. I think our list is really diverse and it covers a lot of areas and a lot of fans. I think that’s great and that’s the way it should be.”
There’s some dispute about “RSD First” items too. Those are the releases that debut on RSD but will available two weeks later with no restrictions regarding where they’re sold, whether it be Amoeba Music or Best Buy or iTunes.
“That’s where the industry started to take a little advantage,” Levin says.
What hasn’t changed for Record Store Day, however, is where labels and shareholders can’t interfere: Inside the shop. A benefit of shopping local is personalized service, and there aren’t any rules against pointing out exclusives or even seizing the opportunity to showcase their used LPs or new DVDs or extensive comic book section. Record Store Day does serve as a reminder of the importance of small businesses and the sense of community they create but, essentially, the point is to generate business –
There’s still a slew of items in keeping with the original romance of RSD. One such release is JEFF the Brotherhood’s contribution to the Upstairs at United series. The band and a few friends recorded extended versions of Wicked Lady’s “I’m a Freak,” Hawkwind’s “Master of the Universe” and S.P.O.C.K.’s “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.” Like its counterparts, this third installment in the series is analog-recorded then cut to 45 RPM at the storied United Record Pressing plant. [Ed. note: this year, 2013, you can score Upstairs at United titles from the Smoke Fairies and Willy Mason/Brendan Benson.]
“It was really fun, we just got a bunch of beer and whiskey,” says Jake Orrall, one half of the brotherly duo.
Major label intrusion aside, the amplified attention on RSD has gained the event more allies. Co-founder Michael Kurtz counts Regina Spektor and the Foo Fighters, in addition to better-known participants like the Flaming Lips and Metallica, as substantial supporters.
The Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood originally planned an online release for “After it’s Gone,” a song written to raise awareness about a proposed development close to downtown Athens, Ga., which includes a Wal-Mart. But he and the other musicians involved, like Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Widespread Panic and fellow Truckers members, seized the opportunity to simultaneously raise awareness about independent record stores. “Since RSD was coming up and we wanted to participate and do something, it just kind of made sense to do a limited edition 45 of that song,” Hood says.
At this stage in RSD, a move like that isn’t uncommon. Kurtz says “90 percent” of events and releases are initiated by the artists. Among the more ardent backers for 2012 are Mastodon and Feist, whose exchanges of cover songs, dubbed “Feistodon,” has fans of both parties buzzing.
“That’s one of the best examples of how RSD has grown,” says Colliton. “That piece was put together entirely by the artists. It had nothing to do with us – we didn’t even know about it until the artists said, ‘We’ve done this piece, we put it together and we want to release it for you on RSD.’ That, to me – I could tear up! That’s so exciting to me.
“These artists recognize how important indie record stores are to what they do. You couldn’t be more different than Feist and Mastodon, yet they both feel the same way about record stores and they both came together to release this special piece which you can only get at a record store. It’s pretty much the embodiment of RSD.”
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