For their latest album, the Tucson band found it necessary to explore terrain far removed from their usual turf. With the band just commencing a new North American tour (it started May 30 at Wakarusa and runs through the middle of June, including a stop at Bonnaroo), let’s investigate.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Many among us would like to believe that the border fence bisecting much of the North American continent simply vanishes when it hits the Gulf of Mexico outside Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. But just as mankind constructs real-world walls and fences to separate nations, the concept of borders is every bit as much a man-made construct, with to-the-victor-go-the-spoils map-lines whose authority comes only with our acquiescence or the lethargic weight of history.
Joey Burns and John Convertino, the creative engine behind the 16-year-old collective Calexico, know the border doesn’t really end when it submerges beneath the Gulf waves. Instead, it takes its arguably more pernicious political form, erecting a barrier between the U.S. and its natural neighbor Cuba, as well as other Hispanic, African, Creole, and indigenous Caribbean cultues.
Algiers, the band’s seventh full-length and first for the Anti- label, explores these borders that we erect first in our minds: between nations, races and cultures, of course, but closer to home, too, between family and loved ones. And almost as if to road-test these themes, the band decamped from its Tucson base to New Orleans — specifically the former slave plantation and 15th ward, Algiers — for two fecund weeks of recording.
“There’s this other border that’s part of the U.S. that’s really not talked about as much,” says Burns, citing the 1962 U.S. embargo of Cuba, which is still in effect. “There’s this incredible country and culture, music, and heritage that we’re really closely related to, and especially in relationship to jazz and the music of New Orleans. So I felt like going there would be really interesting to see what kind of perspective we could come up with.”
Burns even refers to New Orleans and Tucson as “port” cities, echoing the latter’s reputation as a trade hub on the Guaymas-Hermosillo-Nogales corridor from the Sea of Cortez. He then added one more entry to his list of ports: “Our band is kind of a port city, literally and figuratively.”
You won’t find many bands more conscious of these physical and mental barriers than Calexico. Since its inception in 1996 as an offshoot of Giant Sand, where Burns and Convertino provided the rhythms for Howe Gelb’s desert-baked meditations, Calexico’s music has border-hopped as a rule. The inclusion of mariachi and Italian-born spaghetti Western arrangements on early albums like 1998’s The Black Light and 2000’s Hot Rail have come to represent something of a signature sound, but they’re only the band’s most identifiable accents. Up through 2008’s Carried to Dust and now Algiers (as well as a host of website-only releases and soundtracks, notably last year’s massive Road Atlas vinyl box), Calexico’s unique rock has also embraced French chansons, Portuguese fados, various Eastern European and Gypsy flavors, and a host of other Latin music styles.
But in light of some significant personal changes, and to fulfill a long-held desire to record in New Orleans, the Calexico brain trust — Burns, Convertino and the band’s long-time co-producer Craig Schumacher — aborted sessions at their hometown studio Wavelab and booked time at The Living Room Studio in Algiers. There, in an old converted wooden church by the Mississippi’s western levees, Calexico was able to reload after Schumacher’s now-in-remission throat cancer, the April 2011 birth of Burns’ twin girls, and Calexico’s label search in the U.S. after its long-time home Touch & Go Records shuttered.
“There were a lot of things that made us take a step back and wait to see where things were going to lead,” Burns says, explaining the four years between records.
He notes that the experience turned out to be “dream-like,” resulting in fertile 12-hour days of music-making. The first-time father was able to catch up on his sleep, and Schumacher seemed to improve every day. Convertino, who’d been running the household while his wife was busy finishing her doctoral thesis, seemed re-energized and inspired by his morning runs along the Mississippi.
But the historical melting pot had long held appeal for Calexico. Burns’ interest notched upward after a 2010 trip to Cuba, where he heard first-hand the island’s influence on American music. After that visit, he began brewing new musical ideas. The tipping point may have been reading musicologist Ned Sublette’s 2008 history of the city, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.
“I like it there because of all of the stories and myths that come from that part of the world, and it’s such an eclectic city. For that reason alone it seemed like a good match for our band,” says Burns.
Convertino’s fondness for the city began with John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as his interest in Truman Capote, another native son. “On top of all that, being a drummer, to live where the drum set was invented seemed fitting,” Convertino says. When he was playing in The Living Room’s warm wooden acoustics, he added, he was thinking about things like “the river, the humidity in the air, Baby Dodds doing press-rolls…”
Calexico did take advantage of the locale to recruit local trombonist Craig Klein (Bonerama) and tenor and baritone sax man Jason Mingeldorff (Nightcrawlers). But the city’s traditional Preservation Hall sounds, or its Marsalis Family flavors, aren’t on Algiers, though Calexico has plenty of jazz chops (listen to the Charles Mingus-flavored “Crumble” from 2003’s Feast of Wire). Instead, Burns concedes this may be the band’s “bluest” record, a synthesis of its earlier sinister and lonesome desert noir sound, its recent dark indie rock leanings, and now a bit of Caribbean-born juju.
“Sinner In the Sea” links all these musical and narrative trends. It exports the riff from The Black Light’s “Stray” to a slinky bolero playing in a Havana nightclub, perhaps not far, as Burns sings, from the “waves crashing on the Malecon wall.” But the loss of that cultural connection — one that stretched back to the days when New Orleans belonged to the French and Spanish — has a more intimate, familial cost because of a “forgotten war” that’s raised “a wall in the ocean between you and me.” Even the LP’s most upbeat number, the meringue-influenced “Puerto,” features forlorn lyrics about the yearning of native Dominicans for their émigré friends and relatives.
The most corrosive walls aren’t physical or political at all. This blue LP’s bluest moment may be “Para,” its minor-key shuffle-to-cathartic-crescendo the melancholic vehicle for Convertino lyrics so personal Burns says the song almost didn’t make the record. Deeply affected by Terence Malick’s exquisite examination of family, The Tree of Life, Convertino recounts his parents’ happiness raising their five children as well as the demise of their marriage. He even lent his parents’ home movies to the song’s video, mirroring much the same era that Malick transported filmgoers to.
“When Joey asked for some words to ‘Para,’ I tried to relate that vibe in the words, the complexity of that family in the movie, my own childhood, and the family I have now in my own life,” Convertino says. “I know there was a lot of love between my parents; there would have to be to raise five kids. But it didn’t work out for them, and the divorce was incredibly sad for everyone.”
Recognizing the LP’s dark emotional cast, Burns wrote the lullaby-like “Hush” as much for the connection he has with his wife as to offer some hope for the future to his new daughters. The popular children’s book Goodnight Moon even provided impetus for lyrics acknowledging life’s simple treasures and subtle moments. But if there’s admiration for our efforts to overcome these walls we build, the melancholy in Algiers tells us the battle rages on and on.
“There are a lot of characters that are either between walls or that are trying to make it through or across some kind of barrier” on Algiers, Burns says. “But I’m trying to extract some form of hope, especially in regards to where the future might unravel to.”
Surmounting these psychological barriers and physical walls remains our last great hope—perhaps even our raison d’être. Algiers, and the perseverance of the melting pot city where it was recorded, offers proof that the battle is worth fighting.
The return of Big Country, following the tragic loss of its frontman, surprised even the man selected to be his replacement.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Despite one extremely popular song in the mid ‘80s, Scotland’s Big Country never quite gained their proper due in this country. Their sound can be heard in scores of popular bands; the musicianship remains impressive decades after they proved you could make a guitar sound like a bagpipe (listen to the opening strains of “In a Big Country”); and their cult-like popularity is still rabid across Europe, 30 years after cementing their reputation for being able to blend pop music, new wave and even elements of punk rock into memorable albums.
Though the band had managed to weather the changing whims of musical tastes and a fickle record industry, Big Country was dealt a massive setback in December 2001. Weeks after disappearing, the band’s singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson, who had been battling alcoholism for years, was found hanged in a hotel room in Hawaii. The band would be forgiven for wanting to close the book and put it back on the shelf, but they decided to honor a commitment to their fans and play a date in Holland that had been previously booked. They turned to Mike Peters, front man for The Alarm, a longtime contemporary of the band and friend of Adamson, to fill in on vocals. Now, after a series of wildly popular European festival dates in 2011, Big Country has returned, with a new album aptly titled The Journey, with Peters officially part of the group and a U.S. tour ahead of them. In addition to Peters and founding members Bruce Watson and Mark Brzezicki, Big Country now includes Watson’s son Jamie and Derek Forbes.
On a recent morning practicing for the upcoming tour, Peters was kind enough to get on Skype to talk about his relationship with Adamson, juggling two bands at once and how his battle with cancer forced him to finally accept the invitation to join Big Country full time.
BLURT: You’ve obviously played shows with the band before. Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction you guys got when you played those festivals in 2011? Surprised by how many people still wanted to hear Big Country?
MIKE PETERS: It was a very difficult decision to walk into because Stuart Adamson was so loved by his fans, the same way I have a similar relationship with The Alarm’s audience. I have always played in The Alarm, and we’ve gone through everything life has thrown at us, but nothing nearly as difficult as (what Big Country) had to go through with the loss of Stuart. When I walked out to play that show with the band on the 31st of December, 2010, it was a real emotional moment. The lights went out and the original members of the band walked out and I came on last and it was a real tense few seconds and then the drums started up and then the guitars and it was like nothing had changed because it was still the classic sound of Big Country.
As soon as I opened my mouth to sing the first few lines “Now we play our final hand” from “1000 Stars” off The Crossing, I felt every single person in the room go through the machination in their minds, “Whoa, what’s this?” And luckily for me I had spent a lot of time with Stuart on the road and I think I know how he would have wanted his band to be represented and how he would want his lyrics to by sung. He always gave everything he had… So I did it my way, because you can’t replace Stuart Adamson… When we line up on the stage at the end, I stand to the left and someone stands to the right, but that center spot is always open because that’s where Stuart resides. We always say there may look like five people on stage, but there’s really six because Stuart Adamson will always be present.
Was that always a conscious decision to leave that space open on the stage?
It wasn’t conscious as such, but that’s always where it felt right. Stuart could sing as well as play these very complex guitar parts. I’m not a guitarist the same way Stuart was by any means, so those guitar parts were taken by Bruce’s son Jamie Watson and we needed two people to do what Stuart was able to do on his own and Jamie and Bruce are the reason I decided to continue with Big Country. They have the same intimacy in playing that Stuart and Bruce had – they shared buses and hotel rooms night after night, day after day for what must have seemed like a thousand years and Bruce and Jaime, as father and son, have a similar relationship. I think if we brought in another guitarist, I don’t think you could expect them to work out as well… the intimacy in the playing was still present because they have to play very much in synch with each other. That left me free to concentrate on the singing.
Do you remember that conversation you had when they first asked you to join the band? Were you hesitant at all? Did you have to come back to them?
Oh, I was definitely hesitant because the first person to ask me to join the band was Stuart Adamson himself.
I was on tour with Big Country on the  Driving to Damascus tour. (Ed Note: Mike was opening the shows as a solo performer.) We were on tour across Europe and I was on the tour bus with Big Country. We played night after night and I could tell that Stuart was in a very difficult place at the time, dealing with problems; he was very taken with trying to become a country singer – he had a wife who was in Tennessee – and he was very immersed in trying to be a part of that culture and that was rubbing up against the rock culture and Big Country. Stuart was at the point where he said, “I can’t expect the band and the fans of Big Country to accept me playing country music and I’m going to have to walk away from this for the time being”. He said to me, “I think you should carry on where I leave off. You get along great with the band and you’d be perfect.” At the time I thought it was very strange for Stuart to be saying anything like this and I just brushed it off. He said it in public a few times after that… On his last gig with Big Country in Glasgow, we played together and he walked off the stage and I was left up there… After Stuart took his life, the band had one gig left to play at a convention in Holland and the band asked me if I’d come up to sing some of the songs with them. I said yes; it wasn’t a big commitment and it was a way to honor Stuart. It was an emotional time. We talked about doing it again, but it was still emotional and we were all emotionally raw and I thought more time was needed.
When did it feel right?
I’ve got leukemia, so I was climbing a mountain in Wales as part of a cancer fundraiser in 2010 and Bruce Watson phoned me on the mobile I had in my backpack and asked me if I would sing two songs at a charity event. I said yes without hesitation. At this point, I’d been through cancer twice and taken stock of my life and worked out in my mind what would happen if these were my last days… I decided to say yes to everything and worry about the consequences later. By the time they phoned me back to confirm things it had gone from two songs at a charity to being an eight-date, full blown tour.
You’ve managed to do something very few people have ever been able to do: be in two well-loved, long running bands. Were your bandmates in The Alarm nervous that you were leaving them to focus on Big Country?
No because they are used to me doing different things. I write for The Alarm, I write on my own, I’ve got a film out that I’ve just written the soundtrack for, I’ve played in a band with Billy Duffy from The Cult. For me it’s about being disciplined and writing for the band you’re involved with at the moment. The Alarm is very autobiographical; everything that happens to me ends up in a song. Writing with Big Country I knew I had to be very disciplined. I couldn’t bring my life into it in the same way.
When I was in the hospital for chemotherapy, my music was with me and Big Country came on and there were two words that came up “Stay Alive” (from “In a Big Country”) and they had a big impact on me and became this sort of Talismanic call to arms to me to survive the treatment and get well. I’ll always be grateful for that song as a fan, as a human being, and to be asked to sing that song live, to continue that tradition, is just… it means a lot. From talking with the band and with Stuart, I knew their music was created very organically and very different from the way I write music with The Alarm. When I write with The Alarm, I write on an acoustic guitar and come to everyone with lyrics and everything, but it would be disrespectful to expect Big Country to change things for me. People have this perception that they see a singer playing a song and they think the whole thing has come from him, the band around him becomes slightly invisible. With Big country, everyone in the band has always been contributors to the songs. Ninety-nine percent of the time I spent my time outside of the room while Big Country were writing the music and I’d be just listening to the melodies that were coming from under the door. Nobody knows where lyrics really come from, but I would listen to the music and the music would suggest words and I’d them come bursting into the room and say “I’ve got two words”! … I thought it was very important to work within the tradition of how Big Country’s music was always made.
Photo Credit: Andy Labrow. Big Country’s North American tour starts June 6 in Asbury Park. Tour dates can be found at their official website.
On his latest, and possibly most ambitious, album (released June 11), the singer/songwriter/painter/auteur finds his reasons to believe. Making cameo appearances: Jesus, Joey Ramone, Captain Kangaroo, the Dukes of Hazzard and more.
BY ALLI MARSHALL
Joseph Arthur’s The Ballad of Boogie Christ (out June 11 on his Lonely Astronaut label) opens with “Currency of Love,” which is Arthur like we rarely hear him. Singing forcefully, almost theatrically, pushing at the limits of his voice. He’s backed by horns and a bouncing piano, tapping (awesomely) the spirit of Randy Newman.
“Saint of Impossible Causes” is a return to form. The poetic laundry list, the train of thought word-play set to a jangling melody split here and there by a raga that drifts across the headphones as if threaded through the listener’s mind. Here, instruments layer and the roll call of Arthur’s saints — “I need the saint of longing, I need the saint of will, I need the saint of killers too afraid to kill” —collage in textures and juxtapositions much like the canvases he paints.
The album’s title track begins with the bold assertion that “Christ would wear cowboy boots, Christ would have sex, Christ would eat pizza and cut black jack decks.” It’s a song that could easily jump the proverbial shark. It’s both insouciant and over the top and yet there’s a control within the chaos. Arthur could wink, but he doesn’t. He sings each verse with slow and seductive conviction, his voice low and unhurried. In the background, what begins as a psychedelic-tinged waltz builds in intensity with organ, horns, electronics, and a chorus that seems to rise from the din of a party. Ultimately, it is a party. Not a statement against Christianity, but a celebration of humanity in all of its weird, colorful imperfection. Hard not to get behind that, even if the song’s title leans toward pretension.
Maybe pretension isn’t the right word. Audacity is more like it, because with this song, Arthur makes Christ in his own image (“Christ would be savage, but Christ would be true. He’d say if you want him then look inside you”), which feel a bit like breaking the rules. Which is what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to do. And here it’s smart and bold and heart-on-sleeve. It’s also the passion project of an artist who may feel like he’s yet to receive the recognition he deserves. After all, Arthur has been at it for a long time. He was discovered by Peter Gabriel in ’96. He’s put out 10 studio albums and 11 EPs. And he paints and writes and makes videos. He’s sung a duet with Jimmy Fallon. Michael Stipe has covered his music. He’s in RNDM, a collaboration with Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament. Which is to say, Arthur is a known entity, but he’s not a limo-riding, entourage-having super-star.
And that’s probably a blessing. That’s why he can put out The Ballad of Boogie Christ, and that’s also why he can hold a Pledge Campaign to pay down studio debt incurred in making the album and get that fundraiser 150-percent funded with weeks to spare. Arthur’s fans follow him, wherever the muse may lead. That kind of freedom, to create and express, is rare.
“Ballad of Boogie Christ” is followed by “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water.” The two songs could be the opposite faces of the same coin, with the second full of the doubt and anguish that the first steamrolls in its soulful swagger. But “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water” is soulful, too, in its quiet reflection and raw honesty. “Forgive me now my useless thunder when I was such a dynamo,” Arthur sings. “For I am here, and I am humble. I know not which way to go.” The songs dissolves to a stripped a capella for just a moment. It’s a rare glimpse behind the curtain of Arthur’s lavish maelstrom and production.
“I Miss the Zoo” is reprised here, though in a different form from last year’s Redemption City. There’s something about that song that is always a little hard to hear. It’s Arthur’s spoken word revisiting of his own addiction. Though he’s been sober for about a decade now, there’s something in the lush visuals, the palpable longing wafting through the dark-but-lovely words that suggests the songwriter feels compelled to revisit the wreckage. On Boogie, the song is more up-front — voice, guitar and piano — less buried under reverb. But still. The ache is there.
“Still Life Honey Rose” also thrums a poignant note, with Arthur’s falsetto well-matched with electronics and guitar melodies. That song recalls the melancholy-but-rhythmic turn of 2011’s The Graduation Ceremony.
While that ache, that connection to lost love and human tumult, is something Arthur is skilled at plumbing, his rockers trade wistfulness for flirtatious saunter. “It’s OK to Be Young/Gone,” in its last minute, reminds of the “You’re a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl” break in the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” And up-beat “Black Flowers,” with its brisk hand-drums and brassy horn hits is part block party and part ‘60s revival.
Somewhere between the somber and the swagger are the expansive and loosely-narrative “King of Cleveland” and “Famous Friends Along the Coast,” which both play like cinematic vignettes. Rich with imagery, resonance and hooks, they feel less esoteric than the rest of the album. But these songs are relatable and immediate, and lend a groundedness to the 12-track collection.
The Ballad of Boogie Christ wraps with the seven-plus minute “All the Old Heroes,” which was released in advance as a video. It’s worth seeking out: It’s long and a bit of a saga. But also wonderfully rendered. The video is a photo montage of heroes which, in the first seconds, might have you thinking 1) No one tells me who my heroes are and 2) There aren’t enough for a seven-plus minute song. By minute two, you’ll start to catch on. Joey Ramone, Shirley Temple, Superman, Gandhi, Twiggy, Dukes of Hazzard, Bob Marley, Captain Kangaroo. They’re all there. They flash by and you think something like, “I get it. Heroes are those people who show us how to really go for it.”
And that’s exactly what Arthur is doing with The Ballad of Boogie Christ. Going for it.
We’ll take “Buzz Bands” for $50, Alex: Bethany Cosentino meditates on their trajectory to date and to come. (Best Coast is currently on a U.S. tour which includes a stop at BLURT’s sister business Schoolkids Records in Raleigh, NC, on June 1; the group will be unveiling material from a new EP that’s due out soon on the tour.)
BY MAX BLAU
In 2010, California indie rockers Best Coast released Crazy For You—their highly anticipated debut album featuring the breakout hit “Boyfriend.” The duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno became one of the year’s breakout acts, displaying an impressive collection of reverb-drenched pop songs on relationships, getting high and a love of their home state. As infectious as the record sounded, however, much of their emergence occurred because of Cosentino’s persona.
Between her cat Snacks and her openness regarding her personal weed consumption, it
wasn’t always clear if the music or musician should be the main attraction.
But on their sophomore record The Only Place (released last year on Mexican Summer), Cosentino and Bruno took their sound in a new direction, drawing on classic country artists along with an abiding love for Fleetwood Mac (the Mac’s Tusk track, “Storms,” appeared on a limited-to-3000-copies-for-indie-stores 7″ single, and the band contributed their version of “Rhiannon” to last year’s Just Tell Me That You Want Me F.M. tribute album). They were
also recording in a proper studio for the first time, producer Jon Brion helping them craft a record fully showcasing their talents. With the new release, the band’s music stood alone in the spotlight, minus Cosentino’s feline fandom or marijuana PSAs.
We spoke with Best Coast’s frontlady about how the group moved away from lo-fi recordings, working with corporate brands and being featured as an answer (about “Buzz Bands”) on Jeopardy.
BLURT: During the time between Crazy For You and this record, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned?
COSENTINO: I was super stressed and anxious and I think this time around I know how to handle that stress in a better way. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is like my new motto.
Two years later, how you have learned to balance your public and private life? Have you gotten used to it? Has it become manageable or is it something you still struggle with?
I’ve just learned that you don’t always have to tell people every little thing you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, [you] know? If I’m out partying I don’t need to tweet “you guys I’m soooo drunk!” It’s not really any of the world’s business what I do in my private life – and since my songs are so personal, I figure everyone already knows too much about me anyways…
On the flip side, what was it like being on Jeopardy? Did you know beforehand you’d be featured or did you just see that randomly one day?
I had no idea! I was in Hawaii and someone tweeted it at me, and then a second later my mom text messaged me about it and I was like, “ok, what the fuck?” It was definitely surreal and one of those moments where I just realized, “shit man, my life is fucking awesome.”
What kind of music inspired the country elements on your new record? Who would you credit as influential on this record?
For me, it was Patsy Cline, Fleetwood Mac, Dolly Patron, Connie Francis, Loretta Lynn. Bobb credits X as being his biggest influence on the record, and we both were hugely
influenced by The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. Always.
When did you write these new songs? Did they all follow Crazy For You or were they earlier ones? In terms of subject matter, what were you trying to write about?
A few of the songs were written pre-Crazy For You. About three of the songs are earlier recordings that we thought were beautiful enough that they deserved a chance to be recorded in a big studio with proper production. The rest were all written on my downtime during the Crazy For You touring schedule. I’d be home for a few days every few months, so I’d lock myself into my bedroom and write a bunch of songs about how I was feeling, and most of those feeling were deep emotions about being homesick or confused about what my life was turning into.
These songs are about feeling all over the place and not really understanding life. It’s more of an existential album, more about things I think about and don’t have answers to.
You’ve talked about how your bedroom, your home and California are safe places where you feel the most comfortable. Have you come to grips with being on the road and feeling the opposite of how you are at home?
I definitely hadn’t back then, but I think I have now. Like I said, I’ve changed a lot and I think part of that change has just been learning how to deal with stress and learning how to be OK with things when they aren’t exactly the way you want them to be. I’m actually
really fucking stoked to go back out on tour–I miss it at this point. I feel like I’ve been home long enough, and I have a better grasp now on what touring is like, so I think it’s going to be a whole new experience for me once we get back out there.
The Only Place is a cleaner record in terms of production. Musically, is this the sound you and Bobb envisioned from the beginning? Is this sound ‘the sound’ for Best Coast?
In the beginning, I wanted to songs to sound DIY and I wanted to cover everything in distortion, but it was mostly because I was afraid of people hearing my voice and what I was saying. I think as soon as I grew confident, I knew I wanted to make a record that reflected that confidence. I love lo-fi recordings, I think they work for some bands, but I think that for us, we know now that this is a sound we want to stick with.
How have you and Bobb’s collaborative relationship grown over this period since getting the band going?
We’ve become so close it’s insane. He’s like my brother. We share a brain. We just know each other so well, and we know the music so well, and we both have each other’s backs. It’s kinda cute how close we are now. When the band first started Bobb was a friend, but now Bobb is like my best friend, he’s seen me during my high and lows, and we understand each other incredibly well. It’s scary to hand over your art to someone and say, “here finish this,” but I’m not scared of doing that with Bobb. I trust him and I trust his taste, and he always ends up playing exactly what I envisioned him to play on a Best Coast song. We are really lucky to get along so well.
You’ve partnered up with several brands in various capacities over the past couple years (Converse, Gilt, Urban Outfitters). I think there’s a default position for emerging (indie) acts to be adverse when it comes to working with brands. What’s your take on that? It seems that you’re not opposed—how come?
I’m not opposed because it gets my band’s name out to people who may not have heard of it. I’m not one of those people whose like, “I can’t work with brands because I’m punk.” I don’t care about that shit. If someone [that] likes Converse recognizes my art and thinks it’s good and wants to help me grow as an artist, I’m going to take that opportunity. After all, this is my job and I want as many people as possible to hear about Best Coast so that I can keep doing this for as long as possible, because I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Kramer, Don Fleming and The Rummager resurrect their alt-rock era exercise in musical chaos. Abetted by Bob Bert, they storm Manhattan this weekend. What more could we possibly wish for? (Pictured above: a promo shot taken at JFK Airport in 1989. As Kramer himself puts it—“Whoah…”)
Don Fleming yelled that opening Beatles line into the microphone a couple times. Next to him, Kramer turned on what looks like a kid’s cassette player, which emitted something through the p.a. that can only be described as circus music ran amok. The bassist then emptied a garbage bag full of balloons into the audience, with a comedic, rubber-faced expression. Behind the drums, Jay Spiegel —“The Rummager” to anyone in the know —swaps his glasses for a pair of shades, and the trio launches into their first song with all three singing together:
“I had a bird/ it had a name/ I can’t remember that bird’s name/when I was young I read a book/ it changed my life, To Kill a Man.”
Some things stick with you, decades later. For me, this is one of them. The year was 1989 at the CMJ Music Marathon and the band onstage at New York’s Pyramid Lounge was B.A.L.L. Originally a four-piece unit (with second drummer David Licht) by this time, they were a power trio. Much like their records, this performance teetered at the brink of chaos, never falling into but dipping its toe in it. When Fleming went into a screaming guitar solo, Kramer was just as likely to go to the upper range of his Hofner Beatle bass, which was perpetually distorted and played without a strap since it was so light. Between songs he shot silly string into the crowd, like some manic vaudeville performer. At one point he set down his bass, feedback howling, to haphazardly duct-tape an American flag to the wall behind the Rummager. Once he finished, he opined that it was made by an underpaid factory worker, so why couldn’t he burn it? (This was a hot-button political topic that year.)
That night, it was easy to wonder how long this musical chaos could last. The answer came roughly 15 minutes into the set. Fleming’s Marshall stack tumbled backwards and the head fell down a trapped door in the stage that lead to the dressing room. Borrowed from openers the Afghan Whigs, who had just signed to Sub Pop, the amp shattered. “OK, we’re done,” Fleming said.
A few months later, the same could be said about the whole band. On tour in Europe, the volatility of the band became too much and Kramer quit. Ball Four – Hardball came out on Kramer’s Shimmy-Disc label the following spring, their fourth album in three years. Despite the fact that half of it consisted of instrumentals which they never finished, it stands as the group’s most focused, solid rock album.
Fleming and the Rummager went on to form Gumball which released two underrated albums of heavy pop for Columbia. They also occasionally revamped the Velvet Monkeys, their garage pop band from their days in Washington, D.C. Kramer continued to run Shimmy-Disc throughout the next decade, making it one of the most diverse and iconoclastic indie rock labels in that time. Arguably the most popular band on the label was another one of his projects, the psychedelic Bongwater (which did end acrimoniously). He also released several solo albums and collaborated with musicians such as Jad Fair, the late Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper and one-time Soft Machine member and Gong founder Daevid Allen. He recently released Brill Building a tribute to the songs and composer of the legendary brick-and-mortar locale where numerous pop hits were written in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
So it came as a bit of a shock two months ago that Kramer posted on Facebook that B.A.L.L. was performing for the first time in 24 years, with Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore) occupying the second drummer position. But in talking to both frontline members of the band, it’s not as if they’ve been giving each other the silent treatment since that fateful night in Belgium when Kramer left.
The origins of B.A.L.L. date back a few years before that CMJ show. Kramer joined Half Japanese, which included Fleming and Spiegel. The guitarist and bassist hit if off immediately and set their sights on starting a project together. “I always was a big fan of Kramer’s playing — and producing — but especially his playing,” Fleming says. “He doesn’t stick with the basic part. He’s a bit of a one-man orchestra and I love that. It gives it so much more dimension and dynamics. He’s messy and I am too. There are moments when it tends to fall apart because we’re off visiting Sun Ra for a minute. But then it comes back together. There’s not too many players that play bass that way.”
Spiegel was the obvious choice for a drummer, but they also decided to bring in a second one, David Licht, who had been with Kramer since his days in Shockabilly and would also play in Bongwater. “I always wanted to do double drumming,” Kramer says. “Any time I even think of [George Harrison’s] Bangladesh concert [which included Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner], I start laughing. It’s my favorite thing in the world: two drummers doing almost exactly the same thing and I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful sound. You don’t get that from double tracking the drums in a recording, when one drummer is playing the same part twice.”
With a lineup in place, they went into Kramer’s Noise New York recording studio and let the magic transpire. “We never went in with any plan,” Kramer says. “B.A.L.L. was a rebellion against that over-produced nature of rock and roll and what it had become. Remember this was the ‘80s. It was a terrible, terrible time for popular music: Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis & The News. Punk was completely over by then, and it didn’t mean anything anymore. It was silly. We wanted to play and reinvent and live out what we felt was the very definition of the heart of rock and roll onstage.”
Fleming recalls a little more structure to the studio days. “I would have a certain amount of riffs, or what I thought was a song,” he says. “We would, on the spot, come up with arrangements. There probably aren’t that many that were straight-out improvs. They were definitely a few but it was a mix of things. There were a few that I brought in. There were a couple that were old Velvet Monkeys songs.”
As the band thumbed its nose at corporate rock, a zany sense of humor pervaded the lyrics too. Fleming could play it straight in a cover of the Pretty Things’ “I Can Never Say.” But he often talk-sang his way through his own songs, sounding like the cooler, tougher younger brother of Jad and David Fair on “My T.V. Is Broke,” or “Bird,” the song quoted above.
Their sense of humor manifested itself in what is arguably the greatest album cover homage (“parody” doesn’t seem to be appropriate) of all time. Bird, their second album, features the group recreating the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today“butcher cover,” right down to the facial expressions. The record itself also paid tribute, in a way, to Kramer’s Concert for Bangla Desh fixation with covers of “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Wah Wah,” “Bangla Desh” and, in “The Dylan Side” a three-minute reduction of Bob Dylan’s whole set at the concert.
Incidentally, the initials in the band name don’t stand for anything, according to Fleming. “We always would say it stood for ‘Bite my ass’ when people asked,” he says. “But other than that, no, it was purely fashion. A graphic statement. I think we struggled to find something it could stand for, but nothing ever worked.”
But that kind of musical situation is built on tension. Fleming sang most of the songs, adding lyrics after the basic tracks were laid down. “We’d sit down and listen to it and Don would sit there with a pad and paper and write lyrics,” Kramer says. “Then he’d go out to the microphone and lay down these vocals that made the songs sound like they had been worked on for months. I never worked with anyone better than that. The only guy similar in terms of being able to just listen and create lyrics was Jad Fair.” When that was done, Kramer handled all the production and mixing tasks, assembling 18 to 20 songs on each of the first three albums.
The difference between the studio process and the live band came to a head when the band was touring Europe in late 1989. Due to band dynamics, David Licht had already left the band during a previous European tour — literally stepping off a train before it pulled away with the rest of the band on it. This time it was Kramer that quit. Fleming “was kinda telling people that he produced B.A.L.L. and that pissed me off,” Kramer says. “And I told him I’d quit if he didn’t stop doing that. And he did it right in front of me in an interview, so I quit. That’s really how it happened. Not a complicated thing. And I regretted it like five minutes after I left town.”
Fleming recalls the dynamics in much the same way. “It was always volatile kind of situation for whatever reason,” he says. “A lot of bands have it, but I’ve never been another band that had that kind of tension. He wanted to run it, I wanted to run it. We both had big egos, I guess.”
But both of them say the breakup didn’t bring with it any animosity. Fleming describes it as more like a “mutual parting of ways” after a fruitful run that yielded four albums —a track record for which he’s proud. Kramer concurs. “I mean, the only real problem I had with him was the day I quit the band in Belgium,” he says. “When I came back, we looked at each other kind of….sort of sad, to tell you the truth.”
A few years ago, Fleming and Kramer met for lunch in New York. Kramer had just remastered the B.A.L.L. albums and Fleming agreed to shop them around to labels, which at press time hasn’t yielded any takers. They kept in touch and, knowing that Kramer now visits his daughter at college in New York, the guitarist asked if he wanted to play a show with a band that included Bob Bert. When Kramer couldn’t take him up on the first offer, Fleming mentioned a May date and said Spiegel would be in the band too. “I had a funny feeling when it finally came to it, it was going include Rummager, and the moment that happened, it was B.A.L.L.,” Kramer says. “I think, without Don actually coming out and saying, ‘Wanna do a B.A.L.L. gig,’ that was probably his underlying desire, as it was mine.”
Neither of them has used the term “reunion” for the Bowery Electric show happening on May 25. Kramer in fact calls it simply “an opportunity for a gig.” And true to their approach from bygone days, they’re doing it with one rehearsal the night before.
Kramer says he already been receiving pleas for the band to tour, but don’t hold your breath. “For as much as I’d love to tour again, I’m not so stupid to forget that touring is one hour a day of ecstasy and 23 hours of potential hell,” Kramer says.
He admits touring can help him make connections for his ongoing business of recording, mixing and mastering music at his Noise Miami studio. “75% of my work is mastering and I love it to death,” he says. “It’s just the greatest combination of craft and technology and art. It’s like a microcosm of producing. It’s like producing a record for a month but doing it in a day. I just fucking love it.”
Brill Building (Tzadik, reviewed here at BLURT), was his first release in nine years, is marked by a return to vintage Kramer production style, with tape samples bookending songs, dismantling of classic hits while still paying tribute to them and evoking a little pathos in the process. “I wanted to recapture an era when songs had true meaning, yet also this was an era with silliness and meaninglessness, like ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy,’” he says.
Calling the album the best production he’s ever made, Kramer nevertheless prefers collaborations to solo albums. “When I finish one of these records, I look and the mirror and go, ‘Eh, big deal.’ But when I finish a collaboration record or a production, which is what collaboration really is, and the artist is happy, then I look in the mirror and go, ‘Yeah, you did something good here,’” he says. “Creativity for me as a solo artist has never really come from a place of great contentment or joy. It always comes from trouble. It always comes from decay and decline.”
Fleming, who became a reputable producer in the 1990s with credits for Sonic Youth, the Posies and Screaming Trees, doesn’t do that kind of work too often anymore. “I love being in the studio but the routine of it after a while became boring. Dealing with the labels, the business end of it was not much fun,” he says. “It was just getting more tedious.”
For 12 years, he has worked for the Alan Lomax Archives, now serving as Executive Director. He also works as a consultant, frequently dealing with restoration and preservation of recordings. He admits the job doesn’t leave him much free time for his own musical projects, other than the occasional guest spot or a one-off project such as this. “But I feel really glad that it happened,” he says of his work. “It’s opened me up to the archival side of music which is important, and interesting. It’s pretty fun for me to go back and listen to the stuff and work on other people’s projects.”
As he looks back at the B.A.L.L. albums, Kramer still holds the band in high regard. “B.A.L.L. was certainly the best rock and roll band I was ever in. It’s the only band from many, many years ago that I can listen to records from beginning to end and feel really proud of. There’s a lot of other bands, like Bongwater — I can’t listen to that shit. And it’s not because of the lawsuit I had with Ann Magnuson. I just think some of it’s a little childish.”
Fleming concurs, scoffing at repeated comments that he and his collaborator needed to bury the hatchet to get back together. “I was happy with what we did and I’m happy now that we can do a show with it,” he says. “It’s been nice for me anyway, reconnecting with him in the last few years.”
The first and only B.A.L.L. show in over twenty years – Kramer (Bongwater, Shimmy Disc), Jay Spiegel (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball), Don Fleming (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore) – takes place Saturday Night, May 25th, at Bowery Electric, NYC. 9PM Sharp.Also on the bill- The Upper Crust. You can follow the band’s trajectory at Kramer’s Facebook page, natch.
The Vancouver wizards make impassioned, intuitive music that will change your life, period.
BY MARY LEARY
The Crackling’s name “…refers to songwriter Kenton Loewen’s favorite sound, the sound of burning. From gentle taps of smoking wood, to violent sparks of exploding pine cones and falling branches…”
I recently learned that the Crackling’s been opening for File Under: Music label mate Dan Mangan. Mangan performed at a venue I was booking in 2007. His impassioned, intuitively meshed technical expertise and songwriting talent were elevated by that ineffable quality that moves some performances into the indelible memory category.Based on the talent of the tour mate who shared that ’07 show – Matt Berube – Mangan probably welcomes challenges; competition. Even given the fact that Mangan’s percussionist, Loewen, isthe Crackling’s founder and central idea-maker, I’m not surprised to learn that Mangan’s been touring with the band. Canada’s alt. cabaret/folk/Indie rock subgenre seems to maintain its fertility – as have many healthy grassroots artistic movements – by populating itself with participants who inspire and support each other to fulfill and surpass their respective potentials.
Spotted by a track or two that helps keep the whole boat afloat, Mary Magdalene is something of a marvel. Loewen injects his emotions into forms that seem familiar while fresh and engaging. His ear for melodically attractive music is matched by an ability to appoint and arrange songs with a sense of just how hypnotic they can get without dipping into sleepy time territory. Arcane elements (clarinet, accordion, viola, piano, French horn, cello, acoustic guitar) are pumped up by more typical rock (electric guitar, bass, drums) instrumentation. Vocals, whether Loewen is solo or joined by Debra Jean Creelman, Dan Mangan, and/or the Vancouver Children’s Choir (“Keep Me Drunk”) are delivered with cabaret-savvy dynamics:restrained when they just need to tell the story; mounting to a roar when a song’s blood hits the surface.
“The Crackling” is a riveting exercise in boot-tapping rock with slightly gothic theatrics. It’s so enlivening that the band’s cover of a song I thought I’d heard enough for several lifetimes is well positioned to creep into my heart, right after it.Loewen’s quiet, resigned delivery of “Suicide Is Painless” restores the wryly heartbreaking nuances to a song that hit me that way when I first heard it in Mash (the film – as a TV theme song, it’s been castrated by sitcom theme orchestration and repetition). Other high points include the meaty folk rock of “Ashen,” a passionate confessional called “Keep Me Drunk,” and the elegant step back/forward rhythm of “Sold the Children.”
In which the Seattle band sees blood spatter and butts paddled.
BY SNOW AND GARNET KEIM
We began touring using the Book Your Own Fucking Life manual and online community (www.byofl.com) to navigate ourselves around the country. We played anywhere and everywhere, from a roller rink in Katy, TX, to a house space in Portales, NM, a private catholic school in Shreveport, LA, a dorm in Pocatello, ID, and a collective in Birmingham, AL. It didn’t matter where as long as we were moving, having fun and playing good shows.
It wasn’t glamorous by any means and many nights were spent in the van with a 40-ounce and a can of sardines. Occasionally things got so bad we would wait behind grocery stores until the deli food prepared that day was discarded and usually that was dinner. (We discovered most grocery stores have to throw out any food in the deli that didn’t sell that day.) So, we would wander in on a given day around 8:00pm when the deli closed trying to reason with them to just give us the food because we were going to get it anyway. Unfortunately more often than not the conversation would always devolve to something like “We’d like to help but it’s policy, you know?”
So while our egos may have been bruised, we managed to get by and stay fed through some very difficult times. During that period, one incident I recall distinctly was in Fort Worth, TX – a punk show hosted by the teenage son of a wealthy Texas judge. It’s worth noting that also on the property were caged purebred wolves, an arboretum and a huge barn where the show was to take place.
The most notable name on the bill, as I recall, was a band call ANS (pronounced “anus”) with hardcore punk numbers, ripe with idealism and riddled with frustration: “Abercrombie, Abercrombie, Abercrombie army wants you!” and that sort of thing. One of the show goers, a kid who was also in a band that performed, had a fondness for cutting his chest with razorblades while he screamed out his teenage angst. All well and good, except this time with ANS performing he became rather overly enthusiastic, almost to the point of insanity and, with his razors, went deep.
I’d stepped out of the barn for a drink and next thing I know is there is an ambulance beside us! The kid with the razors had sliced very deeply across his chest and stomach and also along his forearms and biceps and had lost a massive amount of blood. While everyone was thrashing and pumping their fists and enjoying the show no one had seemed to notice. Finally at some point the loss of blood must have started to seriously affect him and the ambulance was called. Suffice to say, he made it and we were all happy about that!
Another memorable event from around the same time period occurred in Frostburg, MD. Frostburg is small college town in the foothills of Maryland right near the border of West Virginia. It’s quaint, or at least that is how it appeared to us, from the outside.
It was a cold night and the venue was the Regal Beagle. A dive bar, but a step up from most of the venues we had played so far. The show went well and afterwards the locals who were involved with setting up the show invited us to an after-party at a friend’s house. Being late, I was tempted to hunker down and try to get some sleep but it was 20 below zero; sleeping in the back of a panel van would have been next-to-impossible.
Inside, the party had begun to get lively due to some more folks arriving with missing teeth and homemade moonshine in mason jars. Garnet and Bob had already sampled the hooch and so I needed no encouragement and could benefit from a pick-me-up to right myself from the bitter cold of the van. It went down like fire and made your head feel light and foggy.
The host was becoming concerned that we might wake the upstairs tenant and suggested we retire to the basement or shall I say, padded basement. Now here is where it got weird.
One girl was standing on her head while trying to take shots. Then there were these two guys who were wearing these big, black, punk rock belts with metal studs. They decided to remove their belts and start whipping the ass of another girl who was in a spirited mood. It sounded painful but she didn’t seem to object and, on the contrary, appeared as if she enjoyed it.
It kind of then caught on and a few of the other girls wanted to give it a go. The girls seemed to be having so much fun, one of the guys volunteered to be whipped as well. All the while this was going we were trying to make small talk, drink our beer and generally not pay much attention. That was when the revelry makers seemed to collectively realize that they had an out-of-town band in their padded basement, who had probably never experienced this type of good old fashioned hillbilly fun.
Someone in the room started to chant “The Blakes! The Blakes! The Blakes!”
Oh, shit I thought! Two of the guys grabbed Garnet first and held him while another guy and girl started putting the belts to him. We were way outnumbered, so Garnet took it good humouredly with the expectation that a swat or two and this whole thing would lose its excitement. Next Bob was grabbed and while he squirmed they held him fast and walloped him.
I realized then that that this was my moment to escape! I dodged for the stairs, one the guys tried to block me but I was quicker and ducked him and scrambled up the stairs then out of the house and into the van. It must have been ‘out of sight, out of mind’ because nobody followed and nobody bothered me for the rest of the night.
I guess I opted for the 20 below after all. The next morning I was informed that after some 15 or 20 wallops, things settled back to a relatively normal state. With sore butts, hangovers and hope for the future we ventured on to the next night.
The Blakes’ eighth album Art of Losses departs from their signature blend of garage rock and power pop to incorporate Brit-pop and synthpop influences. Rest assured, however, that it’ll still kick your ass until it bleeds profusely – and leave you with hope for the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Check out the video for the single “Narwhal” below and visit them at www.theblakesband.com where you can pick up the music.
Four days’ and three nights’ worth of rock ‘n’ roll in Austin with your favorite rock mag. Pictured above: our Thursday event curator Jon Langford with his 2012 BLURT/Dogfish Head party crew.
By The Blurt Editors
We’re going to be in Austin again during the annual SXSW music conference, and once again we’ll be holding court, as it were, at the Ginger Man Pub (located at 301 Lavaca) – this time, for four complete days (and three nights, too), March 13, 14, 15 and 16. The lineups for each day are listed below. Drop by for some music, and pick up a free copy of our latest issue while you’re there. And special thanks to our co-sponsor Dogfish Head beer!
Following the schedule, check some of the links regarding our 2012 day parties at Ginger Man during SXSW – among them, some fantastic videos of the Big Star tribute hosted by Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer and original Big Star member Jody Stephens.
Industry of Music Showcase at Ginger Man, Austin TX – 2013 Presented by: Dogfish Head & Blurt Magazine
Big Star tribute featuring Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow and Jody Stephens, plus a raft of guest players, including Peter Buck, Cotton Mather’s Robert Harrison, John Doe, Latebirds frontman Markus Nordenstreng, Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Early, some of the players from the previous night’s Big Star Third tribute concert, and others. http://blurt-online.com/news/view/6119
With a brilliant new album just released, this soulful singer reflects on what it’s like to win, lose, and then win again.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
At first, Beth Hart seemed to have it all – an uncanny ability to write hit songs, a major label affiliation, full concert itineraries, and plenty of positive publicity. An accomplished musician since the age of four, she clearly commanded a future flush with promise. Yet, in no time at all she was done in by her demons. Haunted by the specter of drug abuse and an undiagnosed bi-polar disease, she slipped into an abyss that threatened to derail both her career and the rest of her life as well.
Fortunately, she managed to triumph through sheer tenacity, and after spending time in a sanitarium and kicking her drug habit, she subsequently got married and resumed her successful trajectory. She’s been engaged in some all-star alliances, including collaborations with guitarists Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Bonamassa, elevated herself to headliner status in Europe, found herself receiving kudos for her spotlight performance at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors, and, earlier this month, featured prominently as part of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Fest at Madison Square Garden. She’s also touting an excellent new album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, her fourth recording of the past two years.
These days, with her struggles mostly behind her, Hart sounds happy, proud and committed to a relentless work routine. When BLURT spoke to her from Paris recently during a break in a rehearsal, she tempered that well-deserved sense of accomplishment with obvious humility and easy-going affability. (Below: Hart performing the title track on the Conan O’Brien show.)
BLURT: You’ve lived that perennial show business story, starting out with early success and acquiring a major label deal, before falling into that vacuum of drug abuse and personal demons, before finally emerging with triumph and tenacity. Is that how you see it?
BETH HART: Oh yeah, I think my whole life has been that way, outside of music as well as in it. Maybe it’s just what I’m drawn to — lots of highs and lots of lows. I don’t know what it is; I guess maybe I find peace to be boring. It’s either really going great, or it’s really going shit. That seems to be my pattern in life. But at this time in my life, I want to take as good a care of myself mentally as I can. I’m trying to learn how to find peace by having peace.
But given that one of the predominant genres that you work in is the Blues, isn’t that drama somewhat appropriate?
Absolutely. Even when I was writing music that was more singer/songwriter kind of stuff, a lot of those lyrics were really bluesy. A lot of self-deprecation and funk.
How did you pull yourself out of it?
I went through a lot of rehab. I don’t want to say it didn’t work, because really, I didn’t stop using, but it must of worked or found its way somewhere inside of me, where at least it got me to a place where I realized what an alcoholic and drug addict I really was. And then I went through a lot of psych ward stuff, where they kept saying the word “bipolar.” I kind of knew what that was from being a kid, because the doctors said that to my mom. When I was young, they told her I had some form of mental illness. But I really believed it was just from the drug taking. So I went to jail. By the way, I come from a family of bail bondsmen. I had been around the jailhouse mentality my whole life. And then I get bailed out by my brother’s ex-girlfriend Jeannie, who’s also a bail bondsmen. I remember when I walked out, she looked at me up and down, and said, “What happened to you?” That day, I went home and cancelled my prescription for my drug of choice. It was the first time I had ever done anything like that. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was a major contributor to helping me get well. He’s a great guy, a positive guy and comes from a great family who really, really loved me and loves me still, thank God. And we got married a few days after I got out of jail. We ran off to Vegas and we got married there, just the two of us. During our vows, I remember hearing something powerful, a voice that told me “You got a lot of problems girl, and you’ve got to work your ass off. You have to turn it around so you can keep this amazing man who really loves you, and learn how to love to him.” That really went through my head. After that, that was it. I got married to Scott when I was 29; I’m 41 now. I haven’t touched those prescription drugs again. Eventually I had to get on bi-polar drugs, but they also helped me tremendously. But I didn’t get on the bi-polar meds for the first five years of my sobriety, and that was really hard.
Clearly, you have a lot to be proud of. Not many people could overcome those setbacks and then end up playing the Kennedy Center Honors.
I know! Isn’t that crazy? That’s so crazy!
What was it like playing the Kennedy Center Honors?
It was so above and beyond! We get to our hotel room and I’m calling my family and friends… “I’m here! I’m here!” Then we go to rehearsal, and right behind me, here comes Tracy Chapman. And I’ve been a fan my whole life, so I get to meet her. I get to watch her sound check. Plus, my favorite record last year was the Fiona Apple record, and Charlie Drayton was the producer on that album, and he was the drummer we played with at the Kennedy Center. I got to talk to him about how every moment of that record was done. He was so awesome. Then we went to the State Department for dinner and I got to meet Hilary Clinton, and I got to talk to Bill Clinton for awhile. Aretha Franklin was sitting at the next dinner table over, and that just freaked me the hell out. Then there were all these beautiful celebrities like Buddy Guy and Led Zeppelin and all the other people being honored. And we’re all sitting there having dinner together. The next day, we had a major rehearsal and I got to meet Bonnie Raitt, which I just shit my pants over!
It sounds like you were kind of excited…
And then we went to the White House and I got to meet President Obama and I got to meet his wife Michelle. It was amazing. Then after the White House, we went straight to the Kennedy Center and did the show. I got to say, it was a highlight of my entire career.
Were you nervous?
You know what? I get really nervous just about everything. Everything! I guess it has to do with insecurity and that kind of bullshit. But when it came to that, I swear to you I was not nervous. Isn’t that wild? It was like some kind of guardian angel came over me and said, enjoy this. Don’t miss this because you’re all nervous and weird. Enjoy this. Be present. Soak this all in. Know you are here because you deserve to be, so be proud of it. And you know what? I enjoyed it!
You also got this incredible ovation after you sang. That must have been pretty amazing as well.
Yeah man. That was pretty cool.
And yet the song you did, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” is such a standard. That in itself kind of raised the bar, no? You really had to do a great job to meet the standard that had been set before.That was no small accomplishment.
Thank you. (Below: Hart and Beck)
How did you originally meet your current collaborators Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck and Slash?
Okay, I’ll tell ya. First, it started with Jeff some years ago. I had covered a Billie Holiday song on a Toots Thielman record. I had such a great time doing it. And somehow it got into the hands of Jeff Beck’s manager, who was also once the manager of Led Zeppelin. And he was also turned on to us by Jason Flom, who was my old record company guy from Atlantic Records. It was going to go in one of two ways. I was either going to work with Jimmy Page or I was going to work with Jeff Beck.
What a choice…
Yeah, isn’t that rad? Anyway, Jeff Beck heard it and said he wanted to come in and write with me. So I ended up writing with Jeff, and it was an amazing couple of days. He was just as sweet as can be. And then that was it. Then he saw a DVD I did called Live at the Paradiso that I recorded in Holland. And he said he wanted to go on tour with me and I’d be his singer while he was touring here in the States. So we were all really excited. And Slash was at one of the shows, and then Slash ended up calling me a few months later, and he said he also wanted to write with me because he was making a new record. So we wrote the song and it was great, but it didn’t end up making the first edition of the record, although it did end up making the second edition on I-Tunes. That was wonderful and he ended up playing on my record as well. We did some different dates together, and Joe Bonamassa came to one of my shows in London because he had heard a song on one of my records called “37 Days,” which he later played on the radio show he does on Sundays. He came down, but I didn’t meet him, but he told my husband, “I really want to make a record with Beth.” I was disappointed I didn’t meet him, but I know from being around for some time that people often say things, and you think, whatever. So I didn’t get my hopes up. But then I ran into him because we were staying at the same hotel, and he said, “I really do want to make a record with you.” We ended up picking out songs that we liked, but I didn’t know it was only going to be four frickin’ days to make this frickin’ record. My producer Kevin Shirley works so fast. However it opened up all kinds of territory overseas that I had never reached. It really helped my career.
What influenced your musical choices on the new album?
What I remembered while recording this record was all the great music that I loved while growing up as a kid. My first love was classical. But I also loved Jazz and Blues and Reggae. That was the kind of music I was turned on to. Before I did this record, I was doing my usual stuff. I had kind of gotten stuck in my own box. I was doing Rock ‘n’ Roll and singer/songwriter stuff for years. When I made my last record with Joe (Don’t Explain), I said, that’s it. I’m going to write some music for my next record that falls along these other lines because I really love it. I didn’t know why I hadn’t attempted to go in that direction before.
Who were your early heroes?
My early hero was definitely Beethoven, number one. And also Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley.
No, she wasn’t when I was a child. I didn’t even know who she was. I listened to a lot of Queen. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. I loved Ozzie. Just loved anything Black Sabbath and I loved Ozzy with Black Sabbath. That was the shit. (Below: speaking of Led Zeppelin…)
You put a dedication to Ozzy on your new album.
I think what it was about Ozzy was… when I was a kid, I never thought about technique. I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff. I thought about the way someone made me feel. So the thing I loved about him was that he could be totally wicked and scary when he was doing heavier stuff. But it sounded different to me than I had ever heard other rockers sound like. He was his own unique voice and tone and in the way he phrased things, and I loved it. And then he’d turn around and do something like “Changes” and that broke my heart and made me cry. The same thing with Queen, when I heard them sing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”“I don’t want to die, sometimes I wish I had never been born at all,” I remember hearing that line when I was nine or ten, and it just drove me to hysterics. It seems like every time a song made me cry, it wasn’t because it made me feel sad; it was because it gave me hope, and made me feel like I’m not alone. It made me feel moved. Artists like that, when they do that, it stays with me forever.
You said you were originally inspired by classical music, but when did you realise you could sing and make a career out of it?
Well, I knew I could write at a really young age. I was four when I did my first piano recital and I played a little song I had written, a little song I had come up with, and the teacher let me play it. But I didn’t write lyrics. I just wrote music and I did a lot of that as a kid. I loved to play cello. I loved the guitar as a kid. I wasn’t very good at it, but I just loved holding an instrument and fumbling around and trying to come up with things. That made me feel really good. I think it made me feel calm, because I’ve always been a very hyper person. When I played, it would quiet the spinning in my head and it would help me, like give me a feeling of family, of God in my heart, and it was great. As far as the singing went, my mom took me to see the musical Annie when I was like six or something, and so I memorized the whole record and I’d sing it for my mom every night before she went to bed. It wasn’t like I thought I was a great singer or anything, but I just loved to perform and make her laugh and giggle, and she was best, the best audience. So the singing didn’t come until later, and the lyric writing didn’t come until later, maybe when I was 14 and auditioning for the High School of the Performing Arts. But it was all about opera…
You studied opera?
I did as a kid and I studied with a coach. As I said, classical was my first love, so I really wanted to do that, but my teacher said she didn’t think I’d succeed because I liked to “change the music into my own.”And she said that you have to adhere to the composer. So that was a little bit heartbreaking.
So do you include a little sampling of Annie in your live show?
(Laughs) No, I don’t. But I still love that show.
So what’s on tap now? You’re touring through September?
I’ve always toured, but I usually take some time off to do some writing or recording. I went to New York and did two dates with Jeff (Beck) at Madison Square Garden for Crossroads. Then I’m going to be working with Slash for a couple of dates for a fundraiser for the families of the kids that were killed at Sandy Hook. And then I’m back on the road in the States, and I do a press run before I start a tour with Joe (Bonamassa) in Bergen Norway. Then I immediately start a European tour with my band two days after that.
It’s exhausting just listening to this…
I know. It’s a crazy schedule.
With all this frantic activity, how do you manage to stay so prolific?
My last album was a covers record, and then I have a new album coming out with Joe, and that’s also a covers record. So it’s only two original records in two years and two covers records.
That’s still four albums in two years.
Maybe I just got really inspired. This new medication I take, I gotta tell you…it’s really helped me. I just started taking it five years ago, and it helped me to relax mentally where I think I can do more physical work. Not that I’m not tired… I am a little tired right now, and I definitely need a break – which I don’t get until September. But I’m not a high profile artist. I’m not a big star right now, so if I’m going to work, I have to work really hard and try to get as many people as I can to come to the shows and hopefully build it up. So that’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m also at this place, kind of a crossroads in my life musically, where I want to be so much better as a songwriter and as an artist. It’s a big change in these last two years. So maybe I’m inspired by that, the challenge of going in different directions.
The new album is really varied. It sounds really fresh, but also sounds so timeless. Certain songs come across like standards, music that you think you’ve almost heard before. It makes this really indelible impression.
Oh my God! That’s so nice of you to say that!
It’s true. There are so many touchstones in this album. But you also mix it up a bit as well.
Whenever I go to write and I’m alone, there are a lot of styles that influence me. Of course I’m getting caught up in that, and whatever style I’m writing in tends to remind me of somekind of memory or dream that I’m having or going through at the time. And that will come through as a lyric. Usually that memory doesn’t happen unless the music is there first. Coming off the Joe thing, and coming off the fact I just turned 40, and just experienced a lot of changes in my life… there’s something about when a woman turns 40. So it’s a scary year, like, oh my God, I’m here. What have I done? Have I done the things I thought I’d do by now? Some of the things I did by the age of 40, I’m very proud of, like I never quit making music, no matter what happened. And being married to my husband for so many years now, and being so crazy in love with him and knowing that not only was I blessed to meet such a great dude, but I also made the choice to say yes to someone who was amazing. And that is a lot to say, to be able to say yes. That means there must have been some growth in thinking because I believed I deserved something that great. There were things like that to pull from and write about, which felt good. But I was so scared when I went into make Bang Bang Boom Boom… I was shitting myself scared because I didn’t want to fuck it up, because I loved the songs and I had a lot of songs written… I had 51 songs, but 38 were finished. And I knew I was making a record with great musicians, and I was working with Kevin Shirley again, the second time. So I didn’t want to mess it up. Even though I’m doing better now, I’m still the person I was. Sometime when I get a great opportunity, I push it away before it gets the opportunity to push me away, and I didn’t want to do that.
With Blues being such a staple, how do you as a performer define yourself so as to make your own mark in such a well established idiom?
That’s a very good question. Of course, you can never copy someone else. So that means even if you’re trying to be up to the standard of your hero that you love so much, you never really can, because your own identity is going to come through. I know for me, when I sang “I’d Rather Go Blind,” I tried to really get to its core. Etta James is one of my greatest heroes, and I just wanted to sing it like she was in the room. And I hoped if she was watching me, she would be proud of me. I never felt like I was able to do that, because she’s like God and I’m just a piece of grass, you know what I mean? (laughs) There’s no way you can be your heroes.
It’s one of the music world’s more notable recent start-up successes: the young guitar company creates eye-catching designs out of recycled oil cans.
BY ROBIN COOK
Bohemian Guitars was founded in 2012 by South African-born brothers Adam and Shaun Lee.They’ve lived in Atlanta since 1998, but are still inspired by the inventiveness of South Africa’s township musicians.Bohemian Guitars reflects that spirit, creating and selling guitars made from recycled oil cans.In 2013, the brothers raised money for the company via Kickstarter and flew to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest’s Gear Expo, where I interviewed Adam Lee.
BLURT: Could you give me a history of the company?
ADAM LEE: My brother and I are from Johannesburg, South Africa. And in the townships in South Africa, people are pretty resourceful.They repurpose pretty much anything they can get their hands on into functional instruments. It inspired my brother to try and take it to another level and make an electric oil can guitar.He built his first guitar early last year out of an oil can.He’d been building regular instruments for quite a while.And we got such a tremendous reception we decided to start selling them at festivals and markets and demand grew and grew.Throughout the year we set some milestones for ourselves which culminated in us starting a Kickstarter campaign beginning of 2013 which was a success. We finished 165 percent funded over 32 days.
Where do you go about finding some of the oil cans?
At first we were recycling old instrument parts and old oil cans and we would go to antique shops or look online where collectors sell their items. But after a while we found out that they’re rather expensive and they’re rather rare and difficult to find. So the Kickstarter route allowed us to create our own lower price point with our own Bohemian branding oil cans. And that will allow us to allocate some funds to dedicate to the recycling program in Dumpsters and old recycling shops just like that show American Pickers.
And this is all based on what they do in the townships.Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
You walk through, for example, the townships in Soweto, Johannesburg, no one there has any money.They make homes out of whatever sheet metal they can find, and scraps they can find.And if you walk through there and see people playing the drums out of buckets or out of old trash cans and instruments from Coke cans that they create. And it’s kind of turned into a novelty item where some South Africans have created tourist products that people buy when they visit South Africa. An oil can guitar just happens to be one of those.We give credence to South Africa for inspiring us. You walk around the markets at Cape Town and they’ve got all sorts of instruments that they’ve made out of whatever they can get their hands on, scrap wood or scrap metal.
What is the next step for Bohemian Guitars?
The next step is to…eventually gain some investments so we can grow the company and the brand, bring the price point down a little so we can start distributing them on a wholesale level.
And these are for professional musicians?
Yeah, these are fully functional electric guitars, six-strings.Back in November of last year the band Of Monsters and Men just played our guitar live in Atlanta on stage. We’ve also got Australian multi-instrumentalist Jonti….He’s been playing our instruments.He’s actually opted for our $299 instrument over his $4,500 Fender.
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