“I’m running around out there like a little athlete singing my ass off. I’ve done that with an asthmatic condition. That tells you something about the power of music.” The legendary musician talks about his new album, his estimable legacy, and more. (His North American tour kicks off this weekend, June 29, in Costa Mesa, CA.)
Eric Burdon figures he got a rude awakening from life pretty early – the day he was born. It was May 11, 1941, in Newcastle upon Tyne. England was at war with Germany.
“The hospital I was born in was hit by high-intensity bombs from the Luftwaffe, flying off from occupied Finland,” he recalls, in a phone interview from his home in Joshua Tree, California. “So knock, knock. Wake up, Eric! Welcome to the world.”
One could argue that Burdon, who is touring behind his recent bluesy, soulful and lyrically topical album ’Til Your River Runs Dry, has had a certain adversarial relationship with life ever since. His first band had the impolite, confrontational name of the Animals. Initially part of the great British Invasion of America in 1964, their biggest hits were about living amid poverty and degradation in New Orleans (“The House of the Rising Sun,” an adaptation of a folk ballad) and the fear of getting old and gray in a dirty industrial town (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”).
And when the 1960s ended and Burdon tired of fronting the Animals (which had undergone personnel changes), his next band had a name that couldn’t have been more antithetical to the peace-love vibe of the era’s youth culture: War. Their first album was even called Eric Burdon Declares “War.”
Burdon has had an extended career of performing and touring ever since, although never again topping the charts as he did in the 1960s with his powerfully gritty voice, by turns snarling and purring. That career’s longevity has been a war against adversity, too. A war where his music was his weapon.
“I’ve done almost 40 years of stage performance under the worst circumstances,” he says.“I’m running around out there like a little athlete singing my ass off. I’ve done that with an asthmatic condition. That tells you something about the power of music.
“Basically, what happens is the adrenaline from the audience gets into your system and kicks you to a point where it’s a supernormal thing,” he explains. “I can’t even run from one side of the street to the other in real life. But when I get on stage, something happens because it comes from the audience.”
Burdon has spent time thinking about all he’s been through while recovering from recent – and, he says, successful – back surgery. “I had two to three years of absolute pain and agony before anybody could diagnose what it was,” he says. “And then when they did it, the actual time in the hospital was very short and extremely painless. But recuperation time is the thing now. I was talking to my sister about it and she said, ‘Just pretend you’re a woman and pregnant because that’s how long it’s going to take.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s got a point there.’”
Some of what Burdon has gone through will probably be in Breathless, his new book scheduled for publication this year. It’s his third memoir – the first since 2001. In the meantime, however, he’s got a carefully crafted new record to promote and gigs to play at international concerts and festivals.
’Til Your River Runs Dry is a contemporary roots-rock album with contemporary concerns and no Animals nostalgia – which is the way Burdon wants it, as he’s had some legal difficulties about who can use the Animals name when touring. “It’s all business – and business ain’t nothin’ but the blues,” he says.
His current record label, ABKCO Music, is fine with him not recording using “The Animals” as part of any band name – and it owns the band’s back catalogue. Burdon co-produced ’Til Your Well Runs Dry, had a hand in writing all but two of the 12 songs, and has faithful, solid supporting musicians to provide a consistently excellent and never monochromatic sound.
War, by the way, is present on the new album. Not the group, but the terrible real thing. It’s the subject of the song “Memorial Day,” with lyrics like: “On Memorial Day/Be Strong, let peace be the way/Break the cycle of hate and lies/Let the truth be realized/Memorial day…memorial day.”
Burdon worried the song might be interpreted as denigrating Memorial Day and the tradition of paying respect to war dead. “It’s a touchy subject,” he acknowledges. “I really asked myself if I am doing the right thing here. I’m following my beliefs that we should learn how to diminish war so there is no need for Memorial Day.
“I’m not saying one shouldn’t remember any friend that in the world passed on and no longer is here. Of course, you should. And I’m not trying to diminish what happens to young men in combat, for whatever reason they’re there, if they’re warriors in the thick of it.
“But I made the decision to do it because I think it’s an interesting vision,” he says of the song. “Every year, we have a remembrance of people who are dead, but we don’t seem to make the move to do anything about the body count, to make it smaller by not going to war.”
Another song, which has a slowed-down but seductive “Riot in Cell Block 9” vibe during which Burdon talks-sings in a Mose Allison manner, is called “Invitation to the White House.” As he did in 1970’s “Spill the Wine,” Burdon recalls a dream – only this one is more political than erotic as he gives the President advice on ending war:
“I said war is an addiction/And the junkies don’t want to stop/They’re making tons of money/With every drip of blood that drops.”
“War is an addiction – of course it is,” Burdon says. “It’s there; it’s not going away. But if it’s just constant war from one generation to another, something’s wrong somewhere. Somebody has to be able to put the brakes on. Everything we need in life is here. Why should we attack somebody else? I don’t get it.
“OK, so we got attacked by some demons from the sky and lost thousands of lives,” he says. “But to react from vengeance and have massive troops going into maybe the right country, we’re not sure – maybe Iraq, maybe Iran, we’re sure it’s Afghanistan – seems to me a crazy way to react.
“Especially after the Russians’ time there (in Afghanistan), and the memory of the British time there. Nobody has ever climbed up that Hindu Kush (mountain range that includes parts of Afghanistan) and put it down for good. And why should we try? What’s there? More rocks? More sand? We’ve got plenty in the desert here.” (Joshua Tree is in an arid desert climate.)
The album’s “River Is Rising” has a mournfully jazzy/spiritual groove, courtesy of Jon Cleary’s piano and guitar and some poignant tuba, trombone and trumpet work along with hymn-like backing vocals. It was recorded at Cleary’s Funk Headquarters studio in New Orleans. (Most of the album was recorded at Ultratone Studio in L.A.’s Studio City.)
“Actually it’s his wife’s sewing shop,” Burdon explains. “We were all crowded with clothes hanging from the ceiling and Mardi Gras masks and everything. It was so New Orleans. He was great musician and did the charts and rehearsed a band comprised of part of Fats Domino’s guys. We recorded it one time and I said, ‘I think that’s it.’ Time for me to sit down now and think about what lyrically I can put into the backdrop.”
’Til Your River Runs Dry also pays respects to Bo Diddley. Burdon covers his “Before You Accuse Me” and also has written “Bo Diddley Special,” about attending the funeral for the iconic Rock and Roll Elder in 2008. Burdon’s love for Diddley is long established – the Animals kicked off their first album in 1964 with “The Story of Bo Diddley,” Burdon’s history of Diddley’s impact on rock set to the famous Bo Diddley Beat.
But he had never actually met him, although he was once allowed to sit to the side of the stage, just 10 feet away, while Diddley and band performed in Australia. “The fact that I never had met him just added to the mystery of it,” Burdon says. “When his funeral service was taking place in Clearwater (Fla.), I got an invitation from the family to go down there.
“It was a great opportunity for me to get a spiritual uplift,” he continues. “I walked out of the church with my missus and we were wondering how we were going to get back to the hotel because the family was going off to a private thing. And we saw a city bus coming down the road and written on its destination was ‘Bo Diddley Special.’ And I went, ‘That has to be a song!’”
The long-awaited documentary on the quintessential American power pop band, decoded. (Above: Big Star Mk. I: Chilton, Stephens, Bell, Hummel)
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Big Star.It is truly a bold choice to name your band as brazen as Big Star.It is an even bigger gamble calling your first LP #1 Record.The band and album title should have been a more than accurate prediction.With all the talent packed in the band, coupled with the great material lining Big Star’s three now classic and coveted releases (#1 Record, Radio City and 3rdare all included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list) that notion should have been absolutely accurate.It was not.
When Memphis, Tennessee band Big Star came together in 1971 it was as if lightning struck.Made up of Chris Bell (he only appeared on #1 Record before leaving the band, later to record the phenomenal “I Am The Cosmos”), former Box Tops front man Alex Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, the group produced a body of work that drew from all types of music.The Beatles, The Zombies, The Staple Singers, The Animals and Simon and Garfunkel style harmony interplay between Bell and Chilton, as well as the soul music coming out of their hometown label Stax, all played a part in molding the songs of Big Star.
All the pieces were in place for Big Star to dominate the musical world:Chilton and Bell are widely considered suffering, sometimes difficult musical geniuses, Hummel was a quality, understated bassist in his own right, and Stephens commanded the drums with a reserved power and grace, knowing just when to add something or pull away.
However, Big Star is one in a long line of truly great bands that were screwed by labels, circumstance or poor management (in their case, poor distribution practices by Stax) only to find success later, thanks to a curious, adoring public and musicians singing their praises both publicly and in their songs.In the case of Big Star, bands like The Replacements, Meat Puppets, Lemonheads, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith, Wilco and Matthew Sweet have all helped bring their cult heroes back into the light for a younger generation to love, look upon with wonder and reverence.
Now, it was director Drew DeNicola’s turn to give them some notice with Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, film telling the history of the band.Now enjoying a theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures following a series of well-received festival screenings, Hurt Me is an exceptional documentary in both quality and scope of detail, laying out the life, times and travails of power pop’s forgotten sons.A four-year labor of love, Hurt Me is packed with interviews with Stephens, Sweet, journalist/Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, Norman Blake, Chris Stamey, Ardent Records owner/engineer John Fry, promoter John King (the man behind Big Star playing the National Rock Writers Convention Memorial Day weekend 1972, a gig that led to Radio City) and countless others.
The film is both funny and moving.Discussion of Chilton’s sometimes difficult, aloof personality leaves you wondering how Big Star ever got past the demo stages; the buildup to Chris Bell’s departure from the band, decline, his faith in Jesus and death in a car crash at age 27 may bring tears to eyes and a lump to your throat.Hurt Me is a real look at four men who loved music more than anything and wanted nothing more than to garner notice through their craft and doing what they loved.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is an unvarnished look at a band that should have taken over the world with songs like “Thirteen,” “In the Street,” “Daisy Glaze,” “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Give Me Another Chance” but luck was not on their side.Perhaps the documentary and exceptional accompanying soundtrack, released by Omnivore Records, will change all that. (Go to: www.bigstarstory.com.)
Blurt spoke with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me director Drew DeNicola as they prepared for the film’s release.
Blurt: Was it easy to get people to talk about how much they love Big Star?
DeNicola: Yeah for the most part.Although, people are very protective of their Big Star.A lot of people were skeptical.Most of the fans have been holding onto this band for a long time.For the most part, the Big Star fan is one of discriminating tastes. [They] are very protective of “their band.”
What drove you to do a documentary on Big Star?
DeNicola- I guess it just seemed like an obvious documentary topic.I was shocked that no one had really tried before.I guess people had tried; John Fry had been approached by a few people before but nothing really materialized.Really, if you want to do a documentary on Big Star, John is the first person you have to talk to, not only for his role in the story, (Fry is the engineer/owner of Ardent Records where the Big Star records were recorded) but for the archives, he has everything.That was one of the nice things about doing the documentary: going to the studio, everything is still there.Jody’s there, you can see the original amps, mellotron, everything.Getting to know Jody and John was great but getting my hands on the tapes was amazing.Seeing Andy Hummel’s doodles on the boxes, hearing the demos.To me, it was like laying my hands on Sgt. Pepper’s.The story of Big Star is really the story of Ardent.I think I knew that’s how it had to be from the beginning.
Jody, what did you think when you were approached about the documentary?
Stephens:The idea was brought to me by John Fry.John liked the idea, sent a van to pick them (the filmmakers) up at the airport, took them to spots around Memphis and showed them where we all hung out.I thought if John was fine with it, that’s all I needed.You know, somebody wants to basically make a video scrapbook of a huge part of your life.It was strange and interesting at the same time.
How did it feel for you to re-live some of those things, those moments?
Stephens:It was fun.You know, there were semi-tragic moments to Big Star but for the most part, it was an incredible time.It was an incredible creative dream.The demos we were doing, Alex joining the band, seeing all that again in the beginning of the film was the reward of the project.
How do you think Chris (Bell) and Alex (Chilton) would feel about this project if they were here today?
Stephens:Well, Alex was alive when the idea of the documentary was underway.Alex certainly would’ve seen the humor in it.I think Chris would’ve been very proud of the recognition Big Star is getting now.
When watching the film, it seems like Chris had a really hard time with #1 Record not being a success.Listening to it now, that record should have been a #1 record.
Stephens:He may have had trouble with it and it’s certainly reasonable for him to feel that.He put himself into that record, Alex had had a number one with “The Letter” when he was with The Box Tops so you may not know who Big Star is but probably know who Alex is.Alex in the band there certainly was a bridge there but with Chris and Alex it was more a friendship then anything.They wanted it to work together.
Though it wasn’t a major hit, #1 Record got great reviews pretty much across the board.Did you feel any pressure to make #1 Record part 2?
No, I don’t really think we thought about what the next record should be.After the first record, we all kind of drifted apart so there was never any certainty that there would even be a next record.John King (radio/promo head for Ardent) organized the Rock Writers Convention in May of ’73 and wanted us to play.That’s what really brought us together and the material seemed to immediately connect with them so we just followed that.
DeNicola:When you say “Was there pressure to make another record?” the beauty of Big Star is the fact that they were immune from that, thank God.Maybe there was some idea in someone’s mind what a commercial record should sound like but there was no expectation for another Big Star record when Radio Citycame out.The beautiful thing about Radio Citywas that it was so organic as opposed to being controlled by Chris’ vision like #1 Record was.With every record, they were taking apart the “clean” concept and experimenting.They had that freedom.
Jody, do you think being from Memphis leant itself to you all being open to different styles of music and doing what you wanted to do?
Stephens:I think being at Ardent and working with John Fry allowed us to be what we wanted to be.No one ever said we couldn’t do something.I got dejection from some members of the band but nobody said you can’t do that.Sometimes ideas worked, sometimes they didn’t but nobody said you can’t do that, it’s certainly evident by the third record.I can’t imagine what major label execs would say about it now.Certainly there’s an independent spirit in Memphis and always has been but mainly my influences were British invasion bands and the Stax stuff.They are worlds apart in some ways but at the end of the day, for me, it’s all soul music.Whatever engages you, influences you.
How did it feel at Rock Writers knowing that you had the attention of everybody in that room especially knowing that rock journalists are historically a jaded lot?
Stephens:Well, they didn’t appear to be a jaded lot on that night.(laughs)You know, I’ve heard different stories but my recollection is Big Star drifted apart, John King, who was a radio/promo guy with Ardent and responsible for putting Rock Writers together, asked us to play and honestly, I felt more like the underdog, not the featured band.There were two other bands that weekend so that took some of the pressure off.By the time we got onstage, it was about having a good time, at least for me and that’s what we did.
DeNicola:We really tried to capture it in the film.That show was the closing night of a very raucous weekend.By the time Big Star played, everyone in the room was so plastered.At one point, John Fry was so wasted he smashed the soundboard. It was just a party at that point and they were the perfect band for that.
Jody, the first time you heard “Thirteen,” a song that has been called one of the greatest ever written about young love, did you know it was something special?
Stephens:I knew instantly.The first time I heard “Ballad of El Goodo” I knew instantly.“Thirteen” captures that moment in time, young love, for a lot of people and the way Alex delivers it is just remarkable.He’s got this way of making you feel what it’s like to be thirteen, to have this girl/boy relationship.He just captures it perfectly.
DeNicola:The thing about Alex’s songwriting is that he had said in BOMP! magazine that he wrote with nostalgia for those times because he had missed out on his teen years and wrote with this almost sentimental point of view because he was out on tour with the Box Tops when he was 16.I think he played with idealization versus reality all the time, slowly reality crept in.
Drew, you said you talked to Alex before he passed on about the movie.What was his feeling on it?
DeNicola:He was bemused just like he was every other time someone approached him about Big Star, it’s a little too much, too late for him I think.I think he felt like he had moved on; I just don’t think he wanted to talk about Big Star anymore.If he felt charitable, he’d talk about it and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t.I don’t think he was ever going to be charitable about our movie.I even said, “We can film you playing music at a piano in your apartment.”He just said, “We’ll see.Come to New Orleans and hang out.” It didn’t happen.I told Danielle, “Let’s get out our credit cards, go there with the camera in a bag and see what happens.” Honestly, I think we would’ve went there and got nothing on film. (Below: Big Star Mk. II: Hummel, Chilton, Stephens)
Jody, in the last twenty years or so, bands from the Replacements to Jesus and the Mary Chain have sighted Big Star as a major influence.Do you feel like this a vindication of sorts for what you did as a band?
Stephens:It’s always great when people really like what you do.We all put a lot of time and effort, heart and soul into it and its great when people embrace it.Anytime anyone is creative, they are opening themselves up to being hurt I think so, we just happened to do something that worked.It was valuable to me, we wrote great songs and it’s completed to me.I feel good that people love it.
DeNicola:To me, it seems that they actually succeeded at the real point of making music and the rest of it is just decadence and window dressing.
What was the feeling like playing Big Star songs at SXSW just after learning of Alex’s passing?
Stephens:We were all emotional drained just fresh off learning of Alex’s passing but there was never a sense of not playing amongst John (Auer), Ken (Stringfellow) and I.I mean, what better way to honor and pay homage to Alex then by playing his songs?
What do you hope people draw from Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me?In addition, Jody, what do you think the legacy of Big Star is or will be?
Stephens:I’ll have to leave the legacy part to the people who love the music and how they respond to it.What do I hope they draw from the documentary?There’s certainly corny answers but I’d say, think of the possibilities for kids that are 17, 18, 19, 20 years old if they are inspired to pick up a musical instrument especially if you have someone like John fry to provide and outlet for it.What John added to the music sonically and to the mixes in terms of balance, putting frame around the painting.John was great at that.Did that answer your question?(laughs)
DeNicola:This band was an unquestioned member of society in pop music history when I was in college and I just want to re-acknowledge or place them back in that context again.I think that even by me revisiting the music over the past couple of years, they really do have a very special place; they’ve been retroactively inserted in the rock music canon, it’s been a gradual gestation period like it took us 35 years to recognize that.
With a new solo album featuring a wildly diverse cast of guest musicians—among them, Chris Spedding, the Jayhawks, and Jigsaw Seen—the younger Davies brother stakes out some seriously autobiographical turf.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Conversing by phone during a stopover in New York, Dave Davies sounds exactly as one might imagine. Speaking in a whispery working class English accent, he emits an unassuming air of casual confidence and unaffected charm. Then again, given his distinguished stature as the guitarist whose ragged ricochet riffs singlehandedly helped define a signature sound for punk, heavy metal and countless other rock ‘n’ roll hybrids that followed on the heels of the Kinks’ seminal hits “You Really Got Me” and All Day and All of the Night,” that unassuming style would appear to come naturally. He likely had little idea that when he started toying with his once neglected little green amp to discover what kind of distorted howl he could extract that one day, other guitarists would pick up on that noise and use it to define an irascible intensity of their own.
Consequently, if brother Ray provided the Kinks with its whimsical, carefully mannered observations of English mores and society, Dave was the visceral component of the band’s sound, an edgy yet exuberant champion of ready hooks and a fuzzy underbelly. Dave’s own songs came sporadically early on, but by the time the group had reached maturity, he could already claim a solo hit in “Death of a Clown,” and he had garnered enough acumen to encourage his record company to hammer him for an entire album. It never materialized (although its been cobbled together posthumously through various latter day compilations) and yet, Dave continued to offer the occasional gem to the Kinks katalogue via songs like “Susannah’s Still Alive,” “This Man He Weeps Tonight,” “Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “Funny Face,” “Love Me Til the Sun Shine,” “Strangers,” “This Time Tomorrow,” “Lincoln County” and numerous other tunes still much beloved by Kinks Kultists everywhere. Each offering was distinguished by his high pitched vocals, seemingly wailed out of a sense of sheer desperation, and a tuneful approach that was undeniably English in both its outlook and bearing.
Nevertheless, Dave’s first loyalty was always to the band, even despite the legendary rows that he and Dave engaged in both onstage and off. When the Kinks seemed to have run their course, he belatedly devoted himself to his solo fare, releasing a trio of albums in the early ‘80s (AFL1-3603, named for its RCA serial number, Glamour and Chosen People), before retreating from the spotlight for nearly twenty years prior to reemerging in the new millennium with Bug, Fractured Mindz, an unexpected documentary of spiritual discovery titled Mystical Journey, various live recordings and repeated compilations. A sudden stroke in 2004 threatened to waylay his career altogether, but fortunately he made a complete recovery and has been back on the road touring consistently ever since.
Davies’ current effort, the appropriately titled I Will Be Me may be his best work yet, a collection of songs that captures that unapologetic edge of his seminal work along with the precise imagery and courtly designs of his songs circa the mid to late ‘60s. Recorded with a diverse cast of guest musicians (including, oddly enough, Americana all stars the Jayhawks, legendary guitarist Chris Spedding and members of his touring band on loan from L.A. retro poppers the Jigsaw Seen), it’s also undeniably autobiographical, touting songs drawn from early experiences (“Little Green Amp,” “Livin’ in the Past”), memorable encounters (“Midnight in L.A.”) and his general outlook on life (“In the Mainframe,” “Remember the Future”). It’s nothing short of brilliant, a promise fulfilled that’s some 45 years in the making.
Consequently, our conversation with Mr. Davies went something like this:
BLURT: How are you, Dave?
DAVIES: Great! How are you?
We’re doing terrific. Congratulations on your brilliant new album.
Ah, you like it?
We love it!
What’s especially striking about the album is that it’s so dynamic and yet it also has that fanciful sound to it that was so much a part of your work back in the day. So tell us, Dave, how did this album come about? What inspired the songs?
I got together the first songs about two years ago and it so it took me about two years to get it all finished. The first year was writing and getting ideas together and the second year was the production and getting the people together. It took awhile really. I usually work a lot quicker. I was really happy with the way the songs came together though.
In the past, you never seemed in any particular hurry to release new albums. After your first aborted attempt at a solo album in ’67…
Yeah, way back. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that you made your first real solo ventures. And then it was a pretty long time until your next effort came out. Why was that?
No idea… (laughs) I tend to write when I’m inspired, ya know? I find it hard to make myself do it. It was good timing with these songs. Like the first one, which was “Living in the Past,” it gave me an idea for a character. So I could write about a certain individual, you know what I mean? Once you get one character established, the other ones tend to pop up. So it was getting started that was the problem. But once I did that, it helped develop the others really. It’s not a real theme, but it is about a kind of guy that talks about the past, looks into the future and what’s going to happen, and makes observations about what’s going on in the world around him.
It seems very autobiographical. Was that the intent?
Oh yeah, definitely. At least in the beginning, you tend to write about things you know about. So I thought “Little Green Amp” would be a fun thing to start with because it goes back to the beginning. It hits on the emotions and the things that I was going through at that time. I thought that was a good idea and it might be quite amazing.
The songs you wrote for the Kinks always stood out…
But were you kind of feeling like George Harrison with the Beatles, that you were always fighting to have your songs included on the albums?
Yeah, I suppose so. It’s funny, because I always had a lot of respect for George and there is some kind of parallel life thing going on (chuckles), but I was into the production and shaping the music and to me that was always as important as writing it… where things should go and where things shouldn’t go, so production’s always been a big thing as well, even with the Kinks’ songs. I’d always suggest where to put things, where not to put things, maybe we shouldn’t do that. The Kinks were always a collaborative thing anyway. But now, because all the essence of the work is mine, it’s different.
Speaking of collaborations, how did you gather this very disparate group of musicians to participate on this album? The Jayhawks? We never would have thought to have seen you paired with them.
(Laughs) Well, it went with the nature of the songs. I thought there were some songs that would work for them really well. They worked on a song called “Remember the Future.” I always loved their instrumentation and arrangements and vocals and harmonies and stuff, so I thought they did a great job on the song. I think it’s probably one of my favorite tracks from the album. It’s a great vocal thing for it.
So how did you happen to reach out to them in particular?
I got an A&R guy who works for the record company. Sweet guy — I’ve known him for years — and we started talking about so-and-so and what about, and we figured out who was available. So we found out the Jayhawks were interested and they were very excited. They wanted to do three or four tracks on the album, but obviously we wanted to get input from various people.
The duet with that singer Geri X on “When I First Met You” is lovely as well.
It came about because of the nature of the song. A guy who fancies this girl at a garden party and he falls in love with this younger girl after a little champagne. I wanted someone who had a different, sort of unique kind of voice. I think her voice is quite unusual and she was a good choice I think. I didn’t want someone who was too accomplished. I wanted someone slightly quirky.
That’s why this album is so reminiscent of your songs from back in the day. It’s got a kind of whimsical quality to it…
Oh good…That’s good right?
Of course. Those early songs of yours were so distinctive and so brilliant. They seemed so personal, and yet at the same time, they painted these charming little images.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I try to do when I write. I like to see if I can create a little cameo character like in a movie. Something cinematic. Because then you have room to develop a little plot or a story of people. I like working like that.
So why was it that back in ’67, after “Death of a Clown” became a hit, that the rumored solo album never materialized?
I think I was being pushed too much by the record company and I don’t think that at the time I was prepared to make a solo record. I didn’t feel like I had the material and they wanted it now, they wanted it straight away and I only had a few songs. I just sort of felt like there was too much pressure to do it. No matter what age you are, it can sometimes be self defeating. It’s good to have a deadline sometimes. That helps. But when people keep banging on the door, saying “Come on now, where is it?” it’s not quite the same thing.
But it seems like you had accumulated a good cache of songs.
Yeah, but I wasn’t sure about the means or manner.I didn’t even know if I liked them that much at the time. (chuckles) But when we got the compilation together that came out last year (Hidden Treasures) I thought, yeah, it’s not that bad.
Those songs are brilliant actually. “This Time Tomorrow” is one of those rare masterpieces that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
And “Strangers?” I get a lot of requests for that live.
Absolutely! Do you include the older material in your concerts these days?
Oh yeah! I try to mix it up, from “You Really Got Me” to “Strangers” to “Green Amp” and “Remember the Future.”
So what’s the status of the Kinks these days? Did the band ever officially break up or is it merely on hiatus?
Well, we’ve got a lot of contractual things and catalogue things that we have to deal with. It would be nice to do something with Ray, but I know he’s focused on the things he wants to do still. It’s up in the air a bit.
How is your relationship with Ray these days?
It’s not bad! We say hi. We email. (chuckle)
That’s good. That relationship is sort of legendary.
Yeah, it’s okay.
Before Pete Quaife passed away, there had been rumors about a reunion tour with the original foursome.
Oh yeah. But when Pete got very ill, that kind of put the kibosh on it. It upset everybody a lot more than they thought. The nucleus of the band was me, Pete and Ray. Without Pete, there probably wouldn’t be me and Ray either. He was very important in the beginning.
Yet, there were other musicians who were also part of the Kinks — (bassist) John Dalton and (keyboardist) Mick Gosling...
Oh yeah, they grew to be part of the Kinks, later in the years and so on. Yeah, a lot of musicians passed through.
So have you ever approached some of the later recruits and talked about reforming?
I’m not sure. I’ve been so focused on getting this record finished and now that it’s out, I’m excited about promoting the record. We’ll see…
You currently play with the Jigsaw Seen out of L.A….
Yeah, the guitar player and I have been friends for like ten years. He’s been working with me in other bands that I’ve had, and I’ve employed his rhythm section. It’s fun! It’s been quite good so far.
How is your health these days? Are you feeling good?
I feel great, yeah. I’m feeling good. Quite fit. If you’re feeling you want to do something, you gotta do it. It’s going well.
So at this point in your life, is there anything you feel you have yet to accomplish? Any goals left that remain undone?
I’d like to see how far I can push this record. I’m really excited about the material and the tracks. And then we’ll see what’s next.
Well, again, it’s a brilliant album.
Thank you. It is good, isn’t it?
Yes, and we suspect you’ll have a lot of luck with it.
The Australian-born documentarian follows up her acclaimed treatments of Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen with Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You:A Concert For Kate, about the late singer Kate McGarrigle.
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
As a girl growing up in Australia’s Ned Kelly country, Lian Lunson’s bond with rock’n’roll’s marquee names was sealed by the larger than life images projected by the Beatles, the Band and Bob Dylan in films like Let It Be, The Last Waltz and The Concert For Bangladesh. “Those people and those movies were legendary—they were big characters, but they weren’t molded pop artists, they were more truthful,” she says. “When you watch the old films, you get chills just watching the people.”
The subtleties and hidden truths in the stories of musicians are of deep interest to Lunson whose own casually elegant and intimate music documentaries, include, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and the more recent, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You:A Concert For Kate, in tribute to the songs and life of singer Kate McGarrigle (it opens at New York’s Film Forum this week on June 26—details at www.FilmForum.org).
“Finding that truth in people in this day and age, making these people larger than life, is part of the joy of making a music documentary,” she said, during the film’s run at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Indeed for dedicated music fans, Lunson’s films are like a window on to the world of rock’n’roll cinema as it should be: Close up and personal but epic, too. Her Cohen film concerned the elder artist at the point of rediscovery and took on the surreal air of a traveling carnival, while Sing Me The Songs…is a post-mortem, artful meditation on the cycle of life and the grieving process (McGarrigle died of a rare form of cancer in January 2010).Steering away from the film devices in “making of” and mythmaking promo hype vehicles, Lunson instead moves in for a slow-paced unfolding that places emotional performances at center stage, leaving the songs to tell the story of a committed artist whose family life was interwoven with her art.
Martha and Rufus Wainwright provided the still photos, vintage film clips and memories of their mother which Lunson edited with film she shot at a tribute concert at Town Hall in May of 2011. Featuring a cavalcade of stars including McGarrigle’s sisters Jane and Anna (her primary singing partner) and friends Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Jimmy Fallon, Antony Hegarty, and the Wainwrights among the vocalists and accompanists, Lunson insisted everyone dress, as if for a special occasion.
“I looked at the footage on YouTube of the concert for Kate in London and everyone was dressed in jeans and hoodies and I said ‘No, no, no, we have to dress, this an event.’” The Wainwrights both had access to a treasure trove of costume jewelry, and all of the performers including the men, were asked to chose a piece to wear, which lent an air of sparkle to an otherwise somber evening.
“I like ritual and I wanted it to be special,” says Lunson. The idea of rock’n’roll swagger hearkens back to Lunson’s romance with its’60s and ‘70s film classics, in particular, Leon Russell as himself in Mad Dogs and Englishmen. “He brought a sense of grandeur to things—with his top hat—and you could feel that it was an event, that each moment he was onstage was something extravagant or different and beautiful,” she says. “People have no idea of the majestic quality he radiated.”
As for the film’s technical aspects, the handheld, cinéma vérité style was a bit of a happy accident for Lunson who likes tight close-ups of her subjects.
“We got into the theater, and couldn’t set up the cameras until right before we were about to shoot,” she explains. “I had asked the cameramen for an incredibly close lens and when I looked through it wasn’t close enough. At the last minute, I got him to get one of the camera operators to put a camera on his shoulder—he didn’t have the gear for it—and that was the angle we shot everything from. Had I planned it, the theater never would have let me do it.But rather than say, we just have to go with the lens he brought, we improvised and we ended up getting what I wanted.”
Working intuitively and going with the moment, Lunson finds that as one of the small percentage of female directors working in Hollywood and specifically in music documentary, she’ll get the odd bloke who wants to challenge her know how.
“It’s not their fault:Often camera people are trained to do things a certain way…to move, come in, come out, and I have to tell them, you know what, just stick your hand there and don’t take it off, I don’t want you to move. As a director, knowing what it is you want and don’t want is important, otherwise, you fall into the hands of professionals,” she laughs. “They want to help you and they want it to be good, but you have to be firm and say, ‘You have to trust me, this is exactly what I want and if you are seeing something else, I don’t care.’”
A product of the self-taught, D-I-Y punk generation, Lunson came of age in the same Australian scene as Nick Cave whose esthetic is similarly wild outback and acutely sensitive and poetic. In the ‘80s she worked as an actor, then transitioned into making music videos in the ‘90s. An assignment to shoot a promo clip for Willie Nelson in Ireland resulted in an impromptu jam with U2, for whom Bono had written “Slow Dancing,” but which Willie had never gotten around to cutting. Longtime friends with the band, Lunson caught the action and made a clip (below) with just two cameras.
Lunson describes her process of choosing projects as “an organic thing.” Working with Nelson happened naturally, and her film on him, Down Home, evolved from their collaboration. When it came time for the documentary about Leonard Cohen, whose music she got to know as the after hours soundtrack in punk rock days, generational peers like Cave and U2 were naturals to appear in it. She became acquainted with the Wainwrights during the Cohen film, which is how Rufus came to reach out to her: Sing Me The Songs… simply revealed itself to be next in the order of things.
“I was in the midst of trying to get a narrative feature film made and put it aside.As a filmmaker, you spend 24/7 on these projects and you really immerse yourself in them. You’ve got to know that spiritually and emotionally, you will have grown. It was a real honor to be asked to do something like this.The first thing Rufus did was sit me down and show me Kate’s computer with pictures of pretty much the last year of her life.It affected me very deeply.”
One of the revelatory images Lunson included in the film was a photo of McGarrigle on her deathbed.“That picture was there for a reason.I think that Rufus and Martha felt it should be a part of sharing the whole experience. I think it’s a testament to Kate that they did that; so many people are left with those images when they lose somebody, but they made the choice to open it up and I think it’s a very brave thing, something that will help people,” she says.
The presence of Loudon Wainwright (Kate’s ex husband and the Wainwrights’ father) other than in photographs, was a noticeable absence. “It was no big thing; he wasn’t available. He was with Kate when she died and was very much involved—he did the concert in London–but I was making a film with Rufus and Martha. There are other films to be made—that’s a film all in itself.”
With her feature film, The Boom Boom Room now ready be developed further and a couple of other dream music projects in the queue, for now, the director from the Australian outback shall remain best known for documenting the lives of two legendary Canadian singer-songwriters, old enough to be the grandparents of contemporary music fans.
“There’s a responsibility to document them,” she says. “I found that when I took the Leonard Cohen film around, what struck me was that the people who were most changed from it were the young kids. Now, everything is so styled, but where is the spark of the real person? I would listen to Leonard Cohen’s dialogue in my headphones at night before going to sleep, hoping to find that moment.”
“I look at some really talented contemporary performers, and wish they would put all the styling away.No matter how good you are, there are all these layers in front of the talent. The Beatles never had stylists or ‘people,’ it was who they were,” she says.
“This was such an emotional film to work on and the honesty was in the performances.”
Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert For Kate
The erstwhile Miracle Legion vocalist crafts a fresh solo masterpiece. Meanwhile, Blurt presents a Mulcahy interview from the deep archives.
BY FRED MILLS
With the recent release of Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You (Mezzotint), it seems appropriate to revisit the titular subject, a solo artist of no small repute and also known to many as frontman for the late, great Miracle Legion. Mulcahy, of course, has been on the American music scene since the early ‘80s when his former band initially took up operations in New Haven, going on to release a string of eclectic-tilting but never less than fascinating records under his own name after Miracle Legion’s demise in ’96. (Elsewhere on the Blurt site you will find our tribute to Mulcahy via a series of video and audio clips.)
The new DMJMILY, his first album since 2005’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness, ranks among Mulcahy’s best work, and it’s worth noting that the artist had originally cut a speedy followup to Happiness in 2006 with The Butterflies Of Love’s Scott Amore but, upon being unhappy with the results, shelved the project. A lengthy recording hiatus ensued, but I can happily report that Mulcahy’s eventual return to the studio yielded a set
full of his trademark lyrical quirks and detours and brimming with the unique melodicism and rhythmic complexity that has endeared him to fellow musicians over the years. There are also fresh flavors of countryish-tilting rock and even the occasional baroque pop flourish (listen for the flute, musos).
From the thumping “Everybody Hustles Leo” (which has an irresistible beat straight out of Gary Glitter “Rock and Roll” territory) and the luscious, strummy “She Makes the World Turn Backwards” through mid-album, pedal steel guitar-lined ballad/respite “My Rose Colored Friend” to jangly waltz “Badly Madly” and the dreamy, gospellish “The Rabbit,” the album packs a lot of emotional and sonic potency into its relatively brief (35 mins.) running time. Though it has a certain sleeper quality—it takes several listens for its subtleties to bubble to the surface—it does in fact turn “keeper” for the patient fan, and I’d reckon this will turn up on loads of year-end best-of lists for 2013. It’s certainly headed towards mine. (Below: watch an unusual performance of “She Makes the World Turn Backwards” featuring Mulcahy and the Young@Heart Chorus.)
Backtracking a few years, 2009 saw the arrival of Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout! Factory), one of those rare tribute records that, for the most part, got things right by highlighting an oftentimes under-the-radar artist’s oeuvre via an engaging cast of characters — in this instance, folks like Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, the National, Unbelievable Truth, Pere Ubu, Mercury Rev, the Autumn Defense and others — while delivering the genuine, truth-in-titling, songwriting goods. (Raise your hand if you remember all those early Imaginary Records tributes; the Mulcahy trib met that high standard.) And whether or not you might’ve ben drawn to the project via fond memories of Mulcahy’s Miracle Legion tenure or an appreciation for his post-ML career (which, it should be noted, included his work under the name Polaris, scoring music for the Adventures of Pete & Pete kid’s TV show), or simply as a fan of one or more of the musicians contributing to Ciao, you’ll find plenty of goodies nestled among the tracklisting. The Yorke tune, a riveting electro-tinged take on ML’s “All For the Best,” got the lion’s share of attention, not the least of which was for the provocative David Lynch-styled video created for it by director Melinda Tupling (view it, below). And there was an additional reason to pick up the record: it was a benefit for Mulcahy’s twin daughters, as his wife died suddenly in the fall of ’08, leaving Mulcahy to raise them on his own.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mulcahy over 20 years ago, not long after the release of the first Miracle Legion album. Each time thereafter, when the band came to town, I’d hang out with Mark and guitarist Ray Neal, and I always found each of them to be just the right blend of muso eccentric and down to earth rocker. Many years later, in the fall of 2003, I wound up revisiting my Miracle Legion memories in a retrospective I wrote for Magnet (issue #61) about college rock bands. The musician’s observations and anecdotes were rich in detail, not only about his band and his career but also about the pre-alternative rock milieu that spawned ML. I expanded that ’03 interview for BLURT in 2009 to mark Ciao My Shining Star and hereby present it for you again. Enjoy this flash from the journalistic past.
Rewind to 2003… The story of Miracle Legion is both typical of and at times strikingly different from that of other college rock bands who operated as peers during the mid/late ‘80s and early ‘90s. For one thing, when they signed a significant label deal in 1992, most of their contemporaries had already fallen by the wayside and Morgan Creek Records (a wannabe “major label” indie funded by the Morgan Creek Productions film and media company) was intent on marketing the band in such a way as to capitalize on the burgeoning “alternative rock” explosion.
Well, everyone knows what came next; instead of bands like Miracle Legion becoming the next wave, it would be your Candleboxes and your Matchbox 20s. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now, aren’t we?
Going all the way back, let’s dispense from the outset one lingering myth about Miracle Legion: that the New Haven, Conn., quartet, extant from 1983-96, was just another jangly R.E.M. clone.
Admittedly, a cursory scan of the group’s early trajectory might bear the assertion out. Both 1984’s The Backyard EP and 1987’s Surprise Surprise Surprise LP did at times tilt in a folk-rock, Murmurish direction; critics and coeds alike tended to ruminate at length upon the band’s soft-focus, enigmatic lyrics; and vocalist Mark Mulcahy’s eccentric stage personal definitely compared to that of Michael Stipe.
But this is no children of the kudzu tale. Let the record show, based on the recorded evidence, that Miracle Legion’s sound was wide ranging indeed: chiming/jangly pop, sure, but also Velvets-style punk/drone raveups, dark, British-flecked psychedelia, even left-field forays into dub, funk and alt-country. (And a Miracle Legion concert was the only place you’d get back-to-back covers of Mission Of Burma’s “Academy Fight Song” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” too.) And as you’ll read below, Mulcahy points out that, “We may have ended up being like R.E.M.’s ‘little brother,’ but we really more influenced by the Gun Club, Mission Of Burma, Husker Du, even The Clean.”
Miracle Legion’s initial stirrings were as a two-piece – drummer-turned-singer Mulcahy plus guitarist/keyboardist Ray Neal – on the thriving New Haven scene which boasted numerous clubs as well as a readymade college audience thanks to the presence of several major universities. The two had already shared quality time in various short-lived combos, additionally working together as local club promoters and picking up a firsthand education in Indie Touring 101 that would prove invaluable to their fledgling combo.
After rounding up a rhythm section and recording the six-song The Backyard, issued on the local Incas label, Mulcahy and Neal were pleasantly surprised to learn Miracle Legion was an immediate critical and college radio fave. Several pressings of the EP sold out; a sharp-witted manager landed Miracle Legion a licensing deal with Britain’s Making Waves label, which brought them over for a UK tour; they signed (in the States) with the well-connected Venture Booking company; and MTV unexpectedly placed the video for “The Backyard” into regular rotation.
According to Christopher Arnott, a long-time Miracle Legion fan and a staffer at the New Haven Advocate weekly, “In terms of influence, they weren’t the most commercial band but they were clearly part of a bigger regional-national thing, more so than anyone else in town. It was the kind of success story that everybody could relate to. Mark had also been booking the best club in town, The Grotto, and he’d been active in bringing a lot of good bands to New Haven. Also, when a band like, for example, R.E.M. would be in town at the coliseum, he’d book Miracle Legion and someone like Peter Buck would drop in after the show. So Mark was friends with a lot of bands, either from having toured with them or from bringing them to town.”
As the band commenced recording Surprise Surprise Surprise a number of labels, including several majors, began showing interest. Ultimately, Miracle Legion signed with Rough Trade, whose owner, Geoff Travis, had attended a show in New York at CBGBs to see them
“I went along to CBGBs specifically to see Miracle Legion and loved them,” says Travis now. “I always feel like a fan when I see something special, and I’m always on the lookout for soul and originality. The Backyard EP had found its way into the Rough Trade record shop [in London], and I just loved the tone of Mark’s voice, its pleading and moving quality without a hint of being contrived. That plus Ray’s ‘illogical’ guitar swirls that wrapped the whole thing up in an unusual way – a blustery, lovely wind blowing along the highway, looking back from whence it came. I’m always on the lookout for soul and originality, and never really know where anything will end up. I just try to concentrate on helping a band do something decent, in terms of the work. Even though they were so far away from us [in England] and it was hard to spend much time with them, we had some good times and we had fun on the road for awhile, I remember.”
After Surprise hit the stores in the fall of ’87, a national tour, both as club headliners and as openers for Aztec Camera and Pere Ubu, was undertaken by Miracle Legion. Audiences were awed as much by the music – equal parts yearning pop and hellbent rock – as by the striking Mulcahy-Neal visual contrast, the former a long-haired, tartan jumpsuit-clad shaman with a piercing stare, the latter a brush-cropped fretboard virtuoso pinwheeling about like a dervish. As the Advocate’s Arnott recalls of the band’s compelling performances (which included as elaborate a stage lighting setup as an indie budget would allow), “Mark always did work those theatrical elements out. Not necessarily very carefully, but a lot of shows I went to he thought of different things to do for each one. Like, at one show he brought on a poet that they had wandering around in the crowd. There was this performance artist in town and Mark had him passing out poems in the audience at one show. So stuff like that would happen. Or they’d have an interesting stage set-up – always some element of the unexpected at their shows.”
Next came a spring ’88 tour opening for the Sugarcubes, Mulcahy and Neal doing it as a two-piece following the abrupt departure of their bassist and drummer. Enjoying the artistic challenge of working once again as a duo, the two decided to record their next album that way. Me & Mr. Ray, recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios and released by Rough Trade in ’89, broke significantly from earlier patterns, adopting an acoustic-flavored and less-enigmatic/more light-hearted tone. To this day Mulcahy claims it’s his favorite Miracle Legion album.
Ready to resume touring as a full band, Mulcahy and Neal enlisted a new rhythm section, Scott “Spot” Boutier on drums and Dave McCaffrey on bass, both from Rhode Island band What Now. The ’91 collapse of Rough Trade’s American operations practically put the band back at square one, however, and tied up all the recordings in bankruptcy court as physical assets. This also led, a year or so later, to the painfully ludicrous scenario of Mulcahy and Nealarriving at the Rough Trade auction to find their new label, Morgan Creek, bidding against them for ownership of their master tapes.
As suggested above, Morgan Creek was essentially a vanity project of the then-flush film company Morgan Creek Productions. Despite the label throwing oodles of money at the wall to see if any of its bands (including Mary’s Danish and Eleven) would stick, though, it failed miserably. Arnott observes that while “Miracle Legion was their big deal, their top priority, it was a real horror story in the end. There may have been a lot of sour grapes at the time about how Morgan Creek had done nothing to promote the record, but I don’t think that was true. You could see really good ads in big publications, like in Rolling Stone you’d see a nice color ad. So somebody was working on a big campaign. There was a video and it got on 120 Minutes. Somebody was working on it so it wasn’t like somebody dropped the ball. It was just bad timing, really; things were changing by then. With Nirvana making Sub Pop into a player and then everyone wanting to have an indie label with street credibility, that’s what Morgan Creek was – someone trying to invent, with a lot of money, something ‘indie’ that acted like a major label in all the worst, horrible, band-destroying ways.”
Drenched, produced by John Porter of Smiths/Roxy Music fame, was released in ’92 but failed to register at radio or retail, and with their hitless record label itself gradually finding itself being downsized by its parent company, Miracle Legion saw the writing on the wall and asked to be released from their contract. A year-and-half of legal limbo ensued, the band continuing to tour on its own and even starting to record its next album, the prophetically-titled Portrait Of A Damaged Family, eventually to be released on the Mezzotint Label, which Mulcahy established himself.
Mulcahy doesn’t dwell on negative recollections regarding the Morgan Creek affair, pointing out that the label clearly elevated the band’s profile at the time. He does, however, express lingering regrets regarding Drenched, suggesting that demos cut with Paul Q. Kolderie at Fort Apache studios in Boston were far stronger than the Porter-produced material. And he still smarts from the knowledge that the Rough Trade masters are to this day squirreled away in some Hollywood vault, with someone at Morgan Creek Productions holding the key. All of the pre-Drenched records are long out of print, although Drenched itself can be easily found at eBay on the cheap.
Mulcahy also scoffs at common wisdom which holds that Seattle and Grunge blew his and other pop bands of the era out of the water, suggesting that’s as much a myth as the R.E.M. clone theory. By that point the members of the band, having taken a severe morale hit, had shifting priorities and new interests. Neal, for his part, had gotten married and simply wasn’t that keen on touring anymore. (After working on a low-key basis with New Haven’s Jellyshirts and New York’s Lucas Shine, he moved his family to Scotland; attempts to reach him for this article failed.) Boutier and McCaffery, during downtime, had taken second job as Frank Black’s rhythm section; to this day they remain devout, dedicated Catholics.
And Mulcahy, who’d moved from New Haven to Springfield, Mass., in the early ‘90s, having found rewarding work scoring the music for the critically-acclaimed 1993-95 Nickelodeon series The Adventures Of Pete And Pete (Mulcahy, Boutier and McCaffery portrayed the band “Polaris” in the opening credits), was ready to embark upon a solo career. His Mezzotint imprint issued the Fathering CD in ’97 – the album became a surprise hit in England – as well as 2001’s Smilesunset. Now in 2003 he’s currently working on a third solo record as well as a surreal rock musical, The Slugbearers Of Kayrol Island, a collaboration with artist Ben Katchor.
Talking to Mulcahy for the better portion of two hours, it’s clear he’s proud of his legacy even while he’s eager to continue moving forward with his solo career. You’ll get all that and more from the interview that follows, but it’s worth relating here a brief anecdote from Mulcahy that helps put a nice positive spin on matters.
“I did Miracle Legion for such a long time and it was the only thing I really knew, but then I got sort of got a second chance,” Mulcahy summarized, adding,“Dave and Scott have a really good job now, and I think Ray, having started a family, is happy doing that, too.” At that he paused, then recalled the last time he saw his old friend and songwriting partner (while on a solo tour of the UK), a hint of nostalgia creeping into his voice.
“It was early last year in Edinburgh – Ray lives there now. We sorta practiced a little bit in the dressing room. I did my set first, then I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do some songs with my old buddy.’ I was actually gonna play guitar too, but then I said to myself, ‘Man, I’m just gonna soak this dude up for this five or six songs!’ Because I’d watched him on some level [in the past] but had never really watched him, you know? And it was just so entertaining to watch Ray fall right back into it after all this time! Honest to God.”
BLURT: Let’s do this from the very start. How did you and Ray Neal meet? What kind of musical common ground brought you together?
MARK MULCAHY:Well, our musical common ground was that I was the drummer in a band and Ray’s father had a big truck. As soon as we saw his truck we hired him as a roadie so we could use the truck! [laughs] Until we wrecked his truck… but by that time we’d become good friends. It’s a real Blues Brothers rock ‘n’ roll story. So we became friends and he and I were in a couple of bands together where I was the drummer and he was sort of the guitar-keyboard player.
Why a drummer? That would surprise people who don’t know the backstory and only know you from your singing. The transition to frontman: every musician has an ego somewhere that needs to be burped, so did that appeal to you more than being back behind the drum kit?
MM: I always played drums. High school band, all the way, drumming drumming drumming! But I didn’t have a big desire to be a frontman – or even particularly to write songs. I was happy playing drums, and I still play them as much as I want to. I’ve played on a couple of records the last few years. So it wasn’t anything of wanting to be out front or thinking I could do better. The whole thing really happened by accident. Not to compare myself to him, but you know Robert Wyatt was a drummer and then he couldn’t drum anymore and started singing. Well, it’s the same theme: it’s hard to be a drummer — for anybody, if you’re not writing the songs, it’s real hard to control your own life, when you want to do it as a lifetime pursuit. You’d have to be an amazing drummer – which I’m not – to get the really good jobs.
So you and Ray had decided to head off on your own and do your own songs?
MM: Right. Ray and I were in a band together with Kirk Swan, who’d go on to do Dumptruck. He decided to disband that group, and by that time we’d been in so many groups, as the kind of two guys in the background, that’s what made us start a band. And even though didn’t really have any big desire to start a band, because every band we were in broke up, we just said that’s it, we’ll try our own band. We started as a two-piece Miracle Legion. Then Kirk and Seth [Tiven] started Dumptruck; I ended up being the drummer in that, and on the first album. I was in both groups for awhile, and I really didn’t know which one to commit myself to. They were living in Boston and I was gonna have to move to Boston, but I kind of kept hedging so finally they got a drummer.
I read that you were walking past a sign that read, “Until she talks.” And that’s what inspired you to write your first song?
MM: It was just something somebody had scrawled on a post in New Haven, and I never found out what it meant. But that was our first song and we called it “Until She Talks.” It became a UK B-side. It was almost a Gun Club-like sounding song, like that first song on the first Gun Club album. For whatever reason, and I don’t know why, at that time, that was the band we were kind of imitating. We may have ended up being like R.E.M.’s little brother, but we really started out trying to be like Gun Club, more influenced by the Gun Club, Mission of Burma, Husker Du and the Clean. Ray and I were always big Clean fans too. That was probably the most, biggest common denominator in our music we had. Because they were so – they were the kind of band that could play any kind of song.
What was Ray’s musical background? He’s a phenomenal guitarist, super versatile.
MM: He really was like a guy that took some guitar lessons, and I don’t know if he played a lot, or if he was particularly playing that much when he was our roadie, but he was a big fan of music and he just got into the music scene itself. He wasn’t really thinking of doing much either! So it was just one of these things when two guys come together and made a whole. To be really dead honest, we didn’t expect to do much more than – I mean, we started out as a two-piece, maybe using a drum machine, and I certainly didn’t have any anticipation that we’d continue for very long.
Were you both promoting shows in New Haven at this point?
MM: I suppose in the band I was the mouthpiece of it all, but we both spent an equal amount of time on booking, and we both lost the same amount of money!
Steve Wynn told me he had a theory that it’s not as special now like it was when a band would come to town, you maybe had a record by them, and you’d go out on based on that curiosity and desire to see something you’d never seen before. Nowadays, people would just as soon stay in and watch videos.
MM: Maybe. A few years ago I did a tour with Frank Black – of course two of his guys were in Miracle Legion — and it was me, Frank Black and Mike Watt. I’d talk to Watt in the dressing room and he laid out the history in touring in a way. According to him he invented it, on some level! [laughs] Not like he was bragging about it… The Minutemen as one of the first groups to be in a van and drive all over the place, and in terms of chronology maybe they were one of the first. Touring was invented in the West so by the time we were doing it, some people had gotten hip to it and had found some venues, you know. You could even go further back and talk about bands like Blondie, who were touring as well. So yeah, by the time we got out there we had some places to play. We were also booked by Frank Riley [Venture Booking] who was kind of the main man in a sense. He had all the clubs and all the college gigs and everything — when we were touring Surprise Surprise Surprise we played almost every night on an eight week tour. Maybe one or two days off in there. That’s amazing, to go across the country and play, like, 3 gigs in Alabama, 3 or 4 in Texas – places that are way out there.
Did you try to target college towns with college radio specifically?
MM: I guess so. That was also when we were on Rough Trade. It was definitely like an amazing kind of “miniature-land” kind of record label-booking agent-places to play thing all way below the radar of, say, Bruce Springsteen and stuff. But I was just happy to be driving around. I wouldn’t say I came back with money in my pocket, but you know, that’s all we did. Nobody had a particularly great job – or even a job!
Backtracking for a moment, what was the local Incas label all about? Did you just give them your demo tape and ask them to put it out as The Backyard EP?
MM: No, it was even a lot less than that. There was a band called Lost Generation, a punk band, and they put out a single on Incas, started the label. We said, hey, rather than start our own label too, how about we just put “Incas” on our record too. They said sure. So we did, and a few other bands did too. It was just this weird kind of Good Housekeeping, “I’m-from-Connecticut” seal of approval. Nobody really ran it. There was no office. It was all do your own, and if you look at the records, you’ll see that each Incas release has a different address on it, for each band. If you were good enough to be on Incas, well, that was basically you just call up and ask if you could be on it.
We did The Backyard, which was [funded] by a guy who ended up being our manager, called Brad Morrison. He was a businessman. He found a label for us in England, Making Waves, and various other opportunities for us. The guys at Making Waves were super. They did the Georgia Satellites too. And because of being in England, then we really looked like we had something cooking. Going over there we did some touring and it was amazing – playing to maybe two or three hundred people in Manchester or something.
Still, that whole thing was supposed to turn into a big label deal thing, but it didn’t. So we came back and went back to our normal things and didn’t go back to England for awhile. We started making Surprise. Then we had some other label interest because we’d had a video for “The Backyard” that got on MTV. It was actually on regular MTV and not just “120 Minutes.” We made it with a friend of ours, just a homespun, simple video. We brought it to MTV and asked if they wanted to play it. They said, “Well, we’ll let you know.” And then right away it was on! During the day, at night too. Not like a million times a day, but it was on. You wouldn’t be surprised to see it on at any point.
A lot of sort of organic things were happening that weren’t from anybody’s particular efforts: somebody knew somebody, and somebody liked us, that sort of thing. The problem, though, was that we didn’t know how to make the records available to anyone. We had this great thing going that everybody dug but we didn’t have that end – how to get it to people – down. When that video was on MTV we didn’t have any records left to sell!
Anyway, we went on were making Surprise, and we had some labels that were digging us, including majors, principally this guy at Elektra. We were making this record and he kept saying, “Maybe, maybe…” And then one day we had driven back from Raleigh to New York, for a gig at CBGBs that night. We were fried from driving all night, got into town at 7am and went to this guy’s office at 10am. “What, are you signing us or not?” Really pissed off! He said, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” “Well, fuck you then!” We were pissed off, and we went to this gig, and that night we were really at the end of our rope in a way. And the guy from Rough Trade was there, Geoff Travis. He saw us and said, “I want to sign you guys.” We were like, “Yeah, fuck you too!” [laughs] And he showed up at our hotel the next day. I think he probably liked all the “fuck yous!” He hung in there and went on tour with us for a couple of days, and I think we were just treating him really badly. Maybe we didn’t even realize we were doing that. But I think he thought that was good.
So we got in with him and we did three records with them [Rough Trade]. If I’d know then what I know now… [sighs] That was just the best circumstances. Even though we had all kinds of wars with them, it was like, “You want to make a record? Here’s the money, go make a record.” We’d make it, turn it in, they’d go “Thanks a lot, we’ll put it out and do the best we can!” Just like that, and to me that is just perfect: a record-to-record contract, no having to sign a long-term deal, just the best. If you needed a drum set or an amp or something, a little bit of money to get teeshirts made upfront, things like that. Not like big things. We would mount full tours with a couple of roadies, some production, a soundman, and we went as far as we could go doing it.
I recall your ’87 show in Charlotte, with this elaborate lighting set up, lights strung looped over and around the stage for this very unusual look.
MM: We were totally into doing as much as we could, as cheaply as we could figure out. But that stuff wears you down, setting all that up every night, taking it down afterwards. A lot of extra work!
You were known for mixing up your setlists every night too. Did you feel a need to entertain yourselves as well as the crowd?
MM: I did. Ray always hated that though! [laughs] He wanted to get into, you know, a groove. Almost like stadium rock, where you knew what was gonna happen and you really could concentrate on what you were gonna do in the show because the music was almost rote – “okay, here comes the next song…” And there’s nothing wrong with that, although I don’t particularly like it. I remember seeing some bands and being bummed out because I saw them do the same thing twice in a row.
But I always loved playing the gigs. Despite all the stuff that goes wrong. I know that Frank Black once said, “It’s a long day for one hour – so it better be a good hour!” That just about sums it up, because the rest of it, man, you’re having a hard time driving around, getting along with everybody, the van breaking down, etc. Stuff that, when you’re on a budget, goes wrong, so if once you get out there and play and that sucks, man…
Was that why Steve and Jeff left? [Steven West and Jeff Wiederschall, the bassist and drummer]. They quit on the eve of the Sugarcubes tour, right?
MM: Yeah, I think it was like I was saying earlier, if you’re not writing the songs you get a little less out of it maybe. I dunno, I mean, those guys, Steve was never really a bass player; he started out a guitar player, and I think maybe it sounded like a good idea in the beginning to him, but… or maybe he just wanted to get on with his own life. He had his own thing going on. And you don’t really make a living at it, so maybe after awhile… Plus, the overview of it all was that we really had a lot of ebbs and flows, like everybody. We had a lot of success, but then we’d have a year and a half where nothing would happen: no record label, no record… Then it would look real great and something else would happen and it would be grim again. The first things we did were all kind of, we didn’t know what was gonna happen, so it was all a surprise and that was great. And then we didn’t have anything going for awhile, then we got on Rough Trade and that was great. And then they went bankrupt and we were out for awhile, and it took a long time to get a deal, then we got the deal with Morgan Creek, and that was great! An amazing, high level thing – it just wasn’t very good in the end. So there would be all this down time, and eventually, like with the Morgan Creek deal there was some serious downtime, so everyone found other things to do.
The downtime has killed many a band over the years. I wonder if that’s key to understanding why Miracle Legion ran its course.
MM: You can spend a whole lot of time getting a deal. Then if you get a deal, you’re back to zero again. So next you spend all this time making a record. Then you make a record and you’re back to zero. So you spend all this time trying to get the record out. Then you get it out and you’re back again… you see? It’s like this continual up-the-ladder, down-the-ladder thing.
The Sugarcubes tour and the You’re the One Lee EP you recorded with them, that all must have been a big deal.
MM: Yeah, and it’s funny how that propelled us into being a two-piece again. We started out as a two-piece of course. The Sugarcubes liked us doing it that way because they wouldn’t have to deal with any stage setups and stuff. And it was the greatest, really, one of the greatest tours I’ve ever been on! We were just kinda drunk all the time. And they really drank too. I don’t know that Bjork was like that; she was kind of “a step above” the whole thing. But the rest of ‘em, man, well, saying they’re a big drinking band doesn’t mean they can hold their liquor! No Johnny Cashes in that band.
So now I picture you and Ray after the tour, looking at each other and saying, “Well, what next?” “Let’s do a record.” How did you wind up recording at Paisley Park of all places?
MM: Because we had that tricky manager. He had good ideas and was very focused on getting things done. Me & Mr. Ray was a really good record because we had a plan. We approached that record as a two-piece thing and insisted that no one else play on it. We played everything except for this one guy who played a little slide guitar part. We knew the songs we were gonna do. We always had a box full of songs, and it was almost like we didn’t use our best ones! “These songs over here are pretty good. We don’t know about these others over here.” Basically, we took all these songs we didn’t know what to do with, and said let’s do them as a two-piece and see how they turn out.
The contrast between that album and your earlier ones was quite striking. A lot more acoustic stuff, for example, compared to Surprise, which had a lot of unusual sonic textures, even venturing into dub territory.
MM: Surprise, well, I know people love it and I’m not going to say anything bad about it. But it just has a funny “feel” to it, maybe the production, a purely technical thing. With Mr. Ray, we didn’t know when we were doing something different. But we knew exactly what we were doing. I don’t know if we actually pulled off what we said we were gonna do. But Paisley Park was pretty interesting, and we ended up finishing it with Paul Kolderie at Fort Apache, and he was great too, a real pro.
Didn’t see Prince himself darting down the corridors at Paisley Park, did you?
MM: Actually we did! I said hello to him once. He looked at me, we were walking next to each other, so I said, “Hey!” One night he came downstairs dressed up fully Princed-out and he hopped in this T-bird, the one that was in the “Alphabet City” video, and just took off. He came back in 10 minutes – the studio is not in Minneapolis, but more like 25 minutes outside of it – and I’m saying to myself, “Where did he go?!?” Also, I was talking one night to my friend in Connecticut, and he told me he was going to see Prince that night in Hartford. I said, “He’s right here, man!” He was still there, and it was kinda late in the day… He’s a mystery, even if you’re looking at him.
He probably would just shoot off to the 7-11 and get a Slurpee like the rest of us. Every afternoon, all dressed up, down to get his drink: “Here he comes again, for his daily Slurpee…”Okay, so you do this record for Rough Trade. At what point did Dave McCaffery and Scott “Spot” Boutier come into the picture?
MM: We did Mr. Ray and we’d kind of had our fill of being a two-piece. Ray never liked doing it because he didn’t want to handle all the musical chores, and I wasn’t sure if we were making a real impact on people as a two-piece. So we finished the record and wanted to get a group together. We got them with the line that we were going to do a tour with Pere Ubu in Europe. We [Mark and Ray] actually did Europe, but then they did England with us, then it was back to America and we toured all over.
And I saw you in Charlotte in December of 1990. That was a really powerful lineup.
MM: It was great. It was a different kind of band. Those guys came from a kind of Husker Du background. From Providence, Rhode Island, a band called What Now, also an Incas band. We did a lot of touring with them. Of course, that’s when Rough Trade went bankrupt and we weren’t too clear of what to do.
How does that affect a band? What are the conversations you have when you first get the word that you might not have a record label any longer?
MM: Well, the first part was we were getting a hint of it, so we wanted to get our records back. The crew in England for Rough Trade was amazing, just real hard workers over there at the English office, really dedicated. But they got a whole bunch of people at the American office who didn’t have the same kind of work ethic. Plus, being an indie record label was like a suicide mission anyway: if you didn’t work to death, if you weren’t working really hard, it could be tough, you know?
So the first thing that happened was we tried to get our records back. The guy told us, “Oh, those are all rumors…” This and that. Then they went out of business a couple of days later. And that was the first painful reality, that our records weren’t going to be in print and tied up in bankruptcy court as assets.
Was it demoralizing, not having any kind of immediate future you could see? This kind of thing has happened from time to time to other bands of course.
MM: Well, Miracle Legion is a real survival story. I’ve said this a million times before, that there was a million gigs where I said to myself, “This is it. It’s gotta be our last gig. It can’t go on like this. It’s so shitty.” You know? Then something good would happen and boom, you’d be back on the horse again. So yeah, that was one of the times when… we were sending out little packages of demos to anybody and everybody. We did some real great demos for Drenched, but just kind of floundered around. Just through luck, we’d sent a tape out to some label, and the guy who was the designated “tape goalie” [laughs] ended up becoming the A&R guy for Morgan Creek. We were the first band he signed.
I understand that after you’d signed with Morgan Creek, you showed up at the Rough Trade auction to try and buy your master tapes back and…
MM: … and they became an asset that Morgan Creek ended up buying. Morgan Creek bid against us! We were trying to buy back the rights to our records. Those records they bought at the auction – just like you’re auctioning off a chair! We did buy the actual vinyl and cassettes, however. But now they [master tapes] are who knows where? Just lost in a room somewhere, waiting for someone to put ‘em out.
And Morgan Creek was a kind of vanity thing for the Morgan Creek film company too, at least that’s always been the “common wisdom.” You know, “Let’s have our own little major label thing here”…
MM: Beyond vanity! They had first put out that Robin Hood soundtrack record – the Bryan Adams song that became the biggest selling record of all that year. So that was a pretty good start for the label! They had a bunch of people they’d hired from the old music game, from this label, that label, the guy who broke Bob Seger, the guy who’d worked on this and that. I mean, when they opened the doors they had about a hundred gold records on their walls! From all these guys that had been in the music biz so long.
Yet they didn’t understand some of the indie bands they were signing, perhaps?
MM: They probably had some kind of take on what was happening in music at that time. “We gotta have this kind of band, that kind of band…” To fill in different slots. When they put our record Drenched out they took out a big ad in Billboard and said they weren’t going to bother doing anything at college radio, and they just had this weird, this wrong attitude. They thought we were just going to break right onto commercial radio. We did the Letterman show. But I dunno what happened. The whole thing didn’t pan out the way they wanted it to.
However, by 1991-92, there was a very real feeling in the air that this so-called college rock, this alternative rock, was suddenly commercially viable. And of course after Nirvana that became reality. Steve Wynn said that it seemed like all of a sudden there was light at the end of the tunnel for bands.
MM: I don’t know if I saw it that way. Because when our record was coming out, U2 was the alternative band. U2, The Cure and R.E.M. was the alternative scene. There was “120 Minutes,” for example, and so we made a video at that time for our record – and it got played one time! Once, on “120 Minutes.” It wasn’t like, “Okay, we’re looking for things to fill up the alternative spot.” Because by then MTV had plenty of the super-duper groups. The next kind of round was when U2 became a Rolling Stones-level band. Nirvana, I suppose, was the next thing after that.
Wynn pointed that out too, about how very slowly reality hit: most of the smaller bands were not going to get their shots after all.
MM: It could make a funny kind of sitcom: Old time music guys get together with a millionaire movie producer: Who Gets Screwed?But I hate doing an interview when I sound like – I mean, I don’t have any sour grapes or anything. Living in it, man, it was suicidal. But you know, there’s a lot worse things than wishing you could make another record. And how it all ended up, which is where I am now and everybody else is now, I think everybody is perfectly fine. I don’t want to think that my whole life revolved around some place in Beverly Hills. And also, Morgan Creek did a lot for us. They spent a ton of money and really elevated our whole profile. We didn’t become a household name, but we got more in that direction – we became something that people knew about on a higher level.
The biggest regret I have: I didn’t know Hollywood, free dinners and staying at fancy hotels, but the one thing I should have known was how to make a good record. And I wish that record Drenched had been better. I tried to stick up for it a few times but I didn’t even know how to stick up for it. John Porter, when we got him, he was “the guy who’d done the first Smiths record.” I mean, if somebody offered that to me today, I’d say yes. I love that record. But he’s into the blues, and into the guitar, and he’s not into the vocals. Also, there’s a certain kind of producer out there who’s a company man, and they’re really working more for the record label than for you. That’s somebody really to watch out for. You’re making art with a guy that’s kind of keeping track on things to make sure the record label is happy.
Years later a band says to itself, “What were we thinking?”
MM: Yeah. The only thing that makes that thing real tangible is that we made the record with Paul Kolderie. He was really great and doesn’t give a shit about what the record label wants; that’s what you have to make sure of when you get a producer, that it’s you and him, and not you and the guy who’s reporting to the label. The demos for Drenched we did with him, I’m hoping to some day put out to prove that could have been a good record. And knowing what I know now, I’d just put those out as the record; there’s a lot of great feel to it, just perfect. But the label was, “No, no – we have to redo it, we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars because that’s the only way to make a record. We have to go to a big studio and use that and make sure they get whatever they get.”
Nowadays the White Stripes have proven you can do a record for $5000 and labels will listen to you.
MM: At the time I don’t think anybody had made a record that had actually succeeded that wasn’t very expensive. If you didn’t spend a lot, they didn’t seem to know what they were doing!
Morgan Creek, since it doesn’t exist as a label now, that means the earlier records will never see the light of day?
MM: I have no idea. The Backyard, they don’t own that. We could do that. But as much as you dig it and other people dig it, I just don’t know. I was gonna try to do all that stuff when I started this label. If I could put out those Drenched demos, I would, because nobody’s ever heard ‘em. And there’s a whole bunch of plans to put out a video compilation, the videos we made and this documentary a guy made – it’s kind of a grim thing, about when we were not getting off Morgan Creek and when we were making the Portrait Of A Damaged Family record. There’s a lot of stuff people have never seen or heard, but I dunno how many people would actually buy a Miracle Legion CD.
Portrait: was that done while were still on Morgan Creek but kinda in limbo? You’d asked to get released from your deal. You’ve got a pretty funny/tragic account of that period up on the Mezzotint site.
MM: It was done during some of the legal limbo time. We decided just to get on with things and that way if we ever got out of limbo we’d have a record ready to put out. The “musician never learns” part of this thing is, even after Portrait, we still were sending that around, trying to get on another label. Starting a record label is something I just wish I’d done a long time ago. It makes the whole thing so – much more in control. People always say, “Well, you don’t sell as many records.” But it’s more like you don’t have an opportunity to sell as many records. Just because you’re on a major label and in stores doesn’t mean you’re gonna sell it.
So anyway, we finished Portrait but couldn’t get a deal for it, so I just said I’d try putting out the record myself. That’s why I started Mezzotint.
Do you think at that point the band had about run its course anyway? The protracted legal thing taking its toll and all that. If you’d gotten Portrait onto another label, would the band have continued?
MM: Well, Dave and Scott were already in Frank Black by that time too, and that’s been really great, a good job, for them. He’s a good fellow. Not some crazy rock star. Ray started a family, and I think he’s happy doing that. I just, I dunno… to be dead honest, when we were first touring Drenched, it wasn’t super well attended. The second tour we did, which we did more on our own, the way we normally did things, that was much better. But even still, as much as people may go, “Oh, where is Miracle Legion now? What happened to them?” it seemed like there were less people coming to shows by some point in time.
There was a musical climate change too. Both Steve Wynn and Mitch Easter commented on that to me. Mitch indicated that by the early ‘90s anyone coming out carrying a Rickenbacker was looking to get his ass kicked. By the time of Drenched, had the audience for well-crafted pop-rock with lyrics and hooks and choruses simply dried up?
MM: Eventually, but not when we were still playing. That happened when Korn and that kind of crap on MTV was constant. Like turning a microphone on in a metal factory. I mean, I remember when we played a gig with Soundgarden, around their first or second record, and I thought they were horrible at the time – I later liked them – because just seeing them live, the guy screaming his head off, and that heavy metal lead guitarist, and everybody just pounding their heads. And that was “alternative.”
And “alternative” had become meaningless as a distinguishing point. It was now a mainstream marketing label.
MM: And, you know, there’s something to be said for, as David Thomas once put it, “Man, there’s too many records. Too many bands. Too much to keep up with.” Pretty soon people who were trying to keep up with music just go, “I can’t keep up, I’m out of touch, I don’t know what’s what.” Ray said a great thing in that documentary. Something like, “You used to know each band. A band would put a record out and you knew it.” You’d know that the dB’s put a record out, or you knew that Glass Eye put a record out – or probably half the bands in this MAGNET article. Now, it’s just like a wildfire, the number of people who think they should be in a band. David Thomas called for a moratorium: no new bands, no new records, and it would give you time to catch up. But I guess that way you’d miss some good new bands, like the Music Tapes and bands on E6, for example. Good music happens, and people do figure it out. They found Elliott Smith and Vic Chesnutt. There’s a lot of good things happening.
Yet it does seem that the music industry succeeded in turning music from being the soundtrack of your life to just another lifestyle choice. Might as well be a video game.
MM: Meaning it’s not as important as it maybe was to you or me. And maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore. There’s plenty of ways to look around for bands. I do think that MTV has been the death – the irony of them being called Music TV is not lost on people. It killed people going to check out music since they could turn the TV on and see music all the time. I just don’t think that’s been very good.
By the way, I just don’t want this to be like some interviews I’ve done where it ends up sounding like, “This guy slugged his way out of some fucking horror story, and even though the music business was out to squelch everybody’s world… he made it even though he’s been fucked left and right!” Well, I haven’t been. With everything that went wrong, many things went right, and I’m happy because I got into it to make music, and I’m still making music. So at the end of the day, I win. I’m real lucky, and I’ve done other things too. I did the TV show for awhile, for example.
Tell me a bit about that, how you got involved with The Adventures Of Pete and Pete. It’s currently being rerun on Nickelodeon’s offshoot channel, Noggin. I get to see you, Dave and Scott every night on TV, as the band “Polaris,” during the opening credits.
MM: The people behind that show said they wanted Miracle Legion to do the music for it. But at the time, things were pretty fuzzy about Morgan Creek, and everything was kinda grim. I said to Ray, “Hey man, we got offered this thing, do you want to do it?” And he said, “You know, I really don’t want to do it.”So I said, “Well, I’m going to try doing it myself.” He said, “Go ahead.” I recorded the first season just me and the drummer, Scott. Then the next year and the final year was Dave too. It was writing songs to order: “Can you write a song about a crush? One that’s upbeat and about good times at the beach?” That kind of thing. But it was coming from a guy who was a huge fan of music, and I guess Miracle Legion as well, not some Hollywood type person who goes [in fey voice], “No, no, it needs to be more ‘bouncey’, you know?” So I was lucky that it was a guy we worked super-great together. I felt like I was writing music that I liked, and most of them would have been songs I would have written anyway.
So anyhow, I told that to Ray, and he said, “Look, I have a trip planned with my wife, we’re going on a two-month cross-country trip, and I really don’t want to postpone it.” Whereas in Miracle Legion days it would be, “Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll postpone everything to do that.” So that was kind of the beginning of everybody doing their own thing. It was really the first time I tried to write music by myself, in fact. It was a little scary.
There was one episode on the TV show, however, where Ray does show up in the garage with you guys, however. I noticed you have that clip up on the Mezzotint website.
MM: Yeah. [laughs] Even though Polaris was this three-piece TV band, when we did that I just thought, “Let’s all get out there with our mystery guest…”
You know, I consider the three things to each be their own distinct thing. Miracle Legion is its own thing; Polaris is its own thing; me, my own thing. It’s interesting to see how some people who are into Polaris come to it all. Because that’s a completely different music fan, they came to the music through this TV show so they have a certain idea of what it is and how the music relates to their childhood and all these different things. So they find either me or Miracle Legion and become big Miracle Legion fans through Polaris. Just a strange route to take, I think.
So you did Pete and Pete. [Note: In 1999 Mezzotint released a CD by “Polaris” titled Music from the Adventures of Pete and Pete, featuring re-recordings of the music that Mulcahy composed for the TV show.] Miracle Legion comes back together to record Portrait Of A Damaged Family while waiting around on the Morgan Creek thing, then breaks up after it comes out. You record your first solo album Fathering, and a year or so later after it’s out, in 1998 it becomes an unexpected hit in England.
MM: Yeah, and I hadn’t gone to England in five years, since Miracle Legion had done Drenched. So I went over there because of the band Unbelievable Truth, and those guys sort of hunted me down – Andy Yorke was a big fan, and Thom [Yorke] had been a fan of Surprise so as an older brother he’d probably turned Andy on to it —and asked me if I wanted to go on tour with them. “Yeah! Sure!” They were doing pretty well then, and all of a sudden I was doing solo gigs in front of 300-400 people, which was amazing because I didn’t have anything like that going for myself on my own. I was just making it as best as I could. The last gig I played was at this club in London, and it was like history repeats itself: this guy from the label Loose came up and said, “I’ll put your record out.”
The next record, SmileSunset [on Mezzotint in the US, Loose in the UK] did fine too. I did my own tour on that record and it was a pretty well-attended tour. So the next record is moving ahead slowly. Maybe surely.
I’ve been working on this opera, too, with Ben Katchor, The Slugbearers Of Kayrol Island. It’s really more like a musical. I did the music and it has projections of his drawings as the setting. Ben Katchor did that comic strip “Julius Knippel, Real Estate Photographer” in the Village Voice.
Do you ever feel like you’re in competition with your old band?
MM: When I was first doing my solo stuff, yeah. And I would really ignore Miracle Legion. I refused to play any Miracle Legion songs. I think that’s what people do sometimes. I wouldn’t say that was a mistake, but I know people came to shows wanting – I know if I went to a show for somebody, I’d be hoping they’d play some of my favorite songs. That might have turned some people off from coming, thinking it’s not going to be the good ol’ days. That’s too bad, I think. And I don’t feel like that anymore. I’ve done these things since then.
I feel like it this way: I did this Miracle Legion thing for such a long time, and it was the only thing that I really knew. And then that just fell apart on its own organic – or nonorganic! – way. And I got a sort of second chance to start the whole thing again. I always look at that like, not a “blessing,” but, I got a second start doing the same thing that I really like to do. And that’s great for me. Dave and Scott have a really good job now, and I think Ray, having started a family, is happy doing that, too.
You hooked up with him last year  when you were on tour in the UK. How was that? Bittersweet, or…?
MM: It was early last year in Edinburgh – Ray lives there now. We sorta practiced a little bit in the dressing room. I did my set first, then I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do some songs with my old buddy.” Maybe a few people there knew what was going on. I was actually gonna play guitar too, but then I said to myself, “Man, I’m just gonna soak this dude up for this five or six songs!” Because I’d watched him on some level [in the past] but had never really watched him, you know? And it was just so entertaining to watch Ray fall right back into it after all this time! Honest to God. He plays somewhat by himself, and he was in a couple of bands here and there, but he’s not really what I would call pursuing it now, not like I am.
Going all the way back to the ‘80s for just one last time: at that point in time, since you got compared to REM a lot early on, did you guys view R.E.M. as a sort of template for what you as a band might try to accomplish? “They got in the van and did it, so can we?” That sort of thing?
MM: Well actually, because we went to a lot of shows — I saw every show, anywhere and ever — and because we promoted a lot of shows, we learned a lot. Ray and I saw a lot. Even this little band I was in before Miracle Legion, we did a little touring so I saw a little bit of that. And then when we promoted we saw all the bands on tour, on all levels, so I wouldn’t say anybody was particularly an inspiration for trying to go out and tour. I knew that you had to do it; it was what had to be done. It wasn’t like you’d put out a record, play in New Haven and then go home again. You had to go to Ohio or something if you wanted to do anything.
So no, from doing all the things we’d already done, from seeing a lot of bands or working shows, bands like Wall Of Voodoo, or Mission of Burma, we put their shows on a couple of times, and I knew what was going on. I could see what was happening, and I kind of plugged my own aspirations into what I saw other bands doing at the time.
Below: the sleeve art for Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You.
A graven image of Iggy Pop? Let’s all genuflect our asses off in unison – commence the altar construction! This numbered, limited, 7” tall, polyresin bobblehead from Drastic Plastic Records is a real wild one. The punk rock legend’s likeness is solid, down to the leathery countenance and chest, weathered blue jeans and cocked hip. Buy it and worship freely. (pictured above, natch)
Your first stompbox is a toy; your first Pigtronix effect is more than something that makes your guitar sound like a spaceship. The Mothership has an eight-octave range and three sound processors. The VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator) puts out square and triangle waves and (with optional expression pedal) analog whammy. The sub-octave generator provides big bottom, and an intelligent ring modulator with pitch tracking works alone or with the glide and whammy. Compatible with guitar/bass/horns/vocals, the Mothership presents limitless possibilities.
Do you, like Blurt, suffer from patchy facial hair growth and no hipster chick or beard band will accept you? Does your skin dry out in winter? Were you disfigured in an accident? Try BEARDO! A knitted winter hat with a detachable beard is made from 100% acrylic yarn, the Beardo will warm your mug throughout the cold months – great for die-heard disc golfers or snowboarders – and conceal your hideous imperfections.
This prank fart spray is no joke. Liquid Ass smells like unwashed, marooned-on-an-island-for-months, stank, festering b-hole. Its cousin TexAss starts off smelling like someone’s smokin’ a brisket, then – surprise! – same stench. Its other cousin Barfume is a disturbingly accurate facsimile of actual emesis. All come in mister or streamer bottles and can be accessorized with Premium Fake Human Turd With Corn ($12). Be judicious in using Liquid Ass because collateral damage happens.
Buying portable speakers is dicey. Blurt owns a pile of devices, all claiming to pump out the jams better than their rivals – mostly sound and fury signifying crap. If they’re not tinny from the get-go, they’re easily blown. Or the battery life sucks. Or they plain don’t work. The Phoenix rises above. Its small size (about 3x3x3 inches), a 30-35 foot wireless Bluetooth range, iPhone and Spotify compatibility, eight-hour 850 mAh battery and big bi-directional sound, the Phoenix is everything we’ve ever wanted in a portable speaker.
Socks is socks, innit? Variety and cool designs just make ‘em harder to match up, assuming they survive the dryer. Then again, there’s a way to improve on most things and Stance figured out how to make super-socks. With six different collections – Premium, Casual, Art, Performance, Snow and Kids – encompassing umpteen designs, there’s ridiculous diversity, arch support, treads and mesh venting. Can feet get aroused?
It takes practice and skill to get these husk-wrapped bundles of joy right. The Tucson Tamale Company has these tasty treats down to a science. They’re as faithful as monks when it comes to their craft, putting tamales on a pedestal while applying a unique and creative spin. The variety is staggering and subject to change; too much to describe here, but know this: You’ve never had tamales like these – and you’ll want more. P.s. Try the dessert tamales (pumpkin, chocolate cherry). Urp.
The sequel to 2009’s breakout hit shooter/RPG wastelander, Borderlands 2 has a meaty story, wacky dialogue and situations, kickass action, bounteous loot – “87 bazillion guns,” as they say – and multiplayer madness. What’s new this time around? Even crisper cel-shaded graphics, new characters (like Salvador the Gunzerker and Zero the Assassin) and a downloadable fifth character class (Gaige the Mechromancer). Sick, silly fun with massive replay value.
In which our protagonist revels in the roots of rock.
BY TOM SPEED
It’s late fall in North Mississippi and the air is getting crisp. Jimbo Mathus, wearing denim overalls and a sweatshirt over his wiry frame, reaches into the backseat of his van and pulls out a couple of cold cans of Busch. We pop the tops and sit on the front porch of one of the rental houses he’s renovating for his landlord. Jimbo and his wife Jennifer live in one of a half dozen almost identical houses in the tiny town of Taylor, just south of Oxford. The small wooden structures occupy an old cotton field. They’re accessible only by a gravel driveway, and hidden from the main road by a row of pines.
These houses and others nearby have long served as residences for artists of all types—painters and musicians, writers and filmmakers—for whom the modest hustle and bustle of small town Oxford is even too much.
The town of Taylor is mostly renowned for it’s fried catfish but it’s gained so much notoriety as an artists’ colony that it attracted a new planned development—replete with high dollar antique stores and tract housing designed by Southern Living magazine. This time of year, this new development can be seen peaking through the pine branches. This juxtaposition is a fitting metaphor for Mathus, who has one foot in a long lost rural Mississippi and one foot in the modernity of mp3s.
Mathus’ future is gleaming brightly with the release of White Buffalo, out now on the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. The record is taut compilation of Mathus’ ongoing self-education project to steep himself in the soul of this land, to make rock ‘n roll music from the ground up. Mathus has spent a lifetime soaking up the music of his homeland, learning it from the inside out to the extent that through the practice of his craft he has become a kind of redneck shaman, a musical mystic who holds the magic of his ancestors in such high regard that the urge to breathe continual life into it is a compulsion.
White Buffalo is Mathus’ most fully-realized expression of this musical vision yet. Backed now by his band the Tri-State Coalition (Matt Pierce, guitar; Eric Carlton, keyboards; Ryan Rogers, drums and Terrence Bishop on bass), Mathus is here a backwoods alchemist, cooking up a cauldron of sounds containing plaintive country ache (“Tennessee Walker Mare,” “Hatchie Bottom”), rambunctious, rollicking rock ‘n roll (“Satellite,” “Fake Hex”) and spooky hoodoo incantations (“Run Devil Run”.)The Tri-State Coalition, with the help of producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Bottlerockets, Steve Earle) decorate these concoctions with plenty of screaming electric guitars and a wicked backbeat, but also with tasteful layers of accordion, mandolins and harmonica. It’s a culmination many years in the making.
As for Mathus’ past, it’s peppered with mythical adventures—scrapes with the law, back-breaking work on Mississippi riverboats, vagabond travels in the back of a pick-up truck, and fleeting success with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He’s built a mythology for himself by living it out. He’s created a character for this mythology, that of Captain Catfish, purveyor of a brand of music defined as “catfish music for the masses.” If this self-made character is a contrived concoction or a self-realized backwoods Buddha, it doesn’t seem to matter, for the mythology seems to make the music matter more.
But the route home has been circuitous. Jimbo was born in Oxford, where his parents were attending Ole Miss and living in a trailer that abutted the famed legal marijuana fields.He was just a little tyke then though, and after graduation the young family moved around a bit before settling into the hill-country town of Corinth, in the northeast corner of the state near the Alabama and Tennessee borders.
It was, Mathus says, “A typical dry county, Pentecostal church on every other hill, trapped-in-time type place. Very conservative, very white.” Fortunately, Mathus came from a musical family. He raided his father’s record collection, feasting on Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and John Prine. He learned to play several musical instruments at a young age and joined in the kinfolk hootenannies at family reunions. “I heard what my dad played,” he says. “Banjo, fiddle, bass, good harmony singing. My dad was very good.” His family also took him to nearby juke joints to hear hill country blues that wouldn’t be discovered by the outside world for decades.
Dry Heaves & River Rats
But he grew tired of playing his parent’s music. When he caught the Ramones’ “Rock & Roll High School” on TV, he was soon making frequent trips to nearby Memphis to score punk rock records.
“I liked it because it was different, it was outlandish,” he says. “I wanted to stand out at that time. You could be the jock, or into church, or just, like, dipping Skoal and hunting all the time. Which all three of those are fine, but just not my thing.”
Soon, the cover band he was playing in with his buddy Jack Oblivian (neé Yarber) splintered off into a noisy blaze of a band known as Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. They made some crude, home-made recordings, a few of which actually made it on to wax.
“We’d go to the practice place and have these explosions of sound,” he says “Me, Jack and this other guy Johnny Vomit. We would write songs off the top of our head.”
Near the end of high school, Mathus was restless. “I was so sick of Corinth,” he says, “I just left…played bass in a band. I just packed my little Datsun B210 and went over to Starkville.”
There, he met with legal entanglements, including a possession charge and a DUI.Jim Dickinson famously called Mathus the “singing voice of Huck Finn,” and that’s maybe a more apt description than even Dickinson realized because Mathus really did come of age on the river.
“I was looking at having to deal with some heavy stuff,” he says of his impending incarceration. A judge took him under his wing and introduced him to state a program for wayward teenagers.
“It was basically a vo-tech,” says Mathus. “As a juvenile delinquent, you could choose different professions to learn and avoid some jail time. So there was welding, auto mechanic, air conditioning and heating, all different trades. One of them down in the Rs was riverboat deckhand. I said, ‘I’ll take this!’”
After a six-week boot camp on a decommissioned steam ship on the Tombigbee River, he landed a job with the Natchez Barge Company and found himself traversing the country via its web of navigable waterways. “It was hard work,” he says, “but this was perfect for me. I enjoyed being out on the steel decks, in the snow blizzards in Chicago and everything. I felt there was a purpose for the work I was putting into it. I didn’t want to be some namby pamby artist who was feeling sorry for himself or didn’t know a hard dose of reality.”
It also gave him the opportunity to indulge his wanderlust. Working thirty days on and thirty days off, Mathus spent his months off traveling around the country in his small pickup. Thumbing through an atlas, he would simply pick a place and go. He traveled to Texas, California and Colorado. Soon, he figured out college towns were a reliably laudable destination and that landed him in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Once I found Chapel Hill, I was there for about a week and I called up Canal Barge and said I wasn’t coming back. That’s it. You could make six dollars an hour washing dishes, so it was easy. Books everywhere. Artists. Original music. That’s when I really put it all together.”
In Carolina, he soon found success with the swing revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers. But Mississippi was already calling him home. Mathus spent a lot of time at the UNC library, reading books and studying the extensive folklore collection there. “It was great,” he says. “You could use the library. You didn’t have to be a student, just a citizen of the town.” He dug up recordings by Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon, studying previously indecipherable lyrics and read the works of William Faulkner. Mathus became so enamored with Faulkner that he changed the spelling of his family name from Mathis to Mathus, just as Faulkner added a “u” to his family name of Falkner.
Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, there was a burgeoning record label that he began hearing about. Fat Possum records was founded in 1992 and quickly made a name for itself by releasing recordings by hill country blues masters like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
“I heard that,” says Mathus, “and thought: that’s the shit I grew up hearing in Corinth!”
So with a little money in his pocket from the Zippers success, he began making the pilgrimage back to his home state more and more often, hooking up with old friends and making new ones. One of the new ones was a fresh-faced kid named Luther Dickinson. They first met when Luther and brother Cody Dickinson were playing in their pre-North Mississippi Allstars jug band Gutbucket and as chance would have it (if you believe in such things) were chosen to open a show for the Zippers.
“Right away we just hit it off,” says Mathus.“We started sending cassettes back and forth through the mail, started collaborating a lot. Later that year is when I came down to do Songs for Rosetta.It happened real fast. I just jumped on it. All the shit I was studying was Mississippi—learning Robert Johnson, learning Charley Patton, reading Faulkner and everything.”
Songs for Rosetta was his first proper solo release, a paean to the woman who helped raise him when he spent his summers in Clarksdale with his grandparents, a women who just so happened to be the daughter of Charley Patton. That led to another watershed moment. Mathus was chosen to work on Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea record, and he helped the legendary Chicago bluesman delve into the hill country catalog to wide acclaim.
Up in Chicago, the record caught Ambel’s ear. “I remember driving home from Christmas and I heard that thing on the radio,” says Ambel. “I pulled over to wait and find out what it was, because it was just so … savage.”
Fast-forward ten years, and Ambel has struck up an online friendship with Pierce on a “guitar-geek” forum. Ambel was originally unaware of Mathus’ role in the Sweet Tea record when Pierce suggested they work together. When he found out, things started clicking.
Mathus had been making records all this time, of course. He continued his self-education by exploring the different permutations of Mississippi music, and that focus was revealed in his releases. National Antiseptic, released in 2001, and Stop and Let The Devil Ride, released in 2003, were gritty electric delta blues collections. With 2005’s Knockdown South, he focused more on Stax-style soul sounds and hill country boogie. Old School Hot Wings in 2006 addressed folk and old timey music in a way that he would later explore with the South Memphis String Band. Jimmy The Kid turned more towards honky-tonk country than before. Confederate Buddha began to coalesce these sounds.
Yet while each of those records seemed to have a particular bent, they mixed those elements too. And though released on a variety of small labels, or self-released, they were all self-produced. So when it came time for White Buffalo he put the producer’s hat away, took Pierce’s advice and hooked up with Ambel. Via an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign, the recording sessions for White Buffalo began at Mathus’ studio in Como, with Ambel at the helm, for what would be the studio’s last session before Mathus would close up shop to focus on his own music. After years of near-collaboration, Mathus finally hooked up with Fat Possum for the release too.
Raising The White Buffalo
“I knew that blues, honky tonk and everything else led to rock ‘n roll,” says Mathus. “I knew that back in Starkville. I could hear it listening to the Stones, listening to the Beatles. But I wanted to come around to it from a roundabout way. I wanted to learn it inside out, so I said I was going to back it all the way up to Charley Patton. I know that Charley Patton equals ‘Jumping Jack Flash.’ It equals everything, but I wanted to put every link in the chain, just for my own edification.”
The result is a rock ‘n roll record that codifies this decade-long education process. Tinges of honky tonk and country and blues conjoin to provide a timeless compendium.
Clocking in at a taut 35 minutes, it’s a primer that was intentionally all encompassing.
“If you could, compare [Jimbo’s output] to Neil Young’s career,” says Ambel. “I like it when Neil Young makes the best Neil Young record he can, not when he says this is a rockabilly record or this is a country record. I felt like what we needed to do for Jimbo was to make the best Jimbo Mathus record. Sometimes when you stick to a certain style, you’re missing out on the variety. He’s been self-producing himself, and he’s a very good producer. But producing yourself is like self-dentistry.”
Before heading into the studio, Mathus and Ambel waded through about 25 songs and picked the ones they liked the best, and complimented each other the most.
“I started whittling it down to what I feel like are my real songs that I can really write,” adds Mathus, “and that’s what’s on White Buffalo. It’s less folk and less blues than anything I’ve ever done. If you look at my CDs, it might look like I’m trying to be this or sound like this but to me it was just pieces of a puzzle.”
The puzzle comes together when you hear songs like “Tennessee Walker Mare,” a song Mathus has recorded before but perfected here. Like most of his songs, it’s autobiographical—this one, an ode to his mother. It begins as a country ballad, but after a few soaring sweeps through verse and chorus, the beat turns and quickly develops into an up-tempo twin-guitar jaunt that would make Duane and Dickey proud.
Elsewhere, the shuffle-rock of “Fake Hex” is the sound the Stones were seeking on Sticky Fingers. (“You listen to the Stones, you got Mick Jagger singing like a fake redneck. I am a redneck!” Mathus quips.) “In The Garden” is the kind of rough-hewn roots rocks that gets filed as Americana these days. All pieces of the puzzle, all put nicely in place.
So Captain Catfish, the rock ‘n roll ringmaster, moves on, wiser if a little bit worn. Of this long-term education process Mathus says, “It’s taken me this long just to get the confidence to say, ‘Hey, I’m a rock ‘n roll artist now!’”
In which the titular Tremulis expounds on the (im)proper way to get down.
BY NICHOLAS TREMULIS
As the summer festival season rears its sweaty head upon us I think its only fair game to comment on a phenomenon I’ve witnessed since playing outdoor shows from my teens to the present. It may not be the “most fucked up” but it is generally commented on by the bands I’ve been in as, “Now, that’s fucked up!” So I think we’re playing in the same ballpark.
In all cities and towns… all countries, parishes and provinces this strange occurrence is a constant at every festival I’ve ever performed. It is always two people; one male, one female. They usually look the same and dress the same from town to town. Maybe it’s a secret union like the Freemasons? Could it be a birthright bestowed upon them that has been carried on for generations? I think the best way to describe it is in handbook form so let us begin our little instructional booklet.
THE LOYAL ORDER OF HIPPY-DANCING COUPLES
Let’s start with your uniform.
Men: You need to wear cut-off blue jeans, preferably a vintage of at least 20 years since their purchase. “Low-rise” are the best choice for this as they must be pulled as high up as possible, yet still revealing the “coin purse” for the impressive double-jointed moves you’ll use during your performance. What once might have fit well must now be tight as hell, revealing an explicitly detailed outline of your impressive tackle box. (The Crowning Touch!)
As you are most likely in your mid-fifties or sixties, one guesses you might be a little thicker in the middle, making it harder to keep your apparel in place. This is where a good, sturdy set of suspenders (preferably the rainbow kind) can add functionality, whilst whispering a touch of the continental to your ensemble.
Shirts are optional, but a good wife-beater that has been tie-dyed with as many colors as possible is optimum. Just make sure to trim the bottom so that at least four inches of your midriff is showing. Hot!
Finally, nothing on earth is more regal than the balding ponytail. Let your freak flag wave!
Ladies: I can’t begin to tell you how to dress. Of course, matching outfits are unbeatable in any forum. Let’s just say fringed t-shirts and headbands are the coup de grace to any trousseau. You are the illusive rock and roll Tinkerbelle-with-a-fanny-pack-gone-bad!
The Dance: You’d think this was a freeform sort of thing, given the footage from Woodstock and the like, but throughout the years this has evolved into a very regimented and disciplined art form. Here are some of its rules and regulations:
1. Always dance directly in front of the stage. You’re a big part of the show. You don’t want to gyp the fans of the band that came early by stepping off to the side. Right in the center of the action is where you want to be. You’ll need space to do this right. A good estimate is about 60 feet across and 30 feet deep. You may wonder how you’ll be able to clear this much space right in front of the stage? Believe me, once you start dancing people will start backing away pretty quickly. Shock and awe!
2. Stay in character! Men, you are the wizard of seduction, conjuring the wind and sky to enslave the beautiful maiden before you. This can be done by waving your arms around in a sort of catching butterflies kind of way, dropping to your knees a lot always adds drama, spinning and leaping are always top drawer and the pièce de résistance; the jumping handstand! Basically anything you thought looked and felt cool when you were 12 is now twice as cool.
3. Ladies, you are a renegade sprite prancing from tulip to tulip, drawn into the vortex of your sorcerer partner’s hypnotic undulations and off-color Italian hand gestures. You are a slave to a rhythm only you and your partner can hear and understand. Also and maybe most importantly; there’s no such thing as too many cartwheels. Keep ‘em comin’!
Finally, you are now part of the band. They need your help to steer them into this new symbiotic relationship. Grab the band’s set list right off of the stage to see if they’ve forgotten to add the staples of your choreographed set. You’d be surprised, but in working on our own material, we often forget to work on your set as well. “Feels Like the First Time” and “Don’t Fear The Reaper” are the sine qua non of any set and yet we always forget to learn them. Feel free to yell these titles between every song. It can only make the evening more magical!
Last but not least; yelling “Free Bird” is still hilarious, never gets old and sets you apart from the herd. You are the rock ‘n’ roll Adam and Eve! See you this summer.
The Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra just released the career-encapsulating CD/book For the Babydoll: www.nicholastremulis.com
[Photo Credit: Sandros]
NICHOLAS TREMULIS ORCHESTRA – “WITHOUT YOU, WITHOUT ME” LIVE AT RAX TRAX
Intriguing, unflappable, intertwining and ineffable… that’s the new weird Americana as envisioned by these North Carolina artists.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Shortly before Mount Moriah’s recent interview with Blurt, Heather McEntire, the Durham, N.C., band’s unfailingly polite lead singer is finishing up a phone conversation with another publication. She mouths an apology and turns her attention to the question at hand, which somehow leads her into an earnest but fumbling attempt to define “Americana,” one of those far-reaching music terms that means so much that it ultimately means nothing.
She sputters for a minute and exasperatedly admits, “I don’t know what Americana means.” She then excuses herself and exits the coffee-shop meeting room to finish her call as her bandmates, guitarist Jenks Miller and bassist Casey Toll, arrive and settle into their seats. She doesn’t want to get in the way of any pre-interview pleasantries. After all, she is nothing if not polite.
Still, despite her inherent niceness, it’s easy to tell that she’s somewhat perturbed at the catch-all genre tag she finds herself talking around. Her frustration is understandable. Though Mount Moriah’s smoldering gems occupy sparse country-rock territory that bears the footprints of countless musicians, both present and past, the band draws frequently from other wellsprings.
McEntire cut her songwriting teeth in Bellafea, an explosive post-punk dynamo that found her warm Southern warble twisted into a cathartic shriek. Miller is the sole creative force behind Horseback, a heavy-minded avant-garde project that finds miraculous common ground between blistering black metal and minimalist folk-rock. Mount Moriah draws from this experience, marking its music with subtle inflections — the tense, often foreboding tones deployed by Miller, McEntire’s tendency to give her more powerful belts blunt endings reminiscent of her Bellafea shouts — that challenge Americana’s broad but rigid boundaries. Also impactful is McEntire’s bisexuality; her struggle to find acceptance in a region where many disapprove of her lifestyle is reflected in songs that utilize the pointed pronouns to add bite to familiar country constructs. Indeed, this is a band that is not so easy to define.
“Even with our poppier songs or more driving songs, there’s still a lot of darkness,” McEntire explains. “I like that juxtaposition. That’s what can make us unique. You have to listen to us a few times and read the lyrics and think about what we could have added and what we left out.”
By the time she says this, the conversation has moved across the street from the quiet coffee shop to a bustling Jason’s Deli. The family-friendly chain has a decent salad bar, and Miller was hungry for some lunch. The decision to move took a few minutes as the band members half-heartedly batted the idea back and forth before making up their minds. It was a scene reminiscent of an indecisive family deciding where to eat for dinner, an apt indicator of the trust that defines Mount Moriah’s artistic dynamic.
Toll, who has toured with the band since 2010, became a full-time member as Mount Moriah began ramping up for Miracle Temple, the group’s sophomore effort, recently released by Durham’s Merge Records. This was a big deal for McEntire and Miller, who had been the project’s only consistent members since reviving the moniker, which was earlier used as the name for Miller’s folk-ish collaboration with local musician Aaron Smithers. The two met in 2006 as clerks at the storied Chapel Hill outpost of Schoolkids Records, which has since been shuttered. Their friendship was strong and immediate, he having her back as she tried to reconcile her liberated lifestyle with a religious and conservative family, she serving as a reliable anchor as he came to grips with an at-times-crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder — Horseback’s manicured heft has become his unconventional therapy.
Their relationship has never been romantic, but they trust each other implicitly. They seem linked, their matching blue-ish eyes piercing through questions with similar intensity. Shortly after meeting, they formed a label (the N.C.-focused Holidays for Quince) and a pop duo (the pristine and precise Un Deux Trois), the experience forging the creative relationship that has become Mount Moriah’s soul.
But these days, Toll has become an active contributor to their creative process, helping — along with frequent drummer James Wallace — to shape Miracle Temple’s refined folk-rock fire.
“It can be really hard sometimes,” Miller says of learning to trust in the band’s creative chemistry. “It just takes believing in each other and knowing that there is a sense of love that is going to perpetuate through those hard times. Not everybody’s going to agree all the time. You start to develop a common language as you’re working together and sort of try to learn that vocabulary and learn ways to augment it as you go.”
Trusting her bandmates was key to McEntire, whose songwriting excavates personal demons with an almost archaeological sense of poetry. This is nothing new. Mount Moriah’s self-titled 2011 debut included songs like “Reckoning,” a breathtaking number that uses breezy country as the backdrop for McEntire’s confession to her strict Christian mother that the love of her life is a woman: “Momma, rest your mind,” she sings, knowingly tweaking a style most often used to express heterosexual love. “I found a lover/ She’s gentle and kind.”
On Miracle Temple, many of the songs are drawn, quite literally, from McEntire’s own therapy sessions, keying on vivid memories and meaningful locations. “Bright Light” details one of the treatments that she found most powerful, an experimental technique called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing,” or EMDR. During each session, she was confronted with a bright light in an effort to distract McEntire from her own distractions, allowing her to dig deeper into herself. The experience was so powerful that she pulled into a Subway parking lot on her way home from the first session and wrote the song’s lyrics: “If darkness has you only bringing bruises into the light,” she sings in the chorus, “Let darkness take its toll and make it right.”
McEntire takes her own advice throughout Miracle Temple, extracting her own anxieties and bringing them to bear in the light of day. Take “Miracle Temple Holiness,” a darker diatribe directed at her mother, this time inspired by the vote on North Carolina’s Amendment One, a constitutional measure banning gay marriage that was passed last May. In the song, McEntire contrasts the nobility of her mother’s beliefs with the prejudices they breed, opting for a more symbolic narrative, a stark divergence from the literal nature of “Reckoning.”: “I’ve seen the darkness take you down with it, Mama,” she seethes. “Let it rise.”
“For me, there’s an interesting juxtaposition of her being this really spiritual woman but carrying this darkness in her heart and me asking her to rise above it,” McEntire says. “There is definitely a search for spirituality within this record.”
Musically, Mount Moriah is similarly progressive, striving to advance country-rock beyond its sometimes stagnant range of symbols and sounds. On “Miracle Temple Holiness,” Miller lays down bluesy licks with leaden tones and a metallic ominence, serving as a menacing foil to the song’s Nashville-inspired string charts, and contrasting McEntire’s Christian images with a mood more common in bands that are combative toward those beliefs. Even in the band’s more straightforward offerings, there are always non-traditional elements. The beautiful ballad “Connecticut to Carolina” ambles along with pedal steel and unobtrusive fills during the verses, but the chorus finds Miller allowing his guitar lines to expand into tension-rich slabs that heighten the separation anxiety apparent in McEntire’s quivering but confident delivery.
In such instances, Mount Moriah displays an innate desire to twist familiar forms, using such recombinations to represent the conflicted nature of life in the modern South. But McEntire is wary of words like “tradition.” As much as she doesn’t want to be defined as working within it, she’s equally adamant that Mount Moriah not be labeled as intentionally breaking it.
“Traditional, that’s another one of those words I don’t totally understand,” McEntire says. “The country music I grew up listening to, it was so programmed. All of the stories were just recycled. You could not know the song but know the song and start singing. I like what we’re doing with playing with those more traditional formats and introducing more darkness and things that are harder to digest.”
For all their success and acclaim, the North Carolina musicians remain humble homeboys at heart. They are currently on tour in support of their most recent album The Carpenter.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Seth Avett is just about the nicest guy you’d ever want to speak with. A 30 minute phone chat brings an instant bond, a sharing of sincere sentiment, a hearty laugh, and a folksy, unaffected down home demeanor that’s every bit as honest and embracing as the seemingly spontaneous, off-the-cuff and emotionally vulnerable melodies that he and his brother Scott deliver under the moniker of the Avett Brothers. Over the course of the past dozen years, the band’s evolved from their own homegrown devices to major label success and a rabid following that’s made them festival staples and affirmed their populist appeal. Boasting a rustic sound that emphasizes the basics – acoustic guitars, a kick drum, bass, cello and occasional keyboards, the quartet, which also includes longtime bassist Bob Crawford and their newest recruit, Joe Kwon, is, by turns, both effusive and heartbreaking, detailing personal declarations of remorse and reflection.
After years of making their name in their native North Carolina environs and a dozen albums and EPs on the local Ramseur Records label, the Avetts graduated to the big time with the release of 2009’s I and Love and You, which brought them into the America’s top twenty. The follow-up, The Carpenter, was released late last year and climbed even higher, charting at number four on the Billboard album charts. Produced by legendary wunderkind Rick Rubin, the two albums found them graduating from home boy heroes to mainstays of late night TV. The charm of their wistful, no-frills approach is amplified by the irresistible urgency of cascading choruses that seep into the consciousness and linger long after the last notes finally fade away.
Blurt recently had a chance to chat with Seth during a break between tours. Here’s how it went:
BLURT: Has your sudden success taken you by surprise?
SETH AVETT: I can tell you that it gets sort of overwhelming to get on the scale of what it’s gotten to. If I look at it with my 21 year-old eyes, then yes. It’s unbelievable in a way. You do something gradual every day, year in and year out, and you gain perspective for yourself as well as you can, but you lose the perspective you had when you stepped into the room, and as you’re walking through it you lose the perspective that you had when you were walking through the door. I think so much in terms of what’s happening right now. We’ve stayed so busy, I take precious little time to reminisce, precious little time to process, precious little time to bask in anything. I’m talking literally. I’m talking about stepping onstage with Willie Nelson and singing “On the Road Again” in Texas and being in the bus a few hours later and heading to wherever we were heading to next and talking about the set list for the next day and whatever, and not sitting there drinking a beer and thinking, “Man, I just sang with Willie Nelson!” I’ve tried to appreciate that, but you keep moving so you don’t get bogged down. We’ve had more fortunate and exciting experiences than we deserve. (laughs) I’m excited about the lifestyle we’ve led and the opportunities we’ve had, and some of them do surprise me. But then again, we’re just hardworking guys and we don’t take a lot of time to think it through. We’re just on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
In a way, your laid-back, unpretentious sound has kind of paved the way for a new generation of acts with the same no-nonsense style. I’m thinking of Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers in particular.
I agree. That’s something that I like to keep in check. I certainly don’t want to take credit for something that’s not mine and ours to take. Both of those bands are friends and colleagues. Both are on average ten years younger than us and they have been vocal about our influence on them. So I’m trying to be okay with that and being in the position of gratitude and to accept that gratefully. I appreciate very much that those bands have expressed that and have done good things and received attention for that. Commercially speaking, both of those bands are at a higher level than we’ve ever been, but they’re doing it their way. They’re doing their thing and it’s being responded to. It’s exciting in the landscape of music to see the music each of those bands are making and the music we’re making and being rewarded with some kind of popularity and some kind of buzz. Yeah, I think that we were part of the building for them and there are bands that were very much a part of the building for us and never saw a lot of attention. For example, there was a band called the Blue Rags which was a fantastic ragtime/rock ‘n’ roll band that I saw when I was 16 or 17 years old at the Brewery in Raleigh. God knows that if they hit the scene 15 years later, maybe they would have seen a lot of commercial success. Bill Reynolds, who was the bass player in that band, actually plays with Band of Horses now. But bands with banjos were never seen on TV back then. That was not a possibility when we started.
You guys defy categorization. You might have a banjo, but your sound can hardly be called bluegrass. You really bend the parameters. That said, being that your last two albums were recorded for major labels, was there any pressure to sew up the loose ends and give it more of a polished sheen?
Not the first iota. It’s a weird thing. I can’t speak for other folks that have worked with major labels, but for us, our story has been told a thousand times. The label knew we did everything completely ourselves for the first eight or nine years of this thing. That really gave us some leverage. So we thought about the scenario of being on a major label, we had a fan base and we weren’t like 18 year old kids who were begging the label to make a career for us. We’re well on our way. We’re going to have a career, and whether we’re going to sell a lot of records or not is completely up in the air and quite arbitrary in our mind. And we wanted to take that step, because it was the right step, and it was with folks that we wanted to work with. Right now, we love working with them, and that pretty much dissolves the negative stigma of the big, bad major label. There have been a lot of horror stories about people working with major labels but really it’s just a group of people who got into music because they love it.
So what was the evolution that came with being on a major label? How did that affect your MO?
The last two albums are more a comment on our development as a band. The reality is, we’re just on our path and we’re changing. A band that’s going to be together for awhile is going to listen to their muse and their inspiration and they’re going to change. And between these two records, you’re looking at maybe three or four hundred show, or maybe 500 or 600 that we’ve played. So we’re not going to sound the same one record to another because we’re getting better. And we’re proud of that. I love the charm of the early records. I was singing with flats and sharps all over the place, but I don’t really want to do that anymore. I want to sing well. I want to sing like Sam Cooke, ya know? (laughs)
What did Rick Rubin bring into the mix?
Well, he helped break things down. He helps us slow down and see what was working and what sort of needed reworking and to examine it. Again, we did everything on our own, and there’s plenty that’s good about that but there’s also some shortcomings. And one of the shortcomings is that me and Scott and Bob don’t really have great rhythm. We have a rhythm that changes a lot within the songs — sometimes that’s okay, sometimes that’s great — and we did that for eight years without a drummer. I was the drummer — I’d play drums on the records, I’d play piano on the records, whatever — and I can play drums to my own inconsistent tempo because I was the one that’s inconsistent. But when we looked at it, we realized that it was really detracting from the song and making it harder to figure out what we were singing about because we were so distracted by the sway, being slow and fast, slow and fast and so forth. That’s just a technical detail, but Rick helped bring calm to the studio, helped bring real spirit of experimentation and a real spirit of exploration. Instead of saying, hey, that sounds like a real bad idea, let’s not do it, Rick would say, ‘I got an idea and maybe it’s horrible,” and that’s how he is. He doesn’t think that everything he does is golden. Not by a long shot. He thinks that if somebody has an idea, let’s find out if it’s good or not. Let’s not just assume we know without hearing it.
So many of your songs are really plaintive and sobering, heartbreaking in fact. Where does that emotion come from? It sounds like your hearts are broken? Are you venting your own feelings through these songs?
Well, the truthful and sad answer to that is… yes. The fact is that it is real because we are genuinely sensitive men. (laughs) I have a debilitating sensitivity. I am a man that can think myself into absolute heartbreak. I take myself there daily. It’s not something that I necessarily need treatment for, but I really grab onto things. And I’m not just talking about heartbreak. I mean joy, and I can be on top of the mountain. And when I am, you’ll probably hear it in a song and probably present it in the most terrifying, exciting fashion. This is love, this is compassion, unadulterated, unfiltered… and then you’re going to get the same thing when I feel hopeless or I feel scared or whatever. I think that’s a pretty common trait for a songwriter. If you look Elliot Smith, he is someone you cannot separate his status from him as an artist. And that’s because that man had an unusual sensitivity for sadness and for beating himself up in a way. We like music that shows vulnerability, music that’s honest for good or bad. So we like to present songs that are honest for good or for bad. Scott and I are both aware of each other as people, folks that lock onto emotion and we champion it, and sometimes that’s good for our lives, and sometimes it’s really, really bad for our lives. Generally speaking, it’s always good for art, but not always so good for day to day life.
The way you express that emotion is so brilliant to begin with. When you’re up there on stage, whooping and hollering and carrying on, is that genuine feeling we’re seeing you express?
With the whole hollering and screaming and dancing and shimmering, getting sown and having fun… the reason we’re like that onstage is that it’s genuine. Because of the people in the audience, it’s something we’ve developed over the years, over this decade plus, almost a dozen years of creating this relationship with an audience that is highly genuine and highly infectious. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of, but we are not creators of it. There’s a beautiful interaction that happens between us and an audience that makes it feel much less like us and them, but more like just us. These shows have become like celebrations and people expect that, so they make it happen. So we just jump in there with them and we came all the way out here to Arizona, or Tennessee or California or Japan or wherever not to sit around and brood, but to celebrate. So let’s celebrate in a healthy way and let’s make it happen and we really are aware that there are so many times in our lives that we’re going to get to do this. It’s not going to last forever. It sounds pretty fatalistic, but it’s just the truth, so let’s celebrate that. I am more on the page now of just connecting with folks than I am with showing off. When I was younger, I was like, I want to show them my talent, I want to prove that I can do something and I can do it well, which is ironic because at the time, I really couldn’t do it very well. So I’m more aware now that the great value in these shows is the celebratory factor and is the opportunity to connect with folks that use our music with a tool. I’ll be talking to someone and they’ll say, “Oh man, I listened to your music all doing my chemo treatments.” That’s where it’s at. That reminds me how much of a waste of time it is to show off. When you’re lucky enough to have that interaction like that with somebody, it tells you that you are being put to use, and what an honor that is. So that’s why the shows are like they are. I’m speaking for all of us when I say that, band and crew. We all feel very honored to be a part of it.
When you sit down to write a song, given that naked emotion that comes through, do you have to search it out and grab it, or are you channeling it from somewhere inside.
They do come out of nowhere. It’s a very mysterious thing sometimes, but it is something that can be studied and can be nurtured. For the most part I do make myself available for the songs just by sitting down with a guitar and my recorder and my notebook and my sketchbook, and if the melody comes, I try to see what words fall down in it and what may seem appropriate or imperative at the moment. It’s not something I can force necessarily, but I can make myself available by having some discipline.
You guys play lots festivals these days. How do you bring the intimacy of your music to these larger stages and still achieve that personal connection with your audience?
I think that we try to put our attention on the fact that this show is the only one that matters. This one right here. If we play as well as we can, not only get inside the songs, but also get inside the physical environment, that will translate. And that can translate for a hundred people, it can translate for a thousand people or ten thousand people. And that comes from being in a genuine place and being very much in the moment. When most quality things happen, you have to be present for it. Some of that is just practice, like learning where to be and how to be, how to find something that works. It’s just like studying how to be performer. There are certain things that work in a club that don’t work when the person in the last row is a football field or two football fields away from you. That doesn’t necessarily mean more flailing around or becoming more animated, but it does mean you have to consider that person even though they’re so far away. They paid their money to be here and they may be the biggest fan in the place, so you want to pay attention to them. Also, we went and saw Bruce Springsteen. So we know how to do it because we saw him. (laughs) He’s sort of a major template for us, so we looked at him and thought, okay, here’s a guy that knows how to do three hours. He knows how to engage a large audience, he knows how to do it for the long run, and he knows how to make dynamic records that span decades. So he’s the guy we’ve got to look at. We have to look at the Dead. We have to look at Pearl Jam. We have to look at those bands in terms of the way we want to do things.
You clearly learned your lessons well.
Thank you. Thank you.
You’ve created such a high bar yourselves however. Is it intimidating knowing you have to meet your own high standard each and every time?
It’s not intimidating in terms of us thinking we made something great. After we made I and Love and You, Rick said, “Listen, I don’t care what the next record is, but it’s got to be better than I and Love and You. It wasn’t like he was downplaying that album. He thought we had done well and made a record we should be really proud of, but it was all about prospective. I and Love and You might be a great record to one person, or a terrible record for another person. It’s all in your own prospective, but for us, we knew that whatever ended up to be the record was after I and Love and You, it needed to make us excited in a way that I and Love and You did not. And that’s what artistry is all about. That’s what looking forward as an artist is all about. So we’re saying, be proud of what you did, but look at how you might do things differently now and see what happens. Just because you did something five years ago, it doesn’t mean that it has to dominate what you do now. We want to learn from the things we’ve done well and the things we’ve not done well.