Monthly Archives: July 2013

THE BOY WHO FELL TO EARTH: Nikki Sudden

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As evidenced on a new six-CD box set, the late British songwriter was, if not a superstar, still a major contender in the world of underground rock & roll.

 BY MICHAEL TOLAND

As anybody who’s read his autobiography The Last Bandit knows, Nikki Sudden recorded a lot – for more often than his officially released catalog would suggest. “I’m saving it for the box set” seemed to be a mantra for him for the last decade or so of his life. Seven years after his untimely passing, The Boy From Nowhere, Who Fell Out of the Sky has finally appeared via the Easy Action label. But while the six-disk set has plenty of rarities – nearly four disks’ worth, in fact – it’s not so much a roundup of his hidden sessions as it is a career retrospective, giving force to the argument that the British songwriter was, if not a superstar, still a major contender in the world of underground rock & roll.

The first two disks collect, as they’re titled, Singles and Classic Album Tracks. Disk one covers 1977-1989, the years in which Sudden established himself as an international underground bon vivant. As with any collection of this stripe, diehards may find glaring omissions – where’s “Death is Hanging Over Me,” “Gold Painted Nails” or “The Last Bandit?” Grumbling aside, though, the disk gives a fair overview of the first half of Sudden’s career. Appropriately enough, the disk kicks off with three cuts from Swell Maps, the experimental postpunk outfit that put Sudden on the musical map. The noisy, catchy singles “Read About Seymour” and “Let’s Build a Car” show why the Maps sustain a cult following to this day. As good as they are, though, the Maps tracks are essentially baby pictures – the full-blown photographic exhibit begins with “Back to the Start,” Sudden’s first single. Though not a million miles away conceptually from the Maps, it does show incipient rock & roll swagger, as Sudden begins working his teenage obsessions with T. Rex and the Rolling Stones into the postpunk he would soon leave behind.

Sudden’s penchant for what we’d now call classic rock fully rears its head on “All the Gold,” a brooding folk rocker from his debut Waiting For Egypt. Precedent set, the singer/songwriter rarely strayed from the midpoint where Marc Bolan, the Stones, Dylan and Neil Young meet, and the rest of the disk gives a good overview of his vision. He easily and confidently veers between the shimmering jangle of the epic “Where the Rivers End” (one of his greatest tunes with pal Dave Kusworth in the Jacobites), “When the Rains Come” (ditto) and the succinct “Jangle Town” to the roiling grunge of “Great Pharaoh,” “Back to the Coast” and “Big Store (Orig.).” When he varies the formula, it’s usually in the form of resigned balladry, with the lovely “Ratcliffe Highway” (another Jacobites triumph), “Gallery Wharf” and “Chelsea Embankment,” plus the sublime and low-fi “Winter” (from the obscure Last Bandits in the World LP) and the darkly beautiful “Wedding Hotel,” guest-starring Rowland S. Howard. The Jacobites’ “Pin Your Heart” represents one of Sudden’s rare but rewarding forays into pop anthems, while “Missionary Boy” shows that he wasn’t quite done with quirky postpunk just yet. Even with the absence of key favorites, this first disk really lays out Sudden’s vision with conceptual clarity.

Nikki Sudden CD

Disk two continues the theme of hits and classic cuts, taking the years 1991-2005. Country music a la Gram Parsons makes its way into the Sudden world via the wonderful “I Belong to You,” though the single’s equally worthy B-sides are absent. In fact, much of this disk revolves around acoustic guitars and folky melodies. “Golden Dawn,” “Farewell My Darling” (a duet with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), the loud “Cloak of Virtue” (a collaboration with fellow traveler Phil Shoenfelt) and especially the Jacobites tunes “When Angels Die,” “Chelsea Springtime” and “Liquor, Guns & and Ammo” represent Sudden’s dramatic outlaw folk rock, a style difficult to pull off successfully. The Jacobites also salute Sudden’s late brother Epic Soundtracks, covering his “Wishing Well” in the same style. Sudden doesn’t abandon le rock, however, setting amps on fire with “Love Nest,” the ridiculously catchy “Don’t You Ever Leave Me” (one of the Jacobites’ greatest singles) and the particularly grungy “Whiskey Priest.” Sudden was at the peak of his powers when he died in 2006, leaving behind Treasure Island and The Truth Doesn’t Matter, his two best LPs. This disk ends, appropriately enough, with a rocker and ballad from each: Island’s tender “Stay Bruised” and blazing “House of Cards” (which features Mick Taylor and Ian McLagan) and Truth’s mature, lovely “Green Shield Stamps” and rollicking “Empire Blues.” The only significant omissions from disk two are “God Save Us” and “Teenage Christmas,” lively rock & roll tunes from the Jacobites’ final LP God Save Us Poor Sinners.

The hits out of the way, the next two CDs concentrate on the many, many rarities and unreleased songs in the Sudden archives. Disk three, subtitled Old, New, Lonesome and Blue, leans towards collaborations. Recorded in 2003 and opening the disk, “Out of My Dreams” and “Pistol in My Pocket” feature Kansas City’s likeminded Joey Skidmore, while 1996’s “Laudanum Blues” finds Sudden backed by German garage punks DM Bob & the Deficits and 1986’s “In Your Life” by the same country’s Creeping Candies. A highlight of both artists’ catalogs, “Family Bible” comes from a 2006 single on which Sudden collaborated with Athens, Georgia rock band Southern Bitch, while a “Big Store” recorded in 2003 features backing from Hanover’s psychedelic space rock troop Mandra Gora Lightshow Society. Stripped-down remakes of “Something About You” and “Liquor Guns and Ammo” come from a recording session with Sudden’s pal Max Decharné, formerly of Gallon Drunk and currently leading the Flaming Stars. There’s also an early version of “Chelsea Embankment” retrieved from a Swell Maps B-side and an alternate take of “The Bagman and the Twangman” backed by Peter Buck and members of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. A handful of Sudden-headlined tracks round out the disk nicely, including “Nothing Left” and “Pockets Full of Silver,” solo acoustic cuts of unknown date and origin, a tender take on Fairport Convention’s “Meet On the Ledge” and the efficiently rocking “I Can’t Stand Up” and “Little Venice,” recorded in Georgia in 2005. Most significant are recordings old and new: the pretty “Mr. Fox,” recorded in 1983 with Waterboys leader Mike Scott for a fanzine, and “The Way Things Used to Be,” a gorgeously shimmering ballad enigmatically listed as “The Last Recording.”

As indicated by the subtitle Beau Geste, Lost Souls and Bedroom Concertos, disk four digs deep under Sudden’s mountain of rarities, outtakes, home demos and unreleased recordings. More of a grab bag than an organized collection, the disk nevertheless contains some gems: the blazing “Sea Dog Blues,” recorded live in Tokyo in 1990; the Crazy Horse rock of “The Jewellery Quarter,” from a 1996 session in the Czech Republic; an alternate folk rocking version of Sudden’s classic “All My Sinking Ships” done in France in 1996; the hazy “Behind These Walls” from 1986, with contributions from Rowland S. Howard; the exceptionally strong “Wake Me Up,” a duet with Midnight Choir leader Al DeLoner in 2006; a nice but mysterious cover of the Boys Next Door’s “Shivers,” with no accreditation. About half the tracks come from the obscure cassette-only odds ‘n’ sods compilation Beau Geste. The wildly varying fidelity of these tracks may be an impediment to easy enjoyment, but there are rewards to be had, specifically the “country” version of the Jacobites’ “Hurt Me More,” particularly rocking takes on “Gold Painted Nails” and “Waiting For the Siege,” the odd “England’s Under Cover,” on which Sudden is accompanied by a tape, and a stark, badly recorded solo acoustic version of “The Only Boy in Heaven” with a surprisingly strong vocal. A handful of home-recorded demos from unknown time periods pop up throughout as well, highlighted by “School For Scandal” and “Girls You Fall in Love With.”

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Disks five and six collect live cuts, mostly recorded for radio. Disk five, AKA The Dark Ends and the Dives, interweaves three different performances from Germany in 1999 and 2000 into one seamless show. Sudden is in full-blown rock & roll mode, fronting a four-piece electric band that knows just how to treat “Looking at You,” “Stay Bruised” and “Wooden Floor.” The blues shuffle of “High and Lonesome” becomes tedious (the blues never being Sudden’s strong suit, frankly), but the extended workout of “Take Me Back Home” rolls just fine. Subtitled Across the Airwaves, disk six naturally covers various radio sessions spanning at least 15 years (possibly more – many cuts hail from unknown sources). Barring the opening pair of 1984 Jacobites cuts, the performances here feature only Sudden, his guitar and songs from throughout his career, from “French Revolution Blues,” “Teenage Christmas” and “Death is Hanging Over Me” to “When Angels Die,” “Hanging Out the Banners” and “One More String of Pearls.” As might be expected, one-of-a-kind moments abound. He gives Groove’s “Murder Valley” and “Sea Dog Blues” their first public airing in 1988 on Hamburg radio, a mere two days after he wrote the latter. He plays covers of T. Rex (“Jewel”), the Rolling Stones (“Memory Motel”) and his own Swell Maps (“Marcella”). He performs an exceptionally strong version of “When Angels Die” on U.S. college radio, only to reveal afterward that it’s “a bit strange in the middle” when he messed up the chord sequence. He also tosses off a ridiculous 30-second piece called “The National Elf.” Outside the lack of electricity, it’s as solid a cross-section of Sudden’s musical mind as one could wish for.

If there’s one major gripe we have with The Boy From Nowhere, it’s about the lack of detailed annotation. The booklet contains a great essay from Max Decharné and an interview with Peter Buck that gives some insight into what it was like working with Nikki, but no details on the tracks. The individual sleeves list years and album titles, but little else – there’s nothing to indicate, for example, that the single “Wedding Hotel” on disk one comes from a collaborative album with Rowland S. Howard, who sings it. Likewise it’s not noted that Sudden’s friend Lizard croons “Chelsea Embankment” and “Missionary Boy,” or that “Gallery Wharf” is sung by Jeremy Gluck, with whom Sudden worked closely on the Barracudas frontman’s solo record I Knew Buffalo Bill. Thankfully, the notes get more granular on the disks of unreleased and rare recordings, and one could argue that particular annotation is more important anyway, given the previous releases of the “classic” tracks – and this box isn’t aimed at the neophyte in any case. But any lack of information on a set that attempts to give a comprehensive overview of an artist as prolific as Sudden is a detriment. Not enough of one to keep this set from being worth every penny, mind you.

Still Full of Shocks is a separate disk, originally available with early pre-orders of the box set, but subsequently released separately in a limited edition run. It features more solo Sudden, though this time in a studio with crystal clear sound, if an unknown recording date. Sounding both focused and relaxed, Sudden flips through his back pages, avoiding many of his obvious “hits” and instead digging deep into his catalog, throwing in a few new tunes along the way. With beautiful fidelity and an air of Nikki-as-folksinger, there’s nothing revelatory here, just strong, soulful performances of some of his best numbers, including “Angels in My Arms,” “Bed Woman Blues,” “In Your Life,” “We Had It All” and “One More String of Pearls.” Ending with a cover of Marc Bolan’s “One Inch Rock,” Sudden brings his vision full circle, back to the artist who inspired his long, rewarding lifepath in the first place.

THE BOY WHO FELL TO EARTH - Nikki Sudden

 Below, check out our video-audio tribute to Sudden in all his myriad guises….

 

Jacobites – “Don’t Ever Leave Me”

Swell Maps – “The Himalayas”

Sudden & Rowland S. Howard – “Don’t Explain”

Sudden + Dave Kusworth – “Shame for the Angels”

Sudden – Interview + Live ‘97

Sudden – “Death Is Hanging Over Me” Live ‘06

 

PUSH DOWN THEN PUSH IN, HARD: Crushed Out

Crushed Out by Alan Shleich

Straight outta Brooklyn, and with a new, NSFW video to boot: meet another rock duo (and hint: this one’s special).

 BY J. POET

 “Drumming is like dancing,” says Moselle Spiller, the timekeeper for Crushed Out, the hard-driving Brooklyn duo that’s reinventing the roots of rock’n’roll for a new generation. Want To Give, the debut album the band recently put out on their own Cool Clear water label, goes off like a string of firecrackers. The disc’s ten short, sharp, hard rocking tunes are crammed into a brief 31-minute blast, digging deep into the sounds of ‘50s rock, early country, Chicago blues and ‘60s street corner R&B to create a greasy, glorious pulse that references the roots of rock with a thoroughly modern attack. (Below, check out the new video for steamy album track “Push Down & Twist,” which in some contexts is definitely NSFW…)

The album’s surprisingly full sound is produced by the fuzz drenched fret work of guitarist Frank Hoier and Spiller’s powerful, spine cracking rhythms. Hoier’s been playing guitar and dreaming of the perfect band since he was 11, but Spiller never touched an instrument until she started jamming with Hoier a few years ago.

 “I always loved music,” Spiller says, “but I never imagined I’d be in a band. I took violin for a few weeks in elementary school, but I wasn’t interested in an instrument.” Spiller is an Olympic level downhill skier and grew up in Effingham, New Hampshire, a small town near the border of Maine. “My parents are progressive, hippie intellectuals and supported all of my creative outlets. I was artistic and athletic and started skiing as soon as I could walk. I’m very competitive. I was on the downhill racing team in grammar school and high school.”

She adds that her parents weren’t particularly musical. “They didn’t collect records. I don’t think they listened to the radio unless they were in the car, driving.  Luckily, I had a girl friend in middle school and high school that was really into the music of the ‘60s. I don’t know how she discovered it, but she’d burn me CDs of The Beatles, Stones and Led Zep, so even though everyone else was listening to indie rock, my girlfriend turned me on to a lot of the classic rock stuff. I started collecting vintage vinyl on my own, as soon as I got to New York City. I started with the Beatles and Stones and worked my way back to Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the rest of the early rock stuff.”

Although she enjoyed her childhood in Effingham, Spiller couldn’t wait to leave home and start living her own life. She applied for early admission to college. Two weeks after she graduated from high school, she was in New York City working toward a BS in Product Design. “I graduated, got a nine to five job, an apartment in Brooklyn, and started living the life of a working girl in the city. Then I met Frank. He lived in my apartment building.”

Part of life in the city was going to shows. One night, while she was looking for shows online, Spiller saw Hoier’s picture advertising a solo performance he was giving. She went to the show, introduced herself and told him they were neighbors. “We became boyfriend and girlfriend for a couple of years. One day, we were at his dad’s house in Wisconsin and there was a drum kit in the basement. I sat down and played a sloppy Chuck Berry beat and we started jamming. I actually played a show with him later that night and, from then on, we played together. I bought a drum kit when we got back to New York and we jammed in our apartments.”

Crushed Out by James Chiang

Eventually, the still unnamed duo started playing house parties. The reaction was so positive, they decided they were a band. “I’d never played before, but I think the ski training developed my body/brain connection,” she notes. “I love to dance, so drumming just seemed like a natural extension of my body’s rhythm. I don’t play anything fancy, just try to keep a steady groove.”

“I’ve always noticed women have better rhythm than men,” Hoier says, picking up the story. “I’m always inviting women to sit down at the drum kit. When I did that with Moselle, she set up a steady beat from the first time she played. We kept playing together for fun and both of us were surprised to see how fast she progressed. I told her to hit a ‘boom-chick’ rhythm on the snare and high hat, and those words unlocked something in her. She did it right away.”

Hoier grew up near the beaches of Los Angeles and picked up guitar when he was 11. “My dad is a songwriter and guitarist and ran his own studio in LA. He was in The Messengers, the first all-white band on Motown. They had a few hits in Japan and the Midwest, but he wasn’t in the music business anymore by the time I grew up.” Still, there were plenty of guitars and tape recorders around the house and once Hoier picked up the guitar, he never put it down. “I slowly started to understand the soul and feeling that went into writing songs. Listening to Lennon and Dylan made me want to write songs. I wanted to know what made them tick, what they’d listened to, so I went to the wells they drew from. Folk, old country music, blues, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and ten years later, that’s still the music I’m listening to. I keep up with some of the stuff from today, but mostly I explore the roots of rock.”

Like Spiller, Hoier moved to New York to have a bigger life. “I showed up in Brooklyn with my guitar, a couple of harmonicas and some clothes. I wasn’t sure I was going to stay, but it was inspiring to meet so many musicians and creative people everywhere I went, so I stayed.” Hoier kept writing songs, not exactly knowing where it would lead him, until the fateful night he met Spiller. After their first impromptu gig, they realized they had something special and became inseparable. “We started from scratch, but the minute we began playing live, something happened. We loved performing and started touring almost immediately. We’ve been back and forth across the country a couple of times and played in 38 states so far.”

The duo was first known as Boom Chick, a reference to that initial rhythm Spiller played on her kit, and they quickly built up a strong fan base with their stripped-down brand of futuristic retro rock. Before the band was a year old, they went into the studio and cut Show Pony, an all-live EP that captured the band’s blistering on stage sound.

Crushed Out – Show Pony (2010) by Crushed Out

Then they discovered that there was another band already using the same name. “We’d used Boom Chick for two hard years of touring, so we had to re-brand and redo the t-shirts, posters and photos. Luckily, Moselle is a graphic designer, so it wasn’t that hard. When we went looking for another name, we found a website of 1920s slag and saw ‘crushed out.’ It has a lot of different meaning including breaking out of jail and splitting the scene when it gets too intense. It also implies love, surf and heaviness, so it’s a good fit.

The name change didn’t affect Crushed Out’s fierce work ethic. They continued their endless touring, wrote a batch of new songs and recorded Want To Give between gigs. “We did four songs on our home tape machine, then cut and mastered the other six in four days, between gigs. We had to work fast because of time and budgetary constraints.”

Hoier and Spiller write the songs together, letting them evolve naturally from their extended jam sessions. Hoier writes most of the lyrics, although Spiller contributes her suggestions as well and she takes sole credit and sings lead on the album closer, the gently acoustic Patsy Cline meets Velvet Underground lament “Country Star.” The rest of the album is a lot more electric and eclectic. “Firelight” is driven by Spiller’s modified Bo Diddley beat and Hoier’s droning fuzzy slide guitar and goes through several dynamic shifts before coming to a rowdy conclusion. “Push Down and Twist” is a thumping, upbeat ‘50s style rocker that deals with the effects of addiction on an addict’s friends and family. “Sharkbite” is a dark, metallic surf tune marked by rippling guitar and a tidal wave of percussion. “Temper Tantrum” is a frenetic blast of pop/punk and “Miss Mouse” is a spooky country blues with a howling, haunted vocal that’s halfway between a yodel and a moan of terror.

“We’re a live band,” Hoier concludes. “We get in the zone when we’re playing and paying attention to each other. We try to capture that energy in the studio. The only thing we think about is, does this sound like joyous high-energy rock’n’roll? The record is just a document of what you see when we’re performing live.”

Crushed Out hits the road again starting August 10. Tour dates here: http://www.crushedoutmusic.com/tour.html

Crushed Out 2

 

FOREVER YOUNG ‘N’ FEISTY: Graham Parker and The Rumour

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The erstwhile pub rocker (and onetime “angry young man” of British rock) returns with his masterful ‘70s band – and the accumulated musicianship peels back the layers of time in the process.

 BY DAVE STEINFELD

 Sometimes it’s amazing, the difference that three simple words can make.  Graham Parker’s new album Three Chords Good arrived in late November. As GP fans know, he’s been releasing albums pretty steadily now for more than 35 years. But since the mid 1980s or so, he hasn’t sold many records (if indeed he ever did) and many of his recent albums, regardless of how good they were, have vanished without a trace. Unfortunately, a new disc by Graham Parker doesn’t get too many people excited these days.

 That’s where those three words — in this case “and The Rumour” — come in. Not only does Three Chords Good have the distinction of being Parker’s 20th studio effort, it’s also the first one in more than 30 years that he recorded with The Rumour. Often considered one of the best backing bands in rock history, these five guys played with Parker on all his albums from Howlin’ Wind, his critically acclaimed 1976 debut, to 1980’s The Up Escalator. This includes his 1979 masterpiece, Squeezing Out Sparks. Suddenly, when the media found out that The Rumour were going to be backing Parker again, this was news! And with an appearance in Judd Apatow’s new film This is 40 on the horizon (it opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 21), the unlikely prospect of Parkermania suddenly seems like it could actually become a reality.  As you’ll see, Parker himself was just as surprised as anyone by both the Rumour reunion and his work with Apatow. In fact, as recently as two years ago — the last time I interviewed him for Blurt — he told me, “We don’t have any plans for the dreaded reunion tour.” Just like three words, what a difference two years can make!

 It’s great to see Parker playing with The Rumour again but this would mean a lot less if Three Chords Good was a lackluster album. But I’m happy to report that it’s actually his best disc in years. The album features a dozen new tracks that run the gamut both musically and in terms of subject matter. “Snake Oil Capitol of the World” gets things started with some typically deft GP wordplay and The Rumour backing him with a sturdy, midtempo reggae groove. Subject matter aside, it’s as if the last three decades never happened. The upbeat title track falls midway through the album while the lovely ballad “Stop Crying About the Rain” appears earlier on. But to this writer’s ears, Parker has actually saved the best tunes for last. The final three songs on Three Chords Good — “Arlington’s Busy,” “Coathangers” and “The Last Bookstore in Town” — deal, respectively, with the endless war in Iraq, the increasing presence of pro-lifers in American politics and the closing of bookstores and general dumbing down of society. These three songs, while musically disparate, all pack a verbal punch that ranks up there with anything Parker has written. 36 years after he arrived on the scene, this guy is still one of the best lyricists out there.

 For the uninitiated, The Rumour includes guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont, keyboardist Bob Andrews, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding.  I recently had a chance to catch the first GP and the Rumour show in New York City since the early ’80s (and it was a good one!) as well as to chat with Parker about his new album, This is 40, what the members of The Rumour have been doing up until now and the music business itself.

BLURT: The obvious question is, after more than 30 years, why did you reconvene The Rumour now? And how did you get all five of the original guys together?

Basically, it was an accident. I’d done my last few records with just me and a drummer. That’s the way I recorded them, and then I added everything [else later]. And I enjoy doing things that way. It still sounds to me like a band is playing [but] I said, ‘I can’t do that again this time.”  The last [album], Imaginary Television, to me kind of capped that off. So I emailed Steve Goulding, the drummer, and Andrew [Bodnar], the bass player, out of the blue. I said, “Let’s do a three-piece and record an album in the studio.” Steve made some flippant joke, saying, “If you got Martin, Bob and Brinsley, that would be a proper band.” That’s when I emailed everyone else. I really did not think it through.

        I might have thought, “It would be a great trick on Mr. Goulding if I now get The Rumour.” I thought of it more as a lark, really. And they all said yes! (laughs)  It was then that it dawned on me that I was in a serious situation. You know, this is a six-piece band including me. This is gonna take some arrangement, and some money. And, unfortunately, when it comes to money, I’m the one paying for it. It all started to dawn on me: what have I done? I like a quiet life these days; I don’t need to be in the spotlight in any [way], shape or form. So suddenly I knew, we’re gonna get some attention and things are gonna get busy. But I’d done it, you know what I mean? If I’d thought it through, I wouldn’t have done it — which would been a bad thing.

        [So] suddenly I had a Rumour reunion on my hands and I had a bunch of songs and I was committed. Once I’d done it, it was like, “Okay, do not drag your heels. Do it!”

[I know that] Steve Goulding plays with a lot of people. But were most of the guys from The Rumour still in the UK when you called them? Or were they spread all over the place?

Andrew Bodnar is in Yorkshire [England], where he works in a library. Martin — his first band, Ducks Deluxe, they’ve been back together and playing. Martin also teaches and does guitar lessons. Brinsley is a luthier — a guy who fixes guitars and amplifiers and what-have-you, in a guitar store. Bob’s been very active in New Orleans — you know, playing two or three gigs a day sometimes as sort of a go-to keyboard player! And he’s recording his own albums now; he’s just made a new one. So he’s very excited about what he’s doing. And as you know, Steve is constantly playing with somebody.

Oh yeah. I saw him not long ago playing with Garland Jeffreys.

Yes! I did a few double bills with Garland recently. I know Steve plays with him a bit and [he’s] been in The Mekons and Poi Dog Pondering. So he’s one of the most active members of [the band]. Him and Bob are the most active, I think.

Had you found that you missed playing with The Rumour over the years?

Well, when we really hit, we had some incendiary live shows.  They’re probably still reverberating to this day because they were so intense. And we did have fun making albums [but not] as much fun as this one was. Not to denigrate the talents of the producers but it was much better without having a producer. That always causes some kind of tension — when a guy that the band [members] don’t know turns up at the studio. So we didn’t have that hanging over us [this time]. You just need somebody good to hold it together and record it properly and that was Dave Cook, our man in the studio. So it was way more fun.

One song that I wanted to ask you about [is “Coathangers’}. You must have written it before Paul Ryan came out with his insane remarks but I was wondering about that.

Oh, I can’t even remember who started the ball rolling on the insane remarks now. It certainly wasn’t Todd Akin. He was in a long line of incredible remarks about women’s bodies.

        I would have written these songs around the winter of 2010 — 2011. Then I spent time holding them and refining them. That’s what I do. I might have a period of two or three months writing a whole album. Then the real work begins of knocking them into shape, you know, making sure I really have credible work. And April or May is when I contacted the Rumour guys. So I don’t know who was beginning to make rumbles about “let’s start focusing on women’s health and abortion.” One of the Republicans started that idea. But I know it was starting — this idea of “We’re the Tea Party, we care about fiscal stuff, we wanna reduce the deficit and…. naaah, not really! What we wanna do is stop women [from] having abortions and taking the pill. This is what we’re really all about.” Fucking evangelicals. It started to emerge that far back. It was basically the old white men starting to kick in with all the wrong ideas again, you know? And they couldn’t stop the ball rolling.

        Quite honestly, I don’t wanna write songs like [“Coathangers’]. I wanna write songs [like] “Stop Crying About the Rain” and my favorite song on the album, “Old Soul.” Those are the kinda songs I wanna write. But I’m the kinda guy who can’t help myself. If I start to get angry about something, this stuff comes out. “Arlington’s Busy” came out because — I mean, the Iraq War hasn’t been examined much in song, you know? People are strangely quiet about this. Young people are singing about, “Oh woe is me. I don’t fit in and my girlfriend left me.” There’s a lot of that. But I always followed Pat Tillman’s career.  I even sort of knew his name before he joined up to serve and [made] that sacrifice. I was interested in him. Then he was killed and I read the Jon Krakauer book [Where Men Win Glory}, which is basically about Tillman — a marvelous book. And so I wrote, “Arlington’s Busy.” I just felt no one’s saying anything about these things! [And] if they are, they can’t say it as good as me anyway ’cause I’m the best at this stuff.  (laughter) 

It’s interesting because to me, the last three songs on the album bite the hardest. One of them is about the war, one of them is about abortion and one of them is about bookstores and stuff closing — which I think are all important issues in America. You’ve lived in the States for quite awhile now. Do you consider America your home?

I don’t really know. I’ve still got a place in London. You know, I don’t like the word “settled” much; that sounds like a log falling into the water or something. So I don’t know. I had a one-way ticket that I bought for Belize in case Romney became president!

        You’re right; the last three songs have that kick going for them. But let’s face it — the first one is not to shabby in that area either. “Snake Oil Capitol of the World” is kind of intense, you know? It’s about the general scamming nature of a lot of things — especially political pundits.

Right. And also in the middle of the album, you have “A Lie Goes Halfway Round the World,” which has bit of a kick.

Absolutely. As I say, I can’t help myself, you know?

Let me ask you about a bit about the Apatow film — how you guys got involved and what we can look forward to.

Well, the general subject is out there.  In the movie Knocked Up, Pete and Debbie — which is Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann — are a married couple. And Pete is working for a record company.  What Judd has done has taken that idea forward. Now Pete has decided to put an indie label together, and his idea is to sign all the acts he really loves ’cause he was frustrated when he was working for a major label. The music didn’t appeal to him that much; I think that was part of the idea behind it. So now he’s started an indie label and he wants to sign acts like me. Possibly XTC or Men At Work — you know, ’70s [and] ’80s music that he likes.

        Judd was thinking of getting somebody from a band like that, that might well sign to an indie label, and getting them in the movie. And [there’s] the fact that Pete has put a lot of money into a record label in the era when records don’t sell much. That would be part of the tension in the movie — a little part of it. It’s basically about relationships, people hitting 40 and what it’s like to deal with it. So that’s where my name came up. [Judd] was thinking of different people and he might have thought of me and somebody else reinforced that idea to him — I forget who now. So he hired me to act a little bit in [the film] and when I met him, he gave me a vague outline of what I might be doing in it. I didn’t really know what he was getting at. Did he want to just use a couple of my songs in the movie? Which to me would have been absolutely fantastic alone. I don’t get a lot of this stuff happening to me. So now I’m talking to Judd Apatow and I thought this would be great. Then he starts talking to me about acting.

        Anyway, before that, he’s telling me about this record company idea and that I would be the kind of act that the character Pete might sign. And I said, “Well, guess what, Judd? I just reformed The Rumour! We’re gonna make an album in July.” ‘Cause I met Judd in April or May, just after The Rumour had committed. The serendipity of it all was extraordinary. So I said, “Not only can you get me in your movie, how ’bout me and The Rumour?” And a week later, he called me back and said, “Let’s get you out to Hollywood next year when we’re shooting to do a few walk-in bits. Then let’s get The Rumour in [around the] end of August.” So I’ve got two little clips of performances in the film. Then Judd gave me a ton of ideas to write some songs for the film. This is nothing to do with Three Chords Good; it’s totally independent. I wrote a bunch of songs and one of them is embedded in the movie and it’s on the soundtrack. So it turned into a lot of different elements, really.

It’s funny that you mention Men At Work. I’ve spoken with Colin Hay a number of times. Very nice guy.

Yeah!

He’s also a good story teller. I’m sure he does well because of the old Men At Work hits. But it’s been very hard for him to get his new stuff played on the radio. It’s almost like people don’t realize that he’s had a career for the last 25 years.

Well, yes. I think their name pops up in the movie, that’s why I thought of them. In some conversation. But going back to Colin Hay — the fact is, artists like us could be making our best material and no one gives a shit.  There’s guys like you who do. But you know, radio [and] the business is largely not interested in stimulating a new economy in music. You would think BMG or Universal, the people who own my old catalog, would be on the phone to me saying, “Graham, we really wanna put together a nice box set” or “Let’s give [your catalog] back to you, so that you can sell some of these records.”  I mean, not a thing. It doesn’t mean anything to them; it’s all high finance or nothing!

        Also, the problem is, with acts that have been around for 20 or 30 years, the fans themselves are still hooked on the old stuff. It’s understandable. If you discover, in my case, Squeezing Out Sparks when you’re in college — that’s gonna be a big part of your, to use the cliché, glory days. That’s when you discovered it. So nothing is gonna come up to that. You may like an artist’s new album but it doesn’t mean anywhere near as much and you can’t even open your mind enough to let it mean as much. It’s very, very difficult.

 Graham Parker 2

 

You’re one of my favorite songwriters. Who are some of the songwriters that you either like now or that influenced you when you were [younger]?

Well, it’s a really corny and basic story. I was 12 when The Beatles and The Stones started to make an appearance. They were the music for my age group, you know? Suddenly, we had our own music. My cousin was a couple of years older and [he and his friends] all had the quiffs, you know, the rockabilly look. They were all “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley. I never got Elvis; I never understood him. But when The Beatles and The Stones came along, it was like, this was it! There’s no question.

        That opened the door for everything. Then we found out that somebody named “C. Berry” was writing some of the songs they were doing and discovered who [he] was — a guy named Chuck Berry. And who was Holland/Dozier/Holland and what’s “Twist and Shout?” They didn’t write “Twist and Shout,” The Beatles; where were they getting it from? This whole history opened up and then it was the American blues, which was strong underground music in England — more than America. So we [now] had all these great blues artists playing in the suburbs [who] couldn’t get arrested in America. I’d see Champion Jack Dupree in a pub in Guildford, you know? Incredible.

        Tons of musical influences. James Taylor, Neil Young — very powerful influences on me. And then, of course, Dylan as well. I mean, you can’t go wrong, can you? To have grown up in that period.

THE IDEOLOGY AND THE ECSTASY: Fuck Buttons

Fuck Buttons

A billion bloody fans can’t possibly be wrong, can they? Fuck no! But what will they think of the new avenues of expression the British band traverses on new album Slow Focus? Benjamin John Power and Andres Hung have some explaining to do.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Two years ago, a Fuck Buttons song was broadcast to over 1 billion people. It was “Olympians” and, fittingly enough, it was incorporated into the London Olympics’ opening ceremony, along with the equally blood-pounding, equally ecstatic “Surf Solar.”

 

“We were approached by Rick Smith from Underworld who was working on the opening ceremony,” says Benjamin John Power.  Power, along with Andrew Hung, has made up Fuck Buttons since the mid-‘00s. “He just proposed to us that he wanted to include us. We didn’t really know in what capacity our music was going to be used until quite late on in the day. We were as surprised as anybody else.”  

 

While being included in the same extravaganza as Paul McCartney, Daniel Craig and, ahem, the Queen, must be quite a rush, it’s just a large scale example of the transformation this Bristol-born electronic duo has undergone, evolving from two guys hunched over a laptop in a room to festival showstoppers with thousands of sweaty, gyrating fans.

 

Hung and Power, who first met as skateboarding teens, reconnected at the University of Bristol in 2004, where Power was studying illustration and Hung videomaking and art. Their first project was music for a film Hung was making. Not long after, in 2006, an early single got ATP’s attention.  They signed with the label in 2007. In 2008, their first full-length, Street Horrrsing came out.  Mojo called it “a six-track, 50-minute melange of iridescent synths, psychedelic drone, distorted vocals and tribal rhythm, peaking with the deftly layered counter-melodies and blissed -out propulsion of epic single ‘Bright Tomorrow.’“ It earned a #83 spot on the 2008 Pazz & Jop poll.

 

The Andrew Weatherall-produced Tarot Sport followed in 2009, attracting even more praise. The A.V. Club enthused that, “Fuck Buttons succeeds at turning its unpredictable epics into masterpieces of pacing and strange beauty.” And then, years passed, with the Fuck Buttons on near-constant tour, hitting massive European festivals and shaking the ground with their physically propulsive, cerebrally intricate, spiritually transforming grooves.  

 

“It’s been four years since the last album came out, but it’s not that we’ve been inactive,” says Power, when asked about the long gap between recordings. “You know, after Tarot Sport we were touring for about two years, two and a half years. When we got back from touring we started to write the latest record. We were doing it at our own pace. We didn’t want to have any external deadlines, kind of rushing us along trying to finish it. I think that’s made it possible for us to make something that we’re very, very happy with.”

 

Power and Hung could afford to take their time, because for Slow Focus (ATP Recordings), for the first time, they were working in their own studio and producing their own material.  Power had recently moved to a new home, a converted dairy with storage space below.  

 

“We started to kind of work and track things there as opposed to going to somebody else’s space,” Power says. “We always produced ourselves anyway. We just didn’t have the technological know-how to really know our way around the software with the previous records, but we do now. “

 

 

Following the rules

Fuck Buttons is defined by a set of guidelines that comprise a kind of ideology. The first rule is that all composition has to be done together.

 

“We have to show up in a live capacity for writing. Sitting at the table facing each other. It has to be live,” says Power. “For the first part, there’s not a computer in sight. We’re using no hardware. And everything’s patched up into a strange unique schematic.”

 

The two of them try out ideas, there, in the room. They never write separately or bring in preliminary sketches to work on. Their ideas take shape through person-to-person collaboration. Power says that they don’t even listen to music, other than the material they’re recording, during the process. “To begin with, we just try to draw on whatever we have in front of us, and then we try and come across passages that we’re both interested in,” says Power. “Once we’ve found those, then we start to structure the music.”

 

The other part of Fuck Buttons’ ideology is the need for constant evolution. “The instrumentation is always changing because we don’t want to do the same thing twice,” says Power. “It means that we get to surprise ourselves, which I think is quite important. Keeps interest alive.”

 

Powers says that he and Hung used a number of new instruments on Soft Focus, but he declines to name specific ones. That’s another part of the Fuck Buttons credo: don’t get too enamored of individual sounds. “You don’t want to get too attached to these things, because if you do, you start to overuse them. I think it’s important to emphasize a signature ideology but maybe not a signature sound or texture.”

 

Moreover, by the time the Fuck Buttons have finished processing and arranging and altering sounds, their original source may not be that important. Asked about the drum sounds in “Sentient,” Power struggles a bit. “The first one that you hear, I don’t even know how we made that. It’s been really changed, the initial signal, and it’s hard to pinpoint how that actually came about, but I think that might have been some kind of drum patterned, programmed, synchronized over,” he explains. “It doesn’t really matter. You can chuck a floor stand down a set of stairs and if it sounds good, who cares?”

 

 

The brain and the body

 

Fuck Buttons’ “Olympians” was perfect for the Olympics, not just because of the name, but because of the driving, pounding physicality of the tune – and, really, you could do worse than Slow Focus if you’re sound-tracking a hard workout. Yet the band’s music has a very spiritual quality, and a certain amount of intellectual heft, as well. I ask Power if his band writes for the brain or the body.

 

“Well, I mean, Andrew and I both come from a visual background, so I think there is a level of …we’re probably aiming more towards the cerebral,” he hazards. “Then when we perform live we like to try to get the maximum volume as far as we can. It’s a bit of both, really, although we don’t write for anyone but ourselves initially.”   

 

Because both Power and Hung started as visual artists, they often interpret the songs in pictorial terms, as large-scale landscapes. As they finish the tracks, they talk about these images and sometimes reflect them in the titles. Powers explains, “Because there aren’t any lyrics, I think, like obviously, once we’ve written the track, we’ll often discuss the imagery that comes to each of us individually. The nature of the sound and the textures we’re using are quite wide and they’re quite grand and that kind of lends itself to the idea of a landscape.”  

 

Yet all that changes in the live setting, where Fuck Buttons are headed this summer, in the enormous festivals where brainy compositions and artful imagery dissolves in the sheer force of volume, rhythm and communal experience.

 

Asked about the transition from sitting across a table from Hung, messing with altered sounds, to performing for thousands, Powers answers, “It’s shocking. When we started out nine years ago, we never thought we’d be playing to anybody other than a room with 20 people in it.  It’s exciting. It’s nice to see how people respond. Especially since a big part of the writing process occurs when we play out live and experiment with things.”   

 

CALMING DOWN, FINALLY: The Love Language

Love Language

Or, how Stuart McLamb learned to stop worrying and love the song. The NC combo releases its long awaited third album, Ruby Red, on Merge this week.

 BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

 Stuart McLamb is 10 minutes late when he calls and asks for a ride. The Love Language frontman walked out of his apartment in Carrboro, N.C., to find that his van wouldn’t start. The writer waiting for him at a nearby coffee shop isn’t surprised. He’s heard of McLamb’s persistent automotive woes through common friends. He jumps into his car, and in a few minutes he and McLamb are standing by the bar in another caffeination parlour, waiting on a pair of Americanos.

 The singer looks tired and disheveled. When he seds his sunglasses, he reveals red eyes ringed by bags so dark they look like the beginnings of corpse paint. His black hair is mussed and sweaty, and his white T-shirt, cut wide at the neck, clings to him in stubborn wrinkles, suggesting that he wore it through the night. The barista is a friend, and he informs her of his late night, a Tuesday that stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday and included at least eight libations. At this point, he trips over his own white lie, letting slip that a recent DWI citation led to a breathalyzer being linked to his ignition. At 3 p.m., he blew a percentage so high that the van wouldn’t start.

For those familiar with The Love Language, this scenario should seem pretty standard. After all, the band’s self-titled 2009 debut charmed with fraught and feisty lo-fi shambles instigated by a pair of bad break-ups: There was the exit from his old band, The Capulets, after he drunkenly broke into their practice space and left behind blood, broken glass, and busted equipment, and the split with a girlfriend who inspired the bulk of the album’s jangly distress. Though the sounds were bigger, the vibe of 2010’s Libraries was largely the same, causing questions about McLamb’s past to persist.

 “You’re going to show up and read the backstory, and that just sort of becomes what defines the project,” McLamb says, struggling for the right words to sum up his frustration. He’s tired of telling this tale. “I’m sure that story helped to sell the band and the first record. But it’s sort of ridiculous to think about. As an artist, you’re trying to work and stay creative, and that would be ridiculous to always have to write love songs. You can, but how do you feed that? Because a non-genuine love song would be the worst thing ever.”

 McLamb sticks to that principle on Ruby Red. It’s The Love Language’s first LP in three years, and it arrives without a single love song. There are hints of romantic frustration, relationships that grind and gall in the way of coupled lovers, but there are no direct overtures to a girl that McLamb is hoping to get with, nor any barbs blasted at the last one that broke his heart. It’s a tremendous shift, one that the singer is thrilled to make, even if it might alienate part of his audience. (Below: McLamb, right, performs with the Love Language at a recent in-store appearance at Raleigh’s Schoolkids Records.)

 Love Language live 4

“It’s really liberating,” he says, “just going out and doing interviews and not having to feel like I’m ultimately reading my diary and being that open about it. That first record came out of a real tender place with me and this other person involved, and it felt weird and kind of gross selling it out to do a lot of interviews about it. Everything felt a little too personal, so it’s really liberating to have a record where, more or less, these are just songs that I wrote when I got really stoned. It feels nice that there’s not a whole lot of emotional weight. It was just having fun for the first time.”

 This sense of freedom and fun took hold during a 2011 trip to Black Mountain, a small Appalachian burg just east of Asheville, N.C. McLamb retreated to a cabin there that summer accompanied by former Love Language guitarist and Ruby Red producer BJ Burton. The two had become close while working on Libraries. With Stuart looking to demo new songs and BJ itching to work on his own solo material, they turned to each other for support. The nights were long and loud. One neighbor had to come by and bang on the door with a bicycle pump to get them to quiet down. McLamb left with rough outlines for several songs and a craving for relentless energy.

 The resulting Ruby Red is a diverse album, moving from colorful garage tantrums to somber ballads graced by synths and strings. But by and large, these songs are driven by dominating rhythms, allowing McLamb to trip through contrasting styles without seeming clumsy. This is The Love Language in transition, determined to surpass the ‘60s-centric emotionalism of past outings, but not entirely sure of what the next phase should sound like. It’s a credit to McLamb’s knack for hooks and melody — as well as his irrepressible verve — that the record’s ill-advised detours never feel like failures.

 “I guess I wanted the record to be more like a mixtape than a cohesive record,” McLamb explains. “The whole point of this is to stretch and to break the mold of what Love Language is, so I want to just go all over the place. It’s totally non-cohesive in a lot of ways.”

 It’s far from focused, but Ruby Red — named for the now-vacated rehearsal spot where McLamb and Burton tracked most of the songs — is flush with promising new directions. “First Shot” sends the band ricocheting down a psych-rock hall of mirrors, riding a riff so huge it can barely be contained and a bass line that borrows krautrock momentum. It’s earworm pop as informed by Bay Area eccentrics like Thee Oh Sees, feral and fascinating in a way The Love Language has never been before.

 “On Our Heels” is something else entirely. Cluttered with jittery drum machines and smoothed out by eerie, effect-laden strings, it keys on the gauzy grandeur of Libraries’ slow burners, but where that record conjured a sense of warmth and camaraderie, “On Our Heels” opts for technological detachment.

 “I just want to get to a place where there’s just no expectations for what it would sound like,” McLamb offers. “I definitely think there will be some backlash from some people who are big fans of the early stuff. This is definitely the big, action-movie, explosions-and-helicopters-and-Godzilla record. It’s really big and going for it, and it was really fun to do that and not try to repeat myself.”

 [Photos: top, by Jason Arthurs; live, by Fred Mills]

MUSIC THAT HEALS THE SAVAGE… Bombadil

BOMBADIL - 2013

The North Carolina band’s improbable revival and renewal.

 BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

 Bombadil is having a good summer. This is obvious the moment you step onto the spacious porch that wraps halfway around the band’s home in Durham, N.C. There’s a cornhole set stacked in one corner and a cooler sitting out with a six-pack of IPAs on top waiting to be consumed. There’s a card table with four chairs sitting haphazardly around it, and dog bowls decorated with the darkened blue of Duke University, where Bombadil’s founders met as undergrads.

 For those unfamiliar with Bombadil’s history, it might seem as though nothing has changed since those college days — that these four talented fellows have spent the seven years since graduation hanging around their stomping grounds, refining their art and strengthening their friendship. But when they gathered at this house for most of last summer to record Metrics of Affection (Ramseur), their fourth LP, it was the first time in four years that the full complement had lived and worked in the same town for an extended period. Musically adventurous and meticulously textured, the 13 self-recorded songs on Metrics prove that living apart hasn’t robbed them of their chemistry.

 “We’d just wake up and get to it,” recalls bassist Daniel Michalak. He lies comfortably in a love seat, taking the interview as an opportunity to relax. On the other side of the living room, pianist Stuart Robinson and drummer James Phillips appear equally at ease. Guitarist Bryan Rahija is absent. He’s attending business school in Michigan, leaving the remaining trio to tour behind Metrics on their own.

 “It was easy to work,” Michalak continues, “but it was also hard because we lived here. We’d get lazy and sleep in. But it was nice being all together and not being super pressed by any timeline. It was the first time the four of us had been together in a really long time, especially for an extended time. But it was hot. We didn’t turn on the air conditioning at all.”

 The opportunity was especially meaningful for Michalak. Bombadil’s 2009 hiatus was hastened by bouts of shooting pain in his arms and legs, later diagnosed as neural tension. At its worst, the agony kept him from feeding himself, let alone playing bass. With Robinson having exited the band a few months before him, Bombadil’s demise seemed all but certain.

 That summer, Tarpits and Canyonlands, the group’s second LP, was released without the fanfare it deserved. The album crystallized their ability to utilize whimsy and bombast as conduits for crushing anxiety. Its stately piano chords are buoyed by gorgeous harmonies and melodies that never move the way you’d expect. They sing about birthdays that no one remembered and marriages doomed to fail, their sarcasm keeping complex emotions at arm’s length, but just barely.

 The record came out, but there was no release celebration and no tour, just a low-key listening party.

 But Bombadil wouldn’t stay dead. Through a combination of stretches and adjustments in the way he uses his limbs, Michalak soon returned to his piano and his bass. At the same time, Robinson found that leaving the group didn’t kill his itch to write songs. Though they had spread far apart — Oregon, D.C., varied corners of North Carolina — the boys of Bombadil were soon visiting each other and sharing songs. In the fall of 2010, they gathered at a barn outside Portland where Phillips had learned some tricks as a producer. In the span of a 10 days, they cut All That the Rain Promises, a stark and sterling departure from the jovial melodies and grinning sarcasm of their past. Bombadil was reborn.

 “I think, ultimately, anything we do is going to sound like Bombadil,” Robinson says. “It might seem weird at first, but then you listen to it two more times and then it seems normal.”

 They test that on All That the Rain Promises. Opener “I Will Wait” is hauntingly intimate, with Stewart crooning over solitary piano, trying to prop up crumbling religious convictions — ”Oh my Jesus Christ/ Will you bring me back to life?/ Can you lead me to an afterlife/ That I would like?” Every lighthearted scenario and perky melody became the backdrop for stressful situations. On “Laundromat,” absently watching ‘the machines go ‘round’ becomes a time to ponder commitment issues and a relationship with an estranged father. There have always been weighty conundrums lingering behind Bombadil’s winking words, but here the coyness was all but wiped away.

 Subdued and dark, All That the Rain Promises felt as much like a coda as it did a new beginning. Conversely, the new Metrics feels like a true revival, renewing some of that old frivolity without forsaking the mature songwriting that made the group’s last effort so powerful. “One More Ring” ambles with muscular bass and lighthearted banjo strums, but it’s also a tale of relics and the way they bring up memories we might rather forget. “If I find one more ring of yours mixed up among my things,” Rahija sings, “I just might sell all belongings to make sure I’ve cut all my strings.” The wordplay is still witty, but the meaning is direct.

 “It’s just a different place in our lives,” Michalak explains. “That’s just where these songs are coming from. It’s not like we set out, ‘I’m going to write a sad song now’ or ‘I’m going to write something funny now.’ I don’t really think about it like that.”

 At present, Bombadil is diminished. With Rahija in Michigan attending business school, the live band must make do with fewer instruments and different voices singing his songs. But Metrics proves that Bombadil has the ingenuity to work past such problems. Even the missteps, born out of unbridled ambition, are admirable in their way. Take “Isn’t It Funny,” in which Michalak raps awkwardly over a disjointed beat. The hip-hop excursion harkens back to his sickest days. He couldn’t play an instrument, but he could still sing and use a computer — albeit with his foot on the mouse. He made beats and rapped over them, developing a hunger that the new song helped to satiate.

 “Bombadil can be whatever we want it to be,” Phillips says. “I guess it makes it kind of hard when somebody asks, ‘Well, what kind of music do you play?’ We’ve covered some ground, I guess. My favorite bands have records that sound very diverse from one another. Maybe I won’t like one, but I generally like all of them. I’d like to be a band like that.”

Photos by Melissa Fuller and Harry Taylor. Listen to the full-album stream of the new album exclusively at BLURT. Or listen to a podcast of Bombadil profiled on July 20 at NPR.

ATTENTION, HEADQUARTERS: The Monkees

Monkees live

The Pre-Fab Four – now Three – return to the stage to celebrate their breakout album and their lost colleague. The band is currently on a North American tour.

 BY MICHAEL BERICK

 Daydream believers got their prayers answered, finally. The three surviving Monkees – Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz – are touring together for the first time since 1997, and for their first American tour with Nesmith since 1969. (It started last fall in California and resumed recently, with dates slated to stretch into early October. View the itinerary here.)

 The occasion of this tour is bittersweet celebration. These concerts are commemorating both the 45th anniversary of the band’s hard-fought-for Headquarters album (the first record where they played their own instruments) and the passing of their beloved bandmate Davy Jones, who passed away earlier this year.

 During a conversation, Dolenz revealed that the guys had been talking about doing this 45th anniversary tour even before Jones’ death, but it was the Los Angeles private memorial service where tour talk fell into place. While chatting with Nesmith and Tork in a corner of a room, Dolenz said he made the suggestion: “Well, you guys want to start a group?”

  The idea of a memorial concert in Los Angeles evolved into doing one in the cities where Jones had family and friends (L.A., New York and London), which then snowballed into a 12-city tour. “We aren’t calling it the Davy Jones memorial tour or anything of that nature. It sounds a little weird to me,” Dolenz explained, while adding, “[Davy] will certainly be remembered in a very special way. The fans will be very pleased I think with the way that we pay our homage to him.”

 (below: Dolenz & Tork today)

 Monkees Peter Mickey

   On this tour, the band naturally will spotlight a number of Headquarters songs along with performing classic Monkees hits like “I’m A Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Last Train To Clarksville.” The concerts will also feature a wide of Monkees tunes as well as utilizing plenty of video and other multi-media elements, which is something that fans have enjoyed at recent tours.

 (below: Nesmith today)

 Monkees Mike

    According to Dolenz, the Monkees’ enduring popularity is because they “really touched a nerve. It really has become quite an important part of the American cultural landscape.” He was quick to give credit for the work to the songwriters, TV writers, producers and the other behind-the-scenes people who helped make the Monkees “into something bigger than the sum of its parts.”

  Dolenz offered two reasons for the generation-spanning appeal for the Monkees TV show. On the show, the band was not famous; unlike, as he pointed out, the Beatles in their movies. “They were famous and we were always trying to be famous. That is a real important distinction, because the kids around the world back then – and even today – who are struggling to start a group in the basement, can identify with the struggle.”

 He also noted that the show’s comedy had a timeless quality. “The show was not satirical or topical. John Lennon once said it was like the Marx Brothers. The comedy did not date, like I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners – the humor is just the human condition. You can watch it to this day.”

  The sense of timelessness also forms the central core of Dolenz’s new album, Remember, which he introduced recently at a special listening session/press conference in L.A. that BLURT attended (see story here). It’s a collection of cover songs resonating personally with Dolenz. The concept, he explained, came about after he started telling stories about music that meant something special to him. Selections include his Monkees audition song “Johnny B. Goode” and “Good Morning, Good Morning,” which was the first Beatles recording sessions he attended.

 Some songs are ones he recorded while a Monkee (“I’m A Believer,” “Randy Scouse Git,” “Don’t Ask For Love” and “Sometime In The Morning”) and some are tunes he nearly recorded.  The old Bread hit, “Diary,” Dolenz revealed, was a song that had been offered to him in the Monkees’ waning days. “And I turned it down like an idiot. I didn’t think I should be doing a ballad at the time.” He also stated that the power pop classic “Sugar, Sugar” was figuratively the straw the broke the camel’s (or in this case, Nesmith’s) back. The Monkees rebelled against their producers over recording this tune – Dolenz said it wasn’t so much the song as the control over song selection – with Nesmith threatening to quit and Dolenz jetting to England where he met the Beatles.

  Whether a Monkees track or not, Dolenz and his producer David Harris have done an inventive and extensive job in reinterpreting these songs with vastly different arrangements. Dolenz describes “Diary” as having a Coldplay-like vibe, while Dolenz’s own “Randy Scouse Git” now possesses a heavier, more ominous vibe.  As a result, this is a covers album that sounds familiar yet different.

  This new Monkees tour, however, relies on more familiar renditions of Monkees’ songs, although Dolenz noted that during rehearsals that he to teach Nesmith some of his own lyrics. “He hasn’t sung these songs in 40 years,” Dolenz said with a laugh. Still, he described the rehearsals as going great, exciting him about this new tour – particularly with the opportunity to once again share the stage with Nesmith.

 I love playing with him.” A multitude of Monkees fans also are loving the fact that Mike, Peter and Micky are playing together again.

 [Contemporary band photos courtesy the Monkees’ website.  Additional reading: check out the BLURT interview with Michael Nesmith, “First National Man,” by contributor Mike Shanley.]

 

THREE CHORDS GOOD: Scott Morgan

Scott Morgan by David Dominic

The ailing—though, hopefully, recovering—Motor City rocker gets anthologized on an expansive three-disc box set that covers his entire career, from the sixties onward. Check out our video tribute to Morgan following the text.

 BY MICHAEL TOLAND

 The name Scott Morgan may not mean much to the larger scope of the universe, musical or otherwise. But to a certain segment of rock & roll fans, it’s a moniker that immediately invokes reverence. As a member of the ‘60s Detroit rock mafia, peer to better known names like the MC5, the Stooges, Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger, Morgan was as responsible as anyone for the high energy mix of rock and soul that’s come to define an indelible strain of American music ever since. The singer/guitarist has continued to mine that vein for 45 years, starting with the Rationals and moving into Sonic’s Rendezvous Band (his highest profile groups, if only after the fact) and on through the present day, both under his own name and with a trunkful of short-lived bands and side projects. Besides the rock/soul blend in which he’s trafficked since the beginning, the main constant through all his work is his voice, a rich, resonant instrument with which he can croon a R&B ballad with as much conviction as wail a blazing rocker. (Below: The Rationals)

Rationals

 After decades of obscurity, Morgan’s notoriety began rising in the ‘90s, thanks to a revival in the Detroit sound that took root in Scandinavia with the Hellacopters (who made a career out of rewriting the SRB hit “City Slang”), helped along by the continued viability of peer Wayne Kramer and the bands the MC5 guitarist worked with or mentored (the Street Walkin’ Cheetahs, the BellRays). Since the turn of the millennium, Morgan has been busier than ever, recording several albums with a few different names and working steadily.

 Which makes his current predicament horribly ironic. Felled by liver disease and the discovery of a malignant tumor in his stomach, Morgan has been out of action for over a year, facing both a long (but so far, steady) recovery and a mountain of medical bills. After the usual round of benefit concerts, Easy Action took the next step: a benefit album. Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust takes on the momentous task of combing through Morgan’s back pages, compiling sides from four decades of music, starting with the Rationals and ending with his 2010 self-titled solo record. Over the course of three disks, Three Chords gives as comprehensive a look at the career of the ultimate journeyman rocker as we could ever want.

 Scott Morgan box

Disk one, subtitled Lovin’ and Learnin’, rightfully begins with the Rationals, one of the longest-lasting of the original wave of non-Motown Detroit rockers, though oddly the least successful. The band’s story has been told comprehensively elsewhere, namely in the Big Beat label’s compilation Think Rational! and reissue of the band’s sole, eponymous LP. But the five songs included here at least give a glimpse into the group’s creative arc, as it evolved from blue-eyed soul (covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Chuck Jackson’s “I Need You,” the self-penned “Look What You’re Doing to Me Baby”) to psychedelicized power rock (“Guitar Army”). This disk is also where you’ll find his work with Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, the de facto Detroit supergroup he formed with the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith,” Gary Rasmussen from The Up and Stooges drummer Scott Asheton. Again, SRB has been thoroughly covered elsewhere, particularly on Easy Action’s own six-disk eponymous box set, so the samples here come solely from the Morgan-generated part of the band’s songbook, including the raving single “Electrophonic Tonic” and live takes on “Mystically Yours,” “Power & Glory” and a damn near apocalyptic “Asteroid B-612.” (No “City Slang,” since the SRB version was written and sung by guitarist Smith.)

 But Lovin’ and Learnin’ covers more than Morgan’s best-known acts. A handful of tracks come from Guardian Angel, an early ‘70s group with fellow ex-Rational Terry Trabandt. The previously unreleased live and demo cuts, including the original “Cool Breeze” and “Hijackin’ Love” and covers of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” and Eddie Floyd’s “Things Get Better” indicate an artist in transition, still working out the best way to bring soul and hard rock together. Morgan’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s combo Brothers of the Road eases up on the R&B influence (as much as it can, given Morgan’s impossibly soulful voice) for a rootsier, jammier feel, more in line with what AOR radio might have wanted. Unfortunately, new wave and disco had already supplanted this style in the music industry, and solid rockers “Satisfying Love” and “Love & Learn,” fist-raising anthem “Pirate Music” and acid folk rocker “Gypsy Dancer” remained unreleased until now. Disk one rounds out with both sides of Morgan’s 1973 excellent solo single, “Take a Look” b/w “Soul Mover,” and “Come On Baby” and “She’s Wild,” as well as early ‘80s demos from the ever-evolving Scott Morgan Group, which included his SRB bandmates Rasmussen and drummer Asheton, plus singer Kathy Deschaine, who would stick with him over the next decade.

 Scott Morgan Band

Dubbed Sticking To Your Guns, disk two picks up in the mid-‘80s, as the Group became the Scott Morgan Band (pictured above) Three cuts from the long out of print and extremely rare SMB LP Rock Action (also reissued digitally by Easy Action) smooth out Morgan’s rock ‘n’ soul sound just enough to be presentable to polite company without killing its spirit – cf. the celebratory tribute “Detroit” and the snappy “Heaven and Earth,” on which Morgan acquits himself startlingly well on guitar. After a brief Rationals reunion represented by a cover of Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time,” the Band evolved into Scots Pirates, who released a pair of albums with lead guitarists Brian Delaney and Bobby East. Some of the Pirates rockers suffer a bit from the production, which hits a strange midpoint between low budget and slick. But rocking tunes like “Stick to Your Guns” and “Other End of the City” hold up nicely, especially when supplemented by “Josie’s Well” and “The Road Home,” a pair of acoustic radio sessions that show yet another side to Morgan’s vision.

The rest of Sticking To Your Guns jumps around through various projects. Dodge Main, the Detroit supergroup featuring Morgan, Deniz Tek (leader of Australia’s Radio Birdman, but a Michigan native) and Wayne Kramer, rips through Iggy & the Stooges’ “I Got a Right,” followed by Morgan shouting through a pair of radio session covers of Rationals standards “Respect” and “Leavin’ Here” (the Eddie Holland single made famous by Motorhead’s cover) with Detroit garage rockers Fortune & Maltese. The disk also collects both sides of a powerhouse 7-inch single Morgan recorded with the Hellacopters, sparking the singer’s continuing friendship with head ‘copter Nicke Andersson; both “Downright Blue” (penned by Andersson) and Morgan’s classic “16 With a Bullet” slash and burn. The odd cuts out are “Endless Summer,” a bizarrely smooth and jazzy unreleased tune from Morgan’s solo archives, and (finally) “City Slang,” performed acoustically in 1997 by a pickup group called Motor Jam, both of which prove that Morgan can leave his self-created box any time he chooses. The disk concludes with “Dangerous,” the first single from the Hydromatics, a collaboration between Morgan, Andersson and Tony Slug from Amsterdam punks the Nitwitz that reiterates why his rock & roll jones refuses to die.

 Morgan and Nicke Royale

Morgan’s collaborations with Scandinavian rockers dominate disk three, also known as The New Millennium and Beyond the Sound. Various permutations of the Hydromatics contribute tracks from their three rare LPs and the vaults, highlighted by the blasting “Getting There is Half the Fun,” “Standing at the Juke” and “R.I.P. Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the horns-kissed “Tumblin’ Down.” The Solution, Morgan’s return to his soul roots with Nicke Andersson (the duo is pictured above) is also well-represented by a half-dozen songs from the band’s two studio LPs, plus some live cuts. The duo’s ability to emulate various ‘60s and ‘70s soul styles shines on “Would You Change Your Mind,” “You Gotta Come Down” and the startlingly lush but wonderful “Top of the Stairs.”

 Morgan’s most recent project Powertrane also pops up, but gets oddly short shrift. The band, which features former Mitch Ryder/Rob Tyner guitarist Robert Gillespie as Morgan’s latest six-string foil, acquits itself well on covers of Bob Seger’s “2 + 2 = ?” and the Stooges’ “1969,” the latter recorded live with axemen Deniz Tek and Ron Asheton in attendance, but the only tune from the group’s excellent studio LP Beyond the Sound to appear is the title track, a killer. Holes get filled with “Future/Now,” a MC5 cover from Morgan’s live album with Tek and the Italian trio 3 Assassins, “Satisfier,” a cool, previously unreleased solo rocker, and tunes from his self-titled 2010 solo album. The latter’s “Mississippi Delta” finds Morgan happily dragging Nina Simone through the blues rock mud, but previously unreleased covers of Sam Cooke (a rollicking “Soothe Me”) and Nolan Strong & the Diablos (an a cappella “The Wind”) also generate excitement.

 Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust not only gives an overview of Morgan’s long career, but also proves how consistent he’s been over the course of 45 years. A box set seems like a big investment, in time as well as money, but if you’re a fan of blue-eyed rock and soul, you owe it to yourself to sample Scott Morgan.

Mo’ Morgan: http://www.scottmorganmusic.com/

Scott Morgan “Full Of Fire” (audio)

Scott Morgan Plays the Music of the Rationals 2009: “I Need You”

Rationals “Handbags and Gladrags” (audio)

Rationals “Leavin’ Here” (1966 TV appearance)

Powertrane Live in Chicago 2008

Sonic’s Rendezvous Band “City Slang”

Hydromatics Live Amsterdam 2001

BROTHERS OF THE ROAD (AND UNDER THE SKIN – LITERALLY): JEFF The Brotherhood

Jeff the Brotherhood 3

And no, don’t expect any tales of Kinks- or Oasis-style dustups. These kids have their game down.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

The album Hypnotic Nights represented a lot of first for the sibling garage rockers in JEFF The Brotherhood: It was their first effort for a major label; their first time working with an outside producer and more importantly, their first time spending more than a few days putting their latest effort to wax. This time around they took a whopping seven days.

The DIY Nashville group, comprised of brothers Jamin (drums) and Jake (vocals, guitar) Orrall, had already put out six albums prior to Hypnotic Nights, all on their own label Infinity Cat. So most didn’t expect their latest to sound much different despite the fact that they were now on the Warner roster. And thankfully there wasn’t much change at all, aside from a slightly cleaner sound and a decent promotional campaign backing the release.

Hypnotic Nights, co-produced by Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, continued to garner plenty of critical praise for a band that has become a favorite of rock journalists over the past decade and has kept the brothers on the road for most of the year. And life on tour doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.

Jamin spoke with Blurt recently about working with Auerbach, the luxury have having a whole week to record and the disappointingly low number of Kinks’-worthy brotherly fistfights.

BLURT: You guys have been on the road for quite a while now. How’d the tour going so far?

JAMIN ORRALL: It’s going good; it’s… its fine.

You guys have obviously been doing this thing for a few years now. Does being on the road that long get old.

(Laughs) Oh yeah. Sometimes I get really sick of it.

So what do you do to stay sane?

Um, there’s not really much you can do as far as not getting sick of it. Sometimes you get sick of it and you just have to deal with it. And deal with the fact that a lot of times, nothing happens. It helps to hang out with friends in cities. That kind of takes your mind off the fact that you’re touring.

So any good stories from this recent tour yet?

Pretty much the same old thing, so no.

This was your first record for Warner. Was it any different at all going into the studio knowing you were being backed by a major label this time around versus having to do it alone?

We were definitely more excited because we knew we had someone to help us once we finished and we wouldn’t have to do it all ourselves.

So was it the help with publicity and distribution you were looking for?

Oh yeah, totally. It was never a goal to be a band that did everything ourselves, it just ended up that way because we wanted to get out music out there. We’ve always wanted help from others. It just didn’t happen until now.

Is that why you guys first started Infinity Cat – just to put out your own releases?

Yeah, totally. No one else was going to do it, so we did and then eventually people started hearing about us and then Warner Bros came to check us out and we were super excited about it.

Has it been nicer this time around having someone else take care of the tour and the publicity and all the extras?

Yeah, it’s been totally awesome.

So Dan (Auerbach) from The Black Keys helped produce this one. This is your first time using an outside producer as well right?

Yeah, uh huh. It was fun.

Did you know all along you wanted to go with him or was he just one on a list of producers you wanted to try?

No, we hadn’t even talked about working with anybody. I guess he knew our manager, was friends with her, and said that he had heard us, liked us and wanted to have us come check out his studio and maybe do a song or two. We went to check out the studio and said “why don’t we just do the record here.” It’s an awesome studio. So we asked, “so do you want to do the record?” and he said yeah. It wasn’t like we really went after it hard. It just kind of worked out. It’s weird how it all came together.

 

Was it hard to get used to having someone else in the studio with you making suggestions and telling you to try other stuff?

Yeah, it was definitely different, but it was awesome having a third perspective; having someone who really knows how to get good sound.

So did he ever play the role of tie breaker between you and your brother?

Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s why it was great to have a third person. When we were totally 180 and pissed at each other, it’s just really nice to have another opinion in the room.

That actually brings up a good point. The music world is filled with examples of brothers who are great musicians, but end up getting in to big fights with each other over it all the time. How is it with you and Jake?

We work ok together. We fight sometimes but it never gets nasty.

So no onstage fist fights yet?

No, no, no. We just yell at each other, but we are both willing to just stop and walk away.

So have you and your brother played in bands apart from each other or have you pretty much always played together?     

Before JEFF, we were in another band together but we were really, really young, so we’ve played separately in a lot of different bands. In fact, we just put out a record of a band we first played in together a long time ago. It’s called Skyblazer; we were in it about five or six years ago. It was like a psychedelic hard rock band.

Does it help to be involved in other projects on the side?

Oh yeah, definitely, just because this is our job, so we do a lot more work than if we were just fooling around, so it’s good to have projects on the side where we can just mess around and make music. We are both in bands on the side at home where we just have fun.

I used to live in Nashville years ago and am impressed by how many groups, outside of country music, have set down stakes there over the past few years. Have you seen a big change in the music scene, having lived in Nashville for so long?

Yeah, the music scene is doing really well now. There’s a lot of different stuff.

Are there still a lot of groups that haven’t been discovered yet?

I don’t know, I’m actually not there that much lately. All I know if that I have tons of friends there and they all play in bands. There’s a lot of really cool tunes and cool shit coming out of that city.

So who put the seven-day time structure around this record?

That was us (laughs).

 Do you guys just work better under tight deadline?

I think we booked like two weeks to see how long it would take. The first records we took like three days to make. We went into the studio at odd hours when it was really cheap and we would practice and practice beforehand, so this is the first time we had money to buy a studio for longer (than three days). It took five or six days to do all the tracking and then the mixing. We play and move really fast. All of the songs were done before we even went into the studio.

So it must blow your mind to read about bands that take six months to record an album.

Yeah, it’s ridiculous.

 

So in the brief amount of time you worked with Dan, did he offer any advice to you guys?

Not really. To be honest I think he’s just as flabbergasted by the amount of success he has had with his band as we are with ours and we have only had a tiny bit of success compared to (The Black Keys). No one really expects to be as big as they are.

Can we talk about Infinity Cat for a minute? When you and your brother started the label, did you do it with the intention of someday putting out other bands?

No, that just happened over time. We just started it for fun. It’s not like we expected it to go anywhere. I don’t run it anymore; it’s just Jake and my dad now. They have some interns as well, but I don’t think any of us expected it to be as big as it is now.

How did you start finding bands to put out?

It was just really our friends’ bands at first. We never really signed bands that sent us demoes. We had enough to do just with all of our friends.

So you guys are playing New York, then what’s next?

We wrap up this tour and have the rest of December off, which is really cool, and then we head to Australia in January to tour there. And then after that probably hit the road in the U.S. again.

THE ECO-URGE: Bright Beat

Bright Beat 1

The Windy City company is finding new ways to engage the green instincts of the music biz.

 BY REBECCA COOK

 Bright Beat was founded by Chicago-based marketing executive Stephanie Katsaros.  The company combines her passion for the environment and her extensive experience in the entertainment business.  Bright Beat’s goal is to create stainable, green-friendly policies within the music industry, especially at festivals and venues.  I interviewed Katsaros down in Austin. (Contact: www.brightbeat.com)

 BLURT: Tell me a bit about Bright Beat and some of the work you’ve done.

STEPHANIE KATSAROS: Bright Beat is a company that I created about three years ago, and we were founded on the purpose of finding ways to demonstrate environmental sustainability in the entertainment industry.  With my background in marketing and working in concert promotion, really, when I worked in radio, I saw that there was interest and activity moving forward in terms of the green initiatives at events.  I covered it as a journalist and really saw that around the country some things were being done. 

        Around the world, the value of a plastic bottle is well known in China, Brazil, India.  They’ll go out of the way to take that resource and recycle it, because it’s money. And in the United States it isn’t.

        The programs that we do are cost-effective and they provide really a marketing platform for the events…so that they have a good story to tell.  But on the back end, they’re really doing things right, really hopefully setting the standard and making change happen industry-wide.

 

Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done so far for Bright Beat?

Bright Beat’s been involved in some venues and events…including the Allstate Arena, a 30,000-capacity venue that won the 2011 US EPA Wastewise Gold Achievement Award for Public Venue Recycling. We won that for doing a lot of innovative recycling, including cups, which people don’t realize, especially, when you go to a concert, everyone’s got a beer cup.  And that’s going in the landfill.  And that’s not okay with me.

        So a big initiative we started in Chicago at Allstate Arena…was finding a way to recycle those cups.  And then I’ve worked with Solo Cup, which is a maker of cups.  Well, they’ve got an initiative, corporate social responsibility initiative, to make sure their items don’t end up in a landfill.  So brands, partners like that, have been a great way to help finance some of the programs.  They’ve got resources, they’ve got knowledge and research into how we can work together hand in hand with the waste industry.

At Wicker Park Music Festival in Chicago, I understand you created eco-stations too. 

What we did was looked at the locations where you could throw stuff away and said, “What if we reduced the number of them but made them very highly visible, high profile, and had eco-educators at each eco-station, helping people separate their trash, their recycling, and their compost.  That can be as easy as when someone walks by, just point where it goes.  But also, what we found, with the eco-stations, there was a lot of interaction.  A lot of people said, “Wait, that’s not recyclable?  Why?  Well, what goes there?  What does this ‘number 1’ mean?  What does ‘number 7’ mean?”

        And the engagement of the community was great, and the program that we did was done in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, the community in which the festival took place, and their green initiatives are really kind of setting the standard for what’s happening at a lot of festivals in Chicago.  So it’s almost like a case study.  It’s really a case study for how to recycle in Chicago, which, as the third-largest market, there’s a lot of waste being created and a lot of opportunity to divert, like I said, set the standard. (Below: Dinosaur Jr at the Wicker Park Fest)

 Dinosaur Jr.

Would you like to expand into other cities like New York or L.A. or Austin, for example?

That’s a great question, because there are so many initiatives happening.  Everyone knows San Francisco and Seattle are doing a great job.  The West Coast is quite far ahead of the Midwest. Yes, we want to grow.  We want to work with partners.  We want to work on programs where we’re not only changing one day’s event but changing the way production happens on a large scale. 

        The village of Rosemont is the location of the Allstate Arena.  It’s just a border suburb to Chicago.  And we’re doing some things there that are municipal related.  How can we merge the needs of the public venues and residential waste and the commercial waste, the skyscraper hotels?  How can we benefit from working together?  And when we’ve got that concept going, I’d want to give it to the world to use.