Though all you fair-weather ‘90s alt-rock fans may have counted ‘em out, the Cali combo is very much active, as evidenced on an excellent new album.
BY TOM SPEED
When guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono formed The Mother Hips from their dorm room at Cal State-Chico nearly 25 years ago, they probably didn’t envision putting out their 8th studio album in the year 2013, much less the fact that it would be delivered via vinyl record and something called a digital download. After all, 1990 was the dawn of the CD age and vinyl was becoming a relic and the Internet was still under the purview of uber-geeks and Al Gore.
Looking back, it might seem equally as unlikely that they would’ve made it this far. Theirs is a classic tale of a supremely talented band flying criminally under the radar of mainstream acclaim. There have been the brushes with the big time, like when they were signed to Rick Rubin’s American Records alongside The Black Crowes and others before the label lost interest and dropped them in the mid-‘90s. Then there were the requisite dust-ups, break-ups and inevitable lineup changes. They had farewell concerts, reunion concerts, released albums on labels, released albums independently, put out a retrospective box set, pursued other projects and generally ebbed and flowed in and out of each other’s orbit. As for right now, they’re back in that orbit and humming along at a comfortable and rhythmic whirr.
One of the unseen forces that seems to draw them back under the gravitational pull of The Mother Hips is a deeply devoted fanbase in their native California. While their touring radius never extended much beyond the Western US over the decades, in many ways it didn’t need to. The fans kept bringing them back together and loyally supporting them, even pushing them. Two different documentary films have been produced about the band and their tribulations and triumphs. Those fans will not be disappointed with Behind Beyond (www.motherhips.com).
The band’s oeuvre has shifted over the years, from hook-heavy pop to crunchier, prog-influenced rock epics and country-tinged, pastoral outings. Since their inception, there have been other bands come along to cultivate similarly adept brands of Americana music. Fans of folks like Wilco and Dr. Dog might be surprised to learn that the Mother Hips were first to the party years ago, forging country-tinged, soulful sounding Americana before it was a thing. Lately, the band has adopted it’s own moniker for the particular genre-mash they’ve concocted: California Soul.
It’s a mostly apt descriptor on Behind Beyond, certainly in the “California” part of the equation. So much of Behind Beyond forms an unmistakable tendril connecting them to their California forebearers. The most obvious and undeniable is to the easy going mid-‘70s Grateful Dead—the version of the iconic group that had moved beyond feedback drenched acid test space jams and the strictly acoustic renderings of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead to produce their own brand of mythical Americana songs like “Ramble on Rose,” “Jack Straw” and “Tennessee Jed.” Here, the Hips’ “Toughy” recalls those days with a light touch that provides a hint of homage without approaching aping.
They delve into other sunny day penchants, too. On Loiacono’s “Best Friend In Town,” the lush harmonies, languorous guitar solos and sweetly sentimental lyrics recall the heyday of Laurel Canyon grooviness. Similarly with rollicking “Rose of Rainbows” as its jubilant refrain about rainbows, “gentle creatures” and “joyful teardrops” comes across as a paean to the nature-loving hippiedom of the titular character, replete with delicately intricate and melodically pleasing guitar lines that interweave in bucolic wonder. The pedal steel swath of the title track recalls Burrito Brothers and New Riders, and so on.
But it’s not all sun-dappled, hippy-dippy good vibes. In the otherwise brooding “Jefferson Army,” the Hips insert a twin-guitar assault that reeks of crushed metal and militaristic march that conjures the mayhem and heat of a battle. It’s one of the album’s lyrical triumphs too, an evocative narrative tale of revolutionary fighters in a fact-based but mythologized secessionist movement. The movement for the establishment of the state of Jefferson—an area of northern coastal California and southern Oregon—was a real movement in the 1940s and in Bluhm’s version is ongoing, as generations train their families to revolt. It’s a nice piece of craftsmanship that veils a take on modern state of political affairs.
Elsewhere, they grapple with heavy issues too, the California soul being a complex mechanism not easily characterized by sunny days and fast cars. The existential pondering of “Man of Not Man” speaks of drinking the blood of “ancient ones” in a dream-induced fever, before building into a cathartic burst. The dark, foreboding “Shape The Bell” morphs into a sing-songy bounce, obscuring the “twisted corpse of dawn” in a psychedelic dilemma. The Beach Boys, it ain’t.
Throughout the eleven tracks of Behind Beyond the Hips manage to sing sweetly and rock hardy, weaving roaring guitars with easy breezy pedal steel and make it all rock. That is to say The Mother Hips are a fully formed and complexly designed rock band, a long way from that dorm room, and living vibrantly with all the intricacies of their history bearing fruit in mature, multifaceted songwriting and inventive and accomplished structures. The title song touches on years past, regret, and the importance of inward harmony to soldier on. Bluhm sings, “My how the years roll by and they pick up speed/Like mountain roads and many months away from home” and the dream-like refrain of “I’m alive!” repeats until it the guitars drift away, until next time.
The recently released Presley box set may boast an accurate geographical title, as the King did cut the material—much of it superb—at Stax Studios in Memphis. But whatever opportunity Presley had to engage Stax talent and Stax soul was a lost opportunity.
BY STEVE WILSON
“If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Thus spoke the man behind the revolution that was Sun Records, Sam Phillips. He found a few guys who sort of fit that bill (Jerry Lee Lewis, for one), but none as charismatic as a kid from Mississippi named Elvis Presley.
As John Lennon observed, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Of course that’s coming from a dreamy, hyperbolic English teenager. But Lennon spoke for millions his age, millions who hadn’t heard Howlin’ Wolf, another Phillips protégé, or Robert Johnson, or Skip James, or … anyone darker than blue. And in truth, Elvis’ vaunted “blackness,” which became either a mantle of credibility or larceny depending on point of view, was exaggerated. He was kid who listened to WDIA (the black voice of Memphis), but who was just as plugged into the Grand Ol’ Opry and crooners like Dean Martin. Elvis contained multitudes to be sure, but he wasn’t Brian Jones or Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, deep students of the sounds of black America.
And by the early Seventies he played relatively little rock ‘n’ roll for someone who was supposedly the ‘King’ of the damn idiom. And as for “sounding black,” what did the King do when he booked Stax Studios in his hometown of Memphis for sessions in 1973. Stax Studios, right? Hey, a great opportunity to marinate in Memphis’s black heritage. Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes – the potential to track with the Booker T. & the M.G.’s as your rhythm section … Dang! Maybe cut some of the classic songs from Hayes and Porter and Otis Redding, yeah baby!
Nope. He brought in his own band, granted estimable talents like James Burton on guitar and Ron Tutt on drums, and did what he did in the early Seventies, cut a mixed bag of songs with varying degrees of personal and artistic investment. Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition, a beautifully annotated 3-disc set from RCA Legacy Recordings, finds him in fair fettle for this stage of his career – still in good voice, generally engaged, capable of truly moving work when the right elements combined, capable of dreck when they didn’t.
Elvis at Stax collects all the final masters and some of the more arresting outtakes from those July and December sessions in 1973. Not that every single lick here wasn’t released on some odious Colonel Tom Parker (pictured above, with Elvis and “friend”) processed release or another, typically mixed with other unrelated songs from sessions recorded God knows where. Parker and RCA’s greedy, manipulative management of the Presley catalog is legendary. It would be an insult to Boxcar-fucking-Willie, let alone an artist of Elvis’s magnitude. From the haphazard track selection and sequencing, to the shabby packaging (ever count the number of white jump suit/live action shots that passed for record covers?), the disservice done to a great artist by his record company remains nonpareil.Elvis at Stax, discreetly packaged, replete with complete credits for musicians, singers, and studio personnel, and excellent (if fawning) Robert Gordon liner notes, is a nice corrective.
After listening attentively to the outtakes that comprise almost half of this set, it’s clear this is material for the Elvis devotee, lovers of half-assed arrangements, studio chatter and forgotten lyrics. On the other hand the finished masters from these sessions contain some real treasures. From among the July 1973 masters, two tracks leap from the pile. Leiber and Stoller’s “Three Corn Patches” is a southern slice of life (by two guys from Baltimore and Long Island) – Presley’s affinity for their tunes is well documented. It rocks with authority and Elvis gives it a reading that sounds like he might just have a thing for this chick “four cotton fields away.” And Piney Brown’s blues classic “Just a Little Bit,” the readymade from which a million blues songs have been spun including Junior Well’s “Snatch it Back and Hold It,” is given a New Orleans groove. It makes you wish that some enterprising producer might have cracked the grip of the Memphis Mafia and gotten the King to cut a record in New Orleans with Cossimo Matassa, Dave Bartholomew, and Allen Toussaint. Hmm, or maybe a Joe Turner tribute record (he recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll”). Sure, the Colonel would have gone for that!
There’s more to love from the December 1973 masters. The King’s urgent, swinging take on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” finds him in playful voice and Burton’s Berryesque licks are fondly derivative and fresh at the same time. The rough and tumble croon on songs like “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and “Thinking of You” show how much Bryan Ferry dug Elvis, the former’s Norman Whitfield style funk arrangement hinting at some new avenues for the artist; James Burton doing his best Dennis Coffey. Dennis Linde’s “I Got a Feelin’ in my Body,” with its percolating groove, is another slice of contemporary funk; unfortunately it’s undermined by the Chipmunk backing vocals. The Jordanaires this ain’t. The same shticky backing vocals haunt tracks like “You Asked Me To.” Presley sings this Bill Joe Shaver/Waylon Jennings tune with plaintive authority, but the choir of diabetic angels is so thick that it buries rather than supports the emotion of his performance. For Elvis and producer Felton Jarvis at this point it was reflexive – if it’s not up-tempo, drag out the lachrymose singers and strings. This they borrowed from the country aesthetic of the time, and it did country artists few favors; such excesses laid the foundation for the radical curative of “Outlaw Country,” and artists like… Jennings and Shaver.
Presley’s take on Tom Jan’s “Loving Arms” is a revelation. The singer opens himself to the song, avoids his own tics and clichés, and almost sounds like another singer. Jerry Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times” is basically Joe South-lite, but its neo-gospel feel lets Presley hit a confident groove. And “Your Love’s been a Long Time Coming” is a minor triumph from these dates. Presley is fully invested, the “you got me hummin’ lyric is (intentionally or not) a small nod to Stax, and the swelling string and back up singers actually reinforce the emotion in the song rather than drown it.
Otherwise, these sessions are stricken with Elvis Seventies Malaise. Presley and his producers indulged his capacity not simply for crooning, but sheer schmaltz. Too many of these songs are treacle. Neither fish nor fowl, neither soul nor country, but crap Bobby Goldsboro might’ve passed on. And while songs by Tom Jans, Billy Joe Shaver, and Waylon Jennings are all right and good here, too many of the less stellar tracks sound like inferior, Kris Kristofferson wannabe shit, songs solicited from the publishing houses on music row with little regard for the artist’s emotional identification. And the near absence of any deep soul, blues or other material from African-American writers is striking. Elvis’s increasingly Vegas-centric world was moving farther and farther daily from the Tupelo soil and the Memphis sounds (not just rhythm ‘n’ blues, but hillbilly music) that once nourished his musical soul.
Elvis at Stax is an accurate geographical title. He cut these tracks at Stax Studios, to be sure. But whatever opportunity Presley had to engage Stax talent and Stax soul was a lost opportunity. And that’s called sad.
Less than four years after these sessions were completed, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll departed this mortal coil. Had he survived he might have lived to be rehabilitated by Rick Rubin, like his old pal Johnny Cash. Instead he died bloated and full of pills, ensuring a morbid cult of idolaters who will eventually create a nominally Christian faith of some sort with Elvis as Jesus’ right hand man.
As evidenced by a recently-inaugurated reissue series, the larger-than-life character—and first-rate songwriter—born Jerry Williams, Jr. had substance, personality, and above all, soul.
BY CARL HANNI
The world of soul, funk and R&B is heavily populated with major characters and outsize personalities, which is hardly surprising: they are entertainers, after all. Popular music is also one of the few realms where eccentric behavior can be celebrated as opposed to shunned. Yesterday’s high school outcast or town weirdo can be tomorrow’s chart topper or night club headliner, given the right set of circumstances.
R&B and funk seems to be particularly populated with willful eccentrics and those whose fires burn especially bright. Think Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Andre Williams, Blowfly, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Rufus Thomas and yea, you also better think Swamp Dogg, aka Jerry Williams, Jr. In March Alive Natural Sound reissued Dogg’s first two full length classics, Total Destruction To Your Mind (1970) and Rat On! (1971); he had previously recorded some sides under the name his parents called him growing up. Dogg is a first class character, from the whack cover art on his records, to his hilariously surreal and self congratulatory liner notes to his all-over-the-place lyrical musings. Fortunately the man has substance, not just personality, and both of these are red hot platters of burning Southern Soul.
Both discs were recorded at a high water mark for Southern Soul, Total Destruction… at Capricorn Studios in Macon, GA, and Rat On! at Quinvy Studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. And both use the world class musicians available in those studios, including drummers Johnny Sandlin and Jaspur Guarino, bass player Robert Popwell, guitarist Jesse Carr, keyboard player Paul Hornsby and various horn players and back up singers. These cats lay down a swampy soul groove to equal most anything at the time, all bathed in the wondrously warm analog sound of the era. Swamp Dogg wrote or co-wrote most of the material, produced and arranged everything, plays piano and “everything else of any importance” as he so modestly puts it. And of course he sings it all in his strong, Southern dipped voice, comfortable in the mid and especially higher registers.
Williams/Dogg’s outsized personality infuses most everything with a touch of the surreal, from the see-it-to-believe-it photo on the cover of Total Destruction… to the cheeky liner notes (he name checks Gene Autry, Moms Mabley, Phil Walden, Snow White, Jerry Wexler and Wally Roker in one sentence), and then on to the music, even the straight up soul numbers. How about we just lay a few song titles out there? We’ve got “Dust Your Head Color Red,” “Sal-A-Faster,” “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” “Redneck” (by Joe South), “Synthetic World,” “Total Destruction To Your Mind” and six others from the first record, and “Predicament #2,” “That Ain’t My Wife,” “God Bless America For What,” and seven more on the more straight-ahead second. It’s important to know that these aren’t novelty songs in any way at all, and Dogg’s isn’t a jokey performer, per se: sure, some of them are funny, others are topically pissed off, but most are straight up soul numbers that could have been on the radio at the time. He may be a bit off-the-wall, but there’s always an underlying sense of integrity to what he’s doing, at least as far as these two releases go.
Most importantly, they really are great songs, from start to finish on both records. Check “Total Destruction…,” “Remember, I Said Tomorrow,” “Creeping Away,” “Mama’s Baby, “Daddy’s Maybe,” “Do You Believe,” “Do Our Thing Together,” and really just about anything here and you’ll find the vintage goods, sounding as good today as they the day they were laid down.
The third Alive Natural Sound installment turned up recently, 1973’s Gag a Maggot, which picked right up where its two predecessors left off, a wide territory that spans the distance between the surreal and the soulful. The beauty of Swamp Dogg is that he scores both coming and going: he’s both a hilariously in-your-face character with a wicked, deeply off-the-wall sense of humor, and a terrific soul singer and songwriter. He also benefited from recording in some of the great southern studios which were stacked with world class house musicians. Gag a Maggot was cut in Miami, and benefits immeasurably from the smooth, funky guitar playing of Willie Hale, aka Little Beaver, one of the great blues/soul fusion guitar players of the era. The band (Little Beaver, bass player Ron Bogdon, drummer Ivan Olander, some horns and Williams on piano) cooks up tight, tasty southern soul grooves than bridge the gap between gospel, soul and country.
Gag a Maggot features nine Dogg/Williams originals, several co-written with one S. McKinney, a decent version of “Midnight Hour,” and a throw away version “Honky Tonk Women,” one of two bonus tracks not on the original LP. As always, the songs titles tell a lot of the story: “Wife Sitter,” “Choking to Death (From the Ties that Bind),” “I Couldn’t Pay For What I Got Last Night,” “Plastered to the Wall (Higher Than the Ceiling)” and a live version of his nasty slow blues classic “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” the other extra track. The material flows effortlessly from raunchy to topical to sweet, a nice trick if you can pull it off.
But seriously, the record is worth the price of admission for the recently penned liner notes alone, both in the insert and the CD sleeve. Williams has not lost a step over the decades since these tracks were cut: “Henry (Stone, southern soul industry maven) wasn’t like other industry heads. He fucked you and made you love it. You’d wake up the next day and ask ‘what was that and what else can I do to contribute to the cause?’ Henry used a condom, some gel and fatback grease. You almost apologized for being unresponsive.”
Or “I’ve been told that I was light years ahead of myself with my music. Well I’ve finally caught the fuck up. My trip was so long that when I got back, vinyl was back and the president was black. I must have been frozen in ice for several decades. People now telling me how great I am and I’m a genius. Hell I was great back then, but I was the only one who knew it or gave a good goddamn.” Elsewhere he name checks Nixon and Bernie Madoff back to back, and drops something about a ‘faggot great dane.’ Man, this guy just does not have a filter. Which, of course, is a large part of the charm of the persona known as Swamp Dogg, which, one suspects, is essentially a larger version of Jerry Williams, Jr.
Whatever it is, it works, and we’re all a little stranger and better off for it.
FYI, Dogg is still kicking it. There’s a nice NPR piece here:
The soul/funk legend and bass pioneer talks about his career—which has included working with Sly, of course, not to mention Prince—going all the way back the ‘60s and up to the present with his new record.
BY MARCUS BLAKE
A few months ago, Larry Graham returned to the recording world with his first new music in more than a decade, Raise Up (Moosicus Records).Meanwhile, arriving in stores this week is a box set, Higher! (Sony/Legacy) from the group with whom he initially forged his distinctive sound, Sly And The Family Stone. Upon hearing the new solo album I was pleased and somewhat relieved that Larry remained true to the funk, r&b and soul roots he laid down with The Family Stone and didn’t try to “modernize” his music.There are plenty of melodies and, as Prince described, “Old School” music: “Real music played by real people”.
With Larry’s debut as a part of the Family Stone in 1967, the man changed not only the course of bass playing but the course of modern soul, funk, rock and r&b music.The influence of Sly And the Family Stone cannot be overstated with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis drawing influence from the band.
I count myself as one of thousands of bass players inspired by Graham’s pioneering“Thumpin’ and Pluckin’” technique.Just ask Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bootsy Collins from P-Funk, Les Claypool from Primus or any other bass player that has hit the scene since Larry and The Family Stone came out.For those of you that don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the bass playing on any funk song over the past 30 years!(Hell, check out the music to Seinfeld even!)
What was this new sound coming from this integrated, band with members, both male and female coming out of the Bay Area in California in 1967?Was it soul or r&b?Was it rock?Was it psychedelic?Was it even jazz?It was all of them and, yet, none of them.It was, as the title of the first Sly And The Family album stated, A Whole New Thing.
With the release of the single, “Dance To The Music” from their second album of the same name, the band’s unique sound could no longer remain under the radar.Sly And The Family Stone caught the attention of both, black and white America with songs not only about dancing and “Fun” but songs about social and political commentary.This was in full effect on the band’s huge, mega selling 1969 album, Stand! with the smash songs, “Stand!” “I Want To Take You Higher” and “Sing A Simple Song” sitting comfortably alongside the more social songs like “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and number 1 hit, “Everyday People”.
The classics kept coming in 1969 with “Hot Fun In The Summertime”, “Everybody Is A Star” and the bass-gasm filled jam, “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”.Simultaneously, the band became a live act for all bands to measure up to, obliterating any other band in their way, most notably their appearance at the mother of all music festivals, Woodstock.
In 1971 S&TFS released their moody masterpiece, There’s A Riot Goin’ On with the hits, “Family Affair”, “You Caught Me Smilin’’ and “Runnin’ Away”.No record has sounded like that, before or since.As with the dark music on the album, so too, did Sly himself get dark, sliding into a decades long drug problem and exhibiting extreme paranoia, causing the bandleader to miss shows more and more frequently. In a constant drug haze, Stone missed a third of the band’s shows in 1970.
Tensions between Larry and Sly had reached a breaking point and Graham had enough, leaving the band in early 1972. (Check out The Family Stone’s estimable legacy on the Higher! box set from Sony.)
After that exit, the bass man put together his own group, Graham Central Station.The new band released their first album, featuring the stone cold funk classics, “We’ve Been Waiting” and “Hair” in 1974.
Graham Central Station continued throughout the 1970s with numerous albums done by various lineups including the smash soul number, “Your Love” from the Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It album and, perhaps, the funkiest song ever to be recorded, “Earthquake” from Now Do U Wanta Dance. Larry earned soul ballad stardom status with his across the board hit, “One In A Million You” in 1980, much to the delight of slow dancing couples everywhere.
But, you can’t keep the funk down and now, Larry is back with a brand new album, Raise Up, guaranteed to get the heart palpitating and the ears grooving. Raise Up features the legendary music genius, Prince and the uber-talented Raphael Saadiq guesting with this Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer.
Earlier this year, on the eve of his leaving for a tour of Europe, I caught up with the legendary bottom maker on the phone.
BLURT: Congratulations on the release of your new album, Raise Up. (Title track, feat. Prince, is above.)
GRAHAM: Thank you.
The album opens up with a marching band kind of song.Can you tell me how that came about?
Yeah, if you go back to one of my previous albums, Mirror, it opened up with a marching band (song).That stems back to my high school days.I played in a marching band. I played in the school orchestra.We would actually march on football fields and stuff like that.I was one of those guys, marching on the field.
Do you mind if we talk about each track on Raise Up?For the next song on the album, “Throw N Down The Funk”, which you certainly are, were you playing your bass through the classic Mu-Tron effects pedal that you used way back in the day?
That’s great that you never got rid of that pedal!
No, I still have the Mu-Tron and the Roland Jet Phase and all of the old pedals.
Do you still have the Moon basses? How many of those do you still have?
Ah… about four.
Were those made specifically for you?
Getting back to “Throw N Down The Funk”, is keyboardist, David City Council really part of the Oakland City Council, as stated in the song’s lyrics?
(Laughs) No, he’s not!
That’s cool that each band member shines on the track.You have made that a recurring theme in each band you’ve been in, from Sly And The Family Stone to the present day.
Yeah, I’ve always liked to feature my band members.
Can you tell me about this current incarnation of Graham Central Station?
Well, they’re all out of Oakland (California) and they were all raised on my music.They all know my music almost as well as I do!
So, not only are they friends and bandmates, but they are also fans of yours as well.
Why did you make the new album after ten years?
Part of the reason is because there has been just about a request every year.(People would often ask me), “When are you going to come out with something new?”I’ve been getting requests online, letters and otherwise.People always requested a new song and I have always continued to write (new music). I put together a collection of songs that I felt went together for an album.
Yeah, not only do you have some new songs but, you have some re-recordings of some of your classics on the album: “It’s Alright”, “It Ain’t No Fun To Me” and “Now Do U Wanta Dance”.
Exactly.Re-recording those means that the new masters will belong to me, which are re-recorded, which is cool. This collection of songs all fit together but I also found a collection of people that I thought that I could release this music under that would be cool.A lot of the record company situations have changed over the years.
So, does Warner Brothers Records still own your old master recordings?
Yeah, my old masters, mine and a bunch of other people’s.But, these masters will end up being owned by me, which is great.So, that’s why I chose to re-record some of these songs.I really chose these particular ones (songs) because they had been tried and tested in concert.I played them live first and those were songs that people really reacted to.That’s why I chose those particular songs to re-record and make part of this cd but the majority of the cd, of course, is new songs. (Below: bass solo, Live At Bataclan)
Speaking of playing live, you threw it down when I saw you open up for Prince in concert when he did his residency of live shows in Los Angeles, on his Welcome 2 America tour a few years ago. Tell me about working with Prince and recording the three songs on Raise Up with him: “Raise Up”, “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “Movin’”.Also, how did you two meet and start to work together?
Well, we go back to, about fourteen years ago, I was on tour with Sinbad, Graham Central Station, Earth Wind & Fire and Teena Marie.We did a show in Tennessee and we were playing the amphitheatre and Prince was playing the big arena there in Nashville.He heard I was in town and invited me to one of his famous aftershows (laughs).So, we went to this club and this would be my first time jamming with him.
Did you play any Sly & The Family Stone together at that show like at the L.A. show that I saw you two at?
Well, when I walked in the club, he called me up and I started playing everything that I knew and he was, like, right there, on me.I didn’t realize at that time that he was raised on my music.He was raised up on Graham Central Station, actually, even more so than Sly & The Family Stone because he was older and into his producing and writing and stuff when Graham Central Station came along.Then, he went back and got into Sly & The Family Stone.Anyway, we connected perfectly musically.After the show that night, he said, “When you finish the Sinbad tour, would you join my tour?” which is what I did and that’s how we connected.
You two are Jehovah’s Witnesses as well, right?
Yeah, and it was really from that tour because he knew that I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses back in ’75.He had all of these questions that he would ask me and we had bible study pretty much before and after our show trying to answer his questions…
Do you two go door to door, trying to spread the Word?I can’t picture you and Prince knocking on people’s doors and doing that!
Yeah, it’s actually been documented in a local paper here, The Star Tribune.
Yeah, and it definitely gets you into the house! (laughs)
So, you and Prince did those three songs for your album.I really love how his guitar playing compliments your bass playing perfectly, especially on “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “Movin’”.
Did you record those at Prince’s Paisley Park Studio?
Ah… “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” was done at Paisley Park and part of “Movin’” was done at my own studio.
So, you have your own studio?
Yeah, I have a home studio.
Do you still live in the Bay Area in northern California?
No, no.I’m in Minnesota.I’ve been here for about fourteen years.We’re just blocks away from Paisley Park. I have a home studio so, that when you wake up in the middle of the night and you’ve got an idea, you can capture it.And, now, everything is digital and analog so, you can combine the two and keep some of your original ideas.
So, is that how you record?Do you record the drums analog on two inch tape, dump it to Pro Tools and then take it from there?
Well, it depends on the song.You see, I play a number of instruments because I was raised up playing several instruments.I took piano first and then I took drums in school.I also played in the marching band orchestra.I took clarinet and saxophone…
And then you just happened to become the best bass player in the world along the way!
Ah, bass playing was not a part of the plan but it came along.(laughs)Anyway, I played sax and clarinet and other stuff so, if I wake up in the middle of the night and I get an idea, I can pretty much lay down all of the parts even though I may get some of my musicians to play some of the parts (later).Sometimes, I’ll even keep some of the things I wrote.
So, you demo the songs and then you work off of the demos adding to them?
Sometimes, it depends on the song.Like (with the song), “Hair” I wrote on the bass.Today’s song, I wrote on the keyboards… it depends on the song.“Old Smokey” I wrote on guitar.Yeah, it depends on the song.
Getting back to the album, “Welcome To Our World” is kind of an update on “We’ve Been Waiting”, the opening song of the first Graham Central Station album.
What’s the story behind doing an updated version of that song and not just re-recording “We’ve Been Waiting”?
Well, “Welcome To Our World”, NOW because, we’re in a different time and space now.So, welcome to the world of GCS and that’s what we really want people to do when they come to our show.Come into our world.So, whatever you was going through that day, that week, that month, that time period, come into our world and we want to try to help you RAISE UP above whatever things you have to deal with.
You still like to keep the old school funk happening.It’s cool to hear the funk box still in effect on your album.
Yeah, oh yeah!Gotta keep the funk box aliiiiive!
Ashling Cole handles the vocals for GCS’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”?
Yep, she’s doing the vocals and she’s doing funk box as well.
Does your wife, Tina and/or your daughter also sing on the album?
Yeah, and my daughter, Latia is on the album as well.
That’s cool that you have your musical family and your literal family on the record.
Yeah, (sings) it’s a family affair!(both of us laugh)
That’s great that you continue that multi- vocal, multi- racial, multi- gender band concept from Sly & The Family Stone to now….
Can you tell me how Sly & The Family Stone formed?
Sly is the originator and then he heard of me.My mother and I were working a club called Relax With Yvonne, a couple of blocks from the corner of Haight & Ashbury (in San Francisco, CA).I was playing guitar.Actually, by the time Sly heard me, I was playing bass and I had already developed my thumpin’ and pluckin’ style (of bass playing) out of necessity, by not having drums.My mother decided when we were playing together: no drums.I don’t know if you know that story.I should take you back (to how I developed my bass playing style).
I didn’t realize you developed your thumpin’ and pluckin’ style that early on.I thought maybe you developed it around when you recorded “Thank you Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin”.
Oh, no no!What happened was, when I was eleven, my father decided he wasn’t going to play any more and gave me his guitar.I taught myself guitar and then, my mother and I started working together when I was fifteen.I was on guitar. my mother was on piano and then, we had drums.This club we were working in had an organ that had bass pedals.Have you ever seen those bass pedals go halfway across the organ? I played the bass pedals at the same time as playing the guitar.So, we got used to having that bottom.Then, the organ broke down.Now, we sounded empty; not having bottom.So, I rented a St. George bass temporarily, until the organ could be repaired.It turned out that the organ could not be repaired so, I got stuck on the bass!
Yeah, that was not by choice at all.Then, my mother decided that we were not going to have drums anymore.We were just going to have bass and piano.So, then, I would thump the strings to make up for not having a bass drum and pluck the strings to make up for not having the beat on the snare drum.I was, like, fifteen then and that’s how I developed that style.
When (Sly And The Family Stone drummer) Greg Errico heard you playing like that, he must have flipped!
Well, before Greg, when you played clubs back in the day, you would have regulars that would come in to hear you all of the time.There was this lady, who was a regular who liked me and my mother.She loved our music but she was also a Sly fan because he was on the radio (as a disc jockey) at KSOL.So, she started calling the radio station.When he announced he was going to start a new band, she started calling in.
Oh, so he announced on the radio that he was starting a new band?
Yeah, and so, this lady told him that he has to hear this bass player that should be in his band.So, he came down to the club and heard me doing my thumping and plucking and then he asked me to join his band.That’s how my sound got popular.
Would you say that you invented that style?
Yeah. I wasn’t listening to bass players.I didn’t want to be a bass player at that point.I was into my guitar.
So, when you started with Sly & The Family Stone and being a multi-racial band, did you come into any aversion or hostility at first?
I think because we were black and white and male and female and our music included different genres, I think that expanded our audience.
I think right from your first single, “Underdog”, it was a “Whole New Thing”.Maybe people didn’t know how to react?
Yeah, it was mixing a lot of different kind of genres into one kind.I know nobody had heard bass playing the way I was doing it and drumbeats the way Greg was doing and also, guitar playing the way Freddie was doing it.
Yeah, I think Freddie is such an underrated guitar player.
Yeah, I think one of the geniuses of Sly, in addition to his songwriting, was allowing us to be ourselves, expressing ourselves.Even though Sly was a great guitar player, he didn’t try to tell Freddie how to play.He let Freddie do what he did.Nobody can play like Freddie.And, Greg Errico, with those beats on “Dance To The Music” and other stuff… nobody can play like Greg.
I had come up with this different style of playing the bass and he let us do what we did and I think that was part of the success of the band: just letting everybody be themselves.
One of Sly And The Family Stone’s trademarks was trading vocal lines between several band members in a song.How did you record when you all traded vocal lines in the studio?
Many times, we would stand around the microphone together!
Really?You recorded the vocals live like that?
A lot of the songs were live.
By the time you got to, what I consider your masterpiece, Stand!, do you think that’s where the band found its classic sound or do you think right from the start, the band found its sound?
I actually think we found our… everything at Woodstock…. We came in there at night.It was a big (event) but you couldn’t really see anything.You come in there and there are a lot of people but you don’t really realize how many people.Then, the way we would arrange our shows, there would be several songs segued with one song going into the next.So, there was no space to respond.So we got to the spot where we stopped, after a number of songs.We heard this roar of, like, a half a million people.It was amazing!We had never heard or felt that much energy.That really took us to the next level.I kind of liken it to Michael Jordan taking off from the free throw line for the first time!(laughs)It’s like, “Oh, I could do this!”
So, after that, you could fill out Madison Square Garden and The Forum in L.A. and places like that?
Well, after that, it became the standard of huge shows, wherever it was.It had to be at least as good as that.
In his new autobiography, Who I Am, The Who’s Pete Townshend called Sly And The Family Stone’s set at Woodstock “the highlight of the night”.
Aw, oh, that’s great.
By the time you got to There’s A Riot Goin’ On, it seemed like the band was falling apart.Can you tell me a little about that time?
I wouldn’t think that it was so much falling apart as it was different.I think the main difference was actually (the process of) overdubbing.The new method of recording that Sly came up with.
Did Sly rent out Terry Melcher’s studio to record that album?
(Thinks) No, we actually recorded a lot at Sly’s house.
Did Sly overdub over some of the bass parts that you recorded?How many songs on the record do you play on all of the songs on that album?
I’m not on everything.
Can you pick out which songs you play on?
Oh, yeah, I can when I’m sitting down, listening to it, of course.To me, it’s all good, it’s just different.Sly is an excellent bass player.He might have been the bass player in the band had he not found me.He’s an excellent bass player.
Did you teach Sly the Thumpin’ and Pluckin’ style of bass playing?
No, no, I didn’t have to teach anybody in the band anything.Sly played the way he plays and I think some people are able to pick out some of the songs he played on and the songs I that I played on.To me, they’re all good.It’s just different… a different style.
Over the years, I heard crazy stories about that time and how you guys broke up.Can you set the record straight and tell me how exactly you guys broke up?
Well, Greg Errico left the band before I did.When I left the band, I was going to produce a band. I never had any intention of starting my own band.I was going to produce a band called Hot Chocolate—not the same Hot Chocolate that came out with that hit record (1975’s “You Sexy Thing”).It was a different Hot Chocolate that was built around singer, Patrice Banks.We called her Chocolate.My role was going to be writing and producing.That’s really what I wanted to do.I had no intention of starting my own band.
But, one night, we were at a club in San Francisco called Bimbo’s. The club is packed out, every body’s hyped up and Hot Chocolate went up.(The audience) knew the connection between me and Sly And The Family Stone and Hot Chocolate and towards the end of the show, everybody was urging me to get up on stage and so, I went up. When I went to sit in with the band, which was unplanned, we clicked into another gear.Everybody knew something unique could happen on stage.
At that point, were you still officially part of Sly And The Family Stone or was that over?
No, I wasn’t in Sly And the Family Stone at that point.I was done and I really had my producer/writer hat on.
So, you got the performing bug again from this gig and formed Graham Central Station then?
Well, actually, I formed Hot Chocolate first.
Did you release any records as Hot Chocolate?
No, I had recorded some songs that I had written that I went in the studio on my own and had recorded.
Wow!I want to hear those recordings!
Well, some of those songs were on the first Graham Central Station record.Then, what happened was I switched the vocalist from Chocolate to me and Chocolate for the first album.Then I just changed the name because after that gig at Bimbo’s, everybody knew that I should be in the band.The band knew that.I knew that!(laughs)So we switched the name from Hot Chocolate to Graham Central Station with me being more of the lead (singer).
Well, we’ve talked about the past and the present.What’s going on in the future with you?
Right now, we are touring in support of the current album.We’re heading out to Europe. We did Japan and we’re heading to Europe and then we come back and do some more dates in the U.S.If you look at www.larrygraham.com all of our current dates will be up there.
Let’s talk about the final track on Raise Up, “One Day” with Raphael Saadiq.
That’s a very Sly And The Family Stone sounding track.Tell me how that came together.
We recorded that live in his studio in L.A.I went over to his studio in L.A. and we went in and we connected immediately and then we laid that down.(laughs)
Yeah, you can tell that Raphael is a fan.
Oh, yeah, we go way back.Him and his whole family are raised up on GCS.
Now, from a nerdy perspective from myself, I have to tell you that I have all of your records and collect whatever bootleg recordings I can get of you.I have to know, is there any footage of you guys recording There’s A Riot Goin’ On in the studio?
I haven’t seen anything on Riot.There may be some live footage of me doing some cuts (off of the album), but nothing that I know of from the original recording sessions.
Speaking of film and tv, can you tell me what your all-time favorite tv performance of yourself would be?
I’d have to say Woodstock.
Sure, you can say that since they made a film out of the concert.
Yeah, that was the turning point.
So, do you have any of your old tv show appearances?
I have some of it.A lot of it, I don’t.
As a record collector such as myself, I have to ask, do you have all of your own records and singles?
No, I don’t have all of them.
I also have to know, how in the world did you reach those high notes on your song, “I Got A Reason” from your Mirror album?That’s impressive!
At that time I had another octave above my falsetto (laughs).That’s how that came about.
So, you must have not have smoked or done a lot of drinking around that time to reach those notes!
Well, I had to change my life where I could hit that upper octave.That’s how that came about (laughs deeply)
So, we’re not going to hear that one live anytime soon then.
The transitional, experimental Mac circa 1969 has been unjustly overlooked—and overshadowed by the Rumours behemoth—but as a freshly expanded edition of 1969 gem Then Play On proves, this was a band with quite a bit to offer. Watch a live video of the band playing “Oh Well” following the text.
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
The conventional wisdom on Fleetwood Mac’s career is that it started off as a moderately successful blues band, suddenly went pop, then went on to megastardom. As with much conventional wisdom, the truth is more complicated.
A few months ago, as Rumours was being reissued, I asked Mick Fleetwood about how the band got from Point A to Point B. He pointed to their 1969 album Then Play On as the turning point:
“When we made Then Play On, Peter [Green] was already experimenting with orchestras. Then sadly, we lost Peter. Me and John [McVie] kept the band going. We recruited all these different people that made an eclectic bunch of music … Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.
“We started to explore some harmony with Bob [Welch] and Christine [McVie]. For us, it was a gradual morphing style [from Then Play On, to Rumours]. … With Then Play On, we started to experiment. We were the first band doing harmonies with dual guitar playing, even before the Allman Brothers. We were already making changes into a whole different thing rather than being a stock band playing the blues format.”
The release of an expanded edition of Then Play On, which includes a remastered version of the album in its original UK running order as well as the A- and B-sides of two hit singles released at the time, is a good time to take stock of this largely forgotten classic. (During its original incarnation, American fans were treated rather cavalierly by the group’s U.S. label Reprise; the initial release dropped two tracks from the British version, then when the non-album song “Oh Well” became a surprise hit single, the album was withdrawn and subsequently repressed to include “Oh Well,” leading to another revision of the tracklisting.)
As Fleetwood explained, the album shows both a blues band at the top of its game, as well as one undergoing a transition. And in many ways, Then Play On sounds like it could have been made by two different groups. About half the album is British folk rock, not far from what contemporaries like Richard Thompson were doing at the time. The other half is straight blues, full of jaw-dropping guitar work from the duels on the two “Madge” tracks (track 3, “Fighting for Madge,” and 11, “Searching For Madge”), to the slide guitar on “Show Biz Blues.” But most successful of all are the two singles, “Oh Well” which shifts from heavy blues to pastoral folk, and the haunting “Green Manalishi,” one of the best Mac songs of any era.
If the album lacks a little something in coherence, it more than makes up for it in emotion. It’s a pleasure to hear this version of the Mac playing on again.
Lurching towards their 30th anniversary and with a long-overdue new album in stores, the legendary Austin cowpunk combo may be older and wiser—but they still don’t give a fuck.
BY GREG BEETS
From the vantage point of 1987, no one would’ve deemed the Hickoids built to last. Their squalling, beer-logged collision of punk rock and degenerate country was the raw embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s quote – later favored by Hunter Thompson—about getting rid of the pain of being a man by making a beast of oneself.
Assuming they showed up to play, the Hickoids could be transcendent arbiters of the low-rent shamble that epitomized mid-‘80s Austin or a spectacular trainwreck of feedback, fisticuffs and junk-flashing that culminated in the ritualized obliteration of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Either way, you got your money’s worth.
Vocalist Jeff Smith and guitarist Davy Jones, the two remaining members from the Hickoids’ classic line-up, don’t recall much about the composition of “Brand New Way” from 1989’s Waltz A-Cross-Dress Texas. Maybe that’s because they were living the low-rent anthem out loud at the time:
Got a brand new way of livin’
Down here in Austin, Texas
Drink Budweiser every day
Show the girls our peckers
Don’t need clocks for tellin’ time
“Hillbillies” on at a half past nine
Got a brand new way of livin’
Not surprisingly, the beast eventually started to eat itself. By 1992, the Hickoids had sputtered into a hiatus punctuated only by the odd reunion show.
“If we weren’t so saturated at that period of time, then we could’ve build it up…,” says Jones now.
“…but we wouldn’t be alive,” finishes Smith. By Smith’s count, 27 people have been in the Hickoids over the years. Three of them, including longtime bassist Richard “Dick” Hays, have died.
Hays, who had heart arrhythmia, died in 2001 at age 45. His legacy is a focal point of Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit, the Hickoids’ first full-length album in nearly 25 years. That’s Hays on the cover, removing a Charlton Heston-style ape mask as he walks along a deserted beach with shuttered San Antonio punk haven Tacoland and a collapsing Tower of the Americas in the background.
Yet for all its veneration of fallen fellow travelers like Hays, Loco Gringos guitarist/vocalist Tom “Pepe Lopez” Foote and Tacoland proprietor Ram Herrera who are no longer around to drive the freak van, Chafin’ is more than a ghost ride. The current Hickoids line-up of Smith, Jones, guitarist Tom Trusnovic, bassist Rice Moorehead and drummer Lance Farley brings extra meat and shelf stability to the original template. From the gringos-gone-awry border misadventures depicted in “TJ” to the roadside marriage counseling doled out in “Side By Side Doublewides,” the Hickoids have somehow managed to channel the raucous spirit of drunk rock through the wizened lens of sobriety.
“We went from hardcore meets hard country to more of a funny punk thing, says Smith. “Now I’d describe us as just a straight-up rock band. Now that everything has a nine-word description, I think it’s more seditious to just call yourself a rock band.” (Below: “Fruit Fly,” from the new album, performed live)
Hatched in 1983 by Smith and founding lead guitarist Jukebox, the Hickoids never quite fit in with all the other chickens. Their first gig was a San Antonio date with Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, but their Salvation Army pearl snaps and garish “Cajun Realtor” outfits confounded everyone from cowboys to skinheads.
“We weren’t roots enough to be in the roots scene,” recalls Smith. “When we first started out, those guys would smoke dope with us and snort coke with us and drink with us, but they didn’t consider us musicians. There was still that divide.
“Then on the other hand, because every song wasn’t 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, we didn’t really fit in on the punk circuit, either. And because we were so wasted, we were too artless for the art circuit.”
As the Hickoids ventured beyond Central Texas, they forged bonds with spiritual cousins like Dallas’s Loco Gringos and L.A.’s Tex and the Horseheads. The latter band figured prominently in one of the Hickoids’ more infamous tour stories, which later birthed the song, “Queen of the BBQ.”
“We were out there in West Hollywood, staying with Texacala Jones at a place she had called Castle Greyskull,” recalls Jones. “We were inspired by whatever liquor and substances we were on to dress up like women and have a drag race.”
Smith picks up the story here:
“We had opened a show for the Butthole Surfers at the Variety Arts Center in L.A. We’d been staying at Texacala’s house all week. After the show, we had a keg party. And we’re just yelling, singing and stomping on the floor and everything in this old fourplex off of Hollywood Blvd. Tex didn’t know that their upstairs neighbor was a sheriff’s deputy.
“So they waited until everybody in the whole house was asleep. There’s probably about 12 people sleeping there. They kicked in the door at about 10 in the morning. I heard them kick in the door. I was asleep with my girlfriend in the back bedroom. My girlfriend and I just played possum. The cops yelled, ‘Alright, get up!’ And Wade Driver, our drummer at the time, is covered up in a sleeping bag. They’re poking him with a nightstick and they told me, ‘Get your friend up!’ And Wade said, ‘I’m not getting up until you quit poking me with that fuckin’ stick!’ I said, ‘Wade, get up!’ So he gets out of the sleeping back and he’s wearing one of Texacala’s red lace dresses.
“Me and my girlfriend are naked and they’ve got us all with our hands behind our heads, on our knees, with their guns drawn. They’re saying, ‘You think you have rights, but you don’t have any rights. This is Los Angeles and we own Los Angeles.’ Then they left. Nobody got arrested. They just harassed us.”
Then there’s the gig in Athens, Ga. where the only two audience members were R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Jones’ dad. And the drive to a Fourth of July date in Dallas with the Loco Gringos where a country cop ticketed Jones for not wearing a seatbelt while overlooking a felonious cache of psychedelics. And the “12-haybale” show during SXSW that made much of Austin’s Sixth Street resemble a high school ag fair.
The weight of expectations fostered by such war stories isn’t lost on Smith and Jones. It’s part of why Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit—which the band first tried to record back in 1989—took so long to materialize. A 2008 version of the album was scrapped right as the master went to the pressing plant.
“When I listened to it… I won’t say that I cried, but I was about to cry,” Jones remembers.
“I think a lot of it was that we were maybe trying a little too hard,” adds Smith. “It’s a difficult tradition to maintain when you’re known as a drunk rock band and you get sober but you want to remain true to the band and have a humorous element to it but still be true to yourself and not just go for the layups on the songwriting.”
This combination of humor and weight is evident throughout the album’s 10 tracks. “You Knee’d Me” builds a bumper sticker punch line into a yowling slab of grizzled balladry. The R-rated ribaldry of “Stop It (You’re Killing Me)” flowers into a seven-minute rawk anthem. Loose ends are nowhere to be found.
Now coming up on their 30th anniversary, the Hickoids carry the cowpunk torch with the integrity of men on a mission. They’re living down their onetime reputation as the “no-show ‘oids” while simultaneously educating a new generation on what happens when the New York Dolls get crosswise with George Jones. They even made it across the pond this spring, braving unseasonably cold weather to play 10 European dates in 11 days. (Below: Hickoids’ current lineup of, L-R, Tom Trusnovic, Jeff Smith, Davy Jones, Rice Moorehead, Lance Farley; plus photos of Smith and Jones)
“In a lot of these punk clubs, playing to young kids over there in places like Germany, their definition of punk is a lot more modern,” says Jones. “They’re dressed in Misfits T-shirts because that’s what they know. So it feels like we have to school them on what our definition of punk rock is. Guess what? You’re allowed to do any fucking thing you want! You’re allowed to dress any way you want! It doesn’t have to be a Misfits T-shirt!”
Photos credit: Maurice Eagle. The Hickoids will be out ‘n’ about in Texas for the next few weeks, including Aug. 23 in Houston. Tour dates at their website, natch:
Jeff Calder’s got big plans again for his long running band. But first, the Atlanta new wave heroes want to show us some snapshots from their early years…
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“We came out of a very ultra-modern tendency on the periphery of pop music. All of our friends – Pylon, B-52s, all these groups — had ultra-modern ideas,” says Jeff Calder, the singer, main songwriter and one of two guitarists for the Atlanta phenomenon known as the Swimming Pool Q’s. “But at the same time, we were exploring an old world of regional concerns and southern concerns. There’s kind of a contradiction there and a tension that happens because of that. It’s one of the things that makes these records unique.”
Calder is speaking of the Q’s’ long out-of-print second and third records, The Swimming Pool Q’s and Blue Tomorrow. After a long struggle, both have been reissued in an expanded, remastered, meticulously documented compendium called 1984-1986:The A&M Years (Bar/None), available as a 2CD set or a limited edition 3CD+DVD box. He and keyboardist/singer Anne Richmond Boston talked to BLURT about the Swimming Pool Q’s’ early years in an Atlanta-and-Athens-based post punk scene, their arduous path to a major label signing with A&M and the even more obstacle-strewn effort to bring these records back out of limbo. (Below: Live performance on Atlanta public access TV 1980)
A writer turns rocker
The Swimming Pool Q’s took shape in Atlanta in the late 1970s, when rock writer Jeff Calder moved north from Florida to start a band with his friend Glenn Phillips, the founder songwriter and guitarist in an avant rock outfit called the Hampton Grease Band. Through Phillips he connected with Bob Elsey, then a teen-aged guitar phenomenon. Anne Boston had known Elsey since high school. She was singing with a band called Mississippi Law. Around them, a vibrant scent was emerging as punk rock gave way to a more melodic playful new wave.
Calder says that the Swimming Pool Q’s initially borrowed some of punk rock’s energy and attitude, but they never really bought into its insistence on amateurism. From the start, Elsey was a near virtuoso on the guitar and Boston sang with heart, considerable skill and affection for older traditions. “As a child I started singing in church choir which was full of traditional hymns with beautiful harmonies,” says Boston. “Then along came Dylan and Baez, Judy Collins, and my fave, Sandy Denny whose voice and delivery really touched me. But I liked pretty much all music. Country, rock, whatever happened to be on the radio or the stereo in my sisters’ or brother’s room.”
“I had come from a world where even the far out musicians wanted to be as good as they could be on their instruments — people like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and Roxy Music in England,” says Calder. “I should add that because I didn’t have a lot of confidence on the guitar, I was the guy who didn’t have the technique. I was smart enough to know that I should surround myself with people who could really play but who had a different outlook at the same time from what had been going on in American rock for most of the 1970s.”
New wave meets Atlanta
The Atlanta and Athens scenes were intertwined, with most of the Athens bands recording at Atlanta’s DB Studio, and bands from both towns playing in each other’s clubs. Because of the success of R.E.M. and the B-52s, most people focus on Athens now, but Calder says that Atlanta had a much bigger, more diverse musical community. Plus the bigger bands all stopped in Atlanta, then as now the largest city in the south.
“We’d only been together for six months, when we were tapped to open for DEVO,” Calder recalls.
“We had to play two sets I believe,” adds Boston. “People were chanting ‘DEVO! DEVO!’ and were fed up with the likes of us! I think Mark Mothersbaugh was watching from the audience, which was intimidating too.
“I really didn’t know much about them but it didn’t take long for me to see how brilliant they were. They showed one of their films before they played and it was amazing. I was in the dressing room when Mark came in there to change into the Booji Boy costume midway through their set. It blew my mind. Right up my alley. He gave me his cardboard sunglasses [the kind you get at the eye doctor] and I treasured those for years!”
DEVO, in some ways, opened the door for B-52s and a sci-fi-influenced, eccentrically positive brand of new wave. “What the B-52s reflected, and all of the bands that eventually came out of Athens by 1980, all of us were influenced by a certain tendency, a colorfulness, quirkiness, a new attitude.”
Calder and the other Q’s became friendly with these bands, particularly Pylon, but he says that their overall approach was very different. “We had the two guitars and were much denser as a group. We weren’t that easy to make sound good in the studio,” he said. “[Pylon was] more Spartan in their approach. They went in and recorded Gyrate in about three days, and it sounded like gangbusters. But it was because it was so simple.”
Together with bands like Pylon, B-52 and, at the larger end of the scale, R.E.M., the Swimming Pool Q’s forged a southern circuit of clubs that punk and new wave bands could play. They started from scratch in many cases, often playing venues more attuned to Lynyrd Skynyrd than the Human League. “Most bands didn’t see any value at all in playing in South Carolina or Florida or places in the region,” says Calder. “It was always, you played here [in Atlanta] then you dashed up to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and then you came back.”
“For us, we did those things, but we also saw value in playing in the region in places that weren’t necessarily hospitable to what we were doing,” he adds. “At that time in the South, there weren’t any punk or new wave clubs. There was nothing. We kind of had to make up a circuit. We’d find ourselves in places that were very open to us, and in places that were Southern rock places. Because we had some technical ability, we were able to fake it…and survive. But it took a long time before there was anything like a new wave and punk club circuit in the south.”
Even in the late 1970s, though, Calder saw a small but vital new wave community emerging. “The interesting thing was that everywhere we went – if you went to Tampa, if you went to Miami, if you went to Columbia, SC, there were always about 250 people who were there for you,” he says. “There was definitely an audience developing, but I think that audience didn’t really explode until maybe 1983 when R.E.M. begins to get national attention.”
The Swimming Pool Q’s toured relentlessly, building a following in the South. By 1981, they were ready to record their first full-length album, The Deep End. This was also, coincidentally, the year that R.E.M. signed with IRS and released Chronic Town. As interest in Athens (and nearby Atlanta) heated up, Calder decided not to wait around to be discovered. He headed to New York City to try to find his band a major label deal. Calder spent much of 1982 and 1983 crashing with his friend Glen Morrow in Hoboken. Morrow was in a band called the Individuals, but he also worked in A&R at RCA Records and edited New York Rocker (he’s now a partner at Bar/None, which is releasing the reissues). With his apartment as a base, Calder began going from label to label trying to drum up interest for the Q’s.
The major label debut
However it was not until Calder had recorded a demo with Glenn Phillips – four songs that would later appear on Swimming Pool Q’s, including the breakout “The Bells Ring” – that he began to get some traction. Calder also shifted his attention from New York to Los Angeles, borrowing his dad’s Amex card to make the trip west. He connected with a friend, Mark Williams, who had signed as an A&R rep with A&M’s New Music Department, a division specifically dedicated to establishing the label’s presence in college rock. After Calder flew to Hollywood to meet with A&M and Slash records, industry types began flying out to Atlanta to see the Q’s play. The Swimming Pool Q’s signed with A&M early in 1983 and began recording what would become their self-titled album.
“I remember it being a really hopeful time,” says Boston. “We were excited to be signed to a label that would help us get our music to a bigger audience. We had already toured on our own quite a bit and I imagined that now we could really hit the road.”
The band worked with producer David Anderle, who had recorded one of Boston’s favorite singers, Sandy Denny. Ed Stasium, who had engineered albums for the Ramones and the Talking Heads, sat behind the boards. “We went into the biggest studio in Atlanta and they really knew how to make that work,” Calder remembers. “We adapted very quickly and were able, for the first time, to really orchestrate the guitars the way we wanted to, to make these interlocking patterns. Everyone really stepped up.”
Anderle, who had worked not just with Denny, but with Nico and Rita Coolidge, brought out the richness and complexity of Anne Boston’s singing and the Swimming Pool Q’s distinctive sound began to take shape.
“When we started the group, Anne was a good singer, and we knew that, but she was an artist and a character and we wanted her in the group. Over that five year period, before the first record, as a songwriter and as a band, we had to figure out how to make that work. Because it was so different and so good that… she was so good that I didn’t know how to deal with that as a songwriter,” says Calder. “I was not a melodic songwriter. So all of the strengths that she had, I had none of those skills. As a singer and a writer, I had to figure out how to make that work. And it took a long time. And when it started to happen, that’s when the more focused sound that she has, we began to create that, and the songs became vehicles for that.”
The studio album: Blue Tomorrow
The eponymous album documented the Swimming Pool Q’s’ live sound, albeit in a clearer, more nuanced way than ever before. But for the follow-up, Blue Tomorrow, the band wanted to go beyond what they could do in performance and use all the technical capabilities of the studio.
The band hired Mike Howlett, a UK producer who had gotten his start playing bass in the avant garde band Gong. Howlett’s credits were glossy and commercial. He had worked for Flock of Seagulls, OMD and Joan Armatrading, in addition to post-punkers like Gang of Four and the Comsat Angels.
“That was kind of a daring move for us,” Calder confides. “We operated in a world that had very conservative views about how records should be made. The band plays it live without too much overproduction and so on and so forth. Well, that got thrown out the window.”
Howlett locked together two 24-track recorders to give the band a more expansive sound – for a total of 48 tracks. He encouraged them to use click tracks as they recorded. He edited intensively. As a bass player, he helped them bring out the low end. “When I was doing this reissue, it was just astonishing to me how good the bass playing is and how great the sound it,” says Calder. “But I don’t think that that record loses any energy because of the way we made it. But those were all things that were unprecedented for us.”
The band toured with Lou Reed in support of Blue Tomorrow, but the album didn’t meet A&M’s expectations. They were dropped from the label in 1986, and Anne Boston dropped out of the group. “The reasons I left the band are a bit personal for me to go into,” Boston explains, “but I will say that one factor was just the huge disappointment of the A&M experience. It really opened my naive eyes to the ‘business’ of music.”
The Olive Garden
Swimming Pool Q’s continued, however, releasing World War Two Point Five in 1989 as a quartet and then the more experimental Royal Academy of Reality in 2003. (Boston sang on Royal Academy.) Calder worked in the music business in a variety of ways, producing, engineering and doing A&R, and, in the late 1998s, began working on reissuing the Swimming Pool Q’s catalogue. The first album, The Deep End was relatively straightforward, since the band owned all the masters. It was re-released in 2001. But the two A&M records were more difficult, and Calder was to spend more than a decade in pursuit of them.
Because they were originally released on A&M, the albums became part of a label catalogue that has been sold three times, first to Polygram in 1989, then to Universal in 1998. In February 2007, the A&M label was relaunched by Interscope/Geffen. Never big sellers, the albums weren’t obvious candidates for reissue by the label itself, which, after all, had the entire Motown catalogue to repackage. But Calder kept working on the project and made intermittent progress.
“I came so close to making these records happen…in 2005, in 2007, in 2009,” says Calder. “But every time I got close, the person I was dealing with vanished, got fired. It was one of these crazy things.”
Finally he began remastering the two A&M releases himself, the self-titled Swimming Pool Q’s from 1984 and Blue Tomorrow from 1986. “I decided that – I have the masters – I’m just going to master these records myself. I’m going to start working on these bonus tracks,” he recalled. “When I did that, the person I was dealing with became very interested. I was doing all the work on a project that they technically owned and couldn’t just give away. We came very close. We had a running order with additional material for both records. And then he reneged. So I had everything ready to go, what do I do? How do I deal with it?”
Enter Calder’s old friend Mark Williams, the same guy who walked the tape for the Swimming Pool Q’s across the lot in 1984 and got the Q’s a contract with A&M. Thirty years on, he had become an A&R exec with Interscope, the company that now owned the A&M catalogue. Calder rang him up and, once again, Williams came through for him. “He made the call. He got the right guy. And after that, everything went smoothly,” says Calder. “It was a two-page contract. “
Under the terms of the deal, Calder had to pay to license the albums – and he did it with a financing option that was not available the last time he made an album. The Swimming Pool Q’s raised $15,000 with a Kickstarter campaign. Calder says it took some serious handholding from his label, Bar/None, and its social media gurus before he was comfortable with the concept, but it worked out well.
“We gave away conventional things: back catalogue, a collection of old posters, buttons, tee-shirts, pictures, autographed things,” he says. “And then, we offered some of the higher donors a trip to the Olive Garden. It was a gag, and then we had a handful of people and then we had to go to the Olive Garden. Oh fuck. The Olive Garden. That was the crisis.”
Meanwhile, the Swimming Pool Q’s continue. “The only thing that I want to set the record straight about is that we’ve never broken up. We’ve been active as a band for 35 years and we still rehearse,” says Calder. “We have two-thirds of an album done and a bunch of songs waiting to be finished. And of course, I’ve got big plans.”
Below: watch clips of the band live at the Atlanta Arts Festival in 1983 and appearing on the public access program “Dance-O-Rama” in Atlanta. Photos courtesy the band’s website: http://www.swimmingpoolqs.com/
“Here’s your damned theme, people!” NOW ON TOUR: the venerable Stones Throw label mounts a barnstorming soul revue featuring Stepkids, Myron & E, Dam-Funk and Stones Throw majordomo Peanut Butter Wolf. Mayer Hawthorne pops in at the end, too. Check out video clips of each artist following the text.
BY RON HART
“Old Motown tours used to have a bunch of their artists all together in one bus usually backed up all by the same band so we also like the how this tour is reminiscent of that,” speaks Jeff Gitelman, singer/guitarist Bridgeport, CT-based avant-soul outfit The Stepkids, in regards to the upcoming Stones Throw Soul tour, where they will also be serving as the backing band for R&B throwback act Myron & E. “This’ll be a new experience for us as a band, backing up another artist. What’s interesting is that we really have to be two different bands for this tour. When we play with Myron & E we are just trying to let them do their thing and support that. However, a different animal is unleashed when we are performing out front.” [Below: Stepkids]
Rounded out by electro-funk maestro Dam-Funk and Stones Throw label chief Peanut Butter Wolf on audio and visual duties with a DJ & video set, the nine-city trek across the West Coast kicked off August 16th in Pomona, California and heads up and down the shoreline before returning to the label’s stomping grounds of Los Angeles for a show at Jewel’s Catch One on August 28th featuring Stones Throw alumnus and current radio sensation Mayer Hawthorne on the 1s and 2s between sets. [Full list of dates at the end. Below: Myron & E]
The tour marks the first of its kind of the intrerpid underground urban imprint, which initially got its start in 1996 as a means for Wolf to put out the debut full-length of his late best friend Charizma (whose untimely passing in December 1993 will be commemorated in a 20th anniversary box set of his complete works later this year). The label would soon grow to become the definitive word on leftfield hip-hop and outsider R&B ever since, releasing classic titles from such noteworthy as J. Dilla, Mayer Hawthorne, Jonwayne, Guilty Simpson, Homeboy Sandman and, of course, producer extraordinaire Madlib and his many guises, who Gitelman attributes as a major influence on the Stepkids’ sound.
“Madlib is highly influential on us,” Wolf admits. [He’s pictured above] “Being jazz musicians ourselves, he represents a perfect bridge between that world and hip-hop.Listening to him showed us how we could channel and fuse our jazz influences to make something original.”
When asked who he is most excited about seeing perform live each night, Wolf was quick to say Dam-Funk [pictured below]whose excellent collaboration with former Slave frontman Steve Arrington, Higher, was released this summer as a precursor to his hotly anticipated follow-up to the former gangsta rap studio musician’s solo debut Toeachizown.
“In Dam, I had finally found someone who actually lived in LA and was as interested in ‘80s soul/funk as I was,” he proclaims. “He’d make me CDs of rare records and I’d do the same for him. Then I eventually found out he made music and after I heard it, I asked him to do a remix for this artist Baron Zen I released an album from and from there, I signed him as an artist to Stones Throw.”
With this roadshow featuring three of the most talented acts in his troop, the San Jose-born DJ/producer otherwise known as Chris Manak feels the Stones Throw Soul tour is the next logical step in the label’s progression into the second decade of the new millennium.
“It’s gotten to the point where Stones Throw represents so many different styles of music, but they basically all fit into three main categories: hip hop, rock and soul,” explains Wolf, who doesn’t rule out a East Coast leg of the tour and expressed interest in Stones Throw-affiliated revues showcasing the label’s rap and rock talent in the future as well. “It’s made it harder to promote certain things in a way because when people see the [Stones Throw] logo these days, they don’t know what they’re getting. When I DJ I pretty much play all different stuff too, but I also realize that audiences enjoy going to themed nights cuz they know what they’re getting themselves into ahead of time that way. So here’s your damned theme, people. Stones Throw SOUL!!!!”
In which our correspondent reaffirms his devotion to the former and pledges his allegiance to the latter over the course of a steamy, revelatory evening in Phoenix.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
It seems to me that there are just two types of rock bands. There are those like the Ramones or AC/DC who really dig in and focus on refining a particular sound; if they do shift stylistically, the changes are gradual. Then there are those rarer bands who take up the challenge laid down by the Beatles on The White Album and attempt to canvass as many styles as possible.
From atechnical standpoint at least, David Lowery doesn’t initially give the impression of a songwriter of enormous range: he tends to favor straightforward, open chords—the type you might hear from a beginner guitarist sitting beside a campfire. Left to his own devices, he’s a musically direct pop-rock songwriter at heart, albeit one with a skewed lyrical sensibility. Yet Lowery currently fronts two very different bands: Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, the former a solid “cultivating signature sound”-type band, the latter one of the most expansive and eclectic American bands currently working.
These groups could not bemore dissimilar—a surprising fact given that the touring iterations of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker share three members: Lowery, bassist Victor Krummenacher, and drummer Frank Funaro. With such an overlap in personnel, it was perhaps inevitable that the two bands would consolidate their resources (and fanbases) and tour together, which they have now done on and off for several years. These dual-headlining shows can be a real treat for audiences: over the course of three hours and change, concertgoers get to hear a nearly comprehensive survey of what rock and roll can offer, punctuated throughout by Lowery’s oddly endearing bellows and rasps. The shows fulfil that added purpose of fanbase cross-pollination, exposing the partisans of the more mainstream Cracker to Lowery’s more experimental band, while simultaneously winning over some of CVB’s more intransigent fans (such as myself) to the incendiary brilliance of Cracker’s live performances.
So yes, the joint-tour idea makes a lot of sense. It’s unique and hopefully financially worthwhile for all involved. Yet I’ve often wondered about the toll these shows must take on the singer. Sure, Bruce Springsteen also does concerts of this length (or longer), but the sheer stylistic range of Lowery’s two bands—not to mention the verbosity of many of his songs—imposes unique challenges in terms of concentration, pacing, and stamina. While interviewing him several months ago for an earlier Blurt piece I got the chance to ask him about this. Specifically, I wanted to know if he ever found himself at the end of the first band’s set thinking, Oh crap, I’ve got to come back on and do another one of these.
“Well,” he said, “Cracker is a much more popular band, so the crowd is at its fullest peak when I’m out with Cracker and that gives a boost. The length of the performance doesn’t faze me all that much physically; it’s sort of exhilarating and my role in both of those bands is very different.I’m very much singer and leader in Cracker: I do something, Johnny plays guitar, and it’s just back and forth between the two of us like that all night. Camper Van Beethoven is much more complex. There’s lots of long instrumental passages where I’m not really the focus, and there are also some completely instrumental songs.So I don’t actually sing that much with them.I don’t spend as much time being the focus.
“It’s an oversimplification, but in a way the Camper set’s a little bit more about the brain, a little bit more about the head and sort of focusing on having to play this or that part, and Cracker’s a little bit more about the raw energy of the heart and the soul.So they’re complementary in most ways. I think the only real fatigue I ever feel is with my hearing.I don’t know if my ears are set up to play for three hours on a rock stage.Even if we’re not loud, after three hours my ears are like help! Help!”
One thing he didn’t mention in that conversation was the challenge that might be posed if he were nursing a cold—which seemed to be the case during the July 21 dual-band show at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix. Camper Van Beethoven played first, beginning their set with “Too High for the Love-in,” a song off their excellent new album La Costa Perdida. From the outset, Lowery was really struggling with the high notes; at first he tried to just bludgeon his way through, but his voice just collapsed back onto itself. During “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” the Status Quo cover that is Camper’s lone mainstream hit, Lowery finally reached a fragile detente with his rebelling vocal chords and remained in that state for rest of the set.
That said, the vocal issues didn’t really impact the overall performance. Camper Van Beethoven, in this version at least, is essentially a creative three-way between Lowery, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segal, and guitarist Greg Lisher. When one is suffering, the other two are fully capable of carrying the show. And on this evening, apart from the patchy vocals, the band did not appear to slip up even once. Segal, his virtuosity and performer’s instinct well on display, easily stepped up to his duties as provisional frontman, while Lisher was a quiet wonder, coaxing off-kilter tapestries of sound out of his instrument.The set was well-balanced, neatly slotting the newer material alongside cult favorites like “Eye of Fatima” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” The band also rolled out several of the gypsy-ska instrumentals that were so prominent on the first three CVB albums.
In his between-songs commentary, Lowery repeatedly made the point that Camper Van Beethoven is a prog-rock band at heart, and that each of the new songs is “its own rock opera.” This fell on mostly uncomprehending ears, yet he was absolutely right in asserting that progressive rock (or, if you prefer, “art rock”) is the group’s true heritage. [Correct. I have live tapes and even a live video tape of the band from around 1985 in which one of the sets’ centrepieces is a sprawling version of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.” —Prog. Ed.] Sure, the band has punked it up and given it a tasteful injection of Americana, but in unguarded moments these guys will admit to being, first and foremost, massive fans of early Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Genesis, along with any number of more obscure artists such as Kaleidoscope and Fred Frith. They’re Deadheads too. This strident unfashionability set them well apart from their peers in the American post-punk scene back in the early ‘80s and gave them their edge. And they maintain that edge today. I mean, who else is referencing Kaleidoscope right now?
Prior to returning to the stage with Cracker, Lowery must have downed some lemon tea or whiskey and honey, because his voice had significantly stabilized for the second set. If the Camper Van Beethoven section of the show was a confirmation for me of that band’s greatness, the Cracker set was a revelation. The albums I’d heard—primarily the debut and Kerosene Hat—gave me little indication of just how amazing these guys would be live. A big key to their stage presence was guitarist and co-founder Johnny Hickman, who not only proved himself a shredder extraordinaire but also a born entertainer—a more natural showman than the somewhat withdrawn Lowery. He constantly made eye contact with various people in the audience and grinned as he peeled off hot lick after hot lick.
The setlist encompassed the highlights of Cracker’s career, featuring hits major and minor (“Low” and “Euro-Trash Girl”) alongside a plethora of deep cuts and spirited covers (Dylan’s “The Man in Me” and the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.”) I came away from the performance realizing I had been deeply mistaken about Cracker—that they are, in fact, a sincere and sophisticated band, every bit as great, in their own way, as Camper Van Beethoven. I resolved to look deeper into their catalog and also to re-listen to the work I had previously written off. There were surely other partisans in the audience—from both camps—undergoing similar reappraisals.
I don’t believe a single person left the Crescent disappointed. It was a great show by two great bands who continue to look forward—even when looking back. Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker will, of course, continue to play together.
Their next joint outing will be the 9th Annual Cracker Camper Van Beethoven Campout, occurring Sep. 12-14 in Pioneertown, CA. In addition to full sets by the two primary bands, the itinerary features various side projects and solo performances by members of the extended Cracker/CVB family. For my money, I’d pick this intimate event over any of those commercialized outdoor festivals hands-down. Why go to Woodstock when you could go on a camping trip with the Beatles?
[Photo Credit of Cracker & CVB by Danny Clinch; photo of David Lowery by Jason Thrasher]
James Williamson and Mike Watt muse on the latest album.
BY TIM STEGALL
“You can all go home now,” I told the readers of The Austin Chronicle the night Iggy And The Stooges debuted their new LP, Ready To Die – the 40-years-overdue follow-up to Raw Power – at the first night of SXSW 2013 in March. “The conference is over. The world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band has played. No one else matters.”
I meant it then, and I mean it now. I’ll mean it 40 or 50 years from now, when I’m long gone and buried, if anyone still cares to go back and read this. I’ve seen Iggy Pop maybe 15 times by now, twice when he first reunited the Stooges in the early ’00s with the Asheton brothers (Ron and Scott) and Mike Watt on bass, where he belongs. But seeing Iggy &The Stooges with errant Sony executive James Williamson – the Stooge who got away – manning the Les Paul is an even more ferocious beast with a far more feral beat.
The Mohawk is a cozy-ish venue on the Red River strip which is truly the hub of happening Austin rock ‘n’ roll venues most think 6thStreet is. Iggy & The Stooges are playing the patio area, outdoors. But even that area’s ability to accommodate the crush of humanity snaking around the block and overflowing into the street in front of the club was easily questioned.
Iggy Pop – the prototype punk rocker, the Stooges’ leader/singer/visionary, possessed of legendary vision, grace, and physicality – was insistent the Stooges debut the then-yet-to-be-released Ready To Die at SXSW. Iggy even talked Stooges bassist Mike Watt – a punk legend in his own right, courtesy of the Minutemen – back to the States, postponing a series of Watt European road dates he was in the thick of. He did it. Watt may have his own career, but he’s a Stooge. The boss called him in on his day off. Still retaining a blue collar ethic as a musician, Watt came in to work.
Amazingly, the Stooges’ set-up time was minimal – 10-15 minutes’ tops, maybe? As amp heads were stacked atop speaker cabinets and cymbals were mounted on stands, some portion or other of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana suite wafted over the P.A. The drama built….
Then, without warning or fanfare, various Stooges walk on…except the star. James Williamson, looking less like the spike-haired SciFi hooligan in a weird Star Trek uniform of 1973 than like the retired electronics executive he is, straps on his Les Paul Custom and unleashes 100 watts’ worth of the riff to “Raw Power.” Iggy comes RUNNING from the back of the stage, past the drummer – Wait! That isn’t Scott Asheton up there! –and LUNGES at the vocal mic! It’s ON!!!
This is rock ‘n’ roll as a full-contact blood sport, no holds barred, no prisoners taken, no mercy shown. Iggy And The Stooges explode off the stage and out the PA, spilling over into the audience (as Iggy has done his entire career, save for maybe that brief time he was Detroit’s best teenage rock ‘n’ roll drummer….and you can blame that on having to sit behind a kit). There’s James Williamson, riffing like a hyper-thyroid Dave Davies! Grey boiler-suited Mike Watt and drummer Toby Dammit deputizing for brotherly rhythm section Scott and the late Ron Asheton, perfectly capturing the aural pressure drop! Funhouse saxman Steve MacKay is now a full Stooge, honking and droning ala Coltrane beside Williamson! Iggy charging hard at the mic stand, a Tasmanian Devil uncaged and unleashed! “Raw power got a healin’ hand,” Iggy snarls, “Raw power can destroy a man/Raw power is more than soul/Got a son called rock and roll….” No, Iggy, it’s not the son – this is rock ‘n’ roll! Unfettered, unhinged, untamed…definitive!
“Gimme Danger” follows, doing little to cool down the adrenaline. Them, ready? Aim? FIRE! “Burn,” the opening track to Ready To Die and the first single, is next. It’s got a thick James Williamson riff, all drive, edge, and crank. Iggy presides over the lyric. There’s no fat, just a single every bit the equal of Raw Power. “This,” I would write later that night, “is a gift.”
The next hour sees a mix of Stooges classics, old and new, delivered seamlessly. The emphasis is on “deliver” here: Iggy & The Stooges phone nothing in. “Iggy is visibly pacing himself,” I wrote for TheAustin Chronicle,”not quite the manic hellion of old. But… he’s only slowed down in comparison to his own past. He is concentrating on delivering that death-house baritone, then giving the popping eyes and flashing feet, still occasionally falling into the audience (to be dragged back by overzealous roadies), not quite delivering the old human missile forays of 1973-to-just-a-few-years-ago. But compared to you and me? He’s still a force of nature.”
The band is lobbing one great new one after another: Relevant tunes like “Sex & Money” and the working class anthem “Job,” with its hilarious fist-pumping refrain, “I got a job/But it don’t pay shit!” (“I haven’t had a job in years,” Iggy smirked, introducing it. “Who’d hire me now, anyway?”) There’s also “DD’s,” a typically smutty Iggy lyric about that which obsesses men from Iggy to Russ Meyer….
“Iggy walks offstage a second,” I continued, “a pedal steel player sets up next to Mike Watt, looking straight out of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, Williamson moves to lap-steel. Iggy walks back, and The Stooges deliver a somber new tribute to the fallen Ron Asheton, “The Departed,” complete with an atmospheric rewrite of the “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and funeral march drums. Then a trifecta: ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog,’ ‘Search And Destroy,’ and an encore segueing ‘Fun House’ into a “No Fun” that resembles more the Sex Pistols’ power-slam remake. And they’re off, the band downing instruments, Williamson’s Les Paul howling feedback, Iggy staying on a few minutes more, mugging and vogueing, soaking up the overwhelming love the crowd gives him….”
And it was over. Adrenaline was overloading my system. My brain was buzzing, LOUDLY! I needed to write, had to communicate this experience. This was fucking intense….
In a matter of weeks, Ready To Die would be in my hands, likely the most misleadingly-titled rock ‘n’ roll record in history. The only way this record’s title could have been more disingenuous would have been to title it 10 Mellow Melodies From Iggy And The Stooges. The other thing immediately sticking out is the Fat Possum imprint. Isn’t this the first time Iggy’s been an indie artist?
“Not true,” James Williamson reminds me by telephone a few weeks later, “because we did Kill City with what may be the first indie record label…”
“…on Bomp! Records,” I slap my forehead. I wrote liner notes for the 1992 reissue for that Iggy/Williamson collaboration. My memory’s clearly failing me.
“Yeah, on Bomp!” James affirms. “So, he was – although reluctantly,” James laughs, indicating that record’s original release was not exactly Iggy’s idea, “an indie artist.”
Iggy Pop, incidentally, was also reluctant to be interviewed for this feature. Guess he’d rather add to the workload of James Williamson, a man already enjoying a most unusual “retirement….”
“Well, I’m working on making it better!” Williamson laughs. “It’s been a challenge in some ways. But still, it’s a lot of fun. You’ve gotta keep doing things, or you kinda fall apart. So, I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.”
One intriguing thing, however: Williamson completely walked away from everything and went into the computer world and Vice President of Technology Standards for the Americas at Sony Electronics. It’s just interesting that he went right back to The Stooges. But it is a different situation than the old days, I would take it?
“Well, yeah, totally different” Williamson agrees. “When we called it quits back in the ’70s, it was something we just couldn’t make a living at. All these years later, of course, it’s a thriving enterprise and it’s kinda cool I could to jump back in and see what it’s like to actually start taking victory laps.”
Yeah. You now actually play for the large audiences The Stooges didn’t exactly enjoy in the old days, don’t you? “I never played for much of an audience,” he says. I believe 2000 people may be the largest audience we ever did. And now? The first gig we did with me (returning) was 40,000 people! And we’ve played to as many as 300,000! It’s a whole different scale!”
I am curious about one thing, though: Over the years, did your co-workers at Sony ever wake up and ask, Wait! He used to be one of our artists, right? “Oddly, not that way. The Sony business units are quite separate and distinct from each other. So, the music business and the movie business and the electronics business are pretty separate from each other. Although I did interact with all the different businesses. But, at least as far as I know, no one put the dots together on that. What did start happening was the internet caught up with me, and lots of writers like you tracked me down. Occasionally, we’d do an interview and the word gets out because you can’t hide from the internet. So, this guy or that girl would start finding out, and they’d start asking me ‘Are you the James Williamson?’-kinda stuff. So pretty soon, the word got around.”
Well, I’m guessing because of the legend of The Stooges, the band eventually did sell significant amounts of records, eventually. I’m guessing you would have been classic catalog artists, right?
“Oh, that’s right,” says Williamson. “I often joke about us being unsuccessful and thinking we were going to sell a lot of records with Raw Power. But the truth is, we have. It just took a really long time. It went gold or platinum in some countries. In France, it’s platinum. And I believe it’s also maybe platinum in the UK, or gold. I’m not positive. The US is a pretty high hurdle, but I think we may be close in the US, as well. So, it is a successful record. It’s certainly got legs, for sure.”
That happens with a lot of people we love. The Sex Pistols’ album didn’t go gold in the US until 10 years after it came out. “Yeah. Well, that’s the thing. It’s a good thing this is how it happened. Because now we’ve had this long career we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
And now? Raw Power has finally been followed-up properly, and Ready To Die is a strong effort for sure. Had you and Iggy been working on these songs awhile, James?
“Well, no. When I got back in the band in 2009, all we cared about was touring. So we just had to get the band to be a crackin’ band and tour. But it took a couple of years before (Pop and Williamson) started sitting together and trying to write new material. And frankly, I wasn’t sure we could. It was a long, long time ago when we wrote the last song together. But it turned out we could write as quickly and as well as we ever did. So we got started on those things.”
The one exception Williamson will note is “The Departed,” originally entitled “Ron’s Tune.” “We came up with that in 2011, so that one goes back a ways. But most of the tunes actually were mostly (written) last year, maybe a little bit at the end of the year before. I started putting them together as demos and stuff, and they started coming together pretty well. Then last year, we spent the year really making songs out of them. So, we came up with about 15 that we recorded fully. From that, we got the ten on the album and a couple of bonus things.”
Definitely, “The Departed” is one of the high points of the album. I thought it was even better as it was played it SXSW, honestly.
“Well, Bob Hofner” – the aforementioned steel guitarist –“was playing with us,” Williamson says. “He’s just fantastic!”
Even without Hofner on the LP, “The Departed” is such a great, atmospheric song. It’s a very, very heartfelt song, as well.
Williamson agrees. “Definitely. I swear, I was crying just writing that music. It’s a really sad song.”
It doesn’t hurt that Iggy Pop completely stepped up to the plate, vocally and lyrically, a point Williamson eagerly concurs: “I was very proud of his vocal performance through the whole album, and the lyrics, too. Like you say, he stepped up and did what he needed to do.”
This point is one of the hallmarks of the LP: Let’s face it – many times across his later solo career, Iggy Pop could seem indifferent and perfunctory, especially in his lyrics. There’s no such slack in anything Iggy writes or sings on Ready To Die. This is the most engaged Iggy Pop has sounded in years. He sounds like a man who has showered, shaven, and had a fresh pot of espresso.
“I think the secret with Iggy,” James reflects, “is he’s got to get excited about it. I think once the stuff is coming together, he certainly did get excited and he did step up. I think we’re happy with everyone’s performances. Overall, they were really good.”
And what of Scott Asheton? He is on Ready To Die, and drums in his beautiful, idiosyncratic way across the record’s length and breadth. Yet he was notably absent at SXSW and through Iggy & The Stooges’ recent live dates, with Toby Dammit deputizing. Is Scott Asheton still a Stooge?
“His health is not quite strong enough to go out on the road. We play so much in Europe and stuff, and it’s a big schlep. It’s just not something he’s up to right now. We had him on the album, and he sounded great on the album. But it’s different to be in the studio, where you could stop and start and so forth. But he’s still in.”
Plus a lot of people don’t realize that drummers have the most physically demanding job in the band. So he would have to be in tip-top condition just to be Rock Action.
“Yeah, it’s a really tough job. The guy we’ve got right now, Toby Dammit, he’s 25-30 years younger than Scott. And he gets his ass kicked every night!” Williamson laughs. “So I have to say my music is demanding on me, but it’s really demanding on the drummer!”
Well, Iggy remarked in that documentary that accompanied the deluxe Raw Power box set that you played guitar like you had a thyroid condition! “Well, I do have a thyroid condition!” Williamson acknowledges. “But it’s the hypothyroid condition, so I actually have to take thyroid. It’s a little misplaced, but I understand what he means!
Did I understand correctly? Did you not pick up a guitar for many, many years before you got back in The Stooges?
“That’s right,” Williamson says. “When I put it down, I put it down. So it didn’t get picked back up, basically, until about a year-and-a-half before I got a call from the Ig. I happened to run across a guitar in a flea market that was a real old guitar from I didn’t know when, but it sounded amazing. I didn’t know what it was, and neither did the guy who was selling it. So I got it cheap, and it turned out to be a Herman Weissenborn Spanish guitar. It was just an amazing instrument, and it kinda got me excited about playing it. I was dicking around with that for about a year-and-a-half. So I wasn’t completely without playing, but it wasn’t the rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar style that you hear now.
“Really, the only thing that saved me was that after I decided to rejoin the band, I had about six months before our first gig. So I tried to woodshed, and I played with a local band and got to do a gig with them and stuff. So I had some idea about it, and we started rehearsing pretty intensely. It all came back, but it was a lot of work.”
Well, you could have fooled me. Because even from the footage of that first gig, you were playing like James Williamson!
“Well, the lucky thing for me is that’s my job, is to play like James Williamson!” he laughs. “So, I can do that! They’re my songs, for the most part. So once you go through them a little bit, it all comes back to you. If I have to play like somebody else, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it.”
How were the songs for this album written? Were you two getting together in a room and writing like you did in the old days?
“We did a mixture of stuff. When we first started, occasionally we’d get together when we were on the road somewhere and dink around with stuff. That’s kinda old school for us. Then I went to Miami and we did sit in a room for a few days and also work on stuff. Once we got rolling with all that, we know each other so well and the communications are so good these days that we can do it also remotely. What difference does it make? The way we write is, typically, I come up with a riff. If I like it well enough, after awhile I send it to him. If Ig likes it, then he starts working on the words. Then we go back and forth. You can do that anywhere, whether you’re sitting in a room or across the country.
“Burn” was a perfect choice for a first single. That is easily the equal of anything from Raw Power.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Williamson audibly beams. “The genesis for that song is this producer named Brenna Sanchez who produced the DVD for the Raw Power re-release and had done a number of other films. She did a documentary called Burn, which is about the Detroit Fire Department. Pretty much what they do there now is 9 out of 10 fires are arsons: People burning their houses just to get the insurance money. She was doing this documentary, and she asked me if we would do a song for the movie. So, I said, ‘Sure!’ So, I started working on it, and of course it took us way too long to get this thing done!” He laughs. “So the documentary was long out, and of course the song evolved from there.”
I don’t hear much about arson in the song now. It just sounds like Iggy tapping into general modern desperation. “It’s a crazy song! If you listen to it very carefully, it’s very hard to discern a pattern in the song. It goes four times and six times and two times. It’s kinda challenging to play live, because we had to get all these things down to play these shows live, and the band was just having fits with that one! Because you’ve gotta remember the exact sequence. It keeps you a little bit off-kilter. And then there’s all this crazy guitar going on in there and stuff.”
The Watt Effect
I ask Williamson how it is working with Mike Watt as opposed to working with Ron Asheton on bass.
“Well, it’s great!” Williamson enthuses. “Watt is an entirely different character, and I guess his place in the sorta progression of The Stooges is quite different. Y’know, he was coming in after being a fan of The Stooges. But the thing about Watt is he’s a really, really hard-working guy. He will always practice and he will always be the last guy to wanna get out of doing anything. So, it’s great having him, ‘cuz he’s willing to work. And actually, everybody in the band now is willing to work. So, we work very diligently to keep the band ready to rock!”
Mike Watt approaches things from a very different angle. He’s very much a master musician: I always say he really is the bass player everyone thinks Flea is. He also comes from MY world, the indie punk rock world. Like Williamson says, Watt comes at it from being a Stooges fan. It’s amazing that he’s able to accurately reproduce Ron Asheton’s bass lines on the old stuff. But he’s definitely making a good contribution towards the new stuff.
“He has a little different style than Ronnie did,” Williamson reflects. “There’s some subtle things – Mike doesn’t use a pick, and Ronnie used to. So there’s some things that jump right out as far as style, technically. But the things that Mike does, like you say, he’s a master musician. He can come up with parts that are really interesting. So, we have to kinda keep him in check sometimes. He will kinda want to go off into that Chinese jazz sometimes,” he laughs.
The most interesting thing about Mike Watt is his completely blue-collar approach to playing music:He looks at it as he’s a guy doing a job, punching a clock and working his shift.
“Well, that is kinda what he’s doing in this band. But he really enjoys it. He’s so enthusiastic about everything that you can’t repress any of it. He’s the first guy who, if he (hits a bad note) at a gig, he’ll admit it.He remembers every single one!”
And how is it for Watt? Having joined The Stooges from the moment they reformed ten years ago, the ex-Minutemen and Firehose icon has now held The Stooges bass slot longer than anyone, including predecessors Dave Alexander and Ron Asheton combined. How does working with James Williamson on guitar feel, after having worked with Ron for six years?
“Ronnie, James… both have different styles, y’know?” Watt muses, speaking from his San Pedro home a half-hour before driving to a Stooges rehearsal in February. “Both are guitarists that didn’t copy people. They didn’t copy off records. You can tell they have their own style, their own way of playing. So, in a way, they’re both originals like that. But they’re also different from each other. Different from other people. And yeah, they’re different as people, but it’s different in respect of music. They’re not like sidemen who ask, ‘What do you want? I’ll do that.’ They play from how they are.
“Personally? They’re a little different, of course! But both guys are very kind to me. I respect them and their stuff, so I try to play it good for them. Yeah, it’s different, but they’re both guitar slingers, they’re both songwriters. There’s a lot of common ground, but they’re both different. The kinda players they are, they’re not imitators. They come from finding their own way of doing rock ‘n’ roll. They listened to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and that kinda thing. They’re guys from the ’60s. They’re not from the world of hackdom, where they learn things from some school of music. I think that’s why The Stooges were so important to the punk scene. It’s like, ‘This is how I play, this is how it comes out.’ That’s how Jimi Hendrix can be Jimi Hendrix, and Pete Townshend can be Pete Townshend: ‘This is the way we play.’ Now, I know they respected those guys, because they talk about ’em all the time. That doesn’t surprise me. But that goes for the way Iggy sings, too. The whole thing about The Stooges is in the way they express themselves. So in a practical sense, as a guy playing with these cats? There is a difference. But the whole thing is rooted in honest expression.”
Asheton tended to be more free form, more like a jazz player, while Williamson is pretty tight, pretty composed. He definitely writes power chord riffs and solid solos, and tends to write more traditional songwriting structures.
“Mmmm….yeah,” Watt agrees. “Sometimes, there’s strange structures (in Williamson’s songwriting), except he doesn’t really think about it. They just come out. There’s little twists and turns here. Like when I do this stuff, I write charts out. The worst thing I think that anybody can do is try think their fucking way through The Stooges. You’ve gotta learn this shit. This is so much about life and people: They try to get away with what’s minimal. You can’t do that with this music, in my opinion. So, I have to chart these things. And a couple of ’em, I’ll definitely have to follow right now. Because things can get trippy inside the structure.
“Both guys are kinda masters of The Monster Riff, if you think about ‘TV Eye,’ if you think about ‘Shake Appeal.’Those are Monster Riffs. But they’re different: There’s a Ronnie way, and there’s a James way. Both got blues in ’em. To me, they’re just honest expression of their own individualism as persons. James added some embellishments, like slide, lap steel, little bit of things that are particular to him, on Raw Power. I think ‘Raw Power’ is electric and acoustic. And this baby? He brought some other stuff, too.
“James made the (new) record.He’s the producer, in a lot of ways. He really did a lot. I wonder what people will think about it. It’s hard to hear when I talk about it. You’ve gotta hear it and then let me know what you think. I think me describing it? I don’t know how to describe it! Except that it’s The Stooges! That’s what I would say. You’ve gotta let it live its own life. You don’t need me stuntin’ it with my lame ass proclamations!”
Fair enough, Watt. Ready To Die is here, and it’s a solid, worthy addition to The Stooges’ canon. It’s 12 meaty slices of industrial strength rock ‘n’ roll that shames anything attempting to pass itself off as “rock ‘n’ roll” nowadays, and shows every punk rocker worth his or her salt where this noise originated and how it’s supposed to be done. Iggy, James, Scotty and Mike can walk tall and proud over this one.
And does James Williamson see any further records from Iggy & The Stooges?
“Well, y’know, I don’t know. I can’t speak for everybody else. I feel I have one or two left in me. I produced the album, so I had a big learning curve in terms of the new technology and everything. Because I’m super old school….So, now that I have one record under my belt, I kinda feel like it would be a shame to stop here.”
James Williamson, The Stooge who got away and came back, ultimately has to laugh: He does not know if Iggy & The Stooges will record again, really. “We’ll see,” is the only answer he can honestly give.
[Stooges photos credit: David Raccuglia]
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