“Without them, there is no Nirvana, no Green Day, no Archers of Loaf, no Pavement, no Pixies—any band that played guitars and had balls”:since the reunited ‘mats Riot Fest victory laps still fresh in mind, we decided republish our talk with the “Color Me Obsessed” director. Be very, very afraid, fans of Vampire Weekend, Foster the People and fun.
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
We all have things in our lives that could qualify as obsessions:Food, books, movies,women, men,vinyl records (that’s mine); the list could go on infinitum.However, for author and Filmmaker Gorman Bechard, the obsession is the Minneapolis, MN rock band The Replacements.That obsession led him to his documentary Color Me Obsessed: A Film about The Replacements.
Whereas most rock docs, follow the same formula: interviews with band members and people close to them, live footages, songs, still photos; Obsessed has little to none of those. (It’s reviewed here at BLURT.)No band interviews, no band participation in any way, no music, no concert footage, very few stills.This documentary is a story of a band that influenced the last 25 years of alternative music told in a new and refreshing way: by the fans.Whether it’s just Joe Blow from the street, Brian Fallon from The Gaslight Anthem, rock critics like Jim DeRogatis and The Village Voice’s Robert Christgua or odd inclusions Tom Arnold and George Wendt, the story of The ‘mats is told in a way that represents the legend of The Replacements in the only way acceptable: it goes against convention.
BLURT: How did you first get into filmmaking?
BECHARD: In 1981, maybe 1980, I was in New York, I saw a catalog for Parsons New School for Social Research, and there was a class on The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.It found it interesting so I took it.That was the first hook in my lip so to speak.
Are there any bands popular now that really get on your last nerve?
Oh my God! Are you kidding me?(laughs)There are more than you would imagine but of the new ones, it’s fun.Fun. Period? However the fuck you say it.Right before that it was Foster The People but the worst band in the history of sound is of course, Vampire Weekend.Vampire Weekend, to me, represent everything that is wrong in music today; a new wimpiness that is accepted lately.To me, they took rock, held it up by the neck and, with a butter knife, cut off its balls.
Why do a documentary on The Replacements?
Not only are they my favorite band of all-time but in my opinion also one of the most important bands of all-time.Being the age that I am, I’ve seen rock go in many cycles; I lived through the really horrible rock of the mid ‘70s when The Eagles and Billy Joel were considered rock.Then punk started and it was great for a couple years then around 1980, somebody introduced synthesizers and we got New Wave, punk lost its balls and became crap.Then out of nowhere, there’s these two bands out of Minneapolis, Husker Du and The Replacements, that were playing the kind of music I wanted to hear.I feel at that point they saved American rock and changed it.Every band that came after those two bands owes something to them.Without The Replacements and Husker Du there is no Seattle scene.
Did you approach anyone from The Replacements about being in Obsessed?
Nope.Never a thought in my mind.When I took on the project, I decided I wanted to do something different, very much in the grand tradition of The Replacements.Here’s a band for their first music video in 1986 (“Bastards of Young” from the Tim LP) as one of MTV’s “Breaking Bands,” showed a stereo speaker for 4 minutes.I really wanted to turn the music documentary genre on its ear a little bit.I knew I was risking falling flat on my face completely but I wanted no music, no band.
Did you have people beating down your door to profess their love and devotion to The ‘Mats on camera?
Yes including George Wendt from “Cheers.” (Below: the filmmaker)
The Replacements made a career of shooting themselves in the foot.The “Bastards” video, being banned from Saturday Night Live, the list goes on.What do you think was their biggest career mistake?
Throwing Bob (Stinson, lead guitarist) out of the band.Firing their manager Peter Jesperson and signing with Warner Bros.Those three things go hand in hand.We don’t really know what was going on because we’re on the outside looking in and Bob isn’t here to speak for himself (he passed away in 1996) unfortunately but I’d say firing Bob.
What part do you think Bob played in the development and success of their sound?
Bob was like the chaos, the musical chaos in the band.Someone in the movie put it perfectly when they said “Bob was good at playing the wrong note at the right time.” If you listen to his guitar solos, you feel like he’s literally strangling the neck of the guitar, hurting it even.Getting out a sound that no one else could get.It was just musical chaos.
You said signing a deal with Warner Bros., I believe that’s what killed Husker Du as well
Oh my God! When you see the Grant Hart, (he was the drummer/ co-songwriter in Husker Du) doc, you’ll have no doubt, no doubt about that.
Do you think Westerberg has written anything solo as great as “Here Comes a Regular,” “Color Me Impressed” or “If Only You Were Lonely”?
Yes.I think Stereo/Mono was literally the best record of the early 2000’s.
What do you hope fans or people just coming to discover The Replacements glean from Color Me Obsessed?
For fans that have seen them, they can sort of take a trip down memory lane.For non-fans or younger people, I really hope they can see how The Replacements affected so many people and get a sense of what they were like live and what made them so special.A lot of reviews are saying this movie is just for Replacements fans but I disagree.I think it is more for the non-fan because you’re getting this crazy story about a band you knew nothing about. Hopefully people will be like, “Holy shit! I have to check this band out.”
You released What Did You Expect?, an Archer of Loaf concert doc the same day as Obsessed.You mentioned the Grant Hart doc you’re working on.What’s next? A Husker Du documentary?
I don’t think I’ll ever do a full-band Husker Du doc.In fact, I’m taking a break from the rock documentaries for a while and working on one called “Dog Named Gucci.”It’s about animal welfare and abuse.We’re using this famous case in Alabama about a dog named Gucci that was squirted with lighter fluid, set on fire and the doctor that saved his life.Through their work, the animal abuse laws in Alabama were changed from basically nothing to a felony.We have a kickstarter program to raise money to get that film made.If you go to www.adognamedgucci.com , it’ll take you to the kickstarter page.After three rock doc we wanted to make something that would have a real impact in the world.
What’s your definitive ‘Mats moment?
Wow, umm, probably the first time I heard Let It Be from beginning to end and realized that, oh my God, rock n roll is still alive.
How do you think the Replacements have shaped rock n roll over the last twenty five years?
Again, I’m going to put them in with Husker Du because it seemed like they worked in tangent; one was The Beatles, the other was The Stones of American punk rock.What I think they did was that they showed bands that you didn’t need to wear tight leather pants, have big hair or an image you could just go up on stage and play.And they showed that rock n roll was supposed to be about chaos and a “fuck you” attitude.These two bands epitomized that; because of that, nearly every band that came out of the ‘90s is because of them.Without them, there is no Nirvana, no Green Day, no Archers of Loaf, no Pavement, no Pixies, any band that played guitars and had balls owe something to The Replacements, while bands like fun or Vampire Weekend owe something to Elton John.
A new, exhaustive compilation casts the brainy ‘80s popsters in an appreciative new light.
BY MICHAEL BERICK
The Waitresses’ big hit “I Know What Boys Like” is such a signature song of ‘80s New Wave that it was used as a title for a compilation album covering that era. That adorably catchy tune and their other well-known tunes (the still-popular yuletide ode “Christmas Wrapping” and the Square Pegs theme song) are all whimsical ditties make it easy to lump them in with other New Wave novelties like Toni Basil and JoBoxers. The new 30-track compilation Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses (Omnivore Recordings), which contains the Waitresses’ two albums (Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful and Bruiseology), one EP (I Could Rule The World, If I Could Only Get The Parts) and assorted miscellanea, serves as an overdue reminder that the band created some really smart, adventurous pop music that was far more substantial than New Wave bubblegum.
The NYC-by-way-of-Akron band was the brainchild of Chris Butler, who created an imaginary band named the Waitresses for songs too pop for his more avant rock groups (legendary Ohio cult bands Tin Huey and 16-60-75). When the “Boys Like” demo scored him a record deal, Butler had to assemble an actual group, which eventually solidified as former Television drummer Billy Ficca, jazz trumpeter Mars Williams, keyboardist Dan Klayman, bassist Tracy Wormworth and Patty Donahue (who sang on his demos). Together, they created a unique sound that combined danceable New Wave pop with downtown jazz elements, which arrived fully realized on their exuberant debut Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful. This sound, both sweet and spike-y, is exemplified a track like the excellent “Quit,” where its jittery rhythms take an unexpected turn with Williams’ skronking sax solo
“Quit” also represents the Waitresses’ most distinctive qualities – the wickedly witty songs that explore a twentysomething woman struggling to get her life together. Like the rocking rant “Quit,” “Wise Up” offers a self-help pep-talk about learning from mistakes and not giving up. The marvelous title tune is a quirky anthem for single working girls that advises to not “work your buns off for a fool who can barely tie his shoes” nor “answer phone calls from that old boyfriend who’d lose to see you lose.” In the sharply observant “No Guilt,” a woman informs her ex that “I’m sorry but I don’t feel awful/It wasn’t the end of the world” while reeling off a humorous list of things she has learned while on her own (“Needed new posters, so I got/I know the costs of stamps now/The 31st is when I pay the phone bill.”).
The closing cut, “Jimmy Tomorrow,” serves as a terrific summation what theWaitresses are up to. Musically, the band stretches out (the song lasts nearly 6 minutes) with Butler’s noisy, scratchy guitar playing off Williams’ dissonant sax, Ficca’s big drum beat and even some arty audio clips. Donahue, meanwhile, delivers a provocative sermonette about not wanting “to be somebody else’s learning experience/Some rich kid’s way to spend his allowance” and proclaiming (in one of the best ever closing lines for an album) “my goals are to find a cure for irony and make a fool out of God.”
While clever and caustic, the album’s lyrics also feel very real, so, it might be surprising to learn that Butler was the band’s songwriter. He had a special creative partnership with Donahue, which was a key, and distinguishing, components of the Waitresses. Not a trained singer, Donahue had a conversational vocal style that had just the right ratio of sass to gawkiness – imagine actress Greta Gerwig (Francis Ha, Lola Versus) as a New Wave singer – for Butler’s literate lyrics that play out like little scenarios.
The I Could Rule EP is that rare between-album release that isn’t just a packaging of filler material. It was the place to find two of the band’s high-profile songs: the Square Pegs theme song and “Christmas Wrapping,” which remains a Xmas favorite through its blend of humorous storytelling and genuine heartfelt emotions. A live version of the title track shows how Butler’s old Tin Huey song could be effortlessly rebuilt as a Waitresses song, while “Bread and Butter” hints at the funkier sound the band explored further on its second album, Bruiseology.
The Waitresses’ sophomore effort does suffer in comparison to Wasn’t Tomorrow because it doesn’t flash the debut’s quotable couplets and high-spirited performances. No only is there no breakout track like “I Know What Boys Like” but the Bruiseology also lacks the sense of fun that was revealed on the debut’s madcap joyride “It’s My Car.”
Bruiseology, however, does have its share of virtues. Recorded with XTC producer Hugh Padgham, the album boasts a richer, deeper sound with the music delivering more punch and funk. Both “A Girl’s Got To Do” and the title track hold memorable dance-floor hooks and, along with the two other standout tracks (“Everything’s Wrong If My Hair Is Wrong” and “Thinking About Sex Again”) build upon the debut’s off-kilter look at a twentysomething woman’s life. This time, however, Donahue’s protagonists are women who has wised up – if only by a little bit (in “Thinking About Sex Again,” she states “this time I know what I’m doing” before her thoughts return to sex again.
As in Tomorrow, the Waitresses end Bruiseology on a twisted philosophical note. “They’re All Out Of Liquor, Let’s Find Another Party,” as the title suggests, resembles the rambling, semi-drunken advice you get from a friend while heading from one party to the next (“you should show up at their parties/Frankly state their music’s lousy/Their art is stupid, don’t be cool”). While the lyrics are amusing, the song doesn’t sound as fresh as “Jimmy Tomorrow.”Bruiseology’s main shortcoming, in fact, is that it lacks the effervescent spark that made Tomorrow so wonderful. This might be due to the band’s discord while making this album – Donahue left the band briefly during the recording and quit for good after it was finished, with the Waitresses called it a day not long after that.
Like their more famous predecessors (Blondie, Talking Heads and B-52’s), the Waitresses found a way to mix pop hooks and artful experimentation; however, the magical creative collaboration between Chris Butler and Patty Donahue resulted in a set of smarty written and truly distinct songs. While the Waitresses mainly are remembered as one-hit wonders, this compilation reveals them to have been a one-of-a-kind band.
The NC neo-shoegaze band is looking for a place they can go where nobody knows them—but you’ll know their expansive-yet-intimate music, mark our words.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
We don’t often think of rock & roll as a family affair, unless we’re remembering the brothers Davies or Gallagher beating the tar out of each other. But for North Carolina transplants Kate Perdoni and Adam Hawkins making a family, music and a band have been inseparable.
The two former members of the Omaha indie music scene formed Eros and the Eschaton around the duo’s meeting, falling in love, moving in together, having a child and hitting the road —all in short order. Their sonically mature debut, Home Address for Civil War (Bar/None), chronicles the growth of their family as much as it does band the band and its music. It’s no accident the first thing you hear on the driving and jagged-edged opener “Different Days” is their young son Amilio’s gurgling cries.
“We started off writing songs when our child was very young, just a couple months old, and a lot of the themes are just about that continuity and deciding how we wanted to raise our family and deciding what’s best for us and our child,” says Perdoni, who plays drums, keys and sings. “So the LP really runs the gamut from exploring our relationship, and our love, and our relationship with our son, and our relationship with the world.”
That’s a lot of territory, but the duo handles it deftly in 10 songs that take the aural wallpaper textures of Beach House and gooses them with Jesus & Mary Chain fuzz, propulsive rhythms, and My Bloody Valentine feedback. The songs crackle with grit and urgency, which is quite a change-up for Pedroni, who previously toured the country singing acoustic political songs, and Hawkins, who played polished and down-tempo indie pop with his Omaha band, It’s True.
“They were all songs about heartbreak and sadness and that was something I was definitely looking to get away from and do something a little more primal and a little sloppier,” Hawkins says of It’s True. “We strained so hard to try and get on a label and have all these exciting things happen — and a lot of really great things did happen and it was a lot of fun — but it was just so much strain that it was wringing the life out of it.”
That was 2009, and within a year almost anything that could change, did change. According to Perdoni, the two met in May of 2010, toured the next month, moved in together in July, got pregnant in August, and had Amilio within a year of their meeting. The nascent family soon left their familiar Midwest territory in a Toyota Huntsman motor home for an open-ended tour that hit 18 states before pulling up in Greensboro, N.C.
“We played 30-some shows from Iowa to Maine and then down the coast, with the idea in mind that we would find a place to settle along the way to record an album together,” Perdoni, remembers. Their son was six months old, but took to the road like a champ. They’d originally intended to keep going to South Carolina, but “when we found Greensboro and met some of the people there and played a couple shows, we really liked it — the locals in the music scene made our landing very smooth.”
They quickly found a suitable house just outside the city in a rural area, built a home-studio and were soon recording whenever Amilio’s sleeping habits allowed. But as much as Greensboro and the Fates had embraced them, the move itself is what signaled the duo’s transformation.
“We were thinking of a place we can go where we don’t really know anybody, where we could just do our own thing and create a band that wasn’t going to sound like anything we’d done before,” Perdoni says. “Living in a new place has really allowed us to just go hog-wild in that aspect and unleash any kind of creativity that we might’ve not felt comfortable doing in an atmosphere where people were familiar with what we’d been doing at the time.”
Once they settled in, the duo posted two un-mastered singles they’d recorded previously in an Omaha church, which caught the ear of Bar/None Records. Things were moving so fast the band didn’t even have a name for their first local shows after a cease-and-desist order from a former member of the 4 Non Blondes forced them to drop their Neil Young-inspired moniker, Golden Hearts.
As suggested by the epic track “Terence McKenna,” which uses Spector-like drum thunder and coruscating guitars to build to its explosive “We’ve got nothing but time” chorus, it wasn’t pure happenstance that they landed on the new name Eros and the Eschaton. The title of a notable McKenna lecture, the talk captures the author, psilocybin advocate and higher consciousness chaser’s search for a truer way of living in concert with nature and our own potential, free from the constraints imposed by unexamined social mores —seeing through The Matrix, if you like.
“One of McKenna’s flagship ideas was breaking free from the molds and cultural programming,” Perdoni insists. “Obviously we’re a family that takes our young son on the road, we play music all the time, we lead a different lifestyle than a lot of our friends that have kids and we’ve really made it work. It’s just who we are. We would have done it child or no child. It’s comforting for me to know that life is what you make it, and you are the author of your own life story.”
Indeed, the band’s stated approach to Home Address for Civil War — a title born of an auto-correct text screw-up — sounds almost like McKenna (who died in 2001) could’ve penned it. The record’s lo-fi grit and immediacy wasn’t necessarily what the two set out to achieve. It was, instead, the organic outcome of letting the song’s themes —and Amilio’s sleep schedule —tell them what worked and what didn’t.
“Adam’s taught me a lot while we worked on this album about finding these unique spaces and places for individual sounds and frequencies to sit,” Perdoni says. “Just looking at it like a cosmos, like a planetary system, and all the sounds almost orbit around a similar feeling or theme that you may or may not ever be able to put your finger on. But the whole thing together creates that whole solar system of sound.”
The sound was also dictated by the rudimentary equipment they first started with, including a couple of “shitty” mics, an old Fender practice amp, and a drum set cobbled together from Perdoni’s high school and first rock bands that her parents drove out from Iowa. Upgrading some instruments as they went along and recording through ProTools to a Mac, the duo produced a richly textured set. Shimmering organs wash over melodies both wistful and joyous, propelled by insistent bass drums or shuffling traps, guitars adding to the lyricism or cutting through it like buzzsaws. Most songs lead to grand choruses, the alto voices of Pedroni and Hawkins fitting snuggly inside each other like a mini-choir.
For a band taking on a sound that’s new to both its members, the record sounds remarkably self-assured, as though Eros and the Eschaton had been plumbing this style for a lot longer. Maybe most impressive is what it suggests about the band’s future.
“Those are the first 10 songs we wrote together,” Hawkins says. “I’m really excited to see, now that we have those baselines in place, where we can go from here.”
From Beer to Eternity is Ministry’s final record, but the industrial metal band’s founder/frontman is not dead yet.
BY SELENA FRAGASSI
When Al Jourgensen dies, a portion of his ashes will be sent into space, the perfect final viewpoint where he can still look down upon the world and snicker and sneer at its pitfalls. It’s a parting gift from his late mentor Timothy Leary, which is shared in one of the more tame passages in his new memoir Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen. In 278 pages (co-written with MTV and Rolling Stone veteran Jon Wiederhorn), we learn how the “father of industrial metal” first came in to this world, three months early with a failing liver and hearing loss—and the numerous times he nearly exited it in a trifecta of overdoses.
But don’t fire up the rockets just yet. As vehemently declared on 2012’s Relapse album, Jourgensen is still proud to say, “I’m not dead yet.” Ministry, however, is a different story.
“Ministry is done,” the 55-year-old confirms during a Skype session from his 13th Planet compound in El Paso, Texas. “There will never be another album under that name.” Sure, he’s said it before, nearly every album of the last six years to be exact, but when it comes to the just released 13th record From Beer to Eternity, Jourgensen affirms, “I 100% guarantee it this time.”
The album is a fitting way to put a period mark on an illustrious 30-year journey that once began as a new wave project (Google “Cold Life”), invented the term industrial, ignited the ever-important Wax Trax! record label and countless side projects like Revolting Cocks and Lard, and birthed a character, who for better or worse, has always entertained us. More importantly, From Beer to Eternity (released earlier this month on the AFM label) is the last album featuring the late guitarist Mike Scaccia, largely credited with providing Ministry with its elemental metal backbone. He died onstage in a reunion show with his founding band Rigor Mortis literally days after the final Ministry recording sessions in late 2012. Without him, Jourgensen doesn’t see a reason to move on with the band.
“It would have been so easy for me to hire some L.A. gun to fill in for Mikey, there’s a million of them to choose from, but I think it’s proper to close the chapter instead of trying to promote his death and make money off it,” Jourgensen admits, saying that this last album is probably the best work the band has ever done.
Besides, there’s something else taking his attention these days: “I’m transitioning from industrial rocker to guerilla tactic author.”
It started when his wife, Angie, was sick of hearing his drunk stories on date nights. “We’d end up in these social functions like a dinner party or the symphony, some classy situation where I was totally out of my element. So I’d get drunk and by the end of the night, the whole party was standing around me listening to my debauched tales. Angie got sick of hearing it night after night. She’s like, ‘Just write a pamphlet and hand it out before you come in the room.’ Instead I wrote a book to hand out,” Jourgensen says, laughing in a way that is a clear warning to never challenge him to anything.
Although the offer to pen a biography had come upon his desk six times before, he refused until Weiderhorn approached him at the right time. The two spent several weeks together at Jourgensen’s sprawling Texas compound, which he rarely leaves for fear of getting into more trouble. And after reading some of the lurid tales in this book, you can see why. Amongst all the frat house recaps of OD’ing, fist fights and groupie love, there’s FBI raids, alien invasions, skinheads and stalkers and every “untold story of the E.R.” you could imagine. There’s also the raunchy stories of run-ins with familiar folk that makes you wish this was a picture book—the Trent Reznor hazing, Metallica having an ass sandwich handed to them and various kiss and tell commentary of a variety of paramours from Aimee Mann (sweet) to Sean Yseult (domestic) and that pity fuck for Courtney Love (looks like Davy Crockett down under).
With all the drugs Jourgensen’s done, you’d have to wonder just how much of it is really true. But he stands by all of it, and so does Wiederhorn and the publisher’s legal teams who called sources that verified witness accounts. You really can’t make up groupies “trying out” with a Great Dane, could you?
Jourgensen hasn’t read Lost Gospels himself, but he was so creatively inspired by the process that he decided to finish another book, this time on his own. Called Mind Fuck, it’s a fictional project 28 years in the making about a serial killer in Chicago, the city that the singer used to call home. “It’s about this killer that can’t get convicted because he doesn’t actually kill anyone, he just has the power of persuasion to talk people into killing themselves,” Jourgensen divulges, noting how much he has been studying up on the judicial system to make sure it’s authentic. (He’s currently in the process of finalizing the last chapters and writing the screenplay for release early next year, which will be followed by a spoken word tour and university lecture circuit.)
If you’re having a hard time picturing the Psalm 69 singer snuggled up with his laptop in a corner armchair at Starbucks or donning a cardigan and walking across campus, you’ve got him all wrong. Jourgensen never wanted to be a rock star. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” he admits. It was when Wax Trax! caught on to his ‘bedroom accident’ “Every Day is Halloween” that everything changed. “I realized rock music paid a hell of a lot more money than teaching, and I had to pay the bills so I kept at it.”
In a way, all those years of decrying Bush politics, criticizing warmongering and charging up the 99% were his askew attempt at imparting knowledge to throngs of disaffected youth: “Sure, did I try to put some messages in my lyrics and music that people can relate to? Yes, and I guess that was in a sense teaching.”
Jourgensen has always been interested in learning, most notably about politics and societal issues, even from the age of 10 when he’d pass up Saturday morning cartoons for the newspaper. He was born in the hotbed of Cuba after all and grew up watching his middle-class family try to make do in America when they emigrated to the Midwest in the ‘60s, his mother a single teen mom who met and quickly married Jourgensen’s stepfather, a man who once dreamed of being a NASCAR driver but gave it up to find real work to support his family.
According to his book, little Al had a stable upbringing filled with Little League and guitar lessons, but by the dawning of his teenage years, he was stealing cars, doing drugs and getting kicked out of school. His parents tried mental institutions, electroshock therapy and a Chicago-area group home for troubled youth called Maryville—but little worked to curb his addictions. The setup was just the beginning of a long and treacherous road that would lead him astray for much of his life as a musician.
Music began innocently enough for Jourgensen. One of his first loves, a fledgling art student named Shannon, asked him to produce some tracks for her installation projects and got him a job in the music department of the Art Institute of Chicago where he tinkered and experimented with electronic instruments for the first time. As Jourgensen’s connections grew, though, and along with it the record contracts, the insane payouts and the demands for more production, he faltered and turned to more and more substances to cope.
“All that music caused me was pain, depression and addiction,” he laments in his book. It got so bad that one day, Jourgensen woke up and was resolute in killing himself. Not wanting to leave the world alone, he made one last phone call—to a former groupie whose number was crumpled up on a piece of paper in his wallet. That phone call literally saved his life. On the other line was Angelina, his now wife, who helped him kick his habits and the “snake pit” of record labels when they met 11 years ago.
Thanks to her, life has calmed for Jourgensen since. Now most days are spent with his dogs Lemmy and Ozzy (whose lives are profiled on their own Facebook page), watching his beloved Chicago Blackhawks games and, together with Angie, running the operation that is 13th Planet Records.
“She’s my Sharon Osbourne. Without Sharon, Ozzy is a complete mess; without Angie, I’m a complete mess,” Jourgensen says, calling her his guardian angel. “If not for her, I would seriously be in a trailer park in New Mexico, one of those guys with fingernails six inches long, unkempt and unbathed… I’m much more prone to the Unabomber image than having to deal with this world and these people.”
As he sits in front of me on a computer screen, it’s clear that Jourgensen’s current “image” is just as big an eff you to society as the Unabomber’s was, with a baker’s dozen facial piercings outlining his eyebrows, nose and mouth and an enlarged, winged tattoo covering his forehead—all of which were personal trophies after getting sober the last time. On the day of our conversation, however, the former leather jacket/black bandana/motorcycle glove-wearing rocker looks like he maybe just got back from the Caribbean with matted dreadlocks pinned under a tri-color Rasta beanie. This, too, is a new transition for Jourgensen—his latest addictions being THC and hardcore Jamaican dub music.
“It’s the only thing that really interests me in music now,” he says. The electronic reggaeton that was first introduced to him in London years ago when he was working with producer Adrian Sherwood. “It’s coming back to haunt me.”
Otherwise, he says, “there’s very few interesting bands these days. It all sounds like elevator music to me.” Jourgensen genuinely feels for new artists who have to enter the industry’s hamster wheel. “There’s no payoff to being creative. To get ahead now, you have to out-twerk each other.”
For Jourgensen, music’s always been cutthroat—in his book, he alleges countless stolen profits and a life insurance policy taken out on him by a former bandmate—and he’s seen too many people literally killed by the demands and the lifestyle of the business, from Dimebag Darrell to River Phoenix and his own bandmates Paul Raven and Scaccia. “You start to feel like Spinal Tap after awhile,” he says. “I think this shit is jinxed and I don’t want to kill anymore people,” including himself.
Jourgensen believes there must be some reason he is still kicking after all this time anyway. Perhaps it will be revealed in some new book or album or maybe he will finally get to teach and change the world. There’s plenty of time to get lost in space later.
The Icelandic singer undertook a lengthy journey in order to find her way out of the darkness and into the light.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Emiliana Torrini believes in Tookah. In fact, she is more confident in her new album than any of the LPs that preceded it. There are many reasons why this idiosyncratic pop singer feels so assured of herself this time out, but you needn’t know any of them to understand the profundity of her belief. All you need is the title.
You see, Torrini also believes in “Tookah,” her deeply held life philosophy, mulled for years and finally ready to be expressed. It is a simple but slippery concept, a positive way of thinking that doesn’t discount the negative. The basic notion involves digging down to the core of what you are, shedding the clutter that life heaps upon you, exposing and accepting the essential elements of your humanity. It’s a weighty idea, and Torrini doesn’t take it lightly.
“It’s the thing that we keep trying to find again and again and again, but we’re always putting it outside of ourselves,” she explains. “It’s what everything has sort of become about in our belief systems, and yet we put it always outside of ourselves. It’s something really, really gentle. Something very there all the time. It’s not so elaborate and humongous. Everybody has felt it: You’re in some situation, and you’re doing something and you feel a gentle kind of happiness and tranquilness and gratefulness. It’s a very strong sense of feeling that everything is fine.’”
As the concept suggests, Torrini’s journey to Tookah has been long and complicated. She released three albums in her native Iceland before debuting on the world scene with 1999’s Love in the Time of Science. But life took a dark turn after that. Her boyfriend died, and she was mugged in broad daylight in the middle of bustling London. For two years, she retreated from music until director Peter Jackson tabbed her to perform “Gollum’s Song.” The eerie lament from 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers bemoans the fall of the titular wretch. She got the job when Björk had to drop out due to pregnancy. Her bright and cutting coo was an elegant substitute, solidifying a parallel that still crops up in almost every review of her work. Torrini was revived.
2005’s Fisherman’s Woman featured raw emotions and pretty acoustics, but it wasn’t until 2008’s sterling Me and Armini that she truly came into her own. She calls it an “in between record,” one that formed out of a series of sound experiments. It’s definitely diverse, ricocheting from searing blues and bubbly reggae to brisk electro-pop and broken-down ballads. But the songs are united by a thread of bruised romanticism, a through line so strong that it often seems like a concept record. It’s hard not to feel that the charmer from the frothy title track and the primal lover who inspires Torrini’s heart to gallop during “Jungle Drum” aren’t the same adulterer who appears on “Gun,” driven to murder and suicide when his affair is discovered.
That narrative might be accidental, but the music’s juxtaposition is telling. Torrini admits that her journey to “Tookah” meant reconciling the darkness of her past with her present bliss. She’s in a loving relationship, and she has a three-year-old son. She says that becoming a mother gave her a new perspective, one that allowed her to accept life’s polarized nature. Tookah’s cover art — mirrored profiles of her face painted with one colorful visage — embodies this spiritual resolution.
“I lost my boyfriend, and I could feel that mental split happening, when you almost feel like two people,” she recalls. “That duality, I was very interested in bringing it back together and then coming back to that core. It’s a bit huge, but that’s it.”
Arriving at a record she felt was worthy of the name Tookah was also a struggle. Following the success of Me and Armini — “Jungle Drum” became a hit internationally — and the birth of her son, she tried to cram songwriting into short sessions with her producer and writing partner, Dan Carey. They’re also best friends and longtime confidants, each a godparent to the other’s children. The compact visits limited their chemistry, and she quickly became frustrated. Carey suggested she chill out and take her time. Slowly, melodies began to emerge, instigated by a newfound love for synthesizers, but the words continued to escape her.
With the process plodding on, Torrini became exacting. If she had to go slowly, she was going to get each sound just the way she wanted it. To that end, she and Carey went to great lengths to create the right atmosphere. “Elísabet” was demoed as a an airy folk song, but Torrini had a different vision. So they set up fog machines and lasers in the studio and recorded it in a single take. The final product decks gothic synth-pop in creepy textures that resemble sci-fi sound effects. It transfixes without becoming a gimmick.
“I didn’t want it to be a more sedated record,” Torrini says. “I wanted to be shaken a little bit. I wanted these songs to make me want to drive really fast, to be a little bit like ‘Ahhhh!’ When I look back at Me and Armini, it has a whole lot of duality in it. There’s the whole love thing, and then there’s the dark side to it. I needed to challenge myself.”
In keeping with her desire, the livelier songs on Tookah are the immediate highlights. “Animal Games” stretches the intensity of “Jungle Drum” with a taut rhythm and bass-heavy synthesizers. It just begs for a rap remix. “Speed of Dark” slams and chugs with the density of dubstep, but its quicker tempo and bold vocal melody keep it catchy and insistent.
Thanks to rich arrangements and powerful words, the album’s softer cuts aren’t weak by comparison. With cool acoustic picking and the gentle caress of far-off synthesizer, “Autumn Sun” enthralls with a heartbroken narrative and a kicker to die for: “How could he resist when her dress let in the autumn sun?” Torrini’s aim is still deadly when it comes to betrayal.
As a whole, Tookah refines the singer’s strengths, and while it doesn’t boast Me and Armini’s thematic bite, its music is more cohesive. She has a family now, and she’s returned to her homeland after 16 years in London. But she has no intention of leaving music behind. She needs it now more than ever.
“For me today, it’s like a burst of life,” Torrini reasons. “One doesn’t work without the other. I have to do what I do because otherwise, my family doesn’t get the best of me.”
This is your atom brain on Roky; any questions? The Lone Star State psychedelic icon—and 13th Floor Elevators survivor—gets his early solo career lovingly reissued by Light In The Attic.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When Roky Erickson was released from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in the early ‘70s, Texan music fans rejoiced. Though little more than a forgotten psychedelic relic to most of the world, in his home state he and his ‘60s band the 13th Floor Elevators were revered. With new management, a new band (variously known as Bleib Alien and the Aliens and featuring electric autoharpist Bill Miller and lead guitarist Duane Aslaksen) and the patronage of Doug Sahm, among others, the singer/songwriter/guitarist shifted his new tunes and old demons back and forth between California and the Lone Star State, polishing his live prowess and building the repertoire for which he would become (in)famous. By the time he hit the studio with Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook as producer, Erickson was ready to put his Elevators days behind him and create his own legend.
Originally released in 1981 and newly reissued by Light In The Attic on CD and as a 3-sided/etched LP (see product note at end), The Evil One—Roky Erickson and the Aliens, a/k/a Five Symbols, for the 1980 British release—sets the standard what was to come. Erickson conveys fanciful, disturbing visions of demons, monsters and aliens of uncertain intent to driving rock & roll, powered by his raging howl and frosted with Miller’s otherworldly autoharp noise. The album is riddled with Roky classics like “Bloody Hammer,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “The Wind and More,” the Chuck Berry-on-Satan “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” and the awesome “Two Headed Dog,” which would cause fallen angels to play air guitar and feature ferocious vocal performances. But in the rush to fistpump, don’t overlook this record’s hidden gems, like the melodic, folk-rocking “If You Have Ghosts,” the enigmatic “Click Your Fingers Applauding the Play” or the downright feral “Sputnik.” The Evil One is Roky Erickson in a nutshell.
Recorded in 1983 but released in 1986, Don’t Slander Me tweaks the musical formula a little and the lyrical stance a lot. Taking over as producer, Aslaksen pushes Miller’s autoharp to the side and his own flamboyant guitar to the front, practically engaging in call and response with the headliner, whose voice is still at the center of the sound. Erickson, who had grown more troubled in the years between this and The Evil One, mostly downplays his horror flick fixation for more straightforward concerns. Fans of his Hammer Films lyrical acumen may face disappointment (unfairly) with songs like “You Drive Me Crazy” and the bonus track “Realize You’re Mine,” but the tracks rock too hard to support much carping. The boogieing “Haunt,” the blastabilly “Crazy Crazy Mama,” the defiant “Can’t Be Brought Down,” the pissed-off “The Damn Thing” and the raging title track take no prisoners, even they’re missing ghouls and space aliens. Erickson also proves himself adept at pop tunes, as the startlingly melodic and accessible “Nothing in Return,” the bonus cut “Hasn’t Anyone Told You” and “Starry Eyes” (which reiterates the influence Buddy Holly had on pretty much every Texas rocker) demonstrate. Erickson hasn’t completely abandoned his haunted visions – the blazing “Bermuda” recommends a vacation in the Devil’s Triangle, while the descent into madness that is “Burn the Flames” goes abruptly goes from understatedly creepy to full-on disturbing once Erickson casually unleashes a ghastly, morbid laugh that would do Vincent Price proud. Often dismissed in relation to The Evil One, Don’t Slander Me is in reality just as strong as its more celebrated predecessor.
Erickson began another downward spiral after that, which led to the release of Gremlins Have Pictures as a way to fill in what turned out to be a very wide gap. Collecting various singles, demos and live cuts from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the record ranges all over the map. “I’m a Demon” (more a fragment than a full song), the menacing “The Beast” and the odd but classic “Cold Night For Alligators” display his nascent occult fetish, while “The Interpreter” (his first single), “Before in the Beginning” and the poppy “Sweet Honey Pie” don’t fall far from the Elevators’ tree. Dementia soaks the ethereal “I Am”, as Erickson strums an acoustic guitar and croons “Satan’s all perfect love” atop Jack Johnson’s psychedelic slide guitar. More acoustic cuts emphasize Erickson’s way with melody – both the wistful “I Have Always Been Here Before” and the dramatic “Anthem (I Promise)” are reminders that there’s much more to the troubled Texan than a tenuous grasp on reality. Perhaps the most surprising facet of this phase of Erickson’s talent is a turn toward sociopolitical commentary; while the rocking “John Lawman,” “Song to Abe Lincoln” and folky “Warning (Social & Political Injustices)” won’t win any Nobel Prizes, they definitely expand the horizons of what fans think Erickson capable. The LP also includes a few repeats from previous LPs (a live “Night of the Vampire,” an extra fuzzy “Bermuda,” a strangely plaintive “Burn the Flames”) and a faithful cover (!) of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Overall, Gremlins Have Pictures is a hodgepodge of sounds and experiences, but Erickson’s undiminished talent keeps the quality high. (The vinyl reissue includes a bonus 7” single.)
Various official and semi-authorized odds ‘n’ sods collections kept Erickson’s name alive during what turned out to be his final deterioration. Fans already know he’s since made a near-full recovery from his mental illness, gigging regularly and even releasing a strong LP of new music (True Love Cast Out All Evil). But the songs on these records remain at the heart of his repertoire, and he still performs them with fire and ferocity.
Product note, courtesy Light In the Attic, for The Evil One:
* CD & 2xLP housed in deluxe gatefold “tip-on” jackets with book-deep liner notes by Joe Nick Patoski
* Originally released in the UK as the 10 song album Five Symbols in 1980 and as The Evil One in 1981 (with 5 songs replaced), this definitive CD gathers all 15 songs from the Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival) late 1977-79 produced sessions.
* 2xLP includes 20-pg booklet, download card for full album, and etching by artist Travis Millard (Side D)
* CD includes 48-pg booklet
* Rare / unseen archive photos and ephemera
The British legend talks to BLURT ahead of his new album and accompanying U.S. tour.And yes, friends—he’s still electric. (Check out videos and tour info below as well.)
BY GIL MACIAS
Electronic music pioneer Gary Numan is ready to remerge again with his 20th studio album called Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind, which hits shelves on October 15th via the Machine Music label. The 55-year-old musician has been making innovative electronic music for over 35 years now and influencing and inspiring a vast list of other musicians along the way. Always looking forward and never looking back, Gary has always been ahead of his time, experimenting with sounds, always evolving, and never dwelling in the past.
When you listen to classic albums like The Pleasure Principle (1979) and Telekon (1980), it’s very apparent that they were ahead of their time, too. The music industry and radio stations constantly shoved “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” down our throats, but there was always more to Gary than just those two singles and he has an enormous catalog of songs, some better than the ones that became “hits,” that transcended the commercialism. Splinter has that industrial-rock sound fused with Gary’s signature noises, experimental computerized shrieks, but most of all, strong melodies. It’s an album that would make Trent Reznor (who is a big Gary Numan fan, by the way) weep tears of joy.
We here at BLURT have had the privilege of hearing the album in its entirety, and it’s without a doubt one of the best things Gary has ever done. Aside from the hair-raising power anthem that is “I Am Dust,” other tracks like the sinister and disturbing “Here in the Black” and infectious “Love Hurt Bleed” and “Who Are You” are destined to become Numan fan favorites. Gary recently played The Observatory in Santa Ana, California and the show was electrifying. The setlist (see below, at bottom) featured a mix of old and new, something Gary has warmed up to these days, but of course, the old stuff has been reworked to fit with his current sound—nothing sounds like they did back in 1980.
We were lucky enough to chat with Gary over the phone a few days later and talk about his new album, battling depression, relocating to America, why Splinter took nearly 7 years to make, and why he has such a beef with anything “retro.”
BLURT: You have excellent taste in music. I was quite pleased to see that you invited Losers to tour with you in the UK this November. You even played their new single “Azan” before your show started during sound check and mentioned them in a recent radio interview you did. How did you discover their music?
NUMAN: Through Eddy Temple-Morris, actually. Eddy’s got a radio show which I was on a couple of years back. You go on and play things that you like. He would play a track and I would play a track. We were kind of introducing each other to different sorts of music. He got a really good feel for the music I liked and listened to. He sent me an album of a band called Officers, which I thought was fantastic. So I went back and did Eddy’s show a second time and he mentioned Losers. A while back he sent me the new remix of the “Azan” track. I thought it was absolutely amazing. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard in such a long time. I sent it to my producers and said, “Hey, you got to listen to this, this is brilliant.” I wrote to Eddy many times and told him I loved it. He wrote back and said they had a new album coming out and if there was any chance of touring. And I said, “Coincidentally, I’m touring the UK in November and don’t have a support band yet, so you’re more than welcome to come on out.”
Well, I’m happy you’re touring with them. They’re a great band. I was also happy to see you at a recent IAMX show in Los Angeles. A lot of these newer bands who grew up with your music consider you an influence. You seem into a lot of current electronic music. Do you find that some of these younger bands influence you as well?
Certainly with a band like Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor has talked about me having an influence on what he was doing when he first got his band together. And I’ve obviously always been a big fan of Nine Inch Nails and I’ve undoubtedly taken plenty of stuff back from Trent. It does work that way. It is a reciprocal thing. I toured with Officers, the band I mentioned earlier. We did a song together called “Petals,” which I thought was really good. In fact, the song on my setlist, “The Fall,” that was the Officers remix of that song. I think their remix of my song is probably better than my original, so that’s the version we’re doing for this tour. So influence does work both ways, with some bands more than others.
You mentioned Nine Inch Nails. You got Robin Fincke to tour with you. How did that come about?
Robin is a friend, actually. I got to know Robin quite some time ago when Nine Inch Nails came to England. It was after my guest slot when they played London in 2009. I came to Los Angeles for their final four shows of that tour. I was there for about two weeks, and I was probably hanging with Robin then more than anyone. Both me and my wife got to know his wife Bianca very well too. So when I moved here in Los Angeles in October of 2012, I had only been here for about a week and Trent called and said he was having a birthday party for one of his children and he invited us to that with all of my children, so that was really cool. Robin was there with his little girl. We probably see Robin more than anyone. He’s probably our closest American friend. It was as simple as that, really. He played a few tracks on my new album. With these shows coming up, he just asked if I’d be up for him coming along. He’s so brilliant—he’s an amazing guitar player and he’s got such a presence onstage.
I’d like to talk about your new album, which I think is one of the best things you’ve ever done. Your new album has a lot of strong melodies and hooks. It’s dark, moody, and it’s very catchy. It’s a much different musical structure than your last album. This one has a variety of songs and so many of them are worthy of being singles. I was quite pleased to hear quite a few powerful anthems, as well as slow, moodier stuff.
I wanted to do an album that was very, very melody driven. I try to do that every time, but with this one—[pauses] actually, that’s almost a lie. When I first started to put the album together, my original idea for it was really flawed and one-dimensional. I wanted it to have one song after another, which were huge, powerful and riff-driven, anthemic songs. I think that would’ve been a massive mistake. I did a side project thing with Ade Fenton called Dead Son Rising —that was far more varied. It even had instrumentals on it, but very, very varied in terms of pace and dynamics and so on. I really enjoyed it and thought it was a much better way to go with Splinter. With Splinter I tried to have a much wider variation.The song “Lost” is essentially just a piano, keyboard and vocal. “I Am Dust” is much bigger and guitar driven. There are some slower strange ones, so there’s a good variety.
Even your vocals have a new energy. On songs like “I Am Dust,” your voice seems stronger and more in the foreground instead of being layered with effects.
I’ve never been happy with my voice. I’ve always thought my voice was lacking and I’ve been quite dismissive of it over the years, and to hide that, I tended to cover it with effects, reverb and harmonizers and all the tricks of the studio to make it sound better. Ade has been saying for a while, “You really shouldn’t be doing that, you’re voice is fine. You just need to let it breathe.” So we argued about that a lot with this album. By the end of the day, he had his way. So the vocals on this album are probably the closest ever to the way I actually sound. There are very little effects and very little reverb here and there. There’s no harmonizing or fattening whatsoever. And I’m still getting used to it. It’s also mixed a little higher than I’d normally go. But that’s how I actually sound. On previous albums, I tended to swamp it with effects.
Were you already writing this album before you moved to Los Angeles? You moved there almost exactly a year ago. Sometimes a change in environment can inspire writing music. Did L.A. have any influence on the new record?
It had an influence. During the 7 years it took to make this record—[Pauses] The 7 years weren’t spent trying to make it.For the first 3 or 4 years, I did nothing at all. I got depression, my wife got post-partum depression. I had a new family; I had a massive amount of problems going on. I had to deal with medication for 8 years. It turned me into a zombie. It was all very horrible. Midlife crisis, all that shit, were piling together to give me an unpleasant 3 or 4 years. Within those years, the thought of starting another album and all the emotional stresses and strains that come with them, I thought it would be a mistake to take on something like that when you’re already suffering from depression. And my marriage was rocky for a while. Life was very different. I didn’t adapt to it very well. Because I was on medication for depression and I didn’t have any drive. You just sit back and watch the world go by and it’s just horrible. Your life just ticks away and there’s this fog of couldn’t care less-ness. It’s a really weird thing. I went for nearly 4 years without writing a single song and that’s what I do for a living. How crazy is that?
So anyway, you come to the end of all that, the marriage is fixed, everything’s fantastic again, and I’m used to being a parent and I found that lovely middle ground between family and career and started to write again—butin little bits and pieces, a few songs here and there. Then there was another gap. It took me a while to get back into that flow. I probably didn’t start writing the album seriously until late 2011 or early 2012. And this was when the immigration thing was in full flow and we were trying to get that happening. When I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of 2012, the album was only half way done. I was so happy and enthusiastic about being here. If felt like a new life. It felt like such a brilliant new phase in all of our lives. I got a studio set up here fairly quickly. I just threw myself into it. The children were out in the swimming pool, they were happy. Everything was cool. It was sunny and it was going to be sunny tomorrow. In England when it’s sunny, everything stops. Because you run out and enjoy the weather. Everyone in England calls in sick on a sunny day, because they’re probably not going to get another one. It made a difference being here. It took two-and-a-half years to be allowed to come here. It was such a big thing for us. Work and music seemed exciting again. The opportunities here seemed enormous. In the first week we were here, I was having meetings with several people for score writing and various things. All of a sudden, a whole new area of music was becoming available to me.
Did any particular songs or lyrics emerge from your newfound happiness in Los Angeles?
The subject matter was not influenced by being here. The subject matter for most of it went back to those 3 or 4 years when I was depressed. There’s a few songs on Splinter that are about my relationship with my wife when it got rocky and the pain of all that. There’s one song called “My Last Day” that was inspired by a lady we met at a school while we were here in America. She had a very difficult problem with an illness and could’ve died any day. That was the prognosis of it—you don’t know how long you have left—it could be any day. I talked to her a lot and her courage was unbelievable. She had courage I would never have. Well, she had an operation 2 weeks ago and they actually fixed it. It’s fucking amazing. So now, I actually feel guilty having that song on there because it was such a horrible thing, you know? I thought, “what if she dies?” So yes, there are some influences from being here, but not by the climate or the lovely life, none of that. I don’t know what it is, whatever makes the creative part of my brain kick into gear, you can guarantee it’s going to be something a bit heavy. If I go out today and I go to the beach and I have a really happy day, I’m not going to write a song about it. If something shitty happens, I’m probably going to write a song about it and I wish it wasn’t like that. I’m never going to write “Shiny Happy People.”[Laughs]
So after you take in all these experiences, do you jot down notes or lyrics in a book? “Here in the Black” has great lyrics by the way.
I do make a lot of notes, actually, a word here, a line there. It can be anything, really. I could describe something I’ve seen or a feeling. When it comes to actually writing the lyrics, I do use my notes occasionally, but they don’t form the backbone of the lyric writing. What comes first is the music. The music will be there and that will have its own atmosphere, vibe, and sense—and that is very, very important. That can really guide you massively into what you want to do. Other times, you might want to lean on the notes a little bit. Sometimes it’s just simple memory. You’ll think back to something that happened. “Here in the Black” is actually about depression. I tried to come up with something that was almost a narrative that could be something from a film. Where it is not obviously about depression, but you kind of translate it, you move it sideways, you move it into a certain situation where you’re in the dark and you’re lost and something is coming and you can feel it coming and you can’t get away from it. I tried to make it almost like a scene from a film—you could film that song, you could film that just from the lyric and create something really quite frightening and disturbing. But it’s actually not, it’s about depression and what it’s like going through that and the feeling of being lost and that something is there waiting for you, because that’s how it felt to me.
So is depression the reason behind your album’s title?
The reason why the album is called Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind is because of the depression. I felt broken. That’s where that subtitle comes from.It’s not a nice thing at all. You feel damaged and you know you’re not the person you were. Something just snaps. Panic attacks, anxiety attacks. At one point I had a massive hang up about being old and dying. I remember this one particular time I was sitting in my car and I saw this really lovely, old couple walk past. They must’ve been in their eighties. And I looked at them and I thought to myself, “How can you deal with that? You are possibly months away from where one of you is going to die really soon.” It’s a horribly morbid thing for me to be thinking about, and I thought, How beautiful that you’re together still—but one of you is going to die soon—how the fuck do you deal with that? How can you function as a normal human being? You’re walking down the street as if everything is ok, and nothing is ok. And I started crying like a baby. And I thought to myself, “Fucking Hell, Gary, what are you doing?” And that started to happen more and more and my wife said, “You’re not alright, you need to go talk to someone.”
So I did and I got on the medication and I was all fixed. But it’s such a weird thing to experience. You come out of it golden and shiny on the other end. You come out of it and your marriage is happier than ever. I’m absolutely cool with my family and I love my children and everything is lovely. You still got the pressures and strains of career and you still got ambition, disappointment and desire but it’s completely within a workable frame. Now, if something goes bad, I will be a bit down for a few hours, but then I get back up again.
You’re a solo artist, so can you tell me about your writing process? At what point does the band get involved to flesh things out and when do you know a song is finished?
It’s just when you can’t hear anything else making a song any better. It’s as simple as that really. With a song like “Lost,” it’s a very empty song, there’s very little going on. The demo I sent Ade was pretty much the song that’s on the album. He said to me, “I just can’t think of anything that’s making this better.” So I said, “Well, that’s it then, that’s it.” Other songs come back and they’re huge and powerful, but you can hear places where something would work and you fill in those gaps. It’s like having an audio jigsaw puzzle. There comes a point where you put in that last piece and there is no room for anything else and it looks perfect. “Here in the Black” was a nightmare—it’s like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We must’ve worked on four entirely different versions of that song before we ended up with the one that felt right. At one point I had six different choruses for that song—could not decide which was the one. I did another and another and we ended up using the first one. Sometimes that’s just the way it works. You go round and round in circles. Other times, the song direction itself can go in different ways.
When you play old songs like “Metal” and “Are Friends Electric?” during your recent shows, they seem to have evolved, been reworked and integrated with your new sound. Right now, a lot of artists who have been around as long as you have been revisiting their roots, even going as far as resurrecting sound equipment from the ‘80s, both onstage and in the studio. You’re considered an electronic music pioneer who’s more interested in the future rather than the past. But do you ever get the itch to go back and play those old songs the way you used to back in 1980? Or maybe a retro style album?
Not really. To be honest, I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me once [Laughs]. As you know, I don’t do that many old songs when I play live and it’s always been a bit of an issue between me and older fans. Every once in a while, and I’ve only done this three times in my career, I will go out and do a tour where I just play the songs from an old album. Or, I play the songs from an old album and stick some new stuff at the end of it. Or I’d do the album in its entirety. Last time I did that was in 2010 with The Pleasure Principle. Not my favorite thing to do, to be honest. It just feels like you’re standing still, you’re not doing anything exciting; you’re just revisiting some past glory. But it does seem to work. It seems to be an acceptable compromise if I do that once in a while—the fans have stopped complaining that I don’t do old material.
I got into electronic music because it was the first thing I’d ever found where the music was as much about the sounds as it was about the melody. A big part of making electronic music is that you go out and create brand new sounds that nobody has ever heard before. I don’t mean sound as in genre, I mean actual sound. You can kick the table and you record it and manipulate it and use it as a sample and no one’s ever heard it before. I’ve made that sound—to me, that’s a cool thing. It’s part of why I always loved electronic music. A part of the process would be, what are you going to do that has never been done before? Sometimes you succeed at it and sometimes you don’t to be honest. I’ve made plenty of albums where I didn’t do very well at that, and I done others where I’ve done alright. It’s not like it’s a radical huge departure from anything you’ve heard before, but nonetheless, there have been a significant number of sounds on Splinter that I’ve never used before and I know other people haven’t because I’ve made them. I made them by hitting things and dragging things across concrete floors and then sitting on my computer and manipulating those sounds until they become usable in a musical environment and I love that. I don’t have any interest in going back and looking at the past. I always thought electronic music should be about what you do next. It’s a very forward looking genre.
How do you feel about newer, younger artists who are going for that retro sound?
It surprises me a little that there are so many people around now coming into it—and this isn’t a criticism—I honestly don’t mean this as a criticism at all, because everyone should be happy to do their own thing. But it’s surprising to me that so many people are coming into it almost in a retro way, trying to recreate the sound of the ‘70s or early ‘80s, looking for technology that would give them that sound, referencing music from that era, and doing it as if it’s something new. But it’s not [Laughs]. I’ve already done this. I did all this a lifetime ago. It really isn’t a criticism. I just don’t understand the excitement. It’s already been done, you know?
I’m going to assume it’s “Cars,” but is there a song of yours that you’re tired of hearing or playing or being associated with your name?
I’ve got two songs like that actually [Laughs]. In England, the song that was most successful for me was “Are Friends Electric?”It went to number one for four weeks. It was a song in Europe that launched electronic music. That was the first really big single that did it. That song haunts me over there, and here it’s “Cars,” obviously. Up until a few years ago, I saw them as these big rocks that sat on each shoulder and they got in the way of anything else I was doing. I would go onto a radio show, they’d play “Cars,” talk to you for a little bit, not play anything new, and then I would walk out and they’d play “Are Friends Electric?” And I’d go, “fuck’s sake!”
You just couldn’t get away from it. I would do a really big TV show in England where you’d do three songs, they’d transmit two and keep one as a back-up. They’d say to me, “We want you to do ‘Cars,’ ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and one other.” [Laughs] I’d say, “Aww, come on, you’re going to play ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’ aren’t you? You’re not going to play my new song, I’m not doing it.” So the director promised me he’d play one new song and one old one and that they weren’t trying to take advantage of me. If I just go on and do “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” it just makes it look as if those are the only two songs I care about. It makes me look bad. No one would think they’re not letting me play new stuff, they’d think it’s me. You feel as if the music industry itself wasn’t letting you move forward. I went through a long, long period of really hating those songs and not playing them.
But then, there comes a point where you realize you’re just being childish. With “Cars” in particular, there are so many bands in the world who would absolutely give their arms away if they could write something that was that successful, that lasted that long. To have a song that’s in its third or fourth decade still being covered, still being used on TV all the time, still being sampled. It’s just as successful now as it was the day it came out. I’ve learned that that’s a special thing. I should be proud that I wrote it and I should be proud that it had such longevity. I was just being childish but there were reasons for that childishness. It really did feel like a big, bloody obstacle.Every time I walked out my door, I felt like I had to walk around this mountain that was “Cars,” before anyone would talk to me about anything else or listen to anything else. But I’m at peace with it and cool with it now.
So we talked about what old songs have always haunted you, but what about the looks, fashion and imagery of the ‘80s? Are there any photos you’re sick of or other certain things you can’t escape?
There were some images that were less agreeable than others, but I’m alright with all that. I look back now and I might look at something and think, “Of fuck, that was embarrassing,” but things seemed to work at the time. I can do the same with anything. I can look back at a lot of things, album covers, songs, lots of songs l wish I had not written, compared to those I’m glad I had written. I think any career that’s been long, certainly like mine that’s been very up and down and quite a rollercoaster ride, I think you’re going to see mistakes, things that you didn’t do, that’s that you should’ve done, things you wish you hadn’t done. If think if you spend too much time doing that, you’re not enjoying the moment, really. Where I am now, I’m happy. I’m enjoying it. I’m still here, making good music, people are still interested, people are still coming to the shows, and I’ve still got the optimism that things are going to get even better. I think you can look back and learn from those mistakes and carry that knowledge with you, and I think I’m doing better now because of it. I think I’m a better person, I’m more mellow, I think my songwriting is as good as it’s ever been, if not better. Luckily, I still look ok even though I’m getting old. I can run around onstage and not look too embarrassing [Laughs].
The internet and social networking have drastically changed the music industry. Everyone has a voice now. You’ve even recently posted photos of your dog and a photo of your family at Disneyland on your Facebook wall—which was cool, but also such a surprise to see. What’s your opinion on getting instant feedback from your fans on the internet? And do you have a limit on how personal you get with your fans?
I don’t read much. I’m not good at interacting with it, which is part of the reason why it’s there in a way.In that sense, I’m kind of sticking my head in the sand and ignoring a lot of what the internet has to offer. But the reason for that is, in my experience, the internet has given a voice to everybody and so few people know what the fuck to do with it. They just shout shit at people. Things like, “That’s rubbish,” or “you look fucking ugly,” you know—it’s so negative. So much feedback is hostile and not constructive. Some little man liking to see his name on a website, thinks he’s got a fucking opinion. [Sighs] It’s so frustrating. It’s disappointing that so few people know what to do with their voice. You do not want people to be crawling up your ass—it’s not as if you want everyone to love everything you do, because that is useless as well. You can’t learn from that. You need honest opinion, but venom, the level of hostility and cruelty is shocking. Is this [how] people are actually like when they’re anonymous? The anonymity of it is another thing. The cowardice of people saying these things hidden away in their little rooms.
I don’t get that involved in it. I didn’t even know Twitter had comments until my wife showed me about a week ago—I think it was the Disneyland picture, actually. She said the comments were really lovely. But I don’t want to see what people say, it can ruin your entire day. Who wants to? Why would you expose yourself to that? I have no interaction on my website, but we have a thing where people are allowed to send in questions. My manager will sort out all the offensive ones and I just get the ones that are actually worthwhile. Apart from that, I always try to talk to fans at the gigs and there you get genuine opinion. No one is going to be hostile but they are going to tell you what they thought, and some things they didn’t like, but it’s good, healthy, constructive criticism.
So earlier we talked about current artists you like. You emerged in the late ‘70s and there are a lot of other artists from that same time period who are still around touring and making new music. Is there anyone from that era you follow, keep an eye on, or keep in touch with?
Not many. I know some of them. Alan Wilder [Depeche Mode] is a really good friend of mine, one of my closest friends, so we stay in touch. There are other bands that I know and if I see them, I’ll say hello, but it’s not like we’re close friends. People like Human League, I like them, we meet up and chat and it’s friendly, but we don’t hang out or socialize really. I was always pretty isolated. I never got involved in the whole music business circus. I didn’t go to clubs or do too much of that. My wife is a bit more like that, she loves it. She’s kind of bullied me into doing it more than I ever used to. I do it enough and it is actually nice and you do get to meet other people and talk about music and things, but it’s not so much that I become that omnipresent person that you see at every after show party. It’s partly me. I’m not brilliantly sociable, to be honest, I’ve got Asperger syndrome. People like Trent Reznor, I hang with him a bit and Robin Fincke, obviously. I went to go see Peter Murphy recently, I met Peter many years ago—things like that.
You also tend to shy away from festivals. I was a bit bummed that you weren’t part of KROQ’s Flashback to the Future festivals from ten years ago. They got people like Siouxsie Sioux, The Cure, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Devo and a lot of other great ‘80s acts involved.
I wouldn’t have done them. Anything that’s got any kind of retro label—I would avoid it like the plague. There’s a series in Europe, I think they’re called Here and Now tours or some other ridiculous name. But they’re not here and now, they’re fucking past it. They’re living on past glories. And even to be asked to do that, I kind of get insulted. I’m not living in the past, I’m fucking relevant. I think it paints the wrong picture and it gives out the wrong signals—signals that you’re tied to a particular era. That’s where you were, that’s where you are, and that’s where you belong. And I don’t feel that, so I got a little bit of a hang up about it. I don’t think they’d be any good for me. I love music now. I love music that’s around now. I don’t have this romantic longing to revisit music from the past.
Mick Jagger has been making music for over 50 years now. You’ve been doing it for about 35 years. Do you think you have another 15 or 20 years in you?
I would love to keep going until the day I die. There’s nothing else that I like to do more. Whether that’s realistic or not or if I’d even be able to do it. When you’ve been doing it for 35 years, 15 years doesn’t that far away. There’s absolutely no reason I shouldn’t be doing it in 15 years except that I’m going to be 70 years old.Can you imagine doing what I’m doing now at 70? I hope so—how cool would that be? I think there’s going to come a point where my ego or vanity kicks in and says, you just don’t look right anymore. You can’t do this, you look to old and it’s embarrassing. Part of the reason for coming to America was being aware of that. I think film music is an obvious next step for me. I’m not sure I’m going to like it, so I’m in the process of talking to people and getting soundtrack work, very small things, learning the skills, the terminology and the pressure. Learning the difficulties that come with that and dealing with people in the film industry, I’m not sure it’s for me, but we’ll see. It’s all part of thinking of my future.
And your next album?
My plan is to finish a soundtrack in December or January then do another American tour. Because I have children, I only tour in small chunks. I do 2 or 3 weeks and then I come home and be with the children. I try to keep the family thing consistent. In between the tours and the children while they’re at school, I’ll go to work on a new album. The intention is to have a new album finished by the end of 2014. I have an arrangement with my producer, for every week I’m not touring; I have to write at least one song.
So we’ll see how that goes. I think it would be a mistake to not stay on it. I got new American management, things are going very well, I’m very optimistic with Splinter, and I think to have a long gap after that would be an absolute tragedy. It’s very important that another album is not only ready by the end of next year, but that it’s really good.
With a new studio album and a memoir-tilting book he describes as “folk-writing,” the alt-country founding father shifts into high gear. The band’s latest tour starts tonight, Sept. 18.
BY KELLY DEARMORE
Son Volt’s leader and sole continual member Jay Farrar has become an artist in a more concentrated sense than ever before, perhaps. Such a claim sounds a bit odd, given that Farrar is considered a practical founding-father of the modern Alternative Country style of music. But in the past four years, Farrar has capably narrowed his ingenuity to work on individual adventures with very specific scopes. In this manner, the results have been more akin to a painter or sculptor who obsesses over one particular piece than a songwriter, always in the middle of a number of different projects, regardless of theme.
Coming out closely together, Honky Tonk (Rounder), Son Volt’s seventh studio album released this week and Farrar’s literary debut, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs (Soft Skull Press, March 19), are two separate outlets, yet each were birthed from Farrar being compelled to explore an individual avenue until he found what he wanted exactly. For regular Joe’s, buying a kayak or gym memberships are representative of passing phases that rarely produce anything. Farrar, however, has little trouble mastering his various artistic phases and stages.
“I don’t know if it’s complete immersion for me,” says Farrar over the phone from his home as he gears up for the upcoming tour in support of Honky Tonk. “Perhaps it’s relative immersion, but in this case, I did make it a point to listen to a lot of George Jones, and especially Bakersfield guys like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, because Ralph Mooney played on so many of Owens’ and Stewart recordings. I’m in awe of his pedal steel playing, and with Stewart and Owens bringing a rock and roll intensity to country music, which hadn’t been there before, there music resonated with me since I come from a different direction than a purely country one.”
In 2009, Farrar teamed with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard to record the Jack Kerouac-inspired One Fast Move or I’m Gone, the soundtrack to a documentary recounting the King of the Beat Poets’ time spent in Big Sur California. In that same year, Farrar saw after the recording of Son Volt’s excellent American Central Dust LP. Last year, Farrar joined forces with previous Gob Iron (another project of Farrar’s) partner Anders Parker and fellow indie-rock studs Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Will Johnson of Centro-matic to create the best Woody Guthrie-intensive record since the Mermaid Sessions albums of Wilco and Billy Bragg, New Multitudes. The album combined original Guthrie lyrics set to new rock arrangements written by the four artists, with Farrar leading the way.
“It makes sense for me to drill down the parameters of a project,” says Farrar. “I really enjoyed the Kerouac and Guthrie projects, because they took me away from the normal creative process and I got to work with inspirational elements from different artists. I dove in and learned from those experiences and brought them back to what I normally do. I found that this record explored certain aesthetics that I began in those projects.”
Each of these undertakings required Farrar to go beyond simply setting a guitar on his knee and strumming it until a song popped out, which for Farrar, likely reached second-nature status 20 years ago. A keen dedication to the material which sat directly in-front of him was vital in the success of each project. The new book and album successfully bares the fruit of Farrar’s focus in much the same way as the aforementioned experiences have. Honky Tonk, which proffers the sound one would expect from an album with such a direct title, is the result of Farrar’s curiosity of what lies beneath the surface when creative intrigue sets in.
“The new record’s a combination of some things that were going on with American Central Dust,” he says. “Plus, I wanted to recognize and pay homage to honky-tonk music, which I really got into while I was learning to play the pedal steel in the past year and a half. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to feel limited by any parameters. Some of the songs stray from straight honky-tonk a bit, but they still fall within the framework of elemental American music. We used a lot more traditional instrumentation, like mandolin, accordion and fiddle than we had before.”
Even seasoned vets can find themselves awed when in the middle of musical discovery. Such awe led Farrar to begin conceptualizing the album that’s sure to help some Alt-country hipsters learn what shuffling sawdust is all about.
“As I learned the pedal steel by playing in a band (St. Louis-based Colonel Ford) with Justin Branum and Gary Hunt, who both play on the new record, I got to experience the twin-fiddle sound in a live context. I was really blown away by that and I wanted to feature that feel because it’s such a special sound that draws you in.”
While honky-tonkin’ around the Midwest grabbed a great deal of Farrar’s imagination in the past couple of years, in fitting fashion, it was a specific, individual part of the traditional style that took hold of Farrar’s interest and led him to greater exploration.
“The pedal steel can cover a broad range of emotions,” Farrar says. “It can be very emotive or evocative. There are many different elements comprising the whole package. Different tunes, different combinations of pedals and strings and then, there’s the steel bar. Those all come together to create different sounds, and that’s something I definitely wanted to capture on this record.”
Indeed, Farrar’s take on traditional country sounds and pedal steel-driven tunes are captured expertly on the album’s 11 tracks, with “Hearts and Minds,” “Brick Walls,” and “Barricades,” offering rough-hewn proof that Farrar learned a great deal from his back-road barroom baptism. In the same month that music fans will listen to what Farrar has captured sonically, they will be able to also read what he’s collected from a lifetime of experiences in the finely curated collection of memories that make up his memoir. While the book isn’t intended to be a companion to the album, there’s a shared sepia-toned sense of home and familiarity clearly present within each tale.
“Calling it a memoir might be a stretch,” admits Farrar. “It’s definitely a book that relates to real-life stories and situations, mainly through short-stories and vignettes. It’s a non-fiction book, and it and the album are essentially two different works, though there’s some stories drawn from the influence of my father, who brought country music into my world, so there’s a correlation between the book and the new record in that sense. The book is more of an example of folk-writing than it is an autobiography.”
For an artist with a revered track record and the attention to aesthetic detail that Farrar has, he offers a profoundly succinct way of summarizing perhaps the most productive period of his fantastic career thus far.
“I’m just a musician with a book. I don’t want to make the authors out there mad.”
Son Volt kicks off a two week tour starting Sept. 18 in Oxford, Miss. View dates at the band’s official website: http://www.sonvolt.net/
[Pictured at top, left to right: Gary Hunt, Jay Farrar, Dave Bryson, Mark Spencer, Andrew Duplantis. Photo by Emily Nathan]
Hooking up with two key members of the Wilco braintrust led to the songwriting duo ultimately crafting their masterpiece.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
Poke and prod a bit at Wassaic Way and the juxtapositions start to reveal themselves.
The latest album from Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion is a balancing act of disparate elements set deliberately aside one another, the product of home and travel, folk and indie rock, harmony and individuality.
The songs on Wassaic Way exist in plenty of motion, referencing places like Koreatown in Los Angeles, Brooklyn’s Park Slop and New Orleans’ Frenchman Street, but come from the still and quiet moments off the road.
“A lot of the writing happens at home, but we do a whole lot of traveling. The juxtaposition of those scenarios when we get home to Washington, Mass., population 500, that just kind of pops out,” Irion says.
Similarly, the songs on Wassaic Way more fully present both sides of the Guthrie-Irion musical background, hers in the bloodline of America’s greatest folk icon and his influenced by the 1990s indie rock underground of Chapel Hill, N.C. The album came together with the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, who recorded and co-produced Guthrie and Irion at their Chicago loft. Before the duo signed on as producers, Guthrie and Irion had about 50 songs and a huge blank slate.
“There were three different records floating around in our heads before we got the green light that Jeff was into making a record,” he recalls. “There was an acoustic/Americana record and definitely a weirder pop record. When we found out that Jeff was into doing the record, we shifted all of our attention to what that would be.”
Guthrie and Irion laid down the roughly 50 demos and left it up to Tweedy and Sansone to cull the songs they wanted to record.
“We were surprised when some of the songs came back,” Irion says. “I kind of thought it would go in a different direction, but as soon as you start thinking about that with Jeff Tweedy, he’s coming from a different angle. About three or four songs, I was like ‘Really?’ I couldn’t believe they made the list.”
So while another collaboration in Wilco/Guthrie world could have ended up in the folkier realm of the Mermaid Avenue albums, Wassaic Way (without abandoning folk) more closely parallels Wilco’s more experimental side displayed on albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born.
“That comes from my love of Superchunk and the Ramones and Sonic Youth and Jeff and I seeing eye to eye on a lot of that weirder stuff,” Irion says.
Working in the gaps between everyone’s busy touring schedules, Guthrie, Irion, multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose, drummer Otto Hauser and Tweedy and Sansone cut the bulk of Wassaic Way in one 13-day stretch at the Wilco loft. (Irion says Tweedy and Sansone showed up one day fresh from a run of European shows, skipping rest in favor of recording.)
“They’re so busy and our schedules are crazy and that was daunting. They said they wanted to start a record, they didn’t say finish a record,” Irion says. “But it felt like when we got to a certain height on the album all we had to do was finish. There’s not a lot of outtakes or b-sides.”
Wassaic Way, released Aug. 6 on the couple’s own Rte 8 Records, is the most fully realized artistic statement from Guthrie and Irion, who began playing together in the late 1990s and married in 1999.
“I grew up playing rock ‘n’ roll. I learned how to be a folkie through Sarah Lee and Pete and Arlo and I’m very blessed to have that. I grew up playing indie rock in Chapel Hill in the early 1990s and that scene was Polvo and Archers of Loaf and bands that were creating these sounds that I love,” Irion says. His band from that time period, Queen Sarah Saturday, notched a fair amount of critical acclaim and was a regional favorite.
After meeting Guthrie, Irion began his folk trajectory, focusing on songwriting and playing shows and proving themselves in front of audiences. “It came to a point that if I can’t walk into a venue and play a song and somebody doesn’t want to take that song home with them, I’m not doing my job. That’s been the criteria, it’s based on songs. Sometimes it’s hard to keep a rock ‘n’ roll band together and do that, but I didn’t want to forget that other side. That’s what made the combo of us working with Jeff so good.”
And while at its inception Wassaic Way could’ve gone in any number of different directions, the record came is the result of Guthrie and Irion trusting each other and their producers to make the right choices.
Notes Irion, “There’s been a lot that has gone into the album and we’re looking at it from all different kind of angles. The fact that it came out the way that it did is another level of positive reinforcement for Sarah Lee and I. At the end off the day, it’s the best record we’ve made and I didn’t know if we’d do that or not.”
The late ‘60s/early ‘70s Brooklyn combo created a primal—and brainy—rock ‘n’ roll stew before vanishing into obscurity. Their recently reissued album may change all that, possibly leading to a reunion.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
Look at the website All Music’s artist-biography page for Hackamore Brick, which released one album in 1970, and it’s pretty impressive for a band too obscure to even be called “cult”:
“Hackamore Brick are one of the great missing links in the late-’60s New York music scene. In some circles, the Brooklyn-spawned quartet is considered notable as the first band known to cite the Velvet Underground as a source of inspiration; all four members were part of the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society and one can, indeed, hear their influence throughout the music on…One Kiss Leads to Another, cut for Buddah Records’ Kama Sutra imprint, no less.”
“We don’t know where that came from,” says Tommy Moonlight, the group’s co-lead singer and –writer as well as co-keyboard player and guitarist, today. He explains that none of the band’s four members – him; Chick (Charles) Newman, the other co-leader; bassist Bob Roman, drummer Robbie Biegel – was ever in the VU Appreciation Society.
“I had heard the record with the banana on it – Bob had that record,” he explains. “We don’t count it as one of our influences.”
Yet, one listen to One Kiss confirms that, at least at times, Hackamore Brick did indeed sound like the Velvets. All Music got it right when it said that “Lou Reed’s singing style is in evidence throughout Chick Newman’s flat intonation, but other attributes here range further, eerily anticipating the minimalist charm of Jonathan Richman, while some of the material, such as the Bob Roman/Tommy Moonlight-authored ‘Peace Has Come,’ makes one think of an embryonic Television.”
So what does all this matter now? Well, first, tracing the manner by which Velvet Underground’s alternative vision of rock ‘n’ roll came to permeate pop culture is serious business – the stuff of college courses and scholarly books.And second, because 43 years after One Kiss’s uneventful release and quick departure, it has finally gotten a reissue by Real Gone Music. Not just on CD, but also on vinyl. And there is interest among music cognoscenti: Moonlight and Newman, with support musicians, performed the album live, as Hackamore Brick, for a late-July broadcast on taste-making radio station WFMU-FM.
All this has brought the 60-something Moonlight (a stage name he still prefers to use) and Newman into the daylight, so to speak, to talk (via telephone) about the band and its influences. Moonlight lives in Long Beach, in New York’s Nassau County, while Newman is in Brooklyn while his hurricane-damaged Rockaway home is repaired.
And Moonlight also wants to clear something else up. “I don’t think I’m Lou Reed,” he says. “You’re not,” replies Newman. Somehow, the rumor got started that Reed – between his departure from Velvet Underground in 1970 and his first solo album in 1972 – recorded One Kiss under the “Tommy Moonlight” moniker.
That rumor was floated in Creem magazine, Moonlight says, a couple years after Hackamore Brick’s album had disappeared. It gained a certain credence because the band’s producer, Richard Robinson, also produced Reed’s solo debut.” (As an aside, this writer remembers meeting a Velvet Underground Appreciation Society member in Denver in the early 1990s who swore that “Tommy Moonlight is Lou Reed.”)
The two music lovers met as City College of New York students in the late 1960s when Newman was playing Farfisa organ in an existing band. With Biegel, they first formed Ice and then (with Roman added) Hackamore Brick. A “hackamore” is a type of headgear for horses. “We both had interest in thoroughbred horses, knew what a hackamore was, put it together with ‘brick’ and to this day I don’t know what it means,” Moonlight confesses. (He also confesses to an offbeat sense of humor.)
The album, by the way, is very good. Without prominent lead guitar, the group uses keyboards and rhythm guitar to get a driving, minimalist sound for the original songs, sometimes droll and sometimes earnest. The vocals are delivered by either Moonlight or Newman in a deadpan, conversationalist manner that is mixed down in production. Some of the songs, like “Zip Gun Woman” and “Oh! Those Sweet Bananas,” have a cheeky irreverence. Others, like “Reachin’” and “Peace Has Come,” are touching in their yearning directness and youthful anxiety.
Moonlight’s riff-insistent “Radio,” for instance, is a close cousin to Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and Richman’s “Roadrunner” – the three are almost a secular Holy Trinity. But it’s also a perverse put-on that owes a bit to J. Frank Wilson’s “Last Kiss.” A drag-racing couple, trying to hear their dedication on Top 40 radio, finally does just as the girl falls out of the car giving a competing driver the finger. She hears it as she lay dying.
As a result of its attributes, the album has the kind of gutsy street cred that was – and still is – a refreshing parallel vision to the virtuosity (some might say the bombast) of the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin or other supergroups of the time. It would certainly seem to owe a debt to the Velvets’ third album, and one might indeed call it pre-punk.
Really, Moonlight says, Hackamore Brick’s key influence was the many New York folkies turning to singer-songwriter-rock in the wake of Bob Dylan’s success. And there was a countercultural influence, too – photos in the CD booklet show that the guys were longhaired hippies. (Biegel, in particular, with his thick curly hair and cool blue outfit – jean jacket, patched blue jeans and blue T-shirt – really stands out on the album cover, shot on the fire escape of photographer Joel Brodsky’s studio.)
“Pretty much all the guys walking around Brooklyn at time looked like we did,” Moonlight says. “At that time, there were a whole lot of folk singers who decided to do rock, and they didn’t play electric guitar the way the British did. That was a New York sound to us more than a Velvet Underground sound.”
According to Newman, Hackamore Brick immediately got some gigs – at a Staten Island club called the Ritz, at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and at Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric wing. (He insists the last mention is not a joke.)
Band members also had a contract with Koppelman Rubin, a powerhouse New York record-production company, but were hampered because Biegel – a minor at the time – couldn’t sign so they lost a key member. They did make some recordings that so far remain unreleased.
With Biegel back in the band, they went shopping for a label in 1970. They tried Kama Sutra, which had been very successful in the mid-1960s with New York folk-rockers Lovin’ Spoonful. By 1970, it had a reputation (with its mate Buddah, which pioneered late-1960s bubble-gum music with hits like Ohio Express’ “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Chewy Chewy”) as a singles label in an album-rock world. To try to change that, it hired Robinson as a producer. He had been a New York rock writer.
“We brought three songs to a reception guy,” Newman says. “He liked it, and I guess he showed it to (label head Neal) Bogart, and he brought it over to Robinson. He liked it.”
With a label interested, Moonlight and Newman worked hard on songs – mostly individually, but they shared credit on “Zip Gun Woman” and Moonlight provided music to Roman’s lovely lyrics on “Peace Has Come.” They recorded in late spring, got the album out later that year, and played a weeklong showcase at the Bitter End.
The idea to make the vocals naturalistic and somewhat off-handed seems to have been both Robinson’s and Hackamore Brick’s. “We had an idea to have the vocals mixed down a little bit, which to this day I think was a mistake,” Moonlight says. “The flatness of it could have been Richard. We just didn’t want the vocals to be way up over the music.”
Hackamore Brick redid versions of “Radio” and “I Watched You Rhumba” with clearer vocals for a single. Those and a version of the Coasters’ “Searchin’” are bonuses on the newly issued CD.
This writer had started researching a Hackamore Brick story about 15 years ago and interviewed Robinson. At the time, he was running a website devoted to magic, www.allmagic.com, that is still active. Here are some of his quotes, taken from saved notes:
“They were capable of writing cute, catchy songs just off enough to not work commercially. When you run into people who do something peculiar naturally, you just let them do it.
“I was Buddah Records’ house hippie. I’d go out and come back with these things. They’d listen, realize they weren’t Kasenetz-Katz (top bubble-gum producers), so they just put them out because ‘Richie did it.’ That also happened with Flamin’ Groovies.” (Robinson signed the retro-rock Groovies, who previously had been on Epic, around the same time and brought them to New York to record. Their album Flamingo came out in 1970.)
That winter, Hackamore Brick departed for an extended gig in the Virgin Islands as the album headed toward oblivion, despite some good reviews. In 1971 they started to record a second one, but fought with the label over the choice of a studio. And Robinson had departed for RCA, where he would work with Reed.
“We wanted to go somewhere else,” Moonlight explains.“We thought maybe we’d get a deal with RCA, so we walked out of that contract.” But Robinson soon departed RCA and the band, without a label contact, broke up. That was 1972, Newman recalls, but Hackamore Brick first recorded some new songs meant for a second disc. They have never been released.
The story gets a bit hard to follow after that, but the essential points are that Newman and Moonlight never stopped making music in the New York area, together with a group, as a duo, or separately. At some points, they used the Hackamore Brick name. Other times they played as Moonlight, Stars, or Blue Yonder.
They got some inkling that their album might have made an impression in the mid-1970s. At CBGB gig, Andy “Adny” Shernoff and Scott Kempner of the Dictators, a similarly irreverent band that had started up in 1973, came to encourage them.
“We didn’t know them then, but they were in the audience requesting songs and we couldn’t imagine how anyone would know our songs,” Moonlight says. But nothing much else happened. They did record more songs, also never released, in Austin in the 1980s.
The four Hackamore Brick members last played together in 1981 at a reunion of sorts in a studio. Roman now lives in Maine and Biegel in Florida – both have pursued music. For awhile, Moonlight and Newman supported their musical ventures with secondary jobs; eventually the music became secondary to the day jobs – Newman as an antiques seller; Moonlight in retail.
“We’ve been friends throughout, but musically we weren’t doing a hell of a lot together for awhile,” Newman explains. “We’d see each other socially and play for our friends. Around mid-2000, we started getting together again.”
In 2006, the duo played a wedding as Hackamore Brick. Buoyed by the response, in 2009 they released a six-song CD of recent recordings called Long Way Home (available at www.hackamorebrick.com)and decided to promote it with some shows in the Lower East Side. By then word had spread that One Kiss was a “lost rock gem” to attract an audience
“It was just Tommy and me and we advertised it as Hackamore Brick,” Newman says. “Much to our surprise, we got quite a few Hackamore Brick fans, some writers and DJs. We got choked up a bit.”
The plan now is to play some more gigs as Hackamore Brick, either as a duo or with support on bass and drums, to capitalize on the reissue. And they want to finally release some of those Hackamore Brick recordings made but then shelved for decades. As for a full-scale reunion, perhaps at an “unsung heroes” festival like Ponderosa Stomp? “If things develop and people are interested, we can see what Bobby and Rob are up to,” Moonlight says. “They are far away.”
But Moonlight is impressed Hackamore Brick has gotten this far. “I used to say the orginal 17 people who bought our record were the only people paying attention. But I was proved wrong.”
A Blurt Boot Video Exclusive: Simon Bonney & Bronwyn Adams (Live NYC) 5/14/2019 WARSAW
Filmed by Jonathan Levitt. Check out Bonney's latest record "Past, Present, Future" http://smarturl.it/SimonBonney
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Psychedelic Furs "Only You and I" (Live Costa Mesa CA 7-19-18
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea