The Austin metal merchants channel a complex brew Sabbath, Zep, Frazetta and Lovecraft, yet Gene Simmons is their marketing model. Frontman J.D. Cronise explains.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Space travelers, maidens, warp-speed walkers and fans of Uriah Heep-meets-Frank-Frazetta graphics have been into The Sword—hard—ever since guitarist/lyricist J.D. Cronise laid his Ozzy-like howl and staccato riffing into smartly told fictions that’d spoil any game of Dungeons and Dragons starting with 2006’s Age of Winters. Together with guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo, Cronise went on a fantastic metal voyage (from Austin TX, yet) that didn’t rely on helmets with horns, long beards or clingy black t-shirts. Instead, The Sword laced its crunching complex rock with complicated tall-tale telling. No sooner than they moved from fantasy to science fiction and epic metal into something leaner and meaner on 2010’s conceptual masterpiece Warp Riders in 2010, they were set to conquer this mortal coil—that is, until Wingo left abruptly. Now fully recovered from the loss, Cronise and Co have a new misty mountain hopping drummer Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III plus latest album Apocryphon (Razor & Tie) that benefits from big metal riffs and its singer’s way with big science.
BLURT: Do young fans get the old Black Sabbath reference points in your music? Do those within your throng discuss this with you? I always wonder where metal kids are at in terms of the past.
Well, the comment we get more often than anything else is, “You guys are like the new Black Sabbath!” I’m not saying that’s good or bad or even accurate, but I think a lot of our fans see us as sort of picking up where they left off. I think Sabbath and Zeppelin are still universal among most hard rock and metal fans, regardless of age. I hope so, anyway.
Whose idea was it to go with the consistent sleeve imagery of foxy ancient space maidens empowered or in distress? What was that conversation like?
There was no conversation about it. That was the blueprint I laid out before the band even formed. Everyone knew what they were getting into when they joined.
Did you guys ever consider dressing the part?
What, you mean spikes and armor?!? Or like foxy space maidens? In either case, no. We’re a band, not a performance art troupe.
Do any of you have aspirations to write science fiction narratives that go beyond a musical setting?
Perhaps. Time will tell.
Did the Sword ever experiment with a different lyrical and musical base?
We once considered doing a country album as sort of a joke, but we never found the time or motivation to get much farther than the song titles. We often jam on different kinds of stuff in the rehearsal room, though, like reggae.
Was your musical direction a shock to those in Austin who knew you when?
I don’t think so. It takes a lot to shock people there.
Your initial feelings when you guys lost your longtime drummer Trivett Wingo?
Anger and frustration. We couldn’t believe we had to cancel a tour halfway through. It took a few days for us to actually accept the reality of that.
What did you know instinctively that your next drummer had to have—and how does Vela suit/fit that bill?
When I asked them the question, “Who’s your favorite drummer?” the only answer I wanted to hear was John Bonham. One look at Jimmy’s drum kit answers that question. Not to mention he’s a monster behind that kit.
There’s been some streamlining going on since Warp Riders, sonically at least. Why not continue on with the thick complexity?
Simplicity is what translates better live. That’s a lesson I learned from ZZ Top and KISS. Gene Simmons always said KISS stood for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. The more complex your riffs and arrangements are, the more likely you will either make mistakes live or it will just come across like a bunch of noise.
Seriously, name your favorite Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke works. I totally get their inspiration on/in your previous works.
My favorite Howard story is “Beyond the Black River.” I liked it so much I wrote a song about it. My favorite Lovecraft is “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” and my favorite Clarke would be “The Songs of Distant Earth.”
Going through the new album’s lyrics, I don’t see a through line—how does this album relate to Gnostic Christian secret teachings?
The information therein is more personal and deals much more with real life concepts rather than fanciful narratives. I decided I was finally old and wise enough to impart more of my experiences and world view into the lyrics. Therein lie the secret teachings.
What was the toughest song—and most rewarding—to get through, to convey its true intention/feeling most clearly on the new album?
I’d have to say the title track, “Apocryphon.” We were going to keep that as an instrumental because I had written lyrics for all the songs except that one, and we traditionally have an instrumental or two on our records. But there was always the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that it was meant to have words and needed them to be complete. I was reading VALIS by Philip K. Dick while we were recording. I ended up finishing it and writing the lyrics for “Apocryphon” the night before I recorded the vocals, almost literally at the eleventh hour. They’re some of my favorite lyrics on the record, though, and I think they sum up a lot of what I was thinking about during the writing and recording process.
If there was a band such as The Sword when you were growing up, would you have been its biggest fans?
I think so. That was the idea when I started The Sword. I wanted to be in a band that filled a void that I saw in heavy music. I always approach everything from the perspective of a fan and ask myself, “would I like this?” or, “would I think this is cool?” So yeah, I’d like to think that if I weren’t in The Sword, they would be one of my favorite bands.
The Sword’s latest tour started last week. They are in Louisville tonight (Oct. 31) and in Memphis tomorrow night, then all hell breaks loose in the heartland…
Why did the dance music maestro feel compelled to leave the East Coast and immerse himself in the West? Part of the answer can be heard in his moist, intimate new album.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
About five years ago, Moby—a quintessential downtown New York City multi-hyphenate with his hands in the worlds of music, ad jingles, and tea making—thought of making a move. Not a rhythmic move like those that shifted in accord with his given muse or his changing sense of electro-sonic styles on albums such as Everything is Wrong, Play, Hotel, Wait for Me and such. Moby suddenly realized he’d had enough of freezing winters and hedge fund managers, the likes of which had zapped Manhattan of its creative force.
“It wasn’t the same Manhattan that it was when I moved there,” says Moby, age 48, tinkering with a boiling kettle of water, while talking about the found domesticity that fuels his undulating yet understated new music, the ideas behind the new Innocents (Mute) and its vocal collaborations with Wayne Coyne, Mark Lanegan, Damien Jurado, and other liked-minded souls.
“That city became a victim of its own success. Everybody in the world wants to be in there, now. As a result, New York City has become so expensive, that the artist and the weirdo can’t afford to live there at all anymore. Those people have been priced out. That’s why they all moved here, because it’s cheaper, because there’s more of us out here.”
The “here” is Los Angeles, and the warm and leafy spot known as Beachwood Canyon right below the Hollywood sign toward the northern portion of Tinseltown. What’s most remarkable to Moby about his new-found home base, is that Beachwood Canyon is this “weird little country town, but it’s slap dab in the middle of this megalopolis of 5 million people.”
This may seem a little tourist-y, this break to discuss where Moby is, and who lives in his neighborhood. But, if home is where the heart is, then Moby’s heart is in the moist, intimate, and decidedly close-knit tones that fuel Innocents, a home (rather than a house) party of an album; small, morose, lovely, and lo-fi-be-y.
To give you an outside glance at what this neighborhood’s strange history feels like, know this: Moby can’t take out his trash without hearing some spooky aspect of his house’s haunted lore. “I was taking out my recycling the other day, was bent over, when I saw this old lady pointing at my house. So I walked up to her, and she said to me, in her old lady voice, “Did you know that in your house, Errol Flynn used to host sex parties?””
That’s just part of the allure of his block, a street where Aldous Huxley once lived and its Theosophical Society Office hosted the likes of Carl Jung and Orson Welles. The spooked-out and cinematic atmosphere that Moby lives within now is a perfect vibe in which to record his album. Then again, Moby’s sound, beyond the rave cultural-ism of his earliest technoid tracks, has always been dependent on a filmic ambience. Even his most danceable cuts and gospel-tinged tunes could double as woozy, small-ish soundtracks to loft disco parties and Southern church services, lived through or imagined.
Certainly, 1999’s Play—his sampladelic, ten million records-selling masterpiece—has those cinematic blues. So does the lesser-known likes of 2009’s Wait for Me and 2011’s Destroyed, each an exquisite miniature of love, remorse, and diminished returns.
“I love those albums, the spirits of them,” he says, commenting on each record’s level of simple beauty and earnest emotionalism. “I’ve made music that is subtle, some music that is not so subtle, but those two albums in particular, are very restrained. I didn’t expect them to find a huge audience. They have an understated quality beyond even my most subdued records. I think that may have prevented them for finding an audience.” Moby mentions that part of why he made those nearly daring, down-tempo albums was because of his emancipation from the major label circus. The other reason he made those records was to work with mixologist Ken Thomas, a man sympathetic to Moby’s notion of quiet restraint and insular intimacy.
Oddly enough, the same thing became true when he called on now-famous producer and Grammy-winner Mark “Spike” Stent, the man behind the epic sound of Muse, Depeche Mode, Björk, U2, and Coldplay. As Moby never, ever had another producer in his own his sessions, calling on Stent was a big deal. “I really only wanted a sounding board, someone with whom I could talk about the process of winnowing down the wealth of tracks I made for this album. I wrote and recorded bits of a lot of songs. Mainly I was looking for objectivity. My perspective is skewed. I just wanted someone to help me figure what was good and worth developing and what was bad and to forget about. I could easily disappear down my own rabbit hole, clueless due to a lack of objectivity.” (Below: Moby’s work station)
At first, says Moby, Innocents was supposed to have been a midnight dance album in league with those downtown NYC albums of his youth, those riddum-heavy albums featuring reggae giants like Wally Badarou and Sly & Robbie. Whether he realizes it or not, Moby may have been looking to write a love letter (or a “Dear John”) to the downtown New York City he first fell in love with. “When I was growing up in and around the city, I thought I’d live there forever,” says Moby. “My neighborhood was the most perfect place in world; dirt cheap and filled with artists of all stripes; an idyllic environment where everyone would work during the day, go out late, get drunk and have inappropriate one night stands with each other.”
What Moby was planning for his 2013 album was what he called his version of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, “something dark and danceable,” he says now. The reason he invited Spike to sift through his song fragments wasn’t because of his hit-producing track record. Rather, it was because Stent had—in another lifetime—been the man behind the boards for weird techno-punks such as KLF, the moody Massive Attack, and the always scary Psychic TV. “He was surprised someone was referencing those albums, let alone desiring him because of his past,” says Moby with a laugh. “From that point forward, Spike insisted that what he wanted from me was something intimate, moody and quiet, rather than something dance-y; something closer and more personal to me, which in the end was what I wanted too.”
With Innocents, the pair got that up-close-and-personal, simply uncomplicated, down-tempo sound that Moby has the patent on. “I write very simply structured songs,” he admits.
All they needed was Moby’s usual retinue of vocal collaborators. Only this time, he didn’t go for his usual collection of disco divas and gospel howlers. Instead, he hooked up with (mostly) white boy indie rock types a la Lanegan, Coyne and Jurado (pictured above, with Moby) to do the singing and write the lyrics.
So, why all the white boys, I joke with Moby.
“That’s a legitimate question, one whose answer might be disappointing,” he says. “When I’m thinking of working with singers, I’m not thinking of their gender or ethnicity. All I’m thinking is how their voice affects me emotionally. Like Damien. I heard his voice and fell in love with its most vulnerable qualities. So in approaching him, I want this sensitivity. That he happens to be a white man and not a black lady, was irrelevant. I’m quite mercenary when it comes to making records. I want to make music I find interesting and hopefully emotional and beautiful and will use whatever compositional elements I can get my hands on—samples, guitars, men, women—in service to my goals.”
No matter what he wants in lofty service to such humble music, doesn’t Moby perhaps hear a certain voice for each song? Sometimes. What happened in the case of Innocents was that Moby wrote and recorded his instruments, sent them out to those he sought collaboration with, told them “if there’s anything here that strikes your fancy that you want to write to, just let me know,” and waited. In reality, this is much like Surrealist maestro Andre Breton and friends’ Exquisite Corpse game where one artist wrote a bunch of words, the next person focused only on the phrase’s last word, and started writing from there.
“My process is a lot like a Surrealist tag team composition. There’s something exciting about sending something to someone and never knowing what you’re going to get back. It doesn’t always work but it’s always better than I what I was expecting. These are all idiosyncratic gifted people. It’s nice being on the receiving end.” (Below: Moby with Wayne Coyne in a video.)
All these interesting guests, all their fabulous repartee; this makes for a delicious house party in a small, offset community that is Innocents. Like the Hollywood canyon he lives in, this album’s sound is that of the relaxed and the domestic.
“Domesticity in a space so vast and not so cohesive,” he says, reminding me that Los Angeles is an urban experience without a center, one comprising 150 little towns, in a manner than would make Chinatown scribe Robert Towne proud.
“Innocents has a gentle domestic quality, an idea that’s as sweet as it is a reaction to this town’s vast and utter confusion.”
In which the songwriter tells us what’s what. Any questions?
INTERVIEW BY RANDY HARWARD
In conversation, great songwriters don’t mince words. Chicago’s Robbie Fulks, author of such songs as “Fuck This Town” (an indictment of Nashville), is great. He says what’s on his mind. Sometimes bluntly. Often artfully, playfully. Think about how many great country songwriters copped that same style. The proof is in every album Fulks has ever made, from 1996’s Country Love Songs up through Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot, released in August).
In his songs about, well, everything, Fulks paints pictures of humanity in all its guises, whether it’s weekend partiers, frustrated songwriters, Fountains of Wayne, a sickly unemployed amateur children’s magician – or himself. No matter what or whom he’s talking about, Fulks is unfailingly forthcoming, always entertaining. Here’s what the original South Mouth had to say about aging, politics, the Bible and Saturday morning cartoons, a Muppet and himself.
I find it interesting, at age 50,that I’ve moved into a new chapter where I look back not exactly with a sweet feeling toward those old days, but equal parts dewy-eyed nostalgia and Thank God I’m out of there.
[Bloodshot Records and I are] both small-timers, we both got a little attitude, you know. We’ve been up and down through the story of music for almost the last twenty years. But because we’re both still around, a grudging admiration.
My personality probably has its roots in MAD magazine and you know the love of the freaks and the oddballs. I really love anybody that has the balls to stand outside of the mainstream and be totally confident in bizarreness. Whether it’s a Hell’s Angel, a radical lesbian, or a vegan. But maybe not a religious cult. Anybody short of that.
My 16-year-old went through a phase that got me a little bit up to speed [on heavy metal]. He took me to Cannibal Corpse concerts. And Metallica. I have one of their—I’m kind of light on metal. Not that I don’t like it. But I don’t like it a lot.
I do like novelty music. Like the Re/Search album that came out in the ‘80s, with the speeded-up xylophone shit on it and The Logger’s Lament or whatever. I loved the Rhino World’s Worst Records with Edith Massey singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” I love-love-love all that stuff. And John Waters’ Christmas record, and—well, you get it. And I love song-poems. I’ve worked with some of those song-poem guys in promoting that documentary… I love all those offbeat, weirdo, not necessarily conventionally talented characters.
I’ve gone through different phases and I hate to get too specific about politics, because it only gives people a reason not to buy your record. Whereas, if you don’t say anything, you can sort of be all things to all people. But just so I’m not too cagey about it, I was a Reaganite in the 80s.
After the Cold War, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a principal threat, I kinda moved, definitely, toward the Libertarian side… Libertarianism was just a hopeful philosophy for all people. The more freedom you have, the more you take responsibility for your own mistakes… But then 9/11 kinda snapped it back a little bit onto a war footing.
I think there a lot of practical reasons that Ron Paul wouldn’t make a good president and that libertarianism might not work as a day-by-day governing philosophy for America. But I still think it represents a lot of forward-looking optimism. And I think, in contrast to … Republican or Democrat, it’s in line with our founding ideals.
And libertarianism means freedom in business and freedom in the bedroom, both.
I’m gonna have a really wishy-washy answer [about the NSA and spying] because, as a Libertarian, as a practical American – I think there’s merit to David Brooks’ argument that what Edward Snowden did was not an act of patriotism and that governments need secrecy in order to function properly. Secrecy in diplomacy and secrecy in warmaking—and arguably this is a branch of warmaking. Beyond that, I don’t have enough information to make a material pronouncement.
It’s probably useful to our characters to grow up with some kind of constraints, or difficulties—challenges, whether they happen to be the weird religious beliefs of your parents or whatever. [It helps when] you’re desperate to beat that and establish your own reality.
Oscar the Grouch without question is my favorite Muppet. I met his voicer, Carroll Spinney, two weeks ago in New York. He’s like an 80-year-old bohemian. I told him the first song I ever sang onstage was “I Love Trash” in a Baltimore nightclub when I was eight. But you could tell that he didn’t listen and didn’t care, which was even cooler.
I think maybe the Book of Revelations would be good for a Saturday morning cartoon. You know, huge unbelievable monsters … pregnant women knocking their fetuses on the rocks in order to abort themselves, and blood flowing from the sky. All that stuff.
My kids used to sing along to my song, ‘Cocktails.’ They would go, ‘Popcorn tore up my family.’ They kid-ized it somehow. They take the heat out of it, instinctively.”
The government shutdown, yeah. I think it’s a little overblown, you know? I watched PBS news last night and it had a lot of grim footage of senior citizens trying to enter national parks and moaning about how now they couldn’t tell their grandchildren what Yellowstone looked like. And this [crisis] happened before when I was an adult and the water continued to circle the correct way down the drain, and things go back to normal when no planes fall out of the sky. Until some of that starts happening, I think it’s all overblown nonsense and in a week, they’ll work it out. It’s just symbolic nonsense.
Photo Credit: Dino Stamatopoulos. An edited version of this interview appears in issue #14 of BLURT.
Sparks will fly at the first Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville, N.C., this weekend, Oct. 25-27.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
That’s a reference to the high level of excitement that will be generated by Ron and Russell Mael, the Angelino brothers who for five decades have recorded as the exuberant pop group/art-rock conceptualists known as Sparks.
They tour irregularly – and when they do, it has tended to be just the major metropolises in the U.S. and Europe. But with a new boxed-set retrospective just out – New Music for Amnesiacs, containing 4 discs and a 64-page booklet – Sparks is devoting 2013 to extensively canvassing the U.S. (and abroad) with the Two Hands One Mouth and Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth tours. The Maels are not using supporting players; a concert is “just” Russell singing and Ron playing electric keyboard.
Friday’s key opening-night slot at Mountain Oasis will be the second show on Sparks’ Revenge tour, which continues through Nov. 11. “I’d probably say it’s our biggest tour,” Russell says, during a phone interview. “Earlier in the year we played cities not on this tour, with the exception of New York and Los Angeles. So if you add those to this, it’s probably the biggest tour Sparks has done in America and Canada ever.”
The electronic-music-themed Mountain Oasis, which is a new festival produced by Knoxville-based AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo) on the same weekend that it previously presented Moogfest in Asheville, seems an odd stop for the seemingly minimalist Revenge tour. (Moogfest, focusing on the juncture of music, technology and art, is continuing without AC’s involvement and is set for April 23-27 next year.)
So why are the Maels there? Sparks has always been hard to pigeonhole. Though a quintessential L.A. band, reflecting the city’s sly manipulation of pop culture to artistic (and commercial) ends, the Maels briefly became superstars in glam-era Britain with the operatic “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” Upon returning to the U.S., they have had recorded cult-beloved favorites with dance music (“The No. 1 Song in Heaven”), power pop and New Wave (“I Predict” and “Cool Places”).
There always has been an element of art-damage weirdness to Sparks, what with teen-idol Russell’s flowing locks and Ron’s severe, tight hair and narrow mustache. But there also has always been a desire to be rockers – they appeared on American Bandstand six times because Dick Clark loved them.
In recent they’ve ventured into more thematic work – including a 2009 musical commissioned by Swedish radio, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, that may be turned into a film by Canadian director Guy Maddin. Sparks is probably the only band that could write a musical about the super-serious film director Bergman and record a catchy song with a title like “Angst in My Pants.”
“Usually our instruments have an electric plug, so maybe that’s it,” Ron surmises about the Mountain Oasis booking. “We’re always trying to put ourselves in different contexts, and during the late 1970s we worked with Giorgio Moroder (on “#1 Song”), and that part is called electronic music.
“But what we do is have our own sensibility and we channel that through different styles in order to keep ourselves and other people interested,” he continues. “So strictly speaking, it isn’t electronic music. But in terms of being modern and counter to radio music in either pop or rock, then we’re ‘electronic’ in our mental aspect to it. But you won’t be hearing a Moog in our concert.
However, it ain’t folk music, either. “We’ve given specific orders to our sound guy to get really loud so it has the same effect on our audience that a band would have,” Ron adds. “We don’t want it to be reflective or mellow. We like aggression.”
The Maels honed their musical sensibilities as UCLA students in the late-1960s, both studying film, with Ron also studying theater and Russell graphic arts. In 1968, they formed a very quirky, eccentric band named Halfnelson. With Russell’s swooping vocals and Ron’s deadpan stage presence while playing keyboards, their approach was a little too conceptualist for the times. But one fan was Todd Rundgren, who got Halfnelson signed to Bearsville Records. Their first album came out in 1971…and went nowhere.
Bearsville was an odd choice for the ebulliently arty Maels – even if it did have pop virtuoso Rundgren. Based near Woodstock, N.Y., a haven of rootsy hippie sincerity, it was the boutique label of the famous manager Albert Grossman, and had such artists as Paul Butterfield, Jesse Winchester and Bobby Charles.
“Though seemingly at odds with the bands he managed like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and John Lee Hooker, Albert was a fan of what we were doing musically,” Russell says, in a follow-up E-mail to a phone interview. “He wanted the Halfnelson album to succeed commercially and after the initial lack of sales, he thought that changing the band’s name to something less obtuse than a wrestling hold would solve the problem. He thought we were amusing people and reminded him of the Marx Brothers. He suggested calling ourselves the Sparks Brothers. We hated that but met him half(way) with Sparks.”
Sparks, still a five-man band, released A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing in 1973, but the sales spike didn’t occur. At that point, the Maels took off for England and better luck with Island Records. And all that has come since.
This tour, like the New Music for Amnesiacs set, is an overview of Sparks’ career to this point. (The brothers have released 22 studio albums so far.) “We wanted to keep it pretty broad and varied and represent our different albums, but also play ones we thought weren’t obvious choices,” Russell says. “Maybe some more obscure songs that could be interesting in this context. On our last tour we did a song called “Sherlock Holmes” from one of our albums in the 1980s. People asked is that a new song. That’s really cool – a nice reaction.”
The booklet accompanying New Music, besides presenting a veritable museum exhibit of visual material related to Sparks’ history, contains a pretty weighty testimonial from loyal fan Morrissey. In part, he writes, “Some mothers never let their sons go, and all of the Maels songs are about the discipline of make-believe enforced by taboos placed on the flesh.”
Huh? It almost makes one want to say, “Lighten up, Morrissey,” And, in fact, Sparks did say that – it was the title of a song on their 2008 album Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
“When we read sentences like that, we say, ‘I kind of don’t get it but it’s Morrissey, so it’s cool,” Ron says. “It’s really flattering to us that he does in some way admire what we’re doing because he’s an artist working now who we’ve always respected musically and lyrically. For him not to just throw in a blurb about what we’re doing but to put some effort into it was very flattering for us.”
(As it happens, Morrissey has written a completely different foreword to an upcoming Sparks project, a book of their lyrics.)
The booklet also reprints a quote that Rundgren gave to the Words & Music publication in 1973, predicting that Sparks will never break up. He’s been right so far – it’s been a lifelong collaboration.
“We’ve come close from time to time,” Ron says. “But our roles within what we do are so opposite – a vocalist and a keyboard player. We’re not competing for the same turf within a band. Even though we’re different in most ways, we do share the same kind of vision of what Sparks should be doing.”
Andrew Savage counts the ways his band rocks. Damn, does it ever…
BY BARRY ST. VITUS
We caught up with Brooklyn band Parquet Courts frontman Andrew Savage in early September, just arriving home from the grocery store, restocking his larder after returning from many months on the road touring the U.S. and Europe. He says this is the first time that he’s slept in own bed since May. Their latest EP is Tally All The Things That You Broke released a couple of weeks ago on the estimable What’s Your Rupture label.
BLURT: So, are you still stoned and starving?
SAVAGE: Well, not as we speak now, but it happens regularly for me, sure.
How was the European tour? Was it the first time over?
We went for the first time in March as Parquet Courts. We’ve been over there five times this year, and we’ll go back in October.
What was your favorite show this trip?
This last month we played mostly festivals, but we had three club shows. We played London. It was a small room, maybe fit about 150 people, but about 200 showed up. We also played Athens, Greece, which was really cool because, y’know, I like playing in places where bands don’t come as frequently like a city like New York, or London or Berlin, the expected pit stops on a tour. Bands don’t go to Greece because you have to go through places like Croatia and Macedonia, so even less music happens. So, there’s a lot of enthusiasm that’s different from the type of enthusiasm you get even in a packed show in London, and it’s openly more rewarding because of that. So, yeah, I’d say that it was one my favorites this past time was Athens.
Was that great KEXP video of you guys playing Johnny’s Bike Shop at SXSW, a boost for the band? (Watch a clip from the video, above.)
You know, it was something, going in to, that I didn’t really think would have much effect on the band, because I myself don’t listen to a lot of podcasts or go on YouTube and a lot of stuff like that, but certainly, I found out there are a lot of people that do, because after shows I hear a lot of people saying that it was how they got interested in the band, was from that. So many said that. So yeah, I guess I do credit that a lot for bringing a lot of new people to the band. Sure.
It was so well shot and edited that it really captured the energy of your live shows…You get compared to many bands, with good reason. I loved the quote in your PR sheet that stated, “they sound like all the bands you think they sound like.”Your influences are often obvious in your music, and you wear them proudly, I would say. What are your own music collections like? A lot of classic post-punk like the Wipers? Proto-punk like the Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers?
Yeah, I think it’s probably a lot of stuff people would expect. I’ve been listening to music and buying records for a long time and I think in my collection you can see all the periods that I’ve been through. There’s a lot of classic punk in there. There’s a lot of hardcore. I was a hardcore kid for years.
So, yeah, all the usual suspects, if you would listen to Parquet Courts…. I feel like what people compare us to are all there. I like a lot of jazz and new music and playing some classical stuff. I like a lot of more noise-based stuff, too. Kraut rock too, which is something that doesn’t come up as much, but it definitely an influence for Parquet Courts, especially the more repetitive songs like “Stoned and Starving.” So, yeah, I think there are some surprises in there, and some stuff you’d probably suspect.
An edited version of this feature appears in issue 14 of BLURT, on newsstands in early November. Top photo credit: Ben Rayner. Lower photo: Heather Strange. Below: “You’ve Got Me Wondering Now” (don’t miss the lyrics below as well).
Keeps the rhythm, keeps it movin’.
Any day it’s gonna crack.
Popcorn kernel, olive pit,
At any moment smashed to bits (yeah).
Toothache’s better than heartache baby,
I’ve figured that much out.
And I thought I knew a thing or two about the blues
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
Dog-eyed kindess (naive and trusting)
Fans the purest flame of morning fire.
But once it fizzles out into charred, formless evening,
How do you ignite without turning to ash (yeah).
Seasick’s better than heartsick, baby.
I know that much by now. And I thought
I knew nausea from sea to cars
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
Forced into morning, tempted into night.
Tally all the things that you broke.
Bending her branches. Snapping, sapping and writhing.
For me alone.
Yeah, I guess sunburn’s better than heartburn (barely).
Guess I never figured that out.
And I thought I knew a thing or two about the blues
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.
But you’ve got me wonderin’ now.”
“We want to move into a sphere where we can be accessible to anybody who likes music”: Antibalas drummer Miles Arntzen talks about his other project, an Afrobeat/funk/soul/punk/rock collective.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“If the party’s on the stage, then the party’s in the crowd,” says Miles Arntzen, the founder, drummer and sometime singer for EMEFE, a 10-person Afrobeat/funk/soul/punk/rock collective that delivers an ass-shaking, mind-bending, all-encompassing live experience — and, hands down, the best show I’ve seen all year.
EMEFE is short for “Music Frees All,” less a catch phrase than an animating philosophy for this band. “What does Afrobeat or funk music do for me? It frees me from anything I’m worrying about at the moment and it brings me to the most core elements of life that I need to take stock of every day, every moment,” says Arntzen. “We’re doing that through our music, but we’re also doing that all together.”
That’s why EMEFE’s show begins right in the middle of the audience, in an irresistible percussive groove that becomes a parade and then a celebration, drawing the talkers, drinkers and texters into the experience before they even know the show has started. “A lot of times with out of town shows, we really like to start in the crowd because people tend to be standing at the bar,” says Arntzen. “It’s kind of a practical thing. We want to get them over to the stage, almost literally to grab them.”
Groove, rhythm, trance
Arntzen discovered Afrobeat about half a decade ago, while organizing benefits for his friend Scotty Hard. Hard was a Vancouver-based music producer who was paralyzed in an auto accident early in 2008. Brooklyn’s Antibalas played a series of shows for Hard in March 2008, and Arntzen, in the audience, was hooked.
“I didn’t know what I was listening to, but I’d never felt that free before. I wasn’t even flailing around dancing. It was a very subtle thing. It was seeping into my skin,” Arntzen remembers. He started listening to Antibalas and Fela himself. Then he reached out to the Antibalas crew via Facebook and MySpace and found mentors. “I began basically meeting up with a couple of them weekly and they would teach me a lot about the music — not only about Afrobeat, but life and music and all sorts of things. And so they started me on my journey of really getting inside the music, like I had never done before. There was a very constant 24/7 immersion in the music and it was quite an amazing time. Every day I was just discovering something new. “
What was it about Afrobeat that caught his attention? “First of all, it’s music that’s based in rhythm. It’s based in groove and not only the drums are providing that groove and rhythm. The guitars and the bass and the horns and the vocals, they’re all contributing to the rhythm in a way that is individual and yet works with the whole spectrum of instruments happening,” says Arntzen. “That idea just resonated with me — because I’m a drummer, but I’ve always played guitar, bass, piano and I’ve always sang. So that was probably the first thing.”
“But also there’s a spirituality in the music because of the persistence of rhythm,” he says. “It’s hard to pin down. It simply makes you feel good, that everything’s okay. That’s kind of what spirituality is, just finding a way to be okay.”
Arntzen admits that there’s a tension in Afrobeat, between the trancelike grooves that take you away from your troubles and the fiery political messages embedded in many of the songs. EMEFE is not overtly political (though Arntzen’s other band, Antibalas, is), a decision which he explains like this. “Even though there are of course things that I could write music about, politically, I don’t feel like that’s my job,” Arntzen says. “Politics are not what drew me to the music immediately even though that’s something that’s amazing about the music. What drew me to the music is the way it made me feel.”
College freshman, Afrobeat ringleader
EMEFE came about well after Arntzen discovered Afrobeat. In 2009, during the first few months of his freshman year at NYU, he found himself writing music inspired by Afrobeat. He invited musicians over to rehearse his tunes – some of them new acquaintances from NYU, others like bass player Doug Berns, friends from childhood. They rehearsed once, and Arntzen booked a gig. “So I was like, we have a gig, we have to rehearse. We have to rehearse a lot,” Arntzen recalls. “We put together about five songs and played at a jazz club in midtown. And that became EMEFE.”
Arntzen got recruited into Antibalas while still at NYU and took some time off to tour with them midway through his college career. But EMEFE continued to grow up alongside it. The band released Good Future in July 2012 via bandcamp and began touring the Northeast in a Striker Van. A couple of times, they made it as far as Chicago and Milwaukee.
“Anywhere you can drive is fair game for us,” Arntzen says, when asked about the logistics of touring with a 10-person band. “A Sprinter Van can hold 15 people if you want and has a full stand-alone trunk that we can put all our stuff in. Not to mention that it has a video game system and DVD and all that fun stuff.”
Broadening the sound
Now, as EMEFE begins to think about recording its follow-up to Good Fortune, Arntzen notes that other influences, outside Afrobeat, are taking on a larger role. “I’m having more and more trouble describing what EMEFE is because it’s taking on more and more influences. Funk is really at the core. But we definitely draw a lot on rock.”
Indeed, at a recent show, EMEFE veered sharply between Afrobeat, funk, punk, rock and soul, sometimes within a single song. “I grew up playing a lot of Led Zeppelin type rock. John Bonham was one of my favorite drummers. We’ve always been able to find a way to kind of meld different things together.”
Any, anyway, even Fela’s own music is pretty badass. “If you take one of Fela’s bass lines and you play it with a guitar, it sounds awesome. If you play the horn lines with distorted crazy keyboard sounds, it sounds awesome,” Arntzen continues. “That’s a testament to the spirit that he put into his music. There’s that fierceness there.”
Arntzen is anxious to get back into the study, to try to capture the way EMEFE is evolving. “We’re singing more,” he says. “I love the Talking Heads stuff where [David Byrne] goes between a lead vocal and a group vocal seamlessly on records like Remain in Light,I think that’s a beautiful texture to use, to jump between lead and group vocals. And that’s also a big part of Fela’s music. The lead vocals and the group vocals are always responding to each other. That’s the direction we’re going in.”
EMEFE might also be edging at least partly out of the all-instrumental category, a change that Arntzen says he welcomes. “Being an instrumental band can be kind of a handicap sometimes. We all want to sing. We try to do it as much as possible in the set that you saw. We’re kind of on that edge. Are they vocal or are they instrumental? And we don’t want to go all the way over into one or the other, but we want to stay on that middle ground.”
“We’re kind of moving away from more traditional world music,” he adds. “We want to move more into a sphere where we can be accessible to anybody who likes music.”
UPDATE: The band has launched a Pledge Campaign to raise money to help finance the upcoming album (they begin recording next week). If you hop over to their Pledge site page— http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/emefe —you can pick up more details and also watch the promo video about the project.
A story from the editor’s archives on the Aussie punk legends.
BY FRED MILLS
In 2001 Sub Pop issued The Essential Radio Birdman anthology, which at the time was the first legit Birdman artifact to see US release in nearly a quarter century. While over the years aficionados of Australian rock ‘n’ roll could lay their paws on selected reissues and bootlegs via import mail order sources, it almost goes without saying that the term “long suffering fan” was tailor made for them. Subsequent to that, against all odds, the band got back together (they had done likewise in 1995, appearing in ‘96 and ’97 at the annual “Big Day Out” festival), and the reunion eventually extended well into the decade: 2006 saw the release of a new studio album, Zeno Beach, and this led to a U.S. tour and the 2010 concert album Live In Texas.
Yours truly didn’t get to see the band on the tour, but thanks to a generous colleague I scored a tour teeshirt which I wear proudly to this day.
Why does the Radio Birdman legacy loom so large? Well, while these “legacy” issues are often a matter of perspective (and let’s face it, fanboys like me have none), to say that Radio Birdman was just another Aussie hard rock band would be akin to claiming that the Stooges was just another Detroit garage combo or that Blue Oyster Cult was just another Long Island boogie outfit. Hell, it’s no coincidence that Birdman took both its name and its debut album title from Stooges and BOC song lyrics! Emerging from the ashes of two Sydney garage bands, TV Jones and The Rats, and going onto release but one album during its attenuated ’74 – ’78 lifespan – 1977’s Radios Appear — Radio Birdman did fire one of those proverbial shots heard ‘round the nascent punk world.
In particular, that salvo was heard in the band’s native Oz. Musicians by the score were inspired by the Birdmen’s fierce rock ethic; audiences would chant the signature Birdman tag line, “Yeah, hup!” (from the anthemic “New Race”) en masse just as fervently as Americans shouted “Hey-ho, let’s go!” at Ramones gigs. According to author Vivien Johnson, in the exhaustive, excellent 1990 bio/oral history Radio Birdman (Sheldon Booth Publishers, Australia), “Radio Birdman were not typical – they were proto-typical. The energy of the response they generated in their audiences and their utterly uncompromising attitude towards any and every attempt to limit their music inspired in their wake an explosion of punk bands coming out of their old dancing grounds in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.”
Nowadays Radios Appear is ranked alongside the likes of Raw Power, Horses and Kick Out The Jams as a go-out-and-form-a-band timeless classic. It clearly benefited from being caught up in Sire Records’ mid-‘70s punk/new wave signing frenzy that included the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Dead Boys and Saints. But it has stood the test of time, too, its eclectic musical blend of garage, psych and surf marking it as a proto-punk artifact, its creators – vocalist Rob Younger, guitarists Chris Masuak and American-born Deniz Tek, keyboardist Pip Hoyle, bassist Warwick Gilbert, drummer Ron Keeley — the most charismatic rock ‘n’ roll thugs since the Pretty Things terrorized London a decade earlier.
The band split prematurely, in the summer of ’78, on the eve of what would have been their first US tour, supporting the Ramones. They’d decamped to the UK to record their second album, Living Eyes (which sat in the vaults for three years before seeing posthumous Oz release) and were touring with labelmates the Flamin’ Groovies when Sire dropped them. Disillusioned, disorganized and rather disheartened by a less-than-warm embrace from the London punk contingent, the Birdmen called it a day.
Radio Birdman reunited for a brief memorial tour in ’95 to celebrate the Australian CD reissues of the two albums ; a superb live CD, Ritualism, resulted. Over the years Younger and Tek have been the most musically active, teaming up in ’81 with Gilbert, Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s Dennis Thompson to form New Race. Younger went on to front the still-extant New Christs (a new CD is due soon on Man’s Ruin), while the Montana-based Tek concurrently works with the Deniz Tek Group and Deep Reduction— whose second album, featuring Younger on guest vocals, is just out on Get Hip – and he collaborated in ’96 with Wayne Kramer and Scott Morgan as Dodge Main.
The 22-song retrospective The Essential Radio Birdman presented the choicest of the choice, from Radios Appear’s Dick Dale-meets-Blue Oyster Cult “Hand of Law” and dance anthem/Iggy tribute “Do The Pop” to Living Eyes’ throbbingly psychedelic “I-94” and garage cruncher “Burn My Eye ’78,” plus a handful of, ahem, essential tracks from the rare EPs Burn My Eye and the live-in-‘77 More Fun.
I was lucky enough to hook up with both Younger and Tek for separate interviews on all matters Birdman, along with some updating of each man’s file, around the time of the release of the 2001 Sub Pop collection. I’d previously talked at length with Younger several years back while putting together historical liner notes for the 1995 New Christs anthology, Born Out of Time, that Canada’s Lance Rock Records issued. At the time I took note of the balance he seemed to strike between humility (at having been “just” a singer despite posterity’s judging him a respected rock pioneer), cynicism (at having been subjected to the horrors of the music biz) and pride (at having embarked upon a mission and accomplished it despite massive odds). To this day, those traits remain, as you’ll no doubt glean from his comments. Tek, too, while demonstrating a different sort of demeanor (a no-nonsense kind of guy blessed with a dry wit and a subtle romantic streak) has the kind of serene perspective that’s the mark of a rock ‘n’ roll survivor – all the better, given that his interviewer was precisely the kind of perspective-challenged, Birdman-loving fanboy mentioned above!
Younger himself suggests a key personality demarcation between the two Birdman founders, leading one to surmise a source of that ever-important “creative tension” that has helped fuel the great rock ‘n’ roll partnerships through time: “Between Deniz and myself we should be able to set things straight about the band for your article, Fred. Deniz is an ace at maintaining mystique; I, on the other hand, excel at demystification. I know who I’d prefer to listen to!”
Below you can read what both men told me about all this, and more, some dozen years ago, so note that the comments at the end about reunions and such were clearly, ahem, premature. Yeah, hup!
First off, is the set remastered from the original tapes? Any outright remixing done in addition? I have the ’95 CD reissues of Radios Appear and Living Eyes that Red Eye issued in Australia, and at the time you remixed the latter because, as I understand it, you were never happy with the mix on the LP.
YOUNGER: I think the Radios Appear/Burned My Eye-era tracks are the remastered versions from the Red Eye reissued stuff, and the Living Eyes material is the re-mixed gear from that period also. The remixed versions of certain Australian-version Radios Appear songs used also for the “White Album” version of Radios Appear are the ones likely to be used again I’d imagine, but I’m unsure, and those were remastered for the Red Eye release. In the case of re-recorded versions, like “New Race,” “Anglo Girl Desire,” I think we’re using the later ones. Is this confusing to you as well. Deniz’s call on this would be the definitive one.
DENIZ TEK: There was no new remix this time. It was mastered from the Red Eye reference masters [used for the CD reissues]. In 1995 Rob and I remixed the entire Living Eyes from the original 2”, 24-track tapes, with the help of Chris Masuak and Phil Punch. Phil engineered those sessions for Red Eye at Electric Avenue – the old Trafalgar Studios – which is the same place where Radios Appear was recorded in the mid ‘70s.
What was the selection process for the Sub Pop compilation’s 22 songs? Was it just you two or were the other members involved? Any particular thoughts or emotions you experienced during the compiling that, upon reflection, made you say, “Hey, this was a pretty good/this was a pretty excruciating moment?”
TEK: No really excruciating moments but some of the original Burn My Eye EP makes me cringe a bit. There were many good moments. I don’t usually ever listen to this stuff unless I’m at someone’s house and they happen to put it on. I’m usually surprised by the quality… and I get to wondering if I can still play that well! I can and more, but what I’m hearing is a group spirit in RB that exceeded the technical limits of the individuals involved. I think the live tracks are exceptional and contain energy that was difficult to achieve in the studio format. There were concessions made all around, since not everyone has the same appreciation for particular songs.
YOUNGER: Just Deniz and Andy at Sub Pop, I forget, selected the songs if I recall. I was asked what I thought and it looked alright to me. I don’t know if anyone other band members were asked, but that would’ve complicated matters because how many bands agree wholeheartedly on anything? We had 6 members!
The real “excruciating moments,” for me, relate to listening to playbacks of my singing. TheRadios Appear/Burn My Eye sessions are a bit of a blur now. It was all new to me at the time; surely I had fun, and overall it was quite painless. A lot of stuff went down live in the studio. Certainly, quite a few vocals, such as that for “TV Eye,” were taken while the band played it, and the rest, for better or worse, would be first or second takes. And Deniz has always entrusted me with the “responsibility” of choosing which solo of his to use. Initially, we did have a minor shitfight with the producers about whether we could to be told how to sound, matters of “direction,” etc., but that was sorted out pretty fast. After some argument it looked as though the whole session would fall flat on its arse, but they said, well, go in there and play something anyway. We did, and they were still interested. Nobody else had been too thrilled up to that point. We’d talked, and sometimes played, to other producers, having been feted by an editor of our big rock mag at the time, RAM, but these meetings didn’t work out for us because we were so unbending on everything. We probably looked like trouble. I hope so.
In that vein, were there songs necessarily left off the Sub Pop disc that either of you would have wanted? I know from my conversations with Rob several years ago when we brainstormed the sleeve notes for the New Christs anthology that he can be intensely self-critical of his own performances, so I wonder was either of you also dead set against certain cuts as well?
TEK: I would have left off “Snake” since it was really more of a TV Jones song in my mind than a Radio Birdman song, same for “I 94.” But Andy at Sub Pop had to have those. “Monday Morning Gunk” was another TV Jones era tune that I nixed. I could have included “Hit Them Again,” which Rob dislikes, “Iskender Time” and “455 SD” but they didn’t make the cut. Remember you can only get 74 minutes on a CD and that’s pushing it.
YOUNGER: I didn’t have to say which songs I didn’t want on there; Deniz knows which ones they are. There are a few I like that didn’t make it. Things like “Time To Fall,” “Iskender Time,” didn’t made the cut. Overall though, it’s quite comprehensive; it’s us.
What about rarities and unreleased material? While the More Fun and Burn My Eye EP material was nice to include, was there stuff in the vault that you considered releasing? Or would there be a rarities collection perhaps in the future?
YOUNGER: That topic never came up, but I don’t know of anything that’s never been released that I’d particularly want released now. There’s talk of live-to-air radio stuff being put out in the future. We tend to disagree rather strongly on the quality of that material. Personally, I think the sound and atmosphere on “Dark Surprise” and “More Fun” — both live recordings included on this new release — are way superior to anything else we did. Alan Thorne’s engineering had a lot to do with those aspects I believe, and the general ambience of the Paddington Town Hall. [The live song originally on the More Fun EP were recorded live in Sydney on 12/12/77.] They were mixed long after the band had split up. Seymour Stein of Sire Records, apart from peripheral reasons too delicate to recount in detail here, wanted to sign us on the basis of our live version of “More Fun” which he heard us play live once or twice in Sydney.
TEK: There are studio outtakes in the archives, mostly covers and at least one original that I know of, from Radios Appear sessions, that have never seen the light of day…for fair reasons! Even the bootleggers don’t have those! But you don’t have to release the last dregs, even though many bands do. So there won’t be any more studio rarities coming out. However I would like to see a live album from thePaddington Town Hall show, which was a very good night, well-recorded on 16-track mobile.
Speaking of bootlegs, not long ago when Deniz was in Arizona visiting his brother he encountered a Birdman bootleg, Murder City Nights, which was a live broadcast circa ’76 in Sydney, in the record store where I work and was quite displeased. This led to an email exchange about the possibility of a Birdman archive being set up where live material was made available officially, so I’m wondering about each of your thoughts in that regard, as well as your opinions on bootlegs. A number of artists do their own archive releases — the Dead, Pete Townshend, etc. — and this serves both artist, in terms of “beating the boots,” and the gotta-have-it-all fans as well.
TEK: A lot of tapes now in circulation are sonically bad, and I don’t think that inferior material warrants the effort in setting up and administering an official archive. There is already an effective underground network that handles that stuff well enough. But I would really like to see the best live material mixed and mastered well, and made available on record. I don’t have anything against fans and collectors keeping and trading any old live tapes for their own enjoyment, but I can’t accept the idea of profiteers generating substantial income from material they have stolen from artists.
YOUNGER: I’m of the view that it’s senseless bothering to worry about it. I didn’t always think that way. I used to refuse to autograph bootlegs, which was pretty churlish. I’ve never heard a bootleg recording by hardly anybody that I thought was essential listening, let alone our’s. If “officially” releasing these recordings helps in some way, makes money for a friend, I won’t block them, but really, most of what I’ve heard, which isn’t a lot I suppose, isn’t to my liking, and I’d say it’ll compromise us rather than flatter. Guys like Pete Townshend are already wealthy from their hit records. They were bootlegged because they were big time. At our level, the bootlegs can just compromise you, especially when they are studio recordings released almost simultaneously with the official ones. How do they do that? It happened in Italy to my band The New Christs apparently. Pricks.
A couple of Sydney newspaper clips from the Jan. 13 1995show at Selinas offered contrasting views of your ’95 reunion. One was ecstatic (“there will always be a place for them should they wish to come back in another 20 years”) while the other one was, shall we say, less than thrilled (“their importance has never been greatly related to their musical worth”). Any reactions?
TEK: The Selinas show was a great one. I think it rivals anything we ever did in the old days. However this music isn’t for everyone, obviously. Whether in 1976 or 1996, some journalists just wont get it. But they have to write something, since it’s their job.
YOUNGER: A long answer to this kind of question probably comes off as being defensive, and sensitive to criticism, but it brings up the subject of our context and relevance to a time and a scene. I hope I can make sense here.
Some critics loved us and some didn’t. It’s just opinion. I won’t contest the first quote — it’s favorable. That second quote is worth commenting on. Our influence, in retrospect, had at least as much to do with our attitude to our audience and to the music scene generally at the time as with any musical influence, but there was nothing like us around these parts, musically, at the time as far as I could tell, and rock hasn’t moved so far beyond what we were doing as to render us irrelevant after the fact, so I think that critic’s view is rather facile – probably, it was somebody who wasn’t born or out of knee pants by 1974. Our musical worth relates to the virtue of being different to other bands during our time. I’m not saying our music is or was totally original stylistically; I’m comparing us to other bands in a certain context, mainly a temporal one.
I wouldn’t be too eager to separate our attitude from our music – those elements were married. It’s easy to have a certain critical perspective in 1995, if you weren’t there in ’74 to actually check it out. Our material was musically varied, unlike most other band’s who think variation is a matter of fast or slow; it was played like there was no tomorrow –even the slow stuff, and it was basic. A huge proportion of groups in those days were just cranking out solemn shit like Free covers, and lots of 12 bar blues stuff. The big bands of the day — Sherbet, Skyhooks were the big socially relevant bands at the time we started out — were tepid fucking affairs and people tend to appraise them now in nothing more than affectionately nostalgic terms. It’s all a bit of a giggle now. People apologize for having liked them. With us, people today get a tattoo done of our symbol!
When we played we put on a show and that show wasn’t choreographed to the hilt, and we didn’t ever consciously use the same set list twice. If I spat sheep’s brains at the audience, it was intended just that once – we didn’t plan it to happen in the same chorus of the same song every time. We got banned from venues left right and center for being ourselves, which says a lot because these days anything obnoxious is simply co-opted by the record companies, a marketing angle is contrived to accommodate the so-called outrage. After punk hit, it was expected of bands to be obnoxious, profane, whatever. Most punk bands acted the way they were expected to, and were posers in the extreme.
In early days, bands down the rehearsal rooms used to sneer at us. At first, our original music, which consisted entirely of Deniz’s songs, and he was just starting out as a songwriter, doesn’t necessarily sound so unusual today after all the rock that’s gone down since, but it doesn’t sound dated either. Bands, in fact, still imitate us; some just bear some similarities, but many in the past have set out to copy us. I don’t care though.
For what it’s worth, the particular Selinas show the critic referred to, was, to my mind, the best gig the band ever played outside the Funhouse, where, in those earlier days, we were a different style almost – more experimental, erratic, and at least to me, more interesting. Still, I’m ashamed to say I like the idea of 3000 people screaming for another song.
I should’ve just said “fuck the critics, period” – sorry about the rant, Fred!
Speaking of live, you were able to tour the UK with the Flamin’ Groovies in the spring of ‘78 but didn’t make it to the U.S. Why did the band fail in that respect? Do you think the career would have been different if you’d made it to the US where your fanbase was definitely growing thanks to Sire issuing Radios Appear in the States?
TEK: Our U.S. tour with the Ramones was scheduled for summer of 1978 but was cancelled when Sire dropped the band from the label at the start of our UK tour, which was then funded temporarily by the distributor Polygram. It would have been impossible to do the American tour without label support. As it turned out, the band died a natural death anyway. On the skids both financially and emotionally, sick, exhausted, broke, no label and no support, there wasn’t enough critical mass of motivation to try to get it revved up again. People moved on.
YOUNGER: It’s pretty hard to speculate on might have been in terms of success. The interpersonal politics of the band were in a shambles when we were in the UK in ’78, so I doubt we’d have been able to stomach each other for longer than we did. But if I recall, it was apparent quite early in the piece that the US tour was never going to happen because Sire had pulled the plug on several bands on their label around the time we first got to England. It was through the kind support of people at Phonogram in London, who owed us nothing, that we managed to stay afloat for the five months or so we were there. I didn’t know the half of it.
Personally, I doubt we’d have made much of an impression in the States generally. To make a more lasting impression, it might have been good to have played there and be hated, like in Australia mostly. Maybe we could’ve been appreciated somewhere seemingly receptive – perhaps – like CBGBs, I don’t know. But the punk thing, which we were lumped into, wasn’t too widespread in the States in 1978, so there’s every chance we’d not have got a gig outside New York and LA, whatever the punk capitals were. Cleveland? You never know though. I stayed at these people’s place in LA – after the end of that tour – and they asked to hear my copy of Radios Appear. Honestly, I didn’t force it on them. They listened to all of it, up loud, and from that point on they treated me like someone with two heads. It’s never occurred to me until now, telling you this, that they might have been impressed, or better still: scared.
TEK: I’ve always thought the band might have done OK in America, where perhaps the fashion side of punk wasn’t quite so important — outside of NY and LA anyhow. In the heartland, we might have been taken at face value, i.e., as a good rock and roll band.
Fair enough. Okay, here’s where I lapse into a couple of my favorite cliché questions: What were the band’s greatest achievements/successes?
TEK: On a good night, it rocked really hard.
YOUNGER: I don’t really want to get into that “legacy thing.” Speculating on what we might have paved the way for; kicked down barriers, etc, etc. I get that from time to time. In terms of the ‘music industry’ we changed nothing much that I can see. We entertained a few people for a while; left a couple of records. Some who saw and heard us were left feeling something important had happened to them; so a lot of people tell me. Some bands – mostly ones I can’t stand, like The Angels, various others – ripped off parts of our routine, certain images we used, or took vague, half-arsed stabs at emulating our performing style, perceived stance, whatever, and did alright for themselves with it. Of course, I’d never ape someone’s performing style, or their clothes…..heaven forbid.
What I am certain of is that if I hadn’t been in Radio Birdman I wouldn’t have got as many fucks as I did, and probably less opportunity later on in terms of getting to tour Europe at least partially on the back of that band’s reputation. And, all the shit we stirred up got us noticed, and the confrontational aspect stuck to us: we’re bad boys, which is better than the other kind. These things must represent some kind of achievement.
Then what were its greatest weaknesses or biggest pitfalls?
TEK: No management or advanced leadership skills that might have allowed it to continue.
YOUNGER: In terms of pitfalls, they’re more related to my subsequent activities with The New Christs line-ups. Some people seem to think I long for these “halcyon days,” and they wear that sickeningly condescending expression — you know, poor guy’s deluding himself, playing the ingénue — when I say I’m far more interested in what I’m doing now. Jerks. And, naturally, there are still those who can’t accept that we don’t play Radio Birdman songs – but not as many now. They’re jerks too. It’s an insult to the people I play with who weren’t in RB. After all, I’m writing songs now, whereas back then I wasn’t, apart from words for “Aloha Steve and Danno.” These would be the same people who would’ve walked out when they got the sheep brains spattered all over them, or had their drinks knocked over while hoping to enjoy a nice night’s entertainment.
Was there ever a sense while you were in the thick of things in Australia that yeah, we got a great band here, one that people will be talking about a quarter-century later?
YOUNGER: I never considered we would have a lasting influence – no reason to. I did feel, early on in the piece, that we were going to have an impact on the local rock scene because I just felt that our activities were intense and somehow had meaning beyond simply playing a gig. Quite early on we saw our work as being experimental. We thought of our shows as “events.” I suppose I didn’t recognize in other bands any attitude, or any contempt for the pandering bullshit that permeated the band scene, or the passion to match Deniz’s and mine. Sorry, it sounds egotistical, but it’s true for me. I say “Deniz and I” a fair bit because the essence of the band, which we two started, was a merging of complementary attitudes to a greater effect; is this symbiosis? Sounds pompous, but maybe that’s just the way it looks when it’s written down. We had a mutual interest — maybe a craving even — for the upheaval that comes with willful, uncooperative behavior. I remember deriving a lot of satisfaction from us being made pariahs.
TEK: We most definitely [were aware of the first part of the question] at the time, but as to the latter, no way. We would have done well to think in terms of six month blocks. But one week was about the extent of our horizon.
What would you have done differently, if anything?
TEK: For one thing, I would have never worn those bloody leather trousers I got from Ron Asheton!
YOUNGER: I would’ve done lots of things differently, and I’d probably say I’d do those things differently too, 20 years later. If I had the chance again I’d have tried writing songs like Deniz encouraged me to.
And I wouldn’t have cut my hair before we went to England. Waist length hair would’ve enraged those punks in 1978!
Are you in touch with the other guys from the band? What are they doing musically these days?
TEK: I’m in touch with everyone except Warwick Gilbert. Chris has a new hard rock band the Klondike Solution. The Raouls — surf instrumentals — might have started up again as well, featuring Chris on drums and Warwick on guitar. Pip’s in my band, the Deniz Tek Group. And Ron has a pub rock band in England called the Suspects.
YOUNGER: Pip Hoyle, it seems, only plays when Deniz is in town. That’s pretty much what he’s always done. Even back in pre-Birdman days, say, with TV Jones, Pip would get up and play with Den, but never sat in with any other crowd, or joined a band. Great guy Pip, though I hardly ever see him. Chris Masuak does occasional playing, I think in a more country vein; not sure because I never see him around. Warwick Gilbert plays guitar for his wife Julie, who’s a singer, formerly Julie Mostyn of Sydney group The Flaming Hands. I think they’re into R & B and jazz. He’s also, fairly recently, done surf music with various people and he and Chris released a rather good 45rpm surf instrumental a few years ago on Munster, the Spanish label. Don’t see him around much either. Ron Keeley lives in England. I think the Radio Birdman reunion tour was his last gig. Before he did that tour he hadn’t played for 16 years.
Could you fill us in on the upcoming Deep Reduction album?
TEK: The new one has a different bass player and fashion consultant, Jonathan Sipes, who played guitar in the Omega Men. And Rob Younger does the vocals. The album is more coherent and unified than the last one, and is pretty much just rock in direction. Songwriting is shared between me, Jack Chiara and Rob. The art work is cool.
YOUNGER: It’s got some cool stuff on there; it rocks out. There’s a surf instrumental on there – “Maui Confidential” —a couple of flat-stick rockers, a Pink Fairies cover called “City Kids,” a blues workout with some very cool harmonica, and a few songs some might describe as in a vaguely 60s style. I put words and tunes — yes, tunes — to a few tracks, and they seemed to work alright at the time. There are a few writers in the band so there’s enough variation to intrigue the easily-bored, yet a consistency of style that’s sure to satisfy those who abhor the wildly eclectic. I’m of the latter persuasion myself. It was done in a bit of a hurry so if I have any reservations they’re to do with me wanting to fix a few bits of singing — de rigueur as they say. When my copy arrives I’m hoping for a pleasant surprise, having been removed from proceedings for some time. I got along great with the D.R. guys whom I’d never met before. They consider me part of the band. It was interesting how they trusted a stranger to contribute musically in the way they did. I wouldn’t have!
Deniz, what about your own group? By the way. what do you do in your spare time back home in Montana in between slicing up patients?
TEK: I don’t slice them up. I put them back together!
The Deniz Tek Group did some gigs in Australia over the Christmas period with Jim Dickson, Nik Rieth and Pip Hoyle, and I just got back from a European tour with Scott Morgan. I’ll be spending the summer finishing up some studio projects including a new Angie Pepper recording, and a Deniz Tek Group effort with Art and Steve Godoy. Hopefully by autumn we’ll do a second Glass Insects album also…and, I try to spend time with my wife and two teenage kids.
And Rob, how about the New Christs?
YOUNGER: The New Christs aren’t doing much right now. We’ve got an album coming out sometime on Man’s Ruin, but no release date has been set. there’ll be a CD and a vinyl one. We have magnificent new 7″ single called “On Top Of Me” b/w “Groovy Times” out now on Munster Records, the Spanish outfit. If it’s not on vinyl, it’s not really out yet. We were hoping to tour Europe this year but that won’t be happening.
Lastly, the inevitable question is, will there be a Birdman reunion to promote the Sub Pop CD?
TEK: There won’t be any more Radio Birdman shows…least of all, for promotion or marketing reasons.
[Ed. note: famous last words, Deniz… photo by Tony Mott]
The erstwhile band frontman is “still scared shitless” that one day he’ll have to get a real day job. But with a successful record label (SideOneDummy) still going strong and a side career in standup comedy continuing to pick up steam, he has nothing to worry about.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
A punk rocker in his early twenties, first with Wax and then 22 Jacks, Joe Sib toured with everyone from Social Distortion to The Ramones. He went on to co-found the record label SideOneDummy along with his roommate, guitarist Bill Armstrong. The label introduced a generation of kids to everyone from Flogging Molly to Gaslight Anthem, and in just under 20 years has become one the most successful punk rock record labels in the world.
So what’s a guy raised on Black Flag and California burritos do to top his past achievements? Standup comedy, obviously.
He started out a few years ago with a spoken word show California Calling which took him from bars to clubs to larger and larger venues. Though crammed with humor, it was more of a memoir out loud about growing up as a punk rock kid. A show several years ago at a Hollywood comedy club, though, led him on his current path to standup comedy.
After a night after performing at a Comedy Central Showcase at the Improv last month, Sib got on the phone to talk about his new career, how Flogging Molly ended his band (sort of) and the SideOneDummy story, 20 years in the making.
BLURT: I remember about a year or so ago, when you were touring with California Calling, your spoken word show.
JOE SIB: That’s really how I started (with standup). I wrote some stuff and started performing it live. I did that for about three years and did it everywhere and got invited to do a show at The Improv in Hollywood and that’s the first time I ever did anything in a comedy club and that led to me sort of wanting to try standup. I just loved the atmosphere of the club… sometimes when you’re in a bar show, people really aren’t focused into what’s going on, it works well for music, but not when you’re trying to tell stories or jokes. As much as The California Calling stuff had some humor, people were asking me, “You’re funny, but can you do what you do in 10 minutes or 15 minutes. And can you do stuff that’s more than just your love for Black Flag?”
Was it hard, coming up with topics?
For a while I tried to write jokes, but I’m just not a one-liner guy. Mitch Hedberg is the best of the best, but that’s not me. I had to lean on the stories, which is my strength, and had to figure out what would work for the audience. I tried to force it for a while and knew deep down the stuff wasn’t funny. Then one night I just started talking about being married and my son and my daughter and how my whole life has been about raging against authority and now I can’t be anything but the authority… and also the trials and tribulations of being in a relationship with someone for 21 years. And those were the things that just connected with the audience, so I started writing more about that stuff and it’s been two years now.
Early on, did you every have those nights when you were so obviously bombing on stage?
Oh yeah man, you get that flop sweat. I remember when I first starting doing comedy you could really tell when something wasn’t going over. I will say that with comedy, I feel the audience generally does want to like you. I didn’t realize that until recently. My only thing to compare it to is being in a band. Doing comedy to me isn’t nearly as scary as being in a band. Yes, there are hecklers and it can get ugly really quick, but when I was in a band I had people physically jump on stage and hit me. I remember in the ‘80s, in one of my first bands, we were playing in San Francisco and I had long hair and I was up on stage and we’re doing our thing and I stage dive and start crowd surfing. I realize that these six guys are taking me further away from the stage, they throw me on the floor and I realize these are six skin heads with Doc Martens and they proceeded to dance on me. That hasn’t happened to me in comedy yet, so if someone wants to yell “You suck!” I can handle that.
But it’s got to be a little bit more intimidating doing standup. If you’re in band, the audience is either fans of your stuff or at the very least punk music. It seems like the audience at a comedy club is a crap shoot.
When you’re the headliner in anything, music or comedy, those are your people and it’s generally a great experience, but when you’re the opening band, you’re what stands between the fans and what they want to see. You feel it quick if you’re not delivering. I still feel that my music and my time on stage in a band has helped me as a comic. There are a lot of similarities.
SideOne has already put out an album by Erik Griffin (best known for the TV show Workaholics). I think you guys have plans for another comedy album. Do you ever worry about getting approached by fellow comedians who you just aren’t into looking to get an album out there?
That’s actually a really good question. I’ve been really fortunate to work with Erik Griffith. He really got it and understood quickly what we wanted to do, he recorded it, it came out great and we’re already talking about the next thing we want to do. But Erik’s more like a band than anyone else I know. He tours like a band, he’s constantly on the road. As far as it goes with others, I have so much respect for so many other comedians, but compared to them I’m a baby, I’ve only been doing this about three years, so I’m not getting those requests yet… But If I see someone amazing that I want to work with, I’m gonna approach them.
I guess it’s not that different than mediocre bands finding out you run a label and badgering you for a deal.
Yeah. I’m pretty up front with bands I talk to… When I want to work with a band I tell them straight up, “I want to work with you.” I want to make that clear at the beginning as opposed to stringing them along with meetings and the band leaves thinking “Are they into us or not?” I used to hate that when I was in a band and you’d meet with a manager or an agent, some bullshit meeting that went on for an hour and you walk out and get in the van, driving for the next six hours asking each other “Do they want to work with us or not?” I’ll be completely honest. I may say, “I love what you guys are doing, but it’s way too early for me to get involved, but let’s start a relationship and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”
(Below: Joe Sib in 1985)
Do you mind talking a little bit about how you and Bill started the label? There’s a long history of punk bands that start labels to put out their stuff or music from friends, but rarely does it last very long or get as big as an Epitaph or SideOne.What were your plans when you started it?
When we started the label, I don’t think Bill or I ever thought it would be around for 19 or 20 years. I was still in 22 Jacks at the time, so I thought, we’re going to do this, put out a couple of records, and 22 Jacks is going to explode and I’m going to be on the road with my music adventure for a long time. I was 26 or 27 when we started the label, so I still had the rock dream and was touring, I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids and didn’t have a life outside of punk rock. I graduated, moved to LA and started playing in bands right away. I think when we signed Flogging Molly, two things happened, at least for me. I was in my thirties, had just gotten married, was in the band, and we weren’t going to the next level. We had just signed a band that wasn’t just made up of our friends. All of a sudden there’s people to answer to, a manager… It was a huge opportunity, but also a lot of responsibility.
At that point I said I gotta put the rock dream on hold, because I’ve got people depending on me to deliver and you know this could turn into something, because we could all see that Flogging Molly was something special. When that record came out, I finally thought SideOneDummy might actually have a chance to be a company that sticks around for a few years… then Gogol Bordello comes into the picture, then the Warped Tour comes into the picture and The Warped comps and we’re doing more and more and the label continues to grow and before you know it you’ve turned 45 years old and the label is still going. Bill and I have never had a job outside of being in bands and doing SideOne.
Bill and I are still scared shitless that someday we’re going to have to go out and get real jobs. That’s the driving force really.
A senior member of punk’s Class of ’76—via The Dead Boys, duh—offers life lessons, thoughts on the new CBGB biopic, advice on surviving in the music industry, and more.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Cheetah Chrome and his band The Dead Boys never really got their proper due for their contribution to New York’s punk rock music. Founded in 1976 in Cleveland, Chrome and his buddies packed up the van as quick as they could and relocated to New York on the advice of Joey Ramone. They became a favorite at CBGB, but grew frustrated while all of their friends and scene mates were being handed record deals.
Finally signed to Sire Records at the tail end of New York’s punk movement, the label tried to get them to clean up a bit and polish off the rough edges to appeal more to Middle America—essentially remove the “punk” from punk rock. By 1979 they called it quits, although there was a subsequent reunion tour in 1987 and another one in 2004-05 (although by that point vocalist Stiv Bators was long dead).
Bad experiences aside, Chrome—born Eugene O’Connor—managed to soldier on with The Stilettos and Cheetah Chrome and the Casualties, and even reformed his pre-Dead Boys group Rocket From the Tombs in 2003. Now a partner in Nashville indie label Plowboy and still recording and playing shows across the country, Chrome is being reintroduced to millions on the screen: Rupert Grint (a/k/a Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies) plays him in the just-released film CBGB.
Chrome is also releasing a seven-song solo record (titled Solo, on Plowboy)around the same time, culled from recording sessions in 1996 and 2010.
He took some time recently to speak with BLURT about his new record, his relationship with CBGC owner and punk rock kingmaker Hilly Kristal (who passed away in 2007) and having Harry Potter’s best bud play him in a movie.
BLURT: Let’s start out by talking about this EP that’s coming out. These are from two different recording sessions, right?
CHROME: Yeah, so basically they came out of stuff I was going to do for a solo record and we went up in the studio in Woodstock, NY (in 1996) and Hilly was the executive producer and Genya Ravanwas producing. [Ed. not: Ravan was also the producer for the Dead Boys’ 1977 debut LP Young Loud and Snotty.] I brought my band from Nashville up and we did about a week’s worth of recordings. Hilly’s daughter sent me the master tapes and we went over them and said “I’d do this differently or change this one,” and we ended up taking the ones I wouldn’t change and finished them off. And there’s still some more stuff from those sessions that might come out.
Is it obvious which of these songs were from 1996 and which were recorded more recently or is it pretty seamless?
Yeah it should be. The recent stuff was done with me, Sylvain (Sylvain, from the New York Dolls) and the rest of The Batusis. We recorded that stuff and the label went on hiatus and the record didn’t end up coming out. Rather than trying to re-sell it we decided to split the recording sessions and make a solo record out of it. The Batusis is Sylvain and Lez Warner from The Cult on drums and Sean Koos of The Blackhearts on bass.
I was reading somewhere that the idea for the band Batusis actually came out of a meeting at an airport somewhere.
Yeah. The original Batusis record was Thommy Price and Enzo Penizzotto, both from The Blackhearts. I ran into Thommy at the airport, La Guardia, and we hadn’t seen each other in a while and he said “If you need a band let me know. We’re off the road with Joan (Jett) for a while.” So we did a series of gigs on the east coast with me playing alongside these guys from The Blackhearts. I called them for this project and they came down to Nashville and we did these four songs that came out on the EP (released in 2010). I loved working with those guys but they couldn’t tour because of Joan’s schedule. When it came time to do a five week tour, we got Lez on drums and Sean on bass because of their recommendation. He had worked with them in The Blackhearts. It worked out great and we toured all over the country and then went into the studio and did another 10 songs, but Smog Veil (their label at the time) decided they didn’t want to put out records. So rather than wait, we got permission to use the stuff and put it out ourselves. So when I ended up being partners with Plowboy Records here in Nashville I decided to give myself a contract.
Speaking of Plowboy, you’ve obviously had a lot of experience with various record labels of all sizes. When you and the others were starting up Plowboy is there anything you took from your experience of being on the other end of labels in setting it up?
Well, the industry has changed so much and it pretty much changes month by month now, so we just basically didn’t want to go old school. We sat down and all agreed that we wanted to be artist friendly. We didn’t want to be like the pricks I had dealt with. At the same time we didn’t want to be taken advantage of; we didn’t want to be stupid. We’ve got some newer artists coming out and some more established artists. We are willing to think outside of the box. We want to be as artist friendly as possible and still have our butts covered, you know? It’s working out pretty well.
I’m trying to remember what you wrote about your label experiences in your book. Did you have bad experiences with record labels?
Yeah! We were on Sire (laughs). I’ve actually got to go see Seymour (Stein, the founder of Sire Records) in a few weeks. He’s going to get some kind of award.
So you have sensitivity to how artists are treated.
We were taken advantage of. We were at the ass end of a horrible time to sign a record deal. They extorted publishing from you in able to give you a record deal. I’m still trying to straighten out my publishing mess from 30 years ago. I don’t want to do that to somebody. It’s evil. It’s not your money so why take it, especially when you’re already getting your share? We’re trying not to do that (laughs).
So, don’t be a dick.
Exactly. Don’t be a dick. It’s a pretty simple philosophy and it works.(Below: the Plowboy crew.)
You had mentioned earlier that Hilly was involved with that earlier recording session. Obviously you had a long, close relationship with him dating back to CBGB. How was it working with him as a producer?
Well, he was an executive producer so he mainly oversaw and paid for the studio time. But he did come in and hear the mixes and offered his advice. I think he did just fine. He had a good ear and knew what sucked and what didn’t. He gave the artists their freedom, so I would have been fine with him as a producer.
I’m interested in finding out what brought you to Nashville. You are so closely identified as being from Cleveland and New York.
I’ve been down here since 1996 and I came here to do demos. I was supposed to be here two weeks. I just liked the place in general, it’s a nice city. I had friends here and I just really liked the vibe of the place. I ended up meeting my wife here and loving the place. I haven’t regretted it for a moment.
It looks like the rest of the music world is finally catching on as well.
Yeah, it’s not just country at all. There’s a lot of rock and roll here. The indie scene was already around when I got here. You’ve got plenty of studios, amp and instrument rentals, you have everything you need to record here and it’s cheaper than New York. Plus you’ve got good restaurants and everything else you could possible want.
Just to switch gears, I’ve seen a couple of trailers online for the new CBGB movie. Rupert Grint is playing you. Did you spend any time with him so he could learn more about you?
Not really. He spent a lot of time watching the videos and when I was on set with him we met. I think he got the voice great. We were talking and I said, “You just need to mumble, because that’s how I talk.” He said, “That’s what I’ve been doing.” He was shocked to see that I still had scars from those days. They were shooting a fight scene and I said “I still have scars from when that happened” and I showed him. All of those people who were on that set really cared about getting as close to it as they could. They really love the project and I think the movie’s heart is in the right place.(Below: Grint in full costume.)
Have you seen it yet?
I have, I liked it. Like I said, it’s made with love. It’s the story of Hilly, not really the club. I think people are thinking it’s about the club, but it’s about Hilly and how he got it started. If you go into it with an open mind, I think you’re going to find a pretty damn cool movie.
I was surprised reading some of the negative comments online by folks who haven’t even seen the movie yet.
What surprises me is that the same people who are upset with it because it’s not about the club, didn’t see the documentary Burning Down the House (about CBGB) when it came out. People are funny, what can you say?
When you were on the set did it look accurate? Did it bring up any old memories?
Oh yeah! If you walked up to the bar, you would swear you were at CBGBs. They had the original doors there, they had Hilly’s desk there and that’s where I used to sit and talk to him all the time. It was pretty cool. (Below: Chrome has a cameo in the film.)
When punk first came out in the ‘70s it didn’t seem like something that was destined to last. Are you surprised that it’s still such a strong, viable genre three decades later?
I’ve always had an axe to grind about this because my band broke up after the record execs said “We got our money out of this thing, but punk’s not going to last so we’re moving on to the next thing.” I said at the time “You’re wrong; stick with it. It just takes time for it to hit Middle America.” Back then you didn’t have the Internet. Back then they didn’t have the patience, didn’t want to wait and looked what happened. If they would have stayed behind The Dead Boys for the long haul, I think they could have made a lot of money… And I don’t think it was just the record executives. Some of the band members can take the blame too. They didn’t have the faith and couldn’t stick it out.
And you guys attempted a reunion once or twice…
There were a couple of reunions. We were a mess. I’m trying to think of a better word, but that’s what it was: we were a mess.
This solo record comes out in November, so what are your plans after that?
I don’t know. I miss playing gigs, so I want to do some of those. You know musically, I’m not trying to make it in the music business anymore; I am in the music business now. I just do it. Whatever happens, happens. I will always play live and I will always play on records.
[Cheetah/Plowboy photos: Anna O’Connor; other images from CBGB film stills]
Sure, this group pens late bloomers’ anthems for underdogs, but guess what? Those are the songs that so many of us out here are living for in the first place. BLURT’s resident late bloomer looks under the hood of one of North Carolina’s finest bands, period, to see what makes ‘em hum.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Shortly after their opening slot on a recent Bob Seger bill at Charlotte’s downtown arena, an iconic photo of Temperance League singer/songwriter Bruce Hazel, shot by drummer David Kim, appeared on Facebook. Captured alone in a blue splash of arena lights, the 41-year-old bandleader soaks in the moment like he’s conquered Everest or surfed Mavericks, a stand-in for any hard-working musician whose rock & roll dreams suddenly come to life, however fleetingly, in vivid 3D.
And who knows—in a different era, it might’ve been 15,000 fans clamoring for the radio hits off of the Charlotte sextet’s superb new sophomore effort, Rock & Roll Dreams. But timing and fate and the whims of public taste are often unmoved by talent and tenacity; the members of Temperance League happened to have hit their stride now, in their 30s and 40s rather than their early 20s, and done so in an unforgiving business where youth is its own currency.
Temperance League also plays melodic, straight-ahead rock & roll when the fickle roulette wheel of cyclical trends has stopped on 80s synths and dance beats. Loud guitars, big beats and bigger hooksare practically outré. None of that matters much to the band, though, which has turned adversity into musical inspiration, channeling it into narratives that resonate like anthems for underdogs.
“We’re not skinny young dudes, we’re not young, we’re not necessarily hip anymore, our only weapon is that we’re good,” says guitarist Shawn Lynch. “We play our asses off and write awesome songs, so we just need to do that as best we can. If we can’t, then there’s no point in doing it.”
At the Seger gig, according to reliable sources, Temperance League met with the usual mix of mild interest and hurry-up indifference that unknown local bands can expect opening for legendary nostalgia acts. For Hazel, who writes the band’s songs, the real reward resurfaced months later from a couple who were in the seventh row that night and had never heard of Temperance League.
“The guy said from the minute we walked out on stage, just watching the look on my face and my excitement from being there gave them goose-bumps before we’d even played a note,” he says. “That’s all I ever need to hear.”
All of this is gravy, after all. Temperance League features veterans of the Charlotte music scene with extensive CVs in bands like Benji Hughes, Lou Ford, Poprocket, Les Dirt Clods and the Goldenrods, some of them stretching all the way back to the ‘90s. With rare exceptions, though, these acts never matriculated beyond regional or city limits. But the core of Temperance League kept playing in various bands, even as the list grew of former bandmates and peers who’d tapped out.
It’s that tension between the ticking clock and rock & roll defiance that fuels the band’s music. Hazel had cut his teeth as a solo performer, touring the country and even moving to L.A. There, he challenged himself to bring a new song every week to the midnight Sunday showcase he played—typically with just the bartender and a good friend (the subject of “Are You Still With Me?” from the new LP) in attendance.
That punch-the-clock songwriting mentality stuck with him when he returned to Charlotte in the early 2000s. After releasing two LPs fronting an act called The Noise, he made music under the moniker Bruce Hazel and Some Volunteers, and some of those musicians pepper today’s Temperance League ranks of Lynch, drummer Kim, bassist Eric Scott, guitarist Chad Wilson and keyboardist Jay Garrigan (who also fills in on bass while Scott finishes post-graduate work in Louisiana).
Temperance League’s songs also chronicle life in the trenches—the musical one and the workaday jobs familiar to so many musicians who trade dollars for shifts for the occasional week on the road. The band’s music roils and churns between the energy and passion you expect from young bucks trying to make their mark and the even greater urgency that the ticking clock infers: “This is all I know, and it’s unrelenting,” Hazel howls on the ferocious chorus of “Unrelenting” from the new album.
As they did with their self-titled debut in 2012, the band recorded with Mitch Easter at his Fidelitorium studio in Kernersville, North Carolina. Under the guidance of the former Let’s Active member and R.E.M. producer, Temperance League takes a confident leap forward from their gritty MC5/Ramones-flavored debut. The new songs explore the band’s on-their-sleeves Springsteen/Heartbreakers/Byrds influences while branching out into new sonic textures and balladry.
The new LP took the same amount of time to record as the debut (a week), but the band’s familiarity with Easter, and each other, raised their game considerably. Hazel and Lynch, for instance, spent hours on YouTube after practices honing in on elements that they wanted the new songs to include.
“Part of our evolution is having him in our corner,” Hazel says of Easter, who’s credited as “Recording Manager” a la George Martin on the early Beatles LPs. “We got a lot better at explaining what our vision was, and he knows exactly how to accomplish it.”
“Basically,” Lynch chimes in, “our mantra for recording is, ‘if Mitch says to do it, just do it.’”
Whatever its constituent parts, the formula scores a direct emotional hit, starting with the plangent title-track opener. Accenting songs for the first time with strings (via Easter’s classic Chamberlin), a piano melody leads to a cathartic crescendo highlighted by a brief guitar solo; this is as close as Temperance League gets to a power ballad. But the goal here isn’t to seduce some nubile groupie; it’s to acknowledge—without despairing—that “time is a thief” who will inevitably force everybody “to hang up their rock & roll dreams.”
Coming to terms with these temporal insights infuses all corners of the record with urgency — it’s there in the ‘ah, fuck it, let’s celebrate’ mad-preacher sermon of “Are You Ready?” just as it is in the harpsichord-accented plea for patience, “Are You Still With Me?” On “The Hunger,” over Byrds-like 12-string, Hazel concedes he’s wasted time. But rather than wallow in regret, he encourages anyone in similar circumstances to use the epiphany to get up off the mat one more time: “I’ve had more advantages than most/never amounted to much/hey, maybe you’re like me/so pick yourself up and shake yourself off/and learn humility.”
That these realizations come only with age is the subject of songs like “Now I Understand,” where over a slide guitar’s cry Hazel sings a paean to his parents’ sacrifices, thanking them for “never showing a moment’s regret/for all the things you’d never have.” Similarly, “Too Much Time” reads initially like a cautionary tale for young musicians not to get sidetracked by rock & roll’s extracurriculars, from in-fighting to excessive partying—“Don’t you take too long, you might never get it back again,” Hazel sings, shadowed by “Oooo-ooo” harmonies as Chamberlain strings and guitar-jangle adorn the mid-tempo beat. Here, as on the rest of Rock & Roll Dreams what could have come across preachy or scolding, or as just banal carpe diem-ism, is instead expressed with enough honesty and passion that the sentiment transcends music.
Rock & Roll Dreams closes with “Everybody Dreams,” a Roy Orbison-like ballad with “Be My Baby”/ Phil Spector drumbeats that perfectly bookends the LP even before the outro refrain from the opening track drifts in to signal the circle’s closing.Hazel reflects on how much the Temperance League means to him now that he appreciates how important music-making—and specifically being in a band with like-minded musicians—has become.
“The only reason I ever stopped being a band guy was because it was so hard to keep one together. People got jobs and people went to college and people moved on with their lives, and I was the last man standing,” Hazel says. “When I met these guys, I realized, ‘Man, there are still people that really want to do this.’
“I’m enjoying myself right now. I really just love doing this. And there’s no reason to stop— it’s not keeping me from doing anything else, and it doesn’t hinder my life in any other way. It fits perfectly in. So if we can just gradually become maybe a little bit more successful, or make it easier on everybody…”
Yes, those rock & roll dreams never go gently—and sometimes that turns out to be a very good thing.
Below, watch a “Take One” video feature on the band. Temperance League’s official album release party is Friday, October 18, at Snug Harbor in Charlotte. Opening act is another BLURT fave, The Sammies. Details at the TL’s Facebook page.
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