Monthly Archives: October 2013

SPIRITUAL SALVATION King Khan & the Shrines

King Khan suit

From monomania to monastery the garage/soul icon finds his way back.

 BY STEVE WILSON

 “Became a monk for a little while, gave it up cuz I missed my hair.”

 So sings King Khan on “Luckiest Man,” from his hip shaking new King Khan & the Shrines testimonial, Idle No More (Merge). It may sound flip, but there’s a story behind the lyric. In 2010, King experienced what we used to call a nervous breakdown, baby.  On tour with Mark Sultan, as part of the fabulous doo-thrash duo King Khan and BBQ Show, King cracked up in South Korea. Years of reckless living had caught up with him. He found himself in the admiring company of musicians like Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, as well as filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. And still feeling empty.

 His recovery journey included time in a psychiatric hospital, as well as a Buddhist monastery, presided over by women (the luck!), where he shaved his head, emulated monk’s garb, but still took plenty of smoke breaks.

 Hitting bottom helped him, as he told me in a recent conversation, “evaluate the important things” in his life. If the soul baring lyrics on Idle No More are indication, those things include family, self-recognition, and the power of music. And while a detour like his and Sultan’s 2009 collaboration with the Black Lips (as the Almighty Defenders) may have struck some as spoof, there was more than a little investment made in those garage-gospel testimonies. King’s life, like mine (as we discussed with some fervor) may have been saved by rock ‘n’ roll. But after a certain point, you need more.

 From a tender age in Montreal, through his wild days with the Spaceshits, the formation of the Shrines, and his work with Sultan, King has lived the rock ‘n’ roll ethos, exploring pleasure, sometimes recklessly. Which, damn it, is all well and good, at least until the pursuit takes priority over pleasure. King now sounds like a man restored, committed to his family (yup, a wife and two beautiful daughters with whom he lives in Berlin) and to the music that started it all in the first place.

 Where the snotty, brazen punk of the Spaceshits was adolescent in the best ways, and King Khan and BBQ Show is an earthy celebration of raw pleasures (delivered in a condensed distillation of classic soul, doo wop and punk ass hip shake), the Shrines has always been a vehicle for King’s more reflective side. Songs like “Welfare Bread” from their previous album The Supreme Genius Of evidenced a sensitive, sober (sort of) side to the man. Make no mistake: Idle No More rocks something fierce, but the songs here reflect a changed heart – chastened, less Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, more Curtis Mayfield, if you will.

 The Shrines genius is incorporation. Critics often point out the band’s seamless, skilled way of combining influences as diverse as James Brown, Sun Ra (on Idle No More, check out the intro to “Of Madness I Dream”) and the Velvet Underground. And for sure they do. It’s an eight-piece band, combining classic r ‘n’ b horn arrangements with the sheer drive of garage-rock in satisfying and ass-kicking ways.

 But icons like JB, Ra, and the Velvets aside, King will be the first to tell you that as much as anything fueling this music is the thrill of thrift shop single shopping—finding incandescent gems made in basements and local studios. It’s a spirit that informs a song like “I Got Made,” in which an Eric Burdon soaked King sings “I live for today” like Eric was fronting Love (and dig the “Cissy Strut” lick). King was turned on by stray garage-rock forty-fives, old soul chestnuts on obscure labels, and by compilations like Chains and Black Exhaust, a portal to a world of psychedelic soul, bands working the boundaries of Nuggets garage punk, Dennis Coffey wah-wah, and early Parliaments soul. It’s music that inspires King Khan and the Shrines’ musical vision, as well as their sense of underdog righteousness in the face of a bland pop machine.

 King may still break out the purple Ikettes dress when a reunited KKABBQS (yes, they are working together) hit the boards, but for the most part he is happy to play music and let the crowd stoke the fire, becoming “part of a chaotic ritual, old school, magic ritual.” For now Idle No More and the Shrines is his chief focus. He believes in the band, its music, its mission—and in rocking for “spiritual salvation, instead of just for kicks.”

 The record’s not the work of a self-involved, holier than thou artiste. King Khan still starts the party. He is just more inclined to leave before things get ugly.

King Khan and the Shrines hit the road this fall, playing festivals and clubs all over the world. They’ll be supporting an album that will surprise a lot of people. Idle No More sacrifices nothing in assured, sexy drive and delivers a message of … well, spiritual salvation.

  kkshrines4x6_front2cmyk.pdf

The band’s North American tour kicked off October 11 in San Diego. Dates here:

http://kingkhanmusic.com/!/king-khan-and-the-shrines

 

HOWL AT THE MOON: The Moondoggies

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“Define and confine” no longer, according to the Seattle rockers, whose new album turned out to be an exercise in freedom. They started a new tour this week.

 BY ERIC SWEDLUND

 For the Moondoggies, Adiós I’m A Ghost (Hardly Art) serves as a literal farewell.

 The Seattle band steps into its third album untethered from its past, from its sound, from the coincidental association with the harmony-rich alt-country resurgence that threatened to define and confine the Moondoggies during the band’s early years.

 And, like a ghost, the band is now free to reconfigure itself into whatever shape it sees fit.

“On this record, I like to just call it rock ‘n’ roll because rock ‘n’ roll is an all-encompassing thing,” says singer-guitarist Kevin Murphy during an interview that touches on how the band redefined its creative process, incorporated new members and worked in the spirit of a surprising set of influences.

 “I think it’s more of us just getting comfortable and being able to embrace a lot more ideas that are coming out,” Murphy says. “For us, we’ve always been in this alt-country thing because of the first record having some of that. But we feel there’s more to us than that and we have other ideas that don’t necessarily fit into that. It’s been more of an evolution of incorporating different ideas into our songwriting and just rolling with it.”

Formed in 2005 in Everett, Wash., the Moondoggies released debut Don’t Be A Stranger in 2008 on Hardly Art, an imprint of Sub Pop, which was introducing a new crop of local bands like Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes to the masses. Tidelands followed in 2010, but soon after bass player Bob Terreberry left the band. Jon Pontrello, who played drums in a previous band with Murphy, filled in on bass for the Tidelands tour, but Murphy says there was a jolt of turmoil that led to the band reassessing things.

 In the end, Terreberry returned to the band and Pontrello stuck around as a multi-instrumentalist and the five-member Moondoggies (including Caleb Quick on keyboards and Carl Dahlen on drums) set out for the legendary Bear Creek Studios nearby to record Adiós I’m A Ghost.

 “I see this band as a collective of friends who like to write together and draw things out of each other,” Murphy says. “We all kind of like each other’s style so we encourage each other to write as much as possible. I write a lot of skeletons on my own, but I like hearing their ideas. We have a pretty open policy when we’re sitting together writing and hearing each other and never really saying no to anything.”

 With the band bent on experimenting and creating outside any boundaries, Adiós I’m A Ghost is a broad-spectrum rock record, with both raucous, wildly careening songs and those that are softly gorgeous.

 “We sound like we sound because someone jumps up and says ‘What if we go in this direction?’ There was more of an idea going into this album as far as having a lot of different aspects of who we are,” Murphy says. The album’s visual component – a through-provoking cover with four boots seeming to grow multi-storied buildings where legs should be, with a fifth empty boot in the middle – comes from Murphy’s cousin, Seattle artist Drew Christie, an illustrator and animator responsible for the Moondoggies’ “Empress of the North” video and several projects with Light in the Attic Records. (Murphy: “[Christie had] made that and everybody asked ‘Where is the fifth one?’ so he added that and I thought it was really perfect as far as the ghost aspect.”)

 The aforementioned new energy permeates the album. So even when the Moodoggies turn to their past strengths on songs like the soft and spooky acoustic “Pride” and the folky ballad “Stop Signs,” they’re informed by the spirit of a band that’s shed its skin.

 “I think it all sounds like the same band, but it’s also OK if it wasn’t 100 percent cohesive. Fans will be OK with things always expanding. People will still get the idea and if anything, I hope it opens it up for listeners. I’m a big fan of Pink Floyd always sounding like themselves but changing from record to record. Blonde Redhead was a band I really loved that seemed to make interesting record every time that weren’t always the same.”

 “Put this foolishness behind,” sings Murphy on “Stop Signs,” a song that distills the band’s embrace-the-uncertain-future mentality and proscribes a little recklessness in the process: “We just roll right through stop signs.” Meanwhile, the album’s title comes from a line in “Back to the Beginning,” a song with a bit of a deceptive name that urges, in keeping with the albums’ spirit, “don’t you go back to the beginning.”

 “I felt like I wanted to have more variety in the songs we typically write,” explains Murphy. “We’ll usually have a lot of songs and scrap some things. This time we made a conscious effort to engage and find some of those ideas that have been floating around.”

 Photo Credit: Hilary Harris

  Moondoggies CD

Moondoggies on tour:

10.09.13 – Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock Social Club & =
10.10.13 – Madison, WI – The Frequency &
10.11.13 – Chicago, IL – The Empty Bottle &
10.12.13 – Pontiac, MI – The Pike Room at the Crofoot &
10.13.13 – Cleveland, OH – Beachland Tavern &
10.14.13 – Toronto, ON – Horseshoe Tavern &
10.16.13 – Cambridge, MA – TT The Bear’s Place &
10.18.13 – Philadelphia, PA – Milkboy & @
10.19.13 – Washington, DC – Rock and Roll Hotel &
10.20.13 – Chapel Hill, NC – Local 506 & (tickets)
10.21.13 – Atlanta, GA – The Earl &
10.25.13 – Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s & (tickets)
10.26.13 – Dallas, TX – The Foundry &
10.27.13 – Austin, TX – Holy Mountain &
10.28.13 – Norman, OK – The Opolis &
10.30.13 – Denver, CO – The High Dive &
11.03.13 – Wenatchee, WA – Erickson Residence

* – w/ The Quiet Ones, The Country Lips
^ – w/ Quiet Life, Gold Leaves
# – w/ Pickwick
% – w/ The Maldives
+ – w/ Neko Case
$ – w/ Jeffrey Martin
& – w/ Rose Windows
= – w/ Is/Is
@ – w/ the Bailey Hounds

RARE AIR: Angel Olsen

Angel

On Oct. 1, songstress Angel Olsen and Windy City pals Pillars and Tongues utterly captivated a Northampton, Mass. audience at the storied Iron Horse venue. BLURT’s contributing editor was there to bear witness.

 BY JENNIFER KELLY

 Two Chicago bands  – one stuffed to the gills with equipment and instruments, the other spare as a twig in winter – played Northampton’s Iron Horse last week (Oct. 1). Pillars and Tongues, a trio, wove dense, drone-y layers of violin, synthesizer, bass guitar and harmonium into enveloping textures. Angel Olsen, touring in support of her recently-released Half Way Home album, sketched a stark landscape with folk guitar, minimal bass and drums and her extraordinarily expressive voice.

 Pillars and Tongues by Sarah Derer

Pillars and Tongues is already in full swing when I arrive, the current line-up — Beth Remis, Ben Babbitt, and Mark Trecka – engaged in a heady conflation of rich string tones, mechanical beats, ruminative main vocals (Trecker) and staccato, wordless counterpoints from Remis and Babbitt. Towards the end of the song, Trecka leans over the boxy, wooden harmonium and pumps furiously at its back end. The sound that comes out, filtered through amplification and pedals, is not what you’d expect from such an antiquarian instrument.  It sounds futuristic and synth-like, a gleaming, fluctuating, space-filling drone that tips Pillars and Tongues’ songs into overload.

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Trecka’s voice is a big indie-rock instrument, resonant and flowery and reminiscent of 1980s alt-rock mainstays. Indeed, on the long, meandering “Bell + Rein,” he sounds like Bono or, especially, Peter Gabriel, rampaging through a murky, vaguely ethnic landscape, big pop crescendos occurring in half-lit miasmas of drone and overtone. On the record End-D, this song seems a bit shapeless, but here in performance, it sounds more fluid and organically complex. You can hear all the bits clearly – the violin, the supporting vocals, the drums, the synthesizer, the Harmonium – so that what’s muddy on disc turns multilayered in person.

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  After Pillars and Tongues, it takes a long time to reset – and, curiously, much of what is being done is taking away, rather than adding to. By the time it’s done, the Iron Horse’s stage is close to a bare floor, just a couple of mics, a drum set and a bass propped up against an amp. Bass player Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Joshua Jaeger come in first, then Angel Olsen enters carrying her own guitar. She is dressed in a high-necked, ankle length black dress with a cape (later she calls it her “druid dress”) and has her hair pinned up loosely, with bits coming out. There is something daguerreo-type-ish about the way she looks, yet also something very modern, which is, incidentally, true about the way she sounds as well.

 Olsen starts her set with her back to the audience, playing beautiful liquid chords that splay slightly and turn, as she turns to face the audience, into “Acrobat.” Her voice starts soft and slightly blurred, then blossoms into spectral trills and finally as she sings “I am alive” gains a tremulous force. The band is beautifully minimal, a few notes of bass to mesh with her picking, a soft heart-beating drum. She follows with “Tiniest Seed,” little yelping, yodeling slides coming into her voice, the band following in hushed country waltz time.  By “Always Half Strange,” her singing has become feral and raw, cutting a ragged path through the air. The notes shake and vibrate, and she seems to swallow some of them as she moans “Aa-all wa-ways in love.”

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  Olsen has a varied, emotionally charged voice, now soft and jazzy like Joni Mitchell, now vibrating with feeling like Connie Francis, now hiccupping and wailing like a female Charlie Feathers.  She’s so powerful, when she turns up the volume, that you begin to wonder, mid-set, what she’d sound like in a punk band. Then, a couple of minutes later, she and her band oblige with the hard-rocking portion of the set with a fuzzy, VU-and-Nico-ish version of “The Sky Opened Up,” a syncopated “The Waiting” and a blistering, tambourine whacking “Sweet Dreams.”

 For the last bit of the show, Olsen’s band steps down, and Olsen sings a few songs by herself, quieter, but still intense. It’s mesmerizing, even at low volume, and Olsen is a singer to watch. That said, though, she’s a little prickly as a performer, making eye contact only intermittently with the audience and talking, really, only a very little bit. She stops, abruptly, at the end, and as people clap and wonder whether there will be an encore, she starts pulling the plug out of her guitar. “I’m going out tonight,” she announces. “Where?” someone asks. “That’s a secret,” she says.

 Live photos: Jennifer Kelly. Angel Olsen: Sabrina Rush. Pillars and Tongues: Sarah Derer.

 Angel and P&T are on tour through this weekend. Dates at Olsen’s website.

 

SHOUT “BLOOOOOZE EXPLO-SHUNN!!!!” Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

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In a time when beards and banjos have made the phrase “rock n roll” something dirty to look down on, the JSBX is here to cure what ails ya. Caught live Oct. 7 at The Recordbar in Kansas City, MO, along with fellow sonic subversive Kid Congo.

WORDS/PHOTOS BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are groundbreakers in the garage rock revival.  Where other “blues acts” worshipped Skip James, Son House or, god forbid, Cream, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion knocked on the door of RL Burnside, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Lightin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Screamin’ Lord Sutch, then kicked it in.  Their wild, often twisted, look at the blues has been an angle I’ve liked since first hearing Extra Width back in my college days.  They have always been left of center, slightly off their nut, exactly in the space I called home.

Standing at the bar, talking with a friend as I waited for the night’s openers Kid Kongo Powers & The Pink Monkeybirds to fire up, I noticed something strange, this was not the crowd I expected.  Soccer moms drank white wine spritzers, elite types pretending not to enjoy themselves as they read books or fiddled with an iPad (who the fuck brings a book to a rock show?), doughy hipsters with handlebar moustaches and ironic t-shirts with cardigans, looking bored, stood with retro greasers (now, THAT I expected).  The whole scene was strange; I had stepped into a pop culture infected “Twilight Zone.”  I expected to see Rod Serling step out of the bathroom with his ever-present Lucky Strike in hand.

Just as defeat and disappointment descended upon me, Kid Congo Powers & The Pink Monkeybirds took the stage, changing my mood instantly.  The band ripped into their brand of 1960’s Chicano garage freakout rock; listening to them is akin to witnessing a John Waters movie set to music: surreal, slightly psychedelic, neurotic and completely awesome.

Kid Congo — a legendary guitarist in the underground for his work with psychobilly royalty The Cramps, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and my personal favorite, The Gun Club — has built a career on the weird and time has not dulled his edge.  Leaning heavily on material from the new album Haunted Head, they cranked out tunes like “Killer Diller,” “Su Su,” and “Dance Me Swampy.”  Powers was wise to preface nearly every song with a story (for instance, the time Sky Saxon of The Seeds picked him up while hitchhiking in Hollywood) to set the mood,  surrounding himself with a great rhythm section (especially drummer Ron Miller from Lawrence, Kansas band Up The Academy) and working the schtick masterfully.

 

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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are, without any inkling of doubt, the most intense band I have ever seen live.  Easily, bar none, they are The Intensity Champions of the Universe.  Spencer is a wild man and natural showman; pouring out his demons on the stage like Jerry Lee, talking to the crowd in tone, vigor and passion befitting a Southern preacher at a fire and brimstone tent revival.  He jumped around the stage like a man possessed, stopping just short of howling at the moon as he played “Get Your Pants Off” from last year’s exceptional Meat +Bone.

The Recordbar (Kansas City’s best venue to see a band, in my opinion) was the best environment to see The Blues Explosion.  Its intimate setting (250 people max) worked perfectly with Spencer’s “call and response” style of performing, he clearly feeds off being that close to the audience.  He talked to the followers in attendance, took drinks from their beverages and caught me off guard with a kiss on the nose. [Wait, what? – Family Values Ed.]

The more the audience responded to what the band was doing, the more intensely they played, they were relentless, unstoppable and, except for problems with sound that washed out the vocals, perfect.

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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is no one man show, not by a long shot.  Guitarist Judah Bauer was cool, calm and collected.  Rarely did he sing (except for the rap section on “Flavor” originally done by Beck) opting instead to let his battle scarred Telecaster do all the talking and man, did it scream.  After seeing him play, it is a sin that he is not mentioned alongside newly crowned “greats” like Auerbach and White; Bauer deserves to be in the conversation.  Drummer Russell Simins beat his drum kit like a rented mule all night, foregoing flash for power.  He was a man obsessed; playing every song like it would be his last night on the throne.

Many of the songs played were fragments, building into what seemed to be one colossal jam.  “Chicken Dog,” “Black Mold,” “Wail” and “Bellbottoms” grew together relentlessly, never offering a break, never stopping, and never letting go.  Hell, a person jumped on stage to propose to his girlfriend and the trio played through that.

In a time when beards and banjos have made the phrase “rock n roll” something dirty to look down on, it was great to see a band that still rocks as if they truly love what they do twenty-two years in.  Life will always be good, or at the very least, interesting as long as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is around to blow your doors, or your pants, off.

SOMETHING LEFT OF CENTER: Metallica & Lou Reed (slight return…)

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UPDATE: Since we posted the Metallica/Reed story, below, Mr. Reed passed away, on October 27, apparently from complications related to his liver transplant in May 2013. To say that the news was unexpected, and saddening, would be an understatement – the man was a legend. And we are proud to have been able to conduct an interview with Reed. Our modest tribute is here.

Ed. note: With a new Metallica concert film (term used loosely; Through The Never boasts a bizarre side-drama story line about a fictional roadie’s quest) and accompanying soundtrack just out, we figured now was a good time to revisit the 2011 “Lulu” project that very nearly killed the group’s career, along with any credibility their so-called mentor, Lou Reed, had accrued. BLURT, being the ever-patient supporter of all things rawk, gave the Reed-Metallica pairing a proper airing in the pages of our print edition, and our genteel Contributing Editor who penned the piece was never less than polite (not to mention erudite) throughout the entire process. Still, we had misgivings… that were borne out when end-of-year critics’ lists appeared, and “Lulu” was the hands-down winner for “worst album of the year.” Both artists have bounced back, of course, which just means that in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s better to flame out than to fade away, ‘cos those embers can eventually reignite as a blaze.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Lou Reed just called me an asshole.

 

Nothing new about that.

 

If you’ve been a critic in America during the 20th and 21st Century and have had the great pleasure of interviewing Reed, a man of letters and a master of noise, he’s certainly called you a name. “If you assholes don’t get behind someone really trying to do something, you deserve all the Britney Spears you get,” says Reed.

 

At least this time, his name calling may be for a good cause—that of Lulu, his instantly notorious, enticingly bracing collaboration with the men he calls his “metal brothers,” Metallica.

 

“Is there any man amongst us who has not been involved with a Lulu?” Reed says softly. “There’s universality here. Everyone knows who this is and everyone knows the feelings of rage and jealousy she provokes”

 

Ah, Lulu.

 

When German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote the two plays that make up LuluErdgeist (or Earth Spirit) of 1895; Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) of 1904—he couldn’t have realized what he’d gotten the poor girl into. The story of a sensualist who lures wealthy men into bringing her through the ranks of German society eventually falls into poverty, prostitution and decay, physical and moral. Sex and violence ensue until Lulu meets her match in Jack the Ripper. Films silent and modern as well as operas have been made of this torrid tale of class and calamity. “What a great character to write through,” says Reed, who was introduced to Lulu when modern opera director Robert Wilson asked him for words and music for his own 2010 staged masterwork. “Such a great vehicle for all kinds of desires and attractions.”

 

Magic, loss, murder and mayhem; certainly this is the very stuff of Reed, the tortured idealism that makes him tick, what from the sensoriffically sad smarts of theatrical song cycles such as Berlin, Songs for Drella or The Raven as well as the best moments of his Velvet Underground catalog. That he would accomplish a similar dramatic form with an equal-if-not-greater brand of avant-noise and emotion courtesy Lulu and Metallica is a tale worthy of its own play.

 

Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Robert Trujillo were minding their own business, getting ready to play backing band to Reed, Ozzy Osbourne and Ray Davies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert in 2009 when something happened. At the end of three days of rehearsals, to say nothing of the show itself, the Reed & Metallica entities found themselves in what Ulrich calls a love-fest. “We really found that we were similar in so many ways; in terms of how we both felt like outsiders, floating in our own bubbles,” says the Metallica drummer. “As this whole thing drew to a close around midnight, we’re taking the elevator down into the bowels of Madison Square Garden where the car park is, embracing for like the 37th time,” he laughs, building dramatically. “We walked off in different directions then Lou shouts to me “Let’s make a record together someday.”

 

Ulrich continues “I said OK Lou, sounds fantastic. Call me.”

 Lulu Tube Box

A week later Reed did—call Lars, that is. To record. Tour commitments on Metallica’s side got mentioned—a years worth—but Reed was, according to Ulrich, “persistent in his follow-through” during this time. Throughout, Reed inferred that Metallica could be his band on reinvestigations and reinvigorations of what the Velvet-een considered lost dockets and hidden gems from his song list. “Deep album cuts from his catalog that he wanted made new, polished with Metallica’s weight and energy,” says Ulrich. Everyone was set to convene to record these songs in May of 2011 until…

 

“Two weeks before Lou was set to come out here, after he’d already sent me CDs of songs and suggestions, Lou called out of the blue and said that he had a crazy idea,” says Ulrich ebulliently.

 

“Are you game for trying something really left of center?” Reed asked him.

 

“The more left of center the better,” was Ulrich’s reply. Reed would subsequently present ten soundscapes he’d recorded for Robert Wilson’s Lulu, sonic moody interludes whose lyrics had true poetic weight yet zero guitar, drums or recognizable keys. “James and I were given a blank slate in which to place our own power behind these insane lyrics,” recalls Ulrich.

 

Metallica was totally game.

 

“I came to them with a set of songs and my hat in my hand, Reed says, almost laughingly, while doing his best Walter Matthau impersonation from The Sunshine Boys. “I asked if we could we work our magic on these songs and they said, ‘Absolutely.’”

 

Lou Reed was totally game.

 

***

 

Let’s pause for reflection.

 

How is it that Metallica, considered by most to be an insularly un-collaborative death metal act, wound up with Reed anyway? Surely at the R&R Anniversary bash, they could’ve wound up with Davies or, better still Ozzy, with whom to make an album. Ulrich says it comes down to what Metallica calls its no-brainer clause, one that has legendarily delayed its long-awaited-next album for the last several years.

 

“I’d lay down in front of a train if Ozzy asked me to and we did make that one raw spirited song with Ray [“You Really Got Me” for Davies’ duets CD, See My Friends]. That was phenomenal. The thing about Metallica is that we don’t go out and look for opportunities. We can’t chase things down. We can barely manage our own shit,” he laughs. “Things come up that are no-brainers.” Like playing in India, or doing a week at the Fillmore in San Fran for its fan club celebrating the band’s thirtieth birthday, or playing dates with thrash fellaheen Anthrax. Or having somebody like Reed, a musician that Ulrich’s dad fed him a steady diet of back in Denmark (“I still remember the first time my father brought me Rock n Roll Animal and seeing that iconic sleeve”) offer up an idea for collaboration. To the drummer, it’s beyond an honor. Metallica is humbled. “Hey I’m still pissed that we weren’t asked to be on that Iron Maiden tribute album a few years back,” he laughs.

 

Reed is collaborative, judging by the sound of recent recordings with Gorillaz and The Killers. But this guitar monster capable of caustic white noise what from the legendarily oblique Metal Machine Music hasn’t ever seemed like a thrash or doom enthusiast, at least not musically. “I’m a secret metal head,” says Reed with a slight chuckle.

 

Metallica, then: what did he think of them before he got to this project? Reed operates on instinct. “Thinking doesn’t enter the equation… I have an attraction to doing something great and I operate the same way as always: 100% instinct. If I have to start thinking about something there’s a problem. The great thing about music is that you don’t have to think about it. That’s what makes us dance, thrill or cry in our beer.” In Reed’s mind there is little different about Metallica as musicians in comparison to Reed players such as Ornette Coleman, Mick Ronson, Fernando Saunders, Don Cherry or even James Carter (with whom Reed recently performed at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom). Yet with Metallica he felt something more. “This is almost as close to transcendence as you can get in an urban setting,” says Reed. “I love their spirit, heart and talent, their willingness to go with me on this journey with me as a unit. It was more than I could ever hope for, truly one of the high points of my life.”

 

This shared level of emotion and instinct bubbled over when Reed and Lou’s producer du jour Hal Wilner (“I try to have Hal around whatever I do so that I have access to his great brain”) hit Metallica’s studio in California and commenced to recording immediately.  The weight of the material was one thing, recalls Ulrich, especially when you consider that Metallica had never worked from already-penned lyrics. “To have the lyrics as a springboard, a point of origin, as something that would inspire our music; that was huge,” says the drummer. “But Reed and Wilner, they came in and within a few hours started playing and recording with us. It was just this crazy impulsive energy.”

 

Ulrich is gathering to a happy froth: “That whirlwind didn’t stop for a few days. We nailed six songs in first or second takes before we came up for air, before we ever had a conversation about what the fuck we were doing.”  Ulrich is particularly dramatic when discussing “Cheat on Me,” where each man had no idea where the other was going but “started at more or less the same time and ended at more or less the same time without ever having played the or discussed the song before it.”

 

Reed rhapsodizes about the speed in which they tackled Lulu’s bracing best and the manner in which the quartet set up its studio, where all play in the round facing the fellow player while going at Lulu full steam ahead. “There’s bleed all over the place but that was fine with me and it was certainly fine with them,” says Reed. Ulrich adds that Metallica have always played in a circle, live and in studio: “I don’t want to play music looking somebody’s hairy back.”


Beyond hairy backs, it was the immediacy of everything that made Lulu so potent—staring at each other while recording the Ripper-riffic “Pumping Blood” or the tales of lost fatherhood “Junior Dad,” the latter of which caused an emotional sandstorm inside and outside the studio. Hammett had just lost his dad a few weeks earlier, and Ulrich’s own father happened to be attending the sessions; between the dads and the weight of Reed’s forlorn tender recounting, the weight of the words hit home and struck hard. “We all had a moment where the whole thing became too much,” recalls Ulrich. “People in the studio got very emotional.” It was pure. Grown men were coming out of the studio crying. Everyone was overcome. Reed in particular.

 

“Me and Wilner were heading to the airport and nearly missed our flight because we were listening to ‘Junior Dad’,” says Reed. “We couldn’t move. The emotion in the music is so prevalent. It’s so rare to feel something like that; we just wanted to experience it and not cut it off just to concern ourselves with a plane in flight or getting home.”

 

Certainly each man is taken with the density and breadth of the hard, scabrous music and the incendiary yet poignant texts. Reed in particular thinks of it as amongst his best, and my comparison to another maudlin Reed epic, Berlin, is welcome. After I make that suggestion, Reed states that Lulu is not far away from the earlier album’s heroine Caroline. Pressed to discuss how much more I think of the record, though, leaves Reed cold. “You have to back up the people who really try to do something,” he scoffs. “Would you go over to Da Vinci and say ‘ehhhhh…’ or tell Michelangelo that his David isn’t bad?”

 

That said, Reed offers only the most tender of words for his Lulu and this collaboration with the Metallica he loves—and in a display of effusion rare in an era of cold calculation. “We tried to put every last ounce of our blood and heart into her and I would really hope that people at the very least understand the purity and honesty of what we did,” says Reed quietly. “We made one of the greatest albums in the history of the world and I’d stake my dick on it.”

 

 

Photo credit: Anton Corbijn. An edited version of this story originally appeared in print issue 11 of BLURT-the-magazine.

 

 

 

 

NO DESTINATION IN MIND: Amos Lee

Amos Lee

But once he got there, he knew he’d found the right place for his latest album.

 BY ERIC SWEDLUND

 The nights that change people’s lives don’t tend to unfold all at once.

 Amos Lee, about to release what would become the country’s best-selling record, was invited to perform at one of Levon Helm’s storied Midnight Rambles. The record, Mission Bell, was a largely autobiographical one for the singer-songwriter, chronicling more than a little turmoil. And returning to the road with the new songs was an adjustment. But in Helm’s Woodstock barn, Lee found a new source of inspiration, one that grew as time passed.  

 “I knew going to the Ramble was monumental for all of us, but like many the things in my life I didn’t really appreciate it until afterwards,” Lee says.

 “Levon wasn’t well when he did that show. What I loved is the way he showed us all what it means to be a lover, to love what he was doing and to give everything that he had that night and to sing through all the pain. He gave everything he was to music. It didn’t strike me ‘til afterwards how powerful that was to me.

 “Everybody who was in that room was special, all the audience members, all the people playing. It’s the kind of thing where you’re all together and you know why you’re there and you know it’s real and he’s the anchor for all that.”

 After Helm passed away, Lee found himself writing about that night, words that turned into the song “Mountains of Sorrow,” what he calls the essence of his fifth album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song, out this week on Blue Note.

 “When I wrote that song, I didn’t think I was going to write a song to him, but I wrote it and it was. He really moved me a lot. It was a very emotional experience and it became something stronger as the days wore on in my mind about it, and when he passed,” Lee says.

 Thinking about that night, about Helm all the contributions he made to music in his life and the spirit that existed as friends gathered in that old barn, Lee set down words that focused on what he was feeling about life in general.

 “I think sometimes I try to focus in on the song that I feel is a place where maybe some of the essence of what was happening during the recording,” he says.

 “I thought that song was a good centerpiece of where I was during the last couple of years while I was writing. The concept is a little wider than just a simple few words, but it speaks to the process of gathering up stuff and moving along with it and not worrying about what comes with you and what gets left behind.”

To record the new album, Lee set out for Nashville and producer Jay Joyce’s brand new studio, St. Charles, built in a converted church. It was a vastly different setting than Tucson’s WaveLab Studio, where Lee recorded Mission Bell with Calexico’s Joey Burns producing, but the goal was the same: to find the right collaborator.

“There’s no destination in mind before I start looking and talking to people,” Lee says. “Jay is a really talented dude. He hears things differently than I do and figures out how to switch things around. Jay had this new space that was opening and he’s made some great music, so we went down there.”

Mountains of Sorrow is the first album Lee recorded with his touring band – Freddie Berman, Zach Djanikian, Andy Keenan and Jaron Olevsky – and the first album brought to life at St. Charles. The Philadelphia-based band moved down to Nashville for about a month, hanging out in the down time, cooking breakfast together.

 “It was one of those things you hear about where a band moves to a place and makes a record,” Lee says. “They’re the best. They’re a good hang. They’re good musicians and they really put their hearts into what they’re doing. It feels good to be with people who’re caring about what they do.”

Recording in Nashville also gave Lee access to an impressive cast of guest musicians. Alison Krauss sings on “Chill In The Air,” while Patty Griffin contributes vocals to “Mountains of Sorrow.” On the instrumental side, Jerry Douglas (Alison Krauss & Union Station), Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson) and Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band) all chipped in. Douglas and his Dobro especially stand out on Mountains of Sorrow.

“Jerry is amazing. He’s the best. He’s got ears and ways to contribute to your songs that are meaningful,” Lee says. “Some of the stuff he played is some of my favorite stuff on the record. He finds a way to do that. That’s the cool thing about his playing. He finds the right place to put the right thing and that’s pretty rare.”

 The range of sounds on Mountains of Sorrow is the largest yet for Lee, representing a decade of musical growth and exploration since he first signed to Blue Note. And though he’s been referred to as folk, soul, rock and various hybrid terms, the 36-year-old Lee says he just considers it all music.

 “With songwriting, I just take the songs that feel good to me, the songs that feel like they’re the right ones. I don’t really think about genre in general. I just check out what’s in my mind and whatever that is, is where it goes,” he says. “Since the very beginning, it’s kind of been that way: X, Y and Z, Q, W and P. Those are the all the kinds of music I make, but I don’t care what those are. Does it make me feel something? That’s it. That’s the kind of music I make.”

 While the album’s sound is more expansive, Lee’s songwriting on Mountains of Sorrow is a little more direct than in the past.

 Mission Bell is a very cathartic, autobiographical stuff. This stuff was a little bit more objective,” he says. “As a songwriting process it isn’t that much different. I was sitting around writing songs and that’s the way I’ve always done it. I don’t go to a mountain top or anything. I sit down and write.

 “I think I write less and I keep more as I get older, but it’s still really about volume and experience for me, not stopping ideas before they start,” he says. “People start thinking about the end product before they’ve written the first verse and that kills a song. You have to have fun with it.”

 The fun for Lee comes with pen in hand, in the studio and on stage. Lee and his band toured heavily, including a return trip to Tucson to film an episode of Live From The Artists Den, after Mission Bell debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.

 “It was a surprise to me that it happened, but I wasn’t really surprised that people heard about it. The people I work with are really great and they had a plan to help people find the music and the songs resonated with folks,” he says.

 “It was a good team effort and a bunch of people put their heart into it. I’m really lucky to have people who care enough to buy the records I make and come to the shows and so I’m able to stay out making music.”

MOMENTS OF HOPE, LITTLE GLIMPSES OF LIGHT: Tamaryn

Tamaryn 1 by  Amanda Charchian

The Kiwi-to-San-Fran dreampop connection perseveres—including, incidentally, a key appearance this week in Brooklyn as part of the Mexican Summer label’s five-year anniversary celebration.

 

BY JHONI JACKSON

 

However you want to call it, whether it’s dreampop or shoegaze, Tamaryn (the group doesn’t mind. The band has been dubbed both, and neither does much justice to their brooding effervescence. Tamaryn (the singer) and songwriting counterpart Rex Shelverton aren’t nitpicking the reference point.

 

“It’s fine with me as long as it helps people find it and listen to it,” Shelverton says, of either term.

 

In truth, Tamaryn doesn’t really fit the traditional notion of a band either. With Tender New Signs (Mexican Summer), their sophomore LP, they offer something more creative—something more artistically complete. Explains Tamaryn, “There’s different covers for all of the songs on the record, a different piece of artwork, a series of photos and different symbols that kind of run throughout, and the lyrics kind of go with that. It’s all part of doing the record; it’s one big project.”

 

For “I’m Gone,” the lush, sway-worthy number that opens the album, the petals of two red flowers illuminated so their fragile infrastructures are visible, a haze separating them against a jet-black background. The artwork for the subtly cheery “Prizma” is similarly bright yet hazy, a sheer material flowing from a circular object, glittering and glistening where the light is concentrated. San Francisco colleague Shaun Durkan, frontman for Weekend, created the corresponding images, which Tamaryn explains are “so important.”

 

Weighing equally for the New Zealand-born crooner are her words. They’re posted along with the artwork on the duo’s website.

 

“I was raised by writers, and I’m a big fan of lyrics, really. I think when I listen to music, of course the proficiency and the melody and all of that is part of it, but I kind of see it for the big picture and the whole thing that it paints,” she says.

 

Lyrically, Tamaryn is somewhat abstract, often mystical and romantic. The melodies are a little sunnier than their 2010 debut, The Waves, and the content leans similarly: “The seed that’s sown grows/ A red rose in the garden goes/ We feel it new soul/ Of a hollow garden/ Where nothing could grow/ Was only stone and coal,” she sings in her breathy tone on “The Garden.” But for Tamaryn, it’s still a reluctant, timid type of positivity—as if she expects to be robbed of it any minute. “Is this a life?” she questions.

 

“I think that [Tender New Signs] might be at times a little bit more upbeat. Maybe that’s the wrong word…” Tamaryn pauses, then laughs. “[The angst] is still there, and that’s what the title is kind of implying. A moment of hope—a little glimpse of light. It’s a bit more optimistic—but just a bit!”

 

Tamaryn performs this Friday night, Oct. 11, at the Red Hook in Brooklyn as one of the Mexican Summer “Five Years” celebration, along with Ariel Pink, the Fresh & Onlys and more. The following evening features Spiritualized, No Joy, Connan Mockasin and a host of other indie gems.

 

 Tamaryn at Mexican Summer Oct 11

AMERICANA EXCELLENCE: The 2013 AMA Convention & Awards

Americana

Blurt heads to Nashville in search of the true meaning of Americana: The top ten things that made this year’s AMA rock.

 BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTOS BY ALISA BETH CHERRY

 Only Nashville could host an extraordinary event like the Americana Music Festival and Conference. Austin has South By Southwest (simply abbreviated to “South By” by its many veterans… and here in Nashville you do run into quite a few), and New York and L.A. have a monopoly on practically everything else. Yet when you’re talking Americana, you’re talking country, blues, Gospel and R&B, where else can you host an event that gives such nods to tradition? Where indeed? It’s here that Hank Williams — gone some 60 years plus at this point — is still revered, and his logical descendants — Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, and hell, practically everyone who packs a guitar and a dream in this town — is respected, admired, encouraged to become part of his continuing, living legacy.

 Though more than a dozen years in existence, the Americana Music Association’s annual event continues to grow in size, pride and prestige each year, its honours and recognition growing well beyond the city limits to embrace those of like-minded musicality far and wide. There are entire showcases, spotlights and barbecues (of course… this is Tennessee after all) devoted to Americana done Aussie-style or with a Brit beat and attitude. And the point made is the fact that it doesn’t take a fondness for over-sized cowboy hats, big boots, down-home rural charms, or even the sweetest Southern accent imaginable, to grasp an appreciation for the wide terrain that Americana now embraces. It takes only a willingness to appreciate, and a heart and a head open to its sounds. And if that means getting up and dancing like you’re at a hoedown, or shedding a few furtive tears while hearing an especially sad refrain, then so be it. Americana is here, it’s always been here, and it sure as hell ain’t going away.

 For yours truly, a newcomer to this awesome celebration, there were obvious highlights, even beyond the music. Here then, are the top ten things that made the AMA rock…

 

 BillyBragg


10) The Bluegrass Situation party featuring an all-star musical line-up featuring David Bromberg, the Milk Carton Kids, the Steep Canyon Rangers and actor/impresario Ed Helms. The fact that it was held in the Cannery Ballroom, located in the same building as two other staging areas of varying size, made the possibility of club hopping a decided possibility.

9) An afternoon interview session with Billy Bragg at the Sheraton offered genuine Bragging rights (sorry), as well as an up-close encounter boasting both music and insights. On his newly sprouted facial  hair: “A Kenny Rogers beard hides multiple chins.” On his shift from political posturing to waxing on about fostering romantic relationships: “I’m still singing about a titanic struggle.” On Americana itself: “Country music for people who like the Smiths.” (Bragg is pictured above during his performance.)

8) The Australian showcase, where we had opportunity to catch the revered Bushwackers, whose song “I Am Australian” was so tear-wrenching, it made a grown man (mainly me) cry. Likewise, a husband-wife duo called the Borderers upped the ante on energy while adding a bit of trepidation due to the fact that the male member of the group fancied a few high kicks while wearing kilts… thus offering the possibility that another male member might make an unexpected appearance. ‘Nuf said.

7) The Bootleg BBQ, located in that rarest of entities these days, a real live record store. A sterling line-up of Brit artists indulging in Americana allowed a one-stop opportunity to catch Peter Bruntnell, Blue Rose Code, the Treetop Flyers and My Darling Clementine (below), the latter, an added bonus for yours truly considering the fact that its ringmaster, Michael Weston King, and I have a history of email correspondence that goes back some seven or eight years. Even Holly Williams showed up to perform, although it ought to be noted that she’s not a Brit, but rather the granddaughter of the granddaddy of them of all, Hank himself.

 My Darling Clementine

 

6) The Sunday Gospel Brunch, where the magnificent McCrary Sisters, the White Family and a handful of young devotees held court while the crowd chowed down on chicken and waffles and sang songs so rapt with devotion, even a nonbeliever might be moved to sing the Lord’s praises.

5)  I had an opportunity to meet the great Aussie auteur Paul Kelly and gush my admiration, although it was to my continuing regret that I never actually got to see him perform. But that’s how competitive this festival is. With half a dozen venues, each bearing an awesome array of amazing performers, choices must be made. But damn, Kelly played three times and I still didn’t get to see him, What’s wrong with this picture?

4) Our chance lunch with Michael Martin Murphy, dressed in full cowboy regalia. My wife Alisa loves his song “Wildfire,” as do I. But the chance to actually chat – and buy a healthy salad for this larger than life musical icon, was, in a word, way cool. (Or is that two words?)  (The author, w/Murphy, pictured below.)

 Michael Martin Murphey & Lee

 

 3) The ride we got from the Bootleg BBQ with John Lomax, he of the famous Lomax musical dynasty and the man who singlehandedly managed the late Townes Van Zandt and then went through the same madness when he took on another renegade in the form of Steve Earle. Ah, the stories he could tell. Dug his Townes tee-shirt too!

 Richard Thompson

 

2) The New West 15th Anniversary party where I found myself standing next to Buddy Miller and got the chance to ask him about his recent work with Richard Thompson (above) and past performances with Robert Plant. (Future plans with Plant? “Who knows?”)

AND NOW, NUMBER ONE… IT’S A TIE…

…between the Saturday night performance by Scott Miller at 3rd and Lindsley where we reaffirmed our friendship (he’s the only guy I’ve ever met who’s so damned affectionate he’ll kiss you on the cheek, guy friends included) and where I also reaffirmed my belief that he’s one of the most literate, savvy and amazingly talented singer/songwriters of the new millennium. (Don’t scoff. He is!) (Miller, pictured below.)

 Scott Miller

 

AND…

…the spectacular awards celebration at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, with a line-up of guests, presenters and honorees that in itself might make the CMAs, the Grammys, the Emmys and even the Oscars blush with humility. We witnessed the likes of Emmylou, Rodney, Buddy, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, actor and bluegrass buff Ed Helms, stars of the show “Nashville” (natch), and legendary lyricist Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame (whose introduction became so emotionally affecting, it brought host Jim Lauderdale practically to tears), alongside such promising newcomers as Old Crow Medicine Show and Shovels & Rope, who, by the way, were all the buzz that evening. It had all the makings of a show biz spectacular, complete with stars, sizzle and savvy. And music. Great music. Awesome music. Screw your Grammys. You’ll never find music this good on a single stage in a single night. Nope. Never.

 

 

 

 

OUR BAND COULD ACTUALLY BE YOUR LIFE

Aftershock 1

The alt-rock explosion spawned a generation of musical dreamers. Here’s what happened to one young band (named, appropriately enough, Aftershock) and its members’ dreams…

BY J.T. ESS

“Jimmy quit. Joey got married. I should have known we’d never get far.”

                        —Bryan Adams, “Summer of ‘69”

This story began in the dimly lit basement of a middle school gymnasium.  Seven 6th graders stood behind their snare drums in a semi-circle while their instructor looked them each in the eye and made the following point in an emphatic, deliberate tone. A tone that conveyed that there was only one answer he would accept in response. 

     “If you want to play a trap set one day then you have to learn to tap your foot while you play.”

     “You do want to play the trap set one day, don’t you?”

     He went around the room one by one, and everyone answered in the affirmative. The answer was “yes” before any of them even had the remotest idea that anything significant may result from that moment. I was among those 6th graders that day and that moment still soundly reverberates with me. I have dreamed countless times of performing and attending concerts in that gymnasium. My subconscious mind has indelibly linked that moment to my fascination with music. I loved music before that day, but it was there, in that poorly lit basement room, that I learned how to play music.

 Aftershock 2

“Pretty girl keep growing up, playing makeup, wearing guitar.””

            —The Replacements, “Left of the Dial”

I grew up in a small rural town located in northwest Tennessee. Mark Twain once said that if the world were to end, then he would move to Kentucky “because it’s always twenty years behind the times.” My hometown could definitely relate to that sentiment since at times it seemed like our only connections to the outside world were the drippings of pop culture that would come our way from the already two to three years behind the times metropolis of Memphis, TN.

     In the mid-to-late ’90s, I had the good fortune to be part of a band made up of a few of my high school friends. This group had all the trappings of any run of the mill “Behind The Music” episode, in part, due to an ever-revolving cast of characters either in the lead singer or bass guitarist positions. A running joke during our approximately three and a half year run as a musical entity revolved around the idea of starting a “no bass” revolution. In our youthful naiveté, we never seriously considered that a music group consisting solely of a drummer and a guitarist would ever appeal to enough people to garner any tangible level of attention. Though the majority of our public performances were as a full band, including a singer and bass guitarist, we mostly practiced as a duo and ended up playing a few times for friends under this guise; however, most of those “shows” ended with everyone meandering slowly away as our set wound to an end, and jumping on the trampoline in my backyard while we bashed away the last few chords of Green Day’s “Basket Case.”

     In retrospect, perhaps this had more to do with those setlists heavily focusing on early Nirvana tunes, such as “Floyd the Barber,” rather than any lack of interest due to people’s love for the bass guitar. Whatever the reason, we never gave the idea of going for it as a duo much credence, and took the lack of a stable presence behind the bass guitar as a sign that we should never take music too seriously.  After all, the prototypical band has always possessed the same four key elements—vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. This is the way it is, has been, and always will be in most people’s minds.

Little did I know, bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys were only a couple of years away from breaking into the big time.  Bands like Japandroids and No Age soon followed suit, and now it is quite commonplace to see a guitarist/drummer duo rocking out at festivals and clubs across the nation. We were a few years too soon and far too inexperienced to push forward into what we perceived as undiscovered territory; however, just a few years later many bands would show that it could be done and done well.

The previous barriers of the music industry have now fallen and the Internet has opened paths once closely guarded. Paths that now allow for the sort of exposure and dissemination previously withheld from the average Joe. There is an increased knowledge of musical diversity and a greater mechanism for getting your ideas out there than just simply swapping cassette tapes within Smalltown, USA, population 3000, and growing more stagnant with each passing year. However, in full disclosure, I’m not really sure that this information would have changed the trajectory of our band or truly altered the inevitable fate we eventually resigned ourselves to.

“When you sit in your room and play guitar you don’t have to worry about being successful. It’s not going to happen, it’s just not gonna happen.” 

—Eddie Vedder, “Pearl Jam 20” documentary 

           

It was Christmas. I was 15 years old, and my parents had finally been worn down enough by my incessant pleading to buy me Nirvana’s Nevermind and a drum set. I wore those songs—and the cheap plastic heads on that drum set—out for the next week, and then I got the call that forever changed the course of the rest of my time in high school. On New Year’s Day, my friend, Jake Arnold, gave me a ring to let me know that he, Jeremy Lanier, and Joseph Powell had all received instruments for Christmas and had decided to try and start a band at a New Year’s Eve lock-in they had all attended the night before. In his smooth, used car salesman-like spiel, he tried to persuade me to join the band. I grew skeptical as he laid out the idea they had concocted the night before: I would play drums, Joseph would play guitar, Jeremy would play a bass guitar tuned down a whole step, and Jake would play the distorted bass – which was apparently going to be a bass guitar plugged into a fuzz pedal.

     Not necessarily the best foundation for a band’s formative lineup; however, Jake could be very persuasive.

     Before long we decided to document the progression of our rehearsals. During a practice in my bedroom in late January, we tried our hands at recording. Meticulously, yet with the grace of a newborn foal, we plodded through a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The feelings that I have associated with that experience are all positive and unadulterated; however, listening to that recording more than a decade later brings to mind words like tenuous and bland, and thanks to the distorted bass it sounds as if a swarm of bees had descended upon my bedroom.

     Soon, we began practicing with greater frequency and, though we were expanding our repertoire, we decided it was time to record another version of “Teen Spirit” in order to gauge our progression from the first recording made only a few weeks before.

     As was Arnold’s custom, he showed up late for practice on the day we had decided to start off our practice with this recording session. Frustrated, we decided not to wait for him and proceeded to play the song without him. Not long after we finished, he came traipsing up the stairs to my bedroom with his bass in tow, and we continued on with our practice without redoing our recording. Later that night at a high school basketball game we attended, the recording that we had made without him made the rounds among our friends on my Walkman and headphones.  This was the first demonstration to our friends that we were an actual functioning band, and it excluded one of our core members – the one who had actually gotten the ball rolling to start the band.

Though Arnold was unreliable, he was an extremely good bass player. The recording we made that day made it clear that we were better off as a three-piece, but the harsh truth to the matter was that we were better off with Arnold than Jeremy.

From that day forward, we started distancing ourselves from Jeremy little by little. We began practicing less and less over the next couple of months and eventually only a few months into the band, Jeremy was out.

“I am made up of blue sky and hard rock and I will live this way forever”

            —Pavement, “Demolition Plot” 45 liner notes

Instead of taking off, things cooled dramatically after we parted ways with Jeremy. Arnold was as unreliable as ever, and this may have contributed to the irregularity of our practices. We were beginning to develop our own original songs and seemed to really bog down at this nascent stage in our development. More so, it seemed like we were entering a phase where the newness had worn off a bit and it became more fun to talk about being in a band than to work at it.

     Despite this, by the next spring Joseph, Jake, and I had begun to develop into a very tight group whenever we actually got together to play. We were getting much better at our respective instruments, and decided to make one more recording of the Nirvana song. We were a much-improved unit and proceeded to bash out a near perfect punk-like rendition. And yet, in spite of our obviously growing chemistry, we were having trouble finding time to get together and jam as a whole group. Then came the long plateau of mediocrity known as summer break.

     That summer I got comfortable and stopped pushing myself with the same driven approach that I had over the past year during my personal practice sessions. This may have been partially attributable to the fact that I never let myself get serious about our original arrangements, since not only were we without a singer, but we lacked a reliable bass player. On top of that, we had no good way to record our material as a full band.

      Despite our best attempts to waste away into slackerdom, that summer did yield a significant milestone for our band—our first live gig. This performance consisted solely of Joseph and me running through an impromptu setlist of songs that we regularly played in practice. We invited our friends over to my house and set up our equipment outside underneath the carport. We ran through a litany of Nirvana covers, a number of Deftones songs, as well as selections from Foo Fighters and Green Day to name a few. Disappointingly, the reaction of the crowd was mediocre at best, with only one or two of our friends showing any genuine intrigue.

“We’re not just kids, to say the least. We got ideas, to us that’s dear.”

            —The Pixies, “U-Mass”

Apparently, First Baptist is the place to go when looking for new band members. This same church had also sponsored the New Year’s Eve lock-in that ignited our mutual endeavor into music.

     Before long Arnold made it clear that he wanted Lyle Epperson, who ran in the fringes of our group, to join the band, and so we all met up at First Baptist one night after services for his audition. Lyle crooned out his vocals while strumming the guitar. He was barely able to finish the second verse of the song he had chosen to play before Arnold excitedly stopped him and informed him that he was in the band. Despite whatever was occurring in the music scene at large, I was not keen on the idea of having a Scott Stapp/Creed clone as our lead singer.

     After Lyle joined, we steadily increased the frequency of our practices, though Arnold’s attendance was less than stellar. During most of these, Lyle and Joseph would play various songs from Creed, and I would sit behind the drums in silence, hoping they would quickly get it out of their systems so we could move on to the next song. They never did, and Joseph went as far as to print Creed drum tabs for me. Soon my comments about wanting to start a no-bass revolution, and push forward without Lyle and Arnold, started coming with more frequency and less joking. My distaste for Lyle and Arnold was growing with each passing week, but we pushed on.

     Eventually, Joseph, Lyle, and I began going to a friend’s house to record some of our original songs because he owned a great set of speakers, a dual cassette recording deck, and a good quality microphone. These recording sessions consisted of Joseph and Lyle on guitars, with Lyle and me providing vocals. A few months later, Joseph got a 4-track recorder and we finally had a way to independently record our music with a greater degree of quality than we previously had been able to attain on my cassette boom box.

     One of our friends who lived on a farm just outside of town decided to host a Halloween party and approached the band to see if we would stage the main event. Before the Halloween party, our band’s performances had consisted of open practice sessions that Joseph and I held periodically; however, we would now finally perform as a full band. Because of this, there was considerable pressure to play well, especially since we were hoping to garner some excitement for our performance at our school’s talent show later that semester. 

     It turned out that approximately thirty people showed up, which greatly excited us considering that at times bands like Black Flag and The Replacements had played for a mere four or five people early on in their careers. The vibe resonating from everyone in attendance for our half hour show was one of surprise due to the fact that our performance was far better than they had expected. Anticipation for our appearance in the talent show began to build as word of mouth spread from those in attendance to others at our school.

“I never thought that I would get to that point. I just thought that I would be in a band and maybe make a demo, but for them to play it on the radio was too much to ask for at the time.”

—Kurt Cobain, Car Radio Interview excerpt from the “About a Son” compilation”

I knew from the second that I saw Arnold walk through the double doors at school on the morning of the talent show that it would be the last time I would ever play in a band with him. Whereas the rest of the band had chosen to wear the same clothes they may have worn on any other day, Arnold came in that day wearing a shiny silver button-up shirt and a pair of black wide-leg jeans with a wallet chain. He was the type of person who focused on getting the next leg up on the social ladder. Countless times he walked away from me in the middle of conversation if someone he deemed more interesting came within earshot, and he constantly adapted in order to match whatever social circumstances he found himself in.

     Our performance in the talent show turned out to be a success in the sense that all of our friends loved it, and there was a lot of pride to be felt in that. However, we came in fourth place behind our school’s resident opera singer, a karaoke-style take on the Spice Girls, and a good ol’ boy’s rendition of a recent song from the Top 40 country music chart.

Throughout all of this, my reputation as an up and coming drummer in our town was starting to attract some attention in the circles I ran in, and before long two older guys that I knew came to me in an effort to get me to join their band. The intriguing part of this offer was that they always had a steady schedule of gigs lined up at the local bars in the area. My own band was falling apart but I possessed a strong loyalty to Joseph, and this new venture would have left him completely out. 

***

Knowing time was running out as I prepared to leave for college, Joseph and I tried to make the most of our time off for both Christmas Break and Spring Break. These breaks turned into periods of intense work and creative development. The meat of our original material selections was fleshed out during these periods using Joseph’s 4-track recorder.

     We did encounter a few bumps along the way due to Joseph experiencing various stages of depression around this time due to a repetitious cycle of quick break-ups with a succession of girlfriends. He quietly retreated into his own mind’s eye and brooded in the background while we were at school. I joined him there on more than a couple of occasions, but his depressive moods far outlasted my own. Day after day I would show up at his house to either hang out or work on new material and find him desperate to retreat back into isolation as he tried to distance himself from the outside world.

     Despite all of this, we were able to produce a number of good quality songs. The material we worked out during this period came to represent our best efforts to get complete songs on tape. Joseph was becoming more adept at layering his guitars and was able to work up some intriguing instrumental numbers. I refused to work with Lyle by this point and Joseph seemed fine with that. So I barked out lyrics, which had been written more than a year before when Joseph, Jake, and I were a collective unit, to guitar parts that Joseph laid down. Ironically, these sessions solidified the basis for our sound at the crest of our band’s slow march toward… extinction. 

***

Coda: Music possesses a unique and special quality that affects our brains in a way nothing else on this planet does. You can hear a song for the first time in a decade and still remember a majority of the lyrics and the exact moment when the drums come crashing in just before the chorus. I went to the Memphis in May music festival to see Foo Fighters—my first major concert—the summer after my senior year of high school. When I think back to that night, I realize that even though playing music in a band turned out not to be my calling, it provided inspiration and guidance, and ultimately the soundtrack of my life. So many of my memories are indelibly linked to songs that I have loved over the years. I may have failed at music, but music has never failed me.

Photos courtesy the author. This story originally appeared in issue 13 of BLURT.

BOB’S BABYSITTER: A Replacements Story

BOB'S BABYSITTER - A Replacements Story

A bottle of Jack Daniels; a notorious local groupie; a chipmunk with candy; a rock ‘n’ roll train wreck known as the Replacements: just another night down at the punk rock club, circa 1985.

 BY FRED MILLS

 Ed. note: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, dear readers! What follows is a tale I’ve spun innumerable times over beers, and on at least three occasions—with slight variations, depending on the Replacements anniversary or reissue being marked—in print. But much like other members of the media who lived to bear witness, in 2013, to one of the most improbable reunions of our adult lives, I’ve recently become nostalgic for The ‘mats, and since I couldn’t travel to Toronto, Chicago or Denver to see them headline this year’s Riot Fests, I’ve settled for scratching my itch by spinning the old records and watching Gorman Bechard’s mash note to the band and its fans, the Color Me Obsessed documentary. (Read the BLURT interview with Bechard elsewhere on our website.) So in that spirit, I hope you’ll forgive me for recounting my ‘mats story one more time (to get it all wrong, natch). Not only is it absolutely true—and before you ask, yes, I still have a tape of the gig described below—it seems to capture a moment for the band, right between innocence and acclaim, that existed oh-so-briefly. —FM

 ***

 January 31, 1985, Charlotte, NC: I’m standing in the parking lot of local punk dive the Milestone Club as the Replacements come wheeling in, late for soundcheck. On hand to get some records autographed and maybe score an interview for one of the rock rags I scribble for, I offer to help the guys—singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, guitar/bass siblings Bob and Tommy Stinson—with the load-in. Westerberg eyes me with suspicion and doesn’t say a word. Mars, clearly the most easy-going and approachable ‘mat, thanks me and nods in the direction of some boxes he’s been stacking at the curb.

 Judging from the actual check itself, which basically consists of Westerberg strumming a chord or two and gurgling “Yer myyyyy fave-rut thaaaaannnggg!” into the mic, timeliness is neither a priority nor a necessity in Replacements Land. Indeed, about all that seems to be on that agenda is: (a) go find some booze; and (b) make sure guitarist Bob Stinson doesn’t disappear, as the gifted but notoriously unhinged guitarist has been known to go pre-show walkabout. Through a complicated negotiation that involves a cranky Westerberg initially refusing to sign my records (“That’s so lame…”), turning me down cold for an interview (“No time for that stuff”) and turning livid when I innocently ask if I can tape the show on my Walkman (“No goddam way. Our road guy’s gonna be watching you, man!”), followed by my striking a truce by providing E-Z directions to the liquor store, I’m eventually appointed the somewhat dubious title of Bob’s Babysitter.

 Much to my relief this turns out to be an easy enough assignment, for tonight Stinson appears a man of modest vices. Despite the hovering presence of several notorious groupies (one is known around Charlotte as the Dragon Lady, and she reportedly lives up to her nickname) he remains oblivious to these distractions, instead asking me to take him to find some “candy.”

 There’s some initial semantic confusion on my part: “What, coke?” “No, candy.” “You don’t mean smack do you?” “No, candy!” That cleared up, we make a run to a nearby convenience store. Soon, Stinson’s happy as a clam with his paper sack of jawbreakers, lemon balls and candy cigarettes—the latter would be visible later during the concert, poking from his ears.

 Oh yeah, the concert. The ‘mats’ fourth record Let It Be had come out the previous October, going on to scale year-end critics’ lists worldwide, while a week prior to the show a Rolling Stone profile hailed the band as among music’s hottest up-and-comers. (Nowadays, in the era of Web 2.0 networking for bands, the whole notion of breaking out via touring hard, coming up through the rock fanzine ranks, and receiving college radio’s blessing may seem quaint, but that’s exactly what signature American acts of the ‘80s such as the ‘mats, R.E.M. and Husker Du had to do, so to receive the Stone’s holy blessing was no mean feat.)

 On the strength of that article alone, by 11:30 the venue is stuffed to the gills with fans, satin-jacketed promoters and their trophy girlfriends, local radio DJs, the aforementioned groupies and sundry other slumming hipsters. Even the daily newspaper’s pop music critic, who rarely if ever comes out to the Milestone (it’s situated in the proverbial “rough” section of town, working-class and mostly African-American), is on hand for what’s presumed to be an “event” gig.

 Within a half hour the venue will be two-thirds empty.

 At no huge surprise to those of us already in the know regarding the band’s roster of eccentricities, Westerberg has decided that tonight might be a good night to derail the ‘mats train. After about ten minutes of “real” songs, the singer takes a sizable swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels, passes it to Bob Stinson (who gulps it while a huge jawbreaker remains lodged firmly in one cheek—he looks like an autistic chipmunk), nods at drummer Mars, and they’re off.

 Hey kids, welcome to the Replacements’ Rolling Thunder Jukebox Revue! Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe,” Big Star’s “September Gurls,” Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” and Kiss’ “Black Diamond” all zip past in a blur, the band frequently downshifting and skidding into a drunken lope before revving back up to hardcore velocity. Covers and originals are begun then discarded, sometimes making it to the final chorus and sometimes collapsing in under 30 seconds.

 Things go on like this for the better portion of an hour. Meanwhile, more than a few concertgoers are arguing with the club owner, demanding their money back. But this isn’t about their expectations or their entertainment dollar. This is about a go-for-it group with more at stake in divining for itself where the heart and soul of rock resides than in giving a crowd what it wants.

 As journalist Michael Azerrad will later point out in his 2001 book about the Amerindie rock underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life, “If indie rock was becoming predictable… this band was nothing if not spontaneous. They’d screw up a gig at the drop of a beer can… And yet on a good night, they were one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands one could ever hope to hear.”

 This is a good night. Sure, by some (most) accounts, the band is deliberately screwing things up; Westerberg’s bullshit meter quickly gauged the audience’s hipster quotient and he instinctively knows what buttons to push. But out of the din of drunken chaos emerges a whiff of rock ‘n’ roll transcendence that’s hard to miss. Since my teenage years I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of rock concerts and by now I can tell when a band is jaded or faking it or just on hand to do “the show” in order to collect a paycheck and move on to the next town. This one is real. It’s pure.

 Afterwards, I walk up to Bob Stinson, who’s unsteadily balancing the bottle of Jack in the crook of his arm while pawing his candy bag. I tell him how great the gig was.

 “Brmppgggsnkkish,” he slurs, which I take to be “Thanks, bro.” He wanders away in a fog; I don’t think he even recognizes me from earlier.

 Looking around for the rest of the band, I spot Westerberg surrounded by fans and the younger Stinson huddled in a corner with the Dragon Lady, so I go over to chat with Mars a bit before taking off. I’m happy. I’ve got my autographed records, some used candy wrappers and a fresh tape of the concert.

 Sorry about that last part, Paul. A fan’s gotta do what a fan’s gotta do.

One more chance/ To get it all wrong/ One more time/ To do it all wrong/ One more night/ To get it half-right . . . —“We’re Comin’ Out,” the Replacements