Oh my, how hard it’s become to contextualize a good old fashioned rock band — a reality that Pontiak knows better than most. Reviews for their alternately punchy and tranquil new LP Innocence (Thrill Jockey)have referred to the Virginia trio as “proto-metal shredders,” (Paste) and a “bearded, vintage amp-loving, riff-worshipping psych-sludge band of brothers” (Dusted). The 405 pondered curiously at songs that “evoke great monsters of the ’70s in [their] heavier moments, and ’90s stoner rock in [their] mellower, more melodic moments,” while Pitchfork dismissively praised them as specialists in “amp-destroying sideburns-and-beer-runs riffage.”
Now, none of these critiques really miss the mark — or if they do, it’s not by much. Pontiak do draw influences from classic rock and folkish pop, from humid Southern metal and mind-bending psych explorations. But what they’re doing these days isn’t so calculated as these dissections would suggest. Their newest collection balances ragged rockers with bittersweet ballads, a formula that has dominated popular rock ‘n’ roll records for at least four decades. They’re not so much tweaking traditions as they are simply playing them, allowing their individual eccentricities to add flavor as they will.
“I think it’s been confusing for people in the past,” offers guitarist and singer Van Carney. “We’ve played shows with metal people, doom people, sludge people, occasionally some indie people and some folk people. And people always have a tough time categorizing us. They’re like, ‘You kind of fit here, and you kind of fit here, and you kind of fit there.’ We’re trying to do our own thing. I don’t think we can help it. It’s just what we do.”
As he speaks, the wind whips hard against the mouthpiece of his cell phone. He has stepped outside onto the Blue Ridge farm that has been Pontiak’s base of operations for most of their 10-year run. They record and practice in this tranquil setting, isolated from most of the fans and musicians they connect with on record and during frequent tours. His brothers — Lain and Jennings Carney, respectively the band’s drummer and bassist — are inside rustling up some lunch. They’re a tight-knit group, best friends beyond their family bonds. Their chemistry comes easy. Van says that they argue, but only about silly things, like who gets the lion’s share when they split a steak.
For most of their career, this ease of communication coupled with the freedom granted them by their rural setting has pushed Pontiak to make music in a somewhat esoteric fashion. For efforts such as 2009’s lithe but leaden Maker and 2012’s more swaggering Echo Ono, they focused on texture more than songwriting, ripping through ideas with an emphasis on getting the sound right, then quickly hitting record and letting the songs emerge in the moment. The best results from this process balance precise aesthetics with off-the-cuff immediacy, capturing semi-improvisatory bursts with meticulously layered sonics.
“We focused on sonic texture and immediacy,” Van explains. “Most of our records we write and record in the same first take, so we’d rehearse something, and then we’d be like, ‘OK, now we’re going to record the song, but we don’t really know what we’re going to do, but this is going to be a fucking song.’ You’re focused on just aesthetics, just sonic aesthetics and the color of that. But this record’s different. It still has all those elements, but it’s just a little bit more engaging I think, hopefully in a different way.”
Innocence lives up to this ambition. It’s Pontiak’s most accessible offering to date but also one of their weirdest, gravitating to two seemingly antithetical poles and balancing them with surprising finesse. The rockers are lean and raw, injecting Black Sabbath ominence with buzzsaw distortion and doubling — if not tripling — the tempos. “Lack Lustre Rush” roars with fuzz-scorched bass and strung-out guitar fills, lending a sense of angry intimidation to Van, who sings with simmering sincerity — “Hey, wait a minute/ Can’t you go with it?”
On the other side of the aisle are bruised ballads that take stock of things when such brutish insistence goes unrewarded. On the beautiful “Noble Heads,” Van is backed only by amiable acoustic strums and a touch of reverb, crooning with bittersweet buoyancy: “If patience is a virtue/ Then why is it so easy for you?/ Maybe it’s just your way/ Of silently leaving here today.” Bass, drums and an agitated solo enter soon thereafter, undercutting the brave face that Van reaches for in his vocals, an earnest and unguarded foil to the burly bluster of songs like “Lack Lustre Rush.” This dichotomy is, of course, nothing new when it comes to rock records, but Pontiak play with enough conviction to make their subtle tweaks feel appealingly fresh.
And while the album’s structure might be conventional, Pontiak’s creative process was still unique. Changing up their usual routine, the brothers wrote all but a few of the acoustic-leaning numbers by singing their parts a cappella in their van while on tour, mapping out how they would work before they ever picked up a guitar or drumstick, a stark shift from the sound-first emphasis of their other records. More important, though, was Pontiak’s decision to make a record that their fans would really like, putting aside momentarily their weirder psychedelic detours and having fun with the approachable fare that seems to rile their audiences the most.
“We’d never set up to write an album where we were like, ‘Hey man, let’s write a record that we think our fans will like,’” Van says. “We’d never thought about that. And it was a really cool thing to do because it made us look at what we do in a completely different way. We came up with this batch of songs that when we get up there and play, it’s so much fun. It’s just awesome.”
“It’s a different experience for us,” he adds, making his own assessment of Pontiak’s present genre: “It’s less bullshit and more just fucking rock ‘n’ roll.”
Announcing a new BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon.
BY TIM HINELY
For over two decades Slumberland Records has been releasing some of the best indie rock/pop, shoegaze and dream pop. Staunchly independent, the label is—and for the most part (see first question) always has been—a one-man show by its leader, Mike Schulman. He’s gotten by the old-fashioned way, on good taste and hard work. Schulman was nice enough to answer some questions from the Slumberland HQ in sunny Oakland, CA. (Pictured below: Black Hearted Brother, whose Stars Are Our Home was released in October of 2013. L-R are Nick Holton, Neil Halstead and Mark Van Hoen. Read our interview with the band here.)
BLURT: When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration?
MIKE SCHULMAN: Slumberland started in December 1989 as a collective effort by people in the bands Big Jesus Trash Can, Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine and Powderburns. We were all total novices inspired by lower east side NYC noise, No Wave, Post-Punk, K Records, Creation Records, Postcard Records, Factory, Rough Trade, William S Burroughs, Marcel Duchamp, The Jesus And Mary Chain, etc. etc. Most of us had never even picked up an instrument before starting the aforementioned bands, but were fired up enough by the fertile mid-‘80s DIY scene to give it a shot. After playing local shows and getting a bit better established it made sense to document what we were doing, and hence Slumberland.
Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?
The current logo was designed by Crayola from Sarandon. We’ve gone through at least 5 or 6 logos over the years; Crayola’s is probably our longest lived at this point.
What was your first release?
A 3 band compilation 7” called “What Kind of Heaven Do You Want?” It featured one song each from Velocity Girl, Powderburns and Black Tambourine. All recorded on 4-track, lo-fi sludgy noise. The engineer at the studio that we went to to mix onto DAT thought we were insane.
Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?
What difficulties did you realize come with running a label?
Getting people to pay attention, to take us seriously, to actually buy the releases. Honestly, none of that has changed at all in the last 25 years. It’s still a real challenge. (Below: Withered Hand’s Dan Willson and Pam Berry, whose New Gods album is released March 25.)
If there is one band, current or past, you could release a record by, who would it be?
What has been your best seller to date?
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s first album.
Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?
Yes and yes, but I always feel a bit weird about it. I’m not a very serious musician, so I feel sort of guilty spending resources on my own bands.
What are your thoughts on having a presence at the major conventions like SXSW, CMJ, etc.? Have you done them before and if not, would you like to?
I have done them on and off over the years. To be honest I don’t think they’re that useful unless you already have a buzz for the bands. There’s just too much going on simultaneously and too much competition. For a label the size of Slumberland, it’s rarely worth the expense.
Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?
Yep, we’re quite active on Facebook and Twitter. It’s one of the few even semi-reliable ways we have of communicating with the fans at this point. (Below: Terry Malts, whose Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere album was released in September of 2013. L-R is Nathan Sweatt, Philip Benson, Corey Cunningham)
Have digital sales been significant or nominal?
For the bigger selling titles the digital sales can be significant, but for the most part Slumberland fans are still more interested in physical media.
What are your feelings on vinyl? Have you always offered your releases on vinyl?
Vinyl is and always been our primary interest, and I’m quite proud to say that unlike almost all of our peer labels we never stopped releasing LPs. It’s been quite gratifying to see interest in vinyl bouncing back, though it’s anyone’s guess how long the bump will last.
What is your personal favorite format to release music?
7” single, which sadly is all but dead.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?
To be honest most of the labels that I follow are on the dance music side of things: Wild Oats, Sound Signature, KDJ/Mahogani, Perlon, Sushitech, FXHE. When it comes to rock stuff there are definitely individual bands that I really like, but they tend to be scattered across a bunch of different labels.
Do you accept unsolicited demos?
I do, but with the caveat that we’re a very small label and almost never pick up new bands based on demos. I think a lot of people imagine that since we’ve been around as long as we have and have had some success that we’re some sort of cash-generating mini-major just looking for ways to keep the money moving around, but in reality we’re just a one-man show, hustling to keep things going in a challenging and saturated market. (Below: Tony Molina, whose Dissed and Dismissed album is due March 25.)
You’re about to enter a world of pain. Since BLURT launched in 2008 we’ve asked musicians, comedians and authors to write about their most outrageous stories. They’ve really delivered the gross-eries – we have sex, scat, puke, violence and heart-wrenching tragedy among almost three dozen columns at BlurtOnline.com and in the print edition of our magazine. What follow is one among many true stories of seriously fucked-up events we’ve compiled. Some will make you laugh, most will make you cringe. One might make you puke. Grab a bucket; it’s about to get weird. — Randy Harward, Senior Editor and Resident TMFU Transcriber
THE CAT’S BACK…
by Jake Portrait (Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
One night in London, we had pretty intense night of drugs and alcohol. We’d played at a bar that was part of an artists’ commune in Wadsworth, London – a shitty, dilapidated part of London. It was called The Cat’s Back.
Anyway, there was this crazy guy there who was related to the owner. He had a talking problem – he couldn’t not talk. I don’t know what you’d call it; that’s the first time I ever came across it. But literally – he talked all night long. Even when we were playing. We thought he was heckling us.
After the show, we had a raging party. And, at about 7:30am, we were trying to find place to sleep. This is when Julien Ehrlich [Note: now of The Smith Westerns] was in the band. The three of us went up above the bar to lie down on the floor. There was absolutely nowhere else to go. We’re trying desperately to fall asleep on floor of this shitty dive bar. We were just fucked.
Then the compulsive talker waltzes back in and of course he won’t stop talking. All of a sudden, we hear a really loud thump. The dude had passed out sitting at table in middle of the room. His head had hit the table and he was bleeding profusely. As I looked over, I noticed a puddle of yellow forming around the dude. We pretty much just sat there and watched this 65-year-old dude lying bloody on the floor, pissing his pants. That tour was one of the darkest, and that was probably the nastiest thing we’d seen on tour. At least the first year.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s latest album II and recent acoustic EP Blue Record are available on Jagjaguwar. Visit the band at www.UnknownMortalOrchestra.com)
A musical legend reflects on how his early band the Small Faces made the big time.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
When the roll call of people who have been key lynchpins in Rock’s overall trajectory comes to mind, suggesting the name Ian McLagan may garner a blank look from the unknowing in return. On the other hand, namedrop some of the musicians who figure prominently in McLagan’s resume, and that dumbfounded expression will likely morph into one of awe and appreciation. Aside from the fact that he played a pivotal role in two of the most vital British bands of the sixties and seventies — the Small Faces and later, the Faces – he can claim a list of recording and touring credits that include stints with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joe Cocker, Billy Bragg, Paul Westerberg, and… well, honestly, given those names thus far, need we offer any others?
That’s not to say McLagan – or Mac, as he’s known to friends and fans alike – has spent his career in the background. Far from it, in fact. For the past 35 years, he’s helmed the Bump Band, an all-star musical collective based in his adopted hometown of Austin. Affable, easy-going and retaining more than ahint of his British workingman origins, he’s seemingly all too eager to share the details of a career that spans nearly 50 years. That career began with a trio of otherwise obscure outfits — bands like Cyril Davies’ All Stars, the Muleskinners and the Boz People — prior to his replacing keyboard player Jimmy Winston in the Small Faces in November 1965.
McLagan previously detailed this critical period in his exceptional rock memoir All The Rage, which also found him recalling the Faces’ freewheeling road show and his later career as well. These days, there is additional reason to revisit that era, thanks to the release of Here Comes the Nice, a massively thorough, and highly inclusive box set that details every Small Faces hit on the Immediate Records label, along with loads of heretofore unreleased material, a thick coffee table book, souvenir mementos and other relics sure delight the most devoted fan. (Go here to read our review of the box.) Given that wealth of riches, our first question was somewhat obvious.
So Mac, are you happy with the new Small Faces box set? I’m real thrilled and delighted about the new box set. (Producer) Rob Caiger is my new hero. He did such a fantastic job. There’s 45s in there, there’s CDs — four CDs in fact — it’s just amazing to me how good a job they did.
Did you and Kenny curate the box?
We oversaw it, but Rob is the guy who did it all. I was overwhelmed thinking about how we were ever going to find these tapes, but he found them all in Sony’s vault. He found the stereo masters and they’re better than any other record company has had in the past. The CDs that have been pressed over the years have been taken from other CDs in some cases. It’s just unbelievable. But now, we have almost everything, and some of the stuff is in really, really good condition for the first time. He’s kept us in touch at all times. I’ve been getting as many as five emails a day from him. Kenny and I went to the studio to hear some of it, and it’s about fucking time that this actually happened.
Had you heard this material since you recorded it?
Most of it, but there’s stuff on there I hadn’t heard since we left the studio. Some of it was quite surprising. The introduction of “Tin Soldier,” which originally was piano, then organ, guitar, drums, bass… they all come in… but there’s a rehearsal tape on one of the CDs that I had forgotten about. Steve comes in and says, “Hold on!” and then we do it again and then we do it again and then we do it again. And then he fucks up. Eventually he gets it right, but of course we never used this version. (laughs) So it was fascinating for me. All those moments in the studio that I had forgotten about… when we’d have such a good laugh.
It seems like this box is going to be a real treasure for the Small Faces fan. There are likely things on there that nobody has ever heard or even imagined before. The booklet itself is amazing. It’s 12 by 12 like the box itself, and it’s a good half an inch thick. It’s unbelievable. Rob Caiger actually starts off describing all the trials and tribulations of finding all the stuff. There’s also a foreword by Pete Townshend, and one by me and Kenny.
So this will be available worldwide then? Universal in the U.K. has been hemming and hawing. It should be a worldwide release, but it’s not even coming out in England.
That’s unbelievable. They’re working on it. They’re trying to convince Universal and Charly to release it over there. But I have a feeling it’s not coming out over there.
At this point, is there anything left in the vaults, any demos or unreleased tracks?
Everyone has asked about out version of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” I have no memory of recording it, so it’s definitely a lost track. But other than that, everything from the Decca years has already come out. The head of that company was such a mean bastard. He wouldn’t have let anything just sit there.
It seems astounding that the Small Faces never really made much of an impact here in the States, with the exception of the singles “Itchycoo Park” and, to a certain extent, “Tin Soldier.”
We never toured in America.
But why was that?
It was because our first manager Don Arden didn’t want us to come to America because he was our manager and our agent and our records were released through his production company. In other words, he never paid us our royalties for our records or our songwriting, so he didn’t want us to come to America because that would have meant that an American agent would have gotten control and he would have lost control. Then we left him, but then we got busted and that kept us out of the States for awhile. We got a good lawyer and that would have helped, but once we got signed to Immediate, they didn’t want us to come over for the same reason. They would have lost control.
Aside from those couple of singles, it was just such a pity that the American audience eluded you.
Especially since onstage we were an incredibly rambunctious live band. We were wild. And that was never evident on the records, especially “Itchycoo Park” or “Lazy Sunday.” They were nothing like we were onstage, so Americans never saw that side of us, unless they were kids of American servicemen stationed in Germany or in England. We played a few shows for the servicemen in Germany and in East Anglia at the American bases there. Otherwise, they would never have gotten to see us live.
There’s a DVD collection of live Small Faces performances that came out a couple of years ago, but really, as far as audio recordings of the Small Faces live, there doesn’t seem to be too many, aside from a few songs that appeared posthumously over the years. Why weren’t there more?
I don’t really know. I know Glyn Johns recorded us at Newcastle which is where those recordings came from… and I think they’re all included in the box. I think that’s all there were. I haven’t done my research. As soon as I see the actual box I’ll let you know. (Below, L-R: Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones, Ian MacLagan)
Before you joined the Small Faces, did you consider yourself a fan? Oh yeah, in fact my dad pointed them out to me. They were on “Ready Steady Go” one night playing live. I was getting ready to go out on a date and he called me upstairs. “Here, check this one out.” He was never really fond of anybody — he wasn’t into pop music — but he heard how good they were and liked Steve (Marriott’s) voice. And they were a fantastic looking band. He said, “Here, that guy over there” — pointing to Ronnie Lane — “he looks just like you.” We did look a bit alike back then. And then I get a call from their manager. He asked me how much I was earning, so I lied and said twenty pounds a week, which is what my dad was earning. But I knew that was a fair way to go about it. So he said, “Twenty? I’ll give you thirty! And if the guys like you, then you’ll get an even split.” So instantly I was wealthier than my dad! But I never got an even split. After a month I went to Ronnie and I said, “I guess I’m not a permanent member.” And he said, “What are you talking about? Of course you are.” So we went round to the office and I asked Arden if I could start getting an even split. So he, said, “Right you are. You’ll make the same as them, twenty pounds a week.” So right away my wages went down ten pounds.
The story is that when the other three met you for the first time, they instantly — and literally — embraced you because they thought you had the perfect look that would make you fit in. Steve grabbed hold of me as soon as I came round the door of Don Arden’s office, and the three of them picked me up. It was like instant friends, instant buddies.
Why did their first keyboard player Jimmy Winston leave the band? He was kicked out. He wasn’t a great keyboard player. He could play a little bit but given the power of Steve and Ronny and Kenney (Jones), he couldn’t keep up. Kenney was only 16, but he was amazing. And they were all so fucking full of themselves.
And then you all started sharing a flat together. That must have been a blast.
Ronnie, Steve and myself. Kenney was still living at home. He was only 16 or 17.The rest of us wanted the freedom.
It seems like you guys were living the ideal rock star lifestyle. You were in a great band, you could indulge all your dreams, you had the grooviest clothes… It must have been just as the star struck among us might imagine.
It’s true, but mind you, that rock star life meant we worked our asses off. We worked every day. We rarely had a day off. I can only remember two or three in the first year and a half or two years. But we loved that. That’s all I wanted to do, is just to play. And we were in a band where we were playing every day. It was a dream, ya know?
When you switched labels from Decca to Immediate, the band evolved incredibly quickly from that point on.
We were developing very quickly. We were always recording between gigs. We’d spend three hours in a studio and then go do a show. Once we joined Immediate, they gave us more time in the studio and we became less of a live band. It actually backfired on us a little bit because we were recording stuff that we couldn’t recreate on stage. “Itchycoo Park,” for example. But it paid off eventually because we did make some decent sounding records.
Your final official album, Ogdens Nut Gone Flake, was one of the first concept albums, wasn’t it? It had an entire side devoted to this very odd fairy tale. It actually predated Tommy, right?
I believe it did, yeah. We got halfway there. We got half a concept album, just the second side. (laughs) Eventually it was all going to be a concept thing, but we got lax. We had the story, but we had “Lazy Sunday and “Rollin’ Over” and some other tracks on there as well. Is “Rollin’ Over” on there? I’m not sure. (chuckles) I never know which track is off of which album.
It seemed like you were hitting on all cylinders at that point.
Well, it was an incredible vibrant time, ya know? There were orchestras that did a lot of film work in the studio we were using. So there would be a left over kettle drum in the middle of the studio. We’d say, “Oh, we’ll use this.” Occasionally we’d use the tubular bells. They were always there but we never used them before. So we could always experiment a little. (Below: Mac and the late Ronnie Lane.)
Even though Steve and Ronnie were the principal songwriters, were you able to contribute to any extent?
Oh yeah. When it came to Ogdens, we rented three motorboats on the Thames for a little vacation. And we took guitars, the three of us, and I took my wife and my dog, and they took their girlfriends. So we were noodling along, doing nothing really. Smoking a joint, having a drink, loving the day, and then we pulled over for lunch. So then everyone comes over to my boat because it was bigger, and we’re all sitting around playing guitars. I would suggest titles and bits and pieces, so they couldn’t exclude me at that point.
Usually Ronnie would have an idea and he would go to Steve, or Steve would have an idea and he would go to Ronnie, and that’s where the songs came from. In this particular situation, I couldn’t be excluded because I was offering ideas and suggesting things. So I got to co-write a bit. It was easy and it came pretty fast. I had the idea of the title “HappyDaysToyTown” (from Ogdens) and little things like that. It was a really exciting time, and I think it would have developed from there.
Weren’t you occasionally contributing vocals as well?
Well, I always sang a bit of background and I had actually recorded two of my own songs early on. Ronnie and Steve were both very supportive. I always wanted to write with them, and I was sort of like the George Harrison of the band because I always trying to get my stuff in. You never saw Lennon and McCartney and Harrison compositions, but you did see Marriott, Lane and McLagan songs a few times.
Is it true that Peter Frampton almost joined the Small Faces, and that Steve really wanted him in?
We recorded with him when we did a session backing singer Johnny Hallyday in Paris. I hated it because I wasn’t a fan of Johnny Hallyday’s. But Steve wanted to Pete to join and we certainly didn’t. We said, “You’re our guitarist,” but he said, “Pete will free me up to sing some more.” But we didn’t want that. We said, “You’re the singer and the guitarist.” So he just got pissed off and decided to leave the group. I must say that I was friends with Pete and I still am. I love Pete. But he didn’t have the fire that we had. He’s lovely guy and you couldn’t find a better guitarist, but he just wouldn’t have fit.
So it was a stylistic mismatch then?
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the demise of the group then…
What happened before Rod Stewart and Ron Wood came along? Did you guys have any idea about what you were going to do next? We were demoralized, Ronnie particularly. He felt like he was going through a divorce. He and Steve were tighter than two coats of paint. So it was even worse for Ronnie than it was for Kenney and me, even though it was bad enough for us. But we figured we’d stay together if we could. Donovan came over to my flat, and after a long chat, he said, “What I’d like is for you guys to be my backing group.” I thought, “You’re fucking kidding.” It wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I never even mentioned it to Kenney and Ronnie. And then we rehearsed as a three piece, but it was pretty hopeless because we needed that fourth guy. So then we got a call from Ronnie Wood and Ronnie invited me and Ronnie over, and we started playing, the three of us. Ian Stewart, the Stones’ piano player, offered us their rehearsal space because in his words, they never used it. So we rehearsed there as a four piece for a while, and then Ronnie Wood brought Rod down and he offered to sing one day. It was magic because (A) here was someone who could really sing and (B) we didn’t have any songs, but what we did have was the Muddy Waters Live at Newport album. And me, Rod, Ronnie, Ron and Kenney all loved that album. So as soon as Rod started singing with us we had a ready-made repertoire.
Didn’t you cut your initial session with Ron Wood’s brother Art?
We cut a couple of songs with Ted, another brother of Ron’s. With Art, the older brother, we did a bunch of songs that eventually came out as Quiet Melon. That was early Faces.
Have you Ron Wood or Rod Stewart’s book?
No, not really. I read little excerpts of Rod’s in the newspaper in England when it came out. Three or four people can be in a room and when you read about the conversation ten years later, it becomes four different stories.
Looking back now over your life — especially when you were working on the box set — does it ever seem like something of a dream at times?
Yeah, it does. It really does. I’ve been very fortunate and I hope to continue to be very fortunate.I love what I do. I’m really blessed.
Are you the nostalgic type?
Only when I wrote the book. I don’t live in the past. I have so much I’m trying to do. I have a whole bunch of things I’m trying to do in my house. In my mind I’m wondering where the finances are going to come from. I’m buying new keyboards. I’ve got new songs. I got this new album called United States coming out. I’ve got these DVDs that we haven’t completed yet coming out. I’ve got so much to do, so there’s no time to look back.
But I was happy to get involved with the archival stuff with the Small Faces. I remember the smell of studios. I remember the moment, and I remember the time by associating the sense of smell.
I can almost smell what it was like with the four of us.
In 1988, the Louisiana native’s seamless blend of country, blues, folk and rock & roll sounded utterly fresh. A quarter-century later, as evidenced by an expanded/deluxe reissue of her eponymous classic, it still does. Pictured above: Luce back in the day.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Back in the late ‘80s, I was a voracious reader of music magazines. Rolling Stone and Musician were the biggies (Blurt not existing yet, of course), though I also cherrypicked the reviews sections of various other mags, from Spin to Playboy to People. (Working in a bookstore helped immeasurably in that regard.) Growing up in a small town in Texas, it was the only way to find out about new music that wasn’t classic rock, top 40 pop or mainstream country.
The name Lucinda Williams popped up a lot in these magazines in 1988. What intrigued me about the articles about her was that they never agreed on what banner she should fit under. One magazine called her the best new rock artist of the decade, another the best new country artist, another the best new blues artist, another the best new folk artist. I figured that any musician whose style baffled the critics was worth checking out, so I purchased the Lucinda Williams album without hearing a note.
Nowadays we call what Williams created “Americana.” But in 1988 we had only vague terms like “roots rock,” and that seemed inadequate to describe the Louisiana native’s seamless blend of country, blues, folk and rock & roll. Drawing from nearly every permutation of American music gave her a sonic aesthetic as fresh as a new suit and as comfortable as an old flannel shirt. Few albums before or since sound both as new and as lived-in as this one – even if you’d never heard her music before, it sounded familiar without ripping anything off.
And then there were the songs. Daughter of a poet, product of an era that revered Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed as enthusiastically as Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon and Hank Williams, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter balanced unflinching honesty and raw emotion with careful craft and an eye for fine detail, penning a peerless set of songs. Wrapped in melodies so memorable I’d find myself singing them days after listening, these tracks – from the poppy “Passionate Kisses” and “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” to the bluesy “Changed the Locks,” from the country-rockin’ “The Night’s Too Long” to the Tex-Mex “Big Red Sun Blues” –became instant classics. “Side of the Road,” as perfect a portrait of the ambivalence of true love as can be found, is, to my ears, one of the best songs ever written by anyone anywhere.
Though by the late ‘80s I’d acquired plenty of so-called rootsy albums, from the likes of Steve Earle,Gram Parsons, the Long Ryders and the various 60s country rockers, Lucinda Williams was the first Americana record I truly, truly loved. It’s been a mainstay of my record collection ever since, often cited when asked about great songwriters and a perennial entry on all-time top 10 lists when I’m asked to make them. It’s an album that means a great deal to me.
But, like a lot of LPs that have been firm favorites over the decades, I confess to not having listened to it in a long time. Part of this is because I’ve internalized so many of these songs that I don’t need to spin it regularly to remember it; partly it’s because of the massive volume of new music that’s been released since. (Duh, you say, but seriously—think about how much music has spurted out since the beginning of the internet age and cheap home-recording.) So a new 25th-anniversary edition of Williams’ seminal work was just the excuse I needed to spin it again.
This all sounds like the buildup to something negative, as if I’m going to say, “Damn, this isn’t as good as I remember it.” Wrong – this story has the fairytale ending for which I hoped. Lucinda Williams holds up just as well as I remember, its songs sounding just as wonderfully written and performed now as they did when I first heard them. Listening again helps me appreciate the songs that didn’t slap me across the face the first time – the bitter ballad “Abandoned,” the erotically-charged treatise “Like a Rose,” the plainspokenly acidic cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked For Water (He Gave Me Gasoline).” I’m marveling anew at how perfectly Williams’ band and sessioneers (many of whom have passed away since this record came out) accompany her vision, especially wonderfully tasteful guitarist Gurf Morlix. I’m listening a quarter of a century after I first heard it and still falling deeper and deeper in love with this untouchable record. I don’t like to use this word much, but for Lucinda Williams I have to: it’s a masterpiece.
It’s so good that the extras included in the new two-disk edition (released by Lucinda Williams Music/Thirty Tigers; www.lucindawilliams.com) almost gild the lily. As with the 1998 Koch Records reissue, this version adds the acoustic tracks from the Passionate Kisses EP, including great takes on Memphis Minnie’s “Nothing in Rambling” and Lil Son Jackson’s “Disgusted,” and the B-sides to the “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” single, with an early take on the lovely “Something About What Happens When We Talk” and the otherwise unreleased and equally pretty “Sundays.” Also included is a sterling live set recorded in the Netherlands in 1989, which not only hits the obvious highlights of her career thus far, but also includes a great version of John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue.” And all the bonus cuts appear on the second disk, letting the original album stand on its own.
Is this the definitive version of Lucinda Williams? For someone who’s lived closely to this album for 25 years, the answer is unhesitatingly, unambiguously yes. Even if you own previous versions on Rough Trade and Koch, this is worth the time and money. And if you’ve never experienced Lucinda Williams before, this is a discovery worth making and music that will live in your heart and mind long after the disk stops spinning.
Photo Credit: Greg Allen (top photo). Below: Lucinda Williams today.
In which our 13-year old editor pays tribute to the lowbrow genius and his eye-popping anthology. Check out some of his illustrations at the bottom of the page.
BY FRED MILLS
Tucked over in the righthand margin of the Amazon.com page for Mitch O’Connell—The World’s Best Artist (Last Gasp Books) is a notation that reads, in part, “Looking for the Audiobook Edition? Tell us that you’d like this title to be produced as an audiobook, and we’ll alert our colleagues at Audible.com…” Lordy. One can only dream. But the FBI would probably get involved.
Chicago-based Mitch O’Connell—who is not, despite the similarity of spelling, rightwing Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, although I would vote for O’Connell in a heartbeat if he ran for public office—is a prominent force among the so-called “Lowbrow” Art movement that initially emerged from the underground comics scene during the late ‘70s. Think: Robert Williams, The Coop, Gary Panter, punk rock posters, hot rods, tattoos, Juxtapoz mag, Sympathy For The Record Industry, tits. Wikipedia suggests that a synonym for “lowbrow art” is “pop surrealism”; what, no “transgressive” in there? Let’s just call it “youth-corrupting filth” and be done with it.
Okay kids, your parents out of the room now? Let’s proceed.
One of the first sights to grace the peepers upon opening this massive, elaborately packaged compendium of O’Connell’s work is a curvy brunette, naked sans unfiltered cigarette, her shaved twat staring you right in the face. As the artist himself pledges in the text immediately below the babe, “Excitement! Fun! Nudity! Thrills! Balloons! Nudity! Alcohol! Cake! Hilarity! Nudity! Oh, what amazement awaits! Do you have goosebumps too?!”
Well, that and a raging boner, Mitch.
One could argue that O’Connell’s book, and perhaps the bulk of his colorful career to date (which includes having his art published by Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Spin, The New York Times, Time, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and, er, Juggs; he’s also a sometime tattoo artist), is aimed directly at 13-year old boys, or more accurately your inner 13-year old boy, since the only way a 13-year old boy is going to be able to obtain this volume is by shoplifting, which I do not recommend despite the fact that as a 13-year old boy I had a lucrative hobby shoplifting Playboys and Penthouses from the newsstand of Mr. Tollison’s Pharmacy and Soda Fountain in my hometown. That’s a story for another day, however. Page after page here is oozing quim, a veritable harvest of boobs, from the recurring visage of Betty Page to buxom alien-fighting space wenches to hot-to-trot rockabilly mamas to devil gals to the random dominatrix. I mean, Ker-rist, you can practically smell the musk scent as you flip through The World’s Best Artist.
Sprinkled here and there are photographic examples of some of O’Connell’s muses, such as a Bunny Yeager-esque pic, burlesque dancers and Russ Meyer vixen Tura Satana. There’s also an extended spread near the back of the book that’s the equivalent of a guided tour of O’Connell’s actual house, which is crammed with his art, naturally, and also prominently features all manner of collectible dolls and lingerie-clad store mannequins. But by and large, it’s the illustrations that power the vehicle here. Did someone mention nudity?
Of course, the pop culture aspect goes hand in hand with the tits. Tons of gig posters, like one for a roller girl derby, a music showcase and a B-movie film festival. O’Connell has designed his share of record sleeves and band merch, too—Supersuckers, Ramones and Less Than Jake among them. In that vein there are also plenty of celebrity representations: Foo Fighters, Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, Peewee Herman, Mr. T, Jayne Mansfield, what may or may not be that pipe-smoking dude from the Church of the Sub-Genius, and a somewhat unsettling image of Dean Martin’s disembodied head surrounded by floating slices of cream pie and bacon. (The latter painting, which depicts a sleeping female dreaming of Martin, is from 2003 and is titled, you guessed it, “Wet Dean.”) And ladies, just so you get equal time here, there are also a number of beefcake drawings plus the occasional fat cock.
There’s more, of course, including comic book and magazine covers—the sci-fi and horror fields apparently have provided the artist with steady work over the years—and an awesome two-page Star Trek poster featuring Kirk and Spock front and center. (I’ve got a thing for Star Trek.)O’Connell also provides a running commentary so you can trace his career and get a clear sense of what informs his aesthetic. Tits, yes, but still…
World’s best? Maybe; we’ll let posterity decide that. But world’s coolest, definitely. Now excuse me, I think I hear my 13-year old son stirring upstairs. He loves gifts, and I think I have just the book for him.
With a reissue of a key concert album documenting an early Dream Syndicate show just out, and rumors of a new studio album from the band being floated, it’s as good a time as any to revisit this story from the editor’s archives.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: Earlier this month The Day Before Wine and Roses (Live at KPFK, September 5, 1982) was reissued. Of that CD, which captured L.A.’s Dream Syndicate in full flight just prior to recording its landmark long-playing debut, our reviewer noted, “It may not get the same spins as more accomplished Dream Syndicate records, but it’s still an essential document of a great band at the beginning of its journey.”
Back then the group consisted of Steve Wynn and Karl Precoda on guitars, Kendra Smith on bass and Dennis Duck on drums; meanwhile, in 2014 the lineup comprises Wynn, Duck, Mark Walton on bass and guitarist Jason Victor (also a member of Wynn’s Miracle 3 combo), and the past year has seen an definite upswing in activity for the revived Dream Syndicate. You can hear that incarnation via a hot-sounding download of the May 24, 2013, London concert, watch a video of the band in Cleveland on Nov. 22, or read about ‘em at the Paisley Underground reunion bash in San Francisco on Dec. 5.
With that in mind, we present the following interview with Wynn conducted by yours truly a few years ago, which was occasioned by the long-overdue 2010 reissue of the group’s second album, 1984’s Medicine Show. While the conversation centered primarily on the making of that record, Wynn touched upon all aspects of the group’s career up until that point. As such, it remains instructive to any fan or student of the band’s music and sonic aesthetic. Enjoy.
2010: The reissue earlier this summer of the Dream Syndicate’s Medicine Show was greeted — justifiably — by the sort of critical hosannas typically reserved for some long-overdue artifact from Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Van Morrison. Steve Wynn’s character-driven lyrical narratives and the band’s adventuresome arrangements and muscular playing were enhanced by jawdroppingly fine remastered sound, and the package itself boasted fresh liner notes and a raft of live bonus material, making it a prime candidate for one of the year’s most essential reissues, too.
It was also one of the ‘80s most significant records. Recall how by1984 the Amerindie underground had mostly lost its innocence, swapping many of its occasionally quaint notions of DIY for a more professional approach to music making (owning decent gear, recording in actual studios, networking among club owners and college radio deejay, etc.) to reflect the growing realization that, hey, we might actually be able to earn a living at this. The term “careerist” no longer carried the same whiff of disdain it might have a few years earlier, and it wasn’t necessarily a crime to try to land a deal with a major label, either. The majors still controlled the means of distribution and promotion, so while signing with a major didn’t automatically guarantee you’d wheel into town for a gig and find plenty copies of your new album in local stores, at this point in time it was still your best option, and there wasn’t a band on the planet that wanted to not sell records. If nothing else, it was a matter of pride.
Arriving stage left: the Dream Syndicate. Two years earlier the Los Angeles foursome had issued their epochal long-playing debut The Days of Wine and Roses, a record that not only pushed the group to the forefront of the aforementioned underground in terms of dues-paying, punk-rocking credibility (that it came out on L.A. punk label Slash is no trivial factoid), but also brought a measure of cerebral musicality to the dialogue that would ultimately ensure the album “timeless” status. To this day, TDOWAR pops up on music critics’ best-of lists, and when Rhino reissued it in expanded format a few years ago, the critical hosannas were pretty much unanimous in locating it alongside classic screeds by the likes of Television, Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, R.E.M., Gang of Four and others from the punk and post-punk era.
As the saying goes, the band had built up a reserve of rock ‘n’ roll capital: now it was time to spend some of it. The Dream Syndicate – comprising founding members Steve Wynn (guitars, vocals and the chief songwriter), Karl Precoda (guitars) and Dennis Duck (drums), plus bassist Dave Provost on loan from fellow L.A. psych/”Paisley Underground” outfit The Droogs, who’d been drafted to replace original bassist Kendra Smith – signed with A&M Records and hooked up with noted producer Sandy Pearlman, who while having made his reputation back in the dinosaur-rock era by helming Blue Oyster Cult’s early ‘70s releases had also produced proto-punks the Dictators and honest-to-god-punks The Clash. It seemed like a good marriage of what’s suggested in the first paragraph above: taking advantage of a decent-sized budget in a decently-outfitted studio and tapping the experience of an industry veteran while not completely jettisoning those DIY values that helped get the band to this point in the first place. The album was to be called Medicine Show, after one of Wynn’s greatest compositions, and it was supposed to be the record that would put them on the aboveground radar.
Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke tells the tale in his copious liner notes to this new, expanded Medicine Show, noting how the recording regimen, spread across five months and three San Francisco studios, “was hell.” But it produced a genuine masterpiece, one which didn’t necessarily eclipse its 1982 predecessor but rather stood wholly apart as an entirely reinvented Dream Syndicate – an album that, according to Fricke, “confused underground purists… [but is] actually more seditious in its charge and hazy morality… Pearlman drilling down to the emotional fury inside Wynn’s songs and the rock & roll classicism in [the group’s] garage-band fundamentals.”
Listened to now, track-by-track, Medicine Show has, if anything, grown stronger since its original release. It’s long been my favorite Dream Syndicate album, a fact I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. There’s a balancing act going on between the old-school rock of my youth and the punk-powered music that galvanized me as a young adult, and there’s a sonic ambiance that alternately baffles and delights me; the record’s like a foreign film that I don’t fully comprehend but which leaves me deeply haunted for weeks after seeing it. It’s also a bit of a period piece thanks to Pearlman’s reverb-heavy production – but that’s not to mean it’s dated in the same sense as, say, a Duran Duran album is. (Will Rigby of The dB’s once told me, in response to an observation I made about the ‘80s-specific sound their Like This sported, how they were actually eager to take advantage of the most recent studio technology, with digital reverb in particular being one of up-to-date studios’ popular new toys.) The production actually lends a striking measure of clarity to the proceedings, an overt crispness that, combined with a fat, booming bottom end and precisely positioned vocal tracks (both Wynn’s echo-lined leads and the massed-choir style backing vocals), creates a credibly arena-worthy vibe. Sorry, all you underground purists out there.
The album also reveals the sound of a band pushed in the studio by their producer to excel and to play outside their collective comfort zone. The Duck-Provost rhythm section is taut and muscular, while session keyboardist Tom Zvoncheck brings a crucial array of new textures contributing to that big-venue feel. (Also guesting, on vocals, are Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy from the Long Ryders, Gavin Blair from True West and Paul Mandl.) Lead guitarist Precoda was never better than on Medicine Show, bringing an arsenal’s worth of effects and fretboard flourishes that might’ve had those purists going “Oh my!” at the time but, with hindsight, now come across as powered by a deeply felt jazz and psychedelia sensibility. And with Wynn operating as an instrumental foil to Precoda, chopping and slashing and unleashing terse, brittle bursts, the album’s guitar sound essentially finishes the job that Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd set out to accomplish years earlier in Television.
Wynn’s songwriting hits an early peak on Medicine Show, too, serving up emotional confessions (“Still Holding On To You,” “Daddy’s Girl”) alongside stream-of-consciousness Beats swagger (the lengthy, nine-minute “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” – the most Television-like, dueling-guitars tune on the album – which is so outrageously brash and horny that you’re tempted to adopt the singer’s titular come-on of “I got some John Coltrane on the stereo, baby, make it feel all right/ I got some fine wine in the freezer, mama, I know what you like” and try it out yourself on some sweet young thing down at the bar.
The album also delves deeply into the noirish character sketches that would continue to mark Wynn as a songwriter over the course of his long career (which has included, not surprisingly, a friendship and collaboration with hardboiled novelist George Pelecanos). The song “Burn,” musically a blend of the edgy and the seductive (it suggests a cross between Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”), charts the darkness men find hidden within their souls – “just a few things that can’t be told,” sings Wynn – against a backdrop of short-story vignettes, one of them involving a guy who burned down a field one night and then, upon being questioned by the cops about his motivation, simply replied, “Guess I just don’t know.” Another track, the piano-fueled, Springsteenesque “Merrittville,” finds the protagonist having to contend with the sorry fruits of his even sorrier labors, pursued by thugs and surrounded by shady types who may or may not have his worst interests at heart. And the bluesy, hypnotically pulsing “The Medicine Show” is even darker, lined with a bone-chilling, visceral malevolence so profound it screams to be turned into a David Fincher thriller:
“I got a Page One story buried in my yard/ Got a troubled mind/ Goin’ down to the medicine show/ If I’ve gotta choose between doin’ penance/ And doin’ time/ Goin’ down to the medicine show…
It’s hard to be a reasonable man/ When you stop findin’ reasons for everything/ But tonight I’ll get some answers, baby/ Aw, at the medicine show.”
Jeezus. Who is this guy? What’s he hiding – who, or what, exactly, does he have buried? What’s going on down at this medicine show he’s talking about – drugs? sex? religion? Maybe we don’t need to know.That song, and the album as a whole, will leave you questioning yourself and your own motives. It’s like a novel set to music – a white-knuckled page-turner at that, one which reveals additional layers and nuances, new pretexts and subtexts, with each successive read (listen).
Medicine Show Mk.2010 corrects a long-standing sin of omission by putting the album back in the bins – A&M reissued on CD in 1989, but it’s been out of print for ages – and plugging a glaring hole in the Dream Syndicate’s back catalog. In addition to the 12 page booklet with Fricke’s notes, it also includes as bonus material the five-song mini-album This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album… Live! that A&M issued in late ’84 to further stoke the fires for the band, who had been making modest commercial inroads touring the U.S. (including a stint opening for R.E.M.). Recorded at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on July 7 for a live broadcast over WXRT-FM, TINTNDSAL! features a proud version of Wine and Roses track “Tell Me When It’s Over” (it opens with a delightfully faux-pompous piano intro courtesy Zvoncheck, who had joined the touring lineup), but the focus, for obvious marketing reasons, is on four key Medicine Show numbers, most notably the title track and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.” Both tunes are heard here en route to earning longterm tenure in Wynn setlists: “The Medicine Show” is all slash ‘n’ burn, Wynn’s unadorned-by-studio-effects voice taking on a trembly urgency that underscores the song’s already established sense of creeping, heart-of-darkness dread. And “JCSB,” with its heady swirls of organ, searing Wynn-Precoda guitars and relentless rhythm section throb (Mark Walton had recently replaced Provost as permanent bassist, and he and Duck are clearly simpatico), firmly establishes itself as a concert tour-de-force, equal parts hard-psych bop and Television-styled outré punk. As a live document of the band circa mid ’84, the mini-album is absolutely essential. (The 1989 A&M CD for Medicine Show also contained several of the live tracks, but not all of them due to length restrictions for CDs at that point in time.)
“Medicine Show sounds unlike any of the other [albums],” writes Wynn, in his addendum to the reissue’s liner notes. “The record is beautiful, unattainable, right and wrong in all the best ways. Karl wanted to make a big, panoramic rock record to justify our move to a major label and the plethora of attention we had received [since] The Days of Wine and Roses. I wanted to make a ‘beautiful loser,’ button-pushing, over-the-top emotional catharsis in the tradition of most of my all-time favorite records. We both got our way.”
That’s for sure. The record IS panoramic, massive, yet it’s also a soul-purger in the most primal, essential sense. And when Wynn cites as among his favorite LPs Big Star 3rd, Tonight’s The Night and Plastic Ono Band he’s not succumbing to hubris by implicitly ranking Medicine Show alongside those, but getting at what a lot of us Dream Syndicate watchers have always known for more than a quarter-century.
Although the lineup that recorded Medicine Show would eventually splinter following a lengthy national tour, Wynn remains justifiably proud of the record and has very distinct memories of what went into its creation. And he was more than willing to settle in for a conversation one balmy July afternoon to reminisce at length. “Of all the records I’ve made,” he offers, “that one’s the hardest to pin down; it’s its own beast.”
Let’s see if we can tame it, then…
BLURT: In an earlier interview, you and I were talking about how Medicine Show is the final piece of the back catalog, the last hole that needs plugging, considering everything else had already been restored to print. So finally you’re able to do that.
STEVE WYNN: Oh yeah. It’s been frustrating. I’ve been trying to do that, really, for going on 15 years now! I remember when I started the crusade, and it has not been easy. Well, it was not easy, and then suddenly it became very easy! Part of the problem was A&M kept being swallowed up by bigger fish year by year — it was like Apocalypse Now, going up to find Colonel Kurtz! [laughs] Trying to get to the heart of the matter! You’d find one lawyer, and then talk to another lawyer, and it was just surprisingly difficult.
Was this final round of negotiations you and the Water label working together to get the record? Give us a sense of how a band is able to pry an artifact loose from the label behemoth [in this case, Universal, which currently owns the A&M catalog].
Well, Water stepped in just recently. It’s been various people championing it along the way. I remember when John Silva, my old manager, was trying to pry it loose, and he, this guy with some serious clout at the height of the Nirvana-Beastie Boys-Beck things going on, couldn’t get it done. Later on Jim Barber, who knew a lot of people, made an effort to get it. And various lawyers tried. I can’t explain exactly why it was so difficult.
Years ago I was interviewing Holly Beth Vincent, from Holly & the Italians, whose first two albums were finally getting reissued, and she outlined what a torturous path it had been. Her feeling was that for a long time the major label that owned those albums preferred to keep the tapes locked up and have no one make any money from them rather than license them for less than their asking price. She had tried for ages.
Right! And the point I kept trying to make was that I’m not trying to get rich; in fact, that record is quite unrecouped! I won’t see royalties, ever. I just wanted to see it out there. My feeling was that, yeah, they could see some of the money back. My theory is that the Dream Syndicate was too popular just for them to let [the tapes] go, but not popular enough for them to want to bother with it.
That’s a pretty damning limbo to be stuck in.
That’s my guess – right in the middle of that. Because you know there are things in their [Universal’s] catalog that just get licensed or put out by them. They didn’t want to let it go but they didn’t want to keep it either. This went on for a long time.
Then all of a sudden Filippo at Water Records called me up and told me, “I saw Medicine Show on a list of things that are available for licensing.” I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” That’s what he specializes in. One thing he does is goes around and cherry picks stuff that’s out of print on other labels that Water wants to put out. So he had the opportunity with this, which was great because I’ve worked with him in the past on some of my solo stuff and he let me be real involved with the reissue.
Water always does a quality job. Sound, liner notes, packaging. And that’s what people want from a reissue. I don’t have to tell you how shoddy reissues were early on, when LPs first started getting put out on CD in the ‘80s. Horrible sound quality from 3rd or 4th generation tapes. Double albums that would have tracks eliminated so the entire thing would fit on a single CD. So you were really involved with overseeing the remastering, the whole process?
Everything. The mastering, the liners, the packaging, pushing for digipak over jewel case – every aspect. Because I wanted it to be done right. See, this will probably be the last CD release for Medicine Show — maybe there will be a 3D hologram version in two years, I dunno! — so I wanted this to be done properly.
One thing of note is the remastered sound: the depth and clarity is phenomenal.
Oh yeah, man, it sounds like what we were listening to when we made the record, what was coming out of the speakers in the studio. It never sounded that good before, because even with the vinyl, we had the problem where both sides were too long, [a fidelity] issue. That was the concern. Now it’s a bit easier, but back then it was a real concern. For example, we were editing “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” down from about 14 minutes to the final version, about 8 ½, and we were doing that not because we were trying to make a “hit single” but to make it fit! Just chopping off parts of intros, verses, solos. Making it more economical, and it probably did serve the song well, but it was because we wanted to make sure the record didn’t skip [due to excessive length].
That’s something a lot of the generation nowadays might not be aware of. The studio rat equivalent of having to walk five miles in the snow to school each morning…
“Lemme tell you the way things used to be, kids”… yeah. You know how it was. I’ve always thought about how the medium dictates the art. It’s funny to think about how certain records mean a lot to people, yet a lot of the decisions that were made on them were based around really weird parameters. “Yeah, that song’s shorter because we were trying to keep it from skipping.” Something weird about that.
I think the original vinyl Medicine Show was really good. The CD [A&M’s 1989 reissue] was terrible. I don’t blame that on the mastering, because Bill Inglot, who mastered it, always does a great job. It’s just that CDs sounded like crap back then. So [during the remastering] I remembered how exciting it was making this record and hearing all the stuff as we were going along, and how happy I was. And I haven’t had that experience of hearing it that way until now.
I’ve had musicians tell me that the experience cuts both ways – that when they go back and revisit an earlier album, both good and bad memories can come back. I understand making the record was also a period of stress for you.
Mmm-hmmm. Some of it wasn’t a happy time for me or, I’m sure, for Karl. It was exciting because we knew we were doing something special, but we took five months to make it, and during those five months we went from being pretty good friends to two people who didn’t speak anymore. That’s no fun. Also, just being 23, various bad behavior, various doubts… if I could’ve told myself back then that 27 years later I’d still be making music and having fun, I think I would have relaxed a little bit. But you put this incredible pressure on yourself to come up with the goods when you’re first starting out.
Whereas now, I think I’m making the best music of my life, and I’m trying a lot less. That doesn’t mean it’s not important or that I don’t make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be; it’s just more natural because I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in writing.
Yeah, that’s true. I feel like I can do things easier, with a lot less effort, and still come up with something better — and have more fun doing it in the process. That’s probably true with any discipline.
Of course, the flipside is that all the frustrations and neuroses that go into making the record come out in the record, and you can hear it – in a good way. Because making a record is a very intense emotional experience.
That’s fueled so many great records, like the ones you namecheck in the Medicine Show liner notes — Big Star Third, Tonight’s The Night, etcetera. In the review I wrote of your album, I pointed out how it confuses me sometimes, that I’m not sure what I’m responding to and it’s like watching a French movie. Some of the sounds are a little weird, very ‘80s sounding, yet very seductive too. So why is this album, for me, instead of Days Of Wine and Roses, the Dream Syndicate record I respond to the most? It’s very hard to explain. The album a key artifact of the Amerindie underground of that era, yet it sounds unlike other records from that time period.
That’s a great description. I think there’s a little mystery to it. Of all the records I’ve made, that one’s the hardest to pin down; it’s its own beast. I can’t think of any of the other records that sound quite like that. The closest thing that it reminds me of might be some of Nick Cave’s records that came afterwards, which were damaged, and wrong, and often uncomfortable, but make a strong impression. And I think…mmm, I think Medicine Show has its own mystery and a lot of things. Your comment about a French movie is a really good one, because if you go to see any basic Adam Sandler movie, you know the story and you can walk away and say I know what that was about and what the subtext was, and I got from A to B and I either enjoyed it or I didn’t. But there are certain more oddball films where you walk away and go, I don’t even know what that was about, it was stilted and unknowing at times — but I can’t stop thinking about it. And those are the things I’ve always liked.
That would make Daughtry the Adam Sandler of rock ‘n’ roll…Okay, so you started writing Medicine Show not long after the first album, and then Kendra Smith [original bassist] left the band. Take us back to that point, when she announces she was splitting and you say to yourself, “Uh-oh…”
I was really sad about that because Kendra had been a good friend for a real long time. We were in bands when we were 18 back in Davis, California. And I knew how important she was to the band and the sound of the band. But being that age, I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just said, “Okay, good luck.” We knew we were going on to something else anyway, and she sensed that, and I think that may have been her hesitation about going on. We’d gone from being a goth-y psychedelic band to more of a guitar band and a band that would tour a lot.
And when she left, I think it was February of ’83, we were only one year past our first gig. A lot had happened in that time, a lot of very heady stuff. There was a period of time when I knew if I walked past the newsstand, any music magazine that I picked up would have us in it. I just assumed that, and it was exciting, but also when you’re that young and starting out, it can do weird things to you, and do different things to different people. I think for her it was a combination of maybe seeing us heading in a direction she didn’t like, and also because she was dating David Roback at the time I think they wanted to do things together [as Opal]. The whole touring thing wasn’t as much fun for her as it was for us. So when she left I knew we were going to be a different band.
You got David Provost in to replace her — he’d been playing with the Textones, right?
I was a fan of theirs and used to go see them, and I would see him around a lot too. He’s great – you know, he played with Al Green! Just a fantastic bassist. I just saw him recently, in Portland.
Did you already have the A&M deal cooking when he joined?
No, not then. The reason we had to get him in the band fast was because of the U2 tour. We needed someone who could learn the songs and jump in the van and go. The same thing happened a year later when he left and Mark Walton came in – we had to do a tour.
We were being offered deals by Geffen, EMI and A&M. It was great! I got a lot of nice meals out of that, a lot of ego stroking! Meetings with the presidents of labels, very exciting, very heady, and a lot of fun. I think A&M won out because they seemed more of an artists’ label. The whole vibe of them, and the fact that they were run by a musician, Herb Alpert, and that we’d be able to do what we wanted to. And we did! EMI, for example, we met with Gary Gersh, their A&R guy, and I remember him saying, “Well, you know, when you come with us, you’re not going to have just a label. We’re going to collaborate. We’re going to get involved with the songwriting and the way you make the records.” He was telling me this as a selling point! [laughs] “Check please!” I wanted no part of that. Geffen was great, though, so that was a hard decision. But even Geffen was more of a “corporation” compared to A&M being artist friendly.
And it was the right decision. Because A&M, in the five months of making the record, they never bothered us while we were doing it. They just signed the checks and said, “Keep going.” Which to this day amazes me.
Can you tell me how much they spent on the album, or is that privileged information?
I can tell you that it was something around a quarter of a million dollars…. yeah.
How many Steve Wynn records can we make with a quarter of a million dollars?
Everything I’ve ever done! I can tell you, and I’m pretty sure I can verify this, the time and money it took to make Medicine Show, I could fit everything else I’ve ever done. [laughs] Maybe not the time, but… to me it was a lesson, because I’ve always said about Medicine Show that we could’ve made the same record in a month. But at the same time, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were looking for something and not knowing what it was until we found it, and that was sort of the way Sandy Pearlman [Medicine Show producer] was too. And he’s always been that way: if you talk to people in Blue Oyster Cult, the Clash, the Dictators, you’ll get the same thing from them about Sandy. He takes a long time, and you kind of go on the journey with him.
Everything that happened was for a good end because we got that record. But some producers might have come in and said, okay, do this, this, this, and we’re done. He said, “Keep doing it, and I’ll know it when I see it.” And we said the same thing.
Did you seek out Pearlman, or was he suggested by the label?
He knew our manager at the time, Tim Devine. We were on tour with U2 and played a show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, and our tour manager was quit or fired and we suddenly found ourselves without a tour manager or soundman for a very big show. Our manager suggested Sandy to do live sound. Most studio producers will not do that. But he did, we met him, and we liked him. It’s funny too – Karl was sold on him because of Blue Oyster Cult, and I was sold on him because of the Dictators. We both had our Sandy favorites, so he was a good choice.
He definitely pulled something out of us that we didn’t know was there. He pushed us to an extreme. He really, in every way, wanted something beyond just the normal rock band experience. It’s funny: his favorite movie, and one he had the poster for up on his wall, was Apocalypse Now. And it was the same thing. That documentary about the film, Heart of Darkness, all the psychological adventures that Coppola and Martin Sheen and everyone went through making that movie – I’m not saying it’s totally analogous, but that’s what we were doing as well.
If cameras had been rolling in the studio with you guys, what might they have caught on film?
They would have caught me throwing a whiskey bottle at Sandy for making me sing the same song 20 times in a row! And him saying to me, “You can’t throw a whiskey bottle at me! Mick Jones didn’t even throw a whiskey bottle at me!” [laughs]
In the new liner notes you write about how Karl Precoda wanted a big, panoramic sounding kind of record, whereas you were going for a kind of “beautiful loser” document. Were there discussions among the band members to that effect, about what you were going for, or was it strictly the intuitive search you suggested a few minutes ago?
It was intuitive. It’s funny, Karl’s mantra was, “We’re in the big leagues now.” He was very affected by that. He felt this was our time to make the big move. And I guess I felt the same thing, but my big move was just to fuck with people’s minds and do something really crazy. I was looking at things like Fun House and Miami by the Gun Club.
We never talked much about business or our career while we were making the record. Sandy Pearlman got very involved in arrangements, though. He had a lot to do with the arrangements on that record, and going against our safety zone. For example, “Merritville” on that record, when I originally wrote it, it was a very fast, almost country punk kind of song. Totally different from what it ended up being. If you imagine that being like something off the Gun Club’s Fire Of Love – “Preachin’ the Blues,” “ For the Love of Ivy,” that sort of song. Sandy just said, “I’m not getting the song here. Slow it down.” And he kept having us slow it down until the song came out. And that was very exciting. It was a new approach to us. Our approach had always been explode. Explode and see what happens. Slap it against the wall and see what happens.
That song is significant, too, for how important the keyboards are in the arrangement, compared to all the earlier Dream Syndicate material. At what point did Tom Zvoncheck come in to add piano to the arrangements? Did Sandy suggest that or was it something you’d been thinking of all along?
I think it was there almost from the start – we knew we wanted keyboards to be part of the record, the sound we were going for. And there’s a lot of keyboards on Sandy’s stuff too; that’s a big part of his sound, the Blue Oyster Cult stuff. We all agreed that was to be part of it. And at the time, I was looking at what Green On Red was doing, what [GoR keyboardist] Chris Cacavas was doing, and I liked that element. So we had never had keyboards in any way in the Dream Syndicate, but given what we were into and the way the songs were, and knowing Sandy’s sound, I don’t think there was ever any question.
“Merrittville” in particular is dominated by Tom’s piano, and it’s a beautiful, elegant tune. Yet I can hear some punk purist and devotee of the first album sniffing, “Oh, they want to be Springsteen….”
Yeah, and that was there. A lot of things about the record were misunderstood at the time. People said it was overproduced — which it was.
“Corporate rock,” yes! Which has nothing to do with anything. So the keyboards being reminiscent of Springsteen, or the drum sound — which, admittedly, is a bit of the time.
But all those things don’t stand out now when I hear the reissue. Now, it is what it is. Like a lot of records: over time, you just accept how they sound. The thing about Medicine Show that was kind of frustrating but also kind of funny at the time was the perception of the record in the States versus in Europe. I mean, the “selling out” part was ridiculous; it wasn’t a sellout in any way. But in Europe there was no real history of the band. Various collectors may have had [1982’s] Days of Wine and Roses, but Medicine Show was recognized as just a completely different and exciting record from an exciting new band. And the same thing happened that I described earlier: how everywhere you’d go, people are going to be writing about it and loving it. We got that [in Europe] on a year delay with Medicine Show. And still, to this day, I think that is the record that has more notoriety and more fans than Wine and Roses.
What you’re describing is something that one supposes has happened to a lot of bands. Howe Gelb from Giant Sand told me a similar thing, how his band was wholeheartedly embraced in Europe. Their record finally comes out overseas, and the foreign fans don’t really have any context or background so they just take it at face value without any baggage that might have existed back home where people had been listening to the group a few years. Or at least this was true in the pre-Internet era.
Sure, and that follows from your local scene, where you’ve been playing and they think they have certain rights to you, to your country, and it expands from there. Someone like Howe has probably experienced that in Tucson. I remember the first time I met Howe through Dan Stuart’s [Green On Red] perspective; they’d gone a long way back so my first impression of him was of this guy from the same scene as Dan’s and they had some history.
The way a person is perceived outside the scene is totally different from the way people inside it perceive the person. What’s ironic is that I first learned about Giant Sand by reading a British magazine, Bucketful of Brains. Yet later, when I lived in Tucson, I realized the whole scene there was different from the way it had been portrayed. It wasn’t this mystical center of desert rock at all.
L.A. is like that a lot. I’m like Randy Newman – “I love L.A.!” But it’s not a very healthy place to be a musician. In the past at least, everything was against the backdrop of the music business: who got signed, who got dropped, where you’re playing, what it all means. I always hated that. You don’t get that in New York at all.
And for the Dream Syndicate, you got a little acclaim, and the knives came out in jealousy from some quarters. That social climbing aspect of L.A. plays a part.
Sure. I think we “climbed” really quick and a lot of people resented that. And a lot of people who claimed to love the band didn’t really know what we were all about. That’s probably true of a lot of bands, where they arc and they start off as kind of a cult band, then have a little success, and finally ease back to where they would normally be. You look at that one moment when you’ve spiked, and it’s exciting, but it’s not all that realistic. Like the whole Nirvana syndrome, where all these people suddenly love Nirvana but would otherwise have hated stuff like that. It’s kind of a funny thing. People would be talking about the Dream Syndicate: “Really? You like this? You like this half hour of feedback?!?” [laughs] And we made a point of testing that too! [laughs]
I bet you did. And yet then you turn around and do something so different like Medicine Show. Nowadays people expect a band not to just repeat the previous album, but for a long time it’s almost like there was an orthodoxy that was a holdover from the initial punk era – so those folks who’d come to expect a half hour of feedback wound up getting this Springsteenian song with a piano. And that disconnect was expressed in a lot of the reviews too, right?
Yeah. And the funny thing, too, is that when you and I were growing up [in the pre-punk period] it was also the way where you’d expect people to change with every record – Dylan or Neil Young or David Bowie. Or even the Velvets, speaking of someone to whom we got compared to a lot: each of the four Velvets albums are radically different, and they’re each definitive for what they are.
Then punk told you that you would have to dress the same way and act the same way and sound the same way or you were out of the club.
Yeah. What was acceptable and what wasn’t. But also, then a lot of money got involved – a lot of money got confused in the ‘80s. The ‘80s became, sadly, the era of the producer and the studio and that kind of stuff. And it kind of got away from what you were recording. It was really weird in the ‘80s, how you saw, top to bottom, every band I knew, we – the musicians – were interchangeable random elements to be used by producers. We dodged that the best we could
Let me ask you about the songwriting. You have always had a reputation – for lack of a better term – for being cerebral. Or maybe “literate” is a better way to put it. Anyway, you stood apart from the whole punk “one-two-three-FOUR!” approach to songwriting. Were you consciously going for the storytelling approach, or consciously going against the grain? Even rebelling against the “baby, I love you” pop style of songwriting?
Well, not necessarily the “baby I love you.” I think Wine and Roses is the sound of a post-teenage group of people who are in their own head, who have their own concerns about how to deal with the world and new things. It’s very much an internal, neurotic record. And in the year after that came out, we went through a lot of stuff. We were seeing the world, traveling to every corner of the country, meeting new kinds of people. And I was reading a lot of things that went along with that. For example, I was seeing the South, so I wanted to read more Southern literature; I was reading Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, things like that. So we were reflecting what was happening to us, reflecting just seeing more and knowing more and pulling out our own thoughts. The subject matter of that second record is very different because of where we were at.
A lot of songwriters go through that and turn around and write their proverbial “road album,” very first person. But instead, you turned those experiences into characters, and that seemed to set you apart as well.
I think it was a very character-driven, third person storytelling kind of record. But most of the things that are happening on that record are very personal. Like, I was talking recently to someone about the song “Armed With an Empty Gun”: that couldn’t be more simple to figure out what that’s about. What I was feeling at the time was, wow, I’m moving fast and there’s all this excitement and hubbub, and I’m doing my best, but occasionally I feel like I’m bluffing and wondering how long can I pull it off.
That’s something I look back now and I can actually say — [conspiratorial voice] I think I was pretty good at it. But everybody goes through that. You have that “impostor syndrome” and the feeling that people are loving you but you’re not worthy of all that acclaim. You get all these self-loathing sorts of second records. Look at the difference between Nevermind and In Utero. There’s so much venom sent inward on that [latter] record.
A lot of people who play music believe in themselves and like what they’re doing and kinda hit that zone and are happy when they do it. But when other people start telling you, “Yeah, I love what you’re doing!” – especially when you’re young – you go, “Are you sure? Really? Are you gonna change your mind tomorrow?”
There is a distinctive element of someone trying to run away from a lot of stuff on Medicine Show, too.
Because Medicine Show is such a narrative-driven album, that’s what draws a lot of people to it, I suspect. And much of it scans like this noirish, desperado record. Lots of guns. Violence real and implied. How about the song “Burn”? Is that a metaphorical tale, or did you read something in the news to provoke that particular imagery, of this fucked-up guy burning a field down?
Without getting too much into it… there were a few disappointing things that had happened in my life, things about my family, things that, um, didn’t work out as they should’ve. There’s that feeling of when you think you have everything figured out and you think you have a strong foundation around you, and then it gets pulled out and away from you. I think there’s the key line in it: “Just a few things that can’t be told.” Like when suddenly things don’t make sense anymore.
“Guess I just don’t know.” That’s another line.
Yes. So then I threw all that into fields and fire and all that kind of stuff, which was written to be about that feeling, “I can’t express this with words or logic, so I just have to have some very violent, explosive behavior to wash it away.” And then, that’s the kind of thing I still have in my songs, just that emotional catharsis for things that can’t be understood.
But you know, the catharsis for that record was other people’s problems. Because it’s easier to write that way. I think of Randy Newman, he’s always writing about himself, even though he’s not. If you listen to every Randy Newman record back to back, you understand him even though they’re all stories, ironic and detached. Eventually you see the connection between all of them, about life and other people and what’s good and what’s bad.
So — the album comes out, you and Karl aren’t getting along too well, and you have to hit the road to promote it, lots of touring, including a long jaunt with R.E.M.. How did things start to unravel for the band?
I guess we just had that rift that never got healed. Looking back, I think it was us just not talking much. Me jumping on the R.E.M. bus whenever possible and hanging out with Peter Buck instead of my own band. It was too frustrating and all that. The reality is that there were a lot of good times too. But we weren’t grown up enough to deal with it, and our friendship soured. We did tour a lot. We did two months with R.E.M. and another month or so in Europe, and then we went to Japan. So in the next six months we toured quite a bit, and I remember that in all that time, the one thing we could talk about was baseball. Karl was also a huge baseball fan.
Did R.E.M. fans like Dream Syndicate? I saw the Greensboro, NC, show on that tour.
It was mixed. At the time the tour was seen as a really big deal because it was two bands who were getting a lot of attention. Of course they were bigger, but we were kind of the standard bearers for the new American college rock or indie rock, whatever name it was that year! So a lot of their fans were predisposed to liking us, and a lot were kind of mystified at the very different thing we were doing from what they were doing. We went on tour and took Tommy Zvoncheck with us because we wanted to do the album, and I’m glad we did, but it probably would have been smarter to go on tour and be a four-piece band again. Just as far as not confronting people – it’s one thing to confront an audience with a new record and let them settle into it, but doing it live you don’t really have that chance to rethink things or reassess.
Yet as you said, this is also the touring period where once you got to Europe you found an entire new audience that was specifically your own.
Yes, because they hadn’t had American bands like us come over there. I could be wrong, but I think we were the first of that era. Maybe Television had gone over, and of course the Ramones and a couple of others. But really, if you think of the post-punk American bands, hardly anyone had been over at that point.
You were fortunate enough, too, to have the patronage of a major label so you could afford to do it.
Oh man, the best decision I ever made in my life – I remember having a meeting with the A&M head of A&R, and he said to me, “Okay, we’re going to give you a choice here. We can either make a video, or go to Europe. We’ll finance one or the other.” I’d never been to Europe in my life, so for selfish reasons I did it! And that has turned out to help keep me going.
Otherwise you’d have been at the mercy of the whims of some MTV exec, where you’d spent all that money on a maybe — maybe I’ll get played on MTV. “120 Minutes” or something.
I know. It was obscene the amount of money you would spend back then just to be seen at 2 a.m. in the morning in the middle of the week. It just didn’t make any sense to me so there was no question.
So finally, after we made it all through that, even though things were going well and having great tours and success in Europe and…
…you break up. How did Karl tell you he was leaving?
He didn’t. I broke up the band. By the time I’d finished that whole six months of touring… the advice I’d give any young musician is, don’t ever make any decisions about your band or your life within two weeks of the tour. Go home, unplug the phone, go out and walk in the park. You’re really in a different state, physically mentally and other things, when you come off the road. But I was thinking, I can’t stand anymore being around people I can’t talk to, have fun with. Where there was this tension and this anger all the time. So that was that. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Did you tell A&M what you were doing?
Yeah, but I don’t remember how quickly I told them. But I did tell them fairly quickly. And I remember calling Karl and Dennis and just saying, “That’s it!” And then it was unintentional, unplanned, that we reformed three months later. It was a matter of, I still like Dennis, I still like Mark, and I still like playing, so it’s natural that I would play with them. So we looked for somebody who could come into the band. Paul [Cutler] was very much the obvious choice; he was an old friend and I loved his playing, so that was that.
The lineup with Paul was really powerful. I remember seeing the band in 1986 and watching him hunched over at the edge of the stage, tapping his guitar strings with a tuning fork to get these unearthly sounds.
To this day, I wish I could reunite that final band’s lineup. I’m still friends with everyone. But Paul is very definitely retired. He wants no part of it. Mmm… it’s too bad.
Yes, all that money that’s being dangled in front of bands to reunite…
Ohh… you don’t know the half of it! [laughs]
With the touring industry taking such a beating lately, big tours like Limp Bizkit and Christina Aguilera getting canceled and scaled back, I’m curious to know if touring remains a good proposition for you? Is it still worth all the logistics and effort?
It goes up and down. The one thing I’ll say for America, as opposed to Europe, is that in America I just go out and hit the major cities and that’s it, whereas in Europe, these towns you can barely find on the map, we’ll have shows that are great. But yeah, in the big cities in the States it’s as good as it’s been in the last 20-25 years.
And you know, I’ve been living under the radar for so long that everything is relative. I remember talking to Mike Mills one time and he said, “What have you been up to?” And I said, “I’ve been touring Europe a lot; that’s kind of my bread and butter.” And he said, “I know what you mean – we can’t get arrested in America!” And I go, “Mike. Your idea of not being able to get arrested is my idea of winning the lottery!” Last time I saw them they sold out Madison Square Garden. So you see how it is all relative. And some artists like Limp Bizkit’s idea of a bad turnout, I’d be fine with.
I don’t mean this in a pretentious way, but I look at what I do as more like going to see McCoy Tyner down at the Blue Note, me and 75 other people digging it. I guess we’re all jazzbos.
Have you considered releasing one of the live performances your band the Miracle 3 did covering Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show? [Wynn and his band performed each album on successive nights in Atlanta on May 14 and 15, 2010.]
I really liked doing that. The Atlanta performances were a lot of fun. But I don’t want to say anything I can’t promise. I will say that 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the Dream Syndicate, and somehow it will be commemorated. I’m just not sure how.
Postscript: Well, here in 2014, we know how that played out—quite well. The Dream Syndicate has been performing selected dates for two years now, and in a recent email exchange Wynn told me that the band is playing and sounding stronger than ever. So strong, in fact, that — drumroll, please — he’s seriously thinking about taking the band into the studio this year to record a new album…
Photo Credit (top) of current lineup: Juan Carlos Quindos
With Dave Schools, Chad Staehly, Neal Casal and Duane Trucks in tow, the Nashville raconteur assembles indie supergroup Hard Working Americans. True to that monicker, he’s also got a tour to undertake, a book about to come out, and another solo album in the works.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Todd Snider has had hit songs, he’s got a loyal following that span the globe and has made fans out of everyone from John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver to Jimmy Buffett.
What he hasn’t had, at least up until now, is a band.
But thanks to a handful of friends willing to take a step away from their day jobs for a while, Snider is in a band! At least for a few months.
Along with his longtime buddy David Schools, bassist with Widespread Panic, and keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), Snider set out to assemble Hard Working Americans, one of the coolest cover bands to ever find their way into a studio. The trio grabbed guitarist Neal Casal (The Chris Robinson Brotherhood) and drummer Duane Trucks (King Lincoln) to fill out the band.
The result is a self-titled record boasting brilliant re-workings of songs by artists (and many band friends) as eclectic as Drivin’ N Cryin’, The Bottle Rockets and Randy Newman.
Self-effacing, charming, funny and most likely a bit baked, Snider got up early one morning (ok, around 11 am his time) recently to talk about the genesis of the band, his soon-to-be released book and how the co-founder of the Croc shoe empire helped make The Hard Working Americans a reality.
BLURT: So when you were putting this band together, how well did you know these guys?
I had seen Neal play but didn’t know him. I met him after one of the Chris shows, and then when me and Dave and Chad decided we were going to be in a band, we made a list of guitar players and he was at the top of all three of ours. And then when we started looking for a drummer, we thought if anyone’s going to know who the best drummer is right now it’s going to be David and he told us he thought Duane was coming into his prime and, you know, I kind of think he is. He’s kind of the star of the group in a ways.
Was it tough for you guys to try and find the time to put this together? They are all in full time bands, and obviously you have your thing going on.
Uh huh, and I think that’s what sort of surprised everybody. I think if we had hit any kind of roadblock it sort of would have just dissolved. Part of what made it happen in my opinion – you know I’ve never been in another band, so I can’t speak for these other guys – it felt so odd that everyone had this kind of time. And my only job was to find the songs and sing. So I had collected some songs from my friends and in the bio I had said they were perfect and I regret that. I wished I had said that I liked them a lot; I wouldn’t know a perfect song from a shitty one, I know what I like. I have a lot of songwriters that I admire; I think they’re more melodic than I am. I’ve only got a few songs that could measure up to what this band is trying to achieve. It’s trying to be very lyrical, but also very melodic. I’m kind of a talking lyrics guy. I sing ok, I’m not the best, but I’m ok.
I think there are a lot of people who would say you’re a lot more than “just ok.”
I think I’d be able to pass a lie detector test, if they asked “are you singing from your heart?” and I answered “yes.” I hope it would say “he’s telling the truth.” You can’t control the amp or tone of your sound. You don’t get knobs on your throat; you just get what you got. I think I can hit most of the notes.
Where there any songs you wanted to cover, but for whatever reason they just weren’t working out?
You know, there was one song called “If I Were Born on the Right Side of Town” by Kevn Kinney and I couldn’t get it. The track was good, but the vocal goes up an octave in a way that I thought I could get, but I couldn’t. There’s some kind of life in it that Kevn Kinney put there that I couldn’t find my own place with it. That song really moves me in a big way, but for some reason I was immediately daunted by his vocal and just couldn’t take it anywhere.
But “Straight to Hell” (by Kevn Kinney’s band Drivin’ N Cryin’) was a nice compromise.
Yeah, “Straight to Hell,” as soon as we started it, we realized we had found our own spot. With the other song, it wasn’t that we couldn’t get it; we just couldn’t bring anything new to it.
Was that something that you specifically set out to do? Bring something new to each of these songs?
Yeah, we called it Putting ‘Em Through the Hard Working Americans’ Treatment. I wouldn’t say folk songs, but songs of my friends really, because there is no another way to classify them. We definitely wanted to reconfigure them in a way that would make (the songwriters) feel honored and also to let them become whatever it was we were.
Did you consider writing your own songs at all for this band in the beginning?
Yeah, I don’t feel like I could ever make up songs that I was as attached to as these in a year or two… I have 14 news songs, but where I am with writing songs is I don’t really want to have choruses. The place at where I’m at is not what I really wanted to do with a band; it’s more what I like to do musically alone.I don’t think they would be good for this group. I like to think this group is just more about serving the song, that’s what David always says and he’s our leader… I like being a folk singer and making up songs every two years, but I also like this idea of being a band and combing our friends for the best songs we can find. Songs that really get to us the most.
I admit it’s a little unfair to ask you this because the album just came out, but have you thought about getting together with these guys to do more records. Or was this always conceived as just a one-off project?
We’d like to do it again. There’s a certain level that I suppose we’d have to succeed, that none of us are going to pay attention to, a certain amount of people would have to get this record to allow us to do this again. I can’t imagine the guy that paid for us to make this one would want to do another if this one didn’t sell. He’s a good guy though. He lives up here in Boulder (CO) and his name is George Boedecker and he’s this kind of Hunter Thompson type. (Editor’s note: Boedecker is the founder of Melvin Records, the label that put out the Hard Working Americans album.) He invented those shoes with the holes in them. (Editor’s note, pt. 2: Boedecker is also the co-founder of Crocs. I shit you not.) He’s kind of part of the band, you know.
So as you’ve said this is your first time being in an actual band. Did it turn out to be everything you thought it’d be? Was it strange having other people around you that you had to talk over ideas with?
Yeah, I try not to do anything without everyone else. Right now I’m just learning new things. We had rehearsal yesterday and after I wrote a letter to a friend and I said “Yesterday I learned more about music in one day than I had learned over the past decade.” So for me, I feel like the best thing I can do in the band is just sing and really support everyone and just really try and let this group of people… Everybody is just really creative, every one of them, and its fun to watch them together, so I try and butt in as little as possible. When asked, I have opinions and ideas. It’s a fun time when we’re all together, we have a good time. Neil handles the artwork for the record and David went in and mixed the record, when it’s time to do the booking of the tour and all that jazz, Chad’s handling that. And all I had to do was look for songs.
So everyone has a job?
Yeah, everyone has a job. Duane’s job is to try and get arrested and date chicks to keep us in the papers that way.
So do you see more shows with the band in 2014?
It kind of depends on the timing. I know the other guys have tours with their bands. I can always postpone a folk tour. I love it right now. My main thing is learning what I can. I like being around positive people. Nobody in this band is clinging to this and hoping that it turns into something else. There’s not a brass ring chaser in the whole ensemble, there’s not a bean counter in the group. Nobody gives a shit about anything but getting high and jamming. We’ve got a great guy looking out for us and everybody’s got a day job. It’s sort of like a surprise side job. We’re all life musicians and never cared about stuff like (radio hits). You can’t ever see past the first three rows anyway, so it doesn’t really matter how far (the audience) goes after that.
Do you mind talking for just a minute about the book you have coming out?
Oh yeah, it comes out in April and is called I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like, but its more about dropping names and getting high. I think it’s kind of funny. I did it really in a blur. It starts out with a story about Jimmy Buffett, and then there’s one about Jerry Jeff Walker, and then there’s one about a kid I grew up with, and one about Slash. A lot encounters with famous people, I guess.
Having seen you perform a few times over the years, I know your stories about your songs tend to change from show to show, are these stories as you best remember them or is it a little bit of fiction as well?
Those stories are all in the book. When I’m telling the stories (on tour), sometimes I’ll change them up, but in the book I point out which parts are true, which parts I lied about and here’s why I lied about them.
You had mentioned earlier that you had some new songs written. Do you plan on putting out another album of your own soon?
Yeah, I think so and I might even have some of the guys in this band play on it, we just won’t call it a Hard Working Americans record. I might even have them help me write some of the melody. I have 13 lyrics and I’ve written melodies for all of them and a few are in good shape. The rest I may need to tinker with.
The legendary ‘80s Clevo band’s reunion picks up steam and yields a new album, If Memory Serves Us Well. Does it live up to the legend? BLURT’s own Dr. Toland gives it a listen. Watch some videos, below.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
In its original incarnation, Death of Samantha was the very definition of a critics darling, collecting loads of great press every time it released a record but racking up few sales. A common story, of course, but for the Cleveland band it seemed a particular shame: the quartet’s clever, snarky, tough and catchy rock & roll seemed destined for a sizeable cult following. Alas, when the band broke up in 1990, it was no better known than it had been from the start, despite enough good reviews to constitute a door stop. Leader John Petkovic’s next band Cobra Verde (arguably DoS part deux) fared about the same, and, with its discography out of print and fetching collector’s prices, DoS became a footnote on the resume for guitarist Doug Gillard, who would become Robert Pollard’s foil in Guided By Voices.
But you can’t keep a good band down, and twenty-plus years later DoS told the odds to piss off, reconvened its original lineup and started playing shows again. Both in celebration and by way of introduction to the masses who missed out the first time ‘round, the band recorded a good chunk of its vintage repertoire live in the studio immediately prior to their 2012 reunion concert and has released it as If Memory Serves Us Well via their own St. Valentine label (www.deathofsamantha.com). Shifting from groove to riff at will, DoS still grandly inhabits any permutation of six-string fire we might desire.
From the clattering jangle of “Bed of Fire” and bluesy grind of “Now It’s Your Turn (To Be a Martyr)” to the psychedelic jamming of “Rosenberg Summer” and head-bopping pop of “Geisha Girl,” DoS never misses a step, Gillard, bassist David James and drummer Steve-O supporting Petkovic’s cheeky lyrics with enough hooks to hang Paris Hilton’s entire wardrobe. The band knocks out anthem after anthem with ridiculous ease – cf. the glittery, gritty goodness of “Simple As That,” “Blood and Shaving Cream,” “Harlequin Tragedy” and the what-the-fuck-why-wasn’t-this-a-hit glory of “Savior City.”
A brilliant melange of various guit-based rock styles mooshed together so it’s impossible to tell where postpunk ends and power pop begins, DoS’s catalog evinces careful craft played with reckless abandon. For those of us who (foolishly) came late the party, If Memory Serves Us Well is a godsend. The band also is threatening to go into the studio soon to record new material, so don’t say you weren’t warned.
Live at the Granada Theater in Lawrence, KS, on January 31, the Winter Psych Storm! event also included opening act the Golden Animals.
BY STEVE WILSON
The scene is the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s the evening of January 31st, 2014. The event is the Winter Psych Storm! A tour headlined by Austin’s Black Angels. It’s opening night.
My friends Jo and Rick were scoping out the merch table. They overheard the tall, thin, Trent Reznor-haired (think early Nine Inch Nails) young man presiding over the table mention that he’d be turning his spot over to someone else soon. Then he announced that his dad was playing next.
Minutes later Jegar Erickson was singing, dancing and exhorting with his father’s band. A band Jegar shares with his old man called the Hounds of Baskerville.“Dad” is Roky Erickson, a brilliant talent almost lost to madness. What kind of madness? Oh, hell – as Marlon Brando’s Johnny said in The Wild Ones – what have you got?
Welcome to the late Sixties. Erickson is the visionary singer-songwriter and guitarist for a band of underground adventurers called the 13th Floor Elevators. The Elevators were part jug band, part avant-garde avatars and all Rock ‘n’ Roll. Their homebrewed Texas psychedelia frankly advocated lysergic mysticism. They might have landed gently on a mushroom cloud of bliss were it not for the hostile forces of drug interdiction and countercultural exploitation.
Too sweet and wild for Sixties America, Erickson wound up at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in his native Texas, where he was subjected to electroshock therapy, fed massive doses of thorazine and generally treated like the subject of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” You see, he pled guilty to marijuana possession (the cops found a single joint on his person) to stay out of prison. Of course Rusk was where he put together a band featuring two murderers and a rapist. Maybe prison would’ve been mellower. Drug laws – stupid then, stupid now. Thus began decades in and out of a psychic wilderness, a story best chronicled in the heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me.
But the Roky Erickson story is not another sad tale from the lysergic circus. Well, it is, I suppose. The Texas authorities indeed tried to break a butterfly on a wheel. But it’s also a story of brotherly love, redemption and healing.
Beginning in 2001, under the care of his brother Sumner, himself a musician (tuba, Pittsburgh Symphony), Roky began a stunning personal and musical rebirth, culminating in a remarkable testimony called True Love Cast Out All Evil, one of the best releases of 2010. Erickson has been playing occasionally since 2005, but this year’s tour with the Black Angels is a major undertaking, bringing him to more cities, and more, and younger audiences.
The opening night of a tour is always a fragile thing, at once opportune and anxious. The Black Angels are road dogs; so opening jitters were probably minimal. Besides, this was their second visit to Lawrence in less than a year, and they’ve gradually built a good following. Friday’s crowd was their largest to date, partly a result of building an audience, but in some measure thanks to the interest generated by Erickson being on the bill. And it was his forty-five minute set that stole the show for this long-time fan.
Where the Black Angels had done double duty on previous dates, playing with Erickson and on their own, this time Roky is traveling with Jegar’s band, the Hounds of the Baskerville. I can’t understate the value of the band to Roky’s live resurrection. Roky is present, providing solid rhythm guitar (when inclined) and in rough, ragged, but powerful voice. But when he quits playing guitar, the band’s guitarist picks up the slack. When he spaces a vocal entry or a bit of lyric, his backup vocalists, including Jegar’s pregnant wife (a fine keyboardist) fill in, knowing instinctively when he will return. And when he does it’s always in rhythm, as if he simply had a narcoleptic moment. At first it’s pregnant and unnerving, but Roky seems unfazed, and the band knows just what to do. The warmth of his supporting musicians is obvious. As they took the stage, the Hounds’ bassist gestured to Roky and the audience’s already ample applause swelled. It was a gentle, loving gesture that set the tone for the performance.
With a talented, supportive band behind him Erickson played his songs. And what songs they are. A few, like “John Lawman,” from True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010), or the set opening “Cold Night for Alligators” (from his Aliens period) were representative of post-Elevators music, but for the most part this tour seems designed to acquaint new audiences with the amazing songs Roky did with the Elevators. You find yourself singing along with “Fire Engine,” “Tried to Hide,” “I’ve Got Levitation,” and “Reverberation,” and flashing on what terrific songs they are – melodic, driving, unique in perspective. It’s no wonder they’ve been adopted in the repertoire of countless garage and punk bands.
I’d seen Erickson once before. At the late, fabled Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. To a modest crowd Roky and his trio focused on his Aliens era material, late Seventies/early Eighties songs, dominated by “Two Headed Dogs” and other surreal creatures. His current band has a broader pallet, a stronger feel for the material. And somehow it’s Jegar’s cheerleading performance, full of warmth and support for his old man, that gives the band it’s rousing, cathedral of rock fervor.
The Black Angels? They were really good. I like their music, especially their last two records, which focus on tighter, more melodic songs – Phosphene Dream had a certain pop-psych genius, and was my favorite recording of 2010. I’ve seen them now four times, each performance better than the last, from their ensemble playing to the accompanying light show and other production values.
But at a certain level, when they invited their hero Roky Erickson on this jaunt, and featured his name beside theirs on all posters and promotions, they had to know that this was about introducing him, and especially those great 13th Floor Elevators songs, to a new, younger audience. I talked to folks in attendance that wondered who ‘that old guy’ was. I spoke to others for whom seeing Roky was ‘bucket list’ material, and barely knew who the Black Angels were. As the tour poster says – “Parents Welcome. Dress right to feel right.” The Winter Psych Storm! tour is a pan-generational meeting of the mind blown tribes. An inspired idea that the Black Angels deserve a ton of credit for.
Opening the show was the Golden Animals, an enjoyable trio with a Doors vibe, some fetching songs, and a shortage of drama and virtuosity compared to their inspiration.