The E Streeters took over the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC, on April 24, and left in their wake an arena-full of believers.
BY FRED MILLS
It was a show for, by and about family, both figuratively and literally. That applied to yours truly as well: with the chance to grab a pair of plum stage right/box section/3rd row seats, I opted to take my 13-year old son because I figured it was high time to expose him to the pure rock ‘n’ roll essence that is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—and no doubt hoping, in my parental vanity, that he’d come away a believer as so many other Boss newbies have come away before him. More on that later.
Springsteen, nearing 65, put on his usual marathon, clocking in at around three hours, and although some longtime fans will sniff, “Only three? Why, I saw him hit the four hour mark on the last tour…”, to that I say, this was perhaps the most powerful, unadulterated, all-fun/no-filler three hour’s worth of da Boss I’ve seen in my nearly 40 years of seeing him, probably 14 or 15 shows so far. The first time was on the Born To Run tour in ’76; later, there would be a four-night stand’s worth of The River shows; and much later, there was the 1999 E Street reunion tour, which if you are a life-long Bruce devotee, would be hard to top under any circumstances.
But for Raleigh, Bruce brought a level of energy and emotion that was matched sweat-drop-for-sweat-drop by the audience, an arena-full of fans drawn from the entire age spectrum—middle schoolers, college students, aging hipsters and old not-so-fogeys—who were on their feet from the very get-go, singing along with every single tune and never ceasing with the cheering and dancing and clapping—I do mean never. How “never,” you ask? So “never” that the E Street Band didn’t even bother to leave the stage for the customary encore break, but instead, clearly sensing the formality would be pointless given how nuts everyone had been going the entire time, simply paused for a few deep breaths while Bruce talked to the audience.
Out in the Street
The Promised Land
I’m on Fire
Because the Night
Working on the Highway
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Land of Hope and Dreams encores (so to speak):
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
As you can see from the setlist above, April 24 was not an evening for deep-vault rarities, Boss-geek-bait obscure gems or those highly coveted tour premieres, with the possible exception of “Pretty Flamingo,” which Bruce used to play during the pre-BTR era and selected it spontaneously from among the fan-wielded request signs at the aforementioned encore juncture. (Instead of going offstage for a smoke or a quick drink, the musicians lingered onstage while Bruce gamely refamiliarized himself with the Manfred Mann oldie’s chord progression, eventually turning it into a more-or-less duet with wife Patti Scialfa.) Instead of surprises, Bruce opted for the type of shared intimacy that comes from familiarity, because there is something to be said for, as a fan, being able to anticipate lyrics and melodies and tempo changes and feel like you’re wholly in synch with the band. Part of the show, in other words. Participants in a shared communion.
That’s always been the way it is at a Springsteen show, but tonight, more than ever. Even the “insider moments”—Bruce dancing with his daughter Jessica during the “Dancing In The Dark” dance-with-the-ladies segment, and his bringing up three of her Duke University classmates to help out on the last verse of “Growin’ Up”—felt like everyone was on the same page and at the same party, on a first-name basis with everybody else. (Did I mention Raleigh was a family affair?) The fact that Bruce ran into the crowd multiple times throughout the evening, running along the aisle on either side of the floor pit and across a riser pathway that bisected the floor, and spent plenty of time stopping to shake/slap hands, lean in for some excited gal’s selfie, reinforced the whole no-barriers vibe of the show. That’s partly an illusion, of course; you can bet that if anything got out of hand a bodyguard would’ve been at Bruce’s side in a millisecond, although when he crowdsurfed on his back all the way from the riser to the edge of the stage it had me wondering where those handlers actually were.
At one point he paused in his crowd-roaming looked directly at the young women slightly to the left and in front of me in the first row of our section, then hopped up on the wall separating the seats from the aisle and leaned back against them as the huge overhead screens projected the image of three shocked pretty girls shooting selfie after selfie of them with Bruce. He was so close I could see the beads of sweat on his earlobe; he was so close I could have reached out and grabbed his sleeve. That’s intimate, friends.
High points? Well… there were 26 songs performed, so that would make… 26 high points. But since you asked…
On my personal bucket list for the evening were “Because The Night,” as it had been a favorite non-album cut from the Darkness era which I had actually never seen him do live, and “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” because I had come to love and respect the dark, thunderous electric anthem it has evolved into (as opposed to its earlier acoustic incarnation), and because it was a chance to see new E Streeter Tom Morello render the guitar solo in classic Morello-shredder-effects fashion. (I am a fan of and have massive respect for Morello, both his music and his politics.) Concert opener “High Hopes” caught me offguard because, as a relatively new addition to the Springsteen canon, it was so effective at pulling the full 18-person E Street ensemble into the fray; it segued into the more traditional opener “Badlands,” and the one-two punch brilliantly set the tone for the show to come.
“Atlantic City” was devastating, bringing yet more dark thunder, and “The Rising,” I am not embarrassed to admit, brought tears to my eyes in the way it conjured tragedy and hope in the same instant. Speaking of which, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” offered another deeply emotional moment when, at the point Bruce sings “…and the Big Man joined the band…” a video montage featuring images of late saxman Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici played across the big screens. Simultaneously the E Street horn section, led by current saxman Jake Clemons, marched down from their riser to the front of the stage, cementing the notion (as if anyone needed to be reminded) that when you are part of this band, you are a card-carrying E Streeter and not just a hired hand. Did I mention this show was a family affair?
Before final number “Thunder Road” sent everyone out into the night to let the adrenalin slowly dissipate, we got an extended, riotous reading of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” and I swear there was not a single person in the entire arena who did not have arms thrust skyward and blurting out the titular tagline. At that point Bruce unleashed his now-familiar tent-revival mini-sermon (“You’ve just seen the heart-stoppin’, pants-droppin’, house-rockin’… E Street Band!” etc.), and the roar from the room was deafening. My ears are still ringing.
POSTSCRIPT: It’s commonplace nowadays to see a parent and a kid together at a concert; popular music’s such a part of the cultural fabric that no one even blinks an eye at such a pair listening to and enjoying the same music and the same artists. For me, though, I was entering my pre-teen years just as the British Invasion was kicking into high gear and a generational divide was being erected high. The subsequent likelihood of me going to a concert with one of my parents was slim-to-nonexistent; they wouldn’t have known what to do at a Beatles or Stones gig anymore than I was interested in tagging along for one of their Andy Williams or Perry Como shows. (I do vividly remember, however, the time when I was 15 and my best friend’s mom drove us an hour to Charlotte to see Led Zeppelin and she spent the entire concert at the nearby Shoney’s, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. And a few years earlier, when the Woodstock movie hit theaters, my dad had taken me because I begged to see it but wasn’t old enough to get in without a parent or guardian. Inside, I scooted down near the front while he sat in the back row, and after about 5 minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder: it was my dad, who told me he’d be back to get me when the movie was over… “Oh, and don’t tell your Mom I left you here by yourself, okay?”)
Based on my own personal anecdotal evidence, I suspect that most parents who do take their kids to concerts have a least a couple ancillary motivations beyond a shared musical reference point. There’s probably a bit of ego factoring in, whereby you want to convince yourself that by buying Little Johnny that ticket to see Crosby, Stills & Nash, you are not that same stuck-in-the-‘50s square that your own father was when you were a kid—and that at the same time you are clearly opening up your child’s mind to the beautiful artistry and cultural profundity that molded you into the fine citizen you turned out to be. Memo To Parents: You are inherently a “square” to your kids, especially if they are teenagers, and you will remain so until they reach a minimum age of 30, maybe even older; and they really and truly don’t give a shit about your culture and the attendant baggage you tote around, because they are too busy navigating and trying to make sense of their own cultural milieu. You might try to tell yourself that it’s a bonding experience, but trust me, the kid won’t even think in terms of “bonding,” much less realize it, until he or she becomes a parent, possibly not even until you are long gone and your child has had time to reflect on the relationship. (Newborns “bond” with their mothers; teenagers tolerate their fathers until they’re old enough to get their drivers licenses.)
Still, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that in taking my own kid to see Springsteen, all of the above, and more, has traction for me. 13-year olds are self-conscious, yet cool; awkwardly reserved yet outrageously brazen at times; and the best part is that if you really pay attention, once in awhile you might get a glimpse of their inner lives or a momentary peek at their still-evolving souls. My son doesn’t really listen to Springsteen except when I happen to put some on at home or in the car, so he wasn’t necessarily familiar with the songs this night. And he didn’t ask me to take him to the show, either; he would’ve been happy sitting home that night with his PlayStation, gaming away, but when I told him I was getting a ticket and would he like to go with me (“The seats will be awesome,” I pledged), he readily accepted the invitation.
At the show, I watched him from time to time out of the corner of my eye—which was hard, because there was so much going on in the arena and onstage the entire time—and he was very spontaneously and, at times it seemed, unconsciously, clapping along and tapping his feet, never taking his eyes off the action. He didn’t even want to leave his seat to go get a soft drink or something to munch on; he appeared transfixed.
And in my vanity as a parent, I took a lot of pleasure at being able to share the moment with him, and to say to myself quite proudly and smugly that yes, we were bonding. I’m sure the experience was quite different for him, but I think we both got what we needed from the evening, and that’s good enough for me.
Thanks, Bruce. You delivered the goods once again. In more ways than you can know.
“Why not try to create something better?”: fractured musings on this creature known as rock ‘n’ roll, by the Reverend Keith Gordon, editor and publisher of a kickass new anthology of music journalism.
BY FRED MILLS
In a sense (or two), this interview you’re about to read is very personal to me. For starters, both my topic—the just-published anthology That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 (Excitable Press)—and my interview subject—Nashville-spawned/Batavia, NY-based music journalist and author Rev. Keith A. Gordon—require a disclaimer: a story of mine, about the Replacements, appears in the book, and the estimable Reverend is also a friend of mine who has on numerous occasions written for BLURT. Hey, you got a problem with that? Go learn WordPress and get outta my face!
That Gordon selected a slew of other friends of mine, several of whom happen to be past or present BLURT writers (look it up), also makes the TDMBRW angle suspect as a topic for BLURT coverage. But you know what? While years ago I might’ve been semi-militant about conflicts of interest and related matters, and while I still draw the line at assigning myself critical reviews of friends or close associates (in that regard, I can simply hand off the review to another writer who promises to “go easy” on ‘em if they suck, har har!), nowadays I realize that 99% of readers truly do not give a shit what a particular writer’s so-called “stance” is. They just wanna know (a) what the artifact being reviewed sounds like, and (b) is it worth their hard earned dough?
TDMBRW is indeed worth your hard earned dough, but—shhhh!—you didn’t hear it from me. You can, if you have any affinity for insightful, informative, and even FUN rock journalism, discern that from the dialogue below. Gordon’s collection of scribes, some of whom might broadly fall under the banner of “the usual suspects” and, in many cases, rarely ping the radar of what I’ll call the Spin/Pitchfork-approved hack elite, tackled over the course of last year everything from the iconic likes of Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, the Rascals and, um, the Replacements, to equally-important-though-lesser-knowns like Grant Hart, Leslie West, Emitt Rhodes and Al Jourgensen, to under-the-radar topics such as musicians’ health care, heavy metal in Africa (who knew?) and—drumroll, please—books about rock music. Boy howdy!
Naturally, since I’ve been doing this dumbass roccrit thing from the late ‘70s onward, and since the right Reverend Gordon and I are long overdue in mounting an arm-wrestling contest to see who can claim to have suckled from the teats of Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer first, I jumped at the chance to be a contributor to his book. I instinctively grokked the format, having read the annually-published Best Music Writing anthologies from Da Capo Books prior to the series’ demise a few years ago. The natural progression from all that was to help get the word out, in effect give him some free publicity—hence this interview. Like I said, he’s a friend. But don’t worry: ain’t nobody making any dough at any of this. We just do it ‘cos we love the music, love spreading the word about the music, and in Gordon’s case, definitely love giving credit where credit is due. So let’s do this.
BLURT: Okay, Rev—quickie précis, please, on your publishing company.
GORDON: Excitable Press is about as independent as a publisher can be — basically a couple of guys with computers, and whatever freelance talent we can enlist to be part of our madness. My wife Tracey helps out with her proofreading skills, and my partner in Nashville handles our side business, bringing books to market for people who have always wanted to write a book. The music stuff is pretty much entirely the result of my own efforts and obsessions.
Right on. So could you outline for our readership your motivation behind doing Best Rock Writing 2014, and perhaps a word or two about the original Da Capo series?
Even for a music lovin’ fanatic such as myself, it’s maddeningly impossible to keep up with everything published that might be of interest… there are tens of thousands of music-oriented blogs and websites, and if the ranks of print publications like Spin and Rolling Stone have continued to shrink, there is still a lot of music coverage in newspapers and trade publications. The attraction of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series was that you had, ostensibly, the best reading of an entire year between two covers. The series editor and each year’s celebrity guest editor acted as a filter to whittle down the material to an easily-digestible anthology, and if Best Music Writing often reflected the personality and quirks of the guest editor, it often made the books that much more intimate. I had hoped that we could jump in with That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 to fill the hole left by the loss of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series and maybe discover and showcase some talented writers.
What about “deep anthology roots” or early precursors that you either wanted to emulate or at very least felt you might be able to add your book to the continuum? The old Desert Island Discs book and concept comes to mind, of course.
One of the earliest music-oriented anthologies that I bought was The Da Capo Book of Rock & Roll Writing, which was published in 1992 and edited by Clinton Heylin. It was a precursor, of sorts, to their Best Music Writing series of the 2000s, and featured writing by critics like Paul Williams, Greil Marcus, and Lester Bangs alongside that of musicians like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Peter Townshend. Before that, I was a reader of science fiction and fantasy anthologies, so I’ve long had an interest in compilations books of this sort. We published three collections of material from our Alt.Culture.Guide music webzine during the mid-2000s that were well-received so in the absence of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series, I thought that our own That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 might step in and provide readers with a new twist on their old formula. There’s a lot of poor writing about music in magazines and on websites, usually celebrity-driven, but there’s also some fine, overlooked writing that I thought we could showcase in our pages.
What were some of the basic criteria you laid out when sending out the call for submissions—and what were some of your own internal criteria you had when it came time to assessing the submissions?
First and foremost, I was looking for well-written submissions about rock ‘n’ roll music. Da Capo’s collections ran the gamut from pop and rock to jazz, world music, and beyond. I wanted a tighter editorial focus…personally, I’m not a huge fan of jazz (although Jaco Pastorius rules!) and violently dislike much of what passes for pop music these days, so I felt that the book should revolve around rock (with a little blues on the side). In assessing the submissions, I wanted material that interested me, from a writing perspective, even if it wasn’t necessarily about something that I particularly cared about. We published a piece on Imagine Dragons (below), a band that bores me to tears, but the story piqued my interest and was well-written, so it was included. I found the piece on the No New York album hilarious, even if it was a bit cheeky, and the story we ran on African heavy metal I thought was fascinating. It would be easy for me to put together a tome on my classic rock faves — nothing but Big Star, the Replacements, the Rolling Stones, etc. — but I tried to balance it out with a mix of old and new, and to include stories on punk rock and heavy metal, genres that were both largely ignored by the Da Capo series.
What was the total number of submissions you received? Do you feel you reached a decent cross-section of writers?
I stopped counting around 100 submissions, so it was slightly more than that, although not much more. I like the cross-section of writers that we included, a mix of male and female, although I would have liked to have included a few more female contributors. We had a few international writers, including a couple from England and a lawyer from Greece. Getting the word out about the book was the big problem… we had a few magazine editors that passed the info along to their writers (you know who you are) and we put ads up on Craigslist in several big cities (NYC, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon) soliciting submissions. Most of what we received came from the two coasts, with little from the middle of the country. There were also a few pieces in the book (Denise Sullivan’s story on musicians and healthcare from Blurt, the tape trader story and the story on Cub Koda) where I actively solicited the writer to include their piece in the book.
What type(s) of submissions did you receive an overabundance of, and what type(s) do you feel were under-represented that you wish you had received? Success or regret anecdotes?
We received way too many badly-written and too-short record reviews, not the long-form pieces I prefer and would have liked to have seen more of in my email box. Some writers just sent a dozen or so reviews attached to their email, in spite of our request to send just two or three of their “best efforts” from the year. We received a slew of concert reviews, a type of writing that I’ve done extensively in the past and abhor… the show’s over, who cares?
We also received a lot of wildly inappropriate submissions that had little or nothing to do with music, rock or otherwise, but the writers felt their story/poetry/review would fit in the book anyway… they didn’t. There was one potential contributor who sent in some in-depth and informative music-related pieces that were just too academic in focus to be entertaining. I spent hours trying to edit them into something that would better fit the other material in the book and not read like a term paper, but just couldn’t make it work. I would like to have seen more artist interviews, and maybe a few more historical essays like the Emitt Rhodes piece. Overall, I’m happy with this first effort, and think that we’ve collected a fine bunch of writers whose work I’m proud to display in That Devil Music.
Please give us a brief tutorial on how future potential contributors might impress you, or subtly curry favor, or blatantly suck up in order to be celebrated members of the TDMBRW team…
Most importantly, know what the hell you’re writing about… I ran into quite a number of submissions that started out nicely but were ruined by incorrect information or blatant misrepresentation, at which point they were just filed away and unused. The Reverend has been listening to rock music for almost 50 years and writing about it for over 40 years, and while I’d be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn, I also know a lot and trying to pass off some BS ’cause you’re too lazy to Google something just doesn’t fly. Otherwise, just submit well-written material that fits our format (rock and blues-rock) and display a passion for what you’re writing about.
You and I have often discussed what is right and what is wrong about contemporary music writing. Where do we stand in 2014, where do you think we are headed, and what suggestions do you have for old/jaded cranks such as myself AND perilously enthusiastic/naïve up-and-comers?(I am at once proud and fearful that we have both types at BLURT…)
I’m sure that I’ve ranted and raved about the state of contemporary music writing loudly and frequently enough over the past decade that certain people are sick and tired of hearing it (my wife probably tops that lengthy list). One thing that working on That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 taught me is that there are still a lot of good writers who bring insight, passion, and skill to their work, which is gratifying on many levels. That being said, there’s also still a lot of crap writing on the Internet and in newspapers… poorly conceived, barely edited, criminally brief, and frequently tossed off to meet a deadline or a daily quota for blog posts. I understand the position of many of these writers — I’ve had to cover a lot of artists through the years that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about and I’ve delivered my share of hackwork — but publications like Blurt and Perfect Sound Forever allow writers to put a little more meat on their writing, so why not try to create something better? The best advice that I can give up-and-comers to this rock critic/music journalist thing is to listen to a lot of music from across the eras, and familiarize yourself with both better-known and obscure artists alike. The Internet is this amazing resource that allows you to explore a world of music, so why not do so? You can also find copies of old music zines and other publications online to read and educate yourself, so if you really care about the music, put in some time and effort to improve your knowledge and your skills. The recent slate of self-serving artist bios aside, there are a bunch of great publications currently available for anybody wanting to read about rock ‘n’ roll history. Mike Stax’s Ugly Things has been carrying the torch for 1960s rock for three decades and publishes some of the most in-depth stories that you’ll ever find. Shindig! zine, in England, mixes up 1960s rock with contemporary music in the psychedelic and prog genres, while another British publication, Flashback, delves into the decades of the 1960s and ’70s quite nicely. Rolling Stone’s recent special issues on artists like Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and others are useful and entertaining, drawing upon the publication’s lengthy history with interviews and articles.
Lastly: your book is specifically “rock” writing, and of course we have been around the track a few times with how we pay tribute to “rock” via the Rock Hall and the so-called controversies over admitting disco, hip-hop and other quote/unquote “non-rock” artists. So how about going out on a limb here and telling us where you sketch those parameters for this project?
The definition of “rock music” is somewhat nebulous these days, but I know it when I hear it (or read about it). Personally, I feel that rock ‘n’ roll is basically guitar-driven music based on blues, but even that is a bit restrictive and excludes genres like punk, prog-rock, and a growing amount of heavy metal that still fit easily in the big tent of rock ‘n’ roll. Since I’m the book’s editor, judge, and jury it’s going to reflect my own tastes and biases about rock music. I rejected a few stories for That Devil Music that I enjoyed reading, but which I just didn’t think fit the format, but I also included the piece on Son House because of the influence of blues on the formation of rock (plus I’m a giant-sized blues fan and the “Blues Expert” for About.com). I don’t think that I’d ever use a “guest editor” [like the Da Capo series did], not only because I can’t afford to pay anybody, but also because I too prefer a consistent editorial voice. For better or worse, this is the stuff I like to read about and I hope that others enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Every year about this time the same old argument crops up about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and who should or shouldn’t be inducted. First, a lot of people don’t realize that the physical R&R HoF in Cleveland is a separate entity from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which is who picks the actual inductees. The actual Hall of Fame is really just a tourist destination and a hipper museum than your typical art or science facility, while the Foundation is basically influenced by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Wenner is largely to blame for the disco and hip-hop artists that have been inducted into the HoF with much controversy, although the HoF voters certainly share the guilt for this travesty. Nothing against the Beastie Boys or Madonna, but they ain’t never been rock ‘n’ roll and never will be, so they shouldn’t be in the rock hall… of course, I’m a so-called “rockist” and won’t rest until Motorhead, Wishbone Ash, UFO, and Jason & the Scorchers are inducted!
I’d like to see the Foundation loosen up on the inductions and follow the example of The Blues Foundation and The Blues Hall of Fame. Each year, alongside the artists being honored are a selection of records and books that are enshrined, as well as writers, publicists, and broadcasters that receive the “Keeping The Blues Alive” award. The only music “journalist” that I know of that’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame is Wenner himself, a “Lifetime Achievement” inductee. Why not induct Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and the mighty Rick Johnson? If they need some ideas, Jann knows where to find me.
Still, I’m proud that all my books, including That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014, are archived in the Hall of Fame library (and are also part of the Bowling Green State University music archive in Ohio), providing a small token of immortality for our fractured musings on this creature known as rock ‘n’ roll! (Below: the late Lester Bangs sez, “Good job, Rev!”)
Saluting Our Own Dept.: BLURT writers included in the book are Selena Fragassi, Jason Gross, Danny R. Phillips, j. poet, Tom Speed, Denise Sullivan, Logan K. Young, Lee Zimmerman and of course Gordon and yours truly. Nice going, y’all – a big Lester Bangs noogie for each of ya.
Ed. Note: We originally published the following interview in 2010, upon the occasion of Jon Langford’s Old Devils album release. As our favorite Welshman is set to arrive this Friday (April 25) in Raleigh, NC, in support of his latest album Here Be Monsters (In De Goot Recordings) with a pair of appearances at the Contemporary Art Museum and our sister business Schoolkids Records, we figured it was as good a time as any to remind you of what a very cool fat Welsh bastard he be. For some pithy commentary on the aforementioned album, go here on the BLURT site; and meanwhile, our good pal David Menconi of the Raleigh News & Observer has a fresh interview with Langford right here. Enjoy…
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
From 2010: If there were ever an unlikely character that was tagged as an Americana icon, it would have to be Jon Langford. A Welsh émigré with early insurgent leanings, he was initially attracted not to traditional country music, but rather to the rowdy, rebellious punk precepts that dominated the U.K. throughout the mid to late ‘70s. His first band, the Mekons, reflected the D.I.Y. mentality of the time, adopting the precept that attitude and platitudes were far more important that any actual ability. Despite its fluid line-up, the group evolved into an ongoing communal combo that recorded a series of cult classics and achieved a devoted following in the process.
Even so, Langford demonstrated the fact that he harbored broader ambitions. Concurrent with the Mekons he played in the Three Johns, a Leeds-based guitars-and-drum-machine outfit that gave vent to his burgeoning political posture. By the time he relocated to Chicago in the early ‘90s, he was already involved in a wealth of side projects, including the cow-punk combo the Waco Brothers and a similarly inclined off-shoot dubbed the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. And though his solo career had a belated start with the release of the first album under his own auspices, Skull Orchard in 1998 — and it would be another eight years until the release of his sophomore set, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds — Langford’s rarely been idle. A frequent contributor to the efforts of others, particularly those artists associated with Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, his longtime label, he’s also developed a successful career as a prolific painter. Visitors to Austin (and regular attendees to the annual SXSW festival as well) have no doubt come across his startling portraits of Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and other music icons on frequent display at that city’s legendary Yard Dog Gallery
Langford’s latest album for Bloodshot, Old Devils (billed as “John Langford & Skull Orchard”), sums up his creative prowess to full advantage, bursting with irresistible refrains, an irrepressible attitude, and the kind of compelling melodies that sink in immediately and simply don’t let go. “Getting Used to Getting Useless,” “Luxury,” “Pieces of the Past,” “Strange Ways to Win Wars,” “Death Valley Day” and “Pieces of the Past” offer a cinematic perspective of global locales – South Wales, the West Indies, the American West and the heart of the heartland – while allowing him to vent on the injustice and insanity so frequently incorporated into his worldview. Langford sat down to share his thoughts on his unlikely trajectory, his insights into the making of his wonderful new album and the importance of consistent insurgence.
BLURT:Let’s first start with a little history – what was the impetus for relocating to Chicago and what is it about the city that’s made you want to call it home?
JON LANGFORD: I was here so much in the mid to late ‘80s with The Mekons that Chicago already felt like home. The music scene was dominated by enthusiasts, not “bread heads,” and people gave me the space to do what I wanted to do.
You’ve been involved with so many bands and projects – not to mention the fact that you’re also an accomplished painter. The obvious question is – how do you balance all these activities simultaneously?
My theory is that the art and the music all come from the same place in my brain. This may or may not be true, but I have convinced myself.And it all flows back and forth quite nicely…. killer bees pollinating Venus fly-traps for ever and a day!Obviously, the Mekons and the Waco Brothers are really different projects, but they don’t take up all of my time. The songs on Old Devils just didn’t fit anywhere else.
Do you find it difficult to shift your stance from one project to another? Is it about getting into a different mindset?
It’s become second nature. When I’m off on wild rock ‘n’ roll tours, I sometimes crave the solitude of my painting studio, and vice versa.
What led to the formation of the Mekons?
In 1977 in Leeds, everybody had to be in a band. We formed a band where nobody could play and pursued punk ethics to the numb-teenth degree. We were only supposed to be The Gang Of Four’s support band, but we got a single out before them and that was it.
What’s the status of the Mekons these days? Is most of your attention diverted to the Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts and your solo efforts?
Mekons just did a leisurely tour of Europe and have a new album called Ancient & Modern in the can. We’ll be in the States in 2011.
How did you develop your affinity for American roots music?
Just being exposed to Cajun and classic Honky-Tonk stuff in the mid-eighties was amazing. We thought we were inventing the wheel with punk rock and then found ourselves part of this endless tradition of functional, political dance music….
As a Brit, did you initially find that people were skeptical towards your country leanings?
The odd death threat just made me stronger!Some of my favorite Country & Western music is made by aboriginal Australians, so I don’t think it’s a problem…
Given your early punk inclinations, do people find you a bit intimidating? Do you still consider yourself an insurgent?
It’s strange, but I seem to be able to float in and out of wildly different scenes doing exactly what I want to do with nobody getting that upset. We just played a world music festival in a medieval castle in Portugal and went straight to a Krautrock avant-garde festival in Germany, and everybody had a good time. I played the Ryman in Nashville a couple of years ago and that seemed to go quite well!
I insurge twice a day after meals.
As a painter, has your technique been influenced by your work as a musician? Is there any correlation between the two disciplines?
The act of making a piece of art like a song or a painting seems connected to me. I always have words in my paintings, and while they are generally figurative, what interests me most about them is the layering and abstraction. Music is a very collaborative medium and I’ve tried to apply that spirit to painting, but I always end up scratching away on my own.
Any chance you might reactivate the Three Johns? Today’s political climate would certainly lend itself to those themes, no?
We tried that a few years ago in the UK and it was very hard to replicate the intensity and energy of the original band… All things must pass.
Given your outspoken ideals, do you endorse politicians or play benefits on behalf of any specific causes? What is the extent of your political involvement?
I’ve been very involved in the campaign to abolish the death penalty over the last ten years. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts made three benefit CDs of murder ballads. The Mekons did a lot of Right To Work, Anti-Racism things years ago and those issues are still horribly apparent. We made an album of Johnny Cash covers to benefit AIDS charities in the UK in the ‘80s. But that was fun – Johnny Cash got right behind it!
Please give us an idea of your earliest influences.
Tom Jones, Slade, T.Rex, The Kinks, Johnny Cash, Man, Black Sabbath…
How do you approach the planning of a new album? Is there any attempt to conceptualize, or any thought given to expanding your parameters in perhaps a different direction?
I usually find there’s a bunch of songs sitting round that have no home and often there’s a theme that holds them together, which can then be expanded upon as more songs pop out of the ether.
Tell us a bit about the new album and how it came about. There seem to be some songs that could be interpreted as biographical, such as “Getting Used to the Luxury,” Self Portrait,” and “Getting Used to Uselessness” in particular.
I would shy away from suggesting any of them are actually about me in particular. There’s this idea that I mean me in a song that doesn’t exist in a novel or a movie. “Luxury” was a song about growing up in the ‘70s in South Wales and was probably about other peoples’ parents more than anything else. The ‘60s was a time of great promise and affluence and then they shut the steelworks and the garbage men went on strike. “Self Portrait” is a bit of an Andy Warhol/Dorian Gray thing… the artist as celebrity whore, tourist, imperialist, hollow man. “Getting Used To Uselessness” was for Dick Cheney
“Flag of Tragedy,” “Death Valley Day,” and “Book of Your Life” make some powerful statements too.
“Flag Of Triumph” was written in a theme park in Illinois where I observed a bunch of people having an even worse time than me. “Death Valley Day” is about living in a house with your wife and kids on the edge of a cliff in a desert. “Book Of Life” is about all those bastards who write highly selective self-serving memoirs and their relationship with the people they edited out.
Are you planning any projects with Sally Timms?
Always planning, never doing anything. Maybe some pints of Vino Verde this weekend. Mekons stuff, of course.
You and Graham Parker share a lot in common – the same restless attitude, the same record label, even some of the same musicians. Have you ever discussed a collaboration?
Graham sang a Wacos song called “See Willy Fly By” with us a few years ago. I love that man. He was what we listened too back in 1977 – certainly not Slaughter & The Dogs or Eater!
What have you never been asked in an interview?
“Why are you such a fat Welsh bastard?”
Anything you’d like to add?
I am a fat Welsh bastard, but I do my best sir…
Below: the posters that Langford designed for the 2014 BLURT day party at the Ginger Man Pub during SXSW.
Our contributing editor brewed up some mushroom tea, packed his mini-Mellotron, tossed back a few tabs of Dramamine, and hit the high seas with some of the most legendary progressive and psychedelic outfits… ever! First he hitched a rise on the Moody Blues cruise, then he followed that up with a so-called “cruise to the edge” with Yes and friends.
REPORTS BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
The Moody Blues Cruise: “A Return to the Isle of Wight” 4/2-4/7/14
Boasting an onboard line-up that included not only its namesakes, the Moody Blues Cruise – subtitled “A Return to the Isle of Wight” in celebration of the 1970 British festival that originally featured several of the participants– offered an A list line-up of classic rock contenders. With special guest Roger Daltrey, Carl Palmer of ELP, the Zombies, Strawbs, Starship, Little River Band, Shawn Phillips and various other artists of a vintage pedigree providing the draw, the cruise offered five fantastic days of rock and revelation to a couple thousand passengers intent on celebrating the sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Indeed, the timeline that defined both the era and the ages of audience and entertainers was clearly in sync. Yet while that meant that most of those on board were in sixty plus age range, this was hardly the sedate sea-going voyage one might have imagined even a few years ago. Any arthritic infirmities aside, this crowd was clearly intent on reliving its freewheeling adolescence, while generally grooving to the sounds that became the soundtrack to their youth. As one performer put it, it was inspirational to see even the seventy-somethings partying like they did as teenagers. Those that cling to the belief that youth is wasted on the young need only have witnessed this crowd cheering on their musical idols to appreciate the fact that one is never too old to rock and roll, especially when the waves are churning and maintaining the motion.
“How you have the stamina to keep this cruise going is unbelievable,” the Moodys’ John Lodge remarked at one point, citing the crowd’s dexterity when he could very well have been referencing his own. Still, there was some concession attributed to age in drummer Graeme Edge’s explanation of his weight gain. “My chest lost its battle with gravity,” he joked.
Still, with a talent roster boasting such a storied pedigree, the mix of sentiment and celebration was bound to be contagious. And indeed, the headliners didn’t hedge when it came to their prime time performances, even despite time constraints that shaved thirty minutes to an hour off their usually lengthy sets. Happily too, the party atmosphere didn’t dissipate when it came to the second string artist either. Even the obligatory cover bands managed to maintain the momentum. Randy Hansen did a near perfect aping of Jimi Hendrix, down to his vintage garb and guitar pyrotechnics, while a band called Heavy Mellow did an able job of conveying its archival covers. And while some may have raised their eyebrows at Starship, Little River Band and The Orchestra (an offshoot of sorts that clings to the Electric Light Orchestra branding) holding on to their branding despite the scarcity of original members in their respective rosters, all three outfits did a superb job of retracing their legacies through songs that brought those ensembles to fame and fortune well before the current members’ involvement. If Starship stretched its credibility by including Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” among their archival offerings, shipboard spirit allowed for a certain amount of forgiveness.
In that regard, Carl Palmer’s take on certain staples of the ELP catalog was especially telling. Palmer doesn’t sing of course, and neither do the two young players who complete his trio, but their renditions of “Knife Edge,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Tarkus” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” managed to shore up the same ferocity imbued in the originals. Palmer took that history lesson even further, offering up a take on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the Nice’s version of Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” each a tribute of sorts to Emerson and Lake’s mates’ earlier ensembles.
Likewise, both the Zombies and the Strawbs showed why they became staples of classic British rock, the former providing a few choice selections from their underrated classic Odessey and Oracle album, while the latter provided select cuts from their equally unappreciated progressive folk rock canon. Each helped turn a much deserved spotlight on artists of a decidedly vintage variety.
However, as Edge explained, even the most seasoned performer can get anxiety. He admitted to having a recurring dream that he’s sitting at his drum kit, reaching for his sticks and then pulling out a pair of bananas instead. There’s some sort of phallic reference there that remained unsaid, but that can be left to one’s imagination. Hayward, on the other hand, offered another confession of sorts. When they’re onstage, for those two hours they essentially play for free. The pay they receive is for the hours they spend traveling in-between. Daltrey admitted pretty much the same.
It’s little wonder then that the headliners performed with their usual verve and intensity. Emphasizing the more incendiary songs in their live repertory – “Somewhere Out There,” “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band,” “Ride My Seesaw” – along with their usual standards — “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Isn’t Life Strange” et. al. – the Moodies seemed particularly inspired by their audience of diehard devotees. So too, Daltrey’s pair of performances were typically explosive, combining Who standards like “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Naked Eye” and “Pinball Wizard” with a pair of tunes from the new album he recorded with Wilco Johnson as well as a superb solo set closer “Without Your Love,” a song that seemed particularly on point considering the audience’s adulation. (“I should thank you for what you do because without you, I couldn’t do what I do,” he said sincerely.) Happily, guitarists Frank Simes and Simon Townshend helped affirm the energy and adrenalin, bringing a Who-like spectacle to the proceedings. In a Q & A session, Daltrey claimed that in nearly fifty years of famously spinning the microphone chord, he’s only broken two mikes. However, he did admit that his band mates often have to duck just to get out of the way.
Nevertheless, the live music wasn’t confined to the theater performances. The outdoor Aqua Park and various venues throughout the ship offered more intimate environs, although the closer confines sometimes made seating a challenge. However, the various storyteller sessions and question and answer offerings with the artists did give an opportunity for fans to meet and mingle with the musicians, providing the kind of experience that only a cruise of this kind can offer.
Indeed, even if the seas stayed calm, the boat rocked regardless.
Yes, Marillion, Steve Hackett & Others “Cruise to the Edge” 4/7-4/12/14
The name alone seemed to suggest some sort of limitless adventure and on that score, the recent Cruise to the Edge delivered on all counts. Although inclement weather limited the port of call to Cozumel and forced the exclusion of Honduras, the onboard revelry seemed limitless in scope, providing a far reaching sampling of what’s come to represent today’s progressive rock vanguard. Headlined by Yes, the line-up also included Steve Hackett, Marillion, U.K., Strawbs, Simon Collins (Phil’s offspring) and his band Sound of Contact, Tony Levin’s Stickmen, an offshoot of Gentle Giant called Three Friends, Renaissance, Patrick Moraz, IO Earth, Saga, Queensryche, PFM, Tangerine Dream, and the latest incarnation of Soft Machine, among others. It was a broad sampling of adventurous sounds, and one which made this musical cruise unlike any other.
Naturally, on an outing like this, one might expect to encounter a fair number of eggheads and intellects (read “nerds,” if you will), and while it’s tempting to label many of the voyagers as such, it’s also fair to say that the knowledge these fans shared was well beyond that of the average music aficionado.Everyone one turned, there seemed to be discussions of the attributes and back stories of the various bands, enough to offer a quick primer on any ensemble that wasn’t already well known. It was no surprise then to find that the level of enthusiasm reigned at peak proportions. Some of the discussions proved contentious; debate about Yes’ status found some extolling the group’s virtues and others arguing that their decision to replay full albums offered no change from their standard tour fare. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated — admittedly those in the minority – the onboard offerings showed a full range of prog prowess.
Certainly, there’s no denying Yes’ continuing endurance, not only in their ability to maintain a peak of performance, but also in terms of sheer perseverance. The membership roster has been fluid throughout their forty plus year collective career, but even with new singer John Davidson at the helm, the band’s ability to effectively retrace its earlier catalogue remains unimpaired. That was clear not only in the way they wove their way through both The Yes Album and Close to the Edge in their entirety, but also in the choice of “America” as their opening assault, a song that dates back to their earliest initiatives.
Still, it’s a mark of just how high the musical bar was set that the pair of performances by Yes were merely two of the cruise’s many highlights. And yet that’s hardly surprising considering the level of musicianship shared over the course of five days at sea. Clearly, there was no shortage of exceptional guitarists, brilliant bassists and dazzling drummers.
Yet while some bands seemed content to do nothing more than offer displays of flash and fury – Saga, Queensryche and UK being those in particular – others, like PFM, Three Friends and Strawbs showed off their skills with subtlety and nuance. Sound of Contact railed with an anthem-like intensity, but provided an obvious flair and musicality that kept their melodic tendencies intact. On the other hand, Patrick Moraz’s attempt to flaunt his keyboard skills amidst a backing track of sampled sounds took nearly an hour of preparation and then compelled an initially enthused audience to slowly trickle out of the venue once the playing began in earnest.
Renaissance, on the other hand, had to do with some unexpected motion of their own, literally doing a balancing act once the seas started picking up. Singer Annie Haslam teetered precariously as she walked towards the microphone stand in an attempt to maintain her footing. “You probably felt that on your bottoms,” she joked after one rolling wave threw her off her stride. Theirs was a moving performance in another way as well as Haslam dedicated their set to her late musical partner Michael Dunford, whose guitar work provides him a fitting epitaph on Symphony of Light, the band’s new album.
The elements also played havoc with the Q & As in the Aqua Park, where high winds prevented Yes and Marillion from hearing the questions tossed their way, even when the interviewer was standing only a few feet away. “Have you ever had a stranger interview?” they were asked and the answer was an unequivocal yes from both Yes and Marillion. Still, it wasn’t auditory challenges that found Marillion’s singer, Steve Hogarth (known by most simply as “H”), seemingly nonplussed. Rather, it was the site of his bare legs on the huge screen in front of him that had him sharing his surprise.
Sights and sounds made Tangerine’s Dream nighttime set on that same stage seem like something of a spectacle, with laser lights and strobes simulating the late night ambiance of a Manhattan disco. Steve Hackett’s concerts were also simulating, thanks in part to the ethereal effects achieved with his performance of Genesis Revisited, a set of songs that retrace his involvement with that band as well as his earlier efforts prior to his tenure. His latest album, a massive three CD/two DVD set spotlights that spectacle, but seeing the performance in person was nothing less than revelatory.
The same can be said of Marillion, a band that’s achieved immense popularity in their native U.K. but whose big breakthrough has been stifled Stateside through lack of touring. Nevertheless, their two shows stunned the crowd, thanks both to their atmospheric sound and Hogarth’s indelible stage presence which found him pacing about the stage, sitting, squatting and even spread prone with a dramatic intensity. Yet while his songs are often stark and dramatic – usually while recounting tales from his own turbulent past (he was attacked by a horde of bees and stabbed by a former band mate) — he still comes across with both humor and affability. Sipping a pale yellow beverage, presumably tea, he joked about drinking his own urine. Introducing Steve Rotheridge, forced to sit due to a back injury, he identified him not as “on guitar,” but rather as “on chair.” Call him a populist Prog pundit for his ability to comfortably connect with the audience.
Despite the competition from the veteran ensembles, the younger groups — Asturias, Scale the Summit, Lifesigns, Pineapple Thief, and Pamela Moore – offered impressive performances of their own, although the crowds paled in comparison, especially in the smaller venues throughout the ship. Still, Pamela Moore made a formidable impression as she roamed the atrium, still singing and offering high fives to the bystanders who lined the stairways and greeted her as she wandered about brash and barefoot.
That same description could apply to the Cruise to the Edge in general, all ambitious intent combined with festive frenzy. Who would have thought that Prog’s cerebral scenario could make for such a cool cruise?
“Leave the fantasy behind and cross the line into reality”: a Byrd man’s timeless flight — as picked, parsed, purviewed and prospected by our contributing editor and resident Americana expert.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s not a difficult case to make by any means. In fact, all it takes is to sample just one among the many bands that Chris Hillman has been affiliated with — the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Souther Hillman Furay Band, McGuinn Clark and Hillman, Stephen Stills’ Manassas, and the band that he’s been associated with on and off over the past 25 years of so, the Desert Rose Band — to understand Hillman’s essential role in the evolution, and some might say creation as well, of Americana.
Despite a humble start as a teenager playing mandolin in a short succession of southern California bluegrass bands — the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and the Hillmen in particular — Hillman’s stock rose rapidly when he joined the Byrds, where he became a prime mover in the band’s musical development. An increasingly prolific songwriter (he helped pen the classic “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”), he and later recruit Gram Parsons eventually spun off into the Flying Burrito Brothers, continuing the country crossover the Byrds had begun with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album that’s now considered pivotal in the crossover from rock to country.
As Hillman approaches his 70th birthday this coming December, he remains as passionate as ever about making music. At the same time, he’s also deeply committed to his ideals, especially those having to do with his Christian faith and his politics, both of which tend to distance him from those with whom he came of age in the rebellious ‘60s and ‘70s.
When Blurt caught up with him prior to a new run of shows with a stripped down version of the Desert Rose Band — an acoustic quartet consisting of Hillman, guitarists John Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen, and bassist Bill Brysin — he was gracious, friendly, forthright and all too willing to share his memories and reflections on a life well lived.
BLURT: You’ve had such an amazing career and been a part of so many amazing bands… it’s hard to know where to start here.
CHRIS HILLMAN: You’re very kind. I’ll tell you something. I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t really seek out to be a rock star. I was shy, so I didn’t really set out to do that. I don’t know if I was just lucky – I wasn’t the greatest writer or player or singer – but I had a great time. I think I survived by not seeking out that stardom. It came to me later. I had some great groups. I don’t look back in any negative way. I really don’t do that in my life. I got to do what I was supposed to do. Maybe I could have done it better (laughs), but I’m still playing and that’s a joy. It’s a blessing, I gotta tell you. As long as I can still sing and play, and somebody wants to hear me, I’m good. That’s a good thing. I worked with some wonderful people.
What is state of the Desert Rose Band these days? That band has been around in some shape or form around 25 years, correct?
It’s been dormant for awhile, but it rises now and then. Despite the fact I just gave you that whole rap about not wanting to play with drums and to plug in again, there is one show coming up in July in Norway, and the band is going over as the six piece original Desert Rose Band. So the point is that occasionally we will get together. And why? Well, we parted company when we finally put it out to pasture, but we remained friends. When we were playing together in the ‘80s, we never had any baggage, not baggage in the sense of giving into areas that were bad — drug abuse for example — or this or that. It was a consistent professional situation. Our consistency was 90 percent on stage, and after all these years, I’m in a band that I’m basically heading up, writing the songs and singing lead. But besides that, I’m in a band that’s really professional, that knows how to go out there and do a show, and we remained very good friends.
So that’s a good thing. So we go out as an acoustic quartet or trio, and then once in awhile, we do the entire band, as with the Norwegian gig. And this is the funny thing — the Norwegians love the Desert Rose Band. We’re like the Beatles over there. I don’t know why that is or what that’s all about, but they go absolutely insane, and it’s mostly guys t hat are going crazy. I don’t know what that’s all about either… They’re so into that kind of country music that they’ll even get rhinestone jackets made and wear them to the show. It’s like a Grateful Dead thing over there. I don’t know we’ll play again after this July. I don’t know. It’s just a day to day thing and we’ll have to see what happens. (Below: the Desert Rose Band)
So do you have any plans to do any recording?
Actually, tomorrow I’m going into the studio with Steve Hill, my writing partner for twenty years, and I’m going to lay down all these new songs I’ve accumulated. I was saying to him the other day, we have all these new songs. We’ve got about fourteen songs that haven’t been recorded, and a few outside things, and we’ve got to lay them down acoustically. Let’s go see what we’ve got. And maybe it will lead to another record. One last hurrah. I would like to do another record, but I don’t know. The way the business is, I probably would do it myself. I know Roger McGuinn does that and maybe he could teach me how to do it. But it hasn’t worked out where he sells them to Amazon and so on. That’s a long answer to your question, but, yes, I would love to put out another record and I’m now inching towards that.
If you were to release a new album, would it be a solo album?
It would be a solo album, but I would incorporate it so I could bring in all my old friends to work on it. The way the technology is today with Pro-tools, if I wanted Emmylou Harris to be on my album, all I’d have to do is send it down to her in Nashville. If I wanted McGuinn’s 12 string, all I’d have to do is to send it to him. In fact, Roger and I had written a song at the end of McGuinn Clark and Hillman in the late ‘70s and we did it one time on stage. One time in Long Island, and I listened to this song the other day and it sounds like a 1966 Byrds song, and so I really want to tackle that. That just might negate everything I just said to you. (laughs) I’d want drums and I’d put the bass on it and send it to Roger to put the 12 string on it. It’s not going to be the Byrds, but it just has that feel to it.
And if you wanted to do some recording with Roger – and it sounds like you have a good relationship there – if you did do something, inevitably people would say, “It looks like the Byrds are getting back together.” So maybe there would be a Crosby factor?
Well, that won’t happen. That just will not happen, at least not as a planned out thing. Roger’s not interested in having that happen. I don’t know why, but I respect it. That’s okay.
I read a recent article in which Crosby said McGuinn is the sticking point as far as any reunion is concerned.
He is. I get along with both of them. My communication with Roger is via email. Crosby I speak to because he’s about fifty miles away from me. I don’t really have any issues with anyone who’s still around. What’s the point?
You say it will never happen, but never say never, right? As long as you guys are still around, who knows what might happen?
You’re right. There’s been offers that would astound you for us to get back together, but it’s not going to happen. And I’m okay with that. I respect Roger and he really loves what he’s doing now. We’re all getting older. We’re all lucky that we’re still working. David just made a really good album. He’s singing great and it’s different, and he’s coming up with some really interesting stuff that’s out of left field. And that’s refreshing.
How about a Hillman-Crosby album? I’m just tossing this out there now.
I think I’d rather do a Hillman album and have friends guest on it. That’s the best way to approach it. (laughs)
Actually, we could suggest all kinds of combinations given all your past affiliations. Personally, we loved the Souther Hillman Furay Band.
We actually sat down together not long ago, and I don’t who it was – maybe Richie’s manager – suggested we put it back together and go out on the road together. Playing, not recording, but maybe a short tour opening for someone else perhaps. And I said, we need to listen to those songs again. I don’t know if I like them, and I was being honest. I love everybody’s individual songs, but I don’t know if I liked what we did together. So I don’t know how we would approach that. It never got off the ground. Once again, both of those guys are incredible musicians. Richie is one of the great entertainers and Souther is one of the better songwriters. I just worked on something of his last Friday. This gal I’m working with is cutting “Prisoner in Disguise,” which Linda Ronstadt recorded several years ago, and it’s a great song. But as a group we never got off the ground. But I hear that from people, that love for Souther Hillman Furay, I just don’t hear it myself. It had some moments. Let me put it that way. But I don’t think any one of us ever do any of those songs in our individual sets.
The first album was amazing, a classic. The second album, maybe not so much. It’s just a shame though that those tunes from the first record won’t ever be heard live.
Well, yeah, but to quote you, never say never. Maybe some kids in England will do them. You never know.
And of course there was Manassas, your band with Stephen Stills. Any talk about reconvening that ensemble?
Nah. They put out an album of outtakes called Pieces, and I tried to talk Stephen into re-cutting some of those songs or cutting some new songs as a marketing tool to bring more attention to it. But he didn’t want to do that. So, okay. To me, that album is okay, but it sounds more like a rehearsal. Whatever. You gotta make something look really great to make it enjoyable. You can’t put a gun to someone’s head and say, let’s get the Byrds back together. It’s like you can’t march some poor guy on drugs into rehab at gunpoint. If they’re going to clean up, it’s got to be their idea. They have to come up with some kind if epiphany where they think, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” I’m happy doing what I’m doing, to be honest with you. There’s not much more I really want. Like I said earlier in the conversation, I’m totally blessed to be able to do what I do. I would like to do another album.
You’ve left an incredible legacy you left in your wake… that must be incredibly gratifying.
Well, I’m — excuse the corny cliché — I’m really blessed. I had a great job, just to be able to do what I wanted. I got to do what I love and I survived. I made stupid mistakes like everybody else, but I never went over the line of decency. If I had, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. It was really great. If everything stopped tomorrow, I’d have had a wonderful time. I’d say, thank you very much. I got to do what I love. I don’t have animosity towards anyone. No, I’m not some perfect being that you’re talking to. I still have areas where I try to get better all the time. Bucket lists? There’s some stuff I’d like to do, but it’s narrowing. I’d like my kids to be successful. I’ll tell you one thing, and this is kind of left field, but it ties everything in. Everything that my generation in the ‘60s that we were going on about — f’ing on traditional values — well boy, were we ever wrong. Everything that we were stepping on were the things that held civilization intact for thousands of years. And we’re reaping the benefits of it now. I’m not at all like my peers. I’m very conservative. I’m not a fan of the current administration at all. I’m more Libertarian if anything. That lends itself to some interesting conversations with David Crosby.
(Laughs) I say, let’s put it this way, Crosby, I say, Ted Nugent and I are on the same page. He and I are one side of the fence and all the other guys are over there. Anyway, it’s just a joke.
There are certain people you’ve known who sadly aren’t with us anymore. People like Gene Clark, like Gram Parsons. Are they still present in your mind and consciousness? How often do they enter your thoughts? Are they still present in any way to you?
I think of them all the time. I think of them in a good light. I never think of them with anything bad. I had two great years with Parsons when we hired him in the Byrds. There was about six months with him there.
And then you went on to play with him in the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Yes I did, and the first year was really good. Then we lost him. We lost him to excess and I had to part company with him. I just remember the good times. He was funny. He was bright, He was great to write songs with. He had a great take on things. And Gene was a great guy. Even after the Byrds, I would work on some of his projects. And that was sort of interesting. He would call me, and I would come in and play on his records. I liked the guy. I always respected him, even when I didn’t like him. I also miss Mike Clarke, the drummer.
Thanks to the grace of God, I always think of the good old days. I don’t believe in holding a grudge or this or that. It’s not worth it. In the early days, when we were just getting together, Mike Clark and Gene and I lived together. Gene would write four or five songs a week and we would use maybe three out of five.That’s how prolific he was. So we’d sort of work them up and then we’d share them with David and Roger. Gram gets a little more attention now than Gene, but it doesn’t really matter. They both died tragically. And that sort of enhances the legend. It’s like Jim Morrison. I wasn’t a Doors fan, but they did some good songs. They really did. (chuckles)
Last week I had lunch with Peter Noone and he’s a great guy. I didn’t really know him but I ran into him — he lives up in Santa Barbara — and I said, hey, let’s have lunch. I had to go up there and do something so I suggested we have lunch, and he said, okay. We always say that to people — let’s have lunch together — but this time we did it. He’s been married 47 years. And he looked at me at lunch and he said, “I’m an entertainer and you’re a musician.” And I said, “Whatever. There’s a couple of your songs I love — ‘There’s a Kind of Hush” and ‘Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good.’” Those are phenomenal songs. I don’t know why I got off on that. Oh yeah, I was talking about the Doors. The Doors weren’t my favorite band, but I liked a couple of their songs. Jim Morrison made some interesting choices. At times we would be on a show with the Doors, and he would be so out of it. We were choir boys compared to him, and nobody wanted to be around him because he was so gone. It’s too bad.
You likely saw the best and the worst of those people.
I don’t know why I’m talking about all this, but I guess the point is, we blow these people up to some mythical proportions, whether it’s a musician or an actor. Look at Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Look at how much press he got. What a great actor!
So you say, wait a minute, all these guys we just talked about — Gram, Gene and Morrison — they’re all good, They were all gifted and talented. What is that? Likewise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He wasn’t just some hack actor. He was a really, really good actor. Very good at his craft. I could get into a basic spiritual take on it all. I do believe this, that that place that you get when you find that success. Everything you do, it’s almost like the devil opens this door and says, “Great, come on in. I got more stuff to show you,”
It’s very rare that someone that talented maintains that stability. What helped me was I figured out when to leave the fantasy behind and cross the line into reality.
Editor’s note: Although the Memphis power pop godfathers might not seem, at first blink, to fit the accepted notion of “college rock,” which generally refers to groups operative in the ‘80s, after punk rock had exploded but prior to the alt-rock explosion ignited by Nirvana. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the sonic shadow—make that, glow—Big Star cast over the era, what with the likes of R.E.M., The dB’s, Replacements, Let’s Active, Miracle Legion, Dumptruck (the subject of our first installment in this series) and others so clearly beholden to the group. Ergo this story from my archive/ In 2005 I interviewed drummer Jody Stephens as well as Chris Stamey (who’d worked with Alex Chilton after Big Star broke up) and British journalist Rob Jovanovic (who’d published a Big Star biography), later talking to Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer about their involvement with Stephens and Chilton in the latterday incarnation of Big Star. To my deep regret I never got to interview Chilton—it was made clear to me during my In Space round of interviews that he was not going to be available—although as you’ll read I did have occasion to talk with him informally during his solo touring days. So I have that good memory (along with a somewhat odd claim to fame involving Chilton and my guitar; see below), along with my many, many musical memories of being inspired by Chilton and Big Star. I’m sure all of you reading this have similar musical memories. (ALSO: Go here to read our recent interview with Big Star documentary director Drew Denicola.)
BY FRED MILLS
Call it serendipity. I was listening to Big Star’s Sister Lovers (a/k/a Third) the other morning before heading out to grab some breakfast and go by my post office box to pick up the mail. And in the box was a review copy of A Man Called Destruction (Viking Press), written by acclaimed music journalist and author Holly George-Warren (whom I’m proud to call an old friend from my college days). Subtitled “The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man,” the 370-page volume will undoubtedly wind up on 2014 music bio best-of lists; it’s a treasure trove of a Chilton compendium, so detail-rich I’ve found myself saying to myself, “How the hell did she discover that?” and so expertly rendered, tale-spinning-wise, that it had me staying up late then getting up early because I was hungry to get to the end. Holly—salute, from an old friend.
It’s an ending I already knew, of course: Chilton died of a sudden heart attack in March of 2010, right on the eve of an Austin event where a Big Star tribute concert was slated to take place during SXSW, and I mourned alongside most of the music world. Or at least the part of the music world that I care about. I found myself thinking back to the times I got to see Chilton play with his solo group—I never witnessed Big Star perform, but then, not many other folks did either—and in particular, one afternoon in Charlotte in the early ‘90s when I had wandered down to a club where Chilton was slated to perform that night.
There he was already, casually seated in a booth by himself, reading a book and smoking. As I approached he glanced up and eyed me somewhat warily, and I could practically see the thought bubble forming over his head (Oh god, another fanboy wanting to tell me how much he loves Big Star. Somebody get me outta here.) as I semi-blabbered at him.
“Hey Alex, welcome to Charlotte, you probably don’t realize this, but you were playing my guitar when you appeared on MTV…”
That did the trick; I’d roused his curiosity. And indeed he had played my old guitar on a 1985 episode of MTV program, I.R.S. Presents the Cutting Edge. Living in New Orleans at the time he’d been approached by MTV to be interviewed by host Peter Zaremba while the two wandered around a New Orleans graveyard, and since for some reason he didn’t own an acoustic guitar, he’d remembered admiring an acoustic owned by a friend of his whom he’d met through Panther Burns’ Tav Falco, and who just happened to be a friend of mine too, Melinda Pendleton, and to whom I’d sold my old Takamine a year or so earlier. She loaned him the guitar for the Cutting Edge shoot, and the rest is history, sorta, or at least history in my mind, but if any of you out there can make a similar claim to fame, I will personally shake your hand and buy you a beer if we ever meet.
Ice duly broken after I explained how he came to be playing my old axe for the cameras, he invited me to sit down and chat. “I remember that!” Chilton laughed, recalling the Cutting Edge segment. “That was a damn good guitar. I wanted to buy it from her.” And far from the oddball, guarded type I guess I’d expected him to be, Chilton was gracious and engaging, cracking small self-deprecating jokes as we talked about music and mutual friends we had in New Orleans and Memphis. At one point I boldly asked him if it was true he hated talking about Big Star, to which he emphatically said no, that it just depended on what he’s doing and who he’s with at any given time as to whether he’s into telling old war stories from the Big Star days.
Fair enough. And since this wasn’t an interview anyway, I had him autograph a couple of his solo records for me then wished him well and said my goodbye. He smiled and returned to his book. It was a terrific show that night, too. (Below: the aforementioned MTV clip, which is mistakenly labeled as coming from the 120 Minutes program. )
Cut to mid-2005. A regular contributor to (and, subsequently, Managing Editor) Harp magazine, I found myself interviewing Big Star drummer and co-founding member Jody Stephens, along with latterday Big Star members (and Posies braintrust) Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, about the band and, more to the point, about the new album they’d recently finished up, Big Star In Space, which would be released to generally enthusiastic reviews. Admittedly, Big Stars estimable legacy cast a massive shadow on any contemporary undertaking by the musicians, to such a degree that Alex Chilton had declined most interview requests, feeling he’d said pretty much all there was to say by that point. But they were lively and revealing conversations, and I also had both biographer Rob Jovanovic and musician Chris Stamey weigh in, Stamey of course being a lifelong Big Star fan as well as a one-time member of Chilton’s post-Big Star band in New York.
The fruits of my interviews appeared in the November issue of Harp, and since the magazine is long-defunct and its archives no longer available on the web, you’ve got the story here in front of you in expanded form as part of my “College Rock Chronicles”— Hope you enjoy.
Part One of The College Rock Chronicles: Dumptruck.
Memphis, Tenn., April 2004: Inside Ardent Studios a band is assembled in the control room where the engineer has just cued up a playback. It’s a scene that unfolds on a daily basis in studios everywhere. Except that this isn’t just any band. This is a band that comes with baggage. Rather weighty baggage at that. And as a result expectations are extraordinarily high. Because this is a band called Big Star.
About that baggage. There are the albums, of course, 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City, and Third, aka Sister Lovers,belatedly issued in 1978 after the group’s initial demise. From the prototypical power pop of the first two to the druggy rock noir of the third, those records comprise one of music’s most storied trifectas. As British journalist Rob Jovanovic, author of the recent biography Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop, notes, “There’s a fascinating thread of disintegration from one album to the next. #1 Record was very polished, with four in the band; Radio City is starting to show some manic behavior, three in the band; and with Third, it’s down to two members and things clearly falling apart.”
There’s also the massively influential Big Star legacy which not only attract waves of new acolytes each year but has also generated an impressive roster of celebrity fans – among them, R.E.M., the Replacements, Wilco, Cheap Trick, the Bangles and the Posies. dB’s founder and producer/solo artist Chris Stamey elegantly describes Big Star’s enduring appeal this way: “I think something about the way air moves and makes your eardrums vibrate seems to get at you deeply. And this is something that a lot of people experience. However Big Star got there, the fact that [the music] continues to have that effect on a lot of different people means that it will hang around for awhile.”
So surely Big Star Mk. ‘04 — founders Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, who joined when Chilton reconvened the group in 1993 – was mindful of the legend its was competing against when going in to make the band’s first studio record in 30 years?
Big Star drummer Stephens chuckles, but holds firm. “I honestly don’t think anythingwe did with the making of this record was a response to those albums.”
It’s 2005 now. Stephens is speaking from Ardent, where he’s the facility’s Studio Manager, and we’re talking about the new In Space (Rykodisc) but of course those albums are bound to come up. (Chilton wouldn’t be interviewed for this article.) To hear Stephens tell it, ignoring the estimable Big Star legacy was part of what made the In Space sessions run so smoothly. “In fact,” he says, “I’m not sure if [making the album] was ever quite so definitive as someone saying, ‘I’m ready, how about you?’ We really just casually walked into it. I wish I could remember what the actual turning point was! Maybe he did call me one day and say, ‘I’d like to make another record, and here’s the plan.’
“Alex had a plan to write and record a song a day, then do overdubs and mix. So it was literally us sitting down and somebody saying, hey, I’ve got an idea, we’d run through it a couple of times, and it would start to take shape and form. These songs really were created instinctually, as opposed to methodically thinking about them. And I don’t remember any reference to our past albums.”
“That’s true,” confirms Auer a few days later, speaking from London where he and Stringfellow are on the road with their other group, Seattle’s Posies. “We really didn’t talk about how we could uphold the supposed legacy. And Alex, I don’t think, is very concerned about whether there are things that might remind people of what Big Star sounded like. Most of [the recording] was just kind of letting it go where it went. We didn’t have a graph chart on the wall. We weren’t saying, okay, we have this kind of song, now we need another ballad, or dammit, we gotta make sure we have something that sounds like an outtake from #1 Record.”
Adds Stephens, “And in some cases, other people also had ideas. Not completed ideas by any stretch of the imagination. Like “Dony,” if I remember correctly, was Jon’s kind of idea musically, but I’m not sure how far along that idea was, and Alex came up with the lyrics. What I remember about most of it was that somebody would have a basic idea and we go run through it a couple of times, and it would start to take shape and form. These songs would be created more instinctually, as opposed to sitting down and methodically thinking through them.
“Later, it was all mixed here at Ardent – it was mastered in Los Angeles – and Alex and Jeff [Powell, co-producer on the album] sitting down to mix it. They’d get a mix done and call me, I’d go back in and listen, and most of the time it was, ‘Hey, sounds great!’ There were a couple of times when I thought maybe it needed more vocal. But I’d listen once or twice then go out, so it wasn’t like I [got burned out], because mixing can be pretty tedious. By the time you’re through with that process it’s hard to be objective about the songs that you are hearing. But Alex really put a lot of time and effort into this record, and stuck in there. And everyone that heard it had some great ideas and contributed to the mix process.”
The goal for In Space was simple, Auer says: to create a solid batch of new songs – nevermind the old ones – that all four men could say they were proud of. “Although I’ll admit it, I personally felt a little concerned. You know, I’m a fan of those early records too. There were things that I contributed that I think were my take on what Big Star would sound like, based upon the first two records in particular. But I wouldn’t say it was like trying to pander to that type of expectation.”
In Space is no Radio Cityredux, that’s for sure. Big Star hardliners may find themselves grumbling over the record’s pointedly eclectic sound which encompasses everything from R&B to a hard rock jam to a somewhat dubious diversion into disco. But it also sparkles with sweetly-wrought, harmony strewn pop, notably opening jangler “Dony,” the Beatlesque “Best Chance We Ever Had,” and baroque ballad “Lady Sweet” — sung, respectively, by Chilton, Stephens and Auer (true to the democratic process outlined by Stephens, songwriting credits list all four members for most of tunes). Overall, In Space feels fresh while retaining many of Big Star’s most endearing qualities.
“I always like the passion and the human elements in records,” Stephens says, “and on In Space, there are some pretty emotional moments, and there are also moments when there’s a cool sense of humor about it. I think it will be a surprise to some people.”
Big Star certainly came into this world surprising people. Just the very notion of a group of British Invasion-worshiping popsters coming from Memphis (R&B City USA) and in 1972 to boot (when the Allman Brothers et al ruled in the South) was enough to pique the critics’ interest. To some, Big Star was the pop equivalent of the Second Coming. (The First? The Beatles, of course.)
The band formed in 1971 after Alex Chilton, late of the Box Tops, returned home to Memphis and struck up a songwriting partnership with an old associate, Chris Bell. As Bell had already been working with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens (Rock City and Icewater were two notable pre-Big Star combos), the band fell into place quickly and Big Star was soon recording its first album at Ardent Studios.
#1 Record, released by the studio’s eponymous in-house label, reflected its creators’ influences – Beatles, Beach Boys, Kinks, Who, etc. — yet was immaculately crafted and utterly unique, key tracks including the anthemic “In The Street” (years later known as the opening-credits theme for That Seventies Show), sturdy chugger “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and the dreamy/acoustic “Watch The Sunrise.” Its followup Radio City, recorded in ’74 by Chilton, Hummel and Stephens after Bell quit to go solo, was rawer but no less a revelation to fans who zeroed in on such power pop templates as “Back Of A Car,” and “September Gurls.”
That is, when fans could actually get the albums. Ardent was distributed by Stax Records, which, suffering from near-terminal financial and distribution woes, was unable to place the records into stores with any consistency. This effectively deep-sixed the group’s chances in the marketplace, and soon Hummel, too, left, opting to return to college while Chilton and Stephens, with replacement bassist John Lightman, toured sporadically during the first half of ’74. (A radio broadcast from that tour was unearthed and issued by Rykodisc in 1992 as Big Star Live.)
Chilton and Stephens spent the rest of the year working with producer Jim Dickinson and a revolving cast of players on what was to be the group’s next album. Third, however, was never fully completed, due in large part to Chilton’s erratic drugs-and-boozed-fueled behavior. It did have its gems, such as the devastating “Holocaust” and the sonically buoyant/lyrically scathing “Thank You Friends,” and with its string arrangements and spooky vibe it stood apart from its two pop predecessors. But by the record’s eventual release in 1978 the group was already history; Big Star played its final gig in the fall of ’74 and Chilton and Stephens formally interred the band for good a few months later.
Stephens went to college and eventually wound up back at Ardent as Studio Manager (he would also work with other groups, notably Golden Smog). Chris Bell, despite myriad personal issues, had recorded a number of tracks for his own album and released one single, “I Am The Cosmos,” in 1978 before dying, tragically, in a car accident. (In 1992 Rykodisc collected the Bell solo material on CD as I Am The Cosmos).
And Alex Chilton, well… that’s an entire article unto itself. Suffice to say that the songwriter who once titled a solo album A Man Called Destruction spent his time in the wilderness, eventually overcoming his personal demons and making a string of uneven but intriguing solo records. Along the way he adopted a perversely disdainful attitude towards his old band even as his profile steadily rose; a new generation of fans was discovering his back catalog via reissues and through the proselytizing of bands influenced by Big Star. So what came next, while unexpected, was probably inevitable.
In April of 1993 the stone was rolled back when Chilton agreed, after years of ignoring the overtures of promoters, to a one-off Big Star reunion.Stephens recruited Auer and Stringfellow, whose work as the Posies made them perfect fill-in candidates for Bell and Hummel, and the group played at the annual Spring Fest bash at the University of Missouri at Columbia
“I was pretty nervous the whole show,” recalls Stringfellow, “and I remember feeling pretty relieved after we got off the stage!” Ragged or not, the reconfigured ensemble clicked. Periodically over the next decade Big Star would tour, performing songs — of Chilton’s choosing – culled primarily from the first two albums.
The matter of recording new material, however, never came up seriously until 2003 when the group was rehearsing to play the opening of the Stax Museum in Memphis.
Explains Auer, “The setlists had remained pretty static so Ken and I wanted to look at doing some [different] songs. I think we worked up ‘You Get What You Deserve’ and ‘Life Is White’. After we finished Alex said that while he appreciated our wanting to try some other songs, he felt like the songs we were already playing were the strongest in the back catalog.”
“In his opinion the songs we hadn’t been doing weren’t at the level he is at now, that their lyrics were stupid and immature and primitive,” adds Stringfellow.
“But,” continues Auer, “then he said, ‘I really love playing with you guys’ and indicated that he would like to do some new stuff. Well, he’d never said that directly before. And at that point Big Star really felt like a band.”
One new tune surfaced soon after on 2003’s Big Star Story anthology, a ghastly funk-flavored tune called “Hot Thing” that, in the company of classic pop, stuck out like a lawn jockey in a blue-state neighborhood. But by the spring of ’04 Big Star had its studio mojo back, and by all accounts it was Chilton who kept In Space moving forward as a contemporary recording unencumbered by old ghosts.
“Alex is pretty much into whatever’s happening here and now,” Stringfellow says. “I think he did what, in his mind, he set out to accomplish. Which I assume was to capture the vibe of this current lineup in the studio.”
The personal legacy question, though: Don’t even American presidents ponder it upon entering their second terms?
“It’s funny, the legacy was defined in our first term. So I hope we don’t screw it up in our second!” laughs Stephens. “In some people’s eyes, in a very cult, private way, Big Star means a lot; it’s defined by those first three records. They’ve been living with those three records for thirty years. So how do you introduce [a new record]?It’s like introducing a new puppy to a dog that’s ten years old. It takes a while, you know? The puppy challenges the older dog, the older dog growls and snarls, but sooner or later there’s an appreciation.”
He’s right; a lot of people have made those records a part of their lives for a long time. And the band’s story – as the recent biography’s subtitle so perfectly puts it, “the short life, painful death, and unexpected resurrection of the kings of power pop” – is fascinating. Filmmaker Scott Edmund Lane, of L.A.-based InVision Motion Picture Group, was so taken by the Big Star tale that he optioned Jovanovic’s book for a biopic he hopes to begin shooting next year. “What appeals to me,” says Lane, “are the fable elements – the tragedy and failure and the redemption of the music and the artists. The growth of the legend and the discovery and appreciation of their art many years later. It’s like opening a treasure chest and finding the Rosetta Stone or the Holy Grail.”
And as noted previously, the music continues to gain new converts, a point Jovanovic makes when he says, “The mythology works because the songs are good. The exquisite songwriting merged with those guitars – especially with the first two albums — are what have endured for thirty-plus years.”
Chris Stamey recalls the initial shock of hearing Big Star in ’72 on a local radio station in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. “’When My Baby’s Beside Me’ —it went straight to that ancient part of my brain. I bought one of the promo copies of the album from the DJ and I remember pushing that on everybody – I guess I was trying to put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan’! Then when I got [Radio City] it seemed like another level, just much more chemically active: a more urgent record, and a very unusual sounding record. [With Third] I was used to the notion of‘progress,’ bands making a leap from record to record and making that leap maybe in five or six months.So it made sense to me — the idea of taking it further and learning more and sharing a discovered vocabulary in the work of other musicians.”
Stamey, who toured and recorded some with Chilton in the late ‘70s before founding the dB’s, likens discovering Big Star all those years ago to the opening of a door, saying, “I remember reading about when the first and second records by The Band came out and how Eric Clapton thought, ‘I’m making a fool of myself. I’m going to cut out the fuzz and everything…’ And I guess I felt the same way at the time. I heard these records and I thought, ‘Whatever I’ve been doing, there is a way to be very direct and honest and American.’ Radio City wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t. It was Southern American guys like me trying to say something about their lives.”
For his part, Jody Stephens simply expresses satisfaction that for whatever reasons, Big Star touches people. “Music’s always gotta connect with you emotionally,” he says. “And it is emotional communication – it’s music that sticks with you and moves you passionately enough to go out and turn somebody else on to it.”
SIDEBAR: JODY STEPHENS ON BIG STAR IN THE ‘70S
FRED MILLS: What got you interested in music?
JODY STEPHENS: Oh, the Beatles! The Ed Sullivan show. There was nothing quite like it: You just wanted to jump out of your skin.
FM: Was it inevitable that four Anglophile musicians would find each other in an R&B-fixated town like Memphis?
JS: Well, I don’t know if it was inevitable. But Memphis, you know, wasn’t so big; it did have a music community and a bit of a networking thing just because you were always going out to see bands. I met Andy Hummel through a friend of mine in 7th or 8th grade. Andy and Chris were a year older than I. And when I was a senior in high school, along with this band I was in with my brother, we auditioned to be the band for the first off-Broadway production of Hair, at Memphis State. I’ll be damned if we weren’t all selected. Our lead singer actually played the role of Berger in that. So there I was – talk about my eyes being wide open! I’d had a pretty sheltered existence. And towards the end of the run of that play, Andy Hummel came onstage during the grand finale. We reconnected and talked and he invited me to a jam session. He and Chris had a band. And Alex [already] knew Chris.
FM: Big Star’s records, of course, eluded a lot of people first time around…
JS: We got a lot of press back in ‘72, ‘73, and the press has always been really good to us. And that’s probably why were back together again, at the end of the day – well, it’s why there’s an audience for us. But nobody could buy the records! Not that a lot of people got turned onto ‘em, but we got letters and phone calls like, “I’m in New York City and I would like to buy your record…” Places you’d think that there would be records.
FM: Was that key in Chris Bell’s decision to leave the band?
JS: Chris, really, if you had to select a creative director for the first record, he would have been it. I know Alex contributed a lot and it was a collaboration, but a lot of it was Chris’ vision. Then we got the reviews and everybody was talking about Alex. So I think Chris was just trying to step out from under the shadow of Alex.
It was a drag to see that come to an end. The material on that first album really meant a lot to me. We rehearsed a lot for that record. I can remember working up “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and just getting a big rush out of it. It’s hard to find people that you really connect with creatively like that, and play songs that inspire you. I gotta admit, a lot of times I almost felt like I was part of the audience. Because we’d finish these records and I’d be just completely floored!
FM: And you still were able to keep going as a three-piece to do Radio City.
JS: Well, I think that point did come at the rock writers’ convention. There was a helluva lot of encouragement from the guys in the audience – it was pretty fascinating! The list of people that were there – Cameron Crowe, Bud Scoppa, Richard Meltzer, Dave Marsh, all those folks. And I guess there were fewer of them back then, and there was more focus on music as a whole. There weren’t 18 billion factions in music and there weren’t 150 different kinds of music magazines. I could see how writers would have followings and a little more clout back then.
I don’t remember rehearsing the second album like we did for the first. It was a lot simpler, a bit more raw, whereas there were a lot more overdubs on the first record. All that was pared down on the second. It was a lot more spontaneous than the first. We’re all music fans, and to that extent there are going to be influences, but for me, there wasn’t that studied approach to doing that record so much as it was just letting go, getting inspired by the music and playing what I wanted to play.
FM: Big Star didn’t really tour all that much – did you prefer the studio?
JS: Interestingly enough, it wasn’t by design, but the simple fact that we couldn’t find a booking agent. Nor did we ever really have a proper manager. [laughs] And those are two key elements to being able to go out on the road. Really, it’s as simple as that. The tours that we did were set up by the record label. It would have been fascinating to see what could have happened had we had a proper booking agent and gone on the road a bit. There’s nothing like going on the road to prove your chops as the band plays together.
We went up to New York a couple of times, we’d play Max’s Kansas City. It would be just for 3 or 4 days at a time; we’d play Max’s for 3 or 4 nights. One time it was with Ed Begley Jr. on the bill, although he doesn’t remember it! But I saw an ad for it in some magazine I’d saved. The other time we were on with the Butts Band and that was fun.
FM: The third album: Chilton solo project, or a true Big Star record?
JS: You know, to a large extent it was an Alex solo record. But I think the bridge between that thought and it being a Big Star record was just the fact that I played a role in it. So yeah, I consider it a Big Star record. It just fit in the general lifespan of the band in terms of how things evolved. The three albums are really the Big Star evolution story. From this kind of innocence on the first record to this sophistication and edge to the second to the really dark, raw sort of emotion on the third. It kind of spanned the same sorts of emotions that, as humans, we all have.
FM: That’s a good way to put it. Even as unsettling as the third album is, people respond.
JS: It’s odd that people will tell me that they went through a rough period and the third album helped get them through it, because it’s such a dark, melancholy record. But maybe in the melancholy moments we have in our lives, maybe you tune in to somebody to share that thought and feeling with them. It kind of lightens the load.
FM: How did you know the band was over?
JS: Well, Alex and I were doing a radio show for a college radio station [Memphis’ WLYX, in early 1975]. And I don’t know if there was a specific moment or a specific action or anything. But I just thought, “This is it for me.” You know, I’m not a dark person. And there was certainly a lot of darkness there.
At the end of it I’d just kind of figured out I wasn’t comfortable with that and needed to move on.
SIDEBAR: CHRIS STAMEY ON BIG STAR AND ALEX CHILTON
ON BIG STAR’S LASTING APPEAL:
I think something about the way air moves and makes your eardrums vibrate seems to get at you deeply. And this is something that a lot of people experience. And however they [Big Star] got there, the fact that it continues to have that effect on a lot of different people means that it might hang around for awhile. You know, with classical music, Beethoven scribbles down some symphony and it gets played for centuries. Rock music, you know, that doesn’t really happen.
ON THE THREE ORIGINAL BIG STAR ALBUMS:
“When My Baby’s Beside Me” got reasonable airplay in Winston-Salem when we were growing up. And I think it went straight to that ancient part of my brain – it was just amazing to hear it. And then I bought one of the promo copies of the album from the DJ. I think I got all the 45s too. I guess I was trying to put the “fanatic” back in “fan” so I wrote Ardent and maybe mailed them a dollar and asked if they could send me any 45s.
I heard these records, and particularly Radio City, and I thought, “Whatever I’ve been doing, there IS a way to be very direct and honest and American.” My impression is that at a certain point Big Star was really trying to emulate the Beatles. But I heard it as, like, “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” as a very American kind of record. Radio City, you know, it seemed like it wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t. It was Southern American guys like me – not really like me, but I thought at the time – trying to say something about their lives. And they didn’t need to be listening to The Move to get there. When I finally got [Radio City] it definitely seemed like another level. Radio City, you know, it was just much more chemically active: a more urgent record, and a very unusual sounding record, and it seemed like they definitely had something that they needed to say.
[Regarding Sister Lovers/Third]I was used to the notion of “progress.” I was used to bands making a leap from record to record and making that leap maybe in five or six months.So it made sense to me – the idea of taking it further and learning more and sharing a discovered vocabulary in the work of other musicians.
ON MEETING AND WORKING WITH ALEX CHILTON:
First impression? He seemed — very wise! How’s that? [laughs] When I spent a couple of years around Alex in New York we would record and he was very detailed in how to use the gear and how to achieve certain effects – where to put the microphone. It was a masterful use of technology to achieve a definite thing. And you know, we’re also led to understand that Chris Bell was very good at that stuff, too.
My experience with him was like I treated him like a mentor and tried to learn as much as I could, and in the short time I was around him it was great. It was like going to graduate school.
ON CHILTON’S MERCURIAL REPUTATION:
I was talking to somebody about the White Stripes. They were saying it’s hard to promote their record, in a way, because they’re about the only people left, at that level, who don’t whore themselves out and do every possible promo thing, every free concert for radio stations, that you can. And you know, it used to be, being a musician, that wasn’t really part of it. I mean, Alex is not Charlie Parker, but people don’t criticize Charlie Parker for – it’s like the role of selling yourself shouldn’t necessarily be part of the role of creating. And maybe Alex is like the Brian Wilson song: “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”
I think Alex has a hard time singing things that don’t feel real to him. It makes more sense to him to sing “What’s Your Sign” than to sing some of the Big Star songs that maybe don’t speak to him anymore.
[Also] he lived in absolute, abject poverty when he lived in New York. It would be nice to be in a society where, you know, you were able to make your paintings. But it was awful poverty. And it must have seemed really kinda comical to have someone tell [him], “Yeah, you’re great!” You see, there’s a lot of work, a lot of craft, a lot of dedication. And the fact that some of the emotions that were being expressed really strike deep chords, people are very possessive about the artist. You know, you go in and try to make a good record, and then you’ve got a bunch of people who want to tell you how it changed their lives. And if it was me, I would run! But I think the Big Star stuff really got under your skin.
Ari Picker deliberately shed the acclaimed nuances of his previous album in order to uncover fresh ones for his new release.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
It’s February in Chapel Hill, N.C., and traffic has seized amidst a brutal winter storm. Ari Picker, the leader of the elegant and emotional art-pop outfit Lost in the Trees, answers his phone while trying to navigate the treacherous roads, begging his interviewer to try him in an hour. When the reporter reaches him again, he’s rustling up some firewood, having made it safely to the country home he shares with his wife and her parents — but just barely: A school bus nearly skidded into him on the icy roads, not long before he narrowly avoided sliding into another vehicle. After catching his breath, Picker is ready to talk.
He describes his snowy drive with the same matter-of-fact tone with which he discusses Past Life (Anti-), Lost in the Trees’ game-changing third LP. In both cases, his tone is a bit surprising. On the new album, Picker and his bandmates recast the swirling strings and earnest acoustics that framed its expected orchestral folk — solidified on 2008’s All Alone in an Empty House and expanded on 2012’s A Church That Fits Our Needs — draping the composer’s hypnotic melodies and airy croon with subtle psychedelics, sly electric guitars, and processed beats.
There’s nothing “orchestral” or “folk” about it, but Picker doesn’t seem nervous about alienating his fans. Like driving home in the snow, shifting the band’s sound was something he simply had to do. And, despite the dramatic changes, Past Life was definitely the least daunting record for Picker to make. Lost in the Trees old material excavates memories of his life with his mother, an artist who battled depression and breast cancer and ultimately succumbed to the strain of her trying life. She took her own life in 2009 after returning home from Ari’s wedding.
One of Picker’s previous songs depicts a terrible argument between his mother and estranged father. Another wrings uplifting poetry from his journey to the Haw River to scatter her ashes. Writing these songs was a powerful experience, but it’s one that he’s glad to have behind him. Past Life finds him moving on to less personal subjects.
“That whole thing was just really heavy,” Picker explains. “I certainly didn’t want to be at the center for the project and explore certain areas of my life again. I feel like I’ve done that enough.”
He’d also had enough of blending his pop and orchestral impulses. Having played with Chapel Hill’s sorely underrated The Never before he ventured to Boston’s Berklee College of Music for classical training, Picker has distinct tastes and talents for each style. Coming into Past Life, he says he considered making an album of chamber music, perhaps under his own name instead of the Lost in the Trees moniker. But he was lured by the simpler and more direct charms of playing rock songs with his friends.
“I just wanted to feel like what it was like being in a band,” he says. “It felt like such an ensemble in the past. I guess they’re different things, ensembles and bands. It just felt good to get in a room and play music that was more oriented toward the instruments that we were playing, instruments suited for a rock club.”
For Past Life, Picker revamped both the band’s lineup and its aesthetic, though neither choice was particularly deliberate — not initially, at least. He’s quick to express his affection for the group’s past members, but he says he realized that he’d pushed that vision as far as he could. He could either move on, or risk running Lost in the Trees into a potentially lethal rut.
Keen to limit the meticulousness that gripped him while making his previous two albums, he would spend the first part of his day demoing, improvising vocal melodies as he went. When his time there was done, he would return home to edit, bereft of recording equipment. Unable to nitpick, his compositions grew organically, building on hypnotic drum loops and minimal instrumentation. With songs written, he changed his pattern once more, assembling a five-piece rock lineup and taking them on a short tour before they entered the studio, the first time he’d worked out songs live before putting them to tape.
“It was interesting,” Picker says. “We kind of worked up to this more rock version of the record, and then we went in and the beats were more of a fusion of live playing and sampling drums and recording the drum kit as if it were a beat machine. It was great to learn how to play the record one way and then record it a totally different way.”
Past Life is simultaneously Lost in the Trees’ tightest and most open-sounding affair. The rhythms ratchet with almost mechanical precision, as keys and guitars find cyclical formations of their own. These lattices leave room for harmonic richness, often brought on by the eerie beauty of Emma Nadeau’s operatic backing vocals, as immediate a signifier of Lost in the Trees’ sound as any string instrument ever was.
It’s Nadeau’s softly billowing sighs that open the album on “Exocs,” deftly diffusing a sharp piano melody. Horns gust through soon thereafter, followed by blankets of astringent synthesizer. But the most striking moment comes when the music all but drops out; Nadeau’s plaintive singing joins Picker, who delivers the chorus with little more than a whisper — “And all I ever want/ Is your heart.”
Like all of Lost in the Trees’ best moments, “Exocs” is fragile but fierce, with desperation giving way to strength and resolve. Past Life goes in many thrilling directions: “Daunting Friend” swells with booming vocals and shimmering guitars that recall the softer side of U2’s Achtung Baby. The closing “Upstairs” glides along with a crisp riff and skittering drums, recalling some of Beck’s more unguarded moments.
But whatever new tricks it tries, Past Life never loses its sense of brittle but unyielding passion. For everything that’s changed for Lost in the Trees, the important things remain the same.
“For me, lyrics and writing songs is a bit of an opportunity for me to feel like I’m connecting to something spiritual,” Picker offers. “I don’t really go to church, so when I start writing lyrics, it’s normally finding images that point to questions that I have in life; not that I’m answering them. I’m just interacting with them.”
Lost In The Trees kicked off the second leg of their tour this week in Asheville. Tour dates below.
4/15 Asheville, NC – The Mothlight
4/16 Nashville, TN – High Watt *
4/18 Chicago, IL – Schubas *
4/21 Madison, WI – Frequency *
4/22 Minneapolis, MN – 7th Street Entry *
4/23 Omaha, NE – Slowdown *
4/24 St Louis, MO – Old Rock House *
4/25 Hot Springs, AR – Low Key Arts
4/26 Dallas, TX – Three Links
4/27 Austin, TX – Holy Mountain
4/29 Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s
4/30 New Orleans, LA – Gasa Gasa
5/1 Atlanta, GA – The Earl
5/2 Winston-Salem, NC – Krankies
5/6 Miami, FL – The Fillmore ~
5/7 Orlando, FL – Beacham Theater ~
5/8 Ponte Vedra, FL – Ponte Vedra Concert Hall ~
* with All Tiny Creatures
# with Icy Demons
~ with The Head and the Heart
Coachella? We don’t need no steenkin’ hipsterville badges! We started OUR festival season off with a splash, March 20-23 down in Florida.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
The humble Suwannee Springfest has yet to reap the recognition and appreciation that some of the bigger and more venerable festivals like Bonnaroo, Merlefest and Telluride have attained, but considering the fact it’s in its 18th year, it’s not for lack of trying. Its location, outside Live Oak Florida — practically on the banks of, yes, the same Suwannee River Stephen Foster once celebrated in song — is easily accessible from Jacksonville, Tallahassee and all points south. And, for that matter, many points north “There’s so many musicians here from North Carolina, it looks like half the state took a field trip,” Steep Canyon Rangers’ Woody Platt was heard to remark to fellow state mate, Town Mountain’s Phil Barker.
Still, the Springfest — one of several gatherings held at the lovely Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park year round — remains relatively small compared to the aforementioned gatherings, a source of pride for the predominantly Florida-based crowd that return year after year in a show of steadfast devotion. Despite the modest numbers — between 5,000 and 5,500 attended this year — it’s an eclectic bunch of attendees, a family friendly crowd of all ages and backgrounds. There are hippies and harbingers of a forward-looking populist approach, young and old alike. Tie-dye is the predominant fashion statement, both in terms of garb and as a staple amongst the various vendors. Were it not for that, as well as a certain shared enthusiasm, it’s easy to imagine that many of those present might be bankers or lawyers in their day jobs, given the fact that, along with a sizeable throng of young people, there were plenty of folks with greying locks, if, in fact, they had any follicles left at all.
Paul Levine, who’s been booking the various Suwannee festivals for the past four years, has clearly added a younger element to the musical mix; this year’s event, held over four days, March 20 – 23, took a nod towards up and coming Americana acts, many of them if the bluegrass persuasion. As always, Donna the Buffalo held court for the band’s faithful, but they also shared the various stages with some other festival veterans as well — Steep Canyon Rangers, the Sam Bush Band,the Del McCoury Band, the Avett Brothers, Bluegrass, and Jim Lauderdale, along with relative newcomers like Aoife O’Donovan ,Town Mountain, the Punch Brothers in particular. “That’s one of the special things about this festival,” Sam Bush would later remark, referencing the musical variety. “It’s bluegrass, it’s country, it’s Americana, it’s Rock, and practically everything in between.” It’s a credit to Levine’s acumen — as well as the festival founder and organisers — that Springfest is able to consistently offer such a diverse roster.
Of course, part of the reason has to do with the lovely setting, consisting of an expanse of meadow, a naturally shaded amphitheater and a collection of rustic buildings, all of which are surrounded by an overgrowth of swaying Spanish moss. “This is one of the reasons I wanted to play music for a living,” Bush remarked, pointing to the scenic surroundings. The fact that it’s the first major festival of the year doesn’t hinder the interest either.
Happily then, the music measures up to the surroundings. Spread among four main venues — the Amphitheater and the Meadow Stage being the largest stages, with smaller shows taking place at the Porch Stage and the indoor Music Hall — the sounds are nonstop.
Tee festivities began Thursday with soft opening provided by Town Mountain, SOSOS, Whiskey Gentry and the Duhks as the main attractions. By Friday afternoon, the activity intensified, with a string of topnotch acts — Willie Sugarcapps, Steep Canyon Rangers, Jason Isbell, the Punch Brothers and Greensky Bluegrass taking their turns in the Amphitheater. Even so, two days in, the ambiance was remarkably mellow. Some people in the audience even had a full recording set-up readied from their vantage point a few rows back, unimpeded by any restrictions on recording.
Steep Canyon Rangers’ superb set, mostly made up of songs taken from their new live album recorded with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and from their latest studio effort, Tell The Ones I Love, led into another incendiary set performed by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Indeed, Isbell’s anthemic tunes further elevated the energy. However, the high point of the evening, at least as far as the crowd was concerned, was the performance by the Punch Brothers, who started their set by noting that this was only the fourth time in their eight year history that they were playing in Florida. Happily, they gave the crowd a quick primer, demonstrating their versatility with material that ran the gamut from a catchy new song called “Magnet” to an unlikely read of a classical composition by Debussy, as performed with mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and stand-up bass. What’s more, it was front man Chris Thiele’s bemused facial expressions and over-arching body language that ensured they left the crowd entertained and amused.
Saturday found the energy elevated even further, with superior sets by Jeff Mosier, Aoife O’Donovan, The Honeycutters, the Sam Bush Band, and the Del McCoury Band, whose rendition of Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning” stood out overall. Both Greensky Bluegrass and the Steep Canyon Rangers made encore performances, the latter discarding their traditional stage suits entirely in favor of street apparel. Bush was also brilliant, tossing in various covers (Stevie Wonder’s “Jammin’,” some “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and a hint of “Crossroads”) and, as always, making additional appearances throughout the afternoon while sitting in with the day’s other acts. Jim Lauderdale entertained a small and intimate gathering with a songwriting session, which found him tapping material from his vast catalog and tying in his amusing anecdotes. Noticing one woman making an early exit, he commented, “I’ve always been told some of my material is offensive. I guess I’m seeing that some of you may agree.”
As the day wore on, Greensky Bluegrass got the groove going again out on the Meadow Stage. However it was the Avett Brothers who saw to it that the quiet vibe dissipated entirely. Lounge chairs that had been set up in the Amphitheater hours earlier in hopes of retaining a decent vantage point proved totally useless as a standing crowd took over and crowded the area to capacity. The Avetts, a rowdy band to begin with, egged them on, exuberant and electrifying from the first notes on. Seth Avett, his hair now grown out practically to his waist, whooped and hollered, but it was left to his brother Scott to act as cheerleader, as he leaped to the edge of the audience to shake hands, pump fists and shout out encouragement. Even the McCoury Jam, normally one of the more exhilarating sets of Saturday night, seemed somewhat tame in comparison.
Still, there was at least one additional highlight remaining, that being the first of two Donna the Buffalo sets out on the Meadow Stage. The crowd, obviously amped up from the Avetts, managed to retain their enthusiasm for the Donnas, thanks in part to the vast expanse of the late night environs, but also due to the band’s thunderous performance. While often classified as a jam band, the Donnas are obviously much more, a group capable of conveying substantial melodies along with a disciplined instrumental outpour. To be sure, there’s some evidence of a Grateful Dead-like aura in their casual sway, but overall their’s is a sound that’s wholly their own.
By Sunday, the fourth and final day of the festivities, things had winded down considerably. Nevertheless, a few good shows were still to be seen. Uproot Hootenanny provided a rousing set of Celtic-flavored drinking songs, helping to define a common theme throughout, that having to do with the pleasure of imbibing alcoholic beverages. The wryly-named Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, a bluegrass trio out of Jacksonville, was also impressive, due in large part to their lightning fast picking. Jim Lauderdale, resplendent in a purple stage suit, offered a set of songs culled mainly from one of his newer albums, Black Roses, and continued to keep playing despite a sudden downpour that forced many in the crowd to seek shelter.
As is their tradition every year, Donna the Buffalo closed the festivities with an extended set featuring guest appearances from other artists that remained onsite. It’s appropriate that they offer the final performance year after year; after all, they’ve played Springfest for all of its 18 years and played an additional 18 times at Magnoliafest as well. “This is one of our favorite festivals,” the band’s Jeb Puryear mentioned earlier in the day. “A lot of festivals are great and have great music, but there’s also a certain intangible that adds an extra thing at certain festivals. And this festival definitely has always had that.”
Adam Granduciel dreamed a little Dream in the creation of his latest album, which is rapidly turning into one of 2014’s biggest indie success stories.
BY SUSAN MOLL
If you ever plan to expand your horizons westward, consider yourself obligated to visit of the three branches of the California music emporium Amoeba Records. It’s a mandatory pilgrimage, a vinyl collector’s wet dream. Musicians of note often drop in to its Hollywood location, peruse the racks, drop some cash and discuss their purchases in a video series dubbed “What’s in my Bag?” (Past episodes feature Gary Numan, Joe Boyd, Bradford Cox and Paul Weller, and all are archived on www.amoeba.com .
The War on Drugs made an obligatory pitstop at Amoeba in 2012, the same year ?uestlove joined them on Jimmy Fallon’s soundstage for “Baby Missiles,” one of the best tracks on their fantastic 2011 outing Slave Ambient. Between bassist Dave Hartley, drummer Steven Urgo and singer, guitarist and songwriter Adam Granduciel, they made an impressive and eclectic haul: Carl Wilson, Bob Newhart, Liquid Liquid, the Jeremiah Johnson soundtrack, and an Harmonia LP perfect for walk-on music at their concerts.
Apart from the four Waterboys albums he scored, Granduciel made off with another long-coveted find: a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends collection for their tour van. “I’ve been looking for this for a long time,” he enthused, eyeing it lovingly. “What else can you say about them? They’re the best.”
Then again, that was two years ago. “I like Simon and Garfunkel, but I’m starting to not like it as much as I was when I bought that record at Amoeba,” Granduciel sighs at a Philadelphia café. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what’s playing as he digs into an avocado, soy-chicken and roasted mushroom salad. “It’s fine. It’s great. It’s classic. It just annoys me a little bit.”
These days, it’s a different side of Simon and Garfunkel Granduciel identifies with: the incomprehensible studio tirade Art Garfunkel unleashed and that someone surreptitiously taped between takes sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. “He’s just sitting there talking into the microphone with reverb on it, talking about how he doesn’t like the song that they’re doing: ‘Distaste for the song is what I feel.’ He just keeps rambling about nothing. That’s the part of Simon and Garfunkel that I’m relating to right now. That one rant.”
It’s a miracle that Garfunkel’s engineer didn’t kick down the door to the vocal booth and beat the ever-loving shit out of him on the spot. (Granduciel plays it safe by supplying his own engineer whenever possible.) While he has yet to experience a meltdown of such a colossal scale, he does have his own inner Garfunkel to deal with. He is as much a rock as he is an island, and the War on Drugs, for the muso Granduciel, is a consuming passion. Just below the surface of the bright melodies and energetic rhythms in the sculpted guitar-pop perfection Granduciel so meticulously crafts, a steady current of unease pulsates. It’s apparent from the very beginning of the War on Drugs’ third full-length, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian), on the moody opener “Under the Pressure,” when Granduciel speak-sings, like a young Dylan, of “hiding in the back, loosening my grip, just trying not to crack.” The song’s mounting tension breaks when the cacophony of piano chords, synths, guitars and dubs suddenly bottoms out, leaving the drums alone in their stark presence.Every enthusiastic “ha!,” every impassioned ”whew! ” and every harmonica blast is undercut by a pinprick of angst.
“The first half of last year, I was freaking out about a lot of different things,” Granduciel remembers. “So I tried to construct a little bit of that paranoia, a little bit of that sadness.”
How best to cope with it? “Therapy,” he says. “I started seeing a therapist. I fuckin’ love it!” It’s a guarantee that the world be a better place if more people had their heads examined on a regular basis, and Granduciel finds badly-needed perspective and clarity of purpose whenever he does.
“I feel like, for a long time, I just didn’t look inside at all,” admits Granduciel. “I think that’s kind of what the record is about—finally taking that journey to the inside.”
Appropriately, Lost in the Dream took a journey of its own when Granduciel shuttled the budding album and its players from his kitchen to Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium. For a gearhead as committed as Granduciel, it may as well have been heaven.
“Anybody in the town knows that you’re there for the studio,“ he says. “They latch onto that pretty quick: ‘Oh, you’re here for Mitch? We love Mitch!’ Even in the feed stores. I’m obviously not there to buy chicken feed. I’m there to buy tonic water for my vodka.”
As anyone who’s ever recorded at the Fidelitorium knows, visiting bands have free reign over the place, and Granduciel discovered many thrilling treasures there. “I went up to this second-floor area looking for a microphone or something, and there was a bunch of two-inch tapes with ‘R.E.M.’ written on the sides. I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be shitting me!’” Unsurprisingly, he casts the same critical eye on other artists’ work that he does on his own. “Those drums, they’re awesome, but they’re so dated in that early-R.E.M. way,” he ponders. “I would just love to tighten up the drum sound a little bit.”
It’s been a while since anyone has come up with a decent power ballad, and “Red Eyes,” all rich, dark piano chords and ARP string synths, is the best one Bruce Springsteen never wrote. Best of all, it features Easter’s own Hagstrom 12-string.
“I asked the head engineer, ‘Do you think we could borrow one of Mitch’s Rickenbackers?’” Granduciel says. ”The next morning in the lounge, where I was sleeping on the couch, there was a note that said his Rickenbacker was in the shop, but I should try this Hagstrom. He must have crept in while I was sleeping, which is even creepier. It’s the nicest-sounding electric 12-string I’ve ever played.”
Like every other guitar he takes up, Granduciel makes that Hagstrom talk like nobody’s business. It doesn’t just talk, either—it shouts, it hollers. (He’s similarly adept at the slide guitar, Wurlitzer, fender Rhodes and assorted other keyboards and noisemakers.) Granduciel, who’s blunt and matter-of-fact about pretty much everything, maintains tight control over every note of every song and makes no apologies for capricious decisions like pulling a track at the last minute and re-recording it, as he did with “An Ocean In Between the Waves.”
“Something about it was wrong and I needed to get to the heart of the matter,” he contemplates. “Everyone was like ‘Dude, you’re crazy. The record’s done! I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m the boss. Follow my lead.’ I knew exactly what I needed it to sound like from the first minute we re-recorded it. I’ve grown to trust this weird obsessive part of me that feels compelled to keep pushing songs.”
If one descriptor suits Granduciel and the War on Drugs to perfection, it’s obsessive, and he instills the most epic of trust in its players (who, at one time, included Kurt Vile; Granduciel conversely rode the freak train for four of Vile’s albums). Johnny Natchez, a childhood friend of Granduciel’s older brother who joined St. Vincent and David Byrne on their Love This Giant tour, brought mellifluous baritone sax to “Under the Pressure” and “Eyes to the Wind.”
“The musical performance aspect wasn’t difficult at all because I have such faith in my friends as players,” Granduciel explains. “It was mostly the journey of watching it grow, and then becoming anxious about it. That was the hard part.”
“Eyes to the Wind” manifested as an especially-surprising and satisfying high-water mark. “I love it. Love that song! I can’t believe I wrote it,” Granduciel raves. “I woke up one morning and wrote the music to it in three minutes.”
The track illustrates the kinds of leaps of faith he’s more willing and able to take. “Without me consciously writing about it, I think that’s what a lot of the songs are about,” he says. “Getting a little bent out of shape all the time but trying to power through it some way.”
For all of its frayed nerves, tension and fluctuating moods, Lost in the Dream is a powerful batch of songs with an all-American soul and a steel heart, and is sure to cement the War on Drugs’ rightful place in the canon of Nature’s most perfect bands.Thanks to the Granduciel, it is, musically-speaking anyway, always sunny in Philadelphia.
Photos by Dusdin Condren. This story originally appeared in the April issue of that most excellent Atlanta-based music magazine Stomp & Stammer.
War on Drugs is currently wrapping up a North American tour this week (see below) and will also be a featured performer in May at the Austin Psych Fest. From there the band will embark upon an extensive European tour.
The guitarist talks about his most recent solo album, his side project Poltergeist and his ongoing career as a successful artist. Meanwhile, a certain famous band from Liverpool has just announced a new album…
BY ROBERT FULTON
When Echo & and the Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant set about recording his sixth solo album, he had no grand plan. In fact, not having a plan was the plan.
“The idea was I’ll go into a studio with no ideas,” Sergeant explains, speaking from Liverpool. “I’ll just start playing and then we’ll see what happens, and that’s what happened.”
What happened was 2012’s Things Inside, a mostly acoustic collection of nine atmospheric instrumentals featuring elements of folk, psychedelia and jazz. William Alfred “Will” Sergeant, 54, says he started the project by noodling around on a borrowed guitar in a small studio. “Next thing you know you’ve got this kind of atmospheric sort of ambient folk psychedelia, whatever, I don’t know what is. It’s kind of weird.” (Sergeant adds he’d like to take the same approach—holed up in a studio, fiddling around, no plan—sometime with an electric guitar.)
The album’s title alluded to the songs materializing out of thin air, says Sergeant. “It’s to do with stuff that goes on in your head that you don’t quite understand why. Plus, like, sort of related to the fact that these sounds and these combinations of notes were inside, but they came out onto the record. It just sort of appeared. You didn’t know they were there.”
Sergeant’s approach to Things Inside is not unlike his approach to painting. (Pictured above: “Dream On” and “Vanity of Plumage”.) He’s seriously painted for the last five years, initially as a creative outlet away from his Echo & the Bunnymen work. (“I was trying to find something else to keep me from going crazy.”) Preferring acrylic on canvas, he says he often just starts painting. If he likes what he sees, he’ll continue. If not, he starts over. The first U.S. exhibition of his work at Los Angeles’ Substrate Gallery (709 N Ridgewood Place) closed in July of 2012 after a successful seven week run.
Lately, Sergeant has dived into screen printing, making hundreds of pieces in the print room at Liverpool School of Art & Design, Liverpool John Moores University. “I sort of took over the place for a while,” Sergeant notes. “It was like an elastic band stretched back and then released. I did loads and loads of stuff really quickly.”
And yes, Sergeant sees a clear relationship between his art and music. “The way I sort of do music is almost like a visual thing anyway. It’s kind of painting with sound. It’s the same sort of mindset. Noodling on the guitar is like messing around with a paintbrush.” (Below: 21st Century Fallen”.)
Original Bunnymen bassist Les Pattinson contributes to a couple of tracks on Things Inside, and Sergeant, Pattinson and current Bunnymen drummer Nick Kilroe have formed an all-instrumental band called Poltergeist, which Sergeant likens to something akin to Mogwai and “Echoes”-era Pink Floyd.
Meanwhile, Bunnymen fans have just learned that there’s a new album incoming from Sergeant and his longtime musical foil Ian McCulloch. Titled Meteorites and released by 429 Records, it’s slated for an April 28 release in the UK and June 3 in the US, with respective tours being mounted in proximity with the dates. Described by McCulloch in a press release as “an intimate song cycle” it’s the followup to 2009’s The Fountain and the band hasn’t toured in two years aside from a pair of shows in late 2012. (In 2013 McCulloch released his own solo album, Holy Ghosts, exclusively in England.)Currently the band comprises Sergeant, McCulloch, Kilroe, keyboardist Jez Wing, guitarist Gordy Goudie and bassist Stephen Brannan.