DIE KREUZEN, ENC, PORTER, 8. – An early gig of Die Kreuzen, with Dan Kubinski on vocals, center, and Brian Egeness on guitar, left. May 10, 2013. GARY PORTER/GPORTER@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM
“Then as now”: The seminal hardcore punk compilation, originally released on cassette in 1982, finally gets a proper vinyl reissue. Among the artists featured: Die Kreuzen (pictured above), Void, Double O, Hüsker Dü, Articles of Faith, Toxic Reasons, Personality Crisis and the Misguided.
BY CARL HANNI
Here’s a red hot poker in the eye and a definitive middle finger to both the military/government/establishment media nexus and hippie complacency: the first ever vinyl reissue, via Radio Raheem, of the legendary, cassette-only 1982 hardcore compilation Charred Remains. Originally compiled and released by long-time archivist, ‘zine publisher, and all-around renaissance renegade Bob Moore for his Noise ‘zine and Version Sound label (then in Xenia, OH), Charred Remains was the first compilation that took a national (as opposed to local or regional) look at the burgeoning scene that was quickly gaining ground on old school punk rock; the more aggressive – and some would say reductive – snarling beast of hardcore.
Moore, as it turns out, was the right guy at the right time, and blessed with great instincts. Charred Remains contains, among others, the first ever released recordings by Maryland’s Void and DC’s Double O, the first by Milwaukee’s fabulous Die Kreuzen, perhaps the 2nd ever release by Twin Cities giants Hüsker Dü and early recordings by Articles of Faith, Toxic Reasons, Personality Crisis, Misguided (before they morphed into Das Damen) and eight others. Featuring 30 tracks spread over two discs, it’s an expansive document, with a thick, expanded original booklet full of photos, lyrics, notes and paste-up graphics mayhem from back in the day.
Hardcore attracted a relatively small but absolutely dedicated audience; it was a lifestyle choice that not many were prepared to commit to. But the surprise here is the (relative) variety; the acts here sport a mix of approaches, including several longer and some slower and mid-tempo tracks, while staying more or less true to the hardcore template of very fast, very loud, anti-authoritarian, extremely aggro and politically pissed off. It’s not just a classic document, but a great opportunity to reassess early hardcore, when it was not far removed from it’s early 80’s inception in garages, basements and dingy clubs from coast to coast.
Remastered from the original 1/4 tape, the audio quality is about as good as it gets for a collection of tracks by a bunch of presumably broke-ass bands that was originally released on cassette. The sound quality varies from excellent to ok, but really; what else did you expect? The word is that the new, remastered vinyl version is far superior to the original cassette version.
Cheery picking standout tracks is of course subjective, but personally I’m all about the four tracks by Articles of Faith, especially the amazing “Belfast;” ditto the massive “Somebody Help Me” by Toxic Reasons and the expansive, hardcore-heavy psych hybrid that District Tradition bring with “Psychedelic” and “Vast Realms.” Rebel Truth, Violent Apathy, 5051, Sin 34, Void and Die Kreuzen all throw down classic tracks; but really, it’s all pretty great, if you’re in the right state of mind.
Hardcore was (and remains), as Moore points out in some recently penned liner notes, a product of the times. Reagan and Thatcher were in office, the squares had the upper hand, police state tactics and nuclear apocalypse haunted both the future and the present, and suburban communities in the U.S. were seething with aggressive guys (hardcore was a guy thing) looking for something to grab onto. Although some of the political perspective was pretty reductive, us-vs-them/you’re-with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, the feelings were undoubtably real. Nothing that’s happened since then takes the edge off of any of the concerns or sense or urgency; if anything, the overall global political situation and government backed police states are arguably even worse, despite the alleged ‘end of the cold war’ (nobody told Putin), election of a smart black prez and supposed benefits of the European Union and the elusive benefits that free-trade was supposed to bring.
So, hardcore then is as hardcore now. Drop this super sucker on and head for the nearest mosh pit; we need it now more than ever.
It’s not rare for the old guard to make a comeback with a second or third wind – Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath stand as bands of a certain age that have undergone respectable resurrections. Less common is an older artist putting him or herself in a new band that continues prior traditions. Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham kept the Lizzy flag flying as a touring act, but when it came time to make new music, he changed the band’s name to Black Star Riders out of respect for Phil Lynott’s memory. BSR debuted a couple of years ago with the solid, if unspectacular, All Hell Breaks Loose, on which Gorham, guitarist Damon Johnson (Alice Cooper, Brother Cane), singer Ricky Warwick (the Almighty), bassist Marco Mendoza (Blue Murder, Ted Nugent) and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (Alice Cooper, Megadeth) tried to expand beyond the classic Lizzy sound. Apparently that approach is out the window for The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast), which abandons the more generalist hard rock approach of the debut to hone straight in on what made Lizzy great. Gorham and Johnson make a formidable guitar team, expertly balancing melody and power, while DeGrasso and new bassist Robbie Crane (Ratt, Lynch Mob) juggle anything the riffmeisters throw at them. While he’s no clone, Warwick borrows liberally from Lynott’s conversational vocal style, making the tracks seems like letters from home as much as entertainment. From the Celtic metal of “Soldierstown” and the chugging “Sex, Guns & Gasoline” to the brooding crunch of “Charlie I Gotta Go” and the very Lizzy-like anthems “Finest Hour” and the title track, the band finds the sweet spot between accessibility and aggression that Lynott himself was so adept at exploiting. Phil would be proud.
Speaking of the old guard, Venom, the band that gave the black metal genre its name, crawls back From the Very Depths (Spinefarm). Still led by bassist/singer Cronos, the trio doesn’t make much progress on its 14th album, but why should it? No one does the Satanic punk/metal thing as well as the originator – cf. “Grinding Teeth,” “Mephistopheles” and “Smoke” – and if the band sometimes resembles Motorhead (complete with Phil Campbell-like axeslinger Rage), more Motorhead emulators in the world ain’t ever a bad thing. A fellow power trio of similar vintage, Raven also comes blazing out of the gate with its thirteenth album Extermination (Steamhammer/SPV). Though associated with thrash and speed metal, due to early patronage of Metallica and Anthrax, in truth the British band deals out fairly styleless beatdowns, ignoring genre in favor of riffs and sheer energy on “Feeding the Monster” and “Destroy All Monsters.” Frankly, the 62-minute record would have been more effective at half the length, but in short bursts it’s damned exhilarating.
While elder statesmen like Raven prove they’ve dropped no gauntlets to be picked up, young guns still pop up to keep the trad metal fire burning. On the Swedish quartet’s second album From Beyond (Nuclear Blast), Enforcer parties like it’s 1984, complete with monsters, magic, demons and evil deeds afoot. Fortunately, “Mask of Red Death,” “The Banshee” and the title track are the kind of gleefully over-the-top, riff-chugging anthems that require no understanding of lyrics in order to appreciate.
Visigoth, hailing from the would-be metal Mecca of Salt Lake City, mines the same rich vein of fantasy-driven mania on its debut The Revenant King (Metal Blade). Whether due to its heightened melodic sense or the burly charisma of singer Jake Rogers, the quintet takes battleaxe metal to another level, lighting “Dungeon Master,” “Creature of Desire” and the title ditty on fire with chest-thrusting power. Coming in from the West Coast, Night Demon have faced charges of copycatting older, better bands (Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Angel Witch) on its full-length debut Curse of the Damned (Century Media). Clearly in thrall to the more melodic of the early NWoBHM bruisers, the Ventura, CA trio certainly won’t win any originality awards. But the band clearly loves playing with these toys, and “Screams in the Night,” “Livin’ Dangerously” and “The Howling Man” satisfy too well to worry about stylistic pilfering.
The menacing sludge strangling the self-titled debut (Neurot) by Brothers of the Sonic Cloth hints at its creator: Tad Doyle, late of namesake Tad and Hog Molly. The Seattle singer/guitarist/producer molds BotSC into a far heavier and dissonant entity than any he’s led before. “Unnamed,” “Empires of Dust” and “I Am” lumber forward like dinosaurs before their coffee, with Doyle’s harsh roars and growls urging them on. The LP reaches a monstrous apex of sorts with the massive “La Mano Poderosa,” a multi-pronged shaft of blackened acid doom. Brothers of the Sonic Cloth may be the pinnacle of Doyle’s heavy rock obsessions. Also getting meaner and noisier in his old age, Aaron Turner – leader of late prog metal iconoclasts Isis and doom pranksters Old Man Gloom – launches Sumac with The Deal (Profound Lore). Clashing chords bat the melody around like a cat torturing a chipmunk, Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) pummels the kit while somehow maintaining swing and Turner growls in a voice so guttural you want to get him a cough drop. The trio creates a visceral brand of atmospheric art doom that expands boundaries while still staying true to form – cf. “Blight End’s Angel” and the title track.
Portland’s Lord Dying, meanwhile, follows up its promising debutSummon the Faithless with Poisoned Altars (Relapse) maintaining its balance of roaring thud and ripping crunch. The title ditty, the mighty epic “Darkness Remains” and the delightfully titled “Sucking at the Teat of a She-Beast” wield chunky riffs like bloody hammers, softening you up for Erik Olson’s hellish drill sergeant bark.
Less avant doom abounds as the ever-elegant Torche continues its practice of injecting gobs of singalong melody into savory crunch on Restarter (Relapse). Leader Steve Brooks grafts catchy vocal lines from early 90s alt.rock records to 70s-style doom, leading to accessible, ass-kicking tunes like “Bishop in Arms,” “Believe It” and “Loose Men.” Not to mention the title track, nearly nine minutes of amp-frying, synapse-abusing cosmic doom of a classically heavy stripe. The career of Sorcerer, meanwhile, dates back to the late 80s, though the Swedish quintet never released an album during their original lifespan. A couple of decades later, the band finally releases In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross(Metal Blade), its debut slab of epic doom. Like fellow countrybeast Candlemass, Sorcerer plays to the seats behind the cheap seats, thanks to singer Anders Engberg’s sweeping clarity and guitarists Kristian Niemann and Peter Hallgren’s mighty riffs. “Prayers For a King” and “The Dark Tower of the Sorcerer” keep the melancholy melodies vibrating with dark atmosphere and electric power.
On its self-titled second LP (RidingEasy), Brooklyn’s Blackout dives deeper into the same acid pool that soaked its first album, letting “Nightmare” and “Cross” ooze with psychedelic doom. The trio’s New York neighbor Geezer goes for a similar vibe on Gage (Ripple Music), putting a bluesy spin on “Thorny” and “Ghost Rider Solar Plexus” and going full space rock on “Tales of Murder and Unkindness.” It ain’t all new faces, though, since As Heaven Turns to Ash (Southern Lord), the debut and sole LP by long-defunct Massachusetts trio Warhorse, has been re-unleashed on an unsuspecting world. The band’s brand of psych-tinged sludge/doom is common currency these days, but back in 2001 it made (ugly) waves amongst aficionados of black lights, bongs and the devil. Beside bruisers like “Black Acid Prophecy” and “Lysergic Communion,” the reissue also features the songs from the band’s final 7-inch EP I Am Dying.
A forward-thinking black metal act looking at twenty years of existence, Amsterdam-based Melechesh weaves threads reflecting its Assyrian, Armenian and Israeli heritage into thrashing savagery on Enki (Nuclear Blast). Keeping the blast beats to a minimum and the riffs (many of them played on 12-string for an extra six strings of oomph) to a maximum, Melechesh downloads Jewish, Christian and Muslim lore into robust files of Middle Eastern-frosted melody and take-no-prisoners brutality, brought into focus by leader Ashmedi’s otherworldly shriek. Parsing the band’s complex theology challenges and the epic prog metal of “The Outsiders” and acoustic ambience of “Doorways to Irkala” stun, but the sheer headbanging rush of “Multiple Truths,” “The Pendulum Speaks” and “Metatron and Man” satisfies most sweetly. In Times (Nuclear Blast) is the latest slab o’ grandeur from the mighty Enslaved, Norway’s best-known purveyors of progressive black metal and another twenty-year vet. Like fellow traveler Opeth, the Haugesund quintet freely moves between sweet and sour, countering harsh roars and a rampaging attack with mellifluous singing and accessible melody. After two decades of practice, the form verges on formula, but the band’s enthusiasm for its chosen path keeps “One Thousand Years of Rain,” “Building With Fire” and the title track on message.
It doesn’t get much publicity even in these days of vinyl fetishism, but metal and hard rock bands like to be cool and put out seven-inch singles as much as punks and indie rockers. Johanna Sadonis, former singer of the great but sadly short-lived duo The Oath, debuts her new outfit Lucifer on “Anubis” b/w “Morningstar” (Rise Above), a pair of delightfully eerie and broodily melodic doom monsters that show off her haunting pipes. Lucifer’s labelmate Horisont also teases some kickass times ahead with “Break the Limit” b/w “Yellow Blues” (Rise Above). The A-side chugs with beer-fueled bravado, like a 70s opening act that knows better than the headliner, while the flip spices its widescreen roil with burbling Moog and duelling guitars.
Germany’s Blind Guardian also teases its latest opus with “Twilight of the Gods” b/w “Time Stands Still – At the Iron Hill (live at Wacken 2011)” (Nuclear Blast), the former a rampaging slice of Queenly power metal and the latter a majestic live track recorded at Germany’s premier heavy music festival. Finally, Ides of Gemini resurrect a song recorded during the sessions for but not included on its most recent LP Old World New Wave – “Carthage” b/w “Strange Fruit” (Magic Bullet) puts a brooding acoustic/electric slice of heaviness on the A-side and a haunting psych metal version of the Billie Holiday standard on the flip. (Be advised that the meatspace version of the single goes out of print following Record Store Day.)
Miscellaneous: Karma to Burn returns to action with the mighty Arch Stanton (FABA), a rampaging collection of psychedelic dinosaur killers and scorched earth boogie. Powered by a swingin’ rhythm section and layered with guitar tones so thick they’d withstand a rhinoceros charge, “23,” “57” and “54” don’t just rock – they roll, over the hills, through the woods and on up to your doorstep, collecting heads along the way. Portugal’s Moonspell reasserts itself as South America’s paragon of gothic metal on Extinct (Napalm), a hard-rocking LP that may appeal as much to fans of Sisters of Mercy as to those of H.I.M.. Check out anthems “The Last of Us” and “Medusalem” to sample both the band’s inherent tunefulness and singer Fernando Ribeiro’s ability to go from croon to bawl to blargh without dissociative personality disorder. Fulgora consists of members of grindcore/extreme metal royalty Pig Destroyer, Misery Index and Agoraphoric Nosebleed; Stratagem (Housecore) collects the four songs from the trio’s Dischord singles, plus three. “Splinter” “Merdian” and “Artifice” smash shins with chugging noisecore, with hard rock riffery and articulate shouting distinguishing them from grindcore’s usual inchoate rage blur.
Hailing from Leeds, England, A Forest of Stars emerges from its ancient castle with Beware the Sword You Cannot See (Prophecy), a weird and wonderful melange of black metal, prog, Celtic folk and quirky British sensibilities. As blackened vokills sidling up to arch spoken word passages and dreamy violin swells duel with crunching guitars, “A Blaze of Hammers,” “An Automaton Adrift” (part V of an inexplicable song cycle) and “Drawing Down the Rain” should border on batshit insane. But the septet (led by vocalist Mister Curse, violinist/singer Katherine, Queen of the Ghosts and keyboardist the Gentleman) values craft over chaos, keeping on track and letting each ingredient in the stew get a chance to shine. Best song title, maybe ever: “Proboscis Master Versus the Powdered Seraphs.” Similarly eclectic, though more concerned with emotional power, is Pyramids, a Denton, Texas ensemble that conflates prog rock, shoegaze, black metal and doom into the remarkable ball of earwax A Northern Meadow (Profound Lore). Though burdened with titles like “I Have Four Sons, All Named For Men We Lost to War” and “The Earth Melts Into Red Gashes Like the Mouths of Whales,” the record nearly perfectly balances beauty and brutality, not so much shifting between moods as indulging in them all at once. Thus a melancholy croon floats above harsh guitar grind, and a majestic melody emerges from brooding dissonance – a difficult meld to mold, but Pyramids get it right.
Cheerily starting its second LP with a lovely acoustic ditty called “Suicide Note,” eclectic extremists Voices slither and blast all over the map on London (Candlelight), named for the quartet’s hometown. With roots in adventurous black metal troop Akercocke, it’s no surprise Voices veers between melancholy melody and savage brutality – or, for that matter, the egomania and alternative sexuality celebrated in “Last Train Victoria Line,” “The Ultimate Narcissist” and the charming “The Fuck Trance.” The frequent narration indicates a storyline of some sort.
Blurring the lines between genres even further, Karyn Crisis debuts her new project Gospel of the Witches with Salem’s Wounds (Century Media). Death metal, goth, grunge and the occult fuse in the former Crisis leader’s new vision, with “The Secret,” “Goddess of Light” and “Mother” giving her plenty of room to growl and howl as sidefolk drawn from Ephel Duath, Immolation, Tombs and Vaura attempt to keep up.
Finally, metal wouldn’t be metal without royalty asserting itself, and thus we have debut EPs from a pair of Kings. Fronted by Kristina Esfandiari, late of shoegaze rockers Whirr, King Woman lowers itself into a molten vat of doom on the four-song Doubt (The Flenser). “King of Swords” and “Candescent Soul” blend the singer’s former and current projects, allowing her to mix her voice in as texture, rather than lead instrument. King Hitter, on the other hand, prefers chugging boogie metal to dreamy doomgaze on its self-titled five-songer (Restricted Release). Led by ex-Leadfoot members Scott Little and Karl Agell, who also sang for Corrosion of Conformity on Blind, King Hitter lays down the pound on “The End,” “Feel No Pain” and its eponymous theme song, kicking out the kind of jams that require a convertible with the top down and a long stretch of highway.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where, during the recent SXSW festival, it was reported that an RV transporting young Swedish attendees was seen in the vicinity of several area Baptist churches that later burned to the ground. Toland, however, claims to have no knowledge of any of this. His Lone Star State accomplices include The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV.
Below are links to audio and video of most of the artists detailed above. Be sure you surf anonymously, however, because government officials will be monitoring them….
When she’s at the top of the charts in a year or so, or when she’s the guest musical artist on Saturday Night Live or performing at the White House, she had a breakthrough at this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, which occurred March 27-29.
She created the biggest buzz of any act there. Nobody had heard or seen anything like her. She’s an Inuk throat singer who cautioned her audience before she started performing to not get upset or alarmed by what they’re about to see or hear – she is not in any danger and is not harming herself. “Don’t be worried. I’m fine,” she said.
And then, boom! Drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubit began their approximately 45-minute set of improvised, avant-garde jazz as the youthful Tagaq slowly gets in the right mood to sing. Or howl, scream, moan and cry…whatever the spirits directing her performance command of her. As her long brownish hair and tight, short blue dress both convey urban modernity, her journey into such outer limits of proper stage conduct is all the wilder.
Unlike, say, Tuvan throat singers of Asia – which is more chant-like – this is like Yoko Ono crossed with The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. Her “throat” voice wrestled with her “lung” voice in a Godzilla-versus-Rodan showdown. After a while, she was moving and dancing around the stage and then she started crawling, rolling, and writhing. The music is ethnographic and experimental, yes, but there was an undeniable erotic dimension – at times, one was reminded of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.”
You’re not quite sure how to take her, but you’re so in awe of her energy and her music that you watch stunned. When the set was over, she received an extended standing ovation from the crowd at the stately, turn-of-the-20th-Century Bijou Theatre.
That earlier comment about her rising up the charts is made somewhat in jest, of course. Not that she couldn’t, but how do you capture this on record? How do you edit it down to a hit single? And even if you could, what would she do for a follow-up album? But she is right on the cusp of crossing over from cutting-edge music to something larger. And her Big Ears set sure helped her.
This was the fourth Big Ears Festival that Ashley Capps has produced since 2009 – it took three years off, from 2011-2013, before last year’s revival. If I credit Capps as producer rather than his Knoxville-based AC Entertainment (producer of Bonnaroo, Forecastle and Mountain Oasis festivals), it’s because he seems to have a special affinity for it. He was present at various venues to introduce guests and see shows, always smiling and looking happy.
For that matter, all Knoxville looked good for the event. For a relatively small city – under 200,000 – its Downtown and Old City areas have seen an impressive number of old factories and office buildings converted to apartments, Its Market Square is a lively public space with restaurants like Tupelo Honey and the Tomato Head proving favorites for festival attendees. It’s not as hip as nearby Asheville, N.C., yet – but it’s catching on.
Capps has said he based Big Ears – which is designed to be for fans who are open-minded (and –eared) about their musical tastes – on Cincinnati’s MusicNow, which was created by The National’s Bryce Dessner as a boutique festival that explores where rock, contemporary classical, folk, jazz and international music connect. One community radio host has also suggested a debt to Cropped Out, the Louisville festival that attempts a mash-up between experimental and outsider music.
Dessner, a very busy composer of minimalist-influenced classical pieces in addition to being a rock guitarist, has been a frequent presence at Big Ears, even guest-curating it one year. This year, he was there to, among other things, introduce violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, who played an appealing new Dessner work, “Ornament,” at Knoxville Art Museum.
Because this year’s Artist in Residence was the Kronos Quartet, the festival did seem to have more of a classical focus than ones past. There were a lot of violins and pianos, string quartets and other combinations. There were numerous good ones. Pianist/composer Rachel Grimes, a last-minute replacement for the injured Harold Budd, deserves special praise for her work under pressure, especially.
Kronos did shows with Tagaq, Dessner, Terry Riley, Sam Amidon and Rhiannon Giddens, and – most notably – Laurie Anderson. The latter’s performance of her 2013 Hurricane Sandy-inspired Landfall collaboration with Kronos was probably the festival’s most highly anticipated event.
Occurring in the ornate and historic 1920s-era Tennessee Theatre, it found Anderson in a quiet, reflective mood as she related anecdotes – mostly in her natural mellifluous voice but at times switching to her spacy male vocoder alter ego – that used the hurricane’s destructive power as a central focus for thoughts on dreams, species extinction, the stars and more.
It seemed more scattered both as music and monologues than her past work, and thus less gripping. And the visual component of abstracted, changing numbers and letters wasn’t especially compelling. Still, the part where she confessed how she responded to her own hurricane damage (it was never clear if such damage had really occurred or was poetic license) by thinking, “How beautiful! How magical! How catastrophic!” did resonate. It was the kind of enticingly contradictory insight Anderson excels at. And her acoustic and electric violin work was appealing, while Kronos provided rigorously dedicated and empathetic support.
The Anderson/Kronos appearance also revealed a problem that Big Ears needs to address. Because it is a festival where pass-holders choose among simultaneous shows at multiple venues, people come and go during individual concerts. They also use their smart-phone flashlights to check their schedules, or send messages, in darkened theaters.
That’s OK at shows where performers play a number of songs because there are natural breaks. But in those that instead are long performance pieces or symphony-length classical works, it’s disruptive and annoying as hell.
Especially during Landfall, which needs the mood of a darkened auditorium to be most effective. Big Ears should adopt a policy of having someone make announcements from the stage at a show’s start to not use phones, and then have the ushers at the main venues – the Bijou and the Tennessee – stop people from entering mid-performance.
Visual projections of all sorts are important at Big Ears. This year there was a whole sidebar film program, which took over a Downtown movie screen on Sunday, of movies curated by Jim Jarmusch and Michael Gira of The Swans.
And at the Bijou, Jarmusch’s rock trio Squrl provided a grungy semi-soundtrack to Man Ray’s surrealist short films from the 1920s. (Jarmusch collaborator Jozef van Wissem (above), by the way, had a solo club date where he played Chinese lute while sitting, his arm raised and feet spread in a rock-star way that looked very cool when bathed in the venue’s blue and white lighting.)
But the best video imagery I saw were the ghostly black-and-white apparition that appeared, suspended upside-down, behind The Bad Plus (above) as the trio played Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” on a Bijou stage. The Bad Plus – pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King — was a shot of disciplined, precise but rousingly energetic jazz adrenaline amid the other musical genres featured at this festival. I wish Big Ears would choose a jazz performer as Artist in Residence next year, and bring in some of that music’s aging modernist giants – Ornette Coleman, the Marshall Allen-led Sun Ra Arkestra, Cecil Taylor – to play while they’re still active.
There was rock ‘n’ roll at this year’s Big Ears. The Swans launched forth a tumultuously cathartic set at the Bijou on Sunday night, the band projecting their sublime, rocket-powered playing of those loud repetitive guitar chords until everyone present achieved nirvana on the spot.
I thought I recognized them working on their epic “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Overture” when I arrived at the show, but I could be wrong because the nature of their live music is so different from their recordings. Gira was leading the ensemble magnificently – it really felt like they had been set free of earthly limits.
But there was the volume issue. The Swans’ merchandise booth was doing a brisk business in $2 earplugs – seemingly everyone was wearing them –and the salesperson joked this was the only way to hear them. Should he choose, Gira might be able to have as profitable a sideline in “Swans Earplugs” as Dr. Dre has with his headphones.
Perfume Genius (above) used to primarily be known as the stage name – the conceptual name – for the singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, whose piano-based songs were beguiling but also introverted. But with the success of a new sound on last year’s Too Bright album, he has started touring with a tight band that prominently brings an alt-rock dimension to his sound. With that, he can tour as a relatively dynamic live act.
At Big Ears, his sound and persona were extroverted to such an extent he seemed to surprise himself. He wore a longish black shirt that stopped below his waist, mesh stockings and platform-heeled shoes and he did odd, bent-knee dancing and sashaying as he moved around the stage while singing. He was a free spirit, but he could also slow things down for an intimate keyboard ballad, however.
Notable at his show was the hard-edged, sparky guitar work, which transformed the Too Bright songs like “Queen” and “My Body” – the latter with its Link Wray-like instrumental rumble – into showstoppers. His compositions are too brief to have maximum effect – you want more out of each song – but nevertheless impactful.
Strangely, he was booked into the 1,600-seat Tennessee Theatre for a 7 p.m. Sunday – closing night – show, when he probably should have had a Friday or Saturday night gig. The turnout wasn’t bad – a couple hundred – but that left a lot of empty seats, which seemed to dissipate his efforts to build energy during his set.
The night before, in a later slot, Merrill Garbus’ Tune-yards played to a substantially larger and more enthusiastic crowd at the Tennessee. Hers is another case of someone who has transformed her presumed nom de plume into a legitimate touring band to back up a breakthrough album (with a semi-hit song to boot, “Water Fountain”) in last year’s Nicki-Nack.
With her on stage was bassist Nate Brenner, who provided some good jaggedly splintery guitar; a potent percussionist in Dani Markham; and two supporting vocalists/dancers– one of whom, Moira Smiley, moved about the stage so engagingly you might have though she was the headliner. Playing drums and ukulele, projecting happiness outward, Garbus was almost unstoppably irresistible.
But to be honest, some of the novelty does wear off during a full show, especially as you focus on the colorful costumes and Pee Wee’s Playhouse-like stage backdrop, the goofy faux-naive charm of the singing and dancing, and all the Bow Wow Wow-redux drumming.
I was fortunate to catch the last half hour of Giddens’ solo show with a crackerjack acoustic ensemble supporting her singing and work on violin. In a long red dress that bared one shoulder, the tall Giddens performed such classy, thoughtful material as a song based on Gaelic “mouth music” and Sister Rosetta Thorpe’s “Up Above My Head.”
As she has a new solo album out, Tomorrow Is My Turn, she was at Big Ears to both emerge from her past as a Carolina Chocolate Drop member and to stay true to that group’s (and her) advocacy for authenticity and roots to be present in contemporary music. So far, so good for her quest.
Not all the rock-oriented acts at Big Ear cared about having an arresting visual presence to accompany their music. My favorite one, guitarist Steve Gunn, was so downright demure and restrained on stage at a club called The Square Room that it prompted concern among some he wasn’t projecting a personality to go with his music.
No need for alarm. The Philadelphia-raised Brooklyn resident, on last year’s outstanding Way Out Weather, moved decisively from his earlier, more experimental and often-instrumental work to recognizably song-based material featuring his earnestly plain but honest voice singing and playing with restrained backing. At Big Ears, he presented those songs – and he has strong, atmospheric material like the album’s title song and “Milly’s Garden” – in a no-nonsense way that highlighted musicality. He was accompanied by Paul Sukeena on guitar, Nathan Bowles on drums and Jason Meagher on bass.
Gunn, who played acoustic and electric guitar, offered a textured, dense, fast-moving often-droning sound that borrows from 1960s folk guitarists like John Fahey and Sandy Bull. But he also can do electric-guitar runs that in their piercingly clear, high-pitched, melancholy melodiousness recall Jerry Garcia. When all systems are churning, the music achieves the same kind of ethereal haziness as The War on Drugs offers. He has recently signed with Matador Records and is opening for Wilco, and the Big Ears show served as an introduction of big things to come.
As did all of Big Ears, for that matter, assuming it continues – and continues to grow and attract national attention – in 2016.
“I don’t really have a process…”: The wizard of Walthamstow finally comes clean about his godlike genius.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin.We now cast our gaze at one Nick Saloman, aka The Bevis Frond.
I owe a lot to a close friend and Cesare’s Dog band mate who happened to frequent the Reckless Records store in downtown Chicago for introducing The Bevis Frond to me. You see, I arrived at college with a voracious appetite for music and it was through them along with my college’s radio station that I was able to forge my own musical taste.
New River Head came out in 1990 but it took until 1991, when on my first trip overseas to Shanghai for my year abroad at Fudan University, for me to completely bury myself in the record. Shanghai in 1991 was a bleak city a hollow reminder of its colonial past with an overburdened, sardine packed, transport system. For us foreign students who lived in the foreign student ghetto and like millions of other Chinese, bikes were our main means of getting around. This would mean long rides into the city with thousands of others in sprawling bike lanes filled with cyclists flowing together in tandem like schools of fish. It was with my dubbed copy of New River Head that I trekked back and forth to the city. New River Head provided an escape in a city that had had all of its beauty sanded away by various political movements. It was also in and around this time that I began writing to Nick Saloman, never quite expecting that he would write back or that 4-years later that I would actually get the chance to meet him in Walthamstow and have a meal with him at a local brew pub.
In a career filled with amazing albums, I chose to write about New River Head, because every young person has an album (I hope) that has affected them balls to bones. This was the case for me with NRH. The album opens with a snippet from what sounds like a His Masters Voice 78rpm recording, where the announcer tells the listener to be prepared for excerpts from “songs of varied character.” Never was there a truer statement uttered. So many tracks on this record have been associated with important events in my life allowing me to pin my own emotional understanding of the music and lyrics on their backs.
Take for example “She’s Entitled To”: it was the song I listened to when I couldn’t take another second of China. With its cutthroat guitar playing it was just the ‘fuck you’ I needed to help me gain some strength to face another day. When I was feeling miserable over a girl whom I was head over heels for, and when she didn’t echo those emotions, “Stain on the Sun” was salve for that wound. When I needed a positive kick in the ass, “He’d be a Diamond” was there for me to sing along to. If I wanted to pretend that I was biking around Merry ol’ England instead of Shanghai, the track “Waving” provided a pastoral folky soundtrack to the images passing before my eyes.
Back then at Fudan University friendships were formed hard and fast. People would come and go. It was the reality of the ever-shifting landscape of foreign student life. When someone would leave, it would punch a hole in your tenuously constructed existence. “God Speed you to Earth” was the song that helped me heal and give me a chance to mourn the loss of a friend and the isolation that would ensue.
It’s hard to believe that this album is now 25 years old. Where have all the flowers gone? Have there been any musical revolutions? Oh yes, auto tune was invented to make up for inadequacies in the major label’s pin up stars, amen for that! Jesting aside, this album feels as fresh as the day I first heard it. In 1990 it blew everything out of the water. It’s an album that continues to emit a timeless emotional resonance. It feels fresh because it doesn’t pretend to be something that it isn’t. It wasn’t apart of any movement and had scant distribution when it was released stateside, but it managed to wend its way into being one of the most important albums of the ‘90s.
I contacted Nick to shed some light on New River Head for BLURT Nick now spends some of his days running Platform One Records, which was voted Shindig Magazine’s best record shop in the UK.
BLURT: How did the idea for the New River Head record come about?
SALOMAN: Without wishing to seem too prosaic, it was simply the latest collection of songs I’d written. I was writing new stuff furiously, still completely amazed that anyone was interested in buying my work, and I guess I was trying to do as much as possible before it all came to a grinding halt.
I’m a yank and you mention that New River Head the song was about London’s lost rivers. In fact many of your albums seem to be cloaked in a reverence for certain elements of England’s past. What is it about England that continues to inspire you in your music?
Well, as long as I can remember I’ve been a fan of music, mostly pop and rock, which means that America has played a massive part. I was always puzzled why name checking American places and events seemed poetic and cool, while the same never seemed to apply to British places. Except maybe in folk. I’ve always disliked English bands singing about ‘trucking down to Memphis’ in an affected US accent, it’s as silly as when in the ‘60s American bands were pretending to be from Liverpool. So I always made a point of singing and writing about English places and stuff that was relevant to me, and in an English accent. Having said that, it’s also because I’m fascinated by the history of London & England anyway.
Below: Bevis Frond circa 1990. Salomon is on the far left.
Upon hearing this album the first time, it felt as if you had sonically broken away exponentially even from the Any Gas Faster sound. How did recording at Gold Dust studios help you up the sonic ante? How long were you in the studio for? Who owns Gold Dust Studios?
I also recorded AGF at Gold Dust, but I think I’d learned a few things from that experience, and was able to get a better grip on working in a real studio. NRH didn’t take very long, I think about 9 or 10 days from start to finish. I like to work quickly in the studio. I’m certainly not one of those artistes who likes lounging around stoned out of their mind waiting for something to happen. Being in a studio for me (as I’m paying for it myself) is like sitting in a taxi with the meter running. Gold Dust is owned by a great guy called Mark Dawson, who used to play in a NWOBHM band called Legend. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and is now being Richie Blackmore/Jimmy Page in a tribute called Purple Zeppelin!
By this time you had built up in the US some CMJ/college radio support, did Reckless when it came to discuss the NRH have any input or was Charles Taylor completely hands off?
Charles had no input in the recording or construction of the album, but a lot to do with US airplay I assume.
Were there differences between the Reckless vinyl and the Woronzow vinyl for NRH?
Did it actually come out on vinyl on Reckless? I honestly don’t remember. So I guess the answer to that is I don’t know.
How involved were you when it came to how the album was promoted in the US?
Not at all.
I’ve read what you wrote about the record in the 2003 rubric reissue, so I have a few questions regarding the reissue. You mentioned you added tracks that had to be left off due to time limitations of a single CD—was the reissue remastered or sonically tweaked in any way? Did the reissues have any success in bringing you a wider audience?
NRH came out in 1991, just as CDs were starting to take off. Reckless didn’t want to put out a double CD…I think they thought that would be a bit too costly at the time. So some of the tracks from the double vinyl were left off the CD because of the time constraints. When Rubric reissued the album, they did it as a double CD with the missing tracks. I have no idea if the release brought me to a wider audience. I suppose there must have been a few people who got to hear of me via the reissues, but I have no real way of knowing.
Below: the Frond in full flight circa 1990.
I remember you had a terrible situation with Reckless having to play with some band you never met in Chicago? When did it finally become viable for The Bevis Frond to actually come over to the US and play a proper tour?
Reckless wanted me to come over to the USA and tour, but they didn’t want to pay for the whole band to come. I insisted that my drummer Martin Crowley (who tragically passed away around Christmas time 2014) came too, but that was all they’d pay for. I should have refused to tour without my band, but I was so eager to come to the USA that my heart took over from my head. Reckless had hooked me up with Plasticland, who were going to provide transport and equipment, and provide drums, bass and keyboard players. If I recall correctly, nobody had told their drummer that Martin was coming, so that was extremely awkward just for starters. It quickly transpired that we just weren’t compatible. I mean, they were nice enough guys, but it just wasn’t going to work. So the tour was called off, and we went back to the UK very disappointed by the whole experience. We were able to tour the USA in the late ‘90s when Rubric took an interest, as they were okay with bringing the whole band over, and organizing it properly.
Nick, can you tell us how you built some of these songs in the studio? I think for many people it’s hard for them to get their heads around how one person can create a song in their head play all the parts and make it sound like a cohesive unit. Could you comment on your process?
Once again, this is going to sound like a dull response, but I don’t really have a process. I kind of know what I’m going to do before I go into the studio, I get the backing tracks laid down, and then overdub other stuff on top. I never rehearse solos, and if I play a twin lead solo, I play one part without listening to the other to achieve a sort of spontaneous sound. I guess it sounds cohesive because I’m quite good at bass and keyboards, which means it’s not as obvious as a guitarist playing amateurish bass and keys. This is why I tend to use a drummer, because my drumming is a bit crap.
Let’s now talk about some of the songs on the album. Over the years my favorites seem to have changed; upon my most recent listen “She’s Entitled To” stood out as one hell of a blistering number. Can you give us some background on this song?
“She’s Entitled To” was supposed to sound a bit like High Tide, who were one of my favourite UK bands. In fact we even issued a solo Tony Hill (High Tide’s guitarist) album on Woronzow. But like most things I do, that are meant to sound like any certain band, it sounds very little like them. Maybe we managed to get the High Tide power of the chord sequence across a bit.
“Drowned” is a brilliant atmospheric track, seeing that “log-like shape’ you mention in the reissue liner notes being drowned. Did the photo in the album inspire the lyrics or did it come after the song had been written?
The photo was taken after the album was finished. The log-like item lying on the beach is me pretending to be drowned, my 8 year old daughter is running across the picture, and the photo was taken by my wife. Keep it in the family.
“He’d be a Diamond” went on to be covered by Mary Lou Lord, which seemed to bring you some of her fan base, did you enjoy her version? I’m reminded about The LA’s “There She Goes” which was a minor college radio hit, which was then covered by Sixpence None the Richer only to become a massive hit. You seem to be anti-covers except for maybe for tongue-in-cheek version of “Hey Joe”. Many people might actually assume she wrote the song; do you have to have a certain level of detachment as a musician when someone covers your music?
I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about Mary Lou. I love her version. I have a certain level of detachment with most covers of my songs as I hardly ever have anything to do with them. Mary Lou usually includes me in the discussions and planning. We’ve worked together on and off since 1991, she’s got a new record out (with a couple of my tunes on it), and I hope we’ll continue to work together in the future. I’m not at all anti-covers. I only do them rarely because I write a lot of stuff, and I think it’s more important (for me at least) to record my own stuff than someone else’s.
Who yells “woo” at the end of “Down in the Well”?
Well, it’s either me or Martin.
How much of that trip with the Salomans to Greatstone-on-Sea inspire the emotions on this album?
Sorry, but our visit to Greatstone had nothing to do with the album other than it seemed like a good place to take the cover picture.
Martin Crowley the drummer on NRH who passed away recently was one of two musicians you worked with on NRH; can you tell us about how you guys met and how he recorded his parts? What was special about Martin as a drummer? (Above photo: Crowley and Saloman)
I was playing in a band called Room 13 in the early ‘80s. We had a Tuesday night residency in a bar in Great Portland Street, London, and one night this 17 year old punk with a blue Mohawk, and ‘Clash City Rockers’ tattooed on his bicep came along to see us. He was a really friendly guy, and got chatting to us. He said he was a drummer, and asked if he could sit in for a song. Our drummer was a guy from New Zealand called Greg, and Greg graciously let Martin play a number. Martin knocked everyone out. He was fantastic. He was very streetwise, but also had a very sweet, and endearing nature, and he became a good friend. Not long after, Greg decided to get married to his girlfriend who came from Malawi, and moved to Africa to manage a farm with her, so we asked Martin to join the band. Some years later when I started the Frond, I asked Martin to drum for me. I thought he was a brilliant, and intuitive drummer, and the fact that he was coming straight out of punk added a different dimension to the sound. When I found out he’d died, I was truly gutted. His funeral was about a month ago, and a really tragic occasion. He died from blood poisoning which came from an infection he caught in wounds to his legs from a motorbike accident 15 years ago. Apparently, no course of medication could clear it up, and he eventually died. He was only 49.
Who did the layout for NRH? The tree that is on the cover where is that photo from? Was it shot in a garbage dump? Is this an environmentalist statement?
I did the sleeve for NRH. I took the cover photo, which was of a tree growing on a riverbank near where I lived in Walthamstow. There was a gipsy encampment next to it, and because it wasn’t an approved site, the council would not collect rubbish from it. So they had just chucked all their rubbish over the fence on to the riverbank, until half the tree was submerged in garbage. I just thought it looked pretty striking.
Up until this point Cyke Bancroft had been doing your sleeve art, why the shift away from that?
I guess I just fancied doing a bit of design myself. I’ve always liked dabbling with art and photography, so it seemed like a nice thing to do.
Your albums from back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s seem to give equal weight to lengthy freak outs to folky numbers and heavy psych numbers, something to please each element of your fan base. Was this something you thought about when constructing an album especially with NRH?
No, not at all. I genuinely appreciate the support the people who buy my records have given me over the years, but I make my albums for myself. Of course, the aim is that people will like what I put out, but I make a deliberate point of trying to do exactly what I want to do, and not to try and appease my fan base. I think that would really dilute the spontaneity and in a way, I think people would realize I wasn’t being true to myself. I learned from years of trying to please record labels by doing stuff that was considered cool at the time and getting absolutely nowhere, that it doesn’t work like that. As soon as I stopped trying, and did Miasma, which was the first record that I made entirely for myself, things started to happen.
Following on from the last question tell us about how you came up with the running order for the original album and did certain songs in your opinion have to be grouped together, if so which ones?
I take a lot of time with sequencing the running order. In the end it’s just what I think sounds right and nicely balanced.
Can you go into some detail about some of the choices you made or songs that you thought transitioned well into others?
Well, there was no great plan, it was just a case of repeatedly listening to the final mixes, and working out which ones sounded good together. Of course, I was also thinking of it in terms of it being four sides of vinyl, so it was structured more as four separate entities I suppose.
Since as you say, a studio is a like a running taxi meter, and maybe I’m missing something but you had to make editorial decisions about what songs you’d record, before you went in so how did you come to the conclusion that these songs would work best together grouped as an album?
No, that’s not really what I meant. I had a pretty clear idea of which songs I wanted to record. The ‘taxi’ analogy is more about working quickly and efficiently in the studio, not hanging around messing about.
How many of these songs existed before the NRH sessions in one state or another?
All of them, except the jams.
What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was created that’s on the record?
I think, if I remember correctly, they were all written within about a 6 month period.
Are all of the songs that you recorded at Gold Dust during the NRH sessions on the album, if not what was left off and did it become part of another album?
There were 3 tracks that I put on a free EP with some early copies of the vinyl, because I didn’t have room to fit them on the album. Hopefully these will appear on the Cherry Red version.
You often say that you have more songs kicking around than you can use, when did you feel that this group of songs would be the bunch that would be most referred to in your catalog of music? What was it like when you had finished the record, before release what was the feedback like from your friends and family?
I have loads of songs hanging around. I’m writing all the time. I’ve never felt that any bunch of songs would be the most referred to. That’s entirely down to the listeners, isn’t it? When I put a record out, I’m always expecting it to be the one that signals the end. The one to which everyone gives a polite, but sad smile. I guess NRH was a pretty strong selection of songs and playing, but I kind of feel that way about all my stuff! The only person who ever hears my stuff in its infancy is my wife Jan, and she can be frighteningly honest. Fortunately she usually likes what I do.
What is your own opinion of this record?
I’m really proud of it. I like all my albums…otherwise I wouldn’t have put them out. I hate it when bands start slagging off their old work. If they mean it, then that’s very sad, and if they don’t, well, that’s very sad too.
Do you have copies of the album for sale at your Platform One record store?
No, I never sell my own stuff. That would be a bit tragic. Besides Platform One is purely second-hand, which would mean someone would have had to get rid of their Bevis albums, and who would ever dream of doing that??
Did any major labels approach you after this album was released?
No, I’ve never had any interest from the majors. I don’t know why. I can only assume I’m not (and never have been) what they’re looking for. And though this might sound a bit like sour grapes, I genuinely couldn’t give a shit.
Can you tell us any funny anecdotes related to NRH that you’ve never mentioned in print before?
I genuinely don’t recall anything particularly funny happening. I guess we had a few laughs, but there aren’t really any anecdotes. Hilarious eh?
Will Cherry Red do a reissue of NRH and what will be different about the reissue compared to the Rubric one?
The idea is that CR will reissue the entire back catalogue, so NRH will certainly be part of that. I would hope that it would include a few extra tracks that Rubric didn’t ever use.
Lastly, do you remember me writing to you in 1991 from Shanghai China?
Yes, of course. I haven’t gone senile quite yet!
Below watch the Frond performing the track “New River Head” last year in Boston.
With a successful Kickstarter campaign behind them, a new album in stores and a lengthy tour underway, the true heirs to Bloodshot’s “insurgent” legacy continue to do things their way, period.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
With their seventh album, the Indiana-based indie rock/folk/country band Murder By Death didn’t exactly intend to write another thematic album. But once the songs were recorded and the final pieces of Big Dark Love (Bloodshot) were falling into place, a theme started to emerge: non-traditional love songs. From the paternal love to a stalker’s obsession, no one can blame the folks in Murder By Death for writing a clichéd love song.
With Big Dark Love, the band best enjoyed with a glass a whiskey has turned in their strongest collection of songs yet in their more than decade-long tenure, blurring the line between haunting and beauty.
Adam Turla’s subtle, but emotive vocals blend perfectly with the cello/guitar combo. Driving through Texas in the middle of their latest tour recently, he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the record and talk about why he could never be in a genre-specific band.
The group: Turla, drummer Dagan Thogerson, keyboardist David Fountain, bassist Matt Armstrong, cellist Sarah Balliet.
BLURT: Congratulations on this new album. And it looks like the release had a really good first week in terms of sales.
TURLA: Thanks, yeah, it’s our seventh record and I’m just happy that people are still interested and it seems that the fans are pretty excited by it and that’s great. We like the record a lot and for us, it’s like let’s get over this release week and get back to doing what we do, play our shows.
This was the second record you did through crowd-funding, through Kickstarter, right?
Yeah and although I always see it as we run a pre-sale through Kickstarter. The record was made and it was going to come out, I just see it more for pre-selling. Every band pre-sells, we just do a bigger, weirder one through Kickstarter.
What kinds of things were you able to offer through Kickstarter?
It’s mostly just the physical goods. The record, we sell it on CD, but the vinyl is always pretty popular. We also did a poster art book, which is 15 years of posters from Murder By Death shows that I’ve collected over our career. There’s all these different artists that we had to contact and arrange the use of these flyers. It’s really cool. I think there’s about 100 or so of our favorite posters.
There was also some goofy prizes; like one, we’re going to the Kentucky Derby with this couple and we’re throwing a bourbon tasting party and having a wild day in Kentucky with them. There’s a couple of private shows that we’re doing, including a birthday party and a backyard party. We also did a Golden Ticket, where you can get into any show we’re doing. We get e-mails from fans all the time from fans that are looking to help us out, so we took some of the ideas that these fans have suggested and I put them all in one place.
You guys have not shied away from putting out very –specific thematic albums. Is there an overall theme to the songs on Big Dark Love?
There wasn’t intended to be. I started writing the record almost two years ago now and then we started rehearsing it last year and scrapped a lot of songs. I’d say if there is a thread, it’s that a lot of the songs are non-traditional love songs and they’re about love in a way that’s not just like a pop song love. There’s not an obvious “I love you” or “Why do you break my heart?” type song, but it’s more like actual love; I’m conflicted in my emotions… I love this person, but. I knew that this would be potentially polarizing and the reactions have mostly been positive, but some people just don’t get the subtly. It’s fund. We just wanted to do something that was a little less obvious.
You also talk about paternal love on one song and that’s just not something you hear on most albums nowadays.
Yeah, that was out point. That song you’re talking about, “Natural Pearl,” fits that bill and I think the idea was try and do something more interesting than the obvious song. I don’t listen to pop music and I don’t really like the pop music that’s out there right now. That’s not what I want to write about; that’s not my calling. I write about what I find interesting and just hope that people will get it and that it will have some effect on them.
Compared to the last few albums, it seems like there are a handful of songs on Big Dark Love that are a lot more accessible. I’m not sure if that was intentional.
I think it’s mostly coincidence, but I think it was more a result of when Sarah (Balliet) and I started working on songs, one of the things we both agreed we wanted to do on this record was be less verbose. Our mantra was brevity. I’m aware that one of the things I do a lot in my songwriting is pack a lot of words in and have a lot of versus, because I do enjoy the story-telling element. I love the idea of telling a while story in four minutes. But we just thought, let’s try and do a whole story where we leave a little more to the listener’s imagination. Let’s sing about situations, but have it be a little more vague and as a result as couple of the songs on the record are actually more accessible because they are more melodically-driven and it’s simple. When you hear a good pop song, it’s usually pretty simple. It’s not a super ornate thing, it’s usually pretty simple. We were just thinking about it as let’s not get stuck in our old habits, let’s go the other way.
Though many would argue that Murder By Death is an Americana band, I first come across you guys in punk zines…
You seem to seamlessly move through both genres pretty easily. Has that led to some weird tours or show pairings?
We’ve done it all. I think the truth is that the band has never fit in anywhere and it’s been our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. We don’t get a lot of festival offers because, I think, festivals want a more straight forward band; we’re going to get a punk band or they feel we’re not right for an Americana festival. I think the band sometimes scares off some people. We have played with all types of bands and I attribute a lot of our success as being willing to play in front of any audience and just play. For that reason, I’ve always been attracted to the punk mentality.
The reason I’ve never started just a punk band is because I don’t think I could just be a genre band. I want to do my thing and love it or leave it. I think that’s why some have been so kind as to embrace us is because we do what we want. I’ve talked to punk bands that actually feel conflicted about writing outside of their genre because they’re worried that their fans will leave them. That’s the saddest thing. You should fucking be rebels… it’s a shame when your rebellious genre is trying to contain you.
I think that’s pretty cool when someone like Chuck Ragan, who is known for loud punk rock with Hot water Music, goes the acoustic route on his solo stuff.
I think that makes sense with someone like Chuck. I was talking with Rocky Votolato, who we’re on tour with, and we were saying there are a lot of similarities between what is being called folk punk now or Americana and punk. There are simple chord structures, simple melodies and the approach to the songs and it actually makes a lot of sense as punk rockers get older they go back into time a little bit and embrace this other tradition and it works… It’s tough when people expect you to play the same music when you get older that you played when you were 18.
You think of a band like Blink-182; they have kids and are still out there singing about high school.
I just cannot imagine. I’ve thought about that sort of career and what does it feel like when you’re something years old and the only people who understand you are the ones that are being nostalgic or are 15 years old. That’s crazy… That would just be hard.
Murder By Death wrap up their US tour next week then head to Europe and the UK. Tour dates at their website.
Band co-founder Cyril Jordan talks about his band’s classic song “Shake Some Action,” about the group’s ups and downs, about their recent rebirth and renewal, and about what it means to have a genuine legacy that the public clearly appreciates. Guest appearances by Greil Marcus, Pamela Morrison and Alex Chilton.
BY FRED MILLS
They’re baaackkkk: the mighty Flamin’ Groovies, featuring founding members Cyril Jordan and George Alexander (on guitar and bass, respectively) and drummer Victor Penalosa, along with vocalist/guitarist Chris Wilson, who of course handled mic duties during what was arguably the legendary San Francisco group’s most fruitful period, the years surrounding Groovies classic Shake Some Action. Having completed successful tours of Japan, Australia, London and the U.S. over the last two years, they’ve steadily been ramping up their 2015 itinerary, including—speaking of SSA—an April 17 stop this week in their home town where they will play the album in its entirety, and April 25 in Atlanta for the Mess-Around 2015 festival.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, there’s also a feature documentary about the band in the works, The Incredible Flamin’ Groovies, a Kickstarter-funded film by William Tyler Smith and Kurt Feldhun. The filmmakers have been following the band around on tour and at recording sessions, with an emphasis more on the current incarnation than earlier times, along with testimonials from “an eclectic range of talking heads, among them Mick Jones, Keith Richards, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, director John Carpenter and actors Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer.” (Maybe Smith and Feldhun should also interview the creator of daily newspaper comic strip Zits:in a strip that ran last August 27, teenage protagonist Jeremy’s impossibly square dad was spotted wearing a Groovies teeshirt!)
Why the resurgence in popularity for the band, which broke up at the tail end of the ‘70s? (Jordan and Alexander soldiered on for a few more years with hired guns, but it was never quite the same band.) Author and power pop expert Ken Sharp explains it this way: “In terms of the Groovies’ continued appeal, for me it comes down to their seamless ability to merge the sweet and dirty and come off as completely authentic without any artifice. The Groovies had it all; they merged ’50s rock rave-up energy with studied Beatles/Stones/Byrds classicism coupled with pop smarts of an educated music fan. That equation equals pure pop nirvana.”
An understatement, methinks. Although I owned the group’s first three albums it was an afternoon in the mid ‘70s when I wandered into a record store and heard the clarion call of Groovies signature song “Shake Some Action” for the first time that an obsession was born. I think Ira Robbins, of Trouser Press fame, put it best a few years ago when he remarked to me, of “SSA,” “It’s the greatest power pop song ever. Complex, compelling, poignant, defeated, desperate, soaring, incomprehensible – what else could you want? An entire religion in 4 1/2 minutes.”
The Groovies formed in San Francisco in the mid ‘60s and releasing a trio of well-regarded but commercially unsuccessful albums (1969’s Supersnazz, 1970’s Flamingo, 1971’s Teenage Head), the group really began to hit its stride when Wilson entered the fold, replacing original singer Roy Loney. They wound up in the UK recording with producer Dave Edmunds, who helmed the iconic Shake Some Action and 1978 follow-up Now, both issued by the legendary Sire label. By the time of 1979’s Jumpin’ In The Night, however, cracks in the firmament were appearing and the band eventually dissolved. (When I talked to him in 2005, singer Wilson told me that things “sort of deteriorated badly… we just started having a lot of arguments.”)
Several years ago, though, Jordan got back together with Loney for a small tour and Wilson came to see them at a London show. An old friendship was instantly rekindled, old grievances buried. By 2013 the postmillennial Flamin’ Grooves were treading the boards, first at the behest of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Dave Faulkner, who invited them to be his special guest at the Gurus’ Dig It Up festival in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Additional shows were booked in Japan, followed by a sold-out homecoming in San Francisco. The release of another Wilson solo album in 2013, It’s Flamin’ Groovy!, featured the full participation of Jordan, and soon enough a new song billed to the Groovies surfaced, Jordan/Wilson composition “End of the World.”
As you’ll read below, a brand new Groovies studio album is already well under way. I talked to Jordan on the eve of the band’s North American tour and found him to be enthusiastic and outgoing, simultaneously proud that they are finally getting their due from the public yet humbled by the fact that they’ve also been handed a second chance to finish the job they started out to do all those years ago. You can go HERE to read my earlier interview with Chris Wilson, from 2005, but meanwhile, let’s get shakin’ with the good Mr. Jordan…
Note: portions of the Jordan interview originally appeared in a narrative story I wrote for esteemed Atlanta music mag Stomp & Stammer in advance of the band’s Atlanta appearance. Read it HERE and a sidebar with Chris Wilson HERE.
BLURT: I’m sure you have people coming up to you wanting to tell you their first Flamin’ Groovies experience. I have my own…
JORDAN: Yeah. For some it actually led to them getting married! Billy Miller and Miriam Linna of Norton Records, just to name a few.
Speaking of whom, one afternoon I walked into a record store and the manager played Shake Some Action for me, as it had just come out. I was floored. Just dropped to my knees. A lifelong obsession was born. I had already heard the earlier records, but this was something else. So I found an address for a Groovies fan club and I wrote in, and it was Miriam who responded. Sent me a button, some photos, the fanzine [pictured below]. Later, she even sent me some then-unreleased studio demos and outtakes. She was your apostle. And she fueled that obsession of mine.
She had taken over helping us out with all that, yeah. I know she was spreading the word big time. And that’s the thing about the Groovies, one of the secrets of our longevity: because we go back so far, the fans have always sparked the fire when nothing was going on. To make that point further, when we got back together in 2013, we got this great offer to go over to Australia and Japan. A tour, all air fares paid. It was basically Dave Faulkner and his guys, the Hoodoo Gurus, who were responsible. Every year this promoter who puts on this festival tells the headliner to choose who they want to open. And they chose us and Peter Case.
That reunion: I know you and Chris had experienced a strained relationship a good while prior to that. How did the two of you reconcile? Was it, well, we’re older/wiser now, we should be able to make this work, or…?
Those things just happened. It wasn’t even thought about or set up by anyone. I had been doing Groovies songs with Roy [Loney], sort of the Teenage Head period version of the band. And we ended up doing a show in London, and I was asked in an interview a week before if it would be okay if Chris came, and I said sure, that would be great as far as I was concerned. So he came to the show, and as soon as we saw each other there were tears in our eyes. It was automatic.
There wasn’t any of this circling around one another warily, with all the old baggage there in the back of your mind?
No, no. It was amazing. It made it seem like it was the day after we broke up. Like 33 years of time and space didn’t exist between us.
Would you counsel younger musicians to understand that this is what can come with age and maturity?
It should come with age and maturity, yeah. Unfortunately, these lessons are hard to learn. The wisdom of letting go of anger. This is one of the great Christian ethics: those who maintain their anger slide into madness, and it can ruin their lives. And the other thing is, too, is that nothing last forever, and that includes tragedy. So there’s a certain amount of wisdom involved in finding this out. Hopefully people find this out. You asked me if it comes with old age—I don’t know if it does. You have to be lucky enough to realize it at one point in your life. You go to the Middle East and they are cursed—they can’t find the wisdom, and they don’t believe the wisdom of that Christian ethic, so look at what’s happened. This nomadic kingdom has collapsed, and there’s no unity.
So my point is, that to have the knowledge that you need to have a good end to your life is quite intricate. I don’t know how we did it! [laughs] Me and Chris have learned quite a lesson, and it’s amazing. It’s wonderful. We’re actually more and more excited now about writing together than we were back then.
Looking at the clips in that upcoming documentary film’s trailers, I do see some clear looks of joy on your faces, up there performing together.
Well, it was originally based on our friendships anyway. There was a real implosion. The drugs… in my column for Ugly Things that I’m working on right now I talk about how stoned everybody got back then. And to really single out a group of daredevil stoners, I would have to say the British. Brian Jones, Keith Moon… you look have to look at these cats, they were really high flyin’ dudes, and when they wanted to get stoned, it was there for them. For me, thinking about musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Groovies’ story is almost symbolic of the whole thing crashing down. In came disco, electronic keyboards, A Flock Of Seagulls type bands, and the whole thing just switched from a rock ‘n’ roll induced public to a more of a new approach that had nothing to do with rock at all.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. Since you’ve regularly been doing the Ugly Things column, why not a book? You’ve got the stories and the memories.
That has come up, yeah. Somebody mentioned Jimi Hendrix: “Oh, I’ve got a story about him!” I’ve got thousands of stories. So I’ve purposely kept out a lot of them. It’s hard to! All I have to do is see a poster from that time and boom, the memories come back. Or a certain song from a year I’m talking about. So hopefully I’ll be able to write my memoirs.
How about telling me a rock story that you perhaps haven’t told before, or not very widely.
[immediately] I got a good one. It was right after Jim Morrison died, so that would have been 1970, ’71. My bass player George was dating a girl who working for Grunt Records [Jefferson Airplane’s imprint for RCA], Diane Gardner. They called me up one weekend, on a Friday, and asked me if I wanted to go on a blind date. Which is something I’d never done; I wasn’t much for dating. But I said yeah, sure, and went out with this girl. We did this every weekend for a few weeks, every Friday or Saturday night. And one night we’re sitting around at Diane’s place in Sausalito, and they looked at each other and went, “Should we tell him?” “Tell me what?”
This girl was named Pamela, and she was the widow of Jim Morrison. She’d just come back from France following that full ordeal. She wound up telling us the whole thing. He was on ice in her bathtub for the whole weekend in her apartment because the coroner’s office was closed or something. And she was very blunt about the fact that once the money from the estate was settled, which I think was something like $3.5 million, she was going to give her money to her mom and her sister then she was going to do a hot shot and join Jim. Apparently they had a pact together, for whoever was first to go.
We tried to talk her out of it, but we had to respect thins kind of thing because she was adamant. To make a long story short, during the trip to England, I was over there getting the record deal settled by myself with United Artists, with Andrew Lauder and Martin Davis. I got a call from George that Pamela had died. She was very honest about telling all of us exactly what was going to happen.
So that’s just one of the many weird things that’s happened to me…
Could we call you a kind of rock ‘n’ roll Zelig, then? In the right places—or maybe even the wrong places—at all the right times?
Well, that’s interesting. It was a small culture back then. There weren’t many of us.
I’m from the South so there wasn’t a lot of us either; I know what you mean. I got my ass kicked for having long hair a few times.
I was just thinking about that today, how it was very dangerous for us to have long hair, to be looking that way. And I was a band that was traveling all the time. You’d go to a place where people like you hang out—you’d meet Jimi Hendrix, and others, on and on and on. So it was because of my ability to travel—across two continents—that I was able to meet a lot of classic players, especially the British players.
You also would spot each other across the room because you stood out from the rest.
Yeah! We wouldn’t know each other, but we’d kind of congregate, and we stuck together easily because of that. And this has given me an ability, maybe, because I’m older, to be in service to the history of rock. My stories, to kind of outline what it was like. It was the last free country in rock ‘n’ roll! No passports, no government, it was wide open. No matter where we came from, even if thousands of miles apart, as soon as we were hanging together, it was boom!, right in the same place.
Some time ago I wrote about how all the old blues guys were dying off and their stories needed to be taken down for the record before they are all gone. But now, it’s happening with the rock guys too.
Yeah man, time marches on.
Do you have a sense of your own mortality?
Oh, well, I’ve had a sense of that since I was 5 ½—I had polio, my upper spine. I was paralyzed in my neck and jaw and was supposed to die within 6 months. I didn’t die and the doctors were pretty perplexed.
I remember getting my vaccine as a kid, on the little sugar cubes.
I got it in the arm, this big needle! I got one of the first vaccines, me and about 180 kids in the Bay Area got polio. And they’re still suing the laboratories because that first vaccine had too much of the polio virus in it.
After a 3 ½ recovery, away from school, with a nurse, I came back, and that’s when rock ‘n’ roll started. It was an incredible re-entry! [laughs] Be that as it may, as much as I was aware that I was actually gonna grow up, I was also still aware of how fragile we are. I think that’s one of the most important realizations one can have, that perspective. As soon as you figure it out, the more accessible the good life is; once you figure it out, you always have a sense of gratitude. And that concept of “gratitude” is a very important emotion to keep alive in the brain. Especially as you age. It’s the ungrateful who are sliding into madness.
That is a very profound statement, my friend.
Ah, thank you. You know, when I was a teenager, we dropped acid before it was illegal, in ’65. Having hung out from that point, when I was 15, with older guys who were already in college, we always had these drug talks about this kind of stuff.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why Chris and I were so at ease with the second chance. Because that’s exactly what it is, you know, getting the Groovies back together. Nobody thought it was going to happen.
I noticed in one of the film trailers there’s a clip of George remarking upon how, indeed, this has been a second chance. Tell me about that a little bit. There have other bands—Big Star maybe the most prominent example—who got the proverbial second chance. Some of them, of course, only in a legacy sense, posthumously.
Yeah, Alex Chilton, I miss him. He was a friend. I got a great story about him too! [laughs] This must have been about 25 years ago. There’s a blues club down here at Fisherman’s Wharf, and me and my buddy went down to check out the blues bands, and one night I see this [other friend] English guy, so we are going downstairs to the parking lot. All of a sudden there’s Alex, walking up the stairs. “Hey, how you’re doing? What are you doing? We’re going down to the car to smoke a joint…” So he tagged along. He’s in the back seat with this guy, and I’m in the front seat with my English friend. The other guy in the back seat turns on this cassette machine he’s got and plays this song he’s written, I think it’s called “I’m Against Everything.” And it was awful! Just bloody awful. Of course Alex immediately says, “Hey turn that off, that’s pure shit!” And him and this guy got into a big argument, because this guy didn’t know who Alex is, so he’s like, “What do YOU know about music?” [laughs]
I remember UA’s Andrew Lauder telling me about how he had been interested in finding Alex—Alex had had his share of hard times, and he was living out of his Valiant near a phone booth. And he got this call from Andrew Lauder to come back in.
So you never know about guys like us, man. We recorded all this stuff, and there’s a long long paper trail, and sometimes, all of a sudden, these things happen for us. It’s amazing. And it IS a second chance. In truth, we were just getting started at the end of the ‘70s, and Chris and I were just discovering our songwriting abilities. We weren’t finished, but the band broke up. So this is really a great pleasure for us.
So a couple of years ago you guys go back into the rehearsal room for the first time then: how did that feel? Tell me a little about what happened. Was it good, tentative, or…?
No, it was automatic. It was crazy. There’s footage of us doing “Between The Lines” as an instrumental, that’s in one of the film clips. That’s from the first day and the first time we did it. That will give you an idea of how fun and how automatic it was. It was second nature to us. And the more we did it, all of a sudden Chris and I started writing songs again.
Next thing we know, we’re in the recording studio. We’ve been in the studio for the past year and a half, working on the album.
My next question, then, obviously: what can you tell me about that? Where do we stand with a new record? I heard the song you premiered at Rolling Stone.
The new record has a little bit of the old, and a lot of the new—as you can tell with “End of the World.” I ask people who’ve heard it and who like it, “Can you tell it’s the Groovies?” And you can.
Oh of course. If you know the Groovies, the voices, the general vibe, yeah.
Yeah, the different sides to us, the different styles we approach. I’m very pleased—that says it right there to me that it’s working. That’s the most important thing. I don’t know how many groups who come back and it’s like, who is this? Everybody goes, this ain’t the same guys we loved…
I remember thinking that when the Small Faces and the Animals did their reunion albums and it wasn’t quite… there.
It wasn’t up to muster. Yeah. So we’re so pleased because a lot of people have said it’s very easy to immediately know it’s the Groovies. We’ve kept the same fans for so many fans, and we’ve got new ones now, a new generation, so it’s nice to keep that acceptance and to continue as we did.
I did this lecture with Greil Marcus last year in Berkeley, when he did a book signing [for The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs]. He used “Shake Some Action” in his first chapter, and he’s said that song was the inspiration for the book. I mentioned to everybody that I’m not really a rock star because they’ve got Maseratis. I told them, “I’m an artist. This thing has always been about the art, this genre I’m in is flexible as clay and it’s always exciting to re-shape it.” The new one, “End of the World,” has got a little bit of Blue Oyster Cult in it, and it’s also got a little bit of “8 Miles High” in it, and it’s also got a bit of the San Francisco improv/jam thing in it, at the end of the song. Everybody’d digging it, so I’m real excited about the album.
We’ve cut rockers, we’ve cut folk-rock, we’ve cut ballads, and stuff that’s a whole new sonic vista. Which is what we were always going for anyway. That was our attitude.
You wanna hear one of the rockers? I can play it for you.
Okay, it’s called “Crazy Macy” —she was a gun moll who robbed banks. [Jordan puts phone receiver down and turns on the stereo. Song is a kind of Liverpool-styled raveup with patented Groovies harmonies, a driving beat and a sharp ascending-then-descending chord progression.] That’ll give you an idea.
Assuming you were not playing some long-lost Bay Area-by-way-of-British Invasion track to punk me, I would say that it sounds like the Groovies playing loud from across a crowded highway.
Let me play you another one, a folk-rock one. This doesn’t have vocals yet. It’s called “Cryin’ Shame,” but Chris is gonna pop a vocal on it in about 14 days. [Cues up track, which has a solid Now vibe with a catchy beat and 12-string jangle melody, plus a submerged wah-wah going on in the background]
Aaahhh… yeah. In my mind I was kind of filling in lyrics from, say, “Between the Lines” or “First Plane Home.”
Yeah, yeah, very reminiscent of that last stuff we wrote. And I opted for Chris to be the guitarist on the wah-wah stuff; I had to talk him into it.
He’s an underrated guitarist for sure.
A lot of people don’t realize what a genius guitarist he is. For example, James Ferrell did not play the guitar part on “I Can’t Hide”—that was Chris. I was telling him the other day how I am so pleased he’s the other guitarist there with me onstage. For me and George, it’s a lot more easy to present the material onstage—to make it sound like the record.
When you put together new stuff, do you say, “Let’s do something like this old song, or like this album…” or does it just fall into place?
If that happens, that’ll come later. But basically we don’t push it on the band. At the right moment, we just play it for the band. Like, we were backstage in Tokyo, and me and Chris were alone there, and I’m just playing something and he turns to me and goes, “What’s that! That’s really cool!” So it begins like that, and once we have an arrangement going, we show it to George and Victor. I like to have a presentation, when we have something really nice. I like to do it in the recording studio, which is how we did it with “End of the World.” I showed it to George and Victor, and I think we ran through it maybe three times, and then we did a take. We got it on the second take. I loved it. Victor especially—out of all the guys we’ve had in the past, Danny [Mihm] and the others, they’ve always been capable of coming up with great arrangements for new songs, but Victor is really fast. He’s definitely a session drummer whiz. He’s in his mid-thirties so he’s the baby; I used to be the baby!
Like I said earlier, the looks on your faces in the film’s clips are priceless. Victor especially has a kind of pinch-me look at times.
You know, when we were playing those things back in the ‘70s, they’d play around all the time. But playing with Victor, I look at him and go, “You sound exactly like the record!” That was real cool. “Keep it up!” Every part. And he corrects us too! He’s having a ball. Such a big Groovies fan.
But that’s what I was saying at the start of our conversation: any kind of buzz about coming back is because of the fans. The fans are amazing.
Again, citing the film trailers, there are clips of your fans in Japan that are just amazing, how they are nearly swooning.
You know, George almost came to tears because of that first show, in 2013, he noticed that those [Japanese] kids were singing the lyrics to “You Tore Me Down”—and they don’t speak English. But they know those lyrics!
Going out on a limb here, I will presume you have a broad demographic, of young fans just discovering your records, all the way to longtime geezers like me. That must be gratifying. But—“Where were all the fans the first time around when we really needed you?”
It’s funny. You could say it feels like I went to prison for 40 years or something, then they found out, after those 40 years, that it wasn’t me! [laughs] It was somebody else. So they let me go. And I guess they’ll give me some money. [laughs] You could say, on one hand, it feels that way, and I guess it does, because it’s very difficult to stay in the same frame of mind. Anybody that says they can stay on a “level plateau” is bullshit. We are as mortal in our minds as we are in our bodies.
But to be really honest, most of the time, it feels like, we made it! Because we were down for the count. George and I went on for about 10 years, by the way…
And I wouldn’t discount that at all, either. I mean, 1993’s Rock Juice has some pretty damn solid stuff even if the only original members on it are you and George.
Yeah, but that’s because what we call “the engine,” which is the back wall of sound, drums-bass-guitars, was in place. That was Phil [Spector’s] thing; if you even go back to Teenage Head, Roy had quit playing guitar and I got to go to New York to cut the guitars. Timmy [Lynch] is on it but he got busted for heroin. Because of that I tried to cut my teeth for the band as far as being the arranger, the “engine.”
The songwriting, though, I never wanted to be “the songwriter.” Guys that do that, they’re amazing. I always wanted a partner. The Beatles’ stuff, John and Paul together… It’s better. When you have one mind, that’s fantastic. But when you add another mind to that, that’s double fantastic. And with the Beatles, it’s like Jagger said: it’s a four-headed monster! [laughs]
That’s a lot of teenage heads in one room.
[laughs] It’s insane! That was what amazed me when I saw them in ’64. I got knocked down when they came on because it was a mad rush. This was at the Cow Palace [in San Francisco]. 17,000 people. When I got up I had been knocked 15 feet from Paul. And when they did “Twist and Shout” I just went, holy shit.
It’s not very easy to do. And the way George Martin mixed that stuff—I still can’t single out the rhythm guitar of John’s part. It’s amazing. And it took me awhile to figure out what made the Beatles so heavy. As an instrumentalist I thought it was the bass, so I started learning the bass. But then I realized I would have to play guitar. The Beach Boys got me playing guitar.
In addition to writing and editing, I also work in a record store and every week I see some kid discovering all this for the first time. I see 13 year old kids buying Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
You know, there’s still an interest from a young generation! When I was a kid in the ‘50s, the stuff that I was listening to before rock n’ roll radio, I would be at the babysitter’s house and when she was out of the room I would change the channel on the radio because I didn’t want to listen to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Perry Como, Peggy Lee or something. Meanwhile my mom would turn me on to Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey—that was only 15 years earlier. Nowadays, the kids are listening to stuff 50 years earlier! Maybe there’s something about the digital era in which people are just inundated with so much new stuff that the older stuff has additional resonance, a purity or something.
What the Beatles and British Invasion did back in the ‘60s, well, just between you and me, the charts were getting pretty leaky—the Singing Nun went to number 1—the Beach Boys were my main thing, and then the British Invasion hit. I wound up hooking up with George, “Doing Baby Please Don’t Go” and then “Heart Full of Soul” and actually getting through them… After about an hour and a half we had a set—‘We’re a band!’ So that was the beginning of the Flamin’ Groovies. We started this when we were just kids.
I think you really have to start this thing when you are teens. You’re very close at that time, cut off from anything else—you against the world. It becomes a solid bond. And it’s always there. I grew up on hits radio, AM radio, and later underground FM radio. And you would hear Motown next to the Beatles, all part of a continuum. That doesn’t exist anymore; everything is segmented. But at least it is accessible in some way to folks who want to follow that trail. But the sense of discovery isn’t the same.
Also the speed of the process. Bands have a certain sound to them. Like the Kinks—I remember hearing that sound [hums the “You Really Got Me” riff]. You knew after that it was that band. I really don’t think the Groovies ever got that identity as a “sound” until we did “Teenage Head.” Supersnazz, I think, was too versatile.
I recall reading about it, probably in Rolling Stone, and getting curious as much for that review and the iconic cartoon cover [by Bob Zoell] without actually hearing anything yet.
We got a lot of mileage out of that cover. That was a fluke, though. I was an antique collector, and we were recording it at Columbia studios, and the artist comes in and showed us some of his stuff. We flipped out and said, hey man, could you do something for us? About a week later he came in with the cover.
I remember following the band’s progression from afar; there wasn’t a lot of access in my small town to semi-obscure records. Then I walked into that record store in college… in a sense that’s what I try to do with the kids that come into my record store, too—to light up their imaginations with something cool I can play for them.
Well, that’s what we wanted to do! We got another record deal in ’75, and we wanted to blow the fucking minds of the kids. And that’s why I had to throw some Paul Revere & the Raiders on there, throw some Beatles on there. That was us showing off. That we could play them, because it was difficult stuff. We were total exhibitionists!
When I talked to Chris a few years ago, I proposed to him that “Shake Some Action” was the song that launched a million power pop bands. People always talk about the Velvet Underground Effect. But I have preferred to talk about the Shake Some Action Effect, because everyone from Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate to Peter Buck of R.E.M. to… name your artist, these guys all cite that song as the one for them.
Yeah, back in the ‘80s, as the years went by, I would occasionally have people come up to me and want to tell me that. I came to realize that we’d left our mark.
Of course, it didn’t pay the bills back then…
It didn’t pay the bills, but we left a big footprint. It’s like I was saying, there’s something unique and something familiar about it. With the Beatles, it was all brand new, sure, but they had something familiar too, that rock ‘n’ roll root. Everybody knows that sound. And there seems to be a magic there.
The Beatles didn’t even get signed at first, back in ’61, ’62, because the record people were hearing “Long Tall Sally,” the Everly Brothers, whatever, and saying, “We need something different.” They did have it—just not what they thought.
You know, man, that’s got the basic chord structure that comes from ‘Can I Get a Witness’ [strums some chords] I do a minor chord after that one [strums again] So it’s a little bit of a twist on the classic boogie progression. It’s like the Stones, when they started writing, a lot of their songs are based on different variations. [Hums snatches of “Satisfaction” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together”] And this is an approach that’s been forgotten about. But thank god for recording studios. Beethoven—no one ever recorded him! When he had been dead for 60 years or so, if it hadn’t been for Mendelssohn… they found this trunk with all this stuff, these sheets. And because of that, we all have Beethoven. Because there was a paper trail.
Talk a little more about the Groovies movie: is all this in there, the deep history of the band, or is it more like the current scenario and live clips mainly?
Well, as it progresses, it’s mostly us onstage in different towns around the world. We’re interviewed separately too. I think the guys who are doing it are doing a great job. But there hasn’t been a session yet where they ask us about the beginning of the band, or the different versions and the other guys who were in it. I’m the guy who brought everybody in. Danny, James, Chris, Mike Wilhelm, David Wright, Victor of course. So I’m kinda like Phil Spector in that regard, where I’m kind of a supervisor. I get the positions together, I co-write with Chris, I do the arrangements, set up the session, I do all of that. Spector, or maybe Brian Wilson. I guess I’m lucky: Dave Edmunds, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector are my favorite producers, and I’ve gotten to know all three of them. And I’ve also gotten to see all of them work.
Nowadays, are you hearing any young bands that you think really have that special thing going for them? Or that just get your juices flowing?
Oh yeah, there’s one called The Strypes. Those guys are from Ireland, they wear white shirts and ties, almost look like Herman’s Hermits, but they have a really big Most of the bands that open for us tell us they were influenced by us—that happens a lot. It’s flattering!
Do you ever get the urge to take them under your wing, give advice, or even produce?
Yeah, sometimes I do. Hopefully what I tell them is helpful.
There’s a lot of knowledge worth dispensing. You’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the music industry.
Yes I have. Oh god, you don’t even know!
Photo credits: band photo by Anne Laurent; live photo of Jordan and Wilson by FG1 PSquared Photography.
Compelling new film tracks the Who’s managers (above, L-R) Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert’s bold business venture during the ‘60s.”We wanted it to feel like you were there and experiencing it,” says director James D. Cooper. Check a pair of trailers, below, following the text
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
In the early ’60s, young British filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp set out to find a rock band and make it the subject of a movie: To be crafted in French new wave style, they were set to upend the dominant narrative of grey, post-war England and capture the excitement of an explosive youth quake in progress.
“We didn’t know what we wanted, but we absolutely knew what we didn’t want,” says Chris Stamp in the new documentary, Lambert and Stamp. Their indescribable “it” made itself apparent at the Railway Hotel in 1964 where the High Numbers were at the center of a raucous and sweat-soaked Mod dance scene, yet instead of going through with their film, they turned the band—Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon—into a palette for their expression. Fifty years later, Lambert and Stamp tells the largely untold story of the men Daltrey calls “the fifth and sixth members” of the Who.
“It’s interesting that Chris Stamp called it a continuation of the film he and Kit set out to make,” says director James D. Cooper. “They wanted to show the pluses, the minuses, the achievements and the mistakes.” Lambert and Stamp frames the two men as iconoclasts who were not only instrumental in breaking the Who, but generally interested in busting their society’s imposed class, economic, sexuality, and race barriers to make an imprint on rock ‘n’ roll everlasting. Lambert and Stamp formed the Track Records label so they could in essence, sign Jimi Hendrix (“Purple Haze” was their first single release); they also scored number one hits with “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and “Something’s in the Air,” by Thunderclap Newman, among other ’60s sensations, but the Who were the team’s beginning, middle and end.
Cooper worked closely with Stamp, Daltrey, Townshend, and others in the Who’s small circle. Rarely have Lambert’s excesses and eccentricities been explored with this much clarity: They are what ultimately disabled his ability to interact with the band, and specifically Townshend, whom he’d artistically mentored. Incorporating rare archival footage of the band with Lambert and Stamp’s own on-camera moments, and an astonishing 44 tracks of rare Who music, the resulting document offers an emotional spin on what went into the making of the Who with a soundtrack that manages to land hard and fast, even though the work is going on 50-years-old.
“We made unusual choices,” explains Cooper, a cinematographer making his directorial debut with Lambert and Stamp. “A lot of Pete Townshend’s demos, over-modulated crowd-noise, ambience from the live tracks…We didn’t use a lot of the more well-used Who music—not that it’s not great—but I wanted the audience to feel like it was in on the process, so I wanted to use as much scratchy, mid-range live stuff as possible, so you’re not getting the polished result, you’re getting the mistake, you’re getting the visceral, you’re getting the idea. We cut the film accordingly.” (Below: Townshend talks for the filmmakers)
Echoing exactly what was once so exciting about rock ‘n’ roll—the music, the presentation, and the attitude—and its multiple opportunities to enact (onstage and off) the existential dilemma of youth and rebellion, much like Lambert and Stamp did for the Who, the film reflects what died-in-the-wool rock fans and musicians bring to the circus as participants: The Who especially were all in it together.
“When you’re in the time, it’s not always apparent what’s happening around you—you have to know where to look,” says Cooper of Lambert and Stamp’s brand of genius. Frame by frame, Cooper focuses on the pair’s extraordinary ability to capture their generation’s ferocious collective power. “At the time they entered it, the music business that preceded them was rather hopeless…run by people who were like half bad trombone players. Groups were acts and the audience was being entertained by them. What’s extraordinary about Lambert and Stamp—two men—one gay, one straight—bonded. Both felt marginalized from the broader society in their own ways and came together to say, ‘Hey…wait a minute.'”
Both were also in possession of innate resources–Lambert with his posh class background, Oxford education, paternal connections (his father Constant Lambert was a composer and conductor) and Stamp with his rough boy good looks and hard work ethic (he was the son of a tugboat captain; his brother is British cinema icon, Terence Stamp). Lambert was a practicing homosexual in a country that outlawed it, while Stamp was a ladies man, yet as a team, they found the ways and means to challenge and change the music business with unparalleled flair.
“Whenever you have people willing to look beyond themselves able to form a connection, great things can happen,” says Cooper who was ultimately taken with Lambert and Stamp’s unique ability to transcend circumstances as a team. But the highs of creativity, from the Who’s logo to the formation of England’s first independent label, began to crash following the enormous success of Tommy, even though it was Lambert who’d encouraged Townshend to compose his opera-like suites. When Townshend rejected Lambert and Stamp’s bid to make the film version of his rock opera, relations truly soured. Lambert was no longer available or able to consult with Townshend on projects like the conceptual Lifehouse or the sessions for Who’s Next as his addictions hastened the demise of the business relationship and ultimately led to his death. Stamp struggled with his own demons.
“I suppose it’s a little like breaking up with someone,” says Cooper. “You just put that stuff behind you. Or you don’t.” Cooper had come to know Stamp as a friend and film person before ever approaching him with the idea to tell his story. He and his production partner Loretta Harms, found Stamp open to their idea, though “He had to think about it on many levels. While his time with Kit was brilliant and cathartic, it was also painful and tragic. Going back into it, he really asked himself whether or not he would do justice to it, representing this huge thing—he, Kit, and the Who at its core.”
Working with the impossibly charismatic and handsome Stamp (above), “like clay as a leading man,” in the director’s parlance—was a pleasure for Cooper, and yet, “I knew him, so I knew how he was, and he was not somebody who went through the motions. I knew if he got into this, he would really get into it and go to the edge. When he split from the Who, Chris took very little with him, or very little followed him.” The project relied on the fact Cooper was able to get some cues from Stamp about existing footage, while Daltrey held the keys to unleashing much of it and did. And though Stamp succumbed to cancer in 2012 and did not see the completed film, “He hung in there right ’til I had everything I needed, and then he kinda let go,” says Cooper.
Despite the deep seeded love and admiration for each other, throughout the filming there remained a natural and understandable edginess to the story, even with so much water under the bridge. The tension is best exemplified in one shot, a conversation between Daltrey and Stamp recorded without sound. Cooper caught the pair talking through a window in the name of collecting b-roll, though his cinematography experience told him the moving picture was worth a proverbial thousand words.
“I saw them go out there. I’d just photographed something with Roger, or maybe it was the bit we with filmed with Chris and Heather [Daltrey]. Even though there was this rift—Lambert and Stamp were served papers, and yet, were still needed—they were always in touch. So the film became a matter of how to render the complex nature of this stuff and that shot does that, just in the way they move,” says Cooper. “There’s a still a lot that was left unsaid.”
Denise Sullivan is author of several books and a regular contributor to Blurt.
She covered the Elliott Smith documentary, Heaven Adores You, opening in theaters May 7, 2015.
The man Joe Strummer called “Snakehips” pens a rock ‘n’ roll memoir of unparalleled insight, wit, and emotional truths. From the 101ers and Public Image Limited to his own band El Doghouse, he’s been witness to history from his drum stool vantage point.
BY FRED MILLS
Celebrity memoirs, almost across the board, tend to be hideously self-serving (such is the nature of the beast). Yet we not only tolerate but encourage them, we the crumb-gobbling public, in hopes of some tawdry, tasty morsels upon which to dine until the next partial tell-all arrives. Musicians are not exempt from this ritual either—in fact, they sometimes are the guiltiest of authors, literally rewriting history before our eyes despite all prior evidence as they seek to justify all wrongs previously wrought from their egomaniacal selves. That nasty band breakup? “It was the lead singer’s fault, not mine!” That third stint in rehab? “Because I had finally found serendipity, not because I was trying to avoid incarceration!” The failed solo career, leading to a reunion with the old bandmates? “It was purely for the fans, not because I had alimony and mortgage payments!” This book you are presently reading? “To get it all down on the record for posterity, not merely for the publisher’s advance!”
Meet Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski, aka Richard Nother, whose Squat City Rocks is pretty much the antithesis of all the above. Having endured my fair share of self-serving literary rot over the years, I think I’ve developed a pretty good instinct about these endeavors, and this self-published (via CreateSpace; check Dudanski’s homepage HERE) 236-page tome hits me in right in the sweet spot. Subtitled “Proto-punk and beyond, a musical memoir from the margins,” it’s exactly that, a tale (or, as Dudanski wittily capitalizes it, a Tale) about a life well-lived as a rock star—but minus the “star” part of that equation.
Clash and Joe Strummer devotees already know the Dudanski surname: he was the drummer in Joe’s legendary pre-Clash pub-rock outfit The 101ers, whose “Keys To Your Heart” single, released in 1976 by the seminal punk label Chiswick, was a staple of many a punk/new wave record collector’s collection.
Their lone album Elgin Avenue Breakdown, released long after their demise and subsequently reissued in expanded form following Joe’s death in 1992, is a ragged but right portrait of a young group blessed with a genuine spark and outsized personality. (In a stroke of master timing, Elgin Avenue Breakdown is getting reissued for Record Store Day this year, April 19, as a limited edition, double vinyl LP set.)
Others will recognize Dudanski from his short-lived (but noteworthy) stint in John Lydon’s Public Image Limited circa Metal Box, dub-punk savants Basement 5, the Raincoats, and Tymon Dogg & The Fools. More recently he’s held down the kit for his unassuming but highly recommended group El Doghouse.
Squat City Rocks will resonate among music fans for a number of reasons, chief among them Dudanski’s unique ability to recall and contextualize events of up to four decades earlier, providing an invaluable history lesson while also painting a vivid behind the scenes portrait of the London punk and post-punk eras. Roughly half the book is in fact devoted to his 101ers days—including events leading up to the formation of the band, accompanied by a vivid portrait of the communal squatter culture so prevalent in England during the early and mid ‘70s—so there’s plenty of Joe to go round, fellow Strummerphiles. The subsequent period working with violinist Tymon Dogg amounts to a previously untold hidden-chapter-of-rock of sorts, while getting to read Dudanski’s version of events that led to him being pushed out of PiL seems to finally right a few wrongs in the journalistic record. And his Basement 5 days, most likely familiar only to folks in Britain, provide a lively narrative in the hands of Dudanski’s wry reportage. (There’s a hilarious passage in which Dudanski relates how he was unceremoniously removed from the recording credits to a PiL album but somehow added to the credits of a B5 album when in fact it was another drummer who played on the sessions!)
Residing at the emotional core of the book, though, is Dudanski’s deep love for Joe Strummer. (Well, Joe, along with Dudanski’s wife of many years and two children, both of whom are active in music and the arts, much to their parents’ delight.) A neighbor of Dudanski’s from a fellow squat, Joe—originally called Woody; the iconic nickname would come, along with Dudanski’s “Snakehips” moniker, in a fit of the bandmembers’ desire for suitably rock ‘n’ rollish noms du rawk—came into the fold with a modicum of talent and a boatload of enthusiasm, and soon enough the nascent 101ers were holding down a weeknight residency at a nearby pub. It wasn’t to last, of course, although while Dudanski expresses obvious hurt at Joe’s eventual defection to the Clash, he attributes the decision more to the Machiavellian machinations of Clash manager Bernie Rhodes than any deep-rooted desires upon Joe’s part to be a pop star. And he also recognizes the fact that had the 101ers not formed, Joe of course becoming the key member and main songwriter, Dudanski might never have embarked upon a life in music.
Dudanski’s respect for Joe as a genuine, honest and caring individual comes through loud and clear towards the end of the book when they find themselves back into one another’s social orbits. Their friendship had apparently struck deep, and they were able to enjoy some good times together once again until that fateful morning in December of 2002 when he received a phone call informing him of Joe’s sudden death. Resolving to give the singer a proper farewell, Dudanski helps organize a pair of tribute concerts, one back in their old London neighborhood and another in Granada, Spain. It’s hard not to get misty-eyed while reading this portion of the book: those sendoffs were true rock ‘n’ roll wakes of rich proportions, with friends and musicians from all stages of Joe’s career taking the stage to perform signature tunes.
“There was something special in the air that night that even the dreadful sound quality of the PA couldn’t extinguish,” he writes, of the Granada gathering. “Our set was a pretty ramshackle affair, but a slick performance had never been the intention, and I know Joe would have absolutely loved it if he had been there: it was right up his street.”
At the end of the book Dudanski reflects upon the path he took, soberly noting that he “can be seen either as a failed rock muso who didn’t make the most of the various opportunities offered; or as a privileged individual who has lived an interesting life full of variety and freedom… I live in a city and country [Spain] that I adore, have friends and family of which I could not ask more, and a drum kit (when not out and about) standing sturdy on my living room floor.”
The latter rhyming scheme seems perfectly poetic in more ways than one. Who could ask for more, indeed.
The American musical icon discusses his new album, his Beach Boys legacy, his favorite Beatles records, the upcoming biopic about his life—and what it was like to sit in that sandbox back in the day.
BY MARCUS BLAKE
I’m not going to lie, like many people across the span of years and generations, Brian Wilson’s music means so much to me. I place him among my favorite songwriters of all time and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that. Wilson built a sonic landscape of California, fast cars, endless summers and girls all embellished with incredible production and breathtaking harmonies.
Along with millions of others, when I listened to Brian’s songs, I was instantly transported to the Sunshine State. I felt the “Warmth Of the Sun” on my face; I DID wish they all could be “California Girls” and I learned what a “409” was thanks to the Beach Boys.
It wasn’t all fast cars, surfing and the sand with the Beach Boys, though. As Brian, the person matured, the subjects and feel of his music changed and became more complex.
While the majority of bands and singers of the day were using outside songwriters and producers, Brian was THE songwriter and producer of the group, who put out eleven studio albums from 1962’s Surfin’ Safari to 1966’s landmark album, Pet Sounds. You could argue that 1963’s “In My Room” or the aforementioned, “The Warmth Of the Sun” were indeed some of the first glimpses of maturity in Brian’s songwriting in the what was light years (in 1960s album release time) before Pet Sounds. “The Warmth Of the Sun” perfectly embodied the feeling of loss and no wonder, it was written the same day as President Kennedy’s assassination.
Famously, the stress of producing, writing, performing on the records and doing live shows became too much for Brian and as the Beach Boys left Los Angeles for a concert tour in December 1964, Brian broke down. Shortly after, Brian decided if he wanted to make the sort of records that he had in his mind, he needed to retire from the road and focus on what he loved best- making records in the studio.
From 1964-1967 Brian was utilizing the finest musicians, later known as The Wrecking Crew, to help create perfect pop masterpieces like “California Girls,” “When I Grow Up To Be A Man,” “Let Him Run Wild” and “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” It seemed like his imagination could be set free without any outside interruption to make the kind of “mini symphonies” he heard in his head.
1965’s severely underrated Today album was the beginning of Brian steadily taking his sound to new, uncharted heights. If you don’t own it, get it. Really. “Please Let Me Wonder” is worth the price of admission alone.
And then there was Pet Sounds. Brian had created a masterpiece. There were no limits to his palette, both, in the choices of instruments he used and in the many styles of music that he created using those instruments. The accordion, the theremin, bicycle wheels, kazoo, banjo, glockenspiel, and even barking dogs…no instruments, played by some of the top musicians in the world I might add, were off limits.
Written in a competitive response to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, Brian, with the help of lyricist Tony Asher, bared his heart and soul on Pet Sounds. There was no turning back. There were still further musical heights to climb.
Is it wrong to assume that you know that the album forever changed the landscape of pop music? Is it wrong to assume that you have a vague idea of Brian wanting to make the greatest pop single ever with “Good Vibrations”? Is it wrong to assume that you know the rich history of the SMiLE album? Was Brian Wilson the first rock ‘n’ roll Icarus? Did he fly too close to the sun?
There are countless books, web pages and interviews with Brian Wilson on the subjects of Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and SMiLE. Each one of these subjects could fill their own books.
Contrary to what some people believe, Brian’s genius didn’t disappear when he supposedly retreated into a Howard Hughes-like existence towards the late 60s into the 1970’s. Although Smiley Smile was called “a bunt instead of a grand slam” by Carl Wilson himself when being compared to what could have been SMiLE, Smiley Smile is an incredible record regardless. The Beach Boys have never been so soulful on Wild Honey’s title track. 1968’s Friends has been referred as Brian’s favorite Beach Boys album and with good reason. There are hidden gems like “Wake the World” and “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” that deserve more attention than they receive. “Our Sweet Love” from Sunflower and “Til I Die” from Surf’s Up rank right up there with Brian’s greatest work for me.
Ah, “Surf’s Up.” The song was originally written with lyricist Van Dyke Parks for the aborted SMiLE album in 1967 but was eventually released on the 1971 album named after the song. Go to YouTube and look for Brian’s solo version of “Surf’s Up” from Leonard Bernstein’s landmark 1966 CBS-TV documentary special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. If this doesn’t give you goose bumps, I don’t know what will.
I could go on and on naming diamonds from Brian’s catalog of music… “Sail On, Sailor” from 1973’s Holland…the whole Love You album from 1977…most, if not nearly all of Brian’s 1988 eponymous solo album…all gems.
So, when I heard that Brian Wilson had a new album coming out called No Pier Pressure, I was curious. [It’s released April 7 on Capitol Records.] Then I heard some of the names of people who contributed to the album. I was happy to see that Brian’s old Beach Boys bandmates, Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin contributed to the album. But then I started to worry when I saw that rising country star, Kacey Musgraves, fun.’s Nate Ruess, She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, Peter Hollens, and Capital Cities’ Sebu Simonian also contributed. Was this going to turn into one of those cheesy, play-it-safe, yet super-successful albums like Santana’s Supernatural?
The answer is…no. Brian’s eleventh studio solo album is pretty good. Actually, it’s really good. The fact that Brian Wilson is making new music in 2015 is cool. Brian Wilson making a really, really good album in 2015? Yeah, I’ll take that, thank you very much.
In 2004 (has it been that long ago already?), Brian did what many never imagined by finally recording and doing shows of the SMiLE material eventually leading to him to piece together the original master tapes to release the universally acclaimed SMiLE Sessions box set. It seemed like he needed to get SMiLE out of his system to move on to other things. No Pier Pressure isn’t meant to be another SMiLE. If anything, it’s closer in spirit to Friends.
For the No Pier Pressure sessions, Brian reunited with longtime collaborator Joe Thomas, with whom he co-produced The Beach Boys’ reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio. Following the band’s 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012, Brian and Thomas took their time making the album. This was no rush job. Wilson worked to hone the arrangements, often assembling pieces from various takes, a signature style of recording he has enjoyed since his earliest sessions with The Beach Boys.
While the album’s opener, “This Beautiful Day” may be familiar sonic territory for fans of the man: a piano based introduction type song with lots of harmonies, the album quickly goes into unchartered territory with the following song, “Runaway Dancer” (featuring Sebu Simonian). It’s a modern sounding dance song mixed with classic Brian Wilson, if that makes any sense. It might not sound like the best marriage on paper but it’s actually really good. I’m sorry, I like it when the music of Brian Wilson challenges the listener.
No worries if you’re looking for the classic Beach Boys sound on No Pier Pressure. “Summer Nights,” featuring Al Jardine and David Marks wouldn’t be out of place at all on, say, 1964’s All Summer Long.
“On the Island” (featuring She and Him) is a nice, tropical ditty that makes think about me laying under a hut somewhere in the Pacific and sipping on a fruity drink. “Our Special Love” (featuring Peter Hollens) basically blankets you with the warmth of vocal harmonies the two men are known for. My personal favorite, “Don’t Worry” immediately sounds like I got transported in time to 1970, turned on my transistor radio and listened to top forty radio on my AM dial. “Tell Me Why” featuring Al Jardine has some pretty authentic Pet Sounds type of sounds on it, as does “Sail On,” which features not only another ex-Beach Boy, Blondie Chaplin, but the intro is a tip of the hat to “Sloop John B.”
I found myself listening to this album several times already. It’s not one of those “listen once and file away” type of albums.
Out of the blue, I get this email from a friend asking if I would like to interview Brian at the iconic Capitol Records building. I was given only 15 minutes to talk Brian. With only hours to prepare, I immediately delved into listening to No Pier Pressure while simultaneously trying to think of a mix of questions about his latest album, the upcoming biopic film, Love and Mercy, songwriting and producing and of course, all things Beach Boys.
Brian Wilson isn’t the easiest guy to talk to, given his past struggles. A lot of his answers are one-word responses and we blew through my first page of questions in just a few minutes. As you’ll read, Brian is fond of answering questions with a solitary, “Right” but, it didn’t matter; I just wanted to make Brian feel at ease just like he’s made me feel at ease by listening to his music for most of my life. Yes, like I said, the man who once sang that “he wasn’t made for these times” and his music mean a great deal to me and I was doing my best to avoid being like Chris Farley when he interviewed Paul McCartney in that famous Saturday Night Live sketch.
Two things happened during the interview that I thought would never happen: (1) Brian sang part of “God Only Knows” to only myself in the room at the Capitol Records tower; and (2) I got to take a selfie with the guy who came up with Pet Sounds. Fun Fun Fun!
There’s a line of Indian wisdom printed on the back cover of the Smiley Smile album: “The smile that you send out, returns to you.” Brian, I send that smile back to you.
BLURT: Congratulations on your upcoming release…
WILSON: The movie (Love and Mercy)?
Your album, No Pier Pressure but, yeah, the movie too. We’re here in the iconic Capitol Records building here in Hollywood. How does it feel to be back at Capitol Records, where it all started?
It’s kind of like a sentimentality thing for me. You know, because we made our first couple of records here.
You must have so many memories every time you come back here. You’ve done Beach Boys recording sessions in the studios here.
Yeah, there are a lot of memories involved, yeah.
Let’s talk about the present first. No Pier Pressure is a great new album. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at its diversity. Can we talk about each of the songs?
Sure, ah, like the song, “This Beautiful Day”?
It’s an experiment with harmony and I think we did very well.
It’s a nice way to start off the album.
The harmonies are tight and good.
It’s got a positive message.
Right, it’s got a positive message. “Sail Away” I thought was really well done… with (ex-1970’s Beach Boy) Blondie Chaplin, (ex-Beach Boy) Al Jardine and me. There’s a song called “Saturday Night” with Nate Ruess.
Yeah, he’s a new friend of yours…
Yeah and a song called… with Zooey Deschanel…what was her song?
“On the Island.”
Right, “On the Island.” Beautiful.
It kind of reminds me of the island sounds of “Diamond Head” of the Friends album.
Even the lyrics kind of remind me of “Busy Doing Nothing” also off of Friends.
Because the lyrics say: “We’ll be wasting our time”…
Were the lyrics to “Busy Doing Nothing” really directions to your home in Bel Air back in 1968?
Somewhat, yeah. A little bit of that, yeah.
“Runaway Dancer” featuring Sebu Simonian of the band Capital Cities is a big surprise to the listener to hear these modern kind of dance sounds.
But, at the same time, you mix the classic Brian Wilson sound with it. How did you put that track together?
We put that together very carefully with handpicked, good musicians.
As you mentioned Nate from the band fun participated to your song, “Saturday Night”. How did you become friends with these new collaborators? How did you run into them?
We heard them on the radio and then we called them up and had them come down to the studio.
That’s great that you are interested in new sounds rather than just keeping your inspiration in the past.
Do you believe that music is God’s voice as you once said?
My doctor, Dr. Landy told me that. Yeah.
I think music has the power to heal and make you feel better.
It has healing power. Music is catharsis [sic] and therapeutic. Whatever that means!
Do you ever go back to your old records and listen to them? If so, do they make you feel good overall?
On the flip side of the coin to “Runaway Dancer,” you’ve got the classic Beach Boys sound of the 1960s on “What Ever Happened” with Al Jardine and David Marks.
It’s even got that classic guitar sound that you got on Pet Sounds. How is it to work with Al and David after all of these years?
Oh! It’s a pleasure!
Do they instinctively know what you want?
Yeah! They instinctively knew exactly what I wanted and they sang perfectly. They were great singers.
They still are.
Speaking of singing, let’s go back to a Beach Boys recording vocal session; when you were recording vocals. Were all of you: Carl, Al and Dennis all grouped around one single mic? How did you record the vocals on a typical Beach Boys session?
Me, Dennis, Carl, Al and Bruce (Johnston) (were) on one mic and Mike (Love) on the lead on a separate mic.
Would you do it all live? Would you sing the song in its entirety?
No, we would do it in sections. I would teach them, like, four bars at a time. I would teach them four and then another four until we had the whole song recorded.
Interesting. On the other end of the scale, you have an instrumental called “Half Moon Bay” featuring Mark Isham. It kind of has the “Let’s Go Away For A While” off Pet Sounds sound to it.
Right! It’s a very well executed…good one.
It’s a prime example of a song being beautiful without any lyrics.
That was kind of unheard of in 1966.
Yeah, I know.
How do you approach writing an instrumental versus writing a song with lots of vocals? Is there any difference?
No, you just do the music. You don’t have to do any of the lyrics or the melody.
“Our Special Love,” on the other hand has TONS of vocals. It features Peter Hollens who is known for his a capella work.
What makes you attracted to luscious, big harmonies?
Well, the 1960s…you know the Beach Boys? I tried to take some of that and put it into my new album. To me, those voices sound beautiful.
Were you influenced by the Four Freshmen?
It’s great that you continue on with that tradition. I mean, there’s nobody better at doing vocal harmony work than Brian Wilson, right?
Oh, I don’t know about that!
Another song on your album, “The Right Time” once again features your two old pals, Al Jardine and David Marks. Were the lyrics, “Whatever happened to me and you and everything we’ve been through” kind of a statement on the current affairs of The Beach Boys and your relationship with Mike Love?
Yeah, a little. A little bit of that is influenced by that.
How do you feel about what happened to The Beach Boys after the last tour and Mike Love…
Ah, I miss the guy. I miss him. That last anniversary tour? The Beach Boys anniversary tour?
I miss that. I had a good time on that one.
Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Let’s talk about the track, “Don’t Worry” with the huge horn and string arrangement. You could have given that to Three Dog Night back in 1970 and they could have had a hit with that!
Right. Yeah! (Laughs)
It kind of also reminds me of (the 1967 Beach Boys hit) “Darlin’.” Were you going to give “Darlin’” to Danny Hutton for his pre-Three Dog Night band, Redwood?
They recorded it with me at a studio named The Wally Heider recording studio…
Ah! It was right down the street from here!
Yeah, and, uh, they decided not to do it. They said, “No, we’re going to try something different.” So, I recorded it with Carl, yeah.
Let’s talk about Carl’s vocals. How did you decide that he was the man to sing “God Only Knows”?
I just knew. I just knew he could do it. I just told him, “Will you please sing this song?” He goes, “Of course!” You know?
[Just then, Brian starts to sing the first verse. “I may not always love you…”]
The way he sang it just made me feel good.
He sang it like an angel.
Is that your favorite Beach Boys song? It might be mine! Or do you have a favorite?
One of my favorites, yeah. My favorite Beach Boys song is “California Girls.” I can’t help it, I just think it’s great.
There are so many great ones… “Good Vibrations”…
I can’t even name a favorite Beach Boys album because there are so many good ones!
I know! (Chuckles)
Do you ever get tired of talking about The Beach Boys and the past?
Let’s talk about a track on the new album called, “Somewhere Quiet.” Again, it has a classic Beach Boys sound to it and you co-wrote it with your longtime friend and member of your current band, Scott Bennett.
Right. Well, that was originally called…um, it had a different title. It was an instrumental on one of our albums. (The music is “Summer Means New Love” from the Beach Boys 1965 album, Summer Days (and Summer Nights.) So, my wife, Melinda said, “Why do we use that song and put lyrics to it?” So, Bennett wrote the lyrics, we (recorded) it all together and…beautiful.
You haven’t written many lyrics over your career.
Why do you think that is? It just doesn’t interest you or do you prefer to just focus on the music?
I wrote lyrics to a lot of songs. I wrote “Help Me, Rhonda.” I wrote the lyrics to “California Girls” with Mike. So, I’ve written songs.
Do you plan on playing this new music with Scott and other band members Darian Sahanaja and Probyn Gregory on your upcoming tour?
What still attracts you to playing shows and touring after all of these years?
Well, to make money and to make people happy!
Simple as that, huh?
Well, you’ve made me happy over the years. Thank you so much for all of the great music.
Speaking of someone that has made people happy for generations, Paul McCartney once called your current touring band, “the best touring band on the road.”
Let’s talk about your kinship with McCartney.
Well, I don’t really have a personal relationship. It’s kind of like a professional relationship. We both like each other’s music, you know.
What’s your favorite Beatles record?
Ah… “She’s Leaving Home”… “Across the Universe”…”With A Little Help From My Friends”…a bunch of them.
Okay, what is your favorite song you wish you would have written?
“Be My Baby” by The Ronnettes. I just think it’s the greatest.
And you used a lot of the same musicians, the “Wrecking Crew” people on your records in the mid-sixties.
Would you ever consider using, say, Carol Kaye on a session again in the future?
I can’t answer that question. I don’t know.
Does the idea interest you?
Yeah, yeah. I think if we do a rock ‘n’ roll album, I would have her come down and play.
Now, with No Pier Pressure, you were talking to the press about working simultaneously working on a rock ‘n’ roll record and something with Jeff Beck, who you toured with a few years ago. Do you still have plans to put out a record with Jeff Beck?
So, that’s done with, I guess. Do you always constantly think of new songs on the horizon in your head?
Not lately, no.
So, you’re just focusing on this album right now?
Have you seen the upcoming film about you, Love and Mercy yet?
What do you think of it?
I think it’s very, very well done. The actors portray me very well…
Was it emotional for you to watch it?
Yeah, it was an emotional experience.
Would you consider it pretty accurate to your real life story?
Yeah, the guy who played Dr. Landy was very well done. He was unbelievable.
He was pretty authentic to how you lived your life?
Speaking of old friends coming back from the past, you have Blondie Chaplin on your new record, who sings on “Sail Away.” The intro of that song kind of reminds me of “Sloop John B.”
A little bit, yeah! It sort of, yeah!
Was that intentional?
And of course, he sang on “Sail On Sailor” from the 1973 Beach Boys album, Holland. How did it come about that he sang lead on that?
Well, I wrote that song at a friend of mine’s house with another guy named Ray Kennedy. He did the lyrics, I did the music. And, um, I don’t know how Blondie Chaplin got involved but he sang it on our record.
Correct me if I’m wrong but he was a member of The Flame, which were signed to your record label, Brother Records?
You were among the first bands to have your own record label. A full year before The Beatles and a few years before The Rolling Stones, weren’t you?
How did that happen?
I can’t remember. I don’t know.
(Laughs) It was so long ago, eh?
I love that label with the Native on it…
Do you collect your own records?
(not quite understanding) Do I collect my own records?
Yeah, do you have, like, a mint copy of Stack-O-Tracks in your personal archives?
So, you are always looking towards the future?
Can I ask you about how you come up with a song? Do you sit at the piano in the morning? Do you have a favorite time of day to compose?
The evening. I haven’t been at the piano for a few months but when I do, I usually do (songwriting) in the evening.
Are those myths true that you had the sandbox at your feet at the piano?
Yeah, I had a sandbox. Yeah, me and Van Dyke Parks sat at it. My piano was put IN the sandbox and we would take our shoes off and our socks off and our bare feet would be in the sand while we were writing songs. So, it was a very, very special moment in my life.
Do you still have the sandbox?
What current music are you listening to?
Current music? I listen to, um…actually, I just listen to Paul McCartney and Oldies But Goodies (radio) stations, you know, in L.A.
I listen to the same thing. You can’t beat classic music with REAL musicians playing on well-written songs like you have written…
…which you continue to do. You use real musicians in the recording studio and on stage to this day.
We’ve talked about your relationship at the moment with Mike Love. Tell me about your relationship with Al Jardine.
Um…we don’t talk very much. I know him mostly in the studio. Outside of the studio, we don’t really have an ongoing relationship.
Are you closer with your current band?
How did you come to pick them to be your band? You all have brought Pet Sounds and SMiLE so incredibly to life on stage!
I don’t know. Um (thinks)… we got together about 15 years ago. They were playing at a club in Hollywood. We were there watching and they played a lot of my songs; like, three or fours songs. I said, “Would you guys like to be my backup band?” They said, “Yeah!” And the rest is what is was!
What is the most difficult song for you to perform live…the one you have to think about the most?
Probably, “Sloop John B.”
Why is that?
I don’t know.
Is it kind of like this? (I pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time)
It’s good exercise for the brain, I suppose. Speaking of exercise, you were one of the first celebrities to open a health food store in the late 1960s. The Radiant Radish is what it was called?
What was the decision behind that? Was it just to be in better health and to promote better health?
And, like we mentioned before, music has the power to make you feel better…
Music can be very healing. It can be uplifting and healing and therapeutic, yep.
Is that what the song, “Love and Mercy” is about?
Thank you so much, Brian.
Ok, man. You’re very welcome.
After a handshake and a selfie, Brian rapidly darted out of the room that we conducted on the 9th floor of the Capitol Records building on to another waiting interview. Love and mercy, Brian. Love and mercy.
“Whether it’s R&B or simple country or basic punk stuff or free jazz even, it’s all stuff that is essential to the fabric of what we do”: Russell Simins (above, right; he’s flanked by Spencer and Judah Bauer) explains why the new JSBX album is one of the most diverse yet focused record they’ve ever made.
BY RON HART
“My dad was the Commissioner of Public Works for Nassau County, and he supervised the building of the Coliseum,” states Russell Simins, longtime drummer for New York City’s own Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. “So when we went in there it was a pretty big deal for us, and for the Beasties as well. They had their videographer Ricky Powell interview me about my dad, who had passed away by then. But my mom came to the show.”
The burly backbone of the Blues Explosion is remembering the time when they—along with The Roots—opened up for Beastie Boys at the famed (and presently endangered) Nassau Coliseum in the Long Island town of Uniondale approximately twenty years ago this upcoming May 11th. From the frontlines of the general admission area, it was a bit of a fight to fully experience the concert while trying to avoid raging circle pits of Strong Island frat boys, hardcore kids, skate punks and Hempstead hoods literally trying to tear one another apart in perhaps one of the most volatile instances of mosh culture at least this writer has ever witnessed before the infamy of Woodstock ’99.
For fans of all three groups at the time, it was triple bill on par with, say, Neil Young + Crazy Horse, Miles Davis and The Steve Miller Band at the Fillmore East in March of 1970.
What landed the trio smack dab in the middle of the hottest tour in the Spring of ’95 was their classic third LP Orange, released late in the previous year. It was an album that achieved a fusion of hip-hop and bare knuckle rock ‘n’ roll the likes of which none of us had ever seen before or, quite frankly, have seen since. The way Simins, Jon Spencer and Judah Bauer incorporated the swagger and swing of Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan and even the Beasties themselves into their caustic garage rock homebrew both on Orange and its accompanying Experimental Remixes EP was the most genuine shaking of the hands between the two styles since Eddie Martinez laid down that indelible guitar riff to “Rock Box” for Run DMC.
The group’s remarkable new album is called Freedom Tower–No Wave Dance Party, and it’s a total throwback to that halcyon Orange era in every way, shape and form. The trio’s returns to hip-hop on 1998’s Acme and 2004’s guest-heavy Damage were both great, but never quite fully recaptured the natural vibe the JSBX attained in 1994-5 to such slapdash perfection. However, the city’s Dinkins days are indeed alive and well both in lyrics and licks across the 13 new tracks that comprise Freedom Tower. According to Simins, it was the opportunity to record the album at Brooklyn’s Daptone Studios that helped inspire the group to get their groove back.
“The House of Soul!” he exclaims. “Its so old school in there. It looks like what you’d envision Stax or Motown to look like back in the day. It’s all about the character of the space. They know exactly the way the room works, and how to use the little bit of computer equipment they have just to get that great sound that’s on all their records.”
Even more, from the drummer’s standpoint, is the trio’s collective hunger to immerse themselves in whatever kind of sound they are entrenched in while working out material, a trait that can be evidenced not only in the funkier aspects of their catalog like Orange and Extra Width but in the heavier, darker records like Crypt Style, Now I Got Worry and their last one, 2012’s Meat + Bone.
“We’re always listening to music we all love,” Simins explains. “And we all have very similar tastes. Whether it’s R&B or simple country or basic punk stuff or free jazz even, it’s all stuff that is essential to the fabric of what we do. If you listen to all our records, one of the common threads is a lot of different styles coming together and merging in a very natural way. And out of that comes the Blues Explosion songs. There’s nothing ever too delineated as one style. It’s always a merging of all styles that we’re into, whether it be over a range of songs or just one song.”
And it just so happens in the case of Freedom Tower, be it via Judah’s Bomb Squad guitar jabs and Jon’s full-on Chuck D. stance on “Wax Dummy” or the cornucopia of memories of pre-gentrified times throughout “Tales of Old New York: The Rock Box” the Blues Explosion aren’t only diving back into hip-hop as performers, but as fans as well based on what they seem to be digging lately.
“We have a deep appreciation for all kinds of hip-hop,” he proclaims. “And there’s a lot of new stuff that we like. The new Kendrick Lamar is great. Joey Bada$$ is really cool. Jay-Z, for all his popularity, is still one of the greatest on the mic. And personally, I’m a fan of Kanye’s, no matter what he’s doing. He works with a lot of people who inform what he’s doing. In terms of originality, his was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. It’s off the chains in a way that I can really appreciate. I really love the post-punk vibe of his last record, Yeezus. I like stripped down, weirder stuff. I even think Odd Future—musically—is some of the most original stuff out there. The delivery, the attitude, the repetition. Anything that has that flavor of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the fucked up way he made hip-hop is cool with me.”
You can chalk off the strong air of nostalgia that not only permeates throughout Freedom Tower on a sonic level but a lyrical one, too—as a kind of coping strategy of seeing the city that brought them to life being altered and homogenized before their very eyes. But according to Simins, any sense of sentiment on display over the course of this record is no different than the methodology which transpires every time these three guys get together to create.
“That’s the way it always is with Jon,” he explains. “Sometimes the lyrics will generate just based on things we’re thinking about. Or the three of us will sit around and throw out random song titles and Jon will take it and make it the title of the song or work it into his lyrics. Or we’ll be hanging out and shooting the shit and laughing about stuff and talking about everything and ideas will generate from there.
“It just so happens this time around, New York City was on our minds.”
Photos: Micha Warren
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