The Northwest garage godfathers resumed touring in 2007 and have now finally gotten around to cutting a new album. Saxophonist Rob Lind looks back on his group’s history and legacy, noting, “The crowds are great. That’s why we’re still doing this.” (Third in our ongoing series on the garage scene. Go HERE to read Pt. 1, about the “Knights of Fuzz” book, and go HERE to read Pt. 2, about the Standells and Shadows of Knight.)
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
Long before the Pacific Northwest became synonymous with grunge, it was home to another wild, untamed brand of music: garage rock. During the early ‘60s, the scene included bands like the Kingsmen, the Wailers and Paul Revere & the Raiders. One of the best and most influential was The Sonics, who blasted out songs like “Strychnine,” “The Witch” and “Have Love, Will Travel.” But like many groups who are ahead of their time, their influence wouldn’t be recognized until the band was long gone.
The Sonics broke up soon after releasing their third album, 1967’s Introducing The Sonics, which was supposed to be their breakthrough. It was done in by poor production that didn’t truly capture the band’s raw sound and never became the hit they had hoped for.
When garage rock came back in the early 2000s, bands like The Hives and The White Stripes began name checking The Sonics. Soon, their music was in commercials and people were begging them to reunite. The Sonics went back on the road in 2007 and have been touring ever since—including a memorable performance during the 2009 SXSW festival in Austin at Emo’s in which the BLURT editor stood slackjawed in a capacity crowd that probably included more musicians, both famous and up-and-comers, than actual attendees.
In March, they released their first new studio album since 1967, This is the Sonics. We talked with saxophonist Rob Lind.
FYI: Original members (top photo) included Bob Bennett, drums; Larry Parypa, duitar; Jerry Roslie, keys and lead vocals; Rob Lind, sax, harp and vocals; Andy Parypa, bass. In 2015 the Sonics (below) are Roslie, keys and lead vocals, Lind, sax, harp and vocals; Larry Parypa, guitar and vocals; Dusty Watson, drums; Freddie Dennis, bass and vocals.
BLURT: Where did you develop your style?
LIND: We haven’t changed our style much from the time we were 18 until now. That was back in the ‘60s. The way things were in the Pacific Northwest, there were two main towns: Seattle and Tacoma, which is a port town down to the south. When I’m talking to people in Europe, I liken it to London and Liverpool. In Seattle, the bands playing at that point were really good, probably better musicians than we were, but they played swingy, shuffly jazz-type music.
Seattle is a major metropolitan city. Tacoma is a port city. Our dads were all blue collar workers. Down there, the idea was rock and roll. In Seattle, they were swinging it. In Tacoma we wanted to knock you on your butt. We were into Little Richard, anything that rocked.
Are the screams in your music from Little Richard?
That’s from [singer] Jerry [Roslie]. That comes out of his soul and his body. It’s just what he does. It’s what he has always done. It’s the energy and passion he feels. It just comes out of him.
Your subject matter must have been pretty shocking for the time. Was that intentional?
It was [shocking] and not deservedly so. Our first record was “The Witch.” Radio stations wouldn’t play it because they thought it was demonic. What Jerry was singing about was a bad woman who was mean to him. It had nothing to do with the devil or anything like that. We didn’t think that way. We were young guys with a lot of testosterone, always thinking about women.
The big rock jocks from KJR in Seattle used to do record hops at high schools and kids would bombard them: “Do you have The Sonics?” “Do you have ‘The Witch?’” They didn’t. They went back and said, “Maybe we should investigate this song.” They started playing it, but they could only play it after 3:30. They couldn’t play it in the middle of the day because they didn’t want to scare the housewives.
When it came out on the station, it sold 20,000 copies in a week. It got up to 2 on the big rock countdown. Number one was “Downtown” by Petula Clark. We thought, “She’s an international star. Being 2 to her is cool. That’s pretty good.” Forty years later the program director told us, “You were 1 by a long way, but we couldn’t put your song up there because it was so controversial.”
You were very big in the Northwest. Were you surprised you didn’t catch on more nationally?
It was a strange thing. There were some good bands up there, but none of us got out of there. It’s like we were trapped. Years later, the Northwest exploded with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden. As older guys, we were totally proud of the young guys.
When garage rock broke, did you immediately see your influence in that?
Not initially. The world kind of worked its way on us. I was a senior at university. I got drafted. I went to OCS [Officer Candidate School] and became a Navy carrier pilot. I was off to the Far East. [Guitarist] Larry [Parypa] was working for an insurance company. Jerry had a little asphalt paving company. That was the end of it. I didn’t look back until 2005 when we started to get approached to play some shows
Were you surprised in the 1990s and early 2000s when bands like The White Stripes and Nirvana started citing you as an influence?
I was an airline pilot flying people across the country. I had no idea. I didn’t start getting my head into that until 2005 when we started getting pressure to come out of the hermit cave and do some shows. Jon Weiss, who does Cavestomp in Brooklyn, was after us for a couple years, and it took us a couple years to be ready. We started rehearsing with the idea that if we could be good we’d do it. Our legacy was real strong. We didn’t want to be old guys who went onstage and looked pathetic.
How did that  Land Rover commercial with “Have Love, Will Travel” come about?
We still can’t figure it out. I had a rock writer from London tell me, “I think ‘Have Love, Will Travel’ is your guys’ ‘Satisfaction.’” When we did our first album, we needed songs. … “The Witch” was doing well. They said, “You’re going to do an album.” We were young guys. We thought, “Great. We’re going into the studio to do an album. When?” “The day after tomorrow.” We didn’t have songs worked out. What we did have was that every night we were playing three sets. That’s how “Have Love” came about. We were playing it every night. We were standing there at 3 a.m. The producer said, “What do you want to do now?” “How about ‘Have Love?’” “OK.”
Now it did Land Rover. It did two different BMW commercials. It did a beer commercial. It did a French perfume commercial, a Swedish motorcycle commercial. It keeps getting picked up for commercials for one reason or another. Maybe that British rock writer was right. It’s a weird thing because it was almost a throwaway.
Why did you wait until now to make an album?
We got comfortable touring, getting our act together. We’re the best now we’ve ever been, so we were out touring with songs that were popular. The more we toured in Europe, we started going back to the same places. We started feeling uncomfortable. We never wanted to be perceived as a retro band. We never wanted to be an oldies but goodies band. We have great fans in Europe. We started feeling like maybe we owe them. We gradually came to the idea that maybe we need to put out new stuff to let people know we’re here, still vibrant and will come at you like we always did.
What’s it like recording together again after all this time?
It’s great. Producer Jim Diamond was wonderful because his whole idea was “I don’t want you guys to evolve. I don’t want you playing tricky stuff. I want to get the energy and power of your first two albums.” Jim was totally successful. Now when we play live we alternate songs. We do a song or two from the early albums, then some new ones. I’ve had comments that the new ones dovetail right in there. That’s nice to hear. That was Jim. We did what he said.
What’s the difference between the crowds now and the crowds then?
When we were 18 or 19 we’re looking at the crowd out there rockin’. Now it’s the same crowd – enthusiastic young people jumping up and down waving beer bottles. In Brazil, we kept security busy. People were diving on stage, then trying to jump off. … They know the words to all the songs, even in countries where they don’t speak much English. We played a festival in Helsinki, Finland. There’s not much English going on there. We’re playing “Strychnine” and the crowd was singing the English words. We realized they memorized them.
The crowds are great. That’s why we’re still doing this.
2014 live photo “Sonics” by Donutte – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons; current promotional photo by Merri L. Sutton.
Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, James Cotton, Lonnie Mack, Roomful of Blues, Coco Montoya, Tinsley Ellis and Eric Lindell all get the best-of treatment from the venerable blues label. Call their singular takes on Genuine HouseRocking Music essential listening.
It is the story that became a legend. In 1971, 23 year old Bruce Iglauer was a shipping clerk at Chicago’s Delmark Records. He wanted to record is favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. Delmark said no, so he took $900 and did it himself, recorded Hound Dog live in just two nights. Alligator Records, the most successful independent blues record label in history, was born. Earlier this year they issued Best of, digital-only releases of nine of their artists. The resulting compilations are nothing short of essential. Let’s take a look/listen to them, three at a time…
Hound Dog Taylor: Taylor was an obscure Chicago electric guitarist playing in bars when Iglauer first saw him. There was nothing remotely commercial about him. He played the most ferocious slide guitar since Elmore James on a cheap Japanese guitar. His band consisted of a second guitarist and drummer. They used raggedy amps. And banged out—the right words—some of the greatest sounding blues in history. With six fingers on his left hand and sitting in a beat up chair, keeping time with his feet, Taylor was the definition of house rocking music. And listen to his classics here like “Give Me Back My Wig” “Sadie” and “It’s Alright.” And they are every bit as exciting today as they were 44 years ago. There is not a weak track of these 18.
Koko Taylor: When Koko Taylor walked into Alligator offices in 1975, the same year Hound Dog (no relation) died, she had had one hit years before on a Willie Dixon song but had long been out of the spotlight. Iglauer was reluctant to take on a vocalist. But over the next three decades, with her powerful voice, charisma and nonstop touring of the world, no artist became more associated with Alligator. And a woman who had been a one hit wonder became the “Queen of the Blues.” Listen to her on Best of sing “I’m a Woman” or classics like “I’d Rather Go Blind” and you will hear one of the greatest blues singers in history.
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. Like Hound Dog and Koko, Lil’Ed Williams is another Alligator success story that may never have happened without Iglauer and the label. A west slide of Chicago slide guitarist, Williams was working in the Red Carpet Car Wash and was known mainly as the nephew of classic slide guitarist, J.B. Hutto. Williams had never before been in a studio when Iglauer brought him in to cut two songs. Lil’Ed treated it like a live gig cut loose and did 30 cuts in three hours with no overdubs and only one second take. Now one of the last living examples of west side Chicago slide blues, Lil’Ed is famous for his fez and incendiary live performances. Check out “Pride and Joy” and “Midnight Rider” and “Icicles in my Meatloaf” and you cannot help but move your body.
But Alligator was not just a label dedicated to finding little know Chicago blues artists and bringing them to a wider audience. Iglauer signed well known artists like Albert Collins and Johnny Winter to the label and released albums by New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair, and zydeco pioneer, Clifton Chenier. The latter brought the label its first Grammy Award. And the Best of digital series also spotlights three of the more famous Alligator artists.
James Cotton: Now 80, James “Mr. Super Harp” Cotton is probably the most legendary blues artist still active. Cotton had recorded in Memphis in the famous Sun Studios of Sam Phillips. In 1955, he was recruited by Muddy Waters himself to join his band. His cuts for Vanguard in the 1960s are some of the best blues harp ever recorded. In 2013, he released his latest for Alligator, “Cotton Mouth Man.” His entire Best of collection is a must for blues fans and harp fans. Highlights include classics such as “Black Night” and “Superharp.”
Lonnie Mack. Modern rock’s first guitar hero, Mack burst onto the national stage in 1963 with lightning fast picking, soaring solos and a wild whammy bar. He had a tremendous influence on a guitar player named Stevie Ray Vaughn. His 1984 comeback album on Alligator, Strike Like Lightning, was co-produced by Mack and Vaughn. Six tracks from that album are on Best of and this entire release showcases one of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived.
Roomful of Blues: This legendary swing band had been acclaimed and around for over three decades before signing with Alligator in 2003. And their mixture of jump and swing and rock and roll and blues mixed in with those rich horns show that Alligator was always more about great music than labels. Alligator’s sound grew far beyond the Chicago city limits. Listen to any track on their Best of and you hear the direct descendants of Count Basie, Louis Jordon and Big Joe Turner. The music was great then; it is great now.
With a catalog of over 300 titles, Bruce Iglauer’s has kept his label alive and independent to this day in a difficult, if not impossible, business. His label is arguable the greatest blues label ever, lasting two decades longer than the venerable Chess. It has been done by keeping true to Iglauer’s vision of genuine HouseRocking music. And now, as the music itself is finally endangered as the last of the postwar blues greats finally leave the stage, Iglauer has gone out and done what he has always done: find the future of the blues in young dynamic artists like Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood. Who, you ask? Funny. Nearly half a century ago that is exactly what they said about Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor.
COCO MONTOYA: Montoya is part of Alligator’s long history of signing great guitarists. Indeed, Montoya was a protégée of the legendary Alligator artist, Albert Collins, and a member of John Mayall’s Bluebreakers. Over a 37 year career, he is known for his explosive lead guitar work and soulful vocals and nonstop touring. Best of features blues rock gems like “You Don’t Think About That” and “Enough is Enough.”
Tinsley Ellis: Ellis first hit the national scene when Alligator signed him in 1988. And his roots were not the gritty streets of Chicago, but the Southern blues rock of artists like Duane Allman and Freddy King. Another road warrior, Ellis’s eight Alligator records are fiery, intense blue rock. Outstanding showcases of Ellis’s talent on Best of are slow burners like “Early in the Morning” and soaring blues like “A Quitter Never Wins.”
Eric Lindell: When Lindell joined the Alligator family in 2006, he illustrated perfectly the diversity of the Alligator sound. Lindell, originally from Northern California and finally settling in New Orleans, is a roots gumbo of blue eyed soul, R&B, swamp, funk and blues. But his singing is soulful and his writing exceptional. On Best of, listen to “Casanova” and “Josephine” to hear a great young artist evolving. The blues will never die but all music must transform and grow to be vibrant. Lindell is a perfect example of a label doing just that as it approaches almost a half century of Genuine HouseRocking Music.
Ed. note: Since we love recurring features here at BLURT—it saves us having to think up new feature angles so often, eh?—and since we long ago pledged allegiance to the triple-threat flags of garage, psych and punk, we are more than happy to offer up another installment of “The Garage Chronicles.” (Go HERE to read the first one, about archivist and musician Tim Gassen’s “Knights Of Fuzz” book.) This time around, Asheville-based journalist Bill Kopp examines two groups that helped define the American garage scene of the mid ‘60s, L.A.’s Standells and Chicago’s Shadows of Knight, via Sundazed Records’ recent vault excavations chronicling the groups’ live prowess circa 1966. Pictured above: Standells (top), Shadows of Knight (bottom).
The Standells – considered a quintessential protopunk band of the 1960s – got their start as a matching-suited, club band playing frat-rock and covers of the day. The pride of Boston thanks to their name-checking 1966 hit, “Dirty Water,” The Standells weren’t even from Massachusetts; they were a Los Angeles group.
But with the passing of a few months and a few band members, The Standells quickly coalesced a lineup around founder and former solo act, keyboardist Larry Tamblyn, and former Mouseketeer Dick Dodd on vocals and drums. The band toughened their image, and signed with Tower Records, where they began to work with producer Ed Cobb. Cobb would write (or co-write) “Dirty Water” for (or with) the group, and went on to produce another legendary ‘60s garage group, The Chocolate Watchband.
Buoyed by the success of “Dirty Water,” the group cut more songs in the nascent garage rock style, including genre classics “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” “Riot on Sunset Strip” (from the 1967 teen exploitation movie of the same name), “Why Pick on Me,” and the banned-in-Texas “Try It.” By ’68 the group’s style was past its sell-by date, and though they would continue with various lineups, no new music was forthcoming.
Back in ’64 an early Standells lineup released The Standells in Person at P.J.’s, but that set captured the pre-garage version of the group. In 2001, Sundazed released a 10” vinyl record, The Live Ones! (a riff on the title of The Standells’ second of three 1966 LPs, The Hot Ones!). That set provided the first officially-available live document of the garage-era group. Recorded in the summer of 1966 at Michigan State University, the surprisingly good quality recording found the band at their snarling yet good-natured, fuzztone best.
Now – almost fifty years after it was recorded – Sundazed has unearthed yet another live document of The Standells from that banner year of 1966. Recorded no more than a couple of months after the show that would yield The Live Ones!, and performed less than sixty miles southeast, Live on Tour – 1966! is equally exciting, and it features twice as many songs. (Listen to samples of the music at the Sundazed product page.)
The recording opens with a laughably tepid introduction (probably by a college administrator) explaining that there will be two acts on the evening’s bill: The Standells (curiously, this is met by silence from the audience) and The Beach Boys. The crowd seems to chuckle inwardly at the announcement before breaking into delayed applause. But once the announcer introduces The Standells, the crowd’s reaction is much more enthusiastic. A friendly bit of pandering from Dick Dodd (“We hear somebody won a game today; is that right?”) leads straight into the guitar buzz of “Mr. Nobody.”
Dodd’s vocals come through loud and clear, as do Tony Valentino’s electric guitar, Larry Tamblyn’s Vox Continental organ, and Dave Burke’s Fender bass. Dodd’s drums are less distinct, but overall Live On Tour – 1966! is a superbly recorded (and preserved) recording.
The setlist doesn’t differ greatly from what’s showcased on The Live Ones!; while that set featured songs closely associated with The Standells, this disc features the complete opening-act length set, a setlist that included covers that were well-known (and oft-played) by garage bands across the USA: “Good Lovin’,” James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please,” Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour,” and the all-but-required “Gloria.” But The Standells imbue their readings of these tunes with just the right combination of polish and grunge.
Mid-set, they feature a Tamblyn lead vocal (with ample vocal support from the rest of the band) in a faithful cover of the then-brand-new “Sunny Afternoon.” The Kinks’ single had been released in the USA weeks before; at the time of this concert (October 22, 1966) the tune was riding high on the singles charts. Dodd notes afterward, “That song can be found on an album of ours which will be released around Christmas time, where we do nothing but everybody else’s hits…probably the best album we ever made.” It wasn’t, not by a long shot; the world didn’t really need a Standells reading of “Eleanor Rigby.”
But there are no Beatles ballad covers on Live on Tour –1966! “Now that we’ve messed up everybody else’s number, we’d like to mess up one of our own.” Drawing out the tension with a serious of groan-eliciting one-liners, the band finally relents and launches into the garage rock anthem, “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” playing it in a fashion that’s both Just Like the Record and shot through with the energy that only comes from an onstage performance. The crowd claps along start to finish while the band closes their set with their million-selling hit, “Dirty Water.”
With the fine exception of the low-key Kinks cover, Live on Tour –1966! is a consistently uptempo, rocking good time, and proves – in case there were any doubts – that The Standells were a solid, engaging live band, one that leveraged a garage-punk image with professional musicianship.
Meanwhile, we have Chicago’s Shadows of Knight, who in their heyday – a period that began in 1966 and ended, well, in 1966 – embodied what we now look back upon as the garage rock aesthetic. A group of suburban teens inspired – like countless other groups of teens in those days – by the British Invasion, the Shadows of Knight channeled American blues through the filter of British sensibilities (Them, Rolling Stones, Animals), reinterpreting it yet again and creating something fresh and exciting in the process. A newly-released live recording, Live 1966 offers a previously unheard document of the group’s onstage power. (Song samples at the Sundazed product page.)
The group released two albums in 1966 (and one more a few years later) but their strength was best expressed on the 45rpm single. Their reading of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” – originally a B-side of Them’s top ten hit “Baby Please Don’t Go” – helped enshrine the tune as a garage rock classic. Though the group’s success was short-lived, The Shadows of Knight received belated attention when their reading of Bo Diddley’s “Oh Yeah” was featured on Side Two of Lenny Kaye’s influential 1972 compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.
On the group’s 1966 singles and albums, the production (credited on the sleeve only as “A Dunwich Production”) was of the basic, let’s-get-it-done variety. In those days – especially where a small regional label such as Dunwich was concerned – bands were expected to have their repertoire tight, ready to lay down in the studio in one take. (With their bigger budgets, larger labels often dispensed altogether with the niceties, enlisting so-called Wrecking Crew session players to record, one-and-done, in the stead of the named groups.)
What this meant in practice for The Shadows of Knight is that their finished studio recordings did indeed sound a good bit like the actual group. The eleven songs on the group’s Gloria LP – nine overs, three originals – captured the band’s assertive, energetic playing and singing. They had certainly gotten tight playing live gigs, and the records captured that vibe as best as could be expected.
But there’s nothing like the real thing, and Live 1966 is that real thing. Recorded in front of what Jeff Jarema’s liner note essay calls “suburban Chicago’s hands-down hippest teen club,” Arlington Heights’ Cellar, Live 1966 finds the group playing to a familiar and appreciative hometown crowd. Jarema notes that there’s no way of knowing the date of this performance – club owner Paul Sampson was known to record shows – it likely dates from late in the year, after two of the group’s albums had been released (the compilers’ best guess is December ’66).
These white suburban kids sure did have a thing for the blues; their first LP featured no less than three Willie Dixon numbers alongside covers of Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Live 1966 features several of these. Even their Chuck Berry cover (“Let it Rock”) was delivered in a bluesy manner. And their original tunes were a clear attempt to write in that same blues-based style.
The second album widened the group’s scope a bit to include their take on New Orleans funky pop (Huey “Piano” Smith’s “High Blood Pressure”). A cover of the Boyce/Hart number “Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Day,” released at almost the same time as the Monkees’ version, couldn’t have less in common with the prefab four’s reading; in the hands of The Shadows of Knight, the tune sounds like early Rolling Stones.
A solid selection of tunes from Back Door Men figures into the Live 1966 set, too, including a soulful run-through of Jimmy Reed’s “Peepin’ and Hidin’” sung here not by drummer Tom Schiffour (he sang on the single version) but by lead guitarist Joe Kelley.
Live 1966 is presented in astonishingly good audio quality; the monaural recording accurately captures David “Hawk” Wolinski’s walking bass lines. The drums aren’t as forward in the mix as modern tastes might dictate, but overall Live 1966 is quite the well-balanced recording. Occasional amplifier hum only adds to the you-are-there feel of the recording, and Kelley’s stinging guitar leads punch through the mix. The group shines on “Oh Yeah,” with the band – led by a screaming Jim Sohns – adding just a bit more swagger and abandon than found on their studio version.
Closing with six wild minutes of “Gloria,” The Shadows of Knight deliver a loose yet forceful performance that renders The Doors’ posthumously-released live version (recorded in the late 60s) completely unnecessary. And a brief quote from The Mothers of Invention’s just-released Freak Out! suggests that the group had more than just the blues on their mind.
As a heretofore undiscovered document of mid-sixties garage rock at its rawest and most authentic, The Shadows of Knights’ Live 1966 is essential for fans of the genre.
With his latest album, frontman and founder Doug Martsch vividly reminds us that the art form still has some kick in it.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Near the end of “Living Zoo,” the second track on Built to Spill’s eighth and latest full length, a tiger’s roar leaps out from the howling, open-throttle guitars — much as you’d imagine slashing claws tearing through the jungle canopy before arriving at your pliable flesh. Despite the song’s title and subject matter, it’s an effective sneak attack and a reminder of how feral guitar rock can be. It’s also a metaphor for how leader Doug Martsch has emerged reinvigorated and rededicated in the six years since the band’s last—and arguably least feral—LP, There Is No Enemy.
There’s comfort in Martsch’s allegiance to his craft and aesthetic, especially in an age where epic guitar rock is even more of an outlier than it was when Martsch founded Built to Spill in the mid-‘90s. But Untethered Moon—initially released on Record Store Day 2015 as limited edition vinyl—is as much about rediscovering purpose and coming to terms with it as it is a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll basics. In the intervening six years, Martsch scrapped an entire LP in 2012; saw two Built to Spill mainstays (bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf) quit the band; hired a new rhythm section (Steve Gere and Jason Albertini, on drums and bass respectively), joining him guitarist Jim Roth); and turned to long-time friend and Quasi founder Sam Coomes for production help. (Check the band’s Wikipedia page for details about its personnel history.)
We can now say that those moves proved fortuitous. Opening track “All Our Songs” works like a statement of purpose, six-minutes of ferocious, fuzzed-out and wah-wah guitar layers stacked atop a rumbling beat that picks up steam while Martsch chronicles coming to terms with what Built to Spill means:
Now we settle for this complicated metaphor/and leave the simple truth unsaid/all night we listened to their second record/it had all these songs/sounded like we’re in this together/and I found a place/where I know I’ll always be tethered/and I knew when I woke up/rock and roll will be here forever.
Like other cri du coeurs about rock ‘n’ roll’s staying power — think of The Who’s ironic Rock Is Dead; Long Live Rock! project — there’s an undercurrent of worry in Martsch’s declaration; has rock dead-ended? But the rest of Untethered Moon reminds us the art form still has some kick left in it. It helps that the usual Built to Spill narrative footholds are here: The obsession with space travel in the bouncy-yet-dystopic “On the Way”; the fascination with the inner workings of the brain in “C.R.E.B.,” a syncopated number whose title stands for the “cAMP responsive element binding protein” that links memory and DNA; and the general existential concerns that come from contemplating both of those topics.
The latter infuses the LP throughout, expressed with barn-burning urgency and maximum guitar fuzz on “Another Day” — “I wake up every day just the same/somewhere between stars and sand/and I was made from material that could never last/an obsolescence no one would have planned.” In these twenty-teen, electro-pop days, it’s refreshing to hear a songwriter tackle topics of existential depth, just as it’s a reminder of why indie rock clicked with college crowds first. That’s likely still true even if the music is more infused with middle-age angst about the cold immensity of the universe – inside us, and spreading out to infinity – than college-era awe.
There’s also familiarity in the up-tempo/downcast-narrative pop of “Never Be the Same” (this LP’s “Liar”), the gentle and pensive ballad (“Horizon to Cliff”), and the epic guitar workout (in this instance, LP-closing “When I’m Blind”). If there are changes in Built to Spill’s script, they are wrinkles rather than earthquakes — and they’re primarily provided by Coomes’ co-production, which gives the LP a rough-hewn, live-sounding edge, and Albertini and Gere, who supply one impressive pocket after another over the course of the 10 songs.
Untethered Moon may lack the shiny object-appeal of the band’s debut, or the epic brilliance of their major label debut, Perfect From Now On. But it showcases Martsch’s strengths and suggests an artist who, despite his qualms about universes micro and macro, has reached a comforting détente with who he is.
“If you want things to be different, then you have to go out and do it yourself”: the Americana legend talks about his recent collaboration with musical and romantic partner Ingunn Ringvold, and reflects on his childhood, his songwriting inspirations, and of course his time with the Jayhawks and the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Mark Olson might seem to some a bit of a paradox. He’s a man on a mission, trying to reconcile a troubled adolescence (one marked by the suicide of his father and estrangement from his mother) with an ongoing attempt to emancipate his emotions through music. Although a cofounders of the Jayhawks — one of the most influential bands in the then-emerging genre of Americana during the ‘80s and early ‘90s — he parted ways midway through their trajectory to care for his ailing wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, and subsequently took refuge in the California desert so as to regain the purity and freedom his life seemed to lack. There, unhindered by the machinations of the music industry, he helmed the communal combo called the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, working in tandem with Williams and multi-instrumentalist Mike “Razz” Russell. Yet despite the revered status he had attained earlier in the States, the band’s early albums were released overseas, and following a succession of tours on the continent, he became better known in Europe than he was back home.
At the start of the new millennium, Olson’s role in the Creekdippers began eclipsing that of his collaborators, and following his break-up with Williams in 2005, he began putting albums out under his own name. A pair of one-off reunions with his former Jayhawks collaborator Gary Louris aside, Olson has largely turned his back on the past, and now, currently involved with Norwegian musician Ingunn Ringvold, he seems intent on simply making more music and applying it as further salve for his soul. The duo’s new album, Good-bye Lizelle, released on the German label Glitterhouse, finds him plying his trademark sound, one underscored by his yearning high-lonesome vocals and some atmospheric ambiance plied from a variety of exotic instruments, many supplied by Ingunn herself. It’s another triumph from a man who eschews fame and fortune in favor of salvation and satisfaction, fleeting qualities Olson continues to pursue for the sake of both his muse and a restless mindset.
When BLURT spoke with Olson we found him surprisingly candid and willing to discuss the sometimes troubled circumstance he’s been forced to confront. Clearly, he’s an artist whose art is an essential endeavor, as much a remedy and recourse as it is as a cause for commerce.
BLURT: Let’s start at the beginning. At the time, the Jayhawks seemed determined to carry the link between the country rock crossover of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with what would soon come to be known as Americana. What were your major influences at the time?
MARK OLSON: The biggest influences were the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sir Douglas Quintet. Later a manager appeared named Charlie Pine who played albums for me and gave me cassettes. All the usual suspects are involved! Byrds, Kinks, John Martyn, Incredible String Band, Willie, Waylon, Buddy Holly, Louvins, Beatles, Fairport… a lot of ‘60s music in general. I suppose we were opposed to the current ‘80s music of the time, but really there was some great music we overlooked in our search backwards and sideways and hanging out in hundreds of different used record stores. That is what we did for pleasure. Going on record store missions and searches, with the more obscure and far out the album, the better. We were really aficionados of small town thrift store used bins shopping sprees, followed by relaxing riverside poolroom 3.2 cold beer laughter sessions. Charlie was my friend back there.
But back to the Burritos and Sir Doug…..Both groups had great soul searching psychologically aware lyrics and harmony singing and country influences, but also soul and gospel elements, so it wasn’t so strictly country. It’s these two groups that caught my attention the first years of putting the band together. Prior to that, I had been living with my aunt and grandmother in California, and they had a bunch of ‘60s folk albums. So that was an influence. There was an album called Lucky 13 by Bert Jansch that I have not seen anywhere since those days. We went to a few local music festivals together — aunt, grandmother and me — and I met Victoria (Williams) in late ’83, early ’84, and she got to know my grandmother and aunt back then. The scene with the Long Ryder’s, Green on Red and Dream Syndicate had started in L.A. and I had been to the Lhasa Club. I went back to Minnesota basically because there was a family there. I had left to go live with my grandmother after not being able to figure things out, and in the middle of a storm, I arrived in South Dakota to meet my Mom again and told her I was going to write songs about my father. Which is what I did. Many! And I’m still at it today!
You had a troubled time growing up, did you not?
My father shot himself in 1976. My Mom found him, and her and I both went into our separate shells. It was a shell game. I cooked and cleaned for my sisters until I was sixteen and then I got a job at Pizza Hut! Bought a car and went to live with my grandmother in California in 1979 because I was unhinged about the psychic fallout.
How did you deal with it?
The way I dealt with it was to write songs. The list is long and really is quite dramatic and traumatic to start to deal with. It goes through every period and album. “Ann Jane” is a perfect example. The lyrics are exactly what happened. I had by that point been doing this type of writing for a while and I discovered by direct storytelling and confrontation I could live again. I would also put verses about this in songs I started about something else. I saw this as a way of describing memory recall in daily life and my growing interest in describing many thoughts, emotions and stories in one or two verses at the same time. I experimented with writing methods — beat, collage, romantic, negative, writing slowly, writing fast, not writing at all, just submitting ideas to memory for lyrical recall later.
Anyway, a partial list of songs that include thematic stirrings about my Dad are “Waiting for The Sun,” “Crowded in The Wings,” “Clouds,” “Two Angels,” “Take Me With You,” “Sister Cry,” “Nevada California,” “Martin’s Song,” “Clifton Bridge,” “Salvation Blues,” “Still We Have Friend In You,” “My Own Jo Ellen,” “Rosalee,” “Two Hearts,” “Over My Shoulder,” “See Him On The Street,” “Ann Jane,” “Reds Song,” “How Can This Be?” and “Keith and Quentin.” Keith was my father’s name. Even today a song like “Long Distance Runner” pertains to this theme of struggle to cope with a dynamic situation that is not understandable.
That’s a long list of songs to deal with this tragedy.
You get the idea! This is a partial list. I wrote almost every song about that, basically pretty much all the songs associated with my name and songwriting skills are a part of have a line, verse or theme directly correlating to the loss and confusion my father’s suicide created inside of me. I injected my feelings about a very tragic event into songwriting in hopes of figuring the situation out! Did I figure it out? Absolutely not.
When you went off to the desert with Victoria to form the Creekdippers, was your intention to kind of get back to basics? Your music and your new lifestyle seemed innately intertwined. Were you trying to reinvent yourself at that point? It seemed such a deliberate departure from the Jayhawks. Was that a way for you to distance yourself from that whole scene?
My intention was to start my life. I had been hijacked. I started a band. I arrived there ten years later not being included in any of the financial and other basic decisions a band makes. The decisions were being made by Gary, our A&R guy, management, the booking agent and others. So rather than lie to myself, I started my life from that point of getting away from those people and being with people who were less controlling. I would ask questions during the studio days in Hollywood with the Jayhawks circa ’92 – ‘94 and was told the answers to my questions had something to do with Chinatown! I think they were referring to the movie. I continued my life from ‘95 on and never asked anymore about it. I wasn’t interested, so I never inquired about anything having to do with the Jayhawks. But I remain interested in the songs I wrote. They are beautiful. They are for my father. I will see him and my grandparents again one day. I will have something to show them. I will show them my songs, and with my songs, how much I loved them.
What sort of inspiration and satisfaction did you get from living out there in the desert? How did it affect your psyche? Did you find a new contentment? Did you ever feel like you had distanced yourself from the biz and from your fans, or did you feel like you were getting closer to something more important?
We worked hard outdoors in the sun and we still do today. I had dairy farmers in my family, so I found out after growing up in the city that I liked to be out in nature at the dawn hour. The desert is brutal, really. You can tell what killed an animal because they basically lay down next to what killed them. It is easy to tell good-hearted people from bad in the bright light.
I’m sorry to be so black and white; I understand leaving out shades of grey is incorrect in this age, but there are things that are truly scary here. I would not recommend it. But it is affordable. Really, I would rather live in a well-watered river valley in Nebraska, but I like so many people here, so I stay. I think at some point you have to conclude that my motives are of a personal nature as far as music is concerned. They revolve around my themes that I gather from life and the intersection of my search for my father and the great love I have for the sound of djembe, electric guitar, harmony singing… the joy of playing music really!
If I’m theorizing too much or getting too philosophical let me know
No, it’s just fine. So how did your solo albums evolve out of your tenure with the Creekdippers? What elements did you keep, and what new elements were you able to bring to the table?
My Own Jo Ellen  and December’s Child  are in fact solo albums. I was completely steering the Creekdippers ship at that point and doing all the writing and lead work. The first three Creekdippers albums came out for the first time in France as a nice compilation called Creekdippin’. This represents the trio of Vic, Razz and I. That album contains the early, cool Creekdippers songs and performances – “She Picks The Violets,” “Flowering Trees,” “Run With The Ponies”… We created effects without pedals! Then Glitterhouse put out My Own Jo Ellen and December’ Child, and those albums, along with a bunch of touring all over the continent, helped get us gigs to this day. What followed was constant touring and more albums. Then Salvation Blues  and Many Colored Kite .
There really is no evolution out of or away from or into something that is changing except life around us and the themes that haunt us. I am constantly on the same path. I vary the types of songs on an album with many different feels and groove types. I vary the instruments, adding many different instruments, sounds and varied performance recordings. I’m interested in location and outdoor field recording technique. I started this with the Creekdippers and now I am much more proficient with field recordings. I keep on the themes of my father and Midwest class struggle. When punk bands ruled in Minnesota, I started a folk country band. When minutia pro tool recording is everywhere, I’m interested in field recording. It’s because you have to find an opening!!! My dad was the Minnesota State Wrestling Champion. He did it by searching, probing, pushing, and then when an opening appears, pinning. He had me wrestling. Hence the wonderful Creekdippers song that appeared on [2004’s] Political Manifest, “My Father Knows Foes.” Victoria sang that so beautifully. Mike Russell and I would sit on the side of the stage and cry!
How did you meet Ingunn? Did your personal relationship evolve out of a musical relationship or vice versa?
We saw each other across a room and we were going out from that moment on nine years ago. We have a lot in common as far as our personal family backgrounds are concerned and so it really is good to find someone across the world that has more of your background and the things and ideas that you value than people right next door.
How does she inspire your music making? What sort of energy do you share between the two of you?
I always had the idea to invent new types of sounds and recordings, and we have definitely been successful with our first venture. Sylvie Simmons at MOJO put out the word early: “Good-bye Lizelle by Mark and Ingunn is a great album.” Our album Good-bye Lizelle does not sound like anything else. The first song has fifteen chords, the second has two and has Armenian instruments. The energy is dramatic and is living in now. It appears as if it’s sounding and singing like desert washed flowers of melody…joyous Fanta bottle clatter, the disassociated existential dreams of a song called “Cherry Thieves.” That is my best-ever old school harmony folk country song. I have birds singing on it from recording them outdoors. “Running Circles” is a moody poetic Armenian eastern jam with two chords using the Qanon. “Lizelle Djan” has fifteen chords that all flow together in perfect order, topped with a “60s harpsichord. The album cooks.
Tell us about the recording of Good-bye Lizelle. Where was it recorded?
Ingunn and I basically play all the tracks. We did it on a portable movie recorder bouncing to overdub onto another device. There is no ProTool editing, just final mixing. There are other musicians that add touches. We spent time in Armenia with an American charity group called the Paros Foundation. Ingunn played the Qanon and I played the drum. We have three different instrumental set-ups that we go through in our live show. Then drummer Danny Frankel and guitarist Neal Casal added their tracks back at home in California. The reason we were recording in far out places is that Ingunn and I waited in the visa line for five years and you have to stay out of the country while you wait. Today’s modern air travel is very affordable. Armenian people are very strong and well educated and they took us into their hearts and taught us many things about life, friends and music. We came back from there profoundly changed. How? I don’t care about people that treat me bad. I get the hell away from them and go on.
You spent a lot of your time during your career playing in bands, be it the Jayhawks or the Creekdippers? So do you feel liberated now that it’s your name on the cover? Do you miss the collaboration that comes with being in a group?
I don’t think or care about that stuff. I only think about lyrics and melodies and trying to keep Ingunn and I healthy and moving forward. That’s what all normal musicians think about. All this PR, booking agents, people making all kinds of dough is what it is… manipulated control to make some bucks.
Are people still coming up to you and asking you about the Jayhawks?
Nobody wants to know. I have a Facebook page. People write comments all the time. It’s always about “When are you coming back to Holland, Mark? The show was great!” or” “I love the new album, you and Ingunn sing great together.” We just played 50 shows in Europe. After the shows, we sign things and meet people. Nobody asks or wants to know [about the Jayhawks]. On the occasion that someone approaches us with a Jayhawks question, other people step in and cut them off. Ingunn and I have just sung together for 90 minutes, and then we are signing CDs and vinyl. Mostly vinyl! It’s weird to bring that old junk up directly after a show. People have 24/7 access to message bands and groups today. They don’t bring it up. There is still a sense of right and wrong and old school politeness left in the world today. [Below: an early American Recordings promotional photo of the Jayhawk]
You clearly have a very strong following in Europe. Had you spent a lot of time there cultivating this support? Why did you choose to focus your time overseas as opposed to here in the States?
I made My Own Jo Ellen and December’s Child with Glitterhouse Records out of Germany back in the early 2000s and now we’ve made Good bye Lizelle with them. They have a different business model, unlike American record companies, and they’re more socially aware and community based.
This works for me. I am against extravagant expenditures for album production and I’m against the use of giant expensive tour buses. I am against manipulated, well oiled, expensive public relations campaigns. Cars and public transportation work to bring music to audiences. So do community arts centers and union halls and churches as venues, all without overly loud production values and high-end costs. If you want things to be different, then you have to go out and do it yourself. Go plant yourself a field without genetically modified crops.
Photo Credits: top image by Mikko Pylkko; Olson and Ringvold via Glitterhouse; bottom image “Mark-olson-2010-10-23” by Håkan Henriksson (Narking) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Back in the late ‘70s a little ol’ band from Zion, Illinois, helped usher the term “power pop” into the rock parlance. (They are pictured above.) In 2015, the group is as active—and relevant—as ever. Our resident Shoes expert talks to cofounder Jeff Murphy about their recent releases, their involvement with a power pop documentary, and the twinned physics/aesthetics of vinyl.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
The Knack may have scored the biggest hit of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s power pop craze, but there were many other bands from that era who were just as talented and probably more well-loved by both critics and pop devotees. Some particularly memorable entries in the skinny tie sweepstakes include 20/20 and The Beat (both, like The Knack, from LA), Sorrows (from New York City), The Producers (from Atlanta), The Romantics (from Detroit), The Records and The Jags (both from England) — and, hailing from the small Chicago suburb of Zion, Illinois, a lovable, low-key but legendary band called Shoes.
I last wrote about Shoes for this magazine in 2012. That summer, they released Ignition, their first studio offering in18 years and one of their best ever. On the heels of that release came a single-disc anthology called 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection, courtesy of Real Gone Music. Then in 2013, Mary Donnelly’s exhaustive biography of the band, Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes, arrived. And the band embarked on a rare series of tour dates (including an appearance at South By Southwest at the annual BLURT/Dogfish Head Beer day party—check a clip from the performance, below).
In the two years or so since then, Shoes — singer-guitarist Gary Klebe, singer-guitarist Jeff Murphy, singer-bassist John Murphy and ‘new’ drummer John Richardson — has remained busy. (Sadly, Skip Meyer — who played drums on all the band’s major label discs — passed away last summer at the age of 64.) Ignition clearly lived up to its title; it served as a creative spark for Shoes and thrust the band back into power pop prominence after many years of flying under the radar. One of the band’s new projects is another compilation, Primal Vinyl, which arrived on Record Store Day (April 18th). The album was released as an LP by BOMP/Alive NaturalSound Records, in a limited edition and on rainbow-colored vinyl. (It is absolutely gorgeous!—Vinyl Ed.)
Primal Vinyl is a great investment not only for longtime Shoes fans but also for folks who are looking to familiarize themselves with one of the great pop bands of the New Wave era. It contains only a dozen songs (six per side) but those songs happen to be extremely well chosen. Pretty much all of Shoes’ albums are represented here with the exception of Ignition. Many of their best known songs — the hits “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late” from their Elektra debut, Present Tense; the haunting rocker “Boys Don’t Lie” from 1977’s self-released Black Vinyl Shoes; and later favorites like “Don’t Do This to Me” and “Love is Like a Bullet” — all made the cut. The band’s official sophomore set, Tongue Twister, is especially well represented, which is good news for this writer as it’s my favorite Shoes album. But Tongue Twister is represented, appropriately enough, with a twist: “Burned Out Love,” “Girls of Today” and “Hate to Run” — top notch tunes, all — are included here in their earlier, demo versions. And there’s another bonus for collectors: a live version of “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” (the closing song from Present Tense), which Shoes recorded in 2013.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jeff Murphy who, like the other members of Shoes, is still based in the Midwest. We discussed not only on Primal Vinyl but also the band’s past and future, the advantages and disadvantages of vinyl and power pop in general. Like myself, Murphy is an unabashed Beatles fan who never tires of talking about them. And despite his Midwestern roots and down to Earth demeanor, he’s clearly an artist — if not a particularly tortured one. “Today’s crop of [acts from] The Voice or American Idol [are] out of touch with the source of great art,” says Murphy. “Ugly, outcast or fringe characters stand no chance of winning or even participating in those type of popularity contests. Yet they are the most inspired to create the art that speaks to the angst that they feel — and [that] dwells deep within all of us. I don’t know if it’s true that you have to suffer to create great art but I do think that from suffering, a person feels a deeper sense of emotion that often gives rise to artistic expression.” Amen to that.
BLURT: Tell me a little about Primal Vinyl. What prompted you guys to do this?
JEFF MURPHY: Since we finished Ignition, we’d been talking about getting something out on vinyl. [It’s] just become one of those things that’s had a resurgence. We talked about getting Ignition done [on vinyl] but the length [prevented that]. One of the advantages of CDs — and the disadvantages of vinyl — is that you can make long albums. And we’ve always been into that. To us, it was always ‘let’s get as much music [on there] as we can, let’s [include] a lyric sheet and a poster.’ ‘Cause we’re collectors ourselves.
So I had been talking with someone at a distributor that we use. They recommended that we contact BOMP [who] were friends of ours. Back in the late ’70s, we did a single with them. Greg Shaw, of course, is gone. But [his widow], Suzy [Shaw], still runs the mail order. So we sent an email to Suzy about possibly getting Ignition done on vinyl. And she said, “Well, I don’t really do that end of it. BOMP [now] is really more kind of catalog stuff.” But her [current] husband Patrick runs this label called Alive Natural Sounds. So she passed me over to Patrick. [He] and I exchanged emails a bit and then he said, “What would you think about doing a Shoes primer? There’s a whole new generation of collectors and buyers and music fans — and they missed you guys the first time around. What would you think about that?” So they put together a list of songs and we got together, the guys in the band, and talked about it [and said], “Let’s do something a little odd. Instead of just making a collection of old songs, let’s [include] some demos or something people might not have heard.”
So it’s got some cool stuff [on it]. There’s something from Black Vinyl Shoes, there’s something from Present Tense, there’s something from Tongue Twister and Boomerang — all [our] albums. And then there’s also a couple of demos, there’s this live thing. To us, it was more exciting to have some [previously] unreleased things in there as well.
And there’s 12 songs on the album?
There’s 12 songs and it’s a pretty good sampling [of] our career. We tried to make sure there was something from virtually every record. Not every one but a pretty good cross section… There’s nothing from Ignition. ‘Cause what we’re kind of hoping is that we can do Ignition at some point down the line and maybe even add a song. We could do Ignition on double sided [vinyl]. We’ll see. That’s kind of future speculation [but] that’s what triggered the conversation with Patrick.
There’s three demos [of] songs that were done [for] theTongue Twister album. We had an eight-track studio we’d demo everything at before we’d go in and do the final version for the major label release. And they actually sound pretty good! In some cases, when you do a demo — and this has been something that bands have struggled with forever — there’s something [special] that you capture. Whatever it is that inspires that song, that’s the pure genesis of it. The first time you do it, it’s inspiration; the next time you do it, it’s imitation.
I know that we used the demo version of “Hate to Run” on Primal Vinyl rather than the version we did for Elektra. That is a perfect example of a song that John was never happy with; he always liked the demo version better. There’s a fire [to it].
We still have a whole set of demos for the Boomerang album that we did in the early ‘80s. We demoed the whole thing and we’ve still got those [songs] somewhere. It might be kinda cool to put those out at some point.
I think I read there are 800 copies [of Primal Vinyl].
Yeah, I thought we had done a thousand, but I read 800 as well. I don’t know if that’s because if there was some kind of under-run at the plants, or if they’re releasing 800 on Record Store Day and there’s actually more. I don’t think there [are].
It’s interesting that [vinyl] has experienced a resurgence in the last couple of years.
Yeah, it’s been surprising. And who knows [whether] it will expand or sustain. But we wanted to do it whether it was [popular or not]… I don’t know that this is the Record Store day vibe but [back in the day] there was a cool sense of community and socializing when you went into a record store. We got to know our local record proprietor. We’d go in and he’d pull a record out and say, “Check this out, you guys’ll like this!” It binds you, you know? There’s a sense of camaraderie that people don’t get when they swap CDs or [listen to] iPods! (laughter) So that’s part of what’s fun about it too. (Amen.—Record Store Ed.)
The limits of vinyl are partly simple geometry. All the grooves have to be crammed into that five or six inches of real estate — and the more grooves you try to cut in, the closer together they need to be. Since a loud passage cuts a wider groove, the only way to fit it all on there is to reduce the volume so you can squeeze the grooves closer together. Another factor is that the grooves on the outside are traveling much faster than the grooves near the inside. This creates multiple problems; there is less real estate to write the information as the needle gets closer to the inside of the disc, so there is more compression and less volume. Also, the higher frequencies become more muted and distorted because of the speed reduction… It doesn’t seem that noticeable on other bands’ music but when it’s you’re own music, you become hyper-sensitive to all the little hiccups and changes.
But all that aside, it’s still the format that evokes the most love, devotion and respect. It demands more listener participation than the download and encourages the listener to take the album’s songs together, as a more complete body of work, rather than the cherry-picking of song downloads. It’s like only reading one chapter of a great book; no matter how well it’s written or how engrossing it is, the entire book reads as a complete experience.
Can I ask you about a couple of specific tracks on Primal Vinyl? One of the songs that you did that’s always been one of my favorite Shoes tunes is “The Summer Rain.” I was just curious — any memories of what inspired that song? It’s one that’s aged really nicely.
Oh, thank you. I remember vividly when I wrote that song. I like the D chord; it’s just got a nice chime. It seems like almost every record, I do a song based around the D chord — and that’s one example.
When I wrote it, it was in the pre-drum machine days. So if I was writing at home — or Gary or John was writing at home — we would maybe have a little clicker or something to keep time. What I did was [take] the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper” — not the song that kicks off the album but the song right before “A Day in the Life.” It’s a little faster [and] it’s got a nice feel to it. Paul counts off ‘one-two-three-four’ and then [there’s] the drum thing. So I recorded that and made a loop of it. [And] that was my rhythm track! That’s what I constructed that D chord around — that speed and tempo and drum pattern. And then of course the echo was a direct homage to “Paperback Writer.” [I think] “Paperback Writer” is the moment when pop music became power pop. I love the riff, I love the guitar tone, I love the vocals, I love the technology — it incorporates all these things I love [about] the genre that we have become part of.
I’m leery when someone tries to pigeonhole a band and says, “How do you feel when they call you power pop?” My first response is, “You need to tell me who’s power pop and I’ll tell you if I’m part of that or not.” (laughs) Because the genre is defined so loosely. Some people are very strict: jangle guitar, Beatle thing. That’s part of it. But to me, it’s much more vast than that. I [consider] people like Nirvana power pop. People like Foo Fighters and Fountains of Wayne and even Collective Soul. I mean, that’s all in the genre. But from a strict definition, people kinda weave in and out of it. I think I said something to you [earlier] about how The Beatles, of course, are probably the genesis of the whole power pop thing. But people wouldn’t think to include a song like “Helter Skelter” or “She’s So Heavy” — and yet it’s the same band. That’s why it’s really confining when people say power pop. For the most part, it’s kind of a clever way of saying “wimpy rock.” And I don’t look at it that way.
But “Summer Rain” is definitely one of those songs that would probably be considered — at least by us — pretty squarely in the power pop [genre].
Tell me about “Tomorrow Night,” which kicked off Present Tense and is also the first tune on Primal Vinyl. You sang lead on that one and that’s obviously one of the more popular Shoes songs.
Yeah, it’s kind of come full circle. Gary and I wrote that song together. In the late ’70s, Greg Shaw from BOMP! had approached us and asked us if we would record a single. And he asked us to re-record the song “Okay,” that was on the [independently released] Black Vinyl Shoes album. In our band, we strive very hard to keep everyone happy and to [have] equal representation. John wrote “Okay,” a single only has two sides and there are three writers [in Shoes]. The only way to make it equal was for Gary and I to write a song on the B-side.
I had started something; the working title was “Wonderwax.” It was kind of the picked guitar part that goes through the song. That’s all I had at the time. So Gary and I sat down — we literally sat across [from each other] and we threw lines at each other and threw guitar passages at each other until we came up with that [song]. There’s three versions [of ‘Tomorrow Night”], actually; there’s a demo version, there’s the version that was released on BOMP! and then there’s the version that we did on England, which showed up on Present Tense. And that’s the version they chose [to include Primal Vinyl].
Is there anything else that Shoes has going on that I should know about?
Well, I haven’t read it but I know that the second volume of Ken Sharp’s book [is] coming out, Play On: Power Pop Heroes, Volume 2. I read Volume 1. In Volume 2, I guess there’s a pretty decent section on Shoes.
One of the [other] things is that there’s a filmmaker named Justin Fielding who is working on a power pop movie, sort of a documentary. He’s been flying around the country, interviewing people. And he’s coming to the Midwest [soon] and wants to interview us for that. He said, “How many bands can you incorporate into an hour and a half documentary?” But he said Shoes — because of the ‘do it yourself’ thing [and] because we’ve sort of worn just about every hat [and] experienced so many different facets of the industry — [are] gonna figure pretty prominently in this documentary.
And like I said, we’ve talked about trying to get Ignition out on vinyl. Maybe we can get an additional song on there. I’m pretty sure Gary’s got new songs in the oven. So there’s always something going on.
Go HERE to read Prof. Steinfeld’s earlier interview with the Murphy brothers.
A story from the editor’s archives on the Aussie punk legends.
BY FRED MILLS
We Australian punk and rock fans living here in the States can be a long-suffering lot, given that the chances of seeing most of our heroes live are frequently next to nil, and the cost of mail-ordering Australian-only records can be equal to a couple month’s rent. Indeed, yours truly’s latest heart d’sire is Radio Birdman (Citadel Australia), a 7CD/DVD box set comprising all three of the group’s original studio albums (Radios Appear, both the Aussie and the American versions; Living Eyes) plus accompanying bonus discs of rare and unreleased material, a seventh disc featuring a 1977 live concert and a DVD of live material. According to the label, “The studio albums will also be re-issued on vinyl. Each release will be 140g audiophile quality and where possible all artwork has been reconstructed from original photographs. The 19-track Live At Paddington Town Hall Dec 12th 1977 will see life as a double LP in a gatefold sleeve.”
What’s a Birdman acolyte to do? Why, revisit past glories while saving up the paychecks, of course! Read on…. (Below: the band in 1977)
In 2001 Sub Pop issued The Essential Radio Birdman anthology, which at the time was the first legit Birdman artifact to see US release in nearly a quarter century. While over the years aficionados of Australian rock ‘n’ roll could lay their paws on selected reissues and bootlegs via import mail order sources, it almost goes without saying that the term “long suffering fan” was tailor made for them. Subsequent to that, against all odds, the band got back together (they had done likewise in 1995, appearing in ‘96 and ’97 at the annual “Big Day Out” festival), and the reunion eventually extended well into the decade: 2006 saw the release of a new studio album, Zeno Beach, and this led to a U.S. tour and the 2010 concert album Live In Texas.
Yours truly didn’t get to see the band on the tour, but thanks to a generous colleague I scored a tour teeshirt which I wear proudly to this day.
Why does the Radio Birdman legacy loom so large? Well, while these “legacy” issues are often a matter of perspective (and let’s face it, fanboys like me have none), to say that Radio Birdman was just another Aussie hard rock band would be akin to claiming that the Stooges was just another Detroit garage combo or that Blue Oyster Cult was just another Long Island boogie outfit. Hell, it’s no coincidence that Birdman took both its name and its debut album title from Stooges and BOC song lyrics! Emerging from the ashes of two Sydney garage bands, TV Jones and The Rats, and going on to release but one album during its attenuated ’74 – ’78 lifespan – 1977’s Radios Appear — Radio Birdman did fire one of those proverbial shots heard ‘round the nascent punk world.
In particular, that salvo was heard in the band’s native Oz. Musicians by the score were inspired by the Birdmen’s fierce rock ethic; audiences would chant the signature Birdman tag line, “Yeah, hup!” (from the anthemic “New Race”) en masse just as fervently as Americans shouted “Hey-ho, let’s go!” at Ramones gigs. According to author Vivien Johnson, in the exhaustive, excellent 1990 bio/oral history Radio Birdman (Sheldon Booth Publishers, Australia), “Radio Birdman were not typical – they were proto-typical. The energy of the response they generated in their audiences and their utterly uncompromising attitude towards any and every attempt to limit their music inspired in their wake an explosion of punk bands coming out of their old dancing grounds in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.”
Nowadays Radios Appear is ranked alongside the likes of Raw Power, Horses and Kick Out The Jams as a go-out-and-form-a-band timeless classic. It clearly benefited from being caught up in Sire Records’ mid-‘70s punk/new wave signing frenzy that included the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Dead Boys and Saints. But it has stood the test of time, too, its eclectic musical blend of garage, psych and surf marking it as a proto-punk artifact, its creators – vocalist Rob Younger, guitarists Chris Masuak and American-born Deniz Tek, keyboardist Pip Hoyle, bassist Warwick Gilbert, drummer Ron Keeley — the most charismatic rock ‘n’ roll thugs since the Pretty Things terrorized London a decade earlier.
The band split prematurely, in the summer of ’78, on the eve of what would have been their first US tour, supporting the Ramones. They’d decamped to the UK to record their second album, Living Eyes (which sat in the vaults for three years before seeing posthumous Oz release) and were touring with labelmates the Flamin’ Groovies when Sire dropped them. Disillusioned, disorganized and rather disheartened by a less-than-warm embrace from the London punk contingent, the Birdmen called it a day.
Radio Birdman reunited for a brief memorial tour in ’95 to celebrate the Australian CD reissues of the two albums ; a superb live CD, Ritualism, resulted. Over the years Younger and Tek have been the most musically active, teaming up in ’81 with Gilbert, Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s Dennis Thompson to form New Race. Younger went on to front the still-extant New Christs (a new CD is due soon on Man’s Ruin), while the Montana-based Tek concurrently works with the Deniz Tek Group and Deep Reduction — whose second album, featuring Younger on guest vocals, is just out on Get Hip – and he collaborated in ’96 with Wayne Kramer and Scott Morgan as Dodge Main.
The 22-song retrospective The Essential Radio Birdman presented the choicest of the choice, from Radios Appear’s Dick Dale-meets-Blue Oyster Cult “Hand of Law” and dance anthem/Iggy tribute “Do The Pop” to Living Eyes’ throbbingly psychedelic “I-94” and garage cruncher “Burn My Eye ’78,” plus a handful of, ahem, essential tracks from the rare EPs Burn My Eye and the live-in-‘77 More Fun.
I was lucky enough to hook up with both Younger and Tek for separate interviews on all matters Birdman, along with some updating of each man’s file, around the time of the release of the 2001 Sub Pop collection. I’d previously talked at length with Younger several years back while putting together historical liner notes for the 1995 New Christs anthology, Born Out of Time, that Canada’s Lance Rock Records issued. At the time I took note of the balance he seemed to strike between humility (at having been “just” a singer despite posterity’s judging him a respected rock pioneer), cynicism (at having been subjected to the horrors of the music biz) and pride (at having embarked upon a mission and accomplished it despite massive odds). To this day, those traits remain, as you’ll no doubt glean from his comments. Tek, too, while demonstrating a different sort of demeanor (a no-nonsense kind of guy blessed with a dry wit and a subtle romantic streak) has the kind of serene perspective that’s the mark of a rock ‘n’ roll survivor – all the better, given that his interviewer was precisely the kind of perspective-challenged, Birdman-loving fanboy mentioned above!
Younger himself suggests a key personality demarcation between the two Birdman founders, leading one to surmise a source of that ever-important “creative tension” that has helped fuel the great rock ‘n’ roll partnerships through time: “Between Deniz and myself we should be able to set things straight about the band for your article, Fred. Deniz is an ace at maintaining mystique; I, on the other hand, excel at demystification. I know who I’d prefer to listen to!”
Below you can read what both men told me about all this, and more, some dozen years ago, so note that the comments at the end about reunions and such were clearly, ahem, premature. Yeah, hup!
First off, is the set remastered from the original tapes? Any outright remixing done in addition? I have the ’95 CD reissues of Radios Appear and Living Eyes that Red Eye issued in Australia, and at the time you remixed the latter because, as I understand it, you were never happy with the mix on the LP.
YOUNGER: I think the Radios Appear/Burned My Eye-era tracks are the remastered versions from the Red Eye reissued stuff, and the Living Eyes material is the re-mixed gear from that period also. The remixed versions of certain Australian-version Radios Appear songs used also for the “White Album” version of Radios Appear are the ones likely to be used again I’d imagine, but I’m unsure, and those were remastered for the Red Eye release. In the case of re-recorded versions, like “New Race,” “Anglo Girl Desire,” I think we’re using the later ones. Is this confusing to you as well. Deniz’s call on this would be the definitive one.
DENIZ TEK: There was no new remix this time. It was mastered from the Red Eye reference masters [used for the CD reissues]. In 1995 Rob and I remixed the entire Living Eyes from the original 2”, 24-track tapes, with the help of Chris Masuak and Phil Punch. Phil engineered those sessions for Red Eye at Electric Avenue – the old Trafalgar Studios – which is the same place where Radios Appear was recorded in the mid ‘70s.
What was the selection process for the Sub Pop compilation’s 22 songs? Was it just you two or were the other members involved? Any particular thoughts or emotions you experienced during the compiling that, upon reflection, made you say, “Hey, this was a pretty good/this was a pretty excruciating moment?”
TEK: No really excruciating moments but some of the original Burn My Eye EP makes me cringe a bit. There were many good moments. I don’t usually ever listen to this stuff unless I’m at someone’s house and they happen to put it on. I’m usually surprised by the quality… and I get to wondering if I can still play that well! I can and more, but what I’m hearing is a group spirit in RB that exceeded the technical limits of the individuals involved. I think the live tracks are exceptional and contain energy that was difficult to achieve in the studio format. There were concessions made all around, since not everyone has the same appreciation for particular songs.
YOUNGER: Just Deniz and Andy at Sub Pop, I forget, selected the songs if I recall. I was asked what I thought and it looked alright to me. I don’t know if anyone other band members were asked, but that would’ve complicated matters because how many bands agree wholeheartedly on anything? We had 6 members!
The real “excruciating moments,” for me, relate to listening to playbacks of my singing. TheRadios Appear/Burn My Eye sessions are a bit of a blur now. It was all new to me at the time; surely I had fun, and overall it was quite painless. A lot of stuff went down live in the studio. Certainly, quite a few vocals, such as that for “TV Eye,” were taken while the band played it, and the rest, for better or worse, would be first or second takes. And Deniz has always entrusted me with the “responsibility” of choosing which solo of his to use. Initially, we did have a minor shitfight with the producers about whether we could to be told how to sound, matters of “direction,” etc., but that was sorted out pretty fast. After some argument it looked as though the whole session would fall flat on its arse, but they said, well, go in there and play something anyway. We did, and they were still interested. Nobody else had been too thrilled up to that point. We’d talked, and sometimes played, to other producers, having been feted by an editor of our big rock mag at the time, RAM, but these meetings didn’t work out for us because we were so unbending on everything. We probably looked like trouble. I hope so.
In that vein, were there songs necessarily left off the Sub Pop disc that either of you would have wanted? I know from my conversations with Rob several years ago when we brainstormed the sleeve notes for the New Christs anthology that he can be intensely self-critical of his own performances, so I wonder was either of you also dead set against certain cuts as well?
TEK: I would have left off “Snake” since it was really more of a TV Jones song in my mind than a Radio Birdman song, same for “I 94.” But Andy at Sub Pop had to have those. “Monday Morning Gunk” was another TV Jones era tune that I nixed. I could have included “Hit Them Again,” which Rob dislikes, “Iskender Time” and “455 SD” but they didn’t make the cut. Remember you can only get 74 minutes on a CD and that’s pushing it.
YOUNGER: I didn’t have to say which songs I didn’t want on there; Deniz knows which ones they are. There are a few I like that didn’t make it. Things like “Time To Fall,” “Iskender Time,” didn’t made the cut. Overall though, it’s quite comprehensive; it’s us.
What about rarities and unreleased material? While the More Fun and Burn My Eye EP material was nice to include, was there stuff in the vault that you considered releasing? Or would there be a rarities collection perhaps in the future?
YOUNGER: That topic never came up, but I don’t know of anything that’s never been released that I’d particularly want released now. There’s talk of live-to-air radio stuff being put out in the future. We tend to disagree rather strongly on the quality of that material. Personally, I think the sound and atmosphere on “Dark Surprise” and “More Fun” — both live recordings included on this new release — are way superior to anything else we did. Alan Thorne’s engineering had a lot to do with those aspects I believe, and the general ambience of the Paddington Town Hall. [The live song originally on the More Fun EP were recorded live in Sydney on 12/12/77.] They were mixed long after the band had split up. Seymour Stein of Sire Records, apart from peripheral reasons too delicate to recount in detail here, wanted to sign us on the basis of our live version of “More Fun” which he heard us play live once or twice in Sydney.
TEK: There are studio outtakes in the archives, mostly covers and at least one original that I know of, from Radios Appear sessions, that have never seen the light of day…for fair reasons! Even the bootleggers don’t have those! But you don’t have to release the last dregs, even though many bands do. So there won’t be any more studio rarities coming out. However I would like to see a live album from the Paddington Town Hall show, which was a very good night, well-recorded on 16-track mobile.
Speaking of bootlegs, not long ago when Deniz was in Arizona visiting his brother he encountered a Birdman bootleg, Murder City Nights, which was a live broadcast circa ’76 in Sydney, in the record store where I work and was quite displeased. This led to an email exchange about the possibility of a Birdman archive being set up where live material was made available officially, so I’m wondering about each of your thoughts in that regard, as well as your opinions on bootlegs. A number of artists do their own archive releases — the Dead, Pete Townshend, etc. — and this serves both artist, in terms of “beating the boots,” and the gotta-have-it-all fans as well.
TEK: A lot of tapes now in circulation are sonically bad, and I don’t think that inferior material warrants the effort in setting up and administering an official archive. There is already an effective underground network that handles that stuff well enough. But I would really like to see the best live material mixed and mastered well, and made available on record. I don’t have anything against fans and collectors keeping and trading any old live tapes for their own enjoyment, but I can’t accept the idea of profiteers generating substantial income from material they have stolen from artists.
YOUNGER: I’m of the view that it’s senseless bothering to worry about it. I didn’t always think that way. I used to refuse to autograph bootlegs, which was pretty churlish. I’ve never heard a bootleg recording by hardly anybody that I thought was essential listening, let alone our’s. If “officially” releasing these recordings helps in some way, makes money for a friend, I won’t block them, but really, most of what I’ve heard, which isn’t a lot I suppose, isn’t to my liking, and I’d say it’ll compromise us rather than flatter. Guys like Pete Townshend are already wealthy from their hit records. They were bootlegged because they were big time. At our level, the bootlegs can just compromise you, especially when they are studio recordings released almost simultaneously with the official ones. How do they do that? It happened in Italy to my band The New Christs apparently. Pricks.
A couple of Sydney newspaper clips from the Jan. 13 1995 show at Selinas offered contrasting views of your ’95 reunion. One was ecstatic (“there will always be a place for them should they wish to come back in another 20 years”) while the other one was, shall we say, less than thrilled (“their importance has never been greatly related to their musical worth”). Any reactions?
TEK: The Selinas show was a great one. I think it rivals anything we ever did in the old days. However this music isn’t for everyone, obviously. Whether in 1976 or 1996, some journalists just wont get it. But they have to write something, since it’s their job.
YOUNGER: A long answer to this kind of question probably comes off as being defensive, and sensitive to criticism, but it brings up the subject of our context and relevance to a time and a scene. I hope I can make sense here.
Some critics loved us and some didn’t. It’s just opinion. I won’t contest the first quote — it’s favorable. That second quote is worth commenting on. Our influence, in retrospect, had at least as much to do with our attitude to our audience and to the music scene generally at the time as with any musical influence, but there was nothing like us around these parts, musically, at the time as far as I could tell, and rock hasn’t moved so far beyond what we were doing as to render us irrelevant after the fact, so I think that critic’s view is rather facile – probably, it was somebody who wasn’t born or out of knee pants by 1974. Our musical worth relates to the virtue of being different to other bands during our time. I’m not saying our music is or was totally original stylistically; I’m comparing us to other bands in a certain context, mainly a temporal one.
I wouldn’t be too eager to separate our attitude from our music – those elements were married. It’s easy to have a certain critical perspective in 1995, if you weren’t there in ’74 to actually check it out. Our material was musically varied, unlike most other band’s who think variation is a matter of fast or slow; it was played like there was no tomorrow –even the slow stuff, and it was basic. A huge proportion of groups in those days were just cranking out solemn shit like Free covers, and lots of 12 bar blues stuff. The big bands of the day — Sherbet, Skyhooks were the big socially relevant bands at the time we started out — were tepid fucking affairs and people tend to appraise them now in nothing more than affectionately nostalgic terms. It’s all a bit of a giggle now. People apologize for having liked them. With us, people today get a tattoo done of our symbol!
When we played we put on a show and that show wasn’t choreographed to the hilt, and we didn’t ever consciously use the same set list twice. If I spat sheep’s brains at the audience, it was intended just that once – we didn’t plan it to happen in the same chorus of the same song every time. We got banned from venues left right and center for being ourselves, which says a lot because these days anything obnoxious is simply co-opted by the record companies, a marketing angle is contrived to accommodate the so-called outrage. After punk hit, it was expected of bands to be obnoxious, profane, whatever. Most punk bands acted the way they were expected to, and were posers in the extreme.
In early days, bands down the rehearsal rooms used to sneer at us. At first, our original music, which consisted entirely of Deniz’s songs, and he was just starting out as a songwriter, doesn’t necessarily sound so unusual today after all the rock that’s gone down since, but it doesn’t sound dated either. Bands, in fact, still imitate us; some just bear some similarities, but many in the past have set out to copy us. I don’t care though.
For what it’s worth, the particular Selinas show the critic referred to, was, to my mind, the best gig the band ever played outside the Funhouse, where, in those earlier days, we were a different style almost – more experimental, erratic, and at least to me, more interesting. Still, I’m ashamed to say I like the idea of 3000 people screaming for another song.
I should’ve just said “fuck the critics, period” – sorry about the rant, Fred!
Speaking of live, you were able to tour the UK with the Flamin’ Groovies in the spring of ‘78 but didn’t make it to the U.S. Why did the band fail in that respect? Do you think the career would have been different if you’d made it to the US where your fanbase was definitely growing thanks to Sire issuing Radios Appear in the States?
TEK: Our U.S. tour with the Ramones was scheduled for summer of 1978 but was cancelled when Sire dropped the band from the label at the start of our UK tour, which was then funded temporarily by the distributor Polygram. It would have been impossible to do the American tour without label support. As it turned out, the band died a natural death anyway. On the skids both financially and emotionally, sick, exhausted, broke, no label and no support, there wasn’t enough critical mass of motivation to try to get it revved up again. People moved on.
YOUNGER: It’s pretty hard to speculate on might have been in terms of success. The interpersonal politics of the band were in a shambles when we were in the UK in ’78, so I doubt we’d have been able to stomach each other for longer than we did. But if I recall, it was apparent quite early in the piece that the US tour was never going to happen because Sire had pulled the plug on several bands on their label around the time we first got to England. It was through the kind support of people at Phonogram in London, who owed us nothing, that we managed to stay afloat for the five months or so we were there. I didn’t know the half of it.
Personally, I doubt we’d have made much of an impression in the States generally. To make a more lasting impression, it might have been good to have played there and be hated, like in Australia mostly. Maybe we could’ve been appreciated somewhere seemingly receptive – perhaps – like CBGBs, I don’t know. But the punk thing, which we were lumped into, wasn’t too widespread in the States in 1978, so there’s every chance we’d not have got a gig outside New York and LA, whatever the punk capitals were. Cleveland? You never know though. I stayed at these people’s place in LA – after the end of that tour – and they asked to hear my copy of Radios Appear. Honestly, I didn’t force it on them. They listened to all of it, up loud, and from that point on they treated me like someone with two heads. It’s never occurred to me until now, telling you this, that they might have been impressed, or better still: scared.
TEK: I’ve always thought the band might have done OK in America, where perhaps the fashion side of punk wasn’t quite so important — outside of NY and LA anyhow. In the heartland, we might have been taken at face value, i.e., as a good rock and roll band.
Fair enough. Okay, here’s where I lapse into a couple of my favorite cliché questions: What were the band’s greatest achievements/successes?
TEK: On a good night, it rocked really hard.
YOUNGER: I don’t really want to get into that “legacy thing.” Speculating on what we might have paved the way for; kicked down barriers, etc, etc. I get that from time to time. In terms of the ‘music industry’ we changed nothing much that I can see. We entertained a few people for a while; left a couple of records. Some who saw and heard us were left feeling something important had happened to them; so a lot of people tell me. Some bands – mostly ones I can’t stand, like The Angels, various others – ripped off parts of our routine, certain images we used, or took vague, half-arsed stabs at emulating our performing style, perceived stance, whatever, and did alright for themselves with it. Of course, I’d never ape someone’s performing style, or their clothes…..heaven forbid.
What I am certain of is that if I hadn’t been in Radio Birdman I wouldn’t have got as many fucks as I did, and probably less opportunity later on in terms of getting to tour Europe at least partially on the back of that band’s reputation. And, all the shit we stirred up got us noticed, and the confrontational aspect stuck to us: we’re bad boys, which is better than the other kind. These things must represent some kind of achievement.
Then what were its greatest weaknesses or biggest pitfalls?
TEK: No management or advanced leadership skills that might have allowed it to continue.
YOUNGER: In terms of pitfalls, they’re more related to my subsequent activities with The New Christs line-ups. Some people seem to think I long for these “halcyon days,” and they wear that sickeningly condescending expression — you know, poor guy’s deluding himself, playing the ingénue — when I say I’m far more interested in what I’m doing now. Jerks. And, naturally, there are still those who can’t accept that we don’t play Radio Birdman songs – but not as many now. They’re jerks too. It’s an insult to the people I play with who weren’t in RB. After all, I’m writing songs now, whereas back then I wasn’t, apart from words for “Aloha Steve and Danno.” These would be the same people who would’ve walked out when they got the sheep brains spattered all over them, or had their drinks knocked over while hoping to enjoy a nice night’s entertainment.
Was there ever a sense while you were in the thick of things in Australia that yeah, we got a great band here, one that people will be talking about a quarter-century later?
YOUNGER: I never considered we would have a lasting influence – no reason to. I did feel, early on in the piece, that we were going to have an impact on the local rock scene because I just felt that our activities were intense and somehow had meaning beyond simply playing a gig. Quite early on we saw our work as being experimental. We thought of our shows as “events.” I suppose I didn’t recognize in other bands any attitude, or any contempt for the pandering bullshit that permeated the band scene, or the passion to match Deniz’s and mine. Sorry, it sounds egotistical, but it’s true for me. I say “Deniz and I” a fair bit because the essence of the band, which we two started, was a merging of complementary attitudes to a greater effect; is this symbiosis? Sounds pompous, but maybe that’s just the way it looks when it’s written down. We had a mutual interest — maybe a craving even — for the upheaval that comes with willful, uncooperative behavior. I remember deriving a lot of satisfaction from us being made pariahs.
TEK: We most definitely [were aware of the first part of the question] at the time, but as to the latter, no way. We would have done well to think in terms of six month blocks. But one week was about the extent of our horizon.
What would you have done differently, if anything?
TEK: For one thing, I would have never worn those bloody leather trousers I got from Ron Asheton!
YOUNGER: I would’ve done lots of things differently, and I’d probably say I’d do those things differently too, 20 years later. If I had the chance again I’d have tried writing songs like Deniz encouraged me to.
And I wouldn’t have cut my hair before we went to England. Waist length hair would’ve enraged those punks in 1978!
Are you in touch with the other guys from the band? What are they doing musically these days?
TEK: I’m in touch with everyone except Warwick Gilbert. Chris has a new hard rock band the Klondike Solution. The Raouls — surf instrumentals — might have started up again as well, featuring Chris on drums and Warwick on guitar. Pip’s in my band, the Deniz Tek Group. And Ron has a pub rock band in England called the Suspects.
YOUNGER: Pip Hoyle, it seems, only plays when Deniz is in town. That’s pretty much what he’s always done. Even back in pre-Birdman days, say, with TV Jones, Pip would get up and play with Den, but never sat in with any other crowd, or joined a band. Great guy Pip, though I hardly ever see him. Chris Masuak does occasional playing, I think in a more country vein; not sure because I never see him around. Warwick Gilbert plays guitar for his wife Julie, who’s a singer, formerly Julie Mostyn of Sydney group The Flaming Hands. I think they’re into R & B and jazz. He’s also, fairly recently, done surf music with various people and he and Chris released a rather good 45rpm surf instrumental a few years ago on Munster, the Spanish label. Don’t see him around much either. Ron Keeley lives in England. I think the Radio Birdman reunion tour was his last gig. Before he did that tour he hadn’t played for 16 years.
Could you fill us in on the upcoming Deep Reduction album?
TEK: The new one has a different bass player and fashion consultant, Jonathan Sipes, who played guitar in the Omega Men. And Rob Younger does the vocals. The album is more coherent and unified than the last one, and is pretty much just rock in direction. Songwriting is shared between me, Jack Chiara and Rob. The art work is cool.
YOUNGER: It’s got some cool stuff on there; it rocks out. There’s a surf instrumental on there – “Maui Confidential” — a couple of flat-stick rockers, a Pink Fairies cover called “City Kids,” a blues workout with some very cool harmonica, and a few songs some might describe as in a vaguely 60s style. I put words and tunes — yes, tunes — to a few tracks, and they seemed to work alright at the time. There are a few writers in the band so there’s enough variation to intrigue the easily-bored, yet a consistency of style that’s sure to satisfy those who abhor the wildly eclectic. I’m of the latter persuasion myself. It was done in a bit of a hurry so if I have any reservations they’re to do with me wanting to fix a few bits of singing — de rigueur as they say. When my copy arrives I’m hoping for a pleasant surprise, having been removed from proceedings for some time. I got along great with the D.R. guys whom I’d never met before. They consider me part of the band. It was interesting how they trusted a stranger to contribute musically in the way they did. I wouldn’t have!
Deniz, what about your own group? By the way. what do you do in your spare time back home in Montana in between slicing up patients?
TEK: I don’t slice them up. I put them back together!
The Deniz Tek Group did some gigs in Australia over the Christmas period with Jim Dickson, Nik Rieth and Pip Hoyle, and I just got back from a European tour with Scott Morgan. I’ll be spending the summer finishing up some studio projects including a new Angie Pepper recording, and a Deniz Tek Group effort with Art and Steve Godoy. Hopefully by autumn we’ll do a second Glass Insects album also…and, I try to spend time with my wife and two teenage kids.
And Rob, how about the New Christs?
YOUNGER: The New Christs aren’t doing much right now. We’ve got an album coming out sometime on Man’s Ruin, but no release date has been set. there’ll be a CD and a vinyl one. We have magnificent new 7″ single called “On Top Of Me” b/w “Groovy Times” out now on Munster Records, the Spanish outfit. If it’s not on vinyl, it’s not really out yet. We were hoping to tour Europe this year but that won’t be happening.
Lastly, the inevitable question is, will there be a Birdman reunion to promote the Sub Pop CD?
TEK: There won’t be any more Radio Birdman shows…least of all, for promotion or marketing reasons.
[Ed. note: famous last words, Deniz… photo by Tony Mott]
“It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches”: the sonically pugilistic Americana duo shows its moves to the BLURT braintrust.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
The Americana duo Shovels & Rope is an anomaly in music these days: a critically-hyped band that actually manages to live up to all of the effusive praise.
Charleston-based husband and wife team Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst originally had no intention of combining forces, both seemingly content as separate solo acts. But a couple of fortuitous gigs in which each act served as the other’s sideman, years ago at a North Carolina club, got the pair thinking about the benefits of combining forces. Three albums (including their latest, 2014’s frankly amazing Swimmin’ Time, released on the Dualtone label), a handful of awards, and millions of fans later, Trent and Hearst are still living up to the hype.
The two took some time recently to talk to BLURT about the band’s beginnings, making a documentary and holding their own at festivals.
BLURT: I’m sure you’ve heard this question a lot over the years, so I apologize for you having to hear it again: You both started out as solo musicians; how did you decide to come together as a band?
TRENT: We had made a record while we were still very much doing things on our own and that record ended up being titled Shovels & Rope, so it was already like we had a toe in already. We hadn’t planned on every being a touring act or anything, but people would respond to that in a way that was different to the way they responded to the other things we were doing. At some point, there was one specific weekend when I had a gig in Charlotte at a club called the Evening Muse and Cary was my back up for that gig, and the very next weekend she had a gig at the same place and I was her sideman. It just seemed ridiculous at that point – we could probably put on one pretty good show between the two of us. We could actually stay out on the road for a while if it was both of us doing it together.
How much did that change the way you go about writing your music? Obviously when you’re solo you don’t have to run a song by anyone else to get their buy in.
HEARST: It doesn’t change the way we write together, but sometimes Michael will write by himself and sometimes with other band members; I, 99% of the time, wrote by myself and so before we started touring really hard we co-wrote the first Shovels & Rope record together – he brought in some songs and I brought in some songs… When we started touring together, we’d spend all of our time together and realized it was fun to write together. We still write separately and together for records.
Do you ever feel you have to stand up for a song that the other one doesn’t like?
TRENT: Usually one of us is standing up for a song that the other person wrote, that they don’t really like,
HEARST: That’s exactly right.
TRENT: We’ll have a very honest conversation with each other: “You have to show me all of them, even the ones you may not think are any good.” A lot of times, it’s those (songs) that end up striking a real chord with the other person and end up turning into special songs.
I love my wife dearly, but could never imagine working a job with her every single day. Being married and in a band together, did you ever have a discussion up front on how to make it work?
TRENT: We thought the exact same thing, so don’t count yourself out.
HEARST: Yeah, it wasn’t either of our ideas as the ideal thing to do, spending that much time together.
TRENT: But it has actually worked out and we give each other space when we need it. At this point, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way. But at first, we were both like “no, we shouldn’t do this.” It took a minute before we both came around to the idea, primarily because we’d both been doing our own thing for so long that it would be weird to go in with someone else, especially your spouse… It’s been great.
HEARST: Ever since we got married, and we’d been together a real long time before that, we’ve been traveling ever since our honeymoon. We’ve been on the road ever since, so we honestly don’t know any different.
HEARST: The documentary is a super precious, awesome experience that we cherish. We’re also humbled by watching ourselves. I think some people really love to see themselves on camera and neither of us, even someone who is as big a ham as I tend to be, neither of us really love to watch ourselves when that deep dark mirror is shining back on you. You say stupid things and don’t realize it until afterward.
TRENT: The way it all came about in the first place, when we first decided we were going to do this, that we were going to be a band called Shovels & Rope, we heard about these guys and did some live videos with them, so that we would have something to put on our website so that we could get gigs. We spent a day with them and just made all kinds of videos. A couple of weeks later they called us back and had this idea that they wanted to do a documentary about us. We didn’t have anything going on at the time. Nothing.
They just sort of wanted to document the way a family band was just working, how we did our thing. It was supposed to a couple of months and then it ended up lasting a year and then two years. Things just kept popping up. They ended up following us around for about three years when all was said and done.
HEARST: Yeah, we really became great friends with them… the fella that produced it ended up becoming our manager during the course of making the documentary. Those guys are great artists and we had a really great time working with them… We’ll be so gratefully to have this looking back 40 or 50 years. We’ll be able to prove to our grandchildren what we did.
So is this just the first step on your path to a reality show?
HEARST: Oh yeah (sarcastically). It’ll be called Take My Eyes Out with a Dull Spoon.
You guys have a very packed summer, based on your tour schedule. You’re also playing a lot of festivals. Do you enjoy those are or they kind of a necessary evil at this point?
TRENT: It’s just different and every festival is different from each other. The smaller ones definitely feel a little more special. The big ones can be such a spectacle, there’s so much going on and so many people, I sort of feel like it’s harder to connect than if you’re playing in a club. You’re also playing to all these other bands’ audiences as well as your own. Whereas headlining show all of those people are there to see you.
It’s a neat opportunity, it’s just a little different.
HEARST: It’s trial by fire. You’re standing before the gun line and you give everything you have and you only have half the time to do it. Thank you Cleveland!
Have you ever had the situation where you’re playing to a crowd and you guys just don’t fit it?
HEARST: Oh yeah! But I will say that we’ve also played in front of crowds that we don’t necessary get into, but I will argue that we hang pretty tough. We’ve never gotten the idea that anybody is like “I hate this band. Get them off the stage.” People will let you know that they like you and they’ll also let you know that they’re just waiting for the band you’re opening for. That’s ok. That’s just part of the game. It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches.
TRENT: We’ve got to go all 12 rounds.
Photo Credit: Molly Hayes
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