More than a superfan’s nod to one of his favorite songwriters, the 10 delightful songs on Spain Capers – which include 4 by Ian Hunter – find some of McCaughey’s less-visible sides on display. (Aside: scroll to the bottom for a nice audiovisual surprise.)
BY FRED MILLS
There’s a photo from a few years back, no doubt dear to the hearts of any Scott McCaughey fans who’ve seen it, that depicts the Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows/Baseball Project mainman posing for Chicago shutterbug Marty Perez’s lens beside Ian Hunter. McCaughey, with his shades and curly, shoulder-length locks, could almost pass for a sibling of the rock legend, although the shit-eating grin on his face gives him away not as a sibling but an unabashed Hunter superfan. McCaughey followers, of course will recall that the Hunter-penned ballad “I Wish I Was Your Mother” has frequently popped up in YFF/M5 setlists, and McCaughey’s love of Mott The Hoople was on further display via the title of last year’s 5-LP M5 box Scott The Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror.
With the release of Spain Capers, credited to Scott The Hoople, boasting cover art that’s an homage to Mott’s 1971 album for Atlantic Records, Brain Capers, along with disc art that mimics the old Atlantic LP labels, and featuring no less than four Hunter compositions, McCaughey is officially now a Hunter stalker. Welcome to the club, brutha! (Which is not necessarily a bad thing, having such an astute, devote student of rock ‘n’ roll history firmly in one’s camp, eh?)
McCaughey assembled the limited edition CD prior to embarking upon his recent solo tour of Spain, and as a winking nod to the Spanish market, replacing the “Featuring the Brain Caper Kids” legend on the original Mott sleeve is the Spanish text “El Ingenioso Hidalgo de La Plancha.” This translates at a couple of sites, including Google Translate, as “the ingenious gentleman of the plate,” which doesn’t make total sense to me unless it’s somehow referring to McCaughey’s Baseball Project work (e.g., “home plate”). Another site translates it as “the ingenious nobleman of the iron” which at first makes even less sense, although “hidalgo” is indeed Spanish for “nobleman” or “aristocrat” and I think most of us would agree that McCaughey is one of indie rock’s great noblemen who treats music with true aristocratic grace, so… I digress.
The 10-song Spain Capers may have been a tour-only artifact that McCaughey recorded over the course of a single week this past April, but despite the under-the-radar status it’s certainly no throwaway. More subdued and folky that McCaughey’s full band projects, the McCaughey originals are keepers destined for perennial status in his repertoire, from the strummy guitar/woozy-keyboard pop of “Have Faith in Yourself” to the riotously infectious “To Right All Wrongs” that’s partly a tribute to Cervantes’ classic tale of Don Quixote (the Spanish subtitle for the song translates as “the return of Don Quixote”) and partly a metaphor for the inherent road-warrior nature of touring musicians.
Those Ian Hunter covers? Be ye a Mott or an M5 fan, they are pure delights.
“Waterlow,” originally on 1971’s Wildlife, and “Sea Diver,” from 1972 breakthrough album All The Young Dudes, are both yearning piano ballads, and as folks probably think of McCaughey more as a guitarist than a keyboardist (this despite his utility-player multiinstrumentalist chops during his R.E.M. tenure), they make for nice departures. The wistful-yet-grand sounding “Scars” actually finds him singing in a voice uncannily like Hunter’s; the track’s plucked from ’95 Hunter solo album Dirty Laundry and could easily trick a blindfold test taker into thinking it’s a Hunter outtake or demo. And fans will be hoisting multiple ales in McCaughey’s direction for his inclusion of “I Wish I Was Your Mother”: it’s instantly recognizable and absolutely reverent, but McCaughey also makes it his own, with several flourishes in place (among them, a vocal that departs a bit from Hunter’s and a somewhat faster tempo) indicative of his having lived with the tune for a good while now.
Oh, and that McCaughey-Hunter photo referenced above? The same Perez pic graces the back sleeve of Spain Capers, wrapping everything up here perfectly.
Meanwhile, Ian Hunter probably needn’t worry about that tent with the small Minus 5 logo on the side that mysteriously appeared on his front lawn overnight. Word has it that it’s just where the new groundskeeper for the Hunter estate stores his supplies and lawn tools. At least that’s what we’re told. Right, Scott? Right?
Consumer note: There are only 250 numbered copies of the CD—McCaughey originally set up the Book Records label awhile back for when the Minus 5 wanted to do a limited edition or tour-only release—so by the time you read this there’s a chance it’ll be sold out. The “shop” link on the M5 site doesn’t show it, but instead takes you to the Yep Roc Records site where the various M5 titles are displayed, while searching for “Scott The Hoople” on Amazon only yields Scott The Hoople In the Dungeon of Horror. Perhaps an online petition clamoring for a repressing of the record would be in order, hmm….?
Below: Ian Hunter’s Rant Band joined by McCaughey, Steve Wynn and Chuck Prophet for a group singalong on “All The Young Dudes” at San Francisco’s Fillmore back in January.. Note “pinch-me” shit-eating grins on the faces of McC, Wynn and Prophet…
Five studio albums on, the veteran Knoxville (by way of Mississippi) trio mixes domesticity with tuneful, powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll. Tim Lee (of the late, great Windbreakers) and wife Susan reflect on their musical influences, their songwriting m.o., life in The Marble City, and their plans for the future. “More cowbell,” is what the distaff member of the band predicts.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Call it roots rock, indie rock or southern rock, but it really makes no difference. Knoxville-based band the Tim Lee 3 comes with a passion and pedigree all its own. While their no-nonsense approach and keen melodic sensibilities belie their stripped down trio format, the band manages to hone in on the basics while also creating a chilling, compelling sound all their own.
Tim Lee made his mark through a variety of early ventures that go back as far as nearly four decades, allowing him to accumulate a sizable solo resume. As part of power pop outfit known as the Windbreakers, the group he fronted along with his pal Bobby Sutliff, he released seven albums, while also working as a much in demand side man on tour with Let’s Active, Marti Jones and the Swimming Pool Qs. He subsequently went on to release several well received solo LPs before co-founding the Tim Lee 3 in 2006 with wife, bassist and vocalist Susan Bauer Lee and drummer Chris Bratta. The band can currently claim a catalogue consisting of five studio releases, two live albums and a recent disc from Bark (a side project that finds the Lees sharing instrumental duties). Their most recent release, 33 1/3, holds special significance; it takes its name from the Lees’ 33 plus years of marriage. (Go HERE to read our review of that record, which earned a 5-out-of-5-stars rating.)
The Lees have become hometown heroes in Knoxville, the city they took up residence in after moving there from their native Mississippi, but in person they emit an unassuming attitude and good-natured down-home attitude that readily reflects their southern upbringing. We recently spoke with Tim and Susan and asked them to share their backstory as well as their thoughts on their current state of affairs.
BLURT: So let’s start at the beginning. How did the two of you meet?
TIM LEE: The short version, as Susan likes to say, is that we met at a party at a college neither of us was attending. In the late ’70s, the Pike house on the Millsaps College campus in Jackson, Mississippi, took pretty much all of its cues from “Animal House.” I had a band that played there all the time because we were cheap and usually available at the last minute. We played one party, and Susan was there because her younger brother was in the fraternity and had coerced her into helping with the shindig.
I was pretty much smitten from the first time I saw her, but in my stupid adolescent mind, I decided that she didn’t like me. It took me about three months to figure out she didn’t hate my guts. We went on a date, and have pretty much been together ever since.
SUSAN LEE: Yeah, it took me three months to get him to ask me out… I had to keep showing up at all of his gigs.
Please share some of your early influences… musical, literary or otherwise?
TIM: I grew up in the ’60s, so my earliest musical memories were my older sisters’ 45s… Beatles, Beach Boys, Dave Clark 5 kinda stuff. Later on, my brother, who I shared a room with, brought home Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, and Sly and the Family Stone records. He was gone a lot, so I got to spend a lotta quality time with those records. The hook was set at that moment.
By junior high, I was starting to find my own music, mostly glam rock like David Bowie, Slade, T. Rex, and Mott the Hoople, who are still probably my favorite band of all time. I’d read Circus, Creem, and Rock Scene magazines religiously at the drug store near my house. Scouring the bargain bins, I found records by the Stooges, Velvet Underground, the Dictators, and such. Needless to say, I was ripe for the punk rock explosion of the late ’70s, from the Ramones to Patti Smith to the Pistols, the Clash, and the Jam. But, you know, I had started playing guitar so I was also big into ZZ Top, Skynyrd, and Thin Lizzy.
When I started hanging around Bobby Sutliff, I got a real education in obscure power pop, which paved the way for the Windbreakers and all that.
And books were always a big deal to me, starting with Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson in my teen years and going into my ongoing love of Southern Literature such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Willie Morris, Harry Crews, Cynthia Shearer, and others.
SUSAN: I didn’t pick up a bass until a year or so into the double-naughts, so I can’t really claim any historical influences on my playing… I was mostly influenced by people who I was hanging around with… Tim and, at the time, a musician named Don Coffey.
Songwriting came several years later, and a lot of that inspiration did come from southern authors… particularly Cynthia Shearer, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah, and a few stories from weird news articles or from someone I know. Tim and I have a lot of the same tastes in southern lit.
What prompted your move from Mississippi to Knoxville? Are you both originally from there? TIM: Over the first 20 years we were together, Susan and I moved around a lot. It just became habit. We might move down the street, or three states over. Right around the turn of the century, we had the opportunity to move to Knoxville to work for a magazine that was relocating here, so we took the plunge. Now 15 years later, we’re still here. It’s a very different culture from Mississippi (where we both grew up), more Appalachian than Delta, but there are tons of good people here. Fortunately, we know a lot of them now. Our friend RB Morris calls Knoxville “the Bermuda Triangle of Appalachia.” Tim, why did the Windbreakers wind down? Was it due to you and Bobby wanting to go in different directions? Were you pleased with the notices that the band received? Did the two of you ever think about reviving the band?
TIM: The Windbreakers existed off and on throughout most of the ’80s. Bobby and I were never not friends. We hung out and played together, even when we weren’t necessarily working on Windbreakers-related projects. We did a quick tour after the release of Electric Landlady, but it wasn’t long after that time that I started easing away from music. I’d grown weary of the way the independent scene had gone south in the wake of major label’s involvement. It was getting a bit too show-biz for my taste, so I fell off the face of the earth for several years.
[Below: an early promotional photo of the Windbreakers. Bobby Sutliff is on the right. Oh, and note the photo credit affixed to the promo sheet.]
Susan, when did your musical ambitions begin? Were they spurred on after you met Tim? Were you nervous, apprehensive etc. to take such a pivotal role in the band? You appear so confident on stage – was that a process or did it come naturally?
SUSAN: I didn’t start playing until a year or so into the double-naughts, and it was every bit as much a surprise to me as it was to Tim, but damn if the words were hardly out of my mouth before he was already back from the pawn shop with a bass in hand and ready to start teaching me how to play. I was on stage in six months and my first recording experience was Tim’s No Discretion  album.
I was fairly nervous for the first few live shows — if you look at photos from then I look like a deer in the headlights — but it wasn’t long before it felt totally natural. These days I can’t imagine not playing.
I didn’t start singing ‘til a few years later, and that was a more gradual progress. I started with small background parts in the studio — I think it was on Concrete Dog  — but it was a while before I felt confident enough to sing live, and even then, it was a good while before I felt that I could carry a whole song.
Is it extra challenging carrying on as a three piece as opposed to having more players in the band? Does it limit the parameters at any point, or do you feel like it offers ample opportunity to express yourselves in a more barebones way?
TIM: For years, I thought I’d never want to be in a three-piece, and I always insisted on having another guitarist. But the first time we did it, I just thought, ‘”Why didn’t I do this years ago?” I love it. The fact that Susan is such a solid bass player, and she and our drummer Chris have a great chemistry makes it easy for me. They’re so together that I can drop out at will and nobody notices I’m gone. Logistically, it’s great, because Susan and I know each other’s schedule, and Chris is super-easy to deal with, so it’s pretty effortless on all levels really.
SUSAN: Three people and gear fit really easily into our van.
How would you evaluate your progress so far? Are you pleased with the reviews, the gigs and everything else? More importantly, do you find it fulfilling?
TIM: At this point, I’ve been doing the band thing for nearly 40 years, and the record-making thing for over 30, and without a doubt this band is by far the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. If Susan had never started playing, I doubt I’d be half this active. But there’s just a ton of joy to playing in this band for me. We play more than I ever figured we would, which is cool, and our records are pretty well received among that tiny slice of the world’s population that’s likely to hear them.
SUSAN: I like to say that we pretty much fly underneath the radar… We are grateful for every kind word, and even the unkind one or two. Progress is relative, but we’re certainly happy with where we are in the grander scheme of things. We’re not fighting anyone for our slice of the pie… We’re making our own pie, and it’s damned good.
You’ve become key figures in the Knoxville music scene. So how would you sum up what’s been happening there since your arrival? How have you seen the scene developing? Do you think the town is getting the notoriety it deserves?
TIM: Knoxville has a lot of great music. The scene can be kinda scattered at times, but there’s never any shortage of cool stuff going on. In some ways, it’s kind of a well-kept secret.
SUSAN: One of the first things we noticed about Knoxville, when we started making pathways into the music scene here, was that there were a bunch of people who played music, liked cool music, and who didn’t know each other. If we’ve done anything here at all, I’d like to think it’s that we helped foster a sense of community … that we’re all playing the same three chords, so if you’re playing in 3/4 and I’m playing in 4/4, that’s no reason we can’t help each other out.
You frequently record in Tucson. Why do you choose to record there? What kind of vibe do you get and how does it impact the music?
TIM: Tucson has been kind of a home-away-from-home for our band over the past eight or nine years. Wavelab Studio is just such a great atmosphere for creating. The easy-going vibe reminds me a lot of recording with Mitch Easter, which we’ve done as well. In both instances, you’ve got tons of cool gear, but more importantly you have the right people to challenge you and to also push you further. You know, it’s the people who “get” you, who like your ideas, take them in and then come back with two more.
I’m a big fan of collaborative recording. There are some new studios coming along here in Knoxville, so it’s likely we’ll be doing more recording here as well.
Do the two of you collaborate on the songwriting? How do you develop your material? Do you test it onstage prior to going into the studio?
TIM: We’ve collaborated on songwriting a bunch of different ways. It goes in phases. We’ve sat down, toe to toe, and worked things out. We’ve thrown ideas out and one or the other has taken that idea and run with it. Lately, we’ve both been bringing in mostly complete songs, but we always edit each other. There’s not a lot of sense of “this is MY song” or “this is YOUR song.”
I like giving some of the songs I write to Susan to sing. She has a great knack for making them her own, both vocally and lyrically.
The vast majority of our songs get played live before recording. The exception is when we book studio time and don’t have time to work the songs out live.
SUSAN: Considering how long Tim had been writing songs, it was kinda intimidating for me to show him things that I was writing, so i just started leaving them on his desk on sticky notes. That’s how our collaboration started, and from there it went in every possible direction it could. There’s not a singular way we write… it’s all inspiration.
How does collaborating impact your lives? Some couples find it difficult to separate their work from their home life. How does the arrangement work for you?
TIM: Honestly, I think it’s like breathing for us. It’s not a big dramatic thing. It’s like, “Oh honey, don’t forget we need coffee when you go to the grocery store. And by the way, I’m working on a song. Wanna hear it? Oh, and what do you think about doing this gig on the 11th?”
To my mind, we really are just different halves of one being, so the collaborations are generally pretty smooth and effortless. My name may be the one in the band’s name, but to my mind the Tim Lee 3 is every bit as much Susan’s thing as it is mine.
SUSAN: It really is like breathing… When you’ve been married as long as we have, and you collaborate on everything in life, then music is just a natural part of our day to day existence. I don’t think we could separate it with a crow bar, real or metaphorical.
How would you describe the Tim Lee 3’s musical evolution? Where do you foresee the band going next?
TIM: I’m not sure I can properly answer that. We generally just write the songs, and then give them the leeway to become what they need to become. We don’t really plan things out, we try to trust our instincts and follow whatever muse comes along. We go through phases. There have been times when our live sets involved a lot more guitar solos and longer songs. These days, we tend to keep the songs pretty short and to the point. I do think our records have definitely become more involved and detailed, sonically speaking, since our first one, which was pretty much barebones rock n’ roll. We’ve got some new songs we plan to record soon, and so far they seem a little rootsier and straight up rocking. But who know what’ll happen when we get in the studio?
The follow-up to 2013’s Southeastern offers nuggets of Isbell’s hard-earned wisdom via perfectly-wrought lyrical details, all against a warm, mostly acoustic backdrop of gorgeous melodies and easy-going rhythms.
BY FRED MILLS
What does an artist do when his or her previous record generated unanimous critical huzzahs, landed ‘em on numerous magazine covers (including, ahem, BLURT’s issue 14) and notched multiple year-end awards—in this instance, the Americana Association’s Artist Of The Year, Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year? That level of acclaim must be immensely gratifying on one level, and a much-needed form of redemption for all the self-doubt that inevitably goes into any new project for a musician. Vindication, too.
On another level, however, it can be a millstone, because you’ve set your own bar impossibly high. What’s that old saying about reaching an artistic peak, a career high? Nowhere to go but down now… And I don’t care what any of them say in the interviews they do promoting the subsequent record: there’s no way to avoid at least the occasional how-do-I-top-that worry, so if they offer some party-line reply like, “I just went into it with no expectations…”, they’re lying. I’ve read speculative reviews about Dylan, for example, in which he is presumed to not give a damn about the public or its expectations when he enters the studio, but that kind of reckoning is more a reflection of Dylan’s outward opaqueness than an actual assessment. The dude’s human.
Now, to be fair, when Jason Isbell painted his masterpiece back in 2013 with Southeastern, there’s no way he didn’t sense he had something special on his hands. He said as much to interviewer Nick Zaino in our Isbell cover story: “I think my goals have always been the same, just to try to write the best songs that I could and tell the best stories and record a period of time. And then not screw it up in the studio. Serve each song individually and try to record the song in a very natural and honest way. I just think that we’ve gotten better at it. And I think I’m better at writing, just because I’ve spent more time with it.”
Isbell summed up his work ethic thusly: “You just write real hard. You just sit down and write real hard and you pay a lot attention to it and don’t get rid of your editors. There are people around you who will tell you a song is shit if it’s shit. And you put in the work. You put in the hours. There’s no magic to it. Just sit down and write.”
Indeed, to those of us who’d followed his career starting with his Drive-By Truckers tenure, the album was a logical conclusion, a summation—certainly not an out-of-the-blue shot. As I put it in my own review of the record, “2011’s Here We Rest [compared] to Springsteen circa Darkness On the Edge Of Town, given how that album was similarly populated by people who were grinding through assorted crises, some literal and some existential, and learning how to cope—or in some instances failing to cope, and suffering the residual fallout. If that notion holds, then I’m willing to propose that Southeastern is Isbell’s The River. Like Springsteen, he’s now turned the lens decisively inward in order to move beyond merely whiffing life’s elusive truths and gain a primal understanding of the ties that bind.”
With the new Something More Than Free, I’m loathe to extend that Springsteen metaphor, partly because it would set up false expectations on the part of the reviewer. What I can say, though, if pressed to at least briefly lend a comparison, is that just as the completion of mega-selling (it hit #1 on the charts and spawned several hit singles) The River freed the Boss to go in whatever direction he wanted, the success of Southeastern gave Isbell the opportunity to operate with a fresh palette and to proceed under the assumption of opening a new chapter.
Just to cite one bit of proof: Southeastern is regarded as Isbell’s initial artistic step forward with sobriety on his side. As such, that record was dotted with plenty of references to booze, drugs, personal trials, and a life that had been on the verge of bottoming out. Those same references no doubt contributed to the public’s embrace of the album, whether from its stark (if frequently poetic) confessional nature that had no patience with making excuses, or simply because a lot of us could identify with the dude. That part of Isbell’s job duly taken care of, Something More Than Free doesn’t automatically dispense with reflection—right from the outset, with opening track “If it Takes a Lifetime,” Isbell references the day-by-day nature of his ongoing recovery, the song’s working-stiff narrator noting how he stays away from booze and drugs (“working for the county keeps me pissing clear… the nights are dry as dust”). Still, the songwriter also clearly has his eyes on a long-term goal now.
In album standout “24 Frames,” for example, against a backdrop of gently jangling guitars, a reassuring bassline and wife Amanda Shires’ gorgeous, countryish fiddle hook, Isbell engages in an internal meditation that is nothing if not the sound of a man who has seen the proverbial light and is determined to make the best of this second chance:
“This is how you make yourself worthy of the loving she gave to you, back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing… you thought God was an architect, now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow, and everything you’ve built that’s all for show does up in flames—in twenty-four frames.”
Most of us can go our entire lives without ever arriving at such a deeply profound understanding of life’s fleeting nature, of its perverse vicissitudes. (God as a pipe bomb? The Christian right’s gonna have a field day with that one.) And in song after song, Isbell offers nuggets of his hard-earned wisdom, not necessarily in a battle-scarred, war-weary manner, and never like a preacher determined to shove the gospel down the congregants’ throats, either. Isbell is, after all, a storyteller first and foremost, and by allowing his characters—some of whom are rendered autobiographically, others probably as composites, and still others as pure fictions on hand to serve the story—to provide matter-of-fact observations with just enough detail to pique our interest, the songs gain their resonance.
There’s the traveler in the acoustic “Flagship” who looks back over the past and the arc of a relationship, concluding, “You gotta learn to keep yourself naïve, in spite of all the evidence, believe.” Later, the same traveler, or perhaps it’s the above-mentioned working stiff, reappears for “The Life You Chose,” a rumbly little anthem with a big-sky vibe, encounters an old lover and queries, “Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you? Are you taking the grownup dose? Do you live with a man who knows you like I thought I did? But I guess I never did…” By song’s end he’s asking the girl to take one last chance with him, but all along you can sense that, at least on some level, he knows it’s never gonna happen and that he’s trapped in a prison of his own memories and regrets.
And in the album’s lone rocker “Palmetto Rose”—by and large, these are acoustic-based songs with sundry, but subtle, embellishments around the edges, including slide guitar, organ and synth—a crusty cab driver picks up the narrative, outlining a proudly defiant life lived in the South and tacitly acknowledging how it is gradually slipping from view: “In that slow-motion between living and dead, he looked in my eyes and he told me, he said, ‘It’s war that I wage to get up every day. It’s a fiberglass boat, it’s azaleas in May. It’s the women I love and the law that I hate/ But Lord, let me die in The Iodine State.” In addition to regularly dwelling up his own southern-ness and how the region has shaped his sensibilities, Isbell’s got a solid track record of carving lyrical scenarios from conversations he’s had or that he overheard, and in his rich evocations and telling nuances one finds the mark of a genuinely gifted storyteller. Even Isbell’s throwaway lines are better than many of his contemporaries’ most precious ones.
I thought the highway loved me/ But she beat me like a drum—“If It Takes a Lifetime”
Jack and coke in your momma’s car/ You were reading “The Bell Jar”—“The Life You Chose”
In the lights, on the stage, in my heart/ I guess we’re all still finding our part—“To A Band That I Loved”
Seventeen ain’t old enough to reason with the pain/ How could we expect the two to say in love/ When neither knew the meaning of the difference between sacred and profane—“Children of Children”
When I get home from work, I’ll call up al lmy friends/ And we’ll go bust up something beautiful we’ll have to build again—“Something More Than Free”
More a quiet masterwork than an outright masterpiece, Something More Than Free isn’t qualitatively “better” than its predecessor. As previously noted, that would be impossible, and it would also be unfair to view it through such a lens. What it is, is Jason Isbell once again mining for songwriting gold and delivering a consistently pleasing collection. To say that the listener has to dig just a bit for the payoff isn’t to damn it with faint praise, either, because it’s the kind of record that rewards repeated listens with hours of pleasure. Boasting arrangements that keep the focus squarely on Isbell’s voice—still soulful, still full of vigor, simultaneously ancient and youthful—and thereby serving to ensure that the lyrics are clearly discerned, Something More Than Free is like a novel set to music, each of its 11 songs a separate chapter that, when absorbed in full, leave you with the same kind of psychic shift a good book sets into motion.
Isbell can hold it up proudly alongside Southeastern, his fans secure in the knowledge that this man has a long, fruitful career ahead of him, and that anyone that wants to trust him and come along for the ride won’t be disappointed.
As Isbell himself put it a few years ago, “You put in the work. You put in the hours.”
Photo Credit: David McClister. Below, watch the NPR video of Isbell and his band The 400 Unit putting together “24 Frames” in the studio.
“The first music I loved was psychedelic… just always felt the need to push the brightly painted boat out further.” —Edward Ka-Spel (Above: photo by Inge Bekkers, courtesy Ka-Spel)
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
For the uninitiated, the Legendary Pink Dots create psychedelic songs that blend religion science and mythology into their own dense claustrophobic world.
As a band that has lived most of its life pitched on the edge of obscurity they have managed to assemble one of the most fiercely independent visions of music this side of Hawkwind.
The Maria Dimension, which came out in 1991 on Play It Again Sam (PIAS) and which celebrates 25 years since it was recorded, is as life altering a record as they come. Part cerebral science fiction part horror story, punctuated with a narcotic beauty, the record rotates like some rogue satellite spinning towards uncharted worlds.
It’s a record with a pulsing femoral tension that sucks you into its murky vortex.
To quote a review I once wrote about the album, “The Legendary Pink Dots album The Maria Dimension has as Bob Calvert of Hawkwind fame once said on his Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, ‘A magnificent engine of steel and gleam’ at its core. I was blown away by this album back in 1991, and felt it was a masterpiece joyfully out of synch with the musical zeitgeist of the time. 25 years on, the music still sounds as unique and compelling as it did back then. That said, nothing could replace the memory of the first time I played this record on my college radio show. It felt like a sinister interception of a radio broadcast from another planet occupying a space where the Pain Teens are hanging with Syd Barret.”
I’ve come to a more recent conclusion about this album that what Edward Ka-Spel and crew have created here is something more subversive than I could have ever imagined back when the album came out. It’s more than just a tightly wound universe they’ve concocted, I’d say they were able to transcend the boundary between music and religion with this record. If you believe that music is its own language and that there are very real limitations to how we verbally describe things, then The Maria Dimension has created a aural vocabulary for communing with a much larger presence. It somehow has perfected the vocabulary for us mere mortals to transport us not merely out of our bodies but to suspend our own limited thinking allowing Ka-Spel and the Dots to bring us to a place where, as writer Ernest Holmes says,
“There is One Infinite Mind,
which of necessity includes all that is,
whether it be the intelligence in man,
the life in the animal,
or the invisible Presence which is God.”
I decided to contact Ka-Spel to talk about The Maria Dimension and where the “brightly painted boat” is currently moored. (Below: the band now)
BLURT: To start off where and when was The Maria Dimension recorded?
EDWARD KA-SPEL: All recordings took place in the barn next to the home of sax player Niels Van Hoorn on the border of Holland and Germany. We had an 8-track studio cobbled together and a stirring view of the great river Waal. The only hazard was the odd thunderstorm, which would mean a rapid dive for the mains switch to save everything from going up in flames.
Can you go into some detail as to how the sessions for the album went, something about the recording process and some of the unique instrumentation used and any special production techniques employed?
The album before Crushed Velvet Apocalypse had been very much composed beforehand by myself and Phil (The Silverman) in the flat we shared- so it was time to throw the gates of chance open. We literally improvised for a month with no restrictions. Two huge kettledrums were dusted off, Bob got the sitar out of the case, I dug out little stringed souvenirs, which I’d found in Greece and other exotic places. Bob recorded EVERYTHING on his cassette recorded which was placed in the middle of the room- it was necessary because half-inch tape was pricey. We re-worked much of it formally for the album itself. Mixing was eccentric. Engineer Hans left the band midway through recordings, so it was a case of 2 octopuses on a mixing desk with the captain barking from the back.
What is The Maria Dimension?
A place where multiple Marias sit serenely and wave to us as the snowflakes fall. It is not an earthly place.
Did this idea of a Maria Dimension already exist and lead to songs coalescing around that “unearthly place,” or did the idea come later?
It was there at the time.
Who designed the cover of the album? Why was the original art not used for some later editions of the album?
Stephan Barbery (house artist at Play It Again Sam records) painted the cover after I gave him the concept outlined above. I guess that in my head I had a real scene etched (it was actually a dream) which could never in fact be captured unless someone sneaked inside my mind with a camera. Still it is THE cover for MD; a later Polish release was simply part of an album series with covers designed by a single artist…
Who produced the record?
We all did.
PIAS as a label back in the late’ 80s early ‘90s seemed to have quite a unique roster of artists, what was there reaction when you first played them the album?
They were great. Really got behind it and it did surprisingly well for an obscure band like The Pink Dots.
How long had the songs on this album been floating around in one form or another?
“The Third Secret” had been there for maybe six months but most were recorded after being pulled fresh from the river outside.
Did you have a specific narrative arc for the sequencing of the album if so can you tell us what it was? If not what were some of the choices you remember making in terms of the running order?
It just seemed to flow naturally little discussion was needed.
Personally where do you place this record in terms of all of the Dots records?
Obviously very high up there considering the fact that we’ve just put out a 5-LP Box set containing all the sessions as well as the full album in its glory (the original vinyl edition was severely truncated as CDs were just becoming all the rage).
Do you feel this album gave the band a higher profile especially in the US given the amount of press the album received and how it was promoted to college radio?
It surely helped, although the successor Shadow Weaver fared better in the States.
In terms of live shows, have you ever played the entire album all the way through live for an audience?
No, we tend to dive in and out, pick and choose- but odd songs still crop up live today.
“Disturbance” is one of the finest songs you have ever recorded can you talk about how this song came into being?
Began as a concept to see how stacking guitar after guitar would sound. Phil provided the perfect “Slave ship rhythm”. We were very much into German bands of the ‘70s at this time.
In terms of musical influence that fed directly or indirectly into some of The Maria Dimension’s tracks you mention you were listening to ‘70s krautrock; any bands and albums in particular?
Nothing particular. The usual culprits like Ash Ra Tempel, can… but also early Chrome.
Speaking of 70’s German bands, have you ever wanted to do much longer Amon duul like numbers?
They do happen, but we trim them before they go out for public consumption.
Your music is part psychedelic mixed with an industrial vibe on some of the tracks, was this album a point in time where both began to coalesce as equally important musical directions the band could follow?
Categories never really mattered to us (still don’t)…The first music I loved was psychedelic….just always felt the need to push the brightly painted boat out further.
“Pennies for Heaven” is one hell of a creepy song with some unforgettable imagery—did the lyrics predate the music, or how did this song come to you?
The lyrics predated the song. One of those unpleasant dreams of a plane crash, which needed to be purged.
Speaking of lyrics and songwriting what is the process you went through for this record? Do you jam as a band or do you write on your own and bring in your ideas and the others help expand upon them?
A bit of both really…I do love a band improvising, even when it’s just myself and Phil rolling ideas to each other. Somehow that’s when the magic really happens.
What was touring during this period of time like for the band? Did US audiences get the music in a similar way to their European counterparts?
Very early days for touring in the US. In cities like SF and Seattle, awareness was high and the reception was sometimes ecstatic. But then there would be a bar in, say, Milwaukee where 20 people would be scratching their heads unless they’d driven there specially from Denver.
I met you at I believe at the (O’cayz Corral) or some other rock club in Madison Wisconsin, back in 1992-93 on your shadow weaver tour, so your comment about people in Milwaukee makes me laugh because attendance was pretty sparse. Does it take the wind out of your sails to play for a small audience or does it not matter?
I actually enjoy the contact when the audience is small…increases the one-on-one situations. Everybody smiling at some point.
What were some of the bands you played with on The Maria Dimension tour?
Ah, memory fails me….
Below: a live clip from 1991
Now I want to talk about the various editions of the record? Originally did the LP and CD differ in terms of running order and number of tracks?
Running order was the same, but the original LP sliced the recordings in half as vinyl was regarded as future landfill at that time. That’s why we have made this enormous luxurious vinyl box set this year.
What was The Maria Dimension 3”— what editions of the album came with this bonus? Then there was Chemical Playschool 8&9 —who got that record and could you tell us something about it?
The 3” was a marketing ploy of PIAS- we always have extra tracks in the can and they all came from these sessions. CP 8 & 9 is largely created out of reworkings of the Maria sessions.
I heard a bootleg titled The Maria Sessions, I’m aware bootleggers can label things whatever they want, but if the music is from those sessions, it hints at a very different sound for the band filled with long form abstract numbers part Pink Floyd part Harmonia, can you tell us about these tracks?
It’s not a bootleg. It’s a privately released CD-R which is part of the vinyl box set now. It’s actually created from Bob’s cassettes of the first improvisations.
How did those long form initial improvisations lead to the dense songs we hear on the record what was the evolutionary process?
Evolutionary process is a well-chosen term…you can hear the seeds of “Evolution” right there. But the mutations of seeds scattered in those improvs were radical.
You mention that you have a box set of all of the sessions for the album. How were these sessions scheduled, was this worked on for an intense period of time all in one go or would you tour and then come back to recording?
We played for a solid month then had a holiday break, then all resumed for another 4-6 weeks when we consolidated what we had, tried various concepts (Disturbance for example), and mixed.
In 1991 vinyl was making its original last stand: Were you involved in mastering for the LP? Were you satisfied with the how the record sounded?
I confess I never listened to the original vinyl edition- I was just too disappointed by the presentation.
Below: a clip of the Dots performing live in 2014
Given that you never listened to the original vinyl, what’s different about this vinyl version? Is it on heavier vinyl stock? Are there liner notes included?
Well, ALL the bonus tracks are there making it a double. Then there’s Maria Sessions volumes 1 & 2 , which is another double album, and the 3″ single plus a collage of out-takes for disc 5. Great quality too, all remastered and packaging to die for..
If people want to order the record what’s the best place to get it?
When you look back to 1990/91 and the resulting album, what comes to your mind?
Well, I miss Bob still. It was his last album with the Dots before he succumbed to lung cancer in 1992. A different life back then—3 of us sharing a small flat. All very much hand-to-mouth existence.
What are you listening to these days?
Still a lot of great new bands/artists out there… Even so, played an old chestnut last night — Church of Hawkwind no less….
Final question: what does 2015 hold for you and the band what are you working on these days?
Ha, in fact not so much changed except that we’re taking some time off the road to push the multi-colored boat out into the middle of the ocean. We feel like we hit a bit of a pinnacle last year with Chemical Playschool 16/18, although we duly paid our dues to the Goddess of Obscurity by making it available only on double CD-R.
But hell, that’s just how we are.
Below: listen to an Edward Ka-Spel track, offered up exclusively for BLURT readers
In which we take a look at pair of new jazz releases, one a must-own archival box set from the late Dark Magus and the other a remarkable—and fresh—fusion of jazz and electronic music by the comparatively youthful Douglas.
Under examination: Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Columbia/Legacy), a 4-CD box set that offers a fascinating trajectory of the legendary trumpeter’s musical evolution via his appearances, over two decades, at the annual Newport Jazz Festival; and High Risk (Greenleaf), 52-year old Dave Douglas’ umpteenth release as a bandleader (he’s also an in-demand sessionman) that feels like a quantum leap for both jazz and electronic music.
The Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954 and it went on to impact both the music it presented and it jumpstarted the whole concept of live music festivals. It was there, in the third year, that Duke Ellington’s career came back to life in large part because of the performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ crowd-slaying 27-chorus solo. Launched by visionary club owner George Wein — who still has a hand in it to this day — the festival made the world safe (so to speak) for the Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas that would follow years later.
Listening to the performances of Legacy’s new Miles Davis at Newport1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 offers a fascinating trajectory of the trumpeter’s musical evolution as well. By 1955 he’d kicked his drug habit and performed in a Newport jam session that is regularly referred to as the major comeback which led directly to his contract with Columbia Records. Over the next 20 years he would appear six times at the outdoor event and twice in concerts that Wein presented in Europe. Throughout that time, he matured as a bandleader and visionary, moving beyond bebop to music that didn’t depend as much on chord structure, eventually getting electric and involving more of an atmospheric approach to sound. Hearing it all together, over four discs, his innovations don’t seem as radical as they might have been considered at the time, but they’re nonetheless fascinating to devour.
Davis was a late edition to the 1955 bill and, without a working band, he was placed in a pickup group with Thelonious Monk (piano), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Percy Heath (bass) and Connie Kay (drums). Duke Ellington cautiously introduces the group with the somewhat backhanded assessment that they’re playing “in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach.” The ensemble passages sound a little sloppy and unprepared, but the solos contain some diamond-in-the-rough magic. Two Monk compositions, “Hackensack” and “’Round Midnight” are played, the latter spotlighting Davis who had yet to bring his signature Harmon mute and arrangement to the tune. While a few years prior, Davis famously chastised the pianist for comping behind the trumpet solo (an argument that made it onto a recording), here he relies on Monk for guidance. The group salutes the recently deceased Charlie Parker with his “Now’s the Time,” which again starts sloppily but takes off during the solos. Perhaps the history of the event has more weight than the music, but it still contains some magic moments.
The 1958 performance by the Davis Sextet has appeared in edited form on Miles and Monk at Newport and in complete form on a 2000 box set. With both John Coltrane (tenor) and Cannonball Adderley (alto) on the front line, and Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) bringing up the rear, it was an interesting cross-section of styles. Coltrane, in his sheets of sound approach, chews up everything is sight, while Adderley blends a funky tone with Charlie Parker lessons. Some have argued that Evans’ more laidback approach didn’t gel with this band, but he displays a command of his instrument in this setting, maintaining a firm grip even as Cobb goes wild.
During “All Blues” at the 1966 Festival, Davis casually quotes the old chestnut “I Found a New Baby.” It’s remarkable because he rarely deigned to the jazz tradition of quoting other material in a solo. Yet, it could be seen as a statement on the band he was leading at the time, with Wayne Shorter (tenor), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter and Tony Williams (drums). The group brought a new malleability to the music with regard to tempo and chordal foundation. “All Blues” goes from a fast 6/8 into a heavy 4/4 thanks to Williams’ direction. When they tear through “Seven Steps To Heaven” in that same set, Shorter sounds as if he has trouble keeping up with the tempo.
The following year (like ’66 available here for the first time) begins the same way, with “Gingerbread Boy” at a wilder tempo, Hancock now acting as a more discriminating accompanist and Shorter firing off rounds like an avant-gardist. But Davis wasn’t ready to completely cut off the past. He revisits “Round Midnight,” curling the ends of the phrases but keeping the melody in check, with Hancock adding some deeply moving chords behind him.
Part of Davis’ Bitches Brew album included a dozen musicians in the studio at one time. But when Davis headed to Newport a month prior to those sessions, in July 1969, he was fronting a quartet. They were all new bucks too – Chick Corea (on electric piano), Dave Holland (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Sparse by comparison to both previous appearances and to his recordings, the new unit nevertheless has its appeal. DeJohnette combines the feel of R&B backbeats with a propulsion that fills space vacated by additional horns or percussion. Corea sounds delightfully overdriven. They test run two Bitches Brew tunes, stretching out “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and briefly sketching “Sanctuary” (with the song’s catchy trumpet lick not yet in the upper octave wail area), and they offer a version of “It’s About That Time” that differs from the one on In A Silent Way, released that same month.
The problem with a wah-wah pedal is that it came make everything start to sound the same if it’s used too much. By 1971, in a performance from Switzerland, not only was Davis running his trumpet through said pedal, his “songs” were now largely based on vamps. Granted, “What I Say” is a solid groove that bassist Michael Henderson holds onto like a rock, when he’s not letting drummer Ndugu Leon Chancler turn the beat around and sideways, or slowing it down for a soulful electric piano solo from Keith Jarrett. But the staccato trumpet blasts sometimes sound like Davis is spinning his wheels. Nevertheless, the performance features plenty of musical electricity, not the least of which is the 25-minute “Funky Tonk” which uses space almost as deftly as the Art Ensemble of Chicago was at the time.
With guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas chopping away, and no need for a keyboardist, Davis’ 1973 performance in Berlin pushes the music further away from jazz as the trumpeter once played it. Wein recalls in the liner notes that by this time, Davis’ chops weren’t what they were a few years earlier, so he wasn’t playing as much. But the band more than makes up for him in an overdriven recording that includes both loud vamps (“Turnaroundphrase”) and subdued sections (“Ife,” a showcase for Dave Liebman’s flute).
The sole selection from the 1975 festival (back in the states, albeit New York City), “Mtume” sounds even more raw, yet it lends some edge to Henderson’s bass and to the tenor solo by the lesser known Sam Morrison. The track, and the set, ends rather abruptly, which would really leave the jazz trads scratching their heads. But Miles wouldn’t care, and neither should anyone else.
Below: Newport’s George Wein discusses working with Miles Davis over the years at the festival.
Forgive the bias, but seeing the words “jazz” and “electronic music” together in the same sentence strikes some level of fear in my heart. Or maybe it’s skepticism. It has nothing to do with a high opinion of one style and suspicion towards the other. But the combination often results in a few less-than-desirable situations: a static backing track that doesn’t bend and twist with the jazz soloist; and/or solos that are much shorter than what is normally heard in the same space, paring down the sense of adventure to a few short ideas or, worse yet, to a handful of rhythmic vamps.
However, trumpeter Dave Douglas is no greenhorn when it comes to experimentation. He’s played with John Zorn’s Ornette-goes-to-Israel quartet Masada, explored Balkan music with Tiny Bell Trio and created his own post-Bitches Brew brand of funky, electric jazz, in addition to playing more straight ahead original music. Several previous albums incorporated DJ Olive’s turntable into the mix of grooves and solos. So it doesn’t look as if Douglas just saw this as the next frontier in which to blow his horn.
For the new High Risk, released by Douglas’ longtime home (since 2005), Greenleaf Records, the trumpeter collaborated with a new set of players who also cross lines. Bass guitarist and synth bassist Jonathan Maron played with acid jazz group Groove Collective. Drummer Mark Guiliana plays with pianist Brad Mehldau in the duo Mehliana but he also played in an electronic/jazz hybrid band with saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Keyboardist Shigeto (aka Zachary Saginaw) has made a name for himself as a part of the electronica collective Ghostly International, but he wanted to be a jazz drummer before he got into producing. Such empathy among players can make a world of difference in the final project, and such is the case with High Risk.
Things sound foreboding at first. The album opens with a synthetic wash of a chord that oozes slickness. But Guiliana clatters freely in the background as Douglas unfurls a loose solo, proving this isn’t going to be background, chill-out music. The trumpeter’s sharp attack — which often recalls ‘70s Miles Davis, in terms of the bright punch in his tone — develops when the band settles on a mid-tempo groove. Throughout the album, he makes some melodic choices that the Prince of Darkness never would have taken, and those alone make the seven tracks sound absorbing. In “Cardinals,” where the beat is reduced to a simple pulse, Douglas blows slowly with conversational warmth that makes every phrase captivating.
As High Risk moves forward it feels like, regardless of the accompaniment, Douglas could have made this session feel solid. But the rest of the band delivers is spades. Aside from the opening synth wash, Shigeto’s keys have an edgy quality that alternately create soundscapes or leap forward, like in the dub effects of “Etiquette.” Guiliana adds drive where it’s needed, or sits back on the mellower tracks, in both cases making sure the beat never sounds automatic.
The final result feels like a quantum leap for both jazz and electronic music.
Photo of Douglas by Siebe van Ineveld Rotterdam, The Netherlands; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Some jagged surrealism, some acidic observation, and a high decibel nervous breakdown”: all in a day’s work for one of England’s premiere post-punk combos, now back in the saddle with some seriously dark energy. Founding member John Robb explains…
BY TIM HINELY
Raise your hand if you remember this UK post-punk bunch from the late ‘80s (not enough hands raised). I remember them because Homestead released a few of their records in between releasing stuff by likeminded souls like Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun and Big Black. The band called it quits in the early ‘90s, returned in 2009 with and then dove back underground again, never to be seen or heard from again… until now.
OK, question two, raise your hand if you thought that this bunch, led by wild-haired maniac John Robb – in addition to having a solid side career as a journalist, he used to do a cool zine called Rox, incidentally – had mellowed with age, (ok, way too many hands up—see the final exchange as a “bonus question” below for the details on Rox).
Well good god they have not. Not even close. Dark Matter / Dark Energy, released on Cherry Red and their first album since 1989, is so full of spastic, grinding grunts you’d think it was 1988 all over again. Apparently it’s a bit of a concept record, too, all about the life and death of the universe (sadly, Robb lost his father during the recording so part of it is about him a well).
These fourteen songs bob and weave, rise and fall and generally make a first class racket in the best way possible. In some other bent universe cuts like “Do the Supernova,” “Money is Dust” and “Space Junk” would be viewed as hits (the gorgeous “Dark Matter”, too) and Robb hailed as supreme ruler, but in America this’ll likely they’ll likely not be appearing on Jimmy Fallon or Kimmel or whatever anytime soon. Fine with me. Robb chatted with BLURT about the record and not them, so there.
BLURT: Why a new Membranes record? Why now?
JOHN ROBB: We had waited long enough! When the band stopped in 1990 we had run out of steam, run out of ideas and run out of time. 25 years later I had more ideas and more steam than ever. I never even thought about it for years but out of the blue My Bloody Valentine, who used to support the Membranes before they broke through, and who Nick from the Membranes played violin for for a period, asked us to play ATP festival. This was followed by Shellac getting us onto their ATP festival and both gigs went really well- packed out and with a great reaction.
I was never interested in coming back and just playing the old stuff. The whole idea of a band like the Membranes was to go forwards. I wanted to reform the spirit and the idea of the band more than replicate what we were and just rattle of faithful versions of old songs; we wanted to move forwards and make an album that was epic and unique. We wanted to get deep into the heart of the dark stuff – the shamanic stuff – the subconscious.
There was a couple of ideas that when we started playing them exploded into something epic and huge and captivating and every quickly we had an album with lots of new songs coming out of thin air that turned into a double album when we started recording because the band was so hot that every time I started jamming on a bass line the whole song came together really quickly. Some of the songs are one take jams with one take vocals on them – the music and the words were during out- the psychic poetry was like a fountain. I’ve never felt so inspired!
We would not have used the songs if they didn’t work, but they sounded edgy and exciting and had a perfect groove. I also started playing bass again for the first time since the beginning of the band and this is really key as the bass was the main instrument of the post punk period that we came out of and cranked to the top of the mix defines our sound. Another factor was the meeting with the head of the CERN project when me and him were both giving a talk at a TedX event. He was talking about the Higgs Boson project and I was talking about the power of DIY culture and we hit it off – he gave me loads of great information about the universe – totally mind blowing that really affected the album which was already sounding dark and mysterious so Dark Matter/Dark Energy was born – then during the recording my father died which affected a lot of the songs so it all sorted of wove together.
Is it really the first record since 1989?
Yes. The time is right now. Creativity should never be in a hurry! We had to make a record that was right. It took a year to record – in fits and starts. I was thinking about it every day, running it through my head. It had to be perfect for what it was and I put everything into it. If it wasn’t right it wasn’t going to come out. (Below: a very young Membranes)
What does the title mean, Dark Matter/ Dark Energy?
It’s about the mysterious matter than makes up most of the universe and also the mysterious matter of the tidal waves of emotions- the original spark came from the conversation with Joe Incandela of the CERN project at that Ted X event. He said to me that they know less about the universe now that when he started working there and ‘the more we find out the less we know…’ which really affected me – I loved that idea- the great mystery and I also loved the idea of this invisible matter and energy making up 90 per cent of the universe.
I also liked the idea that the darkness of melancholia, which is a very northern thing, was captured into words and in a lot of music on the album. We are based in Manchester and very aware of the lineage from post punk to Joy Division etc – we grew up in Blackpool but we were like distant cousins of that Manchester scene alongside another great local band Section 25. We were younger and we came from an uncool town – our contemporaries were the Birthday Party from Melbourne, Einsturzende Neubauten from Berlin, Sonic Youth from New York, Steve Albini in Chicago, but we were from fucking Blackpool – a seaside town and every write up we got would reference holiday makers and candy floss which had nothing to do with the heavy skewed music we were making. Weird.
Can we expect some Simon Clegg cover art again?
He was meant to be doing the cover – he’s a genius artist. I sent him the Fuseli painting that eventually became the cover a year ago but he never got round to redoing it! He was very apologetic but I simply ran out of time and the Fuseli painting is brilliant- it really captures the feel of the album – the sex and death and mystery of everything- the inherent nightmare – the erotic and the terror. I love all of Fuseli’s work and when we tour the USA in the autumn I will be making pilgrimage to the Washington DC gallery the Nightmare is hanging in. We kept the lineage with Simon, though, by using his brilliant jester paintings on the album and the single- the jester was always our key piece of artwork/logo and it was always flattering when other groups used a similar motif afterwards. There was something macabre about the jester and we loved the way that they would cackle at authority whilst being thought of as being fools – seeing through the lunacy of the so called real world.
Who is playing in the band now?
John Robb vocals/bass, Nick Brown guitar (original member and from Blackpool), Peter Byrchnmore guitar and Rob Haynes drums—as well as guest musicians on the album playing strings etc.
Are you still in Blackpool?
I left Blackpool in 1984 but I’m still involved with lots of people there and part of the campaign to get the local football club sorted out from its dodgy owners. We play the Rebellion festival there and I go over to meet the council now and then about projects.
For folks expecting another Songs of Love & Fury or Kiss Ass Godhead, what will they get?
Possibly closer to Kiss Ass Godhead– there is that heaviness to the sound but also some tracks that are almost like classical music. One track is built around breathing with string section playing on top, one is an unrelenting heavy bass motif, one track is a drone on an e-bow and another is layers of hypnotic feedback and strings whilst another is driven by a snarling heavy bass. There are some slow moments where we sound like ourselves- some jagged surrealism, some acidic observation, some of it is a high decibel nervous breakdown and some of it is dark dub soundscape. It’s quite psychedelic in parts and doesn’t really sound like anyone else. We believe it’s the best record we have made and has all the hallmarks of the classic Membranes without being museum piece. It’s twisted yet weirdly listenable – people who have heard bits of it so far are very excited by it.
How has the response been so far?
It’s early days but response has been amazing so far from all over the world- people are saying it’s the best thing that we have done and that we have arrived back at just the right time.
Will you be making it to the USA for any shows?
There is a plan to tour the USA in the autumn- it’s hard work touring the USA these days – you need £3000 to cover the costs of visas and the visa people make the whole process so complex that you sometimes have to cancel your tour. We had a campaign about it last year and had a meeting at the American embassy. They were very helpful but only changed the time that band had to arrive at the embassy for their interview to get your visa (the whole band has to go at the same time for a one minute interview to London only – imagine the hassle if you were an orchestra!). There are dates sketched out for the tour and it looks like a 4 week stint…
Do you still keep up with newer bands? If so who are some current acts that you like?
Luckily for me I do a music website called louderthanwar.com and we are totally on top of new bands- we get sent stuff all the time and write constantly about music – follow the site for tips!
BONUS QUESTION: When can we expect a new issue of Rox?
Sometimes I think about doing special fanzine to tie in with a tour! I guess the louderthanwar site mops up most of the writing and websites are the digital equivalent of the Xerox culture of our youth – saying that, an old school photocopied missive would suit what we are doing! I love the cut and paste culture, it was the perfect reflection of the punk ether – the music, the clothes, the hair – was all cut and paste… May well do a new Rox – thanks for the inspiration!
Boasting one of Britain’s greatest, if underappreciated, songwriting teams in John Wicks and Will Birch, they straddled the holy trinity of the “P”: pub-rock, punk, and power pop.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Ed note: we originally published this story back in 2011, with contributor Steinfeld interviewing co-founding members John Wicks and Will Burch. At the time Wicks had moved to L.A. and was fronting a well-regarded latterday version of The Records. Then just recently we learned Wicks had been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer and that a GoFundMe campaign had been mounted to help raise funds for his medical bills which, needless to say, will be enormous. We encourage anyone reading this to consider contributing HERE and meanwhile, enjoy Prof. Steinfeld’s trip down memory lane from our archives.—FM
They may not have been the most popular band to emerge from the New Wave era, but to those that know them, The Records have a body of work that stands up with that of any of their contemporaries. The band grew out of the ashes of the Kursaal Flyers, an English pub rock combo that included drummer Will Birch and, later, singer-guitarist John Wicks. When the Kursaals broke up, Birch – who was also a lyricist — approached the guitarist to see if their songwriting talents complimented each other. They did. Rounded out by bassist-singer Phil Brown and various lead guitarists, The Records released three albums of top-notch pop during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. To these ears, the songwriting team of John Wicks and Will Birch [pictured above, L-R, with Brown in the middle] was right up there with Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze.
The Records unveiled their self-titled US debut in the fall of 1979. (In England, the album was released a bit earlier as Shades in Bed with a different running order and cover.) The Records charted just shy of the U.S. Top 40 – literally, at number 41 on the album chart. But that still made it a minor hit and the single “Starry Eyes,” which boasted chiming guitars and clever lyrics, got quite a bit of airplay. In fact, the entire first half of the album was flawless. It kicked off with “All Messed Up and Ready to Go,” possibly the song to listen to before you go out on a Friday night. That was followed by the album’s second single, “Teenarama,” a witty song about dating younger girls; the midtempo rocker “Girls That Don’t Exist,” which was sung by Brown; “Starry Eyes”; and the ethereal ballad “Up All Night.” The second half of The Records, while still worthwhile, wasn’t quite up there with the first and was weighed down somewhat by guitarist Huw Gower’s strange contribution, “The Phone.”
The Records returned in late 1980 with their sophomore set, Crashes. This album wasn’t quite as big a hit as their debut, and it may not have rocked as hard, but it was still an excellent effort. With young American Jude Cole replacing Gower on guitar and adding vocals to some songs, Crashes including such pop gems as the wonderfully titled “Spent a Week With You Last Night,” the lovely “Hearts in Her Eyes” (a hit for The Searchers) and “I Don’t Remember Your Name,” which boasted a melody straight out of “Paperback Writer” and one of Birch’s wittiest lyrics (“There we were in the middle of a room at a hotel somewhere in the West End/A man that I’d not met before introduced me to my best friend”).
In 1982, The Records released what would prove to be their swan song, Music on Both Sides. This third album saw another lineup change as Dave Whelan replaced Cole on lead guitar. More significantly, former Autographs singer Chris Gent became the band’s frontman. Strangely, neither Wicks nor Brown contributes lead vocals to any songs on the disc. Though Music is a decent album, it’s not in the same league with the band’s debut or with Crashes. The Records called it quits not long after its release – according to Birch, after “a grueling, two-date tour.”
In the years since their breakup, the individual members of The Records have gone in different directions. As it turns out, Jude Cole became the most successful member of the band, with a string of moderately popular solo hits. More recently, he has managed and produced various artists including Lifehouse.
As for the original trio, John Wicks relocated to Los Angeles a number of years ago, where he has performed with a different version of The Records and more recently, with Paul Collins of seminal power pop bands The Nerves and The Beat. In 2007, Wicks released a fine collection of songs called Rotate. While the ballad “Whenever You’re Near” now sounds a bit dated, most of Rotate is worthwhile and some of it is downright excellent. Standouts include the Syd Barrett tribute “That Girl is Emily,” “Different Shades of Green” and “The Lost Years,” which is possibly the catchiest song about depression ever recorded. More recently, Wicks has released a DVD called Lessons Learned and is also re-recording some tunes from The Records’ catalog. In addition to Wicks, the current lineup of The Records includes lead guitarist Dennis Taylor, bassist Pat Mitchell and drummer Tommy Montes.
Will Birch and Phil Brown, on the other hand, have remained in the greater London area. Over the years, Birch has continued mainly in songwriting and production, working with Desmond Dekker, The Long Ryders and members of Rockpile and Dr. Feelgood, among others. He also moved into music journalism, penning memorable pieces for Mojo and penning an exhaustive book about pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island, which arrived in 2000, and Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography, which was just published last year by the UK-based company Sidgwick & Jackson. Birch also oversees On The Beach Records, which has reissued all three of The Records’ studio albums on CD. (Ed. note: Sadly, Brown passed away, in 2012, since this story was originally published.)
The following is culled from two separate interviews I did – one with John Wicks and one with Will Birch. Talking to both was a pleasure.
BLURT: Tell me a bit about the scene that The Records emerged from. What was the music scene in London like during the mid to late ’70s?
WILL: It’s been well-documented. You had the big progressive bands such as Genesis and ELP selling albums, and glam rockers such as Slade and Sweet selling 45s. My own band, The Kursaal Flyers, scored a pop hit with “Little Does She Know” and we appeared on Top of the Pops, the big weekly TV show watched by all the family. They are currently showing re-runs of Top of the Pops from 1976 on BBC-TV and there are some excruciatingly bad haircuts.
When The Sex Pistols came along, bingo! The music establishment was completely thrown and it was hilarious watching them either not getting it or patronizing the Pistols because of their ‘energy’. Dr Feelgood were in my opinion the catalyst and London was alive with music venues. The UK music press was cover to cover excitement. Stiff Records emerged, Costello, [Ian] Dury, The Damned. All of the rules were being broken on a daily basis. It was a most exciting time, as I’m sure it was in New York too. The effect can still be felt around the world.
JOHN: I have to confess that I was somewhat puzzled and confused during this transitional time period. In 1975, having left a cover band that I’d been a member of for four years, I recall reading the music papers and seeing ads for the likes of Plummet Airlines, AC/DC and The Sex Pistols, all playing shows in the London pubs on different nights of [the] week. The Sex Pistols were obviously a punk band, although the former were not. I actually went to see AC/DC play at the Red Cow in Hammersmith and loved them — which only served to confuse me even more! It was then that the proverbial penny dropped, so to speak. I suddenly remembered answering an ad back in 1971 placed in a then-well-known British music paper and subsequently having a phone conversation with a guy who worked in a seriously cutting-edge clothing store by the name of Let It Rock, located in West London. This guy [had been] trying to put together a new band, which he intended to manage, and we were discussing the possibility of my being a part of this band. He had the vision and concept all worked out in his mind, going on to explain in vivid detail the requirements: ‘Short spiky hair, tight, straight-legged, ripped jeans, safety pins…’ — etc., etc. At that point I interrupted him, exclaiming that there was no way in hell I was willing to have my locks shorn and can my flares! That ‘guy’ was none other than Malcolm McLaren and by 1975 his vision was fast becoming a tangible reality!
Never one to be left behind, in 1977 I got with the program: cut my hair, canned the flares and joined The Kursaal Flyers, who at that point had rechristened themselves The Kursaals, at the same time morphing from a laid back country-rock band, into a pretty good imitation of a high energy punk-rock band! Have to admit that I found it to be a very exciting period.
Since this New Wave movement had opened the floodgates, it spawned a slew of bands that were little more than style-over-substance, having missed the point and misinterpreted Malcolm McLaren’s statement about a band that couldn’t play being even better than a band that could play! That strategy worked just fine and dandy for his purposes of exposing certain aspects of the music business for the shallow industry it was, via his Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle — but not so well for the legions of ‘wannabes’ who jumped on the bandwagon hoping for instant success — many of whom ultimately disbanded.
Will, what did John bring to The Records and how did his songwriting talents compliment your own? John, reverse question.
WILL: John brought the melodies and the vocal harmonies to The Records. We were and possibly still are quite opposite types as people, but I don’t over-analyze it. We complemented each other in as much as I would mostly write the words and John would mostly write the tunes. The end result was usually good. We trusted each other in our respective areas of expertise and I think John especially trusted me when it came to the look of the group and general direction. Plus we were both hungry for success and worked very hard at it
JOHN: Prior to meeting Will, I’d always composed melodies, penned lyrics, worked out structures, arrangements, harmonies — in other words, written complete songs myself. The melodies, chords and such [would] usually be the first part of the equation. The one thing that often slowed down the whole songwriting process, was — and still is — pondering the lyrics. It was clear to me that Will had a way with words, so I figured that collaborating with him would very likely speed up the process, which proved to be the case. Whilst he was busy writing lyrics to melodies I’d composed, I was free to keep coming up with new tunes, which I still do to this day. We worked equally well together or apart. Sometimes he’d hand me a set of lyrics and I would compose the melody — as was the case with “Starry Eyes” — or vice-versa. So it was a very complimentary and efficient process.
What did Phil Brown, the third member of the Records trifecta, bring to the band?
JOHN: He brought a great deal to the band, having an instinct for coming up with very inventive bass lines. We might make a few suggestions, but he’d take it from there and run with it. He was also extremely good at coming up with really cool guitar riffs, such as the one that kicks off “Girl” and serves as a kind of backbone of the song, if you will. And of course, it helped that he was the heartthrob of the band, having once been described by a female music journalist as a “lanky teenage dream.”
WILL: Phil Brown was the cheerful, diplomatic guy who would hold it all together with a good vibe. If we had an argument, or something didn’t go quite well, he’d be the glue that held the band together.
John, I understand you’re currently re-recording some of the old Records tunes. What’s the objective there and which songs have you chosen to tackle?
JOHN: Yes indeed! I’ve wanted to re- record “Starry Eyes” — and many other old Records’ songs for that matter — for the longest time. Two objectives: the first being my desire to improve on the originals, both sonically speaking and also performance-wise. Second objective regards owning the masters and is purely financial in nature — relating to possible song-placement in movies, TV, commercials [and so on].
When we recorded the original version of “Starry Eyes” back in 1978, it was really just a demo and we had no idea at that point in time that [it] would end up being released as a single. Although it has lots of energy, I was unhappy with it sonically speaking. Accordingly, it’s always been my desire to record a new version — a version that maintains the excitement and energy of the original, but with superior sound quality. Thanks to a great team of wonderful and dedicated people, I’m pleased to report that I’ve managed to achieve that goal. We also have a new version of “Teenarama,” which is being mixed as [we speak]. Ideally, I would love to re-record the entire Records’ catalog from back in the day, however in reality it isn’t a practical proposition.
Will, now that your book on Ian Dury has been out for over a year, tell me a bit about how you’ve been promoting it and the general reaction to it. Also, any plans to release it Stateside?
WILL: I’ve been doing some readings and signing sessions at bookstores and local libraries around the UK and promoting the Ian Dury biography on Facebook, Twitter etc, which seems to be an author’s obligation these days. Reviews have been great and sales, I am told, are respectable. As far as the USA is concerned, my publishing deal excludes the USA. We were hopeful of it being picked up by a specialist imprint such as Ad Capo but so far there has only been limited interest. Ian was a pop star in Europe and almost a national hero in the UK, but he doesn’t mean too much in America, except to real enthusiasts.
John,can you tell me a little about your recent Lessons Learned DVD?
JOHN: Well, with regard to Lessons Learned — credit must go to my assistant, Rich Rossi, who is doing a truly fantastic job on my behalf, helping me in my quest to get as much content “out there,” so to speak as possible. The DVD — released on Kool Kat Records in March 2011 — features a live recording of an acoustic show I played with my guitarist Dennis Taylor [last summer] at the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, opening for Matthew Sweet. It’s a nine-song, unplugged kind of thing showcasing some new material, some older songs and a couple of cool cover tunes.
Will, tell me about one of your most enjoyable experiences as a producer.
WILL: Working with the Long Ryders in 1985 was memorable. I was a huge fan of their Native Sons album. [Ed. Note: read our recent review of the Long Ryders here.] It was like the Burrito Brothers on speed and it featured a Gene Clark cameo performance. To be offered the task of producing their debut for Island Records was too good to refuse. After a week or so doing some song preparation in LA, [recording engineer] Neill King and I took them to Chipping Norton Studios in the Oxfordshire countryside. They settled in, we got a drum sound and spent an enjoyable few weeks getting the songs on tape. The 45 “Looking For Lewis And Clark” received some airplay [but] the album itself got a lukewarm reception in the music press. I think it was Time Out magazine that described it as “the most under-produced album ever to appear on a major record label!” The reviewer had obviously never heard Brinsley Schwarz! Anyway, a great bunch of guys to work with and I’m still in touch with most of them.
John, one of my favorite songs on Rotate is “That Girl is Emily.” Can you tell me about the inspiration for that one?
JOHN: Thanks! Of my new songs, it’s actually one of my favorites also. The inspiration for this one came way back in 1988 whilst I was still residing in the UK. I read an article in one of the Sunday newspapers about Syd Barrett, who was the driving force behind Pink Floyd during their early years, having written their first two hits, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.” According to the article, since his heyday, he’d pretty much descended into madness [and] had become a reclusive hermit, holed up at his mother’s semi-detached house in Cambridge, England. The article went on to say that in one of his last coherent interviews he’d talked about the inspiration for “See Emily Play.” He claimed that ‘he’d been sleeping in the woods after a gig they’d played somewhere, when a girl appeared before him, going on to exclaim, “That girl is Emily.” And — voila! I had my title!
I recall waking up during the early hours one morning with the song pretty much unfolding in my head. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my guitar and the whole thing — melody, chords, lyrics, structure — just kind of manifested. How I wish they were all that easy!
Another one I really like on Rotate is “The Lost Years.” Curious to know how that one came about as well.
JOHN: “The Lost Years” was inspired by the emotional and mental breakdown I suffered during the mid ’80’s. [This] lasted through the end of that decade, and into the early ’90’s. My road to recovery began around 1991 or thereabouts, and by the time I got to America, I had healed enough to be able to reflect on that extremely dark period of my life.
Accordingly, the lyrics and the melody just kind of poured out of me. Whilst I really love this song, it stirs up some intensely painful memories. So I find it a tough one to perform.
Tell me about the inspiration for “Starry Eyes.”
WILL: I use the word loosely, but we had a manager. [And] we didn’t feel he was as committed as we were. We were in this fight with CBS whereby I was still signed [from the Kursaal Flyers days] and they wanted to hang onto me but they wouldn’t offer us a deal. Months were going by and I was getting more and more impatient to get records out and do stuff, and having a lot of arguments with CBS. I felt that [our manager] should have gone in there and basically said, “Shit or get off the can” and he didn’t. And at [the point when it] reached fever pitch –- where we’d done some demos and they were still hemming and hawing –- he went on holiday. He said, “Right, I’m off to south of France for two weeks, see you when I get back.”
Well, when he got back, we’d dumped him. Looking back now, I can see that it was unreasonable of us. But at the time, we thought he didn’t have the same commitment as us. So that song was written about him and that experience.
What is your favorite album by The Beatles?
JOHN: This is a tricky one to answer! I feel that it sort of depends on one’s mood at any given time. But if push comes to shove, and I had to pick one, then I would probably go with Revolver.
WILL: Revolver – but lately A Hard Day’s Night has been challenging it.
With the sad passing of Chris Squire as well as a new CD box set documenting the band’s legendary 1972 tour, it’s time for ye olde (and we do mean old!) editor to dig once again into his archives…
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: The death of Yes bassist Chris Squire a week ago, at the relatively young age of 67, came as a huge shock as I’d not heard of his recent leukemia diagnosis. As a huge Yes fan in the early days, not to mention a fan of Squire’s distinctive bass style, it was deeply distressing. I can’t say I followed the group closely after its ‘70s heyday, but I always appreciated their musical mission, and even found myself attending one of the 2004 35th anniversary concerts that brought back into the fold together the classic lineup of Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Squire, Alan White and Rick Wakeman. I subsequently reviewed it for Magnet magazine, and prior to that, had written a Yes retrospective for the Seattle Weekly on the occasion of a box set anthology that Rhino released; below I have combined the two pieces, incorporating additional interview content featuring the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd and Fastbacks/Young Fresh Fellows man Kurt Bloch. (Both of them were known to be, improbably enough, huge Yes fans so it seemed like it might be fun to have their perspectives—as Drozd drily noted, “Being part of the hip, underground world of the early ‘90s, the last thing you could ever admit to listening to was Yes. [But] sounds that used to seem really dorky and uncool a few years ago, start to sound cool again, you know what I mean?” Indeed I do, Mr. Drozd. Herewith find an appreciation of the just-released Yes: Progeny collection on Rhino and yet another one of my stories from the archives. Pay close attention: I’ll be jumping around quite a bit, timeline-wise. Oh, and hopefully this will serve as a sincere memorial to Chris Squire. He was a singularly unique talent and will be deeply missed. – FM
Yes has been extant in one form or another since 1969 and to commemorate this auspicious time line-age the British group is currently trekking across America on its 35th Anniversary Tour. Worth noting: at one point in the late ‘80s the group was even extant in TWO forms or another, when a Chris Squire-fronted Yes was competing in the marketplace with his then-erstwhile bandmates touring under the collective monicker Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe. But I won’t dwell upon that period, as it no doubt leaves a bad taste in some of the Yes-men’s mouth when brought up; while the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album is listed in the official Yes discography, material from it is conspicuously absent from Rhino’s recent 3-CD 35th Anniversary Collection.
A tangent: Roughly a year and a half ago, in 2002, I found myself revisiting my Yes-roots courtesy the Rhino box set In A Word (1969 – ) that had just been relased, an anthology tracing chronologically the band’s three-decade-plus history across five discs of hits, album classics and a handful of unreleased tracks. Now, when it comes to Yes-things, I’m no spring chicken, as the following dates gleaned from my teenage trove of ticket stubs will reveal: Monday, Nov. 22, 1971, Municipal Auditorium, Atlanta GA (Fragile tour, w/opening act Emerson Lake & Palmer); Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1972, Coliseum, Charlotte NC (Close To The Edge, w/The Eagles); Sunday, Feb. 10, 1974, Carolina Coliseum, Columbia SC (Tales From Topographic Oceans, w/John Martyn; and Sunday, Nov. 24, 1974, Coliseum, Greensboro (Relayer, w/Gryphon). Scary, huh? In addition to those shows I attended another Topographic tour date as well as at least two more from the CTTE trek.
The 2/10/74 show is particularly memorable, for not only did I get to see the great guitar master Martyn in full extemporaneous flight, I and my buddies had ingested some rather potent chocolate mescaline – you remember that, right? kinda like taking E but without, like, getting dehydrated, collapsing and dying – and at one point during a Rick Wakeman synth solo one of them turned to me, grimaced and grunted, “Them’s some lowwwww notes…” then leaned forward to puke up a most amazing Technicolor mass of amoebic goo, but politely so, under his chair.
The 10/3/72 Charlotte concert also lingers in my mind due to a random and unexpected encounter with the band. The afternoon of the show my girlfriend and I had driven to Charlotte early enough to go hang out at the nearby shopping mall, and when we were leaving and headed down the escalators to the parking garage, who should we see coming UP the escalator but Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and one of the band’s handlers! We excitedly bolted back up (the down) escalator just in time to catch up with them, and they were amiable enough, Anderson in particularly showing off some gifts he’d gotten for the family back home; he seemed particularly smitten with one of those colorful Playschool tiered plastic donut towers designed to teach babies how differently sized objects are supposed to be stacked. Wakeman wasn’t quite as effusive, but just the same, it was handshakes all around and they thanked us for being big enough fans to do a roadtrip to see a favorite band.
Aside #2: Meanwhile, just last month Rhino got back into Yes-business in a big way with the 14-CD box set Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two which, true to its title, picks up with the Close To the Edge tour on October 31 in Toronto and proceeds to chronicle that and the subsequent Ottawa, Durham, Greensboro, Athens, Knoxville and Uniondale concerts from that fall. Now you may be thinking, “Who on earth needs seven back-to-back Yes concerts in their collection?” Yes-heads, that’s who! There’s also a 2CD (or 3-LP) “Highlights” version if you’re not one for total immersion. Rhino has done a bangup job with the release, which originates from some latterday vault-trawling that unearthed reel to reel tapes of the ’72 tour—the same tapes that were originally tapped back in the day for the 1973 triple-LP set Yessongs. For the “Highlights” release the label decided not to duplicate any of the Yessongs material so it’s essentially Yessongs Pt. 2, and from the superb sound quality and true-to-the-show mix to the performances themselves, it does indeed achieve the goal of capturing the band at a point in time when they were “firing on all cylinders.” Gems include a pristine “And You And I” recorded at Durham’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (yes, home to the Duke Blue Devils and Coach K) and a joyous “Roundabout” (a tune that I adored so much that I learned Steve Howe’s classic guitar intro). Less compelling is “Excerpts From The Six Wives of Henry VIII” but one supposes that by this point the band had no choice but to give Rick Wakeman his keyboard showcase, given that he would shortly achieve a modicum of solo stardom with the release of the aforementioned concept album. Whoah, concept albums—remember them? All in all, though, Progeny is a terrific gift for fans of the band—it’s not a bad intro, either, for novices who want to get a sense of how powerful Yes was in concert—and it also makes for a fitting musical epitaph for Chris Squire, who like his fellow bandmates was in top form in 1972.
Though a huge fan, by the late ‘70s I’d all but abandoned my Yes-love, having been fully converted to another cause courtesy Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, the Pistols, the Clash, etc. You know the drill. Some Yes-songs I’d absorbed in the ‘80s through MTV osmosis (“Owner Of A Lonely Heart” kinda bugs me to this day, and I think Steve Howe still refuses to play it because he’d quit the band at that point), but by and large Yes-think hadn’t a part of my life for a quarter-century. Scanning through the In A Word Rhino box, however, I hear something, and that something is my inner Yes-geek calling me.
So I’ve decided to write about the box, but from a perspective of other Yes-geeks and not some omniscient critical perspective. Why rehash what aficionados and haters have already hashed many times over the years?
It’s been ages since Johnny Rotten scrawled ‘I Hate’ over a Pink Floyd teeshirt logo, clearly drawing a line in the sand. Quaint though it may seem now, the Punks-versus-Dinosaurs credo meant that a lot of Progressive Rock bands from the pre-’77 era took it on the chin from punters and critics alike.
Perhaps most unfashionable of all was Yes. The band didn’t do itself any favors by festooning its gatefold record sleeves with fantastical Roger Dean artwork and apparently commissioning Spinal Tap’s stage and costume designers for their tours. Complex, neoclassical tunes that comprised entire album sides? Please. Gimpy psychobabble songtitles like ‘The Revealing Science Of God’ or ‘Universal Garden? Fuhgeddaboutit – gimme a ‘God Save The Queen,’ a ‘White Riot’ or an ‘Orgasm Addict’! Sci-fi/New Agey album names like Tales From Topographic Oceans and Keys to Ascension? Conceptual bollocks to that, mate! And apocryphal or not, the yarn about Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman having a direct hand in getting the Sex Pistols booted from A&M Records attained deeply symbolic status among those who needed to nurture a loathing for all things Prog.
Still, Yes has had its, dare we say it, kickass moments; yours truly, who saw ‘em many times during their salad days, er, years, can testify to that. And the band, for all its labyrinthine lineup changes over the years (even – gleep! – The Buggles were Yes-men for a spell), was always made up of genuinely gifted musicians. And time, and the occasional boxed set, does heal all wounds. It can happen to me. It can happen to you.”
I decided to poll a couple of prominent Yes-fans – you may have heard of them: the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd and Fastbacks/Young Fresh Fellows/producer/savant Kurt Bloch – and here’s part of what they told me. [Ed. note: the full Drozd and Bloch interviews can be found at the end following the main text.]
Drozd: “Being part of the hip, underground world of the early ‘90s, the last thing you could ever admit to listening to was Yes. I had older brothers in the ‘70s and they listened to all the ‘70s stoner rock and stuff like that. And I always loved especially the era – I mean, I like all of it now – of The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, that era, to me. It’s really beyond what they call Prog Rock. So I grew up on that stuff, really loved it, and really enjoyed it until late junior high or early high school. I went the route where I sort of discovered, like, the Psychedelic Furs and REM and those kinds of bands – what we called ‘college rock’ back then. Then you go from there and get into indie rock, and I was into Sonic Youth, the Pixies, all that stuff that people my age were into if you thought you were hip or something. And then joining the Flaming Lips was great because they were one of my favorite bands.
“So anyway, I forget where I was, maybe on tour around the summer of ’94, and I was just looking for some new inspiration. I was in this thrift store and saw Fragile on cassette. So I secretly started listening to Yes on my walkman without telling anybody about it. Wayne was the first one to actually embrace it with me, and then it turned out that Michael actually had all these old Yes records that no one knew he had! You’d be really surprised how many. When I was touring with Dave Shouse and Those Bastard Souls, for example, in 1996, the violinist, Joan Wasser, her boyfriend at the time was Jeff Buckley. Maybe six, seven, eight months before he died. So he was traveling around in the van with us, just hanging out and going show to show. I remember at one point we were drinking some Jim Beam and I said, ‘Hey, anybody wanna listen to some Yes?’ You’d get a lot of ‘No!’s and a few ‘Yes!’es. I put in Fragile, and Jeff just freaked out: ‘God man, nobody listens to this stuff anymore – I love this album!’
“Sounds that used to seem really dorky and uncool, a few years ago start to sound cool again, you know what I mean? Like, ten years ago a Rhodes piano with at tremolo and chorus pedal on it, you couldn’t do that – and now you hear it all the time and it sounds great. Another cool thing that happened was when Buffalo 66 came out a few years ago. I guess Vincent Gallo is a total Prog freak. One great part of that movie is him using that ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ riff. That turned a whole different generation of people onto that Yes stuff. I think just as things go in and out of style, the Prog stuff has come back in the last few years.”
Bloch: “About a year and a half ago I played in a Yes tribute band. With THE Alan White of Yes on drums! Alan lives in Redmond, Wash., and while you don’t see him out playing around, he’s around here [the Seattle area]. Joe Skyward, the old Posies bass player, ran into Alan, and Joe is such a huge Yes fan you can’t even talk to him about anything else. He told Alan he was working on this series of benefit concerts for music in schools, that sort of thing, and he told Alan he wanted to do a Yes tribute night. Alan said okay. And it worked out for one night, an hour’s worth of music! We did ‘Yours Is No Disgrace,’ ‘Heart of the Sunrise,’ ‘Starship Trooper,’ ‘South Side of the Sky’. Wow.
“As a teenager I had all the Pink Floyd and Zeppelin records, and then punk rock came out and everyone was, ‘Yeah, fuck that shit man! Who needs that shit! Fucking Yes, man!’ In 1977, Rick Wakeman was pretty much the figurehead of everything that punk rock hated. And he couldn’t stand those people, either, ‘loudmouths who couldn’t play’! But that was 25 years ago, and so many people now, who know anything about that, they don’t know you weren’t supposed to like the Damned and King Crimson at the same time. Now, it’s totally a non-issue. Now, people hear Pink Floyd and the go, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ Then you play the Clash and they go, ‘Wow!’ I mean, people who are 30 now were 5 when that was happening, so they don’t know.
“But honestly, I don’t think there was ever any point I didn’t listen to Yes music. Pretty much the Yes-King Crimson-Genesis triptych – even when none of them were making music I was interested in, there was never any time I didn’t listen to Topographic Oceans, for example, every now and then, or Close to the Edge, The Yes Album – pretty much all the records up to Going For The One. Never too far from a turntable. Even when getting my first bands together and playing punk rock! Even knowing that there’s people out there who’d think I was the biggest idiot if they came over and saw, you know, Fragile on the turntable! I never was that cool anyway. There was that [Johnny Rotten] dividing line – ‘I HATE’! But it was so much the case back then. Even in the early ‘80s, at a Fastbacks show up in Vancouver opening for D.O.A., one of us was wearing an AC/DC shirt and there were punk rockers in the front going, ‘Fuck you! Fuck AC/DC!’ Spitting at us! Now, it’s hard to get people to imagine that in the early ‘80s, even AC/DC was a hated band, because now they are universal. Everybody likes them!
“Yes, they are one of those bands that’s kind of defined by their material – no other band can really play those songs. Their band and their material are kind of synonymous, really. Whereas a lot of bands that have a lot more ‘regular’ songs – with Yes, it’s almost like it IS classical music, but Yes is the only orchestra capable of playing it. They were the quintessential Prog band; they really had something.”
There you have it, kids. No, dammit, it’s Yes! Not only that, it’s the Anderson-Squire-Howe-White-Wakeman lineup! Get rid of those asymmetrical hair styles. Put away your Strokes records. Don’t give the Yeah Yeah Yeahs anymore of your dough. Embrace your inner geek. It’ll only cost you 65 bucks on the current Yes-tour, not counting parking fees and refreshments.
For the April 27, 2004 stop on the band’s 35th Anniversary tour, Yes hit the Greensboro Coliseum stage at precisely 7:45pm to the first of many, many standing ovations from what appeared to be a between one-half to two-thirds full arena. The set was decorated with huge inflatable Roger Dean “sculptures” (Dean, of course, the legendary LP artist who designed so many Yes-sleeves back in the day) that were vaguely surreal, like weird underwater flora and fauna, but which still suggested Dean may have been spending too much time hanging out in the children’s floats department of a beach shop.
Me, I was sixth row center thanks to a friend’s diligence at scoring advance tix. It was great. I felt like a teenager again. Oh sure, I left the chocolate mescaline home this time, and since I had a three-hour drive home afterwards, I opted not to spark the doob I’d brought with me (screws up my night vision too much) and only sucked down a couple of glasses of wine. (Merlot. Watery at that. In a plastic cup. For five bucks. Next time I’ll smuggle in a mini-bottle.) And saying I “felt” like a teenager is slightly misleading. In my mind I definitely flashed back to fond memories of my bygone, carefree years. But it’s hard to feel like a teen when you’re surrounded by several thousand tubby, balding (or, scarily, mulleted) guys all shouting out favorite songtitles and/or songs’ subtitles (Yes-songs have lots of Yes-“passages” that get awarded their own Yes-titles), playing air guitar, air bass or, for those standing in front of Wakeman, air piano, and in general acting like they are trying to feel like teenagers again.
Where were the hot chicks, you ask? Awhile back fellow Yes fan Kurt Bloch had told me that the ratio of gals to guys at Yes concerts is probably something like 1/200, and he’s right; from what I could see, every female at the concert was attached to (and occasionally shrinking away from) one of the dorks mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Maybe they were the dorks’ sisters, I dunno. I know my wife wasn’t interested in seeing Yes. I remember there being lots of hot chicks at Yes-gigs in the ‘70s, but then, that was the ‘70s, when any big touring band, especially one from England, that came to town was a big deal. Go rent Almost Famous if you want further elaboration on similar matters. This is not a band that attracts hot chicks anymore, although bassist Chris Squire still opted for super-tight black stretchy pants that prominently displayed his dressed-to-the-left “package.”
Speaking of Squire, my pal and I noticed he still sports the same semi-shag ‘do he did in the ‘70s; from a distance you could almost mistake him for Martha Stewart. To his left, cordoned off by banks of keyboards, was Rick Wakeman, who appears to have ditched his traditional diet of cheeseburgers ‘n’ ale for healthier fare, as despite having a certain jowly-ness to him, he’s lost a lot of weight. His yellow-blonde hair is long again, too, and he always seems to have an “intense” look in his eyes, which, combined with the jowls and a beaky nose, makes him look like a young Walter Cronkite. Behind the drumkit perched Alan White: mustachio’d, balding, Jimmy Buffet’s younger brother. On the far left was guitarist Steve Howe, whose somewhat gaunt, bony facial structure 30 years ago was a tip-off: now, this bald/grey-haired, bespectacled, impossibly skinny fretboard maestro is that doddery college professor you still speak fondly of, or the old country doctor who delivered your mom and old Bossy’s calf, or a heart patient who’s been given 3 months to live. (Fun thought: if they ever film a Yes docudrama, get Billy Bob Thornton to play the Howe part.) Stage center was of course vocalist Jon Anderson, still a boffin, still fond of quirky little hand gestures (as a kid he must have either wanted to be a cowboy or a symphony conductor), still offering audiences self-conscious – but I have no doubt, totally sincere – little song intros and humble nods of appreciation at the applause. He had a shag like Squire, only shorter and he sports a kind of grayish Van Dyke on his face. I kept thinking of Bono, minus Bono’s blue glasses, crossed with Robin Williams.
Cronkite, Stewart, Bono & Thornton—now THAT is a supergroup I’d pay to see! All kidding aside (I’m not really trying to be sarcastic or mean here – everyone’s gonna get old, grey and bald some day, including me), this was, to paraphrase myself, a kickass concert. 2 ½ hours, two sets plus a 15 minute intermission to allow all the old-timers to go pee and buy watery cups of Merlot.
It kicked off with a furiously rocking “Going For The One,” Howe’s twangabilly guitar intro catching the crowd off guard. The band immediately segued into “Sweet Dreams,” also an unexpected treat, hailing all the way from 1970 and second album Time And A Word. From there Yes moved into an intriguing segment that found the timeless “I’ve Seen All Good People” (from 1970’s The Yes Album and interpolating, of course, the chess-centric “Your Move” passage) connecting with “Mind Drive,” a somewhat obscure group composition from the studio half of the 1997 double-disc Keys to Ascension, Vol. 2, and here it was obvious that one thing helping to keep the music fresh for the band is mixing up the old and the new, time-slipping in and out of Yes-dom without regard to any real or imagined baggage that may have accumulated over the years. (Translation: it wasn’t sterile or pompous, but organic and, at times, downright emotional – like a well-wrought, evenly-tempered classical concert in fact.) Somewhere in the middle of it all Howe and Wakeman engaged in a furious swapping-riffs cutting contest, one mock-glaring across the stage at the other and pretending to try to upstage each other. It was intense, and it was fun, and it brought the house down; I think even Yes was surprised at the standing ovation that erupted before the song had finished. The first set ended with a rousing “Yours Is No Disgrace,” also from TYA, and one of the group’s more full-on rockers that gave Howe plenty of room to kick out the jams, Howe-style, and to allay any fears that he might be so frail as to require roadies to assist him in leaving the stage for the break.
Second set featured a six-song acoustic portion with Wakeman’s baby grand toted out for the occasion and White coming down from his riser to tap dutifully on a tiny kit while Howe, Anderson and Squire all perched on stools and strummed guitars. Perennial workhorse hit “Roundabout” was thoroughly overhauled as a jaunty little jazz ditty, while new tune “Show Me” provided Anderson an opportunity to warble some genuinely moving lyrics (about children and the human condition) without getting too hippy-nonsequitur or new age on the crowd’s ass. Howe performed a country/bluegrass-flavored guitar instrumental while the road crew removed the piano, then the band reverted to electric Yes-guise for the remainder of the show. Soon enough the arena was knee-deep in the half-hour Prog symphony “Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)” which originally took up the entire Side 4 of 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans and now took up an entire cranium – mine. It kinda hurt, because every five seconds there was a new rhythmic avenue down which the band scooted, or an instrumental flourish that zinged forth unexpectedly only to give way to another player’s embellishment. But it was a good hurt, and anyway, when you go to a Yes concert you expect to be pummeled occasionally in order to be properly dazzled.
An encore of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” (covered by Yes on Yes – 35 years ago, in fact) and “Soon,” a melodic, gorgeous swoon of a ballad from 1974’s Relayer (originally the coda of “Gates Of Delirium,” it became an unexpected FM hit in ’75 when Atlantic extracted it and released it as a single), served to send everyone home humming contentedly. And that, as Walter Cronkite might’ve said had he attended the show, is the way it was. Yes, sir.
KURT BLOCH TALKS YES (2002)
FRED MILLS: I understand you saw Yes play in Seattle just recently. So what’s the key to Yes’ appeal after all these years?
KURT BLOCH: They’re one of those bands that’s kind of defined by their material – no other band can really play those songs. Their band and their material are kind of synonymous, really. Whereas a lot of bands that have a lot more ‘regular’ songs – with Yes, it’s almost like it IS classical music, but Yes is the only orchestra capable of playing it. They were the quintessential Prog band; they really had something. And you know they must have gone through periods of, ‘Oh, we’re so sick of playing “Starship Trooper.” We’re sick of playing “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “And You And I.”’ And it’s not a case of there not being any spontaneity. Talking to Alan White about the tribute show, the interesting thing that I learned is that there’s times in all those complex pieces that people can play whatever they want. I don’t think Steve Howe plays it the same way every night – and I know that Alan doesn’t play it the same way every night.
I’m definitely a fan of their last record, Magnification, although there is some stuff I could not really recommend [from the late 90s]! And in the late ‘80s, when that album Union came out, both of the groups [the Chris Squire-led Yes and then the Anderson-Bruford-Wakeman-Howe band] couldn’t finish their records, so somebody said, ‘Why don’t you put all of what you have together and do that! [laughing] Kinda makes you sick that at that point nobody even knew what they were doing and couldn’t even finish their own music!
My governing theory, and not just for Yes and Prog-rock, but music in general, of people that started out playing simple instruments and the first wave of electronic keyboards, is that once technology started to increase – and this happened in jazz too, among people who’d been playing acoustic instruments and then moved to electric — and the people started embracing polyphonic keyboards and stuff, it just wrecked everything. Those keyboards don’t sound like music so much. Like, a mellotron is a recording of string instruments or horns or whatever, and it doesn’t really sound like a real string section, it sounds like a keyboard. The first single-note synths sound like keyboards. They don’t try to sound like trumpets.
F: What do you think the audience was at that show you saw?
K: It was mostly older people. A few guys with their sons. Not a lot of women there! Mostly the age group 40 through 55-year old men. Some 30s-ish rocker guys – although there’s a distinction between fans of 90125 and its MTV hits and fans of, say, Duran Duran or Billy Idol. I can’t imagine a bunch of 30 year olds [who grew up on MTV] saying, ‘Yes is in town. We gotta go!’ [laughing]
F: My theory is that for the indie world at least, there’s always been that lingering feeling that Johnny Rotten was right – the I Hate Pink Floyd teeshirt – and that it should always be the punks versus the dinosaurs, so to speak.
K: Certainly I was right there! I had all the Pink Floyd and Zeppelin records, and then punk rock came out and everyone was, ‘Yeah, fuck that shit man! Who needs that shit! Fucking Yes, man!’ In 1977, Rick Wakeman was pretty much the figurehead of everything that punk rock hated. And he couldn’t stand those people, either, ‘loudmouths who couldn’t play’! [laughs]
But that was 25 years ago, and so many people now, who know anything about that, they don’t know you weren’t supposed to like the Damned and King Crimson at the same time. Now, it’s totally a non-issue.
F: Is that it? That time and context have erased that line in the sand?
K: Well, nobody knows! Now, people hear Pink Floyd and the go, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ Then you play the Clash and they go, ‘Wow!’ [laughs] I mean, people who are 30 now were 5 when that was happening, so they don’t know. How old is Steven Drozd now?
K: Listen to the Soft Bulletin and tell me that’s not a parallel to the second Yes album! And Wayne and Jon Anderson are not that separate…. Singing in that high voice, head pointed to the sky!
F: Tell me something about your background, then, that connects you to Yes, musically speaking. Were you in a teenage Prog band before Punk?
K: No – but about a year and a half ago I did play in a Yes tribute band. With THE Alan White on drums! [laughs] Alan lives in Redmond, Wash., and while you don’t see him out playing around, he’s around here. Joe Skyward, the old Posies bass player, ran into Alan, and Joe is such a huge Yes fan you can’t even talk to him about anything else. He told Alan he was working on this series of benefit concerts for music in schools, that sort of thing, and he told Alan he wanted to do a Yes tribute night. Alan said, okay, maybe when the [current] Yes tour is done. And it worked out for one night, an hour’s worth of music. I was on guitar, and a friend of mine, Ken Speakman also played guitar – so we would each only have to learn half of the songs really well! — and a friend of Joe’s was on keyboards. The thing that made is special was Joe’s daughter was the singer – she’s 16, maybe. Just did a great job, and she could sing high. It’s very interesting to think of someone like Joe, who’s listened to Yes since he was a teenager, and then think of that poor daughter to be surrounded by people smoking pot and listening to Yes records from when she was zero years old!
We did ‘Yours Is No Disgrace,’ ‘Heart of the Sunrise,’ ‘Starship Trooper,’ ‘Southside of the Sky’ – which Alan said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that one! Yes couldn’t even play that one live!’ Because it’s super hard to do! They might have played it once in 1975, according to Alan, although they are doing it now. [laughing] Maybe we had a small effect on that, getting him to play it once, and him maybe bringing it up…
Collectively we probably practiced five times without Alan, and then twice with him. And the individual practicing was quite intense – the guitar playing is really hard. Watching Steve play the other night, he was just killing me.
F: I wonder if putting together the Rhino box set prompted the band to think about some of the obscure stuff to play…
K: It was mainly Chris Squire doing the box, but yeah, they must have gotten together to discuss what to do on the tour. And there really was a lack of hit songs in their set! They didn’t do “Starship Trooper,” “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “And You And I,” and some others, but I didn’t miss ‘em because they played all this other obscure stuff.
F: Tell me about your early impressions of Yes, your favorite albums, that sort of thing.
K: It’s hard to pick just one. I remember that “Close to the Edge” is pretty much the perfect record. Just had everything there. “Topographic Oceans” is there, “The Yes Album.” Even “Going For the One,” which was pretty much the last great Yes record. I almost didn’t buy that because “Relayer” had been so good, then they did all the solo records. I think Jon Anderson’s solo album is phenomenal!
Of course, “Going For The One,” which came next, has one of the worst album covers – if it had had a good Roger Dean cover maybe it would be less easy to pass by! — and “Tormato” takes it even a step further. And then [laughs] that’s when punk rock was raging, and I was thinking, “Well, I don’t like this record that much, and I have all this other music to listen to now, so….” [laughs]
F: Were there ever points when you fell off the bandwagon and then later regained your faith, so to speak?
K: Honestly, I don’t think there was ever any point I didn’t listen to Yes music. Pretty much the Yes-King Crimson-Genesis triptych – even when none of them were making music I was interested in, there was never any time I didn’t listen to Topographic Oceans, for example, every now and then, or Close to the Edge, The Yes Album – pretty much all the records up to Going For The One. Never too far from a turntable. Even when getting my first bands together and playing punk rock! Even knowing that there’s people out there who’d think I was the biggest idiot if they came over and saw, you know, Fragile on the turntable! I never was that cool anyway…
F: So you didn’t hide all your records when you had a party: “What a wuss!” That dividing line in the sand: 1977, “I Hate Pink Floyd.”
K: Yes, that dividing line – “I HATE!” [laughing] But it was so much the case back then. Even in the early ‘80s, at a Fastbacks show up in Vancouver opening for D.O.A., one of us was wearing an AC/DC shirt and there were punk rockers in the front going, ‘Fuck you! Fuck AC/DC!’ Spitting at us! Now, it’s hard to get people to imagine that in the early ‘80s, even AC/DC was a hated band, because now they are universal. Everybody likes them!
F: You and I were lucky enough to have magazines that covered a lot of musical bases, and there wasn’t as much stratification in the press. Creem, Trouser Press, older kids at college turning us on to stuff, import record shops…
K: It’s interesting because some of those theories might be coming back around. The Internet, you know, you can be exposed to so much more music — because you’re not going to be exposed to it on the radio – and some groups over the past couple of years have gotten to be really popular because of it. Why is this happening? Maybe people are liking good music again? But just the fact that you can go download music and listen to it and see if you like it, that’s an exciting thing for teenagers to be able to do.
F: I had Creem, they’ve got the Internet.
K: Right! But in 1985, what were your options to listen to music if you were 13? Nothing! Radio was not anything, and you had MTV – that was about it. Through the ‘90s videos were the way people got their music, and now nobody even cares about videos because there are new avenues of finding new music and listening to it.
STEVEN DROZD TALKS YES (2002)
FRED MILLS: I heard through the grapevine that you are the resident Yes geek in the Flaming Lips…
STEVEN DROZD: You came to the right guy, man! [But] being part if the hip, underground world of the early ‘90s, the last thing you could ever admit to listening to was Yes.
F: Exactly. Was it just Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” decree that set all this into stone, or…
S: Oh, I’m liking this interview already! But you know, it’s really a lot simpler than that. I had older brothers in the ‘70s and they listened to all the ‘70s stoner rock and stuff like that. And I always loved especially the era – I mean, I like all of it now – of the Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, that era, to me. It’s really beyond what they call Prog Rock. So I grew up on that stuff, really loved it, and really enjoyed it until late junior high or early high school. I went the route where I sort of discovered, like, the Psychedelic Furs and REM and those kinds of bands – what we called ‘college rock’ back then. Then you go from there and get into indie rock, and I was into Sonic Youth, the Pixies, all that stuff that people my age were into if you thought you were hip or something. And then joining the Flaming Lips was great because they were one of my favorite bands.
I guess I was just looking for some new inspiration, and I forget where I was, maybe on tour in NC, around the summer of ’94, and I was in this thrift store and saw Fragile on cassette, in one of those weird clear plastic cases. So I secretly started listening to Yes on my Walkman without telling anybody about it.
Wayne was the first one to actually embrace it with me, and then it turned out that Michael actually had all these old Yes records that no one knew he had. But I really caught some flak from guys we were on tour with and our roadies who were like these old SST guys, you know? So if it wasn’t based in punk or hardcore or heavy metal it was wussy music! So I played “Heart of the Sunrise” for Wayne – I don’t think he’d ever heard that song, and he loved that. So we all started listening to Yes and other Prog-rock stuff, like Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, stuff like that.
Interestingly enough, my very first rock concert was Yes in 1984 on the 90125 tour, at the Summit in Texas!
F: They were still vital at that point but a decline was setting in….
S: Then the Drama stuff, Trevor Horn and all that, came in, very commercial. Really, the whole last album I can listen to all the way through is Close to the Edge. I like Relayer and Tales From Topographic Oceans, even bits of Going For the One. But as far as whole records, it stops there. But I listen to 90125 sometimes now, Changes and Cinema, stuff like that every now and again. Because sounds that used to seem really dorky and uncool three years ago start to sound cool again, you know what I mean? Like, ten years ago a Rhodes piano with at tremolo and chorus pedal on it, you couldn’t do that – and now you hear it all the time and it sounds great.
F: Well, bands such as the Lips have certainly embraced that “search for the mystical chord” aesthetic that I think Yes championed…
S: This sounds really dorky, but I actually have a picture of Rick Wakeman on my keyboard that I tour around with! I’ve had it on there since 1996.
Another think I like is Steve Howe’s guitar sound, style and his playing. Especially around Fragile – that guitar part in “Southside of the Sky,” very jazzy kind of stuff. And I even try to do some Steve Howe-esque kinds of licks. Most people don’t hear it wouldn’t make that connection, but people that know me pretty well are like, ‘Yeah, you ripped off the end of “Siberian Khatru”…’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, what the hell!’
For me in my own mind, I’m not sure how to put it really, it just seems like I’ve listened to everything that I can find in the current rock world, so I wanted to go back and dig out stuff – like listening to Fragile again, the weird vocal stuff they have on “We Have Heaven.” We try to throw some of those elements into our own mix and we get a whole new thing out of it, really.
F: Do you encounter other musicians that will cop to liking Yes also?
S: Yeah, you’d be really surprised how many. When I was touring with Dave Shouse and Those Bastard Souls, for example, in 1996, the violinist, Joan Wasser, her boyfriend at the time was Jeff Buckley. Maybe six, seven, eight months before he died. So he was traveling around in the van with us, just hanging out and going show to show. I remember at one point we were drinking some Jim Beam and I said, ‘Hey, anybody wanna listen to some Yes?’ You’d get a lot of ‘No!’s and a few ‘Yes!’es. [laughs] I put in Fragile, and Jeff just freaked out: ‘God man, nobody listens to this stuff anymore – I love this album!’
And I run into people all the time: ‘Hey, you got a picture of Rick Wakeman on your keyboard, is that a joke?’ ‘No man, I got a picture of Rick on one side and Stevie Wonder on the other!’ Or say during soundcheck I’ll be playing that one piano interlude from “Southside of the Sky” and someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, that sounds really familiar!’
F: I have yet to discover an indie band that does any Yes covers…
S: I think we talked about covering “Yesterday and Today,” which I think is off the very first record. It’s a beautiful song. When I play that for people they’re really surprised to learn it’s Yes.
Another cool thing that happened was when [the film] Buffalo 66 came out a few years ago. I guess Vincent Gallo is a total Prog freak. One great part of that movie is him using that “Heart of the Sunrise” riff. That turned a whole different generation of people onto that Yes stuff.
I think just as things go in and out of style, the Prog stuff has come back in the last few years. A good friend of mine, Cliff, that travels with us, he’s a good drummer, and I turned him on to Yes back in ’99. He just loves that shit now – and we’re thinking of starting a Yes tribute band called Yeah. [laughs] Do the classic Roger Dean logo but as ‘Yeah.’ He’s 29, I’m 33, so we’re just young fans, comparatively, but we’re certainly enthusiastic about those records.
F: It makes a lot more sense now, with time and context… The indier than thou mentality isn’t as strong.
S: Exactly. Things are like that, and it seems that people aren’t as uptight, even from three or four years ago, as they used to be.
On their new album the Tucson indie-rockers settle down and find a singular sound.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
There’s an ambitious formula behind the music of Sun Bones: art-punk flair, pristine four-part harmonies, imaginative song structures and poppy melodicism.
Since 2007, the Tucson band has performed and recorded with most of the same core members, under different names (Grandpa Moses and Boreas) before they settled on Sun Bones, with an ever-shifting sound. The members: Sam Golden, Bob Hanshaw, Laura Kepner-Adney, Seth Vietti.
But on their latest release, the self-titled Sun Bones (self-released in late May), that musical identity has at last solidified, with the band moving beyond a hodge-podge to a singular sound.
“Among all of the projects we’ve done, under all the different names, this is finally a project that says one thing, all together,” says bassist Hanshaw. “We found our artistic vision while we were in the middle of recording the album and that guided the process later on. We titled it Sun Bones because this is what we sound like. It’s odd to say, but up until this point we’ve sounded like many different things.”
Sun Bones is a collection of 11 songs, pop music with a subversive twist, with songs that retain some echoes of the band’s chief influences – Animal Collective, the Beach Boys, Radiohead and Paul Simon – but in a far more cohesive whole than the band’s 2013 record Sentinel Peak.
The process of experimentation that went into creating Sentinel Peak hit its natural end when Sun Bones wrote “Never Going Back,” as catchy as anything the band had produced before, but without sacrificing their other influences.
“It is so melodic,” Hanshaw says. “The contrasting melodies are relatively simple, but they are the backbone of the whole song. The harmonies are the setting, a frame, and the arrangements are very consciously set to bring out the melody. That’s something that we never knew we were working for. That focus on melody really brings the album together. Each song was consciously written closer to the other songs than ever before.
“Sentinel Peak was a lot of times more about interesting textures. We really reveled in the sounds and layers. Sun Bones is melody, piercing clarity all the way through.”
The first “single” is “Ersilia,” with its neon-drenched music video and harmony-laden backing vocals.
Guitarist Golden wrote the song as a reward commission after the Kickstarter campaign for Sentinel Peak. The subject of the song requested one about herself, with the lyrics crafted to focus about her in medical school, working toward a career as a doctor.
“It was harder to get the right tone for the lyrics because we didn’t want it to sound like a love song but a song about how badass she is, platonically,” he says.
A second video is in production for the sublimely catchy “You’re Gonna Die,” with a little post-apocalyptic visual fun set to the song’s handclaps and peppy guitar.
“You are an accident, an interesting experiment / Impermanent and fragile and alive,” sings Hanshaw, leading up to the group chant chorus “I’m gonna die, you’re gonna die, everybody’s gonna die.”
“It’s something that I’d wanted to do for a long time, write an extremely cheerful pop song about mortality,” he says. “I was in a space for a while about coming to terms with that in the most absurdist, existential way. Death is just pretty ridiculous. I just wanted to make it really lighthearted because if you don’t face death with humor then at least according to the song and how I felt at the time, you’re kind of screwing yourself.”
The album was recorded as Golden, Hanshaw and drummer Vietti were working through a lineup change that saw guitarist Laura Kepner-Adney join and guitarist Evan Casler depart. The biggest change, they say, is in the harmony arrangements. With a background in folk, country and Americana background Kepner-Adney brings intuitive harmony parts at a higher range.
Golden says all the musical journeying was necessary, a way for the band to work through an expansive slate of influences and ideas and sort what worked from what didn’t.
“We all came from different musical tastes and finding the Sun Bones sound was figuring out how to successfully blend all these disparate tastes into something that was original and made sense and wasn’t all over the place with every different song,” he summarizes.
Sun Bones will be in Cali starting this week – L.A. on 7/8, then San Francisco 7/10 and Berkeley 7/11. Full list of tour dates at the official Sun Bones website. Below, watch a delightful cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” from 2013 (with the earlier lineup).
The annual event at North Adams, Mass., took place June 26-28 featuring Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, of course, along with Speedy Ortiz, Real Estate, Parquet Courts, Sam Amidon, Bill Frisell, Luluc, Ryley Walker, NRBQ, Jessica Pratt and more—not to mention Richard Thompson. The takeaway this year? You don’t fuck with Richard Thompson!
TEXT & PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
Solid Sound is the nicest, friendliest, least exhausting festival I’ve ever been to — and the bands are pretty good, too.
Set deep in the Berkshires in an old mill town whose factory buildings have been converted into Mass MoCA (or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), Solid Sound runs on three stages, an auditorium and assorted gallery spaces. The acts are staggered in a leisurely enough fashion to enable catching most of everything you want to see. They’re mostly medium-famous, conventional rock or folk artists, maybe not bleeding-edge hipster fodder, but quality, and they lean noticeably towards bands with really great guitar players. (Jeff Tweedy’s house, Jeff Tweedy’s rules). And every night culminates with some variety of Wilco-ness—Wilco itself on nights one and two, Tweedy’s eponymous project on Sunday.
Moreover everybody is so damned pleasant – arriving on Saturday with a plus one in tow, there is no record of me or my credentials at Will Call (though I’m wearing my wrist band and have yesterday’s photo pass). “Go on in,” says the woman at the desk. “It’s fine.” And fine it is. (But don’t try that at SXSW.)
Inside, too, everything is a little easier and more enjoyable than it needs to be. The food is reasonably priced and slants locavore. Craft brews are $6. Good coffee is available, and there’s a free-standing Kombucha bar. You can buy vinyl or CD of every artist on the schedule at the Euclid Record outlet. Oh, and did I mention that your festival pass gets you in the museum, too? We catch a tiny bit of Ryley Walker and his band playing an all-improv set in front of a vast photographic tapestry that is almost as big as the mountain it represents. But that’s getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with Friday night.
Friday, June 26
I arrive around 6 p.m. after a long, winding two-lane drive over the Green Mountains and drive less than a mile down state road 8 way from the festival when I find a place to park. It’s free. After a bit of walk, I’m there, I’m in and Speedy Ortiz is setting up to play. Sadie Depuis, the singer for this mathy, post-punk-ish, 1990s alternative influenced outfit (think the Breeders, Throwing Muses, Pavement etc.) is wearing what looks like a cross between a running bra and a wedding dress, lacy, off-white, revealing, but abbreviated well above her midriff. She’s tuning. Her band, which includes a last minute bass substitute named Ellen, lurches into play, her sweet, sing-song-y melodies slithering atop a roiling cauldron of detuned guitar feedback. That’s “Raising the Skate,” the prickly, gender-stereotype-destroying single off Speedy Ortiz’s latest, Foil the Deer. Musically, it’s a volatile combination of beckoning, insinuating vocal accessibility, verbal complexity, emotional nuance, all subsumed in hissy, fuzzy rock mayhem. Speedy Ortiz is known for splicing tricky time changes and unlooked for chord progressions into her tunes, and though the band is mostly loosely conjoined as its slinks and rumbles and surges forward, there are intervals of geometrical complexity where it feels like everyone is jutting off in different directions.
Depuis stops, briefly, to celebrate the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision early that day, noting that her native Massachusetts was ahead of the curve on that issue. Early on, too, with certain kinds of punk-rooted, metal-distorted, grungy hybrids. Speedy Ortiz follows the off-kilter, guitar-wailing precedents of Dinosaur, Sonic Youth and Kristin Hersh.
The next band up is Real Estate on the larger stage at Joe’s Field, and I head there early in the hopes of getting close enough to take pictures. Already, the field is blanket and lawn-chair deep in Wilco fans, a mostly older crowd, many with children in tow, but I worm my way up and then, just when I’ve found a spot, discover that my photo pass qualifies me for restricted access. I have the most ridiculous little camera, an SLR, but I’m there in the pit with the long lens crowd, and I’d be embarrassed except that it is SUCH a good place to be.
Real Estate has always seemed a little bit of a snooze to me, with its lazy looping guitar lines, its dream-hazed romantic lyrics, its mid-tempo, mid-temperature indie rock pleasantries. It’s a nice fit though for the late afternoon with the light turning golden and the rain holding off. After a very pretty run through “Had to Hear,” Martin Courtney ticks off some local connections—Matt Mondanile went to nearby Bennington College, bass player Alex Beeker to Williamstown high school.
“Past Lives” rides a soulful groove, lit by shimmery, silvery keyboards and sinuous interlocking guitar parts, while “Municipality” jangles and shambles. The mood is lullingly sweet, wistful, serene, and Mondanile breaks, sometimes, from the strumming to trace out high clear leads. The guitar playing is beautifully distinct and intricate, though not in any particular hurry. The set list tends towards the most recent Atlas, recorded at Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago Studio, with radiant takes of “Talking Backwards,” “Horizon,” and “Crime,” but also some older tunes from Days like “All the Same and “Municipality.”
After a long-ish break, it’s time for Wilco, the sky still clear with a big half moon hung over the hill on Joe’s Field. It’s one of two long sets for the weekend, and the band seems to have opted to highlight the more countrified aspect of its sound. Indeed, there’s a real string band tone to a lot of the songs, as Nels Cline switches between a silver resonator guitar and a tiny mandolin-like instrument and Pat Sansone from banjo to xylophone. Mikael Jorgenson is off on stage left behind a keyboard, and Glenn Kotche invisible (to me) in the back. Tweedy is wearing a western hat and poncho, perhaps against the threat of rain, but as he looks at the still-clear sky mid-way through the set, he says, “This is just about perfect.”
The set ranges in a twangy, jangly, acoustic way across several decades of material, starting with 1996’s “Misunderstood,” touching the breakout Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with “War on War” and, later, “Kamera” recapping through Summerteeth favorites “Always in Love” and “She’s a Jar.” More recent songs from Wilco [the Album] (“Black Bull Nova” “One Wing”), Whole Love (“It Dawned on Me”) and A Ghost Is Born (“Hummingbird,” “Handshake Drugs”) also make the set list, and there is even a rollicking “New Madrid”from back in the Uncle Tupelo days when Jeff Tweedy helped invent alt.country. John Stirratt gets to sing, once, in “Just that Simple.”
Wilco’s experimental, feedback-y, rock-band side pops up from time to time, notablyi n a brief crazed interval of “Misunderstood,” but tonight is mostly a country-tuned sing-along. The crowd knows the words to everything and joins in, not at the chorus, but right from the opening words. (A guy standing next to me is calling out song-titles from the opening chords; he is only wrong once, and then because two different songs use the same structure.) These are serious Wilco fans on blankets and in lawn chairs, older than your average festival crowd, but with less to prove. On the hill in the back of the field, people have set up little pup tents so that their kids can go to sleep when they get tired. I have been to more exciting shows, but never one where the audience and the artist were so perfectly in tune with each other.
Saturday, June 27
We leave early Saturday but park further out and rely on spotty shuttle bus service and nearly miss Ryley Walker. Arriving, finally, Walker and his five-man improv all-star outfit — that’s Brian Sulpizio on guitar, Anton Hatt on acoustic double bass, drummer Ryan Jewell and keyboardist Ben Boye — are midway through “Primrose Rain,” the title track from this year’s album. That album, by the way, is excellent, primarily for the way it blows out Walker’s 12-string folk blues into wildly exciting free-jazz overdrive. He does the same here at Solid Sound, and it’s one of the best sets of the day.
After “Primrose Rain,” the show takes an adventurous turn, with Hatt drawing ominous tones from his bass with the wrong end of the bow, Foye making feedback with his car keys and Walker playing two-handed, with his thumbs, way up on the bridge of the guitar. The sound is eerie, moody, full of hanging overtones, but after a while Jewell sets off a rhythm under the miasma and the piece moves forward in rumbling, thundering style. After the storm, Walker embarks on a calmer, more conventional folk melody called “Funny Thing She Said,” but even here, you can hear the jazz percolating through in Walker’s half-stepping melodic shifts and the plunk of acoustic bass. The song is cool, desolate and gorgeous.
Luluc is setting up in the next courtyard, Zoë Randell with a small acoustic guitar and Steve Hassett with an electric bass. The duo, signed to Sub Pop, is Australia by the way of Brooklyn. Their last, Passerby, was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner. It was one of 2014’s subtlest, loveliest folk albums.
Luluc’s Passerby, as the name suggests, is about rootlessness and disconnection, about leaving your actual home for a place more receptive to what you want to do. There’s more than a little melancholy in the album, as well as a sense of excitement, as the songs explore new territories, both emotional and geographical. There’s also a great deal of New York in it, especially in the first song of the set “Reverie on Norfolk Street” where Randell croons about cramped city apartments and people left behind.
Luluc’s sound can be startlingly bare, like cold, clear water, but it also has its lusher moments, as in the heady harmonies that erupt from “Without a Face.” Randell’s voice is looped here, so that she is singing the main line and the harmony and a bit of counterpart all at once and coming out of such restraint, it feels like overload (in a good way). The set is entirely drawn from Passerby, and this is no bad thing. We hear, “Little Suitcase,” “Winter is Passing” and “Small Window” in quick succession. There’s a little banter. Both Randell and Hassert are taken with North Adams and Solid Sound, and Randell asks, at one point, if any of the warehouses are still available.
The set crescendos near the end with an electrified version of “Early Night” where Hassert elicits a howl of feedback from bowed electric and close harmonies evoke a Low-like wild beauty. “Tangled Heart,” too, is amped up and blown out in grand dissonant guitar gestures. “Star,” closes the set as it does the album, bringing things back to serene essentials.
By the time we get back from eating (bratwurst! Lagunitas IPA!), Sam Amidon and Bill Frisell are mid-set, coaxing the eerie overtones from “Short Life of Trouble” in front of a cross-legged crowd. Frisell has collaborated with a lot of artists, across all sorts of genres, but his partnership with Amidon seems particularly fruitful, as the two turn traditional melodies and even one Kinks song inside out in search of epiphany. Amidon’s “Groundhog Variations” is both one of his most traditional sounding songs and the one most open to interpretation. He and Frisell turn it into an improvisatory freak-out. “Tired of Waiting for You” is so ghostly and plaintive that it takes me a minute to recognize it as a Kinks tune. Frisell’s composition, whose name is garbled, sounds remarkably of the same fabric as Amidon’s reimagined reels and ditties, slanting off in angularly, modern ways from a pensive melody.
Jessica Pratt is just setting up when we emerge from the museum. I’m excited to see her, since her album On Your Own Love Again ranks one or two on my list of favorites so far (arm-wrestling with Meg Baird’s Don’t Weigh Down the Light for the 1 spot). But she looks fragile and tired on this last stop of the tour and is, quite possibly, not comfortable playing outside in broad daylight.
She starts with the shivery minor key picking of “Wrong Hand,” whispering the tune’s lyrics in flute-ish sibilance. She is playing with another guitarist, and neither of them moves much, but Pratt is particularly still, her feet locked together in front of her, her hands barely shifting on the guitar strings. She revisits many of the songs from her gorgeous album — “Greycedes,” “The Game That I Play” and “Back, Baby” — but adds very little to them. Not that people with guitars can’t be mesmerizing, see Angel Olsen, Richard Buckner and others, but Pratt is a little dull. Her set is the only real disappointment of the day.
Clouds are gathering now, and the festival organizers are seriously worried about the weather. They decide to move Richard Thompson’s set up by an hour to 4:30, which is basically now.
“It will not rain,” he announces as he bounds up to the stage, and it does not, at least not for his set. You don’t fuck with Richard Thompson.
The set, like all the others, leans heavily on the current record, recorded at Tweedy’s Chicago studio. It starts with the roistering “All Buttoned Up,” a primer, if you needed one, of how Richard Thompson winds up Celtic harmonies and melodies like a spring, hitches them to some blues licks and makes them rock. He follows with the equally hard-charging “Sallie B” from 2013’s Electric, then brings on Chicagoan James Elkington (Brokeback, Tweedy, the Zincs) to play guitar on ruminative “Broken Doll.”
Then Thompson introduces a “song from the 1970s”, which turns out to be “I Wish I Were a Fool for you Again (For the Shame of Doing Wrong).” That’s a song he wrote for Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention, and which later became a staple of the live Richard and Linda Thompson show. More recent, but still a blast from the past, “Hard on Me” from Mock Tudor is a total blast with both Thompson and his long-time bass player Taras Prodaniuk belting brash harmonies out at the chorus.
Then it’s another dip into Still, with singer Sima Cunningham coming on stage to harmonize in “Beatnik Walk,” and Elkington back for guitar color on the long, style-hopping “Guitar Heroes” (I had heard that Thompson sometimes mixed up the guitarists he referenced live, but it was the same Django, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton, Shadows line-up as on the record). “Patty Don’t You Put Me Down” rocks outrageously, and Thompson finishes the song with a Townshend-esque both-feet-in-the-air leap. The main set ends with a rocking “Tear-Stained Letter” from Thompson’s second solo album (back in 1983 if you’re counting), but the encore is the best thing all day. Thompson and his band rip through the R&B classic “Daddy Rolling Stone,” with blazing glee. It hasn’t rained a drop. It wouldn’t dare.
It certainly looks threatening, so after a desultory attempt to see the Parquet Courts (endlessly sound-checking 15 minutes after their set time), we exit the festival. Sure the Parquet Courts will eventually start playing, and Mac DeMarco will go on and Wilco, weather-permitting, will take the stage again. But it feels like anything else would be downhill from here, and Solid Sound is likely just about to become liquid. Why not quit when you’re ahead?
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