Monthly Archives: August 2015

THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 6: Winter Hours

Winter Hours 1

An evocation of a time, a place and a musical fever dream: the late, great ‘80s New Jersey pop band will never be forgotten. [UPDATE: We’ve just learned of the sudden and tragic passing of guitarist Michael Carlucci on Oct. 29.]

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley and Green On Red) I’ve decided to resurrect liner notes I penned back in 2008 for a Winter Hours tribute album. Titled A Few Uneven Rhymes and issued by the Main Man Records label, it was a 2CD collection dedicated to the late, great New Jersey folk-rock/power pop quintet. The record assembled the likes of Dumptruck’s Seth Tiven, the Violent Femmes, Gordon Gano, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws, the Feelies’ Glenn Mercer and Translator’s Steve Barton, additionally including a track by East Of Venus (featuring W.H. alumni Michael Carlucci and Stanley Demeski along with Mercer and the Bongos’ Rob Norris) plus a previously unreleased 1989 Winter Hours demo. Clearly a work of love by all concerned, including yours truly, it was intended to finally give the ‘80s New Jersey outfit its due—and, in particular, honor charismatic vocalist Joe Marques, who had tragically passed away in 2003 from a drug overdose.

Tribute album WH

       As longtime BLURT contributor Jud Cost put it in his review of the album, “[Many of the ‘80s] bands, including Winter Hours, survived longer than common sense would have predicted. It was a wonderful era, full of weekly surprises, that won’t come again. Here’s a chance to get a real taste of those halcyon days, maybe for the last time.”

       Indeed. It’s hard to fully convey the loyalty and love that Winter Hours generated among fans, but back in the mid ‘80s we clung, sometimes desperately, to “our” bands, and when one of them broke up we felt the loss deeply. Getting together in 1983 in the Jersey town of Lyndhurst, the group’s classic lineup featured Marques, Carlucci on guitar, Bob Perry on guitars and vocals, Bob Messing on bass, and John Albanese on drums. And Winter Hours appeared to have arrived fully formed, on the evidence of debut 12” Churches, what with its overtones of vintage folk-rock—the EP even included a cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”— and pristine Byrdsian jangle. Two more 12”ers followed, 1986’s The Confessional and, most notably, the stunning Wait Till the Morning EP which featured the title track and “Hyacinth Girl,” both destined to become timeless classics of the jangle-pop milieu, the type of songs you find yourself playing over and over because they sound better each time. That 12” and the Leaving Time debut longplayer, also issued in ’86 by the small regional indie Link Records, were rapturously received at college radio, as was the 1988 12” Say the Word, leading to a deal with major label Chrysalis, which released the group’s self-titled second album in 1989.

        Meanwhile the group was touring the East Coast regularly and I was lucky enough to see them several times in Charlotte, NC, where I was living for most of the decade and became friends with the bandmembers (notably Carlucci who I still reconnect with from time to time thanks to the miracle of the Internet). Chrysalis, unfortunately, could never figure out how to break the band nationally—recall how, by ’89, a noisier, far more unruly sound was rearing its head across the country in Seattle, and as Let’s Active Mitch Easter so famously remarked to me, by the end of the ‘80s if you came out holding a 12-string you were asking to get your ass kicked—and the law of diminishing returns gradually conspired to make the band throw in the towel.

Yet though Winter Hours lasted less than a decade and only released a handful of records, the music endures and rarely do any of the songs sound dated. And then, that was it—at least until the tribute project came along, followed a couple of years later by Arena Rock’s expanded CD reissue of Winter Hours, thereby making it possible for a new generation to discover the group’s beauty and brilliance anew. The fact that so many of the artists on the trib were contemporaries of the band is additional testimony to the love and loyalty I mentioned above.

        There’s not a ton of info about Winter Hours on the web, although guitarist Carlucci has set up a very nice Facebook page for the band that features a slew of photos, some of which I’ve reproduced here. There’s also a decent article about the band at the NJ.com website, occasioned upon the release of the tribute, so I’ll just leave you with that along with my own words from 2008, below, which are less a history of the group and more an appreciation—not to mention an evocation of an era that is long gone but never fails to generate fond memories. Also included here are a few choice tracks that I guarantee will melt your hearts. To this day, they still melt mine. (FM)

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Winter Hours 2

The Best Dream I Ever Lived

 “Dear Fred, just want to say thanks again for all of your help & support concerning Winter Hours and the new music scene. If I can be of any help to you in any way up here, please let me know. Hope you have a wonderful summer. I’ll keep you abreast of Winter Hours in the future. Yours, Michael Carlucci.” ( — from a card sent to me, postmarked May 27, 1987; found 2008, tucked inside the sleeve of a Winter Hours LP)

By some estimations, the mid ‘80s milieu within which Winter Hours operated never even existed — it was all a dream, a kind of mass hallucination experienced by disparate pockets of non-mainstream music lovers. How else to explain the near-simultaneous appearance, in towns all over the country, of bands and fans either creating or soaking up pristine pop and folk-flavored rock sounds that aimed to touch the heart, and the soul, the same way those sounds grabbed the imagination of a generation of Anglophiles two decades earlier?

Back then there was no Internet — no email, no MySpace or Facebook pages, no newsgroups — through which to disseminate the latest up-to-the-second music information. There were no cell phones, either — no text messaging, no unlimited minutes, no calling plans — meaning a person could go broke pretty quickly yakking long distance on the land line (in the mid ‘80s the term “land line” hadn’t yet been coined, by the way). No, if you wanted to tell someone about this incredible group you’d just discovered, in all likelihood you’d send them a letter or a postcard and hope it would arrive before the band passed through their town.

Yet somehow we managed to reach out and touch each other, to paraphrase an old phone company marketing line, and as the decade progressed a network (analog, natch) gradually evolved to bring together fans and bands, college radio deejays and amateur rock critics (such as yours truly), fledgling managers and promoters — often in a very random, ad hoc fashion, but always with a sense of purpose and mission. This is important, we thought. And so we kept pushing forward, one step at a time.

Winter Hours was among those pop-minded groups that found itself right in the thick of the burgeoning college rock scene. (For those of you reading this who are too young to “get” the term “college rock,” just think “indie rock” without the hoodies, messenger bags and ironic hipster stances, or perhaps a pre-pre-pre Hot Topic strain of alt-rock.) The New Jersey quintet’s musical and philosophical peers were spread out all over America — among them, Athens’ R.E.M. and Dreams So Real, North Carolina’s dB’s, Connells and Let’s Active, Austin’s Zeitgeist/Reivers, California’s Game Theory, Connecticut’s Miracle Legion — and it wasn’t uncommon for ardent fans of one combo to be just as vocal supporters of the other groups. We compared notes and passed around live tapes, often — as evidenced by the Michael Carlucci correspondence above — connecting with the bands themselves to ensure that when they did come to our towns they’d know they were appreciated and would want to return.

We certainly welcomed Winter Hours, right from the get-go with their first three EPs, 1985’s Churches plus 1986’s The Confessional and Wait till the Morning. The latter’s “Hyacinth Girl” in particular was a dreamymooodyjanglycool anthem that managed to ride the college-rock zeitgeist as memorably as any tune from the era, and the group continued to craft anthems alternately piercing and punchy all the way through 1989 swansong Winter Hours. In Joseph Marques’ resonant vocals and poetic lyrics, the band had its own Jim Morrison, charismatic and beautiful, but minus the hippie baggage; in Carlucci and Bob Perry Winter Hours had a dynamic, versatile guitar team that could turn from atmospheric to earthy in the space of a single measure; and in the Bob Messing-John Albanese rhythm section that manned the first few records there was a suppleness and sensitivity afoot to power those romantic tunes the band so excelled at. (Albanese was one of several talented drummers who passed through the ranks and was in the lineup the times I saw the band play; he was later replaced by Frank Giannini of the Bongos, followed by Stanley Demeski of The Feelies.) Anyone who experienced the group during its heyday will tell you: as songwriters and musicians, Winter Hours had the gift; it also possessed an uncommon chemistry that helped bring the material vividly to life.

Nowadays I have trouble remembering a lot of what happened back then, and like I suggested before, sometimes it seems like a dream. As with many of you, at the time I was hurtling forward at such a rapid pace that I rarely stopped to take stock of all that was going on around me. Since I wrote for rock magazines throughout the ‘80s I’m fortunate enough that some of my impressions and memories got written down. But only a fraction. If someone were to ask me to name all the shows I saw from, say, 1983 to 1989, I’d probably be able to come up with ten, fifteen, twenty at most before stalling and having to consult my master list of live tapes that I either recorded myself on my trusty old Walkman or received in the mail in a swap (did I mention that there were no MP3s or FLAC files in the ‘80s?).

Hold that thought. There it is right there on my list: Winter Hours, the Milestone Club, Charlotte NC, 4-24-87, audience recording, 65 minutes, EX- sound quality. Tangible evidence that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a dream after all….

 

THE PHILOSOPHERS ROCK: The Jean Paul Sartre Experience

THE PHILOSOPHER'S ROCK - Jean Paul Sartre Experience

A brand-new career overview of the beloved New Zealand Flying Nun band does a wonderful job of introducing the band to new listeners and filling in the gaps for those who might have encountered JPS Experience in passing during the 1990s. Below, watch some choice video clips and listen to a selection of audio tracks.

BY JENNIFER KELLY

“We walked into a video hell, it’s a strange, strange world of show and tell,” the B-side to Flying Nun band the Jean Paul Sartre Experience’s “Into You,” single begins. “Disappear” is both the name of the track and what this New Zealand band was about to do. By 1993, the band was nearing the end of its alternatingly exulting and frustrating run at jangle-pop fame.

JPS

I Like Rain (2CDs, Fire Records UK) tracks the band from its hissy, home-taped mid-1980s beginnings, through the damn-near perfect pop of first album cuts like “I Like Rain” and “Fish in the Sea,” on to the increasingly dark and droning second album Size of Food and out with the disappointing reach for commercial breakout of Bleeding Star. A charming all-members group interview tracks JPS Experience’s evolution from a gaggle of rebellious teenage music fans who could hardly play their instruments to an indie rock mainstay that never made the mark it deserved.

Disc one encompasses 1988’s uneven Love Songs and the Masked and Taped demos from 1985-1987, previously released as bonus material with Bleeding Star. It provides a glimpse at the band’s earliest acoustic lo-fi pop aesthetic, which culminated in the spare, lovely “I Like Rain.” The first album had some wonderful songs — “Fish in the Sea” follows a beautifully slack bass line through radiant swells of pop, “Flex” hints at the darker, more droning direction of later albums.

But it also includes some pretty awful material. In “Crap Rock” and “Bo Diddley” JPS Experience appears to make a run at being a jam band. The initial efforts tracked in Masked and Taped are also intermittently affecting and blissfully unaware of commerce. The title track has a jangly purity that reminds me of Tobin Sprout, while “Suzi Lustlady” is gorgeous, serene and NC-17 filthy.

The Size of Food, the long-delayed second album, makes up the core of Disc Two. It is here that JPS Experience takes a swerve towards electrification, drone and electronic manipulation. “Elemental” is the highlight, but the whole album is very strong and you have to share the band’s frustration about how long the record was shelved and what might have happened if it had been properly promoted.

JPS Experience and its new label Mushroom made an all-out push for global breakout with 1993’s Bleeding Star. The 1990s-redolent production favors booming gate-reverbed drums and a massive guitar sound. Songs like “Into You” and “Bleeding Star” have the heft and feedback overload of the louder Teenage Fan Club material, but you can hear them straining, a little, for anthemry. Released on Matador in the U.S., it became the first JPS Experience most Americans ever heard, and while I enjoyed it then and still think it’s better than the band members give it credit for, it was pretty far from the album they wanted to make. Recording Bleeding Star and touring it afterwards exhausted any remaining goodwill among the players, and they broke up soon afterwards.

I Like Rain does a wonderful job of introducing the band to new listeners and filling in the gaps for those who might have encountered JPS Experience in passing during the 1990s. The long essay provides good context about the band’s development, from early giddy enthusiasm to later stress and strife. It also makes you wonder where these guys would have ended up, if they’d had the decades together that contemporaries like the Clean and the Bats enjoyed. As it is, the JPS Experience made some terrific music that most people missed – what a great chance to catch up.

 

THE STORY BEHIND THE ALBUM: Rock’N’Roll by The Cynics

Cynics 1

” I never wanted to be entertained by a major label”: Pittsburgh’s finest product that ain’t steel was (and still is) a cut above and a step apart, a thumbing-of-nose at the mainstream and an inspiration to the underground. Herewith, discover what went into the making of their early classic.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin. Then we took a look at New River Head by The Bevis Frond. And—the hits just keep coming, folks, with one of BLURT’s all-time favorite bands, the mighty Cynics.

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Pittsburgh, aka Steel City because of the once-dominant steel manufacturing industry, used to be one of America’s most polluted cities, sending industrial contaminants far and wide. Meanwhile, local garage outfit the Cynics, who formed in the mid ’80s and debuted in 1987 with Blue Train Station followed by 1988’s 12 Flights Up, were busy working on a legacy of a different sort, one which would ultimately provide a template for bands around the world to make their way in the cold cruel world of the music industry. The band, featuring core members Gregg Kostelich on guitar and Michael Kastelic on vocals, has gone through several incarnations since its inception. Along the way, the band’s label, Get Hip Records, established by Kostelich at the outset, has managed to keep alive a fiercely independent work ethos in the face of tremendous upheaval throughout the aforementioned industry.

With the 1990 release of Rock’N’Roll – which this writer regards as the group’s magnum opus – the Cynics added a serrated edge to their signature psychedelic, Nuggets-inspired sound. The album has everything that one could hope for, guitars buzzing and grinding their way with a seething intensity and vocals that unapologetically scour the landscape with a corrosive and acidic haze.

The album has an incredible array of killer tunes such as “Baby What’s Wrong With Me”, “Tears Are Coming”, “You Got The Love”, “Close To Me” and “The Room” (a tune from Kastelic’s previous band The Wake). The record straddles elements of punk, psych, garage rock and pop that are so well-honed it’s no wonder that major labels showed an interest in the group. In the end, though, a major never did release a Cynics record, and the world is a better place for it. Hitting an early peak right as grunge was reaching high tide, the band most likely would have gotten lost in the ’90s alt-shuffle (or, worse, remade into something that it was never meant to be), and ultimately, the Cynics went against the grain of all concerned. Gregg’s response to our question about that says it all:

“[Get Hip] was the only indie not affiliated with major labels and they wanted to know what they were missing. As the faxes came through almost all in one week’s time, I conveniently crumpled them all into a basketball and shot them into the wastebasket for two points. I never wanted to be entertained by a major label.”

Answers like are what give people hope that not everyone wants to go down to the crossroads and sell their soul. Being an iconic American band free from major label control has allowed the Cynics to keep their vision of what they want, wholly unadulterated and as sharp as ever.

Contextually it makes sense from an outsider’s perspective that a band like The Cynics hails from Pittsburgh, given the harshness of the environment with bitter winters, and the ash from factories floating down onto the skin of people, eventually making its way into the bloodstream. For Kostelich, though, Pittsburgh’s influence was as more of an “underdog” than anything else. Pittsburgh, much like Cleveland and Detroit, was once a great American industrial city that was unable to cope with change, eventually becoming a blight on the new environmentally friendly American landscape. The music is as much a reflection as well as a reaction to a place that in the late ‘80s had already begun its steady decline (that is, until craft breweries and hipsters would remake the place into the silicon valley of the east).

Like every great album that influences us, you remember the where, the when, and the feel of your first listen. It bookmarks a time in your life where things seemed to resonate with your inner being and make an impact. I had to come to China to get my first taste of The Cynics. When I think back to my primitive dorm room, that had cockroaches the size of Palo Verde beetles, a concrete floor that was painted red, a state issued lamp, fan, and mosquito net, the Spartan circumstances actually proved to be the perfect environment to spin this record. Shanghai back then was a heavily polluted city, I remember riding over blackened rivers whose stench was so horrible you had to hold your breath for nearly a kilometer. The water from the taps flowed a rusty brown, and when you showered you didn’t end up smelling much better than before you entered. Stripped of creature comforts, and off in an alien land, the album was actually a bright spot in a relentless onslaught of pollution and socialist rhetoric blaring outside my window every morning.

I was able to track down Gregg and Michael to talk about the album, and when all was said and done Gregg, reflecting on the album was reminded of a moment in time that continues to impact him to this day, “The greatest honor after the rock n roll tour, one of the last shows, was at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor and at the bar were Scott Morgan and Ron Asheton. They come up after the show insisted on buying me a drink, loved the loud sound and insisted on loading the van with us and said goodbye in the alley. Just recently I reflected on it, maybe this summer on tour in Austin that it could have been one of the highest honors that both these great guitar players honored me in their loud guitar club, Hahahaa!”

BLURT: Can you tell our readers the genesis of the album Rock ‘N’ Roll?

MICHAEL KASTELIC: Most all of the songs we had been practicing and sometimes playing live for a while so we were pretty comfortable with them by the time we recorded. We had a pretty solid live set from the numerous shows we were doing and we picked the new ones to record. We also recorded new versions of two songs (“The Room” and “Business as Usual”) from a band I was previously in called “The Wake”

GREGG KOSTELICH: Hmm as far as riffs, we were practicing at The Cynics house in the late 80’s and we would either bring songs into practice while coming up with riffs during those rehearsals.

Where was the album recorded?

GK: We did some demos at Audiomation, which was in Greg Vizza’s father’s house while he was building a 2-million-dollar star trek recording facility. It was a nice studio but everything was trebly that came out of there.

 How long did it take to record the album?

GK: It could have been one take 40 minutes but Greg forgot to put the record button on. We all were pissed off so we had to do it over and it took till 7 the next morning and got costly.

 How long had some of these songs been around in the band before you decided to make them apart of this record?

GK: We mixed them in the Blue Train/12 Flights set as they were developing and we did notice a great response to the new songs. It gave us confidence that we may have something this time around.

 How did the band write material at that time? Did it weigh more towards one or two members to write the music or did every member have input?

MK:  I believe that was the most important part of the magic of this record. We wrote those songs in a humid basement in a crazy house that Beki Smith (our keyboardist) and I lived in. It was a crazy mansion on 5th Ave that we rented really cheap from some crazy geriatrics. It was a place with really cool energy. We had no white light bulbs in the entire house, just blue and red and some green and purple. The house was decorated in amazingly black and white op art except for our bedrooms, which were like green and purple, and mine, which was blood red.

My parents bought us a heavy duty dehumidifier so we could put the amps and instruments in the basement without them getting totally destroyed by moisture. Beki also decked out the basement with psychedelic lights and posters and I just found the whole basement so easy and inspiring to write in because it was seriously like being in a cave.

Also, as a band, we were all over the place in our musical tastes. Beki and Steve were totally into ‘60s garage.  I was going through a Johnny Thunders, Ramones, kinda thing.

I had this pretty good job at a phone place where I got off work at late at night, went to the local, stayed up all night, and woke up in the afternoon.

Gregg was managing a record store at the time and was filled with inspiration and also anger! He would come to practice after work and he would really crack the whip at practice. I remember the night we were working on the song “Get Our Way” and the rest of the band went upstairs to sit on the porch while he made Tom Hohn (drummer) play the drum part over and over for an hour! We were laughing and crying! Totally insane.

Because we practiced in my own basement I could get really fucked up and just sing whatever was in my head to Gregg’s guitar parts. It just seemed really organic because I was tortured and horny, but still really happy. (Re: line from song “Tears are Coming”  “I was drunk and alone, but satisfied still”)

Overall, every member had a very important part of writing that record.  We might have been in different spaces in our own heads but we still all loved the same kind of music so it just came together. (i.e. “Different Worlds”)

 What types of pedals, amps & guitars were you guys using back when you recorded the album?

GK: Fender dual showman/twin reverb guitar amp, Vox fuzz, Gretsch Tennessean. Bass amp was an Ampeg Svt-8 Pro ten-inch speakers 200 or 400-watt head. Keyboards were Farfisa and Fender amp.

  When the record came out what were the reviews like?

MK:  Kinda funny, at first, a lot of “garage purists” were saying, “What happened to The Cynics? This ain’t the garage we want!”  We kinda’ knew that would happen which is the reason we called the record “rock and roll’. But pretty quickly the college stations really picked up on it and so did the reviews and it seemed to bring the purists and a lot of new fans together.

 GK: All were great. No one bad review that I can remember.

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Below: the band performs “The Room” at the  October 1990 Pittsburgh Music Awards

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I do know that labels offered deals after R’N’R did so well, so why didn’t you capitalize on its success and sign? 

GK: One major was going back and forth and we constantly changed the sound of learn to lose. Every time I hear that LP I think some songs were not bad but the sound ended up sounded like a grunge record. It wasn’t what we were about. I should have shelved the record but against all band members I released since they dropped the idea. I was stuck holding the bag so to speak.

Given the band’s steadily growing popularity by ’89 what with touring and two albums under their belt, were they approached by any labels for R’N’R? Or did they try to shop it? Or did they aim to stick with their own Get Hip all along, and if so, why? 

GK: 11 to 12 major labels all took notice because we went to number 4 on Rockpool college charts. It was the only indie, not affiliated with major label on it and they wanted to know what they were missing. As the faxes came through almost all in one week’s time, I conveniently crumpled them all into a baseball and shot them into the wastebasket for two points. I never wanted to be entertained by a major label.

Who did the band tour with for this album both in the US and Europe?

GK: Whew, a lot. We opened for the Ramones. Green Day opened for The Cynics at Davis University. We played the Vogue in Seattle and in that audience were members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and the Sub Pop owners. We played around 230 shows that year pretty much playing most places 3-5 times that year so it really got us popular and built a great fan base for life. There’s more but a lot of bands were on Get Hip too.

Noting that the band played Seattle in front of those other bands’ members, did you have any sense of the turning of the American indie tides? Also since by ’89 the proto-grunge movement already had a good degree of momentum, in that regard did the band ever get the sense that perhaps the style the Cynics were playing was going out of fashion? (Mitch Easter once told a younger Fred Mills that by 1989, anybody who came out with a Rickenbacker and playing jangly melodies was asking to have his ass kicked.)

GK: You can kick their ass with a Rickenbacker. It depends on how wimpy you use it I guess. If you heard me do 12-string live, you would love it and your ears may bleed. I still bring the 12-stringers out. Wasn’t doing it for fad reasons. It’s our life.

 Did you record any of these shows for posterity?

GK: I do have some cassettes and many videos still here unreleased.

 Which songs from the record are the most popular live?

GK: Most of them.

What songs from R’N’R made it into your latest tour set list? What songs from the RNR will always be a part of your live sets?

GK:Baby What’s Wrong?”, “Way It’s Gonna Be”, “Get My Way”, “Last Time Around”, “Cry, Cry, Cry”, “Now I’m Alone”, “Close To Me”, “You Got The Love”. Once in a while we play “Girl You’re On My Mind”. I guess we’ll do the LP in full sometime in the near future.

 Listening to the record today how does it make you feel? Which songs are you partial to and why?

GK: Like them all.” Close To Me,” “Now I’m Alone,” “Baby What’s Wrong” are my faves.

 Please talk about the song “Baby What’s Wrong?” how did you come up with the buzz saw guitar line and what made you decide to go with this song for the opener?

MK:  It was one of those organic basement songs. It started out as a fuzz guitar and bass riff. I wrote the words on a napkin at my local bar at the time “Chief’s Cafe”.  I was lusting after someone and they would have nothing to do with me. Once again, the theme of Rock and Roll, being so miserable but yet so happy and self-satisfied. “Now I’m Alone” is another variation on that theme.

GK: Steve Magee played it on the bass first. It was his one contribution.

  “Close to Me” has a Rickenbacker sound and is one of the great ‘60s pop songs not written in the early ‘60s! Tell us about how this song came about?

MK:  Gregg had this beautiful riff and I just whined over it about this teenage prostitute I was sleeping with, but not having sex with! We would just drink and cuddle and that was the debauched life I was into then. I still remember the face every time we play that song.

GK: Well it’s me picking the notes out in treble position on a Gretsch. I love that sound and still play most of the songs that way.

 Given the across-the-board positive response to the album – in addition to storming the college charts what did the band expect to find when they landed for the first time in Europe, and were those expectations met or exceeded, and why?

GK: The response in Europe and Canada was way better than USA. We did well in America too but Europe was waiting for years so it was all great. During this tour bands like Green Day opened for the Cynics, just to give you perspective. We did close to 240-shows that year. 80-100 destinations some 4-5 times like D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh of course, Detroit, New York etc. Canada two or three times. It really made things happen and this is what we still live to do is fuzz around.

 I first heard of your band from a French guy in China who I went to school with, it was on the flipside of a Les Thugs cassette tape. Did the band initially find a more receptive audience in Europe than in the states?

GK: That’s interesting because Christophe, this promoter, from France managed Les Thugs so maybe that tape was his or duped from his copy?

 Can you tell us about some of the different versions of the album that was made? Was there a European edition? What about Japanese editions?

GK: No license on this one. There has been color and 180-gram pressings. Black pressing.

 The Cynics and Get Hip seem to have always been ardent supporters of vinyl. How do you feel now that LP’s seem to be all the rage again?

MK: I know this is blasphemy for me to say but I seriously have no room for any more vinyl in my flat. I listen to my music old school on my transistor radio (i.e. iPod)

GK: I’m happy and always thought and fought for its mainstay but it has become a nightmare. Everyone is raising prices and it’s difficult getting records pressed.

 Will Get Hip be releasing an 180g Heavy vinyl reissue of  Rock ‘N’ Roll in the future?

GK: There is one now with a poster, too.

CYNICS_RNRReissue

 The term garage rock seems to get bandied about a lot when describing the cynics, but isn’t there a distinct pop side to the band as well?

MK:  What’s the matter with “Garage Pop” if we’re gonna’ throw labels around?  I think we are a garage band because that’s where we started playing, And for better or for worse, that is where we are still playing, pop songs in fucking garages, so…

GK: Sometimes but we do write pop songs whether it be angry, happy, sad.

 Could you talk about songs like “The Room” which for me in many ways is very un-Cynics-like? What made you put this song as the closer?

MK:  I have mixed feelings about that production of it, but as I said it was a song I did with a different band before The Cynics. Some people really like it some people hate it. If I am in the right mood it can be a great song to play live. It brings up a lot of emotions.

GK: It was a song that Michael wrote in one of his earlier bands, The Wake. So was business as usual. The Room was fun just throwing that on after all hell broke loose. It was a nice way to just say whew, my ears are ringing and close with the ballad.

  I’m really curious what music inspired the band then and what inspires you all now?

MK:  There are so many cool young bands doing so much. When I see some of what these kids are doing now Like Nox Boys, Chase the Monkey, Archie and The Bunkers, Paint Fumes, Bo Loserr, just dozens I could say or more. All my iTunes library is filled with mp3’s that kids send me of their stuff.  I am inspired by them because they remind me that it was all about having a good time.

 GK: Whew. I listen to everything so nothing really inspires me. Some songs make me want to write more in retaliation but not too much. Just kind of grab a guitar and pluck away and find a riff. Sometimes it takes a year to be inspired.

How did living in Pittsburgh influence this record?

GK: Not too much other than being an underdog because it’s a smaller city but was known to have a great record buying population.

 What does this record mean to the band 25 years on?

GK: Means a lot. It’s been hard to top this LP – however, I love Get Our Way, Here We Are and Spinning Wheel.

Cynics 2

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EDITORIAL BONUS BEATS:

“Blurt editor Fred Mills apparently has several Cynics albums autographed by the entire band, and he would like to know how much he can gouge folks on eBay for them as he is starting a college fund for his teenager.”

GK: Maybe a warm six pack of Old Milwaukee beer!

 

“What did a young Fred Mills in his pre-Blurt editorship days have to say about the Cynics, and did he ever actually stalk you guys?”

GK: Yes he did. I met Fred in North Carolina when Karen Mieczkowski was a big fan and did our fan club. We all went down south for the first time and met Fred. [True—it was the 4808 Club in Charlotte, and quite a show it was.-Ed.] He even helped us load the van after the show and we talked outside in the parking lot for a long time. Maybe we were a little drunk too. Then I met him at a record fair once too and he bought a lot of garage compilations. A true fan and gentlemen. [True, all true! –Ed.] I miss talking at him. Hahahahahaaa.

***

Special thanks to Barbara and Gregg at Get Hip for the promotional photos and the live MP3 below, an exclusive track originally appearing on the 1991 album Stranded In Madrid Live At The Ya’sta (Impossible Records) which, of course, found the group at the peak of its Rock’N’Roll touring powers.

 

FROM CHILDREN OF THE SUN TO RISING OF THE MOON: Dead Can Dance (Thee Blurt Archives, Vol. 8)

DCD live

Ed. Note: in 2012 we published this interview with Lisa Gerrard, who talked about the long running band – then currently on tour and with their first album in 16 years recently released – she shares with Brendan Perry. Since then they’ve also issued a live album, In Concert, which documented the tour for Anastasis, and were set to tour again this past spring but, due to unforeseen circumstances, had to cancel. Meanwhile, in 2014, Gerrard worked on a number of film scores (details at her Wikipedia page) and released solo album Twilight Kingdom on her own Gerrard label, and is reportedly readying another solo project. It seems like a reasonable point, then, to revisit longtime contributor Gil Macias’ insightful, in-depth conversation with the remarkable Gerrard. Enjoy!

BY GIL MACIAS

It’s been 7 years since their 2005 reunion tour, but after an overly long hiatus Dead Can Dance are once again touring and enchanting the world in support of their stunning new album Anastatis, which is also their first new album in 16 years. Dead Can Dance, formed by minstrels Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, began captivating music lovers over 30 years ago their unique and now signature blend of experimental art rock, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Celtic, African and other world music influences and they have undoubtedly not lost their magic touch. On August 14 the duo enraptured a very enthusiastic audience at the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles.

Entering the stage wearing a gown and a flowing golden cape that looked like a cross between some sort of elegant superhero meets Greek Goddess, Gerrard along with Perry took the stage to thunderous applause. The band opened up with “Children of the Sun” (the album opener for Anastasis) where Perry’s soothing and one of a kind, mighty baritone filled the theater and instantly set the tone for what would be a breathtaking and out of this world, two hour show. The next song, “Anabasis,” was the first lead vocal by Gerrard and once that very first second of vocals emerged, it sent an instant shockwave of spine-tingly loveliness across the room. If you’re a fan of this particular genre or not, it’s a voice that needs to be heard and it’s truly amazing how much of a modern day muse Gerrard really is.

The band also delivered some of the many fan favorites from their back catalogue. The crowd erupted into cheer as “Rakim” began and Gerrard marveled us all by displaying her talents with the hammered dulcimer (aka Yangqin). Other highlights that received strong audience reactions included the lush “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove,” “Nierika,” and the always chilling and goose bump inducing “The Host of Seraphim,” arguably one of Gerrard’s finest vocal performances, which was also backed up by Perry’s haunting chants. It was with the latter track where you looked around the room and you could clearly see that her voice had an emotional and spiritual impact as it brought some of the audience to tears.

But the most impressive moment of the show came after the band performed their epic, Celtic-styled “Return of the She-King.” The stage was cleared, the audience clamored for more and Gerrard once again emerged for a third encore, this time with only one other musician. She performed a serene and mesmerizing little number called “Rising of the Moon” that had the audience entranced—it was like an audience full of serpents watching an elegant and unworldly snake charmer. At the very tail end, after her final note, there was this small moment of complete and total silence—you could hear a pin drop. Gerrard, eyes closed, stepped to the microphone, and in a breathy tone said: “You’re absolutely fabulous” and the crowd went from dead silent to roaring cheers and applause (See the video below) and she smiled, blew a kiss and waved. It was the perfect and gratifying finale for this enchanting evening.

We were lucky enough to have a little chat with Lisa Gerrard a few days after the show. In our interview we discuss the writing process of Dead Can Dance, her unique style of singing known as glossolalia, the tour and what journey lies ahead for our two favorite musical soul mates.

Gerrard

BLURT: This is your first new album in 16 years and we’re curious as to what sort of magic occurs between you and Brendan after such a long break. Can you explain what it’s like in the studio when you two reunite in person for the first time? What’s your writing process like?

GERRARD: The way that the process happened with this one started while Brendan was experimenting with Mediterranean rhythms, which he sent to me over the internet to acquaint myself with. They were quite complex. They sound really simple, but they’re quite complex to write with because of the way that the harmonies have to stretch out and still make sense over different periods of time. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked like that with him. From that point of view it was different, but I have to tell you that as soon as we started writing together I felt that you could immediately hear the signature of the stuff that we make. I was really excited that that hadn’t gone. The character of what we do together was still there.

 

I have to ask about your style of singing, glossolalia. Your vocals are amazing, yet they aren’t a real language. Are they instantly induced by the music you hear in the studio? Or is it more like an epiphany and that can even take place outside of the studio?

It’s automatic. And it’s innate within the music itself that determines how I respond with my voice. I can’t explain it myself, I really can’t. And I’ve tried for many years and I just think, you know what, I’m not going to try and explain it anymore because I really don’t know. I know that it is an innate, automatic response to the music that I hear. It’s like the pathway between my mouth and my heart, and I respond emotionally with the groaning of the heart. Each piece of music presents a completely different inspired sound.

 

Do you always write the music first then do the vocals after? Or has there been a time where a vocal has come first and then you built the music around it?

Yes, in fact, the very last piece that we do at the concert, “Rising of the Moon.” I’m writing that as we go and it’s really about the voice and just two notes. So, that will just grow from there. And after some concerts it will have developed into a piece. Sometimes it’s nice to do something that you’re writing while onstage.

 

You once described your style of singing as being free and uninfluenced by the prisons of language. After you record these original vocal pieces, what’s it like for you to replicate them live? Other artists who sing and write in English, for example, can write their lyrics down on paper and memorize them.

It comes very organically. The thing is, I have written my words down if I have to repeat something that’s got a very difficult keyboard line that follows the voice and there’s no timing. I’ve had to write out the words for the person that’s playing the keyboard and mark where the chord changes are under the phrases so that it has the same organic. But I’ll be really honest with you, I almost can’t sing them. I can’t say them. I can’t do it because I’m reading and my work doesn’t come from reading. It’s a completely different dynamic. In fact with “Anabasis,” because there’s a gap and there’s a really strange timing in that piece. I had to write out the phrases so I could give it to the musician so that they would understand what was happening at that point with my voice. As soon as I wrote it down, I couldn’t sing it. I really struggled with that. It created a drama in my connection to the music and I had to refine my connection after corrupting it by reading those.

 

So after you finalize a recording and move on to live performances, would you say that your vocals for a particular song are never exactly the same again and they’re always evolving?

They’re always slightly different but the vernacular is very similar. That’s the thing that always surprises me about it, is that particular vernacular is unique to that piece of music. There are some colors that cross over but mostly it comes innately.

 

BLURT: I’ve heard a few bands cover Dead Can Dance songs and it’s always interesting to see other female vocalists tackle your work. Some of them are quite good, not exactly the same, but executed quite nicely. Have you come across any vocalist that covered your work successfully?

LISA GERRARD: I have heard various performances. Sometimes I’ve gone on YouTube and had a look at some versions of my own abstract pieces. I’m curious to see how people pull those off. I was really pleasantly surprised. Because they didn’t try to copy my words, they made them their own. And I loved that. If they were just to copy my words, then it would take the authenticity away. I found it really interesting and inspiring because it shows you that I’m not slightly autistic and I’m just doing this thing. It shows you that it’s a matter of tuning into a certain frequency.

 

Because your music is influenced by so many cultures, do you tend to travel a lot and engulf yourself in various foreign environments for inspiration before you write or go into the studio?

With Dead Can Dance, we’ve probably been touring now for about 25 years and we’ve been to lots and lots of different places, but ultimately most of our influences came from our childhood. We grew up in Greek, Turkish, and Italian areas. And I grew up in an Irish home, so did Brendan. I think you can very clearly see the mosaic of things that inspired us as children that kept us hungry on the path of music at a very early age. There’s also education and exploration. If you’re really passionate about something, you’ll want to learn to play various pieces of music from around the world. It enables you to understand how they’re constructed and it also it takes you out of the box of simply making Western four form music.

 DCD 2

Brendan dabbles more into the Western influenced stuff and sings in English. Do you ever co-write his lyrics?

I never touch his lyrics, they’re very personal to him. He never touches mine. We’re very reverential towards that side of the work. We do influence each other when it comes to writing music. We definitely create the musical side of the voices very differently, but that’s kept very personal. Although, I did write a piece for him to sing. It was called “Hymn for the Fallen” and I ended up singing it myself on the last tour. I did want him to sing that but he said, “No, it sounds really great when you do it, you should do it.”

 

You’ve collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the score for Gladiator. Have you ever thought about doing an original score with Brendan as Dead Can Dance? I think that would be amazing.

Of course I have, and if Brendan was to write a film score it would be really beautiful, but he is not of the temperament that he could do a film score he feels. He can’t just go and change a piece of music so that it fits a picture. He wouldn’t do it. He’s very consistent when it comes to it. With him its: This is the song form, this is how it is, and nothing can be changed. The only reason we’ve been able to do an edit one of our pieces is because we were able to take out some parts of it without changing the words. When you’re doing film, you have to be obedient; you’re working as a team. You can’t take control of the music in the project. We did a movie together, El Nino De la Luna, years ago and it ended up almost coming to blows. That was really frightening. He didn’t want to conform to what the director wanted, when in fact you have to. It’s not your movie. [Laughs]

 

You hear a song like Return of the She-King and it’s so epic. Something like that should be in a film.

It’ll probably end up in a movie, but it’s such a different climate when you’re in a room of full of people and you have to write something for them. You have to tune in to what they want. You have to redefine the fabric of yourself based on the inspiration of what you’re looking at and on the energy from the people you’re working with; it’s all part of it. Brendan doesn’t want to explore that area. He’s not interested.

 

Well, maybe one day. Maybe he’ll reconsider.

I think he will. I remember talking to Mark Magidson about that. He wrote a little piece for Baraka at the end titles. He wrote that for the picture but he’s been working with Mark for years. It’s like, you write him a piece of music and you give it to him. I just finished working with him on Samsara. And we wrote the music to the picture. But he’s different to work with because you’re writing whole pieces of music. When you’re doing cinema, the picture’s constantly evolving and changing. And you have to constantly redefine the music so that it’s getting nearer and nearer to unlocking the subtext. It’s a completely different experience and that would unnerve Brendan.

 

Speaking of an unnerved Brendan, I want to talk about the tour a little bit. He spoke to the audience when they got too noisy, in a polite way, of course. He even told us a story about walking offstage during the last tour because people were yelling and requesting things like “Free Bird.” [Laughs]. Do you get distracted by noise from the audience? A lot of your music is so serene and there are near silent moments, and that’s usually when a fan takes the opportunity to scream that they love you.

I don’t notice it at all. I’m so tuned in to what I’m doing. I have to really, really focus very deeply for me to be able to do the work that I do. It’s an internal experience. For Brendan, it’s much more external. He’s actually telling a story and so for him the bridge of communication is already open.

 

One of my favorite moments at the Los Angeles show was at the very end of “Rise of the Moon.” When you were finished, there was this moment of complete silence. You could hear a pin drop. And then you smiled and said to us, “You’re absolutely fabulous.”

[Laughs]

 

I thought it was pretty amazing for you to say that. It caught us off guard and the audience erupted in cheer. It was almost as if you said that because even you noticed the dead silence and that you had captivated us.

How lovely, I know, what an audience. What a fantastic audience. That piece is so exposed. I wouldn’t have noticed the silence while I was singing, but when I stopped, I was moved by it.

 

Is there a reason why there was no chamber orchestra on this tour?

We weren’t really sure how things would go, you know? We had to sort of see if our audience was still out there. Maybe next time we’ll have a budget that will enable us to bring a lot more live musicians, because we’d really like to. It’s lots of fun having live musicians onstage. We’ve already got great musicians; the people we’re working with are phenomenal.

 

Well, you sounded amazing and you look stunning by the way. Can you tell me about your wardrobe? You walked out and it was like elegant superhero meets Greek goddess.

[Laughs] That’s so lovely, thank you. It’s really tricky to pick the clothing to wear onstage for Dead Can Dance, because you have to cover so many genres of music and styles of singing, that in a way, it has to be timeless but still poetic. Women speak volumes with their clothes. With something like this music, the dresses almost have to be able to lend themselves to each individual piece uniquely. That’s why my dress was designed so that it covered anything from Byzantine, through to Greek, through to the Mediterranean, through to classical in a kind of suggestive and poetically quiet manner. As opposed to, wearing a sort of ‘60s cocktail dress [Laughs]. It’s really tricky getting those right.

 

Was it a daunting task to pick your setlist for this tour?

It came pretty quickly, really. We were a bit disappointed we didn’t get some things in there. We were sorry we didn’t put something from the really early catalog, which we would’ve liked to play something from the very first album. And we thought about that, but we didn’t get to it. By the time we got all those other pieces ready to perform, we ran out of time to go further.

DCD

You and Brendan seem like musical soul mates. Even after 16 years without making new material, you finally came back and did another album. How long will fans have to wait until the next album?

I think what we’ll probably do because this concert tour is about 7 months overall, we’ll develop pieces while we’re away. Otherwise, we can’t do the same pieces for 7 months, we’ll go insane. I think out of this experience of us working together now, we’ll grow new pieces while we’re actually traveling. So they’ll probably come out not too long after the tour is finished. Maybe 3 or 4 months after. That’s basically what we’re hoping will happen, but you can never tell—Especially with Brendan and I [Laughs].

***

Below, some  moments…

 

 

HAT TRICK: Langhorne Slim

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“Sometimes you can make a louder sound quietly”: the beloved Americana-tilting rocker talks about his new album, relocating to Nashville, and finally getting sober. Oh, and something about receiving prototypes from the Stetson factory….

BY JOHN B. MOORE

It’s been a strange three years for Langhorne Slim.

Since the release of 2012’s The Way We Move, an album that took the Pennsylvania native across the globe and to his biggest audiences yet, the alt country/punk rock/folkie has relocated to Nashville where he bought a house, completely quit drugs and alcohol, signed to the influential indie Dualtone label and turned in his most personal album yet.

Despite decades-worth of life changes crammed into just three years, Slim is still every bit of the aw-shucks, roll with the punches, ego-less musician that has won over everyone from punk rockers to the Americana crowd, tearing through raucous foot-stompers like “The Way We Move” or mellower fare like “Changes”.

Calling in from his Nashville home before heading out on what will likely be months on the road to promote the new record, The Spirit Moves, Slim spoke openly about sobering up, co-writing songs for the first time and his new gig as a hat designer.

BLURT: I’ve been listening to the new album for a month now and the one thing that jumped out at me, from someone who has been listening to you for years now, it seems a lot mellower than some of your earlier albums.

SLIM: If that’s how you take it then you’re reading it perfectly right. I think if you just talk about the quickness or tempo of a tune you might be right. I would say that it rocks as hard, if not harder in my opinion. Sometimes you can make a louder sound quietly if that makes any sense. I think there were truths from within my soul (laughs) that needed to come out and so that was a focus; how to put that to music. With the last record too there’s a real hope and openness to put the emphasis on the lyrics. Perhaps that comes in a slower song sometime, but it’s just what comes out at the time.

In this journey and process of writing music and making records, I never think to myself I’m going to make more of a ballad-type record or I’m gonna have more of a punk-type sound with this record. It’s just what makes sense at the time I’m writing. It doesn’t even occur to me. I’m just trying to capture the essence at the time.

I know you recorded this one down in Nashville, but you still worked with (producer) Kenny Siegal on this one, right?

Yeah, I sure did. I moved to Nashville three years ago and even bought a house here and I love it. But this is the first record that I co-wrote songs with anybody. The band, for years, I brought songs to and they helped arranged them and they wouldn’t be the same without those guys, but with Kenny, we actually co-wrote. I would come up with some ideas and some pieces and some nearly full tunes and then I would fly to New York and drive up to Catskill and meet him and he would help piece them together. In him, I found a real soul brother, a musical comrade that somehow understands my craziness and helps me put it together. And then we drove to Nashville together to help make the record at the Bomb Shelter.

Were you uncomfortable at all the first time you started writing with him and sharing ideas?

No, because it happened so naturally. It happened because it was so clearly meant to happen. He and I grew to be very, very close friends through making The Way We Move record at his studio. I found a sort of spiritual soul connection with the guy and so what happened was I was going to Kenny for some demos. I had some song ideas and the band is scattered – everyone lives in different places and has for pretty much since the band’s existence. I was going to him to cut demos to send to the band and in that process Kenny would be like, “Hey bro, I hear this bridge.” I never would write bridges, I do a little now, but I’m more verse/chorus/verse type of fella.

And at first maybe I thought it was peculiar and I’m a pretty open cat, but when you write, and I don’t know if it’s part ego, but you really need to trust the source around you to be open to the suggestion. That comes with playing with people and you sometime get to the point where you not only trust the person, but you’re also eager to hear their contributions. Siegal is much more than a friend, he’s like a brother and it came really natural, so he’d say, “maybe I hear another part” and at first I wasn’t sure if I was up for hearing this “other part” he was suggesting for a song I had been working on for a month. And then he would play it and it would make complete sense. And it just felt good.

For me, I hear a lot of music in my head and I have a lot of ideas floating around and sometimes they come as full songs and often they don’t. Working on so many songs in a month is both awesome and terrifying because it starts to overload my brain and the creative part of my spirit and it shakes me up and I really feel it. To say it makes me feel uneasy would be an understatement. In Kenny, it’s like going to a therapist if you’re having a rocky marriage or going through some shit at work. Siegal is like my creative therapist. I would go to him with all this information and some would be fully fleshed out… and others wouldn’t be and I would go there and we would get fucking deep. It’s not fun all the time. It’s not the thing I would invite friends to come sit in on – “Hey, come check out the fun writing process.” And yet, something strange happens and there would be breakthroughs, we would cut the tunes and send them to the band and the proof was just in the pudding, it felt right and the guys were into it.

For-All-Eyes-SiteLanghorneSlim_roeth4-24-15-03-copy-2

Is this the same band you’ve had for the last few albums? Have there been any changes?

Yeah, it’s the same exact band as The Way We Move record. David Moore on keys; Malachi Delorenzo, the drummer, has been with me since the beginning and Jeff Ratner is the same bass player from the last two records, so about six years. And then there’s some various other folks. Josh Hedley, one of the best fiddle players and country singers around and he’s toured with us a bit and he sings on the song “Changes” and plays fiddle on “Spirit Moves” and a few others. There are a number of Nashville bad asses that are buddies that came in and helped us with it.

Nashville seems like it would be a good fit for a musician. Tons of talented people and studios and a lot cheaper than LA or New York.

Nashville is perfect for me. I’ve moved around a lot and it’s the place I have loved the most. It suits me. The people are so hospitable. It’s been a beautiful place to move to and to have shifted my life to in certain ways. It’s been a beautiful chapter… Nashville has been a huge part of this record and a huge part of the last few years for me.

In the press materials, there was a mention that this is the first album you’ve written completely sober.

Yeah, that would be very true.

Was it different approaching this album?

Completely.

Harder?

Harder because I never did that before and easier because it’s easier (being clean). But I didn’t know it would be easier. I don’t know if that makes any damn sense. I’ve been an excessive drinker and drug taker from a pretty early age and I made most of my music and lived most of my adult life that way; I got sober two years ago on my birthday when I turned 33. And it was a spiritual shift in my life and there are always obstacles, demons and challenges, that’s just a part of life. But there are some that we carry with us and we know they’re there and we may even know we can do something about it, but we just aren’t ready yet. I’m very proudly sober and it’s weird… I didn’t decide to be a musician. I was just born and started doing it to the best of my ability. With that shit, I had the creature in me and tried to do it in a way that made sense and I could still have my relationships and career. It was a creature that I battled for a long time and I knew at some point it would take me down and I would have to jab it in the throat with some sort of blunt object so that it could release me, or I could release it.

I knew if I could do that before it took me down, I would be able to step into a more fully realized version of myself and into a more enlightened existence. When that shift took place, of course it was difficult and you feel like shit and it’s scary, but as soon as that wore off I was in a more elevated place all around with my relationships; with my relationship with myself, friends, my music. We all create identities for ourselves and its interesting when you can shake some of that off and realize not only do you still exist, but you’re kind of groovier… It’s helped me to be more in tuned with the spirits that are creativity. I gave drugs and alcohol several of my records. We dated for a long time. I dated that shit longer than I dated any human and it was time for us to break up and I’m the proudest of that break up.

I want to end by talking about your Stetson deal. Every time I’ve ever seen you, either live or in photos, you’ve been wearing a hat. You are now, I guess sponsored by Stetson hats. How did that come about?

Yup, I’ve pretty much always had a hat surgically applied to my head. We were brought to them by this great New Jersey band we were on tour with called River City Extension. They were friends with those guys and they said, “We gotta introduce you to our friends at Stetson, they give us free hats and we got a good thing going over there.” Seeing as I’ve worn a hat just about every day of my life it seemed to make sense. We met them and hit it off and just continued the relationship for the last several years up to this record. I don’t know if it was a dream or a friend who said to me, “You should talk to Stetson about designing a hat.”

It was just another example in my life that nothing is out of reach. If you dream something up and are open to it and show excitement and enthusiasm for the potential thing, wild shit can happen. We brought it up and I didn’t think they would come back with any interest, but they did and that grew into me about a month ago going to Texas and working with them and their head hat designer on a new hat. I’m receiving prototypes of the hat and holding it going what the hell?!

It’s such an honor. My grandfathers wore Stetson hats and I’ve had a love of hats my whole life. To have the opportunity is surreal… I think it’s just growing into your place in the world. I mean, somebody’s got to design a hat. Why can’t it be me?

I Want My Penny Back: Columbia House’s Bankruptcy and the Death of Record Clubs

CH 1

It’s not so much that we didn’t see it coming; it’s more, “Whoah, I didn’t even know they were still in business!”

BY FRED MILLS

In the news, and unexpectedly so: venerable music subscription service/mail order outlet Columbia House, neé Columbia Record Club, which began life in 1955 and adopted the Columbia House name in the ‘70s when cassettes were firmly part of the consumer equation. Rolling Stone reports that parent company Filmed Entertainment Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday in New York.

As RS notes, “In 1996, Columbia House’s profits peaked at $1.4 billion; by comparison, the company only managed $17 million in revenue in 2014.” That long, steady decline was of course largely the result of the digital revolution. As company director Glenn Landberg wrote in the filing, “This decline is directly attributable to a confluence of market factors that substantially altered the manner in which consumers purchase and listen to music, as well as the way consumers purchase and watch movies and television series at home.”

Recall that in 2010, when Columbia House was faced with the stark reality of massively declining physical media sales, it tried to remain afloat by shifting to DVDs and Blu-rays. But soon enough, with the penetration of broadband and the resulting streaming movie revolution, the DVD market began dying as well. Rolling Stone estimates that while in 2000 the music industry was moving $13 billion per year in CDs, by 2014 it was a meager $1.85 billion, while DVD sales “have plummeted by 50 percent between 2006 and 2014.”

Columbia House has gone out with a whimper, not a bang.

***

Millennials probably have no firsthand knowledge of Columbia House (or, for that matter, competitors the Record Club of America, which went out of business in the mid ‘70s, and the RCA Record Club, which became the BMG Music Service and was ultimately owned and operated by BMG Direct Marketing, which in turn would eventually wind up purchasing Columbia House to consolidate everything under a single roof). The angle was pretty savvy back during the day: you’d encounter a full-page ad in a magazine such as Rolling Stone or even more mainstream non-music publications such as Time or Newsweek, and it would be showing maybe 75-100 album titles, most of them current hits, although enduring deep catalog titles or best-ofs were staples of the selection as well. You’d pick something like 13 albums or 8-track tapes (or, eventually, cassettes) from the list, add in a nominal fee, like $1 to $3 bucks, and in 4-6 weeks they’d show up in the mail. Sweet, eh? (Below: a typical ad for Columbia House. Note the 8-tracks.)

CH 4

But there were a couple of catches. The first was that by signing up you pledged to purchase a minimum number of albums over the course of the next two years—say, eight of ‘em. No biggie, right? Ah, but you’d be paying full list price, which steadily rose over the years to close in on $15.98. AND you’d be paying for shipping, which by any estimates was excessive, adding as much as $6 to your tally. $22 for a single album doesn’t sound so sweet now, eh?

PLUS, let’s say that a year later you were nearing the end of your contract term, realized you had to play catch-up, having not yet made your quota, and had to make a bulk order: they would ship every friggin’ title separately in order to bank as many shipping charges as possible! This was not a coincidence. Remember that initial shipment of 13 recs for a buck? You also pledged to pay the shipping, and yes, you guessed it: those 13 were typically broken up into several packages, sometimes due to chance if they happened to be out of some of your selections, but also just as a matter of course.

CH 3

The second catch was a bit more insidious. In that initial shipment, and arriving in the mail for each month thereafter, was a little card in which you would make your next purchase in order to fulfill the terms of the agreement. You could either select a title from the handy little mini-catalog that accompanied the card, mark a box saying “please do not send anything this month” or allow them to ship you a pre-selected title of their choosing (it would be listed on the card). And if you opted for the latter, to make it, er, easy on you there was no need to return the card in the mail; it would be sent automatically! Fair enough in theory, but in practice a LOT of people would forget to do anything—stoned hippies can’t be bothered with little details like finding a stamp to put on a postcard or driving to the nearest mailbox—which would result in a LOT of people having that pre-selected title show up out of the blue in a couple of weeks, along with a bill for the cost + shipping, natch.

Aside: My first foray into mail order LPs was with the aforementioned Record Club of America, which my mom signed me up for as I was only 11 or 12 – I still own a number of them with the company’s name inscribed on the album sleeve and record label, because these companies had their product manufactured specially for them. Later, as a college student I signed up with Columbia House at least a couple of times; why, I cannot recall. Interestingly, it turns out that on the rare occasion those bespoke titles actually went on to have some collectible value; I once sold a copy of Led Zeppelin II to a completist who had been desperately looking for the Record Club of America version! (Below: an ad for Record Club of America)

Record Club

The CD era didn’t bring any significant changes in the way the companies operated other than the quantity of titles you could select and, often, the fee: “8 CDs for a penny” was a common hook. It did usher in changes in consumer behavior, however. In particular, the rate of so-called “default” skyrocketed when folks realized they were paying $18.98 for one disc plus shipping; they would often sign up then take the CDs and “disappear” without ever intending on fulfilling the terms of the agreement. (Signing up under a fake or former roommate’s name was not uncommon.) There may have been vague intimations of someone having their credit score ruined if they tried to scam Columbia House but I never heard of that actually happening, much less a CD repo man showing up at their doorstep. (Below: that may or may not have been true if you stiffed ’em on the turntable, though!)

1

The other thing that became widespread peaked in the mid and late ‘90s: folks sitting at their mailboxes, patiently awaiting their shipments, then hotfooting it down to the local used record store and either selling the CDs (say, at $4 to $7 per, since they were sealed and therefore pristine) or trading them in for the shit they really wanted but was not offered by Columbia House. I worked at a record store in Arizona throughout the ‘90s and this went down constantly, to the point where we’d be seeing the same Columbia House titles over and over (because Columbia House was offering all those ubiquitous mega-sellers of the ‘90s) and had to start turning a lot of them down; we just didn’t need 15 copies of that Live, Soundgarden or Hootie album, y’know? I got tired of dealing with all the junkies bringing in their Columbia House CDs as well. (Below: In the eyes of Columbia House, grunge and hair metal co-existed peacefully.)

CH 5

Incidentally, circling back to my comment above about how the records, tapes and CDs that Columbia House offered were company-specific pressings, over the years there have been minor controversies surrounding that. To this day you can easily spot them because they will have the name of the service printed somewhere on the back cover, and when UPC codes became standard, they displayed a generic record service UPC in place of the official stock UPC for the title. The remainder of the graphics, however, was identical to the standard commercial release.

The actual music on the discs is another matter, though. In 1994 Stereophile magazine published a story entitled “The Great Record-Club CD Conspiracy?” in which the audiophile publication examined whether or not the sound quality of the record club editions differed from the original commercial editions. This had been debated endlessly among collectors, audio gear devotees and just plain music geeks. And the subjective conclusion was, yes, in a number of instances, the listeners’ ears did indeed detect differences in such details as compression, stereo channel reversing, etc. But when putting the CDs to a comparison test involving actual frequency analysis, peak levels and more using measurement devices, no differences were found. Still, the subjective listening experience is what we call “the real life test” so this particular controversy was never really put to rest. It was even revived a few years ago at the popular Steve Hoffman music forums. Go HERE to read the original Stereophile report.

The other controversy involved the fact that all those records sold via the services— and at its peak Columbia House was moving huge amounts—were not generating standard royalty payments to the artists. In a 2011 article published by MentalFloss.com “It’s a Steal! How Columbia House Made Money Giving Away Music,” one of the key points raised read thusly:

“Columbia House and BMG had some fairly clever ways to save cash, though. Until 2006, the record companies had never actually secured written licenses to distribute the records they sent to club members. Instead, the clubs saved the hassle (and the expense) by paying most publishers 75% of the standard royalties set by copyright law. The clubs argued that since the publishers were cashing their discounted checks, they were submitting to ‘implied’ licenses.

“Music publishers didn’t love this arrangement, but for decades it was pretty tough to fight back against the mail-order clubs. As some of the biggest pre-Internet retailers, the clubs held enormous power over the music market. According to a 2006 Billboard article, if a publisher complained, the clubs would simply stop carrying their records.

“On top of that, the clubs generally weren’t buying their records from labels and then selling them. Instead, the clubs would acquire the master tapes of records and press their own copies on the cheap. Moreover, remember those ‘bonus’ or ‘free’ records you got for signing up for the clubs? The clubs generally didn’t pay any royalties at all on those, which further slashed their costs.”

If memory serves, this detail about royalties wasn’t widely known for a long time, more like a “dirty little secret” between the labels and the clubs, and it wasn’t until some of the artists’ lawyers and managers got wise and started raising a stink that it was addressed publicly and artists were able to start negotiating contracts that specified proper accounting and royalty payments for record club sales. (Question: let’s say you’re Bruce Springsteen and your albums come out on Columbia Records, and your contract with Columbia specifies that you earn royalties on album sales. Meanwhile, Columbia House, which is in the same corporate house as Columbia Records, is pressing its own Springsteen albums but not paying royalties to either Columbia or Springsteen. Is this a recipe for a legal mess, or what?)

CH 6

All in all, it’s been a fascinating run for Columbia House. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t even realize it was still around in any form. I don’t think it’s going to be missed too much, however. By 2010, when it got out of the CD business and shifted to DVD and Blu-ray (note the above ad), CD sales were already in the toilet, and if someone even bothered to buy an album as opposed to downloading it from iTunes or grabbing it for free off the internet, they were probably mail ordering it for rock-bottom prices at Amazon an eBay or, if they were highly motivated, driving to the local record store and getting a used copy for just a few bucks (if in fact there was even a local record store to drive to at that point). That whole notion of taking the Columbia House penny-swag and trading it in at said store? By 2010 you were probably lucky to GET a penny in trade credit for a CD, such was the devaluation of physical media.

One wonders what would have happened if Columbia House had gotten back into the LP business, given the ongoing surge in vinyl sales nationwide. Oh wait, someone is already working the old C.H. angle! They’re called VNYL (read our story, “Love Will Find A Way: The VNYL Subscription Service Blows It?,” about it and its attendant woes HERE) and Vinyl Me Please. Probably other similar services exist by now as well.

Too little, too late… here lies Columbia House, R.I.P…

CH 7

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Bonus reading: “Four Columbia House insiders explain the shady math behind “8 CDs for a penny,” published in June at the A.V. Club, which touches on a lot of what I’ve already discussed above but is massively informative and, at times, downright hilarious. Definitely essential to read.

 

Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT. He can be contacted at BlurtEditor (at) Gmail.

 

LEADER OF THE PACK: The Acorn

Acorn 2

“I like to think that everyone and everything can have a second start and reinvent themselves”: in which we take a walk on the wild side with the Ottawa band’s frontman Rolf Klausener.

BY SUSAN MOLL

What is it about the Great Lakes hinterlands that engenders them so to the search for song and soul? Tony Dekker holed up in an abandoned grain silo in southern Ontario to record the first Great Lake Swimmers album, and the winter Justin Vernon spent in his family’s Wisconsin hunting cabin begot For Emma, Forever Ago. Perhaps it’s the panicles of wild rice that sway in the wetland breeze, the loon calls at sundown, the promise of peace and solitude. For the Acorn, whose music invites comparisons to both of the aforementioned artists, the area is fertile, almost sacred ground. It’s especially fitting now, as the earth thaws and everything wakes from hibernation to propagate, including its leader, Rolf Klausener.

“There’s obviously a romantic singer-in-the woods quality to that,” Klausener laughs. “When it comes to music now, to writing anyway, I need to completely disconnect myself from day- to-day responsibilities and sequester myself. To really get into my own head, I need to get away.”

Klausener leads what he dubs “a quietly busy life” in Ottawa, his adopted provenance. As artistic director of the Arboretum Festival, which has hosted Owen Pallett, the Constantines and Broken Social Scene mainstay Kevin Drew, he helps dispel Ottawa’s unfortunate reputation as a boring government city. It convenes every August, the same time the eastern timber wolves rendezvous in the Algonquin heat. Klausener need not venture far to commune with the natural world when it comes so willingly to him.

For a dozen years, the Acorn has built its career on imagistic idylls of the Canadian wild, spirited missives on love and endurance, and celebratory odes to heritage. A masterful storyteller, Klausener is never short of an intriguing narrative: Glory Hope Mountain, released in 2007, chronicled the turbulent life of his mother and her desperate escape from the horrors of her Honduran homeland on limbs maimed by polio. (Kanye West even paused from his customary dickishness to Twitter his approval of the video for “Crooked Legs.”) After the Acorn’s road trip with Fleet Foxes concluded, Klausener packed the entire band off to a lakeside cabin in the woods of northern Quebec, where they wrote No Ghost as the shadfiles clustered on the windows and the stars twinkled with improbable brightness. The band’s ensuing tours attracted them much-deserved international attention and acclaim, but when the time came for Klausener to retreat once more into the forest, he did so alone, taking with him the demos that became the Acorn’s fourth album, Vieux Loup (Paper Bag) and little else.

“I had to reorganize the band,” he remembers. “Once we stopped touring in 2011, most of the band were living in other cities. I had to reexamine what I wanted to do musically with the Acorn, if I wanted to do anything with it at all.”

With the future of the ensemble in doubt, Klausener teamed up with bandmates Patrick Johnson and Adam Saikaley to form the electronic side project Silkken Laumann. While they wrote, recorded and booked gigs for their first album, Klausener, a life-long fan of hip-hop and dance, began revisiting the programmed sounds of the Acorn’s 2004 debut, The Pink Ghosts.

“When we got these grants to do Glory Hope Mountain, I really dove deep into more traditional musics and not using as many effects,” he says. “We’re defined as an indie-folk band, but the heart of the Acorn started out as an electronic project.”

On both Glory Hope Mountain and No Ghost, acoustic instruments were abundant and electronic flourishes scant. Gone now are the banjos, the e-bows and ukuleles, all banished for programmed beats and synthesizers. The vibrant energy of songs like “Restoration” and “Crooked Legs” has all but evaporated, and Vieux Loup is steeped in a subtler state of mind, low in tempo and subdued in mood.

“I wanted there to be a lot of space and a lot of silence,” Klausener says. “The more somber mood is probably reflective of the soul-searching that I’ve been doing for the last four years.”

Vieux loup, pronounced, “view loo,” translates from the Franco-Ontarian dialect into “old wolf.” When Klausener’s first gray hairs sprouted, a friend promptly nicknamed him “vieux loup,” and the alias stuck.

“Vieux loup is a nice symbol for a paternal figure, an aging leader of a pack,” Klausener contemplates. “I am reaching my mid-30s and started feeling like an older wolf as well.”

One’s mid-30s are hardly Jurassic by any means, but Klausener has come to embrace them as ardently as he does his role as the leader of the Acorn clan. “The vieux loup is also symbolizing the old self,” he explains. “When the old leader of the pack dies, there has to be a new leader to take over the pack. That plays into it as well: Can you let go of your old pack leader and find new leadership within yourself?”

In First Nations legend, the wolf spirit is an emblem of humility (a trait most Canadians, including Klausener, share), and as a shapeshifting being, it has the ability to change physical form and assume a new identity. As Klausener discovered while making Vieux Loup, so did the Acorn.

“I started realizing that a lot of the songs dealt with transformation,” he recalls. “There was this connection in my mind, this idea of evolution, of changing and adapting to your surroundings and to your needs. I like to think that everyone and everything can have a second start and reinvent themselves.”

For the Acorn, Vieux Loup accomplishes both, most notably on the opening track “Rapids,” whose chorus asks, “Are you caught up in a memory or a path to the future?” When the shoegazy guitars and sultry beats surface on Vieux Loup’s most alluring track, “Palm Springs,” things turn oddly apocalyptic.

“There’s an imaginary narrative about a couple who are stuck in California at the end of the world,” Klausener says. “The fault line cracks and California is drifting into the ocean. The sense of the song is real satisfaction in being where you need to be, as opposed to longing for other things.”

“Influence,” the album’s first single, is ripe with visions of reflection and metamorphosis. By leaving room for piano, acoustic guitar and live drums, Klausner ensured that the songs retained an earthy touch. “I did want the record to have a naturalistic feel,” he acknowledges. “But at the same time, the electronics and some of the sounds that aren’t as present on older Acorn records hopefully makes it feel more contemporary.

“I felt really pigeonholed after Glory Hope Mountain and No Ghost,” Klausener admits. “I felt really trapped by my own writing. I was like, ‘Every song has to have an acoustic guitar, and it has to have this natural feel, it has to be kind of folky.’ I think it took doing Silkken Laumann and taking the time off to remember that the Acorn is me, and it’s anything I want it to be.” Spoken like a true vieux loup.

Acorn feet

This story was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Atlanta music magazine Stomp and Stammer and we suggest you start reading that long running publication pronto.

HOP TO IT: MotoBunny

Motobunny

Making music babies one gig at a time, the L.A./Phoenix quartet, on their self-titled debut, combines hi-nrg rawk, distorted guitars and synth/keytar melodies. Co-vocalists Christa Collins and Nicole Laurenne explain.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

With two vocalists, a keytar and a shared love of classic Iggy Pop, MotoBunny have just turned in a truly original take on pop punk.

The group formed in 2013 by merging members of The Love Me Nots and The Wooly Bandits and just came out with their debut, Motobunny, on the Rusty Knuckles label. Combined, the group — co-frontwomen Christa Collins (synth) and Nicole Laurenne (keytar), plus Michael Johnny Walker (guitar) and Rik Collins (bass) — have shared stages with everyone from X and Nirvana to The Damned and Pearl Jam.

Christa and Laurenne spoke recently about how the band first came together, their shared love of Iggy and being a contestant on The X Factor. (Go HERE to read our review of the new album.)

BLURT: Let’s start out with an easy one first—how did the band first come together?  

CHRISTA COLLINS: I think it was inevitable that Motobunny would happen! Nicole and Michael are in a band called The Love Me Nots and Rik and I are in a band called The Woolly Bandits. Both are garage rock in their own right. So after several years of sharing bills and dressing rooms, I don’t remember who said it first, but the general consensus was “we should do some music together”. Not too much longer after that The Woolly Bandits were asked to play the Ink & Iron Festival with Iggy Pop as the headliner, “YES Please!” Being that it was outdoors and a large stage we really wanted to fill out our sound, so we asked Nicole to play Farfisa and Michael to do a guest guitar spot. We pretty much wanted to be on stage together all the time after that! Rick and I trekked out to Phoenix one weekend and we pretty much had the entire album sketched out over the course of two weekends. Thus MotoBunny was born, and off to Detroit we went to record with Jim Diamond. There has been an ease about this band from the beginning where things seem to naturally fall into place. That’s a great feeling, like perhaps you’re on to something!

 

There aren’t a ton of bands out there nowadays with co-lead singers. Was there a discussion at first about who would handle the singing in the band?

COLLINS: I think Nicole was the one who brought it up? To be honest at first I wasn’t sure if it would work given that we had both been our own lead for so long, but I am a sucker for harmonies, and I had been plotting a girl side project for a while, so this was a perfect outlet for me. Nicole is the easiest person to get along with so that makes collaborating fruitful!

 

Christa, what’s the toughest perception you have had to overcome as a musician over the years, having started out with Disney?

COLLINS: I think I’ve had to overcome more perceptions as a petite female than I’ve had to as an ex- Disney artist. Not a lot of people know about my past or that I was a professional dancer. It feels like a separate lifetime ago in many ways. I was forced into retirement at 16 and there was such a large gap between then and when I had started singing again. I had completely different experiences, and in truth done some hard living. If anything it made me a better more well-rounded performer. I will forever be grateful to Rik Collins for finding me, putting me back on a stage, and giving me my voice back!

 

You also were on the first season on The X Factor. Musicians have said good things and bad things about shows like this and American Idol. Given your experience, do you ultimately think it’s a good thing for musicians getting started?

COLLINS: I don’t think it’s for me to answer that question for someone else. I suppose in part it just depends on what type and what level of artist you want to be? I will say that this business is brutal and heartless at times, so if you don’t have a burning desire to perform, and I mean you want it like air ‘cause life makes no sense when you try and do anything else, than I might not recommend it. For me there was very personal reasons why I did… Before my Aunt Judy passed from cancer she made me promise I would try out for American Idol. So I went and I was 10 days too old.

Years later, Rik’s dad comes bursting through the door touting “Simon Cowell’s got a new singing show and you have to try out”. Two thoughts crossed my mind as I looked into it: 1. I can honor my Aunt’s dying wish; 2. I got nothing to lose! So I auditioned, and did very well. I met some very talented people and made a couple friendships for life. I really got to test what I was made of as Boot Camp was brutal! Sleep deprivation, starvation, temptations, isolation, stress, emotional rollercoasters. I realized at that moment that my time in The Seeds and The Woolly Bandits was training. People around me were dropping like flies and some would ask me how I was staying so calm and focused. “It’s not that different from being on a DIY tour” – Oh the stories we can tell! I really got to see my resourcefulness, I gained new perspective on my performance. It was a cathartic experience for me and I’m personally glad I did it.

All that said the best thing about the arts is that it’s meant to be catharsis, to edify ones soul and spirit and evoke a change. You don’t have to be on TV, Broadway, or hanging in a museum to do that! You can find it in a garage playing instruments with your friends, or in a local theatre production, or coffee shop, on the street, whatever floats your boat? The best advice I can give someone is be open, be fearless, be experimental, be yourself.

 

Nicole, you started out as a classical musician, what started you on the path to being a punk-influenced pop /rock band?

NICOLE LAURENNE: At first, a love for the red grand piano that Jonathan Cain played in Journey – yes I admit it openly – but later I learned that keeping your classical chops up requires way more time and sweat and tears than rock chops. So there was a laziness element to it also I guess at first. When I met Michael, he introduced me to garage rock like The Animals and The Seeds, and that vintage Farfisa organ sound suddenly jolted me awake, in a musical sense. All laziness stopped at that point. I never looked back. I’ve gone from spinet to grand piano to farfisa organ to… keytar! Can’t wait to see what I get to play next.

Motobunny by Scott Evanesky via Facebook

All four of you have, combined, a ton of experience with so many different types of bands. Were there any shared influences that helped define MotoBunny’s sound?

COLLINS: there’s no question that Iggy Pop was what brought us together as a band. For me personally I’ll never forget the first time I saw a VHS tape of him walking across a crowd smearing peanut butter across his chest – Glorious! I wouldn’t say there was a specific band that influenced the album. We all have our personal favorite influences and we all have a “Fear No Music” diversity policy. You never know where you may find inspiration? Motown, Bowie, B-52’s, Led Zeppelin, Die Antwoord, Spice Girls (Michael Walker’s personal favorite) it’s all in there somewhere?

 

The album just came out. What’s next for the band? 

COLLINS: Tour! Recording! More Touring!

 

Anything else you want to cover? 

COLLINS: If I can speak for the band… We are so grateful to be able to share a stage with great friends, making music babies, and embarking on this great musical adventure. The crowd response and camaraderie has been palpable! Big thanks to #TeamMoto and Starry Management for seeing our vision and running hard! Who knows how long it will last or where this might take us- but we are sure having fun!

Live photo of MotoBunny by Scott Evanesky, via the band’s Facebook page.