“If we were smarter and more ambitious, we’d release a record every other year”: Jerry James holds forth on the Texas duo’s whenever-we’re-ready approach to cutting records, their maybe-we-will approach to touring, their church origins, those Pavement comparisons, and more. Hey, they’re smarter and more ambitious than half the bands currently going—why do you think they’ve lasted this long, anyhow?
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s not easy to be a fan of the indie duo The Foxymorons.
On average there’s been about a five year gap between each album. And once that new record does come out, despite usually being worth the wait, chances are they won’t be playing those songs live any time soon.
But you suck it up, and to quote a million kindergarten teachers out there, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Because there are very few bands out there that can put together such a brilliant marriage of Pavement’s guitars and off-kilter lyrics and Brian Wilson’s sweet as honey harmonies.
There are also very few stories in the history of rock that begin at church camp, but that’s part of what makes The Foxymorons so unique: their origin story, and the knack for taking two seemingly disparate musical influences (that separately have launched a thousand bands) and combining them to create a wholly original sound. Imagine the Beach Boys or Big Star as a lo-fi band.
Foxymorons: Jerry James and David Dewese founded the group in the mid-‘90s in Mesquite, TX, and started by putting out a handful of 7-inch singles. In the two decades that have followed they’ve teased out five full lengths, the latest being Fake Yoga.
Not knowing when the band would resurface again, we used this as an excuse to reach out to James, who was cool enough to take some time recently to talk about the latest record, try and explain the long absences between records and once again, talk about that fateful church camp meeting.
BLURT: As a long-time fan of your music, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how frustrating long a wait it tends to be between releases. What is the biggest reason for the wait? Is it a lack of inspiration? Are you guys simply busy with other things?
JERRY JAMES: We really never intend for it to take so long between releases. If we were smarter and more ambitious, we’d release a record every other year. But our approach to the band has always been so casual – and has always taken a backseat to our friendship – that it takes us a long time to get around to recording. Not to mention the fact that we live a thousand miles from one another.
Where are you both living now?
David lives in San Diego. I live in Fort Worth, TX.
Given the distance, how do you pull together songs for an album? Do you get together for a few days or a few weeks and play each other what you’ve been working on and build on the songs? Or do you guys send each other demos back and forth so you can react to them in real time?
David and I are really good friends so we usually see each other a few times a year to hang out and do fun stuff. And at some point, we’ll usually pull out an acoustic guitar and strum out songs we’ve finished or are still working out. When we started out making records, it was common for us to send tapes back and forth in the mail or sing a song into the other dude’s voicemail. These days we usually just wait until we’re in the same room.
How do you know when you’re ready to go into a studio to record?
At some point, we know we’ve got a collection of 12 or 14 songs that fit together and feel like a record. But even then, we’ll drag our feet and it will take a while before the record button ever gets pushed.
How do you guys work out the music? Do you sit in a room together or work separately?
A little of both. We usually write songs separately and bring them to the band to take apart and/or build upon. Sometimes the songs change a little; sometimes they change a lot.
I know these has been covered before and is almost lore at this point, but can you talk about the Sunday school classroom and the drum and how it led to your first recordings?
David and I met at church camp and attended the same church as teenagers. Shiloh Terrace Baptist Church. There was a Sunday school classroom that had a drum kit set up and the front doors at church were typically unlocked. So we’d head up there, lug in guitars, amps, and a tape recorder and make some joyful noise. We covered songs like The Lemonheads’ “It’s a Shame About Ray” or Pavement’s “Box Elder”. It was a really fun antidote to summer boredom.
When did you first start work on the songs that eventually made it onto Fake Yoga?
We started recording demos of some of those songs in David’s basement in Nashville before our last record, Bible Stories, had even come out.
Is there significance to that album title or did you just like the way it sounded?
Well, for one, before I started a proper yoga practice, I would make up ‘fake’ yoga poses to do in the morning to get the blood flowing. But also, there are lots of debates in the culture about ‘fake’ vs ‘authentic’ which is interesting and funny to me. Fake punk. Fake outrage. Fake grassroots. Fake tans. Plus, it sounded cool.
The new record sounds not too far removed from your earlier, more lo-fi releases. Was that a conscious decision to go back to that similar sound?
Not really. We’ve always liked noise and the songs were just sort of turning out that way. But you’re right, the songs from our first 7” single would have felt right at home on this record.
A bulk of the interviews and reviews I have read about your music over the years almost always cite Pavement, Big Star and sometimes the Beach Boys. Are those pretty accurate musical touchstones for you?
Yeah, those are really special bands to us. We were both Pavement obsessives in the ‘90s – maybe me a little more than David. And we both love weird pop music and Big Star is definitely a band to which we’re both drawn.
What do you when you are not working on Foxymorons’ music? Are you involved with any other music projects?
David has released a few solo records and leads worship music at his church. As for me, The Foxymorons is the only musical project in which I’ve ever been involved. Other than that, the last year or so has been one of travel and creative projects.
Any chance you will tour at all when the record comes out?
We’re always open to the prospect of touring but it all depends on the right circumstances. At this point, we’re just thrilled that we get to make music and we are really happy about this record. We’re available for whatever comes.
Sowhat’s next for you?
Who knows? It’s hard to say. We both lead full lives but this band has been really important to us. And it’s fun to quietly put out records regardless of how people respond to them. I think making our particular kind of noise is a privilege and an extension of a great friendship.
And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
“Rock & roll is dead!” has been screamed out in print and online so many times in the last ten (twenty? thirty?) years it’s as much of a cliché as its polar opposites “Love live rock” and “rock & roll is here to stay.” It’s both true and false. If we’re talking about the time when rock set the cultural bar for the music business, that time is long over, unlikely to ever return. But if we’re talking about the music itself, no way. Even if rock & roll rarely hits the commercial heights of Ye Olden Dayes (and every generation has its own take on what YOD are), it thrives onstage, on record and in people’s hearts. Just dig a little deeper than what the Billboard charts, hip music rags or coolhunters claim, and it’s there, fingers still bleeding. And that’s the music this column concerns itself with – the bands who never stopped believing and never stopped kicking out the jams, motherfuckers, no matter what hills need climbing, barriers need smashing and eardrums need shredding.
But what do we mean when we say “rock & roll?” After all, rock bands still chart from time to time – Nickelback still sells a gazillion records, and the Foo Fighters aren’t hurtin’ for cash or poontang. We dig the Foos (not Nickelback – there’s a special circle in hell reserved for the powers that be that foisted that abomination onto rock radio), but what they do isn’t quite what we’re talking about. We’re looking not only for riffs and melody, but groove and attitude, and an awareness of rock history beyond the rise of Nirvana. Punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock and their various spinoffs and offshoots are this column’s meat. Our patron saints include Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones, the Faces, the MC5, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Who, T. Rex, Cheap Trick, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Ramones, the Clash, the Saints, Rockpile, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Plimsouls, Hanoi Rocks, the Dogs D’amour, Nikki Sudden and the Nuggets and A Fistful of Rock ‘n’ Roll compilations. Current and recent practitioners include the Hellacopters, Turbonegro, Diamond Dogs, the Wildhearts, Biters, the Happen-Ins, the Bluebonnets, the Hormones, the Breakers, the Jim Jones Revue, the Blessings, Les Breastfeeders, the Paybacks, JD McPherson, the Supersuckers and on and on and on. We may not be able to define it precisely, but we know it when we hear it.
Enough exposition. Get out your air guitars, stretch your hips and let’s dig into some rock & records…
Photo by Peder Carlsson
When Swedish rock godhead the Hellacopters split, leader Nicke Andersson didn’t stay idle for long. Imperial State Electric started as a one-man-band, but quickly evolved into a four-headed monster featuring Datsuns frontdude Dolf de Borst, among others. Honk Machine (Psychout/Sound Pollution), ISE’s fourth album, bursts with the kind of straight-shooting rock & roll nuggets you’d expect from such an aggregation. With Andersson in charge, it’s no surprise that the Hellacopter aesthetic – a finely-crafted mix of Detroit power rock, garage rock and rootsy arena rock – dominates, which means “Guard Down,” “Let Me Throw My Life Away” and “It Ain’t What You Think (It’s What You Know)” balance air guitar riffery, singalong melodicism and ass-kicking mojo in just the right ways. But, contrary to initial impressions, ISE is not Hellacopters II. De Borst takes center stage on the garage popping “Maybe I’m Right,” while guitarist Tobias Egge pens and sings the power popping “Just Let Me Know.” Andersson himself steps outside his usual boundaries, adding a heavy dose of winsome melodicism to “Lost in Losing You,” “Colder Down Here” and “All Over My Head.” He even indulges his soul jones (already displayed in his Scott Morgan-fronted side project The Solution) for the raw R&B ballad “Walk On By.” The first ISE record to equal those of the band from whose loins it sprang, Honk Machine is more than the sum of its parts while still remaining in the wheelhouse of its beloved primary creator,
Outside of his own music, Andersson also lets his influence trickle down by producing likeminded acts. Under Andersson’s watchful eye, his fellow countrymen in Black Trip practically give themselves a makeover on Shadowline (Steamhammer/SPV/Threeman). Whether it’s by virtue of Andersson’s distinctive production style, which emphasizes clarity over crunch, or simply an evolution in songwriting, the Swedish quintet moves away from the ‘80s street metal of its debut to a melodic strain of earthy hard rock via “Die With Me,” “Subvisual Sleep” and the title track. “Clockworks” and “Berlin Model 23” keep throwing some of the original horns, but otherwise this is a definite shift, one that suits singer Joseph Tholl well. Andersson also co-produced Heads Held High (Century Media), the second LP from Dead Lord. Inspired by Thin Lizzy and like minds, the (imagine that) Swedish foursome shares some aspects of the Andersson rawk vision – riff-oriented, melodic, burly without steroid abuse. But leader Hakim Krim has his own vision, not to mention a distinctive vocal style, letting “Farewell,” “When History Repeats Itself” and “Cold Hearted Madness” sound like Dead Lord more than Nicke Andersson Presents: Dead Lord.
The Swedish rawk revolution continues via Honeymoon Disease, now unleashing debut album The Transcendence (Napalm) following last year’s Bellevue Groove EP – both co-produced by Andersson. Led by guitarists Jenna and Acid, the Gothenburg quartet adds a pinch of garage rock spice to its Detroit/London stew, bashing out the basics with talent and verve. Powered by catchy riffs and Jenna’s controlled howl, “Fast Love,” “Gotta Move” and “Bellevue Groove” will get bodies and air guitar hands in motion. Amazingly, Andersson isn’t involved with Spiders on their latest EP Why Don’t You (Spinefarm), but that doesn’t stop all three songs from rocking righteously, particularly the title track and a shockingly crunchy take on ABBA’s “Watch Out.”
A class- and practice mate of Gary Clark Jr., Eve Monsees, like her old pal, has never been a stickler for blues orthodoxy. You Know She Did (Serpent), her third album with her band the Exiles, uses the blues and R&B as a base, but this is definitely a rock & roll record. Opneing trio “One Glass,” “Follow the Thread” and the title track sound like unearthed gems from a lost era – you could put them on Nuggets and they’d be highlights. The quartet also distinguishes itself with country (“Footnote”), pop (“Easy to Be Sorry,” Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me”), Bo Diddley bop (“Rock, Paper, Scissors”), an approximation of the Band ( the Glen Clark-Delbert McClinton tune “I Received a Letter”) and, of course, the blues (both parts of “Mr. Devil”). Simple, straightforward songs performed with skill, taste and verve – rock & roll done right.
Dirty Streets has a similar strain of deep blues running through its DNA. Like the Exiles, however, the Memphis trio uses it as part of the foundation, not the building, on its fourth record White Horse (Alive Naturalsound). Rather than essaying the heavy garage blues of previous platters, the Streets polish big-ass boogie rock, driven by the meaty riffs and plainspoken soul of frontguy Justin Toland (no relation). “Good Pills,” “Think Twice” and “When I See My Light” blast beautifully, and the ballad “Dust” provides an appropriately mystical alternative. Nikki Hill draws more for the classic R&B era, from Sam Cooke to Etta James to Irma Thomas, but with a serious streak of rock & roll blood. Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists (Deep Fryed), the New Orleans diva’s second LP, pours traditional soul chops through a rawk filter, resulting in rippers like the Chuck Berryesque “(Let Me Tell You ‘Bout) Luv,” the butt-rockin’ “Hotshot” and the burning title cut. Keep an eye on this kid – she’s gonna kick all kinds of ass.
With a title like Out of Space (SRA), you’d expect Hound to be a cosmic affair. Instead the Philly trio seems more interested in Harleys than spaceships – the band’s second album riffs on roaring biker rock (“Emotional Collapse,” “Super Junkie of Being Free”) and heavy blues (“Stone Carvin’ Man,” “Cold Blooded”). The record nods to metal in the doom-mongering “Over the Edge,” but otherwise gets the motor runnin’ and heads out on the highway. Off to the west in Detroit, Against the Grain hops its turbocharged hog for fourth LP Road Warriors (Self Destructo). The quartet seems to be mainlining anything with an electric guitar and high bpm, mishmashing Motörhead, Black Flag, the MC5 and Iron Maiden into a reckless rush of raging riffery. “Til We Die,” “Coming In Hot” and “What Happened?” waste no time blazing from one end of bad road to the other. Breathless.
Sonny Vincent comes from the punk ‘n’ roll end of the spectrum, but he’s got as much Little Richard in him as Sex Pistols on Bizarro Hymns (Get Hip). Recorded in 2011 with the late Scott Asheton, Vincent kicks out the jams old school, bashing out bent romance on “Forgive You, Forget You” and “Till There Was You,” getting wistful on “Picture Book” and “Crystal Clear” and raging against the universe on “Faster Pussycat” and “Don’t Give a Fuck.” Vincent’s been amazingly consistent over the years, in part by sticking to exactly what he does best, and Bizarro Hymns nails his vision perfectly. (Go HERE to check out a live video of Vincent that we posted not long ago.) Like a meaner, sleazier Foo Fighters, British foursome Turbowolf takes its punk roots and injects them into the post-Nirvana rock world on second LP Two Hands (Spinefarm). The band’s thrashing energy elevates “Invisible Hand” and “American Mirror” far past generic AltRock-o-Rama status, and its willingness to play with more danceable rhythms on “Nine Lives” and “Solid Gold” gives it an intriguing versatility. Chris Georgiadis’ glam-damaged rasp doesn’t hurt, either. Gentlemans Pistols, meanwhile, don’t have a single strand of punk rock DNA in them. But the Leeds quintet bashes out Hustler’s Row (Nuclear Blast), the difficult third album with similar no-fucks-to-give ‘tude. Straight-up hard rock and boogie are the order of the day, given a smartly melodic kick by leader James Atkinson and ear-bleeding muscle by guitarist Bill Steer of Carcass. “The Searcher” and “Personal Fantasy Wonderland” lay it all out.
Australia has a lock on rock thanks to being the spawning ground for both AC/DC and Radio Birdman (and their various progeny). The Vendettas, interestingly, don’t sound much like either branch of the rock & roll tree on Bystander & Destroyer (self-released). The band avoids the sleaze and metallic blues of the former and the punk-infused BÖCisms of the latter for straightforward, turbocharged melodic rawk with a mean streak. Attempts to keep balls from the wall meet with mixed success (thumbs up to “Anyone Can See,” not so much to “Blackened Heart”), but pedal-to-the-mettle rockers “Wasted,” “Hard Times” and “Wake Up Call” kick groovy ass, and Stevie Reds’ soulful howl puts even mediocre tracks over. British outfit the Jokers puts forth a similarly bullshitless brand of neo-classic rock on Hurricane (Steamhammer/SPV). Adding some 80s sleaze to the 70s revivalism of bands like the Black Crowes, the foursome kicks through “Lockdown,”sways through “Summer Time” and trips through “Dream.” For that Aussie hard rock charge, plug into Rolling in Town (Steamhammer/SPV), the second album from Argentina’s 42 Decibel. Sounding like Bon Scott fronting Rose Tattoo, the band betrays no innovative impulses, but pulls no punches on boogie blasters “Rude and Fast,” “Short Fused” and “Burning Down the Road.”
While never exactly hip, Southern rock ebbs and flows in popular appeal, usually depending on whether a current act nails it. After a few records trying to please both classic rock and modern country audiences, Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke finally quits worrying about it and just does its thing on Holding All the Roses (Rounder). That means some country (“Lay It All On Me,” “Woman in the Moon”) and folk (the quite lovely “Randolph County Farewell”), but mainly the band just gets down to rock & roll business via songs like “Let Me Help You (Find the Door),” “Fire in the Hole” and the title track. No muss, no fuss, no nods to contemporary production or guest stars – just old-fashioned rawk Southern style. While genre cops might argue whether or not the Bottle Rockets deserve the Southern rock tag, the band certainly has its fans in that camp. (And hey, they covered Skynyrd’s “Gimme Back My Bullets” the first time I saw them play.) The Festus, MO quartet’s latest album South Broadway Athletic Club (Bloodshot) maintains the band’s standards: good songs, performed against various rootsy backdrops, with a lack of pretentiousness that makes Bruce Springsteen look meta. Check out the jangly “Big Lotsa Love,” the folky “Smile” and the grungy “Building Chryslers.”
As plenty of wackjob TV preachers would tell you, rock doesn’t have to be metal to let the devil ride shotgun. Guitarist Thomas Sciarone lived that concept as part of the late, lamented Dutch act The Devil’s Blood, the melodic hard rock pathfinder for current Satanic panic revivalist Ghost. Teamed with singer Milena Eva, Sciarone dispels some of the brimstone stench from the Blood with Gold. That’s not to say No Image (Profound Lore), the band’s second album, wouldn’t make a good soundtrack to The Sentinel or Rosemary’s Baby, but dark rockers “Old Habits,” “Taste Me” and “Tar and Feather” aren’t nearly as obsessed with Luciferian shenanigans as Sciarone’s previous employer. Though not as soaked in Olde Worlde Magick as Gold, Satan’s Satyrs still give off a distinctly devilish vibe on Don’t Deliver Us (Bad Omen), the Herndon, VA trio’s third LP. Seemingly unable to decide between garage rock and proto-metal, the Satyrs instead spew out quirky nuggets of fuzzy doompunk, sifted by bassist Clayton Burgess’ glam-inflected whine. Boogie back to Beelzebub via “Germanium Bombs,” “Creepy Teens” and “Full Moon and Empty Veins.”
Michael “Denim” Toland, from Austin, got a fresh pair of ripped Levi’s for Christmas this year. He also authors the BLURT feature & blog “Throwing Horns,” our recurring roundup of new metal albums.
Music to bring some year-end cheer your way, courtesy Etienne Charles, Cassie Ramone, Nellie Mckay, Palma Violets, Count Basie Orchestra, Elouise, Rhonda Vincent, the Daptone Records crew and more! Ho-ho-ho to everyone out there in Blurt-land!
BY JASON GROSS
Despite the endless barrage of the same holiday music mercilessly piped through stores in endless loops, each year actually does add some nice little presents of new Xmas music otherwise. If you wanna get through the shopping season with a piece of your sanity intact, we’d like to recommend these aural pleasures as a fine way to do that. You can hear all that Spotify carries of these songs and albums here at our special holiday playlist.
In addition, we asked the artists themselves offer up their own list of holiday songs they love, which we offer up to you here as another Spotify playlist to enjoy with 37 songs and two hours of music.
The title might seem to be a misnomer- it’s not Cajun or zydeco music here but it’s definitely flavored by the Spanish culture that fostered Creole music. The festivities especially shine with guests like the droll Calypso legend Lord Realtor and R&B singer/Broadway star Mykel Kilgore, who does a nice take on “This Christmas,” though no one can top Stevie’s version. Other highlights include interludes from Hanukah on the klezmer-styled “Juliana” and “Roses of Caracas Waltz,” the raucous bish-bash drums of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” a salsa take on “The Nutcracker Suite,” the Django Reinhardt-like guitars on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the low-rent holiday party of “Christmas Is Yours, Christmas Is Mine.” Multi-cultural-ism at its best.
Holiday faves from Etienne Charles
Lionel Belasco “Maysotis”
Ray Charles & Betty Carter “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
John Williams “Somewhere in My Memory” (from the Home Alone soundtrack)
I know, I know… Mr. Basie left us back in 1984 (who can forget his cameo in Blazing Saddles?) and you think you’re too hip for old school jazz. But damn if these guys aren’t having a good time here and living up to the title. Everyone knows the songs already but from the blaring rows of horns on “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride” to the easy shuffle of “Let It Snow” to the sweet Johnny Mathis cameo (“It’s the Holiday Season”) to the moody bop-like “Silent Night” to the breezy “Good “Swing” Wenceslas” (get it?) to the jiving take on “Little Drummer Boy,” you have a holiday record that you could easily share and enjoy with your grandparents, if not your parents.
Holiday faves from CBO Director/trumpeter, Scotty Barnhart
Admittedly, you have every right to be suspicious of any music that calls itself “Blackgrass”- a goth take on bluegrass- but the settings here are so graphic that they’re moving, pushing aside any question of kitsch. The haunted, halting strings swirl around Elouise Walker’s cracked, broken voice, making a holiday hymn into a drawn-out, pained work of anguished beauty which reshapes the song and brings back fond memories of Chapel Hill grim realists Trailer Bride. Not a carol anymore but emotional and stirring nevertheless. And wouldn’t you want to see a black-clad chorus reenacting this? Get your gloom at https://soundcloud.com/user-481899170/silent-night.
Holiday faves from Elouise Walker
Slim Whitman “Star of the East”
Sex Pistols “Nookie”
Earl Scruggs “Jingle Bells”
Tom Waits “Christmas Carol from a Hooker in Minneapolis” (studio version)
Ukefink “Oh Death”
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Another jazzy take on the holiday but a touch more formalist, even if the Basie gang would really dig it too (not to mention that Wynton’s dad guests on the Basie record). After a blaring start on “Jingle Bells,” award winning singer Cécile McLorin Salvant does a gorgeous take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” followed by an appropriately sound effect-laden (and sensuous) take on Satchmo’s “‘Zat You Santa Claus?,” singer/actor Gregory Porter’s lush, warm version of “A Cradle In Bethlehem,” a Coltrane-like modal take on “We Three Kings,” Salvant returning for a bluesy version of “What Child Is This?,” Porter tag-teaming back in for “Merry Christmas Baby” in blues mode again and Salvant returning in Holiday (as in Billie) mode for “It’s Easy To Blame the Weather” and then finishing off with the joyous Basie classic “Good Morning Blues.” You might wish that he’d spend more time stompin’ at the Savoy than in the ballroom but you gotta give it Wynton- he knows his history, knows how to pick a good cast and he can have a good time too while schooling you.
Holiday faves from Wynton Marsalis
Ella Fitzgerald “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas “
Louis Armstrong “Christmas Night in Harlem”
Duke Ellington Orchestra “Peanut Brittle Brigade”
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie”
Sure it’s as retro as the Wynton and Basie records listed here but if you have a jones for Jones’ mid/late ’60’s revival, you’ll be full of holiday joy to learn that this is her best record in years. Armed with a great voice and a great band, it’s hard for her to go wrong and her wonderful bleeding heart politics are upfront with the self-penned opener about Hanukkah and another original, “Ain’t No Chimneys In the Project,” that the Godfather of Soul would appreciate. She even transforms some over-trodden classics: “White Christmas” is done via pre-comeback Tina Turner and “Silent Night” is done via the bluesy soul of Bobby Bland, “Little Drummer Boy” gets the funk, “Silver Bells” goes from gospel to Stax nicely and an instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” could have wandered out of an Al Green/Hi session. A holiday soul party indeed.
Holiday faves from Gabriel Roth- Dap-Kings producer/band leader
Freddy King “Christmas Tears”
Otis Redding and Carla Thomas :New Year’s Resolution”
James Brown “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
Binky Griptite “Stoned Soul Christmas”
Shaladas “Sha-la-da-la-la It’s Christmas”
“WEED (All I Want for Christmas)”
Courtesy of the always-surprising, fun-loving pop-cabaret chanteuse comes this sweet, light-hearted tribute to cannabis. Sharing the spotlight with Minneapolis scenester/R&B singer Maurice Jacox (who croons the verses) and set aloft by cheerful horns, McKay not only craves the chronic but takes on the ill-fated war on drugs in a rap/Jamaican-toast style (“40% of present penitentiaries/are on a pot-related charge”) on this delightful ditty which name-checks Willie Nelson, Jimmy Carter and Machiavelli. Also, the video is a hoot, with McKay dressed up as a giant pot leaf, funning around stores and playgrounds and making friends wherever she goes – watch it above, as the editor and I agree it is indeed a must-view, and it out-Mileys everyone’s favorite weed fan, Miley Cyrus. (Parents: Send the kids down to the basement first.)
Holiday faves from Nellie McKay
Jimmy Durante “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas”
James Brown “Santa Claus Go Straight To the Ghetto”
A weird little number from this English indie rock band, the regal pace and ethereal keyboards, strained, sad vocals and shouted sing-a-long chorus (“We can’t even cry/’Cause we just wanna get nowhere”) takes the title seriously- it’s not just a romantic goodbye but also an apocalyptic bye-bye with poor ol’ Rudolph being shot down and pleas to Santa and Jesus ignored. Yet even in its gloomy message, it’s somehow moving in its own way and desperate for compassion, making it an appropriate holiday song nevertheless.
Holiday faves from PV drummer Will Doyle
Chuck Berry “Run Rudolph Run”
Ramones “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
Julian Casablancas “I Wish It Was Christmas Today”
Ramone’s a busy bee – in the last decade, she’s been a member of Bossy, Vivian Girls and the Babies. Now on her 2nd solo album, the NJ native makes the historic link between Spector Wall of Sound and shoegaze, which is only appropriate ’cause the later couldn’t have existed without the former, right? Unlike Uncle Phil though, she goes low-key, with gorgeous voices and echoed guitar and occasional percussion in a one-woman show. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” sounds like the girl group classic it’ll always be and the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” is turned into an Animal Collective out-take (which is only fair) but Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” is transformed into dream-pop heaven and McCartney’s icky “Wonderful Christmastime” is transformed into enigmatic psychedelic folk, the Elvis classic “Blue Christmas” turns into a brief wall of guitar fuzz and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin Around the Xmas Tree” trounces the original’s melody and seems to almost question the holiday spirit. When she does get the spirit back on “Sleigh Ride,” she seems to casually and mysteriously slip in and out of tune and lets her guitar bury her voice on the Peanuts classic “Christmastime Is Here,” only going (relatively) straight on the closer, “The Christmas Song.” Altogether, a gorgeous, subversive little record.
Holiday faves from Cassie Ramone:
Mariah Carey “All I Want for Christmas is You”
The Carpenters “Merry Christmas Darling”
Boston Pops Orchestra “Sleigh Ride”
Wham! “Last Christmas”
The Ramones “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
Following up on last year’s wonderful novelty, if you can’t get enough of trombone-led dub versions of holiday classics, here’s where you can cash in. Silly as it sounds, it’s a hell of a lot of fun- catchy, spacey, adventurous without being too outré and it’s oh so unique. Bassist/bandleader Ezra Gale leads the troop through some new takes on old classics and some surprises- you might think you know “What Child Is This” but not with wild guitar solos and an even more cosmic take on “What Version Is This?” follows. Ditto the delicate but buoyant “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and the more interstellar “Dance of the Sugar Plum Versions” and a strident take on “O Come All Ye Faithful” later redone as in a drawn-out, heavily echoed style as “O Come All Ye Versions.” And just when you think you’ve heard it all, there’s the original, hilarious ska/calypso flavored “Please Santa Bring Me An Echoplex.” Languid joy even for those of you who don’t partake in the holy herb.
Holiday faves from Ezra Gale:
Jimi Hendrix “Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne”
If you’re a country fan who’s been naughty (as in bad), maybe LeAnn Rimes, Claire Lynch or Jessie James Decker have the holiday music you deserve but if you’ve been nice (you have, right?), then give them this bluegrass star a try, now making a long overdue follow-up to her 2006 holiday record. Maybe it’s because she has a gorgeous voice that she doesn’t use to over-sing and go all diva or maybe it’s the simple, modest arrangements (including fiddle, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar) that do the trick. It also helps that Vincent throws in some good originals too: the yearning, sweet “Dreaming of Christmas,” the heart-broken “Christmas Time” and the adorable, Western Swing of “Milk & Cookies.” If that wasn’t enough, there’s a joyous, funny, star-packed version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” that would burst the Grand Ole Opry, including The Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Larry Gatlin, Jeannie Seely and Pam Tillis and an extraordinary nine minute medley where she seamlessly weaves through six Xmas classics, backed only by piano. Let’s see any bro-country act top that.
Leaving it to the blues to give us a more realistic take on late December than most of pop culture can deliver to us. This collection is much more varied than you think and despite being all over the place then, it’s also a lot more consistent than you’d expect, drawing mostly from more recent acts. Need some dirty, innuendo-filled blues? Try Popa Chubby’s stinging guitar on “Back Door Santa” and Stax legend Steve Cropper’s “Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby.” Downhome funk anyone? Try Larry McCray’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'” with its B.B.-like guitar. Downhome blues is covered here too with Kenny Neal’s take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Need a wild stomp with echoed harmonica? Try James Montgomery Band’s version of “Deck The Halls.” There’s even a girl group/Chuck Berry mash-up (Annie Marie Lewis’ “O Come All Ye Faithful”), rockabilly meets R&B (Debbie Davies’ “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”), slow-burning metal (Eric Gales’ “Little Drummer Boy”) and even an odd, enticing acoustic-then-electric instrumental (Leslie West’s “Silent Night”). A bizarre, botched take on John/Yoko’s “Merry Christmas (War Is Over)” is easily counted with a pair of old school classics- Charles Brown’s re-make of his own “Merry Christmas Baby” and the gorgeous minimalism of Lightnin’ Hopkins “Santa.” Proving once again, sometimes it’s fun to have the blues.
Much like the Xmas special it originates from, Phoenix/Bill Murray’s “Alone On Christmas” looks better on (virtual) paper- would have been funnier to have the video of Murray’s ‘duet’ with Chris Rock from the show. A happier holiday can be had via your favorite online ordering overlord Amazon and their Indie For the Holidays compilation which includes Rogue Wave, Fruit Bats and Reverend Horton Heat. Even better holiday cheer can be had via Alligator Records’ compilation A Blues Christmas, which culls tracks from their ’92 and ’03 holiday albums and features Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Elvin Bishop & Marcia Ball. If the Super Hi-Fi record sounds tempting and you want your dub with a taste of lounge jazz, try Astrocolor’s Lit Up: Music For Christmas. And though it’s half of a greatest hits live collection, Nick Lowe and Lost Straightjackets’ The Quality Holiday Revue (Yep Roc) does feature a few some nice holiday choices like his own drool “Christmas at the Airport” and a rollicking take on the spiritual tune “Children Go Where I Sent Thee” though you’d be better off tracking down his full Xmas album, 2013’s Quality Street (Yep Roc).
Just another weekend night down at the rock club, right? Not on your life, pal – on November 15 at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, NYC’s finest songwriter brought it like his life depended on it.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM
Anyone thinking that, at age 67, Willie Nile might be losing some of his restless, exuberant luster would be grossly misinformed. He’s many miles away from slowing down and anyone attempting to bury him before his time would be hard-pressed to close the box. The poster boy for shoulda-coulda-woulda has had, to date, more career and critical highs than he’s had oil changes, yet he’s quick to rise above any negative takeaways or cynical fallout.
In fact, Nile remains at the high point of his career–living for every moment, tirelessly reminding the listener that all he’s ever really cared about is his undying passion for the music he both lives and loves. When it comes to the party faithful, all Nile’s die-hard fans care about is Willie Nile. Unlike so many of his burned-out counterparts, this time-tested legend has continually charted an undeviating course since the release of his inaugural masterpiece in 1980. Exceptional release upon exceptional release – each packed with street-smart, original material – has kept pace with changing times and evolving tastes, earning the Buffalo, New York, dynamo the undying respect of heavy-hitters from Townshend and Springsteen to Bono and Ian Hunter to no less than the late Lou Reed.
Why? Because Willie gets it. He cares about it. And he gives it, night after night, to anyone who will take the time to listen. His magical body of songs have reached mythical proportion, hammered home with the same youthful intensity and unbridled passion that, this many years later, seems too good to be true. Yet it’s true to the bone – and always has been.
On this occasion, on a lowly Sunday night, Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern was filled with dedicated fans, cherry-picked from various age groups, each bitten by the alchemic attraction of a Willie Nile show. The ones who know every lyric and the ones Willie is dedicated to giving his all for, get far more than their money’s worth with each and every performance.
In my case, not having seen him perform since the early ‘80s in this very club, I was struck, like a sack of bricks, by the crystal-clear observation that Willie and his band-mates – wildman guitarist Matt Hogan, Italian stallion bassist Johnny Pisano, and rock-solid drummer, Alex Alexander – were having an absolute ball onstage all night long, as if they’d only been playing together for months instead of all these years. Much credit for this can be attributed to Nile – a man who is truly grateful to be doing something he loves to do, treating his fellow musicians and his audience as the family they’ve become.
Local opener Peter Elkas set the stage for mutual respect, having worked with Nile earlier this year as a fellow fundraiser for Parkinson’s Light of Day program. His relatively relaxed set of rock-tinged, singer-songwriter fare seemed the perfect appetizer for what was to follow. From the first punkish strains of The Innocent One’s “Hear You Breathe,” Nile hit the stage like a runaway train, all wiry-haired, hyper-active expressiveness, brandishing his hands like an Italian Richard Lewis, feet kicking the air while thrusting his battle-scarred guitar skyward like an exclamation mark on a mission. With never a better foil than this supremely animated band behind him, Nile explodes, song-after-glorious-song, each delivered within an inch of his life (“I’ll play like this ‘til I drop – and that won’t be tonight…”). The pulse-heavy “The Innocent Ones” – itself, a hard-driving anthem – was briefly interrupted by a broken bass string, earning Nile’s playful chiding, “Wha??? Nobody breaks a bass string!”, setting yet another stage for Nile doing something else he does so well: tell stories.
Moving on to the equally propulsive “Heaven Help the Lonely,” the crowd was quick to join in on its train whistle chorus, caught up by Nile’s infectious enthusiasm. By request, Nile dipped back into “Holy War,” which he admitted to not having played for some time, but it seemed a suitable, anti-war antidote, offered in tribute to the recent Paris attacks and delivered with typical punch. A lovely story about meeting Buddy Holly’s wife preceded his Buddy-Holly-via-Bo-Diddley turn on “Not Fade Away” while the considerably gentle touch of “Give Me Tomorrow” added a slightly preachy, yet melodic flourish. Written for his two daughters, “She’s Got My Heart” hit a thoughtful, sensitive nerve as only a proud father can do, accentuated by acoustic guitar and the band’s breathy harmonies. The title track for his breakout 11th release (marking his 11th comeback?), American Ride, would sit proudly alongside anything his pal Springsteen has ever done – with its road-trip tour of the countryside, referencing multiple musical signposts along the way. But we know that. A dedication to Hank Williams followed with a piano-free “If I Ever See the Light,” losing none of its Jersey-flavored drive. “House of 1000 Guitars” referenced Hendrix while underscoring Nile’s love for rock’s most catalytic converter, this raucous version reverberating through the ‘shoe’s well-stressed ceiling. A brilliant cover of Lou Reed’s sacrosanct “Sweet Jane” (together with a touching tale about their last goodbye) – which will appear on Nile’s forthcoming next release – reinvented the song with the added advantage of a twisted bass-line from Pisano, transforming it into more tribute than cover, breathing fresh life into its time-honored position high atop rock’s totem.
Speaking of tributes, Nile’s version of the late Jim Carroll’s “People That Died” was served up at a hyper-speed, injected with the real-life pain of Nile’s personal losses for a slightly haunting effect. Drummer Alexander was left to work out on a solo as his bandmates took a momentary recharge, bringing opener Elkas back with them, together with hockey broadcaster Dave Hodge (who had introduced the band) for a rousing “One Guitar.” This erupted into a boisterous, old-school sing-along on both sides of the stage. An award-winning paean to social action, this positive call-to-action places Nile squarely in Woody Guthrie’s camp, both in the dramatic force of his writing and in his unflagging need to give back. His music often carries a pointed message, his lyrics distinctive and unforgiving, yet always dispatched with the muscular crunch of a hard rock assault.
Calls for an encore were immediate and essential – you can’t be brought to a fever pitch and dropped off a cliff. Nor can Nile ever go home early. The high-torque intensity of this show is all rock’n’roll firepower, presented with a fun-loving sincerity seldom seen in today’s music circles. Some play for the money. Some play for the fun of it – and the band soon returned to drive home this point with a trilogy of tunes paying homage to Nile’s roots as hardcore music fan. Beginning with a rapturously rowdy “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Rivieras’ “California Sun” followed right on its tail – the perfect segue to pre-Beatlemania. This was chased off the stage by the Ramones’ pop-fueled “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” – Niles’ New York City underpinnings always framing the fiery, rebellious spirit he injects into everything he does. If anything was missing, it could only be some quiet downtime to savor the softer, gentler moments displayed on the classically-trained pianist’s latest album, If I Was A River, which reveals a comparative alter-ego of acoustic-edged song-craft, further reminding us of his abilities as a writer as it showcases his abilities as a soulful, impassioned singer.
Given the energy of the night, however, this may have to wait for another tour. Those in the audience were eventually forced to yield to what was, otherwise, a formidable, sweat-inducing workout destined to bolster anyone still on two feet for the work week ahead.
John Andrew Fredrick (above, top left) on how he keeps time with his much-loved indie band. Hint: he’s smarter than you. Plus, he winds that timepiece several times a day.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
John Andrew Fredrick resides in a unique strata among indie rockers. A literate intellectual and an English professor at Santa Monica College in California, he’s been the singular constant mainstay in his band the black watch (the lower case is intentional), managing to maintain a creative credence that never falters, regardless of a sad lack of wider recognition. With a sound that’s unceasingly accessible—sometimes suggesting similarities to XTC, the Cure and 10CC when it comes to the more tuneful melodies—he also takes the indie route as an author, with three books (including The King of Good Intentions, reviewed HERE at Blurt in 2013, as well as his latest, The King of Good Intentions II) to his credit, alongside the close to 20 albums in his catalog. His latest album, the auspiciously titled Highs & Lows follows rapidly on the heels of his last effort, Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy released earlier this year. (Check out the new release HERE at iTunes.)
It’s a bit more brooding that his earlier works, but intriguing all the same. It also gave us cause to speak to Fredrick and ask him not only about the new album, but about his entire MO at the same time.
BLURT: Let’s start at the beginning. Please give us an idea of your early influences.
JOHN ANDREW FREDRICK: I would say I was influenced by The Beatles from the time I first heard them–when I was five, riding in a our family car, and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” came on the AM radio and I just started jumping up and down in the back seat. To this very day, I’m in still love with them. I just got the mono box set and I’m thrilled by it. Growing up in suburban Santa Barbara, there wasn’t–aside from sports stuff (Little League, Boys Club Basketball, pro sports on the telly) — anything more enthralling than records. I’d peddle over to the little record store in our local shopping center and just hand them my allowance every Saturday, without fail. Seven-inches, LPs, EPs… Hendrix, Creedence, Donovan, The Stones. But nothing compared to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. When I was ten, I broke my leg playing tackle football and, oddly, spent a year in bed; the break was so bad that it took that long to heal. My parents — bless their socks — didn’t let me watch more than an hour and a half of television per day, so I read everything I could and propped my little Silvertone acoustic on my cast and started writing songs. Just goes to show you — despite the cries of my friends playing games in the street outside would making me mental, what can seem devastating at the time can be and often is a blessing in disguise.
Your albums often seem to strike different themes. So do you come up with a concept for your albums in advance and write songs around them, or do you write songs and then fit them around the concept?
There’s never a calculated theme in mind when I write an album. It’s just a collection of things I have going at a certain time. I don’t read music, and I don’t write the chord progressions down. I reckon this — if I remember what I was playing, then the song’s potentially memorable, thus worth working through till it’s “finished.” Then I show it to the band. Themes emerge later, of course. The same thing goes for writing fiction. I just reread The King of Good Intentions II –which just came out last month — in light of the fact that I am doing some readings in support of it. And I noticed many motifs that my unconscious mind must’ve rigged up. Funny thing, that. There’s usually a spate of songs — twelve or so at a time. And I always seem to write the “hit” after the album’s been conceptualized. It’s like the muse or what-have-you sends me one more message, as it were. And that’s usually the catchiest song on the record. Never fails. So strange.
Please give us an insight into your songwriting process.
I only write when I am really up or really down. Which is a couple of times a year, I should say. I should also say I’m frightfully well-adjusted for an artist. I think I am. But maybe that’s just an illusion. Could be! Haha. I write about love and I write about altered states, dreamy dreams. The melodies come to me first, then the words. Never ever have I taken a set of lyrics and written a melody. Sometimes I just start singing. Mostly jingles, to amuse myself, I suppose. Every song, like every album, is a sort of reaction against the one that immediately preceded it. I’m not the sort of writer who has scads of songs — a backlog or what-you-will. I write it, we record it. Full stop. And I write a record every year, I suppose — and each time, I try to write The White Album. And I fail — I have said it in a zillion interviews — I try to make that variety of songwriting. And I will never do it. And I will always try. Haha. How quixotic. Every work of art is a failure, anyway. Except The Piper at the Gates of Dawn perhaps. (laughs) I’m kidding. But that record comes close! It’s the greatest record The Beatles didn’t make.
Please share some thoughts on the new album. Did you do anything different this time around? Some of the titles seem a bit foreboding — “She’s a Mess,” “There’s No Fucking Way,” “If Upon a Time That Never Happened,” “He Must Needs Go That the Devil Drives.” So were you feeling a bit darker this time around?
The new record is dark. You’re right. I am a very dark person, anyway–with a very jolly demeanor. Many arty types are, you know. Friendly ghouls. I think Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy is much darker, however. There are some very vicious songs on that LP. Just because the entire half is acoustic doesn’t mean it’s all nicey-nice and lollipops. The fact that there are more minor key songs on Highs and Lows is the thing. Those are darker-sadder as a rule, anyway. I’m not the person to ask, I dare say; I’m too close to the source. Ask me in six months or so.
So is the black watch an ongoing actual band or is it mostly you and whoever happens to come along at the time? Is it your vision for the most part?
The black watch is a band. It’s just that it’s my band. The drummer, Rick Woodard, has been in the group for 15 years. The bassist, Chris Rackard, for six now. We just lose members sometimes. Just because I made Sugarplum… on my own with a studio drummer didn’t mean anybody was out; it was just easier on account of money. I made that record in a week — tops. Highs and Lows was done over months and months. Sugarplum was really lonely the way I did it. I don’t think I will record like that again. I like the Muskateerish feeling of four people against the world. At times it was me against Rob Campanella, the producer\, on account of we both have such strong ideas about arrangements and parts and sonic stuff. And, oddly again, we have so many of the same musical influences and sensibilities. I loved working with Rob, but it was a struggle. A good one, I think, in that what was borne out in the process turned out to be our best record yet. All bands say that, though! We shouldn’t listen to them when they do say that!
How did you come up with the name the black watch? It’s a bit of a challenge when one googles the name because these traditional Scottish bands come up first.
The black watch is named the black watch on account of I am mostly Scottish — and English and Irish — and I was obsessed with military stuff and bagpipe music as a kid. The regiment has never taken notice. It’d be infra dig for them to do that, I believe, and besides, we always — except for the new LP — use lower case. I wanted an historical name and a dark name and a traditional name and a very aggressive name. We’ve been admonished to change it by label people, who are often overly concerned with “the new,” but, to me, that’d be a terrible compromise. Moreover, who would be fooled? It’d still be my voice. Voice in both senses of the term.
In addition to being a musician and author, you’re also an academic as well. Do your students think it’s pretty cool because their professor is also a rock musician? Does your music making become a subject for your classroom discussions?
Even if they like indie rock, the students never let on that they think it’s cool to have a prof who is a very minor rock star. It doesn’t figure in our discussions, for sure. They are invited to gigs. I tell them that’s the only time they can heckle me! I’ve seen a few of them over the years in TBW t-shirts. That’s charming. I’m really super grateful when I learn that anybody likes what we do. I can’t stress that enough. These days, fewer and fewer college freshman listen to rock. But when they do, they seem to know a lot about it. It’s like a former TBW guitarist, Steven Schayer, used to say — “Either you know it all or don’t bother.” That’s precisely how it should be.
Do you feel like your literary and academic careers have made you a better songwriter?
Being a voracious reader has made me a better lyricist, I would say that. I would also say that you can tell how much someone reads when you scrutinize his or her lyrics. But no I’m not a better songwriter ’cause I write fiction and teach it.
In fact, how does your day job impact your career as a musician? Has it hindered it in any way or made you lose focus? Has it hindered you as far as touring or the need to divide your energies?
Being a prof has hindered and — paradoxically — helped my so-called career at the same time. The job is easy and enjoyable and somewhat lucrative. The main thing is, I only teach two days a week. It leaves me heaps of time to write and play tennis. Touring is tough. I would say that money from labels has been more of an issue. And the fact that TBW members also have grown-up jobs and lives makes it hard to tour. But we have done some sporadic touring. Just not enough. That’s about to change. My work — and I know this sounds immodest now — is about to take off in ways I’ve never dreamed of. Or maybe it’s not immodest on account of it is about the songs and the books…not about me personally. I have worked very very hard indeed for years and years and never doubted that making things was what I was meant to do. This is no overnight sensation motif. (laughs)
Talk a bit about your literary pursuits. How do your books and your songs intersect? Or do they?
I have published three works of fiction, and have a book on the early films of Wes Anderson coming, and I’ve written three other novels, one of which, after five hundred pages, was scrapped. I’ve written a musical about Dr. Johnson and his biographer Boswell that’s an indie rock thing as well. Very experimental. And unexpected. I hate musicals. But I wrote one. Very curious. I don’t know if it’ll ever be produced. I love film and theater and have minimal desire to become involved with actors and their world.
“The King of Good Intentions” was a terrific novel. We understand that you just published a sequel. Isn’t there also an album associated with it?
There is a sequel to “The King of Good Intentions.” It’s out now from Rare Bird Books/A Barnacle Book. It’s actually a trilogy. Part three, “The Hollow Crown,” is also finished. I didn’t set out to write a trilogy; it just worked out that way. Maybe I’m a graphomaniac. I just have a lot to say! Or at least I think I do! The King of Good Intentions LP by the band has loads to do with the novel. But one should just read it and see!
What authors have influenced you? And how important is it to you to continue to write and publish?
Salinger, Martin Amis, Henry Green, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, John Updike, early James Joyce, Saki, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Lorrie Moore, Kingsley Amis, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Steve Almond, George Saunders, and especially Vladimir Nabokov. Huge influence, Nabokov. It’s very important for me to write fiction. It’s been a long process. I write when I am bored in order live in my own world, I suppose, and make words sing, I reckon. I try to crack myself up — and put down poetic locutions. Hyper-literary comedy — that’s my game. That I try to play, I suppose. My question to people who’ve read the books always invariably is, “Did you laugh out loud?” And if they did, well, my work was worth it, the effort and strain and hours and hours on my own with the computer.
Who are some of the bands and artists you’re listening to these days? Do your students turn you on to new or up and coming artists?
New bands? Not really. Deerhunter, a bit. Two or three of their records. I took a year off — an entire year — from listening to anything but KUSC, the classical station here in LA. Not even The Beatles or the Velvet Underground or New Order did I listen to. Now that New Order’s put out a great new album, I am back to listening to pop and rock. Now that that’s my MO again, auditioning things, I would love to find new things to listen to. Ah, but I just end up with the old stuff, you know — XTC, The Glove (the Blue Sunshine deluxe edition with Smith’s voice on all the songs was heaven), Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees and Future Games, the first four Eno records, Sly and the Family Stone, Echo and the Bunnymen up through the eponymous one. The new thing by The Church…beautiful! Rob Campanella’s always pushing these neo-psychedelic bands on me. I can’t hang with them, however. I don’t hold with bands who don’t, artfully, mask their influences on account of that’s what I have essayed to do quite strenuously. I liked Yuck, the first one. Weird how with some bands you don’t care if they are derivative. But somehow it doesn’t matter. Radiohead’s new LP is something I will buy straight away. I am more motivated and influenced by bands that I can’t stand. I write in part in order to get songs by — fill in the blank here — out of my rock and roll head.
Have you always been a story teller? Where do you think that talent came from?
I am not a good story teller. That’s a strange thing for a novelist and songwriter to say. Not live, at least or in person. I can’t tell a joke, either. But I can write one! (laughs) That much I know. I was a terrible liar as a child. I hate lies now. I save them for the page, I reckon.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to add one thing — thanks for this. Indie scribes are the best! I like reading about music sometimes more than listening to it!!!
Onstage in Beijing last week while touring behind their latest—and brilliant—album, the psychedelic avatars proved beyond a doubt that they deserve every bit of the acclaim they’ve been garnering. And we have the videos, below, to prove it.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
On December 5th Moon Duo took the stage at Beijing’s Yugong Yishan club (see the hand stamp, below). With a packed crowd, the band soaked the place in incredibly beautiful visuals and a heady brew of psychedelic tinged minimalism.
Opening for the NY band Battles, Moon Duo took the stage for slightly under an hour for a set that incorporated numbers from this year’s stellar LP, Shadow of The Sun as well as from their back catalog. It was great to see such a large Chinese turnout for this event. Here in Beijing such events can be hit or miss. The crowd last night though was able to let the vibe grab hold while Beijing’s famous pollution began its steady rise outside. This is the final concert of their China tour that saw them give concerts in five Chinese cities.
Blurt was given special access to film from on the stage as well as from within the crowd. Many thanks to the band’s manager Paul Carlin and to Moon Duo (official website HERE) for the amazing show. Check out the videos that I shot following the setlist.
Motorcycle, I Love You
Free The Skull
I Been Gone
In The Sun
Set it on Fire (Scientists cover)
Top & bottom photos by Jia Lin; middle photo by Jonathan Levitt
Onstage last week in Tennessee, the Tarheel twangers ‘n’ thumpers, freshly-shorn and basking in the audience’s encouragement, demonstrated why they are the heirs to the contemporary Americana throne—if not the already-crowned kings.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Although they retain their down home, good ol’ boys persona, the Avett Brothers have advanced head first into the major leagues over the last couple of years. Their albums are eagerly anticipated, they can claim a big name producer in Rick Rubin, a major label record deal with Republic Records (yet another live album arrives in stores next week), an expanded front line from three to five, bragging rights due to selling out Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes, Grammy nods, and even have a celebrity scandal that landed them on the cover of the tabloids, that being Seth Avett’s affair with actress Jennifer Carpenter. Still, none of that notoriety would matter at all were it not for the fact that the Avetts put on one of the most energized and effusive shows imaginable, a none stop whirlwind of frenetic choreography and spontaneous free-for-all activity that keeps their audiences on their feet from the first notes to the last and shouting their approval and encouragement every step of the way.
That was certainly the case this past Friday night at Knoxville’s stately Tennessee Theater, and the mutual admiration shared between band and fans was all too apparent. Looking cleanly scrubbed after shedding their hairy manes, Seth, Scott, bassist Bob Crawford, Cellist Joe Kwon, fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, keyboardist Paul DeFiglia and drummer Mike Marsh took instant command of the proceedings from the first notes on. The initial number, a rousing instrumental meant to get the party started, ended with the musicians forming a kazoo chorus that amped the energy up at the outset. From that point on, the stage became a kinetic flurry of activity with each player seemingly self-propelled and individually enthused. At one point, Scott, sporting a beard and suspenders in typical good old boy regalia, actually did an entire workout routine, starting with jumping jacks and proceeding into push-ups, sit-ups and bicycle pumps. Clearly, the boy’s in good shape, an undiminished flurry of exhilaration rivalled only by the others that share the stage with him.
It’s also clear by now that the band’s newest recruits have been fully integrated into the fray. DeFiglia doubled on bass on more than one occasion, allowing Crawford to pick up his fiddle and join in some hillbilly hoedowns. Kwon, always a whirlwind of activity, dueted with Elizabeth to give the band its own mini string section. Marsh figured into the frenzy as well, ably propelling the band while hammering his drum kit with a flourish.
As far as the songs were concerned, the group covered some wide terrain, veering from familiar favorites from their past catalog (“Paranoia in B Flat Minor,” “Down with the Shine,” “Kick Drum Heart”), to tunes befitting their North Carolina pedigree (“Floppy Eared Mule,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me”), some old time gospel (“In the Garden”), and a pair of songs slated for a pair of forthcoming albums, one live and one studio (“Satan Pulls the Strings” and “Divorce Separation Blues”). The latter number was especially telling given Seth’s extramarital exploits and he himself conceded the fact that it underscored what was inevitably an expensive proposition. Not surprisingly, those comments garnered a knowing chuckle from the crowd.
Their formal set completed, the group left the stage only to return a few minutes later for their extended encore. Seth mocked the fact that they might deign to return, suggesting it was no secret that they were far from finished. Scott’s solo read of “Murder in the City” was much anticipated and indeed, one of the concert’s emotional highlights, but the omission of the equally stirring “I And Love And You” amounted to the evening’s only real disappointment. Still, the Avetts’ ability to transform such sad, sweet songs into homespun homilies of anthemic proportion always dazzles devotees, which this audience was definitely comprised of entirely.
A folk/bluegrass/indie rock conglomerate boasting exceptional enthusiasm, the Avetts were, in a word, absolutely awesome.
This is what the world looked like before WordPress, punks. And it was a more vibrant, exuberantly tactile world, too. Our resident fanzine expert Tim “Dagger” Hinely weighs in.
BY TIM “DAGGER” HINELY
Print is still alive and well and here’s some rags to prove it! Check out these choice offerings for the winter, as they will leave ink stains on your fingers quite nicely and keep you warm at night…
The Big Takeover (#77) Jack’s back! Meaning Jack Rabid and his trusty crew of hard workers put out another issue of the Big Takeover. Now in its ……35th year I believe and cramming in all the news that’s fit to print. In this ish is Ride (cover stars) plus other interviews with Low, Flesh Eaters Chris D., Royal Headache, Mercury Rev (by Mr. Joseph Kyle) The Damned (part 2) and more. Interviews plus many others. There’s lots of history here and well worth your hard-earned dough at 136 pages. www.bigtakeover.com
Bull Tongue Review (#4) I think this new zine, started up by Mr. Byron Coley, wasn’t even around when I did my last column a little less than a year ago, but since that time he has cranked out four issues. Under the title it states “A quarterly journal of post-rock cultural pluralism.” And basically it’s about 75 pages of reviews and musings on… well, anything and everything. The list of contributors is pretty amazing; Ira Kaplan, Michael Hurley, Tom lax, Chris D., Bruce Russell, Tesco Vee, Gregg Turner and too many more (including yours truly). Pick it up and learn something. I hope this one continue for a long time. www.bulltonguereview.com
Ugly Things (#30) Editor Mike Stax must be finding more time to do this as it seems I see UT a few times a year now instead of the once a year it used to be. I certainly don’t mind though it takes me forever to read an issue. This issue, like all of them, is all things garage and freakbeat (i.e.: mostly 1960’s) and has pieces on The Clingers (never heard of ‘em either), Brian Jones (now him I have heard of), The Mickey Finn plus Kim Fowley, The Saints, a ton of reviews and lots more—including a regular, must-read column by Cyril Jordan of the Flamin’ Groovies—crammed into 176 pages (at press time a new ish of UT, #40, is now out though I have not gotten it yet). www.ugly-things.com
Zisk (#26) I have to start off every review of Zisk by stating that it is “The baseball magazine for people who hate baseball magazines.” Yeah! They’re now on to issue #26 and Mike and Steve, continue to bust out issues of Zisk two times per year (what the fuck have you done?!). In this ish is a drawing of Yogi on the cover (RIP) plus Johnny Bench (remember him?), an Orioles fan vs. Derek Jeter, the Meaning of Commitment, Cincy and plenty more. You gotta gotta gotta have it. www.ziskmagazine.com
ONE MORE THAT I HAD ALMOST FORGOTTEN ABOUT!
Jim Shepherd: Negotiate Nothing (Nix Rock n’ Roll Comics) Bela Koe-Krompecher is the Columbus, OH everyman, running his own label (Anyway Records) and doing a heartfelt blog on the Columbus scene too (he also used to co-own Used Kids Records along with Stache’s, Columbus’ premier (ahem) venue for indie/punk bands in the ‘90s). OK, cutting right to it, a few years ago he did a blog posting on the late Jim Shepherd, an underground legend in Columbus via his self-produced records and tapes, in this 20 –page zine/comic Bela, along with illustrator Andy Bennet and designer/compiler Ken Eppstein have put together a unique mag on the life and times of the enigmatic Shepherd. Via his work in bands like Vertical Slit and V-3 (once signed to a major subsidiary, Onion Records). Shepherd was sort of king shit on turd mountain (though it sounds like he wanted to be anything but….and yes, there is a good Bob Pollard-related story on here) and truly created a unique catalog by absolutely refusing to budge in any way (even the title of the comic was part of a Shepherd quote, “Negotiate nothing, tear it all down”). This is a fascinating look at a true American original and honestly, a steal at $5. www.nixcomics.comwww.belakoekrompecher.wordpress.com
“When I say we aim to please ourselves, that’s what I mean, quite literally”: And we wouldn’t have it any other way. The punk and postpunk icon hocks, er, speaks into the phone for the BLURT readership about his PiL, his music industry travails, his record collection, and his “joyous empathy” for the world around him.
John Lydon takes the stage at Pittsburgh’s Altar Bar, on Nov. 12, to a roar of applause. Host to everything from dance parties to the touring punk icons (Mission of Burma once played here too), the space is an appropriate venue for the former Mr. Rotten, considering it was once a church. But more on that later.
His outfit [see photo from show, below] could be an antiquated, black-and-white striped outfit worn by a convict. Or it could be pajamas. His salutation to the audience keeps that open to speculation. He doesn’t tell us to fuck off. No sneers from this bloke either. In a put-on, basso profundo voice, he declares, “I have diarrhea. I hope the Imodium works. Please bear with me.”
Thanks, John. Good to know. Or are you putting us on?
It doesn’t matter because, with that out of the way, he turns warm, if cheeky. “Good to see ya,” he tells us. After putting on his glasses, so he can read the lyrics on the music stand in front of him, he adds, “Now I can see ya!”
The current lineup of Public Image Ltd., in place for about the last six years, features original member Lydon, along with drummer Bruce Smith (once of the Pop Group and Rip Rig & Panic), guitarist Lu Edmonds (the Damned, the Mekons) and bassist Scott Firth. Fans of the band’s early days, when Jah Wobble created dub-influenced bass lines to support Keith Levene’s icy guitar lines and Lydon’s yowl, shouldn’t be disappointed by the group. In concert, Firth’s low-end rumble threatens to rattle the building’s foundation. During an extended version of “Religion,” from 1978’s First Edition, Lydon yells, “Turn up the bass,” repeatedly. My nasal passages feel it, as the soundperson obliges. Edmonds does a good job of taking the Levene-style guitar and building on the chorused-out sound. Smith could incorporate some of the punk-funk-jazz stylings of his previous groups, but his timekeeping is impeccable.
“Religion” sounds especially blasphemous tonight. The remnants of a cross on the wall above the stage — a throwback to the space’s previous incarnation — only adds to it, as Lydon chants, “Here come the priests,” repeatedly. (Think about it too hard and it starts to sound really creepy.) “Why should I call you ‘Father,’” he says to no one in particular as the band starts the heavy riff. “You’re not my daddy!”
Along with a few other vintage cuts like “Death Disco,” the set leans towards What the WorldNeeds Now…, the band’s latest album, self-released after Lydon’s years of litigation with some of PiL’s previous labels. While it might not feel like Metal Box, the new album explodes with the same kind of raw energy that marks the highlights of the PiL catalog. If “Bettie Page” might not seem like a deep song, well, neither was “Albatross.” And both were fun.
Lydon’s bout with the runs isn’t slowing him down tonight. He’s pouring his heart and his voice into the performance. So you better believe that he expects a good reaction. He occasionally raises hands aloft, like an arena rocker who wants 110% from his fans. When the reaction isn’t loud enough, at one point, he taunts us: “You can be that quiet when you’re dead. And if you follow my example that’s a long way off.” Aside from a few too many mid-tempo tunes in the middle of the set, it’s a fun time.
A few weeks prior to the band’s visit to Pittsburgh, Lydon graciously took time out for an interview. The key word here is “graciously.” (A colleague at the daily newspaper wasn’t so lucky, since Lydon hung up on him, the second time this has happened to him.)
Although he’s now a US citizen (who praised the Affordable Care Act, which allowed him to fix his once-rotten teeth, during a World Café interview), he was back in England at the time of our chat. Earlier this year, Lydon published Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored and did a spate of interviews, which revealed a reflective man, who even teared up as he recalled a childhood bout with meningitis, which left him in a coma and forced him to relearn how to talk. He stood firm during our talk but he devoted his attention to the conversation, even though it coincided with tea time.
JOHN LYDON: ‘Allo, Pittsburgh. I was expecting you. Well, sort of. The times got a bit changed ’cuz there’s daylight savings time in Europe. [You have a] fun town. Gonna be made even more fun once Public Image rolls through! We aim to please. Actually, we aim to please ourselves. Hopefully that translates further down the line. It’s the difference between us and other bands. Other bands compromise or go for the popular vote or the current trend. We’ve always been above and beyond that kinda nonsense. So when I say we aim to please ourselves, that’s what I mean, quite literally. Cuz we love creativity.
BLURT: In your current shows, are you playing old songs too?
Yes. A very healthy mix-and-match, which changes according to the mood of the evening sometimes. We do the best we can. Sometimes some songs, you know, they’re not right. You can feel it in the crowd. My best general way of approaching it is, if I can connect with the eyes of people looking at me, then I know what’s truly empathetic or way out for them. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
I never thought I’d ever hear you say that, John.
Some of the songs are rather tragic. And there’s no need to keep piling them on. You can see when people need a spot of— um… joyous empathy. And we’ll shift into something that will do that. This is what we do: connect with my human beings, not ignore them. That’s not at all the same as pandering. And you’ve got to be kind to your fellow human beings and realize we can’t all be on the same attention span at the same time. Some of us, including meself, are slower than others!
In listening to some recent interviews with you, you seem really on top of your game.
Well, when it comes to words, I’m happy, but don’t ask me to count. That’s one of the side effects of childhood illness. The mathematical side of my brain went right out the window.
[Calls to someone on his end of the phone] Sugar?! One or two? [Returns to our conversation] I’m doing the tea as we speak. My friends are all very, very lazy people! They must have been getting it from watching me watching Tv. Such is my influence in life!
In recent interviews, you’ve come across more openly than you were in the past. Have you been misunderstood all these years?
Well, I reckon! Deliberately so, from day one, don’t you? I mean, initially the outburst was, “Oh, dumb working class kids, what do they know about anything?” Then bitter resentment when they realized I actually had opinions that kind of meant something. To outright negativity and continuous hostility.
But at the same time, while I’ve been learning to smile in the face of adversity, there’s also been some people out there that started to pay attention, people from early on who understand what we really do. And so in life, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. And if you expect everyone to love you all the time, then you’re a very, very foolish person who’s going to really have a miserable life. So there it is.
It’s better to get on with it. l learn that people by nature — this is why I love us all — we’re just born fucking awkward. It really is just a question of square pegs and round holes. We’re meant to be that way. That’s what character is. “I will not conform.” “Oh go on, John. Why not?” “’Cuz I won’t!”
I don’t need to adhere to other people’s rules. Those rules are not applicable. The only thing that makes sense to me is to not step in another human being’s space. Do not steal from them. Do not interfere with them. And as long as others behave the same with me, we’re going to have a very, very good life.
Do you feel like you were forced into being the voice of punk rock?
Forced?! Well, was there anybody else who had anything to say? Not that I know. Don’t mean to be a big head about that, but quite frankly, it looked to me that a load of people were behaving more like coat hangers than singers. Really not much lyrical value going on.
But that’s my thing. I had all this childhood illness to get out of. And the fact that I remembered how to speak and read and write again, I’m just thrilled with that and I always will be. That was the gift of that illness. That it gave me the thirst for knowledge.
And punk rock, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just like any other form of music. 98% rubbish.
The 2% is rising to the top.
And that’s where my record collection is, oddly enough. I’ve got 2% in every category and genre. And here I am visibly resenting categories and genres. So let’s just go for the 2%ers, shall we? I love my vodka slightly stronger.
Back then in the early days of the Sex Pistols and PiL, did you know [current PiL drummer] Bruce Smith when he was in the Pop Group?
Oh yeah, yeah, as long as I’ve been in music. We all started around ’78, ’79. It’s the same with Lu. And the newest member is Scott. He’s been with us five-and-a-half, six years or more. It feels like he’s always been there. We’re very tight with each other as friends. It absolutely shows in the music. I mean I’ve dealt with adversity and I’ve dealt with animosity and all them dark places. And I think I’ve dealt with them quite well. It’s intriguing to me [that], at this stage of my life, I have to deal with fun and joy. Well, you know, [chuckles], all good things come to those who wait.
Was it weird to realize it was fun now?
No. It took two decades of the record companies stopping me working [sic] and stifling me and telling me I owed them so much that I couldn’t perform until I put money against the debt. That’s really — coming out of that — the doldrums to my way of thinking, that was. And surviving that, there’s where the real joy and love of it is. I knew I’d have the patience to outwait that. As soon as I raised enough, indeed I bought my way off of them labels and here, we have our complete independence. And I’m back together with me friends. In the right way.
I suppose Jesus spent his time in the wilderness. [Laughs] I hope he didn’t waste it! I don’t want to make no comparisons, here. But I’m not planning on heading to me execution, mate! So let’s get that one right. One crucifixion is enough! [Below: PiL recently on the Stephen Colbert show, presumably not being crucified]
So you were in battles with the labels the originally released PiL?
It’s just the way the situation changed inside record companies, the emphasis shifted from artist development into accounting. And once the accountants started running the show, it all became about being in debt. There was no future. And this is why they collapsed or fell apart or had to rebuild and reshape in the way they’ve had to. They lost their true love and insight into what music was all about. And we all suffered for that.
I’m not the only band that did. Many, many bands have gone under because of it, and it’s a shame. It’s a shame that the term “reunion” is now sneered on. Well, hello! These bands were denied their own careers by these labels. It’s not a reunion – it’s a reclamation, where they belong!
Speaking of the term “reunion” I have to ask if there’s any chance that…
No, no, no, none of that. No need! That would be 10 steps backwards for me. [For the record, I was going to ask him about his PiL mates Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, and not Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook.]
So when you look back on the days of Metal Box, what are your thoughts?
It’s played ever so much better now! [Laughs.] Don’t ask me to be bitter. Indeed, I have no bitterness for any of… regardless. They’re all my friends. But I can’t go back and work with certain members because their wage demands and ego trips were just so far in excess of reality, it’s impossible to even consider their names in the same sentence as me now. For me, they shared an amazing lack of gratitude and behaved appallingly. Good riddance. Love ’em forever but good riddance, and take your egos with you. You’ll never be on the stage with me with that attitude. I’ve always played fair and equal. I don’t expect to be rubbed aside because of somebody’s swollen head. And that’s the truth of it. So can we move on?
How does songwriting work with the current band?
We’re very open in the way we write. It’s free flowing. But it’s based around the principle of live music. The instruments are always on, the microphones are turned on. Everything is about that live sound.
[He coughs and expectorates over the phone.] Sorry. You know, I am a singer and I will hack. It’s funny — the first thing to go is not the singing voice, it’s the talking voice. I lose the normal register, but I can squeak extremely high.
How do you maintain your voice? Do you drink lemon juice?
Oh yeah, I love all that stuff. You have to be careful when you’re on the tour bus. It will give you what we call “Botticelli.” And you’re not allowed to poo on the tour bus. And sometimes if it’s a really bad case of Botticelli, [kind of singing] you have to hold it in your pants till the truck stops! And that’s very painful indeed if it’s lemon-juiced based. It’s slightly too acidic.
That covers everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you wanted to say that we didn’t touch on?
For me, I just talk with people and you do what you want with it. I’m just glad to have a conversation, really. So thank you!
[Another loogie has seen the light of day]
Wow! [We both laugh.]
I would like you to inform an audience that I never aimed that at another human being. I have a bin! That was another thing that them early journalists got wrong: implying that we liked to spit on each other. Sorry – no. I don’t know such foolish people!
He signs off with what sounds like a tongue-in-cheek Irish blessing: “May ye scatter, batter, flatter and chatter,” in which a brogue comes out. At Altar Bar a few weeks later he does something similar. The band kicks encores with a strong version of the song “Public Image,” and follows it with “Rise,” the closest thing that band has had to a hit on these shores, and something of a blessing that he bestows on all of us.
Above, watch somewhat fuzzy/bassy, but still not bad, video clip of the 11/12 Pittsburgh “Rise” performance. And then, go HERE to read an additional live review of PiL’s current tour, from Nov. 20 in Colorado.
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Filmed by Jonathan Levitt. Check out Bonney's latest record "Past, Present, Future" http://smarturl.it/SimonBonney
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