It was a night for tears and laughter, and a lot of reflection—upon what it means to be a rock band, how it feels to be staring down death, and why there’s so much pride to be taken in being Canadian. Below, watch and/or listen to the entire final concert from August 20 in Kingston, Ontario.
BY BLURT STAFF
For the final show of their Man Machine Poem tour—and quite possibly their final show, period, as vocalist Gord Downie had announced in May that he had terminal brain cancer—the Tragically Hip chose to connect with an entire nation and not simply the 20,000+ audience in their Kingston, Ontario, hometown. The concert was broadcast live by Canada Broadcasting Corporation to venues across the country, leading to a few million virtual attendees taking in Downie’s presumed final bow, and reveling in the collective glory of what has become perhaps the most beloved Canadian band in history.
Fellow countrymen Nickelback, who have sold gazillions more than the Tragically Hip, only wish they could get a fraction of this kind of respect. Not that the Hip have not sold a few records in their day.
The HDTV webcast has already been circulated extensively around the world via a very devoted Hip fanbase, and now the good folks at Big O zine have posted it for free MP3 download, along with relevant artwork.
BLURT’s own editor, Fred Mills, happened to be vacationing in Canada when the tour was concluding, and while he was not able to catch any of the farewell concerts, he says that on more than one occasion he encountered fans who expressed their deep devotion to the band. “Even some folks who seemed to be more diehard punk or indie types seemed to feel like this was a momentous moment—a ‘Last Waltz’ of sorts for the band and its fanbase,” noted Mills. “Given Downie’s medical status it was impossible not to be moved, almost to tears, while grasping that, for so many Canadians, this was their U2, their R.E.M., their Midnight Oil that they were saying goodbye to.
“I should add that when I was in the airport preparing for my flight back to the US, I picked up a newsstand copy of national magazine Maclean’s, kind of a cross between Time and USA Today, and it was a double issue with something like 25 pages devoted to the Hip, its history, its fans and admirers, and that final concert in Kingston. Reading that, I began to get a sense of just how important this group was to Canadians, something that I’d not quite figured out until now. In the Hip, fans saw a group of musicians who celebrated their very Canadian-ness, rather than trying to be just another big player on the global music scene.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to a band you love. Imagine how hard it is to say goodbye to that band when you know there’s no chance—ever—of one of those reunions we’ve come to take for granted.”
JOSEPH BOYDEN’S SEVEN LOVE SONGS FOR GORD DOWNIE: Award-winning author Joseph Boyden’s emotional reflection on his relationship with The Hip’s Gord Downie—and ours, too.—Joseph Boyden and Amanda Boyden
HOW WE WILL MISS GORD DOWNIE AND THE TRAGICALLY HIP: What it means to the Hip — and to their fans — to tour and wave goodbye. —Michael Barclay
HERE’S HOW CANADA WATCHED THE TRAGICALLY HIP: A sold-out concert in Kingston, but viewing parties from coast to coast — and beyond. —Aaron Hutchins
ON THE TRAGICALLY HIP’S LAST STOP: ‘THIS IS CARPE DIEM.’ Michael Barclay on the rock’n’roll spectacle of the Man Machine Poem tour. —Michael Barclay
THE AMERICAN FANS WHO WATCHED THE TRAGICALLY HIP’S LAST EXIT: It wasn’t only Canadians who flocked to Kingston, Ont., for the Tragically Hip’s final concert. —Michael Barclay
THE TRAGICALLY HIP’S LAST SONG RINGS OUT ACROSS CANADA: Thousands of fans from Halifax to Vancouver sang the Tragically Hip’s last song, ‘Ahead By A Century.’
As the CBC noted in its coverage of the concert, “Downie thanked fans for supporting the band during what could be its final tour. ‘On behalf of the boys and the men and women of our crew, thank you for a great tour and a great show,’ Downie said. ‘I really enjoyed the hell out of it. Thank you, thank you people for keeping me pushing.’”
Keep pushing, indeed. Godspeed, Mr. Downie. You have been an inspiration in so many ways.
Gord Downie – vocals
Paul Langlois – guitar
Rob Baker – guitar
Gord Sinclair – bass
Johnny Fay- drums
Bonus: CBC Music presents The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration Post-Show [Interview]
Live at Crossroads KC at Grinder’s on a cool Missouri August night, the quintessential American band turned the heat up—way up.
TEXT BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS / PHOTOS BY KAREN PRUITT
There was a feeling in the air at Crossroads KC, walking through the gate. Crowd, band, even the temperature was cool for a Missouri August night. Everything was in its place; the stage was set for one of the shows that will forever be burned into my brain, scorched in with the power of 1000 wood burners.
Worth noting: I’ve been down lately, way down; so down, in fact, that I thought nothing could save me. Maybe a good rock show is what was in order to shake this feeling. My fuck, did Wilco give me the show I needed. Not only was it a great show, but it was quite possibly the greatest show I had seen in years, perhaps eons.
Wilco came out strong with “More” from the recent Star Wars, a melodic nod to the weird selections in the John Lennon solo catalogue. Airy and flowing on a level that Radiohead couldn’t have pull off in their prime. Bleeding into “Random Name Generator,” also from Star Wars (they got the new shit out of the way from the gate), the boys turned everything to 12, taking a song that hadn’t held with me on the studio version, turning it into a jam that most 20 year olds couldn’t pull off.
By the fourth song in, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” I could tell the band was locked in, what we were in for; the crowd sang along as Tweedy lamented “This is not a joke so please stop smilin’/what was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?” All in attendance were seemingly of one mind, singing the heartbreaking words of a man that, my friend/Wilco superfan F. T. Boley, calls the modern-day Woodie Guthrie. “He (Tweedy) is truly the Dylan/Guthrie/Springsteen of my generation. In my opinion, he has earned a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of American singer-songwriters.”
Bold words but, just then Nils Cline unloaded a wall of sound so immense around “The Art of Almost,” while the rest of the band followed, shaping their phrasing to fit together with a piece or two missing, ramshackle in a way that the most avant garde of players would envy. Later, Cline would dampen panties and make guitarist weep with his solo on “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
Scattering through the night were greats like “Impossible Germany,” “Handshake Drugs,” the now classic “Box Full of Letters” from the debut gem AM, “Jesus, etc.” Bassist John Stirratt took over lead vocals for one song, their country flavored winner “It’s Just that Simple,” they even rolled out the beautiful “California Stars,” and many more, nearly three hours in total, a straight-ahead run through all phases of their career as a unit.
And, as if the set lied before us on this full moon night, wasn’t good enough, the band returned to the stage for a six song, all acoustic encore including “It’s Just That Simple,” “Shot in the Arm,” a cover from Tweedy’s time in the influential Uncle Tupelo (“We’ve Been Had”) and a heartbreaking Monkees hinting “I’m Always in Love.”
It’s passé at this point in Wilco’s career as a band, at this point as musicians for one more journalist, one more person, one more fan to site Wilco as America’s best rock band. But, son of a bitch, I find myself falling in the same honey trap; that even in my coldest of hearts, I have been convinced that this sentiment shared by so many is not a mere belief but a set in stone, undisputed fact. If one were to doubt the sincerity of my conviction, all you needed to do was be part of the crowd last night. They sang along, some cried, while others reveled in the perfect noise blasting from the stage.
Random Name Generator
The Joke Explained
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
King of You
If I Ever Was a Child
Box Full of Letters
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
The Late Greats
It’s Just that Simple
We’ve Been Had (Uncle Tupelo cover)
I’m Always in Love
Shot in the Arm
On his new album, the songwriter both celebrates and transcends ordinary existence, finding revelation in small, perfect turns of song.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
For last year’s lovely Primrose Green, Ryley Walker assembled a cast of Chicago free-jazz fellow travelers, interspersing his spare, blues-y folk blues with shimmers of cool fusion-y keyboards, deep plunks of acoustic bass, abstract and questing drum rhythms and nocturnal meditations in electric guitar. This time around, on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans), much of his backing band is back, along with producer/arranger/player LeRoy Bach from Wilco, and the sounds are similar but more lived in. Where before the Chicago jazz overlayer was just that, an addition, now it feels integral, relaxed and permeating. The clarinet that rises out of “The Halfwit in Me,” the drum/bass duet that kicks off “A Choir Apart,” the extended technique string sounds that introduce closing “Age Old Tale” all feel less like experiments, more like sturdy, always-there elements of songs. Where Primrose Green discovered sounds, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung ruminates, considers and incorporates.
The music is dense and layered but wonderfully shot through with space, with textures that ebb and flow to make room for each other. Walker’s voice, warm and casual with wide intervals between phrases, slips between shivering bead curtains of electric and acoustic guitar, bass plunks reverberate in still puddles of quiet, melodies unfurl slowly, in bursts and stops, catching strength in the intervals to push onward once again.
Individual players are worth mentioning – Anton Hatwich again ventures from the low-end, conjuring basslines so round and reverberant that they seem to take up three-dimensional space. Brian Sulpizio carves out slow arc’ing figures in electric guitar that lift off from Walker’s picking into speculative air. Ben Boye finds cool, electronic keyboard grooves in “The Halfwit in Me,” then switches up to ecstasy (and autoharp) in the final “Age Old Tale.” There are three drummers – Frank Rosaly, Quin Kirchner and Ryan Jewell – not a one of them confined in the least by monotonous, steady time. Whitney Johnson, who also plays as Matchess, adds viola in several plays.
The lyrics are sharper this time around, touching on mid-life concerns – children, parents, faith (or lack of it), artistic struggle and career dissatisfaction – with ordinary words strung in elliptical patterns. They sound like conversation but read more like poetry. They flirt with long-term commitment but leave in the morning. They crack self-deprecating jokes and wonder about Jesus. They don’t get in the way of the music – that is clearly still the main thing here – but neither do they cede the territory.
It’s hard to pick a favorite in an album that slips by as easily as this one, but if I had to, I’d say “Roundabout.” It’s maybe the least orchestrated of these tunes, relying mostly on acoustic picking and Walker’s voice to invoke a buoyant optimism. (Against odds, it seems. In the lyrics Walker can’t afford a round of drinks.) It distills small joys and setbacks into a breezy motion that seems like progress, but is, perhaps, only a series of left turns that left you where you started. And maybe that’s the charm of this album, that it presents life in small slices, good and bad, hedged in by music that glows with a casual charm.
Golden Sings both celebrates and transcends ordinary existence, finding revelation in small, perfect turns of song.
Photo credit: Tom Sheehan/Via Dead Oceans
Bloodied but unbowed by their recent bass-position upheavals, the alt-rock avatars make their bid for the future. A new album, Head Carrier, arrives at the end of September, and then the legendary band will commence a world tour in November. The Pixies flipped a coin, and newest member Paz Lenchantin—above, apparently flipping that coin—won the toss for submitting to the BLURT inquisition about all this, and more.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
There are plenty of other bands far less intimidating to join than casting one’s lot with the Pixies. After all, this is a group that helped define the indie ethos in the post punk world of the early ‘80s. They’ve set a high bar, and though they’ve only released seven albums in thirty years — including their latest opus, Head Carrier — they earned the kind of reputation that legends are built upon. Part of that stems from the aggression, edge and angst that’s been inherent in their sound since their first two albums, Surfer Rosa and the magnificent Doolittle, but it’s also due in part to the tenuous relationship within the band itself. The band disbanded in 1993, reformed just over ten years later, and just as they were in the full flush of their second wind, founding bassist Kim Deal left the fold in 2014. The three remaining members — vocalist, guitarist Black Francis (also known as Frank Black), guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering — hired Kim Shattuck to take Deal’s place, but Shattuck left almost as soon as she started.
In walked bassist and multi-instrumentalist Paz Lenchantin, a seasoned musician whose included contributions to A Perfect Circle, Silver Jews, Zwan and Queens of the Stone Age. At first, she was recruited to join the band on tour, making her recording debut with the group on 2014‘s EP compilation Cindy Indie. Now with a new album under their collective belt, she’s graduated to being one of the band’s spokespersons, a formidable responsibility considering that it’s her recorded bow. “They got me talking on a Sunday with a little bit of coffee,” she chuckles, obviously willing to pass this audition of sorts.
In fact, Lenchantin proved an ideal explainer in chief as far as the new album and other Pixies matter were concerned. Happily too, she can also claim a song contribution as well. It seemed like a good place to start our interview.
BLURT: Your song on the new album, “All I Think about Is Now” fits in rather well with the Pixies’ purpose. Can you tell us how that came about?
LENCHANTIN: It kind of wrote itself. It was the last song we recorded. We were at a studio in London to record a batch of songs that we’ve been working on for a few weeks at that point. I had a little apartment next to the studios where Joey and Black Francis were also living, and Black Francis showed me a song he was working on. He gave it to me on my IPhone, but I couldn’t really hear the chord changes. It was just a hand held recorder on the IPhone but I started playing bass on what I thought I heard on the song. However, when I went downstairs to record it, I found out I heard the whole song wrong and I was so embarrassed. I said, “I’m so sorry, I just heard this whole other song, but you really ought to hear this.” So Black Francis said, “Well Paz, I think you should sing on this composition.” And I said, “Okay, but only if you write the lyrics.” And he said okay, but he asked me what to write about.” I said, “If I’m going to sing anything on this record, I’d like to give a tip of the hat, a thank you letter to Kim.” So he went upstairs and the next morning he had the lyrics. It was the last song we recorded on the record.
You have an impressive resume of your own, but to go in and be part of a band with such a venerable history must be somewhat intimidating, no?
It’s a band that deserves to keep running, and I was honored to be asked to help keep it running. In the process, the relationship kept growing. I had to be ready for anything that’s thrown my way. To be prepared meant to really listen for the past three years, with headphones every day, just listening to the Pixies and catching up with their history to the point where just making the record seemed fluent.
How long did it actually take you to learn the band’s repertoire at first?
Just to listen to every one of the songs once was three and a half hours. Just to hear everything just one time! So to listen to every song twice, it took seven hours. It took a lot of hours of listening to get through it. It took about three weeks of nonstop listening before my first rehearsal. I really had to pay attention. I’d go to a restaurant and listen, or I’d listen while I was cooking, and practically everywhere I went… I wouldn’t stop listening to it because every minute mattered. (laughs) And then we started rehearsing.
And how long did it take in those initial rehearsals to get you up to speed?
The first real rehearsal we did when all of us together was to make a B side for the song “Indie Cindy.” We didn’t even rehearse any of the older songs. So it gave me confidence knowing that they had confidence that I would know the songs. But, I was quite nervous because we hardly rehearsed for the first show. I guess they figured, “She’s fine, because we had all these shows ahead of us, and let’s just have fun.” We mainly spent our rehearsal time recording a song called “Woman of War” which was the B side of “Indie Cindy.”
So all the listening paid off.
You had to step into some big shoes replacing Kim Deal, What was that like?
There’s something really fun about being the new kid. It also gives you a bit of outside perspective. It seems like a new and refreshing time to have a new kid around. It’s been a total honor to be part of the band, and I have so much respect for what Kim has done. Hopefully, our shoes are kind of the same size. They seem to fit pretty well at least.
Have you had opportunity to speak with Kim? Did she give you any kind of briefing on what to expect? Did she say anything to you when you joined the band, any words of advice?
Only in my dreams. And I mean that literally. She would come visit me in my dreams and it was really helpful. I never met her personally, but I have felt her like a phantom in my heart as part of this journey.
There was another Kim that toured with the band between, Kim Shattuck. She toured with the band and then left. Did they ever tell you why that didn’t work out?
I believe her journey was quite short. I don’t know much. They were trying to figure out what would work, and I don’t think it worked with her for whatever reason. I think she’s a fine player. Sometimes it’s just more of a chemistry. I don’t really know what happened.
So how did you get the call?
In 1997, I got a phone call for my first gig from Joey Santiago. He had a side project called the Martinis. I was so excited. “Joey Santiago is calling me! Joe from the Pixies, and I’m a nobody. He heard from somebody that there was this kid who plays bass. I was just playing around in L.A. and he gave me a call. I auditioned for the Martinis and I did this little tour of California, up to Portland. We parted ways, and I started playing with some other folks, one of them being a band called A Perfect Circle, and when that blew up, I went in my own direction. I didn’t talk to Joe again for about 15, 16 years later until I got another phone call saying we need a new bass player for the Pixies. I went “Wow! I just felt like it was something in my heart that just felt right to me. I really wanted the part and here we are, talking about the record we made.
Was it intimidating? Were you starstruck?
I can’t help but be nervous anytime I do something for the first time, walking in the door, staring at this knob for a little while. Okay, I’m going to turn this knob and walk into my first rehearsal and see what happens, I do remember that I said, “No matter what happens, just have fun and be yourself. Even if just ends on the first day, I can still say I got to play with the Pixies! So just enjoy it. I went in and sure enough that’s what happened. I really enjoyed myself, but I can’t say, I wasn’t on the nervous side. I was playing with these incredible legends.
How many songs were actually demoed for this album?
Maybe, we had twenty songs, but I’m not really sure. There were songs that were floating around that never got flushed out. Some got more flushed out than others.
There seemed to be some kind of air of reflection, especially on the song you co-wrote.
On “All I Think About Now,” because it was different when Black Francis asked me what to sing about, and I mentioned Kim, in the lyric he put a kind of reflection of that. So for that song specifically, I wrote that way because it was specific to that.
In the songs “Plaster of Paris” and “Tenement Song,” there seemed to be some hint of nostalgia. Was any of that discussed in any way?
It must be very gratifying to see these audiences expressing their enthusiasm for this revered band. What’s it like to b e a part of that?
I really love it when I can tell that a father and a son are going to see a show. There’s a feeling that you’re reaching out to both generations. Maybe like a mother and a daughter or a mother and a son. However you want to do the formula. That’s always exciting to me when I see different generations enjoying the same concert.
Photos credit: Travis Shinn
From Uzi, Live Skull, and Come, to her numerous solo efforts, the fiery guitarist has never compromised, making her one of modern indie rock’s most challenging and cathartic artists.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Readers and musicians alike recoil when the word “formula” finds its way into a review, the implication being that the musician has abdicated their creative role to rely on well-worn tropes—either of their own making or (worse yet) another’s. But saying a musician has grown comfortable in their skin, or knows what works for them and sticks to it, gets at the same idea while leaving enough leg room to suggest that imagination and experimentation still fuel their creative fire.
Fire, of course, has never been the issue with Thalia Zedek, whose indelible persona seared itself into underground bands like Uzi, Live Skull and, most notably, Come. But by now, with Eve, her seventh solo effort since Come disbanded in 2001, listeners have come to know what to expect from a Thalia Zedek record—and on an album that advocates, at least in part, acceptance as a means of survival, that’s part of the bargain. The Boston stalwart hasn’t altered her style much going solo, only refined it and added the occasional wrinkle. Her influences—Patti Smith and Nick Cave, especially—remain apparent in her songs, but Zedek’s always had too unique a voice to be a mere knockoff—and that extends beyond the smoky, occasionally off-key vocal delivery which she seems more comfortable with as she grows older.
So most of the 10 tracks on Eve (Thrill Jockey) represent what we’ve come to expect from Zedek—extended, slow-burn songs (four stretch out to six-plus minutes) that evolve from quiet viola and/or piano-accented meditations into emotionally cathartic maelstroms built mostly around her biting guitar. The best of these again feature Zedek working with violist David Michael Curry and pianist Mel Lederman, and these explorations of loss, isolation and alienation leave emotional marks in their wake. It’s not as bleak as it may sound, though—there is freedom and catharsis in the acceptance of those human traits, a key element in Eve.
Opener “Afloat,” for instance, ebbs and flows like the metaphoric flood it describes, staccato viola ratcheting up the tension over the churning rhythms until the narrator relinquishes control and floats with the song’s eventual flow instead of against it.
Similarly, in “360°,” Lederman drops Nicky Hopkins-like fills between guitar riffs and the cresting rhythm section while Zedek exclaims, “When you let go, you can see 360, you are free in all degrees,” practically willing it into reality through the music’s urgency. On the skittish “By the Hand,” as Zedek and Curry interplay in fine Mick Turner/Warren Ellis tradition, the narrator recounts an increasingly nerve-wracking dream of being chased through a city she doesn’t recognize, but takes solace in that “I know the streets, and I know where I’m from.”
Zedek’s comfort with her bandmates plays out in many ways, but especially in the time-shift, proggy middle 8s of the sinister “Northwest Branch,” or in the three-minute improvised breakdown that closes out “Walking in Time.” On that song, the LP’s most charged rocker, Zedek declares that “now that the tide has turned and our ship has sailed, we are walking in time”—a tacit admission that with age comes self-knowledge and the wisdom to appreciate the moment (and the music) for the life-affirming service it provides. If that’s Zedek’s formula, it’s one that we could use more of.
Photo Credit: Ben Stas. Zedek will be touring this month and during September. Dates can be found HERE.
Robert Harrison returns with a new album from his old band, but he hasn’t exactly shut down Future Clouds and Radar, either—in fact, both outfits are now inexorably intertwined.
BY FRED MILLS
So there’s a guy in Austin, Texas, who we’ve been tracking pretty much since BLURT got started, and his name is Robert Harrison. At the time, he was fronting a visionary outfit called Future Clouds and Radar (go HERE for my 2008 interview him about the band), but all along, he had in his back pocket his former band, acclaimed ‘90s indie rock outfit Cotton Mather (about which, not so coincidentally, you can spot some of our enthusiasm HERE and HERE, when the band played our SXSW party in Austin).
So a brand new CM album, Death of the Cool, arrived recently, the first proper Cotton Mather studio release in over 15 years. It comes on the semi-heels of the 2012 expanded reissue of the band’s acknowledged classic, Kontiki, and it also marks a decided uptick in Harrison activity that, in addition to DotC, is slated to bring two more CM albums and one from FC&R. They represent his plans to write and record 64 songs for each of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams. Tracks both from the new album as well as digital-only non-album material can be heard now via ichingsongs.com (additional non-album tracks forthcoming).
Meanwhile, below you’ll find the fruits of an interview I conducted recently with Harrison in which he discusses all this and more, additionally weighing in on the current status of Future Clouds and Radar, which despite that outfit’s relatively low profile the past few years is definitely not up on the blocks. As Harrison assured me, “I promise—no more hiatuses any time soon. Really liking this new batch of songs I’m gnawing on!”
For the sake of historical clarity, I’ve added a few questions from my 2008 interview with Harrison in which he talked about his career path that started with Cotton Mather.
BLURT: You disappeared from the music scene for a couple of years after Cotton Mather broke up. If you wait forever and then come back, people say, “Who?”
That’s right. And you know, the place I really noticed was when — Cotton Mather never really had much of a presence in the US at all, but we were known. So in 2002 when I pulled the plug on that, I disappeared for a solid three years before I started making any inquiries; I had started to do some demos and stuff in 2005. I began to put out feelers to labels and to people in the industry and I got not a single response. I didn’t even get a “Yes, send us some stuff…” The only person that responded was Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He said, “Yeah, I’ll listen to something.” Because he remembered, although I knew he’d never been a big Cotton Mather fan so I thought he was a little bit of a stretch. But I was shocked that our currency was just nonexistent.
What’s your take on the band’s career arc? You were operating during a period where, initially at least, there was a lot of expansion of and optimism for the whole indie milieu. Was it a good experience for you?
Cotton Mather was a beautiful experience! Now, when you speak of them, there were really a number of bands within the framework of that. The first band, I’d started my music in Austin as just this guy playing with an avant-garde cellist, and we were playing this angular music that was [laughs] kinda hard to digest! I’m not sure what the goal of that was. But at some point I got a rhythm section, and we were all pretty much beginners except for the cellist. Then one time I started writing this song that was not so obtuse, it had verses, and choruses that were memorable, and people loved it. So I began to change direction and write songs that were a little more timeless and familiar and, frankly, a bit more generous. We retained our quirkiness, but within two years Cotton Mather had pared down to just two guitars, bass and drums, and a little bit more of a traditional garage approach.
The two most important lineups were, one, the first band that recorded the first record, the Cotton Is King record . That’s a poor documentation; it was recorded awkwardly and suffered from a lot of those failings that first records by baby bands can suffer from. We were biting off more than we could chew. And then the last band that toured and did the shows with Oasis, the shows in Europe, was put together to tour on the record Kontiki , although it didn’t record that album. That band was just a lights-out rock ‘n’ roll band, a lot of fun; it was a sledgehammer, that one.
And in between there was a lot of shuffling around. The principal guy in Cotton Mather beside me was Whit Williams. He and I started playing together in ’93, and once Whit got in the group, the real signature in the group became what we were doing as guitarists and him providing the harmony vocals. That gave the group its signature sound for better or for worse — “better,” because it just sounded great; and “worse,” because it could be tagged as retro. And the downside of Cotton Mather was, without meaning to, we were painting ourselves into an artistic corner. We began to be seen as revivalists and that was not what my intention ever was. I thought Kontiki was a very experimental record, but because the way it was recorded on 4-track and ADAT, it gave it this old sound. People loved it, but it boxed us in.
But Cotton Mather, was a fun, fun band. Several bands! Always a good community effort and a lot of laughing.
You reassembled Cotton Mather in 2012 for the Kontiki reissue and several SXSW shows including the BLURT day party at Ginger Man. How were you received that week by Austinites as well as old-school fans with long memories? How did you feel Kontiki was received, overall?
The reception was really sweet. And I mean that in the best way. Our music had touched more people than we knew. Things really took off for us in Europe, and the U.K. in particular, back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and because during that stretch of time we really didn’t have a functioning US label, agent or publicist, we just assumed that not many people here knew about or cared about what we were doing. Beyond our debut record, which was a misfire on all fronts; we had little support or advocacy in the U.S. And so a lot of our fans in Austin didn’t know about us until after we’d gone away. So it I found it quite moving to realize our records had reached more people than I knew.
When we walked into that first “reunion” rehearsal in 11 years no one said a word. We just set up, looked at one another, and I said, “Panama Slides”, and we started playing it as if no time had past. It sounded better than I remembered, because none of us has stopped doing this. I get chills recalling that moment.
So the band has continued to perform periodically as well? What is the current live status of Cotton Mather as well as Future Clouds? You do have a history of taking occasional sabbaticals.
I never intended to take a sabbatical from Future Clouds. I had to regroup after the economic calamities of 2008/9 because our label was one of the many casualties. I needed to tend the home fires and put my full attention on raising my children. There were some personal upheavals in my life which required all my energies be devoted to producing other artists so I could keep the lights on.
In the meantime, I’d written a few songs after turning to the I Ching for guidance. The idea first came to me when I was asked to write songs for someone I hadn’t met—Nicole Atkins—and was just looking for a starting place. After I’d done this a few more with some success I began entertaining the idea of doing all 64 hexagrams as a song journal of sorts. But it seemed so ridiculous and unrealistic. By last fall life had stabilized enough to revisit my own artistry, and so when I realized I’d already written 7 or 8 songs with this approach which had never come out (except for “California”) I decided to go for it. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life kicking myself for not doing it.
We started by finishing up “The Book of Too Late Changes” in November, and have been rolling since. At this point I’m just past the halfway mark in the writing. So to answer your question in a roundabout way about FC&R, my intention is to curate two proper Cotton Mather records from this body of work and one FC&R. They’ll stand on their own as records whether or not you’ve ever thought twice about the I Ching. Then there will be a fourth record of the best material that ended up homeless. Like a B-sides thing. Something tells me that one might be the best? Live performances will inevitably draw from both catalogues since both groups share musicians and are a part of this larger project. We’ll have a few select shows around Austin this fall and likely festival dates next summer. Probably not extended touring until the cycle is complete.
You’ve mention “artistic guidance” in regards to the I Ching—would that be likewise for personal spiritual guidance at times as well?
I’ve had an interest in Chinese philosophy and religion dating back to college. In 1996 we had the opportunity to study a rarefied form of temple Qi Gong training being offered in Austin by a highly elevated master who is also a world renowned acupuncturist. We joked about it as Cotton Mather’s version of our “trip to India.” Dana’s interest was short-lived, but George and I went all in, and later Whit.
The effect of this energy training on what you feel and hear on Kontiki is immediate and distinct. There is a joy, a giddiness and effervescence to Kontiki that I know came directly from where we were at in the training. Later I met someone through Qi Gong who pointed me towards the I Ching, which I’d studied in college, and soon it became a steady companion in my life, helping me through difficult times as well as the day to day.
The I Ching doesn’t tell you how to live your life. It only offers you your coordinates, and shows you that based on those and your present trajectory, what you can expect to encounter. It’s not a religious text. It’s a rich and profound assessment of humanity, advising one on how to best navigate the temporal. And as such it gives perspective on where you are and what you’re presently up against. As artists we are reporting on our ever dynamic psycho-emotional situation, and so reaching for it fortifies my vocabulary. Emily Dickinson said as we age “the beauty steals inwards”. As artists in order to stay fresh and current we can’t try to write about the same things we wrote about when we were 23. The journey, if you’re fortunate, gets richer, deeper and better. I’m only using this as an artistic framework for documenting my experiences.
As you note, there is some personnel overlap between CM and FC&R for the proposed four-album project. When we talked back in 2008, you observed how CM was perhaps a bit more of a “dude-like” enterprise whereas you felt FC&R implied something more along the lines of a “community.” Has that perspective shifted any since then?
Well, it’s all now running along that idea of community we talked about in 2008. Both bands have been loose collectives, sharing many of the same personnel over the years, and I’ve been the constant. These are my closest friends and they are thankfully very patient with me. I’m really lucky to have them. On these first 25 songs the principals have been myself, Whit Williams, George Reiff, and Darin Murphy. We’ve also had great contributions from Dana Myzer, Josh Gravelin, and then both Kullen Fuchs and Hollie Thomas from FC&R- and a lot of other guests as well. With this much material sometimes it just comes down to who can come over that day.
What, then, in your mind would make one track get assigned a CM credit and another FC&R? Is there a philosophical/aesthetic dividing line? Certain songs like “The Book of Too Late Changes” and “Close to the Sun” are definitively CM tracks to my ears, although a couple others might’ve been released under the FC&R name and I wouldn’t have questioned it.
There is definitely some aesthetic overlap on the eponymous FC&R debut. I think “Hurricane Judy” for instance would sound at home on a Cotton Mather record. But as a rule I think there is a familiarity and immediacy about Cotton Mather records, whereas on an FC&R record anything might happen at any time. Both push melody to the fore, but FC&R is more about exploration. It’s dreamier and weirder. When I first started playing music in Austin I was aggressively, and Unsuccessfully, avant-garde—extremely raw and grating. FC&R allows me to reclaim that interest but blend it with something more refined and melodic.
Sometimes it’s about what material goes well together. As a whole though, this record is far more melancholy than anything Cotton Mather has released in the past. But that’s where I was at in my life. If you want to reach back for touchstones, it’s far more like Pet Sounds, or Sea Change. I like records that aren’t afraid to get reflective.
You released two Cotton Mather singles after the Kontiki reissue, “I’ll Be Gone” and “California”—wasn’t there supposed to be a full California album in 2014, however?
I’m not sure where that idea originated. But there was an attempt to track some more material around that time and I was feeling optimistic enough to suggest a new record was on the way. I didn’t like what we were getting, by and large, so I walked away from it. Sometimes my ideas are a little unrealistic.
As of this writing, how far along are you with the 64-song project, and are the plans to release everything on physical media, or will some remain digital only? Do you feel like you’re on track with whatever mental schedule you envisioned? Or do you ever wake up in the morning and sayto yourself, “Shit, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew…”
Everyday I wake up and say that but I probably say “God help me” instead because I don’t want to bum myself out first thing in the morning. Part of announcing it was to make sure it actually happened. But yes. We’ll probably take a recording break until after these September shows but I’ll continue to write and dream. I’m hoping this fall we can knock out another 15 or so tracks, and if that happens I’ll consider it on target. It’s largely down to the resources. If we are able to bring the second CM record out next Spring, we will. And another later in the year. So far we haven’t released anything I’d hesitate to put out physically—eventually.
One song in particular caught my ear, “The Life of the Liar,” which relates to the I Ching’s Hexagram 6, “Contention or Conflict.” And then on your blog, where you offer a song-by-song commentary, you have a photo of Richard Nixon and the notation, “Suddenly I love Richard Nixon and need him more than ever.” As a lapsed Watergate buff, I find that intriguing. Discuss, please.
Well as I point out in the commentary, I remember the delight my parents took in hating Nixon. He was such a perfect villain. But he was a villain who moved within the traditional rules of villainy and right now we have someone trying to rewrite all the rules and upend democracy. Nixon appears so benign in retrospect. Of course he was anything but, and it is the cynical legacy of his crowd that created the mess we are in today. One party is actually attempting to govern, for the most part, and the other just reacts to
preserve some bygone sense of what this country “used to be” But the point I’m making in the commentary is that the dark side of contention is that our opposition emanates from our own ego’s desire to be a Knight in shining armor. So it’s easy to get lost in the conversation … Like I just did… again.
Any other tracks you want to draw people’s attention to in particular?
Well, I prefer people make this discovery on their own, but since we have less time than ever to explore new terrain as fans, I’d like to point to the IChingsongs.com website. It’s the larger, fuller work unfolding, and not quite like anything else. A psychedelic portal ! Some fans I’ve spoken with assume that this is some esoteric mumbo jumbo. You know, the kind of barely comprehensible stuff Pete Townsend would carry on about when I only wanted to hear the songs. It’s not. The commentaries, aren’t me explaining the songs or pontificating. They’re little, reflections, writings and observations, related more to the readings than the songs and they’re a part of the work. And it gives you something cool to look at while you listen.
And mostly—there are a lot more songs there that haven’t been included on this first record. I was working with a session keyboardist who’d heard of the project. And after we cut a new track he said, “Hey man, that was some bad-ass rock n’ roll.” I said “You look surprised,” and he replied, “Yeah cause when Lars told me about this project, I figured it was gonna be some kind of Kitaro shit.” So that’s the downside of this undertaking. Lots of people ask for the check when they think you’re about to proselytize or beat them over the head with your grand philosophy. I’m just an artist and this is my latest undertaking. It’s happening now, and who knows whether it’s ultimately going to work. I don’t. But if the train derails it could be an amusing spectacle. Don’t just wait for the records. You’ll miss half the story.
As for individual tracks, I’m partial to “Candy Lilac”, because we cut it live to tape, vocals and all. I overdubbed a keyboard, vocal double, and Whit a guitar double in spots—and it was done very quickly. That’s what we sound like. Also “Queen of Swords.” I recorded that with Lars Goransson, who has helped me a lot with this record. We did it almost all in one night so it’s very focused. The next morning I added the xylophone and classical guitar. I like recordings that are made quickly.
As an aside, Google the name DeWitt Finely and read his Wikipedia entry. It’s central to the record, the cover art and of course the song. No one has bothered to do that and it’s interesting.
Lastly, the album is slated to come out on white vinyl on Sept. 9. Would this be your first full-length project to be released on vinyl?
This is our first vinyl release since the 1993 single “Payday”—which sounds so much better than the version on Cotton is King. I’m glad to have a later vinyl release date for DOTC because we’re able to build the release parties around it, and given how busy I’ve been writing and recording, I need time to remember how to be a live performer again. All records on vinyl henceforth!
Photo credit: Valerie Fremin. Harrison can be found at multiple kiosks on the web:
The Blurt braintrust attended the 2nd annual Wrecking Ball Festival took place this past weekend (August 13 & 14) in Atlanta, and a good time was had by all. Below, read our recap, along with an exclusive interview with the band Big Jesus by Dr. Matti, followed by an equally exclusive yak with Tom May of the Menzingers, conducted by Lt. Clegg.
BY DANIEL MATTI & JEFF CLEGG
This past weekend The Masquerade opened its doors one last time at the original location for the 2nd annual Wrecking Ball Festival. The stacked bill made it difficult to see every band but there really is no complaining there.
With the gentrification that is happening to the area, The Masquerade are forced to find salvation elsewhere. Being at the home of 695 North Avenue since 1988 many bands have found their home inside the club that hosts three rooms. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. All different sizes venue alls.
To give this place the justice it deserves, how about a little history.
The building was created in the late 19th century as the Dupre Excelsior Mill. As the Post-Depression era saw the expansion of the mill in the late 1930s the demand for excelsior was radically reduced. Introduction of foam rubber got rid of the use of excelsior. By the late 1960s excelsior was no longer needed then in 1977 most major mills in the Atlanta are were forced to close their doors.
A year or so later the mill changed into a district that would hold a pizza restaurant that would feature movies and plays as well.
Then in 1989 the mill reopened as the venue The Masquerade. Hosting bands like Van Halen to this past weekend where the Wrecking Ball was hosted inside the three rooms and also two main stages inside the newly created park.
The festival which brought people from all over the United States and possibly the world, (met one guy who had came from England) to see bands in the genre of hardcore, emo, and noise rock. Hosting bands that hadn’t played in quite some times made it appointed to stop at the festival to play. From Rainer Maria, The Promise Ring, Piebald, Quicksand, and Thursday the festival was stacked to the brim.
Friday was the kick-off show with Piss Shy, Big Jesus, and Poison the well playing the upstairs in Heaven. The room was quickly filled up with everyone wanting to get the chance to see one of the few reunion shows that Poison The Well has played this year. Playing most songs of the Opposite of December and Tear from the Red you could definitely tell the show was a real crowd pleaser.
The next day the official festival would kick things off as Big Jesus from Atlanta. The more they played the more you could tell festival goers who were just walking through the gates gravitated towards the stage to check them out. From then on the festival would utilize the two outdoor stages and the other three stages in the Masquerade.
The crowd was pummeled by the heat which led to a lot of people trying to catch shelter under trees and tents from vendors, from Criminal Records who had a meet and greet tent set up, to Smartpunk who had a selection of vinyl for sale. Among a bunch of great local food trucks including the very popular Tex’s Tacos.
Both days were stacked lineups so it was difficult to choose which bands you wanted to see. With the indoor venues proving more difficult with the capacity limit. Within minutes you could tell you needed to arrive to the room a couple minutes before to assure you a good spot to check out your favorite band. From The Menzingers and Touche Amore to Piebald and Gorilla Biscuits Heaven was the hottest spot to catch a band on Saturday. If you left to go check out a band elsewhere you were almost guaranteed to end up waiting in line for a couple minutes to get inside.
As the day started to cool with the night sky approaching most festival goes went to the North and South stages to check out Saturdays closers, The Julie Ruin, Drive Like Jehu, and L7. All three bands delivered astonishing sets. A memorable moment from the evening was The Julie Ruin covering Pedestrian at Best from Courtney Barnett. After the bands finished the outside stages festival goers had the chance to see the after parties hosted inside. Thursday playing their first show in almost 5 years in hell which capacity is a very limited 500 to Piebald and Knapsack playing Heaven. Turnstile would play Purgatory with many others while surrounding venues The Earl, Aisle 5, and 529 would host other afterparties including Deafheaven, Tiny Moving Parts, and Diet Cig. All incredibly hard choices for a fan to pick from any of the shows. (Below: special video of Thursday by Daniel Matti and Jeff Clegg.)
Sunday rolled with the same ferociousness that Saturday did with the sun and the choice of which bands to see. Rainer Maria and The Promise Ring reunited to play the South stage and fans definitely came out to show support. Singing along to every word and dancing with beer, water, and taco in hand. The inside was used to for a good portion of people to cool and see a lot of newer bands including Potty Mouth, Pears, and Foxing that ended up packing out Hell. Closing out the night, most people gathered around to catch Dinosaur Jr., Thursday, and Quicksand. All three bands delivered incredible sets. Especially Thursday, which you could tell fans came out to celebrate the return of the great post-hardcore band.
As the festival came to a close that night and the festivals merch booth was pillaged with fans trying to get their favorite bands t-shirt or vinyl to take home with them so they could remember the weekend I walked across the street and took a hard look at the venue-once was mill. It astounded me that there was so much history in a building that was to be torn down.
One hopes that the venue that will reopen its doors at 1421 Fairmont Avenue in late August will be as welcoming as the historical venue was for a first-timer. -DM
AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH BIG JESUS AT WRECKING BALL
By Daniel Matti
Big Jesus comes from the home of Atlanta, Georgia where they kicked off the festival with a pre-party in Heaven at the Masquerade opening for hardcore veterans Poison the Well. The room filled more and more as the band played grabbing everyone’s attention in the room. To who was this band that was crushing the stage you ask? I sat down with singer/bass player Spencer Ussery and guitarist CJ Ridings the next day as they were the first band playing the official Wrecking Ball festival. –DM
BLURT: So are you guys from the Atlanta area originally?
Spencer Ussery: Pretty much.
CJ Ridings: I was mostly western part of the city where Spencer was northeast and we would meet up a lot when going to mutual shows in Atlanta. A couple years ago we moved down to the city and lived down the street from each other within a mile of the Masquerade.
BLURT: So living so close to the Masquerade on top of seeing a lot of shows here growing up this has got be a big deal playing Wrecking Ball with it being one of the last concerts here at the original location.
CJ: The first show at the Masquerade was probably the first proper show that I went to when I was 14 with 20 other people in Heaven.
Spencer: I started playing bass for a band in high school and we got to play in Heaven which then was the biggest room to me then and of course no one came. (Laughter)
CJ: Both of our old bands played here even before I actually knew Spencer. That’s how it was we would always be playing to each other and 10 other people. I would say that’s actually where we first met in Heaven.
BLURT: So playing with Poison the Well last night were you all excited to play with them?
CJ: Yeah growing up I definitely listened to a lot more metal and hardcore in middle school. So I was very familiar with Opposite of December.
Spencer: Yeah both of those albums Opposite of December and Tear from the Red are great.
CJ: So if you had told me in high school that I would have been playing with them now it would have been mind blowing.
BLURT: So the new album Oneiric drops on September 30th do you all have any big plans for the release date?
Spencer: We booked a release party show but we are actually doing it on October 2nd about a mile from the Masquerade called Aisle 5.
CJ: We got the help of the Masquerade to help co-produce the show for us. Last year we got all of our stuff stolen and Smithe’s Old Bar through a benefit show for us and 99.5X was apart of it as well. Then the Masquerade heard about it and told us to come by and they had heard about all of our gear being stolen and they offered us if we wanted to be apart of Wrecking Ball. On top of that they were able to give us a donation to help us get some gear back. They have been very supportive.
BLURT: So it sounds like Atlanta has a very strong music community and has been very supportive of you all.
Spencer: Absolutely. We were blown away by the response we got. Not even from the people that play music but also from the music lovers. We did a GoFundMe page and we got a great response from that as well.
BLURT: So how were you all put in touch with Matt Hyde who has produced Deftones, Slayer, and many others to help produce the new album?
Spencer: I don’t think he really treated it like work either. We bonded with him really quickly. It was really easy to be ourselves with him.
CJ: That was us just shopping it. We had a couple producers in mind from the label and we made a list and we went with him because he thought he would be a good fit. So we sent him the demos and he wrote us back saying we would love to be apart of it. So that seemed like a good fit for us. Someone who just really wanted to be a part of it.
BLURT: So I got sent a sampler of a couple songs on there and one of the songs on there was The Cure’s “Last Day of Summer” why that particular Cure song?
CJ: It really came from Amazon asking to be apart of this Summer playlist. You can do an original or a cover but it has to have the word “summer” in the title of the song or it be summer themed. I felt like we should do a cover. Not a lot of bands do covers any more. So I was really first drawn to that. So I drew a list with a bunch of songs with the word “summer” in the title and narrowed it down to The Cure song.
BLURT: I really feel like you guys did a really great job covering the essence of that song
CJ: So they already have the ethereal vibe so adding the distortion and dynamic to it made it feel like it translated it easy. We really couldn’t do many other songs, there’s like Summer of ’69 and that’s it.
BLURT: I would have loved to hear that version
Spencer: (begins to sing parts of Summer of ’69) We would have killed that song
BLURT: So recently I saw that you were added to the Good Charlotte tour
CJ: Yeah we’re opening for the whole tour with Set Your Goals, Four Years Strong, and Hit The Lights dropping on and off the tour.
BLURT: That will be playing for almost like a different audience then what you are used to.
CJ: Yeah I so it think it will be a very mixed crowd. It will be a lot of people in their late 20’s and early 30’s there to see Good Charlotte reunite who may have not been out of the house in a long time. But there will also be a lot of teenagers and people in their early 20’s there to see bands like Four Years Strong and Hit The Lights. They will be in that phase of trying to figure out of what they’re still getting into.
BLURT: What’s one of the last albums you listened to that you loved or an artist that you connect with deeply?
CJ: Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, De-Loused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta, Led Zeppelin IV, White Pony by Deftones, and the first Queens of the Stone Age record will always be a huge influence.
Spencer: I felt like I discovered Pet Sounds when I was 19 which sounds like a cliché thing to say but that record opened my head. Which showed me a new way to write melody. Along with the Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Also Slowdive’s Souvlaki. Actually any of the Slowdive material.
Make sure to check out the new album “Oneiric” by Big Jesus out September 30th on Mascot Records and also on tour with Good Charlotte this fall.
Photo of May by Connor Feimster (http://connorfeimsterphoto.co
AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION WITH TOM MAY OF THE MENZINGERS AT WRECKING BALL
By Jeff Clegg
This weekend’s Wrecking Ball Festival was truly a celebration of The Masquerade’s time spent in Atlanta’s old Excelsior Mill on North Avenue and the influence the venue has had on the punk rock, emo, metal, and hardcore community since 1989. It was also a celebration for someone like myself, who grew up not too far from Atlanta, to spend one last weekend at the location where I went to my very first concert (if anyone wants to know, that title goes to Streetlight Manifesto in 2005) and spent a countless number of hours at for the rest of my high school and early college years.
The lineup included the brilliant Scranton-based punk rockers The Menzingers, who are known for their incredibly reflective and nostalgic style of punk. I had the pleasure to catch up with guitarist/vocalist Tom May on Saturday, who had just finished an outstanding set on the Heaven stage, to chat about the venue, their new single, and a shared love for The Bouncing Souls.
BLURT: How many times have you played the Masquerade?
Tom: I’d have to look it up and count, but at least 4 or 5 times.
BLURT: Is there one in particular that stands out?
Tom: Yeah, totally. The most recent time that we came through was with Mewithoutyou, and yeah, it’s just interesting getting used to the same people and staff. The same people working, the sound guys and girls. You can judge your life in those increments like a chapter. It’s like ‘oh, well last time I was here…’ it’s like a milestone. But yeah, everybody who works here is very, very kind, very cool, understanding, open. All the security dudes are pretty cool. One time that we played here, there was an Atlanta hip-hop show going on in one of the rooms, and I just remember these dudes getting super hyped outside the show and freaking out. One of them had a big ass camera with a light on the end of it. The dudes in front were just getting really fucking hyped up. It was really funny. They came out and just pushed me and the drummer out of the way when they were doing their way into the room. It was awesome.
BLURT: So, you guys just came out with a new single two days ago called “Lookers.” It’s a fantastic song, by the way. It seems to be about finding an old photo and reminiscing about the way things used to be. Can you talk a little more about what the song is about?
Tom: Sure! I didn’t write the song. Greg wrote it. But the song kind of carries over a vibe that is what we’ve been into recently. We’ve always tried to write from our life experiences. I just turned 30 years old. That’s old for a punk rock band. You start getting old for your life. It’s not nearly towards the end or anything like that, but you start to become more wisdom-focused and not confusion-focused. So you start to really kind of appreciate and understand things that go on in your life and finally accept the fact that you don’t know anything. All you know is that you don’t know anything. It’s kind of like a very nostalgic point in our lives. That’s what we’ve been writing about recently, just the idea that life is happening and now we’re starting to accept it rather than be confused and worried by it.
BLURT: Will “Lookers” be on the upcoming record?
Tom: I honestly can’t tell you. We’re still sorting things out.
BLURT: What’s the name of the new record?
Tom: It’s going to be called After the Party.
BLURT: Can you say anything else about the record, something general, maybe about influences or what direction you guys are heading in?
Tom: Yeah, totally! There’s no palm-muting on the whole record, which will mean something to some musicians, maybe, and something we used to do to fill in verses. We tried to be as dynamic and interesting as possible with our writing on this record, and we spent a really long time doing it. We wrote it for months and then we went in and did an entire week and a half of pre-production with Will Yip where we sat down and analyzed the songs and thought ‘well, why did we do this here and why did we do that there’ and ‘let’s try this and let’s try that’. We kind of just shaped the songs out to be, well, songs. Whereas we used to just record, and then demo, and then we record the demos in a nicer setting. This time we came in with songs and had the idea that this chord progression, this idea, and these lyrics create a song or a vibe or whatever. Let’s shape it and flesh it out in the studio. This is the first time we’ve done that and it was so much fun, reaffirming, and fulfilling.
BLURT: That’s awesome, man! I’m excited to hear that you guys were excited about recording this one.
Tom: This was the best recording experience. So, I love, absolutely love, Jesse Cannon, Matt, and Jon Low. They will always be some of my best friends in the world and it was always a great experience, but this new experience, I think maybe because we were older and more familiar with what we’re doing. It was just a completely new experience. It’s awesome.
BLURT: Yeah, that’s great. So is there anyone that you’re excited to see here at Wrecking Ball today?
Tom: Yeah, Cold Cave!
BLURT: Oh, cool. That’s actually one of the few bands on the entire list that I don’t know anything about.
Tom: It’s the dude from American Nightmare, I believe. It’s kind of like weird, 80’s-ish, electronic music. Super dance-y, super awesome. I went on vacation in Portland a couple of years ago and was when I think Cold Cave first started, and they were playing a show in Portland and me and my friends went to Bagby Hot Springs. We were just hanging out in the hot tubs and hot springs all day and we got home and were just too tired to go see Cold Cave, and that was one of the biggest regrets of my life. So today I can finally see them. I’m so excited.
BLURT: So, I think maybe three years ago, you guys did a split with The Bouncing Souls. You covered one of their songs and they covered one of yours. How was working with The Bouncing Souls?
Tom: Also known as the coolest thing we’ve ever done.
BLURT: Awesome, man! I bet. I kind of grew up on The Bouncing Souls so that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about the most. I don’t know how that worked out. Was it cool working with them?
Tom: We played a show with them and knew Kate Hiltz, who is their tour manager/manager and runs Chunksaah Records. She is a beautiful, wonderful human being. One thing I notice about getting older is that you don’t have many role models, you know? You don’t have a lot of people that you look up to. You know, like a teacher and shit like that. But Kate Hiltz will always be a person that I look for life and professional advice. She just has a really positive and beautiful grasp on the world. And naturally, (The Bouncing Souls) are also super fucking cool and chill dudes. We played a show with them at a college radio festival in Virginia and somebody stole their bass. We helped them track down the kid. We found him. We ended up becoming good friends with them then and then just went on so many tours. In 2012 I think we went on three tours with them. They ended up becoming really good people and friends for us, and doing the split was fucking awesome. They covered one of our songs! One of my hero bands playing one of our songs! It was so awesome. And Pete (Steinkopf) recorded it. So, their guitarist was the person who recorded their split. Also, I bought his guitar. So the guitar I play today is his old guitar.
BLURT: Do you have any future artist collaborations? Maybe planned, maybe not planned, maybe a specific band you’d like to do something with?
Tom: Yeah! We want to do some cool splits and bring that back, because that used to be a big thing in punk rock before a lot of the digital music kind of changed the nature of the entire thing. But yeah, there’s some bands that we’d like to do splits with and we’re trying to work on it so hopefully that happens.
Note: There haven’t been any announcements yet for the release of After the Party, but you can check out the new single “Lookers” below:
A Midwestern fuzz rock explosion attack – laced with crushing beauty – like you haven’t experienced in… well, figure it out!
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
My life is strange, a continuing to evolve monster, ever bringing good and bad to my door.
See Through Dresses gather around a borrowed rug and a worn couch in my living room, less than 24 hours after I learned of their existence. This is not a hallucination or fever dream; Dresses are a band, not transparent eveningwear for the busy girl about town. The alt-rock indie fuzz four-piece from Omaha, Nebraska, bites chunk out of, kicks and screams at the music of my misspent youth, those glory days of debauchery and no grey hair, just before life and kids thrust adulthood upon me.
STD have ground up the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Matthew Sweet, Husker Du and The Lemonheads, throw in the lavish guitar of Japandroids, Sonic Youth, Joy Formidable with the crushing beauty of Joy Division, The Cure and Portishead, molded into a previously unknown, vaguely similar shape to the world and we have See Through Dresses.
Coupling the coy lightness of guitarist Sara Bertuldo’s voice, her tone and delicate vocal power very similar to that God gave Juliana Hatfield as well as Nina Persson of The Cardigans, with a blistering, tinnitus inducing wall of feedback ala Liz Phair. She fingers the noise perfectly from her battle-scabbed 2011 Gibson SG, its nicks and wear making it seem far older than its years. (Being in a rock band does that, right.)
Next to Miss Bertuldo, a Fender Squire grows from the very hands of one Mr. Mathew Carroll, a wizard of sound and fury. Drawing from the approach to the six-string set forth before him by the likes of Lee Ranaldo, The Glenn Branca Guitar Orchestra, Jack White, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Television’s Richard Lloyd, Carroll thumbs his nose at tradition no, convention in every direction, every turn as he becomes engulfed in his chords, coaxing beauty from the volume, as it grows.
A drape of sound blasts from his amp, covering the crowd in stomp-box flooded wonder. Carroll blows apart the distortion and expectation with the occasional blues leaning firestorm, echoing every chord, shaping it into something mutant, a planned chaos that would make Kurt Cobain blush with pride at his exuberance and love.
See Through Dresses expand their world with every note, beat and rhythm. They easily restrain themselves as a unit when it has merit and need (check out the acoustic work and Mat Carroll’s voice becoming one instrument on the haunting, heartbreaking title track End of days). Lulling the listener into a false sense of security, a rare band that can knock the listener back on his/her heels when they get quieter instead of louder.
Then, on the next turn, bassist Alex Kirts and drummer Nate Van Fleet drive the explosion with unabashed, unapologetic thank-yous to the great fuzz masters of the nineties. The ferrous “Drag Scene” is the story of Clara, an amalgam woman formed by Carroll out of many relationships, it is a song of loss, need and love, a call for a woman to leave and find happiness.
“We definitely love the stuff from the nineties,” Carroll tells me, between pauses, to find just the right words to fill in the blanks, as the recorder runs, picking up everything.
“J. Mascis, Sonic Youth, Blonde Redhead, My Bloody Valentine, Matthew Sweet, we love that all,” he continues. “We wanted to take our influences and play what we hear in our own way.” There is a long difference between flattery through touchstone and straight, no excuse robbery. See Through Dresses are not ones for rock n roll thievery; they use the feedback, sense of adventure and boundary pushing, the sleepiness of shoegaze, to make something to be proud of, to want to show off for love of the music, not to just cut a single and get famous. They are not ripoff artists; they are all artists in the most literal sense of meaning. Sara and Mat paint pictures with their guitars: the distortion waves of color on an endless canvas, each chord a stroke on the landscape; a different tone each time, the guitars making the sky while Van Fleet and Kirts’ rhythm section shake the ground beneath your feet.
See through Dresses are provocateurs in a world where keyboards, banjos, and worn-out 1980s dance beats are considered “genius.” At a time when ego is of more import than substance, it’s good to run across a band that embraces volume, power and bombast over playing a style of music that some so-called tastemaker has deemed cool. It’s as if no one tells these bands that the music most of them create is vapid wastes of time. Will you or I follow the herd? Will I like something because everyone else does?
Not I, sir. I would much rather have See through Dresses than to compliment the Emperor on his beautiful, non-existent robes.
The new EP from See Through Dresses, End of Days, is available now. Listen to it at the group’s BandCamp page.
The arrival of a career-chronicling box set for the Australian combo sets in motion more than just a reappraisal of an influential group—it makes a convincing case for the primacy of “negative energy” in the rock world. Below, check out choice audio and video, along with archival interview material from frontman and co-founder Kim Salmon.
BY FRED MILLS
“The Scientists, like the Birthday Party, were fueled on negative energy—a very negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way. I think the result is intense energy, but rather than force things out dynamically and theatrically like the Birthday Party did, we tend to basically unleash. The momentum is there, and we’re able to pick up on it and let it loose.” —Kim Salmon, 1989
Legendary Australian proto-grunge avatars the Scientists enjoyed—well, maybe that’s an overstatement; let’s just say, “indulged”—a career that lasted, initially, from 1978 to 1987. Co-founder/guitarist/chief songwriter Salmon subsequently re-formed the group in 2006 at the behest of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm to play that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and the band additionally has gotten back together a few times since then for events such as the ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series and as opening act for Sonic Youth.
It’s that initial decade-long run, however, that put the “legend” into the “legendary” for the band, the mid-‘80s in particular cementing the quartet’s reputation as uniquely qualified to shoulder the mantle of “heir to…” such brutality merchants as the Stooges, Suicide, the Cramps, Gun Club, and fellow Aussies the Birthday Party. With this particular lineup in place—Salmon, guitarist Tony Thewlis, bassist Boris Sujdovic and drummer Brett Rixon—the scabbily hirsute, silk-shirt adorned Scientists assaulted frequently unprepared audiences with the demented, unfiltered glee of, yes, a mad scientist, charting paranoia, decay, and bad love against a thundering, howling backdrop of swamp-twang and dissonance.
Admittedly, the group’s name recognition factor may be relatively low in terms of how many rock fans, in 2016, have heard of the musicians, much less actually heard them. But for a certain breed of music lover weaned on the aforementioned icons—that would include Jon Spencer, Mark Arm, and Thurston Moore, who were talking up the Scientists years before either of the latter two had to opportunity to extend their direct support—and tuned in to what was happening Down Under during the ‘80s, it’s likely the name continues to loom large. It certainly does for yours truly, having been smitten early on and obsessively collecting each and every official release alongside numerous live tapes; the ’82 Australian 45 “We Had Love” b/w “Swampland” retains a permanent lodging in my singles playbox, with that epochal B-side also a perennial of my Spotify playlists. (The title of this article takes its cue from a brilliant bon mot Salmon sneers in “Swampland”: “In my heart/ There’s a place called Swampland/ Nine parts water/ One part sand.”)
With the release of a comprehensive new four-disc box set by the astute archivists at the Numero Group label, hopes are high that a long-overdue reassessment by consumers of the band lurks in the wings. Following reissues of both The Scientists debut and the 1983 mini-album Blood Red River, Numero now drops A Place Called Bad, and it’s an essential collection. It breaks up the group’s history into three logical segments: “Cheap and Nasty,” covering the group’s somewhat poppier origins on the Perth punk and indie scene (Salmon had a pre-Scientists band circa 1977 called the Cheap Nasties—more on them in a sec); “Set It on Fire,” the fruitful years when they’d relocated to the Eastern edge of the continent, earning steadily-growing audiences, and ultimate making the pilgrimage to England as homelanders the Triffids, the Moodists, and of course the Birthday Party had recently done with reasonable success; and “When Worlds Collide,” the period during which personnel upheaval, clashes with their record label(s), and just plain bad luck all conspired to bring things to a close, although not without some equally compelling recorded output. The fourth disc for A Place Called Bad, “Live Cuts,” contains, logically enough, 23 live cuts recorded at various venues in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney during 1983, and for any right-thinking Scientists fan, they’re pure catnip. (I should know.)
Included with the box is a thick booklet boasting a nicely-annotated discography; photos (posed; why not live shots?) of most of the various Scientists lineups from over the years; a terrific eye-straining family tree done Pete Frame-style (count ‘em: nine separate versions of the group, plus such precursors as the Nasties, the Invaders, the Exterminators, the Mannikins, the Rockets, and the Helicopters, along with offshoots/members-overlapping-peers like the Hoodoo Gurus, the Johnnys, the Beasts of Bourbon, the Dubrovniks, and Salmon’s post-Sci trio, the Surrealists); and copious liner notes by box co-producer Erin Osmon, who managed to get fresh interviews with Salmon and several other principals. Throw in a remarkably handsome graphic design by Chunklet Industries majordomo Henry H. Owings, and you’ve got a box set guaranteed to prompt a Pavlovian drool among collectors.
Did someone say “drool”? Anyone worth his or her collector salt will have pre-ordered the vinyl edition as well, which replicates said booklet and graphic design in 12” gatefold format, the thick cardboard tip-on sleeve housing two heavy LPs (literally and metaphorically)—which of course means the tracklisting is a distillation of the choicer material contained on the CD box. But assuming you did preorder, you got an advance digital download of the entire thing, PLUS a bonus four-song 7” EP or cassette (!) by Salmon’s Cheap Nasties outfit, pressed on red wax at that, PLUS Cheap Nasties digital-only bonus tracks comprising the band’s entire 10-song demo from back in the day. Somebody please hand me a towel so I can sop up this puddle on my linoleum… I digress…
“The floor was littered with beer cans and bottles of whatever. We got one full bottle thrown—it sailed by my head, missing by about a foot. We had to sneak out of that gig without getting paid, because there were so many people there that really hated us. There was so much hatred. When I say it was common for people to throw bottles at us, I should say we did set ourselves up for it a bit: We tended to work off it, working off negative energy.” —Kim Salmon, 1984
That interview quote (it refers to one memorable Sydney gig in ’83 that found the Scientists opening for the decidedly UN-Scientific Angels), and the one at the top of the page, come from a 1990 article on Salmon and the Scientists that I collaborated upon with Australian fanzine editor David Gerard, who’d kindly allowed me to work in the bulk of a Salmon feature he’d done for his publication Party Fears. Incorporating information from two other equally esteemed Aussie ‘zines, B Side and D.N.A., the story charted Salmon’s journey to date, starting as a teenager discovering the likes of the Ramones, New York Dolls, and Modern Lovers. Listening to some of those early Scientists tunes on Disc 1 now, it strikes me how effortlessly Salmon and his bandmates absorbed their influences: the almost-jangly “Frantic Romantic” sounds like a cross between the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies, while the rowdier “Shake Together Tonight” could pass for a Dolls outtake. And neither “Pissed on Another Planet” and “Sorry Sorry Sorry” would have been out of place in a UK punk band’s setlist (think: Clash, Eddie & the Hot Rods, etc.).
By way of brief digression: Salmon, speaking to me in a more recent interview (2008, when he’d collaborated with the Died Pretty’s Ron Peno as the rootsier-sounding Darling Downs), elaborated upon a number of the artists who have informed his musical sensibilities, many of whom surface at myriad points in the box set’s material.
Explained Salmon, “Some of it’s well-known to people acquainted with my music—Stooges, Suicide, Beefheart, Creedence always come up, especially for the Scientists. But I liked most of the U.S. punk/CBGB stuff—Ramones, Television, Blondie. Before that I liked British rock like Zeppelin, the Stones, Bowie and King Crimson… and when it was okay after the initial punk purges, I liked them again, ha-ha!
“I’ve also liked jazz since I was a teenager, especially Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner have had as big an influence on my music over the years as any music. Of the blues artists, Howlin’ Wolf is definitely the one who I’ve taken the most from by a long shot, although I do like most blues. I have always felt a greater affinity with jazz and punk than blues, bizarrely, even though a lot of people think of my stuff as blues—which it is not.
“But none of this tells anything, really. Julie London’s in there, along with Nancy Wilson, Leon Russell —fuck, when I was a teenager I was a dog for Joe Cocker! — Hank Williams, Lee Hazelwood, Can, Blue Oyster Cult… the list could go on… British folk-rock stuff, like Cat Stevens, Nick Drake and Jimmy Page.”
Turning back to A Place Called Bad: In the band for most of the material featured on Disc 1, it should be noted, was drummer James Baker, en route to the Hoodoo Gurus, and Baker’s pop-punk inclinations no doubt influenced Salmon to a degree. But by late ’82, where Disc 2 commences via “This Is My Happy Hour,” a radical rethink of the group’s sound had transpired, as the band, and Salmon in particular, now sounded aggravated and very much on edge, with the term “happy hour” clearly meant ironically—or simply sarcastic, a sentiment underscored by “Swampland,” which with its metronomic rhythm, T.Rex-on-twang riffs, and Salmon’s part-moan/part-sneer, being anything but optimistic. From there the disc hits peak after peak (or mental low point after low point, depending on how you choose to psychoanalyze the Scientists): a whooping, ramshackle cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Clear Spot,” the malevolent, chiming minimalism of “Set It on Fire” (Salmon never sounded more desperate as a singer), some fetid swamp-blues for “Blood Red River,” the dissonant, buzzing “Fire Escape”—this is all the sound of a band who, true to Salmon’s words, was not just fueled by negativity—the Scientists personified it. Salmon, Thewlis, Sujdovic, and Rixon sound like men on the run and pursued by bounty hunters who aren’t necessarily going to be bothered with bringing their prey back alive. It’s no wonder that by mid-’85 the lineup was turning unstable.
Disc 3 can’t quite match its predecessor for sheer sonic and psychic oomph, but it’s not for lack of trying. Although in places it suggests a band for whom all that negativity was catching up with them and taking its toll, tracks like the Taxi Driver homage “If It’s the Last Thing I Do” (boasting the eternal lines “Sometimes I feel like Travis Bickle/ Just wanna shoot up all the bad that’s lurking in this town,” it’s a twangygrindingsexy sonic tour de force), punk-rockabilly pastiche “Atom Bomb Baby” (imagine Eddie Cochrane backed by Sonic Youth), and the subterranean rumble that is “A Place Called Bad” (it conjures an anthropomorphic drill press afflicted with a brutal hangover and puking its mechanical guts out), all conspire to send the band out on a high note. And trainspotters will want to know that, yes, the cover of John Fogerty/CCR nugget “It Came Out of the Sky” is undeniably great, simultaneously true to the original spirit while still utterly recognizable as classic Scientists. It’s unlikely that Salmon knew what or where “Moline,” namechecked in the song, was, but he chews the word around and lets it slide off his tongue like a man enjoying a particularly juicy bite of prime rib.
The live CD is a welcome addition to the canon, because while back in the day I’d heard plenty of ’83 shows via my tape traders’ network, having these tracks in official, cleaned-up, remastered format is a real treat. Highlights and left-field delights include a version of “Happy Hour” that completely wipes the original studio version for sheer, er, negativity, and “Set It on Fire” almost does likewise, particularly in Salmon’s edge-of-hysteria shrieks at the mic. There are several intriguing covers as well, including no less than three tips o’ the Sci cap to the Flamin’ Groovies (“Don’t Lie to Me,” “Have You Seen My Baby?” and a somewhat muffled, but revved-up and righteous “Slow Death”), a semi-throwaway take on “I’ve Had It” (originally done by the Bell Notes, it was covered by a number of bands during the punk era), and—just to return full circle to one of Salmon’s earliest inspirations—the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” served up sleek ‘n’ snotty, just like mama ordered.
All in all, A Place Called Bad is everything a good box set is supposed to be: a collection that tells a specific story with coherence, precision, and painstakingly comprehensive detail. This is true for both the music and the overall package (did I mention how sweet that vinyl version is?), and if this is intended to be the final word—not counting the latterday reunions of course—then it hits that goal 110%.
Perhaps, then, a similar project might be mounted to chronicle Kim Salmon’s numerous projects he’s undertaken since the Scientists’ initial dissolution in ’87, most notably the Surrealists. (There was also Tex Perkins’ Beasts of Bourbon and the Salamander Jim offshoot, the above-mentioned Darling Downs, Kim Salmon & the Business, a number of solo records, and just recently, separate collaborations with erstwhile Scientists drummer Leanne Cowie, aka Leanne Chock, and fellow Aussie legend Spencer P. Jones. You can find plenty of details, not to mention downloads, at his BandCamp page or at his official website.) When I talked to him in 2008, the Scientists had recently completed a handful of reunion gigs, and as he put it to me, “It’s always possible, given the right offer and person to negotiate things, that there could be more Scientists shows.”
Indeed, both anecdotal reports and the 2007 reunion album Sedition, recorded live at the ATP festival in May of the previous year, offer ample testimony that the group hadn’t lost its formidable live powers. If anything, this was a tighter, more focused ensemble that any of the lineups of yore. Salmon confessed to me, though, ambivalence regarding the revived Scientists cutting a new studio album.
“I do think, however, that the set of conditions that made that band work and evolve have passed on forever and that it would be an extremely risky thing to attempt to make another recording of new material with that band. Having reformation shows has been more a matter of setting things up for just long enough for us to recreate what we did have without it going anywhere. I don’t believe we’d go anywhere good if we were allowed to go on for longer than a short time. I haven’t heard any reformation albums that can convince me otherwise, I hate to say.
“It has been great revisiting what the Scientists did, and it has rekindled something that I can pursue with the Surrealists, who never actually broke up and are, I believe, able to grow and evolve. For me, Blood Red River [Scientists, 1983], The Human Jukebox [Scientists, 1987] and Hit Me with the Surreal Feel [Surrealists, 1988] follow a natural path that I got diverted from throughout the nineties. Anyway, it put me back in touch with what I was trying to do back then, and a lot of ideas that have been mulling over in my head for a decade and a half have just fallen into place since doing the Scientists tours…. [And] the Surrealists have just picked up all the ideas and run with them. It’s amazing. We’re definitely going to do another album and it’s going to follow on seamlessly from Hit Me With The Surreal Feel, which was so far ahead in time compared with anything I’ve done subsequently that it won’t be a step back in time.”
True to his word, Salmon’s Surrealists cut Grand Unifying Theory in 2010, and he has also mounted several brief Scientists reunion tours, including a 35th anniversary tour of Australia in 2015 featuring the group’s earliest lineup and then again a couple of shows in 2015. Maybe there will be more to come? Stay tuned
For the time being, though, A Place Called Bad is a more than worthwhile step back in time. Get ready for some serious negativity—the good kind of negativity.