Monthly Archives: November 2016

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Eric Matthews’ “Fanfare” (1995)


With BLURT’s new feature, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Coming soon: Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems.


 BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?
ERIC MATTHEWS: Here’s what happened. Cardinal was debuting and the first single off the album was in the UK, “Dream Figure” (Flydaddy/Dedicated). And because the A-side was a song I wrote, we thought it would be cool if I wrote the B-side for the next single that would come out here domestically and in the UK, a Richard Davies composition. “If You Believe In Christmas Trees” was the single, and I was sent off to write a B-side, and came up with “Fanfare.” It was a slow acoustic dirge more like the “Reprise” version at the end of It’s Heavy.

Well, after I wrote it, I pretty much pulled a move where I said, “No, I am keeping this one for my first album.” It caused some friction between Richard and I, but I was a selfish prick about it. And frankly, I think it turned out all for the best because of course, it worked well for me—but way more to the point, we got “Say The Words Impossible” from Richard for the B-side, and that is one of the best songs he ever wrote.

Cardinal recording “Fanfare” would not have worked, really, too small a room. I needed Jason Falkner for it to have worked. “Dream Figure,” my only song on the Cardinal debut, I was all alone on it, just me and the drummer. That song took 3 hours to complete recording from start to finish, and that is the rush job that “Fanfare” would have gotten, and my career might not look nearly as good, such as it’s been.

Did it take long to finish writing it?
Not at all. I actually used the same tuning on guitar that I used on “Dream Figure,” and it just shot out of me. The lyrics may have taken an hour, but yeah, it was a quick put-together. The trumpet was automatic, and helped me name the song, whose title has nothing to do with the lyric.


Any idea how your long-time fans feel about it—would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?
I am starting to get the message at this point that people really regard it [highly]; that it was a major sound for them when it came out. Remember, at the time [in the mid ‘90s] the stuff on the radio and MTV was all hard, jagged, and loud. I used elements of that in my production of it, wanted to make it a “rocker.” But something about perhaps the softness of my voice and the blasting trumpets, the vocal harmonies… it’s like Chet Baker made a pop record, and yeah, it seems to have really sunken in for people as a benchmark song. It helped sell the record, where really there are far more meaty songs.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?
Well, not really. That said, when it was all finished and I handed over lots of space for Jason Falkner to play all those awesome moving guitar lines. And just sitting back to how hard we as a trio (Jason, Steven Hanford, and I) rocked, the insane groove of the thing, I did feel as if the song itself sort of got lost in the big mix. So, very late in the game, I got the idea to do that condensed acoustic version of the song “Fanfare (Reprise)” and tack it at the end of the album. I love that I did that—show people the warmth, quiet, and breath of the thing.

Tell me a little about the recording of it—where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
We recorded “Fanfare” downtown Portland, Oregon, at White Horse Studios (gone now) in early 1995. It was recorded quickly; we only did three takes as a trio and pretty much just nailed it. Me on guitar, Jason on bass, and Steven on drums. Vocals took me an hour, trumpets an hour, and Jason an hour of guitar overdubs. I mean, three punk rock guys just laying it down.

Mixing was probably an eight hour affair. It’s all in “post.” No big moments to speak of. My studio environment is pretty no-nonsense. We have fun, but only with the music. It’s all business, everything mapped out and planned to the dime. I am as much executive as I am musical producer. And lucky for me, Tony Lash, my then-production partner was very much like me, a creature of focus and discipline. He made “the band” sound good and we just rocked out. Jason was given the assignment of “lead guitar” and I only told him about essentially filling spaces with movement. I had come to know very well his creative melodic approach to guitar work, especially on [The Grays’ 1994] Ro Sham Bo album. He stepped up and had those melodies at the ready and kicked as—took the song to the next level in my opinion.

At the end of the day, we all looked around and it sounded like it belonged on radio. And the album title came from Jason. We were in the control room listening to a take of the live trio. Jason turned to me and said, “I think we achieved total heaviosity.”

How do you feel about it now?
I feel that the song got people to check out the whole album. That album is what it’s all about. The single is always the bait. And clearly, it worked, people got it, got me. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the song and album, and it came back out, a reissue where Sub Pop and Lo-Fidelity jointly released the album. The reissue gave people an opportunity to get deluxe vinyl and bonus tracks, that whole kind of thing. And best of all, that reissue got me back on track, as I did a deal with Lo-Fidelity, my new champion Jeffrey Kotthoff, signed me to a multi-year deal. I have a single coming out just after thanksgiving and a new album, Too Much World, coming out in February, 2017.

So, you can look back, and Jon Poneman from Sub Pop would say he gave me that deal because of my work on the Cardinal album. But yeah, it’s “Fanfare” that people heard in their cars, at the record shops, on college campuses, etc. Everything starts at that point for me, my childhood smile…





A 20-year musical and spiritual journey culminates in Emil Amos painting his masterpiece, a collection of lush, dark pop simultaneously mining the Portland songwriter’s core influences and freeing him to chart fresh territory.


In the nearly bygone world of albums as artistic statements, a choice cover song could tell you a lot about the record’s original material, too. Acting as a kind of code between artist and listener, the best covers managed to both surprise and make perfect sense, adding to the fuller context of the record.

Hear, for example, the stunning version of Del Shannon’s lost nugget, “It’s My Feeling,” on Emil Amos’ latest Holy Sons record, In the Garden (released on Partisan Records late last month). Taken from the unreleased (until 1978) Home & Away sessions recorded in 1967 by the Rolling Stones’ then-producer Andrew Loog Oldham, the original’s soaring melody highlights Amos’ most melodic and song-driven album, while its unfiltered emotional content gets to the heart of In the Garden as well. After decades battling alcoholism and depression, Del Shannon killed himself in 1990, a price that goes unsaid but certainly not unnoticed here and in Amos’ work in general.

“It’s My Feeling” is, in short, the perfect cover for a nearly perfect record of Amos’ Holy Sons self-analysis project—which for 20 years and a dozen albums has been exploring the Faustian bargain of destroying oneself “to find out what’s at the bottom of this highly efficient, trained, ritualized robot,” as Amos told the L.A. Weekly in 2011. (“Self-destruction comes down to celebrate/Like a lightning bolt to revelate,” he sings here on “Denmark.”)

With a one-man “performed by” credit and only John Agnello’s (Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile) production between messenger and message, Amos opts here for 10 tracks of lush, dark pop, putting aside the experimental touches that adorned the songs on 2014’s The Fact Facer, as well as their druggy, plodding tempos. Also gone is the scathing commentary—aimed inward and outward—of that album, and the desperate sense of loss that permeated last year’s elegiac Fall of Man. In their place comes a graceful set of melodies that mirror the understanding that Amos offers—however illusory—to himself and to us, and that might’ve represented our original Garden bargain.

“I need to put myself down/On the ground again/Refocus the lens/Need to put these prison clothes away/Taking back what the river came and took away,” Amos defiantly sings on “Original Sin” over churning guitars, soaring synths and his signature big percussion. The prison metaphor appears again in the rushing, bass-propelled tempo of “Behind Glass,” but the desire to rid oneself of the hair shirt of self-loathing and sin guilt ties these songs together like bonding cement.

Yet Amos’ songs transcend any simplistic plea for a return to innocence. He’s fully cognizant that the Fall—literal or figurative—fuels the creative spirit. “The pendulum swings and it brings me things/Replacing whatever it took away,” he sings on disc-opener “Robbed and Gifted,” as layers of guitars, piano and percussion stack up and then peel off, leaving him singing the song’s refrain over the metronomic tick-tock of time.

In the Garden delights sonically, deliberately recalling the classic blend of pop, rock and psychedelia of the late-‘60s and ‘70s without turning to the tropes of the era so obvious in the work of other backwards-looking acts today. The album succeeds because it’s a contemporary distillation of those influences and Amos’ own extensive catalog of musical exploration. The acoustic guitar and twangy electric fills on the gently swaying road trip hymn “Denmark” recall Amos’ late-‘90s/early-‘00s work; “Double Negative” has a sinister feel worthy of the mysterious songs that Grails—for whom Amos drums—conjures. Additional dreamy guitar lines turn the bluesy riff that drives “Pattern Gets Cold” into an Obscured by Clouds-era textured gem, while “Too Late” taps into that late-60s Del Shannon vibe to create a mournful ballad where “freedom’s just a word that you don’t need to understand.”

That consciousness of what freedom implies is both gift and curse, made plain in the LP’s gorgeous closing title track. “Arguing with nature, when you know you will be wrong,” may be a fool’s errand—singing “Satan’s song,” as Amos suggests—but it’s inevitable in our fallen state. As the guitars and keys swell into a symphonic catharsis worthy of those late-‘60s and ‘70s classic LPs he reveres, Amos acknowledges that “when we begin to dissect the garden/It shuffles all the cards/And we break into a thousand shards.”

It’s best to stay naive and grounded in the moment, Amos finally warns us. But it’s unlikely to play out that way as we struggle, like Del Shannon and Amos—to trust our feelings over our reason. We can at least console ourselves, though, with the salve of beautiful music like In the Garden—a reminder of the idyllic state we yearn for, whether it ever existed or not.


TAKE MY HAND: Roisin Murphy


Onstage at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto on November 2, and promoting her recent solo album, the erstwhile Moloko singer reached out and touched—literally and figuratively—a clearly enthralled crowd of adoring fans.


Touring in support of her 2016 album, Take Her up To Monto, UK songstress Roisin Murphy has come and gone, and it was like a living reverie. Her exceptional musical career began in 1993 with Moloko, a captivating band that merged dance, electronica, and jazz to create several catchy, acclaimed releases before disbanding in 2003. In addition to their well-crafted music, lead singer Roisin Murphy’s artsy, quirky, strange, and infectious stage presence, combined with her powerful yet simultaneously genteel vocals, did not go unnoticed. Murphy has since brought her unique style to her solo efforts and, like her fashion sense, has morphed each release into a different sonic landscape, continually forging a unique sound all her own.


Murphy’s first album, 2005’s Ruby Blue, was carefully constructed by layering a cacophony of sounds to create an organic, jazz-inspired dance album, whereas her 2007 sophomore release, Overpowered, took on a pop-dance trajectory, dripping in electronica and bursting in great songs. It laid out a welcoming mat in preparation for her subsequent strong albums. Then she didn’t release an LP for eight years. Murphy worked on projects with others and released a few singles before suddenly returning in 2015 with Hairless Toys, which was quickly followed by this year’s Take Her up To Monto. In true Murphy custom, these releases were nothing like her earlier albums. Minimal, delicate, yet still fun and polished, Murphy has unveiled her ability to be transformative.

And so it was on the touring for Monto: the rare occurrence of Murphy in North America. On her first solo tour in Canada, the Toronto audience loved every moment; the delighted fans sang nearly every song, and they appeared to be enthralled, utterly delighted in Murphy’s presence.


For the two hour show at the Phoenix, Murphy included fan favorites from her Moloko days in between material from her more recent releases. The band opened with the first track on the latest album: “Mastermind” is a great opener, as the lilting keys gave way to Murphy’s off-kilter vocals that transitioned between speaking and singing. Yet just when you thought the evening would be highlighting her new songs, the band leapt into the upbeat Moloko single “Forever More” and fans cheered and sang along. Murphy was a treat for the eyes as well as our ears as she changed headdresses, masks, costumes, and accessories throughout the evening. Another treat for fans was the presence of Eddie Stevens, the keyboardist, producer, and composer who has collaborated with Murphy since the Moloko days. It is his tradition to grace the stage shoeless, and he danced in bare feet as he effortlessly controlled multiple devices.

Murphy herself danced, stomped and sashayed about the stage in between singing to the audience and the occasional fondling of her bandmates (everyone laughed at her antics). Making sure she interacted with her fans, Murphy often approached the edge of the stage and reached out to shake hands; one lucky gentleman who stood near center stage was the frequent receiver of her attention as she would lay on the speakers, stretch her arm, and hold his hand while she sang. A photographer’s dream, Murphy’s artful display clearly dazzled the fans. At one point she wore a beautiful, large, white gown and accessorized it with a miner’s helmet that had a flashing strobe light. She switched between multiple head pieces: from a mask with two faces to one with a Pinocchio nose to a crimped, black ball reminiscent to a ‘60s sci-fi helmet to a piece with flowing, red streamers and a red/white bobble at the top of her head. After close inspection you could see it was actually a sideways Ronald McDonald head.




And during these many visual phases, she and the band played on, effortlessly. A quintessential Murphy song to perform, “Sing it Back,” was performed before the encores,  reworked but still as catchy as the original studio version, and as Murphy sang the words “sing it back to me,” the concert hall erupted into the next line and commenced an organic call-and-answer moment.

Though her mic this evening could’ve been better—when she chatted with the audience between songs, she could not be heard too clearly—the crowd did not seem to care. Fans knew all of the songs old and new, with perhaps the exception of closer “Pure Pleasure Seeker” from Moloko’s 2000 album, although select fans were clearly familiar with this high octane track.





Now that the two hours of singing and dancing was officially over, the audience cheered and applauded loudly while Murphy again made her way to the front of the stage. This time she walked the entire edge to shake hands one last time, and as she climbed over a speaker to reach the fans at the far right corner, people rushed forward enthusiastically. Murphy took her time, and strongly held as many hands as she could before leaving the stage for the final time. What a strong grip.

Forever More
Dirty Monkey
Dear Miami
Tight Sweater
In sintesi
Tatty Narja
Gone Fishing
Evil Eyes
House of Glass
Ten Miles High
Sing It Back

Pure Pleasure Seeker



Ed. Note: With the recent release of The Out of Towners by Austin cowpunks the Hickoids, we duly note that the six-song mini-album represents the final recordings of the band’s beloved guitarist Davy Jones. It’s reviewed HERE by yours truly and is highly recommended, particularly if you love your indigenous Texas music. Meanwhile, we thought it appropriate to pay further tribute to Jones and the band by republishing one of our favorite interviews, from one of our 2013 print issues, original title: “TOO ARTLESS FOR ART, NOT ROOTSY ENOUGH FOR ROOTS”. Hope you enjoy.


Hickoids from site

Lurching towards their 30th anniversary and with a long-overdue new album in stores, the legendary Austin cowpunk combo may be older and wiser—but they still don’t give a fuck.


From the vantage point of 1987, no one would’ve deemed the Hickoids built to last. Their squalling, beer-logged collision of punk rock and degenerate country was the raw embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s quote – later favored by Hunter Thompson—about getting rid of the pain of being a man by making a beast of oneself.


Assuming they showed up to play, the Hickoids could be transcendent arbiters of the low-rent shamble that epitomized mid-‘80s Austin or a spectacular trainwreck of feedback, fisticuffs and junk-flashing that culminated in the ritualized obliteration of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Either way, you got your money’s worth.

Vocalist Jeff Smith and guitarist Davy Jones, the two remaining members from the Hickoids’ classic line-up, don’t recall much about the composition of “Brand New Way” from 1989’s Waltz A-Cross-Dress Texas. Maybe that’s because they were living the low-rent anthem out loud at the time:


Got a brand new way of livin’

Down here in Austin, Texas

Drink Budweiser every day

Show the girls our peckers

Don’t need clocks for tellin’ time

“Hillbillies” on at a half past nine

Got a brand new way of livin’

Not surprisingly, the beast eventually started to eat itself. By 1992, the Hickoids had sputtered into a hiatus punctuated only by the odd reunion show.


“If we weren’t so saturated at that period of time, then we could’ve build it up…,” says Jones now.

“…but we wouldn’t be alive,” finishes Smith. By Smith’s count, 27 people have been in the Hickoids over the years. Three of them, including longtime bassist Richard “Dick” Hays, have died.

Hays, who had heart arrhythmia, died in 2001 at age 45. His legacy is a focal point of Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit, the Hickoids’ first full-length album in nearly 25 years. That’s Hays on the cover, removing a Charlton Heston-style ape mask as he walks along a deserted beach with shuttered San Antonio punk haven Tacoland and a collapsing Tower of the Americas in the background.



Yet for all its veneration of fallen fellow travelers like Hays, Loco Gringos guitarist/vocalist Tom “Pepe Lopez” Foote and Tacoland proprietor Ram Herrera who are no longer around to drive the freak van, Chafin’ is more than a ghost ride. The current Hickoids line-up of Smith, Jones, guitarist Tom Trusnovic, bassist Rice Moorehead and drummer Lance Farley brings extra meat and shelf stability to the original template. From the gringos-gone-awry border misadventures depicted in “TJ” to the roadside marriage counseling doled out in “Side By Side Doublewides,” the Hickoids have somehow managed to channel the raucous spirit of drunk rock through the wizened lens of sobriety.


“We went from hardcore meets hard country to more of a funny punk thing, says Smith. “Now I’d describe us as just a straight-up rock band. Now that everything has a nine-word description, I think it’s more seditious to just call yourself a rock band.” (Below: “Fruit Fly,” from the new album, performed live)


Hatched in 1983 by Smith and founding lead guitarist Jukebox, the Hickoids never quite fit in with all the other chickens. Their first gig was a San Antonio date with Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, but their Salvation Army pearl snaps and garish “Cajun Realtor” outfits confounded everyone from cowboys to skinheads.


“We weren’t roots enough to be in the roots scene,” recalls Smith. “When we first started out, those guys would smoke dope with us and snort coke with us and drink with us, but they didn’t consider us musicians. There was still that divide.

“Then on the other hand, because every song wasn’t 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, we didn’t really fit in on the punk circuit, either. And because we were so wasted, we were too artless for the art circuit.”

As the Hickoids ventured beyond Central Texas, they forged bonds with spiritual cousins like Dallas’s Loco Gringos and L.A.’s Tex and the Horseheads. The latter band figured prominently in one of the Hickoids’ more infamous tour stories, which later birthed the song, “Queen of the BBQ.”


“We were out there in West Hollywood, staying with Texacala Jones at a place she had called Castle Greyskull,” recalls Jones. “We were inspired by whatever liquor and substances we were on to dress up like women and have a drag race.”


Smith picks up the story here:


“We had opened a show for the Butthole Surfers at the Variety Arts Center in L.A. We’d been staying at Texacala’s house all week. After the show, we had a keg party. And we’re just yelling, singing and stomping on the floor and everything in this old fourplex off of Hollywood Blvd. Tex didn’t know that their upstairs neighbor was a sheriff’s deputy.


“So they waited until everybody in the whole house was asleep. There’s probably about 12 people sleeping there. They kicked in the door at about 10 in the morning. I heard them kick in the door. I was asleep with my girlfriend in the back bedroom. My girlfriend and I just played possum. The cops yelled, ‘Alright, get up!’ And Wade Driver, our drummer at the time, is covered up in a sleeping bag. They’re poking him with a nightstick and they told me, ‘Get your friend up!’ And Wade said, ‘I’m not getting up until you quit poking me with that fuckin’ stick!’ I said, ‘Wade, get up!’ So he gets out of the sleeping back and he’s wearing one of Texacala’s red lace dresses.

“Me and my girlfriend are naked and they’ve got us all with our hands behind our heads, on our knees, with their guns drawn. They’re saying, ‘You think you have rights, but you don’t have any rights. This is Los Angeles and we own Los Angeles.’ Then they left. Nobody got arrested. They just harassed us.”

Then there’s the gig in Athens, Ga. where the only two audience members were R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Jones’ dad. And the drive to a Fourth of July date in Dallas with the Loco Gringos where a country cop ticketed Jones for not wearing a seatbelt while overlooking a felonious cache of psychedelics. And the “12-haybale” show during SXSW that made much of Austin’s Sixth Street resemble a high school ag fair.


The weight of expectations fostered by such war stories isn’t lost on Smith and Jones. It’s part of why Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit—which the band first tried to record back in 1989—took so long to materialize. A 2008 version of the album was scrapped right as the master went to the pressing plant.


“When I listened to it… I won’t say that I cried, but I was about to cry,” Jones remembers.

“I think a lot of it was that we were maybe trying a little too hard,” adds Smith. “It’s a difficult tradition to maintain when you’re known as a drunk rock band and you get sober but you want to remain true to the band and have a humorous element to it but still be true to yourself and not just go for the layups on the songwriting.”


This combination of humor and weight is evident throughout the album’s 10 tracks. “You Knee’d Me” builds a bumper sticker punch line into a yowling slab of grizzled balladry. The R-rated ribaldry of “Stop It (You’re Killing Me)” flowers into a seven-minute rawk anthem. Loose ends are nowhere to be found.


Now coming up on their 30th anniversary, the Hickoids carry the cowpunk torch with the integrity of men on a mission. They’re living down their onetime reputation as the “no-show ‘oids” while simultaneously educating a new generation on what happens when the New York Dolls get crosswise with George Jones. They even made it across the pond this spring, braving unseasonably cold weather to play 10 European dates in 11 days.

(Below: Hickoids’ current lineup of, L-R, Tom Trusnovic, Jeff Smith, Davy Jones, Rice Moorehead, Lance Farley; plus photos of Smith and Jones)

Hickoids 1



“In a lot of these punk clubs, playing to young kids over there in places like Germany, their definition of punk is a lot more modern,” says Jones. “They’re dressed in Misfits T-shirts because that’s what they know. So it feels like we have to school them on what our definition of punk rock is. Guess what? You’re allowed to do any fucking thing you want! You’re allowed to dress any way you want! It doesn’t have to be a Misfits T-shirt!”


Hickoids Euro poster

Photos credit: Maurice Eagle.

SOUL ANGEL: Sharon Jones


She gave the people what we wanted and a whole lot more. R.I.P.


The music world awoke this morning to the sad news that we’ve lost Sharon Jones following her well-documented battle with cancer. Knowing that she’s now in the proverbial better place is small solace, of course, because anyone who ever saw her perform with the Dap-Kings knows what a monumental, dynamic performer she truly was. The loss is immense. As Pitchfork noted today, her passing has clearly not gone unremarked—and from all points on the musical spectrum—among her peers:

Sharon Jones. Thank you for everything.  — St. Vincent (@st_vincent) November 19, 2016

My deepest condolences 2 the family of @sharonjones. She was the real deal in this industry. 2016 you’ve been awful  — Chaka Khan (@ChakaKhan) November 19, 2016

So sad to hear about the passing of my friend and the soulful, dynamic singer I loved performing with, Sharon Jones  — John Legend (@johnlegend) November 19, 2016

Sharon Jones had one of the most magnificent, gut-wrenching voices of anyone in recent times. She’ll be so missed. Too sad x  — Mark Ronson (@MarkRonson) November 19, 2016

My heart is broken. This year is so sad. Sharon Jones, thx for inspiring me for so long. Your voice/energy will echo in my heart forever.  — hayley from Paramore (@yelyahwilliams) November 19, 2016

Rest In Peace to the beautiful black queen Sharon Jones  — Leon Bridges (@leonbridges) November 19, 2016

damn. RIP Sharon Jones.  — Lower Dens (@lowerdens) November 19, 2016

So very sad to hear of Sharon Jones’ passing. An incredibly strong person and a magical performer. Heartbreaking.  — Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) November 19, 2016

One of favourite artists and her music introduced us to a scene of funk/soul that has changed our lives. r.i.p. Sharon Jones.  — badbadnotgood IV 😉 (@badbadnotgood) November 19, 2016

Sharon Jones was one of the nicest musicians I ever met and an awe-inspiring talent. Rest In Peace.  — Okkervil River (@okkervilriver) November 19, 2016

We’ve still got our memories and plenty of musical documentation, from the band’s numerous records (here’s a review of the album I Learned the Hard Way we published several years ago) to sundry live recordings (such as this one from 2010) and live videos (such as this complete concert from the Olympia in Paris).

BLURT has frequently covered Jones, most recently via ace photog Todd Gunsher’s review and photo gallery of the Dap-Kings live in Raleigh 7/18/15 – the image at the top of the page and the one below are among the pics he snapped:


And back in 2013, shortly before the world learned of Jones’ cancer diagnosis, she and the band were part of the Daptone Records’ Super Soul Revue at the Moody Theater in Austin during SXSW – the BLURT crew was definitely on hand to catch that performance, as the photos below, by Susan Moll and Tony Landa, testify:



I was fortunate enough to see her at the Moody show, and in my notes from the evening I observed that whether in a small club or a big theater, Jones would the stage, grabs the audience from the get-go, and not let loose for the duration. Here’s a European concert featuring the Super Soul Revue, which included Charles Bradley, Antibalas and the Sugarman 3, with Jones’ set starting at the 43 minute mark. Whew – an absolute dynamo.

I also got to see her perform early on, around the time of 2005’s Naturally, at a small club in Asheville, NC, and I my review I noted that it was “easily one of the most memorable club shows I’ve ever witnessed. When she strutted out onto the stage, the band vamping behind her, the electricity level in the club immediately skyrocketed, and she proceeded to own the audience for the entire set. There was no doubt among audience members that this tiny woman could kick every single ass in the room.”

By way of digression, check out the group’s Tiny Desk Concert at NPR from last year – it’s a special Christmastime performance that I’ve heard Jones was especially proud of. The confines may have been cramped,  but that voice was as big as the heavens. After that is another broadcast from earlier this year via Austin’s KEXP.

Now I think back to early 2014 when Give the People What They Want was finally released, it having been delayed by the cancer diagnosis. After receiving treatment, though, Jones appeared to be in remission, and the band was able to get the record out and tour behind it. In my review of the album I wrote the following:

She and the band can now concentrate on gettin’ on with the gettin’ on via 10-song set of soulful sonic manna. From the Holland/Dozier/Holland-isms of opening cut “Retreat!” and the stiletto-heeled, girl-group vibe of “We Get Along” to the sinewy swamp-funk of “Long Time, “Wrong Time” and the gorgeous torch-song jazz of “Slow Down Love,” there’s nary a moment missed by the band to demonstrate that Sharon Jones is one of the greatest female vocalist currently operating. 

Well, the only thing that changes for me now is having to make that last sentence past tense, because Sharon Jones was one of a kind. She was not only a proud heiress to a classic tradition, she was also a trailblazer in her own classy way – a “short, fat black woman” (her self-deprecating term, by the way) who suddenly got “discovered” by the music world when she was already in her 40s. Well, guess what? She proceeded to make up for lost time, and never failed to set us all up and knock us down over and over again.

Below, watch the Paris show in its entirety, which was filmed on the Give the People tour. Talk about kicking out the jams – Jones is dancing harder than other performers half her age. And pay close attention to Jones at about the 47 minute mark when she refers directly to her cancer, commanding it to get out of her body and stay out. Which I guess it did, at least for a little while, allowing Jones to complete her mission and go out on top.

Miss Sharon Jones definitely gave the people what we wanted, and a whole lot more. R.I.P., young lady. You earned it.



The Russkies are on a Putin-baiting, talkin’-loud U.S. tour (details HERE, including a stop this week at BLURT’s western getaway), and on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles, they baited pretty much everybody. Check the videos following the photo gallery – if you dare, particularly if the last week was, er, a trying one for you….


Author and activist Carol Hanisch astutely observed that the personal is political—an axiom that holds as much water today as it did in 1969– and there’s no one more familiar with the concept than the Pussy Riot. The world watched, aghast, as its personnel were whipped, beaten, pepper-sprayed and imprisoned for daring to engage in public protest. Russia’s most famous musical dissidents visited the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles on the night before the most bizarre, ugly, sad, painful and disillusioning election this great nation has ever witnessed, a dumpster fire, a slow-motion freeway pileup, a national shame that delivered an even more shameful verdict.

Artist and activist Shepard Fairey moderated the conversation between Maria “Masha” Alyokhina of Pussy Riot; Alexandra “Sasha” Bogino, a reporter for Mediazona, the band’s own independent news service; Sergey Smirnov, Mediazona’s editor-in-chief; and Allison Wolfe, who cemented her place in riot grrrl immortality as a member of Bratmobile. Wolfe, now a student of journalism and vocalist for the east-L.A. indie foursome Sex Stains, voiced her admiration for her comrades’ many sacrifices.  “I think a lot of us take for granted what we don’t have to deal with,” she admitted. “It’s not like any of us riot grrrls ever thought we were at risk of going to jail.”

Ticketholders griped about the 45-minute delay; it was a work night, after all. The event was billed as a “conversation” so Pussy Riot didn’t perform (we held out hope until the very end, though.) The questions posed them were rambling and trite, and there was nary a balaclava in sight.  For an event for a group that released a single called “Straight Outta Vagina,” there was sure a lot of dick talk: Artist Petr Pavlensky, who aired his grievances with Russia’s political situation by nailing his giblets to the cobblestones paving Red Square; and the giant phallus that someone painted on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg. (It remained fully erect for four hours.)

Smirnov presented the trailer for the forthcoming Pussy Riot documentary Act and Punishment and discussed the dangers Russian journalists face, which are legion: kidnappings, car bombs, imprisonment and worse.  The President-elect’s festering animosity towards the “dishonest” media, coupled with his bromance with Vladimir Putin, is more than enough to give the American press pause. As Alyokhina said, before ending the night on a vote-for-Hillary note, said, “I feel that I need to give support, which I received, to other people who need it.” At this, a time of unprecedented hostility towards women, the conditions are ripe for the emergence of fourth-wave feminism. As America trades one national nightmare for another, we forecast a new crop of Pussy Riots to set free the rage of civil anger. After all, patriarchy is boring.


Below: Sasha Bogino and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, plus Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile/Sex Stains):




Petr Pavlensky and his nutsack:petr_pavlensky

Screen shots from trailer for new documentary:






Latest Videos:




Photo Gallery: Guided By Voices 11/09/16, Atlanta


It was a cheery, beery night at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse – were you there? Our Georgia man on the ground John Boydston was, and lived to upload it. The tour concludes tonight in Carrboro, NC, but  will pick up a pair of year-end spots in Philly and Brooklyn next month. Dates here.
















HE’S YOUR MAN: Leonard Cohen


At ease with his past and looking forward to the future, Leonard Cohen’s present is shaping up to yield his busiest year ever. (Ed. note: this story was originally published in the June 2007 issue of Harp magazine.)


When people speak about Leonard Cohen, their comments often take on a decided tone of reverence. “This is our Shelley, this is our Keats,” Bono is seen saying in Lian Lunson’s I’m Your Man, the acclaimed Cohen documentary/tribute concert film. It’s a sentiment you’ll find repeated throughout, as when Bono’s U2 bandmate the Edge notes, “He’s got this almost biblical significance.” Over the course of a career that’s produced notable recordings like “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “The Future” and “Hallelujah,” admiration for Cohen’s work only seems to increase, generation after generation.

But the man who inspires such devotion is himself soft-spoken and low-key in person, not to mention unfailingly courteous and polite; prior to an interview at his daughter’s antique shop, Boo Radley, on Melrose Avenue in LA, he pauses to pick up my fallen coat, murmuring, “Oh, don’t put this on the floor. It’s a beautiful red.” And while not given to extemporizing at great length, or over-indulging in self-analysis, once he’s settled in a chair near an old manual typewriter bearing a notice reading “Not for sale,” Cohen is relaxed, gracious, and quite willing to talk.

As it happens, there’s a lot to talk about. In addition to I’m Your Man, now out on DVD, this year also sees the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, and Columbia/Legacy’s reissue of his first three albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room, and Songs of Love and Hate (reviewed in the May Harp). In June comes the world premiere of Book of Longing, a concert piece with music by Philip Glass, based upon Cohen’s poetry book of the same name, published last year.

But right now, Cohen’s most interested in talking about another project, the closest thing to a new album from him since 2004’s Dear Heather.


Blue Alert is the major label debut by his girlfriend, Anjani Thomas (who’s solely credited by her first name on her records), and indeed, at it’s her music you hear playing on the site, not his. The lyrics are by Cohen, with Thomas composing the music and  accompanying herself on piano. It’s the kind of highly atmospheric, jazz-influenced album you can imagine being played in a cocktail lounge, the kind of record you don’t want to play until after sundown.

“Yeah, it’s good for solitude, it’s good for quiet moments,” Cohen says of the record, as his eyes catch sight of some antique cocktail glasses on a nearby table. “It’s good with a drink. I wouldn’t mind filling one of these with a martini, for instance. You didn’t bring a martini, did you?” (Alas, I didn’t.)

Thomas, who hails from Hawaii, first worked with Cohen in 1984, as a backing vocalist on Various Positions, and the subsequent tour. Initially, she was not very familiar with Cohen’s work. “I’d heard other artists covering his material,” she says. “I really liked Roberta Flack’s cover of ‘Suzanne.’ But he was one of the few artists that never came to Hawaii. I had no idea of his prominence until we got to Europe [on tour] and I saw the reception he received, which was overwhelmingly gracious and warm and reverential. That made me sit up and go ‘Who is this guy?’”

But after two more albums (1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future), Cohen took a break, retiring to the Mount Baldy Zen Center, where he eventually was ordained as a Buddhist monk. Thomas took her own sabbatical from the music business at the same time. After years based in New York City, working both as a solo artist and with others (including Carl Anderson and Osamu Kitajima), jobs had become scarce and she relocated to Austin. “I always liked Texas,” she explains. “And I said, ‘If I could have some kind of normal nine-to-five life I might as well go to some place that I like, and I really liked it there.’”

After five years, inspiration returned, and Thomas began working on her first solo album (perhaps not coincidentally, her relationship with Cohen began around the same time). “I’d never had a record deal, and I thought, ‘Boy, if I don’t do this now, I think I’m going to regret it my whole life,” she says. “So I sold my little house and used the money to make the record.” Anjani came out in 2000, followed by The Sacred Names in 2001, released on her own record label, Lilikoi. She describes the albums as “folk-jazz oriented but nothing approaching the gravitas of Blue Alert. And both of them sold about 10 copies!”

One can see the roots of Blue Alert on Cohen’s Dear Heather, on which Thomas plays a prominent role; his drawing of her adorns the cover, and she performs on most of the tracks, as well as co-writing two songs. “Nightingale,” which appears on both albums, offers a ready means of comparing their performing styles; Cohen’s version, after its à capella beginning, suddenly becomes a countryish romp, while Thomas’ take exhibits a cool restraint, coupled with a smooth, beguiling vocal (interestingly, Thomas arranged both versions).

It was around this time that Thomas found a completed song lyric on Cohen’s desk, and was particularly taken by the opening couplet: “There’s perfume burning in the air/Bits of beauty everywhere.” “It was the most mysterious and visually enticing lyric,” she says, and she immediately asked Cohen if she could write music for it. “I had seen a lot of Leonard’s lyrics and I never had the temerity to ask for a shot at one before,” she says. “I really to this day don’t know what overcame me, but something said, ‘This is so beautiful, I’d love to have a crack at it.’”

Cohen admits he “wasn’t thrilled with the idea” of someone taking lyrics he’d planned to use for himself. “Even Anjani,” he says. “I wasn’t overjoyed, because it’s hard to come up with anything, as you know. And people are always asking me for lyrics, it goes on a lot.” And even after finishing a demo, Thomas remained uncertain about Cohen’s reaction. “I was nervous,” she says. “Now you opened your big trapper! Because he’d never done a jazz tune per se, and I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m really not sure about this.’ But I played it and he instantly brightened up and said, ‘It’s a masterpiece, it’s perfect.’ And I thought, ‘Great, I’ve really got a song that you can sing.’ I thought I would just do some demos and then he would put his vocal on it. And he said, ‘Oh, it’s great, but I could never sing that,’ and I thought, ‘Well, I guess that was a futile exercise.’ But then he said, ‘No, we’ll put it aside. And we’ll see.’”

“I was really impressed by the demo,” explains Cohen. “It was a very different sound. I knew Anjani was a good singer, but I didn’t know she was that good. And when I heard she was that good, I surrendered to the project. Because something really happened to Anjani’s voice. It’s strange. It doesn’t often happen that somebody moves from competence into a unique excellence.”

With Cohen’s encouragement, Thomas trawled through his writings, mostly drawing on unfinished pieces the two would then work on together. “We just sort of edited each other,” she says. “More often than not, he’d have to change the lyric. And once he changed the lyric, I’d know where the music had to go. In ‘The Golden Gate,’ for example, originally there was a line about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. And I said, ‘Can we get some other names? ‘Cause the Fitzgeralds are just throwing me for a loop.’ He didn’t want to rewrite, but eventually he did. And once he did, I went ‘Okay, here it is.’”

The album was co-produced by Ed Sanders (who’d worked on Thomas’ previous records), Thomas and Cohen, marking the first time Cohen’s produced an artist other than himself. “It’s more that I had the power of veto,” Cohen stresses. “Anjani was not convinced that a record this unadorned could please, so occasionally we tried using other instruments. And that’s when my real producer’s activity came in; I would say ‘Let’s try it.’ But when we’d hear it, it would just get in the way of what Anjani was doing. She’s a very fine keyboard player and arranger, so anything we put on top of it obscured the whole moment. It’s quiet! And now it’s hard to find things that are quiet and beautiful. It’s fun to get overwhelmed by a groove and get into something, but this has some very special qualities.

“I don’t know if kids will like it, but it’s not designed for the market. It’s just what it is.”


Philip Glass saw an early draft of Cohen’s The Book of Longing book in the ‘90s, and as Cohen notes, the composer “was very, very interested in it.” At the time, however, both men were headed along different paths. “I went into the monastery, and he had other projects. And then he wrote me and said, ‘You know, I remember those poems. Are you doing anything with them?’ And I told him that the book was coming out and I sent him a manuscript. And he said I’d like to make a song cycle out of it, and I said of course. It was very casual. I just said yes.”

The show, which premieres at Toronto’s Luminato Festival June 1-3 before going on a brief tour, will feature an ensemble of singers and musicians, Cohen’s own pre-recorded voice, and a set based on drawings in the book. “Philip played me the demos a couple of months ago,” Cohen says. “Very very beautiful. But it’s not my position to critique Philip Glass. He’s one of our greatest composers. I think it will be entertaining. But it really is Philip’s project. I’m just delighted that the poems touched him such a way that he felt like producing them in a different medium.”

And while he prefers to look ahead to his next venture (“I’m not a very nostalgic person,” he says in the I’m Your Man film), both documentary and reissues did have Cohen reexamining his life and career, though he chuckles, “I really didn’t look very hard.” Though his first three albums are now considered landmark works, Cohen regards the reissues with a measure of detachment. “It’s a convention of the record companies,” he shrugs. “They put out the early albums again, if they seem to have lasted. And they’ve done a good job with these. But I haven’t really been that involved with it.”

Adding bonus tracks to reissues is another record company “convention,” and one Cohen readily admits he “wasn’t delighted” with: “I thought the albums could stand as they are.” But in the case of the first two albums, the bonus tracks offer some new insights as to how they might have turned out in that they were recorded by different producers than those who ended up working on the final albums. Songs of Leonard Cohen was originally going to be produced by John Hammond, who had a heart attack soon after recording began. And Cohen recorded early versions of “Bird on a Wire” and “You Know Who I Am” (re-recorded for Songs From a Room) with David Crosby. “I just bumped into him,” Cohen explains. “I was introduced to him, I think, by Joni Mitchell. And I said, ‘I’ve got a song, do you want to help me put it down?’ and he said sure.

“And then I don’t what happened, but I ended up in Nashville,” Cohen continues. “I’d bumped into [Columbia producer] Bob Johnston; I wanted to get out of town, and he said Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote ‘Bye Bye Love,’ had a little cabin that he was renting for 40 dollars a month, it’s pretty, did I want to go? I said yeah, so I moved down there for a couple years. If I’d stayed in Los Angeles perhaps I would’ve worked with David Crosby. But I really wanted to get out of town. Those are the paths you take. I didn’t know that part of the world, Tennessee. I bumped into people I would never have met under any other circumstances, the cowboys and people living out in the country.”

Those who have worshipped the albums for 40 years might be surprised to learn that Cohen remains critical of his own performance. “On the first record I thought the voice was all right,” he says, “but something was happening on the second album with my voice; I didn’t like the sound of it. On the third one the voice was a little bit better. Now, I feel more charitable to the little guy who was trying to put it together. And the songs are good. People liked them, you know, you can’t quarrel with that. I’m very happy that the records have lasted long enough so that it’s felt that they’re worthwhile looking at, worthwhile listening to.”

And Cohen also notes that the bonus tracks gave him a new perspective on his work. “The song on the first record called ‘Store Room,’ I didn’t really understand it,” he says. “Well, I did understand it, but I guess there was something I felt was obscure about it, that I don’t feel now. I feel that the guy was right on, and I understand why that song deserves a hearing. The recurring line is ‘Just a man taking what he needs from the store room.’ In a way, that’s what’s happening. People are acting with a kind of sense of end days, of final days, of desperation. And they’re taking what they need from the store room. The people that have the store room are trying to lock it up, and the people who don’t have it are trying to break into it.”

The Canadian-born Cohen won’t be drawn into a direct discussion of America’s current political climate. (“I’m a guest here, so it’s not appropriate for me to speak about it, a country that has been so gracious to me.”) But in his understated fashion, a clue to his views emerges when asked how he regarded America while growing up. “Well, Canadians see themselves as more sane, more gentle, more courteous,” he says. “I usually spend a lot of time in Montreal [where Cohen was born], but matters kept me here for the past year or two. I usually spend long periods of time there, and often in the winter, ‘cause it’s very very quiet then — and if you don’t have to wait at a bus stop and go to work in the morning it’s really great! There’s much to recommend the country. Montreal is probably the best city around. And, you know, we’re not at war. It’s a very different feeling. Though actually there are young men and women now on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but not to the extent, not involved to the extent… I mean, it hasn’t ripped society apart yet.”

Perhaps appropriately for a man who’s been lauded for his “biblical significance,” Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions co-produced I’m Your Man, meaning the film was potentially funded by profits from The Passion of the Christ (and Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark” did appear on Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ). “That would be okay with me,” he says. “But I think Lian really put it together on a shoestring. I believe Mel Gibson is a friend of hers, and his name on it I guess gave it a certain credibility.” And he’s amused to hear the film received a PG-13 rating for “some sex-related material.” “Oh yeah, really? Where?” he asks. “Strange, when you consider. ‘Sex-related’ compared to what?”

We decide the “sex” material in question must be Cohen’s drawings, some of which have naked women, or possibly the reference to oral sex in “Chelsea Hotel 2.”

And those anxious for Cohen to record his own work again should be pleased to learn that the film’s concert sequences have inspired him to consider touring in support of his next album, tentatively set for release later this year. “Yes, yes,” he confirms. “I haven’t been out since ’93. The years went by and I thought ‘I’ll never go out again.’ But every so often you do have that itch. You’ve heard that saying in rock ‘n’ roll, they don’t pay you to sing, they pay you to travel. But you forget about that stuff. The actual concerts are always compelling. If you’ve got good musicians, and you’re playing, and people know the songs, and they want to hear them live, it is a wonderful thing. And so I’m drawn to that.”

But pushed to talk about the album now in progress, Cohen again demurs. “Generally speaking, I don’t have anything to say about those things,” he says. “I wish I had something interesting to say. But I’m just plugging along trying to put something together.” Ed Sanders is equally circumspect: asked how the new work compares to Dear Heather, he merely notes it’s “a lot different.” “But the recording’s fun!” he adds. “Leonard and I have a good time. We sit down and we discuss a lot of topical and non-topical things and then occasionally we’re interrupted by a little recording. So that’s the way we work.”

And Cohen also makes it clear he’s not going to be rushed, evincing a thoughtfulness that explains both the lengthy gaps between projects and the care that makes his resultant work so enduring. “I’m not so interested in my own ideas,” he says. “I can trot out opinions like the next guy in a conversation sometimes, although I’m reluctant. When I hear myself talking, I’m not so interested in my opinions. So there’s some other level of perception that is deeper than an opinion. That’s what I find songwriting is about, is to get rid of the slogans, even the clever ones, even the sophisticated positions, and get to feelings and understandings that are just a little bit beneath the radar of opinions or intellection.

“So that’s why it takes a long time,” he continues. Before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I don’t have the conceptual skill to see something and discard it, I have to plug away and write it, and then discard it. Even if it’s good, I don’t like it if it has a slogan. Anything that resembles an easy position, that’s not interesting. So I’m not interested in my opinions, but I am somewhat interested in what I can uncover that is under the opinions.

“That’s where I like to go.”




In 1986, power pop auteur Scott Miller, along with his band Game Theory and producer Mitch Easter, submitted what many fans have come to feel is his greatest album. Above: The Big Shot Chronicles studio lineup of Shelley LaFreniere, Scott Miller, Suzi Ziegler, and Gil Ray.


And if I answer to a different hunger/ From the one I had when I was younger…  – “Crash Into June”

Some people pick a college based on academics. Others want to remain close to–or get as far away as possible from–family. Me, I just wanted to go somewhere that had a great radio station: Northwestern University, home of 89.3 FM, WNUR. The guidance counselor at my suburban Philadelphia high school didn’t think much of this priority, and thought it was especially silly that I wanted to be in a city, like Chicago, Boston or New York. “Once you get there, you won’t ever want to leave campus,” he said. The pull of college life, apparently, would be too much. Why in the world would I want to take a 40-minute El ride to see the Windbreakers open for Richard Lloyd at the West End when there were fraternities?

In high school, I was pretty much the only person who liked R.E.M., a notable enough distinction that, every once in awhile on Facebook, one particular former classmate gives me credit for this prescience. If memory serves–and believe me, it might not–I wore an R.E.M. t-shirt, he asked “What’s R.E.M.?,” and I gave him a copy of Murmur, just like the world had done for me. There were ‘zine writers (shout-out to The Bob and Bucketful of Brains) and DJs and the jangle-head clerks at the Record Cellar on Bustleton Ave (RIP) pointing me forward to new music, even as these new discoveries also took me backwards. I’m not ashamed to admit that R.E.M. were my gateway to the Velvets. I definitely heard the Windbreakers/Rain Parade version of “Glory” (to say nothing of Lloyd Cole’s) before I heard Television’s Adventure. And I almost want to say I knew Game Theory’s cover of “You Can’t Have Me” before the original, but there’s no way that The dB’s didn’t get me into Big Star first.

Obviously, if Mitch Easter or Don Dixon’s name was on a record, I was buying it. At WNUR, this didn’t necessarily make me cool. We had DJs who loved music that was unabashedly pop, but there were more of them who only wanted noise, volume, even the total absence of hooks. Scott Miller was someone that both aesthetic factions could embrace, at least in theory (sorry!): obscure but accessible, weird but catchy, complex but direct. And even more so than Real Nighttime, The Big Shot Chronicles was a dumbfounding rock’n’roll record as well as a dazzlingly clever pop record, with songs that did your head in, both hard (the melodically and verbally relentless “Here It Is Tomorrow,” the epic high-volume hooks of “I’ve Tried Subtlety”), and soft (the woozily gorgeous minimalism of “Regenisraen” and “Like A Girl Jesus”). [Below: Mitch Easter & Miller + Miller & Shelley LaFreniere in Winston-Salem during the making of the record, 1984]



This is where I’m supposed to write about how Big Shot Chronicles changed my life, which is how it’s always felt, at least a little bit. But memories are also lies. My review of the record in the Daily Northwestern had little insight beyond asserting that, in comparison with other melodic indie music of the era, the record was “more than just chimes and rhymes.” I was also needlessly interested in trying to figure out just what Scott was on about lyrically in “Regenisraen,” which seems besides the point (even if we mostly know the answer now).

But if Game Theory itself didn’t change my life, the world that produced Game Theory certainly did: the music of my personal college radio and fake-ID heyday, made by bands forging their own collaborations, friendships and shared war stories (which is to say, great musical victories and even greater music business defeats). While we often wonder why our favorite bands aren’t bigger, part of us doesn’t really want them to be. Everybody wants to be heard and recognized, in art and life, but there’s also special power in the recognition of another person who speaks the same secret language. Had the same import 12” with two B-sides. Bought the same t-shirt. Music scenes are cliquey, but cliques are also a community.

And maybe my guidance counselor was onto something, because where I really fell for Game Theory was at a Northwestern fraternity house called Theta Xi, where the Big Shot Chronicles tour (with the Lolita Nation line-up) came in 1986. More of a psychedelic stoner frat than a punk rock house, “The Taxi” had nevertheless booked a campus show with Husker Du, while such artists as Die Kreuzen, Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller and Paul K and the Weathermen all played in its living room. Seeing the band live hooked me, and, as a then-19 year-old, the ambitions and indulgence of Lolita hooked me even more. [Below: The aforementioned ’86 Theta Xi gig, with Donnette Thayer and Gui Gassuan in the lineup]




But here in 2016 I am prepared to say that The Big Shot Chronicles is Game Theory’s best album. It has everything Lolita had in fewer songs, and sometimes in a single song. On a certain level, Scott Miller agreed. During the Lolita Nation tour (which, in Chicago saw the band promoted from Theta Xi to Cabaret Metro), he told the local music mag Non-Stop Banter that while Lolita and Real Nighttime “were thrashing around in new territory,” The Big Shot Chronicles “was sort of summing up, an attempt to make a really good record, as opposed to being an experiment.” He added that the next record (which would turn out to be Two Steps From The Middle Ages) “will probably be more like The Big Shot Chronicles. You know, more trying to do some great songs instead of getting out there and making a statement.”

That you see the world just as I do… – “Where You Going Northern”

While Game Theory thrived during my WNUR years, Miller has suggested that the subsequent alt-rock revolution didn’t necessarily serve his particular rock’n’roll ecumenicism. “When college radio went grunge, and then Moby/Stereolabby, there sort of stopped being that community of a hundred thousand mildly-interested people that you need to have the records continue to have a just-decent-enough chance to sell,” he wrote in response to question on the “Ask Scott” section of the Loud Family website in 2003. “You could kind of play a Game Theory song after a Prince song, or maybe even a Cocteau Twins song, and people wouldn’t hate you, but after a Mudhoney song, or a Chemical Brothers song, that was starting to be more of a hanging offense.”

But even as Game Theory ended and The Loud Family began, Miller’s music laid in wait for future generations. When musician and writer Matt LeMay put together a tribute to Scott in New York City in 2013, I wondered how LeMay, who had only just been born when Game Theory started making records, came to the band. His answer was no different than my own about the Velvets, Television and Big Star 30 years before: the music he loved was made by people who loved Game Theory, including Ted Leo, Carl Newman, and Doug Gillard.

“Diving into Miller’s catalog, I felt as though some deeply rooted puzzle in my musical consciousness was finally being solved — like some invisible thread that ran through my favorite albums, songs, and artists had now been given a form and a name,” LeMay wrote in a 2014 essay for Wondering Sound.

LeMay also noted that “Erica’s Word,” the “hit” from Big Shot Chronicles, appeared to be the inspiration for Spoon’s 2002 song “You Gotta Feel It,”–a resemblance that was originally sleuthed out by another writer to “Ask Scott.” Miller responded to the suggestion that he might be entitled to a cut of Spoon’s publishing with his usual mix of humor and (self-described) Wittgensteinian logic.

“It would hard for me to work up an aggrieved feeling short of their copying “Erica’s Word” exactly and calling it ‘Erica’s Word, Not By Scott Miller,’’ he wrote. “Being a good writer of melodies is a matter of magic and blarney, stealing without getting caught.” He added that all he’d heard from that particular Spoon record (Kill the Moonlight) was “‘Jonathan Fisk,’ which I thought was one of the best tracks of 2002.”

What Scott didn’t mention (or forgot about) was Mr. Horner. Because, yes: Spoon’s Britt Daniel is indeed a Game Theory fan. And Mr. Horner is the ninth-grade history teacher in Temple, Texas who gave Daniel a “psychedelic music” compilation tape that included three or four songs each from Big Shot…, Lolita Nation, and Two Steps….

“I didn’t exactly get how Game Theory were psychedelic because to me, psychedelic music was Opal or Iron Butterfly,” Daniel remembers. “But I liked them anyway. I wanted to take drugs and listen to Game Theory. I was sure it would blow my mind, but I don’t believe I ever did.”

Instead, he got the all of the albums, which blew his mind in a different way. “The song forms were so intricate,” he says. “When I started getting into them I was in a band that played a lot of Ramones, the Clash, the Cure. To then go and try and learn one of Scott’s songs, it was a whole other level. I was impressed by how free-ranging the melodies and chords and forms were. And I liked that he referred to his own voice in his liner notes as “annoying whine” or something like that.  (Editor’s note: “miserable whine,” which appeared in place of Miller’s vocal credit on the original edition of The Big Shot Chronicles). I liked his voice myself.”

“Erica’s Word” and “You Gotta Feel It” (which is a mere 90 seconds long) have different melodies and sonic feel, but the songs do share the same chord progression, and no, it wasn’t a coincidence. “I couldn’t believe that someone would put the two together,” Daniel says. “The same chords are used in a lot of songs.”

The reason Scott might have actually remembered Mr. Horner is that, in 1998, Spoon was third on the bill with The Loud Family and Neilson Hubbard at Barrister’s in Memphis, in front of no more than a couple of dozen people. In a post on the old message board, Miles Goosens wrote that the two men had watched each other’s bands, and that Daniel apparently requested “Like A Girl Jesus,” and then “SANG EVERY SINGLE WORD” (not that this would be too tough: part of the song’s spare beauty is that it’s all of six lines, three of which are variations on the title).

Daniel and Miller did hang out that night, and in addition to having his request for “Like A Girl Jesus” fulfilled, the Spoon frontman left with a memento. “I got his autograph for Mr. Horner,” Daniel says. “He wrote, ‘thanks for teaching the fundamentals… the Beatles and Game Theory!’”

[Below: TBSC line-up (Miller, Ray, LaFreniere, Ziegler), before opening for The Three O’Clock in L.A., 1985]


What the hell do you know? –“Here It Is Tomorrow”

“Where were you when Scott Miller died?” is practically a rhetorical question, because, unless you were a close friend or family member, the answer is the same for everyone: Facebook, Twitter, or some other cubby of the Internet, clicking and commiserating while listening to Game Theory and the Loud Family for hours on end, unless you couldn’t bear to hear Scott’s voice at all.

The age of digital music and social media hasn’t necessarily been the greatest thing for art, or for bands trying to make money off of music, or for our sanity. But it did reconfigure and continue many a connection from the indie underground, with fans participating in the same way that they did with ‘zines, radio shows, and later, Listservs and message boards. Bands that were approachable at sound check were now approachable on Facebook. It was fun to reconnect, however tenuously, with musicians I loved, knew, and/or had interviewed, including Miller, Steve Wynn, the Windbreakers’ Tim Lee and the co-producer of these reissues, Pat Thomas of Absolute Grey (a band Lee produced) and Heyday Records. It was especially cool to see that people from the Paisley Underground and post-R.E.M. “college rock” scenes were still in touch with–or had been put back in touch with–each other.

Which is how and why, on May 26, 2013, 11 days after Scott died, I was in the Austin, Texas rock club Red 7 at 1:30 in the morning, giving Gil Ray, whom I’d never met, and didn’t even know on Facebook, a big hug.

Our connection was Lee, who’d known Scott and Gil since the Windbreakers and Game Theory toured together in 1985. One of those shows was in the basement of a dorm in Milwaukee, where Scott joined the Windbreakers for a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.” “With no rehearsal (or real forethought), he totally nailed the melodic Page solo,” says Lee.

In the fall of 2012, The Rain Parade announced that they’d be getting back together to join the Tim Lee 3 at an Atlanta benefit show for Lee’s Windbreakers compadre Bobby Sutliff, who’d been in a bad car accident. The Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci posted on Facebook that they needed a drummer, prompting both Lee and Dan Vallor (the other co-producer of these reissues) to send separate Facebook messages to Ray, who hadn’t played live in 12 years.

He got the gig. “It was one of the best things a 56 year-old guy could have dreamed of,” Ray says. “We were meant for each other. Some of the best shows I have ever been involved with were the Rain Parade shows. The fact that I was a former member of Game Theory made it even more special. Worlds collided in a fabulous way.”

I’d gotten to know Tim and and his wife, Susan Bauer Lee, both on the Internet and IRL, when they started playing in the Tim Lee 3 around 2001. When the Sutliff benefit was first announced, I tweeted that I wished the Dream Syndicate and the Rain Parade could follow that up by playing SXSW with the Windbreakers and Game Theory. When the Three O’Clock reunited to play Coachella 2013, I fantasized out loud on Twitter about Game Theory following suit (and more than once). So when the Lees heard from Gil about Scott’s death, Susan knew I’d be almost as heartbroken as she and Tim were, and sent me a Twitter DM.

Losing Scott in the social media era–balancing public virtual grief with private grief–was “one of the most messed up things I’ve had to deal with, ever,” says Ray. “I did not know how to process and handle my loss, his family’s loss, and his closest friends’ loss…on Facebook.” This was especially true in the days before Miller’s death became public knowledge. That ended up happening during the Three O’Clock’s April 17 show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, between the two Coachella weekends.

“I knew it was going to be a very emotional night,” says Ray. “Before the band went on, Matt showed me his phone. It was now public knowledge. We hugged each other and cried. I looked up and a large part of the audience were staring at their phones. I will never, ever forget that. It was the most emotionally charged moment of my adult life. This was the new world. This was social media. This was fucked up. But I made it through somehow.”

Then the Rain Parade came to Texas to play Austin Psych Fest. It’s a show I wouldn’t have missed in any case, but now it was also something of a wake. It was where I needed to be to feel Scott’s loss, but also to temporarily fill the void. And it was where Ray and his Rain Parade bandmates needed to be to expel their own grief at high volume. A show of strength. An offering to the rock’n’roll gods. One more for St. Michael.

“The audience knew,” Ray says. “They gave me great respect, and we played what Matt called ‘our most punk rock’ set ever. It was healing, for the moment.”

Three years after Scott’s death, that sense of community endures as strongly as Game Theory’s music. The Big Shot Chronicles is now 30 years old (!). It still sounds like it could have come out today. And here it is tomorrow.

[Below: Amerindie royalty circa 1986: Alex Chilton, Miller, Dan Vallor (GT road manager), LaFreniere, Chilton drummer Doug Garrison. Visible far right is Gil Ray.]



A slightly different version of this article appeared in the liner notes of recent Omnivore Recordings expanded reissue for The Big Shot Chronicles. The album is reviewed HERE at Blurt.

Jason Cohen has written about music for Option, Details, Blender, RayGun, Sounds, The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock and the wrong version of CREEM. Robert Toren, a.k.a “Photo Robert,” took thousands of photographs of Scott Miller and his bands (Alternate Learning, Game Theory and The Loud Family) between 1979 and 2000. A huge BLURT thanks to everyone involved with Omnivore’s Game Theory back catalog reissue series. And to the late Scott Miller – here it is, tomorrow. We will always remember you.