As far as I know Boston’s Moving Targets, led by main songwriter Kenny Chambers, had only cut a handful of songs before recording their massive debut, Burning in Water (Taang Records, 1986). Though they’d been bouncing around in one form or another since the early ‘80s—they emerged from the ashes of a band called Smash Pattern—the only recorded output they had was a few songs on the Conflict Records compilation Bands That Could Be God. I have to say, I was completely blown away the first time I heard Burning in Water. At the time, I was moving away from hardcore and listening to more mid-tempo, melodic stuff, and this record just hit that sweet spot. The band got a lot of comparisons to Husker Du, which I do hear as an influence, but I like Burning in Water more than any Husker Du record, which is saying something as I love Husker Du.
It was tough to only pick out one song, but I decided to ask Kenny Chambers about the soaring and powerful “Faith.” Kenny was more than happy to hit me back and tell me about the origins of the song and the recording of it. The band: Chambers on guitar and vocals, Pat Leonard on bass, Pat Brady on drums.
What was the initial inspiration for the song? “Faith” was born during my time in the band Smash Pattern (Chuck Freeman on drums) in 1984. I’m sure there was some Mission of Burma influence coupled with a case of Old Milwaukee that we consumed at every practice. When the ‘targets came together again 1985 we started playing it.
Did it take long to finish writing it? The song took a short while to put together. I wrote it whole then added a couple more parts on the following couple of weeks.
Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (i.e.: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?) I think any fan of the band likes that tune.
Was it a staple of your live sets even years later?
The Moving Targets had “Faith” on most set lists from 1985 to 2007. I don’t think that we ever got tired of playing it.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
I wouldn’t change anything about it. The band played it well and Lou Giordano did a fine job of recording it and coaxing a good performance out of us.
Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.? Recording the Burning in Water album was kind of a blur. We were so excited and it went so quickly (all of the basic tracks in a day and a half) that I personally don’t remember recording most of the songs. I know it sounded great in the studio with Lou and Carl Plaster and we were happy with everything. The only problem with recording was trying to adapt to a cleaner amp sound. Lou pushed the cleaner sound and I was used to total distortion. In hindsight, Lou was right on the money. The record sounds sharp.
How do you feel about it now? I still think it holds up today.
With a stunningly great new album about to drop, the Oregon cosmic Americana/power pop auteurs embark upon their most ambitious musical journey to date. Frontman Evan Way details all the changes his group has been through.
BY FRED MILLS
In 2013, BLURT published a story about Portland, Oregon-based outfit the Parson Red Heads. The feature, “Stories They Can Tell,” was on the occasion of the expanded reissue of their 2011 classic, Yearling (via BLURT’s sister business, Second Motion Records, now called Schoolkids Records). As frontman Evan Way explained at the time, “We decided to do it is because we really believe in this album we created, and believe that these songs are powerful enough that they could reach and touch a lot more people than they did the first time around, if given the proper attention.”
Indeed, the band is hugely respected in the indie world, with plenty of fans on both sides of the Atlantic who eagerly snap up its music. As you’ll read below in our new interview with Evan, a lot has happened since then, including the release of an album of all new material, Orb Weaver (reviewed HERE) and the arrival of several young Parson yearlings.
Here in 2017, though, the band is prepping the release of the new album Blurred Harmony, out June 9 on Portland’s Fluff & Gravy label. It’s everything people love about the band—meaningful lyrics that you relate to instinctively, unblemished vocal harmonies to die for, and a musical mélange that’s equal parts cosmic Americana and timeless power pop. For this listener, standout cuts include the subtle intensity of “Time Is A Wheel,” which gradually builds until the listener finds him- or herself enveloped in a heavenly anthem; “Please Come Save Me,” which could pass for the musings of a long-lose Flying Nun band, if Flying Nun bands had pedal steels; jangle popper supreme “Out of Range”; and the brash, Big Star-meets-Beatles “Coming Down.”
Thematically, it’s a record about the passing of time, the memories—both joyous and regretful—we accumulate along the way, and trying to face the future with grace. (It was reportedly inspired, in part, by poet Donald Justice, whose poem “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” is singled out in the Parson bio.) The luminous opening cut “Please Save Me” nicely sums things up, with some of the most gorgeously wistful lyrics I’ve heard in ages:
“Days like this, I remember
Things that I tried to forget
Certain names, certain faces
Things that I’d only regret
They can tell me how I’m still lost
And still lonely
They can show me I cannot live all alone
All of my life I’ve been running
Turning my back to the past
Things still to come cannot hurt me
I cannot miss what I don’t have
The future cannot tell me I’m wrong
Or make me sigh
The future cannot tell me I’m wrong
Please come save me, I’m lost without you
I know alone I cannot change.
Please come save me, I’m lost without you
I know alone I cannot change.”
Recently, Evan and I had a lively email exchange about the band, and he was subsequently gracious enough to sit down one afternoon with a stack of my questions and put some serious thought into his answers—emblematic of the way he approaches his music, perhaps? Clearly, this is a band that cares deeply about its music and how it affects its fanbase. If the Parson Red Heads come anywhere your city, run, don’t walk, to the venue’s ticket office. You’ll be glad you did.
The band: Evan Way (guitar/vox), Brette Marie Way (drums / vox), Robbie Augsburger (bass), Sam Fowler (electric gtr / vox), Raymond Richards (pedal steel).
On June 7, 8, and 10 the Parson Red Heads will host a series of album release shows in Oregon and Washington. Dates at their official website. Incidentally, Blurred Harmony will be available digitally, on CD and vinyl, and a special limited edition (100 copies) translucent blue vinyl as well. You can preorder at their Bandcamp page. Lastly, go HERE to listen to a track that BLURT premiered a couple of months ago.
BLURT: Orb Weaver came out in the fall of 2013 – tell the readers a little about what’s gone down since then, high points and/or low points? I recall that you had an addition to the family…
Since Orb Weaver came out at the end of 2013, we’ve certainly been busy! When we tracked that record, Brette (our drummer and my wife) was pregnant with our first son, George. He was born that September and went on his first tour with us when he was 8 weeks old. We did a lot of traveling and touring to support Orb Weaver and the “6” EP that followed, taking him with us all over the country (and to Spain, as well!). We had our 2nd son in February of 2015, and that slowed down touring quite a bit, though he did come on a few, and we brought him along on a 2 week tour of Spain about a year and a half ago. Our 3rd son was born this last January!
So yes, we are INDEED a family band in many ways. Bringing kids on tour is really challenging, changes the way you have to tour in a lot of ways. It’s also really fun, when it goes well—so fun to be able to show your kids the country and give them all these adventures, and really fun to be able to continue to do and pursue what we love, and sort of bring the kids into that experience.
Also in the past few years we’ve released a 7″ and a retrospective compilation record (consisting of at least one song from every record we’ve released) in Europe, through You Are The Cosmos Records. They’ll be releasing this new record in Europe, too. They’ve been wonderful, and the response and fan-base in Spain, where they are based, is SO encouraging to us. We can’t wait to get back out there and play for them again.
Typically, I’ll see a review of the band that never fails to mention Byrds, Gram Parsons, CSNY and other folk-rock/vocal harmony icons—even the Blurt review of Orb Weaver focused on that. Yet I’ve always heard as much a Big Star and latterday power pop sound in there too. And “Sunday Song” on the new album even has, dare I say it, a kind of drifting/dreamy psych Pink Floyd vibe. So what is YOUR verdict—who would you say are the group’s key influences and heroes, and what do YOU hear when you listen to a playback of a new song?
Yeah, we get the big Byrds and CSNY comparisons so often. It’s funny, because though I DO love the Byrds and all of those classic, iconic folk-rock groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I really don’t hear a lot of that in much of our music. Certainly in a few songs here and there, but in general I wouldn’t feel totally comfortable classifying us as a Byrds-like band, or really anything of the sort. Especially as years have gone on and we’ve grown and come into our own, I feel like there is a lot more power-pop influence, stuff like Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, The dB’s, but also the Paisley Underground and college rock bands of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, like Rain Parade, The Feelies, stuff like that. Our heroes and influences are really wide-ranging, but that is more the stuff that I personally feel comes out in our sound.
In the end it’s a hard question to answer, a hard thing to define. Because some people really do hear The Byrds, Neil Young, Tom Petty in our sound, and that’s great—those are bands that I absolutely love, I won’t complain if those are things people are picking up from hearing our songs!
The previous record was cut in a “proper” studio with Scott McCaughey and Adam Selzer, but for the new one you decided to take a different approach and do it yourselves at Sam’s place— in your bio your comment is “If we were going to make it happen and do it well, we were going to have to track it ourselves.” Could you elaborate a bit on that, what the experience was like this time, and perhaps even offer advice to young bands on the relative pros and cons of both approaches as you have experienced them?
Yes – basically, we realized that with the kid situation as it was, it seemed really unrealistic to get the most out of studio time at a proper studio. Expecting Brette and I to be able to put in a few weeks of 10 hour days at a studio just wouldn’t have been realistic, with two kids under the age of 4. We came to the conclusion that if we tried to track the album at a proper studio, we’d be way too rushed and wouldn’t be allowing ourselves the time we needed to work through the songs—they wouldn’t get the attention they deserved, and we’d leave the studio with a record we weren’t totally satisfied with.
It so happened that at the same time, Sam was really coming into his own with his home recording, tracking a few friends’ albums, and also tracking and producing two of his own solo records. The stuff he was putting out just out of his basement studio was sounding fantastic. And we’d also always just thought it’d be a fun thing to try—to record everything ourselves, to allow ourselves the freedom to take our time with an album, as much as every song needed, to experiment without the pressure of studio time budgets and all that external stuff. So it just seemed the timing was right to try making a record ourselves.
We tracked a majority of it at my house, in our den (which is also our rehearsal space), and then a good batch of it in Sam’s basement, as well. Once it was all tracked we gave the tracks over to our good friend Danny O’Hanlon, who is a producer / engineer / mixer here in town, and he mixed all the songs. He did SUCH a good job, really injected new life and focus into the tracks we gave him.
It was really fun to do, quite a learning experience. As far as advice goes, the best thing I can say is, just take your time—don’t let yourself feel rushed. If something isn’t sounding quite right, keep tweaking, keep experimenting. It inevitably takes longer to dial in sounds, tones, takes, when you’re tracking in a space that isn’t designed to be a studio. When you’re using less gear, home gear, in a space like a living room or a basement—it’s just going to take creativity and time to get things to sound right, whereas in a professional recording studio, those sounds can get dialed in so quickly.
That is a big trade-off. But I think it’s a worthwhile trade-off—it’s so great to not have to worry about how many hours you’ve been spending on a part or on a song, worry about how much you’re paying per hour, things like that. To be able to just get lost in the song and spend however much time you need to capture the right sound and part—that is a luxury, and it can be really, really rewarding.
How long did it take to complete? What were some of the breakthroughs and high points while making it? Any failed experiments that either got left on the cutting room floor or will have to be shelved for revisiting in the future?
From the beginning of tracking through mixing and mastering, the album took just about a year to make. There were times that were very productive, and there were lulls—that is another thing you have to deal with when making a record at your homes, is that life stuff more easily gets in the way and pushes your recording schedule around.
One experiment we tried was simultaneously tracking drums digitally and onto 4-track cassette, with the intention of then blending the two in the mix, so that we could have crispness and more editable digital tracks, with the warmer, punchy and dirty cassette tracks to give character and tone. It just ended up being way too complicated once we got into it, especially with punching in and editing tracks… it just didn’t work like we wanted it to. But it’s not an experiment I want to give up on! I love the idea, and love how it could sound, if done right. I’m a huge fan of cassette recording, and really do have goals to incorporate that more into what we do as a band in the future.
Favorite songs? Which ones are you most excited about to do in concert?
Hard to pick a favorite song. Once you spend this much time on an album, you end up having more favorite moments and parts than favorite songs, I think. For example, I love when the pedal steel makes its entrance at the beginning of “Please Come Save Me”. I love the thick, plunky, pick-bass tone on “What Have I Become,” and 12-string electric guitar line on “Today is the Day.” Maybe my favorite moment is when Sam’s harmony vocal on “Time After Time” becomes the lead vocal on the second verse—such an engaging moment to me.
Definitely looking forward to playing the closing 4-song medley live [“Today Is the Day,” “Waiting For the Call,” “Out of Range,” “In A Dream”].We’re going to be playing those 4 short songs strung together just like they are on the album (it’s sort of like our little amateur attempt at an homage to side B of Abbey Road), and I’m just really excited for how that is going to come off live. I think it’s going to be really fun and challenging to get it just right.
I’m not familiar with Donald Justice—what’s his story, and what’s his significance to you and/or the band as a whole?
Donald Justice is a poet—I discovered his poetry when I read the book “Hotel New Hampshire” by John Irving. He is definitely my favorite poet; I love everything he has written. As I was writing the album, seeing the threads and themes that tied the songs together, his poem “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” came to mind. It’s a beautiful poem about memory and childhood, sort of about regret but mostly just about looking back. And that is a lot of what the album is about, too. I read the poem and so much of it seemed so relevant to what the songs on this album were communicating. That is sort of where the album title comes from, and I also included a segment of the poem in the artwork.
How did you get hooked up with Fluff & Gravy? I think I have liked anything I’ve heard on the label.
John and Chad, who run the label, are total mainstays in the music scene here in Portland. They’re everywhere, and they are amazing dudes, so we’ve just known them for awhile. My dear friend Kevin Lee Florence released his album through them a couple years back, and so that got me more interested in what they were doing as a label. As time went on it just seemed like the right fit—they have much the same taste in music as we do, and I really felt it was important to release this album on a label local to Portland, on a label that was smaller and more community / family oriented in a way. It just felt like the right move, working with guys we know, guys who really just love good music and good songs, and who work in a really organic, almost grass-roots, way.
Backtracking a bit, you revisited Yearling a few years ago, essentially delivering your personal “director’s cut.” How was that received? Did you ever perform the entire album live, something that bands increasingly seem to enjoy these days when it comes to a classic or beloved album?
Yeah, when Second Motion Records picked up Yearling, we decided to release it as a “Deluxe Edition”—taking the chance to include all the songs that didn’t make the first version of the record due to time-constraints. We just wanted to release it in a form that fully represented that time of our creative output as a band, in a form that showed the full vision of the record. It was really fun to be able to do that! And it was received well. It was really long, but the feedback we got about it was wonderful, I think listeners got what we were trying to do, and the collection of songs was strong enough to withstand maybe being a bit over-long, haha.
I believe we did perform the whole thing live once, here in Portland—one summer we booked three shows, each show we performed one of our albums front to back. I think Yearling was performed in its entirety at The White Eagle at the end of that summer, right before Orb Weaver came out.
We play a few songs from that album quite regularly – “Hazy Dream,” “Seven Years Ago,” “Kids Hanging Out.” We’re playing “When You Love Somebody” these upcoming shows, and that’ll be fun to dust off. It’s hard, we’ve got a lot of songs now, we can never cover everything we’d like to, so we just have to put extra effort into keeping the set lists as varied as we can.
You formed in 2004: What advice, tips, warnings, etc. would you give your younger self and your fellow players if you could pop back to that year?
Oh man, that’s a good question. Hard to say. When we formed, and those first few years in LA, we were having so much fun, but we were also working so hard, playing so much. We played so many shows, rehearsed so much, met so many amazing people and amazing musicians—I don’t know if I’d change a thing.
Honestly, I feel like more often than anything, I hear advice from 2004 Evan, telling me to remember to have fun. To not get too stressed and worked up about things—to remember to enjoy the fact that you get to play music with your friends and loved ones.
That is good advice, and I think that’s advice that 2004 Parsons followed oftentimes better than 2017 Parsons!
What if I were to tell you there was a magical place where you could see bands such as Soundgarden, Kings of Leon, Wide Spread Panic, Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz, Death Cab for Cutie, Sturgill Simpson, Highly Suspect, Machine Gun Kelly, and many more artist including a tent stage dedicated to only blues music, eat the best BBQ you have ever tasted, walk on a world famous street that is also home to the blues, and visit Elvis’s home all for about one hundred and fifty dollars or less.
Well you should start saving now and planning your travel for the 2018 Beale Street Music Festival that happens the first weekend of May every year. This is without a doubt one of the best value music festivals in the U.S. and often overlooked for the great music festival that it is. This festival that has the Tennessee Arkansas bridge as a backdrop takes place right downtown on the river, just blocks from the world famous Beale Street. This festival has some of the friendliest, most professional, and helpful staff of the festivals that I have the pleasure of covering each year. BSMF always has a great selection of food vendors and alcohol at reasonable prices, but the must have food that you have to try before leaving Memphis is just a short walk from the festival. First and foremost is the BBQ available at many of the restaurants along Beale Street. My personal favorite would have to be The Pig on Beale also know as Pork with an attitude. The second must have would be Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.
Now back to the festival. As I arrived downtown Memphis on Friday afternoon and checked into the Media trailer, I couldn’t wait to get to the stages and start a weekend full of diverse music acts. This festival always has a great mix of Blues, Rock, Pop, and Rap across four stages.
There are too many bands and stages for one Photographer/journalist to cover it all, so I had to choose which stage and artists to cover. The highlights of Friday for me were The Strumbellas, Grouplove, MGMT and Snoop Dogg, Talk about running the gamut.
Saturday would bring me to the River Stage first to catch one of my favorite bands being none other than Highly Suspect. Johnny came out looking like Clint Eastwood in one of his western movies. Johnny was definitely in a great mood and ready to perform as he strutted and danced around the stage as a DJ played music while the roadies finished their setup. Johnny even came to the edge of the stage to take some pictures of the crowd and of course a selfie with the huge crowd behind him. With the stage now ready Johnny, and brothers Richard and Ryan Meyers wasted no time rocking the crowd with the many hit songs they have under their belts. At one point during the show Richard and Ryan even crowd surfed while Johnny sang and played guitar. This band was one of the highlights of my weekend. I can’t wait to see these guys again!
Next up for me was Silversun Pickups. Silversun has a great sound and I have been hooked on their song “Circadian Rhythm”. Many have compared them to Smashing Pumpkins. Silversun Pickups are out on tour this summer. I suggest you check them out if they come to your area.
8:40 p.m. brought up a hard choice for me as X Ambassadors and 2 Chainz were performing at the same time. I do love X Ambassadors, but decided to check out 2 Chainz on the Bud Light Stage. 2 Chainz had a DJ hyping up the crowd before he came out and when he came out he proceeded to blow the crowd away. The Swelling crowd spilling in from other stages were whipping in a happy frenzy during his entire performance and we still had Wiz to go!
Wiz Khalifa picked up right where 2 Chainz left off and was a perfect way to end a Saturday night with the massive crowd dripping in sweat from jumping up and down, rapping, and dancing for three plus hours.
Sunday kicked off at 2:15 at the Bud Light Stage with Marcella & her lovers. Marcella has a divine Memphis soulful voice and powerful stage presence. I suspect we will be hearing more from her in the next few years.
Next up would be Machine Gun Kelly on the FedEx Stage. MGK is out on tour in support of his brand new album Bloom. MGK is a rapper, singer, “wildboy” and crossover mainstream singer/rapper with the huge hit “Bad Things” with Camila Cabello. If you have not seen Kelly live you are missing out! MGK is one of if not the most energetic performer I’ve ever seen. I always look forward to covering him and his full band.
Alter Bridge with lead singer Myles Kennedy was next up and the park was quickly filling up as people were steadily streaming in from the Famous Beale Street bars and restaurants. As the sun began to set it was time for Tori Kelly on the River Stage and Ben Harper & the innocent criminals on the Bud Light Stage. Next up was Bush. Bush was another highlight of the weekend for me. I have been a fan ever since hearing their album Sixteen Stone released in December of 1994 with songs such as “Comedown and “Glycerine”. Gavin Rossdale’s voice sounded as tight as ever and he has mastered the rock and roll guitarist. Bush (Gavin) wins best high jump and best light show of the weekend as well.
Last but not least was the Headliner of the weekend, Soundgarden! Chris Cornell and the guys brought their A game and the crowd was ready for a rocking good trip down memory lane, with songs like “Spoonman” and “Outshined” this was one of the best Rock performances I have been privileged to attend.
Tragically, Cornell passed away this week following a performance in Detroit, an apparent suicide. Soundgarden had been scheduled to make appearances at Rock On The Range and Rocklahoma, and I was greatly anticipating those performances. R.I.P.
Gavin of Bush
(this could be YOU in the audience… were you there?)
Best band in the world? Just maybe… Live during the Middle of the Map Fest at KC’s Uptown Theater on May 5, the man and the band wrenched emotion out of thin air while showcasing material both old and from the new album. Below, watch some 2017 live clips.
BY DANNY PHILLIPS
I’m sitting in a dark bar writing about the previous night’s performance of Jason Isbell and his Alabama brothers (and wife Amanda Shires) in the 400 Unit, scribbling my reflections on the back of a Budweiser box with a borrowed pen.
Squinting in the low light of The Rendezvous, my hometown punk rock bar, I try to piece together what I saw at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City with one of my best friends in the world the previous evening. Prince is blasting from the overly loud jukebox. I try to think of memories and melody. I’m waiting for a band called the Creeps, writing about what could be the tightest, best band I’ve ever seen in my life.
In Kansas City, as part of the yearly Middle of the Map Fest, three days of national, regional and local acts of every size, shape and flavor, Isbell and the 400 Unit readied their fans for the upcoming release of Isbell’s The Nashville Sound. (June 16th on Southeastern Records)
Isbell and his compatriots showed on this Friday night in the barbecue capital of the world, why they should be considered in the conversation for best band in America and Isbell as one of the finest guitarists of the last twenty years. He and the 400 Unit, a group of topnotch players that have been with Isbell for years, proved that they are some of the best players in any genre, of any band going today.
They hit all the spots, emotional highs and spiritual lows, showing what it means to be human, to feel pain and joy, loss and victory; to know the consequences of your mistakes, and what it feels like to save yourself from yourself, to let love in and put all your faith in someone with no fear.
Isbell, multiple 2016 Grammy winner and former guitarist for Drive-By Truckers, shapes songs out of the things we have all felt: uncontrollable love (“Cover Me Up”), the pressure of passing on something of substance as a father or mother (“Outfit”), being stuck in place you wish was someplace else (“Speed Trap Town”), or the crushing feeling of rejection and loss. (“Songs she Sang in the Shower”)
As a guitarist, lyricist, and musician, Isbell is a man beyond his 38 years. Emotion, it’s clear, runs deep in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama favorite son. The South is at the very root of which he is as a person and writer, able to touch something inside those listening; melody, harmony and laying it all out on the table, all things coming together in a way that “country” acts like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan will never get to experience.
Opening with “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest, Isbell and the 400 Unit rolled out a set that would make fans of all stages of Isbell’s career thankful that they went out into the world on a beautiful Midwestern spring night, to share something with a room full of like-minded music lovers. If you missed it, if you chose to continue the sedentary life, sticking with what you know, never looking at the next page, playing it safe at home with some ice cream, you missed something special.
Those of us inside that beautiful, nearly century-old theater got a taste of the new record, a rougher, bigger, more rock influenced sound with “Cumberland Gap,” the beautifully haunted, sorrowful playing and tone of “If We We’re Vampires.” There was the pull-yourself-up motivation of “Hope the High Road,” as well as the Drive-by Truckers classic story song, the title track from the 2003 album Decoration Day.
Isbell and the 400 Unit gave it all they had on that stage, leaving behind everything for us to contemplate, carrying on the tradition of blurring the lines between country and rock like Uncle Tupelo, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Rick Nelson, The Bottlerockets, and the Allman Brothers before them. Leaving into that Missouri night, I was happy down to my soul, gone to ponder and count the days until Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit bring the show back to town.
I know I’ll be there. (Isbell will be touring throughout June and July, starting June 12 in Asheville. Dates at his website.)
A new solo album and a high profile tour with Son Volt finds the erstwhile Space Needle/Varnaline/Anders & Kendall/Gob Iron multitasker doing what he does best—multitasking. Or maybe simply working on his tan out in the desert….
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Anders Parker has never been one to write the same album twice.
Across his eight records as a solo artist, and going back even further to his time in Space Needle and Varnaline, he’s borrowed from Americana, traditional folk, alt country and indie rock. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to many that he decided to experiment with string arrangements and pedal steel on The Man Who Fell From Earth, his latest, released via the delightfully named Recorded & Freed Records label last month. The experiment pays off nicely, with a beautiful album of achingly sincere ballads and some of his most lyrically striking music in years.
In the middle of a tour with Son Volt, which is led by his some-time duet partner Jay Farrar, Parker was kind enough to pick up the phone and talk through the new record, his decision to crowd-source the album and trying to save the planet from Trump’s scorched earth environmental policies one album sale at a time. Incidentally, Parker was a guest at BLURT’s 2013 SXSW day party in Austin, performing as one-half of the wonderful Anders & Kendall duo, featuring Kendall Meade (Sparklehorse, Lloyd Cole, Helium). So consider him part of the BLURT extended family and tell him we said howdy if you get to catch him in concert.
BLURT: How is the tour going so far?
PARKER: The shows have been great so far.
I know you had a band on this record. Did you bring the whole line up on tour?
No, I’m touring solo for most of this one. I’m just playing a couple of acoustic guitars.
You’re playing with Son Volt. Have you and Jay played any songs from Gob Iron on this tour?
No, we haven’t. There’s a certain technical aspect to those songs and some rehearsals we’d have to do before playing them and we haven’t done any of that yet.
You’ve been through a pretty long stretch of not being on the road, at home writing and recording. Is it tough to get back into the groove of loading up the van and being on the road again?
I’m just so used to it after doing it so long. You just have to remind yourself how to do things to stay sane.
And how do you do that?
I’m still figuring that out. (Laughs) Just basic shit like trying to eat well, I try to run pretty regularly and stay busy. Which isn’t that hard when you’re touring solo. I have to do a lot of set up and stuff, so there’s not a lot of time to fuck off.
Let’s talk about the new record. It obviously doesn’t sound a lot like the past few because your sound changes a lot from record to record. Did you go into this one knowing the specific vibe you wanted to create?
I had the idea of doing a record with strings and pedal steel for a long time. It’s been banging around inside my head for a while. I also tend to make records with bands, and economically it’s not easy to tour with a lot of people. So, the idea that had been around of doing something like this with the reality that I usually tend to tour solo and can’t afford to bring a ton of people and electronics and equipment kind of came together at the same time. Sonically, I just wanted to make it as lush and full and with as much high fidelity as possible. That aspect I can’t take too much credit for because I’m not much of an engineer.
I do have a couple of really nice acoustic guitars that sound great, but a lot of credit goes to Josh Druckman who engineered it and Gareth Jones, who mixed it. He lives in England and has done some really interesting stuff. He worked with Depeche Mode and he worked with Nick Cave, some really cool stuff.
Is it tough to recreate a lot of these new songs when you’re out there by yourself up on the stage?
No, not at all, because the songs are the songs. The string arrangements are really beautiful and really fill out the songs, but I wrote these songs to stand on their own. They’ve been translating really well live, so I’m glad about that.
After this tour ends, have you thought about bringing out a full band to play these songs with pedal steel and strings?
Well, I’m doing two New York shows on this tour with a full band and we’re going to be doing a few songs from this new record as well as some older songs. They sound really great with a full band.
You crowd funded this record, right?
I did. It was a combination of crowd funding and my publisher putting up some money.
Was this your first time using a crowd funding site?
I just want to make records and even if you do it super cheap and super close to the bone, which is how I usually do them, it still adds up quickly. The budget I don’t think was lavish by any means, but you want to feel comfortable with the model. I’m not sure yet if I’m 100 percent there, but people really want to help and people who are fans are eager to lend a hand. The way the record industry currently exists this seems like a real viable alternative.
You’re also still managing to give some of the proceeds of the album sales to the Environmental Defense Fund. Why that charity in particular?
My first instinct was Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, but I read that they both got such huge influxes of money…
Thank you President Trump.
Exactly! I also love being outside and I love the natural world. That’s important to me and as we’ve seen in the last few months, the Trump administration rolling back clean air and clean water and rolling back regulations on mining and all this shit. It’s crazy what’s going on. It seems like a worthwhile organization to give to, in my estimation.
You’ve recorded with a number of different folks throughout the years. Have you thought yet about your next project or who you want to record with?
Yes, always. I kind of want to make a super-heavy guitar trio rock record, And I also have the idea for another acoustic record so I’m not quite sure where that’s going to land.
Have you started writing for either one yet?
Yeah, both of them actually. I kind of wrote a whole bunch of acoustic songs after finishing this record and over the past few weeks I’ve been working on these kind of riff-heavy guitar jams, so I’m sort of sifting through all of those now.
For his second post-Centro-Matic solo outing, Will Johnson is firmly hitting his stride. (Photo: Sean Dunn)
BY JOHN SCHACHT
When Centro-Matic called it quits in 2014 after two-plus decades in the trenches collecting critical kudos and little else, fans assumed Will Johnson, the band’s prolific songwriter, would simply double down on his typically stark solo fare. But two records into his post-Centro iteration, something unexpected may be emerging, evident in the subtle new directions taken on Johnson’s latest, the gorgeous Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, released in late March via the Undertow label. (Go HERE to read longtime Blurt contributor Lee Zimmerman’s review of the album.)
Even though its nine tracks clock in at over 42 minutes, Hatteras Night feels like a much tighter listen than his previous solo effort, 2015’s Swan City Vampires. At that juncture, Johnson was dealing with the death of his mother and the break-up of Centro-Matic, and the songs seemed to grope at sonic answers.
Here, the narrative conceits and sonic aesthetic get conveyed whether the song is a loping country weeper built on pedal steel and haunted singing saw voices (“Childress (To Ogden)”), a lush Lauren Canyon guitar riff from the 70s (“Filled With A Falcon’s Dreams”), or a Califone-like blend of distorted guitars and off-kilter percussion (“Every Single Day of Late”).
Part of that, no doubt, comes from a sense of continuity. Britton Beisenherz (Monahans, Milton Mapes) and Ricky Jay Jackson (Phosphorescent, Steve Earle) were on hand for Swan City Vampires, and long-time Centro-Matic drummer ace Matt Pence rounds out the studio collaborators on this set. But where previous Johnson solo records purposefully contrasted starkness with Centro-Matic’s ‘hail, fellow’ rock anthems, Hatteras Night sounds like a different entity — dare we say, band? — altogether.
Everything being relative, of course. Johnson’s still penning elliptical narratives about misguided attempts at connection or escape, without sacrificing the humanity in even the most fucked-up social misfits. The resulting melancholia is still the coin of his songwriting realm, but it’s the empathy and grace in Johnson’s songs that always stands out, as well as some subtle new sonic directions on Hatteras Night.
Johnson humanizes the stripper in “Ruby Shameless” without resorting to heart-of-gold cliché — she’s “just a little crush of flesh” to her patrons, but amid the swirling organ and guitar arpeggios Johnson offers her a non-judgmental moment of respite and grace in the “sacred light” of a fellow flawed human. Similarly on “Predator,” over its cantering tempo, winking piano fills and big sky pedal steel, Johnson examines the double-edged draw of living —figuratively or literally —on the lam. He concedes that it “has got its limits, and so few ways out,” but knows these memories and behaviors keep coming back around because they’re “like a predator that knew I wanted to be found.” That self-destructive streak is reiterated, with a twist, on the thrummer “Milaak,” where crumpled beats and percussive strumming hammer at the distances we embrace in ourselves and create with others — “everything about this distance is so true/Everything about this distance is all you,” Johnson resignedly sings.
But it’s not until the LP closes with “Hatteras” — a classic dirge of the type Centro-Matic’s side project, South San Gabriel, excelled at — that Johnson finally turns the narrative vantage point exclusively on himself. Over nearly eight minutes of strummed guitar, ribbons of pedal steel and a tick-tock beat, Johnson catalogs the troubadour’s lonely road and what makes riding out these “desperate spells” worth it in the first place.
“And there is a solace in returning to thee/For I have worked/And I have travelled/And I am calloused/And I am beat,” he sings, turning each phrase into a cloud that glides over the musical landscape. “But just as the sun brings new day/I am closer, and closer it seems/To all we have been, my fearless anchor, love and the laughing/And the weight of new peace.”
Whether he’s singing to a loved one, a stabilizing home-life or to the music gods themselves is immaterial—Johnson has tapped into our common humanity again, and done so with renewed vigor and purpose in graceful, memorable melodies.
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