This is what the world looked like before WordPress, punks. And it was a more vibrant, exuberantly tactile world, too. Our resident fanzine expert Tim “Dagger” Hinely weighs in.
BY TIM “DAGGER” HINELY
Print is still alive and well and here’s some rags to prove it! (See Part 6 of this series elsewhere on the Blurt site.) Fall is here, which means that the baseball season is slowly coming to its conclusion, so with that in mind….
7 & 7 is… (#3) This cool zine is the size of a 45 record (and even includes a flexi) is done by the folks who run the terrific label Hidden Volume label out of Baltimore (think sort of an updated version of Estrus Records, at least in the graphics dept). Plus it’s named after a Love song so of course it’s good, man! This ish has interviews with The Improbables (done by some wanker named Hinely) and Louie Louie plus some most excellent graphics and reviews. Do me a favor, inundate Scott with orders so he continues with this one. www.hiddenvolume.com
The Big Takeover (#80) As I stated last time, if editor Jack Rabid hits issue one hundred I wanna be there for that party. Every June and December one of these drops into my mail box (thanks Jack!) . This time around it’s Chrissie Hynde of The Pretender (on da’ cover) plus other heavyweights like Tommy Stinson, part two of the Lush interview, Tobin Sprout, The Black Watch, Sleaford Mods, Grandaddy and more and lots of more including short takes and a boatload (or truckload if you prefer) of reviews. Also, as I stated last time, you need to subscribe. www.bigtakeover.com
Bored Out (#1) Ok, not really a zine, more like a book (it’s bound) but zine-ish enough as editor Ryan Leach has put together one hell of a lineup here including totally in-depth interviews with Kid Congo Powers, In the Red Record’s Larry Hardy, The Bats’ Robert Scott, Jeffrey Evans formerly of the Gibson Bros, Ross Johnson, The Blasters’ Dave Alvin, The Real Kids’ John Felice and plenty more. I’m about halfway through and totally fascinated. This one’s a keeper, order now. www.spacecaserecords.com
Dynamite Hemorrhage (#4) So for this issue, his 4th since coming back from the dead (so to speak…editor Jay Hinman used to do the great Superdope in the 90’s) Mr. Hinman decided to go all half-sized on us (just like the early issues of Superdope) but it still looks way sharp. In this ish he has an interview with The Kiwi Animal as well as a terrific piece on Happy Squid Records, plus he updates his old piece of 45 45’s that moved heaven and earth to expand it to 100 45’s. In addition, plenty of reviews all wrapped up in a nice little package that only Hinman can put together. www.dynamitehemorrhage.com Vulcher (#3) Yes! The Vulcher crew are on a real roll here and yes, they’re already working on issue #4. The crew is Eddie Flowers, Kelsey Simpson and “Sonic” Sam Murphy and a long list of contributors (including yours truly) and they really delve deep and deliver here. It has the feel of an old school mag and this time around are bits ‘n pieces on Eric Dolphy, Obnox, early 45s by Jim Dickinson, Uncle Meat, The Embryonics, Big Boy Pete, a piece on the late, great David Peel, my piece on two great Aussie garage rock comps and really too much more. Well worth every penny. Write Eddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kelsey at email@example.com
A striking new album from the songwriter pulls music out of the ether.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
“I’m one part psychedelic gypsy and three parts blue-eyed refugee,” Mike Scott sings on his new album, and indeed that description gives some small insight into his musical persona. Yet it doesn’t tell all. Not by a long shot.
The fact is, Scott has never lacked for ambition. As both the erstwhile leader of the Waterboys and a journeyman all on his own, he’s specialised in sweeping widescreen epochs that draw on his Scottish origins by recalling the grace and grandeur of his homeland’s rugged windswept environs. The band’s archetypical classics This Is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues set the standard, but in the 30 years since, Scott has never stopped challenging himself or those who await every note with breathless anticipation.
Nevertheless, Scott remains something of an anomaly, a perennial troubadour ever in search of his musical roots. Evocative, inspired and imbued with spiritual essence, Scott strives to connect the music of his Scottish forebears with the appeal necessary to lure a contemporary audience.
Scott’s latest effort under the Waterboys moniker is entitled Out of All This Blue, a sprawling two record set (Three in the deluxe version) that finds him paying homage to certain cities visited on his last American tour — New York, Nashville and Santa Fe in particular — while also experimenting with new rhythms that drive his music into new and more experimental realms. It’s a remarkable ambitious effort, created mostly by Scott himself with studio assists from veteran bassist David Hood, ongoing compatriot, fiddler Steve Wickham, Brother Paul on keys and Zach Ernst on lead guitar. Stunning in its scope, it’s easily Scott’s most diverse set yet.
Blurt recently had the opportunity to speak to Scott from New York where we found him in the midst of a series of press interviews for the new album. He graciously gave of his time in sharing insights into the new album and his career overall.
BLURT: So how are you doing Mike?
SCOTT: I’m fine. I just arrived here in New York last night.
Apparently you love New York, at least according to that song on your new album, “New York, I Love You.”.
I’m a downtown dude, but I’m here in Midtown so I feel like I’m in a foreign country.
Your latest album is wonderful as always. So what went into the writing of these songs? How long have they been gestating, so to speak?
They were written in a period from April 2015 to the end of 2016. It was recorded quickly in between concert tours and festivals. I worked with some hip-hop and funk beats which I manipulated to get just the way I wanted them. I was working on my own mostly, but I did bring members of the band in for individual sessions. Much of the work was done solitary at my home studio. To me, it sounds like a departure, leading into a more funk or pop region, which is somewhere in the background of the Waterboys’ music. It’s kind of like “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandelas. I never realized how big an influence on me that it was. And now it’s all come to the fore on this record.
So how did this all come about? What have you been listening to specifically that might have had an impact on you?
I never listen to rock music at all. What I listen to is jazz and soul music. A lot of music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s… Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Booker T and the MGs, Marvin Gaye, Motown singles, King Curtis. That’s my speed, man. So now I’m trying to make music like that for the first time. I’m actually channelling those influences.
At one point, you opted to go solo and you branded your albums with your name only. Yet, the band is still centered around you, and so at this point, how much of the Waterboys is about you, and how much is about the band?
It’s a blur. It is me and I’m the center of the operation. The last album, Modern Blues, was a band album, and so we do come together and record as a band. But this album, it’s mostly me. And yet, the other musicians are a big part of it. Steve Wickham was my great musical advisor on this record. He was one of the go to guys that would be give me feedback when I needed it, when I wanted to test an arrangement or direction. Steve only plays on half the album with his fiddle, but his musical ear was involved on the whole record. I also used several Americans on this record and they had a huge influence on my writing because I felt as if I was writing the songs for them to play. A lot of American people are Anglophiles who think life is greener on the other side of the Atlantic, but it’s the other way around for me and other people from Britain. We think American music is the “It.” We are so enamoured of places like New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Nashville – the cradle of all these great kinds of American music. So having these American guys in the band was a great thrill, especially David Hood. David Hood was part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He played with James Brown. He played on “Loves Me like a Rock” with Paul Simon. He played with the Staple Singers and now he’s in my band! So that was a big inspiration for me, to think I’m writing songs for those guys to play. There was big influences from the band members even if they didn’t play on the whole thing.
American music has always seemed to be a big lure for musicians from other parts of the world. But English music is a fascination for us over here, and one of the things that has always been so fascinating about the Waterboys are those Celtic sounds that were so integral to the early music.
They’re still there, but they are very much in the background at the moment. They’re like a band member who is back in the shadows and comes forward to do a solo. The next record which I’ve already started on goes much further into the world of beats and hip hop production values. But I’ve also used some Celtic material on the next record and matched it with the hip hop sounds.
This new album shows your obvious infatuation with the States based on the titles alone. For example, “New York, I Love You,” “Santa Fe,” Nashville, Tennessee”… Was this album intended to be a love letter to America?
Not consciously, no. Those three songs were the first songs written for the record. They all came after a big American tour when my head was filled with the sights and sounds of the U.S.A. Nashville was written on a flight from Atlanta to Nashville, when we played at Third and Lindsey last year. We did the song as our encore. I taught it to the band during our soundcheck. I whipped it up on the plane coming over, wrote it down on a piece of paper and when we did it as an encore, the audience cheered in all the right places. And of course, when I mentioned Nashville Tennessee, they all went crazy. That version is on the bonus disc of the album. You can hear the audience participation.
It sounds like some of the songs came rather quickly and some had been around since the last album.
They began in the summer of 2015 and they all came rather quickly. I do have several years of backed up songs, but that wasn’t the case here. These are all new recordings.
Were there songs that weren’t used this time around? Songs that didn’t make the cut?
Yes, there were three or four that were good enough for the record, but I didn’t get it down to the right version. Those will be on the next record, including the title track, “Out of All This Blue.”
Was the fact that you had a wealth of quality material that inspired you to make this a double album? Was there any initial thought as to making it a single album?
I had the conviction to make it a double album. I wanted to take the band into the studio for two weeks and do a double. It was time. So I kept writing, and fortunately for me, the songs kept coming, and they came fast. And then something happened in my mind to change the plan. When we finished our tour at the end of 2015, I realized that we hadn’t made any money. We had only broken even. So I didn’t have a budget to go into the studio, which had been my plan. I didn’t want to wait, although I could have waited through another summer festival season and made money that way. But it would have been too hard to wait and I wanted to go into the studio straight away. So I started working at home with beats and loops. Fortunately, our drummer, who is one of the top drummers in the U.K. — we’re very lucky to have him — made one of these drum collections like drummers do. I asked for a copy, and he said fine. But unfortunately, due to technology, you can only get it through the drum loop website. So he sent me to this place called producerloops.com and it had thousands of super cool hip-hop beats. I spent a lot of time going through them, and the ones I got were the dirtiest, funkiest things that I could find. So it gave me many, many grooves for this album. I loved the loops so much I just kept using them. As I said, I didn’t have a budget for this album so it worked out really well.
It appears that throughout your career, you’ve never lost your inspiration. You’ve gone from peak to peak. After some 35 years, you still seem to be as inspired as always. How are you able to sustain that enthusiasm?
I’ve been asked this question a lot and I don’t mind it at all. It’s a good question. The real answer is that I don’t know. I’m still hungry and I’m still turned on by music. I’m not sure why and I don’t know any other way to be. I don’t know why it is the way it is for me. If I could speculate, I would say that there have been a few times throughout my musical life where I could have compromised and done what people wanted me to do. But it would have gone contrary to my musical instincts and cost me big time in terms of my inspiration. It’s that inspiration that helps me to keep going. That’s not to say that I occasionally lose it. I’ve had a few years where I didn’t have any new songs. But when that happens, I don’t get hung up on it. I just wait for the muse to reappear again and it always does.
You had great success early on — with albums such as This Is the Sea and Dream Harder in particular. You sold a lot of records, had great success on the charts, and it was at a relatively early stage in your career. Did that set that a high bar that you felt compelled to exceed every time out after that?
No, I didn’t at all. I don’t think much about chart positions. Of course, I’m very happy when my songs are successful. When they’re hits, it’s a wonderful feeling. I want the maximum number of people to hear them. So I’m not just making records for myself in my cave. I’m making them with the audience in mind. But I still do what I do regardless of whether it falls into fashion and whether the critics and the public go out and buy the record. I’m still going to do it anyway. In ’85 to ’93 when the records went into the charts, it was great, but I think this record is better than any of those records, and maybe the last one was too. And maybe the one before that as well. But I think part of it was because I was a young artist, and I had an awareness of myself. Everybody likes writing about new artists who they can claim to have discovered or can take kudos for having discovered. It’s very difficult to get that attention when there’s not that newness any more. But I love making records regardless. And even the success that I had during that period was mainly in the U.K. and Europe. I didn’t really have a big American record. I still want that. That keeps me motivated because I feel that I still have something to prove. I think I’m as good a singer, writer, and artist as anyone of my generation. Some have done better than me, but I think I’m as good as them in a competitive way. So I think I still have something to prove.
What sort of feedback do you get back from fans? Do you have an opportunity to interact?
Yes, of course. I’m active on the internet, on social media. I’m on twitter, so people are always tweeting me about my music and Donald Trump.
Your Dear Mr. Yates album, based on the work of the poet of the same name, was very interesting. Out of curiosity, is there some other literary influence that might inspire a similar album in the future?
I don’t think so. I think it’s possible I might do a themed album along those lines, a specific topic album, but not a poet’s work again, no. Only Yates had that effect on me.
You just mentioned Trump and the tweets. Do you have an interest in politics or the state of the world to such an extent it might influence your direction?
Anything that I feel strongly about is up for songwriting, but so far, even though I have strong feelings about Trump and his fake government, I haven’t written anything about that. I did write two songs with some topical interest however. One is called “Eye Candy for the Ladies,” which is written from Donald’s point of view. (sings) “Oh man, I’m eye candy for the ladies, oh man I’m a beautiful thing.” It went on like that, but it wasn’t good enough. So I gave up on singing about Donald Trump. It just wasn’t any fun. Then I had another one called “Pink in America, White,” which was inspired by those idiots who gathered in the south with burning torches and all their ideas about white supremacy. It was good, but it didn’t quite meet my standards. So until one does, I ain’t going to be writing about it.
As someone from the U.K. who has spent a lot of time in the States, how do you see what’s going on over here? Has your view of the U.S. changed at all?
I think there’s an identity crisis going on for America. America is a young country. It’s 241 years old and it’s relatively young. So I see America as a relatively young and gifted teenager, but one that’s going through an identity crisis. Isn’t America supposed to be a multicultural, give me your people yearning to be free kind of place, or is it actually a paranoid, right wing, white supremacist nation with those fanatics, the evangelical Christians? Which is it? America hasn’t decided yet?
It seemed like the country had decided until certain elements came into play.
Yes, but the bonkers, religious right wing has been growing since the ‘70s. I remember the moral majority and all that. It got stronger and stronger and became the Tea Party, and now there’s Trump. It’s been there a long time. It’s part of America’s DNA and they’re up for a revolution. That’s what I think. A transformation.
It’s a little scary.
Yes, very scary.
Getting back to the subject of music, let’s go back a bit. What were your early influences? Were you raised in a musical family? What were you listening to growing up?
My mum and dad had a record player. I can still see it now. It was one of those polished wood gramophones with a radio. It was actually called a radiogram. You’d open a little door and there was actually a sweet smelling little record deck inside and there was a panel where you could store your LPs. I remember we had Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. And they had 78s as well and I used to play those. Then I got turned on to the pop charts when I was about nine years old, and mum and dad would buy me a single every week.
Your parents nurtured your musical interest. That was nice.
So at what point did you decide that this was what you wanted to do?
When I was 12 years old.
That’s early on!
Yes. My dad gave me a guitar for my tenth birthday and it leaned against the wall for about 18 months until a friend of mine showed me three chords – E, A and B7. So at first I could play “At the Hop,” “Ride a White Swan,” “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Long Tall Sally,” any of those old tracks. So that’s what I did in my bedroom.
You seem to have a very spiritual sensibility about you, and it’s always been present in your music, whether it’s at the surface or not. How does that spirituality inform you, musically, personally or otherwise?
There’s just seems to be a sense of enlightenment about what you do.
Well, thank you.
It seems like you look to a higher plain. And that seems to have been an element in the Waterboys’ music since the beginning. There’s that upward glance. Is that something you can talk about? Where does it come from? Is it inspired by the music, or the other way around? Is it a desire to share some part of the universe?
It’s hard for me to get perspective on it because I don’t know anything else. I think you put it correctly when you said maybe it comes naturally and I don’t think about it. I don’t belong to any specific religion. I was never interested in Christianity when I was growing up. The form of Christianity that I knew in Scotland was very gray and very boring. Singing hymns and going to church never interested me at all. I think I learned more about life and living by reading the Narnia books than anything that I’ve read since. I wouldn’t say the Narnia books are a Christian allegory or anything, because I don’t think the author, C.S. Lewis, was bound by his Christianity. He transcended it. He managed to manage to articulate wisdom and spiritual truth that are common to all the world’s great religions. If I was to meet C.S. Lewis, I would disagree with him about Christianity, but I would agree with him about love. What I learned about his books was the power of love. There’s a line in one of my new songs called “If the Answer is Yeah,” and the guy in the song has to answer the question, “Do you own your own shadow?” I’ve learned that if I want to progress as a human being you’ve got to own your own shadow. I have to look into my own darkest corners, see what’s there and own my own problems. Yes, that was me and when I do that, I can recognize my own light. So that’s a constant daily thing to work on, and now that I’m a dad for the first time at the age of 54 — my sons are age four and seven months — these are things that I will teach them as they grow up.
There’s a lot of spiritual profundity in what you just said. It’s very profound and that’s what I was referring to. You share a lot of insight through your music. There’s an awareness that’s always been a hallmark of your music since the beginning.
In my career, there have been times when that’s come right to the forefront of my music, and it’s very costly to do that. When I began my solo career in the mid ‘90s, I did so in a way that was very counterproductive. When George Michael went solo, after he had a lot of success with Wham, he had his greatest commercial success with “Careless Whisper,” which was recorded in an American studio with the great Jerry Wexler and the cream of America’s session musicians. It had a super cool saxophone riff. And it was so well produced and well promoted and that’s how he started his solo career. It was like a home run. I started my solo career making a one man, acoustic, spiritual album in a spiritual community and playing all the instruments myself. I couldn’t have done it in a more different way than George. And it cost me commercially. I don’t mind because it’s what I had to do at the time. So what I’m saying is, sometimes these things come right to the front of the music. These days. I don’t feel the need to write about those topics. Still, they always sink into the lyrics a little bit. They’re always informing the lyrics. So I can see how you pick up on that.
There’s a certain mystique that accompanies your music, and that’s what creates great anticipation for every new album. It will always have that uplifting element to it.
So what’s the plan going forward from here?
I’m going to tour in the U.K. and Europe in six weeks’ time with a nine piece band! We have a couple of backup singers as well as the lead guitarist from the band Royal Southern Brotherhood. A really cool player. Then we’ll have a little bit of a break and then in the spring and after that we’re going to tour again in Britain. Then I hope to come back to the U.S.A. and Japan as well. And then I hope to finish the next record as well.
Above: Scott with his fiddler Steve Wickham. Below, a video clip of the duo performing in Austin during SXSW 2013 at BLURT’s annual day party.
On their new album Fantastic Plastic,,Cyril, Chris, & Co. hit the ignition button and blast off in a spectacular return to form.
BY BARRY ST. VITUS
With the state of decay that rock ‘n’ roll has composted into over the last several years, it’s important to have a touchstone like the Flamin’ Groovies to reboot our brains and remind us what it’s really all about. Since the original lineup formed in ’66, their lineups over the years have seen more changes than Drumpf’s White Power House staff appointments, but, have remained pretty true to their original sound through it all. This point in time finds them still creatively brilliant in both writing and playing. Although ex-Charlatan/Groovie Michael Wilhelm and band co-founder Roy Loney weren’t involved in this latest resurrection, original bassist George Alexander makes the scene on most of the tunes, drummer Victor Penalosa and former member Chris Wilson co-writes about half the numbers with Cyril Jordan, after a 38-year separation.
This partnership is where the ignition hits the combustible and blast-off is achieved, and is pretty damned spectacular. Their touring lineup includes bassist Chris von Sneidern and Tony (grandson of Soupy) Sales on drums. After Jordan and Wilson rekindled their friendship in 2013, they started slowly recording tunes at a Sausalito studio, slowly piecing together an album over a 3-year period.
Having been a fan since Sneakers was released in ‘68, I was blown away from the first couple of tunes, and greatly impressed by this latest incarnation. Through the decades, their musical choices have always been a bit out of sync with the current time period, making them not exactly appealing to the hippies of the late ‘60’s, with songs that sounded like they were lifted from artists of the previous decade, in a period of folk-rock and psychedelia. Plastic Fantastic (Sonic Kick Records; no website listed) stays true to their vision, belting out tunes that cover ground remindful of British Invasion bands, classic rock, power-pop, Mod and Freakbeat. There’s even a tasty instrumental thrown in.
I can’t let the great cover by Jordan go by without a nod. Jordan drew Mickey Mouse comics at Disney in the ‘80’s, and had hoped to get famous Mad magazine Jack Davis draw a cover for some future project. Davis agreed, but passed away before it came to fruition. Putting rapidograph to paper, he came up with this very serviceable homage to Davis’s 1959 cover for Monster Rally.
The album kicks off with a ballsy, bluesy, Stones-flavored smack-down, “What The Hell’s Going On.” It’s a clear shot across the bow, letting you know that they aren’t screwing around. It also makes for a pretty good anthem for 2017. “The End Of The World” couldn’t sound more Groovies-infused (think “Shake Some Action”) if they had a gun pointed at their head and were forced to clone their signature sound. They dig into the Beau Brummels’ catalog and juice up their classic Mod-ish number “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” really capturing the atmosphere of that time period. Their Flamingo-era flavored “Let Me Rock” shakes things up old-school style and belongs on juke boxes in soda shops everywhere. This is not the ’71 version, but a fresh update. Rock on, indeed!
“She Loves You” and “I Want You Bad” revisit the jangle of “Shake Some Action” and “You Tore Me Down” to lovely effect, making it not much of a stretch for them both to have come from that era. Early Beatles-sound shines through (ala “Long Tall Sally”/”Matchbox”/”Slow Down”) on “Crazy Macy,” thanks to a pounding Jerry Lee beat. This was a single released by the band about a year ago as a tasty appetizer for the upcoming album. “Lonely Hearts,” as the title evokes, is a broody ballad about separation, love lost and hope of reconciliation. “Just Like A Hurricane” rolls in a lot like Ferry’s “Let’s Stick Together” but with throbbing guitars and wah-wah instead of a horn section.
It sounds like all voices are joining in on “Fallen Star,” which locomotes and chugs right along like a freight train, with some fine guitar riffs, fading out with some Byrdsian guitar chimes. I’m endlessly disappointed that bands don’t do more instrumentals, but the band shines through here with “I’d Rather Spend My time With You,” which is about one step removed from a surf number, with a sprinkling of “ahhhs.” Drummer Prairie Prince joins in on drums, along with bass parts laid down by noted producer-archivist Alec Palao. A Byrdsy beginning kicks off “Cryin’ Shame,” a very ‘60’s sound, accompanied with nice harmonies on the chorus parts.
It has to be noted, that even with a pretty amazing catalog on the shelves from decades back, Fantastic Plastic might just be their finest effort. This is the music that stirs your loins and flies in your face like the sweet bird of youth come home to roost. Fingers crossed that this isn’t their Final Vinyl.
“A blitzkrieg of stories, anecdotes and tips on life”—and a night made all the more poignant and memorable in the aftermath of the legendary drummer’s untimely recent passing.
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
I learned recently that one of my punk rock heroes is no longer of this world.
Grant Hart, the drummer and songwriting foil to Bob Mould in the now legendary Husker Du, has lost his battle with cancer. He was 56. I am saddened by this loss to the music world; a blow like this hit music nerds—like myself—hard. Hart is undoubtedly one of most influential drummers of alternative music and punk. He laid out a racket before him that has been copied many times over by countless bands, but no one got it quite as spot on as Hart.
He brought jazz precision and heavy metal aggression to the growing punk rock landscape and should be remembered as one of the Underground finest songsmiths. Whether it be with Husker Du (the band’s Zen Arcade is considered to be the greatest concept album punk has ever produced), as leader of Nova Mob, a solo performer, or as a well-respected artist, Hart has left his mark on the world, a mark that will never fade.
I’ll be honest: My job as a music journalist can be a pain in the ass at times. Labels, bands, publicists can be, shall we say, a sensitive lot. Don’t get me wrong; I love my job and have done it to the best of my abilities for the past twenty years. I’ve been to great shows and have seen wild things that have no place in print. Every once in awhile you meet someone, that changes your perception of music and life in general.
That hero for me was and is Grant Hart.
The first time I met Grant was at the Recordbar in Kansas City. He was opening for his former SST label mates The Meat Puppets; I had interviewed Kurt Kirkwood for a piece in The Pitch and was invited to the show. As I am standing at the merch table preparing to purchase yet another black t-shirt, this dude came up to me and commented about the Jack Kerouac button on my leather jacket. “You know, I’ve got William Burroughs’ copy of On the Road.” He said. My reply, in the horrible lighting of that small club? “Yeah? Good for you.” He laughed. After the show, he caught up with me at the bar. I apologized for my rudeness, to which he responded by buying me a beer. We talked about punk, guitars, the pros and cons of touring and whether or not there would be a Husker Du reunion. If there was hope for the reunion (he seemed to think it would happen) sadly, now that will never happen. After a half hour or so at the bar, he climbed into his goal minivan and drove to the next show like he had done a million times before in his 40+ career in music.
Fast forward six or seven years. I had met filmmaker Gorman Bechard after I had given a favorable praise to an exceptional documentary he had done on Minnesota groundbreakers The Replacements called Color Me Obsessed: A Film about the Replacements. When it came time for a follow-up, he aimed his lens on one of the most open characters in the history of punk and alternative music in general. When it was completed, Gorman sent me an early copy of Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart. What I saw was one of the best rock docs I’d ever seen. Not only for the quality director’s eye of Bechard but for the raw openness that Hart brought to the process: no bullshit, let’s do this and do it right.
The review that I originally did for BLURT MAGAZINE later was selected for the anthology, That Devil Music.com: Best Rock Writing of 2014. Because of all this, something happened that I never, in all my days, thought would happen, I was invited to dinner with Grant Hart.
Gorman told me that he and Grant would be in Lawrence, KS, for a showing of Every Everything at The Free State Film Festival. Hart was scheduled to hold a Q&A accompanied by a performance and showing of the film. Gorman reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in have dinner with he and Grant before the showing. Would I be interested? Are you fucking kidding me?? Of course I was interested.
It was not to be an interview; Grant liked my review and wanted to shoot the shit. No recording devices, no note pads, just food and conversation. After some fanboy awkwardness on my part, the talking began. Hart talked at a mile a minute, rambling on about music, his love of classic cars especially a 1955 Studebaker Champ, art, the film, his hopes for a Husker Du reunion, the man knew many things about many things. This went by as a four hour blur, a blitzkrieg of stories, anecdotes and tips on life.
As we walked down Massachusetts Street, beer in hand, heading to the premiere of Every Everything, he asked when I wanted to do the interview.
An interview is not needed; this was not about work; this night felt like two friends talking about life, music, and the joys of a well-made car.
From Phillips’ review of the documentary:
“Hart seems to be both at peace and at battle with his life. Nothing illustrates the point more than this sad tidbit from his childhood: Grant started drumming because, at 10 years old, he lost his brother Tom, who was a drummer, tragically in an accident. Grant inherited the drum set and started playing because a family member thought it would be a way “for Tom to live on.” Hart is a man constantly looking for something, looking for himself. To do so, he seems to be ready, willing and able to lay his demons in full view.
“Therein lays the beauty of Every Everything; where many iconic rock figures would most likely hide behind anecdotes from their career , vagaries, and a need to keep their legend intact, Grant throws everything on the table and starts chopping away.
“Hart is a man with a story to tell and Bechard’s film is a near perfect place to hear that story. All you have to do is sit down, watch and listen.”
A pull quote from that review appeared on the cover of the official Record Store Day vinyl release of the film’s soundtrack. Below: a photo of Hart and Mould that Mould posted at his Facebook page after Hart’s death.
Songwriter, guitarist, singer, artist, a mentor, an inspiration—a spark.
BY FRED MILLS
Dynamic Nashville indie rockers Those Darlins broke up last year, but the garagey and totally rock ‘n’ roll outfit left behind a memorable decade-long legacy. Simply stated, and as we put it in a 2013 feature on the band, the group served up “tough, fully realized songs; muscular, rocking playing; smart arrangements; convincing singing—the whole package.”
So… this week brought the immensely sad news that one of Those Darlins’ two frontwomen, Jessi Zazu, has passed away from cervical cancer, leaving a huge hole in the collective heart of we here at BLURT, and no doubt in the hearts of fans across the globe. The Tennessean reported that she died Tuesday, September 12, at Nashville’s Centennial hospital. She had family members and friend with her at the time of her passing.
The gifted, witty musician was only 28, which makes the loss all the more poignant. She was raised a musical family (her uncle was country star Steve Wariner), telling us, in that 2013 interview, “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
Zazu, fellow guitarist Nikki Kvarnes, and bassist Kelley Anderson formed the band in ’06, eventually drafting drummer Linwood Regensburg after the release of their 2009 self-titled debut, and with the release of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the critical floodgates—not to mention the public’s adoration—poured forth. Early on, the word was that the almost-all-gal band was a distaff take on the venerable insurgent country ethos (as epitomized by the Bloodshot Recs stable of mavericks). Which was fair enough; twang ‘n’ drawl was certainly a large part of the band’s sound, abetted by telling covers of both A.P. Carter and Uncle Dave Macon, and it was also pretty hard to overlook their moniker and their record label name (the delightfully blue collar-sounding Oh Wow Dang Records) in terms of presuming some serious hillbilly action going on. But by the time of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the group’s garage-punk roots were also on clear display, with reverby electric guitars as prominent as strummed acoustics, and some serious ‘60s girl-group vocals creeping into the mix as well.
Though Anderson left the following year, to be replaced by Adrian Barrera (from Gentlemen Jesse & His Men), Those Darlins lost no momentum, leading to 2013’s Roger Moutenot-produced Blur the Line, which figured highly—and in many cases, topped—that year’s best-of lists from critics and fans. (Pick to click: The sexysaucycool, almost T.Rex-like “In the Wilderness,” accompanied by an even sexier and cooler video.) It was a bold, mature, genre-traversing album beholden to no single factor other than talent. Sadly, the group wouldn’t last to cut a fourth album although for Record Store Day 2015 they did appear on a split album with Diarrhea Planet, Live at Pickathon.
“On December 9, 2015, the band announced, via its Facebook page, that it was going on hiatus. “We’re here to deliver some unfortunate news… Those Darlins will be taking an indefinite hiatus effective after our final tour in January. We’ve had a really great run together, but the time has come for us to move in different directions. We really appreciate all the love and support from our friends, fans, and family over the years.”
Zazu subsequently turned to working on her art; according to The Tennessean, she mounted a display in June at the Julia Martin Gallery that included works from her mother Kathy Wariner. And she also made public her battle with cancer, having been diagnosed in early 2016. She created a striking tee-shirt design reading “Ain’t Afraid” in order to raise funds for her chemotherapy, and as Those Darlins had been one of Nashville’s most popular indie rock groups, the fanbase responded accordingly. A recent John Prine tribute concert in Nashville even wound up being a Zazu fundraiser—those Darlins had previously appeared on a Prine tribute album—when the organizers announced they were donating the proceeds to her medical fund.
As of this writing no announcement had been made regarding a funeral or memorial.
“Zazu was a rock star in her hometown, but one completely free of attitude. She lifted up her peers and always welcomed newcomers. As an integral part of Southern Girls Rock Camp, she devoted herself to convincing girls that they could talk about anything, through music and also through visual art, her other medium. Small in stature, Jessi lived her message that creativity can make a person — especially a young woman — heroic, though she’d never use such a self-inflating term. Jessi was more playful and ever-curious, a 21st-century female version of Jack conquering the beanstalk — always climbing higher, killing giants, enlarging her worldview.
“More remarkably, she never stopped creating. In her last year, she produced enough drawings, ceramics and other artworks to stage two major exhibitions, recorded an as-yet unreleased album, and kept coming up with new projects… Fundamentally, she was a spark. She started things, connected people, lit the ignition in our sometimes tired minds and hearts. Her slogan was “Ain’t Afraid” — and she wasn’t, because there was no darkness that her brilliance couldn’t cut through, or at least make light enough to live in. The fiery particle that was the gift she gave us will never burn out.”
In the aforementioned 2013 interview, Zazu offered contributor Steven Wilson a number of memorable quotes regarding her roots and her approach to music. They bear repeating here. After that, check out some more of the band’s delightful videos as well as some choice live clips.
Jessi Zazu on…
…her childhood and path to music: “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. My parents were artists. I was around creativity my whole life… I never considered many other options. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
…John Fogerty & Creedence: “I was a huge fan of John Fogerty when I was a little girl. I love his guitar playing. When I [first] heard Creedence on the radio I said, ‘Mom, who is this?’ I loved the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Creedence’s Chronicle. Those were the two first albums I got into. So much of that is still alive in my songwriting.”
…Neil Young: We listened to a lot of Neil Young. We read his book Waging Heavy Peace, and listened to Zuma—well, most of his albums actually!”
…Patti Smith: “Nikki and I were listening to a lot of Patti Smith [before cutting Blur the Lines]… we had read her book Just Kids and sort of went on a Patti kick… [And the Velvet Underground] “was a connecting point.”
…musical influences in general: “We do have a lot of influences from the past, not a lot of current influences [but] part of what I wanted to accomplish was to take our influences and make something meant for now.”
… being based in Nashville, where relationships can often be adversarial: “Everybody’s played a million shows, everybody has the best gear, everybody’s better than you are.”
…her philosophy of music-making: I want to be really honest in everything we’re doing, especially in the lyrics, because honesty is the only way to be original. [So] I have to check myself and I want to be as brutally honest as I can right now. Part of the goal with this album was to be about now, not the past, not the future. The inability to be ‘in the now’ is the cause of the modern identity crisis we all have. I get irritated when people say, ‘I wasn’t made for these times.’ You were made for these times because you were born in these times!”
At the time of the Rain Parade’s 1984 mini-album Explosions in the Glass Palace, the California psychedelic argonauts had slimmed from a quintet to a four-piece, founding member David Roback having split following the previous year’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip to form Opal. With guitarist Matt Piucci now helming the group—which included at the time bassist Stephen Roback, drummer Eddie Kalwa, and violinist/keyboardist Will Glenn—the group seemed more focused than ever.
That five-songer was recently reissued, in fact, and its sonic strengths are legion. BLURT’s own Michael Toland, reviewing EITGP, wrote that there’s “not a loser in the bunch. “Blue” and “You Are My Friend” present more perfectly crafted pop, while “Prisoners” and “Broken Horse” delve into overtly acid-drenched mini-epics. The EP ends with the anthemic powerhouse “No Easy Way Down,” then as now the band’s definitive track.”
Indeed, the record has held up over time and still stands as one of THE classic artifacts of the early ‘80s Amerindie underground. It certainly cemented the group’s reputation, and following a lineup shuffle that found Kalwa being replaced by drummer Mark Marcum and guitarist John Thoman joining the fold, the Rain Parade signed with Island Records and released a powerhouse of a live-in-Japan album, Beyond the Sunset.
Appearing on both EITGP and the live record is the haunting, midtempo ballad “Blue,” a touch-of-jangledom gem that became a fan favorite, so much so that it got picked up by at least two other bands. In our latest “The Inspiration Behind…” episode, Piucci discusses that and reveals the song’s origins.
The tune’s lyrics bear reprinting here, for as you’ll read, “Blue” has a very specific memory attached to it for Piucci.
Down that street
Just like people you might meet
On her face
The loneliness she can’t escape
Who could ever take her place?
Her little one
Seemed like life had just begun
On the phone
Then we knew we were all alone
But all our tears wouldn’t bring her home.”
What was the initial inspiration for the song?
I worked at Peter West Datsun on Santa Monica as a cashier before Rain Parade started touring. The gal that worked with me was named Charlotte, she was my only real colleague there. First turned me on to the Thriller album, which I like. One day she didn’t show up. They found her dead in the trunk of her car a week later. Never found out what happened.
Did it take long to finish writing it?
Not really. I was in the process of stealing a chord progression from Michael Quercio and had been messing with the music. The words came all at once.
Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)
I would not know for sure, but an English review of Explosions said it was the weakest song. Americans seem to like it better. Both the Blue Aeroplanes and Buffalo Tom thought enough of it to record it, and it seems to get a good response.
Was it a staple of your live sets even years later?
Still play it today in basically every group I am in.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
Dan Stuart [Green On Red] said that I should have played the rhythm guitar on a Tele and not a Ric. He is probably right.
Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
Piece of cake. Not sure where exactly. Explosions was recorded at several places. Steven’s bass riff after the first instrumental break is wonderful.
On a remarkable new album one encounters all-over-the-map alchemical brilliance from the Black Mountain sonic savant.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Soul man. Funk fan. Dub star. Vintage rock ‘n’ roll master.
Seth Kauffman’s been fêted with all these sobriquets over the past decade in Floating Action, the one-man studio blender where the Black Mountain native conjures up his self-described “lo-fi North Carolina funk.” But is Is It Exquisite? really, well, exquisite? Though Kauffman is likely referring to a host of human experiences with that query (your music experience definitely being one of them), the answer here is a resounding and unimpeachable, hell, yes.
Rather than the rote nostalgia such sonic touchstones often yield, Kauffman’s songs hum with the vibrancy of both true believer and radical alchemist. Mile-wide grooves, catchy melodies and dubby textures are cannily crafted together to shade the vulnerable and occasionally spiritual subject matter in sunny fare — “I’m a soul lying naked and scared,” Kauffman confesses on “My Ticket Out of Here,” as fuzzy keys, a fat bottom end and boom-bap beats eventually flower into a blast of guitar distortion that’s more joyous release than check-out-these-chops solo.
Those traits should sound familiar to Floating Action devotees, and these 11 tracks don’t veer far from the sonic foundations that Kauffman finds so durable; by that yardstick change remains gradual in the Floating Action world. But to focus solely on the nuance is to miss the point almost entirely here. These solid structures allow Kauffman to graft pretty much anything he can think of onto these songs, and that’s something that he seems to somehow get better at with each passing LP. (As a rare twangy example of his songs’ malleability, check out the free download from 2008, Live at the Grey Eagle.)
And so it goes with Is It Exquisite? Vintage Tonto-like synths and chopped-up beats highlight the pleading opener “Don’t Desert Me,” the soulful “Seek Then I Found” seems to resurrect Teenie Hodges’ magic guitar fills, and Kauffman even throws some vintage scratching onto “The Silent One,” transforming it from lonely hymn to Sedgwick Avenue hoe-down. A subtle, swirling mellotron haze accompanies the catchy choruses of “My Blood Is Bright Red,” while disc-closer “Controlled Burn” offers a master class in dubby texturing (its 11-minute run-time might be the LP’s one overindulgence). Even a couple of finger-picked acoustic numbers—”Last of the Wild Cards” and “Won’t Be Long”—transform into something greater via chopped beats or subversive syncopation.
Kauffman would probably (and rightly) bridle at the “musician’s musician” tag—though accompanying the latest publicity are imprimaturs from past collaborators Jim James, Dan Auerbach and Angel Olsen, among others. After all, musicians shouldn’t be the only ones spellbound by Floating Action’s alchemical brilliance. These songs are, simply put, great songs, arguably the best Floating Action set yet, and their adaptability to Kauffman’s studio R&D testifies to their fundamental versatility.
Will a larger audience ever catch up? Who knows. For now, and again, the lucky ones are just floating along in Kauffman’s idyllic future past. Come, join us.
Consumer/collector note: For vinyl nuts, in addition to a standard black vinyl release, about 200 copies were pressed on colored vinyl, and colors were inserted randomly in sleeves so fans didn’t know what color they were getting until they opened the package. There is also a cassette edition via Baby Tooth. Those who preordered Exquisite from PIAPTK or Baby Gas Mask Records also received a bonus lathe cut 7” picture disc of Floating Action covering Pepi Ginsberg’s “The Waterline” and a 12×18″ poster.
With an eagerly-anticipated new album finally in the bins, the quartet is stronger than ever. Photo: Travis Shinn
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been eight years since Living Colour put out their last album, but they didn’t expect it to be that long.
In fact, they mentioned that Shade, their sixth and latest LP, was close to being completed back in 2014. But, ultimately the band just thought the album could be better, so they kept at it for a few more years.
The band’s perfectionism proved worth it, though, as you’d have to go back decades to their 1988 debut to find an album just as consistently strong, track for track. It’s one of their most political, socially aware albums, with themes of gun violence and racial profiling throughout. One of the high points is a rock re-imagining of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya.”
Along with rock and metal, there are plenty of blues influences throughout the record, notably Robert Johnson’s timeless “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”.
Drummer Will Calhoun spoke recently about their experiment to deconstruct the blues on Shade, the delay in releasing the album and why they still haven’t grown tired of playing “Cult of Personality” for the past 30 years. The band: Calhoun, vocalist Corey Glover, bassist Doug Wimbish, and guitarist Vernon Reid.
BLURT: The new album is great. I read that the concept was a 21st century deconstruction of the blues. Can you talk about what that means?
CALHOUN: The blues is our life story. We are deconstructing the traditional aspects of the blues and inserting present day issues and concepts. Much of the story unfortunately remains the same, however we want to tell our story in the frame work of the ‘Living Colour Experience.’
Was it difficult to get everyone on board with the concept?
Absolutely not. But it took a lot of work to realize the concept completely and get it right where we wanted it!
The “Who Shot Ya” cover is sadly appropriate given the times we live in now. You initially put the song put on a mixtape last year – did you get any push back for putting that song out? No, quite the opposite. Our fans and the general music public welcomed the track and subsequent video.
It’s been eight years since the last record and I believe there were hints that Shade was close to being finished as of 2014. Why did this one take so long to come to fruition? Obstacles with new and old management, producer direction, track selections, and scheduling. Also, honesty. When we thought we were done, the record simply didn’t sound complete. So, we went back to work on other ideas.
You guys went back to Andre Betts to produce this one. You last worked with him in ’93; What was the experience like working with him again?
Great and challenging. He had a concept to play 8 to 32 bars of a groove at a certain tempo, stop, then move onto another groove. We cut roughly 20 of these grooves. Dre assembled the ideas and arrangements. Once he created a form, we went back to those grooves and began working on melodies, lyrics and group parts. This is a different approach then previous recordings. Normally we bring mostly completed songs to the table, tweak a few parts in pre-production, possibly play the new ideas in front of people in a regular pub, take some notes, then record the tunes. Dre did an amazing job of challenging us and pushing us out of our comfort zone. Knowing the band members individually and collectively gave him a historic edge.
Vivid is amazing debut record, but you guys have had some really great albums in the years since. Do you ever get frustrated that some of those later efforts get eclipsed by people wanting to hear songs from Vivid? No, not at all. In the life cycle of a band, people like what they like. Vivid had a huge impact on the entire music industry. No one could have predicted the immediate success and impact of that record. Also, it’s our debut album. People get attached to debuts, you know it’s the “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” syndrome. We enjoy pulling tunes from our catalogue in a live performance. The material is vast, and always interesting to perform.
Do you have plans to tour behind Shade?
Yes. We’re in Holland for a festival and the UK for a proper tour in September. And then we plan to hit the States throughout the remainder of 2017 and into next year. Please check LIVINGCOLOUR.com for all tour dates.
What’s next for you?
Right now, Living Colour and Shade is the focus.
Can bassist and sonic provocateur was a potent musical force from the ‘70s all the way through the present.
BY FRED MILLS
The music world has lost another giant: Holger Czukay, of Krautrock pioneers Can, has passed away from as-yet-undisclosed causes. He was 79.
According to The Guardian, Czukay “was found by a neighbour at his apartment, converted from Can’s old studio in Weilerswist near Cologne.” His body was discovered yesterday, Sept. 5.
Czukay was born in Poland in 1938, his family expelled after WWII. While growing up he took a job at a radio repair shop and became familiar with engineering and electronics, in particular shortwave radio. Later he studied music under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1963 to 1966 and eventually became a fan of underground rock music—which of course would lead to co-founding Can, for whom he oversaw most of their recordings as primary engineer.
Among the great German bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s none stand taller than Can. The group’s groundbreaking sound, a throbbing cauldron of psychedelia, dub/funk, jazz improv and warped worldbeat, influenced artists as diverse as The Fall, Gang of Four, PiL, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, and the group’s back catalog continues to inspire new generations who whiff Can’s rare essence.
Speaking to me in 1999 in an interview to promote the archival release Can Box Czukay observed how in the band’s time, “Can was never very successful, commercial-wise. But as I said at the very beginning to all the others, ‘This, what we do here, will become one day our life insurance that we give our children, and you don’t need to make insurance contracts with insurers. Just this music will do.’ And it turned out exactly this way.”
Indeed. Although he was speaking to me from overseas, I could picture him grinning broadly as we talked, offering a mischievous little giggle from time to time as he reflected on his work over the years and his ultimate legacy, of which he was deeply proud—but there was no hint of ego or vanity, for the easy-going way we conversed suggested he was a man very much comfortable in his own skin. (Below, watch the videos for his “Good Morning Story” and “Cool In the Pool,” both of which showcase Czukay’s delightfully whimsical sense of humor.)
Can came together circa 1968 at the hands of double bassist Czukay, classically trained pianist Irmin Schmidt (also a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen), free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and rock guitarist Michael Karoli. Initially the group’s vocalist was American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, although he was soon replaced by Japanese street busker Damo Suzuki. Such diverse backgrounds, plus a collective appreciation for the underground sounds of Hendrix, Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, meant that Can’s goal of fusing leftfield and oftentimes incongruous musical elements just might be attainable.
That the world outside Can’s rehearsal space, an old castle near Cologne, was undergoing huge social and political upheavals meant the Can aesthetic was nothing less than an artistic imperative. And from the outset, boundary pushing marked Can recordings and performances. The former’s outlines and textures were shaped by Czukay’s mad-scientist tape-editing techniques (must-hear early Can: 1971’s sprawling, psychedelic Tago Mago), while the latter frequently left audiences so stunned they didn’t know how to react. (A striking display of Can’s live prowess is the Peter Przygodda-filmed “Can Free Concert,” from Cologne ’72, included on 2003’s Can DVD.)
Can’s reputation soon spread beyond Germany’s borders – in ’72 the song “Spoon” became a hit single in Britain — even as the group evolved at a rapid pace. With 1973’s Future Days, Can arguably introduced ambient music to the rock world; 1975’s Landed was a then-unlikely collision of electronica, heavy metal, fake reggae and protopunk.
Still, internal pressures gradually mounted. Suzuki had left in ’73 to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving behind a hole that was never fully filled. Czukay, whose attentions were turning towards non-traditional instrumentation (e.g., short-wave radios, Dictaphones), quit in ’77 not long after the arrival of bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, both from English band Traffic. The original Can chemistry had been permanently altered, and as 1978 came to a close the decision was made to disband. (Go HERE at the Blurt site to download a pair of good sounding Can concerts from 1975 and 1976.)
The members subsequently took up their own projects, although they did come back together for a one-off reunion to record 1989’s Rite Time (documentary footage of the sessions is on Can DVD). Over the years Can aficionados have also been privy to such treats as Liebezeit’s Phantomband and Club Off Chaos ensembles; Karoli’s Sofortkontakt combo plus collaborations with Damo Suzuki; Czukay in a dizzying array of solo and collaborative guises (see below); and Schmidt’s film scores, his Gormenghast opera and his work with producer/deejay KUMO.
1999 saw the release of the above-mentioned Can Box, an elaborate book/video/live CD package. Neatly coinciding with that were “The Can Concerts” in Germany: Schmidt, Czukay, Karoli and Liebezeit each presenting his then-current solo project on the same stage — although, significantly, they did not perform together as a unit. Karoli performed with Sofortkontakt, Liebezeit as Club Off Chaos, Schmidt as Kumo and Czukay with experimental vocalist U-She. During 2004-06 the group’s back catalog was reissued as remastered SACDs, while 2012 saw the release of The Lost Tapes, a box set comprising previously unreleased material. And in 2014 the group’s back catalog was reissued on vinyl.
Czukay’s non-Can projects over the years were nothing if not intriguing. 1981 solo album On the Way to the Peak of Normal remains a critical favorite (the psychedelic gem was reissued in 2013). Other notable solo releases were 1991’s shortwave-as-live-instrument Radio Wave Surfer and 1999’s Good Morning Story featuring U-She on vocals. Two collaborations with David Sylvian were also well-regarded, as was the album Snake Charmer that he recorded with Jah Wobble, The Edge, and DJ Francois Kevorkian. He also worked with Brian Eno, Trio, and U.N.K.L.E. And 2013 brought the reissue of the uber-obscure Les Vampyrettes, an esoteric 1980 recording of Czukay and Can producer Conny Plank described along the lines of “a metallic and ghostly voice in a state of nocturnal intoxication welcomes us to a sonic backdrop of hallmark krautrock pings, drones, susurrations and clatters.”
Czukay’s beloved wife Ursula passed away this past July. Can guitarist Karoli previously died, in 2001. And Liebezeit died in January from pneumonia. Czukay’s impact upon music was profound and lasting—he will be deeply missed.
On their ambitious new album, the Chapel Hill trio aims for emotional involvement.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Emotion has always been the essential element when it comes to crafting great songs. Indeed, when all else fails, it’s those seductive sentiments that lead to the most memorable music. The trio that refers to themselves as Happy Abandon expressly echo that mantra, crafting an expansive sound that reflects the obstacles and perils that confront us all in everyday life, often at times when they’re least expected. The Chapel Hill-based trio — consisting of long time friends Peter Vance (vocals, guitar, songs), Jake Waits (drums) and Justin Ellis (bass) — make a habit of sharing their feelings through music, while spinning a rich melange of atmosphere and ambiance in the process.
Facepaint, the trio’s debut album, stirs those sentiments with a knowing aplomb, a propulsive, populist sound that leaves no possibility unturned when it comes to their decidedly bittersweet narratives. Loneliness, abandonment, family frailties and even an ultimate demise work their way into the material, only to leave listeners gasping in amazement at the honesty and earnestness that Happy Abandon brings to the fore.
Consequently, we couldn’t help but be intrigued. As a result, we took the opportunity to ask the three men about their motivation for making music and their apparent desire to elevate their intents. (Full disclosure: Facepaint is the first full-length on the Schoolkids Records label, formerly called Second Motion. Schoolkids, along with the three-store North Carolina record store chain, is BLURT’s sister business. And, I hasten to add, we have dug the band from the beginning, even inviting them to perform at our annual day party in Austin during SXSW. —Ed.)
BLURT: For starters, give us an idea of where you get your inspiration for these songs. You seem to have some very lofty ideas. So how do you translate those thoughts to your material?
Peter Vance: The inspiration for the songs are simply the most pivotal emotions and feelings I’m feeling at a specific time. All of these songs represent a mindset I found myself in, and that’s how it influenced my choices and perspective. Each song stands independently as an idea, though they work together to paint a broad picture of exposure to loss.
Production seems to be a major additive in your presentation. So tell us how you come up with the arrangements and, in turn, what it takes to bring these songs from start to fruition?
Justin Ellis: It’s very much a collaborative process. Peter usually writes the bones of the song alone on acoustic guitar or piano, and he’ll tinker with it for months before he shows it to us. We then typically jam to the song with electric guitar, bass, and drums to properly fit the dynamics of the song’s structure. Then the fun part comes in; this is where we figure out what the sonic icing might be. Typically whenever Alex (Thompson, keyboards and arrangements) is in town, that means adding loads of keyboards, piano, and synth tones, or we may start arranging string parts. We almost always add three-part harmony to the songs, but the songs aren’t really done, in my mind, until they’re recorded. Sometimes it’s because the lyrics aren’t done until it’s time to record, and sometimes it’s because there’s a violin part we discover by accident while recording, and we then must find a way to incorporate the part on another instrument so it’s present in the live show. Sometimes it’s just that the mood or energy of the song is kinda hard to pin down until it’s committed to wax, as it were. But on the flip side, the songs that we’re working on that aren’t recorded yet are really fun to work on, because nothing is concrete, and they could go through infinite permutations before we settle on the finished product.
Please give us an idea of your influences, past and present.
Peter Vance: My musical influences stem from artists who exude a combination of incredible lyricism and complex composition. I find that the one artist that has influenced me the most in both aspects — and is a nostalgic idol for me — is Sufjan Stevens. He and a few other bands/musicians (Belle and Sebastian, Andrew Bird, Bettie Serveert) exposed me to what can be accomplished when one takes chances and only uses musical tropes when it is tastefully implemented, rather than using the same formula with different variables.
As far as contextual influences go, well that comes from my background in literature and theater. My focus in college was theater, and in my earlier years I was fortunate enough to spend my time as a working actor in the Washington, DC theatre scene. This exposed me to many different playwrights who used many different writing techniques to move a plot forward. I found myself liking and disliking different writing styles, and was able to use the ones that I liked in my songs. I use a lot of imagery and alliteration because I think the combination of the two is very fun and ear catching.
Justin Ellis: I absolutely love what Alt-J, Fleet Foxes, and Local Natives have been doing lately; specifically, being able to make catchy, engaging music that is fairly popular while also having its own defined sound. I also love what those bands do with vocal harmony, and I think a lot of their musical philosophies rub off on Happy Abandon. I’m also a huge classic rock head, with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Queen being absolutely massive to my own musical formation.
Jake Waits: I came up in the school bands, the orchestra, the drum line, playing in the pits for musicals. I studied world percussion and classical percussion. Learning to play all that sheet music informed my repertoire and influenced my style — I actually had to break out of the rigidity that was drilled into me with marching drum music and learn how to relax and groove in the pocket more. Along with bands and artists across many genres. I grew up loving classic rock, and I got into some heavier metal music for a good few angst-ridden teen years. Lately, my ears have been perking up to jazz. Anything with a good beat gets me going.
You are also said to have a very dramatic stage presence in live performance. Can you describe it for us? Does it take a lot of effort and expense to make it all happen?
Jake Waits: We don’t always perform with our light show, but when we do, it adds a visual energy to our presence that encompasses the emotional energy coming from the songs. We look for ways to add colors and visual effects that enhance our set and connect the songs in ways that couldn’t be done through sound.
What was it like going into the studio for the first time? Was it an easy transition or did you find you had to make a lot of adjustment to convey your live sound to the recordings?
Justin Ellis: We have all been in bands before, and Peter, Alex, and I all studied audio production at the University of North Carolina, so I’d say we feel rather at home when we record. Facepaint was a really “homey” record to make, as we lived in Jason’s (Merritt, producer) lake house for about a week nonstop, just getting up every morning, making eggs and coffee, then playing music all day and into the night. We all play several instruments, so it was a lot of fun to just try ideas out on instruments that never make it to our shows, like banjos, mandolins, penny whistles, gongs, tubular bells, timpani… although I certainly wouldn’t rule out incorporating those in our live concert one day.
How was it that you three were able to coalesce so quickly? Did you find that your individual ideas were mostly always in sync?
Justin Ellis: I think what sets us apart from most bands is that our shared background isn’t being in rock bands since we were in high school when we met. We all studied theater at some point, and I think the work ethic you need to make theatre happen rubbed off very decidedly in this band. We take rehearsals seriously, we make sure all our voices are heard, and we know when to back down for the good of the song or the overall project. Plus, as a three-piece, we all kinda have to overplay to fill the sound in live performance, so it’s not like we ever feel boxed in. It’s really nice.
Can you share some insights into maybe four or five songs from the album that have particular significance for you?
Peter Vance: Oh man, it’s Sophie’s Choice here…
“Take Me,” “Severed Seams,” “If I Stare,” “Stop Taking Care of Me,” and “Cursed or Worse” are some of my favorites off the album. Each one not only delves into different contexts of loss, but also gives different perspectives. They’re all a bit dark, but “Take Me” ends on a bit of a brighter note, stating that if you can’t take anything from the situation, well, you can at least take me. “Severed Seams” also ends on a brighter note, but not because things worked out for everyone. It ends with the realization that things won’t work out. That in itself is an accomplishment. “If I Stare” takes a more aggressive approach to the idea of coping, where “Stop Taking Care of Me” is a plea. Finally, “Cursed or Worse” rambles through thoughts and feelings that are hard to take hold of after a traumatizing experience.
Peter is the principal songwriter—how much input does everyone else have in the crafting of the material?
Justin Ellis: I’d say we all have a pretty equal stake. Jake and I almost never have anything we want to change with Peter’s songs at their core, but sometimes we’ll suggest a slight lyric or feel change, and we go with that for a bit and see how we end up feeling as a group. But generally, because Peter spends so much time refining his songs, for the most part all we have to do is help arrange it and flesh it out once he shows them to us. We all write our own parts and backing harmonies, etc., but there is a lot of communication that goes on to make sure all the ideas suggested are at least attempted without drastically affecting the initial energy of the song.
You experienced three deaths of people that you were close to late last year. Who were the people who passed, and how did you deal with these tragedies? How did it reflect in your music?
Peter Vance: All three were incredible, beautiful people. One was a friend from middle and high school whose death was fairly prepared for by friends and family simply because of the context of the situation. However, this did not make it any easier. The other two came completely unexpectedly, and struck everyone with such force that people are still feeling the repercussions.
Jake Waits: One was my buddy since second grade. We had more adventures than I can count. He was thoughtful and loyal, and he always had a way to cheer you up. A friendly word or some sage advice he gathered from his travels would always help, whatever the trouble. He was a hell of a singer/songwriter, too. And he was number one on my Zombie Apocalypse team if it had ever come to that first.
How do you temper those more reflective elements with the more populist sentiments that you bring to the stage? Given some of these themes, you could have emerged as a very downcast outfit, no?
Justin Ellis: I think duality is important in a band. The band name itself is a little oxymoronic, and plenty of bands before us have made “happy” sounding music with “sad” lyrics. Just look at The Smiths and The Cure. You could argue that these two different identities can cancel each other out, but I feel being a large, loud-sounding band with really introspective songwriting isn’t mutually exclusive.
How many songs were left over from the recording sessions, and will any of them surface later?
Justin Ellis: Only about four songs from our current live set didn’t make the cut for Facepaint, but they all had a similar, perhaps more “rock” vibe that didn’t quite fit the mood of the record. Still, they’re great songs and we’re proud of them, and it’s likely we’ll record and release them in some capacity. We also have about ten sketches in various stages of completion that will eventually all become songs too hopefully.
What are the challenges facing a new band like yours? What have been the peaks? And what, if any, have been the low points so far in the trajectory?
Justin Ellis: We’ve all been in bands before, which was helpful going into this project, because we all knew what to expect. Sure, making rent is tough sometimes, and sometimes we play to nobody when we’re miles away from home. Sometimes, the van breaks down, like it has three times. But before we put out this record, we got a chance to tour in five countries, play almost every major U.S. and Canadian city on the East coast, play in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, and play most of North Carolina’s major music venues. The good definitely outweighs the bad for us… and we’re really lucky to be in that position.
So what’s the plan going forward?
Justin Ellis: We’ll be touring the West Coast this fall for the very first time, with tentative plans to return to Europe at some point between late October and March 2018. We’ll probably head to SXSW in the spring as well. As the album gets written about and listened to, all we can do is keep ourselves onstage, ready for any opportunities that may come our way.
Happy Abandon performs this week in Raleigh at the annual Hopscotch Music Festival, that will also include an appearance at the Schoolkids Records day party. Then on September 18 they’ll hit the road headed west. Check tour dates at their official website and at their Facebook page..
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