“I focused on the composing”: The gifted, celebrated jazz guitarist talks about her new album 3, additionally outlining her journey to date and the roadblocks—among them, the subtle but inherent sexism that the jazz milieu harbors—she had to overcome. (Photos by Sandrine Lee)
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Jazz guitarist Leni Stern’s musical journey has taken her from her native Germany to Berklee College of Music and the Sahara Desert. She’s a musical omnivore, happily absorbing disparate musical influences. On her new album, 3 (released on CD, vinyl, and digital this past April), Stern taps into African music along with Alioune Faye (djembe, sabar, calabas, backing vocals) and Mamadou Ba (bass). The result is a warm, seamless collaboration—an international sound in the very best sense. Stern talked about her music teachers, her discovery of jazz, and the assumptions that women in jazz still confront today.
BLURT: Could you give me some idea of your background? You were an actress before you became a musician, right?
STERN: Well, I was always a musician, but I also had a love for acting, so I actually had two roles in the acting company that I founded. I was a musical director and I was an actress. And I wrote music for theater and created music for film. But I was always a little singer-songwriter with a guitar and many songs that I wrote. And many Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs that I sang. The theater composing and film composing really took off, so I came to America because I had heard of a school in America—Berklee College of Music. It had an association with a film school, where you could score the student films and you could use all the musicians in the college to write your scores with. So that sounded perfect. And it turned out to be perfect.
So the music sort of took over from the acting. But I still worked as an actress. I was a VJ for BET—Black Entertainment Television—for many years. I went back and forth to do an acting project every once and a while. But it’s really hard to do both at the same time. And I really wanted to perfect my music in many directions, so I would take guitar classes and then I started playing percussion and took percussion classes. And I took singing classes and composition.
And also I married another guitar player—Michael Stern. And he didn’t want to move to Europe. And I actually liked America. I never decided to stop acting. And I would act again if there were an opportunity that is compatible with my music and touring and recording schedule. And right there is…a problem because I am now playing with many bands and I have my own band and many recording projects, so as it is there isn’t enough hours in the day. (laughs)
You’ve been working with African musicians lately. Could you tell me a bit about that?
You know, I had on my bucket list these festivals I want to play, and one of them was the Festival in the Desert, in the Sahara Desert, because it’s four hours away from any civilization. I had seen a film about it. And I said, “Okay, I want to play this festival.” And I got to play at the festival. And I met a lot of African musicians that asked me to play in their bands. So I ended up spending a lot of time in Africa and playing in that style of music, because they were interested in my guitar style. African guitarists play different. It’s not, how should I say? It’s a different kind of guitar, it’s different sound on the guitar. It’s a more percussive sound. They love our rock and blues sound, or jazz soloing. They love that. So they invited me to play in their bands, with them, to create a mixture of styles.
And I just did my best to learn their approach to it. It was a very cool exchange, because they were flipping out over my playing and I was flipping out over theirs. It was a continuous “Show me that!” “No, you show me that!” (laughs) “No, you show me that!”
I started writing in that style and combining our musical principles with theirs. In my band, I have two master musicians from Senegal and they all play in western bands because they’re based in New York. They’re originally from Senegal and they’re familiar with the rhythms of Africa, particularly Senegalese music, which is my project 3, what my new record is all about.
When you first came to American and to Berklee, was there a huge culture shock?
Yes, there was. There was, but I loved America. You know, Germans love American culture, because you liberated us from fascism, and protected us against the Russians. Now you got your own Russian problem, but you know, we were very afraid. I mean, there’d been a war for our main cities. The Americans protected us.
My mother was so happy when I married an American. I mean, I thought she’d be more unhappy about me being far away, but just the fact that I married an American…American culture, especially in Munich, was very present, ‘cause Munich had an army station and it had a big band. And all the musicians in the big band played in the jazz clubs around Munich.
When did you transition to playing jazz guitar?
I always loved jazz. I was a blues guitarist first. My little brother had an immense influence on me because he was an avid record collector. And he was crazy about certain things. If you wanted to make him freak out, you’d scratch one of his records. He would lose it completely. And he had an amazing blues collection. Like John Mayall. The English blues guys. But also like Mississippi John Hurt. He was a keyboard player. He is a keyboard player (laughs). He’s a very good keyboard player! I played the guitar and he played keyboards, so I had first dibs at the blues, because those were guitar records that he was imitating on the piano. And I thought like, “Oh, I win. I got this! I got the blues!” So that’s how it first started.
And then I started hearing Wes Montgomery and jazz musicians. I was very intrigued by the way they could play long solos.
Just curious: was that the first instrument you started playing—the guitar? What was your first instrument?
My first instrument actually was the recorder. All German children played the recorder. And then I played piano. Because that’s also sort of a tradition in Germany, because it allows you the easiest way of understanding harmony. And we have a very big repertoire–classical music–that we’re very proud of. Generally in school, music is like a very important subject in school in Germany. If you flunk music, you have a problem, you know. It’s a major subject in school, just like math or history. And you have to sing in this choir, whether you can sing or not. And so it’s really encouraged to play an instrument. I played piano and classical music, but I always had a love for the guitar. And my mother had a guitar, so I took that guitar and I taught myself how to play it. But then she kind of realized after a while that my love was for the guitar. So she organized for me to have guitar lessons. Classical guitar lessons. But I had a very understanding teacher. She was good with teaching kids. And she said, “What would you like to play?” And I played the blues for her. She said, “Oh, that’s so interesting!” She said, “So expressive”! She was a real artist. She encouraged me to play guitar and sing the blues. And I was like, eleven.
She had her soirees of all her students. Some of them would sing a classical repertoire. And I would get to sing the blues and play guitar. But I still played piano at the same time. But the guitar was always my reward. If I finished my classical repertoire on piano, I could play guitar all I wanted. And then when I was fourteen my mother bought me an electric guitar and an amp to go with it, so that I could play with my brothers. Nobody could hear me in my acoustic guitar. So she bought me an electric guitar.
I know that you’ve been asked this before, but women playing jazz guitar is still very infrequent. Have you had people who ever tried to discourage you?
All the time. All the time. I actually just came from playing in [jazz pianist] Monica Herzig’s band. And we were exchanging stories. And it’s funny how people insist that you are a singer. A guy in the audience came up. It was one of those universities. Monica is a professor at Indiana University. It was one of those university guys that came up and said, “Yeah, I’m here to see Monica Herzig. She’s the singer, right?” I said, “No, she doesn’t sing at all. I don’t even know if she can sing! She’s a pianist and a composer!” And he said, “Really? I thought she was a singer!” And I said, “What makes you think that she’s a singer?” And he said, “Well, I dunno, she’s a singer!”
We think that women are supposed to be singers. Even though there is no recording of Monica ever singing.
I imagine you must have had to learn how to take all that in stride. How did you deal with those reactions from people?
I founded my own band. Because I’m also a composer. Sometimes I think sometimes that’s my biggest gift, is composing. ‘Cause I’ve been composing since I’m very little. I didn’t call it composing, I would call it making songs, when I was six. “Make a song!” (laughs) And I was encouraged by my teachers. I had very, very special teachers. They were great artists themselves. And I guess they were entertained by me. My piano teacher—I really didn’t want to read. I really didn’t like to read. It had nothing to do with the music for me. And she recognized that I felt music deeply. So she didn’t scold me. She said, “What did you do at the piano?” I said, “I make up songs.” And she said, “Oh, so you’re going to be a composer! That’s easy!”
So you know, I focused on the composing. And actually, there’s been a lot of discrimination against women composers, too. Most of the people who know Mahler, for example, didn’t know that his wife was an equally good composer.
I came from a panel at South by Southwest and there was a guy that performed at the same showcase we played last night, and he was very funny. He said, “I was so surprised!” And I said, “How come you were so surprised?” And he said, “You look like a nice mommy, a nice lady, and then you come out onstage and you play like panther!” And I said, “That’s a very nice compliment!”
So I guess people still, when people see me, they assume I’m a nice mommy! Even though I have a side shave and a head tattoo. (laughs) That’s what we’re supposed to be! And they can’t imagine that we would be a complete human being with all sorts of feelings inside ourselves. You know, it’s very difficult. But I see it getting easier for the next generation. Because people like me raised the next generation of children.
Better their hell then, than ours now: The UK legends reflect upon their seminal early ‘90s album and bring us up to date on where things stand in 2018.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
26 years on from its release, Hair and Skin Trading Company’s Jo in Nine G Hell (Situation Two/Beggars Banquet, 1992) is a record that takes the listener on quite a harrowing journey of visceral tribal rhythms, dubnotic pulses, and acid-spattered landscapes. Ex-Loop members John Willis (drums), and Neil MacKay (bass, vocals), augmented by Nigel Webb (guitar) plus the short-tenured keyboardist/sampler player Richard Johnston, were a force to be reckoned with on their debut. Pulling from a vast array of Krautrock influences, the band fused this with a kinetic tribalism and organic sonic chug that, as it contorted and entered the ear canal, managed to elicit a very unsettling and challenging listening experience which was wildly out of step with the early ‘90s.
As fate would have it, the album was found populating the .99 cent bin at many of the record stores that I frequented at the time. Not the first Situation 2 band to suffer this fate, I count The Darkside and Thee Hypnotics among those as facing similar fortunes. So while Americans seemed to let bands like this slip through the cracks, I took it as an opportunity to listen to some of the UK’s best kept secrets. I have immense respect for Peter Kent, Situation Two’s founder, whose team gathered together some of the most unique bands of the time.
Jo in Nine G Hell was produced by Roli Mosimann, who worked with The Swans and Foetus, and the uncompromising nature of the songs were given sonic coherence under his command. So what are some of the songs on this album worth mentioning?
First and foremost, the opener “Elevenate” must be discussed. “Some people deserve to die…” is a menacing enough lyric, but place it over an urgent guitar line and throbbing bass with some muscular drumming thrown in for good measure, and you have a full-on bloodletting about to take place. Thinking back to when I first heard this track, I can recall how excited I was. It was the sonic brutality and snide unadorned voice spitting vitriol that managed to hook me. It was the perfect angry manifesto for someone who was about to be spit out into the real world left to fend for himself. (Below: the author spins the track for you, the discerning Blurt readership.)
“Monkies,” with its nocturnal dub bass line, is another stunner that still blows me away. It’s the oddest mélange of psych/dub/metal that you will ever hear, but these disparate elements work extremely well and are the key to the uneasiness one feels when listening to this record. Then there’s “Where’s Gala,” with its cascade of sonic blips and bleeps, emitting a mournful call through the opium fog signaling that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole is the part of the joy this record offers. “Pipeline,” with its motorik beat, works its magic as it enters your cranium; the meaty bass playing here is what makes this song shine—dare I say, it’s even a tad funky.
“Flat Truck,” with its tribal beat beginning, drifts off into a schizophrenic drug-addled ferocity. Here, the drumming and bass take center stage and act as the core on which the effect-laden guitar line is able to zigzag over. Here, as on much of the album, the rhythm section is front and center, while the guitar and vocals are used to augment the proceedings to chilling effect.
Hair and Skin Trading Company, on this record, took fans of Loop into some difficult, uncharted sonic territory that is well worth giving a listen to. (Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the title is an anagram of the three members’ names (Neil, Nigel, John) as member Richard Johnston quit during the recording.)
Thankfully, I was able to track down bassist MacKay and drummer Willis, who are readying a new record as we speak, for an interview about the genesis of Jo in Nine G Hell—as well as the state of the world.
BLURT: Where did The Hair and Skin Trading Company name come from?
John Willis: It was the name of a real business at the end of the street that I lived [on in] London. We thought it was snappy.
Neil Mackay: The name came from an old closed factory in Falkland road in Turnpike lane North London. John used to live on that street, along with lots of old friends. Robert and Bex from Loop, Lisa, many old friends lived there. That was where John introduced me to the music of Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Ligeti and many other great pieces of music.
Not so much a question, but I want to get your take on whether you see that maybe this record is more suitable for our present condition, given that Donald Trump is in power?
JW: I don’t know about that. There is always a Donald Trump somewhere in power. I mean, when we made the album George W. Bush was in power. Who’d have thought we’d prefer him again!!!! The pre-internet, pre-rolling news and social media world was such a different place. I suppose if the record had any political potency it was about the possibilities [of] world destruction and that hasn’t gone away just yet.
Nigel Webb: Present condition? Possibly – control, power, money, corruption, poverty and so on. Not issues/situations that are at all resolved just yet (worse?) You can get regular updates these days though.
NM: Music is an art form. [It] is also a describer of current times. Although it has changed over the last 20 years and music is now produced for [money] and fame. Musicians now are compliant not creative. A great shame. As to whether this record is more suitable to our present condition I could not say I feel no longer in touch with the mobile telephone / internet addled society where peace, friendliness, compassion, trust, honesty, straightforwardness, transparency seem to all have no meaning any more.
Where was the album recorded?
NW: At Matrix Studios, 35 Little Russel St., in the west end of London. (The Birthday Party, Massive Attack, PIL, African Head Charge and many others have used it.)
NM: The album was recorded in the Matrix studio in Little Russell Street in central London. Originally opened in 1977, seems to still be working. [An] awesome studio I was very pleased to be in such [an] excellent professional space. I knew little about studio work then, still do! Great studio. Long may it last!
Who painted the album cover?
JW: 16th century Milanese artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns, and jokes and were made up from inanimate objects like fruit of books.
NM: We the band chose the main picture, and the creative director at Beggars Banquet, Steve Webbon, contacted the owner of the copyright to the picture (In Italy ) and I think for the price of an expensive bottle of whiskey we were allowed to use the picture. The original artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo. An awesome artist, please check [out] his work!
How much did it cost to record the album?
JW: More than we could afford.
Did sessions with Roli Mosimann go smoothly? In what ways did he alter your sound? Were there any songs that you were of two minds on?
JW: Roli really tidied our sound up more than changed it. He was cool but some songs suffered a little bit from being over-edited, in hindsight. The songs were mostly written by jamming ideas at rehearsals and there was a looseness that got lost, but having said that he did really focus the album. We had never really been “produced” before; we always worked with engineers who we respected. It was an interesting experiment, but we didn’t work with a producer again. I think we are all producers so we just need a great engineer to capture the ideas we have. Our stuff comes together very organically, and bringing in another brain at the end of the process felt strange, but he was pretty sympathetic I think.
NW: Erm no, not initially, Richard Johnston, the samples/keyboard player, walked [out the first day and was still living in my flat afterwards]. Roli implied he was going to do likewise, quit that is, until the studio was re-organized. The cellar [was] cleared out to create an echo chamber for the drums. We had demoed pretty much everything on our own in another studio. Vons, where I used to work, was used by Psychic T.V., Sol Invictus, Bark Psychosis, Silverfish, Terminal Cheesecake, My Bloody Valentine, etc. We were also into playing things [live and often improvised]. Roli had a different approach. We liked his work with The Swans, The Young Gods, and Wiseblood.
NM: Roli had a completely different idea to what we had for the album. He wanted “Chak Chak“ sequenced totally [using a] click track so he could control the sound completely. He wanted to lay the samples down using a computer and we had Richard at the time “playing“ the samples live with no sequencer. Richard flipped out when he found this out and left the studio with all the samples – so we were stuffed from the outset. Absolute drama from the word go. Richard refused to give the samples up. We had spent quite a while getting the sounds together so this was an important part of the songs gone. I contacted Richard and said give us the samples back or there will be trouble. If I remember rightly, I said he would still play parts on the album but no, he walked out there and then. I was sorry to see him go but I was very focused on “our big chance “so [we] went with Roli. Roli changed our sound heaps. The first engineer he had he sacked and got a famous engineer (Kenny Jones) in who made the drums sound big and full. The new engineer fed the drum sound down into a lower basement room to get a huge reverb sound. At the time I thought it was too clinical / clean but I was still very new to the whole thing and just trusted in him. It was an intense time. I was unsure of all of it really. It was the first album I was singing on. I thought of myself as just a bass player and was insecure about my voice / the lyrics / everything, really. I used to cringe when my voice came out of the speakers!
The production in my mind seems to have aged well, what’s your take?
JW: Yes, I agree. At that time studio production was just at the stage of moving from analogue to digital. I really liked that time the best because the music was tracked to tape with all the possibilities that brings – saturation, tape editing and warmth of tape compression – but in the control room there were new machines capable of things new to us. The advance of sampling and ease of syncing a computer to the tape machine was exciting. This was a great age of experimentation which mirrors the advent of multitracking in the 1960s. It had all the best bits of modern recording with the good bits of the restrictions of the past and that keeps the sound modern.
NW: I kind of like the production helped by the SSL super analogue ‘total recall’ mixing desk with two-inch 24-track reel to reel analogue tape machines.
NM: It sounds great. I wish we had used Roli for the subsequent recordings as he suggested. He did a great job. Clear and punchy, using the SSL system was awesome. The problems I have with some of the recordings are down to a lack of investment of time in some of the details!
How long did the album take to complete?
NM: I think the album took two weeks (not totally sure on that). I think the recording side of things was a week. I think Nigel wanted a lot more time to spend on guitar parts, but Roli wanted to spend time on mixing. I remember Nigel going home and pretty much not sleeping, working on new parts – God bless.
What do you recall about the sessions?
JW -The sessions were mostly cool from what I can remember. We had pretty clear ideas about how the songs should sound and had time to do more experimentation in the studio. We worked long hours and I think we might have kept Roli up a bit later than he was used to, but overall a very cool time. It was a new project for us and it felt really free because of that.
NW: Tension, quite a bit of stress, some obsessive behavior, was interesting understanding completely different methods of working, a learning process, working with great engineer Kenny Jones (Tom Waits, The Smiths, etc.) as well as a producer.
NM: I recall that I wanted it to have a bit more of a live feel. That was the only thing I remember really, trying to not get too stoned / out of it, trying to get that correct mix of out of it but still [be] able to play. That was my mind set at the time. Out of it but still able to play. It was quite stressful in a certain way. Roli was [a] strong character. I liked him and thought he did a great job and hope we are still friends. Good to see he is still doing production. I was in awe of his work with The Swans and The Young Gods so I pretty much kept my mouth shut and let him do his work!
Which songs were the hardest to nail?
JW: We’d played most of the songs live and, as far as I remember, we had no real problems getting them recorded.
NW: All pretty much just as easy / difficult.. .except “9/10 of the Law” which we had been playing live very differently and used on the “Ground Zero” B-side.
NM: No, [we] didn’t have any songs that were particularly “hard to nail.” We had rehearsed a fair bit, gigged, and had our setlist and knew the parts we had to play. As I said before, Nigel wanted to change bits and bobs but (he / we) ran out of time for that!
Were these songs explicitly written for this record or had some of them been around for a while?
JW: No, we had them all before we went in the studio
NW: all the tracks – well nearly / almost – everything had been, played, demoed, recorded, or played live in one form or another before going into the studio. The recording [approach] with Roli was very different.
NM: The songs were explicitly written. I am not keen on releasing “demos“ that I’ve had sitting around for a while. I like to work with musicians and create a new album up to date using the musicians and their [ideas]. Working with other musicians is what it is about really. The input they give is invaluable and I always try to listen to them, play with them, against them, whatever. It is a communication thing, really. I think everyone should be involved in music, playing in a group situation with fellow humans. I read somewhere that playing an instrument, singing [in] a group, fires more neurons than meditation! Make your brain good, be creative, create stuff, I don’t care what it is. Go out on a limb be daring. It can be scary. What’s the [worst] that can happen? Someone says your work is shit? Who cares what they say. At least you have done something! At least you have created! That is what important, new creation is!
Did you record any extra songs during those sessions? What became of them?
JW: No just the album.
NW: “9/10 of the Law” and “Crush,” which involved going down to the same cellar, by now converted into an echo chamber and throwing / smashing various metal and other objects and yelling; both B-sides to “Ground Zero.” There are also some instrumental mixes of the songs. (Note: “Ground Zero” sleeve is pictured to the left.)
NM: No extra songs were created for this session. Later we got into writing heaps of stuff. I think and hope Nigel has a few boxes of [unused] old tracks. Do you Nigel? No this album was written and a few gigs were played before we went into the studio. No excess / no leftovers.
Seems Situation 2 was quite the cool label; were they hands off with the recording?
JW: Yes, they were pretty hands off. They put their trust in Roli and [thankfully] left us alone.
NW: They didn’t come down to the studio and were pretty hands off. Maybe [they] popped in? Nice folk[s] though.
NM: Situation 2 – Roger, who we dealt with there, was totally cool, totally – thank you to those guys – awesome! You must remember that at this time Loop was supposedly on a “holiday“ or taking a break from the hectic touring and recording schedule that had left us all exhausted and not wanting to be in each other’s company any more. I wish Loop had got back together, as I was too young and insecure to be the leader of a group. I just wanted to have fun – really, I’ve only just grown up over the last few years! I’m 54 now! When Loop got back together for a meeting a year later or so, we all agreed [that] we [liked what we were currently doing, so] why go back to something that is a pain? That was the end of Loop. If something isn’t fun and rewarding I [don’t] do it, end of story.
There are some bad ass songs on this record; tell me the genesis of the tracks “Monkies,” “Elevenate,” “Where’s Gala,” and “Flat Truck”?
JW: All our songs came together by playing in rehearsal rooms. We’d tape stuff and Neil would take them away and work on the lyrics or one of us would bring in an idea. You know the normal kind of way bands work. The great thing about H and S was the synergy we had. I don’t remember song or music writing being much of a problem [for] us. Sometimes we would decide to not play songs at a gig but just improvise for an hour. For whatever reason it generally worked out. We [might’ve] been more jazz than rock perhaps? We all liked Faust’s approach to music.
NW: “Monkies,” “Flat Truck,” “Elevenate” had all been started at our very first rehearsal session in prime time, London Bridge area, and Neil had demoed “Where’s Gala”, it was a favorite and still is here! These were all started before Richard was involved.
NM: “Monkies” – we are all monkies. Get over the Homo Sapien smart ape thing. We are not really any more “intelligent” than any other species, in my opinion. Other animals build things. Other animals and insects organize their communities much more cleverly than us. I always liked [the image] of a wolf pack moving through a snow-covered ravine. At the front are the oldest and [weakest] members of the pack, then next the strongest, then the main pack and at the back the 2nd strongest group, arranged so the pack moves at the speed of the [weakest among them]. In the human world the strongest would be at the front and bugger anyone else if they can’t keep up! [A] bit cynical, that, but probably true to a large extent. I have more faith in humanity than that, but you [catch] my drift!
At the point when you guys recorded this album, what were you all listening to?
JW: I was listening to Can, Public Image. Steve Reich was a new discovery for me and I devoured his output. I was really into a lot of dub and the Flaming Lips [as] I remember.
NW: Was listening to Einstürzende Neubauten Kollaps, Prince Far I “Nuclear Weapon” (Adrian Sherwood mix) Jello Biafra with D.O.A. Last scream of the missing neighbors CD, Wiseblood Dirtdish LP, Can Monster Movie LP, probably most of the other Can albums. Some Lee Hazlewood and Tom Waits.
NM: Velvet Underground, The Doors, Joy Division, Can, Suicide, Radio Birdman, The Stooges, MC5, and all sorts of garage / psyche obscure stuff, reggae, dub, On-u sound label. Anything weird and different. I had a thing against “commercial music“ in those days. It had to be weird ear candy for me [back] then!
I get the sense, at least in the States by the number of promo CDs I saw in the cut-out bin, that the album didn’t sell well here, what was the situation in the UK and Europe?
JW: We did pretty well in the UK and Europe, touring and festival shows, but the US was a disaster for us. We were dropped by Beggars Banquet just at the start of a coast to coast US tour. So we were in New York, I think, with a tour bus driven by us which had to be returned to an office in Los Angeles. Never understood the logic of that but maybe explains the bargain bins!
NW – Think “Ground Zero” got some indie chart position, not sure about the rest – looked for the CDs in the “bins” in the USA and couldn’t find any myself. I would have brought them back!
NM: I think the album was in the “indie” charts for a short period in the UK, but no, the album “didn’t do well.” I wasn’t that bothered really. What is success? Doing art that you want to do. Getting it out to the world in some small way, that is success in my opinion. Of course I would have liked to have had some money at the time. Same now maybe! We were all pretty poor in those days. We all worked shitty jobs. We lived life pretty much [from] week to week really. I hope Nigel and John [are both living comfortably these days].
How was the album received, both by the UK press and fans of Loop?
JW: I remember it being okay, you know, the normal thing where people hate it and love it equally. It probably polarized Loop fans but we never wanted to be Loop 2, and the more open minded came along.
NW: Some [decent] press UK wise. Not sure on the loop fans, possibly divided I imagine.
NM: That I cannot recall. I think we got a few reviews but nothing really majorly good. I knew Loop fans wouldn’t like it. It sounded so different to loop. Really, I didn’t want to be just a copy of Loop. What’s the point of that? If I had wanted to make money we could have done a dance / techno version of Loop.
Below: the band live in 1992 at the Reading Festival, captured in average sound quality (turn the volume up) but very good video quality for the times.
What songs on Jo in 9 G Hell did you guys play live? What were the hardest ones to render on stage?
JW: We did them all I think except Neil’s song, “Where’s Gala,” which we never did from memory. We used pretty basic technology in those days. Any samples were played back from a porta studio I had by me on stage. We rocked!
NW: We played all of them live at one point or other – but never as the album from start to finish, “Where’s Gala” was more tricky, maybe – it got better each time we tried it. I think, anyway.
NM: From the album the tracks we played live were : “Elevenate,” “Flat track,” “Torque,” “Monkies,” “Ground Zero,” “$1,000 Pledge,” “The Final Nail,” and “Pipeline”. John used to operate a 4-track cassette recorder for the tracks that had a backing. [Is that] lo-fi or what! Anyone who takes a 4-track cassette on stage nowadays would be considered lo-fi indeed!
Did you guys record any shows at the time?
NW: We didn’t as such. I’ve seen some of our very first shows filmed and posted on YouTube, a bit of Reading Festival ’92. Ott, our sound engineer, sort of recorded that too.
NM: No I don’t think we recorded anything live from those days, sadly!
What bands did you guys tour with for this record?
JW: We did a UK tour with The Swans and I think we toured with two other Situation 2 bands in Europe.
NW: We toured with Silverfish, Swans, and Cop Shoot Cop and also The God Machine. All jolly good chaps and chapesses.
NM: We toured quite a lot with the excellent band Sun Carriage at the time. Cannot remember who else we toured with. We played [the] North London scene a fair bit, particularly at the excellent “Sausage Machine“ club and the Falcon and various [other] places in and around London. There was an excellent music “scene” going on at the time. The live music scene has been destroyed now. I hope it makes a comeback. It is up to the youngsters out there to get off their [ass], put their mobile phones down, pick up a musical instrument, get some friends together, and create something beautiful! Later we toured the UK with Silverfish, The Swans, and did a European tour with Medicine. (Below: Swans tour itinerary, along with the HASTCO tour rider.)
What was the cut off the album that they worked to radio?
JW: “Ground Zero.”
NM: Have no idea what the lead cut the label sent out to radio. I didn’t really have a lot to do with any of that stuff. I thought of myself as a musician. I had and still have no idea about that side of things. Probably why I was and never really will be successful! Not my area!
Any DJs champion this record?
JW: John Peel was probably the main one.
NW: I was told that John Peel played it here – not sure on that, though. I think some radio stations we visited [later] in the USA said they had been playing the LP. Can’t be specific on that really.
NM: None as far as I know. I don’t think John Peel liked it much, not sure if he ever played it! He was the main man in those days!
Will the album ever be reissued?
NM: Not sure if it will ever be reissued. I hope so one day. Not heard anything going on, on that front!
In terms of HASTCO output, how do you feel about this record? Are there elements you once disliked that you’ve grown to like now and vice versa?
JW: It was our first release, and from my point of view it was a good start, but we got better at it and further from the gravitational pull of commercialism and closer to orbiting the planet inspiration – which is all you could ask for isn’t it?
NW: Just very different to where we went from there, perhaps. Still think some of it would [be] interesting soundtrack music [for] the appropriate film, which is also what I thought at the time to be honest.
NM: Must admit it’s the first time I’ve listened to the album for ages and ages. I wonder how and why we put the track “Where’s Gala“ on the album. I’m not sure Roli did that track. I think it was a 4- track recording we did! Listening to it for the first time in ages, it actually sounds really good. You know at the time the drugs I / we were taking – I shouldn’t speak about the other guys! – but anyways, I wasn’t in a particularly good head space. The recording seemed to be done so quick it felt like we were in and out of the studio in no time. Roli did a great job. He said at the end of the recording, “You have to do the next album with me!“
It was a [huge] mistake not to use him again, really. We should have built on the sound he got us. He did a great job with what we gave him. I feel personally I was still very young and inexperienced and didn’t know up from down. Life was hard, money was short. I just wanted to do the best I could. I’m proud of our output. We have a new album coming out that I think, as usual, has good ideas, etc. That’s the enduring thing for me. We had great ideas that sounded like no-one else. [We] were not trying to sound like anyone else.
I’m forever grateful to Nigel and John, they are great guys, supremely talented and fun to be with. [They are] very good friends of mine. I sincerely hope we do a few more things. Thank you guys! Was a pleasure to work with you. Sorry I wasn’t the greatest of bandleaders. But I wasn’t really the leader, just a member of the band. I think that was our main problem, really! We could have done great (er) things!
Below: Listen to the brilliant new track “Nihil” which the band graciously supplied to Blurt.
Aloha From Hawaii! BLURT’s Travel Desk Editor heads to Waikiki for plenty of surf ‘n’ turf ‘n’ The King… (photos follow the story – Hashtag: #Elvis). Incidentally, Ms. Gaar has written previously about Hawaii – and Hawaii-related Elvis matters – for the magazine. Check out “Waikiki After Dark” and “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” should you dare.
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
I’ve been a fan of the Rock-a-Hula show in Waikiki since it opened seven years ago, and have seen it in its various incarnations. Initially, this tribute artist show (created by Legends in Concert Las Vegas) simply presented sets by four different impersonators. In 2014, the show boosted the Hawaiian quotient, and made it a more lavish production, with multi-screen projections, decorative sets, and dancers. They’ve recently given the show another facelift, cutting back on the tribute artists, and adding even more of that Hawaiian spirit.
I was offered the opportunity to check out the show again, choosing whatever package I wanted. I eagerly accepted, choosing the top package, the Green Room “Ultimate Experience.”
This is the package to choose if you want to go all out, and get the very best seats in the house (there are also cheaper options; I’ll get to those later). The Green Room package spares no attention to detail from the moment you check in, when you’re given a backstage pass to wear around your neck. Green Room attendees are welcomed into the Royal Hawaiian Theater before anyone else, escorted down the red carpet while hula dancers perform. You’re taken to — where else? — the Green Room, where you’re greeted by one of the evening’s tribute artists (the night I attended, it was Michael Jackson), who poses for a picture with you (a free print is included in the package). The Green Room is supposed to be an homage to the tropical themed “Jungle Room” at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, which, well, wasn’t green. Never mind. There are glasses of sparkling wine awaiting you, along with hors d’oeuvres. Get snacking!
You’re then taken on a backstage tour, getting an idea of what the dancers deal with when they have to race through the small corridors between numbers. We were allowed to try on the Tahitian headdresses the dancers wear (very heavy!), and you get to pose on stage with the huge Taiko drum. Next, you arrive at your stageside table, where you’re served a four-course meal, including beef tenderloin and wild Alaskan salmon and Maine lobster with your salad. Two free drinks as well. Everything was delicious. And now, on with the show….
Rock-a-Hula is a multi-media production; there are screens on both sides of the stage, and one at the rear. It’s also very much a live show; the band is placed right on stage, and none of the performers are lip-syncing. One fun element is how the film footage is used to underscore the live action on stage. The show opens with footage of the SS Lurline arriving in Honolulu, illustrating how most tourists visited the island before air travel took off. Then a large prop ship comes out on stage and the dancers re-create the kind of pier-side hula that greeted the new arrivals; a surfer even hangs from the ceiling, in a Cirque du Soleil touch. A panorama of images on the screens highlight Hawaiian legends of the past, like singer Alfred Apaka (some explanatory text on these pictures would be useful for those who might not immediately recognize the performers).
It all builds to the arrival of the first tribute artist to appear, Elvis Presley. The King is played by Rock-a-Hula veteran Johnny Fortuno, who handles the ’60s and ’70s Elvis eras with ease, starting out in the outfit Elvis wore while performing “Rock-a-Hula” in his first Hawaiian film, Blue Hawaii, then graduating to a jumpsuit, for his homage to Elvis’ 1973 Aloha From Hawaii satellite broadcast. Among the well-known stuff (“Hound Dog,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), there’s also a rarity; “Slicin’ Sand,” from Blue Hawaii, a song I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an Elvis tribute artist perform. Fortuno also gets up close and personal with audience, passing out scarves, kisses, and handshakes to the faithful during “Suspicious Minds.”
Michael Jackson (as performed by Jason Jarrett) is the only other tribute artist featured in the show. Aside from a quick nod to his Jackson 5 past (“I Want You Back”), it’s mostly the latter day Jackson that’s on display: “Shake Your Body,” “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” (complete with moonwalking). It’s a set that’s as heavy on dancing as it is on singing, and Jarrett has the moves down.
Though the show has no underlying narrative, there is an unifying theme; Rock-a-Hula is meant to take you on a “Hawaiian Journey,” the idea of a trip being referenced from that first footage of the SS Lurline. There are more dance numbers, with the energetic troupe performing to a medley of surf tunes, as well as traditional Hawaiian dancing (the Tahitian dancing is especially thrilling). The fire knife dancing is another highlight. No, it’s not a knife; think of it as a torch, or a baton, lit at one or both ends, and then vigorously spun around.
Also new to the show are spots for a local singer (who will rotate; Hirie was the performer when I attended). Hirie was featured in the show’s opening, and throughout the rest of the performance; in one moving sequence, when footage of Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was shown while his medley of “Over the Rainbow”/“What a Wonderful World” was played, the song segued into Hirie performing the final verse live. The show comes to a heartwarming conclusion with the entire cast on stage, leading everyone through the chorus of “Aloha ‘Oe,” written by Queen Lili‘uokalani (Hawaii’s last ruler). Afterwards, everyone’s welcome to meet the cast in the lobby, where they happily pose for photos and sign autographs.
It’s a lively and engaging show, and making it more of a theatrical production than it was in its original incarnation has definitely made it more exciting. But in this latest iteration, I felt the tribute artists were a bit short-changed, with their spots cut back to allow for more dancing and the local singer.
Elvis in particular I felt was underused. If you want to make the show more Hawaiian-flavored, why not draw on more of the songs he performed in his other Hawaiian films (Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style)? Including Hawaiian-born songwriter Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You” would also be a good touch during the “Aloha From Hawaii” sequence (the concert was a benefit for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund). It felt like Elvis was in and out too quickly. And while I enjoyed Hirie, since she wasn’t playing a character herself, it made the show feel like a bit of a mish-mash. Is it a tribute artist show? Or a Hawaiian production where Elvis and Michael Jackson drop in for a couple of numbers?
It’s still a show I highly recommend. It’s just too much fun to pass up. And there’s so much going on, you can’t properly take it all in, in one viewing. That’s why I look forward to seeing Rock-a-Hula again.
Now, about those other ticket packages. The theater seats 750, with most seats in the upper auditorium (which they call the mezzanine), and Green Room and Stageside VIP packages seated at tables down front. The cheapest package is the Rockin’ Show ($69 adult/$41 child) which gets you a seat in the rear part of the mezzanine. I’ve sat in a variety of places in this venue and the view is good wherever you sit. But of course it’s more exciting to get as close as you can to the performers, so if you don’t want to do one of the deluxe packages, I recommend the Luau package ($109 adult/$66 child), which, you’ve guessed it, includes a very tasty luau buffet, with all the luau staples (roast pig, hulihuli chicken, lomilomi salmon), a mai tai, and better seating in the mezzanine. The Stageside VIP ($149 adult/$89 child) includes a reception before you’re seated at your not-quite-as-good-as-the-Green-Room-seating-but-still-pretty-good table, where you’re served the same dinner as the Green Room package, and you get two free drinks. The Green Room package isn’t that much more ($185 adult/$111 child), and consider that you also get an extra drink (that glass of sparkling wine in the Green Room itself) and a free souvenir photo (which otherwise costs $25). Depending on your budget, it might be worth the upgrade.
Tip: Be sure and take some time to explore the lobby, which features various rock memorabilia. There’s also a bar, and you’re allowed to take drinks into the auditorium. Want a scarf from Elvis? The stageside seating, or the front row and aisle seats of the mezzanine, give you the best chance.
Jumpsuit Elvis (Johnny Fortuno) sends you plenty of Alooooooha!
The ever-energetic dance troupe of Rock-a-Hula
All hail the awesome fire knife dancer!
The swanky Green Room. Sparkling wine and snacks to spare.
Local non-character performers are now part of the Rock-a-Hula show. Pop-reggae artist Hirie was one of the rotating performers.
Jason Jerrett cops all the right moves as Michael Jackson.
Can you feel it? Michael Jackson (Jason Jerrett) gets it on with a Rock-a-Hula dancer.
Maine lobster, flown all the way to Waikiki — just for you.
Your humble correspondent and Johnny Fortuno, après the show.
Johnny Fortuno in action as the Blue Hawaii-era Elvis.
The annual blowout happened June 7 through 10 this year, and it was indeed a blowout. (Pictured above: Durand Jones & the Indications.)
TEXT AND PICTURES BY: MARK JACKSON (#markjacksonphotography1)
Bonnaroo first started way back in 2002 with a heavy influence in jam bands, Positivity, and happiness, but has branched out in many wonderful directions. Over the years the festival has stayed true with their core selection of genres but has added more and more mainstream artist. Bonnaroo has also worked to separate itself from the many same old same old music festivals by giving the attendees a unique experience inside the festival grounds and in the campgrounds. Offering pop up mini-concerts and karaoke sets on small stages in the campground areas, shaded hangout areas, food vendors throughout the campgrounds, and the addition to a lot of “real bathrooms” this festival does indeed set itself apart from most festivals. With attendance at around 80,000 this year, I would say it’s safe to say they are giving the people what they want. Bonnaroo has also had its share of house and techno artist over the past several years, but last year they made a huge leap into the EDM scene by turning “The Other Tent” into a full stage that rivals the main stage. The Other Stage is solely dedicated to EDM music and EDM artist and with the crowds that flocked to the stage all weekend last year and again this year, I would say it’s definitely here to stay!
New for this year was the Grand Ole Opry, a two-hour country show similar to the Super Jam format in that they had many artists playing together. The official announcer of the Grand Ole Opry Mr. Bill Cody was at the helm and introduced Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show, Bobby Bare, Del McCoury Band, and Riders In The Sky, as well as Joshua Hedley, LANCO, Nikki Lane, and Maggie Rose.
The Super Jam was a tribute to late great Tom Petty this year and it too had an all-star cast to pay tribute to Mr. Petty who passed away October 2nd of 2017. The tribute included such names as Cheryl Crow, Hayley Williams from Paramore, Matt Shultz from Cage The Elephant, Sameer Gadhia from Young The Giant, Langhorne Slim, Photographer and musician Danny Clinch, Vanessa Carlton, and more. This year’s Super Jam was a heartfelt tribute that showcased many songs of the career of Tom, and I think he was looking down on us with that wonderful smile that he had in approval.
Bonnaroo is also known as a festival for finding the next big names in music. Artists that you may not have heard of yet will often play here and six months later be all over the radio and social media. I’ve seen this happen over the years with acts such as Twenty One Pilots, Highly Suspect, Halsey, and last years breakout artist who once again played this year on a bigger stage, Dua Lipa. The list goes on and on for breakout artist who first gains major traction at the Roo. Some of the up and coming artist at Bonnaroo this year included Lewis Capaldi, Lizzie, Topaz Jones, Flor, Jade Bird, and my favorite new find this year Sir Sly. Miller Lite held a contest this year called “The Road To Roo”, This contest allowed bands to compete for a chance to play and be featured on the New Music On Tap Lounge Brewed By Miller Lite Stage. The winning band was The Foxies who have roots in Phoenix but now reside in Nashville, TN. Fronted by Julia Lauren Bullock the band has started making a name for themselves in a town where country music rules. The Foxies are bringing an Indie pop sound infused with an 80’s glam pop that needs to be seen live.
Headliners for this year’s Bonnaroo were Eminem, The Killers, Muse, Future, and Bassnectar. There were many great bands such as Paramore, T-Pain, Midland, Khalid, Moon Taxi, who topped the bill as well, but there is so much more than music to experience at Bonnaroo that must be experienced for yourself. The motto “Radiate Positivity” is much more than a slogan on the farm and from the moment you are here you can feel it in the air and in the people. This place is much more than a music festival and arts festival. It is a utopia of sorts that carries with it long days, long nights and extreme Tennessee summer heat, but you won’t care about any of those things while you are living in the moment of this magical place. Unfortunately, we must live in the real world until next June 13th thru the 16th when we can once again grace the farm. Until then I would like to give a huge thanks to the first class Big Hassle Media staff and to Live Nation for once again allowing me to cover this fantastic music festival.
Magic and mayhem coexist—not necessarily peacefully, but certainly with a purposeful deliberateness—in the Atlanta artist’s remarkable new album, bleak beauty. (Scroll to the bottom to hear three key tracks.)
BY KEITH JOYNER
Clay Harper quietly sings into a microphone in the makeshift studio on the ground floor of his Atlanta home. I follow along on an acoustic guitar, creating parts on the fly. It feels like packing up. The last time I was here I had traveled from Los Angeles to say goodbye to Stephanie, Clay’s partner of twenty years, and my best friend from high school. It was both surreal and unthinkable that someone so young and in the prime of her life would be taken so mercilessly. On this day, however, the house is for sale, and there is a noticeable sense of unease. The question hangs heavy in the air: What now?
Clay had casually invited me to play on a new song he was recording. And so, after an impromptu and innocuous invitation to coffee, I found myself learning what would become the song “Pretty Victor,” from the new self-released album, bleak beauty. I devised an interesting, passable part, all the while formulating how I could improve upon it when it came time to record.
“That’s great! I love it,” exclaimed Clay.
It became immediately clear that there was to be no “next take.” That was it.
It is precisely this moment that speaks to a singular talent, an innate ability to recognize an opportunity, and use it, all for the sake of the art. Had it been up to me, I might have recorded multiple takes, and added additional parts. As it happens, Clay stripped away everything but one guitar—flaws and all—and his voice alone. What’s left is a tentative answer to the question hanging over the proceedings. That is, we can’t possibly prepare or know what to do when tragedy strikes. After all, the world at large is cruel and indifferent to our inner suffering. There is nothing left but to carry on.
When we lose someone, there are universal rituals and traditions to help cope with the loss. But I sense that for Clay, they are entirely insufficient. There are too many things left unsaid; sentiments that are private, painful and uncomfortable, and not suited for mixed company. Clay has gone on record to say that the album is not about Stephanie, but, instead, a recounting of his experience in steady chronological order. I wonder if this may be in deference to someone who was a very private, though selfless, person. My earliest memories of her were of someone wholly devoted to the idea of service. To a self-centered teen like myself, I was suspicious. Though Stephanie spent the next thirty years turning words into action. If bleak beauty is not about her, it is certainly for her. (Listen to tracks from the record HERE.)
Many in Atlanta and the Southeast recall Clay Harper as boss man in post-punk provocateurs The Coolies (originally called The Beatles, until receiving the expected Cease and Desist letter), and, later, The Ottoman Empire. He was not then—and still isn’t—averse to mixing combustible elements for maximum effect in both music and performance. That desire more likely stems from a genuine fascination with witnessing the inevitable explosion than it does getting a cheap rise out of people.
But don’t ask the north Georgia cloggers he invited to open the final Coolies show in 1990 about it. Of course, it could have gone either way. When the curtain rose on the unsuspecting dancers as they clogged their way through “New Sensation” by INXS, the sneering punk crowd wasn’t having it. Nor were the Todd Rundgren fans at a more recent show at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Clay was supporting his last album, 2013’s Old Airport Road. Between each song, lurid phone sex recordings were played over the PA until the crowd demanded he leave the stage early, chanting, “Todd Rundgren Now!” Hey, they could have laughed. And really. They should have. Humorless bastards. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Andy Kaufman would’ve been proud.
Given all of this, it’s a curious thing to venture that bleak beauty may be Clay’s most audacious work to date. Its boldness can be found in its quietude and vulnerability. For sure, it is a tone poem of grief, remorse, love and hope. But strangely, there is levity and common truth throughout. Clay’s longtime friend, the artist, erstwhile Clash associate, and self-professed “cultural curator,” Kosmo Vinyl, points out, it is “that realization that the more personal something becomes, the more universal it becomes. Also the realization that there is no substitute for truth and it can rarely, if ever be faked.” From the held-breath salvo of the opening title track to the repeated closing mantra “I’m Not High,” bleak beauty reminds us to take nothing for granted, and accept the inevitable light and shade of this world with resigned grace.
Once again, Clay directs an impressive cast of musicians, including Chaz Jankel (Ian Dury and The Blockheads), Tom Gray (The Brains), and Rick Richards (The Georgia Satellites), among others with the precision of Kubrick, all without playing a single note himself. Brad Quinn (formerly of The Ottoman Empire and the Tommy Keene Band) adds “For someone who, as far as I know, doesn’t particularly play anything, he’s written more great songs and made more records than almost anyone I know.” And bleak beauty is no exception. Each track inhabits a classic space as if you’ve known it your entire life.
In May, Clay Harper and band performed the album in its entirety in an intimate setting at the Avondale Towne Cinema, near Atlanta. When asked what it’s like to revisit the songs in front of an audience, Clay responds, “I would like to do more shows. I’m not sure I would like to perform the record again. I want it to be evaluated as a piece of art. I want people to hear it and find their meaning, but I think it’s there for private consumption. I don’t think it needs to be public entertainment.”
One senses that bleak beauty is just as much about moving on as it is paying respect to a great lost love.
To my mind there are only two types of music: the self-conscious kind, which is certainly not always a pejorative; and the kind that comes from somewhere deep within—the kind that must be released, one way or the other no matter the consequences. Damn the cynics. Or more to the point, as Clay’s friend and frequent collaborator Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ n’ Cryin’) says, “I think that sometimes artists make art for the people, and sometimes artists make art for themselves. This one’s for Clay. It’s true soul music from the cosmos straight to our hearts.”
There is a special kind of alchemy at work when songs such as these, borne of despair and darkness, conspire to conjure something altogether enlivening. After all, to live is to create. And no greater tribute may be paid to a life well-lived than to “rage against the dying of the light.” No, it is not entertainment. But perhaps it’s something to be shared. There is genuine electricity when Clay sings plaintively “Are you the bird? Are you the breeze? Are you the sunshine through the trees?”
I’d like to believe that when we remember, the answer is always yes.
Keith Joyner is a regular BLURT contributor. A member of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Athens pop mavens Seven Simons as well as The The, and, more recently, Twinstar and les biches, the L.A.-by-way-of-Georgia musician previously recounted a memorable evening in the company of David J and Genesis P-Orridge.
A Blurt Boot Video Exclusive: Simon Bonney & Bronwyn Adams (Live NYC) 5/14/2019 WARSAW
Filmed by Jonathan Levitt. Check out Bonney's latest record "Past, Present, Future" http://smarturl.it/SimonBonney
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Psychedelic Furs "Only You and I" (Live Costa Mesa CA 7-19-18
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea