It’s been just two years since the Austin-based rockers Fastball last released an LP. Clearly, they still had plenty more to say.
The Help Machine, Fastball’s seventh studio album since starting in the mid-1990s, sounds just as powerful as their 1996 debut, brimming with addictive hooks, taut power chords and a steady rhythm section. The band even brought along Southern California legend Steve Berlin (sax player for Los Lobos and The Blasters) to produce the record.
Though he’s best known as bassist/vocalist for the band, Tony Scalzo actually switched to keyboards and guitar for this outing. Scalzo spoke with Blurt recently about that decision, working with Berlin, and the band’s newfound – and fruitful – burst of creativity.
BLURT: The Help Machine comes not that long after your last LP. Did you guys just go through a fairly prolific period or were many of these songs originally meant for the last album?
TONY SCALZO: As songwriters, both Miles and myself have been generally prolific throughout even the “dry” periods of Fastball’s existence. We both put out solo albums in between releases of Fastball albums. Plus, there were two releases by The Small Stars, an interesting band Miles fronted for a few years. Speaking for myself, I’m always writing and composing. I had a band for four years with my friend, Kevin McKinney called Wrenfro. We performed mostly original music every week for three years at a now defunct club in Austin called, Strange Brew. When we released Step Into Light in 2017, I stepped away from that to focus on Fastball full-time. None of these new songs were written for Step Into Light, though some were written away from Fastball. Two of mine, “Doesn’t It Make You Feel Small” and “Girl You Pretended To Be”, were written while I was doing the Wrenfro thing and were performed live with other people before Fastball heard them.
How did you connect with Steve Berlin for this one?
Our manager brought up his name to produced and we jumped on it. I’ve been a fan of his work for years. Used to see Steve perform with The Blasters in the early ‘80s. Saw him a bunch in Los Lobos and was well aware of his production skills. I loved working with him and was kind of in awe of his focus on the project and his musical imagination. He came up with many ideas for parts I don’t think we could’ve come up with on our own. To my initial disappointment, he never busted out the sax, but as the project started taking shape, I realized there was no place for it.
What was the reasoning behind your decision not to play bass on this one?
I didn’t play bass on the record because Bruce Hughes was available. He has more imagination and way better chops than I do. I don’t see myself as a bassist.
Can you talk a little bit about the title track?
Miles wrote “Help Machine” and, in my opinion, it’s the kind of title that can be interpreted loosely. Song starts with lyrics that evoke a telephone help line or a 12-step meeting. Loosely. It’s very dreamlike and I think the songs provides all the information necessary.
You opted to put this one out on your own label? Why go that route vs. using a traditional record label again?
Fastball has been virtually independent since we left Hollywood Records after Harsh Light Of Day in 2001. Even while signed to Ryko it felt like an indie label because our A&R rep was our friend, Rob Seidenberg, who originally signed us to Hollywood when he was there. I see absolutely no reason to be on a major label. Nobody tells us what to do and we owe no money. It’s all us. As far as getting our music noticed, I think we do pretty well. Energy keeps building at a nice, consistent pace and I see much improvement. We just needed a bit of time to adjust to the way the modern industry works.
The band has been around long enough to experience the music business at two different extremes – when they spent a lot of money signing bands and where they are at now. Do you think it’s easier or harder now for new bands to get noticed?
Quick success is hard to adjust to and we had difficulty realizing just who we were as a band after All The Pain in 1998. We were so busy touring we never worked on improving any aspect of our band/live show. But since we never got huge that seemed to put us in a place where we just kept going because it was the best vehicle for all three of us to get records made and go out and play. I think if we sold twice as many records as we did, we may have imploded. All the weird things that happen with fame…yada yada.
You’ve already announced some new dates – do you plan on adding more and touring for much of the next few months?
Yes, we have future dates into 2020, we will probably do something that resembles a proper tour in the new year.
What’s next for the band?
We will continue to make records and play live all over the world at our own pace.
The mighty HASTCO returns, as promised a year ago in this space, with a remarkable new record. Visit their Bandcamp page to preview (or download) it, and then settle in for our review of the digital album and our new interview with the musicians, below.
If I look back to where Hair & Skin Trading Company (HASTCO) has been musically over the past 25 years, from the metallic tribal intensity of Jo to Over Valence’s psychedelics to the LSD infused shocking soundscapes of Psychedelische Musique, the band have consistently made bold and matchless musical statements throughout their career. Here we have the coalescing of those disparate elements into a superbly wrought album filled with propulsive atmospherics and an updated sonic palette that takes us over the edge never to return.
“Cruz” is the ignition that lights the area aglow as the jets start to come alive and the superheated mix of gases detonates and expands over the area. Here the throb of the bass and the sonic chug keeps the listener on the edge of their seat as they leave the ground.
“Cezanne” is a shocker with its Kraftwerkian processed vocals and dance beat. It’s a fascinating number that should be played at any number of end-of-the-world shindigs should America’s Cheeto in Chief get reelected.
“Nihil” is a menacing tune that builds brilliantly and leaves the listener devastated at its conclusion. The droning voices in the background leave you questioning your own sanity. The head fake of calm in the middle then coalesces into a massive sonic assault that would be the perfect soundtrack for a Mad Max sequel.
“Octo” if you imagine Hawkwind’s “Valium Ten” stripped, processed and then electronically sequenced you might get part of what this track has to offer. The fuzz guitar, spare bassline and pulsing singular beat mated with hushed vocals creates a narco-haze that is hard to shake and left me wanting more.
“Wabi Sabi” is a 14-minute stunner that makes its case early on and then builds certain looped elements to a euphoric rush. Through the dilaudid churn, like a whirling dervish we spin, trancing out, as we round the next corner seeing a car aflame and a glow off the canyon walls.
“Lila” closes out the album and left me speechless. It’s a uniquely arresting final statement, replete with an off axis recurring background with hallucinogenic guitar stretched over it. It’s unsettling, introspective and beguiling all in the space of seven minutes.
I Don’t Know Where You Get Those Funny Ideas From left me stupefied and a tad melancholy since many of the numbers on here made me look back at my own life and contemplate what’s next. It’s that sort of visceral, cathartic experience I crave. It will take you to uncharted territory in your mind’s eye. Key tracks to target for your streaming and/or downloading pleasure: “Cruz,” “Cezanne,” ”Nihil,” “Octo,” “Wabi Sabi,” and “Lila.”
I’ve been telling people for most of my adult life that this is a band worth checking out. This record shows the band at a creative high water mark. HASTCO, who’ve put this album together mailing the tracks back and forth to each other, have created an otherworldly, bold and intelligent record that will have you clamoring to climb aboard for another rotation.
I talked to the band recently about the new record, and the artists – solely responsible for the music: Neil MacKay, John Wills, and Nigel Webb – were more than forthcoming with their disclosures and observations.
BLURT: How long did it take to record this album and were there tracks left off it that will be used on future projects?
Nigel Webb: Probably took about 1 year to exchange songs/tracks and parts, ideas – total recording/mixing time a lot less. Similarly, I guess about another 10 months ‘maturing’.
John Wills : The album came together quite slowly mainly because we had to work remotely. We swapped files and tinkered with them but I found it a displeasing way of working.
Neil Mackay: Back a bit, John and I played in the Loop reunion and toured the UK and Europe a little. John left as he wanted to record and Robert didn’t want to record with us. When in London I met up and jammed with Nigel and we all somehow decided to do a new album. It took quite a while. I initially bombarded John and Nigel with tracks of varying quality! I have been doing online file swapping for quite a while with previous projects on the Escape Velocity Label, also I recorded a nice album with Randall from Fuxa called Fuxa and Neil Mackay. The album probably took 2 – 2.5 years. [The] next one will be quicker I hope. Many tracks left off. We wrote 75 [plus] tracks I reckon ( Nigel hope you’ve still got them all ! ) … We write material specifically for an album, we do not just release [“demos”] we had lying around. It’s bloody hard work. Bloody good fun [that] but can be frustrating, confusing and all the rest, but once you have something you like it’s well worth it. Everyone should try using a multi-track recorder at least once! Creation is fun, If it isn’t [then] don’t do it !
BLURT: You mentioned to me that you mailed the tapes to each other to add and complete the songs. How was it working like this and what challenges did this present to completing the record?
Nigel: Working this way [via mail] is a lot different, almost a concept really – I learned a whole lot.
John: HASTCO really [works] best when songs come from jams and live improvisations that could be later developed. [Having] said that, I think we have produced an album that’s vibrant and exciting and made us explore things differently.
Neil: Of course it is always best for everyone to be in the same room at the same time. Playing in a group is about the inter communication between humans. I would always prefer analogue to digital but not so possible these days. I still keep meaning to get my cassette 4-track out again!
BLURT: How does this album differ from HASTCO’s other recorded output?
Nigel: Most HASTCO things were recorded with all three people being in the same physical space. [This is not the case on this.] We also sometimes used to work with engineers, there are none [on] this one. Also we used to all have home studios but recorded/mixed in proper commercial studios. [This is all ‘home’ (ish).]
Neil: Less live drums. Less “liveness” to it in a certain way. Completely different in a way, although Psychedelische Musique employed lots and lots of edit, cuts, sound manipulation. So there is a bridge there.
BLURT: Any particular tracks that you are especially proud of?
Nigel: I like all of them but “Nihil”,”Yes/No” & “Cezanne” are my faves this week.
Neil: Same. Sometimes I think a track is awesome, spot on, then I spot the pimples, warts, varucas and scabs that we/I didn’t clear up. Listening back to your own music, one can be very critical of the work and attention to detail. FYI all the crap edits on the LP are mine(lol). In future it would be good if John could do all the editing so much more accurate!
BLURT: Will you release it on vinyl? Where can fans buy a copy of the CD/LP?
Nigel: Would be great to release it on vinyl/CD… but not sure if it will be possible (Neil?)
Neil: Yes of course Nigel, I have $3,000 NZ+. [I] would love to and am doing a limited CD soon. Keep your eye bananas peeled.
BLURT: Who did the cover art?
Nigel: Dan Holliday did the cover art, [although I have been ‘experimenting’ with it further].
Neil: Our main man Dan Holliday, premiere art man for the Sausage Machine [who] still makes awesome vibrant art. Check him [out] on FB. He has a new screen print out soon. Plus check Dans daughters band, Skinny girl diet! Thanks Dan. I/we owe you!
BLURT: It’s now been 25 years since your last record Psychedelische Musique. What informs the new record? Is there a certain statement you’re trying to convey?
Nigel: Yes, as a statement, you can still make records and be a band 11,659 miles (or so) apart, but you need much longer cables! I think we released a 4 track vinyl EP after Psychedelische Musique and had an album..or two of recorded material that hasn’t been released yet that isn’t to do with this new one. This is all new material.
John: I don’t know if there’s a statement other than we are all living in the most unpredictable times and this is how we all expressed it consciously or unconsciously.
Neil: I don’t know. I don’t understand what [you mean by] informs! I now do music as it is something I do. I try to be relaxed when I record / write, that’s the most fun for me. Creation! The record company side of things that I run is hopeless. In other words we need a manager but aren’t making any money to afford one. I must say I am really pleased and a big thank you to the people who have bought the album so far. Rock on. Hope you have fun listening and don’t take it too serious.
BLURT: In the intervening years, has your taste in music changed at all? What sorts of bands do you listen to these days?
Nigel: Since the last EP, I have probably gotten into a lot of different music. I found myself personally revisiting ‘rock’ music & krautrock for a while, and getting into a huge amount of YouTube stuff I hadn’t listened to in years:
Roky Erickson, A Place to Bury Strangers,Trumans Water,Polvo, Swans,Can and recently Son house,Charlemagne Palestine, and also The Urinals (SoCal 1980s) – all sorts.
John: My musical taste is constantly changing. I try to live in the present and hate nostalgia. You know, Facebook posts about how great classic albums are really piss me off. We mustn’t stagnate we must all create. I like some of the latest Grime[s] especially the female rappers coming from a very direct feminist stance. There’s some great poetry happening on this stuff. Other than that at the other end of the spectrum I’m really into field recording.
Neil: I worked at Rough Trade shops in London for 17 plus years so much musical tastes were pretty broad to start with (or after that I should say – what an education and a privilege to work with such awesome people and with such awesome product, music.) In my car I keep [flipping] between stations. I listen to Hindi, pacific islander, Chinese, NZ and anything and everything [that’s] on the radio. I do have a certain liking for Bollywood music. I find it is an awesome amalgamation of every style of music!
BLURT: Finally, any plans to play out for this album and are there future projects in the works? Any bands in particular that you’d enjoy playing with?
Nigel: Would be great to play live again, not sure if it will be possible.
John: I’m working with 3D sound and creating VR for theatre which is very exciting. I’ve just finished writing a new Pumajaw album which will have a vinyl release next Spring.
A conversation with the London upstarts who, in just a few short years, have created the kind of international buzz you used to only read about in the UK weeklies. Oh, and according to BLURT’s ye olde editor, Curse of Lono is officially our current favorite British band. Don’t be surprised if the next time your read about them here, they’ll be our current favorite, period. Drill down on their latest album,4 AM And Counting, cut at the inimitable Toe Rag Studios. PS: Hunter Thompson’s not dead, he’s just orbiting us in the stratosphere.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Over the course of just four years, London’s Curse Of Lono has delivered three near-perfect records (one EP and two LPs check the links for our reviews) embodying Americana better than most south of the Mason Dixon-based bands raised on RC Cola, Johnny Cash and not-so-subtle racism.
So how do they follow up a so-far stellar track record of album releases? Well, by going back and re-visiting their still fresh anthology of songs. Naturally.
On 4 AM And Counting, Curse Of Lono set up basecamp at Toe Rag Studios in London where they recorded stripped down, mellower versions of songs off those first few albums. They brought along pedal steel great BJ Cole (Dolly Parton, Elton John, Pink Floyd) and harmonica player Nick Reynolds (Alabama 3) to sit in on a handful of songs as well.
The vibe is infectiously low-key and the rootsier sound manages to highlight the sophistication of the lyrics even more so than on the original tracks.
Back in London and preparing for some European dates, singer/guitarist Felix Bechtolsheimer took some time recently to talk to us about the genesis of 4 AM And Counting, the prospects of finally pulling off a proper tour of the states, and kicking heroine while discovering the genius of John Prine and Guy Clark.
BLURT: Let’s start by talking about the concept behind 4 AM and Counting?
FELIX BECHTOLSHEIMER: We normally strive for a very cinematic, widescreen sound, which requires a lot of planning and lots of layers. With this album we were aiming for the opposite. Instead of visualising the recordings on a big IMAX screen, we wanted the listener to feel like they’re sitting in the room with us. We really wanted to capture that intimacy. We had a bunch of chilled-out, stripped-back versions of our songs, which we’d put together for radio sessions and through the band jamming late at night, and we wanted to record a couple of those for a little video series. But we couldn’t decide which songs to go with, so we ended up recording 15 tracks in three days. The camera was rolling on one of those days, so we ended up with six session videos as well. I was a bit nervous about putting out a whole album with no new songs this early in our career but in the end, we agreed to do a limited-edition vinyl for Record Store Day. That went really well so we agreed to put it out properly.
You recorded this in Toe Rag studio – what was it about that studio that attracted you to it in the first place?
Toe Rag Studios is an incredible place. There are no computers. There’s no technology to tempt you. We just played everything completely live like we do when we’re messing around in our rehearsal room, so what you hear is exactly what was played. Liam Watson built the place in the nineties and he got a lot of attention when he recorded The White Stripes there and won a Grammy for their album Elephant. It was amazing working with Liam. He just knows how to get the right sound quickly so there is very little waiting around. We just plugged in and off we went.
You’ve also got some impressive guests on this one. How did you get BJ Cole and Nick Reynolds involved?
We’ve known BJ and Nick for a long time. Our drummer was in a band with BJ and my old band, Hey Negrita, toured with Alabama 3, so we’ve spent a lot of time with Nick. When we found out that we were getting the Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award at the Americana Awards in January, we thought it would be cool to take some of the tracks in a bit more of a rootsy direction as our first two albums tend to veer off the beaten Americana path quite a bit. BJ and Nick were the perfect guys to add a bit of that loose, Beggars Banquet style rootsiness. And it was really cool to hang out with two old friends for a couple of days.
Any chance you will ever playing a proper tour in the U.S.?
We certainly hope so. We are coming over for Americanafest in Nashville in September and our booking agent is inviting a lot of promoters and US agents down to see us. Hopefully one of them will bite so we can come back for a longer stint next year.
You mentioned filming some of the record sessions for this record. Videos/movies are pretty synonymous to this band. Why is the visual element important to the band?
I studied at the London Film Academy, so I’ve always been very interested in visuals. I think these days it’s getting harder and harder to break through the static to reach your audience. It’s so easy for people to access infinite amounts of music for no money while their attention spans are rapidly shrinking. As an artist you have to work really hard to convince people to give you a few minutes of their time and I find that videos and movies are a really great way to do that. They enable you to tell your story in a more detailed way.
There is a strong Americana sound to your music. Are there bands in particular that you draw a lot of influence from?
Yeah. It’s a weird one. We get a lot of love from the Americana crowd but we’re also getting great support from the rock and indie tribes these days. A lot of the songs I write start out as simple indie tunes but then we throw some slide guitar and a few four-part harmonies in the mix, and it automatically gives them a bit of an Americana flavour. I moved to south Florida in 2000 for a year to give up heroin and methadone. I had a roommate out there who turned me onto a lot of the great American country songwriters like Guy Clark, John Prine and Steve Earle. I guess some of that must still be in my system.
Any musical influences you have that might be surprising to some people?
Oh. There are loads. I love the Pixies, Sisters Of Mercy, the Prodigy, Black Sabbath and even a bit of Ministry when I’m in the right mood.
Have you started thinking about new songs yet for another album?
Yes, but it’s early days. I have some sounds, some melodies and some lyrical themes but I haven’t had the time to put them together yet. The past year has been pretty crazy for us but I’m hoping to get the first few tracks finished next month. I’ve already booked five days in a rehearsal room when we’re in Nashville in September so that we can start playing around with some ideas.
What’s next for the band?
We’re heading back to the U.S. for a couple of festivals in Nashville and Bristol, TN in September and then we have a UK headline tour in October. I’m really excited that one of my favourite songwriters in the world, a guy called John Murry, is opening for us. If you haven’t heard his music, you have to check him out. After that, we’re going to lock ourselves away until the next album is finished. No excuses!
Rock musician quote of the year: “If you put a four-legged table on rough ground, it’s wobbly. But if you put a three-legged one [there], it stays there.” The erstwhile Sex Pistol, Rich Kid, Philistine, and more has never been unsteady, that’s for sure… Mr. Matlock explains. Additional reading at this fan site and at his Facebook page.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Among the many “what if” questions that abound in rock and roll’s 65-year history, it’s interesting to wonder what might have happened if Glen Matlock had not left The Sex Pistols.
The popular narrative, of course, is that Matlock didn’t actually leave — that he was sacked by Johnny Rotten and company for liking The Beatles and for not being “punk” enough. While the relationship between Rotten (or Lydon) and Matlock has been bumpy over the years, it’s also clear that the popular narrative isn’t factual. Bearing in mind that there are three sides to every story, the bassist’s claim that he left the Pistols by choice is substantiated, among other things, by the fact that he had already started another band. The Rich Kids unveiled their debut album, Ghosts of Princes In Towers, in 1978.
What’s also clear is that with all due respect to the Pistols, the band suffered musically from Matlock’s departure. Even Rotten told the noted UK music journalist Jon Savage, “Glen was… the best musician out of the lot of us.” His replacement, Sid Vicious, certainly added to the Pistols’ legend — and there’s no question that his attitude was more in line with their punk rock ethos. But it’s also obvious that Vicious had little (if any) musical ability. He wasn’t much of a bassist and, unlike Matlock, added nothing to the band’s songwriting catalog. In truth, he was little more than a junkie who was in the right place at the right time.
Matlock, on the other hand, has spent the last four decades or so as a working musician. The Rich Kids called it a day as the ‘80s dawned but he stayed busy — and has remained busy to this day. He’s played with everyone from Iggy Pop to The Faces (probably the band who influenced him the most) and, more recently, has fronted The Philistines. Matlock has also reunited with the other three Pistols (Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook) for the occasional tour.
This year, Matlock is touring in support of his most recent solo effort, Good To Go. In June, he did a three date mini-tour of the States which kicked off at Joe’s Pub in NYC. The show itself was just Matlock and his guitar but he turned in a spirited and diverse set to an adoring crowd. In addition to several tunes from Good To Go (including the single “Sexy Beast”), he included songs from both the Pistols and Rich Kids catalogs as well as covers of Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing,” Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” and Scott Walker’s “Montague Terrace in Blue.” I spoke with him backstage, before the show, and found him to be a down to Earth guy with a singular history and a good sense of humor.
Tell me what prompted this sort of mini-tour of the States that you’re doing now.
Well, I put my album out at the tail end of last year. I’m not the most organized guy in the world, and I didn’t get to tour it. [But] earlier this year in England, I have done. I just finished a full band tour. Right after that, I met this guy Jon Halpen, who said, “Do you wanna come do some shows [in the States]?” And they offered me these three shows as a ‘come and say hello’ kind of thing. Then maybe I’ll come back in September with a band.
So, are these shows solo?
These are totally solo. It’s something that I’m used to doing. I’ve been doing loads of solo shows, all around the world, for the past 10 years. I’ve played in Japan, Australia, South America — Iceland, even. That’s why I made my [new] record sound the way that it does. Instead of doing a heavy rock record, I’ve really enjoyed doing the acoustic thing.
Most of the [new] album was done [in upstate New York]. We recorded about 18 songs but a few were covers we did for a laugh. And then when I [went] back to England, I thought “Well, this is not quite an album.” Not the number of songs but [how] they all fit together as a kind of whole. So, I wrote a couple of other songs that were a bit more in keeping with what the album was about in my mind.
I’m fortunate in that I’m a musician. I get to travel the world and see how it is. [And] it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Not in terms of how much money you’ve got and all that. But people wanna feed themselves, they wanna look after their families, they wanna be able to cut loose and not be told what to do. Wherever you go in the world, it’s the same. You know, I’ve just come back from Palestine.
Can I ask you a little about what that was like?
Well, it was horrible [for the] Palestinians. You do not want a border wall in Mexico. It’s divisive; it creates so much trouble and dissent. And they’ve got walls everywhere [there], snaking in and out…. Until you go there, you don’t see it. You know, I came away thinking “If you put people in cages, you shouldn’t be too surprised if they want to rattle [them] every now and then.”
I [also] wanna ask you some stuff about back in the day. What was the inspiration for “Ghosts of Princes In Towers?”
Ah! Are you coming to the show [tonight]? I was gonna tell that story!
Basically, I didn’t want to be a second division Sex Pistol; I wanted to do something different. And I wanted to get the singer Midge Ure, who we all thought was very good. He’d had a number one record and was a bit of a teen idol with a band called Slik: kind of pop [with] big, dramatic beginnings.
So, I wanted him in the band. He was gonna be in the band, then he wasn’t, then he was, then he wasn’t. He couldn’t make his mind up! So [in the meantime] I thought, “Sod this, I’m gonna do some gigs.” Mick Jones from The Clash was a friend of mine. [He] played guitar and I had a go at singing. We did this gig in London at a place called The Vortex. And because I didn’t wanna be a second division Sex Pistol, we thought we’d look a bit different. It was the height of punk [but] we were kind of growing our hair out a little bit and had sort of slightly flouncy shirts on. And somebody wrote a review and said, “The band came onstage looking like the ghosts of princes in towers.” So, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
But a few other ideas were going through my head at the same time. I’d been reading a lot of Jean Cocteau. He’d written a book called Thomas the Impostor, about this bloke who just lies his way through life and gets shot in the first World War. And then also, it was the height of the teddy boys vs. the punks and the punks vs. the skinheads. Everybody was trying to be forward-looking but they were all staving each other’s heads in. I didn’t think that was right. So somehow, it’s all in the song.
Interesting. It’s a good song!
I love it. It’s about something.
What’s an album that really influenced you early on?
A Nod Is As Good As a Wink to a Blind Horse [by] The Faces. It opens with “Miss Judy’s Farm,” which is one of the best rock-soul workouts ever. The Faces seemed like they had a laugh about everything, all the time. Ronnie Wood’s pretty much my favorite guitarist. Ian McLagan’s my favorite keyboard player — really unsung. And any 15-year-old boy wanted to be in The Faces.
What do you have on the agenda for the rest of this year?
Well, I’ve got this show tonight [and then] two more: Hollywood and Long Beach. So, I fly to Los Angeles tomorrow. I might hang out in the States for a little bit. And then I’ve got pretty much enough songs for a new album. So, I’ve gotta decide how I’m gonna go about doing [that]. Then we’re going to Japan in July, and there’s talk about coming back here and doing a band show in the fall. I’m kinda busy.
One last question. What did each of the four of you bring to the original Pistols that was unique?
Steve and Paul were the kind of musical sound, I think. I was the tunesmith. Came up with lots of riffs and some of the guitar parts that Steve plays. He interprets them very well but they’re my little ideas. And John was the nut case with the chip on his shoulder. But the real attitude for The Sex Pistols came from Steve Jones. He was what you’d call a bit of a Wide Boy, a likely lad. Like something out of a Jean Genet book.
When I was in the [Pistols], there wasn’t four people in the band; it was like a triangle. It was John… Me… And Steve and Paul. [But] you know what? If you put a four-legged table on rough ground, it’s wobbly. But if you put a three-legged one [there], it stays there.
It’s been a decade since longtime BLURT heroes Drivin’ N Cryin’ last put out a full-length record. During that time, they’ve had some line-up changes, been the subject of a documentary, put out a remarkable collection of themed EPs, were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame; all the while continuing to tour.
But the release of Live The Love Beautiful (available, incidentally, on gorgeous blue vinyl) finds singer Kevn Kinney and his band at the forefront yet again of a genre – a mix of Americana, punk and Southern rock – that they they’ve been playing since the mid-80s, a time when that style of music was hardly en vogue for the masses. And while they didn’t create that sound, they sure as hell put their own stamp on it.
The band called on fellow musician Aaron Lee Tasjan – a one-time member of Drivin’ N Cryin’ – to help produce this one. Kinney spoke with us recently about working with Tasjan, writing for an LP versus an EP and, to paraphrase him, Living the Love Beautifully.
BLURT: How did the band first connect with Aaron Lee Tasjan? He actually played guitar with you guys for a bit, didn’t he?
KEVN KINNEY: I met Aaron over 10 years ago in New York city. I was a big fan of his band Semi Precious Weapons and the Madison Square Gardens. He also played with me and Anton Fier as well. When I first met him, we did a solo tour of Holland together with Tim Easton another great Ohio musician. I knew the first time I met him his knowledge of music was pretty vast. He joined Drivin’ N Cryin’ briefly when he first moved to Nashville. He probably knows how to play every song I ever wrote we spent so much time traveling with the solo band and solo shows he really knows me inside and out
Unlike many producers, he’s actually a working musician himself. What was it like working with him on this record?
Interestingly enough I don’t think Drivin’ N Cryin’ or myself have you ever made an album
that was not produced by a musician. I think it’s important for a producer to be able to get inside the minds and desires of the band and songwriter. That’s a lot easier to do with me if you’re a musician. But if you’re not a musician the main requirement would be to have an extensive knowledge of all music recordings for as long as they’ve existed. Music history is important to me if not only to pay due respect to those who came before me. All of my music is an amalgamation of all the music that I love from Buddy Holly to Mastodon.
I remember seeing Drivin’ N Cryin’ play around Atlanta in the ’80s and you had a sound that few were playing at the time – blending punk with Americana. There are a lot of bands nowadays that are playing music that type of music. Does it seem like the world finally caught up to you?
Well we weren’t the first. We were in the audience for The Replacements, Husker Du,
Jason and the Scorchers, Elvis Costello, Rank and File, etc. What we do was definitely inspired by those bands as for as diversity within an album. I’m not sure who’s catching up to who. I’m more interested in learning with this new generation has.
It’s been a decade since your last full length – was working on this one much different than the way you approached the last couple of EPs?
It’s surprising how many more months it takes to add five more songs to a five-song EP to make an album. I have a pretty short attention span and unlike, I think, a lot of musicians I don’t like sitting in the studio. Some days I’d rather go to the dentist. It can be pretty stressful thinking about what you’re putting down now. What people are going to be listening to in 30 years. How relevant is it? How truthful is it? How boring? Is it exciting? Is it tearing it down? Building it up? Listening to that voice that doesn’t sound like the voice in my head, but I’ve learned to live with it, babysitting a project to keep it cohesive. It’s not easy. That’s why I think Aaron did an amazing job of shepherding this music to your turntable.
“Ian McLagan” is a beautiful song. We’ve lost some great musicians over the years. What was it about him that inspired you to write the song?
The fact that I never met him. I had that opportunity when I saw him walking up the alley, but I didn’t want to stop him in the rain. And when he passed, I thought of all the great music that he made and how he could’ve just done one thing and sat on a barstool his whole life. I also think that the name Ian in the song represents a lot of different of my favorite musicians who are still driving this country, sharing music with the audience; Dan Baird, Peter Buck, Chuck Prophet, Todd Snider, Alejandro!
“Free Ain’t Free” is another great song on this record. Was it based on a real couple?
No couple in particular, no. But just about every city in America right now has similar situations going on, squatters, flippers, blockbusters. I understand neighborhoods change and I think that’s fantastic, but I think that city government should structure some sort of tax relief for your families that have lived in homes and created neighborhoods and bonds with neighbors. I think the family home and family unit is sacred. There should be a place for them to it’s not always about more money, more money, more money.
What’s next for the band?
Space, the final frontier. Either that or maybe someday will be huge in Cleveland. Baby steps. In all seriousness, we are just going to keep driving around sharing music until the wheels fall off the van and then buy another van. I hope to be doing this for the next 10 years. I’m really proud of the group of musicians I’m surrounded by. I love touring the different crowds every night. I love the challenge; I love the camaraderie and I love to come home.
Those are all the questions I had. Anything else you want to cover?
With their new Doom Punks rec storming both the indie rock and comics dimensions, let us investigate….
BY JOHN B. MOORE
George Hage, on top of being an incredible guitar player for the New Reveille and Jack The Radio (the latter for which he also sings for), is a pretty stellar artist, whose recent book,Daydreaming: The Art of George Hage, impressed scores of reviewers, including our editor here at BLURT. When he’s not touring or recording, he’s designing posters, shirts, album covers, beer labels, hell even drumhead logos. So, the fact that he would one day marry his two passions into a new project was simply a given.
Along with longtime friend and fellow musician, Nick Baglio, Hage created Doom Punks, a comic book-themed punk rock band.
The duo recently put out their debut EP, so now seemed like an ideal time to catch up with Hage to discuss the Doom Punks, his latest venture into the comic world and the status of his other bands. (Useful links follow the interview.)
BLURT: Can you start out by talking about the idea behind Doom Punks?
GEORGE HAGE: Doom Punks started as a pie in the sky idea to combine my love for comics with my love for music. I imagined some of my favorite indie comic books were transformed into their own Saturday-morning style cartoons and our songs were their theme songs similar to what The Ramones did with Spider-man.
The past few years led to something more. We were able to create a song for a very talented friend of mine, Skottie Young’s comic Middlewest, and put an ad with a link to the song at the end of the comic, which created a whole new dimension to the comic book experience. This is something I haven’t really seen or heard before and hope that our music provides the comic reader with an enhanced experience much like the score to a film does.
Had you written these songs before you got together with Nick in 2016?
I had starting writing some of the songs for myself, just for fun. I initially never thought they’d see the light of day. After sitting in on guitar for some shows with my longtime pal, Nick Baglio, we got to talking and I threw the idea out there and he was in to bringing the songs to life with his immensely great drumming.
How did you connect with Image Comics?
I primarily worked with Skottie Young and Jorge Corona directly to create the song for their creator-owned comic Middlewest with Image Comics. It was exciting to see Image create the animated promo video for book with the song as the score for the video. It will be exciting to see if we can find more ways to collaborate on future projects.
Obviously, you have a passion for comics. Do you remember how you first got into them?
I remember being 9 or 10 and seeing comic books for the first time at the grocery store. Around that time Death of Superman was happening and Jim Lee’s X-men number one was exploding everywhere. My parents would give me a small allowance for doing stuff around the house and I would use that money to pick up the comic books. Eventually they started taking me to local comic shops, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find being one of them that I still go to when I’m in Charlotte.
Given your love of comics, it must have been pretty cool to work on that print for NC Comic Con. How did that come about?
Creating the art for the NC Comic Con Oak City print was a real treat. It’s been great watching that convention grow from a small shopping strip to a multi-town convention that’s now held at the convention center. It’s a con that I started going to as a fan year and years ago. Over the years I’ve lucky enough to connect with the great folks behind the scenes at Ultimate Comics and they have supported my art and have been kind enough to include me over the years.
You’re a pretty talented artist – have you thought about creating your own comic based around songs? I’ve always wanted to and still do want to create my own comic book and had plans to do something with the Jack the Radio character. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do that yet. The good news is sequential art takes a lot of skill and the longer I wait the more I get to practice and study up. That’s what I tell myself at least, (laughs).
Do you see this as a Doom Punks one-off project or any plans for more Doom Punks albums?
Nick and I have talked about it a bit and we definitely want to do more songs going forward. I’d love to connect with more comic creators and publishers to collaborate on the songs to create something that adds to the comic book experience and is something that can be used in promoting the books.
Have you and Nick played any of these songs live yet? We haven’t played any of these songs live yet, however I go down with some of the Jack the Radio guys every year to Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC to play some music at their annual Drink N Draw event with Team Cul De Sac, which raises money for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. We might have to break out a song or two there.
Anything new happening with Jack The Radio?
Jack the Radio has slowed down a bit in the past two years with some line-up changes due to jobs, family, etc. but we are gradually working on another record at Warrior Sound in Chapel Hill, NC, which is where we’ve recorded our past studio albums. With a different line-up the sound is evolving, which has been an exciting process.
Growing up, did you imagine you’d be able to make a living by playing music and drawing?
Honestly, no. Growing up no one in my family really played an instrument and no one drew. We didn’t know anyone that did either for a living, nor have anyone in my family in the biz so it didn’t cross my mind it could be a way to make a living. It was always something I loved and that I did for fun. I was a pretty introverted kid at times and it really helped me build my social skills and confidence. Music specifically challenged me to overcome any fears of talking or performing in front of people. I think it gets overlooked a lot, but music and art is a great way to meet people and I’ve made some great friends through both.
What’s next for you – what else have you got going on?
Musically I’m focused on tightening up my live show and pushing myself to grow as a songwriter. Artistically I have a lot of projects going on with businesses, bands, festivals and more that I’m looking forward to sharing with folks. Most recently I was able to work with a great designer and art director, Landon Elmore, on some illustration work for the 2019 World of Bluegrass fest branding produced by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). It’s one of the largest, if not the largest street festivals around. Also be on the lookout for some artwork for Foo Fighter guitarist, Chris Shiflett. And if you’re in Raleigh feel free to check out my latest art installation at Transfer Co. Food Hall downtown.
“Literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape”: It’s hard to believe that the Tucson-based—and, as it turns out now, partly El Paso-based as well—rockers have been seducing the sonic synapses of fans of their patented “desert noir” for nearly two decades. But with a celebrated studio album and key reissue recently in their rearview, plus a fresh collaboration and tour with Iron & Wine in their headlights for this summer, it’s not a stretch to call them a true legacy band. Founders Joey Burns and John Convertino talk about the upcoming album, reflect on their past, and enthuse about their headlining show this weekend at the Cold Mountain Music Festival in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
BY FRED MILLS
Calexico: think Americana, yes, but also think border music, Mariachi rock, folk-psych and experimental musings, wide open expanses of the Southwestern frontier, desert noir. More on the latter in a sec. The Tucson outfit, founded in 1995 by guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and percussionist extraordinaire John Convertino, is in the middle of a remarkably active and productive period, having issued in the past year both a new studio album (The Thread That Keeps Us, via Anti- in the US and City Slang overseas; it’s reviewed here), and a 20th anniversary expanded reissue of their 1998 classic, The Black Light. Along the way, they also decided to renew an old friendship in the form of Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, and the fruits of that studio connection will arrive in just a couple of weeks as Years to Burn via Sub Pop (on digital, CD, vinyl, and limited edition colored vinyl… you can guess which iteration yours truly preordered), which will coincide with an extensive international tour with I&W that kicks off June 18.
Meanwhile, this weekend Calexico will be headlining the 3rd annual Cold Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina (read my preview of the fest elsewhere on the Blurt site) prior to the aforementioned tour with Iron & Wine, so, as suggested, they are a busy bunch. As befits an ensemble with an ever-expanding back catalog, acclaimed collaborations galore, and what might be termed as a clearly relentless musical mission.
Full disclosure, I feel permanently linked to the band by virtue of several factors: I was living in Tucson, Arizona, when they initially formed as an offshoot of Giant Sand and were also moonlighting in Friends of Dean Martinez, and, thanks to Burns and Convertino, privy to some of their earliest musical endeavors; years later, a stray quote of mine that I once used in a review to describe the band (“desert noir”) was uttered by Burns during an NPR interview, along with his acknowledgment of the term’s source; and certainly the honor of working with the band on the liner notes for their sprawling 12-LP 2001 vinyl box set, Road Atlas 1998-2001.
All that aside—and my devotion to the entire Arizona music scene is well-documented here at BLURT, so I won’t belabor it—the fact is, the duo, which can morph into a full-sized band, replete with a mariachi horn section, at the drop of a castanet, remains one of our premiere American musical ambassadors, and will always be emblematic of the sonic serendipity that the Southwestern desert region can bestow.
As Convertino succinctly offered, “The whole ride has been amazing.”
For us as well, John. I caught up with my old Tucson compadres recently via email.
BLURT: John, Joey, it’s great to connect with you again—I must confess, whenever I hear you on the radio these days, I get a twinge of homesickness for Tucson. So, now you’re coming to my current home, near Asheville, North Carolina. Have you ever played this area?
JOHN: To be honest, I am not sure if we have. I know we have played Saxapahaw before, and we are scheduled again with Iron & Wine [June 18, at the Haw River Ballroom, near Chapel Hill]. For us, it’s always a pleasure to get to the parts of the country that are so lush and green, spend some time in the shade trees and find a lake to jump into. So, we’re looking forward to the Cold Mountain Fest—we are not “on tour” right now, and we may be doing some interesting covers we don’t normally do because [we will have] Brian Lopez on guitar and vocals, who has his own band and songs that we sometimes do with Calexico. [Ed. Note: Lopez, also based in Tucson, has an amazing band, XIXA, which also boasts Gabriel Sullivan, who we’ve featured and reviewed here at BLURT.)
JOEY: We’ve played Knoxville, TN, before but I don’t recall ever playing in Asheville. Glad to be finally playing here. We will be playing both old and new songs, with Brian; Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, vocals, and vibraphone; and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards, bass, vocals, and samples. Looks like a cool festival too—Cold Mountain Music Festival on Lake Logan sounds pretty damn nice for a bunch of desert dwellers from Arizona.
BLURT: In the time I’ve been away from Tucson, since mid-2001, what would you say have been your most notable successes or milestones?
JOHN: The whole ride has been amazing; we have been so lucky with having such great labels to work with, and fans that have been loyal and willing to go to different places with us, musically and emotionally. I think being able to bring the mariachi on tour in Europe was huge, as well as having some of our songs charted for symphony orchestra and performing them with the Louisville Symphony, and then later in Berlin and Austria with those orchestras.
JOEY: We’ve done a bunch of benefit concerts for our local radio community radio station KXCI [My favorite radio station on the planet.—Ed.] and helped our friend and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she was running for office. January 8, 2011, our world was shattered when Gabby and others were shot in a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson. It opened us up and connected us in a way that I would have never imagined. It changed our town forever and highlighted how important community is for healing and living together despite our differences. We offered our help through our music, and I’m grateful to have been part of the process of healing.
Friendship is what has connected us and sustained our band for the long haul. It’s a real gift to get to meet with musicians and continue on the path of being creative and supportive to one another. We’ve had some incredible shows in amazing places around the globe and from this point on I will be extremely grateful if we can keep it going and continue branching out with.
BLURT: Any pitfalls or downsides during that time as well?
JOHN: Well, life on the road can most definitely put you and your family through the meat grinder. There were times when we were overbooked, and overworked—it takes its toll, my friend, but we are living to tell, and that story continues to be told.
Calexico and Iron & Wine
BLURT: Tell me a little about the upcoming Years to Burn and connecting with Iron & Wine—maybe a little background on how that came to pass, and a bit of a preview of the upcoming tour with Sam.
JOEY: We’ve been throwing around the idea of doing another collaboration with Sam for a while. [In 2005 Calexico and Iron & Wine released the In the Reins EP.] Once we found a window of time, we jumped on it. We spent four or five days recording with Matt Ross-Spang at The Sound Emporium in Nashville with Rob Burger on keyboards, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and two of the other Calexico members—Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and vocal, as well as Paul Niehaus on some gorgeous pedal steel.
JOHN: Since we did In the Reins almost 15 years ago, we have always talked about doing it again, and just about when I thought it was never gonna happen, it happened! Sam was coming off his touring for Beast Epic and had a batch of songs he wanted to play with Calexico. So, we decided on Nashville, and along with Sam’s bass player Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist Rob Burger, Joey and I met up with Sam and recorded and mixed these songs in about five days. The tour should be fun—we have all been around the block multiple times now, up down and all around, so safe to say, we all look forward to those few hours on stage continuing the musical dialogue, try some new things, some new covers.
BLURT: What were some of your thoughts or emotions as you put last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of The Black Light together? And where were your heads originally at when making that album in 1998? I will always think of you guys in the context of my “desert noir” description, and how you’ve continued to tap that metaphysical vein with your music.
JOEY: Thank you so much Fred—you’ve always been a beacon and an inspiration. I love the “desert noir” term. Today I accidentally typed “Desert No Water” and was surprised how accurate that fits to not only the current state of things in the West and the growing importance of sustainable resources, but also the whole symbolism of why we do what we do. We venture out, despite the risks or the voices inside saying, “maybe it is time to do something else,” or “do people still want to listen to live and recorded music, enough to justify hopping in a van and seeing where the road will take you?” Back in 1998, we were mainly concerned with playing music and getting out on the road in whatever way possible. That spirit is still there, and it feels good releasing a 20th anniversary edition of an album that was our most intuitive and eclectic. I’m curious how it feels to audiences today.
JOHN: It was really nice to revisit The Black Light, especially since I live in El Paso now, which was home to Cormac McCarthy during his years of writing “The Border Trilogy,” which was, in part, the inspiration for some of the stories and lyrics on the record. Living here, in some ways, has brought to life a lot of what I could only imagine the border stories [while] living in Tucson or reading books, so listening back with what I know now, I feel the record still holds up, and hopefully will for years to come. I think what the music represents is much more important now than when we made the record. Musically, we were experimenting with what the studio could offer us, and the time and space of Tucson, which was a pretty small town back then.
JOEY: In 1998 we were lucky enough to find a few record labels that would take a chance on an album that didn’t conform to any one genre or style. We were just as mixed up with influences back then as we are now, but maybe the scope was more focused on our thrift store aesthetic than it has been more recently. It reads like a well-worn book you would find at a motel buried with old National Geographic magazines and paperback novels. Tucson has always been a cul-de-sac and spiritual corner that collects literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape. It’s a monumental valley of nostalgia that seeps into the cultural subconsciousness. If you like ghosts and graveyards, then this is the place for you. That was the vibe of downtown Tucson in the mid 1990’s. [He’s right.—Ed.] It was a great big canvas of empty warehouses and parking lots. I saw this corner of the world suspended in time. Contrast to that was the growing urban tribal art scene and university dropouts that made for some really creative tangents and creative directions. There was a little more grit in Tucson back in 1998, but it still resonates in a beautiful way here.
BLURT: If we count 1995’s self-released Superstition Highway cassette as the Calexico debut – or perhaps 1996’s Spoke, however, since it had actual distribution — that means 2020-2021 will mark your 25th anniversary. If so, any special plans or surprises in the works? Maybe a protest concert during the Republican national convention?
JOHN: There have been talks of re-releasing that and maybe doing a special show in Germany for Hausmusik, the label that put Spoke out originally. It would probably be better for us to stay out of politics, but it’s pretty much impossible these days—the division is so clear cut now, it’s easier than ever to make a choice.
JOEY: We plan to continue tour with Calexico and various collaborations for as long as the road will take us. There are no retrospective tours planned as of yet. I would rather focus on recording new ideas and touring with new projects. As for the political state of things, life is full of challenges on many levels, and with art, music, food, writing, dance, culture, comedy, film, we can embrace one another, listen to one another, and harmonize together. Definitely being a father is teaching me to be a better listener and to help take care of others. It’s basic, and each community that grows strong will help influence each, state, government and continent. My kids are worried about the health of the planet and I am too. I would love to keep finding ways to help thru music. That’s what I want to teach my kids.
BLURT: Lastly, tell me something surprising, unusual, or otherwise cool about Tucson these days that I probably don’t know and would be fun to share with Blurt readers…
JOHN: Well, Tucson has changed a lot since you left there, Fred. The downtown is totally happening, you can walk around and have everything you could possibly want. Here in El Paso, things are a little slower… we did just get these amazing refurbished vintage trolley cars that make a loop through our downtown, to the university, and along the border. That’s very cool. Come visit El Paso sometime— you would love it!
JOEY: In the past we’ve seen a wave of various businesses: Sonoran Hot Dog stands in empty dirt lots, tattoo parlors, mattress stores (some even across the street from one another!), barber shops, used car dealerships, pizza and hamburger joints. Tucson is a test market. One of the benefits is that we have a pretty good food scene here. In 2017 Tucson won the first UNESCO award for City of Gastronomy. I hope it continues growing in a thoughtful and healthy way.
Taking place Friday and Saturday of this week, May 31-June 1, in Canton, North Carolina, it features a slew of diverse artists—among them, Calexico, Milk Carton Kids, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Kat Wright. We talked to one of the festival organizers about its origins, its intention, and its overall success to date. (Above photo the official festival photo; image below, by David Simchock www.davidsimchock.com / courtesy CMMF)
BY FRED MILLS
The summer festival season begins anew—having already been sufficiently primed/goosed by numerous pre-summer festivals, which seem to occur earlier and earlier each year—with festival-goers and musicians alike fairly frothing at the mouth over, respectively, the ensuing fun-potential and the ridiculously easy paychecks.
One relatively young event is the two-day Cold Mountain Music Festival, May 31-June 1, occurring in Canton, North Carolina (specifically: 25 Wormy Chestnut Lane, Canton, NC 28716). Canton is about a half-hour west of Asheville, already renowned for its thriving music scene, and the hills of Western N.C. are similarly alive with the sound of music (to paraphrase a great philosopher). And as we pointed out not long ago here at BLURT, it’s to be “a tasting board of artists ranging from the folk, funk, Americana, bluegrass, and post-rock worlds, with highlights including Grammy-nominated alt-rockers the Milk Carton Kids, critically acclaimed “desert noir” duo Calexico, crowd-favorite jamgrass ensemble Yonder Mountain String Band, fast rising troubadour J.S. Ondara, “soul queen” Kat Wright, the equally Stax-worthy Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, and improvisational genre-benders Driftwood, among others.”
There’s an interesting angle here, too: the family-friendly camping festival, now in its third year and located in Pisgah National Forest at the wonderfully scenic Lake Logan, is put on by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in order to support the work of the ministries of the Lake Logan Conference Center and Camp Henry. Doesn’t exactly sound like your garden-variety sex/drugs/rock’n’roll gathering, where topless girls get hoisted upon the shoulders of their E-gobbling boyfriends and frats on leave from campus slam beer-bongs in between actual bong hits, eh?
I posed that question, or at least my somewhat toned-down version of it, to Lake Logan Conference Center’s Development Director Michelle Robinson, as I was curious to learn if the festival organizers have ever encountered raised eyebrows when informing someone about potential looming collisions between Dionysian youth practices and Faith-based church cultures. I got a firm “LOL” from her…
“We haven’t seen any of that,” chuckled Robinson. “I hope it’s respect for the place we are in and for those around us. If we are to continue to have this festival, we can’t have issues like drugs destroying the vibe. Christians are not excluded from liking good music, be it rock ‘n’ roll or any other. And we count it as a blessing that we have very poor Wi-fi here—people aren’t walking around with their faces in their phones. Instead, they are connecting with their neighbors and enjoying nature. It’s amazing to watch.”
In our conversation, Robinson professed to be a big fan of music festivals in general, adding that she has prior experience with large such events. She always had a hunch that the Lake Logan setting would be an ideal one for such a gathering, and explained that while the venue had always been used primarily for summer camp and church groups, “the festival arose as a thought between a few long-time supporters of Lake Logan and myself—I knew we could make it happen. My best friend is married to one of the Steep Canyon Rangers, so she was very helpful, as were the Rangers, with getting the first one going. We knew the location was perfect for it! It took a lot of work that first year from the entire planning committee, the Diocese staff and Lake Logan staff—I’m always afraid our head of facilities will retire! We have great people at Lake Logan and in the Diocese office in Asheville. Everyone works hard to make this a success.
“And there is a great deal of organization to it. I work for Lake Logan and Camp Henry, with support from the Episcopal Diocese of WNC. And Bishop José McLoughlin has been our strongest supporter. He understands our goal [is] to bring all people together in this place where all are welcomed. He lets us do the job and trusts us to make good decisions.”
Good decisions, indeed. Early on, the festival organizers determined that strategic partnerships would be key, and by the second year they had brought on well-respected and -connected Asheville concert promoter and talent buyer Jeff Whitworth, of Worthwhile Sounds, to help line up performers, along with Chad Stewart of Asheville’s Sound to coordinate the lighting and sound systems. (Robinson: “He’s the best, so that was an easy choice.”) Also in the mix now: Haywood County’s weekly newspaper the Smoky Mountain News, the Haywood Tourism Development Authority helping out with some of the talent costs, and the Haywood Sheriff Department for festival-related security and traffic control (not to mention accompanying bureaucratic hoops). Plus, plenty of participation from local breweries, food trucks, and regional merchants—crucial for probably every kind of music festival on the planet.
Robinson adds that another crucial element in mounting a solid festival is lining up sponsorships in order to cover the costs of the booking budget. “We have been successful financially so far,” she says. “It isn’t a huge profit yet, but we keep growing. We have many generous sponsors who come back year after year to help us make this happen. And the Haywood TDA gave us a grant this year that has been a huge help for getting great talent. In terms of genre, we stress that this festival is not a bluegrass festival. We love bluegrass and we have it on the schedule, but we don’t stop there. We want diversity in the music and in the musicians. This year, we have some great soul acts, Americana, folk, country, and bluegrass—and some that I’m not sure how to categorize, but it’s good music.”
And she’s quick to point out that the Cold Mountain Music Festival is intended to be more than simply musically inclusive:
“This festival sort of announced to the community that Lake Logan is open for all. We are not a private campus and we welcome all. You don’t have to be Episcopalian to be here. We host artist retreats, family reunions, private retreats, dancing, and the list goes on and on. Last year, our new-ish Executive Director, Lauri SoJourner, opened Lake Logan for annual memberships. That has been a huge success with our neighbors. People can come out for the day to enjoy the lake or to fish.
“We really do welcome all.”
For further reading about the festival, check out my interview with Joey Burns and John Convertino, of Saturday evening headliner Calexico, along with don’t-miss featured performer Kat Wright, who plays late afternoon on Saturday.. – FM
The newly christened music festival this weekend, stationed in Taos, New Mexico, is destined to turn (on) more than a few heads. Cofounders Dano Sanchez and Roman Barham explain.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Monolith on the Mesa is set to make history with their inaugural festival in Taos, New Mexico starting this Friday, May 17. Local news reports that with two days of heavy music, the mountains are already shaking and avalanche warnings have been posted. Doctors are on standby for people who might be affected by the cloud of mystical smoked herbs that will be billowing towards Santa Fe. Kids have been told not go to school until Monday.=
Joking aside, OM, Woven Hand, Dead Meadow, The Obsessed and a whole raft of heavy bands are set to rock the thronging masses literally and figuratively into a hallucinogenic miasma. Lucky for Blurt readers then that I caught up with Dano Sanchez and Roman Barham while they are still clear headed enough to ask them a few questions about the festival.
BLURT: What possessed you guys to create a rock music festival in Taos New Mexico?
DANO SANCHEZ AND ROMAN BARHAM: Well, Taos is a special place. When the Melvins played the Taos Mesa Brewing it was packed and Al Cisneros [of] (OM, Sleep) [we were talking at that show and were] like ‘you need to play here” and with that the idea was born. Taos Mesa Brewing is a very unique venue, next to the gorge bridge, at the base of the Sangre de Christos (blood of Christ) mountains all over seen by [the] Taos Pueblo, [which is over 1,000 years old]. It’s a heavy vibe and a high desert setting ripe for this festival.
BLURT: How hard was it to get funding?
Well this festival has some great sponsors but it is a festival born of ideas of limitless possibilities that Roman and I have created.
BLURT:What are some of the funding sources and sponsorships that is making it possible to hold the festival?
We have generous sponsors who share our vision and wanted to invest in the vision that is Monolith. Magical Tattoo, Black Arts Tone Works, Worshiper Cabinets, Music Go Round(Albuquerque), Taos Mesa Brewing, Hotel Luna Mystica, Arise Music & Coffee, Fly Pr, Blues Funeral, Heads Up Music (Taos), Kickstarter Music, Vans, The Coffee Apothecary (Taos), Magnetic Eye Records, Ripple Records.
BLURT: Who came up with the name Monolith on the Mesa and who designed the poster?
I did (Dano), I feel that Taos is a monolithic place that evokes limitless possibilities and being high in elevation the transmissions broadcast[ed] and receive[d] are really clear. The poster was designed by Simon Berndt – he organizes Endless Daze and [lives] in South Africa. [It’s a] great image to set the tone for our inaugural year.
BLURT:What were you looking for in terms of the bands you wanted for the festival? (When I look at the lineup I think it’s perfect for Northern New Mexico with its mystical psychedelic edge.)
First off we are fans of the heavy genre of music, all-encompassing genres. So we sculpted the show that we would want to see.It all started with OM, the rest was milled over and came to fruition and now we are weeks away from realization.
BLURT: Which band was the hardest to secure?
I’d say The Obsessed were pretty hard to nail down, but Wino and crew came thru!
BLURT: Musically how did you all decide the order of the bands and will you be filming this concert for future release?
That was hard to decide but we are really excited with the order that they are in. We hope to film portions of the show and there’s definitely videos coming to our YouTube channel.
BLURT: Were there any bands that you invited that had to cancel or were there any that you hope to get next year?
We had 2 drop and 2 new ones sign up. Sleep, Melvins, Mondo drag, are [the bands] who I would like to see, and seeing The Saviors play again would be killer! But we are focused on this year and making a great time for [both] artists and attendees.
BLURT: Who are you guys most looking forward to seeing?
Everyone really, that’s why we sculpted this line up. EYE is one I’m really looking forward to (Dano) and [of course] my all-time favorite, OM.
BLURT: In terms of creating the music festival what festivals did you draw inspiration from?
I really like old time carnivals so a little of that mixed with Stoner Hands of Doom.The idea that music inspires art inspiring music. Christian Ristow and Christina Sporrong are bringing their intense metal sculptures out that have interactive fire elements to them, along with The Ad Alchemist Liquid Light Show handling visuals on the outside stage. So [it’s] more [a] psychedelic carnival.
BLURT: How are ticket sales?
So far so good! We are going to have a great time.
BLURT: Tell us about how the location will be set up?
Taos Mesa Brewing is the main venue where there is a indoor stage(worshiper stage) and the outdoor “earthship” ampitheatre is outdoors.
BLURT: Is there camping?
Yes, the Hotel Luna Mystica compound is steps away where they have a vintage trailer park, as well as primitive camping areas.
BLURT Will there be security screening?
Yes, there is a safety factor. Everyone deserves to have a safe and fun time.
BLURT: Will the music be in tents as well as out in the open?
There will be the Bedouin tent on Hotel Luna Mystica property that will have a DJ set and also a small bar.
BLURT: What about facilities such as water and restrooms?
We will have restrooms at the brewery, as well as porta potties all around the compound. Water stations will be available as well as beverages for sale.
BLURT: Are there any decibel restrictions?
Yes there are, but not ‘til after midnight, so that’s why the outdoor ampitheatre shuts down at midnight. Lisa Bella Donna will be doing a first night wind down [Friday] night inside from 12-12:30 and our after party and wind down on Saturday is Lord Dying and Year of the Cobra inside from 12-1.
BLURT: How many people do you have working for the festival?
We have a great crew putting this together. Dano Sanchez, Roman Barham, Joel Meinholz are the main organizers, and we have a great team working hard on media, volunteers, box office, security and hospitality, along with the great crews [from] Taos Mesa Brewing as well as Hotel Luna Mystica.
BLURT: Have local businesses been supportive of your efforts?
We have had great support from local businesses. Next year we intend on [having] more community involvement and outreach.
BLURT: What sort of local vendors will you have on site and what sort of stuff will they be selling?
We will have vendors from all over as well as local ones, from artists doing live screen printing, jewelry, snack vendors, a bee lady, Wumaniti native earth sanctuary, coffee, record store, and many more.
BLURT: I’ve been to Taos and it’s a small town. Was it difficult to get the permits and was there any pushback from the locals or Native American community, given the Pueblo nearby?
Taos Mesa Brewing and Hotel Luna Mystica carry permits and work hard to pull off events. No blowback from the Taos Pueblo, we love the puebloans and want to encourage festival goers to visit the Pueblo and learn about the people that give this beautiful town its rich history.
BLURT: In terms of the Native American Community, what can we expect on that front – will there be any Native American musicians?
This year the way it worked out no, but next year we fully intend on having dancers, drum circles and bands as well.This year really happened so fast we filled up [really] quick. Lots of local New Mexican favorites tho.
BLURT: Taos and Northern New Mexico weather changes on a dime in May, so what are your contingency plans if it starts to snow or a sudden hail storm happens?
We are a rain, snow or shine festival. We suggest that you wear layers because of the shifts [in the] weather. [Best to] be prepared. We have [an] inside [venue] as well as tents that will be around as well as the safety of the trailers and personal tent and RVs.The Bedouin tent will serve as a [contingency in case of] extreme weather.
BLURT: Is it already decided that there will be a festival next year?
BLURT: Finally, when all is said and done what do you hope people leave Taos with?
An experience! With the crazy vibrations that are going out to the universe these days, we want to radiate positive high vibrations that reverberate unity, love and healing through art and music. I think that most people coming are seeking something out of the norm and this may just scratch that primal search for truth and belonging.Taos is Magical and transformative [place that] can have a lasting impact on people [making them want to] return. [There’s] no place like Planet Taos!
“The Scientists were fueled on negative energy—a negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way, and I think the result is intense energy.” (Special thanks to In The Red Records, which has just issued a new 12″ EP from the band. Above photo by John Boydston – also check out his BLURT photo gallery of the band’s April 21 Atlanta show. FYI, original Australian show handbills pictured below are from the band and fans back in the day, via the editor’s archives.)
BY FRED MILLS
That’s Kim Salmon speaking, and the co-founder/frontman of Australia’s skronky/swampy/fetid/feral Scientists pretty much nailed it, as American fans were also primed to learn this month when the band hit our shores for what was amazingly, only their second U.S. tour despite having a legacy that stretches back to the late ‘70s. They kicked things off April 11 in Chicago, headed across the midwest towards the northeast, dipped down through several southern states, and were set to wrap April 24 in L.A.
Interestingly enough, though, the above quote isn’t contemporaneous. Rather, it was plucked from an interview I published nearly three decades ago, in Philly rock zine The Bob, for whom I authored a regular column on Australian music, titled, appropriately enough, “The Wizards of Oz,” and which featured the Scientists and Salmon’s subsequent bands pretty much every time they emerged from a recording studio or embarked upon a tour.
Yet Salmon’s words ring truer than ever in 2019, as anyone who saw the group—Salmon, guitar/vocals; Tony Thewlis, guitar; Boris Sujdovic, bass; and Leanne Cowie, drums—on their much-belated initial American tour in the fall of 2018 will attest. There’s plenty of YouTube evidence from that U.S. sojourn as well, from the nihilistic sonic pipe bomb of “Set It On Fire” (originally appearing on 1983’s Blood Red River) and the dirty slapback punk of “Braindead” (the group’s recent 7” single for In The Red); to the dirty, Suicide-like mutant blues that is 1985’s “Murderess In A Purple Dress” and the group’s stone classic, “Swampland,” a throbbing slice of, yes, swampy glam that somehow manages to quote Sonic Youth, the Stooges, and T. Rex all in the same arrangement. The latter tune in particular is a force of nature, powered by Sujdovic’s relentless one-note bassline, Cowie’s equally hypnotic syncopated thump, Thewlis’ extemporaneous riffing, and Salmon’s dissonant-twang responses plus yipping/howling vocals.
Not bad for a group that was deemed out and down for the count in 1987, when Salmon, exhausted by the legal and label troubles they’d endured since relocating from Australia to London three years earlier, decided to pull the plug. He’d been helming the band since its Flamin’ Groovies/New York Dolls-esque early incarnation circa 1978-80 and through myriad lineup changes that would eventually see the arrival of Thewlis, Sujdovic, and late drummer Brett Rixon, considered by most to be the Scientists’ classic lineup; a subsequent embrace of a darker, swampier, noisier vibe heavily influenced by the aforementioned Suicide and Stooges alongside the Cramps and the Gun Club; and the London move, which found them touring with the Gun Club as well as the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie & the Banshees, but never truly providing the musicians much more than a just-scraping-by level of income. And despite a growing American fanbase, a general level of disorganization for the Scientists meant that a theoretically lucrative tour of the States was never really an option. Meanwhile, their Australian fanbase had gradually withered during their protracted absence from their homeland.
Still, like elephants, rock fans have a unique ability to never forget. And somehow, over the years the Scientists had cultivated a core following that included far more prominent personalities than just yours truly and my fellow fanzine scribes; think Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Indeed, several Scientists reunions at the behest of their acolytes—2006 for the Mudhoney-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in London, the following year’s ATP festival, a few Australian dates in 2008 with Sonic Youth, and appearances at ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series in 2008 and 2010—suggested that the Scientists’ beaker was still very much capable of boiling over.
Salmon, on the eve of the band’s 2019 American tour and reflecting on that dark late ’80s period now, explains, “I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight, out of mind! Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK…”
Read about the entire tale below. With the kind assistance of In The Red, I conducted an email interview with Salmon prior to the band leaving Australia and heading to the States. (Portions of this conversation previously appeared in the April edition of Atlanta music mag Stomp & Stammer, as the band’s US tour itinerary took them to Atlanta for shows on April 20 and 21.) As mentioned, their final show will be this Wednesday in Los Angeles, although they will also be back in early July for the Burger Records 10-year anniversary bash.
Ultimately, the Scientists have been an ongoing entity once again since the tail end of 2017 and not simply a vehicle for one-off festival performances. The previous year saw the release of Numero Group’s superb career-summarizing Scientists box set, A Place Called Bad (reviewed by yours truly here), while newcomers to the gospel can also consult Sub Pop’s easily found 1991 compilation CD, Absolute, which distilled the group’s essential mid ‘80s output. The group has also issued new singles on both In The Red and Spains’s Bang! label, along with the just released 12” EP for In The Red titled 9H2O.SiO2.
BLURT: First things first. I wrote about the Scientists and interviewed you back in the ‘80s, and then we finally met around 1996 when the Surrealists came to Club Congress in Tucson; our mutual friend, and massive Salmon/Scientists fan, music publicist Michele V had arranged for us to connect. And then, a few years ago, you and I did an interview for BLURT about the Darling Downs. So, in one sense, you and I go pretty far back. One of these days we’ve got to sit down and do some serious drinking! At any rate, going back to that US tour by the Surrealists, in your liner notes to your ’97 Surrealists album Ya Gotta Let Me Do My Thing, you mention that the tour seemed to energize you, songwriting-wise, so much so that you were eager to go into the studio when you got home. Does touring still affect you that way? Have you been able to stockpile a lot of new material?
KIM SALMON: Fred, you’ve probably contributed a fair deal to the Scientists being present in the US these days! And yes, some serious drinking is in order… I think what I was referring to was more the freeing up of the creative process with a fresh lineup and the touring that greeted that lineup. The Surrealists’ first lineup was a mighty band, but for various reasons it’d grown tired and stale. I don’t tend to stockpile material; I prefer to just write when the need arises. I’ve probably made way too many records for how many I can sell, ha! The new record [9H20.Si02, on In The Red] isn’t strictly an album, but a 12 EP. I’ve done my best to stay true to what the Scientists are while still trying to push its boundaries. It’s a line to walk. The trick I think is not to worry too much about ‘the formula’ but to allow the uniqueness of the band members to show through. (Below: sleeve of new 12″ EP, 9H2O.SiO2, issued by In The Red.)
While the band did a number of reunion shows between 2006 and 2010, this time it seems to be sticking, as the Scientists have been touring relatively steadily since late 2017. Does it feel different this time around, and if so, what do you attribute this to?
I think it’s been a matter of unearthing the unique elements of what the band was back in the day without necessarily trying to replicate “the day.” Things’ll never be the same, but we seem to have gotten closer to the core of what the Scientists was. It was always hard to locate, but we seem to be digging it up and reveling in it. (Below photo by Denee Segal / courtesy In The Red)
Relatedly, then, talk a little about what each member brings to the table, both onstage and in the studio? Tony and Boris, of course, have a lot of history with you.
Tony is a totally unique guitarist. Incredibly proficient but completely unschooled. There is not another player remotely like him. The irony is that one feels he’d be happy to replicate the stuff that he loves and isn’t that aware of how much better he is doing his own thing, good as he is at replicating. He used to be a crazy whirling dervish on stage and was often the visual focus of the band. These days his crazy energy is focused more specifically on his sounds and less visual, though he does exude charisma non the less. I think his creative input is almost as a foil to mine. He claims to have gotten many George Harrison, Slade and Glitter Band licks past my ears un-noticed!
I think we’re a classic case of one of those bands where each member tries to destroy the initial idea with their stamp without realizing that this destructive energy is the creative force of the band—like the Sex Pistols, for instance. Jones simplified Matlock’s pop complexities into a hard rock slab, while Rotten’s highly content-driven lyrics completely subverted the band from sounding far more pedestrian, like Free or something.
Boris is the minimalist drive within the band. It was him that reduced “Swampland” to a pulsing one-note bass riff for the most part. His playing is deceptively basic sounding. No one has ever replicated the nuances that make what he does—the very core of the Scientists. I’ve been playing alongside Boris more than other players. Although the band is essentially a democracy, Boris and I tend to work together and determine our strategies with regards to touring, presentation, recording.
Leanne is our link to what Brett Rixon did. The rhythm was what made Scientists Mach 2 different from every other post-punk band around. When Brett left the band in 1985, we tried numerous drummers, all of them very proficient and capable of making a big contribution to the band. However, we simply weren’t able to bring on the “chemistry” with any of them, and we ended up getting Leanne, [at the time] our tour manager, into the band, as she had recently bought Brett’s kit and taught herself the drums entirely from his recordings and having watched him. Her first gig was at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow when we supported Siouxsie and The Banshees on their ’85 UK tour. By the end of the tour she had mastered the groove, albeit in a streamlined way. The chemistry was restored. This kind of tenacity cannot be bought or even found very often.
Tell me then—why were the Scientists unable to tour the US during the 1981-87 run? There was definitely a fanbase here…
It really was a case of too many things going wrong for us. We had LOADS of record company, and touring, interest, and despite some detractors, a LOT of UK press. Rixon leaving was the first problem, then we had a huge row with our Australian record label, and it was impossible to move. We had based ourselves in London from 1984. Just being around and surviving in order to try to capitalize on what was being handed to us took all our energy. We couldn’t just serve anything up. We needed authenticity and we were acutely aware of that and what’s more weren’t interested in being something else anyway.
In 1986 Boris had visa problems and had to leave [England]. We replaced him, but it never was as good without him and actually became a drain. We managed to revitalize things very briefly with a complete change of members—me switching to bass and going 3-piece with a friend of mine. It was Tony, Nick Combe on drums, and me. We recorded [1987’s] The Human Jukebox before disintegrating in a blaze of anarchy. It’s certainly a worthy album and as authentically “Scientists” as anything we’ve done, but this lineup was never going to last. It was actually MORE self-destructive than the “classic” lineup.
Could you briefly recount how you remember the initial breakup, and what, if anything, could have convinced you to stick together?
Our legal problems were a HUGE drain and refused to go away. I ended up back in Perth with a very heavy heart, and only by moving on with the Surrealists and the Beasts of Bourbon was I able to feel any kind of lightness in my life.
The only thing that would have worked would be for the legal stuff to be lifted and being given lots of money to function and record and live off. That just wasn’t going to happen back then
Have you been surprised at the level of interest in the band recently? What were you expecting from audiences when you finally mounted a proper tour of US for the first time, and were your expectations met?
I was partially prepared for a number of reasons. I had known that there was interest in the band from people like Jon Spencer and Mudhoney. I had management in the US for a while from 1995, and toured in 1996 with the Surrealists. That’s when I realized that there was a considerable cult following all ‘round the country. With the Scientists’ absence over such a long period, I was prepared for the mythology that had grown around us to perhaps not match the reality. I was always mindful that people might think they were getting more, or less, than they’d bargained for. I’ve always been confident that the Scientists is actually more than people tend to expect. Its more complex and extreme in the flesh. It certainly is apart from something as simple as a Cramps or Stooges style “garage rock” outfit.
On one level, the Scientists are elder statesmen of Australian rock, originally emerging at a key moment when a lot of bands were forming and some were getting a good bit of recognition internationally. Yet my impression is that the band never got the proper amount of respect in Australia during that initial 1981-87 run, despite your being a remarkably unique group that was sonically set apart from its peers. (Editorial aside: Indeed – when I was penning the above-mentioned Australian music column for US zine The Bob, on several occasions I received letters from Australian readers who had noted my, ahem, mild obsession with the Scientists and took me to task for championing a band that, in their opinion, were no longer relevant in terms of all things Down Under.)
I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight out of mind. Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK.
The only touring we did after that was actually after the band had imploded – a couple of gigs in Perth and Sydney early 1987, and a tour with the Human Jukebox lineup later in the year (which was NOT appreciated, as it was different from the “Swampland” band). I think the main thing that set us apart from a lot of our peers was our intention to be unique. Many of the Australian bands that we’ve been lumped in with, we feel nothing in common with, as these were bands that fitted neatly into a garage rock subgenre.
Lastly, and kind of as an aside, I love the Kim & Leanne LP (True West, 2014) and would dig a Volume 2 from you. (More recently, there was also a reunion of the mighty Beasts of Bourbon, as The Beasts, and also an album for Spain’s Bang! label, Still Here.) What’s next for you in terms of solo records, non-Scientists stuff, and performances?
At the moment I’m really just thinking of coming up with Scientists material. It’s way harder to write that stuff than any of the other stuff I do! But also, I do have a couple of solo tracks I’m going to record for a 7” in June. It’s to go with the release of a biography about me in November.
I tend to write material when it’s needed rather than all the time. A bit like a mechanic who doesn’t work on his own car. However, I think I’ll be playing in the US with and without the Scientists over the next few years a bit more—which will eventually mean I’ll need to record some more solo stuff, which is sort of exciting for me. Actually, I’m looking at some US solo dates after Burger Boogaloo [July 6-7 in Oakland, hosted by John Waters and featuring Jesus & Mary Chain, Scientists, Dead Boys, and more]. The solo shows may be just me or with a band or both.
The Kim and Leanne project was really intended to give Leanne and me gigs to do in the absence of the Scientists. It was sort of meant to be what the kind of material the Scientists might do if they were around still… and now that the Scientists are, any Kim and Leanne material would be Scientists material!
Below, check out the band doing their classic “Swampland,” recorded by a fan in the audience on April 15, 2019, in Brooklyn, followed by “Solid Gold Hell” April 20, 2019 in Atlanta. They still got it.
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