Category Archives: Artist Interview

COSMIC, MAN: Dom Mariani & Datura4

We settle in for a fresh convo with Australia’s Dom Mariani on his band’s upcoming April release, West Coast Highway Cosmic. “I’m a classic rock tragic at heart,” confesses Mariani. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. (Above photo: Ben Taylor-Vivian)

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

When it comes to music, it’s such a cliché to say about any locale, but we’re gonna say it anyway: there’s just something about Australia. Possibly because of its isolation – remote from everything, getting cultural influences second- and third-hand, having the artifacts but little of the attendant hype to deal with. Possibly it’s simply the independent spirit of the average Australian – the combination of isolation and (though it’s admittedly overstated) a history of penal colonialism contributing to a certain filter, a way of looking at the art of other cultures (particularly American and British) and transforming it into a distinctly Australian vision. Regardless, the rock & roll that’s come out of the island nation has its own special flair, a certain je ne sais quoi that other countries don’t have.

All that speculation serves as a lead-in to the introduction of one Domenic Mariani, a singular figure in Australia’s rock scene for forty years. Lover of melody, shit-hot guitarist and absolutely winsome singer, Mariani has made his mark on the fields of garage rock (the Stems, the Stoneage Hearts, the DomNicks), surf rock (the Majestic Kelp) and, especially, power pop (the DM3, the Someloves, the Summer Suns), gaining diehard fans around the world. His current project, a singular spin on bluesy power rock dubbed Datura4, pays homage to his youthful love of early seventies blues rock and hard rock, emphasizing his expert six-string pyrotechnics without eschewing his traditional, song-based melodic instincts. Joined by guitarist Greg Hitchcock (Kryptonics, You Am I), bassist Stu Loasby (the Majestic Kelp, Jack & the Beanstalk), and drummer Warren Hall (the Drones, Gutterville Splendor Six), Mariani made three richly produced, riff-soaked albums that sound distinguished from his other work, while still being of a piece with it.

Hitchcock has since left and been replaced by keyboardist Bob Patient; the reconstituted quartet returns to the record racks this spring, on April 17, with West Coast Highway Cosmic (Alive Naturalsound), its most varied and accomplished LP thus far. We caught up with Mariani via e-mail to talk about the new Datura4 album and how it fits in with the rest of his career.

BLURT: Congratulations on West Coast Highway Cosmic. The songs are catchier, the riffs are sharper, the vocals as strong as ever. You’ve mentioned not wanting to repeat yourself from album to album. What inspired you to push D4 further than it had gone before?

DOM MARIANI: A couple significant things happened during the sessions for previous album Blessed is the Boogie [2019]. The first was the departure of Greg Hitchcock, which reduced the band to a three-piece for the recording process. The second, and most timely, was hooking up with our keyboard player Bob Patient. We had Bob come in for a session. There was a connection and it really opened up a world of possibilities for us. Greg had been against the idea of keyboards on previous records, and his leaving really freed things up for us to go beyond the two guitars-bass-and-drums thing.

We were chuffed when Bob agreed to join the band. This led to two new songs (“Cat on a Roof” and “Evil People Pt. 2”) being added to the album. Both from a band and a personal songwriting perspective, it’s the best thing that could have happened. West Coast Highway Cosmic is the first full album with Bob, and is just the tip of the iceberg. There was more spontaneity, paired with a “let’s see what happens” kind of approach to the recording. Some of the tunes came from basic grooves that Warren and myself had worked up in the studio. The results are a little more eclectic than on our previous albums.

Though there’s plenty of heavy blues rock, this album really expands the band’s palette. In particular it’s more melodic and psychedelic than before. Did you consciously tap into your past with the Stems/DM3 to add some spice to this record?

If anything, subconsciously. It’s inherent in the way I write. I’m always looking for a good melody or a memorable riff – always striving for the perfect balance/combination in a song. I’m a classic rock tragic at heart.

These are some of the best tracks on the album. Do you have any comments to offer on any of them?

“Give”: I wasn’t sure if this song would work on the album. It was one of the last ones that went down and it came up great. The electric/acoustic guitar, combined with Bob picking up on the main melody line on the Hammond organ, works well to give it a folk/rock feel with a soulful touch.

“West Coast Highway Cosmic”: I’d had the title for a while. The West Coast Highway is a stretch of road that runs along our beaches here, west of Perth, and where one of our recording studios is located. We had the bulk of the song recorded, but I only had the chorus. I kept playing it in my car, heading to and from the studio, and eventually the lyrics came. Bob added some cool Moog to it to take it far and beyond.

“You’re the Only One”: It’s a love song to my wife, and the last song written for the album. I went for a live, stripped-back approach on the instruments and vocals by using and messing around with the natural reverb of the room.

“A Darker Shade of Brown”: That one came out of a groove that Warren and I set up while we were goofing around in the studio – a heavy fuzzed-out blues riff over a funky drum groove, while Bob plays wild organ stabs. I already had the lyrics before the song came about. I read an article once about how they closed down a popular beach due to a mysterious dark algae, or so they said.

Considering how prolific the band has been, is it safe to say that Datura4 is your main project right now? Are DM3, Majestic Kelp, etc. on hold for now?

Both DM3 and The Majestic Kelp have been ongoing projects over the last bunch of years, while Datura4 has become my main songwriting and recording focus. Datura4 has plenty more fuel left in the tank. We toured Europe last October and were very happy with the response. It’s a slightly different audience to, say, DM3 or The Stems, but there’s still a good crossover.

Datura4 seems to have increased your profile in America, where you’re finally getting regular releases. Why do you think that is?

Hooking up with US label Alive Naturalsound records has helped a great deal. We love what Alive stands for, and we’re label mates with some great bands.

After so many years of being known as the power pop ace, are you happy to be flexing your blues rock guitar muscles?

Absolutely! I’ve been a fan of blues and hard rock all my life, and felt the urge to get out there and have some fun with it, do something different. I’ve not turned my back on power pop. In fact, as a lover of pop melody and heavy riffs, I still love that stuff, but for now I’m preferring to mix things up a bit. I don’t want to be stuck on the same bus. I will get back to it one day, maybe on a solo record. I recall quite fondly working with Mitch Easter and talking about our favourite hard rock bands in-between takes, and how he’d seen some of them in the seventies. It made me feel like it wasn’t some guilty pleasure. Anyway, it’s all about songs for me and I don’t care what style it is.

Like America and England, Australia has a legacy of heavy blues rockers from the ‘70s. Which of them particularly inspires D4, and which ones do you think should be better known outside of Australia?

I really like the latter-day Master Apprentices and boogie kings Carson. Both bands had great singers and guitar players. I was fortunate to see The Coloured Balls play a concert when I was sixteen, and snuck in to the Raffles Hotel to see Buffalo and The La De Da’s when I got my driver’s license. Locally we had Sitting Bull, Fatty Lumpkin, and Bakery.

Do you plan on touring here in the States for WCHC?

If the new record does well and there’s enough interest, then sure. We’d love to tour the States, given the opportunity.

***

Watch BLURT for a special track premiere from the new Datura4 album very soon. Meanwhile, here’s some mo’ Mariani for your edification:

https://blurtonline.com/feature/man-popsided-guitar-dom-mariani/ (by Tim Hinely)

https://blurtonline.com/news/premiere-new-datura4-aussie-supergroup-features-stemsdm3you-am-i-members/

https://blurtonline.com/review/dom-mariani-majestic-kelp-hi-seas/ by Michael Toland)

https://blurtonline.com/review/dm3-west-of-anywhere/ MT

https://blurtonline.com/review/datura4-blessed-is-the-boogie/ MT

https://blurtonline.com/review/the-stoneage-hearts-hung-up-on-you/ MT

http://www.citadel-records.com/dom/768/page1.html (liner notes to Mariani’s career retrospective Popsided Guitar 1984-2004), by BLURT editor Fred Mills

PLOWING FORWARD IN 2020: Love Tractor

Next weekend, January 17 & 18, it’s gonna be an Athens-Georgia sonic love fest, featuring  the Tractor gang (above, wayyyyy back in the day) plus OH-OK and Magnapop. If those names don’t resonate with ya, you have clearly found the wrong music website.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY JOHN BOYDSTON

There hasn’t been much good news ushering in 2020, far from it.   But in the spirit of finding joy where it resides – here’s something fab for Love Tractor fans.  The new year is bringing not only just better sounding Love Tractor recordings, but new music too.    And to celebrate, the band is playing two shows – Friday Jan 17th at the 40-Watt Club in Athens with OH-OK opening, and Saturday January 18th in Atlanta with Magnapop opening that show.

I reached out to Love Tractor guitarists Mark Cline and Mike Richmond to preview the shows and releases – not to mention to add some crucial, and resonant, context to this beloved Georgia outfit’s colorful legacy.

———————

Love Tractor is back from a long breather (pictured above is guitarist Mark Cline) doing live shows, restoring their back catalogue for new vinyl and digital re-release. And if that’s not enough for fans, get ready for new music from the band as early as this spring. (Below: guitarist Mike Richmond)

BLURT: Tell me about the upcoming re-issue of the first Love Tractor LP, originally released in 1982:

Mark Cline:  We just finished reconstructing the album as the ¼” masters were a mess.  Tracks were missing or corrupted so it forced us to go back to the 2-inch 16-track masters and remix the entire album. The record sounds great. Dave Barbe and Bill Berry chaperoned the remixing process, and Jeff Calder (from the Swimming Pool Q’s) was key in locating the tapes and having them digitized.

We tried our hardest to remain true to the original Bruce Baxter mixes, but the 1st remixed record has a lot more power to it.  Someone in the studio, perhaps Bill (Berry) said when listening back to the remix that “it’s like cotton has been taken out of my ears.”

Mike Richmond:    Mark, Army (Armistead Wellford, pictured below), and I were joined by Doug Stanley, Kevin Dunn, Bill Berry, and Mike Mills in the studio for this.  It came out really nice and we were able to make slight improvements while staying true to the original.  I think the plan is to re-issue record one in April of 2020 and then follow up with Around the Bend, Til The Cows Come Home EP, This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship, Themes From Venus, and The Sky at Night.  We also have a recording of new material in the works.

Mark Cline:  We did three additional enhanced mixes for Record Store Day.  We have new material which we have started recording so those songs will be coming out as digital singles in-between the rereleases. At least that is the plan as of today, might change tomorrow.

Part of the beauty of Love Tractor music is how melodic and simple it sounds – but I know it is very complex from a player’s point of view.  How do you get ready for these live shows, since you aren’t doing many per year at this point?  

Mike Richmond:  Love Tractor songs are deceptively difficult to play.  I have to really stay on top of it by rehearsing several times a week.  We live in different states (Georgia, Virginia, New York) so it is not easy for us to rehearse or perform. We all have to do this on our own and then a few days before we perform, we get together as a whole unit and go through the songs.

Mark Cline:  For me, more than the other guys, when performing, I’m shocked at the level of precision the songs require and how many of my parts are quite difficult to play.

So, the music is dense, and you’ve added players for live shows – tell me about that.

Mark Cline:  The auxiliary players in some cases are for large shows, so we can perform the albums as they were recorded.  Love Tractor has been since 1986 a 5 piece band, Doug Stanley from The Glands was officially inducted into the band in the ’90’s, Doug is a brilliant musician, he is absolutely on the same wave-length as me, Mike and Army and in my opinion he really shaped the sound of The Sky at Night.   Joe Rowe is an amazing drummer (also PRS’ new beat man). For the really big shows, if they are available, we like to add the Late B P Helium (Elephant Six Collective) and Jay Gonzalez (Drive by Truckers) and Kevin Dunn from the great seminal Atlanta band The Fans— it fills out the sound. The decision is artistic.

Right now, we are playing as a five piece, but one never knows who will be joining us on stage.   (Ed. note, if you want to catch original Love Tractor drummer Bill Berry with the band, he’s prone to get up on stage at the Athens shows – visual evidence in below 2017 photo, below, where he’s pictured on the left – but you never know.)

Mike Richmond:  Initially we had everyone that played in the WE LOVE TRACTOR tribute band.  Jay Gonzalez (Drive by Truckers), Bryan Poole (Of Montreal), Doug Stanley (Glands), Joe Rowe (Glands), and then we added our long-time friends Kevin Dunn (The Fans), and Bill Berry (REM).  It was great playing with all those guys on-stage.   Nowadays the performing band is Army Wellford, Mark Cline, myself, Doug Stanley, Joe Rowe on drums.  I have nothing but fondness for all the people that have played with Love Tractor.

What surprises you most about playing these songs live again?

Mike Richmond:   It is pleasantly surprising that I never get tired of these songs.  That don’t seem dated to me but evergreen.

Mark Cline:  How fresh and timeless they sound – in some cases I realize what influenced a particular song (“Paint Your Face” and “Stand in a Corner” — in my opinion, which was influenced by Neu!).

What can fans expect from these two upcoming shows in Athens and Atlanta?

Mark Cline:  We have been attempting to perform the albums in chronological order. Thus, the first few shows were exclusively our first album, then we added material from the second album and the EP.  These next two shows we will begin performing a few songs from This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship, Themes From Venus and The Sky at Night.

I’ve heard of people flying in from different parts to catch a show, and for my part, I met a fan who drove from New Jersey.  Any surprise there for the band about fan loyalty?

Mike Richmond:  I was almost entirely unaware of what fans would think of us now or if we would even have any fans at all.  So the response has been great.  With the rise of social media, I get a sense that people are very receptive to the idea of seeing LT live, some of whom were too young to see us in the ’80s.  It could literally feed the band in the sense that we could release new material or tour.  That almost depends solely on fan support.

Mark Cline:    The response has been great!  We really want to give a great performance, it is also interesting for us as artists to revisit certain songs.   Now of course they want us to tour, but we don’t have an “organization” (managers, agents, office) in place to really make touring happen.  So right now, we are limited to where and when we can play.

****

All the new music and reissues will have a new home – Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records or HHBTM.  Check out its home and impressive roster here:  https://www.hhbtm.com/bands/

 

******

So, fans – now’s your chance with two shows coming up:   

1) Friday January 17th, 2020 Love Tractor, at the 40Watt Club in Athens, GA.   It’s a co-bill with OH-OK playing first, featuring original members Lynda Stipe and Linda Hopper, a band who got their big break when R.E.M., the band her brother happened to be lead singer for, needed an opening band in a pinch.  (One of those Wiki factoids so good I don’t care if it’s true.) Playing with a full band tonight so the rock starts early.

2) Next show is the next night in Atlanta, at The Vista Room, Saturday January 18th, 2020, with co-billed Magnapop opening. Also featuring Linda Hopper on vocals, there’s Ruthie Morris on guitar, Shannon Mulvaney bass, and David McNair on drums.  Magnapop doesn’t fuck around so get there early, don’t miss ‘em – and you are welcome!

Ye Olde Editor Side Note: a legendary party – statutory restrictions prevent me from detailed disclosure –  in Chapel Hill that had brought R.E.M. and a bunch of their pals to the NC college town on the group’s initial non-Georgia mini-tour. That entourage included the lovely Ms. Hopper, who confided to aforementioned editor that she had a band percolating herself. That prediction came true. They were a delightful combo. She’s pictured more recently below in John Boydston’s photos of Magnapop from not all that long ago.

 

 

BLURT’S INDELIBLES (THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 11): Hoodoo Gurus

Back to bedrock with stoneage romeos the Hoodoo Gurus. Below, also watch the original video for ’80s mega-hit “I Want You Back,” which boasts the most awesome use of a green screen ever. Spoiler alert: despite the lyrics, that song was NOT about a girl songwriter Dave Faulkner was pining for.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter HoursGreen On Red, Thomas Anderson, The Sidewinders, Rank And  File, and The Windbreakers) I flash back once again to the mid ’80s and then forward a few years – including to NOW, with a timely announcement of a Fall 2020 U.S. tour by the Wizards of Oz.

***

News Item, December 14, 2019 – Hoodoo Gurus to Tour America (from HoodooGurus.net):

“We are finally coming back to tour the U.S. at the end of next year. About time, I hear you say. The whole tour is being presented by Little Steven’s Underground Garage, the hippest radio station in the world. Amongst many others, the Underground Garage features Count Zaremba’s Crypt, a spooktacular show presented by The Fleshtones’ own, Peter Zaremba, from midnight (ET) every Saturday.

“I know many people are going to be disappointed that their city (or country) will miss out on a Gurus gig this time – and that includes some of our favourite places to play (hello, Atlanta and New Orleans!). We will be coming back again asap with a new album and a much more extensive tour next time. This is just the first step in a much more active touring schedule for the band over the next few years, with visits to many other cities, countries and planets being in our long-term touring schedule. For reasons that are too boring to get into, we have to limit this particular U.S. tour to three weeks, and though we’ve squeezed as many gigs as we can into that time, we are barely scratching the surface. We’ll come back again soon, we promise.”

HOODOO GURUS U.S. TOUR OCT./NOV., 2020

OCTOBER
Fri. 23 Oct. SEATTLE, WA – Tractor Tavern.  Tickets here.
Sat. 24 PORTLAND, OR – Aladdin Theater.  Tickets here.
Sun. 25 SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Slim’s.  Tickets here.
Mon. 26 LOS ANGELES, CA – The Roxy.  Tickets here.
Wed. 28 SOLANA BEACH, CA (San Diego) – Belly Up Tavern.  Tickets here.
Thurs. 29 SALT LAKE CITY, UT – State Room.  Tickets here.
Fri. 30 ASPEN, CO – Belly Up Aspen.  Tickets here.
Sat. 31 DENVER, CO – Bluebird Theater.  Tickets here.

NOVEMBER
Mon. 2 Nov. MILWAUKEE, WI – Shank Hall.  Tickets here.
Tues. 3 CHICAGO, IL – City Winery (U.S. election night).  Tickets here.
Wed. 4 NASHVILLE, TN – Mercy Lounge.  Tickets here.
Fri. 6 NEW YORK CITY, NY – Webster Hall.  Tickets here.
Sat. 7 BOSTON, MA – The Sinclair.  Tickets here.
Sun. 8 PHILADELPHIA, PA – Philly Underground Arts.  Tickets here.
Mon. 9 NORFOLK, VA – The NorVa.  Tickets here.
Wed. 11 WASHINGTON, DC – The Hamilton.  Tickets here.
Thurs. 12 JACKSONVILLE, FL – Private show
Fri. 13 JACKSONVILLE, FL
Sat. 14 CARBORRO, NC – Cats Cradle.  Tickets here.

***

Now, while we’re almost a year away from the tour (you can bet I will find a way to catch it), never let it be said that I pass on a chance to sing the praises of one of my favorite bands. What follows is a retooled republishing of a tribute to the Gurus that I published at Blurt in 2010, which itself was an expanded take on a profile I had written for Harp magazine (BLURT’s predecessor) in 2007 as pare of my ongoing “Indelibles” series.

The occasion of my interview with founder and frontman Dave Faulkner was the overhaul of their extensive back catalog and a DVD career retrospective, Tunnel Vision; in addition, with an impending March trip to Austin for SXSW, expectations in their camp were high for a newly elevated American profile.

Forming in 1981, the Gurus had enjoyed a lengthy and successful career well into the late nineties until Faulkner decided to pull the plug (“I was all written out,” he confessed), only to resume operations in 2004. A new studio album subsequently appeared later that year, and during our conversation Faulkner noted that he’d been writing material for another one and predicted they’d have it out sometime later in 2007. Yet the record failed to materialize – twice, as a projected 2009 release date also came and went when the band reportedly grew unhappy with both the studio they’d worked in and the mixes
they’d gotten.

Luckily, their old friend and noted producer, Ed Stasium, stepped in and agreed to perform some of his mixing wizardry on the tapes. The resulting Purity of Essence, yielded a sparkling set of tunes bearing all the hallmarks of classic Gurus: sleek, hook-filled melodies; propulsive rhythms; heart on sleeve lyrics; terrific singing.

Having seen the Gurus at SXSW in 2007, I witnessed firsthand their enduring prowess as a live act. On 2010’s Purity, though, the band members – Faulkner, guitarist Brad Shepherd, drummer Mark Kingsmill, bassist Rick Grossman – genuinely sounded like they’d been granted a new lease on life. Whatever delays transpired in the making of it ultimately served to make everyone stronger. So, let’s revisit my conversation with Faulkner from 2007 as he recounted the band’s origins and trajectory…

***

Thanksgiving eve, 1984: Your future Harp correspondent is front and center at a packed Charlotte, NC, punk club, literally hanging on to the monitor of Hoodoo Gurus vocalist/guitarist Dave Faulkner. Amid an incessant, hypnotic tribal thud, searing psychedelic guitar riffs and football stadium-worthy chorus chants, Faulkner regales us with quirky lyric narratives about kamikaze pilots, zombie love and south-sea island sacrificial rites. No turkeys, though these Gurus: they rock like rabid wombats. And every last person in the venue is singing along and dancing so hard the room could pass for an MTV video shoot.

Afterwards, as punters clutching copies of the Australian group’s debut album Stoneage Romeos cluster around the band, a girl standing too close to Faulkner’s massive coif of teased-out hair almost sets him on fire when she lights a cigarette. Ah, the perils of the road….

“Oh god …” Dave Faulkner, speaking now from his home in Sydney, has vivid memories of the Gurus’ initial American trek. “We had so much Aqua-Net in our hair on that tour! It just got ridiculous. We were doing shows every night and couldn’t un-tease our hair and wash out all the goo, so it was just a succession of teasing upon teasing. By the time we got to Los Angeles, I think it was L.A. Times critic] Robert Hilburn, in a review, who said something like, ‘Dave Faulkner looks like a tumbleweed landed on his head.’ [laughs] And that’s how it did look! I got to the point at the end of the tour when I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do with it now?’ I thought I was going to have to shave it all off because it was like one huge dreadlock underneath, you know? It was kind of scary.

“But it really was a wonderful period. A lot was happening. People really were into us, and we had some great times even though we were living, er, low to the ground. We had this tour manager who didn’t think he was going to be paid so he stole all our gear in New York! We were playing with the Long Ryders the next night in Boston and had to use their gear.”

***

Within a year the Hoodoo Gurus’ star was in full ascent, the group a mainstay at college radio and on MTV. With the release of 1985’s Mars Needs Guitars the Gurus found themselves touring America once again, this time playing arenas as the Bangles’ opening act. And the band would continue to record and tour successfully for more than a decade, going on hiatus in January 1998 and then reuniting in 2004.

Before all that, however, there was just Faulkner and a long-simmering scheme to bring back “the dumbness of rock,” as he puts it now—the innocence, the naïveté, the joy of early rock ‘n’ roll.

Faulkner got his start in the late ‘70s playing in punk band The Victims (inevitably, he had a punk nickname: “Flick”) in his home town of Perth, located on the remote western edge of Australia. A ’79 pilgrimage to New York City, however, opened his eyes. He was already a fan of the bands dotting the lower Manhattan scene; through a mutual friend he hooked up with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, and the pair made the rounds of clubs, seeing everyone from the Fleshtones, Ramones, Talking Heads and Rigby’s own combo, to such recent Big Apple transplants as the B-52’s and the Cramps.

“I’d say the Cramps and the Fleshtones were the ones that really gave me the desire to do the Hoodoo Gurus,” says Faulkner. “Not that I knew it at the time, of course. But back in Australia a year later, I was seeing the legacy of Radio Birdman and all the so-called ‘Detroit bands.’ There was also this sort of homemade art-rock scene—I called them the suitcase synthesizer bands. But not much in between. And I just wanted to have something a bit more brash, more pop, I guess. In the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, the songs had a lot of jokey themes and titles. But I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ had this exuberance; it didn’t necessarily have to make sense, and it’s still just as exciting and direct today.”

Upon his return from the States, Faulkner briefly joined another punk group, the Manikins, then relocated to Sydney where, in his words, “It felt like a band was forming every week.” A chance meeting with guitarists Kimble Rendall and Rod Radalj at an end-of-1980 New Year’s Eve party led to the formation of Le Hoodoo Gurus, with former Victims drummer James Baker rounding out the roster.

The Gurus were initially conceived as a covers band, but Faulkner’s songwriting gifts quickly became evident. The band soon had a cache of catchy originals and notched a minor hit with their debut 45 “Leilani,” about a grief-stricken young man whose girlfriend gets tossed into an island volcano as a native offering to the gods, and set to an irresistible tribal thump one part Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” and several parts Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2).”

Turmoil then struck when first Rendall then Radalj quit, the former due to a budding career as a filmmaker, the latter out of frustration with Faulkner’s perceived dominance in the band as frontman and chief songwriter. By this point Faulkner was already convinced that a three-guitar Gurus was too limiting and gimmicky—earlier, they’d landed an actual spot opening for Gary Glitter when he toured Australia, and the consensus among Glitter Band members was that the Gurus needed to beef up their bottom end—so replacing Rendall and Radalj were bassist Clyde Bramley and guitarist Brad Shepherd, both alumni of Radio Birdman offshoot the Hitmen and of bubblegum tribute combo Super K. The band dropped the “Le” from the name and the classic Hoodoo Gurus lineup that would record Stoneage Romeos was in place.

Recorded under the watchful eye of veteran producer-engineer Alan Thorne, Stoneage Romeos, released in the spring of ’84, was an instant hit in its native Australia. And with good reason: Happily plundering trash culture, dropping in a trainspotter’s buffet of classic pop references, and powering along with an insistent—and danceable—turbine-like precision, the album has a seductive timelessness that, even two decades on, still connects with rock ‘n’ roll fans of all stripes. Nowadays, Faulkner’s reluctant to name it among his favorite of the Gurus albums: reminded how one journalist suggested that Romeos, draped in reverb and echo, “sounds like it was recorded in a cave” (in the context of the original review, a positive comment), he complains that the record “is, for me, very antique sounding—we always wanted to ‘make a din’ and some of the rough edges we had live got softened in the studio. What I am happy about it is that it still sounds fresh and lively. And good on the hi-fi.”

That it does: there’s the aforementioned glitter-glam slam of “Leilani”; Brit Invasion jangle, Flamin’ Groovies style, in “I Want You Back”; twisted Cramps psychobilly for “Dig It Up”; and vintage bubblegum pop in the “Hang On Sloopy”-like “My Girl.” It all bursts from the speakers, aglow with an analog warmth that not even contemporary digital reconfiguring can obscure.

As a wordsmith, Faulkner was, by his own admission, very specific with his imagery. On subsequent Gurus albums he’d deliberately move away from tackling quirky lyric topics, but for Romeos his imagination ran wild. For example “Tojo,” on the surface, concerns a girl named Tracy who blows in and out of a guy’s life and leaves him in ruins, but as Faulkner points out, “it’s really a series of very bad puns about a tropical depression,” e.g. Cyclone Tracy, which hit northern Australian city Darwin in 1975 on Christmas Eve. In the case of the heart-on-sleeve sentiments of “My Girl” (boy takes girl to school prom, girl slips outside to snog with a different boy), that song, too, has a double meaning: “It was a love song about love songs, a tribute to all the ‘60s boy-girl love songs, and I felt bad that some people would get quite sad about it —‘That poor guy!’—because it was just a joke!”

If there’s any one track on the record that sums up the Gurus aesthetic at the time, it’s album opener “(Let’s All) Turn On,” a boisterous, Fleshtones-worthy frat-party anthem whose lyrics namecheck all of Faulkner’s musical obsessions in just over three minutes. Sings/speed-raps Faulkner, “Shake Some Action, Psychotic Reaction, No Satisfaction, Sky Pilot, Sky Saxon/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like/ Blitzkrieg Bop to the Jailhouse Rock, Stop Stop Stop At The Hop, do the Bluejean Bop/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like!”

And that’s just the first verse.

“Ah-ha!” Even from half-way around the planet, I can tell Faulkner is grinning on the other end of the telephone line. “There was one review that actually criticized us for that, saying The Fleshtones’ ‘Hall of Fame’ was far cooler in its references. And it definitely is! But we weren’t trying to be the smartest guys on the block. We wrote that song over pizza and a flagon of wine.”

Unlike many of their Australian peers, the Gurus, who were signed to the Big Time label at home, secured a U.S. deal, with A&M, for their album, although a foreshadowing that the liaison wouldn’t last came when A&M insisted on redoing the Romeos cover art. The Australian LP sported a cartoonish nod to the 1966 caveman flick One Million Years B.C., all menacing dinosaurs and Day-Glo colors; in America, consumers got a stylized sleeve featuring arty renditions of the giant reptiles. “Bad coffeetable art, very anonymous and boring,” is Faulkner’s assessment. “On the U.S. tour fans are bringing up the Australian copies for us to sign—they were all getting them on import! Yet at the end of the tour, A&M says to us, ‘Oh well, we don’t really think the cover will affect sales it all.’ Like, when they’re right, they’re right, and when they’re wrong, they’re still right.”

Shortly before the ’84 American tour, drummer James Baker quit the band, replaced with Mark Kingsmill (another former member of the Hitmen), and, as previously noted, the band went down a storm in the U.S. The following year brought Mars Needs Guitars, released here by Big Time-America after a dispute with A&M resulted in the band being dropped by the label. Like its predecessor, the album became a college radio favorite on the strength of tracks such as rousing punk-powerpopper “Like Wow—Wipeout” and psychedelic ballad “Bittersweet,” and in 1986 plans were laid for the Gurus to do a co-headlining tour with another group of up-and-comers, The Bangles. However, just before the tour, the Bangles’ single “Manic Monday” started taking off, eventually reaching number two in the U.S. charts.

“We were like, ‘Well… I guess we won’t be co-headlining after all!’” Faulkner laughs good-naturedly. “So, it was more of a Bangles tour, doing larger and larger venues. But it was amazing—we ended up playing the Greek Theater in L.A. We had a great time, and both bands loved each other as artists, so it wasn’t hard, just fun.”

The Bangles connection extended to the third Gurus LP, 1987’s Blow Your Cool, which featured the four ladies singing on two songs (members of the Dream Syndicate also guested on the album, recorded in L.A.). Faulkner describes the making of the record as a “dark period” and calls its producer Mark Opitz (INXS, Divinyls) a “yuppie wanker, and arsehole” who pitted band members against one another in the studio. And while Blow Your Cool also did well, the strain of recording took its toll on bassist Bramley, who quit before 1989’s Magnum Cum Louder and was replaced by Rick Grossman.

The Faulkner-Shepherd-Kingsmill-Grossman lineup subsequently recorded the albums Kinky, Crank and Blue Cave, although not long after the release of the latter, Faulkner announced that the Gurus would tour through the end of 1997 then disband, a move he says was prompted by a sense that he was “all written out—I didn’t want to go in again and do a half-baked album, so hey, it’s been good, let’s stop it before we become embarrassing.”

Assorted solo projects ensued, then in 2002 a mysterious EP appeared by a band calling themselves the Persian Rugs—the Gurus in disguise, essentially pulling a Dukes Of Stratosphear and doing ‘60s-styled garage, pop and psychedelia. This was followed in ’03 by a Persian Rugs full-length, Turkish Delight, and with the old chemistry reestablished, by the following year the group had officially resumed operations under the Hoodoo Gurus banner, resulting in 2004’s Mach Schau.

“The Persian Rugs was me doing a complete ‘60s revival sort of thing,” explains Faulkner. “Also, in a funny way, it was my own sort of version of retaliating at all the critics who always harped on the Gurus’ ‘60s influences: ‘You want to hear what I do when I do ‘60s? Here it is!’ But I also had a whole lot of songs after the Gurus broke up, and though I rehearsed them with different musicians, they just couldn’t seem to get the flavor of what I was trying to do. It became obvious to me that there was only one band that could play these songs the way I wanted to hear them. So Mach Schau, far from us coming back and being ‘middle aged’ and writing for an older fan base, we just wanted to make a hard rocking record that out-did anything we’d ever done. We really blew a gasket on that one—it’s our Presence, like Led Zeppelin.”

***

Following the release of Mach Schau, in 2005 the Australian division of EMI Records reissued expanded/remastered editions of all the Hoodoo Gurus albums; also released was Tunnel Vision, a two-DVD set compiling every Gurus video, a wealth of never-before-seen live material and a smartly-done retrospective documentary, Be My Guru. The band subsequently struck a deal with New York label Virtual, which is distributed through Ryko, to restore their back catalog to print in the U.S.; the initial brace of releases, Stoneage Romeos and the Tunnel Vision DVD, hit stores in October. Still a significant draw in their home country (in 2005 the Gurus co-headlined the annual Big Day Out festival with Metallica and the Strokes), they hope to capitalize upon that American profile-boost by coming to the States in March for South By Southwest. And plans are in place to make a new Gurus album, but Faulkner says he needs more time to write new songs so they’ve postponed what would have been January recording sessions until May or June.

Absent from these shores since 1995, in spirit the Gurus never really went away. You can still catch the occasional video clip on VH1-Classic, and enlightened deejays at community and college radio stations are known to cue up a Gurus track from time to time as well. “I Want You Back” in particular hasn’t lost any of its jangly lustre—and the video for the song, which features the Gurus in all their teased-hair, Aqua-Netted glory performing while Claymation dinosaurs frolic around them, still exudes a quirky, primitive charm.

Noting that “I Want You Back” was the track that introduced the Gurus to America, I can’t resist asking Faulkner if the song, with its lyrics about a breakup and the messy aftermath (“It’s not that she’s gone away/ It’s the things I hear she has got to say/ About me—and about my friends…”), was about a particular girl who dumped him?

“No, and, ah, I don’t really want to go into it,” says Faulkner, adding, “but it’s definitely true.” He pauses for a moment, then emits a self-conscious chuckle, as if he feels foolish for coming across so cryptic. “Well… okay. I guess I can finally talk about that.

“Basically, when [co-founder] Rod Radalj left the Gurus he was very dismissive of us, trying to move on and kind of burn everything behind him: ‘Oh, it’s not worth staying in that band. They’re terrible!’ So, I basically turned that emotion around: ‘Here’s this guy who ditched us and he’s acting like the spurned lover!’ It was me saying, ‘You’ll regret it.’”

Yet with its jangly melody, soaring vocal harmonies and overall yearning vibe, “I Want You Back” has all the earmarks of classic guy-girl pop.

“Well, yeah, I just turned all that stuff into a relationship song.” Faulkner says. “I don’t know why people don’t realize that it’s an anger song. You’re right, they think it’s a longing song. But it’s not a song about ‘I wish you’d come back,’ but—‘You’ll wish you were back!’”

 

NOTHING TRICKY ABOUT THIS SONIC PITCH, JUST A SCORCHING… Fastball

Beloved Austin power pop trio whiffs their indie-rock competition with a new record, and our correspondent ventures into the bullpen to learn what went into it. Full access at their Facebook page, natch, and national tourdates will kick off in December.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

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.

 

 

 

A SUPERHEATED MIX: The Hair and Skin Trading Company

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.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Almost a year on from my previous interview with the Hair and Skin Trading Company (discussing their 1992 classic album Jo In Nine G Hell) and the debut of the first track from this new self-released record, I Don’t Know Where You Get Those Funny Ideas From, we finally have lift off.

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.

Neil: Love to hmu… everyone and anyone.

 

 

COUNTING ON THEM: Curse Of Lono

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!

FROM THE PISTOLS TO PALESTINE: Glen Matlock

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.

 

 

 

LIVING. LOVING. AND… Drivin’ N Cryin’

(Above photo by Lisa Mac.)

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

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?

Be you. Live the love beautiful.

DOOM PUNKS: George Hage (Jack The Radio) & Nick Baglio

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.

***

Links for your edification:

www.doompunks.com

www.george-hage.com

www.nickbaglio.com

 

 

 

VOICES CARRY: Calexico

“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.