David Hawkins and Aaron Bakker enlist Ken Stringfellow, Pete Thomas, and Gary Louris to craft one of the year’s brightest records. Hawkins and Stringfellow sit down to fill us in.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Full disclosure: I’d never heard of HAWK until earlier this year when a press release about the band landed in my inbox. It was one of the few that stood out among the hundreds of emails I get each week, if for no other reason than the impressive resume of the band members. In addition to lead singer and songwriter David Hawkins and longtime guitarist Aaron Bakker, the lineup on their latest album, Bomb Pop, includes Posies co-leader Ken Stringfellow on bass, keyboards and additional guitar; Pete Thomas (original members of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Graham Parker, Elliot Smith) on drums; and Jayhawks leader Gary Louris on additional vocals.
Though I was expecting a straight power pop disc, Bomb Pop is actually more diverse than that. Admittedly, “Allison’s Gone” (the opening track) starts things off on that note and sounds like it should be a classic. It’s a tight, catchy tune that echoes both the sunshine pop of the ’60s and the garage rock revival of the ‘80s. But the album goes in various directions from there. “I Lied,” among other songs, incorporates psychedelia while the final track, “Dry Your Eyes,” is a country lament of the Velvet Underground variety. But pop fans won’t be disappointed; if no other song on Bomb Pop is an instant classic on the level of “Allison’s Gone,” then “Around the Sun” and “Mrs. Anderson” come close.
The members of HAWK are — literally — all over the map! David Hawkins himself hails from the Midwest but is based in California these days. Fellow Midwesterner Gary Louris currently makes his home in North Carolina. Pete Thomas is an Englishman but has been based in LA for years. And Ken Stringfellow grew up in various parts of America (notably Seattle, where he and Jon Auer formed The Posies) but now lives in France! So most of this album was recorded in different places, at different times, and then pieced together by Hawkins in his studio.
While this was my first exposure to HAWK, they are not a new band; this is actually their fourth studio effort. And though that initial press release described Hawkins — who also has his side project, Be — as “enigmatic,” that wasn’t my impression of him from our conversation. He was a friendly guy and I enjoyed speaking with him and Stringfellow for this piece.
BLURT: This CD was really my introduction to your music even though I was familiar with some of the other players. When and how did you you start putting Bomb Pop together?
DH: Well, it all kinda happened naturally. Ken and I were already making a lot of music together… We really kind of clicked. Since we started, he’s played on over 60 of my songs at this point. We’ve been super productive, just working through a lot of material which will come out in different projects.
So we had been in the midst of that, and one of our sessions in Seattle, at his studio, he mentioned that he was going to be doing a session with Pete [Thomas]. He was really excited about it and so was I– one of my favorite drummers. After he did that session, i [asked how it went] and he said, “Great.” I said, “Do you think there’s any chance he would join us on one of the things we’re working on, on a pop record?” And he goes, “Ask him!” So I reached out to [Pete] and sent him some of my music — two HAWK records and two Be Records. He liked it and said, “Yeah!” So I was really excited.
Meanwhile, I had been thinking of Gary a lot. [The Jayhawks] had released Paging Mr. Proust, which I just thought was fantastic. Such a great record. I’ve known him for years, so I reached out to him to see if he’d [mind] singing on some songs. And he agreed too! It’s such an honor to have these guys.
It really is like a dream band.
DH: It is! It’s been a real thrill working with these guys.
Ken, I wanted to ask more about your specific contributions. It seems like you played a lot of different instruments on this album.
KS: Yeah. Basically, [David would] kind of send me tracks and instruct me to play whatever I felt like playing. There were so many sessions with him that I never knew which record we were working on! There’s still a whole other [album] that’s been recorded. And we’re doing another session next month. So there’s been a lot.
But basically, I play all the bass. Pretty much all the lead guitar. A lotta keyboards, backing vocals and you know — percussion, bells, whistles, sleigh bells and whatnot.
So a lot of it was put together in different phases. You guys weren’t always in the studio at the same time?
KS: I’ve never been in the studio with anyone [besides David] — and even that only happened once. He came to my studio in Seattle three years ago. All the other stuff that I’ve worked on was done at my studio in France, just remotely. I do have a session coming up in Seattle next month, but he won’t be there! It’s all fine, in a way. I have really come to enjoy being left to my own devices. You know, then it’s a surprise track at the end of the day.
What was it like working with Pete Thomas? If I understand, you kind of brought Pete into the project.
KS: Well, kind of. Pete played on this record; that happened without me being there. I worked on a record for another artist that Pete played on. And I was like, “You can just hire this guy? Really?!?” I didn’t really have anything on my own that was coming up but I wanted to work with him. I was producing a record for this artist named Holly Munoz. I did an album of country duets with Holly and now I was producing her next solo album, which has actually never come out. But we did cut a session with me and Pete, where I was the bass player, and that’s pretty fucking dreamy. To be a great drummer’s bass player, to walk in and figure out how they do what they do, is a wonderful experience.
So, you know, I had something posted on my Instagram of me and Pete. That’s when David [said] ‘Hey, I wanna work with him!’ I was like, “Well, here he is, he’s looking for stuff to do.”
The first song is fantastic. I’m definitely a power pop guy anyway — but “Alison’s Gone” just hooked me right away. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about the inspiration for that or why you chose to put it first on the album.
DH: Thanks. That’s one of my favorites too. It’s funny; it was always first because alphabetically, in that group of songs, it happened to be first. So even at that stage, before I had sequenced it, it was first. And it seems like it should be first. It’s that kinda song, you know? Really powerful and concise.
The sense of loss in the song “Allison’s Gone”? I think everything comes indirectly or directly from an experience I had in ’95. My longtime girlfriend died suddenly.
Oh man, I’m sorry.
DH: Yeah, it was devastating to say the least. And I came home to find her dead. So it was a pretty traumatic experience.
That said, it’s been a long time so the emotions — I’ve worked through them. But it still sometimes comes up — that sense of unexpected loss. I think you can read the song, though, as we broke up. Or a lot of people respond to the music. And I hope that it’s true — that it becomes their song. But that’s where it came from originally.
Who were some of your [musical] influences? You grew up in the Chicago area, from what I read.
DH: I grew up down the state. I did move up to Chicago after school but I actually grew up in the Bloomington—Normal area. In the town of Normal, of all places, right in the middle of the cornfields. There’s a college there but otherwise, it’s just all farms. Not far from where Jeff Tweedy grew up. And Michael Stipe actually went to high school in the St. Louis area for awhile… Which is funny because they both ended up being huge influences on me.
But in general, I’m a Dylan disciple. At a certain point, I found Dylan — probably in college — and just immersed myself in his songs. And then started tracing the lineage back — you know, Woody [Guthrie] and Leadbelly. It was a fascinating journey. My process was peeling the onion, you know, going back [to] all the stuff that came down from Dylan. Simultaneously, coming back from Dylan — who he influenced were like The Byrds, Tom Petty, that lineage. REM and Wilco and those guys. Naturally, they’re still my favorite bands.
Ken, You’re living in France these days. That’s a long way from Seattle. What is French life like from an American’s point of view?
KS: Perhaps I’m the wrong guy to ask — the wrong American anyway. I don’t feel like an American living in France, and I don’t feel like a Frenchman either. But for all the emphasis on “family values” in the US, and all the hubbub of the sanctity of marriage, France is hundreds of times more supportive of families. The whole of French society is built around how to make modern working life possible for people with families. Medical care. Education. Social welfare. Vacation. Yes, it’s inefficient. Yes, it’s not as productive or competitive as working 100+ hours a week in a sweatshop. But it’s showing a commitment to life and living as opposed to the US, which all about work and having stuff. I can also say this: French people drink more delicious wine and eat more wholesome food, they live longer, and [they] divorce less than Americans. If I get any more “love it or leave it” emails [at] my website after this, my answer is: “I LEFT.”
David, not being familiar with Be, let me ask you real quick — how does that band compare to HAWK? How are the two bands different?
DH: Good question. In the beginning, HAWK held all of my songs. But as the music evolved, HAWK became more of a rock band. The soft songs started becoming more complex and more orchestrated. And there was a point where they just didn’t fit together anymore. I started Be so that I could develop and release the more introverted, melancholy songs.
You know the sacred and profane? That duality? I guess I would say that HAWK is profane and Be is sacred. HAWK is extroverted and Be is introverted.
On a separate note, Ken — tell me about what’s happening with The Posies now, with you and Jon and [drummer] Mike Musberger and [bassist] Dave Fox. How has it been playing with the old rhythm section?
KS: Yeah! Well, we’re scouring around the country for our 30th anniversary. The tour kicked off last month in Victoria, Canada [and] we wrap up in Seattle on July 7th. Then at the end of September, we kick it off in Europe for the club tour in Spain and wrap [that] up mid-November in Sweden. So it’s a lot of dates.
It’s been great. I mean, the passage of time has been very kind to all of us. Everybody’s in good mental and physical shape. Their chops are all good. Dave Fox is the one member of the band who’s not a full-time musician — but, you know, he’s right there with us. This is the first time he’s been on the road significantly in 25 years! So it’s great to see that we’re all holding up well and the attitude is good.
That’s something that was always difficult with a bunch of hard partying 20-somethings. You know, we were all immature. The mood was not always very good back in the day. [Now] everybody’s got their shit together — and that just makes going from Point A to Point B so much smoother. It’s like night and day.
The Giant Sand mainman realizes ambition without excess energy even as he assembles a remake/remodel of the band’s classic 1985 debut. “I’m probably the laziest bastard in show business,” confesses Gelb. (Scroll to the bottom for links to some of our previous Gelb features, and go HERE to read our review of “Returns to Valley of Rain.”)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
After more than 35 years of procuring music under several different handles and in a variety of fashion and forms, it’s not surprising to find Howe Gelb is again on the move. He’s touting a new Giant Sand album, a revisit to the band’s seminal effort entitled Returns to Valley of Rain. Originally released in ’85 on his own Black Sand label and distributed by Enigma, the track-by-track re-recording was issued on August 10 on digital, CD, black vinyl, and limited edition blue vinyl by Britain’s Fire label. (Read the BLURT review of RtVoRelsewhere on our site.)
But today’s excursion is more of the travelling kind, a trip that takes him his home in Tucson to Southern California where he’s visiting his son, a nephew, his daughters, and the children of his late friend, legendary musician and dearly departed mentor, Rainier Ptacek—who, in fact, are part of the Gelb extended family.
It’s a busy schedule, what with the many stops along the way, but Gelb takes the journey in stride, much the same way as he approaches everything else in a career that’s not only seen him bending boundaries as far as styles and sounds go, but also in a lo-fi approach that’s found him interacting with other artists as well, from those with commercial clout (K.T. Kunstall) to indie auteurs such as M. Ward, Paul Westerberg, and John Doe. Little wonder, then, that it’s hard to put a handle on Mr. Gelb, which we find, is exactly the way he likes it.
Nowadays, Gelb works under a variety of different handles—Giant Sand of course, precursor outfit Giant Sandworms, and a kind of expanded version called Giant Giant Sand; every decade or so, The Band of Blacky Ranchette; Howe Gelb & A Band of Gypsies; Arizona Amp & Alternator; OP8. And while all have some similarity in terms of an insurgent identity, all follow different directions, as dictated by whatever whim seems to strike his fancy. Likewise, he’s also released any number of solo albums, the latest of which, 2016’s Future Standards, found him exploring the realms of solo piano-based mood music, something he says he needed to do to clear the clutter both musically and mentally. (That album was informally credited to The Howe Gelb Piano Trio and featured duets with fellow singer-songwriter Lonna Kelley; a subsequent release the next year, Further Standards, was jointly credited to Gelb and Kelley and featured several Giant Sand-ers backing them in the studio.)
Deliberately soft spoken and subtle as far as his sly sense of humor, Gelb seems only too happy to share his thoughts this particular Sunday as he makes his way between stops to catch up with his kin. We suggest that he’s following an ambitious schedule, but he denies it’s taxing him in any way.
“It’s pretty easy,” he demurs. “And between all this, I get to talk to you.”
Talk it is, for more than an hour until he arrives at his next destination. Not wishing to waste any time, we get right to it.
BLURT: You’ve put out dozens of albums over the course of your career. Do you have any idea how many you’ve tallied so far?
HOWE GELB: I don’t have an exact number, but I think it’s around 60. (Ed. Note: for a comprehensive Gelb discography, including Giant Sand and the myriad side projects, check out the Sa-Wa-Ro database.)
That’s an impressive amount, and between that and all the different handles you have— Giant Sand, Blacky et. al.—it’s all the more astounding. So where does all the ambition and motivation and energy come from?
It’s none of those three things.
So what is it then? You may be the hardest working man in show business.
It may seem that way when you look at the stats on paper, but it’s exactly not that. I’m probably the laziest bastard in show business.
So how do you reconcile that with the fact that you have all these projects going on seemingly simultaneously?
“Projects” is a loose term. There’s no other qualifying name for it, so we call them projects. If you go back to the beginning of all this and look at the trajectory of how anyone gets into what anyone is doing, that usually illuminates the path they’re on, and why they’re doing it. For me, I accidentally released my first two albums for licensing purposes, but I didn’t mean to do it. That’s what was handed to me. Someone somehow got wind of my first album and offered me a three year license. I didn’t know what that was. They said they’d get me a $1,000 advance, but I only spent $400 on making the album, and they said in three years’ time, I’d get the rights back. I didn’t know anything about anything, but I knew I had nothing to lose.
So I went with that and, sure enough, the next thing happened with my next album which was a country/punk album by The Band of Blacky Ranchette, and the very next thing happened with the next record, which was by Giant Sand, and that happened overseas. The equivalent of that was where they would give you money up front but they wouldn’t pay for the recording. But it would give you distribution. That’s what set me up. By doing it that way, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
o no, I had no qualifying template, no issue about how I went about things. So if I wanted to release a record every few months, I could. If I wanted to release incomplete songs, I could. If I wanted to be at war with any of the production trends of the era, I could do that too. I could make a bunch of noise and jams, and it was like a license to kill. The upside is that I make all these records because I do it a different way than most people. The downside is because there are no labels that have exclusive contract—no label that buys my material outright—it’s in their best interest to market it accordingly. I’m relatively unknown, so the people that know me primarily are other musicians. That’s my legacy. (Pictured below: the latest iteration of Giant Sand that recordedReturns to Valley of Rain. L-R Gabriel Sullivan, Annie Dolan, Thoger Lund, Gelb, Winston Watson.)
So at the same time you were shifting your moniker, from Blacky to Giant Sand and back again.
At a point I just kept the name Giant Sand because it was becoming a little confusing for me.
For you? For the rest of us as well.
After a while, it really didn’t matter. What I really wanted to do in the very beginning—it was a performing artist mentality—was to keep the album title the same, and then change the name of the band and I wanted to change the name of the band to encompass every letter in the alphabet. So eventually, towards the end, every slot would be taken. That was my idea, but nobody liked it.
It might have gotten confusing. As it is, by our count, you already had released 10 or 12 albums within the span of your first five years. That’s pretty overwhelming already.
Yeah. There is a label in England called Fire Records and they put out a box set of my solo albums, and then they did a box set of Giant Sand albums on vinyl and it overwhelmed them! But it also overwhelms any potential listener. You can’t expect anyone at this point to go back and collect all those records with that big a catalog. So you have to acquire them on a curve, and every now and then go back in. You may want to sample, find something you like and then buy the vinyl for your collection. (Ed. note: In addition to releasing new Gelb and Giant Sand records, Fire has also been mounting an impressive back catalog reissue program—for both CD and vinyl— that has included the archival vinyl box Gelb referred to, The Sun Set Vol. 1, which is an 8-LP collection covering six Giant Sand titles, each bearing fresh liner notes from Gelb; two more such boxes are being planned. There was also the Little Sand Box CD box set of Gelb solo albums the label did in 2013.)
You are also responsible for discovering and developing any number of artists — Grandaddy, M Ward, Rainer Ptacek, and you also produced records for K.T. Tunstall and John Doe as well. That’s a pretty impressive track record.
There’s no explanation. There’s no real pattern. You gravitate towards circumstance, and you just don’t deal with stuff you don’t like. So whatever is in front of you that you do like, you kind of gravitate towards it.
So what do you bring to the table as far as these productions are concerned, and what do you take away? Do you come in with specific ideas?
Everything that I’ve done has been based on a process of elimination. You kind of eliminate the things that don’t appeal to you. When you build the song up, you eliminate parts of the song that don’t fit the song. Somehow, I allow happenstance to dictate. Things will come up I wouldn’t have thought of, but they’re making themselves known to me and I know what to do with them. I recognize them.
Any of those artists you mentioned that feel comfortable with somebody like me, with a mentality like mine, finds a good combination. K.T.’s material tended to be overproduced, and she needed to compensate by having something that was underproduced. What I find is that anybody can produce themselves for the most part, and so it’s really about assisting in the work flow and making it easier, and there’s a psychology involved where people come with their emotions and their troubles and their ideas and their celebrations, and you have to try to keep it all in a safe harbor, to make sure that something happens and not let anything stop it. That’s all.
That’s true for anybody. You try to treat them in a pretty loving way. We all have so much in common I think, so that when we afford each other the time, we can congregate on the common ground.
So you’re clearly not an overbearing kind of guy. You’re very supportive and nurturing.
Thanks. That’s on a good day.
You could put that on your resume and maybe that will get you the gig.
All of a sudden that sounds terrible.
Sorry. So let’s switch subjects. We’re also fascinated by your diversity, how you seem to shift between styles with such apparent ease. What takes you in any particular direction at any particular time?
There’s this obvious thread in this kind of punk ethic. It’s always been encoded in what has become the music that lingers the longest. Johnny Cash. Thelonious Monk. Mott the Hoople. Jimmie Rogers. There’s a little bit of a dangerous coil embedded where these people did something that no one else was doing at the time, but when you hear them do it, it sounds like it’s always been there. That kind of abandonment and confidence comes about because you’re not worried about what people might think. You kind of know it’s good for you and you’re delivering it to the world at large, and you believe in it. That thing that is so many forms of music is in all genres. It’s a common thread.
It’s insurgent and defiant.
And it sticks around.
And it also kind of defines you and these other artists you mentioned. To hell with it: You’re following your own muse, and of course it makes it difficult to typecast you, which you would only want to do for commercial purposes anyway.
Yeah, I gave up on that a long time ago.
With all these handles that you operate under, how do you decide what’s going where?
(Pauses and sighs) I kind of do it ass backwards. As I’m getting older, I changed somewhat, but I like to not know what I’m doing beforehand. I like to follow my hunch. If something is beginning to excite me, I don’t take the time to explain it to myself or anyone else. Then I go ahead with it.
These days — meaning in the last ten years or so — I often don’t record in a single session. I prefer to go in for a day and maybe do a song or five and sort things out. Or just suss things out, and I’ll collect these sessions daily and then I’ll go back and revisit them later. And in revisiting them, maybe I’ll extract a lyric or two, or I’ll take out a section that doesn’t need to be there. I’ll hear something that’s rough and realize that it was good. And then I’ll have an idea of what was happening, sort of a bouquet. It blooms and then I take it to market.
There are a few exceptions, like when I got involved with a gospel choir or flamenco gypsies, or as with my last album, the standards selections, and I’ll get focused on that flavor. Everything kind of happens and I enjoy that flavor when it does that too. Other times I like it when the songs are different and it sounds like the soundtrack to a film. There’s no coherency.
Which brings us to the new Giant Sand album, Returns to Valley of Rain….
I knew I wanted to revisit those songs because they were unique from anything I had done after that. We had a birthday party for me when I turned 60, and I invited a bunch of friends to come down. I was a little jet-lagged, and I never had a set list, and I was trying to think about who was there in the wings, and who I could bring up at the last second. In doing that, I was lucky enough that it sounded okay. We got a film too, so it was a sweet memento. One of the things that went horribly wrong was that the original bass player came in to play a song from Valley of Rain and I played it so poorly, and I played it on a guitar I had given my daughter. So when I started playing it, I realized all the things that were wrong with that guitar. It was notoriously out of tune, and so between that and the bassist not really knowing the song that well, it was one of those really typical things that happen during a Giant Sand show where things go horribly wrong. It’s kind of like a slow motion train wreck every now and then. (Below: Watch clips from the October 22, 2016 Gelb birthday show, most of which can be viewed at the Giant Sand Official YouTube Channel.)
So the new album is a redo of your seminal set.
It’s the older me getting to produce the younger me.
The circle is complete. For some people, that might suggest a chapter is ending. Is that the idea?
It seemed like a good time to go back and do this. We started by playing one or two songs live with the band and we were having fun with that old material. It was good to go back and examine how this all began. Beyond that, there was no real plan to it.
Tell us about your daughter Patsy and her band Patsy’s Rats. Did you give her any advice, offer her any suggestions or direction?
We share travel tips mostly. That’s where the real art is. The art is staying alive. How do you stay alive with this stuff? A lot of that has to do with touring. So how do you get through? How do you make it affordable? How do you deliver the goods? Everything else comes from proximity. When you’re hanging out with each other, you pick up on a kind of unspoken understanding. There’s not too much verbiage. You just kind of get it. That’s how I learned to play guitar. That’s how I started this band. It’s just all I know. (Pictured right: Patsy’s Rats)
Are you a stage dad? Were you pleased when she told you she wanted to follow in your footsteps? Were you wary? What was your reaction?
I know how to survive with this. I know how to raise three kids, to have the house and the cars, so I have all that information. We saw a way to do it overseas and we’re still alive and in good standing and I’m able to teach her all this. As a parent, to be able to offer anything your kids find useful is kind of a great satisfaction. On the other hand, my son is a jock, so I get to live vicariously through him. My oldest daughter Patsy has her own sound and her mother [Paula Jean Brown] was just the coolest bass player I ever played with as far as just this simple sound was concerned. She had this way of locking in with the drums, and it was so cool playing lead guitar on top of it.
So my daughter has those elements and her own elements. My youngest daughter can dance, she can act, she’s something else. She accidentally got all the talent. She just turned 16.
It seems like you have all the crucial elements together. Your kids have direction. You’re able to make music and tour with it. It sounds you have a nice personal and professional cottage industry going on.
That’s not the essence of it though.
So what is the essence?
Exactly. What is the essence?
That’s a rhetorical question then. Are you satisfied with the course of your career, doing what you’re doing?
Yeah, I am. The only lament is, now that I get older, the new stuff is more intimate and geared towards the individual listener as opposed to the communal listener. It’s not geared towards festivals or restaurants or any place where there’s a lot of people gathering. Ii’s like when you’re traveling in the desert, or anywhere on your own, walking in the middle of town, but with your earplugs on. It’s just there for you. It’s geared towards the solitary listener as opposed to the communal listener.
So looking back on it now, as I get older, it would be nice to do some benefits and be a little more helpful now, making some money for certain causes that need it. If I had made more headway in popularity that way, I could provide more assistance for people that need it on the planet. So basically, I ended up taking care of myself, not asking anyone for anything, working in my little corner of the world, and I’m good and I’ve struck out on my own path. But what I didn’t do is maybe going beyond that capacity—which I’m not sure that I was capable of doing or else I would have done it—and make something more resounding on a larger scale. Maybe make $10,000 for starving people in Africa or something.
I think that when we get to a certain age, one realizes that it’s one thing to put negative energy out, but how much positive energy can you put out to not only help heal, but to help remedy the ills of existence, especially the way they’re playing out these days.
It must be really fulfilling to have had the opportunity to travel overseas and play in Europe as frequently as you do.
It’s hilarious in the sense that, once you’re okay to travel every day and putting in so many miles, you go to these places with other people who have spent so much money to get there, and you’re being paid to go there and you may get upgraded to business class because you can pick up 100,000 miles in one year. They just want you to stay alive at that point and that’s why they upgrade you. It becomes useful to them.
So there’s that wonderful dichotomy, that contrast, and it is weird. I could have had a successful job and worked my ass off and made tons of money and then I could have bought these tickets and gone to these places even if I didn’t go as often. But now I’m poor as fuck like any other indie rocker, but I have all these perks as if I had a bunch of money.
With a striking new album in the bins, the Memphis band’s frontman talks about the “ghosts” of their past, present, and future… Incidentally, we official declare this to be Lucero Day at BLURT!
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been two decades since Lucero decided that marrying punk rock with country and playing those songs night after night – from cramped bars and sweaty clubs, to 1,000-plus seat venues – was a far better fate than getting real jobs. To celebrate their 20th year together, the boys from Memphis have turned in Among The Ghosts, a brilliant, aural Southern Gothic trip, and one of their most creative release in years.
Frontman Ben Nichols has already had a pretty stellar couple of years leading up to the release of the album; he got married, he and his wife had a baby and earlier this year, as the band was celebrating their annual Block Party, the mayor of Memphis declared it “Lucero Day”.
On the eve of releasing Among The Ghosts, Nichols spoke about that honor, the new record and how his band managed to stick it out for 20 years.
BLURT: You guys are coming up on 20 years together. Why do you think the band has been able to last this long?
BEN NICHOLS: We desperately wanted to avoid having to get real jobs. So much so that we were willing to put up with each other no matter what. And after 20 years everyone is basically family. We all know exactly what to expect from each other and everyone knows when to give people their space. We all know how to compromise. And it just so happens that right now we are playing the best songs we’ve written in a while and they are really fun to sing every night… so that helps.
At the Lucero family Block Party this year Memphis’ Mayor declared it Lucero Day. What did that mean to you guys?
It definitely feels good to be recognized like that by your hometown. Memphis has been such a big part of the band our entire career. I can’t imagine the band being what it is and being from anywhere else. The history and the studios and the musicians all make it a unique place. It is completely different from Nashville. It doesn’t have the money or the prestige or the traffic. Memphis has an underdog quality to it that suits us just fine. So, having the mayor declare our very own Lucero Day is an amazing compliment.
The new record sound is a little different than all the others, especially with the absence of horns. Was that a conscious decision?
Jim Spake shows up playing sax on the closing track “For the Lonely Ones,” so it’s not a completely horn-less record. He had decided a while back to not go on the road anymore so the band had kind of naturally gravitated back towards a more streamlined sound. With the last few records we’d been exploring a very Memphis-type sound: full horn sections and barrelhouse piano and soul-inspired compositions. On Among the Ghosts we took a step away from that and made a more classic rock inspired album. I wanted to write darker songs that were still rock & roll. I wanted them to be melancholy and cinematic at the same time.
There is a real strong southern Gothic vibe to this record. Are there themes or characters throughout that tie these songs together?
This is the first album I’ve written since getting married and the birth of my daughter. I’m happier than I’ve ever been but there is also more to lose now. I have to care about the future now more than I did. The stakes are higher. I think that led to lyrics that were more serious. Maybe a little darker. The idea of family is probably the strongest theme that runs through the record. Being separated from your family, fighting to protect them, refusing to leave them behind, doing whatever you have to do to make it work… that’s all in there. And I wanted to write about those things using words that had a timeless quality to them. Ghosts and spirits and deals with the devil; soldiers and brothers and thieves and lovers… nights where the dawn never breaks.
Can you talk about the significance of the album title?
“Among the Ghosts” is a lyric from the song of the same title. The full line is “No longer will I walk among the ghosts.” The song is about being away from your home and family and wanting more than anything to get back. Wherever the narrator is, he doesn’t feel like he’s among the living. The real world, the living world, is back home with his family. At least that’s kinda what I was thinking when I wrote it.
You recorded this one at Sam Phillips Recording. Have you recorded there before? Do you feel the history of the place when you’re there?
We recorded a couple tracks at Sam Phillips Recording way back when for the Tennessee album. But we’d never done an entire album there before. The fact that our co-producer and engineer Matt Ross-Spang does a lot of work out of there made it exactly the right fit for us. Mr. Phillips designed the entire building with sound and acoustics in mind. Matt is the kind of engineer/producer that understands and appreciates something like that and can really use it to his advantage. I think he’s using that studio exactly the way Sam Phillips intended it to be used. And I credit the great sounding album we have 100% to his talent.
What’s next for the band?
Record release day is August 3, so the rest of the year is just lots of touring. We are used to that though. We are also very excited about the short film my brother Jeff Nichols filmed in Memphis and which will be released soon after the album. It’s a video for the song “Long Way Back Home” but in reality, it should more properly be called a short film. His amazing cinematographer Adam Stone came to town to shoot it and we had four amazing actors donate their time and effort. Michael Shannon is in it (he’s in all five of my brother’s feature films) as well as Paul Sparks, Scoot McNairy, and Garrett Hedlund. Amazing actors. The work they all did with my brother on this project is stunning. I can’t wait for people to see this. So: a short film, constant touring, and then I’ve already talked to Matt Ross-Spang about booking more time in the studio to just keep rolling and writing songs.
Any advice on longevity to newer bands just now getting together?
Don’t quit. Don’t stop if some random goal isn’t met within an arbitrary timeframe you’ve created. There are no rules. You can’t fall behind. There is more than one way to get there. As long as you are writing songs that you can’t wait to sing every night everything else will fall into place. It might not happen the way you thought it would or as quickly as you wanted it to, but if the songs are there and you are willing to go on tour and not quit, it will work out.
The celebrated—and in-demand—guitarist talks about his career to date and a special anniversary release of a classic album.
BY TIFFINI TAYLOR
After twenty years, Adrian Galysh reminisces with a newly recorded release of “Venusian Sunrise 20th Anniversary Edition”. This talented guitarist, who has influenced many of today’s musicians, has had a long, illustrious career of achievements, which includes five studio albums, collaborations with Uli Jon Roth and George Lynch as well as many more, and working as education coordinator for Guitar Center Lessons. He is a published author.
A guitar virtuoso who still makes music and has fun while playing, Galysh is one who, after twenty years, has a new outlook on an album that made him the man he is today. The original album was recorded in his parent’s basement, but this time it has a new feeling of relevance for the music world to take hold of. This twenty track album can make one smile, cry, and reminisce about a different time in music. Here is what he has to say about all of it. (Below, listen to “So Close… So Far,” from the updated Venusian Sunrise album.)
BLURT: You have worked with various artists throughout your career—who are some of your favorites to work with?
ADRIAN GALYSH: There have been a few, but if I had to narrow it down, one the first I ever worked with was Reb Beach (Whitesnake/Winger). He and I worked on my first demo back in 1994. I learned a lot from him, watching him help with song arrangements, fleshing out musical ideas, programming drums, and his general work ethic, which was very professional. It was my first glimpse into how a gold and platinum artist works.
Of course, performing with ex-Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth was a dream come true. I am a huge fan of his playing, and standing by his side playing all those classic Scorpions songs was a ton of fun. We played together here and there for a few years, but did a short tour in 2011. I’d love to play with him again.
What kind of acoustic guitar do you play?
AG: I play a Yamaha ATX-9, which is a super comfortable, smaller size guitar. Sounds great.
What kind of electric guitar do you play?
AG: I have a few but my main guitars are a Brian Moore Adrian Galysh C90F Signature model, a Suhr Modern Satin, and a D’Angelico EXL-1.
Alice Cooper drummer, Glen Sobel, played drums on the new album, Venusian Sunrise: 20th Anniversary Edition. You have worked with him in the past; there is good chemistry between you both; why do you think that is?
AG: I attribute the good chemistry to a couple things: Glen grew up listening to the same guitar-centric music that I did. He also has a bunch of experience recording with guitarists like Tony MacAlpine, Jennifer Batten, Gary Hoey, and Paul Gilbert, so his experience gives him great instinct for what artists like myself want.
It has been 20 years since your debut, Venusian Sunrise. What was it like recording this 20th-anniversary album and revisiting the recording of the music?
AG: There were aspects about the process that were easy. Since the material was already written and song order was already decided, I could just dive into each song, one at a time. So the songs were there, but the real challenge was often trying to figure out what I played 20 years ago on either guitar, but mostly keyboards. These are things I haven’t played since the original recording. Some guitar parts lent themselves to being reproduced note for note, but others needed to be updated and improved. I feel the original recording shows the genesis of my writing and playing style. While it still took me some time to come into my own, the bones were there.
How do you feel about being referred to as a guitar legend?
AG: Oh, I’m no legend. I reserve that term for guys like Eddie Van Halen, Uli Jon Roth, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix.
Tell me about this re-recording of this album: Is there anything in particular that happened in the studio that you had not experienced before? Did it bring back memories from the first recording? What was the process like for you?
AG: I have to admit, I would have flashes of memories from when I originally recorded these songs while I was doing the new versions. So I tried to keep the original intent and spirit of the songs in mind with the new recordings, while trying my best to give the best performances I could, using the best production techniques possible bringing the songs into the year 2018. Nothing strange happened during the re-recording, things seemed to flow pretty well during most sessions.
Having spent time working with great musicians, including Stuart Hamm and Uli Jon Roth, is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
AG: I have been lucky to have met, jammed with, or even recorded with many artists that I admire. But, my dream gig is to play in Alice Cooper’s band. I love his songs, the live performance aspect, everything.
Stuart Hamm played bass on a couple of songs—how did that come about?
AG: We have met here and there in the past, but it was at a recent jam in Hollywood, where we finally played a couple songs together. It was fun and he seemed receptive to collaborating, so I sent him an email asking about it. The two songs I had in mind have a little spotlight for the bass, so I knew I needed someone like him on it. HE really delivered. The tracks he sent had great tone, timing, and feel.
What advice would you give to up and coming guitarists?
AG: Practice, practice, practice. Learn to play different styles, learn to sing, and get your business and marketing skills going too. Play with as many other musician as possible, as often as possible, in front of as many people as possible.
What inspires you to continue playing?
AG: The challenge of it keeps me going. Playing guitar is like a puzzle. Every other day I crack a part of it, and that’s exciting.
Do you think about the future? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
AG: I do think about the future, buts it’s hard to think about 10 years ahead…. hopefully I’ll be living in Santa Barbara wine country!
A true legend in his own time, will continue to impress everyone with his talent, and I’m looking forward to seeing his live show and seeing what the future holds for this musician. He is one of a kind. He is a musician’s guitarist. A special thank you to Adrian Galysh for talking with Blurt.
“I focused on the composing”: The gifted, celebrated jazz guitarist talks about her new album 3, additionally outlining her journey to date and the roadblocks—among them, the subtle but inherent sexism that the jazz milieu harbors—she had to overcome. (Photos by Sandrine Lee)
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Jazz guitarist Leni Stern’s musical journey has taken her from her native Germany to Berklee College of Music and the Sahara Desert. She’s a musical omnivore, happily absorbing disparate musical influences. On her new album, 3 (released on CD, vinyl, and digital this past April), Stern taps into African music along with Alioune Faye (djembe, sabar, calabas, backing vocals) and Mamadou Ba (bass). The result is a warm, seamless collaboration—an international sound in the very best sense. Stern talked about her music teachers, her discovery of jazz, and the assumptions that women in jazz still confront today.
BLURT: Could you give me some idea of your background? You were an actress before you became a musician, right?
STERN: Well, I was always a musician, but I also had a love for acting, so I actually had two roles in the acting company that I founded. I was a musical director and I was an actress. And I wrote music for theater and created music for film. But I was always a little singer-songwriter with a guitar and many songs that I wrote. And many Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs that I sang. The theater composing and film composing really took off, so I came to America because I had heard of a school in America—Berklee College of Music. It had an association with a film school, where you could score the student films and you could use all the musicians in the college to write your scores with. So that sounded perfect. And it turned out to be perfect.
So the music sort of took over from the acting. But I still worked as an actress. I was a VJ for BET—Black Entertainment Television—for many years. I went back and forth to do an acting project every once and a while. But it’s really hard to do both at the same time. And I really wanted to perfect my music in many directions, so I would take guitar classes and then I started playing percussion and took percussion classes. And I took singing classes and composition.
And also I married another guitar player—Michael Stern. And he didn’t want to move to Europe. And I actually liked America. I never decided to stop acting. And I would act again if there were an opportunity that is compatible with my music and touring and recording schedule. And right there is…a problem because I am now playing with many bands and I have my own band and many recording projects, so as it is there isn’t enough hours in the day. (laughs)
You’ve been working with African musicians lately. Could you tell me a bit about that?
You know, I had on my bucket list these festivals I want to play, and one of them was the Festival in the Desert, in the Sahara Desert, because it’s four hours away from any civilization. I had seen a film about it. And I said, “Okay, I want to play this festival.” And I got to play at the festival. And I met a lot of African musicians that asked me to play in their bands. So I ended up spending a lot of time in Africa and playing in that style of music, because they were interested in my guitar style. African guitarists play different. It’s not, how should I say? It’s a different kind of guitar, it’s different sound on the guitar. It’s a more percussive sound. They love our rock and blues sound, or jazz soloing. They love that. So they invited me to play in their bands, with them, to create a mixture of styles.
And I just did my best to learn their approach to it. It was a very cool exchange, because they were flipping out over my playing and I was flipping out over theirs. It was a continuous “Show me that!” “No, you show me that!” (laughs) “No, you show me that!”
I started writing in that style and combining our musical principles with theirs. In my band, I have two master musicians from Senegal and they all play in western bands because they’re based in New York. They’re originally from Senegal and they’re familiar with the rhythms of Africa, particularly Senegalese music, which is my project 3, what my new record is all about.
When you first came to American and to Berklee, was there a huge culture shock?
Yes, there was. There was, but I loved America. You know, Germans love American culture, because you liberated us from fascism, and protected us against the Russians. Now you got your own Russian problem, but you know, we were very afraid. I mean, there’d been a war for our main cities. The Americans protected us.
My mother was so happy when I married an American. I mean, I thought she’d be more unhappy about me being far away, but just the fact that I married an American…American culture, especially in Munich, was very present, ‘cause Munich had an army station and it had a big band. And all the musicians in the big band played in the jazz clubs around Munich.
When did you transition to playing jazz guitar?
I always loved jazz. I was a blues guitarist first. My little brother had an immense influence on me because he was an avid record collector. And he was crazy about certain things. If you wanted to make him freak out, you’d scratch one of his records. He would lose it completely. And he had an amazing blues collection. Like John Mayall. The English blues guys. But also like Mississippi John Hurt. He was a keyboard player. He is a keyboard player (laughs). He’s a very good keyboard player! I played the guitar and he played keyboards, so I had first dibs at the blues, because those were guitar records that he was imitating on the piano. And I thought like, “Oh, I win. I got this! I got the blues!” So that’s how it first started.
And then I started hearing Wes Montgomery and jazz musicians. I was very intrigued by the way they could play long solos.
Just curious: was that the first instrument you started playing—the guitar? What was your first instrument?
My first instrument actually was the recorder. All German children played the recorder. And then I played piano. Because that’s also sort of a tradition in Germany, because it allows you the easiest way of understanding harmony. And we have a very big repertoire–classical music–that we’re very proud of. Generally in school, music is like a very important subject in school in Germany. If you flunk music, you have a problem, you know. It’s a major subject in school, just like math or history. And you have to sing in this choir, whether you can sing or not. And so it’s really encouraged to play an instrument. I played piano and classical music, but I always had a love for the guitar. And my mother had a guitar, so I took that guitar and I taught myself how to play it. But then she kind of realized after a while that my love was for the guitar. So she organized for me to have guitar lessons. Classical guitar lessons. But I had a very understanding teacher. She was good with teaching kids. And she said, “What would you like to play?” And I played the blues for her. She said, “Oh, that’s so interesting!” She said, “So expressive”! She was a real artist. She encouraged me to play guitar and sing the blues. And I was like, eleven.
She had her soirees of all her students. Some of them would sing a classical repertoire. And I would get to sing the blues and play guitar. But I still played piano at the same time. But the guitar was always my reward. If I finished my classical repertoire on piano, I could play guitar all I wanted. And then when I was fourteen my mother bought me an electric guitar and an amp to go with it, so that I could play with my brothers. Nobody could hear me in my acoustic guitar. So she bought me an electric guitar.
I know that you’ve been asked this before, but women playing jazz guitar is still very infrequent. Have you had people who ever tried to discourage you?
All the time. All the time. I actually just came from playing in [jazz pianist] Monica Herzig’s band. And we were exchanging stories. And it’s funny how people insist that you are a singer. A guy in the audience came up. It was one of those universities. Monica is a professor at Indiana University. It was one of those university guys that came up and said, “Yeah, I’m here to see Monica Herzig. She’s the singer, right?” I said, “No, she doesn’t sing at all. I don’t even know if she can sing! She’s a pianist and a composer!” And he said, “Really? I thought she was a singer!” And I said, “What makes you think that she’s a singer?” And he said, “Well, I dunno, she’s a singer!”
We think that women are supposed to be singers. Even though there is no recording of Monica ever singing.
I imagine you must have had to learn how to take all that in stride. How did you deal with those reactions from people?
I founded my own band. Because I’m also a composer. Sometimes I think sometimes that’s my biggest gift, is composing. ‘Cause I’ve been composing since I’m very little. I didn’t call it composing, I would call it making songs, when I was six. “Make a song!” (laughs) And I was encouraged by my teachers. I had very, very special teachers. They were great artists themselves. And I guess they were entertained by me. My piano teacher—I really didn’t want to read. I really didn’t like to read. It had nothing to do with the music for me. And she recognized that I felt music deeply. So she didn’t scold me. She said, “What did you do at the piano?” I said, “I make up songs.” And she said, “Oh, so you’re going to be a composer! That’s easy!”
So you know, I focused on the composing. And actually, there’s been a lot of discrimination against women composers, too. Most of the people who know Mahler, for example, didn’t know that his wife was an equally good composer.
I came from a panel at South by Southwest and there was a guy that performed at the same showcase we played last night, and he was very funny. He said, “I was so surprised!” And I said, “How come you were so surprised?” And he said, “You look like a nice mommy, a nice lady, and then you come out onstage and you play like panther!” And I said, “That’s a very nice compliment!”
So I guess people still, when people see me, they assume I’m a nice mommy! Even though I have a side shave and a head tattoo. (laughs) That’s what we’re supposed to be! And they can’t imagine that we would be a complete human being with all sorts of feelings inside ourselves. You know, it’s very difficult. But I see it getting easier for the next generation. Because people like me raised the next generation of children.
Better their hell then, than ours now: The UK legends reflect upon their seminal early ‘90s album and bring us up to date on where things stand in 2018.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
26 years on from its release, Hair and Skin Trading Company’s Jo in Nine G Hell (Situation Two/Beggars Banquet, 1992) is a record that takes the listener on quite a harrowing journey of visceral tribal rhythms, dubnotic pulses, and acid-spattered landscapes. Ex-Loop members John Willis (drums), and Neil MacKay (bass, vocals), augmented by Nigel Webb (guitar) plus the short-tenured keyboardist/sampler player Richard Johnston, were a force to be reckoned with on their debut. Pulling from a vast array of Krautrock influences, the band fused this with a kinetic tribalism and organic sonic chug that, as it contorted and entered the ear canal, managed to elicit a very unsettling and challenging listening experience which was wildly out of step with the early ‘90s.
As fate would have it, the album was found populating the .99 cent bin at many of the record stores that I frequented at the time. Not the first Situation 2 band to suffer this fate, I count The Darkside and Thee Hypnotics among those as facing similar fortunes. So while Americans seemed to let bands like this slip through the cracks, I took it as an opportunity to listen to some of the UK’s best kept secrets. I have immense respect for Peter Kent, Situation Two’s founder, whose team gathered together some of the most unique bands of the time.
Jo in Nine G Hell was produced by Roli Mosimann, who worked with The Swans and Foetus, and the uncompromising nature of the songs were given sonic coherence under his command. So what are some of the songs on this album worth mentioning?
First and foremost, the opener “Elevenate” must be discussed. “Some people deserve to die…” is a menacing enough lyric, but place it over an urgent guitar line and throbbing bass with some muscular drumming thrown in for good measure, and you have a full-on bloodletting about to take place. Thinking back to when I first heard this track, I can recall how excited I was. It was the sonic brutality and snide unadorned voice spitting vitriol that managed to hook me. It was the perfect angry manifesto for someone who was about to be spit out into the real world left to fend for himself. (Below: the author spins the track for you, the discerning Blurt readership.)
“Monkies,” with its nocturnal dub bass line, is another stunner that still blows me away. It’s the oddest mélange of psych/dub/metal that you will ever hear, but these disparate elements work extremely well and are the key to the uneasiness one feels when listening to this record. Then there’s “Where’s Gala,” with its cascade of sonic blips and bleeps, emitting a mournful call through the opium fog signaling that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole is the part of the joy this record offers. “Pipeline,” with its motorik beat, works its magic as it enters your cranium; the meaty bass playing here is what makes this song shine—dare I say, it’s even a tad funky.
“Flat Truck,” with its tribal beat beginning, drifts off into a schizophrenic drug-addled ferocity. Here, the drumming and bass take center stage and act as the core on which the effect-laden guitar line is able to zigzag over. Here, as on much of the album, the rhythm section is front and center, while the guitar and vocals are used to augment the proceedings to chilling effect.
Hair and Skin Trading Company, on this record, took fans of Loop into some difficult, uncharted sonic territory that is well worth giving a listen to. (Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the title is an anagram of the three members’ names (Neil, Nigel, John) as member Richard Johnston quit during the recording.)
Thankfully, I was able to track down bassist MacKay and drummer Willis, who are readying a new record as we speak, for an interview about the genesis of Jo in Nine G Hell—as well as the state of the world.
BLURT: Where did The Hair and Skin Trading Company name come from?
John Willis: It was the name of a real business at the end of the street that I lived [on in] London. We thought it was snappy.
Neil Mackay: The name came from an old closed factory in Falkland road in Turnpike lane North London. John used to live on that street, along with lots of old friends. Robert and Bex from Loop, Lisa, many old friends lived there. That was where John introduced me to the music of Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Ligeti and many other great pieces of music.
Not so much a question, but I want to get your take on whether you see that maybe this record is more suitable for our present condition, given that Donald Trump is in power?
JW: I don’t know about that. There is always a Donald Trump somewhere in power. I mean, when we made the album George W. Bush was in power. Who’d have thought we’d prefer him again!!!! The pre-internet, pre-rolling news and social media world was such a different place. I suppose if the record had any political potency it was about the possibilities [of] world destruction and that hasn’t gone away just yet.
Nigel Webb: Present condition? Possibly – control, power, money, corruption, poverty and so on. Not issues/situations that are at all resolved just yet (worse?) You can get regular updates these days though.
NM: Music is an art form. [It] is also a describer of current times. Although it has changed over the last 20 years and music is now produced for [money] and fame. Musicians now are compliant not creative. A great shame. As to whether this record is more suitable to our present condition I could not say I feel no longer in touch with the mobile telephone / internet addled society where peace, friendliness, compassion, trust, honesty, straightforwardness, transparency seem to all have no meaning any more.
Where was the album recorded?
NW: At Matrix Studios, 35 Little Russel St., in the west end of London. (The Birthday Party, Massive Attack, PIL, African Head Charge and many others have used it.)
NM: The album was recorded in the Matrix studio in Little Russell Street in central London. Originally opened in 1977, seems to still be working. [An] awesome studio I was very pleased to be in such [an] excellent professional space. I knew little about studio work then, still do! Great studio. Long may it last!
Who painted the album cover?
JW: 16th century Milanese artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns, and jokes and were made up from inanimate objects like fruit of books.
NM: We the band chose the main picture, and the creative director at Beggars Banquet, Steve Webbon, contacted the owner of the copyright to the picture (In Italy ) and I think for the price of an expensive bottle of whiskey we were allowed to use the picture. The original artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo. An awesome artist, please check [out] his work!
How much did it cost to record the album?
JW: More than we could afford.
Did sessions with Roli Mosimann go smoothly? In what ways did he alter your sound? Were there any songs that you were of two minds on?
JW: Roli really tidied our sound up more than changed it. He was cool but some songs suffered a little bit from being over-edited, in hindsight. The songs were mostly written by jamming ideas at rehearsals and there was a looseness that got lost, but having said that he did really focus the album. We had never really been “produced” before; we always worked with engineers who we respected. It was an interesting experiment, but we didn’t work with a producer again. I think we are all producers so we just need a great engineer to capture the ideas we have. Our stuff comes together very organically, and bringing in another brain at the end of the process felt strange, but he was pretty sympathetic I think.
NW: Erm no, not initially, Richard Johnston, the samples/keyboard player, walked [out the first day and was still living in my flat afterwards]. Roli implied he was going to do likewise, quit that is, until the studio was re-organized. The cellar [was] cleared out to create an echo chamber for the drums. We had demoed pretty much everything on our own in another studio. Vons, where I used to work, was used by Psychic T.V., Sol Invictus, Bark Psychosis, Silverfish, Terminal Cheesecake, My Bloody Valentine, etc. We were also into playing things [live and often improvised]. Roli had a different approach. We liked his work with The Swans, The Young Gods, and Wiseblood.
NM: Roli had a completely different idea to what we had for the album. He wanted “Chak Chak“ sequenced totally [using a] click track so he could control the sound completely. He wanted to lay the samples down using a computer and we had Richard at the time “playing“ the samples live with no sequencer. Richard flipped out when he found this out and left the studio with all the samples – so we were stuffed from the outset. Absolute drama from the word go. Richard refused to give the samples up. We had spent quite a while getting the sounds together so this was an important part of the songs gone. I contacted Richard and said give us the samples back or there will be trouble. If I remember rightly, I said he would still play parts on the album but no, he walked out there and then. I was sorry to see him go but I was very focused on “our big chance “so [we] went with Roli. Roli changed our sound heaps. The first engineer he had he sacked and got a famous engineer (Kenny Jones) in who made the drums sound big and full. The new engineer fed the drum sound down into a lower basement room to get a huge reverb sound. At the time I thought it was too clinical / clean but I was still very new to the whole thing and just trusted in him. It was an intense time. I was unsure of all of it really. It was the first album I was singing on. I thought of myself as just a bass player and was insecure about my voice / the lyrics / everything, really. I used to cringe when my voice came out of the speakers!
The production in my mind seems to have aged well, what’s your take?
JW: Yes, I agree. At that time studio production was just at the stage of moving from analogue to digital. I really liked that time the best because the music was tracked to tape with all the possibilities that brings – saturation, tape editing and warmth of tape compression – but in the control room there were new machines capable of things new to us. The advance of sampling and ease of syncing a computer to the tape machine was exciting. This was a great age of experimentation which mirrors the advent of multitracking in the 1960s. It had all the best bits of modern recording with the good bits of the restrictions of the past and that keeps the sound modern.
NW: I kind of like the production helped by the SSL super analogue ‘total recall’ mixing desk with two-inch 24-track reel to reel analogue tape machines.
NM: It sounds great. I wish we had used Roli for the subsequent recordings as he suggested. He did a great job. Clear and punchy, using the SSL system was awesome. The problems I have with some of the recordings are down to a lack of investment of time in some of the details!
How long did the album take to complete?
NM: I think the album took two weeks (not totally sure on that). I think the recording side of things was a week. I think Nigel wanted a lot more time to spend on guitar parts, but Roli wanted to spend time on mixing. I remember Nigel going home and pretty much not sleeping, working on new parts – God bless.
What do you recall about the sessions?
JW -The sessions were mostly cool from what I can remember. We had pretty clear ideas about how the songs should sound and had time to do more experimentation in the studio. We worked long hours and I think we might have kept Roli up a bit later than he was used to, but overall a very cool time. It was a new project for us and it felt really free because of that.
NW: Tension, quite a bit of stress, some obsessive behavior, was interesting understanding completely different methods of working, a learning process, working with great engineer Kenny Jones (Tom Waits, The Smiths, etc.) as well as a producer.
NM: I recall that I wanted it to have a bit more of a live feel. That was the only thing I remember really, trying to not get too stoned / out of it, trying to get that correct mix of out of it but still [be] able to play. That was my mind set at the time. Out of it but still able to play. It was quite stressful in a certain way. Roli was [a] strong character. I liked him and thought he did a great job and hope we are still friends. Good to see he is still doing production. I was in awe of his work with The Swans and The Young Gods so I pretty much kept my mouth shut and let him do his work!
Which songs were the hardest to nail?
JW: We’d played most of the songs live and, as far as I remember, we had no real problems getting them recorded.
NW: All pretty much just as easy / difficult.. .except “9/10 of the Law” which we had been playing live very differently and used on the “Ground Zero” B-side.
NM: No, [we] didn’t have any songs that were particularly “hard to nail.” We had rehearsed a fair bit, gigged, and had our setlist and knew the parts we had to play. As I said before, Nigel wanted to change bits and bobs but (he / we) ran out of time for that!
Were these songs explicitly written for this record or had some of them been around for a while?
JW: No, we had them all before we went in the studio
NW: all the tracks – well nearly / almost – everything had been, played, demoed, recorded, or played live in one form or another before going into the studio. The recording [approach] with Roli was very different.
NM: The songs were explicitly written. I am not keen on releasing “demos“ that I’ve had sitting around for a while. I like to work with musicians and create a new album up to date using the musicians and their [ideas]. Working with other musicians is what it is about really. The input they give is invaluable and I always try to listen to them, play with them, against them, whatever. It is a communication thing, really. I think everyone should be involved in music, playing in a group situation with fellow humans. I read somewhere that playing an instrument, singing [in] a group, fires more neurons than meditation! Make your brain good, be creative, create stuff, I don’t care what it is. Go out on a limb be daring. It can be scary. What’s the [worst] that can happen? Someone says your work is shit? Who cares what they say. At least you have done something! At least you have created! That is what important, new creation is!
Did you record any extra songs during those sessions? What became of them?
JW: No just the album.
NW: “9/10 of the Law” and “Crush,” which involved going down to the same cellar, by now converted into an echo chamber and throwing / smashing various metal and other objects and yelling; both B-sides to “Ground Zero.” There are also some instrumental mixes of the songs. (Note: “Ground Zero” sleeve is pictured to the left.)
NM: No extra songs were created for this session. Later we got into writing heaps of stuff. I think and hope Nigel has a few boxes of [unused] old tracks. Do you Nigel? No this album was written and a few gigs were played before we went into the studio. No excess / no leftovers.
Seems Situation 2 was quite the cool label; were they hands off with the recording?
JW: Yes, they were pretty hands off. They put their trust in Roli and [thankfully] left us alone.
NW: They didn’t come down to the studio and were pretty hands off. Maybe [they] popped in? Nice folk[s] though.
NM: Situation 2 – Roger, who we dealt with there, was totally cool, totally – thank you to those guys – awesome! You must remember that at this time Loop was supposedly on a “holiday“ or taking a break from the hectic touring and recording schedule that had left us all exhausted and not wanting to be in each other’s company any more. I wish Loop had got back together, as I was too young and insecure to be the leader of a group. I just wanted to have fun – really, I’ve only just grown up over the last few years! I’m 54 now! When Loop got back together for a meeting a year later or so, we all agreed [that] we [liked what we were currently doing, so] why go back to something that is a pain? That was the end of Loop. If something isn’t fun and rewarding I [don’t] do it, end of story.
There are some bad ass songs on this record; tell me the genesis of the tracks “Monkies,” “Elevenate,” “Where’s Gala,” and “Flat Truck”?
JW: All our songs came together by playing in rehearsal rooms. We’d tape stuff and Neil would take them away and work on the lyrics or one of us would bring in an idea. You know the normal kind of way bands work. The great thing about H and S was the synergy we had. I don’t remember song or music writing being much of a problem [for] us. Sometimes we would decide to not play songs at a gig but just improvise for an hour. For whatever reason it generally worked out. We [might’ve] been more jazz than rock perhaps? We all liked Faust’s approach to music.
NW: “Monkies,” “Flat Truck,” “Elevenate” had all been started at our very first rehearsal session in prime time, London Bridge area, and Neil had demoed “Where’s Gala”, it was a favorite and still is here! These were all started before Richard was involved.
NM: “Monkies” – we are all monkies. Get over the Homo Sapien smart ape thing. We are not really any more “intelligent” than any other species, in my opinion. Other animals build things. Other animals and insects organize their communities much more cleverly than us. I always liked [the image] of a wolf pack moving through a snow-covered ravine. At the front are the oldest and [weakest] members of the pack, then next the strongest, then the main pack and at the back the 2nd strongest group, arranged so the pack moves at the speed of the [weakest among them]. In the human world the strongest would be at the front and bugger anyone else if they can’t keep up! [A] bit cynical, that, but probably true to a large extent. I have more faith in humanity than that, but you [catch] my drift!
At the point when you guys recorded this album, what were you all listening to?
JW: I was listening to Can, Public Image. Steve Reich was a new discovery for me and I devoured his output. I was really into a lot of dub and the Flaming Lips [as] I remember.
NW: Was listening to Einstürzende Neubauten Kollaps, Prince Far I “Nuclear Weapon” (Adrian Sherwood mix) Jello Biafra with D.O.A. Last scream of the missing neighbors CD, Wiseblood Dirtdish LP, Can Monster Movie LP, probably most of the other Can albums. Some Lee Hazlewood and Tom Waits.
NM: Velvet Underground, The Doors, Joy Division, Can, Suicide, Radio Birdman, The Stooges, MC5, and all sorts of garage / psyche obscure stuff, reggae, dub, On-u sound label. Anything weird and different. I had a thing against “commercial music“ in those days. It had to be weird ear candy for me [back] then!
I get the sense, at least in the States by the number of promo CDs I saw in the cut-out bin, that the album didn’t sell well here, what was the situation in the UK and Europe?
JW: We did pretty well in the UK and Europe, touring and festival shows, but the US was a disaster for us. We were dropped by Beggars Banquet just at the start of a coast to coast US tour. So we were in New York, I think, with a tour bus driven by us which had to be returned to an office in Los Angeles. Never understood the logic of that but maybe explains the bargain bins!
NW – Think “Ground Zero” got some indie chart position, not sure about the rest – looked for the CDs in the “bins” in the USA and couldn’t find any myself. I would have brought them back!
NM: I think the album was in the “indie” charts for a short period in the UK, but no, the album “didn’t do well.” I wasn’t that bothered really. What is success? Doing art that you want to do. Getting it out to the world in some small way, that is success in my opinion. Of course I would have liked to have had some money at the time. Same now maybe! We were all pretty poor in those days. We all worked shitty jobs. We lived life pretty much [from] week to week really. I hope Nigel and John [are both living comfortably these days].
How was the album received, both by the UK press and fans of Loop?
JW: I remember it being okay, you know, the normal thing where people hate it and love it equally. It probably polarized Loop fans but we never wanted to be Loop 2, and the more open minded came along.
NW: Some [decent] press UK wise. Not sure on the loop fans, possibly divided I imagine.
NM: That I cannot recall. I think we got a few reviews but nothing really majorly good. I knew Loop fans wouldn’t like it. It sounded so different to loop. Really, I didn’t want to be just a copy of Loop. What’s the point of that? If I had wanted to make money we could have done a dance / techno version of Loop.
Below: the band live in 1992 at the Reading Festival, captured in average sound quality (turn the volume up) but very good video quality for the times.
What songs on Jo in 9 G Hell did you guys play live? What were the hardest ones to render on stage?
JW: We did them all I think except Neil’s song, “Where’s Gala,” which we never did from memory. We used pretty basic technology in those days. Any samples were played back from a porta studio I had by me on stage. We rocked!
NW: We played all of them live at one point or other – but never as the album from start to finish, “Where’s Gala” was more tricky, maybe – it got better each time we tried it. I think, anyway.
NM: From the album the tracks we played live were : “Elevenate,” “Flat track,” “Torque,” “Monkies,” “Ground Zero,” “$1,000 Pledge,” “The Final Nail,” and “Pipeline”. John used to operate a 4-track cassette recorder for the tracks that had a backing. [Is that] lo-fi or what! Anyone who takes a 4-track cassette on stage nowadays would be considered lo-fi indeed!
Did you guys record any shows at the time?
NW: We didn’t as such. I’ve seen some of our very first shows filmed and posted on YouTube, a bit of Reading Festival ’92. Ott, our sound engineer, sort of recorded that too.
NM: No I don’t think we recorded anything live from those days, sadly!
What bands did you guys tour with for this record?
JW: We did a UK tour with The Swans and I think we toured with two other Situation 2 bands in Europe.
NW: We toured with Silverfish, Swans, and Cop Shoot Cop and also The God Machine. All jolly good chaps and chapesses.
NM: We toured quite a lot with the excellent band Sun Carriage at the time. Cannot remember who else we toured with. We played [the] North London scene a fair bit, particularly at the excellent “Sausage Machine“ club and the Falcon and various [other] places in and around London. There was an excellent music “scene” going on at the time. The live music scene has been destroyed now. I hope it makes a comeback. It is up to the youngsters out there to get off their [ass], put their mobile phones down, pick up a musical instrument, get some friends together, and create something beautiful! Later we toured the UK with Silverfish, The Swans, and did a European tour with Medicine. (Below: Swans tour itinerary, along with the HASTCO tour rider.)
What was the cut off the album that they worked to radio?
JW: “Ground Zero.”
NM: Have no idea what the lead cut the label sent out to radio. I didn’t really have a lot to do with any of that stuff. I thought of myself as a musician. I had and still have no idea about that side of things. Probably why I was and never really will be successful! Not my area!
Any DJs champion this record?
JW: John Peel was probably the main one.
NW: I was told that John Peel played it here – not sure on that, though. I think some radio stations we visited [later] in the USA said they had been playing the LP. Can’t be specific on that really.
NM: None as far as I know. I don’t think John Peel liked it much, not sure if he ever played it! He was the main man in those days!
Will the album ever be reissued?
NM: Not sure if it will ever be reissued. I hope so one day. Not heard anything going on, on that front!
In terms of HASTCO output, how do you feel about this record? Are there elements you once disliked that you’ve grown to like now and vice versa?
JW: It was our first release, and from my point of view it was a good start, but we got better at it and further from the gravitational pull of commercialism and closer to orbiting the planet inspiration – which is all you could ask for isn’t it?
NW: Just very different to where we went from there, perhaps. Still think some of it would [be] interesting soundtrack music [for] the appropriate film, which is also what I thought at the time to be honest.
NM: Must admit it’s the first time I’ve listened to the album for ages and ages. I wonder how and why we put the track “Where’s Gala“ on the album. I’m not sure Roli did that track. I think it was a 4- track recording we did! Listening to it for the first time in ages, it actually sounds really good. You know at the time the drugs I / we were taking – I shouldn’t speak about the other guys! – but anyways, I wasn’t in a particularly good head space. The recording seemed to be done so quick it felt like we were in and out of the studio in no time. Roli did a great job. He said at the end of the recording, “You have to do the next album with me!“
It was a [huge] mistake not to use him again, really. We should have built on the sound he got us. He did a great job with what we gave him. I feel personally I was still very young and inexperienced and didn’t know up from down. Life was hard, money was short. I just wanted to do the best I could. I’m proud of our output. We have a new album coming out that I think, as usual, has good ideas, etc. That’s the enduring thing for me. We had great ideas that sounded like no-one else. [We] were not trying to sound like anyone else.
I’m forever grateful to Nigel and John, they are great guys, supremely talented and fun to be with. [They are] very good friends of mine. I sincerely hope we do a few more things. Thank you guys! Was a pleasure to work with you. Sorry I wasn’t the greatest of bandleaders. But I wasn’t really the leader, just a member of the band. I think that was our main problem, really! We could have done great (er) things!
Below: Listen to the brilliant new track “Nihil” which the band graciously supplied to Blurt.
Magic and mayhem coexist—not necessarily peacefully, but certainly with a purposeful deliberateness—in the Atlanta artist’s remarkable new album, bleak beauty. (Scroll to the bottom to hear three key tracks.)
BY KEITH JOYNER
Clay Harper quietly sings into a microphone in the makeshift studio on the ground floor of his Atlanta home. I follow along on an acoustic guitar, creating parts on the fly. It feels like packing up. The last time I was here I had traveled from Los Angeles to say goodbye to Stephanie, Clay’s partner of twenty years, and my best friend from high school. It was both surreal and unthinkable that someone so young and in the prime of her life would be taken so mercilessly. On this day, however, the house is for sale, and there is a noticeable sense of unease. The question hangs heavy in the air: What now?
Clay had casually invited me to play on a new song he was recording. And so, after an impromptu and innocuous invitation to coffee, I found myself learning what would become the song “Pretty Victor,” from the new self-released album, bleak beauty. I devised an interesting, passable part, all the while formulating how I could improve upon it when it came time to record.
“That’s great! I love it,” exclaimed Clay.
It became immediately clear that there was to be no “next take.” That was it.
It is precisely this moment that speaks to a singular talent, an innate ability to recognize an opportunity, and use it, all for the sake of the art. Had it been up to me, I might have recorded multiple takes, and added additional parts. As it happens, Clay stripped away everything but one guitar—flaws and all—and his voice alone. What’s left is a tentative answer to the question hanging over the proceedings. That is, we can’t possibly prepare or know what to do when tragedy strikes. After all, the world at large is cruel and indifferent to our inner suffering. There is nothing left but to carry on.
When we lose someone, there are universal rituals and traditions to help cope with the loss. But I sense that for Clay, they are entirely insufficient. There are too many things left unsaid; sentiments that are private, painful and uncomfortable, and not suited for mixed company. Clay has gone on record to say that the album is not about Stephanie, but, instead, a recounting of his experience in steady chronological order. I wonder if this may be in deference to someone who was a very private, though selfless, person. My earliest memories of her were of someone wholly devoted to the idea of service. To a self-centered teen like myself, I was suspicious. Though Stephanie spent the next thirty years turning words into action. If bleak beauty is not about her, it is certainly for her. (Listen to tracks from the record HERE.)
Many in Atlanta and the Southeast recall Clay Harper as boss man in post-punk provocateurs The Coolies (originally called The Beatles, until receiving the expected Cease and Desist letter), and, later, The Ottoman Empire. He was not then—and still isn’t—averse to mixing combustible elements for maximum effect in both music and performance. That desire more likely stems from a genuine fascination with witnessing the inevitable explosion than it does getting a cheap rise out of people.
But don’t ask the north Georgia cloggers he invited to open the final Coolies show in 1990 about it. Of course, it could have gone either way. When the curtain rose on the unsuspecting dancers as they clogged their way through “New Sensation” by INXS, the sneering punk crowd wasn’t having it. Nor were the Todd Rundgren fans at a more recent show at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Clay was supporting his last album, 2013’s Old Airport Road. Between each song, lurid phone sex recordings were played over the PA until the crowd demanded he leave the stage early, chanting, “Todd Rundgren Now!” Hey, they could have laughed. And really. They should have. Humorless bastards. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Andy Kaufman would’ve been proud.
Given all of this, it’s a curious thing to venture that bleak beauty may be Clay’s most audacious work to date. Its boldness can be found in its quietude and vulnerability. For sure, it is a tone poem of grief, remorse, love and hope. But strangely, there is levity and common truth throughout. Clay’s longtime friend, the artist, erstwhile Clash associate, and self-professed “cultural curator,” Kosmo Vinyl, points out, it is “that realization that the more personal something becomes, the more universal it becomes. Also the realization that there is no substitute for truth and it can rarely, if ever be faked.” From the held-breath salvo of the opening title track to the repeated closing mantra “I’m Not High,” bleak beauty reminds us to take nothing for granted, and accept the inevitable light and shade of this world with resigned grace.
Once again, Clay directs an impressive cast of musicians, including Chaz Jankel (Ian Dury and The Blockheads), Tom Gray (The Brains), and Rick Richards (The Georgia Satellites), among others with the precision of Kubrick, all without playing a single note himself. Brad Quinn (formerly of The Ottoman Empire and the Tommy Keene Band) adds “For someone who, as far as I know, doesn’t particularly play anything, he’s written more great songs and made more records than almost anyone I know.” And bleak beauty is no exception. Each track inhabits a classic space as if you’ve known it your entire life.
In May, Clay Harper and band performed the album in its entirety in an intimate setting at the Avondale Towne Cinema, near Atlanta. When asked what it’s like to revisit the songs in front of an audience, Clay responds, “I would like to do more shows. I’m not sure I would like to perform the record again. I want it to be evaluated as a piece of art. I want people to hear it and find their meaning, but I think it’s there for private consumption. I don’t think it needs to be public entertainment.”
One senses that bleak beauty is just as much about moving on as it is paying respect to a great lost love.
To my mind there are only two types of music: the self-conscious kind, which is certainly not always a pejorative; and the kind that comes from somewhere deep within—the kind that must be released, one way or the other no matter the consequences. Damn the cynics. Or more to the point, as Clay’s friend and frequent collaborator Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ n’ Cryin’) says, “I think that sometimes artists make art for the people, and sometimes artists make art for themselves. This one’s for Clay. It’s true soul music from the cosmos straight to our hearts.”
There is a special kind of alchemy at work when songs such as these, borne of despair and darkness, conspire to conjure something altogether enlivening. After all, to live is to create. And no greater tribute may be paid to a life well-lived than to “rage against the dying of the light.” No, it is not entertainment. But perhaps it’s something to be shared. There is genuine electricity when Clay sings plaintively “Are you the bird? Are you the breeze? Are you the sunshine through the trees?”
I’d like to believe that when we remember, the answer is always yes.
Keith Joyner is a regular BLURT contributor. A member of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Athens pop mavens Seven Simons as well as The The, and, more recently, Twinstar and les biches, the L.A.-by-way-of-Georgia musician previously recounted a memorable evening in the company of David J and Genesis P-Orridge.
A prolific songwriter, spurred on by some notable studio mavens, pulls off a musical hat trick for the ages.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
When Aaron Smart set out to record his debut under the moniker Silverplanes, he didn’t initially set out with an agenda to pull off a wholly ambitious series of releases. He was simply looking to put out an LP.
But, thanks to a prolific nature, a little extra time, and an inspired suggestion by his producer, Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith, The Who and Cheap Trick), he turned in an impressive trio of 5-song EPs, each mixed by a different veteran producer with a combined resume that could fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Gulfstream, the first EP, was mixed by Shelly Yakus, whose extensive resume includes albums with U2, Tom Petty and Lou Reed; Bombardier was mixed by Jay Messina, known for his work with Aerosmith, KISS and Supertramp; The third and final EP, Lear, was released on June 8. It was mixed by Geoff Emerick, who worked on some of the Beatles’ most innovative releases as well as albums by Badfinger, Elvis Costello and Jeff Beck.
Smart, prepping for the final EP release in the series spoke with Blurt recently about this endeavor, how he was able to lure in such an amazing set of behind-the-scenes talent— and how he’s going to top it.
BLURT: So how did you come up with the idea of a series of EPs for your debut? It’s obviously a pretty novel approach.
SMART: We recorded 15 songs for an album and were editing down to 12. We were done with it and shopping for a label to put it out and then we just kept recording. And another nine months went by and we had another 18 songs and realized that things had evolved in a really cool way with Jack’s vision and my tastes and with the music landscape the way it is. Tough for a new band to get heard so figured let’s spread this out and put out most if not all of it
Jack Douglas has an impressive background. How did you convince him to produce you?
I had met Jack nine years before when he worked on a record at my old recording studio. I decided I wanted a badass producer to work on my next project and began searching. During that time Blake, Jack’s son, said why don’t you ask my dad to do it. I answered, “Yeah, sure your dad.” Blake responded, “Send him a few demos and see what he thinks. I think he will be into it.” I emailed him a few and he got back to me. Asking me, “Who is this? Someone you recording at your studio?” I told him, “No, it’s me.” He came back with “Why didn’t we do a record nine years ago?” And that was that.
Did you know all along that you want different engineers for each release?
No, originally, we recorded 15 songs and when we got to the mix time Jack threw around the idea of having Shelly Yakus mix it. But he wasn’t available as he was setting up Aftermaster, his new studio. We kept recording and I said let’s have Shelly mix this and Jack and I had just had dinner with Geoff Emerick in LA and Jay Messina a few weeks later in New York and Jack said this is serendipitous. Let’s have these two and Shelly mix five songs each and you can put them out separately – a 3 EP series. I said “Uh, yes please” (Laughs).
Was it difficult to figure out who you wanted to mix the songs?
No, once Geoff came into the picture. Jack had a long history with Shelly Yakus and Jay Messina.
So, do the trio of EPs tie together under a unifying theme?
Not really a unifying theme like a “concept” or what not but definitely a unifying sound. Vintage meets modern. Jack Douglas’ sonic signature is probably the unifying thread between them all.
Do you plan to tour with a band now that these albums are out?
Yeah have been rehearsing just about to book a debut Los Angeles show.
Now that this project is finished, what’s next? Do you plan to continue recording under the name Silverplanes?
Yes, Silverplanes is just in its infancy. I’m building a new studio in LA with an old friend that used to be at El Dorado. Going to be collaborating with a bunch of friends and tracking a new Silverplanes full length for 2019 release. Gulfstream is out; touring will begin for this second EP Bombardier, which released on March 30th and third EP, Lear, mixed by Geoff Emerick that will he released in mid-May. Then a double vinyl of all the EPs and five new tracks will he released shortly thereafter
How, indeed: by speaking the truth, not lies. Philly’s Fillmore was the scene for this sweat-soaked June 5 evening by Britain’s Frank Turner and his band The Sleeping Souls, and they did not disappoint—not even the Trump-country drunks who took exception to some of Mr. Turner’s more sharpened verbal daggers. Above photo by Ben Morse, via Turner’s Facebook page.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a long time since Frank Turner had to play basement shows and VFW Halls, sleeping on strangers’ floors before loading up the van the next morning and heading to the next show, but he clearly is still every bit as much of that scrappy DIY punk rocker.
Headlining a show in Philly recently, promoting his latest record, Be More Kind, Turner did plenty of crowd surfing, sang enough of his own political punk anthems to please The Clash and encouraged safety in the pit (a plea from just about every punk rock singer with a mic dating back to the early ‘80s).
“First rule tonight, don’t be a dickhead; second rule, if you know the words to these songs you have to sing along – loudly!”
The set, and Turner in particular, was a masterclass in pleasing everyone from diehard fans to the uninitiated dragged to the show by friends. From the moment Turner took to the stage in dark pants, a soon-to-be soaked through with sweat white oxford and a thin black tie, he entertained with a ferocity and passion that belied the fact that he’s been on the road for nearly a month already. Running through a couple of his newer songs up front, he quickly moved into some of the older fan favorites like “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” “If I Ever Stray” and even the B-side “Tattoos.” He and the band also rolled out “Brave Face,” off the new album, for its live show debut.
“I’m not American, but over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time here. I’ve toured 48 states so far,” Turner said before launching into the remarkably appropriate song, “Make America Great Again,” a pitch perfect rebuke on Trump and all of the racists who have crawled out from under their rocks since his election. “A friend told me you’re not going to have the balls to play this song in America. I said, ‘Americans are fucking adults and they can understand a song about politics.’”
The song was met with loud cheers as the sold-out crowd sang along to every verse. Well, almost everyone, one of the exceptions being the drunk stranger who leaned over to me and croaked out “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people coming into our country and telling us what’s wrong with our politics. Amirite?” When I disagreed, he hugged me (that’s odd, right?) and then walked out of the venue and into the night, like a Red State Michael Landon from a Highway to Heaven reboot for the Trump era. No one else seemed to have a problem singing along loudly and proudly to the chorus (“Let’s make America great again/let’s make racists ashamed again”).
Turner closed off the show with a spirited encore that included the rapturous “I Still Believe” and the should-be punk rock anthem “Four Simple Words.”
Below: The King in action, followed by his doppelganger Turner making things great, in a pair of official videos.
Frank Turner will be spending a good amount of time touring North America this summer and into the fall. Dates are HERE. Our suggestion: borrow your redneck Republican neighbor’s MAGA hat and bring it for Turner to sign…
The world seemed like it was on fire. His entire band quit on him. He was contending with being a new dad. So B.J. Barham decided he was up to the challenges—literal, existential, logistical, emotional—and created the album of a lifetime.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Last year BJ Barham, frontman for the North Carolina Americana outfit American Aquarium, was set to head out on the Lower 48 Tour – a wildly ambitious trek that would see him hitting up at least one show in every state (sans Hawaii and Alaska). And then his band quit.
Every single member. And all at once.
He understandably felt blindsided. What was the point now?
But just a few weeks after absorbing the psychological blow of having all five members of his band walk out at the same time, his wife gave him some frank advice: “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.”
And that statement become the overarching theme of Things Change, his latest record and easily, with little room for argument, his best collection of songs to date. (Amen. That goes for everyone else here at BLURT, too. – Ed.)
Oh, and he did embark on that exhaustive tour, solo, a little over a month after the dissolution of that version of American Aquarium.
Just a week before the June 1 release of Things Change, with a brand-new band and a new baby at home, Barham was kind enough to talk to Blurt, revisiting the great exodus of 2017, discussing the new record and the politics and optimism that are woven into the new music.
BLURT: I’ve been looking forward to interviewing you for a while now and thought I lost the chance when it looked like the band was broken up. So, I guess, thanks for keeping it together?
BARHAM: Ah, man, I am way too stubborn to give up.
Let’s talk about what happened with your band. You’ve said that everyone just left. Was that a surprise to you or did you see it coming?
It was a surprise because I didn’t expect it to come when it came, and it all happened at the same time. I’ve had over 30 members of this band since 2006. It’s been a lot of turnover, but I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a core of the band for the last eight years, but I’ve never made the same record with the same band back to back; every record has had either someone quit, or someone replaced, so I’m used to turnover. If it had been one person, it would have been a regular day at the office. If it had been two that would have been a little harder… but, I had five guys walk into a room and all quit. It was a mutiny aboard the ship. All the signs were there, I just ignored them. It was just general unhappiness.
We all started this band when we were in college. We wanted the same things, we wanted to tour everywhere, we wanted to play music for a living. We believed in this awesome plan, but over the course of nearly a decade people’s interests and people’s lives change and they go in different directions. What they used to be in love with they no longer care for and what they used to believe in has changed. By the end of that Wolves tour, it got to be that the show was the least important part of the day to those guys. They were worried about what they were going to do before the show or after the show. Those 90 minutes on the stage, that I still wake up in the morning for and live for, became an afterthought for them. And when they quit, I had about two or three weeks of sulking and then my wife said, “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.” And that’s one of the central themes of the record.
I went out and I got lucky. I was on the Lower 48 Tour and ran into a mutual friend from Austin and he said “Hey man, I heard about the band quitting. Can I put a band together for you?” I said, “Sure man, whatever,” and he put together just a crack band of guys that have been doing this for 10, 20 years. I fly into Texas for that first rehearsal and everyone knew every single song from start to finish. We took this thing on the road last fall as a trial run to see how we do with each other and it went gangbusters. It was amazing. We went to the studio and made a record together and things went great. (Below: the smoke-colored vinyl LP version of the album.)
This new record, the first track (“The World is on Fire”) grabs you right away. You didn’t waste any time getting in to what you wanted to discuss with this album.
Every artist says this about every new project because we’re vain immature children, but I feel like this is the best thing I have done so far. And a lot of friends who are honest with me – the ones who would tell me “this one sucks” or “good luck trying to get this one going” – everyone has been super supportive. I think creatively and musically we took a step forward with this one and I think that’s all you can ask for as an artist; make the thing that you put out better than the last thing and I think we did that this time.
As a father, “The World is on Fire” really struck a chord with me. You realize whatever is going on right now doesn’t just affect you, but your kids as well.
Exactly. That’s where that third verse really came from. That song was such a progression of 2017 for me simply because I wrote that first verse the day after the election, just anger fear and I had so many questions. I had no idea how to explain what I just watched. I put it aside because I didn’t want this record to be about fear, to be about hate because every other thing that has changed in my life since Wolves (his 2015 album) has been pretty positive so I didn’t want to write a record around this. I wrote the second verse after I had been on tour for a while and talking to people at the merch table after the shows – people from the left and the right and people who didn’t vote – and I regained a lot of faith in humanity. I realized not everyone is a bigoted, misogynistic hatemonger, but some people are in just desperate situations and the right has done nothing for them and the left has done nothing for them and they voted for a wildcard. I started to become a little more empathetic and just to listen to others instead of just pointing my finger at them and telling them why they were wrong or why they were right. I think this last election is the result, the epitome of people just wanting to be heard.
I had no chorus and two verses at this point and just sat on it for a while. During that tour me and my wife realized we were having a child and that just immediately changed my perspective. No matter how much my generation does to fuck things up, we’ve still got hope in that next generation. As long as a majority of us teach (our children) to be good, honest people we have nothing to worry about and that’s where that third verse came from. Don’t just bitch and complain about change, do something and inspire that change. Once we finished that song it was a no brainer that it would lead off the album. Some records warm you up, but this one gets it going right out of the gate.
Jason Isbell’s last record was probably his most political one so far. The same with Superchunk and just about any band that’s known for thoughtful lyrics putting out records since the last election. Was there any part of you that was nervous about alienating fans by talking about these issues?
Of course. I think anybody would be. You’re talking about alienating up to half of your audience, so you have to approach the topic intelligently; you have to approach the topic conversationally. You can’t come out and say you are all a bunch of fucking idiots. They’ll turn the radio off and throw out your records and say, “fuck that band!” But if you come at it with the attitude, “Hey man, we both love NASCAR, we both love fried chicken, we both love college football. I just want to know why you feel this way about this thing.” Letting folks know we’re the same people, we come from the same places. We disagree on this one thing, so how can we have an open dialogue about it. If anybody listens to this record and walk away thinking, “man, he’s way too political” then they’re missing the point. That first song isn’t about politics at all. It’s about finding hope in dark situations.
I don’t care what area of life you want to apply that to, but it should affect every American right now. And the third song, “Tough Folks,” if you walk away from that thinking, “Man, that’s just about his politics, he lost it,” then you’re not listening to the song. That’s a song about perseverance, hard work; that’s a song that says no matter how bad today is you can work yourself out of it. I think people from both sides should be able to get behind both of those themes that run through this record.
So, have you thought yet about how you go about introducing these songs from the stage yet?
Yeah, of course. We’ve played them live a few times and I just let everybody know this is a song about finding light in darkness, this is a song about not giving up hope, this is a song about either complaining about your situation or changing your situation. This whole record is a living tangible testament about a guy who was at rock bottom last year when my entire band quit. I could sit at home and complain about it, writing mean songs or I could pull my bootstraps up and keep this thing going and try to be positive, try to fix this fracture in our country. To a lot of people who listen to these records, politics may just be the one thing that’s different. I just want to make people aware that we may be way off base on this one thing but think of the hundred other things that we are right beside each other on.
There are a lot of mainstream country artists that aren’t speaking out and I can understand that because for the longest time I didn’t speak out because I thought people would judge me for it, but I think I’m approaching this record with almost a humble approach. We all grew up the same, I’m just trying to figure how we all grew apart. That’s the hope of this record, that people hear it and try and start a dialogue about it. Try and heal a fracture.
There does seem to be an optimistic thread that runs throughout the record. And I don’t know if that’s because you’re a new dad.
You know, I spent years of my life complaining and blaming all of my problems on other people and this record, more so than any I’ve written before, is me saying most of the problems I’ve seen in my own personal life, I’m going to take responsibility before and write just as honestly about how I’ve messed up my life just as much as I think others might have. It’s harder to take blame than to just put it on someone else. I think it’s a mix of me being married, me having a new child and me just growing up.
I just turned 34 and I’m looking at where I am now compared to where I was three years ago when we recorded Wolves. It’s night and day.