It’s been a decade since longtime BLURT heroes Drivin’ N Cryin’ last put out a full-length record. During that time, they’ve had some line-up changes, been the subject of a documentary, put out a remarkable collection of themed EPs, were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame; all the while continuing to tour.
But the release of Live The Love Beautiful (available, incidentally, on gorgeous blue vinyl) finds singer Kevn Kinney and his band at the forefront yet again of a genre – a mix of Americana, punk and Southern rock – that they they’ve been playing since the mid-80s, a time when that style of music was hardly en vogue for the masses. And while they didn’t create that sound, they sure as hell put their own stamp on it.
The band called on fellow musician Aaron Lee Tasjan – a one-time member of Drivin’ N Cryin’ – to help produce this one. Kinney spoke with us recently about working with Tasjan, writing for an LP versus an EP and, to paraphrase him, Living the Love Beautifully.
BLURT: How did the band first connect with Aaron Lee Tasjan? He actually played guitar with you guys for a bit, didn’t he?
KEVN KINNEY: I met Aaron over 10 years ago in New York city. I was a big fan of his band Semi Precious Weapons and the Madison Square Gardens. He also played with me and Anton Fier as well. When I first met him, we did a solo tour of Holland together with Tim Easton another great Ohio musician. I knew the first time I met him his knowledge of music was pretty vast. He joined Drivin’ N Cryin’ briefly when he first moved to Nashville. He probably knows how to play every song I ever wrote we spent so much time traveling with the solo band and solo shows he really knows me inside and out
Unlike many producers, he’s actually a working musician himself. What was it like working with him on this record?
Interestingly enough I don’t think Drivin’ N Cryin’ or myself have you ever made an album
that was not produced by a musician. I think it’s important for a producer to be able to get inside the minds and desires of the band and songwriter. That’s a lot easier to do with me if you’re a musician. But if you’re not a musician the main requirement would be to have an extensive knowledge of all music recordings for as long as they’ve existed. Music history is important to me if not only to pay due respect to those who came before me. All of my music is an amalgamation of all the music that I love from Buddy Holly to Mastodon.
I remember seeing Drivin’ N Cryin’ play around Atlanta in the ’80s and you had a sound that few were playing at the time – blending punk with Americana. There are a lot of bands nowadays that are playing music that type of music. Does it seem like the world finally caught up to you?
Well we weren’t the first. We were in the audience for The Replacements, Husker Du,
Jason and the Scorchers, Elvis Costello, Rank and File, etc. What we do was definitely inspired by those bands as for as diversity within an album. I’m not sure who’s catching up to who. I’m more interested in learning with this new generation has.
It’s been a decade since your last full length – was working on this one much different than the way you approached the last couple of EPs?
It’s surprising how many more months it takes to add five more songs to a five-song EP to make an album. I have a pretty short attention span and unlike, I think, a lot of musicians I don’t like sitting in the studio. Some days I’d rather go to the dentist. It can be pretty stressful thinking about what you’re putting down now. What people are going to be listening to in 30 years. How relevant is it? How truthful is it? How boring? Is it exciting? Is it tearing it down? Building it up? Listening to that voice that doesn’t sound like the voice in my head, but I’ve learned to live with it, babysitting a project to keep it cohesive. It’s not easy. That’s why I think Aaron did an amazing job of shepherding this music to your turntable.
“Ian McLagan” is a beautiful song. We’ve lost some great musicians over the years. What was it about him that inspired you to write the song?
The fact that I never met him. I had that opportunity when I saw him walking up the alley, but I didn’t want to stop him in the rain. And when he passed, I thought of all the great music that he made and how he could’ve just done one thing and sat on a barstool his whole life. I also think that the name Ian in the song represents a lot of different of my favorite musicians who are still driving this country, sharing music with the audience; Dan Baird, Peter Buck, Chuck Prophet, Todd Snider, Alejandro!
“Free Ain’t Free” is another great song on this record. Was it based on a real couple?
No couple in particular, no. But just about every city in America right now has similar situations going on, squatters, flippers, blockbusters. I understand neighborhoods change and I think that’s fantastic, but I think that city government should structure some sort of tax relief for your families that have lived in homes and created neighborhoods and bonds with neighbors. I think the family home and family unit is sacred. There should be a place for them to it’s not always about more money, more money, more money.
What’s next for the band?
Space, the final frontier. Either that or maybe someday will be huge in Cleveland. Baby steps. In all seriousness, we are just going to keep driving around sharing music until the wheels fall off the van and then buy another van. I hope to be doing this for the next 10 years. I’m really proud of the group of musicians I’m surrounded by. I love touring the different crowds every night. I love the challenge; I love the camaraderie and I love to come home.
Those are all the questions I had. Anything else you want to cover?
With their new Doom Punks rec storming both the indie rock and comics dimensions, let us investigate….
BY JOHN B. MOORE
George Hage, on top of being an incredible guitar player for the New Reveille and Jack The Radio (the latter for which he also sings for), is a pretty stellar artist, whose recent book,Daydreaming: The Art of George Hage, impressed scores of reviewers, including our editor here at BLURT. When he’s not touring or recording, he’s designing posters, shirts, album covers, beer labels, hell even drumhead logos. So, the fact that he would one day marry his two passions into a new project was simply a given.
Along with longtime friend and fellow musician, Nick Baglio, Hage created Doom Punks, a comic book-themed punk rock band.
The duo recently put out their debut EP, so now seemed like an ideal time to catch up with Hage to discuss the Doom Punks, his latest venture into the comic world and the status of his other bands. (Useful links follow the interview.)
BLURT: Can you start out by talking about the idea behind Doom Punks?
GEORGE HAGE: Doom Punks started as a pie in the sky idea to combine my love for comics with my love for music. I imagined some of my favorite indie comic books were transformed into their own Saturday-morning style cartoons and our songs were their theme songs similar to what The Ramones did with Spider-man.
The past few years led to something more. We were able to create a song for a very talented friend of mine, Skottie Young’s comic Middlewest, and put an ad with a link to the song at the end of the comic, which created a whole new dimension to the comic book experience. This is something I haven’t really seen or heard before and hope that our music provides the comic reader with an enhanced experience much like the score to a film does.
Had you written these songs before you got together with Nick in 2016?
I had starting writing some of the songs for myself, just for fun. I initially never thought they’d see the light of day. After sitting in on guitar for some shows with my longtime pal, Nick Baglio, we got to talking and I threw the idea out there and he was in to bringing the songs to life with his immensely great drumming.
How did you connect with Image Comics?
I primarily worked with Skottie Young and Jorge Corona directly to create the song for their creator-owned comic Middlewest with Image Comics. It was exciting to see Image create the animated promo video for book with the song as the score for the video. It will be exciting to see if we can find more ways to collaborate on future projects.
Obviously, you have a passion for comics. Do you remember how you first got into them?
I remember being 9 or 10 and seeing comic books for the first time at the grocery store. Around that time Death of Superman was happening and Jim Lee’s X-men number one was exploding everywhere. My parents would give me a small allowance for doing stuff around the house and I would use that money to pick up the comic books. Eventually they started taking me to local comic shops, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find being one of them that I still go to when I’m in Charlotte.
Given your love of comics, it must have been pretty cool to work on that print for NC Comic Con. How did that come about?
Creating the art for the NC Comic Con Oak City print was a real treat. It’s been great watching that convention grow from a small shopping strip to a multi-town convention that’s now held at the convention center. It’s a con that I started going to as a fan year and years ago. Over the years I’ve lucky enough to connect with the great folks behind the scenes at Ultimate Comics and they have supported my art and have been kind enough to include me over the years.
You’re a pretty talented artist – have you thought about creating your own comic based around songs? I’ve always wanted to and still do want to create my own comic book and had plans to do something with the Jack the Radio character. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do that yet. The good news is sequential art takes a lot of skill and the longer I wait the more I get to practice and study up. That’s what I tell myself at least, (laughs).
Do you see this as a Doom Punks one-off project or any plans for more Doom Punks albums?
Nick and I have talked about it a bit and we definitely want to do more songs going forward. I’d love to connect with more comic creators and publishers to collaborate on the songs to create something that adds to the comic book experience and is something that can be used in promoting the books.
Have you and Nick played any of these songs live yet? We haven’t played any of these songs live yet, however I go down with some of the Jack the Radio guys every year to Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC to play some music at their annual Drink N Draw event with Team Cul De Sac, which raises money for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. We might have to break out a song or two there.
Anything new happening with Jack The Radio?
Jack the Radio has slowed down a bit in the past two years with some line-up changes due to jobs, family, etc. but we are gradually working on another record at Warrior Sound in Chapel Hill, NC, which is where we’ve recorded our past studio albums. With a different line-up the sound is evolving, which has been an exciting process.
Growing up, did you imagine you’d be able to make a living by playing music and drawing?
Honestly, no. Growing up no one in my family really played an instrument and no one drew. We didn’t know anyone that did either for a living, nor have anyone in my family in the biz so it didn’t cross my mind it could be a way to make a living. It was always something I loved and that I did for fun. I was a pretty introverted kid at times and it really helped me build my social skills and confidence. Music specifically challenged me to overcome any fears of talking or performing in front of people. I think it gets overlooked a lot, but music and art is a great way to meet people and I’ve made some great friends through both.
What’s next for you – what else have you got going on?
Musically I’m focused on tightening up my live show and pushing myself to grow as a songwriter. Artistically I have a lot of projects going on with businesses, bands, festivals and more that I’m looking forward to sharing with folks. Most recently I was able to work with a great designer and art director, Landon Elmore, on some illustration work for the 2019 World of Bluegrass fest branding produced by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). It’s one of the largest, if not the largest street festivals around. Also be on the lookout for some artwork for Foo Fighter guitarist, Chris Shiflett. And if you’re in Raleigh feel free to check out my latest art installation at Transfer Co. Food Hall downtown.
“Literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape”: It’s hard to believe that the Tucson-based—and, as it turns out now, partly El Paso-based as well—rockers have been seducing the sonic synapses of fans of their patented “desert noir” for nearly two decades. But with a celebrated studio album and key reissue recently in their rearview, plus a fresh collaboration and tour with Iron & Wine in their headlights for this summer, it’s not a stretch to call them a true legacy band. Founders Joey Burns and John Convertino talk about the upcoming album, reflect on their past, and enthuse about their headlining show this weekend at the Cold Mountain Music Festival in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
BY FRED MILLS
Calexico: think Americana, yes, but also think border music, Mariachi rock, folk-psych and experimental musings, wide open expanses of the Southwestern frontier, desert noir. More on the latter in a sec. The Tucson outfit, founded in 1995 by guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and percussionist extraordinaire John Convertino, is in the middle of a remarkably active and productive period, having issued in the past year both a new studio album (The Thread That Keeps Us, via Anti- in the US and City Slang overseas; it’s reviewed here), and a 20th anniversary expanded reissue of their 1998 classic, The Black Light. Along the way, they also decided to renew an old friendship in the form of Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, and the fruits of that studio connection will arrive in just a couple of weeks as Years to Burn via Sub Pop (on digital, CD, vinyl, and limited edition colored vinyl… you can guess which iteration yours truly preordered), which will coincide with an extensive international tour with I&W that kicks off June 18.
Meanwhile, this weekend Calexico will be headlining the 3rd annual Cold Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina (read my preview of the fest elsewhere on the Blurt site) prior to the aforementioned tour with Iron & Wine, so, as suggested, they are a busy bunch. As befits an ensemble with an ever-expanding back catalog, acclaimed collaborations galore, and what might be termed as a clearly relentless musical mission.
Full disclosure, I feel permanently linked to the band by virtue of several factors: I was living in Tucson, Arizona, when they initially formed as an offshoot of Giant Sand and were also moonlighting in Friends of Dean Martinez, and, thanks to Burns and Convertino, privy to some of their earliest musical endeavors; years later, a stray quote of mine that I once used in a review to describe the band (“desert noir”) was uttered by Burns during an NPR interview, along with his acknowledgment of the term’s source; and certainly the honor of working with the band on the liner notes for their sprawling 12-LP 2001 vinyl box set, Road Atlas 1998-2001.
All that aside—and my devotion to the entire Arizona music scene is well-documented here at BLURT, so I won’t belabor it—the fact is, the duo, which can morph into a full-sized band, replete with a mariachi horn section, at the drop of a castanet, remains one of our premiere American musical ambassadors, and will always be emblematic of the sonic serendipity that the Southwestern desert region can bestow.
As Convertino succinctly offered, “The whole ride has been amazing.”
For us as well, John. I caught up with my old Tucson compadres recently via email.
BLURT: John, Joey, it’s great to connect with you again—I must confess, whenever I hear you on the radio these days, I get a twinge of homesickness for Tucson. So, now you’re coming to my current home, near Asheville, North Carolina. Have you ever played this area?
JOHN: To be honest, I am not sure if we have. I know we have played Saxapahaw before, and we are scheduled again with Iron & Wine [June 18, at the Haw River Ballroom, near Chapel Hill]. For us, it’s always a pleasure to get to the parts of the country that are so lush and green, spend some time in the shade trees and find a lake to jump into. So, we’re looking forward to the Cold Mountain Fest—we are not “on tour” right now, and we may be doing some interesting covers we don’t normally do because [we will have] Brian Lopez on guitar and vocals, who has his own band and songs that we sometimes do with Calexico. [Ed. Note: Lopez, also based in Tucson, has an amazing band, XIXA, which also boasts Gabriel Sullivan, who we’ve featured and reviewed here at BLURT.)
JOEY: We’ve played Knoxville, TN, before but I don’t recall ever playing in Asheville. Glad to be finally playing here. We will be playing both old and new songs, with Brian; Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, vocals, and vibraphone; and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards, bass, vocals, and samples. Looks like a cool festival too—Cold Mountain Music Festival on Lake Logan sounds pretty damn nice for a bunch of desert dwellers from Arizona.
BLURT: In the time I’ve been away from Tucson, since mid-2001, what would you say have been your most notable successes or milestones?
JOHN: The whole ride has been amazing; we have been so lucky with having such great labels to work with, and fans that have been loyal and willing to go to different places with us, musically and emotionally. I think being able to bring the mariachi on tour in Europe was huge, as well as having some of our songs charted for symphony orchestra and performing them with the Louisville Symphony, and then later in Berlin and Austria with those orchestras.
JOEY: We’ve done a bunch of benefit concerts for our local radio community radio station KXCI [My favorite radio station on the planet.—Ed.] and helped our friend and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she was running for office. January 8, 2011, our world was shattered when Gabby and others were shot in a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson. It opened us up and connected us in a way that I would have never imagined. It changed our town forever and highlighted how important community is for healing and living together despite our differences. We offered our help through our music, and I’m grateful to have been part of the process of healing.
Friendship is what has connected us and sustained our band for the long haul. It’s a real gift to get to meet with musicians and continue on the path of being creative and supportive to one another. We’ve had some incredible shows in amazing places around the globe and from this point on I will be extremely grateful if we can keep it going and continue branching out with.
BLURT: Any pitfalls or downsides during that time as well?
JOHN: Well, life on the road can most definitely put you and your family through the meat grinder. There were times when we were overbooked, and overworked—it takes its toll, my friend, but we are living to tell, and that story continues to be told.
Calexico and Iron & Wine
BLURT: Tell me a little about the upcoming Years to Burn and connecting with Iron & Wine—maybe a little background on how that came to pass, and a bit of a preview of the upcoming tour with Sam.
JOEY: We’ve been throwing around the idea of doing another collaboration with Sam for a while. [In 2005 Calexico and Iron & Wine released the In the Reins EP.] Once we found a window of time, we jumped on it. We spent four or five days recording with Matt Ross-Spang at The Sound Emporium in Nashville with Rob Burger on keyboards, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and two of the other Calexico members—Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and vocal, as well as Paul Niehaus on some gorgeous pedal steel.
JOHN: Since we did In the Reins almost 15 years ago, we have always talked about doing it again, and just about when I thought it was never gonna happen, it happened! Sam was coming off his touring for Beast Epic and had a batch of songs he wanted to play with Calexico. So, we decided on Nashville, and along with Sam’s bass player Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist Rob Burger, Joey and I met up with Sam and recorded and mixed these songs in about five days. The tour should be fun—we have all been around the block multiple times now, up down and all around, so safe to say, we all look forward to those few hours on stage continuing the musical dialogue, try some new things, some new covers.
BLURT: What were some of your thoughts or emotions as you put last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of The Black Light together? And where were your heads originally at when making that album in 1998? I will always think of you guys in the context of my “desert noir” description, and how you’ve continued to tap that metaphysical vein with your music.
JOEY: Thank you so much Fred—you’ve always been a beacon and an inspiration. I love the “desert noir” term. Today I accidentally typed “Desert No Water” and was surprised how accurate that fits to not only the current state of things in the West and the growing importance of sustainable resources, but also the whole symbolism of why we do what we do. We venture out, despite the risks or the voices inside saying, “maybe it is time to do something else,” or “do people still want to listen to live and recorded music, enough to justify hopping in a van and seeing where the road will take you?” Back in 1998, we were mainly concerned with playing music and getting out on the road in whatever way possible. That spirit is still there, and it feels good releasing a 20th anniversary edition of an album that was our most intuitive and eclectic. I’m curious how it feels to audiences today.
JOHN: It was really nice to revisit The Black Light, especially since I live in El Paso now, which was home to Cormac McCarthy during his years of writing “The Border Trilogy,” which was, in part, the inspiration for some of the stories and lyrics on the record. Living here, in some ways, has brought to life a lot of what I could only imagine the border stories [while] living in Tucson or reading books, so listening back with what I know now, I feel the record still holds up, and hopefully will for years to come. I think what the music represents is much more important now than when we made the record. Musically, we were experimenting with what the studio could offer us, and the time and space of Tucson, which was a pretty small town back then.
JOEY: In 1998 we were lucky enough to find a few record labels that would take a chance on an album that didn’t conform to any one genre or style. We were just as mixed up with influences back then as we are now, but maybe the scope was more focused on our thrift store aesthetic than it has been more recently. It reads like a well-worn book you would find at a motel buried with old National Geographic magazines and paperback novels. Tucson has always been a cul-de-sac and spiritual corner that collects literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape. It’s a monumental valley of nostalgia that seeps into the cultural subconsciousness. If you like ghosts and graveyards, then this is the place for you. That was the vibe of downtown Tucson in the mid 1990’s. [He’s right.—Ed.] It was a great big canvas of empty warehouses and parking lots. I saw this corner of the world suspended in time. Contrast to that was the growing urban tribal art scene and university dropouts that made for some really creative tangents and creative directions. There was a little more grit in Tucson back in 1998, but it still resonates in a beautiful way here.
BLURT: If we count 1995’s self-released Superstition Highway cassette as the Calexico debut – or perhaps 1996’s Spoke, however, since it had actual distribution — that means 2020-2021 will mark your 25th anniversary. If so, any special plans or surprises in the works? Maybe a protest concert during the Republican national convention?
JOHN: There have been talks of re-releasing that and maybe doing a special show in Germany for Hausmusik, the label that put Spoke out originally. It would probably be better for us to stay out of politics, but it’s pretty much impossible these days—the division is so clear cut now, it’s easier than ever to make a choice.
JOEY: We plan to continue tour with Calexico and various collaborations for as long as the road will take us. There are no retrospective tours planned as of yet. I would rather focus on recording new ideas and touring with new projects. As for the political state of things, life is full of challenges on many levels, and with art, music, food, writing, dance, culture, comedy, film, we can embrace one another, listen to one another, and harmonize together. Definitely being a father is teaching me to be a better listener and to help take care of others. It’s basic, and each community that grows strong will help influence each, state, government and continent. My kids are worried about the health of the planet and I am too. I would love to keep finding ways to help thru music. That’s what I want to teach my kids.
BLURT: Lastly, tell me something surprising, unusual, or otherwise cool about Tucson these days that I probably don’t know and would be fun to share with Blurt readers…
JOHN: Well, Tucson has changed a lot since you left there, Fred. The downtown is totally happening, you can walk around and have everything you could possibly want. Here in El Paso, things are a little slower… we did just get these amazing refurbished vintage trolley cars that make a loop through our downtown, to the university, and along the border. That’s very cool. Come visit El Paso sometime— you would love it!
JOEY: In the past we’ve seen a wave of various businesses: Sonoran Hot Dog stands in empty dirt lots, tattoo parlors, mattress stores (some even across the street from one another!), barber shops, used car dealerships, pizza and hamburger joints. Tucson is a test market. One of the benefits is that we have a pretty good food scene here. In 2017 Tucson won the first UNESCO award for City of Gastronomy. I hope it continues growing in a thoughtful and healthy way.
Taking place Friday and Saturday of this week, May 31-June 1, in Canton, North Carolina, it features a slew of diverse artists—among them, Calexico, Milk Carton Kids, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Kat Wright. We talked to one of the festival organizers about its origins, its intention, and its overall success to date. (Above photo the official festival photo; image below, by David Simchock www.davidsimchock.com / courtesy CMMF)
BY FRED MILLS
The summer festival season begins anew—having already been sufficiently primed/goosed by numerous pre-summer festivals, which seem to occur earlier and earlier each year—with festival-goers and musicians alike fairly frothing at the mouth over, respectively, the ensuing fun-potential and the ridiculously easy paychecks.
One relatively young event is the two-day Cold Mountain Music Festival, May 31-June 1, occurring in Canton, North Carolina (specifically: 25 Wormy Chestnut Lane, Canton, NC 28716). Canton is about a half-hour west of Asheville, already renowned for its thriving music scene, and the hills of Western N.C. are similarly alive with the sound of music (to paraphrase a great philosopher). And as we pointed out not long ago here at BLURT, it’s to be “a tasting board of artists ranging from the folk, funk, Americana, bluegrass, and post-rock worlds, with highlights including Grammy-nominated alt-rockers the Milk Carton Kids, critically acclaimed “desert noir” duo Calexico, crowd-favorite jamgrass ensemble Yonder Mountain String Band, fast rising troubadour J.S. Ondara, “soul queen” Kat Wright, the equally Stax-worthy Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, and improvisational genre-benders Driftwood, among others.”
There’s an interesting angle here, too: the family-friendly camping festival, now in its third year and located in Pisgah National Forest at the wonderfully scenic Lake Logan, is put on by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in order to support the work of the ministries of the Lake Logan Conference Center and Camp Henry. Doesn’t exactly sound like your garden-variety sex/drugs/rock’n’roll gathering, where topless girls get hoisted upon the shoulders of their E-gobbling boyfriends and frats on leave from campus slam beer-bongs in between actual bong hits, eh?
I posed that question, or at least my somewhat toned-down version of it, to Lake Logan Conference Center’s Development Director Michelle Robinson, as I was curious to learn if the festival organizers have ever encountered raised eyebrows when informing someone about potential looming collisions between Dionysian youth practices and Faith-based church cultures. I got a firm “LOL” from her…
“We haven’t seen any of that,” chuckled Robinson. “I hope it’s respect for the place we are in and for those around us. If we are to continue to have this festival, we can’t have issues like drugs destroying the vibe. Christians are not excluded from liking good music, be it rock ‘n’ roll or any other. And we count it as a blessing that we have very poor Wi-fi here—people aren’t walking around with their faces in their phones. Instead, they are connecting with their neighbors and enjoying nature. It’s amazing to watch.”
In our conversation, Robinson professed to be a big fan of music festivals in general, adding that she has prior experience with large such events. She always had a hunch that the Lake Logan setting would be an ideal one for such a gathering, and explained that while the venue had always been used primarily for summer camp and church groups, “the festival arose as a thought between a few long-time supporters of Lake Logan and myself—I knew we could make it happen. My best friend is married to one of the Steep Canyon Rangers, so she was very helpful, as were the Rangers, with getting the first one going. We knew the location was perfect for it! It took a lot of work that first year from the entire planning committee, the Diocese staff and Lake Logan staff—I’m always afraid our head of facilities will retire! We have great people at Lake Logan and in the Diocese office in Asheville. Everyone works hard to make this a success.
“And there is a great deal of organization to it. I work for Lake Logan and Camp Henry, with support from the Episcopal Diocese of WNC. And Bishop José McLoughlin has been our strongest supporter. He understands our goal [is] to bring all people together in this place where all are welcomed. He lets us do the job and trusts us to make good decisions.”
Good decisions, indeed. Early on, the festival organizers determined that strategic partnerships would be key, and by the second year they had brought on well-respected and -connected Asheville concert promoter and talent buyer Jeff Whitworth, of Worthwhile Sounds, to help line up performers, along with Chad Stewart of Asheville’s Sound to coordinate the lighting and sound systems. (Robinson: “He’s the best, so that was an easy choice.”) Also in the mix now: Haywood County’s weekly newspaper the Smoky Mountain News, the Haywood Tourism Development Authority helping out with some of the talent costs, and the Haywood Sheriff Department for festival-related security and traffic control (not to mention accompanying bureaucratic hoops). Plus, plenty of participation from local breweries, food trucks, and regional merchants—crucial for probably every kind of music festival on the planet.
Robinson adds that another crucial element in mounting a solid festival is lining up sponsorships in order to cover the costs of the booking budget. “We have been successful financially so far,” she says. “It isn’t a huge profit yet, but we keep growing. We have many generous sponsors who come back year after year to help us make this happen. And the Haywood TDA gave us a grant this year that has been a huge help for getting great talent. In terms of genre, we stress that this festival is not a bluegrass festival. We love bluegrass and we have it on the schedule, but we don’t stop there. We want diversity in the music and in the musicians. This year, we have some great soul acts, Americana, folk, country, and bluegrass—and some that I’m not sure how to categorize, but it’s good music.”
And she’s quick to point out that the Cold Mountain Music Festival is intended to be more than simply musically inclusive:
“This festival sort of announced to the community that Lake Logan is open for all. We are not a private campus and we welcome all. You don’t have to be Episcopalian to be here. We host artist retreats, family reunions, private retreats, dancing, and the list goes on and on. Last year, our new-ish Executive Director, Lauri SoJourner, opened Lake Logan for annual memberships. That has been a huge success with our neighbors. People can come out for the day to enjoy the lake or to fish.
“We really do welcome all.”
For further reading about the festival, check out my interview with Joey Burns and John Convertino, of Saturday evening headliner Calexico, along with don’t-miss featured performer Kat Wright, who plays late afternoon on Saturday.. – FM
The newly christened music festival this weekend, stationed in Taos, New Mexico, is destined to turn (on) more than a few heads. Cofounders Dano Sanchez and Roman Barham explain.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Monolith on the Mesa is set to make history with their inaugural festival in Taos, New Mexico starting this Friday, May 17. Local news reports that with two days of heavy music, the mountains are already shaking and avalanche warnings have been posted. Doctors are on standby for people who might be affected by the cloud of mystical smoked herbs that will be billowing towards Santa Fe. Kids have been told not go to school until Monday.=
Joking aside, OM, Woven Hand, Dead Meadow, The Obsessed and a whole raft of heavy bands are set to rock the thronging masses literally and figuratively into a hallucinogenic miasma. Lucky for Blurt readers then that I caught up with Dano Sanchez and Roman Barham while they are still clear headed enough to ask them a few questions about the festival.
BLURT: What possessed you guys to create a rock music festival in Taos New Mexico?
DANO SANCHEZ AND ROMAN BARHAM: Well, Taos is a special place. When the Melvins played the Taos Mesa Brewing it was packed and Al Cisneros [of] (OM, Sleep) [we were talking at that show and were] like ‘you need to play here” and with that the idea was born. Taos Mesa Brewing is a very unique venue, next to the gorge bridge, at the base of the Sangre de Christos (blood of Christ) mountains all over seen by [the] Taos Pueblo, [which is over 1,000 years old]. It’s a heavy vibe and a high desert setting ripe for this festival.
BLURT: How hard was it to get funding?
Well this festival has some great sponsors but it is a festival born of ideas of limitless possibilities that Roman and I have created.
BLURT:What are some of the funding sources and sponsorships that is making it possible to hold the festival?
We have generous sponsors who share our vision and wanted to invest in the vision that is Monolith. Magical Tattoo, Black Arts Tone Works, Worshiper Cabinets, Music Go Round(Albuquerque), Taos Mesa Brewing, Hotel Luna Mystica, Arise Music & Coffee, Fly Pr, Blues Funeral, Heads Up Music (Taos), Kickstarter Music, Vans, The Coffee Apothecary (Taos), Magnetic Eye Records, Ripple Records.
BLURT: Who came up with the name Monolith on the Mesa and who designed the poster?
I did (Dano), I feel that Taos is a monolithic place that evokes limitless possibilities and being high in elevation the transmissions broadcast[ed] and receive[d] are really clear. The poster was designed by Simon Berndt – he organizes Endless Daze and [lives] in South Africa. [It’s a] great image to set the tone for our inaugural year.
BLURT:What were you looking for in terms of the bands you wanted for the festival? (When I look at the lineup I think it’s perfect for Northern New Mexico with its mystical psychedelic edge.)
First off we are fans of the heavy genre of music, all-encompassing genres. So we sculpted the show that we would want to see.It all started with OM, the rest was milled over and came to fruition and now we are weeks away from realization.
BLURT: Which band was the hardest to secure?
I’d say The Obsessed were pretty hard to nail down, but Wino and crew came thru!
BLURT: Musically how did you all decide the order of the bands and will you be filming this concert for future release?
That was hard to decide but we are really excited with the order that they are in. We hope to film portions of the show and there’s definitely videos coming to our YouTube channel.
BLURT: Were there any bands that you invited that had to cancel or were there any that you hope to get next year?
We had 2 drop and 2 new ones sign up. Sleep, Melvins, Mondo drag, are [the bands] who I would like to see, and seeing The Saviors play again would be killer! But we are focused on this year and making a great time for [both] artists and attendees.
BLURT: Who are you guys most looking forward to seeing?
Everyone really, that’s why we sculpted this line up. EYE is one I’m really looking forward to (Dano) and [of course] my all-time favorite, OM.
BLURT: In terms of creating the music festival what festivals did you draw inspiration from?
I really like old time carnivals so a little of that mixed with Stoner Hands of Doom.The idea that music inspires art inspiring music. Christian Ristow and Christina Sporrong are bringing their intense metal sculptures out that have interactive fire elements to them, along with The Ad Alchemist Liquid Light Show handling visuals on the outside stage. So [it’s] more [a] psychedelic carnival.
BLURT: How are ticket sales?
So far so good! We are going to have a great time.
BLURT: Tell us about how the location will be set up?
Taos Mesa Brewing is the main venue where there is a indoor stage(worshiper stage) and the outdoor “earthship” ampitheatre is outdoors.
BLURT: Is there camping?
Yes, the Hotel Luna Mystica compound is steps away where they have a vintage trailer park, as well as primitive camping areas.
BLURT Will there be security screening?
Yes, there is a safety factor. Everyone deserves to have a safe and fun time.
BLURT: Will the music be in tents as well as out in the open?
There will be the Bedouin tent on Hotel Luna Mystica property that will have a DJ set and also a small bar.
BLURT: What about facilities such as water and restrooms?
We will have restrooms at the brewery, as well as porta potties all around the compound. Water stations will be available as well as beverages for sale.
BLURT: Are there any decibel restrictions?
Yes there are, but not ‘til after midnight, so that’s why the outdoor ampitheatre shuts down at midnight. Lisa Bella Donna will be doing a first night wind down [Friday] night inside from 12-12:30 and our after party and wind down on Saturday is Lord Dying and Year of the Cobra inside from 12-1.
BLURT: How many people do you have working for the festival?
We have a great crew putting this together. Dano Sanchez, Roman Barham, Joel Meinholz are the main organizers, and we have a great team working hard on media, volunteers, box office, security and hospitality, along with the great crews [from] Taos Mesa Brewing as well as Hotel Luna Mystica.
BLURT: Have local businesses been supportive of your efforts?
We have had great support from local businesses. Next year we intend on [having] more community involvement and outreach.
BLURT: What sort of local vendors will you have on site and what sort of stuff will they be selling?
We will have vendors from all over as well as local ones, from artists doing live screen printing, jewelry, snack vendors, a bee lady, Wumaniti native earth sanctuary, coffee, record store, and many more.
BLURT: I’ve been to Taos and it’s a small town. Was it difficult to get the permits and was there any pushback from the locals or Native American community, given the Pueblo nearby?
Taos Mesa Brewing and Hotel Luna Mystica carry permits and work hard to pull off events. No blowback from the Taos Pueblo, we love the puebloans and want to encourage festival goers to visit the Pueblo and learn about the people that give this beautiful town its rich history.
BLURT: In terms of the Native American Community, what can we expect on that front – will there be any Native American musicians?
This year the way it worked out no, but next year we fully intend on having dancers, drum circles and bands as well.This year really happened so fast we filled up [really] quick. Lots of local New Mexican favorites tho.
BLURT: Taos and Northern New Mexico weather changes on a dime in May, so what are your contingency plans if it starts to snow or a sudden hail storm happens?
We are a rain, snow or shine festival. We suggest that you wear layers because of the shifts [in the] weather. [Best to] be prepared. We have [an] inside [venue] as well as tents that will be around as well as the safety of the trailers and personal tent and RVs.The Bedouin tent will serve as a [contingency in case of] extreme weather.
BLURT: Is it already decided that there will be a festival next year?
BLURT: Finally, when all is said and done what do you hope people leave Taos with?
An experience! With the crazy vibrations that are going out to the universe these days, we want to radiate positive high vibrations that reverberate unity, love and healing through art and music. I think that most people coming are seeking something out of the norm and this may just scratch that primal search for truth and belonging.Taos is Magical and transformative [place that] can have a lasting impact on people [making them want to] return. [There’s] no place like Planet Taos!
Big weekend in Atlanta the other weekend with Shaky Knees Music Festival at Central Park, and our longtime photographer John Boydston was there.
BY JOHN BOYDSTON
3 Days of Peace, Love, and Understanding – and plenty of people watching. He brought us photos, but this is by no means an exhaustive overview, but the best of the stages he got to. John says, “The most amazing thing about Shaky Knees is the people who make it happen, behind the scenes and the crowd that turns out. Plus the huge roster of indie, world, and better known acts. The music never stops and its the best of the best all around you.”
Day 1: May 3
The great artist known as Beck, his amazing band, and his massive crowd closing out Shaky Knees opening day.
Sharon Van Etten wows the main Peachtree stage Friday.
The Idles taking it to the crowd Friday at the Ponce de Leon Stage.
Foxing at the Criminal Records stage.
Thee Oh Sees and crowd surfers (Piedmont Stage)
I lost count of how many instruments Tash Sultana played during her solo set, but the music never stopped.
Liz Phair with her usual flair – looking and sounding better than ever on the Piedmont stage in the midday sun.
Brandon Boyd and Incubus.
Tears for Fears, a surprise hit of the day for my money – smiling and waving, and looking so fine. Huge crowd – penultimate act of the day on the Piedmont stage.
Day 2: May 4
Japanese Breakfast might have been my personal indie-rock find of the day (Piedmont Stage)
Bad Books features Kevin Devine and Andy Hull (of Atlanta’s own Manchester Orchestra) and has been around a while off and on. They should have a lot more fans after their great set here.
Two photos won’t do justice for The Struts and their big stage performance here. They lit it up. (It’s timely to be reminding people of Freddie Mercury’s stage greatness.)
Natalie Press ready for a little rain, that did get people wet later on.
Jim James and band bringing the heart-shaped rock. (Piedmont Stage)
Interpol (Peachtree Stage)
Jade Bird (Ponce de Leon Stage)
Lucy Dacus – Criminal Records Stage
The Murlocs from Melbourne, Australia
Group Love getting some on the Peachtree Stage.
Calpurnia featuring Finn Wolfhard, star of the Atlanta-filmed hit TV series “Stranger Things.”
DIdn’t expect to hear seriously good country music at Shaky Knees, but they are full of surprises here. Tyler Childers and band.
Tame Impala brings the visual storm and festival closing set Sunday night.
“The Scientists were fueled on negative energy—a negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way, and I think the result is intense energy.” (Special thanks to In The Red Records, which has just issued a new 12″ EP from the band. Above photo by John Boydston – also check out his BLURT photo gallery of the band’s April 21 Atlanta show. FYI, original Australian show handbills pictured below are from the band and fans back in the day, via the editor’s archives.)
BY FRED MILLS
That’s Kim Salmon speaking, and the co-founder/frontman of Australia’s skronky/swampy/fetid/feral Scientists pretty much nailed it, as American fans were also primed to learn this month when the band hit our shores for what was amazingly, only their second U.S. tour despite having a legacy that stretches back to the late ‘70s. They kicked things off April 11 in Chicago, headed across the midwest towards the northeast, dipped down through several southern states, and were set to wrap April 24 in L.A.
Interestingly enough, though, the above quote isn’t contemporaneous. Rather, it was plucked from an interview I published nearly three decades ago, in Philly rock zine The Bob, for whom I authored a regular column on Australian music, titled, appropriately enough, “The Wizards of Oz,” and which featured the Scientists and Salmon’s subsequent bands pretty much every time they emerged from a recording studio or embarked upon a tour.
Yet Salmon’s words ring truer than ever in 2019, as anyone who saw the group—Salmon, guitar/vocals; Tony Thewlis, guitar; Boris Sujdovic, bass; and Leanne Cowie, drums—on their much-belated initial American tour in the fall of 2018 will attest. There’s plenty of YouTube evidence from that U.S. sojourn as well, from the nihilistic sonic pipe bomb of “Set It On Fire” (originally appearing on 1983’s Blood Red River) and the dirty slapback punk of “Braindead” (the group’s recent 7” single for In The Red); to the dirty, Suicide-like mutant blues that is 1985’s “Murderess In A Purple Dress” and the group’s stone classic, “Swampland,” a throbbing slice of, yes, swampy glam that somehow manages to quote Sonic Youth, the Stooges, and T. Rex all in the same arrangement. The latter tune in particular is a force of nature, powered by Sujdovic’s relentless one-note bassline, Cowie’s equally hypnotic syncopated thump, Thewlis’ extemporaneous riffing, and Salmon’s dissonant-twang responses plus yipping/howling vocals.
Not bad for a group that was deemed out and down for the count in 1987, when Salmon, exhausted by the legal and label troubles they’d endured since relocating from Australia to London three years earlier, decided to pull the plug. He’d been helming the band since its Flamin’ Groovies/New York Dolls-esque early incarnation circa 1978-80 and through myriad lineup changes that would eventually see the arrival of Thewlis, Sujdovic, and late drummer Brett Rixon, considered by most to be the Scientists’ classic lineup; a subsequent embrace of a darker, swampier, noisier vibe heavily influenced by the aforementioned Suicide and Stooges alongside the Cramps and the Gun Club; and the London move, which found them touring with the Gun Club as well as the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie & the Banshees, but never truly providing the musicians much more than a just-scraping-by level of income. And despite a growing American fanbase, a general level of disorganization for the Scientists meant that a theoretically lucrative tour of the States was never really an option. Meanwhile, their Australian fanbase had gradually withered during their protracted absence from their homeland.
Still, like elephants, rock fans have a unique ability to never forget. And somehow, over the years the Scientists had cultivated a core following that included far more prominent personalities than just yours truly and my fellow fanzine scribes; think Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Indeed, several Scientists reunions at the behest of their acolytes—2006 for the Mudhoney-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in London, the following year’s ATP festival, a few Australian dates in 2008 with Sonic Youth, and appearances at ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series in 2008 and 2010—suggested that the Scientists’ beaker was still very much capable of boiling over.
Salmon, on the eve of the band’s 2019 American tour and reflecting on that dark late ’80s period now, explains, “I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight, out of mind! Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK…”
Read about the entire tale below. With the kind assistance of In The Red, I conducted an email interview with Salmon prior to the band leaving Australia and heading to the States. (Portions of this conversation previously appeared in the April edition of Atlanta music mag Stomp & Stammer, as the band’s US tour itinerary took them to Atlanta for shows on April 20 and 21.) As mentioned, their final show will be this Wednesday in Los Angeles, although they will also be back in early July for the Burger Records 10-year anniversary bash.
Ultimately, the Scientists have been an ongoing entity once again since the tail end of 2017 and not simply a vehicle for one-off festival performances. The previous year saw the release of Numero Group’s superb career-summarizing Scientists box set, A Place Called Bad (reviewed by yours truly here), while newcomers to the gospel can also consult Sub Pop’s easily found 1991 compilation CD, Absolute, which distilled the group’s essential mid ‘80s output. The group has also issued new singles on both In The Red and Spains’s Bang! label, along with the just released 12” EP for In The Red titled 9H2O.SiO2.
BLURT: First things first. I wrote about the Scientists and interviewed you back in the ‘80s, and then we finally met around 1996 when the Surrealists came to Club Congress in Tucson; our mutual friend, and massive Salmon/Scientists fan, music publicist Michele V had arranged for us to connect. And then, a few years ago, you and I did an interview for BLURT about the Darling Downs. So, in one sense, you and I go pretty far back. One of these days we’ve got to sit down and do some serious drinking! At any rate, going back to that US tour by the Surrealists, in your liner notes to your ’97 Surrealists album Ya Gotta Let Me Do My Thing, you mention that the tour seemed to energize you, songwriting-wise, so much so that you were eager to go into the studio when you got home. Does touring still affect you that way? Have you been able to stockpile a lot of new material?
KIM SALMON: Fred, you’ve probably contributed a fair deal to the Scientists being present in the US these days! And yes, some serious drinking is in order… I think what I was referring to was more the freeing up of the creative process with a fresh lineup and the touring that greeted that lineup. The Surrealists’ first lineup was a mighty band, but for various reasons it’d grown tired and stale. I don’t tend to stockpile material; I prefer to just write when the need arises. I’ve probably made way too many records for how many I can sell, ha! The new record [9H20.Si02, on In The Red] isn’t strictly an album, but a 12 EP. I’ve done my best to stay true to what the Scientists are while still trying to push its boundaries. It’s a line to walk. The trick I think is not to worry too much about ‘the formula’ but to allow the uniqueness of the band members to show through. (Below: sleeve of new 12″ EP, 9H2O.SiO2, issued by In The Red.)
While the band did a number of reunion shows between 2006 and 2010, this time it seems to be sticking, as the Scientists have been touring relatively steadily since late 2017. Does it feel different this time around, and if so, what do you attribute this to?
I think it’s been a matter of unearthing the unique elements of what the band was back in the day without necessarily trying to replicate “the day.” Things’ll never be the same, but we seem to have gotten closer to the core of what the Scientists was. It was always hard to locate, but we seem to be digging it up and reveling in it. (Below photo by Denee Segal / courtesy In The Red)
Relatedly, then, talk a little about what each member brings to the table, both onstage and in the studio? Tony and Boris, of course, have a lot of history with you.
Tony is a totally unique guitarist. Incredibly proficient but completely unschooled. There is not another player remotely like him. The irony is that one feels he’d be happy to replicate the stuff that he loves and isn’t that aware of how much better he is doing his own thing, good as he is at replicating. He used to be a crazy whirling dervish on stage and was often the visual focus of the band. These days his crazy energy is focused more specifically on his sounds and less visual, though he does exude charisma non the less. I think his creative input is almost as a foil to mine. He claims to have gotten many George Harrison, Slade and Glitter Band licks past my ears un-noticed!
I think we’re a classic case of one of those bands where each member tries to destroy the initial idea with their stamp without realizing that this destructive energy is the creative force of the band—like the Sex Pistols, for instance. Jones simplified Matlock’s pop complexities into a hard rock slab, while Rotten’s highly content-driven lyrics completely subverted the band from sounding far more pedestrian, like Free or something.
Boris is the minimalist drive within the band. It was him that reduced “Swampland” to a pulsing one-note bass riff for the most part. His playing is deceptively basic sounding. No one has ever replicated the nuances that make what he does—the very core of the Scientists. I’ve been playing alongside Boris more than other players. Although the band is essentially a democracy, Boris and I tend to work together and determine our strategies with regards to touring, presentation, recording.
Leanne is our link to what Brett Rixon did. The rhythm was what made Scientists Mach 2 different from every other post-punk band around. When Brett left the band in 1985, we tried numerous drummers, all of them very proficient and capable of making a big contribution to the band. However, we simply weren’t able to bring on the “chemistry” with any of them, and we ended up getting Leanne, [at the time] our tour manager, into the band, as she had recently bought Brett’s kit and taught herself the drums entirely from his recordings and having watched him. Her first gig was at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow when we supported Siouxsie and The Banshees on their ’85 UK tour. By the end of the tour she had mastered the groove, albeit in a streamlined way. The chemistry was restored. This kind of tenacity cannot be bought or even found very often.
Tell me then—why were the Scientists unable to tour the US during the 1981-87 run? There was definitely a fanbase here…
It really was a case of too many things going wrong for us. We had LOADS of record company, and touring, interest, and despite some detractors, a LOT of UK press. Rixon leaving was the first problem, then we had a huge row with our Australian record label, and it was impossible to move. We had based ourselves in London from 1984. Just being around and surviving in order to try to capitalize on what was being handed to us took all our energy. We couldn’t just serve anything up. We needed authenticity and we were acutely aware of that and what’s more weren’t interested in being something else anyway.
In 1986 Boris had visa problems and had to leave [England]. We replaced him, but it never was as good without him and actually became a drain. We managed to revitalize things very briefly with a complete change of members—me switching to bass and going 3-piece with a friend of mine. It was Tony, Nick Combe on drums, and me. We recorded [1987’s] The Human Jukebox before disintegrating in a blaze of anarchy. It’s certainly a worthy album and as authentically “Scientists” as anything we’ve done, but this lineup was never going to last. It was actually MORE self-destructive than the “classic” lineup.
Could you briefly recount how you remember the initial breakup, and what, if anything, could have convinced you to stick together?
Our legal problems were a HUGE drain and refused to go away. I ended up back in Perth with a very heavy heart, and only by moving on with the Surrealists and the Beasts of Bourbon was I able to feel any kind of lightness in my life.
The only thing that would have worked would be for the legal stuff to be lifted and being given lots of money to function and record and live off. That just wasn’t going to happen back then
Have you been surprised at the level of interest in the band recently? What were you expecting from audiences when you finally mounted a proper tour of US for the first time, and were your expectations met?
I was partially prepared for a number of reasons. I had known that there was interest in the band from people like Jon Spencer and Mudhoney. I had management in the US for a while from 1995, and toured in 1996 with the Surrealists. That’s when I realized that there was a considerable cult following all ‘round the country. With the Scientists’ absence over such a long period, I was prepared for the mythology that had grown around us to perhaps not match the reality. I was always mindful that people might think they were getting more, or less, than they’d bargained for. I’ve always been confident that the Scientists is actually more than people tend to expect. Its more complex and extreme in the flesh. It certainly is apart from something as simple as a Cramps or Stooges style “garage rock” outfit.
On one level, the Scientists are elder statesmen of Australian rock, originally emerging at a key moment when a lot of bands were forming and some were getting a good bit of recognition internationally. Yet my impression is that the band never got the proper amount of respect in Australia during that initial 1981-87 run, despite your being a remarkably unique group that was sonically set apart from its peers. (Editorial aside: Indeed – when I was penning the above-mentioned Australian music column for US zine The Bob, on several occasions I received letters from Australian readers who had noted my, ahem, mild obsession with the Scientists and took me to task for championing a band that, in their opinion, were no longer relevant in terms of all things Down Under.)
I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight out of mind. Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK.
The only touring we did after that was actually after the band had imploded – a couple of gigs in Perth and Sydney early 1987, and a tour with the Human Jukebox lineup later in the year (which was NOT appreciated, as it was different from the “Swampland” band). I think the main thing that set us apart from a lot of our peers was our intention to be unique. Many of the Australian bands that we’ve been lumped in with, we feel nothing in common with, as these were bands that fitted neatly into a garage rock subgenre.
Lastly, and kind of as an aside, I love the Kim & Leanne LP (True West, 2014) and would dig a Volume 2 from you. (More recently, there was also a reunion of the mighty Beasts of Bourbon, as The Beasts, and also an album for Spain’s Bang! label, Still Here.) What’s next for you in terms of solo records, non-Scientists stuff, and performances?
At the moment I’m really just thinking of coming up with Scientists material. It’s way harder to write that stuff than any of the other stuff I do! But also, I do have a couple of solo tracks I’m going to record for a 7” in June. It’s to go with the release of a biography about me in November.
I tend to write material when it’s needed rather than all the time. A bit like a mechanic who doesn’t work on his own car. However, I think I’ll be playing in the US with and without the Scientists over the next few years a bit more—which will eventually mean I’ll need to record some more solo stuff, which is sort of exciting for me. Actually, I’m looking at some US solo dates after Burger Boogaloo [July 6-7 in Oakland, hosted by John Waters and featuring Jesus & Mary Chain, Scientists, Dead Boys, and more]. The solo shows may be just me or with a band or both.
The Kim and Leanne project was really intended to give Leanne and me gigs to do in the absence of the Scientists. It was sort of meant to be what the kind of material the Scientists might do if they were around still… and now that the Scientists are, any Kim and Leanne material would be Scientists material!
Below, check out the band doing their classic “Swampland,” recorded by a fan in the audience on April 15, 2019, in Brooklyn, followed by “Solid Gold Hell” April 20, 2019 in Atlanta. They still got it.
“Check your ego at the dressing room.” The Charleston folk/rock/Americana duo talks their new album, the hometown music festival they are curating, their concert film, and their upcoming children’s book—plus their own children, and what’s entailed with taking ‘em on the road with Mom and Dad. Currently on tour “forever,” you can check tour dates here.
The wife/husband duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have just premiered their live concert movie, “Shovels & Rope: The Movie.” They’re also just weeks away from hosting their third annual High Water Festival in nearby North Charleston, SC – a music fest they helped create, curate and play in. Meanwhile, their new LP, By Blood, comes out this month. Oh, and the parents of two toddlers are also working on a children’s book based on the song “C’mon, Utah!” off their new record.
So, yeah, it’s a busy time to be a member of Shovels & Rope.
Trent and Hearst are about to hit the road on a series of tour that will have them crossing the country for the better part of the spring and summer. The two took time recently to talk about all of those projects and the realty of being rock star parents.
Blurt: There’s a lot to talk about here, but let’s start off with the movie. How did this come about?
Trent: We were going to put out a live thing; we filmed two nights at The Orange Peel in Ashville (NC), and we were just going to put it out as a live concert, and the guy who filmed it, he’s a super creative guy. And we were talking about how those films can be boring even if they sound really great. It’s not the same as going to a concert, being immersed in it with other people around you; a lot of times these things can come off as a little flat. So, he decided to make it into a movie and weave some narratives in between the song, get actors and come up with a story. So, that’s what we did.
Blurt: And it just premiered in front of an audience, right?
Hearts: It did. The Charleston Film Festival took place a few weeks ago and our little art house theater here showed it one night. So, some 400-odd people saw it on a big screen. We’ll be distributing it through our website.
Blurt: That must be pretty odd. I know you play in front of hundreds of people every night, but to be sitting in the audience and looking at yourselves up on a theater screen…
Hearst: We skipped it. That’s the kind of thing we can’t handle.
Trent: We thought it might be a little much. And we were working on it up until the night before. Our manager did all the sound design and Curtis Millard, the director, they were over at our studio until 6 in the morning of the day we had to bring the file over to the theater. I think it went well. This is our hometown and we have a lot of friends and family here, so it was definitely an easy place to show it.
Hearst: The harsh judgment is yet to come.
Blurt: You also have the third Highwater festival coming up. You two play plenty of festivals. How did that idea to host you own festival come about? It seems like a lot of work.
Hearst: It’s funny you said that. When they first came to us, we said, “Um, that sounds like a lot of work.” The cool thing is that we partner with our management and the production company that brought you Bonnaroo and some shows. Working with them and having our manager coordinate the heavy lifting, Michael and I, our job is to help curate the talent, pick out the bands we like and the overall vibe and culture of the festival. We wanted to create a festival that would bring national touring acts to Charleston, which is considered more of a secondary or tertiary market. We thought we could serve the area by bringing in national acts, and you can bring your kids and have a good time.
Trent: And there’s not all of these bands on different stages playing at the same time competing with each other.
Blurt: I’m assuming it’s got to be pretty fun sitting down and thinking about who you want to invite to play.
Trent: It is! There are a lot of festivals that I feel have very similar line-ups and they all work together and ours is just one festival that has its own line-up. It’s very cool to be allowed to do that. We have this running list of bands that we love, or that we know, or have run in to that we want to get down here. That list is about a mile long and keeps growing.
Blurt: On the new record, I wanted to ask about the title track, “By Blood.” Can you talk a little but about the meaning behind that song?
Trent: That was a song about our daughter and it’s from my perspective. As a parent, it gets complicated, you try and bond with your family and your newborn, and as a dad, it’s just not time for you yet. They need mom and they want mom, but you try and share the weight and everybody’s tired.
Hearst: I’m listening to you and thinking of how sweet it is. There’s a certain amount of rejection I think daddies experience when they’re trying to establish an emotional rapport with their new children.
Trent: It’s interesting, we started this thing a few years ago and we weren’t too sure how far it would go or where it would go and now it’s what we do as a family all together. We live half our life on the road and it’s very, for us, a family thing.
Blurt: Also, off the new record, the song “C’mon Utah!” is being turned into a children’s book, right?
Trent: It is. That’s actually a song that we made this surrealistic story about a magic horse that was reuniting families that have been split up by this wall. It was written way before anything got crazy in the news. This horse is a simple metaphor for hope when everyone feels lost and doesn’t know what to do. This horse appears and knows the way. I think this was actually the first song that was written for this record. After the fact, we had one of our friends – he’s a painter and good friend from way back. He used to work at a restaurant with Cary Ann. We got him on board to make a little graphic novel out of it.
Blurt: When is that coming out?
Hearst: that’s still very much a work in progress. We’re working on the illustrations now. People are going to want to know what the song is about, and a lot of families listen to our music together so we thought maybe an illustrated copy of the lyrics would be a great way to start a conversation with their kids. I figure by summer or fall, when we do our big headlining run later in the year, it should be knocking around by then.
Blurt: Is it tough nowadays not to let politics and what’s going on in the news dominate the songs you write?
Hearst: I would say, it doesn’t necessarily dominate, but it is impossible to ignore it. As parents and as creatives I feel there is a bit of a moral role not to ignore it. We never censor ourselves or what’s in our heart and we always try and let that come across in our songwriting. We don’t want to stand in the way of our inner voice. When we perform our concerts, we have a big mix of people and we’re not preachy. Whether you agree with our politics or not, you’re probably at the show to relax. But with everything that’s going on in the world, it’s impossible to ignore it. In the song “Hammer” and the song “Utah,” they can’t help but come through.
Trent: We like to put these things out and with all of the sensitivities there, we don’t want to pander to anybody, but it’s like being with your family – not everybody agrees on everything and you all still love each other and try to inhabit this space together.
Blurt: You recorded this in a home studio, right?
Trent: We did. We’ve always recorded everything at home. I think with Little Seeds, we had just had our daughter and it was a mess. It was “how can we possibly do this?” She didn’t like to sleep and when she did sleep, we were “how can we possibly go and record drums and guitar. We didn’t think this through.” We learned a lot and ended up building something in our back yard, so that now we have the work zone and our house, and we can leave the toys and a lot of that craziness of homelife over there and get some things done.
Blurt: With two kids now, have you figured out that exact right blend yet of working and family time?
Hearst: Oh yeah. I think we used to look down on that a little bit when we were young punks, on office hours. Now I completely get it.
Trent: I do think, and maybe it’s an age thing also, there’s not really that “oh, a song just came to me at this moment and I have to stop everything to work on it.” I do think there’s a lot to be said for just showing up to the page. If you put in those hours, you’re going to come up with something.
Blurt: Have you figured out how to tour yet with two kids?
Hearst: We’ve never had two out on the road yet, but basically, we’re on a bus now and everybody on the bus loves the kids and you have a great nanny. Michael and I got our rock and roll out years ago before becoming parents on tour. But even then, it takes some adjusting. When the show is over, it doesn’t matter if it was the best show ever and everyone wants to hang out until 3 a.m. high fiving you, you’re next day is going to start out at 7 am and your child is not going to give a shit how great your show was and who all was there to say you were great. That child wants to play with you, wants breakfast and to talk about cartoons with you. Go ahead and check your ego at the dressing room.
The Canadian songstress, who recently wowed audiences at SXSW, talks about her new album, her Inuit heritage, her love of folk music, and all things Canadian. Check out contact info and tour dates here.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Hailing from northern Quebec, Inuit singer/songwriter Elisapie reflects a cross-section of cultures and languages in her music. Her stark, lovely new album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, was nominated for a Juno award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. In addition, Elisapie has branched out into documentary filmmaking. In her interview, she discusses the nuances of languages vis a vis performing and the process of keeping indigenous Canadian culture alive.
Can you tell me how you started about your musical background, how you started performing?
I started, you know, learning the guitar. And of course, loving folk music. This is naturally what I did until I moved to Montreal when I was 22, 23, and then I met a guy who was a musician/composer, and he heard my voice, my little demo I had done and said, “Let’s work together.” I was like, “Oh my god really? You want to work with me?” And two years later, we came out with an album.
One thing I notice is that you’ve recorded in English, in French, and in Inuktitut (the native Inuit language). Did you grow up speaking all three languages?
No, not at all. I spoke Inuktitut. And then English came much later on–the TV and music, of course, that’s like in my teens. We had the chance to learn French because we’re in the Quebec Province. I was maybe about seven years old when we started, you know, going to school in French with a French teacher. But yeah, I mainly spoke Inuktitut. We speak our language still up to now.
But yeah, musically, I think Anglophone music, I guess Americana sound, it’s a very natural place for me to go to when I have to write songs. They’re usually very naturally in English.
I listened to “Ton Vieux Nom.” That was a little reminiscent of Francoise Hardy. I wondering if you ever listened to those kinds of artists?
You know what? I think naturally in my mind when I sing, I hardly sing in French. Once in a while. Like I have one song in my album. There’s something so, I guess, romantic in you know, the language and it’s, it’s such a complicated, very, not strict, but there’s so many rules….You have to be very precise. So, it’s really hard for me to work on a French song. But this one was very special because when I want to express something that is about my culture and about being from the north and the dualities we have with the south, naturally, it’s fun doing that in French, because I guess French have a very different view than us, even from Anglophone speakers.
When people think of Canadian music or Canadian culture, I think they tend to forget about northern Canada, the area you grew up in.
Well, Canadians tend to forget about the north also. They absolutely have no idea most of the time. Also, because they don’t really want to start the conversation about that, because they don’t want to be seen as ignorant. So, it becomes this cycle where they’re just not, you know, they know more about Africa or Asia. And I’m like, why is that? I mean is it because it’s cold, because we’re so far away that people tend to think that it’s like this image of people living in the igloos when it’s no longer that? So, it’s very weird. And people are very, very curious.
But yet there’s a lot of ignorance still, but it’s coming. It’s a lot better… I mean, I started my career about 15 years ago and I’m happy to be talking about music before I have to do a one-on-one Inuit culture. It became kind of frustrating. Hopefully with the technology and Google people will be a little bit more aware. Because it is a land where people lived since way before settlers came in.
Do you find that you get a lot of people come up to you and ask you like, you know ask you about Inuit culture and the indigenous people?
Of course. You know, we never wanted to make music to politics, but in a way we kind of are forced to because anything we do now is political. Also, the new revival, new movement where we’re finally…acknowledging that we deserve equal representation in Canada, anywhere, and that’s very new.
You know, it’s not long ago, people were still thinking that they don’t have a voice, but now I think the young people are totally taking back what was also kept on the side. Rituals are coming back because we need to heal, you know, we’ve gone through so much. So, it’s a very beautiful place to be right now as an indigenous person.
It’s still a struggle in many places. There is still huge, huge, huge racism towards kids who are very innocent, towards so many people, just because people don’t want to see them and it’s like, why? They were put on reserves when this was the land. Their spiritual side was so connected to everything that’s in the territories, animals. So yeah, a lot of broken people, but I think our voice is starting to be heard.
We finally can understand but we have as much value as any other people living in Canada. And hopefully this is what’s going on in the States too.
Another question that I have is the indigenous languages. Do you find you think there’s also a push to keep those languages alive?
Oh, my God. It’s very important to, because a lot of people were, a lot of people don’t speak their language anymore. First of all, not so long ago, kids were sent to residential schools. And the first thing–I mean kids who are so innocent from five years old too, you know–punished for speaking a word of their language. So this became like a very strict military-like life for them.
So, let alone, they felt numb and they couldn’t express their feelings. But also, you know first thing is to make them lose their language, also make them feel ashamed of their culture. Our parents, grandparents, our uncles, so we really feel for them. I think it’s kind of our responsibility to really take the time and know that while this was taken away, it’s our right to try to bring it back. So, there’s a lot of initiatives to do programs, to do different activities around the communities to bring a way to promote our culture and our language.
Just curious: you’ve also made documentary films, haven’t you? Could you tell me about that?
Yeah, I’ve done a short, 27-minute documentary film a little over 10 years ago now. It’s called “If the Weather Permits”….It’s a documentary that’s talking about the duality of the young versus the elders and you know, traditional and modern world and how we try to, you know, fill that gap, because there is a gap, so it was really important for me to talk about that through my grandfather, who’s passed away and some archives of him, also. It’s a very personal film but yet very, very much of reality.
So yeah, since it’s been almost actually fifteen years of that film, I’ve been doing a billion things here and there, but mainly touring, so the next year-and-a-half is going to be going back to making films again. So, I’m really, really excited.
Pinned to the mat during this year’s SXSW in Austin, the rollicking rockers tag-teams on everything from songwriting and singing to advice for young musicians and a certain famous sibling.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Take one vivacious country-rockabilly chanteuse who released her first recordings 50 years ago. Add one Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter with a knack for smart lyrics. The result is Wild! Wild! Wild! (Bloodshot) by Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis. Rollicking roots-rock is the prevailing sound, but the album’s thirteen tracks include black comedy (“Till Death”), country-soul (“Foolmaker”), and wistful balladry (“Hardluck, Louisiana,” inspired by Lewis’s childhood). As their joint interview shows, Fulks and Lewis are in perfect sync as musical partners.
Could you tell me about how your collaboration came about?
Linda: We got to be friends. We worked for the same promoter and I’m a fan of Robbie’s. I went to his gig and met him. Then we ended up staying in the same place for a little while and we got to know each other, and Robbie had the idea of working together. I thought it was a great idea. I still do! (laughs)
A lot your previous work, Linda, consists of you doing duets and harmonizing with your brother [Jerry Lee Lewis] and with Van Morrison. What does it feel like to step out as a front woman and sing these songs as a soloist?
Linda: It feels really great, and I really appreciate how that Robbie has written really great songs for me to sing. But, you know, it’s like my old friend Dan Penn once said: “It all starts with a song.” And now I have the best songs that I have ever had in my life. So, I’m very happy about that.
Robbie, could you tell me a bit about the songwriting process for the album?
Robbie: It was just like any other songwriting deal for me, which is going into a dark room and waiting for something to swim into vision and then follow it through and throw ninety percent of it away. I mean that’s kind of my process. And so with her, there was the added element of working with biographical details from her life, which is helpful, because it helps you zero in on what you’re writing about and what the goal is. And you’re hearing her voice sing the song, so that also helps to narrow it down. And it was a lot of fun to write. I think my proportion was better writing for this than usual. In other words, I think that there was maybe a forty or fifty discard rate. We recorded a lot of what I wrote.
So, you were writing a lot of the songs with Linda’s voice in mind?
Robbie: Yeah, yeah. And contrary to what you implied a moment ago, she does have, she has a ton of solo work behind her. I know when she does the duo work, it can be more prominent, because her duo partners are sometimes famous, but she’s been doing a lot of solo work for the last 30, 35 years.
Sorry about that, Linda!
Linda: No, no, no! I’m fine! I had a long career being my brother’s backing vocalist and doing just a couple of songs to open for him and then doing duets with him. We had a duets album [Together, released 1969] that I was really proud of. So, for 15 years, that’s what I did. And then I took off 10 years to be at home with my children and then I went back on the road and ended up singing with Van Morrison. And now I’m having the most fun I‘ve ever had singing with Robbie. Don’t tell my brother that I said that! (laughs) I love my brother so much but you know, Robbie and I work so well together. It’s been a real joy.
(to Linda) I’m curious: when it comes to working with other people and doing duets, was there any advice that your brother gave you in that regard?
Linda: Well, you know that my brother is so different from anybody else that he’s not that easy to sing with so that but, you know, it’s easy for me to sing with Robbie. It’s much easier. And of course, singing with Van Morrison was just about impossible. It was hard with my brother, impossible with Van, and now it’s easy for me to sing with Robbie.
One thing I noticed, what did it feel like for you to be singing songs that, in some ways, were drawn from your own life? And suddenly realize, “Hey, that is my experience.”
Linda: We had to work on that because I would become very emotional when I was singing “Hardluck, Louisiana.” So, I actually had to sing it quite a few times and even in two different studios to really get the vocal that that we like. And it was because the song, when I’m singing it, I have a tendency to forget that I’m singing and just become an emotional person, which is not what you can do. Then your vocal will suffer.
I wanted to ask you, Robbie, about “I Just Lived a Country Song.” I mean there’s definitely this sort of tongue and cheek element to some of the songs as well. Like that one is the best example.
Robbie: I think that’s in the tradition, and that’s what drew me to country music a long time ago, when I was young, was that you could be you could be totally comical and just goofball and cornpone, and you can be the opposite end. You can sing about the death of a child…the most serious subjects in the world. And then you could be in between. You could sing kind of ironically in that song with a little bit of self-conscious irony. I like that open-ended range. That comedy is feasible and that you can also just stare into the abyss and confront things. I love that about country lyrics. I think those and Broadway lyrics I think are just incomparable for lyrical depth in popular music.
I think that really that wit is sometimes overlooked in country music. You even look at songs like “I’m Going to Hire a Wino to Redecorate Our Home.”
Robbie: Exactly. And I think there are probably modern examples we can pick off country radio right now. As horrible as a lot of that music is, there is still a lot of attention to lyrics in country music and the stories are still pretty good sometimes, and the sense of humor is still there. I complain about the new music but there is still some residual intelligence and humor from the old days.
Is there any advice that you guys would give for up-and-coming musicians?
Linda: Try not to get discouraged. It’s easy to get discouraged. I think the hardest part of it is that you get rejected so much in the beginning. I think the rejection part of it is the toughest. Anybody starting out, they need to brace themselves, because they’re gonna get their heart broken for sure.
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