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.
The Mountain of Mott the Hoople ‘74 (aka MTH74) gave all the dudes and dudettes what they wanted…. and then some…. on April 1 in Milwaukee and April 3 in Chicago.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY MARTY PEREZ
For MTH74’s eight date run, The Rant Band helped Ian Hunter make this, the first US Mott the Hoople get together, a true special event. The tour’s been welcomed with open arms and hearts by many faithful Mott fans (a most loyal lot, by the way.)
MTH74 Chicago, IL. 04-03-2019
Many of these fans are back to see Mott because they’d sold their tickets after Queen, the 1974 opener, left the tour—either disappointed at the thought of Aerosmith and Kansas as openers, dates being changed, or figured they’d catch Mott on their next go around.
MTH74 Chicago, IL. 04-03-2019
Ian’s Rant Band of James Mastro, Steve Holly, Mark Bosch, Paul Page, and Dennis Dibrizzi made this outing possible, having backed Ian since 2015. They’re the solid foundation which allows the three original ’74 veteran Hooples—Hunter, Morgan Fisher, and the mad wiz kid, Aerial Bender—to color and embellish the ’74 repertoire to its fullest potential.
Impeccable song selection and presentation kept show energetic, buoyant, and seemingly spontaneous.
To all: thanks for getting the band back onto the bus and back on the road; it meant a lot to us dudes and dudettes…
The virtuoso guitarist formerly from Angel Vivaldi talks about his more recent instrumental outfit Etherius, pondering a solo career, touring and promotion, and much more. Above photo from Tarantino’s Facebook page.
BY TIFFINI TAYLOR
Jay Tarantino is best known for his touring work with Angel Vivaldi, but many do not know exactly how talented this musician is. In 2017 he formed the band ETHERIUS, an instrumental heavy ensemble that will make everyone take notice. There is room for everybody in the music industry including great metal bands and beyond.
Jay Tarantino’s career has been everything from a touring musician, to being in different bands, to studio work, and now having his own band, his musicianship is like no other. He is talented not only in guitar playing but also in composition of music. This is a talent and a gift that is what keeps music going in a world full of other musicians not composing and not taking chances, Jay Tarantino is a good dose of what the music industry needs. Etherius is a band that consists of Jay Tarantino, drummer Zak Ali, bassist Chris Targia, and guitarists John Kiernan. Blurt Magazine got to speak with Jay Tarantino about the new band, new album, and everything else that is Jay Tarantino.
Blurt: How was the band, Etherius, formed?
Jay Tarantino (JT): “Originally the music on the Thread Of Light EP, I was going to put out a solo album. I wasn’t going to do a band. In 2016 I started writing music. I was looking for a drummer and I went out to California in January of 2017 and I happened to bump into Zaki, our drummer. He and I are from the same area of New Jersey, so we came up with each other in the metal scene of New Jersey, so we actually started talking about working on a project together. I told him “hey I have some songs here, I’ll send them to you and let me know what you think”, and he really liked them and he started working on some ideas on his own with drums. He and I started working on the songs, jamming on the songs and pre-production on the songs, then Chris came into the band. Chris and I played in a band previously so I’ve known him for like 8 or 9 years, this kind of music is really like his kind of style and he fit perfectly that’s when he came on board. John, our other guitarist, he came on just because I would see him around in shows and I saw him perform and I thought he was a great player and again we had talked about maybe doing something together so that was that”
Blurt: Where did the name Etherius come from?
JT: “Originally we wanted to call the band, we went through hundreds of band names -we spent months on this, and originally we wanted to call the band Etheria and I can’t even remember where I got it from. I know its like some kind of tv show in the Philippines or something, I thought it sounded cool and then I did some research and found out that there was actually a band already called Etheria and they’re signed to a label so we couldn’t really use that. Etherius, I think Chris our bass player just came up with it one night or he found it somewhere and we all thought it was a cool name so we kept it and found out that there was no band that had that name so we were like alright we are going to use that instead.”
Blurt: Your band has been referred to as progressive or neo-classical, what would you consider yourselves?
JT: “I think we are a metal band. Those are all accurate descriptions, neo-classical, a little power metal, thrash, a little prog, its like I don’t think we go to far in any of those one directions, we kind of blend them altogether and give a little hint of each style. But yeah those are all accurate. I mean I grew up on thrash metal so like that’s always going to be a part of the music whatever project I’m involved in. Its always going to be some thrash element to it but yeah neoclassical, thrash, progressive it is all accurate it all describes the music perfectly.”
Blurt: Here’s a question Slayer or Anthrax?
JT: (laughs a little) “I’m gonna go with Anthrax. “
“I never met anybody from Anthrax but I don’t know, I was always more partial to John Bush than Joey. And everybody kills me for it, like how could you –I don’t know, I like it all but I’m partial to John Bush era.”
Blurt: How old were you when you began playing guitar?
JT: “Let’s see I was 13. Like the end of ’97 when I started playing.”
Blurt: What kind of guitar do you play?
JT: “I’m currently endorsed by Kiesal guitars, they used to be carbon, I’ve been playing those exclusively for the past couple of years.”
Blurt: You have been playing in bands and a touring musician as far as playing with Angel Vivaldi, what is the difference that you‘ve noticed in the music industry being in both?
JT: “I would say it is a lot more competitive. Especially in this kind of genre of instrumental guitar, It’s not like pop music where there is a million, you know. Instrumental guitar is more of a niche. There is less of an audience so there is a lot of bands fighting for the same audience, and especially now because the music industry is changing so much and people are not making as much money and record sales are not what they use to be. Musicians are finding other creative ways to make money, there is definitely a lot more competition so the bands are kind of fighting for the same audience.”
Blurt: With guitarists like John5 going out and doing John5 and the Creatures you have people out there bringing in the crowds that is good for music in general, especially for instrumental?
JT: “Just having tour with Angel Vivaldi, I’ve done 5 or 6 tours with him there is defiantly an audience for this kind of music, I mean we’ve played some big shows, there is an audience for it and they’re very dedicated.”
Blurt: The album was released August 24th and it is titlde ‘The Thread of Life”‑-what was the process like as far as studio time developing the album?
JT: “Well recording it was pretty easy. All the work is in pre-production, like just figuring out the arrangements and rehearsing and making sure everybody knows their parts and just all the notes, making sure everything is written and then when it was time to record it is the matter of getting the best performances. I wrote all the music for it because like I said I was originally going to do a solo album and so I had all the songs ready to go. We just spent a couple of months on pre-production just rehearsing everything and making sure all the arrangements were good and it’s defiantly paid off cause recording, when it came time to do the actual recording, I mean we were quick with it. We did the drums in a day, guitars in a few days and bass in a couple of days. I think over all we spent a week, I mean commutatively maybe a week recording the entire thing.”
Blurt: Do you have a favorite song on the album?
JT: “Inevitable End” is my favorite song.”
Blurt: Going back, is there, including the people in the band is there somebody that all of you have not yet collaborated with that you want to?
JT: “I would like to collaborate with Angel, he did kind of collaborate with us in a way because he co-produced the EP. He didn’t have anything to do with the songwriting but he co-produced it with Jackie and I. He was actually supposed to play a kessel on of the songs on the album but didn’t have the time to get it done, so the next album will probably feature some of his playing on it for sure.”
Blurt: Is there a touring plan?
JT: “Not immediately. Right now, we are just trying to build up a fan base. We are playing shows in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area throughout the Fall. I do want to tour with this band and right now it’s just about building up a fan base and making sure there is demand for us to tour.”
Blurt: Does the band have a website?
JT: “We don’t have a website; we are working on that. Right now we just have Facebook and Instagram -so it is Facebook.com/Etheriusband and if you just type in Etherius band in the search bar it should be the first one that comes up. Then Instagram we are just @etheriusband “
Blurt: Who inspired you, as far as guitar playing, as far as music? Who are some of your inspirations and who inspires you today?
JT: “Definitely Randy Rhodes, that was when I heard the first 2 Ozzy records. I heard them right around the time I started playing guitar and it definitely blew me away. It inspired me to dig deeper into classical music and just to practice more, I started taking instrument seriously. Metallica was always a huge influence, still is, maybe not in the music but just the impact they have had on metal breaking down so many barriers for different bands. Probably my biggest source of inspiration as far as musicians Josh Shaffer from Ithird, besides the fact that he is an amazing riff writer and writes great songs, great melodies. His story is inspiring because where he came from, he was homeless, didn’t have a home and lived in his car and started band. He was living in his car, I mean 30 years of bad contracts, the changing of different trends. To me they are a band that should have been as big as Iron Maiden or Metallica, so somehow he kept it going. They’re still kicking ass, they may never get to that level but the fact they’ve been around for thirty years says a lot about his work ethic and his determination.”
Blurt: What is like being in just an instrumental band and not having a vocalist?
JT: “For me it is definitely more challenging, because definitely trying to use the guitar or using keyboards or something to convey the same type of emotions that a vocalist can convey is probably the most challenging thing. We traditionally write songs, like verse , chorus, bridge with a structure to it like a chorus with a hook , trying to get the hook to sound, first of all to make it catchy, second of all to evoke some kind of emotion in the listener doing that with just a guitar and not a voice is probably is one of the more challenging like we try and do.”
Blurt: Whenever you are playing live, how is that, obviously different, usually you have the vocalist doing the interaction with the crowd, but how is the interaction with the crowd different?
JT: “I’m like the resident front man for the band so to speak, I’m the one that talks to the crowd and interacts with the crowd, because I am kind of shy but when I’m on stage I’m actually like. talkative. I know how to engage the crowd. I think with us more performing, we don’t just stand there, we move around, head bang, get into the music and I think that energy kind of rubs off on the crowd to so they see us into it so they start to get into it.”
Blurt: If there was one piece of advice you could give to an upcoming guitarist, upcoming musician, upcoming artist, what would that be?
JT: “For me I know this is kind of cliché but stay true to yourself, don’t follow trends, don’t try to do something because you think it is popular because trends change day after day in the music business so what is popular today may not be popular tomorrow or next week. So, you have to play the kind of music that you want to play not what not what you think people want to hear.”
Blurt: Here is your opportunity to say anything, whether it is about music, the album, whatever you would like.
JT: “I hope everyone checks out the record and I think there is something for everyone. Whether you are a guitar player or you are not a musician, I think there is something, whether it is a riff or a melody, there is something for everyone to get into on this record.
Once I got everyone together, I realized it should not be a solo album but be a band thing and it is working out.”
Etherius is a band that is full of passion and brings emotion through instruments. It is heavy, it is loud, it is all rock ‘n’ roll. Jay Tarantino is not only a talented guitarist and composer but has the knowledge and outlook in the music industry that most artist and bands need in this present time. The new album is titled Thread of Life, be sure to check it out.
With Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse as backdrop, Britain’s Basher and his American pals served up the hits, the obscurities, and plenty more.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY JOHN BOYDSTON
Nick Lowe is back and rocking’ harder than he has in years with help from the world’s greatest backing – a band you probably already know and love – Los Straitjackets, and together they are quite a team. They’ve joined forces off and on for a few years and are at least in-part touring behind a new 4-song EP “Tokyo Bay” they recorded together, for Yep Roc records.
This was a capacity crowd, and the crowd was into it. And it’s pretty cool when you get the sense the person having the best time in the whole place is the artist. It was great seeing that Nick hasn’t changed much since I first saw him (with Paul Carrack) in 1982. Then, as now, he loves his fans and he shows it onstage, smiling, making eye-contact, having fun. Maybe this band has kick-started his rocker instincts. His voice was superb, his wits sharp, and his humor always on display.
Expect a really nice mix of his hits from the early Rockpile days, his solo years, and the new stuff. Nick and LS are both Yep Roc recording artists, and it should be noted Yep Roc has done an amazing job with Rockpile’s “Seconds of Pleasure” and early Nick LPs “Jesus of Cool,” and “Labour of Lust” re-issues, all three amazing records and worth re-visiting if you don’t listen to them once a week as I do. They’ve always sounded great but have never sounded better than on these new releases.
Nick takes a short break after a bit and hands the stage over to Eddie Angel and Los Straitjackets, who rock a few songs of their own and also have a new EP out featuring the theme from “Game of Thrones.” (Their version will be used on this upcoming final season, and it was specifically selected by the show for inclusion.) LS even had a moment for a costume change for the encore; the Riddler jackets were nice.
It was a mini-Yep Roc showcase of talent, with newly-signed Dawn Landes opening with a solo set, and doing a great job. Her most recent release is “Meet Me at The River,” and her set makes me want to check it out.
Lots of photos here, because no one told me to stop. Way too much for fun for a guy my age.
Check out John’s Instagram feed @johnboydstonphoto or check out his bigger galleries at jobo.smugmug.com
Both, actually. For his new album, the songwriter was simultaneously challenged and inspired, and he not only recorded in the same building that Johnny Cash once inhabited, he also got to play one of the Man In Black’s guitars. (Tour dates, info, merch and more at Snider’s official website.)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a about seven years since Todd Snider last put out a folk record.
That’s not to say he was taking it easy. During that time, he put out a garage rock album (Eastside Bulldog) two records with his jam band, the Hard Working Americans (self-titled and Rest in Chaos) and has spent an almost implausible amount of time on the road. But, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is his first venture back to the folk music he started out making in the mid-1990s.
Recorded inside a cabin that used to belong to Johnny Cash, Snider admits that the spirit of the Man in Black was definitely present through much of the recording, just as it is rumored to have been there when Loretta Lynn recorded at that same site (Snider’s new record even houses a song called ‘The Ghost of Johnny Cash”).
Just weeks before he heads out on the road for a stretch of solo shows, Snider took some time recently to talk about the new record, playing Cash’s guitar and the future of the Hard Working Americans.
Blurt: Beyond simply being a solo album, this new record sounds a lot different than the music you were making with Hard Working Americans or even your last solo LP. Was that a conscious decision to go back to the folk/Americana route with this one?
Snider: Yeah, more folk, I guess. That last record (Eastside Bulldog) was really an anomaly. I made it eight years before I put it out and, well, I never thought I would put it out. I like it; it’s the one I listen to because I like that old garage music, but I’ve always thought of myself as a folk singer, a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot type singer and even when I do the jam band stuff or The Bulldogs, I do it to learn more about being a folk singer. I think of my day job as a folk singer.
Blurt: So, is The Hard Working Americans still something you still plan on pursuing?
Snider: Yeah. We don’t have any shows on the books. I know Dave (Schools, bassist. Also, member of Widespread Panic) wanted a break. Him and I have been on the road the longest of anyone and he’s got a wife he loves and that he hasn’t seem much of. We still talk all the time. Even Neal (Casal, guitar) who left for a little bit. I still talk to him. I think if we played together again, we’d have three guitar players. If we play again, I don’t know why I said it like that. We’ll play again… then again, I can see me or Dave dropping in the next year.
Blurt: Oh man, don’t say that.
Snider: Eh, that ain’t nothing to be afraid of.
Blurt: In the liner notes to the Cash Cabin Sessions, it talks about the dreams, plural, that you had about Johnny Cash and it talks about Loretta Lynn recording there and seeing his ghost – that’s also a song on this album. When you were recording the record, did you feel the Johnny Cash vibe in the room. I know this sounds New Age-y, but did you ever feel his presence?
Snider: Oh, we sure did. There was like three separate long sessions and it was more the other people there (that felt it). Everybody kept having moments. I had a moment there – there are still some more songs to come out of these sessions – and some of the songs to come were lyrics that Johnny Cash left behind that I got to do music to. One night I was working on one of those and I really honestly felt like I had a decision to make between two pieces of music and I never felt more like the room was trying to vote. It was really pressing, and it felt like the kitchen was saying “this version, this version, this version.” And other people were saying they felt stuff like that. And also, not in a ghostly way, I would go for long walks in the woods and it’s a lot, it’s like Graceland. There’re lamas. I was thinking I’m a singer, I can’t imagine well if I don’t finish the tour these lamas don’t eat. That’s why I rent. It’s just the pressure. I just call it immaculate grace; nothing ever happens out there for the wrong reason.
Blurt: So, you recorded there, and Loretta recorded there. Is it used quite a bit? Is it a studio that a lot of people record at?
Snider: No, just me and Loretta and that cat Jamey Johnson. And that’s it. The Hard Working Americans spent the night up there tripping balls. And Dave has used it for a record he was working on. I don’t think you can just call there and book it. I go to go because I got to know Loretta.
Blurt: You also got to use one of Johnny Cash’s old Martin guitars.
Snider: Yeah. What I say is “I can’t prove it’s the guitar he’s holding when he flips off the photographer, but it’s definitely that kind.” He had more than one though. It’s over a hundred years old and it sounds wonderful.
Blurt: Was that intimidating at all, knowing that he played this guitar and likely wrote some of his songs on that same guitar?
Snider: Right. There’s a moment when I was with my buddy and I started playing the “Ring of Fire” line and I say, “This might be the guitar that he wrote that lick on.” It’s weird. It was also very comforting. There’s something about the way John (Johnny’s son) and those guys who run it – I just felt really comfortable out there.
Blurt: You play banjo on, appropriately enough, “The Blues On Bajo.” Is this your first time playing banjo on a record?
Snider: I think I’ve played the banjo sometimes, but I don’t really know how to. I made up that song about the blues and they say you can’t play the blues on banjo, so I said, “Let’s try it!” And on the first take we got it. I don’t even know if it was tuned, but now I have to go and practice the things I did so I can play it live.
Blurt: You’re not really known as a political artist, though you’ve occasionally covered it on and off in some of your lyrics more subtly. But you cover off on politics on a few songs here, especially the last one, “A Timeless Response to Current Events” and on “Talking Reality Television Blues”. Is it hard to avoid writing about politics given where we are right now in our country?
Snider: Yeah and especially being a folk singer. That’s on the table right beside romance. And the guys I grew up enjoying, it seemed like they weren’t afraid to let that out of their heart if it was coming. I don’t have anything to teach anyone. I just share my opinions because they rhyme. If you change your opinions because of my opinions that’s not what this was about. This was about getting a few beers and listening to some singing and if that happens, well that’s what you decided to do. I didn’t come here to do that. I share my opinions because the job says your supposed to.
Blurt: I think I read that you had actually written some of these songs, or even recorded some, with the Hard Working Americans.
Snider: Volume 2, I’m hoping will be out in the next year or so and it’s got a few those songs on it.
Blurt: How old are the songs that are on this new record?
Snider: It usually takes me a couple of years to finish songs. I work on them all the time, but I also change them all of the time. Most of these songs I was working on when Rest in Chaos (Hard Working American’s 2016 album) was really new. Right now, I already have 14 other what I’d call Cars on Blocks – things that will turn into songs. And they really can change a lot. I’ll try all of the words over all of the music. I really enjoy tinkering with them.
Blurt: Has that changed much, how you write songs, since your first record in 1994?
Snider: I like to think so. The way that I made up the new record is the way a guy named Kent Finlay taught me. When I made up the Bulldog record, that was the first time I had a side project and it was supposed to sound like The Kingsmen and we did all those songs in one night; and I was trying to say “baby” as much as I could. When Hard Working Americans came together, I had this song where I took each line to the song and made it to be its own thing. It didn’t have to be linear. This record is more of the old way that I write music. I’d still like to write some music with the Hard Working Americans that is similar to the way George Clinton or James Brown wrote. I’ve been studying the way they made songs and I’d like to try that some way.
Blurt: You’re about to tour with this record. Is it just you on the stage or do you take others out with you?
Snider: No, just the dog. And he’s on the stage with me. Sometime if he doesn’t like the song or the harmonica is too high, he’ll take off, but these shows are very much patterned after what Ramblin’ Jack Elliott does. He was a huge influence on Jerry Jeff (Walker) and Arlo (Guthrie) and all those people too.
The South African artist was a standout performer at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, and we were privileged to talk to her about her colorful career to date.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Alice Phoebe Lou’s journey has taken her from her native South Africa to the streets of Berlin, and from fire dancing to making music. Lou embraced the life of a street performer and the people she met while maintaining full control of her music. Her latest album, Paper Castles (self-released, like all her music; check out her official website or her Facebook page) is a collection of wistful indie pop that sounds like a soundtrack for sweet dreams. As Consequences of Sound says, “If you’re looking for an album to listen to while pretending you’re in an indie flick, Paper Castles is the one.”
What brought you to Berlin?
I traveled around Europe for six months, dancing on the street for money with fire. And that was actually my bread and butter. That was how I managed to travel and do the things that I was doing and eventually I kind of landed up in Berlin. I was 18 years old and I was learning some kind of songs and there was just this amazing street music community there and I just fell in love with that kind of lifestyle and decided to just move to Berlin and pursue the street music life.
Growing up in South Africa, what was the type of music that you listen to? You had piano lessons, right?
Yeah, I had a few piano lessons. My mum plays a few instruments. My parents both had a really extensive record collection spanning all sorts of genres with a lot of very amazing female fronted bands, very strong female presence as well. And I kind of listened to just about everything.
I wanted to know about the fire dancing aspect. How did you become involved in that?
I was a dancer for a lot of my life. That was actually my main focus for a lot of my life, dance and theater. And eventually, I was 16, I had two months’ break from school and I asked my mom if I could go to Europe. And so, I went to Paris because my aunt lived there. I’ve always wanted to learn how to do more circus performance and things a bit outside of dancing, using my dancing background. So eventually I bought a pair of these kind of fire dancing chains, and I just met a bunch of circus folk in Paris. Paris is very hard city, kind of hard environment. And these were the people that seemed the happiest even though they had very little and they were just making money from passers-by and tourists. And they just taught me the art and the trade of street performance and the psychology behind it and how to how to get your audience to come and feel comfortable and want to be involved and have a good time. And that’s something that really, really influenced where I am today because it started this trajectory of playing on the street and eventually doing what I’m doing now.
In Berlin are there a lot of street performers there as well, a community there?
Absolutely, a really nice community, because in a lot of places the street performance scene can be very competitive. And Berlin has quite a welcoming and wholesome community in that regard and that was something that really drew me in, is this idea that you’re sharing the streets with not only other street performers, but homeless people, people who are begging, drug dealers, whoever. And everyone is equal and everyone has a chance and you give everyone their fair kind of moment to use the streets as their performance or entrepreneurial space.
One thing I wonder about Paris and Berlin: which city would you say is more open to expats?
I would say Berlin, definitely. Also, Germany has taken in the most refugees of anywhere in Europe and that comes with a set of problems, of course. There’s not enough space for everyone everywhere. But Berlin and Germany have been incredibly inviting in that sense, and there’s a lot of amazing refugee integration programs and so not just as an expat or as someone that just has the privilege to be able to move somewhere, but for people that really need a new home, like refugees, Berlin has been an incredible place. I have a lot of Syrian friends, and there’s an amazing community of people that have come there for different reasons, but are using it for the same reason.
Germany also, it seems, really learned their lesson after World War II.
I think that it’s all about the history and teaching history and really, really making children and young adults aware of the history in order to not let it repeat itself, which I think is something that is a lot of countries could learn a lot about, especially the country I’m from. Basically, apartheid ended 25 years ago. It’s basically the other day, and there’s the sense of just kind of brushing it under the carpet and saying, “Okay. We’re at ground zero now. We all have equal opportunity and let’s just move on with our lives.” And that is not the case, and so learning about your history, learning about how not to let it repeat itself and how to get educate the youth about what went wrong to get us to those kind of places, is definitely something Germany learned a lot about.
Growing up in South Africa. how were you educated as a child about that period?
Well, my parents were both documentary filmmakers and the work that they were doing mainly in the eighties was documenting what was happening during apartheid. And so, they were working for news agencies in different parts of the world. My dad was risking his life, basically going into the townships, filming the things that were happening there, getting beaten by police, getting thrown in jail. So, he really experienced it first-hand. And therefore, we were able to get a very realistic impression of what had happened and where we were going. And it wasn’t the sense of “okay, it’s over now, we’re all equal.” ‘Cause that’s just that’s a very sugar-coated lie that really doesn’t make progress. It just it just keeps the divide, and South Africa still a very racially segregated place. It’s still got a lot to work through. And so, this kind of brush-under-the-carpets attitude just does not help anyone.
I wondered also you’ve been releasing music yourself. Is that something you want to continue to do?
Absolutely. I don’t think that it’s for everyone. I think some artists really want a label to be able to do business aspects of their music and just to make the music and I totally respect and understand that. But for me personally, I’m somebody who likes the business side of things. I like knowing about those things. I like educating myself and therefore being able to individualize the music industry to me and what I need from it. And it’s something that feels very empowering to me and it’s something that I want to continue and eventually open my own label then and do these kinds of things and be able to find my own place, because at the end of the day, if you don’t like something or if something is not working for you, you need to make your own version of its and you need to find a way to do it your own way.
Year after year, Prof. Rosen makes his pilgrimage to Knoxville to report back to BLURT on what just might be the best music festival on the entire freakin’ planet. This year included Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell, Mercury Rev, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago—and much, much more, of all stripes, genres, and inclinations, spread across 150 performances and 50 additional free events. Want more? Check outRosen’s 2014 report, as well as 2015, not to mention 2016 and 2017 and 2018.
BY STEVEN ROSEN / PHOTOS BY MINDY ROSEN
Is there anybody from Idaho or Nebraska reading this? If so, please clear you calendars now for March 2020. You’ll need to go to Knoxville, Tenn. for a long weekend at the Big Ears Festival. And you will be treated as an honored guest.
That’s because, at the 2019 Big Ears, which occurred March 21-24, those two states were the last holdouts. There were attendees from every other one, as well as from 21 countries. That was one sign of growth for the festival, which occurs at multiple indoor venues and was started in 2009. It skipped three years (2011-13), but has been growing since becoming a non-profit organization in 2016. This year, it held 150 concerts and some 50 free events, and venues for the most part were filled with attendees. As were the streets of downtown Knoxville.
That’s all quite remarkable, given that the festival resolutely embraces the musical avant-garde. As its founder, Ashley Capps, said in a written statement contained in the distributed program, Big Ears is “an invitation to explore the depth and breadth of the world of music in its many rich and evocative manifestations, beyond the traditional genres, boxes and boundaries that too often create divisions between music and audiences.”
That program also included a quotation from Gustav Mahler that “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” But don’t let the Mahler reference fool you into thinking this year’s Big Ears was primarily for fans of “settled” classical music — that which is already accepted as masterful.
There was, rather, much new contemporary classical music — such as violinist Kim Kashkashian, playing with pianist Robert Levin at the luxuriously restored Tennessee Theatre, presenting a brand-new work by octogenarian composer John Harris Harbison. It was a six-part rumination on mortality that was grave, solemn and questioning, yet also exciting and determinedly proud of life, even if it always ends sadly.
Also at the Tennessee was a classical piece, by rising new music composer (and The National guitarist) Bryce Dessner, featuring stirring music for the Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble plus tenor Isaiah Robinson and mezzosoprano Alicia Hall Moran to sing. Called Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), it was about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Images of his work were projected while the singers performed the libretto (lyrics) by playwright Korde Arrington Tuttle.
But there was rock, too. Mercury Rev, playing at the Mill & Mine club for a late-night show, did a revved-up show featuring Jonathan Donahue’s happily, joyful singing of such dreamy, melancholy, grandeur-drench band classics as “Tonite It Shows,” “Central Park East,” “Opus 40” and “People Are So Unpredictable.” He also did a killer cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” as the band provided a powerful wave of orchestral-like sound behind him.
Mercury Rev also sponsored a late-night screening with live score at the historic Bijou Theatre of the eerie early-1960s thriller Carnival of Souls, with such guest musicians as Steve Shelley, Ben Neill, Tim Berne and Mimi Goese. I thank them for presenting this wonderful movie in an optimum setting, but I’d have preferred to see it with its dialogue, which had been dropped out for the music. It’s such a strong movie that one wants to hear the actors talk (or scream).
Richard Thompson also played the Bijou with a project called Killed in Action, featuring short songs based on extracts from letters and diaries of World War I soldiers, his acoustic guitar and low, yearning voice accompanied by the Knoxville Symphony Strings. Partially funded by Great Britain’s WWI Centenary Art Commissions, it debuted in 2016 at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge and has had a fairly low profile ever since. The Big Ears audience was keenly appreciative of Thompson’s performance and the string section’s arrangements, but the concert most came alive after this was finished and Thompson played other songs with the string section — including “Shenandoah,” his own “The Great Valerio,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and especially Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.”
Also at the Bijou, guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell, working with the band The Mesmerists, played a beseeching score to accompany films by avant-gardist Bill Morrison, who puts together abstracted narratives by reclaiming and re-editing found footage, often in a visible state of decay. Morrison’s finished work plays like missives from an old, weird America — or a pre-modern world — and Frisell’s music perfectly caught that mood. One short film in particular — called The Mesmerist and re-edited by Morrison from a deteriorated nitrate print of a 1926 film called The Bells — was unforgettable. It’s the tale of an innkeeper who kills a Polish Jew for his valuables, then puts the body in a fiery outdoor furnace or fire pit. But he’s later confronted by a vision of the man. This played like a chilling precursor of the Holocaust; the film’s damaged condition a metaphor for the post-Holocaust world.
Jazz in all its forms was on display at Big Ears. The group Columbia Icefield, featuring trumpeter Nate Wooley, drummer/vocalist Ryan Sawyer, guitarist Mary Halvorson and inventive pedal steel player Susan Alcorn (the latter two have become Big Ears favorites in recent years) played songs from a new album inspired by Wooley’s revelatory trip to see the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The concert, before a standing audience at The Standard club (I had to keep jumping up and moving around to see) featured music that intelligently, artfully captured Wooley’s awe at the landscape — compositions frequently were brought to life by short, rippling solos by the members. The show was a standout; the players forces to be watched in the future.
The portentously named British trio The Comet Is Coming made its debut at a packed Mill & Mine, where it filled the cavernous space with the strong, loud and almost-literally uplifting saxophone playing of Shabaka Hutchings. There were overtones in his tirelessly fierce playing of the Free Jazz legend Albert Ayler, as well as the contemporary Kamasi Washington. But I also heard in his playing something of the full-bodied, funky and danceable melodies of the great Manu Dibango of “Soul Makossa” fame. I would have liked Comet better with less of the super-heavy, Keith Emerson-like keyboard playing of Dan Leavers, an important part of the group’s fusion-y mix. (Another band featuring Hutchings, Sons of Kemet, also played Big Ears.)
The German jazz/cabaret singer Theo Bleckmann did two shows at the Bijou — “Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush” and ‘Berlin — Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile.” He’s a phenomenal vocal stylist — imitating the famous opening keyboard riff of “Running Up That Hill,” then using his own natural voice to give intense meaning to the words. His show of German songs was also rewarding, as he prefaced each song with stories or lyric translations, explaining that the love song “Lili Marlene” was a hit throughout Europe during World War II even though Germany was at war with countries where it was played. His version of Brecht/Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” was especially effective — its best-known recordings are by women, but he made it his own.
Big Ears this year was celebrating the 50th anniversary of ECM Records (primarily known for its jazz releases, but the label’s name is actually short for Edition of Contemporary Music and its releases have covered other types of music) and there were panel discussions as well as performances by such ECM artists an Bleckmann, Wadada Leo Smith, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Meredith Monk.
All this led to the festival’s climactic conclusion, a closing-night concert at the Tennessee Theatre by ECM’s Art Ensemble of Chicago, the great avant-jazz group on its own 50th anniversary tour, dedicated to deceased members Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut and their lasting contributions to “Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future.”
For this concert, the Art Ensemble was a true large ensemble — 16 people counting singer Camae Ayewa and poet Moor Mother. Every second of each person’s contribution to the program was thrilling, but the two remaining original members — saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Famoudou Don Moye — were justifiably first among equals.
I have witnessed few moments at the seven Big Ears I have attended as thrilling as when Mitchell, who had mostly been a quiet, reserved presence through the show, took a long, sustained, technically dazzling soprano sax lead toward the end, going on and on as others joined in or withdrew. After awhile, he stood up and kept playing with astonishing speed and stamina, the great bandleader compressing a whole concert’s worth of solo playing into this one long stand.
The applause and cheers at the end of this show were so rousing and sincere, and the overall experience sent the large crowd away with a peak experience … and probably already thinking about next year.
One of the most promising young artists at this year’s SXSW was Naomi Hamilton. But why is she Jealous of the Birds?
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Wisdom Teeth is the new EP from Jealous of the Birds, a.k.a. Naomi Hamilton. The brainy singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland launched her music career while she was a university student in Belfast (she now has a master’s degree). Hamilton’s love of words is on full display, complementing her cool, brisk vocals. In addition to writing and singing, she’s launched “Jealous of the Bops,” a YouTube series about her favorite albums, with two albums reviewed per episode (e.g., Carole King and Cat Power). And as this interview shows, her interests extend far beyond music as well.
I understand you have a degree in English and creative writing. Which came first–that or the music? Definitely the writing. I’ve been writing since I was like 13 years old, poetry. I’ve been doing that for much longer than music. And I started writing songs maybe when I was like eighteen. I just started kind of in my first year of my degree playing gigs and releasing music and stuff. So, it’s definitely literature first.
Your lyrics definitely are very erudite. Are there any lyricists who really influenced you? I think I started with maybe Bob Dylan. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I got into the folk movement and stuff. That’s what I really saw that lyrics should be a big part of music. And then when I got into my later teens, I got into, like, grunge: Nirvana, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliott Smith and some like that. And Paul Simon stuff like that. So, it’s really important to me as a writer as well.
Aside from the lyrics, how else do you apply your English and writing background to the music? I think it’s more the analytical side of me to kind of parse different experiences. And also kind of the discipline of writing. ‘Cause I wrote a big dissertation and stuff. I’d gotten into the habit of journaling and carrying a notebook with me. So that helps, just kind of collect material for songs.
Tell me a bit about you know, your first venture into making music. Were you a little bit nervous about that at the beginning? With my first gig, I couldn’t even stand up. I stayed seated and played solo. I played solo for about a year before we got about a band together. So, it’s definitely something that, I’ve gradually gotten better at. And it’s improved to me and I really enjoy it more.
One thing I noticed, you’ve been doing a YouTube series, “Jealous of the Bops.” Can you tell me a little bit about went for the inspiration for that came from? I’ve always really been into podcasts and video as a very intimate medium. A lot of artists kind of collate their own playlists on Spotify. So, I wanted to make it a bit more personal by making a video series of it. All the songs that I pick on Spotify are kind of parts of those together. And I pick two albums that I really like and talk about them and the process behind them. I like to pick a classic album with a contemporary of one just for more contrast, ‘cause my listening tastes are pretty diverse.
It sounds like you’ve also read some music reviews and criticism as well. Is that the case? Really, I think it comes more from my English background. Writing essays and stuff comes kind of naturally to me, to be able to analyze the music I’m hearing. And also as a musician I’m always looking out for different techniques for recording and putting songs together. So that kind of becomes a factor.
What about today’s music scene in Belfast in Northern Ireland? I know people think of artists like the Undertones for instance and similar artists. Today is actually very strong. There’s a big, strong sense of community back in Belfast. It definitely has its pockets of punk and rock and stuff like that, but it’s very much indie. And songwriting is kind of a big thrust back home. And a lot of support for each other, following each other’s gigs between Belfast and Derry.
Do you feel sometimes you have to be in a certain frame of mind to write songs?Oh, for sure, yeah. And I also kind of dabble in other arts, mediums and stuff, between like photography and painting. So usually if one of them is kind of, I’m in a bit of a block with it, I’ll move over to a different art form. They kind of help each other in that way. So yeah, for songwriting, I try to keep it pretty consistent so that there’s not gaps in between activity. And that’s going well so far.
Pictured above: proud non-stadium fillers at SXSW (L-R) Broken Social Scene, Get Up Kids, Deerhunter – and much more. Our BLURT man on the ground charts the REAL heroes.
TEXT/PHOTOS BY JASON GROSS
You either love or hate SXSW, and having spent my 20th year there, I know which side I’m on. Stll, I’m grateful that 2019 didn’t see any huge, stadium-filling acts (which previously were Prince, Bruce, Gaga, Jay-Z) crowding out the literal and figurative turf in downtown Austin this March. The biggest acts this time were Deerhunter, Get Up Kids, De La Soul and Broken Social Scene- I saw ‘em all except De La (which I regret) and they were great but I gotta say that the crush of the crowds at those shows made me grateful to see the smaller, lesser-known acts. These up-and-coming performers make up the bulk of the fest and provide the real fun and beauty of discovery there.
Let the likes of Coachella and Glastonbury have the stars and crowds, even if Sixth Street in Austin has its own crowds (it was a good thing that spring break didn’t coincide with SXSW this time, keeping many U of T students from cluttering up the area). Plus, it wouldn’t be South By without some kind of incident, this time, a few shootings over the final weekend near the East side and the music proceedings, though seemingly not festival related.
Otherwise, we out-of-towners enjoy Austin’s compact concentration of clubs in the downtown area for easy access, the (usually) warm weather and the feast of BBQ and Tex-Mex food that awaits you there. Even then, the promo events around there meant that you could dine on a budget, getting freebies from Reeperbahn’s burger fest, Uber Eats’ pop-up of rotating food dishes and Wisconsin Cheese’s 3000 lbs. of pressed curds in their Cheeselandia fest to clog up your arteries as quickly as a plate of ribs.
(below: Cheeselandia’s delights)
(As a side note, I gotta say that NYC made me appreciate Austin clubs all the more when I compare their entry ways. ATX clubs still check IDs, what’s in your bag, etc., but they are so much more courteous about that. At a recent Market Hotel show in Brooklyn, the security guys obviously didn’t want to be there and treated you like garbage as a result. I did find it interesting that at the rap showcases at ATX, though, there were extra layers of security, including security wands and pat-downs.)
Even at a wide-ranging music fest, I’m still an indie rock fan at heart but I wish I could have seen more techno (which there was a good amount of), jazz and classical (which there were bits of here and there), at least for some variety. Still, there was plenty of styles to dive into otherwise, in six days, I managed to see about 80 shows (again which is easily when the clubs are mostly in one area). Rap had some impressive gents there with De La, plus the Beastie Boys doing a keynote panel on their new movie. But the most impressive music overall at the fest were really the female MC’s, proving that proving that Cardi and the unfairly maligned Nicki are only the tip of the iceberg. At SX ‘19, there were great sets, plus plenty of variety and quality from Ace Tee, Devmo, Leikeli47, Quanna, Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, all chronicled below.
(below: a last look at Sixth Street as the fest/confab was ending)
For my SXSW roundup here, I cover three dozen acts that I can gladly vouch for, plus nine more to investigate further (only saw glimpses of ‘em) and on top of that, 17 more acts I couldn’t catch but wish I did (there’s so much to see at SX that you can never see all the good stuff), plus links to hear more music from all of the performers. Maybe it’s interesting that many of the best acts I found at SX ’19 were women, but then again, they’re putting out the best albums recently, so why not? I even found time to see three music documentaries, though even there, I wish I could see more.
Anyone wanna help with a cloning machine so that we all can have our full fill of music at SXSW 2020? And a note to the SX show programmers: things went peachy this year without any huge headliners, so don’t ruin a good thing next time.
BEST BANDS/PERFORMERS SEEN
Ace Tee (March 17th, Main II)- When you think of a German rapper, a sultry black woman probably doesn’t come to mind but it should. “Bist Du Down?” was her international smash and represents her sound well. She doesn’t overwhelm onstage but that’s not the point as she’s got an alluring persona to match the music.
Amyl & the Sniffers (March 14, Hotel Vegas)- These old school style punks from Aussie are signed to Rough Trade, assuring their cool credentials. Amy Taylor looks like a cute little blonde girl on first blush but she’s comfortable diving into a crowd, moshing there and coming out with a bloody knee like nothing happened.
Anteros (March 11, Latitude 30)- Though Brit singer Laura Hayden doesn’t quite command the stage like Garbage’s Shirley Manson, she and the boys have their catchy dance pop down well enough that I was happy to see them twice. Their big glossy sound really does suck you in and grab you.
Black Pumas (March 15, Austin Convention Center)- These Austinites call themselves ‘psychedelic soul’ but it’s more of the later (70’s style) than the former, which is fine, and singer Eric Burton knows how to work up a crowd. Also, how you can not love their large-sized feline mascot/name-sake?
BLXPLTN (March 16, 720 Club)- Black electro-punk with a heavy dose of lefty politics. They’re as loud and rowdy as you’d hope they’d be live. Hopefully coming to an Afropunk stage soon.
Combo Chimbita (March 14, Hotel Vegas)- I’d seen them at Globalfest in NYC in January and was floored then and found that this loud psychedelic Columbian quartet was even louder at an outdoor stage for a day show. Singer Carolina Oliveros is mesmerizing with her outfits, her voice and her stage presence. She really has it all.
The Comet Is Coming (March 13, St. David’s)- With lineage from two other great UK groups (Sons of Kemet, Melt Yourself Down), TCIC is about jazz & rock & prog & techno via sax/keys/drums. Compelling stuff for sure and as another audience member noted, their fiery music really does sound like the band’s name. They’re shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and I’m rooting for them.
Control Top (March 12, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- This Philly punk trio has a nice, sleazy sound to it thanks to their striking yeller Ali Taylor and the slashing guitar riffs of Al Creedon. No wonder they’re touring with Laura Jane Grace.
DEVMO (March 16, Mohawk)- Though she hails from the LA area, she raps more like Eminem in a fast-clipped style than a G-funk Cali style (though Dr. Dre did bring up M from the start). Plus, she could hold her own with a beatboxer that she invited onstage.
Drinking Boys and Girls Choir (March 14, Valhalla)- A Korean skate-punk trio that’s as fast and furious as you’d hope or expect. The sound is more hardcore than your typical mall punk band but slightly sweetened by bassist Meena’s grrl-y vocals. I almost wished I learned Korean so I could pick up on some of the political lyrics.
Ehiorobo (March 16, Scratchouse) After seeing a few acts that tried to push R&B into avant territory but couldn’t quite pull off the trick, it was a relief and revelation to see this wonderful weirdo from the wilds of New Jersey. With his broken, off-kilter beats matched by broken, oft-kilter lyrics, he’s someone you want to watch to see which strange pathways he takes.
eX-Girl (March 16, Elysium)- This trio, which technically comes from Japan but they claim to hail from the planet Kero Kero, has been around since 1997 though they still sound fresh in their bizarre rock/pop style- even when they came out doing a ceremonials dance to Kraftwerk. They’re less punk now but you can still see why Jello Biafra and Mike Patton were boosters. Wish they featured more of their sock-puppet frog (monster?) mascot though.
Gurr (March 12, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- This German girl duo recently did a Xmas song with Eddie Argos (Art Brut) and you can see why- they’re also a scraggly, lovable indie rock ensemble. Hilarious that they also told us ‘good morning’ at 12:30PM for their day show, which probably WAS wake-up time for most of the SXSW crowd.
Haiku Hands (March 16, Barracuda)- This Aussie girl dance trio sounds silly/goofy/fun on record and they translate it well on stage, via masks, streamers, dance move, good cheer. “Dare You Not To Dance” is a well-named statement of principle too.
Hash Redactor (March 14, Beerland)- This Memphis quartet has cast-offs from Ex-Cult & Nots but probably makes better post-punk revival/art-punk music than either of those groups. Plus, singer Alec McIntyre has the best buggy-eyed stare since Richard Hell.
Christy Hays (March 15, Friends)- This country/folk/rock singer boasts no pop pretensions and there’s a wonderful yearning in her voice and lyrics.
Lonnie Holley (March 14, Austin Convention Center)- A unique talent for sure, technically he’s a grisled soul ala Gil-Scott Heron but has a deep spiritual edge to match his political side- see “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” for proof. Nice that he had his fellow Alabaman Lee Bains III to back him up on guitar too.
Durand Jones & the Indications (March 14, Stubbs) Last year at SXSW, this Midwest soul-man appeared as a promising talent. This year, he’s got an impressive new album (American Love Call), a bigger sound and plenty confidence to help move bigger crowds. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got a strong band featuring drummer Aaron Frazer who easily hits those high notes and can take the lead now and then too.
Juiceboxxx (March 15, Barracuda Outside)- This unhinged wild midwesterner (think Jay Reatard) mostly goes for dirty garage rock/punk with some rap thrown in but thankfully he ain’t nu metal. He was just as convincing bouncing around the stage as he was standing on overturned garbage can in the middle of the crowd or rolling on the beer-soaked ground.
Kokoko! (March 12, The Main)- Though their publicist denies it, you have to wonder if this Kinshasa group has any connection to their fellow Congo homies Konono No. 1 who also use pots/pans/bottles and electrified scraps. Either way, they’re two great bands, kinship or no kinship, but live, Kokoko! has the edge with their instrument switching and crowd-revving act.
Kyan (March 13, CU29)- You really have to scratch your head when a wonderful, honey-voiced soul Brit like this isn’t conquering the US yet. Armed only with a keyboard and a violin player, his low-key dreamy vibe sounded big.
Leikeli47 (March 13, Cedar Street Courtyard)- Decked out in her signature robber-mask outfit, this diminutive Brooklyn MC worked the audience better than any other performer I saw at SXSW this year, not only taking her act into the crowd but also bringing some of them on stage to vogue beside her. When I was up front at the stage edge, she was even thoughtful enough to tell me that her raucous “Girl Blunts” didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the fun too. How many other rappers would do that for you?
Madam X (March 15, Scratchouse)- One of the great things about the fest is running across something good that you didn’t even know about before, including this UK DJ and label head. I almost missed the act I was planning to see otherwise because her bumping, jacked rhythms, which covered everything from big beat to techno to dubstep, had our small crowd going for a while.
Megan Thee Stallion (March 14, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- With her self-assurance, stride and moves that would wear out a pole dancer, you wouldn’t know that this Houston rapper has only been putting out music for two years now. Decked out in a Kiss T-shirt, she was only on stage for 15 minutes but she made it seem like so much longer than that.
My Education (March 12, Barracuda)- This seven-man prog outfit leads with a violinist but they know how to get loud and almost sound rowdy at times- think early Mahavishnu Orchestra and Wetton/Bruford-era King Crimson. I almost wished that I stayed around for their Soundmass set where they team up with Utah improv group Theta Naught.
J.S. Ondara (March 14, Austin Convention Center) What bowls you over about this Kenyan artist right away is his beautiful, ethereal voice, highlighted when he performed solo with just a guitar to back him up.
Otoboke Beaver (March 12, The Main)- Don’t let the flowery outfits fool you- these Japanese girls are screaming punks who know how to use their feminine wiles in a fun, ironic way.
The Pinheads (March 14, BD Riley’s)- “Are they always so extroverted?” I asked their manager as this Aussie punk/garage band almost wrecked the stage area and were threatened by the club owner to get tossed out of there. “No, they’re usually wilder in a bigger club,” she said, making me wonder if they flattened the whole East Austin area a few days later when they played Hotel Vegas.
Quanna (March 17, Palm Door on Sixth)- Masterminding a 16-women line-up for a single night, this NY/Georgia rapper sounds more like the latter than former- Dirty South for sure. Generous enough to keep her own set short to let her other performers shine, it made me wish I’d seen more of her showcase for the evening.
Rico Nasty (March 12, The Main)- Yes, this Maryland rapper (like Quanna, she’s another NY transplant) proudly lives up to her name, nasty as she wants to be with plenty of style/fashion sense to boot.
Sego (March 12, Maggie Mae’s) I thought that Spencer Petersen just made funny indie rock at first- their new album is Sego Sucks and on Facebook posts, they address ‘Friends/Foes.’ Now, he’s trying his hand at writing anthems and he’s definitely onto something, gathering momentum while he’s at it.
The Seratones (March 15, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- It wasn’t the pink tutu she sported or the cold that she was valiantly trying to fight off that won me over to singer A.J. Haynes- it was her infectious enthusiasm that she radiated in front of her soul-rock ensemble.
Spacewalker (March 16, Speakeasy Kabaret)- She’s Afro-future, decked out in an outfit that would do Sun Ra proud and her one-woman laptop/drum machine band was all she needed to get her funky, freaky vibe across.
Symphonic Cinema (March 11, Edwin’s)- It was a little disappointing not to see any live music here but mastermind/director Lucas van Woerkum was there to do live film edits (where he’d sometimes slow down or freeze the film) for his video of Ravel “Daphnis et Chloe” featuring a steamy long-term love affair of a ginger-haired lady. He plans/hopes to play with an orchestra on his next trip to the States, which would be quite a sight to see as he’s already made himself the toast of Europe.
Tierra Whack (March 13, Container Bar)- OK, she’s not exactly an unknown quantity and she’s easily one of the most hyped-up recent acts but she still deserves more attention on top of that- she’s inventive, unique and even a little frustrating as many great artists are. Her 2018 debut (Whack World) was a conceptually brilliant album/video/suite copping from the Ramones (and the Residents’ Commercial Album) in the brevity playbook while dodging boasts and F-bombs. Live, she can surf on the wild enthusiasm of the crowd with just her freaky green skull shirt and her DJ but it’ll be fascinating to see where she takes her music in longer form and how she works that out into a more elaborate show, which she’ll definitely have.
Tiggs Da Author (March 12, Scratchouse)- Easily, the best name of any performer at the fest this year, technically, he’s UK rap but not ‘grime’ per se- more on the R&B tip, with 2017’s “Work It Out” an irresistibly, catchy hit and ‘16’s “Georgia” another ear-worm contender.
XXX (March 14, Fader Fort) – Not to be confused with punk legends X or the dreamy UK pop of the XX, this Korean rap duo made up for their delayed show the night before with this day show- rapper Kim Ximya was in good voice but could have had more stage presence though DJ/producer FRNK was on point with his schizzy, off-beat beats and sounds. Makes you wonder what will XXXX be like.
Yola (March 13, Central Presbyterian Church)- Not to be confused with Yo La Tengo, this Brit soul sister has Dan Auerbach producing her and her huge voice and joy make you think that she’s destined to be a name you’ll keep hearing. And her country connections run deeper than the cowboy band she appeared with- it’s definitely part of her sound and spirit. And if YLT was smart, they’d back her up or at least boost her.
DevMo (above). Go to YouTube and watch videos of DevMo, Haiku Hands, eX-Girl, Juiceboxxx, Amyl & the Sniffers, the Pinheads, Kokoko! and Otoboke Beaver playing the fest.
Briefly Saw But Needed To See More Of…
Algobabez– UK techno imagined by tech coders (and sounds like it)
Eden Archer – Country girl from Florida who proudly plucks a dulcimer
Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine: For those of us who grew up on the fabled rock mag, this was a such a pleasure to see. Featuring vintage footage plus storied tales of the battles among owner/publisher Barry Kramer, editor Dave Marsh and scribe deity Lester Bangs and a staff that insisted on living a rock star life style themselves, all of which couldn’t last.
The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps: The story of a Kiwi legend who crafted beautiful, haunting songs and couldn’t keep a hold of a band for more than a year or two until now, plus his long-term struggle with drugs, drink and hepatitis and a museum exhibit that he scraped together from his home artifacts. Nice that MP himself was there for the screening, along with several SXSW shows for the Chills.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash: Based on mid-90’s interviews with the Man in Black, we hear the warts ’n’ all story of his life with some blanks filled in by his kids and his famous musical fans. It’s funny, touching and eye-opening too, especially when we hear about how the death of his brother and his work in the Army affected the rest of his life and career.
Carmen Street Guitars and I Am Richard Pryor: Didn’t actually see either of them but I’m kicking myself for that since the film people at the fest were raving about CSG as a great music-geek, NYC-history doc and who wouldn’t wanna see a movie about Pryor? FYI, The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story had some buzz to it also but you might need a strong stomach to watch as it seems to be along the lines of the recent R. Kelly and Michael Jackson series.
The hypnotic Swedish band preps a new album for a May release on the Fire label, and as Anders Hansson and Marleen Nilsson note, they also have their eye on the future—and maybe even a David Lynch team-up one day.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Death and Vanilla, who hail from Malmö, Sweden, have a new album being readied for release by England’s Fire Records. Soaking myself in the record’s hypnotic insular soundscapes these past few weeks, I decided to check back in with the band about what’s been happening in their world since we last spoke in 2015.
The band’s new album, Are You a Dreamer?, is due May 10th on Fire – below, take a listen to the lead cut “A Flaw in the Iris” provided by the band for your listening pleasure.
2015’s To Where the Wild Things Are was an album of claustrophobic icy beauty, and so I approached this new record with relatively high expectations. “A Flaw in the Iris” is their opening salvo and is every bit in keeping with the dreamy haunted beauty of the past yet imbued with what seems like a wider more pop oriented sonic palette. The electronics augment the proceedings in tightly edited bursts and add a dark subtext to the catchy retro-vibed tune. “Mercier” does the icy aloof female vocal thing very well and the tune itself is chock full of sounds that add to the suspicious feeling of the song. The final minute of the song which is devoid of singing is like a bonus round that amps up the uneasy feeling of the song.
I’m guessing that, live, the band will extend this final section into a haunting burn-out leaving the audience with more questions than answers. “The Hum” is a well-wrought pop tune that brings hushed vocals, tremolo guitar and trippy frequency modulations melded with a child-like wonderment that makes for a rather absorbing listen. “Wallpaper Pattern” a gem of a tune, is left as the bands closing sonic statement. It’s ghostly opening gives way to a lush 60s pop song that will have you tapping your toes and begging for its insular beauty to continue forever. The dreams the band creates may be ephemeral but their impact is permanent. This is truly where the pyramid meets the eye.
BLURT: In what ways do you feel Are You a Dreamer? differs from To Where the Wild Things Are?
Anders Hansson: I think the songs are better and bigger sounding. The songs are a bit longer and perhaps a little darker too. It’s also the first time we use[d] a drummer. On earlier releases we’ve used sampled drums, but this time we went to Tambourine Studios in Malmö and recorded the drums. The album was also mixed there, as opposed to previous releases [which] have been mixed by ourselves, at home.
BLURT: Did you approach the recording differently?
Anders: We recorded the music in our rehearsal space and then the vocals at home. This time we recorded drums in a pro studio. It’s our third album but it’s the first time we’ve went in to a professional studio to record something. We kind of new [at] an early stage that this is what we would want to do for this album.
BLURT: How dosongs usually come about are they rough ideas that someone brings in or do you have one main person who comes up with the skeleton of the tune?
Anders: There isn’t a set formula and songs can happen in a lot of ways. Sometimes we jam, other times One of us might play a few notes on any instrument and record it, and then we start adding other instruments to it to see what fits. Then we loop that part, and maybe try to put the loop together with something else that is unfinished. We almost never write a song from start to finish, they are usually constructed from pieces we’ve recorded, so writing and recording is really one process for us.
BLURT: How long did it take to record this album and was there a specific goal with the direction you wanted to take things?
Marleen Nilsson: For this album when looking into new inspirations, we were listening a lot to the first Fun Boy Three album and thought that we should do some sounds in this way. But then it ends up sounding like something else than you thought! You might not find many similarities, but the inspirations you dig into when writing and recording will still take you on some path to explore.
Anders: we’ve worked on bits and pieces on and off since the last album, but it was really by the end in 2017 or early 2018 when we wrote I think Vespertine and Wallpaper Pattern that we started to gather together all the pieces we had that things started to fall into place on several other tracks. The track Eye Bath was written really quick in the end of the period, it just happened, and it was done before we realized it.
BLURT: Musically where does the band want to go from here?
Anders: It’s hard to say now. A lot of times we say the next song or album should sound like this or this, but we always end up somewhere else, so who knows?
BLURT: I get a real ’60s pop vibe from many of the songs on the album, what are some of the bands that influenced you in this regard?
Anders: We’ve always listened to a lot of music and some of it is was recorded in the ’60s, like Sun Ra, VU, Love, etc., but it doesn’t really matter when it was made, ‘60s or ‘90s or whenever, as long as it’s good music. We’ve been really into bands like Deux Filles, Brian Eno, Bourbonese Qualk, Fun Boy Three the last couple of years. And Air, for example, has for a long time been a favorite band of Marleen’s.
BLURT: When you play these songs live do you stick pretty much to how they are on record or do you extend and expand certain parts?
Anders: We just do what comes natural. Sometimes we extend parts, and sometimes we play things between the songs, jamming.
BLURT: Of the songs on the new record which will be the hardest to replicate live? Any songs cut from the final album? Who decided the running order?
Anders: We haven’t played the new songs live yet. It’s always quite a bit of work to try to get them to sound good live, as they are all made while recording.
There were a bunch of tracks that didn’t get finished in time that we will continue to work on for future releases.
BLURT: Any producers that you’re aspiring to work with?
Anders: Hmm, not really.
Marleen: Some! But I don’t dare to say, I’m too shy ha-ha.
BLURT: Do you collectively or individually have any side projects currently slated for release?
Marleen: No. But there is one project in mind, that we might start working on later this year.
BLURT: Name the last 5 LP’s you purchased?
Anders: We’re buying records all the time and between us and I think we’ve recently bought LP’s by Jessica Prat, Pye Corner Audio, Grand Veymont, Cannibal Corpse, William Basinski, Danger Mouse and Karen O etc.
BLURT: Since we last spoke in 2015 when you mentioned that most of the instruments you use are vintage, have you added anything cool to your collection as a band and is there an elusive piece of equipment that you are waiting to get your hands on?
Anders: It’s not the most original piece of gear but I bought a Fender Jazzmaster and I’ve had so much fun playing it. I was kind of bored with guitars for a long time, but this guitar was definitely a catalyst for a bunch of the songs on the new album. And then we also used much more of the Mellotron which you will probably recognize in the sound. We’d like to get more percussion like congas, steel drums etc.
BLURT: How did you get noticed by Fire Records? What other bands on the label do you find are kindred spirits or have been an inspiration to you?
Anders: They sent us a message on Facebook asking if we wanted to do something with them. Since we signed with them in 2014 a lot has happened in their roster, and they have several really good bands like Virginia Wing, Modern Studies, Jane Weaver, The Chills and also Vanishing Twin now. Great company!
BLURT: What is the genesis of the song “Mercier” and “A Flaw in the Iris”?
Anders: “Mercier” was based on parts of an older track the we used to play live called ”Where The Wild Things Are”. It was like a jam piece that was usually at least 10min long. We’ve been listening to a Lizzy Mercier Desloux’s track and wanted a track with a simple driving bassline, so we blended those two together. ”Mercier” was the working title but we kept it because we liked it.
Marleen: “A Flaw in the Iris” have been floating around for a while in quite a few different versions and there is both older soul and hip-hop tracks behind the inspiration for it, which I think you might hear. It was the last track we finished for the album.
BLURT: Since we last spoke you’ve recorded 2 soundtracks. Any future projects along these lines? What is one film you are dying to record a soundtrack for? Have any local Swedish filmmakers or filmmakers outside of Sweden approached you to use your music in their work?
Anders: We love doing soundtrack work, it’s a very different challenge than writing songs. Doing those soundtracks have really opened us up and given us confidence in our ability, I think. We’ll see what happens in the future, but we’d like to do more.
Marleen: It would be great doing something for David Lynch of course! That would be a dream come true, and totally unlikely, ha. But I think it is true to say that his films and music has been very influential to us and our approach to music and how to connect it with images and feelings.
But no, we haven’t been approached by anyone like that… or at all. It would be great to have the chance for a collaboration with a film maker someday, it would surely be very inspirational in terms on how to write music. And we’re still aiming to do a new soundtrack project for a screening of an old film, but the film has not been decided yet.
BLURT: Will you be planning any live dates in the US?
Marleen: There’s a possibility for that, so fingers crossed!
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Psychedelic Furs "Only You and I" (Live Costa Mesa CA 7-19-18
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea