It’s the thrill of the hunt and the ensuing musical meal for the Brooklyn quartet.
BY RON HART
By nature, Brooklyn’s The Men are the root of everything great about New York City rock in 2013. For many who actually grew up around here and not flown in from Ohio, Kansas or Canada, the local underground was always led by the rust and rage of such neighborhood legends as Unsane, Sonic Youth, Swans and The Big Apple is Rotten to the Core compilation. Sunday afternoons at CBGB and Saturday nights on the Bowery when it was far more saltier than it is today. Over the course of three outstanding LPs, 2010’s Immaculada (download it at the Free Music Archive right now), 2011’s Leave Home and 2012’s Open Your Heart, these surly dudes have managed to have managed to bring a little Dinkins-day filth back to the sanitized streets of this rapidly gentrified metropolis by updating its soundtrack to a more ornery era when guys in groups like Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective would’ve been accosted in a dark alley near the underbelly of the Williamsburg Bridge and jacked for their vintage Hush Puppies.
But for this year’s excellent New Moon, The Men scale down the fury of their previous full-lengths to reveal another side of their sound, one rooted in the more subdued moments of Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh and Neil Young + Crazy Horse with a little touch of Tarnation’s understated 1995 classic Gentle Creatures to boot, having expanded its lineup to include new bassist Ben Greenberg and more tellingly Kevin Faulkner on lap-steel guitar. BLURT recently caught up with drummer and chief group spokesman Rich Samis the week of New Moon’s release to talk about the evolution of The Men’s musical mechanics with a detour into the fellas’ favorite pastime: what else, but record shopping. And based on Samis’ responses, these guys relish in the thrill of the hunt. They are The Men, after all.
From The Men: names in this answer response all refer to:
Rich Samis (me)
Chris Hansell (played in the band up to and including Open Your Heart)
[Below: “I Saw Her Face” from New Moon]
BLURT: What inspired the shift in direction for New Moon?
SAMIS: For New Moon we’re dealing in part with a different band here. Ben replaced Chris [Hansell] on bass and entered as a new songwriter and Kevin joined the band full time. Anytime the components change, obviously there’s always going to be a shift in sound. There was also a slight lineup shift between Leave Home and Open… with [founding member] Mark [Perro] moving from drums to guitar and me joining on drums. I think the lineup change aspect has some influence.
At the time of recording New Moon we had a few songs written beforehand and everyone brought pieces of songs up to the house we rented. For a two week span, we created music completely free of distractions. The 24/7 environment was conducive to experimentation so we ended up with a lot of material that really surprised us in a positive way and might not have happened if it wasn’t recorded in such a place. We were living this music all day and keeping everything super loose. Lots of first takes, live vocals, minimal overdubs – that trip. The songs on the record became what they did because of the immediacy of the whole process and the open nature of the recording environment.
To what do you attribute the alt-country bent?
Personally, I think the term “alt-country” is a ridiculous term. What the hell is that supposed to be – a cowboy in a studded leather jacket? As far as country music goes, I think everyone in the band has some sort of interest country music. I’ve not delved too deep into the genre but I think it’s amazing for storytelling. Certainly country music has this traveler/wanderer aspect that I think has mutated with our past year of living on the road and seeped its influence into our songs.
How did you wind up at Big Indian for the recording of New Moon? What inspired you to seek that place out?
Ben does a solo guitar project called Hubble and one of the people from the label that put out the Hubble LP mentioned to Ben that he had a house that we could rent and turn into a studio. We had been kicking around the idea of renting a house to record in for a while. Keep everything live, loose, and control all aspects of the production – from start to finish. Ben and our roadie/tour manager Kyle [Keays-Hagermann] brought all their recording equipment up and turned a vacation house into a full-fledged studio. Everything was recorded straight to tape. The process was equally important as the finished result.
Did you get to explore that area of Ulster County while you were up there in the studio? Did you make it to New Paltz or Woodstock?
Woodstock is surprisingly overpriced, gentrified, and chock full of heinous tie dye shops. We stopped at a restaurant in Woodstock one day that had the exterior of an old rustic barn only to be greatly astonished by the lush interior complete with super expensive dinner plates. Hardly any vegetarian food even! It reminds me of Haight Street in San Francisco: still banking on that hippie dream.
Given the case that New Moon marks a departure from your earlier records, is there a particular group whose own creative shift you find inspiring?
New Moon isn’t a departure, it’s a sonic shift. I’ve always been a fan of Black Flag’s catalogue. The music was always so honest and the band could care less about what anyone else thought of them. Their work aesthetic was astonishing and they took lots of shit for doing what they believed in. Loads of their records that trashed by critics and fans alike have now become revered as classics. That’s the way it always goes.
I know you are all big music collectors. What was the last record or CD you purchased and where?
I just scored the Insulin Reaction LP for $3 at a dusty old record shop in NYC. I checked it out based on the LP design and this is one of the few instances that this has actually worked out for me. This band is pretty interesting since they use no guitar – just two basses, a drummer, and the occasional keyboard. Sounds a bit like Faith-era cure and its two people who used to be in this weirdo punk band called Peace Corpse.
What record shops do you most frequent?
Academy records in Brooklyn and NYC are always worth checking out. The Record Grouch in Brooklyn is worth frequenting if you don’t mind the occasional trashed record. There’s a couple other ones that I won’t mention because every collector’s got their secrets!
How do the finds you pick up during your crate digging adventures filter into your music as The Men?
When we went up to record in upstate NY we all brought up a stack of records to listen to for the two week stay. We all had a laugh when we figured out that multiple people brought copies of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Bob Dylan’s New Morning.
What are your thoughts on Record Store Day?
I’m not really the biggest fan of Record Store Day. The whole thing just seems kind of corny. Sifting through records should be a fun experience. Flipping through LPs in a packed store with a bunch of eBay flippers and Fleetwood Mac Rumours $40 180 g vinyl worshippers – that’s not my idea of fun! Most of those “limited” records seem pointless anyway.
Where do you stand with digital downloads?
Digital downloads are fine. Best case scenario it turns someone on to some great new music. I think the completist collector will try and find the physical copy of a record anyway. Listening to music on a computer is certainly a way different experience than playing the actual record complete with art, lyrics, liner notes – as it was meant to be experienced. Digital downloads, playing music from a computer – I think it’s decreased the attention span though. I think with the internet and the easy accessibility of music and information on bands that a lot of the mystery involved is gone, which sucks.
What shuttered record shop do you miss most and why?
There was a record shop in my hometown of East Meadow on Long Island called Mr. Cheapo’s. Classic pre-internet boom suburban record store. Grateful Dead VHS bootlegs, $25 Nirvana Outcesticide CDs, Blacklight posters, the owner smoked weed in the back room – you know the place! Rare punk/heavy metal/weirdo LPs and cassettes were scattered throughout tons of Boston and Journey LPs so it was always a thrill going there in high school to try and score some great records and tapes. Great place since the really good stuff was priced just as cheap as the throwaway garbage. My friends and I got turned on to lots of great records from just digging in that store.
What is your favorite shop outside of the Metro Area?
Double Decker Records in Allentown, PA is perhaps the best record store in the country. They’re super fair priced, they’ve always got tons of new stock coming in, and their owner Jamie has a heck of a knack for finding amazing records. He’s looking for records like eight days a week and it shows. If there are insane records that Jamie acquires for the store he’ll sell them right in the store as opposed to eBay or the likes. Smart thing, keeps people coming back.
As of today, what has been your biggest find at the record shop?
There was a shop in Valley Stream called Slipped Disc that was owned by this guy Mike who had a real appreciation for punk and heavy metal and started ordering stuff for his store keeping an extra mint copy of every decent record in the back as stock. When the store closed down he let all of that stock go – some he priced high and saved for the record fair circuit and others let go out in the store. I got an Insanity Defense Pilgrim State LP from his store sealed with the inserts for $10 – that includes Xeroxed news clippings from the infamous 1980s Ricky Kasso “Say you love Satan” murders. This record is an ok 80s punk record but the thing I dig the most about it is the band’s direct connection to Long Island, where I grew up. The cover of the LP is a half-toned photo of an abandoned mental institution that my friends and I would creep around on many a bored suburban night. I’ve never seen a copy of this LP anywhere since.
Do you guys ever hit up garage sales and flea markets for music as well? What have been some cool finds you’ve come across on that front?
One time I was driving back home from my grandma’s house and I spotted this super old dumpy house with a bunch of junk strewn across the lawn. The usual broken electronics, out of date clothing, kids toys, etc. Upon further inspection I found two crates of LPs that were just jumping with 80s speed, death, and thrash metal. For $20 they were mine. There was a compilation LP in the stack called Satan’s Revenge Part 2 with a band on it called The Unsane that had an address right in my hometown. I called my friend Ryan about the score and we drove to the address on the LP but all that was there was just a really confused woman.
What out-of-print album do you wish they would reissue?
The Relatively Clean Rivers s/t LP from 1975 and the Virgin Insanity Illusions of the Maintenance Main from 1971 need to be reissued (again). These are excellent private press folk records that make me want to live in the woods in a log cabin without a care in the world.