Aloha From Hawaii! BLURT’s Travel Desk Editor heads to Waikiki for plenty of surf ‘n’ turf ‘n’ The King… (photos follow the story – Hashtag: #Elvis). Incidentally, Ms. Gaar has written previously about Hawaii – and Hawaii-related Elvis matters – for the magazine. Check out “Waikiki After Dark” and “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” should you dare.
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
I’ve been a fan of the Rock-a-Hula show in Waikiki since it opened seven years ago, and have seen it in its various incarnations. Initially, this tribute artist show (created by Legends in Concert Las Vegas) simply presented sets by four different impersonators. In 2014, the show boosted the Hawaiian quotient, and made it a more lavish production, with multi-screen projections, decorative sets, and dancers. They’ve recently given the show another facelift, cutting back on the tribute artists, and adding even more of that Hawaiian spirit.
I was offered the opportunity to check out the show again, choosing whatever package I wanted. I eagerly accepted, choosing the top package, the Green Room “Ultimate Experience.”
This is the package to choose if you want to go all out, and get the very best seats in the house (there are also cheaper options; I’ll get to those later). The Green Room package spares no attention to detail from the moment you check in, when you’re given a backstage pass to wear around your neck. Green Room attendees are welcomed into the Royal Hawaiian Theater before anyone else, escorted down the red carpet while hula dancers perform. You’re taken to — where else? — the Green Room, where you’re greeted by one of the evening’s tribute artists (the night I attended, it was Michael Jackson), who poses for a picture with you (a free print is included in the package). The Green Room is supposed to be an homage to the tropical themed “Jungle Room” at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, which, well, wasn’t green. Never mind. There are glasses of sparkling wine awaiting you, along with hors d’oeuvres. Get snacking!
You’re then taken on a backstage tour, getting an idea of what the dancers deal with when they have to race through the small corridors between numbers. We were allowed to try on the Tahitian headdresses the dancers wear (very heavy!), and you get to pose on stage with the huge Taiko drum. Next, you arrive at your stageside table, where you’re served a four-course meal, including beef tenderloin and wild Alaskan salmon and Maine lobster with your salad. Two free drinks as well. Everything was delicious. And now, on with the show….
Rock-a-Hula is a multi-media production; there are screens on both sides of the stage, and one at the rear. It’s also very much a live show; the band is placed right on stage, and none of the performers are lip-syncing. One fun element is how the film footage is used to underscore the live action on stage. The show opens with footage of the SS Lurline arriving in Honolulu, illustrating how most tourists visited the island before air travel took off. Then a large prop ship comes out on stage and the dancers re-create the kind of pier-side hula that greeted the new arrivals; a surfer even hangs from the ceiling, in a Cirque du Soleil touch. A panorama of images on the screens highlight Hawaiian legends of the past, like singer Alfred Apaka (some explanatory text on these pictures would be useful for those who might not immediately recognize the performers).
It all builds to the arrival of the first tribute artist to appear, Elvis Presley. The King is played by Rock-a-Hula veteran Johnny Fortuno, who handles the ’60s and ’70s Elvis eras with ease, starting out in the outfit Elvis wore while performing “Rock-a-Hula” in his first Hawaiian film, Blue Hawaii, then graduating to a jumpsuit, for his homage to Elvis’ 1973 Aloha From Hawaii satellite broadcast. Among the well-known stuff (“Hound Dog,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), there’s also a rarity; “Slicin’ Sand,” from Blue Hawaii, a song I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an Elvis tribute artist perform. Fortuno also gets up close and personal with audience, passing out scarves, kisses, and handshakes to the faithful during “Suspicious Minds.”
Michael Jackson (as performed by Jason Jarrett) is the only other tribute artist featured in the show. Aside from a quick nod to his Jackson 5 past (“I Want You Back”), it’s mostly the latter day Jackson that’s on display: “Shake Your Body,” “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” (complete with moonwalking). It’s a set that’s as heavy on dancing as it is on singing, and Jarrett has the moves down.
Though the show has no underlying narrative, there is an unifying theme; Rock-a-Hula is meant to take you on a “Hawaiian Journey,” the idea of a trip being referenced from that first footage of the SS Lurline. There are more dance numbers, with the energetic troupe performing to a medley of surf tunes, as well as traditional Hawaiian dancing (the Tahitian dancing is especially thrilling). The fire knife dancing is another highlight. No, it’s not a knife; think of it as a torch, or a baton, lit at one or both ends, and then vigorously spun around.
Also new to the show are spots for a local singer (who will rotate; Hirie was the performer when I attended). Hirie was featured in the show’s opening, and throughout the rest of the performance; in one moving sequence, when footage of Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was shown while his medley of “Over the Rainbow”/“What a Wonderful World” was played, the song segued into Hirie performing the final verse live. The show comes to a heartwarming conclusion with the entire cast on stage, leading everyone through the chorus of “Aloha ‘Oe,” written by Queen Lili‘uokalani (Hawaii’s last ruler). Afterwards, everyone’s welcome to meet the cast in the lobby, where they happily pose for photos and sign autographs.
It’s a lively and engaging show, and making it more of a theatrical production than it was in its original incarnation has definitely made it more exciting. But in this latest iteration, I felt the tribute artists were a bit short-changed, with their spots cut back to allow for more dancing and the local singer.
Elvis in particular I felt was underused. If you want to make the show more Hawaiian-flavored, why not draw on more of the songs he performed in his other Hawaiian films (Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style)? Including Hawaiian-born songwriter Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You” would also be a good touch during the “Aloha From Hawaii” sequence (the concert was a benefit for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund). It felt like Elvis was in and out too quickly. And while I enjoyed Hirie, since she wasn’t playing a character herself, it made the show feel like a bit of a mish-mash. Is it a tribute artist show? Or a Hawaiian production where Elvis and Michael Jackson drop in for a couple of numbers?
It’s still a show I highly recommend. It’s just too much fun to pass up. And there’s so much going on, you can’t properly take it all in, in one viewing. That’s why I look forward to seeing Rock-a-Hula again.
Now, about those other ticket packages. The theater seats 750, with most seats in the upper auditorium (which they call the mezzanine), and Green Room and Stageside VIP packages seated at tables down front. The cheapest package is the Rockin’ Show ($69 adult/$41 child) which gets you a seat in the rear part of the mezzanine. I’ve sat in a variety of places in this venue and the view is good wherever you sit. But of course it’s more exciting to get as close as you can to the performers, so if you don’t want to do one of the deluxe packages, I recommend the Luau package ($109 adult/$66 child), which, you’ve guessed it, includes a very tasty luau buffet, with all the luau staples (roast pig, hulihuli chicken, lomilomi salmon), a mai tai, and better seating in the mezzanine. The Stageside VIP ($149 adult/$89 child) includes a reception before you’re seated at your not-quite-as-good-as-the-Green-Room-seating-but-still-pretty-good table, where you’re served the same dinner as the Green Room package, and you get two free drinks. The Green Room package isn’t that much more ($185 adult/$111 child), and consider that you also get an extra drink (that glass of sparkling wine in the Green Room itself) and a free souvenir photo (which otherwise costs $25). Depending on your budget, it might be worth the upgrade.
Tip: Be sure and take some time to explore the lobby, which features various rock memorabilia. There’s also a bar, and you’re allowed to take drinks into the auditorium. Want a scarf from Elvis? The stageside seating, or the front row and aisle seats of the mezzanine, give you the best chance.
Jumpsuit Elvis (Johnny Fortuno) sends you plenty of Alooooooha!
The ever-energetic dance troupe of Rock-a-Hula
All hail the awesome fire knife dancer!
The swanky Green Room. Sparkling wine and snacks to spare.
Local non-character performers are now part of the Rock-a-Hula show. Pop-reggae artist Hirie was one of the rotating performers.
Jason Jerrett cops all the right moves as Michael Jackson.
Can you feel it? Michael Jackson (Jason Jerrett) gets it on with a Rock-a-Hula dancer.
Maine lobster, flown all the way to Waikiki — just for you.
Your humble correspondent and Johnny Fortuno, après the show.
Johnny Fortuno in action as the Blue Hawaii-era Elvis.
The annual blowout happened June 7 through 10 this year, and it was indeed a blowout. (Pictured above: Durand Jones & the Indications.)
TEXT AND PICTURES BY: MARK JACKSON (#markjacksonphotography1)
Bonnaroo first started way back in 2002 with a heavy influence in jam bands, Positivity, and happiness, but has branched out in many wonderful directions. Over the years the festival has stayed true with their core selection of genres but has added more and more mainstream artist. Bonnaroo has also worked to separate itself from the many same old same old music festivals by giving the attendees a unique experience inside the festival grounds and in the campgrounds. Offering pop up mini-concerts and karaoke sets on small stages in the campground areas, shaded hangout areas, food vendors throughout the campgrounds, and the addition to a lot of “real bathrooms” this festival does indeed set itself apart from most festivals. With attendance at around 80,000 this year, I would say it’s safe to say they are giving the people what they want. Bonnaroo has also had its share of house and techno artist over the past several years, but last year they made a huge leap into the EDM scene by turning “The Other Tent” into a full stage that rivals the main stage. The Other Stage is solely dedicated to EDM music and EDM artist and with the crowds that flocked to the stage all weekend last year and again this year, I would say it’s definitely here to stay!
New for this year was the Grand Ole Opry, a two-hour country show similar to the Super Jam format in that they had many artists playing together. The official announcer of the Grand Ole Opry Mr. Bill Cody was at the helm and introduced Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show, Bobby Bare, Del McCoury Band, and Riders In The Sky, as well as Joshua Hedley, LANCO, Nikki Lane, and Maggie Rose.
The Super Jam was a tribute to late great Tom Petty this year and it too had an all-star cast to pay tribute to Mr. Petty who passed away October 2nd of 2017. The tribute included such names as Cheryl Crow, Hayley Williams from Paramore, Matt Shultz from Cage The Elephant, Sameer Gadhia from Young The Giant, Langhorne Slim, Photographer and musician Danny Clinch, Vanessa Carlton, and more. This year’s Super Jam was a heartfelt tribute that showcased many songs of the career of Tom, and I think he was looking down on us with that wonderful smile that he had in approval.
Bonnaroo is also known as a festival for finding the next big names in music. Artists that you may not have heard of yet will often play here and six months later be all over the radio and social media. I’ve seen this happen over the years with acts such as Twenty One Pilots, Highly Suspect, Halsey, and last years breakout artist who once again played this year on a bigger stage, Dua Lipa. The list goes on and on for breakout artist who first gains major traction at the Roo. Some of the up and coming artist at Bonnaroo this year included Lewis Capaldi, Lizzie, Topaz Jones, Flor, Jade Bird, and my favorite new find this year Sir Sly. Miller Lite held a contest this year called “The Road To Roo”, This contest allowed bands to compete for a chance to play and be featured on the New Music On Tap Lounge Brewed By Miller Lite Stage. The winning band was The Foxies who have roots in Phoenix but now reside in Nashville, TN. Fronted by Julia Lauren Bullock the band has started making a name for themselves in a town where country music rules. The Foxies are bringing an Indie pop sound infused with an 80’s glam pop that needs to be seen live.
Headliners for this year’s Bonnaroo were Eminem, The Killers, Muse, Future, and Bassnectar. There were many great bands such as Paramore, T-Pain, Midland, Khalid, Moon Taxi, who topped the bill as well, but there is so much more than music to experience at Bonnaroo that must be experienced for yourself. The motto “Radiate Positivity” is much more than a slogan on the farm and from the moment you are here you can feel it in the air and in the people. This place is much more than a music festival and arts festival. It is a utopia of sorts that carries with it long days, long nights and extreme Tennessee summer heat, but you won’t care about any of those things while you are living in the moment of this magical place. Unfortunately, we must live in the real world until next June 13th thru the 16th when we can once again grace the farm. Until then I would like to give a huge thanks to the first class Big Hassle Media staff and to Live Nation for once again allowing me to cover this fantastic music festival.
Magic and mayhem coexist—not necessarily peacefully, but certainly with a purposeful deliberateness—in the Atlanta artist’s remarkable new album, bleak beauty. (Scroll to the bottom to hear three key tracks.)
BY KEITH JOYNER
Clay Harper quietly sings into a microphone in the makeshift studio on the ground floor of his Atlanta home. I follow along on an acoustic guitar, creating parts on the fly. It feels like packing up. The last time I was here I had traveled from Los Angeles to say goodbye to Stephanie, Clay’s partner of twenty years, and my best friend from high school. It was both surreal and unthinkable that someone so young and in the prime of her life would be taken so mercilessly. On this day, however, the house is for sale, and there is a noticeable sense of unease. The question hangs heavy in the air: What now?
Clay had casually invited me to play on a new song he was recording. And so, after an impromptu and innocuous invitation to coffee, I found myself learning what would become the song “Pretty Victor,” from the new self-released album, bleak beauty. I devised an interesting, passable part, all the while formulating how I could improve upon it when it came time to record.
“That’s great! I love it,” exclaimed Clay.
It became immediately clear that there was to be no “next take.” That was it.
It is precisely this moment that speaks to a singular talent, an innate ability to recognize an opportunity, and use it, all for the sake of the art. Had it been up to me, I might have recorded multiple takes, and added additional parts. As it happens, Clay stripped away everything but one guitar—flaws and all—and his voice alone. What’s left is a tentative answer to the question hanging over the proceedings. That is, we can’t possibly prepare or know what to do when tragedy strikes. After all, the world at large is cruel and indifferent to our inner suffering. There is nothing left but to carry on.
When we lose someone, there are universal rituals and traditions to help cope with the loss. But I sense that for Clay, they are entirely insufficient. There are too many things left unsaid; sentiments that are private, painful and uncomfortable, and not suited for mixed company. Clay has gone on record to say that the album is not about Stephanie, but, instead, a recounting of his experience in steady chronological order. I wonder if this may be in deference to someone who was a very private, though selfless, person. My earliest memories of her were of someone wholly devoted to the idea of service. To a self-centered teen like myself, I was suspicious. Though Stephanie spent the next thirty years turning words into action. If bleak beauty is not about her, it is certainly for her. (Listen to tracks from the record HERE.)
Many in Atlanta and the Southeast recall Clay Harper as boss man in post-punk provocateurs The Coolies (originally called The Beatles, until receiving the expected Cease and Desist letter), and, later, The Ottoman Empire. He was not then—and still isn’t—averse to mixing combustible elements for maximum effect in both music and performance. That desire more likely stems from a genuine fascination with witnessing the inevitable explosion than it does getting a cheap rise out of people.
But don’t ask the north Georgia cloggers he invited to open the final Coolies show in 1990 about it. Of course, it could have gone either way. When the curtain rose on the unsuspecting dancers as they clogged their way through “New Sensation” by INXS, the sneering punk crowd wasn’t having it. Nor were the Todd Rundgren fans at a more recent show at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Clay was supporting his last album, 2013’s Old Airport Road. Between each song, lurid phone sex recordings were played over the PA until the crowd demanded he leave the stage early, chanting, “Todd Rundgren Now!” Hey, they could have laughed. And really. They should have. Humorless bastards. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Andy Kaufman would’ve been proud.
Given all of this, it’s a curious thing to venture that bleak beauty may be Clay’s most audacious work to date. Its boldness can be found in its quietude and vulnerability. For sure, it is a tone poem of grief, remorse, love and hope. But strangely, there is levity and common truth throughout. Clay’s longtime friend, the artist, erstwhile Clash associate, and self-professed “cultural curator,” Kosmo Vinyl, points out, it is “that realization that the more personal something becomes, the more universal it becomes. Also the realization that there is no substitute for truth and it can rarely, if ever be faked.” From the held-breath salvo of the opening title track to the repeated closing mantra “I’m Not High,” bleak beauty reminds us to take nothing for granted, and accept the inevitable light and shade of this world with resigned grace.
Once again, Clay directs an impressive cast of musicians, including Chaz Jankel (Ian Dury and The Blockheads), Tom Gray (The Brains), and Rick Richards (The Georgia Satellites), among others with the precision of Kubrick, all without playing a single note himself. Brad Quinn (formerly of The Ottoman Empire and the Tommy Keene Band) adds “For someone who, as far as I know, doesn’t particularly play anything, he’s written more great songs and made more records than almost anyone I know.” And bleak beauty is no exception. Each track inhabits a classic space as if you’ve known it your entire life.
In May, Clay Harper and band performed the album in its entirety in an intimate setting at the Avondale Towne Cinema, near Atlanta. When asked what it’s like to revisit the songs in front of an audience, Clay responds, “I would like to do more shows. I’m not sure I would like to perform the record again. I want it to be evaluated as a piece of art. I want people to hear it and find their meaning, but I think it’s there for private consumption. I don’t think it needs to be public entertainment.”
One senses that bleak beauty is just as much about moving on as it is paying respect to a great lost love.
To my mind there are only two types of music: the self-conscious kind, which is certainly not always a pejorative; and the kind that comes from somewhere deep within—the kind that must be released, one way or the other no matter the consequences. Damn the cynics. Or more to the point, as Clay’s friend and frequent collaborator Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ n’ Cryin’) says, “I think that sometimes artists make art for the people, and sometimes artists make art for themselves. This one’s for Clay. It’s true soul music from the cosmos straight to our hearts.”
There is a special kind of alchemy at work when songs such as these, borne of despair and darkness, conspire to conjure something altogether enlivening. After all, to live is to create. And no greater tribute may be paid to a life well-lived than to “rage against the dying of the light.” No, it is not entertainment. But perhaps it’s something to be shared. There is genuine electricity when Clay sings plaintively “Are you the bird? Are you the breeze? Are you the sunshine through the trees?”
I’d like to believe that when we remember, the answer is always yes.
Keith Joyner is a regular BLURT contributor. A member of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Athens pop mavens Seven Simons as well as The The, and, more recently, Twinstar and les biches, the L.A.-by-way-of-Georgia musician previously recounted a memorable evening in the company of David J and Genesis P-Orridge.
A prolific songwriter, spurred on by some notable studio mavens, pulls off a musical hat trick for the ages.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
When Aaron Smart set out to record his debut under the moniker Silverplanes, he didn’t initially set out with an agenda to pull off a wholly ambitious series of releases. He was simply looking to put out an LP.
But, thanks to a prolific nature, a little extra time, and an inspired suggestion by his producer, Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith, The Who and Cheap Trick), he turned in an impressive trio of 5-song EPs, each mixed by a different veteran producer with a combined resume that could fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Gulfstream, the first EP, was mixed by Shelly Yakus, whose extensive resume includes albums with U2, Tom Petty and Lou Reed; Bombardier was mixed by Jay Messina, known for his work with Aerosmith, KISS and Supertramp; The third and final EP, Lear, was released on June 8. It was mixed by Geoff Emerick, who worked on some of the Beatles’ most innovative releases as well as albums by Badfinger, Elvis Costello and Jeff Beck.
Smart, prepping for the final EP release in the series spoke with Blurt recently about this endeavor, how he was able to lure in such an amazing set of behind-the-scenes talent— and how he’s going to top it.
BLURT: So how did you come up with the idea of a series of EPs for your debut? It’s obviously a pretty novel approach.
SMART: We recorded 15 songs for an album and were editing down to 12. We were done with it and shopping for a label to put it out and then we just kept recording. And another nine months went by and we had another 18 songs and realized that things had evolved in a really cool way with Jack’s vision and my tastes and with the music landscape the way it is. Tough for a new band to get heard so figured let’s spread this out and put out most if not all of it
Jack Douglas has an impressive background. How did you convince him to produce you?
I had met Jack nine years before when he worked on a record at my old recording studio. I decided I wanted a badass producer to work on my next project and began searching. During that time Blake, Jack’s son, said why don’t you ask my dad to do it. I answered, “Yeah, sure your dad.” Blake responded, “Send him a few demos and see what he thinks. I think he will be into it.” I emailed him a few and he got back to me. Asking me, “Who is this? Someone you recording at your studio?” I told him, “No, it’s me.” He came back with “Why didn’t we do a record nine years ago?” And that was that.
Did you know all along that you want different engineers for each release?
No, originally, we recorded 15 songs and when we got to the mix time Jack threw around the idea of having Shelly Yakus mix it. But he wasn’t available as he was setting up Aftermaster, his new studio. We kept recording and I said let’s have Shelly mix this and Jack and I had just had dinner with Geoff Emerick in LA and Jay Messina a few weeks later in New York and Jack said this is serendipitous. Let’s have these two and Shelly mix five songs each and you can put them out separately – a 3 EP series. I said “Uh, yes please” (Laughs).
Was it difficult to figure out who you wanted to mix the songs?
No, once Geoff came into the picture. Jack had a long history with Shelly Yakus and Jay Messina.
So, do the trio of EPs tie together under a unifying theme?
Not really a unifying theme like a “concept” or what not but definitely a unifying sound. Vintage meets modern. Jack Douglas’ sonic signature is probably the unifying thread between them all.
Do you plan to tour with a band now that these albums are out?
Yeah have been rehearsing just about to book a debut Los Angeles show.
Now that this project is finished, what’s next? Do you plan to continue recording under the name Silverplanes?
Yes, Silverplanes is just in its infancy. I’m building a new studio in LA with an old friend that used to be at El Dorado. Going to be collaborating with a bunch of friends and tracking a new Silverplanes full length for 2019 release. Gulfstream is out; touring will begin for this second EP Bombardier, which released on March 30th and third EP, Lear, mixed by Geoff Emerick that will he released in mid-May. Then a double vinyl of all the EPs and five new tracks will he released shortly thereafter
How, indeed: by speaking the truth, not lies. Philly’s Fillmore was the scene for this sweat-soaked June 5 evening by Britain’s Frank Turner and his band The Sleeping Souls, and they did not disappoint—not even the Trump-country drunks who took exception to some of Mr. Turner’s more sharpened verbal daggers. Above photo by Ben Morse, via Turner’s Facebook page.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a long time since Frank Turner had to play basement shows and VFW Halls, sleeping on strangers’ floors before loading up the van the next morning and heading to the next show, but he clearly is still every bit as much of that scrappy DIY punk rocker.
Headlining a show in Philly recently, promoting his latest record, Be More Kind, Turner did plenty of crowd surfing, sang enough of his own political punk anthems to please The Clash and encouraged safety in the pit (a plea from just about every punk rock singer with a mic dating back to the early ‘80s).
“First rule tonight, don’t be a dickhead; second rule, if you know the words to these songs you have to sing along – loudly!”
The set, and Turner in particular, was a masterclass in pleasing everyone from diehard fans to the uninitiated dragged to the show by friends. From the moment Turner took to the stage in dark pants, a soon-to-be soaked through with sweat white oxford and a thin black tie, he entertained with a ferocity and passion that belied the fact that he’s been on the road for nearly a month already. Running through a couple of his newer songs up front, he quickly moved into some of the older fan favorites like “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” “If I Ever Stray” and even the B-side “Tattoos.” He and the band also rolled out “Brave Face,” off the new album, for its live show debut.
“I’m not American, but over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time here. I’ve toured 48 states so far,” Turner said before launching into the remarkably appropriate song, “Make America Great Again,” a pitch perfect rebuke on Trump and all of the racists who have crawled out from under their rocks since his election. “A friend told me you’re not going to have the balls to play this song in America. I said, ‘Americans are fucking adults and they can understand a song about politics.’”
The song was met with loud cheers as the sold-out crowd sang along to every verse. Well, almost everyone, one of the exceptions being the drunk stranger who leaned over to me and croaked out “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people coming into our country and telling us what’s wrong with our politics. Amirite?” When I disagreed, he hugged me (that’s odd, right?) and then walked out of the venue and into the night, like a Red State Michael Landon from a Highway to Heaven reboot for the Trump era. No one else seemed to have a problem singing along loudly and proudly to the chorus (“Let’s make America great again/let’s make racists ashamed again”).
Turner closed off the show with a spirited encore that included the rapturous “I Still Believe” and the should-be punk rock anthem “Four Simple Words.”
Below: The King in action, followed by his doppelganger Turner making things great, in a pair of official videos.
Frank Turner will be spending a good amount of time touring North America this summer and into the fall. Dates are HERE. Our suggestion: borrow your redneck Republican neighbor’s MAGA hat and bring it for Turner to sign…
With a reunion tour under their belt and a career-spanning vinyl box set in stores, the British outfit’s is feeling righteously recharged. Let’s cast back to one memorable evening in 1990 when the BLURT editor crossed paths with them and lived to write about it. (Photos of Thee Hypnotics in Charlotte by Kerry McCaskill.)
BY FRED MILLS
About three years ago, this magazine published an exclusive interview with Ray Hanson, erstwhile guitarist for Thee Hypnotics, who blazed a memorable 1985-99 hard rock trail across their native UK as well as the US and Europe, releasing three studio albums and a live one, plus several singles and Eps, before burning out and splitting up. The occasion of our Hanson interview, which was conducted by my fellow Thee Hypnotics devotee Jonathan Levitt, was to examine the making and aftermath of what most fans still consider to be their classic LP, 1991’s Soul Glitter & Sin. At the time Hanson had plenty of work on his hands with his band the Whores of Babylon, and of course vocalist Jim Jones was working on his own projects, including the Jim Jones Revue and, later, Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind. But when asked the inevitable reunion question, Hanson certainly didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “You never know!”
As it turns out, the reunion not only became a possibility, but also a reality. Earlier this year the band commenced doing live gigs, and an official press release trumpeted the news in wonderfully florid fashion:
“Taking their cues from the Detroit militancy of The MC5, the corrupting output of The Stooges and the gospel according to The Cramps, Thee Hypnotics’ devastating brand of rock’n’roll was propelled by near punishing decibel levels and a fervour bordering on the evangelical. Blazing a devastating trail of high-octane thrills and annihilation, Thee Hypnotics occupied a bizarre hinterland that sat somewhere between the British neo-psychedelic scene of the late 80s and the detonation of garage-influenced rock from the Pacific northwest of the early 90s. Little wonder that a band that shone so bright would burn out before the end of the century.
“And now they’re back…
“For the first time in 20 years, the classic line-up of co-founders Jim Jones (vocals) and Ray Hanson (guitar), with Phil Smith (drums) and Jeremy Cottingham (bass), is set to hit the road with all the power of a Viking raiding party. Still harbouring an intense belief in assaultive rock’n’roll as liberation, and delivering their sonic payload with a savage intensity, this influential and legendary group is back to testify one more time.”
Also announced was that the members were additionally overseeing a career-spanning vinyl box set featuring all three studio albums—1990’s Come Down Heavy, the aforementioned SG&S and 1993’s Chris Robinson-produced The Very Crystal Speed Machine—plus a bonus rarities album, In A Trance (Thee Early Daze 86-89). Immaculately designed, the 4LP box, Righteously Re-Charged, released by Beggars Arkive, ably provides snapshots of the group’s every stage, from humble indie beginnings as a Motor City-fixated outfit with a fetish for leather jackets, aviator shades, and tight pants, to widescreen rockers on a cinematic, noirish trip, to full-bore, druggy Seventies worshipers. Nary a dull moment, either, for while charting a steady (and impressive) musical evolution, the box also vividly displays songwriting chops and attitudinal swagger that, for its time, was well outside the British norm. No happy Mondays for these lads; every night’s a 2AM Saturday.
The 12-page booklet is the perfect listening companion, too, stuffed to the gills with rare photos, a new interview and a pair of impressionistic essays—and, I’m not so humble as to not mention, Mr. Levitt’s BLURT interview with Hanson (yours truly is also given thanks from the band, but all I did was edit and publish, it’s all Jonathan and Ray, so thanks to both of you, gents). Oh, and the LPs are all on different colors of vinyl: purple, red, white, and clear. Nice touch, that.
Below, watch the trailer for the documentary film about the band that drummer Phil Smith has assembled.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to resurrect an article from deep in my archives, a 1990 profile/interview of the band originally published in the late fall of that year in The Bob magazine and titled half men, half boys (all beasts) in a (somewhat) clever nod to a Thee Hypnotics songtitle. I was living in Charlotte, NC, in 1990 and that spring the band came through town with then-labelmates Tad; their LP debut actually was prior to Come Down Heavy, the part-live album Live’r Than God, which in the US was released by Sub Pop. I was already a fan, having been gifted a copy of their first single by a female friend (Cindy, if you’re out there, I still owe you a big thank-you) who’d traveled to England recently and knew the band’s manager, Steve Langdon. I had also been gifted a demo tape of the band and subsequently reviewed the single in The Bob, making sure Langdon got a copy, and when I had learned they would in fact be coming to Charlotte, I quickly set up an interview through the manager.
Indeed, upon meeting me at soundcheck the afternoon of the show, I was greeted like an old friend—I’m pretty sure I was one of the first American journalists to write about Thee Hypnotics—and the first question after the handshakes was, “Where can we get some liquor?” I promptly got in the van with Langdon and we headed off to the store to round up plenty of refreshments. During the ride London played me a tape of some rough studio mixes to get me revved up for the show.
Later that evening, following a hilarious dinner with the Tad guys and incendiary sets from both groups, I settled down in their dressing room to, ahem, help them go through a few bottles of Jack Daniels and ostensibly conduct an interview. Jones, though, decided instead to run off with a mysterious young lady, so Hanson and bassist Will Pepper opted to head out with me to a nearby all-night diner for some grub and convo.
As I was somewhat worse for the wear in the wake of the booze, the interview went about as well as might be expected, something I learned the next morning when I played back portions of the interview cassette. Clearly the two musicians had been more than generous with their time and tolerant of their de facto host; put another way, it was definitely not the most insightful (or lucid) interview I’d done. But I was determined to make lemons out of lemonade, not to mention live up to my promise of getting the band some U.S. ink, so I went ahead filed the following text and even admitted to my general lack of professionalism in the story. Read on—but consider yourself duly warned.
Thee Hypnotics—The Bob Interview (1990)
Or, how to salvage an interview in several E-Z steps.
Back in March, Sub Pop sent Thee Hypnotics around on tour with Tad, in support of their Live’r Than God! album. The English band had already signed to Beggars Banquet Records for their next album, so this initial American jaunt was merely to lay some groundwork for subsequent headlining tours.
The March 29 show in Charlotte left me, as the saying goes, completely blown away by the sheer hard rock power the band evinced and the total energy transfer that took place between band and audience. Seemingly not caring that there were only around 50 people at the show (despite having among their fanbase the likes of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, they were not in any way well-known yet in the States), Thee Hypnotics throttled the stage for nearly an hour, the rhythm section setting in motion a nonstop, malevolent, grunting rumble, while the guitarist peeled off screams of wah-wah, distortion, and feedback amid fat power-chord chunkage.
Three of the guys, I might add, were decked out in vintage rock star garb: boots, purple flares, crushed velvet jackets—a direct lineage to Your Satanic Majesty or Mr. Hendrix. The singer opted for a different but no less striking form of cool: a polka-dot shirt later discarded to reveal his John Lee Hooker teeshirt underneath.
And he howled like the delta bluesman himself, possessed of low-down tremblin’ shakes and knowing that his deal with the devil was soon to come to term. He stamped the mic stand in fury, dropped to his knees out of sheer desperation, rolled around near the edge, then leaped back up in time for the final chorus. Consummate professionals, they were; and if you hear someone making those Stooges comparisons, don’t necessary ignore or deplore, because the Detroit Rock City sound has been reborn but its reputation has in no way been sullied.
Now, before the gig, manager Steve Langdon requested directions to the local liquor store, so I hopped in the tour van and duly directed. While he was in the store I remained in the van listening to some mighty potent rough mixes of some forthcoming music. This was the beginning of my downfall, and it wouldn’t help that the gig itself would be so overwhelming; already primed beforehand with this secret sonic knowledge, indulgence mode kicked in and I would indeed indulge over the course of the evening. Cue up decibels, several cups of wine during the show, and numerous swigs from the band’s Jack Daniels bottle afterward.
Memo to fellow writers: ALWAYS DO YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFORE THE GIGS. Just before Lester Bangs could pull off drinking like a fish prior to the interview does not mean you can do likewise and conduct your interview following the show. You may, of course, wind up with a few good quotes. But it’s definitely a crapshoot—as we shall soon learn. But first, an introduction.
Thee Hypnotics formed around ’87 in High Wycombe, north of London. The initial lineup of Jim Jones (vocals), Ray “Sonic” Hanson (guitars), Chris Dennis (bass), and mark Thompson (drums) recorded a demo which led to going into the studio with producer Dave Goodman, of Sex Pistols infamy, for their first single, “Love in a Different Vein” b/w “Al Night Long” (Hipsville Records). By ’88 they’d toured the UK with Spacemen 3, Zodiac Mindwarp, the Damned, and others, and slowly began getting noticed for their singular brand of ooogah.
Signing with Situation Two Records, Thee Hypnotics picked up a new bassist, Will Pepper, then in ’89 released a 12-inch single (“Justice in Freedom,” “Preachin’ & Ramblin’,” “Choose My Own Way”) as well as the mini-album Live’r Than God! The US Sub Pop version, a compilation of studio tracks plus four-fifths of the British Live’r, came out several months later.
This year, 1990, saw the recording of new Thee Hypnotics material, and a new drummer, Phil Smith (ex-Bambi Slam), signed up as well. The tape I heard in the tour van had undergone severe remixing, and interestingly enough, some months later when I heard the resulting CD, I noticed that it was produced by the band and Dave Garland but omitted the sleeve info on the LP version regarding Seattle’s Jack Endino’s hand in the mixing. Regardless, word has it that Come Down Heavy is getting the proverbial “big push” from Beggars Banquet/RCA in the United States.
Now, let’s find out how badly yours truly can conduct an interview at 1:30 in the morning.
Along with a couple of friends, one of them my photographer, escort Pepper and Hanson to an all-night eatery. The singer has long since disappeared with a lady in black, while the drummer and manager have retired to the hotel to rest up for the early-AM drive that looms in just a few hours. We sit down in a booth and glance around at various cops, prostitutes, and winos. We feel completely at home (at least I do; Will and Ray haven’t rendered judgment just yet).
The conversation begins with a discussion of grilled cheese sandwiches, alcohol consumption, and fellow Brit Nikki Sudden, who had also appeared in Charlotte recently and who’d also shared a bottle or two with this writer. (Before you ask: Yes, I did the interview at soundcheck, not after the show.)
Will: He just wants to live his life like Nick Cave. Ray: And Johnny Thunders… Will: I know he worships Nick Cave. I’ve heard his records and I know what he’s getting at, but he’s not quite good enough yet.
A waitress comes up and eyes our group suspiciously. Your journalist is obviously the worst for the wear after scamming so much of the band’s bottles. Only after the coffee arrives does any semblance of non-mushmouthed interview technique emerge from me, and the musicians may actually still be wondering when the interview is going to begin and the blather is going to end.
Me (pointing at Live’r Than God!): So what’s all this psychedelic shit, is it English or American, this record sleeve?
Will: That’s Sub Pop that did it. The English one’s okay. That’s out of date anyway.
Me: Here’s an early tape of the band, what about these songs? You’ve got one called “Resurrection Joe” but The Cult have that already…
Will (scrutinizing the track listing): “Astral Rising,” we haven’t played that for years! What the fuck is “The Blues”? “Snake Charmer Girl”… “Soul Trader”… “Resurrection Joe”… Ours is so much better than The Cult’s. Theirs is sort of like a hip-hop thing. These songs weren’t produced or engineered, they were just taped straight for demos.
Ray: “The Blues,” I don’t know what that is either, must be from a lie gig. How the fuck did this get to you?
Me (brandishing the 45 and the tape): This record actually made me come in my pants. If nothing else, anybody that puts [a photo of] the Black Panthers on the back of the record sleeve, since I was actually around in those days, is definitely a band kicking butt and it makes major points with me.
Will: Huey Newton got shot awhile back, didn’t he?
Me: See, back then, I was getting my first dose of cultural consciousness [outside my white Southern boy upbringing], and I was reading Newton’s book too. What was going on? Later, though, something went wrong, and including the music—it took a wrong turn. So are you guys trying to correct that? Because as far as tonight was concerned, I saw “it” happening all over again in the music.
Will: The music or the politics? The music, definitely, yeah. The political thing, well, it’s a different scene these days, isn’t it?
Ray: Very realistically, all we can offer from that time is the music. We can’t offer anything else. It would be contrived. You can’t be political. A lot of bands would like to think they are political, but they haven’t got any control, they haven’t got any power, they’ve got nothing, and it’s pointless. Unless their music is good and powerful. Because there’s too many of those bands. You can only take rock music so far. It can’t change the world and all that shit. It can maybe provoke a few people.
Will: Have a go at it, though. I guess they can raise a bit of cash here and there, like for Live Aid. In England, when Live Aid was done, I always wondered why Bob Geldof was walking around in a bad mood all the time. Apparently they did the show—I don’t know how much money they made, but as an example, say ten million—and the government says, “You’ve made ten million there. We’ve given some already.” So they taxed them on that ten million, kept seven million for the government. A lot of that money never reached where it was meant to reach. It’s a crooked world.
I guess in the ‘60s it seemed really crooked, racism and all that. But it’s still crooked these days, isn’t it, with different… Maybe that’s not a main issue. There’s other things that have taken over the issues, but there are still very crooked things. I don’t know if the money [from benefits] reaches the places. We did one Miners gig once, and we did a Communist festival thing in Italy.
Ray: For the Italian thing, it didn’t raise any consciousness. It was a gig in the name of the Communist Party. But nobody noticed that. They would have come to see us whether we were aligned with that cause or not. Those people that believe music can change the world—it can move people, but it can’t change people’s ways of thinking. People have tried it and failed.
Will: People are separated from each other. They can’t come together and fight against it. They think, “The neighbor’s not doing it, so I’m not gonna bother.” And the neighbor next door’s thinking, “He’s not gonna do it so I’m not gonna bother.”
Ray: It’s exactly what’s going on in England at this very moment. They’ve introduced a Poll Tax. It’s a very different form of taxation for British people. They’ve been going for 50 years with this normal tax, and suddenly this has been introduced. What it basically does is make the rich better off and the poor poorer.
Will: People are in an uproar about it! They are demonstrating in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But they’ll never get anything done, because when they get home from the demonstration they’ll wonder what the neighbors are doing. And the neighbors are so uptight, just like them, and they’re gonna pay this Poll Tax whether it affects them or not. Ran and I, all of us in the band, we were on the dole when we were in Wickham. We were getting like 800 pounds a year from the dole people. And now most of that has to be paid in Poll Tax. It’s a flat rate thing. England used to be quite socialist, you know, you’d pay to your means. This is different, like 400 pounds a year.
Ray: The rich pay their 400 pounds, and their wage is so much higher that the percentage of the tax on that would have been quite a lot compared to the flat rate that they’ve been paying now. So they’re thinking, “Ah! We’re only paying 400 a year, that’s better than 1,000 a year or more.” And the poor, they have to pay 400 as well, the same rate, and they have to take it out of their dole checks, their welfare. A flat rate at the end of the year.
Me (apparently not completely grasping the issue): So how hard is it going to hit you? You’re going from being on an independent [label] to being on a major, Beggars Banquet/RCA.
Will: We’re still broke. RCA, it’s not like we’re signing a piece of paper that says, “Bring us some money.”
Me: Let me ask you at least one proper journalistic question for the evening. The whole Loop/Walkingseeds/Spacemen 3/Crazyhead etc.—current British stuff—and you guys came out at about the same time. Are there connections? Or is it just the English press hype lumping bands together into this post-psychedelic bandwagon?
Ray: I think it all happened at the same time. It is press hype. Everyone’s from different parts of the country anyway.
Will: Let’s just say that the only time I heard of the Walkingseeds was once, when they supported us; and twice, when they were mentioned in one of our reviews.
Me: In a review I read that you once did “Rollercoaster” like Spacemen 3. What did you think of that band, the drug thing? Sonic Boom is legendary for his heroin and methadone exploits.
Will: That review was a mistake. Edwin Pouncey’s review, yeah. That was our first national press review. At Riverside. When Jim should’ve got his cock out. Our first review, with Spacemen 3, and it was a total slag-off. Edwin loves us now. We sent him a copy of “Justice In Freedom” and he liked it, decided he was gonna patronize us. And he did! Apparently he’s quite cool; he does the artwork for Sonic Youth, album covers and everything [as Savage Pencil].
Pete—you know, Sonic Boom—he’s the typical classical only-child sort of public-education kid. You can’t do anything legendary with someone who’s not a legend! He couldn’t be a legend in a million years! He’s just so lifeless, so fucking flat.
Me (laughing): Hey, I paid 20 bucks for his Spectrum album when it came out, just so I could look at the little pinwheel. And I paid 18 bucks for the CD version of Live’r Than God! just to get that one extra live track not on the American LP. (lapsing into a digression) Most of the stuff I get sent for free goes straight to the Record Exchange so I can buy the stuff I really want—you get all these folks calling you up to write about a bunch of bands when, really, you just want to be left alone to listen to and write about the bands you’re willing to pay money for, like Thee Hypnotics.
So, do you guys listen to much recent music?
Will: Tad! Sonic Youth, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Birthday Party.
Me: Flaming Lips?
Will: Oh yeah! They did a cover tune on that Neil Young [tribute album], The Bridge. That was cool.
Me: First time the Lips played here in Charlotte, at the very last minute, the very final chord played, the power went off in the club. It was like the hand of God reached down and cut them off.
Will: It wasn’t the hand of God, it was just bad fucking electricians. Bad connectors. I mean, really…
Me: Hey, I’m from the Bible Belt. I believe in this stuff!
(At this point the conversation turns to the quality of the meal just finished and the out-of-order cigarette machine that is causing much consternation among the musicians. The writer, sensing that the time is right to get his records autographed while the musicians’ senses are “heightened,” produces his Thee Hypnotics collection.)
Me: I just happen to have one of those rock star silver ink pens you see at record signing parties and in-stores…
Ray: I just happen to be able to write in English. Where can we get some cigarettes?
Me: Probably back at the hotel.
Will: So we should go on and do the interview, then?
Me: That was it.
And at this point Ray and Will sort of rolled their eyes, then went outside to pose for photos next to a police cruiser, and we bade them farewell, Upon waking the next morning, the writer played back portions of the “interview” and decided that it would be prudent, in the future, to avoid consuming quite so much of a band’s liquor-of-choice—at least prior to conducting an interview. You never know if you’ll get another chance at it, especially if (a) the band breaks up; (b) someone in the band dies; (c) you die; or (d) most likely option, that the band figures you’re a complete drunken idiot and steers clear of you in the future.
But rest assured that this publication remains a supporter of Thee Hypnotics, regardless of any of its writers’ personal shortcomings.
Below: A pair of Thee Hypnotics, plus the writer and unnamed friend. Yes, I know what he’s laughing about.
Live at The Root Cellar one fine May evening, 5/16/18, indie rock and hip-hop/punk — courtesy opening act Nnamdi Ogbonnaya—ruled, okay!
BY JENNIFER KELLY
An odd pairing, the hyper-verbal, slant-riffed, feminist indie pop of Speedy Ortiz and the complicated hip hop/punk/math rock adventures of Chicagoan Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, but that’s what’s on tap at the Root Cellar on a mid-May evening in bucolic Greenfield, Massachusetts, and we’re lucky to have it.
I arrive with Ogbonnaya already mid-set, bouncing antically through the first few rows of the audience with a mic cord trailing. Ogbonnaya made a big splash last year with his full-length Drool, a slinky, slippery, verbally dexterous set of songs anchored around the performer’s voice, but lavished with all manner of instruments and samples. It seems to have been a rule, somehow, that all writers, no matter how much they liked the record, had to include the word “weird” in the lede, so let’s just get it out there, Ogbonnaya has carved out a very eccentric niche.
Sadie Dupuis explains later on that Drool was one of her favorite albums last year, but that Ogbonnaya set is very different — equally wonderful, but its own thing— and indeed, for much of the set, what Ogbonnaya and his band are doing is more like math-y punk rock than hip hop. It is complicated and frenetic, anchored by a good drummer and bass player and with one guitar and sometimes two (Ogbonnaya plays guitar sometimes), very much in the rock idiom. Because of the acoustics, it’s hard to hear the lyrics, and so, hard to pinpoint which songs he played, but the set gains momentum as it goes and the last three songs are awesome.
Then it’s on to Speedy Ortiz, whose Twerp Verse, released in late April, is a sharper, sweeter, more pop-friendly iteration of the band’s off-kilter art. It’s a home field, more or less, for Sadie Dupuis, who earned an MFA in poetry at nearby U. Mass Amherst and lived for a while in Northampton. As always she channels the vibe of liberal arts prof crossed with the smartest tweener you ever met, long pigtails trailing, short shorts and pink and aqua tinted guitars at the ready. Her band includes bassist Darl Fem, her long-time drummer Mike Falcone and new guitarist Andy Monholt (Devin McKnight has gone on to form Maneka).
The set begins as Twerp Verse does with the churning, buzzing bass of “Buck Me Off,” that’s tall, striking Fem, who midway through the cut joins Dupuis in exultant full-body hops, straight up and down. It’s as good an introduction as any to Speedy Ortiz’s latest album, with its meandering verse and big pop pay-off, the whole thing knocked silly and sideways by the way that Falcone whales on the drums. Dupuis nimbly injects feminist discourse and cultural references into her effervescent songs, skewering digital dating mores in “Buck Me Off” and giving Sheryl Sanders the side-eye in “Lean in When I Suffer.” Yet though politically pointed, the songs are anything but didactic. In the big single “Lucky 88,” Dupuis trades vocals with Fem, her acerbic asides punctuated with the bassist’s high girlish counterpoints.
The set borrows heavily from the latest album, but takes a detour towards the past with “The Graduates” from 2015’s Foil Deer and “Plough” from her long-player debut Major Arcana. This latter song she wrote while living nearby in Northampton, she explains, though it was mostly about drinking at the Boston pub, The Plough and Stars.
The rest of the show mixes old and new, the simmering vulnerability of “No Below,” the stretchy tempo’d snap and pop of “I’m Blessed,” the blaring punk rock fuzz of early single “Taylor Swift” and the off-balance tunefulness of Twerp Verse’s “You Hate the Title.” Heard side by side, the old songs sound leaner, tougher, less ingratiating than the new material; the new songs are giddier and more euphoric. And yet, even at their fizziest, Speedy Ortiz’s songs carry a sting. They’re smart, articulate and absolutely onto male/female foolishness, even as they bounce and entice.
As the band marks their thirtieth anniversary, Posies principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a long look back. (Photos by Dot Pierson)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s no exaggeration to label the Posies as the quintessential power pop band. Over the course of their three-decade career, both as a band and as the mother ship for a series of solo albums procured by its two principals Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the group has created a sound brimming with effusive hooks, flawless harmonies, adroit execution, and the kind of ringing melodies tailor made to leave an everlasting impression. While fans have absorbed and admired the sounds that resulted, sadly the wider world has yet to take notice. Chalk it up to a series of setbacks — a shifting series of record label affiliations, changes within the band’s line-up, and what Stringfellow sees as the lack of a distinct public persona.
“We discovered that a band with two singers was hard to get their heads around,” Stringfellow says. “It’s easier if you have one Axel Rose doing crazy stuff, and you can point the finger at him and make him the focal point. People were thinking, let’s focus in on Ken Stringfellow, or let’s focus in on Jon Auer. It was hard for them to think, let’s focus in on these two guys for whatever reason. We’re not the easiest thing to describe.”
Yet, at the same time, Stringfellow tends to blame the band itself for its lack of wider recognition.
“We were diverted into other realms,” he admits. “I don’t think we had as much faith in ourselves as we should have. We gave up too soon in many ways. That initial breakup in 1998…Anybody can say if I had to do things over again, I’d do it differently. I could say I should have been more mature at an earlier age, because of course I wasn’t. I had the tools that I had and did the best I could with them. Record to record, we had different line-ups and slight variations in the sound, and with all the different projects I’ve been involved with, we are hard to get a bead on. If we were a metal band, it would be so easy. Here’s a metal band, they play metal. They play metal festivals, they play metal festivals…the marketing is done. With us, we’re a very melodic rock band, but in that sense, so is Boston and so is Coldplay.”
Such is speculation of course, but now, as the band celebrates their 30th anniversary, they are getting a second chance of sorts to bring their music full circle and remind both fans and those unawares of the great music that the Posies made out over the years. The campaign is set to start with the reissues of three seminal albums originally released on Geffen imprint DGC — Frosting on the Beater, Dear 23 and Amazing Disgrace, each replete with what Stringfellow refers to as a “shit ton of bonus tracks.” In addition, the band is about to launch an extensive tour that will feature the original band responsible for the Frosting on the Beater album — Auer, Stringfellow, drummer Mike Musberger, and bassist Dave Fox. It amounts to a full-scale reunion of the band’s seminal line-up, and one in which the two principals are eager and excited to unveil.
Blurt spoke with Auer and Stringfellow from their base in Seattle only a few days before the tour was set to get underway. (Tour dates can be viewed at the Posies.net website.) Both men were clearly filled with anticipation and delighted at the prospects of revisiting the Posies’ earlier glories.
BLURT: For starters, tell us about the plans you have in store to mark this auspicious anniversary.
KEN STRINGFELLOW: We’ll be hitting the road with the vintage line-up and playing a retrospective collection of music from all parts of our catalog. Plus, our catalog is being given a sonic upgrade and made available again. Our releases have been only spottily available in recent years. Many of our CDs are out of print and the vinyl is long out of print as well, so it’s nice that the music is getting a renewed focus and be in a place where people can come to it and actually hear it properly…even better than in its original sonic glory.
JON AUER: We’re putting some effort into — I don’t want to say, “capitalize” because I don’t like that word. It sounds too commercial and it doesn’t sit well with me — but I think what is interesting is that organically, what’s occurring with the reissues has completely coincided with the fact that legitimately, some people are actually celebrating the 30th anniversary of our band. To be honest, there were some delays in trying to get those reissues ready for public consumption, and there were some business-related issues with the old labels we had to deal with and with new labels anxious to get involved. So I think that there’s some cosmic kismet going on here… without getting too hokey about it. It does feel like good things have converged at this moment in time for us. It’s also interesting that there are a lot of younger music fans, fans of music of the ‘90s, who are looking at us now. It’s kind of come full circle. On the last couple of tours that we’ve done, we’ve noticed that there are younger fans coming out…people in their late teens and early twenties. I’m amazed by it, and super happy about it. Of course we love all our fans, but it’s nice when you’ve been around as long as we have to have people that didn’t know you the first time around and now, because they’ve discovered the music, they’re making an effort to come out and see us. They’re very vocal about it.
BLURT: Do you have the rights to the earlier releases? Or did you have to purchase the masters? KS:They kept the music in print for awhile, but as we moved away from the physical era, it became harder to find. Universal still owns the rights, but Omnivore leases the albums from Universal.
JA: We left it to Omnivore because they have the relationship with Universal. It was a little challenging at times because, obviously, we’re not the biggest fish in the pond. We had to generate some money upfront in terms of licensing, and that’s why we did a PledgeMusic campaign. That’s fair enough, but even before we sold a copy, the company wants to get paid for the licensing on all the physical product. We’re not doing this to make a bunch of extra money. We’re doing this to put these records out again in this great format.
BLURT:What’s the timing for the re-releases to come out?
KS: Dear 23 which was originally released in 1990, and it‘s coming next month. Frosting on the Beater, which was released in 1993, will come out in August. And Amazing Disgrace, which originally came out in 1996, is coming at the end of September.
BLURT:That’s three of eight albums. What about the others?
Our first album, Failure, was rereleased a few years ago. That’s still around and they did a great job with that. (Read the review HERE and listen to a track from the album HERE.) Then there’s Success. That album has its 20th anniversary this year, so there’s been some talk of getting that one out again as well. That one we do have the rights to. The next two on Rykodisc, Every Kind of Light and Blood Candy (reviewed HERE) are out of print amazingly enough. I’d like to see those two made available, but that might take awhile. Originally, we thought this would follow right on the heels of the Failure rerelease which we did in 2014. But here we are in 2018 and timed to our 30th anniversary, so I guess that was kismet right there. (Read the review of 2016 album Solid States HERE.)
BLURT: After the box set a few years ago, and the bonus tracks added to Failure, will you be completely exhausting the archives at this point?
KS: At this point, we’ve put out everything that’s interesting and worth listening to. Most of the stuff you’re going to get on these re-releases was not on the box set that came out in 2000. We found way more stuff. We were a little more organized this time around, so it’s incredible how much stuff there is. It’s probably six CDs of album material worth of non-album material from three albums. It’s kind of crazy. We were very prolific in those days, especially when we made Failure and re-released it as a cassette and quickly found Rick Roberts and Mike Musberger to join the band. We were just starting to play live as a full band. We didn’t really tour for Failure, just a couple of West Coast runs, and we were all living in the same house. So we were really cranking out tunes because we had a lot of time. We were doing the band full time, and touring wasn’t taking up all that much time yet. It took a year to make Frosting on the Beater, so during that time we were writing a lot of songs. We eventually got a little more efficient and started touring more, but it’s funny how much less prolific we became at that point.
BLURT: Were you amazed at what you were discovering when you checked out some of this stuff for the first time in so many years? Did it kind of make your jaw drop in amazement?
JA: There were moments when the proverbial dropping of the jaw did occur. What was most interesting was that sometimes you recognize these things differently with that much distance from it. Not hearing something for awhile, and then going back and actually hearing it from the source is almost like looking at old pictures of yourself and going, “That’s how I looked?” So now it’s, “That’s how we sounded?” We have enough distance on them now that it’s almost like listening to somebody else sometimes. I was so pleasantly surprised and pleased that we wouldn’t simply have to repackage the stuff we already put out to have the excuse to make these reissues. There is stuff here that was released before, but half of it is stuff bootleggers have, but no one’s ever heard it with this quality. Even the bootleggers don’t have what we found. It feels good that we’re putting this stuff out. We’re putting the final touches on the masters of the bonus tracks for Frosting on the Beater, like literally right now. The liner notes are done. There are 27 bonus tracks. There’s great photos. There are liner notes from Ken and me. It all coalesces. It’s a pretty amazing package. It’s got the attention to quality that a label like Omnivore puts into their releases. They really know what they’re doing and they’re really easy to work with. We love those guys.
When does the tour kick off?
KS: We’re taking the Frosting line-up of Jon, myself, Mike Musberger on drums and Dave Fox on bass and we’re starting in Victoria Canada and working our way around in a big circle and before we end up back up in the northwest in early July at a show in Seattle on July 7. Then we’ll be playing some festivals in Europe around Labor Day weekend and we’ll be doing a European club tour that starts in Barcelona on September 29 and wraps up in Sweden around November 6.
BLURT: Are you looking forward to going out again?
JA: In 2016, we were on the road for 4 1/2 months, and though we won’t be out as much this year, playing with the guys from the Frosting on the Beater band is one of our peaks. That was a live band that had a great chemistry and we were on fire that point. Everything was falling into place anyway. I’m not a nostalgic trip kind of guy, but I can’t help but feel look back at that era with a great deal of pride. I’m also looking forward to hanging out with these guys. Musberger is a drummer’s drummer. Talk about jaw dropping.
BLURT:Are you thinking that with the 30th anniversary, this is an opportune time to wake people up to the fact that the Posies remain vital and active, and maybe stir some interest with folks that didn’t give you the recognition the first time around? Is that part of the strategy, this reintroduction?
KS: I don’t know how much new audience we’re going to get. It would take a sympathetic journalist such as yourself to talk about it and say now is the time, especially if you’ve never heard this band before. You have no more excuses because here is the classic music. It’s a valid point. I feel that even the people that loved the music can now here it the way it was meant to be heard. I hate to admit it, but the Dear 23 CDs of 1990 just did not sound very good. The math was still being worked out on how to transfer audio to digital. If you liked that record and loved all the songs, you wouldn’t have realized how good they sounded until now, because the original tape masters are a lot more flattering than the CDs that were released at that time.
BLURT: Hopefully this campaign will make a lot of people sit up and take notice. KS: I feel that we came up at a time when screaming was more in fashion. The things we do with the harmonics in our vocals are really cool, and I don’t think that anybody else really does that kind of thing. There are other melodic bands that are great, but the concept of the Everly Brothers fronting an indie band is kind of a strange idea and a unique one, and I hope that people will still enjoy it.
BLURT: It does seem like this is really a new beginning for you guys. An opportunity to pull it all together to remake and remodel.
JA: We’re a band that’s rested on the laurels of our classic records, and there has been a lot of quality as a result of the way we’ve challenged ourselves. But to be able to take stock of it now and have the timing work out the way it did is invigorating in a way. So I think this will set the stage for something new after this period.
BLURT: Is there any talk about going back into the studio and making some new Posies music?
JA: There’s talk and I’m sure it will happen at some point. We’re focusing on the matters at hand, but especially after doing the last record, it’s totally viable that we will do some new stuff. It’s not just about celebrating this anniversary. However, I feel it is invigorating and we might still have some good records left in us. We’ve lost some band mates along the way so that’s not lost on us either. We’re not going to be around forever, so we should do it while we can.
BLURT: What’s the status of your solo projects these days?
KS: I’ve been involved with a lot of genre explorations. I did a country record with Holly Munoz a few years ago and I did something with the Disciplines which was kind of like a garage band sort of thing. My solo records have all different flavors. My last solo album is several years old now, so between the country record, the last Disciplines record, the retrospective tour and these reissues, I’d like to get another album out sooner rather than later. It kind of seems like I haven’t left a lot of space for the solo thing. Who knows?
JA: I’m always working on things other than Posies projects, as is Ken. I’m currently working on three or four projects for other people, although now that I’m on the road, they’re going to get some last minute mixes. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a record of mine called Songs from the Year of Our Demise, but that was a record that did a lot for me and a lot of other people really enjoyed it. It was a very personal record. I play nearly everything on it. I tried very hard and I put a lot of work into it. I had a project in the last couple of years called 6 1/2 and though it was really left of center of the Posies, it was also more of a collaboration too in the sense that it was really unexpected. The Posies was the first band for all of us, so it was the one that got us to where we wanted to go, or close to where we wanted to go. But at the same time, there’s so much longevity in this group that when we do things outside it, where it might have hurt us before, now it only helps us and it informs it, and it also allows us to do things on our own which is just as important, especially when you have a long-term relationship. You have to keep things fresh and exciting. You have to try to do other things besides the norm, the things you’ve always done. It’s important.
BLURT: So how do you rate the importance of doing your own things? Is it of equal stature, or do you see them simply as side ventures?
JA: I’m a Libra, so not to get all cosmic and stuff, I do listen to other people’s opinion a lot. But it’s like trying to pick your favorite song. They’re different things. The majority of people were introduced to us via the Posies. There’s an attachment there — it’s also about where people were when they heard certain records, when they turned 21, when they first heard Frost on the Beater, or they got married to Dear 23…those are formative memories and I can see how people want to remember us like that. But I’ve had people who have never heard the Posies who have heard my solo records and Ken has people like that. There are people who were introduced to the Posies through his work. And there are people who know my work as well. It really depends when you joined the conversation. At this point, I wouldn’t want to just do the Posies, that’s for sure.
BLURT:It would make sense that you really have to focus on the Posies at this point, no? KS:I kind of agree. I feel like we had some really good momentum going on with the last tours we did in 2016 and had a great vibe. So it makes sense to kind of carry on and make more music. It’s kind of got it all in a sense. The solo thing I do corners certain areas. Usually when I play, it’s solo and it’s quiet and intense, but here we can do duo tours where we get down and really quiet, or we can do these rock band tours, so it kind of covers all the bases that I would do in my solo work and more, so I’m intent on sticking with it. It’s a good brand.
JA: If people just want the Posies, they can always have that. I do think that what occurs outside of it is quality as well. I do understand that there’s special about the Posies and it’s based on the relationship of me and Ken. But when add something to this relationship, it seems to work. I don’t think that whatever we do outside of it isn’t special as well. As an example, there are things on various Posies records that I didn’t play on and things that Ken didn’t play on and people still think it’s the Posies. It might be my demo and it’s all me. And there are other songs where I didn’t play one note! People come up and say, “Oh, what gorgeous harmonies, but it’s just one of us.”
BLURT: Ken, when you toured with REM and Big Star, it must have felt like you were being lured into a whole new chapter of your career, no?
KS: With REM, I couldn’t rely on something that would always be there. That was just a tour to tour thing and how they wanted to put their band together. They kept asking me back, but I didn’t have any delusions that it was a permanent thing. That was just a fascinating and wonderful opportunity to play with one of my favorite bands until they changed their minds and went in a different direction. So I spent about ten years playing with them. It was great. The Posies split that took place in 1998 was because Jon quit, and he didn’t want to do anything more. He went through some hard times and just had to figure out some stuff. So he kind if dropped out for awhile. I would have gone on with the Posies, but without him, there was no way to go forward. So when REM came along, they presented themselves right at that moment and it was the perfect segueway for me. Okay, here is the next chapter presenting itself. Here’s a chapter at Posies central closing itself. I had no choice, but it was a great recovery.
BLURT:So when you were playing with those bands, were there lessons you learned that you were able to take back to the mother ship?
KS: Yes, for sure. They were much less precious and much more spontaneous in the studio than we ever were. Considering what was at stake for them every time, that they were following up a multimillion selling album and had multimillion dollar budgets, they went the opposite way you’d expect with that kind of pressure. They kind of were wonderfully cavalier, and that’s how they had always been, and they didn’t want to start becoming more calculated. They were becoming less calculated, which I think was fantastic. Sometimes, when REM was in the studio and taking a break, we might start jamming and come up with an entirely new tune on the spot and come up with words for it, and then have an entirely new song that night. We never did anything like that in the Posies. Everything was demoed and then re-demoed, and then we’d choose our bonus tracks from all the various demos we went through for each album. Four track demos, eight track demos, and so on. But REM was never like that, so I learned that you don’t have to be so formal, even if you’re making an expensive record. Especially if you’re making an expensive record. It’s much better with the more spontaneity you put in there.
BLURT:And what is the status of Big Star?
KS: Last year we released this live recording and did a theatrical release as well. It’s an amazing concert film. (The DVD is reviewed HERE.) The performances are absolutely jaw-dropping and it’s got a great cast of musicians — Mike from REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Pat Sansone, Jeff Tweedy, the Kronos Quartet who did the strings… Big Star’s 3rd: Alive and More is the name of that. It’s amazing. (BLURT covered several of the BS3 shows: Chicago 6/28/13, and Memphis 7/5/14.)
BLURT:Any chance that group will reconvene? It must be like herding cats to pull all the players together.
KS: It’s all possible. It’s just that it’s expensive to herd those cats. It takes a minimum of a dozen people to do the show the way Chris would like to do it. It takes a special festival situation to have the cache to make that happen, regardless of attendance.
BLURT: Still, when the two of you join forces within the Posies context… that sets the bar.
JA: The only bar that we have to meet is in the songwriting department. That’s the only standard that we have to meet…whether we think the songs are up to snuff. The rest of it is just window dressing in a way — the arrangements, the production… with a good song, you can do any production on it, and it will still shine through as a good song. That’s the only standard we really adhere to, and honestly, we also have a responsibility to ourselves. It’s not just to our fans or to give the audience what they might expect. Actually, if there are people who didn’t like the direction we were taking, or didn’t think we had enough guitars on a record for example, after awhile they got into it and would appreciate the fact that we weren’t just giving them the same stuff, and that we would change and evolve. There’s something to be said for that. In answer to your question, the only thing we have to adhere to in terms of standards is that the songs are up to snuff and that they’re good songs.
KS: Even if you like at every record we’ve done, there’s no Dear 23 Part Two or Frost on the Beater Part Two. Everything we did, for better or worse, even if you were trying to judge it, we could never be accused of trying to give the people what they want. At the same time, we tried to be diverse and still be the essence of who we are. We’re songwriters and vocalists and musicians. So I think the songs and the vocals are the threads that run through all the music the Posies make. That’s really what defines us — our abilities in those departments — and we’re good musicians. We play pretty well, and we’ve had some incredible musicians in our band, lots of different ones. There’s definitely something good going on here.
JA: Can you imagine the shock people must have had when they heard a Beatles record like “Hard Day’s Night” and then got Revolver? Did the same band that did “I Want to Hold Your Hand” really come out with “Yer Blues?” Sometimes the audience has to catch up too. It’s not an insult to the audience but when there’s something you’re used to, you have to acclimate yourself to something new. It’s like that with food, a new haircut. You have to get used to new things. It’s part of human nature.
In 2010 BLURT published an extensive interview with Ken Stringfellow. Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.)
Fri., May 18 – Victoria, BC @ Capital Ballroom
Sat., May 19 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
Sun., May 20 – Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall
Mon., May 21 – Bend, OR @ Volcanic Theatre Pub
Tues., May 22 – Sacramento, CA @ Harlow’s
Wed., May 23 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
Thurs., May 24 – San Juan Capistrano, CA @ Coach House
Fri., May 25 – Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater
Sat., May 26 – San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
Mon., May 28 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Wed., May 30 – Santa Fe, NM @ Santa Fe Brewing Co.
Thurs., May 31 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
Fri., June 1 – San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
Sat., June 2 – Austin, TX @ The Parish
Sun., June 3 – Houston, TX @ Bronze Peacock at House of Blues
Mon. June 4 – Little Rock, AR @ Capitol View Studios
Tues., June 5 – Memphis TN @ Layfayette’s Music Room
Wed., June 6 – New Orleans, LA @ The Parish at House of Blues
Thurs., June 7 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
Fri., June 8 – Birmingham, AL @ Saturn
Sat., June 9 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
Sun., June 10 – Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theatre
Mon., June 11 – Annapolis, MD @ Ram’s Head On Stage
Wed., June 13 – Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
Thurs., June 14 – Fairfield, CT @ Stage One at Fairfield Theatre
Fri., June 15 – Somerville, MA @ ONCE Somerville
Sat., June 16 – Washington, DC @ The Hamilton
Sun., June 17 – New York, NY @ The Bowery Ballroom
Tues., June 19 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
Wed., June 20 – Cleveland, OH @ Music Box Supper Club
Thurs., June 21 – Kalamazoo, MI @ Bell’s Eccentric Cafe
Fri., June 22 – Detroit, MI @ The Magic Bag
Sat., June 23 – Chicago, IL @ Park West
Sun., June 24 – Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
Mon., June 25 – Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
Tues., June 26 – St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
Thurs., June 28 – Milwaukee, WI
Sat., June 30 – Denver, CO @ Levitt Pavilion
Sun., July 1 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
Fri., July 6 – Bellingham, WA @ Wild Buffalo
Sat., July 7 – Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre
Fri., Aug. 31 – Vlieland, NETHERLANDS @ Into the Great Wide Open Festival (sold out)
Sat., Sept. 1 – Hoogwoud, NETHERLANDS @ Zomerpop Festival
Sun., Sept. 2 – Wiltshire, UK @ End of the Road Festival
Sat., Sept. 29 – Barcelona, SPAIN @ Upload
Sun., Sept. 30 – Zaragoza, SPAIN @ La Lata de Bombillas
Mon., Oct. 1 – Cordoba, SPAIN @ Hangar Cordoba
Tues., Oct. 2 – Cadiz SPAIN @ Aulario de la Bomba,
Wed., Oct. 3 – Granada, SPAIN @ Lemon Rock
Thurs., Oct. 4 – Valencia, SPAIN @ 16 Toneladas
Fri., Oct. 5 – Madrid, SPAIN @ Sala Caracol
Sat., Oct. 6 – Pontevedra, SPAIN @ Teatro Principal
Sun., Oct. 7 – Azpeitia, SPAIN @ San Augustin Kulturgunea
Tues., Oct. 9 – Paris, FRANCE @ La Maroquinerie
Wed., Oct. 10 – Utrecht, NETHERLANDS @ Tivoli
Thurs., Oct. 11 – Groningen, NETHERLANDS @ Vera
Fri., Oct. 12 – Heerlen, NETHERLANDS @ Poppodium Nieuwe Nor
Sat., Oct. 13 – Alkmaar, NETHERLANDS @ Podium Victorie
Sun., Oct. 14 – Hengelo, NETHERLANDS @ Metropol
Tues., Oct. 16 – Düsseldorf, GERMANY @ Zakk
Wed., Oct. 17 – Kortrijk, BELGIUM @ Wilde Westen
Thurs., Oct. 18 – Mechelen, BELGIUM @ Cultuurcentrum Mechelen
Fri., Oct. 19 – London, UK @ The Garage
Sat., Oct. 20 – Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
Sun., Oct. 21 – Glasgow, UK @ King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
Tues., Oct. 23 – Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute
Thurs., Oct. 25 – Bremen, GERMANY @ Tower
Fri., Oct. 26 – Hamburg, GERMANY @ Häkken
Sat., Oct. 27 – Berlin, GERMANY @ Berghain Kantine
Mon., Oct. 29 – Helsinki, FINLAND @ Savoy Theatre
Wed., Oct. 31 – Larvik, NORWAY @ Sanden Kafe at Kulturhuset Bølgen
Thurs., Nov. 1 – Stavanger, NORWAY @ Folken
Fri., Nov. 2 – Bergen, NORWAY @ Madam Felle
Sat., Nov. 3 – Trondheim, NORWAY @ Teaterhuset Avant Garden
Sun., Nov. 4 – Oslo, NORWAY @ John Dee
Tues., Nov. 6 – Gothenburg, SWEDEN @ Pustervik
Wed., Nov. 7 – Stockholm, SWEDEN @ Fasching
Thurs., Nov. 8 – Malmö, SWEDEN @ Inkonst
The indie rock hero, in-demand keyboardist, and all around good guy talks about his first solo release in nearly a decade. (Photo by Tim Manning)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Roger Manning, Jr. has had a remarkably varied career so far.
He was co-founder of the brilliant San Francisco Power Pop band Jellyfish; since their break up, he’s played in a mix of influential rock and synth bands like Imperial Drag, The Moog Cookbook and TV Eyes. Manning has long been Beck’s go-to keyboardist and in between he’s been able to finish three remarkably distinct solo records.
Unfortunately, given other commitments, his solo work has been on the backburner for a while. A decade, in fact. But thanks to a major Pledge Music campaign, Manning is about to release his latest EP, Glamping, along with re-introducing his classic solo releases with a slew of extras. The campaign, which allows fans to pre-order the music, comes with a number of creatively inventive items they can bid on, like Manning’s 1960’s bell bottoms, his keyboards and record shopping trips.
A week or so before the new EP comes out, Manning got on the phone to talk through the campaign, the 10-year delay between solo albums and why you won’t have to wait very long for the new one.
It’s been about a decade since your last solo record. Why did now seem like the right time to finally make this happen?
Well, one year after my last solo record seemed like the right time, but life had other plans in store for me. Doing a solo record is always a challenge, particularly if you’re not a well-known artist because you have to pull together the finances. So, I did solo albums back to back in ’06 and ’08, but the cold hard fact is that those records required so much time to get them right – the way I wanted them to sound – that I was happy that I just broke even. Certainly, in Japan we had a great run and did some shows and sold some records, but my A&R person was so happy that we didn’t lose any money.
In 2007, I put out my electronica record (Robo-Sapiens) on Malibu, but that coupled with some life changes and personal things, I started Glamping somewhere around 2012/2013. Freelance work and touring with Beck has taken up the rest of my musical time. Frankly I get more of my bills paid that way and I enjoy it, but my solo works does start to fall through the cracks and I got to the point where I thought I’m never going to finish this if I don’t do something about it. Then a friend said, “Hey, just put an EP out. Finish that first.” That simplified everything, and the good news is I’ve got eight more songs that are more than halfway done.
Depending on how this Pledge campaign goes, every nine months or less, I want to put out a new batch of material. The whole point of this launch is to corral all my fans across the world into one place and go “here’s the deal, I’ve got plenty of music for you guys and will continue to write my butt off if you make it known what you like.” This is my first love, it’s how I got started in the business and I’ve got plenty to share.
You mentioned the Pledge Music campaign. Over the past year or two more and more artists are using this as opposed to traditional labels and some – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum was one – have mentioned that it was difficult at first to go to the fans and get them to help finance the records, this way. Did you have any reservations?
I think I was just like Dave. In fact, we’re around the same age and both had bands in a similar era and both of our projects have had peaks and valleys. I agree, the whole concept out of the gate seemed bizarre to me until it was explained to me. Unlike the last record company model, if anything this brings you closer to people. You’re cultivating relationships you already have and just going deeper with the community that’s interested in music.
The whole point is to try and bring more people to the party and when I started looking at it differently, letting go of the old model so to speak, I really saw the potential for this and what it means for me as a songwriter for the rest of my life, regardless of what the record label model is doing, which you know if continuing to be turned on its head.
Through your solo work and the bands you’ve been in, you’ve worked with a number of different record labels – big, small, indie and major. Is there any part of you that feels a sense of schadenfreude as a musician at the current state of record labels?
I have a small opinion on this. There were certainly some injustices on behalf of the artists with the old model. There were a lot of upsides too. Each model has its pros and cons. I fortunately was taught early on to look at the labels as nothing more than a loan agency. If I want to buy a house, like it or not I have to go through a mortgage company and I’ve got to pay out the ass in interest. That’s the game that’s in place in our society in 2018. Like it or not, that model helps me get into a home that’s way beyond our means.
The record label took an unknown band form San Francisco and they did their dance with MTV and they did their dance with radio all over the world and I watched it all happen. Basically, back then you had to win the lottery. There were a hundred bands at any given moment vying for a record label’s attention and maybe five percent of them were given a shot. And even then, if the record company was promoting 10 of those groups in a release season, maybe they were only concentrating on three or four of them. Also, you had A&R people in the ‘70s and ‘80s who were not really in fear of their jobs. There was an aspect of job security. If the first band you signed didn’t have a hit record, you weren’t fired the next week.
Labels, although they all wanted big smash hits, they were into cultivating bands back then. I joke that if U2 were signed in the last 10 years they would have been dropped already. There first few albums hardly sold in the U.S. in the beginning. They would have been dropped nowadays and their A&R man would have been fired… Now it’s just a fear-based community with everybody trying to copy the songs that made some noise last week on the radio. You have an artist and an artistic community that seem to not be phased by their one-dimensionality lack of variety environment. I’m not dissing any of these bands in the top 40, but I was spoiled. I grew up in a different era.
So, with Pledge music, you can put out whatever music you want without anyone telling you to trim the song lengths or change things around…
Exactly. I quickly learned that this campaign was only going to have as much success as I was applying myself to doing the day-to-day work. Suddenly I was my own A&R man, I was now making creative decisions out of the music world that I wasn’t used to making – day-to-day business stuff. That’s fine because I was feeling impowered, but it takes up time.
After all these years, I’m enjoying the empowerment of self-reliance and I’m learning things this time around that I know I’m going to do differently with the next campaign. I just love the fact that the Internet, pledge campaigns and certain aspects of the industry now allow for this… For me, there’s more pros than cons. I am so thankful for this community of folks for hanging in with me as long as they have. As part of that thank you, let’s do this some more.
“We felt we were doing something different”: With a fresh refill of the Spacemen 3 prescription due this week, courtesy the Superior Viaduct label, let’s flash back to their most iconic album, along with its latterday sibling. Rolling the spliffs for us: Sonic Boom. (Below, listen to the reissue as well as watch a live concert from 1989.)
BY FRED MILLS
This week Superior Viaduct resumes its Spacemen 3 vinyl reissue series with a 2LP reissue of the 1990 quasi-bootleg Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, originally released by rock scribe Byron Coley’s eclectic Father Yod label and subsequently re-quasi-bootlegged several times in expanded format by the Bomp! and Space Age Recordings labels as well as by Father Yod itself in the form of a 2LP deluxe reissue in 2010. This new iteration arrives with a bonus track to expand the tracklisting to 15 (the original single LP release contained seven tracks), with Superior Viaduct describing it thusly:
“In the swirl of kaleidoscopic recordings that is Spacemen 3‘s discography, Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To occupies a pivotal position – one at the nexus between their garage beginnings and expansionist future. Spacemen 3 capture the inspired spark of mid-’80s psychedelia, offering a distinct variation on high pop through layered feedback, a formidable rhythm section and shining vocals.
“Taking Drugs features the legendary Northampton demos, which secured the band’s first record deal with Glass. While much of this material would be expanded upon on their first two albums, Sound Of Confusion and The Perfect Prescription, many devotees consider these early 1986 demos to be the vital document of Spacemen 3 at this primal stage.
“With urgent, minimally treated versions of “Sound Of Confusion” (aka “Walkin’ With Jesus”), “Losing Touch With My Mind” and “Come Down Easy,” this double LP collection serves to exalt the strength of Spacemen 3‘s songwriting over the deep-dive, sonic ruminations that would permeate their later studio efforts.”
The reissue does not come without a bit of controversy, which seems to be par for the course these days with any S3-related release; recall last year’s dust-up between the bandmembers and Space Age’s Gerald Palmer, whom they accused of manufacturing colored vinyl S3 reissues without their permission. In this case, erstwhile bassist Pete Bassman recently posted to his blog some musings about Superior Viaduct neglecting to obtain permission for its reissues, although it appears that he has subsequently removed several of his postings, writing “I have been accused of airing dirty laundry in public, of bullying, of making ill-informed comments, and more… I am doing this as a gesture of appeasement, to help deflate the unhealthy atmosphere that has evolved around the commercial exploitation of Spacemen 3 and the individuals involved.”
That all aside, Taking Drugs… is a must-own for anyone wanted a glimpse of nascent Spacemen 3, and I say that as a ground zero fan of the band, having picked up their first EP and going on to become a passionate fan and collector—1987’s The Perfect Prescription being one of my personal desert island discs since its initial release. Over the years I’ve been privileged to have interviewed all the former members, talking with Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember on multiple occasions. Below, then, read my S3 story and Kember interview that I conducted in 2003 on the occasion of the release of Forged Prescriptions, which collected demos, alternate mixes, and outtakes from the Perfect Rx sessions. It was originally published by the Seattle Weekly.
Oh, and while you do, take a listen to Taking Drugs… in its entirety…
RUGBY, ENGLAND, SPRING ’87: Four scruffy twentysomethings are sprawled across secondhand bed mattresses arranged at asymmetrical angles on the floor of VHF Studios. The smoke from their roll-ups and spliffs gets so thick that the engineer routinely disconnects the facility’s smoke alarm prior to each day’s session, which can range from intensely focused overdubbing to jam-until-the-tape-runs-out free-for-alls to simply lying around in candlelit darkness and passing comment on playbacks of the previous day’s work. Ultimately, from this near-womblike setting will emerge one of the greatest psychedelic albums of all time.
You are getting very sleepy: Spacemen 3.
“Dope and then some!” is how former Spacemen 3 guitarist Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember characterizes the making of The Perfect Prescription. According to Kember, he, fellow guitarist Jason Pierce, drummer Rosco, and bassist Pete Bassman were seeking the same spiritual and musical liberation as their heroes the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Suicide, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, etc. and certainly on a chemical level as well. “We had mattresses for the best possible recording and playback positioning,” he recalls, with a cackle, “and some days we would just get blitzed and spend a day just listening in situ, so to speak. Think of it like the testing done before releasing a new drugha ha!”
I’ve just dropped in to see what condition Kember’s prescription is in, the occasion being a two-CD collection of Perfect Rx demos, outtakes, and alternate mixes titled Forged Prescriptions (Space Age Recordings). The set has been long in coming, having weathered a nearly seven-year series of contractual delays which wouldn’t necessarily be of significance, except for the fact that Perfect Rx itself, an album that’s been hailed by the likes of Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and a critics’ mainstay of desert-island-discs lists, has come to cast a long, legendary shadow over the years.
The Perfect Prescription went virtually unnoticed, particularly by the British press, when it first appeared in August of ’87, on tiny U.K. indie Glass. An ad hoc fraternity of psych aficionados and fanzine writers took note, however, and while that fraternity is frequently prone to hyperbole and, er, a lack of discrimination, this time around, the aesthetic and cultural significance of a recording became a matter of near-universal underground accord. One need not be reminded of the Velvet Underground Effect – one great album begets a hundred bands, who in turn beget a thousand more bands – to understand how time, opinion, and recorded artifacts have a funny way of eventually aligning.
A concept record that aurally chronicles the highs, lows, and heavenly blows of a virtual drug trip, Perfect Rx is (to quote from one of my own reviews) “an unqualified masterpiece of shimmering, beatific melodies, rhythmic/dynamic tension, and stylistic contrasts.” More florid but just as accurate are these comments from the liner notes of the first CD edition (1989, Fire), labeling S3 revolutionary artists in the tradition of Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, Arthur Parker, and Paul Gauguin and calling the album “an untrumpeted classic, an arcane, apocryphal document . . . telegraphing a message of unconcerned hope in a world hypnotized by guilt-ridden social-work rock.” Indeed, whether fueled by hemp, adrenaline, or other substances, the band expertly channeled full-bore garage shock (“Take Me to the Other Side”) alongside proto-ambient dronescapery (“Ecstasy Symphony”), additionally taking time to pay ace tribute to Lou Reed (“Ode to Street Hassle”) and the Red Krayola (“Transparent Radiation”).
Recalling how the social climate of 1987 was overwhelmingly Thatcherite/ Reaganite repressive, Kember suggests that Spacemen 3’s agenda was benevolently subversive: “We felt there would be other people who felt like us out there, people who lived their lives like us the antithesis of the yuppie. Certainly, we hoped the renaissance that was washing in on a wave of ecstasy would be fertile ground for us. Religion, drugs, and sexual taboos were all areas that needed some comment from a more liberal source than was mostly heard back then.”
Forged Prescriptions, then, represents a vital glimpse behind the Perfect Rx curtain. Notable is a tune like “Walkin’ With Jesus,” which on the original album was dreamy and minimalist but now has additional guitar tracks feedback, tremolo, etc. newly restored. Apparently, a number of tunes had been shorn of excess guitar in order to help ease the material’s transition to the stage. (“Jason was in favor of more complex arrangements,” says Kember, “but ultimately agreed we didn’t need it for the songs to work well.”) Another track, “Ecstasy Symphony,” originally served as a languid intro for “Transparent Radiation”; it’s now a nine-minute hissing/droning instrumental with a much hotter mix. In fact, the entire first disc of Forged Prescriptions, with the alternate versions and a different song sequence from the parent album, represents, says Kember, “a ‘could also have been’ situation,” adding that he likes the material “at least as much [as], if not more [than],” that of Perfect Rx.
Disc 2 is also a treat for S3-heads, featuring demo recordings of album songs as well as three unreleased tunes: a rollicking, groove-laden Velvet Underground homage titled, helpfully, “Velvet Jam,” plus two covers a churning, wah-wah-filled take of the MC5’s “I Want You Right Now” and a surprisingly tender, dreamy interpretation of Roky Erickson’s pre-13th Floor Elevators outfit the Spades’ “We Sell Soul.”
Worth noting for fans, too, is the Forged Prescriptions artwork: It diligently reproduces the psychedelic spirals motifs and text font design that graced the sleeve of Perfect Rx, adding an alternate picture of Kember and Pierce taken at the original album photo session.
The eight-year tenure of Spacemen 3 has always been viewed from the outside as a fragile alliance between Kember and Pierce. To a degree that’s true, although Kember is quick to point out that while S3’s creative mojo was in maximum tumescence during the making of Perfect Rx, cracks in the group’s foundation began appearing shortly thereafter: “They [Rosco and Pete Bassman] were always less committed to it than Jason and myself, and they weren’t prepared to put in the practice and effort needed. They also ran away with themselves on tour, getting too drunk to play well, etc.” As a revolving cast of additional players began infiltrating the S3 universe, Kember and Pierce gradually grew apart to such a degree that sessions for the fourth and final studio album, 1990’s Recurring, were attended separately by the two songwriters. The two haven’t spoken directly since the early ’90s, and Kember, the proud keeper of the S3 flame, now regards the situation with regret. (Below: the band live in 1989.)
“There was a healthy collaboration and competition between us to deliver the goods,” admits Kember. “Mainly for ourselves, but also for those we hoped would find it useful in their lives. I hope I’m big enough to sideline my feelings about what happened at the end of Spacemen 3, and Jason’s role in that, and to give him credit he is due for this. His songwriting, his singing, his guitar and other instruments please me as much now as they did then. I’m very sad that we seem unable to communicate. I’ve heard no comment from Jason about [Forged Prescriptions], and it was my project in that sense he isn’t interested in seeing that side of Spacemen 3 maintained. He is very hard, by his choice, to contact, and that’s his choice, fair enough. I do feel that I lost a great musical partner and friend. Along with the destruction of the band, it was pretty devastating to me. It’s a very large part of my life, not just something I do for kicks as an aside.”
Pierce, of course, went on to much success with Spiritualized. For his part, Kember has kept busy with an array of frequently overlapping projects, most notably the ambient/electronic Experimental Audio Research and the comparatively more straightforward Spectrum. The latter, in fact, toured across America in 2001, with set lists heavily weighted toward old S3 tunes. Kember hopes to repeat that trek later this year once the new Spectrum album is completed. He indicates he’s been working with Randall Nieman, guitar whiz for Detroit-area experimental-psych combo Fuxa, and that the material is shaping up along guitar/bass/drums/organ lines not dissimilar to vintage S3. (Kember also traveled to Los Angeles recently to work with electronic-rock artist Alex Gordon for a projected EP to be titled Dead Man, due this fall.)
Meanwhile, there’s a possibility that further archival offerings from the S3 vaults will be exhumed. A couple of years ago, Space Age reissued the group’s third album, 1989’s Playing With Fire, featuring a bonus disc of session demos, and Kember notes that he has a lot of live tapes, in particular “some early live stuff that is pretty devastating which might see light one day.”
But even if the world had never again heard from the Rugby players, we’d still have their timeless gem in our hands. It’s often said that groups can’t possibly set out to paint their masterpieces, that only hindsight can be the true arbiter in such matters. Just the same . . .
“We felt we were doing something different,” insists Kember solemnly, “and we were very proud of it. We knew it was what we were aiming for.”