July 10, 2009

We promised too much and gave it too soon :: Interview with Joe Pug


At only 25 years old, Joe Pug sings with the storied wisdom of a man who has seen several decades more of living. His music is stripped and honest: folk songs that paradoxically combine both a tender heart and a sharply-pointed message.

In speaking with him on a park bench one cooling evening in Boulder, I could clearly see both his eloquence and a smoking fire of intensity behind his eyes, and I had a strong feeling that this was one for the ages – music that is important and real, and will last for a long time.

Later that Sunday evening, Pug held the tiny venue under the spell of his songs, using only his harmonica and an acoustic guitar. “Will you recognize my face when God’s awful grace strips me of my jacket and my vest,” he sang with the fiercest of strums and bald-faced longing, “And reveals all the treasure in my chest?”

Joe and I spent an hour discussing the similarities between crafting a song and building a house, having absolute faith in your product, and not getting beaten down by “the meanness of the world.”

Oh Joe. I’m game for that battle if you are.

joe pug todd roeth

May 21, 2009

F/F: You decided to release the very solid Nation of Heat EP for free, and I think one of the most arresting lyrics on the album is “the more I buy the more I’m bought, and the more I’m bought the less I cost.” Was the decision to give it away any kind of anti-commercialism move? Or simply a realistic move?

JP: I think before anything else, I am very realistic about things. And although I think there’s many, many exceptions to this, on the whole, people who make careers as artists – especially in America, where I think there’s a big difference with being an artist anywhere else in the world – I would venture to say that they’re all very realistic about the way things are. Obviously there are some faults with capitalism, but when it comes down to it, I am an American boy. So whether I like it or not, that self-determination and Manifest Destiny is going to come through in the way I conduct the business side here, the way I get my music out there.

F/F: Do you think that there is anything… at odds with art and commercialism? Or, how have you experienced that in the last year or two?

JP: Well yeah – absolutely. Just on a very basic level, the commercial side of things is always interested in productivity, and productivity that happens on a schedule. That is just absolutely not the case with creative things. They come when they wanna come, and they don’t come when they don’t want to come. You cannot do anything to change that. So I think that commercial interests can make you force things in places where you shouldn’t.

But then again, I think the popular conception about “selling out” in music, and changing your music to make a buck – ironically there are a lot of people who have made very handsome livings doing what they like to do, and oftentimes, it pays off a lot more, ironically, to follow what you love than if you decide, well, I’m gonna bring in a really slick producer, I’m gonna cut it down to three and a half minutes so it can be on the radio. I mean, you look at guys like Sonic Youth, Jeff Tweedy, even Nirvana for the most part, when you consider the level of things they were dealing with, pretty much they stuck to their guns. You follow your heart and everything else will follow – I mean, that’s the stupidest way I can put it but if you really do that, everything else will take care of itself. Well (laughs) maybe not money-wise, maybe not immediately, but eventually.

F/F: A lot of young, newer musicians that I speak with will reflect on grappling with that tension in their own careers, that crux of honesty with themselves vs commercialism.

JP: I think what it really comes down to is that it’s very much not a black and white thing. It’s so much more nuanced than that, and you make the decisions on a case-to-case basis. You can’t just say “I’m never going to sign to a major record label,” or “I’m never going to do this, or that.” You really just gotta go case by case and say, “This’ll help me, this will get it out to more people who need to hear it, and I can do it with the sort of compromise that doesn’t infringe upon the major things that I stand for.” And you make mistakes, sure. Sometimes you compromise where you shouldn’t have, and sometimes you look back and say, “Damn, I could have really compromised there, it wouldn’t have affected anything, but it would have helped me.” But you try to get it right most of the time.

F/F: Do you think that giving away the Nation Of Heat EP has been a good decision?

JP: No question, yes. That is the reason for any sort of success I’ve seen so far. The idea of being able to give away my music if I choose is important to me. Hopefully the idea is that more options for distribution will come up like that. Maybe the main thing behind that whole idea is that time-honored American tradition of just having complete faith in your product. Being the knife salesman going around door to door, letting you use his knives because he knows that they’re really fucking good knives and you’re not going to get that quality for cheaper anywhere else, you know what I mean? And that’s definitely the way that I feel about my music. I feel like if someone can just hear a couple of my songs, I mean obviously not everyone’s going to like it, but I feel like a lot of people if I can just give em that chance, they’ll be around for hopefully a career as I continue to make records.

F/F: I don’t know if you have any sort of agrarian background, but that to me seems like an agrarian approach to music — in terms of planting and …letting it grow, giving it time to grow slowly and not expecting some sort of an instant flash return.

JP: Nope. For all intents and purposes, I was raised in the suburbs of Washington DC. My father was a carpenter, my mother was a computer programmer.

F/F: I hear your true last name is the melodic Pugliese, as in from the Puglia region of Italy?

JP: Yeah, I’m half-Italian, from my father’s side. They’re from a town called San Egidio. When I started going by Pug in music, it actually was a big, very big point of contention with my grandfather Rudy Pugliese, who was a theater director for a bunch of years at the University Of Maryland. I gave him a copy of one of the first demos I’d made and I’d done all the artwork myself, and it said “Joe Pug” on it. And he sort of freaked out, he was very insulted. He sort of came around to it, but I mean – it’s show business, however you want to cut it. Of course it’s art first, but it’s also show business. Joe Pug has always been my nickname, and I think in some ways it helps me differentiate with the two parts of my life – the part that is out writing songs and connecting with the people that like those songs, and being with my family and the people that I love that are in my life. Those are two different parts. Maybe it helps me keep a line in between those two.

F/F: Did you spend a lot of time reading growing up?

JP: Nope on that either. I feel like I got nothing out of college. It’s only after leaving there that I learned to read for pleasure. I think what a lot of people don’t necessarily realize… I mean, there’s no question that as you get older you get wiser. I’m not wiser than anybody else. But I think with youth there’s a certain greater willingness to say these things I say in my songs, whereas when you get older, you’ve experienced so much and you’ve seen so many contradictions in your life that you rightfully are hesitant to say anything out loud because you’ve seen everything proved wrong, at least once, you know what I mean? In youth, you can make broader declarations, but also at the same time – there was one artist who said, “The entire job of the artist is to not get beat down by the meanness of the world.”

And I’m not even talking about hope, or hopefulness. Art can be about that, but doesn’t necessarily have to be about that. It does have to do with believing things, though, whatever those things are. Whether they are the bleakest thoughts on the face of the earth or the most hopeful, you have to believe in them. And even if it’s temporary – even if you just believe them for those five minutes when you wrote the song, or if you’ve believed it since you were three years old until you pass on. So maybe it’s easier to believe in things when you’re younger.

Master craftsmen, not only artists and writers, but people who are craftsmen of their lives, they learn how to continue to believe in things. Because the fact of the matter is, out in the wide panorama that is the world, mostly what you see is encouragement not to believe in things. So the longer you can sort of hold out with that belief, probably the more spectacular you are as a person, I think.

F/F: That phrase you use, it reminds me in a way of the book Beloved by Toni Morrison, where it’s said of the slave character, “What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.”

JP: Yeah and granted, you can also sort of feel like an idiot for feeling that way, I mean, you look at the example that she’s giving in that book of a mother having her children taken from her because of slavery, and any trial or tribulation I’ve been in as a relatively middle-class white guy is inconsequential. But, there are varying degrees, but I guess all struggles with the meanness of the world or the nastiness of life all come from the same roots.

F/F: Can you tell me a little bit about the new record?

JP: It is going to come out in the fall, and I think we are going to independently release it again. Most of it has been recorded in Chicago, I am going to go in and do a little bit more at a place called Shirk Music & Sound, also where I recorded my HearYa session. It’s the same as with the making of the first record, or with any other endeavor I’ve tried to creatively do – you struggle with it, and you’re very unhappy with it and you don’t really feel like you’re getting anything across that is important to you. But at a certain point I do have to send it off to a duplication house to have it reproduced, and I’ll get to never touch it again, so I just have to get it the best I can. I remember thinking a month or two ago, I was really stressing about the songs on it, that they’re not good enough, but then, I thought back and that was the same thing I felt about the first record, and now I’ve grown to be fond of that record. For that point in time, I think it was the best thing I could have done. So hopefully a similar feeling will develop after this one’s done as well.

F/F: Is it just you on this album?

JP: Nope. This one I’d say half of it is just me, and the other half has the band that I played with in Chicago. I think it’s going to be a full-length, and this is something we’ve discussed a lot.

I’ve recorded a handful of songs, easily enough songs where if we were going to release them all it would be a full-length and some. But where I’m at, we don’t have a record company, no one is telling us, “Release this,” or “Release that.” We release whatever we want. There was this moment of calm where we were trying to figure out what to release and in what groupings, and finally we just said – “Hey, how about we just release as many good songs as we have? And then charge accordingly?”

I think there’s no need to be prolific if you’re being prolific in shit, you know? Just put out as much or as little good stuff as you have.

F/F: You have more tour dates on your MySpace page than I think any other artist I have ever seen in three-plus years of writing this blog. Are you going to sleep or have a family life in the next year?

JP: Nope. I mean, whenever I’m off the road I make that happen. But I think sort of the point is you work as hard as shit now, because I don’t have kids. You don’t owe anything to anybody else until you have kids, and then you owe everything. So I might as well just do it now while I can. And the best part about it is you get better, man. You cannot, even if you are trying to not get better at what you do, you just cannot help it when you are touring this much, playing your shit every night. I can see how just in the pure trade part I have gotten so much better in the last year, because it’s all I do. I don’t build houses anymore. This is what I do.

F/F: Do you find it difficult to maintain creativity on the road?

JP: I’m writing new material all the time, always. No matter where you are. I used being on the road as an excuse for a while, because it’s not the most conducive place to be, but writing music is always really hard, and I’ve had a million and one excuses for it in my life, and those always vary but what never varies is how difficult it is. Every time. I mean, you do have those songs that just come out and they flow real easy and you write them in ten minutes, but it took like three months of sitting down with a pen and a page in a coffee shop, not being able to write anything, writing really really shitty stuff, and yeah…it should be hard. Any job worth doing is going to be hard. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. I think that’s what really attracts me to it. It’s the one job I look at and I can never figure it out, and that’s what’s really attractive about that to me. Any kind of writing, you don’t know where it comes from. Going back and editing is easy, but just getting that original kernel of inspiration, you don’t know where it comes from. You can put yourself in better positions to get to it, and get to it more often, but no one knows where it comes from. It’s a mystery. It’s like a serious and heavy-duty unhealthy relationship. But it’s hard because there’s no other person there to punch.

F/F: I suppose it’s a very different job than something tangible like carpentry, where you have a piece of wood and a plan and the tools there to do the job.

JP: Well actually, and this is the really interesting thing about carpentry – and let me preface this by saying that I was the worst carpenter ever to walk the face of the earth – but what’s really cool is that yes, you do have the blueprints to build the house but there is something more. I remember the first time I was ever on a job, we were putting in joists or rafters or something, and the carpenter I was with was a very experienced journeyman. He looked at it and he said, “Okay…..how are we going to do this?” And I just looked at him, like “What? What do you mean, how are we going to do this?” Because there’s not just one way to do it, and you figure out better ways to do it every time.

F/F: Did that work it’s way into your songwriting at all, what you saw in carpentry with certain things being immutable and certain things being flexible?

JP: You really put yourself in a spot, when you say to yourself, “I’ve written a bunch of songs before, so I know how to write this song that I’m writing right now. You have to figure out how to write each individual song. You can figure out how to write that song, but you can’t figure out how to write songs. I mean, you get better at the techniques you use to make that happen, and you get faster at figuring those things out, but it is still an act of process. Music is never just a passive plugging of variables into an equation.


VIDEO: Hymn #101, live in Boulder
VIDEO: Ol’ 55 (Tom Waits cover), live in Boulder

[interview originally appeared on gigbot.com [R.I.P.], with photos by the magical Todd Roeth]

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June 3, 2009

Warding off demons with Thao Nguyen (Interview)

thao nguyen and the get-down stay down - todd roeth

“There is a strength and confidence that you have when playing music that to an extent I think the world tries to stomp out of you.
I think it is so tough to be a young girl growing up into a woman in this world, with all the weird pressures and the odd demands and the self-hate. Music is totally an outlet for that for these girls,
and I swear it wards off demons.”
–Thao Nguyen, general badass

Growing up as a Vietnamese-American in the largely white suburb of Falls Church, Virginia with her single mother, Thao Nguyen found a new connection and identity in music at the age of twelve when she first picked up a guitar. After teaching herself to play, she has spent the following thirteen years honing that craft — from the singer-songwriter folk duo she formed with junior high friends, to the accomplished, talented, fearless artist she is today.

Her latest album We Brave Bee Stings And All (2008) is one of my most-listened-to records of last year. Sometimes her songs hit me with playfully familiar roots of girl groups or 1950s classic pop, but then she turns up the fierce, clever rock — just as a hint, Jack White is a fan of her skillful guitar playing.

Along with her raw and earnest vocals, Thao makes music that strikes deep at the heart of truth, and isn’t afraid to mix trombone with beatboxing. Now signed to the venerable Pacific Northwest label Kill Rock Stars, Thao has released two albums with a third due this fall.

Fear and Convenience – Thao Nguyen

Thao is a smarty, and I so enjoyed our time ruminating and intellectually meandering together (two of my favorite pastimes). She studied Sociology and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary, and she is one of the most articulate and thoughtful artists I have had the pleasure of speaking with.

You can tell that this is a sharp person who has wrestled to present the very best of her thoughts and talents on her albums and in concert, and to challenge others to rise above prescribed gender roles in music and in life. Everything about her is a delight.

thao nguyen - todd roeth

May 6, 2009

I decide to start the interview with the behemoth that often comes up in her music career and in so much of what others write about her. She is a female in rock music. I am interested in what goes on in those halls as well, and I want to talk to her about it: the pigeonholing, the battle that sometimes feels uphill, the club that at first might seem unwelcoming, even if unintentionally.

I show her a comic strip that I ripped from the Feminist & Gender Studies newsletter off the bathroom wall at the college where I work:


F/F: So, this. What are your thoughts on this, as it may relate to what you are trying to do as a musician?

Thao: (laughs) I think that there is a very pervasive enveloping stigma about women as musicians, and I think that within my personal experience you are, to a degree, immediately dismissed. I know that only through experience, and that it is unfortunate but it becomes part of the deal – not only are you playing music but you are having to sort of debunk negative stereotypes and myths about women who play. For a long time, I was qualified as “a good guitar player, for being a female”…that was immediately the caveat.

F/F: Did that drive you crazy?

Thao: No, only because I have concerns about my blood pressure, so I try not to absorb it. But of course it does stick with you and float around in your mind. If nothing else, it is a motivator. I want to be good enough that it doesn’t matter what gender I am. That may be the ultimate goal, that we eliminate even the passing thought of it. It’s disturbing how much it plays a factor – but then on the other hand I think it should be totally acknowledged and commended when any woman gains a foothold in any male-dominated industry such as this, that she’s done it as a woman, with no apologies.

It’s a weird line to toe and strange territory to navigate – being proud of being a woman, yet being willing to disregard that fact. And all the while just trying to maintain respect for yourself, and command respect at the same time.

F/F: Amen. I hear that you are volunteering this summer for Rock Camp For Girls?

Thao: That is correct! I am so thrilled, it is in Portland this June. I have dreamt of it for so long, since I found out that it existed, but I have been on tour every summer since I found out about it. My friend Laura Veirs mentioned it once a while back when I was on tour with her. This is the first summer that I have been able to make a window so that I can participate. I’m totally excited – I mean this sincerely, I really need a reminder sometimes to keep going and keep playing music and being involved in the industry, pushing along. I was filling out the application, I remember, and it asked me why I wanted to participate, and I think I started to tear up. It’s that significant to me.

I want girls growing up to have this experience, and I think back to when I was young and I would have been ruined without music. I don’t exaggerate, I think it saved me in a lot of ways. I just want little girls to know that it’s possible, you know? Just help them along. I am going to be a band coach and I am going to teach guitar – they haven’t told me what age yet, but I hope younger so they’re not better than me, because that would be embarrassing. But I just want the opportunity to show that it is possible, just to give them a vague idea of where they want to get to, and the rest is up to you. Just to tell them not to be intimidated.

There is a strength and confidence that you have when playing music that to an extent I think the world tries to stomp out of you. I think it is so tough to be a young girl growing up into a woman in this world, with all the weird pressures and the odd demands and the self-hate. Music is totally an outlet for that for these girls, and I swear it wards off demons.


F/F: For some artists there seems to be a difference between simple performance and true catharsis – really feeling a song. It seems no matter where you perform, from small radio station to big loud club, you always give authentic catharsis, with a lot of yourself.

Thao: I think it’s just the easiest thing for me to do, because however many times you do it, if you don’t hearken back to why you wrote it and how you felt when you did, why you needed to expel it from your body, then it becomes insincere. It is easier for me to just check out and immerse myself in the song, sink into something else, rather than be cognizant of how awkward the show could be. If I don’t do that, I just feel totally stupid — you gotta go all the way or it feels worse. I do sink my teeth into it because they are really personal songs, and if you don’t give that of yourself when you present them to people, then you do the song another injustice. I enjoy it — it is very draining, but I would rather that than be detached from the performance. Also, as people pay to see us, part of my job is to put on a good show. It’s really important for us to build a connection with the audience, and I want to build as honest of an experience as possible.

But [laughs] now that I think about it, you know, that’s kind of fucked up! But part of my job is to wallow in these terrible aspects and experiences. It’s not great for morale. After a while, I don’t want to think about them anymore, but for my job I have to.

F/F: Tell me about your work with the Portland Cello Project, which sounds amazing. You recorded an album recently with cello interpretations of your songs?

Thao: Yeah, well, I am performing with them on the record, so in a way they become my backing band. Willis [the drummer] plays on a few of the songs, and there’s my guitar, with the rest all cello. The songs we contributed were “Beat (Health, Life and Fire),” “Violet,” “Tallymarks,” and “Geography” with them, and the Kill Rockstars label is releasing it in June. It’s a full-length album — The Cello Project has a few songs they’ve contributed just of their own, and then another artist named Justin Power has a few of his songs on there as well. The Portland Cello Project has also recorded with artists like Horse Feathers, Laura Gibson and Mirah.

F/F: That sounds brilliant. Cellos are such honest, sad, gorgeous instruments, and I’m curious to hear what they bring out of your songs.

Thao: Yeah, they definitely bring out the sadness in my music, I’ll tell you that.

F/F: Your record We Brave Bee Stings and All (on the formidable Kill Rock Stars label), is one of my favorites of the last year. I understand that you guys are putting the final touches on the new album?

Thao: That is correct, we have one more week of working on it in July, and then it will be released in October. It is tentatively titled Know Better Learn Faster, but I am not completely sure on that yet. I’ll decide when they make me. The record is primarily a response to the end of a relationship, so a lot of it is pretty reactionary. It’s trying to be introspective, but there’s always got to be a little “fuck you” in there – or, sometimes there’s a lot. I am excited about the emotional content of it and how we tried to convey our live performance and that level of energy that we have now. On We Brave, we didn’t have that, because when we recorded it we weren’t really a band yet.

F/F: I heard one new song performed in Austin, and I read that you’ve been interested in exploring new sounds and instruments and songwriting techniques. What are you most excited about with the new album?

Thao: Lyrically I think the new album is a lot more straightforward than We Brave, because on that album I just danced around a lot of things, it wasn’t a total confrontation. But this new record was very intense and emotional to write and it all came out very quickly, in a month or so. I think the album is a lot more intense and energetic and straightforward.

We’ve been playing three of the new songs on the road, “Goodbye Good Luck,” “Body,” and “Easy,” and the album has 12 or 13 songs on it total. On this record, we’ve got a female choir, a lot more organ, more horns, a lot of trumpet, slide guitar.

There’s one song that’s only handclaps and stomping, it’s a very short song, and we’re calling it “The Clap.” That’s the title – and I’m not changing it.

thao nguyen backstage - todd roeth

[this interview was originally done in conjunction with gigbot.com [R.I.P.], with great photos taken by Todd Roeth]

May 16, 2009

Interview: the refreshing Zee Avi


One of the most surprising new acts that I saw at SXSW this year was the diminutive 23-year old Zee Avi, from Malaysia. Plucked from obscurity half a world away in Kuala Lumpur through her homemade YouTube videos, which were seen by Raconteur’s drummer Patrick Keeler and passed along to White Stripes manager Ian Montone, Zee is freshly signed to Brushfire Records.

Her debut self-titled album comes out on Tuesday, with a sound that is a refreshing throwback to jazz vocalists of the 1920s, cross-bred with an island vibe of acoustic guitar and ukulele.

Zee and I bonded over Colorado beers in a noisy bar in Austin after her daytime set at the Filter Magazine party. She looks maybe 17, so I had to double-check before I ordered us some drinks. Still electrified from her well-received set a few minutes prior, Zee was utterly approachable, and completely passionate about where her music is taking her.


F/F: When you were studying in London, were you focusing on musical education, or law?

Zee: Well, primarily fashion design, at first. I did my undergraduate there at the American Intercontinental University in England, but I eventually decided I no longer had “the passion for fashion”…. I did do eight levels in law when I was seventeen – I joke that I was “bred to be a lawyer.” My dad’s whole family were lawyers, so they had that driven mindset. But I’m really glad that they pushed me towards that, because it did teach me a lot about hard work.

I started teaching myself to play the guitar, though, in Malaysia. I had a lot of free time when school ended each day and I bought this guitar for 19 ringgit, which I would say is around thirty bucks. After I got back from London, I bought myself a chord book and decided to take the guitar out of the closet where it had been sitting and….you know, started jamming my A and G chord. It took me some time to figure out how to stretch my hands around it, I have the tiniest hands – you should see how long a bottle of nail polish will last me (laughs). Oh – and it’s an ongoing joke at practice that a ukulele is actually a normal-sized guitar for me. So, I played rhythm guitar in a couple of bands, and then moved to London. When I moved back to Kuala Lumpur, that’s when I really started with the songwriting.

The first time I heard your music, it was kind of surprising (to me, at least) for a girl from Malaysia to have a sound that’s very much throwback to American music styles from, say, the 1920s onward. Where did that influence come from? Were you exposed to women in jazz a lot growing up?

I actually had that comment once on a YouTube video, something like – “How did a twenty-something Malaysian girl sound like she’s from the Mississippi delta?” But I guess for me, it just came naturally. Of course, listening to music that was from that era really helped a lot, it inspired me. Sure, I went through my rock periods and my British indie phase when I was in London, but I felt like none of them really fit me. So I fell back into listening to jazz, and I connected with its simplicity and honesty and just the lack of sugar-coating to the lyrics. Vocal-wise, I would say that 1920s music has a lot of impact on how I write my music today.

In Malaysia, jazz is a pretty big circuit, so I was exposed to it, but I would certainly never call myself a jazz singer even though I love it. Among my friends I am probably still one of the only one who listens to that era, or looks for vintage vinyl, old pressings, of this music from a different time. But American music in general – I mean, blues and jazz came from here and have shaped and defined modern music. I love going back to the roots to see how it shapes music today. I mean, if it weren’t for Howlin’ Wolf, Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been around.

The way your music was discovered, through your personal YouTube postings, is pretty cool. Tell me about why you started doing that – was that primarily driven by a desire to have your creativity heard?

Well yeah, the whole internet thing has definitely been a blessing. I think it is such a good outlet to help you put your work out there no matter what you do. It does seems to be a more common story these days, that someone, somewhere has their talent first seen on the internet. It’s been pretty crazy to be heard by so many people, and that Patrick (from The Raconteurs) took an interest in my work. I hadn’t even told my friends or family about it until I got the deal. It was really just a place where I could let things out and just write songs for me.

I mean, I don’t talk much about this part of the story, but the whole reason I had even started with YouTube in the first place is simply because a friend of mine missed my first gig and he’s a poet and I really wanted his feedback on “Poppy,” which is the first song I wrote. He wanted me to send him and mp3 but I didn’t know how to do that, but I did have a crappy webcam and an old IBM laptop, with a call center headset. After he watched it, I was going to delete it, with all of the grainy and crackly sound, but he said, “No, why don’t you just let it nest there for a little bit?”

So I left it up instead, and within a few days I started getting other comments on it from around the world, from random strangers. It was just more encouragement for me. I found that the more videos I started recording, the reception was great and more people started coming to the channel to see them and comment and sharing them with their friends. It was all a big, crazy snowball effect

Tell me about the new record that you recorded at Brushfire Studios in Southern California – was that the first time you’d been in LA?

Yes! It was the first time I had been to the U.S. at all, so you can just imagine everything being brand new, and me being a trainwreck of nerves and jetlag. The material that I arrived with was a blend of older stuff from YouTube and new things I had written more recently that they liked when I played for them, they said, “You know what, we should put that on the record!” It was an incredibly good experience – I feel like they are all family now.

One interesting thing on the album is the Morrissey cover song! Why did you decide to cover “First Of The Gang To Die”?

Well, I’ve always been a really big fan of the Smiths, and that particular song was actually played all the time in this indie club in KL (Kuala Lumpur) but it became kind of like an anthem for all of us in that club. It reminds me of feeling like warriors, and a pact of being different from everybody else, and it is just such a beautifully written song. And apparently Morrissey has heard my version of it — which is daunting for me to think about – apparently Ian (Montone, manager) sent it to him. It’s just crazy!

Are you still writing these days? It has been a pretty crazy few months for you.

Yeah, I’m creatively exhausted at this moment. I plan to go home and recuperate for a little while and be a hermit and grow a shell. I need it. Because this summer I have a lot of touring, some cool festivals coming up for me like No Depression in Seattle (with Iron & Wine and Gillian Welch) and Bonnaroo and Outside Lands in San Francisco. It’ll be a good summer.


zee-avi-album-coverZee’s self-titled debut album is out Tuesday May 19th on Brushfire Records, and you can stream the whole thing on her MySpace.

The Story – Zee Avi

Live at the Solar Powered Plastic Plant

May 17 – Boulder, CO Etown taping (opening for Mike Doughty)
May 19 – Long Beach, CA – Fingerprints Instore
May 20 – Los Angeles, CA – The Roxy
May 22 – San Fran, CA – The Rickshaw Stop
May 26 – Towson, MD – WTMD Listener event
May 27 – Charlottesville, VA – Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
May 28 – Washington, DC 9:30 Club (opening for A Camp)
May 30 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live
May 31 – New York, NY – Mercury Lounge
June 1 – Hoboken, NJ – Maxwell’s
June 6 – Pittsburgh, PA 3 Rivers Arts Fest (opening for Medeski, Martin & Wood)
June 13 – Manchester, TN – Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
June 15 – Chapel Hill, NC – Night Light
June 16- Kill Devil Hills, NC- The Pit Surf Shop
June 17 – Columbia, SC – Hunter Gatherer
June 19 – Opelika, AL – Eighth & Rail
June 20 – Birmingham, AL – City Stages Festival
July 9th – Spokane, WA- Knitting Factory
July 11th – Redmond, WA – No Depression Festival
July 12th- Vancouver, BC – Media Club
August 28th San Francisco, CA – Outside Lands Festival

April 7, 2009

Interview: The expansive sounds of Blitzen Trapper


Through non-stop touring over the last two years and a pair of very strong albums (their latest, Furr, on Sub Pop), Portland’s Blitzen Trapper is accumulating a critical amount of deserved buzz behind their music. Straddling genres of expansively golden CSNY rock, the wide-open folk underpinnings of the wilderness, and the squalling rock of fellow Portlanders Pavement, their music delights simply in its unpredictability.

I sat down with half of the band when they were in Denver a few weeks ago, playing a very sold-out show at the Hi-Dive. Brian Adrian Koch (drums and vocals), Eric Earley (lead vocals and guitar) and Marty Marquis (guitar, keyboard and vocals) piled on a sunken green couch and we chatted about their year, while waiting for Ramen from the bar.

Fuel/Friends: Last time you guys were here in Denver I saw you open for Malkmus, which must have been pretty cool. Your non-stop touring seems to have generated a good deal of enthusiasm in the crowd refracted back to the stage – the singing along with each word on songs like “Furr”….

Eric: Yeah, that’s been great and surprising. People also really seem into “Black River Killer” on this tour…

Marty: Oh, and also “Not Your Lover”, when the three of us do it all singing together

Not Your Lover (live 2/27/09) – Blitzen Trapper

F/F: I’d read about a thematic connection between Black River Killer and (author) Cormac McCarthy. What about his novels inspire you creatively?

Eric: On the one hand, that song is a classic murder ballad, but in other ways it’s more ambiguous as well, with some spiritual aspects. To me the imagery of the song feels related to the world McCarthy creates.

Marty: And I think there’s also the same recurring theme of regeneration through violence and some sort of redemptive quality in the most mindless, pathetic slaughter. It’s an interesting character in that story of our song and I think people are drawn to those contradictions. I mean it’s an American myth, that’s one of the things that makes us tick as a culture. I think Cormac McCarthy also taps into some of that.

Black River Killer (live in NYC) – Blitzen Trapper

Eric: He’s like our classic, our Hemingway or Faulkner, our Steinbeck crossed with Joyce. And he does it with an amount of experience that’s strange, and he’s writing right now. It’s amazing.

Brian: As rife as those novels are, when they’re translated into film – I watched No Country For Old Men, and there’s no music in it at all, and I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me afterwards and I had to go back and check. There’s not a stitch. It’s so effective, I was flabbergasted.

F/F: It’s consistent with his books I think, though, since there’s such a space and a stillness and a silence in them.

Eric: Yeah, completely.

F/F: How do you possibly maintain creativity while you’re on the road? How have you been able to work on finishing your next album being on tour so much?

Eric: Well, I don’t write on the road, I write when I get home. And I can write really fast, I can write a whole record in a month. January I spent the whole time recording and writing.

Marty: You can barely think on the road.

Brian: The road’s a really good place to form ideas, for things to bubble and boil in your head. But as far as developing them into actual songs, it’s not very realistic. A lot of time to think though.

F/F: I also read that you have a record made between each of your records? Do you ever revisit those songs or play them live?

Eric: Well, we’ve used em for a few things… the Tour EP that we’ve had the last couple tours is stuff that was outtakes from Furr, and then all the Wild Mountain Nation outtakes were released here and there, on blogs and stuff like that. There’s probably an album and a half of stuff that hasn’t been put out.

The next record is definitely going to have some older songs that have been recorded years ago, some that were written when I was like nineteen, mixed in among all the new stuff. Generally when I’m making a record I record 25-30 songs, so yeah there’s a whole lot of stuff out there.

F/F: Do you ever play those unreleased rough cuts live?

Marty: Well you know, we want to make everyone have a good time, and it helps when they know the music. But we do play some stuff that’s pretty obscure in our set. As far as your average person who knows about Blitzen Trapper, they mostly want to hear the album Furr and even some of the hits from the last record, but we will also play stuff that they are totally unaware of.

Furr (live in NYC) – Blitzen Trapper

F/F: I wanted to hear more about your record label….Lidkercow?

Eric: Yeah, Lidkercow – that’s a Joyce reference.

F/F: ….Are you planning to release your own solo projects on that label, or signing some other bands you admire?

Eric: We are always feeling like we hear bands whose records we’d like to release….

Brian: In our fantasy life, we’ve always looked down the road to a place where people can collaborate and create together, and thinking of ways that we can be a part of that.

Marty: I mean, we’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years, we were a band for a long time and we didn’t know how to get the word out. We were just pretty naïve and playing music around Portland for a long time. So when we finally pushed out, we were really innocent, and it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for us. Now we’re getting to a place where I feel like we could help other artists ascend that curve and it would be pretty cool. There’s definitely some bands and musicians I’ve talked to a little bit that we’re pretty impressed with, but yeah, you don’t want to shortchange people either. What we do is a pretty spartan, bare-bones approach.

F/F: Well, and it is a crowded music market out there.

Eric: It’s difficult to navigate it.

Marty: I think people are getting pretty savvy about navigating all the data that’s out there, though. With music these days you can go and hear something immediately, and that communicates on some super-rational level with your core being and you don’t have to rely on what other people are saying about the music.

F/F: Do you think that people seem to have less patience to some degree for bands that don’t fit into a mold or genre? Like for example, people seem to have no idea how to classify your music – it’s quite amusing reading all the descriptors assigned to you guys.

Eric: Yeah, but all of that stuff is writers though. What I’ve learned on this record the last two tours is that there’s a big difference between writers and the fans. You know, and the fans just hear the music and they connect with it, whether it’s classified a certain way or not, it’s unimportant. But you need the writers to communicate to people about the music too.

Marty: I mean, it’s human nature to want to classify stuff. I definitely think that, yeah, if we had been a more focused band maybe, and we’d just said, we’re gonna be a straight country folk act and we’re all going to wear cowboy hats in our photo shoots….we might have been able to penetrate the marketplace a lot earlier because it’s a sharper instrument that people can comprehend a lot easier.

Eric: But you know, I think the way that we’re going though will have more lasting value, as opposed to being sort of like, “Well, you got your year.” I’d rather be able to make 5 or 6 records that will all last, or at least all contain songs that can stand the test of time.


All photos by special arrangement, from a little fly-by-night session we did shortly before the interview with the amazing Todd Roeth.

[thanks to the awesome NYCTaper for the live tracks throughout]

March 31, 2009

Interview: The Hollyfelds


A few weeks ago, I helped dragged a table out into a bar parking lot on a lovely Sunday afternoon and interviewed last summer’s winners of Denver’s best alt-country band title, The Hollyfelds. They have a new EP coming out Friday, and they played at our Hillbilly Prom last weekend (oh wait, that was the Lurleens).

Feel free to jet on over to Gigbot.com and see what we had to talk about.

[photograph by my favorite Todd Roeth]

January 19, 2009

Interview: Cody Dickinson (Hill Country Revue & North Mississippi All-Stars)


Head on over to Gigbot to read my interview with Cody Dickinson, of Hill Country Revue and the North Mississippi All Stars. Cody plays the electric washboard. That’s pretty rad.

August 31, 2008

Grace Potter interview :: Turn the radio up high, and grab the first guitar you see

Grace Potter can electrify a stage with her fearless and excoriating guitar solos, light up a room with her thousand-megawatt smile, and shoot an arcade-game basket from fifteen feet away. In heels.

In addition to possessing one of the most honest, immense, and soulful wails I’ve heard from a female vocalist since Janis Joplin, Grace is a stellar songwriter and rocks the B3 Hammond organ, among other instruments. At only 25 years old this Burlington, Vermont native leads her band The Nocturnals with some serious rockability, and can beat them at many backstage arcade games. At least that I’ve seen.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Grace Potter and The Nocturnals live for the second time this summer while I was in San Francisco for the Outside Lands Festival last weekend. Around this time last Sunday I was sitting in a tent with Grace for a few questions before we all loaded up and shipped out. Being that it was the end of a long and festive sunny day for both of us, we started the conversation with Grace confiding in me that I wasn’t the only one that’d been drinkin’ since half past noon. “I have a good liver,” she said to me in a lowered voice as she leaned close and spoke into my hair. “It’ll process it. But we’ll be okay — you and me, we’re gonna throw it down.”


HB: The question I am most interested in asking you stems from my own experiences being a female blogger in this crazy rock world — I’m wondering if you feel that there’s any kind of double standard when it comes to being a woman in the music industry, as opposed to a guy doing the same things that you’re doing?

GP: I personally think that there’s positives to it, and obviously there are negatives. I actually hate girl musicians — for the most part I tend to really dislike them. But I’m not saying that I’m like, the Savior Girl in rock and roll. I make mistakes, we all make mistakes. Still, I’m not gonna throw a fit, I’m not gonna be a diva… I’m never gonna make a big scene if somebody didn’t bring me my fucking champagne. Today they were apologizing for not having a mirror where I was backstage but — who cares?! What’s most important to me is that we’ve got an environment where we can create great music, and I’m more interested in if my amps work or my gear, or if there’s a string broken, or if the setlist isn’t quite right. I would way rather talk about that than what outfit I’m gonna wear. Of course it is fun being a woman, and I’m glad to be a woman. But what I’m most fascinated by is a woman artist who can speak realistically, from her soul, and not be bullshitting.

The music industry is a hard place to live in, but I love my guys in my band, being in a band with guys. They seem to have more of a sense of team and camaraderie that’s ingrained in them that I also feel I’m lucky enough to have. If I didn’t have that, I feel like I would have been Gwen Stefani-d a long time ago. I’ve toured with other women in the band and in the crew and there’s definitely a challenge I have of being “the boss,” so to speak, but not wanting to be the Snow Queen, not wanting to be the bitch. I kinda cater to the Katharine Hepburn mentality, which is “be as wonderful as you possibly can be onscreen, and as edgy and cutthroat as you can be off-screen.”

Do you ever feel like women who front bands are treated as a novelty?

I would SO much rather it go in this order when people walk by our stage — listen: ‘Wow, that music sounds amazing. Look at that bass player, he’s awesome — this band fucking rocks! . . . Oh my god, there’s a girl singing, and she’s pretty good on the guitar, or she’s pretty good on the B3.’ And then maybe, ‘Oh, she’s kinda pretty’ –  instead of the reverse. I mean however you look at it, I feel very lucky to be where we are. I am a 25 year old girl who isn’t afraid to wear a short skirt or to have fun and be myself. Someday I’m going to chill out and be more like Emmylou Harris or Bonnie Raitt or Lucinda Williams and get into a more humble state of mind and a more… subtle state of fashion, but for now this is who I am.

Are those musicians who you mentioned some of the women you admire?

YES. Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt, in that order — my idols. I’ve met all of them, but have never sang with any of them. I almost asked Lucinda on a song, and I almost asked Emmylou, but I just couldn’t work it out at the shows. Bonnie is actually a really good friend of the band, she’s been very supportive, given us quotes and mentioned us from stage . . . one time she was playing in front of 3000 people in my hometown of Burlington, Vermont and she actually talked about me onstage. She was talking about the local music scene and how hard it is for local artists to get off the ground, and bands who have really been able to do something and she said my name. I mean — I lost my shit.

I’d heard that you guys were heading back into the studio later this year. On your last record This Is Somewhere you’d tried to capture more of a live feeling in the studio. Will you continue with that aim this time around?

I think we’re going to relinquish all desperate attempts to capture a live sound because it’s two very different things. Being in the studio last time we realized that you have to let them be different – you can’t force a live sound from a beautiful studio. I mean, we were in a gorgeous studio in LA and we kinda mistreated it, in that we were constantly trying to force something out of it.

I think this time around, depending on where we record and what kind of songs we’re writing, it’s gonna become whatever it needs to become, and we’re gonna pick the studio accordingly. We are thinking of going back into the studio in February or March to make a new record and who knows when that will come out . . . but hopefully a little bit of a quicker turnaround than last time because it took us like eight months from the time we finished recording it for it to actually be out.

Are you happy with the ultimate result on the last record with that struggle between live and studio sound?

I am proud of it. I would listen to it, I would. But I don’t listen to it. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco told me that one mistake you can make is to overlisten to your own [recorded] music. Just let it be what it is. Just leave it alone — record your record and let it be a moment in time because that’s exactly what you sounded like. Be honest with yourself. I mean, be the best version of yourself –don’t underedit, don’t sell yourself short– but pick the best parts of yourself, put them out there, and then forever from that moment on recognize the fact that that was back when you recorded it, in . . . November of 2006 or whatever, and that that’s not who you are now, and that’s okay.

Yeah . . . Jeff Tweedy gives good advice.




[top image credit Kim Hutchens]

July 31, 2008

The SXSW of Denver is happening this weekend

This weekend brings a vibrant, can’t-miss community festival to all the music loving denizens of Denver.

The Denver Post’s Underground Music Showcase (UMS) is preparing to take over a walkable area of South Broadway (roughly between 3rd and Maple) and 20 venues — including the sanctuary of a church, a Persian rug store, a custom print shop and a modern art gallery, as well as all the traditional clubs and music venues. Over 100 local bands will play on Friday evening and all day Saturday (and okay . . . probably on into Sunday).

In addition to artists I know I dig, like Gregory Alan Isakov, Hearts of Palm, Young Coyotes, Born In The Flood etc, I am especially looking forward to the “wander around aimlessly and listen” plan of attack and discovering some unexpected new local sounds. And if the tunes aren’t enough to lure you, there’s also a photography exhibit presented by some of Denver’s finest rock photographers (with free beer). If you live in Colorado and love music, come on out — a pass for all the action will only set you back a Jackson, and that ain’t bad.

In order to find more about how one nurtures and pulls off such a rad model for a local music festival, I checked in with one of the festival organizers, Ricardo Baca of the Denver Post. He tells Fuel/Friends why you should all come around to his little utopia this weekend.


1) When the Underground Music Showcase first began, what hopes and goals did you have for it?

In the beginning, we only wanted to celebrate Denver’s local music community. It was five bands for $5, and the promoters told us we wouldn’t make any money off local bands. We told them we didn’t want to make the money – we wanted it all to go to the bands. (A very un-promoterly philosophy, apparently, given the looks of horror on their faces.) The Denver Post has never made money on any of the seven previous UMSs, nor have we, the organizers. But from the very beginning, the bands have always told us that they make more money at the UMS than any other show throughout the year – and since we believe that musicians deserve to make money, we’ve kept with that philosophy.

To this day, as we’ve expanded to two days and 100 bands and 20 venues and an outdoor stage this year – while still staying all-local, mind you – we still give 100 percent of the ticket sales to the artists who make the UMS what it is.

2) Name a few shows this year that you are anticipating – what’s gonna be epic?

As you know, Heather, The Knew is a fiery live act that isn’t to be missed. And they really step it up at festivals. I really love it how bands often utilize festivals – SXSW or Coachella or the UMS – as a time to step things up, to put on a show. And everybody treats it as an event – including the solo artists.

One of my favorite aspects of the UMS plucks artists out of bands and drops them on a solo stage. We try and pick musicians who aren’t really known for their solo work, too, because it makes things more interesting. Last year, everybody showed up when Bright Channel‘s Jeff Suthers (now of Moonspeed) played an intense solo set at a little paper shop. He’s playing again this year, and now there are others who don’t play out alone much – Pee Pee‘s Doo Crowder, WidowersMike Marchant, Cat-A-Tac‘s Jim McTurnan and Ghost Buffalo‘s Marie Litton just to name a few – who are stepping out at this year’s UMS.

More bands people should be aware of: Born in the Flood won our Underground Music Poll last year, and Hearts of Palm won it this year. They’re both playing. Some smaller musicians and bands: Mark Darling dazzled me at last year’s festival; The Beebs make lovely music; Roger Green and Dang Head and Joe Sampson and Chris Adolf are all tremendous talents in our community; and then there’s Chewbacca Bukkake – and with a band name like that, how can you not go and hear what they sound like?

3) Looking back at the UMS, what are some memorably fantastic shows that stick out in your mind?

At last year’s UMS, one of our featured solo performers was Patrick Meese. His band, Meese, was about to sign to Atlantic, but we didn’t know that. They were still “underground” enough for us. Turns out some of Patrick’s buddies showed up for his solo set – including Isaac Slade of The Fray. Isaac later sang a tune with Patrick, and then one by himself, and it was all very lovely and memorable.

I’ll also never forget the time Josh Taylor’s band Friends Forever got manic with a tarp, a fan and some other materials when we were at the Gothic Theatre that one year. Wovenhand put on a pretty amazing show at the UMS a couple years ago at the Bluebird Theater, and there was also the year when winning band Munly And The Lee Lewis Harlots got up from their seats at the Irish Rover (he’d requested to play the smallest venue at the festival) and walked out to the back patio, where they finished their set under the stars.

I could go on and on, seriously. Recounting the festivals over the years is like going through a history of Denver’s indie rock/metal/alt-country/punk scenes.

4) How do you think that technology has changed the independent music scene since the inception of the UMS, and related to that, your job as a music reviewer and festival organizer?

Up until this year, we tabulated votes for the Underground Music Poll by hand. That’s 100-plus voters, and each ballot has 20 band names on it. It was mad. This year, our tech guru Sean Porter was kind enough to build us a program that made things easy for everybody – voters included.

Speaking of Sean, he and his colleagues have made an incredible impact throughout the state –all very quietly, mind you– by designing/running most of the major rock club websites and starting his own genius creation, Gigbot. He and his buddies created websites for many of the major music venues and festivals in the city, and their program Gigbot spiders all of those sites and blogs and MySpace pages and brings that data into one place. Who’s playing tonight? Go to Gigbot. That makes my job – and my live music habit – a lot easier.. In the spirit of being forward, Gigbot is the presenting sponsor of this year’s UMS. But still. They were my favorite website long before they were associated with the UMS.

5) In talking about a future vision, what would you like to add to the Underground Music Showcase in future years?

We do like growth at the UMS. Right now we’re an all-volunteer shop. Even our lead booker, designer, sponsorship director and web developer are volunteers. I’d like to imagine a day where those are paid positions, even if it’s just a bonus. These people give so much. They deserve it.

Other than that, I love what the UMS stands for. I hope to keep that pro-artist, pro-fan vision and continue to grow with the booming Colorado music scene.

Thanks Ricardo, for the thoughts shared and for helping (with your crew) to organize such a relevant, viable, ‘music-friendly-first’ local festival! The posters are printed, the bands are ready. I’m in!

[poster photo credit Todd Roeth]

Tagged with , .
June 24, 2008

Ryan Auffenberg and the burnished glimmer of Marigolds

There’s a desolate ache to the brand of dusty Americana that Ryan Auffenberg creates from his outpost in the busy heart of San Francisco. As the SF Weekly wrote, “sweet, rough, singer-songwriter kids like Ryan Auffenberg have a powerful animating force — they like to fuck around with folk, and they’ve got love songs to sing.”

I called Ryan an artist to watch a few years ago after first hearing the gorgeously melancholy harmonies of “Under All The Bright Lights” and seeing him perform at Noise Pop 2007. Now signed to independent San Francisco label Evangeline Records (home of Chuck Prophet), Ryan is releasing his newest album Marigolds today. It was produced and mixed by former American Music Clubber Tim Mooney, and mastered by Matt Pence of Centro-matic.

There’s a bittersweet molasses smoothness to Ryan’s voice as it crests and burrows through his songs with a streak of the romantic west gleaming through. Whether plumbing the cold depths of loneliness in songs like “Deep Water” or driving a highway with the windows down amidst the bright Midwest jangle on the closing track “Alright, Okay,” he urges us all to have some faith.

Alright, Okay – Ryan Auffenberg

Lay off the novocaine
’cause you’ve been asleep for days

it hurts but it’ll go away

Almost the first of May
the San Francisco Bay’s
all swollen up from last night’s rain

So if you just come down
we’ll get out of town

take a breath and drive all day . . .

Ryan took a few minutes to answer some questions for Fuel/Friends, since this is one artist whom I tend to get a lot of questions about, and who’s been flying under the radar lately.

Q: You’re from the Midwest but live in San Francisco. How does location and the mood of the city affect your songwriting, in contrast with the twang of your roots?

A: Some of the initial press about the album has played up my Midwestern “country” roots, which I think my St. Louis friends and family find amusing. While I never really considered St. Louis to be much of an epicenter for roots or “country” music, I did grow up 20 minutes away from Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar’s hometown, so I guess there is a bit of that scene in my lineage. I remember listening to Uncle Tupelo when I was 11 or 12 years old and they were just a local band. They had a poster that said something like “Fourth best country band in St. Louis!”

While St. Louis does have a pretty auspicious musical heritage, especially in regards to blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, I would say that I identify much more with San Francisco as a place that has shaped my sensibilities as an artist. Cultural influences aside, I think my music is definitely affected by the atmosphere and climate of San Francisco. I live in a particularly foggy neighborhood, which I know has had a big effect on the mood of music I often write.

If you sit down to play some music and it’s foggy outside, that’s going to have an effect on what type of music you play. “Missouri in the Morning” is actually a song I wrote on a particularly foggy day when I was missing home and the blazing heat of the summer time. There’s something really sensual about that kind of weather. I miss that out here.

What can you tell me about your songwriting process on Marigolds?

My songs usually seem to start out with chords and a melody. Once some sort of melody starts to take shape, I’ll sing a bit of free-form nonsense along with the melody until an image pops out that I feel like I can run with. Once I’ve got those images then I’ll start trying to weave some sort of narrative through lines into the song, and piece it all together.

What I find really fascinating about this process is that when I’m nearing completion of a song and take a step back, I often find that what I’d thought was simply some sort of free-association exercise has really turned into a means of expressing emotions or ideas that had been percolating for a while, but I hadn’t quite figured out how to articulate them. Many of what I feel to be my most emotionally honest songs have come out of this process. Also, the writing always happens at different rates of speed. For instance, I wrote “Deep Water” and “Under All the Bright Lights” in about a half hour each respectively, whereas the song “Marigolds” took me six months to finish.

After your self-released first album Climb, your second album Golden Gate Park was never released and seems shelved for the time being. That seems to me to be a bit like the second part in a trilogy being missing. Any plans to revisit the songs on that album?

I would eventually like to release Golden Gate Park in its originally-intended album form. After recording it, I was looking for a label to help put some resources behind the release. So in the interim period, I took four of the songs off of the album, released them as The Bright Lights EP and held off on putting out the rest of that material.

When I was eventually approached by Evangeline, their original intention in making an album with me was to go back in a re-record those songs with a slightly different production approach. However, by that point in time I had already written a new album and expressed to them that I’d much rather make a new album than go back and revisit material I’d emotionally and creatively moved on from. I sent them demos for the songs on Marigolds and they signed off on the idea of making an album of all new material.

I am proud of Golden Gate Park though, and I would eventually like all of those songs to see the light of day, but for now it’s currently locked in the vault (“the vault” being my bedroom closet).

You’ve played shows with quite a variety of musicians, from Mark Kozelek to Laura Veirs to the Watson Twins. What other music has been influencing or astounding you lately?

I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Neil Young. Tim Mooney (Marigolds producer) and I, aside from being musicians, are also pretty big music fans and would spend a lot of time in the studio just talking about records we loved. After the Goldrush was a recurring topic of conversation. We’ve actually been tooling around with a cover of “Tell Me Why” and may include that as a bonus track in some form or another sometime.

As far as new stuff, I’ve been enjoying the Bon Iver album a good bit lately. Flume, Skinny Love and Re: Stacks are all really beautiful tunes. Sun Kil Moon‘s “Lost Verses” off the new April album is the first song in a long time to give me that “lump in your throat” feeling.

Other newer stuff: Spoon‘s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a badass album. Britt Daniel crafts these incredibly lean and mean pop songs, and then they’ll do these wild production things like making one tune sound like The Supremes, which seems like a pretty unique choice for a rock band to be making these days. Another thing about Britt that I love is his solo-ing style. Often times during solos, he intentionally plays all these wrong chords or notes and creates this really messy, dissonant, incredible sounding noise.

There’s a moment at the end of “Interstate” (on Marigolds) that’s sort of a mini-musical nod to Britt. I was overdubbing piano on the song and in the outro I just started banging on the piano, playing wrong notes while Tim messed with that fucked-up signal generator noise. Good fun indeed.


Auffenberg’s record release party is tonight at San Francisco’s Cafe Du Nord. Head on out to support this talented artist; Willow Willow and Robert Francis open. Ryan also heads out on the road in July & August.

Marigolds is available today.

[portrait of Ryan credit Peter Ellenby]

June 19, 2008

Using all the colors :: Frightened Rabbit interview

In the short time I’ve been listening to Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, something in their music has hit me hard. Their latest album Midnight Organ Fight has been more or less on constant repeat and haven’t even come close to getting tired of it. You can read all about it here.

Scott Hutchison formed the band with his brother Grant (who is an insanely ferocious and passionate drummer) in 2004. I was curious to learn more about the person largely behind these gorgeous songs, so Scott and I sat in a Denver parking lot in the deepening twilight this past weekend and talked a bit more about the emotional core of the record, the songwriting, and the production that Peter Katis (The National) brought to it.

They are Frightened Rabbit, they are on tour in the US, and yes, they are happy to meet you.


On Midnight Organ Fight you sing about working on erasing someone but lacking the proper tools. It seems that many of your songs on the record are a sort of catharsis, or a tool for working through a difficult situation, but at the same time, a constant reminder of some pretty rough times. Is that ever a difficult dichotomy?

Well, during that part of my life, that relationship and that situation was a really major part that wasn’t going to go away anyways, so I didn’t really see the songwriting as therapy or anything like that. It was just the most important thing that was going on at that point in time, and the only thing I really cared enough about to write about.

And now, each time I sing the songs I definitely think about that time just naturally, like imagery pops into my head, but the whole thing’s not hard anymore. Performing them every night definitely takes some of the edges off of it, but you still have to transpose whatever energy or emotion you’re feeling that day into those songs when you perform them. When the record was recorded it was still pretty fresh. It’s not really anymore. I’m really concentrating on different things when I’m doing it live, like playing it well, and getting energy into it.

I know as a writer that there is some sense of fulfillment when you can string together words that perfectly pierce the gut of what you are trying to express. All of the lyrics on the new album are extremely rich, but do you have any personal, small favorites?

Yeah, I really like the whole of the song “Poke.” I feel like something definitely happened with that one whereby I was able to exactly compartmentalize one particular time in my life – something about it, I don’t really know exactly what. I summed something up perfectly in that song, I really like the line about tying a navy knot, just how two people can be interlaced like rope:

“You should look through some old photos
I adored you in every one of those
If someone took a picture of us now they’d need to be told
That we had ever clung and tied a navy knot with arms at night
. . . I’d say she was his sister but she doesn’t have his nose”

And then I also like the line about “I might never catch a mouse and present it in my mouth / To make you feel you’re with someone who deserves to be with you.” There is a sense of compressing three years of worry on my part into that one line. Those words kind of appeared from nowhere.

But I don’t usually write in the moment or at the time of feeling, I usually write after the fact so that I can them almost fictionalize events and distance myself from them slightly. I’ve always thought that there’s one thing to be personal in a song, but then you’re really a fine line away from being selfish if you’re not externalizing it so other people be invited into your songs. I hopefully try and write so that there’s enough vagueness so that the emotion is specific, but the personal is not specifically mine anymore. People can attach their own emotions onto my songs, and I can let the songs go.

That must be kinda difficult to balance, because the emotion all by itself means less without any details or context.

Yeah. Of course, people close to me are well aware of lines meaning really specific things, which is fine, but I think the metaphors used are still idiosyncratic enough that not everyone feels those things as intensely as I personally would. I mean, I think anyone can even take most of the songs on that record and just enjoy them as rock songs, it depends what frame of mind they’re in.

But I definitely do try and get as much out of each line of lyric as I possibly can. I don’t like throwaway lines in other people’s music. I tried to make the whole record and each line matter. That helps with what we were talking about before, to make the live delivery of each line as if it really matters.

My first introduction to your music was actually a YouTube video where you covered a bit of Fake Empire before My Backwards Walk. The National are a bit formidable to cover, not many bands have attempted that that I’m aware. What is your relationship with their music other than sharing a producer?

I came to that song before we worked with Peter and got to know the record and loved it. I’d heard The National in a bar in Glasgow, and that song definitely came at the same time as when I was writing and finalizing some of our songs on the record. When I first heard “Fake Empire” –on MySpace cheesily enough– I don’t know, there’s something about it where I just visualized myself inside of that song during that time in my life.

The National have a way with lyrics; there’s a line with them so often that really hits you so directly, and there’s wit which I really appreciate as well. I’ve never met the band, although I’d love to, so I cover that song 100% from a fan perspective.

I love Peter Katis’ work with The National, and you’ve said that with Peter you knew there was a certain way the record was always going to sound. Can you tell me more about that? How did that working relationship come about?

I got mostly what I’d expected from working with Peter, I just really appreciate the atmospheric quality he brings to all his records. Up to that point our demos and our first EP had sounded very closed, not really big. I really wanted to achieve a grander scale with this record. There was a completeness to the whole album and to the writing process, and I didn’t want the power of that completeness to be brought down by the music not being sonically powerful enough.

So Peter brought a muscle, I would say, to the record. He approaches things in production from a more scientific perspective than I do, which is good. He has his tricks that he uses on all his records, but he was really clear about the fact that he wanted to make our record unlike most of the other records he’s produced, which are quite dark. We got to the point at the end of mixing where he felt that this should really not be a dark record, actually. Hopefully we kept the power and the muscle without turning into Interpol. I mean, I think there’s black imagery, but also a hopeful aspect to the songs.

I can definitely appreciate the grandness on this record — I mean, there’s a place for the intimacy of bedroom demos, but the atmosphere and the beautiful sonic feel of the album kinda lends itself to expanding into new emotional areas through that as well.

Yeah, see the beautiful thing about Boxer is that there is so much breathing space for people to jump into the record. You can visualize yourself in the record and in the room . . . they definitely have a great way of describing rooms as well. The whole record has so much space, you can absorb yourself in it.

One of the nicest things that Peter brought to our record, actually, was that pulling back sometimes and taking things out. In my demos I tend to be all about filling the whole thing in. When I was younger, my mom tells me that I would always want to color in the whole piece of paper, rather than just drawing a person and a house and leaving it at that. I would want to color in all the white space to the very edges. I think that’s something that’s still there in me, I like to use all my colors. But Peter was very good at trying to make space so that there wasn’t that overload.

Is there a certain song you can point to on the record where you feel he did that really well?

There’s one called “I Feel Better” that I think I could have really taken over the top, going for more of a Phil Spector feel. But with what Peter did with that song, I feel like he made a difference in it. It’s completely different from the demo.

How has the response been in this leg of the tour?

It’s been consistently good. I mean we knew people were enjoying the record and it was doing quite well, but you’re never really sure what to expect until you get in each city and meet people and get their reactions about the songs. It’s been really nice. People are excited to talk to us as well, which is kind of weird for us, they want to meet us and talk to us about how they came to the record and why they like it. People are really forthcoming and very honest, and so many people apologize for being weird about it and taking it to heart but hey, they’re in good company with us. Really a big part of coming over here has been meeting the people that have connected with the record.

Do you feel like it’s been a long journey for the band to get to this point?

It’s been a really nice, steady growth. There’s not been a point with this band since its inception where I’ve felt that we’re moving backwards at any point. That’s the whole motto of the band, as soon as we feel that we’re traveling backwards perhaps it’ll be time to shake things up. But as for now, we’re moving forward and I don’t have any other ambitions aside from that.

In terms of our records, I really don’t feel you should be producing your best work on your first record either, or even on your second for that matter. I would say that I am in fact prouder of our second record, as a fan of albums – that’s definitely an album and not just a collection of songs. That first album was really written over a period of time when songwriting and playing music was more of a hobby to me so it’s more disparate. But this one is more a representation of me as a person, so I enjoy giving that to people more.


And giving to people from the depths of their gut is definitely what this band does superbly well. Later that night they blazed brilliantly through almost every song from Midnight Organ Fight, as well as several older ones from Sings The Greys (the chanting fraternal harmonies of “music now!” felt like a rebel yell). I think I felt walls shake at the Hi-Dive from the emotion reverberating through the near-capacity crowd. I doubt that I will see a better show this year.

Here’s the video I shot of the Fake Empire/My Backwards Walk. Their agitated intensity seeps out of every part, and watch Grant on the drums. The way he can barely contain himself as the song winds to the place where he comes in mirrors the way I felt in watching this song come to life:

Frightened Rabbit is playing tonight at Holocene in Portland, and on Saturday all you San Franciscans should absolutely head out to see them at The Independent. More tour dates follow in the coming weeks; I strongly recommend going home with the albums, a handmade t-shirt (like I did — thanks Steve!), and a renewed faith in the power of good songs and live music.

[My other pics from the show are here, and my creative friend Kate took some artsy shots which can be found on her Flickr]

UPDATE: I greatly enjoyed reading Daytrotter’s piece with Scott, where he tells 5 things that inspired him in the past week.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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