June 1, 2008

Musical archaeology in Washington D.C. :: The Library of Congress yields buried treasure

Archaeology is so hot right now. If you saw the new Indiana Jones movie (or maybe in spite of seeing the new Indiana Jones movie) perhaps you got a little hot under the collar as I often do when I think about trawling through the dust and under the veil of time, looking for things that have been all but forgotten.

Larry Appelbaum is a senior music reference specialist (yes! That’s a real job!) in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, and worked for decades preserving and cataloging their vast stores of audio recorded material. He is also a jazz journalist and radio host — we met when he presented the excellent and random workshop at the conference I was attending.

During Appelbaum’s presentation, I became intrigued by a reference he made to a much-fabled lost live recording of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane that he rediscovered during the course of his work, and ultimately how that resulted in that concert being released on Blue Note in 2005.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall album captures a rare live collaboration between two of the most influential and distinctive musicians in jazz history, in excellent sound quality. It languished for 47 years before Appelbaum and his team came across it in their daily archival work. His heart quickened when he realized what he held in his hands — a recording that had been sought after for years had finally been uncovered in the most unexpected of places.

It’s a great story that seizes the imagination. Appelbaum took some time last Friday afternoon from his offices on Capitol Hill to recount the discovery and the significance for Fuel/Friends.


There are a couple of different ways that you discover treasure when it comes to sound recordings. One of them is if you’re looking for it. You search the discographies, you look at all the indices, you look and you read everything you can find, and you take from the very general down to the narrow until you find what you’re looking for. The other way you discover these treasures is — I don’t want to say by accident, but more by chance. This discovery of the Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane tapes was an example of really both of those approaches.

First of all I should say that these recordings represented a sort of musical Holy Grail for jazz scholars. Because despite the fact that Monk and Coltrane are two of the most important and influential and innovative artists, not just in jazz, but in American music, they only worked together for about nine months, and they only made three songs together in the studio, for Riverside (Records).

One of the problems was that Monk was signed to Riverside Records and Coltrane was signed to Prestige — you know how that goes. So they only worked together for those nine months, mostly at a club on the Bowery called The Five Spot. We only had those few songs that everybody clung to and listened to and memorized.

Cut to the end of 2004. I was the supervisor of the Magnetic Recording Laboratory where we do a lot of preservation of recorded sound here at the Library of Congress. We work with lots of different sound collections, one of them is the Voice of America collection. These are about 50,000 open-reel tapes of things recorded primarily in the 1950s and 60s, and sometimes into the 1970s. But when you’ve got 50,000 reels, and you have a number of other important collections, you can’t just devote all your time to one.

So we’d been working through the Voice of America collection for years, and I used to enjoy looking through the queue and seeing what we would be working on for the rest of the week. So one day in late 2004 I saw eight reels titled simply, “Carnegie Hall Jazz: 1957.” That definitely caught my attention — I love jazz, and that’s a good year for jazz, it’s one of my favorite eras. I looked on the back of one of the tape boxes and it’s written in pencil, “T. Monk” with some song titles. That’s it.

I got a little excited because it occurred to me that maybe this was some unpublished Monk. But it was only when I went to actually play the tape that I realized the unmistakable sound of John Coltrane — it’s a sound that’s very near and dear to me. I was really startled by it because I started thinking, “Well, now these are not the studio recordings that we all know from Riverside, this is live. What is this? Carnegie Hall? 1957?”

It turns out it is part of a benefit concert from November 29, 1957. Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane was just one of five acts on a bill that also included Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra, Sonny Rollins Trio, Ray Charles, and Zoot Sims with Chet Baker.

So we had eight reels and it included everything from the 8pm show as well as the midnight show, and all the acts except for Billie Holiday, which still has not been found. I’ve met two people now who were at that concert who both tell me that Billie Holiday was in very bad shape that night. So that leads me to believe that perhaps her show was not recorded, or just that her manager wouldn’t allow it to be released.

We were so lucky, because I don’t think these reels had EVER been played before. They were recorded, wound onto a reel, and just put away in a box for 47 years.

I almost couldn’t believe it. When I heard it, my heart started to race. At that point, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that this had never been bootlegged, never been circulated. I wondered, is this truly as unique as I think it is? I contacted Lewis Porter, who is the great Coltrane scholar who teaches at Rutgers University. He told me that these had never been circulated, and that scholars had been looking for these tapes for years. No one had ever found them.

In fact, Porter himself had contacted the reference specialists at the Library of Congress, looking for these Monk/Coltrane tapes, and at the time they couldn’t find them because they weren’t properly preserved or cataloged. If he had called and asked, “Do you have Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957?” we could have said yes, but no one had had any idea of what the content was on any of the reels at that point. It’s not enough just to have all of these sound recordings just sitting on a shelf. They were SAFE on a shelf, but we had no idea what they were until we went to transfer them [into digital format to preserve them].

So then I got really excited once I confirmed that yes, this was really unique material, the sound is great — for 1957 it’s a really high quality location recording. We issued a press release announcing the discovery, and [after an initial and unexpected lull] Ben Ratliff, the jazz critic for the New York Times came down and spent the day listening to that recording twice and taking some detailed notes. He wrote a piece that ran on the front page of the New York Times Features section, and that morning the phones started ringing off the hook. It was just unbelievable — every label was calling, asking “How can we get it?”

Now, the Library of Congress does not itself retain any rights to the intellectual property, it all reverts back to the estate of the artist. The attorney of Thelonious Monk’s estate, Alan Bergman, received a listening copy of the recording and took it around to different labels. Working with Monk’s son T.S., it ultimately came out on Blue Note at the end of 2005. I was just so gratified that it sold so well – I mean, you’re used to pop jazz selling well, but to think that a record like that of instrumental jazz that’s not Kenny G, selling half a million copies — that’s unheard of.

Look, I mean, this is why we do what we do! I was really pleased just at the thought that someone maybe bought it for their twelve year old kid who’s just learning music.

I’ve found lots of rare things over the years, things we weren’t even looking for — a jam session with Lester Young during a period when he was in his prime but had been thoroughly undocumented, right before he went into the Army. We’ve been working on preserving all the Newport Jazz Festivals for years, and we have the Newport Folk Festivals as well. We were lucky with the Coltrane/Monk show because it was a really well-made recording, and many other Newport recordings are distorted.

Of course, there’s always more for which we know nothing yet about the content and the significance. We systematically go through things that are in the most danger of degenerating and can’t cherry-pick things out of the collection when other less-stable recordings may be in danger. We’ve been focusing on the ’50s, but what we might find once we get through into the ’60s? I remember one item from our NBC collection from when the Beatles first performed in New York, it was used as backup sound for a news story. Or a 2″ quad video reel I preserved and transferred that was recorded at the Family Dog in San Francisco by NET [National Educational Television] with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and either Quicksilver or Santana, and then at the end they all jammed together. That was great — not just for the music, but also how you can see the audience and the culture of the moment. And I remember seeing a really nice film of Joni Mitchell once, at a festival in the Midwest where she’s just performing all by herself. Lovely.

Think about it, if I had not been at work that day, we would have still preserved that recording of course — but who would have known what it was? I mean, maybe years later a researcher would walk in the door and look in a database and say, “What’s this?”

Sometimes if all the planets line up just right and you find something with unique content that’s well-done, it can have a profound impact in the music world today, years later. If people can hear something they’ve never heard before, and it moves them, is there anything more important in terms of music and culture? It really says something about who we are.

So yes. To answer your earlier question — yes . . . it’s cool.

Sweet and Lovely (live at Carnegie Hall, 1957) – Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane

BUY: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

NOTE: In addition to a Recorded Sound Reference Center online, the Library of Congress also has an American Folklife Listening Room — incidentally staffed by a guy named Todd Harvey who has written a book called The Formative Dylan: Transmission and Stylistic Influences, 1961-1963 that I had fun flipping through as I listened to the tapes of Dylan at Newport in ’63. The main room holds sound recordings that you can listen to and search (I looked through the catalogs of Johnny Cash and Otis Redding). Three hours felt like thirty minutes. If I ever move to DC and no one hears from me for a few months — check there.

[photo credit: New York Times, Stephen Crowley]

February 14, 2008

The magical realism of Nada Surf

Sitting in the intimate Swedish American recital hall with a few hundred strangers on a recent rainy Saturday night, Nada Surf cast a spell. Almost akin to stepping inside a little jewel box for a few hours, these three guys out of Brooklyn worked through much of the material on their wonderful new album Lucky, as well as some gems from their back catalog that soared and reverberated in this acoustic setting.

The Swedish is a community hall in San Francisco with dark carved woodwork everywhere, not your typical nightclub. The stage was dim and warm with only a reddish glow illuminating the trio; Matthew Caws on acoustic guitar and vocals, Daniel Lorca hiding behind the amp stacks on his bass (from my perspective), the impressively moustachioed and good-natured drummer Ira Elliot sitting happily on his cajon, hammering out the rhythms with his palms and fingertips.

My friend who was at the show with me wrote about the intimacy of the set in his review, how “there wasn’t a person in the room that didn’t know every little bit of the songs they played” and he’s right — the intense level of fandom in this very sold-out show was impressive. We hushed when we needed to hush and enjoy the songs, we yelled along when Caws said to (even though he warned the parents of infants in the room before he encouraged us to sing along).

It was a night of melancholic catharsis snugly interlaced with their gorgeous melodies and harmonies. The arrangements of their new material in the acoustic setting really shone, and when they kicked into those chiming, golden opening notes of “Blonde on Blonde” during the encore? Forget about it. I was in love.

This is a band I will see again and again if I am given the opportunity
[setlist, more pics here]

Before the show, my friend Brian and I got to sit down with lead singer Matthews Caws and discuss a bit about the new album’s old roots, the artistic inspiration, and how hip-hop informed the new disc in surprising ways. Caws was a delight to talk to — someone who feels the music like I do, which always seems like kismet to discover.

by Brian London & Heather Browne

FUEL/FRIENDS: Congratulations on the new album, it’s really a great record. You guys recorded it all in Seattle right?

MATTHEW CAWS: Yeah, actually this is the first time we had someone to record, mix and produce it. On other records we’ve had a producer and an engineer, so this time just having one guy was really great.

We’ve been asked a lot the classic questions ‘What direction did you guys have in mind’ with this album and ‘what makes this record different than the last record’ etc., and . . . we actually had no direction in mind besides wanting John Goodmanson [Rogue Wave, Pavement, Death Cab, Soundgarden, Harvey Danger] to do it. And that is kind of its own direction because we knew it would sound . . . rich. He mixed “What is Your Secret” and “Do It Again” on the last record which are my two favorite mixes so he was kind of an obvious choice. And I don’t know if this album’s process was any different, besides possibly being more focused. At least we tried to be more focused!

So The Weight Is A Gift was recorded in Seattle and San Francisco, Lucky solely in Seattle — do you guys write in the studio, or back at your homes and rehearsal space in New York and then take it to the West Coast?

Most of the writing is done in my apartment and then I bring it in. I finish a lot of songs in the studio. I find that I can never write in the practice space. I’ve found that I need to have total peace and be at home, or have total pressure and be in the studio with the clock ticking.

With the producer looming over you to finish lines.

Yeah, but actually John was the first one I could actually have there because he was so accepting and calm that I could be working on a verse and just ask him to work on something else for a bit while I got it ready to show him, which is something I had never done with anyone before. We would go through and he would say “yeah yeah, that line’s cool, that line’s bad,” and I found it really valuable to have someone you trust that much.

You described John’s work as always sounding ‘rich’, and to me a really good example on the new album would be “I Like What You Say,” because the song now really does sound ‘richer’ than the one previously released on the John Tucker Must Die soundtrack.

Oh I’m glad! Some people seem to like the original better, but I’m not so sure I’d agree. I would agree with you though, and credit John for being so good at that. “Beautiful Beat” is also a good example — when we were listening back he would say ‘You know, that’s a really tall mix’, and I feel like the songs really have some space to them.

I Like What You Say (John Tucker Must Die version)
I Like What You Say (Lucky album version)

It’s interesting to find one person to see the record through the whole process. Has the band ever tried to produce a record all by yourselves, and really maintain your vision over the entire process?

Well, Let Go was kinda me. Because the engineer wasn’t really producing and a friend of ours Fred Maher was supposed to produce but we didn’t have a lot of money, and he was really broke and wound up getting a job auto tuning the bass on the Korn record at the time. And we would always see him totally despondent on the couch because it would be like trying to tune a motorboat, you know [makes a motorboat noise].

I heard a great rock n’ roll ethics story that you paid for the recording of Let Go with 1′s and 5 dollar bills.

Yeah, it was all t-shirt money. It looked like a lot when all stacked up, but it really wasn’t that much money.

. . . And I remember reading a clip in the back of Rolling Stone that said Let Go was “the indie Pet Sounds”, so thank God for the t-shirt fund, right?

Wow, I never heard that. Really? That’s really nice of them.

So tell us a little about the songwriting process on Lucky.

These days I have a very chaotic songwriting process. I hesitate to even call it a process. It’s a mostly dubious adventure, because I write lots of little pieces of songs and not whole ones so there are lots and lots of tapes littered about that I haven’t listened back to in years. And so for this record I decided I was going to go through each and every one and do my homework to find what was on them.

What came out of that process? Any stuff that made the record?

Yeah, a few lines here and there. A few melodies–

[gets excited, interrupts] –By any chance was one resurrected bit the “Behind every desire, is another one / Waiting to be liberated, when the first one’s sated” (from Weightless)? That song shifts so much, that whole segment feels like it might have dropped in wonderfully from somewhere else.

That is actually the oldest thing on the record! You’re totally right. I remembered that line, but I could never find the melody. I knew it was somewhere on one of those cassettes, but the problem with all those tapes is most of it’s awful snippets of me in the middle of the day thinking I’ve got something when I really don’t.

Are there any other places on the new record where older material resurfaced?

Yeah, just things like . . . in See These Bones where it goes [sings] “Do you remember when the light was low? do you remember when it fell?” That melody was maybe five years old, just lying around.

That must be exciting and gratifying to find a home for an idea that had been percolating for so long, and have it fit so perfectly.

Totally. I guess the biggest change in the band for at least these last two records is that I am much more open to that kind of juxtaposition. Daniel [Lorca, bass] and I used to try that more on the first record because he used to write more so we would smush parts of songs we both had and make one whole song and it work which was always exciting to us. But I had never really been in the habit of seeking that out, until these last two records. On “Do It Again” the end section has this really different type of melody which was a separate section added on.

It actually was because I was listening to so much hip-hop at the time, stuff like Nas. What I feel like I really got from that was how in a rap song every verse can be completely different — different point of view, different narrator, different feeling and sometimes obviously different people/voices — mainly how the atmosphere would change. I really like people like Nas who focus on storytelling.

It’s funny that you say hip-hop was an influence on this album, especially hip-hop that has different voices on each verse, because I noticed in John’s credits that he’s also worked with the Wu Tang Clan.

Oh yeah, that’s right! [laughs] But don’t forget he also worked with Hanson.

An all-around guy, then.

Very much so. I think that [the hip-hop storytelling element] freed me up for songs on this record like “Are You Lightning?” That song was recorded for the last record, but the whole end section that starts “I see you in my sheets, I see you in my sleep” — that whole bit was new. The song had been done for five years, words and melody, and the end was just going to be this three-minute fade out.

But since the song was asking the question ‘Are you the person I want to be with’ and not really knowing who that person is and getting to the point of being tired of looking, that by the time we were making this record I was in a very serious relationship so I felt like I had the answer, meaning that there was still stuff to sing about.

It’s interesting because if “Are You Lightning” had gone on the last record without the outro, it would have been a very nice sequel to “Inside of Love.”

Right, exactly. And the fact that it was a whole different melody for the new part was really something that excited me then and now. It was funny because a song would be unfinished, or actually they would be done, but wouldn’t feel that they were good enough. “The Fox” and “See These Bones” were both recorded for The Weight Is A Gift, but weren’t right at the time. And I would add melodies, which might have frustrated some, because there were no words and I was adding these things that were making the song feel completely different. But luckily open minds prevailed and we were accepting of the new parts.

One lyric from Lightning – “Just look at the size of you” is so unique and interesting, do you have anything to say about that or would you just like to leave it as it is? . . . Is it about the way one person can eclipse everything else?

Yes exactly — the amount of room one person can take up in your brain. I’ve always thought about describing lyrics and how it can be defensive, but it would be silly for me to hide behind such a simple metaphor.

On the last album, “Your Legs Grow” has such beautiful, yet elusive lyric, and I’ve always wanted to ask, what made you write that song and what does that song mean to you?

What I meant was . . . contemplate if you’re in a relationship and it’s ending. One spends so much of one’s time thinking that would kill you, or that you would just be lost. It could be whatever, a break up, disaster….I haven’t been through a lot of family death and I know it’s coming to everyone. So if something happens that you feel you won’t be able to get through, it can be sometimes comforting to remind yourself that you do get through it. Like if you were out to sea and drowning, or you walked out to sea and it became too deep, I think the way our minds work is that our legs grow to the bottom of the ocean, and then we walk out. It’s really just a song about the ability to recover.

It’s kind of magic realism because obviously our legs aren’t going to grow, but we do become strong in ways that would seem impossible at other times.

Yeah, I think sometimes –to use your phrase– that “magic realism” is exactly what people want and need from music, with all the stuff that people are supposed to handle in this world. Just to take a concept like that, and place it inside a metaphor, and deliver it in a song – that really seems to be a consistent thread through your band’s body of work.

A frustration I have a lot of the time with life in general is that it’s hard to hold on and remember how magical it can feel. And that’s kind of what the album title is about. Because it’s not necessarily that I feel lucky, it’s that I want to remember that I am. I wish I could turn that on at will because we get so caught up in whatever particular stories are happening with work, love, family, work, or whatever that just being alive and healthy on a planet that might be going down the tubes is totally fascinating. Still we can get caught in the cobwebs of everyday problems and forget how amazing and incredible life is.

The album cover seems very appropriate for the feel of the record, just the weight one can sense when lying down and looking at the sky, yet to still feel lucky and blessed to look around you.

Don’t people say that water at night is the perfect visual representation of the subconscious? And that’s why people are so drawn to it, just staring at it? With the cover I was also thinking about how trees and sky and stars are such extraordinary things…and they’re free. On another corny level, how lucky we are just to have them.

There is a great story about Yoko Ono before she was successful, she was broke and living in Greenwich Village and to make money she put up a poster that said ‘meet me at 5am tomorrow, bring a towel and five dollars, and you will see the most amazing show on Earth. If you don’t agree, there’s a money back guarantee.’ So some people met her, and she brought them up to the roof of her tenement building and they all sat down on their towels and watched the sun come up.

And you know what? Nobody asked for their money back.

[pic credit]

HAMBURG, GERMANY 1/17/08 [via]
Concrete Bed
Whose Authority
What Is Your Secret?
Happy Kid
Killian’s Red
Blizzard of ’77
I Like What You Say
Inside of Love
See These Bones
Ooh La La (Faces cover)
Always Love
Blankest Year
Meow Meow Lullaby
Imaginary Friends

Blonde on Blonde (Vienna, 1/19/08)
Ice On The Wing (KEXP, 1/30/08)


We were going to post some Nada Surf b-sides but then we found this (free registration required), and now there is absolutely no use for anything else that we could add. Rad.

[top photo credited to the awesome Peter Ellenby; his fine book is still worth your time]


December 4, 2007

“The difference between art and design” :: Interview with Travis

I’m pleased to have another entry this evening in our awesome guest-post series, an encore interview conducted by my roving reporter Brian London in California (who did the Superdrag piece in October).

This time I sent Brian off down the coast to the land of sunshine, traffic, and Disneyland to catch up with the guys from the literate and lovely Scottish megaband Travis about their new album, their songwriting philosophies and influences. Plus, he got some exclusive news about how the band is in talks to work with producer Steve Lillywhite again for their next album, a return to rock form. Read on — and if you’ve never listened to Travis before, Brian ably handpicked a fine little mix at the end of the post, just to start you off solidly in the right direction.

by Brian London

As I was led through the empty House of Blues in Anaheim, Travis’ manager looked back and offered the caveat that “the boys have just woken up and are waiting in the car park, hope you don’t mind doing this outside — all very peace and love.” I emerged outside into the cool southern California evening, and was greeted by one half of the group that Chris Martin of Coldplay recently claimed “invented his band.”

Fran Healy [lead vocals, songwriting and rhythm guitar] and Dougie Payne [backing vocals and bass] of Travis leaned up against the cement load-in ramp –looking just like the scene where William meets Stillwater for the first time in Almost Famous– and greeted me warmly through their mild, yet present, Scottish brogue.

Yes, the wee music geek inside nearly had a coronary at the situation I found myself in.

In the twilight of the afternoon, I sat on the ground and chatted with one-half of the band have been rocking and rolling around the world for the last sixteen years, selling millions of albums, but more importantly staying true to what people gravitated toward Travis for in the first place; a band that is all about the songs and, as their first single announced to the world, just wants to rock.

Brian: First, I want to congratulate you on a really great new record (The Boy With No Name, 2007). Fran, I heard that you gave up smoking. Did you do that before or after you had recorded the vocals for the album?

Fran: Before.

Your voice has always had a real clarity to it, but some of the vocals on this new record I think really come across as some of your best.

F: Thanks man. I’ve got to say for the vocals, maybe one or two of the songs I’m really proud of singing-wise, but most of the time I still have that feeling when you hear your own voice that you just can’t believe that’s what you sound like. But I do agree that it’s gotten better without cigarettes.

Like on which songs specifically?

F: Well, “Battleships” and “Under the Moonlight” I think are really good vocals. But the Under The Moonlight is a bit jiggery-pokery, lots of clever editing going on there. When I think about it, I’m probably more proud of the editing [laughs], but no matter.

I heard you guys wrote around 40 songs for this new record?

Dougie: Yeah, about that. I mean, we were recording for a long time, around two years. We would record sporadically and we ended up with around forty songs. But it wasn’t like we had forty songs written before we went into the studio.

So you guys would do a session, take some time, and then next time bring in another two or three tunes?

D: Exactly, so we ended up with about forty but we only mixed around twenty of them and then we picked the album from those twenty.

And regarding those other twenty, are there any plans to revisit them in the future?

D: There were a couple that were left unfinished, but you know, everything that’s usable I think was pretty much used. It’s strange now because with the way music is distributed you need three extra tracks for Japan, three different extra tracks for Europe and then b-sides! So I think it’s all pretty much used up.

That leads me into a question I had about your band’s method for sequencing records in the past. Your song “Flowers In The Window” on The Invisible Band record wasn’t going to be included until the last minute, right?

F: With that song, we had recorded the album and that was a song we had never got better than the demo which was me, Dougie and Andy sitting around in France just playing it live in a room with a piano and 12-string guitar and us all singing. It just had is really cool vibe with we could never get better. But the song was strong so we tried to record it umpteenth times after that.

D: Had to been about six times right?

F: Yeah, so then we went to do this album The Invisible Band. And Nigel [Godrich, uber-producer behind Radiohead, Beck, Paul McCartney, Air] always hated that song. Really, really didn’t like it.

D: He really had a real problem with it.

F: And when Nigel doesn’t like something, you really know. So we just didn’t go near it. But it was really bugging me, so on the last day I phoned him at 7am, woke him up and naturally that pissed him off.

A great start to any persuasion.

F: A very good start. So I told him I really think we need to record Flowers and, I mean, he got really upset, what with that being the reason for me waking him. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up in the studio arguing like cats and dogs over this, but we put it down and I think the version we got it okay. But the version we do live is much more true how it was meant to be [as they did that night, the band crowds around Healy, who is playing guitar, with arms around each others’ shoulders singing into the same mic]. The demo still really is the best version and it never saw the light of day.

Any chance of putting that out as a b-side?

D: That’s a good idea.

F: Well, actually, it is on the DVD as an extra. It’s video of us making the demo and it’s lovely.

Your band has always been really reliable for putting out quality extra tracks. “Just The Faces Change” to “Village Man,” there are a lot of great gems. Have you ever considered packaging them up for fans outside the areas where they are readily available?

D: Yeah, I think at some point we will put out some kind of compilation. There have been some ideas floating around. Like you said, there are a lot of places like America, South America, that can’t get hold of this or that track so it would be nice. Eventually we’ll get around to it.

Have you guys ever consciously tried to write a b-side, or do you just sequence the album and pull from what’s left over and hope it’s enough to satisfy the different bundles of extra tracks?

F: You can’t try to write a b-side or a-side, you just try to write a song and if enough people think ‘oh, that’s amazing’ then it’s obvious it’s an album track, or a single.

Was it that way with “Coming Around”? (A stand-alone single that came out in 2000 and was not featured on any album)

D: That was going to be a b-side wasn’t it?

F Yeah, we had a bunch of extra songs that we were recording and the record company guy said ‘that’s not a b-side that’s an a-side!’. I still don’t think it is. I mean it’s good but…

If not a single, do you think it might have been an album track?

F: I still feel it’s a b-side [laughs]. A really good b-side. But it just didn’t have that certain….I can’t put my finger on it.

D: You want to make sure you are happy with everything you put out. Sometimes we have to go into the studio and record b-sides just to be able to put out a single, but we still try to do the best songs we have at that point.

Is there a sense of freedom with b-sides, like, we’re going to try some experimenting and if it doesn’t work out we can always just relegate them to extra tracks?

F: Well, lately it’s been hard because when you’re headed towards an album you really want it to be great so you’re kind of restrained under the pressure of that. Kind of your own pressure I guess of trying to make a record you can listen to from being to end. And not only that, but a record you can take out and play live as well. I think it’s really hard to write really good up-tempo songs. It’s really easy to write a slow, mid-tempo burner of a tune.

I totally agree. It does seem that everyone I know who has tried to write songs, their first ones are always slow and sad.

F: It’s always going to be hard restrained to some degree and I think that does hurt the chances of cool, random things happening.

Do you guys jam out the songs before recording to make sure they work live?

D: Not really because we record live pretty much, and especially with this record because we were doing it to tape most of the time, so if it didn’t work there we generally wouldn’t bother with it.

Do those backing tracks usually come fast?

D: We get the takes pretty quick. I mean, everyone gets an idea for a part and the song falls together pretty quickly.

And if the song isn’t falling together quickly, it’s a sign.

F: Yeah, totally. We just go and work on something else.

The band did a great studio blog while recording this album, and it always sounded like you’d come in, start a song around midday with a few takes, have a listen back and from that be able to pick the best and be done.

D: It’s funny, but more often than not it was the first one after dinner that we’d keep. Something to do with having a full stomach or whatever. I think time away from the takes really let the parts settle. It’s a weird thing, but true.

Are there any bands or sounds that you guys are big fans of, and you’ve tried to write songs or simply incorporate into what Travis does — and it just hasn’t worked?

F: No, I’ve never felt the need to because I feel even if someone writes a song and you’re like ‘oh, that’s a great tune’ you can only express yourself. You can’t express anyone else. I think what happens a lot of the time.

For example, the song “As You Are” was born completely listening to a song by Grant Lee Buffalo called “Fuzzy,” and “Across The Universe” by The Beatles. I think it’s Across The Universe . . . [hums a little bit, Dougie chimes in and then they both nod to each other in agreement that it is, in fact, Across the Universe]. But it’s not done consciously. Things come into your little world and your brain starts connecting the pieces without even your conscious control over it. And then you record it and that’s what it becomes.

D: I think sometimes bands consciously will take that bit from this song and this bit from that song and string it together to get a result, but that’s not why we’re doing it. It really comes down to the difference between art and design. I think people will design songs for whatever reason, to fill stadiums or to try and have hits, but there has to be a distinction between that and the art of songwriting.

And I wonder if those artists look back years later and listen to the record and reminisce about the time when they put A and B together? Since you guys are in it for the process, you can lean back and remember sitting in a room in France with two of your friends having a cool moment actually creating something out of nothing.

F: Yeah, but we don’t listen to it two years later! [Both Fran and Dougie break into laughter]. We play them every night live so there is no need. I mean, sometimes I do and think ‘that’s nice’ or ‘that sounds great.’ I don’t think there are any songs where I’m like ‘oh God’.

Any that you would pluck off of an album if you could go back?

F: Yeah, maybe. I think “She’s So Strange” from The Man Who, “Safe” off The Invisible Band might have gone, to make more lean albums. Maybe…..I don’t know, there are a couple of songs.

D: But it’s not really worth thinking about. It is what it is, and I believed in it at the time and still do. By the time you’re finished making it, you’ve literally heard it hundreds and hundreds of times, and then you’re going to go out and play it for the following however-many years, so there really isn’t a need to go back and listen to it.

Here’s a question I’ve always wondered about the making of your first album Good Feeling — your Scottish band worked with English Producer Steve Lillywhite in a studio in upstate New York. How did that string of events come together?

F: Steve had recorded The Dave Matthews Band at this studio in Bearsville that The Band set up and he really liked the assistants and the sounds and wanted to do it there, so we went.

D: We kind of thought, brand new band recording their first album, Steve Lillywhite is asking us to go to New York, it was just [laughs] well, alright! ‘Oh, we’re going to stay in Robbie Robertsons’ house? Where’s the ticket?!’ It was great.

The sound on that first record is a bit more rough around the edges and really seems to capture the energy of a young band who is excited to be in a real studio, see how loud the amps go and just having a blast. Not to say that you would want to repeat yourself, but would you ever think about maybe letting yourself return to that version of Travis?

F: Yeah. Definitely. I think the next record you’ll probably see that happen. We’re planning on that anyway. We’re going to go write for eight weeks, and then go record the album in a week just like we did with Good Feeling. I think the band is good enough to go and do that, you know. If we spend too long on the album it will end up sounding too slick and polished and there’s really nothing to hold onto.

And those cracks in the marble are usually what make a record interesting.

F: Interestingly we’ve been talking to Steve about producing again.

Is there anything written, or have you just been gathering up sketches?

F: There are a couple of ideas.

D: And a few of those unfinished ideas from the last record so we’ll see what happens.

F: I’m really excited, man. It should be really cool.

Where are you guys planning to go away and write this rock record?

D: Just going to head back home to London because we’ve been away for a lot of the year. So we’re going to get back and find a little cubbyhole.

Are you all located in London, or do any of you still live in Scotland?

D: Pretty much yeah. If not full time, we all have places there. Only Neil [Primrose, the drummer] lives up north.

F: But I think he can, because generally me, Dougie and Andy are the ones who are hands-on twiddling with ideas.

D: Neil will come in and nail his part in, like, never more than three takes. He gets really impatient with us fucking up our parts all the time!

Well, thanks a lot guys, and I’m looking forward to the show and the next record.

F & D: Thank you.

. . . And then Travis were off to soundcheck. The next time I saw them was their grand entrance to the stage. To the sound of the Rocky Theme, they entered from the back and moved through the crowd wearing silky boxer uniforms. They made it onto the stage and began with the fantastic new single “Selfish Jean.”

They rolled through the set of crowd-friendly singalongs, but kept it interesting by introducing tricks that only seasoned bands who know exactly how to control a crowd can pull off. One part that we all loved was when Fran asked the crowd for total silence while he showed what truly unplugged performance is. He unplugged his acoustic guitar, stepped back from the mic and belted out a beautiful version of the hymn-like extra track from The Man Who album called “Twenty.”

Travis is a band that upholds and respects the qualities which every band would value in an ideal world; pride in the craftsmanship of their art, giving the audience a show that embraces, amuses and entertains on every level. They also preserve that quality which seems to be the most difficult to maintain; the ability to be a complete success on every level while remaining as approachable and decent as they undoubtedly were when playing pubs in Scotland.

So raise your pints up high to another five albums worth of tunes that celebrate what can happen if you start a band for all the right reasons.

All I Want To Do Is Rock
Selfish Jean
Coming Around
Village Man (b-side)
The Connection (b-side)
As You Are
Just The Faces Change (b-side)
High As A Kite (b-side)
Twenty (bonus track)
Flowers In The Window (live in Santiago)


[photo above from Santiago, Chile show. Band pics from TravisOnline.com]

Related link: Check out Kevin at So Much Silence’s review of the recent Arizona show

October 23, 2007

Time for one more drag :: Interview with John Davis of Superdrag

Fuel readers, you guys are lucky today to get an interview conducted by my new special correspondent in the field. It’s an on-site, in-depth chat with Superdrag frontman John Davis at the latest reunion show in Chicago. Brian London is a musician friend of mine in the California Bay Area, and he has been a fan of Superdrag for a long and very intense time.

I sent Brian out armed with a tape recorder and his encyclopedic memory, and he turned in a really interesting look at the music of John Davis and reunited Superdrag (together again in the original lineup for the first time in 8 years), with enough arcane contextual history in the questions to make even the jaded chuckle at this enthusiasm. Remember, for the full stereophonic experience, you can click the little blue arrows next to the songs embedded throughout to listen as you read, and make sure to dig the zip file of all the tunes at the end. Enjoy.


BL: So the guitars are tuned, amps are humming, Don counts it in for the first rehearsal in eight years — what was the first song you guys played back together?

JD: Slot Machine into Phaser.

Awesome. Did you just kinda look around and let out a grin?

That’s pretty much exactly what I did. Man, we were so fired up to be doing this. I was talking to someone earlier about this and I was saying that I wasn’t really worried about us pulling the set together. That actually was the least of my worries because while there are some songs in the show that we never played on stage with this lineup, and some songs come from the third album [In The Valley of Dying Stars] which Tom wasn’t even in the band when we recorded, there are songs that we literally played hundreds of time together on stage. It really becomes a very limited process of having to re-learn something like that. It was pretty weird actually how well it jived right off the bat, but it really was just like you described. We were all just so excited to get into it.

The progression from your last solo record (John Davis 2005) and into your new solo effort Arigato! (2007), seems to be a sound and energy that gels really well with the early Superdrag vibe. Would it be fair to say that that sound is where your head is at musically these days?

I think the first solo album I did in retrospect was me trying to push my writing in directions that I had never done before. I think it can be good for a person who produces any kind of art to every once in a while step back from what your default deal is and try to push yourself outside of that.

It sounded like you were starting to push the walls of the Superdrag sound certainly with the 2nd record, and with demos like “Doctors Are Dead.”

It is still just rock n roll and pop music. I mean, its not like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless where there seems to be no precedent set before or since. It was just guys who bought Jazz Masters and learned to bend and hit chords at the same time and loved playing together.

But getting back to the first solo record, there seemed to a more rootsy, piano-led vibe. That record really turned out exactly the way that I had wanted. I would have liked more people to know about it, but it was kind of, on one level, ideologically swimming upstream, and on the flip side stylistically it was swimming upstream in accordance to what prevails in “Christian music.” “Christian” anything really is an irrelevant way to approach the Gospel anyway because it is not mean to be under glass.

The irrelevance of questions like “what does Christian music really sound like?” becomes apparent when referring to a piece of art like your first record because on one hand anyone who likes well-crafted rock n roll can get into it, and on the other someone seeking for a sympathetic voice or a joyful prayer could find that as well.

For me, it was the only honest type of music that I could have recorded at that time. I think the new record is no less bold, but it kind of comes from a different point on the line so to speak. That other record felt like the immediate aftermath after having that kind of revelation I had about even the smallest pinpoint realization about the nature of God is and how you relate to it. It basically smashed me.

Stained Glass Window – John Davis
[note: this is the classiest of chord changes]

I remember reading an interview where you describing how you pulled the car to the side of the road and you felt like you couldn’t even breathe. That happened as you were recording what would become Superdrag’s last album Last Call For Vitriol right?

It basically bisected that session.

Did any songs come after that and make it onto the record?

All the writing was done but I still had to do all the singing that led to me fixing some stuff because [long pause] I guess I was trying to drink myself to death. I don’t remember ever explicitly feeling like I wanted to die, but the life I was leading was not that of a person that wanted to live. It was so radical and blindsided me so much. I’ve met so many people since that have told me that they prayed for me everyday. [long pause] What do you say or do with that beside fall to floor and bust out in tears?

Looking at some of the lyrics and the title Last Call for Vitriol, would it be fair to say that in hindsight they read as cries for help? Lyrics like “What am I trying to prove/Every time I get too fucked to move” and “I don’t know if living’s too attractive/I don’t know if God is interactive.

I think there is a weight to it, in light of what happened after that for sure. But long story short, I didn’t even approach writing a song for a solid year after that. And I think the biggest problem I had what that I didn’t know how to express the joy I felt and be taken seriously. Because people have a much easier time taking you seriously if you’re pissed.

It really is easier to call a happy song “cheesy” than it is a sad or angry song.

But God eventually ministered to be, songs began to flow, doors opened and it became clear that I was going to get the chance to make a record and put it out with distribution. I was able to record where I wanted, work with the producer I wanted, and I got to play all the instruments which was so much fun. I think I secretly harbored that desire for a long time, and not because these dudes don’t rip, but because I wanted to try it as a new challenge.

Had you done that in the past with your demos before you brought it to the boys?

Totally. I did that for years.

A friend years ago gave me a disc of your alter-ego Johnny Flame covering loads of Beatles songs to arrangement perfection. Is that all you on those tracks?

Yes sir.

All those harmonies? That’s amazing.

Thanks man. Some of them have good quality, but some of them really don’t sound so good.

But the fun you’re having really comes through even on those rough 4-track recordings.

Doing that was a big part of how I learned to record. Because if I didn’t have a song of my own, I would do a Beatles tune just because I wanted to record. And then if you listen to all of the 4-track records, there is sort of an invisible line from where I started mixing down to a real deal tape deck instead of a jam box and then after that I got a 4-track that improved things by leaps and bounds. Pretty much by 1997 the 4-track starts to sound pretty good.

The demo collection you just put out, Changing Tires On The Road To Ruin, along with the double disc of rarities available here at the show seem to be great examples of the process that went on behind the scenes and how you guys developed as a band.

Well that box on the cover really was just in my cabinet all those years. I just started going through it and I ripped all the music that would possibly ever want to hear. Some stuff I let sleep on those cassettes just because I felt like I never wanted to hear again and I’d just fast forward and see what’s next. But it was a lot of fun.

The double disc is really cool for the fans because when the band went of hiatus in 2003, you had talked about a 100 song box set, a book and a DVD, but when Road To Ruin came out, it seemed like such a small glimpse into such a creative band’s archives.

To be frank, we kind of bided our time initiating any of that until we were completely at liberty to do it the way we wanted to, and most importantly to do it ourselves. There is a projected series of releases that is planned. What we just did basically brings us up speed until the first Elektra record [Regretfully Yours] and we could turn around and do the same thing for every other record.

Is that the stuff from the Bearsville, NY sessions for Head Trip In Every Key and the Knoxville sessions for Valley of Dying Stars?


Because the fans have been treated to songs like “I Wanna Rock N’ Roll” live, which are great.

The demos are proof that we were always hard workers and put in time to write a lot of songs and be prepared to record.

You were definitely a band that could never be cited as underwriting for a record. It never seemed like you would show up with seven and a half songs to the first recording date.

What is amazing to find out is that there are still a good number of people interested in that stuff and want to hear it. Which is humbling and flattering to death.

There are some songs that you guys never recorded in a proper studio, which in my opinion rate as some of the best things you ever did. One of my favorite songs to play when I’m jamming with my friends is “Relocate My Satellites.”

Relocate My Satellites – Superdrag

Man that song totally should have gone down. I think we felt it should have been arranged better and so it just kept getting pushed off to the side like ‘oh we’ll get to that later’ and we never got to it. But now with it coming out on the rarities disc, we mastered it up and it feels done. I really enjoyed mastering a lot of that stuff because you can really bring the music to life and compensate and temper some of the bad hiss and keep the good hiss when you want it and rescue whatever low end frequencies might be in there. So Lord willing, there is tons of music we could put out and we hope to make it super reasonable. We’re lucky for the fact that we are not obligated to anyone except the people who like the songs and want to hear more songs. That’s the first time we’ve had that luxury in about 13 years, so it feels really nice.

Going by your band’s extreme productivity in the past, in these latest rehearsals while you getting the set list ready, did you guys kick out any new jams and if you did, any chance of a new release?

I do have a lot of new songs and that’s mainly due to the fact that my new album was finished a year ago. It wasn’t mastered until recently, but it was recorded in the summer of 2006. Actually, the guy that mastered it was the guy who also mastered [Dre's] The Chronic.

That’s awesome!

Yeah, I was pretty stoked on that. I mean, he’s done a million records, but that’s a record I love and get hung up on every once in a while.

Every time I drive through L.A, that’s one that has to go on.

It’s banging man, even after sixteen years.

I read that you recorded Arigato! at the Foo Fighters’ Studio 606 in Los Angeles, and not only did you track the entire album in two weeks, but that your drummer Yogi Watts did all of the drum tracks in two days. Is that really true?

Yeah man, he’s just sick with it. He’s real funny because he doesn’t mind telling you how good he is. He’ll be wearing it out on the kit, playing something like a fast punk rock of the song “Never Changing” and from the neck up he’s not even moving. It was rad. He’d just take off the headphones and sit back say, “Well boys, I could play it again but I don’t really know why you’d want me to. I don’t really know what else you’d want.” And Nick [Raskulinecz, co-producer who has worked with Foo Fighters and produced Superdrag's In The Valley of Dying Stars and earlier pre-Elektra work] would just lean in and say “Do it again and I want some different fills.” Those dudes got along really well.

Yogi has been playing with me on my solo tours and I just really love his drumming. He plays like Don [Coffey Jr] sometimes, like Bill Stevenson [of The Descendents] sometimes; he really can just play anything. His main gig is playing in a band called Demon Hunter. They are straight up metalcore with a straight up Gospel message. Their new album is called Storm the Gates of Hell and man, it is tough. Check out their Myspace page man, they’re very cool.

You’re the man who would have the answer about a question I’ve had for a while, when Superdrag went on hiatus you and Mic Harrison both put up songs on Superdrag.com that would later appear on solo records, but Sam Powers (Superdrag bassist from 1999-2003) also posted a tune, yet a solo album never appeared. “World Surrounded” is such a great song, are we ever going to get any more from Sam?

World Surrounded – Sam Powers

I love that song. I know for a fact he has more because a while back he gave me a cd with six songs on it and truth be told they’re some of my favorite he’s ever done. I’m such a fan of Sam’s music from when he was in Who Hit John and Everything Tool.

Let’s not forget The Disheverly Brothers.

[laughs] Yeah, The Disheverly Brothers. Yeah, that never really caught fire.

“The Emotional Kind” has always been one of my favorite tunes. I love that line “If I come on agnostic she makes me believe.”

That was meant to be the lead off track on the Disheverly Brothers album.

The Emotional Kind – Superdrag
The Emotional Kind (demo) – Superdrag

I do like the studio version you put out on the split with The Anniversary, there’s something about that demo you put out on the Rock Soldier EP. It sounds just like a lost track from the greatest ‘60s garage band.

Yeah man, that’s truly the 4-track sound. “Her Melancholy Tune” was meant to be on the Disheverly Brothers too. Sammy P and I basically tried to rip off the Beatles as much as possible.

Well, no two men are better equipped for the job or got better results in my opinion.

Yeah, not only Sam’s rock music, but him as an individual, a dad, a husband — he’s a dude I completely admire to the fullest. The same goes for Mic Harrison. He’s actually going to support on some of these dates with his band The High Score. The fact that those dudes aren’t going to be involved with Superdrag, by no means should that represent a lack of respect or love because they are the shit.

I’m happy because this is the incarnation of the Superdrag experience I’ve never gotten to see. My first show was before Valley came out and Willy T (a temporary guitarist for the tour following the completion of Valley) was rocking the guitar.

[laughs] That’s another cool element about this thing because after the Elektra thing came and went, the second effort of the band began. We sat around and said ‘Wait, we’ve got a van, we know how to book a tour, lets go.’ And as a result of that, we kind of generated a new set of fans that weren’t on board from the beginning. It’s really just a win win win for all of us.

And the fans as well. We all get another chance to go out on a Friday night and rock out to one of our favorite bands. Speaking of your fans and giving them a chance to see you, looking on your message board you guys have fans as far as Israel. I know you took your solo record abroad to places like Amsterdam, any plans to take the Superdrag carnival international?

I would love to. Not just a business or rock level, but on a personal level it is life enriching to go to a place, take Japan for example, that really makes you feel alien. Something like 99% of the population there is native. I think any of us would jump at the chance.

Didn’t Superdrag record the much-coveted Greetings From Tennessee EP over in Japan?

Four songs of it were done over there.

That’s the one piece of Superdrag audio I’ve never been able to come across.

Man, I wish I could help. I don’t really know how the licensing works for that thing because it was licensed through Arena Rock to a Japanese label that I think is done now. But that was a wild thing. This record company in Japan licensed the Valley record and the deal was they would bring us over to play and while there they wanted us to record a 10 song Japanese-exclusive EP. So they booked this recording date the day after the last show and we all thought ‘cool, we’ll go in and treat it like a radio session and just blast through the ten songs live, no overdubs.’

Well we got in there and the room was like a tiny dressing room. And all they had were these little headphone amps, which meant that, even though there was no room for it anyway, there could be no isolation. Don’s crash symbol was right in my face and we were just laughing because there was no way we could sing, much less play, all together and get a decent sounding record. Also the two guys who were working the board were way more conversational in English than we were in Japanese, but needless to say there was still a huge language barrier. So when we said, “Dudes, we’re going to need to overdub” they just stared at us with very stern faces.

So anyway, we ended up only doing four songs instead of ten which was kind of a situation itself because they were afraid we would go home and not send then the other six. But we convinced them that we were honorable and would follow through, which we did in like three days.

And didn’t they mix it themselves, but there was a problem with that so you had to recall like 1,000 copies?

Man, there was some serious Pokemon keyboards on there. Some of the strangest processing I’ve ever heard. And they didn’t use some of the harmony vocals, entire guitar parts we’d recorded; it was just a mess. And they were pressing records before we had a chance to approve anything, so let’s just say that the lines of communication were sub-par and we ended up re-mixing it ourselves. That’s a cool artifact though.

Well, thanks for taking the time John, and I know I’m not alone when I say I’m really excited to see the band rock tonight.

Thanks so much for coming all this way and for the support. It means the world to us.

* * * * * *

And rock that night they did. There was a sticker attached to one of Superdrag’s albums that read, “If you don’t like Rock n Roll, you won’t like this” — and that pretty much summed up the experience I had that night at the show.

Don Coffey Jr. pounding the drums as ferociously as he ever did, Brandon’s guitar work was airtight, John Davis was, well he’s John Davis, isn’t he….what do you expect. And Tom Pappas, armed with a mirrored pick-guarded bass and leather pants, scissor-kicked his way through a truly blistering show by one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. Three shows left, I can’t say more than this — go beyond your usual effort to see a show, and this band will do the same for you in return. Head trip in every key indeed.


November 02 – New York, NY @ The “Fillmore”
November 03 – Boston, MA @ Paradise
November 08 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club

For the uninitiated, these are four songs that absolutely shoulda-would-coulda been #1 on the music charts of anyone with ears:
N.A. Kicker – Superdrag [Regretfully Yours]
I’m Expanding My Mind – Superdrag [Head Trip In Every Key]
Lighting The Way – Superdrag [In The Valley of Dying Stars]
Baby Goes to 11 – Superdrag [Last Call For Vitriol]

Radio (Teenage Fanclub) – Superdrag
Bastards of Young (Replacements) – Superdrag
Brand New Love (Sebadoh) – Superdrag
Motor Away (Guided by Voices) – Superdrag
September Gurls (Big Star) – Superdrag
Wave of Mutilation (Pixies cover) – Superdrag
1970 (Iggy Pop) – Superdrag

(demo cuts from their third album)
Eventually – Superdrag
While The Rest Of The World Was Busy Changing – Superdrag

Tell Me I’m Not Free (live on BFN) – John Davis
I Hear Your Voice (demo) – John Davis

Never-Changing – John Davis [from new Arigato!]

Gas Guzzler – WHIP!
[from new solo EP]


September 21, 2007

One more for the soulmate dreamers: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club interview

You can tell their passion for music by seeing them play, and know that they are good with words from listening to their lyrics. But just passing them on a city street, you’d never know from their dark sunglasses and, yes, ubiquitous black leather jackets that the guys of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are thoughtful, well-spoken and articulate, and also some of the best interviewees that I’ve yet had the pleasure of chatting with.

Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been were friends as teenagers in the San Francisco Bay Area (yay!). Robert is from the Boulder Creek/Felton area as a kid, and Peter spent his teenage years all over the East Bay – Concord, Daly City, Oakland, Lafayette. The guys met in high school, shortly after Peter had just gotten out of the morale-shattering tumult of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Along with drummer Nick Jago, a transplanted Brit, they decided to form a band and first played together in 1998. Their original name was The Elements, but after a few months they changed their name to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, taking the moniker from Marlon Brando’s group of young ruffians in the 1953 movie The Wild One.

The nascent BRMC recorded a demo album independently in 1999 which quickly circulated and generated a buzz at home and abroad. Owing to the energy of their live shows, the quality of their songwriting and perhaps the impressive range of influences that echoed some of the best sounds of decades past, they were signed by Virgin and their self-titled debut album was released in 2001. After their Screaming Gun EP of b-sides that same year, they’ve been pretty regular in offering a release every two years — Take Them, On Your Own in 2003, the folk/blues/acoustica of Howl in 2005, and the anthemic haze of this year’s Baby 81.

Before they rocked the Monolith Festival last weekend, Peter [guitar/vocals] and Robert [bass/vocals] took a good chunk of time from their grueling pre-show demands (mostly drinking Red Bull I think, and doing other interviews) to sit down at a little table backstage at Red Rocks with me to talk, in-depth and from the heart, about music.

I’d be remiss to not note your awesome roots in the Bay Area. As a San Jose girl myself, I have to ask — do you ever miss things about the Bay Area now that you’ve left for the shining shores of LA? Those great venues like The Fillmore or the Purple Onion …

Robert: Purple Onion! Yeah, we played the Purple Onion lots of times. You know Tom? That crazy fucker? He was that eccentric owner. He’d introduce the bands, and he called us the Black Leather Jacket Gang when we first played there. Couldn’t get the name right. Or he didn’t wanna get the name right.

Peter: (in a nasally voice) “You’ve got the coolest name ever man! Black Leather Jacket Gang, that’s awesome!

Robert: I think it was the first time we were ever announced . . . we were called The Elements for about nine months and then we changed it. And that was like our first gig as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and aw, they just took a piss with it. Definitely it was a scary name to try and introduce.

It helps to have a good name, a lot, but that’s all stuff you’ve probably read about. There’s just a lot of great history with that film that we kind of ended up learning later. I mean, it was the first real [depiction of] what rock and roll took, like kind of the spirit of it and the imagery. I mean The Beatles got their name from it –maybe– and Elvis took, you know, his whole look from a lot of it. It’s a kind of campy film, but in its time it was a really edgy cool thing.

Since you are here in Colorado, I wanted to ask you about an article I read that cited the “beat poet scene of Denver” as one of your influences. Now, other than sharing the title of an album with the Allen Ginsberg poem (Howl), is there a direct influence of his work in your music?

Peter: As far as the beat poets themselves and all that – I’m not real schooled on that stuff and we don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of who lived where. But from my understanding –could be absolutely wrong– the beat generation (even though they didn’t want that label, just as the label of rock and roll isn’t something you necessarily want or look for), they were talking out and speaking against things that they felt the need to speak out against and speak up.

So yeah, we’re fans of that. Not sure if they were the first – you know there were other people before that . . . I mean you can even call Jesus a rebel and a revolutionary. But we’re into that thought, and getting back to that idea and ideal of living.

So the title of your album was a direct nod to that?

Peter: It was a direct nod to that idea, which is speaking out against whatever you feel the need to speak out against.

Robert: And also that album is heavier on the lyrical side and poetry side. Some of the songs were poems before they were songs, and then they were . . . that thing of hoping that poetry could be more present in rock and roll music, and just the fantasy that there’s something more to say than what maybe it’s being used for a lot of the time.

I find it interesting how a lot of critics couldn’t seem to conceptualize how Howl fit in with your “sound.” There was all this commotion about how different it was from your first two albums. Was that hard for you guys why people couldn’t just, I don’t know, allow different kinds of music to come out of you without having to extrapolate out what this meant for your sound or your career?

Robert: I like the tug and the pull, and I like that that was put on the table, because it’s something that people should talk about, you know, why musicians and bands aren’t more free to be musicians and to experiment and do more, and just the fact that it was a shocking thing to discuss, “Who wants this sound? Who wants that?” I think it’s good to have that example for other bands to push things, but it’s also a shame.

We were nervous about it for sure because we knew the reality of the music business today; it’s about repeating one thing over and over again, and make as much money doing it as possible. We weren’t sure of the fans who loved us would want anything to do with us after Howl. Turns out that wasn’t the case, there was really strong support for the most part. That was a really, really nice feeling after being nervous for such a long time. Before we even started recording it, it was in the back of our mind, you now, just because we love it doesn’t mean anyone else will love it. But it ended up working out really well in the end. It was a good reminder to trust the passion of music.

Peter: It was a surprise and it is a sign that the state of things is not good, it’s a sad thing that it was even such an issue. It should be kind of obvious for anyone, we all want to express our freedom, and that’s all it should be taken as. If you like it or don’t like it, so be it.

Robert: We had to be really honest with ourselves though – there’s a lot of bands I love that had done the kinda “different” record, the experimental record, where you could tell that the band loved that sound or that style, but that they couldn’t quite make it work or pull it off. So their heart kind of got in front of their ability to actually really make something worthwhile. So, I think that’s why we waited so long – that record wouldn’t have been so good if it came out as our first or second album, we needed time to grow up and write better. I think if we’d gotten too excited and wanted to do something free and different without any holding ourselves accountable . . . I think we really needed to hold ourselves accountable.

Robert, you’ve said “People forget that the ‘roll’ is as important as the ‘rock’” and Peter, you’ve said that you are continuing to write a growing stash of new acoustic tunes. Do you think you’ll do another full album in the Howl vein, or integrate the folksy, bluesier stuff along with the rockers next time around?

Peter: I don’t know if this is possible, but when I think of albums, I think of a soundtrack, where you create a work with, say, an acoustic song next to a wall of guitars, just noise, no singing at all, next to a song that’s punky, whatever you want to call it. That to me is what makes sense. We’ve always been tryin to dodge the “Well, they sound like that . . . they sound like this,” – I want to be able to include all those types of music on an album and have that make sense. I think that would make sense to our fans. But I don’t really know! It’s hard to really talk about because to each his own, really.

I mean, a lot of people don’t like Howl. A lot of our fans didn’t like Howl. A lot of our fans really loved it. A lot of people got really turned on by it, a lot of people got turned off. A lot of people hate this one because they loved Howl. But what’s amazing is that we’ve made music that has turned people off and turned people on and we’re the same fuckin band. You know what I mean? That’s cool. We haven’t grabbed one big huge chunk of people that want that one sound – that to me is great. It’s up to the listener to be open to it, it’s not our job. Our job is just to do what the fuck we want in playing music, and it’s up to people to have ears to listen and be open to new things. It’s not our job to tell people how to hear.

Robert: I’m surprised more people don’t go along with the ride, as it should be. They’re very judgmental, quick to decide. I hear a lot of people talking and ranking, you know, “I like this one better than this one, which isn’t quite as good as that one.” But they’re all coming from the same place? So I don’t know why it’s . . . I mean they’re all good and bad for different reasons, but they’re all The Ride. Why not just enjoy the ride? It’s like being all uptight during the ride, like [scrunches up shoulders] “I don’t like this dip in the road right now.” But no, there’s this really cool turn coming right in a few seconds.

I agree with everything Pete is saying, especially the soundtrack idea as being the highest thing to achieve, something that emotionally can go from one extreme to the next, but kind of not be too tied down to one thing. That’s the only way you can keep a consistent kind of forward motion. But then again I don’t want to say what the next one’s gonna be because I don’t want to have that much control over it. I mean, whatever’s gonna come is not going to be really up to me so much, or Pete, or Nick, individually, but we all kinda let go of the wheel.

With Baby 81, if we thought about it too much we would have probably gone crazy: “What are we gonna do after this record that was so different?” And then thankfully Nick came back and we did “Took Out A Loan” and “666″ in one day, one take. No one was talking, sayin a fuckin word, it just happened. We followed that and made ten more songs like it. I don’t know — that’s the most natural and innocent the music can be, and that’s our job to let the music be that. It can be a natural extension, something that’s not too conceptualized or pulled in one direction because your head wants it to go there and your heart wants it to go someplace else. And we’re the only ones that can get in the way of that, you can blame other people, but it’s you allowing it or not.

Like the next record, I was actually thinking . . . I’m curious to hear what we’d sound like if we took a little time to let things evolve because we haven’t done that for awhile. We’ve done all records pretty fast, just kinda pushing to finish the next one and the next one. So I’m just curious to hear what we’d sound like with time to let things breathe and kind of come around in their own time.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your perceptions of the British media feeding frenzy throughout your career, and specifically the early buzz Noel Gallagher generated for you when he told MOJO magazine that you guys were his favorite band, and he wanted to sign you guys to his own [Brother Records] label. That must have been a bit crazy for you. Did you ever consider taking him up on it?

Peter: We considered it only to the point that we didn’t want to be anybody’s band. We didn’t want to be a record company’s band, or a guy at the record company’s band. That was the only reason we didn’t follow that up because we wanted to stand on our own. We don’t belong to Virgin [who they eventually signed with] and we don’t belong to who we’re with now. They don’t own us. Record companies make your lives a little bit easier, as far as, you know, you’ve got your rent paid. They make your art a little bit harder, but they make your life a little bit easier. [laughs heartily]

None of that really sunk in for me with though [with Noel Gallagher]. I was never that big of a fan — I became a bigger fan, but at first I didn’t understand it, it’s not for me. But then I went over there and I saw that it was for a huge amount of people, a lot of people loved it. So I give them respect, it touched the people somehow, I’ll give that to them absolutely. I respect that.

And it was nice of him, you know, him saying that? A lot of people would come to us and say, “I heard about you through Noel Gallagher,” and that’s amazing, that’s lovely to have. That feels like a community of artists, as far as someone who is at that level saying, “Check these guys out, I like this” – Having that is great, we try to do the same thing now for bands that we like. So that, in itself, that is how it’s supposed to be.

Robert: Music just carries a bigger weight in [British] society or culture, at least for the time being, and it has for awhile. It’s the good and bad that come with that. You know, people’s voices are heard and the media is stronger, and it’s a community that’s actually . . . can be inspiring and infuriating at the same time. But I’d rather have that than just a kind of place that doesn’t care so much, where music doesn’t really matter so much. The States kind of feel like that — there’s lots of places that have it a lot worse, but music’s not as built in to the [U.S.] network as far as the culture. They’ve got a ton of, say, television shows over there [in the UK] that are constantly showing different bands playing and there’s only a few over here.

Peter: It’s amazing, they have so much crap over there, and you know, they gave us a lot of their crap, as far as “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” or “Who Wants To Be The Next Pop Idol.” That all started over there … but it’s all bullshit! But it seems like our filter in America is just like, “Oh let’s just take the shit. The nonsense.” But over there they also have another side of it, that they have a good side too, they have both sides. Over here it’s weird how we siphon out the good stuff and just go for the shit. I don’t know why we do that.

We’ll make the last question massive. Do you see art and commercialism as being fundamentally at odds?

Robert: Oh, God. Well the question isn’t that hard to answer. We’d all want to live in a place where it wasn’t a music business, it wasn’t a film business, it was just people making music, making films, and it was their art form and it wasn’t controlled and tampered with by all these other elements. But the long answer to your question is how do you blend the two together in a world where you have to. We could be here for a while. [both laugh]

Peter: Your question is, are they fundamentally at odds? Fundamentally, yes. Money gets in the way of all of it. They don’t belong together . . . [pauses] . . . but it’s okay? I think it’s okay that it does? Kind of? [laughs] Because good things can come from money, I guess, because the world has decided to live that way.

Robert: It is kind of that ‘asleep at the wheel’ mentality. It’s not the industry itself, but the bigger society around it that’s – it’s the byproduct of society, not the other way around. It’s a Catch-22. No one really knows why some people settle for just sleepwalking, but it affects music and everything else.

I’ve always been kind of naïve or youthfully angry and rebellious against the music industry. You know, all those beginning thoughts you have when you’re like, “Fuck corporations, capitalism,” all that. But then T Bone Burnett was talking to us and he’s a good guy with a good heart. He was talking to us about trying to buy Sun Records and relaunch it and do it the right way and get the right people behind it, and for one glimpse I was truly inspired by that idea of that record label. We were just finishing Howl and he wanted to bring us on if it went through.

I was really excited about getting behind a brand that meant something. My imagination started sparking as far as I would want to make different great music and videos to represent this label and help it become what it would want to become, for the albums to have the same strength.

When you sign to a major label, the mentality can just kind of be “I wanna get mine, and get out,” in a way. It’s a survivalism thing that has nothing to do with connection to other people. But talking to him, I just got this vision that a label could be a beautiful, inspiring thing and I never even had a glimpse that that could be a reality, kind of growing up with labels that were always deemed the enemy or the devil, something you constantly had to fight against to keep your sanity and your art intact. That’s not the way it should be, and it doesn’t have to be. You realize, wow, we’re a long way from what could be, and yeah the music suffers from there on.

Peter: What’s frustrating is that you make a record –tons of bands do, you make art in a way you consider to be art of some sort– and you put it out and if it doesn’t do well, all of a sudden there’s no longer any support for you. And that’s a shame. I think government should be funding the arts – I guess Canada does it a bit, they cherish and take care of art and nurture it in a way. That’s unbelievably cool. Here we nourish those who’ve made it, and if you can’t be proven to have made it, you’re left by the wayside. So that’s wrong. That’s just wrong, that’s destruction of our culture.

And by following what you love, what you believe in, you have to be careful because your love can change. Next thing you know, your love turns into money. You know, this “I love what my music can get me.” Almost to a point of self-destruction, we’re so afraid of turning into that little asshole, you know? We’re like, is there money involved? Well make that go away. Make sure that goes somewhere else.

Robert: Just to finish that thought, it’s similar to what I was saying earlier about the label. It’s kind of trying to get away from self and not having it just be about ourselves and making money, but about the bigger community. Even when I’ve looked at, okay, you could make an indie label, stand for something new, get a bunch of great bands together and go really far. But you just know in the back of your mind, if you actually do make enough money it’s bound that it’s gonna be sold out from under you because someday it’s just gonna be an offer someone can’t refuse. You can’t even follow that dream because you know how it ends. . .

* * * * *
Pete pulls out a lighter from Cleveland brandished with ‘Rock N Roll’ and a red electric guitar on the front. With a self-effacing laugh, he points it out, and says, “See? Put a little stamp on a lighter. And that’s rock and roll.”


RADIO 3 BROADCAST (it adds atmosphere, and lets you practice your Español)
Spread Your Love
The Show Is About To Begin
Six Barrel Shotgun
Ain’t No Easy Way
Weapon Of Choice
Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘n’ Roll
Need Some Air
American X
All You Do Is Talk


September 9, 2007

Interview with Nate Ruess from The Format

All you need to know about what a show from The Format is like can be learned by watching this (bouncy, sometimes too loud) video that I shot on Friday night at the Gothic Theatre:


Don’t you just want to be a part of that? Yes, yes you do.

The concert was every bit as fantastic as I was expecting (a few more pics here) and I was pleased to get a chance to catch up with Nate Ruess, the frontman of the group. The Format was formed in 2001 by Nate and his longtime friend Sam Means; they make great music.

Me: One of my favorite songs from you guys is “The First Single,” where you sing “You know the night life is just not for me.” However, you have chosen this nightclub-rock&roll-saturated 2am lifestyle, at least for now. Do you find it draining or do you love it? Or both?

Nate: We are fairly boring people so I’m still sticking to our guns on this one. And because we are so boring I think the “rock n roll” lifestyle gets to us really quickly. Unless it involves watching a good movie. Then I am game.

Denver is honored to be the last proper show of the long-running tour for Dog Problems. What’s next for you guys after this?

Gonna take a break from touring and being in a band, and try to write and make a record all at the same time I’m looking forward to it. But the first thing on my mind is finishing the tour.

Now, no pressure (who am I kidding, I’m eager) — but are you already working on writing a follow-up to Dog Problems?

Yeah we have five or so songs in their incubent stage. I’m anxious to hear what it’s going to sound like. In my head they’re great songs so far, but we have so much work left.

Here’s a possibly hard question – Everyone always asks me to “describe the sound” of The Format when I rave about you all to whoever will listen. How the heck do you usually answer that same question when people, doubtlessly and ad nauseum, propose it to you? How then shall we refer to you?

It’s the question that angers me most. I say pop if I’m not scared of the person asking me. But I’ll say rock if I think they pose a threat. But really I don’t know.

What new and distant horizons would you like to explore musically with your next album? I read something about steel drums?

Maybe a little bit, I tend to throw crazy words and instruments around but in the end it comes down to what’s best for the songs. With that being said…I hear a gospel choir.

[New song] Swans is fantastic, and I gotta say I loved the fact that there are jingle bells in there. Far underused outside of December festivities. I am curious to know what your studio space looks like, in terms of the dozens of instruments you use. You’ve got some awesome wacky stuff, eh?

Yeah for awhile before Dog Problems was recorded we spent a lot of time collecting crap, but the studio we recorded at in California had so many great instruments that we never used our own stuff. We are toying with the idea of make the next album in Arizona so I guess we might get to put 5 out-of-tune pump organs to use.

I am very interested in hearing about any new developments with your Vanity Label. Are you planning on adding some other artists to the roster? It must be a pretty cool feeling to be able to help and actually get good music heard by the general populace.

Yeah, we tend to forget we have the ability to sign other artists because we are so wrapped up in running the label for The Format. But once we hear something great or get a significant amount of time to work with someone, it’s something we would take very seriously.

[Me and Nate and my friend Jill after the show]

Bonus reading: A highly entertaining two-part tour blog written by Nate for Spin Magazine, wherein they crash a frat party and hone their skills in competitive drinking. [Part One] [Part Two]

June 3, 2007

Be here now: Interview with Mason Jennings

Mason Jennings just might be the nicest guy in music today (well, at least that I’ve met so far). I had a chance to sit down with Mason after watching his soundcheck at the Fox on Friday afternoon. Just as I opened my mouth to explain who I was and what I wrote for, he jumps in with comments to me about the specific articles he was reading earlier on my blog, offers me something to drink, and asks if I need him to hold the voice recorder. Yeah. No pretense here — Mason stands out with his completely earnest and kind nature, and commitment to the music.

I shouldn’t be surprised, since these same qualities come through in his music and are part of what draws me to his lyrics, but hearing his eloquent discussion of songwriting, the music industry, and parenthood made me really pleased to get to spend some time catching up with this talented musician.

HB: You’ve shown a strong do-it-yourself ethic throughout your career, from recording your first album at home by yourself, to forming your own record label to distribute your work. And yet, you’ve called your first major label release (Boneclouds) “the record I’ve been trying to make for years.” I thought that was very interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Mason: Well, it’s just that I hadn’t been able to spend enough time in the studio with the DYI . . . is it DYI? Wait, do-it-yourself. DIY. I couldn’t figure out how to spend more time in the studio because it cost so much money, you know, and I wanted to make a more hi-fi sounding record and this gave me the opportunity to be in there for a bunch of weeks, 5 or 6 weeks. And I got a producer involved, which cost money, and I tried some stuff I just couldn’t do before. So that’s what I meant by that – just to see what it sounds like to try a bunch of different stuff without worrying about the clock ticking as much.

And that’s the same dichotomy you were talking about on the Use Your Van DVD . . .

Right, but that was back before I even signed or started recording [Boneclouds], so it’s neat that now I’ve gotten just what I had wanted then. I had time to try different arrangements, get different musicians in there, just try some stuff I’d never tried before. Like, recording Birds Flying Away was like . . . 5 days? And Use Your Voice was like less than two weeks, but that’s including mixing it too. So before I’d basically have one day to do a song, and if you don’t get it then everyone starts to stress, and then you get behind, and it’s not a good way to work. Plus, I don’t really like – it’s not the most comfortable environment to be in a studio for me. It’s just so sterile, usually.

So, you usually were used to going into the studio with the songs totally finished, and not doing much editing or noodling or revising in the studio?

We did that a lot on this album, for example a song like “Some Say I’m Not” was basically a first take in the studio, just like totally improvised. But we tried some different stuff, like the production aesthetic was different with slap-back vocal effects and things that were on the record were definitely not planned going in, it’s just a matter of now being able to experiment with different things and see what turns out the best.

Do you think . . . is there ever a danger of musicians getting, I don’t know . . . drunk on the power of being able to use whatever effects you want in the studio [Mason cackles] and then the ultimate result may be something that doesn’t really sound like you?

Maybe, yeah, like that kinda happened to me. I recorded the whole record in the studio, but then I ended up using about half of the demo tracks on the finished album. It was fun in that I got the experience, but at the end of recording it was just like, wow, this is way too glossy for me. So to balance it out I made sure that I put some demos on there. It was definitely fun to experience it [the toys in the studio], but it’s not necessarily something I think I’d do again in the same way.

So looking forward to your next album, now that you’ve successfully made the jump from independent to major label and released your first album this way, how might you do things differently next time?

Well, I bought a studio, a house in Minnesota, so I have a place that I can go every day now and start recording. I’m starting to do it all myself again, you know, with me playing all the instruments again, but I’ll be able to bring in different people as I need them, and different instrumentation, or singers, or producers or mixers – but as I need it, instead of having to go into a studio for ten days and have to get it all done exactly on schedule.

Do you have the same capabilities in your home studio as you would in the studio you recorded Boneclouds in?

Yeah, we recorded Boneclouds at a place called Pachyderm, where Nirvana recorded In Utero – it’s southern Minnesota. My home studio will be set up more for me, so it’ll be the same quality stuff but set up just for one person. So you don’t have to have everything to record a band or a big bunch of people. I’ll be more comfortable and I can just be there all the time if I want, like I could be there for a year and recording by myself, instead of always having people from the label there or even people that work in the studio wandering in and out. It’s harder to be intimate with it, you know, in that kind of setting.

I am currently writing new material and getting the studio set up so aesthetically it just feels really natural and comfortable to me. I don’t want to move too fast with it. It’s a slow process. I plan to start recording in August, and hit it pretty hard.

Where are you finding musical inspiration these days? Is it ever hard to be inspired on the road?

No, it’s always just really random for me. I mean, I’ll always try to just sit down with a guitar and write, but when songs come to me, it’s really hard to know what inspires it. I try and make sure that I take in as much input as I can and just . . . live as much as I can. And then the songs will just come naturally. It’s pretty great – it’s the best part for me. My favorite part is the writing. For me it’s just, I feel totally interconnected, like something’s just cruisin’ through you, and you get in the zone. It’s really, really fun when it works. It kinda feels to me like when I meditate twice a day, and it’s kinda like that . . . everything feels in line, you know? It’s hard to describe.

Art often inspires art, and you’ve said that “Adrian” was sparked by the immense feeling in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Are there other songs that you can specifically recall that were inspired directly by another piece of art, whether it was a book you read or a song…?

Well, yeah – on the new record the song “Be Here Now” was inspired by the book Be Here Now by Ram Dass. And “Moon Sailing On The Water” was I think pretty influenced by a book called In The Lake Of The Woods by Tim O’Brien. He wrote a bunch of Vietnam books, like Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. The book just stuck with me.

Let’s see, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s influencing what. Adrian’s not about Beloved, it just feels like it. And on that same record “East of Eden” is sort of inspired by a Steinbeck book, and also “Dewey Dell” is inspired by the Faulkner book As I Lay Dying, there’s a character Dewey Dell.

It’s almost like . . . [pauses] when you just step one little step off your own life, you can just see something open up in front of you, and you just follow it.

The thing for me is that I really wanted to write because when you read books or when you watch movies or whatever, and you get to that point where you get really moved and you transcend and you start to, like, almost cry or get teared up at a really great piece of art and that’s what I’m always trying to look for in the music too. If people tell me, “Man, you made me cry on the one song,” I mean, it’s not like I wanna say that’s the point, but I like the transcendence in relating to another person’s point of view so much, and feeling so connected and not alone in the experience, whatever it is, the book or song or whatever. That’s so powerful, I think, that connected feeling.

I thought it was interesting when you were talking about the difficulty for you in finding music after your sons were born that honestly reflected the contrasting emotions that parenthood brought up, without sounding like Raffi. Where are you at with that? I know you’ve written some of your own music that’s influenced by those experiences of fatherhood.

Well, now my [4-year-old] son likes Led Zeppelin, so I’m like, “Okay, we’re safe now. We can hang.” But, I’m trying to think . . . Paul Simon’s really good about talking about those things; I mean he has that one song about his daughter that’s really famous but there’s also like The Rhythm of the Saints or Graceland that’s so much about that. Jack Johnson’s starting to write some stuff about his family life.

It’s really hard, though. I mean, the one song that’s on my record “Which Way Your Heart Will Go” was called Fatherhood, and there was a line, instead of going “darling, there’s no way to know which way your heart will go,” instead it said “I would never trade a thing for fatherhood and the joy you bring.” But it was hard because I actually liked the original way better and it was more powerful to me, but then I played it for certain people and they just didn’t feel anything. Like, if they’re not a father, then they couldn’t relate, so I was like, “wow.” That was a tough one for me to change the lyrics. It makes sense, I guess, because then it opens it up to more people, but it still to me . . . there’s not enough songs about fathers I think.

You said when we first sat down that there is a lot of great stuff happening now in music. Tell me about that – what excites you in music lately?

One thing I like is the intimacy, like everyone’s starting to really get to know musicians in a closer way, through things like MySpace the walls are just coming down. I mean, like you look up Lou Reed’s MySpace page and he’s just like on there, sitting at a restaurant. And it’s like, “What?” All the veils are coming down. It’s a really interesting time for that.

And then you get these really incredible people like Joanna Newsom and Chad VanGaalen, just like these hybrid artists that just have these amazing kinds of new talent. So, that’s exciting to me.

Also just the instantaneous nature of music now, like you can just put something up on the web so fast and hear it. I love going to people’s MySpace pages and hearing different songs and demos. It can be hard figuring it all out though. It seems like the albums and CDs are kind of in a weird spot, like it doesn’t really make sense in a lot of ways to make CDs anymore? And people don’t think about them . . . I mean, they put like seventeen songs on an album and . . . I can’t listen to that in one sitting. It’s sort of weird to make art that you can’t experience in one sitting . . . like, cohesively. I don’t know how to address that. I keep thinking of different things like maybe just releasing songs as I write them or record them, individually through the web or something?

Yeah, because it’s changing, people’s attention spans, what they are willing to invest their time in. It’s going from full albums experienced completely as opposed to this era now with music just flying at you, detached from any sort of context.

Exactly. Like when I first started recording music ten years ago, the internet wasn’t even there. I mean, it was there, but I wasn’t using it as a tool. I didn’t have a CD player, and I didn’t have a computer. It’s really bizarre, I mean I remember putting up flyers on telephone poles. It’s just weird how within the last ten years, which is not that long, it’s just totally changed the game.

So it’s just trying to figure out how to go about it now, and it’s fascinating to me. I go into a CD or record store, or am flying around doing all these in-stores and record conferences, and everyone is so depressed, telling me that this is a dying trade. They’ll say, “Well, our store doesn’t really live except through vinyl.” So it’s like this archaeological store, this retro relic. People come in as collectors; I mean they might as well be selling Hummel figurines. It’s weird. There will always be a need for physical music, but maybe it will become like paintings or something, you know? It will probably be more like art galleries, especially once the thing you are listening to it on can be afforded by everyone. It’s a very interesting time.

Another thing that’s cool now is how live performing is coming back in, too. You can get all this stuff on the internet, you can download it for free, but you can’t replace coming out to see a show. I’ve experienced that, like, I’ll go to a city where I’ve sold a couple hundred records and there’ll be a lot more people there. I’ll say, “Wow, this is crazy. I thought there would be, like, forty people and there’s like 500.” I guess that’s the internet. They can hear one song and decide to go to the show. It’s cool.

If you feel that the emphasis is shifting away from whole albums, do you still write that way, or do you take it song by song?

Yeah, I don’t know. I’m sort of in the middle with that right now and trying to decide what to do a little bit. I mean you could have someone like Ryan Adams who just releases like a zillion a year, or you just have your traditional release every two and a half years . . . I don’t know. I am writing all the time, and now with my own studio, I guess it just depends on what I feel I should put out there and I am still trying to decide how to best do that.

Are you going to put “In Your City” on a record?

[Laughs] I tried putting it on the last one, it just didn’t fit, it sounded different. Do you want me to?

I love that song.

Yeah, I like it. It’s like . . . little.

In Your City (live) – Mason Jennings
(the sound here streams slow and weird – donno why. If you download it, it should sound normal. Sorry!)


The sold-out live show that followed was just fantastic; Mason’s an artist who you should see live to truly appreciate and understand his music. Even if you’ve never heard a single song he’s written before walking into the show, I think you’d be impressed and enjoy it immensely. Songs that are good on the album become explosive in concert. “Godless” was a churning, raging, consuming storm. “Jesus Are You Real” was brutally honest, and lovely acoustic songs like “The Simple Life” (which Mason started with, solo) lend a playful and easy vibe. He even covered Buddy Holly. He just plain rocks.

He’s on tour through the month of June, and has six albums out for you to enjoy – #1-#5 are out on his own Architect Records, and #6 Boneclouds was released last year on Epic subsidiary (and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock-helmed) Glacial Pace.

Mason Jennings: Butterfly
(kickass drummer Brian starts the song, Mason takes his sweet time joining in, with a smile)

Mason Jennings: Fighter Girl


May 1, 2007

The post in which Heather becomes Mom’s favorite daughter: The Taylor Hicks interview

The lights go out and the screams instantly reach fever pitch.
I am standing in the Paramount Theater in Denver.
I am with my mom.
I am at a Taylor Hicks concert.

How did I get here?

When the opportunity to talk with Taylor Hicks about music kind of fell directly into my lap (with an opportunity to take my mom to his show), I just couldn’t say no. One thing I’ve always thought about Taylor Hicks since the first time I saw him on American Idol is this: Despite of the avenue of an embarrassing pop reality show, this is a man who truly loves music, and who truly loves performing music. He feels it deep inside, and we both share a strong and abiding appreciation for soul greats like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. At only 31, Hicks is a bit of an anomaly amongst folks in my generation. But in a good way.


HB: What role has music played for you throughout your life?

TH: I guess having an outlet of some sort – music was that outlet for me. Music replaced a lot of things that were missing in my life at that time. Luckily I was listening to Ray Charles and soul music, and that’s when I started replacing the things that were missing with that love of music, it balanced me out. Through singing and then playing the harmonica — it just kind of took off for me. I don’t know if it found me or I found it. The first record I ever heard in that genre was probably Otis Redding, then Ray Charles hit and I just kind of took off with Ray, studying everything I could get my hands on from him.

As a kid, you know, from the time I was . . . eleven, I remember feeling like I was going to keep good music around, or at least be one of the players involved in keeping good music around. And it wasn’t a selfish feeling, it was more selfless feeling, for the good of the music and people, maybe like a conducer, that’s what I’d like to be. Let good stuff flow through me, keeping it around, live – the way that the legends perform it.

Do you ever feel intimidated by that? That’s a pretty tall order.

Well, you’re always feeling the weight, you know, of trying to be the best artist you can be, so I think that’s just being an artist. I don’t think any artist is ever content, they want to describe the landscape, talk about it, and not be content with . . . not moving.

Your first two albums were undertaken from an assumedly low-budget, very independent standpoint. I’d like to know a little about the process for you of making the new album, working in a big studio, doing songs written by Rob Thomas, Marvin Gaye, some Ray Charles samples, a full band…. You must have felt a bit like a kid in a candy store.

Yeah, it was cool, learning how to be a recording artist in the truest sense. I think having all those tools definitely helped. You can paint the picture better with a better budget. Like, each song is a blank canvas, your instruments are your paintbrushes. You know? I didn’t have many paintbrushes to work with before. So that was cool.

But this album came really quick — it was under time constraints, so I couldn’t paint it completely, because you know, in 5 weeks we had to record it. So I had to record on instinct. When I do future albums, I’ll have more time. In the future I’ll need to take more time with my own art, my own songs, the songs of others, production, mixing, I wanna have more time to do all that. Have that time to create and be an artist. I think Fall, I will probably – I might be touring this record for the next year, but I think in the Fall I want to block some time out for writing.

I love Ray LaMontagne, and I thought it was great when you were talking about your choice to cover his song “Trouble” on American Idol and saying “my whole goal is to let people see about that music that’s real and not to let it slip.” But did you ever feel like you were speaking . . . a foreign language during the time you were on AI with tastes for “real” music?

To a certain degree, yeah. It was a very tough task. But I found that the love of performing, I mean that was my true gig. You listen to what’s popular now, pop radio, and . . . I really want to keep real music in the forefront. I’ve been touring that idea, I’ll be touring that idea forever.

I went to see Ray LaMontagne right when that Trouble album came out, about two years ago. I like him. I like his recorded music better. He’s obviously, it seems to me, a performer that doesn’t really like being there. But I think he can hide behind the confines of his own words and music in the studio and not have to face that, you know? That’s what I want for him – it’s tough when you see an artist go through . . . I don’t wanna say torture . . . but a similar thought process there.

If you could do a duet with any musician living or dead –just for sheer personal enjoyment and love of the music and not for any commercial purpose or audience– who would you choose?

[Long pause]
I would have to say Van Morrison probably, live. I would like to play live with Van. I studied his stuff, digested a lot of what he did on stage – and Otis Redding, those two live performers. If you’ve ever seen Otis live, see a lot of people haven’t seen that – it’s a lost art, what he did. He was a brilliant performer live. And of course Ray (Charles).

Finally, what’s been the coolest thing you’ve gotten to be a part of in these last two years?

Oh, going to Ray Charles’ studio. I was picked up on the same day that I was on the cover of People Magazine. That same day. You know, it was crazy. There’s not so many people that get to do that. I got to play on his piano. While I was there, I got to go down into his personal vault. Now, I’ve been interested in Ray Charles Live in Tokyo. We went down to his music vault, and everything he had was labeled in Braille, so nobody knew what it was — only him. The first thing that I picked up, I opened the box up and it was [the tapes for] Live in Tokyo by Ray Charles, and it freaked everybody out. It felt so right. It was really cool, that was a really cool experience. That validated me being there.

But . . . you know, surrealism has lost its luster with me, you know what I mean? Because I just take it for what it is and hopefully have one day to reflect on everything I’ve done, because I can’t right now. Maybe open the file up someday.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw Taylor on stage later that night because he was so clearly living his dream with purpose and joy. Even if I may not listen to his latest album, I can so purely appreciate seeing someone who has accomplished exactly what they are passionate about doing in performing music for the (very enthusiastic) masses.

Taylor’s been eking out a living for 15 years performing as a live musician, honing his craft in dive bars and at frat parties, hoping to “make it” so that he could afford to pursue what he feels he is meant to do. It’s easy to make fun of American Idol, believe me I do it all the time (even the whole single season I closet-watched it), but it was harder for me to put aside the joking and just enjoy his soulful enthusiasm in leading the show. Which, I’ll have to admit . . . I ultimately did.

Some photos are mine, others are from this great collection.

Tagged with .
February 27, 2007

5 Questions with Noise Pop Festival guru Jordan Kurland

Time is short ’til my departure to San Francisco (okay, via Oakland) tomorrow afternoon for the six-day fiesta of Noise Pop, the Bay Area’s best independent music festival. Its proximity on the calendar to the pricey and crowded SXSW means that many of my music blogger friends are opting for Austin and not S.F.

I say: their loss.

Not that I wouldn’t love to go to SXSW (and should probably start saving my kopecks now for 2008), but Noise Pop is just the right size, high quality, varied, and not to be missed. I’ll be covering all the shows I attend for your musical enjoyment, and my distinct pleasure. Noise Pop kicks off tonight with a (filled to capacity) free show with Tapes ‘N Tapes, and features a boatload of other fantastic shows highlighting a thriving independent Bay Area music scene.

Jordan Kurland and Kevin Arnold are the two Bay Area music lovers behind the fest, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. In February 1993 Arnold booked five bands into a small club and called the event Noise Pop. Since then, it’s grown exponentially, and this year features over 100 bands, parties, independent films, panels, art exhibits and more. How did we get here?


1) When you started/got involved with Noise Pop, what hopes did you have for it — did you ever think it would look the way it does now? How have those hopes crystallized or changed, looking back over 15 years?

I started working with Kevin on the festival in the fall of 1997 and we didn’t really have a game plan other than to keep things moving forward and try to rope in some bands that we loved and admired. We slowly became more ambitious: introducing the film festival and Educational Series in 2000, doing a second festival in Chicago in 2000 and 2001, etc.

Over the last seven years these ‘extra-curricular’ things have ebbed and flowed but we have had a goal of making the fest more of a celebration of independent art and culture. Now that we have some great folks working on the fest year round we are actually able to try to achieve this with things like art openings and the Noise Pop Expo.

2) Also looking back over the past 15 years, name one favorite/most memorable/fantastic show that just sticks out in your mind.

Can I cheat and name 3? The below are in no particular order:

-Bob Mould at Bimbo’s in 2000. Husker Du/Bob are undoubtedly, in our minds at least, the founding fathers of Noise Pop. Bob played a solo acoustic show (he was supposed to play some electric but the airlines lost his guitar in transit) and Kevin and I watched the show from the side of the stage . We were both extremely nervous when we approached him to sign a poster after the show.

-Creeper Lagoon/Grandaddy/Death Cab for Cutie at Great American Music Hall in 1999. This was back when Creeper Lagoon was considered the great hope of indie rock, Grandaddy’s first album was just getting noticed in the states (it already had some traction in the UK) and it was Death Cab’s second ever show in the Bay Area. It was exactly the type of balance we wish we could achieve with all the shows that we curate.

-Flaming Lips at Bimbos in 2006. The Lips had to cancel a show at Bimbo’s on us in 1999 and their manager, Scott Booker, always said they’d make it up to us. Well, the stars lined up last year and their new record was coming out the Tuesday after the festival and the timing made sense for everyone. It was just magical seeing the show which had been tailored to much bigger rooms at an 800 capacity club.

3) The Noise Pop website is so complete this year, with links and mp3s for all the bands. How do you think that technology has changed the independent music scene since the inception of Noise Pop?

It used to be that the only way to hear about the bands that played the festival was college radio, press, clerks at record stores, and word of mouth. The internet has completely transformed how people learn about and digest music and has given independent bands and labels an inexpensive or free way to reach millions of people. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, sites like Pitchfork have the ability to expose a band to more people in one day than a label like, let’s say, Absolutely Kosher, would be able to reach throughout a whole album cycle seven years ago.

I remember when it seemed unfathomable to think that Modest Mouse could sell 50,000 albums on Up Records in 1998 and now Joanna Newsom – a woman who plays harp and has no commercial radio airplay – has already sold that on her new album in less than six months.

Because I am an indie rock nerd or maybe just have too much time on my hands I often think about things like what if Neutral Milk Hotel was releasing “In An Aeroplane Over the Sea” today? It would probably rival the success of the Arcade Fire.

4) What is one thing that you’d like to add to the Noise Pop Festival in future years?

A Pavement reunion.

5) What are you personally most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

Hmmmm, that’s always such a hard a question and the answer varies from day to day. Right now, as I drink my morning coffee on the first day of the fest I would say I am most looking forward to getting some sleep next week :-)

Amen, Jordan. Anyone who has spent time with me out at night knows that my motto usually is “We can sleep when we’re older.” For my Bay Area peeps, come on out to Noise Pop this week, have some fun, and support local independent culture. Your ears & brain will thank you.

Here is the schedule of what I am planning on seeing — and (!!) I just got added as a panelist to the Noise Pop Expo Sunday afternoon at the Swedish American Hall. Come listen to me pontificate about how to get your music reviewed in typical brilliant and enlightened form. Ha! I’m actually freaked out. So come cheer me on.

**Where I’ll (probably) be**

Happy Hour @ Diesel Store with Rogue Wave DJ set
6pm to 9pm

Ryan Auffenberg @ Cafe Du Nord
(previous post)
Under All The Bright Lights

Josh Ritter (acoustic) @ Swedish American (previous post)
Girl In The War

Happy Hour @ Thee Parkside with photographer Peter Ellenby
5pm to 8pm

Happy Hour @ Diesel Store with Scissors for Lefty DJ set
6pm to 9pm

The Coup @ Fillmore (supposed to be “a standout”)
My Favorite Mutiny

Lyrics Born @ Fillmore
I Changed My Mind (Stereo MC’s Rattlesnake Remix)

New Amsterdams @ Slim’s
Heaven Sent

Street To Nowhere @ Slim’s

Screamin (think Weezer)

The Actual @ Slim’s
If You See Her

State Radio @ Slim’s
Black Cab Motorcade

State Radio features Chetro of Dispatch – remember:
The General

Dios Malos @ Rickshaw Stop

Feels Good Being Somebody (love this!)

The Changes @ Rickshaw Stop

Water Of The Gods

The Old-Fashioned Way @ Rickshaw Stop

Robot High

The Spinto Band @ Rickshaw Stop
(previous mention)
Crack The Whip

Money Mark in-store @ Amoeba Records
(previous post)
Nice To Me (hey, this one’s got harmonica by G. Love)

Participant in the Noise Pop Panel 3:30-5:30pm
“Indie Night School: Getting Your Music Reviewed Online & Off”

Money Mark @ Bimbo’s

The Botticellis @ Bimbo’s
Up Against The Glass (demo)

Scrabbel @ Bimbo’s

Chicago New York

CAKE @ Bimbo’s
Hem Of Your Garment


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December 14, 2006

You should meet: Hymns

My friend Tom emailed me a little report from the Lemonheads show he was at last night (not good, he says), and although we differed on the glory (or lack thereof) of Evan Dando, one thing we both agreed on was opening band Hymns. Tom writes:

Let me say if you’re thinking about going to see this tour make sure you get there in time for the opening bands, because last night at least, they were the best part of the night. Hymns started the night off with a set of songs that started off sounding like Wilco and then kind of morphed a bit into a more late 60′s sound — I really liked them. Easily ended up as best band of the night.”

I had a chance to chat with Hymns dudes Brian Harding (vox/guitar) and Jason Roberts (guitar/Wurlitzer) recently in a crowded stairwell at the Bluebird Theatre, for lack of a better place to talk. As people pressed past us, I caught up with them about their current tour and their new album Brother/Sister.

Q: After spending time apart from Hymns as Jason joined the Ben Kweller’s tour and other side projects, how has this tour been so far?

Brian: Yeah, after time apart we were a little rusty at first, definitely, but now we feel like we’ve been jelling back as a band and hit our groove again together. Lots of long drives so far on the tour, and we wrecked our van the other night on black ice! But this is the first time we’ve had this big of a crowd watching us perform, so it’s great. We’ve played some shows in the past to like 40 people, so these crowds are cool — there’s a lot of enthusiasm.

Q: What’s been your coolest moment on this Lemonheads tour so far?

Jason: Oh, I’d say on our last stop — Boise I think? In Boise, Evan [Dando] came out and sat right down in front for our set, just pulled up a chair and no one noticed. Then at the end he jumped up on stage and joined us for that Neil Young cover (Don’t Cry No Tears) that we’ve been doing. It was pretty awesome.

Q: If you had to pick two songs from your catalog to introduce people to the Hymns sound, what would you choose?

Brian: It’s A Shame & Friends of Mine. “It’s A Shame” is fun to play and was easy to record — we laid it down live for the album in about two hours. It also just got on the latest sampler CD for Paste Magazine, so we were excited about that. Yeah, our song is there right after Cat Stevens. (big grin)

Jason: I’d say It’s A Shame too, and Stop Talking.

Q: Any new materials being recorded or written?

Jason: We’d love to do another album — and we’ve already got enough for probably two new albums — but we want to give this album its time to breathe before releasing anything else. People haven’t had time to fully absorb it yet, so we’re not in a hurry.

Hymns have three shows left with the Lemonheads:
-Tonight at the Black Cat in DC
-Friday at Irving Plaza in NYC
-Saturday at the Avalon in Boston

You can listen to more Hymns on their MySpace — they’re addicted to it, so leave ‘em a comment and make their day. Their album Brother/Sister is available now from Blackland Records. And their three picks for songs you should hear:

It’s A Shame – Hymns

Friends of Mine – Hymns

Stop Talking – Hymns

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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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