March 19, 2013

Josh Ritter Album Club! (group conversation and interview)


Last weekend I made up a big crockpot of stew and invited ten Fuel/Friends readers over to my house to talk about Josh Ritter‘s new album, The Beast In Its Tracks, an intensely personal record that Josh wrote in the wake of his recent divorce. The concept behind this pow-wow was that in the same way people get together to talk about books they’ve read and been affected by, it would be interesting to try extending the same concept to the music we so passionately consume.

And passionately do Josh’s fans consume his music. I got over forty entries for this album club in just a couple of days, from as far away as France and England. People wrote long, beautiful, wrenching letters to me about Josh’s music and how it had soundtracked some of their most excoriating moments and months in their lives, as well as some of the most joy-filled. Some I kept closing and returning to because they were almost too flooded for me to absorb all at once. They were some of the most visceral connections I’ve ever witnessed in the time I have been writing this blog. I felt honored.

I picked ten folks that could feasibly come to my place on a random Sunday night, and ultimately the ten of us sat huddled around my laptop after dinner while Josh skyped in to talk to us from his Brooklyn apartment, shortly before he headed out on this long tour. Of course he was joyful, and of course he was thoughtful, and gracious. Most of us piped up with a question that had been on our minds after listening to the record — and all of us enjoyed his ruminations, his literary references, and his laughter.

Pull up a chair.

March 10, 2013

Josh Ritter: Can I just say first of all, you guys, this is really awesome, I’m so honored, so honored. Thank you so much for doing this — this is incredible.

Heather: Oh man, we think it’s pretty exciting. I was thrilled to get a chance to do something where we get to actually get together in person and talk about music. We were just talking about how so many of our communities are not physical communities, so we don’t get to actually sit down and talk about things that matter to us, music-wise. We’ve all enjoyed even just already tonight having food and talking and all that. So thanks for giving us the opportunity to do that.

We’ve got a couple questions that different folks have come up with, and we thought we’d just start in, if you’re ready.

JR: Yeah, totally.

Maddy: So, Josh, with So Runs the World Away, you talked a lot about your writer’s block before that and how hard you were working to just consume music, literature, museums, get inspirations from wherever you could – feed the monster, as you said. Then with this album, it seems like you got inspiration that you didn’t want, internally, and I was wondering what you were also consuming, what you were reading, what you were listening to, while you were going through the process of writing this album.

JR: What I’ve noticed about writing records (and it’s not too much different from other things in life, I think) is that you’re so influenced by the external surroundings, but you’re most influenced by the choices you made on the last thing you did, you know? And with So Runs the World Away that was just …those were big songs. I had the compulsion to really write big songs, but also, I felt like I needed to put big things in my brain, you know? Like with songs like “Orbital” which was a song that I wrote just trying to…I just wanted to get “the big bang” into a song. I wanted to figure out the process, see if I could get it as concise as I could.

That was something that was really fun to do, but it also kind of felt frantic — like I was a stopped-up bottle and then suddenly I was free and trying to get as much written as I could at one time, really frantically. And that was without a personal external pressure. There wasn’t anything going on in my life that I knew at the time that was really pushing me in that direction. I just wanted to make something big, just because I thought it would be fun. And I felt that the album before, Historical Conquests had been kind of a scrappier thing; I wanted So Runs the World Away to have a little bit more orchestration to it, you know? So the museums, and the books I was reading at the time, that really helped me to do that.

With The Beast in its Tracks, obviously I was thinking very much about this major event in my life that was the catalyst for all this writing. You’re right, that experience really threw my influences into stark relief. The things that really mattered to me at the time, I went back to them like comfort food, you know? I went back to some of the writers that I really loved for a dose of what they had given me before….like definitely Flannery O’Connor. Or, also Fleetwood Mac — Fleetwood Mac was a big thing for me because I felt like — there’s a guy, Lindsey Buckingham. He can write a guitar line that has two notes in it, and it’s so badass. And he plays three notes and he’s gone, like that’s it. And I liked that kind of unselfish playing. I loved reading …I went back and read Deadwood, which is a book that I really loved, by Pete Dexter. I was also reading this book called The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which was so good, mostly because I was interested in just that pace of the life. That book got me interested in other things in life besides what was going on in my head. To read about somebody who was interested in everything in the world, and had some really tragic things happen to him, but he still just pointed himself forward, you know? I guess the actual experience might be a catalyst, but it doesn’t give you a new vocabulary, it just realigns the vocabulary that you already had.

Seth: So, the great folk songwriters write great stories, and it’s not usually about their own life, but they look at the world around them and they respond to it, and they tell the world’s stories. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I read in an interview where you said you haven’t in the past really liked writing autobiographically. And wondering…this album seems obviously very much an autobiographical album, and wondering what gave you the freedom to put that hat on, so to speak, or to begin writing, opening up that door to yourself as far as what poured into the songs. What was that process like, if there was a process?

JR: I have to write about stuff. For most of my life, I’d been writing about the things I thought about and the things I saw, and I pictured this album kind of like walking across the desert and everything’s going fine – and then suddenly, you come to the Grand Canyon. So you can write about anything, but then you come to the Grand Canyon, and it’s undeniable and it’s right there, and if you turn around and you don’t write about it, you’re kind of a coward. You’ve gotta do it.

This is an important experience. So many people have it, it’s not just my own experience. And I would never write about it if it was just my own experience. It’s something that lots of people go through; a broken heart is something everybody goes through, so I just wanted to write about it in the way that was most open to everybody, while still being able to make sure I could tell the things that really mattered to me. But it was definitely a decision. I thought the idea of sitting down and writing about other things was so unthinkable to me at the time. I feel like after a while, of course, the power of that sort of stuff goes out, because you can only tell so many stories about yourself; you have to tell other stuff. The last thing I want to do is really bore people with that stuff. So I feel like this is a pass. I gave myself a pass in this one regard.

Seth: George Oppen said “Like a bull in a china shop: it is striking for a while. After that, the china shop becomes a bull pen, and the bull is an ordinary bull.”

JR: (laughs) That’s great!

Jon Jon: I have one that kind of follows up on that. Since this album is more autobiographical, and since you’ve only been singing these songs more recently, how has it affected your shows? Because now you’re coming out and feeling things — maybe you don’t feel them at that moment. Are you sort of like a method actor and you get yourself inside those past emotions, and if so, does that make your life more hurtful? Because that would seem like reliving painful moments night after night would be really hard. Are there ever songs you can’t play or anything like that, just because you’re feeling them so strongly?

JR: There are times when I feel that songs are super important to me in the moment, onstage, but it always sneaks up on me. Sometimes it becomes very emotional, but I’ve never been one to feel like I can let the song totally control me in those moments. When I’m on stage and singing, my body — I just go to sleep, in a way. Any pains or aches or anything you’re thinking about for the rest of the day just disappears. It’s an amazing thing that I think happens to a lot of performers. I’m really lucky that it happens to me, because singing songs every night has to be a new experience; every time it has to feel real and new, and the only way for that to happen is for you to just go into that kind of trance. And it’s not even an arty-farty thing, like it’s real — it’s a real trance moment, and it’s the most fun thing being up there, which is why I really enjoy singing a song like “Kathleen” even after ten years, it’s just so much fun and so enjoyable.

With these songs, I had my say when I wrote them and when I recorded them. And now when I play them, my responsibility is to play them really well and to play them in a way that people can relate to them. I feel like you spend a lot of time working on your recipes and trying them out, and then when you open the restaurant you want everybody to enjoy the food, you know what I mean? It feels that way. I want these songs to feel good and to be fun, and also to be useful, to be whatever people want them to be. When I’m on stage, I have to play them as powerfully as I can. Or hey, maybe I’m just talking crazy, maybe they will affect me. Maybe when I see you at the Ogden, or whatever, I’ll be just a wreck!

Heather: Have you played these songs a lot yet?

JR: I’ve played them a little bit, I took the band up on a small tour of kind of the Eastern seaboard and Canada to try them out. I don’t want to be the guy that plays the entire record in a night, because I know that there are a lot of songs that people would like to see…we want to play other songs too. So I want to make sure that if the new songs fit in, they fit in well, and that we fit the right ones in at the right times, so they just feel like part of the gang when we start playing them.


Ben: Hey Josh. So, we’ve all heard a lot of breakup albums dealing with similar circumstances, but I feel like yours is one of the few that comes out pretty uplifting for going through such a tough time. Were there times when you were writing this album, or when you started out with this process that you were writing more …vengeful songs? If so, when did it turn into the result, because I feel this record comes out on top.

JR: Yeah. That’s a really good question. I think first, partially, it was a question of “What do I feel good playing?’ The other thing was that, while I write songs for me, I also can’t help but see the other people that will eventually be in the room when I start playing it. I feel the weight of saying something that is really true. I want to see if it feels true to me. When I first started writing after all that stuff went down, I was writing really angry, angry songs — really mean, vengeful songs. They weren’t any good, they were just terrible — they were badly written, they were full of thrashing around. It’s just like if you were to throw an angry Chihuahua in the water. It was like that, and I could feel it, but as I wrote them they were a way to feel like I had some sort of power in what had happened to me.

As time went by those songs just kind of sat there and I knew they were no good, but I still felt like I had an attachment to them. So what Sam (Kassirer) did, my producer, he said “You just clear the deck and come up and record, and we’ll record all that stuff.” And we did. And just hearing it recorded and seeing it the way it was, that was useful just to get it out of the way. That was approaching on catharsis, and putting those songs to rest and kind of saying “Yeah, these are no good” was important. Getting those out of the way really made it possible to do what came next.

Heather: That’s a good answer. I think that’s good to think of it as getting it out and getting it out of the way, and that Sam was able to see the need to do that, and that you trusted him enough to get that out there and do it, and see what happened to it, you know?

JR: He’s an amazing guy, he’s was really generous. He knows I don’t want to be a mean guy.

Heather: Nope. You don’t.

Em: Hello. So I feel like most of your stuff before, like Bringing in the Darlings, was told from “Josh the storyteller”, and this is more of you as a person on this album. So do you think that’s your new voice, or was there a way you could have gotten all of this out and still had the same outcome for yourself, telling it more from a storyteller sort of way?

JR: I don’t think I could have, you know? I think there are people that can. And I certainly think there’s this tradition of really great storytelling …I think Bruce Springsteen can tell beautiful stories like “The River” — he just tells these stories so well, even though they didn’t necessarily happen to him. I had spent all this time writing these “larger” stories in songs, and it ended up becoming something which I’m really happy about but that couldn’t have gone on any longer. I think I was starting to feel the fray of that pretty hard. Because it limits you in some ways — things can only get bigger and more ornate, and stories can only get more complicated, and then suddenly they become dissatisfying, or they become too long for a song.

So I really think I got to that point with So Runs the World Away, and I didn’t really know what else I was going to do, and then that stuff came along and knocked the wind out of my sails and made it kind of impossible to write about any other stuff. Other stories just pale in comparison to your own story when it’s happening, you know what I mean? It’s more fun to wallow in your own story than in some other story. I think this might be the beginning of some new stuff, although I don’t think about it as necessarily autobiographical, so much as like… there are great albums like Wildflowers, that beautiful Tom Petty record, or Time (The Revelator), a Gillian Welch record, which aren’t autobiographical, but have a beautiful personal voice to them, without being larger stories.


Jon Jon: I have a question from Faith –who wasn’t able to make it– she said congratulations on the baby, and she was wondering how that has changed your outlook on life and your perspective, and how that has maybe changed your music?

Heather: And full disclosure: Jon Jon, who’s asking the question, is expecting his first baby in July.

JR: Oh congratulations, man!

Heather: Get ready to not sleep, ever!

JR: Yeah, I didn’t know what to expect. But, I think Haley [Tanner, author, and Josh’s partner] and I have both felt that there is this given narrative about doing music or art or whatever: that in exchange for this chance to make art, you have to give something up – a stable family life, a happy mental life, whatever. And it just — it can’t be. That narrative can’t be true. I feel like you can’t make great art if you’re truly, truly unhappy. The tortured artist is a horrible place to live, you know? It doesn’t give it any more weight or power. Why should any of us who take a chance doing something we love have to give up a chance for a family? I really believe that. It was definitely scary and freaky to think about.

We’re packing up right now and we’re all gonna be on the road in a few days, baby and all. But I think the things that have changed for me, just in these four months since Beatrix was born, I was noticing how my approach to writing has changed. My enjoyment of it has gotten so rich, in that short while. I used to sit around for six hours, like a little prince on a cushion thinking my thoughts, you know? And I don’t have time for that anymore. If I have time to write now, or if Haley has time to write, it’s at most like an hour. But you have tons of time to think! When you’re just walking around rocking her, and you have an idea you can’t write down, you have to hold it in your head, and it rolls around in there like marbles and it gets better and better and better. So when you have that hour and you have one crystal thought, you write it down when it’s perfect. And when you lie in bed exhausted at the end of the day, you can put a pin in it and say “I did that today!” That’s a much more rewarding experience. You may only be able to write one page of a book, or whatever, but a single page now is like gold!

Heather: I think it also changes the stakes, too. When you have kids and you’re doing something creative, the ability and time to be creative is filtered through fire, in a way. You have to fight to dedicate time towards what it is that you’re creating, and you have to really believe in it to carve out a space for it.

JR: Totally! Absolutely! I absolutely agree!

Betsy: So for me on this album, the song “New Lover” was what hooked me into the entire album. And I think it’s because it was the first song I heard, and it was maybe the most honest piece of songwriting I’ve heard in a long time. I was wondering if for you, if there was a certain song or a certain time along the process where it kind of hooked it for you, that this was going to become an album, and that you were maybe writing songs more with the thought in mind that ‘this is going to be a finished product’ that you would eventually tour with and record?

JR: Yeah! That song was “New Lover” for this record! That’s awesome that you thought that. Yeah, I was sitting at my friend Ed’s house, and I was working and writing all these horrible songs that sounded terrible to me. And then “New Lover” came along and I wrote it in the morning. It was still wintertime, but it was one of the first nice days of spring, and this song felt like it came out really fast. I was so proud of it, it was startling to me! It felt I accidentally found a way through the woods and through the emotions, to say — okay, it can be mixed, things can be mixed. Nothing has to be all one way or the other. Our love and our heartbreak, and all that stuff is mixed. It’s never the same thing. It’s never all the same thing all the way through. It’s like, here’s something I wish you could’ve done better, here’s something I guess I misunderstood, and it was my fault and I apologize. And that it can all go through in that complex way.

That was the first time I thought “Well, I could actually have a record here.” That moment happens for me with every record. With the last record, it was “The Curse”, with the record before it was, uh, I think it was “To The Dogs or Whoever” and then like Animal Years, it was “Girl in the War,” and then “Snow is Gone.” There always seems to be one song that feels like it gives you the kind of “pow” of stuff that you’re looking for, then you can take that apart and kind of explode it a little bit.

Abby: Yeah, I have a question! So we’ve talked about sort of different writing influences, and different voices between albums. I’m just curious what writing looks like right now, not just holding the baby and getting some words out at the end of the day, maybe, but actually the mental process?

JR: Sure! Right now when I’m writing, I feel pretty infused, pretty happy. I’ve written some other stuff that I’m just fishing around for, collecting feelings and ideas. Right now I’m really working on my new book, which I’m really excited about. In terms of restraint, the new book is completely unbound and nutso and it’s really fun — written with real happiness.


With Bright’s Passage, I was very much saying, “I think I’m actually going to be able to do this!” This book feels like I’m not worried about being able to get done with it. Right now, I’m just loving it – the feeling of creation, right now it feels like nothing has a bad consequence. I’m enjoying just the act of making something. I’m not worried about anything, we’re all healthy, everybody’s good. I can’t remember a time in my life when I was ever having a such a fully good time writing. The new book feels very biological and fun and sloppy, with terrible language (laughs).

Heather: I have a question for you, Josh. When I was setting up Album Club and getting the entries and reading all of the emails, I was bowled over by how many deeply thoughtful, really heavy, dense stories I got from people who wrote to me their thoughts about how your music had connected with them and what your music had meant to them at very difficult grief-filled hard parts of their life. You do realize that you’re inviting that on yourself even more with this record?! Like – how do you…I don’t even know what my question is, other than just I’m interested to hear what your perspective is on that deep connection between your music and real-life stories that people let you enter into, that you get to play a big part in. That must be pretty overwhelming?

JR: I think that, you know, when I listen to music, it’s medicine. It lets us…we take it when we need it. Sometimes it’s around us and we can’t avoid it and we can’t escape it. But most of the time I feel like those of us who love music and are active music listeners, we find it when we need it, you know? And it has to be for a reason. It has to be because there’s something in that particular music that we need, physically in our lives and in our heads for that moment.

I know for a fact that there’s times when I’ve needed to listen to Lucinda Williams or Tom Waits or even Marian Anderson, whoever it is. You don’t know why you want them, but you want them really bad, over and over. We’ve been on a Dolly Parton kick in our house recently. She does something to us right now that must be important. So I think that if you’re lucky enough that you’re making music and people find it useful, that’s what it should be! It should be useful. And if it is, then that’s just the highest praise. It really is. And it’s amazing that it happens.

Maddy: This isn’t a question, but just so you know, I think one of the most impressive things about this album is compared to a lot of breakup albums…a lot of that kind of songwriting can be helpful in that it validates feelings are universal for everyone sometime. And for this one, you do a really good job of doing that, and also offering hope or the ability to imagine something better, which I think is not something that is frequently accomplished with this, and I think makes it all the more powerful.

JR: Thank you! Thanks a lot. That’s amazing, thank you very much.

Mackensie: Last question. What is The Beast? And how do you kill or get rid of The Beast?

JR: Well I’m thinking again of that Teddy Roosevelt book that I loved, and I really responded to this thing he said: “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” And I thought that is so true, and I needed that so much in that time. You’ve got to keep moving, in hard times more than ever — just keep moving, keep doing stuff. The Beast is really this looming sense that when the sun goes down, your brain is gonna go. You’re gonna melt down. You’re gonna melt down. You can either melt yourself down, or you can keep on moving forward. During that time, I did all kinds of crazy stuff. Some of it was really bad.

I wrote a whole other book, which was a book about a guy trying to make his way across the country and it was ridiculous and weird, and it makes next to no sense. But I was writing it so fast because I was just trying to do stuff. And those songs that I wrote in that time, those were songs that were just trying to keep one step ahead of that feeling that my life was over, and that thing that I really believed in was a lie. I know that that’s not the case now, and of course I would not have believed that for long, but at that time it was hard not to sort of feel that maybe, there was a small suspicion.

So, The Beast is just that feeling of kind of heartbreak and desolation and giving up. I saw a sign somewhere that said “Stop the Beast in its Tracks” and I loved that. I love it.

Heather: Well, Josh…we love you, buddy. We’ll let you go pack for tour, and thank you, so much, for taking this time with us. I love that we could all get together and connect, and most of these people I hadn’t met before tonight. Thank you for giving us a space to do that. I think this is a wonderful thing.

JR: This is awesome. You guys get home safe. Thank you for paying me this huge compliment!


Come see Josh Ritter in Denver with the Album Club on March 27th, and then pretty much everywhere else on God’s green earth in the coming months.

[Thanks to Kevin Ihle for chronicling Album Club in photos, and to the terrific Em for help with transcription as well.]

February 11, 2013

Interview: Winston Yellen of Night Beds


It takes some serious gumption (and a beautiful fragility) to start a record with just your voice for over a minute. Either that or: the song comes to you that way, as the record does, and you record it how it arrived in your consciousness. The first time I clicked on a link on a cold October day to stream the two opening songs on Country Sleep, the debut album from Colorado Springs / Nashville’s Night Beds, I was completely transfixed by whatever beautifully fragile and gumption-filled soul was able to record music like this.

I met Winston Yellen two months later to record our chapel session, and began to learn more about the person who had had this stunning record in him. In the waning hours of 2012, at a remote cabin in the Colorado mountains, Winston and I retreated to a couch in the basement for his first in-depth interview in the U.S.

As the floor above us pulsed with my friends having a New Year’s Eve dance party to the sounds of Frank Ocean, we discussed where these songs come from, the function this art serves, and the beautifully damaged music that inspires him. This is a long interview (and is, of course, edited for clarity, length, and readability). I was very curious, and Winston is my favorite kind of deeply articulate ruminator.

DECEMBER 31, 2012

Fuel/Friends: Can you tell me a little about where the songs on Country Sleep come from, and the process by which they came into existence?

Winston Yellen: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where they come from, but I had an idea in my head that I wanted to make something that was almost …the word that I use is rudimentary — it’s very simple in form. Moving back to Nashville and out to Hendersonville, I got really excited again based on some of the music I was listening to at the time, old country. I got excited again about listening to music that just – it was what it was. I was drawn by that idea of making something completely simple, what people have sometimes written off as rudimentary or sparse and minimal – that was the form I took on, and I think that’s what a lot of old country music was. I kinda made a bastardized record of old country music, that was my attempt, my stab at it.

What was your process in writing this record?

For people who may have liked Night Beds before we made this record, this now is a record that’s very intentional in its form – it’s intentional as an old country record. I wanted to make a simple, stark, minimal record – no fluff because I’d done that in the past, and this record is what it is. As insecure as I am about my voice, I’m just gonna put it out there and put it in the forefront and write my songs on an acoustic guitar or electric guitar. It’s about the song.

I just knew what I needed to do in the moment, and it totally made sense for me and the people involved to make the record that we made. I mean, when you’re living in Johnny Cash’s cabin, you’re gonna make a record…

You lived there?

Yeah…I lived there for five months. He had barns and homes that were all on this plot of land on a hill, and it was very secluded and hidden. He had a main house that he and June occupied for most of the time, I just occupied one of the guest houses that his best friend now owned.

Did you feel that?

Oh yeah, there were definitely some spectres, some weird kind of nights where I was like (in Even If We Try)… “come on Johnny please / won’t you speak to me….” There was a presence there that maybe I just conjured up in myself, but an energy, almost like a struggle within myself to want to make work that is tangible and real. I felt those things, being secluded, and working in this really… weird place. His best friend was living right next door, and coming over and listening to tracks, saying, “Well now. Keep going, I guess.” We were recording through the heat of summer. Felt like a winter record to me, but it’s a summer record.

What was the first song on the album that you recorded?

Ramona. The writing? Faithful Heights because it’s a capella – I wrote that one in my car, I was just driving around. That song, for me, is the weirdest one – it’s so foreign to me, like, “Where did that come from? Who gave that to me?” I don’t know. Then you put it on your iPhone and sing it, or play it really quick, and are like, “Don’t forget that.”

Wow. Do you feel that way about any of the other songs?

I feel blessed to have all of them – I just don’t feel like I should have any of them. Because the fact that I get songs that make me feel good, they kind of just come and I feel the need to be thankful because I just didn’t get them. Someone else should have easily grabbed those by now. That’s how I feel about it. I shouldn’t have gotten those. So yeah, pretty much every song. Yes.

When you’ve written these songs that you feel came to you from “somewhere else,” I mean – do you feel a sense of ownership or catharsis, after they’re recorded down onto the record?

Yeah, and it’s terrifying. For me, I had never gotten that vulnerable with the work I’d done. Some of the stuff I’d done in the past was a little more guarded, a little more ambiguous as to what I was trying to say. I felt very intense about it, but I still felt like I was a little bit removed. But with this record, it kind of did get, at a certain point like I would look around at the other guys in the studio and be like, “We’re gonna have to all talk after we track this. It’s gonna be weird.” There were times in the studio that all of us would be crying. And then listening back in the control room, I’d feel like, “Well that’s not really me. It’s a character.” And it’s like, “yeah, no, of course that’s you.”

I think the writing on this was exciting for me, and also uncomfortably …honest, and it made me a little queasy saying some of this stuff, writing some of these lines. I was hyper self-aware, I just knew – I knew what I was getting myself into as soon as I started doing it, writing this. At the end of the day, yeah, getting that inside of yourself and being willing to spew things that you think are genuine about what’s going on …you hope that if you’re willing to put yourself through that, it might connect with other people. And maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.

I wanted to just say something in a very real, in a very …elementary way. Not a lot of metaphor, not a lot of poetic analogy – just calling a spade a spade, and being direct. There’s times when a songwriter can be ambiguous and abstract, but I didn’t see the point on this record of trying to code it and spice it up and dress it in this way that doesn’t make sense.

And you listen to old country music, that’s what it is – very linear, very direct. They are singing a song, and it is gut-wrenching. When I started hearing those old songs, from country to blues, from the ’30s, all the way into, say, the ’60s, you found stuff that was just so raw, and there was just so much …damage. And they made it so beautiful.

So, you cried in the studio during the making of Country Sleep?

Is this a real question? Do I have to admit this right now? Every song I’ve tracked, I’ve wept. Period. But it can just validate what you’re doing. It’s like, okay now I know why I work a shit job to pay my bills and pay for making this record – If it’s not doing that, you’re not only wasting your time, your wasting other people’s time as well.

At the end of the day, you’re putting out music and asking people to enter in and feel something, and if you’re not feeling something while doing it, I mean – don’t waste people’s time. Don’t show up on their doorstep; leave them alone. I end up having very strong emotions to the recording process, and that’s why you don’t want very many people around when you’re doing it.

Some rare days of recording, there’d just be a perfect storm in all the right ways and we’d put ourselves through it, and we’d walk out and we’d just know that we were …chinking away at the armor.

What musical experiences influenced you, if any, in the way you made this record, or why you made this record?

I heard Robert Johnson, Son House …and I was floored. I was floored. It just really messed me up. I just couldn’t handle the emotion that was going on, couldn’t wrap my head around it; I have a hard time talking about it, to be honest. It really messed me up, how broken they were. These dilapidated creatures that just croaked and moaned and made these songs. Just their circumstances –I mean, being black in the ’30s and ’40s, I remember watching this interview on YouTube with Son House and his eyes were watering, talking about his life. Hearing him start the songs a capella, clapping his hands – “John The Revelator” and “Grinnin’ In Your Face.”

It inspired me enough in that they were so honest. It gave me courage. I’m indebted to that kind of music: I didn’t know that before I heard that. If you don’t feel something when you listen to those voices singing, you’re just not a …not a human being, if your throat doesn’t get swollen up listening to that, to “Sweet Home Chicago,” or “Crossroads.”

What relationship do you see between your art and commerce?

I feel very much ill-equipped to comment on this yet, being so new to it, I don’t know yet. I’m going up there every night playing songs, I don’t know too much about the business, or the culture. I kind of stay out of it. Maybe there will be a time to start getting involved with it. Commerce and art? I don’t know – I think at this point, not to be narcissistic, but I just focus on the work and let other things take care of themselves – I think the best way to service the music and the art and your self, you have to kind of put on the blinders, and put your head down and work, and try to do stuff that’s honest and has an inherent value for yourself, and hopefully for other people. You do it for yourself first, and hope that other people dig it. Yeah, I think I’m gonna have to get there at some point, thinking about the commercial side of things, but that topic does scare me a little bit, for sure.

Country Sleep is such an intensely personal record, and it also sounds …there’s a bravery in there that I hear. What are your goals for this record?

I think I just want to service the work. I felt so strongly the need to make something for myself. But I never believed in myself – I’m never gonna have that belief like, “Hey, bro, you got this.” I just don’t have that, I will never have that. I don’t care what comes; I mean hopefully my label won’t hate me and think I’m the biggest con artist ever, I don’t know. I just put it out there with total fear and trembling, and it came out on the other side, and a few friends were like, “Hey maybe you should pass this around, see if anybody cares,” and I was like “Probably no one will, but I will try,” since I had a little budget left over from the loan I had taken out to make the record, from living on Ramen and peas and rice.

I think any musician has bravery, anyone who goes out on a limb to make the kind of art that they want to make – I mean, you, you’re curating a blog…I think anyone who just puts themselves out there, I just have so much respect for people who take a chance. I love those people. Theatre, writing for a cooking blog, whatever form – submitting yourself to major criticism in order to do the things you want to do. Bravery is rewarding. At the end of the day I think I sleep a little better knowing I’ve been honest and gotten to the heart of the matter, and just gotten it out there in a context I feel is my art.

What’s the motivation? I didn’t have too much – I just knew that I needed to create something at that point in my life, I had been through so much personally. When you’re in that place, you just have to do something. I didn’t know what else to do. (laughs) I had to fail at something else on a grander scale than the menial jobs and what I was failing at then. You kinda have to fail at something grandiose, in order to say, “well, at least I tried.” Put yourself out there, get naked and run around on the highway and not get in trouble. It was my chance to risk myself and give myself the option of being ravenous within the context of art, and work, and see what happened. I feel very blue-collar about music. It’s a blessing to be able to go to Albertson’s and afford to put $80 worth of groceries in my kitchen. So if you’re asking about goals, that’s it: I can do that now.

So …you’ve completed this record and shrink-wrapped it and it’s done, and you tour behind it, you all of a sudden you’re playing with Sharon Van Etten in London. It seems like you’re in this liminal transitional space now between taking this piece of you, externalizing it, and then opening it up and allowing people to interpret and attach their own meaning to it, once you commit it to tape. There’s a certain amount of detachment that goes along with that. I’m curious about your process this year, to go from this intensely personal recording experience, externalizing those songs, and then looking forward in 2013, and in this tour, moving into this realm of transition.

I guess the easy way to say it would be surreal, which I am sure so many people have said in so many of your interviews. But – to do something that was never meant to get beyond the context of your parents and your sister and brothers? To have my sister and brothers talk to me about the record, that was big, that was crazy for me. And then all of a sudden I am in Europe playing songs before Sharon -– I kind of occupied a dream, and I know it sounds cheesy saying that. I still haven’t really wrapped my head around it. I think the fact that people are willing to subject themselves to very personal art that’s not theirs, and they come and they pay money to experience something else and someone else that’s putting themselves out there, for me I really genuinely feel that that’s humbling. I feel a sense of responsibility that I try my best to present the work in the best way possible, because I owe it to people who pay; “I’m gonna come watch your dumbass for ten dollars.” I don’t get it. I won’t get it for awhile.

So, when you and I sit down and talk on New Year’s Eve again next year….

Nothing’s gonna change about how I feel about what I’m doing. Nothing is going to change.

Do you think about the people you wrote the songs about when you’re up on stage?

What do you mean?

Well, I mean I guess if you wrote the songs about other people.

At the end of the day, the songs are about me. No, they’re not about other people. Other people informed the songs, but writing any song is going to correlate back to you. I’m terrified to play music, if that gives you any context. You’re up there playing your songs for people, which you don’t necessarily jones off of. You’re not getting up there saying, “Well I just fucking dig myself-” I don’t. I don’t dig my songs. I …I …They serviced a need that I had. I needed to write those songs and I felt those songs. At this point you get up there and now want to do something that connects – you did it for yourself already and you made the work, now you wanna go reach people and you wanna help people. If people aren’t throwing beer at you, you’re okay.

What did this record fix and what did this record break?

The record didn’t break anything. If you subject yourself to something very intense, and go through the process, which any artist knows in any form, whether it is writing a book or a play, or participate as an actor…. it didn’t break anything. I don’t think it winds up in any of those solidified, exact categories. It’s gonna temporarily fix some things, but it’s gonna keep going and I’m gonna have to address things in the next record, and the next, and probably the next one too.

Just to pour yourself into something, I think there is something to be said for that. Something I say a lot, which I’ll probably continue to say, but this is the first time I’ve said it in an interview and not just to friends, but — I don’t take myself seriously, but I take music really seriously, and I took this record very seriously. With Country Sleep, it was very strict, there was a lot of experimentation but at the same time we were always cutting the fat, striving to make it minimal, because that was the idea and the form, and there’s something very healing about that.

There was something uncomfortable in that, in being so …open. When you’re overexposed, I think it heals something. People go to counseling to be overexposed. I did that on a record. That saved me a lot of checks for therapy. Anybody that does work that’s very personal and overexposed knows – making a record, versus, like spending $100 for thirty minutes with some gal in a suit, that’s how I left it. I’m so broken down when I am in the process of making music, though, not too aware of what’s happening because I am right in it. You know, when you’re looking at a painting and you’re right here….

Ha, yeah, I just got in trouble at the Denver Van Gogh exhibit for standing closer than eighteen inches away from the paintings.

That’s beautiful. Because when you’re so close to art, you’re always in trouble.


Buy Country Sleep, out now on Dead Oceans.

shows_ive_seenCONTEST: Night Beds plays Denver’s Hi-Dive on Wednesday night. Leave a comment if you would like to win a pair of tickets to the show, Winston’s first official one in his home state of Colorado. I will pick a winner Tuesday, and see you all there.

[top photo credit Daniel Meigs]

March 13, 2012

“the songs of sickness can become the songs of healing” :: the Typhoon interview

The music of Typhoon is big and connective and incisive; it’s thematically smart and expansive. This Portland band resides together in a big Victorian house (sketched on the cover of their latest EP), and perhaps it’s just because I live in a cohousing community myself, but the resonance of this arrangement radiates audibly in the wooly coziness of their music. Some months ago, I got to see Typhoon live for the first time — an event I welcomed with intense anticipation of the joy to come. I had watched videos of their live spectacle, all thirteen band members, and when the day came I was all over it.

Thirteen people may seem superfluous (especially touring – they are coming to my house next week. I’m still debating where to stash them all), but when you see them onstage, you realize that everyone has their own hue and shade to fill into the song – three brass players, three drummers, two guitarists, one on keys/bells, a bassist, a violinist, and a cellist at least were what I counted when I saw them in Washington. It’s pretty damn incredibly lovely.

The arc of the songs and the threads woven across albums fascinate me. I could tell the first time I listened that this music was crafted by a songwriter who gave uncommon care to the big picture, in all the shades. That primary songwriter is Kyle Morton, and I got to sit for a while with him and explore these broad brushstrokes in his music, how he sees the songs in his head and projects them outwards for the band to fill in, and how his struggles with chronic illness growing up have molded his music. It was a fascinating conversation that I am thrilled to finally share with you.


Fuel/Friends: So with thirteen people, how does the songwriting process take shape into something coherent and harmonious?

Kyle: I do most all of the writing, and more and more it’s becoming the band doing the arrangements. With the new EP, there was definitely more band involvement with the arrangement than we’d had before. You can hear it on this record, and when I listen back to Hunger and Thirst now — it’s much sparser. I do like that, but on the new EP if you listen to the tracks, there are so many more times when we’re playing all together, pockets of all the band coming in together, utilizing all of us.

In my writing, when I look at songs, I look at them in terms of the whole piece, and even the albums themselves are part of the whole piece, so I hope that all of our albums, taken together, can be looked at as kind of a continuous body of work. Like, for instance, one of the songs off of the new EP is actually a really old song, “Claws Pt 1,” and “CPR – Claws Pt 2” is on the older album. I wrote it before but it was released after because it made sense. There are definitely those connections across records. In my brain I want our music to be something coherent, at least coherent to me — to be coherent in me.

So a lot of themes are going to come back on the next record, I think, and they’ll always be there. On the one hand, maybe that might seem unoriginal, to keep recycling the same shit over and over again, but I also think novelty is overrated, and I think coherence is undervalued.

It seems to be a nod to the listener, almost, in an era where a lot of times it’s just one or two songs people will have heard from you, it’s a way of rewarding people who take the time to listen to it as a full arc.

Yeah, it may not seem like much, but I think that requires a pretty good attention span these days, like there’s a “Typhoon theme” on the horns that we use in a few different places, and it’s gonna come back around – you can hear it, we snuck it in at the very end of this song called “Happy People” on Hunger and Thirst, and it’s on a new song we working on as well. Nods like that.

I also hear a fascinating and affecting theme of mortality and human frailty throughout your records, specifically on songs like “The Sickness Unto Death” and “Summer Home” that seem to explore your struggle with Lyme disease and the bug that bit you. What are some ways that struggle has informed, or not informed, your songwriting?

I wrote that song “The Sickness Unto Death” not only about me, and my “death,” but I’d also been reading the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and he wrote his book The Sickness Unto Death, which I plagiarized the title from. And maybe songs aren’t the right …form for those kinds of ponderings, but that’s the only thing I’m interested in writing about. With music, it’s a very interesting synthesis for me – especially trying to make the themes in the instrumentals reflect the themes in the words. It’s difficult.

Even going back to Greek philosophy, and this idea that as you get older, you start to lose your desires, which can be a good thing and a bad thing, this losing of desires for sex, or for food, because all those things are causing you pain. But I imagine, because on the other hand I see a lot of bad coming from people’s desires, and desire itself being kind of an interesting point. So that’s why I have an album called Hunger and Thirst, meditations on why we want to be anything.

When I started realizing all the things I wanted to do with my life, I didn’t want them, I just imagined wanting to be this person who was doing those things. And then I got sick [with Lyme disease], and it kind of ruined all those plans I had and I had to adapt, and it caused a lot of bitterness in me for a long time. It still does. I never grew tall, I never had the childhood that you’re supposed to have, without pain. But then maybe you don’t –maybe no one has that.

Letting go of the idea of what we thought we were promised?

Yeah. All these promises, they’re tenuous. On this last record, on the song “Summer Home,” and in lots of songs, you will see that reference to a bug that bit me, which is just –this beast, you know? This thing that affects your life, and never even seeing it. It’s almost not even the tick itself. It’s the implications of it. It becomes a symbol. It’s when you first realize that some of these promises you have, assume or take for granted that you deserve it, and that’s a pretty sobering moment.

I think “The Sickness Unto Death” does feel, at the end, like a quiet and dark place of death, but then there is also definitely, as a listener, this feeling of rebirth as it swells and explodes into “The Honest Truth,” which is like the next step – at least in my mind.

Yeah, I’ve been trying to research this for a long time, but music — I imagine its early roots being tied and intertwined with early religion. And nowadays, the world is such a secular place, but we still have music, and it still has something sacred about it. There’s glimmers out there.

Trying to capture that, I guess that’s the thing. There are a lot of problems, capturing that glimmer and then trying to share that with someone — and it changes. I don’t know how to reconcile any of that.

Do you write the songs with all the parts from all the band members in mind?

How that’s worked in the past –this is cool– I hear it in my head a certain way first – it plays itself all the way through, and with parts. But then when I try to express those to people, the way it comes out doesn’t sound exactly like what I hear in my head, but it sounds better, even. It’s like a weird projection of the inside my brain, which is not to say I’m just using all these people as a screen for what’s inside my brain, because they’re all – most of them are better musicians than me, technically speaking. But it’s just really lovely to get to hear everyone’s take on it.

So, it’s like they fill in the shading?

Yeah …and that’s the only way I’ll perform, I won’t perform by myself. That’s scary, and weird, and masochistic. But I really like performing with everybody. As opposed to being a performer, in front of people, I am much more comfortable reading, and writing — even though I wouldn’t make a very good writer, or philosopher. But music seems to work because it picks up in that place where rationality stops and the transcendent emotion that underlies all music, starts. At least, that’s what it’s always kind of done for me.

I am very self-conscious, and self-aware when I am onstage, of what a bizarre act it sometimes is. It’s also a really simple thing, though, this happiness – you’re not lonely when you have that many friends around. Typhoon used to be a lot less restrained, but not in a bad way. If you see videos of our old days, everyone kind of played everything, and there was a lot more extemporizing, but on the other hand I really like to see how we’re getting so much tighter. And hopefully we’re aware of the vanity of this whole thing, yet we’re still drawn to it – for hopefully the right reasons.

Maybe catharsis is best experienced with twelve other people on stage.

Yeah – you can’t even have that counterpoint unless you have the other members. There’s not the synthesis without the other people. In that way, with all of us up there, the songs of sickness can become the songs of healing.

Typhoon is playing all over SXSW this week, including headlining the awesome Colorado Reverb party that you should navigate yourself to at Dirty Dog Bar on Saturday.

Then as they traverse the great desert back up to the Pacific Northwest, they are coming through Colorado Springs for a gallery show that I will be hosting with our college radio station KRCC on Tuesday, March 20. Motopony opens, and it will all be terrifically wonderful. Please do join us.

You want to immerse yourself in this.

Tagged with , .
October 13, 2010

Talkin’ italiano with Jovanotti


I’m intrigued by music that crosses borders, geographically and within perceived divisions of genres. As I’ve grown into a happily well-traveled, curious adult, I’ve (obviously) enjoyed expanding my ears beyond the pop hits, the oldies, and the cheesy synth hip-hop of my youth. One of the first global, non-American artists that started pushing some of those borders of my musical geography was the Italian artist Lorenzo Cherubini, known throughout Europe as Jovanotti.

I wrote about him late this past summer when I was preparing to go see his show on the Santa Monica Pier. I flew out to LA and back, spending less than 24 hours basking in this marvelously foreign glow, in order to take advantage of his handful of small-venue United States dates — a rarity for an artist who regularly sells out stadiums in Italy.

Pressed tight and sweaty with hundreds of dancing, singing Italians, lurching forward and back as one organism of enthusiasm, I remembered in their vibrancy what it is about Jovanotti that makes him so infectious. “Every Italian knows at least five Jovanotti songs by heart,” asserted one Italian-American reporter, and the crowd of stylish ex-pats that night certainly proved that point and beyond. I was thrilled by the enthusiasm, and –don’t forget– the dancing.

But you, dear reader, may wonder if it was only the faithful and the foreign who loved his show. No — there were plenty of uninitiated folks in the crowd on that Southern California pier that didn’t know anything more about Lorenzo, other than that respected indie-rock station KCRW was presenting the show, or maybe that, heck, it was an absolutely gorgeous summer evening by the waves. But by the end it seems safe to say that everyone was converted. I saw shining joy on people’s faces as they folded their blankets and put their shoes back on in the deepening summer twilight.

In San Francisco’s Stern Grove a few days later (a show attended by 10,000), the PBS reviewer wrote, “No one has more fun at a Jovanotti concert than Jovanotti himself.”

Jovanotti played a crucial part in my musical horizons opening, and evokes all those intangible boundary-pushing, dazzling moments of a semester spent abroad in a foreign country. He was one of the first artists I loved whose perspectives on the entire world was coming from a completely different place than all of mine.

Therefore, meeting and interviewing him before the Santa Monica show was, to me, akin to meeting Bono (a man Jovanotti calls friend, due to their joint efforts on the Cancel the Debt initiatives in developing countries). Beside the ferris wheel and crashing waves of the Santa Monica pier, he greeted me warmly, we sat down, and we chatted a bit about music, creativity, social justice, and the importance of rhythm.

It was a terrific night.

Jovanotti 060

Fuel/Friends: The press has been writing about this tour and last summer’s tour as your attempt to “cross over” into American music. What do you think of that term, “crossing over”? Is it different when you play here versus Italy? What are your goals here?

Jovanotti: I don’t have any future goals. My only goal here is to have a good show, to make the people fun, to make the people feel good – this is the goal. I am not planning a career here, or trying to win the Grammy award, it’s not that. I’m having fun, I do so many big shows in Italy, you know? The chance for me to do some little shows here was stimulating. My job is to do music. It’s very exciting for me to do music in different places. The best thing is not always to do a stadium, but sometimes just one show in front of one hundred people.

F/F: How are you creatively inspired by the different places you perform?

J: I don’t know… I am more inspired by the different places that I travel. When I perform, it’s always an experience of giving, not of receiving. And so, I divide my life always into two phases – the phases of this out(ward) direction and in. When I do shows and I do tours, it’s the phase of ex-direction, so at the end of the tour I feel more vuoto, more empty than filled.

Then I have to stop and maybe, usually, I can go somewhere, wherever, alone. I go in South America, or Asia, it’s always something that attracts me a lot, to travel and lose myself in a town where no one knows me, and I don’t know nobody. It creates a condition in my mind that permits me to start approaching a new music form.

F/F: So, do you write better at home in Cortona or on the road when you are traveling?

J: Travel is like a way of training your observation. When you are in a place that you know well, you don’t see anything more. Ehm… when you go around the world, it is a way of practicing. My musical colleagues may all do this practicing in different ways, but we all must train our ability to observe, and our ability of creative synthesis. The synthesis is the final goal, to take a concept and synthesize it in one image. It is something that photographers do, it is something that you as a journalist do, with a phrase or an image or a word. Musicians may do it with a melody or a musical atmosphere, or with words.

For me, always the most difficult but stimulating part for me is the lyrical part of my songs. I always start from the lyrics. A song for me doesn’t exist until I have a word that gives me the key to enter the door. Then when I’m inside, I start, and sometimes it comes out in three minutes, sometimes it takes three years, sometimes it takes ten years. But at the end I am looking for the synthesis, when you can distill it down to the essence. I use different techniques. My favorite technique is that of the list. For me it is creatively very inspiring, I have books full of lists of everything. And then from that, it is a way to get an order. You know, creativity is a job. I don’t believe in pure inspiration. I believe in hard work.

F/F: Hmm, I can see your listmaking in your music — a lot of your songs will detail many seemingly simple things that add up to a complete and powerful image or effect.

J: Yes, that’s the way I like to write. I don’t have the talent to create a plot. I admire a lot my colleagues that write a song that is an intricate story. My talent is more impressionistic, less linear. I would like a lot to develop the narrative part to tell a story about somebody, in America, you know you have someone like Paul Simon or other folk songwriters. I love complex stories. It is something I am still not comfortable with what I am doing.

F/F: When you had that conversation with Bono for GQ magazine, you asked him about the moment of opportunity that lay ahead to bring the issue of Cancel the Debt to the forefront again, with the World Cup in Africa, and with Giovanna Melandri. Were your goals achieved with that?

J: No. No. But with Italian politics can be totally distant from our global vision of the world. We have a lot of problems with the politics. Italian politicians don’t have big horizons. The fact is that the African problem and poverty are not sexy from a media point. It is very hard to get the interest of the people. The politicians are only interested in the things that interest the people. The only great thing in Italy is that we have the church, so with the church you can attract the attention in these kinds of topics. So you have to pass through the church to get the attention of the politicians. So working in that way, we’ve made good gains towards Cancel the Debt, but after 9/11, everything started to be much harder in getting that message heard. With the soccer games, our political class didn’t catch the opportunity.

F/F: Are you still working towards African debt cancellation?

J: I am still working with it. But it is very difficult. When you are talking about poorness, people don’t want to know anything about that. It’s very hard when you are talking to push the button of compassion and charity inside people. Because with compassion and charity, we didn’t get many results.

But the next step –the “upgrade”— would be to go at it from a justice standpoint, it is a political justice issue. Poverty is not about a failure, or a lacking. It is a political issue, and Bono is also doing a good job at drawing attention to that. In Italy it is harder, because the church monopolizes the conversation, but uses it in a way that won’t talk about AIDS or other things that are totally central.

F/F: Last question, and then I’ll let you go because it sounds like they are getting ready for you out there. If the 20 year-old Jovanotti DJ could see what the 40 year-old you was doing right now, what do you think he would think?

J: (smiles) I think he would be happy. Maybe criticizing. When I was a DJ, I didn’t like musicians, I liked machines. I was doing hip hop, so for me the drum machine and the computer were all I needed. In the future I would be drawn back in to more machines. Rhythm for me is still the most attractive thing in music, especially when I was growing up. Rhythm has only expanded for me as I have learned more about different kinds of music. It has gotten to be the biggest thing — there’s nothing that I don’t like. But Rhythm and words have always been central. When I did my first commercial enterprise, I called it Soleluna, ritmo e parole – rhythm and words. That is what I will keep looking for, ehi?


Indeed. This video is exactly what my jaunt to Los Angeles was like, in seven pro-shot minutes:

Jovanotti is working on a new album (that’s what he is talking about in that video up there) which will continue to fuse Latin, African, European sounds and beyond. I do hope that he returns to the US, because he is a terrifically versatile, infectiously enthusiastic performer, and if you ever get a chance to see him, you must.

Jovanotti 044

Jovanotti 2010 144

Jovanotti 100

[top photo credit Mary Leipziger, who happened to be walking by. All my photos are on the Fuel/Friends Facebook page]

August 30, 2010

The musical brilliance of Friday Night Lights

Liza Richardson photo by Salvador Farfan

Back in the freshness of springtime, I came clean before you all with my newfound affection for the TV show Friday Night Lights. Shy as I was about falling for any sort of TV drama, I was converted (to the cult of Tim Riggins, thank you) over Thanksgiving last year, when a friend loaned me all the seasons I’d missed and I gorged myself not only on the solid plotlines and character acting, but also/mainly the absolutely impeccable music.

Within the first few episodes I heard not only the arcane opening track from my favorite Ryan Adams album, but a Daniel Johnston cover, the Avett Brothers, a rare acoustic mix of a great Killers song, and plenty of new artists who sent me googling lyrical snippets. Oh, and don’t forget, the show is liberally laced with music from the terrific Explosions In The Sky. Just get right out of town – this was fantastic [listen].

I decided then and there that I completely loved whoever this kindred spirit was out there, picking all the music as if they had crawled inside my own head, my own record collection. When I found out it was a kickass female doing this music supervisor’s job (in a mostly male-dominated industry), I loved it even more.

Said kickass female music supervisor for the Friday Night Lights series is one Liza Richardson, longtime DJ at the inimitable KCRW radio station in Southern California. She also works on music in films (The Kids Are All Right and Eat, Pray, Love are two recent projects she was involved in), was invited to be the first DJ at the Academy Awards, and even got to do one of those cool Apple commercials. Her musical tastes run in all the same veins mine do, and I was excited to talk with her about her job, how she stumbled into it, and what she loves about soundtracking all those wrenching small-town Texas moments.



Fuel/Friends: Do you specifically emphasize regional or local music in setting the West Texas feel? (the Gourds, Explosions in the Sky) or are you going for an overall atmosphere of folks (American Catapult, AA Bondy, or Ryan Adams) who aren’t from Texas, but feel like they could be?

Liza Richardson: I do try to focus on Texas music, I mean I went to college at SMU in Dallas and I was in radio for four years after college in Dallas – that’s where I learned to DJ, that’s where I started really learning about music and I’ve brought that to my work with Friday Night Lights, happily. But there’s so much music like Townes Van Zandt and Roky Erickson, two examples of musicians that I’m fanatical about but have never been able to convince everyone about. Song selection is a process, and I’m not the boss — I present ideas and they get chosen by editors and directors. So I really do try, but ultimately it’s up to them and they’re gonna pick what feels good and what feels right for the show. There’s a wider audience than Texas.

But I was successful at getting artists like Butch Hancock, Uncle Walt’s Band, and Jimmy Dale Gilmore who are great Texas artists, who aren’t widely known outside of Texas but are great Texas unsung heroes. I think Texans appreciate when I am able to get all these cool Texas artists in, and and it’s a good feeling. For example, we used the Kashmere Stage Band, which is this cool recent reissue from the Seventies. We used that at a pep rally where you heard like an exciting big band thing, and it was actually this high school band from the 1970s from Houston. Stuff like that is so cool for me.

F/F: Have you ever seen any negative effects from a song or artist you’ve highlighted –like a “flash in the pan” phenomenon– or is any exposure usually good exposure?

LR: Do you mean where I had a regret for putting it in? The only regrets I have are songs I don’t put in (laughs). Sometimes songs get on the show that have been used a million times before on other shows. But that’s the music supervisor’s curse, I guess. I mean it’s not so bad, sometimes I need to get over that. But all music supervisors want to be distinctive and creative, but you have to always remember what’s best for the show. I mean, for example, using “Political Scientist” by Ryan Adams was my idea, and fit perfectly. You recognize that song but not many would.

F/F: Is it kind of like every show using Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” perhaps? There seems to sometimes be a challenge to find something that resonates emotionally but feels fresh.

LR: Thank you! Yes! Exactly, like that. Or Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World.”

F/F: What do you perceive to be the differences between DJing and music supervising?

LR: Ooh, totally different. Not much in common with each other at all. When I am DJing, I’m not thinking about the big picture, I am thinking about how much this song rocks on the radio. But with music supervision, there might be songs I don’t personally like so much, that I would never play on my show, but they work great as part of this show. It’s two totally different ways of thinking. DJing is the most ephemeral, but then I also always say TV is ephemeral compared to film, because television moves quickly and you have a new episode each week. There’s a different level of creative commitment.

F/F: Do the characters ever suggest music? Have the show’s writers ever worked around a specific song you found and wanted to use?

One time for Landry’s band, Crucifictorius, when Devin was auditioning and Landry was down and out about Tyra, she suggested they needed some Flaming Lips, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Well, that was written into the script and it was a really good idea and it stuck. A lot of songs that are written into the script might not make it – things change, budgets change, so I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to afford that Flaming Lips song. But happily, it all worked out. I had lined up other songs as alternatives, like I had something worked out with The Pixies, which doesn’t seem like it would be less money but it was. I had the challenge of finding other bands with that anthemic indie feel, where I could work with publishers and get a deal that we could agree to.

That’s an example of what I do all the time. I mean, there might be a karaoke scene where they want to sing “American Girl” by Tom Petty , but there’s no point in spending all that money for that one song. My job is to find something cheaper for karaoke that’s still funny or sweet or still fits. There’s tons of that.

F/F: It sounds like a treasure hunt but with a lot of negotiating.

LR: Yeah, on something like that it can be difficult to start creatively with trying to find the right song to fit the scene. I will often start by calling the publishers that I have relationships with and asking them to look at their catalog, telling them, “okay here is my budget,” and then having them come up with their ideas. That way, if I only have one day to do this I don’t get screwed. I take what they give me and then go with those ten ideas and go with whatever ideas I think are the best. It’s one way to do it. It’s called pre-clearing the songs. I know that every song I get from this publisher will be clearable, they already know that they don’t need artist approval, it will fit in my budget, there’s no negotiation. We have to consider all those things before we even get to licensing.

F/F: Has licensing gotten successively easier as the show has gone through four seasons and gathered more fans and a reputation for good music?

LR: Oh yes, definitely. People love the show, they’re convinced of the show’s quality. But it’s not a money show, songs get replaced when they make it to DVD. NBC can clear for different musical options per song – a two year term, a five year term, an all-media term, and then at some point they’ll figure out their licensing strategy, and which term they’re going to pick up. Friday Night Lights is a two-year term. So let’s say for a Bob Dylan song, perhaps for all-media it would cost $40,000, a two-year term on that is more like $4,000-$6,000. There are some artists like the Velvet Underground and they weren’t interested in the two year term. They were only interested in the full term, so they passed.

In the beginning when we first announced our two-year term, a lot of bands were all worried about where licensing was heading and how we were all doomed, but as we went along we realized that a lot of bands were fine with the two-year term because it wasn’t exploitative, we weren’t going to use their song forever. In a way it’s not a bad deal – they get great exposure. More and more young bands don’t mind that it’s a two-year term.

F/F: So the songs on the DVDs aren’t always the same ones in the first run of the show?

LR: Not always, no, unfortunately. In fact, I’m glad you saw the Ryan Adams clip – unfortunately they can’t afford to buy all of the music we put in the initial series, there’s no way. It would cost millions of dollars. In the actual show there’s a ton more music, but they replace it – there’s a company we use called Five Alarm Music, a production library music house, and they’re in charge of finding things that we like that will be okay, that will fit in as well as they can. In one season, we did really well at getting a lot of songs through to DVD, I can’t remember if it was season one or season two, where they kept a lot, but other seasons we’ve had to rip a lot out.

F/F: Is that hard for you? Is it like making a mix tape for someone and then finding out later that six songs were cut and replaced?

LR: Oh, it’s so heartbreaking. I mean, I don’t have to do the re-musicing, so I just try to forget about it. I get my final air copy of the season, and that’s what I have to keep! I find that the music still works, and honestly it’s just a great show so that comes through, always.

F/F: What music are you excited about these days? Are there artists that you’d love to use on the show?

LR: Hmm, okay, well here’s a couple – Band of Horses, New Pornographers, maybe The National, I think we should be using these artists. I think we should be using this artist named Jonathan Tyler, even though he may not be hip and cool, but maybe for the football stuff and the strip club – just straight up rock and roll. I’d like to use the Dead Weather, and there’s these guys called Kings Go Forth, they’re new but they sound very vintage R&B, party kind of vibe. I’d love to get that sort of music onto FNL.

F/F: I’ve talked to students when I’ve spoken at colleges who are interested in getting into music supervising. If this were Career Day, what would you say? Is there a recommended tactic, or is it true that everyone just seems to get into this in a different way?

LR: Yes, everybody has their own story for sure. If you’re in college, well – if someone is making a film, be the music supervisor on a friend’s film. I would also suggest trying to get an internship in radio or something in music – sometimes letters or resumes sent to me from strangers will impress me. It’s tricky, there are so many ways in. It’s not a high-paying job, so there’s turnover.

When I first started in music supervision, I was shocked at how my KCRW radio experience had nothing to do with anything in this world. I couldn’t get a job, even though I was pretty happy with what I’d accomplished in radio and KCRW is a fairly well-respected tastemaking station. I had to develop this as a whole new career, and just work my way up. I’ve been doing radio for over twenty years, and music supervision for only ten. For me at this point, radio is the greatest hobby in the world.

[top photo credit Salvador Farfan, Texas photo credit David Kozlowski]

July 23, 2010

Interview: The minds behind the new Jeff Buckley/Shakespeare musical


In a few weeks, the new theatre production of The Last Goodbye will make its highly anticipated world debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (August 5th – 20th). As I wrote back in April, this new creation takes Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and weaves fifteen songs from my beloved Jeff Buckley throughout it.

Under the summer stars, young actors and a rock band will put their hearts into letting Jeff’s music speak into the story of the ill-fated lovers we know so well. It’s also down the road from that Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival. So yeah, why aren’t you going?

Even though I babble incoherently from lack of experience when talking about theatre, I was fortunate to talk to both the director Michael Kimmel, who first conceived of this pairing and worked with Jeff’s mom Mary Guibert to make it happen, and Kris Kukul, who is the musical director and actually wove the songs into the completed creation. It was fascinating to talk to them both, and I even got tears in my eyes at one point as Michael talked about why this play makes sense with this musician, this man. I think they get it. I’m excited to see where this production goes.



Fuel/Friends: I understand that the genesis for this whole melding of Shakespeare and Jeff Buckley occurred in your mind. Tell me about that.

Michael Kimmel: A little over three years ago I had this idea. I’ve always been a fan of Jeff’s music, I’ve had Grace for years and years. I was directing a reading of Othello and I was on my way to a rehearsal, and “Forget Her” came on my iPod. I started to hear this conversation while the song was playing, “She was heartache from the moment that you met her.” I heard these two voices in Jeff’s voice, a back and forth in his lyrics, seeming to really be fighting. I had this moment where I said, “Wow, that really sounds like Romeo and Benvolio talking about Rosaline.”

Forget Her – Jeff Buckley

It was a buzzing in my head, so I went back and found the play and opened it up and Benvolio says to Romeo, “Be ruled by me, forget to think of her.” And it wasn’t just that amorphous connection, more importantly that conversation I heard was an active process — and what we ended up with was the songs taking their place in the scenes in a very interesting and cool way.

F/F: So it started with that song, and went from there?

MK: Well once that happened I went through that whole doubt process of, “Well there’s no way this would work with the rest of his music!” I spent three months combing through everything that I had access to, Sin-é, Mystery White Boy, My Sweetheart The Drunk, all the stuff that’s readily available, and came up with a first pass of songs that I thought really fit well. At that point, I pursued getting in touch with Sony Music to see if this was even going to be possible before I got too far down the road. They came back to me and said “Mary Guibert [Jeff's mom, who owns all the rights to his music] really wants to talk to you about this.” We ended up having a phone conversation where I told her what the idea was. She was really interested, and I think a little skeptical.

A few months later in mid-2008, she ended up being in New York, and I took her down to a theatre in downtown New York, and I sat on the stage with a copy of Romeo and Juliet and I just had a friend on an iPod, and I took her through the whole story and how the music fit, and then we went out for a three hour dinner, and she was really really interested. We left that night with her wanting to see more, and we decided that I would put up a concert reading so that she could get a sense of the whole thing.

Lauren Fitzgerald from Williamstown introduced me to Kris and we endeavored to put this concert reading together for Mary to see it, and we only opened it up to the Jeff Buckley fan club and a couple of industry people. We came out of there and she saw it laid out and she completely got behind us. At the same time, the person who programs this venue called Joe’s Pub, the cabaret space of the public theatre, ended up seeing our reading and wanted to program us on their stage. So we also ended up doing three concert readings at Joe’s Pub last May, and that was our first true public presentation of the show. I describe those readings as basically a rock concert with a little bit of a play thrown in, you know, no costumes, no sets, just a cast of fourteen and a live band.

F/F: Is there a clear time period in your version? Modern times? Shakespearean times?

MK: It’s definitely set in modern times, in a modern version of “Verona,” and by Verona I mean a landscape that takes its cues from downtown New York of now. The actors are mostly in their 20s.

F/F: Do you find that most of the actors come to it knowing Jeff Buckley better or Shakespeare better? Or both?

Casting is tricky, because it’s not musical-theatre music, and we’re not going to make his music something that it’s not – the rawness and the passion of it has got to stay for this to make sense. So finding people who can connect in that way is always a challenge, because it’s a different kind of performer than you would necessarily find in a typical “musical.” Sure, a lot of the people we’ve been working with are huge Jeff devotees – our Romeo is like a Jeff historian and has been hugely influenced by Jeff’s music. But that’s not to say that it’s not also equally great to find someone who is just being introduced to his music. I mean, the first time I heard Grace I said, “Wow, someone actually put a voice to that!” Seeing that in someone else is really gratifying.

F/F: How did it come to premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival?

MK: Well, the Joe’s Pub shows sold out well in advance and there were a lot of industry folks there. We spent a lot of time after those performances meeting with people and trying to look for the RIGHT path for it to take. It’s always been at the forefront for me, and I know for the others as well – getting this right.

F/F: What does that look like for you, this “getting it right”?

MK: It’s always constantly evolving and changing, from our first concert reading to Joe’s Pub, to now, it looks different. Now with the addition of choreography and getting it up on its feet, I think the way that it’s done right is that you walk out of the performance feeling re-invested in a story that’s been known for hundreds of years, and the music is the way in for that. And not only being invested in it, but seeing it in a different way. And you’ll probably appreciate this more than most, but I always say that there aren’t any halfway Jeff Buckley fans – they are a committed group.

F/F: It must be a good feeling for you to have the fans so strongly behind this, understanding what you are trying to do.

MK: I hear they are endeavoring to make a movie of his life, but where I feel that people can get behind us is that I am not interested in telling the story of Jeff’s life. What I am interested in is telling the story that I think he was trying to tell, and I think there is a big difference. It is a Herculean task. When I was able to start piecing all this music together, you really see a narrative, and it mirrors a lot of the narrative of Romeo and Juliet. I’m not the person to tell the story of his life. I am better suited to tell the story that I think he wanted to tell, the one that is suited to the stage.

What I learned from talking to fans after the readings is that people have a profound attachment to Jeff’s music that can be traced back to a very specific moment, whether it’s heartbreak or first love, and people have been sharing all their stories with me. That attachment and identification with his music, the intensity, I think is what makes it work so well. It connects those pieces to the story of these two kids, and attaches a sound to it that restores something I think the story has lost.

F/F: Right, because I think to a lot of people, Shakespeare just evokes high school English class, and that’s about it.

MK: Yeah! And I teach too at Fordham University in New York, and I teach it from a theatre perspective, not a literary perspective, and everyone’s impression is often just, “eh.” When you go back to the play, one thing that is always really interesting about Romeo and Juliet is that at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare ruined the ending. He tells you exactly how it is going to end. But what really appeals to me is that the ending is an afterthought, and it’s really the journey there that’s important – which also mirrors Jeff’s life to me.

Whenever anyone mentions Jeff now, it’s always, “died tragically. Died tragically.” For me, the death is an afterthought. It’s about the journey and this body of music that he left us and his evolution as an artist that matters. That’s the important part of it.

So when I say re-investing in the story, the idea is that if we do our job right, this time you hope that somehow it works out differently. And of course, after seeing umpteen productions of this play, there’s a sense of tragedy that pervades the whole play from the beginning – God, the weight of what happens at the end kind of carries through. For us though, it’s funny, and it’s messy, and it’s intense, and gritty and dirty and fumbling and insecure, but it’s never sad. It’s hopeful, you know?



Fuel/Friends: So were you a fan of Jeff Buckley’s music before this production? What’s been your connection with him?

Kris Kukul: I knew him a little bit. My previous roommate was a huge fan of his, she was the manager of the Club Fez in New York, and she would listen to him all the time. I knew some of his songs, but nothing like her – I got really familiar with him actually because of the show.

F/F: So has she seen the show?

KK: She’s obsessed with it. It’s amazing. She actually did know Jeff Buckley when he would play in New York. Folks like her are some of our biggest supporters. There’s always that hesitation before they see it, you know, like – “Wait a minute… is this going to sound like Cats??” I’m pleased with the way we are able to honor the music in this production, and tell the story with different voices.

F/F: Did you think it to be a daunting project, or exciting? Or both? I’m sure you became aware pretty quickly of the cult of Jeff Buckley fans.

KK: I wasn’t so much worried about how people were going to take it, it was more just trying to take a body of work and adapt it from the voice of one person who sings these fifteen songs. And to make it work for men, for women, for groups, for characters in this story. I think because of the strength of his lyrics, it just worked so well, and it wasn’t that difficult. From the very beginning, it was just so clear how well it worked together.

F/F: Explain to me what a music director does. I know that’s a dumb question, but help the non-theatre girl.

KK: For this production, I’ve done the orchestration and arrangements, and adapting the music, as well as the other side — teaching the singers the music, teaching the band the music. I conduct the band, and we don’t have any keyboards yet but if we put some in I might play that.

Jeff’s songs in the production aren’t exactly the same as they are on the album in terms of structure, there are a couple where songs are weaved together. Like “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” and “I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby” is turned into a duet, with Juliet singing the former and Romeo the latter. There’s a lot of group singing, the ensemble plays a big part so there is a lot of harmony added in that regard, added vocal arrangements. And I just had to make the songs fit the scenes, the dialogue gets weaved in and out.

F/F: So your job was taking the songs from the way Jeff recorded them, and not changing them drastically, but weaving them into the Shakespeare.

KK: Yeah – there are some of his songs that are like eight, twelve, fifteen minutes long, so we didn’t always use the whole songs, that would be a decision of mine and Michael’s, if we left out a verse, or chose to repeat something. Like “Dream Brother,” for example, is used in the dance where Romeo meets Juliet, and Mercutio sings the song as the scene progresses. So Mercutio sings a verse in a scene with Romeo and Juliet, then there’s another verse in a scene with Tybalt, and then everyone shows up at the party and the whole group sings together: “Don’t be like the one who made me so old, don’t be like the one who left behind his name…”

Then we weave in the line from “I Woke Up In A Strange Place” about “fate is gonna find your love” gets weaved throughout the whole play. So in the midst of the dance, then that line will come back in.

F/F: Ooh, that gave me chills.

KK: Yeah! I mean, it’s weird and uncanny how well the lyrics fit. Also in “Eternal Life,” which is the big song at the end of Act One where Mercutio dies, there’s the line about “there’s a flaming red horizon that screams our names.” That line is also used throughout the entire play, it’s in there like fifteen times. That one line sums up what these young people are heading towards.

spring-awakening-logo-1F/F: The only other theatre adaptation like this that I’ve ever written about on Fuel/Friends is Spring Awakening, when I went to an interview roundtable with Duncan Sheik who penned all those songs. Now, that seems like a similar idea of taking a very old play and trying to set it to contemporary music. Do you see any connections with what you are doing here?

KK: I think by definition they actually are similar, although I haven’t seen Spring Awakening, sadly! I know lots of the songs and like them actually, but I think with Spring Awakening is much more of a concept, in terms of there’s the play and then the songs are actually in a separate universe where they are internal thoughts, as opposed to a traditional musical where the songs are actually part of the story, which is what The Last Goodbye is using the songs for. In Spring Awakening, they had this device where every time people would sing they would pull out a handheld microphone, so that the singing became part of a different, expressionistic universe. That play is about sexual repression, so they would sing about all the things they couldn’t talk about in life. So that actually lends itself to that concept very well. Ours is just kids in love.

Jeff’s lyrics are also incredibly poetic, so Shakespeare meshes well with this highly beautiful, poetic lyricism. He’s much more of a poet than just a lyricist.

We’re not beholden to the original Shakespeare text either, a lot of things are moved around. In the play, as in all Shakespeare, there are these big soliloquies, and so in this production those soliloquies are what have become the songs and where we’ve placed them.

F/F: What kind of band do you have playing with this show?

KK: There is drums, bass, two guitars, and a violin and cello. Possibly some keys, if we decide to put piano in the songs – but that might tip it too much into musical theatre land, which we don’t want to do. Jeff rarely used piano in his songs, there’s only a few, like, “Everybody Here Wants You” where he uses just those two accent bars. I don’t want this to be American Idiot, I don’t want this to be Spring Awakening.

F/F: “Everybody Here Wants You” is among my favorite Jeff Buckley songs, so damn sexy. How does that appear in the play?

KK: Oh, that’s in that scene after the party on the balcony song, and Romeo sings it to Juliet, and then she joins in. Everyone is looking for her and she’s out making googly eyes with Romeo. But yeah, it’s such a great song, it’s like R&B!

F/F: How involved was Jeff’s mom in the process?

KK: She’s been at every performance, she holds the rights so she had a lot of say in everything, but she’s been totally supportive from the beginning. I mean — she suggested a viola once, but that’s been the extent, she’s been happy with the choices we’ve made and how the songs sound.

F/F: How does the choreography work with the music?

KK: We have Sonya Tayeh [editor’s note: the one choreographer I have actually heard of!]. She’s a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, the one with the mohawk, and she is an amazing choreographer. We tried very hard to have non-conventional choreography, we didn’t want a lot of Broadway in it, we wanted weird, organic, avant garde work, and she absolutely did that. She’s incredible and crazy and amazing, but that’s what we wanted. Really young, hip movement.

F/F: So a lot of people without a background in theatre, like me, experience a kind of a disconnect when they go to musicals, because all of a sudden everyone is doing jazz hands and bursting out into song [reference]. Do you think non-theatre audiences will feel that way at all with The Last Goodbye?

KK: We’ve economized it, and the actors are young and sexy and rockstars, and it just makes sense. I don’t think people will have that disconnect, at all. But that being said, my mom is probably not going to like it. It’s loud. But it’s not a vaudeville play or a waltz scene. At the end of the day, it’s Jeff’s songs.

July 10, 2010

Talking to Josh Ritter in Telluride


I’ve written several times that I believe Idahoan Josh Ritter is one of the most important and talented songwriters of our generation, making music that is weighty and beautiful, that will stand up to time. Each of his six albums over the last 11 years has trod different musical ground, from folksy acousticism to uptempo soulful rock, and all shades in between. Yet all of this is ballasted by his insightful, dazzling lyrics – drawing lessons from mythology, psychology, religious narratives, archaeology, and historical figures, but never inaccessibly so.

I am an unabashed lover of words. I’ve been known to fall for folks strictly on the basis of their vocabulary. For me, the way Josh can excise things deep within me using only a handful of words is truly rare. Here is a guy who gets it, who pursues stories and emotions relentlessly to evoke them powerfully in his music. He gets my highest respect – I mean, even how created his own major at Oberlin College in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music”; I’m incredibly jealous that I didn’t think of that. Plus, he just rocks, and is one of the most ebullient live performers you will ever see.

I walked into this interview with so much apprehension, not because I thought he’d be anything but marvelous (I’d been warned how generous his hugs were, and he didn’t disappoint) but because I am so deeply impressed with what he does. My usual types of interview questions seemed to fall so short it wasn’t even funny. So under some big trees in Telluride on a Thursday evening, we just talked instead. And it was warm and wonderful. It went like this:


Fuel/Friends:I have a whole jumbled bunch of questions that I would love to ask you, but hmmmm . . . I think I want to start with something that references your new album, something I’ve rolled over a lot in my head these past months. In “The Curse” . . . do you think it was worth it for her?

Josh Ritter: Ooh, wow. That’s a really good question. I don’t know. Well, let me think . . .

I think that love is like a trap sometimes. You get deep in and you think, “This is the wrong place to be,” and by that time, it’s all built around you. I’m not sure, but I typically tend to stay away from an idea like [says grandly] “But it was all worth it.” I mean, if it wasn’t right in the end, then it wasn’t worth it. My experience with love has been this: if it’s good, then it ends good or it continues good. But if it’s not good then it’s just . . . not good. I mean what is the difference between a tragedy and any other sort of genre? The tragedy ends badly. I think of that song as a tragedy, but the interesting part to me is that he knows the whole time that he’s doing this to her.

F/F: So he knew? I always couldn’t tell if he knew, or if he just somehow hoped that it would be different this time, that his curse wouldn’t be destructive.

JR: Yeah, I do like the idea that it could be interpreted a number of different ways. But I like seeing him as calculating, like he built this thing around himself (“Think of them as an immense invitation”) so that this one day this would happen. As much as there may have been periods when he was truly in love, he was ultimately using her.

F/F: See, I was thinking about how it might not have been a bad exchange for her — I think of the lyrics about how they talk of the Nile and girls in bulrushes, and I mean, through that relationship, she got to be as close as she would EVER be to that world of Egypt that she had dedicated her whole studies to.

JR: I never thought about it quite like that. That’s really cool.

F/F: And the video is amazing. I never expected puppets to make me cry, the way his eyes twinkle.

JR: I know, I know! I feel exactly the same way! Liam (our drummer, who made the video) is a ninja.

F/F: Do you think that you are telling old stories with a new voice? Or new stories?

JR: Oh, old stories, definitely. There is nothing new. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy, or Mark Twain, or whoever, they are never telling a story that’s completely brand new. There’s always an archetype. It reminds me of that quote about: “See what everybody else has seen, think what nobody else has thought.” (Albert Szent-Gyoergi). Songs are just reimagining old stories, old feelings. It’s like in science how an electron microscope helped us to see things that had always been all around us since time immemorial, but now we saw it in a whole new way.

F/F: There was a time you considered a career in science. Is music at all like science?

JR: I think science is like art, yeah absolutely. There’s a tendency to put your own discipline on a pedestal, and hold it above all others, but there are so many similarities. There’s an idea that scientists wear these white robes on a mountainside and write down these massive truths, but science fills a societal need of figuring out answers to questions we have, just the same as art does. For example, my parents are studying appetite and how it affect diabetes and obesity, and that’s important research, but really it is filling a need – the same thing that happens in art. You see a need out there that interests you and you follow it, and there’s gotta be a reason why you are interested in it. They speak to different needs in different ways. Science and art and religion are all very similar – all trying to fill in the gaps.

F/F: You mention religion, and many of your songs almost strike me as parables, or at least allegorical fables.

JR: A parable is like a multi-faceted metaphor. To go back to what we were talking about with “The Curse,” you can see it a lot of different ways – and that’s what makes it so interesting. Elaine Pagels is an amazing writer about religion, and she talks a lot about the Gnostic Gospels, and this idea that a few parables of Jesus had been written down before he died, and then after Jesus was dead all these people came along who knew these parables, but they meant something different to everyone, whether it was Peter and Paul, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary, or James, all these people that claimed to have a secret knowledge about what that parable meant – Thomas, the gospel of Thomas is the best example of that, and the secret teachings. Even when we talk about something like the Sermon on the Mount, there are things that seem perfectly clear, and also completely mystifying the next moment. Like Leonard Cohen says, “from the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount / which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”

But maybe it’s really holding a mirror up to yourself, and how you interpret something tells you a lot about yourself. If you think A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor is funny, are you being honest with yourself, or are you just a mean person?

F/F: Well, I think my last question is…..

JR: (interrupts, leaning forward) – I got a question for you. What’s your favorite song in the world, that you’ve ever heard? If you had to choose.

(I am stunned with the vastness of this question, and Josh asking it to me. I feel like I haven’t studied for a really cool test. I cannot pick.)

JR: I think mine would maybe be “I Dream A Highway” by Gillian Welch.

F/F: Oooh! Such an excellent, excellent choice. That song has everything you could ever want. Hmm, that kind of reminds me of a song I love that I was listening to on the way here, I don’t think it is my favorite song ever, by any means, but one that speaks volumes to me – “Mary” by Patty Griffin.

JR: Oh, yeah! Yessss, that song is a SICK song. “….Stays behind and starts cleaning up the place,” (we both say in unison). It shows so many facets of her . . . and it makes you mad that she’s just being used every which way.

F/F: Agreed. So I want to talk a little about the sticky intersection between art and commerce – do you think they are mutually incompatible?

JR: I certainly hope music is a commercial venture. I have no bones about the fact that I feel I deserve to make a living off my music. I mean, what else would I do? People who choose to follow art are often ill-suited to be anything else. The best writers or directors or comedians, you cannot imagine them doing anything else. I’m curious if I could do something else – I mean I wrote a book, but I guess we’ll see if I can do that well. What I do helps me survive; I definitely wouldn’t want to do anything else. Whatever there is about God or whatever, I think it helps to believe you were put somewhere for something. And if someone decides their profession will be one of an artist, that’s a noble choice. In the end you are selling something that you think is important, because you are spending your time doing it. And also, I think people can tell when you don’t think it’s that important, and there’s tons of artists that are doing that as well.

Commerce and art are only good when you have a level of trust with the people that are buying your music. What they are actually buying is a chance for you to spend more time doing what you do – playing shows, putting out albums. That is your responsibility to account for yourself, for the money they have given you. That that’s gotten a lot harder, I think, is not necessarily a bad thing. The last 50,000 years of human history have been about artists working hard for very little, and only about 50-60 years now where that hasn’t been the case. So it is a kind of historical aberration right now. But I definitely think that the amount of stuff that musicians and other artists go through, and the relatively small returns, you know, we all deserve the same kind of normal life that everybody else has. Like I would like to have kids and be able to support them. So to those ends, there’s probably not much I wouldn’t do to be able to keep up playing music and be able to support my family.

Certain decisions would need to be made on a situational basis, like commercials. I did a commercial for Crayola with my song “Great Big Mind,” which I was really happy with. But I’m not The Black Eyed Peas, I’m not gonna go out and do, like, the Camel Cigarette Tour or anything like that. It’s also sort of a thing that sticks with me a little bit because I feel like people in the last generation have always looked askance at making money from commercials, you know? There are people like Tom Waits, who I love in every way, except that I don’t agree with him (in his staunch opposition to commercials). He came up in a different time where people sold records, and made money selling records, and that’s not a thing that happens anymore so we have to look in other places.

F/F: Do you ever feel the struggle in the balance between writing something that will sell and something that is artistically true to you? Is there a conflict selling something that comes from the deepest parts of you?

JR: There’s that point when somebody is running for office, when they are attracting the people who will vote for them based on who they are, and I feel it switches at some point (I believe Hemingway calls that the “pilot fish” – the one swimming ahead of the pack and leading all the other fish to that place). At some point it flips and then the leader becomes the follower of the other fish in his pack, the other fish that supported him to get him to where he is now. You stop becoming a leader and you start becoming a follower, you become part of the mob.

You cannot allow yourself to become that. If you try to shape your music to fill a certain hole, it’s not gonna work that way, it just ends up sounding bland. You have to do your own thing because that’s all that anybody really wants. It’s harder, but at least you don’t feel like you’re a faker. The worst thing I can think of would be writing songs desperately, trying to get a hit.

F/F: It reminds me of the article I read once about Weezer trying to mathematically analyze their hit songs, what made them hits.

JR: Everything I’ve ever seen with music leads me to think that there is no way to know what people are going to like. I think I know, but I don’t have any idea of what happens once it leaves me.

All you can do is do what you do, and hope that the side effect of making music that you yourself love is that other people are going to love it too. And when I die, I’ll leave something behind that I was actually proud of.




[photos by the luminous Sarah Law. His hands in the top picture remind me of this. Thanks, Sarah.]

January 12, 2010

“A new sonic playground” :: Works Progress Administration interview (Glen Phillips)

Nashville 2009 034

One snowy Sunday night in October, I sat at my kitchen table after tucking my little one into bed and realized that Glen Phillips of Toad The Wet Sprocket was playing at that very moment right up the road with his new band Works Progress Administration, and I had completely missed it. After listening to their bluegrass-laced toe-tapping goodness, I started looking up other tourdates and noticed they were playing in December in Nashville, where a dear friend lives. And thus, this edition of musical adventure was born.

Works Progress Administration is an expandable collective, centered around the songwriting skills of Glen Phillips, Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, and Luke Bulla of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. In various incarnations live and on the album, they are fleshed out with folks from other bands like Soul Coughing, Elvis Costello’s Imposters, and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. They were playing at the storied Exit/In in Nashville, and I arranged to interview Glen and his new bandmates. To say this was a big deal for me would be an understatement.

I have loved Toad for more than half my life, and with my entire heart. They were one of the first bands I really claimed as my own during young adulthood, and whose perfect songwriting (“Windmills,” anyone?) has taught me so much and fortified more parts of me than I can count. I am a Toad-saturated girl, through and through. I once wrote, “listening this afternoon to toad the wet sprocket does many things for and to my psyche. the first sensation is definitely a heady and pleasant one, loaded with a thousand really good memories and the fierce scent of youth and optimism.” I still feel those things when I hear Glen’s distinctive, earnest voice on any of his current solo projects and collaborations. I was curious to talk to Glen and learn more about how his songwriting has shifted over the years, where his musical interests are taking him, and what he hopes to accomplish next.

I got all that and more when Glen and I sat down with his bandmates Sean Watkins and Luke Bulla after soundcheck one December afternoon. It was one of the most fascinating discussions about music I’ve had in a long time.


F/F: I am a longtime fan of Toad the Wet Sprocket and also your solo work, Glen, and one thing I’ve always admired is the songcraft behind your music. As a collective I know you all contributed to this album, and I’m wondering if the songwriting process changes. Since we’re in Nashville, Dolly Parton once said, “Writing songs is my private time with God.” Are you each still working personally and privately on writing your songs, or is it more of a collective effort now?

Glen: Most of the songs came in complete from each of the songwriters – we knew we were doing the album and we just saved up things that we thought would work for the group. There was one co-write that Luke and I did (“Cry For You”) but that was the only actual co-write on the record. And that was a very natural collaboration, like, “I’ve got this idea, let’s play with it.”

There’s a certain way of writing when the songs are for a group like there, where I’d say the difference is mostly you can write with others’ orchestration in mind. Like the song, “Already Gone” would not be a lot of fun to sing by yourself because the whole chaos of the chorus is this three-part, Twist and Shout-style buildup. So you have the freedom to write for harmony, for a particular kind of space or texture for the band.

Sean: I love writing for projects. I didn’t write anything specifically for this album, the songs I contributed were already in place. But I love getting that opportunity to work within the constraints or capabilities of a group – a new sonic playground to aim for. It’s really fun to do that. And I’m always trying to write as much as I can since new reasons will always come up when you need songs. You can never have too many of them sitting around.

Glen: I should just say too that we got together and did this album very quickly, so the next album is really going to be based around this particular five-piece, and we are going to be writing specifically for this project. It will less anarchistic; we’ll have a much better idea of what the palette is.

F/F: There was a quote I read about the making of this album about trying in your songwriting and collaboration to leave space within the songs, rather than everyone rushing to fill up every moment of the song with their unique skill or musical strength.

Sean: Every record is different, and this record came together with a big pile of songs we already had there. So what I think gives this record its personality is the individual players, and yeah, how we did leave space for each other, and tried to see how little you can play and still make it happen. That’s not to say that people don’t step out and do “fancy” stuff every now and then, but this particular group of musicians was a delight to collaborate with.

F/F: And I think that makes it pleasing to hear as well. Sometimes with these so-called “supergroups” you get super-egos as well, where everyone’s trying to do all their noodling and their fancy drum fills and each talent they are known for that will make them stand out, and it can be overwhelming as a listener.

Glen: Yeah, there are a lot of reasons that we’ve decided that we don’t really like the term supergroup. Number one is they tend to be funded and actually be superstars of some kind, and they have a bus…things like that. We’re people with a past, but that’s about it.

F/F: Sure, and also I think supergroup implies certain things, like the term “side project.” It implies that this is not as important as your primary work, like it’s a diversion.

Glen: …and that the personalities are more important than the music. It implies a success of marketing, rather than a spirit of creativity.

Nashville 2009 082

F/F: So this album was three days of rehearsal and five days of recording, and I had read a 2003 interview you did, Glen, where you talked about the overuse of ProTools and production in recording, and you said “The world does not need another Auto-Tuned, Beat-Detectived, loop-based record.” Is that how you prefer to record these days, with more of a live, organic feel?

Glen: It all depends. I also have a project called Remote Tree Children that’s Auto-Tuned and Beat-Detectived and it’s a lot of fun. The thing that I don’t like are records that try to sound like a band in a room, and then manicure it to the point where it takes all the life out of it, and there’s too many takes and too many overdubs. You wind up with something that’s supposed to sound like people playing together, but it isn’t.

I think there’s a place for using live performance and there’s a place for using the studio. I mean, Bjork is a perfect example of somebody who balances acoustic instruments and dynamic performances from electronic instruments, and really understands the balance of the synthetic and the real. Peter Gabriel also does the same thing, and LCD Soundsystem has the scratchiest guitars and the weirdest loops. So there’s a lot of room for that, but to make a record that’s really song-based, the slickness tends to detract. There’s a real beauty in going in a room and just playing a song and walking in and listening to it back, and that’s the record.

Luke: That’s what was really great about making this record, just to sit around and play these songs as a band – sitting in Sean’s living room in LA, and just working the songs out for three days. We just went in and played, and maybe later we added a few vocals and fixed a thing or two, but for the most part it’s really a live record, and the group and what we’re about and how we play together really came through.

F/F: I’m reminded of the All-Wave Recording movement championed by Kim Deal of the Breeders and producer Steve Albini (“everything should be an analog sound recording of someone playing or singing, rather than using a computer to generate or digitally manipulate sounds separated from the dimension of time in which they were performed. In short, to record All-Wave, one must use no computers, no digital recording, no auto-tuning, or any other mainstays of contemporary production.”)

Glen: I think people can tell that, though, when a record has that authenticity. In the same way that – and this is the only way in which I will ever equate these two bands – In the same way that Hootie and the Blowfish was a populist answer to everybody being really hardcore and intense and screaming all the time, when it wasn’t cool to be sensitive at all, there’s some part of people that just hungers for something as simple as “Hold My Hand.” They wanna hear something they can just relate to, they don’t want to have to be edgy all the time. I think that 30 million records was a response to this glut of overly-intense, self-important music – even though lots of it was great.

I think the White Stripes in a similar way, people were so hungry for music where the drums were obviously not being made in time, nothing was tuned, nothing was messed with, you could tell that that was rough and real, and you could tell that it was rough and real, and I think people were starving for it. Part of the reaction is the merit of the band itself, but I also think part of the reaction is that they were making a big statement against the way records had started sounding, the slippery slope everyone had gone down into artificiality.

Once again, there are people that run the line better than others, but it’s what happens with any instrument of war; you invent dynamite and then you start the Nobel Peace Prize after inventing dynamite because you think that this is going to end war and instead it just escalates it. Every time a tool like this gets invented to help make music better, the tool takes over for a while and there are different periods of recovery, and I think we’re just starting to recover from Auto-Tune.

F/F: And of course the live music experience is an opportunity for you to really connect with fans, without any of the trappings or tricks.

Glen: Yes, there are bands that are incredibly technological and also absolutely awesome live. They understand making a show and what to leave raw, like MGMT is a great example – they’re very technical, but also know when to leave things raw. I think there’s a lot that’s been done on very manicured records, and now people are striving to find a happy medium.

There was a period, I think, when bands were getting signed very young with great demos, and people got burned a lot live. But I think people went to a lot of shows where they’d heard a record that sounded great and they got there and the band couldn’t play live. That’s one nice thing about the contracting of the music industry, and I think bands that can’t play aren’t getting signed as much anymore. Everybody knows you have to bring it live, or it’s not going to work.

F/F: I feel like technology has helped spread live fan recordings as a way of creating a buzz about a band. Going back to my own history, I was on a Toad the Wet Sprocket list when I was in high school and we would swap compilation tapes from live moments of tours, best-of collections of fan recordings, in a way that I never saw done before the internet came into play for the superfans. Now sites like Live Music Archive or Wolfgang’s Vault help people know if the band has the chops and emotional energy to be worth your time live.

Sean: I’m just grateful that we have that one thing as musicians that can’t be taken away from us, that ability to go out on the road and connect with people live. I think that’s always secure.

Nashville 2009 056

F/F: Each of you come from your own distinguished backgrounds and unique fan bases. Are you finding that the people coming out to your shows are coming from a familiarity with one of your previous efforts, or are you converting brand new fans?

Luke: Well, it seems a little different each time. Audiences have been very supportive, there’s been a little radio play, but mostly it’s extremely grassroots, very word-of-mouth. It’s been a learning curve for us to learn how to present it is and where it came from and what we’re trying to do.

F/F: It seems like a dynamic period for you guys as musicians.

Sean: Yeah, you try to make the most of what fans you have from previous incarnations, but you also really want to bring in new people, that’s the best way. And the only way to do that is often to play shows, and then go back and play again, and it’s nice to see as you go along to see new faces and more people coming in. And you hope that people that might have known about one of your bands will come and bring a friend. It’s exciting. In bluegrass and folk circles that I come from, people are pretty diligent about following their favorite musicians in whatever they do.

Glen: It’s been interesting, I lost a lot of people by not being very “rock” after Toad, but even now seeing people write things like, “Oh, well, I didn’t know about bluegrass….but I went to the show and it was awesome.” I mean, it’s interesting to see where people’s prejudices lie. I’ve kind of compared it to – if all you’d heard of rock music was Creed, you might not listen to rock music.

Most people have heard very little bluegrass, they don’t know the depth or the history or understand the context in which to appreciate it. Even to the degree where a band like Nickel Creek, which is very much not a bluegrass band but from a bluegrass background, fans will lump everything together. So it’s been very interesting to hopefully give people an opportunity to confront their prejudices and get turned onto something new and realize they might like it.

F/F: Is it a big leap from pop to rock to bluegrass? How have you crossed it, not coming from the same background as, say, Sean?

Glen: I don’t think that there’s anything to cross. I think songs are songs, and you can take a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and do the Weird Al polka version of it (ed: or this, which Glen showed me on his iPhone later that night). Genre has a certain reach, but I think it’s a limited one. We made this album because we wanted to play songs together that we love, as well as we can with the personnel we have.

We have one or two things in the live set that lean towards bluegrass, but there are also things that would be completely wrong for a bluegrass show, like we have an electric guitar, and a drummer, and an electric bass instead of an upright bass, so we’re screwing everything up there. And on the record there’s pedal steel and piano, which have no place in bluegrass at all. So, I occasionally have heard criticisms of the band, “Oh, it’ll be interesting to hear what happens when you guys find your sound,” but we sound like we do because we like that variety. I hate the idea that we would someday show up and you would be able to predict what the tone of the next song would sound like because the last three songs all sounded exactly the same. That would just bore all of us to tears.

Sean: It doesn’t matter what genre it is, it just matters if the songs are good.

Glen: And I think people are becoming more accepting of that. I mean, it is the iPod generation, so many people are proud to have broad tastes, but I think people still have a hard time swallowing musicians from the iPod generation who don’t have a defined sound. I feel this pressure like, “Well, you’ve got to find out what your sound is and then stick to that, so people will know what to expect from you.” Bands like Iron & Wine, I think he’s great but I also can’t take huge doses because there’s not huge variety on his albums. It’s a great place to go, but people seem to have less expectation that you will adhere to a pre-existing genre, but more expectation that you will create your personal sound and never deviate from it.

F/F: Glen, in that same interview from 2003, you talked about your frustration with a blockage in getting music released after recording it. With this record, you guys are doing it all yourselves with no label backing, and you’re using tools on the internet like BandCamp to disseminate your music. Do you think this album could have happened in the same way ten years ago?

Sean: Well certainly the technology wasn’t there ten years ago, but there were other ways back then, like more people bought actual records

Luke: Now people just stream the record online without purchasing it.

Sean: Record sales ten years ago were huge compared to now.

Glen: It’s interesting because more people listen to more music now, but fewer people are paying for it, and at the same time, it’s easier to make records and put them out. There’s a statistic that I heard recently – back when Toad was putting out records there were maybe 20,000 records a year, and now there were 100,000 records put out this year, and supposedly only 1500 of them sold more than ten thousand copies. So you have a shrinking market with a total glut of product.

It’s interesting, I mean ten years ago it would have been different. We probably would have been able to do this record with a label, and get some more attention, and there were things about the world then that seemed more intact. You could actually put one foot in front of the other and predict what would have an effect and what wouldn’t. Radio used to sell records. It’s a strange world right now. I think in a lot of ways it is the Wild West – there’s great opportunities, but the success stories feel like unrepeatable anomalies.


After the interview I got to share a meal with Glen and continue our conversation (top 5 night, for sure) and their show impressed me and all of the enthusiastic Nashville crowd. There is a true joy to watching these musicians play together, and I was glad to get a chance to witness it, after hearing them talk about what they want this band to be.

All my heroes have grown up to be awesome.

Nashville 2009 028

Nashville 2009 086

LOOK: Pictures from the show
DOWNLOAD: A free career-spanning 8 song sampler of Glen’s music

October 13, 2009

Nobody but you :: Interview with Langhorne Slim


The music made by Langhorne Slim is an anachronistic blend of rollicking, boot-stomping Americana, howling rock, and plaintive love songs that defy a single era. Hailing from the small town in Pennsylvania that he borrowed as his stage name from, Langhorne is indeed an artist who defines himself and his genre simply as a man who writes love songs. From soul-stirring gospel to old brokedown blues, his music is influenced by many different styles as there are kinds of love, and “it just makes sense.” He has released a superb album this year with his Be Set Free. I’ve been listening to it nonstop.

Over a bottle of wine in room #312 of the rad historic Boulderado Hotel, we spoke of everything from his musical roots listening to Hole when he was 14, to his kinship with the older generation and his comfort in growing older, and the ways he challenges himself in music to keep things exciting. In the same way that someone like M Ward is both delightfully unpredictable and richly soaked in the blues, Langhorne moves fluidly between a range of influences.

There’s a loosely-tied thread of jangly marvelousness cascading through so many of these songs, like it’s just barely being held together around the edges, while pulsing wild and free in the hot-blooded center. He can also turn a lyric in a way that pierces me, and is just as sharp and clever in person as he is on his records.

Boots Boy – Langhorne Slim

September 9, 2009

FUEL/FRIENDS: You work really hard with your music, and you’ve been doing it for a long time – fifteen years?

Langhorne Slim: Well, I started writing music when I was pretty small, but I’ve been doing it professionally for six years or so. I’ve got high hopes with this new album, I want to make records that I hope will be meaningful to people for a long time.

F/F: Do you feel that you’ve approached all three of your records more or less in the same way, or are you trying completely new things here that you’ve never done in the past?

LS: Well, I tried to sing better, for one (laughs), because I do got it in me. No, I think the songs on this record represent growth. I’m proud of the other records that we did too but this one is a little bit closer to where I’d like to go. Maybe if you start thinking you’re getting it all right, that can be dangerous, but I am excited about the different chances we took, and maybe I felt more comfortable within myself to take those chances.

F/F: What makes this current one your best one, and how is it different from your last ones?

LS: You get a bit more used to being in the studio, it’s a lot different than performing in front of a live audience. For us a lot of times, people will comment on the different energy at our live show and on our records. I understand where that comes from but I also…resent it? Slightly. Because I think that it’s two different forms of creativity, or two forms of oneself. In front of 100 people or 5 people or a thousand people, you know, and experimenting with these songs that you’ve been playing, and trying to explore those in a studio atmosphere, they are two very different animals. I think this time with the people we had on board, it just came out right for what it was. And I am pleased with that.

To get up in front of an audience – you don’t have that energy in a recording studio. I think that you just challenge yourself in different ways when you’re in the studio. You try to bring different things out that you wouldn’t necessarily do in a live setting. You can’t have a horn section on the road, I can’t have backup singers, but you can do that in the studio. But it’s a fine line – you don’t want stuff to sound too crystal clear in a way that makes you sound not like you. To try to keep shit raw and real, while also treading that fine line, that very fun line to explore. One needs to keep challenging themselves in their music to keep it exciting.

F/F: One of your most striking lyrics on the new album is when you recount how your grandfather told you, “All pain hurts the same.” How do you get at that with your music?

LS: Well, I’m very close with my grandparents, I have a very close family and have been lucky to have them throughout my life. I relate a lot to my grandpop Sid, and we deal with a lot of the same….we’re wired the same way. For me, I’m very happy to get older because I feel like I’m more myself – I feel better as I get older. Anyway, one time I was talking to Sidney about feeling down and not even knowing why, and I said to him, you know people are going through some really bad shit, and maybe it isn’t that tough, but why do I feel so down? And he said that. All pain hurts the same. It always stuck with me, and made it into one of my songs.

F/F: Have your grandparents informed your music in other ways? Because I feel that there’s a weight of time in your music that is not often found in young people’s writing.

LS: Probably yes, but we’re all raised in the way that we’re raised. That line rang true for me so I put it in the song because I always remembered it. I think it’s just moreso their support and wisdom and love for music that they raised us in. My parents split when I was two and my grandparents decided that they were going to step up, on both sides of the family. There was just a lot of support and they loved music. With me it was never like ‘you should get another job or, you should try something else,’ it was not like that. And I am very appreciative of that support.

F/F: A lot of your songs are very personal. Are you comfortable in letting people interpret them in the way they want, just letting it go? Or do you want them to be understood in the way that you wrote them?

LS: Not at all — in fact, I would much prefer that if anybody connects to it, they do it in their own way, because it’s not about what my connection to it is, necessarily, once it goes out there. That’s what music has always been to me, I mean – shit moves me, in my own way. Well, here’s an example – Britney Spears has a song “Womanizer,” and okay, I’m not a womanizer, but I like that song (laughs). Whatever sort of hits you, that’s what hits you. I’m beyond alright with releasing my songs out there, that’s naturally what just happens. You sit with these things and then you put em on a record and then you gotta move on to the next thing and work towards that. It’s a map of what has been done. What’s more heavy than having somebody relate to something and make it their own? For me that’s a big part of what this is all about.

F/F: It’s an interesting dichotomy to put so much of yourself into something and then set it out there and in a way it becomes not yours any more, even though you’re the one performing it.

LS: Yeah….Sometimes you’re telling everyone out there a story about something that happened, and this is how it happened, but other times it may be about a feeling or an emotion, and a melody that you think is cool. Or a story that’s fiction but not totally fiction – you’re putting, maybe, four different relationships that you might have had into a simple song. So it’s not always as personal or simple as my story, going out there.

langhorne slim hallway snap todd roeth

F/F: There was a quote I read once where you said, “I only write love songs.”

LS: People say, “what kind of music do you write?” and you’re supposed to have a genre for what you do, and I’m not trying to sound too cool for school, but I don’t feel that way toward music. I feel that the category stuff is more geared towards what section do we put this in at the record store. But yeah, love songs – if there was a section for that in the record stores maybe that’s where my shit would be. It’s not just about romantic love, there’s happy love songs, and sad love songs. We can do something like we played tonight for the radio, and I think it went over well, but in the past years playing with all sorts of headliners like metal bands or noise bands or hip-hop acts, you know, that all made sense because we all respected what each other were doing. That’s something I miss a little bit, even though I can still bring people out on the road with me, but – if tonight weren’t a radio show, people could have yelled at us, or spent the whole night back at the bar. But how cool would it be if you could have like a traveling roadshow of different stuff that just made sense because it was all good? And people would react to it? I think I’ve been lucky to get to play with a lot of eclectic bands (Violent Femmes, Avett Brothers, Lucero, Murder by Death) but I would like to also do shows with people who wouldn’t make any sense. That’s why a lot of the festivals are cool – Snoop Dogg is over there and we’re over here, and if it works right, people are music fans and they are open to hearing different shit.

F/F: You just celebrated your 29th birthday the day after my 30th, so I wonder, do you see 30 as a milestone at all, and are there things you’d like to accomplish before then? Or are you pretty content with what you’re doing in this last year of your twenties?

LS: Well, yeah – I’d love to be able to get a house – it’s amazing to be able to tour as much as we do, but I look forward to the time where I can have a place of my own that I could come home to. It would be amazing to have my own little spot someplace. Also, just to get better at what we’re doing …. and to keep on going.

todd roeth langhorne slim gods light

[Interview originally published at [R.I.P.], and photos of course by the formidable Todd Roeth]

August 25, 2009

Standing at the center of the occupation :: Interview with The Handsome Furs

handsome furs tandem bicycle larimer - todd roeth

We were standing in the center of the occupation
Caught between the ground and the gray gray sky…

Talking Hotel Arbat Blues – Handsome Furs

…and with those seven huge and addictive beats, so begins my favorite track on the newest album from the Handsome Furs — one of my favorite albums of the year. Face Control is unrelenting in its danceability and brilliant in its rock and roll hope, replete with sloppy ragged guitar riffs and visceral howls, all bound up with sharp electronic beats that never quit.

In June, this married pair of (short story author) Alexei Perry and (Wolf Parade’s) Dan Boeckner came to Denver’s Larimer Lounge and nearly caused the place to burst. We all danced and yelled along, while the band did calisthenics up the walls and the stage hummed with a palpable sexual energy between the two.

I sat down with them before their set, after photographer extraordinaire Todd Roeth took advantage of some crazy post-tornado light, and we discussed the Cold War influences on the new Handsome Furs album, rallying against despair through music, and butterflies and underwater candy unicorns in songwriting. Seriously.

This was one of my favorite conversations about music in a long time.

handsome furs larimer lounge - todd roeth

HANDSOME FURS INTERVIEW: Dan Boeckner & Alexei Perry
JUNE 2009

F/F: I’m interested in the emotional barometer of (your latest album) Face Control. It seems like it’s applying the metaphor of the Cold War to interpersonal relationships. I’m wondering if that is an accurate read on the record?

Dan: That’s a totally accurate representation – I think like Cold War and post-Cold War, and the idea of places like Serbia or Latvia appropriating this mantle of freedom that maybe they weren’t ready for. Or not ready for, but maybe just like jumping in with both feet into something and just accelerating the culture to the point where it’s almost a parody of Western capitalism, or hyper-capitalism.

I guess you could apply that to an interpersonal metaphor as well, like maybe falling in love for the first time or trying a new personality. You know? Changing yourself. Most of the record was a document of what we were doing while we were touring in Eastern Europe.

Alexei: …and what we were witnessing there.

F/F: To me, if your music could sit with certain artistic movements, I hear a sort of Bauhaus minimalism, blended with this streak of wild romanticism.

Alexei: Yeah, I think I frequently feel dissatisfied with how clinical life seems sometimes and what you have to do within it to feel alive.

Dan: And what we saw in Eastern Europe, too, I mean like the juxtaposition of the blocky sort of soul-crushing, utilitarian, socialist architecture.

Alexei: It’s totally dehumanizing. I mean you’re always the smallest thing. When we were in Warsaw, one of my favorite things that we did was we saw the building that’s nicknamed the Stalin’s middle finger. It’s huge. It was his gift to Warsaw and it’s the tallest thing in the skyline. And you stand in front of it you feel tiny. And yet now things are so changed and all these artists that work around that building want to do all these different things in that area and do different things with that building. Like there’s been these projects about wrapping the whole thing in like brown paper, like weird things. People have all these great ideas that spring through.

Dan: I was thinking about the electromagnetic factory in Bucharest that we went to. That juxtaposition of the music, like what we were trying to get on the record was, and this is a good example, is there was a factory that made magnets for motors, like electromagnetic parts. It’s now completely overrun by dogs. It’s totally decommissioned. And these kids were playing the craziest rock music I’ve heard in a long time in the basement cause they took the basement over, which still has the workers’ showers. So you’ve got that organic, uncontainable art in this awful place.

Alexei: And that’s just how I feel about making art in the world right now. The world isn’t representative of how I want it to be, so I have to always rally against it. And that’s what I want on the record.

F/F: I hear that in the music, very much so. A lot of the songs are pretty unrelenting, minimalistic, and then you’ll have this chorus or guitar riff that just cuts and rises up through that. Alexei, as a writer by trade, are there things you like better about writing songs versus writing a story?

Alexei: Um, it’s been an incredible challenge for me to write lyrics just cause it’s not at all what comes naturally to me. But I think that’s an important challenge and one I really, really like. You have to make things succinct, and you have to make them something that can be twinned with, and something that Dan can emote. Like that he can sing out and have them make sense, no matter whether the words actually do as written on a page. They frequently don’t, but because of how he pushes them out there they do.

Dan: For me, the personal sort of approach to songwriting is not one of sitting at home and inventing a fictional character or using whatever fairytale metaphors to get something across. I’m also not good at doing that other stuff. I can’t, I mean — I’d just feel like a fraud writing like, “the prince came down and the butterflies exploded from your hair and you were dreaming underwater of a fucking candy unicorn.” Grecian metaphor and literary allegory – I can’t do that. Other people can do that really well. Carey Mercer from the band Frog Eyes is kind of one of the masters of that. I love his songwriting. Spencer from Wolf Parade too, God bless him, is really good at that. And I just don’t know how to do it.

I really believe there’s this language of rock, right? Like rock and roll music has been around long enough that when people say stuff like…you take the guy from Spoon. In so many of his songs, he says stuff like “uh-huh” or “yeah,” but it’s just the way he says it, that word ceases to have the same meaning that it does on paper. And it can be interpreted depending on how he inflects it or what point in the song it comes. So, I like that minimalist lyrical school – it works for me.

F/F: Tell me more about the connection you made when you were touring in Eastern Europe with the underground radio station in Belgrade, and what that’s meant to you guys.

Alexei: When we were in Belgrade, there’s a station called B92, that is basically a guerilla radio station that was anti-Milosevic, and they were the people that basically motivated all of the demonstrations against Milosevic. They were the promoters that brought us over.

Dan: On the first visit we became really good friends just right off the bat. One of the actually traveled to Texas to come and see our show at SXSW! I consider them some of my best friends now. We’ve gotten to know a few in particular really well, like Milos and Svetlana. They’ve all had different but equally, completely and totally heartbreaking lives you know.

F/F: How old are they?

Dan: They’re in their mid-30′s. About 35.

F/F: So they’ve grown up with conflict?

Dan: Yeah. And so the first time we went over we became good friends. There was just a real connection between all of us. Then the last few times we’ve seen them it’s grown into this, I mean music, the show is the things that they are putting on and the show is what we a communicating with these kids who are coming out.

But the best part of the visits for me beyond the show is staying up all night getting completely piss fucking drunk and talking politics with them and talking about their lives and them asking us about our lives.

And that’s the whole reason I got into this thing in the first place, is just to be able make connections with people. And I never, never ever thought we’d be able to go somewhere as far away as Serbia and make connections with people there. I mean, who knows when people are going to stop giving a shit about what songs we write. But these connections, they’re permanent.

F/F: It reminds me of a book I loved about the same region called Fools Rush In – just the way that music shines through. There’s this indomitable characteristic of people that wants to play music and be in bands and go out and make love and and do all these things that embrace life. And you have to stay away from the windows so you don’t get shot, or run to the club, to avoid snipers. Meeting people that have lived through that firsthand must have just been really powerful.

Dan: Themes like that really inspired the record that we made, and then to go back — I mean the last time we were back we played for maybe seven or eight hundred kids in Belgrade and to sing those songs about the places that we’ve been to.

Alexei: I was crying after the show.

Dan: …And the shows have been really intense over there. You know like a lot of audience interaction.

Alexei: ..Yeah you got a scar from it.

Dan: It was one of the last songs we were playing in Belgrade. It was at this club called Academy, which has been around since the ’60s. And at the end I had thrown my guitar, and I grabbed the mic, and I was out in the audience. I had twisted and fallen off the stage and cut my head open on the monitors. There was a mosh pit and when I got up…

Alexei: …Suddenly the mosh pit just like moved back like, “What?!”

Dan: Yeah I was gushing blood. But our friend Milos grabbed me after the show and started stitching me up, and I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘How do you know how to do this?’ And he said, ‘I cleaned people up after the NATO bombing.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, well, this is slightly more joyful.’ And then we got drunk.


[Interview first appeared in conjunction with [R.I.P.], and all marvelous photos by Todd Roeth]

Older Posts »
Subscribe to this tasty feed.
I tweet things. It's amazing.

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.

View all Interviews → View all Shows I've Seen →