Tommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.
Keene: I had the pleasure of being an auxiliary member of an exciting new band, Boston Spaceships, last year, playing guitar on their fall tour. Chris Slusarenko, along with vocalist Bob Pollard (MAGNET readers may know him) and drummer John Moen, is one of the chief architects of this awesome new combo. I recently spoke to Chris, who was also a member of Guided By Voices, about this project.
Keene: How did the idea of a new band with you, Bob and John originate?
Slusarenko: Bob was having his art exhibition in New York City last year, and I was admiring this collage that has always haunted me called Brown Submarine. We started talking about how we needed to hear this collage as an album. It was the same thing that happened when we decided to do the Takeovers’ Turn To Red album. We got so obsessed with the collage as an album cover that we had it blown up to 12-inch vinyl size and drove around town looking at it. So Bob compiled 14 of his songs, some old and some new, and we started cranking on them. After the album (Brown Submarine) was done, Bob decided it didn’t sound like a side project but an actual band with the three of us as full-time members. He hadn’t been in a band since GBV, and he said it seemed appropriate for Boston Spaceships to be the next one to leave a legacy.
How do you and Bob decide which tunes will be Spaceships songs and which ones Bob will use for his solo records?
Bob decides which songs will be used for which projects. His solo albums tend to be a bit more mature and darker in tone. Boston Spaceships has a more pop side, but it’s a lovingly weird pop side. The songs are shorter and full of youthful, sometimes naive, energy.
I think the production on the albums is really strong. Where do you record them? Do you labor on guitar and drum sounds, or do you just turn on the tape and let it rip?
We recorded Brown Submarine with Brian Berg and The Planets Are Blasted with Jonathan Drews, both of whom live in Portland, Ore. They’re insanely talented, and it’s really easy to explain what I’m looking for in terms of sounds and approach. I can say, “This song will have ‘A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing’ ending” or “I want it to sound like we lost the mic in the back of a cave and I died looking for it,” and they get it. John’s drum parts are done really off the cuff—we tried to approach the drums like early GBV, where it’s done in one or two takes and we’re on to the next one. Since we don’t have our own recording studios, I just work on all guitar, bass and keyboard parts acoustically until I can get into the studio. Then I only have three to five hours to get all the ideas out, but it makes coming back for the next session excruciatingly exciting.
Does Johnny Moen have a lot of input as to parts and arrangements? You two seem to have a good working relationship and chemistry.
In terms of the parts and arrangements, it pretty much starts at Bob’s house. Before we start recording, I sit down with Bob a few times and we listen to his acoustic demos on the speakers at his house (called “The Bigs”). We get hammered and talk about ideas, influences and approaches. The next day, when I look at my notes, almost every tune always has the phrase “kick ass” next to what needs to happen with it, especially as the booze kicks in. Then I just go home to Portland and obsess about the songs. I listen to them over and over. I try to get all the little parts of his demos down so they still have that Pollard feel and magic in terms of phrasing and energy. I’ve known John since 1988 while he was in the Dharma Bums, and we’ve played together in the Cavemanish Boys and the Takeovers. Playing with John is always fun. He’s got drive and swing, which make the songs really leap. He’s also an insanely quick learner, which is a total blessing. There’s a lot of his personality in those drum takes.
When can we expect another monumental Spaceships tour? West Coast peeps especially want to know.
I don’t know yet. If and when it happens, it wouldn’t be until our third album comes out in October. It’s called Zero To 99, and it’s pretty fierce and catchy. Lots of Pollard hits and haunts; I mean, when you flip over an album and you see song titles like “Mr. Ghost Town” and “The Question Girl, Alright,” you kind of have to hear it.
Boston Spaceships’ “Go For The Exit” from Brown Submarine (download here):