Category Archives: FEATURES

Jessica Lea Mayfield: Alternative Medicine

JessicaLeaMayfield

Lapsed folkie Jessica Lea Mayfield finds a new muse in ’90s grunge

Although she’s been performing for two-thirds of her 24 years, Jessica Lea Mayfield is starting over with third album Make My Head Sing…(ATO).

Mayfield joined her parents’ bluegrass band when she was eight. In her teens, she sang Foo Fighters covers at coffeehouses in and around her home of Kent, Ohio, and did some recording with her brother, privately releasing an album under the alias Chittlin’ in 2007. That led to recording with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and her official debut, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which came out in 2008, when she was 19.

That well-received album presented Mayfield as a moody, rootsy singer/songwriter of precocious talent, confirmed by its follow-up, 2010’s Tell Me, also produced by Auerbach.

But then Mayfield became disillusioned.

“I was touring for Tell Me, and in one of the most awkward stages of my life,” says Mayfield. “The age when everyone doesn’t really know who they are, when you’re in your early 20s. I was out there, and I had to kind of front. I didn’t even know what kind of clothes I liked to wear, but I was out there every single night, just trying to be myself and not even really sure who that was. It just got real tiring. I realized at one point that this isn’t the kind of music that I would put on and listen to.”

Mayfield considered giving up on music altogether. She married fellow musician Jesse Newport, and they settled in Kent. Newport was eager was to record with her, but she had little interest.

“We got married, and I was on the downspin from Tell Me,” she says. “He was like, ‘Let’s just record for fun,’ and I would be like, ‘I fucking hate music. I don’t want to play anymore. I give up.’ I want to have an old folks’ home for animals, anything. I was so done. I was so fucking bored. I like all kinds of music, but I took the wrong pill or something and went down the folk alley. Now I feel like this record is the first record that I ever made. I started really getting into playing guitar, and the record kind of just wrote itself.”

Make My Head Sing… will surprise listeners who expect a third set of Americana-style folk rock. Produced by Mayfield and Newport, it’s a grungy power-trio album that places Mayfield’s calm voice in a squall of her electric guitar. The crackling, distorted guitar line of “Oblivious” opens the record, and it sounds like a declaration of purpose: This is hard rock, not Americana. Although it includes a few restrained moments that recall her past work—the reverberating “Standing In The Sun,” wistful love song “Seein* Starz”—the dominant tone is heavy and aggressive.

“What got me into music was ’90s alternative, bands like the Stone Temple Pilots,” says Mayfield. “I never got big into learning all the guitar tones that I loved so dearly, but now I’ve realized that I can make those sounds in my pajamas in my house, and it’s really become a passion of mine and something I really fucking love.”

She calls the album “a tribute to what I sit around and listen to.” The reference points are bands such as Soundgarden, Queens Of The Stone Age, Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Without slavishly imitating them, Mayfield has mastered their visceral energy and metallic power chords. It’s also ominous and eerie on songs like “Party Drugs,” the first she recorded for the album, which she calls, “just me and guitar and getting into making things sound fucked up.”

Mayfield still professes a fondness for the old-time country of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but claims, “there’s not a lot of new music that I like.” She’s a purist and has little patience for electronics.

“I get so pissed off when I go out, if I’m watching a band at a festival and I hear things that I don’t see onstage,” she says. “I don’t want to hear this magical computer shit. I just want to see a band: I want to go to a show and I want to see a fucking band.”

For this record, Mayfield also wanted to be in control, to be the one taking the chances and making the decisions, to create something that reflected who she is now.

“I’m not going sing about the shit that a teenage girl would sing about—I’ve got to make something that’s a little more coherent with my life,” she says. “I turned 24 years old in August. This is the year I’ve figured out that life is about working hard and enjoying the work that you do. If you’re not doing those two things, then you’re doing something wrong.”

—Steve Klinge

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OFF!: Waste Management

OFF!

Emphysema, misanthropy and crummy hospital food can’t keep a good punk band OFF!

Some artists deal with the subject of mortality in delicate, reflective brushstrokes. OFF! bandleader Keith Morris confronts it roughly the same way a hungry pit bull meets a T-bone steak—with fang-gnashing ferocity. To wit: multiple compressed assaults from the band’s new sophomore salvo, Wasted Years (Vice), such as “Meet Your God,” “No Easy Escape,” “Time’s Not On Your Side,” “I Won’t Be A Casualty” and the 1:10-long kickoff single, “Void You Out,” a treatise on man’s ongoing inhumanity to man. Because, at 58, the Circle Jerks/Black Flag vet (who still maintains a spin-off combo dubbed Flag) has faced his own frailties, overcome most of them, and simply accepted—then soldiered on—with the rest.

The dreadlocked, dry-witted proto-punker didn’t sense the dark theme during the writing and live-to-eight-track recording of Wasted Years. But he admits that he can clearly hear it now. Especially since he was seriously ill for its sessions.

“We’d gone to South America two weeks before we tracked the album,” he says in a laconic drawl, just a few degrees less sneering than his singing voice. “And on the flight coming back, with all these people sneezing and hacking, I picked up some kind of lung infection. So, I’m coughing up phlegm and getting winded halfway through one of these minute-long songs, and there was something ridiculous about that. But I found out I had emphysema.”

Suddenly the exuberant, hyperspeed project OFF! Morris had started in 2009 with Burning Brides guitarist Dimitri Coats, Redd Kross bassist Steven Shane McDonald and Rocket From The Crypt drummer Mario Rubalcaba wasn’t so much fun anymore. But the vocalist persevered, like he had through three recent diabetic comas. The third one last year forced the cancellation of OFF!’s West Coast tour. The first one occurred in Norway, where Morris had flown to play an outdoor festival with Turbonegro. When he touched down, he rehearsed so late that he couldn’t find any open restaurants where he could counteract his insulin shot.

Well, he did find a 7-Eleven near his hotel, Morris amends, taking a Grampa Simpson-lengthy time to relate his yarn. “But they didn’t even have any microwave burritos,” he says. “They had some Norwegian equivalents to pasta and stew, but it all looked like … well, I’ve got a lawn out in front of my place in Los Feliz, and we have this new rash of self-entitled yuppie people walking their dogs, and their dogs shitting on our lawns. That’s what the stuff in the refrigerated showcase looked like—I thought, ‘I’m not eating that because I stepped in that somewhere!’” The hotel maid found him sprawled across the bed, unconscious, and the desk clerk phoned the paramedics.

Morris woke up in a local university hospital, where he stayed for seven days. Which made him even grouchier. “I mean, thank you to the fine citizens of Norway for their socialized medicine,” he says. “But boy, is their food horrible. They tried to serve me shrimp in a tube and this large gray cracker, like a saltine that had been sitting in some cupboard for two years. And my roommate in the hospital said, ‘Hey—are you gonna eat that?’ He got all the food they brought me.” Except the apple juice and candy bars.

But it was the second coma that proved most life-changing. Granted, it was also a tad embarrassing—Morris had just flown home from Australia to have an insulin-leveling dinner with his significant other. “But one thing leads to another, and boyfriend and girlfriend are doing what they normally do, getting all lovey-dovey and squishy and mushy,” he says. “And I pass out after we get through, and in that process, I’m also slipping into a coma.”

His lady called 911, threw open the bedroom drapes. “So, when I come to, the room is brightly lit, I have six dark figures standing over me, and I’m like, ‘OK—I’ve seen the light. Maybe this is that fabled light at the end of the tunnel!’” Now, the rocker checks his blood glucose levels three times a day, eats as healthy as possible and accepts as many outside assignments as he can, like the Gun Club cover he just recorded with Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer for a tribute album.

But Wasted Years doesn’t only view mortality with disdain—it sees the world the same cynical way. “I just write lyrics about whatever affects me, whatever I see, things that I hear,” says Morris. “You turn on the news and it’s just one fucking huge parade of garbage. And that’s what fuels me—that’s what comes through in the lyrics. This world is fucked. And unless you’ve got a good chunk of dough and you’re able to provide for your kids, why would you even brings kids into this world?”

—Tom Lanham

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Jonathan Wilson: Fan Fiction

JonathanWilson

Jonathan Wilson conjures mid-’70s psych/folk with a little help from famous friends

It’s another peaceful-easy-feeling evening in Laurel Canyon. Day is finally surrendering to night, which signals the onset of shooting the waltz scenes in the video for “Dear Friend,” the leadoff single from acclaimed producer and singer/songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s latest album, Fanfare. The location of the shoot is a patch of driveway at the end of a dirt road that snakes perilously through a warren of hillside hippie hobbit holes and dead-ends in front of Wilson’s manager’s hillside house. The dancers are dressed in turn-of-the-last-century period regalia—top hats and tails, taffeta ball gowns and silk gloves—that set the twilight reeling.

When I left my hotel, it was the 21st century outside, but after a half hour wending through Laurel Canyon’s steeply perched roads, past any number of leafy homesteads that Graham Nash may well have been singing about in “Our House,” it’s beginning to feel a lot like 1969—only to arrive at the video shoot and find everyone is dressed like it’s 1869. It’s sort of like that scene in Inception where they induce a dream and, once inside, they induce another dream. Wilson is no stranger to the woozy cognitive dissonance of doing the time warp again. There is retro-hippie chic and then there’s Jonathan Wilson, who, by all sounds and appearances, seems to have emerged fully formed—bearded, bangled and bell-bottomed—from 1971 via a wormhole rendered incontinent by too many Quaaludes and Brandy Alexanders at the Troubadour.

Gentle Spirit, Wilson’s critically acclaimed 2011 solo debut, sounded like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young getting high on The Dark Side Of The Moon. The new Fanfare sets the Wayback Machine for a slightly more recent vintage—roughly 1975, by my reckoning. The Sopwith Camel cover and occasional jazz flute filigree notwithstanding, Fanfare sounds like Crosby, Stills & Nash crashing the recording sessions for Wish You Were Here, only to find out that Steely Dan has already done all the blow. Tin soldiers and Nixon have come and gone. Jimmy Carter’s in the White House and Cecil Taylor is on the lawn.

The CSN comparisons are only a slight exaggeration. Crosby and Nash lend their golden throats to Fanfare on a track called “Cecil Taylor,” which is easily the most interesting thing either have harmonized on since Déjà Vu. Various West Coast rock aristocrats who Wilson calls friends—people like Jackson Browne, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers—also turn up on the album, along with Wilco’s Pat Sansone and songwriting assists from Brit folk legend Roy Harper.

The participation of all the aforementioned star power is a direct result of each and every one being blown away by Gentle Spirit. However, the impressive pedigrees of Fanfare’s guest players—not to mention the prevailing sense of transgenerational cultural déjà vu their presence engenders—were checked at the studio door. Outside, they are, to varying degrees, legends; inside the studio, they are just friends who came by to jam.

“When I’m singing with Jackson or Crosby or Graham or something, that’s when it all really makes sense,” says Wilson, who looks like a hippie Christian Bale. “Like the differences in our age, the generational stuff, and who’s done what and when and where, that all vanishes in the song. That’s the attraction. That’s the basis of the friendship. I was talking today—I just did a tour with Bobby (Weir) from the Grateful Dead—and it’s the same exact thing. When we’re in the song, that’s what keeps it afloat: the friendship.”
Wilson is a Southern man, having grown up in Spindale, N.C.—at the base of the Piedmont Mountains, just down the road from Earl Scruggs’ house—which everyone knows is nowhere. His uncle used to play with Bill Monroe. His dad was a shit-hot bluegrass picker and—as the fruit does not fall far from the tree—a pre-teen Jonathan Wilson, something of a multi-instrumental prodigy, would sit in on drums when the drummer took ill. Back in the early ’90s, he followed the lead of a friend whose father happened to be the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly—Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars. Cue the Earl Scruggs.

He formed a band called Muscadine with songwriter Benji Hughes, who looks like the second coming of Gregg Allman (“He’s an incredible songwriter,” says Wilson), recorded a pair of albums for Sire that went nowhere, and the band soon followed suit. Wilson threw himself into producing other people’s music—Glen Campbell, Will Oldham, Father John Misty, Dawes—all the while quietly piecing together a clutch of solo albums that have yet to see the light of day, and as such have become prized artifacts amongst Wilson completists. Frankie Ray, recorded in 2005, is currently going for $200 on eBay.

“I couldn’t stop cutting tracks and doing my thing,” says Wilson. “But there was definitely a period … it was a dark age. I should have been doing exactly what I’m doing currently, which is putting out albums and then getting into the world and being out there with a band and performing the material. That’s what I should have been doing. But there was some sort of gestation that was sort of just happening, you know? And those were darker times, for fucking sure. During a lot of those times, I was in people’s bands, I was playing for them, I was producing them, I was helping them, and I was fucking showing what guitar amp to buy and what blah blah blah—it goes on and on and on. But my own fucking albums couldn’t find a home.”

Wilson eventually wound up on Bella Union when Elvis Costello heard a CD-R of Gentle Spirit, fell in love with it and began championing the cause. Tom Petty was another early enabler, taking our hero on tour, as was Jackson Browne, whom Wilson met at a party in Laurel Canyon only to discover he was already a Gentle Spirit fan.

“The first time that I met Jackson, he didn’t even really understand that I did that album” says Wilson. “But somehow someone said, ‘Yeah, this is the guy who did the Gentle Spirit album,’ and he was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s in my car; my kids know all the songs.’ So, that was kind of the birthing of that. Since then, he’s turned out to be one of my best hombres, for sure. He’s the shit. I just went to his fucking dentist. He just turns me onto shit left and right. He’s the best.”

And then, as if things weren’t getting name-droppy enough, Lana Del Ray may or may not have shown up with boyfriend Barrie-James O’Neill, formerly of Kassidy. But alas, at this point, Wilson’s manager intercedes to say that we are now officially “off the record.” As such, what may or may not have happened after that remains a story for another time.

—Jonathan Valania

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Drive-By Truckers: Blessings And Curses

DriveByTruckers

Drive-By Truckers create an emotional return to form

After fighting writer’s block for four years, Drive-By Truckers singer/guitarist Mike Cooley is now back to work.

“I kinda have to make myself do it,” says Cooley, a founding member of the band. “I get to that point of just going, ‘Come up with something. Don’t worry about if it sucks—get something out there. Now do it again, do it again, do it again.’ When I finally get a good line that I’m sitting on for weeks, it eventually comes to the point where I’m like, ‘Now write the next one. Do it today, do it right now, don’t get up … I have to stay on my own ass.”

A hearty chortle flows down the phone as Cooley reflects on what exactly it took to get him back in the flow of writing for the Truckers’ 12th album, English Oceans (ATO). This is Cooley’s return to full-on songwriting—splitting the tracklist right down the middle after letting bandmate Patterson Hood steer the ship for the two albums prior—and is a return to form for the group as a whole. While DBT has never been a band to slack on the road or in the studio, English Oceans has the vigor and exuberance that made it one of America’s best rock groups. But that vigor didn’t come without effort.

And yet, despite all the forced motivation, English Oceans doesn’t sound like work—this is a record that feels as effortless and relaxed as afternoon at the beach. After 12 albums and almost two decades in existence, the Truckers manage to sound like fresh-faced kids, even while their songwriting becomes more mature, literate, evocative. Cooley’s return to full-time songwriting has invigorated the band in substantial ways, restoring a balance that had been lacking on The Big To Do and Go-Go Boots.

“It was a bummer for me,” he says. “I enjoyed the process and I like both of those albums a lot, but not coming in with new stuff when you’re used to doing that just hurts. Luckily, I’ve got enough songs that I can keep playing my greatest hits—whatever the hell that is—to this audience as long as they want to hear it. But is that it? You forget sometimes that there’s work involved. You get so caught up in the inspirational aspect of it, you think that that’s just going to be there, and it’s supposed to be there; and if it’s not there, it’s not going to be any good. That’s half true … maybe not even half true. You’ve got to do the work, and sometimes you’ve got to relearn how to do it—whatever the process was last time you had a creative moment, but (it may) have been just for that moment and you might not get another one.”

The Truckers have full license to mail it in at this point—their fan base is as loyal they come, one of the most reliable and enthusiastic in all of rock ‘n’ roll, willing to stick with the band through ebbs low and high. But that loyalty also goes both ways, and for Cooley, the need to give the fans the same level of quality is just as important. Also, just to make things more complicated, there’s a need to write songs that don’t just satisfy ravenous fans’ expectations, but the artistic needs of their author while progressing the group as an entity. It’s a balancing act that can be much more work than just cranking out the same old thing.

“I had to remind myself, too, that they call it ‘playing’ for a reason,” says Cooley. “I was reading a book about the 1970s Oakland Raiders when John Madden was coach, and he said, ‘They call it ‘playing’ for a reason—play the game.’ That was his philosophy, and they backed it up. I had to remember that.”

The Truckers back that philosophy up as well. On tracks like “Shit Shots Count” (arguably the most accurate portrayal of working a shit job for way too long that you’ll hear all year) or the galloping, Morricone-channeling “Made Up English Oceans,” you can hear the joy of creation. Even morbid character sketches like “When Walter Went Crazy” or “Til He’s Dead Or Rises” (the first time in the band’s career Cooley has sung a song penned by Hood) bristle with the energy of an outfit deep into its own groove.

The one track that doesn’t have an undertow of excitement is “Grand Canyon,” their tribute to longtime crew member and friend Craig Lieske, who passed away in January 2013. He was a familiar face to anyone who had ever visited the Truckers’ merch table, and his passing was a major blow to the DBT community. “Grand Canyon” is a sprawling, heart-wrenching tribute that evolves from maudlin waltz to gorgeously atmospheric space meditation. It’s seven minutes of true sadness and longing that captures the shiftless, floating feeling of losing someone you love.

“When you do this for a living and you start getting older and you’re practicing with your band and playing the gig … all that was great fun and it still is,” says Cooley. “But you get caught up in this ‘I’m a professional musician and I’m an artist now, and people expect this out of me.’ And you’ve got to go, ‘Fuck that, go play.’”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Pixies: Pilgrims’ Progress

Pixies

Armed with a bottle of wine and a little chien andalusia, the Pixies’ Black Francis bares his soul and sets MAGNET straight on Kim Deal, Kim Shattuck, dope, daddyhood, new songs, old wounds and how, after 26 years, he finally found his mind. Story by Jonathan Valania, photo by Gene Smirnov.

The year is 1988. I’m a college DJ stranded in the middle of Pennsyltucky. Entranced by the naked boob on the cover of Surfer Rosa, I slap it on the turntable and … they had me by the first 20 seconds of “Where Is My Mind?” They never really let go. Shortly thereafter, I got a gig working for a Pennsyltucky daily. They asked me one day if I wanted to interview some guy named Black Francis from the Pixies. Would I? Man, this was a dream come true! I could finally learn the WTF of lyrics like, “He bought me a soda, he bought me a soda/And he tried to molest me in the parking lot.”

When I got him on the phone, he was no doubt bone-tired from endless touring and weary of answering stupid fanboy questions. He insisted I call him Charles and pretty much refused to give me a straight answer to any question. “Who cares?” he’d say. “We just try to make cool rock music.” I remember thinking, “What a dick.”

It’s 1993. In the wake of a dispiriting trail-of-tears trek across North America as U2’s opening act, and years of low-intensity inter-band strife, Black Francis breaks up the Pixies via fax, rechristens himself Frank Black and proceeds to release what fans consider to be a steady string of increasingly irrelevant solo albums. Kim Deal manages to land on her feet, but after a few seasons of success, the Breeders’ career collapses under the weight of the Deal sisters’ substance abuse and related baggage. Joe Santiago manages to eke out a living scoring films you never saw along with the occasional episode of Weeds and Undeclared. And the drummer gives up music to become—wait for it—a magician.

In some ways—ways he is still not fully ready to cop to—Black Francis suffered the most. Breaking up the Pixies was Black Francis’ original sin. The world—at least the part of the world that had any bearing on the life of Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV—loved the Pixies, and decided that he would be punished for his sins with a long twilight bar-band exile of dwindling record sales, half-full concert venues and diminished cultural relevance; this despite making music that was, almost without exception, as good—if not better in its own way—than his Pixies work. “Everything I do as a solo artist will always be overshadowed by this other band called the Pixies,” he says in the documentary Loud Soft Loud. “It doesn’t matter what I do—it’s always going to end in tears.”

The cold hard fact is that people like bands, not songwriters. A band is a narrative with archetypes: the cute one, the funny one, the smart one and so on. A songwriter, in the public’s imagination, is just some guy who bangs out jingles to make the mortgage every month. Barry Manilow is a songwriter; the Beatles are a narrative. People love good stories more than they love good songs. Frank Black didn’t have a good story. He’s the guy who killed the Pixies.

It would take him a decade to figure that out.

Fast-forward to 2004. My college roommate—who was zonked on acid, as was I, that night at the Ritz (Aug. 4, 1989, to be exact) when the Pixies did “Wave Of Mutilation (U.K. Surf Mix)” and the Earth stood still and the hand of God came down in a ray of pure white light and gave Black Francis a handjob (I swear to you this really happened)—calls me up one day to say the Pixies are getting back together. “Just when I stopped caring,” I say. That’s not entirely true—not for me or anyone else. The shows sell out in minutes. I’m giddy when I see them in Camden, N.J., and I know I’m not alone. And contrary to what people who weren’t there the first time around say, they’re as good as they ever were. The classic songs seem immune to the ravages of age, and besides, the Pixies’ strange allure was never based on the hormones and hair of youth. Yeah, they’re fatter and balder, but, having settled or set aside the irreconcilable differences of the past, and worked through the addiction/rehab/divorce craziness of middle age, they are also wiser.
And so am I.

Black Francis was right all along. Who cares about all those painfully literal fanboy questions and all that soap opera, he-said/she-said jive? The Pixies are just trying to make cool rock music. Sometimes that’s enough. Besides, the only thing worth knowing is this: If man is five, then devil is six and God is seven. Or, to put it another way, the Pixies were just four hard-working kids based out of Boston whose monkey died and went to heaven.

Something happened while they were away. This cult band with its weird, noisy songs about UFOs, incest and broken faces became more famous in death than they ever were in life. They’d become part of the great collective alt-rock unconscious—like mid-period Cure or the first Violent Femmes record or Thurston Moore’s haircut. By 2004, Surfer Rosa was on every punky bar jukebox. Jocks cranked “Wave Of Mutilation” as they raced by in daddy’s car, flipping off the nerds. And every cool chick bass player worth her salt had played “Gigantic” practically until her tits fell off. When I saw the Pixies reunion, 20,000 people sang along with every word of “Where Is My Mind?” Judging by the median age of the crowd, most were still in short pants when the song first came out. It would seem that the Pixies have become—dare I say it—folk music. Hell, the following year they did a reverse Dylan—they went acoustic at Newport.

By 2012, the reunited Pixies had been together longer than the original band’s seven-year run. Then came news that Kim Deal had left the band. The reason for her departure was never explained. Then came news the Pixies were going to carry on with plans to record new music without her.

The morning after the day that Kim Deal quit the Pixies, Black Francis shaved off all his pubic hair. To signify a new beginning, he would later tell me.

Everyone’s always trying to get backstage. It is the Valhalla of the concert experience—the mythical lodge of ecstatic feasts forbidden to mere mortals, full of ardor and ecstasy, although anybody who’s ever actually been there will tell you that you ain’t missing much. It’s a sweaty cold-cut plate, warm beer, a crab couch, the prevailing sense that you are overstaying your welcome. All of which pretty much sets the scene in the Pixies’ dressing room backstage at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia.

Guitarist Joey Santiago and a pretty middle-aged blonde are sitting on the crab couch sipping beers. Turns out she went to elementary school with Santiago in the Boston area, where she still lives, and just saw the Pixies for the first time when they played Boston last week. She just happened to be in Philly visiting her son, who goes to college here. One friend request later, here she is. This is what passes for groupies backstage at a Pixies show these days: someone’s mom.

Cocksucker Blues it ain’t.

I always thought of the Pixies as harmless-looking people making dangerous music. But offstage, the band members are, by their own admission, well … boring people. Put it this way: If they had a reality show, nobody would watch it. But who am I to judge? I am currently trying to square my relative backstage boredom with the fact that the 1989 version of me would probably never stop masturbating over the fact that he was even here.

Drummer Dave Lovering is in warm-up mode, his head covered with a towel, tapping out paradiddles on anything that doesn’t move, not talking to anyone. In an adjoining room, Black Francis and new touring bassist Paz Lenchantin are doing vocal warm-up exercises that, through the wall, sound like a cross between bad opera and the Muslim call to prayer.

Lenchantin is filling the big shoes of the dearly departed Kim Deal, as well as Deal’s more recent replacement, Kim Shattuck, frontwoman of the Muffs, who parted ways with the band back in November somewhat acrimoniously. Lenchantin is so cool that if anyone can solve the I’m Not Kim Deal problem, it’s her. Tonight she is wearing a brandy-color velveteen mini dress a friend sent her from Paris—the kind Marianne Faithfull used to wear back before the Mars Bar Incident. She added the white frilly color and cuffs to set it off. Smart girl.

She was born in Argentina, and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was four to escape the brutality of the Dirty War. She’s not just a pretty face—she’s got chops. She played bass in Billy Corgan’s Zwan and Maynard James Keenan’s A Perfect Circle. She played bass on Brightblack Morning Light’s sultry, self-titled 2006 LP. (All rubbery Rhodes clangor, tremolo-ripple bass, woozy slide guitar, sex-fogged vocals and a whole lot of crystal blue persuasion, it is arguably the best fuck-music album since MBV’s Loveless.) Until signing on as the Pixies’ touring bassist in early December, she was the bass player for L.A.’s bluesy psychonauts the Entrance Band. Tonight marks her sixth show with the Pixies.

When Black Francis emerges from the practice room, there is a discernible bounce in his step. He gathers the band around for a combined set-list discussion and pep talk. Throwing air punches at an imaginary foe, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot-style, he giddily calls out the first three songs of tonight’s set, punctuating each announcement Ralph Kramden-style with a cartoonish Pow!

“Bone Machine.” Pow!

“Debaser.” Pow!

And then, as per Paz’s request, “River Euphrates.” Pow!

(Frankly, it’s a strange display. Everyone laughs a little too hard. I can’t tell if they’re trying to convince me that they’re having fun, or just themselves.)

Having seen the Pixies a half-dozen times since 1988, I feel qualified to say they’re as fierce a live band these days as they ever were, absent Deal’s velveteen vocals and infectious (yet slightly unsettling) perma-grin. The sold-out crowd is surprisingly young and—best I can tell, wandering the cavernous Electric Factory—way into it. But for reasons unclear, the Pixies walk off at the end of their set and never return for an encore. This is highly unusual. To the best of my knowledge, the last band to not do an encore was Great White back in 2003. And that was because the club burned down in the middle of its set.

I make my way backstage to find out what happened. When I knock on the dressing room door, the Pixies’ manager opens up a crack, shakes his head “no,” then closes the door in my face. I step outside to grab a smoke, and a few moments later the stage door explodes open. Lovering brushes past, bounds down the stairs, lights a smoke, pulls the visor of his hat down low, turns his back to the exiting crowd, scrolls through his text messages and emails, clearly in no mood for company or conversation. I guess there are some things about being a Pixie that we will never understand.

I head back to the dressing room, which is now admitting guests. Black Francis pours me a tall glass of wine, refills his own and, unbidden, explains why there was no encore tonight. “The crowd didn’t earn it. I’m old-school that way. I’m Vaudeville,” he says with a shrug. “I find that when the audience is younger, they want you to hold their hand and smile and kick the beach ball around, and we don’t do that. We don’t do jazz hands.”

We are not scheduled to sit down for a one-on-one interview until the Pixies play Newark, N.J., in a few days, but a couple more refills later, Black Francis is ready to talk. Right now. Somewhat flummoxed, I tell him I don’t have my questions or my recorder, and my iPhone is almost dead.

“I have a cassette recorder,” he says. “We can use that.”

A cassette recorder? But how would I play it back afterward?

“I’ll give you the recorder—you can have it.”

This is actually quite perfect. I can’t think of a better person to ask why Kim Deal quit the Pixies than Black Francis with half a bottle of wine in him. We duck into the empty dressing room next door. He takes the one chair and I sit on the sofa, which turns out to be very low to the ground. He looms over me. It’s a small, bare room and Black Francis is using his outdoor/half-a-bottle-of-wine voice. He booms in the close quarters. He’s wearing a gray, military tunic-style overcoat, not unlike the kind you would expect a North Korean soldier to wear in winter. In the dimly lit room, with his shaved head, considerable girth and that tunic, I feel like Martin Sheen being lectured by Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (“Are you a rock critic or a music journalist, Willard?” Um, both? “You’re neither—you’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”)

BF: Look, I get the feeling the publicist or the manager says to writers, “Don’t ask about this, don’t ask about that.” Fuck that—ask me anything you want.

OK, let’s talk about Kim Deal leaving the band. What’s your side of the story?
BF: Well, it’s very simple. She’s been reticent for a very long time to make a new record.

Now, why do you think that was?
BF: I don’t really know. I can speculate. I’m sure some of the reasons were personal, and some of the reasons were common sense. Like, “Ah, we got a good thing going. If it isn’t broke, why try to fix it? Let’s not make that bad move, the comeback record.” She either wanted to or didn’t want to. It wasn’t that big of a deal for us. It was frustrating to me personally at times, because I wanted to do that. At the end of the day, I just embraced her reticence. But she started giving us a couple of clues with things that she said.

Such as?
BF: “Maybe Joe and Charles should make some demos with Gil Norton.”

Fast-forward. It’s the fall of 2012. You’re all in a recording studio in Wales with Gil Norton behind the board. Then what happens?
BF: We got to Wales, we got to work, but it was a little slow going, and she was very … my impression was that she was very stressed, or unhappy, or whatever for whatever reason. As everyone would be. People have things going on in their life that (don’t) always … it’s easy to take things personally sometimes, but when you get to the bottom of it, they got stuff going on in their life. It’s nothing to do with you.
So, we were doing things in a very meticulous kind of way with Gilmore, which he loved, because he was meticulous. Some drums, now some bass. So, after we’ve done the four or five big songs that I have tweaked out with Gilmore at his house, and kind of brought them to a certain level, once she saw that we had every intention of going beyond this little batch of four or five songs—that we were going to have a full record—that’s when she decided, “OK, I’m out.”
So, it was too much, whatever the reason. She came to the coffee shop—and to her credit, I mean, when I broke up the band for the first time, I just fucking sent a fax to the manager saying, “Copy this fax and mail it to everyone. I’m fucking out of here.” No confrontation, no discussion, no face-to-face, no let’s-kiss-and-say-goodbye; none of that. Just total “I’m out, I don’t want to deal with this.”
She had the balls, anyway—she knew we had our espresso at a certain time of the day, probably earlier than she would have her espresso. So, she comes in—we’re drinking our espresso—and gets her cappuccino: “I’m flying home tomorrow.” So, we were just like, “Ugh!” Joey and I didn’t want to get in an argument, so I got up and Joey followed me for different reasons. I wanted to go drink, and he wanted to go to the music store and get a slide. Then he went to the bar with me to drink. We just didn’t want any confrontation.
She enjoyed a better rapport with David, so we knew that David would talk to her and maybe change her mind or whatever, or find out what the reason was. We never got to the bottom of it. She called me finally from the airport. She called me right as she was getting on the plane on my cell phone to talk. I think by that point I had calmed down enough to just say, “Look, do whatever you have to do. Call us when you get to wherever you are, and if you’re interested in coming back … ” But she didn’t want to do that. She just kind of left. But she did communicate again—she said, “Hey, if you need any more bass … ” But it wasn’t quite … from our point of view, it wasn’t committed enough.
I mean, to her credit, she stuck it out on this whole revue thing as long as she could. But when it got to he point where we were going to do it all again—record new content, do all the interviews, do all the radio shows, do all the publicity, do videos, all that full shebang—I think she was just like, “It’s too much, man. I’m out of here.” But I don’t know—why did she leave? To me, she was unhappy with the situation, or unhappy with her life or whatever, just not happy. I mean, when someone’s not happy, they don’t want to be wherever they are, whatever it is. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you’re not happy, you don’t want to be there.

You guys never got as far as cutting vocals before she left?
BF: No, and really, I think that was the real commitment. Whether she knew it consciously or not, I think that’s when it starts to turn into something else. Anybody can come in and play some bass. Can you tell if it’s Kim Deal or not? Not necessarily. A lot of people aren’t going to be able to tell the difference. So, but as soon as the voice enters, just one little line, just one little note, a whole door opens. The whole person—and in her case, she’s a very charismatic person—her whole thing just fucking comes into the room. You can’t remove that; you can’t erase that. There’s no fucking engineer in the world that would do that. “Erase the fucking Kim Deal vocal part? No fucking way. Whatever you tell me to do, this is going in a fucking vault.” It’s like the Beatles. “Erase that.” Yeah right, we’ll erase that. You’re the fucking Beatles. We don’t erase anything you do, you know what I mean? I don’t know if she knew, but she must have self-consciously known: having her voice is really what it’s all about. That really just represents.

But the door’s still open if ever she decided to change her mind and wants to be in the Pixies again?
BF: Yeah. I don’t think that will ever happen, personally. I think she’s done with it. But, you know, you never know. I can’t say if she called tomorrow, I wouldn’t be like, “Oh wow, really?” Who knows?

When was the last time you spoke with her?
BF: The last time I spoke with her was when she was getting on that plane.

Was the reunion era less frictional than the initial era? As far as interpersonal stuff?
BF: Yeah, in general. I mean, everyone is much older and much more sober …

Can we go back to 1993, to just before you hit “send” on the fax? Why are you fed up? Why do you want to burn the Pixies?
BF: I don’t remember exactly what I said in the fax, but you know, I was on tour all the time. I was trying to hold on to this relationship I had going on. The constant touring schedule was interfering with that, and there was some animosity between Kim and I that had just settled into an icy coolness.

A cold war? No shooting or hand-to-hand combat—just hostility and undermining each other at every opportunity?
BF: A cold war. I mean, not like aggressive, but definitely passive-aggressive. It just wasn’t that much fun for everybody. Looking back now, what we needed was somebody in our world who was savvy enough to just go, “Look, these kids are, like, kind of tired. They’ve been doing a lot of work. And they probably need to have a little vacation. They need to take six months off and stop doing whatever they’re doing so they can catch their breath. Then they’ll pick up where they left off.” If someone had said that to us, advised us … “Look, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just chill out. Go on fucking vacation. Take a year off!”—we never would have lasted a year—“Take a year off!” If someone would have just said that to us, I think we would have done that and we would have just continued. We would have worked it all out.
I don’t know what the other guys were doing, but I was just smoking dope 24 hours a day. I was young, I was cocky. What did I want to do? Touring was OK, but what I wanted to do was go hang in a recording studio and experiment and try to figure out how it all worked. The record company was like, “Yeah, whatever you guys record, we’ll put out.” So, it just kind of fed that. Then that kind of interfered with touring. The agents were constantly encouraging the touring, which the band, I think, was kind of into. But I was always interfering: “No, let’s stop the tour and go cut another record.” But nobody’s saying, “Hey, let’s just chill the fuck out. Give these guys a little vacation.”

I’ve been in bands. I know what happens: I know when you’re overworked and a) you’re young and dumb, b) there’s alcohol and substances involved, c) you’re exhausted and you lose perspective—there are these slights that never get resolved. They get internalized. These little petty grudges just linger and simmer, and you forget after a while why you’re angry with each other, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are angry with each other. Is that about right?
BF: Yep.

I’m not going to make this whole thing about Kim Deal, but I would like to give you the opportunity to respond to this narrative that’s emerged that you were doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting: writing all the songs, singing them. Yet Kim was the one that got all the adulation. People really liked her—she smiled, she had a dreamy voice …
BF: She’s got charisma.

She’s got charisma. And you somehow resented that. Is there any truth in that? Or is that just kind of people projecting?
BF: Well, there’s truth in it in the sense that the narrative you referred to, those kind of narratives can be hurtful if they’re not factual. So, I’m resentful of the narrative. That resentment can start to affect your interpersonal band situation. The fact of the matter was that I was the writer, we had a band; we had a little thing going. One time, Kim walked into rehearsal—we were not psychologically prepared. She just showed up to practice one day, probably because she had to get her nerve up and say, “Oh, I have a bunch of songs, also.” We had never heard about these other songs before—it was out of the blue. So, the way she did it was a little like, “Whoa!” But we went along with it.
But the thing is, we’re rehearsing with shitty amps in a really loud rehearsal space. We’re probably bonked out of our mind on marijuana and we’re trying to make some sense out of a din. So, she brings in all these new songs or chord structures or whatever, and of course it didn’t click. So, the rest of the band and I talked about it and went, “Yeah, the new stuff she brought in today seemed kind of different. It didn’t seem to really work.” Now whether it was really good or not, who knows? It was a fucking cacophony when we tried it. So, we just went, like, “Kim … ” And she was very bashful and said, “Oh, that’s OK, don’t worry about it.” So, that was put aside.

When was this, roughly? What album?
BF: This was around Surfer Rosa, or maybe after Surfer Rosa. Somewhere in there. I remember a couple years after, we were touring around in England. We were doing something at the BBC, and she was listening to mixes in another room in the studio complex of her new record for her new band. She invited us down to hear them. So, we went down and we listened to them. So, really, the fact of the matter is that she was putting together the first Breeders record while the Pixies were going, and nobody had a problem with it. She didn’t have a problem with it; we didn’t have a problem with it. That’s the way it was going on.
She didn’t really find a receptive space for her material within the band until she started her own thing, and we were all like, “Cool.” So, that’s really all that happened. So, people that are writing about it trying to figure out … again, it’s a narrative. “Oh, that’s Charles, the guy who screams Taaaaaaaaaammmme! He’s not letting her write the songs.” And that’s not exactly right. That’s not exactly how it went down. So, you know, who knows what would have happened if we were able to get some vacation time in?

It seemed early earlier on that you guys sang a lot more than you did on the last two records. Was there a conscious decision to stop doing that?
BF: I think that there was probably iciness between us two, and then there was probably Gil trying to always force it or something. He’s trying to force these two people to sing together …

You didn’t really want to?
BF: I don’t think I was against it, I think … you know, people were barely showing up at the sessions, and the whole thing starts to turn into the Charles Thompson Show.

By what album?
BF: Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, those two records. It starts to turn into me hanging out at the studio for hours and hours and hours with Gil because I had the studio itch.

And those guys would just rather not? Or they already did their parts and they let you finish the record?
BF: I think if you’re not the writer, there’s only so much time you can put into the studio. You’re like, “Look, I got other shit to do than listen to Mr. Stoner here try it yet again a different way.”

When did you first start smoking pot?
BF: That was with the Pixies, I think. Not really until I started touring. I didn’t touch it when I was in college—not really.

For what reason? It just didn’t interest you?
BF: I think I was fearful of drugs and alcohol, so I never really went there. I think the first time that I got drunk was with Joey when we were in college. I vomited in the toilet. I was a very goody two-shoes when I was a teenager. But I think once I discovered pot, I was like, “Oh, I like this a lot.” I smoked it quite heavily throughout the whole Pixies.

Did it aid your creative endeavors?
BF: I don’t think I ever wrote a great song when I was high.

When was the last time you got high?
BF: I haven’t really smoked in about 10 or 12 years. I got kids now, and stuff. It’s too hard, you know? It’s too hard to negotiate that when you’re baked.

What about psychedelics?
BF: Yeah, sure. We used to do mushrooms a lot. We would go on college radio stations and, if it was the fall, tell people that if they had mushrooms, bring them to the show. We did them a lot. But ’shrooms never worked out for me. I had a beautiful experience the second time with our lighting guy walking around Cleveland. But when you’re on tour, hanging out in bars and nightclubs tripping, it’s not fun. People’s faces melting—it was just a paranoid bummer. So, eventually I stopped altogether.

What about LSD?
BF: Couple times. Once I went to a midnight movie and took it, and one time I was in Vegas and went to see Redd Foxx on acid. But I think I never got over “If it doesn’t grow out of the ground, I don’t want to touch it.” Cocaine, ecstasy, heroin—I remember somebody giving me a hit of ecstasy like 25 years ago, and it didn’t do anything.

So, while we’re dealing with the Kim controversies, can we just talk about the Kim Shattuck situation?
BF: Yeah. There’s not much to say, but yeah, sure.

Was she not cutting it music-wise or personality-wise? Or was it the way she was carrying herself onstage?
BF: It’s tough being in a band with new people, especially when you’re coming in to replace someone who’s been there for 28 years. It was a lot of pressure. What can I say? It just wasn’t working out. We all tried to make it work. She tried to make it work. It wasn’t working out. We tried to make it work again and, in the end …

I want to give you an opportunity to respond to the one thing that she seems to put out there: At one of the L.A. shows, she got excited and jumped into the crowd. And you guys didn’t like it, and then the next thing she knows, she’s fired. Is it as simple as that?
BF: No, certainly not. That would have been in the first week of shows that we performed in Los Angeles, and she remained with us until three months later, or whatever, like that. So, it wasn’t about that. Is it true that we didn’t care for the demeanor she was projecting? Yeah, but it was an honest mistake—well, not a mistake. She wouldn’t have known there was some kind of rule. We wouldn’t have known there was some kind of rule about certain body language or stage demeanor. But when you’ve been in a band for a long time, you don’t realize there are unwritten rules until some newbie comes in and starts breaking the rules. And you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa—we don’t do it like that! We do it like this.”
So, in a way, it was kind of cool that she sort of barged in, so to speak, and started doing things that are natural to her. And then we suddenly realized that’s not who we are. There was a certain identity awareness that had occurred within our own band. So, we told her, “No, don’t do it like that—do it like this.” And she did. She changed it up. You know, she was just a different kind of personality.

So, it was personal, not musical. Or was it musical as well?
BF: I would say it was probably both. I think personality-wise, she’s very West Coast, she’s very extrovert. We’re very East Coast, very introvert. That’s my thinking on it. Now, in terms of her playing, my call was that … the first few times I met her, I really liked her, and I thought, “Well, she’s not a bass player. But neither was Kim Deal.” So, maybe that’s the magic right there: someone who’s not a trained bass player. So, that was kind of perfect: that she was rough and ready, like us. She’s kind of cut from the same cloth. She’s the same age as us, she’s sort of the same kind of player as us, and she’s not a bass player, just like Kim Deal. “Dude, I’ll play the bass for ya!” Perfect.
So, it worked with my narrative. It worked with my little story. The problem with that is that we were a seasoned band playing a certain way, doing things a certain way, playing things a certain way. David has the most physically demanding job in the band—he’s the drummer. So, he’s had to keep himself in shape and practice his paradiddles, or whatever he does to keep himself in shape. And I think at this stage in the game, he was like, “Look, I don’t want to play with some lead singer/guitarist who’s picked up a bass. It’s not happening for me. I need to have someone who’s in the pocket. I need a real bass player. I worked really hard, I finally got to where I am—now you’re giving me some chick who doesn’t even play the bass.” So, I think it was frustrating for him.
Maybe I didn’t notice at first. I was like, “Oh, that’s great, and she’s hitting the notes! She’s singing the harmonies.” Life is beautiful, right? “Isn’t she awesome?” And Dave was like, “No, that’s not fucking awesome.” It took me a long time to figure that out, but eventually, I was like, “OK, I get it. He wants someone that’s slamming down on those eighth notes with him, 100 percent, and that makes for a better audiovisual picture.” If the drummer is just on the bottom and everyone is above him, it’s a wobbly building, and it’s like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You get the two-rhythm section, maybe even the rhythm guitarist down there on the bottom, and you start to have a really solid structure.

I’ve been listening to the new EPs (2013’s EP-1 and this January’s EP-2), and I think the material is really, really strong. These tracks could hold their own on Bossanova. And in some ways, I think the songwriting is a lot more fully realized and sophisticated than a lot of the old stuff. The chorus to “Indie Cindy”—it’s got that beautiful, soaring groove, and your vocals are about perfect. As someone with 28 years of Pixies fandom under my belt, I feel qualified to declare that as prime-cut, top-shelf Pixies. OK, so maybe there’s no “Where Is My Mind?” or “Wave Of Mutilation” in there, but I fail to see how the editors at Pitchfork can justify giving EP-1 a 1.0 out of 10 rating. That’s not a fair and balanced critique—that’s somebody with an agenda. And I think what’s going on here is they are sort of recasting you guys into this old narrative where you are the “bad guy” and Kim is the “good guy” and, “You chased her off again. We love Kim Deal and we want her to be in the Pixies, and we want her to be on these new songs, so now we’re mad at you and we have to punish you for being that bad guy again. Here’s a 1.0 review—fuck you.”
BF: Yeah, it’s like a whole Lester Bangs kind of thing. It’s like, “Fuck you! You used to be the fucking king, but now you’re a fucking piece of shit.” It’s that kind of thing. I get it. It’s cool. I’d rather play in a band than have to do that shit, but I get it. It’s kind of like, if you’re not going to do something, you’re just going to critique and talk about stuff. I get it if you want to be like the guy from Pitchfork. The Pixies have a comeback record? All right, one out of 10.

That’s ludicrous.
BF: Yeah, you know, it’s cool.

That’s not cool. That’s not judging the work on its merits or lack thereof. That’s a temper tantrum.
BF: Yeah, but it’s always been like that. Even back in the day with the NME.

As I recall, they were always tripping over themselves to kiss your asses.
BF: Until they made the editorial decision that, “Now we will remove their crown.”

Well, that’s the way British music papers work: One week you’re the savior of rock ‘n’ roll, and the next week they’re crucifying you.
BF: Yeah, I’ve been through that. So, I learned to accept it. I’m not really offended by that. Especially when I don’t make an effort to read this stuff. It’s more of a bummer for the tour manager to come to you and say, “Yeah, it’s a little soft today out there, a little quiet. We only about half sold the room.” You know, “Hey, the promoters moved the show to a smaller venue.” When you start to hear that kind of stuff, that hurts more than a review, you know what I mean?

Assuming you’re speaking from experience, when you were deciding you were going to break up the Pixies, had you thought it through? Did you tell yourself, “I’m not going to be able to operate at the same level I’m currently operating at. I’m going to have to start over again—back to playing bars”?
BF: Probably not. I must have been way too cocky to have that kind of thought process. Yeah, I probably thought it was all going to just continue and I was going to become great or something. I had a good time doing what I did, you know what I mean? I got to earn my dues so I could play my blues. But yeah, I didn’t have any kind of vision. I just continued. I learned pretty quickly. I became humble pretty fast.

Was there a point afterward that you thought, “Why did I do that?” Did you regret splitting up the band at any point?
BF: No, I held on to that story for a really long time. But I was able to let go of that story because I was breaking up with my wife, and that probably had something to do with that. That big part of my life was ending and I was more open to change. I was going to a therapist, and I was becoming older, and I had to confront all these new things I never had to confront before. I had to learn how to talk to women again. I had to go through all this shit. Then you become a lot more open to stuff. “Hey, the Pixies are getting back together again!” I didn’t say that. But then I thought, “Well, you guys want to get back together?!”

“Where Is My Mind?” is pretty much the unofficial theme song of Fight Club, and that movie is easily one of the coolest, most radical and most beloved movies of the past 15 or 20 years. Are you happy with the way the song was used in the film?
BF: Yeah, I like it fine. I thought the placement of it was very rewarding and dramatic. What’s not to like? The song has turned into its own small business. I get a lot of requests to license the song, and I say yes to almost everybody.

What have you said no to?
BF: There was a pornographic film that was being made that was pretending to be something other than a pornographic film, and it was very plain to us that it was just a pornographic film that for some reason wanted to license the music. And I think I said no to that. When we started making music, there was a huge aversion to all that. And I admire people like Tom Waits who basically say no to everything and say, “No, fuck you. Nobody’s going to put my music in their stupid shit, and I’m sticking to my guns.” And I admire that. At the same time, I also admire someone like Iggy Pop who’s like, “I don’t give a fuckin’ shit what you do with my song. That’s not why I made it, that’s not why I recorded it, that’s not why I made the record, but if someone wants to give me money to sell sausages, I don’t give a shit.” And I understand that, too, and I’m stuck between the two.

Kurt Cobain famously said he was just trying to rip off the Pixies when he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Did you ever meet him or have a conversation with him?
BF: Nope, never.

The Pixies have been covering “In Heaven” from Eraserhead for almost 30 years. Have you ever met David Lynch?
BF: Nope. That was a mistake on the part of our old manager. We had heard from Lynch’s people; I can’t remember what movie it was [reportedly Lost Highway - ed.], but they were playing this song from Bossanova, I think “Cecilia Ann,” on set as some temp music for the mood of the scene, and they wanted to use it in the movie. They weren’t necessarily trying to, like, get away with anything, but at the same time their position was like, “Look, little tiny artsy band, we’re the big fuckin’ … we’re in Hollywood here making a movie.” Even though it was David Lynch, “We want to use this for the movie, but were not going to pay for it.” Obviously they loved the song—they were using it already.
Our manager took the position like, “Screw you guys—you don’t want to pay us?” I get that. It’s like an old-school New England, like, “Fuck you, you ain’t giving me zero. No, give us a least a token, something! Don’t just do that.” So, he was like, “Take a hike. We don’t give a shit,” and I get that. But now when I think about the origins of the band and our direct connections with David Lynch in terms of us singing a song from the Eraserhead movie—and I remember all of us going to see Blue Velvet together as a band after band practice, all four of us sitting there in a movie theater together—David Lynch was a revered figure in my world, and the manager should have just let that one slide. It is a David Lynch movie, after all, and that’s forever.

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We Are Scientists: The French Connection

WeAreScientists

We Are Scientists infuse much-needed energy into a narcoleptic post-punk wasteland

We Are Scientists—the duo of vocalist/guitarist Keith Murray and bassist/vocalist Chris Cain—are known for the oblique humor and intelligence that they bring to their music, but a question about their sharp mental acuity produces gales of laughter.

“I don’t believe brains or wit are particularly helpful, or necessary, in pop music,” Murray says, still chuckling. “If we intended our appeal to be narrow and excessively insular, those qualities might be good for us, but nobody likes a smartass.”

“Pop is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of the population,” says Cain. “It must, by definition, bridge a lot of intellectual and humorous demographics. You want to tap into the collective unconscious and channel it. A finicky intellectual approach probably isn’t productive. A small portion of the public may like you very well, but large numbers of people will be put off.”

Despite their protestations, the songs on the band’s new LP, TV En Français (Dine Alone), are brimming over with wry humor and skewed insights into the state of modern romance.

“This is an album of love songs,” says Cain, explaining the record’s cryptic title. “But they’re more about how the communication, or lack thereof, affects the romantic part of a relationship. Two people can talk in a superficial way and miss a lot of the nuances you need to get along. It’s like watching a French TV program if you don’t speak French. You have an idea of what’s going on, but you’re missing important details when you don’t speak the same language. We’re also hoping the title will be helpful in getting us a couple of dates in France on our next tour.”

TV En Français was recorded with the help of producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio), who helped give the album a polished, expansive sound. “We spent months agonizing about turning the reins over to Chris,” says Cain. “The work he does with bands like Grizzly Bear has a hyper cool attitude. We’re pretty damn cool, but we’re not hyper cool, so having him vibe so strongly with our songs was great.”

“His real gift is hearing the songs you bring him and letting you know how amazing they can sound,” says Murray. “We told him what we wanted to do and knew he had his finger poised over the cool cred button.”

Murray and Cain went into the studio with longtime drummer Andy Burrows and cut the album’s basic tracks live as a trio. “All three of us were in a room playing together, with the goal of getting the drum sound as perfect as possible,” says Cain. “We played as a band, minus the vocals. Once we got the drums down, we listened to see if our parts were usable, and most of them were.”

The rest of the sonic textures and keyboards were then added to the mix. “Chris played the padded sounds that give the album its depth,” says Murray. “The three of us supplied the keyboard parts.”

“We decided who’d play the keys by how difficult the part was,” says Cain. “I’d play the easy parts, Keith would play the harder parts, and if it required a real pianist, Andy stepped in.”

The music on TV En Français occupies a huge sonic space, and features the band showing off the diversity of its musical palette with arrangements that include touches of reggae, disco, R&B and punk. “We don’t really plan things out or talk about arranging too much,” says Murray. “There is an aspect of weird, organic hanging-out as we work on the songs. We played some of them on a quick tour of Europe we did, but we don’t plot out the orchestration.”

“We bring out the finer elements and the feel of the songs as a band,” says Cain. “They all begin with Keith making demos and sending them to me and Andy. He sent us about a thousand songs (in the last couple of years), and we whittle ’em down when we practice or when we’re hanging around in the tour bus on the road. With a wet bar, of course.”

The band’s energetic approach is refreshing, especially on “Slow Down,” a rocker taken at a blistering tempo. “We don’t vibe with the sluggish songs that seem to be in fashion,” says Murray. “The world seems to want to go to sleep, but not us.”

“A lot of people are keen on slow, melancholic tunes,” says Cain. “Rock has always flirted with death and self-destruction in an exciting, arousing way. These days, a lot of bands are caught in a love-locked stare at death that I find very depressing.”

Throughout its long and checkered career, We Are Scientists have gained a sizable following in their home country, but they’re genuine rock stars in England and Europe.

“You can’t argue with good taste,” says Murray. “Radio in Europe is more expansive. They’re always interested in playing interesting, off-the-grid music. Not that we’re avant-garde or anything, but over there you can get on the radio even if you’re not on a major label.”

“I think they like us because it’s an older and more sophisticated musical culture,” says Cain. “They’ve honed their preferences over the centuries. America is like a three-year-old with an appreciation for everything, but lacking the ability to pay attention to anything for an extended period of time.”

—j. poet

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The Notwist: Transparent Motivations

Notwist

The Notwist unveils a cohesive album of clashing styles

As the Notwist worked together on its new album, Close To The Glass (Sub Pop), the trio felt the songs were going in too many directions. Ultimately, the band gave up on finding a center and embraced the diversity.

“With this record, there were no rules anymore,” says frontman Markus Acher from his home in Munich. “We were always thinking about what the record could be and how it could sound, and what should be the general direction. The longer we worked on it, the more desperate we got, because every song sounded different. Then after awhile, we just thought maybe we should just concentrate on it and go in every direction we like, and don’t think too much about how it should sound in the end—just make it like a long collage.”

This outcome makes perfect sense when considering the band’s history. The Notwist is all about exploring possibilities: of the interface of acoustic and electronic, the planned and the unplanned, collaboration and revision, evolution and experimentation. The group has released only seven albums over the course of a 25-year career, and Close To The Glass is only the second since 2002’s landmark Neon Golden. But that is in large part because the band continually shifts its focus.

“I think we always try to make the gaps shorter between the records, but it always ends up like six years or so,” says Acher. “I guess it’s because there’s lots of other activities for all the different members.”

Markus and his brother Micha formed the Notwist in 1989 in Weilheim, Germany, beginning as an abrasive, hardcore punk trio, with Markus on guitar and vocals, Micha on bass and Martin Messerschmid on drums. They released two albums before adding keyboardist and programmer Martin Gretschmann for 1995’s 12.

“When Martin joined with electronics, sampler and stuff, in a way everything changed a lot,” says Markus. “We tried more and more to get everything we are interested in into the music. In the beginning, it was very—how should I say?—monochrome; very pure in a way. We played in the rehearsal space and then recorded in the studio, but with the third record, we started to experiment a little bit more, so those were kind of the two phases of the band.”

The keynote of that second phase is 2002’s quietly restrained Neon Golden, one of the earliest—and best—hybrids of guitar rock and pointillist electronics. Gretschmann brought his skills at programming, working with styles associated with German labels such as Kompakt and Morr Music. It was the album that brought the Notwist to the attention of the American indie-rock audience, with songs like the ringing “One With The Freaks” and the glitchy “Pick Up The Phone.” Neon Golden’s seamless synthesis has become commonplace since then, but at the time, it was at the vanguard, presaging albums such as the Postal Service’s Give Up.

Instead of riding Neon Golden’s momentum and working on a follow-up, the Notwist dispersed to work on other projects. The band returned in 2008, this time without Messerschmid. The Devil, You & Me was another tautly wound collection, but with a broader palette—a bit more aggressive in spots, a bit more diffuse in others, a lot more orchestrated at times. Then, another several years of projects with the other bands, and some Notwist work for a soundtrack, before work began on the next album.

That brings us to Close To The Glass, which embraces the abstract electronics of “Signals” and the insistent electric-guitar riff of “Kong” (a song inspired by listening to Stereolab, on which Markus recounts a flood during his childhood and a superhero he dreamed up who was part Superman and part King Kong). One of the simplest songs, “Casino,” was one of the most difficult. It started as an elaborate, orchestrated composition by touring drummer Andi Haberl that Gretschmann then remixed, then Markus added vocals and guitar; but when the band decided it wasn’t satisfied with it, Markus recorded an acoustic version, and that one, with few overdubs, is what ended up on the album. On the other hand, the nearly nine-minute “Lineri” is basically live in the studio, with everyone working synthesizers, electronic drums and keyboards.

Most songs went through so many transformations that even Markus has trouble hearing what’s acoustic and what’s electronic, what he may have played or what someone else did. Much of it was run through old analog, modular synthesizers that, according to Markus, “never do what you want them to do; they just have a life of their own. On the one hand, you put something in that is drums, and on the other end, there’s something coming out of this system that sounds totally different—like, I don’t know, a bass or violin or something.”

It’s an album of discrete stories, too, like an anthology, says Markus, who writes the lyrics. “Generally, for this record, I tried to not have the big theme or something,” he says. “Just to tell small stories or parts of stories, as if you read into a book and you just read one chapter and you don’t know the beginning or end. You skip into a life or a story. In a way, when I listen to the record now, I think of it like if you have a small town or street, and you go from window to window, and you look into the lives of different people who have different stories that everybody tells—all kinds of people, different ages, different backgrounds.”

In that way, the breadth of styles fits the subject matter; it’s a sequential journey. “The songs clash sometimes,” says Markus. “But in a way, in the end, they connected. Every song can stand on its own, but in the end, I wish people would listen to the whole.”

This spring, the band has music for a theater piece debuting in Berlin, and it will spend much of the year on the road. That’s the focus for now, but Markus knows the group will eventually be looking forward to the next possibilities, too.

“This Notwist record was so long now and so exhausting to make, so we’re really happy to tour now,” he says. “And after the touring for the Notwist, we will be really happy to concentrate on something different again, something that’s not song-oriented maybe or that goes in another direction.”

—Steve Klinge

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Bombay Bicycle Club: Wheels Within Wheels

BBC

Ignoring trends and fads, London’s Bombay Bicycle Club goes global on its fourth album.

English-born 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge was the sort of artist every medium seems to produce now and then, one whose vision and technique lands so far outside standard practices that it changes the direction of the art form. Using unwieldy mechanics and frequently putting himself in physical danger to get the images he was after, Muybridge captured several now-classic landscape shots of the American West in which humans appeared like small toys, afterthoughts of creation dwarfed by the craggy vastness of the wild countryside. But today, as he was in his lifetime, Muybridge is best known for his innovative experiments in representing locomotion photographically, multiple series of still images recording human and animal movement designed to be viewed in the “zoopraxiscope,” a forerunner of the film projector, invented by Muybridge himself.

Muybridge’s famous multi-image projects The Horse In Motion and Boys Playing Leapfrog—in addition to anticipating the technical processes of motion-picture projection—also advanced the science of human perception. His pieces offer some of the earliest manipulated illustrations of the phi phenomenon, the optical effect by which related images perceived in a sequence create the illusion of continuous movement. Muybridge fortuitously appeared at just the right moment to exploit a public and scientific craving for the study of movement: The “phenakistoscope,” a handheld device developed in the 1840s that created strobic motion effects with a disc, upon which was printed a sequence of still images, was especially well-suited to his work in early stop-motion technology.

But one piece in particular, entitled “A Couple Waltzing,” offers a slight variation on the photographer’s usual single-figure or landscape studies. Here, in a simply but elegantly drawn pairing, are a well-dressed man and woman locked happily in a light embrace, forever dancing, as the wheel spins around and around—as indeed it must, for the illusion of movement to carry over and to bring us back, always, to where we began. In a career marked by brainy experimentation, it’s a singularly human—and endearingly romantic—entry in Muybridge’s catalog.

All of which may seem a very roundabout way to come to the point, which is—in case you’ve been wondering—Bombay Bicycle Club’s new album, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vagrant). But the heart of the LP is just this—this cycle, the wheels that spin and carry us through time, through the world, through love, loss and love again, and set us back on top. It’s a big-sounding, wildly ambitious record, and one that will likely emerge, if we can hazard a prediction, as one of 2014’s most rewarding releases.

The cover art is our firstF clue to content: a Muybridge-esque illustration by U.K. postmodern art-deco designers La Boca, depicting a man and a woman walking in opposite directions under a diurnal cycle of sun and moon. Following their own paths, they separate, but at the top and bottom of the sequence, they meet up again. And again, we assume. And again … and that is, as we’ve said, the heart of it: the separation and return.

On paper, it looks like a lofty concept for a pop group. But Bombay Bicycle Club is a very unique—and uniquely complex—pop group. A series of three albums over as many years, supplemented by a handful of singles and EPs, brought BBC a slow rumble of appreciation in its native England. But each one seemed the work of a band uninterested in developing a consistent aesthetic: 2009’s buzz-heavy I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose was a mostly straight-ahead indie-rock affair; follow-up Flaws was a surprisingly reserved, but gorgeous acoustic album; A Different Kind Of Fix, to date its best-received album popularly and critically, added beats and electronic rhythms to the guitar-led punch of its debut.

By rights, the band’s fourth album ought to be the one that brings BBC the recognition that’s so far eluded it in the U.S., because So Long, See You Tomorrow is, even on first listen, an album that announces a sea change in a group’s approach, in the vein of Revolver or Pet Sounds.

That’s high praise, but So Long is, among other things, the most sonically complex of all the band’s records, pulling in looped beats, Eastern melodic forms, processed sound and other materials that coalesce—gradually, and almost before you’ve realized it—into delicate pop structures. “I think that’s a fair way of putting it,” says frontman Jack Steadman, who composes and arranges the bulk of BBC’s work. “You want the consistency of the song format. But how you get there doesn’t matter.”

And it’s the “how” that really marks So Long as a step in a most ambitious direction. Over a series of weeks traveling in Turkey, India, Tokyo and continental Europe, Steadman collected sounds: rhythms, melodies, public music, film music, all the diverse soundtracks of popular culture in the spaces through which he rambled. When it came time to assemble the album, that motley collection of sounds became the loop-and-sample basis not only for individual songs, but the structure and sequence of the record from start to finish.

“I’m glad that comes through,” he says, warming to a topic he’ll talk about in depth. “I think when people hear (world) music, they often dismiss it. Like, let’s say, Bollywood soundtracks: A lot of people hear it and think, ‘Oh, that’s cheesy, it’s awful.’ But to me, some of that stuff is absolute genius. I’m always kind of on the search for those elements. It could be Bollywood, it could be Turkish music—could be anything, really. I’m always trying to find aspects of those pieces of music I can take something from.”

So, here we have a young band that made its bones with cerebral indie rock, then stripped its music down to acoustic bones, now pulling in forms and models from world music in order to replenish the seed of its songwriting. Though it might sound like culture-mining, Steadman’s accretive approach to sampling and restructuring global music for this record actually makes it sound more a pastiche of forms than an appropriation of outside elements.

The sound, in other words, remains the band’s own, only now using flourishes and formal experiments that expand the melodic range far beyond what it’s done previously. The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin is a fair comparison point both structurally and sonically, opening up as it did Wayne Coyne and Co.’s punk and experimental aesthetic to much more spacious and melodic forms, and changing the group’s character in the process. It’s a gamble—perhaps less so in the case of BBC, which hasn’t really stuck with one aesthetic for its previous releases and has less to lose as a result; but still, it’s a risk that might or might not pay off in the final product.

“It’s tricky,” says Steadman. “You want to take what’s there, in the samples, and make it work differently, make it sound a bit cooler. Some of the samples are great, but, of course, some of them have a tendency to sound like something a band would play on a cruise ship, or something. The best of it, though, it’s like the people who made that music didn’t care about it sounding clean or perfect. They just wanted it to sound alive.”

Beginning with the sparsest sets of lyrics, melodies and bass lines, BBC slowly built up the music on So Long by adding samples and loops early enough in the process that the international character of the music was woven into the songs as they took shape. Instead of either element—pop form or sample—predominating, as on so much so-called “global” music, the resulting record sounds organically built, very much the product of careful construction.

Assembled and recorded over a year and a half, in fact, So Long is the Bombay Bicycle Club album that took the longest to produce. Part of that length is due to the LP’s structural intricacy, but much of that deliberate approach grew from the fact that this is the first BBC album to be produced by the band members themselves, with Steadman at the boards for much of the process.

“We definitely took our time with it,” he says. “You couldn’t force it. And we knew, whatever the result was, there was going to be no one to blame but us. It’s weird, but working with other producers, I’ve always had a tendency to hang back. I can almost get complacent in that situation; I think, ‘Well, this guy’s a great producer, and he knows what he’s doing. I can just sort of turn it over to him.’ We were 100 percent responsible for this album.”

BBC’s most complicated record, in other words, is also the first record to be created and presented solely by the band proper. Guitarist Jamie MacColl (grandson of English folk legend Ewan MacColl and American folk singer Peggy Seeger) observes that, in a strange way, this album is thus “probably the one that sounds most like Bombay Bicycle Club.”

So Long, See You Tomorrow establishes its m.o. early, with the slow fade-in of “Overdone” establishing the melodic pattern, then pulling in a wash of reeds, strings, percussion and commanding chords quickly behind it. Steadman’s processed vocals and harmonics, forward in the mix, add a psychedelic flair to the lightly Eastern resonance of the instrumentation. As the songs swell, recede and crescendo into each other, you get the sense that So Long was mixed as a song suite; and though the album occasionally slows to a stately pace (as on the icy piano-driven “Eyes Off You”), most of the rhythm is mid-tempo-to-upbeat, resulting in a record that moves seamlessly and joyfully from cut to cut.

What you won’t hear much of, interestingly, are the guitars BBC has relied on up to now to drive the music. For a band previously so steeped in guitars—and especially one with the live-show following BBC enjoys in England—that’s probably the riskiest move of all.

“That was a little unnerving,” says MacColl. “I had to really let go of my ego a bit for that one. Most of what I’ve done in the band has been contributing the guitar lines, but for this one, we ended up basing the music around much different instrumentation.”

“There was definitely a bit of panic when we first started putting the record together,” says Steadman. “It became pretty clear that (the music) was never going to sound like the record. So, eventually we had to decide that that was OK, that we didn’t have to be completely faithful to the record. I think when people come to see live shows, anyway, they want to hear something different. So much of what we’ve been doing, when we’ve been playing these songs live, is reworking some of them, trying to approach some of the sounds using guitar effects.”

It’s fitting, in a way, that the group should be taking up guitars to move the songs onto the road, as it’s been doing for several weeks now. The theme of the album is cyclical, after all, and the idea of return is shot through it. When Steadman’s conversation traces back to the cover art, in fact, he makes that point quite forthrightly: “They split, the man and the woman, at the top of the record, and then they meet up again. It’s like any relationship, or any vice you might have: There are moments when you think, ‘All right, that’s it, that’s the end of it, no more.’ And then you find yourself coming back to where you’ve been.”

Around the world and back is where Bombay Bicycle Club went to get the sound of So Long, See You Tomorrow. If the world—the wider world—takes notice of it, the band might find its own circles expanding. And that would be fine symmetry indeed.

—Eric Waggoner

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Lost In The Trees: Still Reborn

LostInTheTrees

Recovering from emotional catharsis, Ari Picker reinvents Lost In The Trees

Ari Picker felt exhausted and burned out by Lost In The Trees’ A Church That Fits Our Needs. The 2012 album memorialized Picker’s mother, artist Karen Shelton who committed suicide in 2008, and it tested his composition skills, since he wanted to stretch the orchestral elements that had been part of the band’s previous album, All Alone In An Empty House, and include much of what he learned while earning his Berklee degree in film scoring and composition. The project was deeply personal and deeply ambitious.

“I was just thinking about it so hard,” says Picker, “and trying to include all these different techniques that I had learned, but not making it sound forced; wanting it to have these jagged moments, but still for it to be beautiful. And then, you know, the whole narrative of the thing—it was exhausting. It’s a miracle that it got done.”

But it did get done. It made many critics’ 2012 top-10 lists (including the top spot for the Wall Street Journal), and it led the North Carolina band to appear at New York’s Lincoln Center for the American Songbook Series. But the tour that preceded that show was fraught with challenges: Rock clubs weren’t the ideal venues for the band’s delicate dynamics and string arrangements for cellos and violins. After all that, Picker questioned his desire to make another album.

But he has made another. Past Life (Anti-) jettisons many of Church’s identifying markers: It’s abstract and impressionistic rather than overtly personal, and it’s minimalist rather than maximalist. It relies more on electric guitars and synthesizers than on string sections, and when the strings are attached, they come more often in isolated lines than in elaborate counterpoint and harmonies. And, aside from vocalist and keyboard player Emma Nadeau and bassist Mark Daumen, it’s a new band, with the three string players replaced by drummer Kyle Keegan and electric guitarist Joah Tunnell. It’s a step away from Church’s elaborate classical orchestrations.

“I had taken that sound as far as I could with the last record,” says Picker. “It had evolved and then peaked with the last record. I needed to do something a little more simple and spontaneous, and just something not quite as heavy as the last two records had been. The heaviness of the whole project kind of wiped me out. I kind of rebounded from that by shaking up the rules or what my process was. Instead of writing a whole bunch of counterpoint and orchestral arrangements, I decided to play a synthesizer and see what happens. That’s kind of where it came from.”

His new process began with creating little loops on a synthesizer and then working with fragments of lyrics and melodies to build a song. He calls the method liberating. “Those restrictions and those spaces allowed me to surprise myself a lot,” he says. “The process let me reach out and grab ideas, rather than chasing some feeling that I had inside me.”

The album ranges from choral opener “Excos” and the earthy electric guitar riffs of the title track to the shifting orchestration of the beautiful “Glass Harp” and the piano loops of “Wake” and the ghostly “Lady In White.”

“Because there is less of it, then the things that are there can be bigger,” says Picker. “This music is more informed by going on tour and seeing other bands and listening to a little bit more current music, where the other albums are more isolated as far as their influences; or I was in a bubble, so to speak, either in music school or listening to a lot of ancient music, classical music or something like that. I listen to all sorts of different kinds of music, and I never meant Lost In The Trees to be one thing or the other; it just so happens that the last few records have had a sound, and now we’re shifting to another. I admire a lot of artists who kind of reinvent themselves as they go on. It’s boring to do the same thing over and over.”

To that end, the new band road-tested the songs before recording them, and Picker brought in an outside producer for the first time for a Lost In The Trees album. Nicolas Vernhes, who has worked with Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and Deerhunter, helped strip away elements (“Glass Harp,” one of the album’s most orchestrated songs, was even more so in earlier incarnations). Picker also wanted to step away from the center of the lyrics. Past Life avoids an overarching narrative, especially one fraught with autobiographical elements, although themes and motifs unify the album.

“It’s definitely a romantic record—I wanted it to have some love in it,” he says. “It seems to me—and I discovered this as I was writing it—that the narrative became about two different souls or entities or things that were shaping each other through different lives in this adventurous, romantic way. It didn’t become much more concrete than that.”

Picker hasn’t abandoned the interest in orchestral arrangements that he’s had since falling in love with Pet Sounds and Smile as a youth. But for now he wants to keep that separate from Lost In The Trees. He’s writing a symphony and a chamber piece for a concert-hall performance.

“It’s much different than showing up for band practice,” he says. “You’re thinking about harmony and voice leading and orchestration and the timbre and voices of different instruments. It’s like putting something under the microscope.”

Still, fans of A Church That Fits Our Needs need not be wary of Past Life, unless they were just in it for the strings. The album still contains the subtle emotions and thoughtful atmosphere of past Lost In The Trees LPs, with Picker’s delicate tenor voice at the emotional center. But it allows for more space, clarity and immediacy. The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as Picker, somewhat reluctantly, admits.

“It is funny,” he says. “You think you’re doing something really drastic and different, and you step back and it’s still me, I guess. It’s not as much of a change as I thought it was going to be.”

—Steve Klinge

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Hard Working Americans: Proletariat Rock

HWA

Hard Working Americans bust out the jams for the blue-collar set

Say this about Todd Snider: You may have to wait around for the guy, but once you have him cornered, he rarely disappoints. “It’s not like I’m a politician or something,” says Snider, punching in late to a conference call from his Nashville home after 15 minutes of struggling with the access code. “I can just be a minor pinprick in the ass of some jerks. I’m kind of a pothead—I never wrote the whole thing down.”

It’s a feasible summation of Snider’s shoes-optional, gonzo troubadour career to date, whether he’s working up a contrarian lather with his own tunes, doing a job on early champion Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” (from his 1994 debut, Songs For The Daily Planet) or probing the darkly emotive sweet spot in Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball” on Hard Working Americans (Melvin/Thirty Tigers).

Snider is the de facto leader of Hard Working Americans, a band that evolved out of his friendship with Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. “Man, I hate labels,” says Schools, debunking the jam-band stigma that’s been dogging Panic for more than 25 years. “When you label something, it limits its ability to evolve.”

Quickly shifting the focus back to Hard Working Americans, Schools admits that his integral role in the collective rarely felt like work at all. “I was the guy that had to keep the kittens herded, as it were,” says Schools, who helped Snider recruit guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and drummer Duane Trucks (of the famed Trucks lineage) to fill out the band. “It was definitely the most fun I’ve had producing a record, for sure.”

HWA began as a collection of Snider’s favorite songs, many from past tourmates like country traditionalist Kieran Kane (“The Mountain Song”) and the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman (“Welfare Music”). Two of the album’s most memorable tracks (“Another Train” and “I Don’t Have A Gun”) are credited to Will Kimbrough, who played in Snider’s ’90s backup band, the Nervous Wrecks. “Every one of my friends seems to have a song that hits me really hard,” says Snider. “So, it was really tunes that I’d memorized the words to on the first listen.”

And while an adamant blue-collar attitude holds it all together, the level of interpretation varies. There are few-frills renderings of Randy Newman’s “Mr. President Have Pity On The Working Man” and Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll’s “Stomp And Holler,” the latter a tune that can really only be delivered one way—saucy and straight-up. Others take serious liberties with the arrangements while still embracing the downtrodden spirit of the originals. HWA’s bluesy, disquieting take on Kevn Kinney’s “Straight To Hell” is a prime example. “He was there when we mixed it,” says Snider. “He loved it. He teared up, I think.”

Apparently, Kinney wasn’t the only one blubbering. “We met in the hall weeping,” says Schools of a particularly moving lead vocal from Snider on “Wrecking Ball.” “Man, it really hit home when he did that take.”

“I didn’t even know that,” says Snider, slightly aghast over this revelation. “Shit, now I want to see the video.”

—Hobart Rowland

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