Category Archives: FEATURES

Girl Band: The Hand That Feeds


The noise merchants of Girl Band vow not to fade away like their Irish predecessors

While Dublin’s Girl Band isn’t the first Emerald Isle-based outfit to play noisy rock or have designs beyond the nation’s small touring circuit, part of the four-year-old group’s modus operandi is to break the lack-of-industriousness model that guitarist Alan Duggan has seen bury so many decent bands before his.

“When we started, bands didn’t tour outside of Ireland,” he says. “There were obviously bands doing it, but it wasn’t the norm. We really wanted to make an e ort to not be seen as purely an Irish band in an Irish context, because what happened to a lot of bands is they’d play a couple Dublin shows, release a very good album, but nothing would happen because they’d only play a couple more Dublin shows and get forgotten about forever.”

Ironically, it was a band felled by that very trap that shined a transformative light on the quartet of Duggan, drummer Adam Faulkner, bassist Daniel Fox and vocalist Dara Kiely. The now-defunct Turning Down Sex, which Duggan describes as “a really technical Lightning Bolt,” thrust musical freedom and nonconformity into its wheelhouse. It moved Girl Band from its “beginnings as a terrible Strokes rip-off” toward the caustic and hypnotic, artistic noise-punk of debut full-length Holding Hands With Jamie, which has surprisingly caught the ear of mainstream and alternative outlets.

“It’s not like we’re the first band to be noisy, but I remember when we were first played on BBC One,” says Duggan. “We were in the studio thinking, ‘This is stupid. No one listening is going to be into this.’”

Duggan and his mates have already dived headfirst into Girl Band. They’ve toured the U.S. twice and will return in the winter after taking the extreme step of purchasing a second backline, which gets left in a New Jersey storage unit to avoid repeated transport costs. They’re also booking increasing numbers of European dates to make the oft-prohibitive round-trip cost of Ireland’s ferry worthwhile. It’s a far cry from the early days of taking regional buses and public transport around the U.K.—while schlepping gear!—to make gigs.

“Very early, we decided to get out of Dublin,” says Duggan. “If we were able to play to 200 people in Dublin, we also wanted to play to 200 people in Madrid. We are very keen on not being a band that fades away.”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Vanessa Carlton: Nature Walk


Motherhood is just the latest stop on Vanessa Carlton’s thousand-mile journey

At first, Vanessa Carlton is a bit flummoxed. “I didn’t even know I had an interview right now—I was talking to my mother on the other line!” she sputters, reached by phone at her new home in Nashville, which she shares with her husband, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, and their baby daughter, Sid. “My mom brain is so bad, and I hope it goes away, because I lose my wallet everywhere. So, this is a complete, surprise, this talk, to be honest with you.”

The keyboardist soon gets into the rhythm of discussing Liberman, her latest solo set and fifth overall. But not before a discussion of motherhood, and all the attendant changes it’s brought to her life.

“What it does, more so than when I got my dog (her constant dachshund companion, Lord Victor, now 10), whatever you do outside of providing for your kid needs to be really, really good,” she says. “And also, you have no extra fat in your brain—it just cuts out all these extraneous thoughts and concerns about yourself or your project. They’re just gone, and all I have room for is what’s important. So, I think people go to therapy, or to shamans in the middle of a foreign land, to try to get to that same place. So, it’s been a really good thing.”

You can hear it throughout the pianosketched Liberman—and classical-motif tracks like “Blue Pool,” “Take It Easy” and backward-masking-dense closer “Ascension”; Carlton has seriously upped her game, and is now composing complex etudes that easily eclipse her chiming Grammy-nominated hit from 2002, “A Thousand Miles.” Looking back now, she sighs, the pressure to top that smash—and its Be Not Nobody parent album for A&M—was enormous. Recently, she was listening to a songwriter’s radio interview, and his first placement was on a prestigious John Prine record, which he initially couldn’t comprehend.

“So, he had to pretend like it never happened, so he could go back to his work,” says Carlton. “And to be honest, it took me two albums after that crazy fi rst pop-culture exposure to get back to the questions of, ‘What am I? What is my point? How do I make the record that I want to listen to? The kind I love so much? So, how do I stop trying to please other people?’ So, I’m a late bloomer. It took me to age 30, but whatever—better late than never.”

And she hasn’t even begun to pen music about motherhood yet—the album was written before her pregnancy, with seven tracks completed in England (where she cut her last disc in 2011 at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios), three in Nashville after relocating there from New York and one, “Operator,” recorded six months into her pregnancy. “Which I think my voice sounds really weird on,” she admits.

Lyrically, shamans and vision quests pop up on Liberman (named for the singer’s late grandfather, and a painting he made that impressed her), inspired by an eye-opening peyote trip she took in Mexico with a girlfriend a few years ago. “It really fundamentally altered my sense of joy, my capacity for joy,” she says. “And I just stayed on the sunnier side of the street more easily after that. Then I discovered Rebecca Solnit, who’s a modern-day philosopher, and in her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost, she writes about shamans. And she’s not preachy—she’s really smart, and just sharing her stories.”

Also at work on Liberman—and material like “River” and “Willows”—is a strong undercurrent of nature, respect for the environment. She employs the device the way her idol Bob Marley did, explaining: “And he was one of those guys that chose to make music just to make people feel better, you know? So, nature is a huge element in my life, and in this album. And even more so, I just wanted the lyrics to make a brain feel good. The album wasn’t really about me; it wasn’t too much detailed storytelling. But it really worked for me when I listened back to it—I was like, ‘Oh, I just feel like taking a break, taking some time just to listen to this.’”

Carlton once dated Third Eye Blind mainman Stephan Jenkins, who produced her sophomore Harmonium while the pair was residing in San Francisco. But in December 2013, she surprised herself by getting married, spur of the moment, on a Christmas holiday in Phoenix, where she traditionally spent the holidays with her longtime chum Stevie Nicks.

“John and I are pretty quiet people—we just wanted to do our own thing,” she says. “So, a month before the trip, I sent Stevie’s assistant a link to this thing online where you can sign up and be an officiant—it’s this weird church. So, she signed up as Stephanie Nicks and we did this cute little ceremony, and he and I wrote a letter to each other, and it was really perfect. It was exactly what we wanted to do.”

In fact, there’s only one odd man out in the whole Liberman equation, Carlton reveals: Lord Victor. “Because he’s not first fiddle anymore—he has been replaced, so he is now second fiddle,” she says. “But it’s funny how babies and dogs connect—my daughter is most interested in him, and he’s a low rider. So, he’s down on her level, and she will squawk if he ever leaves her line of sight.”

—Tom Lanham

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MAGNET Classics: Grandaddy’s “Sumday”


The Making Of Grandaddy’s Sumday

By Jud Cost

Modesto, Calif. As a very young kid, I can barely recall seeing the name of that San Joaquin Valley town as I devoured the back pages of the “Sporting Green” of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Modesto Reds were a single-A minor league baseball squad that played in the California League, alongside outfits that included the Stockton Ports, so named because the town—located at the confluence of both the American and Sacramento Rivers—not only produced grapes for wine, but was the largest inland shipping port in the state.

But the Modesto Reds were special to a young kid then growing up in San Carlos, Calif. The Stuart family ran a drycleaning store on our main street, Laurel Avenue, that was frequently visited by that kid and his dad on Saturday mornings. I can still smell the wicked chemicals they used to remove the stains on that clothing. The Stuarts’ son, a strapping lad and a recent graduate of Sequoia High School in Redwood City, was now playing professional baseball for the Modesto Reds. We would get glowing, firsthand reports from the dry cleaners every week.

Their son would go on to hit a jaw-dropping 66 home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ single-A farm team in Lincoln, Neb., in 1956. It was a staggering, Paul Bunyan-esque feat that would soon earn him a ticket to the big club, the National League’s cellar-dwelling Pirates squad. Yes, this was Dick Stuart, later to be known as “Dr. Strangeglove” for his defensive liabilities. But I saw Stuart play many times for the Pirates against the San Francisco Giants, brandishing his mighty offensive prowess to the point of getting nervous glances from a pretty decent Giants pitching staff that included Mike McCormick, Johnny Antonelli, Jack Sanford and Sad Sam Jones.

But the day I remember most might have been Stuart’s darkest hour, defensively. For some unknown reason, he was playing left field at the sparkling, new Candlestick Park (torn down just a few months ago) and came rushing in to cover what he must have reckoned was a pop-up. But the ball, hit by one of the Giants’ “beloved Willies”—either Mays, McCovey or Kirkland—went so far over Stuart’s head that it rocketed off the left center field wall for an easy, stand-up triple by the time he had retrieved the ball.

Quite a few years before that baseball gaffe, my mom and dad had stopped on a drizzly day at a roadside photo-stand in Modesto, on the way home from visiting my grandparents in Sacramento. They decided to have their little buckaroo snapped, waving a cowboy hat, supplied by the photographer, with the little shaver barely able to sit astride a stuffed horse, standing almost upright, à la Roy Rogers’ Trigger. That sepia-toned photo from old Modesto has been lost for decades. Large reward for its return.

Fast-forward 40 years to my then current MAGNET assignment to meet up with Grandaddy, a curiously named indie-rock outfit from Modesto whose early records on Seattle’s Will label were most intriguing. I first met the boys in the band late in the previous millennium, as they were packing up their fishing gear and brownbag lunches before heading out toward the Stanislaus River, not more than 20 miles away from home, in the general direction of Yosemite National Park, maybe 75 miles down yonder.

I hopped into the pick-up truck of Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s resident genius, and we did the first of our many chats along with lead guitarist Jim Fairchild on a riverside picnic table as the rest of the boys in the band angled for trout. They caught a few, too, as I recall. Another such encounter also stands out: Lytle and I were about to chow down at a time-tested Mexican restaurant close to his home and spent some time discussing whether it would be wise to extract a spoonful of chili sauce from a jar that looked like it had been left on the table since the days of Pancho Villa. We decided to take a chance, and we’re still standing.

Standing was about the last thing Lytle could do after he blew out his ACL as an up-and-coming member of a professional skateboard tour. “I was actually pretty good, with a career planned out in front of me,” says Lytle. He turned to music to compensate for his loss, and the unique vocal sound he used to deliver his addictive melodies turned into an unexpected career move, for both him and four of his skate-rat pals.

Modesto is a fair-sized town located on both the jet-age I-5 freeway and rickety old Highway 99, rambling down the backbone of central California that stretches north beyond Stockton and Sacramento and south to Turlock, Merced, Visalia and Bakersfield. Those farming towns have become legend as the backdrop for John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, The Grapes Of Wrath.

Modesto’s inland location—80 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area—deprives it of the “air-conditioned by God” afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean that cool down the big city. If you worship the heat, Modesto is your place. The large arch that spans the main drag seems to say it all to visitors: “water wealth contentment health.”

Lytle, who sang lead and penned all the material for Grandaddy in his extraordinary, fragile, cracked-eggshell voice, had nervously slipped a cassette to Howe Gelb after Giant Sand played a show at Slim’s in San Francisco. “I was blown away when Howe left an encouraging message on my parents’ message machine,” says Lytle. Gelb would become one of the band’s biggest boosters before Grandaddy was signed to V2 Records.

“Jason’s amazing, fragile voice—what can you say about it?” says Fairchild. “His voice is so uniquely his own.”

Make no mistake about it: Lytle created all of Grandaddy’s material in one or another of his homemade studios. He then fed his stuff to the rest of the band: Fairchild, drummer Aaron Burtch, keyboardist Tim Dryden and bassist Kevin Garcia. The band’s innovative sound was described to me by their V2 Records publicist as “a combination of Neil Young and the Beach Boys.” Lytle would later use money from V2 to buy a “cookie cutter” tract home next to Modesto in Ceres, whose “Dagwood & Blondie” facade (green lawn, white picket fence) concealed a pip of a recording studio that occupied the house’s kitchen, dining and living rooms. And, who knows, maybe even his bedroom.

The band began, Lytle recalls, somewhere back in the early ’90s, when he and red-bearded drummer Burtch played anywhere they were allowed: in coffee shops, skate demos, street fairs and house parties. Lytle almost didn’t recall that Burtch created the band’s farmyard animal imagery. “I’d almost forgotten what a great graphic artist Aaron is, and what a finely tuned sense of humor we had with our band website,” he says.

Lytle smiles crookedly when he also recalls he was the one who originally created Grandaddy’s slightly oddball band logo. “I remember distinctly the night I drew that up,” he says. “We had a lightning storm that night. Never underestimate the value of a good logo.”

Fairchild takes a somewhat larger view of the boss artwork created by Burtch: “We tried to make something distinctive for the Grandaddy website, and Aaron and Jason’s graphic stuff really did the job.”

Fairchild, always a huge Grandaddy fan, finally joined the band from his original combo, Sufferbus, in 1995. “Everybody knew that I’d hook up with Grandaddy someday,” he says. “I was always playing with Jason and the guys. At that point, the band was more like a street gang. We had people come up to us and say they were surprised that all five of us were still alive after some of the things we got into.” He politely refuses further comment on the band’s shady activity at that time.

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Paul Metzger: Numbers Racket


Improv hero Paul Metzger leaves no banjo string behind

People have been spanking planks by the Mississippi for a long time now, but no other string player is quite like Paul Metzger, and no one plays instruments quite like his. Metzger lives in St. Paul, Minn., which is bound on two sides by the River Of Song. But even though his biography includes a brush with the Replacements—he temporarily swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric after seeing them on local TV and thinking that it looked like a lot of fun—his creative path, like the music he plays, cuts a very singular path.

After playing with high-energy power trio TVBC, Metzger retreated to the privacy of his workshop, where he devised an approach to solo acoustic guitar and banjo playing that merges the focused, kinetic improvisation of Hindustani music with the rich dissonance of free jazz and a heavy, boot-driven rhythmic drive. In that same workshop, he has also modifi ed his instruments until they look like Heidelberg Project yard decorations. His banjo has two-dozen strings splayed across its body, and when he plays it, he shifts masterfully between machine gun-intensity, singlenote runs and eerie bowed passages.

Metzger has been on a mission to free the instrument. “It’s so limited in its application,” he says. “I have this evangelistic thought about the banjo.”

On a series of tours across the U.S., at frequent hometown gigs at the Khyber Pass Cafe, where he co-curates an improvised music series, and on albums like Deliverance and Tombeaux, he has sought to deliver it from convention. But he devotes half of 1300, his latest LP for Nero’s Neptune, to a similarly modifi ed guitar that he regards like an equal partner.

“We’ve covered over 40 years together,” he says, “and I wanted to document what is inside each of us.”

—Bill Meyer

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El Vy: Moon Knights


Members of the National and Ramona Falls gleefully twist the Rubik’s Cube that is El Vy

Don’t call El Vy a band. Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf are busy enough with their main gigs: Berninger as the singer for the National, Brent Knopf as the leader of Ramona Falls, his main project since leaving Menomena.

“Neither of us felt we need another band,” says Berninger. “I have a band that I love; Brent has a band he loves. So, Brent and I keep calling this a collaboration.”

In fact, the two were rarely in the same room when making Return To The Moon, the debut El Vy (pronounced as in the plural of “Elvis”) album. Berninger and Knopf have been friends for a decade—the National and Menomena toured together—and five or six years ago, Berninger asked Knopf to share some song “ideas.”

“The first time he sent me ideas, he sent 450 ideas that he had been collecting over the decades, maybe,” says Berninger. These fragments filled an 11-hour Dropbox folder.

“It could be anything from a 45-second acoustic piano thing to a looping, multi-layered synth jam with electronic beats and bass lines and oohs and ahhs,” says Knopf. “It ran the gamut from something really simple to something really complex.”

Berninger would listen to them while on tour with the National, and he created a separate folder for his favorites. And then the two started passing files back and forth that they began to shape into songs.

“We kept saying, ‘Here are some ideas. Do whatever the fuck you want with it.’ And we would,” says Berninger. “He would send me stuff and I would speed up stuff, I would cut out stuff, and I would rearrange it and I would send it back to him. He would do the same thing. He would tear apart what I had done; he would write all new music under what I did; he would rearrange it. That’s how it went for a long time just via email.”

“It’s kind of like a scrambled Rubik’s Cube that we’re passing back and forth like a hot potato,” says Knopf. “By the time you get it back, half of it has been all turned around backward, but suddenly you have more clarity about where the song is going. And then I’d do a move and pass it back to Matt.”

About a year ago, they began to work on the album in earnest, and the songs took many forms: elegiac ballads (“No Time To Crank The Sun,” “It’s A Game”), loping synth-pop (“Paul Is Alive”), rumbling warped blues (“Happiness, Missouri”) and cheery new-wave pop (the title track).

Berninger worked on lyrics and melodies by improvising, sometimes over shorter loops, often later in the process. He worked on them in hotel rooms while on tour—you can hear him talking to someone from housekeeping in the middle of “The Man To Be”—and when he was at home, at one point pitching a tent in his backyard to sequester himself from his wife and six-year-old daughter.

The lyrics became their own Rubik’s Cube of references: to Berninger’s coming of age in Cincinnati rock clubs, to his parents and wife, to characters named Didi Bloome and Michael, to punk band the Minutemen and to the musical Grease. The title track, for instance, is subtitled with a Minutemen allusion: “Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo”; “Paul Is Alive” is a Beatles allusion, but it is also a reference to Berninger’s father, Paul (a fact that Knopf didn’t know until our interview).

“When I’m writing lyrics, it’s all coming from the same mush that’s in my brain and in my environment at the time,” says Berninger. “I was listening to tons of Minutemen at the time and watching We Jam Econo, the doc about them, because my brother made a doc about our band (2013’s Mistaken For Strangers). We watched a bunch of docs around that time, specifically that one, to figure out how to make a good rock doc. Then I turned D. Boon into a woman, called her Didi. My daughter was watching Grease and obsessed with the Grease soundtrack, so it kind of also became this musical based in Cincinnati, so it’s kind of like Sandy and Danny from Grease. But it’s also about my wife, it’s about me; all that stuff gets all mixed up in it.”

Berninger admits he wasn’t much of a Minutemen fan when he was young. “I’m a big Minutemen fan today, but I’d be lying to say that the Minutemen were my favorite band,” he says. “It was the documentary and it was the friendship between these two guys and how they found each other through music. And that’s how I kind of found myself: The record kind of digs into how I discovered music. The discovery of alternative rock, R.E.M. and the Cure and the Smiths very much changed who I was, and who I am now is really because of music. The doc is about these two guys who would fight all the time, but they were best friends and it was music that would keep them together.”

And it’s that bond that music creates that is the story of El Vy, too. Berninger and Knopf may not have a new band—although they assembled one for a short El Vy tour—but they do have a collaboration that is likely to continue. There’s still a lot of stuff in that Dropbox.

“I’d be surprised if I’m going to be able resist opening up another folder and diving into stuff again,” says Berninger.

—Steve Klinge

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Ezra Furman: The Outsider


Chicago misfit Ezra Furman might just have made the album of the year

Ezra Furman is the kind of artist who comes along every now and then to reduce jaded music hacks to gibbering, simpering wrecks. All cynicism evaporates, all objectivity is thrown out of the window, and terms like “life-changing” are tossed around with giddy, reckless abandon. And it’s not just the press. Witness Furman’s new label boss, Bella Union supremo (and erstwhile Cocteau Twin) Simon Raymonde. After catching a particularly riotous gig at London’s Lexington earlier this year, Raymonde took to Instagram and became very, very excited indeed. As in, capslock excited:


Quite. And it’s not just Raymonde. The rest of the U.K., it would seem, has fallen head over heels in love with Furman. He’s received across-the-board fi ve-star reviews, BBC 6 Music has practically adopted him, he sells out shows in minutes, and in one of the summer’s more surreal musical/media meet-ups, he appeared in a suitably somber interview on Channel 4’s evening news. Not bad for a selfconfessed misfi t, a cross-dressing, bisexual, observant Jew with a history of depression. Even more impressive when you consider that, as recently as three years ago, he was pleading for money on Kickstarter to fund his first solo album, The Year Of No Returning. Not that he seems particularly fazed when MAGNET calls him to talk about this sudden burst of fame.

“It is odd, isn’t it?” he says, sounding more than a little bemused. “But I don’t really care—let people like it or not like it. There’s no real strategy here. I dunno—it used to matter a lot more to me. I used to want more attention. I wanted praise, like from media outlets. But I don’t care about that anymore; I really don’t.”

Back here in his native U.S. (Furman hails from Chicago), he’s still flying resolutely under the radar. And frankly, that’s criminal, as his latest album, Perpetual Motion People, is far and away one of this year’s most sublime efforts. It’s a giddily splenetic, high-octane record, packed full of a dizzying array of influences—the Violent Femmes, Lou Reed, ’50s doo-wop, Bowie, Jonathan Richman—but one that neatly sidesteps pastiche. It’s an unbridled clarion call to all the freaks and geeks out there, the lonely kids, the misunderstood. Its lyrics abound with images of depression, confusion, sexuality and religion, but there’s no po-faced, self-indulgent navel-gazing here; indeed, it’s about as far removed from stereotypical singer/songwriter miserablism as you could imagine. Instead, it revels in an utterly joyous, uplifting level of cathartic intensity, reminiscent of (in spirit at least) early Titus Andronicus.

“Yeah, I mean there’s a temptation to write very studied, mannered songs, the whole singer/songwriter thing, I suppose,” he says. “But it’s unexciting, a little sedated. So, I started thinking I should just o er up total enthusiasm … I just wanted to let all this energy out.”

And it’s a ploy that works brilliantly, resulting in a hugely life-affirming record. What’s more, there’s an endearingly infectious lack of studied cool that makes it all the more attractive.

“Yeah,” says Furman. “Something unbridled. I dunno, I mean, I have no idea about how to be cool. I’ve tried, but it just didn’t work for me. I just confess things and go over the top emotionally.”

—Neil Ferguson

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Royal Headache: Game Of Thrones


Royal Headache solidifies its status as the king of Aussie garage punk

With its 2012 debut, Sydney, Australia’s Royal Headache effectively ended Radio Birdman’s 40-year reign as the king of Australian garage punk, supplanting Birdman’s surf infl uences with ca einated mod and soul. Although the band—singer Shogun, guitarist Law, bassist Joe and drummer Shortty—bristles at such categorizations.

“We were compared to the Jam a lot by Australians when we started,” says Joe, addressing the band’s alleged mod proclivities. “Generally, everything we’re compared to are bands we don’t listen to a great deal. The Jam have some incredible songs, but overall, I reckon they’re pretty patchy.”

“I always thought of Shogun as having a Rod Stewart thing going,” says Shortty. “We all love the Northern soul classics as much as the next person. However, it always makes me cringe when music press pushes this narrative that Royal Headache are these soul-daddies or something. At the end of the day, we are four white, middleclass guys from Australia. We are aware of our privilege and lived-in experiences. I don’t want us to be perceived as Blueshammer-style cultural appropriators.”

After a three-year absence, and announcement by Shogun last year that the band was splitting, Royal Headache recently surprised fans with a new release, High. “The band has never been a full-time thing for us,” says Law, explaining the delay. “It’s a fine balance maintaining a functioning band, holding a job and living in the real world.”

High avoids the sophomore slump with the revved-up, lo-fi punk of the band’s debut, mingled with the likes of “Wouldn’t You Know,” the closest Royal Headache has come to pure soul, and “Carolina,” an unexpected (and excellent) foray into heartland rock.

Given the premature reports of their demise, what does the future hold for the Aussies? “I personally feel like it’s the start of a new chapter for Royal Headache,” says Law. “It’s like a family now. A fairly dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless.”

—Matt Ryan

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Joanna Newsom: Have Another On Her


Every song is its own character for ambitious wordsmith Joanna Newsom

“I hope I don’t realize I made a terrible misktake in a year and the thing that I’ve been trying to say with this record is not as palpable as I thought it would be. But for me, it’s kind of all there.”

Joanna Newsom is talking about Divers, her fourth album. She is in New York City, visiting from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Andy Samberg, the comedian and star of TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Divers is an intricate and paradoxical work, full of internal connections both lyrical and musical, but also built from a diverse array of instrumental settings and arrangements that make each song discrete. It’s both linear and circuitous. The themes may be “kind of all there,” but Divers is still enticingly enigmatic.

When Newsom debuted in 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender, she seemed to fi t in with the “freak folk” movement and artists like Devendra Banhart and Vetiver. She was an oddity—a classically trained harpist with an unusual voice that fell in the neighborhood of Dolly Parton and Kate Bush, who wrote charming songs like “Bridges And Balloons” (which the Decemberists later covered) and “Sprout And The Bean.”

But 2006’s Ys, with its five long songs and orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, quickly established Newsom an ambitious, complex artist, and 2010’s sprawling, three-CD Have One On Me further broadened the scope of her talent.

Divers is more focused and coherent, full of references to wars and New York City, of allusions to Romantic poems and Dutch Masters, of birdsong and love songs.

“There are repeated references in a lot of ways,” Newsom says, with a laugh. “More so than with any other album I’ve made, this one is unified by a few themes and feelings and questions and places. I sort of think of those things as characters. The city of New York is a character that has a couple cameos because it was trying to illustrate a point or stand in for something.”

“Sapokanikan,” the album’s first single, takes its name from a Native American word for the area of what became Greenwich Village. Asked about the connections among the allusions that riddle the song, Newsom laughs again: “It’s all in the song. Not to be evasive, but I think it’s more fun to trace the line as it runs through the lyric than for me to do the sort of CliffsNotes version.”

As Newsom began writing after touring for Have One On Me, her new songs began to feel connected.

“I started to notice that, even though the songs I had written so far seemed on the surface very different and seemed to be about different things, they seemed to be circling around the same thing,” says Newsom. “Or begging the same questions for me or preoccupied with the same fears or driven by the same joys. The songs all lived in the same world, I noticed.”

Newsom cares deeply about words, and the twists and turns of the melodies—these songs avoid conventional verse/chorus structures—help form the lyrics.

“The lyrics get refined and refined and refined until they say what to say most clearly and precisely,” she says. “And with the most emotional truth and the most musicality, the most rhythmic strength and relationship to the music.”

She cites Hemingway, Faulkner and Nabokov as a few of her favorite writers (“You know, the dead white guys of note,” she says). And Thomas Pynchon, although Newsom had finished writing and much of the recording of Divers before she appeared in and narrated Paul Thomas Anderson’s fi lm of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

Although not exactly forming a suite, the songs have musical connections as well: The end of one often flows into the beginning of the next, and motifs recur. But Newsom was also interested in disconnections. She worked with different arrangers, none of whom worked on more than one song. Collaborators included the Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth and avant classical composer Nico Muhly. She also used many different keyboards, including a clavichord, a celeste, a Marxophone, various vintage Mellotrons and an Estey field organ. Even as she composed lines on the harp, she intended to transpose them to different instruments.

“From very, very early on, it was part of the way I was thinking about this record,” she says. “I knew that I wanted the songs to be really variegated in color, I think because they were really united in narrative themes and they were united harmonically, so I wanted them to have these really saturated and varying colors. I wanted each song to inhabit its own specifi c world. I wanted the air to smell different and the quality of light to be different, and the ground to feel different underfoot, and people to speak a different language in that world. I wanted each one to be completely self-contained and full of its own specific character.”

Divers is full of puzzle pieces, and it rewards deep and careful attention. It is an album to immerse oneself in—the puns on the title are too easy to pass up, and even Newsom can’t avoid them: “When I get home I’m going to really dive into—no pun intended—rehearsing for the tour.”

—Steve Klinge

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Bottle Rockets: Athletic Support


How a Rickenbacker 12-string extended the Bottle Rockets’ longevity

The Bottle Rockets have been playing their gritty brand of roots rock and Americana before those genres were invented. Their mix of blazing rock, folky working-class lyrics and blistering country licks deployed at earthshaking volume has been filling clubs since the mid-’90s. In an attempt to characterize their sound, writers would often use odd similes, à la “sounds like Woody Guthrie fronting Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Rockets’ lead singer and main songwriter Brian Henneman laughs at the comparison. “I haven’t heard that one before,” he says. “My favorite is, ‘John Prine singing with Crazy Horse,’ but they’re odd combos any way you put it.

“Maybe the style we play didn’t get categorized until after we came around, but it’s been around a long time. CCR, Rank & File and the Long Riders all played an amalgamation of country, rock, blues and R&B. They all thought they’d discovered something unique. When I heard Jason & The Scorchers, I went, ‘Oh my God, punk rock and country together,’ but original rock ‘n’ roll had the same combination of country and blues, black and white music together. Every generation thinks they’re the first ones to discover it.”

On their new album, South Broadway Athletic Club, the Bottle Rockets continue to play tough, gritty rock ‘n’ roll and explore the triumphs and tragedies of the America most of us live in. The songs are marked by soaring guitars, solid, sweat-inducing rhythms and uplifting, singalong choruses that never turn away from the realities of working class life.

“I’m the kind of guy that can smell bullshit a mile away,” says Henneman. “I always thought it would be best to write songs about stuff close to me. In the early days, it was my hometown, then the people in my neighborhood. These days, I mostly write about what’s going on inside my head, but I never had any grandiose dreams of being a rock star. As a band, we’ve never sunk to any lows or reached any stupendous heights; we just play music we like because we’ve got to. Maybe that’s the secret of keeping a band together.”

South Broadway is the first album of new songs the group has recorded since 2009’s Lean Forward, and it’s got a bright, forceful sound, due in part to Henneman’s rediscovery of the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. “I was in the middle of a bad writer’s block,” he says. “I’ve switched guitars in the past when I got stuck, but it didn’t seem to work. I tried a Fender Telecaster and put together some hot-shit guitar licks, but I couldn’t seem to formulate a song on it. I thought I was braindead. Then I picked up the Rickenbacker. As soon as I played the 12-string, I started coming up with stuff. I’d plug it into the voice memo on my iPhone and write some words on my computer, and as soon as one was done, another one would pop out. That guitar inspired the whole album—songs just kept flying out of it.”

—j. poet

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Exclusive Cover Story Excerpt: Kurt Vile “A Life Less Ordinary”


Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

“Wanna live, wanna live, live a life like mine?” Kurt Vile asks on his sixth and best album, B’lieve I’m Goin Down. What’s that life like? MAGNET went askin’ and discovered a life of paradoxes. Vile talks about the conflicts between family and rock ‘n’ roll, between self-deprecating humor and serious metaphysics, between hard work and slacker ease, between his love of guitars and his newfound love of pianos. It’s not an ordinary life. By Steve Klinge

“Hi, I’m at the Spin Doctors concert. I’ll get back atcha.”

That’s the message you get when you call Kurt Vile. He does, indeed, get back to you quickly, and it turns out he’s chatty, thoughtful and forthcoming, even if he’s jetlagged from a quick trip to London, where he and his band, the Violators, played a main-stage set at London’s Citadel Festival. He’s also hesitant in his answers—he second-guesses himself and tends to make a statement, then qualify it. There’s no hesitance, however, to his excitement about B’lieve I’m Goin Down, his sixth album.

The LP is a bit of a departure. Instead of the electric-guitar freakouts and rolling pop songs that anchored past records, B’lieve favors acoustic guitars, banjos and piano. It’s still got the slacker vibe that Vile perfected on 2011’s Smoke Rings For My Halo and refined on 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze, but it’s more meditative and weighty, while not devoid of humor. It’s a reflective and self-reflexive album about making and listening to music, about dislocation, about love, about life.

Wanna live, wanna live, live a life like mine?
Well I be doin’ it, baby, all the time.
To do so you gotta roll with the punches,
Jump from the sweetest to the toughest of tough love.
—“Life Like Mine”

“Every once in a while, I sit back and realize and know there’s all these beautiful gifts of life,” says Vile “I have a family, and I’m lucky; in a lot of ways, I’m living my dream. But everything’s always getting interrupted. There are moments of pure bliss with family, and then that moment when you’re away from your family, but you’ve laid down this perfect song, and in that moment you know why you play music. I feel like a lot of my life, too, is on the way to something else. It’s like everyone else.”

Except when it’s not. Vile, who is 35, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters, ages three and five, and he talks about the challenge of balancing love of family with love of music-making, balancing the “real life” of family and friends with the occasionally “superficial” aspects of record-making. They don’t always coexist easily. For the new album, Vile took to working on songs late at night, after his wife and kids had gone to bed, and recording took him away from Philly to New York, Georgia and Southern California. Songs were recorded in six different studios in the end, with a variety of band configurations and producers.

John Agnello, who’s worked on albums by Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady and Dinosaur Jr, had helped produce Vile’s last two albums. But Vile started recording his latest on his own with the Violators. “I didn’t use a producer right away, because you have to book time way in advance, and I wanted this to come more in real time, more organically,” he says. “Had I not had two good engineers in my band, that would have been a lot more difficult.” He’s referring to drummer Kyle Spence (whose Athens studio was one locale) and bassist Rob Laakso. Guitarist Jesse Trbovich is the other full-time Violator.

“My experience with Kurt, it’s always been record, record, record, and then eventually you have an album,” says Laakso, who started playing in the Violators in 2011. Laakso co-produced, with Vile, five of the album’s 12 tracks. “I don’t think there was any grandiose plan to have the Violators and only them on this one.”

They did a session in Joshua Tree, after Vile had gone there to jam with Malian band Tinariwen. On the West Coast, the band included Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa and multiinstrumentalist Farmer Dave Scher, both of whom played on Wakin On A Pretty Daze.

Eventually, they amassed a “swamp of material” and “needed outside perspective,” Vile says. Enter veteran Rob Schnapf, who produced several of Elliott Smith’s records and the recent Ducktails album (the project from Real Estate’s Matt Mondanile, a friend of Vile). More importantly, he did Beck’s Mellow Gold.

“Elliott Smith is cool and all, but it’s not like I got deep into him growing up,” says Vile. “But Rob Schnapf started Bongload, and Beck’s Mellow Gold, that’s my favorite high school (era) weird blues. He nailed it with that record.”

Schnapf came along at just the right moment. He was working in Los Angeles with Mondanile on the Ducktails album, and he says Vile just popped into his head. Schnapf had liked Wakin On A Pretty Daze.

“I like somebody who’s got a unique thing,” says Schnapf. “He’s got style. I like his words. He’s got a vocal character. It’s just he’s got that thing.” Those generalizations are more meaningful when you see them as applying to Beck and Elliott Smith as well.

Schnapf is friends with Matador Records cohead Chris Lombardi, so he texted Lombardi, who also lives in L.A., and asked what Vile was up to.

Here’s where the coincidences multiply, according to Schnapf: “Chris said, ‘That’s really weird. He’s in town and we’re looking for something to do.’ I went back in the room and told Matt, and he said, ‘I know him; I’ll text him.’ So, Kurt got two texts at the same time. He just came by and we hung out and it was just normal and comfortable.”

“All of a sudden, Rob Schnapf seeks me out, which was key,” says Vile. “I said, ‘OK, are you available next week?’ We were just going to mix. But, in the process of being inspired and knowing I was about to take it to another level working with this guy, which I very much needed, I wrote that ‘Pretty Pimpin’ song. So, just a couple days before I headed to L.A., I had this pop song, and I know I needed a pop song.”

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