Category Archives: FEATURES

Los Campesinos!: Alone Again Or

Los Campesinos! frontman Gareth Campesinos! tries to work it all out on Sick Scenes

It might sound like a corny old showbiz adage, but to Los Campesinos! anchor Gareth Campesinos! (née David), it’s become something of a sacrament: Don’t give up your day job. Even though he and his six bandmates have all substituted their surnames for Campesinos! and kept the celebratory exclamation mark.

When the 31-year-old Gareth phoned from his Bath, England, hometown to discuss his group’s latest whimsical effort, Sick Scenes, he was just finishing his nine-to-five shift at a local graveyard, where he’s employed as gardener. “Well, perhaps ‘gardener’ is too grand a term,” he says. “I cut grass. I’m just keeping the grass short and making the cemetery look as nice as it can. I like duties where you can actually see your progress. And when the grass is really long and you’ve been there a few hours, and now the grass is short? It’s like, ‘Well done! You’ve done that correctly!’” Plus, he points out, there’s the bonus of listening to his favorite music and podcasts on duty, or having lunch by his favorite tombstones, like the soccer-ball-shaped monument to a player who died during a match in the 1920s.

Additionally, the vocalist has two other side careers—one wherein he closely watches test-taking students to ensure that no cheating occurs and another for his favorite soccer team, the Welton Rovers, for whom he oversees the team’s website and social-media accounts, plus the writing and editing of its match-day program booklets. To record Sick Scenes for a month in Fridão, Portugal, he had to quit yet another gig at a record label and management company, which he admits he didn’t really enjoy. “I don’t really like that side of the music industry—I’m very skeptical of the worth of management and paying other people to do things that you can do yourself,” he says. Only songwriting partner Tom Campesinos! (née Bromley), stayed with him for the entire session. The other Campesinos!—Rob, Kim, Matt, Neil and Jason—flew over during weeklong day-job vacations.

Initially, Sick Scenes, the band’s sixth disc, seemed ill-fated. After 2013’s No Blues, Los Campesinos! parted company with its record label and its management, with Gareth taking the club-booking reins.

It felt like the musicians were starting from scratch again, like back in 2006 when they met in Wales at Cardiff University and issued a lovably eccentric 2008 debut, Hold On Now, Youngster… “Even the label that we were with had explicitly said, ‘Maybe it’s not worth doing this anymore,’” the frontman recalls, somberly. “They were actually trying to stop us from being a band.”

Gareth’s corporate moonlighting wound up inspiring him, however. Helping young artists at that imprint, he decided to reinvest that energy in Los Campesinos!, so he got busy arranging financial backing for Sick Scenes. Musically, the album turned out chiming, jubilant, totally uplifting, with new-wave-quirky melodies carried aloft by galloping rhythms and buzzy guitar work. But listen closer to the misanthropic lyrics Gareth sneer-sings on “Sad Suppers,” “5 Flucloxacillin” (about a regimen of antibiotics he was on), “A Slow, Slow Death” and deceptively gentle ballad “The Fall Of Home” (a cynical examination of small-town life and the artistes who leave it behind), and it becomes a much darker proposition. The happy/grim contrast is what the group was aiming for.

“Because we hadn’t been able to record for so long, or even do the things that bands should be doing, we had a lot of pent-up aggression,” he says. “And struggling with mental health issues in my 20s. I always comforted myself by thinking, ‘Well, when you’re a bit older, things will be different, you’ll have worked it all out, and you’ll actually have a clue.’ But then you get that little bit older, and you realize, ‘Nah—it’s not as simple as that.’ That’s kind of the mindset behind this whole record.”

Besides, when Los Campesinos! finishes its spring tour of America, that cemetery grass will have grown that much higher and groundskeeper-ready. Gareth can be alone again, aside from an occasional interloper that he often mistakes for something otherworldly.

“When it’s particularly quiet there and suddenly a squirrel jumps past, there’s a moment where I’m convinced that it’s some sort of apparition,” he says. “But no. It’s only a squirrel!”

—Tom Lanham

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Jessi Colter And Lenny Kaye: The Lord Is Their Shepherd

Outlaw country queen Jessi Colter and garage-punk avatar Lenny Kaye roll holy for The Psalms

There is absolutely nothing off or odd about Lenny Kaye—longtime Patti Smith collaborator, producer/curator of the Nuggets psych-punk series—having teamed with legendary country singer/pianist Jessi Colter for the gorgeously spare The Psalms, her first album in 11 years. Considering an aesthetic existence where chance plays as much of a role as providence, the Jewish-born Kaye says, “It’s the Buddhist in me; my entire artistic life, I’ve emptied myself of expectations. Things just happen.”

Colter’s no Buddhist (“Mom was a ferocious Pentecostal minister, dad was a mountain man who built and raced cars and believed in the power of nature,” she says), but she too lives a life where anticipation is trumped by serendipity and fortuity. “Lenny just heard me playing hymns a long time ago, and that image stuck in his head,” she says, referencing the years between 1993 and 1995 when Kaye went to Nashville to convince Colter’s husband, legendary country outlaw Waylon Jennings, to pair up on Jennings’ autobiography. “I became part of their family, with Waylon taking me around town, introducing me as his New York hippie writer friend,” says Kaye. To which Colter cheerfully counters, “I can still recall seeing his long legs coming down from the bunks on our tour bus.”

With that, The Psalms—as much an exploration and exaltation of God as poetic expression—just happened with no plan, with Colter and Kaye turning pages of the bible and finding psalm passages that moved them and letting music and vocals come up in response. After two brief days of recording in 2007, Kaye worked on further illustrating the tracks as the spirit moved him, and collaborators such as Al Kooper (“Who better than the man who did the most iconic organ signature for a rabbinical student such as Dylan?”) and Bobby Previte (“I knew he’d be sensitive to the floating time and rhythm Jessi’s songs had”) appeared.

Both Colter and Kaye agree: The Psalms wasn’t so much produced as it was guided; birthed, quietly and with a divine hand.

“This memory of me walking through their house, one morning in 1995, while she was at the piano, alone, stuck with me,” says Kaye. “Jessi wasn’t so much playing as she was putting her fingers on the keys and expressing melodies as they came to her.” That same sense of intuitive expression, one Kaye used as a guitarist for Colter during their sessions, is how the country songstress works when it comes to the Old Testament.

“I wasn’t planning anything,” she says. “We turned the bible’s pages, found poems such as ‘Psalm 136 Mercy And Loving Kindness,’ and just let it happen.”

Colter knows that this might seem like a far cry from her outlaw-country past—being the lone female on 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws, with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jennings, the first-ever platinum country music album, duets such as “Storms Never Last,” from their marrieds’ 1981 Leather And Lace—but is quick to offer one fun fact: “When it came to Wanted!, I was the only one of the bunch who had—sadly, at that, considering how much hard work Willie and Waylon did— real success and gold albums at that point. Willie had tried Nashville, failed and retreated back to Texas. Waylon, too, had been back and forth with bad management and publishing deals and still felt the sting of Buddy (Holly). I didn’t have the easiest ride, but as soon as I had pop success (1975’s “I’m Not Lisa”), doors opened wider.” For more on this outlaw time, her one-time marriage to twang-guitar-king Duane Eddy and more, “You’ll have to read the book,” she laughs, pointing to her autobiography, An Outlaw And A Lady: A Memoir Of Music, Life With Waylon, And The Faith That Brought Me Home, “due, just like the album, between Easter and Passover.”

Mention going from badass country to the holy balladeer of The Psalms, and Colter says that she was never far from the religious music of her youth to begin with, despite not particularly thinking of herself as singularly religious or dedicated to one creed. The spirit just moves her.

“I always looked to the psalms for inspiration and for understanding on the human condition we’re in, so it has been very close to my heart,” she says. “That’s why Lenny asked me to do this with him. I can’t say that I am evangelical or that I write as a cypher, but there is something to how I write and compose that brings God close to me in a way that I knew something had to happen. I didn’t write any of this album, it just occurred as we went. That’s God, right?”

—A.D. Amorosi

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Jay Som: Working Woman

Melina Duterte’s Jay Som is a long-in-the-making overnight sensation

In the winter of 2016, Melina Duterte posted Turn Into online. It was the debut long-player from the Oakland musician’s one-woman project Jay Som; it circulated among friends and peers, quickly spreading beyond her Bay Area scene. By spring, Jay Som was booked to open a U.S. tour for Mitski and Japanese Breakfast while working out a record deal with veteran indie label Polyvinyl.

“It all happened in like the span of two months,” she says. “It was just crazy.”

Duterte, now 22, has been writing songs for a decade; she played guitar as a child and studied trumpet for nine years, from elementary school through high school. “That basically took up a big part of my life instrumentally, because it’s a lot of hard work and music theory studies,” she says. “I was doing that throughout high school, and I was planning on going to college for jazz.”

But the call of her own songwriting was too strong. Duterte picked up DIY production and taught herself how to play drums, recording the song “Ghost” a week after she bought her first kit. Stand-alone tracks were posted here and there—first on MySpace, then on Bandcamp. The jagged, guitar-driven pop of Turn Into was a culmination of sorts, but, she says, “During that time, I was still figuring out my sound.”

Jay Som’s sophomore album, Everybody Works, brings her skills and voice into a refined focus. Chugging riffs and singalong hooks imbue “1 Billion Dogs,” while “The Bus Song” is a dream-pop gem of glistening guitar interplay, vocal harmonies and nuanced piano-trumpet arrangements. “Take time to figure it out,” she sings. “I’ll be the one who sticks around.” It’s a sentiment of determination that applies to interpersonal relationships as much as her work—which, even if it seems like it came out of nowhere, most definitely did not.

“I think that’s a funny thing, that as a listener you forget that the artists are actually making music constantly,” says Duterte. “It may be fresh and new to you, but we’ve been working on it for a pretty long time.”

—John Vettese

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Will Johnson: This Charming Man

Centro-matic vet Will Johnson returns with a stellar solo LP

Will Johnson used to split his time among Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and solo albums, each filed under, respectively but roughly, rocking alt-country, restrained folk and somber singer/songwriter fare. Plus, there were side gigs like a one-off collaboration with Jason Molina or stints with the Monsters Of Folk and the New Multitudes. He mostly splits time today between family life raising two kids in Austin and working on solo records, such as the new Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm (although South San Gabriel is still active).

He’s traded being prolific for being productive, quantity for … well, the quality has always been there. Johnson used to try to write a song a day. “It was just a discipline that I wanted to respect,” he says. “I truly wanted to give it the amount of time that I felt it deserved every day and treat it like a job.”

Now, he thinks about writing when he’s on trail runs and records demos in hotel bathrooms when he’s on the road doing living-room tours. He’s reconsidered, by necessity and by choice, his goals. “Maybe it’s not necessary to stick with that kind of quantity and now it’s time to focus on writing good songs, writing songs that still turn me on, with melodies and characters and situations that still feel compelling to my eye and my ear,” he says. “I’m not writing as much as I used to, but I’m writing with more care than I used to, if that makes sense.”

Not that stellar records such as Centro-matic’s Love You Just The Same or South San Gabriel’s Welcome, Convalescence (which both came out in 2003) lacked care or ambition. But the songs on Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm are longer and more character-driven; they’re more thoughtful, with subtler textures and arrangements. It’s a collection of tunes about people who are “good souls but doing bad things, or at least flirting with it,” says Johnson. “I started going down a well of putting characters in questionable situations, sometimes good characters in bad situations.”

The LP is populated with drug abusers, strippers and cheaters with names like Ruby Shameless and Mazie May, treated with empathy and compassion and often framed by pretty melodies. That dichotomy between lyrics full of emotional turmoil and music full of peaceful beauty is something that Johnson first explored on his 2004 effort Vultures Await. “I was trying to work with pretty melodies and pretty piano parts but with characters and with subject matter that was pretty tough,” he says. “There was a juxtaposition with that. It’s something I’ve messed around with over the years, and I always enjoyed mashing the two together and seeing where it goes.”

Not that Hatteras Night is entirely restrained. “With the absence of Centro-matic, there is occasionally a want to go ahead and crank up the guitars and pull the rip cord with the volume every once in a while,” says Johnson.

“Every Single Day Of Late” is full of dark, ominous electric guitar, and “Heresy And Snakes” churns with the power of a Magnolia Electric Co. song. “The effect that Magnolia had on me and Jason’s writing had on me was massive from the start—I just felt a kinship with it from afar,” says Johnson, recalling his late friend.

Hatteras Night is Johnson’s first solo outing since 2015’s Swan City Vampires. For now, he’s not at risk of being called “prolific,” which he laughs at as a backhanded compliment anyway: “I don’t think too much about that, but when I do it’s kind of like they’re saying, ‘He’s just an all right student— but he’s got the best attendance!’”

—Steve Klinge

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Wolf Eyes: (Inner) Space Is The Place

On its near-500th release since forming in 1996, prolific Detroit noise-terrorists Wolf Eyes turn inward and down on Undertow

To hear the members of Wolf Eyes tell it, their short, strange trip from the metallic KO of their 2015 full-length, I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces, to the uneasy introspection of their latest, Undertow, materialized honestly enough.

Mind In Pieces was our rock record, and we can’t really out-rock that, you know?” says John Olson, one of the band’s two primary creative forces. “Over the years, we’ve invented our own language to map out our own sonic worlds. And we just keep drawing from that language—there’s a lot of freedom there. We were hanging out with Danny (Ray Thompson) and Marshall (Allen) from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and they told us they’d wait for months for Sun Ra to bring the band together, then play a traditional thing to show their musical chops. But Sun Ra would be like, ‘I don’t wanna hear that, play as weird as possible!’”

“‘Make it sing like a bird,’” adds Nate Young, the group’s longest-tenured member. “‘Sound like machinery.’ So many cats, when they got to that point in their career, couldn’t do that. It’s so inspiring that Sun Ra looked for people who could. We’re always switching instrumentation and lusting for new sonic worlds. We get some sketches down and then a force comes out and we haunt that force until we feel like our work is done, then zip out of there and check the map for the next available entry point to a new world.”

If its prior album was the experimental collective’s attempt at channeling Blue Cheer by way of Swans, then its latest is an equally sincere effort to run the early jam-based work of Can and Kraftwerk through a Butthole Surfers blender, circa Hairway To Steven. On tracks like “Texas,” woodwinds hover peacefully above the din while white-noise guitar effects and electronic scree sit beneath it all like a primordial ooze draining volubly from a swamp. Others, such as “Thirteen” and the bleak tone-poem title track, convey a sense of a giant ocean liner gliding through a black winter sea: quietly steering its way through terror as icebergs capable of tearing the ship’s hull to shreds loom just beneath the surface. It may very well be the quietest work in the band’s catalog, but it’s not easy listening.

“You could call it downer folk,” says Olson. “Or maybe R&B after the apocalypse. Smokey Robinson and (Robert) Zemeckis hanging out together in a cabin somewhere in Michigan.”

“I consider what we do to be electronic,” says Young. “In my head, I’m always thinking we’re closer to R&B, but really, we’re more like contemporary electronic soul. We’re fans of early Kraftwerk when it was only flute, guitar, bongos and shit. Music at large. Yes, there are noise and found sounds, but we’re attempting to bring musicality to it. Olson brings a different woodwind instrument to practice every day.”

“Nate’s current setup is like a portable musique concrète studio,” says Olson. “The woodwinds just add a three-dimensional aspect to it all.”

“We’re flirting with a lot of sexy sax—we try to go downtown with that shit,” says Young. “We’re not just collecting spare change; we’re straight-up taking cash!”

No matter what the band may have intended, its independent spirit is perfect for the bizarro-world times in which we now live, its ethos and seemingly tireless work ethic having produced a new imprint (Lower Floor Music) in which music both created and curated by Wolf Eyes will be issued in new and archival versions. If any of this reminds you of, say, SST Records back in its prime, there’s more than a passing similarity between the DIY punk ethos that ruled/bucked against the limitations of the Reagan era and the group’s commitment to doing the same in the age of Trump.

“It’s one thing to invent your own words, quite another to use them in a sentence in your own way,” says Olson. “The book of our band could be 60 pages, or 18 volumes. You don’t always have to read the whole thing, but it’s there. Thirty years from now, we’ll all be glad there’s these tapes and a thousand ways to define our sound rather than whatever some label told us they could do.”

“I’ve read Ron Asheton interviews where at some of the earliest Stooges gigs—the Psychedelic Stooges!—there were pieces of sheet metal and some tap dancing shoes or a vacuum cleaner being fed through a reverb pedal,” says Young. “Our other genre is ‘revolt!’”

—Corey duBrowa

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Lydia Ainsworth: The Sweet Hereafter

Lydia Ainsworth explores the subconscious on Darling Of The Afterglow

The songs Lydia Ainsworth composes to support her poignant explorations of love gone wrong are delicately balanced between the warm, romantic sounds of classical music and the jarring, icy tones of modern electronica. On Darling Of The Afterglow, the Toronto resident’s second LP, she floats down into subterranean currents of the subconscious to investigate the border between dreams and nightmares.

“This album is a scrapbook of my experiences over the past few years,” she says. “The music can be forlorn and despondent and, perhaps, hinting at mortality. I’m always exploring loneliness, isolation and the desire to communicate more honestly. I try to convey our internal dialogue and the way we censor ourselves in order to be understood. While I was writing the songs, I was inspired by the story of a woman who had a stroke. She lost the ability to perceive three dimensions. She saw in two dimensions, and although she could function in the world, every moment was a new moment. She couldn’t retain the memories of anything she did. That sparked the idea of selective memory. Are we selective in what we remember? What are we choosing to ‘not see’ in our day-to-day lives?”

That theme is frequently revisited on Darling Of The Afterglow. Glistening keyboards and moaning electric bass support Ainsworth’s breathless voice on “Open Doors,” an ode to a man who closes his eyes to the love that’s been standing in front of him. On “Afterglow,” her impressive multitracked vocals wander through outer space, searching for a release that may be more spiritual than physical. The effect is otherworldly.

“I studied film scoring at NYU with Joan La Barbara, who uses extended vocal techniques—trills, whispers, cries and exhaled notes,” she says. “On this album, I used my voice to create vocal samples to add texture to the tracks. The human voice is a magical thing. I’m always blown away by the power you can get when you have voices blending together.”

Ainsworth thought she was going to be an orchestral composer or a writer of film scores. Despite her impressive vocal abilities, she was always a shy performer, even though she loved choral music and dreamed of being a singer and a songwriter.

“I got a six-CD stereo and listened to music all hours of the day and night, which my mother didn’t like,” she says. “In high school, I played cello, sitting in the back of the orchestra, observing the other players and becoming obsessed with the idea of writing for an orchestra. While working on a score for an experimental film in college, the director encouraged me to add vocals to one of the tracks. After the film was done, he asked me to perform at the wrap party. I only had that one song, so I quickly wrote a few more and put together a band. We played them, and by the end of the night, I realized how much I loved writing songs and playing for a live audience. I’ve never stopped.”

—j. poet

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Imelda May: Life And How To Live It

Following a divorce and the resulting depression, Imelda May hit the reset button with Life, Love, Flesh, Blood

Imelda May swears she never intended for this to happen. But the imposing Celtic rockabilly throne she’s effortlessly occupied since her hiccupy No Turning Back debut in 2003 now sits dusty and vacant. Incidents beyond her control forced her to abdicate three years ago and segue into the muted, Laurel Canyon-lissome beauty of her new T Bone Burnett-produced metamorphosis, Life, Love, Flesh, Blood.

“I just wanted to start from scratch, with absolutely everything, because everything I thought I knew about myself, I didn’t,” declares the diva, who was lovingly proclaimed by Bono “The other queen of Ireland” when she made a surprise appearance at U2’s 2015 homecoming concert in Dublin.

Gone are the ’50s-retro fashions and signature cinnamon-bun hairdo, replaced by eyebrow-length bangs and a casual look reminiscent of early Françoise Hardy. And May is no longer steamrolling through rockabilly stompers like a young Wanda Jackson—she delivers a Patsy Cline-classy performance on carefully considered ballads like “Human,” “Call Me,” “Black Tears” (featuring ethereal filigrees from her longtime chum Jeff Beck), “Sixth Sense” and a gospel-fervent “When It’s My Time” (with Jools Holland on subtly skeletal piano). Only on slinky R&B hip-shaker “Bad Habit”—about trying to avoid superfluous expenses and stick to a tight budget—does the singer even approach her old groove, albeit in a decidedly more subdued, reserved manner. Burnett maintains a haunted, catacomb-echoed mix throughout. When they first started work on the record, May says, “He told me, ‘I know who you are. I’ve watched you. And you weren’t ready for me before, but now you are.’ And I completely agreed.”

What force majeure changes shook May’s world so thoroughly? For one, the gradual dissolution of her marriage to guitarist Darrel Higham, from whom she officially split in July 2015. The paperwork on the couple’s divorce is nearly final. As she tells it, the breakup had been coming for a while. The pair wrote, toured and recorded together, and they were always of one mind when focusing on her Sun Session-y sound. “We had such a common interest in work, and we loved to chat about it,” she says. “But when work stopped, and you go home, and then there’s nothing left to talk about? That can be quite difficult. So I think we just grew apart, and it wasn’t easy to admit that.”

May and her ex have a daughter, Violet, now four, and she figured heavily into the separation. “Just having her makes you see that she deserves more, she deserves a lot of joy and happiness, and both of us decided that to be apart would be better for her,” she says, candidly.

May is nothing if not candid. Admittedly, she went through a dark, depressing period just trying to figure things out on her own. Monthly finances became a concern (hence “Bad Habit,” wherein she waives purchasing a pair of pricey Louboutin heels for paying the mortgage), as did finding her truer, more mature inner voice. Was she still rockabilly’s reigning highness? She didn’t know.

“So you put your daughter to bed, make sure she’s happy, and that’s when it was so hard—at night,” she says. “Because then you bawl your eyes out and try to focus yourself on writing an album.”

In the past three years, May elaborates, she endured heartache from Higham, got over it, began dating again, fell in love with a new beau, felt guilty for experiencing lust and passion again, and was jilted a second time, leading to more acute heartbreak. As a songwriter exploring new sonic territory, she had a lot to consider; “Black Tears” was the first mascara-streaked track she composed, and the waiting-for-that-phone-to-ring “Call Me” concluded the painful process. The songs weren’t her usual jubilant stock in trade, but her manager was floored by their brutal honesty. When she suggested—almost jokingly—that Burnett should produce them, her rep made it happen.

“So I’ve had massive changes,” she says and insists that her divorce has been so amicable that she even sang all the backing vocals on Higham’s upcoming solo album. “I wanted to change my hair, too, so—like a lot of people do—you just go to your hairdresser and say, ‘Cut it all off!’ Certainly a lot of women can relate to that, you know? I just wanted to get back to feeling like myself again, because I didn’t know who I was for a while.”

—Tom Lanham

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Crystal Fairy: Delicate Soundz

Crystal Fairy is much more than the sum of its parts

It began, as these things often do, with Jello Biafra. In 2014, S.F. punk’s eminence grise invited Mexican garage-punk band Le Butcherettes to open for the Guantanamo School Of Medicine at the Roxy in West Hollywood. Melvins’ King Buzzo, a friend of Biafra, came out to show support and catch the set. And when Le Butcherettes, fronted by Teri Gender Bender, hit the stage, Buzzo was blown away.

“She’s a massively dynamic performer,” says Buzzo, “super-talented. A force of nature.”

So impressed was Buzzo by Le Butcherettes’ performance that he asked the band to open for Melvins on a series of tour dates—a significant move for a guy who’s ordinarily reluctant to slot opening acts.

“My agent told me, ‘This is really rare.’ I actually cried a little bit,” laughs Teri G-B. “I was like, ‘Of course let’s go on tour with the Melvins!’ And they were such sweet gentlemen.”

That tour was followed by another set of opening dates, for which Le Butcherettes and Melvins worked up a collaborative live cover of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” “At that point I knew we needed to do something together,” says Buzzo, “but I didn’t know what.”

Backstage at those same shows was Butcherettes producer (and G-B’s El Paso neighbor) Omar Rodríguez-López, he of At The Drive-In and the Mars Volta—not to play but to photograph and document the tour. He and Melvins hit it off, and the final piece of the puzzle that would become Crystal Fairy snapped into place.

Written and recorded at white-hot speed in studios in L.A. (Melvins’ home base) and El Paso (Butcherettes’), Crystal Fairy is a record that comes out punching and never lets up. Melvins’ Dale Crover and Buzzo, joined by Rodríguez-López and G-B, run through 11 songs in a thunderous 41 minutes—some crisp and pounding (“Chiseler”), some stately and heavy (“Moth Tongue”), some giddy and angular (“Vampire X-Mas”), some joyously, liberatingly bizarre (the irresistible title cut). Considering how quickly it came together, Crystal Fairy sounds remarkably cohesive—the work of a band whose energies were pointed in a single direction from the start.

“From inception to recording, it took two weeks,” says Buzzo. “If that. We’re all used to working very fast. I’m a very big believer in vision-execute. You get the right people around you, and it works—you have to try really, really hard to blow it. And we’ve all worked on our craft for a really long time. People who’ve worked on their craft for this long, it’s really down to luck. Hard work and pure luck.”

The L.A. sessions came first. “Buzz said, ‘OK, let’s put it all on the table,’” says G-B. “We recorded the rehearsals, even the ideas for songs as they came. And I had my notebook with me, and I was writing lyrics and melodies for the ideas they came up with.”

“In those kinds of situations,” says Buzzo, “I’m a firm believer in letting people off the leash: ‘Just do what you do.’ The first day, when we recorded ‘Bent Teeth,’ I just knew it was good.”

For G-B, something clicked just past the halfway point: “It started becoming a reality when we were about six songs deep. And then Buzz and Dale came out to El Paso where Omar and I live, and it was this exchange of cultural identities, and on that basis, too, it was really exciting. El Paso’s a little more spread out, and there’s less to do at night if you’re a party person, which thankfully none of us are, so we got to spend a lot of quality time, in the real sense of the word—we’d all watch movies at night, then get up, go into the studio, work out a part, then, ‘OK, let’s go to IHOP.’ Honestly, talking about this, I can’t believe it’s real. You get a sense of the energy in the room, and you think, ‘OK, there’s something here. These people, they’re my tribe.’”

“We didn’t even know it was going to be an album,” says Buzzo. “And then we had one.”

—Eric Waggoner

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Chicano Batman: Paradise Now

The political is personal and poetic for Chicano Batman

As far as psychedelic alt-Latino bands with major dollops of soul go, Los Angeles’ Chicano Batman is the sleekest—not solely for its sound or for its sophisticated socio-political rhetoric, but also for its bespoke, sartorial dress sense. Nearly 10 years since its start, the raging, dynamic quartet—driven by Bardo Martinez’s lead vocals, poetic texts and organ/guitar mix—focuses more than ever on its ministerial lyrical edge on the new Freedom Is Free (ATO).

“To be honest with you, the band came together on the idea of creating a unique brand of music,” says bassist/singer Eduardo Arenas. “We all went to college. Some of us have master’s degrees, and some of us have had careers before jumping on the Chicano Batman bullet train. Our band name is a social-political one. As persons in the band, we have synonymous ideologies about our vision of this country and our capitalistic/militaristic (dis)position in this world.” Chicano Batman lyrics haven’t always reflected that socio-serious voice, as a lot of its songs over a handful of albums and EPs speak about love, which often is a stronger political tool than anything else.

“But we’re in 2017 now,” says Arenas. “Police killings of unarmed citizens are at an all-time high. An ignorant narcissist who lost the majority vote has become the new president of this country.”

Martinez goes on to mention how “Arrow To The Sun” (“Flecha Al Sol”) is a verbatim rendition of a children’s book with the same title that surrealistically imagines a young boy in search of his father who happens to be the sun. “My lyrical approach was in first person, i.e. becoming the protagonist of the story, and since the book provides simplistic yet extremely rich imagery, writing the lyrics was easy,” says Martinez.

Yet, Arenas sounds proudest of Martinez when he goes for the throat on dismantling the establishment of the right and the left to come up with something that lacerates between the eyes. “Bardo contributed most of the compositions, and you can just hear how his lyricism evolved throughout the years to wind up here,” says Arenas. “The messages are coming through much clearer now. This will be important as we enter into a new era with a new president. Shit, I don’t even want to say his name. There’s only so much we can take. Our new album opens up that conversation as we become more explicit about our ideologies. If not now, then when?”

—A.D. Amorosi

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All Them Witches: Gray Sabbath

All Them Witches don’t necessarily exhibit their influences on Sleeping Through The War—or any album for that matter

All Them Witches’ press clippings will reveal consistent comparisons to some of the ’70s biggest names as they pertain to ATW’s rumblingly powerful stoner vibe. Frontman Charles Michael Parks takes exception to one reference in particular.

“Black Sabbath is the most misleading, because none of us listens to Black Sabbath,” says Parks. “We must be in the same mindset at some points. I’ve never listened to Blue Cheer, but we all like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, real early Fleetwood Mac and Roy Buchanan. And I would count international folk music as one of my main influences.”

Oddly enough, Parks and drummer Robby Staebler enjoy ambient new age and jazz, while keyboardist Allan Van Cleave grew up exclusively with classical music and didn’t listen to rock until he was 18. That all could figure into ATW’s fourth and most ambitious album, Sleeping Through The War, featuring the band’s epic volume and density interlaced with melodic nuance. Although elements of King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra seem to be woven into ATW’s new approach, those are two more bands they haven’t really explored.

“I don’t listen to a lot of music before or during writing,” says Parks. “I have a bad habit of unconsciously reusing ideas without remembering where they came from. Then it’s, ‘Aw, shit, that’s just like that Cream song.’ I like to think everything we come up with is just four idiots in a room making noise.”

One reason for the distinct differences between Sleeping Through The War and ATW’s previous catalog is the Nashville-based quartet’s deliberation in creating it. The grueling touring cycle for 2015’s Dying Surfer Meets His Maker included two European circuits, and the band’s new material was largely conceived during the brief hiatus.

“Usually we go into the studio with maybe half the songs done,” says Parks. “This time, we had four days to write. New West has an artist house/venue in Athens, Ga., so we got to stay there, we wrote it, went back to Europe, then we came back and had five days to record. It was good going into the studio knowing where you were going.”

The new album’s sonic shift could also be partially attributed to renowned producer Dave Cobb, who served as ATW’s first actual producer. The process could’ve been traumatic, but Cobb was a perfect fit. “He’s a normal, easy-to-get-along-with guy, and he just knows where things should go,” says Parks. “He works the same way we do, by experimentation, so it was super easy. He likes to make art.”

Sleeping Through The War’s evolution is significant in light of the band’s short history. Then-recent transplant Staebler met guitarist Ben McLeod at a Nashville bar in 2012, then Parks, Staebler’s retail workmate, offered to play bass although he was primarily a guitarist. Van Cleave laid down keys on the first album, returned to tour and joined by default. The foursome’s chemistry is so strong they no longer practice or even hang together; they reassemble to write, record and tour.

Parks concedes the stoner-rock label was once applicable to All Them Witches but attributes their fluidity to his songwriting style. “I have material for two or three songs in my head, but I like to shove them all into one song,” he says. “So it’s an unusable length for radio. Being scatterbrained is how I like to write, and I haven’t found a way to get un-scatterbrained. I like who and where I am, so I don’t need to change yet.”

—Brian Baker

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