Category Archives: FEATURES

Tancred: True Grit And Loud Music

Tancred

Tancred’s Jessica Abbott isn’t afraid to express herself

In the last year, Jessica Abbott—singer, songwriter and lead guitarist of Tancred—has come to the realization that there should be no expectations based on gender.

Out Of The Garden is a reflection of my belief that being a woman doesn’t mean what society says it means, especially in regard to how you’re expected to express your sexuality,” says Abbott. “I want to rip up those guidelines and throw them away.”

The songs on Out Of The Garden blend Abbott’s aggressive, almost metallic guitar with her intimate vocals and the powerful rhythms of drummer Kevin Medina and bassist Terrence Vitali. She’s abandoned the folky, pop approach of the first two Tancred albums for full throttle rock ‘n’ roll. “I made the first Tancred album when I was 19,” says Abbott. “It was more acoustic, and looking back, it was a bit underdeveloped. This one is crunchier and louder, with more layers of guitars. I was in screaming, metal-core bands when I was younger. That comes out when I crank up my amp. Writing this album, I began finding more strength in myself and in my music. The songs reflect those experiences.”

Although Abbott began Tancred as a studio-only project, she’s now ready to get out on the road and play her songs live. “My plan is to tour until I drop,” she says. “These songs have a political and social subtext. I don’t want to overwhelm people with it, but it’s irresponsible to not talk about issues that need to be discussed. It may sound naive to say I make music to help people, but it’s soul crushing to think that I’m not doing anything to move things forward. I have kids who come to shows and tell me something I wrote helped them through the day. Nothing feels as important as that.”

—j. poet

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Car Seat Headrest: Holy Toledo

CarSeatHeadrest

Car Seat Headrest’s frontman is doing it his way

Will Toledo is a funny guy, quick to joke about his Bandcamp roots, fast to tease that his future projects include an “album of cover versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’”

Jokes and jibes aside, Toledo—the onetime one-man-band behind the fully fleshed-out Car Seat Headrest—is a serious, considerate scribe and complex thinker. He’s a concise, cutting writer whose wise, economical words and parenthetical thoughts give his crunching guitars, lo-fi synth skronk and laudable melodicism the textual, abstract feel of Michael Stipe meeting playwright Eugene O’Neill. The former even gets a shoutout on “Strangers,” a song that, like “Something Soon” (which namechecks short-story author Raymond Carver), appears on his mish-mash debut, 2015’s Teens Of Style, just months ahead of this spring’s next Headrest project, Teens Of Denial.

“I was attracted to the vague, the unexplained, the unlabeled side of art,” says Toledo of finding solace in the Carvers and Stipes of the world. “Overwrought, explicit symbolism was antithetical to me as a teenager, so I ran toward artists who shied from the explicit, who left more unsaid than said. In the end, Stipe maybe left a little too much unsaid. I have no idea what the fuck ‘idle hands all orient to her’— honestly a worse line—means, and that makes me feel a little jilted for having it exist in my head as a known lyric for almost a decade. Lyricists of the future, please think of the children.”

A Williamsburg, Va., native who majored in English in college, then left home for Seattle (“It’s creepy to stay in your college town after you graduate”), Toledo crammed the Bandcamp artist/fan site full with so many uniquely Car Seat Headrest witty tunes and wonky songcraft that Matador Records stood up and took notice. “I wouldn’t say nobody gets anywhere from Bandcamp,” he says. “Very few people get anywhere, but I think that’s true for any method of career-building as a musician. I was posting songs on Bandcamp for six years before the industry noticed, but all through that time individuals were coming to my page and finding something they liked, and that built up into its own thing after a while.”

Re-recording those Bandcamp tracks for Teens Of Style wasn’t a matter of hiding or even accentuating, but more like eliminating. “I felt that most of these songs were 80 percent great, and the other 20 percent was filler lyrics, bum vocal takes or just insufficient cover for lousy performances,” he says.

When it came to Teens Of Denial—more conceptual in message and tone than that first compilation—you can hear immediately that these were songs written for a single project rather than scattershot great tunes, an album that was self-contained but not necessarily self-referential. “I tasked myself with creating distinct, all-new songs that borrowed nothing from older, recognizable Car Seat Headrest songs,” he says. “I almost succeeded, but cheated a bit by stealing from some old material that actually predated CSH.”

For example, the ending of “Connect The Dots (The Saga Of Frank Sinatra)” came from a song he penned in 2009 that followed the Frank during his dead-end period in New York after he quit Tommy Dorsey’s band, but before doubling down and coming into his swinging Rat Pack success. Toledo felt very much the same as Old Blue Eyes. “After moving out to Seattle with no contacts and no friends and trying to make things work for myself, Sinatra’s story resonated with me,” he says. “The character is determined to go it alone, to do it ‘my way’ and forgo all comforts of human companionship as a result.” Another Denial tune, “Cosmic Hero,” is more fragmented and conversational, the most stream-of-consciousnessy song on the album, meant to capture the feeling of a semi-sleeping state where all chatter exists between crucial and goofy. “I try to combat the tendency of sounding authoritative by undermining myself whenever possible,” he says. “An aside or two is helpful in conveying that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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LÉON: Whole Lotta Love

Leon

For Swedish chanteuse LÉON, it’s all in the family

Does Lotta Lindgren blame nature or nurture for her gradual transformation into soulful singer LÉON—as heard on debut EP Treasure and its flagship single, “Tired Of Talking”? A bit of both, swears the Swede. Growing up in Stockholm, her classical-composer father introduced her to Motown, David Bowie, the Beatles and the guitar. And since he anchored a rock band when he was a high schooler, he applauded his daughter when she formed her own Aretha-and-Etta-inspired R&B combo in her teens, as well. But it was her mother—a professional cellist in local symphonies—who proved most influential.

“Part of my mom really wanted me to become a cello player, too, so I started playing when I was five,” says LÉON, now 22. “And then I quit when I was 19. I thought it was really fun when you got to perform, but I was never a big fan of rehearsing. And I resisted learning to read notes for a long time—I don’t think I had that in me. I wanted to do other things more, like writing and singing instead.” Her turning point: a church recital alongside her cello instructor, wherein she forgot most of the notes. “It was very quiet, awkward and embarrassing,” she says.

But once LÉON entered a music academy and met her current co-writer and producer Agrin Rahmani, and arrived at pop/soul hybrid “For You” (included on her upcoming, as-yet-untitled first album), she discovered that bowing a cello was eerily similar to singing, dynamics-wise, and just as passionate. So it was natural for her to include said instrument on her debut.

“I’m really excited about that, but it’s not me playing,” she says. “It’s actually my mom and my uncle and a few others. When I mentioned to her that I wanted to have strings on my songs, she was like, ‘Wait a minute! So, uh, who are you recruiting?’”

—Tom Lanham

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Japanese Breakfast: Creatively Unlimited

JapaneseBreakfast

Japanese Breakfast’s sad songs say so much

When Michelle Zauner was in Little Big League, she concentrated on writing songs for the band’s albums. But it would sometimes take a year before they could tour, so she decided she didn’t want to wait anymore.

“When we went on hiatus, I wanted to share what I was writing with more immediacy,” says Zauner. “I decided to stop waiting for inspiration to strike and just go for it. In June of 2013, I told myself I’d record 30 tracks in 30 days and, at the end of the month, put out the result on cassette. Some days, I had 10 minutes to write. Some days, I had more time. I forced myself to maximize my creativity.”

The result was June, her first effort as Japanese Breakfast, a collection that took Zauner’s music in a more contemplative direction. She followed it up with two more cassette-only releases, Where Is My Great Big Feeling? and American Sound. “I like the raw, instinctual sounds you get on cassettes,” says Zauner. “To listen to them, you have to turn them over manually. It forces you to listen to the album as a whole piece of music.”

After making three cassettes, Zauner had almost 50 songs in her catalogue. “When I started Japanese Breakfast, it was still a rock band, but when I recorded the songs, they turned into something else,” she says. “With my co-producer, Ned Eisenberg, I incorporated sampled sounds and electronic elements.”

The end product is Psychopomp, a dark, intimate record that complements Zauner’s understated vocals with washes of ambient sound and waves of drowsy processed guitar. “In Jungian psychology, the psychopomp is the mediator between the conscious and subconscious mind,” says Zauner. “To some people, it suggests psychotic pop, which is what it sounds like on the surface, but if you look deeper, the music is really sad.”

—j. poet

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Shonen Knife: Pleasant Dreams

ShonenKnife

After 35 years, Shonen Knife is still playing music to make people happy

Blame the perpetual adolescence of her lifestyle. But after 35 years—much to her amazement—Shonen Knife bandleader Naoko Yamano is still firing on all punk-andgarage-infused six cylinders on the girl trio’s new Adventure album, featuring rollicking anthems like “Wasabi,” “Dog Fight,” “Tasmanian Devil” and the ’60s-chiming “Jump Into The New World.”

“Actually, I think I’ve gotten more rock ‘n’ roll than ever before,” says the Osaka native, who was once championed by the late Kurt Cobain. “Shonen Knife had a membership change in recent years, because women have to sometimes do parent care and family things. But I really wanted to continue the band, so I was lucky I could find very good new members. So my energy for rock ‘n’ roll is allowing me to continue.”

On drums, Yamano recruited Risa from the group Brinky. For bass, she convinced her sister Atsuko (the group’s founding drummer) to rejoin after five years away. And the singer still plays her two lightweight Daisy guitars onstage, one bright blue, the other shiny silver (“Their design and color are very pop and cute, and their concept is actually guitars for girls,” she says), plus her own pink-hued, self-designed Fujigen signature model (“The guitar neck is less thick, with jumbo frets, and the rear pickup is a humbucker, with a switch at the bottom, so it’s much easier to play,” she says of the limited-run axe, produced by the Japanese company a decade ago and now an auction-site rarity).

Lyrically, Adventure is just as glossy as Yamano’s instruments. “If I wanted to say something about political things, I would be a politician,” she says. “I just want people to get happy with our music.” On the record’s blues-scruffy “Rock‘N’Roll T-Shirt,” for instance, no introspective analysis is required as Yamano assesses her concert-tee wardrobe with a chirping “I like to wear them everywhere/They are my best clothes.” It’s a simplicity reminiscent of her longtime idols, the Ramones, which she honored by recording an eponymous album as the Osaka Ramones in 2011. It was produced by Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, another band booster, who issued it—and several other Shonen Knife discs—on his Good Charamel imprint. “Robby is very punk,” she says of her benefactor.

As it did in 2010 at the request of then-curator Matt Groening, Shonen Knife will play this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Britain, under the aegis of comedian Stewart Lee. Yamano only wishes her teenage daughter were more excited by such achievements. “She doesn’t like rock music, it’s very weird to her—she likes anime and manga instead,” she says. “I think rock music is gradually being forgotten now by young people in Japan.”

But Yamano has a personal method for keeping the music’s spirit alive. She plays tennis, several times a week, and catches professional opens whenever she can on tour. “Playing is very good for my health,” she says. “And after I started to play tennis, I never get tired after a show now. So rock ‘n’ roll and tennis go very well together—it’s a good match for me.”

—Tom Lanham

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Tacocat: Feminism Is Fun

Tacocat

Tacocat prefers to make you think while having a laugh

Tacocat’s new album, Lost Time, kicks off with “Dana Katherine Scully,” a tribute to the X-Files special agent played by Gillian Anderson. It has echoes of Brill Building pop, with a bright, bouncy Latin beat that makes it unforgettable. “We finished the album before they rebooted the series,” says bassist Bree McKenna. “Emily (Nokes, the band’s singer) is a huge fan. She’s always talking about The X-Files.”

“Scully” is just one of the woman-centric songs on the album. The band, which also includes guitarist Eric Randall and drummer Lelah Maupin, has spawned a new wave of feminism in Seattle, with its blistering energy, catchy melodies and arch, ironic lyrics. “I’m angry about a lot of things,” says Nokes, “but it’s better to make fun of the people in power. We laugh at them because their behavior is ridiculous.”

The quartet was inspired in part by the riot-grrrl bands of the ’90s, and while Tacocat has a sense of humor, the message it conveys is serious. “We write songs about being women,” says Nokes. “We sing about being in love, but we also talk about our bodies and relationships and what it means to be female. When we started playing punk clubs, there was a lot of young male energy in the audience—guys who’d freak when we said ‘tampon.’ Now we have men coming up to us saying, ‘Every time my partner is on her period, we sit together and listen to your song (“Crimson Wave”).’”

Lost Time mirrors the energy of the group’s live shows, but it’s also darker than their previous efforts. “I pushed myself when I was singing,” says Nokes. “We wanted the album to be louder, more serious and moodier than our last record but still fun. Even our moody tone is pretty much hot pink.”

—j. poet

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Yeasayer: Fables Of The Deconstruction

Yeasayer

Yeasayer somehow managed to make its weirdest, most populist record

While it seems the rest of Brooklyn’s psych/pop class of 2008 seem to have either gone off the deep end (MGMT) or moved on to greener pastures (Vampire Weekend), Yeasayer has—a decade into its career—clung fast to its own out-of-time, deeply strange brand of music, somewhere in the space between Fela Kuti and Timbaland. The band’s fourth full-length, Amen & Goodbye, is its furthest-out yet.

In the four years since their last tour, the band’s three members—Anand Wilder, Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton, who largely split songwriting duties—demoed tracks separately before decamping to upstate New York to record. Upon returning to Brooklyn, they enlisted Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace, R.E.M.) to produce or, as they put it, “deconstruct,” what would eventually become Amen & Goodbye.

“Joey served as a really good lubricant,” says Tuton, “because by the time we got back to New York, we’d been doing this for a long time and there was motivation to finish, but it was fleeting. He brought a fresh energy, which I think helped us work at stripping the song structure down and building it back up.”

Along with Waronker, the band enlisted a formidable roster of friends and colleagues, including Suzzy Roche (of folk-rock legends the Roches) and Joe McGinty (formerly of the Psychedelic Furs), among others. Roche—a longtime idol of Tuton’s; he very highly recommends the Roches’ Robert Fripp-produced first and third albums—proves a revelation, her vocal turns (namely on the stunning coda to album highlight “Half Asleep”) each providing an uncanny counterpoint to the band’s own arrangements.

“Talking to Suzzy, it’s interesting because they never broke and became huge, but they developed an incredibly loyal fanbase,” says Tuton. “In some respects, I find some similar parallels between us. We’re not planning on becoming this huge band, but I think at this point, it’s amazing that we’ve found so many people and so many people have found us.”

It’d hardly be a Yeasayer album, though, without a laundry list of its own quirks, including a typically mind-bending album cover, courtesy this time of famed Canadian sculptor David Altmejd; and a trio of instrumentals, including the truly bizarre “Child Prodigy,” which consists solely of a harpsichord solo almost drowned out by stock applause. The band is well aware of the anomalies that set it so starkly apart from its contemporaries.

“I mean, if we’re going to engage in the world of making albums, then I’m much more interested in creating an interesting journey through the album than our best pop songs on side A and then getting worse and worse as you go along,” says Tuton. “Before making this record, we stepped back and said, ‘What are we? What are our strengths?’ We play to our strengths. And that’s what we’ve always tried to do, to maintain some sense of creativity and originality.”

—Möhammad Choudhery

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The Sharp Things: Golden Slumbers

SharpThings

With EverybodyEverybody, the Sharp Things complete their ambitious The Dogs Of Bushwick quartet

Ask Perry Serpa how many people are in the Sharp Things and the number ranges from 15 to one, not counting references to 40-piece orchestras and 21-strong string sections. The album credits for EverybodyEverybody, the fourth LP in the band’s The Dogs Of Bushwick series, list 18 players plus five chorale singers. But the New York City record-release show, on a bill with Mark Eitzel, was booked as a solo “Perry Serpa of the Sharp Things” event, due to logistical conflicts with other core band members.

“In a perfect world, we’d all be together all the time, and we’d have the money to support a seven- or eight-piece band on tour,” says Serpa from his Brooklyn home. But it’s not a perfect world, and the Sharp Things are a band in flux.

The Sharp Things formed in the late ’90s, although its genesis was in the childhood friendship between Serpa and drummer Steve Gonzalez. The band released three well-received albums of expansive chamber pop between 2002 and 2007, but then Serpa stepped back to reassess the band’s direction. The result was a “hyper-prolific burst of songwriting” of more than 40 songs in 2008 and early 2009.

The band recorded the basic tracks for all the songs and released the first installment of The Dogs Of Bushwick series in early 2013 as the album Green Is Good; the second, The Truth Is Like The Sun, followed at the end of that year. As the group was readying the third effort, Adventurer’s Inn, for release at the end of 2014, Gonzalez, who had cystic fibrosis, passed away.

“We stepped into the project, and we were gung-ho for definitely the first couple records,” says Serpa. “But then Steve passed between the second and the third one, and not to get too heavy about it, but we lost a lot of steam because of that. Understandably, there was a sort of collective depression. Personally, despite the fact that something sort of died inside, I feel he would have wanted us to finish it. And so, we did it.”

EverybodyEverybody is a wide-ranging song cycle modeled, in part, after the way the songs on side two of Abbey Road flow into one another. The band deploys chamber-pop orchestration judiciously (as on “Family Day At The Lake”), but, as on the other Bushwick albums, the group isn’t beholden to any one genre.

“Over the course of this quadrilogy—although that sounds really pretentious—we’ve really dabbled and immersed ourselves in the diversity of the songwriting,” says Serpa. “There’s songs that almost push the metal envelope. There’s songs that are really stripped down, really plaintive. Then there’s the more sort of lush, orchestral stuff that you found on our first three records. There’s the sort of retro stuff; there’s stuff that sounds like soul music; there’s electro stuff. There’s sound collages and interstitial stuff, especially on this particular record. We lost ourselves, literally; whatever we thought we were is sort of gone, anyway.”

EverybodyEverybody ends The Dogs Of Bushwick on an impressive note, and it concludes a chapter in the Sharp Things’ history. Serpa, who also works as a music publicist, has written more songs since that spurt seven years ago, including a series derived from Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked. For now, he’s taking a relaxed approach to EverybodyEverybody.

“Albums will happen when they happen; they fall together when they will,” he says. “They start to resonate with people at the weirdest time. I’m just going to relax on this one, take the industry hat o and just let it happen.” And he’s looking forward to the next period of the Sharp Things.

“Here we are, on to the next frontier, and God knows what that’s going to be,” he says. “I’m ready for it. I’m resigned to the happy fact that I’ll never stop making music until I’m put under myself. I feel good; I feel very positive about what’s next.”

—Steve Klinge

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Marisa Anderson: Turn On The Bright Lights

MarisaAnderson

Marisa Anderson brings church and state together with a little pedal-steel improv

Nothing teaches you patience quite like walking across the United States. Marisa Anderson did just that in 1990, when she dropped out of college to join the Global Walk For A Livable World. So, it makes sense that the Portland, Ore.- based guitarist’s musical life has unfolded at an unhurried pace.

Singing hymns in Sunday school first inspired her. “That feeling has stayed with me throughout my life,” says Anderson. “I’m not religious, but I do believe in transcendence, and I believe that music has the wonderful function of helping us achieve it.”

She’s played in country quartet Dolly Ranchers and an eclectic improv ensemble, the Evolutionary Jass Band, but didn’t make her first album until 2009. “And that was only because Eric Isaacson at Mississippi Records demanded that I do so,” she says.

That year, Anderson tracked 12 guitar and lap-steel instrumentals for The Golden Hour, her debut solo record. In concert, she toggles between reverberant reveries, celebratory gospel themes and tense anthems like Spanish Civil War tune “Bella Ciao”; her between-song narration shows how the old stories relate to our current culture wars.

“I want to highlight the fact that these songs come from somewhere and are not a random aesthetic response or decorative choice of notes and phrases,” she says. “Those old church-and-state songs are beautiful propaganda, and they worked! I like to free those powerful melodies from their words and set them in motion into the future. Music is alchemy.”

Anderson’s fourth and latest LP, Into The Light (out in June), is a one-woman-band a air, constructed from layers of guitar, piano and pedal steel that often seem to be in conversation with each other. “The pieces are improvised and basically unmapped,” she says. “It’s important to me that each record I make propels me into uncharted waters. I don’t want to repeat myself.”

—Bill Meyer

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Primal Scream: By Any Means Necessary

PrimalScream

The Scottish pop psychonauts in Primal Scream are back with their best in decades

“Most people in bands are usually smart enough not to say who their influences are. I was never that smart.”

Bobby Gillespie, Primal Scream frontman and full-time keeper of the faith, is on the phone from London to discuss the Scream’s new album, Chaosmosis. It’s—let’s not mince words here—utterly fantastic, easily the band’s strongest, most consistent release since the unhinged, speed-freak psychosis of 2000’s XTRMNTR. It’s also, like all of Primal Scream’s best work , a head-spinningly eclectic collection of sounds and infl uences, from floor-stomping Northern Soul to early-’80s synth grooves, spectral acoustic psych/folk to unabashed, unashamed glittering pop with a capital P. This is the Scream at its genrebending best.

From the cynic’s point of view, there’s always been the suspicion that the members of Primal Scream are little more than chancers, a motley bunch of musical trainspotters fueled by insane self-belief and a flawless record collection, a group that has spent most of its career teetering on the edge of stone-cold genius and utter stupidity.

“Aye, but see,” says Gillespie, “I used to always talk about my influences because when I first started doing interviews, I didn’t know what to say, right? So I just talked about stuff I loved. It was a way of avoiding talking about my own songs. Obviously I’m a huge fan … but it’s not like we set out to consciously sound like someone else, it’s just the history of pop music’s in our fucking DNA. The thing with this record is I just think it sounds like a Primal Scream record.”

This is most definitely a good thing. Primal Scream has always been at its most beguiling when the band soaked up its influences and managed to transcend them, embracing experimentalism along the way. (See Screamadelica or Vanishing Point as prime examples.) When these guys are lazy, jaded or uninspired, they’ve tended to drift down the retro-rawk route (Give Out But Don’t Give Up or Riot City Blues), where they’ve aimed for the ragged majesty of Exile-era Stones but ended up sounding more like a bargain-basement Black Crowes. Chaosmosis falls firmly in the former camp.

Recorded in London, New York and Stockholm, with help from Peter, Bjorn And John’s Bjorn Yttling (who also co-wrote three tracks), it’s a much more streamlined, focused a air than its predecessor, the relatively sprawling and indulgent More Light. This was a conscious decision, says Gillespie. “Our manager suggested, ‘Why don’t you write some singles?’ So it was a challenge, a good exercise in discipline.”

It’s pop but not as we know it. Delve deeper into the album, and behind the shimmering melodies lie a dark, twisted heart and lyrics that dwell on relationship breakdowns and emotional stasis. Gillespie insists it’s not based on personal experience: “I’m a happily married man, but I’m a writer, and the music just suggested that to me.”

Collaborations play a big part, as always, on Chaosmosis. In the past, the Scream, with credential-bolstering good taste, has corralled the likes of Jah Wobble, Augustus Pablo, Jaki Liebezeit and Kevin Shields. This time around, some of the band’s more seasoned fans might well raise a dubious eyebrow at the involvement of Haim and Myley Cyrus-endorsed Sky Ferreira, who both add admirably to the album’s overall pop sheen. Gillespie, however, has no time for musical snobbery, fans or no fans.

“Get them to fuck,” he says. “Really, fuck them. It’s like, I’ll apply Malcolm X’s maxim to rock ‘n’ roll, which is by any means necessary. It’s all about the art. Just like if I was a film director, it’s all about making a great picture and you cast a great actor for the right part to tell the story. And that’s what we do when we make records.”

There are some fans, though—let’s just say men of a certain age—who might be dismissive of such blatant pop acts.

“Aye, I know,” says Gillespie, “but I don’t care. We’ve always gained and lost fans. We’re making art for ourselves and putting it out, and if people get it, great. And if they don’t, fine. There’s nothing you can do about it. We refuse to be compromised by someone else’s lack of fucking vision. I mean, I don’t want to make the same record twice with the same fucking bunch of people. What’s the point of that?”

—Neil Ferguson

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