Category Archives: FEATURES

Cold Specks: Being Mindful

ColdSpecks

Cold Specks mastermind Al Spx revels in anonymity … while she can

Singing lines like “Don’t you wait on me/I’ll shoot you down,” her voice is enough to send chills down your spine. But once she steps offstage, the woman who calls herself Al Spx is famously shy and unfailingly distant.

“I created a stage name, and it’s allowed me to remove myself from any sort of emotional attachment to the songs,” says Spx, who records under the name Cold Specks, borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses. “Al Spx can take care of that. For me, there’s no personal element to the songs anymore, or if there is, it’s disguised.”

Two years after releasing I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, Spx is bored with most of the album. Touring is “physically and mentally draining,” and though she still performs the singles, she’s tired of feeling like a bad actress. So, she’s crafted a follow-up, Neuroplasticity (Mute), that’s even bleaker than the first, trading in the acoustic doom-folk of her debut for a richer, more expansive goth-soul that’s one-part sturm and three-parts drang.

“I made a conscious decision to write songs to perform, songs that weren’t necessarily about me,” says Spx. “I made a conscious decision not to play any instruments, because I wasn’t loving it anymore. I’m not too precious about the songs, so if I’m not a convincing player, I’ll just get someone else to do it better and focus on my singing.”

As Spx, she has no past and no present; she’s “just the girl who sings the songs.” Taking a short break between recording sessions, she claims Spx is “the nickname I’ve always had,” though seconds earlier, said was it “top-secret information,” and seconds later said it was “a way to save myself from myself.” In between, she says she “just needed a name,” that it’s “not very interesting,” that “I didn’t want my name attached to the project” and that “I don’t want it to define me.”

Apart from “no comment,” that’s all she’s ready to say. Thankfully, we already know she was born and raised in Toronto as the daughter of Somali immigrants, and dropped out of university to become a singer. Somewhere along the way, she heard the field recordings of Alan Lomax, possibly through Moby’s Play, and since recording her debut, she’s been shortlisted for the Juno Award, and guested on albums by Moby, Swans and jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who appears on Neuroplasticity.

We know the new songs were written in a cottage in Somerset in the winter of 2012 (“I probably didn’t choose the most ideal season to live there,” she says) and were recorded in Montreal, where Spx currently lives. That they were written on piano, and performed by her sometime band of “five English boys,” with an accent on portentousness, freeing Spx to deliver the songs with maximum undead theatricality. And for now, with the session about to begin again, that’ll have to do.

“We recorded Neuroplasticity over the course of a year, and I think the time I gave to the recording allowed for some growth sonically, thematically, vocally,” she says, comparing it to the 12 days spent in the studio for I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. “There was a lot of time spent avoiding surprises.”

—Kenny Berkowitz

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The Jigsaw Seen: Some Assembly Required

JigsawSeen

The Jigsaw Seen unloads on bad sportsmanship, royalty statements

You’d think Jigsaw Seen vocalist/songwriter Dennis Davison would be on cloud nine after his revered Los Angeles Kings won their second Stanley Cup in just three years. But no. He’s bellyaching this morning about Uruguay futbol star Luis Suárez biting an Italian opponent in a recent World Cup match, prompting snide newspaper headlines such as “Chow, Baby!”

“That’s not the way we played,” sniffs Davison, a former all-Maryland high-school soccer player.

But that’s all ancient history. The co-founder of Jigsaw Seen 25 years ago (alongside ace guitarist Jonathan Lea), Davison gets his exercise these days as a professional dog-walker. Strolling L.A.’s concrete canyons gives him ample time to do what he does best: write distinctively original lyrics and melodies that give off the mere whiff of former heroes such as the Bee Gees, Who and Love.

Unlike previous albums, Old Man Reverb, Jigsaw’s fourth set of originals in the past four years, has a unified sound running throughout. “We used a lot of baritone guitar on this album,” says Davison, explaining the Duane Eddy/Marlboro Man moves that inhabit the work. “It plays in a lower register than a normal guitar, has fatter strings, and it sounds like something between a guitar and a bass.”

The oldest song, says Davison, is “Abide,” which he wrote in the early ’80s when still living in Baltimore. “It’s kind of a spaghetti-Western thing that I was recording on my little four-track cassette set-up in the basement,” he says. “And I remember my father, just coming home from work, busting down the stairs shouting, ‘What is that song? It sounds like Frankie Laine!’ He was so excited.”

Highlighted by Lea’s brazen one-finger piano, Jigsaw explodes out of the blocks like Iggy & The Stooges on “We Women,” a song that might sound like a putdown of the ladies if you’re a sloppy listener. “I decided to write it in the feminine gender, and I’d sing it that way,” says Davison. “Kind of like Joan Baez’s folk-music stance. Who better to write something like this?”

And he’s not kidding. Davison is related to legendary British suffragette Emily Davison, whose final act to advocate women’s equality was to run in front of Anmer, the horse of King George V, during the Epsom Derby in 1913.

There’s nothing nearly so noble about “Idiots With Guitars.” It’s the death knell for “bedroom rockers” who clog up various L.A. pop festivals like wads of platelets blocking a soggy artery. “Learn to play/Then dream the day away/Every note you play is met with indifference,” croons Davison, neatly excising these self-appointed pop prodigies.

The Jigsaw Seen plays live only sporadically these days. Bassist Tom Currier is in New York, and drummer Teddy Freese lives in Italy. But that hasn’t prevented eye-popping statistics, according to the band’s recent BMI statement. “We got 750,000 plays on internet radio in one quarter! How can that be?!” says Davison. “All those spins and they send us a check for $100?”

As for Old Man Reverb, Davison thinks it’s an unbridled success, declaring, “I look upon it as a greatest-hits album with songs we’ve never released.”

—Jud Cost

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The Muffs: Big Whoop

Muffs

After a decade adrift, the Muffs get their melodic pop groove back

Kim Shattuck has always observed a private ritual when retrieving her mail. If the Muffs bandleader finds a check in her daily bundle, she’ll set it aside for a full month before opening it. Even early on—despite two stellar garage/punk efforts for Reprise, a self-titled debut disc in ‘93 and ‘95 follow-up Blonder And Blonder—those paydays were few and far between.

“By 1996, I was pretty poor, and I’d just moved to a new apartment that didn’t have a refrigerator, so I was all freaked out,” she says. “But I finally opened one letter, and it was $850 from ASCAP. And I was like, ‘Hooray! That’s my refrigerator!’ So now, any time I get a check that’s in that range, I always call it ‘refrigerator money.’”

Believe it or not, swears the 50-year-old Shattuck, said random payments have sustained her over the full decade between Muffs albums—2004’s Really Really Happy and the brand-new Whoop Dee Doo, a reunion with longtime backing members Ronnie Barnett (bass) and Roy McDonald (drums), who always maintained straight jobs.

“I’ve managed to make a living just doing the music,” she says. “It’s ebb and flow, but publishing stuff has kept me afloat.” Not counting, of course, her surreal European-tour stint playing bass for the Pixies last autumn, as replacement for the departing Kim Deal. The rocket ride paid quite well, was fun while it lasted, but crashed to Earth as spontaneously as it ignited.

Shattuck says she was never planning to stage a comeback. But she never officially pulled the plug on the Muffs, either. After working hard to create her sneering stage persona and melodic way with a power-chord hook—best exemplified by the bratty cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” on the Clueless soundtrack—it was almost as if she felt so unappreciated that she and her bandmates simply shrugged and walked away from their project.

“But I really like those guys, and we’re a team,” she says. “And a good team can get back together, even if they haven’t talked in years and years.”

It took former group percussionist Jim Laspesa to reunite the Los Angeles trio. Shattuck had happily settled into domestic life with her TV-exec husband, and was listening exclusively to jazz for long periods, as well as attending every Dodgers game she could, since the couple has season tickets. But Laspesa began inviting her to dinner parties, along with Barnett and McDonald, and communication lines opened again.

“And I had been starting to write songs again, and that came up,” she says. “And they were like, ‘Oh my God! Email them to us!’ So, we just kind of gravitated back together again.”

Shattuck produced and engineered almost all of Whoop Dee Doo. And she’s in fine raspy form, as the album kicks off with the scream-punctuated “Weird Boy Next Door,” then wends its way through Ramones-propulsive anthems “Paint By Numbers,” “Take A Take A Me,” “Because You’re Sad” and harmonica-embellished folk jangler “Cheezy.” The 12-track set closes with a Searchers-chiming ballad called “Forever” that—despite its earnest intentions—still manages to sound like a schoolyard taunt when this vixen snarls it.

It was awkward at first, says Shattuck, ditching her jazz mindset and rediscovering what makes a great song tick. Her first Whoop Dee Doo efforts were clunky, lumbering. “But my passion is writing melodic rock songs, and I am still definitely driven to do that,” she says. “So, I had to go back to my roots and see what inspired me originally. That was my goal—I didn’t want to get soft when I got older. So, this album is kind of all the inspiration of my youth.”

And don’t read too much into the snotty lyrics. “Basically, I’m not inspired to write words unless something’s eating at me,” says Shattuck. “Which kind of sucks, because it’s very painful. So, when I was writing these lyrics, I just turned my mind completely off and just let it come out. I’m not even sure how I did it—it was like automatic writing.” The record was finished in 2012, but put on hold after the Pixies offer came in.

These days, the Muffs mistress is spending her refrigerator money even more wisely. Instead of liquor and cigarettes, she prefers health food and a gym membership. “And I did actually join a yoga place,” she says. “But I, uh, only did it three times so far. I got so sore, I had to take some time off.”

—Tom Lanham

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Phox: Friends With Benefits

Phox

The tight-knit indie-pop upstarts in Phox grow up together

“We do everything at the last minute.” “That’s totally our thing” “That’s not Zach’s thing.” “It’s not my thing, but I’ve learned to adapt.”

MAGNET is in the six-by-five-foot green room at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., with Jason Krunnfusz, Zach Johnston, Matt Holmen and Dave Roberts, four of the six members of Baraboo, Wisc.’s Phox. The room is crowded, but the vibe cordial as these high-school friends banter back and forth, finishing each other’s sentences and mowing down their dinners.

The band’s conversational style reflects its music—it’s playful and thoughtful, serious in its ambitions, but seriously fun when all is said and done. With folk-like delicacy, jazz-like precision and a very indie sense of irreverence, the group’s self-titled Partisan debut is one of the best underground-pop records of the year.

“I don’t even really know how it works, to be honest, but it’s everyone participating with (singer) Monica (Martin) bringing the seedlings,” Johnston says by way of explaining how the songwriting process works. “It comes from everywhere.”

“In the past, we’ve given a lot of time to songs,” says Holmen. “The new songs, we were like, ‘Let’s just go with our instincts and just do it, just record them as they come out.’”

The result is a record with childlike awe and grown-up ambitions. This is music that never gets in its own way, with the conceptual and aesthetic complexity of the songs seeming effortless. On tracks like the evocative and ethereal “Laura” and percussive-yet-languid lead single “Slow Motion,” Phox walks the line between precious and precocious with finesse.

“We had to make a lot of our own fun growing up, so we made music and movies and a lot of the same things we do now,” says Johnston. “It kind of feels like a continuation of childhood, in a way, which also makes it a big joke now that people are paying attention.”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Orenda Fink: The Warmest Color

OrendaFink

We’re not of a mind to disagree with Orenda Fink’s sweet, death-obsessed dreams

Orenda Fink is known for her quiet, introspective songs and her unobtrusive approach to singing. Her music, both on her own solo albums and with Azure Ray (the band she fronts with longtime friend Maria Taylor), tends to be forlorn and unsettling, albeit imbued with an underlying belief in the ultimate goodness of existence.

“I suppose melancholy is the word that fits,” Fink says, speaking via phone from her home studio in Omaha. “I know people tend to glaze over when I say it, and I’m not fond of the term gothic either. I wish I could come up with something more catchy to describe my sound.”

Fink breaks off for a moment to grab a pile of blankets and toss them on the floor of the studio to soak up the rain that’s seeping in through the floor. “We had a tornado, a hailstorm and thundershowers just before the interview started. It was a surreal experience.”

The jarring weather could be some cosmic metaphor for the unexpected prism of emotions that’s reflected in the songs on her new album, Blue Dream. They were inspired by the death of her dog, as well as general meditations on the limitations of existence on the material plane.

“Losing my dog sent me into a deep depression,” she says. “I saw a therapist, who specialized in Jungian dream analysis. She told me that when you’re ready to deal with your dreams, something awakens in your subconscious mind and (dreams) come flowing out. I started having powerful dreams about my dog’s death and death in general. It was a crazy period. I started writing the album after that. The songs didn’t come specifically from the dreams, but I was in that zone between dreams and waking while I was writing. I’m inclined to have one foot in each world, even when I’m awake, but losing my dog erased the boundary between those worlds for a while.”

On the LP, Fink goes deep into the primal questions of death and the meaning of life. The lyrics are dark, but the music is bright and buoyant, although still played at the laid-back tempos that are her forte. “Bill Rieflin, who used to play with Ministry, played the drums in a light, un-Ministry like manner,” says Fink. “I thought his rhythms were too pop, but he said the lyrics were so sad, it would make a good juxtaposition. Ben Brodin, who plays with Conor Oberst, did all the guitars. I kept going, ‘It doesn’t sound like a dream.’ Then he’d go, ‘What does a dream sound like?’ I told him I’d know it when I heard it.”

The finished album is dreamlike and comforting, despite its preoccupation with mortality. “Although it’s about death, the record has a celebratory feeling for me,” says Fink. “The experience of making it helped me come out on the other side with a firm understanding that there is a life after death, that you can weep until you’re crying tears of joy and epiphany.”

—j. poet

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The Reigning Sound: Sweet Oblivian

ReigningSound

With his long-running, omnivorous rock ‘n’ soul outlet the Reigning Sound, Greg Cartwright seeks—and finds—new angles on old sounds

On Wednesday nights, Greg Cartwright holds court at the Double Crown, a nondescript neighborhood bar with a killer cocktail menu in West Asheville, N.C. For each weekly session, Cartwright pulls an evening’s worth of vintage country tunes from his own collection. “I do it because I want to share them with other people,” he says. “But just as much, I’m doing it so I can hear the records really loud.”

But alongside the country canon—Buck Owens, George Jones, Wanda Jackson—Cartwright likes to spin his salvaged classics. “I have all these oddball country records from the ’60s and early ’70s where they’re mixing country with R&B and soul and funk,” he says. “They’re totally weird records. They don’t properly fall into any genre. Some of them scratch a spot that nothing else will.”

For Cartwright, finding—or crafting—the black-sheep gem is the real joy of music. To wit, he’s not a collector, per se. “I’m not interested in records like they’re stamps,” he says. “I just want to look through a box of junked records and look for labels that look cool. Small, independent releases from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, things that look interesting and on the cheap. I want to look through those things, and pull out a record player, and I want to find something that fucking blows my mind.”

But that idea extends to the music he makes, too. “That’s what you want to create,” he says. “You want that thing that’s so inspiring to you not because it’s everything you expect, but because it’s everything you didn’t expect.”

With iconic garage-punk trio the Oblivians, with the Parting Gifts (his collaboration with the Ettes’ Coco Hames and Jem Cohen), with a legion of other one-offs and defunct projects, and, for the past 13 years with driving rock ‘n’ soul revue the Reigning Sound, Cartwright has chased various traces of American rock and pop to arrive at something singularly his.

Still, with his legacy perfectly well cemented among garage-rock aficionados and discerning vinyl-heads, Cartwright is still chasing the unexpected. The Reigning Sound’s latest album, Shattered, is the band’s sixth proper full-length, a follow-up to 2009’s Love And Curses, and its debut for Merge. (“I’ve never been on a record label this big,” says Cartwright. “I’ve never had so many people to email. I’m really enjoying it.”)

It’s also one of the most varied outings in the group’s deep catalog. Cartwright, the Reigning Sound’s sole constant, is joined on Shattered by the same backing crew heard on 2011’s Scion-sponsored EP Abdication… For Your Love: longtime keyboardist Dave Amels, as well as relative newcomers Mike Catanese (guitar), Benny Trokan (bass) and Mike Post (drums)—all of whom play together in New York soul combo the Jay Vons and bring a house-band chemistry and versatility to Cartwright’s new batch of songs.

But their distance led to a new songwriting approach, with Cartwright demoing songs to guide his sidemen, rather than jamming through rough sketches until a song emerged. “They’re super-good players … I can pretty much make a set list and they can go over it and have it locked down when I get to them,” says Cartwright. And so they did, entering Daptone Studios in Brooklyn armed with a fresh batch of just-learned songs and following Cartwright where he led.

“Sometimes when you just learn a song, you approach it in a way that you’ll never ever approach it again,” says Cartwright. “You haven’t worn the grooves into your brain. It’s still so fresh to you that you’re willing to walk out on a limb. Two months down the road, you won’t do that.”

But because he was charting the course, Cartwright could extend those limbs farther than before, digging into influences as disparate as Del Shannon’s lush and almost-lost 1967 LP Home & Away and the country-western oddities he spins at the Double Crown. And so on Shattered, the Reigning Sound jumps casually from R&B burner “North Cackalacky Girl” into strings-driven ballad “Never Coming Home,” and from the Southern-rock stagger of “Starting New” into the ripping Stax-meets-Sonics garage of “Baby It’s Too Late.”

Describing his ideal record-hunting find, Cartwright says, “Nothing about this is a new form of music, but somebody’s putting their own stamp on it.” He could just as easily be describing his own work—an in-the-margins blend of influences tailor-made for keen, seeking ears looking to be surprised. Blown away, even.

—Bryan C. Reed

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A Sunny Day In Glasgow: Dreaming In The Cloud

ASDIG

A Sunny Day In Glasgow communicates across continents to write its heaviest—yet most pop-centered—record to date

It’s no longer an aberration for artists to collaborate in the cloud, given the ease with which most of the world accesses high-speed internet. And A Sunny Day In Glasgow—collectively based in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia—creates the sort of impressionistic guitar pop that feels ripe for working in the ether. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing fine new album Sea When Absent (Lefse) across three cities and two hemispheres was ideal. In fact, the method was so present that it became a centerpiece of its narrative.

“You have to create a new language and a completely different process of how to do things,” says Jen Goma, one of two ASDIG lead vocalists. “You understand that your tools of expression are different, and then you undƒerstand that you’re telling a different story, because the story you’re telling is about doing new things.”

Goma adds that much of the lyrical content here is centered on distance, as well as the triumphs and failures associated with telegraphing ideas in the digital age where we can be “simultaneously everywhere and nowhere,” according to the band. “2014 is just an insane time to be alive. Sea When Absent is ASDIG’s story for the milieu, a fever-dream about the now—or maybe a lucid dream about the fever-now—and a future possible … set in pop-major.”

This might scan as art-school drivel were it not for the fact that it’s a remarkably cogent way of describing the sound of Sea When Absent, A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s third official album. (There’s four if you count 2010’s Autumn, Again, a leftovers LP from the Ashes Grammar sessions.) Since ASDIG’s arrival in 2006, when the roster was essentially just chief songwriter Ben Daniels, the band has been praised for its liberal take on shoegaze and synth pop, reconfiguring a sound that isn’t easily made new. That effect was enhanced by the home-recording methods employed on everything ASDIG recorded up until 2011, when the band contracted producer Jeff Zeigler to work in a recording studio for the first time.

Two years and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, Sea When Absent arrives with many of ASDIG’s trademark qualities intact, buttressed significantly by Zeigler and his studio prowess. But it also reveals new shades of the band. Sea When Absent is at turns the heaviest of ASDIG’s oeuvre and its most pop, bringing Goma and Anne Fredrickson’s vocals to the fore and allowing them to stretch in a way that at times recalls, perhaps strangely at first, R&B. The more centrist take on pop experimentation is a great look for the band.

Goma says that, while writing Sea When Absent remotely wasn’t ideal, the group learned its “new language” firmly enough to travel that road again as needed. Still, no matter how fluid our digital communications become, there will always be an advantage to working face-to-face. That, and fervent ASDIG fans might not have to wait so long for the next release. “I think we’d rather make something in 10 days instead of two years,” says Goma.

Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan was prescient on this point more than a decade ago: “Progress has a way of feigning ease.”

—Ryan Burleson

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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Two Hands Clapping

CYHSY

Formally stripped down to a two-piece, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah synthesizes its talents

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah may forever be pigeonholed as one of the first “blog bands.” Its self-titled, self-released debut became popular through word-of-blog acclaim upon arrival in 2005—deservedly so, with jittery, catchy guitar-pop songs such as “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” “Is This Love?” and “In This Home On Ice.” The Philly/Brooklyn quintet, led by Alec Ounsworth, navigated the success well, but its second release, 2007’s Dave Fridmann-produced Some Loud Thunder, revealed that CYHSY was as interested in outsider weirdness as it was in indie-pop hooks. The record contains gems like “Underwater (You And Me),” but it suffered a seemingly inevitable backlash from the fickle blogosphere, as did 2011’s Hysterical.

In Hysterical’s aftermath, the band shed members and disappeared until late last summer, when the Little Moments EP arrived. That surprising set of four synth-pop songs set the tone for the vibe that threads through Only Run, the new Clap Your Hands album, which updates one of the EP’s songs as its title track. Ounsworth says that synths have always been a defining characteristic of the band.

“The fact of the matter is that Clap Your Hands was created as a synth-based project; that’s what it is,” says Ounsworth from San Francisco, where he’s in the middle of a solo tour of living rooms. “A lot of people are surprised to know that ‘Home On Ice,’ ‘Over And Over Again,’ ‘Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood,’ ‘Yellow Country Teeth’—these are all synth-driven songs. It’s funny to hear that some people say that, ‘Oh, now you’re venturing into synth territory.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s always kind of been.’ To me, I don’t really see a difference, including the last record and Some Loud Thunder. This time, we used synths about evenly, if not a little less than on some of the other records.”

Ounsworth laughs when asked who the “we” is in Clap Your Hands these days. “It’s mostly me,” he says. “I did try to work with other people. Even the guys who used to be in the band had a crack at these songs, but it was just unnecessary; a lot of the parts were just unnecessary. It’s not their fault; it’s just the way it happened.”

On Only Run, Clap Your Hands is essentially Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh, with a major assist from Fridmann, who mixed the album.

“It’s kind of always been the vision that I had for this project,” says Ounsworth, who has juggled other things, such as Flashy Python and his solo album, 2009’s Mo Beauty. “The truth is, the only reason it didn’t end up being this way the entire time was because it took off to such a degree and everybody felt fully invested by virtue of that. All of a sudden, we were a band-band, and that was never entirely the intention. On the first record, you notice we didn’t actually list who played what. Not to go into any details, but to me, this one’s not very different at all from how the other ones played out.”

Only Run contains Clap Your Hands’ strongest set of songs since that debut, with a higher concentration of revved-up guitars and catchy crescendos. Ounsworth’s David Byrne-like vocals can be divisive. Some listeners find them grating; others, gratifyingly unfiltered and sometimes unhinged. They’re harnessed, on Only Run, to melodies such as “As Always” or “Impossible Request” that hit an indie-pop sweet spot.

Ounsworth is happy downsizing Clap Your Hands. Although he will draft a rotating cast of players to tour, he’s also loving doing solo shows for small audiences outside of traditional venues.

“There came a point with Clap Your Hands where we were going out playing bigger shows, but I was feeling absolutely nothing,” he says. “Everyone around me was telling me everything was going so well, but I felt absolutely no connection. I don’t know if was entirely self-sabotage or something like that, but I felt that I needed to bring it down to a certain level that made sense to me. As much as a lot of people around me feel that it was self-sabotage, I feel more comfortable than I’ve felt in eight or nine years doing this. It’s kind of great. I feel enormously positive for the first time in a long time.”

—Steve Klinge

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Bob On The Tracks: MAGNET Cover Star Bob Mould On His New Album

BobMould

We asked June MAGNET cover star Bob Mould to go through Beauty & Ruin (Merge), his extraordinary new album, track by track and free associate in any way he saw fit. What’s it about? What inspired it? How was it recorded? That kind of thing. Here’s what he had to say:

LOW SEASON
The atmospheric thing at the beginning is actually a recording of these big ropes flapping against a big flagpole down by the ocean. Did some treatments to it—tried to make it sound almost like an orchestra, tuning up, doing all these manipulations. It goes into this really ponderous, very simply, heavy riff. It’s the low season, turn the sunlight down. Obviously, it’s about loss, about passing. It’s very monochromatic and dirge-y until the bridge and you hear the organ hit, and all of the sudden it goes technicolor.

LITTLE GLASS PILL
It’s about the smartphone as unintended tool of self-realization. A glass pill, that’s what that is—it’s a window, it’s a mirror. You see your reflection when you look at the thing. We’ve become this world we we look at ourselves through this thing; it’s hilarious.

I DON’T KNOW YOU ANYMORE
Straight-up pop song. You know, I’ve been writing that song for a long time—always good—catchy, catchy catchy. Always put a negative in the title—“I Don’t Know You Anymore”—then make it a very upbeat.

KID WITH THE CROOKED FACE
Straight-up punk rock, very autobiographical in a funny way. It’s got severe imagery inside the lyrics, but it’s not actually that bad. I hadn’t written a punk-rock song like that in a while, and it was so easy, like I might’ve done it before.

NEMESIS ARE LAUGHING
Deep, deep track. Love that track—very psychedelic—a lot of thos late-’60s psych/pop chord changes in it. Lot of weird dissonant, angular parts that I think people picked up on and the stuff I was touching on with “Slick” from Copper Blue. I saw people taking that style in the aughts, a lot of angular rock bands using that. So, yeah, “Nemesis”: real, real fun one.

THE WAR
Side one ends with a war. And, yes, I still think in terms of side-a and side-b. A collection of snapshots. A unified statement. As long as there are still people who buy albums, I will continue to make them.

FORGIVENESS
End of side one, the war is over, and now we’re into forgiveness. We’re into the third act of the record, you know, you’ve gone through decline, you’ve gone through flashback, now you’ve come to conciliation, you know, the next phase of whatever life is, where you not so much make peace with others but make peace with who you are. Again that life, loss and legacy thing and where that takes you. It starts with Jon Wurster’s nice little drumbeat and sets up a very simple, plaintive story : better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

HEY MR. GREY
Really funny song. It’s so hilarious. You have the whole “I am Mr. Grey, get off my lawn” thing. Little Replacements mention, and then on with the colors. The blue broken-hearted fool; the green swirly scene, envy, color of envy; Mr. White, the one percenter; and then back to Mr. Grey. And in the end line, “Find a life that’s right for you,” is sort of setting up song eight or 12, and it’s getting ready to set up the end of the record.

FIRE IN THE CITY
It’s sort of this earthquake/Armageddon/ascension/end-of-time kind of thing.

TOMORROW MORNING
This is the final stage of the record: the future. You know, after all these things happen, after you lose people, and you lose your health, you lose time, you reflect on all of that, you try and get right with it, and then all you’re left with at the end of all that is the future. For better or worse, that’s what we all get.

LET THE BEAUTY BE
It’s technically the closer of the album. You’ve seen the artwork: the gray, the yellow, the fog, the sun, the death. It’s the rebirth, it’s the study in contrast.

FIX IT
We had the music recorded, but I was banging my head trying to get the words finished up. And I was like, “What do I do, what do I do?” But then I was, like, “This is the epilogue. The album’s actually over, this is the epilogue.” So, let me do this, let me go back and let me look at all the key themes and all the key words in the album: The magic, which we lost in “Low Season,” the depression, the cancer of the soul that we talked about in “Nemeses.” I yell into a paper cone, pounding on a piece of wood and wires. What does that mean? That’s what I do. Microphone’s a paper cone, guitars, it’s a piece of wood with wires, that’s all it is. That’s what I do. Scratch that, that’s what we do.

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Jesus Lizard’s “Liar”

JesusLizard

The Making Of The Jesus Lizard’s Liar

In the early ’90s, the Jesus Lizard was untouchable. Not literally, of course—if you were at one of its hundreds of shows in that era, you could very easily touch ’em. And given the amount of time vocalist David Yow spent slithering on top of the audience, you probably didn’t have a choice in the matter.

By that point, the Lizard’s live show had already become a thing of legend, and a large segment of the indie-rock underground population had seen Yow whip out his cock and/or balls onstage at one time or another. But the band didn’t survive solely on that reputation. Releasing a record a year from ’89 to ’92, the Jesus Lizard topped itself with one masterpiece after another in a flurry of activity that began with the Pure EP, continued through the brilliant Head and Goat albums, then culminated in the game-changing Liar.

Cobbled together from former members of Scratch Acid, Cargo Cult, 86 and Rapeman, the Jesus Lizard sounded like nothing before it, and no one’s duplicated it since. “Noise rock” is the easiest descriptor, though it falls woefully short in capturing everything that’s going on in Liar classics like “Puss” (which also appeared on the band’s split single with Nirvana) and “Dancing Naked Ladies.” While many of the band’s peers achieved the “noise” part of that label through some element of chaos, the Jesus Lizard was clinically precise. The execution was machine-like, and even Yow’s unhinged vocals were carefully considered in the studio—think Public Image Ltd.-era John Lydon’s cynical snarl and Birthday Party-era Nick Cave’s depraved howling, but mixed in a way that’s somehow equal parts playful and terrifying. The end result was Liar, an album that’s too difficult for punk, too visceral for art rock. When the Alternative Nation was finally presented to the world at large, there was the Jesus Lizard, and there was everyone else.

“The previous album, Goat, I think was the one that kind of put us on the map more than any of the others up to that point,” says guitarist Duane Denison. “We really found our own sound, I felt like, there: our own sound and our own style of writing. That was the one where we kind of broke away from the influences, or at least the influences weren’t so obvious. I think that’s probably true with most bands. Usually the first record, or even the first couple of records, you can hear where they’re coming from pretty easily, and I think that was the case with ourselves. Goat was when we really started to get noticed, and then Liar to me was kind of the continuation of that.”

And where the three previous records all opened with a mid-tempo groove that eased the listener into the Jesus Lizard world courtesy of bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly, Liar wastes about 0.0000001 seconds before going for the throat.

“I think what I like about Liar is it just shoots right out of the gate tempo-wise at a much faster pace than anything else we ever did, really,” says Denison. “Right from the get-go—‘Boilermaker,’ ‘Gladiator,’ ‘The Art Of Self-Defense’— it’s pretty relentless. I don’t necessarily think that fast songs are what makes things rock harder. I think some bands get too focused on that, but I just thought that’s what made this album different. It just had a sense of urgency to it as a result of that, and that’s what’s always sort of stayed with me.”

Goat and Liar always seemed pretty similar to me,” says Sims. “I think I prefer Goat. I think it sounds a little better, and I think the songs are a little stronger, but I like Liar, too. They always seemed to me almost two discs of a double album. They’re not because they were recorded almost a year apart, but they almost sound like that.”

And really, choosing one over the other is like splitting hairs. Some MAGNET readers might even remember a sidebar next to a recent review of Denison’s new band, the Unsemble, in which we called Goat the best Jesus Lizard record. Yow doesn’t even bother distinguishing the albums; we had to recite the tracklist to remind him which songs are on Liar.

“It’s sorta like if somebody asked you what you were wearing at that party you went to 20 years ago,” the singer says. “One has ‘Then Comes Dudley’ and one has ‘Gladiator,’ and they’re kind of the same beast. We always made sure not to put those songs next to each other in the set list.”

During this time, the band was on the road almost nonstop. Denison says the Jesus Lizard was only home for three months in ’91. On top of that, the four band members shared a three-bedroom apartment in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, with McNeilly taking the couch. Where a lot of groups might buckle under those tight confines, the personalities that made up the Jesus Lizard managed to mesh. While each member now lives in opposite corners of the country—Yow in Los Angeles, Sims in New York, Denison in Nashville and McNeilly still in the Chicago area—none of them remembers any added tension as a result of almost never being able to get away from their roommates.

“We’re still all very good friends,” says Sims. “It’s always good to get to hang out with those guys. They’re still three of my favorite people in the world ever.”

“We didn’t seem to mind because it was very much a ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of attitude,” says McNeilly. “I think we all felt like we knew each other longer than we actually had. We were also a little bit older. We weren’t in our early 20s. We had all been in bands before, so I think that helped us not make huge things out of things that didn’t really matter. I think we had a better perspective on that.”

Living together allowed the band to introduce ideas whenever the mood struck. “We were touring a lot, and we’d come home and someone would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea.’ Sometimes we would just sit around with acoustic guitars and then go work them out,” says Denison. And that’s another thing that set the Jesus Lizard apart: The in-your-face, abrasive songs on Liar could be just as well unplugged.

“The guitar and bass lines work just fine,” says Denison. “Somebody can sit there and tap on a phone book and you can work that out. We weren’t necessarily dependent on volume and effects to make those songs work. I like to think that maybe that’s why they’ve held up better than some from that era. When it’s all said and done, you can reduce them and analyze them, and there is structure and a certain sort of logic to the way those songs flow together.”

“We had different practice places depending on what time of our history it was,” says McNeilly. “I remember for some of that we were in this basement of this friend’s apartment building. I remember going through the song ‘Gladiator.’ This basement was really dark, dank and old, and there were practically no lights at all. I don’t know how much that had to do with how the songs formed or not, but I have a very clear visual memory of that. Of course, I could be remembering it wrong, but that’s what it brings to mind.”

“David and Duane—sometimes Mac and I, but usually Duane and David—would have a particular idea, and they would expound on that,” says Yow. “The lyrics, sometimes I would have them already. Sometimes the music might inspire them. There were a couple times when I was unprepared and we were in the studio, and I had to shit them out pretty fast.”

Liar was recorded much the same way its predecessors were—in just a few days at Chicago Recording Company with Steve Albini. Most of the songs had been thoroughly vetted onstage at this point, so the band was usually able to nail each within a couple takes. There isn’t much in the way of embellishments, either; if a note wasn’t needed, it wasn’t played. At the same time, the musicianship far surpassed what one would normally associate with a punk or hardcore record.

“Steve always claims that he’s an engineer and not a producer, but to me that’s semantics,” says Yow. “I would say he’s a record producer. He had a lot of cool recording ideas, and he works quickly and efficiently.”

“He didn’t really want to view himself as a producer who was really going to change anything we were doing,” says McNeilly. “I think what he really wanted to do was document it. I think that’s how he felt he could help us. Especially during that time, he was one of our biggest advocates and biggest champions.”

“He was fairly involved back then,” says Denison. “He’d always make comments before, during and after practically every take. Some humorous, some were kind of snide. I remember on ‘Boilermaker,’ there’s that chorus line. He told me he thought it sounded like a theme from a game show.”

While Liar might be a refinement of the approach the band initiated on Goat, the Jesus Lizard still managed to break new ground. The hard-and-heavy “Slave Ship” crawls under your skin, while “Zachariah” sounds like a post-apocalyptic country/western soundtrack. Then there’s “Rope,” a rockabilly-ish number about a dude who accidentally killed himself by autoerotic asphyxiation.

“It’s a disgusting story, based on a true story,” says Yow. “Some guy was dating this girl, and he was over at her house; she lives with her parents. She and her parents left to run errands or go shopping or whatever, but when they came back he had accidentally autoerotically asphyxiated himself. I think he had a trowel in his ass. ‘Wow, dude. Get down.’”

Elsewhere you’ve got a pygmy monster on a murderous spree (“The Art Of Self-Defense”), while “Puss” is about the time someone in Urge Overkill finally flipped out over the ridicule the band was getting from a local zine.

“There was a great club in Chicago called Lounge Ax,” says Yow. “At the time there were these two girls who did a zine called Stalker, and mostly it was poking fun and making fun of the Urge Overkill boys. The Urge boys had plenty sense of humor as long as it didn’t hurt them, but they didn’t like that zine very much. Blackie Onassis pushed one of the girls down the stairs at Lounge Ax one time. ‘Puss’ is sorta based on that. Like, ‘Wowee, you pushed a girl down the stairs?’”

Yow filtered these often morbid tales through a delivery that, while not necessarily devoid of melody and rhythm, put greater emphasis on mood.

“I think the juxtaposition of the music being really precise and David Yow being all over the place was really this thing that was unusual,” says McNeilly.

“I used to think of his voice as almost like a saxophone,” says Denison. “You had this free-jazz saxophone going. If everybody was doing that, to me, it wouldn’t be a rock band anymore. It wouldn’t be enjoyable to listen to. At least that’s how we thought. We wanted the bass and the drums to be very tight and machine-like, and then also have the guitar fit in there in a very tight, machine-like way. That was our sound.”

“I’ve gotten a kick out of the handful of Jesus Lizard cover bands I’ve heard,” says Yow. “But the part that struck me a few times was that the vocalist is simply not paying attention. They would just scream everything, and I didn’t do that. I did a lot of quiet shit. I did a lot of whispery stuff, some singing stuff, whatever.”

Liar’s iconic album cover came courtesy of England-born, Austin-based painter Malcolm Bucknall, the father of a childhood friend of Sims whose work also appeared on the split single with Nirvana, as well as Down. Sims said he would go over to the Bucknall household because his friend Tim’s parents let them smoke pot there. The rationale was the parents didn’t think they could stop Tim from doing so, and would rather he do it at home than get arrested somewhere else.

“There were these remarkable, amazing, beautifully executed, thrilling to look at and very, very strange paintings that his father had done just hanging around the house,” says Sims. “It was just a treat to go over there and be able to look at these.”

The Liar cover is a rendering of Bucknall’s Allegory Of Death. “I do recall that I told Yow and Sims that Liar sounded wild, primitive, barbaric—to their delight,” says Bucknall. “I’ve sometimes described my work as ‘uptight expressionism.’ By comparison, the Jesus Lizard is ‘expressionist,’ yes, but ‘uptight,’ no.”

Bucknall only asked for copies of the album and posters as compensation. “My one stipulation was that the reproduction be of good quality without visual additions—no mustache on the Mona Lisa,” he says. “Frankly, to me, these were kids who were enthusiasts and having a go at something they loved, and I suppose I was coming from the paternal instinct. However, the amount of attention and sales that have come directly from my Jesus Lizard connection is remarkable and ongoing. Punk rockers grow up to be art collectors, it turns out.”

The band’s own stature has continued to grow as well. After calling it a day in 1999 (10 years after its first show), the Jesus Lizard kicked off a wildly success reunion tour in 2009 (10 years after it broke up). But the legacy wouldn’t be there without Liar, a record that guarantees that any brash band playing discordant music with a certain swing is forever going to be compared to the Jesus Lizard.

“I think when we were going in the early ’90s, there were a select amount of people who knew about the band, and we had really diehard fans who would keep showing up,” says McNeilly. “Maybe the reputation of the band has increased somewhat. It was a lot of word of mouth, a lot of people talking about the band. I think we did leave some sort of imprint. I don’t know how big it was, but it feels good to have made some sort of impact that hopefully will last for a while.”

“It seems like there are more people who care than in the old days,” says Yow. “I was certainly happy with the number of records we sold and the number of people who came to our rock shows and stuff. You can’t expect anybody to like you anyway, so when a bunch of them do, that’s pretty cool.”

—Matt Sullivan

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