Category Archives: FEATURES

Windhand: Flower Power


Death becomes the stoner-rock searchers in Windhand

Metal band records with celebrated producer. Not much of a headline, frankly. Hardly a reason to even bat an eyelash. Happens all the time. But when that metal band is Richmond, Va., doom quintet Windhand and the producer is the legendary Jack Endino, the results are enough to rocket you and all of your hesher friends straight to the record store. Grief’s Infernal Flower is the band’s third album and one of the most dynamic metal records of the year, capturing the visceral physicality of Windhand’s live performances with nuance and energy. It’s as raw and gnarly, sinewy and beautiful as anything happening in music today.

“There’s not really any Hollywood vibe or any shit like that,” says guitarist Asechiah Bogdan of working with Endino, whose status as heavy-rock royalty was cemented by turning knobs for nobodies like Nirvana and High On Fire. “What’s there is there, and I think that’s sort of a metaphor for us as well.”

What’s there are big, burly riffs unfurling at a glacial pace, wide-open spaces filled with hazy atmospheres, and melodies so strong that they can be stretched long past the point where others would snap. But for all of the big sludgy monsters on Grief’s Infernal Flower, the heaviest moments (“Sparrow” and “Aition”) come when things are stripped back to an acoustic guitar and vocalist Dorthia Cottrell’s soul-chilling pipes.

“Typically, in the past, it was one or two songwriters,” says Bogdan. “I think this goround, people were more involved conceptually and in terms of songwriting and whatnot.”

The end result is—surprisingly—the band’s most cohesive work yet, perfectly synthesizing its more artful ambitions with burly, bottom-heavy ideas that are tailor-made for slow-motion air guitar.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we know what works and what doesn’t, but we want to challenge ourselves,” says Bogdan. “We have a lot of different influences, and we wanted to hint at some of those.”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Good Old War: Peace Out


Good Old War trims down and makes its bid for mass adoration

Good Old War’s Keith Goodwin and Dan Schwartz would rather not to dwell on it, but the fact remains: They’ve had it pretty easy.

No toiling away for years in obscurity. No soulsucking run-ins with mercenary label execs, or battling resentment from some local scene they thoughtlessly abandoned. Shit, even the band’s sole casto , drummer Tim Arnold, is back in the fold on their latest tour. So much for band turmoil.

“We’ve had good luck,” says Goodwin.

“We were able to get started pretty smoothly,” adds Schwartz. “After that, it’s been a lot of touring and a lot of work to keep people interested.”

And, obviously, the more people interested, the better. Good Old War’s new album, Broken Into Better Shape (Nettwerk), sounds like an obvious bid to grow its fan base. Produced in Nashville with meticulous polish by Jason Lehning (Mat Kearney, Dolly Parton), it features collaborations with Emile Haynie (fun., Bruno Mars) and T-Collar (who cowrote bouncy first single “Tell Me What You Want From Me”). GOW’s signature three-part harmonies remain intact despite Arnold’s absence (he did pitch in on songwriting). And so do the group’s more mainstream folk/pop instincts. “It was kind of heartbreaking to see some of the songs that didn’t make it,” says Goodwin of the more than 30 tunes you won’t hear on Better Shape.

Technically a Philadelphia outfit, Good Old War didn’t have to pay its dues regionally. Goodwin was just 19 when his indie-rock band, Days Away, signed with Lava/Atlantic, so he made connections early on. A decade later, in 2008, Good Old War found a friend and better-known advocate in Anthony Green (Circa Survive, Saosin), touring as his backup band and also playing its own set. Pretty soon, Green’s fans were also GOW’s—and things picked up exponentially from there. “We made a bunch of friends that ended up helping us when it came to this band,” says Goodwin.

And just a few of the right friends can make life a whole lot easier.

—Hobart Rowland

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HEALTH: Outrunning Death


“Oh, absolutely—there were years; it was a constant, paralyzing thought,” bassist/ percussionist John Famiglietti laughs when asked if there were ever days when it felt as though HEALTH wouldn’t be able to put Death Magic, the band’s follow-up to 2009’s Get Color, to bed. “You definitely don’t wanna take this long to put out an album.”

Other ways the Los Angeles quartet spent the six-year gulf: switching labels from Lovepump United to Loma Vista; creating an atmospheric, demonic soundtrack for Max Payne 3; scoring the Lexus Design Disrupted event at 2013 Fashion Week. Yet, Death Magic was gestating throughout, and the finished product includes a handful of songs written shortly after HEALTH wound down the Get Color world tour in 2011.

From its 2007 self-titled debut forward, an eerie sinuousness has personified the HEALTH aesthetic, with cacophonous clatter, bleak post-punk and brittle synth-pop smashed together into thrilling quagmires. While the furious noise rock of HEALTH gave way to Get Color’s more accessible confidence, Death Magic might represent a fulcrum of the band’s potential. Electrifying “Stonefist” and the industrial squirm of “Flesh World (UK)” are less experiments than proper, hummable songs, with Jake Duzsik’s singing front and center for the fi rst time. A forthright introspection reigns, from the romantic confl ict that powers “Dark Enough” and “L.A. Looks” to arena-ready existential dilemma “Life.”

“On the earlier albums, there were no themes, because we wanted the lyrics to fit the aesthetic of the music,” says Famiglietti. “On the first album, Jake didn’t write anything personal; the lyrics were cryptic. On the second album, they were slightly more personal, like vignettes.” Catching Depeche Mode live proved to be a revelation, and a blueprint: “They would have extremely direct lyrics that don’t sound stupid—relatable lyrics that were dark, but sound cool,” says Famiglietti. “Relatable lyrics in a way that isn’t stupid, pandering or cynical.”

Death Magic’s warmer timbre is a result of marination and collaboration. Duzsik, Famiglietti, guitarist/percussionist Jupiter Keyes and drummer Benjamin Jared Miller worked closely with the Haxan Cloak, Andrew Dawson and Lars Stalfors, who produced, engineered and offered advice. HEALTH was ready to listen.

“A lot of the songs we’d had for a while, and we were in a rut,” says Famiglietti. “It’s really helpful when someone has an idea who’s not in the band, though there were ideas that we vetoed. There were tons. One big thing was removing elements, keeping things really simple, and leaving a lot of melodic space.” That second concept is in evidence on first single “New Coke,” where astringence and starry drift coexist in equal measure, and in those startling moments on “Hurt Yourself” where choirs echo up through endorphic synthesizer waves. A world tour is up next, Famiglietti says, and plans are in the works for a third remix album, though he won’t divulge details.

“We have two remix albums already that are very good,” he says, referring to 2008’s Health/Disco and 2010’s Health::Disco2, which feature reinterpretations from the band’s first two albums. “It’s hard to live up to that.”

—Raymond Cummings

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Chelsea Wolfe: Bottoms Up


Metal-influenced folkie Chelsea Wolfe navigates the darkest chasms

One of the more remarkable practitioners in the crop of folk upstarts to emerge from Northern California’s so-called freak-folk scene around the beginning of the decade, Chelsea Wolfe stood out for several reasons. For one, her starkly pitch-black aesthetic did well to set her far apart from her woodsy contemporaries, but so did her uncannily timeless songwriting voice, a truly remarkable instrument that channels old-soul country spirit via the annals of extreme music through the decades. Wolfe counts Burzum, Sibylle Baier and Nick Cave as major influences, having notably covered songs by each in the past.

Wolfe’s new album, Abyss, is her most dynamic record to date, with highlights ranging from the molten metal of lead single “Iron Moon” to the hushed balladry of “After The Fall.” The LP finds Wolfe further exploring the largely synth-heavy sound she began to dabble with on 2013’s Pain Is Beauty, between blasts of distorted guitar, courtesy of Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan, who guests throughout the record alongside regular collaborators Ben Chisholm, Dylan Fujioka and Ezra Buchla. Though it’s only the second of her records that’s not been self-produced, and Wolfe claims it was hard to let go of some of the songs in their initial, demo-version forms, she’s quick to praise producer John Congleton (whose recent credits include acts as varied Swans, Angel Olsen and Xiu Xiu) for teasing out the full dynamic range of these 11 songs.

Abyss is also the most directly personal record Wolfe has ever written, examining her own experiences with sleep paralysis, along with what she refers to as “society’s failures, disorders and scars.” These themes are perhaps captured best in the self-directed video of album opener “Carrion Flowers,” shot around her new home in Southern California, casting the arid, drought-ridden landscape as a stark counterpoint to the album’s themes.

—Möhammad Choudhery

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Robert Pollard: Plucked From The Ether


On the eve of Suitcase 4’s release, Robert Pollard reflects on “collage rock” and GBV’s legacy. Pre-order Suitcase 4 here.

Robert Pollard is bent over a long, blue plastic bin at the Goodwill store in Dayton, Ohio. Rows of them stretch through the cavernous, stale-smelling space. Staff members roll out newly filled containers and whisk away empties from the pickers.

“One time I came in here,” says Pollard, the erstwhile songwriting savant of Guided By Voices and many other solo and band projects, “and a bin was just full of knives, all sticking up. There were kids playing around it. I had to get out.”

Past long-outdated World Book encyclopedias, he digs. Firstedition Danielle Steel hardcovers, questionably stained magazines, children’s books long past three hand-me-downs.

“Look at this!” Pollard reels up the catch—a mid-’60s issue of The Journal Of The American Society Of Metals—and flips its pages. He stops at four mottled, black-and-white fi gures and points out an alloy’s molecular structure.

“That’s an album cover. Metal. Yeah.” Pollard’s voice betrays a hint of awe, as though he’s attuned to a groove only he can hear. And maybe he is—he’s been plucking inspiration from the ether his whole life.

Harvesting from Goodwill came later. Pollard found it an excellent source of old shit—items and images to which age imparts an elusive, intrinsic value—for his burgeoning collage art. Searching through musical detritus for gems to polish was also the strategy that created classic Guided By Voices albums Propeller and Bee Thousand.

Bee Thousand, more so than any other album,” says Pollard, “is comprised of old shit redone.” With his fourth Suitcase effort, Captain Kangaroo Won The War, Pollard has again applied collage-making methods to rock ‘n’ roll by selecting long-lost outtakes, sketches and songs. Many never made it into Guided By Voices’ catalog, but some did in altered form. For students of the band’s history, the release unearths vast new strata.

At the same time, it functions as conceptual art, a mock compilation of invented bands. “I’ve got the original version of ‘Echoes Myron’ on there,” Pollard laughs, “called ‘Try Me On For Size.’ I was singing in a really high-pitched voice on the tape, almost like a little girl, so I called that band Rachel Twit.” He sings, to the tune of the track’s opening lines:

“Try me on for size/I’m the one you want to know”

An early take of GBV’s “Wished I Was A Giant” also appears on Kangaroo, recorded circa 1979 with Nick Weiser and John Dodson (both formerly of Dayton punk band the Rulers). Pollard points to that brief musical collaboration as the impetus for his “collage-rock” method.

“They gave me a cassette tape full of fragments of all this shit they’d recorded,” he says. “Just pieces of songs. It was great. That became my credo. It doesn’t have to be fi nished or hi-fi .”

Once he knew to include any piece that fi t the overall picture, Pollard listened to all the old cassettes he could fi nd. Many of the songs he unearthed became classic GBV hits; most have appeared on previous Suitcases.

This is not to say Pollard thinks every discovery is gold. On a few tunes recorded by proto-GBV combo the Crowd, he describes his vocal inflections as “like Morrissey. Really bad stuff. Like I was gagging,” he chuckles. “I’m laying my balls on the table with that shit.”

But Captain Kangaroo Won The War holds its share of treasure: early versions of “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Hardcore UFOs” and others, an alternate take of “Motor Away,” the original “Glad Girls” (an Alien Lanes outtake) and a slew of new pop hooks, earworm melodies and lost snippets.

At the Goodwill store checkout, Pollard piles his future collage inspirations—a vintage, coverless copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a kids’ recipe book called Tasty Sharings, “Nursery Time” in an amazing font—on a scale and pays by weight. He puts his change in the Easter Seals collection box.

Asked if he thinks releasing so many unfinished songs will somehow tarnish his legacy, Pollard says no. He’s more interested in recording every inspiration, so the best moments might rise to the top and outlive him.

“Don’t you love great songs?” says Pollard. “Great songs have no ego. Things in the ether can have no ego.”

—Matthew Cutter

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Destroyer: Shaken And Stirring


Destroyer aims to soundtrack a spy thriller, not study hall

“I was born with a sound,” Dan Bejar sings on one of his contributions to last year’s New Pornographers album Brill Bruisers. By virtue of Bejar’s arch, conspiratorial voice and his impressionistic-yet-declamatory lyrics, his Destroyer records have a recognizable sound, although the musical trappings have ranged radically since 1996’s lo-fi We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge, skipping from glammy guitar rock (2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction) to synth-based art rock (2004’s Your Blues) and suave, saxophone-led adult-contemporary pop (2013’s Kaputt).

On the excellent new Poison Season, Bejar weaves two threads together: starkly orchestrated tracks built around a string section and horns as if from a Nino Rota soundtrack, versus more broadly rock tracks that rave up like Young Americans-era Bowie. Sometimes, as on “Hell,” these styles conjoin, but mostly they’re distinct, as on the two versions of “Times Square.”

“In Poison Season, I got up the gumption to do something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” says Bejar. “Which is do a set of songs that have a very heavily orchestrated feel to them, and the strings would make up the core of the song—the song would exist in a lush and romantic and a pre-rock ‘n’ roll setting, maybe.” Fifteen years ago, Bejar was obsessed with Scott Walker’s Scott 3, and he hears its influence in some Poison Season tracks, too.

Much has been made of Bejar’s lyrics— search the web for the rules for a drinking game built around them—but he describes his writing process as intuitive and stream-of-consciousness, less about meaning or themes than about the sound and connotations of phrases, especially now.

“I don’t know if I write this way anymore, but it seems like part of the Destroyer project from 1998 to 2008 or 2009 was to take lyrical inspiration from outside of pop music in a very obvious way,” he says. “And maybe specifi cally to write and sing in a way to seem like I was more hung up on literature or something than I was on being a singer in a band or getting a piece of music across. When you take on books, I guess, people want to analyze things as if they were analyzing a book, and there are certain traditions or methods of doing that, especially in America, that look for meaning in writing as opposed to function, which is more my scene.”

Bejar sees himself embracing his role as a singer and arranger more on his recent albums, including Poison Season.

“Older Destroyer records seemed caught up in torrents of images and the word flow, almost to an exhausting sense,” he says. “On Poison Season, in a lot of ways I feel the music captures the themes more than the words per se. A couple songs almost feel like spy thrillers or chase music, you know? That’s something I was thinking of: espionage, feelings of global dread, fi gures that are lost in the world. I don’t feel like those are topics; they’re just in the air that we breathe. It does feel like a darker record than most Destroyer records. I don’t know if that’s something to do with aging and decay and the world seeming more like a hostile and unknowable place. That’s what I hear. But I can say all those things, and I have a feeling that most people might not hear them at all.”

—Steve Klinge

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Langhorne Slim: Clipping Dirty Wings


All the clean and sober Langhorne Slim needs is love

Langhorne Slim learned how to play guitar after his cousin taught him the chords to Nirvana’s “Polly.” “I’d always loved music, but my cousin and his band blew me away with the raw teenage energy they were expressing,” he says. “I was only 11 or 12, but I was transfixed by it. I played those chords over and over, until my own songs started to emerge. I think I was always a performer, always trying to get people to listen to me, but when you’re in school, that’s called being a troublemaker. I was constantly being sent to the principal’s office, but when you have a guitar in your hands, suddenly you’re not a troublemaker—you’re a singer.”

At first, Slim wanted to be a rocker. “I was looking around for guys to start a band with, when I heard Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music,” he says. “I heard one man, or one woman, with an acoustic guitar making a bigger noise than any rock band I’d ever listened to. I never thought a solo performer could have that much fi re and be that deadly. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Slim hit the road with his guitar. As his musical vision expanded, he found like-minded players interested in exploring the confl uence of styles that make up American music—blues, folk, R&B, bluegrass and acoustic rock. He was also experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

“I had a healthy appetite for self-destruction,” he says. “Two years ago, I decided to grow up. I’d always written songs and performed high, and part of me wondered if I’d be able to continue being creative if I was sober. I’m fi nding out that I can do it just as good, if not better, without being a bitch to a pill or a bottle. I also discovered getting sober isn’t the end of the story; it’s the beginning. You still have to face your life in all its beauty and terror, but there’s a new level of energy when you embrace your true, naked self.”

The songs on The Spirit Moves, Slim’s new album with his band the Law, deal with love, but in an oblique way, delving into the spiritual and emotional aspects that inform our relationships with lovers and friends. The music is energetic and upbeat, driven by David Moore’s rhythmic banjo and the solid backbeat of bassist Je Ratner and drummer Malachi DeLorenzo. There’s a lot of heartache in the songs, but Slim doesn’t sound like he’s exactly unhappy about it.

“They’re not songs about falling in love, or getting sober, or breaking up,” says Slim. “It’s just a snapshot of the places I’ve been in the last few years, a record of my own transformational journey through this strange and beautiful world, and the experiences that continue to frighten me and fill me with joy. This band has been playing together for 10 years, and this album shines with the same energy we get when we play live.”

—j. poet

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Ducktails: Knowing Is Half The Battle


The unlikely virtues of chastity imbue Ducktails’ most personal album yet

As Ducktails, Matt Mondanile has released cassettes of instrumental noodlings as well as albums of ambient abstractions and gentle songs. Ducktails has been a bedroom project and a band.

“It’s just my solo music,” says Mondanile, who also plays guitar in Real Estate. “It could be called Matt Mondanile, but I just call it Ducktails because when I was younger I named it that. I wrote it on a cassette as a fake band name. It’s basically whatever I want; each record is its own little thing: unique.”

St. Catherine is Mondanile’s fifth official album, and it is indeed its own unique thing, although perhaps not little. Unlike 2013’s The Flower Lane, which Mondanile recorded with his then-current touring band, St. Catherine is primarily a solo affair, but with some key additions. He drafted Julia Holter and the string players from her band, and coerced veteran producer Rob Schnapf (who’s worked with Elliott Smith, Beck and Guided By Voices) to help finish the tracks. It’s Mondanile’s most textured and personal album, and one that will appeal to fans of Real Estate’s wistful, reverberating guitar rock even though it doesn’t sound quite like Real Estate.

Mondanile worked on it amidst Real Estate tours (the band has been on the road a lot since 2014’s Atlas), and he finished it after he moved from New York to L.A. in early 2015. From the start, he wanted the album to sound different from his past work, and as he demoed the tracks, he added provisional synthesizer lines for string parts.

“I was interested in having strings on the record, and I wanted it to have a dreamy, baroque, medieval vibe to it,” says Mondanile. “I wanted it to seem like some kind of dreamy, orchestral universe, and I wanted it to sound really lush.”

He had met Holter, the L.A.-based experimental-pop artist, in Australia during a tour, and the two became friends. She adds ethereal, angelic vocals to tracks such as “Heaven’s Room” and “Church” on St. Catherine, while her string players lend gravitas to “Medieval” and others. The album ranges from easygoing, Stereolab-like instrumentals such as “Disney Afternoon” and “Krumme Lanke” (named after the Berlin lake where it was written) to more emphatic, electric guitar-based songs like “Into The Sky” and “Headbanging In The Mirror” to the woozy, drifting meditation of “St. Catherine.” St. Catherine of Assisi is the patron saint of knowledge.

“I was raised in the Catholic church—I would read about imagery of stu like that when I was younger,” he says. “I was researching her on the internet, and I decided to write this song about her. The lyrics are metaphors for St. Catherine’s life. She was blinded by the light; she would only sleep with God. She was crucifi ed by men because she wouldn’t give her body up to them; she was holding out for Jesus Christ. I thought that was a tragic and interesting story: this woman who had this thing in mind and wouldn’t budge and was harmed for her own intentions.”

Electronic artist James Ferraro, who drops in to play synths on “Headbanging,” suggested Mondanile use “St. Catherine” as the album title. The record’s overall narrative is part autobiographical and part embellishment.

“It’s kind of about getting into a relationship, moving somewhere, and then having the relationship dissolve,” says Mondanile. “I was trying to be clear, lyrically, explaining that, so a lot of the songs are love songs. It has to do with a very intense relationship that I was in and being in a new place, and coming out of that, the repercussions of dealing with that.”

Indeed, the religious imagery became a unifying motif for the album. “It’s a loose theme that I had for the record,” says Mondanile. “I wanted the image to come across of maybe like a bummed-out altar boy was dumped and then freaking out. That was kind of my concept for the record. It was kind of strange: a Catholic boy, thrown into the world and making these metaphors because they’re the only thing he knows, his religious beliefs. Not that I’m a practicing Catholic.”

—Steve Klinge

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Exclusive Excerpt: Low Interviewed By Bon Iver


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

For more than two decades, Low has carved out a niche with minimal music that yields maximum results. The new Ones And Sixes stands as one of the trio’s best works, an experimental and emotional collection of songs that define what makes Low so unique. The band recorded the LP at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios, so we asked the Bon Iver frontman to interview Low for MAGNET.

I think it’s important to say that for me, interviewing Alan Sparhawk of Low, an interesting thing about it is that Low was a band I always knew about and always felt like I should know more about. And it wasn’t until The Great Destroyer that I got to hear them. In many ways, I feel like a latecomer to Low, but Alan Sparhawk’s name specifically and what he stood for was always around, even more omnipresent than the band itself, especially in the Midwest because everyone from Duluth, Minn., knew Low. B.J. Burton recorded Low’s new album, Ones And Sixes, at my studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisc., and I didn’t stick my head into it too much. But it was cool to see Alan still thrives in that space—it makes me feel excited to be old, or not afraid to get old. To get older and be able to know that you just need to go back to the well and be amazed at what you discover every time. Every time you make a record, you are a new flower. You’re like a freshman in high school. I constantly can’t stop thinking about the kid who is 14 lately, with all my friends making records, and I consider Alan to be one; I’m always telling them, “Man, there’s gonna be some kid listening to this!” You know, someone’s gonna listen to it, and I can’t stop thinking about how important it is, and how exciting it is that some kid’s gonna get a Low record like that. I just also enjoy that you might just randomly get a CD on your desk, and it just says “Low Ones And Sixes.” You might listen it, and it might change your life. —Justin Vernon

Justin Vernon: I’m not a good interviewer or anything, so I just have a couple of questions about a few things …
Alan Sparhawk: Nobody is!

Vernon: [Laughs] Could you kind of talk about how you ran into B.J. Burton and how you met him and his role in Ones And Sixes?
Sparhawk: He kind of took the initiative on this one. I think he knew who we were, maybe had seen a few shows or something, or maybe knew of us through you. He reached out to us, contacted our manager and said, “Hey, we have this studio down here. We’d love to have you down here.” Now that I know B.J., I think that’s probably as far out on a limb as he could have gone.

Vernon: Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re right.
Sparhawk: He doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who would go out of the way to wrangle things in his life too much.
Vernon: To me, it seemed like the energy of the record fits with you guys as a band … it was so cool from my perspective to look over you guys’ shoulder and hear what was happening and see how excited everyone was. B.J. excited to be with you, you guys excited to be with B.J.—it seemed like super fresh music.
Sparhawk: It was super flattering to be getting interest from you guys; that grace that was sort of being extended to us was flattering and exciting, and it sort of spurred us along a little bit. It was nice; that energy and that gift was there without you guys having to be hanging around and involved. You were popping in and out, and I know that sometimes you just kind of do your best to not poke your head in …

Vernon: Yeah, I couldn’t help myself.
Sparhawk: I could sense that it was definitely a good place. I appreciate that; it was fun to be in that space.

Vernon: I think it just was cool … I was excited as shit to have you guys there.
Sparhawk: I imagine that’s half the fun of having that studio—you guys have been able to have a few people out, people you respect, and that’s gotta be fun, being able to watch people you know and love using something you’ve built.

Vernon: It totally is; that’s totally part of it. People, I’m sure, have talked to you and I both about, like, “Hey man, what’s it like being from the Midwest?” Which is kind of an impossible question to answer. But I was thinking about that when I was getting ready to ask you about some of these things, and speaking of the studio here and the Duluth scene, the Minneapolis scene, the Eau Claire scene, kind of how you and I have been a part of that triangle for a long time. That question about the Midwest, the only thing that I have to say about that is that we just are looking for what feels cool to us. What is saving us from daily life? Where can we play a show?
Sparhawk: Part of it is being a little bit on the edge of isolation. Being a little bit away from, you know, Chicago, New York, L.A., San Francisco, the coasts where the anchors of culture are. We’re up here feeling very outside that. So, whenever we can touch that in a way—whether it’s us experiencing what those things represent or when someone from that world comes to our world and stays in our town or does a show—that’s exciting and that’s an invigorating thing, I think, and it’s sort of unique to the Midwest, especially in the north. Every part of that feels like something you never thought would happen.

Vernon: Exactly, and this seems to be something you’ve known for longer than I have. In relation to that and the Midwestern thing, I’d be very curious to pick your brain about why it’s interesting for people to talk to people like you and me. When, really, I feel very connected to the people I live around and my community. In general, the “fame game,” or whatever it is, people recognizing you or understanding who you are or think they understand who you are—where does your brain sit in all of that? Why do you think people want to talk to folks like you and I sometimes?
Sparhawk: That’s a heavy one—that’s a hard one to talk about without sounding like a complete asshole. [Laughs]

Vernon: Well, you’re not an asshole! And I’m not an asshole. I feel like we’re doing the right thing. Just in general, was it partly important to you, or was it not important to you and music was always the thing? I guess that’s kind of what I’m asking.
Sparhawk: The desire for people to like what you do or want to know you? That kind of thing?

Vernon: Yeah. I mean, it seems like music has always been the driver for you. I guess that’s what I’m getting at.
Sparhawk: Yeah, music is certainly the anchor for that, but I think it’s always … I’m old enough to look back and admit to being driven by the idea of wanting to get known. It’s this primal desire of wanting to be understood; it’s kind of what drives people, I think, sometimes to make art, to make anything that they then share with someone else.

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Jason Isbell: Speaking Freely


Hope is a dangerous thing, according to Drive-By Truckers expat Jason Isbell

“Still, at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe,” Bruce Springsteen once posited on the stark, yet essentially optimistic “Reason To Believe” from minimal 1982 masterpiece Nebraska. An assessment with which Jason Isbell—himself a huge Boss booster—would respectfully disagree. “It’s been a long time since Springsteen said that, and I don’t know if that reason is around anymore,” says the ex-Drive-By Trucker, who was raised in small-town Green Hill, Ala. “Now, at the end of the day for most people, it’s just a whole lot of frustration— there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of them now. People don’t have any time to … to live.”

Isbell’s last album—Southeastern, his fourth, featuring vocals from wife Amanda Shires—turned the microscope on his own life, lyrically dealing with his lengthy battle with alcoholism and subsequent stint in rehab (“I drank a fifth of Jack Daniels a day for a good two years or more, and I realized at one point that Amanda was going to go— she wasn’t gonna hang around and be with a drunk,” he says). But on its follow-up, the new Something More Than Free, he casts a sober, clinical eye outward on the God-fearing, righteous-valued working-class folks he grew up with. And he’s compiled a set of grainy, rugged Everyman portraits that’s the sonic equivalent of Richard Avedon’s book In The American West.

The disc opens on the deceptively whimsical, toe-tapping acoustic melody of “If It Takes A Lifetime,” and the singer’s whispery down-home drawl: “I’ve been workin’ here/ Monday it’ll be a year/And I can’t recall the day when I didn’t wanna disappear/But I keep on showin’ up/Hell-bent on growin’ up/If it takes a lifetime.” Delicate strummer “Speed Trap Town” paints a less-than-idyllic picture of rural existence: “It’s a Thursday night, but there’s a high-school game/Sneak a bottle o the bleachers and forget my name … Everybody knows you in a speed-trap town.” And on the loping title track, he mournfully confesses, “When I get home from work, I’ll call up all my friends/And we’ll go bust up something beautiful we’ll have to build again.”

While the collection shifts focus—from rundown-hotel-as-relationship metaphor “Flagship” to losing ballad “To A Band That I Loved,” an ode to late-lamented group (and old Drive-By touring comrades) Centro-matic—it remains rooted in family. Isbell’s mother-inspired “Children Of Children,” and its poignant line “all the years I took from her just by being born.” “My wife’s mom was really young when she was born, and my mom was, too,” says the 36-year-old. “And I spent a lot of time thinking about that—how their lives would have been di erent had we not come along.”

Mainly, the various clock-punching laborers on “Metropolis” all stem from one source: Isbell’s own father, who’s 57. “My dad still works really hard; he’s still doing manual labor,” he says. “And he’s not poor by any means. But he gave up a long time ago on building an identity outside of his own home, his own family. So, even the good people—the people who resign themselves to their lot in life and are working hard until they can’t work any longer—once they’re done with that work, they’re not in any shape to enjoy whatever it is they worked for all those years.” Isbell’s grandfather recently passed away after retiring, then buying a swank RV with the wealth he’d accumulated. “But it sat in his yard for a year and a half until he died, because he didn’t really feel up to going anywhere, so he told Amanda, ‘Try to enjoy things while you’re young enough to actually participate in them,’” he says.

Isbell is usually backed by his Muscle Shoals culled band the 400 Unit, and he first flew solo with 2007’s Sirens Of The Ditch. Does he have any Nebraska-vintage hope? He sighs. “I try not to think too hard on the fact that we’re making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves,” he says. “But I come from a place where people make the world very small for themselves, and I think that’s still a big part of who I am. Maybe it’s a little bit isolationist, but as far as controlling my own well-being, my family’s fed. And where I come from, if that’s taken care of, you don’t have a lot to worry about.”

—Tom Lanham

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