Category Archives: FEATURES

The Minders: Still Right As Rain

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Martyn Leaper flows into adulthood with Into The River, the first Minders album in a decade

Since forming in 1996, Martyn Leaper and the Minders have morphed from Elephant 6 darlings to twee-pop anarchists, throwing love bombs and denouncing nothing. Most non-fans remember the Minders’ auspicious 1998 debut, Hooray For Tuesday, and its unfairly derided follow-up, 2001’s Golden Street, but the band was active until 2006’s slight-but-lovely It’s A Bright Guilty World. That year also marked the divorce of British ex-pat/Minders’ sole constant Leaper and drummer/founding member Rebecca Cole. The Minders’ only interim release has been the second, mp3 web-only iteration of their odds-and-sods Cul-De-Sacs And Dead Ends. In the gap, Leaper wrote and demoed new songs when he could crowbar it into his 40-hour work week. In 2012, he began documenting those songs with a coterie of musicians from his Portland, Ore., home base, including Cole. Along with renowned producer Larry Crane (Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney), Leaper began finding the thread of Into The River, the first actual Minders studio work in a decade.

“I wanted to make a good record that flowed from beginning to end and makes sense,” says Leaper. “One reason it took so long is I don’t make a living from doing this, so I have to work, and I was trying to fit this in as much as possible. If the songs weren’t there, I’d just wait. I’d have an idea and go, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I need to do next to that song,’ and the record’s style started to take shape.”

Into The River doesn’t follow a narrative arc, but a central theme evolved over the writing/recording process. The title track’s arrival late in the game crystallized Leaper’s thoughts about the album as a whole.

“The words came together very quickly. When I got the title, I was like, ‘Oh, that should be the record,’” he says. “It’s about being pulled along by the strong currents of life. When I started writing these songs, it was the beginning of the recession and I’d gone through my divorce. Into The River is going into the fray of a number of problems and maladies, the travails of adult life. It’s not a sugary sweet twee-pop record; I guess it’s a grown-up record.”

Leaper’s musical accompaniment on Into The River includes the Minders’ current touring version, which coalesced during sessions two years ago. With so many working parts and so much elapsed time, Into The River’s cohesion is a testament to Leaper’s malleable vision and Crane’s estimable skills.

“It was done in one place with one producer, that’s why it sounds consistent,” says Leaper. “Larry’s steady hand in guiding sessions is how we were able to keep everything together. And he made really good suggestions. A lot of the approach was ‘less is more’ although there’s some busyness going on. That might actually be my fault, but Larry was able to steer it along.”

Into The River retains Leaper’s natural Britpop tendencies, while veering into more emotionally rich territory, which he credits to his exposure to country and Americana music. The triumphant baroque pop of “It’s Gonna Break Out” bristles like Beatles-influenced Smiths, while “Summer Song” bubbles like Robert Pollard channeling Pete Townshend.

But the title track’s two distinct versions are the album’s crown jewels, the first a bare-bones arrangement of Cole on piano and Leaper on vocals, the second a full-band work-up. The stripped-back version suggests an almost baptismal connection to the river in the title, while the fuller version accentuates Leaper’s “river as life” intention.

“I got drawn in by the strong emotional undercurrents of country music from the ’50s and ’60s,” says Leaper. “When you go through a breakup and listen to that stuff, it’s a way to cleanse and extract your dark emotions. It draws it out of you. That’s what I was thinking with that song.”

—Brian Baker

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Pansy Division: True Colors

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The gay-rock punk pioneers in Pansy Division are back with their first album in seven years

It may not be a mainstream signpost in the history of rock, but as Pansy Division bassist/vocalist Chris Freeman points out, before he and guitarist/vocalist Jon Ginoli formed the world’s first and most overtly gay power-pop/punk band in 1991, no one was out and proud.

“Not even Elton John. Wasn’t he married to Renate Blauel then?” he asks with a laugh. And while Freeman is humble about the band’s role in making musicians’ sexuality an afterthought, he pinpoints Pansy Division opening for Green Day on 1994’s Dookie tour as when closet doors started flying open.

“It’s interesting when you talk about changes,” he says. “It’s hard to pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Look what we did,’ but when you look at the timeline, when we started, not one artist, even those known to be gay, was out of the closet. The whole culture shifted on that Green Day tour when we met Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Michael Stipe and said to them, ‘You can come out now.’ I think we broke down the doors and proved you could do this. And not one of them suffered adverse consequences for coming out.”

No band has waved the rainbow flag more proudly than Pansy Division. From its origins and involvement in early-’90s Bay Area punk to becoming de facto leaders of the “homocore” movement, Freeman, Ginoli and a rotating cast of straight and gay drummers (the band is now rounded out by drummer Luis Illades and guitarist Joel Reader) never shied away from graphic depictions of queer, bi and questioning dudes getting sweaty with each other and a variety of apparati. But as acceptance of queer culture and community has grown and the band’s members find themselves in their 40s and 50s, the topics on new album Quite Contrary (their seventh and first since 2009) have also progressed. They haven’t scrimped on being proud of who they are, but those looking for the graphic depictions of man-on-man butt-slammin’, blow-jobbin’ and pole-strokin’ featured on past albums like Deflowered and Wish I’d Taken Pictures might find themselves disappointed at the contemplative nature of songs like “Work On It, Babe” and “Mistakes.” Hell, Ginoli even utters the L-word—not that one—on “Love Came Along.”

“We paid attention to our fans and took a good look at ourselves and what’s realistic for Pansy Division now,” says Ginoli. “At some point you have to ask, ‘Are we repeating ourselves? Are we adding to it? How many cock songs can there be?’ And honestly, writing songs about boys is not something 50-year-olds should be doing. We played a show in San Francisco a couple years ago, and Jello Biafra was there. He took us aside, told us he was ready for another album and what he wanted to see was commentary on what it’s like being 50 and being a gay man as things have changed. He thought that was more interesting than more retread, and when he said that, it was like, ‘You’re right!’ We’re in a very unique position, so let’s look around, see what we’re dealing with and what we can talk about. So, this new album was driven by us listening to our fans, ourselves and our boss!”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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The Devil Makes Three: Redemption Songs

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The Devil Makes Three still likes that old-time rock ’n’ roll

“People are always asking us where our music comes from, or what kind of music we play,” says Pete Bernhard, spokesperson for hard-rockin’ acoustic trio the Devil Makes Three. “We can never answer them, so we decided to make an album to point a finger at some of the artists that influenced us. We do our own thing, but we love traditional music and want people to appreciate the stuff we grew up with.”

The three musicians in the Devil Makes Three—Pete Bernhard (acoustic guitar and vocals), Cooper McBean, (guitar, tenor banjo and vocals) and Lucia Turino (stand-up bass and harmony vocals)—have been trying to define their sound, an amalgamation of ragtime, rockabilly, bluegrass, punk, primal blues and old-time music, since they got together some 15 years ago. They have a bright, upbeat sound, and despite their lack of a drummer, their driving rhythms have people up and dancing from the first note. During a typical set, they’ll usually play a couple of the songs that inspired them, but on their new album, Redemption And Ruin, they showcase some of the artists they admire.

“The album is half gospel tunes and half songs about screwing your life up,” says Bernhard. “It has an a-side and a b-side, like a vinyl record, which is still the best way to listen to music. We’ve been talking about an album of covers for a while, but it took years to narrow it down to 12 tunes.”

As usual, the band recorded live in the studio. Their special guests—Emmylou Harris, slide-guitar ace Jerry Douglas and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien—contributed to arrangements that were done on the fly.

“We had a great time with this album,” says Bernhard. “It was looser than normal, and songs changed direction depending on the ideas of the people who played with us. We let the guests produce it, so to speak. The arrangements were created spontaneously. Once we liked something, we pressed ‘record’ and did it. Making it up as you go along is terrifying, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Standards like Willie Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk” and traditional folk song “Down In The Valley” rub up against obscurities like “There’ll Be A Jubilee” by the Sunset Jubilee Singers and the Stanley Brothers’ “I Am The Man,” an explicit depiction of the physical torment of crucifixion.

“Our friend Boaz Vilozny, who played drums with us briefly in the early days, introduced me to the Sunset Jubilee Singers, a five-man vocal group backed up by piano or guitar,” says Bernhard. “I’ve been listening to them ever since. They’re amazing singers, so we just did the best we could. We’ve been playing ‘I Am The Man’ on our current tour. Everything Ralph Stanley wrote has a haunting, ancient sound that’s older than bluegrass. Our biggest challenge as a band is playing old songs in new ways and writing new songs that sound different than anything we’ve done before.”

—j. poet

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The Head And The Heart: Live Through This

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The Head And The Heart explores the personal on its major-label debut

When Jonathan Russell caught up with MAGNET, he was on a spotty cell connection riding a bike through his hometown of Richmond, Va. Hands-free headphones were in use, the singer/guitarist of the Head And The Heart is quick to note. But the more important factor is that he’s back home. Not in Seattle, where his band formed, but “home” home.

After bursting out of the Coffee Capital coffeehouse scene in 2009 with their self-titled debut, Russell and Co. spent seven subsequent years constantly on the road, writing and recording 2013’s impressive Let’s Be Still for Sub Pop in the in-between. When that run wound down, a year’s sabbatical was in order, and Russell headed back east. Having time off, after so much time together, is essential, and with TH&TH’s excellent third album Signs Of Light getting ready for a major-label release on Warner Bros., we asked him about those years of growth.

“First you’re awkward and uncomfortable being in front of 20 people at a coffeehouse,” says Russell. “Then you’re playing bigger shows, and you get these opening slots so you’re thrown on a stage you’ve never been on before. You’re like, ‘What am I supposed to do with all this space?’ But for me, I enjoyed figuring all that stuff out. Obviously, the bigger the stage, the bigger you want to sound.”

The new album definitely sounds big with a capital B—soaring guitars, powerful arrangements and lyrics that connect in the broadest possible way. Rousing opener “All We Ever Knew” ponders elusive fulfillment (“Feeling low, feeling high/Feeling down, why isn’t this enough?”) with an infectious, wordless chorus. The folksy “Library Magic,” awash in madrigal harmonies, is on the surface a meditation on the struggles of tour life. But it’s also about loyalty and fidelity: “It’s easier to begin and hard to end/I’m just glad to go through it all with you as a friend.” This reliability isn’t some by-product of being on a major now—it’s how Russell has always worked as a songwriter, and how the band’s fanbase was cultivated.

“I think my natural tendency as a songwriter is this: I’m more into universal parallels than trying to be like this niche, weird art thing,” says Russell. “I like those bands, too, but for some reason my natural writing lends itself more to this all-encompassing ‘I’m going through this, are you going through this?’ sort of mentality. Mostly for me because it’s an outlet of me trying to figure out existence.”

Growing also means accepting change, and in the Head And The Heart’s case, that means letting co-frontman Josiah Johnson sit on the sidelines for this album’s promo run as he battles addiction and focuses on recovery. Russell sighs as he reflects on his friend’s absence.

“The hard thing about being in a band is you sort of lose your autonomy, and as a songwriter, that can be really frustrating,” he says. “You can’t really pinpoint how it happened or where it went. Once we all sat down as a band, and were like, ‘You need some time to yourself,’ we realized that’s fair. That’s totally fair, we’re all still good friends, all on great terms with each other. I think more than anybody else at this time, he needed to step back for a minute.”

But Johnson’s presence is nevertheless felt. The title Signs Of Light comes from the closing track, a moving piano anthem written and sung by Johnson, a beacon of hope for him. And, by Russell’s logic, for all of us.

—John Vettese

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Lisa Hannigan: Hearts And Bones

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Famous friends helped Lisa Hannigan find inspiration for her latest LP

Celtic thrush Lisa Hannigan had feathered her nest so richly over the past two years, she should’ve been comfortably ensconced in the catbird seat. The former Damien Rice accompanist had achieved several solo-career firsts: working with a friend on a regular podcast; landing her version of the traditional “Danny Boy” in the second season of Fargo; providing otherworldly vocals for the atmospheric film soundtracks to both Fury and Gravity; and contributing tracks to—even voicing the Selkie character Bronach in—Tomm Moore’s animated Irish epic Song Of The Sea, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Her message to other movie directors? “Call me—I have an IMDB page now!” she says. “And what’s so wonderful about it is how serendipitous it all was. I was incredibly lucky.”

The singer had also been touring for nearly two years straight behind her sophomore effort, 2011’s Passenger, which had expanded on the whimsical folk-laced themes of her Mercury Prize-nominated 2008 debut, Sea Sew. “I really was enjoying the gigs, and I felt like I was in my element,” she says. Then, optimistically, she returned to her homeland to start work on her third album, the new Aaron-Dessner-produced At Swim. But inspiration simply wasn’t coming.

“I just thought it would be like my other records, where I’ll be slow to start, but I’ll get into the swing and I’ll go with the flow, and I’ll have three songs a week,” says Hannigan. “But it never quite got there. And then my confidence started disappearing, once I felt like I couldn’t write a song. Because, as a singer/songwriter, that is your day’s work, and if you don’t have something that you’re proud of at the end of the day, that can be wearing over time.”

She understood the basic tenet. “You have to write a lot of crappy songs before you find something shiny,” she says. “But those turned out be few and far between. For a couple of years.”

The turning point came when Hannigan received an email, out of the blue, from Dessner—of the National renown—who had begun producing artists at his studio in upstate New York. Would she be interested in collaborating on material? Or allowing him to oversee her next album? Yes to both, she replied. And her benefactor sent her several musical ideas he’d been considering, some only minute-long snippets, others more fully formed at four or five minutes long.

Her old chum Joe Henry (who produced Passenger) chipped in, sending her a full set of lyrics that became the set’s kickoff single “Fall,” wherein Hannigan’s hearth-embery voice wafts over austere acoustic strumming and spooky, Link Wray-echoed filigrees from Dessner, playing his guitar with a bow. Her self-belief gradually returned with the completion of cuts like Irish jig “Snow,” a minuet-delicate examination of her ongoing insomnia, “Lo,” and forlorn, death-delving dirges “Funeral Suit” and “Prayer For The Dying,”

Suddenly, Hannigan was finding songwriting sparks everywhere. Browsing through her local bookstore, she stumbled across Carsten Jensen’s historical novel We, The Drowned. She didn’t read it, but she was so struck by the title itself, she wrote a somber lullaby about what she imagined it might be, taking the same name as well. To cheer her up in her fallow period, a friend had given her a boxed set of late Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s works. She grew so enamored of one in particular, “Anahorish,” that she started singing its words as lyrics one evening, just as she was going to bed. Waking periodically throughout the night to phrase more verses, she had a completed a cappella tune by dawn, which Heaney’s estate graciously allowed her to record.

When did Hannigan realize that she was finally back at the top of her form? It was while she was rehearsing “Anahorish” with two other vocalists backstage at a recent Heaney tribute concert, and there was an ominous knock on her dressing room door.

“So I open it, and there’s Paul Simon, going, ‘Hey, can I sit in?’” she says. “So I sang it to him, and I thought, ‘Well, nothing will ever be more nerve-wracking than singing to Paul Simon, who’s sitting a foot away from me! So every time I sing it now, I think of that. And it gives me even more courage.”

—Tom Lanham

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Cass McCombs: The Politics Of Dancing

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Cass McCombs addresses issues of gender, race and power on his new LP

“No one likes a poetic musician; we’re supposed to be meatheads,” says Cass McCombs, laughing. He’s been talking about Mangy Love, his eighth full-length, not including two other projects he’s been involved with in the last year: odd ’n’ sods collection A Folk Set Apart and the Skiffle Players’ Skifflin’, which featured McCombs alongside Neal Casal, Farmer Dave Scherr and other West Coast pals.

McCombs is no meathead. Mangy Love is, in large part, a political album that addresses issues of gender, race and power. It’s about inclusion and justice. It’s also funny, sly and soulful. McCombs is a musical omnivore, and his work has ranged from hushed indie-folk to churning rock ’n’ roll to lo-fi, noisy experiments. He recently played a show in the band of the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh (he’s also played with the Dead’s Bob Weir—McCombs grew up in the Bay Area, and the Dead is in his DNA).

McCombs had been listening to a lot of Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis in the years leading up to Mangy Love, and the album also draws on reggae, soca and South American styles and even includes some operatic backing vocals. He credits the vibe to Dan Horne, the album’s bass player and co-producer (along with McCombs and veteran Rob Schnapf). But the choice to incorporate the soulful styles was thematic as well.

“Lyrically, it has a lot to do with political ideas of gender and race and ideas of healing, and we wanted to make a musical lexicon of revolutionary concepts in music,” he says. “I think that should extend everywhere in music from Sly And The Family Stone to, like, the Cure, and I guess the Dead and Beatles, whatever: anything that represents that revolutionary attitude. I’m not talking politically revolutionary, I’m talking musically. A lot of revolutionary songs are not explicitly political.”

Songs such as “Run Sister Run” and “Bum Bum Bum” are indeed explicitly political (“Men, respect your sister and respect your Queen,” he sings on “Run Sister Run”), but there’s also plenty of humor. Witness the seemingly misogynist “Rancid Girl,” with lines like “You’re bad, I mean you smell bad/You talk a lot, and it’s always bad.”

“It should be funny, I guess,” McCombs says, and then laughs. “It’s a love song. It’s like ‘Super Freak,’ Rick James, like that: ‘You’re amazing and you’re crazy and you’re nasty.’ It’s a different kind of love song. How does that fit in? Jesus. Maybe it’s preparing the listener for a jacked perspective on beauty. I think a lot of our ideas, in this case of beauty, but it could be of race or gender or whatever, are bankrupt. I think it’s fun to fuck with that and joke around with that. I appreciate when writers or musicians fuck with my seriously held beliefs about things that I thought were real and then some guy or lady obliterates them. Thank you! It’s fun to be obliterated.”

On “Cry,” McCombs sings, “No more cliché songs,” and the wide-ranging Mangy Love lives up to that goal in its political ideals, its overt and subtle jokes, and even in its optimism.

“There might be a lot of songs on the record that talk about race and gender,” says McCombs. “But there are other songs that talk about healing and earth and food and all the good stuff—the loving caring things we need to do for ourselves and others.”

—Steve Klinge

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El Perro del Mar: World Party

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El Perro del Mar’s latest explores a planet without borders

A visit to a musical instrument museum with her toddler son inspired El Perro del Mar’s Sarah Assbring to recalibrate her pop sensibilities and work on what would become KoKoro, her fifth (or sixth) album. (Her first LP, 2005’s Look! It’s El Perro del Mar, was revamped from its Swedish release into her self-titled U.S. debut in 2006.) It was a “please-touch” museum where they could play the instruments, and Assbring fell in love with the percussion used in Indonesian gamelan music, and with harps from Asia and Africa.

“Even though I was on a kind of maternal leave at the time and not consciously searching for something to work on, that visit kind of got me going and thinking that I should have instruments that I’m not used to,” she says while vacationing on Swedish island Fårö.

Her first records, with entrancing songs such as “Candy” and “God Knows (You’ve Got To Give To Get),” reimagined Phil Spector-ish girl-group melodies as ghostly, heartbroken pop. Home was Gothenburg, Sweden, the city of Jens Lekman, Sally Shapiro and José González, and she shared their sense of classical craft. On 2009’s Love Is Not Pop, she gently embraced the sounds of club pop, to joyful effect, and she toyed with trip-hop rhythms on 2012’s Pale Fire. Each of these efforts felt like its own self-contained world, built around Assbring’s delicate voice and incantatory choruses.

KoKoro is different. It looks outward, both musically and lyrically, to the world, and rather than a tender clinch, it’s a wholehearted bear hug of global pop sounds.

“I wanted to feel like I was starting afresh in every kind of way, but I knew that I was going to try to make a pop album in a way that had no borders,” says Assbring. “I had a kind of political vision that went along with the need to make something that felt new and fresh and positive in its statement.”

In order to search for new sounds, ones that she “did not have any referential history on,” she turned to YouTube.

“I started searching for gamelan music and then I went from there and didn’t follow any conscious line of going further,” she says. “I just clicked on whatever happened next. I found such amazing music. There is so much good music all around us in the world that is not in our Western knowledge or consciousness. I think it’s sad: Even though we’re living in a borderless, global world, we’re still missing out on so much good music.”

She listened to tunes from Thailand and Pakistan, Vietnam and Bali. Love may not be pop, but she found a lot of things that she heard as “pop” music. She fell in love with rhythms from Lebanon, harps from China, vocalists from Ethiopia, flutes from Japan. All of them became part of the palette for KoKoro. With the help of multi-instrumentalist Andreas Söderström (“He’s an absolute genius who can play anything”), Assbring sought to create her own brand of “borderless” pop, blending these non-Western instruments and harmonies into songs that scan as catchy to Western ears.

What, then, is her inclusive, global definition of pop music?

“When you listen to traditional folk music in any country, there is a primal catchiness, a heart-to-heart connection on a very personal level,” she says. “It doesn’t really matter what language you’re using or what words you’re saying. It crosses over any border and goes straight into the heart. That to me is pop. I’ve been thinking about that so much. So much of this album for me is exploring that exact question. It should be very direct, too. It’s so much about the rhythm, too, definitely. For me, when I write a song or I find a song that I love, it’s so much about the repetitive use of a rhythm or the repetitive use of a melody or a pattern, something that you can feel you could stay on forever on repeat. That’s something I feel I’ve stuck with since the beginnings of my first album.”

Lyrically, the LP is full of catchphrases—sometimes repeated as mantras—that are often reminders to be optimistic, but not complacent, in a troubled world:
“Look out there and don’t be scared.”
“Endless ways to better myself/Take this chance and make the best of myself.”
“We all start from the same very bottom.”
“Happiness, whatever it is, is not enough.”

And those perspectives go back, in part, to her relationship with her son. “Becoming a mother and putting a child into the world has changed me in so many ways,” says Assbring. “It’s changed me as a person and as a musician and the way I look at the world. Especially for this album, since it’s my first album after having my child, I’m thinking about what message I’m putting out into the world: If I want to speak about the world that we live in and the problems that we have, do I want to speak about it in a gloomy, stop-it kind of way, or do I want to feel like I gave something positive to the world?”

—Steve Klinge

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Teenage Fanclub: Caledonia Dreaming

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Teenage Fanclub returns with songs of love, hope and redemption

Six years in the flimsy, fickle world of rock and pop is a veritable lifetime. Stars come and go and flame out, trends develop at head-spinning speed, entire cities are razed to the ground and civilizations collapse. Luckily, there are still some constants that remain solid and unchanged, beacons of light and hope in an increasingly dark and twisted world, one of which is the continuing existence of beloved Scottish indie godfathers Teenage Fanclub. The band’s very being makes the world a better place, and now it’s back with a new album, Here. So, what took these guys so long?

“Procrastination! Inertia!” laughs the Fanclub’s Norman Blake from his home in Toronto, where he’s lived for the past seven years. “After the last record, I’d just moved over here, so I guess I just wasn’t back in Glasgow. And after every album and tour, you take time off, which for most bands is a couple of years. We did talk about getting together sooner, but it just didn’t happen.”

Instead, members embarked on a variety of side projects—Gerry Love put out the sparkling Lightships; Raymond McGinley worked with TFC sideman Dave McGowan’s folk group Snowgoose; while Blake collaborated with Joe Pernice and released a psych/pop gem in the form of Johnny with ex-Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci frontman, Euros Childs. They then reconvened about two years ago, recording and mixing in Southern France, Glasgow and Berlin. And even after long periods apart, the band appears to have fallen back into it all almost seamlessly.

“Y’know we do,” says Blake. “Because we’ve been doing it for so long! We’ve been together for 25 years now, and the core of the band’s remained pretty much intact. Everything becomes intuitive; we meet up and just slip back into being Teenage Fanclub. So, that’s all pretty easy, to be honest with you.”

Here is very much in the tradition of mellow, late-period Fanclub. Glorious, God-given harmonies? Check. Chiming, ethereal guitars? Double check. Vague sense of autumnal melancholy and contemplation of one’s mortality? Triple check. In the youth-fetishizing world of rock and pop, subject matter such as growing old together, the importance of close friends and loved ones, is pretty much anathema, but it’s an area that the Fanclub keep returning to with a huge degree of warmth and empathy.

“Yeah, but that’s what happens when you hit your 40s: You start to think about that,” says Blake. “I think it’s inevitable if you’re writing about your life experience, you’re getting older; it’s just a fact. It’s about confronting the future, your place in the world; it’s interesting to write about. I mean, we all do it in our heads anyway. It’s just nice to express these thoughts in a song. We’ve always just tried to write about what we know as opposed to some fantastical image or whatever. I mean, we’re never going to be the Peter Pans of pop, trying to act like we’re still 20. Some people do, but it’s a pretty tragic way of making a living, being a rock ’n’ roll musician, when you think about it. It’s like something Mani, when he was in Primal Scream at the time, said to me, which pretty much summed it up. We were playing a festival in Dublin, and he’d been out the night before and was really hungover and it was all these youngsters backstage. And he looked at me and said, “Norman? Rock ’n’ roll? Young man’s game!”

Blake laughs, then pauses. “I know, the clock’s ticking, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s crazy, time just happens, and I’m thinking, ‘What happened there?’ But maybe that’s part of the reason we’ve lasted so long: We never overworked it. Maybe very early on. We did three albums in three years, but after that we just took our time. But it’s been good, it’s been great; we’ve been really, really lucky. I mean, our main objective, when we started the band, was just to release an album; that’s all we ever wanted to do. And we’ve never really had a plan, y’know? One thing’s just led to another.”

—Neil Ferguson

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The Low Anthem: Lonely Eyeland

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The Low Anthem stripped its sound and membership down to the bare essentials to actualize Eyeland

On the subject of epitaphs, it’s been written that the quality of a life is not contained in the dates on the stone but in the hyphen between them. That sentiment is equally true when the dates in question describe the gap between a band’s releases. In the Low Anthem’s case, the five years between 2011’s Smart Flesh and the diverse and distinct Eyeland may have been the most productive and evolutionary period.

After a nearly two-year tour for Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem decamped to its Providence, R.I., base to contemplate its next moves. The band found itself engaged on a variety of fronts—it began a project to rehabilitate the Columbus Theatre in downtown Providence into a performance/studio space; lost its manager to corporate acquisition; its labels dropped the group as the gap between albums widened; and, perhaps most damaging, three of the band’s five members defected for varying reasons. It was a string of events that would have unraveled a lesser group.

“We were floating in free time, just me and Jeff (Prystowsky), the only other original member,” says frontman Ben Knox Miller. “We would look at each other and go, ‘Do you believe in all these other projects we’re doing?’ We agreed that this time was good to let the chemistry fully dissolve back down to the elemental.”

When the space—also named Eyeland—was operational, Miller and Prystowsky further divided their time by recording other bands in the studio and booking the theater. Having vast eyewitness experience on how not to run a venue gave them an upper hand.

“It’s a venue run by musicians, so you don’t walk into an environment where you feel like a fish out of water,” says Miller. “It’s not some corporate place; it’s like our living room and your living room, and it’s very personal. John C. Reilly played here and was interviewed for a New York Times piece, and he said, ‘It’s nice to see the inmates running the asylum.’ That’s the vibe we’ve cultivated.”

Simultaneously, the pair was taking chunks of time to work on what would ultimately become Eyeland. It was a long process made more difficult by the absence of management, finding a new label (they signed with Concord/Razor & Tie/Washington Square) and dealing with the loss of most of the band.

“The record has been like a painting you leave in the kitchen, and every time you sit down to eat breakfast, you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, I’ve got to cross that part out,’” says Miller. “It’s always there on the wall while all these things have been going on.”

When Miller originally came up with the name Eyeland, he and Prystowsky played a word association game in a local bar, working out the potential ways that listeners might perceive the title.

“There seemed to be a whole host of one-step associations that had very different suggestions,” says Miller. “Without any specific interpretation that this was bent toward, the fact of its interpretational ability gave us the confidence that there was room to explore and let it not be any one of those things. It was very much a process of discovery for us, and I’m grateful for the time we had to let that happen organically.”

As Miller was writing songs for Eyeland, he also conceived a 12-page abstract narrative intended as a liner-note key to connect the arc of the songs. With the shifts and alterations in the album’s form, that idea was shelved.

“At one time, it was very elaborate, and you could trace it from A to B,” says Miller. “Four years later, I’m not sure that’s still true. I don’t have perspective to know that anymore. There were 26 songs when we started looking for a place to record, and I think eight of them survived, so you have this constellation of moments from the story that are now abstracted by what’s been taken away.”

Eyeland was further influenced by the duo’s visit to San Francisco’s Audium, the immersive sonic theater experience that features life sounds mixed with music; Prystowsky subsequently bought a stereo field recorder and began capturing found sounds and atmospheres that added Brian Eno’s aggressive ambience and Tom Waits’ woodshed constructionism to the soundtrack.

“I was like, ‘OK, I get it, but now we also need the music to come the other half of the way to meet that,’” he says. “From that point on, it was like day one again. We had this whole new mission to give that collision some kind of order. That was one of those turning points where we thought we were done, but we were just getting started.”

—Brian Baker

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National Park Radio: Sounds Of Rural America

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National Park Radio is flying its freak flag

“Our songs are big, folky free-for-alls,” says Stefan Szabo, National Park Radio’s ringmaster and songwriter. The romping, stomping tunes on The Great Divide, the band’s debut, live up to Szabo’s description. Although there’s a hint of bluegrass in the arrangements, the band eschews the solo instrumental flights of the genre, going for a lively sound marked by the rhythmic interplay between banjo, acoustic guitar and galloping stand-up bass.

“It’s a singer/songwriter with a band,” says Szabo, “but I don’t like to describe it. If you listen, you’ll understand what it is.”

Szabo played guitar in a Christian rock band in high school, but didn’t get serious about music until he turned 27. “I’ve always wanted to sing, but never gave it a try. In my late 20s, I realized I was running out of time.”

He made an album of original songs in his garage and, after he started playing them live, added other musicians to flesh out his vision. “I’m not an amazing singer or player,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of hard work to not embarrass myself when I perform. I’m just an ordinary person who decided to try and do something extraordinary. I’m just as real and honest as I can be in my songwriting. A lot of people seem to connect with that.”

When the band isn’t on the road, its members live in the rural Arkansas town they grew up in. “We’re isolated from the rest of the world in a lot of ways,” says Szabo. “That’s why my songs reflect real life in Arkansas, which I imagine is similar to life in a lot of rural areas and small towns across the South and Midwest. The whole idea of ‘hillbilly’ backwoods mountain music is fun to play with, which is probably why banjo has such big role in our sound.”

—j. poet

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