Category Archives: FEATURES

Coliseum: Fear Factory

Coliseum

Everyday anxieties fuel Coliseum’s impressive post-punk maturation

Coliseum vocalist/guitarist Ryan Patterson is nothing if not painfully honest. He wears his heart so openly on his sleeve that his dry cleaner long ago stopped trying to scrub out the crimson stains. For more than a decade, he’s manned the front car of the roller coaster that’s flung the Louisville, Ky., trio through a variety of rewarding and ridiculous moments. There was the time a former drummer quit the day before a tour and they found themselves teaching their then-replacement the set on van seats and headrests en route to Canada. Then, there was the time they were “arrested” for performing and filming an impromptu hometown outdoor gig in 2013.

Balancing out the hair-shirt incidents has been the steady stream of top-notch releases since 2004, as well as the group’s natural progression from rockin’ hardcore/punk band to the measured and melancholic post-punk outfit it is today. Latest full-length Anxiety’s Kiss delivers the most seamless combination of the eras thus far. The shimmery, soot-black twang of Thatcher-era Britannia, Midwest alt-rock melody and fiery D.C. punk are all stitched together with Coliseum calling cards like Patterson’s gruff voice, the steady-as-a-pacemaker rhythm section, and the sense that the band isn’t so much leaving its punk/hardcore tribe behind as pushing the goalposts back.

“While our music has undeniably changed, I don’t think we’ve changed where we are or our place,” says Patterson. “We’ve always been that band able to play with Napalm Death, then go play with Strike Anywhere, or whoever. That’s our biggest asset and biggest drawback, because people really want things to work into a niche, and if you don’t fit into that niche, then they don’t know what to do with you. It’s not about us reaching out into the world, because we’ve never really toured with bands outside of the punk, hardcore or metal world.”

Written with the goal of closing the gap on the usual three years between albums (“This is the only time in 11 years we’ve had the same lineup on consecutive records, and that was part of why I really wanted the three of us to do it right away”), Anxiety’s Kiss oozes with urgency and a shared continuity with 2013’s Sister Faith. It also has Patterson continuing to pour the most delicate and vulnerable sides of himself into the public discourse. From his raw, open-book lyrics to the emotional spigot he yanks out during his legendary between-song banter, he can usually be found introspectively peeling back layers of his fears in a scene/genre where most frontmen are concerned with rebelliously flipping off The Man or demonstrating why you should be fearing them, not yourself.

“Yeah, it has to do with me,” he says of the new album’s title. “I’ve always had anxieties and been a fearful person going back to being a kid. Sister Faith was largely about my wife’s dad and our friend Jason Noble from Shipping News dying, which was my first time dealing with mortality firsthand as an adult. After that happened, things started happening in my psyche that were difficult as a motherfucker to deal with, and I can only assume they were related. There were times of absolute anxiety from the minute I’d wake up to the minute I’d go to sleep. My wife would go to work and I’d be afraid she was going to die on the way. There were fears about things I’ve done a million times before. Like going on tour is as normal to me as brushing my teeth, but things about touring became overwhelming to where I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. So, what do you do? Write songs about it. I’ve always put periods of my life into our records, and that’s one of the things I appreciate about doing this band for so long: being able to put all that stuff into it to get it out there and deal with it.”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Eternal Summers: Gold Standard

EternalSummers

Consistency—and patience—is key to Eternal Summers’ success

Nicole Yun can’t think of many bands in the same situation as her own. Coming up on eight years and four albums together, the members of Eternal Summers still live two minutes apart from one another in a cozy Virginia neighborhood. They practice for free in drummer Daniel Cundiff’s basement twice a week. It gets pretty loud, but his roommates don’t mind.

Cundiff and Yun work part-time jobs at a local food co-op in Roanoke. Bassist Jonathan Woods is able to get by without a job. “I’m not sure how,” laughs Yun. “I think he might be hustling on eBay or something.”

Even when they have downtime, the bandmates still get together and jam on the regular. They challenge one another to find their way through different musical scenarios that may or may not turn into songs. Yun says it teaches them about their instincts and strengthens their psychic/musical connection. They also spend time outdoors, riding bikes, hiking in the woods.

“A lot of times, people feel bad for us,” says Yun. “‘Oh, you guys don’t live in a major city. You guys don’t get those opportunities.’ But I think that there are other benefits that we have. Like wow, same lineup—this is our third album with the same lineup. We’ve grown and really gotten to know each other.”

Cundiff and Yun formed Eternal Summers as a duo in 2008; Woods came on two years later, shortly after the release of their spunky indie-pop debut Silver. Whereas Yun sees many of the band’s peers constantly changing lineups and direction, her group has stayed on a relatively stable path.

“Sure, a guitarist is a guitarist,” she says. “But each one is different. It’s not going to sound the same; you’re not going to have the same communication with (another) person. I take it for granted sometimes, but that is one of the best things about this band.”

In an era driven by digital hype, where artists make a massive splash and burn out just as quickly, Eternal Summers have moved at a decidedly measured pace. They gain new fans on each tour; a run with Nada Surf in 2012 yielded a cadre of followers who now come to their shows with home-baked cookies.

But sometimes it’s a little too slow for Yun’s liking; the shimmering Britpop tones of 2012’s Correct Behavior were followed up last year by The Drop Beneath, a record that was unapologetically angry, aggressive and explosive. The title track alone is a seven-minute noise-rock catharsis of Sonic Youth proportions.

“I don’t think that 2013, when we wrote it, was the best year for us,” says Yun. “We were going through a lot of growing pains as a band, not sure if we were going to be on our label or not. There were personal frustrations, too, realizing, ‘Wow, we’re in our 30s and we’re still struggling at this.’ Or maybe not struggling, but still—there was a lot of self-questioning.”

Enter the new Gold And Stone. The album is a handy cross section of sounds Eternal Summers has explored up to this point, but taken several steps further. The aching “Black Diamond” echoes the moodiness of Drop to devastating effect; the blissed-out “Together Or Alone” soars in its revisit of Behavior’s Lush-with-a-capital-L tones. Elsewhere, there’s brilliant anthem “Come Alive,” featuring Yun’s most daring and confident vocal performance to date.

She says the process of taking stock to write Gold was at times perplexing. “Daniel and I used to write very poppy songs, especially in the beginning,” she says. “I don’t think I’m in the same position to write things like that anymore. But I can go back to those general sentiments and general emotional tones.”

It’s stuff that has resonated with listeners bit by bit since Eternal Summers’ earliest seven-inches. In its review of Drop, AllMusic characterized the trio as “the kind that other bands will look to for inspiration 20 years later.” A bit of a backhanded compliment, and Yun hears it a lot—“Eternal Summers: the most underrated band of the past five years” or “Eternal Summers: why does nobody know about them?”

“Maybe there is just a lot going on in the music world,” she says. “Maybe when things die down and people look at enduring music, they’ll consider us something like that.” She laughs and continues: “It’s kind of this weird combination of a really egotistical thing to say about ourselves and really self-deprecating at the same time.”

But if somebody calls your band underrated, they’re still saying it’s good. Just with a frustrating caveat: You’re good, but nobody knows. Then again, there’s another other benefit to Eternal Summers’ slow burn and creative isolation.

“We had no clue that any of this would happen,” says Yun. “We had no clue that we would ever be on a label or make more than one record. Or make any records. All this stuff was never a guarantee. And now, cool things I dreamt about when I was 12 years old are happening.”

Talk about an ideal situation.

—John Vettese

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Drug For The Modern Age: Kopecky’s Steven Holmes Comes Clean

Kopecky

In a very moving and personal essay, Kopecky guitarist Steven Holmes details how new album Drug For The Modern Age got its title

I have never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve. I prefer to keep it in my pocket or my backpack or maybe under my bed. Vulnerability is often an unnatural and uncomfortable practice, but over the last few years, I’ve learned that it is integral if you truly want to share this life with the people around you—the people that you love the most, the ones that you hold to closest. Kopecky (formerly Kopecky Family Band) has been an enormous part my world for the past eight years. We have grown into adulthood together, and we have seen each other in our best moments while also seeing each other through our worst. During the years we have spent traversing the country together, we’ve made discoveries about life that may have taken decades to learn otherwise. Despite the somewhat ambitious and ambiguous title of our latest collection of songs, Drug For The Modern Age, at the end of the writing and recording process, we realized a common theme resonating throughout the songs. This record was inspired by real life, real stories—walking through the fire, keeping your chin up and letting your guard down when you have no choice to do otherwise. These songs were written through the lens of very personal experiences: finding love and losing it, addiction, illness, familial division, unexpected death … and finding healing in the midst of it all. Drug For The Modern Age is about learning how to get up when you fall down, and leaning on your friends when you are too weak to stand on your own. We each have our own story to tell, and each tale relates uniquely to what drove us forward throughout the writing process.

This particular story is mine.

Late in the summer of 2011, I quit my job to embark on the first legitimate tour of Kopecky’s career. Over one month of unbridled adventure and music and seeing the world! All of my romantic ideas of what “being in a band” was supposed to feel like would soon be destroyed and resurrected simultaneously. Many nights on the road were spent losing track of time, doing our best to find rest in our 15-passenger van; waking in a sweat or drifting in and out of dreams, lulled by the rattle of our humble van and trailer easing down the interstate. Most nights, we found ourselves on a new stage, sort of tearing our chests open for a new crowd of strangers to give them a glimpse of what was inside. Our first tour was an utterly exhilarating and exhausting introduction to life on the road, and I fell deeply in love with all of it. Six weeks sailed by and our maiden voyage ended; headed home, not quite knowing when we would set our sails next. What happened to me—or in me—during the seven-week jaunt changed life in a way that nothing ever has before, and I was blindsided.

A crippling darkness woke me on my first morning back home, sleeping in my own bed. Sunlight washed the bedroom in gold and yellow. I only saw black and gray. Without warning, nothing about life felt the same—nothing about myself felt the same. This room that I rented became both welcomed refuge, yet strange prison. I somehow lost essentially all desire to go anywhere or to talk to anyone. Phone calls were ignored, invitations were declined. I felt infinitely sad, yet had nothing to mourn save for the sadness itself. Time passed. We played more shows, went on more tours; the darkness remained.

As I tried to wriggle away from the awful emptiness that I had fallen prey to, I only found temporary solutions to a problem that I couldn’t work out alone. I made an appointment to see a doctor, desperation outweighing skepticism, and was treated for depression and social anxiety. I left the office with a prescription that was, in theory, going to chase away the rainclouds in my head and turn my black skies to blue. Yet, being honest about my condition and my feelings (Or, perhaps, lack thereof) felt intensely difficult for me, even with the band—the people that I spend the most of my waking and sleeping hours with. However, I was determined to be forthright with them. Transparent. I explained that I had been wrestling with depression for several months, and that I would be taking medication to even-out some sort of chemical imbalance. I told them that I was inexplicably sad, but soon I would be happy again. I told them that I was sad, and inexplicably so. But soon I would be happy again. I would be myself again. I ached so badly to be myself again.

I spent several months on the “take-one-pill-a-day-before-breakfast-and-the-other-pill-only-when-the-storm-is-blowing-in” regimen, only to find myself in a hole that felt oddly similar to the one that I had woken up in on that first fateful morning. The darkness was eerie and familiar, and I felt less like myself than ever before. Perhaps some chemicals had indeed been balanced in my brain, but I don’t believe it was a balance that my brain really needed. In my crazed quest for wellness, I began a self-medication regimen of my own invention. And so began a nearly endless night.

Over the course of nearly two years, I created a destructive, self-perpetuating system that allowed me to escape myself almost entirely, and by the time that I understood that I was in a dangerous place, it was too late. In my efforts to free myself of the sadness I was feeling, I had inadvertently chained myself to it. I was addicted to the consolation and numbness that I had found, and was terrified and the prospect of anyone knowing. What would my friends and family think of me if they found out the state I was in? The stigma that is branded onto situations of addiction or abuse was one that scared me witless. As far as I knew, my struggle was in secret; for some reason, I thought that it had to stay that way—just me and my demons duking it out until somebody had to throw in in the towel. In reality, my struggle had become painfully obvious to the people closest to me—most of all, the rest of the band.

After a long, blurry, and awfully disorienting streak of abuse, a light found me—several strong and loving hands shook me out of my stupor. Early in August 2014, I was pulled out of a downward spiral that could have become my demise. Also, as fate had it, this was also as Kopecky was entering the studio to begin tracking Drug For The Modern Age, the first week of which I was not present for. I spent a much needed time of rehabilitation with my family in South Carolina while the rest of the band began the process of piecing the new record together.

For myself, the first step in finding a source of real healing was the most important one, and it was simply the act of leveling with myself—being cognizant of my situation, and knowing that I didn’t have to live in a shadow of guilt or fear for feeling the way that I did. It is OK to be weak, it is OK to struggle, and it is OK to hurt. It is also OK to mess up, to stumble and, at times, to not feel like getting back up. As I came to terms with this concept, more light began to emerge around me. Human beings are born broken. We all have an Achilles heel, with each heel different from the next. I found myself stepping back from my immediate situation and began to see it next to the conflicts that my bandmates had faced in recent months and years, and that while circumstances vary, there is essentially one solution for all of us in the end: Open up and share the weight. Everyone is hurting. No one can heal alone.

This is not, by any means, an everything-is-great-and-the-world-is-beautiful-so-suck-it-up-and-smile philosophy. There is nothing to be gained pretending that pain doesn’t exist or that we can always skate around the potholes in the road. Life tosses you lemons, and sometimes life tosses you lemon-shaped hand grenades. Drug For The Modern Age isn’t about sweeping the tough issues under the rug—it’s about sweeping them out from under the rug and into the light of day. It’s finding peace in a den of vipers. Struggling to not be smitten by the things that you love but are bad for you/me/humankind. It’s forging through foggy valleys without a compass. Learning to let your guard down, and learning how to keep your chin up. Dancing, even through the sad songs.

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The Weather Station: A Two-Way Street

WeatherStation

The one-woman whirlwind behind the Weather Station learns to take it and dish it out

“You don’t expect to get respect. Then you do, and you’re like, ‘What does this mean?’”

Canadian singer/songwriter Tamara Lindeman, principal member and guiding light for the Weather Station, is on the phone. Loyalty, her debut for North Carolina label Paradise Of Bachelors, has been four years in the making. She is wrestling with the odd nature of indie success and the self-imposed expectations that come with being a perfectionist.

“It was this funny experience where I made this record in a basement with my friends,” says Lindeman, referring to her unexpected 2011 breakout album, All Of It Was Mine. “I didn’t think I was a good songwriter or a good anything, and I wasn’t expecting anything. People were like, ‘This is amazing,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ But then I became very intimidated by it. Why did everybody like that record? I went through the classic thing: why, why, why?”

And while the Daniel Romano-produced All Of It Was Mine was modestly successful (“It’s not like I sold a million records”), its effect on Lindeman was profound.

“I went through a silly phase where I was overthinking everything,” says Lindeman. “I felt like, ‘Ugh, I’m never gonna make another record,’ and maybe I should just stop. Then this thing fell into my lap to make a record.”

This ‘thing’ was a block of time in a mansion-turned-studio outside of Paris with Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas and Robbie Lackritz of Feist. The result, Loyalty, is one of the year’s most stirring and understated folk records, a masterful collection of humble, ethereal and introspective music.

“Really, the main challenge was putting that silliness behind me and recognizing that I just gotta do it and dive in,” says Lindeman. “Then I did it, and it was great. Totally fine.”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Wolf Alice: Cool World

WolfAlice

Wolf Alice shrugs off growing pains, shoots for the moon

As Clint Eastwood once opined, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Londoner Ellie Rowsell learned hers early on, back when she first stepped in front of a crowd at a local singer/songwriter competition—and tanked. “I did one song, but my guitar playing was just incredibly poor at the time,” sighs the tall, angular brunette, kicking back before a recent soundcheck with her much-buzzed-about quartet Wolf Alice. Its scruffy punk-grunge debut, My Love Is Cool, streets this month. “So, I thought, ‘I’ve got to find a guitarist to help me.’ And I didn’t really have the confidence to ask anyone I knew, so I decided to go one of those guitar forums.”

That’s where the then-teenage vocalist found edgy axeman Joff Oddie, who had just moved to her city for college. Choosing the moniker Wolf Alice from an Angela Carter short story, the initially acoustic duo began touring Britain’s “toilet circuit,” sniffs Rowsell, now 22. “Tiny rooms in tiny pubs on open-mic nights, playing to people who are just chatting and drinking,” she says. Again, she recognized her problem and fixed it: “We thought, ‘Maybe if we play louder, people will listen to us,’ so we went electric.” And then added drummer Joel Amey and bassist Theo Ellis, for extra oomph.

Now Rowsell has matured so swiftly, she views with a certain detachment energetic Cool cuts like “Bros,” “Fluffy” and kickoff single “Giant Peach,” a Roald Dahl-inspired celebration of her surreal life in London. “The stuff I wrote from 15 to 19? Well, that’s when your brain is the craziest, the most introverted, so the tiniest thought becomes immense,” she says. “But I feel like I’m changing now, really finding my feet as a songwriter.”

Ultimately, Rowsell proudly accepts her limitations. “I never gave up—I always thought, ‘One day I’m going to get the confidence to do this,’” she says. “I just didn’t get that confidence until I was 20!”

—Tom Lanham

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Dawes: Dawesian Blur

Dawes

Taylor Goldsmith and Dawes learned to trust their instincts

Taylor Goldsmith has experienced slightly rising levels of anxiety with each successive Dawes album since North Hills, the band’s 2009 debut. The goodwill generated by his previous band, Simon Dawes, seemed to naturally carry over to his new project, and yet in some ways, Goldsmith is still waiting for the other shoe to fall.

“Those early years for a band, that definitive time, it’s almost like they can do no wrong or something, and as time goes on, those records are used as a barometer for the new stuff,” says the L.A.-based Goldsmith. “As the band, we’re always happiest with the latest thing, as it should be, but I don’t ever want to get to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is cool, but man, our second record was so much better.’ So, it’s good to hear people like it. It’s the first fourth record we’ve ever made.”

To date, Goldsmith and his Dawes compatriots—drummer/brother Griffin Goldsmith, bassist Wylie Gelber, keyboardist Tay Strathairn—have maintained plenty of forward momentum, a string that remains unbroken with the release of All Your Favorite Bands. As with the first three Dawes albums, All Your Favorite Bands sighs with bittersweet ’70s folk ennui while maintaining a contemporary pop/rock edge. The difference this time out is that the group was determined to make Favorite Bands considerably less mannered and studio-massaged than its predecessors, 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong and 2013’s Stories Don’t End, and perhaps even closer to the ramshackle verve of 2006’s Carnivore, Simon Dawes’ only full-length release.

“It wasn’t a reactionary thing against Stories Don’t End; we love that record and we love playing those songs,” says Goldsmith. “But with every record you make, you learn a little more about when you’re at your best. Despite the joy it was to make Stories Don’t End, there were obstacles that had nothing to do with anything other than us being, in our estimation, relatively inexperienced in the studio.”

All Your Favorite Bands might have turned out very differently if not for the amazing string of life and career experiences that took place in the wake of Stories Don’t End. Their 2014 trip to Rwanda had a profound effect on all of them, as did their opening dates for Bob Dylan (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree), but the most potent wild card in the deck may have been the Goldsmiths’ participation in T Bone Burnett’s New Basement Tapes project, which led Dawes down completely unexpected paths.

“It really opened my eyes to what we could do,” says Goldsmith. “There would be days where we would cut five or six songs a day, and I’d get a nod from Elvis Costello or Marcus Mumford to take a solo, when I didn’t even know if there was going to be one. And right there, I’d have to hit it, and then I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s actually one of my favorite solos I’ve played. Maybe I should stop and think about that.’ Griffin was part of those sessions, too, and the more Dawes talked about it, we realized we’re most comfortable in those spontaneous circumstances where we really have to think on our feet. We finally realized we need to stop being scared to just play together and start trusting ourselves. I can sing this song. I don’t need to get meticulous over some vocal take; I can just sing it with the band. And that’s what we did.”

The other significant factor in the sound and structure of Favorite Bands is the presence of producer David Rawlings, best known as Gillian Welch’s performing/recording partner, but quickly gaining a reputation as a savvy boardsman. Recorded at Rawlings’ Nashville studio, All Your Favorite Bands is a solid document of musicians looking to make some changes, and a producer willing to let them.

“We would play the song four or five times, and he’d be like, ‘Cool, I think we got it, let’s move on,’ and we wouldn’t even listen back,” says Goldsmith. “We didn’t hear any of the songs we recorded until we were seven or eight songs in. So, when it came to editing or picking a certain solo section, that was all Dave. That was really cool for me, because this is how we play, this is what we sound like, so that process of having Dave construct and edit the tapes without us being a part of that helped the experience in a lot of ways.”

—Brian Baker

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R.I.P. Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015)

Our 2007 feature on the jazz legend:

Ornette

Having spent more than five decades challenging convention, changing the shape of jazz and blowing everybody’s minds, 76-year-old Ornette Coleman still isn’t satisfied. By Mitch Myers

There he is, dressed impeccably in a tailor-made suit, holding court at J&R Music World in Lower Manhattan, signing copies of his latest CD for devoted fans. Earlier in the day, he taped a segment for Black Entertainment Television and made an appearance on local public radio station WNYC. There he is again, engaged in a face-to-face listening session with a New York Times reporter and, later, doing an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition.

No, we’re not talking about some veteran rock star or hip hop’s latest mogul/producer. We’re referring to Ornette Coleman, one of the most influential jazz artists to emerge in the last century. And he wants to connect with you—right now.

Read More »

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Jacco Gardner: Behind The Wall Of Sleep

Jacco

Psychedelic pop auteur Jacco Gardner crafts a compelling wakeup call

The video for “Find Yourself,” the first single from Jacco Gardner’s illusory new album, Hypnophobia (Polyvinyl), could easily be misconstrued as anti-drug propaganda. In it, a frizzy-haired teen, apparently in a fit of TCH-induced psychosis, guns down his equally weed-addled likeness in a cloud of smoke. Is it murder? Is it suicide? Is it a horrific hallucination? Whatever the intent, it is a disarming—and disturbing—counterpoint to a catchy, synth-washed baroque pop tune.

And you’ll get no argument from the song’s creator. “When it was finished and I saw it, I was like, ‘This could be one of those educational videos,’” says Gardner. “It seems like I’m warning people, but I’m totally not. I love weed.”

Mixed messages—and mixed realities—are pretty much the norm for the Dutch producer and multi-instrumentalist, who first emerged as a proper solo artist with 2013’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, an admirable stab at finding an otherworldly context for his wide-ranging flights of fancy grounded in old-school technique. “I love pop music,” says Gardner. “I’ve always been fascinated by using common song structures in my own way.”

Recorded at Gardner’s Shadow Shoppe Studio in his hometown of Zwaag, Hypnophobia conveniently conjoins his techie obsessions with a collector’s passion for vintage instrumentation—Wurlitzer, mellotron, harpsichord, Optigan, even a Steinway upright piano from a local church. The result is sort of akin to what it might sound like if Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker had embraced Syd Barrett, as opposed to John Lennon.

“The dad of a good friend of mine showed me Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd and Soft Machine,” says Gardner. “Before that, I’d heard some records my parents owned—Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Peter, Paul & Mary—very structured, kind of square stuff that also was really beautiful.”

As for the title of the new album, hypnophobia—or an irrational fear of sleep—is an actual condition with which Gardner has had a few run-ins. “I’ve experienced it about five times, first when I was flying back to Europe from the United States,” says Gardner. “It’s kind of like getting stuck between a state of unconsciousness and consciousness—reality and a dream world—and being a little too aware of it happening. I looked it up and discovered that there’s actually a name for it. You get to the point where you’re aware of the things that you lose control over, which is a very scary thing.”

Scary, as in blowing away a dude that looks an awful lot like the guy pulling the trigger? “That was mostly the director (Bear Damen),” says Gardner, in his continued defense of the “Find Yourself” video’s macabre themes. “He had this idea of filming it in the mountains of Belgium. I played this phantom in a yellow car, and there was lot of waiting involved. It was super-cold, with all this ice and snow. The way it turned out, I really like it, because it has this cinematic vibe, and that’s basically what the new album seems to have. But initially, I thought the concept was way too badass. I’m not that tough.”

—Hobart Rowland

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The Damnwells: To Hell And Back

Damnwells

The Damnwells take a licking, but keep on kicking

Alex Dezen must possess a pretty twisted sense of humor. Otherwise, he might be in a pretty sorry state by now. “It’s a really weird time to be in a band,” says the Damnwells’ unflappable chief, phoning from a video shoot for the band’s new single, “Lost.” “People aren’t buying records anymore, and they haven’t been for a while. They’re still consuming music in large quantities, but how to make money off that is kind of a mystery. A video spreads the word about us, and hopefully someone will stumble on it and become a fan. But that’s sort of like panning for gold.”

Dezen’s realist take on the industry is certainly justified, given the intermittent shit storm he’s weathered to get his Brooklyn-based band’s music out there. More surprising is the fact that he’s not bitter—that his realism is laced with measured optimism and an appreciation for the process. After all, there are far worse occupations than being a working musician, and there’s always the chance you’ll hit on a stray nugget to sustain you here and there. “When no one’s watching, that’s when people make the most brilliant shit,” he says.

The Damnwells’ latest album (on Rock Ridge Music) is self-titled for a good reason: It’s the first to include the original quartet since 2006. That was the year Epic dropped the band after a hellish 18 months of two-faced A&R nonsense, endless remixes and postponed release dates—much of it captured in excruciating, sometimes hilarious detail in award-winning 2007 documentary Golden Days.

Air Stereo, the album that finally saw release in 2006 on Rounder, is a solid slab of streamlined roots rock that belies its tortured evolution. “We spent so much time chasing other bands around and opening for other acts, and getting dropped from this label and picked up by that one,” says Dezen in a vague reference to the Fray, the group Epic decided to push over the Damnwells. “Every 20-year-old has his head so far up his ass that he doesn’t know what going on around him, and I definitely fell victim to that. That made for strained relationships in the band.”

Dezen saw the new album as a way to make things right. “I wanted to apologize in some way,” he says. “I wanted to get back to that place that’s new and exciting and beautiful, really—where it was just the four of us hanging out, without that sort of sad underlying tone.”

Apparently, it worked. On The Damnwells, the chemistry remains fully charged between Dezen, guitarist David Chernis, bassist Ted Hudson and drummer Steve Terry. Recorded at Texas Treefort Studio in Austin with producer Salim Nourallah (Old 97’s), its 11 tracks ooze a relentless swagger born of perseverance. The album might even be considered a continuation of the work the band started on Air Stereo—albeit with lyrics from a 37-year-old divorcé staring at the access door to middle age and unwilling to go quietly. “Baby, they took all my money and all my shiny things, but not my drugs,” sings Dezen on taut leadoff track “Money And Shiny Things.”

It’s not like Dezen has been homeless since the Epic debacle. He’s spent some highly productive years writing and co-writing songs for other artists—credits that include Justin Bieber (number-one hit “Take You”), the Dixie Chicks, Dave Grohl, Gary Louris, Kelly Clarkson and others. Two of the stronger tracks on the new album are collaborations. He teamed with Charlie Peacock (Civil Wars, Switchfoot) for the sinister, self-deprecating “Wreck You,” and co-wrote the strummy, upbeat “Heavy Heart” with Eric Rosse (Tori Amos, Sara Bareilles).

“I still spend my days writing songs for other people when I’m at home,” says Dezen. “But I guess I’m still too stupid to know what’s good for me. I walked away from music for two years when I went to grad school in Iowa from 2008 to 2010. But every time I think about just writing songs for a living, that’s when I feel icky.”

More recently, Dezen has had a spilt with his wife to keep him occupied. “Money really doesn’t interest me anymore,” he says. “After going through a divorce and basically being bankrupt because of that, I can’t put any value on it.”

And, no, that isn’t his baby on the cover of the new album. Dezen doesn’t have kids. “Not that I know of,” he quips.

Funny guy.

—Hobart Rowland

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Florence + The Machine: Bigger Is Better

Florence

Florence + The Machine’s third album opens up and shuts down simultaneously

How big? That’s a good question for Florence Welch, as she readies the release of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the third Florence + The Machine album.

“I just really like big sounds,” she says. “I’m attracted to extremes. That feeling of being overwhelmed is really appealing to me in music.”

Welch started big on the first Florence + The Machine album, 2009’s Lungs. Her bold voice powered dramatic songs such “Dog Days Are Over” and “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” and the LP became an international hit. Lungs’ success validated Welch’s approach, and 2011’s Ceremonials followed suit, adding even more orchestration and massed vocals.

“When it came to Ceremonials, because Lungs had been successful, I was like, ‘Cool, people like this big sound, I get to do it as much as I want,’” she says. “It’s just loving being able to indulge in that maximalism, to love those big sounds,” she says.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful contains its share of grand tracks (“Ship To Wreck” soars), but amid the strings and horns and Welch’s powerhouse vocals, the album pulls back, a little, from that maximalist approach.

“I think with this record, since we had done this big, gigantic wall of sound, it was important to me that we just didn’t do that again,” says Welch. “I think that came down to creating some space and allowing the music to breathe a bit, and really concentrating on the album having a sense of warmth and more organic feeling.”

That organic feeling comes through on earnest ballad “St. Jude,” which finds Welch confessing, “Maybe I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos.” It’s also present on the introspective “Various Storms And Saints,” a song Welch almost pulled from the record because of its naked honesty.

“I love to hide behind metaphors, my vocals and production; I’ll do anything to hide my voice, because it makes me feel so exposed,” says Welch, contrasting her emphatic singing vocals with her writing voice, which usually veils personal details. “Various Storms And Saints,” however, drops those veils and pares the production to strings, an electric guitar and a choir of backing vocals. (In Welch’s world, that’s minimal.)

“The content is really bare, really emotional,” says Welch. “It was kind of a pep talk to myself about feeling a bit heartbroken. There’s this letter that I read by Frida Kahlo on heartbreak; it’s kind of a manifesto on what you should do. I was trying to give myself a manifesto on how I should be, and that was kind of the song. When the record was done, I was like, ‘I don’t want people to hear this! It’s too scary.’ I nearly took it off, but I’m glad I didn’t.”

It may seem paradoxical to find an artist as anthemic and forceful as Welch—one who values outsized emotions and broad, communal responses—worried about feeling exposed, but she doesn’t see it that way. “It’s hiding in plain sight, you know what I mean?” she says. “It’s making the biggest noise ever to disguise yourself. It gives you armor. The bigger sound is more protection.”

Welch is talking on the eve of the first weekend of Coachella, where her band would debut songs from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful before an audience of tens of thousands. The Los Angeles Times hailed the performance as one of the weekend’s best, but the night would leave Welch with a broken foot, injured when she jumped offstage during the last song of the set. She would perform the second weekend’s set seated and be sidelined for six to eight weeks.

How Big follows a voluntary hiatus from touring. After being on the road for most of five years for Lungs and Ceremonials and living out of a suitcase in her parents’ house when she wasn’t, Welch needed a break.

“When you’re touring all the time,” she says, “you never have any time to reflect on how your life’s changed, or who you are, or how you deal with relationships, or how you deal with your own life. It was almost like a bit of a crash landing. I moved out on my own, and I had to face some of my demons. I lived in L.A. for a bit as well, and I think that opened up the sound of the record some, being in that big blue sky a lot.”

Still, that opening and space, however blue and beautiful, is relative, and although the plan was to pare back more for this album, the results are still big.

“I always talk about me being more minimalist, and it doesn’t work out that way,” Welch says, laughing.

—Steve Klinge

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