Category Archives: FEATURES

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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Exclusive Excerpt: Best Coast Interviewed By Paramore’s Hayley Williams

BestCoast

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

Go big or go home. With the new California Nights, Best Coast definitely chose the former. The duo’s third album is by far the most mature, arena-ready and, well, big record of its career. MAGNET asked Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams to interview Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno for us.

I first heard about Best Coast the same way I find out about most of my more recent favorite bands: my boyfriend/fiancé Chad (Gilbert, New Found Glory). He came home from one of their shows at the Troubadour—this was in, like, 2009 or 2010—raving about their sound and the songs they played. He said, “I hung out with them for a bit, and I think you and the singer would get along really well.”

It wasn’t until early 2012, when I moved to L.A. to record with my band, that Beth and I exchanged numbers and would text each other nonstop about music, what we were writing, how much we love food and stuff like essential oil remedies! It became somewhat of a joke between my band about how often I would be like, “Oh, my friend Beth from Best Coast!” They’d be like, “Wait, Hayley, what band is she from again? We forgot.” Ha! But having a friend in another band who gets the lifestyle, who understands being in a band with men, and who is just a woman who knows what she likes was so cool for me. It still is. Especially when either of us ever slow down enough to actually hang out.

I’ve been lucky enough to have followed Beth and Bobb from their first release until now. It’s an honor to witness any band’s growth. I’m not a fair-weather fan. Maybe it’s because of what I do, but it’s still fascinating to me to see how a band evolves and how they weather the inevitable storms of this kind of life. Their songs read like a diary of Beth’s life, and their music continues to become more nuanced in all the ways I could’ve ever hoped. I could not be prouder to know these people in real life.

As I write this, “California Nights” just came on SiriusXMU in the car. (I’m not driving! I’m riding passenger!) What’s crazier is that I’m listening to the college station—I’m not even cool enough to listen to half of this stuff.

Anyway, I gotta go. Probably going to roll my window down and tell some folks that my friend Beth from Best Coast is on the radio. —Hayley Williams, Paramore

Hayley Williams: How are you? How are you guys doing?
Bethany Cosentino: I tried to work out this morning. I went to the gym, and it didn’t really last very long. Now I’m just sitting at the juice bar where my sister works and hanging out, waiting to talk to you guys.
Bobb Bruno: Fun.
Cosentino: Is this the first time that we’ve talked on the phone as friends?

Williams: I think this is the first time we’ve talked on the phone.
Cosentino: Way to go us. How long have we been friends, and our first phone interaction is a recorded conversation. [Laughs]

Williams: Are you guys doing tons of press today for the record? I saw your press sheet, and it looked pretty stacked.
Cosentino: Yeah, we’ve been pretty busy. Bobb doesn’t have to do … Bobb is wearing an antler right now, for some reason … Bobb doesn’t have to do as much stuff as me. He’s more of a “relaxing dude.” But today is sort of our together day—which we do often. But I’ve been doing a lot of stuff on my own this week, so it’s kind of cool to be with Bobb and hang out and get to do stuff together. It’s so much more fun when you’re not doing it by yourself. I don’t even consider this an interview because I’m just talking to you guys—it’s just hanging out.

Williams: Yeah, it’s a phone hangout. It’s sort of that three-way Mean Girls thing right now, like, “Is he listening or is he not listening? Can we talk about him? Is he there?”
Cosentino: Bobb, who do you think you relate to the most in Mean Girls?
Bruno: Uhhh …
Cosentino: Lindsay Lohan?
Bruno: Yeah.
Cosentino: You’re Lohan in all situations. So, we’ve just kind of been really busy people. I’ve just been texting you saying, “Oh my god, I forgot how crazy it is to set up a record.” We were at South By Southwest for a week, kind of having a crazy amount of stuff going on, playing tons of shows. And then the record actually comes out. Which is insane because I remember when we found out this record was coming out in May, and we were like, “Wow, that’s like so long!” And now it’s almost here.

Williams: Yeah, I feel like you and I have been talking for a long time about what you wanted out of this next era of the band, and you were really scared about it. It feels like it was almost a year ago, you were like, “I have no idea what’s gonna happen.” And now here we are. I’ve been listening to the record as much as I can for the past two days since you sent it to me, and it’s so good. I knew when you told me some of the things that you had said, I was like, “This is gonna be really good.” Because I feel like all of that tension and pressure, that’s what happens before the best stuff.
Cosentino: Part of the reason why I wanted to talk to you particularly for this thing is because I remember when you were making the self-titled record, and you were so excited to be doing pretty much exactly what you wanted to be doing. And I feel like when Bobb and I were making this record, it very much felt like the first time we felt at ease in terms of making a record. We just kind of went in and knew what we wanted to do, and did not hold back. This morning, Bobb said, “We’re doing this thing on May 2—that’s kind of like a fun day for our fans.” It’s a hangout with us before our record comes out. They’re gonna sell some records that influenced this record. And Bobb gives me this list and it ranges from like the Sea And Cake to, like, Gwen Stefani to Coheed & Cambria—which I never knew was an influence for this record until I saw the list.
Bruno: Yeah, I listened to Coheed driving to the studio every day.
Cosentino: When I wasn’t in the car with you.
Bruno: Yeah.
Cosentino: We just sort of played with this record and explored different territory as far as our influences go because I feel like we kind of got boxed into this weird sort of genre. People were kind of like, “They’re this sort of band,” and we were sort of like, “Are we?” It just sort of happens. And sometimes you go with it and sometimes you’re like, “I’m gonna totally fight against it.” When we made this record, we were just sort of like, “OK, we’re just gonna honestly explore any sort of thing that is influencing us and not be afraid if it makes us look cool or not cool. Like, we’re gonna talk about Sugar Ray and not be embarrassed about it at all, because you should always own what you’re into.”

Williams: I totally agree with that. I don’t know why it takes so long to get that. I know I was in the same headspace when the self-titled came out, and I was thinking that there were a few boxes that my band was really stuck in. Not because we put ourselves there. It’s funny how people’s perceptions of what you are have everything to do with all these filtered and watered-down reviews and articles, and then like one- or two-second things they might see on the internet. And you can’t help it. So, I don’t know if that sort of made you weirdly aware of parts of yourself that you were like, “Now I don’t want to do that.” It really made me hyper-aware of everything, and I was afraid to examine it for a while. And I was afraid to own those things. So, it’s amazing, because I know that feeling you’re talking about, of I don’t care, and I really love listening to the first Britney Spears record and then going and screaming into a mic. These things matter. Coheed & Cambria matter to your album because it just did, and that’s what you like listening to on the way to the studio. Listening to this record, I never would have thought that, but it never would have turned out the same had you not listened to those records you listened to on the way to the studio.
Cosentino: I totally agree with what you’re saying in terms of making you kind of weirdly hyper-aware of these things. Because I feel like, when I was writing stuff for this record, I was trying not to overthink. The thing we’ve been saying with this record is that we’ve been trying not to overthink it. I think up until making the record, we were definitely thinking a lot. And then in terms of like actually going in to make the record, we were like, “OK, let’s just stop thinking and just start going with what feels natural and what feels right to us.” And Wally (Gagel), the producer that we worked with, he’s a friend of ours, but also he’s a producer that we really respect and like because he has done stuff—he’s worked with like Jessica Simpson and Miley Cyrus and then …
Bruno: Superchunk.
Cosentino: Yeah, and he’s worked with everything from this crazy super-pop stuff to a lot of kind of ’90s alternative stuff that really heavily influenced us for this record. So, we felt like we were in the hands of the right person. This is the first time we’ve ever made a record where we went into the studio prior to making it and went through the songs with our producer, which is really weird to me since we’ve never done that before. Because we did it and we were like, “Whoa, this makes stuff so much easier when you already know what you’re gonna do.”
Bruno: Well, I think part of it was just … maybe we didn’t feel like we had time.
Cosentino: That’s another thing, too. We just had a lot of time to really plan this record and work on it. We weren’t signed to a label at the time that we were making it, so it was very much like we could truly do whatever we wanted to do. And nobody was coming in like, “Hey, we gotta get that thing going.”

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Ride: Leaving Them All Behind

Ride

Shoegaze stalwart Ride reunites for reissues, but is new music on the way?

Some bands handle breakups differently. When legendary shoegaze combo Ride splintered back in 1996, after a lackluster, barely released fourth album called Tarantula, its key members—singers/guitarists Andy Bell and Mark Gardener—dealt with it in two distinctly unique ways. Like a cat, Bell landed on his feet, immediately forming Hurricane #1 with singer Alex Lowe, then switching to bass to join Britpop legend Oasis, and finally following that supergroup’s frontman Liam Gallagher into his recent spin-off, Beady Eye.

“I do feel like a very lucky man, and I do appreciate the life I’ve had,” says Bell, who has returned to guitar for a newly reunited Ride, now touring behind a deluxe Rhino reissue of its classic 1990 debut Nowhere (and greatest-hits comp OX4). “There aren’t many people that have had this long a time in music, and in so many great bands.”

Gardener, on the other hand, nearly disappeared from the English music scene altogether. After launching a short-lived outfit called the Animalhouse with Ride drummer Loz Colbert, he wound up moving to rural France, where he spent several farm-based years working construction, and restoring rickety centuries-old barns for modern use.

“And I also cleared land—I cleared orchards of stinging nettles, scything them down to reveal the land,” Gardener says of his time away. “I spent a lot of time digging holes and pouring foundations and things like that, so there were a few moments where I did sort of think, ‘What happened? Where did it all go wrong?’ But it was a yin/yang rebalancing after Ride—the medieval wilds of France was just what the doctor ordered.”

One spin through Nowhere can clarify Ride’s legacy, in cascading, velvet-textured classics like “Seagull,” “Polar Bear,” “Vapour Trail” and “Dreams Burn Down.” In its prime, the quartet had a more majestic vision (and panoramic soundscape) than many of its more droning peers in the reflective shoegaze movement, such as Slowdive, Chapterhouse and My Bloody Valentine—all of whom have recently reformed, a fact both Bell and Gardener noted with keen interest. There was no specific incident that triggered their schism; no bad blood, either. They’ve stayed in touch over the years, and taken yearly meetings with their old manager to oversee their catalog sales and merchandising.

“People were still buying T-shirts and reissues—they were still interested in this whole thing,” says Bell. “But nostalgia is quite a big business, isn’t it?”

Last year, however, there were some incredibly serious tour offers on the table. Gardener could feel it was time to put past differences aside and at least start to rehearse again. “I started to think, ‘Well, actually, it still feels like there’s some electricity in that cloud!’” he says. “And I also started to feel that there would be no peace of mind for the rest of my life with unfinished Ride business, really. And with the general public, that noise was getting louder and louder—‘You’ve got to play again! We were too young! We never saw you!’ So, I had a good chat with Andy, who was still doing Beady Eye at the time. So, it was bit by bit.”

Bell felt the warm vibe, too, so he broached the idea of an exploratory two-week Ride jaunt with Gallagher and his other BE bandmates. They encouraged him, told him to go for it. Then Beady Eye broke up, leaving its bassist a free agent. All of which looked great on paper. But could the Ride members still tap into that Nowhere magic?

“To figure out how to play together again, from my point of view, we had to jam around a lot and not play the actual songs,” says Bell. “So, the first time we played together again was not like, ‘Yeah! Let’s play (early track) “Chelsea Girl!”’ It was more like, ‘Right. Let’s just plug in and play some stuff, just to figure out if we still have it.’”

Now, both musicians are overjoyed at the momentum their return is gathering. And they’ve been bouncing new song ideas around, as well, although they refuse to officially go on record about a comeback album. They don’t want to jinx it. “You can rehearse all the songs so it sounds just like the record,” says Bell. “But you also have to bring something else in. You can’t just repeat—you have to adapt. So, there have to be moments when you just … you just levitate a little bit.”

—Tom Lanham

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Mikal Cronin: Cronin Burg

MikalCronin

The third time is charmingly confounding for garage-rocking storyteller Mikal Cronin

“Every record I’ve made, there’s a point when I’m listening to the demos when I completely freak out and ask my friends, ‘Does this all make sense?’” So says Mikal Cronin, who’s now on his third solo collection, MCIII.

Cronin’s a pal of fellow Californian Ty Segall—he was on a European tour with the prolific rocker when he grew the beard that he sports on the cover of the new album, although he’s since shaved it off and cut off most of his hair. MCIII casts a wider net than either of his previous albums; while it still has plenty of the scruffy garage rock and blissful power pop that made 2013’s MCII such a gem, many of its songs weave in grand orchestral textures among the brash guitars, and the second half is a six-part set of tracks that form a connected narrative. Dare we call it a concept record?

“I like the idea of concept records and song arcs that have a bigger story,” says Cronin. “But at the same time, it seemed like the first instinct with a concept or story is to come up with something fictional or fantastical.” Rather than go the route of, oh, Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and make up a story, Cronin turned to his own life, as he does in all his songs.

“Just the way my songwriting has been the last two records, I want to keep it personal and honest and write about my own experiences,” he says. “So, I went back to a part of my life about 10 years ago, which, in retrospect, turned out to be an important coming-of-age moment and influential in what I do now. It was a very difficult time to get through, and very confusing to me. But in retrospect, it set me down the path that I am still pursuing today. It’s like an autobiographical short story.”

The coming-of-age story arc that follows from “i) Alone” to “ii) Gold” to “iii) Control” to “iv) Ready” to “v) Different” to “vi) Circle” is there for the listener to decode. The music ranges widely—it’s kinda like listening to an ambitious and grand Guided By Voices album, with strings—and the songs certainly work separately. The revved-up, cacophonous “ii) Gold” was an advance single.

Cronin put his college music degree to work when he decided he wanted to write parts for strings and horns for this album. Although he had used an isolated violin or French horn on previous records, the broader orchestration is something new.

“It’s always been really interesting to me to add those elements to my music, and increasingly so,” he says. “The string arrangements and horns in there, I technically wouldn’t have been able to do years ago when I was doing the first records. It was a push and struggle for me to learn how to best write for those instruments. You kind of have to revamp everything else to fit around them.”

He wasn’t hearing lush, ’60s orch-pop or Beach Boys-style teenage symphonies. He still wanted the hard-rock guitars and garage-rock riffs, and he struggled to find the right ratios.

“I personally haven’t heard a lot of models of that, at least in the music I listen to,” he says. “Just finding that specific balance of what I wanted to do, kind of heavy guitar and bass with strings—I’m sure there is, but I was going kind of blind.”

Cronin plays most of the instruments himself on the record, but he wrote charts for the string and horn players. “They’re not the most intricate, crazy arrangements with those instruments,” he says. The orchestration bolsters the joyful hooks of “Made My Mind Up,” which Cronin likens to early Tom Petty; it thickens the feedback-laced finale of “Say”; a somber cello sweetens the acoustic ballad “I’ve Been Loved.” But it’s understandable that Cronin worried about it all hanging together.

“I find my musical taste mixes a lot,” he says. “I listen to a Cheap Trick record immediately followed by a Black Sabbath record, then, oh, Kate Bush. When I started making music under my own name, I had that initial need to figure out what direction I was going to approach it from. I played in tons of different kinds of bands: more straight garage, surfy punk, and punk, and weird proggy bands, and I wrote songs acoustically and wrote soundtracks and shit. I wanted to find a way to mix everything in a kind of congruent way. That’s always been important to me. I feel it’s getting more extreme on every record. The harder moments and the softer moments on this one are a lot farther apart than anything on my first record.”

Cronin needn’t worry about it all making sense, however. MCIII cuts a wide path, but it’s not schizophrenic. It’s a great listen, start to finish.

“For better or for worse, I want to throw everything into a blender,” he says. “I have to remember that it all holds together just because it’s my experience and me writing it.”

—Steve Klinge

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Paul Weller: The Ace Face

PaulWeller

Paul Weller’s creative resurgence rides on

While he remains, at best, a cult hero on this side of the pond, back home in Britain, Paul Weller has achieved near mythic status. He’s the Modfather, the man who gained cultural and chart domination with the Jam, only to disband the group at its commercial peak. Then, in a career move that, at the time, seemed almost willfully perverse, he set sail with the Style Council, apparently hell-bent on alienating a sizeable core of his (largely straight and very male) audience, flirting with Galoises-scented Gallic chic, jazz-funk-flavored Socialist agit-pop and some unintentionally comic, homoerotic videos.

Not satisfied with actively traumatizing many of his loyal followers, he then decides to reinvent the group as Acid House adventurers (about three years too early), and is unceremoniously dumped by the record company, only to reemerge as the blue-eyed soul revivalist who goes on to attain utter chart domination once more, becoming a figure so ubiquitous as to become part of the furniture. To the extent that he’s become that most British of institutions: a “national treasure,” a dubious accolade usually afforded to the likes of elderly politicians, aging soap stars and sundry veterans of light entertainment. Not that he’d thank you for it …

“Do I feel like what?” he splutters down the line from London. “Do I feel like a national treasure? Nah, fuck that, man. It just makes me realize how fuckin’ old I am, d’youknowwhatImean?”

He’s here to talk about his new album, the thoroughly splendid Saturn’s Pattern. As befits Weller’s more recent work, it’s a restless, eclectic record that pushes out in multiple directions at once, never content to settle into one well-worn groove. It’s a big, bold, brassy effort, all needle-in-the-red production, with demented gonzoid blues, sinewy Meters-style funk, filthy Stooges-style riffs, kaleidoscopic soul, lysergic-drenched jazz and all points in between. It is, in short, a long way from the myopic “dad rock” that he patented back in the mid-’90s, a formula that lead to huge commercial success, but ultimately diminishing artistic returns.

It will be interesting to see how his legions of middle-aged Fred Perry-clad fans deal with this latest creative U-turn. That said, Saturn’s Pattern seems very much in keeping with Weller’s last three willfully eclectic, critically lauded albums: Sonik Kicks, Wake Up The Nation and 22 Dreams. It would appear he’s gone through some creative midlife crisis that, conversely, has poured forth some of the best music of his lengthy career. It’s a creative purple patch that seems to show no signs of slowing down.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “I suppose it is. Why? I dunno, I never really question why those things are—they just are. I think what it is, right, is that I made 22 Dreams a few years back, and it made me get into more experimental recording and writing methods. It just made me readjust everything and change it up, if only to make everything more interesting for me, really. So, maybe that has a lot to do with it, but I try not to question it too much, man. I just pick up the ball and run with it as much as I can, ’cause you don’t really know what’s going to happen or how long it’s going to last.”

What remains so heartening about Saturn’s Pattern and Weller’s creative resurgence is that it seems to have heralded the return of the adventurous Weller of old, the restlessly creative contrarian, as opposed to the dull-yet-worthy craftsman—the Weller who had no apparent qualms about alienating fellow musicians or fans, whether it was disbanding the Jam or heading off on a tangent with the Style Council.

“Well, you’re always going to upset someone, ain’t you?” he says. “Whatever changes or moves you make in life, I’m bound to rub someone up the wrong way. But I’ve got to remain true to myself. I don’t go out of my way to alienate people, but people have to be prepared to dig in and go with it, and some do and some don’t, and it’s as simple as that.”

An admirable sentiment, and one that’s made all the more important by the fact that Weller’s reached the stage of his career where he could have gone on simply banging out albums-by-rote, safe in the knowledge that his rabid fan base would eagerly lap up any old product. And he could, like so many of his contemporaries, keep on touring the hits. He realizes there’s a considerable chunk of his audience who’d love nothing better than for him to do than play, say, Sound Affects in its entirety. But it’s a notion that leaves Weller at best cold, if not faintly appalled.

“I could do that, yeah,” he snaps, “and it would be easy, too. But I won’t, ’cause it doesn’t interest me; it would kill any enthusiasm stone dead. There would be no challenge, there would be no sense of being relative or contemporary, and that’s important to me. I don’t want to turn into some nostalgia act—that wouldn’t interest me in the slightest. I mean, other people do it and fair play to them, but I don’t fuckin’ care about it. I’m only ever interested in what I’m doing in the here and now.”

—Neil Ferguson

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Mac McCaughan: Ready To Start

MacMcCaughan

Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan finally releases his first record under his own name

Echoes of the 1980s permeate Non-Believers (Merge), Mac McCaughan’s first LP under his own name, particularly the gauzy, Cocteau Twins-like guitar swirl of “Real Darkness” and the sugary synth-pop of “Wet Leaves.” The Superchunk frontman wanted to emulate that era’s sounds, as well as create a pseudo-concept album about “a couple of social misfits navigating the waters of high school through music.”

“I was mainly thinking about people who don’t feel like they fit in with where the mainstream is going,” says McCaughan. “Not necessarily rebels—that would be a little too aggressive for the people I’m thinking of. ‘Hologram,’ the first song, is set in the present looking back, but is also set in the early ’80s. That song and ‘Come Upstairs,’ the last song, are kind of bookends about retreating into music, both listening to it and making it.”

Cobbled together in his Chapel Hill, N.C., basement studio, which he described as “one room, plus a closet full of crap,” starting early last year, Non-Believers is arguably the best effort of McCaughan’s solo career—one, under the Portastatic moniker, that dates back to 1993’s I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle. Asked the painfully obvious question—why is Non-Believers not a Portastatic record?—McCaughan, Merge co-owner, put on his businessman cap.

“There’s not a Portastatic album that I’m not happy with, but there was a feeling of diminishing returns in terms of the name itself,” says McCaughan. “In the crassest terms, it’s not like putting the name Portastatic on a record meant selling more records than my own name, despite the history.”

Another theme running through Non-Believers is the attraction that young people have to willfully being scared. Stunning centerpiece “Real Darkness” features the haunting refrain, “Smile, kids, smile until you know a real darkness.” Not meant to be hopeful or bleak, McCaughan, the father of two, said the line refers to acknowledging that a child’s thoughts and fears mean something.

“We’ve all heard it and maybe said it ourselves—telling a kid to cheer up or get over something that’s bothering them,” he says. “I overheard someone say, ‘Wait ’til they grow up and know real darkness.’ It was said tongue in cheek, but they kind of meant it. So, that song is more about trying to respect whatever darkness it is that kids have in them—or see in the world—for being real since it’s real to them.”

Non-Believers’ occasionally gloomy tone brings to mind “You Blanks” (from 2006’s Be Still Please), on which McCaughan mused, “All my songs used to end the same way/Everything’s going to be OK.” Personally and professionally, McCaughan straddles the line between being an optimist and pessimist; he no longer calls himself the former and embraces the latter role in his art—to a point.

“‘You Blanks’ was from a time when we’d started two never-ending wars and the people in charge were just craven, amoral assholes,” says McCaughan. “Most of what they started is still happening, or worse, but like most terrible situations, you can get used to a lot and you go on regardless. I don’t know if the nature of my songs has changed since, but there’s only so long you can dwell on how fucked up people in power are, because you could write about that forever, and it’d be boring as hell after a while. It’s better to look at the smaller details around you and try to find something positive to focus on now and then.”

—Matt Hickey

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Spirit Family Reunion: Secular Spirituals

SpiritFamilyReunion

Spirit Family Reunion throws away the gospel and bluegrass rulebooks

When the folks in Spirit Family Reunion raise their voices in song, they deliver an inspiring message. Their mostly acoustic approach combines elements of rock with hints of bluegrass and country music. They have a feel that approaches the fervent emotions of gospel music, but their messages stay grounded in the secular world. The title of their debut, Hands Together, suggests both praying and applause, a contradiction they enjoy.

“I love gospel music, but I can’t sing those words genuinely,” says guitarist and songwriter Nick Panken. “I relate to the sentiments in gospel music, so we made our own version of it. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the faith he got from religion and delivered it to us in a way that made it a human message anyone could relate to. The sentiments in gospel music can reach beyond the range of people who go to church.”

Stephen Weinheimer, the band’s washboard player, agrees. “Gospel is powerful because gospel singers have the passion of unwavering belief,” he says. “Gospel is amazing music. I think we have a similar passion, but without the God part.”

The music on Hands Together is folky Americana, but with a unique sound. Maggie Carson’s banjo fills the space usually occupied by a lead guitar, giving the music an old-time feel, despite subtle touches from amplified instruments. “Maggie has her own style of banjo,” says Panken. “We think she sounds more like Keith Richards than anyone else. As we developed our sound, we thought, ‘We’ll give the lead to whoever sounds most like Keef.’ I’ve always felt like we’re a little more country than bluegrass, because we don’t play that precisely. We like traditional bluegrass that follows the rules, but we don’t. We tend to be a little bit sloppy, a little more all over the place.”

—j. poet

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Sam Prekop: The Exhibitionist

SamPrekop

Sam Prekop lends his affection for synthesizers to the gallery crowd

In his work in the Sea And Cake—and a long time ago in Shrimp Boat—Sam Prekop has crafted sophisticated and knowing songs. Although the Sea And Cake grew out of the post-rock movement in Chicago, where Prekop still lives, it has leaned more toward subtle songs of lively restraint, guided by Prekop’s guitar and vocals. But his fourth solo album, The Republic, is a different tangle of wires: It’s an instrumental synth record full of drones, tones and reveries.

The first half of the LP is music Prekop composed to accompany a film by David Hartt for a multimedia gallery installation. “The piece itself is black and white, and a lot of the footage is between Athens, Greece, and Detroit,” says Prekop. “Conceptually, I can’t say I’m up on every detail, but it’s pretty much about the roots of city planning and a whole lot of stuff.”

The tracks on the second half of the album are “more song-oriented, less cue-based, although the tools are the same,” he says. Those tools? Mostly a modular synthesizer, which patches together oscillators, limiters, filters and sequencers in variable configurations. It’s a technology that goes back to the Moog synthesizers of the ’60s, although Prekop also employs digital components. The process is both “addictive” and “frustrating,” he says. “A lot of the work I do is just setting up situations where something good might happen, and then hopefully I recognize it when it does.”

At times, as on “The Loom” or “A Geometric,” moments recall the intricate minimalism of Philip Glass, Steve Reich or Terry Riley.

“I’ve had a longtime interest in that sort of music, but it’s only recently that I’ve embraced that influence,” says Prekop. “Of course, I’ve always been interested in African music and Javanese, and a lot of Steve Reich stuff comes out of being influenced by that. It’s an interest in patterns, and using a modular synthesizer with sequencers and all that stuff really lends itself to that. On my last synthesizer record, (2010’s) Old Punch Card, I deliberately tried to dodge that sort of regular rhythm and patterns; it was much more cut-and-paste, musique concrète and angular trajectory. But on this record, I just let all that kind of stuff come through.”

The Republic is a headphones record, full of tiny, incremental details. The nine segments that form the 17 minutes of “The Republic” melt and meld and mutate. The subsequent six tracks are more discrete and melody-forward. But this isn’t pop: “Weather Vane” is the rare track that uses a discernible rhythm track.

“I feel there’s a lot going on that’s not going to beat you over the head—a lot of the strengths are in micro-sound details and stuff like that,” says Prekop. “I definitely don’t feel like it’s for everybody, that’s for sure. It’s going to take a sort of pre-interest in this sort of thing to really get into it. But in comparison to Old Punch Card, I think my sensibility is more exposed. If you’re familiar with the Sea And Cake, you can hear a lot of melodic sensibility as a bridge between the two. I think it’s not a terribly difficult listen.”

For his part, Prekop says he enjoys the mix of abstract impressionism and precise coordination that goes into composing for a film soundtrack.

“As long as they let me do pretty much whatever I know how to do, then it works out fine,” he says, laughing. “But if someone needed car-chase music or something, I would not be the guy for that.”

—Steve Klinge

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Exclusive Excerpt: Alabama Shakes Interviewed By Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood

AlabamaShakes

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

After capturing the hearts of music lovers worldwide with their out-of-the-blue(s) debut album, return with a sophomore LP that proves Alabama Shakes is one of the greatest rock bands on the planet. MAGNET asked Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood to interview the group for us.

A few years ago, Alabama Shakes seemed to come from the middle of nowhere. A photo and mp3 of a mysterious band doing a song in its practice space first appeared on the Aquarium Drunkard website and soon went viral, being passed around via internet word of mouth. Suddenly, everybody was talking about this band.

They weren’t really from nowhere. They actually came from a small town in northern Alabama. Athens is a small community of farms and fast-food joints roughly halfway between Birmingham and Nashville, where I-65 intersects with Highway 72. I grew up about 40 miles from there, and was lucky enough to catch them playing in a small record store in my hometown just weeks before the explosion of attention they received. It was love at first sight.

It was easy for people who didn’t know better to be cynical. It all seemed to happen so fast. They appeared to be suspiciously fully-formed, but actually the band’s origins date back to lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard meeting bassist Zac Cockrell in high school. They had spent several years rehearsing in their small practice space in Athens, where they built their band with guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson, working up original songs that they recorded and funded themselves by playing covers in regional dive bars. They worked day jobs that included being a postal carrier and a watchman for a nuclear power plant. Those self-funded recordings became the majority of their debut album, Boys & Girls, which earned them gold certification and a spot on Saturday Night Live. It was the kind of whirlwind of excitement that could easily destroy less strong-willed and thoughtful people.

I’ve watched them work and grow, driven by an instinct that, to outsiders, might seem counterintuitive; but actually, that very instinct and drive might be their greatest strength. They turned down bigger money record deals to sign with a label that they felt “got” them and enabled them to develop at a rate that felt right. When it came time to record a follow-up, they took their sweet time and crafted an album of songs so mature and so far advanced from their debut that it sounds more like a third or fourth album than a sophomore effort.

That album is Sound & Color, and it is a magnificent collection of songs that, while true to their roots and origins, also points straight ahead in surprising ways. In it, you can tell where they came from, yet it’s totally contemporary and facing forward.

I had the privilege of talking to Brittany and Zac about where they came from and where they are headed. They have been through so much in the last four years since I first saw them at Pegasus Records in 2011, yet they still seem like the same down-home and sweet folks who first blew me away that summer.

I think they might be one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world right now.

—Patterson Hood

Patterson Hood: First of all, I just want to say congratulations. I am so proud of y’all for this record. I think it’s great; y’all knocked it out of the park. I mean, knocked it out of the town. It’s just a fantastic record, and I’m just really blown away on every single level.
Brittany Howard: Wow, thanks a lot, Patterson. That means a lot coming from you.

Hood: I’m sure there’s at least the perception that there’s a whole lot of pressure on y’all this time because the last record was such a success. But I really love what you all did with that. You didn’t make what I think outsiders would view as the most obvious follow-up. I’ve been telling people that, instead of making their second record, they went ahead and made their third or fourth record. It’s an extremely mature record—really, I’m so blown away.
Howard: Wow, thank you.
Zac Cockrell: That’s a really cool compliment. I appreciate that.

Hood: When I was seeing y’all play when you were touring behind Boys & Girls, y’all pulled out several new, unreleased songs you were working on, and they were always really fantastic songs. And that fits into my theory of y’all skipping your second record because none of those songs are on this record. It’s like, when it came time to actually make the record, you all just reinvented yourselves, and reinvented the record you were thinking about, and made this very cohesive statement of a record. That was my interpretation as an outsider … I’m a very close outsider. Does that make sense to you all?
Howard: Yeah, those songs that we were playing when we were touring for Boys & Girls—when it came time to record this record, we tried them. We recorded them and listened to them, and it was some tough decisions. There’s a song we played called “Joe,” and we all really loved that song and recorded it for this record—actually two different versions for this record. But then, when we kept moving and kept writing and kept coming back for sessions, we just moved on. And it’s not that we didn’t like the song, but it didn’t have a place anymore. And so, I’m sure we’ll do something with those songs and record them later.

Hood: Well I certainly hope so. Are we referring to the one I know as “Gospel Song”?
Howard: Yeah, that’s it. The name of it is “Joe.”

Hood: That was such a stunning song, and it would be a shame for it not to be recorded. But, at the same time, I think y’all made the right choice. It would have been an outlier on this record, and it might have detracted from the rest of the record in a way that might not have served either quite as well. And I really respect that. It takes a lot of guts to leave a song off a record—a great song. And it’s a proven great song. And there’s a story that I’ve been telling about y’all from the night I opened for you in Munich, Germany—you pulled that song out, and of course it’s an unreleased song and no one had ever heard it, and I was standing out by the soundboard watching the crowd react to it. And I was looking around, and there was a room full of Germans with tears on their faces. It was one of the most moving, powerful things I’ve ever experienced at a concert. It was Springsteen-ian, is the word that I used for it. It was a beautiful thing; it’s obviously a beautiful, powerful song. And it’s always good to have one of those tucked up your sleeves, because you never know when you might need it. But for this record, I think this record needed to be exactly the record you made. I love the vibe of it, the flow of it, the story it tells—even if it’s not a specific, literal story. It implies a story to me, and I’m just so taken with that.
Howard: Thank you. You know, we recorded that song (“Joe”) like three times. It’ll be released, I can tell you that definitely, for sure. Of the songs that we loved, it just wasn’t as cohesive as we thought, and it was a tough decision.
Cockrell: We all kept sort of pushing for it to be on, but in the end, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense with this record. But it’s definitely one that we want to do something with. We’re all very proud of that song—but for whatever reason, that song, it just sort of stuck out as an oddball on this record.

Hood: I really liked Blake Mills’ production. It’s really such a killer-sounding record. Any comments on that?
Cockrell: I think with Blake, we were mainly just really interested in the—there’s always something interesting going on, even if it takes you a little while to notice it. I think that our main reasoning for getting him was—just listening to his first record, and for me that record never gets old, I’m still hearing new things and I’ve listened to it so many times. And you know a lot of that’s in the songwriting, too, but there’s also things in his production. It’s just a lot of detail, and we were kind of interested in having something like that. And he really brought it to our record, I think.
Howard: To Blake, it’s important which sound you choose, and why, and when, and where you’re at. And we’re into that, too. It’s cool to work with someone who’s not focused on like, “Is this gonna be a big record?” Not that I’m saying anybody else we would have worked with would have said that, but you know. There’s a lot of perceived pressure that I don’t think was actually there. The only time I ever felt pressure was when I would wait to the last minute to write songs—which, for whatever reason, that’s how I work. That’s the only time I ever felt pressure. There was frustration, but there was frustration because the things we were playing were challenging. The great thing about Blake was that he knew we could do it. He knew we were capable. Some things took a while because we were catching up to ourselves. And then other things were very easy.

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