Category Archives: FEATURES

Dana Falconberry: Ready To Wear

DanaFalconberry

Dana Falconberry weaves an intoxicating enviro-friendly spell

Dana Falconberry loves her job. “I do chain stitching full-time to make money,” she says. “It’s machine embroidering, but it’s cranked by hand; it looks like an old sewing machine. I’ve also done some block printing, and it’s the same part of my brain that’s stimulated by both things. I love it.”

Falconberry can also take comfort in the considerable strides she’s made as a singer/songwriter on the new From The Forest Came The Fire (Modern Outsider). Largely produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno at his Public Hi-Fi studio in Falconberry’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, it’s her fourth album and the first with her backup band, Medicine Bow, as an o cial co-headliner. While previous e orts had their considerable avant-folk charms, they sometimes came across as intellectual exercises driven by her strengths as a lyricist and her ongoing fascination with the points where the natural and the supernatural converge.

On From The Forest, Falconberry continues along a similar cosmic Earth Mother path while heading ever deeper into the thicket—though leading more with her heart than her head. Meanwhile, her latest interaction with Medicine Bow has produced something a little closer to roots rock—albeit of the sort that Kate Bush might embrace. “I’m not trying to be different, but I’ve never really gravitated to the same sort of structure that most music uses,” says the 36-year-old Falconberry, who started writing music while attending tiny Hendrix College in Arkansas. “I’m really into these long songs with lots of different parts.”

Inspired by her late grandmother, Falconberry wrote much of what would become From The Forest while on a series of isolated retreats in remote areas of Arkansas and New Mexico. She took that a step further in 2015, with live shows under the stars at New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in her home state of Michigan.

And there are more outdoor shows to come. “I’ll give this new record a push,” says Falconberry. “It was always my dream to become a full-time musician. At this point, I don’t want that anymore. Right now, I want to keep playing music—but I want to stitch, too.”

—Hobart Rowland

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La Sera: The Meat Of The Matter

LaSera

Ryan Adams helps La Sera conjure the Smiths’ rockabilly twang

“I think we are always trying to sound more like the Smiths,” says La Sera’s Katy Goodman, laughing.

Goodman laughs often as she talks about her band’s fourth album, Music For Listening To Music To. It’s the first she’s recorded with her new husband, guitarist Todd Wisenbaker, as a full-time member. Wisenbaker, who produced La Sera’s Hour Of The Dawn in 2014, is the one responsible for the Johnny Marrlike guitar that runs through the album’s 10 songs, although producer Ryan Adams gets some credit there, too.

Goodman met Adams five years or so ago, and talked about working together, but Jenny Lewis is the one who catalyzed the union for the new album. Wisenbaker had played guitar in Lewis’ band, and when Lewis worked with Adams on 2014’s The Voyager, she told him that she thought he and Wisenbaker would like one another.

“Todd and Ryan finally hung out, and they fell in love with each other,” says Goodman. That led to Adams producing Music For Listening (all analog, using mostly first- and second-take versions), and shortly thereafter, Adams, Wisenbaker and La Sera drummer Nate Lotz making 1989, Adams’ album of Taylor Swift covers.

Known as Kickball Katy when she played bass in Vivian Girls when they were part of the same North Jersey scene that birthed Real Estate and Titus Andronicus, Goodman blended noisy garage rock and sweet girl-group melodies on the first three La Sera albums, but the new record manages the neat trick of honoring the Smiths without slavishly mimicking them. It’s fun, however, to pick out the parallels and the sly allusions (you could call that game “Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before”).

“The Smiths are my favorite band and Todd’s favorite band, and pretty much Ryan’s favorite band,” says Goodman. “We could all bond over that. We were going for the Meat Is Murder, rockabilly side of the Smiths. Like ‘Rusholme Ruffians’—that kind of country side of them, defi nitely with that urgency. It’s not easy to sound like the Smiths.”

Wisenbaker agrees, “I think if it were easy, more people would play like that. I’ve been playing guitar for more than 20 years, and all that time I’ve been a Smiths fan,” he says. “There’s a level of precision that makes the Smiths sound like that. How Johnny Marr picks his guitar, how he layers guitars, arpeggios .That’s kind of his deal. Also, one thing about the Smiths’ guitar playing: It comes from a folk style of guitar playing, which I’m a big fan of, and rockabilly and old-school country. It’s an Americana style.”

Goodman says she’s always been inspired by Morrissey’s lyrics, but she wasn’t trying to write like him. That would be presumptuous.

“I like his attitude and how he’s singing directly at people in his songs,” she says. “I’m mad about this and then going into detail about it. That’s kind of a Morrissey thing to do.”

You can hear that attitude on bitter songs like “Time To Go” and “High Notes,” although not so much on love song “Take My Heart,” a retort, of sorts, to her own “Break My Heart” from 2012’s Sees The Light.

“A lot of the songs on my fi rst two records, and even some on the third, were about breaking up with people. But now in my life, I’m not at that place anymore and I think about other things,” says Goodman, laughing again. “Now, I’m angry about other things. There’s plenty in the world to be angry about.”

—Steve Klinge

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Exclusive Excerpt: Dr. Dog “Dog-Eared Soul”

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

After 15 years and eight records, Dr. Dog is finally ready to release its first album. Sort of. It’s easier if we explain. MAGNET spends three days sunk to the hips in The Psychedelic Swamp with the hardest-working psychedelic indie folk pop rock American band in show business. Story by Eric Waggoner, photo by Gene Smirnov

Eric Slick, the 29-year-old drummer for Dr. Dog since 2010, has, by rough count and estimation, played with approximately one-quarter of all musicians currently alive and residing on earth. An early alum of Philadelphia’s fabled Paul Green School of Rock Music, Slick was the institution’s very first all-star drummer. With his sister Julie on bass, he was tapped to form the Adrian Belew Power Trio when Belew guested at the School in 2006, and was knocked out by the prodigious talent of the Slick siblings.

Throughout a young life spent seated behind a drum kit more or less continuously, Slick has played—and continues to play—with an astounding roster of musicians, including Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Ween, premier Frank Zappa alumni group Project/Object and former members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Which is why it’s not only surprising, but contextually bizarre, that Slick cannot for the life of him recall the melody to Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.”

It’s creeping up on 1 a.m. Today’s studio run-through was a bear, and everyone’s a little jangled. Maybe Slick’s just punchy from the three days of rehearsals. So the rest of Dr. Dog starts helping.

“Come on, you know that one,” says guitarist Frank McElroy. ”It’s the one that’s got the sounds of muskrats getting it on.” Slick shakes his head, brow furrowed in a vain attempt to call it up.

“No, you know it,” presses bassist and singer/ songwriter Toby Leaman, clearly goofing as he goes into a squint-eyed, head-bobbing, Steven Tyler-style stadium-rawk stage-scream: “Aw, musk-rat luhh-huuuve! It’s drivin’ me crayyyzayyyyyy!” Guitarist and singer/songwriter Scott McMicken cracks up, as do McElroy and percussion/electronics gunslinger Dimitri Manos. Keyboard/multi-instrumentalist Zach Miller, a man not much given to boisterous vocalization, smiles contentedly.

Everyone’s gathered in the kitchen sitting area of Dr. Dog’s rented warehouse space. On the small four-top table is a tiny speaker set, through which music plays constantly when the band’s not rehearsing. Manos plugs his phone in and hunts for “Muskrat Love.” (“The Captain & Tennille one. Not the America one,” McElroy advises.) And when Tennille’s honeyed voice starts singing about Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam out in Muskrat Land, doin’ the jitterbug and nibblin’ on bacon and chewin’ on cheese, Slick gets such a look of guileless joy on his face, you’d think he’d been handed a kitten.

To be fair to Slick, “Muskrat Love” came up in the first place because he absolutely refused to believe so few of his bandmates could remember Maria Muldaur’s 1974 hit “Midnight At The Oasis,” not even after he helpfully sang parts of it. So, now we’re way down a soft-rock rabbit hole at something-or-other ’til one in the morning, scrolling through old AM rock numbers on Manos’ phone, listening to Muldaur tell us she’ll be our belly dancer, and we can be her sheikh.

The room is immediately smitten. ”This was a middle-of-the-road hit?” asks Manos, repeating Slick’s description of Muldaur’s single with a pleased smile.

Leaman cuts himself off in the middle of a sentence and points at the speakers: “Wait. Did she just say, ‘Send your camel to bed’?”

The talk turns to improbable hits, weird cuts, the strange deep crooked grooves in the history of American pop music. But then Manos lays down the trump card, cueing up a song he’s been marginally obsessed with for a while: “She’s As Beautiful As A Foot,” from Blue Öyster Cult’s 1972 debut album.

As soon as the song’s sinister half-step melodic descent and sneering vocals kick in, that’s the ballgame. Everyone around the sitting area loses it, tired and loopy and yawn-laughing like fools at this bizarre slice of hard-rock surrealism (“Didn’t believe it when he bit into her face/It tasted just like a fallen arch”).

It’s too much. Leaman can’t stop cackling. McElroy’s eyes crinkle up, and he tilts his head back happily. When the song finishes, McMicken goes to a small upright piano and starts fumbling around with the chord progression, quickly switching out BÖC’s surreal lyrics for the lyrics to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll,” a combination that is somehow even more hilarious than the original.

For the next few days, “She’s As Beautiful As A Foot” will come up again and again in the course of conversation: How did that song even happen? Someone had to write it. Someone had to bring it to the band and say, “OK, ah, here’s one … ” Blue Öyster Cult had to record multiple takes. Then overdubs. Then it had to be mastered and sequenced for the album. How in god’s name did that goofball thing make it through every single one of those potential checkpoints?

Dr. Dog will finally shake its collective head, and give up wondering. Why puzzle over it? Jesus, rock ‘n’ roll can sure be weird. Bands make all sorts of odd choices. Who the hell can say?

Adjacent to the sitting area, propped up to dry, are the gear cases for the upcoming support tour for Dr. Dog’s new(ish) album The Psychedelic Swamp. McMicken’s spent two days painting all the cases flat black, then cutting strips of blue gaffing tape and laying these over the black cases in a wide grid pattern. The stage design they’ve settled on for the tour, he says, is “sort of Tron meets Knight Rider. Like 1980s video-game graphics. But we fucked it up, like we didn’t really know how the design programming worked.”

Tomorrow they’ll start laying down tape on the huge black stage backdrop to match the gear cases and the keyboard rigs. Their tour manager, to be honest, isn’t wild about the idea. He suspects the backdrop’s going to be too fragile to unroll and roll back up every night without sustaining damage. But they’re committed to it.

As Kurt Vonnegut, another homegrown American weirdo, once said in a different context: And so it goes. Tron meets Knight Rider it is. Who the hell can say?

From the kitchen-area window of the rented warehouse eight miles out of Philadelphia where Dr. Dog has spent the last two years building its studio, you can see a short, steep blacktop road leading up and along a row of modest houses—a sign that the warehouse, a silversmith concern built in the 1920s, was here long before the nearby suburb’s family homes had sprawled out to meet it. Last night brought a cold snap. Sipping coffee, Manos says that when the blacktop is iced over, you can look out the window and watch as cars turn onto the road and brake-tap, brake-tap their tippytoe way down and past the building.

Mt. Slippery, as the band has christened its new home base, feels like nothing so much as the world’s largest hunting cabin, or the elaborate clubhouse a 10-year-old boy would build if he had modest subsidiary label funding. There’s not a thread of insulation in the entire 5,000 square feet of the joint. The whole space, which was completely open before the band started sectioning off recording rooms and bunk areas, is heated by huge metal forced-air blowers hung from the ceiling and aimed at strategic areas. Still, it’s comfortable and welcoming. A cheap plastic chaise lounge and potted elephant-ear plants sit, as if to magic-spell away the winter chill, at the far end of the sitting area.

Everywhere, there’s something to stare at. A typed set list from Brian Wilson’s show last June at World Café (where Dr. Dog is set to perform within a couple of weeks); one wall given over to a Jasper Johns-style American flag mural made entirely of playing cards; an original Dock Ellis baseball card tacked to that same wall; an ornate four-bulb lamp whose base is a statuette of a young girl in flowing robes. And all over the place are Dr. Dog pennants, stitching samplers, ink sketches, tour detritus, props from album covers.

“When we rented the space,” says McMicken with a half-troublemaker grin, “the guy we rented it from said, ‘You can do anything you want with it.’ And we were like, ‘Anything? You’re sure about that?”

Dr. Dog always wanted studio space. The first time anyone ever gave them any investable amount of money for making music, in fact, the very first thing they did was go in on an existing studio in Kensington, in North Philadelphia, that they renamed Meth Beach.

“It was a pretty rough neighborhood,” says McMicken. ”Not much around the studio. Maybe you’d go out and have a cigarette or something, but then you’d come back inside.”

Mt. Slippery, by contrast, backs up against a hillside whose bare trees this cold morning are dusted in a light snow. It’s still a modest, nofrills section of town, far more industrial than residential. But Dr. Dog is a band that seems not to need much in the way of amenities. The work this week is fueled by Maxwell House in the morning, Miller Lite and Yuengling in the evening, cigarettes for the smokers, homemade Cajun rice, meatball subs from Wawa, and music, music, music all day.

Speaking of music. The band is in rehearsals for the support tour for The Psychedelic Swamp, which is Dr. Dog’s very first album, sort of. Except the first version of The Psychedelic Swamp, recorded on four-track when McMicken and Leaman were only 19 years old, was never released officially, so this is the first official release, kind of; except the new album consists of all new recordings, except for some samples from the old version; and there are songs that are brand new to this record, and …

Deep breath. Starting over.

OK: The 2001 version of The Psychedelic Swamp, assembled when McMicken and Leaman were in their late teens, is something of a Great Lost Dr. Dog album. Self-released and heavily bootlegged in the years since the band first made it semi-public, the 2001 Swamp is a concept album, of sorts. It’s a tape purported to have been assembled by a man called Phrases, who finds his life unbearable and kills himself, only to end up in a slimy afterlife dimension that’s even more unbearable than the one he suicided himself out of.

The organizing conceit is that The Psychedelic Swamp is a mix tape made by Phrases and sent back to Dr. Dog, here in the land of the living, as evidence of a complicated paranoiac plot against humanity, largely accomplished through the dulling effects of mass marketing and media. The tape is a combination of faux-radio broadcasts from the Swamp, narrative songs, ambient noise, cut-and-splice samples from other sources (including a horse-race bugle call and excerpts from other classic “lost” pop records), and occasional character voices, both spoken and sung.

“I couldn’t understand it the first time I heard it,” says Miller, who joined Dr. Dog the summer after the tape was assembled. ”Later, I could hear that there were songs in there, but I couldn’t hear that the first few times. I don’t think I heard the story in it at all.”

“It’s a huge sound collage,” says Slick, “like an hour-long version of the Mothers Of Invention’s ‘The Chrome-Plated Megaphone Of Destiny.’ Toby told me that with enough drugs, it would make sense.”

“It’s virtually unlistenable,” says Leaman now, “except to us and a few close friends.”

“And proudly so,” adds McMicken, when I tell him the next day about Leaman’s assessment. ”We understood that all along. That was our way of justifying the ridiculousness of a lot of it. Conceptually, the fact that we understood it, but not many other people would, made sense. The idea was that this thing, this artifact, had come from another universe, with a whole other rationale necessary to make sense of it. And part two, the follow-up, translating it for the masses, was always part of the plan, too, right out of the box. The plan was always to return to it later at some point and make it more accessible.”

Leaman’s characterization of the original recording as utterly incomprehensible might be a little ungenerous, at least for a certain listener’s head space. The 2001 version of The Psychedelic Swamp was made, as he points out, when he and McMicken and original Dr. Dog member Doug O’Donnell were just learning their way around a four-track. A lot of what happens on the record is the result of that curve, experiments with delay, mucking around with tape speed and pedals and overdubs.

“There’s a lot of fat on it,” says Leaman; but what the 2001 Swamp lacks in restraint and structural cohesion, it tends to make up for in sheer unhinged determination to explore every possible permutation of a novice band’s wild creativity. Like Ween’s earliest four-track tapes—or like the Residents’ The Warner Bros. Album, with which it actually shares a lot of sonic affinity—much of the bizarro-world charm of the original Swamp lies in the technical limitation of it, the sense that there’s an aesthetic driving it, even if the final product sounds like a field recording of Martian dancehall music.

Odd as it was, the members of Dr. Dog always had a soft spot for that tape. And they loved the idea of keeping Swamp a lost record until they could figure out what to do with it, which they always planned to do. Then this year, the Swamp got a kick in the tapes, so to speak, when Philadelphia’s venerable Pig Iron Theatre Company received a grant to work with non-theater artists to mount a stage show in 2015. Pig Iron reached out to Dr. Dog, some of whose members had worked with the company on other projects.

“That sped up the process,” says Manos, “but only by a little. Going back to the Swamp was already on the table. We’d been working on a lot of new music, and for about a year and a half, the Swamp talk was building. We were already having a conversation about what we were going to do as a follow-up to (2013’s) B-Room, in what order—do we do this album of new music next, or is it time to revisit the old project? And Pig Iron came out to the studio and we talked about collaborating. And we said, ‘Well, er … here’s this project that already has a narrative behind it.’”

Dr. Dog and Pig Iron undertook to mount a joint multimedia theatrical project inspired by the 2001 record. Staged during a four-night residency at the September 2015 Fringe Festival, SWAMP IS ON incorporated video, live character performance and related live music, and an evening-closing concert by Dr. Dog. ”In the face of government interference,” the press release promised, “scientists and cryptographers will gather at Union Transfer, a former railway junction turned music venue, vowing ‘to agitate the cosmic order and commune in real time with the sights and sounds of another dimension.’”

And a glorious mess it was. ”We had people handing out flyers as people came in the doors,” says Slick with plain satisfaction, “‘Swamp Truthers’ who were going on and on about ‘The Swamp is real! The government’s involved!’ We had crust-punks playing deconstructed versions of the album’s songs on acoustic guitar outside the building.”

In no sense a staged version of the original album, SWAMP IS ON was rather an extrapolative performance that lived in the same narrative universe, proceeding from the assumption that Phrases’ tape—everything about Phrases’ tape—was real. Live onstage, Dr. Dog attempted to translate the music for the audience.

“It forced us to put the songs through different kinds of permutations,” says Leaman, “rather than trying to recapture some long ago sound.” An album featuring new arrangements of Swamp’s songs, and a reimagining of its twisted soundscape, was the logical last step. Part of what made the new Swamp feel new, says McMicken, was that even in its first permutation, The Psychedelic Swamp wasn’t an attempt to narrate an experience directly in song. The tape itself, the messy collage of sounds and speech and melodies, was meant to be a transcript of an experience—less a collection of songs than an aural snapshot of an awful landscape that one poor dead man was trying to get out into the world, with Dr. Dog’s help.

“The spirit of it was the part that was never lost,” says McMicken. ”It stayed in our conversation regularly enough that we all kept it in mind, but more on the level of an intangible quality, not a final document. There wasn’t a lot of reverence, even at the time, for what was actually hitting the tape. We were writing more traditional songs, too, even while we were putting Swamp together back then. There’s plenty of stuff we have on tape from that time that would feel too invested in to revisit this many years later. But The Swamp didn’t.

“One of the biggest curiosities for us was whether that intangible quality could be captured again. As absurd as the project could be, it still felt grounded in something tangible and real. I remember working on stuff over at Doug’s house, and then going over to 7-Eleven to get a snack, and going out into the world and feeling like nothing had really changed—the concepts we were trying to talk about, advertising and media, were mirrored by everything the world had to offer. We were trying to maintain a playfulness and irreverence. But it was also about being tuned into your environment socially and politically. The songs were very malleable, very free and flexible. I was most curious about whether that quality, that feel of being open and letting a creative dialogue happen, was going to re-emerge now.”

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Nada Surf: Earthbound

NadaSurf

After 2012’s blast into the cosmos, Nada Surf gets grounded

This time, there would be no beery acoustic renditions of new tunes in Nada Surf’s Brooklyn rehearsal compound. One phone call would have to suffice—which seems sort of appropriate, given the displaced, transatlantic nature of You Know Who You Are (Barsuk), the moody follow-up to The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, a breathless rush of power-pop adrenaline that was among MAGNET’s best LPs of 2012.

“On the previous album, we wanted to sound like we do live,” says the band’s 48-year-old leader, Matthew Caws. “On this one, we were trying to be open to anything. Some musical feelings came up that were kind of old, and some others that were more adventurous. I tried to be as clear as I could in getting things down. I tried to say what I was thinking.”

For anyone interested in labels, You Know Who You Are is Nada Surf’s “relationship” album. It contains some of Caws’ most emotionally direct lyrics to date, especially on “Rushing” (about the blinding uplift of new love) and the album-closing “Victory’s Yours” (an official sign-off on a dysfunctional union). He remains spot-on in conjuring wide-eyed wonder from a middle-age perspective. Hence, the deceptive simplicity of something like, “I don’t mind if it’s raining/I don’t mind if it’s hot/I don’t mind what you’re thinking/I don’t mind if you’re not.”

“Rushing” and “Victory’s Yours” were written with Grammy-winning songwriter (think Adele) and Semisonic alum Dan Wilson. “We sat for a whole day and just traded life stories, and over the next three days, we wrote, using that first day of conversation as a well to draw from,” says Caws of the collaboration.

Along with co-founding bassist Daniel Lorca and longtime drummer Ira Elliot, Nada Surf has now absorbed guitarist Doug Gillard as a full-fledged member. “On the last record, I played on and developed parts for every song, but they were already written and structured by the band,” says Gillard. “On this one, I was part of the rehearsal and writing process from the ground up.”

The group again worked with producer/guitarist Tom Beaujour in Hoboken, N.J., on the album’s initial tracks. The final 10 songs were culled from a variety of sources, and a few underwent fairly significant tweaks. The final version of low-key first single “Believe You’re Mine” is faster than the original. “That was a song where I tried all different kinds of versions and speeds and stuff,” says Caws, who did most of his singing at home, recruiting the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow to provide backing vocals on a few tracks. “All the harmonies on ‘Believe You’re Mine’ are Ken,” says Caws. “If you re-listen with that in mind, it’s pretty nuts. He knocked it out of the park.”

Another standout—and a natural choice for a second single—is “Cold To See Clear,” which was originally written for Caws’ upcoming project with Michael Lerner of Telekinesis. “When you’re sitting on your couch, at really low volume, you can sing pretty high without much effort,” says Caws, commenting on the origins of his signature falsetto, which reaches new heights on “Cold To See Clear.”

You could argue that Caws’ singing has actually improved with age. “I’d like to not be the one to say that,” he laughs.

Though he’s based in Cambridge, England, to be near his 11-year-old son, Caws has been spending quite a bit of time in Manhattan of late. For our interview, he’s retreated to his childhood apartment on the Upper East Side to find a quieter place to talk. “I’m seeing somebody in New York, so I’m back more than ever,” he says.

So, apparently, the airliner high in a cloudless sky on the cover of You Know Who You Are is no mere coincidence. “I have a lot of guilt about air travel. I have an enormous carbon footprint,” says Caws. “We’re in a world in grave danger, and we shouldn’t be flying—but here we are.”

—Hobart Rowland

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Trixie Whitley: Trixie Sticks

Trixie

Trixie Whitley, daughter of ill-fated blues anti-hero Chris Whitley, makes her own noise

Trixie Whitley is a woman with a lot on her mind—to the degree that a single well-worded question can get an interviewer off the hook for at least 20 minutes. In fact, the 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist and daughter of late blues guitarist Chris Whitley is so good at telling her own story that MAGNET is letting her do just that. An obvious place to start is her tremendous new album, Porta Bohemica (Unday), a self-assured collision of singer/songwriter sensitivity, brash art-punk attitude and raw, rhythmic blues/R&B emoting produced by Gus Seyffert (Beck, Black Keys) and Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace).

The joys of collaboration: “After working extensively with Daniel Lanois and Brian Blade, I really wanted to work with someone younger, who was more a friend than a mentor. I really had to understand my own strengths and weaknesses—to fine-tune my musical instincts and learn how to trust them. My first record (2013’s Fourth Corner) was made with a very small crew: producer Thomas Bartlett (Glen Hansard, the National) and engineer Pat Dillett. It was just the three of us huddled up for three weeks. It was refreshing to have that different sort of energy. I just wanted to have some fun.”

An unconventional upbringing: “My first instrument was the drums. I was 11 years old when I moved (from New York City) back to Belgium, where my mother was from, and I started touring throughout Europe in these avant-garde performance collectives and dance groups. I was surrounded by these pretty heavyweight people way before I was even remotely aware of my own gifts. I moved back to New York when I was 17, and my dad passed away shortly after.”

To create, you must first destroy: “My expectations for myself are unbearably high. I realized about halfway through making this new record that I had to stop judging myself and be completely open creatively. Along the way, I got deeper and deeper into the process, and I hit a wall. I had to get some distance from it—and the only way to do that was to start writing new stuff.

“Then I crossed paths with Gus and Joey, and neither of them had any link to my musical background. That was the catalyst for me to start writing a bunch of new stuff. I was also pregnant along the way, and that had a big impact, as well. Once Gus and I got into the studio, he really helped me glue everything together. Half the record is stuff that I basically produced on my own, and the other half is where Joey and Gus stepped in.”

Fear of guitars: “I was really hesitant. I was like, ‘Nah, that’s not my thing—that’s my dad’s thing.’ But one of the greatest lessons I learned from Daniel was that you don’t have to be virtuoso at one thing if you have this gift that allows you to express yourself on different instruments. I realized that I could come up with these really simple riffs I could get excited about singing along to.”

The blessing—and the curse—of genetics: “I never wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I didn’t want to live the same kind of lifestyle as my dad—and, at first, I was kind of rebelling against it. But I can’t breathe without music. It’s such an extension of who I am. It’s the only place whereI feel like I belong.”

—Hobart Rowland

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shirlette ammons: Love Without Limits

ShirletteAmmons

Rules were made to be broken for versatile singer/songwriter shirlette ammons

Poet, writer, journalist And singer/songwriter shirlette ammons (she prefers her name without capitals) is always on the go. In recent years, she’s published two volumes of poetry and recorded several albums, including And Lover’s Like, a rap/rock collaboration with the Dynamite Brothers; Twilight For Gladys Bently, a hip-hop celebration of the life of Harlem’s most outspoken lesbian blues singer of the 1920s; and The Window, a funk/rock/rap disc with her band Mosadi Music. She just finished work on Language Barrier, a record she made with producer/composer Daniel Hart (St. Vincent, Broken Social Scene).

The music includes ambient soundscapes, metal, pop and classic R&B melodies, married to ammons’ impressive poetry: dense syncopated rhymes that investigate love from every angle. “I chose Language Barrier as the title after thinking about the ways we defy boundaries in our lives,” says ammons. “As a queer black woman, I’m aware of our historically oppressed condition—people whose existence has been actively, and often violently, challenged. In order to keep that thought from being depressing, I searched for ways to celebrate love as an act of resistance. We love people all the time who, for whatever reasons, we’re not ‘supposed to’—and often it’s a source of strength.”

ammons asked Hart for music to help her explore unfamiliar territory. “I wanted to challenge the notion that there’s a formulaic process to who makes what type of music,” she says. “You can put those variables—class, race, sex—into a machine and spit out a record that somebody of those experiences isn’t ‘supposed’ to make.”

The album’s guests include Indigo Girls and Meshell Ndegeocello, an early inspiration. “Before I found Meshell, I didn’t know black people could write with such fluency, genre defiance and power,” says ammons. “I try to apply what I learn from the people I respect, and craft those understandings in my own voice.”

—j. poet

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Marlon Williams: Lonesome Dove

MarlonWilliams

Kiwi crooner Marlon Williams keeps bullies and tipsy Catholic cougars at bay

New Zealand native Marlon Williams admits that singing in his artsy high-school choir was a mixed blessing. On the upside, teachers always allowed him to skip class whenever he had recital practice. On the downside? You became an instant target for schoolyard bullies.

“But I found a way to use singing to my advantage and turn it into a positive thing,” says the 25-year-old, who—after several career detours—just released his eponymous, folk-rocking debut. “And being self-deprecating about it—basically punching yourself before someone can punch you—is a good way to go.”

Whenever Williams was cornered, he adds, “In a conciliatory tone, you’d just say something like, ‘Aw, you don’t want to beat me up—you’ve got no time for this!’ You’d life-coach them out of doing it.”

Undeterred, he kept right on vocalizing, in the Christchurch Cathedral Ensemble, then in a twangy duo with Delaney Davidson, for three volumes of retro covers-themed albums dubbed Sad But True–The Secret History Of Country Music. Then he moved to Melbourne and started acting, in Aussie TV series like The Beautiful Lie and upcoming feature film The Rehearsal.

Williams was also spotlighted in a recent Down Under documentary, The New Face Of Country. But his Maori-descended father was a punk-rock musician who turned him on to artists like Gram Parsons and Johnny Horton at an early age—hence his own lonesome, loping originals like “Hello Miss Lonesome” and “Lonely Side Of Her.” His bow also features personal takes on obscure folkie Bob Carpenter’s “Silent Passage” and Nina Simone’s “When I Was A Young Girl.”

But Williams has sworn off choirs after his Cathedral experience. “Because drunk, older Catholic women are much harder to deal with than bullies,” he says. “They have a few wines, they get a bit bubbly, and you’ve really got to watch out!”

—Tom Lanham

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Matmos: Spin Doctors

Matmos

Matmos presents domestic music, made by a domestic pair, from a single domestic item

Here’s the first thing to know: The album—all of it, every sound on its single 40-minute track—is played on a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine.

The second thing you need to know is that Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel, the collaborative (and romantic) pair who’ve recorded a series of brainy, witty sample-and-sound compositions under the sobriquet Matmos over nearly two decades, understand with total clarity what a gimmicky project this might sound like, on the merits. But Ultimate Care II was designed from the start to be a less weighty composition than many other Matmos projects—like A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, which used sound samples from surgery clinics as its building blocks, or The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast, whose songs are each dedicated to a gay public figure, often of some controversy—that inspired the duo in some way.

No, Ultimate Care II was, as Schmidt says, “supposed to be banged out quickly. Our last one was so ponderous, and took so long to make, that I wanted to go the other opposite direction. The washing machine is in our basement, with our studio. I could reach it with a mic, I could hit it with a stick, I could rub it with my hand.”

The Baltimore-based Schmidt and Daniel sampled that rubbing and hitting, as well as the washer’s natural programmed wash cycles, then processed them through a variety of tactics and machines, often with collaborative assistance. “(Martin designed it) as an exercise in discipline and focus,” says Daniel. “The goal was to make the domestic sound both familiar and exotic, but also to make something that was musically rich. We wanted to turn those sounds into something that could approximate a whole musical vocabulary.”

The rhythms of the machine afforded the project some dynamism, but the tonality came through innovative methods. After sampling several sounds, for instance, the duo attached a transducer to the washer, turning it into a speaker. And when the recorded sounds of the machine were played through itself, the result was a tonal feedback that provided a static note Schmidt and Daniel could harvest, convert into a sine wave, and shape with synthesis engines into a “playable” tone.

This is clearly gearhead stuff, though not without precedent. As Schmidt and Daniel openly admit, their immediate influences are heavy on musique concrète and tape-music—genres that constitute, it seems fair to assume, an acquired taste for many listeners. But to the question you’re about to ask: Yes, Matmos’ album is tonal, it’s listenable, and it’s musically rewarding.

“I pine for people’s ability to listen to long pieces of music,” says Schmidt. “I do feel like we’re sort of ambassadors for some people between what could be called ‘low’ and ‘high’ music. I dearly wish that people had more of an ability to listen to 25-minute pieces of music.”

“I’m with Martin,” says Daniel. “We wanted it to be really exuberant and over the top. We were pretty fanatical about following a rule and trying to see how far we could take it. We never cracked: ‘Goddammit, let’s just play a trombone!’ I suppose the question is, ‘If someone’s drumming on a washing machine, is that the sound of the machine or the sound of hands drumming?’ So, I guess if we wanted to get really uptight, we could only have used the sound of a washing machine struck by a second washing machine.”

—Eric Waggoner

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Freakwater: Singing To Live

Freakwater

Freakwater ends a decade-long break with the moody and captivating Scheherazade

The wheels of Freakwater grind exceedingly slow, right up until they don’t. With the release of Scheherazade, the duo of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have notched three albums in 16 years, not a terrible average by some yardsticks.

“We weren’t making Chinese Democracy,” says Bean. “We will. The next one will be from the retirement facility.”

It’s not like Bean and Irwin exist in states of suspended animation waiting for inspiration to strike. Bean is a member of Eleventh Dream Day and the Horse’s Ha, and released her solo debut, Dragging Wonder Lake, in 2004, while Irwin has two solo albums under her belt, 2002’s Cut Yourself A Switch and 2012’s Little Heater, and moved into the visual arts as well. This has kept the pair busy while waiting for Freakwater’s edgy, atmospheric electric/acoustic folk to resurface.

The songs for Scheherazade, Freakwater’s first new album since 2005’s Thinking Of You and debut for Bloodshot, began to bubble in early 2014. Bean and Irwin convened in their hometown, Louisville, Ky. (Bean has called Chicago home for three decades), and worked up songs with violinist Anna Krippenstapel, then tested the live waters.

“The three of us played in the cellar of this restaurant in Louisville, just to see how they’d go over,” says Bean. “Then we practiced again, then we started recording.”

“We had six or seven days of recording, then we mixed it at the end of April,” says Irwin. “We didn’t spend a year in the studio.”

As the new Freakwater songs evolved—including “Bolshevik And Bollweevil,” with irresistible folk lyric, “Come on home if you can find it, because the farm is blown away”—with Krippenstapel and longtime bassist David Wayne Gay, so too did the idea of naming the album after Scheherazade, the mythical/historical wife of Persian king Shahryar, who spun the tales of One Thousand And One Nights to avoid her demise.

“The thing is, if you stop talking, you die,” says Irwin. “To me, that sums up both the beauty and the problem of Freakwater. It is true, in a way, that we probably wouldn’t be able to do this anymore if we did stop. The idea that you have a story and you keep it going and if you stop, you’ll be executed, that is the story of a band, in a way. It seems like a relevant idea, certainly based on our between-song banter style.”

“People yell at us, ‘Shut up, just play a song,’” says Bean. “I can’t, I’ll die!”

Considering their long hiatus and the number of musical/life activities that occupy their free time, it’s a wonder that Scheherazade, or even Freakwater itself, exists at all. Bean insists she and Irwin, like water searching for its level, will always find a way.

“Short of being hit by a bus,” she says. “We agree to shows, thinking, ‘We’ll be hit by a bus before that happens, so we don’t have worry about doing it.’ So, I think we figured if we survived, we’d make another record. Goals have never been one of our, uh, goals.”

“If we had a goal, we would have stopped a long ago,” says Irwin. “Not having goals is the reason we’re still doing this.”

—Brian Baker

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Hinds: Deer Prudence

Hinds

Garage upstarts Hinds survive an early bout of stage fright

It sounds strange, but it’s entirely true, swears Spanish musician Ana Garcia Perrote. What led to the success of her all-girl garage-rock quartet Hinds—and its jangling debut, Leave Me Alone, the first great album of 2016—was one glaring, abject failure, which shuttered the group for nearly two years. Just for fun, she and her fellow singer/guitarist Carlotta Cosials had formed a DIY duo dubbed Deers, specializing in cover songs. Eventually, they were confident enough to start giving concerts. That is, until the second gig they booked ended in disaster.

“It was like a trauma,” says Perrote. “Carlotta used to be an actress, and I used to act in a school-theater thing. So, we were both used to being onstage.” They felt more vulnerable playing music, though. That night, for a small audience of family and friends, they squealed through Bob Dylan, even Jack Johnson chestnuts. “And Carlotta, after the very first song, whispered to me, ‘Should we leave? Should we just walk offstage?’ But we just couldn’t leave.” Afterward, in tears, they were too ashamed to vacate their dressing room.

The pair didn’t discuss the debacle. They simply stopped performing. A few months later, they saw a grainy video of the concert and realized that it wasn’t so bad after all. Inspired, they composed their first fuzzy original, “Trippy Gum,” a week later, added bassist Ade Martin and drummer Amber Grimbergen, and found their own ’60s-echoed sound on Leave confections like “Easy” and “Garden.” Then? Another hurdle. They were forced to legally change their moniker, due to licensing conflict with a Canadian combo called the Dears. They settled on Hinds—by definition, a female deer.

But Perrote is still pleased that she and Cosials took time off to reconnoiter. “We didn’t stop playing because of lack of interest in music,” she says. “When we stopped having fun? That’s when we stopped playing.”

—Tom Lanham

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