Category Archives: FEATURES

Gang Of Four: Numbers Racket

GangOfFour

A new frontman and plenty of guests keep post-punk legends Gang Of Four cool

Veteran English guitarist Andy Gill has a relatively simple work ethic that’s guided him for years, ever since his legendary post-punk outfit Gang Of Four burst onto the staid scene with its jagged, jarring Entertainment! debut in 1979. “There are loads of bands that can chuck out the same album, year after year,” he says. “But that model is just not for me.”

The group’s quantum leap forward to 1982’s more danceable third album, Songs Of The Free (featuring club smash “I Love A Man In Uniform”), might have clarified that tenet already. If not, the latest Gang Of Four record surely will—the aptly dubbed What Happens Next, Gill’s first after the departure of longtime vocalist Jon King, who returned to running his advertising agency after 2011’s Content.

Gill’s angular filigrees and sometimes static chords anchor Next. Especially on the guttural “Isle Of Dogs,” a punk-spiked (and Gogol-inspired) “Dead Souls” and the scratchy, squealing “Where The Nightingale Songs.” But the name of the game is collaboration now. German composer/actor Herbert Grönemeyer adds a Bowie-ish vocal flavor to “The Dying Rays”; the Big Pink’s Robbie Furze croons a funky “Graven Image”; Gail Ann Dorsey puts a soulful topspin on a sinister “First World Citizen”; and Kills/Dead Weather banshee Alison Mosshart snarls across two blatantly bluesy tracks, “Broken Talk” and “England’s In My Bones.” The rest are intoned by a new permanent frontman—John “Gaoler” Sterry, who Gill initially hired just to sing his demos.

“I don’t think that there are any rules that say you’ve got to stick to the same bunch of people, or you’ve got to be the same band forever, because otherwise you’re not authentic or something,” says Gill, who just turned 59. “It’s a really misplaced idea of authenticity that the same bunch of people that was in a band back in Year X will remain that same bunch, 30 years later, and maintain that same sound. Like that awful British band Status Quo that plays that weird, 12-bar rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s your characteristic sound and you’ve got to stick to it.” He snorts derisively. “All that stuff is total anathema to me. So, when Jon pulled out, I thought it was a good time to try out working with a few other people.”

Over the years, through Gang Of Four’s on-again/off-again career, Gill stayed busy with other projects. He produced several bands, composed music for TV commercials and BBC television soundtracks, and appeared on a show called Studio In Session, which documented his production techniques with three different groups—Hard-Fi, Cage The Elephant and the Kills—and was where he got to be good friends with Mosshart. She was one of his first invitees, once he’d hit upon his What Happens Next cameo concept. But he tries to keep outside assignments to a minimum.

“When you get into doing albums, like your own Gang Of Four thing, it’s very all-encompassing,” he says. “And at a certain point, you think, ‘If I don’t concentrate on this, I’m never going to get it finished.’ And I’m not the fastest person in the studio, either, so you really do have to stop and say, ‘I’m going to focus on just this and give it my full attention.’”

Which partially explains King’s exit, he adds. Which Gill had anticipated for a while, even when the original members all reunited for tours in 2007. “You can’t do this music stuff unless you’re putting 100 percent into it,” he says. “You have to be prepared to work long hours and not just like it—you have to love it. Jon had been around for a while over the decades, and sometimes he was really up for it, and other times really not up for it. So, that particular parting was probably long overdue.”

Gill told his old chum that he would be maintaining the Gang Of Four moniker, with the roster now including bassist Thomas McNiece and drummer Jonny Finnegan. King understood. Gill even chose to make Next a concept album of sorts, revolving songs around a dystopian view of the cultural melting pot that is his hometown, London. Which exemplifies another of his pet theories: Change is good. “Because it does give you a certain amount of freedom to do whatever you want,” he says. “To just do whatever you want and get on with it, really.”

—Tom Lanham

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

King For A Day

EarthDay

A fable by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers

“May there only be peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.” —John McConnell, 1971

Some said the ceremony was a spin-off of Earth Day, a naïve ritual fallen from favor long ago. Some elders recalled an Earth Day when the town sponsored the burial of a Buick LeSabre automobile. The old-timers claimed those quaint ecological ideals had evolved into the current Time Capsule Coronation. Others maintained the ceremony’s origins went further back in time.

Their Time Capsule Coronation was the big spring celebration—that was for sure. The Coronation didn’t land on a specific date; it simply followed the Vernal Equinox and usually took place just before Arbor Day (the last Friday in April). Some planted trees in memory of loved ones for the occasion.

Every year, disagreements ensued over what items were to be placed within the time capsule. Digital sources were included, but the emphasis was on physical objects to capture a tangible essence of time and place, distinct from conventional museums and historical record keeping.

Another annual concern was the crowning of the King, and how commercial interests were distorting the ceremony’s original design. The event’s reliance on town resources and other financial underwriting was also a source of debate.

Essentially, a fusion of private industry and civic altruism had transformed the commemorative gesture into a thriving popular event—driven by mainstream media and corporate sponsorship as well as government incentives. Moreover, the Time Capsule Coronation remained the only affair of its kind.

When Tom Tutt pulled into the Stop & Shop for gas and coffee, he bought a newspaper. He was still sitting there in his truck when he noticed the front-page story about how his identical twin brother, Tim, had decided to run for the honor of being the new Time Capsule King.

The Tutt twins were close growing up, but had drifted apart. Their parents were deceased and although the brothers still lived in the same town, they hardly saw each other, save the occasional holiday dinner. Their paths had diverged sharply, and with that split went the affection the two once shared.

Tom lived by himself in a small apartment on the west side; he got by doing carpentry and odd jobs for cash. Tim was a corporate man, married with two kids, and a homeowner active in his community.

Tom drove over to his brother’s house. His sister-in-law Sandy looked apprehensive as she sent him around back. Tim was in the garage cleaning an old barbeque grill and nodded indifferently to his brother, “Haven’t seen you in a while Tom, what’s up?”

“What’s up?” Tom was shouting, “The newspaper says you’re campaigning for the Time Capsule Coronation. Are you kidding? Why would you want to be part of something like that?”

“It’s not so ridiculous,” Tim said. “There’s $300,000 in savings bonds, complete relief from our property taxes and 10 years health insurance for the family—as well as reality show money and some endorsements. I think it’s worth a shot.”

Tom insisted that his brother withdraw from the contest but Tim was adamant about pursuing the crown. Finally, Tim admitted that he’d been laid off of his job 18 months earlier. Undeterred, Tom began another harangue and Tim got more defensive. Old resentments and rivalries were invoked. Tom kept up his berating until Tim finally told him to leave.

The following week, Tim was in front of Whole Foods passing out fliers promoting his campaign for the Time Capsule Coronation. He’d only been there for 20 minutes when someone casually informed him that there was a new contender for the crown—namely, his brother Tom.

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Laura Marling: Girl On Film

LauraMarling

After scrapping a “boring” new album, Laura Marling found inspiration in the City of Angels

With the title of her first album, 2008’s Alas I Cannot Swim, Laura Marling established a pattern. I Speak Because I Can (2010), A Creature I Don’t Know (2011) and Once I Was An Eagle (2013) followed, all by the time the precociously poised British folk singer and guitarist turned 23. Now comes her fifth album, and the title, Short Movie, signals a change.

“Yeah, you can read into that,” says Marling, who at the start of this year moved back to London after a stint in Los Angeles. “Obviously, I did think about making the title fit in, because I did feel like this album is the last of this crop, five albums in. It would have been nice if all the titles aligned; all the titles are supposed to have six syllables in them. There is one song title that has six syllables (‘Don’t Let Me Bring You Down’), but it didn’t seem to fit, and Short Movie seemed to be the one that encapsulated the feeling.”

The album is full of existential crises, of brief, difficult relationships, of displacement, of transience. “It’s a short fucking movie, man,” she sings on the title track. “I know/I’m going to try and take it slow.”

Although Marling recently appeared in a short film, the seven-minute Woman Driver, she calls that “just a really random bit of synergy.” The album follows a period of unexpected downtime. Shortly after finishing her tour for Once I Was An Eagle, Marling recorded an album, but then scrapped it.

“I just made a really, really boring album because all I’d been doing was traveling and not really taking in anything,” she says. “So, it was a fairly traumatizing experience, throwing away 14 songs or whatever. But it was good.”

The eight months she had expected to spend touring were suddenly free, and Marling spent them hanging around L.A. She wrote poetry, she did some reading and studying (in mysticism and psychology), she took up yoga, she took up the electric guitar. She did a short tour, driving around the country alone. Although throughout her career she’d been referred to as “an old soul,” she says she finally grew up.

“I was just experiencing things for the sake of experiencing them, which again is a privilege not afforded to many—the most troubling thing about it was that I’d been one of these privileged people able to make these strange decisions and able to live my life in a particular way,” says Marling, whose father is a British baronet. “Then I discovered that there was no satisfaction on that side. I’d always been interested in satisfaction rather than fame or success. I think that’s an interest you can only have if you come from a relatively stable background, like I have, and which I feel very lucky to have. I had to ride out the existential side of my discovery to get to the other side where I realized that there’s this wonderful balance in life, and the absolute chaos of the universe is the only truth. I began to find peace in that. So, I came out the other side with fairly dark and difficult truths, really.”

And the stirring, conflicted Short Movie reflects that turmoil (and that electric guitar-playing). It’s an album about transitions, and it marks one in Marling’s catalog.

“It might well be a beginning,” she says. “I had my 25th birthday last week, and I feel like I am my age; suddenly, I feel appropriately aged, and that should signify my next phase in life. I feel like my next phase is adulthood, rather than a tormented and elongated adolescence.”

—Steve Klinge

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Exclusive Excerpt: Sleater-Kinney “Trail Blazers”

SleaterKinney

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

Nine years after going on indefinite hiatus, the legendary Sleater-Kinney has returned with yet another masterpiece. MAGNET goes behind the scenes to find out how and why the band kept this unexpected reunion like a secret for so long. Story by Steve Klinge, photo by Gene Smirnov

Corin Tucker is walking through an empty Union Transfer—the music venue in Philadelphia that used to be a Spaghetti Warehouse—bouncing a rubber ball and holding hands with her daughter. Sleater-Kinney—Tucker, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein, plus Katie Harkin, who joined the band on keyboard, guitar and percussion for the tour—just finished the soundcheck for the night’s sold-out show, and she has a few moments to switch roles, back to motherhood. She’s smiling.

It’s a bitterly cold last day of February, the end of a busy week for the band. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they played two shows in Washington, D.C., the first of which was broadcast live on NPR. Thursday, they taped a performance on Late Night With Seth Meyers (Fred Armisen, Brownstein’s partner in Portlandia, leads the house band) before playing the first of two sold-out nights at New York’s Terminal 5. Saturday is Philly, and they had planned to tape a session for NPR’s World Café in the afternoon, but cancelled because Brownstein came down with a touch of laryngitis and needed to save her voice for that night’s concert.

The soundcheck goes smoothly and efficiently with only two hurdles: The sound guy objects to the Portland Trail Blazers cap that Brownstein wears because it affects the levels he’s setting (although Brownstein jokingly accuses him of hating on her hometown team), and the harmonica Weiss plays during “Modern Girl” sounds shrill until she switches microphones. When the band talks to MAGNET before the show (after individual phone interviews earlier), Brownstein will be sipping tea and coughing occasionally. Tucker will come down with it the next day; fortunately, the first leg of the tour is almost over, and the band has a couple weeks off before heading to Europe. And when they hit the stage in Philly, they’re fine: Brownstein is full of focused energy, and her voice is strong and clear.

Nine years after going on indefinite hiatus, Sleater-Kinney has returned. With No Cities To Love, they’ve made something unprecedented: a reunion album that’s more than credible, that more than reminds us of their past, that is more than a “return to form.” It changes and advances the narrative; it gives us something new to think about, something new to love, something—when it comes down to it—that’s incredible. Name another band that got back together and created one of its best albums. They have returned on their own terms, and, in this age of oversharing and instant information, they managed to make their return a shocking surprise. As they sing, in the readymade pull-quote from “Surface Envy,” “We win, we lose—only together can we break the rules/We win, we lose—only together can we make the rules.”

Tucker, Weiss and Brownstein are in their 40s now, and they’re more adept at making their own rules. While they are fully committed to the band, Sleater-Kinney is now only one of their priorities. The group had been on the write/record/tour cycle from its inception in 1994, when Tucker and Brownstein joined forces as a diversion from their bands Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17, two linchpins of the Olympia, Wash., riot grrrl movement. They released seven albums, concluding with 2005’s classic The Woods. But the strain of touring took its toll. At the beginning of 2006, Sleater-Kinney, by then based in Portland, Ore., surprised everyone by announcing they would part ways after a farewell tour.

“It was difficult to be on tour that much,” says Weiss. “Stepping away from it was a way to preserve it, and not take the band to any sort of levels where we were unhappy. We really try to do this band when we have the energy and vitality to do it. It can’t really be a half-assed project; we really have to do it 100 percent.”

Weiss continued her longtime collaboration with Sam Coomes in Quasi, and played with Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, amongst other projects. Tucker released two very good albums with her own band, raised her son and daughter, and worked a day job. Brownstein started a blog for NPR, volunteered at an Oregon Humane Society and launched Portlandia. She’s also in the Amazon TV show Transparent and has written a memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, hitting shelves October 27. Brownstein and Weiss were also in Wild Flag, the short-lived band with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole.

The success of Portlandia is part of the story of Sleater-Kinney’s return. Weiss works as a location scout for the show. Tucker has appeared in it, and the spark of the S-K reunion occurred in December 2011 when Brownstein and Tucker previewed an episode in which Tucker’s son appeared. With the enthusiastic support of Armisen and Tucker’s husband, filmmaker Lance Bangs, the three women began gathering in Brownstein’s basement to play together.

From the start, the goal was to write new material for an album; the band had no interest in coming back just to perform the old stuff. They had done a farewell tour in the spring of 2006 and didn’t care about another victory lap. Friends were eager to see what would come out of working together again, and they wanted to do so outside of the public eye, so they kept their rehearsals a secret.

“As far as the chemistry, that was fairly easy to reignite,” says Brownstein. “Although the bigger challenge was actually because we have such a familiarity with each other and things can be so seamless, that’s not exactly the place from which you want to create. Sometimes it’s better to have there be more tension, so if you want to make something different, you can’t fall back on what feels safe. So, we gave ourselves the same mission we do with every album, which is to try to make something different.”

“Since we hadn’t been playing live, there was definitely some reacquainting that had to happen,” says Weiss. “The live shows are really where we sort of hone our telepathy and our sort of power; we really develop that onstage. So, because we didn’t have the advantage of playing shows, it took us a little longer to reconnect.”

The band was determined not to repeat old ideas, and they rejected a lot of material as they were writing.

“If we wrote anything that sounded too similar to something that we’d already done, we ended up tossing it,” says Tucker. “It could be a perfectly good song, but it just wasn’t something that had a feeling of newness or discovery about it.”

“It’s easy for us in a way to fall back into a pattern, like Carrie’s guitar playing 16th notes”—here Weiss sings some notes that sound like the opening of “Words & Guitar”—“and Corin’s guitar playing the bass notes, and I’m playing some syncopated drum thing. There are some signature things to the sound that we try to avoid so that we don’t repeat ourselves over and over again. A lot of the choruses on this record, Carrie and Corin sing together in unison, which is a newer idea. Simple things like that we can try to change up the patterns. It’s important in order to try to stay current and vital.”

Indeed, the principals had broken the Sleater-Kinney mold—even the malleable mold that it was—with the freewheeling distortion of The Woods, and this LP needed to be something equally new.

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Torche: Rumble Beginnings

Torche

The doom-pop heroes in Torche are reignited, and it feels so good

Back in 2005, when Torche unleashed its debut helping of thunderous doom-pop onto an unsuspecting world, guitarist/vocalist Steve Brooks’ former band, Floor, was dead and buried. Sure, with Brooks fronting both, and drummer Rick Smith competing with Robotic Empire (which released Torche) label boss Andy Low for the crown of World’s Biggest Floor Fan, there were bound to be sonic similarities, but never again would Brooks’ former and present bands compete for his time and attention.

Well, never say never. Torche was driving along with its collection of critically hailed everything until Floor dropped Oblation last April. Suddenly, “a few reunion gigs” became a time-consuming reality, with Brooks balancing two bands’ write/record/tour cycles.

“It probably crossed our minds a couple times, the idea of Floor blowing up and Torche taking a backseat,” says Smith, “but I was actually welcoming Floor being busy so I could have some time at home.”

Even before Floor reconvened, the amount of time available for Torche’s writing and rehearsal activities was at issue. It’s a juggling act Torche has been at since 2008 when members started moving away from the band’s Miami home base and keeping the balls in the air had become trickier due to a combination of recording technology, luxuriously fast electronic communication and guaranteed-lowest-airfare travel websites.

“I always think we should have more time to write and record,” says Smith. “Especially to write and rehearse the material before we record it. Since we’ve all been in different cities—me and (bassist) Jonathan (Nuñez) are in Miami, Steve’s in San Francisco, and (guitarist) Andrew (Elstner) bounces between Kansas City and Atlanta—I’ve always found it a pain in the ass getting together. A lot of it is that our studio and gear are here in Miami. When we started the band, it obviously wasn’t like that, but around the time Meanderthal came out, Steve and (ex-guitarist) Juan (Montoya) moved to Atlanta. Then, Juan was out of the band, we were a three-piece and I was living in Gainesville, which is about halfway between Atlanta and Miami. That was probably when we were at our most well-rehearsed, because we met up in Gainesville and practiced all the time.

“Since then, we haven’t been able to full-on rehearse the songs before going in to record them. The last couple of records have been put together in a way that we don’t get to work the kinks out super-hard before recording, and this was probably the most like that. I’m not saying it’s bad; it’s just a different way of doing things, and with everyone being so spread out it makes it hard to do it any other way.”

The approach involved in organizing this musical jigsaw puzzle has its stamp all over new album Restarter. The band’s fourth packs in all the familiar elements, but does so with a looser, more somber tone and sullen mood. It’s more Black Sabbath than brown sugar, so to speak.

“It is a bit of a downer,” says Smith. “It’s way darker, and the heavy songs have almost more of a doom-metal vibe to them, even vocally. It sounds like us, but it’s a little different. It’s a direction I didn’t know we were going to go in when we first started writing. The material sounded one way when we started, and by the time we finished, it sounded different.”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Allison Moorer: Blunt Force Honesty

AllisonMoorer

Allison Moorer uses creative compulsions to come to terms with divorce

When she was younger, alt-country warbler Allison Moorer used to believe that she wanted an intellectual existence, a life of the mind. But now, at 42, she sighs, “What I’ve realized that I have is a life of the hands—I’m always just making something, or I’m writing or drawing something, because it makes me feel connected; it makes me feel real. It’s the same way with music—I just want to make it.” Hence, the singer’s latest ambitious set, Down To Believing, which documents her recent split from her husband, Steve Earle, and—on the bluesy apology “Mama Let The Wolf In”—even the motherly guilt she felt when their son John Henry, now four, was diagnosed with autism two years ago. “It’s pretty brutal,” she assesses of the autobiographical disc.

Which is why the singer—who, along with her singer/songwriter sister Shelby Lynne, suffered their parents’ murder/suicide as kids back in ’86—has been finding peace of mind in an unusual artsy-craftsy outlet lately: Along with Rosanne Cash and several other well-heeled ladies, she’s part of an actual sewing circle that the women all jokingly refer to as the Stitch-and-Bitch. They try to meet every couple of weeks at one of their New York apartments, with tasty snacks on hand, and the latest patterns from noted seamstress Natalie Chanin’s DIY company, Alabama Chanin. “We only get two or three hours, and we’ll do it on a weekday afternoon,” says Moorer. “But we will sit and sew and talk about our lives, and have sisterhood and friendship. It’s one of my favorite things in my life.”

For Moorer, the tradition first started in Scotland four years ago, when she bumped into Cash backstage at a Celtic festival. “Rosanne and I were only acquainted, not really friends at that point,” she says. “But I was wearing an Alabama Chanin outfit that I had made, so Rosanne asked me, ‘Are you wearing an actual Alabama Chanin?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! Natalie’s my friend, and I make her kits.’ So, we made a plan to get together and sew not too long after that.” The kits stress one thing—everything must be hand-stitched, with no sewing machine involved. “It’s all organic, quite a beautiful process, and I think it keeps us all grounded,” she says.

Every last note of Down To Believing was constructed the same way—painstakingly, lovingly, with an eye for the smallest detail. It opens with the deceptively chiming “Like It Used To Be,” which mourns her relationship’s passing with a growling chorus of “Don’t wanna say goodbye, but it’ll set me free/It ain’t ever gonna be like it used to be.” Inclement weather is also used to signal encroaching trouble (tempestuous, guitar-squall ballad “Thunderstorm Hurricane,” and a cover of CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”), as is plain puzzlement (“Tear Me Apart,” “If I Were Stronger”). But ultimately, Moorer settles on forgiveness, cleaning every last trace of her ex out of their residence with celebratory stomper “I’m Doing Fine.” “I think this is the most free record I’ve ever made,” she says. “I just didn’t give a damn about where it landed, who liked it—I just made it. And I had no dude hanging over my shoulder, telling me what to do. And I think that shows.”

On Earle’s new effort Terraplane Blues, there’s a telling track called “Better Off Alone,” wherein he drawls, “Though I taught you everything you know/I learned a thing or two myself/And so I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone/I’m better off alone.” Given that Moorer was Wife Number Seven for the artist, are these lyrics a bit of blame-shouldering? She pauses. “Well, he’s never said that to me,” she says. “But you know, here’s the thing—I really don’t have anything but good to say about Steve. And he didn’t teach me everything, but he did teach me a lot, and in fact, I taught him some things, too. And we have a beautiful son that we work very hard to take care of together, so that’s our ground zero. So, I don’t regret our relationship. I really don’t. And as far as his wives go? Hey—I do hold the record. We were together for seven years!”

—Tom Lanham

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Exclusive Excerpt: Death Cab For Cutie Interviewed By Dave Eggers

DCFC

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

A lot has happened to Death Cab For Cutie since its last album. Frontman Ben Gibbard famously got divorced from Zooey Deschanel. Founding member and producer Chris Walla left the band. Yet, with the new Kintsugi, Death Cab might have made the best record of its 17-year career. MAGNET asked acclaimed writer (and longtime DCFC fan) Dave Eggers to interview the trio for us.

Interviewing the members of Death Cab For Cutie is one of the easier tasks available to humankind. As you can see below, I think I asked 10 questions, and somehow this interview went on for an hour and ended up almost 6,000 words long. At this point, the members of Death Cab, who have been making music under that name for about 17 years, know themselves and their work, and are eloquent, circumspect and grateful all at once. They’re grateful that they get to do this for a living, and grateful for all their years with Chris Walla, who recently left the band, but remains their friend, and whose influence—in the studio and out—helped shape the band’s inimitable sound. Death Cab’s new album, Kintsugi, is their eighth, and very well might be their best. It’s their most mature, and its lyrics are arguably their most poignant and lacerating. This is a band in its prime, which has managed to make a great new record despite—and maybe because of—various personal upheavals and departures. What Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr have to say about the process of creation, and the undiminished joy of making music going on 20 years, is edifying to anyone and all. —Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers: At this point, are you able to listen to the new album from a safe distance, to enjoy it? Or are you still too close to it?
Ben Gibbard:
I always feel the most secure in the work in the period between when it’s finished and when someone that’s not a family member or close friend hears it. For us, there was a four-or-five-month period where I could just put the record on and listen to it and be proud of it without any kind of prejudice. I think my favorite time is that period after you finish it, before people hear it, when it’s truly just yours.

Eggers: Are there listeners outside of the band who are key at the early stages of an album? Someone you play it for to know if you’re onto something?
Nick Harmer:
A short answer is yes, but the longer answer for me, which was unique in this particular case for us, was that this album was the first album that we worked on with an outside producer, Rich Costey. And you know, he was pretty uncompromising in his feedback along the way. I began to trust him with all sorts of stuff, like the quality and just how things were turning out. More than ever, his objective perspective was something I could really depend on because he didn’t have years of history with the band. He was hearing things in real time and was able to sort of critique us and push us along the way. I feel like bands are a little fortunate in some ways that we have someone in the studio, like Rich, who can really nudge us along right in the middle of things, even before it gets to us playing for people. If we were passing his test and he was excited about something, then I felt like, “Oh, it certainly is going to work if we play for people outside of that check point.”
Gibbard: With every record that we’ve made for years, the first person I send it to is Jenny Lewis. We’ve been friends for a long time and, I mean, it seems like we’re always playing each other our songs as we’re working on them or they’re in demo form. We’ll drive around together and say, “Hey, check this out. What do you think?” And she’s always been a supportive, but at times brutally honest, voice. I’ve always trusted her to give me the straight scoop on whatever the thing I’m working on is. Maybe the label or maybe even Jason or Nick don’t want to hear this, but I sent her the record like three days after I got the masters, you know? And obviously she’s trustworthy. [Laughs] It’s not going to end up being leaked from Jenny Lewis’ email account. But I’ve always felt like the first person I’ve wanted to listen to my records is Jenny. I want to know what she’s thinking.

Eggers: What made Rich Costey the right guy to produce the album?
Gibbard:
We had kind of reached out to a number of people, and because this was the first record that Chris wasn’t producing, you know, we all felt like Chris was happy with the torch as producer, but it was going to be imperative to find somebody that he felt good about. No slight to Chris, but it’s fairly logical that if somebody has been at the helm for 17 years, and then you bring in somebody new, that person has to be somebody who is at bare minimum respected by the person who has been in charge of the studio for the past 17 years. So, Rich was somebody who Chris had had a number of good conversations with before we started the record, and he was like, “I think this guy is pretty good. I think this guy is the guy.” Rich had that going for him before we even met him, but then we met him and kind of immediately related to him. I think the thing that I appreciated most about him immediately was that he had a little trepidation at starting the project because he knew what was at stake. He knew that he was the first outside producer to work with this band, but also he was like, “Look, if I start this record, I’m going to see it through to the end. I don’t want to bail. I’m not going to just give half of myself. I’m going to give it my all.” And we all appreciated that, and we appreciated the trepidation more than we would appreciate someone jumping up and down saying they want to do it. So, he really had that going for him from the beginning.

Eggers: Inevitably, we have to talk about how the songwriting and recording process was different without Chris.
Gibbard:
Well, Chris was in the studio. We made this record with Chris, and him saying that he would be leaving the band after the record was something that wasn’t a giant shock to us. I think that we had all assumed in our own way that this would be a conversation we would have at some point. Because Chris always identified primarily as the producer and also as a band member. He identified as a band member, but production has always been his number-one love, and what he has seen himself more as than a guitar player in a band. So, it was inevitable that we would come to this point. But I have to say, I think that Rich’s involvement in this record is the reason it turned out to be the way it did, and in my opinion, it’s certainly a record we are proud of. I think this as much because Rich was able to cut through all four of our ever-increasing piles of bullshit that we had kind of been adding to over the years. [Laughs] Chris got us to where we are today and I wouldn’t change a single note of any of that, but it is a very unusual way to work, to have the guitarist produce the records, and I think that once we had somebody else take over the helm, and he had nothing to lose or didn’t mind saying, “Hey that guitar part doesn’t work,” or, “Hey, those vocals don’t work.” He could come in completely objectively, with no history with the four of us. And certainly, you know, he’s not going to have to play these songs however many years the band continues on. That’s something I had never thought about until Rich was producing the record. It was like, “Yeah, Rich doesn’t have to play these songs,” so he only has to think about how they’ll sound on the album.

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Bob Schneider: Austin Limits

BobSchneider

Fourteen years removed from his major-label debut, Bob Schneider is still struggling to be heard. Does he care? You be the judge.

He claims it doesn’t bother him, but you can tell the Jack Johnson thing eats at him a little. Just a month after Johnson’s debut ambled its way into the waterlogged psyches of frat dudes everywhere, Bob Schneider’s Lonelyland was also released on Universal. Almost a decade and a half later, Johnson remains a top seller on the Universal roster. And Schneider, well …

“He got a hit and went on a trajectory that’s crazy, selling millions of records and playing stadiums—and I didn’t,” says Schneider from the back of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that’s home when he’s on the road. “For the past 10 years, I’ve been playing the same clubs and haven’t been able to break out of it … 85 percent of the gigs I play are in Texas. But it’s cool. I can do anything I want, and I make enough money to live comfortably. If I had the success of Jack Johnson, I’d have to do a lot of shit like this interview—which I never do anymore.”

It’s about an hour before a well-attended show at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. The performance will be loose, good-natured and ultimately a bit bizarre when the so-called “Philly All-Stars”—basically a guy, his wife and assorted friends—take the stage to serenade Schneider during an encore. “They showed up at (a Philly show) maybe eight or nine years ago,” he says. “They were dancing, and I pulled them onstage. They’ve been to every show since.”

So, here’s the deal: Schneider wasn’t raised on the Oahu’s North Shore; he’s never surfed Pipeline; and film school in Santa Barbara was never an option. Born in Ypsilanti, Mich., he was raised mostly in Germany, where his dad, an opera singer, struggled to eke out a career. He studied art for a while at the University of Texas at El Paso before settling in Austin, where he fronted punk-spiked groove outfit Joe Rockhea, and the sorta-similar mid-’90s band Ugly Americans.

There are similarities between Schneider and Johnson. The two share a rubbery, granular vocal delivery, rugged good looks, an ear for melodies that stick (for better or worse) and an acclivity for absurd song titles (Schneider: “Jingy,” “Capn Kirk,” “Penelope Cruz”; Johnson: “Bubble Toes,” “Banana Pancakes,” “Washing Dishes”). Both have kids. Schneider has a nine-year-old son from his first marriage, and he’s newly engaged. He once dated Sandra Bullock (prior to her disastrous run-in with Jesse James).

That relationship loosely coincided with the official launch of his solo career. At the Austin release party for Lonelyland, the men’s room was buzzing over numerous “Sandy sightings.” (I should know—I was there.) A clear-eyed Schneider, to his credit, refused to be consumed by the hype. Sober since 1995, he’d partied enough for two lifetimes by then. “It’s weird,” he recalls of that time. “It really doesn’t feel that much different now than it did then. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day. I’m still writing songs; I’m still putting out records; I’m still playing the same clubs and with a lot of the same guys—I’ve played with (bassist) Bruce (Hughes) for 20 years.”

Seven more proper solo albums have followed the promising Lonelyland. A good number are wildly inconsistent, and two (2011’s A Perfect Day and 2013’s Burden Of Proof) are pretty close to great. Most encouraging, for him and for us, is that Schneider, now 49, has made some of the most honest and sophisticated music of his career over the past few years. And his habit of larding his releases with throwaway tracks and goofball hokum has mostly gone by the wayside.

All that could change with his next project. For now, the plan is to release a series of EPs throughout 2015, with the first one coming this month. All will be limited editions, with cover art created by Schneider, who’s come a long way as painter in recent years.

“The thing that works best for me is to keep things really eclectic,” he says. “I just did a show in Austin where I played 12 hours, but with no bullshit. The set list was, like, 200 songs. It would’ve gone on for like six days if I’d played all of them. But then there would’ve been a couple days of some pretty mediocre tunes.”

The only album Schneider played in full: 2001’s Lonelyland.

Go figure.

—Hobart Rowland

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Butch Walker: Ghost Writers

ButchWalker

Butch Walker enlists Ryan Adams to augment his signature ambient folk metal

Butch Walker built his reputation with hard-hitting, self-produced rock albums marked by a bright, polished sound. When he set out to make Afraid Of Ghosts, an LP partially inspired by the death of his father, he decided to forget about perfection and aim for a more visceral, acoustic feel.

“I didn’t plan on making an album about my dad dying,” says Walker. “I don’t know if anyone would want to listen to my grief for an entire record, but the songs were all inspired by thoughts about life and death. We all know life has limitations and death is inevitable; then it happens and you have to deal with it. It’s easy to write about the girls and parties. It’s harder to talk about loss and missed connections.”

The songs on Afraid Of Ghosts were written over the course of a year, then recorded with Ryan Adams and his band in a four-day burst of creativity. It’s the first time Walker worked with an outside producer. “I wanted a quieter, natural sound for these songs,” he says. “I’m a different person than I was during my more aggressive 20s. I didn’t want the music to sound too thought-out or rehearsed.”

Walker likes to retain control in the studio and knew that turning over the reins to Adams might create friction, but he had faith in their collaboration. “I’ve been playing with Ryan and his band during our recent tour together, and it felt good to just grab a guitar and start singing,” he says. “If I did the same thing in the studio, I thought I might end up loving it. I knew I’d have to submit and not be a bullheaded asshole and fight to get everything my way, but if I went in with an open mind and let go, it might be a better record. Ryan said, ‘You can sing good and play good and write good, but the only way to make it sound like it’s not too good is to capture some of the mess,’ which is what he did.”

The band didn’t hear the songs they were going to record until Walker played them in the studio, so the arrangements were created on the fly, with ideas flowing freely between the players. The result is a bracing mix of acoustic guitar, ambient keyboard textures and rock-band distortion, all recorded onto a single tape machine. (The LP also features guest appearances by Johnny Depp and Bob Mould.)

“Everybody was miked the whole time, just like onstage,” says Walker. “We didn’t edit anything out or try to clean up tape hiss. We wanted to hear five guys in a room shuffling around, waiting for their parts to come up. We’d throw out a few ideas, then record, never more than one or two takes, and we never went back to listen to what we did. When we thought we got it in the moment, we moved on. I think we captured the real emotion of the songs, a combination of punk-rock spirit and human fragility.”

—j. poet

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

“Symphonies For The Devil,” By The Pop Group’s Gareth Sager

PopGroup

The legendary Pop Group is releasing Citizen Zombie, its first album in more than three decades, later this month and is doing its first-ever U.S. tour in March. Guitarist Gareth Sager wrote this amazing essay for magnetmagazine.com. Enjoy.

Never mind … “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” Marley’s “Exodus,” the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” and ”Forces Of Oppression” by The Pop Group …

Long before these chants against evil oppressors were penned, deep in the bosom of the good folk of Europe and further afield, there were rallying calls to arms. Rallying calls or the basic blues moan of the servant against the master …

National anthems have become the stock soundtrack to events judged to be of national importance, a sort of aural wallpaper that is so familiar to us now that we’re in danger of overlooking what they really are.

And the point is this: National anthems are folk songs pure and simple, and not only that, folk songs that are bellowed out millions of lungs all over the world, with gusto, passion and an earnest commitment that most folk singers could only dream about.

Like all good folk culture, the national anthem is adaptable and co-opted to a multitude of ends: an out-of-tune sing a long before a football match or a call to revolution for the French with the “La Marseillaise.” In the 1970s and ’80s, “Amhran na bhFiann” became a test of subversion and loyalty for the Irish—anyone not standing when it was sung in the inevitable lock-in in London’s Irish pubs risked prompt defenestration.

National anthems are like barometers of the national mood. Forty years ago, refusing to stand in the cinema would have shocked people. By way of contrast, today’s young people are shocked to hear that the national anthem was played in cinemas at all.

Nevertheless a quick tour through some of my favourite anthems will show why their potency endures.

By anyone’s standards, the Welsh national anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadan” (or “Land Of My Fathers”), must be one of the most stirring songs ever written. But what of these lines in the third verse?

“If the enemy oppresses my camp under his foot,
The old language of the Welsh is alive as ever.
The muse is not hindered by the hideous hand of treason,
Nor is the melodious harp of my country.”

Or verse four of “La Marseillaise.”

“If they fall, our young heroes, the earth will produce new ones”

And the chorus.

“Let the impure blood water our furrows”

Freedom from oppression is one of the great common factors in national anthems, though in both these cases, the melodies also carry extraordinary power. The French anthem acts as a rallying call for the people to march to victory, while the Welsh anthem, written by a harp-playing innkeeper called James James, was designed to get his patrons up and dancing. Inviting people to get out of their heads and into their bodies is a crucial aspect in folk that tends to get lost. Even today, only a corpse could fail to be moved by the sound of 60,000 Welsh voices singing their national anthem before a rugby match.

The German national anthem is an interesting survivor. Today, only the third verse is sung, as the first verse was used by the Nazis. But prior to that, the “Deutschlandlied,” as it was known, was written with a clear view in mind. It originated with the Vormaz revolutionaries in 1848 whose clear aim was to unify Germany and overcome the anti-liberal Kleinstaaterei. Nico, one-time member of the Velvet Underground, performs a wonderful version, singing all the verses on her solo album The End, reclaiming the song for a new generation.

Ireland’s anthem, which translates as “The Soldier’s Song,” has this as the third verse:

“Shall we set the tyrant quaking,
Our camp fires now are burning low?
See in the east a silvery glow
Out yonder waits the Saxon foe.”

“Flower Of Scotland,” the most recent anthem to be introduced to Europe (and a terrible dirge if played too slow), contains these lines:

“When will we see your like again
That fought and died
For your wee bit of hill and glen
And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him home
Tae think again.” 

In the third verse of the USA anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” we find the words: “Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

The lyrics for this anthem were written by an amateur poet after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in 1814. The tune was taken from a song called “Anacreon In Heaven” composed by an Englishman. However, I feel the theme of resistance comes across loud and proud.

Please note that the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” so often used as the mood music for the American meltdown caused by the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, the burning of Detroit, etc., became the USA’s unofficial anthem as the straight ’50s morphed into the burnt-out psychedelic ’60s. This version would certainly make it into my top three national anthems.

With the inspiration for many national anthems being English oppression, it is worth pointing out that “God Save the Queen,” lyrically and melodically, is one of the worst anthems in the world.

Here’s a sample of the lyrics first published in a “gentleman’s magazine” of 1745:

“Scatter her enemies, and make them fall,
Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks.”

Seldom heard these days, this lyric seems to be asking god to intervene on the side of the oppressor—rather than with the conquered—and one is tempted to say that this energy-sapping smugness infects the entire song, whether the verse is sung or not.

More honest perhaps to take a leaf out of the Led Zeppelin songbook:
“The hammer of the gods, will drive our ships to new lands/Valhalla we are coming!”

Perhaps we could learn something from the Vikings. My father—an Englishman—asserts that having to sing “God Save the Queen” before a sports match gives England’s opponents the clear advantage, the second the last note of this anthem is sung.

Being of the punk generation, I can say with some confidence that the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen,” with Johnny Rotten’s “We mean it man“, seemed a mighty fine rewrite that spoke directly to dispirited youth across the UK.

Of course, in the age of self empowerment, everyone should get the chance to select their own anthem for any country.

Many Americans choose “Born in the USA” as a patriotic, contemporary alternative to the “Star Spangled Banner“, not recognizing the bitter irony of the lyrics. I would choose “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron, for a modern USA.

Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life’ sums up Scotland; Russia has to go with Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”; Australia should have Nick Cave’s “Stagger Lee”; England gets the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”; and Wales and France can keep their existing anthems because as songs, as statements and as rallying calls, they cannot be beaten.

But whatever your choice, it is always important to remember one oft-overlooked tradition: Pay the musicians with whisky, and let them live in the gutter.

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed