Category Archives: FEATURES

Johnny Marr: This Charming Man

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

JohnnyMarr

Twenty-five years after quitting the Smiths, Johnny Marr finally goes solo. Plus, everything you wanted to know about the Smiths but were afraid to ask and/or didn’t have their phone numbers. By Jonathan Valania

Being Johnny Marr is nice work if you can get it. Lots of travel, flexible hours, money for nothing, chicks for free. Most days you walk between the raindrops. You are rakishly handsome, impossibly talented, effortlessly cool and beloved by all. Born in Manchester and raised in public housing, you meet your soulmate when you were 14, you quit school when you were 15, and at the ripe old age of 18 you start a band that NME readers will, 20 years hence, declare the most important band of the last 50 years, edging out the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Small wonder everyone wants you to join their band in the studio or onstage for a song or a tour, or even an album or two: Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Modest Mouse, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Black Grape, Jane Birkin, Happy Mondays, The The, Chic, Dinosaur Jr, Pearl Jam, Crowded House, Tom Jones and, last but not least, the guy who started Joy Division. You almost never say no, because you are not just a legend, you are also a nice guy.

Here you are, a year shy of 50. You still have the soulmate, two grown children, your looks and all your hair, plus a line of Fender Jaguars named after you, along with a numbered limited edition of Johnny Marr Ray-Ban Signet sunglasses with light blue-tinted lenses and gunmetal frames. And, best of all, 25 years after walking away from your own band, you are finally going solo.

“The ideas became stronger to me and the well filled up—that’s the right time to do it,” Marr says when asked what took so long. “It was pretty much all there before I started to work with it.”

The album is called The Messenger and it is easily your best work since the Smiths. Some of it is clearly as good as the Smiths, and some of it, arguably, is better than the Smiths.

Ah yes, the Smiths. Before we go any further, let’s just get this out of the way: The Smiths will not be reuniting. Not now, not ever. Not that I didn’t try to make it happen, but the sad reality is when the queen is dead, she stays dead. A full Beatles reunion is more likely.

Or, to quote Morrissey’s publicist, “The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite—ever.” And if the more determined among you can parse that quote for a glimmer of hope that there’s still an outside chance of a reunion, please note that there’s eight “ever”s in that statement, meaning eight eternities in a row that will have to run their course before a Smiths reunion comes to pass. Given that the median age of the members of the Smiths is 50, and the life expectancy for British males is currently 78.2 years, it doesn’t look good.

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Wilco: Paternity Test

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

Wilco

Dad-rock isn’t a dirty word for Black Eyed Peas’ number-one fan, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. By Althea Legaspi

Tucked away on a side street by an industrial area in Chicago is the Hideout, where a capacity crowd turns up for Dan Sinker and some surprise guests. The man behind Punk Planet and the fake @MayorEmanuel Twitter account—which parodied real events surrounding Rahm Emanuel’s race for Chicago’s mayorship—is holding a release party for the book housing the tweets that became an Internet phenomenon. Sinker is among many excellent writers and poets reading their work. The real Mayor Emanuel shows up, does a quick handshake lap around the bar and disappears. But it’s another surprise guest who steals the show, thanks to a single tweet from eight months prior.

At the time, Wilco was performing a fundraising concert for the real Rahm Emanuel, during which the fake @MayorEmanuel tweeted, “Tweedy’s being pissy because he doesn’t want to play any Black Eyed Peas songs. What the fuck? People love that shit.” With some prodding from wife Sue Miller, the tweet inspired Jeff Tweedy’s surprise acoustic appearance at the Hideout. He takes the stage and irreverently performs “I Gotta Feeling,” “Rock That Body” and a spoken-word version of “My Humps” that is comedy gold. (Video from the show rightly makes the Internet rounds.)

Over the years, Wilco, primarily the vehicle for Tweedy’s songwriting, has been described as many things—from sincere, philanthropic and ever-evolving to seemingly less flattering descriptors like “hipster dad-rock” and “music for white people.” Goofy and comedic, however, are not the first words that spring to mind when describing Wilco and/or Tweedy.

“That’s something I think that’s frequently missed in people’s assessment of what the Wilco environment is like,” says Tweedy. “I think we have a lot of fun. Even the bad times that people talk about and are so well-documented, I guess, in the minds of our fans—I don’t have many memories of anything being really harrowing at all. I really think that one of the reasons we’ve been able to stick around so long and do what we do is there’s a real enjoyment—a true enjoyment—of it, and we’ve been fortunate to not have too many things interfere with that. Certainly in the last five years or so, things have been much easier. So, yeah, I don’t know; even recording really sort of melancholy-sounding songs, there’s been an overwhelming atmosphere of levity in the way we work together.”

The band has just issued its eighth studio LP, The Whole Love. It’s the first album Wilco has released on its own label, dBpm Records. After 17 years and several lineup incarnations, the current formation—Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Patrick Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen—is unique for the Wilco camp.

“Well, it’s certainly longer than any one lineup, and I think it’s probably getting closer to longer than any of the other lineups combined,” says Tweedy. “Previous to (2009’s) Wilco (The Album), no other lineup had made two consecutive albums, and I guess, counting the live album (2005’s Kicking Television: Live In Chicago), we’ve made four now.”

Wilco’s storied past has been thoroughly documented in print and the 2002 film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, where the relationship between Jay Bennett (who passed away in 2009) and Tweedy dissolved during the making of breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But there’s a certain chemistry now that hasn’t been present before. “I guess you just have to spend less time talking about things and be just more able to go directly to something and intuitively know what each others’ strengths are,” says Tweedy. “And as far as what has contributed to the longevity and the chemistry, I don’t know; that’s a pretty intangible thing, chemistry is, but I could say I think that it’s a band full of people who are primarily appreciative and grateful, doing something that they love to do and having it support them and keep them alive. And I guess being a little bit older and not taking anything for granted, that helps everybody keep things in perspective … The petty squabbles that might plague a younger band don’t tend to enter into our politics.”

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

The xx: Back In Black

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

XX

Three years after its debut won the Mercury Prize and the hearts and minds of indie-dom—not to mention the likes of Drake, Shakira and Rihanna—London’s little band that could has released a new album of hushed, lovesick melodramas that are sure to play out in late-night teenage bedrooms around the globe. By Jonathan Valania

It is the tail end of another hot, dog-breath day afternoon in early August. Mercifully, we are on our way to some place that is, for one night anyway, cool: Staten Island. There are many locales that you might associate with the sound, the look and the vibe of the xx—London after dark, Tokyo circa Lost In Translation, Manhattan around midnight, capitals of cool each and every one—but Staten Island is most assuredly not one of them. There is nothing young or cool or stylish about Staten Island, which even residents refer to as “the forgotten borough.”

And yet here we are, standing on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry, motoring across the Hudson for a semi-exclusive audience with London’s black-clad indie-pop darlings, who are playing a hastily announced concert on the island that is Staten. Behind us, the Manhattan skyline recedes into the distance. Off the starboard bow, the sun dips behind the Statue of Liberty like a solar eclipse, giving Lady Liberty a corona of brilliant white light that sets the twilight reeling.

In advance of the release of Coexist, the xx’s much-anticipated follow-up to 2009’s beloved xx debut, the band is capping a sold-out pre-release promotional tour of select West and East Coast dates in the U.S. with a performance at the little-known Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a sprawling complex of botanical gardens and majestic Greek-revival buildings situated on Staten Island’s north shore. Erected in 1801 as a retirement facility for sailors, Snug Harbor has in more recent years been repurposed to serve the arts. Tonight it will serve the xx and serve them well.

I’m huddled on the deck amidst a de facto posse of employees from the Beggars Group, which, in addition to providing the care and feeding of legendary indie institutions like 4AD, Matador and Rough Trade, serves as the stateside outpost of the xx’s British home, XL Recordings. Everyone is, to put it charitably, over 30. Crouched nearby is a tender-aged, barely twentysomething couple leaning against the wall and discussing, improbably enough, the exigencies of aging.

“Life sucks more the older you get,” says the male to the female, who nods knowingly. He looks left and right to make sure this conversation is going unnoticed before adding, “I won’t say it too loud because everyone here will just be like, ‘Shut up, we know.’” We all hear it, but pretend we didn’t, feeling no particular need to provide confirmation. He’ll find out soon enough, the poor bastard. Just like we did. Just like everyone does sooner or later.

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Grizzly Bear: Truth Or Consequences

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

GrizzlyBear

MAGNET plays 20 questions with Grizzly Bear in the hip wilds of Williamsburg where there are no wrong answers. By Jonathan Valania

It’s another blazingly hot and hip summer day in Brooklyn. Boomboxes, guinea tees, gold chains, water ice, open fire hydrants. It’s kind of like Do The Right Thing without the race riot. The girls walk by in their summer clothes. The boys walk by in their skinny jeans. The subway is redolent of stale urine and diesel. It’s high noon, and the sun is punishing and relentless. There are many things in abundance in Brooklyn—coffee shops, craft beers, beards—but shade isn’t one of them.  ¶  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t venture outside the igloo on a day like this, but today is special. The Bear has awoken from its three-year hibernation, grabbed the horn of plenty and started making beautiful music again. I always say there are only two things that get me out of bed:

A teenage riot. (Obligatory Sonic Youth reference. Look it up, son.)

A new Grizzly Bear album. (Actually, I never say that, but it just seems like the kind of thing that should go here.)

Said new album is called Shields (Warp), a fact Grizzly Bear kept a secret and teased well into late summer. That’s the kind of thing you do in the internet era: tease basic facts about your release. Basic facts that would have been given away for free in the pre-internet era will now cost you. Ironically, music is free (if you know where to look), but knowledge (which is not to be confused with information, a much baser coin) you will have to pay for with the most precious commodity in the Internet Age: your attention. And so the fan is strung along for weeks with cryptic hints on Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum about the when and what and why of once quotidian details like cover art and album title and release date. And, hey kids, be the first on your block to Tweet/Facebook/Reddit to the world and be King Of The Goddamn Internet for all of 10 seconds! Whoopee!

Determined not to have the new album leak in advance of the release date the way 2009’s Veckatimest did, the band’s handlers have taken to sending out watermarked streams of the new LP to journalists with a fake band name (the Toddies), fake album title (False Salmon) and, just to make matters even more confusing for the likes of me, fake song titles like “Mango Lassi” and “Toad To Nowhere.” What japes!

Upon accepting the Grizzly Bear cover-story mission—which was relayed to me via mail drop on a cassette tape that played once and then self-destructed Mission: Impossible-style, totally fucking up my tape deck—I followed my marching orders: Go to Brooklyn, don’t call us, we’ll call you. When the call came through, the instructions were as follows: Go to the underground parking deck at 110 Livingston St., stand next to the pillar by space number 57, and a chain-smoking man in a raincoat who looks like Hal Holbrook will tell you what to do. Turns out the first chain-smoking guy in a raincoat to approach me was not an agent of Grizzly Bear, but just the sort of garden-variety sick-fuck perv often found lurking in the shadows of these underground parking garages, which explains why he wanted me to get into the back of a nearby Chevy Impala and give him a Cleveland Steamer. Which I did, because I’m a nice guy. Plus, he reminded me of my grandfather.

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Guided By Voices: Factory Men

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

 GBV

Working-class hero Robert Pollard and his fellow “classic-era” Guided By Voices bandmates clock in with Let’s Go Eat The Factory, their first album in more than 15 years. By James Greer

Twenty years ago, I interviewed Guided By Voices for a different magazine. It was in an RV belonging to Ed Deal—Kim and Kelley’s dad—parked in back of a club in Columbus, Ohio, after a Breeders show. The whole band was there, crowded around my enormous early-‘90s vintage cassette recorder: Robert Pollard, Jimmy Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and Dan Toohey, who would soon become an ex-member due to his propensity for leaving long notes to Bob about various dissatisfactions with certain band practices. Bob did most of the talking, which will come as a great surprise to exactly no one who has ever met, seen, heard or read about him.

According to Ed Deal, who has a better memory than me, after every answer, Bob would ask, “Was that OK? Was that a good answer?” In other words, Bob was nervous, and in retrospect, sure: It was one of his first “real” interviews (even though the piece I was writing was very short). Anyone would be nervous in that situation. He had not yet released Bee Thousand, the album that would come to define, for better and worse, the public perception of Guided By Voices as masters of short bursts of melodic lo-fi rock with mostly incomprehensible lyrics. He had spent the previous seven years nursing grudges and making records that he wouldn’t let anyone hear, because he was worried they weren’t good enough. Was that OK? Was that a good record?

Twenty years later, sitting in a bar in the Oregon District of his hometown, Dayton, Ohio, Bob is anything but nervous. He orders two buckets of Miller Lite in bottles (a bucket is really just a six-pack on ice, so it’s not as much as it sounds) and slides onto a chair in the back room of the bar next to Mitch Mitchell, who Bob has known longer than he’s been in the band, which means he and Mitch have known each other for about 45 years.

“I have some conditions,” he announces, before I turn on the tiny little machine I brought to record our conversation. I don’t know how it works. It’s digital. Maybe it doesn’t work. I hope it works. (Update: It works.)

“I’m going to talk about whatever I want to talk about,” he continues. “I’m going to tell you exactly what happened during the making of this record. But you can’t use anything that would hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Turns out over the course of the next four or five hours and several buckets of Miller Lite, augmented by shots of tequila so big they come in tumblers (and should be illegal), Bob doesn’t say anything that would hurt anyone’s feelings.

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

Cold Specks: Being Mindful

ColdSpecks

Cold Specks mastermind Al Spx revels in anonymity … while she can

Singing lines like “Don’t you wait on me/I’ll shoot you down,” her voice is enough to send chills down your spine. But once she steps offstage, the woman who calls herself Al Spx is famously shy and unfailingly distant.

“I created a stage name, and it’s allowed me to remove myself from any sort of emotional attachment to the songs,” says Spx, who records under the name Cold Specks, borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses. “Al Spx can take care of that. For me, there’s no personal element to the songs anymore, or if there is, it’s disguised.”

Two years after releasing I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, Spx is bored with most of the album. Touring is “physically and mentally draining,” and though she still performs the singles, she’s tired of feeling like a bad actress. So, she’s crafted a follow-up, Neuroplasticity (Mute), that’s even bleaker than the first, trading in the acoustic doom-folk of her debut for a richer, more expansive goth-soul that’s one-part sturm and three-parts drang.

“I made a conscious decision to write songs to perform, songs that weren’t necessarily about me,” says Spx. “I made a conscious decision not to play any instruments, because I wasn’t loving it anymore. I’m not too precious about the songs, so if I’m not a convincing player, I’ll just get someone else to do it better and focus on my singing.”

As Spx, she has no past and no present; she’s “just the girl who sings the songs.” Taking a short break between recording sessions, she claims Spx is “the nickname I’ve always had,” though seconds earlier, said was it “top-secret information,” and seconds later said it was “a way to save myself from myself.” In between, she says she “just needed a name,” that it’s “not very interesting,” that “I didn’t want my name attached to the project” and that “I don’t want it to define me.”

Apart from “no comment,” that’s all she’s ready to say. Thankfully, we already know she was born and raised in Toronto as the daughter of Somali immigrants, and dropped out of university to become a singer. Somewhere along the way, she heard the field recordings of Alan Lomax, possibly through Moby’s Play, and since recording her debut, she’s been shortlisted for the Juno Award, and guested on albums by Moby, Swans and jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who appears on Neuroplasticity.

We know the new songs were written in a cottage in Somerset in the winter of 2012 (“I probably didn’t choose the most ideal season to live there,” she says) and were recorded in Montreal, where Spx currently lives. That they were written on piano, and performed by her sometime band of “five English boys,” with an accent on portentousness, freeing Spx to deliver the songs with maximum undead theatricality. And for now, with the session about to begin again, that’ll have to do.

“We recorded Neuroplasticity over the course of a year, and I think the time I gave to the recording allowed for some growth sonically, thematically, vocally,” she says, comparing it to the 12 days spent in the studio for I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. “There was a lot of time spent avoiding surprises.”

—Kenny Berkowitz

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

The Jigsaw Seen: Some Assembly Required

JigsawSeen

The Jigsaw Seen unloads on bad sportsmanship, royalty statements

You’d think Jigsaw Seen vocalist/songwriter Dennis Davison would be on cloud nine after his revered Los Angeles Kings won their second Stanley Cup in just three years. But no. He’s bellyaching this morning about Uruguay futbol star Luis Suárez biting an Italian opponent in a recent World Cup match, prompting snide newspaper headlines such as “Chow, Baby!”

“That’s not the way we played,” sniffs Davison, a former all-Maryland high-school soccer player.

But that’s all ancient history. The co-founder of Jigsaw Seen 25 years ago (alongside ace guitarist Jonathan Lea), Davison gets his exercise these days as a professional dog-walker. Strolling L.A.’s concrete canyons gives him ample time to do what he does best: write distinctively original lyrics and melodies that give off the mere whiff of former heroes such as the Bee Gees, Who and Love.

Unlike previous albums, Old Man Reverb, Jigsaw’s fourth set of originals in the past four years, has a unified sound running throughout. “We used a lot of baritone guitar on this album,” says Davison, explaining the Duane Eddy/Marlboro Man moves that inhabit the work. “It plays in a lower register than a normal guitar, has fatter strings, and it sounds like something between a guitar and a bass.”

The oldest song, says Davison, is “Abide,” which he wrote in the early ’80s when still living in Baltimore. “It’s kind of a spaghetti-Western thing that I was recording on my little four-track cassette set-up in the basement,” he says. “And I remember my father, just coming home from work, busting down the stairs shouting, ‘What is that song? It sounds like Frankie Laine!’ He was so excited.”

Highlighted by Lea’s brazen one-finger piano, Jigsaw explodes out of the blocks like Iggy & The Stooges on “We Women,” a song that might sound like a putdown of the ladies if you’re a sloppy listener. “I decided to write it in the feminine gender, and I’d sing it that way,” says Davison. “Kind of like Joan Baez’s folk-music stance. Who better to write something like this?”

And he’s not kidding. Davison is related to legendary British suffragette Emily Davison, whose final act to advocate women’s equality was to run in front of Anmer, the horse of King George V, during the Epsom Derby in 1913.

There’s nothing nearly so noble about “Idiots With Guitars.” It’s the death knell for “bedroom rockers” who clog up various L.A. pop festivals like wads of platelets blocking a soggy artery. “Learn to play/Then dream the day away/Every note you play is met with indifference,” croons Davison, neatly excising these self-appointed pop prodigies.

The Jigsaw Seen plays live only sporadically these days. Bassist Tom Currier is in New York, and drummer Teddy Freese lives in Italy. But that hasn’t prevented eye-popping statistics, according to the band’s recent BMI statement. “We got 750,000 plays on internet radio in one quarter! How can that be?!” says Davison. “All those spins and they send us a check for $100?”

As for Old Man Reverb, Davison thinks it’s an unbridled success, declaring, “I look upon it as a greatest-hits album with songs we’ve never released.”

—Jud Cost

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

The Muffs: Big Whoop

Muffs

After a decade adrift, the Muffs get their melodic pop groove back

Kim Shattuck has always observed a private ritual when retrieving her mail. If the Muffs bandleader finds a check in her daily bundle, she’ll set it aside for a full month before opening it. Even early on—despite two stellar garage/punk efforts for Reprise, a self-titled debut disc in ‘93 and ‘95 follow-up Blonder And Blonder—those paydays were few and far between.

“By 1996, I was pretty poor, and I’d just moved to a new apartment that didn’t have a refrigerator, so I was all freaked out,” she says. “But I finally opened one letter, and it was $850 from ASCAP. And I was like, ‘Hooray! That’s my refrigerator!’ So now, any time I get a check that’s in that range, I always call it ‘refrigerator money.’”

Believe it or not, swears the 50-year-old Shattuck, said random payments have sustained her over the full decade between Muffs albums—2004’s Really Really Happy and the brand-new Whoop Dee Doo, a reunion with longtime backing members Ronnie Barnett (bass) and Roy McDonald (drums), who always maintained straight jobs.

“I’ve managed to make a living just doing the music,” she says. “It’s ebb and flow, but publishing stuff has kept me afloat.” Not counting, of course, her surreal European-tour stint playing bass for the Pixies last autumn, as replacement for the departing Kim Deal. The rocket ride paid quite well, was fun while it lasted, but crashed to Earth as spontaneously as it ignited.

Shattuck says she was never planning to stage a comeback. But she never officially pulled the plug on the Muffs, either. After working hard to create her sneering stage persona and melodic way with a power-chord hook—best exemplified by the bratty cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” on the Clueless soundtrack—it was almost as if she felt so unappreciated that she and her bandmates simply shrugged and walked away from their project.

“But I really like those guys, and we’re a team,” she says. “And a good team can get back together, even if they haven’t talked in years and years.”

It took former group percussionist Jim Laspesa to reunite the Los Angeles trio. Shattuck had happily settled into domestic life with her TV-exec husband, and was listening exclusively to jazz for long periods, as well as attending every Dodgers game she could, since the couple has season tickets. But Laspesa began inviting her to dinner parties, along with Barnett and McDonald, and communication lines opened again.

“And I had been starting to write songs again, and that came up,” she says. “And they were like, ‘Oh my God! Email them to us!’ So, we just kind of gravitated back together again.”

Shattuck produced and engineered almost all of Whoop Dee Doo. And she’s in fine raspy form, as the album kicks off with the scream-punctuated “Weird Boy Next Door,” then wends its way through Ramones-propulsive anthems “Paint By Numbers,” “Take A Take A Me,” “Because You’re Sad” and harmonica-embellished folk jangler “Cheezy.” The 12-track set closes with a Searchers-chiming ballad called “Forever” that—despite its earnest intentions—still manages to sound like a schoolyard taunt when this vixen snarls it.

It was awkward at first, says Shattuck, ditching her jazz mindset and rediscovering what makes a great song tick. Her first Whoop Dee Doo efforts were clunky, lumbering. “But my passion is writing melodic rock songs, and I am still definitely driven to do that,” she says. “So, I had to go back to my roots and see what inspired me originally. That was my goal—I didn’t want to get soft when I got older. So, this album is kind of all the inspiration of my youth.”

And don’t read too much into the snotty lyrics. “Basically, I’m not inspired to write words unless something’s eating at me,” says Shattuck. “Which kind of sucks, because it’s very painful. So, when I was writing these lyrics, I just turned my mind completely off and just let it come out. I’m not even sure how I did it—it was like automatic writing.” The record was finished in 2012, but put on hold after the Pixies offer came in.

These days, the Muffs mistress is spending her refrigerator money even more wisely. Instead of liquor and cigarettes, she prefers health food and a gym membership. “And I did actually join a yoga place,” she says. “But I, uh, only did it three times so far. I got so sore, I had to take some time off.”

—Tom Lanham

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Phox: Friends With Benefits

Phox

The tight-knit indie-pop upstarts in Phox grow up together

“We do everything at the last minute.” “That’s totally our thing” “That’s not Zach’s thing.” “It’s not my thing, but I’ve learned to adapt.”

MAGNET is in the six-by-five-foot green room at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., with Jason Krunnfusz, Zach Johnston, Matt Holmen and Dave Roberts, four of the six members of Baraboo, Wisc.’s Phox. The room is crowded, but the vibe cordial as these high-school friends banter back and forth, finishing each other’s sentences and mowing down their dinners.

The band’s conversational style reflects its music—it’s playful and thoughtful, serious in its ambitions, but seriously fun when all is said and done. With folk-like delicacy, jazz-like precision and a very indie sense of irreverence, the group’s self-titled Partisan debut is one of the best underground-pop records of the year.

“I don’t even really know how it works, to be honest, but it’s everyone participating with (singer) Monica (Martin) bringing the seedlings,” Johnston says by way of explaining how the songwriting process works. “It comes from everywhere.”

“In the past, we’ve given a lot of time to songs,” says Holmen. “The new songs, we were like, ‘Let’s just go with our instincts and just do it, just record them as they come out.’”

The result is a record with childlike awe and grown-up ambitions. This is music that never gets in its own way, with the conceptual and aesthetic complexity of the songs seeming effortless. On tracks like the evocative and ethereal “Laura” and percussive-yet-languid lead single “Slow Motion,” Phox walks the line between precious and precocious with finesse.

“We had to make a lot of our own fun growing up, so we made music and movies and a lot of the same things we do now,” says Johnston. “It kind of feels like a continuation of childhood, in a way, which also makes it a big joke now that people are paying attention.”

—Sean L. Maloney

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Orenda Fink: The Warmest Color

OrendaFink

We’re not of a mind to disagree with Orenda Fink’s sweet, death-obsessed dreams

Orenda Fink is known for her quiet, introspective songs and her unobtrusive approach to singing. Her music, both on her own solo albums and with Azure Ray (the band she fronts with longtime friend Maria Taylor), tends to be forlorn and unsettling, albeit imbued with an underlying belief in the ultimate goodness of existence.

“I suppose melancholy is the word that fits,” Fink says, speaking via phone from her home studio in Omaha. “I know people tend to glaze over when I say it, and I’m not fond of the term gothic either. I wish I could come up with something more catchy to describe my sound.”

Fink breaks off for a moment to grab a pile of blankets and toss them on the floor of the studio to soak up the rain that’s seeping in through the floor. “We had a tornado, a hailstorm and thundershowers just before the interview started. It was a surreal experience.”

The jarring weather could be some cosmic metaphor for the unexpected prism of emotions that’s reflected in the songs on her new album, Blue Dream. They were inspired by the death of her dog, as well as general meditations on the limitations of existence on the material plane.

“Losing my dog sent me into a deep depression,” she says. “I saw a therapist, who specialized in Jungian dream analysis. She told me that when you’re ready to deal with your dreams, something awakens in your subconscious mind and (dreams) come flowing out. I started having powerful dreams about my dog’s death and death in general. It was a crazy period. I started writing the album after that. The songs didn’t come specifically from the dreams, but I was in that zone between dreams and waking while I was writing. I’m inclined to have one foot in each world, even when I’m awake, but losing my dog erased the boundary between those worlds for a while.”

On the LP, Fink goes deep into the primal questions of death and the meaning of life. The lyrics are dark, but the music is bright and buoyant, although still played at the laid-back tempos that are her forte. “Bill Rieflin, who used to play with Ministry, played the drums in a light, un-Ministry like manner,” says Fink. “I thought his rhythms were too pop, but he said the lyrics were so sad, it would make a good juxtaposition. Ben Brodin, who plays with Conor Oberst, did all the guitars. I kept going, ‘It doesn’t sound like a dream.’ Then he’d go, ‘What does a dream sound like?’ I told him I’d know it when I heard it.”

The finished album is dreamlike and comforting, despite its preoccupation with mortality. “Although it’s about death, the record has a celebratory feeling for me,” says Fink. “The experience of making it helped me come out on the other side with a firm understanding that there is a life after death, that you can weep until you’re crying tears of joy and epiphany.”

—j. poet

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed