Category Archives: FEATURES

The Lumineers: Songs From The Road

Lumineers

With Cleopatra, the Lumineers avoid the dreaded sophomore slump

“We had seven years to write the songs on our debut,” says Jeremiah Fraites, drummer, piano player and one of the songwriters in the Lumineers. “It was a greatest-hits collection, the songs that got the best crowd reaction, things we’d played for years and perfected. We didn’t have any money or time to record them the way we wanted to, so we were surprised to sell millions of records and get the Grammy nominations (best new artist, best Americana album).”

The band supported its eponymous first LP with three years of endless touring. Its songs appeared in high-profile TV shows, commercials and films, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. When Fraites and his partners—singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz and singer/cello player Neyla Pekarek—started writing songs for their second album, they knew they had to produce something special.

“The pressure on me and Wes was cranked up to the max,” says Fraites. “We had to decompress from three years of touring and put aside our preconceptions of what an album should sound like. It was hard to get back to writing music, but the fear of a sophomore slump made us step up to the task. We wrote in a little rented house, and since we didn’t want anyone recording them on a phone and putting ’em up online, we didn’t play them live. Without the visceral experience of playing for an audience and seeing how people react, we had to dig into ourselves and put as much emotion into them as we could.”

The result is Cleopatra, a dark, solemn effort centered around Schultz’s vocals, with backing tracks dominated by sparse guitar and piano. Fraites’ drumming and Pekarek’s cello add ambient touches to deepen the emotional lyrics. “On the first album, everything had to be heavy and intense and start on a minor chord,” says Fraites. “We relied on a big drum set and lots of effects pedals. After years of touring, we know keeping it simple isn’t so easy. This time, there’s lots of electric bass and cello, for a subliminal low end that supports the music without overwhelming it.”

The songs often revolve around themes of loss, longing for home and memories of the past that are more poignant than nostalgic. “Touring brings up those feelings,” says Fraites. “Wes likes to write about the charades we perform when we’re running away from or running towards things. Some of the songs are autobiographical, some are based on people we know, but fictional or not, you can attach yourself to the ideas they represent.”

Fraites said they made a conscious decision to keep banjo and mandolin out of the arrangements, to move away from the Americana label for a more universal sound. “We want the music to speak for itself, with a lot of lyrical and musical ambiguity,” he says. “We don’t want people to know where we’re from, or what year the music is from. The first album was slightly folky, this is more chamber pop.”

—j. poet

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The Thermals: Disappearing Act

Thermals

Death is never the end for kinetic Portland punkers the Thermals

Like a hummingbird, Hutch Harris always hovers in perpetual buzzing motion. Usually, what occupies most of the singer/guitarist’s time is his Portland alternative trio the Thermals, and its seventh set, the Chris Walla-produced We Disappear, took him two years to gradually, meticulously compose. He even turned down invitations from his old touring buddies Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to appear on their locally filmed Portlandia. “They asked me to be on it a couple of times in the first two seasons, but I was always busy,” he says. “But I like to keep busy, I like to keep working, and I like to record. I like it a lot.

To that end, Harris—who has his own gadget-filled basement studio—was thrilled when he recently started getting some unusual extracurricular assignments. “Projects that came at a good time, when the Thermals had little breaks,” he says. Somehow, Amazon Studios discovered him through his publishing company and liked what they heard so much, they hired him as a composer for potential children’s shows. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I enjoy jobs like that, because it’s writing songs, and I love writing songs,” he says. “So, I’ll write them a bunch of different songs, and they’ll just pick one for each project, and I end up having a bunch of extra songs.”

So far, the shows have yet to be picked up. Harris penned a kinetic theme song for one pilot called Table 58 and an anthem for another, The History Of Radness, which was scored by ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and featured other rockers like Henry Rollins and—as the narrator—Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. “It was about these kids in high school that have a band, so I wrote this song that the band played, and I have to admit it was pretty cool to see them play my song,” he says.

Punching the clock on kids’ programs has become a cottage industry for musicians these days, but the 40-year-old Harris says the Amazon leftovers won’t be compiled on an album: “Because they’re not even children’s songs, exactly—the stuff I write for them isn’t too far from a Thermals song. It’s just that the lyrics are slightly more positive than the lyrics I usually write. But they typically want a high-energy pop/punk song, just like the Thermals.”

We Disappear is that, in scratch-chorded spades. Opening on garage-punchy stomper “Into The Code,” it quickly settles into a surly Cheap-Trick-meets-Replacements scruffiness on “Hey You,” “The Walls” and “My Heart Went Cold,” an arena-rousing rocker revolving around the Joy Division tight rhythm section of bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass. Thematically, it covers two grim topics—the frontman’s latest romantic breakup (he also dated Foster at one point) and the encroachment of technology on modern society.

And on dirges like “The Great Dying,” “Always Never Be” and “If We Don’t Die Today,” things grow more sepulchral. “If you look at our records, we’re always dying, there’s always lots of death happening,” says Harris. “When I was young, it used to scare the hell out of me. Now it doesn’t scare me in the same way, but I just can’t stop thinking about it—it’s just always on my mind.” Hence, he points out, the two key aspects he stresses in his writing. First, there has to be a concert-level intensity to the music. “That energy has always got to be there,” says Harris. “But it’s not easy to get—sometimes you’ll see a group that’s great live, but then you’ll only hear parts of that energy on their record. So, we’re always trying to stay excited in the studio and make sure we’ve got that.”

Lastly, jubilant-sounding Thermals riffs need to be candy-coating a sinister center. “Most of the bands that I grew up liking do that same thing, like Nirvana—catchy songs with really dark lyrics,” says Harris. Fans can listen to the Thermals on a playful surface level. “But it’s also cool to provide something deeper there, if people want to dig for it.”

—Tom Lanham

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Modern Baseball: Game On

ModernBaseball

With Holy Ghost, Modern Baseball is filling in the empty spaces

When it comes to college scenes, Modern Baseball sticks out like a sore thumb. The vibe at Philly’s Drexel University is a varied bag where everything goes, from hip hop to electro to folk/punk to happy hardcore and more. Yet, Modern Baseball pokes out that much further with its smartly winsome, occasionally caustic lyrics and its complex-yet-blunt brand of harmonic pop hardcore heard on 2014’s You’re Gonna Miss It All and the new Holy Ghost.

“I used to think folkier influences set us apart from pop/punk bands like the Wonder Years,” says singing/songwriting guitarist Jacob Ewald. Ewald, along with Brendan Lukens, formed M-Baseball in 2012 after the pair met in 2011. “We got really hyped on the idea of starting a band together, so we looked around my basement for a book with a good title and agreed on ‘Modern Baseball Techniques,’ but cut out ‘Techniques,’ says Ewald.

At Drexel, Ewald met drummer Sean Huber and bassist Ian Farmer and Baseball’s game began in earnest. That they won acclaim for the cutting You’re Gonna Miss It All and the snide “Your Graduation” wasn’t always easy.

“We were all between 21 and 23, goofing around, skipping school,” says Ewald. “When we began playing bigger shows than most of the bands that we were drawing influence from, the whole process was rewarding, but in that moment, it was a very lonely, confusing, two-plus-two-equals-five kind of situation.”

Lukens and Ewald—writing lyrics on their own—grew by exploring subjects beyond romantic relationships. “My grandfathers were ministers, my mom is a minister, my sister is practicing to enter the ministry, so religion has always been a focus,” says Ewald. “One of those grandfathers died, but for some reason I never processed it. When I started writing this record, I would start a song about going to school or something, then by the time I got to the second verse, I’d realize I was writing about my grandfather. I started noticing the holes that were left in my family after he died and tried figuring how they got there. Religion and Godliness had served as an insulating agent to fill empty spaces while my grandfather was alive, but when we lost him, we were left with familiar-yet-unresolved problems. He was our insulating ministerial patriarch. The songs aren’t necessarily anti-religion, but they explore the negative effects of letting religion be your cure-all.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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RJD2: Ohio Player

RJD2

RJD2 returns to his hometown of Columbus and makes another masterpiece

Veteran beatmaker and soundscaper RJD2 is trying to re-acclimate. After a decade and a half living and making music in Philadelphia, Ramble John Krohn and his family relocated to his native Columbus, Ohio. Talking by phone from his new/old home, he admits that it’s a challenge uprooting from a scene where a vast network of collaborators was literally up the street from his house. But at the same time, he’s never had a hard time making friends—and we hear them all over the new Dame Fortune, released on his RJ’s Electrical Connections label.

Teamwork has historically been a staple of RJD2 records. His previous outing was the critically acclaimed STS x RJD2, a full-length project with Philly-via-Atlanta rapper Sugar Tongue Slim. It was a lively mix of poppy, playful beats and Slim’s trademark lyrical somersaults—with nuanced moments of introspection and a featured hook by (gasp!) soulful Americana songwriter Amos Lee.

“Making records like that really facilitates my confidence in doing things that are a little left of center,” says RJ. “The goal there is to find an elegant thing that people can relate to instantly. A groove, a pocket, a chord change that hopefully won’t be boring after you listen to it a lot. And that is its own particular challenge.”

Last year also saw a vinyl reissue of The Abandoned Lullaby, the sole LP from the band Icebird, RJD2’s 2011 collaboration with Aaron Livingston, a guy you might know better as Son Little. The record was less dance-floor-oriented than his normal fare, dabbling more in psychedelic grooves, with Livingston’s gripping vocals taking center stage.

Talk turns to process, and RJ explains that there’s no one-size-fits-all mold for the beats he makes and the voices that find their way onto them. Sometimes, he’ll be in exploratory mode, messing around with modulators and synthesizers and drum machines until a seed of a song reveals itself. And sometimes, it’s more intentional.

“About halfway through the Icebird record, we made ‘In Exile,’ and that was a song where we realized we should change up the dynamic to keep it interesting,” says RJ. “We thought, ‘Let’s come up with a song that’s just acoustic guitar, strings, vocals and nothing else. Let’s keep it all mid-range and see what happens.’”

STS x RJD2 track “All I Wanted Was A Caddy” is similar. It’s the point in the record where the ’70s house-party tone—horns, strings, piano and guitar—gives way to simmering industrial synthesizers. RJ says it came about to give the record variety, though Slim—whom he connected with through producer and Philly friend Khari Mateen—could pretty much spit fire over anything.

“My normal experience from working with people musically is I will send them 10 beats and they’ll send me one or two with their parts,” says RJ. “I’m used to having to throw so much against the wall. But with Slim, I’d send him, say, six tracks in a folder. In a week, he would send me five back. It was crazy how prolific he was off the bat.”

Like “Caddy” and “In Exile,” Dame Fortune also has surprising twists and turns in tone but also a strong roster of people at the mic—beginning with Jordan Brown, a friend of Slim’s who sang most of the hooks on STS x RJD2. Brown takes center stage on lead single “Peace Of What,” a horn-laden socially conscious jam that nods to Main Source’s “Peace Is Not The Word To Play.”

“I’ve got this self-imposed rule now; I don’t want to be singing more than two songs per album,” says RJ. “And when you work with somebody like Jordan, it’s one of those times where you realize there are people out there that are born with a voice that you just want to hear.”

He also pairs up again with Phonte Coleman of Little Brother on tripped-out soul soundscape “Saboteour”; RJ met him as a fan at a Beat Society event in 2006, and has worked with him regularly since 2010’s The Colossus.

Livingston appears on rambling rocker “We Come Alive,” which was finished before his Son Little gig took off full steam. RJ says that while most people know him as a powerful singer, he’s a quadruple threat: a fierce guitarist, a producer and a songwriter as well.

“When I heard ‘Guns Are Drawn’ by the Roots (where Livingston was featured), I started digging into his old band the Mean, and looking into his lyrics and thinking, ‘This guy is also one hell of a writer,’” says RJ. “And then you see him play guitar and you see he’s a badass. And then you see he produced most of his record.”

Vocalist Blueprint sings on “Up In The Clouds.” The Columbus rapper’s work with RJD2 dates back to their duo project Soul Position, which released two LPs on Rhymesayers in the early aughts. And another Ohioan sings on “Band Of Matron Saints”: Josh Krajcik, best known for being a finalist on The X Factor. That’s not why he was picked, though; RJ was just looking for somebody who could belt like Joe Cocker, and found out his lineage after booking him. “I didn’t even realize that, in that world, this guy’s a big deal,” he says. “But I had my head in the sand.”

Which is a testament to how RJD2 works. He doesn’t write songs for artists he wants to collaborate with, he simply writes songs. When they’re done, he studies the landscape and tries to imagine who would best inhabit it.

“That is the thing that I think is so fascinating about music, that the mechanics of it translate into the aesthetics of it,” he says. “And it is not easy to envision for me how I am going to aesthetically feel about something until the song is done.”

—John Vettese

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Exclusive Excerpt: Bob Mould Interviewed By David Cross

BobMould

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

A decade ago, it would’ve been easy to argue that Bob Mould’s best work was behind him. With Hüsker Dü and Sugar, as well as in his early solo work, Mould helped define the Amerindie music landscape for years. A handful of unspectacular (if solid) releases seemed to find the venerable punk godfather settling into placid middle age. But then Mould started making a series of albums that rank with the best work he’s ever done. Mould’s third-act winning streak continues with the new Patch The Sky (Merge). MAGNET asked comedian, actor and longtime massive fan David Cross to talk with Mould about his life and loud times.

I’m a grown up, have been for quite a while. And what I’ve become and who I am now can, in no small part, be directly linked to my introduction to punk/new-wave music from the late ’70s, early ’80s. It was this music and its attendant ethos that changed my then-shitty life. Suddenly, I heard the anger and confusion and frustration with everything my life had to offer me. And it was articulated with the speed and noise and fury that I was feeling. Husker Du (sorry, can’t umlaut on this word program) generally, and Bob Mould specifically, were as big a part of that as anybody. Zen Arcade was a small revelation. And then later, when the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the b-side to “Makes No Sense At All”?! Who does that? That appealed to me on so many levels. I was lucky enough to meet Bob in North Carolina when we were both on the bill of a benefit to raise money to defeat Prop 1, the gay-marriage ban (sadly it passed; we lost). I was a little intimidated and clearly nervous, but he was so sweet, nice, honest and kind that we immediately became friends. Bob has continued writing brilliant, introspective, angry songs throughout his varied and inarguably storied career that, God willing*, will continue for decades to come. When MAGNET asked if I wanted to interview him as he was making the press rounds for Patch The Sky, I jumped at the chance. In fact, I had just hung out with him mere days earlier in San Francisco, so we would have lots to talk about. Here is a transcript of my interview with the legend known as Bob Mould. *Full disclosure, I don’t believe in God. —David Cross

David Cross: So you’re out doing shows and promoting Patch The Sky. Were all the songs written by you? Or were they written with other people? Because I know you’re with (drummer) Jon Wurster, and I know that must be a treat. So fucking funny, and a very unsettling amount of encyclopedic music knowledge.
Bob Mould: Oh, my god, yes. When he starts on stuff, I think, “Where is this secret music Wikipedia thing that you found?”

Cross: Listen, for real. Before the internet, and before cell phones, I’d be at some bar and getting in an argument with someone about, like, who sang “Drift Away”? And then I would have to go find a payphone and call Jon and go, “Hey, Jon, it’s David, Sorry to bother you. Who sang ‘Drift Away’?” [Laughs]
Mould: Yeah, it’s pretty wild. And if a name comes up then, it’s like this appendix information comes out of him. It will just be, like, fourth album, second b-side. Like, “What?” But no, it’s really great. And about the writing for the record, it was an insulated experience. Quite different than the two records before it. I guess people are looking at this as the third record of a connected sequence with working with (bassist) Jason (Narducy) and Jon and recording as a three-piece. I do all the writing, and with Silver Age, there was just this crazy rush of youthful energy, I don’t know where it came from, maybe from putting the book out and doing the Disney Hall (tribute) stuff, I had got one of those heads of steam, and I got the love and appeal that tells you your work is good again. You get back into a natural groove again, and that’s where Silver Age came from. With Beauty And Ruin, there was more democratic decision moments in the studio. With Patch The Sky, I was coming off some rough personal stuff, and that sort of put me in an isolated place to write from, and this was my way to get out of whatever I had been in and get clarity for myself. So this record was more of my voice, to be blunt about it.

Cross: And going back to the Disney Hall show, I wasn’t there, but it sounds like it must have been amazing and humbling and satisfying for you.
Mould: Yeah, it was really great. We all do our work, we all do our things, and sometimes we are out of our minds and sometimes people love what we do, and there’s quiet times, or for me there was. And to have a celebration like that, it legitimized a lot of the work.

Cross: Yeah, usually that stuff happens after you’re dead.
Mould: I kept checking my gold watch to see if I was still ticking, but totally. With Dave (Grohl) and Ryan (Adams) and everybody, the weirdest thing is being there and hanging out with everybody but hearing them singing my words back, that was the craziest part of it for me. Like, “Wow, these people know these songs.”

Cross: And they love them. In the same way that people have inspired you. And here’s something, Bob. I think you should pay that forward and arrange an evening with like-minded artists for someone that you’ve been inspired by. And it could be an annual event. And then when you are honored, you have to come back and honor somebody a year after that. It’s a good idea.
Mould: That’s a great idea. And that kind of goes with my idea of the hot potato.

Cross: I really don’t know your hot potato idea.
Mould: It’s just the idea of hearing and retelling the story that you heard. When I was a little kid, I would listen to jukebox 45s and the Beatles and the Monkees. And then I heard punk rock, and I made punk rock. And then I heard other people’s versions of punk rock, and it all gets filtered into this core idea. And you hold on to it for a little while, and then you toss it into the air. You just grab it. People say, “Don’t you feel like people have stolen what you do?” And I say, “No. It’s like the hot potato.” Somebody comes up with a notion and people hear it and they want to retell that story. That’s always what music should be.

Cross: It’s like appropriation. All music, and other art forms as well, everybody’s borrowing.
Mould: It’s funny you mention that because one of the funniest things that happened recently was the estate of Marvin Gaye versus Robin Thicke. I was really saddened by what happened there because I don’t really think that would qualify as plagiarism. I felt like in this day and age, the court of public opinion via comment sections on the internet was like, “Yeah, get him! Because we don’t like the guy. But no, this is not what we think it is.” And it scared me because I was like, “Oh my god, what if I unknowingly lift a line from a song that I heard 15 years ago in a supermarket?” Because that actually happens.

Cross: I think there’s a distinction to be made, and there’s a line. And it’s a thin line that wants to be crossed, like the Vanilla Ice/Bowie/Queen song or the Tom Petty/Sam Smith thing. And Sam Smith said, “Oh, you’re right.” And kudos to him; he said, “You’re absolutely right, that’s the same thing. And I apologize.” But I think there’s a fine line, and distinctions are being made with every court case. And you’re right: Fuck the court of public opinion.
Mould: I agree with you, but I just felt vexed for a moment. I thought, “Wow, this is what could happen. This is a weird kind of public lynching with no credibility to what’s happening here.”

Cross: I think you’re right that it was based on, “Fuck that guy. I don’t like that guy. I don’t like the way he looks. That’s not fair, so fuck him.”
Mould: Speaking of not fair, did you see the Kesha ruling?

Cross: I did. I know very little about it, but it’s pretty crazy. And the immediate backlash that she’s getting is like, “Fuck that bitch; she signed a contract! Don’t like it, don’t sign contracts!” But that’s hardly the issue there.
Mould: For me, being a musician and signing lots of contracts in my lifetime, I’m gonna try to break it down really quick when I saw that happen, and I’m not gonna even get into the emotional context right now. Sony says we have to keep her because $60 million. Ten years ago, some of the biggest pop stars in the world may have had a chance across six albums to gain $60 million. That was before people stopped buying music. So they’re gonna keep this person under an antique contract in a day and age where— who’s the biggest selling artist in the world, Adele? Eight million? The last time I checked on the math, that probably ends up clearing her 20 million out of 60 million because it’s probably two and a half bucks per record. She’s got a great deal. How in the fuck is keeping this person beholden to this contract ever gonna get a cent back? And that’s just the business part of this. It’s so sad.

Cross: What’s so sickening about that is that it’s a person against a multinational corporation. And a person has sensitivity, feelings and emotions, and it affects a human being, and with a corporation it only affects shareholders’ stock values. That’s what they’re arguing. That’s where we are now and what we’ve become in the past 150 years or so, and it’s unfair. It’s just unfair.
Mould: It’s really unfair. And when you crack into the emotional context of the story, like, oh my god. If there’s even a shred of reality to what’s being said? I can’t know for sure what people really do. It’s so sad. Shame on the court, shame on Sony, shame on the whole fuckin’ thing. It’s just so sad.

Cross: I just thought of an analogy for what you said. You know, Bill Cosby—his company owned part of NBC. Now what if he had been abusing people who were on the show, and they had signed a contract saying, “Hey, if we decide to do a sequel or we do other episodes, you’ll be required to do six more episodes as that character,” and then that person got raped. And then we found out about the allegations. Back then, if we found out about those allegations, of course he would deny it as he’s been denying it, and then the court would say, “Well, you signed a contract even though you said this guy raped you. You have to do six more episodes with him. You signed a contract.”
Mould: There you have it.

Cross: Maybe the silver lining has changed for some people, but maybe not. We don’t have to get into it.
Mould: Yeah.

Cross: Anyways, where are you now?
Mould: I’m back home now in San Francisco. I just got back. I’ve been resting up, doing some press. I’ve got to get up to go to New York at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, and I have a week of press out in NYC, which should be fun. I’m just filibustering now for the campaign. And then getting back to make more music in mid-April when we tour the U.S. But between now and then, it’s a little bit of playing, a lot of talking and trying to explain what I’m barely now learning about this record. [Laughs]

Cross: Do you enjoy the press process?
Mould: Yeah. I mean I like talking to people about music. On this go around, I’ve been encouraging people to come at me and talk about stuff, like we’re doing, instead of coming loaded with crazy questions that they already know the answer to. It’s like, “No, you already know the answer to that question. Why are you asking it? Oh, because you have to ask me that question. OK, so ask me that question and I’ll give you one of the four or five answers where I will always say politely no and then we’ll move on.” But otherwise, it’s way more fun to just engage with people and hear what the interviewers have to say.

Cross: Have a conversation.
Mould: Exactly. So I’m real happy we’re doing this. But as far as straight-up interviews, they’re fine. It’s part of the job. Cross: Here’s a question. You’ve lived in a lot of different places. And most people, they don’t. Your profession has allowed you to do that. What was your favorite place to live? And considering the time you were in that place. Mould: I think for me, unrelated to work, as a human being, I think the late ’90s in New York was just a life changer. I had spent most of my life not talking about my homosexuality because I wasn’t really, as a homosexual, I didn’t feel really integrated with the gay community. I wasn’t out until I was 31, 32, 34, I mean. But to get that out in the open and then to go back to NYC with that openness and really being able to embrace that life … And at that time Chelsea was a great place to hang out. And I think that was a real growth moment.

Cross: You were, certainly by then, an icon and a hero to many people. Were you recognized in New York? I don’t know the community you hung out with, but would people say, “Oh, that’s Bob Mould!” Or were you able to anonymously skate through every day?
Mould: A little bit of both. When I would do a music deal, like going over to the Bowery to see a show, then people would treat me like the rock guy. But I was spending so much of my time in Chelsea and in the West Village, and nobody really knew my body of work or what I would actually do. I would make friends at the gym, and I would make friends at the gay bar or at the coffee shop.

Cross: You had a secret identity.
Mould: Yeah, sort of. It just felt like it was really great to meet people and sort of establish an identity not just with what I do but who I was.

Cross: And you were new to it, so it was probably exciting and liberating.
Mould: You know the drill in New York. You know when you’re on the street or on the train when people see you and recognize you.

Cross: Absolutely.
Mould: Yeah, and for me, I seem to have the best fans in the world, like they’re all really polite and really educated and they have a good sense of when the right time to come up and say hi is.

Cross: Well, that’s good. That’s a treat.
Mould: Like when they see me lift my soup bowl off the table and pour it down my throat, it’s not the moment that they choose.

Cross: Like when you’re on the phone crying, they come up and say, “Hey, man, let’s get a picture.”
Mould: Yeah, exactly. So I’m always grateful for that. People are really nice. And it was more recognition in the rock territory rather than, in lack of a better term, gay territory.

 

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Lance Neptune: Another Space Odyssey

LanceNeptune

The possibilities are endless for interstellar synth traveler Lance Neptune

Lance Neptune makes expansive music, soundscapes that suggest endless journeys into infinite space. “I’m inspired by astronomy,” he says. “When you listen to a track, I want you to feel like the music can go on forever. The fact that the universe is never-ending inspires me every day. Every possibility, anything you can think of, can be done. There’s no ceiling, unless you’re in a house.”

As promised, the songs on Animal Eclipse, his new EP on the Magicwire label, are multidimensional, moving in all directions at the same time. Ambient washes of sound rub up against dance beats, while growling animals and other natural sounds dance hand in hand with warm, throbbing synthesizer textures. “I wanted to show o my versatility on this album,” says Neptune. “My first record, Synthesis, was dreamy and atmospheric. This one has a lot of angles. It’s still ambient, but you can dance to it, too.

“I like layering electronic and natural sounds, so I record hand percussion and patterns I tap out with drum sticks, or I put my mic up to the window and pull in the sounds of rain or birds tripping. I live in Maryland, near Washington D.C., the home of go-go music. It’s a big influence on my work. It has a bounce you don’t get anywhere else.”

Neptune created all the sounds on Animal Eclipse by himself, in an intense burst of creative energy. “I like to work alone, without any distractions or anyone interfering with the creative process,” he says. “I just buckled down for a few months and knocked it out. I do like to make music with friends and get their feedback while I’m working on tracks, but most of the time, I do it alone. I’ve always got a lot of music in my head.”

—j. poet

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Dressy Bessy: Bess In Show

DressyBessy

Dressy Bessy comes back strong after a seven-year hiatus with the aptly titled Kingsized

In the time of Dressy Bessy has been out of commission, MySpace has gone from number-one online community site to virtual haunted house. Tammy Ealom knows the band has work ahead of it in getting the word out on new album Kingsized.

“We didn’t even have a Facebook page back then,” says the guitarist/vocalist from the Denver home she shares with Dressy Bessy/Apples In Stereo guitarist/vocalist John Hill. “All this social-media stuff has come up since we’ve been out of the scene. We’re having to build it back up.”

Seven years ago, Dressy Bessy released Holler And Stomp to less than enthusiastic critical reviews, which ranged from lukewarm to hateful. One infamously snarky website used several excremental references.

“They haven’t been kind to us from the beginning,” says Ealom. “Fuck them.”

Holler And Stomp’s unfairly harsh reception, combined with low attendance on Dressy Bessy’s subsequent 2008 tour, would have ended lesser bands. Fortunately, Ealom has a rare gift for perspective.

“To be honest, I didn’t know there were any reviews at all,” she says. “We’d been hitting it hard for 10 years. When Holler And Stomp came out, it was the cusp of the housing crash, gas prices were sky high and the turnout was lackluster because nobody could afford to do anything. We didn’t sit down and say it, but we decided to take a break.”

Since 2008, Ealom made music videos for every song on Holler And Stomp, she and Hill built up their home studio, bassist Rob Greene amicably left the band, and her father passed away. With Greene’s 2014 departure, Ealom did some soul-searching about next steps, and a torrent of songs subsequently erupted from her creative well, resulting in Kingsized, the sugar-pop band’s triumphant sixth studio effort.

“That’s how albums happen in our house,” says Ealom. “With Rob moving on, I decided, ‘OK, this is my direction in life—let’s see what we’re going to do.’ It opened it up for me to write bass lines and say, ‘This is exactly how I’d like this to go,’ and to invite friends to perform on the album and give it a whole new vibe.”

With guests including Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, Rebecca Cole and Andy Sherno, Ealom, Hill and drummer Craig Gilbert bring a tougher, darker edge to Dressy Bessy’s standard bubblegum snap and bounce on Kingsized.

“We’ve been considered this cutesy thing, and I’ll take some of the blame—I do the visuals, and I’m drawn to cute shit,” says Ealom. “Cute isn’t something you learn; you embrace it or you don’t. We’ve always felt like we were a rocking fucking band.”

Kingsized exposes shades of punk and glam that have always lurked under Dressy Bessy’s surface without abandoning its core sound. More importantly, the band feels its captured its essence with this album.

“I think we’ve nailed our live sound in a recording for the first time,” says Ealom. “There’s that gritty underbelly. This is us.”

Inspired epiphanies notwithstanding, it seems logical to ask the universe and other interested parties: Why is now the time for Dressy Bessy’s return?

“We’re about to go into a housing crash, and we’re gluttons for punishment,” says Ealom. “We didn’t pick the time; it just is time. We’re excited, we have no expectations. Like it or leave it, we’re gonna do it, but please like it. We’re cute, but we’ll also make you cry.”

—Brian Baker

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Radiation City: All Of The Beautiful Colors

RadiationCity

The dream poppers in Radiation City dole out the ear candy

“We’re always trying to move the music in unexpected directions,” says Lizzy Ellison, lead singer, songwriter, keyboard player and founding member of dream-pop outfit Radiation City. “When we’re writing and recording our songs, we look at all the possibilities—time changes, layering of instruments, overdubs, studio effects—then we sort through them to bring out the most cohesive elements. We take those moments, we call them ‘ear candy,’ and showcase them.”

Synesthetica, the band’s fourth album, continues to draw on an expansive rage of influences. The group takes elements of rock from the ’50s and ’60s, bossa nova, jazz, organ music suitable for a smoky late-night cocktail lounge and electronica, and scrambles them up into a sonic sou é that’s uniquely its own.

“We’re not trying to sound retro,” says Ellison, “but that music had a feeling, a spaciousness and a dynamic range that’s been missing for a while.”

As promised, the arrangements on Synesthetica cover a lot of musical and emotional ground. “Separate” blends tango, bossa nova and clanging rock guitar; “Butter” is a breakup song, matching orchestral waves of synthesizer with Ellison’s desolate vocal, while “Fancy Cherries” delivers a simple R&B tune riding a wave of chiming guitars. The music is spacious, but not spacey.

“This album took two years to write and record,” says Ellison. “It’s the first time we worked with an outside producer, so it stretched our creativity. We cut the basic tracks live with John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. Then we brought in Jeremy Sherrer (Modest Mouse). He meshed those tracks with our original demos, which took time. Some tempos weren’t the same, so he had to time stretch them and add the effects we wanted. It was exhausting, but we came away with a record that sounds exactly the way we envisioned it.”

—j poet

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Grant-Lee Phillips: Narrows Minded

GrantLeePhillips

Grant-Lee Phillips makes a move to Nashville and one of his best albums to date

Grant-Lee Phillips’ new LP, The Narrows, is a core sample of his life experiences, influences and previous musical accomplishments, with Grant Lee Buffalo in the ’90s and as a prolific solo artist after the band’s 1999 dissolution. It’s also a reflection of he and his wife’s move to Nashville two years ago in order to raise their daughter in a saner atmosphere than Los Angeles, where Phillips has lived since the early ’80s.

“L.A.’s an intense place,” says Phillips. “Obviously, I have a love and tolerance for it. A lot of our friends had moved, and we said, ‘Maybe Nashville.” Where people open the door for one another and say, ‘Thank you,’ and all that old-fashioned stuff. L.A. has a hard time, but in their defense, they’ve always got a few coffees in each hand.”

Phillips began thinking about the songs for The Narrows toward the end of 2013, the year after his seventh solo release, Walking In The Green Corn. Although still living in L.A., Southern gentility and a slower pace crept into Phillips’ writing; he cranked out Band-tinted folk hymn “Holy Irons” and GLB-infused “Tennessee Rain” before relocating. Once established in Nashville, Phillips’ songs took their water from a deeper, sadder well.

“My dad’s health took a real plunge, and he passed away in the fall,” says Phillips. “There were a few songs in that period, some right before and some after.”

Phillips credits the extended time between songwriting and recording for his satisfaction with The Narrows. In many ways, the new album was recorded in a similar fashion to Grant Lee Buffalo’s sterling ’90s output, with quick studio sessions wedged into hectic touring schedules.

“I lived with it a bit longer before I called it done,” says Phillips. “I’d been writing a lot, and we did a quick session, and in a couple of days, we tracked 12 of the songs—then I went back on the road. It was a bit like the old days with Grant Lee Bu alo. We would give ourselves a week or so to make a record, but most of our time was spent touring, so we couldn’t overthink things, which was probably healthy.”

Subsequently, The Narrows, recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Nashville studio, plays like a hybrid of Phillips’ dual creative identities: electric shaman and acoustic troubadour (a role he played to perfection on Gilmore Girls).

“It satisfied what I was hoping it would satisfy,” says Phillips. “Something very earthy and human that represented both sides of what I do: the reflective, introverted side and the harder side, as well.”

Phillips also professes a great love of Levon Helm and the Band (“And I think of it in those terms,” he says), as well as the country renegades of his parents’ generation.

“The Band has always been a touchstone for me,” he says. “It’s almost like an American Beatles, I suppose—a group that produced a universe that is complete and impossible to puncture. I believe every word. And I’ve always had a soft spot for music I associate with the South, with Nashville; Cash, Haggard, Willie, all the guys that probably got booed off the Ryman stage back in the day. The outlaws and weirdos, in that sense. I think we all have that lingering sense that part of us feels alone in the world and wrestles with the rule book, and then out walks a Cash or a David Bowie, who represents all the outcasts and terrestrial aliens walking around.”

The Narrows finds Phillips returning to the trio format with bassist Lex Price and drummer Jerry Roe, grandson of country great Jerry Reed, who had offered to help Phillips made a record in Nashville, but advised him against moving there (“I do want to make a record, and I ignored the other part,” Phillips told Roe). The trio configuration seems to be Phillips’ sweet spot.

“There’s a point where I step away from the microphone and express it through the guitar, and with a trio I can easily do that,” says Phillips. “I think it’s just enough and sometimes it’s almost too much. I’ve had that chance to play with a larger band, and it can be so great, but I always find that I’m saying, ‘That’s great, do even less of that.’ I was always crying out that it would be nice to have an extra player in Grant Lee Bu alo, but it was hard enough to corral a trio. Maybe the songs just work better in that fashion. I’m not certain. I’ll figure it out.”

—Brian Baker

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Kris Orlowski: Leaping Tall Buildings

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Kris Orlowski didn’t pause at the chance to make experimental music his day job

From a perch of nearly 40 stories above the rainy streets of Seattle, singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski is serenading a small, wine-and-whiskey-sipping group of music obsessives from the relatively cozy confines of the Smith Office Tower’s only private residence, a penthouse at the very top. To fit the group into this relatively small space, the family’s furniture has been removed for the occasion—it’s literally Orlowski, his guitar, blankets hastily arranged around the floor for people to sit upon, and one of Dale Chihuly’s giant signature glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling above it all.

Orlowski has been hosting a monthly “Smith Tower Sessions” series from this locale, opening for a fellow Seattle-area musician (tonight, it’s his friend David Bazan, also known for his work as Pedro The Lion) in a close setting that encourages intimacy, improvisation and the fearless debut of new material—all of which Orlowski does in turn, veering between a ragged-but-right cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and new songs from his forthcoming band LP, Often In The Pause.

Orlowski’s style can best be described as earnest but moody; somber but sincere. Like the best Northwesterners of recent vintage (think: Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, Damien Jurado, the late Elliott Smith), Orlowski uses roots music as something of a starting point, but ladles pop changes and varying production sensibilities over the a air to switch up textures and moods. He’s a man wearing many hats—working musician, songwriter, promoter, cultural curator, marketer—making music in as many ways as possible, as frequently as possible, without the safety net of a label to fall back upon.

“I landed my publishing deal two years ago,” says Orlowski. “Then one of my songs was placed on Grey’s Anatomy, and I realized, ‘Hey, this is more attainable now—I can make a living doing this.’ That was enough for me to quit my job, do a national tour behind my debut album (2014’s Believer). I’m around music all day, every day. It’s a weird balancing act of staying just organized enough to also do the experimenting I love.”

—Corey duBrowa

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