Category Archives: INTERVIEWS

A Conversation With Mark Ronson

MarkRonson

He’ll be forever known as the powerful producer of Amy Winehouse’s best material (to say nothing of behind-the-board stints for Bruno Mars, Paul McCartney, Kaiser Chiefs, Duran Duran, Black Lips and Rufus Wainwright), but Mark Ronson’s solo career has found traction and soul equal to that of his clients. His newest album, Uptown Special, follows the sights and sounds of Manhattan at the end of an era (clubland in the early ’90s) with an arsenal of name contributors (including lyrics by novelist Michael Chabon), but it’s Ronson’s warm, wild, brassy sound and bold, un-obvious melodies that stand out.

I know that you’re not a touring animal. Are you comfortable out in front of the mixing boards and the band?
I think if I do it more than every four years, I can remember how to stand up onstage in front of people. Then again, If you get someone such as Bruno Mars doing the brunt of the work, there’s very little that you need to do, save for standing. It’s a strange thing. When I did the album Version, I was making these cover songs in my bedroom with several great singers. I would have been just as happy putting those songs on those other people’s albums. I don’t necessarily need the limelight. Plus, I don’t know if I can get away with what most of these singers do, you know?

See, now, I know that you have sung a bit on your albums, but can you really sing?
I could fake my way through it onstage if I had to. The whole idea of having to warm up for hours, though? It’s just not worth it for what comes out of my mouth. When you discover so many other great voices out there, as I had to do when searching for singers for this new album, and you find and hear the amazing vocals that I did, you realize how much you don’t have that thing.

You mention limelight. I wanted to ask you a further question about success. A few years ago, I interviewed you with Rufus Wainwright for his Out Of The Game record that you produced for him. He was very specifically interested in making a charting pop record. He laughed while saying it, but he was serious. OK, the album didn’t sell billions. He seemed disappointed, but pragmatic. What is the marker of success for you?
There’s different degrees of success and different things that are important at different times. Like, before “Uptown Funk” came out, I never had anywhere near this level of success under my own name. I don’t know if one of my singles even cracked the top anything. Then again, I don’t know, or don’t remember, if I was ever disappointed. DJing, producing: It’s always opened another door for me, so that’s cool. With Rufus, I remember the situation clearly: He was happy with his music, but concerned about how far it reached. He wanted to make his clearest shot at an accessible record, and that’s what I gave him: a great meat-and-potatoes Rufus Wainwright album without the more ornate touches that some people find challenging. I’m proud of that record.

You should be. It was a lean, mean Rufus record. OK, then, Bruno Mars—pop superstar. Forget about singing. I know he hits the skins here. What sort of a drummer is he? Is he an easy rhythmatist?
Yeah, the more I work with him, the more I find that he’s the most talented arranger, musician, co-producer and writer I’ve even been around in the studio—and that’s saying a lot when I realize just who it is I’ve worked with. And even I forget sometimes. I’ve been in that zone with him for a while, having this amazing run, and it’s definitely electric. He’s at a point where he can’t do any wrong. Everything we’re doing is about making every element better—that bass line, that turnaround. Yeah, so he’s a great drummer, especially considering that a song like “Uptown Funk” has no traditional chorus.

What made you want to work with the guys from Tame Impala on your new album? They’re not the first cats I think of when I think of your stuff.
I hear something—a song, an album—and I become obsessed. Especially if I’ve never met them before. Tame Impala might be my favorite rock band. Around 2012, I became a massive fan of their recordings. I just knew. I heard them in my songs, thought they’d be perfect. They were warm people, and everything they wanted to do surprised me. You get the feeling with them that they are off quietly in their bedrooms like mad geniuses. Working with them is as daunting and joyful to me as having Stevie Wonder playing on the record; like, how does it even make sense that this guy is my favorite musician, probably someone who has influenced my music more than anybody else, literally playing this melody that I wrote? The whole thing was amazing, beautiful and gorgeous. All of it. Tame Impala, Stevie Wonder. It’s enough to make my brain snap.

As far as teenage ennui goes, so much of this album has the feel of late-night early-’90s Manhattan. I know why that moment stands out in my mind. What about you?
I just started going out then, doing some early DJ gigs. I think that was the end of NYC’s golden club era. Before bottle service, before cell phones, before you were able to buy VIP tables, you just found a spot on the dance floor and you stayed there all night. You never even played your first hip-hop record until after midnight; you were too busy playing dance classics. I remember DJing, looking out and seeing the same people on the dance floor in the same spot that they started in earlier in the night. Seriously, that was a nice feeling. That’s the vibe that I wanted to recapture.

—A.D. Amorosi

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

A Conversation With Todd Rundgren

Todd

Along with creating Tin Pan, blue-eyed-soul masterpieces (Something/Anything?), prog-rock epics (everything his band Utopia recorded), psychedelic garage classics (his Philly-born Nazz’s “Open My Eyes”) and Technicolor soundscapes for productions clients like XTC and Patti Smith, Todd Rundgren long ago laid down the multi-layered blueprint for much of what EDM pop is today with A Wizard, A True Star. “At least, that’s what they tell me,” Rundgren says with a snicker, before discussing his newly released, 25th solo album (the electro-glide soul of Global), an upcoming collaboration with Norway’s Lindstrøm (Runddans) and time playing and writing with Ringo Starr.

You’ve been gigging with Ringo since you cobbled together a Jerry Lewis telethon band with him, Bill Wyman and Utopia in the late ’70s. You’ve been an on-and-off-again member of his All-Stars for 15 years. His new album finally features your co-songwriting credit. What took so long?
I would like to imagine that my “Jerry’s Kids” band was the inspiration for Ringo’s All-Stars, by the way. Starr was working on an album during his off-time, which isn’t much. One song we all co-wrote together happened to come from a jam with me and Gregg Rolie messing around during sound check. Ringo just wanted to make a song out of it, so we did. As for our one-on-one collaboration, it’s two days before the tour ends, Ringo sits down and says, “Fancy writing a song with me?” Short notice, but sure. There was an idea he banged out on his synthesizer-rhythm box combo with a lyric based on Beatles song titles. Then, he told me a story about a box of postcards the Beatles shared—when they were apart, even after they broke up, they stayed in touch with postcards. He wanted to call it “Letters From Paradise” until I figured that it had to be “Postcards.” I did the demo, sent it, and went on my own tour. I just heard the finished song. I didn’t realize he was using it, let alone making it his new album’s title.

Forget about production charges or cats in Utopia—since you’re pretty much a one-man band, do you find it hard to play nice, to collaborate?
It’s true. I haven’t been good necessarily in one-to-one collaborations in that McCartney/Lennon vein. I’m better at trading things back and forth, which is certainly more convenient nowadays. In another era, I couldn’t have done that thing with Ringo. Now I carry a laptop, recording software and microphones, and can do it anywhere. That’s how I got to work with Peter Lindstrøm in Norway. If somebody has a good start or something has stalled, I can usually help wrap it all up. I remember when I lived in Sausalito, Rick Springfield came to my house wanting to write songs together, and all I could do was sit and stare at him. Same thing happened when Kenny Loggins stopped by. I warned these guys, though—I’m not that guy who comes up with songs cold. I’m a ruminator. I think and think, and when it comes out, it does so in a form of automatic writing, all at once.

The last time we spoke, we discussed how you had just started to hear that A Wizard, A True Star was a big influence on EDM stuff, as well as on the nu-psychedelia.
A younger generation has gone and discovered, bored as they may be by current stuff , that particular music of mine. Curious musicians like Lindstrøm and Tame Impala, both of whom I’ve done remixes for, have told me as much. It’s probably because that album—by today’s standards—still breaks rules. People like that sometimes. Even the guys in the Roots, with whom I’m sharing tracks for a Ruben And The Jets-like cartoon R&B album, talk about how much they’ve felt for my stuff of the past.

Well, you’re all Philly guys. You don’t need that acknowledgement, I’m sure, but how has hearing that steered where you’re going now, say on Global? Did that knowledge and all those technological advances—making your studio more portable—change how you went into new music?
I’ve had a studio since my fourth record. That way of working—using the studio as an interactive compositional device—is ingrained in me. When it became possible to make that all portable and cheaper, I took advantage. I have more power in my laptop than in a tricked-out Pro Tools studio 10 years ago. Guys who started out with that advantage like my music. How it influenced State, my last album, and Global? OK, when guys like Lindstrøm and Tame Impala came to me, they knew more about me than I knew about them, and that wasn’t fair. I began doing my research, but in the confines of what appeals to me. The first result was State, which was technologically aggressive and expressive—and comfortable. As I like doing any next album differently from the last, Global has much of the same feel of State, only with simpler songs, to be more thematically concise and to use more of my range as a singer—especially the R&B part of it. This one’s more vocal.

Not that you’ve been blissfully unaware, but Global—along with focusing on your usual anti-religious stance—concentrates on universality: earth versus skyscrapers, man versus machine. Is that a condition of age or what the planet wants?
I was trying to make, essentially, a cheerleading album—a feel-good record—as much as I can. There’s my usual scolding throughout, but it’s more about looking forward than pointing downward. That’s why I wanted to make it easier to follow than my more usually obtuse work. It’s not so much of a phase, as I don’t think I’d make this record next time. Then again, I have a label now, same one as with the last record. That hasn’t been the case for a while. These guys were great; they didn’t even demand to know what it was about.

—A.D. Amorosi

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

A Conversation With Kate Pierson

Kate

Kate Pierson released her debut solo album, Guitars And Microphones, in February. You can’t help but wonder what took her so long. She’s been the toast of Athens, Ga.’s party-balling B-52’s since 1976, and that’s pretty much it. Not that her union with Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland and the Wilson siblings hasn’t kept her busy—the B’s still tour and release new music. And sure, she’s recorded duets with R.E.M. and Iggy Pop, and played a part of Japan’s NINA for kicks (plus, she co-owns two Kate’s Lazy Meadow hotels with her partner, Monica Coleman). It’s just surprising that she hasn’t had much of a yen to make solo music until recently. With the help of Sia and the Strokes’ Nick Valensi, Pierson scratches that sudden itch with Guitars And Microphones, and may even have newer, solo songs to follow.

I didn’t realize that you were born in Weehawken, N.J. Any childhood stuff stick out?
I am a total Jersey girl, and was raised there until I was eight, then moved to Rutherford after my grandmother died. I was there through high school, so I have those vivid memories, but once I left Jersey, I never came back. There’s not much family left to speak of, but who is remaining from Jersey all moved to Florida.

So, what made you want to become a mini-chain motel magnate? You’ve got one in the Catskills and one in Joshua Tree.
The first one was a roadside hotel built in 1952. Really run-down. The rooms were depressing and gray. The land, though, was beautiful, with a lovely creek and goldfinches flying around. It was a real fixer-upper. Monica was a friend, helping me get it together. The more we worked, the more real it all became. Decorating was a blast, and the whole project was just fun, certainly nothing I ever dreamed about. The Joshua Tree location happened when we had mudslides here and had to get everything redone, so we found someplace in the desert to live while the Catskills location got rehabbed.

Throughout your history as a musician—and, of course, most of that means the B-52’s—were there songs you wrote for yourself? Songs that didn’t fit the B’s?
I first had a band in high school called the Sun Doughnuts. We wrote our own songs—protest songs, civil rights songs. I kept doing this until I got to the B-52’s. I really always wanted to be a girl singer, but when I got to Athens, I focused on a back-to-nature thing where I raised goats and such.

I’m just waiting to see how this ties into Fred.
Well, when we got together with the rest of the band, our writing style immediately focused on jamming, and songs being written from the evolution of those jams. We’d play. Fred, I and Cindy would come up with lyrics. It was a very collective mentality, with very few exceptions. There wasn’t room for anyone just coming in with their own songs.

So, you just didn’t or couldn’t write without the band?
Couldn’t really for the longest time. Something inside me just shut down. Then we sort of stopped that for a minute—after (1986’s) Bouncing Off The Satellites, where we tried writing on our own. It was very sudden, as if writing was thrust upon me. Then the band took a big break in the late ’90s, and I had this great opportunity to go to Japan and work with the producer of the Plastics on this NINA project. We didn’t speak each other’s language and had to work with an interpreter, but I really had the floodgates open for me. It was huge in Japan; I just wish Sony would have released it here. From there, I genuinely began writing on my own, but the B’s management discouraged this. There were contracts, we were touring non-stop, plus we recorded (2008’s) Funplex, so again, my writing for myself went on hold. It was overwhelming.

So, no time for Kate?
The B’s are a family dynamic. You can’t leave it. Look, it was my own mental state. No one from the band held me back. I didn’t give myself license to do that. It wasn’t until we broke full-blast touring for a year that I began thinking about my writing again. Sia is a friend of ours—this is before she began writing for Beyoncé and Rihanna. I wrote with her; I was writing with different people. Suddenly, it seemed to flow better. It was easy, positive. Which is how the album got made.

What do you think you require then to make a perfect Kate Pierson solo song?
With the B’s, there’s too much talent. With NINA, it was easy collaboration. I don’t know. Maybe the feeling that I don’t have to push to get heard? I definitely want it to be different from what I’ve ever done, despite having the similarities in my voice. More autobiographical, too, touch on subjects I care about, like addiction and transgender people.

So, before you got to Guitars And Microphones, were there things that you knew in advance that you wanted to bring to the table?
No.

OK.
Well, only because it was all very spontaneous. That’s the beauty of writing songs—at least that’s what I learned now. You just do it. There’s the pop framework of verse and chorus, but that’s it. Then you work with Sia, and she really cuts to the chase. I jotted down titles, then some lyrics, collaged that together with the melodies, Sia shaped those melodies, and that was that. From there, I was able to focus on elements of my life such as growing up and losing friends, like on “Guitars And Microphones.” Plus, I always wanted to play guitar on a record, and I finally did on this one. I used to play guitar while sitting on my dad’s knees. It was a great feeling reliving that.

—A.D. Amorosi

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

Can’t Hardly Wait: Superchunk On Opening For The Replacements

ChunkMats

On Sept. 25, 1990, the Replacements released their final record, All Shook Down—the same day Superchunk released their self-titled debut. Nearly 25 years later, rock worlds will collide again when Superchunk opens the May 9 Philadelphia show on the Replacements’ tour. Knowing singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and drummer Jon Wurster count the Mats as a favorite band, we convened them—as well as bassist Laura Ballance, who has retired from touring due to hearing issues, and her, uh, replacement, Jason Narducy (Split Single, Bob Mould)—for an e-roundtable (candidate for WordHate™?) about their fandom and what this gig means to them. (Guitarist Jim Wilbur didn’t respond to multiple requests. Maybe he doesn’t like Replacements. Or us.)

How important are the Replacements to you?
Wurster: Everybody has that one band they most identity with and claim as their own. For me, the Replacements were that band. (OK, Hüsker Dü was my other band.) I remember sitting in Dead Milkmen guitarist Joe Jack Talcum’s bedroom in early 1984 and hearing “Color Me Impressed” for the first time and really being affected by it. To my ears, it was one of the first great blends of punk snarl and pop melody by a band from my generation. From then on, I was a fan. I bought their records as soon as they came out and went on road trips to see them live. The Replacements were the musical embodiment of the all the crazy, mixed-up feelings you experience in your late teens and twenties. They were the perfect mix of bravado, fear, anger, humor and mental illness—I can say that because I’m a crazy person, too. Did I want to be in the Replacements? Let’s just say I ran to a Dallas-Fort Worth Airport pay phone the moment I heard Chris Mars was out of the band and called their managers to plead my case. Sadly, I was too late.

McCaughan: The records from Let It Be through Pleased To Meet Me were hugely important to me, as well as the earlier ones when I went back to find them after Let It Be came out. I think what’s so key about the Replacements is that they were hard to define. At that time, I loved a lot of hardcore bands, and I loved a lot of pop bands and new-wave bands, and I still loved the classic rock I grew up with—but you couldn’t classify the Replacements. The idea that you could be a band that couldn’t be classified was radical.

Ballance: The Replacements are hugely important to me and probably influenced my life in ways I can’t even express. I first heard them in 1984 when Let It Be came out. I went and got that record and listened to it over and over. It expressed this pain and loneliness that I definitely felt as a 16 year old. I feel like I saw them play at the Metroplex around that time, but I can’t actually find any confirmation on the internet that they played there. I definitely saw them play a show later at the Skate Ranch in Raleigh. They were unbelievably drunk and it was a mess of a show, but it was so fun. It helped me to realize that punk shows didn’t always have to be so serious. Most bands at the time postured in a way that conveyed toughness and that to be punk you had to play fast and loud. The Replacements had some of that, too, but also they were goofy and vulnerable and were just as likely to play a beautiful, well-crafted pop song as a hardcore one.

Narducy: They were an important band to me because I heard Tim when it came out my freshman year in high school. They didn’t sound like any other band I’d heard previously, and they had an absolute perfect pop song in “Kiss Me On The Bus.” My friends and I could call them our own.

What does it mean to you to open for them?
McCaughan: It’s kind of crazy and unreal, but I guess it’s the kind of thing that happens if you manage to be a band long enough. I feel lucky that we get to do it.

Narducy: It means I actually look forward to going to Philadelphia.

Wurster: How often to you get to open for a band that was and continues to be such a big part of your life? Back in 1984, I was drumming in a Philadelphia-based band called Psychotic Norman. One day, our bassist Tom announced a well-intentioned, yet slightly misguided, plan to convince the Replacements to play a show in his cramped suburban basement in between the band’s Trenton and Philly Let It Be tour stops. Psychotic Norman would, of course, be the opening band. You’ll be shocked to learn that the basement show never materialized. To make up for it, and to capture the feeling of what could have been, I’ll be playing our opening set at Penn’s Landing flanked by Tom’s mother’s washer and dryer.

What’s your favorite Mats record and why?
McCaughan: It’s too hard to choose. I go back and forth between Stink and Let It Be and Pleased To Meet Me, which was the last tour I saw.

Wurster: The two that immediately come to mind are Pleased To Meet Me and Hootenanny. For me, they’re the ones that best embody the spirit of the Replacements, but every one of their records contains top-shelf songs. Even the All Shook Down-era Don’t Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap EP has one of their greatest shoulda-been-a-hit songs, Tommy Stinson’s “Satellite.”

Narducy: Tim because it’s so strong top to bottom and has such a wide variety of songs. There are anthems like “Bastards Of Young” and “Left Of The Dial.” There are pop songs like “Kiss Me” and “Little Mascara,” a ballad in “Here Comes A Regular” and a schmaltzy, swinging, sneering tune in “Waitress In The Sky.” Apparently, “Can’t Hardly Wait” almost made it on this record. Holy. Shit.

With the band or otherwise, have you ever crossed paths with the Replacements?
McCaughan: As a band, I don’t think Superchunk has crossed paths with them. It’s weird that our debut came out as their last record did.

Wurster: Never in Superchunk, other than Tommy coming to a show we did at the Roxy in L.A. around 1997. The band I was in five or six years before joining Superchunk was managed by the same guys who handled the Replacements, so I’d get some fun glimpses into their world when I’d stop by the office: a quick spin of Please To Meet Me rough mixes; a peek at a handwritten card announcing the birth of Tommy’s daughter; catching bits and pieces of our manager’s end of a phone conversation with recently fired Bob Stinson about severance pay. This doesn’t make me sound creepy at all, does it? I’ve run into Tommy several times over the years, and he’s always a true gentleman. I’ve never told him any of this stuff, so please make sure this page is blocked from his computer.

Narducy: I avoided seeing the band in the ’80s because my friends would go see them and complain that they were too drunk and only played four songs, and those four songs were covers—done badly. When you’re in high school, 20 bucks is a lot of money to gamble on a concert. I probably should have gone anyways. In 2013, I went to dinner with my friends Dave and Kathleen Philips. It wasn’t until I arrived at the restaurant that I realized Tommy was with them. He’s the only one I’ve met and talked to.

Laura, when you found out about this show, did you think about telling Jason to take a hike so you could play it?
Ballance: I still haven’t heard from any of my bandmates that they’re playing this show! Bastards! I just heard about it the other day from Christina (Rentz) here at Merge. And hell yes, it occurred to me that I should play it, but then I realized I could still go and not have to actually play. I might.

Jason, you’re a replacement in a band opening for the Replacements featuring replacements. Thoughts?
Narducy: (Replacements drummer) Josh Freese and I will be participating in the dunk tank before and after the show. Full cans of Summit beer will be thrown at the target and at us.

What are the chances Superchunk ends up onstage with the Mats during their set as they play “I Hate Music”?
McCaughan: I’ll let the pros handle that one.

Narducy: My guess is that this is on Paul Westerberg’s bucket list.

Wurster: Wouldn’t you rather see me moonwalking and hammering a cowbell during “Asking Me Lies”?

–Matt Hickey

 

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

Best Of 2014: Q&A With Ex Hex

ExHex1

If we’re handing out superlatives, we have to award Best Phone Skills to Mary Timony for the rather hilarious way she started our Monday morning conversation. It was a simple hello delivered with quizzical sitcom-quality timing that surprises both of us—maybe it means the Suzi Quatro/Leather Tuscadero references we’d used to describe her new band, Ex Hex, and debut album Rips weren’t entirely off base. And just like the Happy Days rock ‘n’ roller, Rips is just too cool, one of the raging guitar-pop albums that record nerds dream about. “It has been kind of insane,” says Timony. “We just got back from tour, and we’ve been extremely busy. Just a lot of driving and playing—a crazy tour. But it’s good to be back.”

The band is indeed busy—24 hours after we talk, Timony and Co. will be making their Late Night With Seth Meyers debut—and shows no sign of slowing down. Since its first set of shows in the spring (yes, you read that right: first tour ever), Ex Hex has dropped two videos of slapstick alt-rock shenanigans, wooed critics just about everywhere and wowed fans across the country. For real, when MAGNET saw Ex Hex open for Rocket From The Crypt, the ladies had barely unplugged before we were sending out “BEST. BAND. EVER” texts to every person we know. Needless to say, deciding on our album of the year was a no-brainer. We caught up with Timony to chat about skipping work to go see metal shows, public-access TV and punk-rock pastry chefs. —Sean L. Maloney

What was the best show you played in 2014?
It was in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago on this tour. There were a few reasons it was a crazy night. I mean, the night was crazy, which is why it was my favorite, but it was actually a really good show. You could tell people had heard the record, and people were smiling and dancing, which was really fun. I love playing the 7th Street Entry because that’s where parts of Purple Rain were filmed. So, that’s always fun. There were like four shows … there was a huge hip-hop show—I don’t remember who it was—playing down the street, the Black Keys were playing across the street at some convention-center thing, and at this other club Pentagram was playing, which was really weird. So, we end up playing a really fun show. We get offstage and go to the merch stand, and this girl came up to us. Somehow she had a connection to the Pentagram show. So, we abandon the merch stand—which is very irresponsible [laughs], not a responsible thing to do—but we left it all there to see Pentagram. And it was fucking awesome. It was the best show—Pentagram is so cool and I love all those songs. So, we just walked down the street and saw Pentagram. I feel bad if anybody wanted a record—I’m sorry. We just left a sign that said “Back in 10 minutes.” [Laughs] That was definitely my favorite.

Who was your favorite band of 2014?
I knew we were going to do this interview, so I made a list of my favorite records. It’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been listening to Ed Schrader’s Music Beat—they’re from Baltimore. I’ve heard that live it is just the best thing you’ve ever seen—I haven’t seen them, but that’s what I’ve heard. My friends played with them and were freaking out about it. I really like that record. ’m excited about this band Public Access TV; I don’t know if they really have anything out yet. Do you remember that band Be Your Own Pet? John Eatherly from that band has a new band—I know him from when he played with Eleanor Friedberger. When he was playing with Eleanor, Wild Flag was on tour with them, and somehow I got some of the demos they made in GarageBand. I think a friend sent them to me? But they are so good, and I keep listening to those demos over and over again. And he’s got a new band, and I’ve only heard a few songs online, but they’re the same songs from the demos. They’re really good. Oh, and I’m obsessed with that King Tuff record—it’s probably my favorite record of the year. I am really excited about the Slant 6 Soda Pop Rip Off reissue on Dischord. That’s probably my reissue of the year. That’s one of my favorite records, and it’s nice to know that it’s coming back, that people still love it. I know some younger people [in old-man voice] I know of some younger people [laughs] that really love that record, but they are D.C. people. It’s one of those records that it’s confusing why it’s not a bigger thing. I don’t know—I’m glad that it’s reissued because it is so fucking good.

And what was your best meal of 2014?
Do you know (Born Against/Universal Order Of Armageddon drummer) Brooks Headley? He just had a book come out (Fancy Desserts) about being a pastry chef. We got totally lucky—he hooked us up at Del Posto in New York and let us try all of this amazing food. It’s like the fanciest restaurant in New York, and he hooked us up with a huge-huge-huge mega-discount, so that was really fun. It was this really incredible Italian food, and then a bunch of his desserts that were just out of control. I mean, there was like 10 of them and they were all incredible, all these sorbets and chocolates. It was insane. They were so good.

—photo by Gene Smirnov

Also posted in BEST OF 2014 | Comments closed

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Book Of Revelation

BJM

The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe finds himself in a healthy space

The best thing you can do when Anton Alfred Newcombe starts talking is get out of his way. Which is challenging, since Newcombe, who endured years saddled by a reputation for difficulty that far outstripped reality, is such an energetic and affable conversationalist. Today’s discussion, like the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s music, spills out all over the place. Mostly, though, it settles on Revelation, the new BJM album drawn from two years of work in Newcombe’s Berlin studio, and how a man who might have become one of contemporary psych/rock’s most tragic burnouts found himself in such a healthy space.

It’s been more than two decades now since BJM’s first show in San Francisco, a sold-out Masonic Temple gig that the group self-advertised (after backlash over the band’s name got it rejected by S.F. club bookers) with a series of posters reading “TAKE ACID NOW!” BJM followed these with a second round of posters with fake blotter attached to them, and a third set of posters reading “TAKE ACID AND COME SEE THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE!”

“We also made some signs that read ‘FESTIVAL OF YOGA,’” says Newcombe, remembering how one bona fide Bay Area hippie statesman approached the band as it was tearing down amps and movie projectors to say, “Hey, the show was really groovy, and also, when does the yoga start?”

That’s how it was for years: BJM got tagged as inner-space drug-o-nauts, Merry Prankster egotists and—this was the part that galled Newcombe most—flameout-skirting head cases, a band whose frontman seemed determined to pull the rug out from under it again and again. Much of that rep came via director Ondi Timoner’s 2004 film Dig!, which drew much of its dramatic charge from the supposed rivalry between BJM and the Dandy Warhols—a rivalry both Newcombe and DW’s Courtney Taylor-Taylor have since repeatedly said was largely fabricated through selective edits. It’s an irresistibly watchable film, especially if you’re a fan of the self-immolating talent narrative, but Newcombe’s real story is dramatic in much more compelling ways.

Revelation isn’t the work of the antic young band the BJM used to be. It isn’t the kind of album Newcombe used to come out of the studio with after days of gorging drugs, feeding the manic demon that lived in his brain, the one that insisted he make music so he could direct that awful jittery energy someplace. But it is unquestionably a BJM record, a reverb-saturated hour’s worth of ear candy. Some pieces are sweet, some are dark, but overall the album is as drone-fueled, echo-drenched and compulsively listenable as the band’s most interesting work. It’s also the work of a musician who’s come through half a lifetime of dirt and emerged as unscarred as anyone who’d spent so much time chasing dragons could hope.

“My understanding of ‘psychedelic’ was really always less to do with paisley shirts and acid, and more about mind expansion, being open to different ways of assembling sound,” Newcombe says from his Berlin home. He’d been tinkering for months, writing “imaginary film music” on synth equipment he’s owned since he was a teenager, coming up with disassociated musical themes and segments. “Then my label partners said, ‘Hey, if you wanna tour next year, you’re going to need to put an album out.’ And I had no anchor songs. Maybe one, that I’d written last October or something.”

The initial panic over sequencing and album-shaping gave way to a kind of Zen moment. “Sometimes I have a backbone of an album,” says Newcombe. “Other times I have nothing. And I’ve always thought in terms of albums, even in album sides. But I realized, with Spotify and iTunes now, people manufacture their own playlists. So, maybe I can just put out a bunch of ‘songs’ this time.”

As a collection—a psychic mixtape, as it were—Revelation holds up fine, especially since more recognizably BJM-style cuts like the swirling “Days, Weeks And Moths” and the spacey “Memory Camp” segue gradually into more expansive, even cinematic songs, of which “Fist Full Of Bees” and gorgeous album closer “Goodbye (Butterfly)” are the strongest. Newcombe spent days shifting and sequencing different tracks on his YouTube channel, getting feedback and paying attention to the groupings that stuck in his head.

“Ultimately, I want people to be happy with it, because I want to keep being able to make music,” he says. “But what you’re trying to do is second-guess what other people are going to get out of it, which is where you get led into a deep, dark cave. I know there’s a certain amount of resistance, or people scoffing over my lack of production values. But that doesn’t matter. I’m not going away until I die.”

—Eric Waggoner

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Q&A With Robert Pollard

It’s gonna be all GBV, all day, kids. This is from 2007.

To nobody’s surprise, neither age nor the dissolution of Guided By Voices has slowed the prolific output of Ohio’s most famous schoolteacher-turned-songwriter. Robert Pollard has simultaneously issued two new solo albums, Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions (both on Merge), with help from producer and collaborator Todd Tobias. He’s also putting the finishing touches on a coffee-table book of lyrics and collage artwork titled Town Of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery Of Robert Pollard (due out next year) and recently staged an exhibit of his visual art at Studio Dante, Sopranos star Michael Imperioli’s New York City theater.

Read More »

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

My Impression Now: Obama Press Secretary Jay Carney Briefs Us On Guided By Voices

It’s gonna be all GBV, all day, kids. This is from 2012.

Back in the spring, MAGNET’s collective jaw dropped when we learned that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declared, in the middle of a briefing with the Washington press corps, that Guided By Voices was “the greatest rock band of the modern era.” It’s not often that our musical tastes intersect with those of the spokesperson for the most powerful man on the planet, so we dropped Carney a line and asked if he’d be willing to sit for an interview about his love of Bob Pollard and Co. Surprisingly enough, he said yes, and we found ourselves in the West Wing of the White House grilling the President of the United States’ spokesman about the finer points of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.

You declared Guided By Voices to be the greatest band of the modern era during a press conference in the White House briefing room. I recently watched it again on YouTube, and I noticed that none of the White House press corps followed up on this very provocative declaration that you made. They all seemed to be more interested in Afghanistan and some place called China, and I really have to question the priorities of the lamestream media, as somebody we know would call it. And then last summer, you somehow interpolated (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell with Mitch Mitchell, who is the guitarist in Guided By Voices, and then you said, when trying to steer back to the matters at hand, “OK let’s motor on.” Pretty sure you meant “Motor Away” …
I did, I did.

… referring to the song from Alien Lanes. The reason I bring all this up is that nobody in that room got this reference, but we did, sir, and the question is, why doesn’t MAGNET have a permanent seat in that briefing room?
I hereby approve your application for a permanent seat in the briefing room.

Excellent!
I think you’ve earned it by recognizing all of my Guided By Voices references and appreciating them, because I can say, in this job, I get to make my views known in a way I never was able to as a regular reporter for Time magazine, and it’s been especially nice to be extremely declarative about my musical preferences.

My first proper question is a hypothetical: The flying saucers land on the front lawn, and they come down the gang plank and say, “What is this Guided By Voices that the White House press secretary is always talking about?” What is the one song that you would play them to set them straight?
I think “Echos Myron.” Because it might be the perfect pop/rock song. At least since the Beatles broke up, and the reason why I have so much affection for that song is both its perfection and because when I saw GBV at Irving Plaza in ’96 with my GBV buddies, there was a moment in the show—which was the best GBV show I have ever seen—when toward the end they played that, and there was so much extreme happiness there. It was just a perfect moment, a perfect rock ‘n’ roll moment. I just think it’s a fantastic song, and it’s emblematic of the so-called classic lineup’s capacity to take a simple song and make it unforgettable.

I’ve actually had that exact same experience that you’re talking about. It’s a very joyful song. On a related note, another hypothetical: Your house is on fire. God forbid, you only have time to grab one GBV album. Which one do you take with you?
That’s hard. And I won’t cheat by choosing some of the later greatest-hits collections. I would say Bee Thousand.

I would agree with you on that. OK, Tobin Sprout/Mitch Mitchell era or the Doug Gillard era?
Hands down, nothing against the Doug Gillard team, but Tobin and Mitch.

OK, this is a fill-in-the-blank question. The only bad GBV song is …
[Whistles] Here’s the thing: Pollard is so prolific and so good, but being that prolific I think requires that you write some bad songs. And you know, not all of them are great in my opinion. It would be impossible for anyone to achieve that, so I guess if I had to pick … I’m trying to think … I’ll have to think about that a little more …

Well, I’ll help you out here. The judges would have accepted “a song I have never heard and surely hope I never do.” Moving on, has the GBV song “Game Of Pricks” taken on a special resonance given your current vocation?
[Laughs] Well, I hadn’t thought of it before in that context, but I will never think of it otherwise now.

Are you listed in the Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory?
Absolutely. If diehard fans are listed in that directory, I’m in there.

Have you ever kicked an elf?
Ha. Never.

Have you ever met a non-dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake with a wet spot bigger than a Great Lake?
Not that I remember.

We need to know: How does the president come down on the great Bee Thousand-vs.-Alien Lanes debate?
I confess, I have not discussed it with him. In one of the White House press briefings where it came up, somebody asked me if the president was a fan. I said, “I’m working on him,” but the truth is I haven’t. I haven’t brought that into our relationship.

Have you managed to convert anyone else in the White House to the church of Guided By Voices?
You know, I haven’t had the time to prosthelytize. We’re focused on other issues, but some of the younger folks here have come up and said, “Oh, I like GBV,” and I thought, “That’s great, that’s cool.” So they’ve got fans in another generation now, which is good.

Any truth to the rumor that the “In God We Trust” on paper currency will be replaced with “In Bob We Trust”?
[Laughs] I’m working on (Secretary of the Treasury) Tim Geithner to see if we can make that happen.

When you get done listening to all the Guided By Voices albums and assorted EPs, singles and side-project records, what do you put on?
The thing is, in my life now—which is a great life—I have two kids, a 10-year-old and a seven-year-old. I have a family and stuff, and there’s not a lot of sitting around listening to music. It’s running out to soccer games and baseball games or to (D.C.’s) 9:30 Club—my son has paced the stage of the 9:30 Club and belted out rock ‘n’ roll on three occasions.

What’s his band called?
They’re called Twenty20, ’cause that’s the year they graduate from high school. They just finished fourth grade. My son kinda looks like Bob Pollard. His name’s Hugo, and he and his pals have a little sort of school-of-rock band here, and they played a battle of the bands at the 9:30 Club. I’d been to the 9:30 Club many, many times—it’s a great venue, seen Guided By Voices there many times—and to see my son up there belting out “Teenage FBI” was just a great moment.

—Jonathan Valania

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

Guided By Voices: Robert Pollard, Who Are You?

It’s gonna be all GBV, all day, kids. This is from 1996.

RobertPollard

Bob Pollard is a rock ‘n’ roll traditionalist. And music fans are better off because of it. Like baseball, rock music is in dire need of a return to its glory days. It needs players who respect and embrace the history of their art. It needs participants who understand the importance of performance, and who realize that fans are as integral a part as the players themselves. Pollard knows these things, but, more importantly, he cares deeply about them. Which is why Pollard looks with more fondness to the past than he does to the future.

“Music today lacks love,” says Pollard. “Music from the ’60s talked about love – not personal love, but this universal sort of love. I really miss that. People are afraid to express themselves and express love. In the ’60s, rock was about people getting together and having fun. That needs to come back. Now it’s all bandwagonesque, it’s all glamour. We need to get back to the heart of it.”

For more than a decade, Pollard has succeeded at getting back to the heart of it. The most prolific songwriter of the rock and roll era, Pollard is responsible for more great tunes than the Beatles, Stones and Who combined. In an age where sound outweighs songs and image is more important than talent, Pollard is the melodic (albeit often drunken) voice of reason, the only rock star in a genre of music that takes pride in its obscurity. Pollard personifies the belief that rock isn’t something you do on weekends or after work – it’s your life and it needs to be treated accordingly. Two years ago, Pollard quit his day job after almost a decade and a half, allowing himself the opportunity to rock and roll all night and, naturally, party every day. And his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner.

Read More »

Posted in INTERVIEWS | Comments closed

Q&A With The Psycho Sisters

PsychoSisters

I’ve had really good luck interviewing women in a writing career that’s gone on for 25 years. Unlike chatting with men, women seem to get right to the point and don’t waste a lot of time with bullshit. Best of all, their memory for historical and anecdotal detail is particularly admirable. In nearly 1,000 career interviews, some of the very best chats I’ve had have been with such notable female musicians as Grace Slick, Joan Baez, Roni Spector, Marianne Faithfull, Rosanne Cash, Siouxsie Sioux, Emma Pollock, Penelope Houston, Sam Phillips and Barbara Manning. Vicki Peterson (lead guitarist of the Bangles) and Susan Cowsill (with her family’s band the Cowsills since the age of eight) are currently tilling the fields as the Psycho Sisters, and it’s given them rare perspective on making music that many lesser talents would lack.

OK, could I have a vocal ID to compare your voices? I hope you guys don’t have voices of a smiiar timbre.
[In unison] “We do! We do! We do!”

Oh great, that’s exactly what I was afraid of. So, if something gets attributed to someone who didn’t really say it, you’ll understand. Then again we’re not transcribing the Nuremberg War Trials here, so it should be OK.
Vicki: We’ll forgive. We’ll identify ourselves if we’re going to say anything controversial.

I have to tell you, Vicki, I saw you play when you were still called the Bangs, back in early ’82 at the Old Waldorf with Rain Parade and the Three O’Clock in San Francisco. You may have just changed your name.
Vicki: Oh yeah, we just did some reunion shows with those guys. It was fun.

So, you’ve been doing Psycho Sisters for more than 20 years. Why take so long to record your first album?
Vicki: Oh yeah, that.
Susan: Your turn, Vic.
Vicki: Is that unusual? If there’s a reason, it’s probably not a very good one, so the only thing we can say is that this is just the right time for us. We started writing together and did a few shows in the early ’90s and then started falling in love with this band called the Continental Drifters. It was a great musical conglomerate. Originally, we were in L.A., but we all moved to New Orleans, the home of a couple of the members.
Susan: It happens. You get stuck in the swamp. We started thinking more in a Drifterly manner than a Psycho manner. And we had all the time in the world to get back to us.

Hey Susan, gotta tell you that I saw the Cowsills play at the Alameda County Fair in ’07. It was great to actually hear “The Rain, The Park And Other Things” performed live, at last. That’s one of the psychedelic classics. And the other connection I have with both of you is you’re old pals of a friend of mine, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand.
Vicki: Yeah, of course. The Psycho Sisters, sure; we sang on Giant Sand’s Center Of The Universe album and toured with them that winter.

So that was post-John and Joey, was it, the new version of the band?
Unison: No, no, they were still together. They’re all dear friends.

Is Howe still living in Tucson? Last I heard he was living half the year in Denmark with Sophie’s family.
Susan: No, he and Miss Denmark still live in Tucson and have a beautiful family.

Miss Denmark? Right, Sophie, or Sofa, as he calls her. So why did you and Vicki hit it off so well?
Susan: You know, that’s one of those who-knows realities. I often attribute many things to past lives. We had enough in common, I should think. Our musical likes, our ages. You know, for all the reasons you can’t figure out and all the obvious ones, too. Our love of the same kind of music, and we’re both equally insane.

So why the name Psycho Sisters? You both seem pretty level-headed to me.
Vicki: Don’t let the name fool you. We were opening for the Cowsills, but we weren’t a valid entity yet. And a good friend of ours, Bill Bartell, said, “You should be the Psycho Sisters.” We just kind of looked at him. We didn’t know he was referencing the infamous C-movie.

Do you guys remember the Ringling Sisters, the poetry-reading outfit down in L.A.?
Vicki: Of course, Annette (Zilinskas, onetime Bangles bassist) was in that. Yeah, poetry and an almost performance-art kind of thing.

Your song “Never Never Boys” is the best song I’ve heard this year, kind of a companion piece to “September Gurls.”
Vicki: Oh, my gosh, thank you. Oh, how cute. We’ll tell Bob (Cowsill).

What do you get from Psycho Sisters that you don’t get from your other bands?
Susan: All kinds of things. We get to hang out because we live in two different states now. And we’re related now. Vicki is my sister-in-law now. On a musical level, there is something there that is not my solo stuff and not Vicki’s. It’s its own creature. It has to do with just her and me, our thoughts, our own experiences of the two crazy ladies on the hill with the cats.

Most of these songs are from the early days, when you first started doing this?
Vicki: They are. But it’s all cut recently, brand new recordings of old songs. We did headline gigs in clubs as the Psycho Sisters. We didn’t play out a lot. The funny thing was when we listened to our old songs to see which ones we’d record and who sang what, it seemed kind of spooky, because I too can’t tell our voices apart. One thing about us singing together is it seems effortless for us. We can’t explain that other than we have similar backgrounds in our exposure to music. I wasn’t preforming at nine, but I was already writing songs and very alert to pop radio. And Susan was on pop radio. The first Cowsills song Susan performed on, “We Can Fly,” was the first record I bought with my own money.
Susan: Is that right?! How’d I miss that!

That explains why you guys were meant to sing together. Tell me about the photos on the CD. They’re great.
Vicki: The little girl on the front is from the 19th century, and we’re not quite that old. The other photos are of us while we were on tour in Europe with Giant Sand.
Susan: It was otherworldly, playing with those guys. It was another familial experience. It’s a component of our kindred experience. Howe is a good egg.

I really like your songs, about 180 degreees away from that crap they sing on American Idol.
Susan: These songs are written by people with real problems.
Vicki: And written by real people and not a songwriting consortium

Do you guys ever watch American Idol? What do you think of it?
Susan: It takes the purpose of making music, which is to save one’s soul and puts it into a meat market. It’s like, what the fuck? It’s like gladiators
Vicki: It’s just entertaiinment for the masses. It puts music into a circus. It’s not what we do, that’s for sure.

Well, it’s not entertaining me. What was the first time you guys met?
Vicki: Susan and I first met in a club down in Redondo Beach where the Cowsills were playing. My high school band, Those Girls—my sister Debbie on drums and my best friend Amanda on bass—had played there two weeks before. I saw the Cowsills were playing, and I freaked out. I was a huge fan. Susan would never remember me from that night. Susan’s brother Bob became a mentor to us and invited us to a rehearsal.
Susan: I just found those girls annoying in the studio. I’d been living this emancipated life since I was 12, and I didn’t understand girls my age living normal lives. They were in school and went home and ate dinner with people. But my animosity turned to absolute adoration. Several years later, I saw the “Manic Monday” clip on MTV, and I was sitting there going, “Oh my god! It’s those girls from the studio.”

Vicki, you played with the Go-Go’s to replace Charlotte Caffey when she had a baby. How was that?
Vicki: I was dating Jeff MacDonald from Redd Kross, and I became good friends with Charlotte and discussed certain things with her later when Jeff and Charlotte started dating. So I used to say, “Yes, I was touring with the Go-Go’s because Charlotte was pregnant with my ex-boyfriend’s baby.” But they were married at the time.

All right, ladies, on that note, it’s up to me to decipher who said what with your maddeningly similar vocal tones.
[In exact unison, as though they’d rehearsed it earlier, they break into a jazzy vocalese] “Good luck with that, good luck with that, good luck with that … ”

—Jud Cost

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed