Category Archives: MAGNET CLASSICS

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Graham Parker & The Rumour’s “Howlin’ Wind”

The making of Graham Parker & The Rumour’s Howlin’ Wind

By A.D. Amorosi

One thing Graham Parker appreciates when discussing his earliest work is to not call him or his lyrical output “angry.” It’s a word never uttered by this writer in regard to the now-66-year-old, East London-born Parker’s writing: a cliché forever bandied about by hollow critics who probably haven’t really listened to Parker beyond his often blistering vocal delivery.

“When I’m writing, I don’t write angry or think angry, so I appreciate that you noticed this, and thank you,” says Parker. “Sadly, all critics see or hear is anger. Not me, though. ‘With a little humor, always with a little humor,’” he says, quoting the Dr. Yen Lo character in cinematic Cold War drama The Manchurian Candidate with the evil intonation.

There are many such laughs to be had talking with Parker, guitarist/bandleader Brinsley Schwarz, organist/pianist Bob Andrews and drummer Steve Goulding: most of the team behind Howlin’ Wind, the smart, snarling, roughly soulful and reggae-tinged 1976 debut by Graham Parker & The Rumour. “When you have a good time, you get a good record,” says Andrews, talking about not only the laughs shared with longtime friends in Brinsley Schwarz (the band named after the man, which ended in 1975 only to become the Rumour later that year) but also recording with Nick Lowe, Howlin’ Wind’s producer and one-time Brinsley bassist/singer.

You can’t get to Parker’s grouchy, skanky, literally horny Howlin’ Wind, with its smugly sarcastic lyrics, scuffed-up vocals and scorched-earth soul-garage demeanor, without the Rumour. And the Rumour remains dormant without Parker, a great backing/collaborating band without a front. “I think back, and yeah, it was, and is, a pretty symbiotic relationship,” says Parker. The Cajun-Jamaican flavoring of the Bontemps Roulez rhythm section was the cherry on top.

Post-pub rock and pre-punk (a matter of months in between; mid-1975 to January 1976), Howlin’ Wind closed the door on one relaxed-fit movement and popped the top on the ragged, spiky rage of another, with topics such as lousy schoolmasters, God, social justice and bad romance on the tips of their lips. “Punk rock in England doesn’t really occur without pub rock,” says Schwarz. “If we hadn’t pushed these places to be available for gigs—because there wasn’t anywhere to play save colleges and arenas then—where would punks have built their nests?”

The aggressive rebellion of punk, its untutored musicianship and its anarchistic everything, was never really a draw for Parker and the Rumour, as Howlin’ Wind wasn’t recorded by a bunch of snot-nosed youngsters. “No, no, when punk really hit and those kids were spitting out of so-called appreciation, I wasn’t having that,” says Parker with a laugh. “I didn’t get that far to be spit upon.”

Considering Schwarz and Lowe were in bands since 1966 such as Sounds 4+1, which morphed into Kippington Lodge, the immediate predecessor to the epic Brinsley Schwarz; that Andrews played organ for U.K. soul/pop songstress P.P. Arnold around 1967-68 before joining Kippington Lodge, etc.; and that Goulding and Rumour bassist Andrew Bodnar met in 1970 before becoming Skyrockets, then the reggae/Cajun-inspired Bontemps Roulez before hooking up with Schwarz, Andrews and Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, this crew of seasoned vets had been around the block.

Maybe they were seasoned but not well-trained. “We definitely always needed to get much better, until we actually did,” says Schwarz, recalling the debacle of a disastrous, over-hyped Manhattan gig at its start and hauling his namesake band into one house where they rehearsed all day out of necessity.

“We studied album sleeves closely, but we weren’t trained musicians at all,” says Goulding of playing with Bodnar in Islington and forming local bands. “We spent most of our time playing along to records and lusting after expensive instruments.”

Still, when it came to 1975, the just-broken-up Brinsleys—as musicians—were well-worn-in with their chops handsomely sharpened, and known for their abilities (and propensity for having a good time) in the pubs of London. Lowe even told GQ in 2011 that manager Dave Robinson “saddled (Parker) with this band that had just broken up and came with all their in-jokes and were fully formed in a way.” That’s Lowe’s dour outlook. (Lowe declined to be interviewed by MAGNET for this story.)

The fully formed vibe Lowe spoke of is what gave Parker’s prickly poignancy a sage authority, its weight, its “soul shoes” glide when set in the company of the then newly anointed Rumour. This team of players’ well-rounded, often sloppy, brutal but buoyant, genre-babbling musicianship gave Parker’s debut—from the stinging groove of “White Honey” to the confessional gospel of “Don’t Ask Me Questions”—might and bite. “Pub rock” as a tag was nothing more (and nothing less) than combine-churning boozy music boiled into one frothy, funky mess—the Band meets the Meters meets the Wailers meets the Famous Flames meets the Faces—made by hungry men no longer at the beginning of their careers. “I didn’t know anything about pub rock, but I did know that these guys had been around,” says Parker of his collaborators.

Parker, however, was also no spring chicken (25!) when he got to the soon-to-be-rechristened Rumour and Dave Robinson, Brinsley Schwarz’s manager. “Morocco, Gibraltar, Channel Islands, the whole of Europe; I’d been all over by the time I was 18, as that’s what you did at 18, because you didn’t need money to live,” says Parker of his restless youth. When he did need cash, he worked while home at his parents’ house in Sussex at the Chichester rubber-glove factory, or breeding mice and guinea pigs. “Between traveling and odd jobs, I had a fantastic time meeting people and harvesting ideas,” he says. “Then I’d fuck off and go to Morocco because that’s where Burroughs and Kerouac went; hippies, too, the whole Marrakesh Express.”

Though Parker had instruments as a kid, he’d never thought much of music. Suddenly, though, buying an old acoustic guitar in Guernsey, totaling up the sum of his experiences in squats and sands, allowing the youthful influences of Eddie Cochran, the Supremes, Van Morrison (“a true poet who happened to be a phenomenal white soul singer”) and the latter-day inspiration of Bob Dylan (“honestly didn’t get into him until Blood On The Tracks”) to take root turned his head around.

“Something came out the other side, and nobody of my generation was doing that particularly, or at least I didn’t hear it: the soul, the rock, the poetry,” says Parker. He confesses a love, too, for “the early singer/songwriter types” such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young. “That’s the only thing that I took from the hippies,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t like their noodling music, but some of their writers were devastating.”

Parker got the writing fever and, by 1974, songs came pouring out. To him, the melodies were based on old tunes that he loved, that mix of which he speaks. Along with his then-fresh feel for Dylan (“I was upset with myself for not getting him sooner”), Parker was inspired by elements of social justice and class in his U.K. homeland and began developing a lyrical style and subject matter. “I had no interest in politics, per se, but I knew what justice—and injustice—looked like when I saw it, being part of the working class and with England being a classist country,” he says. “It’s still based on class there—if the ruling class could break the working class, they would.”

Parker sought to integrate the poetry of disgust, discrimination and inequity into his first tunes such as “Back To Schooldays,” which wound up on Howlin’ Wind. “Even the love songs, I wanted them to have that taste, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it, really,” he says. “What I came up with was ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions,’ which I think makes love into a social issue.” As for the burgeoning Dylan influence, Parker insists that you can hear him grappling with that on “You’ve Got To Be Kidding,” with its compact chords and emotional output.

Parker wanted to point fingers, but he did not want to preach. “I can’t stand that,” he says. “Preaching is the last thing I wanted to do.” Caustic humor, often subtle, became his guide, a lyrical flip he’s used ever since. “I still don’t think that people get the jokes, but there you go,” he says.

Either way, Parker believed that he was truly on to something in 1974, as at that time (the era of prog rock and post-glam), “there were certainly no new acts doing something original with this,” he says. In this case, something tough, soulful and social.

“That felt good,” he says. “I just had to make the right connections, meet musicians who weren’t hippies. Go to London.”

This is where Brinsley Schwarz, Bontemps Roulez and Dave Robinson come in.

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Pete Yorn’s “Musicforthemorningafter”

The making of Pete Yorn’s Musicforthemorningafter

By Hobart Rowland

Musicforthemorningafter couldn’t have been foisted on listeners at a less-opportune time. In March 2001, the music industry was smarting from the dotcom bust, and things would only get worse. Among the top-selling artists that year: Michael Jackson, NSYNC, J.Lo, Shaggy and Staind. Meanwhile, critics were beside themselves over the Strokes’ debut, the White Stripes’ third effort, Jay-Z’s monumental The Blueprint and Radiohead’s overrated Amnesiac.

Could a guy with suburban-Jersey roots, a Smiths fetish, a communications degree from Syracuse University and a last name that falls toward the end of the alphabet really stand a chance—even with Columbia Records’ backing? The answer was “yes and no.”

musicforthemorningafter did go gold, and it’s nearing platinum status 16 years later. But the lasting impact of Yorn’s remarkable debut was the precedent it set for others of his ilk. Simply put, it was a singer/songwriter album that didn’t sound like a singer/songwriter album: vast when you’d expect insular, hard-rocking and blunt when delicate and sensitive would’ve been the easy out, and so impeccably crafted and well executed that it could’ve only been the result of a group effort.

Yorn and collaborator R. Walt Vincent were operating in the best sort of creative vacuum—one governed by their own crazy ideas and brilliant mistakes, its boundaries dictated only by the amount of wine and pot consumed and the limitations of their ’80s vinyl collections. And it certainly helped that they weren’t on the clock. “We were not a priority at the label,” says Vincent.

It also didn’t hurt that Yorn—aside from having a shitload of great songs—had two older siblings with serious clout in the entertainment industry watching his back. Kevin, the oldest, is a high-powered attorney for superstars such as Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson. Middle brother Rick has established himself as a formidable Hollywood producer, manager and talent agent (think Leonardo DiCaprio). “I had this classic Slingerland five-piece drum set, and I gave Pete a couple of drum lessons when he was maybe six or seven years old,” recalls Rick, who’s six years Pete’s senior. “I came home one day, and I hear someone going off on my drums in the basement. I figured it was a friend. I go down there, and it’s my little brother—and he’s just killin’ it. Then he got piano lessons, and later he learned guitar and bass. We knew he had a special gift.”

The way Rick sees it, raw talent and a single-minded persistence combined to keep Pete out of law school. After college, he found his way to Los Angeles, setting in motion much of the narrative that follows.

Pete Yorn: I started writing when I was 13 or 14—just shitty songs. I was trying to sound like the Cure or something.

Rick Yorn: All through college at Syracuse, Pete kept sending me songs, and there were so many gems. To this day, I’m always the one that Pete plays a new song for. Together, we share a love of music. For many shows early on, I was his drummer.

Pete Yorn: I wrote a lot at Syracuse. A big catalyst was the cold weather. I just stayed in and smoked weed, and sometimes I’d write three songs a day. It was a lot of quantity back then. I had these crazy long-distance bills because I was always calling L.A. so Rick could check out my new tunes.

Rick Yorn: I remember that moment his junior year when my dad was still pushing law school, and I kept hearing these songs, and they were incredible.

Pete Yorn: When I graduated from ’Cuse, I moved out to L.A. with this über-confidence. I was a kid. I had no idea how the music business worked. But I was lucky. I had places to crash; I could sleep on my brother’s couch.

Rick Yorn: I remember telling mom and dad that their son was a fucking genius and they should just let him go.

Pete Yorn: From ’96 to ’98, I was playing out in L.A., trying to get things figured out. I had a band called Million, but nobody knew who the fuck we were; I think we played out twice under that name. Maybe two and a half years in, I played this show at the Roxy, and some guy from MCA offered me a deal. But it was really shitty, and I was advised not to do it.

Rick Yorn: Two key things that happened were his residencies at the Viper Room and Largo. He started getting a following.

Pete Yorn: I made a record with Don Fleming (producer for Sonic Youth and Teenage Fanclub) that was gonna be my debut record. We banged it out in maybe a week and a half in May of 1998. I was really into layering, and I’d play everything myself. I’d start with the drums and just keep building until I had the track. I was also into reverb and compression, and everything was super blown out. I was getting into Guided By Voices at the time.

Don Fleming: Pete sent me some demos before he was signed, and I was impressed with his songwriting and his style. I always found more substance to artists who can explore a darker side, and I felt Pete was really writing some great material.

Rick Yorn: The Fleming record was brilliant—really lo-fi. They made it in New York over some strip joint. It was very drug-infused … a lot of weed being smoked.

Pete Yorn: Fleming was so cool and laid-back. I re-created a lot of the demos I was doing in my bedroom, only in a studio in New York City. I was super excited about it, but it’s very “of the time” soundwise. When the 20th anniversary comes next year, I might be ready to put it out.

Fleming: I hope the full record that we made will see the light of day.

Rick Yorn: Pete had this idea to title it thenightbefore, and he owns it, so we’re thinking about doing something with it. Anyhow, Virgin stepped up and wanted the record. But they loved the first half of it, and they wanted to work on the other half, which was Pete’s favorite half.

Pete Yorn: I drank a whole bottle of white wine before I went to this lunch with these guys, and I was such a cocky little shit. “Simonize” and a lot of songs I just loved were on the second half. I didn’t understand how they couldn’t get that.

Rick Yorn: He was basically just like, “Fuck you, I’m not changing anything.”

Pete Yorn: Pretty soon after I got back from New York and was still figuring out how to get the Fleming record out, I met Walt during a smoke break at a Sloan concert at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. He said he had this digital rig and a little guest house in Van Nuys. I thought digital recording was so nerdy and not cool at the time, but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t so much the car but the driver.

R. Walt Vincent: The songs with just him on acoustic guitar had this alt-country feel, but I wanted to do something different with it. I wanted to try all the fun shit you could do with Pro Tools.

Pete Yorn: I had some basic tracks that I’d laid down in my basement, and I got the files to Walt. We opened “Just Another Girl,” and he laid down these beautiful, big-sounding horns and some strings. I was inspired by that, and I did some ’60s-influenced overdubs. I remember driving home listening to the song on CD and thinking, “Holy shit.” I went back a week later, and we built out another song … and then another.

Vincent: I was listening to Garbage and New Order around that time, and Pete was a big New Order fan. The Smiths were huge for both of us, so there’s a lot of that in Pete’s thing.

Pete Yorn: Growing up, I was into Britpop and other bands from England, but I was also getting into Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. musicforthemorningafter is a blend of that. When we were making it, I was really into Teenage Fanclub; I was really into Wilco and Son Volt. I could’ve made a straight alt-country album.

Vincent: We’d get the basic track down, and then just really fuck around. We sort of fell in love with the randomness. We’d goof off, then one of us would get serious, and the other would say, “Dude, what are you talking about—that’s the shit.” A lot of the ideas came from us not trying to be cool. It was like, “Rather than fight over an idea, let’s do another idea.”

Pete Yorn: We had a really good groove going, but it was laid back. By June of 1999, we had early versions of “Just Another Girl,” “Life On A Chain,” “Lose You,” “Sense,” “Black” … I remember I just laid down the drums to “Black” and went off that. Walt brings this extra emotional weight with these melodies I wouldn’t normally hear in my head.

Vincent: What got me about Pete was this sensitivity. What really moved me in his songs was what I called “the tug.” That sort of became my go-to word—looking for that brokenhearted, emotional thing. It’s something that’s deep inside Pete, and I wanted to get that out. He’d been used to lumberjack singing onstage with a drum kit behind him. But I was like, “Dude, sing quietly; get right next to the microphone.” I’d adjust his headphone mix so his voice was super loud, and he had no choice but to sing softer if he wanted to hear the track. That brought out a lot of the tug of Pete’s voice, which is why I think people really connect with the record.

Pete Yorn: Working with Walt was such a new process that I was writing songs in the studio on the fly. I was going through a breakup with a longtime girlfriend at the time, and “Lose You” came out of that. Unconsciously, a lot of stuff was pouring out of me.

Vincent: Some people at the label didn’t think I existed at all; they thought Pete made up my name so they wouldn’t think he was doing it all by himself—like he was trying to create this mythical producer so they wouldn’t fuck with him.

Pete Yorn: At some point, we finally got a meeting with Columbia Records. I go to see (Columbia president) Donnie Ienner in his office with my guitar, and Donnie’s smoking a cigarette. He’s like, “Play me something.” I play “Murray,” and he goes, “That’s pretty cool; what else you got?” I play “Just Another Girl,” and he’s like, “We’ll let you know. Thanks for coming in.” And that was it. I didn’t hear anything for weeks, and then Donnie’s top A&R guy, Will Botwin, comes out to L.A. to check me out. As fate would have it, I was just over at (producer) Tony Berg’s house, who lived nearby. He showed me this chord on the guitar, and I went home and wrote “Life On A Chain.” Will comes to see me and asks if I have anything new. I play him “Life On A Chain,” and he goes, “All right, let’s do this.”

Vincent: If you listen to “Life On A Chain,” it will swing and not swing at the same time. When I came up with the bass line, we were both busting up, because it had this “go, greased lightning” feel. Then I dug up a sample of some record noise, and I was like, “Now it sounds like the song starts in the ’40s and makes a jump into the 21st century.”

Pete Yorn: I’d been working with some unknown dude in a home studio in the Valley, but I was really confident in the music we were making. I had no illusions that working with a big producer was gonna do anything.

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Wire’s “Pink Flag”

The making of Wire’s Pink Flag

By A.D. Amorosi

Though born of the punk moment, ethos and conviction, the debut of Wire on Pink Flag—conceived, executed and produced as a full work, rather than conforming to the era’s focus on DIY sound or singles simply strung together—has as much to do with punk as cheese does with giraffes. From its fast-and-furious, stripped-to-the-bone approach to its fleetingly short, often fragmented songcraft (21 tracks in less than 36 minutes); from its intentional dissonance without eschewing melody or big production values to its precision-driven stops and starts and the detached, acerbic wit of its abstractionist lyrics, Pink Flag sounded like nothing else of its time, in its time and—dare we say—in this time, 40 years later.

“It was deliberate, we were deliberate—even though we hadn’t done this before,” says guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman of Pink Flag’s sonic assault and modern primitivism. The album happened so quickly after the quartet’s formation that you can’t help but guess that such haste added to the persistent aggression—an artful minimalism with no display of, or interest in, rock ’n’ roll. The sense of urgency and experimentation that informed Wire’s 1977 debut would also figure into the band’s evolution.

“There was strength and a lack of compromise in their music from the start,” says Mike Thorne, the A&R man and producer who got hold of Wire—Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Gotobed—barely six months after its inception. Wire appeared alongside Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and others on Thorne’s The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77) live document of the Covent Garden, London, club at the dawn of punk. In September 1977, Thorne got the foursome signed to EMI’s Harvest division and recorded Pink Flag at London’s Advision Studios with a shockingly layered (and decidedly un-punk) sound.

“When it became just the four of us working together, we got some very basic ideas down very fast,” says Lewis. “Like the stopping and starting of everything together was very effective.” He laughs. “And being in tune was good, too.”

As the “just the four us” phrase lingers in the air, one thing becomes clear at the start of this story: There would be no Pink Flag, follow-up albums Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979) or even much of a Wire at all if guitarist/vocalist George Gill hadn’t broken some bones and taken time recuperating. “Ah, George,” says Lewis with both an air of sweet reminiscence and near despair. “The four of us collaborated and cooperated with each other in a very straightforward fashion, where with George, well … he tended to be ill-disciplined, really.”

Lingering too long on Wire’s origin story would be boring, if not for the fact that it occurred so close to Pink Flag. Before Wire formed, its members were rooted in art-school traditionalism: Watford Art College for Newman, Gilbert and Gill; Hornsey College of Art for Lewis, a textiles major who transferred to fashion design and had a hand in creating the oversized T-shirt with huge lettering fad. Newman and Gill both had something close to musical experience; Gotobed—née Grey—had been a vocalist in an R&B group, the Snakes, whose other members went on to form the Motors.

When Newman got to Watford, he immediately came to share a house with fellow students, including Gill, who began utilizing the college studio run by Gilbert, himself an experimentalist when it came to tape loops and musique concrète. “Bruce was always in it all for art, never music,” says Lewis of his friend and Wire’s true Dadaist. (Newman even recalls how Gilbert was influenced by Dadaist godfather Marcel Duchamp and his notion of ready-made art.) “Besides, Bruce was always embarrassed by the display of music, of standing onstage as a band person.”

Eventually, in 1976, Gill (the songwriter), Newman and newly minted guitarist Gilbert became Overload. Gilbert, who had befriended Lewis, asked him to come to a session with his bass. “I lied and told them I could play, so I had to borrow one from a friend,” says Lewis. Gotobed met Newman at a party where each was impressed with the other’s black-heavy sartorial splendor. Overload was complete—except for that band moniker.

“Overload is a rubbish name, but that’s when we had George in the band,” says Newman, with a hint of arch distaste, as if he’d eaten lemons dipped in gravel. “Bruce used to come ’round often, as he lived nearby. When Graham and Robert joined in, we realized that we had to have a proper name, like, ‘We have a gig and have to make up a name quick’ deal.” Newman hung lists of names around the Watford flat, but it was Gilbert who came up with “two really good ones,” in Newman’s estimation: the Case and Wire. Newman and Co. liked the one word un-wordiness of Wire—the starkness, the bluntness, the vagueness—one that ultimately fit with Pink Flag’s short, sharp feel. “Mind you, our good taste didn’t stop promoters from printing our name in barbed-wire lettering,” says Newman. “That was so common in the punk ’70s. So obvious. So hateful.”

For the just-born Wire braintrust, being obvious was a cardinal sin on par with murder, adultery and bad taste. Yet Wire was stuck in the rocky sea of ’70s obviousness—of old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll done fast and sloppy—that was the then-burgeoning punk movement.

“One thought that the ‘punk movement’ would be the start of a very open, experimental situation for all mediums,” says Gilbert. “And although it was true initially, it soon became very clear that it was a superficial and commercial bandwagon.”

Newman went a little further with his level of aversion. “Most of punk rock was bullshit, messy, disorganized,” he says. “I never got that whole thing where bands didn’t care if they made mistakes. Wire cared.”

Punk was not what Newman or Gilbert were listening to. They didn’t have friends in London’s 1976-77 punk-rock scene. “Nobody in punk bands then actually liked seeing other punk bands—they only went to sneer at each other, to mock,” says Newman.

Instead, Wire’s members were fans of the Euro-mantic likes of Roxy Music or the repetition-heavy Can and other krautrock acts. On the American side of the ledger, there was the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. (Mention to Newman that interviews between this writer and British punk avatars such as the Damned’s Dave Vanian and Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble yielded nothing but compliments for Wire, and Newman is genuinely surprised. “Somebody had to like us because we got signed, but we never heard from anyone in that scene in our initial time out,” he says. “We actually never heard from any musicians until American hardcore hit in the ’80s.”)

As Overload turned into Wire, only the brevity, speed and directness of the Ramones and Buzzcocks were attractive to the band members. “That was the problem with most of punk—it was sloppy,” says Newman. “I loathed sloppiness.”

And who personified sloppy “punk” more than anyone? Good old George Gill, a brash lad who loved a good histrionic guitar solo. The five-piece’s lone demo session from August 1976, produced by band pal Nick Garvey in a basement studio in Stockwell, features one delicious artifact that would come to mean something on Pink Flag: the original raw, rocky take on “Feeling Called Love.”

“Did Colin say all that about George?” asks Lewis, chuckling. “Thing about George is that he had a lot of attitude, which was quite useful at the beginning. People were either scared by or enthralled with him. It was all a bit crazy and chaotic with him in the band. And his songs weren’t terribly good. But the rest of us were connecting at the same time.”

That connection came together more quickly when Gill broke his ankle in February 1977. “He was stealing gear from some punk band, an amplifier, and fell down a flight of steps at some pub in Kilburn,” says Newman. “So much for punk brotherhood.”

This accident, however, was when Wire truly began, bonding more as musicians. They suddenly began rehearsing with frequency, intensity and haste, and with the blunt sound that would become Pink Flag’s signature.

However, the members of Wire did not become friends at that point, beyond the camaraderie shared by Lewis and Gilbert (then and now). “We were never lads or drinking buddies, but Bruce was my connection to music,” says Lewis.

“No, we were never pals or hung out, though I dare say we had—and still have—something different between us, in that we are probably like a family, albeit a radically dysfunctional one,” adds Newman.

With Gill gone for the time being, Newman began to push forward his songs to the rest of Wire. “To start, though, we did actually play George’s songs—just better than he did, and without him,” says Newman dryly. “That’s the kind of discovery that made us look forward.”

Newman stops and insists that this was Wire’s shining hour. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” he says. “That accident became Wire. We went from being immediately messy to extremely organized. I began to write, too, which was odd because I certainly didn’t fancy myself a songwriter before that.”

During that initial three-week period of rehearsals sans Gill, out came in quick succession the stripped-down roar of “Lowdown,” “Brazil,” “12XU,” “Strange,” “Mr. Suit,” “Three Girl Rhumba” and “106 Beats That”—all of which found a place on Pink Flag. “Lowdown” came first when, following a Damned concert that Newman and Lewis attended, the latter handed the former a set of lyrics to a song the guitarist had played during rehearsals.

“I think I was fairly up front about writing lyrics after that,” says Lewis about the abstract visions culled from dreams or history books or rich concepts in his head, such as the thrill of “12XU.” “The text of ‘12XU’ is special being a three-hander between Bruce, Colin and myself—my edit, though. It manages to encompass self-censorship, transgender sexuality and queer slang—that ‘got you in a corner, got you in a cottage’—whilst turning a cliché and advertising smoking.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s “Let Me Come Over”

The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s Let Me Come Over

By Hobart Rowland

It’s fitting that, for quite a few Buffalo Tom fans, 1992’s Let Me Come Over was their introduction to the band. It was, after all, the official unveiling of “BT Mach 2,” a trio much less tethered to its influences and the punk aesthetic, with a rhythm section that was finally finding its form after a few years on the road. As for the songs, they were light-years more nuanced and tuneful than anything the group had previously attempted. Seen from varying perspectives, Buffalo Tom was either folk music for Pixies fans or alt-country delivered with a boozy New England swagger.

By the time Let Me Come Over was released, 25 years ago this past spring, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz (guitar, vocals, songwriting), Chris Colbourn (bass, vocals, songwriting) and Tom Maginnis (drums) had been grinding away for eight years. Embraced from the start by critics and fans in England, BT toured internationally behind its self-titled 1989 debut and 1990’s Birdbrain. They’d first assembled back in 1984 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also the place of origin for more widely celebrated outfits Dinosaur Jr and Pixies. Though the group might argue the merits of Let Me Come Over’s breakthrough status, it did pave the way for greater commercial success a year later with Big Red Letter Day. Beggars Arkive recently unveiled a 25th-anniversary reissue of Let Me Come Over, enhanced with Buffalo Tom’s first-ever live release, a frenetic, crisply recorded 1992 show in London.

“We didn’t have a lot of extra stuff,” says Janovitz, explaining the lack of any unreleased tracks from the studio sessions. “We didn’t have the luxury.”

Indeed, nothing is wasted on Let Me Come Over. It’s a lean, mean, fully formed statement—one whose acoustic-balladry-on-steroids formula and subsequent variations have sustained Buffalo Tom into middle age. In conversations with MAGNET, the band members recall how it all transpired, with some help from esteemed Fort Apache Studios producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie.

Bill Janovitz: If you listen to our first two records, it goes from muddy to less muddy—just a step above home recording. It was basically the lunatics running the asylum. [Slade and Kolderie] weren’t trained engineers, and there was a lot of pot being smoked and a lot of beer being drunk. It was like hanging out at a loft and wondering who was in charge of pressing “record.”

Paul Q. Kolderie: Sean Slade had worked with Buffalo Tom at Fort Apache on the first record and Birdbrain. Then we started working together quite a bit.

Sean Slade: Having Paul there seemed like a natural progression.

Kolderie: J Mascis (who produced the band’s first two albums) wasn’t gonna do it, so I came in as the other producer.

Janovitz: Birdbrain was kind of dark. We were experimenting with different things, writing-wise and style-wise—sort of feeling our way through stuff and weeding our way through our influences. I look at those first two albums as one big tour, heading over to Europe and playing to all these big crowds. I’d never been off the East Coast until I got into Buffalo Tom. It was a really exciting time, but it was all sort of collapsed into one. We were just happy to have a second record, never mind a third one.

Chris Colbourn: We all had jobs and families at that point, and there was pressure to get off the road. We were going down our own path, but I figured that path would be a very lonely one. The direction of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur seemed to be what everyone was overwhelmingly interested in.

Janovitz: Looking back, the list of Fort Apache bands was pretty amazing: Dinosaur, Big Dipper, the Pixies, Throwing Muses, the Lemonheads, Blake Babies—and the Breeders, eventually. But it wasn’t like there were multiple projects going on and we were all hanging out in the lounge. We’d see people coming and going; I didn’t even meet Throwing Muses until we were on the road. And it was a really difficult time in Boston to get gigs. We didn’t headline there until we headlined in London. Still, it was a great time. It was our little clubhouse. There were these Christmas parties with J Mascis playing drums with some version of the Pixies.

Colbourn: We were definitely underdogs. We were like the little brothers of Dinosaur Jr—the JV team. I think people were a little bit surprised, after Birdbrain, that there was anything else there.

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Helium’s “The Magic City”

The Making Of Helium’s The Magic City

By A.D. Amorosi

To hear Washington, D.C.-born Mary Timony tell it, she could’ve easily wound up a viola player or classical guitarist. Instead, she wound up becoming the deviously clever punk-feminist writer and surrealistic prog-pop icon of Helium and, in particular, the band’s finale and masterwork, 1997’s The Magic City.

“My parents had that 1950s mentality where all they listened to was classical, and my brother is this super-great, diverse musician and writer—his hands fly like Stanley Jordan—so that level of musicality was definitely a thing for me,” says Timony. “Then I saw a Fugazi show in our hometown of Washington, and everything changed. I moved to Boston soon after that in 1989 and never saw them again, but Fugazi left a real mark on me: their energy, their lyrics, the whole Dischord thing. It was really the start of a whole social network for me. I was an outsider and my brain was confused by all I had taken in, but I was psyched.”

Timony could make hard-edged music, even if nothing she did sounded quite as blunt or furious as Fugazi. In 1990, she co-founded Autoclave, a group whose music was released on Dischord but sounded more complicated than contemporaneous punk or riot grrrl. Partly due to Timony being in school at Boston University and the band being located in D.C., Autoclave was short-lived. Timony recalls that there were few women on the DIY punk scene when Helium started in the summer of 1992.

“Back then, there was nothing but guys, these angry little punk dudes,” she says with a laugh.

So she navigated the Boston scene, dated Juliana Hatfield’s brother Jason (who had a band, Chupa, with Mary Lou Lord) and joined Chupa for a nanosecond when Lord left.

“We knew Mary Lou Lord, a busker in these parts at that point, and started a side thing with her and Hatfield,” says drummer Shawn Devlin. “But Mary Lou really wasn’t used to singing with a band, you know, so Jason says, ‘Well, there’s this other Mary that I know … ’”

When Hatfield left Chupa, bassist Brian Dunton said, “Hey, let’s play your songs, Timony.”

“I was neither confident nor motivated enough to do it myself, so that’s how Helium started,” says Timony.

Dunton became Helium’s bassist/manager, started a label to release debut seven-inch “The American Jean” in 1992 and, eventually, got under Timony’s skin. (“Brian being our bassist and manager made Mary real uncomfortable,” says Devlin.) Not long after Devlin joined, the band played several party gigs and signed to the Matador label.

“I was writing from a really personal place early on, at least on the first two records,” says Timony. “There was nothing that I was consciously being influenced by, nothing that I wanted to sound or seem like, though looking back at it all now, sonically, the frequencies of gangsta rap turned me on.”

Timony credits the low-slung production techniques of Dr. Dre and the maple-syrup bass lines of Snoop Dogg as something that caught her ear: “Super-low to super-high stuff. (Producer) Adam Lasus and I loved that stuff. And video-game music. That was huge with me. Stuff like Sonic The Hedgehog.”

Timony also mentions that topics and issues from her women’s studies classes at college would sometimes play out in her song lyrics.

“I wasn’t writing from an angry place in general unless it affected me deeply and personally,” she says. “Even though I was around what became the riot grrrl stuff of its time, that wasn’t the music I was making, either. I think it sounds like an alien coming down to Earth and looking at issues. A Cindy Sherman thing, acting out different roles.”

“I got to Mary very early on, and I have to say that everything she did was so spot-on and inventive,” says Lasus, who recorded two Helium releases: 1994’s Pirate Prude EP and 1995’s The Dirt Of Luck. (He currently lives in Los Angeles but spoke to MAGNET from New Hope, Pa., where he’s recording a Dean Ween album.) “I’m not just saying this because we’re talking about her: Helium was my favorite band at that point.”

After the dazzling-but-dark Pirate Prude and the feminist, spacious The Dirt Of Luck, Timony embarked on something much different from Helium’s uncomfortable, unconfident start. In 1995, Dunton dropped out of the band and Polvo’s Ash Bowie (also Timony’s boyfriend at the time) joined as bassist and helped usher in an ambitious change of course.

The Magic City is abstract yet contagious, cheerful yet caustic, and more impressionistic than Helium’s early work. The album is a Pet Sounds chamber-pop-meets-progressive-rock indie masterpiece, created long before any lo-fi-loving cretin would ever admit to loving Yes’ Close To The Edge, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme or watching Keith Emerson throw daggers into his eight-foot-high synthesizer. At a time when mumbling vocals, loud guitars and grunge machismo were all the rage, Timony’s freaky fable lyrics—even the fussy melodies and arrangements—were thoroughly complex and as overwrought as anything Brian Wilson and Phil Spector could dream up.

“I love that fucking album, and Helium is the best band I’ve ever fucking been in through my life,” says Devlin. “Some of her drum part ideas on The Magic City made me cry, because they were so labored. She knew drums because she played drums, too. I mean, I did my part over and over, then looped it four times over. And that’s how we started the sessions, which made the whole thing crazy. Plus, Ash and Mary were a couple by that time. I felt like a joke. They’re in the bedroom having sex, and I had to hang out by myself. I hung out with the guy selling merch.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Lilys’ “The 3 Way”

The making of the Lilys’ The 3 Way

By Matthew Fritch

The 3 Way is the result of my longstanding infatuation with the natural world as experienced through mathematics and technology and how a lot of science became science fiction starting with, of course, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The ideas in The 3 Way were laid out in the diamond age, about working in carbon, basically assembling our new nature out of carbon. At the low information level, what would someone who could be anything be? They make themselves these horrible, musclebound monsters. It’s kind of cute. Those who seek to modify themselves the most have the most to learn, basically. I’m glad I got that off my chest.”

That’s Kurt Heasley, the six-foot-six staggering genius songwriter of Lilys, describing his band’s 1999 album The 3 Way before even being asked a question about it. Heasley tends to talk about five things at once, a character trait that extends to the circuitous, complex songs he’s written and recorded with a dizzying array of lineups. (At last count, approximately 50 musicians have been in Lilys since the group’s inception in 1992.) Although Heasley can scatterbomb an hours-long interview with rambling asides on the Illuminati and madcap laughs about the follies of modern living, it would be foolish to underestimate him. Just when the thread of conversation seems hopelessly lost, he snaps back into focus.

“Did you want me to tell you about the harpsichord?” Heasley asks. “Because we can talk about the harpsichord. I’m just painting the corners of the canvas.”

The 3 Way does, in fact, feature a harpsichord as one element in its impressive, photorealistic rendering of vintage 1960s mod rock and buttoned-up orchestral pop. Along with Lilys’ 1996 LP Better Can’t Make Your Life Better, it represented a stylistic turn from the band’s early, shoegaze-inspired sound. Heasley says that he grew up with a deep love for the Monkees and Peter, Paul And Mary, but his affection for 1960s pop really blossomed in the summer of 1995. He was living in a house in Denver with the members of the Apples In Stereo, a band obsessed with the Beatles and the Beach Boys and on the verge of unleashing a new wave of psychedelia via its Elephant 6 recording collective.

One afternoon, Heasley sat in the basement strumming the songs that would later appear on Better Can’t Make Your Life Better. Up to that point, Lilys songs mostly used a non-standard guitar tuning that characterized their gauzy-sounding early material. When Apples drummer Hilarie Sidney joined Heasley and began whipping out Heasley’s guitar chords in standard tuning, something strange happened.

“I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” recalls Heasley. “And she says, ‘Isn’t that how it goes?’ And I’m melting. I was in awe. I realized (my songs) sound like Pete Townshend. ‘This sounds like Dave Davies. Wow, I’m so close.’”

Following the critical success of Better Can’t Make Your Life Better, Lilys wound up on Sire Records. (“We were not signed,” protests Heasley. “We were induced.”) Lilys’ European label, Ché, had a licensing agreement with Warner Music Group, under the terms of which Lilys albums were released in the U.S. on a subsidiary label called Primary Recordings. When Ché folded, Warner (and, by extension, its subsidiary Sire) had the first right of refusal for the album remaining on the Lilys’ contract.

Nevertheless, moving to a major label was an opportunity for Heasley and the same core group of musicians that made Better: drummer Aaron Sperske, guitarist Torben Pastore and producer/arranger/keyboardist Michael Deming. The band seemingly had a champion in Seymour Stein, the record executive celebrated for having signed the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders in the original punk/new-wave era. More important, there was a recording budget—Sperske estimates it was $150,000—that was far more generous than anything Lilys had been afforded before. Sire suggested a few different producers (Heasley declined to identify them), but Heasley was clear in his desire to again work with Deming, whom he calls an “arranging composition powerhouse.”

In late October 1997, Deming was concluding production work on the Pernice Brothers’ debut, Overcome By Happiness, at Studio .45 in Hartford, Conn.—so named because the building had been the site of a Colt firearms factory. Exactly one day after finishing the Pernice Brothers album, Deming began recording The 3 Way. (Remarkably, drummer Sperske was also a holdover from the Pernice Brothers sessions.) For Deming, who studied music theory and composition, business was booming in the late ’90s. Artists such as Belle & Sebastian and Elliott Smith had revived a niche of delicate chamber pop of the late ’60s; cravat-wearing groups like the Left Banke and the Zombies were suddenly in vogue again among a certain population of listeners. And with that renewed interest in string sections and arrangements, Deming’s talents were in high demand.

“If you don’t know how to write and conduct a string quartet, you shouldn’t be trying to mess with them,” says Heasley. “I didn’t want to stop the world for seven years and get those skills under my fingers. I had to trust someone who had, and Michael Deming had an absolute sense of adventure and tonality.”

The winter of 1997-98 saw Heasley (guitars), Sperske (drums) and Deming (keyboards and production) hunkered down in Hartford, making steady progress on The 3 Way. The ambition of creating an orchestral-pop album cut both ways: It was an admirable goal, but the structured, George Martin-esque approach was far different from the fast, loose and spontaneous process that Lilys were accustomed to.

“When we did Better, there was a lot of intuition involved, and it was more like splatter art,” says Sperske. “You would run out and do something sloppy and cool and not perfectionist. The ideas were going at a very fast clip, and that album was done beginning to end in three weeks.”

“I was looking forward to creating something that had the feel of this awesome session album,” says Heasley. “Like, ‘Featuring members of the Turtles!’ But we were basically this rolling art prank, more situationist and stuntmen than music industry careerists. How do you put these components together to make a working record?”

“Deming was great at thinking of some odd instrument that only two people in America could play, and fly one in,” says Sperske. “He was full of that kind of shit. It seemed like we had a lot of resources, so Deming became obsessed with hiring proper union players. It was no longer acceptable for me to play some percussion instrument half-assed if they could go get a real tabla player. Everything became so orchestral. There was this obsession with orchestral perfectionism. We went from being intrepid, DIY psychedelic troubadours to stuffy lab-coat technicians, as if it were EMI studios in the ’60s and everything had to be done just so.”

If the recordings were going to be tightly controlled and precise, Heasley’s songwriting tilted the other way. The 3 Way is a mercurial distillation of ideas, words and styles that form a kind of musical abstract expressionism. There is little adherence to verse/chorus/verse structure; two songs are seven minutes long and one is a short jazz excursion with a spoken-word vocal in Spanish. Melodies whip around cryptic lyrics that only Heasley could hope to explain. Not that it would do you any good: What to make of a song, “Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah’s Slave),” whose closest thing to a chorus is “I am Pharoah/You work, I eat” and seems to describe a dystopian reality involving a U.S. congressman assassinated in Jonestown in 1973?

“Kurt is one of the best stream-of-consciousness songwriters I’ve ever worked with,” says Deming. “He doesn’t write a song in a conventional sense, and it made it so interesting. His way of composing opened up so many possibilities.”

“Most of the songs on The 3 Way existed on cocktail napkins and journals and notebooks, something like 2,000 or 3,000 words that I had to select from as we were recording,” says Heasley. “It was culling thousands of words into hundreds of words into a chorus.”

Likewise, the panoply of musical influences seemed filtered through decades of recorded material. Heasley’s sing-song vocals naturally recall the pliable melodies of the Kinks, but bandmates cite various and conflicting sources of inspiration while Heasley was living in Hartford with his wife and baby daughter around this time.

“Kurt is very much a sponge of his environment, musically speaking,” says Sperske. “So all the music they listened to was this old Hartford AM radio station that played ’50s and ’60s hits, many of which were regional. I could tell that a lot of songs, like ‘Dimes Make Dollars,’ had been ripped from that oldies radio.”

“We were listening to James Brown and Philly soul in the studio,” says Pastore. “I was listening to the Fall a lot. I went to a Bo Diddley concert one night and called up Kurt from a phone booth afterward and told him we gotta do something like (the guitar riff from ‘Dimes Make Dollars’). And he did it. What we were not listening to and not thinking about was the Kinks.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Interpol’s “Turn On The Bright Lights”

The making of Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights

By Corey duBrowa

It’s the most mesmerizing 3:57 in indie rock and maybe one of the greatest album openers of all time, a monster monogram of a track that announces, with full clarity of purpose and voice, a band you’ve never heard before playing from the very tips of its toes. A new sound, like a dark wave rolling silently ashore, sweeping aside the dross that lingered there before. It’s “Untitled,” the first track on the debut album from New York City’s Interpol, 2002’s Turn On The Bright Lights. And it’s a stone killer.

The song unfurls slowly, like a giant flag in the wind, majestic and assured. It’s nothing but a processed guitar riff, its descending one-chord pattern bouncing two strings off one another using a delay, nearly suspended in mid-air. For 16 bars this continues, tension building; then, a hi-hat punctures the motif and a muscular bass line erupts from under the song’s surface, propelling it forward with a confidently sexy strut as intermittent guitar washes burst in like small explosions.

It isn’t until the 1:23 mark that the singer even enters the scene, in the most Hemingway-esque “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” manner possible, insisting that “Surprise, sometimes, will come around.” He doesn’t bother clarifying that he’ll surprise “you” until dispassionately repeating this verse for the third time, capping it all by tying the surprise to an altogether darker theme: “when you’re down.”

Why is the object of this minor-key classic down? Has the singer disappointed this person, or worse yet, subjected him or her to emotional or physical abuse (which a higher-pitched, whining guitar line, teetering on the verge of feedback way above the slinky motor of the song itself, seems to suggest for the final 1:40 of the track as it spirals down earthward)? We’re left to invent this outcome for ourselves as the track’s drums fade out and the guitars crash and collide into one another, as the song glides to a complete stop. “Untitled” conveys an entire emotional and spiritual world in less than four minutes, a fanfare the band would use to open its early live shows in New York City and that would come to signify its darkly majestic brand of guitar-driven urban psych-warfare for an entire generation of fans. John Richards, associate programming director at KEXP in Seattle, says that the first time he heard it while driving home from the station, he literally stopped the car and pulled over trying to figure out “who the hell that just was. I sat there totally focused, as that moment only happens two or three times a year if you’re lucky … music so good and built on the things you already loved that it literally stops you in your tracks.” That’s how much Interpol stood apart from its peers then; 15 years later—with the band now in the throes of a tour in which it will play the album front-to-back every night in theaters all over Europe and, most likely, the U.S.—it sounds as fresh and as dangerous as it did when Richards first stopped his vehicle.

“I wrote the riff in my apartment,” says Daniel Kessler, the band’s lead guitarist and mastermind. “The idea was to have something that would announce ourselves, set a tone—and it certainly did that. It took awhile for us to call it something other than ‘Intro.’ When you’re playing your local pub in New York City, god knows what came on before you hit the stage. You need a palate cleanser. Something to normalize the night.”

“It started as this minimal riff from Daniel that didn’t have any changes—just a linear, long verse,” adds Paul Banks, Interpol’s singer, lyricist and second guitarist. “Shortly after introducing it to the band, we decided, ‘We’re gonna make this the first one we play at all our shows,’ because it unfolds slowly, there isn’t too much to digest about it. We all just loved that song. It became the way to welcome people into our atmosphere.”

Obstacle 1
That “atmosphere” was the sepia-toned New York City of the late ’90s: unreconstructed and grubby, an urban wrestling cage that remained plagued by drug and crime problems and a Lower East Side that still functioned as a junkie’s playground, long before it was scrubbed up for the developers and upscale condo dwellers who would arrive later. Interpol was a baby band full of young men trying to prove themselves—to the world, to each other—in a town that had a storied history of Important Rock Acts but hadn’t produced one in many years. But as Interpol, the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Rapture and Walkmen would all prove, this was about to change.

Kessler first met Banks at a Paris summer study-abroad program, and again later, along with bassist Carlos Dengler (“Carlos D.”), while the three were students at NYU in the late ’90s. At first, it wasn’t entirely clear that they would end up forming any kind of creative or collaborative project. “I was on the hunt for people I could play with; I was looking more for sensibilities or who had a certain way of looking at things (than ability),” says Kessler. “I met Carlos in a history lecture class; he was the only one asking questions in a huge classroom, so he stood out, dressed in a manner not too dissimilar from how he does now. We started talking and playing some music together. Paul was just out of high school and had a way of carrying himself that was wise beyond his years. I ran into him on the street and wrote his info down. We talked at the end of the school year about the band; he was like, ‘Cool idea,’ and then went away for the summer. So, I found a singing guitarist. I have no idea what he sings like or what he plays, and I sure hope he calls in four months when he’s back in New York. And he did. Then we really got to talking.”

Banks reckons that the chemistry the trio felt had its roots in the fact that all three founding Interpol members shared an “otherness” emanating from their non-American provenance: Banks lived in the U.K., then Spain and Mexico, before graduating from high school in the U.S., while Kessler moved from France to D.C. at age 10. Dengler, an American whose parents were originally born in Colombia and Germany, moved to New Jersey when he was in high school. “When you have a phase in your early years of being an outsider—I’m in a foreign environment and I don’t understand it—it does something to you,” says Banks. “I remember going back to England and the British kids would break my balls for being a Yankee, then coming home and my parents talking about Americans like they’re some other group. ‘Hey, wait a minute—I’m American!’ It was a wonderful experience, but you’re not quite fitting in, and that filters down to the choices you make and how you express yourself. We had to work our way into finding a sense of home.”

How the three, along with original drummer Greg Drudy, chose to express themselves early on—at least musically—was in short fits and starts, a byproduct of their status as poor college students in an expensive town with very few cheap spaces in which to practice. “We were working in this place above a deli on Avenue A before graduating to a rehearsal space in Midtown called Funkadelic,” says Banks. “We rented rooms by the hour. Daniel had songs and was already writing with Carlos before I joined the band. I remember that at our first rehearsal, he and Carlos ran down ‘PDA’ as an instrumental.”

“This is 1997-98: We basically had a small walk-in closet where you’d rehearse two hours, then another below a chicken fast-food joint on Seventh and 29th—we were just vibing,” says Kessler. “It’s a hard way to work, not the best environment in which to create something extraordinary. It was inexpensive, but challenging, and we acclimated to that—fixing your amp, getting your gear set up. You’d make the most of your time, gain a bit of traction, then bookmark something until the next time you got together.”

This hit-and-run creative philosophy ruled until Drudy left the band and veteran indie drummer Sam Fogarino was recruited to take his place. Fogarino had emanated from the same South Florida scene that produced Marilyn Manson (in fact, he had turned down an opportunity to be in Manson’s band) and was working at that time at Beacon’s Closet, a downtown clothing reseller that also featured “this little record shop, a concession to make it more unique,” says Fogarino. “Daniel and I met through a mutual friend at a Firewater show at the old Brownies. Then I’d run into him or talk on the phone every few months about his label job (at Jetset Records), but then the conversation would always turn toward how things were developing with his band. I’d never had conversations as detailed as I did with Daniel with any other musician. He had this earnestness, a seriousness. And the music matched the shtick. He just had his shit way together, and I was always impressed with that.”

Fogarino joined the fold in 2000, but the band’s prior creative methods proved too haphazard for his tastes and he took matters into his own hands. “Half of what became Bright Lights was already written by the time I joined the band,” he says. “And I was like, ‘How do you guys write music by the hour, at a $20 rate? I can’t do this! It gives me performance anxiety, being on the clock like that.’ So I put up an ad at Beacon’s Closet for a rehearsal space, and someone showed me a place that hadn’t even been built yet, then they freaked out and bailed. I told the (landlord), ‘I’ll take it by myself,’ borrowing money from Beacon’s Closet to put the down payment on the space. We used to go to this bar before practice and have a drink; I walked in and put down the receipts from the deposit on the bar, and Daniel was like, ‘Thank you. I’ll get the money back to you immediately. You’re such a dude.’ Moving into that space, I knew that we could concentrate better without the clock ticking—we would create more demo material and be able to document the progress of the band rather than (guess at) whatever we thought we’d remembered from our last rehearsal. That was the moment I didn’t feel like the ‘new guy’ anymore.”

Meanwhile, the band’s development as a live act was quickly advancing. Once the group had settled on a name—going from early versions such as Las Armas and French Letters, a process Kessler describes as “ridiculous, like, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by playing different shows under different names”—it didn’t take long for Interpol’s collective killer instinct to kick in and for a scene to emerge around them. “We played our first shows at Baby Jupiter, which like a lot of places in New York, isn’t there anymore,” says Kessler. “It was right across the street from Arlene’s Grocery, on Stanton and Orchard. What New York City does is that it’s an equalizer: It invites people from all over the world to pursue their art. Whether you’re into music, or painting, whatever—the common denominator is that you want to be there and that you have to want it. As far as American rock music goes at that point, people were more excited about stuff from Chicago—Thrill Jockey, Touch And Go—which made us want to make it out of New York even more. I love underdogs; with sports, I always gravitate toward that. So people would say, ‘I love New York’ but there wasn’t necessarily any great music coming from there at that moment. And all these bands—Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Strokes, Liars—we didn’t have any real relationships with those guys. Or camaraderie, either. This was before Facebook and MySpace and all that, and it’s amazing to me that these bands could all be playing in the same circle, unbeknownst to each other. I don’t know that you’ll ever have that kind of moment in New York City again.”

At the same time, there was a certain unspoken chemistry forming within the collective, from its music to its look to its visual presentation and stage show. “When I joined Interpol, it was like joining a gang—ties were donned,” says Fogarino. “The first show I played with the band, there was no email or discussion about what I should wear. I was just like, ‘I hope this works, this is what I’m feeling when I listen to the music.’ Then I show up backstage at the Mercury Lounge, and even though everyone looked different, we all had ties on. And we didn’t say anything; we just smiled. It perpetuated this ‘us against the world’ kind of vibe we had. We’re all very different, on paper it probably doesn’t work. We don’t always like each other or even get along. We’re young, cocky, not well known, not always communicating with each other—but there was a vocabulary we shared.”
“There wasn’t anyone in the band who ever said, ‘I think I want to wear a sleeveless tank onstage,’” says Banks. “We had similar aesthetics both within the music and outside the music. If there had been a member of the band who wasn’t on that page, it would’ve been problematic. Because it wasn’t something we just settled into. It was meaningful to us—our presentation needs to be as considered as the music we compose and play. There’s no looseness here. There was one show where I tried to suggest that Sam change to a different-colored shirt, and he gave me this look like, ‘Don’t you ever try to tell me what to wear, young man.’ There’s things that didn’t even need to be said.”

A body of home-recorded work that was advancing at a rapid clip. A burgeoning live reputation and an organically developing downtown scene at the center of which, Interpol featured. A wolfpack mentality that bonded its members together even as egos and youthful indiscretions formed the typical battle lines and competitive terrain that marks all team endeavors. Enter: Matador Records.

“We were aware of Interpol—Gerard (Cosloy) had shared demos with me and I’d seen ’em live a few times,” says Matador Records founder Chris Lombardi. “I remember seeing them open for Arab Strap at the Bowery Ballroom. They weren’t exactly on our radar yet, but Carlos came onstage wearing some kind of shirt with a red armband that had fascist overtones about it, and I walked away thinking, ‘Whatever it is they’re doing, they’re doing it right.’ We got in touch with them and set up a meeting—they were really unusual. Very confident and ready to tend to some business. They were all wearing suits and were considerably better dressed than we were. Their shoes were shined. It was like meeting with a bunch of young lawyers. They were fans of the label, had great taste and a very clear idea of what they wanted to do after recording. We quickly became comfortable with the idea of signing them.”

On the strength of the demos that Interpol was now able to record in its Brooklyn rehearsal space—you can hear the embryonic versions of “Untitled,” “NYC” and “Specialist” they were sending to labels on the extended 10th anniversary edition of Turn On The Bright Lights, evidence that the building blocks were already in place—Matador signed them and sent the boys off to producer Peter Katis’ Tarquin home studio in suburban Connecticut to commit their songs to tape.
And then the next set of barriers emerged.

Obstacle 2
“I went to see them at Brownies, and they said, ‘We don’t have the money to pay you now’—and handed me $900 cash, which was the cost of the two-inch tape—‘but we’re gonna get signed to Matador Records,’” says Katis. “That’s like someone telling you they have a girlfriend in Canada, you know? A complete joke. But then nine months later, they finally paid me for it.”

Katis’ objective in recording Interpol was to take the energy and confidence he had seen first-hand in the band’s fierce live sets and translate that to its first record, to let that overwhelming whoosh he’d observed win the day. But it proved easier said than done.

“It’s an old story: ‘We’re a really good live band, we just want to capture that feel in the studio.’ It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” says Katis. “It’s the last record I recorded entirely to tape, before Pro Tools. And what you hear on nearly every song is much more of a live record than you do these days; on all the songs, bass, drums and two guitars are playing live together.”

Despite the lack of familiarity with a formal studio environment—drummer Fogarino being the only one in the band who had prior experience navigating the recording of a full album—Interpol went about its task in a businesslike, efficient manner. “Mostly what I remember is that Tarquin was big-time and expensive,” says Banks. “We were just trying to play our parts right, like we’d rehearsed them, and not fuck up. Not go broke trying to make this thing. So we’d hit every song instrumentally, not wanting to compromise any of the precision. The vocals came later, after we’d run the basic tracks down.”

“My girlfriend at the time was in a band that rehearsed right next door to them (at the Music Building in Brooklyn’s then-emerging Williamsburg neighborhood), and she would say, ‘They fucking practice all the time,’” says Katis. “They came in to make that record really rehearsed and ready. There wasn’t much choosing of takes or any of that—they’re recorded almost entirely the way you hear them. That’s how you get a live sound: You play live! But Paul really hated the way his voice sounded in the studio—like, couldn’t stand it. We found creative ways not to make it sound so clinical. One thing we did was overdrive his vocals—they’re super distorted, even though if you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice. Another is that no one else was allowed in the studio when we were tracking vocals—it would be pitch dark in the live room, we’d have a bunch of drinks lined up and ready and just go for it.”

Banks—as the band’s lyricist and vocalist—was as sensitive as a young 20-something artist can be about his role as the band’s frontman and principal voice. Sometimes that meant taking Kessler’s existing songs—“Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2”—and leaving well enough alone. “He wrote those songs in succession, and those were his working titles, and although I typically write the lyrics and titles, if you already have a dope title for a song I’m smart enough not to fuck with it,” he says. But his writing process was rapidly changing to suit the band’s creative process. “Early on, I was like, ‘I’m gonna shoehorn these journals and poetry I’ve already written into our music,’” says Banks of his time as an inveterate journal-scribe. “But I quickly learned that I hated the results (of that approach). I much preferred tailoring new lyrics to songs. I remember exactly where I was when I wrote the lyrics to ‘Stella (Was A Diver And She Was Always Down).’ I was sitting at an Astor Place café, looking at the St. Marks Hotel. So the urge to write, outside of writing for an Interpol song, kind of evaporated.”

As it happens, what Banks was writing were the sort of gritty urban hymns that reflected the polarity of his New York City experience—at the one end, a cocksure dude looking for a louche sort of love on the streets of an older, grimier NYC, but also allowing for a vulnerability of heart and an eye for disintegration and disillusionment that belied his years. It’s this sweet and sour, this light and dark, that shoots the album through with a wistfulness that carries it beyond a particular time and place—the same emotional weight that makes Wilco’s “Ashes Of American Flags” one of rock’s great tributes to a post-9/11 America is exactly the same shade that colors Banks’ songs with a fatalistic happy/sad that perfectly captures that time in our country, despite the fact that Turn On The Bright Lights was written (if not yet fully recorded) in its entirety before the Twin Towers ever came down. Banks’ abstract sense of wordplay opens entire emotional vistas within the band’s work—stretching from the spare tone poetry of “Untitled” to the Things Fall Apart-ness of “NYC,” with its line, “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights,” both echoing and skewering Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York” rejoinder with a twisted sense of the absurd while also striking a particularly forlorn note of desperation. By the time the band wanders its way to the album’s twin twilight closers—“The New” and “Leif Erickson”—what remains is a dizzying calculus of certainty plus doubt, lust minus adoration, divided by ennui. It’s the typical backstory of any great debut record: a document that took a mere couple of weeks to record, but required a lifetime (or several of them) to conceive.

At the conclusion of the band’s sessions with Katis, British producer Gareth Jones (Wire, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode) was recommended to the group as a mixer, with uneven results. Luckily, Katis remained in touch with Interpol and was roped back in to finish the process. “I recorded it all with them, beginning to end,” he says. “And they tell me, ‘We’ve got this famous English guy coming in to mix it.’ OK, that’s cool. So Gareth comes in and tells me he’s got this new system of mixing the tracks into stems in Pro Tools, rather than the old-fashioned way, with everything up on the console. But every time he’d get a good mix up, the band would come in and want to make their changes. And you’d see Gareth with all four guys with their hands on faders and mute buttons simultaneously, trying to change the mix. They wanted so much control that it kind of trashed all his mixes and they didn’t get what they wanted. Then Gareth asked me to remix a song or two, starting with ‘Say Hello To The Angels.’ I remember getting all the sounds on the analog board—with compression and EQ—and just riding the hell out of the levels and cleaning it up. The band was like, ‘Holy shit, can we do this to all the songs?’ I did as many as I could, but we ran out of time. And Interpol wasn’t Interpol yet, so I had to move on. I think I mixed seven of the 11 tracks on that album. Not because Gareth’s weren’t good enough. They just wanted more control over their environment.”

Control—a concept with which Interpol was well familiar—would represent a point of tension within the band as they developed. “A lot of bands claim to be a democracy, but they really were,” says Katis. “Everyone had an equal opinion. A lot of times that would line up pretty well, but sometimes it wouldn’t. It got even trickier on the second record. They are definitely control freaks.”

“We all respected one another and what each of us brought to the table, but we could also challenge each other intellectually, and more,” says Fogarino. “Ultimately you’d get pissed off enough and then record ‘Obstacle 1’ or something—I’m sure Carlos and I got in a full-blown fight that day.”

“We had no money at all, so the key was to go as far as we could with as little as we had,” says Kessler. “You’re making a record and living (in the studio); it’s either right or it’s wrong. And it’s your first album. The stakes are so high. We finally got to make a record for a label, and you’ve been waiting so long for it to happen. It can feel a bit like life or death.”

By the time Matador released Turn On The Bright Lights in August 2002, the Strokes’ celebrated debut, Is This It, had been out for nearly a year and the downtown post-punk revival was in full swing, with debut albums from the Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and Walkmen either already out or shortly to follow. Critically speaking, this was New York City’s long-awaited spotlight dance—after years of serving as hip hop’s ground zero with only vestigial reminders of the glory days of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City to help fans remember that rock had once reigned o’er the Apple, suddenly there was a conga line of bands whose sharp guitars, LES wardrobes and finely tuned sense of post-ironic ennui were front and center of the national pop consciousness. And if the Strokes were the 2000s’ answer to a shotgun marriage of the Velvets and Ramones, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs had Patti Smith emblazoned across their hearts, it’s hardly shocking that Interpol came across like Television on a weekend-long cough-syrup jag. (Check the nervous, fidgety guitar motifs of “Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2” for abundant evidence of Tom Verlaine’s “Marquee Moon” influence.) But interestingly, it wasn’t a New York band to which Interpol was reflexively compared in its early years—it was Joy Division, the legendary Mancunian existentialist pop quartet with whom Interpol shared a certain vocal similarity, brittle guitar sound and emotional jaggedness.

“On ‘Obstacle 1,’ their best song, Interpol can’t even decide which Joy Division they’re trying to bite, beginning with ‘She’s Lost Control’ segueing into ‘Disorder’ before accidentally coming up with a brilliant new tune of their own,” Rolling Stone wrote by way of backhanded compliment.

“They bitch because everyone compares them to Joy Division, and they’re right. It’s way too kind,” snarked the “Dean Of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau.

The album was a triumph in every respect—critically, commercially (it would eventually go gold) and as a vehicle behind which the band would embark upon its first sold-out U.S. tour—and yet, the Joy Division comparisons simply wouldn’t abate. It rankled, although with 15 years’ worth of distance, the band now has an entirely different view of the comparisons to Ian Curtis and crew.

“There’s no point in saying, ‘No, we don’t sound like those bands’” says Banks. “That’s opinion—I don’t think if it’s a new artist, it’s even lazy to say, ‘They sound like this or remind me of that.’ How else are you going to convey how they sound? You have to at least narrow the field a little bit. I mean, when they were dismissive, it irked me. I don’t think they were off base, but at the time it alienated me because we were just trying to be original. I was just trying to do me.”

“If people were gonna hit us with the Joy Division tag, if anything, I always felt it was a positive thing,” says Fogarino. “Some of the bandmates didn’t really know how to react or were a little more defensive. Fair enough—they wrote the melodies, and I didn’t. But mostly those (critics) were just thinking that we’re perpetuating a good thing.”

Having overcome its financial limitations, its fear of getting its debut recording wrong and the intra-band tensions that are par for the course with any young act, Interpol hit the road on its first real national tour. To say it was successful is to understate matters by a fair bit. The tour was sold out; everywhere Interpol turned up, its fan base materialized. For a group without much in the way of radio support or video airplay (remember, this was long enough ago that MTV was still A Thing, if less influential than it had been a decade prior), it was head-spinning for them to fully take in.

“It was a fairy tale, touring that first record,” says Banks. “We knew early after the release that sales were going better than expected and we were all in a little van driving across the country with a box full of T-shirts, our sound guy and us. Arriving at all these venues that were sold out, with people going ape, I don’t think it can get any better than that. You’re in your early 20s, you just put out a rock record, you’re touring the country and there’s people waiting for you at every city, ecstatic.”

The critics took note, as well—it wasn’t just that Bright Lights was an album for the ages, it’s that the band that had created this work represented something bigger than itself: Interpol’s music was sweeping and cinematic, angular and brooding. Four guys in ties show up to play a gig in the flyover states, and they sound like a wave of emotion crashing down on your cerebral cortex? Sign me up. “On ‘Specialist,’ Banks falls head first into the manic, quivering abyss from whence his vocals on the disc come—the place where your knees shake and your stomach churns and you wonder if he’s going to keep singing or run off stage and be ill,” wrote Devon Powers in PopMatters of one of the band’s hometown gigs in 2002. “The precision their music demands is within their grasp, and the crowd responds by plodding in time, ticking like a bomb about to explode.” That tour made them Interpol—and cemented their status as more than just a one-trick pony. It’s the shock wave that passed over the next generation of guitar-wielding indie bands like a windblown radiation cloud—Franz Ferdinand, Art Brut, Editors, Horrors, Foals and Maccabees (ironically, all U.K.-based guitar bands) owe more than just a little to Interpol’s heady mix of high-lonesome guitars, low-go lyrical excursions and the airy spaces that floated in between it all.

“For any flaws Bright Lights might have sonically, it’s something we’re all still really proud of,” says Katis.

“Everybody wanted to do something really great—and Daniel enforced that,” says Fogarino. “He always had this goal in mind, and he was crucial to that process. Any anxiety he had—pulling his own hair out, surviving the complete and utter chaos of operating the production—if he wasn’t so neurotic about it, it would’ve gotten lost and wouldn’t have been the amazing record we ended up with. He saved the band. And the music turned out to be so great that we couldn’t fuck it up with our own big egos or weird aesthetic choices.”

“We’re touring the album now because it sounds like fun,” says Banks of the group’s decision to take Bright Lights on the road in its entirety for the first time since it was recorded 15 years ago. “The key for me is, it sounds like a good time. And the fans think it’s a good idea, too. We’re working and writing again right now; we’re gonna put something out in 2018. It might be different if we had nothing in the chamber. But we’re way deep into all this new music and, in the meantime, it’s been a minute. So sure, let’s go out there and play some Bright Lights.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Hold Steady’s “Separation Sunday”

The making of the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday

By Hobart Rowland

Separation Sunday rightly qualifies as the Hold Steady’s Born To Run, if only for its unavoidable sense of place. In terms of geography, Springsteen’s central New Jersey is not unlike Craig Finn’s central Minnesota, with its mostly flat terrain and proximity to various bodies of water. But where Born To Run’s working-class stiffs are engaged in a vaguely noble struggle imbued with a certain delusional romance, the motley misfits, random misdeeds and sin-soaked unofficial landmarks assembled by Finn for Separation Sunday amount to an oddly enthralling hell on earth—one with a lethal sense of humor and a dumpster full of Catholic guilt.

“You came into the ER drinking gin from a jam jar, and the nurses making jokes about the ER being like an after bar,” huffs Finn in his signature spoken-snarl delivery on “Stevie Nix,” the album’s riff-happy centerpiece, later noting, “She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players.”

Springsteen’s fussed-over classic, Separation Sunday took about six weeks to make. Finn and co-founder Tad Kubler were well into their 30s, with a new baby at home (Kubler) and a divorce on the way (Finn). It was released a mere 14 months after the band’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, an alcohol-fueled punch in the sternum that left critics winded and scrambling for superlatives. With Separation Sunday, the Hold Steady not only avoided the sophomore slump, the band spun back around and leveled it from behind.

Though the group was a bit reluctant to acknowledge as much when it was released on the Frenchkiss label in May 2015, Separation Sunday is a concept album, with Finn as the scatterbrained narrator. Many of its recurring themes were culled from Finn and Kubler’s days with Minneapolis indie outfit Lifter Puller. There’s Holly, an addict/hood-rat who’s found limited solace in her status as a born-again Christian. Charlemagne and Gideon are an unlikely pimp-and-skinhead tandem whose party-hopping lifestyle frequently takes them across state lines. Their stories are loosely framed by the highways and waterways of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the “sketchy” shenanigans that unfold in unsavory locales like the “party pit,” “penetration park” and the “camps down by the banks of the Mississippi River.” Dig a little deeper and you uncover a central theme: the surreal clash between urban depravity and suburban absurdity.

Much like the record’s protagonists, the music on Separation Sunday is in danger of going off the rails. Kubler’s classic-rock guitar aspirations are as likely to be interrupted by a quiet interlude from keyboardist Franz Nicolay as an abrupt shift in momentum or structure. As for standard verse/chorus/verse predictability, there’s almost none. “Until we did Separation Sunday, none of us were trying to be professionals about anything,” says Kubler. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s see who can get the most fucked up.’”

Not a half-bad setup for the recollections that follow.

Dave Gardner (co-producer): Craig and I have known each other since 1989, through the Minneapolis hardcore scene and Lifter Puller. On the last few Lifter Puller recordings we did, we tried to get a little more adventurous. Craig’s narrative vision was getting really visual—tied to this idea where you could have this cinematic presentation of characters interwoven into rock music.

Craig Finn: I’d been away from Minneapolis for a few years, and I was beginning to see some of the unique things about it. Separation Sunday’s overarching story was set there—or at least it started there.

Gardner: I mastered the first Hold Steady record, and I was migrating away from production. But Craig had the idea that if there were two of us in this engineer/producer role, it would flesh things out and we’d make something more than just a super-kick-ass rock record.

Dean Baltulonis (co-producer): I produced Almost Killed Me, and I’d talked to Dave on the phone, but I never met him in person until we got into the studio. I felt like I’d known him for 20 years after the first hour. We really jelled.

Finn: Separation Sunday is about that exploration of getting your feet wet. In the Midwest, with the lack of public transportation, there’s such freedom in getting your driver’s license. Your range of motion is suddenly huge, and hilarity ensues because of that. I was trying to create this grand tale out of the things everybody does in suburbia, with characters that had been banging around my head for a long time.

Gardner: We wanted to have these big scene shifts within the record. I knew Craig’s lyrical stuff and Tad’s guitar playing were going to fit these scene-change ideas. If we weren’t going to have the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure, we had to find other ways to signify those shifts and enhance where the song was going.

Baltulonis: The band had almost the whole album already written. We used a studio called Gigantic in NoHo, Manhattan, though we did some recording and mixing at my studio. Frenchkiss traded for the studio hours, so we had an ample amount of time. Almost Killed Me was finished in six days; the recording for Separation Sunday was done in three weeks. It was all day and all night for Dave and I—we figured we made about $1.35 an hour.

Tad Kubler: For Almost Killed Me, we wrote a lot in Craig’s kitchen—he would pace back and forth and rant. We recorded five or six songs on our own. We’d done some shows and used that money to go into the studio with Dean. Then Syd heard them and told us he’d put out a record if we recorded six more.

Syd Butler (founder of Frenchkiss Records): It had taken about nine months for anyone to pay attention to Almost Killed Me because of the actual size of Frenchkiss and our limited ability to promote the album. When they went in to record Separation Sunday, the press for Almost Killed Me had reached a fever pitch.

Finn: We loaded in to record in December 2004 around Christmas. That day, both Spin and Rolling Stone had come out with their year-end issues, and both listed Almost Kill Me as a record you should’ve heard. I remember thinking, “Maybe the next one will be a record people do hear.”

Kubler: With Separation Sunday, it was like, “Here’s your budget, do it the way you want to.” It wasn’t on the scale of Boys And Girls In America or Stay Positive, but it did allow for a little more confidence. I was about to be a dad, and Craig was going through a lot of personal stuff, so we weren’t spending as much time together. I was writing a lot of the music on my own. Then Craig and I would run through the music part, and he’d start to pull the lyrics together.

Finn: There were no b-sides on Separation Sunday. It was only the songs that made the album.

Kubler: We half-talked, half-bullied Franz into being in the band. He was like, “I’d love to do it, but I don’t know how much time I have.” We were like, “It’s not going to be a big commitment; we’re not really going to tour. Just play on the record, and it’ll be fun.” He ended up staying for like five years.

Gardner: (Original drummer) Judd (Counsell) came in at the very beginning and knocked his stuff out. I remember taking the train with him after the session, and he said something like, “Well, that was fun. Now I’ve got my life to take care of.”

Kubler: Judd and (bassist) Galen (Polivka) grew up together and were playing in bands since they were teenagers. Judd had a legit nine-to-five job and a kid, and he couldn’t really tour, so we knew it was time to have a sit-down with him and see where he was at. (Current drummer) Bobby (Drake) was definitely ready to move from Minneapolis if need be. So Craig and I met up with Judd, and right after we sat down, he said, “I feel like I’m holding you guys back. As much as I hate it, I think you guys should find somebody else.” We were like, “OK.” We’d thought it would be more emotional, but Judd was so kick-ass about it.

Gardner: When it was time for everyone to do their parts, there was no fucking around. What I remember most is a lot of fulfilling, long days of work—and never feeling discouraged. There was a feeling like we were in the middle of something special.

Kubler: Bobby moved to New York, and the first night he was there, my daughter’s mother went into labor. We’d already done half a dozen songs with Judd. Bobby played on the rest. They’re both great drummers, but they have distinct styles. Judd is also a lefty, so that was part of it.

Baltulonis: For the most part, we kept everything running smoothly. There were some sober days and some not-so-sober days.

Kubler: We’d all play together and make sure we had a great drum track. Then, like pretty much every Hold Steady record, I’d do 30 guitar overdubs unless somebody told me to go home.

Gardner: Even though we were using all the modern recording tricks, we wanted Separation Sunday to feel very organic. When I revisited the album for the (2016) reissue, I was amazed by how it didn’t sound at all dated.

Finn: I was really not that interested in choruses at the time. I had a lot of words, and I was just sort of mashing them all up. At some point, I was like, “You gotta give people something to remember,” but I didn’t think that way back then. At the time, it might’ve surprised people and led to some notoriety.

Gardner: Craig’s not a conventional vocalist, so there was no point in recording him the conventional way. We were tracking multiple mics—one that was pretty clean, one that was kind of fucked up. We did a lot of cutting of his vocals, where he finishes a line and starts the next line under the end of the previous line. Obviously, Craig can’t do that live. But we embraced that rhythmically on the album.

Finn: Ever since Lifter Puller, I’ve never really been into writing lyrics down—and I do have a very good memory. But I did have little cheat sheets for Separation Sunday.

Gardner: It was definitely like: Hit a couple lines … break, hit a couple lines … break. Then we’d go back and work them together. We wanted a representation of Craig at his best. But an album is make-believe—it’s not real. So we were like, “Let’s do what we can to fulfill how this should fit from a poetic standpoint.”

Finn: “Hornets! Hornets!” is a reference to the high-school hockey team in Edina, where I grew up. It’s the kind of town that, if you want to be a cool rock guy, you probably don’t want to admit you’re from there. So that was my way of saying, “Fuck it. This is where I’m from.” It was kind of an obvious first song.

Gardner: Separation Sunday is about disease, so we started off the record by laying that right out, with that pan back and forth on the intro vocal to “Hornets! Hornets!” The narrator is in a place that’s a little seasick.

Finn: “Penetration park” refers to Loring Park in Minneapolis. It used to be a big cruising spot, though I’m not sure if it is anymore. There are these homeless camps down by the Mississippi River. I used to go running down there, and I’d turn a corner on the trail and run into something … like, “Whoa, sorry.” Fans will come up to me and say, “I just went to Minneapolis for the first time, and it’s a lot nicer than I thought it was going to be.” It’s actually a very nice city, but I guess I didn’t really explain the nice side.

Kubler: Craig is more of a recorder of events—sometimes an instigator. The stuff that’s autobiographical is a little more subtle and abstract. In “Stevie Nix,” there’s that line, “And the guys from the front lawn were making jokes about the white swan.” That came from a party we were at. I was up to some shenanigans with a few people in the bathroom. I came out, and we were standing on the front lawn drinking beers and running our mouths a mile a minute. Jessica Hopper, this writer from Minneapolis who loved to give me a hard time, walked up with this knitted shawl draped over her, and I said, “What’s up, Stevie Nicks?” And she’s like, “You know what, Tad? I think you have more in common with Stevie Nicks than I do.”

Finn: We’ve always sequenced for vinyl, so we wanted “Stevie Nix” at the top of the second side.

Kubler: It’s usually not hard to get lead singers in rock bands to talk about themselves, but it is hard with Craig. I think a lot of it is self-awareness and not wanting to appear too self-conscious. The Hold Steady is a traditional rock band, but not in line with what most people think of as a traditional rock band in a lot of ways. I think Craig deliberately tries to steer clear of coming off as ironic—or something like that.

Baltulonis: From what I recall, only “Crucifixion Cruise” was written in the studio. We recorded that late one night when we were almost packing up. It took like 40 minutes, and it was done.

Finn: It wasn’t something we came into the studio planning to do, but I thought it would be nice to have a little song. That’s a Guided By Voices thing—having a short song set up a longer song.

Kubler: Craig really got deep into the religious imagery and Catholic stuff on Separation Sunday. I was really nervous about how people were going to react to that.

Finn: I was spending a lot of time thinking about my faith right around then. I started to go to church again. In indie rock, you mention Jesus, and everyone gets nervous. But it was just a way of telling the story.

Gardner: We were getting into mixing the album, and there was some tension about the relationship between the guitars and keyboards. In my attempt to address it at whatever local bar Bobby was the mayor of at the time, I got into this whole discussion about the rock ’n’ roll eagle, with the guitars as the wings, the keyboards as the feathers and some nonsense about soaring … I’d clearly had some drinks.

Butler: The Hold Steady’s Village Voice cover really just blew it up. All of a sudden, everyone’s expectations changed. I remember having a fight with a publicist over a 100-person ticket buy for their show, and I didn’t even have $1,000. It was like, “Holy shit. I don’t want to get in the way of their shot.”

Kubler: When we started to do press for Separation Sunday, I remember Craig admitting that it was a concept record—and I was like, “What? OK, well, I guess it is then.” I think he was wary of that term because it can sound so high-minded.

Finn: I always think of Kilroy Was Here by Styx when I think of concept albums.

Butler: After Separation Sunday, it felt real. It felt like we had a real band with real commercial potential—not just some artsy-fartsy indie-rock band. And that helped to propel Frenchkiss to another level.

Gardner: For me, Separation Sunday was like, “Boom. I’m done. This is where I want to end my career as a producer. These guys just handed me the best way to go out.”

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MAGNET Classics: The New Pornographers’ “Mass Romantic”

The making of the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic

By Steve Klinge

Mass Romantic snuck out into an unsuspecting world on Oct. 24, 2000. And the world yawned.

Here was a debut released on a small Canadian label called Mint Records, from a gang out of Vancouver, B.C., who called themselves the New Pornographers. Early press releases positioned them as a “supergroup,” boasting members of the Evaporators, Zumpano, Superconductor, Limblifter and Destroyer, plus a nascent American alt-country singer and a filmmaker.

The guy from Zumpano and Superconductor was Carl Newman, the mastermind of the project. The guy from Destroyer was, of course, the guy who is Destroyer, Dan Bejar; at that point he’d released only two little-heard albums, but now he’s a prolific (and enigmatic) institution. The alt-country singer? Neko Case, who earlier that year put out Furnace Room Lullaby, her second LP, and who had begun to get a bit of press acclaim; Newman had been part of the Boyfriends, her loosely cast backing band.

The supergroup tag was a bit of a ruse: Most bands, unless they’re very young, are made of folks who’ve been in other groups, if only local projects, and Case (who herself had been in a passel of Vancouver punk bands, including Cub and Maow) was a draw mainly for alt-country aficionados. But it was a prophetic hook. The New Pornographers turned out to be a supergroup in reverse: Mass Romantic eventually catapulted the band to fame—at least in indie-rock terms—and Bejar and Case built careers that equaled if not surpassed the Pornographers’ popularity without ever leaving the fold.

Mass Romantic started it all, with indelible, joyous tracks such as “Letter From An Occupant,” “Mystery Hours” and “To Wild Homes.” It established the template for the New Pornographers’ giddy, maximalist approach, one that would serve them well over the course of five subsequent albums (with a sixth on the way).

“I’m still struck by the last 16 years,” says Newman, from his home in upstate New York. “It all seems so strange to me, everything that happened. It’s hard to believe, to realize it worked.”

Mass Romantic is a story of delayed gratification. Everything happened slowly, which now seems ironic. The crux of the album is immediate, ecstatic pop pleasure. It’s a kitchen-sink record with glam-rock crunch, cathartic gang vocals, power-pop hooks and stop-start, twist-and-turn song structures.

Not long after the album was released, Newman described the process: “I thought it would be interesting to take all these people and just to put them together and see what would happen. Then after that, it was just very laborious. We just hacked away at it, trying to arrange it; we put a lot of effort into it, basically. It didn’t just explode out of nowhere; it was very sculpted. But we wanted it to sound like it exploded out of nowhere.”

The band started as an idea born, as many good ones are, in a bar. It gestated for a couple of years. They recorded a few songs on their own. Nobody wanted to release them. After they did finally get a green light to finish the album, no one paid attention. At first.

Newman was already a Vancouver rock veteran by the mid-’90s. Both the grungy Superconductor and the ’60s-pop-leaning Zumpano had two well-received but little-heard albums to their names.

“It’s so hard to get anywhere,” says Newman. “I was playing music 10 years—some of it was just in dumb local bands—but never making any money at it, just thinking of it as a hobby. Zumpano was the first band when I was thinking, ‘Hey, we’re signed to Sub Pop, maybe we can actually do something here.’ And that didn’t go anywhere. I came out the other side a little more cynical but also a lot more DIY. I thought, it doesn’t matter who puts out our record; if it’s good, it’s good. Even though I was cynical about some things, I’d also become a purist: I thought, if our record’s good, it’ll find an audience. And the weird thing was, I was right.”

Sometime in 1997, Newman decided to gather friends to work together and see what would happen. “It was all very conceptual at the beginning. I remember having drinks with a few friends, and I’m sure Blaine (Thurier) was there, and Dan Bejar was there, just talking: ‘We’ll be the New Pornographers, and this is what we’ll be,’” he says. (Thurier remembers it differently, that Newman asked him during a break in a pickup basketball game.)

The band name came from a Japanese movie from the ’60s, The Pornographers, combined with a reference to ’60s bands like the New Seekers and the New Christy Minstrels. Bejar, one of Newman’s oldest Vancouver friends, also had a song on the first Destroyer album called “The Pornographers.” Later, Newman would learn about a book by conservative evangelist Jimmy Swaggart that lambasted pop music called Music: The New Pornography, which would affirm his choice of group moniker. But although the album cover is a bit sexual, the only thing obscene about these Pornographers is how catchy the songs are.

“It was really very casual,” says bassist and producer John Collins about the origins of the band. “We were kind of a gang anyway. We saw each other at the same bars, the same shows, at my studio. It was a little scene.”

Collins had worked with Newman on Zumpano records and had been working with Bejar on Destroyer’s City Of Daughters, which came out in 1998. He co-owned a recording studio that had a couple of eight-track tape recorders he could loop together. “In a weird way, we were all sensing that our 30s were coming up,” he says. “We had all been in bands and were feeling sort of mature but also not really sure if we were all on the upswing or on the downtake or what.”

Recognizing Case’s “world-class voice,” Newman drafted her: “At that point, I don’t think anybody knew that she was such a massive talent, but people who heard thought, ‘Wow, she can really sing.’ So I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t you be in the band, too?’”

Case’s popularity was growing in the late ’90s, but she had yet to reach the broad acclaim that 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood would bring.

“I’ve always told people that we all thought Neko Case was so popular at the time,” says Newman. “But looking back, she wasn’t that popular. I mean, she was touring around America and getting two or three hundred people at her shows, tops. I remember touring with her and her band and thinking, ‘Wow, this is insane how popular she is!’ It just seemed that way to us, playing to hardly any people or just to our friends, that having 50 people seemed like a triumph.”

Newman asked Thurier to join, even though the indie filmmaker, who was working in a Vancouver library, wasn’t a veteran musician. He had taken childhood piano lessons but basically taught himself to play keyboards once Newman recruited him. Collins suggested drummer Fisher Rose, in whose practice space they hashed out the songs.

Newman had a clear concept for the band. “He wanted to make a record that you could put on at a party and people could dance to but also make a record that you could put on headphones and listen to intently,” says Thurier.

“The one thing that was happening around then or before us, and the only contemporary thing that we were trying to align ourselves with, was the Elephant 6 stuff like Neutral Milk Hotel, or maybe the shaggier bands like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci,” says Collins. He also credits Newman, who had spent time as a record-store clerk, with turning him on to some notable older stuff: “I was into Eno the whole time, but I didn’t realize that glam rock was cool. I thought that T.Rex was cool, but I never knew that probably the best band that ever lived was Roxy Music when they were in their prime. That became something that we all really dug: wilder, brainier but still mental. There was lots of other stuff. Carl enjoyed the Flaming Lips quite a bit. Dan—it’s hard to know where Dan was ever coming from,” he says, laughing.

“I’m sure it was some sort of late-’70s proto-punk thing,” says Newman about the initial concept for the band’s sound. “Shocking Blue, I’m sure that was a reference point that was thrown around. The Vapors—I remember hanging out with Neko and listening to the Vapors. Maybe early Stranglers. I remember being at a party somewhere and someone played ‘Son Of My Father’ by Giorgio Moroder, and that turned my head immediately. I thought, ‘We should be something like this.’ And when I listen to something like ‘Centre For Holy Wars,’ I think, yeah, that was us doing our version of ‘Son Of My Father.’” He’s also cited Queen and ELO and one-hit wonders like First Class, whose Beach Boys ripoff “Beach Baby” he loved.

“Carl initially described the project as a new-wave rave-up,” says Thurier. “The first thing I heard as far as a description of what we were going to be.” He remembers Blondie and the Cars as reference points.

Although many reviews tagged Mass Romantic as power pop, that genre wasn’t in Newman’s mind. “I never thought of us as a power-pop band,” he says. “I think there’s elements of power pop in ‘Slow Descent Into Alcoholism.’ Yes, we’re guilty: That’s a power-pop song. But there are other songs that I don’t think sound like power pop at all. I don’t think ‘Fake Headlines’ or ‘Breakin’ The Law’ sound like power pop. I always thought we were definitely an indie-rock band. We were trying to do pop, but pop music that’s a little off. It seemed to me at the time that there were bands that were fun party bands, but they were lightweight. They didn’t have very good songs; they were just a party band. Then there were the bands who were the respected, good bands, and they seemed like not much fun at all. I thought, ‘Why don’t we try to merge these things? Why don’t we try to be a fun party band but also sophisticated musically?’ Something you could play at a party, but you could also sit and listen to, with headphones.”

For a while, the band was just a quixotic notion: Newman remembers friends teasing him about not actually doing anything with it. In 1998, the group started practicing together once or twice a week, with the idea that it was a fun side project rather than a long-term commitment. Everyone still had their other bands and their day jobs. On the other hand, they were intentional about what they were doing.

“In a way, we were getting a bit older and we were a bit more premeditated in terms of style, but not too much in terms of image,” says Collins. “There was no pressure whatsoever on us at first. The band didn’t really plan to play many gigs; we were just going to make cool recordings. I wanted them to be not psychedelic but really rich with stuff that grabbed you. We had some practices, but a lot of it was, ‘Let’s just see how far we can overdub stuff before we run out of space.’”

Newman reveled in the luxury of being able to raid Bejar’s catalog. “Dan had tons of demos; it was insane,” he says. “I remember going through the tapes—there must have been an hour and a half of them—and just picking ones I liked. ‘To Wild Homes,’ I like that one! ‘Breakin’ The Law’ I liked on his first Destroyer record. ‘Jackie’ I saw him playing live acoustically. It was a nice feeling watching somebody play and saying, ‘I want that song; that song will be mine!’”

That same batch of Destroyer demos also yielded “Execution Day” as well as “Ballad Of A Comeback Kid,” which would appear on the second Pornographers album, 2003’s Electric Version. For later records, Bejar usually chose songs to bring the band. Mass Romantic contained four Bejar tracks; all subsequent albums would have three.

One of the joys of the New Pornographers is the meshing and contrasting of Bejar and Newman’s tunes. Newman provided the main vision of the band and, with Collins, created the dense sonic arrangements, but it was a gang effort, sharing ideas, especially on the first LP.

Newman remembers turning Bejar’s demos into Pornographers songs. “Because the songs were sort of tossed off in their way, it meant we could rewrite them slightly,” he says. “We could take them and say, ‘How about you sing ‘visualize success’ a few times? That would be cool and bombastic, then we could go back into the song again.’” Come to think of it, “visualize success,” from “Jackie,” seems prophetic, too.

“Carl and Dan’s songs are different,” said Case after the first album came out. “Dan’s songs, structurally, are really odd. I think they really hook you that way. Lyrically, they’re very bizarre, but they’re also very tender, which I like a lot. Carl’s songs are pretty straight-ahead, but they’re very, very catchy.”

After the more baroque tendencies of Zumpano, whose 1996 album Goin’ Through Changes got compared to the Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle, Newman wanted to simplify the Pornographers’ material. The band is built on the tension between immediacy and complexity. They wanted to pile ideas into songs but make them undeniably catchy.

“I thought I was dumbing it down,” says Newman, who says he has little recollection of actually writing the songs for the first album. “‘Letter From An Occupant’ at the heart of it, is a very simple song. It’s got maybe four or five parts, but they’re all based around the same chords. To me, I thought, ‘That’s so boneheaded.’ But I also embraced that. I thought, ‘That’s an interesting thing to try,’ something that I thought was simplistic. But I realized later nobody else thought it was simplistic.”

One of the magical qualities of Mass Romantic is that the overt glam-rock riffs and throwback gang vocals never seem ironic or contrived. Maybe Newman felt he was dumbing things down, but the band sounds like it’s reveling in the simple joys of a good hook. The group stays on the right side of the line between what Newman has referred to as “good over the top” and “bad over the top.”

“They would probably be considered relatively tasteless if you didn’t care about them,” said Case in 2003. “It would be easy to try to duplicate something like that, but I think it would probably come off as really cheesy and shitty if you didn’t actually care about that. But we do actually care about it, so I think it comes out sounding good. That’s never something I would say about one of my own songs, but I have the freedom of stepping outside of it and being able to enjoy it if I listen.”

There’s also a self-aware, meta-cognitive quality to the Pornographers’ tracks; they’re “mental” as in crazy but also as in brainy. “Occupant,” after all, is, in part, a song about a song being on the radio, and there are a number of self-referential moments throughout Mass Romantic.

“Maybe I read too much about Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis in college,” says Newman. “The whole idea that the medium you are working in alters your message. There was this ‘meta’ sense of this is a pop song about being a pop song a lot of the time, although not always. Dan always dabbled in that sort of stuff, and I thought it was funny. His songs would, maybe in vaguely Bowie-esque way, hint at some sort of musical revolution. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go down that musical route, too.’ For ‘Mystery Hours,’ I thought I would give the lyrics what I thought was more of a Bejar tilt and I would sing about this fake revolution.”

A lot of ideas came from other sources, but they were either transformed by the band or so deeply embedded in the songs that they slipped past unnoticed. That’s one of the Pornographers’ secrets, one that the band continues to employ. “At the end of ‘To Wild Homes,’ I put in this countermelody over top of Dan and Neko singing,” says Newman. “It’s almost the exact melody from ‘I Know I’m Not Wrong’ from Fleetwood Mac. I thought that was so obvious. And no one ever noticed it. I always had to explain it to people. That’s when I realized, there’s a world of ripping off that I haven’t explored.”

Collins calls the process “pilfering”: “From the beginning we were trying to make it seem like a real hash. It’s not a garage band, it’s not a ’60s band, it’s not a this-or-that band. It’s how many cool ideas can we pilfer from other things and simultaneously have them all going on. We wanted to make it sound like a little bit of a lot of stuff.”

Sometimes, the process of trying to re-create something from another song resulted in something original. Thurier says his lack of keyboard skills led him to come up with the opening riff to “Mass Romantic.” “We were trying to jam on that song, and Carl said, ‘Play such and such a riff from this other song,’” he says. “I couldn’t do it. But I came up with that riff, and Carl said, ‘Yes, that’s it!’”

“The template was basically, work until you can’t stand it anymore, then give up,” says Collins. “Try everything that occurs to you and don’t be afraid to throw everything out. That’s our strategy.”

Newman knew from the start that Case’s voice could make the songs something special. “When I was touring in her band with her, I was struck that she’s not just a good singer, she’s a really fucking great singer,” he said, when the album first came out. “So I was very lucky that I had that voice to work with. It’s amazing just to write a song and go, ‘You can have Neko Case sing it.’ It’s just a real secret weapon. The songs probably didn’t have to be any good and people would have liked them I’m sure just because Neko was singing them.”

Their first gig was at Good Jacket, a clothing store in Vancouver, but mostly they just practiced and worked on songs. Eventually, they recorded four tracks in Collins’ studio: Newman’s “Letter From An Occupant” and “Mystery Hours” and Bejar’s “Breakin’ The Law” and “To Wild Homes.” They were all recorded to analog tape, and Collins remembers spending seven days mixing “Letter From An Occupant” alone, partly because of the laborious process of linking tape machines and constant rewinding. They were hoping those four songs would be a calling card to get a label to sign them so that they could finish an LP.

But that wasn’t easy. They tried Vancouver’s Mint Records, which had put out records by Collins’ Evaporators, Case’s early bands Cub and Maow and her first two albums, but Collins says, “They were encouraging but not interested.” In the interim, they continued recording, now with Kurt Dahle on drums instead of Rose (who opted out so he could focus on his four other bands). Newman worked on a Zumpano album that was never finished. Bejar and Case worked on their own LPs. Collins, who was playing in the Evaporators, too, was frustrated with the lack of interest in the Pornographers’ recordings.

“I thought they were pretty sensational, all four of them,” he says. “When I would listen to CITR (the University of British Columbia radio station) like I’d always done, I thought that these songs would be the best things on the radio. People would really like them. This would be like ’98. But every time I played them for a label person, three or four labels, no one was interested. I think they thought we were weird.”

Newman sent the four songs—on a cassette—to Nils Bernstein, who’d been Zumpano’s publicist at Sub Pop and moved on to Matador. Although Bernstein and others loved the songs, the cassette got submerged in the flood of music. “Lots of other people at the office were fans of that cassette, but, again, the stereo systems were kind of spread out, and there was plenty to listen to—not to mention to sign—that wasn’t a cassette of four demos from the Zumpano guy,” says Bernstein.

Finally, the owner of Good Jacket decided to put out a charity compilation of all the bands that had played his clothing store in the previous few years. It was called Vancouver Special, after a common type of house in the city. Mint released it in early 2000, and it included “Letter From An Occupant.” At last, things started happening: Canadian radio began playing “Letter From An Occupant,” and that led Mint to finally sign the band. And the Pornographers finished the dozen songs that make up the album.

The day Collins delivered the mastered LP to Mint, he walked out of the office and ran into Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen at the crosswalk. Collins says he had “revered” him since childhood and was starstruck. “I didn’t think about it until probably 10 years later that it was a harbinger of good things,” he says. “It was not too long after that that people were comparing us to Cheap Trick. It was good mojo. It was weird: It was like he was summoned by the delivery of the record that took three years to make.”

Still, when the record came out, expectations were low. Collins says he thought that Mint might make 500 copies; Thurier says he thought they’d make 1,000 and then let it go out of print. “I hoped we could at least do one tour,” he says. “I really wanted to tour North America.”

None of them thought the band would become their main project. They had only played eight or so live gigs before the album came out, and because Case’s career was beginning to take off, they weren’t sure they would ever tour. And, a month after the album came out, Bejar announced he was moving to Spain.

Newman was crestfallen. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, of course. Give me a fucking break. Of course you’re moving to Spain,’” he says. “It wasn’t like he was leaving the band; it was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life. I want to move to Spain right now.’ I feel like a few months after the record came out, the story was that Dan left the band because he thought the popularity was getting out of control, like New Pornographers mania is getting out of control and he wanted to jump off that hamster wheel. Which is absurd because he essentially told us when the record was virtually unknown. But the legend was the classic indie-rock punk thing: ‘I don’t want to be popular.’” The Wikipedia entry for Destroyer’s Thief, which came out a month before Mass Romantic, speculates that the album is an anti-music-industry rant in reaction to the Pornographers’ lack of success.

Bejar had played guitar and keyboards at some of the early Pornographers gigs, but he wasn’t in the country for the band’s first tour in early 2001 of 10 dates, four in Canada, six in the U.S. The band brought another pal from Vancouver, multi-instrumentalist Todd Fancey, into the fold, not so much as a replacement but to help re-create the album’s dense arrangements.

Mass Romantic was well-received in Canada when it came out at the end of 2000, but it took some time to get noticed in the U.S. Mint hired Neko Case’s American publicist, Amy Lombardi, to work the record in the States.

“I think it was in the fall of 2000 that Neko gave me a CD-R of the master and said something like, ‘Oh, here’s a record I made with my friends awhile back. You should do the publicity for it.’ I listened and loved it immediately,” says Lombardi. “I remember thinking it was so different than I’d expected from her, style-wise and comfort level. I was excited to learn there were other layers to what she was willing to do.”

Newman was surprised when people began to notice the album: “The first few months we got some Canadian attention, which I thought was super cool. Then we got on the New York Times 10 Best Records You Didn’t Hear This Year list. That was the first one that really blew my mind, because that was our first piece of national U.S. press. That was the first time I realized we’re on the radar. Then we got to number 60-something on the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, we’re on the Pazz & Jop poll!’”

Case’s name helped get the band noticed, but no one wanted to make the story about her. Newman was and is the face of the band, and Case generally avoided doing separate interviews. And still does: MAGNET tried to corral her and Bejar to talk about Mass Romantic but without luck. (“Welcome to my world,” says Newman when told that they were hard to track down.)

Newman remembers several record stores, including Aquarius Records in San Francisco and Other Music in New York, as being key to getting the LP heard. College radio was supportive, too. When the band toured the U.S. in early 2001, they were shocked.

“When we played Brownies in New York City with a capacity of about 150 people, we pulled up and there were two fans waiting for us. That was amazing,” says Thurier. “The show was completely sold out, I got to meet Nils Bernstein from Matador, and I thought, ‘We’re really hobnobbing now!’”

“We were happening in the States, which was ultra-rare for a band from our Canadian milieu to have any sort of notoriety in the States. It’s funny; it seemed almost like against all odds we were perceived as being an American band,” says Collins. “When we sold out at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, that was kind of a mind blower. People were throwing panties at us—I mean at Neko; maybe that was the moment when all our jaws dropped, when panties were flying at Neko.”

“From my end, I could feel the momentum,” says Lombardi. “I’d gone from pitching to having requests pour in. SXSW 2001 was important. People had started to hear about the Pornographers, they were definitely a band to watch. Carl did a lot of interviews that week. The New Pornographers show at La Zona Rosa was one of the shows everyone was trying to get into. Ray Davies joined them onstage for ‘Starstruck.’ It felt like everything was coming together in a big way. We were all really excited.”

Lombardi remembers the band listening to an advance of Daniel Johnston’s album Rejected Unknown non-stop in the tour bus. Thurier, who had never been to the U.S., remembers the revelry. “We had a fantastic time,” he says. “We were young enough to party every night and be hungover every day. It was just a lot of fun. That really hasn’t changed over the years, although the drinking is more like a drink and a half a night rather than a case of beer. I dare say we love each other.”

Mass Romantic has sold more than 113,000 units in North America. In 2001, it won the Canadian Juno Award for best alternative album, and it made the upper ranks of many American end-of-year lists, including MAGNET’s.

The record established a modus operandi that the band still uses. They’re on their third drummer and, when they tired of needing to work around Case’s schedule to tour, they added vocalist Kathryn Calder, Newman’s niece, but the rest of the band remains. Logistics are more difficult, with Newman and Collins on opposite coasts and other band members scattered across the continent. And trying to schedule Case, and to a lesser extent Bejar, is a challenge. Everyone else is involved in other projects, but ever since Mass Romantic, the New Pornographers has been the primary one, not the side.

And the band has the same goals: to combine the catchy and the weird, the straightforward and the eccentric, the simple and the bombastic, the “cheesy” and the “meta.”

“I realized I have a style,” says Newman. “I can’t really place it exactly, but there’s a kind of song that I write. At some point, I just give into it and say, ‘I’m going to write what I’m going to write.’ There’s different things you can do with arrangements and all that, with vocals and tempo and electronics. But there’s still that template. Our newest songs we can play next to Mass Romantic and say, ‘That’s the same band.’”

The band has become an indie-rock mainstay, much to Newman’s surprise: “One of my most enduring memories of the beginning—it was probably around 1998—was of when we practicing with our first drummer, Fisher Rose, at his space, and we had a smoke break, even though I didn’t smoke, and we were hanging out and listening to the early Belle & Sebastian stuff and listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I remember just feeling so defeated, like we’re so shitty next to this music. And then going back in to hack away our songs.

“I think back on that moment because it feels like a sort of validation as the years passed, like, ‘Wow, we actually did it.’ So when in 2006 we found ourselves touring with Belle & Sebastian, I thought, ‘Oh, this seems so conceptually perfect, because when we started, they were like the guiding light, like, let’s try to be as good as them, let’s try to be as good as Belle & Sebastian in 1998.’ They’re literally peers because they’re friends of ours now. They’re way more popular than we are, but still we’re friends.

“That’s the part that I’ve always loved about our career. I never wanted to be a massive rock star. I looked at my favorite indie-rock bands as a measure of success. When years would pass and all of a sudden, I realized Belle & Sebastian and Yo La Tengo and Stephen Malkmus, these people are our peers now—that seemed crazy. I thought, ‘Where else are we going to go now?’ I’ve gotten to where I want to be, so now what? Of course, it turns out, there was more to do.”

And, of course, the band members look back on Mass Romantic fondly. “A couple weeks ago, I listened to a bunch of our tunes, and I didn’t know what to make of it all,” says Collins. “I haven’t listened to Mass Romantic front to back since it came out, probably. My impression was how excited we all sounded. Sometimes I’ve listened to it, I thought it was a pretty shitty recording. At other times, I’ve thought, ‘This is brilliant.’ The last time I listened, I thought it was brilliant.”

Newman credits Mass Romantic for changing his life. “The cover, which is this weird thrift-store thing that I bought in the ’90s, is hanging on the wall in our house. I look at that, and that album is what catapulted me into my life in so many ways. That album got us signed to Matador, and at Matador, I met my wife, who was the marketing manager there, and now we have our son. It’s like everything in my life that I value, including a career in music, it’s all come out of that record. I knew I had to continue afterward: I knew I couldn’t just put out that record and sit back. But it was the foot in the door to the life that I have now. I’ll always love that record for that reason. Even if I listen to it and hear things I don’t like about the production or about the way I sang it—the way people can pick apart their record. I shouldn’t pick on that record because I owe it so much.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Yo La Tengo’s “Painful”

YLT

The making of Yo La Tengo’s Painful
By Steve Klinge

Why Painful?

Over its 30-year career, which the band recently celebrated with three retrospective shows in early December, Yo La Tengo has released a slew of albums deserving of “MAGNET Classics” status. Painful was the first in a remarkable string—1995’s Electr-O-Pura, 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out—any one of which could and should be feted. And we could make a strong case for 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. Hell, 2013’s Fade was damn good, too.

But the trio—Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew—chose 1993’s Painful, the sixth of 13 Yo La Tengo albums, for a recent deluxe reissue, titled Extra Painful. It’s the one that’s at the root of all the ones that followed.

“I think the band we are today is traceable to that record, more than any one that came before it; those records are something else,” says Kaplan. “It’s the first record on Matador and it kind of felt like the beginning, even though it’s somewhere in the middle.”

Although Kaplan and Hubley had played together in other bands, the first Yo La Tengo show occurred in December 1984 at Maxwell’s, the Hoboken, N.J., club that was the vital home of a cadre of groups, including the dB’s and the Feelies (and, eventually, the site of Kaplan and Hubley’s wedding reception). The band’s debut, Ride The Tiger, arrived in 1986 on the local Coyote Records, a mix of originals and covers from the Kinks and Pete Seeger. The lineup included Dave Schramm on guitar and Mike Lewis on bass. New Wave Hot Dogs came in 1987, the mini-album President Yo La Tengo in 1989, and the acoustic, mostly covers Fakebook in 1990. Although all worthy, those records now sound like a band in search of an identity, which it was: At its 30th anniversary show in New York City, the trio brought onstage 17 former band members (most of the bass players) and producers, almost all of them pre-Painful.

That would change when they drafted McNew as a temporary bassist for a tour in the summer of 1991, a jaunt that included songs that would turn up on 1992’s May I Sing With Me, which came out on Alias Records. The band had begun to stretch out, with “Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss” and “Sleeping Pill” passing the nine-minute mark, and to sharpen its focus, with its catchiest rock song yet in “Upside-Down.”

Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy sees May I Sing With Me as Painful’s clear predecessor. Painful “felt like a natural evolution from May I Sing With Me, albeit a much, much better recording,” he says. “I’ll buy Ira’s claim that Painful was their best album to date, but anyone who says it came outta nowhere hadn’t listened very hard to the prior works or attended many of the earlier shows.”

May I Sing With Me came out in February, and by that summer, the band’s live sets included some songs that would turn up on Painful. When TYL opened for My Bloody Valentine and Buffalo Tom, the band began its sets with “I Heard You Looking,” and that instrumental would often take up half of its allotted 30 minutes.

The group had begun to get together five days a week, McNew coming to Hoboken from his home in Brooklyn to work with Kaplan and Hubley on new songs.

“We developed the sound and the songs together just by experimenting together and swapping instruments,” says McNew. “That was really the beginning of us finding out how we could work together and actually work as a band.”

All the songs on May I Sing With Me, with the exception of “Sleeping Pill,” were written before McNew came aboard, but for Painful, McNew became a collaborator in the writing process, although he says as the new guy he was cautious at first.

“I was a Yo La Tengo record-buying, concert-going fan before I was already in the group,” he says. “I was already totally fine with the organization: ‘You’re doing great.’ I didn’t want to be an interloper—‘Oh, that’s the guy who ruined Yo La Tengo.’ I don’t know what my status in the group was. I don’t know what my status in the group is, really. I don’t think about it, really. Eventually, sometime around there, I got my own keys to the practice space, and that made me feel like I was official. There was no ceremony and there was no cake or anything. It was just like, ‘All right, see you tomorrow.’”

Painful also includes the first YLT songs built around the Ace Tone organ, an instrument that would become a staple for the band. The trio had borrowed one from Das Damen’s Lyle Hysen, with whom the group shared its practice space, and used it on the 1992 tour for “I Heard You Looking.”

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