Category Archives: MAGNET CLASSICS

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

The making of Interpo’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”


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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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Afghan Whigs’ “Congregation”


The making of the Afghan Whigs’ Congregation

By Matt Ryan

There are many remarkable things about Congregation, the Afghan Whigs’ third record, but topping the list is the fact that it ever saw the light of day. The problem, first and foremost, was that the band was particularly adept at breaking up.

“Yeah,” laughs bassist John Curley, “we broke up on a fairly regular basis. I would chalk it up to strong personalities and young guys who hadn’t learned how to communicate very well yet. It’s hard driving around in a van. It didn’t really feel like it at the time, but looking back on it, we really did a lot of miles and a lot of shows. You’re around the same people all the time, and oftentimes scraping together enough money to drive to the next town or share some food at Taco Bell. It’s not an ideal situation. It’s fun and romantic, but it’s stressful, too.”

“We broke up before we even got signed to Sub Pop,” says singer and principal songwriter Greg Dulli. He goes on to explain that the band decided to play two final shows—one in Chicago, one in Minneapolis—the latter at the encouragement of a bartender named Lori Barbero, who is now better known as the drummer in Babes In Toyland. “We ended up having such a good time that we got back together and made Up In It,” says Dulli of the band’s first record for Sub Pop. A subsequent European tour saw the group split again in Amsterdam, each member going his separate way. “We were quite the dramatic, soap opera band,” says Dulli. “We were kind of wild, you know? We liked our poisons.”

In the wake of this latest dissolution, Dulli began writing songs, including “I’m Her Slave” and “Let Me Lie To You,” that he assumed would appear on a solo record. Eventually, he would move from L.A. to Chicago and reestablish phone contact with Curley, which in turn led to Dulli meeting up with the band in Cincinnati to work on some songs. Notably, these early sessions yielded Congregation’s first single and indie-level hit, “Conjure Me.” Unfortunately, the band’s troubles were far from over.

The second roadblock came during the actual recording of Congregation, a time when Sub Pop was circling the drain. “Until Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, actually six months to a year after Nevermind came out, we were not on firm footing financially,” says Sub Pop cofounder Jonathan Poneman. “One of the manifestations of that was inconsistent ability to pay out studio bills. There’s a famous story that Greg can articulate about him getting stranded in Los Angeles because we basically didn’t have money to fund the recording according to the agreement we had come up with.”

“The Congregation album at that time was kind of an expensive record,” says Sub Pop cofounder Bruce Pavitt. “I remember ’91 was a very, very difficult time for the label. We laid off most of our staff. That August, we released Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge by Mudhoney, which wound up selling 100,000 copies, and that really revived the label. And then by Christmastime ’91, we realized that Geffen was going to send us a check for half a million bucks. So, right before Congregation came out, we knew we were back on our feet, but at the time Congregation was being recorded, we were totally broke. It’s a miracle we paid off that recording. I remember Mark Arm from Mudhoney saying, ‘Look, Mudhoney is making all the money for Sub Pop. What you’re doing is subverting those funds and you’re giving it to a band that isn’t even from here.’ He was right—that was exactly what was going on. At the same time, we really had a deep faith in the Whigs to come up with a brilliant record, and they totally delivered.”

Pavitt mentions that the band received a $15,000 advance for Congregation, but Dulli remembers it differently. “We didn’t get an advance; they were paying as we went,” he says. “I was working with this guy who was not really sympathetic to the Sub Pop plight. It was recorded in fits and starts, and I remember being locked out of the studio and I had to call the guy and make threats against his property if he didn’t give me my tapes. That kind of became an agitated situation. Sub Pop went broke. I got stuck down in L.A., and then Nevermind came out. That sort of set me free, in a way. I remember going to Nirvana’s show at the Palace and personally thanking them.”

The studio in question was Buzz’s Kitchen outside of L.A., where overdubbing and mixing occurred following a week or so of recording at Seattle-area studio Bear Creek. By all accounts, the band loved Bear Creek—so much so that they would later record Black Love there in its entirety. Buzz’s Kitchen? Not so much.

“Bear Creek is where it started, and then we moved to some shithole out in Sun Valley,” says Dulli. “It was just bad. My least favorite studio I’ve ever been in. I think the engineer moved us. Kind of sold us a bill of goods. Told us we were going to a studio in L.A., and it was Sun Valley and technically L.A. County, but not exactly Los Angeles. We got kind of swindled there and ended up in a really hot, crowded box in the middle of a not very savory part of town.”

The engineer in question was Ross Ian Stein, recommended to the band by Shawn Smith, a Seattle singer/songwriter who provided backup vocals on Congregation’s “This Is My Confession” and “Dedicate It.”

“I did not get along with Ross Stein,” says Dulli. “He was in my way. I never saw hide nor hair of that guy ever again. I remember it’s the last time I was going to take advice from Shawn Smith.”

“It really ended up being a contentious relationship,” says Poneman. “Because Sub Pop was a fancy name and we were good at corralling headlines at the time, but we were also famously broke, Ross was very concerned about getting paid, which is understandable.”

“I remember the sessions being kind of antagonistic,” says Dulli. “But in a strange way, I think that worked to the songs’ advantage, because it’s a prickly record, you know? I can feel the tension on that record, and it is very real.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Devo’s “Freedom Of Choice”


The making of Devo’s Freedom Of Choice

By A.D. Amorosi

Saying that Devo once found itself in an oddly uncomfortable position is, simply, odd in and of itself. The toast of Akron, Ohio’s skanky underground music and DIY avant-garde art scene built its entire career’s aesthetic to make its audiences weirdly uncomfortable, as it moved from being the product of Kent State student Gerald Casale’s satirical anti-corporate anarchy and Mark Mothersbaugh’s quirkily humorous motorik feel for new de-evolution into something proto-punkish by 1973.

“It’s not as if we were ever looking to be in the mainstream, or even thought that it was possible,” says Gerald Casale, Devo’s co-founder. “We figured that we spelled that out from the start.”

Theirs was an entrée filled with leg-baring trash-bag costumes, earnestly sinister big-fat-baby masks, flower-pot hats, science-fiction-meets-military-complex themes, Chi-Chi Rodríguez references, off-kilter rhythms and cheaply primal synths (the key to their scorched-earth vibe) that made them the faves of art-school punks, Captain Beefheart wonks and frat-boy curiosity seekers alike. Whether for its onstage performances or through Ohio director Chuck Statler’s creepy, homemade videos, Devo was quickly becoming a sought-after commodity by 1976 going into 1977.

“Before we had even one legitimate album out, there were 14 or 15 studio-quality bootlegs of our stuff on the market,” says Mothersbaugh. “People knew and loved our live sound.”

What Devo’s Casale and Mothersbaugh—to say nothing of the Two Bobs, keyboardist Casale and guitarist Mothersbaugh, along with drummer Alan Myers—really wanted was a clear shot at having that un-prissy, primal sound ably represented. “We were Kraftwerk from the waist up, and Elvis Presley from the hips on down,” says Casale. “We wanted those smarts and that raw energy to translate to our albums.”

Once Devo signed with Warner Bros. in 1977 at the urging of high-powered father figures such as David Bowie (who was to have produced them but didn’t, as filming on Just A Gigolo began when Bowie was dragging the band off to a studio in Tokyo) and Elliot Roberts (Neil Young’s manager), Devo never got the shot to produce itself. (At least not within the frame of its first three albums, as Devo actually teamed together to produce 1981’s New Traditionalists and 1984’s Shout as part of its deal with Warner Bros.)

This is a bizarre reality to most listeners, as the band’s brain trust knew exactly how it should sound during its golden inception, and what was famously recorded by Brian Eno (1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!) and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust producer Ken Scott (1979’s Duty Now For The Future) wasn’t it. Not even a little bit.

These heroes of new music—Eno (of Roxy Music fame) and Bowie’s main man—couldn’t give Devo what it needed. “Songs of ours like ‘Smart Patrol’—that was rock power Devo,” says Casale. “The crowds went crazy for them. On record, though, they got blunted. Badly.”

What then was the album that Devo finally thought was its most concise and direct, the one that did exactly what the band told it to do and sounded exactly like it had written and envisioned in its minds? 1980’s Freedom Of Choice; weirdly enough, the band’s biggest seller, its cleanest, sharpest record and one that paired its oddball vision of America (who else would be inspired by both Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power Of Positive Thinking and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, according to Casale?) with its most dedicatedly electronic output yet.

“We set out to make Freedom Of Choice with an R&B feel, and that’s what we got,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. As opposed to dipping into its deep well of tunes written between its inception and 1978’s debut (some 60 of them split between Are We Not Men? and Duty Now with plenty left over), Devo wanted newer songs. With that came the expectation of how the band should and could come across—its feel for off-putting, askew rhythms, discordant guitars and such. Freedom Of Choice gave Devo a cleaner, fresher shave as it was cuttingly executed and warmly produced by Robert Margouleff of Stevie Wonder and TONTO’s Expanding Head Band fame.

The popularity of Freedom Of Choice—a top-20 Billboard pop album in the United States, with its ever-present “Whip It” performing likewise on the singles charts—often takes the bloom from the rose when considering the jerky version of the dream was Devo’s ugly-beautiful debut album. Repeated listenings of all three of Devo’s first LPs (the golden inception mentioned earlier) prove that this third record—made under label duress and increasing pressure from within to go more guitar (Casale) or more synthesizer (Mothersbaugh)—features its strongest melodic bass without eschewing all of its rhythmic oddity. Yes, Mothersbaugh won out, and Freedom Of Choice became Devo’s first most-realized, magnetically percolating, most electronic album to date (Duty Now came close in what Mothersbaugh called its “sleek K-Rock-iness”). But Casale’s sense of snark was also appeased (“Whip It” was intended as a song for Jimmy Carter to use as part of his second run at the presidency), and the title song has the frenetic feel of crunching guitars and quickly wiry solos to go with its mega-watt hammering drum tones.

“We were mutating ourselves on purpose, with that purpose being to make something bolder and funkier, still with guitars and energy, and still maintain the energy of our stage show,” says Casale.

Still, what the hell happened with Are We Not Men? and Duty Now?

Mothersbaugh recalls that when Bowie—who caught on to Devo after Iggy Pop gave him a cassette—had to pass on producing the quintet, the members of Devo had already quit their day jobs and left their apartments to relocate to the West Coast. “We were homeless and had to survive,” he says of the whirlwind touring that brought them to Manhattan, where Brian Eno and Robert Fripp found Devo at CBGB. There, Eno offered to produce Devo in Cologne, Germany, at Conny Plank’s studio (he of Ultravox, Guru Guru and Moebius & Plank fame) and pay the band’s travel expenses while its Warner Bros. deal came to be.

“What’s funny about that is Bowie wanted to sign us to his Bewlay Brothers production company, but the money wasn’t so great,” says Mothersbaugh. “I always thought Bowie’s lawyer reminded us of Bruce Wayne, and we wouldn’t have been surprised if he had Batman costumes in his closet.”

While Eno started work on Are We Not Men?, Bowie would stop by the studio on weekends and filming breaks to noodle around. “Neither one of them had a clue what to do with us, at least not to our liking at that time,” says Mothersbaugh.

Casale adds that the Eno they got wasn’t the Eno they imagined from the days of Roxy Music and Eno’s noisy avant-glam solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets. “We expected feather boas and synth squeals, and what we got was this nice man with short hair who had embraced beautiful sounds and ambient waves rather than the grotesque Minimoog stuff we associated with him,” he says. “Eno wanted to make our stuff less cacophonous, industrial, brutal, and inject harmonies and soft drum pads.”

Mothersbaugh mentions that going into the record business and their first label project, what they wanted was “big brothers to hold their hand” and not guide their sound. “We knew what we wanted to sound like,” says Mothersbaugh, who mentions one recent and interesting find. “Before he passed, Bob Casale and I were transferring old tapes onto digital and stumbled onto Germany recordings we didn’t know existed. Brian and David recorded extra tracks on every song—they wanted to be on our first album.” Excitedly, Mothersbaugh mentions Bowie/Eno backing vocals on “Uncontrollable Urge,” Eno’s additional Eventide harmonizers and bucket-dumping sounds on “Too Much Paranoias” and gamelan twitters and monkey chatterings throughout the found tapes.

“I think we let Eno down, bummed him out because we were more radical than he expected, and he hoped to have more influence over us,” says Casale, faintly praising the producer’s take on “Mongoloid” with its gated delays and snare limiters that made its pulse splash and snap like white noise.

“Maybe we did know those extra take tapes existed, but, in the end, were so positive that we knew what Are We Not Men? should sound like that we didn’t have an open mind for it,” says Mothersbaugh.

Mothersbaugh and Casale didn’t want the Bowie/Eno imprint. Devo wanted to be protected.

Devo album one was a cutting-edge, critical success and all the hipsters dug it, but in Casale’s words, it didn’t “clear the radio barrier with stations run and maintained by fat pseudo-hippies in satin baseball jackets accepting whores and coke from independent promoters like Joe Isgro.”

Casale laughs, but he’s clearly still annoyed about the major-label record business of 1977-1978, reminding us that the only reason Devo did get any radio spins was due to its strangely syncopated cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” For their second album, then, Casale and Mothersbaugh believe that Warner Bros. wanted more of a new-wave synth hit à la the Cars.

“I think at first they were all proud because, ‘Hey, we have Beefheart, we have Zappa, we must be cool,’” says Mothersbaugh of Warner Bros. seeming prepared to put Devo on its mantle of curios. “They wanted to prove they had taste and were hip. They signed us because David Bowie thought we were interesting. But they wanted to recoup some money, too.”

Casale believes that Warner Bros. was hoping that its sophomore effort would find Devo mainstreaming its avant-skronky sound for a hit like the “Loverboys of that time.” So the label pushed the quintet toward a number of producers “of which Ken Scott was the most palatable because of his history with Bowie,” he says. “Now, this is where things got weird.”

Again, neither Casale nor the Mothersbaughs wanted a producer—they simply wanted an overseer of sorts.

“I didn’t like Ken Scott because, from the start, he didn’t ‘get’ Devo: our ideas and vision,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. “He was still into Supertramp.”

Casale reminds us that, after the Eno experience, they just hoped to have someone who would listen to them: “The best-laid plans of mice and men, right?”

Mark Mothersbaugh mentions that Scott was no conversationalist and that his vision of the future and Devo’s future(ism) was much more literal than the band’s own. “He sterilized us,” he says. “He had a specific take on us—very K-Rock friendly.” As before, Casale sounds even more bitter about the Duty Now process, as several of his self-penned songs—like Are We Not Men?, taken from some 40 or 60 tunes written before its first album was recorded—were made plainer than beige under Scott’s watch.

“‘Clockout,’ for example,” says Casale of a tune written in 1976, pointing out how Duty Now eschewed the wonky punkish guitar sounds that made his version more primitive and the album’s version more pristine. “He just anesthetized that. Scott played up to Mark because he knew about his love of synths and sequencers. Mark already wanted to move away from guitars. Bob Mothersbaugh was never egotistical enough to fight in the studio.”

To that charge of losing a punkish guitar’s edge, Bob Mothersbaugh says, “I think Devo had worked through a lot of the angst that propelled Are We Not Men?—what was left was the song craft. The first album had great songs, delivered with anger and youthful insanity. Look, we watched the Sex Pistols implode. We weren’t really interested in mosh pits.”

To make matters worse, Scott excluded Devo from the album’s mixing process, only begrudgingly letting the band hear tracks after all had been decided. “We barely knew how bland it sounded,” says Casale. “Scott took our suggestions but rarely incorporated them.” So yes, Casale is frustrated about that album to this day.

“Actually an old girlfriend of mine had a copy of Duty Now on eight-track that she played through her beat-up old Volvo’s cheap auto-mall speakers—you know the inexpensive retro-fitted speakers,” says Mothersbaugh, laughing of its crude, tinny, bass-y sound. “That was great. Just distorted enough. If you can find the eight-track, do it.”

Bob Mothersbaugh adds that “Duty Now contained the rest of the songs we had been playing live that weren’t on our first album. Plus, ‘Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize,’ ‘Swelling Itching Brain’ and ‘Triumph Of The Will’ were written just before going in the studio for Duty Now. We had been touring extensively after the first album; maybe we rushed to get another album out.”

Casale is less humorous about Duty Now. That album in his mind had powerful songs that should have translated as vicious but didn’t. These were tunes that had been written in dingy basements and played in dirty clubs. “That’s how Duty Now should have sounded,” he says. “Scott wanted something processed. We wanted something aggressive.”

For album three, then, Devo had one last shot with Warner Bros. In Mothersbaugh’s mind, the label didn’t care if the band had a seven-record deal. “They even said as much to Elliot Roberts: ‘Make these guys make a hit or we’ll see you in court,’” he says. “Look, this was a label that used to shut down on Friday and start partying around noon. The workers would set up a rotisserie or get carry-out food and booze. It was acceptable to them to pull out canisters of cocaine during meetings like somebody taking orders for Starbucks today. That wasn’t us.”

What was “them” was Robert Margouleff, a highly respected and wildly commercial synth pioneer and producer who aided in Stevie Wonder’s Motown label transition from Little Stevie Wonder into an innovative funk wunderkind whose every move ruled the charts and defined the new revolutionary soul movement. “We didn’t particularly like Scott, and since Duty Now didn’t sell as well as Are We Not Men?, we wanted a different producer,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. “We settled on Bob Margouleff because of his involvement with TONTO, the modular Moog synth, and because he had produced Wonder.”

Mark Mothersbaugh mentions that while he was interested in technology—pushing for the use of computers, drum machines and the (then) new toy of MIDI machinery—Casale was more interested “in getting a radio sound, whatever that meant, for the next album,” he says. “Robert was somebody who satisfied what I was interested in and Jerry was interested in.” Along with that decision, the Devo brain trust had decided that pursuing a funk album for the band was a way to go in writing new songs (some of its first since Devo’s start) and considering new grooves that could satisfy the band and Warner Bros.

“A Devo funk album, right? Whatever that would be?” says Mark Mothersbaugh. “We were into Bootsy Collins and Prince. But we couldn’t quite make out what our take on that soul sound would be. We grew up loving Motown. That’s probably how we came to Margouleff, because Stevie Wonder was ubiquitous, and he was a giant of electronic music. The underground film world, too, when you consider he lived with and produced that Edie Sedgwick movie.”

Mothersbaugh and Co. rented space along Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood—an old row of storefronts long abandoned—where Margouleff was a constant visitor. To Mothersbaugh, the producer was a fascinating presence, always interested, engaged and engaging, and looking to do the next thing. “He was demonstrative and optimistic—super optimistic—which I think grated on Jerry’s nerves, but I kind of liked that,” he says. “He reminded me of General Boy from our films.”

Bob Mothersbaugh goes on to say that unlike Scott, who made Alan Myers and Bob Casale play to metronomes in the initial sessions for Duty Now (“So demeaning,” says Casale), Margouleff was dream-date-great in the studio. “He made our parts sound good together,” says the other Mothersbaugh. “When Jerry’s bass synth didn’t sound like the demo tapes we’d made, Bob said to go get the same amp he had played through at the rehearsal room. He created a good atmosphere to play live.”

This obviously won over the ever-doubtful Casale, who talks about penning “Girl U Want” and the like with a focused intent, to do something robotic and R&B-ish with a thick bass sound. “It wasn’t a sound that we had to push through someone else’s meat grinder, because this was fresh meat straight from our brand-new cow—mutating ourselves on purpose with Bob’s help, not hindrance,” says Casale. “Margouleff was excellent in bringing synth sounds to two-inch tape. That was the real marvel there. That’s what he had done going back to TONTO.”

Devo wanted to be R&B and got just that, with R&B twomp that kicks “Gates Of Steel” and “Ton O’ Luv” into hyper-funky, super-stupid overdrive. Mark Mothersbaugh still rhapsodizes about Freedom Of Choice and what he learned from Margouleff: interesting recording techniques that he could have never gleaned from his other producers at that point. “Robert taught us how to run synthesizers and get sounds we liked, especially on our guitars,” he says. “He would yell, ‘Check this out,’ like a kid, show us how to blend different sounds from different settings into one. From there, on Freedom Of Choice, we made technology sound better and different than anyone out there at that time. That became something that for the rest of our measly careers, we kept doing. Not making synthesizers sound smooth but making them do their own thing—maybe human, maybe just weird machines.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Long Winters’ “When I Pretend To Fall”


The making of the Long Winters’ When I Pretend To Fall

By Matthew Fritch

In 2003, the Long Winters released their second album into a crowded field of cleverly crafted, melody-driven guitar rock. Given the crop of that particular era—the Shins, Decemberists, New Pornographers, Pernice Brothers, Weakerthans (and lord, can I get a Beulah?)—you would be more than forgiven for not recognizing When I Pretend To Fall as the cream that rises more than a decade later. The album produced neither hit singles nor commercial jingles, and it all but destroyed the fragile league of extraordinary frenemies who created it. It’s the great sound of coming together while everything is simultaneously falling apart. John Roderick, the man at the center of When I Pretend To Fall, was striving: hoping to win back a girl and attempting to make his mark in a microcosmic indie-rock scene.

As one of the album’s producers (Chris Walla; we’ll get to him later) put it, “It was an exercise in trying to try.”

There are many paradoxes surrounding the album. It’s the sole domain of singer/songwriter and confessed studio tyrant Roderick but also the collective product of some of Seattle’s finest musical minds. (Not that Seattle, the crucible of grunge; rather, the Long Winters were midwifed by turn-of-millennium pop outfits Harvey Danger and Death Cab For Cutie, with an alley-oop from the Posies.) When I Pretend To Fall sounds big and barrel-chested yet sneakily baroque, emotionally earnest yet lyrically sly. During the recording, the 32-year-old Roderick—a tall, garrulous, mastiff-hearted man from Alaska, raised on Judas Priest and Scorpions—was the oldest guy in the room but the least experienced in the manners and customs of indie rock. Roderick’s education mostly came by way of a stint in 2000 as the touring keyboardist for Harvey Danger, the suddenly successful outfit led by Sean Nelson. (As a refresher, Harvey Danger is the band behind alt-radio workhorse “Flagpole Sitta”: “I’m not sick, but I’m not well … I wanna publish zines/And rage against machines.”) Afterward, Nelson and Roderick intended to collaborate on an album but ended up creating the Long Winters’ debut, a collection of Roderick’s songs produced by Death Cab guitarist/wunderkind Chris Walla and titled The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. Roderick, who’d befriended these younger peers while playing in local outfit the Western State Hurricanes, refers to the effort as a “charity project.”

“My friends didn’t want me to die without having made an album,” he says. “The Death Cab guys were all still in college when I met them, living in a big house together, and Harvey Danger weren’t much older. My songwriting chops and band chops were evolving right alongside theirs. The younger indie guys found what I did interesting, I guess, and just assimilated me into their scene. My old rock friends were embarrassed for me: ‘Why are you hanging out with those weird emo kids?’ But the kids accepted me and my songs without hesitation.”

Walla, seven years younger than Roderick, seemed to belong to another generation. Although Walla would later be Roderick’s go-to producer and benefactor, Roderick initially resisted Walla’s boy-genius DIY aesthetic during the Western State Hurricanes era.

“He meant to record us in the kitchen of the Death Cab house in Bellingham using microphones made out of soup cans and a drum kit made out of stacks of Tape Op magazine,” says Roderick. “I was like, ‘No way, indie dude.’”

In 2001, Roderick left Seattle to mend a broken heart in New York City, where the late-blooming songwriter found the creative spark and emotional thrust behind what would become the Long Winters’ masterpiece. He was bolstered by exposure to a class of albums—by Spoon, Belle & Sebastian, Nada Surf, Teenage Fanclub and others—that combined inventive hooks and melodies with astute lyrics on subjects that were mostly elusive and bittersweet.

“I was awkward and unlucky in love, constantly feeling bruised and battered, idiotic and embarrassed,” says Roderick. “So I wrote ‘Shapes’ and ‘Stupid’ and ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘It’ll Be A Breeze’ out of frustration, sitting on a mattress on the floor of a third-floor walkup in Spanish Harlem, in 102-degree heat. I’d never been happier, because I had songs. I was miserable and had never been happier.”

Roderick returned to Seattle shortly before September 11 and put together a band—bassist Eric Corson and drummer Michael Shilling—to play live dates and eventually record When I Pretend To Fall. The sessions began in late 2002 at Walla’s Hall Of Justice studio, a triangle-shaped building where Jack Endino had recorded grunge landmarks such as Nirvana’s Bleach and Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff. But even before the first notes were put to tape, the Roderick/Walla/Nelson triumvirate that had been responsible for the Long Winters’ debut began to fray. Nelson, not far removed from Harvey Danger’s chart-topping success, found his creative function in the Long Winters to be severely limited.

“I cherished him, but we occupied a similar space: loud-voiced, sardonic, unconventionally handsome frontmen, and there was a lot of competition between us,” says Roderick. “He was in my band and I didn’t need collaborators—so I thought—so I guarded my space jealously. Every night he would step forward into the light a little and I would hit him with my riding crop, even though we were playing Gabe’s Oasis or some pot-pie restaurant in San Luis Obispo. He quit the band several times and rejoined during the recording sessions mostly because he couldn’t stand the idea of my songs being recorded without his input. He had a much broader scope of musical taste than I did and offered production ideas, harmony vocal arrangements and constructive criticism, but he was always frustrated that he couldn’t play a larger role.” (Nelson declined to comment for this story.)

Roderick, it turned out, had found his songwriting stride and wasn’t about to cede an ounce of control. For all of the album’s talented contributors, Pretend To Fall is narrated by a central character (i.e., Roderick) with a shaggy-dog, sarcastic worldview, bouncing from one emotional dustup to another in a blur of clever one-liners and piled-on keyboards, guitars, horn sections, strings and gang-tackled backing vocals. “Stupid” details the moment when you summon enough future regret to ask someone out; “New Girl” is a scathing character portrait with an increasingly snide chorus that becomes a leering taunt: “Be kind to the new girl.”

The album’s apex is “Scared Straight,” which seems to roll downhill and gain momentum as horns swell and Roderick’s lyrics tumble out with sharp edges around them: “It’s true little miss mean mini-bar guard/We’re gonna have to try something new/Let me breathe fire down on you.” The song is one of drummer Shilling’s fondest memories of the recording session.

“Initially, John had it slower—it was more of a hymnal-ish kind of song, at least to my memory—but we turned it into more of the Style Council/late-Jam arrangement that really brought out the power of the melody and the narrative momentum of the lyrics,” says Shilling. “It was a nice collaboration.”

“All the stories are told impressionistically,” says Roderick. “There’s a narrator, but it’s hard to discern his plot, like watching through a picket fence from a slow-moving car. I’m feeding sense impressions, trying to get you to feel the story. I want to love people and I don’t get how, and people want to love me and I don’t get why.”

As the recording proceeded in financially motivated fits and starts—Walla had cut the Long Winters a deal, and they worked in between his other studio projects—Roderick became less loveable. Though the band generally got along while on the road (“Long Winters tours were just endless hours of eating corn dogs and throwing Dorothy Parker quips at each other,” says Roderick), the frontman cops to being dictatorial at times.

“In the studio it was probably worse,” he says. “I really tried to control everything because, my god, this was my legacy, and if one damn tambourine part got played without my supervision we might as well just shit on my birth certificate. They all contributed amazing things to the recordings, but I can’t imagine it was easy for anyone. At least I didn’t wear sunglasses the whole time.”

According to bassist Corson, the process was made more painstaking—but also more intense—by the fact that the album was being recorded to analog tape.

“Tape forces your hand in a good way,” says Corson. “There’s no ‘undo’ key command; if you replace a take, it’s permanent. You don’t have playlists with other performances on them that you can revisit a month later. If you want to make an edit, you grab a razor blade and cut the tape.”

Walla estimates the album was approximately three-quarters finished when things began to bog down in an impenetrable mess of disorganization, unfinished tracks, missing vocal takes and endless tinkering.

“[I had] no plan at all,” says Roderick. “I was just shooting bullets at the moon. Chris was cool with it when I was producing good stuff, but at a certain point he felt like we were wasting time. I remember him pushing the talkback mic and saying, ‘I’m not sure it’s useful for me to sit here with my finger on record while you teach yourself how to play the pedal steel.’ That’s a hilarious line now, but at the time I was really offended.”

After a particularly heated argument between producer and artist, Walla felt the need to step outside and clear his head for an hour or so.

“I went to get food, came back, and the studio was empty and all the tapes were gone,” says Walla.

“I said, ‘Fuck this working-effectively bullshit’ and packed up all my guitars and amps and just drove away,” says Roderick. “To this day, my Wurlitzer only has three legs because I’m pretty sure I dropped one in the grass. I didn’t even leave a guitar pick behind, but I don’t remember taking the tapes.”

Enter Posies singer/guitarist Ken Stringfellow. In Seattle, the Posies are a godfatherly presence, the band that broke out not due to the hype of grunge but rather the highness of their vocal harmonies. Stringfellow had recently released a well-received and stunning, ornate solo album (2001’s Touched) and had won acclaim for his production of Damien Jurado’s complex and moody Rehearsals For Departure. When Stringfellow agreed to take over production duties for the Long Winters, it provided an apposite stylistic counterpoint. Stringfellow’s take on the bare-bones, Walla-recorded “It’ll Be A Breeze” illustrates the two producers’ divergent approaches to making records.

“The song is sung from the perspective of someone in a coma who can sense their lover from inside the sealed darkness but can’t communicate,” says Stringfellow. “Heavy, tear-inducing. And for whatever reason, Chris had decided to record that song with the harshest, scratchiest guitar sound imaginable. It’s almost unlistenable if you solo up the guitar. I recommended we start over on that one and re-record it, but we ran out of time.”

Stringfellow was so disdainful of the sound, he later recorded his own version of the song and released it on a covers EP.

“It sounds pretty terrible, I agree,” says Walla, explaining that “It’ll Be A Breeze” was a demo recording. Walla was trying to coax Roderick into an intimate performance and convinced him to record with just voice and guitar; it’s a producer’s trick Walla would later use with Ben Gibbard on Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

“John likes to have things completely figured out,” says Walla. “One of the things that’s special about that performance is that he’s not in his head about it.”

With all the various egos and claims to the producer’s chair—Roderick also has a production credit, as well as engineer Kip Beelman, an unsung hero who shepherded the mixing—the list of grievances grows long. Walla hijacked a bass line here. Some of Nelson’s backing vocals got elbowed out there. Stringfellow mixed the record and jetted to Spain the next day.

“Everyone wanted to get their fingerprints on that record,” says Corson. “I remember toward the end, there was a lot of jockeying for position.”

On top of the regular cast of players, Stringfellow brought in a few guests: Peter Buck played mandolin (Stringfellow was a touring member of R.E.M. at the time), and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 (also playing with R.E.M.) added harmonica. One of Roderick’s friends, a music teacher, was brought in to arrange and conduct the string sections. But it’s the contrast between the two producers that leaves a lasting impression on how the album sounds. “There’s definitely a kind of classic feel, a certain warmth, from elements like the strings and Hammond organ that I supervised,” says Stringfellow. “Chris’ tracks have a more modern, indie, unsentimental feel. Too much of my style and the album would have been potentially mawkish; too much of Chris’ approach and the album would have been cold and remote.”

In the end, Roderick reveals, it was all about a girl. The songs on When I Pretend To Fall were inspired by a romance and the subsequent heartbreak he felt in New York City after it was over. Roderick reunited with the woman after two years apart, and he played her the album on a long drive across the Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula, explaining that she was the inspiration for much of the record. It was supposed to be a soul-baring moment; a way to reveal things that most humans can never express with words alone.

“She reacted to the album the way you would react to a five-year-old’s drawing of a horse,” says Roderick. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s nice. It’s really good,’ and then we changed the subject to how the salmon can’t make it past the old hydroelectric dams. We never talked about it again. So it turned out I had to wonder a bit longer whether happiness was possible.”

“I think at the time I hated it,” says Walla, who eventually reconciled with Roderick. “I don’t hate it anymore. It’s a great record. The record is really a reflection of where John was at. We were trying to collaborate and make something big and beautiful. It’s a really honest record. It’s one of the best records I’ve worked on.”

Following its 2003 release on indie label Barsuk (home to Death Cab and Nada Surf), the Long Winters doggedly promoted the album: four European tours, multiple U.S. treks and lots of press and college-radio promotion. But it just didn’t take; and the world instead embraced the Decemberists and the Shins. Finding success in indie rock is akin to the classic tale of trying to become popular in high school: a seemingly small pond, yet endlessly difficult to conquer and nearly impossible to achieve satisfactory success.

“We were in the game, we made a thing I was proud of, but at the end of the day we were in the top of the middle of a thing I could never fully grasp,” says Roderick. “The Drive-By Truckers are in the book, Conor Oberst is in the book, Grandaddy is in the book, but the Long Winters? I’ll overthink that until the day I die.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Super Furry Animals’ “Rings Around The World”


The making of Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World

By K. Ross Hoffman

It was our big adventure,” Gruff Rhys declares, a little wistfully, reflecting on his band’s remarkably singular fifth album. That’s saying something, considering that Super Furry Animals have never, by any stretch of the imagination, been an unadventurous bunch. As producer Chris Shaw puts it: “We’re talking about a band that convinced their record label to buy them a tank to bring to festivals.” (The tank was blue and blasted techno music; they later sold it to Don Henley, and it remains the handiest shorthand evocation of the band’s penchant for goofy, imaginative excess.) “It’s just one of those things. I’m surprised that the labels allowed them to be so nutso with their ideas. But that’s what makes the Furries the Furries—that’s just the way they are.”

Even so, Rings Around The World was a colossal undertaking. It was their first album for a major label (Sony/Epic), following three for Creation—the venerable British indie that was, at the time, shepherding Oasis to global domination—and one, the relatively stripped-down, entirely Welsh-language Mwng, that they self-released on their Placid Casual imprint. The ample resources of their new label—and, crucially, the enthusiastic support of Sony UK CEO Rob Stringer, by all accounts a massive fan—afforded them by far the most elaborate and indulgent record-making process of their career, with sessions taking place in multiple top-of-the-line studios from April 2000 to January 2001. Rings was released simultaneously as a standard stereophonic CD and as a DVD with a 5.1 surround-sound mix (something entirely unheard of at the time, particularly for a new, original studio album) and videos for each of its 20 songs (beating Beyoncé to the punch by more than a decade), plus 16 remixes and copious extras.

It also happens to contain a lot of phenomenal music. Its kaleidoscopic bounty of sonic and melodic riches encompasses punchy, Beatlesque power pop, cornball electro-soul pastiche, otherworldly trip hop and sputtering IDM excursions and a bevy of gorgeous ballads outfitted with towering strings and Beach Boys-indebted harmonies. (“That’s definitely a Welsh thing,” says longtime A&R rep and fellow Welshman Mark Bowen. “We all grow up singing in choirs; we’re really good at close harmonies.”) Somehow, despite this madcap stylistic diversity, almost nothing feels forced, gimmicky or overreaching. It’s certainly epic, and arguably overstuffed, but it’s never excessive in an arbitrary, purely self-indulgent way. Everything follows its own particular fuzzy—or perhaps furry—logic.

Rhys, the band’s ever-affable frontman and principal songwriter, says, “I was into the complete maximalism of it: ‘More is more’ was the rallying cry. I was thinking of ridiculous statement albums like Prince’s Sign O’ The Times or Welcome To The Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes To Hollywood: glossy, overambitious records; completely excessive double albums. I think I had pretensions that the lyrics would capture the state of the planet in some way, although I got kinda sidetracked.”

“I think we’re guilty of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks,” says keyboardist Cian Ciarán. “And then we find we can’t bring ourselves to leave anything off.”

“It was very indulgent, but I think we managed to not go down too much of a concept album wormhole,” says guitarist Huw “Bunf” Bunford. “There were still tunes there—‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’ is just a pop tune, whether it’s in 5.1 or whatever.”

Rings came out in July 2001 as a single disc in the U.K., although the DVD version contained seven songs that were left off the album proper. The American release on XL, which followed eight months later, included these tracks on a fantastic, not-to-be-overlooked bonus disc, partially restoring Rhys’ vision by making it an odd, lopsided double set.

The album stands as an idiosyncratic artifact of, and monument to, its time, in both unwitting and deliberate ways. The very nature of its excess, and especially the specific, bygone technological horizons it ventured to explore, make it something of a relic. And Rhys’ lyrics—which touch on environmental devastation, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, religious doomsday cults, Japanese cyberpunk films, political spin doctors, the global telecommunications networks of the title and what he labels “the extreme sport-ification of culture”—constitute an insightful, if desultory, reflection of the globalized, satellite-televised, distraction-prone millennial moment—the burgeoning dawn of the information era—offering neither condemnation nor dismay but rather a bemused, value-neutral curiosity.

“It’s about how technology gives you problems,” is Rhys’ attempt at encapsulating the album’s themes—although, he admits, it’s not his own formulation: “I never understood a lot of our records, but we were lucky enough to tour Japan on every album, and Japanese journalists would explain the records to us, really eloquently. So: Technology brings many problems but also a lot of good things, so it’s about seeing the good and the bad in everything, and using the good stuff to make the record itself.”

While Rings was in many ways the furthest expression of the band’s eclecticism and experimentalism, those qualities stretch way back to the band’s origins in the early ’90s.

“In the early incarnation, there was kind of two bands,” says Rhys. “It was at the peak of rave culture in the U.K., so our social life was based mostly around electronic music. We had a sequencer, a drum machine, a few synths; there was a loose collective that would take this equipment to parties. We did a few tours as Super Furry Animals playing improvised electronic music. But simultaneously, we were always in bands playing conventional instruments—I’ve been writing songs for most of my life. It was really weird. We were in our mid-20s, we’d been playing music for a decade, we put this one EP out—1995’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space)—and did a couple of shows playing this more song-y material, and suddenly we were getting record contracts thrown at us. We thought it was like a joke, after being kinda ignored, but not particularly bothered about it, for a decade. We never took it fully seriously. Our attitude toward record companies was always, ‘Wow, let’s take advantage of this ludicrous situation, ’cause it’s not gonna last.’”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of X’s “Wild Gift”


The Making Of X’s Wild Gift

By A.D. Amorosi

“I play too hard when I ought to go to sleep/Well, they pick on me ’cause I really
got the beat/Some people give me the creeps/Every other week, I need a new address/Landlord, landlord, landlord cleaning up the mess/Our whole fucking life is a wreck/We’re desperate, get used to it … It’s kiss or kill” —“We’re Desperate”

In april 1980, X was on top of the world. After having started in 1977 amid a sympathetic sea of like-minded Los Angeles acts with bassist/singer/poet John Doe, his (then) girlfriend, fellow wordsmith Exene Cervenka, and smiling rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom (drummer DJ Bonebrake joined after leaving local punks Eyes), the quartet broke out of punk’s pack and quickly rose to the top.

“It was bands like the Avengers and the Weirdos,” says Doe of his immediate contemporaries. “That’s where we came from.”

“For our band to survive long enough for me to afford my own apartment—that’s what I was thinking right then in 1980,” says the typically dry Zoom from his L.A. home office, where he’s preparing for this month’s X tour of America while going through chemotherapy for bladder and prostate cancer. (“So far, so good,” he says of his present health.)

Following the release of 1978’s Dangerhouse label single, “Adult Books”/“We’re Desperate,” the publicly and critically lauded X hooked up with magazine-turned-record label Slash and legendary keyboardist-turned-producer Ray Manzarek to record its menacing, diverse, off-beat album debut, Los Angeles, in 1980. “It was a great time for music and shows,” says Cervenka. “The whole thing. We were in the middle of all that.”

Rather than espouse the usual gospel of hard, fast, loose L.A. punk, Los Angeles was dramatic and full of dark, magnificent, differing tempos, noisy ragers and creaky slow songs, all featuring off-kilter harmony vocals from Doe and Cervenka and that same pair’s craftily Beat/pulp poetic images with cunning, calm characters to guide the debut. All that, and Cervenka married Doe, on April 6, 1980, after having been tied at the hip as titans of that city’s poetry-reading scene.

“At that point, the possibilities were endless,” says Doe. “We were part of an exciting, eclectic scene that was just bearing fruit. It was becoming more challenging, that scene, due to the then-sudden inclusion of hardcore, but we were coming off a great high—several of them.”

What followed, however, within weeks and months of the release of Los Angeles—several deaths in the X family (literal and figurative) and the premiere of director Penelope Spheeris’ wrong-headed The Decline Of Western Civilization documentary—would subvert, but not deter, the good/bad feeling going into the band’s blunter, weirder, more-driving sophomore album, 1981’s Wild Gift.

“This was filled with the oddities that weren’t on the first one,” says Bonebrake, who was just on tour with Doe for the latter’s new solo album, The Westerner.

Wild Gift was definitely the more up-tempo album,” says Doe.

Tipped with several songs written at the same time as those that packed Los Angeles, Wild Gift, like X’s debut, was full-bloodedly produced by Manzarek, the one-time Doors keyboardist left in the lurch by Jim Morrison’s sudden death in 1971. During this, his third decade in music, Manzarek experienced a grand second act as a laissez-faire philosopher type behind the boards for four X albums (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, 1982’s Under The Big Black Sun and 1983’s More Fun In The New World).

“I had a great time with X, the greatest punk band America has ever produced,” Manzarek, who died in 2013, once said. “The power of Billy Zoom on that guitar. Don Bonebrake cracking that deep, fat marching-band snare drum. John and Exene with their Chinese harmonies were just fantastic. Real American, Los Angeles poetry. I immediately thought of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, that ’30s gangster stuff. Jim is part of that tradition, too.”

One step beyond the spooky, stark Los Angeles and less murkily mournful than follow-up Under The Big Black Sky, Wild Gift was more punk rock than either effort, with shorter, sharper songs, a Bukowski-like sense of humor (without all the fucking and booze) and Zoom’s rockabilly howling guitar set to stun. There were other twists. Wild Gift was slightly kitschy (for an X album) affair with twinges of surf-rock cool, which sounded a bit quaint when executed by rip-snorting Zoom and Co. It was almost pop (newly written songs such as “White Girl” and “Beyond And Back” had hooks galore), and, for the first time, its music was nicotine-scented with the ground-up, dusty twang of roots rock and country.

“That is very much who we eventually became, and it started there,” says Doe. “In 1980 into ‘81, there were new bands toying with the roots thing—we were on the leading edge of that. Gun Club, Blasters. It was the beginning of that era. Plus, we had long championed the pioneers of rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. We wore those influences on our sleeves—especially with Wild Gift.”

Bonebrake goes on to say that the blunt-yet-eclectic vibe behind Wild Gift was exactly why he joined X in the first place: “Doe and Cervenka had great oddball songs.” Though he loved being in Eyes with Charlotte Caffey (eventually with the Go-Go’s), “X could do anything: a rhumba, these great complex rhythms that I was able to bring to the mix. These guys were open to anything that sounded good.”

Good and frenzied, and even fun where Wild Gift was concerned. Like the racing theme to the remake of Jean-Luc Godard lean pulp drama Breathless the band would later execute, X’s sense of romance—the love between its central songwriters and off-beat harmonists—was in full, palpitating, fast-and-furious display on Wild Gift, a sound never to be heard again in the X catalog.

“I think Wild Gift had some of our best material,” says Zoom, before focusing on the mess that was the recording process. “It’s too bad we couldn’t do that material justice.”

So April 1980, and the release of Los Angeles

“We were on this high, and then, two people who were really close to us died suddenly,” says Doe. He’s remarking on Cervenka’s older sister from New York City, Mirielle, a jewelry designer who came to L.A. for an X record-release party at the Whisky A Go Go only to be sideswiped by a drunk driver who ran a red light; she was killed instantly. The other “scene” family member who died was Darby Crash, the messed-up Germs co-founder who committed suicide with an intentional heroin overdose on Dec. 8, 1980. “John Lennon died that day, too,” says Cervenka quietly and matter-of-factly. “It was a very weird moment. My sister died on the way to our release party, so perhaps if we had never made that album, my sister would still be alive—so many mixed emotions.”

Bonebrake details the poignant Whisky A Go Go live party as one that should never have occurred. “We had that whole show-must-go-on mentality, but we were young—we didn’t know better,” says the drummer. “It was so tragic. Exene and John found out right before we went on. We didn’t tell anyone in the crowd. We were frustrated and freaked out. John was breaking windows. You can’t imagine.”

Cervenka talks about the yin and yang of having the greatest moment of their collective lives to that point being intertwined with the worst moments of their collective lives to that point with a sort of lofty existentialism: “With Darby dead, too, it was the end of punk, or it was as if the end had started then.”

Coming into the follow-up to Los Angeles meant a higher profile and a slightly bigger budget. There was no sense of trajectory or programming or order on the part of the band. “We had no idea, so I give Ray a lot of credit for choosing the songs and what went where,” says Doe. “We knew that ‘Johnny Hit And Run Pauline,’ ‘Soul Kitchen’ and ‘Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not’ would be on the first album because they were crowd favorites. Other than that, it was all Ray.” In Doe’s mind, Manzarek was the trusted friend and new band mentor who understood what went where and how to progress X’s sound incrementally. “He made Wild Gift harder, faster and a little more punk rock,” says Doe. “Our conversations with Ray were never over-intellectualized. He was more about doing it than contemplating it. No master plan.” Whether it was writing lyrics or playing, everything about X was more instinctual than intellectual when it came to Wild Gift.

If Los Angeles was the dramatic 365 degrees of X (“a primer, slow songs, fast songs so you couldn’t pigeonhole us,” says Cervenka), the second album showed off “our sense of humor,” she says. More personalized songs such as “The Once Over Twice” detailed a want for something greater, but settling “for some more scotch instead.” She continues that, as a writer, she lived for whatever was inside her head, then worked to get it all out quickly.

“The really cool lines in particular,” she says. “Just get ’em out and get ‘em down—we were writing a lot of stuff down quick as we could on Wild Gift and just kept hoping the smart, funny stuff came out faster.”

The only problem between the bitter Los Angeles and Wild Gift was how they managed to get an album that sounded as good as it does, still. “Really, I still prefer Los Angeles to the way Wild Gift sounds, but the latter has its merit,” says Doe.
Bonebrake even seems to gloss over some of the headaches—the buzzing of old studio mixers and mics—and focuses more on Manzarek’s handling of the band: “He might ask for an intro twice or another occasional take, but all-in-all, he did everything that he could to make us comfortable live—he was the best objective ears. Even when we told him before doing More Fun In The New World that we were frustrated not getting on the radio, he just did some things to boost up our sound so that it was still us.” Consider, too, that Manzarek—who got handed $10,000 by Slash to record Los Angeles and $15,000 to record Wild Gift—pretty much produced both albums for free and gave the money to the studios: Golden Sound in Hollywood for the former, Clover Recorders in Los Angeles for the latter.

“Billy Zoom’s friend had this studio for the first album, and he gave us a really good rate; we probably got like $50,000 worth of studio time,” says Bonebrake. “Not on Wild Gift.

Zoom recalls that Manzarek was a real cheerleader, but that there wasn’t enough money on Los Angeles to actually do any kind of production. “We just tried to get the songs to go to tape and playback,” he says. “Rick Perrotta had as much to do with the sound of the first album as anyone.”

When it came to Wild Gift, Zoom notes Slash was completely out of money, “and we didn’t have Rick making the sound happen. We probably should have pulled the plug on that one until we figured out how to finance it. It’s a very uneven, thin-sounding recording. We knew better; there just weren’t any options available. No other studio would let a punk band record.” Not only does Zoom go on to say that Clover was a disappointment with tons of technical problems, but “the only way we got them to let us record was to let their janitor, who was the owner’s brother-in-law, engineer. It was his first record. They had an old API desk, but it was pretty beat, and everything hummed and buzzed.”

Doe talks about pursuing and pushing X’s signature—the off-kilter, co-joined harmonies of the lead singers—with Wild Gift, and that every player had to have a part in every song. “What was she going to do otherwise—dance?” asks Doe, considering an outtake track such as “Heater” that signaled his first solo song (it appears on a subsequent Rhino reissue where both Los Angeles and Wild Gift—each barely 30 minutes in length—appear on one album.
“The song had a nice chorus and some fun lyrics, a fantasy about guns and playing around with S&M imagery that was popular at the time,” he says. “That didn’t fit us in any way.”

For all the band’s complaints, Wild Gift wound up topping nearly every important critic’s list in America, both West and East Coast. Their shows were sell-outs wherever they went, and their name was being made swiftly. There was but one more hurdle to get around mere weeks after Wild Gift’s May 1981 release: July’s release of The Decline Of Western Civilization, a documentary filmed within Los Angeles’ punk and hardcore scene throughout 1979 and 1980 with director Penelope Spheeris at its helm. Along with featuring the antics of Darby Crash and his pal Pat Smear in the Germs, bands such as Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Fear made appearances in various stages of comic-book menace. So did an unsmiling (save for Zoom, who never loses a smile) X, which also riffed through in-the-red recorded tracks like “Beyond And Back,” “Nausea,” “Unheard Music” and “We’re Desperate.”

“That was coming out as Wild Gift was making its way, and that film just sensationalized, trivialized and emphasized all the bad things that happened and could happen with any scene,” says Doe with a sadness even 35 years after that dreary, goofy documentary’s release. “She really focuses on the darkness and nihilism of the scene at that point, which was not the overwhelming feeling and attitude of Los Angeles at that time.”

Cervenka perks up and says that Spheeris’ crew were circus people, and that the woman who went on to direct Wayne’s World and the remake of The Beverly Hillbillies probably just saw L.A.’s punks as the same kind of weirdos she’d been used to her whole life. “We were probably dark carny people to her, but to us, we were just young kids who wanted to play loud and change the world at the same time,” she says.

Bonebrake, ever the gentleman, mentions how at a time when they were meant to concentrate on the woolliness of Wild Gift, The Decline Of Western Civilization was this juvenile dope/prank shitshow that made X and the scene look like what they weren’t: mindless and nihilistic. “It was a pretty narrow view where we became caricatures,” says the drummer, humorously, but building up steam. “She was filming us after a gig that ended at 2 a.m. and wanted to come to our house while we got tattoos? I went home. I didn’t want another tattoo. Plus, she added that slam-dance footage to our scenes, the sort where the audience spit at the musicians. You know how many fights we got into if someone spit at Exene? Billy Zoom wouldn’t play a show if people came up and touched his instruments, let alone mosh near him. What a weird time.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Swans’ “Soundtracks For The Blind”


The making of SwansSoundtracks For The Blind

By A.D. Amorosi

Photo by Tamara Rafkin

Born from the jolting, speedy clutter that was New York City’s no-wave movement of the early, dirty ’80s, Michael Gira’s Swans were cuttingly abrasive in their sonic locution and lyrical force. Swans were no mess, though. Their roar was succinct and surging, their pace often blinding, and Gira’s attack, though brooding, was riveting and blunt—he was a sharp-shooting sniper, not a bullet-spraying machine gunner. To this rapier-fast, roaring exactitude, he added scorched-earth texts that were as much about the pointed notion of rage as the music itself pointedly raged (depravity, violence and power also fit nicely into Gira’s lyrical mien).

“My interest in Swans—what attracted me, I would still argue in their currency—is intensity,” says Bill Rieflin, one of a dozen past-and-present Swans. “I was an intense young man in those days myself.”

Fast and raging is a rough pace to maintain, though—even for a young man, a young woman (haunting, self-titled “buzz-cut athletic, non-drinking vegetarian” co-lead singer Jarboe) and an ever-shifting crew of young, schooled, inventive primal musicians—over the course of five-plus years; and by 1987, a bicameral sound process set in, a sonic architecture was erected. “One of the things I always loved playing in Swans is that it never stays the same,” says longtime guitarist Norman Westberg. “It is evolving, as well as adapting to its changing players. Michael never stands still.”

1987 double album Children Of God found Swans embracing sparkling tonic tones, subtle softness and nuanced elegance; a shimmering orchestral or ambient quietude that came to co-define Swans’ hard, bumpy ride from small labels (PVC, Caroline) to its unfortunate moment with the majors (MCA?!?) and back again to utter independence (Gira’s own Young Gods).

“I was utterly exhausted, man,” says Gira, considering the holy, scabrous, psychic trip of nine cold Swans albums between 1982 and 1995, to say nothing of his World Of Skin project with Jarboe, work on her solo albums (three between 1993 and 1996), his own solo effort (1995’s Dreamland) and recordings for Pigface and Lydia Lunch.

“Going through the process of my own label (starting with 1991’s White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity) allowed me freedom to do anything I want,” says Gira, adding, of course, “not that other labels had editorial control—except for that horrible circumstance with MCA. Once I had my own label, the freedom was absolute, but I also had the absolute financial responsibility in regards to the conscience of my decisions, the consequences. Those aspects had an influence over everything I did going forward. Then again, I probably just threw it all out the window, adapted and did what I wanted.”

Absolute freedom and utter exhaustion: What better moment in which to introduce the breathtaking Soundtracks For The Blind, Swans’ two-LP masterpiece from 1996 and the last album to feature Swans’ name until Gira’s soft sculptural de-constructivist rejuvenation of said band name in 2010. Wider and craggier than the Grand Canyon, as epic in scope and testament as the St. James Bible, as weirdly and quirkily diverse as the Beatles’ White Album—that’s the description I gave to producer/multi-instrumentalist Rieflin, who said, “Yeah, that about wraps Soundtracks up nicely,” he says with a soft laugh. “Plus, it seems to go on for-fucking-ever. It’s as if it never ends.”

With Gira removed from his cherished Lower East Side roots and relocated in Atlanta, Soundtracks For The Blind’s credits read “combined, collaged, manipulated and EQ’ed at Griffin Mastering, Atlanta GA.” That’s because Soundtracks was hardly straight-ahead, cobble-10-guys-into-a-studio-and-roar type material. It was knitted together quickly like a ghoulish, gorgeous AIDS quilt for a patient quickly dying. It was compiled like a family album filled with torn photo memories and newly emotional relationships. When you weren’t busy being balmed, then bruised by the loud, then lush “The Sound” and “The Helpless Child,” you were concentrating on the taped spoken interludes of “I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull” and how they related to Swans’ rush of sound.

“A motivation to incorporate multiple sound sources is a method that came naturally to us both as we had a long history with this technique,” says Jarboe, recalling both Swans’ Love Of Life and Gira’s Drainland. “As for Soundtracks, other than the finished songs recorded in studio, my own role within the process of its ‘architecture’ was providing source material.”

Gira’s original album notes claim Soundtracks’ song sources as “hand-held cassette recordings to found sounds, to samples, to loops, to finished multitrack recordings.” Produced with his usual un-grouping of differing musicians, with heavy input from Jarboe, this two-LP project—one disc named “Copper” and the other “Silver”—moves through its elements as would any alchemist looking to spin his own self-made gold. Brazen industrial skronk, tempered acoustic-guitar folk, humming winded ambience, Branca-esque scrawls, moist drones and the textural influence of the field recording—Alan Lomax’s treasured gift to rural musicality—all make Soundtracks For The Blind buoyantly cinematic, boldly alien and deeply Swans-y.

“I can’t rate it, no,” says Gira, wearily, of Soundtracks, which makes sense.

”It’s 20 years ago, and who can remember every element of an album put together such as that,” says Rieflin. “I listened to it yesterday in anticipation of this interview, and I’m still not always certain where I am on that album.”

Plus, Gira’s far busier contemplating the end of this most recent version of Swans after its upcoming 18-month tour for its new album, The Glowing Man. “I can see and say where Soundtracks took root, though,” he says.

How Swans came to, arguably, their best, most manic work, is that between the aforementioned hard-meets-soft of Children Of God and 1992’s Love Of Life, Gira began thinking of music more in terms of its malleable sound-craft than strictly its driving, definable melody and rhythm—an Eno-esque “soundtrack” to movies existing solely in the mind of its maker.

After 1995’s stripped-to-the-bone, skull-boring The Great Annihilator (“Annihilator to me has the raw energy present on Children Of God with some truly evocative melodies in the arrangements,” says Jarboe) and during its exhaustive tour, Gira stopped using opening bands “because they were nothing but trouble,” he says. “There were bits of sounds that I had been working on alongside Annihilator’s tracks—plus I had a trove of floppy discs, cassette tapes, all with these bits and interludes that began popping up on Swans albums.”

Gira began putting thought and weight into these sometimes blissful, sometimes creepy interludes, to the point where they seemingly blossomed in importance to the “songs” themselves. “For that tour, I handed a bunch of these bits to our live sound engineer, who added dub elements to the proceedings,” he says. “Before we would play, that’s what led us into the gig, welcomed us on. I used that method on Soundtracks to organize it.” Combined with a longtime love of all things Eno and Berlin-period Bowie, sound, rather than lyric, melody or pulse, led the charge for Gira’s compositional/production endgame. “Gradually that idea reached equal measure with formal song when it came to Annihilator, then Soundtracks,” he says. “Everything from Children Of God on became backdrop to films that didn’t exist. It’s just that Soundtracks would become the most … soundtracks-y.”

That Gira thinks of his music—solo, Swans—as one long process, never finished or complete, having one element recorded for one album that could easily find itself used or reused with some morphing on another, is no shock. “Every part of the music can transform, shift,” says Gira.

Rieflin was floating in and out of the devil’s pocket of industrial morass that was Ministry, Pigface and Revolting Cocks when he first got to Gira. “I had heard Swans, and knew of Gira, but hadn’t lived with their records until I was on tour, like 1991, and a writer from Alternative Press had an advance promotional cassette of White Mouth,” says Rieflin, bringing back the entirety of the ’90s with two phrases and a pristine rush. “So good. I knew then I wanted to work with Michael.” Along with being pleasantly surprised that Gira was not a sad-sack/lone-gunman type, Rieflin confirms that Gira was not only a great producer but that he knew how to get a high yield—more bang for his buck—with the drummer/multi-instrumentalist recording for eight-hour sessions at a shot with its outcome not always geared to one particular song.

“We would do a lot of work in a very short period of time,” says Rieflin. “He’s very high information, and we’d get a lot out of each other.” Where some of their bits went was up to Gira, who by 1995 into 1996 was feeling the strains of the business of being Swans.

“How did we change by 1995, 1996?” asks the ethereal Jarboe, who by that time had developed into a ghost chanteuse whose dynamics (and fan base) were as mighty and laudable as Gira’s. “I’d say that Michael best expressed it in the lyrics to ‘Feel Happiness,’ where he talks about forgiving indifference. In many ways, the story of Swans involves persistence in the face of adversity. As for the impact on me personally, all changes by that point only enhanced in me a sense of discipline and an attitude of determination.” What she calls “touring by trial” for years, where everyone smoked and drank (“except me”), surely took its toll on all concerned, Gira—the founder and financier—in particular.

“I felt defeated, as I had put every little last piece of energy into it—it had gone on at that point for 16 years—and it hadn’t really seen all that much success,” says Gira of the post-Annihilator-tour Swans. “There was always this conflict to find the money to record, to tour, to survive, to put out albums that were way beyond my capacity financially, probably technically as well.” Going forward, he wanted to do something simpler—at least on the face of it— and challenge himself to write music that was centered around a narrative, “some basic songs rather than these huge improbable soundtrack compositions.”

So Soundtracks For The Blind would be newly recorded and stitched together—a gorgeous Frankenstein—as Swans’ swan song. They would, however, go out with a bang.

There are roaring band songs and humming tracks such as “Red Velvet Wound” and the wry, homemade “Volcano.” The spooky chanteuse has a funny story to tell about “Hypogirl,” which she claims was performed under particularly unusual circumstances. “The song begins with the sound of me having to get into character instantly as I had a commitment that night taking care of someone who needed me,” says Jarboe. “So I drove to the studio as quickly as I could, did the song and drove back. The sound you hear first is me reacting after I shot back old whiskey belonging to my father. I had grabbed it going out the door when Michael called me to the studio to sing. It was literally speed to the studio, shoot back strong whiskey, perform that vocal, drive back home as fast as I can.”

It is, however, Soundtracks’ lost-and-found elements, its haunting interludes and pre-taped, ancient texts, that drive what Gira calls its sonic encyclopedic feel. “The overarching impetus behind Soundtracks was built as a whole world apart from, but based upon, whatever means I had at our disposal without any prejudice in regard to the material,” says Gira. “It could be new loops, old tapes, all just make this immersive universe exist.”

Rieflin laughs when he discusses his role, then and now, based upon Gira’s directive. “I do what is needed,” he says, his job within Swans closer to that of a producer and singular in that regard as he isn’t pared to one sound or instrument but rather whatever sounds he deems necessary. “If a song needed violin, I did that. If it’s piano, more than likely it’s all me.” When I mention how lovely those quickly flitting pianos lines often are throughout Soundtracks, he laughs and says, “Nothing wrong with pretty.” In surveying his overall Swans gig, Rieflin likes to joke, “I’m like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction, the Wolf. I do all the dirty jobs, clean up the mess, do exactly what is necessary at that exact time.”

Some of the elements used to build the bigger whole of Soundtracks were small, simple, but crucial atmospheres provided by Jarboe on songs such as “Surrogate 2,” chunks she created: “My own cassettes of sounds with a 16-second, electro-harmonic digital delay” for use during Swans shows as early as 1984, barely a year into her first tour of duty. Then there were the more intimate found sounds, such as personal recordings from Jarboe and Gira’s families—fathers, in particular—that cut, and infect, like a rusty knife.

“Michael and I were both going through the decline of a parent,” says Jarboe. “This was a significant aspect of our lives, and, indeed, aging parents who become ill is a significant part of the lives of many others.” Gira points out that Jarboe’s pop was an FBI agent who, when he died in 1980, became the source for a wealth of surveillance tapes—not just of criminals under his gaze but of his daughter as she got ready to go out to school or to concerts. “There was one we used on Soundtracks where he taped her talking about wanting to be in a band,” says Gira. “There’s tapes where she is talking about her mom who fell ill to dementia. These tapes inspired me to create a narration in sound.”

Gira’s father, Robert, weaves his own tale throughout Soundtracks, capturing as it does the elder Gira’s latter life.

“We had a contentious relationship during my youth, as I was a pretty rebellious teenager,” he says. “We didn’t speak—he was out of my life—for about 12 years. I wanted to get to know him again without the tension of the earlier years. He was a great man, though. I wanted to capture that as he went through the process of going blind.” Hence, a soundtrack for the blind with texts from the past cross-faded, cut-up, looped and swollen with ambient drones or swelling, spider-glass-shattered guitars.

“Our personal field recordings used on Soundtracks gave both a true soundtrack feel and provide a document of our lives,” says Jarboe. “And I also believe listeners have a deep experience because of this.”

Like a film editor, Gira served a dynamic function by looking at what scene came before and what came after, piecing everything together to create a stirring narrative. “I had to balance the quiet with the brash, the delicate with the noisy and make one thing work against the other,” he says. “The quiet thing sounding more incendiary when set against the loud thing. It was just me putting contradictions together … an architecture.”

Gira hasn’t listened to Soundtracks since he recorded it, but, now—along with Swans Is Dead—sees it as a great finale statement for that era of Swans. Soundtracks in his mind also formed the basis for the aesthetic behind Swans 2.0, which commenced in 2010.

“This Swans has transformed far beyond that now,” he says. “But Soundtracks was the start point.”

Gira had a funny story relating to both Soundtracks and his dark ambient drone projects of 1998, the Body Lovers and the Body Haters. From its looming vibe to its compositional éclat (to the fact that Westberg, Rieflin and Jarboe took part in the sessions), much of its found sound and sample clips could’ve been culled for Soundtracks For The Blind.

“I continued the soundscape thing—the anything went thing— with a sound archive at my disposal, a truck full of floppy discs, cassette tapes, whatever,” he says. “After I was done, I brought all of the studio-made floppies and the old cassettes to a trash heap and walked away. I wanted to start fresh, which is what I did with the Angels Of Light. But that day, it was a purely physical thing. I put them all in my van, brought them to the county dump and threw it all away.”

Both of us laugh hard at the image of a man throwing away a large chunk of his past on an ash heap. Soundtracks For The Blind is a record that makes you want to start anew.

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