Category Archives: MAGNET CLASSICS

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Pet Shop Boys’ “Please”

PetShopBoys

The making of Pet Shop BoysPlease

By A.D. Amorosi

On the newest album from synth-pop’s drollest duo, Pet Shop Boys, dryly romantic (and icily British) vocalist Neil Tennant wryly recalls a past with longtime musical partner/orchestrator Chris Lowe without wallow or recoil. “The Pop Kids,” the centerpiece cut from the blunt-synthonic Super, finds Tennant—still writing and crooning like Noel Coward in a leather bar—wringing the line, “We were young but imagined ourselves so sophisticated/Telling everyone we knew that rock was overrated,” for all the cool, collected-ness he could muster. “That’s my snapshot recollection of coming up, really” says Tennant, talking about the time that led up to 1986’s Please, the first Pet Shop Boys album, which became an unlikely platinum-plated smash across the globe.

Sinister, sardonic and kinkily sensual, yet somehow alluring, sweet and even innocent for all its experience(s), Please is that rare, odd commodity: an elegant, commercially viable work that didn’t lose PSB its underground cool or cred upon release. Quite the opposite, really.

Just consider the first hit from Please, “West End Girls.” Recorded originally with American producer Bobby “O” Orlando—then, in album form, by Britishby-way-of-Maine mixologist Stephen Hague—the smooth, snaky and snarky track was inspired in equal parts by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Lenin’s clandestine trek to Russia detailed in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station and the rough-boy, red-light district youth-quake of London that Tennant and Lowe came to know in the mid-’70s.

That’s but one three-and-a-half minute song on Please.

From there, Tennant—a cynical ironist to the max—turned the cinema-worthy lies and licentiousness of Midnight Cowboy’s principals into a greater outrageousness with “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money),” which means you’ll never quite look at Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo again in quite the same fashion.

Influenced equally by the racially tense riots of Brixton in 1981 and the violence and boredom that was the subtext of Penelope Spheeris’ 1984 film Suburbia, PSB’s “Suburbia” lolled and gagged on its own hubris. For every slowly rolled vowel sound and sarcastic distance/dissonance from Tennant circa Please, there were Lowe’s subtle arpeggios and glad-to-be-unhappy verses—a merry widow’s melodic mix of Burt Bacharach, Giorgio Moroder and Vince Clarke for a soundtrack that was smart, tart and chart-topping. “That was very much how my life was then, observationally,” says Lowe thinking back on his existence immediately before and after meeting Tennant and getting to Please.

In actuality, it was a long time coming to Please, when you consider that neither gentleman was much about playing pop to start, let alone electronic music. Tennant claims that he’d been writing songs since age nine at his home near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, teaching himself guitar and falling in love with the likes of Joni Mitchell and the Incredible String Band, the latter of which inspired his first folk group, Dust. He also attended an all-boys Catholic school there, whose strict morality (and Tennant’s wish to act in opposition) easily influenced grand, percolating Please hit “It’s A Sin.”

“All this became a totally separate thing from my career at that point—as much as it was—in magazine writing and editing,” says Tennant, who, by 1975, moved to London to work for Marvel UK, the British branch of Marvel Comics, before becoming, by 1982, a news editor at Smash Hits (the British teen-pop magazine). “The only reason I wound up at Smash Hits, really, was because they knew that I knew about music. What they didn’t know was that I had a secret parallel career as a songwriter—my folk songs, some punk, these angst-ridden Elvis Costello-ish songs—which I actually took around and played for publishers. Those days are long gone. That was fun.”

Lowe would not have been fond of Tennant’s folk or punk songs, in all honesty. “Not a fan, no,” he says. Five years younger than Tennant and raised in Blackpool, Lancashire, the keyboardist/ sequencer’s past includes “playing trombone in a big brass band, then dance bands, and I mean Glenn Miller-type jazzy dance bands, neither of which was very punk,” says Lowe with a laugh. “I did have a rock band at school, and we were heavy, though I wouldn’t call it metal, despite our heavy-metal name: Stallion.” Playing piano as much for pleasure as for compositional largesse, Lowe fell in love with disco, electro and house music at his coastal region’s night clubs and never looked back when he moved in 1981 to London, where he worked for a local architect right around the time that he met Tennant. It’s no joke that they met in an electronic/hi-fi shop along Kings Road and got to talking about each other’s various musical interests.

“I was very much into Soft Cell then,” says Lowe, mentioning that Tennant was not only still a bit folksy (“that Incredible String Band thing”) but also more romantic—even poetic—as a lyricist.

“After I showed him my writings, Chris said, ‘Can’t you make those lyrics just a bit sexier?’” says Tennant, which Lowe concurs was the start of Pet Shop Boys—a duo whose rise came quickly once the two of them shared their ever-developing tastes. Making things sexier meant a lot of Bowie, Italian disco and a love for the bourgeoning rap scene of New York City, the Bronx and Queens, and the lo-fi electronic dance music of Bobby “O” Orlando.

Back up a second, though.

“When Chris asked me to be less poetic, I did and started writing about London, the people we knew, the places we went,” says Tennant. Writing less romantically gave his new sets of lyrics their caustic, sardonic edge and distance, the latter element aided by him in character. “That’s the remove, you see; I wasn’t just being me anymore,” he says. “I also began writing satirical songs—which I would say, ‘Opportunities’ was—you know without being outrageously humorous. I also thought of things that Chris would want to do or hear. It worked. Even now, I don’t think I write as me much.”

Lowe chuckles when he thinks of that moment in time, as “this was very weird; I don’t really or usually comment on lyrics.” Tennant considered their new London experiences—especially Lowe’s club life—part of the deal. “I don’t recall being that fascinating,” says Lowe. “We were just young and enjoying London … something that wound up being reflected in Please. I don’t know what Neil could have got from me, though—was he spying?”

One thing the two spoke about out loud was their love for Orlando. This New York City-born, Italian-American producer and composer’s life and work wound up changing the fates of Lowe and Tennant.

Their initial writing partnership quickly became simpatico because the two had similar interests—Orlando in particular. “His records were almost punk, really,” says Lowe. “Simple beats, two three chords, lo-fidelity production; definitely a punk attitude to it all.”

Lowe is correct in his description. Orlando (attempts to contact him for this piece were thwarted) as a producer/composer created the sound of lo-fi, HI-NRG, electronic American dance music, usually playing all parts of each robotic melody himself with a heady array of synthesizers, rolling bass lines, clanging cowbells, early robotic sequencers and hammering pianos. When Tennant mentions the Flirts, an alias ensemble of Orlando’s, he seriously all but squeals. When Lowe talks about “The Best Part Of Breakin’ Up” by Roni Griffith or “Native Love (Step By Step)” by Divine (yes, John Waters’ Divine), it’s with the reverence one uses for John Cage.

When an opportunity to travel to New York City arose (to interview the Police), Tennant decided, too, that not only would he interview Orlando (“He had several ‘singles of the week’ at Smash Hits,” says Tennant. “I wonder why?”), the Pet Shop Boy would bring some of the early demos that he and Lowe had worked on. “Chris and I were simply all about our own interests,” says Tennant, talking about “Planet Rock,” Orlando’s HI-NRG disco and early hip hop. “We were really so much more American than British in our tastes. In fact, I think what Chris and I were working on truly represented a new era in dance music. We replaced pop elements with dance-music elements—we were never trying to do what the new-wave bands of that time were doing. And, of course, by the time those acts eventually had their own dance elements, we were onto something else.”

In 1983, however, everything for Tennant and Lowe was Bobby Orlando, who, upon meeting Tennant in Manhattan and hearing several PSB demos (“Opportunities,” “I Get Excited”) at a restaurant called the Applejack, agreed to do their debut album and work out a one-time single deal with Epic (for “West End Girls”) as well as some sort of production publishing deal.

“I remember Neil phoned me after meeting Orlando in NYC and he said he’d produce our record for us,” starts Lowe. “Neil was excited. I was excited. If Orlando knew how much I was living and breathing his music, he probably would’ve been scared.”

Going to New York and recording at Unique Studios in Times Square only made the whole thing seem like even more of a dream. Arthur Baker was in an adjacent room to them; there was breakdancing in the street and fresh graffiti on every wall. “The city was still a slightly dangerous place, in a good way,” says Lowe. “There were amazing clubs such as Paradise Garage, and Jellybean Benitez would spin house records into morning. It was all so exciting.”

So was the 11-track session that the studio time in 1984 spawned (pretty much all of Please, plus), including a version of “West End Girls” that sold zip in the U.K. but did swimmingly in America, becoming a club hit in Long Island, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“When you realize that we did that song in a few hours—because you paid by the hour at Unique—it was pretty funny,” says Lowe. “We wanted to use sequencers, but everything wound up being played manually. Bobby O opened the door to weird sound— shambolic, really—playing an emulator with me playing a bass with everything slightly out of time.”

Tennant continues that when “our (then) new manager Tom Watkins was in L.A. on business and heard that we were ‘the scream of the week’ on L.A. radio, that was even more hilarious.”

Not so amusing was when Watkins—one of pop management’s true raconteurs and an architect and antiquarian of the highest order—got PSB a deal with Parlophone in the U.K. and EMI in America, who insisted that they get out of their deal with Orlando. Push came to shove, and Orlando got a huge chunk of money, including a slice of Pet Shop Boys’ future royalties. “Basically EMI bought us out of the deal and put a million-dollar ceiling on it, so he made out fine,” says Tennant. “That sounded like so much money then, doesn’t it? Wait. It still does.”

Ask Lowe and Tennant if they thought there were any hard feelings from Orlando, and each says they all met up years later and laughed it off . “How bad could he feel?” says Tennant. “He got a million dollars in 1985. What’s there to be mad about? Plus, we did one of his songs on Please (“Two Divided By Zero”), so he did all right by us.” Without aping the twitchy, speedy, lo-fi HI-NRG of the 11 tracks that make up most of Please, the Boys had to find a producer who had sleek, dance-disco-heat experience but with something more something richer. Enter Stephen Hague. The wunderkind producer from Maine, onetime member of and mixer for Jules & the Polar Bears, became the go-to electronic producer for Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly,” Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Crush and Erasure’s “Chains Of Love.” He did smash synth-smooth albums for New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees and anyone who sought his lush, signature tone with its occasional jagged edges (a sound he eventually brought to Blur, along with other Britpop ’90s ensembles as well as new recordings with U.K. cats such as Whitey and a new outfit called AccroGeist).

Ask Hague how he came up with his layered, sweetly somnolent, proactively sinister sound, and he’s modest about the accomplishment. “Gee, I have no idea, except that everyone is a product of their influences to some extent,” he says, calmly mentioning the Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren and German “experimental” records by the likes of Cluster, Harmonia and Neu! as prime inspirations for his sound. “When producers and artists decide to work together, it’s usually based on shared sensibilities that could be heard in their previous work. So one project follows another in that way, and before you know it, you’re associated with a ‘sound.’ It’s not by design on my part, at least not consciously.”

As a fan of British and European records as a kid, Hague got his first break playing keyboards for (then) newly solo Peter Gabriel (busting out of Genesis). “Peter was kind enough to play some of my home-recording stuff to his label, and they hired me to produce Rock Steady Crew, which became a hit in the U.K. Then the work and the hits seemed to keep coming, and suddenly I was a producer. Life is strange.”

Tennant mentioned that between “Madame Butterfly” and the Rock Steady Crew material, he liked the producer and his “hip-hop-era” sound. “I thought everything that Stephen Hague did was so cute,” says Tennant. “Besides, the label wanted us to use Stock-Aitken-Waterman (Brit schlockmeisters). Stephen Hague was our man.” (Strange, but every time Tennant mentions Hague, he uses the producer’s full name, even if he had done so just a second prior.)

One thing that Hague didn’t want to do was what Bobby Orlando did. Working on “West End Girls” first for a single that— this time—would rise quickly up the British charts, Hague says of Orlando’s production, “There were some good parts there. He’s no dope, but it also sounded to me a bit like a novelty record. One of the most important decisions we made was to slow it down. One thing led to another once we’d done that.” With “West End Girls” rising on the charts and the slowed tempo an apt vibe for Pet Shop Boys’ once-Orlando-mixed cuts, Hague’s rich orchestration made lustrous sense for everything that came next.

“First off, I’ve always been a lyric guy in my pop tastes, going way back,” he says. “Neil’s lyrics, intriguing as they were, have always pushed all the right buttons for me. He’s a bit of a master of that craft, I reckon.” As Orlando did with “Two Divided By Zero,” Hague too co-composed a song with the Boys, “Love Comes Quickly.” Hague states that, as originally written, the dreamy cut “needed a middle-eight, and I stumbled on the chord changes for it. That’s often been my role as a co-writer on records that I’ve produced: ‘song doctor’ stuff. I do enjoy that process.”

Tennant says he relishes the fact that he’s had great relationships with all PSB producers, Orlando, Trevor Horn and Hague included (“Neil and I are still in touch after 30 years, which says something,” says Hague). “You have to be able to share your musical DNA, let them in … and they have to be able to let you in.” Tennant likens what they and Hague shared—what the producer brought to their already-penned-and-once-before-produced songs—was something closer to a cinematic film-noir soundtrack than a pop tune. “It wasn’t just some remixes of what we did with Bobby O,” says Tennant. “Please was something different, richer. It’s funny, too—even now, I think it sounds classic and contemporary. Unlike say, Depeche Mode, who don’t particularly like their first album because it sounds dated.” (For the record, Tennant thinks that the Mode’s Speak & Spell sounds “beautiful,”)

Lowe recalls that there was an urgency to get through making that first album, not just because it was the excitement of their debut, but because “West End Girls” was a hit that required followups. “Yes, we had to move much more quickly than we might have, but it was all a learning process, as we had never really been in a proper studio before,” he says. “I mean, Unique (Orlando’s studio) was great but threadbare—like the music.”

“Chris and I wanted everything programmed, metronomic, tight and precise,” says Tennant. “Stephen Hague wanted a bit more air in everything, especially on a song such as ‘Love Comes Quickly,’ which is still one of my favorite songs. Stephen Hague’s heightened bass line started as a mistake initially but just worked to our benefit eventually.”

Ask Tennant what Please means to him 30 years after the fact, and he thinks that it’s an incredibly romantic album “whether it was meant that way or not. Please is full of life and joy and possibility—even at its bleakest—about all that London held, and all you were running away from.” Lowe says he rarely listens to any of Pet Shop Boys’ early work, unless planning for a tour, as they are presently, and imagines that Please is still quite fresh. Ask him, though, if he thinks that newer albums such as Super will be talked about in the same way that people regard Please, and he stops me.

“In 30 years, Neil will be 100 years old,” Lowe says with a hearty laugh. “It won’t matter.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend”

MatthewSweet

The making of Matthew Sweet‘s Girlfriend

By Hobart Rowland

By ’90s industry standards, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend performed well. It peaked at number one on the Heatseekers chart in 1992, even if it barely cracked the top half of the Billboard 200. The title track made it to number four on the Modern Rock chart and number 10 on Mainstream Rock, while the album’s sublime leadoff track, “Divine Intervention,” was a number 23 Modern Rock hit—and, quite frankly, deserved better.

That’s nowhere near the astronomical numbers Nirvana’s Nevermind and U2’s Achtung Baby enjoyed that same year. But we’re talking about a quirky—albeit monumental—power-pop record that almost didn’t find its way to listeners. Prior to Girlfriend, Sweet was less than an unknown commodity—he was a liability, with a pair of glossy, nondescript late-’80s albums that tanked commercially and critically. The vibe surrounding Sweet was so toxic that Zoo Entertainment, the now-defunct BMG affiliate that finally took a chance on Girlfriend, pretty much spun the thing as Sweet’s debut.

And for good reason: It sounds like nothing that came before—from Sweet or anyone else. Its edgy, honest beauty set the tone for a string of great albums, including Girlfriend’s underrated 1993 follow-up, Altered Beast, 1995’s 100% Fun and 1999’s Phil Spector-inspired masterpiece, In Reverse.

In the months prior to Girlfriend’s October 1991 release, a devoted cadre of industry people embraced the album—dubiously titled Nothing Lasts at the time—making it their personal mission to ensure its survival. One of those fans was veteran music scribe Bud Scoppa, who was working A&R for Zoo when a cassette arrived in the mail from his New York counterpart, Scott Byron. Scoppa’s stellar liner notes for the 2006 Girlfriend Legacy reissue are required reading for any Sweet fan. They’re so good, in fact, that we found no point in reinventing the wheel here.

Legacy Recordings just released a vinyl edition of Goodfriend (Another Take On “Girlfriend”), featuring home demos, session outtakes and live performances. Think of it as an unruly companion piece to the original, which was reissued on 180-gram vinyl at its intended 12-song length in 2014.

Describing Girlfriend as one of the best power-pop LPs ever may be accurate, but it’s also selling the album short. After all, what purist in the form would allow the late Robert Quine to run roughshod over his pristine melodies and multipart harmonies—and, in the process, deliver some of the Richard Hell And The Voidoids guitarist’s most wrenchingly inspired work?

So let’s just say this: What follows is an oral history of one of the best albums of the ’90s, a decade swimming in great music.

Matthew Sweet: I got married when I was really young—19—and we were married for six years. By 1989, we’d moved out to Princeton, N.J., from New York City, so we could rent a whole house. It was awesome for me because I could do music without bothering anyone. The house was built in 1780, right on the edge of the Princeton Battlefield. I’d ride my bike in the backwoods all through there. But my wife at the time was restless. She felt like there was something she wanted to do. So she got some money from her dad and moved back to New York—got an apartment there. We hadn’t really broken up, exactly, although we weren’t getting along. It wasn’t, like, a positive thing.

Ric Menck (drums): Matthew and I toured to promote his previous album, Earth—just the two of us in his Honda, opening for ’Til Tuesday. We listened every day to my cassette of Full Moon Fever, and we loved how unadorned by technology it sounded.

Sweet: I set up drums in the main living room, and I started playing them on my demos. I sent those to (manager) Russell Carter, and he said, “It reminds me of Crazy Horse and Neil Young.” And I said, “I know, my voice is really high and weird.” And he’s like, “No, the vibe of it.” He sent me a bunch of Crazy Horse stuff, and I was like, “Fuck, now I understand what he’s saying.”

Menck: Matthew was recording demos at his house, and I visited him at several points during that time. He was really getting into Neil Young, and he had an abiding love for the Beatles—especially Abbey Road. As we drove around Princeton in his little Honda station wagon, he told me he wanted to make an album that sounded really organic.

Lloyd Cole (guitar): Matthew would write very quickly—sometimes two or three songs a day, where I would take a week. He’s never been the most disciplined guy in that respect, and that’s kind of endearing.

Sweet: Having my marriage end was something I tried so hard not to do. We tried to make it work; we went into marriage counseling. But we were like kids. In the end, it was me who said I wanted to get divorced, even though she was the one who left. By that point, she was sort of desperate to stay together. All my life, I thought I was a good guy. But when you have to be the one who says it’s over, I had to accept that there was no way to be the good guy. It was a thing where I went, “Wow, I’m really tainted.” You know, original sin or something—like, “Now I get it: I’m good and bad, and there will be times in my life when the right thing to do isn’t being good.”

Cole: My main claim to fame is on the song “Girlfriend.” Matthew kept talking about “good friend.” He’d just been recently separated from his wife, and I don’t think he wanted to address the issue straight-on and say “girlfriend.” And I said, “For God’s sake, just call it ‘Girlfriend.’”

Sweet: At the time, I tried to explain that none of it was exactly autobiographical—that everything could be looked at in a couple different ways. “You Don’t Love Me” might be a song my wife was singing to me—you know what I mean? But I felt those feelings, and so I was working that out in a song. Whereas something like “I’ve Been Waiting” was really like a brand-new, untouched fantasy of how it could be great to fall in love or whatever.

Fred Maher (producer, drums, guitar): Matthew originally wanted to record at his house in Princeton, and we planned it out. But he got cold feet a few months before recording was to start; he was nervous about upsetting neighbors. I suggested Axis Studios in New York City, since it would be as cramped and difficult a place to make a rock record as his small house.

Sweet: Fred and I had met on my first record (Inside) and worked a lot together on the second one. We were already buddies for a long time, so it was kind of coming together. Even (Television guitarist) Richard (Lloyd) and Bob (Quine) played with me before Girlfriend. I met Richard during my time with the Golden Palominos, when he filled in for Jody Harris. There was no way to learn the whole set, and we had to do these rehearsals with him, and I just felt so bad because it was so impossible. But Richard was really nice to me and told me he liked my songs. So we started to become friendly.

Menck: Prior to making the album, Matthew, Richard and I went through a few of the songs at a rehearsal space near the studio. We warmed up by playing Television’s “See No Evil,” and Richard yelled at me when I acted too much like a geeky fan.

Cole: The rough demos were nowhere near as extreme as what’s on the album. Jim Rondinelli deserves a lot of credit for that. He and Matthew gelled really well.

Jim Rondinelli (engineer): The sound of Girlfriend really goes back to lengthy conversations I had with Matthew. We talked about it for months before we actually did anything. When I heard Earth, I loved the songs, but there was a dissonance between the slickness and the precision of the production and Matthew’s voice.

Maher: Matthew didn’t want to use any of the technology available at the time. So we decided we’d make the entire record on 24-track tape. Parts were mercilessly bounced together, with no way back.

Rondinelli: I worked with Fred and Matthew to establish an entirely different framework for his voice, and that meant not drowning him in reverb or studio processing, not burying his voice but making it loud and clear in the front of the track, framing his voice with his primary weapon for attack, the electric guitars, and making sure those guitars were raw power and unadorned. I mean, good God, we had Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, and Matthew’s rhythm-guitar playing is so incredibly concise.

Menck: My drum tracks were completed in one or two sessions. Matthew played rhythm guitar, and I played along. Very simple and straightforward, which was a change for Matthew, whose previous album was made with programmed drums. It took one or two takes to complete each track.

Rondinelli: We established rules at the start: It would be all live instruments; it would be all Höfner Beatle bass. The Höfner has this big, heavy bottom that stays nicely out of the way of the guitars, so we could really compartmentalize and separate the instruments. That left Matthew’s voice and the guitars front and center. By having the drums loud but dry, there’s always some ambience in the room where the music is being played. We didn’t want to soften the impact of Fred and Ric’s drumming by washing it in reverb. Really, we wanted to take everything that was done on the first record and do exactly the opposite.

Menck: Axis was in a high-rise building surrounded by other highrises. At one point, I looked out the window to see a very pretty woman undressing. She was the inspiration behind my playing on “Divine Intervention.” The drum track for that was definitely completed in one take.

Sweet: People see what they want in “Divine Intervention.” If they’re religious, they might think, “Awesome. That’s when God comes.” But I was saying that he’s not. I was coming out as an atheist, in a way. Christianity has great things about it. Jesus is totally cool, and I live by those morals. I don’t do anything that’s really un-Christian—and most atheists probably don’t. We put the whole album in [the precursor to] ProTools, which was so novel back then. The intro to “Divine Intervention” was something we turned backward—then you hear Richard playing a lick.

Rondinelli: We’d complete the basic rhythm tracks for the album, and Matthew would take a long weekend and go back to Princeton. He’d come back with these unbelievably layered and complex guitar and vocal arrangements. Then he’d sing additional vocals, and we’d add the guitar tracks. It was really a fun way to work.

Sweet: It’s a typical studio thing, but we made comps of our favorite guitar bits. So Richard and Bob didn’t have to do anything but play what they felt—and that’s why it worked so great.

Rondinelli: It’s funny. There’s only one spot on the album where two people are actually playing together in real time, and that’s Matthew and Lloyd on “Thought I Knew You.” Fred, wisely, wanted to pull the swing section out of the demo version of “Girlfriend,” which gave it a life on radio it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Cole: Matthew was obsessed with Winona Ryder—especially in that Heathers film. I said to him, “You’re singing a song about Winona Ryder, and ‘Winona’ is a great title for a song—so just do it.”

Rondinelli: My favorite song to record was “Winona,” because there’s so much Greg Leisz and Quine on that song. Greg is something else. He does an incredible lap-steel part that’s an answer line to the vocals in “Girlfriend.”

Sweet: I went to see Jules Shear play. We were outside the venue afterward, and he introduced me to Greg. They were in a group together called the Funky Kings. I’m like, “Hey, so do you know the Sneaky Pete (Kleinow) kind of steel playing?” And he was like, “I love all that stuff.” So I asked him to play on the record. It was that simple.

Rondinelli: The first time Richard came in, his tracks were so exciting that I remember popping out of my chair when I heard them. With Quine, we’d have him play top to bottom on a song five times, and we’d go back afterward and compose a highlights track. I don’t think there’s one spot on the finished album where Bob played a continuous track. The most amazing thing is that Dennis Taylor, the guitarist who plays with Matthew now, learned all this stuff that no human being had ever played before.

Menck: An abiding memory of the sessions was hanging out with Bob Quine in the lounge. He was a passionate music fan who loved to talk about songs and records. Bob could be a little cantankerous, but when he started talking about music, he really softened up. I’ll forever treasure our discussion about the Velvet Underground. He loved them so much.

Rondinelli: Bob would get something going in the first couple of takes, and then he’d get really down on himself and go through this incredible self-loathing. On the fourth or fifth take, all this additional fire and anger would come out, and he’d take it out on his instrument. Then he’d be emotionally and physically exhausted.

Sweet: The album was originally called Nothing Lasts, and we had to go through hoops to get Tuesday Weld to let us use her photo on the cover. Then somebody from the legal department called her and asked, “Is it OK that it’s called Nothing Lasts?” Well, it wasn’t.

Cole: A terrible name for an album. So he changed it to Girlfriend.

Rondinelli: The sound of the needle at the end of the record—that groove in the middle—was done by Alan Friedman, a programmer who was a fixture at Axis Studios.

Sweet: I just kept adding extra songs, because I was having so much fun in the studio, and it was just such a joy to hear what we made it sound like by adding everybody’s thing. I kept cramming them in, and I was so enamored by what we were doing that I wished I could put it all in there. I’m pretty sure it was me who came up with the idea of putting the three extra tracks all the way out. Then, if you accidentally left your CD player on and you were playing it really loud, they’d come on and be really loud. It makes me laugh now because that supposes a lot of things. But I figured if that happens a few times, it’s awesome. So we put in this long gap after the first 12 songs. I probably wanted to put three minutes, but I was talked down to something more like 40 seconds.

Rondinelli: We made Girlfriend for A&M, and they dropped it. God knows, every label in New York heard that album. We were all working that album, and Karen Glauber at HITS magazine was a huge supporter.

Karen Glauber (president of HITS magazine): I met Matthew when he was in the Athens, Ga., band Buzz Of Delight and worked closely with him as the director of new music marketing at A&M, which was the label for his second solo album, Earth. I left A&M in 1990, and I was absolutely insistent that (Zoo founder) Lou Maglia sign him, the label that employed many of my friends—and fellow avid Matthew fans.

Scott Byron (former East Coast A&R director for Zoo Entertainment): Zoo was a new company at the time and didn’t have a set process for getting things signed. The first thing I had to do was convince the head of A&R that it was a worthwhile project. Then I had to convince Lou. We had a verbal agreement, and Lou just sort of pulled the plug one day. I had to call Matthew and say, “It looks like it’s not going to happen.” Then, Bud Scoppa was cranking the album in his office one day, and Lou walked in and said, “What’s that you’re listening to?” And Bud said, “Matthew Sweet. You nixed it a few weeks ago.” Then Lou went back to his office and changed his mind.

Sweet: At the time, “Girlfriend” wasn’t an important song to me. It was just kind of a ditty. But if you were an artist at that time trying to sign to a label, they always used the track that’s nothing like you as the single. It was actually my manager, Russell, who became obsessed that it could be on rock radio. And he really trumpeted that all through the thing.

Rondinelli: I don’t want to downplay the record, because it’s really a testament to Matthew’s genius. But there was a bit of lucky timing to it, as well. Every radio station that programmed Nevermind had to very quickly find songs with loud guitars that they could play in its wake.

Maher: Girlfriend has aged well because we didn’t allow ourselves to use any modern recording techniques. We stuck to our guns. Ultimately—and possibly most importantly—it was made at a time when the record company let us do our thing. Matthew had a vision, and I defended it—brutally at times.

Glauber: Girlfriend is a perfect album. The songwriting and musicianship is unparalleled—most notably “Girlfriend,” “I’ve Been Waiting” and, my absolute favorite, “You Don’t Love Me.” The contrast of Matthew’s voice and the frenetic, angular playing of the guitarists elevated the songs to another dimension. Fred and Matthew’s production combines the energy of the late-’70s CBGB scene with the gorgeous harmonies of the Beach Boys and the Byrds.

Sweet: When I’m doing music, it’s kind of like throwing pottery on the wheel and just losing my mind. This thing comes from somewhere else. It’s almost like it’s not from me, but I know what to do once it starts coming. But what’s cool is that somehow I had an instinct on how to put those songs together, where it seemed to have worked so well.

People will ask me if I’m sick of playing the Girlfriend stuff, and I’ll be like, “No, I’m just happy someone likes something I did.” It’s a gift to me that it means so much to people—that it wears so well for them.

Rondinelli: It’s one of the greatest divorce records ever made.

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MAGNET Classics: Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ “The Tyranny Of Distance”

TedLeo

The making of Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ The Tyranny Of Distance
By John Vettese

On their third day in the studio together, Ted Leo and Brendan Canty watched a reel-to-reel machine explode all over National Recording. “The tape shot across the room and whipped like a rope,” says Canty. “Like a bullwhip. You could see the magnetic particles flying off.”

It was February 2001. The song they were in the middle of tracking was “Under The Hedge,” a fierce meeting ground between the Pogues and Elvis Costello; the sessions were working toward The Tyranny Of Distance, Leo’s anthem-rich sophomore LP. The studio, nested in the then-desolate fringes of Washington, D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square, was owned by the band Trans Am—post-rock soundscapers and avid collectors of old recording equipment. In this case, a dusty Atari 16-track and an “ancient” Trident mixing board couldn’t sync up; it wasn’t possible to rewind on one and stop on the other.

And so a terrific take of “Under The Hedge” was lost. Everything so far was lost, actually. “Teddy looked at me and said, ‘I think the tape is fucked,’” says Canty.

But what could have been a crushing setback was taken in stride. The machine was recalibrated, the sessions moved on. Friends and fellow musicians in the neighborhood began to join in. Hearing Leo and Canty describe it 15 years later, it sounds damn near idyllic, a perfect nexus of creative productivity with a dearth of external pressures. The result was a bold collection of songs that goes in a variety of directions with confidence, thrash to folk to pub rock, while maintaining a strong central focus.

Leo likens the album to “a really good mix tape.” Canty praises his friend’s prolific songwriting. In a May 2001 Pitchfork review, critic Kristin Sage Rokermann enthused, “This album could have sounded like anything. As it turns out, it sounded like everything.”

Heading into the June 2001 release of The Tyranny Of Distance, Ted Leo was something of a free agent. He had been playing in hardcore bands like Citizens Arrest and Puzzlehead since he was a teenager; his biggest success came from D.C. power trio Chisel, which had parted ways four years previous. The interim was a mix of lo-fi four-track noise (his solo debut tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists, released in 1999 on Gern Blandsten), bare-knuckled political punk (the Sin Eaters, a band with brother Danny) and indie-pop (a stint with the Spinanes). Though tapped-in people knew Leo, he wasn’t yet a marquee name in the indie-rock sphere.

Because of that, did he feel compelled to be more exploratory with his sound and style?

“It’s hard to say I felt compelled to do anything,” says Leo. “At that point in my ‘career,’ I don’t think there really were many expectations. There were probably a few lingering Chisel fans around who were looking for some good pop songcraft.” When that band broke up, it hit Leo hard. He had moved from Indiana to Washington, D.C., with his bandmates, and he took jobs based on his ability to tour. His eggs had very much been in the Chisel basket. As he recalls, “We had come to a real crossroads in terms of a future direction. I was feeling very punk, I didn’t want to sign to a major label. And we were diverging musically.”

Leo admits that he and his bandmates were neither making shit-tons of money nor feeling artistically fulfilled. When he left and began touring solo, his shows were aggressively unconventional—he set up an old tape machine onstage and performed to backing tracks, something that was at the time unheard of in punk.

“It was fun for me, but I look back and I realize I was kind of pushing for someone to come at me about it,” says Leo. “I would get heckled a lot. It was weirdly confrontational.”

At some points in the setlist, he’d put down his guitar and “basically karaoke to my own songs.” This carried on for a year or so until he realized the absurdity of “lugging this giant, constantly breaking piece of near obsolete technology around.” About the time of the 1999 release of the Treble In Trouble EP, gigs turned into 90 percent solo-with-guitar, 10 percent pickup shows with friends. His life at that point was very fluid, freewheeling and in the moment.

“What do I want to do today? I want to play a show. I need to pay my rent, I have to play a show,” says Leo. “I have a bunch of songs, I’m gonna record them. I don’t have any money, I’m gonna do it on a four-track in the basement.”

This outlook carried over to his writing.

“I was kind of careening back and forth—and I always am, in a way—between this desire to write beautiful music and this desire to write really repulsive music,” says Leo. “I think where I landed with Tyranny was a little bit more on the pretty side of things. But because there were no expectations, really from almost anybody, it was nice to make a record where the only thing you were worrying about was what you were doing at that moment, what it sounded like and whether you were into it.”

Tyranny may have been Leo’s first album released under the Pharmacists banner, but as he told the D.C. City Paper in 2011, it was recorded very much like a solo LP—complete with contributions from friends and fellow musicians whom he respected. Along the way, the band emerged (see sidebar), and a sound was zeroed-in on, though this in-process vibe was appealing to the team at Lookout! Records, which signed Leo on the strength of his home-recorded demos.

Molly Neuman, co-owner of the label, says she was a longtime fan and friend of Leo’s from the Chisel days. Where some were perplexed by his scattered, transitory direction in the wake of his old band, she found it exciting.

“Fans, or people who aren’t in bands themselves, get really obsessed with one track or one album from an artist,” says Neuman. “But artists have to continue to challenge themselves; they need to go off the rails. And creatively, there should be permission to do that.”

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MAGNET Classics: XTC’s “Skylarking”

XTC

The making of XTC’s Skylarking
By A.D. Amorosi

To pick apart the XTC catalog is folly.

Created by sons of Swindon, England; girded by the singing and smart (assed) songwriting of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding, XTC never remained complacent during its time together, though one could argue that the band was pop’s most reluctant ensemble, despite what Partridge called the “gentle competition” of its two songwriters.

“Colin would come up with some songs, usually first, then I would feel the need to beat them,” says Partridge. “He might in turn come up with a few more, and again me in response to those.” They never wrote together. Camaraderie was found in other areas of the band, “and not the writing,” claims Partridge. “That was insular.”

XTC moved from the herky-jerky new wave of its start (1978’s White Music) into something subdued, yet richly melodic in Swinging ’60s fashion (1979’s Drum And Wires, 1980’s Black Sea), before winding up with the intellectually and sonically complex English Settlement of 1981. Rather than capitalize on its clever intricacy (as well as the success of hit single “Senses Working Overtime”), Partridge wound up on the wrong end of stage fright in 1982, and vowed never to tour again. This didn’t stop Partridge, Moulding and third member Dave Gregory from becoming a neo-psychedelic side band, the Dukes Of Stratosphear, with two records to its name. Or, as XTC, recording complicated, studio-rat efforts such as 1983’s Mummer or 1992’s Nonsuch before winding up as more epically plush (1999’s Apple Venus, Vol. 1 and its second volume, subtitled Wasp Star) than the band started.

“‘23,’ said Churchill—that’s the age to be,’ and he may have had a point,” says Moulding in regard to the collective band age when XTC was at its most “affable, humorous, open to suggestion, and every bit at ease with the prospect of working together.”

“Like most young bands, we were a gang that lived in each other’s pockets on the road and in the studio,” says Partridge, recalling the psychology of XTC. “The most fun we ever had in the studio was recording the Dukes records. There was no pressure—it was just one big fancy dress ball for the head. Anything went, any sound, any idea, as long as it felt like it could have been historically correct for 1967. There was zero pressure. We never knew if it would sell, and the Dukes had nothing to live up to. We could never do that with XTC, as there was too much money involved and we were expected to be mentally honest and ‘real.’ Too much financial pressure.”

By the time that the band stopped making albums in 2000, XTC had amassed 12 of pop’s most cunningly lyrical, contagiously hummable albums (not counting the Dukes efforts) shaded by the elegant green pastoralism of the English countryside and the flashing red glare of the Beatles and the Kinks’ Carnaby Street.

Each of XTC’s albums is, without exaggeration, glorious.

Then there’s 1986’s Skylarking.

Speaking from the Ape House offices maintained by Partridge for XTC’s archival activities, the bassist, like Partridge, has little reason to peek backward. “I don’t think I could afford the ring that Andy would want placed on his finger,” says Moulding. “That life has gone for me. I would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. Everything changes; one has to accept it and move on. You cannot go back.”

Yet, they did go back in order to discuss the Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking. (“And to see that our story in pop history gets the justice it deserves,” says Moulding. “That, and cold hard cash.”)

More lyrically mature, lush and gently psychedelic than anything before in their catalog, Skylarking borrowed the hilly, holy feel of Mummer, as well as the ringing Beatles-ish vibe from 1984’s The Big Express, but with a softly sweeping gracefulness and a finessed orchestral swirl. Combine that with adult lyrical themes touching upon the daring uncertainty of marriage (“Big Day”) and romance (“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”) along with the skepticism behind maturation (“Earn Enough For Us”) and eternal rest (“Dying”), and there is a sense that this album could not have happened at any other point in XTC’s history, save for Mummer.

Partridge riffs quickly on the things going on in his life that made Skylarking’s topicality bracing: “Growing up. Realizing responsibilities. Opening up to where I lived—to Wiltshire, the nature there. Questioning things deeper. God, existence—the chewier questions. Probably as a result of me, at that time, coming off—rather abruptly—of 13 years of valium addiction. I was thinking clearer and wanted to know stuff. Life’s big questions. Funny you should mention Mummer, though, as that, for me, was the first of the clear-thinking albums.”

Skylarking, then, is a provocatively personal, bucolic, Arcardian, even ecclesiastical masterpiece once you consider that the album’s primary American hit, “Dear God,” was a begrudging add-on, according to Rundgren. “Andy didn’t want that song on the album, and neither did the A&R guy at Geffen,” says the producer with a sneer so pronounced, his sarcasm drips through the phone. “They didn’t know.”

They didn’t know.

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MAGNET Classics: They Might Be Giants’ “Flood”

TMBG

The making of They Might Be Giants’ Flood
By A.D. Amorosi

It would be easy to think of They Might Be Giants’ third album, Flood, as its absolute best. The 1990 release from the Johns—Linnell and Flansburgh—was their first on a major label, their first to be produced by name outside producers in a studio with all its incumbent frippery and, ultimately, the duo’s first and only album to go platinum.

“I can hardly describe how utterly in shock we were at how it took off,” says Linnell during a brief break from mixing one new TMBG album (the adult Glean, due this month) and recording another (a children’s album, due this autumn). “Maybe I still am.”

Beyond studios and sales, Flood has come to define the iconography of They Might Be Giants, as well as the tenor of the time. Seriously, who the hell knew or cared about Brooklyn before these guys broke out? What band in 1990 offered such a wide berth for the liberal use of accordions and Casios in the years immediately preceding grunge’s grouchy guitars? Or truly bothered with wit and childlike—not childish—humor? Or used the fez as a symbol of achievement? Or emphasized the arcane literary use of the unreliable narrator in its lyrics? Or could be kitsch without losing its cool? Or shifted from polkas to tangos to country music to surf rock to polka again, all while maintaining post-punk heft and contagious melodicism? Or gave breath to the historical notion of “Istanbul” not so much being “Constantinople” any longer?

From the ’60s talk-show chorale of “Theme From Flood” to the existentialist lullaby finale of “Road Movie To Berlin,” with references to Frankie Laine’s “Rawhide” (“Minimum Wage”), serious questions of bigotry (“Your Racist Friend”) and absurdist screeds (“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”) in between, Flood is a bona fide odd-pop classic.

Beyond their klatch of children’s records ( Here Come The ABCs, Here Come The 123s, Here Comes Science) and “Boss Of Me,” the theme to Malcolm In The Middle (Bryan Cranston’s series before Breaking Bad), it is Flood that Linnell and Flansburgh are best known for.

“I get that,” Linnell says of Flood’s epic luster and its capacity to define his work with his longtime boyhood pal. “Flood absolutely has all the elements of where we started and where we wound up.”

It’s not as if TMBG wasn’t the captain of tiny industry before 1990 and Flood. Named after a George C. Scott movie, the duo had been around since 1983 and moved from its role as house band at Darinka on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a touring act within several years of being founded. This included gigs where guitarist Flansburgh and accordionist/saxophonist Linnell were accompanied solely by a drum machine and an Otari eight-track reel-to-reel tape player. Soon, TMBG created real hype—as well as a deeply personal connection to its growing fan base—with the duo’s home-cassette answering-machine-based Dial-A-Song project.

“I don’t think we used Dial-A-Song as any sort-of entrée to getting a record deal,” says Linnell, when quizzed about the possibility. “The thing kept breaking down. No, we used it to connect with the people who liked us. It really only ever advertised itself.”

Still, TMBG got a deal with the independent Bar/None label through Restless, and released two spare, quirky albums between 1986 and 1988—They Might Be Giants and Lincoln—each of which won its own levels of acclaim. The former yielded “Don’t Let’s Start” (whose video became an MTV smash in 1987), whereas Lincoln’s jittery “Ana Ng” topped modern-rock charts.

“I don’t think we were so much getting restless as we were feeling we could use help getting out there,” says Linnell of considering major labels in 1989. “We didn’t want to give up anything to gain something.”

“I couldn’t say we had a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish going forward from that point,” says Flansburgh.

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MAGNET Classics: Tortoise’s “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”

Tortoise

The Making Of Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die
By A.D. Amorosi

Say the word “Chicago” now and you’re sadly spun to the surreal wrongs of a police force and a mayor who refused to acknowledge common decency and humanity when it came to the lives of African-Americans.

Chicago in 1990, however, was a different place—one known for the very real and very tactile work of collaboration, interplay and camaraderie that was its colorblind, free-jazz, freer indie rock and electronic scenes. “There never was any separation amongst musician crowds; everybody played with everybody,” says guitarist Jeff Parker, a longtime Chicagoan who played with Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble and other jazz outfits by the early ’90s.

This interconnected grouping of musicians—some coming from the testily experimental Bastro, others from odd rockist Eleventh Dream Day—birthed not only Tortoise and its still epic second album, 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The Sea And Cake, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Brokeback, Isotope 217, Califone, various permutations of Chicago Underground (Duo, Trio, etc.) and a dozen others basked in the glow of what was then called “post-rock,” an unfortunately titled movement given rise with Tortoise as its godfather and the fortunate Millions as its cascading, crowning achievement.

Listen to it now (reissued on translucent blue vinyl in January by Thrill Jockey, the label synonymous with all things Chicago 1990s), and it’s hard to believe that Millions is 20 years old. She sounds too old to be so young and too forward-fresh to be so aged. To steal a description from another Windy City wonder, the avant-jazz gods of Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Millions is the best example of being “ancient to the future” beyond that free-jazz group’s offerings. “Whether I played on it or not isn’t the issue; Millions really was pretty amazing,” says multi-instrumentalist David Pajo.

Millions Now Living Will Never Die—named for an essay penned by a Watchtower Bible And Tract Society president for the Jehovah’s Witnesses—was the very height of complex, progressive post-punk. These were beautiful, fluid melodies touched by post-bop avant-garde jazz, rich minimalism (its Steve Reich-esque vibraphone and marimba), dub (a producer’s vibrating echo throughout), krautrock (a motorik kick on “Djed”), Tropicalia, ambient electronica and Ennio Morricone-like expanse. Mood swings and deep emotions were conveyed in its subtle shifts in tonal color and texture, a subdued understated quality rarely heard in rock of any stripe. Millions was windier and darker than a Chicago winter’s night: gusty and spookily devoid of vocals. It was spacious yet tautly played, and playful—even cheesy, in spots. It was distantly European and cinematically American—Federico Fellini and John Ford all at once with an edge of workmanlike precision.

“Everything was about hard work in Chicago,” says Doug McCombs, the bassist for Eleventh Dream Day who initiated Tortoise (or “Mosquito,” reminds Bettina Richards, the one-time Atlantic Records A&R boss who signed McCombs’ first band for that major label before starting Thrill Jockey) as a Sly & Robbie-like rhythm section with drummer John Herndon, a one-time member of Poster Children. “This city always had this hard-working, blue-collar mentality where people just buckled down and got things done,” says McCombs. As far as art and creative music went, Chicago wasn’t ever a place for the peripheral. Rather, to McCombs, Herndon and the two musicians from Bastro (drummer John McEntire, bassist Bundy K. Brown) that Tortoise came into existence as in 1990, music was about “getting down to business—figuring out how do to what you wanted to do, and doing it,” says McCombs. “That was very much Tortoise, as well as that era’s musical community. Very fertile.”

McEntire, the drummer/producer who, at that point, had worked for Gastr del Sol and Freakwater, as well as Bastro, says that Tortoise came out of the womb in 1990 fully formed with a double-bass/two-percussionist groove: “At least as to what our aesthetic was, and the dynamics between how all of us would work.”

Yes, they were absorbing everything; from the work of Chicago’s varied improvisational scenes to their then-bourgeoning listening habits beyond the punk-rock milieu. “I was a kid around the time of punk who came up loving Television, X and Devo before moving into underground hardcore stuff like Black Flag, then jazz,” says McCombs as an example. Mainly, though, this Tortoise foursome (along with guitarist Parker) came together in close proximity when they moved into one large warehouse loft space at Grand and Wood Streets in Chicago. (Their current practice pad, for the last 15 years, is in that city’s Humboldt Park area.)

“The loft space made us into a gang, more than just a group of musicians,” says McEntire of the union with shared responsibilities and influences. “We were tight and hung out together all the time, for sure.”

Though he couldn’t join Tortoise as a touring unit because of his then-full-time jazz commitments in Chicago, Parker recalls that period with much laughter when he says, “It was a great time. I wasn’t technically in the band, but we were all roommates in that loft; everyone but Dan Bitney (the multi-instrumentalist who joined Tortoise in 1993). I knew all of their music because I lived with all of their music.”

After its first singles of 1993 (“Mosquito” on the Torsion label, “Lonesome Sound” on Thrill Jockey), a debut full-length (its eponymous album from 1994) and that initial LP’s remix project (Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, 1995), Tortoise was already set for a change.

“You could hear the makings of what Tortoise would become with the singles,” says Richards, who started Thrill Jockey in 1992. “The unusual instrumentation, the emphasis on different textures, the overall sense of lovely melody. The first album, too. I loved it. It would be revisionist history to say that everybody else did, but, critically, it opened up listeners and the press to what would come next.”

What came next was Bundy K. Brown abruptly leaving Tortoise toward the end of 1994, with Slint’s then-guitarist David Pajo joining the ensemble.

“It was circumstance; a slight shift, but a noticeable one,” says McCombs coolly of Brown’s departure.

“Everything was amicable,” says McEntire.

Neither McCombs nor McEntire had a problem with either prospect, as the bassist and drummer thought highly of both players immediately past and suddenly present, and recognized that Brown, like Pajo, had his own ideas of introducing more guitar into the band (though they each played more bass than anything else with Tortoise). “I think I tried to play—or thought of—the bass as I would a guitar,” says Pajo. “Everyone switched up instruments anyway; onstage at the beginning of a song; during recording if you wanted to. That was encouraged.”

Pajo was already a favorite of/inspiration to Tortoise from his work with Slint, themselves masters of oblong structure and sinister tonality on albums such as 1989’s Tweez and 1991’s Spiderland. Upon leaving Slint in 1992, Pajo was part of experimental indie-pop’s Louisville/Chicago continuum by working with King Kong, the For Carnation, Royal Trux, Will Oldham’s Palace projects and Stereolab—the latter a band that, like Tortoise, he found revolutionary for its time.

“In the early ’90s, grunge was everywhere and being a loser was cool,” he says with a chuckle. “I was a loser already, so I didn’t want to hear or play that stuff. Suddenly, there was Tortoise flying the flag for something different: two bassists, two drummers. Very cool. Yet very musical and so well-done.”

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MAGNET Classics: Grandaddy’s “Sumday”

Grandaddy1

The Making Of Grandaddy’s Sumday

By Jud Cost

Modesto, Calif. As a very young kid, I can barely recall seeing the name of that San Joaquin Valley town as I devoured the back pages of the “Sporting Green” of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Modesto Reds were a single-A minor league baseball squad that played in the California League, alongside outfits that included the Stockton Ports, so named because the town—located at the confluence of both the American and Sacramento Rivers—not only produced grapes for wine, but was the largest inland shipping port in the state.

But the Modesto Reds were special to a young kid then growing up in San Carlos, Calif. The Stuart family ran a drycleaning store on our main street, Laurel Avenue, that was frequently visited by that kid and his dad on Saturday mornings. I can still smell the wicked chemicals they used to remove the stains on that clothing. The Stuarts’ son, a strapping lad and a recent graduate of Sequoia High School in Redwood City, was now playing professional baseball for the Modesto Reds. We would get glowing, firsthand reports from the dry cleaners every week.

Their son would go on to hit a jaw-dropping 66 home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ single-A farm team in Lincoln, Neb., in 1956. It was a staggering, Paul Bunyan-esque feat that would soon earn him a ticket to the big club, the National League’s cellar-dwelling Pirates squad. Yes, this was Dick Stuart, later to be known as “Dr. Strangeglove” for his defensive liabilities. But I saw Stuart play many times for the Pirates against the San Francisco Giants, brandishing his mighty offensive prowess to the point of getting nervous glances from a pretty decent Giants pitching staff that included Mike McCormick, Johnny Antonelli, Jack Sanford and Sad Sam Jones.

But the day I remember most might have been Stuart’s darkest hour, defensively. For some unknown reason, he was playing left field at the sparkling, new Candlestick Park (torn down just a few months ago) and came rushing in to cover what he must have reckoned was a pop-up. But the ball, hit by one of the Giants’ “beloved Willies”—either Mays, McCovey or Kirkland—went so far over Stuart’s head that it rocketed off the left center field wall for an easy, stand-up triple by the time he had retrieved the ball.

Quite a few years before that baseball gaffe, my mom and dad had stopped on a drizzly day at a roadside photo-stand in Modesto, on the way home from visiting my grandparents in Sacramento. They decided to have their little buckaroo snapped, waving a cowboy hat, supplied by the photographer, with the little shaver barely able to sit astride a stuffed horse, standing almost upright, à la Roy Rogers’ Trigger. That sepia-toned photo from old Modesto has been lost for decades. Large reward for its return.

Fast-forward 40 years to my then current MAGNET assignment to meet up with Grandaddy, a curiously named indie-rock outfit from Modesto whose early records on Seattle’s Will label were most intriguing. I first met the boys in the band late in the previous millennium, as they were packing up their fishing gear and brownbag lunches before heading out toward the Stanislaus River, not more than 20 miles away from home, in the general direction of Yosemite National Park, maybe 75 miles down yonder.

I hopped into the pick-up truck of Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s resident genius, and we did the first of our many chats along with lead guitarist Jim Fairchild on a riverside picnic table as the rest of the boys in the band angled for trout. They caught a few, too, as I recall. Another such encounter also stands out: Lytle and I were about to chow down at a time-tested Mexican restaurant close to his home and spent some time discussing whether it would be wise to extract a spoonful of chili sauce from a jar that looked like it had been left on the table since the days of Pancho Villa. We decided to take a chance, and we’re still standing.

Standing was about the last thing Lytle could do after he blew out his ACL as an up-and-coming member of a professional skateboard tour. “I was actually pretty good, with a career planned out in front of me,” says Lytle. He turned to music to compensate for his loss, and the unique vocal sound he used to deliver his addictive melodies turned into an unexpected career move, for both him and four of his skate-rat pals.

Modesto is a fair-sized town located on both the jet-age I-5 freeway and rickety old Highway 99, rambling down the backbone of central California that stretches north beyond Stockton and Sacramento and south to Turlock, Merced, Visalia and Bakersfield. Those farming towns have become legend as the backdrop for John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, The Grapes Of Wrath.

Modesto’s inland location—80 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area—deprives it of the “air-conditioned by God” afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean that cool down the big city. If you worship the heat, Modesto is your place. The large arch that spans the main drag seems to say it all to visitors: “water wealth contentment health.”

Lytle, who sang lead and penned all the material for Grandaddy in his extraordinary, fragile, cracked-eggshell voice, had nervously slipped a cassette to Howe Gelb after Giant Sand played a show at Slim’s in San Francisco. “I was blown away when Howe left an encouraging message on my parents’ message machine,” says Lytle. Gelb would become one of the band’s biggest boosters before Grandaddy was signed to V2 Records.

“Jason’s amazing, fragile voice—what can you say about it?” says Fairchild. “His voice is so uniquely his own.”

Make no mistake about it: Lytle created all of Grandaddy’s material in one or another of his homemade studios. He then fed his stuff to the rest of the band: Fairchild, drummer Aaron Burtch, keyboardist Tim Dryden and bassist Kevin Garcia. The band’s innovative sound was described to me by their V2 Records publicist as “a combination of Neil Young and the Beach Boys.” Lytle would later use money from V2 to buy a “cookie cutter” tract home next to Modesto in Ceres, whose “Dagwood & Blondie” facade (green lawn, white picket fence) concealed a pip of a recording studio that occupied the house’s kitchen, dining and living rooms. And, who knows, maybe even his bedroom.

The band began, Lytle recalls, somewhere back in the early ’90s, when he and red-bearded drummer Burtch played anywhere they were allowed: in coffee shops, skate demos, street fairs and house parties. Lytle almost didn’t recall that Burtch created the band’s farmyard animal imagery. “I’d almost forgotten what a great graphic artist Aaron is, and what a finely tuned sense of humor we had with our band website,” he says.

Lytle smiles crookedly when he also recalls he was the one who originally created Grandaddy’s slightly oddball band logo. “I remember distinctly the night I drew that up,” he says. “We had a lightning storm that night. Never underestimate the value of a good logo.”

Fairchild takes a somewhat larger view of the boss artwork created by Burtch: “We tried to make something distinctive for the Grandaddy website, and Aaron and Jason’s graphic stuff really did the job.”

Fairchild, always a huge Grandaddy fan, finally joined the band from his original combo, Sufferbus, in 1995. “Everybody knew that I’d hook up with Grandaddy someday,” he says. “I was always playing with Jason and the guys. At that point, the band was more like a street gang. We had people come up to us and say they were surprised that all five of us were still alive after some of the things we got into.” He politely refuses further comment on the band’s shady activity at that time.

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MAGNET Classics: The Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs”

MagneticFields

The making of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs
By Steve Klinge

The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
But I
I love it when you sing to me
And you
You can sing me anything
(“The Book Of Love,”
, Vol. 1, Song 12)

The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is a tour de force: unprecedented, cheeky, sentimental and hilarious. Some of it is transcendental; some of it is ridiculous, if never really dumb. Before the three-CD set came out in 1999, the Magnetic Fields were a beloved cult band with a convoluted history of shifting lead singers, record labels and satellite projects. Stephin Merritt wrote songs full of wit and wordplay; he was as big a fan of ABBA, Phil Spector and OMD as he was of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter. With 69 Love Songs, the world discovered that secret.

Merritt originally conceptualized writing a revue of love songs to be sung by a variety of vocalists, akin to what he did with the 6ths’ 1995 project Wasps’ Nests, which featured contributions from indie-rock luminaries such as Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, Luna’s Dean Wareham and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan.

“The conception of 69 Love Songs began with the idea of 100 songs, an industrial number, which got reduced a few minutes later to 69, the number of love,” says Merritt. “It began with a revue idea, but I realized I would have to record all the songs anyway, to teach them to the singers—singers can’t be bothered to learn how to read music; what do they do all day?—so I might as well just make it a record.”

Merritt was living in New York City, and each morning he would go to St. Dymphna’s Café in the East Village to write songs and drink tea; in the evening, he shifted to Dick’s Bar and cocktails for another writing session. He wrote a total of 100 songs, some after starting recording, and chose 69 for the album. His goal was to write as many different types of love songs as he could in as many different styles as he could.

“Ideally, each song would have come from a different universe,” he says. “I made long lists of musical genres, and picked the ones I could imagine myself working within.”

Thus: “Punk Love,” “Experimental Music Love,” “Love Is Like Jazz,” “World Love”; synth-pop, acoustic singer/songwriter ballads, Jesus And Mary Chain-like distortion, country songs and show tunes. And: “My Sentimental Melody,” “How Fucking Romantic,” “Kiss Me Like You Mean It,” “Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)”; songs of wistful longing, bitter recriminations, sincere devotion, ironic exaggeration; homosexual, heterosexual, erotic, drunken, unrequited, eternal.

It’s an absurdly ambitious undertaking, but its ambition is part of its charm. Merritt friend Daniel Handler began work on his own ambitious project, the 13 volumes of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, around the same time. “They’re both hopeless cases, reckless gestures and overstuffed experiments,” says Handler of and the Lemony Snicket books.

Over the course of the 69 tracks, Merritt deconstructs the love song—the book of love—even though he acknowledges it is a foolhardy and impossible task. “The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure” tells the tale of a debate with the Swiss semiotician who claims not to know what love is because it offers “no understanding, no closure.” The speaker, however, objects and sides himself with the writers of classic Motown love songs. The song contains some of Merritt’s cleverest rhymes:

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying, “It’s well and kosher
To say you don’t understand
But this is for Holland/Dozier/Holland”
(“The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure,”
, Vol. 3, Song 6)

Most of the 69 songs clock in well under three minutes, and as a whole, the set is a dizzying, many-splendored experience.

“Part of the variety-above-all approach to the album was that I cultivated deliberately conflicting aesthetic criteria,” says Merritt, “whereby if ‘Punk Love’ is a good song, ‘For We Are The King Of The Boudoir’ is unlistenable, and vice versa. I find Shakespeare and Ozu fascinating because they seem to contain the world, as opposed to setting a mood; and I figured three hours is longer than any one mood could ever last, so it would be far better to try to contain a multitude of moods. One of my models was an obscure orchestral record from 1960 called Music To Break Any Mood, by Dick Schory’s New Percussion Ensemble.”

When recording began, Merritt gathered the rest of the Magnetic Fields: his high-school friend and manager Claudia Gonson on piano and percussion; John Woo on banjo, lead guitar and mandolin; Sam Davol on cello and flute. Merritt played his beloved ukuleles and many other instruments, and Handler played accordion. Merritt sang most of the songs, but he drafted Gonson, Shirley Simms, L.D. Beghtol and Dudley Klute to each sing two songs per CD.

After three initial months of songwriting, most of was recorded in Merritt’s apartment on reel-to-reel, Pro Tools, ADAT tape or Gonson’s four-track cassette recorder over the course of nine months. Merritt tried out many of the songs in different styles, and some changed drastically along the way. Murderously funny duet “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” was one.

“When we recorded it, we sat down with a couple guitars and strummed it out, very plain and simple,” says Gonson. “So, I figured it would be a straight-ahead country duet in the style of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s ‘You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.’ Imagine my surprise when I heard the final mix and discovered Stephin had transformed it into a Jesus And Mary Chain song.”

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Exclusive Excerpt: The Making Of Pavement’s “Slanted And Enchanted”

Pavement

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

When Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg entered Gary Young’s studio to record their first album, Malkmus was cranking out songs, Kannberg was learning the guitar, and Young suspected these kids still didn’t know which end of the fuzzbox to plug into. A week later, they walked out with a record that all but defined 1990’s indie rock. Almost a quarter-century after the release of Slanted And Enchanted, the members of Pavement recall how they made the best album of their—and most everyone else’s—career.

By Eric Waggoner

The music didn’t sound like anything much. That’s what concerned Gary Young about the weird racket the two young guitarists were making in Louder Than You Think, the 16-track studio Young operated out of his Stockton, Calif., home. There wasn’t any weight to it. These kids didn’t even own a bass, for Christ’s sake. They were playing “bass” on detuned guitar. And they hadn’t booked much time in the first place—four hours total at 30 bucks an hour. And that time was passing rapidly.

The sounds coming out of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg’s amps didn’t really do it for Gary Young on a personal level, either. His own listening tastes ran to intricately structured prog rock—King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Fred Frith, that kind of thing. Part of it was likely the age gap: Young, who was 13 years older than the kids strangling their instruments in his studio this January afternoon, had logged time in a series of Stockton-area bands over two decades. He had a lot of musical experience. This Malkmus guy had some, but Kannberg had very little. Both were rock eggheads, but their source material was rather different from his—hard, angular, static-laced music that began with basic pop forms, but sliced them up into shards.

Young didn’t know Malkmus or Kannberg at all prior to the day they walked into his house. But the hour was waning, and Young’s drum kit was right there in the studio, all miked up and prepped. On the fly, he offered to drum under the duo’s high-frequency guitar lines. They were open to the possibilities of improvisation and experiment already. Malkmus was a free-jazz fan, and Kannberg was so unpracticed on guitar, he hadn’t developed any habits to break. OK, they said to Young, sit down. Let’s see what happens.

The making of Slanted And Enchanted? Ask Gary Young. It’s simple. Rock music is really simple. People overthink it. It’s actually very easy.

“They found me in the phone book,” Young says of how Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg arrived at his studio. The truth is a bit more complicated, but not by much. Malkmus and Kannberg had been classmates at Lodi, Calif.’s Tokay High, one of two high schools that served the Stockton-Lodi area. In 1988, Malkmus received his history degree from UVA; Kannberg, an off-and-on student in urban planning at a Sacramento college, was working at a local record store in Stockton when Malkmus returned to California for a short post-grad stopover. When the two decided to collaborate, the plan was that Pavement would be a studio-only project.

“I asked around the store,” says Kannberg. “Eventually someone said, ‘You should check out Gary Young’s place.’ I hadn’t thought of Gary until then. But when his name came up, I remembered who Gary was.”

And how. Everybody knew Gary Young—at least knew about him. “Gary was a real performer,” says Kannberg. “He was like someone from back in the cabaret days.”

The tales surrounding Young’s substance-fueled act-ups were the stuff of Stockton music-scene legend—legends that often had the uncommon distinction of being true in the smallest bizarre detail. Among several other impressive achievements, Young had once sent his Steinberger bass guitar, a famously ugly, practically indestructible instrument, straight through the plate-glass window of a club and out onto the sidewalk when the band he was in, Death’s Ugly Head, got stiffed by the owner for 60 dollars.

“I hadda do it,” says Young, in the resigned tones of a man who wants you to understand that he was regrettably, upon careful consideration, down to his only remaining option. “This guy, he’s behind me, all ‘Raah raah raaaaah, these fucking punk kids.’ So, yeah, I put it through the window. See, we’re not destructive people. We don’t trash hotel rooms. I just didn’t have a choice.”

Legend aside, Young worked cheap, and he worked fast, and he had an improbable-but-unanimous reputation around Stockton as a wizard engineer. Malkmus and Kannberg entered Louder Than You Think for their four-hour session with a handful of song ideas, but with absolutely nothing in the way of percussion design. Bob Nastanovich—Malkmus’ fellow UVA alum who joined Pavement as a second drummer in August 1990 and would remain in the band until the end—credits Young with much of the rhythmic strangeness that characterized Pavement’s earliest recordings. “Gary was an indie-rock version of Keith Moon,” he says. “He was a dynamo. We were really, really lucky to be associated with him. There were other great bands around at the time, bands similar to us, but Gary was from outer space. He made us unique.”

 

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MAGNET Classics: Mogwai’s “Come On Die Young”

Mogwai

The making of Mogwai’s Come On Die Young
By A.D. Amorosi

There is no better definition than redefinition, especially for a wee band leaving its first fingerprints on impressionable minds with a quick and clearly delineated ferocity. That was the mark of the beast of Glasgow, Scotland’s Mogwai in the years following its 1995 inception under the rubric of harsh, experimental serious guitar music; hurriedly recorded first singles such as “Tuner,” “Angels Vs. Aliens” (a split seven-inch with Dweeb) and “Summer”; 1997’s “New Paths To Helicon” and a raging EP titled 4 Satin.

All these raw, knuckling records signaled that Mogwai was a testy, forceful, dynamic instrumental ensemble with a takeno-prisoners sense of sonics that merged the best qualities of Glenn Branca, Slint, the Stooges (minus Iggy’s voice, yet with his cocksman’s swagger) and Sonic Youth into one uniquely creeping and surprisingly melodic mind-meld.

“I think what we did first and early on was pretty good, and reflected our listening habits,” says Mogwai bassist Dominic Aitchison.

Mogwai’s 1997 debut studio album, Young Team, sealed the noise deal with a scorched-earth vibe and one-long-song feel to its proceedings. From its bellbonging, metal-not-metal processed wall of guitar (via Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings) to its stormy weather rhythms (Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch) to its overall burnt, shimmering crispness, Young Team was epic, loud and hard. Even if the rest of that album had been filled with covers of Iron & Wine ballads, its closer, “Mogwai Fear Satan,” ripped, rigged and panicked the young band’s dynamic shards-of-metal sensibilities into a glistening finale that would forever expand what kids knew of as the whole “post-rock” thing.

Then came Come On Die Young. That’s another story, or rather this one; the band’s 1999 minimalistic second studio album, whose tonic tones, dramatic quietude and un-gentle sparseness—even its vocals—showed that a new dog could learn old tricks and seismically shift the headlines on what little we truly knew of Mogwai at that time.

“Ah, I don’t think that we knew for ourselves, so don’t feel bad,” says Braithwaite of Mogwai’s radically different approach to CODY (the official anagram for Come On Die Young and one that sounds like a cowboy tot’s name) that shifted the band’s still newly devised deconstructionist paradigm.

That CODY was released in the U.S. on Matador connects the Scots with that era’s most prominent American independent label, which is truly saying something considering Mogwai’s ties to Scotland’s Chemikal Underground, itself a haven of critically lauded historical post-punk sounds out of Glasgow.

“We felt close to Mogwai from the start—a real connection to the rest of Glasgow’s punk history—and wanted to maximize everything we could about who they were,” says Stewart Henderson, the bassist of Scotland’s Delgados and one of Chemikal Underground’s CEOs, about getting Dave Fridmann as CODY’s producer and licensing that same album to Matador. “Glasgow is a close community, so our label was a coming-together of geography and mutual admiration. Mogwai lived down the road from where our studio was, and happened to be big fans of Arab Strap, whose records we released. It all was one continuum.”

Braithwaite was taking a break from recording Mogwai’s newest project when we spoke. This new album, the soundtrack to the sophomore season of Les Revenants (a French series for Canal Plus about the undead walking amongst us, or them, or someone), is, like CODY, a zealously spooky and enlightened bit of minimalism in the Mogwai catalog.

“I think you’re right in assuming that doing CODY paved the way for us writing and recording Les Revenants seasons one or two,” he says. “It certainly showed us what we could do with less, or making less sound like more and so on.”

Mogwai isn’t usually a backward-looking lot, yet the last 12 months has been one of reconnoitering. Last year, the band rereleased CODY with an additional album of CaVa Studios demos upon which Fridmann built (“but didn’t add that much to, really” says the producer) and hosted a 20th band anniversary in 2015 with All Tomorrows Parties and a series of shows featuring like-minded acts such as the Jesus And Mary Chain and Bardo Pond. “Yeah, we missed most of the shows we didn’t play,” says Braithwaite with a laugh. This month, Mogwai and Chemikal Underground release an anniversary vinyl box of its most lucid and allusive moments titled Central Beltersthat gives a broad but bold overview to all the noise and nuance the ensemble has wrought since 1995.

“You know, we didn’t start off as strictly instrumental,” says Braithwaite, confi dentially, about Mogwai’s most notable trait. “We actually had songs with vocals and lyrics when we started, and found that the instrumental ones were better, stronger. We all felt that way. Plus, no one in the band really felt good about writing lyrics, and no one felt comfortable hanging about as a frontman.”

The prowess of instrumental-only music that was assertive and kinetic—that which the band finessed throughout 1996-’97—propelled the intensity of Young Team in a manner that, eventually, led to an invisible shield around the band, a hype surrounding who and what Mogwai was. “I defi nitely think there was this thing that preceded them,” says Henderson.

Thinking back to that time, Mogwai was considered the intelligent man’s heavy metal music, an overly intellectualized vibe that the band neither understood nor wanted. “I think people perceived what we did as wise or smart, and I don’t know why,” says Aitchison with a snort.

“There was certainly this hype about us, but I don’t think we had anything premeditated up our sleeves about what we would do about it,” says Braithwaite, who ducks back into the matter of Mogwai being a notably cerebral outfit. “Now people realize that we’re just a bunch of goofs making it up as we go along.”

Going into what would become CODY, there was a feeling amongst its band members—whose ranks had just expanded at that time, 1998, to include keyboardist/fl autist Barry Burns—that their next work would be just as ferocious as Young Team, only quieter. “We defi nitely were thinking of something more minimalist,” says Braithwaite. “We had heard all the applause for us being thought of as noise-rock kings, but we had done the EPs and singles as such, and our tastes changed.”

Braithwaite mentions minimalist giants such as Nick Drake and Low, while Aitchison brings up listening to the For Carnation records as well as Codeine. “We wanted to do something sparser,” the bassist says about music they began demoing at CaVa Studios in Glasgow, the home base of the Delgados and Chemikal Underground. “It just happened; that and the fact that we were disappointed in the dynamics of Young Team, with the way they worked on that record. That made us step back and consider another way in.”

Mogwai, however, just didn’t know for certain what way was in, or which door to take. For Braithwaite, going into CODY meant crafting a more minimalist soundscape for the band’s larger, more discernible melodic strain. “We’ve always had big melodies,” he says. “I just think that, with CODY, there was less noise so that you could hear the songs more.”

Between their first EP, 4 Satin, and Young Team, Henderson says there was a general feeling that there would always be something incredibly exciting about Mogwai, especially after that first album was so well-received. “It was the beginning of a very chaotic, crazy time for Glasgow,” he says. “We had had that whole Teenage Fanclub thing for a while, but Mogwai was different, more experimental.”

Yet, Young Team created a huge pressure for the label, as it had created an enormous buzz for the band, for Chemikal Underground and—in Henderson’s mind—Glasgow. “We had to make certain CODY furthered whatever it was that Mogwai was and did,” he says.

If Young Team was youthful and naïve, an exuberant exercise between band and label, CODY was measured and determined, something both Henderson and Braithwaite considered as a professional approach to making a record. To that end, Henderson’s Delgados relinquished their spot in line to securing Dave Fridmann as producer and hooked up Mogwai with the honor.

“Our general attitude is that we will try anything, and having Dave around just made that easier from day one,” Braithwaite says about Fridmann, whose work on the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin most impressed Mogwai for its open-ended atmospheres.

“I don’t think that CODY was more or less dynamic than their previous work,” says Fridmann. “There were just more quiet moments and approaches to the songs.”

For Fridmann’s part, there was very little to do to CODY but stand back, twiddle some knobs, rearrange the lustrous strings on “Waltz For Aidan,” play keyboards on “Helps Both Ways” and stand back.

“From the moment we started working with him at Tarbox, we found that he wasn’t an ego guy,” says Braithwaite. “Dave was really easygoing, inventive and never pushy.”

Aitchison, a huge Mercury Rev fan, didn’t realize that Fridmann was the guy behind those albums. “He wasn’t our choice, but once we got him, we were really glad we had him,” the bassist says about the exceedingly patient producer (“which was good because we were drunk all the time”) who let Mogwai run amok in his studio as the band saw fit. That even included a rare vocal on the title track—all which was named for an old Scottish biker gang from the ’60s that Burns’ dad had once belonged to.

“I drew the short straw and stumbled into the vocal booth,” says Braithwaite, “because the track had this almost traditional verse/ chorus feel to it that few of our songs had at that point.”

“Davey actually was more hands-off than we expected on CODY,” says Aitchison. “He’s got a distinct production style, so we assumed that he’d really mess with things—which he didn’t. Instead, he kept it all quite sparse, which interestingly is just what it needed.”

Both Aitchison and Braithwaite go on to mention that by the time Mogwai returned to Tarbox Road Studios and his production aegis for 2011’sRock Action, things changed and Fridmann became more of a collaborator, arranger and such. “He’s just a great guy, and we couldn’t help but stay friendly with him and his family,” says Braithwaite.

Most of Aitchison’s CODY experience was based around the social experience of eating there and being in northern New York state, in the back of a house with loads of light looking onto the middle of the woods. “There was a lot of natural reverb in that room; so much so, it was like we didn’t even have to add any,” says the bassist. “It was a very relaxing place to be, the most easygoing recording experience we’ve ever had.” One that easily carries into the sound of the entire album, according to Aitchison: “None of our other albums have that carry-through.”

Working with Fridmann at his studio gave Mogwai an excuse to be in America for the first time. “It really was awesome to think about,” says Braithwaite. “This was the place of Sonic Youth and the Stooges.”

Mogwai was so enamored of Iggy’s Stooges, in fact, that the band used a sample of Pop’s voice from an interview he did on Canadian radio from a 1977 broadcast for “Punk Rock.” Braithwaite says that he assumed Iggy was OK with it, as he never tried to sue them or remove it from CODY. Oakland Raiders football coach-turned-network NFL analyst John Madden felt differently. At least, those who own the likeness of his voice did. The murmuring “Helps Both Ways” sampled Madden’s commentary on a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.

“He sounded angrily over the top,” says Braithwaite. The use of it, however, was unauthorized, and the NFL doesn’t go for unauthorized, so Mogwai and Fridmann replaced that roaring voiceover with another American football game color commentary, probably from a high school contest.

“We dodged a real bullet with that one, as you don’t want corporate American football on your ass,” says Henderson. Along with the endlessly fascinating minimalist quietude of CODY, there was still verve, ferocity and encroachingly screeching noise with “Christmas Steps”—a song that was as heavily dynamic as any CODY song, only with an ending that was as distorted and dense as anything on Young Team. “That was one of the first songs we wrote, actually,” says Braithwaite. “It wound up last by chance. Oddly enough, we actually wanted the album to be shorter than it wound up being. I don’t recall how that song got tacked on to the album.”

Working with Fridmann in America also gave Mogwai its firstever Thanksgiving dinner, a meal that still sticks with the band. “Not only was he a brilliant producer and an all-around nice guy— we are still friendly with his family,” says Braithwaite, calling Fridmann a fine host and chef to boot. “That meal sealed it. They didn’t have to treat us as one of their own, but they did.”

“I think they were truly enamored of a holiday that had nothing else but all that food going for it,” says Fridmann with a laugh. “I have to admit, I was pretty jealous about that Thanksgiving meal—it would have been ours if the Delgados recorded with him that year,” says Henderson. His band went on to record two LPs with Fridmann, sans turkey, cranberry and stuffing.

Considering the overall vibe that Aitchison says the band was going for, Braithwaite elaborates that the process was one that allowed CODY its own interior logic—a haunted one, far different than other Mogwai record before and since. “All of our albums have their own language and signs and atmospheres, but CODY certainly has this really ghostly echo-y thing about it. It occupies its own space. That was the first time that we were able to do something like that.”

Braithwaite’s obsession with all things The Exorcist surely had something to do with his choice of a cover shot: that famously red-eyed snap of Aitchison captured in ghoulish haze. The bassist giggles thinking about the photo, emphasizing that he is neither that ghostly pale or disturbed-looking in real life. “I think I was drunk and the photographer kept shooting all these Polaroids, then found the spookiest one and made me look even more frightening. I mean, come on now.”

Though CODY was an aesthetic success, it was a shock to listeners and critics prepared for more bombast, à la Young Team. “We heard the demos and maybe expected something more fleshed out—where’s the ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’?—but it was brilliant,” says Henderson. “Of course, you expected this visceral post-apocalyptic soundtrack only to hear this beautiful, tempered, restrained record—elegiac, really—that was so delicate in places. That’s what makes CODY brave. Here was this loud and proud band that defied logic and expectations. Good on them. They shot off in directions no one expected, just like a spider-ing windshield.”

As for Braithwaite, he agrees that CODY was a shock to so many of its fans, at home and in the U.S. “Too much, too weird, perhaps not the right record at the right time,” he says. “Maybe people checked out on us because they didn’t have the patience. We make what we make.”

Still, considering that all that Mogwai has done since, Come On Die Young is alive with silent promise and eerie potential. “It’s an amazingly focused and still record considering how young we were and where the band was at that point,” says Braithwaite. “It is one of my—our—proudest moments, really.”

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