Thursday, October 31, 2013

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Rick Barton (Continental, ex-Dropkick Murphys)

Hey, Rick, thanks for talking to me – can you tell me how Continental got started and your decision to get back into music?

I had kinda been taking some time off and had started up a project called Everybody Out! – we had put out a couple of records for two or three years and then the band imploded.  The lead singer and I hated each other, which just kind of happens.   I was talking to Frank Black one day – I was painting his house – and he said the same thing! (laughs) It’s probably equally my fault as much as his, and it’s just like any other kind of relationship, sometimes things just don’t work out.  When you are in such close quarters, it just seems inevitable that a couple of the guys are going to end up not liking each other.  It’s a brutal existence being in a touring band.  We’re out on tour and there are 6 of us in this tiny little van, and every little thing everyone does can get annoying and that gets amplified as several days turn into several months and no one really knows how to handle it. 

So, that band disbanded and I decided I wasn’t going to tour again on that level – it’s just brutal and you don’t make any money anyway.  You end up losing tons of money to end up having friends become enemies.  My son had heard me playing some songs – I had been approached to become a songwriter for other people and get into production – and he said, “You gotta play those!”  And I’m like, “Well, who’s going to be the band?”  He brought me in to play with his friends, and they’re all 18 year old kids.  It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but I figured we’d give it a shot.  I went down there and they were all really incredible musicians, the thing hit right away.  I love playing with my son, and the next thing I know we had a dozen songs together and I said we need to take this thing on the road. That was a little over three years ago and the original guys in the band, they kind of went into shock and couldn’t do it.  So I had to go and find two new guys and they were young kids too, friends of me and my son.   We did our first full US tour, started in September 2010 and the rest is history as they say.

Has working with guys your son’s age affected the way you write? Or is this simply the right guys for your songs?

You always have to be adapting, not only year to year but day to day, so that’s an interesting question.  At first, it was more that I would bring in the songs and tell them to play them the way I wanted them to, but now the band is so incredible – I mean, we just learned a brand new song yesterday – they take what I bring in and just bring it to the next level.  The drummer is incredibly creative and I just let them go to town. The next thing I know, they are coaching ME on when to come in singing and changing my phrasing.  They are all naturally gifted musicians, and sometimes I’m like “I’m not sure I want to sing it like that.” [laughs]  But I defer to their knowledge of music. I mean, if they wanted me to sing a disco song, I might have to draw the line [laughs] but as long as it sticks to my intent, I am willing to let them take the song where they think it needs to go and it’s been working out incredibly well.  They get excited coming up with chord changes and accents, so I don’t want to take that experience away from them.  That is the essence of making music and being in a band, creating a song and hearing it come to fruition from the raw structure on the acoustic guitar. 

Is that how you do it, you just work it up on an acoustic?

Oh yeah, every song.  For example, I was working on that new song in my camper this morning.  The band will get the song in one night, and then I have to go back and practice for three days because I am just not a natural musician.  What I have is some kind of bizarre gift that enables me to have a song come through my body and it’s a phenomenal thing.  I come up with some great shit that I have no idea where it comes from.  Working on that new song today, suddenly I found myself turning these three chords around and I am on to another song – it gives me chills up and down my spine to do that!  I’m 52 years old, and this phenomenon happens to me on a regular basis.  All my peers, guys who are far superior to me musically – guys who I worship like Frank Black and Paul Westerberg – most of my peers wrote their best stuff in their twenties and have steadily gone  downhill. I’m not sure if they are just experiencing life differently or what, but they aren’t able to draw from the same inspiration as they once did.  Most artists do their best work when they are younger, but in my case I really think that I am writing better every day.  It just blows me away.  I really, honestly think my best material is still to come.

You can see a difference even between the Continental stuff and the stuff you did with the Shadowblasters – it’s leagues better and more mature.  The songs have a swagger and confidence  - you seem to be very confident in your writing right now. 

Oh yeah, I am.  I am very lucky.  We’re about to turn the corner and have people start to recognize us…it’s beginning to happen for us now.  This is where I really have to be careful, because we are actually starting to get popular.  It’s a very slow process, acquiring fans.  Now these songs that I write are actually going to be heard by people.  It’s fun, though, to know that your songs are going to be heard.

So what’s the endgame with the next release from Continental – do you have something in place label-wise or are you shopping it?

We have a label in Europe and one here – these are small labels, they don’t give you any money or anything.  We pay for the recording and everything ourselves – labels aren’t what they used to be and everybody’s poor in the music business.  I think we’re going to do a couple of singles sometime soon and those singles will be the lead-in for an album we are going to record right after we get back from Europe in December.  We’re kind of old school, where bands would release a single or two and then you’d have to wait for the album to come out.  And it’s not even the plan because we are copying the past – it’s for financial reasons.  We can only afford to do singles right now.  We had to put up a lot of money to go to Europe but we’re pretty sure we’re going to get most of that back and we are going to invest all of that money into recording an album.  That’s the way you have to do it – you have to put every dime you make back into the music, even the stuff you make from your day job.   A lot of people are afraid to do that, and I understand that fear because I am often reticent to throw all my money into music but at the end of the day I do it every time.  I get down to the last hundred bucks to eat for the week, but everything else goes to the music.

The flipside of the coin, though, is that you own it and don’t have any other master telling you how it needs to sound or what single needs to be released.  You’re in control.

Yeah.  That’s definitely the good part.

Tell me a little bit about FM359, the project you and Mike McColgan (Street Dogs, ex-Dropkick Murphys) are working on.

I tried calling Mike and I was talking to Jonny (Rioux, Street Dogs bassist) and I think it’s coming out sometime in November or December and then we might do a one-off tour and see how it goes.  There is really no definitive plan.  I mean, I think the stuff doesn’t sound the best, sonically, but the other guys are really into it. 

I know that you aren’t probably one to cash in on nostalgia, but I am sure that there are a bunch of people who are interested in that because of the connections you guys have from the Murphys days and from the Street Dogs.  Do you think the connection is going to help raise the profile of Continental?

I don’t think it will, actually.  Nowadays, I don’t think people research and do a back history on the bands they like.  It did happen and it was still happening through the 90’s, but I don’t think people really care about that anymore.   They just want to know what’s happening right now.  I can tell you, me being an ex-member of the Dropkick Murphys has done almost NOTHING for Continental.  We might get one or two fans a night who were my old fans from the Dropkick days, but that’s it.  They don’t come out.  People don’t come out in general to see new bands.   They’re going to go to Warped Tour and Riot Fest – anything that’s a big event.  Or if some legendary band from England comes over like Cocksparrer or someone, people are going to go to that but people aren’t seeking out new music live.  They just click on it on the internet - click, dismiss, click, dismiss.  They don’t have to put any work into finding out about bands. They might just go to some live clip that sounds like crap and go “They suck” and move on.   It’s a hard sell if you’re an underground, original, unknown band. 

We’re playing a show in our hometown on Saturday and we have this campaign blitz of giving away free CDs and shirts, I have been doing personal invites on Facebook to practically every person I know, flooding social media like crazy – and after three weeks of this campaign we are up to about 60 tickets pre-sold, and the Middle East (the club) have said that that is a PHENOMENAL number.  The venue holds 190 people and we are probably going to end up putting 150 people in that room.  That’s our hometown and it’s because of constant vigilance and working our asses off.   Back in my day, in the early 80s, 150 people would come out on Monday night to see two bands at Cantone’s or the Rat and they wouldn’t even know who they were.  That’s just what people did.  That’s where people socialized and now people socialize from their bedroom.  There’s a huge divide.  The tour we were just on, after we left Buffalo – Buffalo we had a good crowd, I think that there were about 70 people there – after that we played SEVERAL rooms where there were only one or two people and that was it. I’m not even exaggerating.   I made my mind up, at least we can get people out in Boston, but you would think with our networking we could fill a much bigger room.  And I have promoters who caught wind of my promotion and they want us to do this same thing in Canada…I’m like, “I’ll go completely broke giving away our merchandise”, but you know what I’ll do it.  The guy in Montreal, the promoter, I told him “Free t-shirts and CDs”.  We’re not going to make any money that night, even if people come.   But that’s the name of the game…I’m willing to lose money to get people into the room to hear the music.  I have no retirement account or anything.  I am a painter and work in the trades, so I do this because it’s what’s in my soul.  I am not and will never be a rich man, and I had to pay a lot to get out from underneath the Murphys, so this is it. 

Is that mercenary, “take no prisoners” approach to getting people in the room what you attribute your growth to?  The album is great, but seeing you play live is really what sold me on the band…

That’s the point.  It doesn’t matter what it takes, getting warm bodies in the room is the goal.  I posted on Facebook recently that I would rather make people happy than make money, so that’s it. 

You’ve got the tour coming up, the album after that – what’s your plan long term?  You seem to be hitting a late stride songwriting-wise…are you focusing on the band or do you plan to do more production gigs and farm your songs out to other performers?

I’m putting all my eggs in one basket and really work this Continental thing until I can go no longer.  If somebody asks me for a song, of course I will try to do that, but I don’t want to work with musicians [laughs] 

Have you thought about working with some of the people who are your heroes – Frank Black, Westerberg?  Is that something that would be a viable option for you in your golden years?

Those two guys, they’re a lot like me and they write on their own, so I don’t really see that working [laughs].  Collaboration isn’t for me, it’s just not.  I do it with the Street Dogs and Mike, but he doesn’t play an instrument so it’s different and I like bringing stuff to him to see where he takes it.  We were going to cover a song of mine that we did with on the Street Dogs’ last album (“Poor Poor Jimmy”) about the old Rat in Kenmore Square and the owner there.  But Mike just hits it out of the ballpark, and we were trying to practice it last night and I’m like, “Dude, I suck at my own song…we can’t do this!”  As for others, I would be in too much awe to work with those other guys you mentioned, but I kinda like to be the lead guy.  That’s just my ego or something. 

Is that what brought you back in front of the mike?

I got tired of having lead singers and having to deal with that….I thought, I could probably do all this myself.  It might not sound as good as I want it to, but there is more sincerity when the guy who wrote the song is singing it.  I’ve had other people sing my songs in the past because I didn’t have confidence in my voice, but now I have learned to sing and feel like I can do this.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

INTERVIEW: Sam Phillips

Posessing a voice that is equal parts haunting and expressive and a songwriting acumen that encompasses the entirety of 20th-century song, Sam Phillips has carved out a comfortable niche for herself in the post-pop musical landscape.  Upon the release of her stunning new collection, "Push Any Button", Sam spoke with me about the inspiration for the new record, her foray into visual artwork and her desire not to dwell on the past.

“Push Any Button”, for lack of a better word, is a very “sweet” album – you sound like you are in a very good place and it pulls melodically from classic pop and pre-rock traditions.  What inspired its creation?  Were the sonic choices you made a reaction to the Nonesuch records, which were a bit more spartan? 

Push Any Button was inspired by my online digital art and music project called Long Play that I did a few years ago.  I wrote and recorded a lot of material in a short amount of time so the production was sparse and done on the fly.  I wanted to take my time writing and recording the songs for Push Any Button. My aim was to make each song a record you would find on an old jukebox.. But with a modern twist.

It’s obvious from both a songwriting and production standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work.   What is your songwriting process like?  Has producing your own work impacted the way you express yourself?

Song writing is still a mysterious process for me.  Anything can set it off-- a feeling, an old building, wearing my husband's shirt, a melody in my head, a phrase.  Someone asked me where his daughter could take song writing lessons recently.  While I am sure there are people who try to teach it, I think it is something you have to learn by doing... Really by listening.

You were an early adopter of crowd sourcing, creating your own website for the funding and release of "The Long Play" series. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience was?  What were some of the benefits and drawbacks to that model for you?

I loved doing Long Play.  The only drawback was that it wasn't physical.  At some point I hope to release a physical copy of the art and music.

You have a history of working with Amy Sherman-Palladino on her TV series…how do you approach composing for someone else’s vision?

When I began making music for Gilmore Girls, Amy asked if I would use my voice in the score.  Because the show had a lot of dialog, I couldn't use words, so I used melody to express the emotion needed for each spot.  It was different from songwriting in that the pieces of music were tiny and the emotional mood/range was limited to the specifics of the show. 

Your collage work is quite stunning and yet very playful– what creative itch does working in that medium scratch?   Whose work inspires your own?

I loved working with old album covers and vintage images to make new record jackets for the vinyl edition of Push Any Button.  It connected the album to an appreciation for the old record business, while commenting on the brokenness of it in a lighthearted, scrappy way. One of my favorite artists is Chris Burden.

You’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of “Martinis and Bikinis”, which was a critical and commercial watershed for you (and, full disclosure, is one of my favorite albums).  How do you view that album now with the comfort of distance?  Is nostalgia something that matters for you artistically?

Though there were some amazing performances by the musicians on Martinis And Bikinis, I prefer the albums that I did for Nonesuch and some of the more stripped down recordings I am making now.  I like to keep moving forward. 

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who continues to inspire you musically?

I love great melodies and  I am not a snob about it.  It can be a chorus from a pop song, a classical piece by Rodrigo, a standard from the 40's or a guitar line from a rockabilly record.

What’s next on tap for you?

In addition to writing songs and scoring for film and TV, I am putting together more visual art and will be doing more live shows next year.

Monday, October 21, 2013

INTERVIEW: Richard Barone (the Bongos)

(Photo by Mick Rock)

Venerable New Jersey songwriter and erstwhile leader of art-rockers the Bongos, Richard Barone writes fiercely independent and genuinely passionate songs about love and life.  Barone reached out via email to discuss his recently reformed group, their just-released "lost album" and being the final act to take the stage at legendary NJ venue Maxwell's.

Your “lost” album “Phantom Train” is just now coming out, and it’s a doozy!  The album had a notoriously troubled gestation. How did it come about that you finally were able to “finish” it? 

There was a perfect storm for its delay and a perfect storm for its release. At the time of recording, coming off a 300-show tour and landing in the Bahamas to record, the project was too big and unwieldy for us to deal with. There were multiple takes of songs and endless mixes to sift through, and no pressing label commitment to deliver it. We were back on the road before we knew it, and soon after that we were all off on our own doing different things. So, the album remained in storage boxes. After I mentioned it onstage at the “cool blue halo” 25th anniversary concert last year and performed a song from it, Marty Scott who was re-launching his JEM Records label this year contacted me to ask about it, and everything fell into place. We spent the summer finally listening to all the mixes and versions of the songs, and picked the ones that comprise “Phantom Train”.

You recently got to help Maxwell’s in NJ say farewell, closing out the storied venue with sets from both “a” and the Bongos.  It must have been an honor to be the first and last band to play there.  Can you tell me about that experience?

The closing night of Maxwell’s unleashed a torrent of emotions for anyone who had ever been a part of its closely knit community. The bands and bartenders, the DJs, the house sound mixers, the waitstaff, the regulars and even the youngblood newcomers stepping in for the very first—and last—time could each sense something important was being lost. Something cool that we would all miss. It all began quite innocently. We were just some guys in a band looking for a place in the neighborhood where we could play. It was mutual love at first sight. We performed there, we practiced there, we stored our gear there, we ate, drank and had basically grew up there. Over time, musical styles and personal lives evolved and changed, as did Maxwell’s, yet the venue remained a constant. Through good and bad days as Hoboken lost its original innocence and “small town” vibe, Maxwell’s persevered somehow, remaining a meeting place for music lovers and perhaps the most well-known and least-known bands of our time. Bounding that stage on July 31, 2013, first for a set by the specially reformed “a” (the original first band to ever play at Maxwell’s, including all three original Bongos) and a final closing set by the Bongos as ourselves, felt poetic somehow. The entire day and night was a celebration of old friends and new faces. Every bit of the original magic was there in that overcrowded little room. Looking out into the crowd, the energy and sense of celebration was at a sustained peak throughout the night. Especially for the final encore of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends,” when we were joined onstage by members of Yo La Tengo and the Feelies. For me personally, in some sadly joyful way, it was Maxwell’s finest hour.

With the Bongos seemingly reunited and the Feelies back together, the NJ scene of the late 70’s and early 80s seems to be having a bit of a resurgence!  Why do you think that music resonates so much now?

Originality never dies.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

Whichever of my songs I am performing at the moment is my favorite one. “The Bulrushes” might be a current favorite, as it has been covered several times this year alone, most recently by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs.

Can you describe your songwriting process for me?  What inspires you to create? 

Anything can inspire me. Usually, though, it’s a person or a relationship issue that starts the ball rolling. From there it takes all kinds of turns and free-association. Like, how does my situation relate to other experiences and how does it relate to the listener? And how can I tell this story in a way that has never been told.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who inspires you musically?

That’s easy. The Beatles, in particular Lennon. Marc Bolan and T. Rex. Donovan. The production work of Tony Visconti. The music of Kraftwerk. The ambient music of Brian Eno. The guitars of Robert Fripp, David Gilmour, Marc Bolan, Eddie Cochran. The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. The prose of Willliam Burroughs. The plays of Tennessee Willliams. And the art of Andy Warhol. For starters.

What’s on tap for you next?  Are there plans to tour or promote “Phantom Train”?

I’m always on tour, primarily as a solo troubadour (see for schedule and sign up for the geo-targeted newsletter) and I perform many songs from “Phantom Train” in my shows. The Bongos just played this week at New York’s CMJ Festival and will do some more shows as well. Just keep an ear to the ground, and you just might hear The Bongos “Phantom Train” roar into your town!  I’m planning my next solo album as well, on which I plan to open the door to special guests. I am one of the luckiest musicians I know, who is fortunate to work with some of the greatest artists around, and I’m honored to collaborate with so many who have inspired me.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Doyle Von Frankenstein (DOYLE/Misfits)

(Photo by Tim Tronckoe)

Thanks for speaking with me. 

Hey brother, no problem.

Your new band Doyle is made up of the final line-up of your previous group Gorgeous Frankenstein – what made you decide to make this a new band? 

Why change the name?


That was my singer’s call.  Alex, he’s a crazy fucker – the imagery he puts to the songs is just insane.  We were texting about the new record and he just texted me and said “Let’s call it Doyle”.  Are you sure?  “Yeah.”  But you know, with Gorgeous Frankenstein no one knew who we were. We did two tours and would go out and play to 50 people and 49 of them would tell me they didn’t even know I had a new band!  So it made sense to just use my name.

How did the songs for “Abominator” come together?  What’s your songwriting process like?

Well, I write all the music myself – guitar, bass, drums, and then I send it to Alex for words and vocal melodies.  It’s all my own music – I’ve done this for too fucking long to play other people’s shit, y’know [laughter]  So, I would record demos of the guitar and bass, and program the drums and then send transcriptions of stuff to Alex so he has a sense of what to put lyrically to the music.  He is an intense dude, and some of the shit he comes up with is just the sickest, and that’s just who he is!  He is the genius, I’m just a guy who plays guitar.  But you know what, it’s all about the songwriting.  I am a hack at guitar, I know two chords, but I can write songs, y’know.  That’s what gets people moving and involved. 

We weren’t even sure what to call the record and I was driving and the title “Abominator” just came to me and I texted Alex to see what he thought.  He was excited about it, so it became the last track we did and the title. 

It’s an appropriate title – the new stuff is fucking heavy!  Was that intentional?

No, I just write what comes out.  I don’t have a tree in the backyard that I pluck stuff from and say I need this type of song or that type of song.  I just sit down with the guitar and these are the ideas that were the most interesting were the ones we worked up.  We actually had 38 songs to work on.  We worked on more than half of them and then picked the eleven we wanted for the record.  We have the 2nd album almost finished.


Yeah.  When we tracked we had six songs left over and figured, what the hell, so we went back in and recorded a few more.  I have three songs left to put guitar on, but it should be out in a few months.  The first record doesn’t even come out on physical CD and double vinyl until the 29th (of October) but we’ve been selling it at shows and it’s been available digitally for months.

And how is the album doing?

It’s been great.  You know, it’s the first thing I ever downloaded.  I got an iPhone and my album was the first thing I purchased [laughter]  But it’s cool because the physical release has an extra track and it’s a tri-fold digipak with a 16 or 18 page booklet with art and the lyrics.   

That sounds cool.  You’ve been a special guest on the Danzig Legacy and 25th anniversary tours playing the Misfits songs that are over 30 years old.  How has that experience been?

It’s just like going to work, you take your tools and do your job.  I’ve spent my life playing those songs, and I wasn’t in the band from the start but have played those songs over and over.  It’s fun, the crowd loves it. 

You’ve said in the past that Glenn is like a mentor to you – what have you learned from him over the years?

Well, he taught me how to play guitar and I learned songwriting from him.   I think I learned that it’s important to fucking just do your own thing and write your own shit.   That’s important, you know.  He’s very supportive and he always does what he wants to do, and I’ve definitely taken that with me. 

Who or what inspires you musically?

Well, when I started it was Alice Cooper and Bowie, and then punk came along and the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Damned were really important to me.  When the Misfits broke up, I stopped playing music for a few years and one day my friend brought over Van Halen and put that on, and I was fucking blown away.  It was “Van Halen 1”, and the guitar playing was fucking insane!  But you know, the songwriting was also good.   And that’s what I hope to inspire.  You have some 16 year old kid sitting in his room, playing Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen licks spot on, but who fucking cares?  Do something original.  That was what punk was all about. 

Aping some guitar solo might be technically impressive, but it lacks soul.


So what’s on tap for you next?  Do you have plans to tour “Abominator”?

Yeah, we’re going to try to cover the world.  Lots of touring.  We have the second record coming out, now quite sure when yet, and these last couple of dates with Danzig.  It’s all good.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

INTERVIEW: Tim Midyett and Andy Cohen (Bottomless Pit)

(Photo by Mr. King)

Forged from the ashes of tragedy and imbued with a musical comradery that only comes with decades of playing together, Bottomless Pit has made some of the most subtly and beautifully uncompromising rock music of the past decade.  Days away from releasing their stunning 3rd album, "Shade Perennial", Pit mainmen Tim Midyett and Andy Cohen responded by email to discuss the new record and passion for the music they make.

The songs on “Shade Perennial” feel more visceral than the last two records.  It was notably engineered by noisenik and last-honest-man-standing Steve Albini, whom you had worked with previously in Silkworm.  Was that an intentional pairing?  What did he bring to the process and how did it impact the songs you had?

[Tim Midyett]  Steve has been the recording process for us for a long time.  We work with Greg Norman sometimes.  He works at Steve’s studio, Electrical Audio.  But otherwise it’s always Steve working on stuff.  He understands us and we understand him.  We want to capture the overall sound, the overall feeling of the music, much more than we want to be surgical about working on each of the parts of it individually.  He’s the best in the world at getting on tape what is going on in the room as we do what we do.

[Andy Cohen]  Can’t underestimate the benefits of recording at Steve’s Electrical Audio, which he envisioned, designed and built.  The rooms sound great, the equipment works, and it’s a great environment.

On the earlier albums and eps, there seemed to be a bigger distinction between your songs – Tim’s were a bit more meditative, Andy’s a bit rowdier and blunt (for lack of better terms) – but the lines have become increasingly blurred on this album. What is your writing process like?  Do you each bring fully-formed songs in or is it more collaborative?

[TM]  Andy and I do write separately.  Sometimes we’re particular about how things turn out, and in those cases there’s a fair amount of guidance as to what to play and all that.  But almost all the time, once the band has the song, we all work together to get the essence of it across.  Not too much explaining or direction most of the time.

[AC] We did rehearse this set of songs for longer than those on the last two records.  Maybe the longer band exposure did result in a more cohesive group. 

Andy, your guitar playing is both incendiary and cathartic – who are some of your influences?

[AC] Influence #1: bafflement that most people aren’t more thoughtful and aggressive in their guitar playing.  Influences #2: Sonny Sharrock, Jimi Hendrix, Joel Phelps, Robert Fripp.

Tim, your move to baritone guitar with Bottomless Pit creates a wider palate than the “power trio” attack of Silkworm – how did that come about?

[TM] Well, I started playing baritone guitar while I was still playing bass, in about 1997, when Silkworm still existed.  So I’ve been doing it a long time.  I didn’t do it exclusively in Silkworm because some songs demanded deeper low end impact or a certain sparse quality or both.

In Bottomless Pit, I wanted to have a bass player so I could play baritone all the time.  I love playing bass, but I wanted to have an entire spectrum of sound open to us, and the instrumentation of bass, baritone, and regular guitar affords a kind of chamber-music range that is flexible and useful to us.

You’ve been intentional in making sure that the Bottomless Pit albums are released on vinyl in addition to digital formats and it seems that the music benefits from the increased sonic space that vinyl allows.  Is that a fair assessment?  How has the response been?

[TM]  I’ve always been a vinyl person, since I started buying records.  I never got rid of my LPs, and I never got into buying CDs, because I never felt like CDs were a permanent format.  I think time has borne out that approach.  They’re barely even in existence for independent bands nowadays, and I think that’s great.  The packaging of CDs isn’t exciting, the actual item isn’t exciting, and I think records sound better if you’ve got a decent turntable.

I put out the first three BP records on my own.  I just did the exact way I wanted to do it, and that meant vinyl, of course.  People have bought enough of them, but really we make the records for ourselves, so the reception isn’t all that important.  Sounds dickish, but it’s true!

[AC] Vinyl sounds better and is more fun to play.  In addition, it is turning out to be the only format from the last 50 years with any staying-power.  CDs have compromised sound quality, questionable physical longevity, and appear to be on the way out of the market.  Who knows what will become of the various other digital formats that have become prominent over the last 10 years.

Seth Pomeroy’s Silkworm documentary “Couldn’t You Wait” was finally released this year and it was quite an emotional yet celebratory ride– it certainly served as a fitting tribute to Michael and his musical life.  Did it allow you any measure of closure on the Silkworm experience?

[TM] Closure, no.  I don’t believe in it.  I don’t want that.  Silkworm was a huge part of my life and is still a gigantic part of who I am.  I think about Michael several times a day every day.  I don’t want to wrap any of it up as history for myself personally. 

I love that Seth did that for everyone else.  He made that story available to people, and I cherish having those memories consecrated and preserved.  But none of those stories will never be closed for me.  Not the band, not the way it ended, not Michael’s death.  The good parts stay alive, and the horrible parts stay open.

[AC] I don’t have any idea what people mean when they talk about “closure” on an experience, unless it’s some business deal or something with an explicit closing date.  The Silkworm movie is great, and, like Tim, I’m glad there is a warts-and-all tribute that explains a lot of what I think was important about Silkworm.

You’ve given yourself a second life as a band with Bottomless Pit…what keeps you making art after almost 30 years? 

[TM]  Compulsion. Very simple. It’s a process of chasing a rush, one that morphs a little bit every time you go to revisit it.

[AC] Playing this music is one of the only transcendent experiences I know of.  It is like magic, here in the regular World.  I mean that at the right time, with the right sound, I/we can transcend our usual perceptions, and it seems like a magical experience.

What’s on tap next for the band?

[TM]  We have a few shows in the Midwestern U.S. this fall.  We’ll be on the west coast of the U.S. in late February and early March, maybe Texas in April, then ideally the east coast in May.  Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum)

(Photo By Michael L Smith)

Hey, Dave!  Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

No problem.

I was just listening to No Fun Intended and it sounds like you guys were having a blast recording that. What was the impetus behind putting out a covers ep?

Well, I think that me and Michael Bland, the drummer, sort of had a challenge and felt like, let me have a go at some of that music you grew up listening to, kind of thing. And I really, really, really encourage him to do that. I really welcome it. So, he has a tendency to sort of want to explore things like that in a way that he’ll go back into the Soul Asylum catalog and find some old obscure punk rock song I wrote and go “Let’s do that one”. And I’m like “Great!”, because when he plays it, it sounds better than it’s ever sounded.

So, to that effect, you know, there tries to be something somewhat significant about the songs that we picked. You know, and on this particular, I don’t even know what we’re calling that, installment? [laughter], The Suicide Commandos are just a band that were the local Ramones and the guitar player showed me my first guitar chords. And I just loved them. I just-, I think that was probably the first time I realized that, you know, music didn’t come out of some mysterious place that was a radio. That there were actually local people in town making rock music and, the other one is by the MC5. I had to really come to the MC5 by way of the Ramones or whatever and once I figured out who they were, they just became a very, very important group to me. And the funniest thing about Love Will Tear Us Apart, is people go, “Oh I’m surprised you would cover that song” because they seem to think that-, I don’t know, it’s weird. Like, because I wasn’t a goth kid, I wouldn’t be liking music like that or something. And you know, it was always playing in the club next door when we were playing in the little Bunker place. I always just thought it was a great song and it’s also kind of a thing where they put out a remix, I don’t know, ten years ago, and I was like “Oh cool maybe this remix is going to be the version that I like better than the original version” cause I always thought it could be a little bit better. I don’t know why. And the remix was way worse. So, it was little bit of a, you know, I want to get this one right to it sometimes. And you know, I think it’s just a great song.

What was really cool to see you pick something off the second MC5 record, because I think that one tends to get glossed over because people are talking about Kick Out The Jams. I mean, Back In The USA was just such a phenomenal record.

And it’s a Fred Smith song, I’m pretty sure, which also makes it unusual-, my god yeah, what a fucking weird record! And I met John Landau and I asked him about it. And it’s weird because parts of it just don’t sound as good as they could. And then you kind of have to have Kick Out The Jams to sort of hear them at their full power or something. It almost seems like maybe they were frustrated with the recording process because their power couldn’t be captured, or something. But yeah, there’s really interesting things on High Time. I really liked The Human Being Lawnmower, I’d love to cover that one someday.

Well, is this the first in a series of EPs that you guys are doing, are they all going to be covers?

Yeah, I think our kind of half-assed strategy is to like do three installments of three songs, put them on the Internet. We have like, I don’t know, we recorded like ten songs.

Cool. Now I know Michael is someone who you’ve been playing with a while. But you got a couple new guys in the band. What can you tell me about them? They seem to have brought some new energy to the project.

Oh my god, I mean, absolutely. It’s hard to-, I mean, I don’t really feel like I have to rationalize it or anything like that, but when we were making Grave Dancers Union and we replaced the drummer, Sterling Campbell sort of opened my eyes. It was like I was living in a cave. And I just didn’t really-, I mean I never really thought about, you know, the caliber of a player as far as rock music goes, cause you know, I didn’t necessarily think I was that good, and I was coming from that punk rock aesthetic it was kind of, you know, sounding like shit was part of the deal or something. So then I guess before that we had made a record with Steve Jordan, who is Keith Richards’ drummer and, just again, this amazing musician that just makes magic. And he tried to get our drummer to play better and he did it. And he really nurtured it, but by the next record, it just wasn’t happening.

So, you know, then Karl died. Karl was just my anchor, he was an emotional anchor for me. Not necessarily somebody that had a lot to do with creating the music, but somebody who was a moral barometer of the band, that was always in a good mood, unflappable. He just was very, very positive and very much somebody that didn’t get fazed by adversity, such an asset to the organization in that sort of way. Now I’ve got a gentleman by the name of Winston Roy. And Winston is like Sterling, or Steve Jordan, in the way that he’s a world class great bass player, which is pretty far away from the Sid Vicious rule of playing bass. He loves all kinds of music, but he’s just a phenomenal musician and he’s a great singer. And Justin Sharbono is just ridiculous, I mean, he’s so fresh in a way that he’s… I don’t know how much younger he is than me, but [laughter] young enough that he didn’t crawl out from the same rock. So he’s got this whole angle, where he was a huge fan of the band and he just couldn’t wait to get his hands on the material and do his thing. And you know, it’s just so unbelievable how much sort of fun it is to be in a band again because it’s kind of reborn, you know.

Yeah, definitely. I watched a couple of videos of you guys from this tour this past summer, and everyone just seems to be on fire. It didn’t seem like a couple of guys in the band had been there only a year.

Yeah, they’re getting more jaded. [laughter]

Grave Dancers Union celebrated its 20th anniversary is this summer, and you played that front to back on tour. How was that experience revisiting something that far down the line?

Well, I was initially against it. I was like I already toured that record, I don’t want to get nostalgic. That’s the worst thing ever. You can’t get sentimental and nostalgic in rock music. It’s a bad way to be. And so, I kind of got voted down. [laughter] And they really wanted to do it and I felt, well that’s kind of cool that they’re excited about it, so I’ll give it a try. And it ended up being really an interesting experience for me, you know. You just don’t play a record from beginning to end, and I didn’t know how that was going to feel. And we spent, oh my god, I don’t know how many months recording that record and trying to get it right. And once we did, here I have a situation where some of it sounds better than it’s ever sounded. And you know, it was-, there was moments where, you know, my memories of what was happening when I was writing that record were kind of just weird - I was feeling my “Grave Dancers Union self” [laughter] in a way that was not happy and not sad and not disturbing, but very emotional, I guess. And you know, it turned out to be a really interesting experience and I really didn’t see that coming, so it was fun. And it was fun to tour with the Wailers – I mean, it’s kinda weird the Wailers without Bob Marley, but they were just great.

That was a strange little bill, the way that was built with four bands playing albums back-to-back. I could see that being kind of an odd concert dynamic.

The Wailers cheated too, cause they played Legend, a greatest hits record.

[laughter] Oh, okay. So what inspires your writing these days? Obviously, you know, this is almost 30 years after starting out.

I guess the same thing it’s always inspired it. I think I have a tendency to, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, you know, and that’s where I try to keep it. I think if I approached it like there was some sort of a formula to it, it would really be terrible. If I even had an iota that I think I know what I’m doing, I think it would completely detract from the process of just trying to be open to whatever pops up in my head. I live in New Orleans. I’ve been there for 14 years and to me it’s the music mecca of the world. So, living in that environment has definitely been different than growing up in Minneapolis. I mean, it’s just a whole shift in paradigm as far as what the music is like that you’re around. And it’s a damn good one.

I did find myself going I’m sick and tired of singer-songwriters bitching and moaning about everything. I want to move to New Orleans, listen to instrumental music…I love the Meters, and I love hearing people express themselves through horns. If you ain’t Bob Dylan, I’m tired of what your words are about. And I guess that is sort of probably been the biggest musical influence on me in a way - not that I try to emulate the music of New Orleans or co-opt it or something cause it’s just not the way it is. [laughter] So, I guess I try to learn from it and one of the things that I learned was that I was a punk rock kid who expressed a lot of anger, and a lot of angst, and nihilism, and all that kind of stuff. And you know, there I was in New Orleans watching these amazing musicians and they were all smiling while they were playing. And it was joyful noise. I got into the gospel music down there, and you know, it just sort of made me think about my life, and how different it can be for different people, and how music is there for all of us, I guess.

Sure. I would think the spirit of New Orleans itself, and that “joyful noise” kind of gives you the permission to free up and explore a little bit more sonically or even to write about different things than you would coming out of Minneapolis.

Yeah, I mean, there’s very little “I spent six months in a basement during a freezing winter” kind of music in New Orleans. [laughter]

Yeah, I can imagine! [laughter] But did you think 30 years on you’d still be able to do it as a full-time musician? I mean, it’s kind of got to be kind of humbling to be able to pursue your dream that way.

Yeah, I tell you, it is. It’s extremely humbling. I don’t know how else to say it, but it makes me go, you know what I’m glad I didn’t kill myself, and I’m glad I didn’t break up the band, and I’m glad that these people still come out, and I’m glad I can still do it. And you know, and it’s very humbling and that makes it that much more special, you know?

So, do you have plans ever to do another solo album? Or is Soul Asylum where you’re hanging your hat these days?

Not really, I mean it was of course a great experience, and of course I learned a ton, and of course it’s affected the way that I approach making records. But in a strange way, I wanted to know what it would be like to make a record if I could hand pick the musicians. And now that is sort of what Soul Asylum is, if that makes any sense. I couldn’t find a better group than these guys, you know.

Delayed Reaction is probably one of your strongest records. I was floored when I listened to it, because I’d kind of fallen off the wagon a little bit with the band for a few years. To be able to have the people you want playing the music that you want at the level that they can, has got to be inspiring.

Well, it makes the whole process so much more effortless. And it makes the studio fun instead of arduous. And I mean the funniest thing about these guys, I don’t know why I tell this story, but we’ll all be in a van for an extended period of time and everything that comes on the radio, they’ll just deconstruct it. Even if it’s a Journey song, they’ll be sitting there going “oh yeah this is Aynsley Dunbar on the drums and they’re getting really interesting F sharp minor there, and blah, blah, blah” [laughter] They know so much about music it’s hilarious and they grew up on the same stuff, you know. Michael Bland grew up listening to the same classic rock station in Minneapolis that I did, so, that part of it is comical cause you know, it’s not rocket surgery [laughter]

Part of what being someone who loves music is, is you pick apart all that crap and the minutia and this drum set, this producer, so I get that. [laughter] So what’s next for you and the band? I know you’re out on tour right now with Fountains of Wayne and Evan Dando. What’s up after that?

Well, we end the tour in Minneapolis and I’m trying to get Winston to stick around in Minneapolis, as much as I want to get back to New Orleans, because we record in Minneapolis. So, we’re working on a new record and it’s being made in a very modern way. And I just produced a record that was made in a very modern way and the record that I produced was pretty much a full-time job. Whenever I wasn’t on the road, I was doing that. I’ve got ProTools skills so, I really had an interesting musical experiment with getting all these just awesome second line rhythms and poly-rhythms and syncopations going with the computer and being able to manipulate them just a little bit so that it’s just really tight, you know.

We got at least a dozen songs tracked, and we’re sort of working on them when we’re not on the road. And we’re trying to do silly things like send each other’s files through the Inter-web and all that ridiculousness. But you know, it’s most fun when we’re all together in a room.  Me, Michael, and John Fields have a great methodology - John can play bass and produce and engineer and we’re all producers so between the three of us we can track my songs just incredibly efficiently. We’re kind of trying to stop doing that so we can get Justin and Winston in from the get go. But, Michael’s talking to John on the phone last night and I said tell that motherfucker to book his ticket down to New Orleans cause I’m the hottest producer down there and he’s got to come down there and prove himself. [laughter] And he gave me a hard time, he said you know, hottest producer in the seventh ward, and I was like yeah, well, but you know. So he’s got to come down to New Orleans for the time. And I built a little studio in my backyard where I made the record I’m producing. Hopefully we can get a record out that has a place to put it. [laughter] I mean we made vinyl on Delayed Reaction and they’re so goddamn cool but man I had to beg for it, you know. [laughter]

Are you guys still with 429 Records or are you going to shop this?

We’re gonna shop it.

Okay. How was the experience of releasing the EP digitally? Was that an economic decision, or was it more a matter of you shoot stuff out over the Inter-webs and it’s just there for people to find?

Well, you know, it’s weird because when I think about it, it wasn’t even like a conscious effort. It was walking into the studio, and Michael and John sort of jokingly going, “so what do you feel like doing?” At one point I was in Minneapolis and it was Christmas time and my family was driving me crazy and I jumped out of that situation and jumped into the studio and they were like what do you want to do? And I was like, “TV Eye”, I just felt like doing an Iggy Pop song. And I just screamed this scream that [laughter] I think scared the hell out of John and Michael. But, it was just little things like that, like “Oh, I feel like playing a Dead Kennedys’ song today”. And then Mike would go, “I would love that.” Like really? And he’s like, “Yeah, I got a Mohawk”. [laughter]

So, it was just really supposed to fun and funny and spontaneous. We’ve always approached covers but we sort of used to sort of make fun of the covers that we were playing, you know. We’d joke our way through Chevy Van or Rhinestone Cowboy or whatever it was. So, this was a little different than that as far as we hit on more music that is relevant to me. It just kind of fell together and I certainly never had any intention that we were going to put it out, but I guess that’s what the Internet is, you know, trying to understand why. I try to understand, is it a bad thing that kids don’t really get the idea of what an LP is anymore? I don’t know.

Yeah, I have pretty strong feelings about that. That’s one of those things that I think is lost. But you’re right, does it really matter if they’re going by the design of an album and they’re following that journey or they’re making their own because they shuffle the ten songs they want so they can add them to their playlist?

Yeah. It’s just a silly way to see what the Internet does and see what people react to when they react to Joy Division. And we put out a song on the internet a few years back, it was Let’s All Kill Each Other, and you know the thing that was interesting about that is we went played in Peru and everyone was “let’s all go kill each other!!!”, and it was like holy shit, that was weird. You know?

[laughter] They knew it! The Internet allowed them to experience that in a way that trying to find a piece of vinyl or the CD in a Peruvian…I’m not even sure what kind of store would carry that!

We could talk about analog vs. digital for ten hours too, I’m sure.

[laughter] I’m sure. Well, Dave, thanks so much man. I appreciate you taking time out to speak with me. And I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys in Buffalo on the 14th.

Right on, my man. Alright. Well, I’ll see you there.

Friday, October 4, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Alex Chilton – Electricity By Candlelight

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.  Though attributed to the John Ford vehicle “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, it is equally relevant in describing Alex Chilton’s career.  Long a legend among music aficionados, Chilton’s ability to imbue his songs and the songs of others with an equal mixture of gravitas and joy is almost supernatural.  On February 13th, 1997, during a residency at New York’s legendary Knitting Factory, the power blew right before Chilton’s second set.  A temperamental figure on the best of days, the crowd would have been validated in its concern that the show would be scuttled, but Memphis legend surprised the crown with an acoustic set of sprightly covers and originals, accompanied by only his guitar and the occasional percussion.    

Taped by a fan and recently released by Bar/None Records, “Electricity By Candlelight” is a joyous snapshot of Chilton at his most relaxed and amiable.  Country covers sit comfortably next to tunes by the Beach Boys and you can practically hear the smile on Chilton’s face as he tears into “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.  The crowd hangs on every word and what the audience-sourced recording lacks in fidelity it more than makes up for in intimacy and charm.  Chilton had recently started a resurgence in activity after some years in the wild, and this recording serves as a nice reminder that when he was on, the man was ON!  Sets like this one show exactly what songwriters like Paul Westerberg saw in Alex Chilton, and though it may be by the hundreds and not millions, the crowd at the Knitting Factory that night before Valentine’s Day got a love-letter like no other from a living legend.