Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, the fabulous Top 11 of 2014!

What a difference a year makes.  Twelve months ago I was bellyachin' about having a difficult time coming up with even SEVEN records to be passionate about.  Well, 2014 doubled-down and served up a damned bonanza of musical ecstasy.  I'll get out of the way and let the music do the talking...hang on, because this one goes to 11!

1.      Sugar Stems – Only Come Out At Night
This year’s album of the year came from nowhere and rode a wave of buzzsaw guitars, melodic organ and powerful female vocals directly into sugar-pop nirvana. Straight outta Wisconsin, Sugar Stems’ latest is a veritable feast of melodic goodness and singer Betsy Heibler’s gale-force voice, like a stronger and brasher Belinda Carlisle, is a goddamned thing of beauty. The whole thing is a sweetly tart treat, and if the title track isn’t used to soundtrack a “rebellious teens driving around LA at night” scene, Hollywood has failed.  Hands down, my most played album this year, and I cannot wait to see what the group does next!

2.      Matthew Ryan – Boxers
It’s inspiring to see a rock lifer put out the finest album of his career 17 years in, and “Boxers” is a helluva record!  Ryan forgoes the acoustic-based treatments of his last several albums, cranks up the guitars and makes a glorious noise. Producer and secret-weapon guitarrorist Keven Salem allows this passionate set of songs to breathe and roar, highlighting the beautiful universality of Ryan’s personal, detailed narratives. If your heart doesn’t race at the emotional and sonic rush of “An Anthem For the Broken”, I pity you and hope your soul finds solace in whatever Maroon 5 record you play to cry yourself to sleep. 

3.      Bob Mould – Beauty & Ruin
Uncle Bob is clearly hitting his stride and follows-up 2012’s excellent “Silver Age” with a collection that is as sonically bracing and far more emotional.  Sounding like the 4th album Sugar never made, “Beauty & Ruin” finds Mould working through loss the only way he knows how…via the sharp bite of his Fender strat and the rockfuckingsolid backing of bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster.  Rockers “Kid With Crooked Face” and “Hey Mr. Grey” show the kids just how much howl a 50-something can bring to the table.  Another stunner in a career lousy with them.

4.      Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else
It takes a lot of life lived for a 24 year old to sing with this type of conviction.  Lydia Loveless’ latest is the alt country album that Fleetwood Mac never made, coked-up drunk dials and reminders that sometimes the sex has to be good to keep a relationship in line. Loveless owns her sexuality and heartbreak, and while purists and longtime fans may bemoan the smoother textures, the dusky and downright sexy production and songs match Loveless’ voice like a glove…the kind that just might slap you if you are naughty (or beg for it well enough!)

5.      Swans – To Be Kind
It takes cojones to follow up a beloved double-album with another two-disk set, but Swans has never been shy in the balls department.  The fact that “To Be Kind” is EVEN BETTER than the masterful dark thrum of 2012’s “The Seer” is a testament to the genius and songcraft of Michael Gira.  Realizing that the only way forward is to give the music hips, Gira and co (and a coterie of guest vocalists) add groove to their sonic assault and finally capture on wax the violent beauty of their legendary live shows.  

6.      Sweet Apple – The Golden Age of Glitter
There is a temptation to view any band that numbers J Mascis among its members as “Dinosaur Jr., Jr.” but Sweet Apple’s second record is clearly John Petkovic’s baby.  Ten songs packed with power-pop deliciousness and shot through with the most gorgeous vocals of Petkovic’s career, “The Golden Age of Glitter” plays like a fab radio station that you catch while passing through some godforsaken part of the country on a long, solitary ride.  You may not recognize all of the songs, but it just FEELS right.  Perfectly under-thought and joyously beautiful.

7.      Split Single – Fragmented World
Jason Narducy has been holding down the low end for so many indie rock luminaries (Bob Mould, Superchunk, Bob Pollard) for so long that it’s almost shameful to have forgotten what a damn fine songwriter he is!  Backed by Jon Wurster and Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Narducy’s Split Single released the debut record we didn’t realize we needed: melodic, urgent, unassuming, and filled with fully-formed paeans to everyday life.  A nice reminder of his estimable abilities and hopefully a first step back into the spotlight for one of the 90s’ most underappreciated songwriters.

Ween is dead, long live Aaron Freeman!   After falling into the throes of addiction and out of step with the band (and best friend) he had since he was a teen, it was easy to think that Freeman (the person) would be yet another casualty of the rock n roll lifestyle and that perhaps his finest days were behind him (a Rod McKuen tribute record?  REALLY?!?). FREEMAN the band firmly establishes that this is the second act that he deserves.  Full of the wit and charm that imbued the finest Ween songs, this is a “recovery” record in the finest sense of the word.  It’s heartening to see that a talent as robust as Freeman’s can reclaim his spark and create something as deliciously weird in sobriety as this record.

9.      Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
Reunion records stink.  Reunion records with only a couple of original members are usually downright awful.  So, how in the hell did Greg Dulli and John Curley (the only two members left standing from the Afghan Whigs 90’s heyday) create an album that is not only NOT an embarrassment but that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their other records?!?  Make no mistake, Rick McCollum’s hinky, sideways leads are missed throughout, but these songs exhibit that unmistakable, swinging wallop that is embedded in the DNA of their finest material. Dulli’s dirtysexycool croon has aged into quite a nuanced instrument, wrapping seductively around gems like the brilliant “Can Rova” and the frighteningly powerful “These Sticks”.   

10.  Eyelids – 854
A psych-pop mini-masterpiece from guys with enough talent and time logged in the ranks of indie’s finest to spin gold.  Chris Slusarenko, John Moen, and their comrades have created an album that is the equal of the 60s albums they take as an influence.  Lead track “Seagulls Into Submission” is the most gorgeous single released this year and is indicative of the massive wealth of melody and wit contained in these 37 minutes of pop bliss!

11.  J Mascis – Tied To A Star
I’ll be honest, as long as Mascis has a six-string in his hands, I am probably going to listen obsessively and wax rhapsodic.  Far more robust and immediate than his initial solo foray (and better than Dino Jr’s lackluster “I Bet On Sky”), Mascis weaves gorgeous melodies across these largely acoustic songs. The difference here is that he also allows himself to spew out a couple of his trademark solos, and the sudden, violent interruption of his Jazzmaster is arresting.  He’s also created the single most beautiful track of his 30 year career with “Wide Awake”, an absolutely gutting duet with Chan Marshall.  For someone whose demeanor can charitably be dubbed “laconic”, he puts a whole lot of heart and effort into this…viva J Mascis!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Won't you call me please...I'm still around...

The finest moment from one of the most under-heralded bands of the past 25 years. Their 2nd album, "Two Words", encapsulates all that was good about melodic, Huskers-indebted indie rock in the early 90s...Bob Reed and his band of deceptive neanderthals plunged and parried with a benevolent churn that was equal parts tenacious craftsmanship and resigned shrug. All and none of it mattered, and that was exactly as it was supposed to be. Truly a band of its time and a shoulda-woulda-coulda in the story of 90s underground rock. The Overwhelming Colorfast is dead, long live Overwhelming Colorfast...

Friday, December 12, 2014

INTERVIEW: Arrica Rose

Photo by Brooke Nipar

It takes a lot to write a catchy song that isn't simple aural dross, and Arrica Rose has been diligently and quietly crafting exquisite pop for well over a decade.  In a just world, her most recent album "Wavefunction" would be nestled among the Taylor Swifts and Sam Smiths on the Billboard charts - it's that damn good!  The LA-based songstress reached out via email for a brief confab about "Wavefunction" and her songwriting.  Enjoy!

Your new album with the …’s, “WAVEFUNCTION”, is a really quite moving and a step away in some respects from some of the more downtempo feel of your previous work. Your vocals, in particular, seem more buoyant. What precipitated this change?

Thank you! The collection of songs I had was pretty diverse when we set out to make Wavefunction. A lot of change was happening for me at the time. I began splitting my time between northern and southern CA. and I think being invigorated by a new environment lead me to writing more uptempos than usual. In terms of the vocals, my producer Daniel Garcia always encourages pushing yourself even farther for each new release. For Wavefunction, I did focus on the vocal melodies being even more dynamic than some of my previous work.

One of the very interesting things about the record is the way in which it’s sequenced.  You really seem to have given some thought to the way the tracks are laid out, instead of just being a collection of tracks.  In particular, the track “Oh the Day, Then the Night” appears twice, closing out both “sides” of the album.  Was this intentional? 

We did put a lot of time and effort into Wavefunction being something to experience as a whole and not just as individual tracks and the sequencing was a big part of that. “Oh the Day, Then the Night” is very much about perspective and ties into the concept of the record so its placement was definitely important to us.

It’s obvious that you put a lot of craft into your work.  What is your songwriting process like?

I keep journals of words and phrases that jump out at me me. It might be something I read, something someone says, or something I misheard. I’m always most intrigued by creative play on words as a starting point and I like to try to use words or phrases in ways that aren’t the most obvious choice if I can. I then play around with chords and melody on guitar, sometimes piano. Once something sticks I usually search through the journals I keep of lyrics ideas. Sometimes the lyric and melodic idea will come together though and other times a song will start with an idea Daniel Garcia will have. I guess I try to be flexible in terms of the process but there is often a pattern in terms of how I go about things.

A lot of the songs on the new album have a very heavy LA “dream pop” vibe to them…what are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? 

 I have so many influences and really do appreciate a wide variety of music. A few of my influences I always tend to go back to are The Velvet Underground, Dusty Springfield, Elliott Smith, Mazzy Star, David Bowie, Television. I’ll stop there so the list doesn’t get too long!

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?

You’re right. It’s difficult to choose songs as favorites but I guess I’d have to say for Wavefunction the first thing that comes to mind as a track that’s special to me is “Oh the Day (Then the Night)” and well as its alternate version “(Oh the Day) Then the Night”. I really enjoyed taking one song idea and doing two drastically different versions of it.

What’s on tap for you next?

We are currently working on making a corresponding video for every song on Wavefunction. We’re hoping to have a visual interpretation for each track finished up early next year. Also, we’re starting the writing process for a new record and hoping to do some more touring in the Spring.

Friday, November 7, 2014

INTERVIEW: Carlo Mazzoli (Dead Bouquet)

(Photo by Matteo Mangili)

Sometimes inspiration and reward come from the strangest places. Imagine being in a band and having the opportunity to work with a producer and artist who'se work you have long admired - well, Carlo Mazzoli of Italian rock band, Dead Bouquet, knows EXACTLY how that feels!  Faced with the prospect of recording his debut set of Grant Lee Buffalo-indebted tunes, he reached out to that band's bassist and producer Paul Kimble to produce and rock dreams were fulfilled.  From his home base in Rome, Mazzoli chatted via email about the inspiration behind his band, the contributions that Kimble brought to the process, and why he's not particularly inspired by Italian rock n' roll.

Your band, Dead Bouquet, takes its name from the Grant Lee Buffalo song, “Fuzzy”.  First, great taste in music!  How did the group come together?

Grant Lee Buffalo is one of the greatest bands ever. I started the band some years ago, but it needed Daniele Toti on bass to fuel up. He’s a fantastic bass player and really knows how to “touch” a song. I proposed him to work with Paul Kimble and he immediately agreed. New drummer Alberto Croce joined the band just after the release of As Far As I Know. Very good musician, nice guy. We are so happy and proud of our band, we just want to play a lot of shows now.

Your debut record, “As Far As I Know”, is both indebted to the work of GLB and its own beautiful thing: you play an overdriven 12-string, have a keening baritone similar to Grant-Lee Phillips and even employed Paul Kimble (GLB’s bassist) as producer.  He has a very unique production style that fits your music well.  How did you come to work with Paul and what did he bring to the process?  More generally, what inspired the songs on the album? 

Most of the songs are intimate to me… My Baby and I, As Far As I Know, Red Sofa, Sur La Garonne, Stories. It’s life. Some of them seem to look at these perverse and difficult times we live in. The Dam and Barking at my Gate are probably the most “social” songs on the album. The rest of the songs are a collage of visions dear to me and perfectly expressed by the sound of the band.
I love the Grant Lee Buffalo records and I always dreamed to make an album with Paul. So, I decided to contact him via web, asking him if he was interested to work with an Italian rock band in Italy. He accepted and so he came to Rome to produce our debut album and stayed for 16 days, then went back to the U.S. where he made the mixing. He’s also the recording engineer of As Far As I Know… working with him was intense, magical and very funny. Lots of laughs! He’s the funniest guy on earth and has become an important friend to us. And he’s a good chef, too! He brought a lot of experience and his fantastic visions to the record, he even sung and played slide bass and piano on it. We just did our best, both Paul and the band. Later, he told us that he really didn’t pay attention to the demo we sent to him, but he accepted because he found potential in the band.

In certain ways, we cannot help but be impacted by the work of others. What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Other than Grant Lee Buffalo, what influences your writing?

Well, Fuzzy did have a great impact on me since I was a kid. It is probably my favorite album ever.
Other touchstones are Then Play On by Fleetwood Mac and huge artists as the great Gordon Lightfoot (who also influences my writing), Neil Young, The Beach Boys (especially the Pet Sounds - Smile era), The Byrds, Thin White Rope and most of the Paisley Underground scene, The Waterboys, Ry Cooder and a lot of other stuff.

I have always been intrigued by musical acts and movements outside the United States…what is the scene like where you are from?  Is there a part of being Italian that informs your work?

Well, you know… Rock & Roll is American born. Besides that, there’s surely something good, but I’ve hardly found interesting bands coming out from Italy nowadays, that’s my taste. “Sacri Cuori”, in my opinion, are the best Italian band right now. Phenomenal musicians who also played and recorded with greats as Howe Gelb, Dan Stuart, Marc Ribot, Dave Hidalgo, Jim Keltner, etc.

To answer to the second question… I don’t think so. I respect my roots, but the music I write and play with Dead Bouquet is not influenced by my country. Except for cooking and drinking, of course.

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?

I would say “Stories”. Very special. There’s Paul playing piano on it... and that means a lot to me.  I’m sure Daniele’s choice is “Sur La Garonne”. He even read some lines of Dino Buzzati (a great Italian writer) during the song grand finale.

What’s planned for you next as a band?

We’d love to tour all over Italy and Europe. It is not so easy if you have just released your debut album, but we are trying to sort things out. We’ll come out with news in December. Then, there’ll be the second album (it has been already written). And we want to make it with Paul, no doubt.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

P.T. Barnum's stinking drunk again...

Back in the late '90s and early aughts, Ron Hawkins and Laurence Nichols used to regularly play a shitty little bar across the street from Shea's Performing Arts Center called the Buffalo Nickel.  The shows would typically last for 3-4 hours and they would play pretty much every song that Hawkins had written...and I would be up front, screaming and singing my heart out, every word tattooed in my blood...many of the punters were there for the smattering of Lowest of the Low hits, but it was "Blur" that would bring me to tears almost every time, perfect capturing that creeping skin feeling of being on the way down from a bad trip...the thrill long gone and nothing remaining but the sinking belief that you're on the precipice of losing something important and forever. I get that. Enjoy...

FIRST IMPRESSION: Mark Lanegan Band - Phantom Radio

Mark Lanegan gets pegged as a bit of a dark character, and that criticism is not without some validity.  There’s the whiskey-soaked baritone, the knuckle tattoos, the (now almost two decades gone) predilection for hard substances, and a lyrical preoccupation with themes that are Old Testament “heavy”.  Which makes his preoccupation with antique drum machines and synthesizers all the more intriguing (and probably confounding for those who haven’t kept up with the 20-some releases he’s released in the past two decades and are expecting more “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost”).   Focusing the electronic palate that he tinkered with on 2012’s great “Blues Funeral” (and utilizing that album’s Alain Johannes as his primary collaborator), Lanegan filters his observations of sin and salvation through a barrage of synths and an iPhone drum app.  

What could come off as gimmicky works, and the dichotomy between the backing and Lanegan’s lyrics gives them an extra depth.  The clickety-clack and synth burbles that underpin “Floor of the Ocean” elevate what could have been fairly boilerplate lyrics, and the creative sonic restlessness bears striking fruit on mid-album standout “Seventh Day” and album-ender “Death Trip to Tulsa” (how is it that “Dark Mark” hasn’t written a song with this title yet???)  A couple songs are a bit underwritten or too same-sounding, and there is nothing as relentlessly aggressive as “Blues Funeral” opener “The Gravedigger’s Song” or as left-of-center as that album’s “Ode to Sad Disco”, but the distillation of themes and sounds makes for a rewarding, if not as immediate, listen.   

Saturday, November 1, 2014

INTERVIEW: Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne

(Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Coupled in life and in song, Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne create haunting and evocative Americana that is both archaic in instrumentation and utterly current in its concerns.  Mark and Mary were gracious enough to reach out via email from Brooklyn to share insight into their process and the darkness that lies beneath the surface of "I Line My Days Along Your Weight".

“I Line My Days Along Your Weight” is a quite beautiful album.  I understand that you recorded the basics for it live to 2” tape, which I have to imagine was a challenge.  Why forego the digital recording route?  Did the recording method influence the songwriting or was it a matter of that being the best choice for this batch of songs?

Thank you for the compliment!  Recording to tape was an easy choice because we knew we'd be laying down only a few elements, and tape would give us the best possible sound for them. The live part was the challenge -- it felt like jumping off the high board because, realistically, you can't do more than a few takes of each song. But the material seemed to call for this approach.  We were really eager to capture the interwoven sound of our instruments and reflect the vulnerability in the material -- and this meant recording everything all at once, standing a few feet apart and listening to what each other was playing.

The songs on your new album are very interesting…there seems to be a strong dichotomy between the quiet elegance of your guitar playing and Mary’s voice and some pretty dark lyrical subject matter.  Was that intentional?  What does your songwriting process typically look like?
Mary: I can't quite say that the dichotomy was intentional, but I can say that since the material covers serious emotional terrain, my instinct is to help it go down easy. It also intuitively makes sense to me that dark and light work together inextricably -- so the most honest expression of this material would involve this elegance you mention, working alongside and against the seriousness, and vice versa.

Mark: We bring ideas to a writing session, but then we spend a long, long time in a process of trial and error, trying to get each song to a place where we agree that it feels "done" - though the agreement is never discussed and the process is mysterious. No one ever says, "A few more turns of the screw and this song is done." Instead, we keep working it out until the thirty-seventh go-around sounds better than anything we've done before, and the thirty-eighth or thirty-ninth sometimes tells you that thirty-seven was good enough and you shouldn't keep tweaking. You know when the vessel has arrived; what's fun is then having something you feel good about and playing with it, getting to know it, exploring it.

I am always fascinated by artists who have a relationship outside of their creative partnership.  How do you find the balance between your domestic identities and your musical responsibilities?  Do they inform each other?

Mark: There is no balance between domestic and musical responsibilities. We write all of our songs in the kitchen and rehearse in the bedroom.

Mary: It's hard to talk about balance when it's a musical project we're embarking upon. The workload is intense and demanding, and not everyone is up for the kind of uncertainty that artistic work involves. I feel so lucky to be working with Mark.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  What influences your writing? 

Mary: I wasn't conscious of this at the time, but in hindsight I've heard in this recording the propulsiveness that I remember from my father's bluegrass band growing up. I was also listening a lot to a compilation of Spanish folk songs, including group songs, solo flamenco singing, and rhythms I couldn't figure out. And though not folk songs, I keep coming back to "Eleanor Rigby" and "A Day In the Life," perhaps because of how sorrowful they sound.

Mark: We were also listening to a lot of Louvin Brothers, Stanley Brothers, and Merle Haggard, and I just came off five years of intensely listening to Library of Congress recordings (Lomax, Asche, Harry Smith) and a lot of spooky mountain folk music. At the same time I was also studying the compositions and guitar arrangements of Skip James, whose influence shows up on "A Gracious Host."

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?

Mary: I especially like how "A Racing Heart" turned out. It began as a rather unbeautiful two-chord sketch, a little hard on the ears and the heart. But somehow, over the course of hours of working on it together, it unfolded into something much more open, warm and strange. That song really underwent a transformation on every level, even though the words and the chords remained the same.

Mark: "Walk With Me" is a real challenge to play.  Every time I play it--and play it well--it becomes the song I look forward to the most.  It requires a lot of listening and counting and demands my undivided attention every time I play it.  If I'm not completely immersed in the song, it will fall apart.  If I'm not listening to Mary's vocal phrasing, the call-and-response aspect of the song falls flat.  There are two cross-picked mandolin breaks that are exhilarating and woozy but as soon as they are done, I need to sober up and finish the song strong.

What’s on tap for you next? 

We just listened to the test pressings for the vinyl edition of this record, and are very excited about that.  It'll be out by the end of November.  We're on tour right now and are really happy with how it's going. So we'd like to tour again in early 2015, hopefully covering wider ground than the East Coast, South, and slightly Midwest that we're covering now -- and overseas if possible. We're starting to gather ideas for our next record, and don't want to wait too long before getting in the studio again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

INTERVIEW: Gareth Dickson

(Photo by Ryo Mitamura)

British guitarist and songwriter Gareth Dickson has spent the last several years touring with folk icon, Vashti Bunyan, and quietly amassing his own body of delicate, ethereal and downright beautiful songs.  Dickson connected via email to talk about his time with Bunyan, his influences and his unique live album, "Invisible String".

Your new album, “Invisible String”, is a very stunning collection of songs.  The choice to record the songs in a live setting really gives them a “lived-in” and intimate feel.  What inspired them and this unique choice of recording?
These songs were actually already recorded and released elsewhere on my three previous “proper” albums, the live album is an addition to these albums but is not the first way I chose to record the songs. While touring Europe in 2012 Taylor Deupree, who runs the label 12k which I release with, suggested making as many recordings of the shows as possible. That’s what I did. The majority of the tracks on the album were recorded in the stairwell of an apartment in Caen, France after the planned venue became unavailable at the last minute. This turned out to be a huge stroke of luck as the stairwell had an amazing natural reverb. The stairs made a pretty cool bank of seats for the audience too! As for what inspired them, musically there are various influences which will be answered in the following questions. Other than this I guess it’s what inspires all art, an attempt to communicate personal insights about the world, people, relationships, being human etc. More often than not they are about a loss of some kind, or a problem, but they are hopeful songs at the same time usually- I think. I guess they are confessional in a sense but I don’t normally think of them like this, it’s just my way of getting out whatever I’m working through when I write them. Lyrically they are often influenced by poetry… TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, William Blake etc.

You’ve had the distinct honor of performing with Vashti Bunyan on and off since 2006 – what was that experience like?  Did it inform you as a songwriter or performer?

That’s been one of the real highlights of my life, as a musician and as a person. We met at the end of 2005 after Vashti emailed to ask if I’d be interested in playing guitar with her for some shows she had planned. We rehearsed pretty intensely for the next few weeks before playing our first concert together at The Barbican concert hall in London. We were both pretty nervous about it as neither of us had played in such a large venue, and this was the first show. Thankfully it went well and from there we ended up touring all over the world over the next few years. We are now touring again as Vashti has just released a new album. Playing music together, especially at rehearsals when it’s usually just the two of us with no audience or band, is for me as real a musical connection with someone as I have ever had or am likely to have. I think my songwriting style was already formed to some extent before we started working together, I don’t think either of us has had a direct influence over the other in this area. However as a musician in general I feel like I have gained a lot simply by playing with someone who listens so intently while playing, and is so focused and in touch with the music she plays. As a performer I have definitely learned a lot and gained a lot of experience, we both have. When we started out we were both fairly inexperienced in this area but I think we’ve learned a lot over the past few years.

Your work is very meticulous.   What is your songwriting process like?

The process for most of my songs is the same. I tend not to sit down with the intention of writing a song or know that I am about to write one. However if I’m playing guitar daily the law of averages means it is likely I'll find something I like. It also means I am in good shape musically if I do happen upon an idea, whereas if I haven't played for a couple of weeks it is very unlikely that I will pick up the guitar and write something I will use. I can't force a song into being, but I can create the conditions by playing a lot. I never have an idea for a melody or lyrics in my head beforehand; I just improvise with the guitar daily until I hear something that I like and then try to build on it. I nearly always use altered tunings on the guitar which means when I put my fingers somewhere I don’t normally know how it will sound, much less the names of the notes. I do have some knowledge of physical classical guitar technique, and I think my playing is very much based on this, but I have almost no knowledge of theory. I kind of feel around until something stands out that I like and then build slowly from there. Once I have a melody written on the guitar it will often suggest a vocal melody and lyrics. Usually both the guitar part and the lyrics are the result of whatever I'm thinking about at the time so hopefully for that reason they are related. The advantage of this approach is that when something does come along it feels like it has come from somewhere other than your own boring conscious mind, but the drawback is that you can go for a long time and not be able to write something, which can be frustrating. Some songs, such as “Two Trains” and “As You Lie” were written entirely in one night, with nothing in them which I had even played with before. For others I will have had a guitar part for a long time and then lyrics will come along much later for it, as with “Get Together”.  The more recent songs take longer in general as I’m experimenting more with extended forms and structures than I used to (Get Together, Jonah etc).

I can hear a lot of Bert Jansch and some shades of more recent Mark Kozelek in your guitar playing – who or what else inspires the way you play?

I love both of those artists - I listened to Bert Jansch a lot when I was younger but Mark Kozelek I only discovered fairly recently so there is no direct connection there. There are a lot of guitar players who I’ve tried to learn from - Nick Drake, Robert Johnson, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch. Sonically I always think of this as being one side of my music, the other side comes from the ambient music of Brian Eno and Aphex Twin, among others. These are in some ways the two main distinct styles I have tried to incorporate in to my actual sound world. Melodically and stylistically however I have taken a lot of influence from classical piano music, particularly the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who is one of my real musical idols. He’s probably most famous for playing Bach but he also plays a lot of Beethoven who is another of my musical heroes. My sister played classical piano and introduced me to this world which I may never have had the opportunity to explore otherwise. I also love Schubert and Wagner. I’ve been doing a lot of driving recently while touring, in the car I’m more likely to be listening to MF Doom or whatever hip hop my cousin has put on a CD for me.

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

All of the above really, but as well as this there are many others who haven’t played such a direct part in shaping my sound but who I love and go back to. Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, old delta blues guitarists, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.

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?

Ha ha! It’s funny that you have to begin this way, head the musician off at the pass before they start with that “they’re all like children” thing. It definitely is tough to choose though, because each has something that I like that the others don’t, there are a few which I would put in the running. In the top few would be “Jonah”, “As You Lie”, “Like a Clock”, “Two Trains”, “This is the Kiss”, “The Dance”. I think if I had to choose one it would probably be “Technology” though, partly because of the way I recorded it. It was never meant to be released on an album, I was simply recording it immediately after I had written it so I wouldn’t forget any of it. Then when I listened back I realised that I wouldn’t be able to play it any better so I kept it as it was and released it. This means that I was entirely at ease when recording, no effort whatsoever to get it right. I also think of this song as being the turning point from my old, more ambient, style in to something more rhythmic and my own.

What’s on tap for you next?

Next up is some rehearsals with Vashti this week before going to Europe for a few gigs in November together. Then hopefully a solo tour of my own in Portugal before the end of the year but this isn’t confirmed yet. Really I’m hoping that next year I can take a little time out from all of the touring and the organising that goes with it and be at home for a bit to write and record. I have a few tracks towards another album as a follow up to “Quite A Way Away”, which is the last album of new material I released, but I’m still a long way from releasing another. I have some ideas though which is a good start, I just need to be at home for an extended period of time to really get in to it properly.

Monday, October 27, 2014

INTERVIEW: Matthew Ryan

(Photo by Sarah Kay)

Passion is a commodity in short supply in our modern musical world, but rock lifer Matthew Ryan's new album, "Boxers" is chock full of the stuff!  He is a true believer in music as a communal and transformative experience, a believer that (as Frank Turner so eloquently put it), "We're not just saving lives / We're saving souls / And we're having fun".  A chronicler of the real and a searcher for truth in the human experience, Ryan was kind enough to reach out via email and offer up his reflections on his songwriting and the power of community in an increasingly fragmented and teched-out world.

Your new album “Boxers” is flat-out stunning and has a vitality to it that is, to be honest, both surprising and thrilling.  It’s a very “electric” album, for lack of a better term.  How did this set of songs and sonics coalesce?

Thank you. That’s nice to hear. It really is. There’s a hundred things, events and gut feelings that lead us to the things we do. I could go on and on because it wasn't just one thing that led me to Boxers. The short of it is that I've grown tired of songs that sound like defeat. There’s a great Cohen quote, “What makes a soldier sad, makes a killer smile.” Melancholy is understandable in the human condition. If you’re paying a lot of attention it can swallow you. Because I've always followed my gut, I have no regrets regarding the roads I traveled before this. The work, the songs have always reflected an honest dissertation on mile-markers. But I found myself alone a few years ago, really alone in a dream that felt lost. It was never my intent to become a solo singer-songwriter. I’ve always felt more alive and hopeful in a community, gang, or group effort. Melancholy is almost like drifting along with the tide, letting waves carry you where they will. It can be beautiful. But Rock ’N Roll or Punk Rock or even Folk, they build boats when a gang is involved. It was time to build a boat with guts, an engine and a roar. A machine to welcome anyone who agreed and collectively resist the ocean so to speak. As lost as I felt a few years ago, this was always where I was headed. I just feel so fortunate the right people arrived. Boxers wouldn’t be what it is without the people that offered so much of themselves to it. It amazes me, when you get the right people in a room there’s the song, there’s the playing and then there’s this third thing. And that third thing is seductive, it’s like a ladder or a fistful full of gasoline coming out of the speakers. Boxers is all about that third thing.

It’s obvious that you put a lot of craft into your work, and the songs on “Boxers” deal with some really weighty issues that are made personal and “actionable” in a way.  You get the sense that, despite the darkness in life, there is a solution if we are willing to embrace the best parts of ourselves.  The fact that there are several songs with chanted “group vocals” reinforces that idea of community.  Is that a fair assessment?

There’s a loneliness in the modern engagement. You see it on trains. People’s heads down and in the glow of some community or diversion streaming through their phones rather than sharing the hum of tracks and the end of a work day with the strangers present and available. We have to understand that technology is a tool like any other, it is not intimacy itself. It is a sidewalk to intimacy, a phone line, an airplane. We don’t live our lives on airplanes, we live our lives in the rooms and with the people airplanes take us to and from. Does that make sense? So yes, the “group vocals” are an expression of the power and intimacy of community. Vocal chords blending for a shared conviction or experience or idea. That happened in a room, 6 of us yelling into a mic. It’s funny how an act we used to take for granted somehow came to feel revolutionary: “Look at us, yelling and screaming and somehow instinctually forming these warm octaves and accidental tonal harmonies that feel beautiful with these flawed voices!” I’d done so many records essentially alone. That process was initially invigorating, but after a while it seemed to intensify a loneliness. So experiences like I just described are like lightening, and it really fired me up. There was no self-consciousness. Music should offer a pure freedom. Life is beautiful, but it challenges us. Our shared struggles are an opportunity to see the humanity in each other, and in that any other useless divisions should just fall away. From there, things get more hopeful. In many ways, that’s the center of Boxers.

You utilized Kevin Salem as your foil in the studio for the album - his guitar shrapnel is all over these songs in the most glorious ways – and he’s long been someone who I have admired as both a songwriter and guitarist. What did he bring to the plate as a producer and collaborator?

Kevin’s record, Soma City, was a big one for me. I admired Kevin from afar for a long time. Part of what’s been good about the disintegration of the music business is that the true believers are still standing in the embers. There will always be pop stars of one form or another. But the working class of the music business, just like in the rest of society, we are the spine, the backbone of what is and what happens. I love Kevin. The connected fury of his playing is second to none. His instincts are rooted in a great understanding of what transcends trends in the history of Rock ’N Roll. We both lean for the unadorned. Skin and heart is always in fashion. Kevin gets that, and he inspires me. What more can you ask for from a friend and compatriot? 

You funded the recording and distribution of the album yourself, and I have to imagine that it’s got to be both liberating and frightening to put that much of yourself into the process…it lives or dies on the vine on your “dime”, as it were.  Did having to attend to the business aspects of the album affect your creative process?  And, more globally, what is your process like as a songwriter?

Only now during these early stages of the campaign do I feel the burden of what was spent. The reality is that it is hard (and is still very expensive) to create, prepare and communicate that your work exists in the modern deluge. But it was always hard, even years ago for different reasons. I am in debt right now. But we have a plan to go forward. I love the gang I’m working with. I hope people and listeners that discover Boxers understand that their purchasing of music and advocating for it is one of our greatest hopes. We live in a time where information and peoples’ efforts pile like a heavy snow, you’re almost immediately buried the moment you share something. But that’s why you make a record like Boxers. It’s the kind of record that will find you if this is the kind of “work” you need or are looking for. It’s a record for true believers by true believers.

As far as the creative process of writing, I simply don’t think about economics when I’m writing. Occupational success or failure just isn’t part of what motivates me. Every time I sit down to write I’m looking for that thing that pulls me forward. And that has little to do with money. But I have a great gang of smart people around me that do think about those things as related to the work that exists. We’re gonna do all we can to tour the band and find opportunities for these songs. We just have to be patient and keep carving our path over time. I have this gut feeling everything’s gonna be alright.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  What influences your writing? 

Man this is one of those questions I could go on and on about. I love music. It’s a part of every single day for me. But for Boxers in particular it was about the electric guitar. After a tour I did with The Gaslight Anthem a couple of years ago I bought a Gretsch. I plugged it into my AC 15 and started writing these songs. Brian Fallon’s friendship has reconnected me to something. Sometimes people come into your life and they light a fire. I love that guy. I also felt like my relationship with Nashville left me confused, and a little numb.  There’re people I love there, but I had to leave. So in 2011, I did. It was as if my ethos and the things that motivate me were (and are) out of sync with Nashville. That was my “community” for a long time and I felt like I was living in a haunted house, or even worse Inception. There have been a handful of things that reignited and reconnected my sense of what is possible and what a 4 minute song should be. Like I said, I grew tired of songs that sound like defeat. Where I’m living now is so the opposite of Nashville. Steel and the working class, beautiful and ambitious; old and new colliding. People living and working through cold winters and amazing architecture outside the trappings of ambition alone. 

Musically I listened to Weld by Crazy Horse and Let It Be by The Replacements a lot. Both are touchstones for me, along with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, The Clash, The Blue Nile… that list goes on forever. But Punk and Rock and Songs. I leaned for those things. Particularly the sound of the guitars on Weld. They sound like what it feels like to jump out of an airplane trusting a distorted cloud will catch you. As far as the themes, they’re a mystery to me. They’re the things I care about, the people I pull for. There’s a lot of myself in there and a lot of observation, and the things you hear and talk about sitting at a table or in a bar. I feel like the gritty hopes of real people are being underserved, maybe even betrayed by the “heroics” of so much pop music. People are complex and visceral. Their music should be as well.

Your songs are imbued with a wealth of life experience.  Having been at this the better part of 20 years now, what inspires you to continue to create art? And if you could communicate with your younger self, what advice if any would you give him?

Creativity is necessary in my life. It keeps my head clear and my heart lighter. If I could give my 22 year old self advice I would probably say: “You’re probably right. Keep going. Don’t be an asshole.” Hell, I’d tell myself that right now as well.

What’s on tap for you next?

Touring with a gang I love and seeking out listeners that see and feel things the way we do. You know, community… it’s beautiful stuff.

Friday, October 24, 2014

FIRST IMPRESSION: Ron Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins - Garden Songs

What started reportedly as a stop-gap EP, Ron Hawkins’s latest with his nimble ensemble the Do Good Assassins has turned into a fruitful reexamination and recasting of a catalog chock-full of overlooked gems.  “Garden Songs” features four newly written songs recorded alongside six reworked “covers” of songs from Hawkins’ estimable catalog.  What’s truly astounding is that despite the wide range of years in between songs (the oldest, “Small Victories”, was first debuted on 1999’s “Return of the Read Menace” compilation and is here given a Waits-ish gypsy swagger), they all feel like part of a larger, singular picture.  Some of this can probably be attributed to the recording process – the album was largely recorded live “off-the-floor” in the studio with the entire band playing together through each take – but much of the credit goes to the remarkable artistry and thematic consistency of Hawkins as a songwriter.  There is a clear and unwavering logline of emotion that runs through songs as sonically disparate as “Peace and Quiet, “Waiting On Something That’s Already Here“ and the devastating album-highlight, “South Ontario” – things fall apart or away and we are left to deal with the fallout. 

And that is how life is, looking back and only finding the worth in something once it’s gone or too far away to be saved.  “Some things are solid gold we thought were only tin”, indeed.  So, it makes sense that these new paeans to life on the margins would sit so comfortably among the other, more “classic” tracks.  And that makes the optimism of a song like “Saskia Arrives” all the more potent. Even at its worst, life has moments of beauty that are able to pierce the darkness.  What could have been a nostalgia trip (or worse, in lesser hands, a cash grab), bleeds vibrancy and stands as yet another monument to the not only Hawkins’ estimable talents as a songwriter but the organic compatibility of the DGA as players and interpreters.  Masterful, emotional, and a welcome addition to the canon!

Also, check back next week for an additional conversation with Ron Hawkins about the creation of "Garden Songs"!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FIRST IMPRESSION: Continental - Millionaires

Rick Barton - singer-songwriter, former-Dropkick guitarist, and “Bahstahn” punk mainstay - is never short on self-confidence and the latest slab o’ rock from his shit-hot band Continental more than justifies the hubris.  Both more muscular and streamlined than 2012’s “All A Man Can Do”, “Millionaires” crackles with electricity and blue-collar bonhomie. Barton’s lyrics simply yet effectively give voice to the lovers and losers in his songs.  All in all, it’s a sprightlier album due in no small part to Barton’s looser and more natural sounding vocals.  His voice has always been a powerful but limited instrument, and he seems to have figured out how to use his keening growl to maximum effect on stand-outs like “Hope” and “1000 Miles” (itself released as a single earlier this year and by far one of the best things that Barton has ever written).   

The band is also a tighter and more intuitive outfit this time out – son Stephen has grown into a helluva bass player and guitarist Dave Deprest blows rockabilly dust all over the place, spitting leads on the title track like a young Dave Alvin.   Purists will gripe about the lack of “punk” on the record (there’s even a song called “Punk Rock Girl”, which is sadly NOT a cover of the Dead Milkmen song!), but this is populist rock in the finest sense of that term – of the people, for the people – and it’s a great reminder of a talent who has long been taken for granted.  So, enjoy it for what it is, and play the fucker loud!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

FIRST IMPRESSION: Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In The End

There is a method in the field of organizational leadership called “appreciative inquiry” whereby a company or institution examines what it does well in order to achieve maximum effectiveness or reclaim its “essence”.  The practice is usually implemented when the company in question has found itself in a time of decline or lost market value and works on the assumption that envisioning what the organization looked like when it was its best will inspire it to attain that status again. All of this is a convoluted way of saying that rather than focusing on what the “brand” did wrong, they focus on what they did right.  A couple spins of the latest Weezer album, “Everything Will Be Alright In The End” leaves you with the distinct impression that Rivers Cuomo is not only familiar with the concept, but is following a similar path.  After years in the wilderness (and several confounding albums of increasingly diminishing returns), the band has embraced the hallmarks of the “classic Weezer sound” – harmonized guitar solos, hooks the size of skyscrapers, Cuomo’s adenoidal whine, all of it spit-shined by Ric Ocasek’s hermetically sealed production.  And, to a point, it kinda works.

Opener “Ain’t Got Nobody” sounds musically like a particularly inspired “Pinkerton”-era b-side, and there are no less than five good-to-great songs on the album – Cuomo’s reflection on what makes Weezer work pays off in spades on the catchy as hell “Lonely Girl”, the sweet back-and-forth vocals with Best Coast’s Betheny Cosentino on the razorblade-wrapped-in-candyfloss “Go Away”, and the wounded survivor’s anthem “Cleopatra” (which may be the best song the band has written in a decade-and-a-half).  Hell, the band even manages a decent fairweather-audience-as-enemy metaphor with “The British Are Coming”. 

Make no mistake, though, there are some clunkers here.  Broken down into roughly three categories (“songs about girls who done me wrong”, “songs about the dad who done me wrong” and “songs about the fans who loved and left us”), the album struggles for a thematic arc and concept that it doesn’t remotely come close to pulling off.  And, always the Achilles’ heel, Cuomo’s lyrics here come across in places as particularly dumb (though there is nothing here as patently stupid as “Where’s My Sex?” or “The Girl Got Hot”, so they have them going for them…which is nice).  First single, “Back to the Shack” tries too damn hard at being cheeky, apologetic and self-referential; and the sour-grapes “I’ve Had It Up To Here” features this particularly cringe-worthy attack: “Don't wanna compromise my art for universal appeal / Don't wanna be mass consumed / I'm not a happy meal”.  Ugh…really???

The band redeems itself, however, with de facto closer, “Foolish Father”, which starts out as a standard paean for understanding from a dad who made mistakes but breaks into a glorious group vocal in the last 40 seconds, a massed-choir of voices singing the album’s title phrase over and over.  And this is ultimately why the band matters to so many people – despite its corniness, there is something comforting about being reminded that we are in this together, and perhaps if we believe it and give ourselves over to the moment, everything actually WILL be alright in the end.  And that is something worth believing in.  (The album actually ends with the three-part, 7-plus minute wankfest “The Futurescape Trilogy, but it acts as more as a coda to the album proper and doesn’t fit this narrative…so fuck it…)


Wow.  Who knew that we needed a psych-pop masterpiece in 2014!  Apparently Chris Slusarenko, John Moen and their compadres did, because Eyelids’ debut “854” treads the boards of sunny melancholia better than anything in recent memory.  The combined history of this band (time spent collaboratively in Bob Pollard’s Boston Spaceships and separately in Portland bands as diverse as the Decemberists, Sprinkler and the Dharma Bums) is a bit misleading – there is little “indie rock” here to speak of; rather, the album overflows with glorious psych-indebted pop gems that have far more in common with the late-60’s Byrds, the Left Banke and band of that ilk.  Opener “Seagulls Into Submission” (previously released as their debut 7-inch) is the perfect pop gem, all ringing guitars and harmony, and Slusarenko and Moen’s voices sigh dreamily.  “Into the Sun” has a Mojave 3 with horns vibe, while “Forget About Tomorrow” could be a primo mid-period Teenage Fanclub b-side.   Best of all might be the shades-darker, “Say It’s Alright” which bursts into a spindly Dream Syndicate-esque guitar workout halfway through.  You can tell that the guys have a love for this music (shit, one of the songs is actually titled “Psych #1”!), but the album is more than an exercise in trainspotting – Slusarenko and Moen’s songs are deceptively ambition and look to add to the canon rather than simply celebrate their record collections.  Thrilling stuff here, and a great first foray for this immensely talented band!   

Monday, October 6, 2014

INTERVIEW: Mike Watt and Stefano Pilia (il Sogno del Marinaio)

The new il Sogno del Marinaio record, “Canto Secondo”, is really beautiful.  How did you get hooked up with (guitarist) Stefano Pilia and (drummer) Andrea Belfi?

Stefano I know from the 2nd opera tour of Europe. I went over there in 2005 to do “The Secondman’s Middle Stand” and 6 of the gigs were in Italy.  Claudio, the promoter man, stuck this young man in the boat with us…it was Stefano Pilia.  Four years later I got an email from him…he told me he was a musician and he was invited to play this festival and he had a drummer buddy, Andrea, and he wanted to know if I would come and do this festival.  It was out of nowhere and I said sure.  I said, maybe we should do more than one gig if I’m gonna come all the way out there.  So he put together six gigs.  I’m 56 now, and I have this thing, “If you gotta chance, record”, so I said if we’re gonna work up this shit for the gigs, why don’t we fucking record it then!  So in the middle of the gigs, we recorded this album, “La Busta Gialla”.  We didn't put it out for a while, right – we put it together in December of 2009 but we were so busy, both me and them as musicians, different projects.  We had to coordinate a time when we could play this for people too, not just put it out.  When we had a chance last year to do a Europe tour, that’s when we put it out.  I think it’s really a happening record, but it was three years later, right.  What happened was I got invited to the last All Tomorrow’s Parties in England – Barry Hogan, great festival.  I said, “Would you guys play with me here and from there I will go to Italy with you and we will make a second record.”  There’s a lot of guests on that first record, and this one is all us – “Canto Secondo” means “the second song” – this might be a different perspective of the band and I think it’s legitimate.  The gig was on the 1st of December and I went over to Bologna where Stefano lives in his farmhouse and next door is a barn where the studio is, and 8 days we laid it down.  We only had two days to make the first one – we overdubbed stuff later, of course, and the way you make records now you don’t have to be in the same room.  There’s not as much on this one.  We didn't do any of the spiel (vocals) in December – the spiel comes later.  Andrea’s from Verona, but he’s moved in the last couple of years to Berlin with his wife, so we’re all in different towns.  It’s something that is important because everyone thinks it’s a bad new day, but there are things you can do today that you couldn’t do in the old days.  So there are some interesting things that the old days didn't have at all. 

You can connect electronically with those guys.

Yeah, you can trade files. You couldn't do that in the old days so easy.  You had to fly tapes around.  Oh my god.  I never even hardly tried it.  It was either you play with the guys you are with or there ain’t any recording getting done (laughs).  I hear a lot of bad about the modern days, but I think every contemporary time had people who said the old days were better.  Sometimes technology can help with ways of connecting – it doesn't solve any creativity problems.  The whole il Sogno del Marinaio thing is kind of a manifestation of these kind of things, where you can operate in a way you couldn’t operate before.  I can’t reinvent my past with D. Boon (deceased Minuteman singer/guitarist)…actually nobody can.  They can try, I guess, but it’s only tries.  The past is the past.

You’re only chasing something then.

I’ll tell you something what’s similar between Minutemen days and il Sogno del Marinaio: it is me going back to collaboration.  You look at “Secondman” (2004’s “The Secondman’s Middle Stand”), you look at The Missingmen, these are bands I put together to take my direction and to help me realize a proj, same with Nels Cline and the first opera. These were all bands I put together.  Kinda like how I fit in with the Stooges, like “Here, Watt, will you do this for us?”  Stefano and Andrea, it’s a little different – they’re both composers.  If you look  at the total amount of compositions, I’m in the minority. It’s more collaboration.  So, in some ways I went back to the old days, but not the old ways of doing things.  I didn’t have to grow up with these guys, they’re 21 years younger. They come from the avant garde – they went to music school and stuff. They’re from another land, not just another state or another town.  It’s very interesting for me, but still a lot of common ground.  Still a trio, just guitar, bass and drums. It just shows you how much you can do with that.  It doesn’t have be just one kind of sound.  I thought in the old days it all had to sound like Cream.  It doesn’t have to be like the Police either (laughs). A lot of my bands are trios, but they don’t sound the same.  I do that on purpose. Even though we’re from different backgrounds and generations, I still feel in a trippy way like it’s a kind of classroom where I get to learn stuff. What I’ve tried to do more and more, coming into middle years, is to put myself and my bass in situations where people have stuff they can teach me.  That’s really important.  Just because you’ve been around a little bit doesn’t mean you know everything.   It’s one of the reasons I keep busy with different kinds of projects.  To your question, this band came together by accident, but once it came together, why not fucking rally around it?

So what are you continuing to learn about yourself?

That I don’t even need to move to the 5-string bass to learn more shit.  The bass is really about who you are playing with.  I don’t know how much sense it makes on its own.  Dos (his band with bassist Kira Roessler) kinda gets into that, but a lot of my bass has relevance depending upon the people I’m with.  It’s part of the politics of that machine, you know. I really respect and owe a lot to James Jamerson, who is on all of those Motown records. He never made a solo bass thing, but he very much has an identity, established by him playing with other people.   He and John Coltrane are really role models.  Coltrane wasn’t a bass player, but from what I understand felt that all musicians were in search of some kind of truth.  So I like that idea, mixed with James Jamerson’s idea of serving the tune and serving the people you are playing with. But I still have an identity.  What middle years has done has made that more clear. In the old days, when I thought about music, it was just about D. Boon. That’s why I was playing.  I wasn’t really a musician, it was just a way that I could be with him. He passed almost 30 years ago now. I don’t have that paradigm anymore, and try not to be too sentimental anymore.   Where I am really relevant is what I do with the bass in my middle years. And maybe I can look good helping other people look good (laughs).

That’s a very humble way to approach it.

Well, that’s what I learned from Coltrane.  That motherfucker could play, well, like a motherfucker! (laughs) His last tour, he was going to play with a bunch of other people. A bunch of different teachers, you know.

On the American il Sogno tour, you are doing 51 dates in 51 days…how do you maintain that level of enthusiasm and endurance in your “middle years”? 

I did the math wrong…it’s actually 53 gigs in 53 days. Stefano and Andrea also played in David Grubbs’ band, so they played a couple of the big cities like New York and Chicago, but they’ve never done a big tour like this.  So that is something I can do for them.  If you’re going to go out and do, fucking DO IT! You know I’m a from a tradition of doing big tours anyway, so this isn’t really new for me.  But it’s new from them, and I get to give audiences a whole different side of me they haven’t seen.

Us Minutemen learned it from the Black Flag guys, Hüsker Dü was doing four month tours.  How do we prepare?  I’m having these guys from three days early to Pedro – I have the same prac pad for 29 years, and for a few days we are just going to practice the shit out of the set.  It is kinda trippy…it isn’t like with D. Boon, where we from the same town or Ed Fromohio (fIREHOSE singer/guitarist), who moved to my town.  These guys have to come and visit – kinda like what I had to do when I visited Europe. First gig is in San Diego, September 10th.  First gigs are kinda pants-shitters (laughter).  You gotta throw this together, and people have worked all week, you can’t play lame.  You have to give them all. The later gigs will probably be tighter…part of the knowin’ is in the doin’! And even when there are clams, there is something about the human spirits coming together to make something.  There’s worth in that.  And with Stefano and Andrea it’s not just parts, it’s about playing together.  When one cat is out in this other land, the other two can throw him a rope.

A lot of life is about stuff that is hard to do, and I don’t see why touring should be exempt from that.  It can be scary as well, but my pop was a sailor in the Navy and that’s how he got to see a lot of the world, so there is a lot of adventure as well.  I see a parallel for me with that as well. Most people take vacations – this is my vacation (laughs).

Via email from Italy, guitarist Stefano Pilia was also kind enough to talk a bit about how he and drummer Andrea Belfi got involved with Watt and the collaborative nature of il Sogno del Marinaio.

How did you both come to collaborate with Watt?

I met Mike in 2005. He was touring his second opera with Raul Morales and Paul Roessler. I helped them with the roads directions for the five Italian gigs they had. A nice time. We kept in touch. In 2009 a festival in Italy asked me to propose and present a collaboration project. So I asked Mike and Andrea to do a collaboration together. They did not know each other.

I met Andrea years before and we have been playing together in many several occasions since then and -we also play in a trio with D. Grubbs. With both of them I immediately felt a strong sense of familiarity even if we are all very different and come from different places and time.

Mike then proposed to make a mini tour and recordings in Italy and to call the project " Il Sogno Del Marinaio".That is how started. Every one of us came with a couple of ideas each to be worked together and to have pieces for the band and the gigs. In the beginning we were also playing some Minutemen and other Mike songs cause we did not had enough material for a gig! It has been all done in 10 days! Rehearsing, tour and recordings. It is all written in Mike’s hootpage ( ) Never done something so quick! I was scared but excited and I learned 

The group’s name translates to “The Sailor’s Dream”.  Musically, the new album sounds a lot like sailing (very placid expanses punctuated by choppy waters) - how did this theme influence your writing and the way the songs came out?  In what ways did you approach the material differently than on your debut?

There is a sense of adventure and of fairytale in the name of the band which I really like and that I find reflected in the different music scenarios that are part of il Sogno del Marinaio records as well. The sailor's dream meaning in my mind is more of a metaphor about adventure and discovery - a way which is narrative and figurative in a traditional sense but not necessarily linear and coherent ...exactly more like a dream where stuff happens in a more surprising and crazy way.

How collaborative was the songwriting process for the album?  Certain songs on the album seem very structured while others feel more improvised (particularly the guitar).

Like we did for the first record, everyone brought ideas or pieces to be worked together. But compared to the first record, the sense of the band is more solid and strong in this second one. More developed and coherent of what we are together and how we can play together. Our first European and real tour in 2013 has been a great experience and a great step for the project because we finally got the opportunities to really play and live together. We cannot meet often unfortunately. Also in this case we composed and record the album in 8 days ...not much but certainly we arrived in the studio with a stronger consciousness.

The pieces are all very structured. There is some space here and there for guitar improvised solos, yes, but not so much actually. There are also some drums improvised - part “Us In Their Land” for example has a pyrotechnic Mitchell drumming part from Andrea .A beautifull bass improvised solo at the end of “Skinny Cat” by Mike. “Stucazz?!!”, for example, has a lot of improvised windows for drums and guitar which take place on the solid Mike bass riff-parts. But the measures and ideas for the windows are all very structured. It is a funny and ironic piece.

What can we expect from the fall tour?  What’s next for the two of you after this?

I will be recording and touring with Rokia Traore',  a Malian artist and I will continue with my other projects in Zaire, cagna chiumante, massimo volume and my solo stuff as well. And I hope we can make a European tour of “Canto Secondo”. And “Canto Terzo” as well!