Thursday, February 20, 2014

FIRST IMPRESSION: Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ – Songs for the Turntable

Now that’s what I’m talking about!  Having released almost 20 songs over three EPs over the past year and a half, Kevn Kinney and co bring it all home with the strongest collection of the bunch.  The songs here are uniformly great, from spooked-out opener “Strangers” (with its quietly insistent organ riff driving the song) sounding like a great Rubin-era Tom Petty track to the closing flat-out scorcher “Jesus Christ!” (with an extra emphasis on that exclamation point!), condemning so-called Christians for distorting the message of the titular savior for their own gain. Listen to the way Kinney spits out “Jesus Christ” over recent addition Sadler Vaden’s fiery and soulful leads (Vaden also brought an Audley Freed-like southern virtuosity to Jason Isbell’s recent outings) - the condemnation is both political and personal.  Stunning.

The clear highlight of the set, though, is “Turn” which sounds like the song that Soul Asylum have been chasing for the past two decades. Crunchy, anthemic, and heartfelt…all the hallmarks of their classic ’87-’93 run with an added dose of modern intensity. After 2009’s so-so “Great American Bubble Factory” (good songs, questionable production), it’s heartening to see Kinney and his band close out their series of EPs so strongly.  Now, get your asses out there and catch them live on this spring’s tour!  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

X - Just Another Perfect Day

A song originally intended for the follow-up to "See How We Are", the band went on a five-year hiatus prior to being able to record a proper studio version. Exene ended up recording a slower, more-polished version with late-period X guitarist Tony Gilkyson for her 1990 album, "Running Sacred", but this live version from the epochal "Live at the Whisky-A-Go-Go" is easily one of their most powerful moments (in a career lousy with them). Gilkyson's guitar chugs in the verses, all adrenaline and drive, underscoring the menace of Exene and Doe's harmonic plea, "Won't you please protect me from these ungodly things!" Stepping out of the shadow of their past, "Just Another Perfect Day" shone light on one possible path they ultimately wouldn't take (they'd record only one more studio album - 1993's far-too-grunge-indebted, "Hey Zeus"), but it's a nice souvenir of a band playing at their feral yet masterful best.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

FIRST IMPRESSION: Death of Samantha – If Memory Serves Us Well

Band reunions are almost always a double-edged sword.  If you play it safe and go for the cash grab of playing your old tunes, you’re considered a sell-out and if you write new material it’s always going to be compared to your canon (and usually not favorably).  Therefore, it’s always with a bit of trepidation that I approach something by a reformed band that I respect.  Well, punters, worry not – the “new” album by erstwhile Cleveland favorites Death of Samantha brings the noise!

A bit of history – I came to DoS through the mighty Cobra Verde, the band that Doug Gillard and John Petkovic formed upon the Samanthas’ flameout (or fizzle, as it were).  They were in regular rotation on the college radio station where I DJed in the mid-90s and through some studious crate-digging (pre-internet) I found a copy of “Strungout on Jargon”, the debut by Death of Samantha.  I can neither confirm nor deny that I purloined said copy from the bowels of our station’s library, but the pastiche of rock, trash and noise that it contained had me transfixed.  It was a keeper.

So, some 17 years later, it was quite a shock to find out that not only had Death of Samantha reunited, but that they had recorded the results for posterity!  Consisting of an in-the-studio run-through of songs across their catalog on the eve of a 2012 reunion show, the set crackles with energy and shows off what was often obscured on their studio releases – THIS BAND CAN FUCKING PLAY!  Petkovic’s voice, all sandpaper slink and bluesman wail, has become smokier and somehow more seductive.  At times he sounds a bit like Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch (and that ain’t a bad thing!), particularly on bruised “ballads” like “Conviction”.  As with almost every release he graces, however, Doug Gillard is the true MVP – his slippery runs and blistering leads dance circles around the rhythm section.  It’s not difficult to see why Bob Pollard wanted these guys backing him up – they play with precision without sacrificing guts.  An impressive return to form, and hopefully a harbinger of new music to come!

Monday, February 10, 2014

INTERVIEW: Chris Slusarenko (Eyelids, ex-Guided By Voices/Boston Spaceships)

Photo by John Clark

Chris Slusarenko is passionate about music.  After years working in and around Robert Pollard in the "final" version of GBV, the Takeovers and heralded power-trio Boston Spaceships, Slusarenko is back with his new psych-pop outfit, Eyelids.  Chris was kind enough to respond via email from snowy Portland, OR to talk about the new band, his influences, and why John Moen is his go-to guy.

Your recently debuted your new project, Eyelids, and the single you've released is fantastic! How did that come about?

It's kind of was a project that we wanted to start years ago but then I joined Guided By Voices and John joined the Decemberists so weren't in town a lot at the same time.  We had even tracked a few songs in his basement (I guess this would be around 2002 or so).  Every year we kept saying that we should make that record and then very quickly a year would pass.  So at the end of a messy night at my house one night I played John the early demos and was like “do you remember this at all?”  He barely did but was so into it that he said we should try to make it happen for real this time.  

We got together over a weekend with Jonathan Drews and just shared our ideas and songs.  It came together pretty quickly—we knew what we wanted to create.  Shortly after the three of us went into the studio and just started cranking it out.   Later we thought that these songs would sound pretty powerful live and we asked Jim Talstra and Paulie Pulverinte to join.   The b-side to our debut single is the first recording of the five of us together rather than the original three.  They've added a very powerful element to the band—it kicks ass when it needs to.

You have worked with John Moen previously in Robert Pollard’s Boston Spaceships – what about that relationship (other than him being a Portland guy!) has been so fruitful to the music you make?

I've known John since 1988 when he was in Dharma Bums and I was in Death Midget. Even though our bands were wildly different we always supported each other.  We really didn't get to know each other well until we both played in the Cavemanish Boys (with Eyelids/Dharma Bums bass player Jim Talstra & The Miracle Workers’ Gerry Mohr).  John's personality and sense of humor really came through his performing and I'd really never played with anyone like that up to that point.  He would say things like “I'm going to be the acid casualty of the band, so tonight I'm dressing like that.”  He'd show up in a muumuu and a scarf and then just play in character.  You can really hear it all over those Stephen Malkmus/Jicks records he did—he has fun.

And when it came to working on the Takeovers and Boston Spaceships songs John was just fearless.  For those records I wanted to record the drums the same way Bob did his Guided By Voices stuff:  Here's the song, it goes like this, let's get it down, now here's the next one (and repeat).  The idea was to keep things super loose and inspired.  Don't get too comfortable with the song.  For a lot of the songs I would imagine the whole band being different characters.  Like for “The Vicelords” off of Let It Beard I thought:  Kim Gordon bass player fronted by Superchunk with Keith Moon on drums.  And I could articulate that to John easily and he'd just go for it. And once again he put stops in to make me laugh or do a crazy fill and I just loved it and would perform later around his energy. 

Speaking of Pollard, you have spent a lot of your creative life the past decade working on “Bob-related” projects.  What influence (if any) has he had on your songwriting process?

I think getting to learn his songs and crack them open was quite an honor.  His songs are just fun to play—where you fingers end up on the guitar in any given song shows how playful he is in his approach and I think that's why his songs still sound so full of life.  Writing songs to entertain yourself rather than thinking about how many people are going to buy it, what's the video going to be...all that stuff.  It's just about making cool music that if you were walking by a record store and someone what playing it your ears would perk up.  

What was the impetus for you to move from a collaborator and backing player to the leader and songwriter of your own band again?  Was it challenging to shift gears? 

The rate of material we were putting out with Bob--whether it was Takeovers or Boston Spaceships or Carbon Whales—it was quick, fierce and fast.   Bob would send a cassette of songs and we would just work as fast as we could because there was already another cassette with another 19 songs getting ready to be sent to us.  John still says he doesn't remember much about those records because he would come in for 2 days or so and I would do the rest with Jonathan Drews (producer/voice of reason) and by the time he heard them he had forgotten what had he had even done since it was powering through 16 songs on drums that he had never heard before in 2 days.   So the three of us had worked so tightly and kind of had that unspoken musical language going on where we could just raise an eyebrow and we'd knew what that meant in the recording and performance. 

So the songwriting came together really quickly.  We got together over a weekend and just shared songs and bits and pieces with each other.  Jonathan picked the best 13 of the bunch and we were like “well there's the record.”  It kind of surprised us how cohesive it was out of the gate—it really had that lop-sided pop/rock sound that we were hoping for.

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 really like our single “Seagulls Into Submission” and one of our upcoming full length called “Forget About Tomorrow”.  It's been a while since I had to write songs for others as well—probably since Carbon Whales & The Takeovers.  And even then those were written with Bob's voice in mind.  It was quite different to just surprise myself with a song that I felt “nah... I couldn't have written that.” 

Outside of Eyelids my favorite Boston Spaceships song: “You Satisfy Me”; my favorite Takeovers song: “Father's Favorite Temperature”; and from my way past I like “Shrunken Head” from Svelt.

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

Well my early years were The Beatles to Kiss to Devo to The Residents/Tuxedomoon.  I obviously liked theatrical and imaginative music when I was younger.   But in 1983 right before Murmur came out I wrote a fan letter to R.E.M. (who at that point hadn't even played the NW yet) and Peter Buck sent me a list of bands to check out: Mission of Burma, The Replacements, Minutemen, The Feelies.  That was it... I was off to devour.  There was so much to absorb and so many great labels (SST, Homestead, Frontier, Touch and Go).  Also I got really into the weirder side of punk stuff: Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Die Kreuzen; industrial music: Nurse With Wound, Coil, Non; and 80's psych like Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, Three O' Clock.  Those 80's psych band were the real touchstones for Eyelids along with our love for New Zealand rock of that time.

The first Eyelids single definitely has a Flying Nun feel to it! You’ve been given one “musical wish” – to work with any musician/songwriter/producer – who would you choose and why?

That's tough... I think I've narrowed it to two though:  First would to have been in The Moles (or at least a fly on the wall)—Richard Davies' first band from Australia.  Their album Untune The Sky hits a nerve in me every time.  It's so varied, simple and brilliant.  The second would be John Cale.  One of my biggest modern day heroes and a songwriter of such relentlessly emotive music.  That he is not on the shoulders of all modern day music lovers is a shame—he's still pretty much loved by music geeks like myself.  The last show he did in Portland in 2012 there were only about 50 people there and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life.  He didn't care that the turnout was slim.  He just sang loud and fierce with that amazing voice of his and he just transported you. 

You've been a part of almost every facet of the record industry – playing in bands, running a label, directing music videos, producing albums– what keeps you going?

I guess you do the things that give you joy until they don't.  I've been lucky to have worked on so many varied projects.  I mean I wanted to hear a concept album so I just thought why not make it with some of your musical and artistic heroes (Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel).  And then all of the sudden Off Records existed.  Meeting and working with Paddy Considine just was meant to be—we think alike and it's like we're long lost brothers.  Obviously being in GBV was a dream of mine too and that final tour we played together was just insanely great.   And even with the occasional headaches that come with being involved in something as personal as musical expression—it's still the most fun I could imagine.  I still love to collaborate and right now Eyelids is such a perfect meeting of minds. 

What’s on tap for you next?

Well our first Eyelids 7” is out Feb. 18th ( and while we finish up our full length we have a couple split 7”s coming out this spring as well (including one with The Woolen Men).  I'm also looking forward to producing the next Riding The Low record with Paddy Considine later this year.  And then we'll start working on material for the next Eyelids record.   Hit repeat.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Alex Dezen (The Damnwells)

(photo by Amber Bollinger)

Hey, Alex, thanks for taking the time to chat – I know you are busy.  I listened to the first “Bedhead” EP this morning and it was fantastic.   What was the impetus for recording some solo stuff?

All Damnwells songs begin as a demo of sorts, and when I first started making demos they were kinda crappy, you know, recorded on a cassette tape or 4-track.  As years went by, I have gotten more and more proficient in recording myself and that has never really been represented on any Damnwells record because the band is a collective collaboration where I’ll usually write or co-write the song but we will all work on the arrangement.  So often the demos sound much different than the final product, and I just thought that it was time to put something out by myself – it’s been almost 4 years since the last Damnwells record, so I thought why not put out some of those things that I have written and recorded during that time.

So these are separate recordings from things that you intended to go on the 5th Damnwells record?

Yeah, they were recording entirely by myself or with one other person with very few overdubs and minimal takes.  It’s pretty raw and straightforward.

How do you determine what becomes a Damnwells song, what’s going to (other band) The Rebecca West, and what’s going to be solo?

It’s kind of a random lottery [laughs].  I wish that there was a more scientific logarithm or something, but I generally have in mind when I am writing, “Oh this would be really cool with drums and bass and guitar” and that becomes a Damnwells song.  Or, “This would be really cool with a bunch of harmonies and a folk treatment” and that becomes a The Rebecca West song. And then with these other songs on the EPs, they seemed much more solo in nature, and I would try to throw one or two on each Damnwells record.  For example, on “No One Listens to the Band Anymore” there’s “The Great Unknown” which is for all intents and purposes a solo song, but it’s done with the band.  And on “Air Stereo” there was “Shiny Bruise”, so they’ve made appearances before but they’ve always kind of been the black sheep.  So these EPs give me the opportunity to put out some stuff that wouldn't quite be right for a Damnwells  or Rebecca West record, and it gives them their own home. 

That’s great.  As for the band, it was a cool little surprise that you were getting back together with David and Steven.  How did that come about and what brought them back into the Damnwells fold?

When we ended things with Steve and Dave, there was no bad blood. Steve had a kid and was stressed out, and Dave was getting married…we were just all getting older.  We had spent a lot of time on the road, hitting it hard for a long time, and I think we just felt like the return was getting less and less. We were putting so much out there.   But I think like any tried-and-true rock and roller, the siren call of playing music and getting on the road is hard to ignore.  We’ve always been in touch and Steve and I have talked about how we should have a reunion – once a year we would exchange an email about it.  I think that there was a lot of questions about what the next Damnwells record was going to be – I had recorded all these songs in LA that I had written with other people – and I was talking with Salim Nourallah, who ended up producing this record, and we were hanging out in Dallas and he floated the idea that we should make another Damnwells record with the old guys.  We literally just sat there and called Steve and Dave and they both said ok…it was that easy.  It took all of 5 minutes.  Well, seven YEARS and 5 minutes [laughs]

Salim’s an interesting guy – I mean, not only has he worked with bands like the Old 97’s, but he’s a singer, songwriter and producer.  What did he bring to the table?

In the studio and left to our own devices, we would probably overplay and overproduce, and make stuff sound too glossy.  Wouldn’t any guitar player LOVE to record 18 tracks of guitar! And I think that can really be the downfall – even just doubling a guitar can sometimes take away from the impact of a song.  He’s really good at being able to limit us.  There’s a thing called the “safe tempo”, which is 120 bpm – most songs on the radio are about 120 bpm – sort of up – mid-tempo.  And we have been trying to stay away from that, either playing faster or slower and trying to make the songs sound the way they should when these four guys are playing together. Just trying to capture what we sound like is an art that I don’t think anyone in the band is equipped or qualified to create, so we need someone else to do that.  Salim is someone that we have known for years and we trust him.  His interests are making the band sound good.

So how is the album sounding – is it more direct than the last one? How does it feel compared to the rest of the catalog?

Well, it’s kind of early yet to really say.  A lot of our early stuff is really overproduced, especially the stuff we would do on our own.  I don’t think it sounds like anything else in the catalog – it sounds a lot more like what you experience when you are packed into a club and we are playing.   It doesn’t feel tired, which is probably what you would expect from a band that has been playing together for 15 years.  There is a lot of energy and a renewed sense of what we are.  But it doesn’t feel hasty – it just kinda sounds like where we left off when we recorded “Air Stereo”.  The next logical step would have been this record. 

I saw you guys on that tour and I think it was the day or two after Dave had left.  The venue in Buffalo was…

Oh yeah, Buffalo [laughs]

Yep [laughs].  The promoter did a shitty job promoting the show and there were 12 people in the crowd, and I could tell that you had been out on tour for a while.

When Dave had left at that point, he had actually left because his father had died, so he was coming in and out of the tour.  One thing about this band that should be noted is the level of commitment that we all have.  When we were doing our first headlining tour for “Air Stereo”…a little history, which you might know: we had originally recorded the record for Epic but were dropped and ended up putting it out on Rounder, and we were out on tour with the Dixie Chicks and the Fray and then Rounder pulled the plug right when the record was actually starting to chart on radio, and right after that we went out of tour together.  So we did not leave our home bases with a feeling of elation or that we had gotten what we had put in – we felt like we had gotten screwed over!   So that was one thing.  But even with all of that weight bearing down on us, we got in the van, played shows and had a great time. Of course, in the middle of it, Dave’s dad passed away so he got a plane to spend a couple of days with his mother and then he came back and just carried on.  At that time, it wasn’t like we were at the height of our fame, but that Dave would come right back into the trenches with us – we all look at that as an incredible act of selflessness.  The level of commitment that we expect from each other and the bond that we have is pretty strong.  I think it was just a matter of time before we were able to make it work so that we could get back together and at least play some shows. 

What keeps you going?  You have the Damnwells stuff, your solo songs, things you write for others – what makes you want to keep putting your art out into the universe?

At this point, it’s kind of a compulsion.  I mean, I am certainly not putting out music expecting to get rich [laughs] – that would be GREAT, but it’s certainly not a motivating factor.   I think that once people start playing music and playing in a band and putting out records, that’s a big part of it.  Even the least material person in the world probably sometimes feels like they could be a big star.  But after a while, you separate the people who are in it for the right reasons, and anyone who is in music to make money is definitely not in it for the right reason.  There is literally hundreds of dollars to be made over dozens of years [laughter] – if you wanna be a millionaire, I would suggest you try investment banking. For me, it’s a real way to be able to create something and put it out into the world and have people be affected by it. It took probably 5 or 6 years for us to see what we had accomplished as a band.  It takes a while.  When people tell me that a particular song has helped them when they are down or that they played one of our songs at their wedding, it feels like you have created something that is an indelible part of peoples’ lives, and that is ultimately the greatest motivation: being able to create something that lives on beyond you. That’s very addictive, you know. 

Being able to have that effect on people has got be a very humbling, but powerful motivator.

Yeah, for sure.  It’s an incredible gift. Steve and Dave have never really been able to experience some of the success that they helped create, because they left 7 years ago.  I’m excited for them to be able to experience it.  There is no way that anyone would have heard those songs if it hadn’t been for Steve and Dave and Ted.

I know it’s a few years ago, but what impact did the Iowa Writer’s Workshop have on your writing.  You studied with Ethan Canin, who I am a huge fan of.  I read “Star Food“ in college and was hooked.

Oh cool!  Ethan was my mentor – I took his workshop twice and had a lot of one-on-ones with him.  He’s taught me an incredible amount about writing songs. I think one of the most important things he taught me, sort of his teaching ethos, is that your writing has to be real and it’s really easy to identify when it’s not believe able.  And that’s usually when it seems untrue.  We talked a lot in his workshop about point of view, and not just which point of view are you talking from, but is what you are writing true to the point of view of the narrator.  If the narrator is an airline pilot, how would he deal with fixing the remote control to his television?  He probably wouldn’t run to Best Buy, he might try to fix it himself.  In writing songs, even though they are mostly about my experiences, getting back to those places where they came from is a challenge, so being true to those experiences and following them through to the end conceptually is definitely something I learned from him.  And also, the discipline of being a writer – Ethan gets up and writes every morning. And I think that the discipline is a big part of being able to create a moving work of art.  It’s 90% discipline.

Is that how you write?  Do you set aside part of the day for songwriting or is it as inspiration hits?

I think that as you get older you realize that inspiration is not something that you can depend on coming of its own accord – it’s something you have to foster and take care of.  Inspiration DOES strike, and if you have the opportunity to sit down and create that’s great, but you don’t always have the luxury.  I try to set aside a couple hours every day when I can sit down and write, but that’s only when I am in the process of thinking about a record.  I don’t do it every day. I think that doing it every day can be stifling and make you fatigued, just like anything – you can’t have sex every five minutes, even something as awesome as that would get boring [laughs]  If I know that there is a record on the horizon, I start writing for it as soon as I can see an endpoint.  I wouldn’t start writing another Damnwells record right now. I used to write all the time and I had amassed a pretty big collection of songs, but to be honest they weren’t always all that great.  I’d rather just sit down and write for something that I think has the promise to be really good than just write something for the sake of it.

So purpose drives your writing.

At this point, yeah.

Does the new record have a title or release date yet?

We don’t really know yet.  We have a couple ideas, but it’s like a baby name – we don’t really want to tell anybody until we are sure [laughter]

You’re not going to go the Guided By Voices route and change the title in the press three times before it’s released? [laughs]

[laughs] No thanks.

What’s next on the horizon for you and the band?

There are 4 EPs coming out this year, so I am going to play some shows to support those. There are going to be physical copies that you can buy from a Bandcamp site. My day job is being a staff writer for Warner-Chappell, so I spend a lot of time writing songs for other people which occupies a great deal of my time. For the most part, though, getting the Damnwells record out is the priority for me.

Alex, thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

No problem…thanks for being a fan!