Wednesday, May 28, 2014

INTERVIEW: The Wit and Wisdom of John Petkovic (Death of Samantha/Sweet Apple/Cobra Verde)

courtesy of Death of Samantha

Journalist and purveyor of all things “real”, indie rock icon John Petkovic knows how to talk.  And talk.  Over a freewheeling 45 minute conversation that covered everything from the charms of Buffalo, NY architecture to “heritage” rockers’ use of technology, we rarely strayed into the territory of straight dirt about the reformed Death of Samantha and their fab “new” record, “If Memory Serves Us Well”.  Thus, while the chat with John was an engaging and stimulating one for your blogger, it would largely be a slog for the rest of you (the several minutes wherein John and I discuss him coming to visit the Buffalo area over the summer is charmingly sycophantic and best left to your imagination) therefore, in lieu of our standard conversational interview, it is my pleasure to offer up several of John’s more intriguing and salient bon mots…enjoy!

On Death of Samantha’s “new album”, “If Memory Serves Us Well”:

The funny thing is, we didn't decide to really get back together…it just kind of happened.  I’m not the kind of guy to look back on things, so the title is literally about how I NEVER even listened to the old material before we got together to play it! The drummer kept telling me, “you’re not playing it right!”  I don’t live in the past, not because I am above sentimentality, but I just don’t remember it! (laughs)  I have this amnesia…my mind just doesn't process these things.  I am like some sci-fi character who is always trapped in the present.   When we recorded, everything was a work in progress…the recorded versions of things are codified in the minds of people as THE versions, but that’s only one moment in time.  So I didn't think I needed to listen to the old stuff…if memory serves ME well, I will remember what I need to remember! 

On DOS’s reformation:

I think people are used to bands of that time getting back together for various reasons. For us, I just happened to go out for a pack of cigarettes and the guy who plays bass happened to be standing there in the street smoking a cigarette!  I haven’t seen you in years!  And the guitar player, Doug (Gillard), had been playing in town about three days earlier and we ran into each other.  The drummer and I see each other around from time to time, and he said, “hey would you like to work together on a project?” and I thought, “well, here we have 3 of the 4 people in the band!”  And with Doug just in town, we thought maybe we could jam some DoS tunes.  I’m not trying to make some magical thing out of it, but if I hadn't gone out for a cigarette that day (laughs)…we wouldn't be playing!  We got back together for the opposite reason that so many of these other bands did.  We are contrarian in some weird way…the last thing I’d want to do is what everyone else is doing!  What I think is really special about the DoS thing is that we all started when we were between the ages of 15 and 19…we started at a very early age.  There are very few bands whose entry point was at such an early age, it is highly unlikely that people like that continue to play after college.  But 25 years later, we still continue to all play music!  It's like choosing the field you want to work in in middle school and sticking it out for 25 years.  That’s pretty incredible and impossible…it never happens.  

On what’s “real”:

The marketing of our time is really the marketing of “authenticity”, you know, which I find really weird.  I did a story on the “authenticity scam” about how everyone is trying to market and sell everything to you as this is “organic” and this is “artisanal”.  I walked into a bar and a friend of mine was in from California, and he wanted to know what craft brews we have.  And I walked in and asked if I could see the list of the machine-crafted macrobrews (laughs).  My friend thought that was typical of us Cleveland folk, but I explained that I’m just ahead of the curve because the craft brew phenomenon has even hit Cleveland!  It’s so saturated…it’s the whole cult of authenticity and people want to believe that everything they do is “real”.  Everyone has their own set of propaganda.  The whole “farm to table” thing…are you telling me that I should be buying watermelons from Cleveland???  Because there aren't any!  And really what is farm to table?  Isn't there a butcher involved somewhere in there?  It seems like being not a part of the herd is the new herd!  Everyone wants to feel special and unique. 

On his love of Buffalo, NY:

I've always had a soft spot for Buffalo.  There’s some amazing architecture there – I have a friend who’s a documentary filmmaker and I told him that he should do a film on the buildings there.  You also have some great sports teams – I mean, the original ones were the Buffalo Braves baseball team but the Bills have such an interesting history too.  It must have been an amazing city to experience in its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s.

On Sweet Apple’s new records:

We just recorded a new record and its coming out soon…actually we got two albums recorded, three singles.  It was insane.  That’s why it’s not bullshit when I say I can’t go back in time.  I have so much going on NOW.  It’s fucking insane trying to take care of everything in the here and now.  I am pretty stoked on the Sweet Apple thing right now…we have a lot of videos and I like to have a hundred things going on at the same time.  We have a video for one song, which we recorded in Los Angeles, and I've known J (Mascis) from really early on, probably the first time we played New York…Mark Lanegan sings on the song, and Mike Watt is in this video and I've known him forever.  People that you meet early on in your formative times, those are the people that you are on the same page with and you continue to be friends with…there weren't a lot of us in the mid-80s, so we kind of had to gravitate towards one another.   We got into it when there was no money to be made, and it was just passion-driven…you can’t quantify that. 

On what continues to inspire him:

I’m a walking disaster otherwise! (laughs)  Dude, I am in a relationship with the clouds.  I’m in like fucking five bands, and people question why I do all that…if I didn't, I would go crazy! And it’s ok to be at peace, but those people who say that they are fully in communication with the world?  I feel bad for those people.  Music and art is an abstract thing that is an attempt to grapple with the flaws in our language.  There should be some mystery and mysticism…simple language is not enough and music and art, you never master those languages.  It’s an abstract communication, and that pushes me.  It’s tough, because so many musicians are worried about losing their audience, and it’s a fine line you have to walk…you have to not care about what you are putting out or be wired in such a way that you don’t think about it.  Someone like Brian Eno, for example, isn't wired to think that way I would think and his career has probably been more rewarding and even financially lucrative because of it.  That’s the way to be. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

INTERVIEW: Ken Stringfellow (the Posies, the Disciplines, Big Star)

Photo by Christine Taylor

There are few people in music I respect more than Ken Stringfellow.  An erudite wordsmith, joyously inventive composer, and stellar producer, Stringfellow's work solo and with the Posies is some of the most inspired of the past 25 years.  And the guy is good enough to have been asked to augment two of the most influential bands in rock (Big Star and R.E.M.), so anything I can sling is superfluous.  Ken reached out via email to talk about the live production of his last solo album (the gorgeous "Danzig In the Moonlight"), celebrating 20 years of the Posies' biggest hits, his time in Big Star, and how he stays creatively engaged.  Enjoy...

“Paradiso in the Moonlight” is a tremendous live experience and seems to revel in its size and scope – what went into the decision to recast the “Danzig in the Moonlight” album this way, using many of the same collaborators? 

The show was the record release party for "Danzig" in Amsterdam, and one of the rare occasions I could get most of the players on the album, the majority of which are Dutch, in the same room, what with all their busy schedules. The Paradiso offers recording services so it was a no brainer to document the evening. However, I have to give credit to the LAB for really making this recording shine--being that it was a one-off, with limited rehearsal, the recording was much rougher than the final product would lead you to believe.

The Posies’ “Frosting on the Beater” just celebrated its 20th anniversary and you played some shows honoring it with the album line-up.  As an artist you seem to constantly push yourself to find new ways of musical expression – given that, what was the experience like revisiting it so many years later?  Are you prone to nostalgia as an artist?

Nostalgia, no. Fun, yes. It had been so long since that lineup had played a full show together, almost 20 years--we played a couple songs at the Posies 20th in 2008--that I'd really forgotten what the vibe was like, and surely, it's different now than it was then, we've grown and changed much. I like these people, so it's nice for us to meet up from time to time.

Speaking of 20th anniversaries, this past week was 20 years on from the initial reunion of Big Star that you and Jon Auer participated in (which I have to imagine was probably one of the most amazing and flattering experiences ever) – how did you get involved in that and what are your fondest memories of being “in” the band?

I've recounted this a-plenty, but the simplest thing is that Jon & I were already diehard fans by 1990, when we got in touch with Ardent Studios about the possibility of recording our major label debut, "Dear 23", there. It didn't work out that way, but it got us in touch with the studio's public face, Big Star's drummer Jody Stephens. He heard what we were up to, including the note-perfect covers of Big Star's "Feel" and Chris Bell's "I am the Cosmos" we released as a 7" in 1991. So, we weren't the biggest names on the short list of people considered to round out the Big Star lineup for the 1993 Columbia MO show (Matthew Sweet, Paul Westerberg, Mike Mills, Chris Stamey all were asked and declined for various reasons) but I think we had the best chance of hitting the material note-perfect, and our smaller marquee value meant we wouldn't overshadow the music. As for fond memories, every show was spine-tingling for me, to hear these songs I love come to life, and to be in the middle of it. The later shows--the London show at Shepherd's Bush Empire c. 2008, the last show we played together at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in 2009 -- you could really feel a deep, warm love from the audience, and Alex even allowed himself to be moved by it, openly.

You have worked with several very high-profile collaborators are there any collaborative experiences that were particularly memorable that you wish to share?

Well, as I have often recounted, jamming with Neil Young and playing with him live, that's about as good as it gets. I loved the Posies tour with Brendan Benson, where Jon & I were 50% of his band for his set. He headlined the eastern half of the tour and we the western half, but always in his set Jon played guitar and a little bass and I played bass and a little keys. There's a film of the LA show "Brendan Benson Concert" or something similar, it's REALLY good. We are on fire. Of course Brendan is great and he has drummer Brad Pemberton, a truly astonishing player and a great guy, on board. For things further afield check out the album "He Who Travels Far" by China's Hanggai, I produced the album with JB Meijers (who is a big part of "Danzig" and one of my closest bros) and do some playing on it; it's a rock take on Mongolian folk music. Super. And JB & I did a great album with Carice van Houten, who is primarily known as an actress (see: GOT, Black Book, etc) but man, did she blossom on this record. I helped write some of the music and produce; I play bass, keys, etc. Great, great album with some awesome collaborators on board (Howe Gelb, Antony, Steve Shelley, Marc Ribot).

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?

Sophie's Choice means one lives while another dies. Music, luckily, is not life or death. I think of songs as moments in my life, that can be tied to moments in my current life. When that stops being possible, I stop playing the song. There are always new ones. I love the songs on the last Posies album…"For the Ashes", "She's Coming Down Again"…I think they are both poignant and clever.

Your solo career allows you to delve into fairly idiosyncratic song structures and media…can you describe your songwriting process for me?  What inspires you to create?  How do you determine which songs are right for the bands you are a part of and which are destined for solo projects?

I tend to write in the studio a lot. So, the musicians around, the situation, etc, influences me. I often have just snippets, or less, to bring to the studio. I develop the stuff on the spot so it’s fresh. So, I can bend those snippets and ideas in any which way. Ask me to write a Posies album tomorrow: in 5 days, you'd have 5 great songs. Ask me to write a solo album tomorrow: in 12 days, you'd have 12 great songs, all appropriate. I'm only saying "great" because I know how to express what I feel, what I want to say…so….each song I write is satisfying to me. I don't waste time on bullshit--it's too urgent, inside me, to do anything but what's urgent.

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

To be honest, I go back to listening albums I've worked on. I have many great memories of these projects.

What’s on tap for you next?  Any chance of another Posies album? 

I have quite a few album productions happening over the next few months, including some pretty recognizable names, which I can't speak about yet. The 1st four Posies albums-- "failure", "Dear 23", "Frosting on the Beater" & "Amazing Disgrace" will get deluxe vinyl/CD/digital reissues over the next year on Omnivore Records; "Failure" will come this summer, in fact. Jon & I have discussed writing a new album, too…I'm game.

INTERVIEW: Jon Snodgrass (Drag The River)

Photo by Imelda Michalczyk

Your newest, self-titled album was three years in the making and came out after several years apart as a band. It is, in many ways, a great distillation of what Drag the River is – a kind of greatest hits record of all new material. What brought you back together and how did the album come about?
It wasn't 3 years. We tracked on and off for about a year. About 14 days in the studio tracking & mixing. It took a longer time than normal because we didn't have a label and we weren't in a hurry. We just wanted it to come out in 2013 hopefully.

You came up in the punk scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s and your work in Drag the River
presaged the popularity of punk-country crossover in a lot of ways, carrying on the tradition of bands like the Meat Puppets, X and Social Distortion. How receptive was your fanbase initially to the more roots-oriented material?
It wasn't a popular type of music at the time, it was different for a lot of folks. It went over fine. Any kind of music goes in cycles with popularity. It's true. So, you should just do what you do, I think.

I always liked punk music but the music I played with Armchair Martian wasn't really punk. I'm not sure that Drag The River is a real country band either. We call it "country & mid-western". More than one person has said something like "too rock for country & too country for rock" referring to Armchair Martian and Drag The River.

What is your writing process like? Do you and (co-conspirator Chad Price) each bring in fully-formed songs or is it more collaborative? In what ways doe your solo projects influence or shape what you bring to the band? (or is it simply a matter of writing songs and finding the most appropriate outlet?)
We try and have input in each other’s songs. Some more than others. When we play & sing together it sounds like Drag The River.

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 like the new ones more.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? Who inspires you musically?
The Beatles & Husker Du.

You’ve been entrenched in music for the greater part of your life – what keeps you
motivated to continue to create?
It's the only thing I know how to do.

I know that you both have done sporadic dates in the past with your other bands (ALL, Armchair Martian) – is there a point where they will be an ongoing concern again?
A.M. is on 11 the whole time for 25 minutes. That's fun every once in a while, but DTR is a band that can play anywhere. It's real quiet and it's real loud and in between. It can be Chad & I or a full rock band. We can play a punk club or someone’s wedding. I'm proud of the dynamics & we can play 4 hours if we feel like it.

What’s next on tap for the band?
We just recorded a CCR cover. More touring.  I just compiled a list of new songs we can learn and record whenever.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

INTERVIEW: Doug Gillard (Nada Surf, Bambi Kino, ex-GBV)

Photo by Le Studio

“Parade On” is fantastic and by far the most “pop” record you’ve recorded – what inspired its creation?  Have you been pleased with its positive reception?

Thanks so much.  As is per usual, I’d had a couple songs laying around waiting to be completed writing-wise, and a few already done. I found that I mostly included really recent things I’d just come up with. Most, if not all the songs on the record aren’t more than a year old from the time of recording.

Yes, I’ve been surprised at the positive reception, but I also know that if it weren’t positive, I’d be disappointed too, as a lot of lauding goes on for lesser & unimaginative things that are released.

This is the first record where I didn’t drum on anything, and I used 2 amazing drummers- George Duron from Austin has a subtle greatness & tasteful fills that really made the songs he’s on sound more special. Those tracks were done at Louie Lino’s Resonate studio in Austin. Travis Harrison played drums & engineered the songs I did at his studio (Serious Business) in NYC, and is a powerful focused drummer.

I didn’t set out for it to be more pop per se, but maybe that’s the way I’ve been writing lately.

You started a Beatles cover band, Bambi Kino, that covers the Hamburg-era tunes and it looks like you are having a blast!  What about that particular era do you find so intriguing? 

We went to Hamburg in Oct 2010 to play the Indra on the day of their first ever gig there 50 years prior. We played for 4 nights in a row, and learned a ton of material, so we really got inside of their experience & learned why they got so good. We drew from the Star Club LP & BBC sessions, sure, but also, any song we read was on their set lists at that time, whether it was captured on tape or not, was fair game for our sets. For example, there’s a handwritten note that surfaced scrawled by Stu Sutcliffe with a list of songs to learn, and a lot aren’t on recordings. So we put a couple of those in too. Basically its eye opening how much work they did and how many shows they really played from ‘60-’63 to get as tight as they were at one point. After With The Beatles was released & they started having featured shows lasting 20-30 minutes, they were never as tight as those early years after the Hamburg & Cavern residencies.

You are primarily known for your role as the consummate sideman and collaborator, the guy who fills in the cracks and is able to add “that indescribable wow” to a song.  What was the impetus for you to move from a collaborator and backing player to the leader and songwriter of your own band?  Was it challenging to shift gears? 

Well, this year I seem to shift gears every week with all the different projects happening sort of at once! But this is my 3rd full-length solo album, and I also led the band Gem in the mid-90s where I wrote and fronted for at least half the songs (we first recorded the song “I Am A Tree”) so this is more of a return to what I used to do more often. The last LP Call From Restricted came out in 2009 & the first full length, Salamander, came out in 2004. There was an EP a couple years prior to that as well.

And yeah, it is always challenging to shift gears, but I’m happy to be active. One week I’ll be with my band here or at SXSW playing things from Parade On then get home and practice the Buddy Holly stuff, next thing I know I’ll have to brush up on this Carl Perkins or Joe Brown or Fats Domino song we’re doing at a Bambi Kino show in a few days. We’re also writing/recording a new LP in Nada Surf off & on this year. Something I did last year that I loved was producing the new album by Eternal Summers (The Drop Beneath on Kanine). I enjoyed that process and working with that band, who are now friends of mine for life, so that was a bit of a gear-shift too, but I found helping others think about their songs helped me reign my own in a bit.  So with all the different projects going, it sounds kind of crazy, but it is always fun.

It’s obvious from both a songwriting and production standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work.   What is your songwriting process like?  Do you start with a riff and build from there or do the lyrics come first?

It’s always different per song. There are about 3 ways songs come about with me. A lot of time, yes, it is a chord progression I’ll come up with, and then I think of a B & C part to go with it right away. Lyrics/melody are almost always last. But then there are some that come to you fully formed, & those are the best ones. When you’re disengaged from the fret board or piano & the whole thing is in your head only, you only worry about how to get it played later. So that happens sometimes, and it’s great. Whole choruses come to me sometimes with harmonies intact, bass lines, the beat pattern, etc.., so the process varies.

Lyrics are almost always the last thing, but sometimes they’ll be the first, & then I have to find the chords that go under them. That’s fun too. Nicole Yun from Eternal Summers has an amazing way of singing syllables as placeholders until lyrics can be penned, & you wouldn’t know they aren’t real lyrics. Matthew Caws does much the same thing.  Melodies are pretty instant to him.

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?

That is a really hard question!  My favorite ones are the ones I think say everything I want to musically say, & aren’t always the best ones to play live.  My favorites on the new LP are “Your Eyes”, ”Overseas” or “Come Out & Show Me”. On the last album it was “Entwined” & “No One Above You”.  On the lp Salamander it would be “Going Back To You”, and in Gem, it would be “Good To See You” and “I Am A Tree”.  With Robert Pollard it was probably the song “Pop Zeus” and any number of Lifeguards songs.  I can’t decide on one alone, though.

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

There are way too many things to even mention, and it is always changing.  When I was 5, I was starting to write songs & play drums & guitar & then it was Monkees & Archies, along with AM radio songs of the time. Beatles/McCartney are just in my fiber I guess, when it comes to melodies & basslines.  Coming up in the age of new wave-into post-punk like I did, there’s always some pre-Seconds Of Pleasure Rockpile, Pretenders, XTC & Squeeze & the like & the stuff I absorbed a little later, especially Siouxsie & Wire. John McGeoch really had an influence on my guitar playing as did James-Honeyman Scott.  Always some Who & Kinks, but also a whole slew of easy listening & sunshine pop artists from the late 60’s & 70s that has stuck with me.  TS McPhee’s more trippy output from Groundhogs has always been a big thing, T. Rex & Roxy Music too. Sometimes some Nascimento/Gilberto/Jobim.  It’s always open. Tons of great new artists are coming out as well.

I spoke with John Petkovic about the reactivation of Death of Samantha a little while back and he alluded to new activity with the band.  Can we expect new music from DoS and/or reissues of the original albums?  What was it like to revisit that material live?

No reissues, but possibly some new material. It was fun and natural to play the older songs again. Its wilder than ever, live, too.

What’s on tap for you next? 
I’ll be touring with my solo material, Nada Surf, and Death of Samantha too, along with occasional Bambi Kino events. I’m always writing my own stuff, so I’ll be recording and releasing that when I can as well.