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.