Wednesday, April 20, 2016

INTERVIEW: Petra Haden

Your debut album, "Imaginaryland" is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  I remember playing your cover of Enya's "Watermark" on my college radio station and thinking, "I can't believe that this is the same woman from that dog.!" (her band with sister Rachel, Tony Maxwell, and Anna Waronker) When did you realize that you could create such arrangements with your voice?  

I started writing little vocal ideas and covering songs using my voice when I got my first 4-track cassette recorder, I think around 1992. I taught myself how to use it by singing the guitar and bass parts of songs. I loved doing it so much, that I ended up recording enough material for an album.  I played the music for Tom Grimley at Poop Alley Studios (who recorded That Dog’s first album). And he suggested I re-record some of the songs at his studio. Some of the songs on I.L. come straight from the 4-track.

Also, some people might not know this, but I’m not in That Dog anymore.
You're also in the process of re-releasing your a cappella reimagining of the Who's "Sell-Out".  I've always found that such an interesting work.  The original was ahead of its time in so many ways (its content and commentary on the commodification of rock, the use of interstitials), and you are essentially looking back on it and interpreting it through the oldest possible musical medium, the human voice.  It's so fresh for being something so familiar!  What went into your decision to cover it?  Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person?

The idea came from Mike Watt. He called me one day and asked me to record The Who Sell Out in the style of Imaginaryland. He gave me his 8-Track Tascam 488 cassette recorder, put the Who on the 8th track and left 7 tracks empty for me to fill with my voice.  I hadn’t heard this album before I started working on it.  I Can See For Miles was the song I was more familiar with, so I started with that one. I was so amazed at how imaginative the commercials in between the songs were and couldn’t wait to tackle those. When I was a kid, my sisters and I used to record ourselves doing impressions of people, and we used to imitate those toys from the 70s and 80s that talked, so it brought back memories of me doing impressions of Miss Piggy and 2-XL. So I guess I am a little nostalgic. :)
Growing up in a family steeped in music, was there ever a time when you thought your career and life might take a different path?  Growing up with your father's playing and you and your siblings' various musical careers, I have difficulty picturing you doing anything other than what you are.

There wasn’t really a time when I thought my career would take a different path.  Since I was very young, I knew I wanted to sing and play music. I loved watching my dad and the musicians who played with him at his concerts. I remember how beautiful the music was and how good it made me feel.  I remember thinking, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Your solo works are fairly insular, but you have such varied experiences collaborating with and supporting others - how do you find an artistic balance between the two?  What are some of your fondest memories of the projects with which you've been associated?  

I loved recording on Paul Motian’s album, The Windmills of Your Mind, with Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan. I got a call from Bill saying that Paul wanted me to sing on his record. I flipped out! Paul was someone I had known since I was a baby.  He and my dad were very close friends who worked together a lot and they had the same sense of humor.  Not a day went by in the studio where I wasn’t laughing. I remember wanting to add harmonies and more vocals to some of the music, but he wanted to record it live, with no added voices.  It was really fun for me to switch gears, and not add any vocals like I was so used to doing. It made me realize that sometimes, one voice is perfect.

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

That would probably be “Look Both Ways Before You Cross” from Imaginaryland. It was the first song I wrote on the 4-track.  I gave it that title because throughout the song, I sing in a way that reminds me of the sounds car horns make as they drive by fast.

You provided the singing voice for Bill Hader's character, Clark Honus, on the Blue Jean Committee episode of Hader and Fred Armisen's "Documentary Now".  I'm not sure I actually have a question about it; I just don't think I've laughed quite as hard at anything as I did that in years…great job!

Thank you so much! That was one of the funnest times I ever had. I had to look at Bill on the screen as he was singing to try to match him and I couldn’t stop laughing. There were a lot of vocal takes that day.
What's on tap for you next? 

I recorded an album with Jesse Harris called, “Seemed Like a Good Idea”, that’s coming out April 29th on Sunnyside Records. We are touring the West Coast in May, opening for Sean Watkins and we have some shows in Asia coming up as well. Our record release show is at Joe’s Pub in NYC, May 4th. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Posies - Solid States

Space-age and sleek, “Solid States” ain’t your father’s Posies record.  Largely eschewing the blaring guitars of fan-fave “Frosting on the Beater” in favor of drum machines and synth beds, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer still bring gorgeous melodies to the table, but the sudden loss of drummer Darius Minwalla last year has encouraged a re-configuring of what the Posies can and should be.  Stringfellow in particular has made his intention of using more electronics in the Posies known for some time, and many of the songs have a similar sheen to the “Reveal”-era R.E.M. tracks that he contributed to – even Auer-led songs like “Rollercoaster Zen” and “The Destination” are tech-abetted and slinkier than their previous material.  While sonically more subdued, the songs take sharp lyrical aim at targets as far flung as government-intrusion into citizens’ privacy (the caustic “Squirrel vs. Snake”) and faceless consumerist commodification (the jittery, propulsive “M Doll”).

There’s a lot to like on the album – first single, the aforementioned “Squirrel vs. Snake”,  is probably the closest connective tissue to 2010’s “Blood/Candy” and sounds the most like “classic” Posies – but those looking for another “Solar Sister” or “Everybody Is a Fucking Liar” will find little comfort in the billowing and airy arrangements. The artistic branching out (especially in the face of such devastating loss, when it would have been much easier to simply retrench) is laudable, and while far from perfect (the album feels longer than its 46 minutes would suggest), “Solid States” proves that the guys still have a lot of life left in them. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Pop Group – The Boys Whose Head Exploded

Hot off the heels of releasing their first album of new music in 35 years (2015’s surprisingly strong “Citizen Zombie”), the Pop Group has given us a real treat – a live album recorded during their 1979/1980 European run in support of the earth-shattering “How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?”” (itself reissued late last year).  Officially categorized by the band as a “bootleg” (and the sometimes muffled sound certainly makes one think of clandestinely-traded white label boots that used to circulate via some of our finer record shops and catalogs), “The Boys Whose Head Exploded” makes you feel like yours is doing that.  Captured during their feral prime, the clanging beautiful mess of their live show comes bleeding out of your speakers via these nine tracks.  There is something so incredibly right and poignant to our moment in political time right now about Mark Stewart caterwauling out “Our children shall rise up against us / Because we are the ones to blame!”

And above and beyond the almighty din, that’s probably why the Pop Group continue to be so germane – their trenchant poking and prodding of Thatcher-era U.K. culture and standing up for causes of justice mirror our own time in which we find ourselves questioning the role of the “people” in our own political ecosystem.  The fractured funk of “Shake the Foundations” and “There Are No Spectators’” skeletal groove show exactly why John Lydon was so interested in Bruce Smith being a continued part of the P.i.L experience – his tribal patterns and polyrhythms perfectly accentuate the paranoia in Stewart’s lyrics and vocals.  Far too short at 41 minutes, the album is a thrilling snapshot of a band at their incendiary best. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

INTERVIEW: Dale Laurence (Vulgar Boatmen)

You recently re-released “You & Your Sister” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the album. First, that made me feel VERY old, as I used to listen to and love it in high school!  Are you an inherently nostalgic person? What was it like to revisit your and Robert Ray’s work from an older (and one would presumably wiser) vantage point?

The big thing that jumped out at me was how thin the original album sounded. We'd remastered some of the songs from Please Panic and noticed modest improvement. But the remastered tracks from You and Your Sister may as well have been remixes, they sounded different, so much deeper and nuanced. There were some parts I'd forgotten we'd recorded, they'd been so far back in the mix. For the most part, I'm happy enough with the tracks themselves. There are a few I think could have been better realized ("Margaret Says" and "Cry Real Tears" come to mind), but overall the album holds up for me.

I don't know if I'm a nostalgic person or not. I'm very interested in the past, as well as in a lot of older music, movies, architecture, etc. But I guess I associate "nostalgic" with interest in something simply because it's from a bygone era, i.e. for its quaintness. Which is not something I'm interested in at all.

You were picked to curate a week’s worth of material for Magnet Magazine’s website, and your choices ranged from Elmore James to the names of beauty parlors you’ve come across.  Both of these things seem oddly but perfectly in step with the Boatmen’s music and influences.  How does the everyday make it into your songwriting?  What is your process like?

We had no set methodology for writing songs, but almost always the melody came first. At least in my case, while working on that initial melody, I'd often find myself singing a few words, maybe a couple lines or a hook phrase. If we liked those words and they sang well, we'd keep them and build the rest of the lyrics around them. Us “liking” them usually meant that they sounded conversational, every day. Anything too weird or opaque was usually discarded.

Your arrangement within Vulgar Boatmen was (or is) fairly unique – two functioning recording and touring units that operate symbiotically but apart.  Was that simply a function of pre-internet geography?  I have to imagine that there were some difficulties (and probably some opportunities) that arose from that set-up.

It was a matter of geography, yes. Robert and I lived 900 miles apart and we both were fronting bands. As we wrote more and more songs together via the US mail, the repertoires of the two bands started to mirror each other. When it came time to make an album, it only made sense to pool our resources. The arrangement made for occasional difficulties, hurt feelings, but there was also a big upside. Sometimes Robert's band would have a better arrangement of a particular song than mine did, or vice-versa, which gave us twice the opportunity to get it right in the recording process.

What are your thoughts on digital distribution being the primary delivery system for music?  In one sense it would seem a benefit to expose younger listeners to lost gems like “You & Your Sister”, but the royalty rates and mechanicals are so out of line with what could (or should) be given to recording artists and songwriters. Does it have any impact on your writing and recording?

[I'm going to skip this question, because I really don't have anything original or interesting to say. Sorry.] (Ed. Note: I’ve included the lack of response because I find it interesting…you can infer what you wish from Dale’s reticence!)

A bit of a specific one for you: what was the inspiration for “Decision By The Airport”?  I have always found that one of your most affecting tunes. 

Sometimes a phrase or a lyric will seem to write itself, in which case I tend to go with it and assume it connects to something, even if I'm not sure what. "You need a decision by the airport tomorrow" is a good example of that. I came up with the melody and just found myself singing those words, liked them, so kept them. I also wrote the words to the "Somebody else" part, about occasionally glimpsing my ex around town after a significant relationship fell apart. Robert put lyrics to the verses, so you'd have to ask him about them -- though I know his second verse was also about saying goodbye at the end of a relationship. So there.

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 guess I would say “There's a Family.” I've always found that one very satisfying, both the words and music. And the recording came out especially nice, driven by Jonathan Isley's drum part and Helen Kirklin's gorgeous viola solo.

What’s on tap for you next?  Is there the possibility of new, recorded music from Vulgar Boatmen?

There are no hard recording plans at this time but I'd never say never. We do have some shows coming up, including two or three Midwestern dates this summer with Walter Salas-Humara, which we're looking forward to a lot.

(Hums Aerosmith Riff)

Longtime-fans and newbies: so sorry for the delay!  As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans", and if you can't trust a Beatle, well...

So, here's just some of the goodies we have coming up for ya:

- An interview with 80s indie-rock stalwarts, the Vulgar Boatmen!

- A lengthy discussion with one of our greatest living songwriters (and the best troubadour that Stars Hollow has who is not named Sam Phillips), Grant-Lee Phillips!

- A nice lil' ramble with space-rock legend, Nik Turner (HAWKWIND!)

- Various and sundry reviews, musings and commentary...

Thanks for hanging in there,

- your intrepid blogger