Tuesday, February 5th, 2013 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX | No Comments
I like Portland. I liked the Mint Chicks. I love New Zealand. I dig noisy pop music. But as much as I like these things it doesn’t necessarily mean I’d like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I’m easy, but I’m not that easy.
But I do like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That’s because Ruban Nielson writes good songs. The PDX by way of NZ musician surprised a lot of people (including himself) in 2010 when he posted the song “Ffunny Ffriends” on his Bandcamp page. Blogs ate it up before they even knew who or what was behind it, and Nielson–who was just writing songs for his own amusement—soon found himself releasing an entire record for Fat Possum in 2011.
There’s no mystery surrounding the band’s latest LP II, out now on Jagjaguwar. The songs again dip into the nether-regions of Nielson’s psyche, as he pushes garage rock and soul through some sort of futuristic meat grinder. It’s a little hazier than their self-titled debit. Zeus knows there’s been plenty to draw from in Nielson’s life over the past few years: The breakup of his longtime New Zealand band the Mint Chicks (caused by a strained relationship with his brother, Kody); the roller coaster that came with the release of UMO’s debut, which came after deciding he was going to quit music; and a tumultuous year of touring that saw Nielson nearly party himself to death in 2011.
It sounds like the makings of a juicy autobiography; instead we get II. And it’s a good one. Nielson took some time to answer a few questions about living in Portlandia, making music with a clear head and missing his Ffriends in New Zealand.
TDoL: You wrote and performed II yourself, right?
Ruban Nielson: I wrote it, but my brother plays some drums on it. Greg Rogove plays drums on a track and Jake Portrait plays bass on a track. It was still a pretty solitary process overall though.
It’s good stuff. It’s more dynamic than the first record, more live sounding …
Thanks. It has more drum fills and is a little less repetitive I suppose. I put some extra effort into the big picture of the record. The first record was me just trying to make jams to listen to on my iPod on the bus. It wasn’t intended as a real album. On the new record I thought about the little journey it would take you on. I knew people were going to hear it so I stepped up with a bit more conceptual ambition.
What were you going for in that respect?
I was just trying to capture the way I felt about the year and half I’d just had. Every song was coming at that idea from a different angle. I thought if I could make an album that invoked the feelings I’d had it would come out pretty heavy, and it would be good.
I remember hearing the Mint Chicks’ Bad Buzz EP and being really excited about the new music, and then poof they were gone. What happened, and what did you take from that experience?
My brother was just treating me like shit, basically. I needed to get out of the situation of working with him on a daily basis. I was working really hard and putting a lot of effort into it and getting nothing back. I’d just grown out of it. I wanted my life to be more rewarding and fun.
How long was it before you started working on the UMO stuff?
For about six months I think I was just trying to figure out how to pay my bills in Portland and stuff like that so I didn’t think about music much. I had this plan in my head that I was going to do something else with my life that wasn’t music, and that whatever it was it was going to be awesome. Eventually I started making recordings as a hobby. While I was in the Mint Chicks I worked as an artist’s assistant and did visual art as a hobby and music for a living so my plan was to flip that around. I got really excited about making music without arguing with bandmates about whether an idea was good. I got excited about making music without having to send demos to the label and all of that stuff. I got excited about removing the ego bullshit from the process.
Were you surprised by how quickly it caught on?
Of course. I remember working on “Ffunny Ffrends” and specifically thinking, “OK, now I’m just removing myself from the zeitgeist entirely. This is officially the most untrendy music in the world. Nobody is going to want to hear this.” If you’d asked anyone if they wanted to hear overly distorted music in an annoying falsetto about funny friends over old-school breakbeats … and, oh, did I mention the guitar solo?
How did you end up in Portland?
I have an uncle who lives here and I stayed with him and his family for a couple of weeks, and just felt like I wanted to move here. I went back to New Zealand and basically started planning to move. I have dual citizenship but I’d never had the desire to move to the U.S. permanently until I’d hung out in Portland. Of course, it’s changed a lot even in the five years I’ve lived here. There wasn’t a TV show about how ridiculous things are downtown. I still like it a lot though.
Do you miss New Zealand?
Sometimes. I had a great time last time I was there. My good friends I have there are irreplaceable. My immediate family are still there. I get along a lot better with my brother now that we aren’t in the Mint Chicks together.
Were you more influenced by New Zealand bands growing up, or American bands?
I was influenced by everything. Flying Nun, East Coast hip hop, alternative rock, punk, post-punk, jazz, jazz fusion, avante garde music, dub, drum and bass, noise music, classical. My family are all musicians on both sides so my poor brain was under siege from music. That’s why I didn’t want to be a musician growing up. I got into it accidentally, almost.
If you could go back to a certain era of music, what would it be?
2010, man. Things were so good then.
It sounds like 2012 was a hectic year for you. What are your goals for a smoother 2013?
I think 2012 was a great year—not that hectic, just busy and successful. 2011 was the hectic one. Just touring and touring and touring. This year I’m going to be busy again. There’s never telling what’s going to happen. I don’t know if smooth is what I want.
“Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
“So Good at Being in Trouble” – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Thursday, January 10th, 2013 | interviewZ, musiX, vinylZ | 1 Comment
I begin 2013 by going back to the year 2012. It was a simpler time, filled with hope and promise … OK, it was a great year for rock music, filled with some terrific records from The Men, King Tuff, Ty Segall, Ty Segall … Ty Segall, and a lesser-known band out of Saint Louie (Go Cards!) called Tilts, whose self-titled debut made numero uno on TDoL’s Best of 2012 list.
I bring them up again in these early days of 2013 because a) their album is pure rock and roll fun, and b) it was criminally overlooked last year. I discovered Tilts over at cranky pants Everett True’s Collapse Board blog, and immediately bought it on vinyl (which you, too, can order here). The record rocks in the spirit of Van Halen, Sabbath and Zep—big, dumb and fun, harkening back to the glory days when riffs were painstakingly forged in fire and could slice through your gray matter like a hot knife through gray matter (the song “Hot For Pizza” has more in common with Van Halen than just its title). The record was pulled together from a string of 7-inches, and finally released with the help of a Kickstarted campaign on Robotic Empire.
The man behind Tilts is guitarist-vocalist Andrew Elstner, who in 2012 also began slinging ax for Torche and contributed to the Miami metal quartet’s good-timin’ Harmonicraft album. Needless to say it was an eventful year for Elstner, even more so if you count that little situation when a bat pissed directly into his eye. But that’s sooo 2012. This year looks to be even bigger, even better. Torche will tour and start writing material for the follow-up to Harmonicraft, and Elstner says there’s a new Tilts album already in the works.
After a busy and blurry holiday season, The Days of Lore finally caught up with Elstner to discuss rock and roll, defunct metal magazines and why David Lee Roth is hot for pizza.
TDoL: 2012 turned out to be a pretty good year for you: You joined Torche, Tilts released their first full-length and got No. 1 on The Days of Lore Best of list … I mean, come on!
Andrew Elstner: Dude, you said it. 2012 has been a blast! Really and truly, I have no complaints. This year’s been a dream. I mean, it’s not like I’m doing anything I haven’t done before, it’s just that I’m doing it better and more often.
How long has Tilts been kicking around?
Unofficially, I’d like to say since I was about 18 when I first met Ken [McCray] and Shawn [Hart]; we hadn’t written any Tilts music of course, but the friendships started there. I met Andy White around 2001 if I remember correctly. We officially started jamming, I think, around spring or summer of 2009 and began recording EPs a while after.
I hear loads of great rock influences—ZZ Top, Sabbath, Van Halen. Was your upbringing with classic rock radio?
Absolutely. I began at the same place most kids did at that time. The first song I learned was “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith, then “Black Dog” by Zeppelin followed by a blizzard of Ozzy and Sabbath. Van Halen was everywhere as well.
Tell me more about the song “Hot For Pizza” …
Oh dude, it’s such a long story, but all true. Ultra quick breakdown: A good friend of mine befriended David Lee Roth within the last decade or so. During their initial encounter, the two of them were partying and Dave wanted a slice. On the walk to the neighborhood pizza joint Diamond Dave allegedly sang the line, “I’ve got it bad, got it bad, got it baaad, I’m hot for pizzaaa!” Now, if this story came from anyone else I wouldn’t believe it, but the shit is real. The song is very obviously a deep nod to Van Halen style wise, so the title couldn’t have been anything else really. It’s a good time.
What I love about the Tilts album is that it’s a fun party record, but I also get the feeling you take rock and roll dead serious.
Tilts set out to be that kind of a band on purpose. I mean, the band is Tits with an “L.” For real. You can’t take yourself too seriously. On the other hand, yeah, we wanna write solid tunes. We honestly don’t think about it too hard. Spinal Tap’s Viv Savage said it best, “Have a good time, all the time.”
I’ve read that you were an avid Circus magazine reader. I used to love that mag. Were you a metalhead growing up?
Yeah man—Circus, Rip, Hit Parader, all the usual pharmacy titles. Pretty hilarious to look at them now. It’s like poodles with guitars. Metalhead for sure, though, maybe not as intense as some. Some stuff was definitely lost on me at the time. I was all Anthrax, Metallica, Ozzy, Megadeth and whatever was playing on Headbanger’s Ball at the time. Between that and our local rock station’s “Monday Night Metal,” there were no other avenues to discover different bands. It wasn’t until high school that I finally branched out when a buddy would drive me home and we’d listen to Fugazi, Shellac, Drive Like Jehu. Blew my mind.
You are a riff machine, too. Who are your guitar heroes?
Aww man, I hold my own I suppose. Heroes aplenty. The usual—Eddie Van Halen, Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, Angus/Malcolm Young, Andy Summers; and some slightly unusual—Billy Dolan, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch. But really as a guitar player you end up picking up so much you aren’t consciously aware of. Somewhere in there is probably the Manhattan Transfer album my parents used to play when I was a kid.
OK, it’s 1974. KISS, Zeppelin and Sabbath are playing separate shows on the same night: KISS in a small club, Sabbath in a theater, and Zep in an arena. Who do you go see?
Oh, Zeppelin. Easy. Well, don’t get me wrong, I had to think about it and though I love KISS, I’m a bit of a tourist there. Black Sabbath, yeah, that’s tough to pass up, and such a killer year for those bands. I’d buy tickets to Sabbath and Zeppelin, go to Sabbath first, then see the latter half of Zeppelin’s set.
Has the fact that you’re now in Torche brought more attention to Tilts?
Without a doubt. We’ve been awfully lucky there as the Torche connection has greatly extended our reach.
The bat piss incident probably didn’t hurt …
Man, yeah, the story’s been told a jillion times now, but for sure the press helped. So crazy.
You moved to Atlanta from St. Louis. Was that to be closer to the Torche guys without actually having to live in Florida?
Yeah, I moved here just about two years ago to join Torche. Steve [Brooks] lives here as well as does our sound engineer Rob. Jon [Nuñez] and Rick [Smith] are still down in Miami and Gainesville respectively. And, yes, no Florida for me please and thank you. Atlanta is really an amazing city—vastly underrated and comfortably under the radar for the moment.
Are you a Redbirds fan?
It’s hard to live in or be from St. Louis and not be a Cardinals fan, though there again, I could barely tell you a single player’s name from last season, to my father’s sincere disappointment.
I assume Torche is going to keep you plenty busy this year. What’s in store for 2013, and how does Tilts factor into the plans?
Torche has gobs more touring to do this year, as well as write a new album—so yes, we’ll be busy for sure. Us Tilts dudes are currently chipping away at a new full-length. Still in the demo stages, but the songs, instrumentally at least, are pretty much written. Likely a few tweaks here and there, but we’re pleased so far. We’ll be recording this one ourselves again, fitting in recording time where we can among our thoroughly wily schedules. Fingers crossed we can finally do a small bit of touring. Zeus knows we’ve had plenty of requests.
“Mexiqo” – Tilts
Photo by Todd Morgan
Thursday, August 25th, 2011 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX | 2 Comments
I was recently asked by Spin Magazine to hang out at Stephen Malkmus’ house and talk to him about random objects that were ineteresting or held some sort of significance to him. I closed the e-mail, changed my underwear and schemed how I would call in sick to my day job in two weeks. “There’s something going around,” I schemed.
I rarely get starstruck these days—only Rhett Miller holds that distinction—but that’s only because he’s so darned good-looking. Malkmus is a pretty handsome fellow, too. And aside from a few more gray hairs, he’s hardly aged. But I wasn’t starstruck—this was more like, “I’m going to hang out with Stephen Malkmus. At his home. What?”
I walked up to his door, which was attached to a very large, very old house in a cluster of other very large, very old houses near a popular park in Portland. His wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, answered the door. “He’s on his way,” she informed me. The videographer and photographers were already there trying to decide which room had the best light. It was my job to scour the home for quirky trinkets that would lend themselves to even quirkier answers. While the photogs began setting up their elaborate gear, the videographer Aubree and I headed to—where else—the basement.
It was exactly what you would expect: Records, guitars, some recording equipment, old books, genius-at-work clutter. We noted the signed copy of Sterolab’s French Disko on the wall, which Malkmus would later explain: “We did a big, long tour with them in Europe—and at the end we signed records and there were tears and champagne.” Sadly, there were no half-eaten Twinkies I could sell on eBay for a couple hundred bucks. The best part about all this? I was (sort of) casing Stephen Malkmus’ home because that’s what I was supposed to be doing.
Malkmus arrived about 45 minutes later, which doesn’t really qualify as “on his way” (man, he is such a slacker). He was wearing black jeans, a pair of white Adidas and a blue-and-white flannel (yes!) shirt. Atop his head sat a Detroit Pistons cap. Malkmus disappeared into the kitchen, and I could hear him and Jessica chatting, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. It sounded like married-couple talk. He re-emerged and we all introduced ourselves. I think I was the only one who was really familiar with/enjoyed Pavement and/or the Jicks. After some small-talk, Malkmus and I decided to scour the house to find more what-nots and what-have-yous.
We headed back down to the basement. He rummaged through a closet and pulled out a few things, including a small plaster sculpture of his head as a young child. I pointed out the Stereolab record. We made our way back upstairs. His two kids were not there, but the tell-tale signs were: toys, a nook with children’s books, scattered Cheerios on the kitchen floor. Malkmus disappeared upstairs and came back down with a framed photo of his mother as a young girl, a Jamaal Charles Jersey and some tape reels that included demos from Pavement’s Terror Twilight. After we rounded up what we thought were enough “curios” as he called them, we ended up back in the kitchen to talk about the new Jicks record Mirror Traffic and, of course, working with Beck.
“He gave me a call about two and a half years ago and he was just getting started in producing, and he’s like, ‘I’m a producer now, and I’d like to work with you,’ Malkmus explained. “I ran it by the band because we were thinking of ideas, and everyone really wanted to work with a proper producer—I think they were getting tired of the sort of willy-nilly way we were doing it.” Malkmus was making himself breakfast—English style—a fried egg and tomato on toast. Prior to that he had managed to sneak out for a smoke, which truly made it an English breakfast. It looked delicious … the food, not the cigarette.
“We did recording of the basic tracks in five or six days,” he continued. “It was pretty painless, and [Beck] was positive emotionally about everything and pretty mellow like a musician. He said, ‘I might be better at this than judging my own stuff.’ That’s one of the keys, I think, from the standpoint of the band—you want someone who can be like that, that doesn’t want it to be their thing, and can see what’s good about you. I don’t think everyone would be right for it, but he definitely seems to have a talent for it. And I think he’s going to be pretty busy.”
It’s true. Beck’s touches aren’t ham-fisted. Mirror Traffic is far less bombastic than 2008′s Real Emotional Trash, but maintains a warm quality that Malkmus was shooting for. “I didn’t really know what I wanted, I just wanted it to sound good—have a good fidelity that we liked. That’s what I was more worried about—having it sound too digital or modern.” Best of all, Joanna Bolme‘s bass is high in the mix—a good thing, as she’s truly a secret weapon (listen to Quasi’s American Gong for proof).
Recording stalled while Malkmus was out for a year on the Pavement cash-grab extravaganza. During that time he was getting antsy, as were the rest of the Jicks. We convened at the kitchen table, where he chatted between bites. (“Sorry I’m eating while we do this.”) The band finished things up this year and released the album’s first single “Senator” back in early June, a song with a memorable chorus that was accidentally timely in the wake of the Anthony Weiner political boner.
“The chorus is just what I sang for the part, and I just made that up—so, I don’t know, that just came from my subconscious,” he explained. “It wasn’t really like shooting fish in a barrel, to tease guys like that, or to be something that would be on The Daily Show.”
The Jicks released Mirror Traffic on August 23, the final album to feature longtime Jick/pal Janet Weiss, who will be focusing most of her attention on Wild Flag. Joggers drummer Jake Morris has joined the lineup, rounded out by Bolme and guitarist-keyboardist Mike Clark. The record is less jammy, filled with well-crafted pop that manages to keep Malkmus’ quirks intact. It might be Malkmus’ best, most Pavement post-Pavement release.
“For me I decided to make it a little more about melody. That could be what I’m better at. I can try to be a big shredder psych-rocker guy, but I’ll let the memorable vocal melodies be the thing you take from the song.”
Jake the photographer came in and told us they were set up and ready to go. I headed toward the bathroom. “Umm, there’s no toilet paper in there, but I can run upstairs and grab some if you need it.” As much as I wanted to tell Stephen Malkmus to grab me some toilet paper, I assured him it was only No. 1. When I entered the living room, he was seated, surrounded by his own artifacts—among them the plaster head, the Charles jersey (a gift from Pavement bandmate Bob Nastanovich) and his diploma from the University of Virginia, where he got involved in college radio and punk rock in a small city in an even smaller red state. (“It was sort of like a mini John Hughes movie—where you would find weirdos and freaks, and you’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re my people,’ amid the uniformity.”)
Malkmus has come a long way since then. He’s come an even longer way since the day his grandmother sculpted a plaster statue of his head. But not much has changed, and that’s a good thing. He’s still mindful of the DIY, punk aesthetic. He still reads poetry from obscure avant-writers like Louis Zukofsky and Tom Clark, who did the cover art for Mirror Traffic. And he still makes interesting music that means a lot to a lot of people. He’s not hip, but he’s not irrelevant either. Throughout the morning Malkmus joked that he’s too old for this or too old for that, or questioned his coolness. I think it’s something he must think about as he eases into middle age.
Of the dozen or so objects we end up talking about, it turns out that one of Malkmus’ most prized is a drawing by Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart.
“He is an inspirational musical genius,” Malkmus said. He wasn’t smiling, or even smirking when he said this. “You know, he played this really insane music that sounds like outsider music, but it was all planned out. He knew what he was doing, and he still made it sound like it was completely original. To me it’s an inspiration that somebody can be such a weirdo, but also be a calm artist.”
That statement right there speaks volumes. I think Malkmus is going to be around for a while. He’ll definitely continue to be one of the most relevant irrelevant artists of his generation. And he really is a cool dude.
“Senator” – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
“Tune Grief” – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
Tuesday, April 5th, 2011 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX | No Comments
Alela Diane knows her way around a pop song. And on her new album—which introduces Diane’s new band Wild Divine—the Portland singer-songwriter balances the dark folk found on 2009′s excellent To Be Still with sunnier pop melodies and sleeker production courtesy of Scott Litt (R.E.M., Nirvana).
Calling the album “a battle between darkness and light,” Diane manages to keep these friendlier songs from becoming radio friendly with a little help from her band (which includes her longtime collaborating father Tom Menig and her husband Tom Bevitori). Giving the songs their weight are Diane’s distinct falsetto and all of those stark thoughts that have been building up in those notebooks of hers. There are a few unexpected twists and turns (take lead single “To Begin”) that hint toward what’s to come from the songwriter. I like it.
Alela Diane & Wild Divine is out today on Rough Trade. Diane took some time to talk to TDoL about life, death and love. Sounds like the making of a good song.
TDoL: It seems like a lot of folk singers eventually start playing with a band. Why did you decide to go that route this time around?
Alela Diane: It was time for a change, and playing with a band is something I’d been wanting to do for quite some time. The songs on this record were written with a fuller sound in mind, and I wanted to focus more on my vocals, and less on the guitar. It turns out that having a band could make all of that possible. It is enabling me to make the transition from girl with a guitar to frontwoman in a band. I think it’s important to move down different roads when the time feels right, and that is just what I’ve set out to do.
Your dad played on your first two albums, and he plays on the new record along with your husband … how was that?
It’s great working alongside the two Toms. We call dad “Big T” and husband “Little T.” It’s really nice to be on the road surrounded by family, and it definitely helps the homesickness thing. I don’t know what it would be like to have it any other way, because both of them have been by my side throughout my musical career. It works for us, and so I keep them around.
Some of the songs are less folky, a little more poppy. Was that the result of playing with a band, or were you already writing songs that were going in a different direction?
I spent a lot more time on my songwriting for this record, knowing that I’d be recording with a band. It’s also the first time I’ve co-written, and this definitely gives those tunes a different feel. Making a folk record would have been easy. I had to set the bar in a different place, and I had to try for something else.
When did you write most of the new material?
I wrote much of the lyrical content while on the road for To Be Still. There was rarely a moment to actually write the music part while traveling, so when we came home to Portland in late 2009, I had quite a supply of words that needed melodies and music. We had pretty much all of 2010 off from touring, during which time I’d sit around the house all day to work on songs. Many of them went through very different versions of themselves; there was a lot of working and reworking both words and music before they became what you hear on the record.
Lyrically it’s still pretty heavy at times …
I tend to write about what comes up in my life, and there were definitely some heavy things happening. Death is something that kept creeping in on the outskirts, and so I’d write about it. The record does contain a certain element of despair, but there is also the goodness, hope, and light that’s needed to balance those demons. The record is a battle between darkness and light.
What did Scott Litt bring to the recording process?
Scott Litt was our director. He was very helpful in getting parts out of us musicians that we never would have come to on our own. He worked a lot with our rhythm section, Jonas [Haskins] and Jason [Merculief], to develop the feel of each song. It was really great to have someone else telling everyone what to do, and it really took the pressure off of me.
Did you nerd out over the fact that he’s worked with R.E.M. and Nirvana? Do those bands hold any significance to you?
I’d had a couple of R.E.M. tapes I’d listen to in my car when I was 16, but I’m really not very hip with what’s going on now in music, or what went on in the past. When we were considering working with Scott, I downloaded some R.E.M. again and settled into the old songs, and listened to them in a way I never had. I decided that he definitely knew how to produce records, and that he had a great set of ears. That was good enough for me.
Do you prefer recording or playing live?
They are completely different birds. There is something amazing about the fleeting and flowing energy of a good live show, and I do love that. Recording is really exciting though, because you have the ability to create something you can both hear, and hold in your hands. I’m on the fence with this one, because I love and hate things about both.
You recently got married and bought a new house. Does that make it tougher to go out on the road?
We haven’t actually toured since we’ve fallen into domestic bliss! But I will say, that as much as I love home, I’m starting to get a bit restless. It’s been over a year since I’ve really hit the road. I think it will be nice to get back out there, and to know that we have a wonderful home to return to. I think our cat is really what makes it the hardest to leave … I miss that tiny animal when we’re gone, but I’m very thankful that the husband comes along.
Are you bringing the band over to Europe as well?
We will be touring as a band all over the place! It’s the first time I’ve recorded and am touring with the same group of musicians. It feels like the right thing to do, and I am really looking forward to settling into the songs on the road.
“To Begin” – Alela Diane & Wild Divine
Monday, January 24th, 2011 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX | 4 Comments
It’s relatively safe to say that TDoL has become a San Franciscophile over the past year. I can’t get enough of it. High on my list is singer-songwriter Sonny Smith, and his ramshackle pop crew the Sunsets.
And over the past year Smith has been a busy body, releasing the universally adored Tomorrow Is Alright, as well as embarking on the 100 Records project/traveling art show, in which he created more than 100 fictional bands, wrote songs for them and enlisted a “Wrecking” Crew” of S.F. musicians including Ty Segall, Kelley Stoltz and The Sandwitches’ Heidi Alexander, who belts it out for Earth Girl Helen Brown’s “I Wanna Do It.” Smith didn’t stop there, working with artists from around the country to provide cover art for each imaginary 7-inch and then releasing Volumes I and II of songs from his creations including Zig Speck & Specktones, Fuckaroos and Loud Fast Fools.
Smith is playing a few dates up the West Coast, including a solo set here in Portland on Wednesday, Feb. 2 at the Doug Fir with The Blow. The Days of Lore is giving away a pair of tickets to the show. Just leave your favorite Sonny/Sunsets song in the comments section (as well as the pertinent contact info), and we’ll set you up. Deadline is Sunday at midnight (January 30), and the winner will be announced the following day on TDoL’s Facebook page.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the new Sunsets record—Hit After Hit will be out March 1 April 12 on Fat Possum. Sonny Smith took some time to talk to TDoL about 100 Records, writer’s block, and a glimpse into the new Sunsets album.
TDoL: I wanted to talk a little about the 100 Records project. How did it come about?
Sonny Smith: I was working on a novel and I wanted to make some drawings of the fictional records of the characters in my novel. It was just a small idea, to put a few drawings within the novel. I received a small residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts to work on these drawings. While I was there I farmed a few drawings out to other artists. The work that they did was spectacular, in my humble opinion, so I began making up more and more fictional musicians and asking more and more artists to be involved. Soon this new project took over, eclipsing the novel, and my unfinished manuscript was shelved. Here it is next to me on my desk, this uncompleted novel, yet the 100 Records project continues to travel from city to city.
It sounds like quite an undertaking.
It was a big, fun, mysterious year.
How did Cabezas Cortades come about?
That was just one of the many bands I made up. The art that went with it that Juan Luna Avin made is one of my favorites. Incredible piece. And the tune that Pablo sang is amazing. That should be a radio hit all through Latin America!
The art show was, by all accounts, pretty successful.
It seems to be still trucking along without me now …
And more volumes of music are in the works?
I’m working on a book of the art. The music comes out in little bits and pieces here and there. One of the fictional characters, Earth Girl Helen Brown, is coming out with her own EP on Gorilla Vs. Bear records. So she’s become a real band I guess, she’ll be playing out live soon. A 7-inch was put out of the Transients, and Jackie Feathers, and Adelard Grassley. I’m putting a band together for the Beachticks, so that band will become real. Some of the songs will be on the next Sunsets record.
Is there a part of you that’s relieved to be done with it?
Nah. I’m empty inside now! I need to start something new.
Who are some of the writers that influence you? Do they influence your songwriting as well?
I don’t know where to begin. Tennessee Williams was huge for a while. Sam Shepard. When I was around 17, 18 years old Kerouac and all the Beat stuff had a huge effect. Later I was into Celine, Miller, all the big macho males from the ’40s. There were a lot of poets, too—Whitman, [Pablo] Neruda. I read books here and there, but I graze a lot—just open books, enjoy a few pages, find a passage or something, put it down, move on to another book, come back to the other one, on and on, grazing …
You’re a pretty prolific songwriter … ever get writer’s block?
Yeah all the time. What I do is I try, if I can, to scrap it if it’s not flowing too easily. Put it on the back burner and come back to it later. Then later, I can see what it has, what parts are worth keeping, or getting rid of. Or I can see that it is really meant to be something else, like the song should be a short story, or the article I was attempting should be a comic book.
And now everybody’s burning question: What can we expect from the new Sonny & the Sunsets record?
A politically charged, sexually explicit meditation on the mystic nature of lust. Acres of lust.
“I Wanna Do It” – Earth Girl Helen Brown
“Death Cream” – Sonny & the Sunsets
Monday, January 17th, 2011 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX | No Comments
Sic Alps haven’t put out a proper record since 2008′s U.S. EZ, but it doesn’t mean the San Francisco band has just been lazing about in some exclusive lo-fi vacation spot located on a secret island off the coast of Yemen.
Close. The trio—Mike Donovan, Matthew Hartman and new member, former Comets On Fire echoplexist Noel von Harmonson—have essentially been living out every band’s dream, opening for indie-rock heroes Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo as well as being hand-picked by the fellas in Pavement to perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties (Donovan also directed a schizoid video for Portland rock gods Quasi last year). No big whoop. It should also be noted that the band shares a zip code with TDoL faves Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, the Sandwitches, Amoeba Records, The Mother Hips, Escape From New York Pizza, Hank IV, SFMOMA … simply put: If it didn’t cost $1,500 a month for a closet-sized apartment, I’d be in San Francisco.
So what is it about Sic Alps? For years the band has been blasting out nuggets of rock that tend to stumble and lurch in beautiful cacophony. They continue to make good on that tenet with their latest Napa Asylum (out January 25 on Drag City)—a sprawling double-album filled with 22 concise little noisies. Of course, there are loads of shiny, happy hooks buried underneath the racket, and first single “Do You Want to Give $$?” offers only a small taste.
Sic Alps’ Mike Donovan took some time to answer TDoL’s burning (and itching) questions about the new record, playing ATP with Pavement, and a little San Francisco music history.
TDoL: Napa Asylum travels a lot of musical territory—thematically and stylistically—was that the point in doing a double record?
Mike Donovan: We had a lot of material going in, although at end the debate was on whether to go with the single or double.
It was originally supposed to be a concept album, right?
My friend John [Harlow], who makes some of our videos with us, has a picture on his wall that he bought at a yard sale—a pencil drawing of the Napa Asylum building which was torn down in 1949. Out the gate this was the inspiration for the album; but 22 songs about an asylum is just a crazy idea.
Do you have any particular favorite double albums?
The Basement Tapes. Although if I had a record press I would press up all 125 or so songs from the “Original Basement Tapes.”
Napa Asylum feels like an album in the classic sense. What do you think of the fact that most people these days just grab the mp3s they like?
It’s always been that way; eventually you skip ahead to the faves.
There’s an incredible amount of great music coming out of San Francisco. It seems pretty tight-knit …
Please come to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on February 9 for a show with Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps and Ty Segall. It’s a benefit for the Homeless Coalition here in S.F.
So, Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane?
I’m the only guy in the band who likes the Dead, but it’s OK—I like them enough for everybody.
Moby Grape or Blue Cheer?
Death Angel or Metallica?
My friend Mike used to tour manage Death Angel if you’re looking for some off-the-record tales.
John Dwyer or Ty Segall?
Too close to call.
What went through your mind when you got the invite from Pavement to perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties last year?
That was the most exciting part—being asked to ATP and also to open for them at Brixton Academy in London. Brixton is a complete blur, but I’ll always remember getting that e-mail and flipping out. Pavement is a huge part of why I do this and it was a giant honor. We went and saw them the night before we opened for them in London and it hit me pretty hard. I’m not too easy on myself when it comes to music but it was hard not to reflect and say, “Damn, Donovan. You’ve done good.”
Are there any artists or things that inspire your live performances?
What’s the one thing you won’t leave home without on tour?
Markers and scrap paper.
So, what’s next for Sic Alps?
A coffee break.
“Do You Want to Give $$?” – Sic Alps
Photo by Jason Fisher
Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 | interviewZ, musiX | 4 Comments
It’s no secret that The Days of Lore is cuckoo has a bit of a soft spot for the Old 97′s. That said, the band’s last couple of records lacked the urgency of classics like Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care—just ask any kook who follows the band (2008′s Blame It On Gravity came close, but sounded at times like they were aping some of their older material).
Now I’m not sure what the members (that’s singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, for those keeping track—the same four guys that formed the band in 1993) have been up to for the past two years, but they sound rejuvenated on their eighth LP The Grand Theatre, Volume One (out today on New West Records). Not only does it reclaim some of the twang, but it one-ups that by dipping into garage and power-pop. “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” sounds like the Bay City Rollers playing a Dallas honky tonk with a roomful of six-shooters aimed at them. And Hammond’s “You Were Born to Be In Battle” is the kinda song you wish Johnny Cash recorded during his Rick Rubin years. I’ll even take “A State of Texas,” an ode to the Lone Star State that could be considered cheesy if it didn’t come off so sincere.
If there’s ever a band that’s brought the two disparate worlds of England and Texas together it’s the Old 97′s. Miller wrote most of the material for The Grand Theatre while touring the UK with Steve Earle, and he and the rest of the 97′s convened at Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas to lay down what ended up being almost two-dozen songs (Volume Two will be out next May).
“It’s sort of that moment where those two cultures intersect,” explained Miller, who wrote the title track after Birmingham’s Grand Theatre. “And I think that sort of speaks to where this record is coming from.”
TDoL caught up with Miller to talk about songwriting, his hero David Foster Wallace and looking back on a career that spans almost two decades.
TDoL: You did the recording in Texas, and I know you live in the Hudson Valley now. Would you ever consider living in Texas again?
Rhett Miller: It’s a place I’d live again, but it’s a place I’d have a hard time convincing my wife to live. Years before we met she spent a year living in Dallas … well, a year living in Dallas one summer [laughs]. She was over it pretty quick. I come back enough to visit where I don’t feel like I’m losing my connection. There’s a song on the new record called “A State of Texas,” and the chorus is “I’m living in a state of Texas, and Texas lives in me.” I may not actually live there anymore, but I’m still a Texan.
Do you still listen to country? Is it still a part of your musical world?
Yeah. My wife and her family are all huge Willie Nelson fans, as am I, so there’s a lot of Willie that goes on in our house. There are a couple stations on satellite radio that play traditional country and bluegrass. It’s so funny, the similarities between bluegrass and punk rock are so great. They’re two styles of music that people never really think about being similar, but to me they’re right there next to each other—the speed and the intensity. All my favorite bluegrass and the punk rock and glam rock I like seem to have more howling vocals. I spent a couple of years right at the beginning of the Old 97’s as just a touring member of this punk bluegrass band called Killbilly, and I learned about a guitar player’s right arm. Like I can’t make a lot of jazz chords and I can’t do blistering leads but I can strum faster than most people I’ve played with. And I’m proud of that. To me there’s something very propulsive—it’s a marriage of percussion and melody when an acoustic guitar gets played like that.
Yeah, I’m definitely more into the energy and spirit in the music.
I think that’s what people look for. They want a release where they can enjoy themselves and have fun. I’ve had moments in my catalog where I’m sort of being introspective and quiet or sad or whatever, but they’re not my favorites. My favorites are the ones where people can really have a whole sort of joyous exuberance, you know? They get to be part of a crowd of people singing fun songs. I love that.
You’ve been doing this a long time. How have you gone about balancing making a career in music and keeping your integrity?
For me that’s always been a bit of a self-correcting problem. Every time, and there haven’t been many times, but the few times I’ve calculated an attempt to have something that’s really accessible or commercial it’s fallen so flat on my ears and on the ears of my bandmates. There are people out there that are really good crafters of pop—and not in the sense that I like pop music, but pop in a sense that it’s going to be popular. And those people are great, and they write for the Disney network, or the tween bands, and they’re making a lot of money and they’re not doing anything evil. But I just can’t do that, I can’t. The few times I feel like I’ve tried to be something I’m not, it sounded exactly like a guy trying to be something he’s not. I kind of wish I was good at it because the alternative is to make a living by going on the road and playing gigs. As much as I love doing that it becomes harder with each passing year to leave my wife and my kids. You know, that’s a tough way to make living, and it’s really the only way to make a living.
Is there an Old 97’s album that maybe you hold a little more dear than others?
I know that some of my bandmates have records they feel like, “Well, that was our watermark; that was our high-point, the moment we’re striving to reclaim.” I have a hard time thinking like that because the glorification of the past gets in the way of the present moment. I would rather think that the record I’m making now is the best record I’ve ever made, and I’ve always tended to do that. In retrospect I can be a little more objective about records. I think Too Far to Care was a really great moment in our band because we had just gone through the courtship of all the major labels fighting to sign us and we had a huge budget to go off and do whatever we wanted. We didn’t really understand how unlikely it was for us to have enormous commercial success, so that still was dangling out there as something that was really possible. But as things went along we thought enormous commercial success is reserved for a few people that tend to be a little more flash in the pan, accidental kind of successes. And we always said we wanted to be a career band before a hit-singles band.
One thing the Old 97′s have is a rabid following …
Yeah. From what I’ve been able to gather a few things happened: Right when we started in the early-, mid-’90s it was the beginning of the Internet chat-room phenomenon, so I know we were able to build up a little following through word of mouth—the beginning of what is now the medium for finding out about bands. I also think we were lucky not to have a hit, you know a song that became annoyingly ubiquitous. And we were lucky that we never really had a huge clunker. We never made one of those swing-for-the-fences kinda records that had a bunch of horns or a bunch of keyboards. I think there’s a couple records that I think in retrospect are a little less listenable, but even those—objectively speaking—have a few good songs on them.
Can I guess which album?
Drag It Up?
I’ve gotten in trouble with the band for pointing out that that’s not my favorite record before so I won’t dwell on it, but yeah that was a tough one to make. But if we hadn’t made that we wouldn’t have been able to survive as a band. It was coming out of me making The Instigator, and we were just feeling out how we were going to work in this post-modern music industry.
Is there an artist or band that has influenced you in taking sometimes bleak themes and setting them to pop hooks?
I haven’t really thought about it, but off the top of my head I could rattle off a few of the people I’ve been obsessed with at various points in my life. I spent my fifteenth birthday seeing The Smiths on The Queen is Dead tour. Even though Morrissey is famously mopey, there’s something about Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, and sort of the song structure and the liveliness of the drums and arrangements. Even the Buzzcocks—their songs tended to be kinda complicated with very dark undertones, but super happy, poppy stuff. I recently got to be friends with Steve Garvey, the old bassist for the Buzzcocks. What sweet guy. I was told that Steve Garvey was coming to this gig, and I was like, “OK, I don’t really follow baseball.” And then he walked in and he’s British, and I’m looking at him funny. And he goes [in British accent], “I’m not the baseball player; I’m from the Buzzcocks.” And I was like, “Fuck yes!” And I made him and his wife hang out with me all night long. We’ve stayed in touch; we exchange ideas about audio books—that’s what my friendship with Steve Garvey of the Buzzcocks is based on [laughs].
You were talking about audio books … I know David Foster Wallace has been an influence on you in some capacity …
Are you familiar with his stuff?
I’ve only read a few essays from Consider the Lobster.
That was a great one. It was such a relief because he had A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and then his sort of apex of his career in Infinite Jest. And after Infinite Jest he put out Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which was … fuck, talk about dark. I mean that’s as dark a book as I’ve ever read. And the fact that it was so well executed made it even more painful to read. That was the first time I ever really got a glimpse into how hard it must have been to be as perceptive as he was. Anyway, when Consider the Lobster came out I felt like this was a good sign about DFW. It still makes me so sad that it worked out the way it did for him.
Were your songs more autobiographical when you started? Are they more character-based now?
I have a hard time even saying, just because I try not to think about it too much. I find that when I do, I edit myself to the detriment of the song. I guess if I’m an observer of my songwriting I’d say that the fact that I sang more about getting drunk and maybe having a looser moral code was more reflective of where I was in my mid-20s writing early 97’s songs. And now my songs have less of that which is reflective of the fact that I found true love and settled down and had a family. I guess there’s an element of autobiography with the debauchery that happens in the songs. I feel like it was only yesterday. If I feel like going to a weird, dark, drunken, angry place it’s very easy to go there. The new songs feel very autobiographical to me but when I sit down and look at them I realize this stuff is just a story and it could be anybody and the details aren’t necessarily the details from my life.
The Old 97′s are one of the few bands I know that still play a large chunk of their catalog …
You know what’s funny, is that twice we’ve done four-night stands—once in New Jersey and once in Dallas—where we did zero repeats except for “Timebomb” at the end of each show. Over both of those four-night stands we played almost 100 songs. Really, the number of songs we didn’t play from our released material was under 10. It’s crazy. And now we’re about to add anywhere from 16 to 20 songs to that list, so apparently our sets are going to have to be even longer.
And you hardly rehearse …
We do pre-production on a record where we’ll get together and play those songs. And like for me I do solo gigs where I play a lot of the catalog in that situation. Every night I dream about the band—I check into a hotel, or I’m playing a gig. That’s rehearsal.
“The Grand Theatre” – Old 97′s
Photo by Allison V. Smith