Category Archives: Interviews

SHELBY LYNNE – MUSICAL WARRIOR

MUSICAL WARRIOR SHELBY LYNNE FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM

By John Fortunato

FOREWORD: Originally published in High Times during 2011, this Shelby Lynne interview revisits one of County & Western music’s best artists. Unlike the pondedrous drivel clogging mainstream Country radio these days, Lynne harkens to a time when non-generic talent like Johnny Cash (whose mother she played in the movie, Walk The Line), Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, etc.

Talented singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne Moorer’s a kindred spirit. We both love John Lennon, Steely Dan, vinyl records, college football, and good herb, but absolutely hate auto-tuned singers, American Idol, and stale Country radio. An adorable Southern pixie, Shelby Lynne’s conquered lots of ground since breaking away from Nashville’s tawdry music machine.

A true American underdog who’d face colossal challenges, Shelby and her equally gifted sister, respected folksinger Alison Moorer, confronted the most traumatic event possible when their depression-bound father took his life after shooting their mother to death outside the family’s humble home. Living at separate relative’s homes in Alabama thereafter, they overcame adolescent adversity, then record label politics, to become successful independent artists.

Only through constant perseverance would Shelby gain a musical foothold. In her teens, she cut two formative Nashville albums plagued by ultraconservative music industry veterans who’d vilely swept away a decade of Willie Nelson/ Waylon Jennings outlaw types.

‘93s Western Swing-derived Temptation was Shelby’s springboard for solo success. But it was seven years before I Am Shelby Lynne found an international audience captivated by her naked emotionality and earnest sentiments. Living in the peaceful confines of Palm Springs, California, ever since, she then unloaded a steady stream of albums utilizing the finest instrumentalists available. Much like heralded ‘60s singer, Dusty Springfield, whom Shelby paid tribute to on ‘08s acoustical retreat, Just A Little Lovin, she shares a common interest in not only Country & Western, but also Rhythm & Blues.

Dressed in a Brooks Brother sweater vest and cab driver hat, Shelby’s cute as a button when I meet her at a midtown Manhattan hotel. She’s courteous, demure, but also full of spunk. As a kid, all she wanted to do was sing, perform live, and make music. That wish came true, but at a cost. In order to break out of Music City’s cookie cutter string-laden adult contemporary slumber, this courageous feline would need to achieve her independence in a ballsy manner.

“I started fighting against Nashville after realizing I wasn’t going to have any radio hits. I figured I might as well make some good records anyhow. My passion was Western Swing, Jazz, and Country. You have to have a rebel spirit or you’re just corporate product – which I’m totally against. If someone said endorse beer or whiskey I’d be into it because I partake in those things. But at the same time, you can’t sell your soul. Sometimes you’ve got to stay poor to make the music right,” Shelby explains.

Strangely, the conservative producers and record label geeks who wanted to mold Shelby into a pampered Country starlet were too oblivious to take advantage of her killer body as a promotional tool. Instead, she did it for kicks on her most accessible record, 2001’s Love, Shelby. Produced by pop kingpin, Glen Ballard (who’d previously given Alanis Morissette universal mainstream exposure with ‘95s best selling Jagged Little Pill), its resourceful combination of lovelorn ballads, rock-driven rants, seductive come-ons, and Blues-based testimonial’s proved how diversified she really was.

But it’s not clear whether Shelby’s multifarious tunes revealed more than the ultra-sexy front and back cover and inner sleeve snapshots did. Wearing cut-off blue jeans with fingers placed ever so libidinously around her crotch area and showing off a mirrored image of her delicious butt cheeks, Love, Shelby’s salacious pictorial spread is undoubtedly one of the most arousing album designs ever.

She has a laugh, then justifies, “It seems if people want me to do something, they ought to not bring it up. So sexy is all in the heart. There’s a lot of ways to pull that off. It doesn’t have to be in the drawers. I’ve gone through my phase of tits and ass. But now is not one of those times.”

Throughout her career, Shelby’s melancholic tearjerkers and heartfelt love letters have neatly juxtaposed booze-riddled missives and jubilant Gospel-rock shuffles. On 2010’s Tears, Lies And Alibis (released on her own boutique label, Everso Records), the cooing songbird brought subtler atmospheric restraint to plaintive torch songs. Yearning romantic fervor counters gloomy heartache on poignant reflections sensitively bestowing a matured perspective. But when the sadness gets too intense, she reaches for the bottle on lonesome steel guitar-based weeper, “Old No. 7.”

“I wrote “Old No. 7″ in a drunken blur,” she claims. “I could only write what I know but never know where I’m headed. What each player brings to the party is so different. If you make plans, you’re an idiot.”

Working with Muscles Shoals legends David Hood and Spooner Oldham on Tears increased her ambition, though maybe not in the same way some stony Willie Nelson associates did awhile back on Temptation.

Shelby recalls, “I was a shy brunette kid with long country hair back then. We’d head out on the road after a show and my band would be cackling. I’d be in the back curious about what’s up. Finally, one night, I got the nerve to see them smoke pot. Then I did what every dumb kid does when they start getting high. I said, ‘I can’t feel anything. Am I high?’ Next thing, we pull into a truckstop to get food, and I’m eating one of those grill cheese sandwiches you get out of the package. It hit me. Then, I loved getting stoned.”

Though she doesn’t perform high, before I Am Shelby Lynne came out she’d spend many mornings smoking herb with Grand Marnet and a pot of coffee by her side, writing tunes under the influence. Allegedly, those songs are lost in a box somewhere. As a vehement pro-pot advocate, the transplanted Californian was recently miffed when Proposition 19 didn’t pass.

“Bible thumpers and misinformed conservatives need to go away,” she says. “They say weed’s a gateway drug. What kids can’t get their hands on weed? Kids can find it when adults can’t. Like Willie Nelson told me, ‘You just can’t do anything too much.’ I went through a wake and bake phase. But I find it’s more of a reward smoking a joint with someone afterwards.”

Although Shelby takes her pro-marijuana stance seriously, the only time she ever mentioned getting high in song was on I Am ‘s autobiographical “Where I’m From.” On this mellow jaunt, euphoric memories of her Alabama teen years come to the fore, climaxing initially with the line ‘I’m up the old Tombigbee River/ high as the pines all the time.’

As our conversation drifts onward, Shelby shows off some awe-inspiring photos of the 20-foot marijuana plant she and an associate grew from a few mediocre Mexican seeds.

“It ain’t pretty but I got half a pound. My friend found me some gnarly, ugly Mexican weed. We had the best time drinking tequila and smoking weed in Cabo San Lucas. I like shaky weed with seeds. That shit makes me giggle. It smokes well and smells like Christmas trees. I didn’t manicure the bush. Just let it grow.” But she cautions, “Medical marijuana makes me too nervous. It’s too strong and fancy.”

Coming full circle, Shelby and younger sis, Alison Moorer, got the opportunity to perform together for only the second time in late November. Putting on a warm duet concert at Tarrytown Music Hall, the Moorer’s shared original compositions, Everly Brothers chestnuts, Christmas carols, and a sisterly a cappella Color Purple number to three standing ovations. It was a true musical affirmation. And Shelby, the older sibling who’d fought for everything she got, shed a few tears.

-John Fortunato

BLACK SABBATH REUNITE: OZZY OSBOURNE AND TONY IOMMI’S BLACK CELEBRATION 1998

1998 NOV 4-11 AQUARIAN WEEKLY NEWSPAPER - BLACK SABBATH COVER - PHOTOS - J 1109

During the autumn of 1998, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing iconoclastic heavy metal godz Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath’s guiding lights (above front cover shot from original Aquarian article). This was a few years before Ozzy gained exposure on his hit MTV Reality Show. After nearly two decades apart, the original Black Sabbath re-formed for an electrifying live Reunion in Birmingham, the English city where ghoulish shock rock frontman Ozzy Osbourne teamed up with respected guitarist, Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward to form the band Earth.

By 1969, they had taken on the demonic moniker with which they would become decadent metal mavens. As Black Sabbath, Ozzy sang of “witches at black masses,” bringing horror and the occult to a liberated audience rebelling against manipulative adult authoritarianism.

After their self-titled debut opened the floodgates, Sabbath hit an early peak with Paranoid, a nightmarish journey dealing with personal frustrations, war, and hellish terror. Masters Of Reality solidified their reputation as mad-minded gatekeepers of hell. And the underrated Volume 4 offered the post-teen reflection, “Changes,” an unlikely sensitive ballad featuring piano and string-like synthesizers.

Dropping some of the doom ‘n gloom for more dramatic arrangements, Sabbath’s next four studio albums broke no new ground, though Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is arguably the quartet’s finest achievement. Personal differences and internal conflicts tore the original Sabbath to shreds in ’79.

Now they’re back to show current metal mongers how it’s done. Besides confirmed classics such as “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” and “Children Of The Grave,” Reunion includes the new studio tracks “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.”

I spoke to Ozzy and Tony at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel one sunny afternoon in October ’98.

Tony, what were you doing for the past decade?

Tony: Sleeping (laughter) Actually, I was carrying on playing around with a different version of Black Sabbath that was quite a lot different.

What made you get back with Ozzy?

Tony: We’d been talking about it off and on for years and decided this was the right time to do it. Ozzy and Sharon (Osbourne, his wife) called me up, and asked if we fancied doing a show together. We all thought it was a good idea. We just started playing.

Ozzy: It was a test run playing 55 minutes and it worked. Over the years I’ve had loads of people ask me if Sabbath would ever get back together again and reconcile their differences. It finally happened. It was the actual first time we did a live set together since 1979.

Ozzy, your voice hasn’t lost any of its demonic appeal after all these years.

Ozzy: Sometimes my voice gives out. I hadn’t been out on the road for a while before the Birmingham show.

Black Sabbath was originally called Earth in the late ’60s. What was the impetus that got the band started back then?

Ozzy: I used to go to the same school as Tony. We didn’t hang out together, but I knew him and his guitar playing. He had a band called Mythology. I had a band called Rare Breed. When Geezer and I left Rare Breed and Tony’s band broke up, he needed a singer and bass player and we needed a guitarist and drummer. So Geezer switched from rhythm guitar to bass. We started rehearsing anywhere we could and it just worked out. It wasn’t like we auditioned. We were four local guys who lived in a one-mile radius – literally within walking distance. In England, you could live next door to someone and not know anything about them your whole life. Whereas in the U.S., people think nothing of traveling 700 miles to see relatives. But sometimes the greatest thing is sitting right in front of you and you don’t have to travel around the world. It was a classic case of local boys do good. When we made the first Black Sabbath album, we were just happy to get a chance to be heard. When the LP hit the charts, I was in shock. I remember in the Elbow Room club someone told me the album hit the charts and was number 17. I said, ‘you got to be joking me.’ I couldn’t sleep that night. Then I went out and got Melody Maker and went straight to the chart page, and there it was. It stayed in the Top 20 for a year-and-a-half. We hadn’t even played in the States yet.  Then it took off in the States. A lot of bands from England come to the States and they have to do the circuit. Some get a break and some don’t. We came to the States straightaway, as if they were waiting for us. We played small venues. But the beauty of those days was you had to play live. There were no tricks or emulators or tape loops. What you heard was what the band actually sounded like. There were some good bands around then, if I remember right.

Which bands did you enjoy listening to in the early ’70s?

 Ozzy: I liked Humble Pie and Mahogany Rush. There was more of a camaraderie back then. In those days, you’d have a festival with different forms of music. There’d be the Allman Brothers, Sabbath, the Eagles, Joan Baez, Jethro Tull and Ten Years After on the same bill. If you only liked one of those bands, you stayed until they played and left. I’d like to go back to those days, but unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. (Editors note: Ozzfest happily negated Ozzy’s view of modern rock festivals)

How did Ozzfest come about?

Ozzy: My wife, Sharon, realized there was no airplay for those kinds of bands anymore. It’s governed by the media. They make up their minds what’s in style. I mean, what happened to ’80s metal bands? Motley Crue, Poison and Ratt are all gone now.

But radio recently accepted Korn and, to a lesser extent, Monster Magnet. Won’t that revitalize the hard rock scene?

Ozzy: But the thing is – I don’t dislike Korn, but they use a lot of electronics and art-fed studio instruments making manufactured sounds. I hear all the time how Tony’s guitar playing influenced them. I’m always amazed how his work stands up to Clapton’s, Jimmy Page’s, and Jeff Beck’s. I just saw Page play. I was in fucking shock. I had never seen him play before. He seemed so sloppy live. But sounded great in the studio.

Black Sabbath have a remarkably unique style. How did you achieve it?

Tony: The four of us were so in tune with what we wanted to achieve. It’s hard for ’90s bands to be truly original because so many roads have already been paved. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there were so many diverse bands that were completely different. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, T. Rex and David Bowie all had a sound that was completely their own. That’s why we’re coming back now. No band could do exactly what Sabbath does. If someone did it better, we wouldn’t be here.

Paranoid touched on many timely subjects: Viet Nam, disillusionment, and isolation.

Ozzy: Actually,the album as gonna be titled “War Pigs” (one of its best tracks). It has the war pig featured on the cover. But once we were done with all the other tracks, we came across a riff and wrote “Paranoid” in five minutes. It ended up being one of our most popular songs and ended up being the album title.

Some of your material focused on demonic possession and devil worship.

Ozzy: Some of it did. Some were about more important topics. Like, could you have a wonderful world when people around you are dying from war and poverty? All I have to say is the songs are about whatever you want them to be about. I’ve listened to other people’s songs and drawn my own conclusions. Then I’d read about what the songs were supposed to be about and I’d be completely off base.

Were some of your songs inspired by the working class neighborhood you came from?

Ozzy: See, you could be living in sunny California, but war struck England first hand. When I was a kid, we’d go to the bombed building sites and play. There were bombed buildings during World War II. They’re still finding bombs in there. We were born after the war. At school, we’d have to salute and come to attention. It was strict discipline. Here in America, you’ve never faced the damages of war on your soil. Otherwise, there’d be a different attitude towards it.

How has your philosophical view changed over the years?

 Ozzy: Right now I feel it’s my duty to make people happy by doing my music and pleasing my family. I feel more secure. And I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

Tell me something about the two new tracks: “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.”

  Ozzy: Tony did the music first for “Psycho Man.” Then I wrote the lyrics pretty much on the spot. Usually, whatever I’m writing about reflects how I’m feeling at that specific moment. So it came together fast.

Tony: I thought “Selling My Soul” had a very “Paranoid/ Iron Man”-related sound. I felt I laid down some decent riffs on that one. It’s heavy and fans will hopefully find it represents Sabbath well.

-John Fortunato

PHARRELL WILLIAMS GETS “HAPPY” @ ICE CREAM SHOPPE

 

PHARRELL WILLIAMS GETS “HAPPY” @ ICE CREAM SHOPPE

John Fortunato

Before becoming an international jetsetter, fashionable singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams co-championed Virginia Beach musical troupe NERD with Neptunes partner, Chad Hugo. Together, the dominant beatmeisters produced massive hits for Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Nelly and many other well-known artists along the way.

In 2013, his blockbuster collaboration with singer Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines,” took the world by storm. Soon after, Pharrell hit the top of the charts once again with gleeful handclapped celebration, “Happy,” a ubiquitous R & B ditty now used in a Fiat car ad.

A debonair brown-skinned African-Filipino American with ready-made runway model good looks (and recently, a vintage park ranger-like Vivienne Westwood brown hat), Pharrell’s enormous popularity has reached superstar status.

 

In springtime 2010, High Times got to visit the soon-to-be famous musician at his Soho Manhattan boutique clothing store, The Ice Cream Shoppe. Though reticent to detail his own experiences with the ‘fine herb,’ Pharrell did offer a few choice tidbits concerning marijuana legalization, culture and critics. Strangely, the genesis for ”Happy” seems to emanate from the Zen-like worldview he expresses towards the end of the interview.

 

Who were some of your formative musical influences?

 

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the backseat of my mom and dad’s car listening to Earth Wind & Fire. It wasn’t my own choice. That’s what they listened to. Maurice White (EW&F’s de facto leader) was part of Ramsey Lewis Trio. He had an extensive Jazz background. His chord changes were always very difficult. There was that magical signature moment – usually a bridge – that sweet moment that takes you elsewhere in the universe. Those things stimulate you and are otherworldly in nature, taking you to another dimension and giving you a sense of euphoria. As a kid, music was that stimulus. Music had THC – meaning ‘to have color.’

 Your vehicle to escapism is music. Do you believe marijuana enhances the experience?

 

My music is conducive to that environment of escapism. Whatever you do and practice in your leisure, such as partaking in the fruits of the world of High Times – a magazine that’s almost a transcendental read – it’s about relaxation. More than anything else, it’s the mentality of High Times. Other magazines talk about smoking herb, but High Times is more like a celebration of culture. You don’t necessarily have to smoke or inhale anything to enjoy High Times. It’s a natural congregation.

 

High Times salutes marijuana’s value as a viable herbal medication. There are no major pitfalls if it’s used to experience pleasure or to rid pain.

 

Truth of the matter is it’s organically grown. There are medical advantages depending on what you’re doing. But it’s not a manmade plant. It’s real. All signs point to universal legalization. I was talking to Snoop Dogg about doing a Humboldt County Greenstock festival that would bring together the eco-friendly community and the herbal community and see what interesting energy would be there. Substances that need to be refined in order to make them – that’s another conversation. We’re talking about substances that come from the earth and sustain it without being refuted. Why not come together on common ground for humanity. Greenstock would be one of the biggest festivals ever because it’s based on music giving back to the earth.

 

Marijuana also helps people reach erotic stimulation through its transcendental qualities. In your music, eroticism equals intoxication.    

 

Sure. There’s a lot of eroticism in my life. Someone has to express it and give people an outlet. Intimate relationships are based on a high level of trust. I just want to provide the soundtrack to those moments. We’re fooling around with audio stimulants to moisten the environment for women, if you will, giving them inspiration, even if they’re getting desensitized by every music video having girls in thongs with fake tits. To each his own. I like a woman who’s natural and not perfect. What idealists and snobby folks see as perfection, I see as a flaw. You might as well date a mannequin. I’m not into augmentation. But I just want to participate in this world – a character in God’s book. It’s not my story. I can’t tell you what your top or behind is supposed to look like carving out that hourglass shape.

 

Do you get buzzed in the studio with the artists you work with?

 

I work with Snoop all the time and with The Game. Those guys have their leisure activities. The aroma is there.

 

Has America become more accepting of marijuana since Obama became president?

 

Yes. But we have a lot of cleaning up to do. We have an incredible country with such opportunity. But we should change our focus and stop talking about the endgame. OK, cool – The American Dream. A house, two-car garage, picket fence, 2.5 kids, little dog. But the American Dream should be about finding what you love to do in life. People spend so much time concentrating on the endgame. It’s not about a $50,000 watch. It’s about remembering where you came from. If you’re not religious – fine. But be cool to other people. If you like flipping burgers and someone comes in and blows your brains out, that’s a good life. If you’re a billionaire and can’t be happy about anything, switching wives like rims on a car, you’re fucking miserable. Focus on what makes you happy first and foremost. Then, hopefully you’ll meet your wife and you’re two happy fucks.

 

Some people are too close-minded and ultra-conservative to understand true happiness. They’re perfectly fucking miserable.

 

You have people who are against all herbal practices. They don’t understand it. But let’s go in their closet and see what’s going on. “We don’t smoke.” Well, let’s see what you do because you aren’t perfect. You shouldn’t drive when you’re high, but you also shouldn’t drive when you’re on codeine and cough syrup. Even conservatives smoke. Our last president (GW Bush) had his fair share of high times. Unfortunately, dispelling things is a much harder task than establishing fear. That’s what we’ve been based on in America. How come the American Dream isn’t a blueprint? It’s more like a photo you’re more than likely never to see. Communist and Third World nations have suppression and oppression. They don’t want the American Dream. They’re just happy doing what they want to do – making a little money doing what they like.

 

What’s in the future for Pharrell?

 

I wanna make people happy.

 

DEFIANT’S NEILL ACER SPEAKS BEER

DEFIANT’S NEILL ACER SPEAKS BEER

This pertinent conversation took place February 12th, 2012 at Pearl River’s DEFIANT BREWERY.Acer, a veteran of the beer circuit, took an hour to explain his past, present and future. Let’s join in…

I got hooked on Belgian beers early on. Chimay Blue was probably the main reason to get into craft brewing. I recognized the beer I had made earlier from a medieval recipe was related – only Chimay was done very well. I love the freedom Belgium’s marketplace offers. In America, we’re so tied to the marketplace. We’re giving the world hops, hops and more hops – as a broad stroke. And then there are milder strokes. At the time I drank Chimay, there was no beer like that in America. This is the Renaissance right now. These are great times. There’s a lot of quality, consistent stuff coming out. But I really love those Belgian Trappist beers.

There used to be a place called Beers of the World in Rochester, New York. They had a great selection in the early ‘90s. Every payday I’d go to Beers of the World. Try something new. At some point, Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion came out so I’d buy and drink the beer and read his review. I did it with a group of five guys so our purchasing powers multiplied. I’d take notes of 10 or 12 beers and figure which beers I’d like to emulate.

The way forward is never a straight line so I went to a research librarian and asked about old beer recipes, modern recipes and techniques. There just wasn’t anything written at the time about how to make beer. If there was, the book was from England and took four weeks to get in a roundabout manner. I finished my regular education and through self-exploration and the reading of old Eighteenth century books I got nuggets of knowledge. And because of my science background, I wanted to keep really good records. The beautiful thing about discovering beer is it was like discovering fire. It was like matches to an eight-year old. I had access to a Rochester lab and tried every beer I could. I grew yeast.

I kept reading brewing books and you’d open up the jacket and read about the author and the part I noticed the most was that a lot of them went to Seibel in Chicago for training. I decided to research the school and got a hold of their number and asked the admission guy how much it cost. I didn’t know how to afford school so I got a job at Sloan-Ketterling and worked in the outpatient department. That helped me bank some money to attend Seibel.

All along I kept brewing. I was close to Genesee Brewery near Rochester – which was cool. They put out a variety of Genesee the world never saw. And they make good Genny Cream Ale. How did that regional small brewery survive with a hybrid beer like that?

After brew school, I sent my resume around, but there weren’t many places at the time – Colorado, Massachusetts. I finally got a few phone calls and settled at Mountain Valley Brewpub in Suffern. I worked at the beginning with Jay Misson – my first mentor out of brewing school. He was a German-trained brewer I owe so much to. Basically, consistency was everything with German brewers. He gave me experience. He had worked at the long-gone Vernon Valley Brauhaus in Cobblestone Village during the Eighties. It was a magical place in East Coast brewing lore. They had wooden casks. Mountain Valley was also ahead of their time, but it was sort of in synch.
But Vernon Valley was up near the ski resort. You’d get there and it was old German-looking on the outside and you’d pull up to the brewery and there are these huge 8-foot tall horizontal wood casks for beer. I climbed inside one of them and it had loads of hornets, but that was OK. You had to go sideways to get in there. It was 14 or 18 inches wide and narrow going in one shoulder at a time. They had a beautiful work chiller that looked to an untrained eye to be a radiator. The wort was designed to just flow over this thing. Then you’d be pumping chilling liquid on the inside. So your wort would get oxygenated and cooled all in one step. This was before stainless steel plate heat exchange became all the rage. They had open fermentation tanks, all made of wood, that were beautiful. At their height, Vernon made four beers, including a Helles and Dunkel, but real high quality.

I didn’t brew up there because by the time I got there the brewery was in mothballs. It was near the old Playboy Lodge. So I started at Mountain Valley and shortly after Jay left to go out west and work on the brewery chain Gordon Biersch. He became the driving force behind the German style beer revival. I’d trust his palate on a pack of cigarettes before I’d trust anybody else. He was instrumental in my success. I went from book hobby knowledge to professional knowledge.

Back then, Mountain Valley was bottling. We had a little lab, did kegging, and at one time were 5,000 barrels per year. We had occasional wooden cask beers. You’d get a woody flavor, but not like noble French oak that wine people brag about. I started as an assistant working in the mill. I was the happiest person in the job market getting paid like 5 dollars an hour. I loved it. I was elated to get to work, walking on clouds thrilled to death.

We made eight styles before that total was possible. But there were problems and there was the first bubble in the craft beer movement. There were so many people. There was Three Stooges Beer. The concept of craft beer had been pushed to its limits and got to the point of absurdity. Enough people were playing 6-pack roulette while they were shopping. But there wasn’t enough of an infrastructure of checks and balances that the internet later allowed for its normal economy.

As a brewer, it was a soul searching moment to have your beer rated, but it’s essential. You have to have that other leg. So there was inconsistent product in the Nineties due to lack of knowledge. People went from hobby to professional in ten seconds and there was a lack of equipment.

It was the Wild West at that time. I had conversations with people who didn’t know about proper sanitizing. The consistency for the micro industry was so variable it busted. You saw the failure of some amazing craft beers from Catamount to Zip City to Neptune to Red Bank.

Plus, it was hard to finance a new brewery because no bankers believed in it. There were closings exceeding openings around ’99 or 2000. It got deeper around 2001. Things were rocking and rolling. So Mountain Valley was at this point where our sales weren’t going down but we had run out of space. We needed major reinvestment. Contract brewing had become the buzzword because Brooklyn Brewery was using Utica’s Matt Brewery. So we went for the contract route, made the transition and lost inertia. The restaurant became less of a focus. We had looked towards Mendocino Brewery in upper New York.

Mendocino was hot shit on the West Coast but out here in the East, it’s the meat grinder. It’s the largest beer market in the world, larger than London, Madrid, France, and as a result, big companies will do anything to get a foot in the market. If you wanna be on tap, you’re dealing with huge budgets by Heineken and Bud. I’ve always felt, creatively, it’s way better to make your own wobbly furniture than buy particleboard from IKEA. That’s how I viewed contract brewing. It was like lip-synching. It’s only implied that some small craft brewer made it.

But we may see another craft beer bust. It’s hard to get a piece of Main Street and hold it in America. There’s a limited number of taps. There’s more craft beer than ever, but you can never grow faster than the number of new craft customers. Walk through the warehouse of a large distributorship and you’ll know the number of brewpubs and breweries there’ll soon be. It’s walls and walls of Bud-Coors-Miller. The production of new breweries cannot exceed the demand of consumption of craft beers. The consumption’s increasing. But eventually, the industry needs to catch up.

Anyway, while working at Ramapo Valley, the owners of West End Brewery approached me and said to come on down to the city. I had been with the Ramapo guys for two years or so and the product was selling well. I had just made a gluten beer and Ramapo thought this would be their future. It was gluten free and Kosher for Passover. It was unique and I was excited to work on a beer that wasn’t being done en masse. Apparently, it was like setting wildfire. All the celaic sufferers came out of the closet. It had given them a voice and it was around the time organic food got popular. That really worked. But I felt that gluten free beer wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I said, “Good luck with the gluten.”

So I went to go start this brewery in New York City – West End. I worked with a talented young brewer and helped train him – Jeremy Goldberg – who’s now up in Massachusetts running Cape Ann Brewing. Some of his beers are contract produced because of his smaller size. But the beautiful location of his brewery is waterfront. Nice area.

I ended up with a lot of equipment from someone who stiffed me – some of it’s here. Anyway, at Mountain Valley one of my apprentices was Andrew Ety. I was the brewmaster who hired a hand who hired Andrew. He was an incredibly talented guy and also a Seibel grad. He went on to work at Brooklyn Brewery as the right hand man. Another guy from Mountain Valley, Jeff Conwell, started Ithaca Brewing Company. So it was an exciting time.

Also, John Eccles came out of there. He was trained by Jay. He did Hyde Park Brewery. You talk about the early state of craft brewing, it’s like talking about the early part of the rock industry. Everyone played with this person or remembers going to a certain club. That’s how it was.

I was at West End for two years. New York City’s built on solid granite so when the brewery location abutted this outcropping of granite rock even the greedy real estate developers didn’t want to have anything to do with, we specked out the brewery and rigged it Egyptian style through cracks in the granite out the back alley way. It was like stage diving with a fermenter. Everybody had a hand on it because the forklift couldn’t negotiate the nuances of twisting and bending and turning. It was so tight the fittings on the tank couldn’t fit through one area and the tank had to be rotated 60 degrees.

But real estate in Manhattan is expensive and the rent was enormous so we maximized space. I had a complete brewery in the basement. We had a beautiful little pub system with an agitator and kettle so I could do crazy concoctions if I wanted. I was steam powered. But to make things easier with the building code it was electric steam power. It went through 200 amps of three-phase electric.

We cranked out Kerouac, because Beat Poet Jack Kerouac used to drink there. Everywhere that man drank they put up a sign. He wasn’t known for breaking anything there like some metal band. He just split people’s minds wherever he went.

As a brewer, I try to make beers that make me happy. From West End, I moved to Defiant. We were a square peg in a round hole at the beginning. That’s definitely true. It’s a wonderful walking town. Train stops right in the middle. There’s good food to be had here. People are surprised. We have a St. Patrick’s Day parade that’s one of the best in the country. And it’s well run. It’s not a shit show. It’s still old America here in a lot of ways.

I had my son Conner within a few days of signing a lease. Abigail joined us later. Working in the industry for years, I always wanted to have full creative control to be able to do anything I want. The brewery is set up so it’s comfortable to work at. Parking on both sides. I met a lot of great people. Some of their names are along the wall.

There are other brewers serving right from the tanks like Defiant, it’s just that there’s a tube that goes from the tank to the tap. But as far as getting the tanks right up behind the bar, it’s less common. There’s engineering reasons why.

We brew a series of small batch beers we make for our Cellar members. Some are aged in oak. The sky’s the limit. The Resolution Four you’re drinking now is part of our Cellar program. It took a year to make. Those are limited release. I want to make an End of the World 4-pack. That’d be killer! That’s the kind of thing that’d be hard to sell to the owner if I had one. Could you imagine it not selling? I wanna be here for the end with all the calamities and running and screaming.

I was at Peekskill Brewery for two years. A new talented guy, Jeff O’ Neill, started in November, 2011. He worked at Ithaca so you’re gonna see some interesting beers with some Ithaca flavor evidence cropping up. It should be welcomed.

I worked on a wonderful project in Athens, New York, for Crossroads. They actually have one of my old breweries so you know it’s gonna be good. (laughter) It’s in a historic building off Route 87. I like to stay active. We’re growing here. I have some fermenters arriving today at 4:30.?

Nowadays, there’s less people making the liquid. It’s all about the mental concept instead of the physical production of the art. And that’s a philosophical debate. Where is the beer? Is the beer a mental concept in brand and marketing or is it a physical creation done with your hands made from one person on that day and made some creative beer.

The industry now wants consistency in larger batches. So what is craft? What makes a craft brewery truly a craft brewery? I think it all comes down to flavor in the end regardless of who’s behind it and in what capacity.

INDIE LEGEND DON FLEMING REVIVES VELVET MONKEYS CLASSIC TO COINCIDE WITH ‘4’

Born in the Deep South town of Adel near the same Okefenokee swamplands Country-rock legend Gram Parsons once perused, multifarious Georgian musician-producer Don Fleming joined the Air Force and spent time in Denver during the ’77 punk explosion, gaining access to the Ramones, Runaways, and Nerves. Now residing in Montclair with wife and kids, the ambitiously inquisitive music obsessive continuously expands rock’s plasmatic perimeters, keeping one foot in the resplendent past while digging deeper into its unrevealed future. Spending downtime working at deceased ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s New York archives only increased his tenacious desire to acquire massive musicological minutiae.

“I saw the first Sex Pistols show in Atlanta,” Fleming commences. “Before they moved to Chicago, Wax Trax Records attracted early punks to Denver. It was a hub. Jello Biafra (mischievous Dead Kennedys front man) roadied for the Ravers, who got belated exposure on an amazing Colorado underground vinyl comp, Rocky Mountain Low. By ’78, I became guitarist in Bruce Joyner’s Stroke Band and we released one album, Green & Yellow, which I’m preparing for reissue. I joined a Newport News, Virginia punk band, then ended up in DC to witness Dischord Records DC post-punk scene.”

Reaching an early creative zenith with the Velvet Monkeys, Fleming countered the West Coast’s fashionably sunlit Paisley Underground post-psychedelia (defined best by Dream Syndicate) with darker hued New York-based scruff on ‘82s cassette-only masterpiece, Everything Is Right. Now re-released on Fleming’s righteously designated boutique label, Instant Mayhem, the luxurious debut contrasted California’s dazzling day-glo fluorescence with caliginous neon-lit radiance. Its ominously foreboding organ-based jaunts brought echoplex, vibrato, and glorious distortion to murkily cellar-dwelling elliptical catacombs from the dankly deteriorating dustbins of time.

Mysteriously gruesome “Shadow Box” and greasy garage-rocking gristle “See You Again” recall Nuggets-era elucidators such as the Seeds, Electric Prunes, and Count Five. They ghoulishly gallivant through the Ventures ‘60s surf instrumental, “The Creeper,” adding a cryptically blistering “Blue’s Theme” sendoff. Even the roughhewn cosmic debris appended to the backend fit beside the bleakly desolate tombs and chillingly betwixt escapades.

Fleming got involved with many subterranean projects thereafter, including scorching ‘90s bubblegum punk trio, Gumball, and before that, Jad Fair’s astonishingly amateurish pop-cultured enthusiasts, Half Japanese.

“Jad would say, ‘this one’s fast and it’s about a robot.’ It either worked or it didn’t,” Fleming explains. “At that point, the band was in a good space and sounded great on ‘87s Music To Strip By and ‘88s Charmed Life. Often, we’d crank out thirty songs and then decided what to mix and release. Jad’s a master at that. Sometimes you do that and throw out five things because they suck.”

Building a solid reputation as a nimble producer, Fleming soon took the reins for some of the greatest post-grunge offerings. On top of working with Sonic Youth for spectacular long-players such as ‘90s Goo, ‘98s A Thousand Leaves, ‘02s Murray Street and ‘06s Rather Ripped, he brought his pioneering pop-rooted in-the-red feedback styling to cherished emblematic treasures by Teenage Fanclub, Hole, Screaming Trees and Posies. Able to collate vibrant post-Beatles dramatic grandeur to punk’s blustery nihilistic ferocity, snottily sordid impulsiveness and humorous satirical inklings, the fussily adept knob-twister was, to some extent, responsible for the scintillatingly full-throttled aggression Seattle’s grunge scene thrived on.

“My production style was influenced by music made in a very narrow amount of time from ’72 to ’76. There were great multi-tracking studios with fantastic tape machines and the best compressors and the way it all got mixed,” Fleming claims as we share a piney fruited India Pale Ale. “It was Todd Rundgren’s production of Badfinger’s Straight Up that really got to me. When I go to a new studio I get accustomed to the room by putting Straight Up on the turntable or CD player. That’s the one album I know more than anything.”

Fleming joined alt-rock supergroup, the Dim Stars, for a very welcomed self-titled ‘92 affair. Connecting with Sonic Youth pals, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, they coerced ex-Television idol Richard Hell out of self-imposed limbo, getting Hell’s illustrious guitar partner in the Voidoids, Robert Quine, to come onboard as well. A venerable spike-haired punk icon whose tattered and safety-pinned clothes inspired trashy fashion maybe more than his valiantly unprepossessing tunes affected underground rock, Hell saluted the totally unemployed and great unwashed minions with ‘75s youthfully enlightened denunciation “Blank Generation.” But he’d been reluctant to record since ‘82 and then stayed inactive after the Dim Stars lone recording. Remarkably, his three incipient compositions elevate this singular undertaking, retaining a perkily elastic groove that recalls Television’s best. Though the crushing guitar onslaught and scabrous rants proved extraordinary, some of the odder second-half fodder seemed undeveloped and capricious.

“Richard (Hell) would agree. There was too much fluff,” Fleming consents. “But we needed that to make a full album. Certain songs stood out. Then again, our filler is killer. Some was improvised. Others were Hell-Quine ideas they had previously worked on. Obviously, working with the usually reticent Richard was a highlight. Plus, bringing in Robert Quine for a session was insane. Thurston had the band name first, the Dim Stars, and convinced Richard to do a single for his Ecstatic Peace label. That was fun and we decided to do more sessions. Richard likes to just hang out, do a little writing (such as ‘96s semi-autobiographical novel, Go Now) and have the same lifestyle he always had living in New York City. It’s hard to get him out to record. He’s a homebody.”

At my humble domicile, Fleming and I had a few brews as he answered some apropos questions.

On your new four-song EP, opening track “My Little Lamb” recalls R. Stevie Moore’s finest late ‘70s works.

DON FLEMING: It’s Stevie’s upbeat pop sound contrasting my dark lyrics. With each song, I wanted to ‘get’ that person I worked with. I wanted it to be their sound that I added my paranoid, dismal lyrics to. It adds drama. I don’t know where any of my lyrics came from, but for me it’s more interesting than talking about topical stuff. I had a melodic idea I showed him and worked it out. I wanted him to work around the main riff and showed him how I wanted to sing that part. By the time I drove home, he’d practically finished. He’s been extremely active lately. He moved from Bloomfield back to his home state of Tennessee and hooked up with these young guys (Tropical Ooze) touring for months. He’s the happiest he has ever been and finally went out on tour.

Long-time friend and associate, guitarist Kim Gordon, icily rails against your rugged voice on the ominous “Torn By The Hands That You Could Not See.”

 

Kim Rancourt from When People Were Shorter And Lived Near The Water writes a lot of good lyrics. He did a couple songs with Andrew WK recently. He had written those lyrics and Kim Gordon said, ‘I tracked these guitar ideas in my basement.’ It was done on-the-fly, recorded with open tunings. I asked if I could put different parts together and arrange a song out of it. She said, ‘Go for it.’ So I put together different riffs and tried to find the right lyrics but thought mine all sucked. So I looked at a pile of stuff I got from Kim Rancourt and it just clicked and I got the mike working.

The hysterical double entendre of “Clockwork Cockwork” seems related to old bawdy Blues records. Is it a true tale concerning your busy cock monster?

It’s in the eye of the beholder. (laughter) I have a ceramic rooster that came from France. On “Clockwork Cockwork” I’m talking about a bird. I like writing songs about birds. I had one on a B.A.L.L. record called “Bird.” I read Keith Richard’s book and the Stones had a song about a “Little Red Rooster.” So it was time to do another song about another rooster. People could think what they want. Julie Cafritz (of Free Kitten) wrote the guitar part. She’s a big Facebook hoster and posted one of those SoundCloud files. To me, it was from beginning to end a fantastic song. I emailed her and asked if I could add vocals, drums, bass, and Roland synth noodling.

On “Remember Adam’s Fall,” the muffled phase shifting guitar paraphrases Jimi Hendrix “If 6 Was 9,” then your gruffly huffed spoken word desecration goes off on a menacing Captain Beefheart-like tangent.

I used phrases out of an autobiography by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, randomly culling a bunch of excerpts. I’m very much into the history of Irish uprisings. And there’s a bit of Irish inside me. (laughter)

Moving on to your production work, you produced one of your favorite ‘70s artists, the infamous Alice Cooper, for worthy ’94 comeback, The Last Temptation.

I wanted to go back to that sound I loved from the original Alice Cooper band. Put the needle to the record and get an Alice song. I went about that by telling Alice he’s gotta play the harmonica like he did on the first few records. He said, ‘Yeah, cool!’ I’ve spent time as more of a historian going to these prestigious studios where these records I listened to as a kid were made, learning about 3-track recording, for instance, which is a different way to record. You have to layer it a certain way and do drums and bass at the same time a certain way. It’s about getting back into the techniques used to make records I grew up on.

Nirvana’s breakthrough smash, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was based on the dynamic energy and full-on arrangement of Boston’s ’76 breakout anthem, “More Than A Feeling.” So there’s an analogy hearkening back to the loud, resilient, guitar-based rampage of yore.

Yeah. This gets back to ‘what is folk music?’ What is tradition? What is the songwriting process? Before there was electricity, songs went town to town, like in England. The songs were all tracked and copied down and then put in this book, The English & Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis Child in 1882. What you found was that a song would sometimes start in the north of England and work its way down to the Southern towns. You’d find variant #40 on the opposite side of the island. What stayed the same was the melody and then the lyrics got changed. It was like telephone tag. The songs that were hits went through the whole country. Someone at the pub would sing it.

Did you learn that working at Alan Lomax’s Archives?

That’s been my main gig for ten years now. I did archival work on and off for years before that. I’ve learned a lot about the historical process of music, copyrights, publishing and all these arguments going on now – which are valid. It’s fascinating. Mechanical royalties and the way publishing works are the fuel that makes the music biz run. Going through Lomax’s history has given me a reference of how people worked in the Thirties and why certain processes happened. In the Fifties, a hit was a song three different artists did and got into the Top 10.

A pure white bread artist such as Pat Boone could steal Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti” and get it higher up the charts than the better original.

I differ from the idea that white’s stole (black R & B). Everybody steals from everybody. That is the process. It goes back and forth. That’s what’s amazing about America is that black and white met and combined styles. That’s what rock and soul are – Euro-African music. The immigrants put that sound together and it spread around the world. People sing a song in the pub, then labels press them up on shellac – which is made from a Thai insect – to vinyl, then CD’s and now digital. I’m real happy with digital even though I don’t think it sounds nearly as good as the best analog. It depends on the equipment. If somebody takes out the compression on the vinyl version it doesn’t sound right. It’s a conceit. That background hissing noise could be conceived as either good or bad, but if you take that out you ruin part of the sound.

As an archivist, when we restore Alan Lomax tapes and acetate discs for the Library of Congress, we always do the first transfer completely straight. There’s no EQ, no noise reduction filters. You want to use the best needle on an acetate to capture the original sound. You may go through a few needles on an acetate until you find one that’ll hit the walls best and give the most bang for your buck. We didn’t have tape before the Forties, so the early Lomax stuff is on fragile discs. They’re old as hell. We did a box set of 50 hours of Haitian material. Having the opportunity to study world music and different cultures and how music developed is a mind-blowing, mind-opening gig.

I’ve always had a lassie-faire attitude about being a musician. I love to play, record, and make records. But I never liked the business end and always saw it for what it was. Ultimately, I was in it for the right reasons at the time but knew it’d ultimately defeat us and break up the band. At the same time, you wanna do it. I liked being on Columbia for Gumball’s Superball record because a lot of bands I like were on Columbia. What sold me on Columbia over Geffen Records was knowing all the freebies I’d get from the catalog. There were more CD’s to pilfer.

I could go on with a litany of things that are wrong with the major labels. My latest one is about bands now taking the plunge and learning the way advances are set up. You have to payback the advance before making any money. The label could make millions of dollars on the 85% they’re taking and the artist gets a mere 12 to 15%. It’s based on some land scheme and the artist ends up bearing the brunt of the entire contract while money is coming in. They charge everything to the artist and the percentage is so small you could literally have guys in the band needing day jobs for three years. Meanwhile, the label people have salaries, health care, vacations, ridiculously expensive dinners, and live off the backs of musicians. I knew that going into my major label deal. The reality is we sold the same amount of records we did as an indie, but for the major it was horrible.

You have to sell 500,000 records just to break even as an artist. That’s underhanded representation for creative artists of all stripes.

That’s why Eminem and Rick James’ estate are suing the labels. They want to change the split to 50/50. Rightfully so, digital downloads cost no money. In the old days, labels would complain about paying for all the manufacturing, storage, warehousing and shipping of vinyl and CD’s. It probably came from 78 RPM language in some old contract. Now it’s there for digital and people are like, ‘Wait a minute. You fucking upload it online once and everyone else sells it. How could you be claiming 85%?’ Labels say it’s a license and should fall under the licensing deal 50/50 – which is ridiculous. The label should get 15% only. The labels have to pay mechanicals to the publisher – 9 cents a song for every download. That’s the label’s only real cost. They make a lot of money on bands that never payback the advances labels give them – which never went into their hands. It went to the studio and producer.

What was your role in the Action Swingers, one of the most underrated ‘80s post-punk outfits?

I was never really in the band, but produced their first single, “Kicked In The Head.” Ned did get me in to play guitar on something.

You worked with Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker on a few projects.

I played and sang on three of Moe’s albums between ‘88 and ‘92. And Moe did some stuff with Half Japanese that I was on as well, including a rooftop set that was filmed for the Half Japanese documentary. We did a big show with her at Maxwell’s in the early 90′s. She’s super great to work with. It’s all about Bo Diddley with Moe.

As a one-off single, you and Thurston Moore, two lanky gray-haired axe men of underground renown, gave the Tornadoes ’60 #1 hit, “Telstar,” a shimmering neo-Classical Holst: The Planets turnabout by utilizing oscillating keyboards and textural guitar drifts.

That was fun to do. I’m a huge Joe Meek fan – other than the old lady he killed. As a producer, he took it up another notch and made everything that happened in the Sixties possible, leading the way for producers and engineers to become crazy free-thinking experimentalists going, ‘Let’s try to run it through eight of these.’ Joe Meek built crazy stuff, but at the same time, did too much British speed. He began hearing voices and thought the deceased Buddy Holly was talking to him. “Telstar” is wonderful. I think I used Mike Oldfield’s Roland SH5 for that to come up with the melody line. I try to pick up 45’s of oddball instrumental tracks all the time.

Too bad there’s no market for instrumental singles anymore. The last #1 instrumental was probably German keyboard composer Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F Theme” from ‘86s Beverly Hills Cop.

Billy Preston had “Outa Space” and “Space Race” in the early ‘70s. I saw the George Harrison tour with Billy on it. Then I watched the Rolling Stones with Billy playing. He stole that show. When the Stones took a little break to powder up in the backroom, the place erupted when Billy Preston stayed onstage to do a few numbers. You go back to the Thirties and Forties, there were loads of instrumental hits. By the ‘80s, labels were all greedy and put a zillion bands through the machine and the three that made it paid for everyone else. The rest broke up without making money. The music reflects that. It was always music for kids – only now there’s no revolution. In the late Fifties, kids rebelled. As an anthropologist, the reasons why had a lot to do with women going to work, empty houses, and kids freedom. Twenty years later in the late Seventies, especially in England, kids had no jobs and were bored and punk started. The recent British riots should’ve caused a revolution, but there aren’t any kids on the street putting new music out to reflect the grief. Kids don’t have bands. They’re home alone with a computer making music.

That’s part of the problem with modern technology. Instead of getting together to form bands, it’s different. There is no revolution. Part of it gets back to technology. Where’s this generation’s new technology that’ll allow them to make music in a new way? The last true technological movement came with sampling on computers. It’s petered out now. It’s up to the kids to rebel and say ‘this is bull shit.’ Certainly, in light of where we’re at in America, it’d be a good time to do so.

By the ‘90s, you should’ve achieved widespread acclaim like famed ‘60s producers George Martin and Phil Spector. You would’ve had Top 10 hits by the Posies, Screaming Trees, Hole, and Teenage Fanclub. But vital bands with an edgy attitude are not promoted properly by major labels. Back in the day, managers, producers, and label honchos promoted the best music. Those songs had an emotional resonance the current crop of slick teenyboppin’ hacks lack.

The disco ideal of ‘It’s dance music and we’ll put it out and sell it’ alongside bad Anne Murray ballads brought on punk. Even Doctor Hook’s Medicine Show, whom I used to love, got stale. I just did a Shel Silverstein show and performed Dr. Hook’s (venereal disease ode) “Penicillin Penny.” When they started doing ballads and not Shel material, it went downhill. I’ve grappled with mainstream bands. I used to think if you were on the Grammy Awards, you sucked. That’s been part of my mentality. ’77 punk hit me at the right age. I loved Led Zeppelin before then, but thought ‘fuck them.’ Now I go back and love all that stuff. But it was all about the attitude. I’ve always been an exploratory detective – a historian. I apply those standards whether it’s going to Miami’s Criteria Studios where James Brown, Hotel California or Layla were done in the same room or elsewhere. For me, I love the history of rock. It continues on in facets now and inspires you to do something new and cool that’s not just the same old shit.

Chicago’s urgent guitar-scrabbled “25 Or 6 To 4″ stands out for its industrious production value. But the single got mixed differently than the album version.

That’s an example of a great single that has better compression than the LP version. That’s part of mastering – making the plate to press it. It hits the compressor. You hit it harder with the 45 RPM single because you’ve got wider grooves to deal with. When you hear that song on the radio, the station might add their own compression. Some use echo. You hear the compression the most at the hissing quiet sections. That means the compressor is really pumping. What you hear now on SIRIUS is remastered sound that’s cleaner without the distortion. Distortion causes harmonic overtones you don’t hear anymore if you don’t distort it in an analog way. Satellite radio has digital compression that’s different coming through speakers. It doesn’t add anything positive and it’s not a pleasant sound. People jump into technology, things evolve in the stupidest possible way, and you’re living with that for a hundred years.

You take more chances in your own bands like the Dim Stars, B.A.L.L., and the solo efforts than you do with the straightforward production of outside bands.

Absolutely. I’m a drill sergeant in the studio – Sergeant Rock. That’s the way I like to do things. I’m good at telling everybody ‘here’s the plan.’ I’m trying to get the best live take. Drums have to be in tune. I don’t care as much about the guitars being in tune. That’s how I’m tracking bands. If I don’t get it on two takes, I rarely do a third. I need a song to be edgy. Even with the most pop-styled bands. With my own stuff, I’m not afraid of falling off the cliff – in fact I try to for the most part.

How’d your production affect the mighty Sonic Youth?

I think one of my strong suits as a producer is getting great vocals takes from singers. Some singers try to stop every other fucking line when they think they blew a note. I make singers do full takes of the song every take. It’s the only way to deliver it as a story. Kim and Thurston asked me to come in and “produce” their vocal sessions on those albums.

Veteran drummer Jay Spiegel worked with you on many projects. What’s so intriguing about his percussion technique?

When we first started the Velvet Monkeys, we were a garage-y three-piece with a drum machine and a Cramps-like Acetone organ. There was a Farfisa tone. We had a great sound tied into that drum machine. But at a certain point that drum machine didn’t do everything we wanted so we got a basic drummer. Then Jay came along and opened up the sound. He’s a rare breed. He hits hard but has melody in him. He plays things off the song arrangement. He doesn’t just play beats. He’s like Buddy Rich – coming from a jazzier background. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters/ Nirvana) does that, first or second take, it’s done. With Dave, it’s like a cannon going off. Jay’s at a higher level as well.

You worked with one of Jersey’s finest rock outfits, the Smithereens, on admirable ’99 re-entry, God Save The Smithereens. What did you add to their sound?

Some songwriters you have to leave alone and go with what they have. But with the Smithereens Pat DiNizio, he works his songs out so well and loves the songwriting process. He wanted a sounding board so I went out to his place, sat with acoustics, and worked out tempos, keys, bridges, beginnings and endings to bring the songs to a new level. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, but I try to bring out the best of each song and push the artist a little.

For the Posies beautiful pop showpiece, Frosting On The Beater, you brought out a riper emotional dynamic.

Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer are great composers and each had a lot of songs so narrowing it down to the right set of songs and sequencing them was important. When making the album, I tried to sequence demos for a running order. That shows me if there’s enough variety, dynamics, and songs in different keys. From the Alan Lomax point of view, I’m coding the music. With the Posies, Ken’s songs were drifting into the 12-minute mark.

Did you bring a fuller, richer sound to Teenage Fanclub’s beguilingly melodious highpoint, Bandwagonesque?

Everyone said it sounded like Big Star, but I was going for Badfinger. We went to an English country studio with great old gear and Vox AC 30 amps, the Holy Grail of vox amps. I said, ‘What’s the story with these?’ They said those belong to Status Quo. I said, ‘Hook ‘em up.’ I’m a guitarist who’s always into hooking up the right guitar with the right amp and getting the studio sound for that. Onstage, you need the loudest amp possible to shoot the sound out. In the studio, I have tiny amps that sound bigger then those live Marshall stacks. You don’t need any fuzz pedals. The right pickup makes it sound like “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.” I love pedals, but I like starting with the basics – great guitar through an amp.

BLACK LIPS CLIMB SUMMIT OF ‘ARABIA MOUNTAIN’

Hailing from the expanding northerly Atlanta suburb of agricultural metropolis, Dunwoody, the Black Lips steadily ransack rock and roll’s past to reenergize the here and now. While attending grade school together, the three original members precipitously discovered the joy of music and have since embarked on an enduringly fruitful artistic journey back in time without ever lapsing into idle nostalgic vagrancy. A virtual democratic unit gathering son-of-a-preacher-man bassist Jared Swilley, harmonica-blowing guitarist Cole Alexander, and boisterous drummer Joe Bradley (plus auxiliary lead guitarist Ian Saint Pe), the thriving combo gained instant local attention mainly due to their rowdily rambunctious and raucously ramshackle performances.

To make an automatic lasting impression, many early shows contained flagrant vomiting, urination, nudity, fireworks, and pyrotechnics, much to the dismay of disgruntled club owners. Nevertheless, the Black Lips’ maniacally crazed and electrifyingly intense live shows could not be denied. And their reputation grew incrementally over six albums at a surely slower, but no less impressive, pace then Kings Of Leon took achieving fashionable frontline status.

Swilley’s pastor father may’ve introduced the ‘prodigal’ son to typical ‘60s signposts such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Kinks, but the Peach State natives’ earliest influences may not be as obvious as the Fab Four.

“We learned to play guitar through Link Wray records. His tones and style were based on simple chords. I like simple forms,” Swilley explains prior to bringing up another impressionable motivator. “The Germs couldn’t play their instruments at the start, but eventually they could. I loved their nasty punk attitude.”

That said, Swilley knows full well the punk revolution’s flames were spreading way before Iggy cut himself onstage or the Ramones yelled ‘hey ho, let’s go!’ and the Sex Pistols raged fervently about “Anarchy In The UK.” Inarguably, the basic underclass struggles informing The Who’s tempestuous ’65 teen anthem “My Generation” portended punk’s swaggering acrimonious swill, especially when Roger Daltry beseechingly stuttered ‘people try to put us down/ just because we g-g-get around,’ prefiguring the decadent underground punk movement with its monumental nihilistic denouncement. Then again, most agree Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks invented the power chord in ’65, not only presaging punk’s primordial provocation, but also metal’s ear-shattering gear jamming.

Swilley affirms, “The first time I heard the Kinks “You Really Got Me,” I thought it was more punk then a lot of stuff that’s supposed to be. That was a defining moment. I don’t want to be condescending, but a lot of contemporary rock is safe. It seems to be made by kids wearing bicycle helmets and don’t jump in the pool unless a lifeguard’s around. Music ought to be dangerous so you’re parents want to burn the records. I had to hide records from my parents.”

As high-schooled buddies, they’d befriend Greg and Suzy Shaw of Bomp! Records, whose independent Los Angeles label once boasted a string of influential bands including Iggy & the Stooges, Modern Lovers, Dead Boys, and the aforementioned Germs. The Shaw’s sent mix tapes to the young musical aspirants, then signed the Black Lips for a self-titled debut and its wordily surrealistic follow-up, We Did Not Know the Forest Spirit Made the Flowers Grow, a few incipiently inconstant sets of amateurishly unbridled furor and blisteringly bedraggled beats. Undeniably, similarly archaic material from Rhino’s masterful Nuggets compilation and Crypt Records ensuing Back From The Grave series additionally helped the antediluvian Georgians find common primeval ground.

“There were all these shitty American wannabe bands revealing a British Invasion persuasion that sounded amazing and awful at the same time. That was inspirational,” Swilley says.

Another energetic local garage combo, the Rock*A*Teens, may’ve set the stage for the Black Lips as well. During the ‘90s, there weren’t many rock bands coming out of Atlanta. Instead, smooth Rhythm & Blues and hip-hop ruled the roost. But the Rock*A*Teens, and to a lesser extent, the Subsonics, gained a formidable national cult audience, assuring access for their scruffy, roughhewn offspring.

“We’ve never done any recording on computer,” Swilley shares. “The tape machine we have is vintage 1971. When we went into the studio, most of the new record was recorded with old radio microphones from the Thirties. We like using tape and tube amps. We’re not going for low fidelity. It’s just that recording technology, in my opinion, peaked in the mid-‘60s. Those machines sound best – warmer than computer gear.”

Though the Black Lips have grown as songwriters and arrangers, continuously improving on their instruments, they use the same exact process put forth a decade ago. Gospel, Country and soul all find their way into the diversified mix, cannibalizing the past and reinvesting the gains towards presciently newfangled ideas.

“In the South, music’s really huge. I came from a family of musical creatures. Then, when I started skateboarding, older kids showed us punk records. And with the advent of the internet, it’s easier to find great music,” Swilley swimmingly swaggers.

A major step up, ‘07s Good Bad Not Evil contained their most spirited primal rockers yet. “Step Right Up” begs comparisons to Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators with its bewitching testimonial screams and incessant siren buzz. “Off The Block” injects surf-affected Boyce-Hart harmonies into scintillating Amboy Dukes acid rock virulence. Caustic hurricane exasperation, “O Katrina,” cries out for New Orleans’ flood-ravaged victims. For a nifty turnabout, audaciously satirical Western-styled novelty, “How Do You Tell A Child That Someone Has Died,” flaunts a comical Shel Silverstein whimsicality.

Two years hence, the more rounded 200 Million Thousand stretched out the fertile arrangements a tiny bit and delved deeper into the ‘60s subculture dustbin. Swamp Blues confection, “Body Combat,” a cross between Screaming Jay Hawkins cryptic hoodoo voodoo and ‘80s Cavestompers like the Lyres, recreates the long gone era with remarkable exhilaration. Fuzz-toned jubilee, “Again & Again,” could be a caliginous Animals outtake. The torn and frayed “Elijah” masks the Kingsmen’s classic “Louie Louie” riff. Nervy clamorous resolution, “Take My Heart,” receives a densely muddled production skewed perfectly to reflect its duskily crude auspices.

Embracing America’s subterranean bohemian culture head on are “Drugs” (an interesting take on T. Rex glam-rock commingling Beach Boys multi-harmonies with BC Buddah weed) and the piously convoluted “I Saw God.” The latter recounts the pleasures and perils of getting high enough to see the Lord.

“The whole acid-based LSD spirituality is funny to us so we joke about it. We do psychedelic drugs, but in moderation,” Swilley lets on. “The song “God’s” about DMT, a government researched chemical that’s intense for a fifteen minute trip – a tremendous out of body experience. We are not proponents of drug use and hate drug abuse so we don’t promote heroin or reckless drugs. But the Black Lips have gotten chemical inspiration from psychedelic mushrooms. Weed I find counterproductive during composing, though. You tend to overindulge.”

Coming on stronger than ever, the Black Lips latest full-length romp, Arabia Mountain, reaches beyond the overcrowded vinyl wasteland for enlightenment, absorbing elements procured outside garage rock’s rudimentary instrumental boundaries. As if to shun any direct correlation to one distinct backdated generation, they chose an ambiguous album title deemed “kindergarten controversial,” saluting a granite-rocked ex-quarry east of Atlanta where ‘80s cult fave, Pet Cemetary, was filmed. Acquiring a few veteran sax men and one saw virtuoso to widen the unadulterated analog soundscape proved commendable.

Not only does wailing sax infiltrate forceful opener, “Family Tree” (a nifty entrée set aglow by its clandestine ‘30s Bolivian folk roots), but also mangy acid-glazed R & B-bound blurt, “Mad Dog.” Innovative New York-based violinist, Dale Stuckenbruck, comes aboard to showcase skillful saw work, emulating a wand-like theremin to a tee on poppy Euro-trashed punk derivation, “Modern Art,” where fuzzy axe licks re-ignite David Allen & the Arrows ’67 biker classic “Blue’s Theme” and ‘80s Swiss funk-punks Kleenex (a.k.a. Liliput) get check-listed. Stuckenbruck returns for the Clash-dashed, hand-clapped, tambourine shaker, “Bone Marrow,” creating a weirdly oscillating “Jet Boy Jet Girl” whir.

On the more conventional tunes, innumerable childhood relics activate the frolicking foursome. Recalling a more demure version of the Ramones, “Spidey’s Curse” brings jangled Byrds guitar lattice to the front of an innocently annotated ode.

Swilley explains, “In fourth grade, we were issued Spiderman comic books. (Marvel mastermind) Stan Lee drew them. But we wondered why our school allowed a book where there was a bizarre Peter Parker molestation taking place to be read. The song sounds happy, but it’s about Spiderman’s pre-super power molestation.”

As expected, many redirected rock and roll throwbacks fill out the engaging Arabia Mountain. Mocking greedy, self-centered baby boomers, “Bicentennial Man” could be the most straightforward antedated goosestep. Obsessing on ‘50s rockers Bobby Fuller and Duane Eddy, “Time” takes to the highway with a drink in one hand and tears in both eyes, receiving a trashy “Hippie Hippie Shake” strut. Invigorated by a pre-Clash record Joe Strummer did with unheralded formative Brit-rockers, the 101ers, “Go Out And Get It” nearly goes into the Kinks “Davey Watts” at its catchy choral center. “Don’t Mess Up My Baby” connects its punctual Bo Diddley beat to a cheeky drug-hazed schoolyard chant worthy of ‘60s midlevel bands such as the Swingin’ Medallions or the Searchers.

The Black Lips insatiable appetite and unending appreciation for raw, roots-y, rock revelry cannot be suppressed. A working class outfit better suited for dank basement clubs rather than impersonal arena-sized venues, these durable Southerners gladly embrace America’s bohemian underclass. In this modern world where pre-fab stardom oft-times overrules do-it-yourself integrity and homespun ingenuity on the large scale, there’s still a few musicians willing to go the distance.

“I don’t listen to commercial radio anymore,” Swilley concludes. “Honestly, I’m digging a lot of hip-hop lately. But there’s still a lot of talented musicians out there. I’m into Buick 666, these Puerto Rican rockers singing in Spanish. Wolfgang Kill Them All have a punk rock attitude. Brooklyn hardcore revisionists, Cerebral Ballzy, are fun, exciting, and unpredictable.”

Those last three descriptive words also truly define the Black Lips, an experienced, yet youthful, clique ready to reach the next level of appreciable fame. Stay tuned.

AWOLNATION SERENADE MASSES WITH ‘MEGALITHIC SYMPHONY’

It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll

High Voltage- AC/DC

The above adage rings true for many aspiring musicians. And the glorified metal stallions from Australia that coined it ought to know since it took ‘em six years, several albums, and the death of their original lead singer to finally breakout.

The same axiom holds true for AWOLNATION brainchild, Aaron Bruno, whose choppy path to aboveground approval has taken many perplexingly twisted turns. Stranger still, the rugged journey towards the summit was propelled by a sentimental ballad Bruno almost didn’t include on Megalithic Symphony, a dazzlingly Industrial-strengthened, synth-rocked, electro-pop commencement Prodigy’s Liam Howlett would be proud to laud.

Though Bruno calls it “the ultimate surf session without sounding like Spicoli,” no one will accuse the musically-inclined Los Angeles-bred surf rider of directly emulating the Beach Boys multi-harmonies or Dick Dale’s tremolo guitar vibrato or being a slacker stoner like the fictional Fast Times At Ridgemont High character referenced.

Instead, Megalithic Symphony is a thrillingly bombastic super-sized orchestral epic constructed by a motivated bohemian spirit who’d already experienced several major ups and downs whilst discovering his true muse through the Fab Four.

“I was in a punk band, the Ice Monkeys, in sixth grade, then joined a straightedge hardcore band during high school with the same two guys, who were soul mates,” Bruno shares. “A few local bands got signed in the early 2000’s when majors still had money. I knew I could sing falsetto melodies and did so. We got a deal, went on Warped Tour with no money, and played the Tiki tent thanks to a friend of our drummer. We used a stolen credit card for gas.”

Those were desperate times calling for desperate measures, but the persistence paid off and Bruno’s formative trio, Hometown Hero, received a modicum of support, receiving local airplay at major-marketed L.A. station, K-ROCK. But just as things were getting off the ground, the new kids on the block hit an inconvenient snag.

“We were young, cocky, and ignorant, too big for our britches. I had head-butting issues with the label. They wanted me to make a video with a director I didn’t want to work with because I thought it’d be cheesy. So they pulled support for the record and it was my first huge letdown,” Bruno retrospectively admits.

With his fantasy dream crushed, Bruno fought an uphill battle to “get out of a fiery pit.” He took it as a learning experience and continued to grow as a songwriter. Hometown Hero had fell apart, but those challenging times only made him stronger to reach the next horizon. Thinking he was too cool for school, it took him awhile to open his mind and finally give serious listens to his parents’ favorite band, an old mainstay known forever as the Beatles. In short time, their illuminating melodies swayed him. Also around this time, he was more willing to intently explore keyboard music, adding Fender Rhodes, clavinet and miscellaneous textural abstractions to increasingly captivating compositions showing off his “Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bee Gees side.”

With a record deal now in place for the newly coined foursome, Under The Influence Of Giants, Bruno got a chance to once again thrive. But concerns about the band being “too indie for pop and too pop for indie” proved critical.

“We were in purgatory. But MTV played a video. It was a flash in the pan,” Bruno recalls. “We couldn’t get major airplay, which was frustrating. We’re #1 in Grand Rapids, but no L.A. support. Under the Influence’s first record, Bitch City, went unreleased, but a self-titled release appeared in ’06 on Island Records. It was credible, uplifting pop.”

When the band dissolved, Bruno was devastated and hit rock bottom. Luckily, he felt there was nowhere to go but up so he tried the “solo thing.” Though scared to venture down that long hard road, he felt he had no choice. Dead broke in the rut and afraid to borrow money he could never pay back, the much-maligned minstrel hit a crossroad. Living with a friend at a Beverly Hills shack with no air conditioning, cable, or kitchen, he was once again inspired to uncompromisingly delve into artistic expression.

“I had to answer to the man in the mirror,” he explains. “It’s exciting being single. Possibilities are endless. I’d write pop songs for a couple hundred dollars three times a month – barely enough cash to get gas and drive around. Those throwaway songs exorcised demons.”

 

Though these tracks don’t show up on Megalithic Symphony, an Austin, Texas discjockey at KROX gave the most unlikeliest AWOLNATION tune a few spins and it blew up, providing a weirdly esoteric lead-in.

Catapulted by flatulent synthesized strings and assembled in only a few hours, sympathetic soulful ballad, “Sail,” launched Bruno’s latest undertaking and landed AWOLNATION on Billboard’s alternative charts.

Yet closer to AWOLNATION’s usual fare are several upbeat numbers reliant on altruistic stylish reference points from contemporary techno-rock progenitors, Prodigy, to ‘80s new wave synth-pop titans Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones.

“People can’t put their finger on it, but to say it’s comparable to Ministry blows my mind,” Bruno lets on. “There’s an element of programmed drum syncopation and hard synths, but it’s so much more organic than Ministry ever tried to be.”

And he’s not afraid to get a little edgy on a few demanding cuts. On unifying celebratory rave-up, “People,” Bruno proclaims ‘we were born to rage.’ During urgently demonstrative rallying cry, “Burn It Down,” he’s knee deep in a shit-stormed blitzkrieg that recalls Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s flamboyant opulence at times. For “Kill Your Heroes,” society’s stupidity to super-size talented individuals comes to the fore.

“At the end of the day, I’ve always been a very extreme person doing his best to find real art. And the pent-up frustration of finding that comes through on the record. It’s hard to rise up and get a piece of the pie. There’s a lot of madness in the world. “People” reflects the fact you grow up thinking everything’s black and white only to find it’s blue, gray, and all these other colors,” he says.

Glossy suite-like stop-and-start shuffle, “Guilty Filthy Soul,” quite effectively blends a spectral kaleidoscope of tonal colors, diving into what he explains is the “Prince-led Radiohead deep end before swimming out of a swerved bridge.” Co-written by a fellow surf-riding musician, studio guitarist Jimmy Messer (who also sings backup on earnest piano ballad, All I Need” and worked with several teen sensations in association with Rock Mafia) gave it a resounding approval when the finished results were heard.

Resplendent sunshiny strut, “Wake Up,” reinvigorates Queen’s gleaming call-and-response kitsch, bringing Bruno’s “Last Of The Mohicans” groove to a testosterone-fueled metallic funk scamper with an oversized rhythmic breakdown. Just as powerful though not as assertively inclined, mammoth apocalyptic dance epic “Knights Of Shame” co-mingles Murray Head’s mystical novelty “One Night In Bangkok” with a snappy party-down rap jaunt and temporal Madchester-related lockstep beat in an ‘80s-derived apocalyptic dance for the end of time.

It’s a rebel’s heart that most definitely stimulates Bruno’s musical passion. He stood up for his art against negligent label politicking in the past even if it cost him some precocious fame or fortune. He can’t stand moronic reality TV icons. Nor does he tolerate ignorant politicians. Plus, he encourages people not to believe anything they see or hear on TV, for that matter. And for those keeping score, he loves Neil Young’s Harvest for its honest vulnerability.

When he advocates for everyone to “Jump On My Shoulders,” the sentiment couldn’t be any more clearer. He’s gonna take the cooler mainstream listeners for a ride that’ll land AWOLNATION bigger gigs just like headlining former tour mates MGMT and Weezer get. Word is ex-Blind Melon guitarist Christopher Thorn, a big fan, will join Bruno and company for the upcoming tour.

Throughout his inaugural megalithic opus, Bruno rewards listeners with a persistent variety of well-crafted mantras, chants, and entreaties, coming up spades time and time again. Best of all, the cleverly masqueraded pissy lyrics contrast perfectly against both the peppier upward mood swings and up-tempo polyurethaned production.

Before heading to Zuma Beach to catch some tasty waves, Bruno concludes, “I was studying megalithic structures like Stonehenge and the pyramids and thought it was appropriate to this group of songs. They’re the best I had to offer, but came together many different ways.”

SHARKS ATTACK ‘THE JOYS OF LIVING’

Growing up smack dab in England’s Bronze-aged industrial county of West Midlands, Sharks front man James Mattock devoured a steady diet of politically motivated and feverishly frolicking ‘70s punk as a tyke. And the righteously revelatory compositions he penned thereafter make it totally apparent. Though never one to go overboard with his political rhetoric and anti-government furor, Mattock nonetheless composes some of the most defiant rallying cries and rumbling fist-waving energizers the once great Britain now exports.

Taking their band name from venomous lambaste, “In The Belly Of The Shark” (attentively lured away from respected British hardcore brigade, Gallows), this rambunctious outfit is unafraid of swimming through melodic pop, arena rock, and rugby-ganged anthems on a whim, proven by the saliently sobering serenades solidifying three striking E.P.’s. Joined by co-guitarist Andrew Bayliss, bassist Cris O’Reilly, and drummer Sam Lister, Mattock spews phlegm-y forthright verbiage and rancorously railing rebuttals while ‘burning the bridge at both ends.’

To construct uniform long-play entrée, The Joys Of Living 2008-2010, the frenzied foursome compiled twelve tracks from Shallow Waters, Common Grounds and Shows Of Hands alongside two new ones. However, it must be reiterated. Sharks are not necessarily strict punk disciples. Never as raw, spontaneous, nihilistic and unaffected as their leather-ripped safety-pinned spike-haired progenitors, Sharks ably travel outside punk’s already perforated perimeters, breaking free of its menacingly restrictive three-chord grip.

But transitory mainstream sellouts they are not. A dub-reggae passage introduces dramatic titular exultation, “The Joys Of Living,” hitting scintillating climactic heights approximating New Jersey heartland rockers, Gaslight Anthem. Rousing desperate plea, “Capital Youth,” scatters grinding metal riffs across its scurried assault. Even a few unwitting denim-clad pub rock maneuvers momentarily invigorate.

Inarguably, dramatic guitar-based overture, “Sweet Harness,” exhibits Mattock’s fiercely wrought-up emotionality best. But he’s buttressed by utmost angst elsewhere. On plaintive snub, “Trains,” he grouchily bellows crusty choral capitulation ‘how pathetic this must sound to a hope of finally getting out’ with the same decadent snot-nosed ranting folk-punk politico Billy Bragg once did. On pissy chanted snipe, “Three Houses,” the head shark claims to be ‘bored to the fucking bone of everything once counted on.’

These Sharks are predatory creatures out for bloody revenge against anyone getting in their way, so beware Mattock’s biting lyrical fortitude or suffer the consequences. He’s a man on the prowl with an agitated growl, sharing the pain of 21st century schizoid men blundering through private and bureaucratic warfare. Like David Byrne portended on Talking Heads’ ominously apocalyptic “Life During Wartime,” ‘this ain’t no disco/ this ain’t no fooling around.’

I take it from the forceful lyrics that you’ve got some pent-up anger. What struggles did you face?

JAMES MATTOCK: I was born in Coventry City. A few years later, my parents split and I went through a bit of an emotionally confusing childhood. Nothing that out of the blue in this day. I rarely saw my parents growing up. But I’m who I am now and I’m fine with it.

What artists influenced you?
 

 

 

The Clash very much so. I was spoken to by punk music at a very young age. I found inspiration as well as solace in bands like Ramones and the Clash. I like dub reggae and I love hip hop. But obviously as far as influences go, for this band, it’s more of that straight up Rock and Roll edginess.

There’s a certain desperate romanticism surfacing at times, relaying distant hopefulness. But I detect a sharp political side. Do you feel government undermines creative spirits and the lower class?
 

 

 

I don’t think about it, but yes I reckon so. The political side to our band I tend to bury with poetry, for multiple reasons. For one, I think politically charged bands face an uphill struggle against their own ideals. I also think it sounds rubbish when bands get preachy unless it’s done with distinct class. And we prefer to just play music for music, although I do tend to pepper the lyrics with a slight political edge from time to time to keep my ideals rooted.

Did the political rage of The Clash inspire Sharks at all?
 

 

 

Definitely. But as I just saying we don’t follow in that same vein. The ferocity, the honesty and the energy they had is probably the most important thing our band has taken on board.

I was impressed with the lyrical imagery. Who are some formative influences? What novelists inspire you?
 

 

 

There aren’t really any novelists that inspire the lyrics, to be honest. I love beat poetry and Charles Bukowski comes as close as any for direct inspiration. But what comes from inspiration to me is to be original. I’ve taken into account everything I’ve ever learned about writing and I’m focusing on the missing piece, and what I would want to read or listen to above all. That inspiration mostly comes from music and lyrics rather than novels.

Are you more optimistic than nihilistic during these trying economic times?
 

 

 

Yeah. I guess so. It doesn’t effect me in the way it effects most people because I’m not working or building on business or family. Sympathy and concern goes out to all but in every situation there’s always a place for Rock and Roll.

Tell me about the cool cover artwork featuring a skeleton with enlarged skull fronting of The Joys Of Living?
 

 

 

Not much behind that, I’m afraid. The guy that did the art sent a few ideas and it totally stood out from the rest. We’re very attentive when it comes to the visual aspect of the band. That image just summed up what we wanted to get across visually, something mysterious and thought provoking. It may not reflect on the music as much but we keep to music and the visuals quite separate, keeping the momentum strong and consistent at the same time.

Is “It All Relates,” at least temptingly, about how everything is related in a physics sort of way?
 

 

 

Thanks for taking a deeper curiosity into it, but honestly, no. The title is in the lyrics and I just liked the sound of it for a title.

Could punk ever find a wider audience through modern mainstream radio, which is obviously way too conservative?
 

 

 

Who knows really? I mean you say “Punk” and then “Mainstream Radio” and there’s already conflict in the sentence. People class us as punk and we’ve been on the radio a couple of times, but yeah it is all way too conservative. I’m not interested in being played among the atrocity on mainstream radio, but if we ever did I would find that highly amusing.

You have a tour with Social Distortion coming up. Are they a band you enjoy listening to and are they inspirational on some level?
 

 

 

They are a band that have meant so much me since I was about fourteen when I discovered them. To be touring with them is absolutely insane. I’m glad I actually finally get to see them play. To be up there with them is a dream come true.

The ballad, “Yours To Fear,” seems like a stylistic departure. You slowed the tempo for that one?
 

 

 

It was the first track on our first recording/E.P and was written as an opener that would be followed by “Fallen On Deaf Ears” – which is in the same key, so almost one big song. We had these punk songs that would follow on the E.P but in our non-conforming spirit threw a curve ball with a ballad to open the record. Funnily enough some people sight it our best song.

What’s the future hold for Sharks? Will you add auxiliary instrumentation beyond the piano on “Yours To Fear” or the organ accentuating “Bury Your Youth”? Perhaps sax?
 

 

 

Sax would be fantastic. We’ve used trumpets before. We like to add keys wherever possible. Musically, I see our future really unwritten. There’s a lot more to us than power chord driven punk music, which we’ve displayed in certain quantity thus far. People expect a lot from us, it seems, but we do too, and our career really has barely begun.

THE FEELIES, JERSEY’S BEST KEPT SECRET, GO ‘HERE BEFORE’

Marking their latest unexpected comeback twenty years after their fourth studio album, the Feelies are like a cat with nine lives.

Originally from Haledon, the Velvet Underground-nurtured outfit, led by singer-guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, scored instant left-of-the-dial radio success with 1980’s soft rock masterstroke, Crazy Rhythms. Prefiguring the unaffected do-it-yourself lo-fi bedroom recordings that’d pop up in the early ‘90s, Mercer’s understated half-sung baritone, barely audible in the mix, juxtaposed delicately droned six-string dribbles and primal tribal beats in an inconspicuously subtle manner.

Like sipping tea listening to Belle & Sebastian on an autumnal Sunday morning or attending an early evening wine and cheese party absorbing the sun admiring Rubber Soul, the Feelies are enduringly pleasant on the ears, mind, and body. You could place ‘em alongside easy listening soft rock legends Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Loggins & Messina, or any other decent ‘70s femme pop luminary and they’d come out smelling like roses. The world outside may be in flux, but these northern Jersey natives have remained the same – even if long layoffs dulled the momentum.

This time around, Mercer got the chance to reconvene with his seasoned partners following a high-prized low profile solo entrée, ‘08s World In Motion. So all of a sudden on a wing and a prayer he’s back in stride with Million, a transplanted Floridian, plus bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stanley Demeski, and percussionist Dave Weckerman (snares/ floor toms/ sleigh bells/ tambourine). The planets must’ve aligned ‘cause a few desirable circumstances were necessary for the latest Feelies reunion to occur.

It turns out Million’s Princeton-based son had been casually jamming with Mercer around the time Turner Broadcasting Network wanted to use Mercer-Million song, “Decide,” for promotion, developing a line of communication for the co-composing duo. Furthermore, faithful Feelies followers Sonic Youth sought out the enigmatic combo for a Fourth of July Battery Park show a few years back. Combined with high internet demand for early recordings and several requests to play live, the Feelies returned to form on 2011’s refreshing re-entry, Here Before.

Getting lasting mileage out of the basic guitar-bass-drums setup, these resilient rockers have endured way past their modest incipient Jersey genesis. Whereas Crazy Rhythms received inspiration from a positively decadent late-‘70s New York scene that nearly died on the vine, belated ’86 follow-up, The Good Earth, a more uniform set, captured a demure bucolic rusticity. Invigorated by a cross-country tour where they coveted post-punk denizens such as REM (whose Peter Buck co-produced The Good Earth), Meat Puppets, Minutemen, and Replacements, the Feelies expanded slightly outward.

“We wanted to distance ourselves from punk. Growing up, we listened to the Stooges and Velvet Underground, so we’d seen it done better before,” Mercer claims. “But the CBGB’s scene wasn’t all strictly punk. Talking Heads, Modern lovers, and Television had punk elements, but weren’t safety-pinned leather-jacketed types. The whole punk scene, to us, was a little stale at that point.”

Incidentally, the dual guitar lattice of Television’s Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine had a profound affect on Mercer and Million’s less aggressive, more anesthetized fretwork.

“I saw Television early on at their first or second show at the Hotel Diplomat in Times Square. This was before CBGB’s. I saw Kiss there at probably their first Manhattan date. It was a small ballroom, not a rock venue. Dave and I were in a pre-Feelies band, the Outkids, around that time doing British Invasion covers, garage rock, and psychedelia. We may’ve done some demos.”

Utilizing sleeker textural designs and a rockier Power Station production, ‘88s Only Life attempted to land the Feelies on MTV’s newly christened alternative program, 120 Minutes, alongside fellow subterranean minions looking for a big break. Yet ‘91s confoundedly overlooked Time For A Witness, arguably the bands’ strongest set, suffered due to A & M Records untimely merger, limited publicity sources, and pressure to get to the next level of monetary prosperity.

Still, through it all, the Feelies steadfastly maintained the same charmingly understated pastoral serenity and naïve Jonathan Richman-clipped whimsicality of yore, standing clear of gimmicky propensities while gradually gaining surreptitious prominence amongst indie elitists and attentive egalitarians.

Back in the game once again, the Feelies lengthily intermittent legacy continues to sprout fertile seedlings. And the ambitiously apropos undertaking, Here Before, seals the deal. Though the approach is undeniably similar, their assuredness, determination, and discriminating musical sensibilities have definitely evolved slowly over time.

Showing no signs of wear and tear, the gallant troupe habitually relies on gentle melancholic mementos to counter louder uplifting fare. The cheerful jangled spritz and rubbery bass lope consuming “Nobody Knows” fittingly contrasts gently strummed dispatch “Should Be Gone.” Then, gray skies cloud the politely sublime auspices of “Again Today,” where presciently angular Neil Young-like shredding reinforces the cryptically caliginous mood. A tiny patch of sun shines across the mild psychedelic scamper and unbridled enthusiasm guiding “When You Know,” lighting up the wispy percussive-knocked tenderness branding “Later On” as well.

“We spent some time sequencing it to give it a good flow,” Mercer ascertains. “We don’t put out a lot of records, so when we do, we put in a lot of effort. Vocal parts sometimes provide direction, but mostly the songs start with guitar, then melody and lyrics. It’s all pretty effortless. It comes naturally, even more so now that we’ve played together so long. Usually, we do nine new songs and a cover, but this album had 13 songs so we varied the tone, tempo, and texture more.”

Never a big record collector, Mercer concentrates on songwriting and doesn’t spend time tracking current trends. However, he enjoyed the ‘mellow chill music’ of local Jersey band, Real Estate, enough to place them as the Feelies openers for the few dates they’ll play supporting Here Before.

Asked if his band would ever change its schematic, Mercer suggests, “Normally, I’d say I didn’t know, but I’ve been recording some instrumental stuff reminiscent of the Willies, a band I had between the first and second Feelies lineups that didn’t release anything. As for the Feelies, our chemistry’s improved and we each have our own unique approach to the instruments we play. Our individual styles have become refined, resulting in a comfort zone that lets us fall into the groove pretty easily. Also, as you go through life, you have more life experiences to draw upon.”

Hardly taking a backseat to his long-time lead singing pal, Bill Million may not be the focal point, but he’s the glue that binds the quelling quintet. His primary formative influences include the Beatles, Rolling Stones, MC5, Stooges, and of course, Velvet Underground.

“We used to joke about only redoing Crazy Rhythms’ nine songs and make a career out of it,” Million chuckles. “Initially, we approached music like minimalists. After some time off, it’s like Tom Verlaine used to say, ‘My senses are sharp, but my hands are like gloves.’ I interpret that to mean you have the thought process in place, but need to redevelop the physical attributes.”

Putting music aside to take care of family obligations, Million’s recent re-acquaintance with his old mates just felt right from the start. Complementing Mercer’s extraordinary leads with efficient chord progressions, he’s always fine tuning nifty guitar licks.

“We’ve retained the same basic premise, but keep working on it. The entire band is very comfortable listening closely to each other when we play. For “Later On,” Glenn’s doing these arpeggiated harmonics and Brenda comes out from right underneath him with similar bass notes,” he relates.

Touring with Mike Watt’s post-Minutemen trio, Firehose, during the late ‘80s, and Hoboken legends Yo La Tengo soon after, the Feelies and these worthy peers never reached aboveground access, but Million realizes contemporary radio and indie acclaim have been worlds apart since punk broke through the cellar door in ’77.

“Even Rolling Stone, the premier music paper, now does a mere two paragraphs devoted to cool bands, but put Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Rhianna on the cover. They used to write poignantly about Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. It’s a giant change and most bands don’t have a connection to that,” explains Million. “When I grew up, AM radio played the Beatles and Stones. But our bands’ content to be where we are. We have no interest in major labels. We’ve established an extended family with Bar/None Records. I don’t envy anyone who wants to go down the road to a major label deal with what goes on.”

Flying in the face of Lowest Common Denominator commercial airplay, the combative “Time Is Right” could be seen as a snippy snub serving notice to handcuffed mainstream discjockeys. On the positive tip, the Feelies have a large contingent of renegade fans in the northeast, Australia, Japan, and Europe. They’ve been offered tour dates overseas and on the West Coast, but seem averse to flying.

“We’ll keep honing our craft and probably won’t make any dramatic shifts. We just wanna improve upon our own musical direction,” concludes Million.

RISE AGAINST PROPHESIZING FAVORABLE ‘ENDGAME’

Image result for rise against

A government by and for the people cannot perish unless profiteering government-sponsored corporate entities destroy the infrastructure, dissuade the entrepreneurial spirit, endanger the environment, puppeteer unsolicited foreign wars, or impose stringent rules handcuffing its own citizens. But take a look at what’s happened lately. Even the cheeriest forecasters must admit America’s in distress and these are dangerous times we live in.

That is, unless individuals take back the government, stop paying for Republicrat lobbyists, vote for responsible independents, and rescue their collective futures. Furthermore, if you believe music could save your mortal soul then you know the future belongs only to the youth of today.

Teeming with righteous dignity, Rise Against front man Tim McIIlrath uses hardcore punk as an instrument of war against interfering governmental machines and apathetic tyrannical monarchs. Maintaining a disciplined straightedge lifestyle reinforced by legendary D.C.-based post-punk antecedents Minor Threat and Fugazi, the combative sermonic activist fights the good fight versus sniveling oppressive scum of all stripes.

 

Comin’ straight at cha from Chi-town, Rise Against remarkably broke through mainstream America’s glass ceiling. They reached previously unattainable aboveground success (at least in terms of CD and concert sales) while inexplicably escaping the combative subterranean jungle heroic progenitors such as Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Bad Brains, and Jawbreaker were eternally stuck inside.

Growing up in the sheltered northwest suburbs of Chicago, McIlrath sought relief early on from his sinisterly protective confines, gaining exposure to the ranting rabble rousing raiders that’d forever inform his muse. A true-to-life infuriated rebel with a cause, McIlrath and his mighty Midwest marvels (rounded out by co-founding bassist Joe Principe, long-time drummer Brandon Barnes, and fourth-year guitarist Zach Blair), want nothing less than a full-scale revolution overthrowing ineffectual ruling powers.

Barking back at fascist bureaucrats, environmental ruination, and senseless war-mongering since ’99s formative debut, The Unraveling, McIlrath’s crew moved forward a bit with each subsequent long-player, and more than a decade hence, 2011’s ominously foreboding prophesy, Endgame, may be their grandest emancipated proclamation thus far.

This time around, Rise Against takes on post-Katrina outrage, gay bashing, global warning, and dead soldiers as well as the usual pungent political practicalities. ‘Bending rules back into place’ works well as Endgame’s audacious adage, an unapologetic non-conformist blueprint bolstering blisteringly bloodied barrage “Architects” and menacingly anthemic phlegm-clearing diatribe “Help Is On The Way.” If that’s not poignantly penetrating enough, fist-pounding mantra “Satellite” grieves for deceitfully misinformed foot soldiers becoming ‘orphans of the Amerikkan dream.’

Employing his commandingly forceful baritone to pour his heart out, McIlrath screams intermittently, shouts relentlessly, and implores frequently, flaunting passionately inspirational rallying cries such as ‘won’t back down’ and ‘out with the old’ with compulsory urgency.

Image result for rise against endgamesOn ‘08s Appeal To Reason, his superlatively piercing manic screech got put to the test best plundering belligerently caustic omen, “Entertainment.” For Endgames, he exerts just as much emphatic vigor and lyrical severity on walloping metal-edged headbanger, “Midnight Hands,” a radical working class pilgrimage saluting hard-won freedom.

Armed to the teeth with the same incendiary aggro-rock intensity Ian MacKaye spit out in Fugazi, McIlrath’s catchiest set of tunes contain firmer declarative positivism, crisper guitar riffs, and resoundingly clearer percussion, reaffirming Rise Against once more despite any suspected shortcomings its major label affiliation might bring. Besides, ‘04s more melodiously festive Siren Song Of The Counterculture never compromised integrity and ‘06s snarling The Sufferer & The Witness proved to be even grittier than their early Fat Wreck Chords material.

Although McIlrath’s eminently straightedge, he shows compassion for those who wish to drink liquor responsibly or partake in the herbal delights of cannabis. He even admits to being for the decriminalization of marijuana. A member of Peoples Ethical Treatment of Animals and faithful extoller of common folk, this virtuous punk may abstain from drugs and alcohol, but he’s always ready and willing to battle it out with divisively fraudulent authoritative bigwigs ‘hell-bent on survival’ at the cost of every man’s inalienable rights.

So raise the flag for his courageous Chicago tribunal!

How did punk change your life?

TIM MCILRATH: It taught us raw, untraditional music is reliant less on image and technical proficiency than the emotion behind it. That unlocked potential for me. It seemed dangerous. That’s when I first got addicted. I saw it as more than just entertainment. Following that, the local Chicago hardcore scene in the mid-‘90s became more politicized.

Obviously novel punk enthusiasts, Screeching Weasel, weren’t politically charged Chicago natives. Though they sure were aggressive. Who were these Chi-town politicos you speak of?
 

 

 

There was a lot of stuff falling below the national radar. Los Crudos made Spanish hardcore from the Chicago ghetto. Explaining each song before playing it took longer than the actual song itself. Bands outside the area like Refused and Earth Crisis plus Victory Records’ By The Grace Of God were engaged in political music, turning shows into more of an education. I’d walk away from these shows with literate about animal rights and the environmental movement. This was before people were talking about these subjects and ‘sweatshop’ wasn’t yet a household word. It was cutting edge stuff that affected me.

You preach positivism and see a light at the end of the tunnel despite our disgustingly ineffectual government.
 

 

 

It’d be irresponsible of me to leave the listeners with a totally hopeless, desolate feeling that there’s nothing to hope or work for. I’m in a fortunate position to be in this band seeing kids in the front row giving a shit for the planet. Grant it, they might not know what to do with that knowledge yet, but at least they’ll get the urge. It’s a cure-all for my own jaded-ness as a 32-year-old punk. I need to share the thought we’re all connected and not alone. If you have fire in your belly maybe you could connect with our music.

You take a swipe at cynical homophobia on “Make It Stop.”
 

 

 

Too often we put water where the fire is and too often that fire is the male-dominated testosterone-driven rock scene people feel a part of. To think some of the problem with gay bashing happened in our audience was unacceptable condemning peoples’ lifestyles. I decided it was time to stand up and take the microphone and put out my own thoughts. If you think you’re at our show and believe someone doesn’t belong because of their lifestyle, maybe that means you don’t belong. It should be a sanctuary away from the bullshit of the outside world. I didn’t feel there was a definitive message being sent from the rock scene. Other genres made it perfectly clear. We play to a young, sometimes confused, crowd. They’re trying to see where they fit in the world and if they’re gay that’s one more hurdle to climb. “Make It Stop” is a reaction to the gay teen suicides, many of which took place in September 2010.

Though you’re happily married with children, you still manage to write about romantic discontentment and broken relationships on “Letting Go.” Did you grasp these feelings from past affairs or are they pulp fiction?
 

 

 

It’s a bit of both. Some is drawn from real experiences my friends lived through. I can’t write an entirely truthful breakup song, but I do find parallels in the romanticism of a breakup song and other parts of life. “Letting Go” played on that romantic relationship theme, but I also had another character in mind. The kid who’s following his parents dream of going to college and working this specific job to become a success and rejecting that dream and saying, ‘It’s not mine, it’s yours.’ A lot of kids go through that in adolescence – letting go of a preconceived direction to carve out their own path. But there’s a difference between giving up and getting the weight off your shoulders.

The title song, “Endgame,” invokes post-apocalyptic amnesty from multinational corporations and the governments supporting them.
 

 

 

Maybe the world we currently designed isn’t sustainable. Everything from our political framework to the toll the environment takes and our appetites towards war and religion. We’re hell-bent on survival, but it’s only when these problems collapse and get dismantled that we can learn from these mistakes. The civilization born out of this worlds’ ashes will hopefully be attainable. Our whole record is trying to paint that picture.

As a gung-ho Italian-American, my combative military stance seems to fly in the face of Rise Against. I believe if the Middle East was democratized by taking out the scumbag tyrants, we’d have a much safer world.
 

 

 

In terms of Iraq and Afghanistan, we made serious blunders in a war that wasn’t properly proposed to the American people. Saving people from a dictator is great. But it was proposed that these people had something to do with 9-11. Instead, we exacted some sort of revenge with oil factoring in. Look, if the military could be used to protect innocent civilians from crazy dictators, that’d be a noble cause. In Rwanda, if we helped stop genocide, I could see our role there. But it’s hard to trust the American government that’s blundered its way through many wars taking too many brothers ands sisters lives away from us for reasons unclear to their families. It’s a disservice to all those people serving our country to protect our way of life. It’s a great deception. It could be traced back to the Viet Nam War’s Domino Theory, which held no water.

Not to mention our country’s heavy war debt.
 

 

 

What’s amazing is Congress is having this budget crisis fighting over crumbs when we have a $3 trillion war. And the military budget is the meat and potatoes of what’s happening to our tax dollars, yet we can’t pull the plug on war.

For Endgame’s cover art, there’s a lone child in a wheat field draped in an American flag. What imagery are you trying to project?
 

 

 

That cover, as I described to our photographer, had to depict a kid taking that flag from the ashes of wherever he lived and trying to find somewhere else to put it up and call home. That’s his journey for a place to rebuild and start over again. And this record is that journey through the ashes of civilization.

How has long-time producer, Bill Stevenson (of the Descendents), shaped Rise Against’s sound?
 

 

 

He identifies our strengths better than we could. He points out things in the moment that later seem obvious. He’ll say a chorus is too long and a verse has to happen again or we need a better ending to hang a song on. He’s a very effective lyrical critic I trust. He’s my quality control for getting lyrics right before they go out to the world. He’s also such a hero to all of us. Some in the band love him as a free spirit, others because he’s a great drummer, producer, or songwriter. We hold him in high regard and are anxious to impress him. He’s a great motivator. I wanna make him smile when I create a riff.

“Broken Mirrors” comes closest to dark metal territory. Were you always a metal head?
 

 

 

Yes. Absolutely. All of us were. Metal and punk are definitely cousins. I grew up more on punk than metal, but always had an affinity for the unorthodox, rebellious, sonic nature of metal. It’s more deviant than other styles. We’ve managed to exact our strengths, for the better part of what we do, from condensing better songs that get attention faster and get across my lyrics in a quicker manner. We want people bobbing their heads while we mix politics and music. We walk that eternal line of preaching and singing. That’s a gray area I try not to get on the wrong side of.

Is it easier to communicate your feelings through compositions nowadays?
 

 

 

I think I’m reaching my goals more effectively now. I’m not one of these songwriters trying to be cryptic so it takes days to pour over a song in order to figure it out. I want people to get it. I don’t want a puzzle. We never had to crossover to the mainstream, the mainstream crossed over to us. That’s just the pendulum swing. But I’m not versatile enough to be able to figure out where that pendulum may swing. I just hope people find us as an awakening. But all music doesn’t have to be political. You have to have that fire in your belly for that.

PB&J GOOD ENOUGH TO ‘GIMME SOME’

In a fair world, seasoned Swedish trio, Peter Bjorn & John, would’ve been big pop stars. An eclectic combo fashioning engagingly melodic hook lines with a keen eye looking towards rock and roll’s glorious past, these versatile Scandinavians bounce between various familiar contemporary styles while stuck just outside stardom’s short and narrow reach. In spite of it all, they don’t really care all that much about worldwide takeover.

Of course, PB&J did experience a modicum of international fame when their contagiously frolicsome whistled shuffle, “Young Folks,” became ubiquitous on album-oriented radio, a major car ad, and Grey’s Anatomy. But this catchy calling card merely scratched the surface since numerous charmingly insouciant trinkets have been spread across five English-sung long-players starting with a formative self-titled 2002 debut.

Though ‘04s promising Falling Out barely made a dent in America, it set the stage for ‘06s precocious pinnacle, Writer’s Block. Given universal exposure via “Young Folks” (featuring Victoria Bergsman of Swedish pop wunderkinds, the Concretes), this magnificently advanced follow-up gave the Stockholm-based threesome, consisting of schoolyard pals Peter Moren (guitar-vocals) and Bjorn Yttling (bass-keyboards), plus longtime percussionist John Eriksson, instant accessibility akin to likeminded peers, the Shins and New Pornographers. Moreover, murkily drowsy electro-pop epistle, “Amsterdam,” may’ve been inspirational for MGMT breakout hit, “Kids.”

However, the path to definitive mainstream celebrity was temporarily halted by ‘08s sidestepping instrumental excursion, Seaside Rock, a tribute to native Nordic villagers released only on vinyl and MP3. Perhaps revolting against those adversarial critics pigeonholing the tidy triumvirate as trendy Euro-trash pop swindlers, this divergent side trip definitely slowed momentum, at least on a multinational scale.

By the time ‘09s luxuriant Living Thing dropped, an unwarranted hackneyed commercial backlash grew. Despite being completely approachable and debatably bettering previous efforts, its broad-ranging fare nearly fell on deaf ears here in the States.

Yet there were many undeniable gems consuming Living Thing’s impressive ensemble of lightly symphonic constructions. In typical PB&J methodology, a certain duskily deviating contemplative melancholia counters the customarily buoyant ebullience. Though they still paint inside the lines of basic pop structures, the general template works wonders intersecting art-rock with twee pop and crisscrossing quirky psychedelia with new wave a la Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark, Ultravox, and Spandau Ballet. Cautiously exploitative adventurers, PB&J herein douse their winningly rudimentary recipe with lessons learned from the Ethoipiques series of rhythmic Jazz-affected West African pop, best exemplified on the a cappella voicing, strict riddims, and hypnotizing repetitiveness lavishing the “Graceland”-spurred title track.

Moodier passages sweep through dubby trip-hop Industrial sendoff, “It Don’t Move Me,” itching to get at mightily mutinous mantra, “Lay It Down,” where the ominously defiant unison chant of ‘hey shut the fuck up boy/ you’re starting to piss me off’ wrings out loud and clear. An addictive children’s choir (reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” or Jay-Z’s Annie-derived “Hard Knock Life”) pilots the sinisterly snarling sneer, “Nothing To Worry About.”

Prepared to gain a stronger marketable foothold without getting pretentiously indulgent, PB&J affably retain the glossily polished studio sheen for a bunch of roots-rocking regalia on ‘11s instinctually rousing Gimme Some. A brighter tuneful vibrancy, appropriated by likeminded outside producer, Per Sunding, girds each invigorating number.  

Amassed tribal drums and a sitar-like Turkish lute (known as a cura saz baglama) create a mesmerizing transcendental motif for playfully parading foot-stomped Farfisa-flavored schoolyard-rhymed opening lullaby, “Tomorrow Has to Wait” (further excavating Living Thing’s exotic tendencies). From there, guitar-spackled conga-lined calypso “Dig A Little Deeper” finds convenient ‘80s-bound middle-ground betwixt Squeeze and Kid Creolo & the Coconuts. And the radiant “Second Chance” slyly dupes the Romantics “Talking In Your Sleep.”

As Gimme Some gathers momentum, a spry Bo Diddley beat propels “Eyes.” And jittery pile-driving cadences stimulate the Dave Edmunds/ Nick Lowe-fabricated pub rocker “Breaker Breaker.” All this nervous energy doubles on dizzyingly derailed rebuke, “Black Book” (the closest PB&J have ever come to emitting post-punk hardcore bashing). But they save the absolute best for last as exceptional dramatic closer, “I Know You Don’t Love Me,” slips into a reverberated surrealistic séance that locks in the album’s underlying lovesick anxiety then heads for the ionosphere.

Starting as informal recreational kid’s play, Peter Bjorn & John’s hobby turned into a bohemian lifelong vocation. It’s their incredibly steady pop ingenuity that serves notice to lesser, lionized lapdogs lamely lurking inside America’s restrictive airwaves.

 

Who were some early influences?

PETER MOREN: Back in the day I was a true ‘60s freak – Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, and Dylan. Later, I got into Elvis Costello and Tom Petty, then, Stone Roses and Teenage Fanclub. Some ‘90s lo-fi stuff as well. We formed our band right afterwards. But I’d already done some cassette recordings with Bjorn before high school.

Though Gimme Some’s theme seems to be about frustration and heartache, the whimsical arrangements are nevertheless joyously uplifting.

We don’t think of that much, but 60% of our albums have dark lyrics matched to positive sounding music. We also contrast sad sounding songs with positive lyrics. It should be more than meets the eye and ear so you’ve got to scratch under the surface. Gimme Some’s cover design projects similar contrasts as the music does. There’s a peppy thumbs-up here-we-go gimme some positivism but the hand’s cut off. So it’s morbid as well to match the dark lyrical underbelly.

How did Per Sunding, your first outside producer, help Peter Bjorn & John capture raw spontaneity without losing the gleaming dynamics?

He added a lot. He went with our ideas from rehearsals for the arrangements and vocal harmonies, but he put his perspective on lyrical changes. Then, we went to the studio and he provided the right energy, tempo, and takes. It sounded like a live band but we moved around a lot of gear. We took the drums into the kitchen and guitar in the hallway to create different sounds. It was very hands-on, like (electronic music pioneer and “Telstar” composer) Joe Meek. That was fun and brought a lot of enthusiasm into the studio instead of getting stuck in our old ways.

I thought Gimme Some diverted away from Living Thing’s Western African juju influences and art-damaged curios with its spunky garage verve.

I agree. (laughter) It’s different. Part of the reason is we wanted to make a more rootsy sounding record to reflect the live band better – where we’re more punky. But we focused on getting the arrangements correct early on with the three basic instruments. Instead of creating weird sounds deconstructed in the studio, we did more work and preparation beforehand. More thought was put into the playing for the live tracks.

The infectious “Dig A Little Deeper” may be the greatest dance floor contribution PB&J have yet made for the prevailing club scene.

That was actually a happy mistake intended to be a funk song. The last few years I’ve been digging funk, like Archie Bell & The Drells (#1 ’68 song) “Tighten Up.” I wanted to do something similar with the guitar riff. But I’m the worst drummer on the demo and the funky groove I gave the guys didn’t sound anything like funk. But John liked it and copied it anyhow.

On the other side of the musical spectrum, “Lies” maintains an exuberant power pop impulse.

That’s an old song written in 2002. We practiced it once but the guys don’t remember. I changed the lyrics a little. That’s more like we sounded in the early days with Box Tops or The Jam-type energy, sort of Beatles versus punk – a powerful thing. It would have suited Falling Out. We recorded that one later on in the Gimme Some sessions because we didn’t think it fit the album. But we did it really fast in a couple takes. Then, Per had the idea to overdub the entire band. So we played it twice and put the two takes on top of each other for a fuller sound that doubled the pleasure.

Many of your songs touch upon different rock-based styles. Has PB&J ever covered anybody’s stuff?

We do them live now and again. What we usually do is in the new wave or power pop vein. We’ve done the Nerves “When You Find Out,” “Fa Ce-La” by the Feelies, and “Silly Girl” by Television Personalities. However, if we do acoustic sets, we’ll play Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, or rockabilly.

What music styles would you like to delve into on future recordings?

We’re still hungry. We haven’t succeeded in doing a proper rap song. I’ve tried writing rap, but it hasn’t really worked, even though we’ve worked with Talib Kweli and GZA. Maybe I could rap with Dylan’s type of early ‘60s flow. We’ve been talking about extending this funky soul experience with some slower New Orleans-styled Meters grooves. I’ve also been into Origins of Guitar Music From Southern Congo and Northern Zambia, field recordings made in the villages where they play vastly different than the western way. You could see the formation of the High Life style. Also, David Byrne’s Luaka Pop put out Love’s A Real Thing- World Psychedelic Classics featuring William Onyeabor’s “Better Change Your Mind.” And Konono # 1-Congotronics is great as well. For me, soul, funk and rockabilly go well next to African pop. It’s almost seamless. Sometimes we might be influenced by Eddie Cochrane, but the song sounds like African music.

Getting back to your indie rock auspices, “May Seem Macabre” seems to glide along a grungy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” six-string groove.

The lyrics are really different from the rest. On the last record, I had “Blue Period Picasso,” written from the perspective of the painting. “May Seem Macabre” is actually like a dreamscape or an out-of-body experience, watching your own burial while friends and relatives mourn. You see what fabric you’re draped in. But you’re being buried next to your spouse so you’re not going to the other world alone. It’s a positive “When The Saints Come Marching In” thing. The title has different layers of meaning as usual.

However, there’s no denying the bitter acumen of “I Know You Don’t Love Me.”

That’s Bjorn’s lyric. He likes keeping it short. I’m a bit wordy. I especially like the tension of the band playing together and nailing it when the unplanned guitar solo comes out of nowhere. We usually end sets with that before encoring with past hits.

Tell me a little about the two solo albums you’ve done recently.

The 2010 one, I Sparen Av Taren, was Swedish. Both have stuff I felt I couldn’t do within band confines. The English record (‘08s The Last Tycoon) had some that could’ve been good PB&J tunes, but I was listening to old Brit-folk by Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch. Those were more self-contained, based around acoustic guitar and fingerpicking. Some lyrics may not fit a pop setting. They’re wordier and the sound’s softly laid-back. The Swedish record may be the favorite thing I’ve done combining soul and pop.

 

MOGWAI CLAIM ‘HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE, BUT YOU WILL’

Fertile Scottish combo, Mogwai, became a provocative ‘post-rock’ beacon in the mid-‘90s, extending upon the profound reverb-heavy shoegazing Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine devised and the proverbial noise rock experimentalism Sonic Youth pillaged. Fronted by proficient guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, these artful punks established themselves as one of the most investigative post-grunge acts, marveling the coolest indie scenesters with frighteningly awesome distended live jams (captured best at Music Hall of Williamsburg for sensational 2010 Secret Moves disc).

Nearly the antithesis to fellow Glaswegian trendsetters, Belle & Sebastian, whose eloquently picturesque pop whimsy counters their frostily frenetic fretwork, Mogwai’s finest art rock explorations tend to be drifting instrumental exploits weaving lovely arpeggiated chords, fuzzy scree crackles, spiny feedback shards, and distended obbligatos inside various symmetric textural shapes.

“We’re actually friends with Belle & Sebastian. We played the same scene, did some shows together. We’ve both survived and lasted for over a decade. I think we’re the last ones standing,” a jovial Braithwaite informs me as we stroll down memory lane.

In fact, he’s right. While the whole rock landscape blew up and slowly changed coarse, leaving a gathering of overlooked, underdeveloped, and sidestepped bands in its wake, the two Stuart’s (Braithwaite and Murdoch) continued gaining firmer access to an extended international audience, half of whom might’ve been babies when Mogwai took hold.

In the beginning, teenaged schoolyard pals, Braithwaite and bassist Dominic Aitchison, hooked up with drummer Martin Bulloch, then subsequently, keyboard programming 6-stringer, John Cummings. Despite their deliciously devilish Cantonese Chinese moniker, Mogwai lean closer to celestial beauty these days, migrating a bit from the fiery ‘evil-spirited’ irascibility of yore, at least by current indications.

Gallant ’97 debut, Young Team, pitted subtle transcendent poignancy against distorted pedal affects, turbulent riffs, and discordant clamor underscored (strangely enough) by the same dangling conversations, incoherent mumbles, and distant murmurs still inoculating Mogwai’s extemporaneously tailored abstractions. Abstruse instrumental highlight, “Like Herod,” a cathartic creepy crawler, builds ample tension prior to its jarringly explosive release, setting the general course of action for the rest of this powerful early landmark (at least before it dissolves into an eerily cocoon-like catacomb). The crunchiest cacophonous clamor, reminiscent of grunge igniters Nirvana, Green River, and the Melvins, vanquish the intriguingly majestic soft-toned complexities with a brutal assault.

A perfectly rhapsodic rainy day relic, ‘99s Come On Die Young went just as easily from elliptical to bombastic. Piano-playing flautist Barry Burns, came onboard, adding an extra dimension that’d permanently solidify Mogwai. Soon after, a few EP’s and remixes flooded the market, followed by ‘01s even better Rock Action, where the blissful atmospheric tranquility (mindful of contemporary slo-core designers Slint, Codeine, and Low) yields tremendously fruitful results. Abrasive anthemic eruptions provide maniacal gale force winds rising above the leisurely balladic restraint.

“Slint was absolutely inspirational,” a humbled Braithwaite offers. “My earliest musical enlightenment came from Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Sonic Youth, The Cure, and My Bloody Valentine. I always had a big interest in rock music.”

As Mogwai’s live reputation grew, so did their stimulating repertoire. ’03s epic masterwork, Happy Songs For Happy People, cajoled sweeping symphonic melancholia out of ambient pieces that shunned the pasts metal-edged hardcore derivations, sounding remarkably like pioneering generative artisan, Eno, in retrospect.

“I think musically we just try different things. It’s nothing really drastic, just organic changes. We tried a lot of different instrumentation over time. So we’ve definitely developed since our first album,” Braithwaite says. “But it’s hard to pin down. We try to change up just about everything.”

Though ‘06s extravagantly detailed Mr. Beast and its exclusively instrumental successor, ‘08s The Hawk Is Howling, didn’t luxuriously expand Mogwai’s sonic template, both received critical respect. The former featured “Auto Rock” (used as incidental music in Miami Vice film), an ethereal piano brooder that blossoms into a fully blown onslaught. The latter contained frenzied pile-driving scrum, “Batcat,” and the appallingly christened, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” an ominous slow-burner reaching crushingly skull-splitting metallic crescendos.

Having accumulated an extensive catalogue to fall back on, this enduring troupe continues to grow, rising to the occasion once more on their seventh studio set. A monumental re-entry, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, absolutely exceeded expectations.

The Hawk Is Howling was a more sparse, heavy record, whereas Hardcore is probably more upbeat and optimistic. But I definitely like both records,” Braithwaite asserts.

Dramatic commencing overture, “White Noise,” may seem akin to Lou Reed’s disquietingly shrill Metal Machine Music via its title, but the deliberately-paced neo-Classical framework, bell-like jangle, and melodic piano create an interstellar effervescence even Braithwaite’s zooming guitar cannot crash through. The galactic traversing stays afloat on “Mexican Grand Prix,” a neo-psychedelic organ-droned illumination that wouldn’t seem out of place on an early Yo La Tengo album.

Braithwaite contends, “That’s definitely inspired by (‘70s-related krautrock band) Neu. There are bands from Germany we’ve liked for a long time, so those sounds we’ve kept in our minds. There’s a sweeter organ sound.”

As for the weirdly titled songs, he believes sometimes the band’s plain lazy and just name each track after how it may sound. But mostly, they keep each member “vaguely amused.” Designating the closing vignette, “You’re Lionel Richie,” was easy enough.

“Some songs are named after things that happen. Like one time, I saw Lionel Ritchie at the airport. I was hungover and I said, ‘You’re Lionel Ritchie.’ The guys remembered that years later,” he shares.

Sometimes the epithets are completely random, such as “San Pedro,” an upbeat straight-ahead rampage that has nothing to do with the coastal California city. And why should swooped orchestral lullaby, “Death Ray,” with its glistening Cathedral organ, be labeled thusly?

“That’s a nice number. I’m not really good at talking about the songs, to be honest. It’s fun to play live,” Mogwai’s main man quips.

If there’s one kindred band, it may be cinematic Texas phantoms, Explosions In The Sky. Both bands put on monumental shows and enjoy crafting beautiful guitar-etched tunes that touch the sky.

When asked if there’s a correlation, Braithwaite concludes, “Yeah. They’re friends of ours. Good guys. They probably like the same bands as us. That wouldn’t surprise me. When we go out to play concerts, it takes awhile for us to get up to speed. But once we get our shit together and hit stride, watch out.”

?