Category Archives: Interviews

PAUL WESTERBERG REDIRECTS RAGE ON ‘SUICAINE GRATIFACTION’

FOREWORD: During 1999, I got to interview one of my favorite musical artists of all time. Paul Westerberg spent his youth leading a reckless band of fiery individuals whose recorded output is still being digested by indie rock denizens. When I got to speak to the legendary front man, he was already past his thirties and highly reflective of the past. Following this conversation, Westerberg continued to make worthy albums such as ‘02s Stereo and ‘03s Come Feel Me Treble, and ‘04s Folker. Sick of being tossed aside for newer artists’ repertoire, he resigned to his basement to make a few less heralded, but equally fine self-released discs, including ’06s animated soundtrack, Open Season.

As leader of the Replacements, counterculture indie rock icon Paul Westerberg was arguably the most important post-punk artist of the ‘80s. Influenced by local Minneapolis punk forefathers, the Suicide Commandos and signed to maverick regional label, Twin/Tone Records, the tumultuous teen trio got early attention with ‘81s impressionable Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. But that merely got the ball rolling for ‘83s admirable Hootenanny, a well-developed and thoughtfully composed set receiving national attention.

Known for performing rowdily sloppy shows while intoxicated (breaking instruments just for the fuck of it), these Twin City natives threatened to implode at any given time, creating a fabulous disaster worked-up fans couldn’t get enough of. Soon, they’d become underground legends alongside fellow northwest bands such as Husker Du and Soul Asylum.

In ’84, Westerberg’s idiosyncratic troupe hit another peak with Let It Be, an amateur masterpiece highlighted by caustic provocation, “I Will Dare,” and the spare, glam-induced allegory “Androgynous.” A year later, the equally splendid Tim shook the pavement, parading teen insecurities on throbbing expurgation, “Hold My Life,” and generational ode, “Bastards Of Young,” while saluting college radio on “Left Of The Dial” (featuring subterranean legend Alex Chilton on backup vocals).

Invigorated by former Box Tops and Big Star front man, Chilton, the centerpiece on ‘87s streamlined contemplation, Pleased To Meet Me, was none other than the siren “Alex Chilton.”

Following two less critical Replacements long-players, Warner Brothers signed Westerberg as a solo artist and tried desperately to re-create his glorious past with a few lukewarm hard rock albums (‘93s 14 Songs and ‘96s Eventually). After a thorough self-examination and a new contract with Capitol Records, he hired respected producer-to-the-stars Don Was for guidance on his third and best solo venture, Suicaine Gratifaction.

Skirting the latest grimacing rock-is-dead debate and off to a fresh new start, the self-effacing, revitalized singer-guitarist hopes to be accepted on his own terms. From the deadpan, home recorded opener, “It’s A Wonderful Lie,” to the lonesome closer, “Bookmark,” the tongue-twisting Suicaine Gratifaction deals openly with newfound spirituality (“Actor In The Street”), nocturnal sadness (“piano ballad “Self-Defense”), and regret (acoustic respite “Best Thing That Never Happened”).

Between depressives, Westerberg does manage to kick into high gear on the punchy, Neil Young-ish “Lookin’ Out Forever,” the propulsive “Whatever Makes You Happy,” and the beat-driven “Fugitive Kind” (inspired by a movie based on a Tennessee Williams play). Ironic, witty, sarcastic, and sardonic, Suicaine Gratifaction offers serious introspection and sharp self-analyzing.

Like Bob Dylan’s recent Time Out Of Mind and Willie Nelson’s Teatro, Westerbeg has exorcised inner demons and purged self-doubt with a subtle reflectiveness rarely attempted beforehand.

I spoke via phone with the matured artist who deserves Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame consideration more than a quarter of the musicians already elected.

Instead of a grueling rocker, you went against the grain and put two stripped-down bare-bones songs at the beginning of Suicaine Gratifaction.

PAUL WESTERBERG: Yes. It could have flown no other way since the majority of songs are quieter. It sets the mood right away. It’s a serious record with no knee-slappers in the lyrics of the tunes.

On “It’s A Wonderful Lie,” you conclude ‘I ain’t in my youth/ I’m past my prime.’ Are you just being sarcastic about your past?

 

Yes. If I was able to write a more clever tune that didn’t involve my gut feeling, I would have. I was completely drained of anything other than the truth. I wasn’t making this record for a supposed audience, but instead putting down what I felt. If you ignore them, they’ll put it on like a coat.

The soft piano ballad, “Self-Defense,” has a neo-classical arrangement reminiscent of Tori Amos. Is it trying to sum up internal strife?

 

That was probably the showpiece that made me realize I had the makings of a new kind of record. I played those melodies and chords on the piano for about a year before I put a lyric to it. That’s a rarity in itself. I’m not the most accomplished pianist, so it took me that long to get the lick down. I felt I had to put poetry to it rather than just sing a song.

Your caliginous, low voice and the orchestral piano on “Bookmark” compare favorably to Tom Waits.

 

I could hear Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell in there. By the end of the record, I didn’t see it fitting in. It was written in a key that was a piano melody that wasn’t necessarily meant for me to be singing it. I wrote the prose over it and it became a song. It was a tough one to deal with, but Don Was’ opinion was it had to be on the record. He convinced me to put it on.

Do you feel more secure as you reach age forty?

 

No. In a good way, no. I don’t feel that I’ve got it made. I feel if I follow my gut, I’ll make another good record. But I’ve bypassed my instinct and second-guessed myself before and edited my gut feelings. And that’s not usually how I make my best works. But this album came from the heart. What you’re hearing are complete takes rather than producers forever trying to get me to sing things over and over and ‘comp’ together the vocals. I despise that. Engineering the vocals at home gave me the sound I like, which is a warmer voice sound. I don’t bother to re-do things. If they’re not perfect, but give me goosebumps, there’s no reason to fix a flat note.

Besides, most artists have the best feel for a fresh song on first take.

 

That’s absolutely true. When you’re used to being a performer, it seems superfluous to do so many takes. Once should be enough unless you forget a really good lyric – which does happen.

Do you feel cheated because the best ‘80s bands – The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, and Husker Du – never received the massive exultation several lesser heavy metal bands have?

 

I think all the bands you compare were fairly mediocre if compared to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I think it’s a joke to put Sonic Youth in the same category as the Stones. Do you want to hear them in the year 2020? I mean, they’re all viable bands. I don’t mean to put them down, even though I certainly put my old band down before any of them. Maybe if you picked the Ramones to pit against them I’d agree.

Do you still enjoy old Replacements standards such as “I Will Dare”?

 

I still hear “I Will Dare” on the radio. It always shocks me when I’m clicking the dial. The way the record sounds… it was such a horrid mix. One thing I’ll say about those records is they never sounded very good. It’s not my stock in trade to make beautiful, lovely, warm records. I certainly like stuff that sounds funky, but when it’s your own you wince a little.

What did you listen to as a youngster?

 

My mom would play records. I know Ray Charles’ “Crying Time” and the Temptations were a favorite. My sister, who was ten years older, used to listen to the British Invasion 45’s, black R&B, and great classic music by the Beatles. The first music I truly claimed as my own was ‘70s glam: T. Rex and Slade.

Are there any current bands you enjoy hearing?

 

Not many. I don’t readily go out and buy records. And I’m not up on new groups. I’ve maintained the theory of ‘let me hear what’s great and not what’s new.’ Once the newness of something has worn off and it’s great, I’ll get around to it. More often than not, it doesn’t last.

Producer Don Was seemed to revitalize veteran rockers such as Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. What did he do to enhance your new songs?

 

He left them alone and only did something when it was necessary. That’s what you want, someone who’s capable of doing anything, but realizing his greatest role could be as a companion and listener. His selection of a handful of musicians from Shawn Colvin to Jim Keltner on drums and Suzy Katayama on cello added just the right touch.

Could you have made Suicaine Gratifaction in ’79 when the Replacements recorded Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash?

 

No. For one, I wouldn’t have wanted to. And if I were capable of writing some of these songs, I wouldn’t have taken them from my bedroom to the next stage. I wouldn’t have played it for anyone, except in secret. But it took me a long time to realize the things you’re afraid of, or ashamed of, are the best art. It doesn’t mean people will understand or play it. But that’s the stuff that in time will be held in high regard. I’m still the same guy who started twenty years ago. Maybe I refined the rage and turned inward instead of being an aggressive performer.

How would you feel if you were selected to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?

 

I still think about stuff like that. I’m sure the day will come when I will get some sort of sympathy award. That’s what it would smack of – like giving the Oscar to the guy who’s dying. Let’s just say it won’t happen.

But if the Replacements don’t make it in the Hall Of Fame, very few deserving ‘80s bands will be considered.

 

If you look at it that way, it’s interesting. I don’t know when we’d be eligible.

Why’d you come up with the jumbled title, Suicaine Gratifaction?

 

It was my safeguard just in case I was up for a Grammy. They would pass on it because they couldn’t pronounce it.

Does Alex Chilton ever cover the song named after him while doing concerts?

 

I think he’d just assume I never wrote that song. It embarrassed him. I think it has done him some good getting people hip to him. But I’m not his biggest fan. I took a crass stab at telling everybody how good he was.

When you delvier the hooky lyric, ‘I’m in love with that song,’ to which Chilton song are you referring?

 

I think it was “September Gurls.” Last time I saw him was a few years ago in New York. We were watching the World Series. It was the Atlanta Braves versus the Toronto Blue Jays. I saw him on the street. We went up to his hotel room and ate some Thai food.

As a Minnesota native, how did you feel when Jesse Ventura won election to become governor?

 

He’s refreshing. But he’s still a wrestler in my mind. He could probably win presidency and either be our worst nightmare or a lot of fun.

 

  

DEVOTCHKA REACHES CLIMAX WITH ‘100 LOVERS’

Shrewd Mexicali-influenced gypsy punks, DeVotchKa, came to the fore in the year 2000 when native New Yorker, Nick Urata, a soon-to-be pedigreed Chicago musician, left the cold Midwest confines to link up with fellow Chi-town deserter, ex-bassist Jon Ellison to form an early version of his exotic band in Denver. Though formative debut, SuperMelodrama, and its decent ’03 follow-up, Una Volta, were merely steppingstones, Urata’s apprenticing unit would receive better underground recognition for ‘04s How It Ends.

Good luck struck in ’06 when award-winning motion picture, Little Miss Sunshine, featured DeVotchKa’s soundtrack music, especially sad romantic lullaby, “Till The End Of Time,” giving the increasingly popular combo a whiff of aboveground access. A year after, the excellent A Mad And Faithful Telling proved all the acclaim and hype was completely deserved. Chiming xylophone provided melodic guidance to stirring string-plucked confessional, “The Clockwise Witness.” Mystical balladic retreat “New World” and anguished sanctuary “Transliterator” also struck a chord.

DeVotchKa’s reputation was greatened by Gogol Bordello’s Slavic-obsessed peer, Eugene Hutz, who brought their variegated multi-cultured music to another worthy film, Everything Is Illuminated (co-starring the multifaceted Hutz). Plus, the curious Curse Your Little Heart EP brought forth an eerie cover of Velvet Underground & Nico’s sadomasochistic dirge, “Venus In Furs.”

Along the way, Urata gained poise, confidence, and a dramatic singing voice to complement his guitar, theremin, trumpet, and piano skills. Surrounded by equally experienced collaborators Jeanie Schroder (bass and sousaphone), Shawn King (drums and trumpet), and Tom Hagerman (accordion, violin, and piano), DeVotchKa’s unrivaled blend of nomadic Eastern European gypsy culture and spaghetti Western intrigue with Mexicali blues, norteno ballads, boleros, tangos, and mariachi became more structurally refined and stimulatingly defined over time.

And now…DeVotchKa return with their most impressive salvo yet, ‘11s Arizona desert classic, 100 Lovers. Produced by long-time associate, Craig Schumacher (who’s worked with indie legends Neko Case, Robyn Hitchcock, Dexter Romweber, Dave Alvin, Steve Wynn, Howe Gelb, and the Sadies), it captures an epic twilight moodscape shot in the vast terrain of America’s great southwest and pleated by a melting pot of international styles.

Contrasting slow and fast tempos with loud and soft dynamics throughout, several deliberately paced items gain momentum to lead the charge. Ethereal serenading overture, “The Alley,” yet another movie composition originated in its much shorter version on the unheralded Fling, picks up a drum-marched beat along its orchestral violin-laced neo-Classical journey.

On “All The Sand In All The Seas,” darting keyboards encounter melodramatic strings decorating Urata’s scintillatingly majestic ululating tenor (beckoning comparisons to U2’s luminescent Bono). Then, oscillating synth loops and wayward flute float across billowy séance, “100 Other Lovers.”

After those introductory numbers, DeVotchKa loosen up a bit for devotional Middle Eastern meditation, “The Common Good,” opposing icy violin classicism with spasmodic gypsy dance maneuvers. Inside a pervasive accordion design, theatrical Argentinean tango, “The Man From San Sebastian,” places espionage-like allusions against dribbled surf guitar riffs. And whistled rainy day stroller, “Exhaustible,” retains a baroque folk tone counteracting swift Mexicali absolution, “Bad Luck Heels.”

Perhaps misterioso Spanglish anthem, “Ruthless,” resonates best. Reminiscent of the resurgent Os Mutantes, its simple acoustic strumming and crisp Latin percussion help underscore sympathetic strings while Urata reaches whirring emotional heights.

Who’d have thought one of the best ethnocentric revolutionaries would come out of the remote climes of Denver? But there you go.

What made you want to get into music?

NICK URATA: My grandparents were immigrants. My one grandfather, whom I was really close with, was a horn player. He inspired me to pick up the horn. He was my hero. I followed in his footsteps. He taught me philosophies of music and life and sent me down the road.

Why’d you choose Denver as DeVotchKa’s home front?
 

 

 

I was bouncing around quite a bit. I lived in Chicago awhile and began seriously writing songs there. One of my writing partners was an accordion player and we had mutual friends. He was from Colorado and the Chicago weather was getting me down. So I tagged along. I found Denver to be a vibrant, easygoing scene to get together with people and make music. In Chicago, I’d been a sideman in the Blacks, a Bloodshot Records alt-Country-folk group. It was cool. We used acoustic instruments and dabbled all over the place.

How has DeVotchKa grown in the past decade?
 

 

 

I grew as a vocalist. I’m not too proud of my early vocal work. I didn’t have the chops. But being on the road helped. I feel we were always treading water with the early albums. I made a lot of records before I felt we sounded the way I wanted. We found a direction to go in. If our third album had failed, it would’ve probably been the end of us. I hope the last few albums sounded like us and not other people.

How has long-time producer, Craig Schumacher, helped you reach goals?
 

 

 

We hooked up with Calexico early in our career. He’d worked with them. They were a huge influence and took us on tour for our first album. They had a full mariachi band and traded songs with us.

“Bad Luck Heels” has a Mexicali feel similar to Calexico. Its lyrics seem to beg for forgiveness – a common theme here.
 

 

 

I’m glad you grabbed on to the forgiveness. I pictured it as the classic cliché of a guy trying to serenade a girl like a thousand other guitarists all playing nylon strings. That’s the sound I was going for.

There’s also a lot of regret in there as well.
 

 

 

Who doesn’t get to the point where you have a few regrets. There’s a lot of existential crises on 100 Lovers. That came out when I wrote the songs.

Did you try to beef up the surreal Western imagery in the music and black & white inner sleeve photographs?
 

 

 

That has always been there. We do keep images around that aesthetically inspire us and our music fits that. There’s something very comforting about that black & white Western world.

Tell me about the auspices of “The Man From San Sebastian.”
 

 

 

We were traveling around in our van to the Basque region of Spain. It’s this fairy tale place. I became really interested in how these Basque people were still trying to break away from Spain. There could be an insurgency in this beautiful, peaceful place. But as an outsider you could see both sides. It was a cool romantic idea.

The first three songs on 100 Lovers seem to have a more universal appeal and are far less restrictively eccentric. Your best vocal performance comes during the middle track, “All The Sand In All The Seas.”

It wasn’t really about getting a broader audience. It was more about the inspiring performance. There is this pressure to repeat yourself and stay in one realm. But that song we thought was very inspiring to play and different for us, but that’s why we latched onto it. It became a favorite to play live.

 I thought “Ruthless” nipped at the heels of Brazilian psych-rock luminaries, Os Mutantes.

Wow! Glad you mentioned that. They’re big heroes of ours. I didn’t think of them consciously, but we actually used a genuine Brazilian percussionist and melded that to some ‘60s/ ‘70s rock elements which was sort of what Os Mutantes did. I’m glad it fits into their world.

As for the ‘70s appeal, I enjoyed the soft singer-songwriter stroll of “Exhaustible.” It could’ve fit in with Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Emmit Rhodes, or Loggins & Messina.

It’s a breezy ‘70s love croon. That was really fun to write and perform. It’s kind of our “All You Need Is Love” as well, since the children’s chorus we tried to do in one room.

I also felt DeVotchKa expanded upon the lush arrangements consuming A Mad And Faithful Telling.

We weren’t as good as we are now. Due to budget constraints, we were somewhat limited in the past. But we were able to do what we wanted to do. We gave our string player, Tom Hagerman, carte blanche to do what he wanted to and it worked out. He stretched out and realized the logistics of our more complex arrangements. He really stepped up to the plate.

Will DeVotchKa’s future albums delve into newer styles?

I predict we’ll hang in this direction for awhile.

WOLF PEOPLE CLIMB BROAD ‘STEEPLE’

It took a high-spirited emigrating crew of youthful Australians to perfectly capture the ruggedly forceful post-Beatles rock period (1969-1973) without sounding dated, half-baked, or just plain generic in the 21st century. Still in their developmental stage, Wolf People display all of the key ingredients necessary to recreate the glorious fertile past, yet they appreciatively avoid every convoluted pitfall tedious backdated retro styling incurs.

Leader Jack Sharp (guitar-vocals) and fellow wolves Joe Hollick (guitar), Daniel Davies (bass), and Tom Watt concoct a familiar metal-edged rhythm-heavy setting for heady prog regressions, sonic psychedelic digressions, lofty blues citations, and drifting folk migrations, moving forward the general dynamics without resorting to bombastic superficiality.

 

Since the underground success of formative ’08 assemblage, Tidings (a neat compendium of early Sharp tunes), Wolf People have called England home, gathering a rabid cult following there that prompted the release of fertile breakthrough, Steeple. Inventively refashioning the Classic rock vibes of Traffic, Cream, pre-fame Fleetwood Mac, and dozens of lesser Woodstock-era groups with keenly detailed compositional strategies, Sharp whips up quite a frenzied attack, rambling through a few tersely distended jams releasing sprawled tension all over the place.

Placing his timid alto quiver to the fore on pallid mystical rendezvous “Morning Born,” Sharp recalls the haunting detachment of the nearly inimitable Steve Winwood in a few key spots. And the breathy electric flute undulations consuming vexed blues-rock paradox, “Tiny Circle” visibly mimics the hoary boldness Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson once insinuated. Despite these retroactive inducements, Wolf People overcome any cheaply limiting motives by giving each basic track an indefinable quantitative sustenance.

The absolute highlight, “One By One From Dorney Reach,” easily overcomes any comparative retro-stylistic tendencies, bringing back the days when Peter Green’s stinging guitar rummaged inside Fleetwood Mac’s cosmic blues, but doing so in a straightforward manner that rekindles the spirit with utmost vitality and void of tawdry artistic pretense. Likewise, “Silbury Sands” inadvertently contrasts the Anglo-folk choral frailty of Traffic’s “Forty Thousand Headmen” against primordial metal flagrancy. Furthermore, the roaring vacuum-tube guitar sustenance and charging percussive march of jinxed alchemy “Painted Cross” wouldn’t seem out of place next to Cream’s colossal Disraeli Gears.

Neither as scruffy nor repulsive as their hirsute moniker may suggest, Wolf People are nonetheless driven by a primal musical urge any true rock and roll cave-stomper will find irresistible.

How’d the name Wolf People come about? None of the members are overtly hairy dudes.

JACK SHARP: I had some demos I wanted to put on the internet back in 2005, and chose the name from a kids book, ‘Little Jacko and the Wolf People’. It was a bit of a stupid name but I wasn’t expecting anything to happen with the songs so I wasn’t that bothered. We’ve discussed changing it but never came up with anything worth replacing it with.

How have Wolf People evolved since Tidings gathered recordings from 2005 to 2007?

Tidings was just me messing about with songs done at home, but it forms a blueprint for the way we work now. We learnt to be a band by playing those songs live, and I have a lot of respect for Joe and Tom throwing themselves into playing them so wholeheartedly. Dan came along a bit later when we’d started writing material together. Now it’s our band rather than my band, which I love. I don’t think you see that so much any more.

?

?Who were some of your early influences?

The earliest songs were an attempt to copy ideas from Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk. I was trying to get some of the guitar sounds and copy the way the Magic Band laid melodies out. I was listening to the first Pentangle record a lot at the same time too so folk music started filtering into it. That was “Empty Heart,” “October Fires” and “Black Water.” Before then, I hadn’t written a proper song or even played the guitar much for about six years. I was too busy buying records and making beats on an MPC. My parents schooled me on folk and blues but when you’re too young you don’t want to know, so I was in the process of rediscovering all that stuff and still am.

What was the most difficult arrangement to put together for STEEPLE?

Probably “Silbury Sands,” as it’s the most collaborative. That was one of the most rewarding ones to do though. We had so many bits and pieces that worked together when they finally clicked in to place it was great. It was hard to play live for a long time too for some reason. I feel like we’re only just hitting our stride with it.

What was the inspiration for “Painted Cross”?

There’s a Church in the village me and Tom grew up in that was abandoned in the late 1800’s in favour of the new church in the centre of the village. It developed a bit of a reputation as a spooky place. In 1962, some graves were opened and bones were scattered. They also found red crosses etched on the inside walls, leading to a story about black magic in the local press. It brought a lot of unwanted attention on the church and caused a lot of distress to the village families who had relatives buried in the graveyard. My Dad developed a theory that the tombs had cracked due to the harsh winter in 1962, which would also explain the consecration crosses being exposed under the cracked plaster. It caused a lot of trouble throughout the ‘60s and even in the ‘80’s when we moved there. Hundreds of people flocking there every Halloween, and loads of police.

?

My favorite tune may be “One By One From Dorney Reach”. What’s it about and how’d the ringing hook line come into being?

?

It’s about the A6 murder in 1961 that happened on a lay-by just outside our village. A man was hanged for it but the debate is still raging as to whether he did it or not. There are articles and letters in our local paper every week, even now. I read a load of stuff about it and wanted to find out what happened, so I sort of set the lyrics out as a plea to the survivor from the victim. She was unable to positively identify the murderer during trial. Joe wrote the main hook at rehearsal, the one just before the chorus. I changed it slightly for the intro and linking parts. It’s a really simple song.

There seems to be an underlying mysticism inspiring the lyrics. If so, tell me how they affect the music.

That’s nice to hear. That’s the intention. But it’s always a fine line between writing something that sounds ‘mystical’ and disappearing up your own backside, a line I’ve probably crossed more than once. It’s what I like to hear and read and it’s what I feel comfortable writing. I really like when people write candidly too, but find it very difficult to do. It always sounds corny. I listen to a lot of folk music, getting inspiration from traditional lyrics. Scottish songs tend to be the most appealing, as they usually have more grit and bloodshed. I started reading a lot of British and Irish folk tales at the time of writing the LP too. I really liked People of the Sea by David Thomas and I’ve more recently been reading some George Ewart Evans books, which are full of great stuff.

?

How has your dynamic live show evolved?

It’s got more dynamic! The more we play together and the better we know the songs, the more we can lean into them and change parts spontaneously and increase the dynamic between sections. We’ve tried to simplify things by using as few pedals as possible. We like to hear the amps and guitars working. If you restrict your options on sounds it forces you to change the sound with your hands rather than a foot switch, which we find a lot more rewarding.

?

What have you been listening to lately? Does any of?this music inspire your bands style?

I’ve been revisiting a lot of Beefheart, for obvious reasons. I have been pretty hung up on Mighty Baby’s 2nd album for a while too. I’d love to write something like that. Also, Olivia Chaney, an amazing singer-songwriter yet to release anything. Baron, who is also unsigned, made one of the best albums of last year. I find it hard to listen to anything without it affecting the way I play and write. I have to be careful what I listen to, and make sure I don’t rip anyone off.

?

What future direction or untried music stylings would Wolf People like to explore?

Kozmik Skiffle? We’re trying our hardest not to think about it.

?

 

RIVAL SCHOOLS REVIVAL SPROUTS BLOOMING ‘PEDALS’

It’s been a decade since New York’s auspicious ‘undie’ supergroup, Rival Schools, delivered their first official long-player, ‘01s stylistically influential and ambitiously inventive United By Fate. But after a long layoff, the time has finally arrived for the feisty foursome to reconvene in the studio and drop a latent second effort that builds upon the adrenaline-fueled post-hardcore testaments of yore.

Fronted by singer-guitarist, Walter Schreifels, whose exalted credentials include being composing guitarist for ‘80s straightedge hardcore trailblazers, Gorilla Biscuits, and puissant ‘90s metal-core thrashers, Quicksand, there’s no denying these pathfinders enduring underground legend, unbridled exuberance, and exasperated heaviosity.

Setting the course for post-punk’s post-millennial revival, Schreifels and fellow Youth Of Today teen pal, Sam Siegler (who’d also drum on Civ’s shot-in-the-dark ’95 debut, Set Your Goals), plus co-guitarist Ian Love (from unheralded noise rockers, Die 116), and bassist Cache Tolman (of jazz metallurgists, Iceburn), were proactive post-modern progenitors. Placing Schreifels’ anxiously overwrought outcries atop a penetrating dual guitar forcefulness and rumbled rhythmic ruckus, Rival Schools emotional hardcore struck a chord with blossoming disciples Against Me, Senses Fail, Finch, Alexisonfire, and From Autumn To Ashes.

A shining beacon besting their emo-schooled proteges, Rival Schools exploited heartache and pain with roaring vigor on United By Fate, as Schreifels’ fretful wallowing verged on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The piercing vociferous squalor jolting hurried Fugazi-informed rampage, “Travel By Telephone,” snarling emblazoned grumbler, “Holding Sand,” and “The Switch” incites bitter teen angst aplenty. Arguably, the twisted malfeasance and passive aggression of “High Acetate” presaged emo’s second wave as much as anyone else had.

Furthermore, Rival Schools were not averse to unloading a stammering metallic rampage like sizzling wrangler, “Used For Glue.” Or perhaps feeling compelled to connect with ‘90s lo-fi home recorders such as Sebadoh when surrendering apropos jangled electro-charged missives such as desperation-bound serenade “Undercovers On” and implosive post-grunge contemplation “Good Things.”

Unable to get the industrious crew together to finish a timely follow-up, Schreifels put Rival Schools on the backburner, though various unreleased demos from an incomplete project surfaced on the internet soon after. He then moved to Berlin with his girlfriend for awhile to escape George W. Bush’s misguided post-911 reign, producing Hot Water Music and Civ in the meanwhile, then concocting an under-the-radar singer-songwriter solo album that’ll be succeeded by an upcoming autumn release.

Finally, after a few promising ’08 reunion gigs, a fully recommitted Rival Schools decided to come back strong on ‘11s worthy successor, Pedals. Meant to be a natural progression from United By Fate (despite the long wait), its richer musical tapestry and moodier textural polishing never override the overall visceral immediacy.

Schreifels’ developed a raspier baritone gruffness immediately put to the test on startling confessional Pedals opener, “Wring It Out,” relinquishing all the anguish he could possibly muster. An arpeggio guitar ascends above circular melodic riffs and collateral feedback noise on sentimental embrace, “69 Guns.” And the seasoned gang rip it up even better on tenacious crescendo-driven siege, “Shot After Shot.”

Stimulating throwback, Eyes Wide Open,” a blustery guitar-bass scorcher, reprises their debut’s most scintillating moments.

Conversely, there’s tenderness on the block with melancholic orchestral ballad, “Racing To Red Lights.” Yet another crooned retreat, “Small Doses,” tries overcoming demonic fears while applying Suicidal Tendencies’ lunatic-fringed “Institutionalized” as its thematic reference.

Who were your earliest musical influences?

I was into punk and new wave. I loved the Smiths, Buzzcocks, and Echo & the Bunnymen. Then when I started doing shows I was very influenced by Minor Threat, Negative Approach and other hardcore stuff. Those two things collided into a different kind of sound. I’ve always appreciated heavy music and pop as well.

Were your parents into music?

 

 

My parents were from the Sixties so I definitely grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, James Taylor. My dad used to surf so I’d listen to the Beach Boys. Of course, Beatles and Rolling Stones are classic. I like chord progressions and melodies, but when you plug into lyrics you take it to another level, especially with hardcore. Most of the songs are about the same topics but some people say it in a cooler way. It brought the scene more into focus and I tried to emulate that approach by making distinction with language.

Give me a little idea of what it was like to reassemble Rival Schools and take it out on the road in 2008 after a long layoff.

 

 

To get the ball rolling, we did a tour and got in touch with what it was like to play Rival Schools music and got to hang out with each other and meet the fans again. We were hoping someone was still out there that cared. That was part of the learning curve to get in synch. We realized it’s not enough to just play these people in the crowd the oldies. We needed to put together something creative that could lead to something else.

The lyrics seem more sensitive, mature, and deliberate on Pedals.  

I guess I find myself returning to similar themes that concern me, but I always want to do it from a different approach. I can’t phone lyrics in. I really have to give them effort. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes difficult. I didn’t have to write the music this time so I got to concentrate on lyrics and melodies. I loosened up a bit from straight narrative lyricizing. Every song I write leads to the next in a way. Also, Rival Schools is trying to deliver something that makes sense with an album that came out ten years prior. I wanted to draw the lines between that as well.

What about the supposedly scrapped second album that never came to fruition circa 2003?

 

 

That was a bunch of demos I didn’t labor over that led to eleven songs. They got leaked to the internet. When we got back together we actually started from those sessions to see what was good and improve them. That was helpful. The main riff and verse of “Shot After Shot” comes from those sessions and I developed some new lyrics. “Big Waves” is the same song and arrangement, but Ian Love plays on this version. Ian can make a guitar sound like anything, even strings.

Was it difficult to improve upon the debut’s intrinsic value?

 

 

The daunting challenge was to create something that would do justice to the first album, but also project the future trajectory. The title, Pedals, ties into aspects it took to make this happen. Sometimes we’re pedaling uphill. There’s a lot of movement and organization. We used a lot of affects pedals on the album. Lyrically, it’s not wholly thematic like Tommy, but the mood reflects that trip we navigated. Everyone’s in a different place in their lives than ten years ago. Changes happen and that reflects the feeling of the music. It’s seen from a fresh, dynamic, different point of view.

Explain the motivation behind moving to Berlin, Germany, for a few years before landing in Williamsburg.

 

 

I moved there with my girlfriend for fun and adventure. At that time, I got sick of hearing about Bush’s War On Terror and all that shit. It just became a headache with Bush and I wanted a different perspective. I thought it’d be a good time to get out and expand my horizons. I’ve dabbled in political writing, but that’s not my comfort zone. But since moving back, I love it in Williamsburg.

It seems half the United States elite indie rockers reside in Williamsburg nowadays. It’s unbelievable.

 

 

Yeah. For some people it’s annoying, but I think it’s interesting. Everyone’s pursuing their creative dream. It’s nice to be in that atmosphere. Everyone’s got their own voice.

I was interested in your thoughts concerning a few album highlights. What was the genesis for “69 Guns”?

 

 

It’s meant to conjure up your own story. For example, Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” when I was a kid I thought it was “Lost In Space.” Whenever I heard it I thought of being lost in a flying saucer. In a way, “69 Guns” could be what you want it to mean. To me, it’s a romantic story. But we also had in mind the ‘80s tune by The Alarm, “68 Guns.” We figured we’d top ‘em. We got 69 guns, which is sexier than 68. So we win.

The fiery “Eyes Wide Open” seems to be in a similar vein as the debut’s awesome hellbent anthem “Used For Glue.”

 

 

It had that sort of power. We were just trying to expand on “Used For Glue’s” theme. It’s our most rockingest song. That’s still part of the band.

“Choose Your Adventure” gets an Industrial bass-treated grumble that echoes through the climactic cadenced catchphrase. Was it at all inspired by the Kraut-rock you may’ve heard while living in Berlin?

 

 

I think that’s an interesting thought. It’s really just a riff Ian wrote that I thought would be fun to sing over. It’s got a good groove and is exciting and a little bit different. Sometimes you think you’re writing a song about one thing, but you end up writing a song about another thing. That’s an interesting consequence.

Most of your songs connote inner rage, but as I speak to you, I feel you have confidence and contentment.

 

 

I guess especially with Quicksand, I got my screaming and pissed off rage out more. In rival Schools, I may not especially scream about it, but I think you could feel the tension of being pissed off or discontent. That’s a good place to find music. Maybe I’m not as much as a malcontent as I may have been. Music’s definitely therapeutic for me. I’m always chopping into what I’m concerned about and what’s bugging me. I have a great outlet for that.

“Small Doses” must be one of those therapeutic communiqués.

 

 

For me, it was more about how sometimes you just need a break from everybody else. Like Mike Miur when he’s talking about being off on his own now and he feels OK in “Institutionalized.” After all the ranting, he says ‘All I want is a Pepsi.’ I always feel that I could leave songs open for interpretation, though.

PENDULUM SWINGS TOWARDS PROTRACTED ‘IMMERSION’

After The Prodigy helped manufacture post-Nirvana rave culture for Britain’s underground masses, a swarm of inventive laptop musicians sprung up and found fame in England, hoisting Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers atop the next ‘big beat generation.’ Then Daft Punk absorbed these influences and gave a metallic sheen to the heavy groove line, ushering in the new millennium for hotshot modern beat-masters like LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, and the more rock-oriented Pendulum.

Leaving Perth, Australia’s early drum and bass alliance to relocate in the United Kingdom during 2003, Pendulum have slowly, but surely, taken over the current club scene and beyond with their impetuously infectious techno-rock concoctions. Led by sturdy original crew, Rob Squire and Gareth Mc Grillen (from unheralded Tool/ Deftones-styled Aussie rockers, Xygen), plus seasoned DJ, Paul Harding, Pendulum expanded their lineup over time, magnifying the enthusiastic electro-percussive soundscape twofold since formative ’05 debut, Hold Your Colour, and its rockier ‘08 follow-up, In Silico.

Full of confidence, swagger, and stacked electronic gadgetry, they’ve now made a perfectly bombastic 66-minute nightclub masterpiece recalculating, redirecting, and re-calcifying 30 years of decadent post-punk discotheque maneuvers for a joyous ecstasy-laced journey beyond the galaxies. Truly, the magnanimous Immersion features something for everyone to get into. Placing thrillingly overwrought mantras inside flashy nu-metal guitar frays, monst0rous dance floor romps, and cybernetic phase-shifting burbles, its plush interior design supports a deliriously cryptic water theme.

Commencing orchestral march, “Genesis,” opens the mammoth set, drifting directly into engrossing genre-bending anthem, “Salt In The Wounds,” a first-rate state-of-the-art rock-blocked techno-Industrial instrumental just about as fascinatingly phantasmagorical as Hollywood’s greatest espionage capers. Moving through a streamlined synth-drum pulse with furious adrenaline, this phosphorescent seven-minute opus shoots gooey electronic taser spurts and spritz-y laser gun squirts into an insanely megalomaniacal potpourri where Frankie Goes To Hollywood-meets-”Frankenstein” at an intergalactic Star Wars convention.

Without sounding guardedly superficial, Pendulum oft-times enjoys salvaging ‘80s musical vagaries from vinyl wreckage throughout Immersion, forging ahead with one foot in the past on “Watercolour,” which could be mistaken for posh arena-ready prog-rock by overblown supergroup, Asia, despite its utterly techno-derived rhythmic crush. In a similar vein, “Crush” revisits not only Asia, but also Europe and Damn Yankees arena rock, reaching deeper emotional heights and gaining wider mainstream access than ‘Watercolour” (an instant ’09 Brit hit single).

Though “Witchcraft” and “The Island – Pt. 1 Dawn” nearly overload the cheesy art-rock tendencies, mesmerizing mantra “The Island Pt. II Dusk” fries the brain with piercing synth-string spikes sunk into a ceaselessly overwhelming bass-drum backbeat that boggles the mind devising trippy modulated oscillations and lofty robotic machinations. Likewise, “The Vulture” bites off a few syncopated rhythm ideas from high-tech disco producer, Giorgio Moroder, with jubilant results.

Pendulum also got the opportunity to employ a few varied musicians that have gained their respect over the years. Prodigy’s Liam Howlett, a veritable techno-rock mentor, provides profuse pyrotechnic percussion blurts to floor-shaking rattler, “Immunize.” Swedish death metal band, In Flames, fling a guitar-trebled bass rumble at corrosive gut-wrenching changeup, “Self Vs. Self.” Purcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson brings a hint of psychedelic intrigue to symphonic piano-based space-rock illumination, “The Fountain.”

Not to be outdone, the dauntingly rancorous assault of “Comprachicos” fucks you like Nine Inch Nail’s “Animal,” ultimately spiraling out of control as sizzling guitar riffs and heated synthesizer jabs battle it out until the guys vindictively scream ‘throw it away/ ‘cause I got no patience.’

It may’ve taken two years to assemble Immersion, but Pendulum definitely realized their enormous potential. Every track’s been handled with grandiose Epicurean care and each cluttered performance is given utmost conviction.

I spoke to Pendulum’s Rob Swire mid-January 2011 via phone.

Did you plan on making Immersion into a gargantuan epic during the planning stages?

ROB SWIRE: No. It did take awhile though. We wrote it in the space of two years on and off bus tours. But we really cracked down on it in the last five months of making the record.

How’d you come up with the album title, Immersion?

 

 

There was a subconscious water theme running through the lyrics. Then, we were going back into the studio and it felt a bit like being immersed in itself. So it came naturally.

How has Pendulum’s live show evolved over the years into an absolutely mesmerizing extravaganza?

 

 

It definitely got bigger. I don’t think we ever noticed because when you’re in the middle of it you’re not conscious of it developing. Since we didn’t see our families for the better part of two years, the show got really pumped up.

How’d Pendulum build an early audience from the once-thriving drum and bass scene Down Under?

 

 

There was a small drum and bass club scene in Perth. We were just trying to make tracks for local producers that would get airplay at local clubs. That’s how we met Paul (Harding), our DJ. We were supposed to play a live set that day, but one of our computers went down so we asked him to set up the decks and play our tracks.

How do your first two albums compare to Immersion?

 

 

I think it’s the sound of Pendulum knowing what they’re doing now. To a large extent, the first two were good, but we were experimenting. We didn’t have a clear conscious idea about that the music we were making or the sound we were after. We got to a point where we were happy enough to be called a band then. On Immersion, we knew what we were doing and understood what album we wanted to make.

The opening track, “Salt In The Wounds,” was a major English hit. But in the United States, there probably hasn’t been a substantial Top 10 instrumental hit since Harold Faltenmeyer’s “Axel F” from Eddie Murphy’s 1984 film, Beverly Hills Cop.

 

 

It’s funny. Over here in England, you could get a lot of stuff on the radio, especially if it’s electronic.

On the other hand, “Watercolour” drudges up comparisons to ‘70s/ ‘80s prog-rock.

 

 

Actually, I’m a big prog fan – Yes and King Crimson. But more than that, Porcupine Tree, which started in 1997. I’ve listened to their second album a lot and picked up on them. I’d never really been a big fan of Pink Floyd until I worked myself backwards to older bands. We like Porcupine Tree so much we actually asked Steve Wilson to work with us on “The Fountain.”

“Crush” may be Pendulum’s most accessible track. Does that tune best captivate the mainstream audience?

 

 

We can’t play a show without doing it or we’ll hear about it online. General fans in England love “Watercolour” and “Witchcraft.” But in the States, “Crush” is the most liked. And our cult fans have also fell in love with that.

One of the mightiest Industrial-metal-styled cuts, “Comprachicos,” recalled Nine Inch Nails or System Of A Down at certain junctures.

 

 

We were trying to make something with a Nine Inch Nails intro to begin with. The word comprachicos (coined by novelist Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs) loosely means child molding. It was born out of a Spanish fable that had guys who’d take children and put them into these forcible constraints that would deform their bodies as they grew and keep them as ornaments.

Has Pendulum ever considered doing soundtrack work or movie scores? Your music would totally suit some sci-fi adventure.

 

 

Yeah. We’d love to do it. We get envious when we hear Trent Reznor doing The Social Network or Daft Punk on Tron.

Have you begun working on the next Pendulum album? If so, how will it differ from previous endeavors?

 

 

We’re working on the next album currently. But we’re not using those songs in our shows. We do have some stuff lined up for the States tour, though. It’s getting very ‘in the moment.’ We’re not trying to spend too much time on things because we’re trying to be less affectionate and bring a sort of punk edge to it. We want to keep it visceral and possibly contrast Immersion with shorter songs.

Do you feel comfortable when your band is considered a natural and direct descendant of outstanding musical paragons, Prodigy? After all, you sought out Liam Howlett to co-write “Immunize.”

 

We grew up listening to those guys around ‘97/ ’98. They were my favorite band.

 

 

BEAR HANDS IGNITE ‘BURNING BUSH SUPPER CLUB’

Arguably, the borough of Brooklyn is putting out more exciting alternative music than the rest of America put together. And now, there seems to be a pipeline going from Connecticut’s privileged Wesleyan University to the Kings County hotbed. First there was MGMT. Then came underclass pals, Bear Hands. While jointly touring, the latter band gained the kind of heightened exposure only a major trend-setting headliner like their upper classmates could ensure. Subsequently, both bands thrived beyond all expectations.

Rau, de facto leader of Bear Hands, plus fellow classmate, guitarist Ted Feldman, and punk-fueled rhythm section, Val Loper (bass) and TJ Orscher (drums), shine a flashy white light on the red hot electronic rock scene, at times recalling their Wesleyan descendants, but always staying directly on target compositionally.

Though ‘mental illness’ and ‘intraband resentment’ nearly tore the band apart early on, Bear Hands managed to get their act together, taking more than a year to assemble the magical tracks making up one of 2010’s best long-play debuts, Burning Bush Supper Club.

Growing up just outside Hartford, Rau set forth on a musical journey during college. He’d rudimentarily compose ideas on acoustic and electric guitar, growing by leaps and bounds until Bear Hands ’07 Golden EP arrived, catching nearly as much attention as their opening shows for MGMT (as well as respected Brooklyn indie scenesters, Vampire Weekend, Chairlift, and Les Savy Fav).

Abstractly bending Pet Sounds’ intriguing psych-pop designs into undefined new wave eccentricities and experimental odd mod fodder that’s strangely in line with Animal Collective or Miike Snow, Burning Bush Supper Club may borrow ample schematics, but it’s nonetheless a uniquely peculiar entity. Just check out Rau’s slightly treated alto ringing out sad serenades emulating from a dark chasm to get hooked.

Many Supper Club highlights, such as “High Society,” beckon MGMT comparisons. Yet despite the obvious unbridled eclecticism, Bear Hands ultimately succeed on their own terms. On the above-mentioned cut, Rau’s anecdotal message concerning ‘my friend Frank’ sinks in solidly above an ethereal synthesized orchestration and a warmly textured guitar-echoed bass-boomed foundation with one foot shakin’ on the dance floor and the other in a hip downtown record shop.

“Tablasaurus” brings sure-footed disco-beaten embellishments to spellbinding India-bound tabla rhythms and a drifting Middle East passage in a way Bear Hands contemporaries could easily comprehend. Similarly, “Wicksey Boxing” slips into the ether as effectively as “Tall Trees,” a vibrant curtail-called enchantment connecting wispy vocal surrealism (“I eat cats for their nine lives” and some nifty ‘third eye’ reference) to aerial guitar flanges and a melodic Rhodes keyboard swoop imitating an airy flute.

And though familiarized affectations abound, Rau maintains a keen sense for tantalizingly classic pop songcraft. The blurted synth bloops, angular guitar arpeggios, and machinated syncopation of “Belongings” are akin to archetypal ‘80s new wave but in no way does that undo the beautifully detailed tunefulness.

Furthermore, alarmingly rasped confection, “Blood And Treasure,” would easily fit alongside anything Jane’s Addiction did in its ‘90s prime.

If that’s not enough for indie-minded heads, “What A Drag,” with its sinisterly dreamy ‘goddamn long nails’ chorus and chillingly primal rawness, convolutedly befits the seafaring folk waywardness of Port O’Brien.

Look for Bear Hands to break out in a major way over the course of a few albums. They’ve only just begun to live. I spoke to Dylan Rau one cold December night.

Were your parents into music? After all, they named you Dylan.

DYLAN: They are music fans that partially named me after poet Dylan Thomas and songwriter Bob Dylan. Neither played any instruments. My dad is tone deaf. My mom could sing. I took her generic gift. They adore Bob Dylan but never had any musical interests.

Did you spend much time with MGMT at Wesleyan? “Tall Trees” and “Wicksey Boxing” are not far removed from their best electro-rock anodynes.

 

I love Oracular Spectacular. I totally played that thing out. But I’m influenced by everything I like.

What growth has there been since ‘07s Golden EP?

 

The EP we did three months into being a band. We were still in our punk rock electric guitar phase. We never played keyboards. The instrumentation was strictly guitar based with drums. In the two years since, we began experimenting with drum programming and different sound affects. I think we grew as a band naturally. We started listening to different musical trends and genres. That just came out on the record.

What does the album title, Burning Bush Supper Club, try to convey?

 

I came up with that name while we were driving through Utah. I was thinking of the Mormons and messages from God. But I don’t ascribe to any organized religion.

Are your song lyrics usually based on personal affairs of the heart?

 

Some songs are more personal than others. Sometimes I find myself writing about a character I don’t know. But sometimes it’ll clearly be about me. I try to be empathetic.

Is there a loose thematic flow to the album?

 

I don’t think there’s a true lyrical narrative to the record. The songs were written through very different time periods. It’s a real compilation of many years of my life. I think that’s also indicative of how the record sounds. All the songs sound very different than the others and it sounds weird to hear them on the same record sometimes. But I kind of like that about it.

I read online that “Crime Pays” is a personal true-to-life account.

 

I think it’s about the nature of our times. It’s almost impossible not to commit crimes. I do it everyday and pretend not to be doing it. I think that song’s universal. I used to be more of a criminal. It was a problem I had to stop.

What’s with the obsession with ‘long nails’ on “What A Drag”? Does it have to do with a romance ending?

 

I wrote that in my bathroom. Our heat got turned off and we were totally dead broke and we were bummed out. That’s where it came from.

Why do you use processed vocals throughout the album?

 

I’m self-conscious as a singer. And it’s a way to hide in my little cave. That’s part of it. Also, I listen to a lot of heavily processed music. I don’t feel a real allegiance to organic music or the halcyon days of real guitar bands. I don’t feel nostalgic for that. I try to do whatever sounds best.

“Blood And Treasure” has an Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark or A Flock Of Seagulls ‘80s new wave vibe. Were you a fan?

 

I’d be hard-pressed to identify any new wave bands, maybe Duran Duran. But if Talking Heads are considered new wave than that’s one of my favorite bands. Our manger used to handle The Cure.

The Cure’s Robert Smith wrote intriguing melodramatic material not unlike yours.

 

Thank you so much.

Your climactic crescendos are oft-times reminiscent of neo-Classical music.

 

I’m not a technically trained guitarist. I can’t read music. Maybe I’ve learned to get emotion out of music in other ways that aren’t necessarily complex chord changes.

Do you draw inspiration from the Beach Boys multi-harmonies?

 

Absolutely. “California Girls” I can’t get enough of.

What does the future hold for Bear Hands? Are there different musical styles you’d like to explore?

We have a huge backlog of songs we’ve been waiting to record. We just wanna get back in the studio. I don’t think our technique is gonna change. I’m just psyched to do a new batch of songs.

 

POMEGRANATES JUICE UP ‘ONE OF US’

Now, more than ever, the technical advancements and innovative designs of music mastermind Brian Eno have transformed this generation’s finest post-adolescent underground rock modernists into the latest high profile trendsetters. Showing a tremendous capacity for injecting gauzy synthesizer affects, diffuse electronic manipulations, whirled Wall of Sound tremolo, and translucent feedback figures into comprehensive song ideas, a few crafty surrealist propagators have brought Eno’s “ambient-styled” silent lucidity to the youthful masses.

Recently, headlining Brooklyn taste-makers, MGMT, celebrated the reclusive British magnate with hook-infested anthem, “Brian Eno.” And when surging Cincinnati quartet, Pomegranates, were looking for studio help on their breakthrough third album, co-producer TJ Lipple, who’d been associated with MGMT, was hired.

Pomegranates proudly take a democratic approach to composing, allowing each member to bring certain elements to the recordings at hand. Despite the abstract psychedelic imagery fusing a goodly amount of tunes, most come from organic guitar-bass-drum auspices. Jacob Merritt, who handles percussion duties, admits the earliest style of music he listened to as a pre-teen was “mild contemporary Christian rock,” an interesting side fact that may have nothing to do with his co-founding band partner, guitarist Isaac Karns, also being given a well-known biblical first name.

Nevertheless, Jacob and Isaac began assembling the secularly-entailed Pomegranates in 2006, releasing ‘08s formative debut, Everything Is Alive, and its even better ’09 follow-up, Everybody, Come Outside!, as a bustling four-piece band filled out by vocalist-guitarist Joey Cook and bassist Dan Lyon (replacing Josh Kufeldt). Their provincial fan base then started extending way beyond Cincy’s cozy mid-America confines.

While The National, and to a lesser extent, the Heartless Bastards and Wussy, are probably the three highest regarded indie bands to break out of the Queen City’s recent local club scene, Merritt gives a shout-out for new-sprung troupes such as Matthew Shelton’s Picnic, Pop Empire, and Vacation.

“The first music that really clicked with me was Fugazi’s 13 Songs,” Merritt says in respect to the autonomous DIY post-punk ambassadors. “I listened to that everyday for two months working one summer. But that’s very extremely different from what we do.”

Signed to Minneapolis boutique label, Afternoon Records, whose clientele includes unheralded eclectic bands such as minimalist gloomsters, Tarlton, alt-country singer Haley Bonar and power pop manglers, Poison Control Center, Pomegranates are now the big boys on the block, at least amongst the indie elite.

Merritt offers up several influences all members share. As expected, they run the gamut from iconic rock (Neil Young) to art-punk (Talking Heads) to glam-pop (T. Rex) to Kraut-rock (Neu).

“We’re definitely a band that didn’t count on blowing up after one album. Just like the Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo, we’ve plugged away for awhile, slowly building a fan base,” Merritt confirms.

The lead title track on Pomegrantes 2010 triumph, One Of Us, contains all the elements that make their burgeoning catalogue as stimulatingly juicy as Merritt-Karns’ fruitful moniker. There’s the ineradicable neo-psychedelic vibe, flanged guitar resonance, and rubbery bass rumble reaching hyperspace – one step removed from the Beatles LSD hallucinations. Its linear sonic template hearkens back to prominent New Wave acts such as A Flock Of Seagulls or Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark while its transcendental escapism no doubt clips ambient pioneer, Eno.

Oft-times, as expected, Pomegranates spellbinding ambient dalliances voyage to unspecified intergalactic domains, floating high above the atmosphere in a shimmering narcotic fog. Hazy mystical soother, “White Fawn,” a solo showcase for second guitarist Joey Cook, drifts into the ether so well it’d fit perfectly on Eno’s brilliant Another Green World.

Obligingly, there are also several seriously lovesick lyrical platitudes hidden beneath the celestial expanse. Most compellingly, swirled oscillating whirligig, “Perception,” becomes an emotionally desirous séance nearly as earnestly heartfelt as the lyrical intrigue consuming Epicurean “Anywhere You Go,” where Cook’s adolescent quip, ‘I really like you’ (and a few tender choral passages), get crosscut by ‘no wave’ guitar fragments.

But the enlightened path to everlasting love securing One Of Us takes a few hits along the way, especially since it’s hard to find real life happiness without a little despair. Doubts are cast all the way through to commanding closer, “Into The Water, Into The Air,” a skeptical emergency broadcast-bleated missive querying ‘Are you a lover or a thief?’ Then again, just beforehand, explosive mind-numbing scrum, “Skull Cakin’,” begs for reconciliation with the urgently yelped entreaty, ‘We’re gonna make it somehow.’

Though he laughs off some suppositional lyrical analyses, Merritt maintains, “Every one of our albums has at least one or two straight-up rock songs like “Skull Cakin’.” This band we toured with has a Harry Nilsson song they cover and that seems to be in the realm of one of Nilsson’s rockier songs, or maybe “Sweet Dream” by Roy Orbison.”

Skipping past Eno-esque fascination, “50’s” evokes rock and roll’s early dawn, getting a mighty kick drum lead-in to contrast the trance-like harmonic chant. Another straight-ahead turn-up-the-amps rocker, “Prouncer,” brings louder staggering axe work and more propulsive rhythmic power to the frontline.

The entire album plays out like one sustainable thematic quest, though it makes no attempt to be either as timelessly contemporaneous as Pink Floyd’s Viet Nam saga Dark Side Of The Moon or as enterprisingly conceptual as Eno’s art-rock debut Here Come The Warm Jets.

Merritt claims, “Everybody, Come Outside! was definitely written around a story and narrative, but One Of Us wasn’t as proactively written that way even though there’s some common themes. Overall, the aesthetic for the first two albums may not be traditional, but the textures and the ambience are conventional. I’d say the first two make more sense together and the third is separate from them.”

This time around, string arranger Paul Patterson was brought onboard to provide a thicker neo-Classical backdrop for a few highlights. Halfway through the punchy kick-drummed serenade, “The Positive Light,” sympathetic violins add orchestral grandeur in a way Merritt believes “may have a Dexy’s Midnight Runner or Electric Light Orchestra feel.” Yet its guitar-chimed choral layout may better suit MGMT’s latest endeavor, Congratulations.

“We spent more time touring with the new songs and had more time recording them. Paul’s strings are really cool, adding a new dimension,” Merritt corroborates. “TJ Lipple (of unheralded band, Aloha) was able to get really familiar with the material. We wanted someone who could capture our sound best since the technical part could get tricky. He had a good grasp on getting the sound down.”

Lipple furnished a silvery crystalline sheen to Pomegranates eerily phantasmic catacombs, windy serendipitous saunters and mesmerizing climactic rhapsodies, elevating the dynamic soundscape in a manner majestic shoegaze-derived 90s-bound space-rockers Spiritualized still do.

But it’s ultimately the colossal presence of Eno that could be felt throughout, especially during subtle environmental fugue, “Perception.”

Before our conversation is through, Merritt warrants, “We really appreciate Brian Eno’s ambient stuff. With “Perception,” we wanted to have a pause to perhaps cleanse the sonic palate and serve as an intermission. You know how you may have a nice sorbet before dinner to prepare you for what’s next. It sets the tone for what’s coming. A moment of catharsis to re-set and relax a bit.”

FRANZ NICOLAY’S ‘LUCK AND COURAGE’ TO HOLD STEADY

Continuously pursuing unconventional artistic modes of expression, multifarious musician, Franz Nicolay, may’ve found underground popularity in topnotch indie rockers, Hold Steady, but he’s also spent ample time in a few interesting lower-profiled Balkan-styled acts. It was during his full time tenure in World/ Inferno Friendship Society that Nicolay met rising Minneapolis combo, Lifter Puller, befriending leader Craig Finn, who’d go on to form Hold Steady.

But in his own free time, he and clarinetist Peter Hess (Balkan Beatbox/ Slavic Soul Party) concentrate more on traditional Balkan folk through ongoing project, Guignol. Furthermore, Nicolay’s unbridled enthusiasm for the performing arts also led to a short-story collection, Complicated Gardening Techniques.

Though he’s sported a waxed Salvador Dali moustache and worn berets, the Brooklyn-dwelling New Hampshire native’s eccentric appearance and frantic keyboard theatrics allow him to express an inner strangeness that contrasts his rather normal bucolic New England upbringing.

“Part of the fun of being in show biz is having people concoct theories about what the performer mat be like. Someone once asked Country singer Porter Wagoner why he wore flashy sequined Nudie suits and had a big pompadour. He said, ‘Because I’m an entertainer, that’s why.’ Internet culture removed that mystique,” he claims.

Growing up in the tiny New Hampshire village of Central Sandwich, Nicolay got exposed to various types of music by his parents. He attended New York University and got infatuated by Manhattan’s multi-cultural lifestyle, organizing the non-profit “An Afternoon of Anti-Social Chamber Music” at Columbia University for emerging local composers in ‘01. The flourishing Anti-Social Music program went on to premier new works by over one hundred entertainers. He prospered with Hold Steady along the way, seeking solo asylum only after gaining subterranean prominence first.

Hooking up with Dresdon Dolls percussionist, Brian Viglione, Debutante Hour pianist Maria Sonevytsky, fellow World/ Friendship associate, Yula Be’eri (drums), and many guests, Nicolay assembled Luck And Courage. A fully formed follow-up to formative ‘09 debut, Major General, its allegorical carnivalesque freak shows and anecdotal dramatics combine Klezmer, gypsy folk, Vaudevillian satire, boogie woogie, and cabaret in a home-schooled punk-derived do-it-yourself manner.

A couples’ tale concerning contrasting independent spirits, one who ‘came with a purpose/ left on a whim,’ and the other only half-interested in long-term commitment, Luck And Courage comes full circle by its banjo-skewed fiddle-doused “Feelin’ Groovy”-sauntered epilogue. The exhilarating narrative involves main characters, “Felix & Adelita,” and reflects upon certain shared instances via historic figures such as surrealist painter James Ensor and Singing Cowboy Gene Autry.

Crosscut fiddle, Mexicali horn, and Gregorian-like chanting make strange bedfellows on “Have Mercy,” which Nicolay describes as a “fun arrangement depicting an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western with a Russian Army Choir and Cormac Mc Carthy vibe.” Better still, spry salutary brass spices up drum-beaten guitar-etched organ-droned rocker, “My Criminal Uncle,” the thrilling climactic midpoint. He then finds refuge in splendorous serenade, “Anchorage (New Moon Baby)” and solace in becalmed biblical ballad, “Job 35:10.”

Nicolay recently found himself back in the Granite State on sabbatical, re-igniting Guignol to play a few dates at Dartmouth University and nearby North Adams, Massachusetts. He may no longer be in Hold Steady due to the time constraints of his latest solo endeavor and sundry outside undertakings, but the separation was amicable. Will he rejoin? Who knows? The future’s so bright he better wear shades.

We spoke via phone one late autumn afternoon.

Who were some early influences?

FRANZ NICOLAY: The first concert my folks took me to was Doc Watson, whose bluegrass affected me at five years old. Then I started playing Classical. I had a series of narrative tapes with excerpts from all the great composers. I’ve always had a series of certain enthusiasms. I got into Dylan and The Band, then by high school learned accordion and mandolin. Then I was into Charles Mingus, Charles Ives, and Harry Partch’s alternative tunings. After college, I got into Balkan music. I joined World/ Inferno Society full-time by 2000, where I met Lifter Puller and began Guignol in ’03.

How does your new album compare to ’09 debut, Major General?

 

That first solo album was a grab bag done while I was still in Hold Steady. I dumped songs on there that didn’t have a home to introduce myself as a singer-songwriter. They were written over a long period of time. Some are ten years old, others six months. It’s more rock. Maybe it didn’t hang together as a cohesive record, as some critics claimed.

It’s unclear, to me, if the main characters in Luck And Courage, “Felix & Adelita,” stay together forever. He seems to be a lucky long distance runner and she’s a free-spirited waitress.

 

I think they don’t stay together. There are hints as early as the first song where they’re sitting in a Tucson hotel and he’s looking out at the highway at a homeless guy and not listening to her. He’s already distracted.  

A few banjo tunes, “Anchorage,” “Z For Zachariah,” and “This Is Not A Pipe” have a similar feel as the Decemberists and Port O’Brien.

I’m not familiar with the Decemberists, but Port O’Brien I know. Those are all part of my experience of learning a new instrument to compose on and tricking myself into writing simpler songs. The narrator in “Alaska” has been to New York and Charleston, but he’s always away too long. It’s domesticity versus wanderlust. That may be the most autobiographical song on the record, since it could concern my own life on the road.  

Has becoming a novelist affected the perspective of Luck And Courage’s songs?

Absolutely. It’s given me more practice writing songs that aren’t specifically about myself – which is a useful perspective.

Is “Criminal Uncle” based upon a crazy New Hampshire relative?

 

It’s based on a few people. The idea for the story came from Hold Steady’s Galen Polivka. He has a large family in Milwaukee with a black sheep uncle who got drunk, went on a bender, and led cops on a slow speed chase in a duck boat he stole.

Where’d you come up with “James Ensor Redeemed”? You use a Vince Guaraldi piano stroll and full-on brass ensemble to get the message across.

 

James Ensor was a Belgian Expressionist painter. His paintings revisit similar themes having to do with the idea of death haunting life in the midst of the greatest celebrations. There’s parades of skeletons behind Christ that tie into a metaphorical narrative about a plague-ridden country.

Then you’re home on the range with dusky tumble-weeded piano entreaty, “The Last Words Of Gene Autry.”

 

“Gene Autry” is about a long-married elderly couple’s romance. What if Felix and Adelita stayed together, had kids, and slept in. The song started as a playful joke about the cowboy’s nature in a piano Gospel-Country setting where Gene’s lying in bed with his wife looking back.

How did Jim Keller’s production affect the overall project? He’s worked with Franz Ferdinand and other rockers. Was it difficult for him to work in a Klezmer folk mode?

 

There’s two Jim Keller’s. The other one did Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309.” I met Jim through Demander, a band I played keyboards in. I was impressed with that power trio’s dynamic sound. He added great textures and made the record I’d always hoped they would. He set up a Bedford-Stuyvesant home studio. We eventually got together and worked on my record. A producer could have a strong voice in arranging or focus on engineering and mixing – which is the relationship we had. I’m relying on him for an audio angle. To bring it full circle, I have these enthusiasms. I want to be part of a lot of different musical people. Every group’s its own culture and society. I like being an anthropologist in an unfamiliar society. I get fidgety. The Western music scale is only eleven notes. There’s a limited number of ways to combine them. But there are stylistic decisions in different contexts bringing different opportunities.

 

SIGUR ROS SINGER, JONSI, ON THE ‘GO’

Able to reach wuthering heights with his majestic leggiero tenor, Jon Thor Birgisson, better known as Jonsi from established Icelandic band, Sigur Ros, is capable of leaving captivated admirers in a ravished hallucinatory state. Applying crooning whispers, frantic shrieks, siren shrills, and arpeggiated trembles to predominantly symphonic material, his stentorian voice soars beyond the galaxy.

Left to his own devices, the eloquent tenor’s temporarily moved away from the safe confines of his long-time Sigur Ros colleagues to hook up with intimate co-producing companion, Alex Somers, distinguished neo-Classical pianist-arranger, Nico Muhly, and perspicuously precocious percussionist, Samuli Kosminen. With stunning entrée, Go, these impulsive collaborators elevate Jonsi’s sterling reputation for revealing radiant tranquility apropos to the alien snowbound vistas encompassing his native northerly European country island.

In the beginning, Sigur Ros’ formative ’97 debut, Von, showed promise. But international success came awhile later with ‘01s superb Ageulis, where Jonsi’s angelic choirboy brooding and feverish mantra-like mysticism fronted gauzy interstellar dreamscapes of uncommon Epicurean splendor. Moving from mysterious slow-burn séances and ominously starker weepers to meditatively uplifting ethereality, its gloriously anesthetized serenity gave birth to some of the most impassioned post-millennium labyrinths.

Jonsi’s quavering sentimentality only got better with ‘02s caliginous follow-up, ( ), rendering strung-out lonesomeness above prettier melodies, deliberately slower-paced ballads, and expanded spectral illuminations. Increasing the alluringly theatrical ambient melancholia while descending into a nebulously glacial pace, ‘05s poignantly detailed concerto, Takk, found Sigur Ros delivering their most plaintively fragile elegies yet.

By Sigur Ros’ fifth studio album, ‘08s broader Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, Jonsi’s rapturous baroque jubilance overrides the cavernous funereal melodramatics in more conventional bass-pulsing beat-driven settings. Its whimsical opener, “Gobbledigook,” is an acoustic guitar-spangled quick one that slips out of archetypal straight-faced string-laced classical piano mode. Staying carefree, fanciful childlike xylophone lullaby, “Inni Mer Syngur Vit Laysi Ngur,” exceedingly verifies the joyful pomp. After crossing into heavenly transcendental psychedelia on elliptical requiem, “Godan Dag Inn,” triumphant brass-armored goosestep, “Vid Spilum Endalaust,” reconfirms the fervid foursome’s previously unearthed fulsome frolic.

Before taking a break so Jonsi’s partners could start families, Sigus Ros had received commercial, movie, and TV show endorsements, an unanticipated event considering the bands’ non-conformist operatic approach and remote homeland. But Jonsi stayed busy. His low-key instrumental project with Somers (‘09s Riceboy Sleeps) and a couple of Jonsi-Somers photograph books surfaced. Eventually convinced to sing in English instead of Icelandic (or his own made-up gibberish, Hopelandic), Jonsi’s compellingly emotional alto tenor blossomed further via 2010’s crystalline pop abstraction, Go.

On Go’s somniferous tom-stomped penny-whistled overture, “Go Do,” a full-on rhythm appropriates the yin and yang soft-loud profundity that saddles the less elegantly effervescent Sigur Ros-induced anecdotal strains befitting lilting orchestral retrenchment, “Tornado.” Lithesome new waved rave, “Animal Arithmetic,” and gleaming bushy-tailed enticement, “Boy Lilikoi,” counter-actively magnify the calming resonance and perfect stillness of falsetto-bound shudder, “Sinking Friendships,” buzz-swirled noir veer “Kolnidur,” stirring climactic peak, “Grow Till Tall,” and flickering closer, “Hengilas.”

An impressive step forward, Jonsi’s ventured into the future without forgetting his past. While Somers and Nico Muhly (a Philip Glass protégé) bring celeste and glockenspiel to the table, Samuli Kosminen’s kalimba adds a newfound exotic eccentricity to the Reykjavik native’s solipsistic solitaire sprees and wondrous wailing wanderings. Yet the clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and trombone that backup Jonsi’s side troupe would easily fit inside Sigur Ros’ oeuvre.

Anyway, it’s all part of Jonsi’s revelatory ‘acousmatic’ music.

Who were some early influences? Did your parents enjoy music?

JONSI: My first musical memory was playing the Beatles “Twist & Shout” on the fast speed of my parents’ stereo. Of course, I grew up with heavy metal like AC/DC and Metallica. When I got older, through my parents record club, I started listening to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Uriah Heep.

It’s ironic you claim metal as a primordial inspiration since your own narcotic opuses are often in direct opposition to those loud guitar-based jams. Your own music is nearly operatic.
 

 

 

(laughter) Yeah. I think you grab stuff from music you like. From metal, you draw on energy and power. But also, you want to draw from beautiful melodies too.

Do you find this solo endeavor, Go, to be a true extension of Sigur Ros’ dramatically intense concertos? If not, what are some differences?
 

 

 

I write a lot of music by myself. So I wanted to do this now while Sigur Ros had a break since all the members had babies. I decided the timing was perfect. The main difference is working with different artists and musicians – something I’d never done before. Nico Muhly, and American composer, arranged the brass and strings and played piano. That was exciting for me. We worked fast and spontaneously. I like to work fast. Also, the drummer, Samuli Kosminen, didn’t have much time. But he went to the studio and hadn’t heard the songs before and just started improvising until you come into some cool stuff. It kept things exciting.

You also hooked up with busy Connecticut-based producer, Peter Katis. He’s worked with many indie pop-rock bands. How’d he affect Go? Did he make it more approachable?
 

 

 

He’s a great engineer, talented at documenting sounds put in front of him. It sounds good and I’m happy how he recorded it. He brought real good ideas to the table. He knew how to produce songs. It was fun to work with him.

Has Iceland’s isolation away from the rest of the world helped you create such tremendously forlorn rural vistas?
 

 

 

Probably. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I live in the big city, Reykjavik, which has only 180,000 people. It’s tiny compares to, say, New York. I think you have a lot of space to work in and nothing to block your view. It was great to grow up there. But I think it’d be really fun to live in New York City and make music there.

The third Sigur Ros album, ( ), depicted strung-out loneliness and slower paced ballads that seem to counter the uplifting charm of Go.
 

 

 

Definitely. That’s a fair description. During the ‘brackets’ LP, we were living through this phase in our lives. We had to record these songs we’d been playing for many years and we were kind of tired of them in a way. It was hard to record that album. Also, we had done some talking to record labels. That wears you down. We weren’t in the best headspace. This album is completely different. It’s colorful, playful, and energetic in a different way. The main thing was working outside the band. I had worked with the same group for sixteen years. So it was liberating. It was a healthy experience. I had never written English lyrics before so that was a challenge. My English vocabulary isn’t that big.

The darkest song on Go may be “Kolnidur, where dusky piano and a lush near-falsetto lamentation contrast soothing strings.
 

 

 

Kolnidur means pitch black in Icelandic. It is dark lyrically. Wolves are howling and something’s lurking around in the background. It’s mainly about the fears you have in the pit of your stomach.

Lead track, “Go Do,” reminded me of heralded ‘80s new wave artists Yaz, Alison Moyet, and Erasure.
 

 

 

I have no clue who the first two are. But Erasure was an amazing band. “Go Do” is a four-on-the-floor beat-driven pop song. Our drummer, Samuli, is so talented. He turned up in the studio with a suitcase full of shit, like tin cans and trashy drums. He even played on his suitcase.

The most popular cut, “Boy Lilikoi,” features gorgeous crescendos. What’s that song about?
 

 

 

Lilikoi means passion fruit. I got inspired by a trip Alex and I made to Hawaii to work on instrumental project, Riceboy Sleeps. It was the nature and the trees. In Iceland, nothing grows. You have to control the forest and the plants.

Your alto tenor on “Around Us” recalled Jon Anderson of prog-rock legends, Yes. Are you familiar with them?
 

 

 

I haven’t listened to Yes. I’ve heard of King Crimson, but not Yes. They sound interesting.  

 
I’ve noticed there is a loose theme emerging on each Sigur Ros album. Did the solo album attempt to have a core concept?

 

 

In Sigur Ros, we thought a lot about the flow. But it’s usually not that thematic. But the more you think about it, the closer we came to having a small theme from the group of songs we used.

 
Have you ever considered doing opera?

 

 

No. I kind of hate opera. In my mind, Classical opera seems a little silly, formal, and stiff. But a few years back when I was touring I used to collect these recordings of opera and really liked these old recordings probably because of the recording quality. One of my favorites is a singer, Alesandro Morrisette. He’s a castrato. You know, a guy who sounds like his balls were cut off. I was really into him. It’s an amazing 1904 recording.

MGMT, SYNTH-POP KINGPINS, RETURN ‘CONGRATULATIONS’

One of America’s newest musical sensations has been a humble East Coast quintet that grew out of an absurdist art project at a snootily unappreciative upscale college. It may’ve taken them a few months to catch on with the masses, but MGMT incredibly made the jump from interesting indie pop apprentices (with an addictive techno edge) to universal dance-pop champions (raised on a diet of Rhythm & Blues, prog-rock, new wave, disco, and, for good measure, ‘60s psychedelia). Theirs is a mind-bending admix of savory musical ingredients caught in a perpetual quest for the golden chord.

And so it was. MGMT managed to slowly climb to the top and receive a Grammy nomination with the tantalizing Oracular Spectacular, a righteously titled entrée perfectly in tune with current trends, at least on the vogue surface, but also halfway aspiring for hip cred amongst astute underground pundit. Either way, it was inarguably a mighty first step.

 

Invigorated by Malibu surf riding and related ‘60s surf culture, MGMT’s next project, Congratulations, doubled the ambition and tripled the compositional complexity. Simply put, it was a riskier pursuit built upon the final far-reaching ideas scattered across Oracular Spectacular’s most daring, least perused, fare.

Born in Columbia, Missouri, before moving to Arlington, Virginia, then Pittsburgh (for an eight-year stint), MGMT co-founder Andrew Van Wyngarden settled in the soulful confines of Memphis, Tennesssee, before attending Connecticut’s haughty Wesleyan University, where he met fellow gifted artisan, Ben Goldwasser. The two would concoct various keyboard-programmed laptop tracks before coming of age.

Growing up alongside New York’s Lake Champlain in nearby Wesport, Ben plays the nerdy bespectacled brainiac to Andrew’s pretty-boy rock star profile. Together, the adaptive duo, now living in Brooklyn, would soon become reluctant synth-pop kingpins, buttressing their buoyantly brightened neoteric psychedelic whimsy with a few likeminded pals that’d determinedly help fill out the increasingly imaginative arrangements at hand.

MGMT became a full-fledged band when Andrew brought guitarist Hank Sullivant onboard. Hank had performed in various bands while they were both living in Memphis as youths. When he left to form Kuroma, Hank’s pal, Warwick, New York-based drummer, James Richardson, moved over to guitar. Meanwhile, stick-handler Will Berman, who went to Wesleyan with Ben and Andrew and played in a few local Connecticut combos (one which opened for indie rock faves, Of Montreal), joined the crew. Will then got bassist Matthew Asti to enter the fold.

Rounding up prodigal Flaming Lips/ Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann to advance their surrealistic enlightenment for impressive ’08 debut, Oracular Spectacular, MGMT initially caught fire when the ethereal flute-fluttered percussion-thudded dance-floor sparkler, “Electric Feel,” gained magnificent mainstream, club, and rock approval. That opened the floodgates for two more completely accessible and undeniably charming cuts written and recorded prior to the albums’ release.

Firstly, spiffy ‘live fast/ die young’ anthem “Time To Pretend,” a sweepingly swaggering symphonic slam poking fun of self-destructive celebrity lifestyles, placed flatulent phase-shifting keyboard blurbs atop allusive techno-imbibed machinations with ample success. Better still, vivaciously dippy sing-along enchantment, “Kids,” lovingly imitated Eno’s bold avant-Industrial inventions (especially those consuming David Bowie’s monumental ’77 album, Low).

A recent co-headlining Bamboozle set, May ’10, became a cheery celebration captivating an anxiously awaiting crowd at dusk (prior to Weezer’s proficient pro-pop pap). Utilizing swirling light schemes, oscillating keyboard swells, glossy guitar grooves, seismic beats, and galactic jaunts to get across their most popular songs, MGMT proved to be one of America’s latest and greatest modern rock finds. Everyone sang along to the pleadingly ascending ‘take only what you need’ chorus of “Kids.” A truly fuckin’ amazing life affirming moment!

Cagey producer Peter Kember (a.ka. Sonic Boom) of former psych-futurists, Spaceman 3, and active garage-prog plodders, Spectrum, provides the proper rococo, echo-drenched atmospherics to experimental sophomore endeavor, Congratulations. Heady lead track, “It’s Working,” takes mystical adventurers on an enigmatic journey back in time to the Summer Of Love with its radiant Epicurean flights of fancy – reaching several euphoric climaxes. Crossbreeding Arthur Lee’s Love and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes with Pink Floyd’s Saucerful Of Secrets in an elliptical fashion, the opium-laced magnum opus extensively re-creates the valiant prog-rock scurry of the happily abstruse “4th Dimensional Transition” (from the debut).

Recorded in a Brooklyn apartment, the equally ebullient hook-filled ode to exploratory art-pop brainiac, “Brian Eno,” goes bonkers as a sharp-witted ditty ready to please bubblegum pop admirers as well as fussy avant-rock aficionados. Another wonderful, though less known, British artist, gets glorified on carnival organ-doused “Song For Dan Treacy,” an espionage-like whirlwind lauding the Television Personalities guiding light with early REM-styled 6-string jangling.

Reminiscent of early Flaming Lips, grandiose three-part opus, “Siberian Breaks,” galvanizes into a mammoth Arctic surf-riding symphony one step beyond the kaleidoscopic multi-harmonized illuminations igniting “Flash Delirium” (influenced by the Beach Boys Big Sur number, “All I Wanna Do”). Finally, the serenely salutary title track, an entrancing balladic dirge engaging synthesized Eastern mysticism, facetiously sums up the overall contentedness the band found gaining unexpectedly expeditious fame.

Just as Radiohead’s colossal 2000 masterpiece, Kid A, expanded and compounded the bands’ electro-rock abstractions, these clever musical designers have transcended the inceptive investigations bracing Oracular Spectacular by risking it all creating a fascinatingly perplexing follow-up, the recondite Congratulations. Enriching the lavish exuberance of their earliest recordings with curiously elaborate twists and turns, MGMT slyly disguise the juicy melodic intrigue drawing in the incipient pop crowd while handily elevating each broadened arrangement in a meritoriously uncalculated manner that requires careful listening.

MGMT may be overreaching at this point in time, but by overstepping their boundaries a bit, these altruistic spirits have proven to have an uncompromising commitment to the betterment of imminent mimickers. Let’s face it: instant fame leads to immediate imitation. Though MGMT may’ve lost a couple nascent “Kids” fans in the process of getting headier, they’ve undoubtedly gained the respect of more diligent audiophiles. And that may seem ideal for a band whose future directions are still uncertain to them.

I got to speak to MGMT in person @ High Times Magazine in June. Happily, I spent 3-plus hours with MGMT, acquiring enough cool info for two completely separate articles. Here’s a snippet of conversation for Aquarian Weekly.

Both of your albums lead off with sarcastic tracks snubbing drug-fueled celebrities. Why?

BEN: It’s nice to see the sad human side. We love pop culture. I was raised on it. Maybe we mock out media culture because it’s more productive than getting blatantly pissed off about it and easier to rail against it.

Distinguished cartoon surrealist Anthony Ausgang’s gorgeous front cover artwork for Congratulations depicts a two-headed piano-eyed purple feline surfing out of a blue cat’s tongue. Did Malibu surfboarding inspire the CD’s colorful design?
 

 

 

ANDREW: Even when we were writing for the first album, I had a psychedelic surf movie, Morning Of The Earth, in mind. Its soundtrack was soft rock-inspired. That film gave me a look at the ‘60s psychedelic culture and the images that matched up with the psychedelic music of that period. We were imagining ourselves as the cat on the surfboard and the wave is about to crash down. It caused a bit of a stir. Many people thought it was a computer graphic. But it’s really a hand-drawn thing painted into the image. I’m not saying our music is perfect like the art, but we like music that may be deemed awful and cannot be understood. But if you listen a few times, you’ll hopefully start to realize what the musicians are all about.

How’d the West Coast beach culture affect Congratulations in a way that couldn’t be captured had MGMT recorded the album back East in the woodsy upstate New York cabin where the compositions were spawned?

BEN: I think it’s funny. When we were talking about writing the album, we mentioned trying to get a surf feel. But we were trying to write in upstate New York. We had some real good stuff. But when we finally got out West, it took away the irony of writing West Coast-inspired rock.

The lyrical twists seem more emotionally compelling on Congratulations.

ANDREW: It’s a little melancholic. We began right after we got off tour in England. It was wintertime – a post-tour comedown in a way. And there’s all this pressure (to follow up a gold selling debut). We didn’t know what would happen dealing with pressure. We weren’t in an entirely serious mood, but we had uncertainties.

BEN: The more simply arranged songs on the first LP, like “Kids,” were our earliest songs. It felt natural to move forward. There was a 14-minute B-side, “Mennanoya,” on the back of “Kind Of Pretending.” But that doesn’t mean it’ll affect our future works.Mystical balladic venture, “Someone’s Missing,” shrewdly settles into an early ‘70s soul groove.

ANDREW: That’s an Isley Brothers/ Shuggie Otis-influenced thing. And studio wiz Todd Rundgren. Todd’s production and instrumentation were magical.

BEN: Flaming Lips’ Dave Fridmann (Oracular Spectacular’s producer) was a big fan of Todd Rundgren. I think a lot of the cool stuff he does is mixing something that sounds unconventional. The levels are all wrong. And some of the instruments are weird. But he leaves all this stuff in the mix you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to hear.

Phil Spector did that.Was ‘70s Krautrock inspirational for the more proggish instrumental maneuvers?

ANDREW: We like obvious Krautrock bands like Can, Neu, Cluster. The drummer from Asra Temple – his synthesizer LP’s are really good.

Why was the Television Personalities front man evoked for the carnival organ-doused guitar-jangled espionage-like tune, “Song For Dan Treacy”?

ANDREW: That song was very much inspired by this band, Deep Freeze Mice – an obscure bizarro band from the early ‘80s. That’s where the chromatic chord changes and time signatures were inspired by. But we are now friends with Dan Treacy. We met him at a Spectrum show in Norwich, England. One of the things he said onstage was, ‘Hello London!’ All these people yelled at him so he countered with ‘I’m not in London? What the fuck am I doing in Norwich?’ People were throwing shit at him so that’s the first impression we got of him.

Where’d the quirky ode to genius studio manipulator, “Brian Eno,” come from?

ANDREW: Musically, I don’t know what that’s inspired by. It was a song that started with a few chords and watered down to ‘Brian Eno.’ He was this wizard living in an Eastern European castle and we go there to find him at this mystical magical place and eventually we try to run away and he chases us off. The song isn’t aping him. It’s taking the piss out of him.

“It’s Working came across quite good live on Jimmy Fallon’s show in June. On top of what I said about that tune beforehand, it also reminded me of ‘67-era Beatles via Tears For Fear.

BEN: That’s fun to play live. The harmonies… Maybe in some way it’s the toughest to do live because we have to get tough vocal harmonies down.

ANDREW: Jimmy Fallon was a real cool talk show host. He compared the new album to Syd Barrett. He even mentioned the Zombies’ Odyssey & Auricle. He came by the dressing room and made sure we had the mixes in the control room right.
 

 

 

BORN RUFFIANS JUST WANNA ‘SAY IT’

Sometimes rock-based musicians are better off scaling back and stripping down the instrumental expanse to work in an intimate acoustic setting. This live-in-the-studio approach allows for greater up-front emotionalism and deeper lyrical compassion to shine through. MTV’s revolutionary Unplugged Series exploited this toned-down roots-based idea with acclaimed artists such as Nirvana, R.E.M., Alice In Chains, and Korn, all of whom totally prospered in the crystalline acoustic environment. Similarly, Born Ruffians believed the best way to advance their latest batch of songs was to cut back the electronic noise (including some wailing sax) for understated masterstroke, Say It.

Hailing from a small town north of Toronto, Born Ruffians first made waves with ‘08s fully formed entrée, Red Yellow & Blue. That’s when singer-guitarist Luke Lalonde, long-time childhood pal, bassist Mitch Derosier (who’d been jamming together since high school), and drummer Steven Hamelin moved to Toronto and toured with several big name acts, garnering an impressive fan base along the way. Joined by ex-Caribou bassist Andy Lloyd, who’ll supply keyboards, guitar fills, and backup vocals on tour, the friendly foursome hit the road again, this time to promote their eagerly awaited follow-up record.

But life wasn’t always so cushy. At the start, Born Ruffians often got dissed in favor of the trendy emo bands making the local club scene. It seems sniveling suburban white boy blues were more popular than the Strokes upbeat Classic rock-derived subterranean pop nearly a decade ago, at least in the Great White North.

“When we formed the band in 2001, we were fifteen. The Strokes Is This It came out. That polarized us. We realized the reason we weren’t into new music was because emo was so big. Whiny screaming stuff we didn’t like. We got laughed at and booed in Midland for being different, but we felt as if we were probably snotty about it,” Lalonde recalls.

Sticking to their guns, Born Ruffians also learned the ‘less-is-more’ approach to arranging could truly benefit a song’s enduring power. One of Lalonde’s inspirational bands, the Beatles, prospered by taking that risk on the archetypal Rubber Soul.

“It’s all about the groove and feel, getting across an idea in a simple way,” he claims. And he’s out to prove it.

Sprightly rudimentary jingle, “Oh Man” (which approximates the Strokes clever styling), neatly sets up Say It’s easygoing flow, relying on a good hook and tribal tom beat to captivate underground pop heads, new folk rockers and mainstream taste-makers alike.

Scurried six-string spangling juts out of jittered flitter, “Retard Canard,” a quirky bass-slapped drum-tapped military march interrupted by the declaratory “I just wanna set the world on fire’ refrain and probably inspired by the Talking Heads fidgety new wave eccentricities or, perhaps, the Violent Femmes resultant elementary scruff.

Effortlessly syncopated percussive patter underscores the minimal guitar-bass frenzy consuming half-spoken reflection, “The Ballad Of Moose Bruce.” Its made-up superhero from a bygone era looks back and gives advise to weary minions, channeling the ‘stop and smell the roses’ adage in a diligent manner.

Skittering along a little faster and louder, “Blood, The Sun & Water” anchors gently strummed guitar lucidity with dotted drum dollops and a booming bass bottom. Beseeching sax-sulked slow roller, “Come Back,” and swiftly galloping stroller, “Higher & Higher,” make the grade as well.

I spoke to the head Ruffian via phone before his band hit the road for an autumnal 2010 US tour.

How and why did Born Ruffians scale back Say It’s tracks to their sparsest acoustical auspices?

LUKE: It was a case of not wanting any ideas to go unchecked. In the studio, if someone had an idea to try an overdub, we’d get it on tape. But a good chunk of that stuff, when it came to the mix, didn’t make it. The less cluttered it was, the better it sounded. It came out sounding like a 3-piece record like the last one. Aesthetically, it’s similar sounding. The difference was in time and songwriting. It wasn’t a big production. A lot of saxes were toned down. There’s prominent sax on “Come Back’s” introduction, but the rest is hardly audible and sounded like synths.

How would you compare the new album to Red Yellow & Blue? They’re approached similarly with producer Rusty Santos (Animal Collective/ Panda Bear mixer). We recorded very much live and were inspired by ‘60s and ‘70s bands. Isolation is what the Beatles did best. It makes us sound better together. There’s not a lot of compression – which is sort of a modern sound. I don’t know if we’ll continue with that sound. There’s no autotune. It’s not overly slick. It’s more organic. The difference is the time between the two records and where we wanted to go with the songs. We were concentrating on distinct verse-chorus pop. We haven’t had a huge hit single. But it’s in the traditional sense of pop-friendly music.
What has producer Rusty Santos done to hoist Born Ruffian’s studio sound?
 
He’s really good at being an innovative mixer. His approach to production is an art form. He approached each record distinctly. He has all the experience we don’t. It’s great having him on the team stamping his sound all over our records.
Are you upset your music doesn’t get played alongside tertiary emo bands on conventional mainstream radio? In the ‘70s, you’d obviously gain a modicum of aboveground contemporary exposure.
 
To me, a good pop or rock record could be based on ‘70s pop as a reference. To reference pop now, you immediately think of Lady Gaga. This record is by no means close to that.
 
Who were early influences?
 
I tend to listen to a lot of older music. Say It is our mid-’70s to early ‘80s record. Talking Heads are an ever-present influence. To a lesser extent, Violent Femmes and David Bowie. Newer stuff I tend to take with a grain of salt. There’s not a ton of new music I find extremely engaging. I’d rather hear an older record I haven’t discovered or find a cool contemporary band and find what influenced them. At the same time, you have to keep up and release stuff that’s relevant. We wanted to avoid being a Classic rock band like the Rolling Stones. We wanted to evolve from that reference point, like The White Stripes, Hives, Vines, Libertines, The Coral, and Kings Of Leon.
 
“Retard Canard” has a distinct percolating Talking Heads feel. But their influence seems buried elsewhere.
 
That was a nice riff-based song that we went big on the C and G chord. They’re overused chords, but we didn’t have any songs that used those chords. So it was fun to play. We realized when we were rehearsing, why make it so complicated when sometimes the simple tunes are the most fun. Hopefully, that infectious feel will come across and people will enjoy it. At the same time, we do enjoy a challenge, pushing our comfort zone, and making us concentrate on what we’re doing. There’s a math-y type feel.
 
What songs were the most difficult to compose?
I guess something like “Blood, The Sun & Water.” “Nova Leigh” has parts that we weren’t sure of the time signature. It jumps in at weird intervals in a needlessly complicated way. (laughter) It sounds crazy.
 
On the other hand, I was struck by the easygoing temperance and unembellished whimsicality of “Sole Brother.”
 
That’s one of the worst cheesy puns as a title. It’s about me whining as an eleven year-old kid because I have to do all the chores. It’s supposed to be from a child’s perspective and how my sister never helped rake the yard. In a roundabout way, it’s about wanting to be an only child. It’s fictional though. It’s not like I don’t love my sister. Steve had these other lyrics for the second part about wanting his favorite rappers to be best friends. The ideas seemed to pair up well. It’s actually the first time we had a lyrical collaboration since high school.
 
Did Bob Dylan, in a circuitous way, influence your poetic narrative?
 
I bet it was a lot of Dylan. He was a catalyst in my writing in general – a fascinating obsession that rubbed off lyrically. I do read a lot fiction-wise. I like Bukowski, Steinbeck’s East Of Eden. I’m actually reading a lot of non-fiction now to get stories floating around in my head.

MARNIE STERN RIDIN’ HIGH ‘ON A TIGHTROPE’

When Marnie Stern fidgets with the neck of her electric guitar, sparks fly off her fingertips. A native New Yorker who still calls Manhattan home, the slim blonde-haired green-eyed lass attended prestigious downtown college, N.Y.U., graduating with a journalism degree, then spending a few years as an unfulfilled working stiff.

But against all odds, she turned a bedroom hobby into a career, learning the six-string on the side before trying her hand at making music for a living. Even though her closest friends thought she was crazy and she only knew a few rudimentary open chords, Stern took a chance, earning her stripes along the way.

Initially, Stern faced formidable residential resistance when her caterwauling groans and nimble noodling infiltrated the apartment complex where she resided. She claims, “The neighbors would say, ‘tell Sheryl Crow to pipe down.’ I lived in the Village and worked at it all day. I got a job as a secretary in an ad agency for six years.”

At age 30, Stern quit the agency gig and within four months was signed to notable anti-corporate boutique label, Kill Rock Stars. An attractive independent woman whose ‘bad-ass’ Jewish mother ultimately supported her decision to be a musician, the motivated string-bending howler quickly gained a solid rep as a tremendous talent. But first she had to convince her mom she wasn’t doing music just to shirk adulthood and avoid responsibilities.

“Once I got the record deal, she came around,” Stern proudly confirms.

Tremendously influenced by avant indie rock pillars, Deerhoof, she admits being challenged and compelled by their unexpected jazzy time signatures and Classic rock elements. But her childhood favorites were less obscure.

“I grew up listening to what my mom liked – Bruce Springsteen and The Who. That had a big affect on my second record (‘08s extraordinary eye-opening, ear-piercing, verbosely-titled breakthrough, This Is It And I Am It And You Are It And So Is That). It was just straight-up rock,” Stern informs.

Not reliant on typical machismo posturing such as frighteningly distended solos or needless astral wankering, the ambitious This Is It enjoyed underground success as a deliriously kaleidoscopic assortment of tersely convoluted tunes. Like a ticking time bomb exploding outward, Stern’s spangled metallic shards pierce through the dizzying claustrophobic tension unfurled by Hella’s noise-rock drummer Zach Hill. His tribal Siouxsie & The Banshees rhythmic assaults created an askew Burundi beat tumbling beneath Stern’s fleet-fingered curlicue finagling and rampaged childlike rants. “Shea Stadium,” an ode to blustering Storm & Stress timekeeper, Kevin Shea, receives a particularly tumultuous skin-bashed shellacking. On schizoid provocation, “Ruler,” Hill’s primal stop ‘n go tenacity complements Stern’s vociferously dribbled contrapuntal fury.

Though the lady could truly shred, Stern’s more in tune with popular craftsmen and under-appreciated post-punk denizens than seriously outré stylists such as Yngwie Malmsteen. But that’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate far-out metal-edged fretter Mick Barr from insanely experimental band, Krallice (whose Orthrelm solo disc Stern highly regards).

“I like Pete Townshend, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and the two guys in Ponytail – who have a feel similar to Deerhoof. Then there’s Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine of Television. Those are real originals,” Stern says before lighting a cigarette.

Tapping out flashy bottleneck riffs from a Fender Jazzmaster, Stern unwittingly counters her luxuriantly masculine guitar figures with twee-pop mezzo-soprano utterances. Practically in a league of her own, she finds it difficult to name more than a few female guitar competitors when put to the task. She swigs some soda, then praises Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Erase Errata’s Jenny Hoyston, and genre-bender Kaki King as worthy contemporaries. Heart mainstay Nancy Wilson also gets props.

“On my first record (‘07s formative In Advance Of The Broken Arm), it was really hard to find a place to put in the vocal melodies,” Stern explains. “Because I focus so much on the damn guitar, and listen to all these instrumental bands like Don Caballero, I wasn’t practicing vocals. When I decided to write song melodies, finding vocal placement was tough. I’d sit for hours trying a hundred different things. But I’m trying to use the high-end vocals less now.”

Though Stern’s lyrics seem secondary and indiscernible, she maintains that’s only a function of not being a good studio mixer. After all, as her press release states, she clearly ‘lives between the lines of chaos and harmony.’

“When there’s so much going on, it’s hard to get everything leveled out properly,” she confesses.

A sly progression in touch with the past but headed for the future, Stern’s latest project with collaborative pal, Hill, should expand her audience twofold. Taking its title from a Metropolitan Museum of Art painting, On A Tightrope ups the ante with better singing, frothier axe work, and more detailed tonicity (courtesy of new bassist Matthew Flegel and fledgling mixer Lars Stalfors).

Unafraid to manipulate true life ordeals via windy song titles and lamenting subject matter, Stern gets to the heart of the matter on typecasting Banshee-wailed tempest “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black” and lampooning mainstream snipe, “Transparency Is The New Mystery.” Breaking away from the typical circular guitar freak-outs, propulsive powderkeg, “Building A Body,” utilizes simpler chord progressions to interpret her painter friends’ request to make a musical illustration of the active human anatomy.

Truly, there are deeper thoughts captivating Stern this time out. A quick drum shuffle glides across the catch and release tension of Tightrope’s opening requiem, “For Ash,” a scurried homage to her suicidal ex-boyfriend who’s subsequently given a birthday salute on ruminating rumble, “Cinco De Mayo.”

But she leaves some space for less sobering fare. For kicks, her cat-like screeching roars above the splashy percussion reinforcing nifty T. Rex knockoff, “Nothing Left.” And the stoner rock milieu of “Her Confidence” jettisons hurriedly, becoming her most accessible piece yet, with its unifying ‘people get ready’ mantra and easily consumed finger-plucked ostinato cadences.

Though Stern complains about a current bout with writer’s block, it’s probably due to temporarily shooting her load all over the place on the bracing Tightrope. But you’d be hard-pressed to count her out. The late-coming indie-minded damsel already had the unmitigated audacity to break all the rules by proving a woman over thirty could still become a successful artist on her own terms.

For that, there is no denying. I’d bet dollars to donuts her future endeavors are just as formidable. Plus, there’ll be an ever-increasing amount of axe-wielding peers who’ll be genuinely affected by her every move.