Category Archives: Interviews

ALICE DONUT REINVIGORATED BY ‘THREE SISTERS’

FORWARD: Though Alice Donut obviously never garnered the aboveground attention they deserved, these heady Big Apple bohos certainly caught the attention of rabid dadaist punk-metal fans. In 2004, they returned from the grave with “Three Sisters,” a winning collection that inspired a full-scale subterranean comeback punctuated by ’06s “Fuzz.” After a live set at former Lower East Side club, Brownies, a few members begged me to drive them home to Brooklyn after imbibing bong hits. And I think another one was a reluctant speech writer or lobbyist for some conservative pundit.

Sometimes an extended hiatus regenerates burning desire in those few artistic individuals willing to expand upon their already heady ideals. Such is the case for devalued Lower East Side combo Alice Donut. Picture, if you will, a less depraved, more affable Butthole Surfers retaining the same odious vindictive streak, grotesque absurdist decadence, and scrappy psychedelic contour made all the more sinister by perpetual subversive undertones. Their pillaged moniker, a snickering rip on Detroit rockers Alice Cooper strangely juxtaposed against spook spoof Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, plus habitually gruesome album titles, match the chaotic tangle of frayed metallic noise, daredevil punk entropy, and scurvy folk twists these crazed fascist denizens crave.

At its inception, Alice Donut got signed by esteemed political activist (and ex-Dead Kennedys frontman) Jello Biafra, whose Alternative Tentacles label brought forth ‘88s ear-mangling Donut Comes Alive (its epithet being a frazzled piss-take on Peter Frampton’s massive selling ’76 live set). Wily Cuban-by-way-of-Georgia vocalist Tomas Antona blurts profoundly bizarre convolutions on this formative debut, yowling, whining, and screeching over Columbia University pals David Giffen (golf pro; Howler Records owner) and Ted Houghton’s wrangling guitar-bass helix, jolting dexterous Pennsylvania-bred Michael Jung to axe wielding heights in the process.

“Everyone in the band has distinct character and different influences,” Antona offers as we suck down Sierra Nevada Wheat Beer in my van one stormy April night on 2nd Avenue. “Stephen (Moses-drums) loves Frank Zappa, weird-ass Jazz, and Stravinsky. Michael got into Goth shit like The Cure and Killing Joke and used to hang out with greasers wearing AC/DC t-shirts. He was into twisted stuff after that. His guitar shit will go into 14/6 time when you walk in. Everyone has varying ideas and nobody gives an inch.”

Jung adds, “Tomas will write a song, but it never turns out close to what he thought it would be. We give it our own spin.”

“I’ll come in with an idea, play it for these fuckers. Nobody smiles. Everybody shrugs. It ends up being totally perverted,” Antona counters.

“Michael has eight hours of tune snippets. When he listens back, it’s not in the same key or has the same rhythm. Stephen and Mike start fucking around, then Sissy (Schulmeister-bass) does something.”

Jung declares, “He’ll be, ‘Do this!’ We’ll say, ‘We’re not doing that.’ It’s completely independent.”

Despite such broad-minded autonomy, these adroitly deranged mongrels have anxiously tolerated each other’s piquant peculiarities and spontaneous whimsicalities throughout. ‘89s twin pillars, the savagely raw, playfully obtuse Bucketfulls Of Sickness And Horror In An Otherwise Meaningless Life and the sacriliciously schizoid Mule (original bassist Houghton’s final bow), set the stage for ‘91s metal-edged Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent.

Jung recalls, “We did Revenge Fantasies in 14 hours. When we were doing the recording, Tomas was in the hallway getting lyrics ready. (Eccentric NYC producer) Kramer was a maniac. We’d try to hear something again and he’s like, ‘If you hear it again, it’ll lose the spontaneity. Ted would say, ‘Turn this up more.’ Kramer would rebut, ‘This is the mix!’”

“There was a story hidden in Revenge Fantasies and Kramer wouldn’t let me listen to the music,” Antona insists. “It ended up better ‘cause I would’ve changed the delivery. The first Gulf War was on our mind. That’s why we did Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and “Dead River.” There’s pieces of metal thrown in.”

Tracing back, Bucketfulls’ amusingly caustic “Lisa’s Father,” a sneering poke at a didactic Christian comic confronting a tiny molested girl and beaten-up Jack Daniels-consuming wife, became Alice Donut’s resonant calling card.

“That song didn’t fit on the first album, but that was how we got signed to Alternative Tentacles,” admits Antona. “You’d see those 4” by 2” born again comics on the street. There’s one on alcoholism. This one was about child abuse and totally fucked up and offensive towards the solution.”

“We’d made a home tape that’d been played at San Francisco’s KUSF. Biafra heard “Lisa’s Father” and wrote us a postcard, then came and signed us,” Jung infers.

By Mule, Schulmeister (now Antona’s wife) joined the touring unit just as the unholy disavowal “Mother Of Christ” defaced conservative snobs and had Catholic heads spinning.

Antona rationalizes, “Theologians have written shitloads about this. Medieval people would wonder, ‘Did Mother Mary cum?’ ‘Did the angel give it to her?’”

“Nobody’s buying the light in the ear theory,” Jung surmises.

Though more conventional, ‘92s wholly ambitious masterwork, The Untidy Suicides Of Your Degenerate Children, stands poised as Alice Donut’s crowning achievement alongside the ass-kicking Mule. However, notwithstanding great press and rising sales, concerned fans split into two camps speculating which direction they should take.

Antona explains, “Sonically, it’s best with noises and lots of different movements. It definitely had a louder production sound. Mule’s more playful and its lyrics might be better, but Suicides’ music is better and its mood grimmer.”

Though ‘95s resiliently pulverizing Pure Acid Park convincingly astonished their core audience by working banjo, washboard, and a Sissy-sung cover of Roky Erickson’s primeval psych classic “I Walk With The Zombies” into the mix, Alice Donut soon called it quits.

But a spark of creative intuition still existed, allowing the band to reform and release ‘04s resounding comeback, Three Sisters, on former comrade Giffen’s boutique Howler Records.

“It’s meant to be a trilogy (hence the title),” Antona claims. “This is the straight album. Some people say it sounds like rough drafts. These songs were longer, then chopped up.”

Jung asserts, “The second part of the trilogy may concentrate more on chopping things up, then piecing them back together again in a studio band situation. The third one would be to play the stuff we changed around and bring it back to real time. But those two parts may not be the next albums necessarily. We’re not making any promises.”

In spite of Manhattan’s higher rent costs, suppressive right-wing leadership, and nearby St. Mark’s Place’s phony trust fund ‘punk’ devolution, Alice Donut remain emphatically committed to bratty defiance on Three Sisters. Its opener, the molten trebly vamp “Kiss Me” bewitchingly snarls ‘did you miss me?’ in a facetiously degenerative manner. If the daringly snide “Cost” lacerates obstinate sociopolitical agenda, the half-spoken “Mr. Pinkus” mocks hypocritical high society wimps ‘searching in big pockets for that tiny rocket.’ With its imperative macabre lunge, the unsettled implosion “Helsinki” brings back memories of Blue Oyster Cult while its grungy buildup and cocaine indictment seep through to the archly cryptic “Wired.”

Even Three Sisters’ catchiest tracks maintain an undeniably cogent urgency. The hooky nasal-toned gimmick “Running Arms In The Philippines” packs an incessant punch mainstreamers should enjoy. Exploring a previously untapped sentimental side, the nearly poignant dirge, “Up Is Down,” faces everyday setbacks in an unexpectedly amiable humanistic fashion.
Comparing the current Lower East Side scene to that of the late ‘80s, both Jung and Antona confide that it’s more like Disney World now.

“I moved here in ’86,” Antona reminisces. “I still live on Avenue C. It was more exciting and fucked up then. There were lots of different music types: the Reverb Motherfuckers and the Willies. There was whacked out art – good and bad. The vibe and insanity influenced all of us. It wasn’t so codified. You’d see metal, hardcore, and soft folk bands next to each other. And it wouldn’t feel weird. At the end of 2nd and Avenue B was a heroin block. But it also had an amazing metal sculpture garden, the Garage. Even if you didn’t originally like someone’s art, you’d tend to be more struck by their individualism. The closed-mindedness of conformity has ruined this. Even the crusty punks and disco nights. I remember the first time I saw kids with enormous tennis shoes and bellbottoms in techno’s early days. Dee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” was a little splash. There’d be Gabby and hardcore punks, noise-rockers, a collection of characters.”

Jung follows up, “Back then, you’d fall into a hole in the wall to find great bands.”

As Alice Donut prepare to tour the West Coast and Europe before swinging back for an unofficial CBGB’s date in late July, busybody Giffen will likely rejoin the fearsome foursome as second guitarist. Long-time admirers already plan to expect the unexpected.

ACETONE CRUISE THRU ‘YORK BLVD’

FOREWORD: This article originally ran in Cover Magazine, a local Manhattan arts paper owned and operated by Jeff Wright. Unfortunately, months after the piece ran, Acetone bassist-vocalist Richie Lee commited suicide at age 34, July ’01. Formed in 1993, Acetone’s soft-toned folk-psych tranquility nicely countered the prevalent grunge scene’s nervy distortion-laced dislocation.

Meeting at a California art school several years back, guitarist/ vocalist Mark Lightcap and bassist/ backup vocalist Richie Lee originally gained exposure as part of San Diego’s high concept garage/ hot rod combo Spinout. But the contrivances of that bands’ singer and the firm belief they had taken Spinout as far as possible allowed the ambitious duo (along with recently departed drummer Steve Hadley) to form the highly respected band, Acetone. After a few promising, slo-core-related albums, they signed to Neil Young’s Vapor Records and recorded a critically acclaimed eponymous set that further expanded their impressionistic chill out sound.

Though not as low key and sedate as its predecessor, their fourth album, York Blvd, still offers restrained late night ambiance, entrancing moodscapes, and dynamic tension. Breezy harmonies give “Wonderful World” a minimalist Yo La Tengo-ish resonation while gently hummed moans quietly melt over the delicately reverberating “One Drop.” Chilly organ and elongated guitar chords give “Vaccination” a soulful boost and the Jazz-tinged “Vibrato” gets inundated by a buzzy solo guitar break.

“This album is closer to our debut, with its diversity and arrangements,” Lightcap admits after a well-received one hour set at the tiny, smoke-infested confines of East Village bar, the Lakeside Lounge.

“I like the cozy atmosphere. I’d rather play the Lakeside for no money than the Knitting Factory (for money). The set up is easier and the audience is so close,” he says.

Packed tightly into the 1,000 square foot backroom space with only a few rickety speakers are an increasing number of fans. Some are sitting on the floor directly in front of the stage while others stroll in late and block my view from a table close by. As Lightcap and Lee sing in hushed tones, subtle melodic riffs drift through the dense, cigarette-filled air.

Though I only got to share a few thoughts with the polite Lightcap after the set, I remember the wisdom this Philadelphia native gave me concerning Acetone awhile back when they were opening for similarly penetrating band, Spiritualized.

He said, “Our music is totally triangular. It exists because we make music that is indigenous to us. When we play live, there’s a lot of improvisation. There are nights where you suck live. But that’s the price you pay for keeping it fresh. We don’t play free Jazz jams, but there are some wild card elements.”

In fact, York Blvd. escapes self-indulgence because Acetone remain confident in their ability to construct carefully calibrated five minute songs. The warm melodies slip into the ether on the subdued “19,” which recalls the dreamier escapades of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The luminous “Like I Told You” has a cuddly feel that would fit in fine next to Fleetwood Mac’s worthwhile pre-fame album Bare Trees. Overall, a certain dramatic imagery enlightens each of the albums’ cuts.

Thankfully, Acetone has recently received radio exposure from New York’s listener supported WFUV-FM. Pulling into the driveway after heading home from a hard days’ work one night, it was so wonderful to hear the free form station discovering an understated group I knew deserved the recognition from the start. Here’s hoping their audience continues to grow.
-John Fortunato

BELLE & SEBASTIAN BIOGRAPHY – ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’

BELLE & SEBASTIAN BIOGRAPHY
“Dear Catastrophe Waitress”
(Rough Trade)

In the early ‘70s, detached rock heavyweights Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Steely Dan distanced themselves from their rabid minions by advantageously shunning interviews to garner larger-than-life mystique.

Though these rock figureheads went on to sell massive records and get rich, less determined Scottish underground pop mavericks Belle & Sebastian retain a smaller avid fan base earning far less money eschewing drooling press darlings.
Resisting the temptation of tabloid exposure, modest church janitor Stuart Murdoch may still be performing menial labor tasks while piloting the immensely evasive Belle & Sebastian.

A brilliant lyrical manipulator constructing remarkably pleasant low key tunes, Murdoch avoids the subversively camp, sugary twee-pop trappings epitomizing former fey fossils Pooh Sticks, Heavenly, and Jellyfish by using better lyrical imagery chiseled from a cynically mature perspective. Especially on early recordings, the ex-choirboy’s cautious, lisped Scottish accent – a chipper chestnut chirp – courted comparisons to ‘60s hippie Donovan’s fragile tenor wisp.
Perfecting deviously abstruse Beatles-Beach Boys songcraft, Belle & Sebastian managed to retain a healthy cult status ‘70s lost legends Big Star would appreciate. At their most tranquil, the resolute Glaswegians offered beautifully melancholic serenades of yearning vulnerability, nearly paralleling deceased folk icon Nick Drake’s brittle solemnity and pristine brilliance.
Countering the slash and burn of pre-existing shoegazer-grunge scavengers, Murdoch’s exhaustive emotional encounters and breathtakingly enthusiastic pronouncements were completely revelatory to nerdy teenage homebodies, attentive post-adolescent dames, and lonely abstinent collegiate conservatives wearily thirsting for canonical consultation post-Nirvana. Through his impressively pensive panoply of pastoral epiphanies and bucolic metaphors, the bashful, well-scrubbed shy boy effortlessly ushered in universal themes with an alluringly noir provocation as polished as the encrusted lush instrumental veneer partnered mainstays Stuart David, Stevie Jackson, and Isobel Campbell sustain.
Debuting overseas with ‘96s promising soft folk invocation Tigermilk (belatedly released three years hence in America), Belle & Sebastian sprinkled sympathetic piano and delicately jangled acoustics atop Murdoch’s understated articulations of precarious timidity and shaken insecurities. They haven’t yet rediscovered the melodically tidy insouciance offered on “She’s Losing It,” or, despite contrary verbiage, the mellifluent lullaby “I Don’t Love Anyone.” On the punchy guitar-etched verses of the infectious hand-clapped ‘kiss on the cheek,’ “You’re Just A Baby,” memories of the aforementioned Big Star dance in the brain.

Overlaid by joyous flute, the tuneful piano reclamation “We Rule The School” revisits youthful observances with balladic splendor. Rejoicing over vanquished celibacy, “My Wandering Days Are Over” announces its victorious outcome with triumphant trumpets. “Expectations” connects its neo-orchestral spaghetti Western theme to Tijuana mariachi in a deliriously complex climactic manner as Murdoch’s childlike falsetto squeals the decisive ‘top of the world’ reprisal. Selling approximately 1,000 copies independently, Tigermilk became a wildly high-prized collectable prior to Matador Records’ U.S. distribution.
Murdoch’s exquisite songwriting and honeyed larynx may have peaked on Belle & Sebastian’s indelible worldwide debut, If You’re Feeling Sinister, an intimate homespun masterpiece distinctively delivering tender reflections with calm precision, subdued concision, and preppy prim. Like a prolonged kiss on a worthy first date, its cresting hook lines and swirling ebb tides navigate a young girl’s heart. Ably penning expressive stanzas that initially hold back vital information, Murdoch lets stories unfold piecemeal, allowing unexpected vexing text to circumvent ideal outcomes.
Singing in a daintily femme tone, the casually swaying opener “The Stars Of Track And Field” connects Sinister to Tigermilk’s finale, the debonair buttercup, “Mary Jo,” and its own coy closer, the sentimental dreamscape “Judy And The Dream Of Horses.” Seductive organ now commonly informs the artful dodgers’ expansive colourfield as spiffy horns receive better prominence amongst the pushed-forward acoustic embellishments.
‘Passive’ and ‘cuddly’ are two descriptive words not only inscribed on the suave redemption “Seeing Other People,” but also representative of the entire Belle & Sebastian canon.

On the lilting title track, children play in the background as consolable Catholic convolutions caress carefree pianissimo. Delving deeper into social situations, a train whistle summons the caustic “Me And The Major,” which confronts the unwieldy generation gap separating two rail-bound passengers. Danger awaits an unsuspecting gal in the stalking “Like Dylan in The Movies,” which takes the alluded iconic singer-songwriter to task by whimsically referencing his circuitous Don’t Look Back documentary.

‘98s admirable The Boy With the Arab Strap may be a tad short on originality and fresh ideas, but the symphonic beguilement “Dirty Dream #2” and the Country-quilted “Simple Things” relish in the dazzling serendipitous wonderment of yore. Although the neo-Classical “Chick Factor” stumbles over some obvious psychedelic Left Banke chords, it gets thumbs up. So does the glossy soul confection “The Boy With The Arab Strap” (by definition: a subjugating penile appendage).

But the tear-stained tranquilizer “Seymour Stein” (an unlikely ode to the Sire Records magnate) and the ponderous prog-rock misstep “Spaceboy Dream” fall short of expectation. Analogously, the contemplative “Sleep The Clock Around” reviews the falling fortunes of a promising lass.
Despite rumors concerning Belle & Sebastian’s forthcoming demise, breakup, or retirement, ‘00s shimmering Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant kept the church candles burning. The stately harpsichord-laden confessional “The Model” illuminates brightly against the stark “Beyond The Sunrise,” which surprisingly features Stevie Jackson’s deep baritone and newest member Sarah Martin’s velvety contralto. Martin also handles the affable lunar reconciliation “Waiting For The Moon To Rise.”

But it’s the Murdoch-sung retro-soul maneuver, “Don’t Leave The Light On Baby,” that truly hits home in a sullen manner dark luminaries Lambchop and Tindersticks comprehend. The song title “Nice Day For A Sulk” summarizes the oft-times overcast mood.
Unexpectedly, the Glasgow troupe handed the reigns to overzealous producer Trevor Horn (ABC/ Frankie Goes To Hollywood) for ‘03s multifarious comeback, Dear Catastophe Waitress, which coincided with their longest US tour (a mere 15 dates). Though it’s doubtful any divergent paths chosen lead down blind alleys, a sense of lost innocence and indecisiveness account for slight alterations. Whereas past recordings hid imaginative borrowings, such is no longer the case.

 

Yet Murdoch’s tricky lyrical juxtaposition between guarded optimism and despairing disillusionment remained unfettered.
There are some winning moments, indeed. The challenging suite, “Step Into My Office Baby,” intertwines loopy horn flutters, chuggin’ guitar-drum beats, Carnaby Street pop, and billowy Beach Boys harmonies into a festive exhortation discerning fans will be rapturously caught off-guard approving.
Just as unanticipated, the ensuing “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” maintains the same expeditious tempo, gaining resilience from its chopped-up titular refrain and tossing in muted trumpet and xylophone amongst crashing orchestration. Singing more assuredly than ever, Murdoch’s excitable tenor wondrously climbs above the Gospel-licked organ grazing the gleeful “If She Wants Me.”
However, the seams begin to show as stylistic fodder conveniently concealed in the corridor on previous long-players now affects Belle & Sebastian’s majestic grandeur first-hand. The cheeky Anglo-folk strummer, “Piazza, New York Catcher,” dangles the baseball superstar’s sexuality across a love tryst while the Left Banke’s dour hit single, “Walk Away Renee,” gets used as an ironic epitaph (further enforcing that ‘60s band’s minor influence). The vindictive snickering snipe “You Don’t Send Me” snubs a bygone ‘darling’ by inverting Sam Cooke’s nifty love classic and familiar Thin Lizzy guitar riffs saddle the horn-soaked “I’m A Cuckoo.”

Nonetheless, the extended sextet sail home smoothly on the seaworthy private school remembrance “Lord Anthony” and the funky faux-Jazz fling “Roy Walker.” The latter benefits from newfound clustered choral chanting, barroom blues guitar vamps, and a “Highway 61” kazoo signature. “Stay Loose,” a salient new wave/ garage-meshed organ droner, ends the variegated disc on an encouraging note.
Continually elusive, Murdoch, to my knowledge, has only granted one Waitress interview thus far – for satirical bastions The Onion. He remains a reluctant avatar a la greater known ex-Pink Floyd acid casualty Syd Barrett and brain-damaged original Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green. Let’s hope he doesn’t suffer their enigmatic fate.