Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Back to Bassics: A Chat with Tony Levin

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Among musicians, Tony Levin is as close as once can come to being a household name. Among the wider public, he’s not well known at all. That may be because recordings under his own name have had a relatively low profile, despite Levin’s having played on several hundred recordings with and by other artists. He’s one of those stellar musicians about which one can say, “you may not know his name, but you’ve heard his playing.” His instrument (chiefly but certainly not exclusively bass guitar) and voice have graced recordings by everyone from John Lennon to King Crimson, from Alice Cooper to Pink Floyd, from Buddy Rich to Yes. This dizzyingly versatile musician has just finished up a highly acclaimed tour with the three-drummer version of King Crimson, and has just released a collaborative album with his brother – pianist/organist Pete Levin – called Levin Brothers. But the music on the album is neither progressive rock nor pop: it’s jazz, fifties-style.


Bill Kopp: More than any other musician I can think of, you’ve played live and recorded in most every genre. Do you bring any specific sort of mindset to bear on a project based on the style you’ll be playing? In other words, do you approach sessions for The Levin Brothers album differently than, say, King Crimson?

Tony Levin: I listen to the music (assuming it’s not my compositions that I wrote for the project); I listen and just try to hear a bass part that best suits that music. I don’t come in with an agenda of what I want to play, or even pick what bass (unless I have to travel to the studio – in that case I’ll try to hear the music ahead of time and decide then.)

That describes my playing too, not just the process — like any fan of the music, I’m listening to the song if that’s what it is, or to Robert Fripp‘s guitar line if that is what it is. And I try to do something to enhance it.

Bill: To what degree were the tracks on Levin Brothers “composed,” and to what extent did they develop in the studio?

Tony: We wrote the songs completely, like you do with jazz records – then left the soloing for the players. The drum parts, Jeff [Siegel] sorted out very quickly and easily.

Bill: You play (at least) bass guitar, Chapman Stick, NS electric cello, and upright bass. Do you view those as four wholly distinct instruments, or is it more of a case of them being different extensions — tools — of your musical expression, chosen based on the project at hand?

Tony: I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d agree with your description of them as tools. I’m always the bassist in the band, so looking at what the bottom end will provide, and the sound differences among those instruments, even subtle differences, mean a lot to me in determining what will work. Sometimes the drum sound affects the amount of low end that’s left for me, so I may choose an instrument just because it has a big warm sound, or because it doesn’t have that.

Bill: Is this the first recorded collaboration with your brother? When working with him, do you experience anything musically unique, any sort of unspoken-yet-silently-understood level of communication?

Tony: We’ve worked together a lot, in various bands, through the years. We work great together and if we’re straight on where the music is heading, we each trust each other’s vision of how to do it. We also play locally, as a duo, pretty much whenever there’s a benefit show that needs a duet to help raise some funds… so the album isn’t really the first time we’ve played jazz together — but it is our first release.

Bill: The style of music you’re playing on Levin Brothers is most closely associated with the late 1950s and early 60s. But the style has clearly endured, sounding fresh today. Why do you think that this kind of music is so timeless (assuming you do think so)?

Tony: I was indeed struck by how the cool jazz I’d heard as a kid stayed with me all these years. I attribute that to the great songwriting and soloing of those players – Oscar Pettiford on cello and bass, Julius Watkins on French horn, Charlie Rouse on sax. So we didn’t copy their songs, but we did stay with the simpler chord structures of that style, and tried — hopefully with a little success — to write some songs that will have you humming them to yourself.

Bill: The album has that everybody-playing-together feel that’s so important on jazz recordings. Was it in fact done that way, or were the pieces assembled with other parts — drums, guitar etc. – overdubbed?

Tony: We tried a variety of approaches: we did demos that were there to overdub onto, and did some stuff from scratch in the studio. Usually, though, we had worked out in advance the tempo that was just right for each song. In my experience it can be a big time waste if you’re searching for the tempo, and with Pete and I together all the time it was pretty easy to practice them at different tempos ’til we arrived at the best one.

Bill: Considering all the tracks you’ve played on, and all of the musical styles you’ve played, is there a type of music you haven’t yet but would like to work on?

Tony: I don’t think about styles too much…and though I’m flattered about your description, really there are lots of styles I don’t play, or have only played a little. I think Latin music, particularly Latin jazz, is really fun and cool, but have only done a little of it. Likewise I love the power of heavy metal, which requires a particular recording style — and I’ve only been exposed to that a couple of times.

Bill: Is there anyone you’d really like to work with that you haven’t?

Who would I love to play with? Jimi Hendrix. Think you can arrange it?

Bill: Are there any plans for live dates in support of the Levin Brothers album?

Tony: We will tour for sure, but it’s hard to predict the season at this time. It depends on scheduling of a number of bands, and we’re trying to sort that out now and make plans to bring our music everywhere we can.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part Two)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Continued from Part One

By 1993, as the first signing of the reactivated Sun Records, Jason D. Williams released Wild. Sessions for that disc took place in the storied studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. “A lot of big name entertainers who’ve recorded there use the word channel. They feel like they’re channeling the greats who have recorded there before them. Not me,” he insists. “That took care of itself. But my reason for being there was that, believe it or not, it was on my bucket list.” Jason had only played there previously, he says, “as a youngster, playing one song on a Johnny Rivers album.” In the 90s, while doing session in Memphis for Dale Watson, Williams thought, “Sun is right around the corner. Why have I never done a session of my own there? I know everybody who’s ever recorded here!” So he did.

“I had my little boy there with me,” Jason beams. “To see him asleep on the floor there at two in the morning was a real joy. My wife would be in the booth, and I’d be in the studio. We’d cut something, and I’d have to step over my son to get back to the engineer’s room. It was fun.”

Eventually starting his own label, Williams followed up Wild with a string of albums, and the titles set the tone: 2004′s Don’t Get None Onya; Rockin’; Killer Instincts; Recycled; and his latest, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. While the sessions for 2010′s Killer Instincts were initially planned as a mostly-covers project, the strength of Williams’ original numbers – including the standouts “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “White Trash Wife” – tilted the song selection toward new material.

Prior to Killer Instincts, Williams seemed uncomfortable trading on his genetic connection to Jerry Lee Lewis; even today he answers questions on that subject with uncharacteristically brief replies. Clearly he prefers to be measured on the strength of his own work. Still, there’s no denying that Williams’ visual style is highly reminiscent of a young Jerry Lee: stomping the upper registers of the piano with his right foot; his long forelocks dangling in front of his sweaty face; his overall playing approach that is equal parts mania and assured control.

On 2014′s Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, Williams serves up an assortment that is weighted evenly between originals and other people’s songs, but his renditions of the latter are Jason D. Williams through and through. Joe Ely‘s “Fingernails” ends up serving as a theme song of sorts: Williams pounds the daylights out of the ivories while explaining that “I leave my fingernails long so it clicks when I play the piano.” He’s as comfortable playing flowery licks on weepers like Hank Williams‘ (no relation) “You Win Again,” and though Elvis cut the most well-known version of “Mean Woman Blues,” Williams makes the tune his own. And Jason demonstrates his command of uptempo tent-revival gospel with the album’s two final cuts, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Jason returned to Sun Studio for Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, and the studio’s aesthetic formed an important part of the sound captured there. Williams says that all the album’s songs were recorded in “one take. On everything except ‘You Win Again,’ where I went in and added strings afterward. If we messed up, we’d just start over. And we just had a mic in the middle of the room.”

“You know,” Williams continues, “Roy Orbison said that he became a stronger singer every time he recorded at Sun. He had to sing over the instruments, the way they used to record. And I could certainly see what he was talking about when I recorded there, too.”

Though his trademark sound is to most ears an agressively-attacked acoustic piano, most days Williams plays an amplified Kawai piano. He favors a model that he says the company “stopped making in 1980,” and he has made an effort to find as many as possible of that increasingly-rare model for himself ever since. For live gigs – Williams tours to more than 160 dates annually – he’s joined by guitar, bass and drums. He chuckles and adds that the band is occasionally augmented by “another piece on the end: violin, saxophone, trombone…anything, as long as they can add to the show!”

These days, there are still a few items remaining on Jason D. Williams’ bucket list. Jerry Lee Lewis “lives just down the street; we visit from time to time.” And though it hasn’t happened recently (they have played together informally a select few times), Williams hopes that he will once again get to share a performance stage with his biological father. Until – and doubtless after – that happens, concertgoers will get the chance to see a high energy show that builds on the music foundation of old.

Jason D. Williams will appear onstage at the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands NC on Friday, November 28 (that’s the day after Thanksgiving). Visit his website at www.rockinjasondwilliams.com.

Note: An edited version of this feature originally appeared in print in the September 2014 issue of Stomp and Stammer Magazine.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part One)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Though his in-the-grand-tradition bio sheet asserts that Jason D. Williams first played a piano at age three, when I ask him about it, he concedes that his serious interest in the keyboard commenced around his ninth year. “I started taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher. I had a lot of great influences, from [African American blues pianist] Booker T. Lowery to Memphis Slim to classical artists. A lot of jazz greats like Phineas Newborn, too, plus a lot of good, left-hand boogie woogie players. And all points in between.”

Jason grew up in a small south Arkansas town called El Dorado. And there, his schooling in music would expand into some unlikely directions. He recalls, “There was a group of kids – they were a little older than I was – and they were into some of the west coast record labels like Takoma. We’d listen to people like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, George Winston, and Doc Watson. At the time, those were as big an influence on me as anything.” He also consumed a steady diet of big bands and jazz greats; he mentions Della Reese as a favorite.

As a direct result of distilling those influences, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Williams’ own music is its variety. Jason is sometimes pigeonholed as a rockabilly pianist, but his style is too expansive to fit neatly into any such box. In his original and carefully-chosen covers, one hears blues, jazz, r&b, country, gospel. And that all-encompassing approach might remind listeners that the music of the early pioneers of rock’n'roll – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, even Ike Turner – didn’t fit neatly into any one of those boxes, either.

“I was a mixing bowl combined with a sponge,” Williams says, mixing a couple of metaphors in that bowl. “I could watch anybody entertain, from Al Jolson to Jerry Lee to Cab Calloway. And I would take a little bit from each of them.” He muses on the all-around-entertainer nature of vaudeville performers who inspired him: “You had to be able to tap dance, balance stuff on your head. And play upside down. And I got all that from people like Sammy Davis, Jr., and watching old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show.”

And in fact, though Williams was raised by a pair of loving adoptive parents, he eventually learned that his biological father was none other than the man known as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jason was conceived mere months after Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” (from his debut LP on Sun Records) scaled Top 40 pop, country and r&b charts. So while he had studied and absorbed the work of many performers and composers, Jason is convinced that heredity played a part: “The style was probably genetically already there.”

Showing that he has at least a touch of his biological father’s bravura, Williams asserts, “I’m a combination of Joe Namath, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jackson Pollock.” I laugh and then pause, giving him space to elaborate. He doesn’t, leaving me to ruminate on this name-checking non sequitur.

The Jason D. Williams story – or at least the performing and recording part of it – began when he left El Dorado at sixteen. He joined the touring band of rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef; he still occasionally performs with the guitarist. At the tail-end of the 1980s, he – or at least his hands – starred on the big screen in the feature film Great Balls of Fire, performing the songs made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. That same year Williams signed with RCA and cut his first album, Tore Up. On that record, his original songs fit in seamlessly with rocked-up readings of chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary” and Larry Williams‘ 1958 classic “Slow Down.”

A regular solo gig at Memphis’ famed Peabody Hotel (the one with the ducks) increased Williams’ profile. A vertigo-inducing 1990 music video of Williams and band atop Knoxville, Tennessee’s iconic Sunsphere (performing “Tore Up” and “Everybody Rockin’ on a Saturday Night”) does a good job of capturing the excitement of the pianist in a live setting, and showcases his dazzlingly precise speed-riffing on the ivories.

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A Chat With The Turtles’ Mark Volman, Part 2

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I was ten when the film came out, and even though Dirty Duck was a cartoon, I wasn’t allowed to see that one. It got an X rating…

Mark Volman: Right! “Livin’ in the Jungle” came from that, and several others. “Get Away,” “This Could Be the Day,” an unreleased version of “Goodbye Surprise,” and “(You’re Nothing But a) Good Duck.” And another song we did called “Rollin’ in the Hay.” “Youth in Asia,” “Mystic Martha,” and “The Big Showdown.” Some of those were some sort of [Bruce] Springsteen stuff that we were messing around with. Those are all unheard material that we thought maybe we could add to make a Battle of the Bands reissue even more special. It would have a little more volume to it, instead of just being a 34-minute record. So we’ll see how that comes out.

It’s fun to dig into the archives. We haven’t really unearthed our old unreleased stuff the way that other artists have, because we didn’t feel that there was really that big of an audience for it.

Bill: I’m a big fan of the Flo & Eddie albums.

Mark: All of it is available. If you go onto The Turtles‘ site, you can buy albums one and two (The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie from 1972, and 1974′s Flo & Eddie) and albums three and four (1975′s Illegal, Immoral and Fattening and Moving Targets from 1976). We packaged the two Warner Brothers albums together, and the two Columbia ones together on CD. And online you can actually download the reggae album (1981′s Rock Steady with Flo & Eddie).

Bill: That one’s very, very hard to find on vinyl…

Mark: And it would be a hard one to pull together for a CD or vinyl release, because of all the song ownerships. But it hasn’t escaped us as a potential vinyl reissue. As well as The Crossfires! We did a CD reissue [of the pre-Turtles surf group], and one of our hopes is to do a vinyl reissue. Ultimately, the plan would be to do vinyl reissues of all of those, and then put them in a box set for sale in Europe. Because the fan base over there knows our history, because our connection to Frank Zappa.

The music of Flo & Eddie never, unfortunately, broke in America the way it did in Europe and internationally.

Bill: I was at a garage sale last summer, and I stumbled across a copy of the 1982 Checkpoint Charlie EP. The one where the record plays from the inside out.

Mark: What a fun record that was! You know what’s so funny, that record – as crazy as it was to do – we did it in an afternoon. We sold Rhino on the whole idea; not just spinning it backwards, but doing it using only kids’ toys. All the recorded instruments are just toys, stuff that a kid could own at the time. It was a hidden project for years. When Rhino finally put it out, it became kind of an underground thing. And listening to it today, we were really way ahead of what the curve was at that time, in terms of the whole electronic thing; it hadn’t really happened yet. We just did it as a one-time thing and then moved on to something else.

Same with the reggae album: we were just messing around with that, and then we found somebody to finance us going down there [to Jamaica]. Because we didn’t want ot do it with a bunch of musicians from California!

Bill: Howard has been quite bust the last several years, what with the My Dinner with Jimi film and his book with Jeff Tamarkin. Besides touring with Flo and Eddie and the Turtles, and teaching at Belmont University, what do you have going on these days?

Mark: I’m a full time professor. So I don’t really have a lot of extra time. This new box set has been about a twenty-four month consideration. Right now our Happy Together tours fill up summertime, so we really don’t have to do a whole lot of extra touring. This last year we did a show up in Bearsville NY, at the Performing Arts Center, with Dweezil Zappa. So we’re talking about maybe playing the music if his dad, and taking that overseas. So there’s all that, and we’re pushing these vinyl reissues now – we did the Happy Together and It Ain’t Me, Babe albums on vinyl just last year. And besides Battle of the Bands, we’re also looking at reissuing Turtle Soup on vinyl. And otherwise we’ll kind of lay low.

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A Chat with The Turtles’ Mark Volman, Part 1

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The TurtlesMark Volman and Howard Kaylan, aka Flo & Eddie – have worked tirelessly to regain the rights and control over their catalog; the latest fruit of their labor is a new 7-record box set containing 45rpm records. I spoke to Mark about that set, their larger plans of a vinyl reissue program, and a few of their lesser-known works. – bk

Bill Kopp: There’s something special about having Turtles music on vinyl. Just last year, FloEdCo reissued the Happy Together and It Ain’t Me, Babe albums on vinyl, and now there’s this set of 45s. After years of not having control over reissues, and seeing haphazard collections of your music coming out, how does it feel to be able to, shall we say, set things right?

Mark Volman: Well, of course that’s always been on our minds. There were so many outside deals that had been negotiated. We needed to clean up everything, and it took a long time. I would guess that some of the deals had to be attacked a lot more than others; some just had to kind of run out. But ultimately, to do things right, we wanted to get everything in-house. And that took a whole lot of years.

But vinyl has always been something that we loved, because we collect; both Howard and I are fans of vinyl. I’ve collected 45s and albums since the sixties. So having the ability to pull this stuff together for vinyl collectors has been really fun. We did the Greatest Hits; the 45s that we’re putting out are another version of that, but we wanted to do something in kind of a fun way. So we created a reproduction of the original way these came out: we used the colors of the label…

Bill: The deep blue labels are very reminiscent of the White Whale labels on the 60s records…

Mark: Yeah. And we wanted to include the “Turtles on 45” spindle in case people needed it. Everything about it was nearly done, and we got to the point where it’s going to be made available internationally. We’re really excited about it, though I don’t expect it to sell more than three, four, maybe five thousand copies.

For the last two years, we took a prototype of this package out on tour with us, and sold them. And those limited edition ones were in a little different package, and they were sold on our Happy Together tours. This upcoming summer, the fifty cities that we’ll hit, we’ll take out this new version. There’s a diehard fan base that stays with us through the years, and they just love it when we put together this kind of thing.

Bill: The one thing – and this isn’t a criticism, it’s a question – is that you didn’t include a set of liner notes, a booklet or anything. I wonder if that was a missed opportunity.

Mark: I think that The Turtles history is pretty intact online. If someone wanted to go online, they could read all about it. And every greatest-hits album that we’ve put out has had a little blurb or something. What we really did here was just focus on the records coming out. We weren’t really trying to reach a new audience as much as we were providing a new version for the older audience.

We didn’t want to do a booklet; we had our choice: we could have done six 45s and a booklet, or eight 45s. We felt it was more important to put the songs in there. And so rather than treat it like it was history, we presented it like it was new.

Bill: Are there any plans to reissue other Turtles music on vinyl? Maybe my favorite of The Turtles’ albums, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands?

Mark: Yes. In fact Howard and I entered into discussions about a couple of things. Battle of the Bands, definitely. But if we do that, we want to do it with all the visuals, and do a little bit more of a presentation. There’s also a second Battle of the Bands record that Howard and I have assembled, which includes a lot of music that was never released. That includes some of the things that Howard and I did for movies. We wrote original songs for some movies back in the 70s. And we called it Battle of the Bands just so we had a way to refer to it. So what we’re considering is repackaging Battle of the Bands on vinyl, but with a second record. There’s stuff from the motion picture The Dirty Duck

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Bonus Weekend Feature: 101 Runners

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

I’m getting married today! And I’m so happy about it that I have a gift for my readers: an extra, weekend piece. This is an edited version of a feature that ran a couple of weeks ago in Asheville NC’s local altweekly, Mountain Xpress. — bk


New Orleans is rightly acclaimed as the birthplace of jazz, that most American of art forms. But the city’s rich, multi-ethnic heritage gave rise to an even earlier musical style. Though Mardi Gras Indian funk doesn’t enjoy jazz’s high profile, the lively and expressive form is kept alive through the music and performances of groups like 101 Runners. Recently in Asheville for two shows, Sep. 13 and 14, and featuring War Chief Juan Pardo, the group is an exemplar of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, renowned for pageantry and reveling at Mardi Gras carnivals in New Orleans.

Band leader Chris Jones characterizes Mardi Gras Indian funk as the musical product of “a magic, mystical, spiritual and ancestral tradition” dating back to the late 1800s, a time during which “local Indian tribes and formerly enslaved African Americans had commonality.” These ethnic groups had common problems, and helped each other in many different ways. Centered around New Orleans’ Congo Market, they interacted freely and often, trading goods and mingling bloodlines. Jones points out that the oral tradition of singing, chanting and drumming that developed among the combined cultures is “relatively undocumented,” though some recordings by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton showcased the developing style. The first tribe debuted in the 1880s, calling itself The Creole Wild West; they remain active today. Jones considers the Mardi Gras Indian tradition “one of the most incredible subculture phenomena” in America: “two of the most oppressed peoples of the time were able – through craft and song – to form a bond that helped them weather the storm.” And that strength has helped the tradition continue to this day. “There’s a lot of mystery” to that tradition, Jones says. “A lot of things, they keep close to their vest.”

Asheville’s Goombay festival, then, is an ideal showcase for 101 Runners. The deep connection between Native Americans and African Americans is explored in the group’s percussion-centric music.

Perhaps the most well-known major group exploring the style was The Wild Tchoupitoulas; produced by Allen Toussaint, their 1976 album brought the style to national prominence. They added “a foundation of funk organization” to traditional tribal drumming. 101 Runners build on that style, further exploring the music’s African percussion roots. “A lot of the music starts with the chants and percussion, then the music comes in,” Jones explains. “Then we go on the musical journey together.” He laughs and sums it up as “organized chaos.”

The band’s pair of Asheville dates – an “official Goombay after party” at New Mountain, and a parade and show to close out Goombay on Saturday night – featured African dancers and the flamboyantly dressed Mardi Gras Indians. 101 Runners widened their musical vision further to include a number of local Appalachian musicians who joined in. Jones has experience in this area: he conceived and produced the BlueBrass Project, a series of recordings that paired New Orleans and Appalachian musical styles. Asheville-based musicians Jay Sanders and Woody Wood are veteran members of the loosely-knit 101 Runners collective. Asheville concertgoers experienced a unique mashup of cultures and roots music styles. By focusing on that – plus the African elements highlighted in the Goombay festival – the group could “cross-pollinate.”

“They originally wanted us to play 45 minutes” at Goombay, Jones says. “That’s like two tunes for us!” 101 Runners negotiated to play longer. But Jones stresses that the dance-oriented, partying Mardi Gras Indian funk is about fun; it’s not “deep and trippy and jammy.”

Jones says that War Chief Juan Pardo “spends countless hours” creating his outfit; the result is full of beads, feathers, rhinestones and other colorful ornamentation. There’s nothing like a 101 Runners performance, promises Jones. Onstage, 101 Runners are “never the same thing twice. In ten years, we’ve had two rehearsals. And one of them was terrible!” Jones observes that the ancestral nature of the music – paying tribute to so many American traditions – can often “wake up some of the ones who came before. One thing I learned really early was not to put any confines on it. We let the music take us where it goes; it’s moving artistic expression.”

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Five

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Continued from Part Four…

Bill Kopp: For a lot of people, myself included, Dear 23 and/or Frosting on the Beater are cited as the best Posies work. With Amazing Disgrace, you went in a much harder rocking direction. There wasn’t really anything on Failure that sort of hinted at that sort of future. Was the change a sort of natural progression for you both, or was a conscious decision: “hey, let’s rock out on this one.”

Ken Stringfellow: It’s very easy to explain. When you listen to Failure, you’re listening to a duo who had never toured, never played in a club. We had played two acoustic shows. By the time of the release Dear 23, we had been playing as a local band quite a bit, but had done very minimal touring. But then we toured and toured and toured throughout the US. And then we played empty clubs for a year, and then we toured with The Replacements, which was obviously much better. And then after that we were a touring juggernaut. Venues were packed. And it upped the ante on our live show. The energy you have playing in clubs for four people night after night, I’m sad to say, is different than playing to 500 or 800 people who are really into it. We gained confidence, and we enjoyed playing intensely. And that resulted in a more rock kind of presentation.

Jon Auer: It wasn’t a conscious move, not at all. I wish I could say The Posies were calculated, but we really weren’t. When I look back at things, I see that we just went where the music took us. Every one of our records from that era is incredibly different. Amazing Disgrace is an eclectic bunch of songs, if you really listen to it. By the time we made that record, we were a little angrier. We had gone from youthful enthusiasm to early adulthood, a time when you’re figuring out how the world works for you.

Even from the time of Dear 23, if you had seen us onstage, we were a rock band from the get-go. By Frosting on the Beater, it became more about the visceral side of things; there was still craftsmanship, but it was more about the energy.

Bill: If you’ve got a rhythm section behind you, kicking your ass, then it’s going to rock harder…

Jon: And playing in front of people makes a difference. You can be precious about things in the studio, but I’ve found that doesn’t transfer live. I want energy when I see someone play live; otherwise, what’s the point? I can stay home and listen to the record.

Bill: The last Posies album was Blood/Candy, and that was four years ago…

Jon: It’s really cyclical with The Posies, because we both have a lot of things going on otherwise. It’s a long term relationship, so it’s good for us to be able to do all these other things. We’ve got these reissues happening, but we don’t want to just be pushing the old; we want to push the new, too. So while I can’t say when, I feel like it’s going to be sooner than later. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see something new [from The Posies]  in the next year…or two.

Jon and Ken also talked with me at some length about Big Star. We reflected on their experiences as young musicians discovering the band for the first time, and then upon later years as members of the re-formed lineup. I’ll share those in a feature that will be out later this year, around the time of the release of a Memphis Big Star concert. – bk

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Four

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: There’s a track of yours on Yellow Pills Volume 2, “Saying Sorry to Myself.” To my ears it has all the hallmarks of the first album. I like the way you take a bit of the lyric of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and stand it on its head. Does the song date from the period around the making of Failure, or is a later recording?

Ken Stringfellow: It’s funny that you bring that song up. We haven’t played it in ten, fifteen years. I just had someone write me from Japan today, asking me if I had the lyrics to that song handy. I said no; I hadn’t even thought about it in fifteen years. By the time we got around to recording “Saying Sorry to Myself,” it was with a full band. It was done, I think, at Egg Studios, an eight-track studio that was owned by the owner of PopLlama.

Jon Auer: It’s interesting that you picked that song to mention. That’s one that kind of got thrown by the wayside. If you consider that it was an eighteen year old singing it, it does have the feeling of someone a little bit older. I’m glad that you appreciate that one.

Ken: That song followed on the heels of Failure, as our songwriting transitioned from the chirpy, bright- eyed, bushy-tailed thing that Failure is. Every line in “Saying Sorry to Myself” is clever wordplay. That clever thing was very appealing to us, because we were not grown up or experienced enough to put that much emotional depth into words. But things started to happen shortly after that; we matured, and some of the darkness that we knew from our young lives started to make its way into the lyrical content. The mood of things got a little deeper even by our next album.

Just as Failure came out, and we did find a bass player (Rick Roberts) and drummer (Mike Musburger), I moved into an apartment in the house that they were sharing. And a month later Mike moved out to his own apartment, and Jon moved in. We had a central room in that house to rehearse in. I dropped out of college and took a job that wasn’t too demanding so that I could have my living expenses covered. And that summer of 1988, we really got into writing a lot of songs. A lot of those songs were in the vein of “Saying Sorry to Myself.” And in that house we wrote a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto our 1990 album Dear 23. We were more dialed into things; three of the four of us worked in record stores, so we had access to a lot of things.

And in turning this chirpy, clever kind of melodic pop songwriting into something with more depth, it was at this time that we were introduced to the music of Big Star. And that was thanks to some of the more wise fellows who worked in those record stores. And that changed our songwriting: here was great, exuberant pop music with a lot more depth and wistfulness, a whole ‘nother emotional dimension. And it was made by people who were our age: when #1 Record came out, Alex Chilton was about 20. They set our bar to a whole different level.

The subsequent intertwining of The Posies and Big Star and REM is getting into the quantum physics field. It’s so odd that I went from such a distant observer of these bands to entering their lives.

Jon: I’m the guy who had to go through the archives for all these reissues that are coming out. After Failure, eventually Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace are all getting this reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings. And I think that “Saying sorry to Myself” has definitely got to be a bonus track on the Dear 23 reissue. I had forgotten we had so much stuff; these reissues are not going to be like just repackaging. We’re going to have a hard time figuring out what not to put on these things.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Three

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Ken Stringfellow: Listening to Failure, it would be hard to tell what we were listening to. Because the album has a very sixties vibe to it, kind of like if some sixties beat group moved to California. But I can give you a breakdown that will show you where some of these songs came from. I can tell you what I think they’re direct rip-offs of, and you’ll see through the sixties-ness of them to the original source.

“Under Easy” sounds a bit like The Byrds or something like that. But it really is [based on] a Bob Mould song. There’s so many Bob Mouldisms in the chord progression and melody; it’s just that the production fools you into thinking it’s sixties-based. We were absolutely obsessed with Hüsker Dü; they were heading into a more songwriter-y vibe; they had left the punk sound behind.

Jon Auer: Two bands that we absolutely worshiped were The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Ken: “At Least for Now” is maybe a little closer to its source. It’s a less agonized version of a Paul Westerberg song. Imagine it as a slightly more cheerful version of “Here Comes a Regular.” We were massive Replacements fans. And what was a nice turnaround is that when this record got released as an LP and started to get national airplay, it really became a favorite of Paul Westerberg’s. He took us on tour shortly thereafter.

“I May Hate You Sometimes” seems like it’s some sort of Beatles ’65 thing, but if you listen to the wordplay and the nonstop vocals, it’s a little bit of Elvis Costello. It’s a title that has so much irony in it that it’s not clever enough to be great irony.

Jon: You can certainly hear the influence of The Beatles, but any record made past a certain time has that influence on it. If you wanted to compare “I May Hate You Sometimes” with “The Word” from Rubber Soul, we copied the cowbell, the percussion track. It’s pretty much an homage; we just ripped ‘em off.

Ken: Of course we had the sixties music influence because of our parents and their record collections – those were the first records we were encountering – but at the time, we listened to a lot of the great, clever songwriters of the UK scene: Squeeze, XTC. In fact the drum intro in “Paint Me” is directly lifted from XTC’s “Ball and Chain.”

Jon: A band that cannot be underrated as an influence upon us at the time is XTC. So while we were into the sixties scene, we were influenced by artists who had been influenced by it as well. Skylarking is one of my favorite records; so much so that on our album Frosting on the Beater, we tried to sequence the songs in the same way that they did on Skylarking. I’m giving you way too much information; you get the gist.

Ken: “The Longest Line” is [based on] a Smiths song on Meat is Murder. And you can hear REM influence on “Believe in Something Other than Yourself,” even down to the chord progressions. It’s dangerously close to the chorus of “Radio Free Europe.” And there’s a thing in “What Little Remains” with a kind of reverb-y backing vocal; that’s directly ripped off from REM’s “Pilgrimage.”

I was really into the California punk scene with Black Flag and Dead Kennedys; and Blue Note Records stuff was a big influence on me…even though there’s no bebop on this album. We were into a little bit of everything. Being small town people as we were, in the pre-internet age, music listening was based on opportunity, on what things came your way. At this time, we were still learning. We weren’t old and experienced enough to have a body of work to synthesize into new things.

I love musical quotes; now I like to weave a musical pun into every album I make. But I vary it, and most people never discover them. At that time we were less subtle.

Bill Kopp: Your vocal harmonies have long been the main signature of The Posies. When you started out – and now, even – did you have to carefully work those individual parts out, or did they evolve naturally as you worked on the songs?

Jon: The singing is probably one of the most natural things about The Posies. This is going to sound horrible, but Ken and I were in the choir at our school. So even though we weren’t singing together in a band per se, we were learning about things like harmonies and counterpoint. To even further the geek ante here, we had extracurricular activities together that involved singing: we were in a thing called jazz choir. And to make us sound even geekier, we did that in the mornings before our first class. We didn’t wait until after school; no, we got up an hour earlier to go to this thing.

Bill: So I suppose whether it was conscious or not, there was a fair amount of musical theory underpinning your vocal arrangements on Failure

Jon: Well, again, I’m going to give credit to that early choir training. It certainly didn’t hurt.

Ken: The harmony vocal parts came very quickly, very easily. The chord progressions lend themselves very easily to being made with harmonies. That was always there with us; they were not labored over. There’s a lower second harmony in the verse of “Under Easy.” That just happened on the spot.

Jon: If people ask me what makes The Posies unique, I’d say its the harmonies. We did all of the vocals for the album in one weekend. Lead, harmony and backing vocals – all of them for that record – were done in a two-day period. All twelve songs.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Two

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I thought it was a nice bit of contextualization to include Veronika Kalmar‘s snarky and negative review in the liner notes of the Failure reissue. It might be tough for you to cast your minds back to that time, but how did you react when you first read it in that magazine?

Jon Auer: I have to be honest: I was really hurt when I read that review. As a naïve, music-loving innocent eighteen year old, I didn’t consider that people could try to do you harm publicly. It wasn’t just a bad review; it was a targeted piece. It really cut us down.

Reviews are ultimately opinions, but people read them, and when it’s put into the context of a magazine, it’s an important thing. Everybody’s got an opinion, but the don’t have a vehicle for it. Well, of course now they do; it’s called the internet. There’s another great quote – I’ll paraphrase it because I don’t have it handy – that suggested the magazine made a poor choice of reviewers. [the letter writer] likened it to having a skinhead cover an Al Green concert. I thought that was pretty great.

Ken Stringfellow: Well, something had to come up; things were just going too well for us. And the story didn’t really look believable. It really is unbelievable what happened to us. So it looked like there was some payola, or some weird anti-marketing going on. There must have been a master plan to make a band from Bellingham — a duo as unlikely as us – to suddenly be everywhere at once. It defied the laws of credibility. We were two cuts deep into Seattle commercial radio a hundred hours after releasing this homemade cassette; it just didn’t make any sense. And over the course of that summer, it grew so rapidly. If we did a free show where kids could attend, we’d have thousands of people showing up. And we could fill clubs by that summer.

Jon: We became vilified by a certain segment, but it worked in our favor in a way: we kept the letters section in the magazine alive for six months.

And, you know, Veronika apologized to me. She said she didn’t think the review was fair, though she didn’t think it was the greatest record. So there you go. Sometimes you have to wait awhile in life for things to reveal their true colors.

Bill: And in her note included in the liner notes for Failure‘s new reissue, she does refer to Dear 23 as “a masterpiece.”

Jon: But she still thinks the lyrics are too angst-ridden and teenager-y. And you know what? I’ve got to agree with her. Some of the lyrics are that way for me, too. But I was sixteen years old when I wrote half of those songs. We sort of incubated for a couple of years in Bellingham, writing songs until we had enough to make Failure.

Ken: We weren’t from the same music scene as the bands we’d come to know as the recognizable SubPop bands. They were all nascent at that point, just about to happen. Those guys were all just a few years older than us, so they had played in bars; they could hang out in bars! So they had that scene going; Seattle and its environs didn’t really have an all-ages scene. We weren’t old enough to hang out in bars, so nobody knew us. So, who were these dorky-looking dudes playing this dorky music, anyway? It took awhile. So I think Veronika’s reaction at the time was based on an assumption that there must be something un-DIY about us.

The music’s good, I think, but it seemed like more than it just being good: a whole bunch of dominoes fell at once.

Jon: We were hand-dubbing cassettes, and selling them out of our backpacks. We moved like 800 copies that way. That’s not insignificant without anybody helping you.

Bill: In hindsight, Failure is really pretty out of step with what people now think of as the Pacific Northwest scene of that era. What sort of music were you listening to in the period when you were writing the songs that ended up on that first album?

Jon: Oh, jeez. There were things we were listening to that might make you think Failure was the obvious result. But you’re talking about a couple of guys who listened to everything growing up, who went through every phase. We’re just fans of songs and good music. And that comes in any genre, any shape, size or form. At the time, that would have included anyone from Elvis Costello to The Beatles. Or Depeche Mode, as you can maybe see when you look at the picture on the back of the album. We went through a quasi-goth phase.

In fact, I’ll go off on a tangent here about that picture. It tells you a lot about us then. We were always doing our own thing, slightly out of step with whatever was happening at the moment. We had a complex mixture of elements.

Bill: I look at that picture and I think, “Boots by George Harrison, hair by Robert Smith.”

Jon: Y’know what? Please put that in your piece. Because it’s brilliant.

My first job was working in a record store. I had been one of those kids who went to the record store every day after school. So eventually they just gave me a job. And at the time I looked like I was probably in The Cure or some goth band. But I was into everything musically. I was there when the first CDs arrived in the store, the first ones ever. And you know, of course what some of the first CDs that came out were: reissues of the Beatles albums. It was a pivotal moment; it made those records ripe for rediscovery. I grew up with my parents’ Beatles records, but to get these digital versions and explore them, we started to do that.

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