Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Matthew E. White has been musically active for many years, including collaborations with Megafaun and the Mountain Goats and three albums with avant-jazz group Fight the Big Bull. But as an artist recording and touring under his own name, he’s a relative newcomer.

The story making the rounds is that White’s debut – 2012′s Big Inner – wasn’t really intended as an album at all. White recorded the collection of songs to demonstrate the capabilities of the Spacebomb House Band and his record label of the same name. That record caught on with critics and listeners alike, and effectively launched White’s career as a name artist. “I think that story has gotten lost in translation a little bit,” says White. “By no means is Big Inner a ‘demo’ in the sense that we didn’t work as hard on it as we might a normal album.” White makes it clear that the album is intended as “a purposeful and intentional personal artistic statement.”

The success of Big Inner did attract some high-caliber artists to the Spacebomb label, most notably singer/songwriter Natalie Prass. “I try to be successful both personally and with the Spacebomb team,” White says. “And I work pretty hard on both of those things.”

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, White grew up listening to pop music. “I listened to Chuck Berry and Beach Boys as a little kid, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in middle school, and all kinds of stuff in high school: good and bad,” he recalls. He discovered jazz while in college, and subsequently “really went back, started at the beginning, and connected it all.” The result of his talent filtered through those influences is music that’s tough to describe. “If I have to say one thing, I say ‘soul’ or maybe ‘r&b.’ But I know that’s not quite right. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say ‘gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.’” I suggest that to my ears, he’s sort of a cross between Isaac Hayes and Berlin-era Lou Reed. He smiles and says, “I’m just going to start saying that. Perfect.”

 

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

On the just-released Fresh Blood, White builds upon the sonic foundation established by his debut. He concedes that he didn’t want to repeat himself musically. “But at the same time, I don’t believe in just changing variables and setting a completely different course. There’s a vocabulary that I’m working on, and I want it to develop.” On Fresh Blood, White sought to create an album that “contain[s] bits and pieces of old vocabulary as well as pushing the language farther into something new.”

On both records, there’s a lush, dense and richly layered texture, in part the result of the sonic effect of the large Spacebomb House Band. But White’s touring band is four musicians, including himself. “Obviously we have to adapt [arrangements] a little bit,” he concedes. “But to me, the songs are the centerpiece of the record. And in the live show it’s the same.” He prefers not to think of studio work and live performance as connected. “They are such different mediums that interact with people, budgets, administrative details and cultural context so differently. To make decisions on one based on the other limits both,” White believes.

Matthew E. White’s records feature strong hooks and melody, yet one word that comes to mind when hearing them is subtlety. “Well,” White chuckles, “the live show with the band isn’t so subtle, that’s for sure. It’s much more direct than the album is.” He goes on to say that the records’ subtlety is “less purposeful than it seems, actually. There are a lot of times when I think I’m being pretty direct and it’s taken as being much more subtle than I think it is. I think I’m just calibrated a little differently in that way.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

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The Corner Laughers Let the Music Do the Selling

Monday, May 18th, 2015

It’s a source of some mild amusement that when I Google “corner laughers,” the right-hand side of the resulting screen lists a number of the Bay Area group’s songs as dating from 1971. I’m pretty certain that at least two of the group’s number – bassist Khoi Huynh and his spouse, vocalist/ukulele player Karla Kane – weren’t even born in ’71.

But I can see where the mistake might have been made. There’s no doubt that the tuneful, upbeat, ba-ba-ba flavored music of the Corner Laughers has at least some of its roots the AM radio pop styles of the early 1970s. There’s certainly more to the group and their music than that: there’s a wickedly clever postmodern sensibility to their often-abstruse (but never obtuse) lyrics, and there’s nothing dated about the band’s crystal-clear production aesthetic. Their earlier two albums – most notably the discs recorded for and released on Mystery Lawn Music – set out and defined a sonic and lyrical style that was both distinctive and possessed of enough wiggle room to allow the group the freedom to move in many musical directions.

There’s a timeless sunshine pop sensibility to the group’s music. In the great tradition of groups like The Turtles, The Corner Laughers are never afraid to use “la la la la” as a lyric. And their music is very effective at conveying an upbeat feel, even when the lyrics are a bit dark, or a bit bent.

In my review of The Corner Laughers’ Poppy Seeds (2012), I characterized the group’s music as “earwigs,” that is, music that stays in the listener’s head long after the last note has faded away. And that quality is consistent on their upcoming release as well: the ten songs on Matilda Effect (out officially in mid-June 2015) continue in the tradition of catchy musical confections.

And the group’s approach has ukulele as a central component. The uke isn’t rock or pop’s most common instrument – not by a long shot – but it is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the tuneful uses to which it is being applied. The Corner Laughers weren’t hitching onto some bandwagon by adding a ukulele player, though. “I just happened upon it,” Karla Kane says. “Khoi just had one laying around.” she picked it up and “started noodling a bit, and then learned a few chords.” Though until that time she didn’t play any instrument, Kane notes that she had already begun writing songs. “That was a long time ago,” she hastens to add. “I’ve been playing for awhile now.”

Karla goes on to note that the instrument’s small size and lightweight qualities make it great for using live onstage. Hers is amplified so it can be heard alongside the guitar work of KC Bowman and the rhythm section of Huynh and drummer Charlie Crabtree.

The group’s live dates sound a bit different than the record, because the studio recordings make full use of multi-tracking techniques to layer Kane’s multiple vocal parts. Onstage, Kane says that “Khoi and KC do a lot of the backing vocals. But,” she laughs good-naturedly, “they don’t always have quite the same range as I do.”

Not only are The Corner Laughers superb musicians, but they’re all serious fans of music. Not long ago they got the chance to work with Martin Newell. Kane believes that Newell should be “the most famous musician in the world.” And while the music that Newell makes – both under his own name and as Cleaners From Venus – has a more DIY aesthetic to it than the highly-polished Corner Laughers releases (thank producer Allen Clapp for that), Newell’s music shares a deep understanding of the value of melody and carefully-thought-out lyrics.

So what did the band learn by working with the Grand Old Man of DIY? “Playing a show with him was my ideal show,” Kane gushes. Her thought right after the gig: “What do I do now? I don’t know! That was my dream.” Karla has a special appreciation for Newell’s words. “He’s the best lyricist I know. He puts such care into making the lyrics count. He literally is a poet.” She goes on to praise the quintessentially British tone of Newell’s lyrics; those same values figure into The Corner Laughers’ music. Kane says that the tune she describes as an “insomniac’s lullaby” (“Lammas Land”) was inspired by – and written immediately after – the group’s performance with Newell.

Some of the group’s songs are lyrically impressionistic; others are about more defined subjects. “The song ‘Octavia A’ was written to be the theme song for my daughter,” Kane says (Like Kane and Huynh, drummer Charlie Crabtree and his wife became parents recently). “But you don’t have to know that, or know her,” Kane says, to enjoy the song.

There’s another band on the Mystery Lawn Music label, a group called Agony Aunts. And that group sounds similar (but not identical to) The Corner Laughers. “Khoi and I had been big KC Bowman fans,” Kane recalls. “But we didn’t know him at all; we didn’t even know that he lived close by. But through Facebook, we became friends with him. And Agony Aunts, when it started, was us and KC. That was before he joined The Corner Laughers.” Today the core lineup of both bands (the three mentioned plus drummer Crabtree) is identical, but the lyrical approaches differ. “Agony Aunts songs tend to be written by KC,” Kane says. And Agony Aunts songs are, “I don’t know…maybe a little more psychedelic,” suggests Kane. “A little more mysterious. They’re the Dukes of Stratosphear to our XTC,” she laughs.

Some of The Corner Laughers’ label mates – most notably The Orange Peels and The Paul & John – have launched crowd funding initiatives to finance some of their releases. But not so The Corner Laughers. The answer why may be as simple as this: they’re a bit on the bashful side. “None of us feels comfortable doing it,” Kane admits. “It’s a lot of work, and a lot of…salesmanship. We’re all a bit shy; I guess we’d rather let the music speak for itself. ”

Happily, Matilda Effect does just that. The album will be available on CD, MP3, FLAC and – a first for The Corner Laughers – good ol’ vinyl, on June 12.

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Hungry Hearts: Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats Release New Album

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

“I meet some people, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re a musician? You’re never going to eat,’” says the singer-songwriter/guitarist/namesake of Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats. He recently finished a record that responds to the starving artist stereotype: “Like the title of our album says, we all stay hungry. And we’re happy about it.”

Initial tracking for We All Stay Hungry took place in Asheville at Sound Temple Recording Studios, with the bulk of recording, overdubbing, mixing and mastering completed at Eagle Room. A single, “The Best in You,” featuring a guest vocal by local sensation Lyric, was released on April 1. The full record debuted at a release party — a free show — on Friday, April 17, at Highland Brewing in Asheville NC.

Photo by Jim Donohoo Photograhy

There’s a story leading up to that release. In early 2012, Scotchie started a busking duo on the streets of Asheville. “We had always played electric music,” he says. “But [acoustic] busking was my way to get back to the core of everything.” Through the process of interacting with other musicians, “we just met a lot of people who wanted to play.” The plugged-in version of Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats eventually formed around a nucleus of lifelong companions. “Eliza [Hill, drummer] and I have always been friends,” Scotchie says. Eliza’s brother Asher Hill joined on bass and keyboards.

The resulting trio created an original sound that at times suggests a scaled-down Drive-By Truckers. It was that lineup that recorded the band’s first album, Soul and Sarcasm. The group booked plenty of live dates, earned radio play and even got rotation of one song on a Nashville-based cable TV network.

Onstage, the trio was sometimes joined (“for a couple of songs near the end of the show”) by a pair of horn players, Alex Bradley and Kyle Snuffer. Scotchie recalls that the pair came to him at one point and said, “Hey, we can play the whole set. Just give us the opportunity.” So two more longtime friends rounded out the group: “We [had gone] to school and Boy Scouts together,” Scotchie says.

Having a five-piece band changed the way that Scotchie wrote songs. He would start thinking, “I’ve got the chords; I’ve got the words. What are the horns going to be doing?” The result was a more deeply textured brand of music than before. “A lot of people think rock ‘n’ roll is simple,” Scotchie says. “But so many different elements can go into it: jazz, fusion and even big band.” His newer songs highlight the funkier elements in his songwriting.

And though Scotchie is the leader, the band arrangements grow out of collaboration, out of live performance. “A lot of the horn parts are things that Alex and Kyle came up with on the spot,” he says. “Right onstage. They’d try something, and we’d all say, ‘Yeah. That’s the one.’” The collective showcases its cohesive strength on We All Stay Hungry.

And the band is committed to music as a lifelong pursuit. “I want to be busy, I want to have a schedule, and I want respect,” says Scotchie. “Looking back at this time last year, I’m really happy with where we are now.”

An edited version of this feature was originally published in Mountain Xpress.

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 2)

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Continued from Part One

“When you’re working with a producer like David Kahne or Ed Stasium, they care about the process, too,” Steve Barton notes. “Everyone has an interest in how the final record is going to sound. So it’s all of a piece: the punkier stuff on the demos, and how the records ended up sounding.” There are any number of approaches a band can take in the studio. One is to attempt to capture a performance that more or less captures and documents the group’s live song. Another is to employ a studio-as-instrument philosophy, crafting a work as you go along. Barton believes Translator did both. “On the first album, Heartbeats and Triggers, we were trying to capture ourselves live, but then we would do a few little [studio] touches here and there. On the second album [1983's No Time Like Now], we purposely wanted it to be more ‘produced.’” Barton says that the group liked some of the “production qualities” found on classic albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. They modeled their approach on those records. “If we could have afforded it,” he laughs, “we probably would have put flutes and strings on some of the songs.”

Barton continues a chronology of Translator’s albums and the aesthetic mindset for each. “With the third album [1985's self-titled release], we wanted to do something a bit more stripped-down. And then with the fourth album, we again wanted to capture ourselves live.” In fact, the original idea for Evening of the Harvest was to record the songs live in the studio. “I like all of the albums, “Barton says, “and we never wanted to make them all sound the same, anyway.”

Shortly after the release of their second album, Translator issued a three-song 12” EP called Break Down Barriers. That disc featured a cover of a very early Beatles song – in fact, the only composition credited to George Harrison and John Lennon – called “Cry for a Shadow.” In 1983 the Beatles Anthology project remained off in the distant future, so the song was little known outside the cadre of Beatles fanatics. Barton was just such a fanatic. “We were a trio in L.A.,” he recalls. “and a friend of ours was getting married. We were going to play at her wedding. And another band was going to play there as well. The guitar player in that band was Bob Darlington, who later would be my Translator brother.” At one point, the groups decided that they should play something together. “I don’t know how we ever came up with ‘Cry for a Shadow,’ but obviously it was on all of our radars.”

Barton had grown up with the song. “As a little kid, I remember calling a radio station in Los Angeles.” Affecting a child’s voice, Barton continues. “’Hi! Can you play The Beatles’ “Cry for a Shadow”?’ I don’t know how they did it, but [the deejay] hung up the phone, and the song started. So the song came naturally to us, especially with the two guitar parts.” And once the group became a four-piece, the song was part of their set.

But Translator has always been mostly about original songs. Though guitarists Barton and Darlington both compose prolifically for their band, they only rarely write together. Yet Barton insists that there was never a sense of competition between the two songwriters. “If there is any competition,” Barton says, “it’s healthy. Especially for the third and fourth albums, we had this spurt of songwriting. I had a little room in my flat in San Francisco where we’d write. Bob would come over, and he’s say, ‘Look, I have these four songs.’ And they’d be really good. So I’d say, ‘Oh, I’d better write some more, too.’ We kind of sparked off of each other.” He says that “the handful of songs that we wrote together came out of jams.”

Barton is initially lost for words when asked to characterize the differences between his songwriting and that of Robert Darlington. After considering the question, he says, “I know that when Bob first came to the band, one of the songs he brought to our set was ‘Pablo Picasso’ [by The Modern Lovers]. And he knew all of the John Cale stuff; Paris 1919…he turned us on to all of that. I had mostly known Cale as part of the Velvet Underground.” That music informed Darlington’s songwriting, Barton says. “Bob has always been willing to really embrace the idea” of just using a couple of chords in a song. “I tend to write like, here’s a verse, chorus, and bridge. So I think we have unique styles that really complement each other.”

That contrast between Barton’s music and that of his fellow guitarist was placed in stark terms via a production choice the band made for Evening of the Harvest. Barton’s guitar parts on the record are all hard-panned in one stereo channel, while Darlington’s guitar is panned to the other. For his part, today Barton doesn’t remember why the band and producer Ed Stasium did that, but he thinks he might have been influenced by Neil Young and Crazy Horse employing that approach on one of their records.

All four of the group’s 1980s albums have in fact been reissued in the 21st century. “About eight years ago, maybe,” Barton says. But those Wounded Bird reissues were widely criticized for their subpar sonic quality. Diplomatically allowing some level of dissatisfaction with the quality of those CD reissues, Barton says, “That’s something I’d like to revisit, eventually.”

Meanwhile, Sometimes People Forget is a worthy addition to Translator’s recorded legacy. A number of bands that rose to fame in the 1980s have seen retrospective releases of their material on Omnivore Recordings: Jellyfish, Game Theory, The Posies, and Trip Shakespeare are only four of many. “I’d love for Sometimes People Forget to be the beginning of a relationship with Omnivore,” Barton says. “We’ll see how it goes.” Translator are doing a number of shows in May to promote the release – dates in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and, of course, San Francisco – and post updates on their site, translatormusic.com.

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 1)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Though they’re perhaps best known for their 1982 single “Everywhere That I’m Not” – a quirky yet extremely catchy rock tune that subsequently found its way onto more than a half dozen compilations of the 80s/new wave era – San Francisco’s Translator released four excellent albums during their major-label run (roughly 1982 to 1986). The band’s sound combined then-current new wave textures with a psychedelic influence, but somehow Translator’s music steered clear of the (Los Angeles-based) “Paisley Underground” scene.

Part of that uniqueness may have been due to the fact that San Francisco and L.A. have always had separate and distinct musical undercurrents – nobody confuses The Grateful Dead with The Doors, or The Byrds with Moby Grape – but a bigger factor is likely Translator’s emphasis on inventive, powerful guitar. While other bands in the 80s folded synthesizer textures into their music – often to great effect – Translator was always primarily a guitar band, led by the two-guitar front line of Robert Darlington and Steve Barton, with able, muscular support from bassist Larry Dekker and drummer Dave Scheff.

Though the band’s string of first-run releases concluded with 1986′s Evening of the Harvest (this writer’s clear choice for their best, most fully-realized album), in some ways Translator never really went away. The band more or less went inactive after 1986, but all four members remain active musically. A highlight of their 21st century activity is Steve Barton’s 2011 album Projector, named by this blog as one of that year’s best releases. Translator reunites on occasion for live performances, and even released an album of new material — 2012′s Big Green Lawn — that’s easily on a par with their 80s work (and thus highly recommended).

For a band that only released four LPs during their initial run, Translator is well-represented with posthumous compilations: 1986′s (inevitably-titled) Everywhere That I’m Not: A Retrospective was the first, followed by 1985′s Translation, then by the less-imaginatively titled Everywhere That We Were: The Best of Translator, and most recently a UK-only collection titled, well, Collection. And there’s also Different Time, the hard-to-find 2008 two-disc CDR compilation of thirty demos, outtakes and live material.

So why, in 2015, another compilation of music from Translator? There are at least two very good reasons. The first is summed up in the title of the new collection released by Omnivore Recordings. Sometimes People Forget, so let’s remind them. The second, better reason is that the new compilation doesn’t travel well-trodden musical ground: Sometimes People Forget is 22 tracks of rare and previously unreleased material from the band, demos and outtakes spanning material that reaches back to the group’s earliest, pre-record deal days. (It’s worth pointing out there there is less than five minutes’ worth of overlapping music between Different Time and the new Sometimes People Forget.) And for those drawn in by Translator’s official canon, there are many riches to be found in these previously unissued tracks.

The band has always acknowledged a clear debt to The Beatles, but in Translator’s music there are strong echoes of the kind of guitar heroics found on albums by groups like Television. “Even in the really early days of Translator, we didn’t really think of ourselves as a cross between anything,” recalls Steve Barton. “But if we were forced to, [we'd admit to a] kind of a Beatles-meets-Cream [approach]. I love all of the Cream albums, but especially Wheels of Fire. And there’s some Translator stuff that evoked that for me. And the Television comparison: I get that, especially with two [lead] guitars.”

There’s arguably a more “punky” sensibility to some of the songs collected on Sometimes People Forget. As effective and fruitful as the official album sessions were for the band, sometimes those served to sand down some of the music’s rough edges as found on the demo versions. Barton describes the demos on the new collection as “warts-and-all.” He allows that the demos sometimes feature “Some flat singing, some things I would have fixed.” But he professes to love those recordings, aptly comparing them in some ways to “Let it Be before Phil Spector.”

The first couple of tracks on Sometimes People Forget – “Translator” and “Lost” – are from the band’s first demo tape, recorded “in someone’s garage,” Barton laughs. They recorded five songs in a single August 1979 afternoon, using a basic tape recorder. “So by definition, those are going to be kind of rough around the edges.” But Barton rightly believes that even the studio versions of the band’s songs avoid slickness. “I remember listening to [The Clash's] London Calling. It was a huge album for me in the early days of Translator. I thought, ‘Wow! This so polished for The Clash.’ But you listen to it now, and it’s this huge, sprawling mess of a record, in the best possible way. So while in the studio there is a tendency to go, ‘Oh, that might be a little flat; let’s fix that,’ or to do little things here and there, we tried to keep it as bare-bones as possible.” That approach is a big part of the reason why Translator’s music doesn’t sound “dated” as does the music of many other bands of the era.

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The Broadcast Will Continue Touring After This Important Local Message

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

“We can jam, but we are definitely not a jam band,” says Caitlin Krisko, vocalist and songwriter of The Broadcast. Her band’s albums feature shorter songs because “we write songs; we’re songwriters.” Krisko and guitarist Aaron Austin are co-writers on all of the group’s music, which is as tight and concise on record as it is soulful and exhilarating live onstage.

“My favorite artists are storytellers,” Krisko adds. “I think that it’s really important that we continue to tell stories about our lives,” she says, describing music as a means to create “a sense of oneness between artist and listener.”

Coming out of a tumultuous year that saw two of its founding members depart, Asheville-based (though originally from Brooklyn) The Broadcast is gearing up for what looks to be its busiest year yet. The buzz around the group’s set at 2014’s Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam led to an invitation to perform at an Allman Brothers Band tribute event being planned for this summer. And while preproduction for a second studio album is well underway, The Broadcast scheduled a local performance (Saturday, April 11, at The Grey Eagle) before returning to the road and then to the studio.

 

Photo by Jenn Ross Photography

“So much has changed since last year,” Krisko says. “I am really proud of the core members who were able to make it through this transition,” and now the band is “committed on an even deeper level.” Krisko and Austin and percussionist Tyler Housholder remain from the original lineup. Observing that making music for a living is not the easiest path, Krisko believes that “you have to be willing to lose everything for it.”

The Broadcast’s members are savvy users of modern technology as a means of building relationships with fans and potential fans. While acknowledging the advantages of that technology, Krisko believes that instant, accessible quality also disconnects the listener from being able to discover new music. That means in order to break through, a band has to be better and then market itself better. Krisko is optimistic and determined: “Touring on the road has given me a sense of hope that there still are people who want to come together, connect and share in a joined experience.”

Krisko focuses on two important components of the band’s overall strategy: “The live performance emotionally grabs people; the vibrations literally have an effect on their bodies.” And the album is a souvenir, a package that concertgoers can take home to relive the experience of the show. “You can’t completely capture the live experience on an album,” Krisko says. “Where a great producer comes in is being able to capture that energy.”

For The Broadcast’s first album (2013’s Dodge the Arrow, recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios), the band worked with producer Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin. “We were so blessed to have one of the most positive first-album experiences,” Krisko says. But the musicians came away from that experience knowing what they would do differently on the next album. For their second recording, Krisko and Austin wanted a producer who truly understood how to record a female-fronted band. They wanted someone like Jim Scott, who produced and engineered albums for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wilco and other big names.

“So I emailed [Scott] last November,” Krisko says, “and when I woke up the next morning, I had an email from his people. I screamed!” Scott said yes. And with a large catalog of new material from which to choose, Krisko is confident that The Broadcast’s upcoming album (out early 2016) will please longtime fans while earning new ones.

An edited version of this feature was previously published in Mountain Xpress.

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Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 2

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Continued from Part One

I laughed and expressed my surprise that the sometimes singer/songwriterly Lloyd Cole is a fan of 1970s krautrock. “I’m going to be in Berlin in September, making my debut as a modular synth player onstage live,” he told me. I asked him if he’d be wearing a cape. “I haven’t thought about my outfit yet,” he said. “More importantly, I have to compose some pieces specifically to perform live. Which is,” he said with dry understatement, “a bit different than playing a song live. There will be all monosynths, though you’ve got some polyphony via the use of oscillators.”

On one level, the project represents some uncharted territory for Cole. “I haven’t exactly mapped out what I’m going to do yet,” he said. “I’ve only just accepted the contract to do it.” But the endeavor is not wholly without precedent for him. “Six months before Standards came out, I released an album with a guy called [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius, from Cluster. We made a record called Selected Studies Vol. 1. And I made an instrumental record in 2001 called Plastic Wood. And frankly, if you knew Cluster and you knew Roedelius and you listened to Plastic Wood, you’d say, ‘Ah, Cole must be a Cluster fan.’”

Roedelius is a fan of Plastic Wood. “He even took a copy of the album and put overdubs of his own on it,” Cole told me. “He said, ‘Why don’t you put it out?’ I said, ‘But I can’t! I’ve already released the album!’ So he suggested that maybe we could do something else like this together. It just took ten years for us to get around to doing it.” The two composers brought deliberately unfinished pieces to the project, completing each other’s work. Their working methods are a study in contrasts. Cole said that Roedelius “is a virtuoso, and he can think on his feet. I, on the other hand, construct structures which allow other people to be virtuosos on top of them.”

Cole is clearly excited about the upcoming project. “In Berlin in September is the celebration of [Roedelius'] 80th birthday. And they’re having a festival, or a series of events, for it. And they’ve invited me to perform. Maybe something on my own, and maybe something collaborating with him. It’s exciting, and slightly frightening.”

We went on to discuss the Big Ears Festival, taking place in Knoxville the day after our meeting. Cole mentioned his love of the work of Steve Reich. I observed that composers like Reich and Philip Glass approached minimalism from a classical background, compared with Brian Eno, who came from the rock idiom. “But where they ended up,” I said, “isn’t all that different.” Cole agreed. “I discovered all this type of music as a kid, purely through the fact that I liked Eno and [David] Bowie. I went to see Steve Reich at the South Bank Centre in 1979 in London. I didn’t know anything about him; all I knew was that Bowie liked him.”

Our conversation eventually rounded back to Standards. The album was initially a more or less self-released item. “I gambled on people liking it,” Cole said, with the hope that eventually an American distributor would pick it up. “It still took a little longer than I wanted,” he said. He got several offers, in fact, but settled on Omnivore Recordings. “They were the ones who seemed the most enthusiastic about it. There’s only four people there, but they have a lot of energy.”

Between all of his current activities – live gigs, chatting with journalists about Standards, writing more songs, preparing for the Berlin show – Cole is quite busy. But there’s even more. He told me that later in 2015 there will be a Lloyd Cole and the Commotions box set, a “sort of semi-completist thing” that will gather all of the group’s material in one package.

Cole has been writing and recording his songs for more than thirty years now. As we finished our drinks, I asked him how his approach to songwriting has changed over they years. “I think one of the negative things is that I know what I’m doing now,” he said. “On Rattlesnakes, I just had an idea, and everybody trusted me. And we got lucky. As soon as I started to analyze what I was doing, I got worse at it.” He said that knowing what he is doing is “sometimes an advantage, and I think I’ve got to the point now where I’m past the point where it’s not a disadvantage any more.” He cited the adage of talking [actually writing] about music being like dancing about architecture. “Trying to explain music with language is very difficult. You’ve got to give people a frame of reference, when you’re trying to tell people what you want them to play. So you have to give them reference points.”

Cole went on to make a thought-provoking observation. “Having naivete when things are going well can be a huge advantage. Because you never think of the worst; you never think you’re going to fail. So that’s lovely. Trying to make a record almost thirty years later, you don’t have that. And you can’t fake it. I think that now I know how to make records. I don’t necessarily think I’m very good at it in terms of being a producer, but I think I know what a good producer is. I wish – and I’m not sure if there is enough time in my life to do all these things – I don’t know if I could be that person. A good producer is not somebody who tells people what to play. A good producer is somebody who makes people feel good about themselves when they’re playing. And if they’re not going in the right direction, he somehow or other points them in the right direction by making them think it’s their idea, not his.”

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Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 1

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions debuted onto the music scene in the 1980s, a period that dovetailed nicely with my college years. Their debut Rattlesnakes came out in 1984, and Mainstream, their third and last album (not counting posthumous live and compilation sets) was released in 1987. Cole went on to a highly regarded solo career, releasing ten albums of new music between 1990 and 2010. His eleventh studio release, Standards, was released in the UK and Europe in 2013, and in 2014 Omnivore Recordings released the album in the USA.

Concurrent with – but not strictly in support of – Standards, Cole mounted a series of live solo dates. “I don’t feel that I’m really out here supporting an album,” Cole says. “I’m just letting people know that I’m still here.” That tour brought him through Asheville NC in late March. I attended the lightly-populated (but well received) show, and met Cole for drinks and conversation afterward. We quickly discovered that we’re both serious music fans (and fans of serious music), and as a result our time together was less an interview than a freewheeling conversation.

We discussed the evening’s show and its light turnout. “Am I wrong? This town has got something of a modern hippie-punk feel to it,” he observed. “Which is not really my audience.” He related a quick account of a lunchtime stroll he had taken through town earlier in the day. “On that particular walk,” he chuckled, “I saw examples of stereotypes, people who I knew would not be interested in my music.” He noted that he lives in Northampton Massachusetts, a place “with a similar vibe,” but smiled wanly as he recalled becoming “filled with loathing” and dread about the evening’s show. But then he walked into a popular and informal local eatery, looked around, and thought, “These are my people. This will be nice.”

Cole wasn’t being flippant; the people he first encountered – a small but vaguely menacing lot of semi-homeless types dressed in ragged military fatigues – do indeed give off a certain vibe, and not one of them did in fact come to The Grey Eagle for Cole’s engaging one-man performance. It’s fair to say that those who attended the show really enjoyed it. And Cole agreed with that assessment. “It was a nice gig. It was a little bit more spontaneous show than my normal ones, because I usually play two sets.” This one-off paired Cole on the bill with Peter Mulvey. “This is the only show we’re doing together,” Cole said. “We’ve never met before. He’s a nice guy. I’m kind of glad I went on before him,” Cole said. “Because his guitar playing is…he’s much more of a musician than me. I’m more of a songwriter.”

At Cole’s leading, our conversation quickly turned to an abiding interest of his, one I had no idea was part of his musical makeup. “Make Noise is located here in Asheville,” he said. “They’re a synth company founded by a guy called Tony Rolando, who used to work for Moog Music” [also in Asheville]. The company hand-builds synthesizer modules and systems for the serious musician and hobbyist alike. “They’re an amazing company, and world-renowned,” Cole said. But what, I wondered, does that have to do with a transplanted Briton who sings his songs while (mostly) playing an acoustic guitar?

“I’ve been making music with modular synths for the last three or four years,” Cole told me. “There’s a tiny, tiny bit of modular synth on Standards, too. And I visited Moog and got a Moog guitar the last time I was here,” he said. “’Period Piece’ has modular synth and Moog guitar on it. But the record I’m working on making next will have a lot more of both.”

I mischaracterized his albums prior to Standards as mostly acoustic. “They weren’t really acoustic,” Cole replied. “They were just quiet. And they weren’t even all that quiet, at times. They just weren’t electric rock records. Standards is the first electric rock record I’ve made since Negatives in 2000.”

“Why? I just wrote some songs that needed to be treated this way,” he said. “The choice I had was either discard these songs and make quiet music, or I follow the lead of the songs.” For awhile, Cole expected the resulting album would be “half loud and half quiet.” But he contacted Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet (“they had played on my first two solo records in the late ’80s, early 90s”), telling them, “I’m thinking of making this rock record. Would you be interested in playing on it?” Happily, both said yes. Standards was cut in Los Angeles, since both Maher and Sweet live there. “I got into a groove, finishing writing the songs for the album,” Cole said. “Knowing that I was going to be working with them – knowing what kind of record I’m making – seems to influence my songwriting.”

“So,” Cole said, in the end, “what I thought was going to be an album of half quiet, half loud songs turned out to be loud and slightly-less-loud.” Cole reflected on the development of the album that would become Standards. “I had ten weeks to get all of the songs finished. And I knew I had to finish, because once I got to L.A., I would have to be the producer as well as the singer. And it’s just a nightmare to be the producer when you haven’t finished writing the songs.”

That restriction affected the creative process. “I decided, I’m not making any demos for this record,” Cole said. “I’m just going to finish [writing] the songs, and then present the songs to Fred and Matthew. And then the three of us will figure out how to do them.” The approach yielded a collection of finished songs that have an energetic, band-oriented feel. “Basically what I did every morning was say to them, ‘Listen to this. I want it to be as insistent as this.’ I made them listen to Neu! every morning.”

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 2)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Continued from Part One

Among the most celebrated releases in Les McCann‘s extensive catalog, Swiss Movement is his 1969 live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was controversial on its release thanks to its inclusion of “Compared to What,” a tune with lyrics that remain as provocative today as they were thirty-five years ago. In fact, a special “radio edit” LP of Swiss Movement clumsily bleeped out the offending lyrics.

The song’s lyrics might have hurt its chances for chart success, but McCann never worried himself about such matters. “It’s art. It sells, or it doesn’t sell. The word ‘abortion’ was not permitted to be played on the radio. And the station [that did initially play it] was fined $25,000 for playing the song.” Controversy or no, the single “Compared to What” ended up a million seller, as did Swiss Movement.

“I’ll tell you a shocking story,” McCann offers. “Six years before that record was made, when I first heard the song from Gene McDaniels (who wrote it) – he was a dear friend of mine, and he was in my band – I recorded it. But I knew that [recording] wasn’t it, but I wanted to keep that song. Whether I recorded it right or wrong, I know that at some point it’s going to come to me. So six or seven years later, it came to me. Onstage, at that very moment.”

So “Compared to What” wasn’t even on the set list for McCann’s Montreux Jazz Festival performance? “The band never made it to rehearsal!” McCann laughs. “Everything was spontaneous! Even the melodies for a couple of the songs: I’m telling a couple of the guys – trumpet players – and they’re scared to death! ‘Cause they didn’t know any of the songs. ‘Just do who you are,’ I told ‘em. And I trusted ‘em.”

He continues. “A great lesson for me was when guys came in and were writing everything down, and saying, ‘This is the way I want everything played.’ And we’d get to a big moment, times in my career when people wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I’d get mad, and I’d say, ‘Let’s just play.’” Being in front of an appreciative audience no doubt helped. “In France and Switzerland, they loved me. I don’t know what it is, but from the very first moment I ever played there, they said, ‘you belong to us.’ Maybe,” he chuckles,” it’s because my name is Les.”

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

Cannonball Adderley is another figure closely associated with the soul jazz genre. One of Adderley’s basic beliefs was that jazz is the people’s music, that it can be boundary-pushing and innovative, but that it should be accessible, too. And that kind of philosophy is felt in much of McCann’s music. In fact, in Leonard Feather‘s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

“That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion.’”

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