Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

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.

To be continued…

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

Monday, September 15th, 2014

While grunge or alternative might be the first rock genres that spring to mind when one thinks of the 1990s, an unlikely group from the Pacific Northwest had already gained a foothold – both commercially and critically – with their brand of melodic guitar-based pop. The Posies – eventually a band, but originally just a duo featuring teenagers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – recorded and released their first album, 1988′s Failure – in what would come to be thought of as an early example of DIY success.

Failure would go on to be reissued by a proper label, and the group’s fame grew, thanks in part to their being championed by influential tastemakers who counted themselves as fans. But it has always been the music – and the pair’s trademark vocal harmonies – that have brought The Posies their well-deserved success. Failure has just now been reissued yet again, this time by Omnivore Recordings, who have appended eight bonus tracks to the CD, along with fascinating liner notes. In my conversation with Ken and Jon, I asked them about the development of that first album, and how it fit into the arc of their constantly evolving musical style. And I learned that the coming months will see a good bit of additional Posies (and related) material released on Omnivore.

Bill Kopp: You were both short of 20 years old when you recorded Failure. I really like the production style of the album: unadorned, gimmick-free, and always in service to the songs. When you cut the album, what kind of goals or aspirations did you have? Did you think you might make the big time, and if so what would “the big time” have been for you?

Ken Stringfellow: When we started recording Failure in 1987, I was 18 and Jon was 17. We had a very fortunate situation in that Jon and his dad had put together a small studio in their family home; that was an incredible gift. We had an eight-track analog tape machine. The production limitations are more or less based around track count. We recorded eight tracks of music, and then bounced that down to a cassette, believe it or not. And then we used those mixes from the cassette on two tracks, and did six tracks of vocals. That approach dictated how the record sounded.

As far as our aspirations, we really made this record as a demo. Basically, we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play in a band with us.

Jon Auer: I probably wouldn’t have wanted to play with us, either!

Ken: We couldn’t really explain our concept: it was so gimmick-free that there really wasn’t an “elevator pitch.” Other than writing great songs, and what’s the elevator pitch for that? So we really just wanted to find people to form a full band with. The demo would show them our tunes so that they’d kind of get the idea.

As we realized this might actually be a record, our friends who heard it were feeding back to us that, hey, this is something very special, things happened very fast. We put it out as a DIY cassette, it got on commercial radio, we had offers for shows. Everything happened at once. In ten days we went from zero to being able to fill venues. It was insane, and we saw none of this coming. We were completely overwhelmed, as you could imagine.

We wanted to be part of this local label called PopLlama. They picked it up and reissued it on LP. We wanted to play this local festival called Bumbershoot, and we did. And all that was as far ahead as we had thought. We already had interest from some major labels, but we hadn’t even conceptualized something like that. We just got carried along in the slipstream for a couple of years.

Jon: The “big time” was never a consideration. We were just very much thinking of modest goals in the beginning. We hoped we’d get to open for a band we really admired, and still do: The Young Fresh Fellows.

What I liked about Failure is that it was made in a very pure environment. It had nothing to do with wanting to get noticed in a major way at all. It was something that we did because we wanted to do it. Maybe we weren’t very smart; maybe we should have considered other things – like the potential trajectory of our career – more [than we did]. But we were just having a good time. And we were lucky because I grew up in a home that had that small but powerful home studio.

And the realization of all of our eventual goals was something that happened naturally; it was never a case of us trying to force things.

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part Three

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

The album that would become Inner Sunset was announced in 2013, but the project’s gestation was a lengthy process, especially when compared to the quick, DIY measure employed by most other artists on the Mystery Lawn label. “Several factors contributed to the album taking so long to come out,” John Moremen explains. “First, we wanted to record it at Mystery Lawn Studio with Allen Clapp engineering. It was a very busy four-year period for Allen, working with The Corner Laughers, Alison Levy, Jim Ruiz, Agony Aunts, William Cleere, Marshall Holland and [John Moremen's] Flotation Device. We had to wait until Allen and the studio were available.” Paul Myers stresses that “Allen was ridiculously generous with his time, resources and talent, but that often meant we had to wait while The Orange Peels recorded and toured, or while other Mystery Lawn people had their turn with him.”

And while The Paul & John‘s mid-project decision to use only newer songs resulted in a better record, that too set the completion date back somewhat. “Over the course of four years,” says Myers, “our sound evolved, and the later songs were better than the early ones. We’d decided that there’d be no filler or dead weight songs; every moment had to be uniformly ‘awesome,’ if only to ourselves.” Moremen notes that “we completely rewrote the album about a year after we started working on it.” And that, Myers adds, “meant throwing out stuff, re-cutting some stuff, and writing new stuff. Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Moreoever, while Inner Sunset is a carefully crafted work from start to finish, it’s the product of two men who remain very involved in a multitude of other musical (and music-related) endeavors. “ We aren’t a day-to-day thing,” Paul Myers points out. “We both have other projects and jobs, so we end up taking weeks and months to accomplish what some bands do in a couple of days.” During the years leading up to the eventual release of Inner Sunset, music journalist/author Myers was writing and doing promotional work for A Wizard / A True Star, his excellent book on Todd Rundgren. Meanwhile, Moremen was “busy working on The Orange Peels’ Sun Moon album, recording a new album with Flotation Device and playing shows with Alison Levy, Roy Loney, and Half Japanese.” He laughs and says that “It’s kind of a miracle that we finished Inner Sunset with all those other projects happening.”

Yet another factor that affected the release timetable for Inner Sunset was the pair’s reliance upon crowd funding to finance the album. “I was a nervous wreck when we first launched our Kickstarter and donations weren’t coming right away,” Myers candidly admits. “You start to doubt your mission, and for me, it stirred up old demons about social popularity. Insecurities run deep with me, and I really began to feel scared.” But once word got out about the planned album, support grew quickly. “The best part was the overwhelming support,” Moremen says. “People really, really wanted to see this album come out. We had so many positive vibes coming our way from so many people wishing us well.” As the funding deadline approached, fans rallied. Myers explains that “in the final weeks, the drought lifted, and a deluge of pledges came in. We exceeded our goal. So now, I feel gratified that people really did care. And I hope they actually play and enjoy the record.”

And though it was ultimately successful, Myers and Moremen learned a lot from the Kickstarter experience. “The next time I do one of these, I’m going to put a little more planning into it regarding budgeting,” says Moremen. Striking a hopeful note, he adds, “the next one should be a lot easier!” Myers sums up the crowdfunding concept in a single sentence: “People ultimately love to help creative people bring their artistic dreams to life.”

The Paul & John’s Inner Sunset is available now from Mystery Lawn Music. And as Todd Rundgren, one of Myers’ musical heroes, might say “And there’s more.” Paul says, “we’re putting together the live band [a record release show in San Francisco is scheduled for October 30], and we hope to start writing more songs together real soon. That’s where it all starts for me. I really hope it’s not another four years until a follow up!”

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part Two

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Speaking of the process of songwriting, the songs on The Paul & John‘s Inner Sunset are truly the product of a collaborative approach between Paul Myers and John Moremen. “When we originally started working on The Paul & John stuff, Paul was writing lyrics for some of my music,” explains Moremen. “Then we decided to try a few face-to-face, and those were fantastic. Things were going so well writing this way that we decided to scrap the old original tunes and basically rewrite the album.”

“While John graciously deferred all the lyric writing to me,” Myers says, “we wrote all the music 100% together. We made a rule that, even though either of us could probably start and finish entire songs, that wasn’t what The Paul & John was about.” Moremen adds, “Usually Paul or I would have a little piece of something, but that would just be the kindling to get the fire started. Often the original idea would be unrecognizable by the time the song was finished.”

Since the pair had, in Myers’ words, “opted to only record songs where we had a chance to collaborate on all the music,” the songs bear the distinct character of their collaborative approach. “On ‘Hungry Little Monkey,’ John had made a GarageBand recording of the verse chords and melody, then I took that home to my studio and pasted in my original musical idea for the chorus. It was like Frankenstein’s monster, but it really worked. That’s one of my favorite songs now.”

The pair crafted all of the sounds on Inner Sunset without the enlisting of outside musicians. Moremen handled guitars (more often than not, the lead parts) plus drums and vocals. Myers played guitars (usually, but not exclusively, rhythm parts) plus bass guitar, vocals, and Mellotron-like “string” keyboard sounds. Moremen says that a goal of upcoming live dates to promote Inner Sunset will be to keep “the vibe of the performances… as close to the album as possible.” In practice that means The John & Paul will stick to guitars and vocals, joined by players from a pool that Myers characterizes as “a lot of talented friends locally here in the Bay Area, and all over North America. There’s a lot of potential there to have unique backing lineups in different cities.” In addition to a bassist and drummer, they’ll feature “two extra players to help on the big background vocals, and to play percussion and other things that we overdubbed in the studio,” says Myers. “I think,” says Moremen, “with the addition of the multi-instrumentalist and the extra harmony, we should have all the parts pretty well covered. We put quite a bit of four-part singing on the album, so that was important in considering the live thing.”

When the label “power pop” is mentioned in connection with their music, the two men offer distinctly different responses. “I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘power pop,’” admits John Moremen. “To me, it does seem limiting for music such as this. We love The Beatles, and we love it loud just as much as the last power popper. I feel that our influences are diverse; that’s where I can see the difference between us and a band that would be called power pop.” He’s not adamant about the issue, however. “It doesn’t matter too much, though. If people dig what we’re doing and they call it power pop, it’s actually fine with me!”

Paul Myers takes a view that puts the subject in some historical context. “Fifteen or so years ago, when major labels were courting bands like ours, a lot of these bands felt ghettoized by the term ‘power pop,’ like it meant ‘lightweight’ or bubblegum. The labels hated the term, and good power pop bands had to kind of keep it under their hats. I never backed away,” he admits, name-checking a who’s-who list of artists who’ve suffered (or proudly worn) the power pop tag. “I always loved Cheap Trick, XTC, Squeeze, Big Star, Badfinger, Wings, Raspberries, The Who, Jellyfish, Teenage Fanclub, and too many more.” Myers smiles and says, “If there’s a power pop revolution, you’ll find me marching out front, head and banner held high.” And The Paul & John deserve mention in that list: Inner Sunset‘s standout track, the swoonworthy “Everything Comes Together” is as good as the best from any of those groups.

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part One

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Music lovers who appreciate highly melodic and memorable rock-based songs – the kind of instantly hummable tunes that stick in your head long after the song is over – should take heart: though the style (however you might label it) doesn’t top the music 2014 charts, the style is far from moribund. In fact, San Francisco’s Bay Area might be considered something of a “ground zero” for the upbeat (yet occasionally melancholy) form that some call “sunshine pop,” “power pop” or some other label that attempts to distill a description down to a couple of words. The Mystery Lawn label has quickly established itself as a reliable purveyor (or perhaps “curator”) of high quality music from a wide array of thoughtful, individualistic artists. Though each has their own distinct musical personality and vision, all Mystery Lawn acts share a love and appreciation (as well as an uncanny knack) for well-crafted melodies with substance.

The latest in the consistent line of highly regarded releases is the long-awaited debut from The Paul & John. The duo of singer/songwriter/guitarists Paul Myers and John Moremen released Inner Sunset this summer.

The duo are careful not to let critics lump all Mystery Lawn groups into a single, confined genre. “To me all of the [label's] groups are very different from each other,” Moremen insists. Myers concedes that groups releasing their music on Mystery Lawn do have much in common, but believes they’re distinct as well. “I think that while John and I come at this approach to pop rock songwriting from oh-so-slightly different angles, the unified region of our Venn diagram is larger than the non-aligned regions,” he says. “By filtering it all through (label head/producer) Allen Clapp‘s ears (and gear) the sound is even more unified, and of course more Mystery Lawn.”

Moremen agrees: while he allows that “the one thing we have in common would be Allen’s influence, which is immeasurable.” Citing a shared predilection toward “big harmony vocals and broad sonic gestures like reverb-y guitars, and roomy drums,” Myers notes that “all of the acts on Allen’s label make records that sound like records…just maybe not records from today.” And to those who might tag The Paul & John’s music as “retro” – myself, I’d more likely call it timeless – Paul Myers says, “no one involved in Inner Sunset was self-consciously “retro” in our approach to the sonic design. It just so happens that our ideals are the accumulation of a lot of 70s and 60s records, and we’ve all been doing this for a long time.” Moremen admits that The Paul & John will occasionally “venture into Orange Peels territory a little, but that’s mainly because I play guitar and co-write the music in both groups.”

A unifying hallmark of the ten songs on Inner Sunset – from “Inner Sunrise,” the brief, Everly Brothers-styled acoustic opener, through the disc’s more rocking, full-band styled tunes, to the soaring, pastoral “Inner Sundown” that closes the album – is an unerring insistence upon memorable melodic lines. Or, as we used to call them, hooks. “We love hooks,” Myers readily admits. In his view, “A hook can be a compelling melody, an ear-grabbing riff, or even a life-altering chord change. So we do begin with some kind of initial hook, then refine, add to and arrange.” He considers song arrangement a critical component in songcraft. “The layout is built around nurturing and protecting the hooks. This is not a cynical thing,” he hastens to add. “We really do approach it based on what excites us as listeners.” Moremen approaches the subject from a subtly different perspective. “For the most part, we started [writing] the melody, or words and a melody. I find that the hooky bits just naturally present themselves as the tune is coming together.” In fact, he says, “I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually put a hook into a song, unless it’s a recurring riff or something like that.” But almost immediately, he amends his remark: “In the case of the song ‘Inner Sunset,’ it was completely rewritten, because we felt something was missing. I guess,” he allows, “in that case you could say we made it ‘hookier.’” The texture of Moremen’s hollowbody electric guitar solo on “Inner Sunset” is evocative of George Harrison‘s lead work circa A Hard Day’s Night; listeners can decide for themselves if that quality classifies as hooky.

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part One)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 3)

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: We’ve touched on this a bit already: there’s absolutely no guitar on the album. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to arrange the music without the use of guitar? As I mentioned earlier, I come from a rock background, so I’m still learning about jazz. And one thing I’ve learned is that, as often as not, the beat in jazz is implied rather than explicitly laid down. What I find on Worlds Around the Sun is that guitars are almost implied.

Todd Cochran: Yes. And that came from the Clavinet; that’s what I was thinking about. And the Fender Rhodes electric piano allowed me to dictate that rhythmic aspect much more clearly. The colors that the Rhodes gave to the music were pretty new. Some of those records that you were speaking of by Cannonball Adderley – “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and that period – feature Josef Zawinul on keyboards. He was using a Wurlitzer [EP200A]. The Fender Rhodes wasn’t happening yet. The Wurlitzer wasn’t as full and rich as what the Rhodes became. So with that instrument, the music was much more intense. What really changed were the rhythms that the drummers were playing. You’d be immersed in these rhythmic environment. And what the Rhodes and the Clavinet did was provide colors, with a precision that helped define the music more rhythmically.

And you had people who had been used to playing the piano; I had been playing since I was about three years old. So take someone who’s been playing and studying piano most of their life. Then they go into an instrument that’s not an organ, not a Wurlitzer, but something that has almost the full range (the 88-key Rhodes came later). So they’re taking a pianistic approach and applying it to something electric. You had a different kind of sustaining factor, and you might not have the harmonic interaction you’d have on an acoustic piano. But you could adjust volume, phasing, vibrato. And for a pianist, that was a fascinating world to enter.

We’d have these instruments modified – at no small expense – to make them more responsive, to make the attack more precise. And we’d work on the electronics, to make, for lack of a better word, an artist’s instrument.

BK: Sort of like a guitarist changing out his instrument’s stock pickups…

TC: Yeah. And they do things like shave the frets. The same idea. So we were getting into some areas that were pretty exciting. And the drummers were playing much louder to get the sounds that they wanted out of the drums. You would hear the drums on a rock record that you liked, but you would not get drums like that at a jazz club volume; forget it. So when they did play louder, that made it hard for pianists. Club pianos were not that great, so you’d bring in an electric piano, and create your own audio environment. And that had a lot to do with where the music went.

BK: Not that it’s the be-all and end-all of things, but at present there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for Worlds Around the Sun. I suppose that’s because it was unavailable for so long. Used copies of the original LP start at $60. Why do you think it went out of print, after receiving such good critical notices and selling reasonably well?

TC: I think that the company [Prestige], which was owned by Saul Zaentz, was a privately held company. So they had certain assets that they worked on. They could only give certain records a certain level of attention. They were not signing new artists, and I think eventually the company was sold to Concord. And so not only did they get the prestige of having this great jazz catalog, but I don’t think they knew everything that was in the catalog. And I don’t think Prestige was ever in the business of making jazz stars, either.

They weren’t doing tour support or any big promotional campaigns. They worked really well with the press, but they weren’t in the business of out-marketing their competitors. But that’s me speaking with an executive hat on.

The thrust of the company was not that. When you get in that business, you have to have a steady stream of product that represents the brand. They had a great art department, though. It was there in Berkeley, so it had to be hip to a certain level. So that’s a second sort of what-if question.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is an undiscovered gem that can now be discovered. And it’s great to see Omnivore Recordings doing it; they have quickly developed a reputation for very thoughtful crate-digging, for lack of a better word.

TC: Curating.

BK: Yes, curating: that’s a better word.

TC: And I think that has everything to do with the times. The music that I made at that time, 1972, the music of that time was so different from the expressions that had come before. I don’t think the social commentary and critics of that time fully understood where the music was originating. So it’s really great to be able to revisit it, and talk about it in an expansive way.

People are talking about some of the concept albums that the art rock bands were making; people are very interested in old Genesis records. I went on to work with Peter Gabriel, too. People are interested in Pink Floyd albums, and in these bigger concepts. Those are records that were talking about the emotional and psychological frame of mind of the times. And that’s still interesting to people as we ask ourselves: How did we get where we are right now?

For me, it’s always been about dreaming the life you want to live, and always being curious. When original thoughts are made into something musical, if it’s well done, there’s a reward for the curious.

And I’m excited to the point where I shot a video for one of the tracks from the record. The track “It Ain’t” is basically about the song from Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It ties into the idea of mythologies. It’s a big thing to go against those, because people have a whole lot of views about music, about people’s aspirations. And the revolution that the we attached to music in the early 70s meant that we were all looking at society and allegiances differently. And that’s fodder for some high creativity. And I’m very appreciative to have been a part of that. Because it set the trajectory of my musical ideals.

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