Michael Penn

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Michael Penn

Michael Penn

Since the late 1980s Michael Penn has been steadily making some of the finest rock albums of the past 25 years, works of sustained pleasure, intelligence and emotional grace. His music builds on the groundbreaking mid-60s flowering of The Beatles, The Zombies, The Kinks and others who harnessed craftsmanship to boundary pushing gusto. Penn’s records show the same kind of attention to detail and life-enhancing observations about the human condition that mark the best work of his forebears. Things are exposed in creative language, imaginative arrangements, and gorgeous melodies that illuminate one’s walk through this rocky world, arming one with songs against the darkness and doubt, a sonic hand to hold as the clouds gather and a familiar chill settles into one’s bones. The light that Penn sparks in his music is real and thus actually warms us unlike the dazzling but ultimately thin glow that most pop-flavored rock has today.

Over the course of five enduringly excellent albums and his ever-increasing soundtrack work – most recently as the composer for the HBO series Girls as well as Showtime’s Masters of Sex – Penn has evolved a catalog that’s rich in feel, music of haunting texture and emotional delicacy that lingers, increasing in quality and depth the longer one spends in his soundscapes. His is a careful hand and the music reflects the smarts and time that go into it but never sacrificing heart and feel for anything cerebral, his work a beautiful balance of elements delivered in one of the Impound’s all-time favorite rock voices, a seductive set of pipes right up there with Paul Carrack, Glenn Tilbrook and young Todd Rundgren for pure, immediate power.

Michael Penn was kind enough to spare DI an hour of his time to discuss making records (including why he hasn’t made a new rock album since 2005’s Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 – an unsung classic of the early 2000s), his work on Girls, what it means to make a living making music in the modern times, and more.

Penn's 1989 Debut

Penn’s 1989 Debut

In 1989, I didn’t feel like The Beatles had won whenever I listened to the radio, and then your first record came out and I thought, “Yes, this is what it sounds like if The Beatles won.”

[Laughs] That’s a very sweet way of putting it.

From the beginning it seemed like you weren’t aiming to be part of what was on radio at the time, that you had a higher standard you were aiming towards.

I don’t know if it was aiming higher but it was certainly aiming at a different place. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the 60s. I grew up in the 70s but my musical appetite was such that I grabbed everything I could. And while I appreciated a bunch of stuff from the 50s and a bunch of stuff that was happening in the 70s, I really gravitated towards the mid-60s era, which was so fertile. For me, the benchmarks were The Beatles and Dylan, primarily – Dylan for lyrics and Beatles for melody – and my focus was not just songwriting but record making. Someone like George Martin was as important for me as Lennon and McCartney. The thing that really got me about that period, particularly as it moves into what’s known as the psychedelic period, was rock music got to a place where it was all about eclecticism. You could do anything. You could do an Indian rock number followed by a vaudeville homage.

The Beatles’ White Album is a shining example of the weird spray of styles possible under one roof.

Penn_RIO

It’s like someone said, “You’re free. You can do anything.” That, to me, what was so great about that period, and it stuck with me. Then, I got bored with pop music and got really into things like this movement in the 70s called RIO or Rock In Opposition. It was almost a punk aesthetic but with art-rock style music. It was very intentionally avant-garde, and I was immersed in that for years. At some point, I came back to writing songs and had this band that I kind of knew what I wanted to do with it but it was definitely not what was going on at radio at the time [laughs].

The process of exploring the past and finding something relevant and exciting to the present is a dynamic common to a lot of great art, to till the field and see what grows from old soil tilled by new hands.

I think that’s a part of my personality. In many ways, I feel like a steampunk. There’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis where he says if you’re on the wrong road then progress can mean going backwards. So, that’s kind of the way I looked at it, and a lot of the music that was happening when I was younger wasn’t reaching me. I didn’t like synthesizers, and as that palette took hold I just wanted no part of it.

Having Patrick Warren and his arsenal of vintage keyboard sounds on your early records was a real breath of fresh air in that era.

A Chamberlin

Chamberlin

The worst part was when they tried to have a string section that was a synth sound. There’s just no way that isn’t cheesy. So, I became obsessed with this guy Harry Chamberlin, and I worked for two summers to buy his instrument called the Chamberlin, which is a keyboard that can actually give you strings because it’s an actual recording of strings on tape. So, that instrument became a very prominent sound on my records because it had some of the textures I felt the music should have.

You sent me down a rabbit hole learning about Chamberlins and other vintage instruments in the same vein after seeing the names in the liner notes of your records. Are vintage instruments still a passion of yours? There is a soul and power to them that’s different than modern instruments.

Novachord

Novachord

Absolutely! Even in terms of synthesizers, the tube oscillator synthesizers that were around in the early part of the 20th century are cool like Ondes Martenot or the one Hammond made, the Novachord. Some of those things just sound remarkable and have such a texture to them because they’re not trying to be something else; they aren’t imitating strings or something.

That makes me think of Pierre Henry’s stuff, which feels very alive and alien because it isn’t trying to be anything but its own strange thing.

I love that stuff and if I had money and room I’d be accumulating a lot of these things!

As you’ve moved further into the field of soundtrack work has it freed you up to explore more of those Rock In Opposition ideas without the constraints of the pop-rock songwriting format?

In tiny ways it has. I don’t want to have an agenda going into a project. It has to be a really good fit and be right for a project. Some of my more – for lack of a better word – experimental ideas do get some play in the soundtrack world. It was always a treat for me to find moments to do that on my records, too, to have moments within a song that aren’t so traditional. But for soundtrack stuff, it’s really about finding the right thing for the specific project.

It keeps you busy but I have to ask why there hasn’t been a new song-oriented rock album since 2005?

Penn's Latest Studio Album

Latest Studio Album

To be honest, it’s very hard to think about making a record when that’s just not what you do anymore. And for me, there’s a bunch of stuff that’s made it a less alluring prospect to sit down and write and record 10-15 new songs. It’s a completely different world. So, I can continue to be a songwriter if I want to keep touring the rest of my life, but if I want to be a record maker, well, recorded music for its own sake is no longer viable.

There are still plenty of people out there making great albums but they’re not making money from that. They’re making money from touring, and that’s a bargain I’m not that interested in. Touring was not my favorite part of the job to begin with. I’ve got my own issues and being on the road isn’t necessarily healthy for me. And it’s not what I got into it for, which was to make recorded music. Soundtrack work allows me to do that though I’m not a songwriter, which I miss very much. I hope at some point to have the time and money to do that again but I am enjoying the work I’m doing these days.

Maybe the modern era may offer some opportunities to do singles, EPs and albums offered directly to listeners and fans via the internet without a label or other intermediary. Radio may not welcome these variations of formats but there’s a potential audience that might.

Penn_BrotherSingle

Yes, I agree with you and there are opportunities to make things happen. I did this single for Sweet Relief [pick it up here], and I’d like to do things like that more often.

It plays to some of your strengths. I’ve often thought you had singles on your albums in the classic sense that maybe don’t jive with the modern meaning of singles. Your melodic sense means you’re writing singles for the Great Jukebox In The Sky and not VH1.

The way my head works on that is a single is just a great song and I’m always trying to write a great song. So, it’s always sort of the goal, but at the same time, I know I can be a bit odd in terms of my melodic structures. The last thing I want to do is repeat myself or do something somebody else has done. When you’re dealing with 12 notes in a scale and a basic harmonic sense engrained in me it does become challenging to find something new to say in an emotional way. It’s not about radio. It’s about coming up with something that’s dynamic and makes you feel something. That’s what a great song should be.

Penn_Count

You’ve put out a tidbit here and there like ”The Count of Pennsylvania”, which show you’re as on-point as ever as a songwriter. Are you compiling material for some future day?

I write when I feel the impulse, but I haven’t really recorded anything in years besides my soundtrack work. Again, it’s gonna be a moment where I have a little breathing room. The good part is when I do get to there it will be because I want to do it. It won’t be for any reason other than that.

You’ve been doing music for the HBO series Girls for both seasons. You hit the right mood for the series, and I dug the song that closed season one [listen here]. Has it been a good experience working on the show?

Girls Soundtrack

Girls Soundtrack

It’s been really great. Lena [Dunham] is just fantastic to work with. Her writing is so sharp and so smart. It’s been a fantastic gig.

I find her writing to be a real frog-in-slow-boiling-water experience, where I’m initially not sure if I’m digging it and then when it all ties together at the end I’m generally impressed.

She has real insight and gives a shit.

It’s fun to make art in conjunction with another art form, to let different disciplines speak to one another.

That’s something I really enjoy and it’s something I never get from making records. When I make records it’s a very solitary thing. It’s not like I’m in a band. I tend to produce myself. I write it and often play a lot of the instruments. It’s very solitary. [Soundtrack work] is much more collaborative and that’s fresher to me at the moment.

Having others as a catalyst for what you do takes some of the weight off from constantly generating ideas, angles to work, etc. I’ve been impressed with your evolution as a soundtrack composer. It’s a very different language than rock.

Penn_Girls2

It is. There are certain things that are similar in terms of emotional content where you’re trying to use melody to reach people. That part of it is the same. It’s been really great on Girls because there’s a tendency with a lot of score work to really try and stay neutral because you don’t want to direct the emotion of a scene unless it’s appropriate. Oftentimes the moments composers get to have when they score stuff and guide you through a scene emotionally, a lot of those moments are now taken up by songs in movies and TV, those moments are taken away from the composer. But, even though there are a lot of songs on Girls, there’s also been a lot of opportunities for me to do that.

I’m a big fan of the classic soundtrack guys like Bernard Herrmann, Mancini, and Nino Rota, and all these guys had a sense of personality that emerged in their work. That’s a much bigger challenge in an era, as you point out, where neutrality is more the rule than the exception. Do you feel you’ve developed a personality as a soundtrack composer?

Well, I don’t think about it but I certainly hope so [laughs]. I think can be objective enough to say that I do. It’s certainly idiosyncratic enough that would make sense, so let’s just hope that communicates.

You said touring isn’t really your bag but what does lure out to do the occasional show. I caught you a time or two at Café du Nord in San Francisco. What prompts you out?

Michael Penn

Michael Penn

New songs. That’s the one foot that has to be followed by the next foot. For me to think about going out and doing a tour, to think about playing a bunch of shows where most of the songs, at the newest, are 5-6 years old, doesn’t really get me charged up. If I had a batch of new tunes I’d be completely up for it. It’s really a matter of me deciding the time is right to woodshed a bunch of new songs and then try to get them recorded.

The intimacy of you and a guitar is great, and it’s where truly good songs live or die. If the bones of the thing aren’t sturdy you’ll know it right away in that setting.

No question, and for me that’s always the way a song has to begin AND then the fun part begins with the arranging and recording. Again, that’s as much of why I got into this as writing the song, finding a way once you have the song to paint it out and have it live in its own world. That can be something really simple like a guitar and a voice but it has to be dictated by the song. That’s what I miss more than playing live.

I’ve always gotten the sense that you listen to your songs well. There’s an emotional truth and organic grace to the way you dress them and send them into the world. Sometimes sounds serve things on a subliminal level we can’t reach with language.

Penn_ListeningParty

I think that’s true, and I also think it’s a way of experiencing the song, for lack of a better word, that’s more cinematic, where you can create an environment that can hopefully absorb you as a listener. But a lot of this is coming from what I’d guess a lot of people would consider a very old fashioned view of music, which is music as a shared experience in front of a hi-fi, where you’re listening through speakers rather than through your phone or earbuds, it’s enveloping you and it becomes a participatory act of really listening to something and getting into it, which is the way I grew up and listened to music with my pals as a teenager, sitting around on a good evening where we got together specifically to listen to records. I’m sure in 30 years there will be people bemoaning the wonder years of videogames where people actually sat together and played them in the same room. Those are the sort of shared experiences that have moved into other realms. Music is a more isolated thing. I’m not talking about live music; I’m talking about recorded music.

The iconic image of the whole family gathered around the radio during the 1930s and 1940s goes right to this point.

It’s a different way of listening. You can hear the music in any number of ways and it takes different forms. It’s an attitude issue.

Picking up on somebody else’s enthusiasm for a particular piece of music has been essential my evolution as a listener and appreciator of music. So, you have “1947” in the title of one of your records and you’ve done a cover of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Is there some longing in you for an earlier time?

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

No, I don’t think that’s it. For me, I may be completely wrong about this but it just seems like music serves a different function in society than it once did. Maybe I’m wrong but it feels that way to me. It’s shifted somehow, and the symptoms of that shift can be seen in how it’s not a viable commodity anymore because it can be downloaded for free very easily. The reality of most people listening to music on YouTube and not paying for it has to be dealt with it. The rise of popular music and its evolution as a corporate commodity probably devalued it. There was this golden age I got to live through but I have to remind myself that it’s gone. When I grew up there were huge stars but they weren’t just huge stars because they were funded by a big company but because they had musical worth and people saw value in what they were doing. But, in 1920, the biggest star in the world was a magician, so clearly these things change over time [laughs]. The tricky thing with recorded music is realizing that music as a commodity is not that old. Before that there was sheet music and that was the original souvenir. Then records followed and became their own art form. My relationship to it is I’m not into being beholden to my past and my relationship to music I had in my youth but I still want to approach it with respect.

You can honor the past without having to be constricted by it.

Penn_CDTrash

The business started to change dramatically in the seventies but the seventies were also the last era where the business was run by people with actual musical backgrounds. The things that were being signed were not only getting signed for completely crass, commercial reasons because the people making those decisions were music people. That started to change and the music people who survived were the ones who understood that we were now in a blockbuster mentality where the measure of success had to be so enormous to justify the machine they were building to promote it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t serve anybody very well. And then there was just a horrible lack of foresight with music and how to deal with the realities of the digital age. The industry was just blind about it even though many others readily saw what was coming. They went from selling a wave form embedded in an object to just selling the wave form. Without having thought that one through they shot themselves in both feet.

It boils my blood that people claim to love a musician and then take their music for free. It seems like it would be self-evident that one needs to support an artist with dollars as well as enthusiasm if they want that artist to thrive and continue making music they claim to love.

But it’s not really self-evident, especially to someone growing up now because it’s already a different world. The notion of music as a permanent object is non-existent.

I know, I know. I sound like Old Man Cook yelling at the kids from my porch.

I’m absolutely certain I sound like that but I’m comfortable with my porch.

ALO's Steve Adams

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ALO by Jay Blakesberg

ALO by Jay Blakesberg

There’s a lot to be said for starting new traditions. Sure, the calendar is already crammed with loads of generally held annual occasions but the ones we choose for ourselves often have greater meaning. These closely held dates signify what’s important to us, what we consider worthy of elevation, where our hearts truly reside. For the California tribe primo party rockers ALO have gathered around them the annual Tour D’Amour is a thing of love, both in how it’s loved by fans and how it boldly & broadly celebrates love in a larger sense. It’s a chance for these super-pro musicians to reconnect with their home state faithful with a roaming musical Valentine that many consider some of the group’s best each year. The kinetic, symbiotic energies between the band and the crowd is reliably delightful at these shows, and the overall effect is good times, dancing, and some of the best pop-rock going today.

DI snagged ALO bassist Steve Adams for a few questions about the band as they soon embark on Tour D’Amour VIII beginning February 13 in Santa Barbara. Find the full itinerary here.

1. The title of the latest studio album reads like a sentence, and to these ears, comes across like a succinct mission statement when taken together. So, dance a little about architecture and tell us about what ALO sounds like.

ALO_SoundsLike

The title Sounds Like This came mainly from Zach’s lyrics in “Blew Out the Walls”, which became a pivotal track for us throughout the making of the record. As a band, we turned inward a bit on this one. Our three-record label deal was at its end and we didn’t really even know if we’d be putting out our next record on Brushfire. That alone made us ask ourselves. “Ok, well, if it was just us again, back in the basement, working on tunes just for ourselves, what would that be?” Zach’s lyrics in “Blew” captured that feeling well, reflecting on that early time of discovery and making music with no attachments or expectations In a way, I think the band was returning to that place again, with the feeling of, “Let’s just do this for us and see what happens”. And when we put our name and the title together – “ALO Sounds Like This” – it just clicked as a great title to describe this moment of finding ourselves again. It also seemed to answer the question asked so often by people who don’t know your music: “So what do you guys sound like?” Maybe it was even a call to attention, like if you didn’t know who we were or what we sounded like yet, here ya go, check this out!

2. Pop has become a dirty word to a lot of people in the 21st century, perhaps because of what largely populates the airwaves now. ALO has always seemed to embrace pop in the classic sense (The Beatles, 80s radio fare). What do you dig about this single-minded form of music making?

ALO_Bubblegum

Pop isn’t such a dirty word for us. Yes, there’s some bad Pop music out there, stuff that feels very contrived and just made to sell. But there’s also some good stuff. With those big Pop record budgets, sometimes interesting new things can emerge. And of course, if you include the Beatles, Esquivel, Motown and all the many great bands and artists in between, those are big influences on us. The art of crafting a song, arranging it and recording it the best you can, those are things we try to do too.

3. You four have played together pretty much the whole of your adult lives. What’s it like to play with these three guys? What do you think lies at the core of your chemistry as a quartet?

ALO

ALO

Maybe like some kind of family band, I think ALO has the ability to be really in-tune with each other, like a sixth sense type of thing. I think we can anticipate moves, finish sentences, understand glances. It can get us in trouble sometimes too though, because sometimes you don’t need to know so much – too much information! Sometimes a streamlined simplicity can get you through the gig a little easier, with a few less waves of emotion to process. But that special connection we share can really allow some amazing magical musical moments to happen, too. So interesting sometimes that when you listen back, you’re not even sure how you did what you did. I think our long-time friendship and trust and love for each other is the core of this chemistry. As long as we continue to nurture and care for that, I think we’ll be able to keep taking fun musical leaps and connect even deeper as a band.

4. A big part of this band’s reputation is as a live band. Talk a bit about the difference between delivering these songs live versus what you do in the studio.

Steve Adams by Kerri Kelting-Leslie

Steve Adams by Kerri Kelting-Leslie

Live and studio are two different contexts for sure. We try to serve each for what they are. In the studio, you can get really detailed with sound choices and arrangements. Live, it’s a bit more of a creative mess. For some reason in ALO, we’ve always allowed each other to be very free. So as opposed to just recreating what we did in the studio, there is this freedom that anyone can start a song a little different, or even play a song a little different. It keeps us on our toes, and connected to each other, and the moment. We always write a good little road map for a set, and usually mix up the song selections pretty good, but I think the real magic is what happens off the page – the banter that gets filled in, the left turns people take, the extended solo that someone was feeling, someone in the audience yelling something out. I think it’s those moments that make our shows feel alive, and I would imagine it’s what keeps people coming back to see us, as much as hearing the tunes they love.

5. A favorite song to play live? Why?

ALO_ManoftheWorld

It’s funny, we hardly play the song live, maybe because it’s a little bit slower. And maybe even because we don’t play it much, it always excites me when I see it on a setlist, but “States of Friction” from Man Of The World is one of my favorites [Editor’s Note: One of the Impound’s favorite ALO tunes, too]. It’s different than most of our songs, the groove of it, and we pulled in some of the cool soundscapes we created in the studio into a sampler we use live. The texture and ambiance always sounds really neat to me. I like Zach’s lyrics to the song too, which I get to sing on a few harmony parts. It’s just a cool tune and one that speaks to me.

6. Best part of touring life? Most challenging/negative part of touring life?

ALO_Tour

The best part of touring for me is getting to see so many different places. I love meeting new people and experiencing the different cultural styles. I love hitting up recommended food spots and discovering cool little record stores.

The most challenging part is no doubt staying healthy. The long drives, the lack of consistent sleep, the eventual bad food stops, the temptation of having a few drinks each night (our office is a bar after all) are all challenges in staying bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Adrenaline can sometimes get you through tough little spurts, but on marathon tours you really have to think sustainably. Mental preparation sometimes helps me, keeping your head up so you’re aware of what kind of storm you’re headed into and where and when you’ll get a chance to rest and recoup.

7. With more than 20 years in ALO’s history – countless tours, special shows like the recent Fly Like An Eagle late night, seven studio albums – what do you think the future of ALO holds? Rock operas? More elaborate costuming? Chorus girls and helper monkeys onstage? What’s next?

ALO_HelperMonkey

Well, I could certainly imagine developing our live show so it’s an even more elaborate experience. We keep discovering new ways to stitch our material together and use different songs to tell certain stories each night. I could see incorporating more visual stage stunts. I could see possibly even expanding the band a bit with percussion, horns and more vocals. I could also see this move affecting our studio work, as far as creating music that may support a bigger stage show approach. Rock operas, chorus girls, helper monkeys? Exactly!

Edward David Anderson

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Ed Anderson by Jay Miller

Edward David Anderson by Jay Miller

”It’s hard to think about what tomorrow’s gonna bring when you’re trying to make it through today/ ‘Cause the bells keep ringing and the birds keep singing but your worries don’t go away.”

The Impound talks a lot about rock fundamentals – dead solid songwriting, conviction and passion one can feel, clear natural talent, a healthy balance between broad appeal and unforced experimentation, and well-woodshedded, tour-won musicianship – and we couldn’t offer a better living example of these fundamentals in action than Edward David Anderson. A cursory listen to Anderson’s work – first in long running Illinois rockers Backyard Tire Fire and now as a solo artist and member of Magic Box and touring foil for Cracker’s Johnny Hickman – stirs echoes of primo Tom Petty, Steve Earle and The Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston, but dig deeper and one finds something more sui generis original in Anderson’s tunes, a powerful vibration with beat-ass blue-collar folks and indomitable dreamers living just a few miles out from where they’d like to be, strivers in life’s trenches who refuse to back down from a good fight and always seem to be able to unearth the belly fire to keep on keepin’ on despite all the briars and bull-pucky blocking the road ahead.

Debut EP

Debut EP

Anderson recently released his first solo EP, the jamming-on-the-front-porch dappled Low-Fi Goodness – about as fine a musical companion for these looking-for-work, messed-up-prospects American times as a person could want – and is currently polishing his full-length solo debut, Lies & Wishes, due April 2014 and produced by Los Lobos’ secret weapon Steve Berlin (watch album preview below – read DI’s 2010 interview with Berlin). After the Midwest ready meat-n-taters trio sound of Tire Fire, what’s emerging in Anderson’s solo work is a streetwise folkie that’s Americana savvy but still ready to plug in if the music demands some howl ‘n’ crackle. In its gentler turns, his solo work brings to mind the great Fred Neil at his “Dolphins” chasing best, and the heft of even the quiet moments shares a bond with early 70s John Martyn. Anderson has always successfully mined the richest, wisest nuggets from close-to-the-bone, vagabond living but he’s now also shown an acute nose for finding the true, lasting joys of home and rugged, workingman’s gospel that uplifts without feeling forced or false. And there’s loads more banjo on his solo stuff and that ain’t nothing but good.

Since first encountering Anderson’s music on Backyard Tire Fire’s Bar Room Semantics in 2005, he’s become one of this writer’s personal causes because I truly believe that if one only hears Ed’s songs, hears his beautifully burnished voice and sprightly pickin’, hears the tremendous heart and homegrown wisdom of his tunes that’ll they’ll fall for him too. Anderson is an infuriating case study in the changing landscape for working musicians in modern times, where talent, an unshakeable work ethic, hell-bent determination, and honest to God integrity and devotion to craft aren’t enough to guarantee success in the capitalist, fame senses. If the mark of chart success, public awareness and ticket/album sales were strictly being really good then Ed would already be sitting on top of the world. But the world sucks in all sorts of ways and this is one of them. So, it falls to real music lovers – those who’ve rejected taking what’s given them and seek sustenance and not just another lifestyle accessory – to get to know and support an artist like Edward David Anderson. Come along and get to know one of DI’s causes.

Even before I got to know you, just based on your music, I thought, “Oh man, this guy is stuck doing this. He’s a lifer to his bones.”

Johnny Hickman by Brenda Yamen

Johnny Hickman by Brenda Yamen

You’re right [laughs]. Lifer is it. It’s one of the reasons [Johnny] Hickman and I get each other. At the first gig we did together there was a buzz in the air and we had the room wrapped around our fingers, and he turned to me and said, “You’re a lifer aren’t you?” I was like, “You’re goddamn right! I love this shit!” I think my shtick hasn’t changed but I’ve gotten better at it. I think I’ve refined it a bit and learned a lot from the ups and downs, good times and bad times. When you have that to draw from it elevates what you can get at creatively. That’s the difference now.

The other thing you learn over time with most artistic crafts is how most work can be made better by winnowing back elements, carving out forms with the least amount of fat and flash possible. You learn how to do more with a single line than a whole paragraph or verse, and nothing can replace just hammering away at one’s craft year after year to learn this lesson.

OMG_Ed_Drum

That’s what always surprises me when I hear someone who’s 19 or 20 who gets this. How are they this good? How can they get to that place already? Some people get to it earlier and others take years and years. Some people have it out of the gate. For me, it took me a lot of years not just to figure things out from a lyrical and writing perspective but also getting better at my craft from a musical perspective. I needed all the experiences I’ve had to get to where I’m at today, which feels like a new start, a new chapter. Here we go!

My perspective as a fan and follower for about 9 years is this really is a new beginning for you, that I’m really hearing and seeing Ed Anderson unencumbered by the layers and baggage of the past. There’s something afoot between the new solo work and Magic Box that seems like something has freed up inside you. When did this process start?

Well, some folks told me I should maybe think about making money some other way and that just motivated me to try even harder, to reestablish myself and write even better songs.

There’s something about people telling you that kind of thing about your calling that makes you say, “That’s all fine and well but I’m going to have to give you a double dip scoop of ‘fuck you’ for that advice.” Either those comments break you or they firm up one’s resolve.

[Laughs] It was like a punch to the gut but it made me stronger.

The rise of the banjo in your music makes me think that the coffeehouse folk circuit that’s embraced and supported folks like John Gorka, Greg Brown and Patti Griffin is ripe to discover what you do.

Edward David Anderson

Edward David Anderson

I think so, too. There’s definitely something there for me. I’m trying hard to become a better storyteller. I’m not going to bore people with boring small talk but it’s important in that scene to be able to spin tales between the songs, and I’m working hard at getting better at that. I do hear myself moving more and more in the direction of Americana with a more banjo, mandolin and acoustic feel than rock ‘n’ roll.

Going on the road with Hickman was a confidence builder to make my own record. Do it as Edward David Anderson. Dedicate it to your mom. Don’t do it with people you really know. Just go do it and make a statement on my own. Fund it on Kickstarter and just go. I kind of dropped off there for a minute and I realized you have to stay on top of this shit if you want a career. I needed to become part of the conversation again and I have.

I’m going back and playing old, old songs lately. I’d avoided them because of how things turned out and such, which meant to me that I was still hanging onto shit. I’ve let it go and I’m re-familiarizing myself with some good tunes. It is what is. Time to move forward. I’m comfortable in my own skin right now. If all I do is make enough money to live comfortably, I’m more than happy. If my wife is happy and I’m happy then it’s fine by me. I don’t feel like I need to be on Letterman anymore. If that happened it’d be great but we were chasing that kind of thing for SO long in Tire Fire that it started not being fun. Now, I just want to play music as my primary income and have more fun, be it solo, with Hickman, with Magic Box, or whatever.

One thing I’ve long said about you is people just need to hear you to like what you do. With every passing year, I’m more and more impressed with someone like you that can just write a good song that doesn’t need all the layers and production and bells and whistles to stand on its own.

Edward David Anderson by Ed Spinelli

Edward David Anderson by Ed Spinelli

That’s what I love in my favorite writers. I don’t read that much about myself, and then I don’t buy into believing the good stuff and I don’t have to forget about the bad things. It’s such a personal thing. It’s so important to me and to have it dismissed with a stroke of a pen is just so painful. I just try and serve the music coming out of me, and that’s what I think my favorite writers do.

I think it’s both logical to be worried about the state of making music for a living right now and logical to think this could be a golden age for real music with the advances in technology, the internet, and so on.

I hope so. Ultimately, I want to get out there and whatever happens happens. If I can entertain 50 people and make their lives better with music that’s cool. If I sell a song to Nashville that does great that’s cool. If I get famous that’s cool. But if that stuff doesn’t happen it’s fine. Life is very short. Just fuckin’ enjoy what you’re doing.

Jeffrey Foucault

Cold Satellite

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”There are measurements too small for taking/ There are imperatives too large to see.”

Some albums function like puzzle boxes with each finger hold that unlocks a facet simultaneously obscuring others. While on the surface this might seem frustrating but for true music lovers it’s a gift to receive something that only gives up its secrets to those willing to fidget, twist and worry over it with not entirely voluntary determination. So much music today arrives pre-explicated and partially digested to make it easy to consume, but for a certain breed of listener it’s nifty to find a work eager to push boundaries and explore the recombinant possibilities of the modern age.

Jeffrey Foucault & Lisa Olstein by

Jeffrey Foucault & Lisa Olstein

However, such “puzzle boxes” aren’t always much fun, the traditional pleasures of melody, romance and raw energy traded for noise, obfuscation and conscious distance. So, it’s an even more distinct treat to discover a complex yet utterly visceral album like Cavalcade (released on May 21 on swell Massachusetts indie label Signature Sound and available here), the second outing from Cold Satellite. Built around the core of poet Lisa Olstein and justifiably noted singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, Cold Satellite began life after Olstein handed Foucault a sheaf of unused poems and fragments to forge into songs. As high-minded as the concept sounds, once Foucault and his sparring partners – drummer Billy Conway (Morphine), bassist Jeremy Moses Curtis (Booker T), electric guitarist David Goodrich (Chris Smither), pedal steel player Alex Mccollough, and multi-instrumentalist Hayward Williams [whose 2007 solo album Another Sailor’s Dream is worth your attention] – start tearing at and gnawing on the material it becomes as earthy as a good cry or sweaty commingling.

Cold Satellite by Eric Vandeveld

Cold Satellite by Eric Vandeveld

The band’s sound shares something in common with Jason Isbell, Ryan Bingham and John Murry, but more than anything, in tone and texture, Cold Satellite recalls The Cardinals at their feverish best but without all the baggage Ryan Adams brought to the table. Things rattle and roam in this music, whispers and screams hitting with equal intensity, and always the blood, muscle and deep feeling of fleshy, fracture riddled human beings powering the notes. As Foucault explains in this interview, the spiritual guides for Cavalcade were Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night and the Faces’ Ooh La La – two classics as gutbucket right and emotionally jagged as anything rock has mustered – and Cavalcade holds its own in this grimy, illustrious company.

Movement, even if only the grinding wheels in one’s head, is everywhere on this album, midnight trains echoing in the distance as clouds drag their arms across the sky. Like most of Foucault’s solo work, Cavalcade is a superb driving record, a soundtrack for going somewhere/anywhere, devouring distance and opening up space. And like a similarly unorthodox but undeniably rockin’ Impound obsession from a few years back – Shooter Jennings’ Black Ribbons – it’s an album you’ll want as a companion, perhaps your sole companion, as you set out on a personal journey, its wide leaping verses and rollicking & tender passages just the sustenance one needs for long roads and profound thinking. That it’s also kinda perfect for pounding beers and getting lit as you annoy your neighbors with volume-distorted speakers on a moonlit night is part of Cavalcade and Cold Satellite’s simmering, charmingly contradictory magic.

You could hold a pistol to my head/ You could light fire to my bed/ You could leave the hungry all unfed/ What I meant by what I said/ Is please please stay.

New Album

New Album

Cavalcade never dumbs down the conversation but it’s still filled with balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll.

Jeffrey Foucault: That’s what we were after for sure. The whole process, which is years long, starts when Lisa gives me raw material and some finished poems. There are three or four things on the records that appear in her book Little Stranger in poem form, where the language is different. You can’t just sing ‘em. You have to add something to make them scan or put an end rhyme in to move them around and make them work. Both versions of this process for the two records we’ve made have been satisfying because they’ve been experimental and far-flung. It relieves me of some of the responsibility of generating language. Every now and then I’ll add a word or a line but for the most part I’m not overly concerned about generating language. I’m not unconcerned but once I get going I don’t even care what the poem’s about. I try to take a real instinctual approach. I want the words in the first line to make me feel a certain way and then I run off in that direction.

The opening verse in each song establishes something – something textural or intellectual – that’s like someone jumping on a horse’s back and chasing after something.

I agree. I tried not to read the poems all the way through this time around. I browsed them and tried to get a sense of a through-line but it’s part of the reason the [new] record feels so disparate. There are a lot of different elements, and if you took out even one or two songs it’d have a very different feel and sound. The album covers a lot of different territory.

It’s clearly the collaboration of a group of strong minded people but each individual track stands on its own. There’s an overall mood that I can’t put my finger on that makes it unclear whether there’s a through-line or even if one is necessary. It all hangs together so well despite the diversity. Every time I put it on I think, “Where are we going this time?”

Cold Satellite by Alex Mccollough

Cold Satellite by Alex Mccollough

Good! That’s how we feel, too. We finished working on it in Upstate New York, driving back to our respective homes – I live in Western Massachusetts – listening to the roughs, and they were pretty down and dirty. We all had the same reaction that you just described – “What the hell just happened?” This record goes here and there and then darts over here. I’ve tortured myself over sequence in the past but this fell into place pretty naturally. My buddy Andy Friedman always says he wants to put on a record when he feels a certain way; he doesn’t want to feel every damn thing. It’s like, “I feel like this and I need this record to be my spirit guide today.” I try to make records that have an arc, but on this one we stuck close to the sequence we roughed out the last night [of the recording session]. Everyone in the band agreed “Elegy” should open it to establish this is a rock record. The bass player suggested “Necessary Monsters,” the blues track, to go second, and everyone thought that would change but it stuck and the rest followed from there. When we were on tour, we come out swinging with the five song opening salvo [from Cavalcade], except for a few nights because it’s fun to throw ourselves off and be uncomfortable.

The chemistry of this band is great. This setting really brings out a different side of you as a vocalist. There’s a kind of possession that takes you over that’s different than your own records.

Jeffrey Foucault by Sandy Dyas

Jeffrey Foucault by Sandy Dyas

I tried to sing the tunes on this record as if I wrote them in my office alone with the house empty. There’s a looseness that emerges when you’re by yourself that you’re always trying to get back to. When you go into the studio this thing happens where you concentrate on phrasing or other elements of singing that are more on the educated side. [With Cold Satellite] I wanted to NOT concentrate on those things and hone in on pure feeling. Possession might be a good way to put it; that might be it. Think about locking yourself in your room during high school and listening to a record that really mattered to you, or if you’re a musician, putting on that record and trying to inhabit that space along with the record. I didn’t concentrate too hard on singing.

What I love about the first tune on the record [“Elegy (In A Distant Room)”] is there’s three guitars and a pedal steel and nobody is in tune [laughs]! We’re all just mildly out of tune, and I’m singing slightly out of tune. If you isolate any one element it sounds terrible but put it all together and it’s like the Faces – it’s all happening if it’s together.

I like that you bring up the Faces because one of the first thoughts I had listening to Calvacade was, “These guys need a bar onstage like the Faces had in the 70s.” So, when somebody wasn’t actively doing something during a song, they’d wander over for a cocktail.

I like that!

My impression is the album is one form these songs might take but this music is too alive to remain static. Once you took it on the road and held them up to different light I imagine the music changed.

Cold Satellite by Toshimi Ogasawara

Cold Satellite by Toshimi Ogasawara

It did, and it was interesting to be on the road together. There’s a nice tension in this band and an impulse to stretch out and play. Some tunes became faster or slower, and sometimes we had to figure out the imperatives of being onstage and how to get everyone in and out the easiest. I was playing two different guitars and the electric guitar needed to go from one weird tuning to another weird tuning so it took some time to adjust, so we’d keep some noise going to give us some time and keep a sonic field happening. The tension comes from Billy (drums) and Goody (David Goodrich – guitar) being improvisers but Alex (pedal steel) is a Nashville guy who thinks, “If you can’t get it said in half a verse on your solo you got nothing to say.” So, he’s always back on the rails and true to form, if there is a form. He likes architecture, and somewhere in the midst of that is me or the bass player making decisions to help find a middle ground. There’s always certain amount of tension but it always makes sense.

There’s a push-me-pull-me energy that’s really enticing. If you’re not too hung up on things being perfect, if you like a little mess on your thing, this sidles up to you real fast. It’s exciting when even the people making the music don’t really know where it’s going on a particular night. One guy with a wild hair can change everything.

It’s really funny when it happens given what a reliable drummer he is but once in a while just when you expect a tune to wind down Billy will get it in his teeth and the song gets further and further out. Then everybody gets excited and it gets noisier and weirder. There might be one guy trying to hold the breaks but it doesn’t happen.

What was your thinking in putting this group of players together? They seem well suited to these somewhat unorthodox roles.

Billy Conway

Billy Conway

It went like this: I started writing the tunes for the first record in 2005 and it was sort of experimental. I called Lisa from the road and asked her about changing a lyric about a camera zooming in and out. She said it was fine and that she’d given me the words because she didn’t know what to do with them. I called her back later that night and sang a song into her answering machine because I thought it might amuse her. Then, Goody and I started to work on tunes together for what we thought would become a duo acoustic record. We did that for almost two years and eventually figured out we should hire a band. I felt very strongly I wanted it to be a brand new experience for everybody, so I asked Kris [Delmhorst, Foucault’s wife and a boffo singer-songwriter herself] who the best drummer she knew was and she said without hesitation, “Billy Conway.” He’d moved to Montana and I hadn’t ever met him but I sent him an email.

I was a big Morphine fan so I’m intimate with his work. Feel for days.

So, I wrote him and told him the spiritual touchstones for this record will be Tonight’s The Night and Ooh La La by the Faces. He told me those were his two favorite records and said, “Let’s do it!” Then I had to find a bass player that wouldn’t be overmatched by Billy and I think Moses had played with him in Twinemen after Morphine and Orchestra Morphine as well. I’d met him on a split bill I’d played a few years prior and I knew I liked him. The pedal steel player I’d met when I was on tour in Europe in ’07. I wanted someone to play long passing chords and such, and Alex is really tasteful and he was free.

Debut Album

Debut Album

So, most of these guys had never met or really played together, but that first record took from Friday night to Sunday morning to largely complete. And we ate three-squares per day – it makes a huge difference in creating trust to break bread together. In a studio it’s hard but in a residential situation we could record at all hours. We’d knock off for a big meal and a bunch of wine and say, “Well, let’s try this one again.” By then it’s midnight and you work until three, and a lot of the best stuff happens working in those dark hours.

That’s the cocktail, if you add in grief, that produced Tonight’s The Night.

Tequila and hamburgers!

The freedom to work when it feels right is really different than working artificially to a clock.

Oh yeah. I like to be in charge of creating the experience for the band because I think it impacts the way the album goes down. My first impulse is to throw a party and just happen to make a record [laughs].

That vibe infuses Calvalcade. It’s great that you cite those particular spiritual touchstones because they emerged in an era where the rules of rock hadn’t been entirely written. Most modern rock has no hips, no sway, and there’s some real swagger to Cold Satellite. You can hear when one of you bit down hard on something good and the others got dragged along by their momentum.

OMG_Foucault_Dukes

I enjoy irony as much as they next guy, but I don’t connect with the modern cultural sense where irony is elevated about all other qualities like there’s some witty cultural commentary to be had by wearing a Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt or some shit. That doesn’t mean anything to me. I play music, and in this case we’re taking modern poetry that’s not necessarily esoteric but can be hard to parse and playing it rock ‘n’ roll style. That second blues flavored tune (“Necessary Monsters”) is a boogie in the John Lee Hooker sense but the language is really out there.

Oh yeah – No scent of fig/ In the fig tree’s branches/ Nor yet any tree. It’s like Rumi being run over a band playing in the back of a pickup truck.

[Laughs] Being able to do that non-ironically is what makes this band what it is. These are all guys who LOVE American rock music and they’re not going out there quoting for the benefit of the hipster crowd. They aren’t going to show you what R.E.M. or Sonic Youth album they own by playing a certain riff. They’re going to create music in real time with a lot of heart. That’s all we really wanted to, and it’s such a fun band to be on the road with for that reason. Everyone is trying to pick up the red phone and see if God is on the other end.

This band seems far from done. There are a lot of neat dangling threads in this music I hope you pull.

For sure! Everyone has been on the road for a long time. Nobody’s been out for less than 10 years, and Billy’s been out for God only knows how long! You picture it that way and you understand that nobody wants to sleep on anybody’s couch. They will if they have to but I prefer to take care of everybody and make sure they feel looked after. I have no idea what the next thing will be. I have no doubt I’ll keep making records with these players in all sorts of different combinations. I want to keep it interesting and keep myself engaged. It’s easy to get trapped and feel painted into a corner. The trick is to leap out of the corner and paint somewhere else.

The Mother Hips’ Greg Loiacono (Part Two)

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Read Part One of DI’s conversation with Greg here.

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

Complexity and conscious, sculpted ambiguity aren’t the first things one thinks of when the subject of rock ‘n’ roll arises, where groin thunder and pummeling directness are the rule not the exception. There have always been some smart folks plying their craft in rock but really high-concept thinking often emerges bloated and self-serious [DI’s looking at you 90-percent of prog and metal]. It’s as if the genre’s earthy elements can’t easily coexist with the truly cerebral and/or spiritual. However, there are rare exceptions that meld these varied elements for something nourishing to body and soul, entertainment that gently enlightens even as it loosens up the dancer in us.

The Mother Hips are one of these rare exceptions, deep water in a time of shallows that still inspires the listener to skinny dip in the surf alongside the music makers even as they make no effort to disguise the undertow right below our feet. Ample evidence of the band’s depths abound on their newest offering Behind Beyond, (rave review), an album as growlingly direct AND filled with fluttering questions and pointed observations as they come.

We continue our chat with singer-songwriter-guitarist Greg Loiacono about the road that lead the Hips to their current state of being.

Green Hills of Earth

Green Hills of Earth

So, you put out Green Hills of Earth almost as a response to the Grateful Dead tag you picked up during the H.O.R.D.E. Tour era, right?

We wanted people to hear our songs and what we do in the studio versus what we do live, more indie music than pop garbage. It was good music and we wanted that recognized by people we thought would understand that.

Then the hiatus came, and it wasn’t that long. Tim had done some playing with the Tim Bluhm Involvement and we’d both done some solo stuff. The main thing was he became more social. We were very insular. We never hung out with other bands. We didn’t have almost any friends in other bands except Convoy, Jackpot and bands we liked and played with. Otherwise, we didn’t know what was in the San Francisco music scene. Once we met the ALO and Tea Leaf Green guys we thought, “These guys are really great and their fans really want to hear music!” By the time we got back together we were of the mindset that ANYONE who wants to hear and enjoy our music is welcome. We opened our minds up on that.

OMG_Greg2_BeautyCassette

So, going back to popping in that cassette of American Beauty, I thought, “Why did I deny myself this music for so long? Why did I reject what was right in my backyard?” I’d heard all the songs but I was really moved by this beautiful, beautiful record. By the second time around I was in tears because of “Box of Rain” – just blown away. This is where the line [in ‘Freed From A Prison’] comes from: “The face of past appeared/ to stare me down/ until my eyes went wild/ The sound I feared to hear/ was never gone/ It was always just near enough to remind me/ that the music is the one thing I can’t live without.” That was just waiting there for me once I stopped being an idiot.

That jumping off point lead to the idea of, “Can you sit through the fire of a thought?” We all have thoughts that are really hard to deal with, and the pain of them makes us want to go under or around them. We want to snuff out the flame, cool the fire down, but when we do that the experience ends up muted or voided but still waiting to come back again. At some point you’ll have to experience it, and sitting through the fire of a thought is going right into it no matter how painful it is. When we come out the other side we’re transformed. If we can sit through it – if we don’t stuff it or avoid it – we are transformed. We don’t know what that will be like but we have to go through it to find out and achieve some growth, say, anger turned into wisdom or fear turned to bravery or compassion. [American Beauty] took me there immediately, right to the idea of being freed from the thoughts that live in the past and not right where we are now. It surrounds us and traps us from being right here in what’s really real.

The Mother Hips (1992)

The Mother Hips (1992)

There’s a fascination with The Mother Hips’ history that you see in the abiding nostalgia for early rarities and old photographs of the band. What I like about Behind Beyond is that it addresses this stream in your fan base, almost saying, “Yes, there’s a lot going on in the past but this is who we are now. This is the music we want to play.” The album title and the title tune place one right here instead of somewhere else. “I’m alive” is a present tense statement. The album acknowledges and appreciates your history but demands the focus be on today. This is likely the deepest psychological and spiritual ground the Hips have ever trod. Even a toe-tapper like “Toughie” is built around a hefty chorus that suggests you have to live a dichotomy to really live.

That kind of stuff Tim comes up with makes me go, “How did you do that?” The whole duality of living is right there in the chorus. It’s so awesome! It’s really fun to play. He’s telling a story but he’s kicking down some really universal concepts that are not only easy to sing along to but likely to resonate with a lot of people.

Tim has gotten more and more comfortable over the years with character-based storytelling with specific place names and nicknamed denizens. Steely Dan excels at this type of thing, telling tales in a succinct way where a single verse can be a short story. Actually, both you and Tim do this to some degree, where you acknowledge you have finite space to move in a song but you still insist on telling a story. There’s less “throw your fist in the air and yell something dumb” type songs in the arsenal these day.

Well, we should do more of that then [laughs].

I was thinking about “Best Friend In Town” and it reminded me of one of the things I love about “Del Mar Station,” which is the open-ended-ness of the lyrics where the listener is given places to attach to but without overmuch specificity.

Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg

Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg

I even asked Tim if it should be “Best Friend Around” or “Best Friend From Town.” The initial thing was a story about this person, and it was really asexual initially – not like the best girl I might go to in a given town. But I just kept singing, “Best friend in town,” and Tim said to just go for it. I like that it’s stream of conscious. It doesn’t really tell you anything other than what it’s feeling. As I unearthed the song it became obvious it was about Carolina [Greg’s wife] and being that person that never let me down. I arbitrarily picked a name [Patty] and then, like many times, I end up regretting it in the end, but once I pick a name I often can’t sing it any other way and it’s stuck. So, it’s a mixture of my lady and other things.

Well, that’s the natural flow of most songwriting. Tunes that feel like journal entries set to music are just creepy. The way things ring true in a song is when the threads that are truly autobiographical rub up against the stuff that’s craft. You weave rhymes and melodies you know are effective together with this gold thread of your life.

So, it has to be asked: What was it like making Behind Beyond with Paul Hoaglin? I love [Scott] Thunes in this band. He’s brought something really fantastic to the live incarnation of The Mother Hips experience. But Paul is missed by people myself very much included. He’s a ghost floating in the background.

Paul Hoaglin @ Las Tortugas V by John Margaretten

Paul Hoaglin @ Las Tortugas V by John Margaretten

For us, he’s always been that, even before he joined the band. Even with the early records, we always wanted him there. He was always part of it. We recorded the first tracking session for [Behind Beyond] and a month later Paul was no longer in the band. But we contacted him because we had rough sketches of these songs that he’d played on and helped arrange and we wanted to finish it out with him. At that point we didn’t know if Thunes would be playing with us for two months or two years. We got delayed on the new album working on the Days of Sun And Grass box set, so it was strange tracking with him when he was no longer in the band. He actually did some remote pedal steel from his house along with some acoustic guitar and clarinet on “Rose of Rainbows,” which he just came up with and said, “Use it if you like it,” and we were all blown away. It’s definitely bittersweet. I love listening to the music, and we all miss him dearly. I like to keep his privacy because he had a hard time being in music in general. His playing on [Behind Beyond] is completely awesome, as is everything he brought to the Hips musically.

Scott Thunes by Andrew Quist

Scott Thunes by Andrew Quist

We’re all also really knocked out by how Thunes, who’s completely digested what Paul did without missing any of the subtleties and important chunks but also turned it into his own thing and not just become a karaoke machine – note for note and do the parts, which he could do if we asked him.

I always loved your harmonies with Paul.

Me, too, and that was one of the biggest changes and reservations with going with Scott. He really knows a lot about music and he’s really bowed down in learning to sing harmony to other people. He’s come a long way, but that was definitely the scariest part of letting go of Paul in the band. We finally had the three-part harmonies we’d always wanted.

Lately, it seems like the band is just having a blast when you play. Like you said about making the record you wanted to make and not worrying about outside concerns, the live shows feel very present and engaged of late. There’s palpable joy at making music coming off the people onstage and an appreciation of the people gathered to listen and engage with the band one can feel. If you’re a Mother Hips fan you know this band is glad you’re around.

Playing live now is as fun as it’s ever been. Really the whole post-hiatus period has been about recognizing the “we have to do this” or “we have to do that” moments and backing off from them and going, “Wait, wait, wait, those moments made us all miserable. So, how can we do this differently?” It needs to be a lot more fun now. It can also not be fun at times, still, but ultimately it only takes a water splash to the face to realize we’re playing really loud, fun rock music and people are enjoying it. How excellent is that? There are lots of other thoughts around it but we’re more aware now that we’re lucky to be able to do this.

The Mother Hips’ Greg Loiacono (Part One)

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The Hips play next on Friday, September 27 at The Belly Up in Solano Beach, CA, and on Saturday, September 28, at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA with select shows throughout the fall. See full schedule here. Greg Loiacono’s ace power trio Sensations, where he’s joined by ALO’s Dave Brogan (drums) and Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis (bass), plays a pair of rare shows at San Francisco’s The Chapel (Thur 10/17) and Santa Cruz’s Crepe Place (Fri 10/18).

The Mother Hips by Jay Blakesberg

The Mother Hips by Jay Blakesberg

The striking contrasts and strong personalities in The Mother Hips are key ingredients in their long-standing appeal. Press play and it’s abundantly obvious one is dealing with heavyweights. What’s occurred over their two decade evolution is a clearer delineation of the band’s two driving songwriting forces, Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono, where their own individual strengths are easier to pick up on as well as the increasingly nuanced commingling that occurs when these two colorful, weirdly wise tunesmiths share a sandbox. 20 years of hindsight reveals some striking similarities to another SF Bay Area singer-songwriter-guitarist pair, namely the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.

It’s a comparison the Hips have dodged since their earliest days, and frankly, it didn’t fit them well until recent years. But Garcia/Weir’s blend of smoothness and sparks does seem a fairly apt touchstone for today’s Mother Hips, particularly as evidenced by their latest long-player, Behind Beyond, which continues their complex creative dance and doesn’t shrink from stepping into Dead territory. The Impound attempted to explain this dynamic in its rave review of the new record, but we know there’s no better source of real information and insight than speaking to the parties involved. Hence, this lengthy chat with Mr. Loiacono, where the band’s changing relationship to the Grateful Dead is discussed amongst other useful tidbits, offered in two segments (Part Two will hit in two weeks).

It seems like you guys came at this album actively seeking something new to do together as composers and as a band. Is that an accurate impression?

Tim Bluhm with The Rhythm Devils by Suzy Perler

Tim Bluhm with The Rhythm Devils by Suzy Perler

Yeah, but it’s a tricky situation. It’s been awhile. We started this album in 2011, and we even went in around November of 2010 to work on demos and show each other the bits and pieces we had. [Paul] Hoaglin was still in full band-age at that point, too. We definitely had this mindset of stretching out and not having too many instrumental parts, be it solos or spacey bridges. Hof [drummer John Hofer], in particular, was really excited. Tim had just done the Mickey Hart thing [The Rhythm Devils], and I’d had a profound experience with American Beauty. That was all happening around the beginning of 2010. So, by the time we were recording we thought, “Well, we’re this freaky, kind of psychedelic San Francisco band.” We didn’t want to make a live record but we wanted to capture some of that live vibe on a record.

OMG_Greg_BehindBeyond

Face it we’re not going to have a pop hit anytime soon. We’re certainly not going to be able to force one, and one coming out of us organically at this point would be an anomaly. It’s not even an idea, so it would be a coincidence. At this point, we’re really writing music we want to play and hear. We always have, but it makes even more sense now to do what we want artistically and musically. When we play live that’s what we do. There aren’t a whole lot of limitations going on. Anything goes, and we’ll do it the way we want to do it that night. I think that’s part of what makes the people who like us like us as vigorously as they do. So, it wasn’t super intentional but we decided to make this record just the way we wanted to.

Sometimes it’s best to do things yourself without the input or consideration of anyone else.

At the time we made this decision I remember hearing the song “Behind Beyond,” and I sort of stayed out of the way of it because I didn’t know what I could do. The modulations just kept coming – “Okay, let’s see how many times we can modulate the key!” Paul, Hof and Jim were working really closely on that one, and I told them, “Just let me know when you’re done.” It wasn’t until I sat down with DSB [co-producer David Simon-Baker] and really figured out how to fit my guitar part into what this was, not just mail it in but really lock into a ‘thing’. I didn’t want to be a hindrance to the basic recording process.

There’s wisdom to hanging back. A lot of musicians, particularly as they get older, realize that NOT saying something is exactly what the music needs.

David Simon-Baker

David Simon-Baker

I love working with DSB. I think a lot of musicians do, and I’m not saying something new. 90-percent of people would say the same thing when they’re being supported by him as a recordist. You feel very safe and creative. So, I remember sitting with him and going, “Ah! Now I know where I’m going to go with this!” And it had been almost a year since the other guys had done their stuff [laughs]. Now, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the record. I can listen to it over and over again on a loop.

It’s awesome, and part of that is how it accomplishes so much in such a succinct way. It doesn’t overstay its welcome even though there’s strong potential to do so. That’s a trait I picked up on all over this record – every song is just as long or short as it needs to be. You found the forms these songs wanted to have.

It’s interesting because there are some long fucking songs on there [laughs]. There are only two songs under four-minutes.

But they don’t feel like long songs. There’s an organic quality to their shapes. I’ve sometimes wondered how you balance the stretchiness of a tune’s live potential and the more compact, fixed requirements of the studio?

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

I guess I first approach this technically – the process of deciding how far we should take things or what direction we should take them in terms of length of songs or what songs stay and what don’t. You come in with an idea and what actually happens is far different. We were making Green Hills of Earth and we went in thinking it would be a ROCK record and it is but not in the hard rock way we thought it would be with songs like “Smoke” and “Singing Seems To Please Me.” Towards the end, Tim says, “You know how The Beach Boys’ Friends starts with an intro? We need one to invite people into the music.” That’s so un-rock!

I think Hof, in particular, wanted to make a San Francisco psychedelic rock sounds record [with Behind Beyond]. He kept saying, “The fans are gonna love this!” And it stayed truer to that intention than most of our attempts to make an experimental, hard rock, etc record in the past. We were even thinking the next record after Pacific Dust should be a Later Days partner. And there’s things on here that could – “Freed From A Prison” and “Song For J.B.” – but it’s just not that partner. You come up with these ideas beforehand and those are just jumping off points, a place to start, a doodle. You really have no idea how it’s going to come out.

[Behind Beyond] is a broader, wider record. There’s way more guitar on this record than our earlier records in terms of solos and guitar parts. There’s always riffs and lots of guitar. “The Isle Not Of Man” probably has the longest Mother Hips guitar solo ever AND there’s two guitar solos on that song – the spacey one at the beginning between the first chorus and the second verse and there’s the stretched out one.

There’s also a lot of open space on this album. I swear to you Phil Lesh is going to latch onto some of this before too long, especially “Isle Not Of Man” where the tail section seems almost like a baited hook for Phil [Loiacono laughs]. It’s not a bad thing to be associated with the Dead.

Not at all!

To my thinking, an association with the Grateful Dead amongst musicians usually speaks to players who want to explore depth, variety, technically challenging but still audience stimulating music. When you really look at the songwriting, the musicianship, and the many achievements of that band it’s hard to impeach them despite the somewhat unappealing traveling circus that’s surrounded them for decades.

John Hofer & Greg Loiacono by Andrew Quist

John Hofer & Greg Loiacono by Andrew Quist

I absolutely love the Grateful Dead. So, I made a demo of “Freed From a Prison” and Tim and Hof loved it. We went in to record it and I was having a hard time singing it without going into a melody that was reminding us of some other music. There was something going on, and in a moment of frustration, knowing those guys really liked the song and wanted me to get it, I said, “Tim, why don’t you take this home and come back and try to sing it.” It was really hard to hear that at first because it was so stuck in my head in a certain way. But when the other guys heard it they really liked it. Hof said, “This is cool because Tim is singing the melody and you can just sing your harmony all the way through and you’ll have the classic Tim & Greg sound.” It was a great team effort, and obviously the sentiment of setting yourself free from traps and old patterns of your own mind and thoughts is expressed in the way it came together in a really neat way.

It generates the truths in the song in the creative process. That’s just proof that the universe has a wry sense of humor.

OMG_Greg_AmericanBeauty

That song started right after we got back from Jam Cruise in 2010, and I went down to Watts Music in Novato, CA. I was in my car that still has a cassette player, and I saw a copy of American Beauty. I grew up in Marin so there was a lot of Grateful Dead happening around me all the time. A friend of my dad would play me Europe ‘72 so I knew all the songs. In high school, he took us to see the Dead at Cal Expo in ’84 or ’85. I was doing a lot of skateboarding, listening to punk, and I’d just been to my first Mabuhay Gardens show right around that time. It was Christ on Parade and Agent Orange headlined. I was starting to play a lot of loud guitar, and [Jimmy] Page was starting to show up as I began to be able to digest his guitar genius. By the time I saw that Grateful Dead show I thought it was a pretty bad show. I think if I saw it now I wouldn’t think it was that bad. I remember Bob Weir giggling through some lyrics he forgot and Jerry was super mellow.

I saw a lot of Grateful Dead shows between 1984-1990 and I always tell folks that about 25-percent were really fantastic, 25-percent were okay, and the other 50-percent they should have given the audience their money back. I have no nostalgia about them at all. Respect sure but not the whitewash afterglow that’s so prevalent amongst Deadheads.

OMG_Greg_DeadheadSticker

I wanted to go see ROCK! I needed that energy. I had a lot of energy! I hadn’t dove into a lot of music yet. It was just freshman year and I was just barely getting into, uh, varied mind states. To me, it was just like this joke. Being a freshman and impressionable, I was hanging out with the more hardcore kids and they hated the Grateful Dead. Around the same time there’s a bunch of BMW’s with Grateful Dead stickers with these trying-to-be-hippies. So, there was a lot of annoying stigma around the Dead for me at that time.

Later in high school, I dated a girl and she and her mom were into the Grateful Dead and took me to see them at Frost Amphitheatre in 1989, where we saw two shows. I was super out, super high, and this time I really liked them. I found the Jer-Bear and thought, “This guy is pretty cool,” but I kept it secret. My girlfriend said, “See! See! You watched that whole show and liked it, right?” And I was like, “It was alright [laughs].”

Not The Grateful Dead

Not The Grateful Dead

Then, I went off to college, and the Hips start doing their thing but we’re not listening to any Grateful Dead. Tim has a shirt when I first meet him with dancing bears on it. I asked him, “So, you’re a Deadhead?” And he said, “No, I don’t ride motorcycles.” He thought Deadheads were a motorcycle gang like the Hells Angels. He’d never heard of the Grateful Dead. I told him they were a hippy band from where I grew up and that the shirt he was wearing was one of their key symbols. He said, “No it isn’t. I got this at a rock climbing event.” We eventually gave up, and I decided I liked this guy because he didn’t know who the Dead were. We went back to his room and he had Grand Funk [Railroad], Deep Purple, and was into frontman old heavy 70s rock.

So, we’re in college and start doing shows and Tim, Mike and Isaac had still never listened to the Grateful Dead but Deadheads are showing up at our shows. When we started putting out records, got management, and really when we played the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, people started saying, “You’re like the Dead. You’re from San Francisco and there’s two guitar players and you both sing. You even sound like the Dead!” And we were like, “No, we don’t!” Then it became a point of contention because people were trying to trap us into something we didn’t know and wasn’t true.

OMG_Greg_Newsweek

You guys ran from the whole jamband label, too, at that time. My thought during that H.O.R.D.E. tour period was, “Thank God there’s some honest rock ‘n’ roll on that stage.”

We were so defiant. Then, when Jerry Garcia died and he was on the cover of Newsweek, inside they had a section about who’s going to be the next Grateful Dead. It was Phish, Santana, maybe Widespread and Blues Traveler, and we were listed with as many stars as Phish. Being the idiots that we were we rejected that. We were trying to carve out our own identity, but there was a moment we could have said, “Oh yeah, come on in. We’re down. We want to be the next Grateful Dead.”

That’s a mature thing to understand. I’m not sure young men are wired for those sort of long horizon judgment calls.

We spent a lot of time being assholes about it and not accepting what could have been a boon to our band.

DI will share Part Two of this interview in two weeks.

Bill Kirchen

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Kirchen and his kickass band are currently on tour. You can catch them this week in Raleigh, NC (9/12), Ashland, VA (9/13) and Alexandria, VA (9/14). Full itinerary with dates and details here.

New Album

New Album

Put on Seeds and Stems (released June 18 on Proper Records) and one immediately encounters a lifeline back to 50s Sun Studio singles, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers in their fighting prime, white line fevered outlaw country, and other enduringly rootsy flavors. It should come as no surprise to find something so appealingly put together given that its creator is a veteran who’s been shaping the good stuff and the good stuff only since the late 60s, first as a founding member/spiritual architect/guitar maestro in the legendary Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and then in quality combos The Moonlighters, Too Much Fun and more. Bill Kirchen is a bona fide classic in an age with too few of them, a primo musician that done it right and done it for a really long time.

The Telecaster master’s new album jumps off with a skipping beat, announcing, “Get out of my way you small town clowns, this country boy he’s come to town,” followed shortly by the cheeky pronouncement, “There must be a whole lot of things that I never done. I ain’t never had too much fun.” The 65-year-old has been getting “lost in his own movies” on the road for over four decades, honing his craft in road houses and arenas, an expert at stirring up audiences, both to shuffle ‘round and let a tear or two drop into their beers.

Bill Kirchen by Henry Hungerland

Bill Kirchen by Henry Hungerland

For those unfamiliar with Kirchen’s catalogue, Seeds And Stems works as a primer in his concert staples laid down with touring rhythm section Jack O’Dell (drums, harmony vocals) and Maurice Cridlin (bass) with a little help from pals Austin de Lone (piano, organ) and Jorma Kaukonen (acoustic guitar). What the album demonstrates, without working up a sweat, is how deliciously vital these songs – a pleasing cross-section of solo keepers, Commander Cody gems, trucker tunes and a choice Dylan cover – and the man swinging on them truly are. While this material could come across as rank nostalgia, Kirchen and his mates breath beautiful life into each track, with the album serving as a loose salute to the gypsy life and the sorts of things one encounters dragging ass from stage to stage and town to town.

It was a great pleasure and honor to pull up a chair and pick Kirchen’s brain for a few minutes, where we discuss the new record, the Cody band days, the Newport Folk Festival, the touring, and more.

Bill Kirchen

Bill Kirchen

Seeds And Stems is one of those albums I have a hard time listening to once. If I put it on I always feel the need to hear it a second time. It’s very direct. There’s no fat on it. You can hear everyone’s contribution, and everyone serves the songs well.

You should get at least a few seconds within a song. You don’t want to elbow the singer out of the way, though since I’m the singer I can do that [laughs]. It’s pretty transparent music. It’s not like the poetry is difficult or anything.

This band sounds like they have fun playing together.

We do, and I really do enjoy what I do. We’re on the road pretty heavy, and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t love it. We’re not out there out of desperation. I really do enjoy it. The drummer and I have been together almost 20 years. The bass player is fairly new to the band, maybe 3-4 years.

I really love Austin de Lone’s piano and organ playing on this album. He doesn’t need a lot of space or time to say something memorable. You’ve got the same gift as a soloist. I’m sure you could solo ‘til the cows come home but you’ve always been more interested in making a concise statement.

Austin just knocks me out! Only in recent years, due to pressure from fans, have I started to take longer 3-4 chorus solos. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to state a little tune and then get out. It is fun to try the other approach, to learn a whole new skill in some ways. I don’t try to do it that often, but it is rock ‘n’ roll so you have to stick it out there a little ways.

Vintage Single

Vintage Single

You have the major guitar lexicon down, and one need only check out the version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” on Seeds And Stems [where Kirchen expertly quotes Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Holly and many more] for resounding proof. I’m guessing is a real showcase in concert, too.

We call it the “Big Wayne Newton Climax” [laughs]. People will say, “Wow, man, it sounds exactly like the records!” but it really doesn’t. It’s more like a guy that draws you at the Boardwalk. It’s not a photograph but it’s a decent likeness of these other guitar players. My task in doing the little quotes in “Hot Rod Lincoln” is to do something eminently recognizable that makes people feel it’s like the originals. I get close!

Bill Kirchen

Bill Kirchen

And you’re playing the styles and signature riffs of famous guitarists on a Telecaster, which was not always their instrument of choice.

Right and I only have one button with a little delay and reverb but otherwise the only thing I’m changing is different pick-up positions and I’ll hit whatever loud pedal of the day is, say a Tube Screamer or whatever. Other than that it all has to happen with your hands.

I dig guys who’ve dedicated themselves to the Telecaster [Editor’s Note: DI immediately thinks of West Coast Tele champ Scott Law].

I heard that Telecaster twang and just had to get into it. I heard Roy Nichols, who played with Merle Haggard and Don Rich, who played with Buck Owens, and that whole Bakersfield sound was it!

Newspaper Ad

Newspaper Ad

One of the through-lines in your career is how your music communicates well both with music of the past and music of the present. Your music throws a line back to Merle Haggard but it also sits well with the twangier Americana today. You remind folks that music is a continuum.

Well, thank you, and the reason for it is we approach that stuff with great reverence but not in a precious way because that stuff rocked! We never liked to treat it with kid gloves. It was in Berkeley that the Cody band got it together. We played Mandrake’s on University and the other honky tonks in Berkeley from ’69 on, and that’s where we got our sea legs.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen had an unforced air of weirdness about them. Other bands had to put on hats and play at being strange, and you guys seemed like a band that had smoked just enough grass to not be straights.

Airmen Back In The Day

[Laughs] We took acid and smoked joints and everything else after that. I worry a little bit sometimes. I don’t want my humor to be too arch. You want to have fun with something rather than at something. I hope I’m not being ironic or being at a hipster’s distance from things.

You don’t go too far with your humor. One finds other feelings hidden in the laughs like in one of your signature tunes “Down To Seeds and Stems Again.” The version on the new album has some nice pathos. It’s a classic bummer tune.

I’ve been singing that song for so long that I’ll occasionally throw in the line, “So, my dog died AGAIN yesterday.” But sometimes I don’t even do that. Sometimes I think I should just step back and let it be the world’s saddest song.

Listening to the new album one might easily come to the conclusion that you’d spent some time as a trucker. You have such a huge affinity for the material.

OMG_Kirchen_TruckerJesus

I’ve never been a trucker, and my interest in trucking extends no further than the music and the fact that for the past 40 years I’ve made my living on the asphalt seas. I got into it during the big folk scare of ’64-’65. I went to Newport and saw Skip James, Son House, Staple Singers with just Pop on a Tele, just everybody, and then I discovered country music all at once. Maybe it’s because I’m a trombone player and the low note on a Tele is the same, but for some reason the stuff being marketed as truck driving records just got me.

There’s a lot in common between a truck driving life and the life of a working tour band.

There was a time, maybe 6-8 years ago, where we were in the van as many hours as the law allows a truck driver to be on the road. It’s like having two full time jobs, where one is traveling and the other is performing, and both are pretty extensive.

It’s how LOTS of bands make their living today. It’s frustrating because they’re facing a new generation that’s gotten into the mindset of music being free.

It’s crazy [laughs]. Luckily for me, I play for a good many people of my demographic so I still sell a fair number of CDs from the stage or out of the back of the truck. The kids these days! Get off my lawn [laughs]!

Dylan At Newport

Dylan At Newport

The way you play around with your tunes makes perfect sense that you’d include a Dylan song [“It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”] on the new album. He’s the master of reinterpretation, just putting stuff in the mortar & pestle and seeing what can be mashed together.

I love Dylan, especially the first ten albums. That’s the stuff that pretty much ruined me for regular work. As I mentioned, I went to Newport, and I saw him go electric with [Mike] Bloomfield – a Telecaster player by the way – and that resonated deeply with me.

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

The closer on Seeds And Stems is one of the best chicken pickin’ tunes since Merle Travis’ “I Like My Chicken Frying Size”.

I learned guitar to play like that. I learned so I could play like Mississippi John Hurt. I was so lucky to have a few people show me how to do this. When I was a snotty high school kid in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I wanted in on this stuff – guitar playing and whatnot – and there were 3-4 guys already in college who let me come over to the house and showed me basic blues licks. I got exposed to this because of people who were generous of spirit. I try to remember that and act on it with others. It’s important that it appear real to somebody. It can be such a disembodied thing on record, and one doesn’t know how to even go about doing it or whether the people doing it have two heads and three hands [laughs].

Chris Velan

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Your songs will all be sung. You won’t arrive there young. No lie can live on your tongue when you get to the bottom of love.

Chris Velan

Chris Velan

Try as other subject matter may try, love will always be the number one focus of songwriters – the want of it, the end of it, the lacks and the lures of it. It’s there in all human connections, the lived experience of it and the absence of it carrying equal weight in our heads and hearts. As such, it tends to be a rich source of inspiration for tunesmiths, a puzzle that’s never really complete or clear no matter how long or diligently one tries to make all the pieces fit together. Something in us as a species compels us to keep at it even if we know down deep we’re never gonna complete the picture, a striving so powerful and universal that it forms part of the bedrock of the human condition.

However, songwriters rarely approach the subject without considerable cultural baggage and autobiographical trepidation, worried that too much truth, too much honesty, too much raw emotion, etc will alienate others and leave them far too exposed, the truths of their lives waving in the wind for anyone to snatch and study. It’s often easier to lean on clichés or point out the pleasures or shortcomings of others in the love cycle than lay bare one’s own honest experiences. But now and again, an artist steps up ready to share it all – all the warts, worries and wonderfulness – and in doing so helps the rest of us to engage honestly with our own experiences with love. Elliott Smith did it, young Jackson Browne & Joni Mitchell managed it, Tim & Jeff Buckley too, and with the release of The Long Goodbye (released July 23) (pick it up here) you can add Chris Velan to this rarified list.

New Album

New Album

The latest long-player from this already-excellent Montreal-based singer-songwriter is a painfully beautiful emotional striptease, not uneasy listening exactly but neither is it easy going for listeners who’re invited into Velan’s “coward heart” as it learns that a love that felt like a hand in a glove is nothing of the sort.

Even more bravely, Velan keeps things clear and clean in this process, the truths unvarnished, his own failings and fears on display in great melodies laid bare in perfectly pared down arrangements. One feels alone with the artist and his aching soul in an intimate conversation that stirs one to face up to the things one does to hurt themselves instead of others. One is tempted to grab a bottle of good whiskey and a couple of glasses and seek out Velan wherever he might be to just drink in silence after what’s shared on The Long Goodbye. Though no funereal affair, the album travels the rough road that ending a relationship demands one walk. The gorgeous morning after all the rain and tears can’t be predicted (or even expected) but it rises just the same near the end of this humanizing song cycle, the time to move on at hand, loose ends trailing behind as one steps out, unsure about what’s ahead but certain that staying in this place is no longer an option.

I’m a man, Lord/ I fall on my sword/ The glass has been poured/ The bottle’s broken ‘cross the floor/ I can’t stay here anymore.

Dirty Impound sat down with Chris Velan to discuss his new album, the challenges of being a working musician, and more in this lively, open conversation.

Chris Velan by Shane Peters

Chris Velan by Shane Peters

There’s an emotional arc to The Long Goodbye. I cry in the same spot every time I listen, about a minute into “Gorgeous Morning” following on the heels of “Not That Man.” I’m not entirely sure why but I think it’s good that I’m having the emotional reaction without being able to fully explain why.

Wild…I’m actually happy to hear that it makes you cry in that place [commiserating laugh]. This is the first album I’ve made that I can listen to back-to-back and not feel super annoyed or self-conscious, which is strange because it is so intensely personal. I learn new things about the songs myself re-listening to it. It’s a strange experience.

There’s a layering to these songs and the way they’re arranged that’s reminiscent of what Joni Mitchell did on Blue. In processing her emotional state at the time she almost dances with a single instrument on each tune and all the other instrumentation is given a softer tone. There’s her voice, the song, one key instrument and everything else moves with delicacy on the edges. You do something similar on The Long Goodbye.

The approach I took, or maybe the approach that came out of the intentions [behind this album], meant there couldn’t be too much going on. It had to be minimal. So, it felt right for there to be the vocal and one melodic lead. Anything else felt extraneous and didn’t fit.

As a listener, this approaches gives you nowhere to hide. Production can sometimes shroud or soften harder ideas and emotions with the plushness of the arrangement. The directness of this album is refreshing. It asks one to engage with this hard stuff. This was clearly a hard record to make but perversely the toughest times in our lives often serve as the best grist for the creative mill.

Breaking Barriers

I absolutely agree with that. In my own personal creative experience there are often a lot of barriers you can put up against a thought or emotion. Between that and the actual writing of the song there’s all sorts of barriers – doubts, dishonesty, self-consciousness – that can really dilute or even kill the initial artistic and emotional impulse. When you’re in a hard place personally all those barriers just naturally fall…if you allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. What you’re getting is a direct line to the emotion.

This album feels unfiltered. It begins in the last place one wants to be: the “Bottom of Love.” Starting off in that place announces, “Okay, people, you’re in for some truth.”

With this album, I was unconcerned with peoples’ reactions to it [laughs]. That was a good lesson for me because it allowed me to get at things I wasn’t able to on other albums, and it’s a lesson I’ll carry forward on future albums.

Velan at Echo Mountain by Gar Ragland

Velan at Echo Mountain by Gar Ragland

Tell me a bit about recording at Echo Mountain in Asheville, NC.

We recorded in the A Room, which is an old chapel. It was basically just me alone with my guitar in the middle of the big room with a bunch of baffling around me [laughs]. It’s a quiet town, even for the size it is. It’s a really chill studio with that Southern taste to it. It worked out really well for what we were trying to do. It didn’t have that rush and frenetic pace of a New York studio. The location really fit.

After watching the video for “Hang On Tightly” I have to ask how are your feet? [Velan self-shot the walk in the wood clip – which you can watch at the end of this interview – entirely barefoot].

OMG_Velan_VideoFeet

It was so painful! But I decided I wasn’t going to hold back. If I was going to be a foot model I had to make it real [laughs]! [By the end] that wasn’t acting – I was destroyed. I wanted to see if I could convey emotions through ankles, calves and feet. It was my acting exercise [laughs].

There are points you’re sprinting, strolling, kicking through water, etc so there is legitimate drama to this below-the-knee approach.

That was my hypothesis. I was so pleased to view it afterwards and see that it worked.

In the modern era, it behooves any working musician to find all the angles they can to get their work into the world, and the more DIY it can be all the better given the need to make every minute and every penny count.

If you want to be a musician you have to become a graphic designer, a video editor, a cameraman, a sound engineer, and more. I don’t where it’s all going but I’m endlessly fascinated by it all. The demand for music, the emotional need for it, will always be there but how do musicians find a way to maintain a living doing it? It’s a mystery to me.

Do you think it makes a difference that you’re Canadian? The government there is much more supportive of the arts than here in the U.S.

OMG_Velan_Canada

Aside from the financial supports, the really important thing is being valued as an artist, feeling that your efforts are valued by the society in which you live. That’s a really important thing because there are so many reasons to feel the opposite. There really is a flood of artists making music. Sometimes you feel like you’re in an echo chamber, and other times it feels like a vacuum. It’s hard to feel like what you do is of value. So, it’s really nice to get some reassurance and feel like it’s worth it and worth something to other people.

In the United States it’s sink or swim. The continual pullback of any governmental involvement with the arts means the commercial potential of a work has to be a consideration from the moment of conception, at least in some germinal way. That’s always going to stifle full creative potential if that’s always in there right from the beginning.

There’s so much amazing stuff that comes out of the United States but one wonders how much more might emerge if there were a bit more support for the arts.

What is it like to revisit the emotionally charged spaces of The Long Goodbye on a nightly basis as you tour behind the album?

OMG_Velan_TourGuitar

I was initially hesitant to play them out but every time I play them they bring me to this place, performance-wise, that’s new ground for me. I have to just be there emotionally in the song, and you can’t fake it. I can’t hide onstage and that creates some interesting performances where things surface in me I wouldn’t have predicted.

The more I play these songs live the more I see it’s part of the process of moving on. You share it and suddenly it loses its original meaning and takes on new meanings. It continues to morph and makes the songs come alive, makes the emotions associated with the songs come alive, and I think they’re going to continue to teach me things as I play them out. It’s part of the exorcism of the ghost. It wouldn’t be a complete process if I just recorded them and never played them.

You can’t get rid of ghosts without a ghost dance. One of the first thoughts I had upon hearing The Long Goodbye was, “This is a helpful evisceration.”

I like that phrase.

Really great music hangs it out over the edge and exposes the stuff that the vast majority of us keep hidden, locked up tight and away from prying eyes. If you let some of that show it gives people permission and an incentive to let more of their own hidden stuff show. Nothing but good comes from that.

Well, if that can come from this album it makes me really happy. It’s funny but when you let these things happen and don’t get in the way of decisions then things happen the way they should. I didn’t question it and it all came out as it should be.