The Bye Bye Blackbirds

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The Bye Bye Blackbirds

The Bye Bye Blackbirds

If the Impound were the Sultan of the Airwaves, Oakland-based The Bye Bye Blackbirds would be a yardstick we’d measure radio worthiness by. Their tunes flow with such snap and seemingly effortless ease (which is actually a hard, skillful trick to pull off) that they seem like something snatched from the Great Jukebox In The Sky, songs waiting to brighten and tickle our days, the shining result of old school craftsmanship, a great nose for melodically charged, harmony rich gold, and a healthy respect for the steps of the giants they stride in. Throw on the group’s latest effort, We Need The Rain (one of DI’s Favorite Albums of 2013) and one is quickly reminded of young, sharp, snappy Elvis Costello & The Attractions, prime Badfinger, and great 80s jangle The dB’s and Let’s Active. It’s the kind of record that sends one trawling through a band’s back catalogue, muttering, “Hey, good lookin’, where have you been all my life?”

Another gauge of a band’s merits is the company they keep and this coming Saturday, June 14th, The Bye Bye Blackbirds will open for rightly beloved indie rock cult faves The Rubinoos at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (pick up tickets here). It’s about as perfect a bill as a power-pop enthusiast could want. We snagged BBB’s chief singer-songwriter Bradley Skaught to find out more about this emerging Impound fave.

Bradley Skraught

Bradley Skaught

One of the first things that hits one with The Bye Bye Blackbirds’ music is how bloody catchy it is. The modern era has really sullied the idea of pop elements mingled with rock ‘n’ roll but it seems like your band is dedicated to the more classic benchmarks of the 60s, 70s & 80s. What are your thoughts on pop and its role in what you do?

I guess it’s just where I come from in terms of influences. My first exposure to music was all about the immediacy of melody and songwriting, and I find that I just have never lost the taste for hearing a new great piece of songwriting. I also feel like there’s always a new twist to put on something. I realize I’m probably in the minority that way right now, but I’m still knocked out by how a guitar rock band can reflect all the individual and idiosyncratic elements of an artist – how it can be so familiar, but so different at the same time. I don’t lean on classic rock benchmarks because I think they’re the best or because I think it’s how everything should be done, it’s just the musical vocabulary I fell in love with and acquired, and I don’t think it’s played out as an artistic medium at all – maybe socially, maybe commercially, but not artistically.

Latest Album

Latest Album

Your band is part of what I regard as a long tradition of fantastic pop-rock artists in the Bay Area that goes back to Moby Grape and the SF Summer of Love scene. However, it seems in the past few decades it’s been harder for kindred spirits like Bart Davenport, Chris Von Sneidern, and yourselves to reach audiences. What are the challenges of getting your music heard in a climate where it would sound great on radio – seriously, “Butterfly Drinks” on the new album would Top 10 in a just world – but radio isn’t looking for new, non-industry groups?

I wouldn’t even know where to start. By comparison, Bart and CVS are superstars. It’s not that I don’t care or spend time trying to find ears (or wish that I could achieve some success in that way), but at this point I’m just befuddled by it. I just try to be good, you know? I just try to make something special and interesting and meaningful. There isn’t a scene. There isn’t an outlet or anything that has ever felt available to us as a means for finding an audience. I also have a particular gift for not meeting the right people, not making the right impressions. I might even have a gift for actively dissuading those people from being interested!

Tell us a bit about the other guys in The Bye Bye Blackbirds and how the band has evolved since your 2005 debut album.

The Bye Bye Blackbirds

The Bye Bye Blackbirds

I’m so blessed to have these guys to play with. Every version of the band so far has been full of skill and imagination. There’s a degree to which I steer things and I’ve been the only songwriter since 2010, but every member has really stamped their identity on the songs and I’m proud and honored by that. The current version is, by far, the most rocking version. Lenny Gill switched to guitar and brought his whole 70s classic rock-meets-90s-indie rock thing, and Aaron Rubin and Ian Lee are like Entwistle and Moon! They’re just explosive and nuanced and loud in a way that really takes everything new places. More than anything, there’s just a freedom and a level of improvisation that hasn’t been there before. I write detailed, structurally busy songs, so it’s a refreshing degree of craziness to have injected into things. And it’s really loud. It certainly wasn’t planned this way, but when the previous line-up started playing “Broad Daylight” by Free, I feel like maybe we planted the seeds for this version to come along and pick up some of that spirit. We also have KC Bowman on board most of the time as an auxiliary dude, and that just sort of blows the doors open to any kind of musical thing you need – harmony, arrangement stuff, recording. He’s a wizard.

1977 Debut LP

1977 Debut LP

On June 14th you open for The Rubinoos, a band legendary amongst record store staffs and those that love and support them but almost unknown to the greater world. What do you dig about this wonderful band? How does it feel to know you’ll share the stage with them?

Well, ultimately, I do love power pop. And these guys have been so amazing at it for so long! It’s also another part of the Bay Area rock ’n’ roll tradition – another group that made a mark here and added to the local dialogue. The pop thing here gets overlooked sometimes, but The Nerves were founded here, you know? There’s a deep melodic rock ’n’ roll vein that runs through the Bay Area. It’s exciting to feel like we get to share in that a little bit. I’m also just a huge Al Chan fan. This is a way for me to get to watch him play and sing without having to pay for a ticket.

The music business is an incredibly competitive one but my experience in the Bay Area has shown a bit more camaraderie than some other places. Musicians frequently show their support for music they dig by sharing bills, playing on sessions, and the like. Has this been your experience being part of this weird little microcosm?

It may just be that we desperately cling to each other because it marginally improves our chances of getting booked! There has been a certain amount of working together and sharing that has helped a lot, no doubt. I think we all recognize talent that is being ignored generally by local press and radio and whatever and there’s a bond there that’s valuable.

So, the band is four albums into their catalogue. What sort of record haven’t you made yet that you want to? What’s a few beloved albums that serve as north stars for you creatively?

2006 Debut Album

2006 Debut Album

I don’t really think that way, to tell you the truth. I find I just write the songs, bring them in to the band, put them together, and then the albums start to take shape. The times in the past where I’ve really pursued a particular idea about what I want to happen have resulted in awkward compromises – things that are neither themselves nor the things I envisioned. In those cases, I feel I let the songs down. Songs have a way of letting you know what they want to sound like – you try them out and you can feel when they’re working. There are usually points where I step back and see where things are going. “Oh, this is what the record is like! This is what this song is about!” – those sorts of experiences. I don’t really pursue any solid ideas of albums – there aren’t any albums that are something I’m after. I let the songs and the band dictate where they want to go and how they fit together. I have a lot of faith in the songs to do that.

Your music is so well sculpted and harmony rich in the studio. What’s fun and/or challenging about bringing it all together live?

Getting the detail and nuance of the songwriting while still being loud and energetic and rocking is a chore sometimes. You don’t want to be too studious or careful, but you don’t want to just pummel all the subtleties out of it either! Each version of the band has had a different sort of strength to it. This one is very much an ensemble and there’s a kind of heightened energy and electricity to it that’s fun and exciting – it’s big and it can get crazy. It’s not the vocal-focused version that maybe the past few have been – if there’s a challenge, it’s probably in really trying to find a place for the singing live sometimes.

Comparison is the most common way to describe a group’s sound in print journalism, but often the artists themselves have no connection with the comparisons cited. So, what are a few bands/singer-songwriters that do resonate strongly for you? Who’s company don’t you mind keeping, so to speak?

The Kinks

The Kinks

I’m mostly really honored by comparisons we get, even if it’s something I don’t really have any personal connection to. We get Big Star a lot and there really couldn’t be a greater compliment. As a band that cares about the combination of the classic and immediate with adventurousness, individuality and a truly artistic perspective, there aren’t many better. The Kinks, too, who, as I get older, just become more and more the band of that era that speaks to me. REM was a starting point for me as a writer and musician, so that’s another one I’m happy to hear. Anyone who wants to drop a smart, interesting songwriter with a kick-ass band full of cool guitar playing on me as a comparison is going to make me happy generally.

Tim Bluhm

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2014 is shaping up to be a productive year for the Hips, with the recent download release of the band’s fan-fucking-tastic second Ultimate Setlist Show, the forthcoming archival release Chronicle Man, the sixth annual Hipnic Festival in Big Sur next month, and choice live dates throughout spring and summer including the group’s happy return to High Sierra Music Festival in July. The Impound will be dishing out fresh Hips content throughout the year, including a lengthy chat with bassist Scott Thunes and an advance review of Chronicle Man in the not-too-distant future.

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

A fine gauge of an artist’s merit is how well regarded they are by their peers. Yes, one wants to please their fans and awards & rewards are swell, but respect, admiration, and influence carry a price above rubies and applause. There are few modern rock singer-songwriters more widely cherished and valued by his peers than Tim Bluhm of Bay Area champs The Mother Hips. His songs are gorgeously etched, an engaging interplay between dead solid fundamentals and clever, unexpected twists, and the way he delivers them – a voice filled with curiously curved emotion and unmistakable intelligence riding melodic waves and rushes of guitar goodness – further draws one in.

Other musicians, if they have half a brain, recognize that there are valuable things to be learned from Bluhm, and those fortunate enough to work directly with him categorically say he brings out the best in them, helping reveal what works in their music and helping them jigger what’s not. Put more simply, Tim Bluhm is a resoundingly great all-around musician who has proven ceaselessly interesting since he first emerged in the 1990s. Those that know his music understand that Bluhm is a cut above the vast majority of rock in 2014, and it’s only the general injustice of the universe that he isn’t rich as a sultan and as revered as Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Ryan Adams.

The Impound thought it would be fun to peel back a few layers of Bluhm’s musical mind so we asked him about the latest Mother Hips album, his thoughts on the Grateful Dead, working with David Simon-Baker, and more. As one might suspect, Tim had insights and off-handed wisdom to spare in his responses.

It’s not as if you’ve ever shied away from philosophical subject matter but Behind Beyond dives directly into some heady ontological waters – you send us back into the ocean by the first chorus, evolution in reverse. What prompted the exploration of big ideas in your tunes this time around? Was there some underlying “thing” you were trying to work out, get at, etc?

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

I suppose as we get older our experiences start showing us that life is fragile, that “safety” is a superstition. And that is a sobering thought. I had an experience that is addressed in the song “Behind Beyond” involving my dad and me. We had met up in the backcountry for a day and night. When we parted he was simply walking away from me down a ridge, turning and waving every so often. Due to the open terrain I was able to watch him for quite a while, growing smaller and smaller, disappearing into the vast alpine landscape. When he was finally out of sight I found myself alone in the silence, crying uncontrollably for a long time. I tried to write the song for months before I figured out how to make it work. You can’t just tell the story. It needs to operate on a deeper level because it’s dealing with some archetypal stuff.

Both you and Greg have matured a lot as songwriters over the decades, a fact resoundingly clear on the new album where you both move with confidence into interesting spaces that still rock. 20 years into this collaboration what traits do you think stand out in your songwriting and what stands out for you in Greg’s writing?

Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg

Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg

I suppose our most outstanding trait is originality. I feel like Greg and I have, for the most part, consistently challenged the clichés of rock. It hasn’t always been graceful or successful, but it has worked for us much of the time and it has protected us from the largely unsavory arena of commodifying one’s art. You’re not going to hear a lot of bands covering the Hips because the song forms and the guitar voices and the vocal arrangements are intentionally “encoded.” That is not because we want to prevent other people from playing our songs but just because that was how we strived to be innovative when we started out as songwriters. Lyrically, too, Greg and I both choose content and/or topics that we deem to be relatively untapped.

For myself I have noticed that, while still writing about personal subjects and experiences, I have tended to submerge them into contexts that are fictional or historical or abstract. I still want to expose and explore the human experience, but long ago I grew bored of always singing about “me.”

Tell me a bit about working with Dave Simon-Baker. You two collaborate a fair bit and this creative relationship is a bit different than what you share with the Hips because it plays to your ever-developing producer side. To my ear, what you guys do together is weave a sound a lot of modern producers and engineers have a hard time getting on tape (or digital storage format), which is an immediacy that’s redolent of a live performance but with greater separation for the instruments and punch & clarity in the vocals. It has a feel that’s wise to the ways of musicians rather than layering something over what a band has laid down.

David Simon-Baker

David Simon-Baker

Dave and I made a lot of records together at Mission Bells and we learned plenty about all the bands we worked with and we learned plenty about recording in general. With the Hips we had the chance to do two records back-to-back, which gave us the opportunity to learn exponentially more about how the band could work best in the space we had. Playing to the strengths of the Hips, we all decided we’d do as much live performance as we could and then resist the powerful temptation to do a lot of digital editing afterward. Of course, we over-dubbed a bit of guitar and voice and keyboard on most songs, but we staunchly preserved the original performances. That is the easiest way to make a recording have “an immediacy that’s redolent of a live performance.” But the band has to be able to play well in the studio setting or that approach won’t work. As for the pleasing sonic qualities, that is attributed to Dave’s talent, experience and hard work.

“Jefferson Army” may be the prickliest tune you’ve ever penned, but it’s also become a fast fan favorite from the new crop. Where’d this one come from? Were you conscious of the Tea Party overtones? Is it okay that I chuckle every time I hear the line about Red Dawn? Are you championing the idea of secession? Are you feeling ornery these days, what with the lead flying in “Jefferson Army” and the fistfuls of whoop-ass on “Creation Smiles”?

OMG_Tim_Jefferson

I read Jack London’s The Iron Heel and it really felt like it was set in and around the Bay Area. The novel is a kind of future history, a fantasy that has its roots in actual events. It reminded me of the State of Jefferson secession movement. I thought it’d be a worthwhile thing to kind of extend the State of Jefferson concept into a dramatic future history. I am not real up on the Tea Party line, unless we’re talking about the Boston Tea Party. Because of that I’m not concerned with any political slant within the song. I don’t like that. It’s just a narrator that we’re listening to who is a soldier in his self-proclaimed “Jefferson Army.” Those guys say some crazy shit but I find it very interesting.

I would say I’ve always been a bit ornery, no more now than ever before. There’s plenty of good vibes on this record, too, for what it’s worth.

What are your thoughts on the Grateful Dead and any influence/overlap they have with The Mother Hips today and in the past?

OMG_Tim_Grateful

The Grateful Dead is a part of the psychic landscape of California. I came to their music late and it’s been so enjoyable to hear it and learn some of it. Theirs is such an appealing legacy, too, because it encompasses more than just music. They played a key role in the birth of a significant social and cultural movement that continues to be hugely influential. Not many groups can claim that. The fact that most of them are still around and are still making things happen is great. That many of us next-generation Bay Area musicians have had opportunities to make music with them is so fortunate. It’s a special time to live in the Bay Area.

The Hips had always intentionally tacked away from the Dead’s influence. But then we stopped doing that. Behind Beyond has a number of deliberate Grateful Dead references.

What makes a good song? When you first began writing your own songs what sparked you in other’s writing? What sparks your imagination now as you draw inspiration from other craftsmen?

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Because I’ve been playing so many live shows in the last few years I have mostly been experiencing other people’s songwriting in a live setting. Perceiving what is happening to the audience as well as to myself is something my performer-brain is always doing. If I am getting touched by a song I can’t help looking around and seeing how other people are reacting.

If I get moved by a song, then it’s a good song. If I don’t get moved, I guess it could still be a good song. Who knows? There are different ways to look at the thing.

I grew up listening to old rock music – Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Beach Boys. Most of it was pretty straightforward lyrically. Later, of course, I got into Zeppelin and Sabbath and the Stooges but that didn’t make me think about songwriting. That was about power and strut.

When I first heard Neil Young’s early solo stuff I had a shift inside. His strange, high, pretty voice was saying some words that expressed stuff that wasn’t straightforward. It was self-reflective but it was also innocently mystical, almost childlike, a strange foreigner. Musically, he was using familiar forms but he was tweaking them a little so you couldn’t quite recognize them or predict them. I internalized those things and they became important to my songwriting.

These days I read a lot of books, searching for a voice that makes me put the book down and start writing.

Just as I’m sure you’re the only rock songwriter to ever use the word “egress,” I’m also sure you’re the only rock ‘n’ roller referencing history like Richard Henry Dana and his grizzly bear observations. What’s the allure of going deep and specific about history in the song format?

I came to songwriting from studying and trying to write poetry in college. The lyrical content has always come first for me. Since I was interested in history as well it is only natural that I would write songs that contain historical references. Rock songs don’t have to be always be about love, angst, drugs, touring, and Lord of the Rings. They can be about whatever you want them to be about as long as the voice is believable.

More than a few folks have commented to me recently that your guitar playing of late is particularly fiery, tasty and other complimentary adjectives. How do you think you’ve developed as a guitarist? How does what you do on the instrument dovetail with Greg?

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

Since I never learned anything formal about guitar I have always felt a little like an outsider when playing with other guitarists, with the exception of Greg. He and I value the same things in guitar expressions. Many times those values do not “compete” with chops that most experienced guitar players use frequently to express themselves. I have had to come up with my own way of getting to where I want my guitar parts to go, and to overcome insecurities related to that. It has taken a long time, and it is still a work in progress, of course. It helps me to have consistency of tone. Over the last few years I have worked really hard on getting the right sound to come out of my equipment. It has taken patience and the help of many people smarter than me. That makes a huge difference in how well I can perform and do what I feel like doing with the guitar.

Have The Mother Hips ever considered crafting an epic studio work akin to The Who’s Quadrophenia or even a thematically linked album like The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow? Your albums hang together well but it doesn’t seem you’ve ever tried to impose an overarching theme or contiguous storyline. Any interest in such bold creative statements?

We’ve definitely considered doing a concept album. It is a very ambitious thing, and I think it is often the result of one of the band members kind of taking over the creative vision, a creative coup, and not necessarily a blood-less one. That isn’t gonna happen in the Hips. But who knows? Maybe someday Greg and I will put our heads together and come up with a concept.

A fair amount of Mother Hips fans still gravitate to the early material, especially the first three albums and live rarities from those days. What do these songs mean to you now, and any theories about why this music has remained so relevant for many fans? Is there anything you’re tired of playing that you simply can’t take out of the rotation because it would upset folks too much? The drummer from Journey has told me about the “Dirty Dozen” they have to build every setlist around or they’ll get lynched by the audience.

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

We sort of have the “dirty dozen” I guess, but not like bands that have had hits. The Hips only have favorites. People will argue about which are the best Hips songs but there are no charts to back anyone up. It’s kind of nice, really.

As the older songs get older and their inceptions recede into the good old days, I find it easier to enjoy them objectively, taking no responsibility for them, just checking them out and letting them work on my emotions like any other song I’d hear. But there is a satisfaction with seeing all of them build up and not disappear. After all, the hope is that one’s body of work will outlast one’s body.

As far as getting tired of playing any one song too often, of course that happens. There’s an easy fix for it though, and like I said, none of our songs could ever be called a hit, and therefore none is essential for any given setlist. I’ll just refuse to play a song I’m sick of until I’m not sick of it anymore.

Tell us a bit about playing with John Hofer. His swing and style have become marbled into the Hips’ sound since he joined but he’s a lot different than Wofchuck. How is it different to ride the rhythm of these two dudes?

John Hofer by John Margaretten

John Hofer by John Margaretten

When John joined the band, Greg, Ike and I quickly realized that we had developed a very odd collective sense of tempo. With Wofchuck on drums, the whole band would unconsciously do these very pronounced tempo shifts. John started playing the songs with us and we would get to a chorus, and he would keep playing the same tempo and we would slow down about 8 BPMs and the song would train wreck. Hofe would look at us and say, “What the fuck are you guys doing?” And we’d say, “What do you mean? You fell off the horse.” But we soon realized it was us that had never even learned to ride a horse. We fixed that after a time, but then we started reintroducing it on purpose because it has a tremendous power to it. The exaggerated tempo shifts are kind of a Hips trademark. Hofer is such solid drummer that the listener just believes the story that he’s telling, even when it involves a surreal element.

What do you think the biggest misconceptions about The Mother Hips are? What is on the money and what is off the mark in the Hips’ general impression/pop culture soundbite? Perhaps the real question here is what are the Hips about at their core?

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips are about amalgamating the obscure sounds and ideas that we were exposed to in our collective formative years as youngsters, musicians and songwriters. There is a distinct landscape that was created all those years ago, and the possibilities that we can extract from it, when we can connect to it, are limitless and will certainly outlive all of us. It was created when we were young and music was always pure magic. We brought our childhood influences and impressions together with some old but new-to-us music and had the time and the innocence to be a part of creating a unique little world.

Sometimes I hear someone say that the name is the worst they’ve ever heard, that it scared them off for years until they finally, accidentally, heard the music. That is unfortunate, but I can relate to that kind of judgment. The band was named so long ago that I can neither defend nor condemn the naming of it. It is what it is. People have to get to the music however they need to, and some people just won’t. It’s not for everyone.

For whatever reason, I think the way we were perceived, especially early on, was as a jam band or a hippie band (back when hippies were not very cool), which is ironic because no one hated that genre and that label as much as the Mother Hips. How that label was bestowed upon us I will never know. But it just drove us deeper into a place where we simply didn’t give a shit what other people thought or wrote about our music. We recoiled into our own world instead of actively trying to re-brand ourselves with an image that was more agreeable to us. That reaction served the music very well, but it probably hurt our commercial prospects at a time when we had some legitimate opportunities. I don’t regret it, honestly. We’re still here, and nothing external has ever changed us or our artistic vision.

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.