October 31, 2006
Transcriptions can't quite capture the sound of a person's voice, but I have to say that my conversation with Jack Terricloth, lead singer of the fabulous World/Inferno Friendship Society, sounds exactly like you'd expect. Talking with him was a real pleasure, and I wish I could capture the essence of his voice--soft, smooth, satirical, yet very, very sly, and with a little bit of cynicism thrown in--which, of course, is an accurate description of his band's music. I've loved their music for many moons now; their singles, if you can find them (check out the compilation disc only as a last resort) are near-perfect little pop confections, and all on sexy colored vinyl, too! It was a real pleasure to sit down and talk with Mr. Terricloth, and what better day to present this than on Halloween, his favorite holiday, and the day of his annual Hallowmas celebration?
I'm amazed that it's been ten years since you appeared on the scene.
Yeah, it really has flown by, hasn't it? (Laughs)
Has it sunk in that you've been doing this for almost a decade?
That's one of those things I try not to think about! Really, it's been so much fun and it's happened so quickly that I guess the short answer would be, "no!" (Laughs)
"Wow, ten years have passed…"
Yeah, and gee, we're all still pretty!
And people are still coming to see you!
More and more, actually! I guess a slow build is the secret to a long success.
It's been a good bit of time between Red-Eyed Soul and your last record.
We did a bunch of EP's in between, which is usually how we work.
Do you prefer to take it the slow and easy way, letting songs build up, write them when they come to you, work them live, and then take them into the studio?
We really have no plans. We tend to write slowly, because we're so big and we all write at the same time. We play and tour so often, too. I like working in the EP format more than the LP format, which tends to confound and frustrate music critics! (Laughs)
(Laughs) Actually, I can understand why you'd want to do it that way.
It's the conciseness of it, and you can make each song relate to each other, and you can make a neat concept with three or so songs. I like holding records in my hands rather than a CD, but we've always done that, from the beginning. We'd write two or three songs, record them, and then couple them together.
Speaking of writing concepts, tell me a little bit about Fiend in Wien, your new project.
That's the opposite of what I just said! (Laughs) While we were writing Me vs Angry Mob, we decided to write twelve songs in six weeks. It premiered two weeks ago, the run ended Sunday, and it was great! It was a really great challenge for us to write, but it was fun!
Was it well received?
It was really well-received. It was great to have one foot in the circus world and one foot in the punk-rock world. We played in a traveling circus tent from Belgium that was set up by the water on the Hudson. It's run with a mind for theatrical and cabaret productions.
So it's more Cirque du Soleil than CBGB's.
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. Of course, we brought CBGB's there!
I guess that's one thing people quickly pick up on, that European carnival/gypsy element, and especially Brecht/Weill, which I'm sure you've heard before! (Laughs)
Yeah, they're feature characters in Fiend in Wien. We're going to record it in January, once we get back from this endless tour, which starts in two weeks. The studio's waiting for us when we get back; we've already booked the time.
Are you excited about it?
I am very excited about it! It was really good for us. We didn't make it too complicated; it's more impressionistic, a little bit more like our first record.
Was it an intensive to create and get it completed?
Yeah, we rehearsed every day for three months. They were cranky, of course! (Laughs) But we really buckled down, and it gave us a feeling of unity.
Did it revitalize the band?
Yeah, totally. Especially after a long project like Red-Eyed Soul, it was like, "Well, this could be the period at the end of our sentence."
You're known for being a live band. So do you prefer to perform all of your songs live before you enter the studio?
No, not necessarily. We often write at the very last minute. I think on Red-Eyed Soul, we actually finished that in the studio, and added to it some older songs we had written.
You also write about a lot of different historical subjects, for instance, Paul Robeson. When you do, do you often like to do research on the subject?
Well, I already knew a bit about Paul Robeson, because he was from the same part of New Jersey as I'm from.
Well, speaking in general...
Well, we try to get the facts right. For instance, it turns out that on the Peter Lorre musical, I got some of the facts wrong. He died of a stroke, not a heart attack, but the song was already written, so we kept it as a heart attack. With us, we're all very...we're almost more a book club more than a punk rock band! (Laughs) We're always passing books around in the van, and we're in the van so often, and we all have similar interests.
You guys, you were big before big was big!
I think I know what you mean...
Well, bands like the Polyphonic Spree and Arcade Fire, who make very big, theatrical music. Does it give you a sense of satisfaction to see them and think, "hey, we were before the trend, we were before all of you?"
I've never really thought about it, to tell you the truth. We have friends in the Polyphonic Spree, so we know their intent. You might know a fellow named Corn Mo, he's from down there [Texas].
Oh, Corn Mo! How could anyone not know Corn Mo? He's a beautiful soul.
(Laughs) He's great. He lived up here for a while, he hooked up with them, and he introduced us to them and we hung out. But yeah, I've never really listened for myself in other groups. I've got too much to do and to say here. There will be time for patting myself on the back when I'm dead! (Laughs)
Dead, or fabulously wealthy!
Yeah, whichever comes first!
I know that you guys are political, but do you find a political climate like now to be inspiring?
I wouldn't say we're political; I think it's just who we are. Finding it inspiring when bad things are going on? No, it makes me have to ramp up my sense of humor about things, otherwise I get outraged. A good example of that is the song "The Expatriate Act," from Rock Against Bush, which doesn't sound like us at all, which was because I was angry when I wrote it.
Well, I'm thinking about the last time we had such a volatile political era, the Eighties…well, you were there! (Laughs) But at the same time, there was this wonderful undercurrent of artistic growth and experimentation that stemmed from the political climate.
Oh yeah, definitely. You know, I don't know. I know that my friends do, but then again, that's what we do. I think maybe if we lived in the middle of the country, where people don’t really think about it all that much, and in fact get annoyed if you bring it up, because you are giving them something more to think about.
I personally don't mind political commentary. I just think you have to be real careful when you mix it with your art. Some art transcends politics, but politics doesn't transcend art. You listen to some political music, and it just doesn't stand the test of time.
For example, Reagan Youth is no longer relevant. (Laughs)
Were they ever? (Laughs)
Maybe at one time! (Laughs)
They were a year or two ahead of my time. I'm old, but I'm not that old! (Laughs)
(Laughs) It's gonna get worse...
Well, I think life is what you make it. And, going back to Brecht/Weill, one thing they did rather well was that in a dire political environment, they made social commentary, but they also made it entertaining. They were trying to convey a message to you, but not preach at you.
Right, which is exactly why they were our primary influence when we started World/Inferno. I've said this in interviews before, but the primary goal for forming Inferno was to rewrite The Threepenny Opera for a punk audience. But we never quite got it right, which is why we're still around! (Laughs) I think the day we get it right, it will be the end of us! (Laughs)
When did you discover Brecht/Weill?
Hmm...when did I discover them? That's an interesting question. Hmm…I think after I had been out of the punk scene for a while. I was in a punk band, and we tried to get popular, but nothing happened, and it was frustrating. I stopped playing for a while, and I started bartending. I was meeting a lot of people…hmmm…I think it was from some older people that came into the bar, they had their own little scene, and I think I became their mascot, because I was a lot younger than them. At some point, I decided I wanted to make music again, but I didn't want it to be punk rock. I wanted something that was quick but was still political. Someone introduced me to their work, and it became something I really wanted to do with Inferno.
So it all just sort of fell into place?
Yeah, I think blending it with punk rock, it seemed natural. It's the darndest thing, this music. I wanted to do something new and fresh, but I'm still carrying on as a punk rocker! What am I to do? (Laughs)
I find that when I talk to people who are about our age, it seems like they go through a phase where they thing, "why am I still making art?" Have you hit that stage yet?
No, because I think I did before I started World/Inferno. There was a point where I thought I'd make music again. But then all of those seventeen years of music making have flown by, and I've had no time to doubt myself! (laughs)
I guess right now the big thing for you is touring.
We're going out on tour for three months. Three months! Then, in January, we'll be in the studio for three weeks, and then, in February, I'll just crash! Maybe they'll let me breathe!
World/Inferno Friendship Society's latest album, Red-Eyed Soul, is now available on Chunksaah, and is fabulous!
October 30, 2006
The music of Alec K. Redfearn is as varied as it is enjoyable. The man has been making music for nearly twenty years, and the eclectic nature can be heard simply by visiting his website. It seems wrong to say, "Redfearn's music sounds like ____," because his music doesn't work that way, and pigeonholing him like that would be wrong. His latest record, The Smother Party is a wonderfully enjoyable record; it's dark, it's occasionally sad, and it's almost always good. Talking to him was fascinating, and he strikes me as a brother-in-arms, because I just totally agree with almost everything that he says. But if you're looking for haunting music for haunting your Halloween, then his music is just for you. Not heavily serious, nor annoyingly whimsical, there's just a touch of humor and death to what he does that makes it hauntingly wonderful.
I'm curious about the nature of your music. We were talking yesterday about modern technology and modern society, but when I listen to your music, it's very classical in the sense that it's not modern. Is this one of the driving motivations behind the music you make with the Eyesores—making music that's more traditionally based, as a response to modern society?
Yeah, I definitely think that's a component. I certainly do feel part of the struggle is to find a kind of a root in an older tradition. I'm not drawing on any specific tradition; I draw a lot on the music I find appealing. I do listen to certain modern music, but I am definitely trying to draw on something that's a little older and a little bit more of a part of the ancestral memory of the 20th Century than previous centuries. It seems like the music that has appealed to me over the years is music that has a certain urgency and a certain root to something that's a little closer to real.
An organic experience rather than a mechanical one…
Exactly. It's the human experience, the human kind of music that comes directly from the soul. On the other hand, there is a certain mechanical element to it as well, because music has a mathematical scheme built into it. It's part of the beauty of it, and even the most primal sounding music has that element built into it.
A question I always like to ask of people who perform with an accordion in their music: what drew you to it, and when you started writing music, was it on accordion?
I was a bass player first. I came out of the late 80s post-hardcore scene. That's what I grew up on—that, and I listened to a lot of metal and classic rock. When I was a teenager in the mid-80s, it was kind of a time when people began to discover punk and hardcore thanks to bands like Metallica and Slayer. Those bands really made inroads for people who grew up on suburban metal, and as a result I became interested in hardcore, and through that I became interested in music made by artists like the Minutemen, Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers—bands who were coming from a background of hardcore, but pushed forward musically yet were drawing not only on older influences, like folk and jazz, but also on more modern elements like free jazz.
Artists making an experimental hybrid of traditional rock and roll…
I'm of a very unpopular opinion that the mid- to late-1980s were a really creative time musically, and that the music of the early 90s was merely revisionist. The "punk" explosion of that time, I think it was very conservative musically. It was when the serpent first started to eat its tail, when music started relying on going back to the early days, back to the Stooges and Sex Pistols. I thought it was interesting, but I thought it had been done already. You can blame it on post-modernism, to some extent. My take on postmodernism – and I do consider what I do to be postmodernism—is that you're taking from a lot of different sources and making something new. The good side is that I'm creating something out of all these pieces of things floating around. The bad side of it is when someone decides to do this and they wind up co-opting an earlier musical style. It's a lot of what's happening with the lamer aspects of today's freak folk, New Weird America stuff. I mean, I like some of those bands quite a bit. A lot of it I find…
Makes you want to listen to Donovan records instead?
Yeah, exactly! Why would I want to listen to this modern revisionist version style, one that's more like a Civil War reenactment, when I could just go back to the original source and get more of the real effect, one where there's a different kind of urgency to the music. There's just not a lot of urgency to music right now. I've become very discouraged with what's happening musically now. I think my turning to the accordion was a reaction against the music of the early 90s. It was, like, "I'm going to go do something that so doesn't resemble rock music at all." I started listening to Eastern European music a lot, Scottish music a lot, Irish music, and listening to music that was very Weimar Republic/Kurt Weill inspired, as well as 20th Century classical music. I got really into Erik Satie. Then later, I started getting back into rock music. I'd say the early glimmerings of the noise explosion in Providence made me say, I could take the music I'm doing now, which was, at the time, was a mix of circus-y music and all of the folk music I'd been listening to, and then combine it with punk and make it aggressive in the same way those noise bands are and play to the same audiences. I certainly met with some indifference, though not as much now. I feel like people have grown more and more indifferent because music has become less and less interesting and people have less and less patience for it. So they wait until they're fed. (Sigh) People are either fed by MTV or major labels, or by the hipster crowds, being fed by bloggers or the Thurston Moores and the Byron Coleys of the world, and looking to them to filter their "experimental" music. The main problem is that there's not a lot of urgency to the music; a lot of it seems very fake and contrived. People are putting musical styles on like it's a mask, rather than doing stuff that's from the very core of their being. This isn't universal, but it is unfortunately the dominant paradigm.
There's obviously a keen sense of humor at play on The Smother Party, even though it's also terribly dark. Do you find that when you write on an accordion, that it's hard to write really dark material?
I don't really have that problem. The novelty of the accordion has worn off for me, because I've been playing for so long, and I sort of don't think along those lines anymore. It isn't—at least to me—any longer an instrument that's associated with dance music and more festive things. But I feel there are people who came before me who kept smashing and dismantling those sorts of traditions. I think a lot of the lightness is more of a reflection of my sense of humor. I have a naturally dark sense of humor anyways. There is a serious element to what I do, though. There are certain things I believe, like I do believe that we are living in end times, that the world has gone completely crazy. The World's overpopulated and we are destroying ourselves. On the other hand, I feel like that's the natural course of things, and I feel like it's something that's happened with humanity before and will continue to happen until the planet is uninhabitable and evolution won't let us keep up with the atmosphere.
I described your music this way: "Party music while the Titanic goes down."
(Laughs) Yes, exactly! I feel like some of the best music is like that. I think the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill influence comes from that. There's a feeling in Brecht's lyrics—they have a kind of sneer to them, and there's a harshness to them, but it's like putting on a protective layer, like dancing in the face of total destruction.
A distraction from your impending and inevitable doom…
Yeah, I do feel that sense of impending doom, and have felt that way since my mother first explained to me what nuclear war meant when I was ten years old. That sense that everything could blow at any time has really existed in my consciousness ever since she told me that, and I think I've built defense mechanisms against that fear, just so I could go on with my life. One of those was to build a sense a humor about it all, to feel like we're looking at everything could be done for. But then again, all of that is just a process of life, I think.
So ultimately, there is a celebration of life, even among the gloom and doom.
I think humor is an aspect of spirituality in that sense, that it's a part of the human spirit.
Plus, you're able to be more honest and get people to listen to you if you present it in a humorous way, more so than if you were to preach gloom and doom.
Our violinist and I had this conversation when we were in the Netherlands. We were making some really, really horrible jokes about something and she felt kind of uncomfortable and a little offended. I said something to her that I think sums up a lot of my thinking: "Olivia, sometimes the darkest, most horrible places are where the biggest laughs are." I've always thought along those lines, that sometimes the most awful things can be incredibly funny, or can have this built-in humor to them. I kind of live in that world in some ways, and enjoy that kind of thinking, because I think it's healthy. Or at least it's healthy for me! (Laughs)
Are audiences in Europe a lot more receptive to your music because you're playing music that's European in nature?
European audiences are a lot more respectful in general. It's more of a tradition that when they go out to hear music, they go out to listen, as opposed to, say, going out to pick up girls. I suppose there's an element of that too, but when the music plays, people tend to listen.
Do you think the audiences are more critical of what you do because you're playing music that's associated with them? Like, if you're playing Country in the South—audiences are more attune to picking up on whether or not what you're doing is "real" or if it's merely shtick?
A lot of what I do is very European in style, but if you examine it closely, it's not "traditional." (Laughs) I'm constantly derailing and subverting and using that music in an abstract way, making references to other things. There's no clear-cut definition—I try to keep it ambiguous. Some people have called my music "gypsy music," which I think is preposterous. It's not really gypsy music at all! I'm not a gypsy and I don't have that kind of blood. It's because I use minor scales (laughs). That's not an insult, though. I like a lot of that kind of music, but if you want to break it down, it's not really an imitation. I try to keep it elusive, what I'm drawing on. It might seem like I'm drawing on gypsy music, but I might be drawing on Slayer. I feel like their stuff is like this kind of chromaticism. I've been listening to heavy metal and their music for years and years and years now; it's probably more in my DNA than anything else. It's the music I listened to the longest at the most formative time.
I think that if you make any kind of music and you've ever heard Reign in Blood, that it will influence you somehow. (Laughs) It's one of those records that stay with you for life.
Oh yeah! (Laughs) It's definitely one of the top five rock records of all time, and I'll admit there are times when I will call it my favorite record of all time. It's a record that always sounds fresh and engaging. I say the same thing of Trout Mask Replica. Those are records that are very challenging, but are always engaging.
So, are you working on anything new?
Yeah! I've got a couple of things going on right now. I wrote a song cycle for a kind of a big band. It's fairly dark and layered, and it has a lot of singing on it. (Laughs) I'm not sure how articulate that description is. We've been having some technical problems, and we actually have to rerecord a number of songs because they got lost in a hard-drive crash. I'm also trying to write an album-length piece, and I'm also working on some solo and duo things that I'm wanting to record in the fall. I’m doing a duo tour with a stringed bass player this fall around the Northeast, and some in the East and South. Don't think I'll make it to Texas, though. I'm having trouble finding venues. It's real hard; I feel it's a constant uphill battle trying to book shows. One of the big sticking points for me is trying to survive the muck and mire in a world that's just too dim on events. The good stuff gets buried as a result of just sheer output, and if your music requires any listener patience, then you're really doomed. (Laughs)
Ultimately, I think the one who is doomed is the listener. If you can't stand to listen to anything that doesn't strike you after two or three seconds, you're already lost.
You're right about that. The mind-numbing spread of pop culture makes it very easy to get music, listen for ten seconds of something and deciding whether or not you like it or hate it. Like flipping channels.
"Here we are now, entertain us," indeed!
Alec K. Redfearn's latest record, The Smother Party, is available on North East Indie
October 29, 2006
Live Review: Wooden Wand w/ the Weird Weeds, Clay Ruby & Book of Shadows @ Red’s Scoot Inn in Austin, TX (10/25/06)
At first, I thought that this evening’s show would be a repeat of that experience: four artists, all of whom could be lumped into the catchall “New Weird America” subgenre, playing at a different east Austin dive bar with a predominantly middle-aged Hispanic clientele. At one point, Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada, a friend of mine, walked in to buy some beer. I asked him who he was here to see; he didn’t even know the Inn was hosting a show tonight! Weird Weeds drummer Nick Hennies wasn’t fazed by the culture clash at all. Shortly after greeting me, he raved for a while about how many great shows he has seen at the Inn, Cambodian garage-rock outfit Dengue Fever being a particular highlight.
Local quintet Book of Shadows began the show with a half-hour of improvised ambience that sounded like Charalambides drowning in a swamp. Vocalist Sharon Crutcher’s howls were run through oodles of reverb and delay, meshing perfectly with the eerie drones that her husband Carlton played on his keyboard. The group’s three guitarists alternated between playing uneasy arpeggios and abusing their effects pedals, creating waves of noise that ebbed and flowed around the Crutchers with suprising smoothness. Guitarist Jonathan Horne was particularly fun to watch, thrashing away at his instrument with the intensity of an exorcist. Toward the end of the set, he abruptly stopped to wave at a friend in the audience. The smile on Horne’s face was wider and toothier than any I’d seen since moving back to Austin. When he switched from guitar to melodica, I saw a middle-aged Hispanic couple in the audience shake their heads in total exasperation.
Next up was an unannounced solo set from Zodiac Mountain a.k.a. Clay Ruby, a touring partner of headliner Wooden Wand. He played two 10-minute songs, both of which consisted of him improvising on his guitar for at least five minutes before beginning the first verse. On paper, it sounds like a recipe for tedium, but I’ve seen other artists employ a similar modus operandi to brilliant effect; Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance comes easily to mind. Unfortunately, Ruby is no Chasny: his playing was bland and his singing was flat.
The Weird Weeds saved the evening with a wonderful set. If you keep up with my writing, you already know how much I love them. They’re not just my favorite local band; they’re also one of my favorite bands of all time. They make the ugly sound beautiful; they make the random sound intentional; they make experimental noise sound like pop music. This was the 16th time I’ve seen them live, and from a purely technical standpoint, it ranked among the top three sets I’ve seen of theirs.
The songs from their latest album Weird Feelings sounded even better than their recorded counterparts. The scraping noises that vocalist Sandy Ewen eked out of her guitar gave “For You to See Me” a newfound menace; Ewen’s and Hennies’ vocal harmonies on “One-Eyed Cloud” and “Cold Medicine” sounded stronger than ever. However, the REAL highlights of their set were the new songs. On “Hold in the Light,” Aaron Russell’s fills cascaded down the neck of his guitar like waterfalls. The climax of “Lies” was a rarity: a straightforward 4/4 groove, which the band allowed to gain momentum for more than 30 seconds. “You Drive Me Crazy” was a brief, charming waltz, during which Ewen played with her guitar sitting on her chest instead of her lap.
During the extremely quiet “Ribs and Wrinkles” (which closes their debut album Hold Me), Ewen and Hennies sang the words “Can you hear me/Can you hear me play?” right after a group of people at the other end of the bar finished having a laughing fit. Anyone who frequently attends indie-rock shows should be able to appreciate the irony of that moment.
The last time I saw James Toth a.k.a. Wooden Wand was when he played Room 710 a year ago with his then-backing band, the Vanishing Voice. (The Weird Weeds opened that show too, by the way; it was the 13th time I’d seen them.) Toth and his band played a set of rollicking psychedelic jams that greatly impressed me. I bought two of their CDs that night, sound unheard, only to discover that neither of them resembled their live show in any appreciable way.
This evening, Toth brought only himself and his beautiful wife Jessica: he sang and played acoustic guitar, and Jessica contributed occasional backing vocals. I spotted many Biblical references in his lyrics: “O Babylon, great mother of harlots...,” “The first will be last...,” “Will your name appear in the book of life?” His singing occasionally took on a tremor that recalled Devendra Banhart. Fortunately, Toth is an earthier writer and stronger singer than Banhart.
I was just as impressed by Toth's performance this evening as I was by last year’s. You can’t help but like a guy who refers to his merchandise as “souvenirs.” I took another chance and bought Toth’s latest album Second Attention (which was recorded with his new outfit the Sky High Band) after the set, only to discover upon first listen that he only played one song from it at the Inn. Toth, you’ve hoodwinked me again. Come back next year; maybe the third time will be the charm!
October 28, 2006
I first saw Khaela Maricich perform live five years ago, as part of the Paper Opera Tour she went on with K Records labelmate Phil Elvrum (Microphones/Mount Eerie) and label founder Calvin Johnson. Although all three performers played solo sets, the sets were integrated into a collective multimedia performance that relied heavily on audience participation, and included everything from dance routines and costume changes to campfire singalongs. Back then, Khaela went by the unwieldy moniker Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano, and her sole release was a cassette-only collection of songs performed on voice and acoustic guitar. On stage, she sang with only an archaic drum machine as her accompaniment, swaying to the machine’s muffled pulses as if she was caught in a gentle trance. I bought her cassette, but when I listened to it on the way home, I realized that she hadn’t performed any of the songs on it. I knew then that Khaela was still an artist in transition.
Shortly after that tour, she changed her nom de rock to the Blow. The Blow’s first appearance on CD, 2002’s Bonus Album, sounded like an extension of the cassette, but with slightly better production. Her recorded material didn’t really begin to reflect her live show until her 2003 follow-up, The Concussive Caress, or, Casey Caught Her Mom Singing Along With the Vacuum. Its best songs (“How Naked Are We Going to Get?,” “What Tom Said About Girls”) relied more on keyboards and drum machines than on guitars, and discussed love and sex with a candor that her previous material lacked. These songs represent the embryonic stage of the Blow’s current sound, one that Khaela cheekily calls “indie R&B.”
This sound began to flourish when she teamed up with audiovisual artist Jona Bechtolt for her 2004 EP Poor Aim: Love Songs. Jona, who makes dance music with his own solo project YACHT, used his technological knowhow to accurately recreate the booming bass lines and skittering rhythms of contemporary R&B. With his help, Khaela’s embrace of a bigger (and yes, blacker) sound began to feel more authentic. Some of the songs merely sounded like a female-fronted Postal Service; others, like “Hey Boy” and “The Love That I Crave,” sounded just as comfortable when played next to the latest Beyonce single as they did when played next to my favorite Mirah song.
Khaela and Jona were so pleased with Poor Aim that they decided to keep collaborating, thus turning the Blow into a duo. For the next two years, Khaela and Jona performed live together, turning their shows into full-fledged dance parties. With Jona pumping the audience up like a hip-hop hype man, Khaela was free to take her stage presence to new levels of animation. After a six-month sabbatical, during which Khaela was the artist-in-residence at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), she and Jona recorded their latest album, Paper Television.
Paper Television improves on Poor Aim in every way: the singing is more confident; the writing is more adventurous; the beats are funkier and more intricate. Lyrically, Khaela employs unconventional metaphors to describe the complexities of human relationships. For instance, “Pile of Gold” compares love to economics, to often hilarious effect (“They need the warmth that we export/Of course, some boys will try to force the prices down/By pushing girls around”). “Babay” uses disgusting scatological metaphors to lament the end of a one-sided relationship (“Inside your digestive trip, what was there for me to grip?/Picture me clinging in the bowels as the shits poured on”). Jona eschews the Postal Service template more often, in favor of less rhythmically rigid sounds --- the disco-influenced grooves of early hip-hop (“Pardon Me”), the Ying Yang Twins’ minimalist crunk (“The Big U”) and the rapid-fire snares of HBCU drumlines (“The Long List of Girls”).
Khaela just finished a week’s worth of shows opening for Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. I was fortunate enough to see this bill at the outside amphitheater of Stubb’s this past Monday. Jona was in France playing shows of his own under the YACHT moniker, so Khaela had to perform solo. About 100 people showed up early to see Khaela, which is impressive considering that her set began at 7:30 p.m. She sang two songs a capella (“How Naked Are We Going to Get?” and Wolf Colonel’s “Jet Ski Accidents”), but spent the rest of her set singing and dancing along to pre-recorded backing tracks. It’s tough for a solo performer to capture and keep the attention of an audience that big, especially in an outdoor venue, but Khaela did it. Her stage banter got funnier as the set progressed (“I feel like I’m at a real Western ranch, and you’re all my neighbors!”), and she danced so hard that she occasionally lost her breath.
After her set, she was kind enough to talk to me for 25 minutes. She was just as easygoing and chatty off stage as she was on stage. You can read an edited version of our conversation below:
Can you tell me about the time you spent at PICA?
In the fall of 2004, I did a performance piece for PICA’s yearly festival. It's a huge performance festival. They invited me to present this piece that I'd been making. I played an entrepreneurial businesswoman doing a presentation on a company that she worked for called "Remosch." It was supposed to be Swiss. Basically, it was designed to address mental health debilities --- people going off the path of sanity. It involved music. The company had these interactive dance music videos that they used to help people maintain their sanity. I told PICA about it and they said, "That sounds cool. We'd like you to come be in the festival." Then, they also suggested that I be their artist-in-residence in the PICA office, which is in this big advertising agency called Wieden + Kennedy. They do a lot of work for Nike. They're the company that made up "Just Do It."
Oh, wow...so they're making serious bank!
Yeah, and they're making serious concepts that get soaked into our culture. People say "just do it," you know what I mean? People think "just do it." "Just do it" has affected the way that I think about myself. There were lots of times when I thought to myself, "Come on, Khaela --- just do it."
Even if you don't wear Nikes, you end up saying "just do it" as a motivational tool.
I haven't worn Nikes since sixth grade. I'm a New Balance subscriber.
I'm not wearing them right now, but my other two pairs of sneakers are both New Balance.
Some people can only wear New Balance. My performance was about identity. In order to stay sane, you would pick this music video program that fit your identity type. You'd figure out who you are. Are you a "chains and tattoos" hipster? Are you a squeaky-clean "no tattoos" hipster? There were all these different varieties. Are you a Hello Kitty hipster? Are you an American Apparel-wearing, Vice-reading hipster? What kind are you, and what do you subscribe to? How do you look? What do you care about? How do you think? What routes do you follow every day in your life? It was about knowing yourself and who you are. Since that was what I was interested in, they said, "You should come be an artist-in-residence in our building, and watch what the advertising agency is doing”...which is what I did. I was there for six months, just checking it out.
What was the name of the piece?
It was called "The Touch Me Feeling."
Oh, okay! That's the name of your blog!
It's actually one of the things that I stole from my friend Calvin Johnson throughout my life.
Well, you picked a good source to steal stuff from.
I don't even think that it was really stolen. One time I said something about a feeling --- "You know, it's got that feeling" --- and he responded, "The 'touch me' feeling?" I said, "Yoink! That's mine." [laughter] I've gotten other things from him too, but that was a really great one.
Since what you were doing in Portland was focused on the role that music plays in shaping identity, I was wondering how your personal experience dovetailed into that. Do you feel that there are certain artists or groups that played a huge role in shaping the person that you came to be? If so, how?
That's pretty interesting. I mean, my experience with music has always been pretty remote. I never had a huge hunger for music. I always did things out of a sort of...living way out in the country and every once in a while getting some music. I didn't grow up way out in the country, but we've never been a sort of “music family.” My family had some Simon and Garfunkel that we listened to, and it really shaped me a lot. Every once in a while something else would come along, and I would grab it and seize it. Specifically, what are those musics? When I first heard the Breeders and Liz Phair, that affected me a lot, just because it was kinda low. There's this beta wave, and it's not like...[imitates a soprano singing a very high note]...it's really low-frequency. I think that that affected me.
Was it the comparatively unassuming and easygoing nature of the music that drew you in?
Yeah! I think that stuff that's kinda understated has always really appealed to me. I feel like Simon and Garfunkel is pretty understated. It's not throwing stuff out there too much. I don't know.
It makes sense to me, because when I listen to Poor Aim: Love Songs, I always get the feeling that it’s contemporary R&B refracted through the lens of a very shy and withdrawn individual. I'm pretty sure that you hear R&B songs all the time where the vocals are totally extroverted and melismatic, and they're just singing their hearts out. It seems like your songs have the same subject matter, but sung through the viewpoint of someone who keeps a little bit more to herself.
I don't think that I could ever be called withdrawn or shy, necessarily, because I'm pretty extroverted. There's a way that I'm secretly shy, but it's a secret. I don't think that people who hang out with me very much should know that. The range of my voice is an alto. I'm not a soprano, and sopranos are the ones who are like...[makes a very loud wailing sound, similar to last time]...they could really step up. I don't have a powerful voice like that. I don't have a Jenny Lewis voice or a Whitney Houston voice. I'm working with what I've got, modestly ekeing my way along. [laughter] I'm not really into stepping out and saying, "HEY! LISTEN TO THIS!" I'm more like, "Uh...how about this, guys?" [laughter] Whenever people seem interested, it kinda draws me out more and I feel more confident about it.
I noticed that when you were performing, for the first 10 to 15 seconds you were just staring at the mic, and then you started dancing. You came alive as the set progressed. When you told the soundman to turn everything up louder, it had a directly proportional effect on the boisterousness of your dancing. I liked that!
Yeah, I definitely needed something boosting me up each little step of the way.
Does that attitude toward performing change from day to day?
You mean what my shows are like? Well, it's definitely your mood. You're surfing the vibrations. [laughter] To me, there are so many different factors: "I didn't eat that much," "There's a chill in the air," "I had a sip of Kombucha"... It's what everything makes you feel like, which is what's so interesting about being alive! You can't always be at high-octane performance every single second. All the factors that contribute to why you are super-powered when you are --- that's what makes performance interesting. I'm really into just admitting that I'm an awkward human being. What am I gonna do? I just am, you know? [laughter]
There are always different kinds of variables that affect live performance, regardless of whether you're solo or in a band, regardless of what personality type you are. It's always going to change from day to day.
Even in life, when you're just going about your business from day to day.
That ties into another question that I wanted to ask. I know that the Blow has two members now --- there's you and then there's Jona. Do the two of you regularly perform together live? If so, was this show an exception? What's Jona doing right now?
Right now, Jona's on tour by himself with his solo project called YACHT.
I've heard of it, actually, and I need to check it out.
Yeah, you should! It's really cool. It's really smart. He's just a really, really supple and really exceptionally talented producer and media artist. He can just make things exist out of nothing. I mean, I make things exist out of nothing, but it's more like ideas and songs and words, but he can make them exist electrically. He can make videos and songs pop right out. When we're recording, he effortlessly creates songs.
Do you present the basic skeletons of your songs to him, and then have him construct whatever sonic edifice that it takes on --- the tracks you end up singing along to?
"Sonic edifice"...that's so nice..."sonic edifice." What happened with both records that we made is that I wrote the song and then --- except for a couple of songs --- I wrote the song beforehand, and came to him and sang it. Sometimes, he'd write a part, but usually I'd just be like, "How about THIS?," and he would start making a beat, and we'd work together to make everything melodic. I'm words, he's beats, and together we do melodic interpretation. I'll do the melody of the song if it's written on keyboard or guitar.
Is the R&B influence something you were initially going for when you started the Blow, or was it something that Jona's presence brought out?
Well, there are a couple of songs on The Concussive Caress, which is a record that I did before him...
Yeah, I have that one. That's what I was thinking, because there were songs on it, like "How Naked Are We Going to Get?," where I got that vibe in a more embryonic form.
Yeah, totally! It's definitely the embryo of that. I had the notion: "How cool would that be --- INDIE R&B??!?" There's so much ripping off of African-American music and culture. Everybody does it, from Elvis to Justin Timberlake. It's a historical fact, so I opened myself up to the idea. It seemed funny to me at that point, and then Jona and I just ripped it. He has the capability to emulate that music more obviously, instead of me getting someone to beatbox and play the drums. [laughter]
Is that a sound that you plan on sticking with for a while, or do you see it heading in a different direction on future releases? Have you even thought that far ahead?
I don't know! I think we both have inklings for stuff that we want to work on on our own. I want to try some stuff that's different, I think. When things change in my life, I never see it coming. It takes a long time for me. It even takes a long time for me to realize that something already HAS changed. I just bought a car a month ago, and I still don't realize that I have a a car. [laughter] I have a long adjustment period. Even having made a new record makes me think, "Wow! I don't quite know what this means yet."
I guess you're still getting used to your own sound!
Yeah. I mean, I feel it, but I don't know if that's what the next record will sound like.
The first time I saw you was on the Paper Opera tour, when you were singing either a capella, or along to old drum machines. Now I’m seeing you five years later, and you’re solo again. Now that you have Jona around as a permanent collaborator, has playing solo become more or less difficult?
Well, there were two years in which Jona and I always played together. It was like taking a leap from being kind of a sober solo performer, 'cause there's this sort of way in which I've always dabbled in awkwardness a little bit, and dabbled in sizing up the audience. Tonight's show was a little more like that than it has been recently, 'cause I was just feeling a little shy. It's how my shows have been for a long time...and then when I started working with Jona, our shows were like dance parties. He just pumped people up. The music was way more pumping, and he'd be on stage pumping people up, and everyone would be dancing.
So he was kinda like your hypeman as well.
He was a little bit of 'flava'! [laughter] Yeah, he was like a hypeman, and for two years that's what we totally did. We just put all of our energy into that. That was really exciting, and I feel like it rubbed off on me a lot. There's a way in which I'm kinda way more willing to just give it up to the audience now, and let go. Now, he got all of these awesome opportunities to do shows by himself. He's in France right now, and he played a show at the Centre Pompidou. It's a huge museum in Paris --- it's like there's the Louvre, and then there's the Pompidou. It's the next step down from the Louvre. It's huge.
It sounds like a pretty big deal.
It's a HUGE deal. It's like performing at the Guggenheim, or at the Whitney Biennial. He's got these really cool performances for YACHT, and since I can perform alone, we just veered off that way for now. I like it, though. I like performing alone. I like performing with him, but it's nice to connect with an audience and let it be a little more quiet and intimate again.
I like the fact that there's a storytelling aspect to the Blow. Even with these booming beats, it's still just one person trying to communicate a story or message to a large group of people. I think you've found a really good hybrid of the Simon and Garfunkel folksy thing with the "indie R&B" concept, and I like it a lot.
I have one more question, and then I'll get out of your hair. What is a non-musical thing that has recently excited or provoked a lot of thought in you lately? Name one thing that has nothing to do with music that you particularly enjoy, or have been doing a lot of lately.
Wow. Can I just think about this for a minute? I have to go through my list of things.
You can talk about more than one.
Something I've been up to?
Well, my friend Melissa Dyne and I made this collaborative project called Spirit Quest, and we've been hiring ourselves out. Before the record came out, I was really broke and so was she, so we were hiring ourselves out as artists to do art projects for people where they would just pay us. At first, the idea was going to be like, "We're artists, and we need your money, so we're gonna paint your house. [laughter] You should just pay us. You should do it to help us because you should be supporting the arts. We'll make art that you like, and it could just be your wall being painted a color." I don't think I can explain it in a way that conveys how cool it is. Anyway, we've been doing this collaborative project, and we got to do something at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. That's something that's really exciting, but I can't really explain how cool it is. What else have I been excited about? [long silence] The way that it all started is that we just renovated my apartment, and it was in a warehouse. We were working to make something that was really physically different. I moved into this warehouse space that was really big and really cheap and really cool and really disgusting. There were these open holes outside that these pigeons were living in, and they made these pigeon nests that were really wild, and were filled with twigs and shit. They were two feet wide, six inches deep. There was just a solid block of pigeon shit.
Like a pigeon outhouse!
Yeah. It was in this hole going into my house, so the wind would blow through it and blow pigeon shit into my apartment. There were three of them, and that was really intense. Just cleaning out a pile of pigeon shit was really, really empowering. Looking at something you don't like...
...and getting rid of it?
Yeah, and watching the amount of reservation that overtakes you before you actually do it, you know? It took weeks before I finally got around to being like, "There's something that smells. What is it?" It was actually months. I kinda got down on the floor and realized there was a hole filled with pigeon shit! I cleaned out, and then I realized a couple weeks later that there was ANOTHER one...in the kitchen! Cleaning it out and realizing that I needed to do something about this giant hole in the bathroom floor, getting around to it and realizing that I needed to take out the fixtures and putting in the new subfloor, then putting in the toilet and the sink and the bathtub again --- it was really, really a lot of work, and it changed me a lot, you know? The amount of energy it takes to change some things...just the amount of physical and energetic force it takes to alter your surroundings is really hefty. I think I got stronger just by being like, "I can do this! We're gonna do this!," and then changing it and having my environment be different. It's really easy to just live with things the way they are. That's been a really big influence. Also, I read the book "Another Country," by James Baldwin. I've been really into reading James Baldwin, and watching "Lost." [laughter]
I've been trying to find new books to read. I'm almost done with Paulo Coelho's "Veronika Decides to Die." It's a great book, and it's basically about how arbitrary the line between sanity and insanity really is, and who gets to draw that line.
Wow, that's like my pet topic, so I should read it!
A lot of the things that I've read in the book are things that I've heard other people in my life say to me, almost verbatim. Most of these people have never read the book, though, which only reinforces how touching and on point it is.
That's so cool. Well, "Another Country" by James Baldwin is probably the best book I've ever read.
Next time I go to the library, I will check it out.
It's really deep and beautiful.
Thanks for letting me interview you.
Thank you so much! It's so nice. I really appreciate it.
October 27, 2006
Hearing Angela Desveaux's debut record Wandering Eyes really, really made me smile. You see, it's a record that reveals much about the author; it takes all of one listen to hear that Ms. Desveaux is a girl whose background is firmly planted in Country tradition. While other artists might steep their music in twang and all sorts of Country-sounding gimmicks, one won't find such posturing in the notes of Ms. Desveaux's music. It's really a refreshing thing to hear someone making sincere Country music. I had a really nice conversation with her, and I do hope that you take the time to seek out her music; it's worth the investment.
I take it you're on tour now?
This is basically the big month for release, so we're doing a lot of the major cities in Quebec and in Canada, so that's what's going on right now. Since we're playing nearby, we can take three days on the weekend and then come back home, sleep, and refuel. So it's not like we're leaving for a month and doing everything. We're just booking some shows nearby, and eventually we hope to go out for a more extended period of time, but not right now.
In doing research for this chat, I didn't find a whole lot of background information on you. Tell me about growing up. One of the things that really struck me about Wandering Eyes is that the music sounds like that made by someone who grew up around Country music.
Definitely, yeah! My mum and my dad, both of them were big music fans in general, but from their background, both folk and country was a big influence. I think Country was played in all of the households of the town they came from, so my brother and I grew up listening to that all the time. All the classics, but the older classics like George Jones and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, but also, we went through the whole 80s and 90s phase of new country music, like George Strait and more contemporary artists. So I listened to it a lot, but I didn't start playing it on my own until, basically, I was out of high school, once I found friends who loved country music, which is a little rare when you're younger (laughs).
I can totally relate. Were your parents musicians?
My dad plays guitar, and he still plays guitar, but not professionally. We'd all get together and play in the living room.
Like a Saturday-night sing-along?
Exactly! We had a lot of those.
I can relate to growing up on Country, "rebelling" against it, and then coming back to it. What brought you back to Country music?
Hmm....well, we went through a garage-rock phase, me and my brother, and we'd listen to more rock music, but it was always stuff that kind of had a country influence. I guess we were attracted to it in a way because it was very familiar. The rock groups that had more melodic songwriting or a lot of harmonies, or if it had pedal steel—right away those were little things that attracted us to the music on the rock scene. But they always had a little country influence. We were listening to Son Volt, Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons—we realized there was a cooler scene than what we were into when we were younger that still had its roots in country. Then I just started playing bluegrass as well. By then there was no holding back any more. Once you start playing bluegrass, you're right into it, and you're into the traditional country, because bluegrass is as traditional as you can get. I was never really ashamed of Country; it's just that when you were younger, you try to fit in, and we strayed when we were in school. Bu after that, we realized that was the way we liked to play music. So I got back to my roots.
You can't really appreciate something until you walk away from it, look back at it, and put it in perspective.
Exactly! And then you associate yourself with people who like it as well, and you don't feel so left out. In high school, there wasn't that many people who listened to Country music, so we kind of ignored it. But when we found a local scene that appreciated it, I felt proud of it.
I don't normally think of Montreal as being a big Country-minded place, but I guess it is, isn't it?
I think it's like that in North America. Once you get out of the city, people listen to more roots-y music, more relaxed music. I dunno, I think it's true in the States as well, when you live in the city, it's big and it offers more and you kind of stray away from Country. Once you leave the city, you realize that a lot of people listen to Country, and that's why I think my parents grew up on it, too.
Oh yeah, I can relate. I'm from a small town in Texas, and when I went off to college in the big city, people treated me like I was a hick from the backwater, and I guess I was, to some extent. But I found pride in that.
Definitely. And that's what helps you make great friends and makes you the person you are in the city if you're from a small place. I wasn't scared to talk about my feelings and I was really proud of my background, and I was confident as well. At that point, it made it a lot easier to make friends when I did come to the big city.
Is Wandering Eyes your first official album, or have you recorded and released music before?
I have another recording that is four songs long. It was done more acoustically, with stand-up bass, pedal steel, mandolin, and guitar. It has more of a bluegrass/roots feel to it; the songs are much more stripped down. Then I just wanted to do something different. I had a lot of songs that I felt needed a different arrangement and those songs became Wandering Eyes.
How was the experience of making Wandering Eyes?
It was great! It's always a little weird when you start something different, you don't know what to expect, and you just kind of hope for the best. I was working with good people, so I had that, at least. I put my trust in the musicians; at least the product had to come out decent, because I believed in the people I was playing with. But I knew I was going to get something different than what I had expected. My goal was to get something that was more "alt-country," but I think it ended up being a little more rock than I expected. But I'm still very happy with it; they're still the songs that I wrote and they come across well, too.
There are two songs on Wandering Eyes that I just really, really enjoy, that I always go back to.
Oh yeah? Which ones?
"Heartbeat" and "Wandering Eyes." It's hard to get to the rest of the album because of those two really great tracks at the beginning!
(Laughs) Oh, thanks! It's always nice to hear what people get attracted to, because it's always a different one for everybody. It makes it special.
I've shared your music with others, and all of them seem to pick up on a Lucinda Williams influence.
(Laughs) Yeah, it's hard to get away from that! I listened to a lot of Lucinda Williams when I was young, and I found it easier to sing in that style of Country. When you listen to female Country singers, you have the Alison Krauss style, the more high-pitched voice, and you have those who can sing with a more relaxed voice, a lower-ranged voice, and I found it a lot easier to sing like that. Even in songwriting, I find it easier to kind of sit back and lazily sing a song, rather than putting my tonsils into it. (Laughs) But it was also a matter of technique, too. It was a lot simpler, and I don't think it'll always be that way. I don't think all my songs sound like Lucinda Williams (They don't—ed.) I can see how some people would definitely hear that in some songs, though.
Another act I tell people you remind me of is The Judds...
(Curious) Hmmm….really? (Laughs)
I take it that's something you weren't expecting to hear? (Laugh)
Not at all! But let me tell ya, I probably sang their song "Grandpa" in front of my family, like, 250 times, growing up! (Embarrassed, laughing)
Yeah, now that you mention it, I can hear that song's style in Wandering Eyes.
It's nothing really overt, but more of that style of music, like you said, a relaxed style.
My dad's favorite singer was George Jones, and my brother and I went through a lot of that growing up. Initially, we'd joke around and try to imitate George Jones, singing really whiny and with all the words attached. It kind of sounds like you're a little drunk when you're singing like that, which might be the case with him! (Laughs) But we've always liked singing in that style and it's hard to take it out once you've learned it a certain way.
One other thing that was shocking about your record is that it was released on Thrill Jockey. How did you meet up with them?
Through Howard Bilerman. I worked with him, he was the drummer at the time, and he recorded my first demo and Wandering Eyes. He helped me a lot. He supported me and gave me direction when it came to working with labels. He was very fond of more independent labels. Once the album was done, he sent a couple out to labels he preferred, and I sent them out to labels I preferred as well. Some of them were kind of big, like Lost Highway. Finally, Thrill Jockey came back and said, "We love the album!" I liked the label, so I signed with them.
When I think of their roster, I wouldn't envision them having a more Modern Country-ish singer.
Yeah, we're definitely a bit of a black sheep on the label.
But it works to your benefit, at least in theory. If you were to sign to a Country label, you'd just be another Country musician.
Yeah, and I'd be wearing lipstick, too! (Laughs) I don't like wearing it.
Did I throw you off? (Laughs)
Nah. (Laugh) There's no real difference between Modern Country singers and pop singers like Britney Spears.
Well, that’s the thing, that's what I find, too. I think some of them are great singers, people like Faith Hill, but they definitely have a pop sound, and it's really hard to distinguish. If it wasn't for the pedal steel in the background, I don't think I'd be able to differentiate. I'm not sure I would put myself in the "New Country" tag, though.
It's just nice to hear somebody doing something that's really real. When you grow up listening to a particular genre or style of music, it becomes rather easy to discern when someone's just not really being true to a sound, and are using it more as an affectation.
If you can, allow yourself to just stay away from certain things. I don't think I've ever watched CMT or listened to any of the Country stations here. I know it's there, but when it's time to write my own songs, I try to avoid those things, because I don't want my music to sound like that. I disassociate with the Canadian Country music scene as well, because it's becoming more and more like that. I just stick to my old vinyl records I have here, or my old CD's, and I listen to that. Besides, it's better music, you know? (laughs)
Angela Desveaux's debut album, Wandering Eyes, is available now on Thrill Jockey
October 26, 2006
We've had a thing for Evangelicals ever since we heard that wonderful debut album of theirs, So Gone. What we wrote about it a few months ago still sums it up best. It's a record that gets a lot of play in my stereo. Hot on the heels of a busy fall, we had a few minutes to kill with Evangelicals leader Josh Jones, who let us know all about what was going on with the band.
Getting ready for tour?
Uh, I probably should be, shouldn't I? (Laughs) But I usually save that time for the day before.
How are things with Evangelicals these days?
Oh, they're good. It's really, really busy for us this fall. The way we've got it mapped out, when we're not touring, we're recording, so I have to flip back between the two modes. It's been really busy, but that's a good thing, being busy with something you love, right? It beats being busy doing something you hate.
So are you just touring the US, or are you going to Europe?
Well, the closest we're getting to Europe is Montreal. (Laughs) I wish we were going to Europe. Maybe some time in the future, but nothing is planned for Europe right now.
You mentioned that you're about to start recording. I understand your debut was pretty much you working by yourself.
Yeah, a lot of that is true. A lot of that stuff was done...you know they say you have your entire lifetime to make your first record and a year to make your second, and in a lot of ways, that's true. A lot of the record was me recording songs, hoping and wishing for a band that didn't exist yet. I took the Field of Dreams message to heart when making the record, "If you record it, the band will come…" (Laughs)
Talking about recording, how do you think your new music will be different, now that Evangelicals is actually a band, as opposed to you simply writing and recording songs under the name Evangelicals?
I think it is a little more focused. When you're working by yourself, you can sort of trip off, and no one is there to reign you in. When making the first record, I was thinking, "Fuck it, maybe this stuff will never be played live, so let's forget about worrying about that part." In the back of my mind, there's a little bit of a sense of "Okay, it would be nice if we could play this live…" So I think it's a little more focused this time, but I think it sounds a lot more like a real band in some ways.
So will you be performing a lot of new material on this upcoming tour?
Yeah, we've been playing one new song from the record, one called "Skeleton Man." I think we'll probably have one or two more songs we'll work into the tour. For us, though, all of the songs we're playing are from the first record. They're like ten years old to me, but brand new to everybody else. I sometimes forget that people in New York City haven't heard these songs before.
With the material you're working on now with the rest of the band, will we see more of an input from the other members, in terms of writing and performance?
Yeah. A lot of it is still me sitting in front of a computer. That's the nature of the equipment we have; we don't have a studio, we don't go into studios, we have our own. So a lot of it is still me sitting at a computer, so the nature of that makes it hard to be collaborative. It's hard for two people who sit at a computer to be like, "uh, make that edit" or "Stop this part here." In that sense, at the end of the day, it's still the same. But as far as arrangements and the writing, it's definitely been more of a band effort.
I'm sure that takes the pressure off of you a little bit?
Yeah, it does! It's nice, but if people say, "man, the new record sucks," I'll say, "hey man, it wasn't MY fault!" (Laughs) Nah, that's not the case, we're all a part of it. But yeah, there's something really nice about having a band.
You guys befriended me on Myspace before I had a chance to hear your music, and when I did, I thought, "Man, these guys make some really nice indie-pop." And then Sean, the other mastermind behind Mundane Sounds, informed me that he saw you live and bought your CD, and when I described your music to him, he said "That's not how they sound live at all." He wanted me to ask you how you reconcile your tricky, cut-up production styles on the album with your live show.
Hmm…a lot of that stuff, due to modern recording, you can't do a lot of that stuff live without backing tracks, playing to prerecorded music. We've never wanted to play to pre-recorded music mainly because we like the elements of chaos in the live show, so what we feel like whatever we have to sacrifice to play live, whatever we play from the record that we can't play, instead of remaining true, we try to make up for it with some sort of controlled chaos on stage. Definitely, the live show is a lot more pummeling than the album, yeah. We try to make it sound like the record, but I don't know what we would have to do, other than get two or three other members in order to do that. But it's so cheap to have three members in a band, it makes sense. (Laughs)
Considering the contrast between your live act and your record, does it sometimes feel as if Evangelicals is a bit of a schizophrenic band?
When the record was being made, I had never performed that stuff live before, so definitely the live element had no influence on us in terms of recording until recently. That had never had an influence until we started playing live as a band, and then when we became a band, we started to play a shit-ton of shows right off the bat, so I think it's definitely influenced us onw. I think one of the things I've learned from making this first record and then going out and playing our record live is that what works on a record doesn't work live and what works live doesn't work on record. I think a lot of times it's that element that makes you change your songs when it's time to make your record. When you're playing live, it's much more immediate, and when you play live, you can do three-minute instrumental breakdowns that are awesome and leave people blown away, but then when you throw that shit on a record, people get bored with it rather quickly and move on to the next song. I think it's cool to have different elements like that, when bands come from two different places like that.
With this album you're working on now, do you notice a definite difference in the style of your compositions? Are they less "all over the place"? When I described your record, I said it sounded like a band that's on the verge of falling apart, but within the realm of that, it was really exciting, and then when you started singing these really sugary-sweet vocals, it all just worked. Obviously since you are doing a lot more live, do you think that element comes into play a lot more now with the songs you're working on—do you notice a difference?
I notice that difference, yeah. The way you described the record as almost falling apart is pretty accurate. That record's also been described as "the sound of the Shins having a band fight." I like that! I like that element of chaos. The new record sounds like that, except more focused. (Laughs) I've been listening to Rocky Horror Picture Show a lot, and a lot of early to mid 70s glam, so I think the new record is definitely going to have a more theatrical element to it.
Do you think that those who have heard the first record, when they hear your new record, will think, "Wow, is this the same band?" Would you say that it's a radical change?
Oh yeah, yeah. I think it's pretty different. Obviously it is the same guys writing the songs, so it still sounds similar in that regard. In between these two records, I've saturated myself with a lot of music and I've tried to focus a lot more on writing. I think it's going to be different. Now if you're asking if you think it'll be like, "Oh man, what happened to these guys?" I don't think that will be the case, because I don't think many people have bought the first record! (Laughs) I'm not too concerned about ditching or losing our old-school Evangelicals fans, because I don't know how many of them there actually are—my mom, maybe! (Laughs)
You're going out on tour with Serena Maneesh and Wovenhand, and that's a pretty diverse bill. On one hand, you have this loud noise band, and the other you have dark, gothy country-folk. I think it's a great bill.
I agree, I think it's a pretty cool lineup, too. We'll see. Sometimes I feel like we're the hyperactive little brothers of some of these more serious bands, so we'll see how the crowds take to us. I think it'll be fun.
Being from Oklahoma, how do you feel about those comparisons to Flaming Lips?
Well, ya know, unless we were making hard-core gangsta rap, or if we were Toby Keith or something, I think we're always going to get those comparisons. The Starlight Mints were labeled that way from day one and I don’t think they sound anything like Flaming Lips. But I think it's pretty cool, actually, when people say "Oh, these guys sound like the Flaming Lips" and "wow, these guys sound like the Starlight Mints." It helps to build a musical legacy for Oklahoma, and maybe it's some reason for people to come here and make Norman, Oklahoma a better place. People come here and think, "oh shit, the Flaming Lips" and "oh shit, the Starlight Mints" and start to think, for some odd reason, that it's a really weird place with really cool music going on, and that's a good thing. I think I went to my first Flaming Lips show when I was twelve, and at that age, getting your mind blown, it's great. And it's cool, too, to have your favorite bands to be living just down the street. I think it's extremely flattering—I can see where some bands might be annoyed by those kinds of comparisons to a more popular band, but, for me, I think it's kind of fun. And, ya know, I think it's kind of inevitable and it comes along with the territory.
Since the comparisons have been made in the press, have you had any feedback from the Flaming Lips about what you do?
Oh yeah! Those guys are my friends, and I don't know if they've read things that say such things, but they have seen us play and are aware of what we do, and what goes on. We're playing a show with them in September. I think they have an idea about us. (Laughs)
So do you have an idea about as to when the new record will be out?
We're trying to have it out by next summer. It's a very fall-sounding record. When I say Rocky Horror Picture Show, a lot of it is about weird ghosts, monsters, and nightmares, so that by the time the fall rolls around people will have heard the record and will be ready for it. We're trying to make the ultimate fall record over here.
Evangelicals' debut record, So Gone, is available now on Misra Records
October 25, 2006
It's nice to have a new record by Sprites. For years, Jason Korzen has written some wonderful (and wonderfully funny) songs, both as Sprites and Barcelona, and their latest record, Modern Gameplay is no exception. It's a fun, funny record full of new-wave inspired pop songs about life and popular culture. From songs about unloved blogs to songs about wonderfully zealous and enthusiastic indie-pop girls from New York City, regardless of what he's singing about, he's sure to put a smile on your face and a little warmth in your soul.
Do you consider yourself more of a songwriter or a cultural critic who simply likes to set his findings and his opinions to music?
A songwriter, I guess. Maybe a very self interested lyricist? I was really nervous turning this last Sprites record in to the record label, more than anything else I've done. Its like 17 songs written for my own entertainment. I was unsure if anybody else would be interested.
"I Started A Blog..." -- an innocent commentary, or an ironic yet
masterful manipulation leading to blogger reaction? Or is it simply a true story?
No, the song is true. I was looking at this blog I had been working on for like a year, posting on nearly every day and the song title came to me. All of the posting and cross posting that has happened with that song has been pretty hilarious. I didn't write it as some kind of marketing idea, but I shouldn't have been surprised by it.
Little Shirley--that's a name I haven't heard in years! Tell me a funny Little Shirley story. And what did you make on the Indiepop Quiz?
I got a really high score on the quiz. I should be embarrassed at how high. I'm sure my score has sunk considerably since then. Shirley is awesome. She was just this precocious fifteen year old with great taste in music when I first met her. Its funny that I still see her periodically, and I'm always compelled to ask if she's 18 yet. I imagine at some point she will be really, really famous.
Do you find it easier to write a song that's extremely personal, or one that's less personal yet more universial in nature?
I'm not sure if it is easier or not, but for me it's a lot more gratifying. I feel like I'm writing about things that are uniquely me and introducing myself to strangers. Its kind of like blogging in a way, only I'm better at it.
So what other blogs do you read?
I like political blogs mostly. I give them credit for making politics interesting to me. There are a few mp3 blogs that I like too.
How's the DC-area Indiepop scene doing in 2006? Any great bands you'd care to share with us?
Kind of quiet at the moment. It seems like a few years ago everybody simultaneously stopped playing in indiepop bands and became DJs. I'm still big on the Antiques here in DC. My friend Ivan's band the Positions are really good and make me feel guilty because they work a million times harder at it than I do.
What do you have planned next?
I don't really know. I am working on two film projects this fall and doing a bunch of remix work. I have a ton of new lyrics written, so I wouldn't be surprised if I get interested in working on new Sprites tracks during the winter when life is more quiet. I haven't had much interest in playing live lately.
The Sprites' new album, Modern Gameplay, is available now on Darla Records
October 24, 2006
Austin, Texas' Brothers and Sisters remind me of a lot of great bands: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Whiskeytown, Beachwood Sparks, and even a little bit of the Grateful Dead. But that's not a bad thing; this country-rock collective make some seriously good music. Their debut album is merely the beginning for these folk-loving folk, and we were happy to get the chance to speak to Brother Will Courtney, the mastermind behind the band, shortly after he completed the band's first West Coast tour. His tale is an interesting one, and if you get a chance to see them on tour, I'm sure they'd appreciate it if you'd come and see them live.
How are you doing?
I'm great! We just got back from tour yesterday, so I'm kinda recovering today.
Catching up on your sleep?
How was the tour?
It was great, man! It was our first time going out as a band to the West Coast.
Who did you tour with?
It was just us, doing our own thing, playing with the bands they put us with. It was very low key, a little tour before the record release.
Did you have a good crowd response?
Yeah! (Excited) There were some really good shows, like our show in LA at the Echo; that one went incredibly well.
Was Conrad with you?
No, he's in New York right now; he'll be here in a couple of days, but he's in New York this summer. So he couldn't come out with us.
Do you think people came out to see you because of him? There's been a little bit of a spin that Brothers & Sisters is a side project for Conrad Keely…
(Laughs) I actually had a couple of people say, "Hey, you know, somebody here tonight said Conrad is in the band…where is he?" I haven't really felt that at all, but yeah, it could be the way some kids are feeling, but for the most part, no. It's mainly been people who've heard our stuff on the internet and they'll show up. Some people are surprised Conrad's even in it. He's kind of like our eighth member! (Laughs)
So he's more of an auxiliary member in the band?
Yeah. He was living down the street until a few months ago, so it was really easy. Now he's in New York, but we're going to be touring together, and he'll be playing on all of those shows. Whenever he's in town, he'll play. I hope he doesn't live in New York forever.
I don't want to give the impression that I think of you as a …Trail of Dead side project.
Yeah, we're definitely not. (Laugh)
So, how did the band get together?
I was actually living in LA, and I moved to Austin last year. I wanted to start a band with my sister, and we were going to call it Brother & Sister, because hey, that's what we call each other. But then when I started making the record last summer, I started to realize it was going to take a lot more people, so I put out some Craig's List ads for band members. I found a drummer through there, and it led to the domino effect, and we found our people.
You come from a musical family, and it seems your family was geared towards the Contemporary Christian market…
Well, I'd say more gospel than Contemporary Christian, because my mom has been completely shunned from Christian radio, and she's definitely not what you would consider a Contemporary Christian artist. She leans towards Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim—more dramatic and theatrical kinds of performers. Like, she'll often sing Tom Waits songs in concert.
Wow! That's cool.
Yeah, she's really cool. (Laughs)
So, growing up, was there an idea that you and your sister would be following in your parents' footsteps, making music?
I started singing in boys' choirs and I recorded for children's records when I was a kid. Me and my sister, we listened to the same music. We're two years apart, but we're really close; we've got the same taste in music, so growing up we were always listening to that kind of music, but I was always leaning towards making music. It wasn't until a few years ago that she got interested, and I really insisted that she do a band with me—I almost forced her into it. But I'm glad she chose to do this with me.
Were you in other bands before Brothers & Sisters?
Well, I'd call them more "projects" than bands. In LA, I'd play shows solo, and I was working with a lot of really great musicians. But they were in other, bigger bands, and it was more that we were making demos. I lived in Austin years ago, and I had bands here, but Brothers & Sisters is the most real, most serious band out of anything I've done.
There's obviously a country-rock element to your music. Coming from LA, how much of that LA sound influences what you do?
Yeah, there's definitely the California sound that I'm heavily influenced by. Bands like the Millennium, Association, the Beach Boys—a lot of 60s harmonies bands, like the Byrds, the Band, Neil Young. I'm also into people like Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb. My parents, too--my dad is a songwriter and my mom is a singer, so being raised by musicians, we had access to some really good records and artists growing up.
Are they supportive of the music you make?
Oh, absolutely. They're our number one fans! (Laugh) They've done everything they can to help us out.
I know some parents in the music business or parents who have a higher profile tend to want their kids to avoid the industry. Were your parents of the "Don't go into the music industry!" mindset, or were they much more supportive as you started making music?
I have been warned all my life about how evil this industry is! (Laughs) I've chosen to do it. I've been raised around it, and I'm aware of all the bullshit. I don't put up with it and I try to stay as far away from it as much as I can. We're putting out our record on our own label and trying to do everything we can on our own before we even begin to consider record deals. Certainly we talk to labels about money and the things they have to offer, but they just don't interest me. I'd rather take it on in my own way, to avoid that bullshit.
How has the response been to the band around Austin?
Oh, it's been incredible, man. We sold out our record release party, and there was an hour wait to get in to see it, and it's weird, man. It's all happened really, really quickly. We started playing only last fall, and we've just been fortunate to have really big crowds. I don't know if that's from the bands we are playing with or what, I dunno. They're playing us on the college radio here, and it's been getting a lot of good response.
How many are in the band right now?
There's eight, if you count Conrad, but most of the time it's usually seven.
Is it difficult managing a band of that size?
Going out on this road was kind of a test to see how being out together for over two weeks would work and it wasn't hard at all. I tried my best to get a bunch of people who aren't pretentious egomaniacs, just people who would be honest, laidback, and cool. I feel like people who grew up listening to or appreciating the music we do are probably going to be on that same kind of wavelength. We kind of got a whole bunch of laid-back people, so it was real easy to do and everyone's been easygoing about it, so touring hasn't been too difficult.
You said a moment ago that when you put together this band, you realized that you would need more than just you and your sister, and then you stated that you grew up performing in choirs. So would you say that from an early age you were trained to think that when you write music, you do so for a large ensemble or combination that's more than just your standard guitar/bass/drums arrangement?
Harmonies have always been what I have responded to and worked with all of my life. The first show I went to see was a Beach Boys concert when I was six. Bands like that, those Sixties harmonies-based bands had an influence, and the boys' choir was training for me in hearing all those different parts. So when I'm playing music, I usually hear those harmonies in my head. Lily and I initially were going to do a duet-based sort of thing, but I really love three- and four-part harmonies, so we had to have another band. On the record, a lot of it is me stacking my voice, but now we can sing it all together.
So what's next for you guys?
We're going to do this big tour with Blood Brothers and Trail of Dead. We'll be touring for six weeks across America and into Canada, and then we'll be starting on the new record. We're probably going to tour in February and March. But I've written so many songs lately, I've got three albums ready, so now we've got to start putting it on tape. I'm ready, and we are all very anxious to do that. Unfortunately, I've been sitting on this record for a year and it's just now coming out in October, so it's new to most people outside of this immediate area. So we're going to have to tour it for a little while, but we're definitely ready to start recording.
Would you say that this record that it's a true, full 'band' record, or is it simply an extension of your solo projects, with songs already written and the band simply coming in and fulfilling your needs for the songs?
If you listen to us live, you can see a huge change. We're playing the same songs, but there's definitely more of a band feel to our music now. We hang out together, we practice all the time, we're doing all of these things together, so it's evolved into more of a band than what was on the record. On the album, often times it's just me and a couple of friends playing on it. Now, and for the next album, it's much more of a band. I'd written the songs on this record back in LA, way before I even knew these guys.
If there was a criticism I had, a few times it felt stiff, but it makes sense now, after hearing you describe the background of making it.
Yeah, I agree. I listened to it and I have so many critiques of my own, but then again I did it all in six days! (Laughs) I did it really quickly, and I did everything I could for the money I had and the time I had. I wish I'd had the band to do more on there.
So tell me a little bit about the band.
We've got Dan Wilcox, who plays lead guitar and pedal steel. He's great. He was introduced to me by our drummer, who we met on Craig's List, Greg McArthur. They were friends back in Asheville, so they're a really great team to work with. James Olson is the other guitar player, and he sings with us, and he's the one who introduced us to Conrad. They were friends growing up in Hawaii; they've known each other a long time, and he introduced us to our bass player, Dave Morgan. He's definitely got this McCartney/Rick Danko style that I'm simply crazy about, and I'm glad we have him now. Then there are the girls, my sister and Marie Butcher, and they definitely round out the sound and the harmonies.
Has this new combination done any recording?
We actually cut a song in LA last week, and we've done some radio shows that have turned out pretty well. We've got some live versions of new songs, too. But our first actual recording session together was this past week. And on "Sunday Living" and "One Night," those two songs have most of the band on them; everybody except the bass player is on those songs.
To me, those are the two best songs on the record.
(Excited) I know! Aren't they great? You can definitely feel the energy on them.
Were they written as a band?
No, I'd written those. They were kind of left over, but after we started working on the record I decided at the last minute that we should go back and cut those songs. We learned those songs, we practiced them for a week or so, then we went up and did it.
In the future, will we be seeing any other members taking the lead on singing and songwriting?
James has been singing a little bit, and we've done a couple of his songs, but we're not real sure what will be on this next record. I'd love to hear my sister sing some songs, too. I'm going to encourage her to do that, so we'll see.
Good luck with your tour, have fun out there, and I look forward to hearing more from you guys!
Brothers & Sisters' self-titled debut record is out now on I Eat Records.