December 15, 2006

Best of 2006, Part Five: Top Ten Records of 2006

This is it. This is what you've all been waiting for...the best records of 2006! These albums are all totally, utterly wonderful, and they stand up to repeated plays. You should definitely investigate these records; they are artistic statements that will make your life better. 2006 wasn't a sucky year, thanks to these records!

As it stands, this list is a nice little end-of-the-year cap, so we want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and we hope you have a safe and happy holiday season. We've got some big things in store for 2007, and we hope you'll stick around for them! Thanks for 2006!

We will return on January 8th with plenty of interesting and exciting interviews with the makers of distinctive music. Stay tuned!

10. The Brother Kite Waiting for the Time to Be Right: Big, driving pulsing rock that has a beautiful underbelly and a shimmering haze that makes it impossible to dislike. The band takes the Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb formula and makes a record that's just as good, if not better.
(Clairecords )
Listen To: Various Tracks

9. Westbound Train Transitions: A gathering of English Beat-loving young men gather together and make a record that would make Dave Wakeling proud. In fact, he took 'em out on tour! Big, grand, ska-pop with a heapin' helping of soulful, Motown-styled singing, horns, excellent songwriting and even better production; this record was retro without being retro, and best of all, it's mature and not pandering to a youth market. (Hellcat)
Listen To: Various Tracks

8. Maritime We, the Vehicles: Davey von Bohlen and company finally make the pop record they've been plotting for some time. Finally losing the Promise Ring shadow, this album had loads of moments of pure pop bliss, with hooks galore and catchy melodies. (Flameshovel)
Listen To: Various Tracks

7. Brand New: The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me: Jesse Lacey's heartbreak and inner conflict...emo heartthrobs ditch the emo, ditch the heartthrob, and make a record that's pure emotional torment. This is one hell of a hard record; it's a stunning display of pain and heartbreak, and it's certainly no posture. Not an easy record to listen to, my friends, but a breakthrough record for Brand New. (Interscope)
Listen To: Various Tracks

6. The Keene BrothersBlues and Boogie Shoes: Bob Pollard and Tommy Keene's collaboration = THE rock record Pollard never made with GBV. It's as classic as rock gets, and these two men simply smoke in collaboration. Pollard wasted no time this year proving that GBV's retirement wasn't a result of his creative well running dry, and this is easily his most satisfying collaboration to date. (Fading Captain)

5. Weird Weeds Weird Feelings Album number two for this Austin trio is a vast maturation from their debut album, which made it into our best-of 2005 list last year. Minimalist guitar drones and haunting boy/girl vocals mix together quite nicely with lyrics about love, lose, and lovingly complicated and emotionally demanding basset hounds. Best listened to in whole, alone, sitting in a dark room. (Sounds Are Active)
Listen To: Various Artists

4. Tasmin Archer ON: The return of Tasmin Archer proved to be one of my personal highlights of the year in music, and thankfully the album lived up to my expectations. Mature, well-considered pop music with lyrics that reflect a gentle wisdom gained from years of frustration, ON felt like what it was: a beautiful record from a wise, loving soul. Fourteen years after her big pop hit? Doesn't seem like it. Welcome back. (Quiverdisc)
Listen To: Various Tracks

3. The Submarines Declare a New State!: A boy and a girl get together. Boy helps girl make solo album. Boy and girl becomes a couple. Boy and girl break up. Boy and girl start to write songs about their breakup. Boy and girl start to work together on the material. Boy and girl fall back in love. Boy and girl get married. Boy and girl's friends suggest they release the material that is about their breakup. Boy and girl release one of the year's best records. (Nettwerk)
Listen To: Various Tracks

2. Robin Guthrie Continental/Everlasting: When I reviewed this record, I predicted it to be one of the very best records of 2006, and guess what? It's the end of 2006, and it's still one of the year's very best records. Everything you associate with the name Robin Guthrie is found in overwhelming abundance here; a man alone with a guitar has rarely sounded so brilliant. I had to throw in the EP compendium Everlasting, because it's just as wonderful, if not more so, and it deserves mention. (Darla Records)
Listen To: Various Tracks

1. Boduf Songs Lion Devours the Sun: Hauntingly beautiful music that is oft mistakenly labeled "folk." This is something darker, something much more sinister, and Mat Sweet's songwriting muse dives into the troubled waters of a tormented soul and the mysterious forests of the mind. "Two Across the Mouth" is one of the best songs of the year, too. It's an album best experienced whole, alone, in a dark room. This is the best record of the year, period. (Kranky)
Listen To: Boduf Songs Live on VPRO

December 14, 2006

Best of 2006, Part Four: Some Other Good Stuff

And then there's the music that doesn't fit in any easy category, or falls in between other categories! These are some pretty good records, if I do say so myself. Check 'em out!

The Everyothers Pink Sticky Lies: This five song EP was a blast of glam wrapped in bubblegum=pop. It promised much, but the band suddenly broke up a few weeks ago, which is a real shame, because this EP was such a wonderful record. Still, going out on a high note has its merits, and it's best to remember them as being awesome. (Kill Rock Stars)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head: It's hard to understand why McKay's label hated this record. It's also not hard to understand why they frowned upon releasing it as-is. But as frustrating as it all may be--it really shouldn't have been a two-disc set--the excellence of the music more than makes up for it being self-indulgent tripe. But the aesthetic issues with the label weren't the real issue here--it was a question of artistic control--and Columbia wound up losing a great artist. McKay is the Cyndi Lauper for the indie-yuppie set, and her song with Cyndi was a real highlight. (spinART)

Mute Math Mute Math: Frantic rock music with a definite hint of new wave, but what else do you expect from a band with a lead singer who sounds eerily enough like Sting? They're like a more melodic Les Savy Fav, which makes things even more interesting. Emo? No. Christian rock in denial? that as it may, this band's all about the live show, as they simply go insane on stage. Really. Go to YouTube and see for yourself. (Telepromt)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Aberdeen What Do I Wish For Now?: A band that didn't really exist until after it came back from a five-year break-up, this compilation documents this underrated LA indie-pop band, and it's a surprisingly strong album--stronger, perhaps, than the band's debut album released at the turn of the century. That second Sarah EP is pure pop perfection, too. (LTM Recordings)
Various Tracks

Harper Lee: He Holds a Flame: Keris Howard says goodbye? In interview, he suggested that this excellent EP was the final Harper Lee release. Whether it is or not, remains to be seen. "He Holds a Flame" is Howard's finest musical statement, so if it is indeed the end, it's a mighty high note to end with. The other songs on the EP are all of a higher quality, too. (Matinee Recordings_

The Elected: Sun, Sun, Sun: Rilo Kiley's Blake Sennett steps out once again, and comes up with this wonderful, sun-baked LA rock record. Country- and Folk-rock has rarely sounded this pleasant; it sounds like a lost Laurel Canyon treasure, or, perhaps, the best early 70s solo Crosby, Stills, and Nash record that never came to pass? A haughty sentiment on my part, yes, but it's not without merit. (Sub Pop)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Sparta Threes: El Paso-based rock band comes back and comes on strong with their third album. Filled with loud, overwhelmingly big guitars and some of Jim Ward's best singing to date, it's a powerful, in-your-face rock record that doesn't sound at all as bad as those who hated on Sparta back in the day would have lead you to believe. (I am, of course, speaking of myself.) (Hollywood Records)
Listen To Various Tracks

Pants Yell! Recent Drama: This record really charmed me on first listen, what with its hand-clapping and wonderful pop crunch, and the love hasn't really ceased. I mentioned the name Aztec Camera in comparison, and I stick by that. The American indiepop scene was kind of quiet this year, but this album was a definite highlight. (Asaurus)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Dani Siciliano Slappers: This record really contained a nice element of "..and the kitchen sink" to it. Imagine a nice mixture of jazz, pop, electronica, and all other sorts of musical genres thrown together into one big, healthy stew, topped off with some deliciously breathy, seductive singing. Sold yet? I know I was. (!K7 Records) Listen To: Various Tracks

Ester Drang: Rocinate: This Oklahoma trio really turned up the trippy arrangements and the mellow rock for this, their third album, which was a vast improvement from their previous record, the disappointing Infinite Keys. The mellowness was mixed together with string arrangements and orchestrations, and the effect created a nice, stoned-out haze.(Jade Tree)
Listen To: Various Tracks

December 13, 2006

Best of 2006, Part Three: Old Familiar Faces

Yesterday we featured excellent new artists making excellent new music, so today, we're featuring the best new records by well-established artists, veterans who have been around for many years, and who continue to make excellent records. It's always good to hear that people don't simply stop making music after years and years of record-making, and these records certainly show that.

Tanya Donelly This Hungry Life: It's always nice to hear a Tanya song, and this record--recorded in a small club in front of a friendly, loving audience--highlights everything we like about her work. The warm, electric atmosphere created by the live stage really adds a nice element to her songs. It also features an excellent cover of George Harrison's "Long, Long, Long." (Eleven Thirty Records)
Listen To: Various Tracks

The Lemonheads The Lemonheads: After a decade of retirement, Evan Dando brings his band back, and boy, do they sound great! Of course, considering his fellow band members are former Descendents and that J Mascis through in an extra guitar solo here and there, this "reunion" record is actually harder and tougher than any previous Lemonheads LP. And ladies, he's still dreeeeammmmyyy. (Vagrant Records)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Robert Pollard: From a Compound Eye: Pollard's first post-GBV solo album was an excellent double-album filled with some of his best songwriting to date. (Well, the best until the Keene Brothers, but that's another story.) A new phase in Pollard's storied career started this year, and has proven to be, in one word, amazing. (Merge Records)

Stuart Staples Leaving Songs: Tindersticks' lead singer takes a respite from his day job to release an album of sad, morose and impeccably arranged pop songs. The video he made for "That Sinking Feeling" featured him as a choo-choo train. Charming! Packaged with his first solo album only highlighted how excellent this album is. If ever you needed proof of Staples' genius, this album is it. (Beggars Banquet)
Listen To: Various Tracks

His Name is Alive Detrola: Warn Defever and company eschew the R&B slow-jams of their past two albums, and make a record that blends together the mellow elements of those two records with a style reminiscent of HNIA's late 90s output. But this isn't a throwback; this is an entirely new style, one that's richer and much more lush and mature in its scope. (Silver Mountain)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Stephen Brodsky's Octave Museum Stephen Brodsky's Octave Museum: Cave In front man's third solo album and first with his new band, and it's a keeper. It's not lo-fi like his previous releases, nor is it loud prog-metal like Cave In, either. This new direction, it's a great one, and it's not really all that surprising. Cave In may be on hiatus, but Brodsky's proven that life goes on, and this record proves that tears over Cave In's demise are unnecessary. (Hydrahead)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Eric Bachmann To the Races: Bachmann's first true, real, on-its-own solo album finds him treading straight into sadness and melancholy, in a way that's darker and deeper than anything Crooked Fingers ever did. Maybe it's because he's really by himself this time around, but this music is just too utterly sad and beautiful to be done any other way. (Saddle Creek)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Roddy Frame Western Skies: Twenty-five years in, Frame still has the knack for writing a lovely, engaging tune. Frame's smiling face on the cover says it all: he's a clever sort, as witnessed through this album of easy-going, unhurried, gentle, yet never too serious pop songs. The only thing about Western Skies that disappointed was the fact that most people didn't get the opportunity to hear it. Ah well, such is life, but if you heard it, then you know what you were getting. (Redemption Records)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Sparklehorse Dreamt For Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain: Mark Linkous rarely releases music, but when he does, it's always grand, and this is no exception. Sound-wise, it's not all that different from what you'd expect from the Sparklehorse name, except with lyrics that are a bit more positive and bright. Consistency like this might seem lazy, but if you know the source, then it really doesn't matter, does it?(Astralwerks)
Listen To: Various Tracks

New Radiant Storm King The Steady Hand: Who knew? Who knew that this minor alt.rock band from the early 1990s would return, and would return with their best record to date? I sure didn't; and though I always felt NRSK were OK, that they could produce a record as good as The Steady Hand really, really took me by surprise. In a good way, of course.(Darla Records)
Listen To: Various Tracks

December 11, 2006

Best of 2006, Part One: The Bliss-Out Records

I hate best-of lists, but dang it, I can't seem to avoid them. This year, after compiling my list, I noticed some themes developing. So this list is the first part of a five part series, covering the best of 2006. This first list is dedicated to heady, mind-bendingly beautiful music that deserves attention, and if you were to put these records on in the same disc changer, you could bliss your mind harder than you could on any drug. Enjoy!

Hammock Raising Your Voice...Trying to Stop an Echo: This record contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful instrumental music I've heard all year. It's the aural equivalent of floating in space and gliding through the galaxy to Heaven. It is seriously that beautiful. Oh, but then there are the vocals, which contain some of the most melancholy lyrics you'll hear all year, too. All in all, it's a beautiful record that will transport your mind to all sorts of places. (Darla Records)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Mercury Rev Hello, Blackbird: How the hell did this amazing record slip by unnoticed?????
An all-instrumental mind-music journey that sounds like Mercury Rev finally capitulated on its desire to make a classic Disney movie soundtrack. For a low-key release, it's probably one of their best records ever. No, seriously, it's that good, and I have to admit I'm simply going by the album stream on their website. I don't actually own this record, which may be cheating, but after listening to it and shedding a tear or two at its beauty, I realized that not listing it somewhere would be a damn crime. Music this good deserves to be released in America--but yet, music this good rarely is. Still, it's a treat worth finding. (V2 Music)
Listen To: The Entire album

Subtle The Mercury Craze: A heady hip-hop journey, but not really a hip-hop record. Subtle has made the most with its lucky break, and took the opportunities afforded them to make a record that's not only the best of their career, but the best of the careers of their individual members. Smart music for smart people; that they persevere in the face of many adversities only makes their music stronger. (Astralwerks)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Elanors Movements: On first listen, this Chicago husband and wife duo's music didn't quite resonate with me. Then, after a late night listen, not only did it make sense, I instantly fell in love. With a style that's part Jeff Buckley, Part Radiohead, and part prog-rock, all mixed together with a jazz sensibility, Movements will really make you feel...mellow. (Parasol)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Montys Loco Man Overboard: A bizarre, haunting record made by two mysterious, enigmatic Swedish women. The music ranges from occasional offbeat pop to dark, haunting dirges set to a postpunk atmosphere. In short, their music is unclassifiable pop that's well to the left of Kate Bush's middle period. Though the album is woefully short, it's still a record that will enthrall you for twenty-eight minutes. (North of No South)
Listen To: Various Tracks

Charalambides: A Vintage Burden: Fifteen years into a vast, deep career, the duo of Tom and Christina Carter decided to make their most accessible album to date. Was it an accident that the times finally caught up to them? Or is this record merely an anomaly within their massive discography? Best not to think about it, you know. Beautiful folkish sounds and gorgeous vocals and warm guitars--told you it was different, folks! (Kranky)

The Slip: Eisenhower: This 'jam band for people who hate jam bands' has been quietly making music since the 1990s, but this album, it's BIG. Its arrangements are lush and large and somewhat melancholy, and the melodies are simply heavenly. Nothing hippie about them, either. Their last release consisted of two live albums divided in different sounds, with one being a loud, primarily instrumental collection of noisy electronica sound-scapes and the other a collection of sad, acoustic low-key country/folk balladry. This should tell you a lot about them. A great discovery! (Bar/None)
Listen To: Various Tracks

MONO & World's End Girlfriend: Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain: Japan's loudest rock band meets up with an electronica composer, and they...make a classical record? Yup, that's what happened; that's what they did, and it can be best summed up in one word: "Breathtaking." Would you have known it was MONO had you not known it was MONO? Nope, probably not. And that's quite okay. (Temporary Residence, LTD)

Benoit Pioulard Precis: Okay, so he's not French and his name's really Thomas, but setting that aside, Precis is gorgeous, blissed-out pop music of the highest order. Dreamy, slightly narcotic instrumentals drift between dreamy, angelic-styled crooning. Precis is a highlight of the year, to be sure; it certainly whets the appetite for this young man's next music. It's one of the rare instances where the hype-making bloggers got it right! (Kranky)
Listen To: Various Tracks

The Album Leaf Into the Blue Again: Should have been called "Into the Heavenly mind of James Lavelle again," because this collection of songs is easily his earthiest, most mind-relaxing collection of songs to date. How does a guy make music this good, this consistently? I can't tell ya. But consistency is the man's strong point, and this is another gorgeous Album Leaf record, and though he showed more of a pop edge this time around, the music still never failed to be less than beautiful. (Sub Pop)
Listen To: "Always for You"

December 08, 2006

Bound Stems

What's to say about Bound Stems? They're a band that covers a lot of ground, musically and personally. They're a five-piece, but their music is something grander, something bigger. Their songs are about life; while Chicago is their home, their debut album, Appreciation Night, is more an album of living life with Chicago as the backdrop. Their music is catchy, too, but the band's Janie Porche says it best when she proclaims that "we rock!" Yes, indeed, they rock; they rock in a way that rock rarely rocked in 2006--intelligently. In this bland, boring music world, it's refreshing to hear an album like Appreciation Night, and it's hard to deny that this band is clearly onto something. Their debut release, last year's EP The Logic of Building the Body Plan didn't hint at the greatness found on this debut, and if that's the case, what comes next may very well be even more mind-blowingly wonderful than this excellent album. It's safe to say that they released one of the best albums of 2006, and I'm happy to have talked to a very friendly Ms. Porche during a brief break between tours. Seek their music out; it won't disappoint you.

I've really enjoyed Appreciation Night! I take it you joined the band between The Logic of Building the Body Plan and the debut. How did you meet up with them?

I was roommates with Evan Sult, our drummer. They had all been working together for a while, and they had brought in another girl to see if they wanted to add her backups on another song. Then they decided to take the idea further and add vocals, but she wasn't really the right person for the job. So they asked me to do it, and I said yes. Within a few days, they started bringing in more instruments and adding a lot more layers. They liked my singing, so they added me, too.

Was this your first musical project?

I kind of had been making music on my own, writing and recording songs on my own, but nothing to this extent.

There are a number of songs on Appreciation Night that are...well, I guess the best example of this would be "Excellent News, Colonel," where it sounds like the song is actually a combination of several smaller songs put together, a la The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." Was this something the band intentionally came up with as an approach to songwriting, or is it merely something you tried and worked well?

I think that when you have five really different, creative minds working together and working at five really different day jobs, it leads…well, when we would go to the practice space, we'd have a lot of different ideas to explore. We'd bring a lot of different pieces in. It's not like one person writes something complete that the rest of the band then follows, because we're all open to ideas. Also, when we were writing, a lot of ideas were written in groups. One day, it'd be like, "Okay, Janie and Bobby, you go and work on this," and "Dan, you and Evan go and write something." We'd do that' we'd record in our practice space, and we'd see what comes up. At the same time, we're trying to look for really challenging music. We're not afraid of that.

Looking at the title, "Appreciation Night," and hearing how much Chicago plays into the lyrics, is the album a love letter to the city of Chicago?

I think it's more a letter that we were writing with Chicago as the setting. We've been given a lot of feedback an have been asked a lot of questions about how much Chicago figures in the lyrics, and I think that the city's role is important, but it's not to Chicago as it is about Chicago.

SO it's about living in Chicago, as opposed to being about Chicago.

Right! It's all about how we're making our movements through the city to do what it is we do on a daily basis. Like, we have to go to work and meet friends, we have to go to practice, we have to gather our gear and our coats; we have a lot of things to do, and we're doing them all in Chicago, which happens to be a very audible, sonic sounding city. There's a lot of transit here; there's a lot of movement. I'm sure if we lived and recorded in, say, Oklahoma City, the results would be different from Appreciation Night. Interesting, I'm sure, but entirely different.

I interviewed someone yesterday who had released an album with a lyrical narrative that's similar, involving citizens in a city, a much more stream-of-consciousness approach. From what you were just saying, was a decision made to explore these themes, or did you just write a bunch of songs and then, upon compiling them, you realized you had this theme and you saw what the album was about?

It's interesting. We had a few songs that we chose not to put on the album, because it was already too long. We had all of these songs that we'd written, and we were able to select them in a sequence that flowed together and told a narrative. We made--I have no how idea how many different running orders! (Laugh) We would be in the van, and we'd listen to so many different orders, trying to figure out what it meant for us. So that was a really conscious decision. Also, the transitions between the songs, we thought about them a lot--a whole lot--because we wanted to make sure they were good.

So, then, in your mind, was Appreciation Night a...I hate to use the word "concept album," because it has such a negative connotation...

Well, I don't think of it as a concept album. It was very musically challenging for us. It was something we were exploring--our town. Furthermore, replicating these songs live is very important for us. The fact that these songs rock, it's very important! (Laughs) We listen to a lot of rock music, so we want to make...we're a rock band. What you can take from a concept album is that it has a theme you can take as a whole, so yeah, that's something that can carry over. Also, concept albums are things you have to listen to a couple of times to really figure out, so that's something that holds over, too.

Ultimately, though, Appreciation Night sounds like it was a whole lot of fun to make.

It was a lot of fun! We go out on tours for long lengths of time, and there are things that are really frustrating, like our van getting a flat tire, or being stranded somewhere, or not finding a place to stay, while back home, our cell phone bills are coming due--these are things that happen that are really frustrating. But when we get on stage, we have the most fun that we could ever have. I hope that doesn't go away. We've played a lot of shows, and we're getting better at it. We've had full-time jobs, we've worked long days, and we know what it's like. We understand where we could be in life, and we really appreciate what we're doing. It's a ton of fun, yeah!

Bound Stems' debut, Appreciation Night, is available now on Flameshovel

December 07, 2006

All City Affairs

Peter Andreadis is the drummer for up-and-coming Chicago rock band Baby Teeth, but when he's not busy pounding the skins, he's making interesting music as All City Affairs. The two bands couldn't sound more different, though. While a certain music website recently proclaimed that Baby Teeth, "sounds just like David Bowie," the music of All City Affairs is mellower, and it's certainly more intricate and delicate, and it doesn't really sound like any one particular band. What's most striking about Bees, the band's second album, is that lyrically, it falls into a narrative pattern about the day in the life of a city, with all sorts of characters populating the landscape--from the busy worker to the failed soul singer. It's an interesting concept, and it's one that's quite enjoyable, too. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Andreadis recently, to get him to talk about his music.

All City Affairs is a side project from your main band, Baby Teeth. What prompted you to start it?

Well, it kind of didn't start off as a side project. It had been a project I'd been working on since about 2000. I was just writing songs, and it was just a songwriting project, really. I had a bunch of friends who were coming in and out and playing--not playing for shows, but just playing around my home and in my recording studio. I released a record in 2001 on a real small Chicago label that didn't do much; it folded after my record was released. I started working on my next record, which is the one that just came out, with some of those same people from the first. As soon as I started working on that, a lot of those people got really busy with their own projects, so it became a solo project almost by default. Then Baby Teeth started, and things with them really took off, so All City Affairs got put on hold for a while. Baby Teeth had a lot of momentum, so I thought that if anything good happened with that, it'd reflect well on me and on All City Affairs as well. So for a lot of people, All City Affairs is a new thing, and it's getting a new birth now.

Bees seems to be a conceptual piece about a city, a sort of slice of life. Were you trying to write a day-in-the-life in the city sort of record?

Yeah, it was pretty intentional. I was trying to challenge myself into not writing songs about being in love or breaking up or something like that. I think that's an easy well to draw inspiration from. I've been writing songs since I was fifteen, and I've written a ton of songs like that. I thought, "Okay, I want to do something that's a little bit more focused on what a daily routine is like>" Just common, every day things, about things I'd see on television or would read about in the paper. All City Affairs is a good vehicle to explore such different concepts. A lot of what I ended up writing about was more about how money plays a role in art, being an artist, and following one's interests, and about money and materialism--when you start to get a little bit older, you start to realize the value of things that are non-materialistic. I wanted to write about those frustrations, and about how what's valuable to one person might not mean anything to another.

On some levels, it sounds like a spiritual quest, about transcending the trappings of the flesh, in search of something higher...

A lot of that did come out in the writing. A lot of that was me sort of looking inward and making sense of some things. I did what I could to not make it so much a first person record. I didn't want it to seem to be about me.

It reminded me of writers from earlier in the Twentieth Century, where they would write a series of things, all using the "I," and the "I" is not the author, and the "I" is not a single personality; in one story, "I" is one, and in the next, "I" is another, and the development of the story transcends a narrative tale. Like on Bees, where on one song you're singing about being a guy who's a soul singer, and the next you're singing about another person; I never got the impression it was the same character throughout.

Hmm, yeah, that's interesting. I don't necessarily feel like another character, but it gives me something to play around with while I'm performing. It gives me an identity to toy around with while playing my songs.

From what I've heard, Baby Teeth is more traditional in its style and its sound. Would you say All City Affairs is more about you experimenting with a sound, or experimenting with lyrics?

It definitely starts with me experimenting with sound. I struggle with lyrics; they're usually the last thing I work on. I guess, being a guitar player originally--I play drums in Baby Teeth, and have only been doing that for about four or five years--but being a guitar playing originally, it's "Write your tunes on acoustic guitar, and as you're strumming you get this acoustic thing building up." The way I work with All City Affairs is I'll take those chord changes, I'll fill them in with a drum and a bass pattern that's interesting and takes away from what a guitar might sound like if you were on stage strumming it by yourself. It definitely starts out on a sonic level with me trying to work out some kind of rhythmic thing that goes under the changes I've written on an acoustic guitar, then backing it up from there and putting in a guitar part. I guess I'm trying to accomplish something where you wouldn't know offhand the source of the music. You might think, "That's an interesting bass line" and "that guitar part must have been the first thing he put down," and it might not be the case at all. I guess the music I really admire has that sense of layers to it, so that every time you listen to it, you hear one or two things that you didn't hear before, so that you have an experience that's a little bit different from listen to listen.

Do you perform live with All City Affairs, or is it just a studio project?

I do play live, but it's been building up over the past year or so. I've been trying to get more gigs and get comfortable with it, because I am just performing by myself, and I'm trying to add things here and there on the backing tracks I perform with. It's kind of like a glorified karaoke revue. For me, if I just picked up my guitar and tried to assemble a band to perform with me, it would be like taking a step back, because I've gotten so used to doing things by myself; waking up in the morning and saying, "Oh! I know what I need to do with this song!" and running over to the setup in my room to lay that part down. It's interesting for me; I am having a really good time doing it, and I love getting up on stage and playing. (Beams) I'm having a really good time, and hopefully, after being off stage and wondering, "Man, is anybody going to like this?" at least if I'm entertaining myself, then that will shine through and that will be what the audience connects with. I just like having fun.

All City Affairs' second album, Bees, is available now on Lujo

December 05, 2006

Tasmin Archer

If there is one song from the early 1990s that is still quite as captivating, it is Tasmin Archer's hit song, "Sleeping Satellite." It's a slinky yet quite catchy number that is both dark and haunting, yet is wonderfully well-written and hard to forget, and it was a wonderful balm in the midst of Grunge and hard-rock. It made an appearance on the US charts during those halcyon Alternative days of 1992, and the album it appeared on, Great Expectations, was full of equally wonderful songs, all of which were as good--if not better than--"Sleeping Satellite," which, to be honest, is quite a feat, considering "Sleeping Satellite" is nearly perfect. It looked like Ms. Archer was set to become a name, if not in households, with those who appreciate good music and the art of excellent songwriting. Great Expectations seemed to be the sort of record that would help build a foundation for a long-term career. In 1994, an EP entitled Shipbuilding was released; this mini-album contained a number of excellent Elvis Costello covers, as well as some live versions of songs from Great Expectations. For those who enjoyed the album, it was a nice treat to tide them over until the follow-up.

Alas, it was not to be. After that, nothing; to those who fell for Great Expectations, her voice sadly went silent. In the United States, she disappeared into obscurity and the inevitable "one-hit wonder" status, yet her career was not over. She released her follow-up album, Bloom, in 1996, but as you will read below, this record wasn't released in the United States, and only in limited numbers in Europe.

For years, I believed that she had gone the way of Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhcas, or Mary Margaret O'Hara--excellent musicians who made stunningly beautiful debut albums, but who were destined to be hidden treasures, because they disappeared after making that one great artistic statement. It took me by surprise, then, when I learned earlier this year that she had a brand-new album, ON, set for release. Upon learning this happy bit of news, I took it upon myself to get a copy of the record and to talk to her. ON is a wonderful record; it's mellow and pretty, and it moves into a territory that's a bit more electronic than Great Expectations, but it's the lyrical content that really struck with me. The album is full of deeply personal songs, songs about getting older, staying true to yourself, and about keeping your head up high when things don't go right. That's my interpretation, at least. As you can see, I had about fourteen years of questions to ask her, and ask her I did; the interview below is one I'm quite proud of, as it was an honor for me to get her to answer my questions about her career. I think this interview and Tasmin's story should serve as a lesson for younger musicians who are entering into the profession. But enough about that; Tasmin Archer's back, and that's one thing that made 2006 a wonderful year in music!

Great Expectations was a critical success both in Europe and in the US. When you completed it, did you have any notion that it would do as well as it did, or were your expectations about its greatness what led to its title?

No not really, at the time I knew EMI were putting a lot of backing behind us and although that's no guarantee of success it certainly helps. I didn't choose the title because I was expecting great things in terms of sales or critical acclaim. I chose to call the album Great Expectations because I loved the book by Charles Dickens and I felt some sort of affinity with the character 'Pip'.

"Sleeping Satellite" is still a wonderful song. Was it a song that you and your label at the time immediately recognized for the hit that it would become?

The demo of that song, which is a similarly arranged if less polished version of the released one, was one of the tracks that was on our original demo reel when we were first trying to get a deal. Every single major UK company turned us down at that stage. Later, after we'd signed to EMI and recorded the version that appeared on the album, they began to hear its potential I guess.

I remember hearing "Sleeping Satellite" a LOT. Was there a point during the success that you felt like too much focus was being put on the song and not on you as an artist?

I don't recall feeling that way because we were so busy promoting 'Sleeping Satellite' and doing live performances of all the other songs that were on the album. I suppose I was too excited that I didn't really get too bogged down by all of that.

Did life change much for you during this time?

Yes, I would say so. The one thing I'd say that changed for me dramatically was the long periods of time I spent away from home traveling the world & promoting Great Expectations. Before this I had only ever traveled to Denmark when I was at college and then to Italy on holiday. So really this was a big change for me because I had hardly ever been out of my home town growing up in West Yorkshire.

How would you describe your relationship with "Sleeping Satellite" now? Did you ever have a love/hate relationship with it?

We've have grown together and we've always maintained a good healthy relationship. We're fine in each others company and I don't ever remember feeling any animosity toward the song ever.

Tell me a little bit about how Shipbuilding came to pass.

I was always a big Elvis Costello fan. EMI were pressing me to release something in between albums and so I decided to do a 4 track EP of songs I liked of his. Originally it was only intended to be an EP, and in the UK it was, but in the US the label decided to add some b sides and make it more album length.

From what I understand, your relationship with your label started to become complicated. Looking back at it now, what was the root of the problem, and do you think that things could have been avoided?

I wouldn't say it was complicated. For my second album they wanted one thing and we wanted another. They wanted Great Expectations mark II and we wanted to expand our horizons and do something that stretched us as artists. They saw things from a purely commercial perspective, as they would, and we saw it from an artistic one. The two things just didn't mix. I suppose I could of given in and avoided the problem but I'd have been very unhappy so I chose to dig my heals in and stand up for what I wanted artistically.

Were there any early warning signs of problems yet to come?

Not necessarily a warning. We argued for 12 months about it until they eventually, albeit reluctantly, gave in and put Bloom out as it was intended. For a time I thought we'd convinced them we were doing the right thing for the long term but there was a key personnel change at EMI during the whole discussion process and that threw another spanner in the works. I felt I'd had enough success with Great Expectations for them to at least give me a little leeway and support me in a less commercial project but it seems I was wrong. Ultimately they weren't interested in letting me develop as an artist. That's the nature of the business with major labels, even more so now, so you have to accept it and move on.

How was the experience of making Bloom?

The making of Bloom was a very relaxed affair and recording the initial takes 'live' as a band was a more organic way of recording for me. The musicians who played on the album with us were all stunning. They played with real beauty and edge. I wanted to make a more earthy, edgy sounding album and these guys were perfect for that.

Admittedly, I've never heard Bloom--and, to be honest, until a few months ago, I didn't even know about it! How do you feel about the record now?

The US EMI label declined to release it so this is probably why you hadn't heard of it. It's also not available on US iTunes. Bloom never achieved the same level of commercial success as the first album because it isn't a 'commercial pop' album which was my label at the time. I felt with the right support it could have crossed over into other areas but it didn't get the same backing as Great Expectations in the marketplace. I am still intensely proud of it, probably more so than Great Expectations because I think it's better than that album from a songwriting and musical perspective.

After Bloom, you went silent. Was this because of disillusionment with the music business, did you intend to retire from music altogether, or were you following in the steps of artists like XTC and Michelle Shocked and going on strike against your record label?

I'd just had enough of the music business so I decided to take a break. I only really intended on taking a year out but it turned out to be more. I never planned to be away for so long, it's just the way things panned out.

I have also seen that in the interim, your former label released a hastily-compiled 'best-of' and rarities compilation album that quickly disappeared from labels. Did you have a hand in this collection, or did you stop it, a la Aimee Mann?

I don't know anything about that. They don't inform us when they are to re release any of those old recordings that we did when we were signed to them. They own all those old recordings so they do what they like, when they like and never get in touch to seek our approval. We never know what they're up to.

During this silence, did you continue to make music?

Yes. We never really ever stopped writing we just never finished anything. I was still inspired to write and so the ideas just kept piling up and piling up.

I read somewhere that in the last few years, you suffered from writer's block. Do you think a lot of that was based in a deep-seated reticence from your experiences within the music industry and of making music?

I don't really know if it was totally to do with that. All I know is I was exhausted and needed a break away from the business side of the music industry, but the block happened after the break that I had planned which obviously extended it.

How did you break the block's spell?

I found out as much as I could about these type of things. I did other practical things that were creative outlets for me like painting, moulding clay and dabbled a bit in Shamanic Journeying. I had to do something artistic that would enable me to see an end result and this is how I worked my way through the block.

Jumping ahead to the present: how was the creation of ON for you? Being thoroughly in control of your destiny and your music must have been a totally new, invigorating experience, in light of your previous records.

When we started shaping the songs that are on ON we made work in progress versions available as free downloads for fans. We received some good feedback which was very encouraging because back then we weren't even thinking of putting an album out, much less putting it out on our own label. We were just feeling our way in the dark a bit. We were starting to really enjoy demoing and developing the songs and we wrote a ton of material during this time. As time went on, step by step, we found certain songs were standing out as if they might sit well together as an album so we thought why not put it out.

We had no intention of giving up creative control to any major label ever again so we eventually decided to set up our own label for this purpose. It was, and still is, all new territory for us but we're learning about all that side of it as we go along. It was a steep learning curve for us at first, even the recording and producing of the album at our home was a challenge. In the past we had worked with some really good producers in the best studios so it was a real challenge just trying to get the sounds we wanted and the best performances. It all took time but it was an enjoyable experience and rewarding. As well as co writing all the songs on the album John Hughes did all the recording, all the production and mixing, as well as playing the majority of the instruments on the album. The only other person appearing on the album was Bruce Thomas (of The Attractions) who played the bass.

The songs on ON read like letters of hope--not just to the struggling, depressed, or downtrodden, but also to you yourself. I take it that with the message of staying positive and focused and seeing a brighter day ahead of you, that this is a deeply personal and meaningful collection of work for you.

Yes. This album, like all I've done, defines me in the present or at least recent time. A lot has happened during the making of this album. My mum passed away in January 2004, so some of the songs on this album have a deeper personal meaning because they are strong reminders of that time. The songs are largely inspired by life and are at their root observations about the different lives people lead and the different emotional situations they encounter in today's world. The songs are, to an extent, informed by my own personal experiences but include a sizeable dollop of poetic license. I like all albums to be more than just a collection of unrelated songs and for each song to have some common connection. I like to think of ON as a self contained piece of work with each song being analogous to a chapter in a book. I will admit that I do get a sense of satisfaction that we did it all by ourselves.

I know I've focused on a number of negative aspects of the past decade or so of your career, but what were some of the good memories from your success?

There are lots. Performing all the songs off Great Expectations and Bloom live was a great feeling. Appearing on live music TV shows alongside wonderful great artists was a thrilling experience for me too. Traveling has given me a wider outlook and perspective on the world. Having the opportunity to work in the best studios with truly great musicians & producers was also informing and really good fun. These are just some of the great highlights for me but I have many wonderful memories of that time. In general all the musical side of things were rewarding while the business side of things leaves a lot to be desired.

What are you working on now, and what do you have planned for 2007?

We are constantly working on developing new material. We are considering spending some time early next year doing some small stripped down gigs in the UK. We're also progressing with other projects and pursuing commissions to write music for film and TV which will hopefully finance the production of the next and subsequent albums.

Finally, what advice would you give to young artists entering the business?

Be true to yourself. It's hard enough to deal with the business side of the music business as it is, so if you find yourself compromising your music just for commercial success you will more than likely become uncomfortable with it.

Tasmin Archer's wonderful new album, ON, is available now on Quiverdisc

December 04, 2006


Over the last 15 years, Charalambides has quietly become an institution in American experimental music. Together, the core duo of Tom and Christina Carter (with the assistance of various third members) has amassed a huge discography full of songs that blur the lines between composition and improvisation, between noise and melody, and between the haunting and the downright scary.

Their penultimate album, 2004's Joy Shapes, represented both a changing of the guard and an artistic peak. Not only was it the last album that Tom and Christina recorded as a married couple, but it was also their last collaboration with former member Heather Leigh Murray. I can't help but feel that these upheavals affected the tone of their music. On Joy Shapes, Tom's guitar playing reached new levels of wooziness and dissonance, while Christina and Heather let out wails of banshee-like disembodiment and fury. On that album, the band's penchant for psychedelic droning became a vehicle for emotional bloodletting. I'd heard nothing like it before, and I haven't heard anything like it since.

After Joy Shapes, longtime Texans Tom and Christina moved to separate parts of the country, and Heather moved to Scotland. Fortunately, the Carters' commitment to making music together remains unabated. This year's Charalambides release, A Vintage Burden, may be the duo's most straightforward and conventionally pretty album yet. Although the duo tones down the screeching and wailing on Burden, the songs still retain the deliberate pacing and beautiful layering that characterizes all of Charalambides' work. In keeping with their prolific nature, the Carters already have a follow-up to Burden in the can!

I was fortunate enough to see Charalambides play at Emo's in Austin on November 15th. The last two times I'd seen them live, Tom and Christina played sitting down. They improvised their sets by leisurely coaxing unearthly sounds from their guitars with an array of pedals and prepared objects, from bows to bowls. This evening's set, though, was markedly different. Most of the songs the Carters played were recognizable as A Vintage Burden tracks, but they were played with an aggression that recalled Joy Shapes. Throughout the set, the Carters prowled the stage like hunters in search of game. Tom slashed away at his guitar, alternating between vast minor chords and harsh volleys of white noise. Christina pushed her voice as far as it could possibly go, until it sounded like she would burst into tears at any moment. At the end of the set, Tom threw his guitar on the ground and kicked his amplifier over. Watching them play gave me the same feeling of unexpected catharsis that listening to Joy Shapes did two years ago.

Before the show, Tom and Christina were kind enough to talk to me for about a half-hour about their music. You can read an edited transcript of the conversation below:

I listened to Joy Shapes and A Vintage Burden back-to-back recently, and noticed a striking difference in tone between the two records. I hope that you don't take this the wrong way, but Joy Shapes used to give me nightmares. [Christina laughs loudly] I had a very strange relationship with the record. I'd always listen to it late at night, because that's when I listen to Charalambides the most --- when I want to relax. I'd fall asleep to it, have a really weird dream, and then wake up right in the middle of one of the album’s most dissonant moments, such as the midsection of "Here Not There," or the midsection of "Natural Night." On the other hand, A Vintage Burden seems a lot more even-keeled. I was wondering if the differences between the two records --- the level of dissonance and the intensity of the vocals --- were intentional, or if they were prompted by circumstance.

Tom: It was sort of intentional. I think we both decided that we didn't want to make a record that was as intense as Joy Shapes...or maybe we wanted to make a record that was as intense, but not as dissonant or freaked-out. I always think that Joy Shapes was a much more consuming record. It was physically exhausting to work on in some ways, and I kinda wanted to avoid having that experience again. It didn't have anything to do necessarily with the kind of music I wanted to be on it, but I definitely wanted something that was a bit easier to listen to, though maybe just as complex, or equally arranged.

I definitely noticed a lot of layering on A Vintage Burden, so I don't think there was a difference in complexity. I read up on the making of Joy Shapes, and found out that it took about a year and a half to finish tweaking.

Tom: Yeah, that includes a lot of downtime. I think we started recording it in 2002, and I think I finally finished it in early 2004. It wasn't quite a year and a half; it was more like a year. A lot of that was due to mixing and things like that. At the time, I thought I was doing a lot of layering, but A Vintage Burden ended up being a lot more complex, at least on some songs. I was also kinda learning how to use ProTools during Joy Shapes. There was also a long period between recording the instrumental tracks and recording the vocals, partially because Christina was gone a lot.

How long did A Vintage Burden take, from gestation to completion?

Tom: A little less than a year...maybe eight months.

Christina: Yeah, that's what I was gonna say.

Tom, I know that you live in California now and Christina lives in Massachusetts. How did the two of you overcome your geographical separation to record A Vintage Burden?

Christina: I flew to California to visit Tom. For the new one we just made that isn't out yet, Tom flew to Massachusetts to visit me.

Are there any significant differences between the music on the new one and the music on A Vintage Burden?

Christina: Yeah, because for A Vintage Burden all the songs were written beforehand, and on this new one, nothing was written beforehand.

Tom: That’s not entirely true.

Christina: It's not?

Tom: No, one of the songs is old --- "Good Life."

Christina: Oh!

Tom: Yeah, it’s seven years old...

Christina: ...but all the rest.

Tom: All the rest were improvised.

Was A Vintage Burden the first time that the two of you came to a session with prewritten material, or has that happened intermittently throughout your history?

Christina: It tends to happen every once in a while. Joy Shapes has prewritten stuff on it.

Tom: Yeah, but half of Joy Shapes' stuff we'd been playing in our sets --- more than half, maybe three-quarters of it. A fairly large chunk of the album was improvised, too. A lot of stuff was kinda composed on the four-track before that. You might have one guitar part, and you'll lay that down, lay something else down on top of it, and then arrange as you go.

How much of a role does editing play in your work? Have you ever had to whittle stuff down or take it out?

Christina: Oh, yeah. Totally!

Tom: I do that a lot more now, especially with the computer. It's a lot easier.

Christina: We don't have any rules, so there's stuff that completely live to tape, with no editing whatsoever, there's also stuff that's very highly edited, and everything in between.

Tom: On the new album, I edited a lot for length --- not A Vintage Burden, but the one we're working on right now. I don't do as much of going on and taking out one note here and there. I do it on some songs, but not many.

How does geography in general factor into the sound of your music? I know that in some of your earlier work, particularly Houston, there are lots of references to specific places. When I listen to your earlier work, I often visualize the arid, wide open spaces of Texas, and the tension that lies beneath the nothingness. Do you think that this musical atmosphere was a by-product of both of you living in Texas at the time? If so, do you think it still seeps into your music now that you’re both gone?

Christina: I think the references in Houston were more after the fact, as far as titling and things like that.

Tom: We would go back and impose that stuff on the music later.

Christina: Yeah. I don't know if the geography specifically affects the music.

Tom: Yeah, people have always thought that about the older stuff, but to me we were living in a big Southern city. Our experience was very urban, and most of it took place indoors, so in some sense it’s more of a suburban experience, though we occasionally got the intrusion of the city. I didn't really have any concept of wide open space until I moved to California and traveled through the Southwest. Before I did that, Houston was as far west as I'd gotten. If anything, I think our early work was more influenced by the heat. [laughter] If any geographical effects are taking place now, maybe it's a little more pastoral. Christina, you live in a very...not really rural, but rainy kind of small town, a very relaxed space. I live in a big western city, but it's also surrounded by lots of incredible natural beauty. I'm sure it contributes something to my mental state, if nothing else.

What prompted the both of you to move out of Texas in the first place? Since moving, have you found other like-minded musicians in your areas to record and play with? I've listened to a number of the collaborations that both of you have done with others, but I rarely find information about the other musicians. Do you collaborate through the mail, or do a lot of traveling to facilitate these collaborations?

Christina: I guess that's mainly more for Tom. I don't really collaborate with that many people. Where I live, there are a lot of really creative people, so there's certainly no shortage of like-minded people. I'm not really super into a whole bunch of different collaborations at this point.

Tom: Yeah, all the people I've been working with are all West Coast-based, for the most part. I don't really like collaborating by mail so much, so it just usually happens when I record with someone when they're around. If anything gets done by mail, it's mainly mailing edits back and forth, just to get an idea of what the other person wants and achieve a compromise in that way. I would say that in the Bay Area, there are tons of like-minded musicians. It's almost a difficult situation, in a way, because not only are they like-minded, but they're also pretty busy, so it's hard to get everybody on the same page as far as recording and playing...

Christina: ...but it seems like everybody there is really open to it.

Tom: Yeah, there's definitely a very collaborative sort of thing that goes on there. A lot of people that I play with are improvising musicians.

Christina: They don't need a commitment to an ongoing project that has to practice the same things.

Tom: Right. The only exception to that would be Badgerlore, which is a group I'm in with Rob Fisk, this guy who used to be in Deerhoof and Seven Year Rabbit Cycle; Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance; Pete from the Yellow Swans; and Clint Donaldson from Thuja and Skygreen Leopards. It's a pretty big band, and everybody's always doing other stuff, so it's a real trip to get down to doing stuff together. There is sort of a commitment there to rehearse somewhat. Some of us will rehearse and kind of fill everybody else in later. Otherwise, we just get together with somebody and record for a couple of hours, and edit that down to 30 or 40 minutes of music for release.

What do the two of you feel makes Charalambides' music what it is, as opposed to the music you make when you're working by yourselves or with other people? How do you account for that synergy?

Christina: For me, I think in Charalambides there's a great deal more flexibility than playing with other people, because of the range of Tom's guitar playing and what he's capable of doing --- from what would be considered conventional playing or rock playing to way-out stuff --- and there's a lot of guitarists that don't have that. That's fine, but the contrast between Tom's guitar playing and mine, I think, is also what makes it different.

Tom: I think we've been playing together for so long and shared so much of our musical evolution together that our languages are really complementary and similar in some ways...a lot of ways, actually. I think we just naturally fit together better. We always sort of know where the other person is, whereas in other collaborations you don't always know. You don't know sometimes what's going on...

Christina: ...or how the other person is feeling about what they're playing, or about what you're playing.

Tom: I know that I can go pretty much anywhere I want, and the music will follow a sort of internal logic because of the way we think. Yeah, there's a little more license in Charalambides' stuff.

Have the two of you ever listened to a piece of music you were working on and disagreed about which direction it should go in, and if so, how was it resolved?

Tom: We definitely have disagreed, but I don't think either one of us are into having a protracted battle about those things. I might want to leave something in that she wants to take out, and I'll go ahead and take that out, but only in order to stick up for something I want somewhere else. There's always a bit of that going on, but I don't think we have a super amount of disagreements.

Christina: Usually, if one of us has a strong opinion, we'll make the case for our opinion, and then it gets resolved.

Tom: Yeah, we tend to go by consensus. Eventually, we usually come to the same place. There's an instrumental track on A Vintage Burden that I originally mixed with some field recordings in it, but Christina wanted them taken out. I went ahead and did it, and listened to it, and could kinda follow where she was coming from about what it did to the record to have them there. The field recordings sort of diluted the direction that the record was going in. Eventually, we just come to an agreement when it comes to stuff like that.

As far as your guitar playing is concerned, what is a technical or musical goal that you would like to focus on in order to get to
"the next level"? What is something that you wish you could do on your instrument that you haven't done yet, or that you're still in the process of doing?

Christina: I wish I could disassociate taste from my playing. I wish I could somehow get to more of a point where it's more automatic, and not so filtered through conceptions of taste.

Tom: your own taste?

Christina: I wish I didn't have this automatic thing of thinking toward what sounds right or sounds acceptable. I think I still have pretty conventional melodic or harmonic ideas, and I wish I could free the censor between my brain and my fingers more than it already is.

Tom: Sometimes, when I'm playing I feel like I'm trapped in a little box that I've made for myself, and I'm playing very much in the pocket of what I know how to do, and that anything I play outside of that is a mistake. I'd like to be able kinda the same thing as Christina. I'd like to be able to encompass all of that fluidly, and go from one thing to the other without worrying about being in key or whatever.

Christina: Right, that's exactly what I was trying to talk about. There’s too much judgment happening naturally.

Tom: Yeah, a lot of it's subconscious.

Do you either of you have any specific musicians or artists who've reached that level, where there isn't as strong of a judgment mechanism between their brain and their fingers? Are there any people whom you look at and say, "They're where I'd like to be"?

Tom: I don't necessarily ever feel like I want to be in a place where another artist is, but I definitely feel like there are people who've kind of attained either a level of mastery where they encompass it, or they're able to throw up puzzles or obstacles for themselves, and then drive them into something else. I guess a good example of that would be John Coltrane or Albert Ayler. Almost any great jazz musician can do that, and make it seem completely effortless or flawless. Charlie Parker used to be able to hit a wrong note that would send him flying into another key, and he would work his way back. That's one example of somebody who sets up obstacles for themselves, and it's a little harder to do on the fly. I definitely think there are people who are able to put themselves into different situations, whether it's like switching instruments or changing your tuning or whatever.

That actually brings to mind something I read about one of Christina's recent solo records, Electrice. You had specifically made the record with all of the songs in the same key and in the same tuning. What musical goal were you trying to accomplish with that stricture, and do you feel that you were successful in achieving it? I personally love it, but you know... [laughter]

Christina: I've read a few reviews where they said it was a gimmick, and it really wasn't a gimmick. I wasn't really trying to accomplish a specific goal. It was just what I was in the mood to do, so the idea came to me really naturally. I just followed the idea. It seemed like a good idea. I kinda wondered subconsciously how different or distinct I could make a song or how I could make the same song sound distinctly different...and, at the same time, how similar they could be while still being different. I feel like I accomplished that, because there are two songs that sound very similar, but have a very different feeling, and then two songs which sound really different than the others. It wasn't really an intellectual gimmick. It was more like a feeling about sound and about how that's sort of what living is all about --- things being so similar yet so different, or even people being very different from one another, but being so similar...or how different one day can be from the next. It's not like I wrote out a thesis about it. [laughter] It's just the way I think about things.

Tom, have you done anything on your own recently where there's been an underlying concept that you applied either before or during the recording process?

Tom: Not so much. Usually that kind of stuff happens during editing, if at all. The only time I think I've ever recorded anything with a concept is solo stuff, and I usually don't do that with collaborations because they just go where they go. I think the last record I did like that was Glyph, and the concept was very vague. I wanted to put a lot of acoustic stuff on there. I guess I often conceive of my records spatially, and a lot of times they’re symmetrical --- two shorter pieces bracketing a long piece, or two long pieces and a short piece in the middle. I conceive Charalambides records like that sometimes, but I would say that it's very vague and general.

How far are you along on your current tour?

Tom: We're about halfway through it.

What are some of the most memorable experiences, good or bad, that you've had while on this tour? How long has it been since your previous tour?

Tom: The last tour we did was in England, and it was during the summer. It hasn't been that long. There haven't really been any terrible experiences on this tour, aside from having back problems the whole time. They're kind of constant anyway, but the timing was just really terrible. I really fucked up my back, and basically couldn't lift anything. It was hard to move. I was having some serious problems during the first week, but since then it's kinda gone down to a dull ache. [laughter] As far as good experiences, I think all the shows have been good in a way. We had a really good show in New York. That was probably my favorite so far, because the energy was really good.

In what venue did it take place?

Tom: The Knitting Factory, in their little downstairs bar. They've got a bunch of different rooms in that place, and I think we played the middle room.

Christina: I guess Northampton, because it seemed like everything there was going wrong, but then we sort of opened things up.

Tom: We kinda pulled it together.

Christina: Having a piano to play in a few places. I didn't know it was going to be there; it just happened to be there, so it was a nice surprise. It's sort of funny: I feel like I'm in sort of a mid-tour slump, which happens to coincide with being in Texas. [laughter] It makes being here more difficult to deal with, because there's so much history to experience and distract you. There's the whole question of how you feel around people who know you in a certain way, as opposed to how you feel about yourself in the present. This might be memorable for how it affects the rest of the tour. I think that moving around on stage and trying new things this time that you've never tried before has been really cool.

What have you tried on this tour that you haven't before?

Christina: I've never played piano in front of people before. I guess I used to stand up when I used to play in Houston sometimes, and I haven't done that for a long time. I kinda felt nailed to the chair for a long time.

Tom: It's the first time you've ever really stood up and just sang without playing guitar.

Christina: That's not true. I used to do that on those Siltbreeze tours.

Tom: Right...but I mean that it's the first time you've done it and sort of emoted.

When I play live, there's a difference in how I feel physically and in how the music comes out when I play sitting down as opposed to when I'm standing up. It's like a blend of more nervousness and more confidence. I was wondering if there's a psychological difference for you when you adjust the way you play in manners like that.

Christina: Definitely. It was pretty exciting to stand up and sing for the first time like that on this tour, but now that I've done it a couple of times, I don't want to get to the point where I expect myself to do it every time.

Tom: When you do something the first time, it's exciting and new, but after you've done it a couple of times it starts to become a shtick or something.

Christina: How do you avoid that?

Tom: Yeah, how do you make it natural... opposed to routine?

Tom and Christina [in unison]: Yeah!

Tom: I think tonight we're going to stand up, just because we can't find chairs. [laughter]

I have one more question, and then I'll get out of your hair. What is one thing that has excited the both of you lately that has nothing to do with music?

Tom: Oh, my. [Christina laughs] It's hard to think of something that doesn't have anything to do with music. [more laughter] We're each waiting on the other person to say something.

Christina: I don't think there is anything! Everything's pretty much related to music.

Any books or movies?

Tom: Well, I've been reading a lot of William Vollmann, and that's been pretty interesting. When I first started reading his work, I found it really annoying and impenetrable, but once I read more I started getting into the swing of things a bit. His most famous book is probably The Royal Family, which is like a private-eye novel/social-history fiction of prostitution in San Francisco. He also wrote a book called The Rainbow Stories, which about the skinhead scene in the mid-'80s in San Francisco. There's also Survival Research Laboratories, and various countercultures. He also writes a lot about violent behavior.

Christina: I sort of relate everything to each other, so I don't think there's anything that I'm excited about that isn't related to music. Animals? [laughter]

Yeah, talk about animals!

Christina: I get a lot of happiness from watching animals, dogs and cats. That's something that's really immediate. It's directly experienced, and it doesn't have any relation to anything else, really.

Well, I think that's it. Thanks for letting me interview you! I hope it wasn't too much of an ordeal.

Christina: No, it was fine!

Charalambides' latest record, A Vintage Burden, and Christina Carter's solo album Electrice, are both out now on Kranky.

December 01, 2006

Benjy Ferree

"Extraordinaire." That word's been on my mind, and it's a hard word not to have on your mind when you listen to the music of Benjy Ferree. It's extremely hard to not smile whilst listening to his excellent debut album, Leaving the Nest. But if there's more to his music than the simple pleasure of enjoying hearing a man make music because he wants to make music, then I really don't care to know, because...well, why ruin the beauty with over-analysis and theories? That said, I want to warn you about the excessive smiling your face will be doing when you hear "In the Countryside" or "The Desert," because you will be doing a lot of that. My chat with Sir Ferree was a wonderful experience, and I hope you enjoy the read...

How was your recent set of shows?

It was amazing! I got to play with Archie Bronson Outfit, and they're my favorite band. I got to tour with my favorite band--you can't beat that!

When you play live, do you play by yourself?

Normally, I like to play with my band. But if my band is busy, I'll play by myself, or I'll play with my cellist, Amy Domingues. She's a real good cellist. But I prefer to play with my band. It's a whole lot more fun when the troops are there. I'll play acoustic, too, but I enjoy playing with my friends live.

I've heard your music described as being a cross between and folk, but I think your music transcends all that. I've noticed a bit of rustic naturalism to Leaving the Nest.

A lot of people ask me if I listen to I don't really know what that means. I don't have my ear too close to the ground with new bands. If I listen to anything, it's usually older stuff, like the Carter Family, with the latest being Dylan or Towns Van Zandt. But I really prefer to listen to music like Hot Snakes or Drive Like Jehu. I think it kind of comes out the way it does because I don't know what I'm doing. I own an acoustic guitar, and I'll write a song, and it'll come out the way it comes out. On Leaving the Nest, I had some acoustic guitars, my friend played violin, and I played with my friends. I've had a lot of questions about whether or not I play By definition, the only bands like that I listen to are ones like Uncle Tupelo or Wilco, but they are only called that because labels had to market it. As far as being rustic or American sounding, I was raised in the Church. We sang traditional Gospel songs. But I was also raised on Bad Brains. Growing up, I was the type of kid who had to sing in church, and I hated it. I wanted to be a lot of things but I never wanted to be a singer. But I stopped singing for years, until I moved to Los Angeles to be a movie star, but I was a horrible actor. I started writing songs, and I started to sing again, and the only reason I started to sing was because no one would sing the songs I wrote. The most singing I'd done before then was when I was little, and I always hated it. I always had fun singing rock and roll, but they wouldn't let you sing it in church. I dunno why there's a rustic feel to my music.

To me, the basis of "rustic" isn't just nature or country-sounding, but it's a spirit, a freewheeling, happy-go-lucky, carefree spirit.

I guess I can be carefree about my music. I would agree with that on my own interpretation. For me, music is the most fun thing to do. I'me sure you've heard countless artists say that they're people with problems or people with troubles, and that all their troubles go away when they play music. Music is just…I can't believe there's a label that actually wants to put my music out and help me tour. That's a joke! But I'm happy to be a part of the joke, It's fun! But yeah, I'm free-spirited in certain areas. Definitely, when I perform, it's a joy. And writing songs? Some songs take minutes; some songs take a year. You walk away, you give it some space, and when you come back a year later, it feels right.

Is there a particular song that took you a year to write?

Umm, let me think...I can't think of one offhand on Leaving the Nest...maybe a year to come out, because we had the EP out a year ago, and Domino asked me to turn it into a full length, and so we added another half of a record to the EP. It's the same artwork, too. We did that because I was afforded the opportunity to do so. I always wanted it to be an EP. Domino's nice. I said "Sure!" when they offered, and I got to re-release those songs.

I take it that it's been almost an accidental career for you, then?

Yeah! Exactly! Like Roald Dahl. I've always felt that he had a great story, because he didn't want to be a writer. I read a lot of Dahl as a kid, and I fantasized about him because he lived in DC for a long time, and that's where he began writing. And I think, "Hey, that's me, I never wanted to sing!" Don't get me wrong; I love to sing--I really, really love to sing--but I never looked at it as something I could do independently. Acting was always my thing, but I was never good at it. I never had that acting bug. But I had a revelation about music when I was in Los Angeles. I saw that everyone there had fake breasts and fake bodies and fake orange skin and fake hair and I realized that all the people I had romanticized, be they actors, painters, or musicians, they all created their own worlds, their own existences. I figured that the only way I could create my own existence and my own reality was to completely depend and escape into music. I think most people do that. Not just to pass the time, but also to escape and to have fun. The reason I like to play live, it's absolute communication with the audience. They can be intimidating at times, though. Some audiences are great listeners. Some audiences really want you to open up and those are always amazing. IT can be a real roller-coaster ride, though. Some audiences don't care that you're there, and that's when you just play for yourself and you just have fun. Audiences can be intense; they want to know what's up, they want you to tell your stories. I'm dying to play for audiences. I just want to travel and experience all sorts of audiences. It's an adventure.

You strike me as the kind of guy who'd be happy on tour for a year.

You know what? I've never toured for a year, and though I'm sure there are obstacles you face doing that, but I'd much rather do that than bartend the Capitol Hill scene here in DC, which is what I'm doing now. Don't get me wrong; I love bartending. I'd rather tour the States. That's why I love playing in bars, though, because I feel like I'm still a bartender.

I've talked to other musicians who also work or who have worked as bartenders, and they tell me that when you're behind the bar, they get a glimpse of humanity you simply cannot experience anywhere else.

Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of people will trust bartenders. If you're an alcoholic, you obviously can't give a care in the world about what the bartender thinks of you. If you're a person who has to suppress a greater issue and you're vulnerable to the bartender, you have to say "I don't care about what you think, just please give me a drink." If you get that person warmed up on a couple of whiskeys, they'll tell you either a happy story, or they'll talk about the news or about football or whatever it is they like. It's just real in a bar. They're watering holes, but they're something more. People have used them for town halls. But there's just something about a bar. People go there to escape, they go to get rid of their fears or their anxieties, or they go there to find the courage they can't find in their normal lives, because alcohol gives you courage. It helps people become what they want to be. And music? Music is so important in bars, especially at the end of the night, when people are drunk. It's amazing when a DJ plays a slower song, or someone goes to the jukebox and plays a slower song, a song that really makes you think about your day and what it meant to you. It's a really lucky person whose song is played, because they get to sum up everyone's lives for that day. That's not just in my bar. That's in every bar in the world. It's amazing.

Do you think your experiences behind the bar have inspired your music?

Umm, good question! (Pauses) I want to say not at all...hmm...but maybe, subconsciously, yeah. I don't know. Right now I want to leave my bar. I'm not really thinking of the bar. I do when I'm onstage, if the stage is in a bar. (Reflective pause) I don't know if anything I'm doing is directly inspired by the bar; I mean, it's just what I've been doing as work for a long time now, but I wouldn't say…but yet, I dunno! (Laugh) Hmm...

Well, I'm thinking about the bartenders/musicians I've talked to, and they seem to say that the bartender role gives them a chance to develop themes that are more universal, even if they're not directly inspired by their role at the bar. It gives their music a closer touch with humanity and ideas that are more universal.

Yeah, more universal, and you want to cut through all the bullshit. A song is a song, and you either sing it the way you sing it, or you don't. That's why the most moving singers aren't always the ones who are good; they're the ones moaning on their porch or they're singing at the bar. I know people who know hundreds of songs and can play them well. I'm not one of 'em. I can't really do memorization. One of my favorite bands is The Beatles, but I don' t know the lyrics to "Hey Jude." I just care about the feeling. I have seen people who barely know how to play one chord, but they deliver the most amazing performances, because they just don't care, because they know it's just a song. Some people, they really are on trial when they sing, some people aren't, and some just don't care that they're on trial but they say, "screw it, I'm singing anyway!" I really dig those performances. I guess if I'm singing ant the vibe reminds me of my bar, then I'll sing to the bar. To me, it's just about being able to sing my song.

From what you've told me, it all sounds like a happy accident.

It is a happy accident! The label the EP was put out on was my friend Laris Kreslins' label. He put out some seven inches a few years ago, but I don't think he had put anything out since then. He heard a few songs I had been working on and then he offered to put them out on his Box Theory label. I said, "Sure!" To be honest, that was the label for me. I felt like I had reached Nirvana. A friend of mine who knows what he is doing wants to put it out. I'm a firm believer of the opinion that if people like your music, they'll buy it. Now that I'm on a label, it's a much bigger world, and I just don't know what to expect. Before, it was just my friend saying, "Hey, could I put out your EP?" and we did it just for fun, and then we'd hang out together. The only reason I signed to Domino is because Laris gave me his blessing. I was so scared to sign to a label because I don't know anything about the business. I don't know anything about money. So I was intimidated by the label. Also, I'd been in Hollywood for four years, and being around the industry, I'd rather be with my friends. Then Laris introduced me to Chris Gillespie, who runs the American branch. Chris, man, he's my friend! I can't believe I've made good relationships. That's the luckiest part. It is a business, but they're good to me, so it's no big deal. I'm sure, for people who crunch the money and the figures; it's not a lot of fun, but who knows? For right now, I have nothing to complain about. I'm very lucky. I'd be making music anyway, and I'd bartend, but thanks to Domino, I can go out on long tours. I was always down on the label experience until I met Chris and Laurence, who runs the label back in England. When I met them, I realized they were similar to Laris; they actually listen to music and they know more about music than I do; they own thousands of records, and they've turned me on to music I'd never had heard otherwise, and they're my friends. I know it's a business, but I gotta be around friends. I need someone to interpret for me.

Just from our conversation, I kind of gather that your philosophy of life is to find happiness in the here and now. I get the impression that even if you didn't have the chance to release another record, you'd still be making music and doing your thing, and you'd be perfectly happy about it.

Yeah! I found an existence for myself. I used to be quite an idealist about life, and I gotta say, living in Los Angeles broke down that false existence I once had. I had to get scared, create my own world, and take risks, and not care at all about tomorrow. Obviously, we could all be dead tomorrow. We could be dead in the next five minutes. Music--it's here to pass the time, it's here to tell stories, and it could mean a million things to a million different people. I'm definitely the luckiest boy I know. Wanna know how? Just being able to tour with the Archie Bronson Outfit. I guess I'd become jaded with a lot of guitar-driven bands, American rock bands, too. But at the same time, I guess I'm afraid to get my feet wet. I'm always afraid I won't like something. Then I heard their record, and their songs, they're folk songs, but they come out really, really twisted and really, really heavy. They follow this tradition of Blues that has been going on in England since the 1960s, but they don't sound like Zeppelin or any of those kinds of bands. They sound like a cross-polinization of the Blues and whatever, and it's so endearing to hear, and it doesn't sound at all cliched. I'm proud to have toured with them. They're one of the best bands. And to be able to tour with them was amazing. They're my favorite band. What could be better?

Benjy Ferree's excellent Leaving the Nest is available now on Domino Records