NOISE: Sketches from Lebanon


Contributor George Chen points to this dispatch regarding improv trumpet player and cartoonist/illustrator Mazen Kerbaj of Lebanon.


Until recently Kerbaj and other musicians and artists were scheduled to be in the states on a 15-date tour, e-mailed musician LIz Albee on July 16.

“I was hoping to e-mail those of you I know in the Midwest and East Coast to urge you to see their shows,” she writes. “Unfortunately, the airport was bombed shortly before they were supposed to leave. They were then hoping to fly out of Syria, but the main roads have also been bombed, and their city, Beirut, is now under constant attack, so they have cancelled their tour.

“Too bad for us music fans.

“So as a grossly inadequate compromise, may I introduce to you Mazen Kerbaj, an artist and writer and very very, very great trumpet player:

“And also Raed Yassin, an accomplished double bass player, filmmaker, dancer, writer and poet (that’s, ahem, accomplished at all these things)….

“Ya’ll should really hear their stuff. Or see it. Or read it. Or meet them sometime when their airport is rebuilt. Again.”

NOISE: Would you, could you, eat a hamburger? And calling all B-boys, B-girls…


Ahem, this just in from Wooden Wand PR HQ:

“Do you assume Knoxville, Tenn., resident Wooden Wand is a vegetarian?


‘When I am on tour, several people offer me hummus and assume I am a vegetarian or vegan. I don’t want to be rude, and I never refuse the free offer. But I will take White Caste over hummus any day,’ says Wooden Wand

That’s right, Wooden Wand will take a SXSW barbecue sandwich over a grilled zucchini and tomato sandwich on spelt bread.”

And did they mention that the dude has a new album out, Second Attention, on Kill Rock Stars. What’s that – the fifth or six one this year? I guess it’s the protein.


OK, We confess – we’ll do anything Goldie winners Sisterz of the Underground, that ace breakdancing troupe that’s not even all sisters but is just so slammin’ we just put away our red pens and don’t even care. Tonight, July 19, they co-host a jam with live music by the Top Rockerz Breakbeat Band.

Who dat? The ensemble includes Mirv, House, Dr. Ware, DJ Quest, Chris Williams, Adrian Isabell, and Kenny Brooks. Dudes have played for katz as diverse asLes Claypool, Bob Weir, Bill Laswell, DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Charlie Hunter, Bootsy Collins, and Maceo Parker. So you know they got chops. There will be a special performance by Baysic Project Bboy/Bgirl Dance Company. Cash prizes for best B-boys and -girls. Got it? So get it.

July 19, 8:30 p.m., Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. $11. (415) 885-0750.

NOISE: Sonic on Sonic – Vice Cooler’s best 24th B-day ever and Sonic Youth Kim and Thurston’s drop-by


Whoa, did Vice Cooler of XBXRX, KIT, and Hawnay Troof have an awesome birthday or what at 21 Grand in Oakland July 15? The topper came around midnight: Mirror/Dash, Sonic Youth twosome Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s seldom-performed experimental side project.


Moore and Gordon arrived after finishing up their opening set for Pearl Jam at the Bill Graham Civic, sans entourage; set up and plugged in their own gear; and then played a short set of textural fragments with Kim Gordon on drums and then guitar. It was rad to see Gordon and Moore performing together outside of an SY context – a first for me. I dug the piece that featured Gordon playing a propulsive rhythm guitar.


I also like the way hundreds of people suddenly materialized when the SYers appeared (despite the sketchy sign at the door stating “Sonic Youth are NOT playing” – oh yeah, OK, technically, no). I guess folks got busy texting their pals when Vice, performing as Hawnay Troof, announced that Mirror/Dash was coming up soon.

After a few songs, Moore and Gordon warmly wished a happy birthday to Cooler, grinning from ear to ear up front after helping with setup. Is it too much to see them as Cooler’s spiritual parental units? Troof-ully, they seem to adore Vice. To drive the point home further, Moore jumped into the audience and tackled the birthday boy. Someone was in a hugging mood…


And on a complete side note, can we all agree that Gordon is probably the hottest (and coolest) 50-something lady in rock, resembling a downtown Charlotte Rampling? Madonna and her aerodynamic thighs have nothin’ on her. She also pulled a nice kid-like, twirly dance off at the previous night’s Fillmore performance.


Get Hustle didn’t make the bash, and Friends Forever canceled due to the girl drummer’s back injury. I missed Sharon Cheslow’s improv set with Magik Marker’s Elisa Ambrogio, as well as Always. But I did catch the spunky Dinky Bits. Cute costumes, guys.


Harry Merry was a maniac, playing a fairly long set of his looney, loveable bizarro tunes. This number was about a bus driver who refused to obey.


The Vice, in his Hawnay Troof guise, got on stage, rocked the mic, and worked the crowd up to a lather.


Cooler continued sweating his heart out, as Thurston Moore peered over the top of heads from the sidelines. A cornucopia of local bands also represented in the audience, including sundry peeps from Comets on Fire, Erase Errata, Xiu Xiu, So So Many White White Tigers, Curtains, and Death Sentence! Panda.


At the end of Hawnay Troof’s set, three lovely ladies jumped on stage and led a “Happy Birthday” singalong. Awww, shucks.

Oh, well, my camera sighed and died before Quintron and Miss Pussycat got into the music, but let it be said, they were busy busting out some manic jams when I made my way out of the sweaty, steamy 21 Grand. Outside, venue honcho and bartender Sarah told me she ran out of booze and beer and that the worst drink she resorted to serving was a gin and coke in someone’s used beer bottle. Yum. Better luck with the beverages next year – but just try to top this party.

NOISE: Come in Debasement


Radical queers? Radical sluts? Radical. It’s time to get out for Debasement, “a Radical Queer Social and Slut Dance” and benefit for Arab Queer groups ASWAT and Helem, on Friday, July 14.

Your friendly waitstaff.

They sayeth:

“It’s time to debase Israeli Terror (and maybe even each other) at a radical queer dance party and sultry soiree. DEBASEMENT will happen at De Basement, a dark and sleazy subterranean speakeasy below the Baker’s
Dozen. Enjoy the sizzling sounds of your fave local DJs Gary Fembot (The Clap), Brontez (Gravy Train, Pussyboys) and Reaganomixxx (Pussyboys). Come thirsty, darling, because some of SF’s most babealicious barmaids have
concocted some delectable cocktails and mocktails for your enjoyment. We invite you to dress up, dress down, cruise, network, dance, prance, make out, and make trouble in support of Helem and ASWAT, two queer
organizations whose members have spoken out against the hypocritical World Pride event in Israeli Jerusalem this August. 9 p.m.-2 a.m. at 733 Baker St. at McAllister, SF. $5-$25.

You have been warned.

NOISE: Harder, louder, rocker


So I guess this is the big hard rock week that y’all have been waiting for, huh? Portland, Ore.’s Danava – ’70s crunch meets ’80s keys and schizo shenanny-gans ensue – happens Friday, July 14, along with Parchman Farm and Snow Foxxes at Bottom of the Hill. Tonight, July 12: Austin, Texas’s Sword slashes its way through the underbrush, wielding its debut, Age of Winters (Kemado), like a silver chalice. Saviours and Akimbo round out the bill nicely at Slim’s. Danava and the Sword – both on Kemado Records; so what dya think of them apples?

The Sword, good Lord…

Akimbo descends on the city.

Oh yes, and incidentally, Flying Luttenbachers and Zs ain’t hard rock in the conventional sense – but damn, they do. That they do.

Flying Luttenbachers mock those silly photos you took back in elementary school.

Both bands tore it up at 21 Grand last night, July 11 (7-11 Day, free slurpies at 7-11 – you missed out). Zs sat before sheet music and descended into a frenzy of jazzed-based drone, thrash, and chicken-fried repetition. Nice. And then Weasel Walter’s between-song commentary was worth the admission alone – Mick Barr might not have been in the haus but the entire band raged nonetheless. Go see ’em both tonight, July 12, with the Sword and Sandal (a new John Dwyer project) at Hemlock Tavern.

NOISE: I see dead people, pt. II — Astronomy DomiNOOO!!!!


Guardian intern Michael Harkin throws down on the occasion of Syd Barrett’s passing, announced today, July 11:

The “Madcap” back in the day.

Alas! Word around the hood is that Syd Barrett has passed away—sad news for Pink Floyd fans and psych enthusiasts everywhere. Nobody was expecting new material anytime soon from Barrett, who never attempted to reappear after vanishing into an unproductive, drug-induced haze. It was, however, always oddly reassuring to know that he was around…somewhere.

Bless him for avoiding reunion cash grabs and cameos at laser-light shows, but one has to wonder what it’d be like if he ended up even half as productive as, say, Robyn Hitchcock. There’s no question that his epic silence is a large part of what makes him legendary: he burned out damn quick, but left what is perhaps the best of Floyd’s output in The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. You can also thank Barrett for thematically fueling what followed in Floyd’s bombastic concept-album parade, but it seems more appropriate to remember him for his actual tenure with the group, as well as his stellar solo records.

Older Syd out to grab some air — rather than cash?

Okay, so if Barrett and Howard Hughes were to get in a fight, I’m pretty sure that SB would emerge the prizewinner for the title of “most awesome departed recluse of the century.” Hats off to you, Syd.

NOISE: Hairy fairies


The vast reservoirs of affection we have for Devendra Banhart never quite run dry – and that goes triple for visual artist Chris Cobb.

Cobb, the guy in charge of the color-coding book trick at Adobe Books a year and a half ago, is exhibiting art revolving around Banhart, a former SF Art Institute student, at New Langton Arts in San Francisco. The show opens tomorrow, July 11, and will be up through July 15.

A Chris Cobb image of Devendra Banhart and his band in action.

The artist e-mails: “I asked Devendra to send me some relics from his tour for my show and he did. I will also be showing a bunch of photos of him with the Hairy Fairy Band…. I know Devendra from when I did the Adobe Books installation where I rearranged all of the books by the color of their spine.”

Chris Cobb redesigns Adobe Books. Courtesy of

Yeh! Fetishizing rock stars! That wonderful Banhart can stomp on our spines any time. Whoops, did I just write that? Oh well, we can guess that Karl Lagerfeld probably seconds that emotion — word has it he has accumulated quite a portfolio of Banhart pics and that’s why he asked him to play the recent Chanel runway show. Ooh la la.

Other artists to look out for at that New Langton show, titled “Five Habitats: Squatting at Langton” and curated by former CCA curator, now White Columns director Matthew Higgs: writer Dodie Bellamy will exhibit a selection of the late writer Kathy Acker’s clothes. Bellamy will discuss “Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff” on July 12 at 7 p.m. – promising to meditate “upon relics, ghosts, compulsive shopping, archives, make-up, our drive to mythologize the dead, Acker’s own self-mythologizing, the struggle among followers to define Acker, bitch fights, and the numina of DNA.”

Additionally Tussle’s Alexis Georgopoulos will present ARP in the smallest space at New Langton. The gallery offers: “Georgopoulos has chosen the intimate idea of getting together with a friend or acquaintance to share a cup of tea, to take a moment, to slow down, and perhaps, reflect. Georgopoulos places a table, a tea set for two, and two speakers in the space. In this intimate, almost cocoon-like setting, the music Georgopoulos has composed as ARP will play as a backdrop. The music itself is minimal in its use of drone, repetition, inertia, tranquility/tension and is informed by a wide variety of composers, among them Charlemagne Palestine, Ralf Hutter & Florian Schneider-Esleben, Terry Riley, and Franco Battiatio.”

NOISE: Where our beloved, late show reviews go to live, live, LIVE, MOO-HOO-HA-HA!!!


Er, yes, well, we do have quite a bit of catching up to do since the Big Blog Crash of ’06.

Magik Markers get sketchy at ArthurFest, LA, in 2005. Credit: Kimberly Chun


First off, wow, Magik Markers certainly drank dat kosmic Kool-Aid last night, July 6, at the Hemlock Tavern, didn’t they? I went with my pal who’s been psychic since birth, reads animals’ pea-brains, and is currently taking a trance-medium class — and she swears that the MM’s magnetic cutie-pie vocalist Elisa Ambrogio is working with three beings — WITHOUT EYES, mind you (Did we need that detail? TMI!) — when she performs. Hey, different strokes, y’all — some kick back with a six-pack; others go for the eyeless, fleshless variations on the out-of-bod theme. OK, can I consider my music journalist license revoked now? Am I free to go?

Liars, Liars, pants on fire at Bottom of the Hill. Credit: Kimberly Chun


In other live show notes, here’s a much-belated review of the mega June 5 Liars show at Bottom of the Hill, courtesy of Guardian freelance writer Chris Sabbath:

I had seen the Liars open for the YYY’s four years ago back in Cleveland, Ohio, when they were still a quartet, and I was blown away. However, the band has undergone a lot of changes in terms of lineup and sound, so I was anticipating tonight’s performance to be different.

Several thoughts raced through my mind as I waited in line for the band’s sold-out show at the Bottom of the Hill. Would they play songs off of They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top? I guessed no, but pondered anyway. Could the band’s live sound top their new album’s slick production work? Would any faux-Simon instruments be involved like last time? How tall is Angus? I hope I have enough money for at least three beers. Will the girl standing behind me please shut the fuck up? Anyhow, I had missed the Liars last tour and was eager to see if they could best the one I had seen in Cleveland.

As I stood in the back patio chain-smoking cigarettes and chatting it up with friends, the muffled yet catastrophic din of Portland, Ore.’s Rabbits lured me back into the club. I was met with a wall of deafening feedback, layered fuzz, and a drummer way too happy to slam his sticks against his cymbals. The trio ripped through a tight sounding set of chaotic sludginess and doom metal (or for lack of an annoying classification — tom rock, which is usually committed by drummers that beat their rack toms into the ground) that brought to mind several bands (Venom, Amphetamine Records-era Helmet, the Melvins 20 years back, High on Fire right now). The sound of two guitars locking horns and spiraling downward into one giant puddle of gritty tumult surpassed my expectations. I spilled more beer on myself, then in my mouth at the end of the band’s performance. My only disappointment was the fact that the band didn’t have any CDs for sale — just LPs and T-shirts.

I saw the Apes open for the Gogogo Airheart three years ago in San Diego, and can vividly remember the performance being really intense and fun to watch. Yet I wasn’t too enthused with tonight’s set, mainly due to the fact that they had a new lead singer (which I had found out much to my dismay a few weeks back). As the Washington, DC, quartet was setting up, a short costumed character (somewhat resembling a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger) came onto the stage and began talking to the crowd. I really couldn’t make out what he was saying, partly because I was trying to get the bartender’s attention, and mainly because I really didn’t care, but as the rest of the band took the stage, the costumed figure took off the mask and revealed that herself to be the Apes’ organ player. Somebody in the group began to roll call each band member’s name off (Jackie Magik, Majestic Ape — obviously not their real names) and then introduced the new vocalist before exploding into the first song.

I’m not sure if the songs they were playing were new or not, but I can assure you that it definitely sounded like classic Apes: proggy eruptions that seem to bounce up and down somewhere along the lines of King Crimson spitting out energetic, dancey chops. The costumes were pretty humorous — the bass player looked like a war vet wearing disco tights, and the drummer resembled a track star. The vocalist stood out amongst the rest, a tall, lanky fellow wearing normal street clothes, shimmying back and forth and lunging at the crowd. His vocals were too watered down and didn’t seem to mesh well with the rest of the band. Maybe I am too attached to their old singer. Perhaps if I heard a recorded song with the new vocalist on it, I would feel differently, but I prefer the old singer’s nasally growl. In any case, the Apes’ musicianship did stand out — though, sad to say, their show made me picture Morris Day fronting a dynamite-sounding rock band. The crowd was definitely digging it, and the club was twice as crammed as it was for the Rabbits’ set.

I secured a corner of Bottom of the Hill just as the Liars were about to come on. As guitarist-percussionist Aaron tweaked some gadgets on stage, Julian jumped up and sat behind the drum set, dressed in what looked like an old boxing robe. The two started playing drums simultaneously and were joined shortly thereafter by singer-guitarist Angus (dressed to kill in a one-piece garage jumpsuit). The crowd yelled gleefully upon his arrival, and the band went into its first song, an ear-scathing mixture of guitar, drum banging, and effects pedals whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Most of the songs were from the band’s new album, Drums not Dead, but the Liars did dip into the breadbasket of old tunes from its last album. The trio strayed away from the dance-punk numbers from their first album, but at this point, I don’t think anybody really cared. The Liars’ new songs are just as fun, and geared to make hips swivel and legs rattle up and down.

The band sounded much more balanced and explosive with three members as opposed to four. Julian’s drumming really helped thicken the sound and branched off past the simple disco beat that made the band earlier albums digestable. Aaron’s and Angus’s cohesiveness as a duo was topnotch and more well-rounded than the last time I had seem them. I can only hope that they continue to explore different sound textures and not stick with the particular model that they have going on right now.

During the show, I noticed a few crowd surfers, men with shirts off beating their bare chests in approval, the occasional hipster covering his or her ears, and more beer — spilled on me.

By the middle of the set, Angus had stripped off his uniform, to reveal a black and white checkered secretary dress. The crowd really didn’t react to the costume change.

…Therefore skirts for everyone. Credit: Kimberly Chun

I was very excited to hear “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!”, the first song off the new album, followed by an equally impressive “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack.” Other good numbers were the tom-happy “A Visit from Drum,” as well as a resounding version of “Broken Witch.” I didn’t recognize some of the songs but found them just as mesmerizing — thanks in part to Angus’s hollow delivery on vocals and the band’s knack for improvisation. Needless to say, the set was very comforting, with few pauses in between songs and lots of pleasing noise. No encore, but I felt the Liars had already proved their point in the hour that had passed, so I went home with head and body buzzing.

NOISE: Desmond Dekker, RIP


Ska legend Desmond Dekker died on May 25 in his home in England. Guardian calendar editor Duncan Scott Davidson writes in praise of the Jamaica native:


“Oh Lord, it is not easy,” Desmond Dekker sings in falsetto on his track “It Is Not Easy.” “I work and I toil/ Yet I suffer all the while/ Trying to live a life on my own/ I don’t want to end up like Al Capone.” The suffering has ended for Dekker; he succumbed to a heart attack on May 25. Even the baddest gangster and the King of Ska must, eventually, go the way of all flesh.

The ska Dekker helped originate in his native Jamaica is a much slower, more groove-centered affair than the frenetic, even spastic, punkified outbursts from what the English Beat’s Dave Wakeling called the “high school horn section” bands that have come to be associated with the genre in its latter days.

For me, a Dekker record is a ticket to a good mood. There’s really know way to be depressed or stressed out when listening to a Dekker tune. It’s good-times music, but there’s always something deeper going on: There’s the struggle to walk the path, to be upright in the face of suffering, to not give in to a life of crime that, for a parentless teenager in Kingston, must’ve been a huge temptation. Dekker’s music mirrors this struggle as his hits alternate between religious numbers like “Honour Your Mother and Father” — where he quotes directly from the ten commandments — and “The Israelites” and songs about punch-up, rude boy culture.

An example of the deeper currents that Dekker circulated underneath perfect pop songs is his “Licking Stick:” “Mama, mama, mama I am feeling sick. Papa, papa licked me with the licking stick. I’ve got the fli-ipping hiccups, Mama. I’ve got the fli-ipping hiccups, Papa.”

If you’re driving to the beach with the top down, the lyrics completely fly under the radar. You start hipshaking ever so slightly in your seat, and the percussive syllables are just another part of the rhythm, like the later “chka chka” oral punctuation thrown into so many ska tunes — especially with the nearly comic basso profundo “don’t go” in the background and the falsetto echoes of “Mama, Mama, Mama” over the top.

But when the fade comes and Desmond quietly sings, “Mama please tell Daddy/ Do not hit me with that/ Mama, I’m feeling pain/ I’m really, really feeling/ I can’t stand it…”

Well, it’s not really a song about hiccups, is it? Like the Muscle Shoals sound that was happening across a geographic and cultural gulf, Desmond Dekker’s ska is party music with soul, Emma Goldman’s long-awaited revolution you can dance to. To quote Toots: “Reggae Got Soul,” and no one had it more than Desmond.
















NOISE: Live, live, live, if you want it — Mission Creek and so much more


You didn’t ask for it but you got it anyway…here’s beginning of your belated, scattershot lowdown on Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival as well as recent and not-so-recent shows.

Vincent Gallo on Polk Street last year.
He was in town to promote Brown Bunny.
Credit: Kimberly Chun

Last week, the name on everyone’s lips was Vincent Gallo. Vincent, Vincent, Vincent, we just can’t stop talking about him. Word had it he was a dick; other words had it he was charming; still more words had it that he had quite a dick (see BJ scene in Brown Bunny).

I caught the last couple songs of his Friday, May 19, show at Bimbo’s 365 Club, and boy, was it a madhouse. Gallo and Sean Lennon were seated, playing acoustic and electric instruments, trading quips. Gallo was in beige and in a chatty mood; most quoted bit of stage patter had to do with where he was staying (the Phoenix) and the fact that he was very lonely. You could practically read the minds of all the hot, fashionable ladies out on the sidewalk afterward the show: Do we swing by the Phoenix now, or later? I haven’t see so many cool, cute women in one spot in ages…

I guess the merch booth was partly geared toward them — Gallo was in sheer superstar mode, charging more than a $100 for plenty of items including art books, tankini and bikini sets, and “hand-made” Gallo shirts (a little bird told me he was up the night before spray-painting them in his Phoenix hotel room).

Chris Sabbath reports that at one point, Gallo made a remark about how he likes looking at Lennon naked but, to loosely paraphrase the man, “we all know the size of Asians.” Even Lennon looked uncomfortable at that moment, and vague noises of discontent and disgust were audible. The love returned quickly, though, as shout-outs of “We love you, Vincent,” “Chloe,” “Brown Bunny” began once again. After someone yelled, “Chloe,” Gallo said something about how they’re not really close friends.

Gallo also made a comment toward the end of the show that Lennon is his best friend and that he has such tremendous respect for him onstage because he’s so calm onstage. Meanwhile, he’s a ball of tension ready to explode. Reports have it he was all charm backstage, however, though a genuine worrier. Rumor was that he demanded a large pile of cash up front to play the show and then more handed to him the moment he left. It turned out to be just that: rumor.


Lets go back a way: Remember Dinosaur Jr.? Seems those April 19-20 shows were notable for their rockingness — and utter, abject loudness. Word has it that stuff broke as a result of the sheer volume at those shows — this after the Great American Music Hall had a new sound system installed. Triple-bummer.

Stacked and jacked: J. Mascis at Great American Music Hall.
Credit: Kimberly Chun

Sources say J. Mascis is so deaf he needs the massive volume to simply hear himself on stage. Those Marshall stacks surrounding him had a real function after all.

NOISE: Not that Duchess — Her Grace the Duchess!


Correction time! Apologies go out to Duchess and Her Grace the Duchess. I wrote that Christy Schnabel’s Duchess was playing a Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival show Thursday, May 18. That’s not happening. Perhaps she’ll swing through town soon but she won’t be coming through that day. Instead, check out her new self-titled album on Blackball.

Rather, Her Grace the Duchess is playing that night at 12 Galaxies. A big boo-boo, and likely the last time we get that wrong.

Don’t be a royal jackass and get it straight — that’s Her Grace the Duchess!
Photo courtesy of

I heard from the gracious Sarah Reed, who performs with the groovy, ghoulish Husbands — Her Grace the Duchess is her latest SF-based project. And she tells me it’s a nine-piece soul band, which includes a former member of the Fucking Champs. Sexy soul and equally sexy sistahs — sounds like the stuff of champions. Check them out at 12 Galaxies on May 18 and on their My Space page.

Her Grace the Duchess plays with Harold Ray Live in Concert and the Flakes Thursday, May 18, 9 p.m., 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission St., SF. $8. (415) 970-9777.

NOISE: ArnoCorps want to pump you up


Contributor Dennis Harvey writes in to praise ArnoCorps:


When they said “Ahhhl be baaahhck,” wasn’t that a promise?!? I fear not. It appears May 20’s headlining Café du Nord appearance by ArnoCorps, purportedly Austrian “pioneers of Action-Adventure Hardcore rock ‘n’ roll,” may be their last for the foreseeable future.

They are returning to die Vaterland‹or close, at least, with summer dates in England and Ireland. After that they’ll be taking a potential “End of Days” breather, perhaps fatigued from the sustained climax of recently released CD The Greatest Band of All Time, in which every song encapsulates the plot of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. From “Commando”: “Stop screwing around! / Let the girl go! / Throw it away! / Chickenshit gun!” From “Terminator”: “I am the Terminator! / I’ll be back to kill you later!” Advancing years can drain even the hardiest rock warrior, as witness Arnold’s shift from statements in the 1977 film Pumping Iron (“I’m getting the feeling of coming when I pump up. So I’m coming day and night”) to his current sobriety as a respected statesman who just says no to his own past sexual harrassments.

Anyway, sex is good but steroid metal-punk screaming is so much better! The sextet — nothing gay inferred by that term! — will strut their “ballsy assertion” and attention to “ancient lore and mythology” following sets by helmut-headed Christians rawkers Knights of the New Crusade, and Judgement Day.

Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m. Café du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. $10.

NOISE: Have another slab of John Vanderslice


Duncan Scott Davidson interviewed Tiny Telephone honcho and Barsuk artist John Vanderslice for a piece in the May 3 issue of the Guardian. Here’s more from his interview with the SF singer-songwriter, who performs tonight, May 12, at the Independent.

Bright lights, big city, and Mr. Vanderslice.

On running Tiny Telephone, during an interview at the studio sometime in January

John Vanderslice: Basically, I keep my rates under market, so [the engineers] are always busy. I kind of use that leverage with them to have them be undermarket, too. So we’re affordable enough for a band. Every band has access to computers now, so you have to be. My whole goal was just to be sold out all the time. My business model was to, without question, have a waitlist every month. You have a client base where, if someone drops a day, it doesn’t matter. We just send out one e-mail to another band that’s on the list, you know what I mean? We’d just rather be generating 30 days of income at a much lower price.

When I started the studio, the reason I did it is that, another studio that we loved that we were working at, Dancing Dog in Oakland, closed. So we toured all the other studios, and they all had these sliding rates. It’s all bullshit. The typical studio business model is retarded. You know what it reminds me of, is the airline kind of model of wildly sliding rates based on the desperation of the client, you know?

[Vanderslice talks about JT Leroy at length before realizing he’s strayed off topic.]

JV: I don’t care if we talk about the studio at all. I mean, this has been central to my life for maybe the past eight and a half years and it’s starting to be an organism. It’s like a child, and all the sudden this kid is like a 12, 13 years old and I can now leave the house and not get a babysitter.

BG: Are you afraid you might come back and find the flowerpot broken, Brady Bunch style?

JV: Or I might come back and the kid’s huffing paint or something? There are things that happen when I’m not paying attention in the studio, but the crew down here…

BG: Do bands get loaded up in here? I mean, not like…in a bad, non-professional, non-rock ‘n’ roll way…

JV: I would say the insight I have into working bands is fascinating. I would say that the more successful the band is, both creatively and financially, the more they’re like an office. There’s laptops, wireless. There’s like organic Columbia Gorge lemonade, and there’s no alcohol. The more it’s like a weekend-warrior project, the more it’s a band that’s frustrated or trying to generate energy like they’re having a career, the more there’s cocaine and pot and alcohol.

BG: Yeah! We’re fuckin’ it up!

JV: “We’re gettin’ it goin’!” Sometimes it’ll be 4 p.m., and they’ll be kind of a little bit out of control. And what you want to say is, “You’re, like, at a construction site right now. You should be really mindful.”

BG: Well, they’re fucking paying $400 a day.

JV: They’re paying $600 dollars a day. Plus the tape.

BG: And if they want to fuck it off, more power to ‘em.

JV: The thing is you want to remind them, “Dude, you’re going to be in here for 12, 14 hours.” Tons of bands come in here and make a record in three or four days. Some bands are so efficient in the studio, it’s like a marvel. I’m not nearly as efficient. I don’t necessarily have to be as efficient, but it is expensive for me to book time in here. Like everybody else, when I book time in here, because it’s sold out all the time, it costs me $400 a day. I pay engineers what they charge. I pay rates to engineers.

What studios try to do is they try to be booked between 10 and 15 days a month, and they try to charge a fucking shitload of money. And what they do is that they have a lot of open days that are those days…because people call all the time, “Hey, are you open tomorrow? Are you open next week?” They’re always the worst clients. The least prepared, they always have a problem. They always have a story. Like, they tried to save money in some other studio, and they went there and it was fucked up.

The kind of clients I like — we’ll get a band that calls us up, like when we did Transatlanticism here, Death Cab called us like seven months before the dates and they’re like, “We want May 1 to June 20.” Those days never moved. It was like, booked. The deposit was in. Then seven months later, they show up, make a record, and leave. And not one day was ever shifted. The bands that are like that, those are the bands you want to have in your studio.

And there’s tons of bands that are not really… they’re making music for themselves or to put on their Myspace page, but they’re just as deliberate and they’re just as farsighted. That’s how this studio runs smoothly. I’ve cleared out a lot of the time for those bands.

BG: Any band that you thought was just totally not getting it and selling millions. Not the fact that they were selling, but that they were lame. Would you not record them?

JV: No. I think that we’re like a hospital. We’re like a responsible hospital with good gear that can only meet the patient in the middle somewhere. Like if you come in here and you’re a meth addict and you’ve been working the street for 15 years, we can only help you up to a point. But if you’re a healthy person and you need a heart operation, well, we have great equipment, right? We have good doctors. They’re not going to cut you open and leave shit in your body. We have sterile equipment. I tell engineers this metaphor and they’re like, “Dude, whatever. You’re overthinking.” But I really do think there’s something here. You know, we can’t save anyone’s life, all we can do is kind of not make mistakes. And also not provide gear that’s either dangerous or is out of date or is poorly maintained, poorly calibrated…

BG: You’re like a halfway house.

JV: Yeah. I’m a halfway house. Or a restaurant. Or a dry cleaners. The things that excite me are when we get things out of genre. When someone comes in and they say, “I’m going to make a 40-minute concept record that’s based on a sea shanty that’s about being on a whaling ship.”

BG: With their bouzouki.

JV: Yeah, with their bouzouki. And they get on ladders, and they have pails of water—I’m not kidding you, they do — and they do a concept album. And there’s no electric guitars, there’s all these weird instruments, it’s very obtuse, and it’s interesting. It’s anti-genre. It’s anti-rock ‘n’ roll. That’s fascinating to me.

Guitars or no guitars?

BG: When you saw the dude’s bouzouki, you said, “Anything but an electric guitar excites me.” You have old guitar amps…

JV: I love guitars.

BG: And you play guitar…

JV: I love guitars.

BG: Was guitar your first instrument?

JV: I love guitar. It’s just that, the thing is, it’s like, when you’re building a house, a guitar is like a hammer. It’s very useful. But if you’re putting in windows, there are other things that need to be there to balance out. There’s some sonic space that is not available when electric guitars are everywhere.

BG: In your own records, the last three, you seem to be going away from guitars.

JV: Yeah, going away from guitars, but the interesting thing is, the other day, I was thinking, “You know what? The next record, I need to make a guitar record.” Maybe it is because I’m collecting all these amps. And I do love guitar, but I think that for me, it’s more likely that I will deconstruct music when I see people stepping back from rock ‘n’ roll, you know, strictures, if guitars are not part of the equation. And they’re forced to build up melodic elements with keyboards, with rhythmic instruments, with strings, horns — things that are outside of the realm. I was listening to Otis Redding on the way over here. There’s some guitar in that. There’s a lot of other things going on in that. There are background voices used as harmonic, you know, shifting agents — things that pull you from key to key, that bring you into the bridge, that provide counterpoint to the vocal melody and the horns.

[JV starts to talk about the tug between digital and analog technology.]

On one side I do think that the Internet is the best thing that’s ever happened. Also, I live on the internet. Like, I’m surfing all the time. This studio was put together by the information I learned on the Internet. Most of my communication is through e-mail. The Web site is a very important part of my creative output. You know there’s like a thousand photos on the site? There’s tons of music that’s never been pressed that’s on the site. Tour diaries. That’s very important to me.

But, on the other side, the craft of making albums: I’m a purist. I’m an old, hard core recording purist. And the standards, and the quality of recording have been in a freefall since… Listen, the good and bad thing about consumer audio is that everyone can afford it and everyone can own it. I think that’s great. I think that’s actually better than the downside. The downside is that the quality of everything goes downhill. I don’t gripe about other people’s recording because I think that, if you’re going to complain, the proof is in the pudding: What the fuck are you doing? Sometimes people come up to me and they’re like, “I like this album, but I don’t like this album.” I don’t say anything, but I want to say, like, “Dude, I don’t care either way. Make your own record.” It doesn’t matter to me whether you like my record or you don’t like my record, and it’s OK either way. But the thing is, you need to make your own shit regardless of whether you like something or don’t like it.

BG: There’s the analog/digital tension, but it seems like you do stuff with analog that’s sort of like a sampling, a deconstruction, like you take a digital technique and analog-ize it.

JV: Absolutely. Well, I have been heavily influenced in the way that certain people make records. The Books. Four Tet. Radiohead is probably the most influential band for me of the past five or six years. I mean, I’m totally obsessed with Radiohead. Everything that they’ve done, really from OK Computer to Hail to the Thief. I think Hail to the Thief is one of my favorite records of all time. It kind of actually flew under the radar, but from an idea point of view: You can hear the process of six smart people in a room thinking about music. It’s fascinating on that level.

All things being equal, A and B, analog sounds so much better to me than digital. And it’s not that I’m just some Luddite in the studio. We have Pro Tools HD in here every other day. We have installed a Pro Tools rig, we have Radar, we have Sonic Solutions, we have every high end converter in here all the time. To me it sounds awful. Still. And I advise people all the time, like, “Listen, we’ll make more money off you if you record digitally. That’s all there is to it. You’ll take longer — even though you think it’s faster. You’ll edit everything, you’ll obsess.

I don’t care about the editing. It’s not the “cheating” thing that bugs me. Scott and I will be recording and flying back tapes on the reel — Scott Solter’s my engineer — and like, we’ll think, “God, if we could only just do this on a hard drive.” We don’t like to do things by hand — it’s just that they sound so much better. It’s like a hand-fashioned piece of furniture versus something that comes out of a machine. We can’t get the detail, the nuance, the taper, the finish right unless we do it by hand.

BG: And the whole digital thing just seems like a cultural, reactionary…you know, “it’s newer, it’s faster, it’s easier.” And I think artists seem to overestimate that. It’s like when microwave ovens came out, and everyone’s like, “You can cook a Thanksgiving dinner in it!” And a year later they were like, “You can heat coffee in it.”

JV: Yeah. Unlike the hospital metaphor, which is like a cart that has one wheel on it, the microwave metaphor’s perfect. It’d be better if I just didn’t tell bands anything. Use whatever format you want. But what I always tell bands is, “Listen. A good analog tape deck, properly calibrated, is like a fucking Viking stove, or a wood oven at Chez Panisse, where they put in the pizzas and the crostini or whatever, and your Pro Tools system—and believe me, I’m telling you this because I own the system. I paid a lot of money for it. People when they buy gear, their ears turn off. Because they don’t want the truth, you know what I mean? It’s like a fucking microwave! That’s all there is to it. It’s faster…

BG: A big, fancy microwave.

JV: Yeah, it’s a really fancy microwave with 50,000 adjustments. “Bread Crustener,” you know what I mean? It’s worthless.

[JV focuses on conspiracy theories and politics.]

JV: The stuff that interests me is Iran-Contra, Total Information Awareness. I’m much more into ground level, you know, stuff that’s happening right now. What did we do in Columbia? You know, what are we doing with the FARC? You know, why are we there?

I’m fascinated by politics. I’m interested in the most mundane things. Like, for instance, we found Saddam Hussein in a foxhole. One of the Marines on that team comes out a couple months later and says, “Listen, we fuckin’ found him in a house. We put him in that thing, covered it, got the film crews there…” That’s where I’m interested in. I’m interested in Guantanamo.

In other words, I’m interested in mainstream stuff. It’s not Area 51.

Later, John Vanderslice meets for another interview at Martha and Bros. on 24th Street.

BG: Do you realize that whatever you say is going to be completely overruled by Enya, or whatever is going on there.

JV: Should we check to make sure it’s not too loud? I can have them turn it down.

D: You’ve got that kind of pull?

JV: Oh yeah. I used to live down the street. I’ve been here, like, 9,000 times.

[JV asks them to turn it down, saying, “I really appreciate it. That’s great. Thank you.” Then he talks about coffee and tea.]

JV: Well, for me, I’m a tea guy. I actually drink coffee every two weeks. For me, the cleanest way to get caffeine is through really thick black tea.

BG: I get stomach aches from that.

JV: I know, you have to get used to it. It’s like hash or pot. It’s just different. You how you’re like, “Well, pot is kind of superior,” you know?

BG: Are you a big pothead?

JV: No. I don’t do any drugs. I barely drink. I mean, I like the idea of doing drugs. I have no moral quandary with drugs whatsoever. It’s impossible… because of singing…

[Coffee grinding noise.]

BG: Can you tell them not to grind any coffee?

JV: Yeah, totally. I’ll just unplug…no, I’ll trip the breaker. Singers get neurotic for a reason. I used to look at other singers and think, “Wow,” you know? Like, you’d read an interview with someone, and they would have these rituals. They’d have like steam machines or all these bizarre contraptions I thought totally unnecessary. But the thing is, the more shows you play, the more volatile your livelihood is. You’re tied to your health and your body. You know, anything that messes with my mojo. Alcohol. Never drink alcohol on tour. Never.

BG: You don’t drink it to “take the edge off” or whatever?

JV: I wish I could. But alcohol for me, it does something to my vocal chords that — I lose a little bit of control. I lose some resonance in my voice. So I never drink alcohol on tour. And then, there are times when you’re at the Mercury in New York and they give you 25 drink tickets and they’re like, “You can have whatever you want.” They’ve got all these single malts. I’m totally into single malt scotch. If they’ve got some weird shit I’ve never heard about, I want to drink it. So yeah, it’s a bummer, definitely.

BG: Do you do it after the set?

JV: I never drink after. It affects my voice the next day. Alcohol dries out your vocal chords. Like, if you put rubbing alcohol on your hand, you’ll immediately feel what it does to your skin.

BG: It dehydrates you.

JV: It dehydrates you, but because you’re passing it over your vocal chords, you’re a little bit more susceptible. Also cigarette smoke. It’s a problem.

Spy vs. spy

BG: What about this domestic spying bit? That sounds like a Vanderslice song.

JV: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I haven’t really felt the need to write about Total Information Awareness, yet.

BG: What’s Total Information Awareness? Is that the NSA’s acronym or something?

JV: That was the program that John Poindexter, from Iran Contra, was in charge of. It was like, basically, “we’re going to data-mine everything.” Of course, all the civil-libertarians on both sides of the fence go crazy when that stuff’s happening. Did you see the paper today? Grover Norquist, the anti-tax guy, basically the guy who spearheaded the repeal of Proposition 13 in California — the anti-tax California guy — is coming out now saying that he’s totally opposed to data mining. This is a hardcore, right wing constituency that Bush has tapped for a long time, and this guy is now coming after him.

BG: Well, now it’s without a warrant.

JV: Yeah. And that presses all their buttons, you know? That, hardcore, right wing, civil libertarian branch, which is fine with me. It’s great.

BG: OK, here it is. This is kind of random. “I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.” That’s Lou Reed. You seem to have a novelistic…

JV: There’s a lot of great lyricists working in music. I mean, you could look at the new Destroyer record. You could look at The Sunset Tree. You could look the new Silver Jews record. I mean, there are a lot of very literate, very verbally adept and complex albums coming out. I’ve spent a lot of time with those records. I think they’re rich, and interesting, and well-written enough to stand up on their own from a language point of view.

And you get into hip-hop — all the verbal inventions, most of it is in hip-hop. It’s not necessarily in indie rock.

There’s a lot of people operating on different levels. You could say, there’s a lot of arty stuff, purely political — Immortal Technique. He’s the farthest thing from a gangsta that you could get. Or MF Doom. Murs. There’s a lot of these guys that are super arty. Any Def Jux things or Anticon stuff, all that stuff is far away from “thug life.”

BG: Do you listen to a lot of hip-hop?

JV: Yeah. Like tons. The other thing is, you can even see people like 50 Cent or the Game on a different level. I think that when you understand that there’s a coded humor that’s going on in hip-hop. Like when 50 Cent says, “We drive around town with guns the size of Lil’ Bow Wow,” now, is that a threat, or is that a joke? I’m sorry, I laugh when I hear that. There’s so much humor in 50 Cent. C’mon, he lives in a $20 million dollar mansion in Connecticut. There’s a comedy side of the stuff.

And then there’s other mainstream people like Nas. Incredible lyricist, very complicated. He’s like a sentimentalist. I wouldn’t even say he’s a thug. He’s just always writing about memory. He’s so sentimental.

[I hip JV to Andre Nickatina.]

BG: The latest album [Pixel Revolt] is more straightforward. Before, you’ve done cut and paste stuff. It’s more linear. I mean, if you’re talking about hip-hop, there’s sampling. What do you think about that?

JV: Well, it’s hard for me. At some moments I would agree with you that the record is more linear. I mean, you’re saying that the new album is more linear, maybe orchesterally more simple, and more placid, more patient. But we’re doing remixes right now — Scott Solter is remixing the records. And we’re going in and listening to individual tracks.

It doesn’t seem that way to me, for better or for worse. It seems like there’s a lot of textures and a lot of very understated stuff that’s more complicated than on other records. There’s a brute force element that’s missing from that record on purpose. A couple weeks ago, before we started doing the remixes, I would’ve agreed with you, but now when I go back and I hear all these individual tracks, and I hear the textures that are underneath the vocals and some of the main harmonic instruments, to me there’s a lot of cross-rhythms. There’s a lot of harmonic shifts. There’s a lot of dissonance. It’s maybe more varied. It’s more of a relief. Like, Cellar Door has a lot of distortion, has a lot of compression, it’s all forward. Those impulses I have to over-orchestrate, and to, you know, over overdub, have been buried, but they’re still there.

BG: Why the remixes? You did a remix of Cellar Door.

JV: Yeah, called MGM Endings. One reason is that I put it out myself. I can sell them and make money off of them.

BG: You would love Nickatina. Basically, his big underground album that you can’t find is Cocaine Raps Vol. I. There’s this big thing about comparing selling tapes out of the trunk to selling coke.

[Talk turns to Tom Waits, recording at Prairie Sun, and then vocal chord damage and those who have used it in their music.]

BG: Being drawn to that Radiohead thing: You don’t use effects on your voice. Your sound guy doesn’t flip a lot of…

JV: And on records, I have these militant rules about what we can and can’t do as far as using effects. My rule for a long time has been, if we want an effect on an instrument, we have to record it that way. It’s all analog, we don’t use digital recording whatsoever.

[Death Cab for Cutie’s Grammy nomination is discussed and JV mentions that he was part of the committee that chose nominees for Best Engineered Album.]

JV: I was part of a group of people that met in the Bay Area. There were four of us that met at the Plant, and we voted on, for the National Committee, who we thought should be moved into the five spots, right? Then you can vote, as a Grammy member, you can vote on the next round. So basically we were like, pre-voting for the pool of five albums.

It’s interesting, because you have a lot of good albums that are in the pool. The pool is pretty huge. I mean that year there was some very good classical stuff, some really good jazz stuff, Elvis Costello…

BG: That’s apples and oranges.

JV: It’s retarded. What is this, a race? I did it because, when I got invited, I was kind of like, “Wow.” I was honored to be even — to even sit in a room with engineers that I really liked and get to talk about albums was fantastic for me. But, after the process, I thought, this is polluted.

BG: The engineering standards, or what you’re going for, your aesthetics, are totally different.

JV: And people in the room are pretty savvy. They have mixed feelings about the process. So they weren’t all gung ho, pro-Grammy, but I think that they felt that if they weren’t involved, then there would be decisions made… They wanted to be part of the decisions made to push good-sounding records up to the next level.

Tweaking in the studio

BG: Okay, so you’re interested in fucking around with your voice, as long as it fits into the rules of doing it live.

JV: I like using the analog instruments of the studio, meaning analog compressors and mic pre’s and effects as instruments. The great thing for me is, when you start combining all these things — the keyboard into some mic pre you found in a pawn shop into some weird compressor into delay. You get some almost unknowable reaction between these pieces of gear that were made in different decades, for different reasons, for different specs, for the BBC or for an airline company. And chasing down that kind of shit is fascinating for me. That’s part of the reason why I got into the craft of recording.

BG: Back to the studio—you’re annoying people, plugging in all these different things…

JV: It goes beyond that. To me, there is no sacredness to me of someone’s performance. People come in and spend a day recording something and then we erase it immediately. With them right there, like, “none of this is working, we’re going to erase it and move on.” I do it to myself all the time. I erase my own performances all the time. It’s not a feel-good session. You have to have a flamethrower mentality when you’re making records.

BG: So with Spoon and Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle…

JV: Well, those are different. You have to be more conservative working with other bands. It’s not appropriate. John’s singing a song about avoiding family trauma by playing his stereo loud and listening to dance music. It’s a beautiful narrative; it’s a wonderful song. It’s not necessary that you play a vibraphone through an old Federal military tape rack.

BG: The Spoon album’s sort of a deconstructed album.

JV: I would say that they’re more appropriate…

BG: Everyone’s recorded at Tiny Telephone, but you’ve only recorded a couple of people yourself. Like for instance, Steve Albini, another analog master, sought after everywhere. Everyone goes to him to get the “Albini sound” — they want it recorded like that, in that studio, sounding like that. And then, half the time, people come away with, “Well, he’s a dogmatic asshole. That’s not how we wanted it to sound.” But they did want it to sound like that.

JV: Well, the engineer in the equation is Scott Solter. He’s the guy I always work with. I mean, Albini’s a recordist. Albini is not there to become editorially involved with production decisions or with performance decisions. He is there simply as a recordist. In many ways, he’s an old school engineer. And once you understand that philosophy, you shouldn’t have any beefs with it, or you’re in the wrong place. You should understand that he’s going to set up microphones that he likes and understands, in a room that he likes and understands, and use gear that he thinks accurately describes what’s happening from a sonic perspective, and that’s it. That’s his end of the bargain.

BG: Well, there’s always the “the drums are too loud; the vocals are too low.” I love his records…

JV: I think he’s a total genius. I think you could listen to Rallying the Dominoes, the Danielson Family record, and well, you couldn’t necessarily say anything about the balance of that record compared to like, Jesus Lizard. It’s a totally different recording. He may perceive that, you know, the drums are loud in the Jesus Lizard, so they should be placed loudly in the mix. Because that’s what’s happening to them when you play in a room, you know?

But the thing is, Scott and I work tag team. Tiny Telephone is very separate from us working as a team in production and engineering, because the only people that I’ve ever worked with has been Spoon, and I was relatively a small part of that new Spoon record. Like basically, I recorded with them for eight days. They probably spent 60 days on that record. So I would imagine that they had a lot of other decision makers, you know, Mike McCarthy. Jim Eno, the drummer, is a great engineer in his own right. The Darnielle stuff is different because I feel that I understand where he’s coming from and where he wants to go in the studio and I can translate his narratives into a different setting from him sitting in front of his Sony boombox, you know, six inches away.

BG: Going back to the whole thing about rock as literature. I think Cellar Door sort of plays itself out like that, even though they’re not necessarily the same characters. It’s very novelistic. Most rock bands are very first person. Do you get a lot of misunderstanding on that?

JV: Oh, yeah. Someone asked me about my two sons the other day. I mean, yes, people either infer that I’m almost unglued psychologically or they infer that I’ve had a family history and a romantic history that’s really dangerous and fucked up.

BG: John Darnielle has a lot of that stuff, right? But he still does a lot of fictional stuff.

JV: He does a lot of fictional stuff. I think he does more fictional stuff that people realize. He lives in a nice house. He has a wonderful wife. Now, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have demons the size of Detroit in his brain.

BG: I think he does. “I dreamt of a house / Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out.” I love that line.

JV: Dude, I played with the Mountain Goats. I did a West Coast and an East Coast tour, and I sang that song with John every night. That’s probably one of my top three songs of all time.

BG: With your stuff, though, how much of it is…? I might be totally wrong on this, but you can tell with a song like “Speed Lab.”

JV: But “Speed Lab” is a metaphor for starting a band or starting a studio, and having those things implode. So “Speed Lab” is, while it’s not about a speed lab, a meth lab…

First off, I have a great sympathy toward a lot of different people. I have sympathy for people who work in methamphetamine labs. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who work in meth labs, they might have been backed into it, it might be a family business. Who knows? And, to me, you know…[sings] “Recording Studio, brr nanna nanna…” You know what I mean? Speed lab…let’s put a finer point on it. What’s interesting about writing about stuff is that you sharpen the blade, that you exaggerate, that you explode personal experience. And become so super egocentric that every slight becomes this great, damning. Listen, if you really write down Morrissey’s gripes on a piece of paper. OK: “Lonely, sad…”

BG: “Horny.”

JV: Yeah, “horny.” Maybe, yeah—“would die in a car wreck.” That’s not the beauty of writing. Like “Up Above the Sea” on Cellar Door. That song, I mean, do I really have a bluebird that haunts me? But is it about depression? Maybe. Is it about Saddam Hussein? Maybe.

BG: Do you think that you’re constantly looking to metaphor-ize your own experience?

JV: Yeah, definitely. Because, part of it is that it’s an allegory. I feel saner. I feel more human and I feel more normal and more cope with stuff if I write music. So evidently, this is very important that I translate something that’s going on up here onto the page. But my own aesthetics dictate that narrative is interesting or it’s egregious.

BG: Some people are naturally diarists. Andre Gide, Jim Carroll…that’s what they’re known for. Do you think that there’s something in you that’s naturally, in music writing? That’s a fictionalist?

JV: Yeah. Absolutely. I would’ve been comfortable if I’d had the skills to be a novelist. And I would’ve been comfortable if I’d had the connections and the wherewithal to do it all again, to be in movies. What I’d really like to do is make movies. I mean, I would never do it. I think people who switch crafts, I mean — good luck. It would take me 20 years to figure out cameras. I would like to be a cinematographer.

BG: Do you ever write?

JV: I stopped. I did a couple of interviews for DIW, I interviewed Grandaddy, I did a Radiohead Hail to the Thief review, I did an article about Pro Tools, and that was it. I was like, “Man, it takes so much. Writing is hard.” It took me forever to edit myself, to finish a piece. I’m very wary of anything that takes me away from writing music. It really is hard enough. Touring is, like, you put walls up.

BG: Do you do a lot of in-stores and stuff like that?

JV: I came up with this idea that on the day Pixel Revolt came out, that I was going to play a bunch of free shows around the country. And that it was all going to be non-transactional, all ages. Doesn’t matter where it was. Acoustic guitar and voice, that’s all it was going to be. And it could be anywhere. So I played in, like, a bake sale. I played tons of record stores. I played an art gallery. A house party. I played a backyard. I played tons of on-airs. Between the shows, I probably played 35 times that month. And they were all open free shows.

I was able to rent a car, drive from place to place, and just show up with a guitar and play. We would have contests. Like I played at Amoeba in LA, and I invited everyone at the show to bowling that night. We had enough people for seven lanes of bowling. So then we have this contest: Whatever lane had the highest score would get into my next show for free.

Anything that’s like, getting out of a dark club with a bunch of graffiti. That’s fine, but when you do that every fucking night. It’s like, anything to get you away from that is great.

NOISE: Coachella cracked open?


Guardian intern Jonathan Knapp checked out Coachella last week and lived to tell the tale:

Jose Luis Pardo of Los Amigos Invisibles
holds forth Sunday at Coachella.
Photo: Mirissa Neff.

As someone who has lost his once-vigorous passion for indie rock and large music festivals, I approached my trip to Coachella with caution and confusion. Why the hell was I driving 500 miles to spend two days in the brutally hot desert sun to see a bunch of bands that I had, at best, an intermittent interest in? All right, my girlfriend really wanted me to, and our companion — a good friend and a guitarist from local post-hardcore outfit And a Few to Break — was the perfect guide: He’d been before and has been largely responsible for turning me on to the little new music that excites me.

It’s not as if I now hate indie rock — I’ve just become preoccupied with the music of the past. I’d much rather, for instance, discover nearly forgotten gems like O.V. Wright’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” and Wanda Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama” than be the first to herald the Bloc Party or Clap Your Hands. There were definitely some newer bands at Coachella that had already easily won me over — Animal Collective, TV on the Radio — and some holdovers from my indie rock youth: Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power. Additionally, Madonna was playing; though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the height of my Drag City- and Merge-fuelled ecstasy, this was unquestionably exciting.

To a relatively recent East Coast transplant, Coachella’s setting is nothing short of alien. Set aside the heat (which is consuming and oppressive) and what remains is a beautiful, if stark and bleak, atmosphere: palm trees, miles of flat, bush-littered sand, and — when the Los Angeles smog recedes — snow-capped mountains. This year’s fest brought a mostly predictable mix of inappropriately black-clad SF/LA hipsters, shirtless/bikini-topped OC trust-funders/frat types, Arizona college hippies, and — given that this was Tool’s first show in five years — metalheadz. Though people-watching is certainly fruitful and entertaining, Coachella does not provide as much craziness as one might expect — but it certainly does exist.

The festival, held over Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30, on the incongruously green and groomed Empire Polo Fields, is a whirlwind of simultaneous activity and overstimulation. If you’re really only there to see one act (like Depeche Mode), it’s no problem. But for those whose interests are a bit more catholic, the prospect of navigating five separate stages that feature virtually nonstop, and eclectic, music from noon till midnight is daunting.

Do you choose Kanye West or My Morning Jacket? Wolf Parade or Jamie Lidell? In my case, both these choices proved easy, if not fully satisfying. For the former: With tickets on Kanye’s late-2005 tour being at least $45, the relatively reasonable one-day Coachella pass of $85 (about $190 for both days, including service charges) makes it
the best opportunity to see him.

West’s set was entertaining, if not transcendent. Mindful of the temperature (he played a still-blistering 6 p.m. slot), West substituted the angel-winged getup he’s favored recently for a white Miles Davis T-shirt and jeans. Backed by live drums, turntables, backup singers, and a string section, he offered a respectable but awkward approximation of his increasingly ornate recordings (no Jon Brion in sight). The highlight: West inexplicably announced his DJ would play a few of his biggest influences, moving from Al Green and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson to a-ha’s “Take on Me,” dancing around the stage with a goofiness that, though obviously calculated, seemed charmingly unselfconscious.

Following West on the main stage, Sigur Ros created one of the festival’s moments of impossible beauty, bringing their ethereal noise to day one’s lofty sunset slot (7:00-7:50 p.m.). Admittedly, I’ve been a bit hesitant to embrace the beloved Icelandic group. Though I’ve enjoyed much of their work, I’ve been turned off by what I’ve interpreted as delusions of grandeur: a made-up language (there’s already one Magma), bullshit declarations of “creating a new type of music,” and the hushed reverence with which they’re frequently discussed. However, I can’t think of a better band to accompany a desert dusk, or a better setting for the band — apart from a glacier, perhaps. Backed by a mini-string section, they played a set that, at that time and in that place, was astonishing. My gratitude goes to the man and woman who danced behind the netting just immediately off stage right: Their undulating silhouettes would have brought me to tears, had dehydration and hours of standing not already beaten them to it.

My other day one highlight was Animal Collective, a band whose aesthetic of psych-pop, tribalism, and general weirdness was perfectly suited to the surreal setting. Though I’ve adored many of their recordings (they’re one of the few current bands that I’m genuinely excited to watch evolve), I’d heard that their propensity for wandering and wanking can be their downfall live. I found that they kept this mostly in check, grounding their less accessible and more abrasive experimentations with hypnotic rhythms and a convincing feeling that this was, in fact, going somewhere. Much of the crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of it. Too bad: To my ears, few artists approach their inventiveness, live or recorded.

That day I also caught some of Deerhoof (appropriately erratic, with some fantastic moments), Cat Power (as expected, the Memphis Rhythm Band has given her a new sense of confidence and composure, and they sound fucking great), Wolfmother (energetic, but dull), White Rose Movement (I’ll stick to my Pulp records, thank you), the New Amsterdams (nothing new about them), and the Walkmen (solid).

After returning to the grounds Sunday (we fortunately camped at the much-less-populated Salton Sea, about 20 minutes away), we immediately went to catch Mates of State (adorable and infectious), who closed with a decent version of Nico’s “Time of the Season,” and Ted Leo, who was reliably engaging. To try to get close for Wolf Parade, we headed to the medium-sized tent (there were three) and watched Metric. I’d been intrigued by their Broken Social Scene connections, but their set of dancey agit-pop left me cold and bored (my companions disagreed).

I separated from my friends to stand in the back for Wolf Parade, so I could head to the main stage for Sleater-Kinney. After starting late, Wolf Parade apologized for technical issues (“Everything’s fucked”) and began a set that, from my perch hundreds of feet away, sounded slight and thin. Disappointed, I left after three songs. I’ve been told that the experience up-front, however, was quite different, and among the best of the festival.

I fell in love with the women of Sleater-Kinney about a decade ago when I was 16. I’ve tried to see them a number of times over the years, but something always fell through: sold-out, unbreakable engagements, etc. I usually don’t think about them, except when they release a new album and, maybe once or twice a year, when I put on Call the Doctor or Dig Me Out — briefly reminding myself why they once meant so much to me.

Clearly, this has been a huge mistake: Focusing mostly on songs from the past couple albums, the trio played a fierce, powerful set that all the years of hearing about their live show hadn’t prepared me for. At a festival that celebrated scenes that I’ve mostly abandoned, this became my essential moment. Mses. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss reminded me not only why I loved them, but why I loved going to shows in the first place — for the sheer raw, sweaty energy. These women deserve to fill stadiums.

After watching a bit of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who impressed me more than I expected, I headed to the dance tent, joining an apparent majority of festivalgoers in an attempt to see Madonna. Unable to get anywhere near the stage, we settled for a spot outside it, where our view was of a large screen and, when we were lucky enough to be able to peek through the massive throng at a distant stage.

Several minutes before the set (which unsurprisingly started late), a line of people carrying parasols and decked out in lingerie bondage gear made their way through the crowd on stilts. Managing the seemingly impossible feat of reaching the front of the stage, they were easily the festival’s smartest and most inventive attendees.

When Madonna finally took the stage, all hell broke loose — an appropriate response, perhaps, but not one that the performance itself warranted. Predictable and short, Madonna’s set started with the superb “Hung Up,” then moved on to “Ray of Light” and four more songs, most of them newer material. Most surprising was her guitar playing (or at least the appearance of it) and the rock-like arrangements of all the tunes. She occasionally provoked the audience (“Don’t throw water on my stage, motherfuckers,” “Do you want me to take my pants off?”), but nothing here was shocking. That said, the woman looks fantastic and commands a stage in a way that few could. After six songs, she left abruptly. It was anticlimactic, yet still somehow thrilling. It was, after all, fucking Madonna.

Immediately after, we ran into Andy Dick, who stood talking to a pair of starstruck 13-year-old girls. Far more behaved than the blogs have reported he later would be, Dick seemed as amused with the girls as they were with him. Though he claimed to have to go meet his “girlfriend,” he talked to them for several minutes: “Oh, I love Madonna too. Hey — how are you even here? Aren’t people, like, drinking? Where are your parents?”

After catching a fantastic, fun set from the Go! Team (who had Mike Watt guesting on bass), we attempted to see Tool. Unable to get anywhere close to the stage (this seemed by far to be the most crowded show, though Madonna was close), we sat down, expecting to watch the band on the giant screens on either side of the stage. While the band played, however, their videos (you know: internal organs and jittery, alien-looking people doing painful things) were projected on the screens. Bored and wary of the inevitable hours of traffic that we’d hit if we stayed for the set, we bid Coachella adieu.

Acts I wished I had caught, but couldn’t for various reasons: Lady Sovereign, Jamie Lidell, Gnarls Barkley, Seu Jorge, My Morning Jacket, Phoenix, Mogwai, Depeche Mode, Coldcut, and TV on the Radio. Biggest regret (by far): missing Daft Punk. Word of their closing Saturday night set hovered all day Sunday, discussed in whispered, but rhapsodic tones.

I left the festival exhausted, anxious to return to San Francisco, and — most importantly — reminded why I devoted so many years to indie rock. Will I stop seeking out New Orleans R&B, rockabilly, and Southern soul? No, but that doesn’t mean I have to ignore this wave of postpunk, does it? That said, I’ll take Gang of Four, Wire, and Pere Ubu over Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand any day.

But, right now, I just want to listen to Sleater-Kinney.

Pop goes the rock ‘n’ roll weasel


Tonight, what to do? Mission Impossible: 3 is screening! And after that why not…La Rocca?


The LA-by-way-of-Dublin unit serve up “sketches of a 20-something life,” while touring with French scruffsters Phoenix. Tonight, 8 p.m., Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. $16. (415) 474-0365.

Now they’ll just have to do something about their V-neck sweaters. Details, details.

Also tonight, hypemeisters: White Rose Movement from the UK gets the push, push, right in the rose over at Slim’s. 8 p.m. 333 11th St., SF. $13. (415) 522-0333.


Otherwise, get ready for Cat Power, at last with her Memphis soul unit — after her concerts fell through a while back. She loves us, she loves us not, she loves us… May 3-4 at Palace of Fine Arts.

NOISE: Too much, too soon? Do Takk.


No, no, no — we’re not talking about United 93. I’m just wringing my hands about neglecting ye olde blogging duties. I left my brain, if not heart, in Reykjavik.


Speaking of which, wannabe Icelanders will want to “floe” on up to the Marin Center in San Rafael tonight? The waifish ethereal men from the land of fire and ice are up there, touring in support of their September 2005
release, **Takk.**

The band’s string accompanists, Amiina, open. 8 p.m., Marin Center, Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. $50. For tickets, visit

Lesley’s turn to talk


Lesley Gore is in town this weekend, singing at Brava Theater Center. I recently had the chance to call the ‘60s teen queen who is forever linked to classic pop hits such as “It’s My Party” and the proto-feminist “You Don’t Own Me.” Today, the richness of Gore’s voice is a bit duskier, as evidenced by the new CD Ever Since. Whether reminiscing about a certain mega-producer or discussing fictional movie imitations of herself, this lesbian icon – a heroine to queer zine-maker and artist G.B. Jones, amongst others – is refreshingly honest.

Bay Guardian: Can you tell me a bit about meeting and working with Quincy Jones?

Lesley Gore: It’s extraordinary that a man of his distinction – even at that point in his career he was well accomplished – could put himself in the shoes of a 16-year-old kid. That is his art in a way, knowing how to make people comfortable and get the best from them. There may have been a 14-year difference between us, but he never talked down to me.

Quincy not only thought it was important to do well in the studio, he thought it was important to perform well onstage. He’d often call me on a Friday and say, “Lil’ Bits, meet me at Basin Street [in New York] at 8.” We’d go see Peggy or Ella or Dinah Washington. He’d say, “Listen to this opening number – this is what an opening number should do.” He took mentoring seriously. He wanted me to understand.

The bar was set high for me. I worked with some great producers, such as Quincy and Bob Crewe [the astrology-obsessed mastermind behind the Four Seasons, Music to Watch Girls By, Disco Tex and His Sex-o-Lettes, and Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”].

BG: One little-known Quincy production that I love is The Amazing Timi Yuro.

LG: Timi Yuro was on the very first tour I did in England — Timi and Trini Lopez and Brooke Benton and Dion [DiMucci] without the Belmonts. I fell madly in love with “What’s a Matter Baby.”

BG: Joan Jett and others have covered “You Don’t Own Me.” Are there any particular versions you enjoy?

LG: I rather liked Joan’s interpretation. Dusty [Springfield] covered that record almost minutes after it came out.

We could put a song in the key of G and it would be comfortable, but if Quincy didn’t see the veins popping in my neck he wouldn’t be happy. He’d raise it to the key of A so I’d sound younger. That’s why my [early] recordings are so poppy and bop-y.

This [new] album [Ever Since] is letting my voice do what it does without forcing into a range where I have to bleat all the time. That’s how the combination of old and new can make wonderful sense.

BG: Did you feel a kinship with or especially admire any other singers from the era of your biggest hits? I’m a Dusty Springfield fan.

LG: Who wouldn’t be? I did actually come to know Dusty when I was living in LA during the ‘70s. She did a song of mine called “Love Me By Name.” But she didn’t just do a song – she annihilated it. She invited me to the [recording] session; Joe Sample was the piano player.

They are doing a musical [Dusty] of Dusty’s life. Vicki Wickham, who was Dusty’s manager, is a dear friend of mine, and they consulted her.

BG: A favorite song of mine by you from that era that hints at what you do now is “What Am I Gonna Do With You.” Would you agree with that?

LG: Isn’t that a great song? That was co-written by Russ Titelman, who worked with [Eric] Clapton. When I get to expand my show, songs like that, and “All of My Life,” and “The Old Crowd” – which was written for me by Carole King and Gerry Goffin – are the songs that I’m looking at including within it.

We’ve stripped the songs in the show down to rhythm section and voice, and it’s clear what holds up and what doesn’t. It’s fascinating. “Judy’s Turn to Cry” has completely erupted for me as a new song after taking out those strings and horns and bop-y things. Without horns, “Maybe I Know” has a groove. It’s like re-singing them [the older songs] all over again.

BG: How did the writing of “Out Here on My Own” [sung by Irene Cara on the Fame soundtrack] come about?

LG: When my brother [Michael] started working on Fame he asked me for lyric writers. Much to my shame right now, I didn’t consider myself one. I was friendly with Peter Allen, and through that, Dean Pitchford and Michael got together. My brother was living in Manhattan and one afternoon I was up at his apartment and he played me the melody to “Out Here” and described the scene. When he first played it for me I knew what the title was. I was at my friends Carole Hall’s and Leonard Majzlin’s flat — I stayed indoors for 48 hours and knocked out the lyrics and became part of the Fame family. It was a very liberating step. It means a lot to me in that sense.

BG: What did you think of the movie Grace of My Heart, and of the character played by Bridget Fonda [a Gore facsimile]? Did they wholly miss the mark? Did they have the right spirit?

LG: Actually, nothing rang absolutely true in that movie. I think they were trying to exploit my character. The actual history is that I didn’t know I was gay until after college. So whatever they put in the movie was more of a projected scenario than a reality. Certainly, the [Fonda character’s] affair with the PR person is their own storyline.

They asked me to write a song [for the movie], and it wasn’t a completely pleasant experience, to be totally honest. I realized they asked me to do it so they could exploit my name. They sent me a track that had pretty much already been written. I felt the need to doctor it, and the changes made it better. Then they had the lack of decency to pretty much not invite to the [movie’s] opening.

I love musical movies and I’d like to see more of them made. But it took a lot of people’s lives and distorted them. They glued together scenarios — I think the lead [male] character is supposed to be Brian Wilson? Still, I’d rather have a bad version of a movie musical than no movie musical. And I think the idea of pairing different people [in the story] could have been a good one.

BG: Any hints about what you have in store for San Francisco?

LG: I’ll hit the stage with the band that helped me create the new album. You’re gonna get a show we’ve been doing steadily for 4 or 5 months – it’s grown in dimension, and everyone is going to have a great time. I expect they’ll go from laughter to tears as well. People may have to turn their hearing aids up — but that’s what friends are for.

BG: As someone once wrote –

LG: [Laughs] Exactly.

Oaklandish pride, Leela, Lila, and torn, torn, torn


Ever wish you were everywhere at once? Don’t. Be in this body now.

So this body got down to the Parkway Theater last night to catch an eyeful of Oakland pride at the “Celebrate Original Oakland Charm” party thrown by Oaklandish . We beheld a montage of invaluable historical footage including clips of Sun Ra touching down in O-town proper; the bit-too-long, but ultrainformative “Rebels of Oakland,” a TV-ish doc on the A’s and the Raiders; snippets of Too Short, the Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers, The SLA, Remembrance of the Hills Fire & Earthquake, etc. Missed the Bruce Lee. Dang! EEEEE-ya! Also caught the premiere episodes of “It’s Crazy Time”, the local punk-rock sketch comedy show put together by the multitalented Dan Aaberg of the Cuts and friends. Funny stuff–Count Tabascula is a soon-to-be classic.

Leela James works it out. But what is she wearing?

Tonight I’m torn, torn, torn between catching Tinariwen at Yoshi’s, Dinosaur Jr and Comets on Fire at Great American, and Leela James (above) at Fillmore. The sleeper nouveau soul diva makes a stand in the Fillmo’ at 8 p.m.

Later this week at the ‘Mo, Lila Downs brings out her bold new disc, Entre Copa y Copa. The disc shows off both the smooth and strong sides of the Frieda lookalike. She performs April 20, 8 p.m., at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. $25. (415) 346-6000.

Whew. Now off to finally see Brick.

Reid up


It takes real rock ‘n’ roll godhead to turn down the chance to be a “golden god” — but Terry Reid did it. The man who passed on the chance to be the vocalist of the New Yardbirds (ne Led Zeppelin) is back. And perfect timing too: His song, “Seed of Memory,” stood out, soulful and startling, amid the more predictable Southern rock of last year’s gore revivalist flick The Devil’s Rejects.


I’m digging this Water live recording (above), released in 2004. Not a starting point, say longtime followers, but it does feature David Lindley.

Terry Reid performs with Parchman Farm and the Cuts April 2, 9 p.m., at Mezzanine, SF. $10 advance.

Faggots everywhere!


So I was falling out at promoter Scott Brown’s fave queer monthly Faggot at the former Daddy’s, now 440 Castro, last week (somebody slipped me a half-ate Payday bar, and I was using it to terrorize gaybots on their way to Bar on Castro down the street — needless to say the nutty goo got stuck in an overwrought fauxhawk and sashayed doe-like away) when doorboy of the moment Jacob Laurent lassoed me into a mutual admiration session with Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division. No sex, just love.

Payday means “faggot” in French, har har.


Jon’s and my affection from afar has blossomed ever since homocore kicked ass in the early ‘90s, though I lost touch a bit when P.D. went through their Green Day phase — oversize frat house fauxpunk fame makes my amour awfully itchy. Fortunately, the Pansy asses just released a 30-song retrospective that serves to remind me of the good, actually superb, ol’ days. But now that our teenaged dreams of circuit-music death and gym bunny submission to the power of rock ‘n roll (or at least electroclash) have been realized, does that mean old skool homocore is THE MAN IT MUST BE STUCK TO?

I’ll let you know when they stop putting fucking Madonna on the cover of Odyssey Magazine.

Meanwhile, Felecia Fellatio took the stage and did a rousing tribute version of “He Whipped My Ass at Tennis (So I Fucked His Ass in Bed).” Considering she could have cashed in on the current Boreback-Willie-Nelson-meets-iTunes-stoked fever for “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” I thought it was mighty ballsy of her. But then anyone who’s seen Felecia in a tennis skirt knows she’s pretty ballsy already…

(doozy of a photo by Guillermo Torres)

The politically correct term is “Caucasian debris”


Album review: Toby Keith, White Trash With Money (Show Dog Nashville)

Country star Toby Keith came to mainstream attention after his musical response to 9/11, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” The tune, which spawned a public feud with those pinko Dixie Chicks, pleased fist-pumping patriots from sea to shining sea with its jingoistic lyrics: “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”

Weirdly enough, Keith later admitted he was a Democrat, albeit a conservative one who may or may not have voted for George W. Bush’s re-election. At any rate, there’s no doubt that he supports the troops (exhibit A: the liner notes of his new CD, White Trash With Money), though he hasn’t lately sounded off on other political issues. Most of the tracks on White Trash concern women (good, bad, and mocked-for-being-overweight, as in the boorish “Runnin’ Block”), workin’ hard, and drinkin’, plus a song that muses — in the grand tradition of country-music wordplay — “There ain’t no right way to do the wrong thing.”

Clearly, Keith spends most of his waking hours writing new material; he’s released over a dozen, mostly hit-spawning albums since his 1993 debut. VH-1 Country had scarcely pulled the video for “I Ain’t As Good As I Once Was” (from 2005’s Honkytonk University, his final release on DreamWorks Nashville before the launch of his own label, Show Dog Nashville) from heavy rotation before his latest good-time clip, “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” made its first appearance. (My favorite Keith video remains his “Beer for My Horses” duet with Willie Nelson, which plays out like CSI: Urban Cowboy).

So how’s the new album? Does it even matter? Isn’t Keith critic-proof by now? On White Trash, he basically operates on three speeds: raucous rocker (“Get Drunk,” “Grain of Salt”); reflective, mid-tempo crooner (“A Little Too Late,” “Can’t Buy You Money”); and earnest balladeer (“Crash Here Tonight,” “Too Far This Time”). Still, despite his assorted shortcomings, I’ll take this bar-brawlin’ Keith over country’s other Keith — the paralyzingly dull, Nicole Kidman-betrothed Keith Urban — any time.

Daniel in the lion’s den


The first time I heard Daniel Johnston’s music, I’d ordered a tape from K Records, having little idea what to expect. What arrived in the mail was something very different from Let’s Kiss and Let’s Together and other happy home- and handmade cassettes distributed by the label. Yip/Jump Music presented a more tortured brand of raw expression.

daniel2 -- small.jpg

Over the years Johnston has played solo and with bands, and recorded for a major label as well as several indies. He’s inspired an excellent tribute album (Dead Dog’s Eyeball, on Bar None) by Kathy McCarty, and now, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a winner of the 2005 Director’s Award at the Sundance Film Festival. As Feuerzeig’s movie begins a local run at the Lumiere Theatre, producer Henry S. Rosenthal – who some may also know as the drummer of Crime — agreed to talk about it.

Bay Guardian: The Devil and Daniel Johnston begins with some uncanny self-recorded footage of Johnston from 1985, in which he introduces himself as “the ghost” of Daniel Johnston and refers to “the other world.” How did you and [director] Jeff Feuerzeig get that footage?

Henry S. Rosenthal: Part of Daniel’s mania is his obsession with self-documentation, and as you can tell from his early Super-8 films he’s funny and creative. He loves comic books — that’s his world. As for the footage, it’s as if Daniel was creating this voluminous archive knowing that someday someone would put it all together. Clearly that task is beyond him, but creating the source material is something he’s devoted much of his life to. Was he doing it consciously? Certainly — but it’s part and parcel with his illness.
Daniel has a sense of posterity that is uncanny. He recorded all of his phone conversations with Radio Shack equipment. All of that was there for us to go through.
We didn’t understand the magnitude of the archive until we went to the house and found Hefty bags filled with hundreds of tapes. He’s kept a cassette recorder going for every second he was awake for 15 years.

BG: I was surprised at the wealth of early footage of Johnston – his home movies are a hoot. Did Feuerzeig do anything to treat or restore that footage? Also, is Johnston still as interested in self-documentation today as he was while growing up?

HR: All of the texture that you see in the early films — the snowflakes as we call them – stems from mold eating the films. When we found the films they were in a shoebox in a closet being eaten by mold. We sent them to the same restoration facility that Martin Scorsese sends things to. We transferred them twice over two years, and when we went back to watch the footage, the snowflakes or mold had advanced considerably. Those films will eventually be consumed. The fact we could preserve [some of] them means they’ll exist in the future.
Daniel no longer walks around with a cassette recorder. That was part of his manic phase, and he isn’t theoretically having manic phases anymore — he is under the influence of psychotropic medication. Now he puts that manic energy into his music and his art.

BG: His devotion to recording is very Warhol-like.

HR: It reminds me of Warhol’s filing system with the boxes. Warhol just kept those empty cardboard boxes that he’d put anything in. Then they’d be taped up, numbered, and sent to storage. Later, they found so many important documents mixed in with his junk mail. I can’t say it’s effective, but it’s good for posterity. At least you know things are chronological.

BG: Feuerzeig’s rock docs – both this and Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King – allow the parents of the “rock stars” to have their say. Is that something you like about his approach? Obviously in Johnston’s case it’s necessary to have his mom in the film since she plays such a major role in his early recordings.

HR: The Mabel of the movie is a mellowed Mabel. She’s not the Mabel of Daniel’s youth. She’s also not the Mabel of today because she’s unfortunately deteriorated considerably. She’s blind and has had hip replacements and has trouble walking. She’s in frail condition.
The parents are great. Both Jeff and I like old people. There aren’t enough old people on the screen in general. In Jeff’s films, the parents play a key role in the lives of the artists. Jad and David [Fair, of Half Japanese] lived at home during their early creative years. There’s that great scene in The Band That Would Be King where the parents talk about Half Japanese’s first record negotiations at the family home, and about Jad going downstairs and getting Coke – the drink, not the drug.
These people lived at home and the parents are a big part of the story. In Daniel’s case, they’re an even bigger part in terms of decisions they’ve made for him.
Different people view [Daniel’s parents in the movie] differently. We showed the film to an audience of psychologists, and many saw the parents as heroic for choosing not to institutionalize Daniel. Many others saw them as making a big mistake.

BG: The movie talks about aspects of Johnston’s art, such as the eyeball imagery that dominates his drawings. I’m wondering about his early identification with Joe Louis and also the recurrent references to Casper the Friendly Ghost in his lyrics. Has he said much about any of that?

HR: Casper’s always occupied a central role in Daniel’s life. You may recall the sequence [in the film] where Daniel is sent to Texas to live with his brother and he turns his brother’s weight bench into a recording studio. Sitting right next to that “recording studio” was a Casper glass. In one of Daniel’s audio letters he talked about how lonely he was in Texas and that his only friend in the world was his Casper glass.
We found an identical glass on eBay; [Daniel] helped us art direct many of the recreations in the film.
I liked Casper as a kid, but I never thought about it until Daniel asked — “How did Casper die?”

BG: Can you tell me a bit about the decision to not have Johnston interviewed in the movie? It seems as if others talk about him, but he rarely directly addresses the viewer.

HR: We filmed hours and hours of interviews with Daniel, and the sad fact is this: Daniel is not able to host his own film. He’s sick and he can’t tell these stories. He doesn’t remember them, and when he does, he doesn’t tell them right. You can’t draw Daniel out. He says what he wants to say when he wants to say it. He can’t host the movie like R. Crumb hosts Crumb.
When journalists travel all the way to Texas to interview Daniel, they are shocked and frustrated to discover that he’s a mental patient. People want to believe that it’s an act, or that he’s putting people on.
If we had relied on Daniel’s interviews to drive the film, there would be no film. It wasn’t until we unearthed the archive that we realized that Daniel narrated the film, but in real time, as it happened. We don’t have to have Daniel reminisce – [because of his self-documentation] we can be there during his manic phases and see him babbling to Gibby Haynes, or swimming in the creek while talking about baptizing people.

BG: How and when did you become a Daniel Johnston fan? Do you have a favorite song or album? I know you’ve referred to this movie as a 6-year labor of sorts, so could you also give me a bit of background in terms of its creation?

HR: I think I came to Daniel through Half Japanese, whom I met through my friendship with Bruce Conner. Bruce was on Jad [Fair]’s mailing list. Jad would send Bruce packages of records — when you get something from Jad, it’s mail art. Then Bruce had a party in the late ‘70s and brought them [Half Japanese] out and I met them.
My favorite album of Daniel’s is the Jad Fair-Daniel collaboration, which has been reissued under the name It’s Spooky [originally on 50 Skidillion Watts records; now available on Jagjaguwar]. It just doesn’t get better.
Jeff and I met in Berlin [at the Berlin Film Festival] in 1993, when he was there with his film about Half Japanese. I felt like he had made that film just for me. I knew I was the only person in the room who knew who the band was. Everyone was convinced this was Spinal Tap. We talked about our love of Daniel and how there should be a Daniel Johnston film. It seemed impossible. He [Daniel] was dormant at the time. It wasn’t until 2000 that he began emerging again. That’s when we seized the moment.

BG: You are producing Bruce Conner’s sole feature-length film, a years-in-the-making documentary about the Soul Stirrers. Can you tell me a bit about that movie, and about your other involvements with Bruce via the film and his Mabuhay Gardens photos of your band Crime?

HR: We met during the punk rock years and became friends then. Bruce asked me if I could produce a reunion concert of the original Soul Stirrers. I knew nothing about filmmaking at that time. We decided the event was so important it should be documented. We looked for people to film, and that’s kind of how I got tricked into being a movie producer. Twenty years later, that movie is still the albatross around my neck. We are making slow progress on it, believe it or not. It’s not dormant and it’ll emerge one day.
It’s priceless archive footage that we’ve shot, because all of our protagonists are dead.
Bruce definitely got me started in this profession – though I hesitate to call it that, I don’t know what it is – and as I sharpen my skills with other filmmakers on other projects we’ve continued to collaborate.

BG: Do you see any links between Devil and Daniel Johnston and documentaries such as Tarnation and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt?

HR: The movies that most often get mentioned in relation to ours are Capturing the Friedmans and Crumb. Those are either stylistic or content pairings that people are making. There’s validity to all of them.
Tarnation I enjoyed, though I didn’t think it was a great film. It bogged down, but it was interesting. The high point of the movie for me was the early footage where he [Jonathan Caouette] was impersonating his mother — that’s what stands out in my mind. When Tarnation came out, we were done with this film, so Tarnation exerted no influence. We were curious to track it because it relied heavily on a person’s obsessive self-documentation. But I think that the materials are handled with a completely different sensibility.
Crumb deals with an artist who you could say has interesting personality disorders. I’m not going to say Crumb is mentally ill — he’s nowhere near where Daniel is. But like Devil and Daniel Johnston, Crumb is a monograph about an artist.
Capturing the Friedmans will forever remain the most astounding archive of found footage ever stumbled across.

BG: A review of Devil and Daniel Johnston in Film Comment claims the movie makes a virtue of Johnston’s “self-defeating” eccentricity, and asserts that the movie fuels “mad genius” myths while ignoring Johnston’s influences. What do you think of that kind of criticism?
HR: I completely disagree. Daniel’s influences are discussed throughout the film. They’re all over the walls of his garage – comic books, Marilyn, the Beatles, he’s a sponge of pop culture and everything else. He has art books devoted to da Vinci and Van Gogh. He sucks from everything and it gets spewed out through his filter. He doesn’t assign value to things – to him, everything’s the greatest. He has the biggest collection of Beatles bootlegs I’ve ever seen. To Daniel, Ringo’s solo albums are as great as Sgt. Pepper’s. Wings albums are as great as Beatles albums.
He listens to Journey, Rush – whatever garbage, he processes it. And yet when you engage Daniel on a topic when he’s conversant and catch him in a lucid moment you can have the most erudite discussion. He can critique every panel Jack Kirby ever drew.
There’s that shot [in the film] when you’re in a basement and seeing his work materials, and you’re seeing Warhol’s Marilyns. I wonder how many other teenagers in Westchester at the time were cutting out Warhols – probably none. Daniel’s always been plugged in and sought out the most interesting things going on.

BG: What does Daniel think of the movie?

HR: You can imagine what this movie would mean to a narcissist of Daniel’s proportion. Of course, he likes the film — but he’s very funny. He told Jeff when he saw it that he liked the colors.
We did take the time to shoot 16mm film and we took hours to light and compose shots.
The aesthetic of the film is a huge part of it. If we had this movie with a camcorder it wouldn’t have given the subject the weight it deserved. That’s why this movie cost a million dollars.

Throwing the books, Pitney passes, Jew know what I mean?


Give a brother a book, won’t you? Xiu Xiu‘s Jamie Stewart performs solo and Guardian contributor Devin Hoff brings his Platform (his catchall name for solo projects) to a benefit for the Prisoners Literature Project. Hoff tells me he has friends who work at the project who say they’re in dire need of cash, and as luck would have it, his sometime collaborator Stewart also volunteers there when he’s in town.

Tuesday, April 11, 8 p.m., at the AK Press warehouse, 674-A 23rd St., Oakl., between MLK and San Pablo. It’s $8 or $7 if you bring a book in good condition. All proceeds go to PLP.

It’s all about words and action with Xiu Xiu.


Crooner Gene Pitney was a kind of Roy Orbison, only with more tears and more of that insurance-salesman style.


reports that Pitney died Wednesday, April 5, of natural causes:

An autopsy on singer Gene Pitney, who was found dead in a hotel room in the Welsh capital Cardiff on Wednesday morning, showed he died of natural causes, police said.

Pitney, 65, who shot to fame in the 1960s with hits including “Town Without Pity” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” died after having given a concert the previous night that had won him a standing ovation.

“The post mortem results show Gene Pitney died of natural causes and there will not be a police investigation,” a spokesperson for South Wales police said. He added the body of the singer had been released to relatives and will be flown to the United States.

Pitney was in the middle of a 23-show tour of Britain when he died.


Rob Tannenbaum wields an iron editorial hand at Blender but apparently he’s been spending his off hours productively, waxing wittily as part of the musical comedy duo What I Like About Jew. Tannenbaum and Sean Altman have been dubbed “the Bart Simpsons of the Yeshiva” by Time Out New York and hyped with a cover story on “The New Super Jews.” Astonishingly, this CD, chock full of ethnic humor [sample song titles: “Hot Jewish Chicks,” “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat),” “JDate”], is actually funny.


They play two HEEB Magazine-sponsored shows at 7:30 and 10 p.m., Tuesday, April 18, at Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. $15. (415) 861-5016.