As she stares down the remainder of what’s sure to be the busiest year of her career, Angel Olsen’s new digs are helping calm any potentially frayed nerves.
“It’s so mellow here, and people just don’t give a shit,” says the indie-folk singer about her new home of Asheville, N.C. “They build campfires and go to softball games or DJ nights. It’s nice after so much traveling to go somewhere that’s not a huge city.”
For example: Chicago, where Olsen spent the previous seven years developing a devoted following for her striking vocals and emotional songwriting. Although she cherishes the city for helping her hone her craft, the move to a smaller, more rural home was long overdue. It makes sense, then, that Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her excellent second full-length, was born in the spirit of her new surroundings.
Strange Cacti, Olsen’s 2010 debut EP, was a lo-fi and spare batch of songs built entirely upon simple guitar strumming and loads of reverb. The biggest draw, however, was her voice, with its distinctive blend of influences: echoes of Roy Orbison’s pained runs and Patsy Cline’s plaintive twang, among others. She upped the ante for her first LP, 2012’s Half Way Home, enlisting the help of Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang), who fleshed things out with bass, drums and a cleaner production sound. By the time she was beginning work for Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the collaborative bug had fully taken hold.
“The new material I was writing was different than what I’d done previously,” she says. “It was more electric and I had a vision for a louder sound with more going on between the singing. The idea was to create an album that sounded not just like Angel Olsen, but that sounded like a band.”
In putting together a group, Olsen looked to a pair of musicians she’d worked with during her Half Way Home tour. Joshua Jaeger and Stewart Bronaugh are strong and tactful in their contributions, adding color with keyboards, pounding drums and something entirely new to Olsen’s music — distorted guitars. The new approach molded her songwriting in unexpected ways.
“Working with the band and experimenting with my voice made me interested in making music that can breathe, instead of it continually being so focused on the words,” she says. “I can see people being concerned that the sound is coming from a producer or someone else making the changes, but really I’ve just been changing myself.”
Of course, for someone used to shaping her music on her own, having extra hands in the studio took some getting used to.
“I suddenly felt a lot of pressure by having all these people now involved in what I was doing, so I wanted to be very particular about my choices,” she says.
Luckily it didn’t take long for her to build a strong relationship with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Rogue Wave). Songs were arranged and rearranged until everyone was happy with the result.
For all the bells and whistles, however, the standout of Burn Your Fire For No Witness is still Olsen’s vocals. Whether singing a stripped-down acoustic ballad (“Enemy”), belting out pop hooks (“Hi-Five”) or pulling off haunting restraint (“White Fire”), she’s never sounded more self-assured. The rubber-band vocal flexibility allows her to shade the album’s 11 tracks in a variety of moods that still work harmoniously as a whole.
“I wanted to take what I’d learned with Strange Cacti being so lo-fi and with Half Way Home being kind of dry, with no reverb or affect, and use both those sounds and apply them to each song depending on what it called for,” she says.
Like many singer-songwriters who have transitioned to the full band format, Angel Olsen is kicking off the next stage of her career. It’s a rare treat, however, to see it handled with such surefooted poise.
“When you’re with a band, you can listen back and after the show talk about what parts you like or what parts need work,” she says. “When you’re on your own you don’t experience it that way. So the whole idea of sharing it with people has been really fun and interesting.”
MUSIC Fans of the Dismemberment Plan may have found initial listens to UncanneyValley (Partisan Records), the group’s new post-breakup album and first original material in a dozen years, a little jarring. For a band that built its reputation upon jittery post-punk freakouts and raw, cathartic lyrical output, the more streamlined approach could take a little getting used to.
But from the nervous angst of 1999’s Emergency & I, to the more somber and reflective comedown of 2001’s Change, the four-piece has always managed to hold a mirror to the time and place its members were in at the time. Now, they’re in (or approaching) their 40s, and are spread all over the East Coast with marriages and full-time jobs occupying their time. The new material is a flawed but ultimately rewarding reflection of the Dismemberment Plan, now.
Formed in 1993 and steeped in the Washington, DC post-hardcore and art-punk traditions of bands like Fugazi and Jawbox, the Dismemberment Plan’s success came slowly but surely over the following decade. The band’s signatures — including its inventive rhythm section (propelled by the manic drumming of Joe Easley), injection of synthesizers, and erratically sharp vocals of frontperson Travis Morrison — came into perfect alignment on Emergency & I, one of the finest indie rock albums of the 1990s. When the band called it quits soon after touring to support its follow-up, Change, it all felt a little premature — though there certainly weren’t any expectations by fans or the band itself for an eventual reunion. That all changed in 2010, when the group got back together for a brief tour to commemorate Barsuk Record’s reissue of Emergency & I.
Though the band had previously reunited for a couple of one-off shows in 2007, something about the lead-up and aftermath of this tour was different.
“In rehearsals we started jamming more and more, and we really liked what we were coming up with,” Morrison said. “That led us to continue getting together to play when we didn’t have any shows booked, where we’d have to be rehearsing old songs, making sure we know them and stuff like that. So that was the impetus.”
That this led not only to more touring, but also to an album full of new material was extra surprising, considering Morrison, after a couple of post-Plan solo albums, claimed to have “retired” from music in 2009. With a move to New York City, a full-time gig at the Huffington Post, the co-founding of a music start-up (called Shoutabl), and a marriage all coming within the past five or so years, some time off from music definitely made sense, though Morrison has obviously since backed off of the finality that retirement represents.
“I just wanted to take a year off after moving to New York where I didn’t have any shows, didn’t have any bands, no records coming out … I just wanted to live,” he said. “I wanted a sabbatical — but ‘retired’ is so much more fun to say than sabbatical.”
For all of its shimmery pop leanings and at times perhaps overly-comfortable grooves, Uncanney Valley isn’t without many of the strengths and idiosyncrasies that make the Dismemberment Plan the Dismemberment Plan. Synths are expertly layered throughout, Easley’s drumming and Eric Axelson’s bass playing are as locked in as ever, and Morrison can still surprise you with odd little one-liners that wind up rattling around in your head for days. Lyrically, the album is all over the map and ventures into a lot of uncharted territory for the band: the sacrifices of fatherhood (“Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”); the comfort found in long-term, post-infatuation relationships (“Lookin'”); the anxiety and loneliness of moving to a new city (“Invisible”). This is grown-up shit, being explored admirably. Still, you have to wonder how this will juxtapose in a live setting with all the older material, which feels like a lifetime away from where the band is now. Morrison for one, isn’t worried.
“There aren’t too many of our older songs that are solely based on adolescence or adolescent issues,” he said. “There are very few songs where we accused someone of not understanding us, which is a very young thing to do. I think there’s a lot of philosophical distance or perspective, where when I sing those songs now, I think, ‘Wow, we must have been little old men when we were like 23.’ The fact that there aren’t many accusatory songs makes it easier to convey the older stuff now at 40 years old.”
Whether Uncanney Valley represents an official final chapter in the Dismemberment Plan’s career or the first in a series of new band happenings remains to be seen. The group is taking it all one day at a time, and Morrison certainly wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Someone told me once that Bill Murray tells everyone that he’s retired, but then just comes out of retirement whenever there’s something exciting or interesting to do and I really like that attitude,” he said. “So whatever Bill Murray does, I do.” *
It’s been a big couple of years for El-P, Killer Mike, and the twosome’s recent musical courtship. In 2012, nothing but praise seemed to follow both El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure (guest starring Killer Mike) and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (produced by El-P).
The momentum gained by those two albums led to this summer’s Run the Jewels, a collaborative project and eponymous album that further solidified the hard-edged, spaced-out vibe they’ve been after together. The pair brought this new material as well as solo sets to the Independent last Tuesday night.
Kool A.D. kicked the night off with a set bolstered by a committed air guitarist furiously playing along to god knows what beside him. Anyone familiar with Kool A.D.’s solo mixtapes or Das Racist’s somewhat polarizing brand of meta-rap probably knew what they were in for — a mix of lackadaisical indifference, sarcastic charm, witty punchlines, and occasional moments of locked-in inspiration — and he pretty much made good on those expectations.
A big Das Racist fan myself, I personally enjoyed the set, particularly a remixed run-through of the hyphy-inspired “Town Business,” though outside of the die-hards going nuts up front, the overall reception was a bit lackluster.
New York-based Despot brought the energy level up a bit with a solid set of fiery raps laid over vaguely old-school, soul sample-infused beats. He earned one of the funnier moments of the night when he brought El-P, Kool A.D., and the rest of the crew out for a brief “aerobics routine” that involved the seven or eight of them on stage clumsily working through synchronized dance moves.
Killer Mike’s set was punctuated by a heart-on-sleeve social conscience and glowing appreciation for his recent resurgence to go along with his lively Southern rap. The setlist was unsurprisingly full primarily of tracks from R.A.P. Music and all of them sounded fantastic. He dropped the beat and supplemental instrumentation out entirely for “Reagan,” leading to a deliberate, a cappela reading of the song and a venue-wide call and response of “FUCK RONALD REAGAN!” afterward.
Between songs, he strengthened his rapport with the crowd via his description of a spiritual connection he’s always felt with San Francisco and multiple references to Oscar Grant and the importance of finding common ground, be it racially, socially or religiously, with one another.
El-P hit the stage next, burning through a set full of Cancer 4 Cure tracks. Highlights included “The Full Retard,” which he jokingly introduced as “the most pussy song he’s ever written.” While I enjoy El-P’s flow, I’ve always loved the dense murkiness of his production even more, so it was great to hear his beats in a live environment, which, strengthened by the Independent’s sound system and a shit-ton of low end, sounded massive.
It was nearly three hours after the show started by the time El-P and Killer Mike hit the stage together for their Run the Jewels set, but most everyone in attendance hardly seemed to care. The addition of a guitarist, keytarist, and multiple percussionists amped up the feel of the set as the two ran through their excellent new album.
Tracks like “36” Chain” and “Banana Clipper” stood out a little extra, as the two enthusiastically stalked around on stage, seamlessly trading off verses. Aside from being a solid and engaging set from start to finish, you couldn’t help also view it as a giddy celebration of the pair’s recent successes and mutual admiration for one another.
MUSIC Nick Waterhouse no longer calls San Francisco home, but the city’s fingerprints are all over Time’s All Gone, his effortlessly fun, debut LP. The retro-minded songwriter-producer crafts perfect little tributes to the punchy 1950s R&B sounds he’s been drawn to since he was a kid, all steeped with an endearing reverence for old-school record culture and recording techniques.
“We cut as live as possible, so a lot of the record is eight people in one room playing at the same time,” he explains. “Everybody’s gotta feel it together, and if they don’t, you really don’t have a song, in my opinion.”
As a Southern California kid growing up in the Costa Mesa area, Waterhouse approached his music listening from a studious angle, soaking up the Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker records of his parents, along with the Descendents and Sonic Youth albums he found. The well-rounded sonic diet can be heard within the frayed edges and garage rock appeal that Time’s All Gone has in spades.
“I listened to everything I could because I wanted to gain as much experience as possible,” he says. “I was the kid staying up for hours with the radio under the covers.”
By 18, Waterhouse had moved to San Francisco and quickly jumped headfirst into the DJ scene, spinning and building a network of like-minded cohorts at the Knockout’s Oldies Night and Saturday Night Soul Party at the Elbo Room, which brought him in touch with folks like Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin. No connection, however, would become as important to him as his relationship with Rooky Ricardo’s, the Dick Vivian-owned oldies-R&B-soul-centric gem of a record store in the Lower Haight.
“Rooky Ricardo’s informed a lot of how I developed as a person, and it’s all in the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s got that clubhouse feel.”
Waterhouse recorded the saxophone-propelled blast of “Some Place” in the summer of 2010, an undertaking that he says was fueled more by a desire to sell vinyl copies to friends and fellow Rooky’s shoppers than to start a full-fledged music project.
“I really had no interest in it at the time,” he explains. “I figured I’d just keep making these 45s for fun and no one would even know who I was.”
After some nagging by friends to put something together for live shows, however, he caved and began recruiting players for the beginnings of what is now the Tarots, his perfectly complementary backing band. Together with Waterhouse’s guitar playing and expressive croon, the group uses horns, piano, drums, and female backing vocals to pay tribute to soulful R&B without ever falling victim to hollow mimicry or self-conscious irony. This is warm music made by passionate people with only the purest of intentions.
When it came time to record an LP, Waterhouse did what anyone who’s heard his music might expect and found an all analog studio in Costa Mesa called the Distillery to work out of. With the use of vintage gear, old ribbon mics, and classic recording techniques, he says that Time’s All Gone was constructed entirely with vinyl in mind.
“I can’t lie and pretend that as somebody born in the late-1980s I haven’t had moments of discovery because of digital music,” he says. And while yes, he has found music digitally over the years, he doesn’t have any vivid, concrete memories of those discoveries, the way he does with physical records. “I can still remember what listening station at Rooky’s I was at when I first heard a record, or what weird flea market I found something at. Having something tangible in front of you helps you associate.”
Waterhouse recently moved back to Southern California due to his quickly escalating, hectic tour schedule, but the plan has always been to officially release his album in San Francisco. In a beautiful bout of planning, Wednesday night’s show will not only mark the release of Time’s All Gone, but will also serve as a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the day Rooky Ricardo’s first opened its doors. Expect the dance party to start early and run late, as Waterhouse has enlisted the help of some of his favorite local DJs to spin before and after his set.
“In my mind, my album was born out of Rooky’s and out of a specific period of time in San Francisco more than anything else,” he says. “So this is my party for all the people and things that really mattered to me there.”
While the Magnetic Fields’ newest album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, recaptured the group’s love for synthesizers and electronics, Saturday night’s Fox Theater performance was a testament to the timeless quality of its stripped-down acoustic format.
Using a charming setup of mandolin, acoustic guitar, accordion, piano, and cello, the band burned through 25-plus songs from various points in its two decades-strong career. The first plucks of opener “I Die” quickly established Stephin Merritt’s morose rumble of a voice — which sounded just as drolly beautiful and unbelievably deep as it does on record — and quickly hushed the impressively diverse crowd populated with theater geeks, punk rockers, old-timers, and lovey-dovey hipster couples.
It didn’t take long for the band to begin tackling songs from its landmark 1999 album, 69 Love Songs. Tracks like “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off” and “Busby Berkeley Dreams” elicited giddy responses amongst the audience and led to more than a few people lightly singing along. An unexpected treat came when Merritt took lead vocals on “Come Back From San Francisco,” a track that was sung by member Shirley Simms on the album.
Speaking of Simms, vocal duties were shared among her, Merritt, and Claudia Gonson all evening, which helped keep things lively and unpredictable. Just as Merritt had taken over for her on “Come Back From San Francisco,” Simms reciprocated with a rousing rendition of his “Fear of Trains,” from the country-influenced The Charm of the Highway Strip.
With such a big catalog to compose a setlist from, nearly every album was represented, from the baroque sounds of Realism (“You Must Be Out of Your Mind), to the noisy Distortion (“Drive On, Driver”) and early favorites like Distant Plastic Trees (“Tar-Heel Boy”). Arrangements of all of these were simple and elegant, and a real testament the talent and attention to detail of each member.
Merritt’s well-documented prickly personality shone through at times in agitated comments to the crowd about flash photography and unnecessary hooting and hollering. And, if basing an opinion strictly off of body language, it really seemed like he’d have rather been anywhere else than on stage all show. None of that took away from what was a wholly fun, engaging and heartwarming show, however, which even at a packed 90 minutes felt all too brief.
Fresh off a slot headlining NPR’s South By Southwest showcase and an appearance on Conan the night before, Sharon Van Etten played an emotionally-charged set to a sold-out and receptive Independent crowd Wednesday night.
I walked in just as Philadelphia’s the War On Drugs was kicking off its set, which proved to be a satisfyingly loud, jammy, and psych-tinged counterpart to Van Etten’s more straightforward sound. Both big fans of the band’s 2011 album, Slave Ambient, my friend and I had expressed some pre-show concerns about how the songs would translate live, seeing as just how vital the hazy production seemed to be to that record. Turns out, there was nothing to worry about. Tracks like “Brothers,” “Come to the City” and “Your Love Is Calling My Name” sounded huge, capturing both the infectious Springsteen-esque melodies of leader Adam Granduciel and the thick layers of foggy synth and guitar effects perfectly.
Apparently unimpressed with the group’s unique hybrid of Americana and druggy shoegaze, a texting audience member right up front was repeatedly called out by Granduciel throughout the set, much to the amusement of the crowd. “Whatcha got on there, you reading the New York Post or something,” he said sarcastically. “Maybe you were looking up tabs for the song we were just playing, while we were playing it? Try learning this next one. I don’t think you can play it.” At one point, he called for the guy to count off the next song, which he did, quite enthusiastically at that, only to have not a single member of the band hit a note after he’d reached “4.” It was all a bit awkward, but pretty damn funny.
If The War On Drugs’ rapport with the crowd could be defined by those slightly surly exchanges, Sharon Van Etten’s was an entirely different animal. From the first moments, the show took on the feel of a casual conversation between Van Etten, her bandmates, and the audience; it was full of charmingly off-the-cuff moments and storytelling.
Entering the stage solo, she opened the set with an acoustic number before welcoming her band on stage and declaring, “Alright, now for the real shit.” Tracks from Tramp, her recent critically-acclaimed album, dominated much of the set, which, with the backing of her excellent band, sounded tight and as emotionally resonant as fans would have hoped.
Between songs, Van Etten’s personality shone through, conveying a really humbled sense of charm, wit, and affability. Clearly familiar with her New Jersey roots, a number of East Coast transplants in the crowd began shouting out neighborhoods and landmarks, which seemed to catch her off guard at first. Rather than ignore the somewhat banal references, however, this became a running thread throughout the show, as we were treated to bite-sized tidbits about the random places being yelled out, such as the bar where she smoked her first cigarette, the high school where her teenage boyfriend went (“He was really cool, and he had a car”) or the elementary school where her aunt worked as a substitute teacher.
As engaging as the loose back-and-forth banter was throughout the evening, the music was even better. Whether it was drifting by on the sparse “Kevin’s” or ratcheting up a few notches on melancholic rockers such as “Serpents,” Van Etten’s voice was the star of the show. As I watched her burn through a driving version of “Don’t Do It,” a highlight from her 2010 album, Epic, I was struck by how much more self-assured and professional she sounded than when I’d seen her at Bottom of the Hill just a year prior. In fact, the whole show seemed like a snapshot of a songwriter who is just beginning to feel comfortable in her own skin – which made me even more excited to see where she goes from here.
MUSIC In 2010, while Franki Chan contemplated the pros and cons of bringing back his much-beloved Los Angeles-based Check Yo Ponytail party concert series, he wasn’t entirely sure where it all might lead. All he knew is that he’d become detached from the rapid takeover of the DJ scene and the lackluster dance parties that were becoming the norm.
At the urging of a friend, he resurrected the popular event from a two-year hiatus, knowing there was an undercurrent of exciting electronic artists and bands just waiting to break out. Now, less than a year and a half later, Chan is excitedly discussing the first ever 10-stop, two-week, cross-country Check Yo Ponytail tour featuring Spank Rock, the Death Set, Pictureplane, Big Freedia — and DJ Franki Chan.
Chan, who also runs the IHEARTCOMIX record label, started the first version of Check Yo Ponytail in 2006 at a downtown Los Angeles club called Safari Sam’s. The shows quickly developed momentum, filling a niche that perhaps people hadn’t yet realized they’d been yearning for.
“At the time, we were one of the first parties in town to put a focus on the breaking electro scene,” Chan says. “And that attitude of mixing bands, electronic artists, and DJs was part of what made it feel different.”
Soon word spread outside of Southern California and Check Yo Ponytail began drawing high-profile acts such as Justice, The Horrors, Boys Noize, Das Racist, even Andrew W.K., whose relentless party anthems actually might best encapsulate the underlying spirit Chan strives for at his shows.
Though it tends to favor electro, rock, and hip-hop most, the characteristics of a Check Yo Ponytail show go beyond genre limitations. Chan doesn’t care what kind of music an artist or band makes as long as it’s fun and adds to the whole tight-knit, projector screen visual-fueled, dance-minded feel of the evening.
“There’s a linear feeling in these bands’ outlook that is expressed in their energy and how they perform,” he says. “We want it to feel like a very family style show and we invite all the performers to join each other onstage. We hope audiences will come and want to be there from the start to the finish. It’s run like a show, but it feels more like a party.”
Spank Rock, a.k.a Naeem Juwan, is of those performers expressing energy on the tour — fresh off the release of his long-anticipated sophomore LP, Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar. Forgoing some of the straight-up party rap and Baltimore club bangers of his debut for a decidedly more all-over-the-map approach, the album’s excellent mashing of pop, electro, hip-hop, and rock sounds like a business card for the Check Yo Ponytail “sound.”
“I just get bored with the same genres, dealing with the same sounds,” Juwan says. “I think it’s a pretty cohesive album, but the parts that might feel weird or schizophrenic about it I think are just because it’s my album,” he continues, referencing his decision to release the album on his own label and break free of his previous one producer approach.
Juwan was very familiar with Check Yo Ponytail even before Chan asked him to headline its maiden tour voyage, describing it as “one of the few parties in LA where you get to be exposed to a lot of new independent dance and rock music together.” He’s also well acquainted with New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia, who guest stars on his new album, and the Death Set, after befriending the Australian electronic punk group during its stint living in Baltimore. This familiarity will no doubt come across at a show that is essentially a big group of friends traveling around the country, partying, and playing music together.
“Every act has a ton of energy,” Juwan says. “So if people are packed in there, I’m expecting it to get pretty wild.”
CHECK YO PONYTAIL TOUR
With Spank Rock, The Death Set, Pictureplane, Big Freedia, and DJ Franki Chan
Accurately summing up the music The Books create is a tall order. Folktronica, indie-pop, cut & paste, experimental — all these tags can loosely be assigned to it, but none can fully capture the group’s mix of acoustic virtuosity and trippy electronics. First meeting in New York City in 1999, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong soon began crafting their unique combination of found sounds, cello, guitars, vocals and studio experimentation. Their work has led to four albums, a remix collaboration with Prefuse 73, and a commission to create elevator music for the Ministry of Culture in Paris. Zammuto took some time to chat about the group’s use of samples and its newest release, The Way Out (Temporary Residence Limited). Below is a longer version of a Q&A that recently ran in the Guardian.
SFBGYou guys seem to put a lot of thought into the venues you perform at. How do you choose?
Nick Zammuto At first, beggars can’t be choosers, so we kinda just played wherever people would have us. And then I think the promoters started to realize that our show just works better when there’s a little more focus and when the ceiling is high enough for our projection to look the way it should. More than anything, the venue — the shape of it and the sound of it — creates the evening. And it’s amazing how it brings out different characteristics in an audience. Part of it is what they bring and part of it is what we do. But there’s that third element, which is the venue. It’s a mysterious thing. I love shows that are sitting down because I think it brings out this more careful detail that we try to bring out in our records, which is difficult to translate to the stage when it’s a noisy environment and beers bottles clinking and stuff like that. But then again, I love the energy of shows that are standing up because people can express themselves easier and we get more feedback from the audience. So both have their benefits.
SFBGYou’re playing with Gene Back this tour, which will be the first time you’ll be performing as a three-piece. How did this come about?
NZ He’s a guy from Brooklyn who we met through a project we did with a cellist named Zach Miskin. He was kinda Zach’s right-hand man for this project and he came up to record at my place and I was just really taken with his playing. He can play anything you put in front of him. He learns really fast, so it’s been great to throw stuff at him to see what he can do. He doesn’t disappoint.
SFBGHow much of a collaborative process was it in terms of him adding or not adding his own touches to the existing material you guys will be performing?
NZ It depends on your definition of collaboration, but I think the energy he brings with his playing, it changes our set drastically and that’s definitely something we have no control over, you know. That’s his thing. He’s tried to execute the parts that we’ve created for him, but he’s also solved a lot of problems that we wouldn’t have foreseen, not being able to play them ourselves. And he loves to dive into things. For example, he can actually play the guitar riff on “Tokyo.” He came up to us and was like, “Hey, look what I can do.” That’s something we never expected to be able to play live, and sure enough, it’s in the set now because of him.
SFBGSpeaking of the guitar line on “Tokyo,” that’s one of many parts on your guys’ albums that makes you wonder how exactly it was created and recorded.
NZ I think nothing is really what it seems on our records and we do a lot of work to cover our tracks in terms of where things come from and how things were made. But essentially, I played that guitar line just as it appears on the record, except it was about half the speed when I originally played it. I just sped it up to see what it would sound like. And it turned the tambour of the guitar into this high-strung, mandolin kind of sound, which was cool, so we kept it. My fingers just don’t move that fast. But luckily there are people out there who can execute my ideas (laughing).
SFBGAs diverse as your music can be, there is still a very recognizable overall sound. But it’s not always easy to describe. After all these years, have you guys settled on a fallback response when someone asks what kind of music you make?
NZ The word we go back to because it’s kind of open-ended is “collage.” We pull things from all different places and try to put them together in some compelling way, and I guess the most basic word for that is collage. I think people try to attach all kinds of genre names to it, but none of it has really felt comfortable to us. We just kinda do what we do. But you know, sampling is a big part of what we’ve always done. Figuring out a way to connect all these disparate elements is the basic work we do. So, it feels like collage.
SFBGI’ve always been curious about how you find the material you sample. Where did the material featured on The Way Out come from?
NZ During our tours in 2006 and 2007, we stopped at thrift shops all along the way, wherever we could. We’d pick [up] VHS tapes and audio tapes. Paul is kind of in charge of the audio side of the collection and I do more of the video side. Basically, we take the tapes and digitize them and then go through them and save all the stuff we think might be useful, having no idea what it might be used for. If it kind of has this memorable, emotional quality, we save it and keep it around. And the cream rises to the surface, in a way. We end up with these samples that are so far and above anything that anyone would expect, and you just have to use them. So, we throw all those in a folder called “Must Be Used.” And that’s what starts a lot of the ideas for the compositions.
SFBGThe answering machine messages in “Thirty Incoming” are simultaneously touching and kind of silly. How do you decide what musical tone and context you’re going to frame a sample in once you decide to use it?
NZ A sample like that just speaks to everyone, you know. And it’s interesting how the interpretation of that phone message varies from “Wow, this is the most sincere man I’ve ever heard in my life” — which was my interpretation when I first heard it — to “That’s creepy. I don’t know what I’d think if I got that message on my phone.” So, it just has this sort of supercharged quality to it where it means a lot to everyone who hears it, but for different reasons. You can’t really go wrong with it, unless you were to counteract its tone somehow. What it suggested to me was this oceanic kind of sound. Those lines go so deep, that it had to be this wave after wave of pulsating sound coming in and then receding. Then we tried to find musical elements that could achieve that sound. So, we ended up using cello and effected vocals, electric guitar and bass to pull it all together. And also this drum tom that I recorded last summer while we were in London. This is the first time we’ve used real drum sounds in forever. It was fun to work with that quality of sound.
SFBGHearing drums sprinkled throughout was a nice surprise on this album. I particularly like the hi-hat pattern throughout “I Didn’t Know That.”
NZ That was a lucky find. It was from a rare record with only like 500 copies made in the 1970s. It’s from this black history record. And it’s just this great hi-hat riff that’s just there between these two spoken word tracks. When we heard it, we were like, “Wow, that’s totally amazing.”
SFBGHave you ever been contacted by someone who appears in one of the found samples you’ve used throughout your career?
NZ People ask this a lot, and we haven’t, I think for a couple of reasons. Like going back to the “30 Incoming” samples, that tape must be 20 years old already, so who knows how old those people are now. And you know, we’re a pretty small band and it doesn’t really go outside of a certain circle of people who listen to this kind of thing. So, I don’t know how it would get to them, unless it was through some crazy kind of way. Maybe it will happen someday.
It would probably take some crazy series of connections. But it’d have to be a crazy feeling for someone to stumble upon a song that contains something they said or did and most likely forgot about 20 or 30 years ago.
It feels like archeology, even though it’s of the recent past. It feels like there’s some distance between now and then, so it takes on a totally different meaning. There’s all this inadvertent cultural information in these tapes. Stuff that was in the background when people were making them, but now they become the foreground because it’s so different from how we are now. And it often comes across as funny. But it also has this unconscious quality to it, which is what I like about it. That none of this stuff is planned. It’s not preconceived what this stuff means. It’s really honest in the way it comes though. It’s just people being themselves.
SFBGAs meticulous as you guys seem to be at crafting albums and each individual song, do you ever struggle with deciding when something is done being worked on?
NZ Yeah. I mean, I compose the stuff and it takes forever (laughing). And it’s a completely exhausting process. But you just kinda know when you’re done, because you don’t want to work on it anymore. It becomes like a zero-sum game. Nothing you can do can make it any better than what it is, so you just let it go. Tracks are never finished, they just kind of escape.
SFBGYou switched from the European label Tomlab to the US-based Temporary Residence Limited for The Way Out. Is there a difference between how Europeans and Americans approach your music?
NZ I think Europeans think of us as kind of like a freak show (laughing). And they like us for that reason. But I think when we play in the US, there’s this familiarity because there’s more nostalgia to it. Because we all grew up in the times that we’re sampling from, the ’80s and ’90s mostly. It’s less of a freak show and more of a warm look at the past and where we came from. Kind of reclaiming our childhoods in a way.
SFBGWhat kind of music inspired you both during the creation of the new album? And is there something you’ve been particularly into as of late?
NZ Me personally, I’ve been on a big Police kick. I don’t know why. But going back to their catalog, I love the way their records are produced. And I especially love Stewart Copeland’s contribution. He can play the drums like no one else. It all has this clarity and precision and energy to it that I really love. So, I’ve kind of been studying that from more of a production standpoint. As for inspiration during The Way Out, during our visit to London in 2009, Nigel Godrich’s engineer Drew Brown invited us to Nigel’s studio for about a week. Nigel was away working on something else and Drew was like, “You should just go and play,” and we were like, “Are you kidding me?” (laughing). And seeing how that studio is put together and the music that has come out of it, Nigel’s and Drew’s way or working is really inspiring to me in terms of getting a mix that’s kind of warm and transparent but also really powerful. I think that had a direct effect on our record.
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog is the kind of band that can’t seem to get enough of life on the road. Earlier this fall, during the first of two nights at the Fillmore on what is the band’s second full tour in support of April’s Shame, Shame (Anti), fans were treated to a lengthy, lively set of retro-minded indie-rock.
The show kicked off with Shame, Shame opener “Stranger,” which showcased bassist Toby Leaman’s perfectly frayed vocals set amongst some soaring Beatles-esque harmonies and Motown posturing from his band mates. “Slowly I’ve become undone/ a stranger, with a stranger heart,” he yelped with a gruff clip to his voice, sounding like Harry Nilsson during his late, destroyed vocal cord phase.
Shame, Shame material filled most of the band’s set list, with Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken trading off lead vocal duties nearly song for song. McMicken’s higher-pitched, smoother-around-the-edges voice offered a nice counterpoint to Leaman’s, and led to a couple of the show’s highlights. “The Old Days” from 2008’s Fate (park the Van) started with a slow, snaking piano line courtesy of Zach Miller (the band’s stoically efficient keyboardist/organist) and McMicken singing, “Let go of the old ones/ we’ve got some new ones.” By song’s end, the band was jumping around the stage during a rollicking outro section led by Leaman’s catchy bass line and McMicken’s classic-rock soloing. “The Breeze” offered maybe the best example of how well these guys have locked down their live arrangements, with tambourine, shakers, and three-part harmonies carrying the sparse opening lines before the whole band jumped in. Leaman took over vocals during the song’s breakdown, gazing right through the crowd, singing, “Are there dark parts, to your mind/ Hidden secrets, left behind/ Where no one ever goes/ But everybody knows” with an unsettling stare, finishing with a cathartic “It’s alright!”
Elsewhere, the brand new “Take Me Into Town” sounded like Beggars Banquet-lite, the Architecture in Helsinki cover “Heart it Races” took on a classic soul and R&B feel, and “Worst Trip” from 2007’s We All Belong (Park the Van) was rushed through at a breakneck, almost punk-rock pace. Props must be given to new(ish) drummer Eric Slick, who has stepped in seamlessly and added his own little touches to the band’s live shows.
The encore offered up some unexpected treats for long-time fans. “Say Something” and “Oh No,” two tracks from the 2005 EP Easy Beat (Park the Van) sounded great and far beefier than their lo-fi album counterparts. The highlight, however, was “California,” a stripped-down acoustic ditty with jug band and barbershop quartet touches that really separated itself stylistically from everything that’d come before it.
Tastemakers like Pitchfork have lazily written Dr. Dog off as derivative muggers of ‘60s and ‘70s rock standards, and the band still hasn’t experienced the mainstream success its devout followers know it deserves. But for lovers of good old-fashioned, no-bullshit rock and roll, this is one of the more fun, hardworking live bands around.
MUSIC/FILM In the latest chapter of the San Francisco Film Society’s ongoing efforts to present silent-era films with live musical accompaniment, John Darnielle — head honcho of the Mountain Goats — will be scoring the 1919 Mauritz Stiller film, Sir Arne’s Treasure. The beauty of this particular series, which has yielded original scores from Yo La Tengo (Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painleve), Stephin Merritt (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and Superchunk (A Page of Madness) among others, lies not only in the conceptual simplicity of marrying music and film, but in the freedom of approach given to each film’s handpicked composer. In Darnielle’s case, scoring a film meant digging up some relics of his own past.
“I don’t generally revisit stuff of mine that’s old,” he says. “But then I realized, soundtracking a silent movie is revisiting stuff that’s old.”
Digging through old notebooks full of unused songs and lyrics, Darnielle stumbled on the blueprints for an unfinished and unreleased collection of songs he’d written in the mid-1990s. The songs were originally to be used as a sequel of sorts to the Mountain Goats’ 1995 album, Sweden. But after rediscovering them, Darnielle realized that the songs’ moods and lyrics meshed well with the themes of the film.
Set in the 16th century, Sir Arne’s Treasure‘s story begins with the murder of a clergyman at the hands of three escaped mercenaries who are after his treasure. Eventually finding themselves trapped in the town — and among its vengeful inhabitants — one of the men becomes drawn to a survivor of their own killing spree, and the lines between justice and love blur.
After a few minor adjustments to his newly unearthed songs, Darnielle knew he’d found the material that would make up the bulk of his film score.
“It’s pretty exciting to dig up these old notebooks, very much like watching an old movie and seeing people dressing and doing things in a different manner,” he says. “Digging through those things for me at this point is like combing through public records or something. I tweaked them a little because I’m a better writer now than I was then. But yeah, I’m expanding this whole album I’d made about loss and catastrophe and incorporating it into the movie which is about loss and catastrophe [laughs].”
Darnielle will be pulling some other songs from the Mountain Goats catalog to use during the film, but he hopes his fans will understand that his approach to this project is different.
“I hope people don’t come expecting a sort of huge, surging Mountain Goats show type thing,” he says. “That’s my biggest fear, because it’s much more contemplative and patient in the presentation. I’ll be singing, but I won’t be stomping around or talking between songs.”
Darnielle’s got a couple tricks up his sleeve as well, only one of which he would reveal during our conversation. He’ll start the score solo on piano, but around the halfway mark he’ll switch to guitar as John Vanderslice joins him onstage for the remainder of the film. The two have worked together in the past, and Darnielle hopes Vanderslice and the two musicians he’s bringing along with him will help amp up the intensity in the latter stages of the film and bring it all to a nice “crescendo.”
His biggest challenge has been in finding that perfect balance between when a score should directly and forcefully impact the film, and when it should take more of a quieter backseat.
“Hopefully there will be sound almost the entire time, just because it’s hard for me to imagine dropping in and out of a silent movie completely,” he says. “When a soundtrack drops out of a current film, it’s fine because there’s dialogue. If the sound drops out of a silent movie, there’s dead silence.”
Whatever the result, Darnielle says this is a one-and-done type deal and has no plans to do anything with the score after this one live performance.
“I like things that exist and then stop,” he says. “So yeah, this will be it.”
SIR ARNE’S TREASURE, WITH THE MOUNTAIN GOATS IN SOLO PERFORMANCE
MUSIC Accurately summing up the music The Books create is a tall order. Folktronica, indie pop, cut and paste, experimental — all these tags can loosely be assigned to it, but none fully express the group’s acoustic virtuosity and electronic archival flair. After meeting in New York City in 1999, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong soon began to craft their unique mix of found sounds, cello, guitars, vocals, and studio experimentation. That work has led to four albums, a remix collaboration with Prefuse 73 and a commission to create elevator music for the Ministry of Culture in Paris. Zammuto took some time to chat about the group’s use of samples and its newest release (on Temporary Residence Ltd.), The Way Out.
SFBGYou guys seem to put a lot of thought into which venues you perform at.
Nick Zammuto More than anything, the venue creates the evening, the shape of it and the sound of it. And it’s amazing how it brings out different characteristics in an audience. Part of it is what they bring and part of it is what we do. But there’s that third element, which is the venue. It’s a mysterious thing.
SFBGI’m curious about how you find what you sample. Where did the material featured on The Way Out come from?
NZ During our tours in 2006 and 2007, we just stopped at thrift shops all along the way, wherever we could. We’d pick up VHS tapes and audiotapes. Basically we take the tapes and digitize them and then go through them and save all the stuff we think might be useful, having no idea what it might be used for. If it kind of has this memorable, emotional quality to it, we save it and keep it around. And the cream rises to the surface, in a way. We end up with these samples that are so far and above anything that anyone would expect, and you just have to use them. We throw all those in a folder called “Must Be Used.” And that’s what starts a lot of the ideas for the compositions.
SFBGConsidering how meticulous you guys seem to be with crafting albums and each individual song, do you ever struggle with deciding when something is done being worked on?
NZ Yeah. I mean, I compose the stuff and it takes forever (laughing). And it’s a completely exhausting process. But you just kinda know when you’re done because you don’t want to work on it anymore. It becomes like a zero-sum game. Nothing you can do can make it any better than what it is, so you just let it go. Tracks are never finished, they just kind of escape.
SFBGHave you ever been contacted by someone who appears in one of the found samples you’ve used throughout your career?
NZ People wonder about this a lot, and we haven’t, I think for a couple of reasons. Who knows how old some of the people on those tapes are now? And you know, we’re a pretty small band, so I don’t know how it would get to them, unless it was through some crazy kind of way. Maybe it will happen someday …
[Working with the tapes] feels like archeology, even though it’s of the recent past. There’s some distance between now and then, so [the material] takes on a totally different meaning. There’s all this inadvertent cultural information in the tapes. Stuff that was the background when people were making them becomes the foreground because it’s so different from how we are now. And it often comes across as funny. But it also has this unconscious quality to it in that none of the stuff is planned. What it means isn’t preconceived. It’s really honest in the way it comes though. It’s just people being themselves. And that’s what I really like about it.
Before our car ride home discussion of some of our favorite parts of the show, my friend and I had already agreed on something; holy shit that was loud. Playing to a sold-out crowd in its first of two back-to-back San Francisco shows (10/29), Deerhunter put on a raw, visceral, sometimes loose but often amazing set that pierced through the relatively small confines of the Great American Music Hall.
Walking onstage, front man Bradford Cox grabbed the mic and gazed into the crowd. “You guys look like you wanna have fun. I like that in an audience,” he said. After someone screamed out his love for him, Cox quickly replied, “Don’t forget about Lockett Pundt (guitar),” just as the band launched into the Pundt-penned and -sung “Desire Lines.” While Cox usually and deservedly gets a lot of Deerhunter’s press attention, it should be noted that Pundt is a spectacular guitarist and songwriter in his own right, and seems to be a huge part of the band’s sound.
The opener set the tone for what naturally would be a set heavy on tunes from the band’s excellent new album, Halcyon Digest (4AD). What I hadn’t expected was the blistering distortion and pounding drums that a couple of that album’s mellower, poppier songs would take on. The twisted, bubblegum pop of “Don’t Cry” transformed into a grungy monster with a life of its own, while “Memory Boy” sped up a tad to add to the urgency of Cox singing “It’s not a house anymore” in the chorus.
A couple opportunities to show off the band’s more precise, ambient style arose throughout the set. The deceptively dreamy “Helicopter” translated perfectly and drummer Moses Archuleta included what sounded like sampled drum hits coupled with his live kit. Halcyon Digest’s closer, the seemingly African-influenced “He Would Have Laughed” floated along on a repeating, looped guitar line while waves of controlled noise and feedback ebbed in and out.
After a few minutes offstage, Cox came back solo for an encore that started with him covering Scott Walker’s “30 Century Man” with just an acoustic guitar. He played it straight, which was nice and almost surreal to see after the wall of noise throughout the night. Next, the rest of the band rejoined him and launched into a ten-minute jam that had Cox aggressively attacking his guitar to pull out short bursts of dissonant squeals and screeching solos. The song built up tension slowly (maybe a little too slowly) and then eventually released with a closing minute or so of loud thrashing. A little more paring down would have added to the overall effect, but it was still a solid way to end the evening.
Deerhunter’s widening appeal became glaringly obvious as I walked out amongst groups of grungy teenagers, appreciative old-timers, stoic hipsters, and the annoying drunk guy who had been stepping on everyone’s feet and obnoxiously trying to start out-of-rhythm, mid-song clap-along sessions all night (Hey man, you’ve successfully pulled everyone’s attention away from the band and onto you. You win!). But ultimately, even the kid holding his head throughout the show with a look of “I didn’t realize I’d signed up for this eardrum fucking” walked out with a big smile on his face.
COMEDY Marc Maron is old school. He’s the kind of comic who will talk your ear off about the pitfalls of modern technology and the lost art of conversation while actually making a point. He doesn’t do characters or hide behind awkward self-consciousness. He criticizes YouTube and the oversaturation of stand-up comedy, hankering for a return to the “emotional thought” of comics he grew up admiring. And in what seems to be a symbolic “fuck you” to the modern world, the guy is still rocking his America Online e-mail account. “No numbers or any of that shit — nice and clean,” he says. “I’m trying to make it sound really cool and retro.”
Maron specializes in a type of stand-up comedy that seems to reject any kind of self-censoring, perhaps best comparable to the like-minded Louis C.K. He is brutally honest when discussing his own thoughts and opinions, and vehemently flustered while ranting about personal relationships, the state of the country’s mental health, or why the hell he felt the need to buy a Blackberry (he compares his text messaging ability to pounding out letters on a stone tablet). His success has led to the creation of “WTF with Marc Maron” (www.wtfpod.com), a podcast full of comedy bits, interviews with comics like David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, and Maria Bamford, and most recently, even a bit of Maron’s newfound love for performing music live.
SFBG I was at a comedy show last week and on the way out I heard this woman ranting to her friend about how offended she was by some of the comic’s material. I was kind of baffled that someone could take it so seriously. Do you deal with this very often at your shows?
MARC MARON Part of the tradition of stand-up comedy, and of the comics who I’ve enjoyed personally throughout my life, is challenging people and making them a bit uncomfortable. You want to make people think rather than just sit there passively. If you’re doing your job well, you should have two or three of those people a show.
SFBG You talk a lot about technology’s impact on communication and your struggles to constantly try to adapt to it. If you could go back in time and freeze technological advancement at a certain point, when would that be?
MM (Laughing) Shortly after the invention of the automobile.
SFBG Do you mean that personally or in the grand scheme of things?
MM I guess in the grand scheme of things.
SFBG It’s interesting listening to your comedy about technology, because you walk a line between hating having to constantly keep up and knowing you have to in order to survive and benefit from it. Like the podcast, for example — has that turned a lot of people onto your comedy who hadn’t heard you previously?
MM It’s a whole other world, man. I can be doing a show and get an e-mail from a guy in Chile who’s listening to the podcast while climbing a mountain, and that’s really cool. But too often, I think technology encourages cowardice. You can hide behind a computer, you can hide behind a screen name. Or if you have to talk to someone, you just think, “I’ll just text this guy.” It can be draining to deal with certain things, and that can make it easier. But at some point you need to just man up.
SFBG The podcast is a nice compliment to your stand-up in that you don’t always have to play things strictly for laughs and can often just pick the brains of your guests in a really open, honest way.
MM Yeah. The podcast is unique in that it’s often just two people sitting down, having a conversation. And it seems like sitting down with another person for an hour-and-a-half of interpersonal conversation is too rare or hard for some people these days.
SFBG You’ve talked before about your love for music and playing guitar, and you’ve recently started to perform live a bit. What do you find different about performing music on stage compared to comedy?
MM In terms of baring your soul, I think music is the ultimate form for that. It’s amazing how much you can lose yourself playing music. As for stand-up, I would say it’s definitely a more vulnerable and high-risk art form in that people might not laugh and it’s just you up there. You don’t have your bandmates to fall back on.
SFBG Do you find that it becomes more difficult to stay angry the older you get?
MM Sure. I’ve recently started to come to a place where I’ve learned to accept a lot of things for how they are. I haven’t been doing very much topical or political comedy over the past few years, which is something I used to do a lot of. To do that type of comedy, you really need to be up to date. I used to read everything and get pissed off, and at some point I think I got a little disillusioned with it all. So I don’t do that very often these days. But don’t worry, ’cause I’m just waiting for the shit to hit the fan. And it definitely will.
If you’re looking for a Halloween film fix outside of the usual slasher movies and traditional fright night fare, the Roxie’s got you covered.
Starting Fri/29 and running all weekend, the theater has a series of cult picks lined up. Friday night brings old-school sci-fi flicksThe Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and The Man From Planet X (1951) to the screen in 35mm archival prints. Sat/30, check out the UK gore-fest Corruption (1968) or The Brood (1979), one of David Cronenberg’s first films. And on Sun/31, there will be a double Halloween dose of director Alex Cox, with Straight to Hell Returns (2010) and Searchers 2.0 (2007), complete with an appearance from Cox himself.
A cult favorite due to his work directing Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986), Cox originally released Straight to Hell in 1987. This updated version includes technical touchups in both sound and color design, and also features deleted scenes with “enhanced violence and cruelty.” A surreal cast with the likes of Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Courtney Love, and Jim Jarmusch populates this bizarre, darkly comic mash-up of crime and spaghetti Western genres. The film follows a group of criminals who take cover in what they believe to be a deserted ghost town after robbing a bank. Instead, they soon find the town full of seedy shopkeepers, violent punk rock banditos, and jittery locals with a coffee obsession.
Strummer is probably the best of the “non-actor” bunch, pulling off his role as one of the crooks in believable enough fashion. Courtney Love on the other hand puts in an obnoxious performance that may have been Roseanne Barr’s National Anthem inspiration at the 1990 Super Bowl. Irish-punk band the Pogues (who also co-star) provide a strong score full of mariachi-style flourishes, which sets the scene for the film’s send-ups of shootouts and tough guy bravura.
Straight to Hell’s plot is scattered at best and often doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s not where its appeal lies anyway. The film’s charm is in the loose, DIY-style of its creation. It also seems to have been a huge inspiration on Quentin Tarantino, who must have lifted his ideas for Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction straight from Sy Richardson’s performance as Norwood. It all isn’t quite as fun to watch as it must’ve been to make, but fans of freewheeling filmmaking will still find a lot to enjoy.
MUSIC Deerhunter’s new album is the most cohesive in the group’s young career. Compared to the booming opening seconds of 2008’s Microcastle, the lead-in to Halcyon Digest (4AD) is downright mousy. A simple drum machine sputters in and out like a robot clinging to life before a dreamy guitar line sets the scene for five minutes of textured feedback and a distorted vocal melody from lead singer Bradford Cox. It’s a pretty start to what is often a stunningly beautiful album.
Gone (for the most part) are the more brawny, driving moments of Microcastle and the My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze tracks from its accompaniment, Weird Era Cont. The new material has more in common with the mellower, head-in-the-clouds style of Atlas Sound, Cox’s solo project. But perhaps the biggest stride comes in the full embracement of hooks and melodies that were often buried in previous efforts. This is a pop album through and through, in the best sense of the word.
Tracks like “Don’t Cry” and “Basement Scene” evoke squeaky-clean 1950s artists like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers if they’d been doped up on morphine. Elsewhere, the sparse five minutes of “Sailing” drift by on little other than Cox’s bare vocals, largely stripped of the megaphone distortion and short-echo slapback found throughout most of the album.
Fans will most certainly also notice the band’s expanded sonic palette. Self-recording in its home base of Athens, Ga., Deerhunter enlisted the Midas-touch mixing help of Ben Allen, known for his glossy stamps on Gnarls Barkley recording and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Thrown into the band’s customary psychedelic haze is everything from banjo (“Revival”) and saxophone (“Coronado”) to what sounds like a harpsichord on “Helicopter.”
It should be interesting to see how this new album plays out onstage. So much discussion over the past few years has mentioned the ferocity of Deerhunter’s live show — Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs once referred to it as a near-“religious experience” in the NME. The band will have to find a bridge between its known intensity and the more hushed attention to songwriting found on Halcyon Digest. Considering these guys have yet to take a single misstep, I’m thinking it won’t be a problem.
With Real Estate, Casino vs. Japan Fri/29, 9 p.m.; $17
MUSIC As I sit sipping some morning coffee, Elizabeth Morris of Allo Darlin’ is wrapping up an unseasonably sunny London afternoon. “I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s really warm weather,” she says over the phone. “The last week was really cold and miserable, and then the last two days have been absolutely beautiful.”
It seems fitting to be discussing Allo Darlin’s self-titled album with Morris on a day when the sun won’t be denied. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect “summer” album released in October. Full of shimmery electric guitar, tambourine shakes, and bass lines that would sound at home on lost Motown cuts, the group’s music oozes charm, occupying some sort of space between Belle & Sebastian and a modern, garage-y spin on the Shangri-Las. Out at the forefront of it all is Morris with her ukulele and enchanting vocals.
Originally born and raised in Australia, Morris moved to London five years ago, shortly after finishing school in Brisbane, hoping to do something with the songs she’d begun writing. In Brisbane, Morris doubted her talents and ability to fit in, but London’s music scene proved to be a much more fertile ground for her. “Brisbane at the time was really grunge-y, noise rock, avant-garde kinda stuff — which is cool, but I felt really out of place and would never have felt confident playing little pop songs,” she explains. “I’d definitely written a bunch of songs, but I thought they were all pretty much rubbish. I didn’t feel like I’d written anything good until I moved to London.”
Once settled in London, Morris fronted the Darlings, a group made up of coworkers from the TV and film sound production facility she worked at. After that group dissolved, she began playing solo before winding up with a backing band made up of friends of friends, brothers of friends, and members of some of her favorite local bands. It all came together with a little help from the Boss.
“I was asked to do a Bruce Springsteen song for this tribute compilation and I knew Paul (Rains, Allo Darlin’ guitarist-keyboardist) was really into him. So I asked if he wanted to do this song with me, and that’s kinda how I got started playing with these guys. So we were brought together by Springsteen,” Morris says with a laugh.
In the interview, Morris talks excitedly about some of her musical loves: Jonathan Richman, Steve Martin’s banjo playing, the Go-Betweens, old reggae. She and her bandmates share an affection for Yo La Tengo and their parents’ old Beach Boys’ records. Her earnest and enthusiastic admiration mirrors the tone of her lyrics, which play a major role in making Allo Darlin’ fun. One minute she’s combining lines about love and chili, the next she’s breaking into a verse from Weezer’s “El Scorcho” or singing what’s gotta be the first pop song ever written about Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Her lyrical style is clever and unique — by turns romantic, silly, pensive, or yearning.
“I kind of always write from emotion or feeling rather than anything else. I never really sit and write things in a notebook or compose words,” Morris says. “I’ve tried to write story-songs or songs about characters, but it just never really works. I’m not very poetic, I guess. I’m better at seeing things how they are, trying to put them into words with a nice melody and seeing what happens.”
Allo Darlin’s upcoming tour marks the group’s third trip to the U.S., but it’s their first time in California. Despite the impersonal nature of a phone conversation, Morris’ excitement is palpable. She’s even picking up some American slang. “All the bookers say ‘psyched’ — like ‘We’re psyched that you’re coming.’ It’s really cute,” she says, laughing.
“So yeah, we’re psyched to be doing the West Coast.”
Walking up to Bimbo’s and seeing “Jon Spencer Blues Explosion” sprawled across the marquee in big, bold font, I kept thinking how crazy it was that the group hadn’t performed in SF in over eight years. Though just coming off a five-year hiatus, JSBX has been spewing their sweaty mix of punk, blues, and good old-fashioned rock and roll for nearly two decades. With all three members of the New York trio well on their way into middle age, last Wednesday (9/29/10) was a reminder that these guys were doing their thing long before groups like the White Stripes or the Black Keys were even blips on the radar. And beyond that, it proved they haven’t lost a single step.
San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees opened the evening with a solid set of psych-rock tunes. Sounding like a Nuggets compilation jam-packed along side-squeals of distortion and reverb-drenched vocals, the band set the table nicely for the evening’s headliners. Frontman John Dwyer led the charge, despite dealing with some mic and guitar technical issues. When the band allowed themselves to stretch their legs, like on a tension-building groove late in the set, their attention to dynamics and song structure really came to the foreground. I kept thinking how much better they’d probably sound while bursting eardrums at a dank basement party, but the more posh confines of the Bimbo’s stage still allowed them to get their point across.
Throughout a nearly two-hour set, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion struck a perfect balance between the fragmented, lo-fi blues-rock deconstruction of its early material and the more accessibly polished version found on later albums. As Spencer and Judah Bauer traded off beefy guitar riffs, it became clear why these guys have never needed a bassist. Spencer’s voice sounded just as awesome as on record, and came complete with his trademark rockabilly-style slapback effect on the mic. Drummer Russell Simins was an animal behind the kit, keeping clockwork-perfect time while maintaining patterns as hard-hitting as they were tactful and funky.
My favorite aspect of the show, however, was the way the set was structured. The band went from song to song with a sense of reckless abandon, one song starting immediately after — or segueing into — another. Only Spencer’s pauses to yell “Blues Explosion!!!” (I swear he must’ve uttered those words 75 times) into the mic broke up the flow now and then. At times, a whole song wasn’t even played to completion before the band would suddenly change gears and start playing something different altogether. It all hung together wonderfully — especially during a particularly memorable transition from “Wail” into 2002’s Plastic Fang highlight “She Said” — and brought across a sense of JSBX’s early reputation for wild spontaneity. Other highlights included early hit “Afro” and Bauer taking over vocal duties for “Fuck Shit Up.”
After blowing through close to around two-dozen songs, the set unfortunately lost some momentum during a 30-minute encore. But with eight years between San Francisco sets, it’s tough to blame JSBX for wanting to get their kicks in as long as they could.
MUSIC For over 30 years now, the Clean have been at the forefront of the New Zealand rock scene. Despite some early lineup changes and temporary breakups, the core of the band — Robert Scott and brothers Hamish and David Kilgour — continue to tour together, work on solo or side projects, and occasionally release a new album. For special insight into Kiwi rock and all things Clean, I decided to get in touch with San Francisco expat Barbara Manning, who will be opening for the group at the Independent with her new band, the Rocket 69.
Welcoming me into her house in Chico, Manning pointed to a stack of vinyl and a couple dozen CDs she’d pulled out in a living room stocked full of records. She fancies herself as having one of the most thorough personal collections of New Zealand music around, and after just a quick glance it was easy to see why.
“We probably don’t have time for New Zealand Rock Music 101,” Manning said. “So I’ll just put some Clean stuff on.”
In Manning’s opinion, despite a well-developed and underrated rock music scene that has thrived since the late ’70s, New Zealand rock and roll can really be narrowed down to three essential contributors — the Bats, the Chills, and the Clean. While all three groups have enjoyed various degrees of success, the Clean’s appeal has extended far beyond the borders of their native home to impact everything from ’80s power pop to ’90s indie rock to contemporary garage sounds.
“People incorrectly think that the Clean started rock music in New Zealand,” Manning said. “But they were the first ones to make America notice.”
From the bouncy keyboard melody and chugging bass line of the 1981 hit “Tally Ho” to the more exploratory and expansive feel of some of their later work, the Clean have always excelled at combining a good pop song with a rough-around-the-edges “hypnotic groove,” as Manning put it. Pavement and Yo La Tengo have gone on record singing the group’s praises, and more recently, artists such as Kurt Vile and the late Jay Reatard have made Clean-like recordings.
“The Clean have an edge to them that was especially fresh in the ’80s, when there was a ton of crap out there,” said Manning. “It was great hearing good, urgent, jangly pop songs that cut away the fat.”
Despite loving their music for decades and recording songs for one of David Kilgour’s solo albums, Manning — who lived in San Francisco from 1986 to 1998 — has never seen the Clean perform live. When bassist Robert Scott called to make sure she was coming to the group’s Bay Area show, she jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
“I said, ‘I’ll be there,'<0x2009>” Manning remembered, “<0x2009>’and how ’bout I open for you?'<0x2009>”
Manning’s new project includes Maurice Spencer on guitar, Jonathan Stoyanoff on bass, and Marcel Deguerre on drums. She said that those in attendance can expect a “power pop-heavy” set made up of material from her songbook and a handful of covers. Both her band and the Clean inject a sinister irreverence into the sometimes cookie-cutter world of guitar-driven pop. As Manning put it, “It’s always nice to hear jangly pop music that’s not all paisley and flowery.”