By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I saw Ezra Furman, he was in his underwear.
Performing, no less. The mad Evanstonian — one of the most visceral singer-songwriters I've encountered in this city — stepped onto a bare stage during the South by Southwest music festival in 2012 in Austin, Texas, nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic moves, an unnerving earnestness.
"I was incredibly tired," Furman recalls. "That probably influenced the decision. Plus, that kind of environment needs a little ridiculousness."
At the time, Furman had just relocated to the Bay Area and self-released a new solo album with a title related to his exodus from the Chicago scene: "The Year of No Returning."
One year down, and he's returned — sort of.
Splitting his time between Chicago and Oakland, Furman has assembled a new Chicago-based band, the Boy-Friends — on the same turf where he and his former and formidable band, the Harpoons, ruled from 2006 until last year — with whom he'll launch a summer tour this weekend from the stage of a classic Chicago summer street festival.
The new backers include Ben "Chewy Bar" Joseph on keyboards and bass, Sam "Grape Crush" Durkes on drums and Jorgen "The Diddler" Jorgensen on bass and guitar.
The occasion for the tour is twofold: "The Year of No Returning" is getting a proper release on July 16 from storied indie label Bar/None, and a brand-new set, "Day of the Dog," recorded with the new band, comes out Sept. 17.
As a fairly rabid fan of his raw songwriting, I'll take it as an auspicious omen that my final interview before leaving the Sun-Times was this typically interesting recent chat with Furman:
Q: Where in the world is Ezra Furman today? And where do you call home now?
Furman: I'm in North Carolina by the beach on a little trek with family and friends. The question of home is a bit more complicated. I mostly live in Oakland, and I spend a lot fo time in Chicago and Evanston, where the band is. ... If you interview a musician in their 20s these days, they're having a harder time answering the question of "Where are you based?" The real answer is, "Well, I drive around a lot ..."
Q: The new band is not armed with any Harpoons, correct?
Furman: Yes, that band is defunct. They're all pals. They're doing responsible and good things. I wouldn't dream of kidnapping them from any of that.
Q: Tell us about the new album.
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was made with various musicians, but I had to put together a touring band. To my delight, I've been able to put together a really great rock and roll band that I don't want to change. I call them the Boy-Friends. What I'm trying to do: I want to be like Elvis or Buddy Holly or Patti Smith — a rock and roll solo artist. They have bands, really good bands. I don't know why some people go by their name and some go by a band name. Going by my name gives me a certain freedom. A band name can be ... constraining.
Q: Like Chrissie Hynde, who's made great records for years using a variety of players — that she's trapped into calling the Pretenders every time.
Furman: Right. You buy a Paul Simon record, it could be him or a whole mix of stuff, Africans and what-not. That freedom appeals to me.
Q: At that SXSW gig, in your underwear, you said from the stage: "I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore." What do you feel like?
Furman: I was afraid things were getting a little cute with me. I think some people think of me like kind of sunny and young and cute and innocent. They were starting to say, "He's like Jonathan Richman. He's a big sweetheart." I love Johnathan Richman, but I don't think that's how I feel. I don't feel particularly innocent. I don't feel so childlike anymore. Maybe I'm wrong about this. But I was getting that impression from people, and I was starting to play it up over the course of being in the Harpoons. And now, I wanted to make a record that had to do with adult rebellion. I think I got that phrase from Bruce Springsteen, from the idea of "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
Q: In all of my days, I would never describe your music as sunny or innocent.
Furman: Well, I know there's complexity and darkness and mixtures of anger and joy in the music I make, but I worry that the complexity doesn't come through — especially live, with crowds of people happy people on a night out. I hope that phrase doesn't sound condescending. It's just easy to believe that they didn't really hear the kind of messed-up thing I just said. I always wanted to be fun but not fun. I mean, what do you do with a song like "Bloodsucking Whore" [from Ezra Furman & the Harpoons' phenomenal 2011 album "Mysterious Power"]? How sexist is that song? It's complicated. I think that in my underwear at South by Southwest I was trying to remind myself and everyone else that it's complicated.
Q: I watched you play one of your last solo Chicago gigs on one of the Flesh hungry Dog Show bills at the Jackhammer. You were spewing, yes, some very complicated lyrics for an audience that, let's say, wasn't really getting it. It wasn't a listening room.
Furman: It's complicated, getting things across but also leading the party. I went to a Titus Andronicus show — there's a bunch of drunk dudes with drinks in the air, pumping fists and moshing. I was getting batted about. How do you have fun but also listen to the complicated things they're saying. How does the fun of going to a concert mesh with the sickness in you? It just does. Or it doesn't. It usually hangs together somehow. Springsteen, you know — you worry about him. I worry about him just listening to him. Does he still remember the feelings that led him to write "Nebraska"? It's a tense thing to mix in that complication, and when that sickness creeps into rock and roll — that's very interesting to me.
Q: What's new about the new record, "Day of the Dog"?
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was recorded a year before I formed the Boy-Friends, and to me "Day of the Dog" is a sequel. There's similarity in the title — it's a time of something. This one's the manic side, though — the mania to "Year of No Returning's" depression. That was an introspective record, made in a careful way. It's really rather meticulous. The new record is manic.
Q: What do you mean by "manic"?
Furman: Mostly I mean a musical thing. Trying to get at something like "Maybeline" by Chuck Berry — a sensational moment, a musical thing. It has to do with the tempo and the backbeat and a going for broke. It has a strong theme of messianic hope, of waiting for a time when all bad things will be fixed and all downtrodden people will rise up. That's what the title track is about. There's something in the air that unites these things: rock and roll mania, and the downtrodden or just people who aren't doing well hoping for justice. I think these things are related in the human heart. Rock comes from the blues, which has that thing of the way things are is not the way they're supposed to be and that the broken-hearted people are maybe the secret heroes. That's this album.
EZRA FURMAN & THE BOY-FRIENDS
• 8:30 p.m. June 15
• 6 Corners BBQ Fest @ Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee
• (773) 685-9300, 6cornersbbqfest.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
A documentary is in the works about Dwight Twilley, and in addition to featuring songs from the pop-rocker's four-decade career (including his pair of No. 16 hits, "I'm on Fire" in 1975 and "Girls" in 1984) the film features several new autobiographical songs Twilley wrote and recorded for the occasion.
But you know how film projects go — slowly. With no wrap date in sight for the film, Twilley went ahead and released the songs last year as "Soundtrack."
"This film doesn't seem to be speeding down the track, that's for sure," Twilley says. "I have no control over it. All I was in charge of was making this album. I did my job."
This is what Twilley does: cranks out album after album of remarkably consistent, solid power-pop.
He had his heyday — on Leon Russell's Shelter Records in the 1970s (with the Dwight Twilley Band that included the late Phil Seymour), recording hits with Tom Petty in the '80s — but after the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, Twilley packed up what was left and returned home to Tulsa, Okla. Ever since, he's been living in a midtown home with a converted garage studio. He's got nothing to do but make records, all day every day.
First came, appropriately, "Tulsa" (1999), then "The Luck" (2001), "47 Moons" (2004), "Have a Twilley Christmas" (2005), a live album, another best-of, an album of Beatles covers, then "Green Blimp."
"We almost always have a track going," Twilley says. "The best song is always the new one. We're about seven tracks into the new album now. The new one is 'Everybody's Crazy.' ... We were floundering in L.A. The labels didn't give a sh— about me. But then 'Wayne's World' happened [Twilley's 'Why You Wanna Break My Heart' was on the soundtrack] and we were able to come back to Oklahoma, buy a house and build a studio. In a way, the whole journey culminated in 'Soundtrack.' Now we're just making more records, all the time."
Twilley admits the post-"Soundtrack" work is slow going after the 2010 loss of Bill Pitcock IV, Twilley's longtime guitarist (and one of the most underappreciated ever).
"It's a drag," Twilley says. "Bill and I worked so closely, especially these last few years. We were still recording 'Soundtrack' when he died. It was strange in the middle of this autobiographical album to lose Bill, who'd been there from the start. And we lost [Twilley Band drummer] Jerry Naifeh a few months before. I'm the remaining Twilley Band guy, and I guess I'll still be holding the flag form my wheelchair."
A few guests have joined in on the new songs. Roger Linn (who played those great backwards guitars on "Sincerely") contributed to one track, 20/20's Ron Flynt on another.
Meanwhile, Twilley's been trotting out to a few rare one-off gigs.
"We took our pretty hot little new band to Atlanta," Twilley says of last month's Mess Around Festival, "and played to this kind of punkish audience, really young kids. They were singing the lyrics to every one of the songs. The sang all the lyrics to 'T.V.' Then, we were practically run out of town for not playing 'Looking for the Magic.' We just didn't have it worked up, but they were screaming for it at the end. It's a weird phenomenon with that song. We're rehearsing it. We'd better play it in Chicago."
HOZAC BLACKOUT FEST 2013
Featuring Dwight Twilley
with Pezband, GAMES, and the Sueves
• 8 p.m. May 19
• Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
• Tickets: $25.00; (773) 276-3600; emptybottle.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
More than a quarter century ago, Camper Van Beethoven kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). Singer David Lowery turned up the yee-haw a bit in his next band, Cracker, and dipped a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). Between CVB's end in the early '90s and it's 2000s reincarnation, Lowery produced many acts (Counting Crows, Sparklehorse), guitarist-violinist Jonathan Segel (far left above) got around (Heironymous Firebrain, Jack & Jill, great solo albums including the recent "All Attractions") and bassist Victor Krummenacher played with Monks of Doom and made his own solo albums.
But the rebounds always came back to Camper and Cracker. The two bands share enough off-kilter whimsy and personnel that for most of the 21st century they've been touring as a package.
The reunited Camper is as workaday as the original. Are they celebrated with the same froth whipped up around Pavement reunions or the recent quasi-Replacements project? No. (Should they be? Yes.) But that's not exactly what these guys are in it for.
"As David put it, 'There's no benefit to quitting,'" Segel told me in a recent interview. "We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time."
Answering questions online from his current home in Stockholm, Segel talked — and the boy does go on and on — about Camper's legacy, the band's latest California-centric album, "La Costa Perdida," his own solo work and the growing pains of music in a digital world:
Q: David Lowery told me a couple of years ago: "Cracker is so much my personality and Johnny [Hickman]'s, what I write we can do some version of. Camper is a particular beast." Can you describe the particular beast that is Camper? I still struggle myself ...
Jonathan Segel: Well, we have always been some sort of alchemy of the members of the band, regardless of the line-up at the time. A multi-headed hydra! The long-running line up in the 1980s was David, me, Victor Krummenacher, [guitarist] Greg Lisher and [drummer] Chris Pedersen. Then we hit a snag in 1989-90 and I was gone and replaced by David Immergluck and Morgan Fichter for a year (cut off one head and two more shall grow back in its place!). When we started playing as a band again, we went back to the long standing five-piece, but Chris P lives in Australia, so ultimately Frank Funaro has been drumming with us (from Cracker).
So who are we? One of the really interesting things about writing [2004's] "New Roman Times," and even more so with "La Costa Perdida," was bringing everything that we have all individually done in the interim to the table. David obviously has done Cracker but also a bunch of producing; Victor, coming through the Monks of Doom, has become an amazing singer-songwriter in the classic tradition; Greg, after the Monks, has worked on his own pop albums and is continually finishing an instrumental guitar album; and I've done, well, a lot also. So try to bring that all together into a band, where we all have ideas for what to do. We have feelers in all sorts of different types of music, we all are avid book readers, we all have now been playing music all of our adult lives (and longer). It's tough to describe the thread, but there is a definite California personality that comes out, complete with the punk and hippie personae, and a politicization that verges on the tinfoil hat regime. And if we start from there and go with it, the jokes and inside references can become extremely convoluted and bizarre. And that's fun for us — that's one of the big reasons why we continue to do it.
Q: Reunions of rock acts sometimes seem an inevitability. Tell me about how a hydra-headed ensemble like CVB starts communicating again about playing and writing, and eventually creating "New Roman Times." What was the motivation? What sets the CVB glue?
Segel: Are reunions inevitable? I actually never thought during the 1990s that Camper would ever play again. The process was similar to CVB's dissolution, in reverse — that is to say, in fits and starts. Coagulation, I suppose. I think the first indications were either Victor sitting in on bass with Cracker or my flying out to Richmond, Va., to record "White Riot" with Cracker for a Clash tribute record. (CVB had always covered "White Riot" as a country-ish tune ... still do, in fact.) That must have been 1998 or so? At that point I was playing in Sparklehorse for a couple years and David actually joined us onstage to play "All Her Favorite Fruit" in L.A. at the Troubadour, and I think he might have thought that playing some of the old songs would be fun then. By 2000, Greg, Victor and I were joining Cracker during shows for an "Apothecary Show" sort of Camper/Cracker amalgam, with me or Victor (and band) opening the shows. Then we worked on making old material into new material and new material into old material in the studio, making "Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven" and the entire cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album. These sort of paved the way for us to record together again.
Camper really "got back together" finally in 2002 in New York for a series of shows at the Knitting Factory. We went to a rehearsal studio and tried to play every song from every album in order. Some worked, some didn't. But we realized that we were still that band that played all those songs, no matter what happened in the time in between, and they were all still in muscle memory to some extent. Plus it was an intense realization on my part, that this band of players was how I learned how to play in a band to begin with, it was very "family." So we continued. And made a new album in 2004 finally, and have been playing shows ever since.
Q: When you returned to CVB and were learning Morgan's violin parts, did you ever think, "Hmm, would've done this differently...," and did you seek to tweak or change any of them? How has the catalog settled/evolved over the years?
Segel: Actually, that's not quite right. I played on demos of about half the tracks on "Key Lime Pie" initially, before leaving the band in 1989, and then in the studio they got Don Lax to play violin. He's sort of a madman gypsy violinist from Santa Cruz. It sounds to me like they recorded him improvising and cut and pasted a bunch (on 2-inch tape!). Morgan played on two tracks on that record, "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Flowers," both of which I would swear were me playing. (We had recorded "Matchstick Men" for [1988's] "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart," but didn't finish it so that our first major-label single wouldn't be a cover.) But apparently, says Victor, Dennis Herring analyzed my effects chain and duplicated it, and she played my parts exactly.
When we play material from "KLP," I simply cannot play like Don Lax. He's a really incredible violinist. I'm sort of a hack, a guitarist who started playing violin. So I do have to tweak it and change it, and for some of the tracks, like "All Her Favorite Fruit," I go back to my demo ideas. But when we were going to put out [the 2008 best-of] "Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty," Virgin wouldn't let us use their recordings, so we had to re-record things to have versions of songs from "OBRS" and "KLP" that we could use for this package. Bruce Kaphan was producing these tracks, and his charter was to make them sound as exact as possible to the originals, which was technically very odd, of course. Imagine trying to track down working studio gear common to the late 1980s. I could easily play things from "OBRS" for the most part but, man, the "KLP" things were incredibly difficult for me, technically and psychologically. I felt like I was being forced to pretend that I was the very guy that stole my own girlfriend. It took me a long and difficult session to record these versions of "All Her Favorite Fruit" and "When I Win the Lottery."
Actually, now that I think about it, I have had to learn one of Morgan's parts, on a song called "L'Aguardiente," which is only on record as a live version from 1990, I think. It's technically tough for me also, as she's a real violinist, and I don't get it right every time in concert. I sort of have to do it any way I can. She came to a show we played in Sebastapol a couple years back, and I offered the violin to her to play it, but she didn't accept.
Q: Tell me about making "La Costa Perdida," and what identity has it carved out in the Camper catalog?(Bonus Q: Hey, no instrumentals?!)
Segel: "La Costa" was quite a while in the making, of course — what, seven years between albums? Eight? After working on "New Roman Times," we toured a lot and planned to make a new record by getting together and writing it together. But when we finally had more time to think about it, we were all at home in our different cities (David in Richmond, Frank in New York, Greg in Santa Cruz, Victor in San Francisco and me in Oakland). Then Cracker cranked up their machine again and made another record, and the rest of us worked at our various jobs and on our own records. Then while Cracker was touring very extensively, they actually wrote another record all together. So Cracker had two releases between the Camper ones. In fact, so did I and so did Victor!
Camper still did the same annual touring, mostly Christmas to Presidents' Day, and then August or September into our Camp-Out Festival near Joshua Tree, but it wasn't until late 2010 that Greg and David got together for a few days and actually began to carve out some ideas for the next CVB album. About six months later, we were scheduled to play at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, Calif., and it got rained out (in June!) and rescheduled for a week later, so we all went to my (now former) house in Oakland every day and sat in the living room and wrote songs together. We must have gotten down ideas for about 20 tracks. The ideas that Greg and David had from the previous winter became mutated, many new musical ideas added during the week, many background and situational ideas for the lyrical content came out of the Big Sur area and its history. We zeroed in on the California theme, taking some inspiration from the Beach Boys "Holland" record, which was all about Northern California and Big Sur. We actually went to the studio to cut some basic tracks later that month, and did the rest in the fall. We decided to hold back some tracks to make the album very NorCal-centric, while the remaining ones were tending to head toward SoCal and L.A. (Just wait for part two!)
The actual "Lost Coast" is north of Mendocino, a fairly wild, hippie, survivalist, inaccessible place, but we took its ideas and spread them along the central coast for the content — that mixed with a few stories from Sweden standing in for Oakland. No instrumentals, you're right, except "Aged in Wood," originally titled something like "Meanwhile, at the Love-In ..." — it's actually the same melody as used in "I Was Too High for the Love-In" but entirely transposed into a major key instead of a minor key. I think that both may have started as an instrumentals.
To sum it up, the record grew like a plant, with all of us as gardeners. It didn't take long to get it shaped up, really, it seemed to have its own life. Some of the recordings really show some maturity and musicianship growth on all of our part — after so long we actually know how to play pretty well these days, and the recordings contain some beautiful parts and arranging (if I do say so myself!) and some subtle beauty. I do try to work with the details of everything I record on to make it have enough to reward listeners the more they listen, and Camper has always mixed so that we can freak out that one kid sitting in the dark with headphones in Iowa when he discovers the ear candies.
Q: When [your latest solo album] "All Attractions" came out, I reeled to learn there had been a few solo titles since "Scissors and Paper." I felt like a fair-weather fan for not keeping up. But I suspect lots of fans experience music this way, running to stand still in the info stream. You're an artist and former label chief: What are the challenges today in keeping fans aware and informed of your output, and how do you meet them?
Segel: Man, I've all but given up at this point. It's really impossible to sell records at our individual level. We're lucky that Camper is as popular as it is in order to get a little word out about everything else we do. The thing is, I've also been a front-man or "solo artist" since 1989, but with no real label or agency. Victor and I started Magnetic [Records] in 1993 to make our own CDs. We shut it down finally in 2011, though "All Attractions/Apricot Jam" did really come out in 2012. Financially, I could barely afford to record a band and manufacture some CDs to say nothing of advertising or promotion. (Numbers have dropped precipitously for me in the last while: 1,000 CDs were made of "Scissors and Paper" in 2000, 1,000 of "Edgy Not Antsy" in 2003, then 400 of "Honey" in 2008 and 300 of "All Attractions" in 2012. All of them are gone now, either sold or trashed.) I actually hired the press/PR guy that Camper uses for promoting "All Attractions," but with my limited budget, I got a few nice reviews. I mean, you found out about it! And I think it's my best music so far! Magnetic was always just a boutique label to affix a barcode on our CDs. None of them really sold much, it was a hobby. The company never made money. But every new release was exciting and a new reason to keep going. I actually thought every time that certainly this time people would find out how great these records were!
I don't know what I'm going to do now, really. I don't think I can stop making music, of course, but it's very discouraging to me to continue to spend the time, effort and money for a few dozen people to hear it. I have a Bandcamp page attached to my website, where I have tons of music I've made, film scores, dance company music, all my solo albums, [the bands] Dent and Chaos Butterfly, some random other collections. Most of it is pay-what-you-will — that is to say: market value. That's no way to run a label or be a professional musician. Even with the exposure from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, it's a small circle of friends. So the answer is, I don't know. I have never been able to "sell" myself, my music (or, in fact, anything), and the new market demands hucksterism. I think that's sad for those of us who aren't hucksters, and leaves the market filled with exposure for marketeers more than musicians. I can't imagine any of my favorite artists ever being able to sell themselves, and I'm glad that most have not had to. Those that were forced into retirement or obscurity for financial reasons have my sympathy, to say the least.
Sadly, this all reminds me of one of my favorite musicians ever, who died last week: Scott Miller. He was in a band at UC-Davis when I was in high school in Davis, and I'd been a fan of his ever since, through Game Theory and the Loud Family and beyond. He basically stopped recording, to the concern of many, many fans, about eight years ago, as he had no label or backing and no means to see any new songwriting through to a recording that reached people. He wrote music criticism only (Music: What Happened?) and though many people wanted him to play and record more, he never did. Suddenly he died at 53 years old, and now we'll never get more of his brilliance.
Q: Tell me about your work at Pandora. What did you learn from the "inside" that illuminated (or darkened) your perspective on music and new media services?
Segel: Well, f---. You know, in the end I was fired. I had been teaching music theory and "Desktop Musicianship" (i.e., computer music) at The College of Marin and Ohlone College, but after the 2008 wide-scale economic f--- up, the state let go of a lot of the part-time contracts in the arts. So I applied in "the private sector." I actually thought Pandora would recognize the potential goldmine of musical knowledge and experience I represented, but of course it's a company and you're not paid to think. I tend to agree with Damon Krukowski, in his article in Pitchfork: These companies are about money, and music is simply the fodder they use to make money. I know [Pandora co-founder] Tim Westergren talks big about "being a musician" and how artist-centric the company is, but I never saw that really play out so well for musicians. In fact, where the company had been comprised of many, many musicians at the beginning, there were very few by the IPO. Ultimately, the disciplinary problems I had were based in continuing to "question decisions that had already been made" by those hierarchically above me in the company, even when they were basically unethical, like accepting ads from homophobic hate groups like "Speak Up University" and "Minnesotans for Marriage." But you know, I can't shut up so they "let me go."
I have read numerous articles saying that the trend in music "business" is even downloads will go the way of the CD and we'll only be left with streaming services (paying that ~$0.002 per stream in royalties). No individual could make money on that. It seems that only those who own the rights to millions of songs could. Also, of course, the providers of bandwidth and devices to listen with will get your money. For Pandora and Spotify to become profitable will mean that they sell more advertising and pay less royalties. Who wants that? Well, Wall Street does. And who makes the laws that support these things? I don't think it's the musicians.
Q: You've written a bit about the new business models for musicians. We're always hearing about the freedom offered by new media, but from my post it seems like musicians have to work harder and make less money. Right or wrong?
Segel: As I mentioned with respect to selling music above, I have found it harder to sell music and, yes, we work incredibly hard in Camper Van Beethoven both at recording and touring, and make very little money. So yeah, maybe there are people who can cash in on the "new models," but I haven't met them. All the musicians I know have had more and more trouble putting out records or touring to try to make ends meet. I know many who have given up.
I think the market as such is very geared toward quick runs from young bands and nobody is expected to ever really become a musician, something that takes time and effort. There has always been a focus on youth in rock music, but now there's even more necessity for youth because kids are the only ones who can be jobless and can live in poverty and enjoy the brief success while staying on couches on tour and saving nothing. By the time someone's 40 or so, it's much tougher to continue doing that, and now I'll be 50 this year and I have a child. There's no way I can support our family. In fact to be quite honest I've only made a living as a professional musician for maybe three years of the past 30, the rest of the time I worked other jobs to pay the rent — until I couldn't.
But I think that it's unlikely that the current crop of popular bands will be around in five or 10 years, and the market will continue to cycle through people who will put up with it until they can't. All the indie bands will be young, and few will ever be able to develop their musicianship or talent. Camper has been extremely tenacious, and part of that has to do with all of our inability to give up making music, so we've actually become decent musicians. It would be nice to make a living, but until we can, we'll have to tour only on occasion and record when we can. The problem of course is that work is a vicious cycle, the more time you spend at work the less you can spend being a musician. It's like that Onion article: When you're working 40 (or more) hour weeks, it's tougher and tougher to make the energy to do anything after work as you get older. And of course, the irony is that you really only get better as an artist with time. But yeah, current culture has no use for better artists, they want better spectacle, more youth, next big thing.
Q: There was CVB last month at SXSW, schlepping through sets like any other up-and-comers. In Chicago, you're booked into a very bro-centric sports bar. Are you comfortable at this mid-/survival level of the business, and what have been the ultimate ambitions of CVB all these years?
Segel: As David put it, "There's no benefit to quitting." We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time. SxSW is a particularly weird situation, it's like a big city where human life is a dime a dozen, and there everybody is a musician, so being a musician is worth even less. And it's sort of funny to play at these places where there are a zillion young bands to show off a little what it's like to be a grown up band who's been playing together for years. So who knows what ultimate good comes of our playing there, but it's usually an incredible chaos with some fun attached. I didn't get to see much besides Robyn Hitchcock this year, but in previous years I have been able to see a bunch of cool music!
Q: Your solo debut, "Storytelling," remains one of my top-five desert-island discs. I've rarely heard a better balance of really smart composition and successful improvisation. Can you talk a bit about how you maintain that tricky balance in projects like these and, I'm guessing, in Camper, too?
Segel: First off, thank you. This could be a very long answer, but I'll try to be succinct. I've always been heavily invested in both musical composition and improvisation, and the back-and-forth of these things. Improvisation is really just composing in real time. We may use many methods, like starting with a written riff or progression and improvising on it, or improvising from nothing and then choosing a good bit and "freezing" it into written form and then working on it. I mean, I think all composers do, we certainly know Bach and Beethoven did, and Charlie Parker and Miles and Ornette and Jimi and so on and so on. In Camper, we have a tendency to work the songs into a quintessential form and that remains, to a certain extent, the ideal — but then things slowly change. In the writing stages, we do a lot of improvising around certain ideas. I know that Greg likes to completely compose his parts during the recording sessions until they are "done" and then he will play that same recorded part in concert. I, on the other hand, rarely play the same thing twice, unless it's a complete written melody like in "Good Guys and Bad Guys" or "Chairman Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China" or similar. But take, for example, "You've Got to Roll" on "La Costa Perdida." In concert, we will mostly play the same thing as is the recorded version, but the quiet part of the breaks where I'm playing that bluesy Les Paul lead part, I can't even remember what I played on the recording, so I just improvise. I have the luxury of being able to improvise quite a bit, and I can get away with it in CVB, which I like. We used to have some time to do our version of Tusk or Interstellar Overdrive for an encore in Camper and that was some hella improv on all our parts!
When I was making "All Attractions," I had written the structural stuff for all the songs, and improvised a lot over it for the guitar leads and melodies and such, but when recording the last couple basic tracks, we had an afternoon free in the studio, so we improvised with no starting point more than the first note, Victor on bass, John Hanes on drums, Graham Connah on Hammond and me on guitar, and then I took those tracks home and made compositions out of the improvisations! That became the bonus disc, "Apricot Jam." After that, we only did a couple shows of the songs on "All Attractions", and the last few shows I've done have been entirely space-rock improvisation. It was easier than getting them together to rehearse, that's for sure.
Aside: You know, it occurs to me, as you mentioned missing the in-between of "Scissors and Paper" and "All Attractions," that my entire solo output is in pairs: "Storytelling" with the first Hieronymus Firebrain (self titled) CD, then the two HF "Here" and "There," then two Jack & Jill CDs (and two Dent cds), "Scissors and Paper" goes with "Edgy Not Antsy," and "Honey" with "All Attractions," both heavy electric guitar things. (I'm not counting the improv and electronic stuff like Chaos Butterfly.)
Q: I enjoyed your recent blog post about the bass guitar. What instrument have you not figured out yet that you'd like to?
Segel: Lap steel! (I'm still avoiding the banjo.)
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN & CRACKER
• 9 p.m. May 10
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Tickets: $15 advance, $17 door; (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Tea Leaf Green is a band of San Francisco prog-rockers — wait, come back, it's not quite that bad — who've been steeping for more than a decade in a blend of jam-band ramble-craft and breezy pop melody. They've also consistently upped their game from album to album, shed show to shed show. As jam bands go, they're one of the ones you want to see.
In 2007, the band swapped bassists and picked a winner. Reed Mathis (far right in the photo above) had cut himself loose from the renowned Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey over some creative differences, and he wound up jamming with TLG at a Colorado festival. Some support gigs turned into a job, and by the last TLG album, "Radio Tragedy!," Mathis was well-integrated and contributing beautiful folk ballads like "My Oklahoma Home."
I welcome any opportunity to go on about Mathis, because I've never seen him play when he didn't completely jelly my brain. He's a bassist, but he's not a bass player. He doesn't merely keep the groove locked in. He's a wild, free-form, thick-stringed guitar player, equal parts Stravinsky and Hendrix. And a helluva nice guy, to boot.
Just a snatch from a recent conversation — Mathis on the phone this week as the band headed toward Chicago — about keeping his jazz roots, FOMO and the spiritual path of improvisation:
Q: Did you think about a post-Jacob Fred solo career?
Mathis: Not really, because for me the most important thing is to be part of a musical collective, like a gang. I don't want to be a sideman or an accompanist, which the bassist is usually expected to be. I want to be free to play my instrument exactly as I am in the moment at all times. Which is selfish, but that's OK. TLG is a safe place to improvise. They don't expect anything from the bass, nothing specific. They also don't expect me to play a song the same way twice. They love surprises, which is the cornerstone of my playing.
Q: Are you jam or jazz?
Mathis: A lot of the old Fred fans haven't checked out TLG. They think that's what's happened to me, that I'm in some mediocre jam band playing white boy funk in the back. People say, "Do you miss playing jazz?" The answer is I still am. Every note I play is jazz.
Q: Where does improv fit into our very neat and archived digital world?
Mathis: Improv is not that popular a concept, really — even in the "jam band" world. A lot of my friends adore Phish. They go see a Phish concert and they'll be like, "They played that song wrong" or "They messed up that song." I'm like, no, they didn't. They did something new with that song. Everyone claims to like improv, but it really bothers us. In actual practice, it's scary. People want to feel like they're in control or in the know — that's the huge thing for music fans. One writer called it the hipster echo-chamber, writing about Alabama Shakes, saying everyone's in this rush to be hip and into the new hip sh— and nobody wants to feel like they don't know what's happening. That has real power because that's the reality of our day-to-day life, moment to moment. We'll never have control over our lives, and that's why improv has power. It's surrendering to a lack of control. To me, it's a spiritual duty to face that on a nightly basis. Civilization itself has been a trend of getting further and further from this primal fear, and improv flips that over and gives it the finger. The only time people surrender to that lack of control is when they're in love. Improv is just falling in love over and over, night after night.
Tea Leaf Green has a new album, "In the Wake," due May 14.
TEA LEAF GREEN
with Tumbleweed Wanderers
• 9 p.m. Feb. 23
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $17 advance, $20 door; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Harry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.
The 85-year-old singer — a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" — has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.
In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world" during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama's obstructionist Republican opponents: "The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail."
No surprise, perhaps, that Belafonte says he considers himself an activist first.
"I'm an activist who became an entertainer," Belafonte told the Sun-Times. "It's usually the other way around."
Belafonte's legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. "Calypso," the '56 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 "Midnight Special" album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — a friendship that began in 1950 and which Belafonte says transformed his life — and he's spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr. on the campus in Evanston, concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King's life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke with the Sun-Times about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You're speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King's birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there's always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he'd been around today.
Q: That's a tall order, speculating on the observations of someone who's not around. How do you go about it?
Belafonte: What I find satisfying about the process is the getting into a social discourse on the state of our being universally. When you speak on what Dr. King might have said, it gives you a lot of latitude of putting propositions out of your own voice and opinion. It may carry a response that would be challenging to your point of view, but if you say it in the name of what Dr. King might have said people pause a little longer before giving you a rebuttal because they respect what he said and what he did. It has a little more nuance than if you say something yourself, and under that umbrella you can make a lot of observations about the social condition and bring up a lot of things for discussion.
Q: Where has King's legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women's rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There's the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we've taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn't a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn't complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: What happened?
Belafonte: I hosted the Johnny Carson show in February 1968 for a week. ... Dr. King was a guest, and he showed up late, turned up just as we'd gone on the air. He came on, and I asked him what happened. He said he'd gotten here and told the cab driver to hurry to the studio. He said, 'This guy took me on a Wild West ride.' He's saying this to the audience, 'I had to hang on for dear life, and when he stopped for a light I said, "Young man, I'd rather be considered a Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King. Slow down." I said, 'On that subject, what do you think about death.' He gave an answer that's since been used a thousand times in looking back on his legacy. But I said, 'What happened to the tic?' I didn't say it on the air. He said, 'I made my peace with death.' It was a subliminal display of a tremendous anxiety, not so much about death as it affected him but when he made a decision his first consideration was that there could be violence and someone could lose their life, and I've led people into this conflict and do I have this right? [King was assassinated weeks later, April 4, 1968.]
Q: The last time I heard "Day O" it was a sample in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot, 7 Foot." What's your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I'm not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, 'Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was "Ugh."' You know, the Neanderthals around the campfire trying to keep warm, and everything since 'Ugh' has been a distortion of that. Anybody can take my song. They can glady have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: "Day-O" has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Smiths disbanded a quarter century ago after just five years and four studio albums — a comparatively short run given the lasting depth of their influence throughout indie rock. Ever since, getting them back together has been the holy grail of music promoters.
Millions have been offered. Coachella organizers allegedly promised to make the entire two-weekend festival 100 percent vegetarian to appease singer-lyricist Morrissey, an outspoken animal-rights activist, if he’d take their stage just with guitarist Johnny Marr and call it the Smiths.
But Morrissey’s publicist made the issue Taylor Swift-clear last October in this statement to Rolling Stone: “The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite — ever.”
Reasons are mixed. There’s animosity, certainly; Smiths bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce took Morrissey and Marr to court in the ’90s over royalties. Morrissey and Marr, by both accounts, haven’t spoken in years, though neither can state a particular reason.
Marr aided in remastering the Smiths catalog for a box set, “Complete” (2011), without input from the other members. Just this month, Marr announced a new solo album, “The Messenger,” his proper solo debut after years of working with other artists and recording in various guises. He’ll be launching a tour in March the same week Morrissey’s current leg wraps up.
Morrissey, 53, meanwhile, tours successfully without an album to support. He says the follow-up to “Years of Refusal” (2009) is recorded, but once again he’s without a record label to distribute it.
His return to Chicago makes good after last fall’s cancellation of a string of shows (including Oct. 27 here) in order to return to England to care for his ailing mother. Days before that announcement, Morrissey answered our questions via email — the only way he’ll consent to most interviews nowadays, after years of claiming to be misquoted — about his pending memoir, American politics, the endless Smiths reunion queries and his years of refusal.
Q: What is the status of the new album? You always seem to be shopping for labels; why not release it yourself?
Morrissey: I’m not very bright when it comes to business. Or anything else, come to think of it.
Q: Your set lists draw from many albums, many eras. What older songs have you reconsidered performing (or altered) as the years have passed?
Morrissey: The difficulty is that there are many songs, and I like almost all of them. The era is immaterial, but the earlier songs are more parochial. It never occurred to me that anyone outside of Manchester would like them, or even listen to them.
Q: During your interview last fall on “The Colbert Report,” it seemed as if Stephen Colbert genuinely startled you at least for an instant when he looked toward the wings and joked, “Please welcome, Johnny Marr …” If it had not been a gag, and Johnny had strolled onstage, what would have transpired?
Morrissey: It was a slight look of exhaustion that people still persist with the question. Consider how the musicians I work with now feel. They work hard and we constantly tour all over the world, and it’s always fantastic, yet they are never mentioned anywhere and must persistently put up with Smiths re-formation questions. The Smiths almost left me on a mortuary slab. Is that something anyone should attempt to survive twice? Never mind re-formations: Will I ever get credit for surviving the Smiths? Twenty-five years on, the Chicago show sells out very quickly. Does this mean absolutely nothing?
Q: I, for one, am a Smiths fan that wholly supports your conviction not to reunite the band. Not that I wouldn’t melt down if it were to occur, but I’ve seen so many reunions burst the bubble of a band’s treasured legacy. Explain your reasons for keeping the offers at bay.
Morrissey: Money is the wrong reason to re-form because it immediately puts you at the mercy of those who gave you the cash, and you must do as they demand in order to get the cash back for them. I’d honor any band who re-formed and quietly recorded and got on with being together and enjoying that experience away from the splash of print media. It never happens. Bands reform, announce stadium tours, announce sponsorship and merchandising deals, and then they rehearse together. Ugh.
Q: That being said, you recently told the Village Voice, about the making of “Viva Hate”: “I didn’t want to be a solo artist.” When did you begin to enjoy working solo, and what caused the turnaround?
Morrissey: I didn’t enjoy being solo until “Your Arsenal” (1992), but the best period has been “You are the Quarry” (2004) to date. Previously to then, I was far too hard on myself and I thought I’d be punished by God if I ever enjoyed it.
Q: When you set out reluctantly on that solo path, did you think you’d still be touring (and interviewing) in the 21st century? If not, what other possible futures crossed your mind?
Morrissey: I couldn’t imagine any solo future whatsoever. When the first single (“Suedehead”) entered at No. 6, I was shaken. That was back when No. 6 required 75,000 sales. Now, you can get to No. 1 with 16,000 sales.
Q: Last I heard, you were trying to edit down the memoir. What’s the retrospection been like for you?
Morrissey: It’s all very cleansing. The difficulty is not getting bored with the central character.
Q: You’ve again been touring America during our presidential campaign season. You dislike the royals, I know, but what’s your opinion of our election mania? Any advice/opinions this time around?
Morrissey: I think the fact that the two candidates are neck and neck in most polls reflects badly on Obama. He’s had four years to woo everyone, so he’s obviously not been that convincing. If the Republican candidate were more likeable than Romney I believe they’d storm the gates. Obama loves to talk. To talk and smile, and then to smile and talk.
Q: You promoted the Smoking Popes years ago (a Chicago band — reunited and active again, by the way). What young upstarts are you championing these days?
Morrissey: None. They all turn around and bite you.
Q: You’ve been through Chicago many times. Is it merely another date on the schedule, or have you been able to connect to the city in any way? A favorite bookstore, a favorite view, a dear acquaintance …?
Morrissey: A dear acquaintance … how funny.
with Kristeen Young
8 p.m. Jan. 26
The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $39.50-$79.50; (800) 745-3000; thechicagotheatre.com
UPDATE: Morrissey has postponed his Chicago concert yet again. Watch for details here.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
My first post-Oasis earful came last year from Liam Gallagher as he toured Beady Eye, a band comprised of three-fourths of Oasis minus singer Liam's guitarist brother Noel.
After 18 years together in Oasis, the Gallagher brothers had topped the charts ("Wonderwall," "Champagne Supernova") and altered the course of rock and roll. But they were 18 contentious years. The Gallaghers fought constantly, and at the Rock en Seine festival in Paris in 2009 another backstage dust-up turned out to be their last. Noel stormed out. Oasis was over.
Inevitable solo projects followed. Liam and the others came and went as Beady Eye. "We're not lacking anything," he assured me. (Except a hit.)
Noel, now 45, stalled a while, then produced a solo album and now a lengthy tour under the moniker Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. The latter debut went platinum in England but hasn't fared as well in the States.
Which may explain why Noel — once one of the biggest rock stars in the world — this weekend not only shares a double bill with the middling band Snow Patrol but shares it at a casino out in Chicago's hinterlands.
The second earful — much funnier, by the way — came from Noel a few weeks ago. Adding to our conversation, a curious headline had appeared days earlier in the British music mag NME: "Liam Gallagher 'would reform Oasis tomorrow.'" The article claimed everybody wanted the reunion and only Noel stood in its way.
Judging by Noel's quip-tastic banter — which ranged from caring to not caring, from reuniting and not reuniting, even from Morrissey to Mitt Romney — fans shouldn't hold their breath.
Question: How is touring now different from touring with the Oasis juggernaut? A relief in some way, I'm guessing?
Noel Gallagher: Well, it's way, way, way more fulfilling and enjoyable than touring with Oasis. Oasis was all about the struggle and whether we'd do the show and whether the singer was going to turn up. In another way, though, this is harder for me personally because I've got to carry it all. I've got to bang on it from 9 every night. ... But the money's still good. Basically, that's what it really all boils down to.
Q: You were the guitarist in Oasis, not often up front at the mike. What have you learned about becoming a front man?
NG: You know the [Maroon 5] song "Moves Like Jagger"? I don't have them. I have moves like Wyman. I didn't know what to expect when I first stepped up front. I thought, well, this'll be weird for people. I haven't really learned anything, but it's reinforced my belief that what I always thought is true: It's all about the songs. The songs are the show. Groups are about the razzmatazz, but when you go see a solo artist like Neil Young or Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney or Bowie or me, you know, you're there to hear the songs. If you do that, that's it. Unless, you know, you're Madonna or Lady Gaga, but who gives a f—- about that? You don't go to see Neil Young dance.
Q: Now that you've put that in mind, I'd really like to see Neil Young dance.
NG: [Laughs] Nah. He's crap on his feet.
Q: After your experience in Oasis, how did you go about selecting players for High Flying Birds?
NG: I didn't put a band together at first. The record is all me. Next time, I'd like the band to play on the record. But my criteria were two things: You've gotta be on time, and don't be a f—-ing smart ass. That's it. Obviously, you've got to be able to play. But don't be a dick, and don't keep me waiting.
Q: I've heard you talk about Oasis naturally falling into what you call "the trap of stadium rock." Why is that inevitable at a certain level?
NG: You get to the point of selling out stadiums, and that's how your success is measured, subconsciously by you and everybody else. So you want to stay there, you know what I mean? People come to see you in stadiums, they want stadium rock. There's nowhere left for you to go. So you're expected to try and keep that going. It's f—-ing amazing, amazing, but don't tell me the next Green Day album sounds different than the last three, not that anybody gives a f—-. It was the same with Oasis. You start a rock band and the goal is to play stadiums. You get there, and you're stuck there. Any movement from that point is considered a failure. You don't get to say, "We need to f—- this off and go back to playing clubs," because you just can't. It's a trap — an enjoyable one, but it puts an unnecessary ceiling on creativity.
Q: I interviewed Liam last year, and I asked him what the backstage fight in 2009 was about. He said, "You'd have to ask Noel." So I'm asking: what was it about?
NG: Let's see if I can recall. He'd not turned up for the previous gig, [the V Festival] in England. He caught a lot of flak in the press over it — we all did, but he got most of it. He's a little bit like Hitler, Liam. Hitler thought there was a world conspiracy against the Germans, and Liam thinks there's a world conspiracy against him, perpetrated by me through the press.
Q: But you and Liam fought all the time. What made that fight the clincher for the band?
NG: It was just the straw that broke the camel's back. What makes an alcoholic give up drink after years of drinking? Going to the festival site that day, I had no intention of leaving the group. I was thinking about the next Oasis record. But after that, you know, I said f—- this. I didn't particularly want to go solo. But I just said f—- it. That's it, f—- it. A healthy dose of f—- it every now and then is good. It forces you into things you maybe should have done in the first place. Was it that bad? No. Had there been worse fights? Yeah.
Q: Have there been any moments of regret?
NG: No, and I don't mean that in a callous way. But, no. There was a huge fracas in the dressing room, sh— was smashed up. I went and sat in my car outside. The driver had the engine running. A big scene was going on inside. I sat there for what must have been a minute or two, but it felt like a lifetime. In that space of time, everything that had happened and was going to happen was flashing before my eyes. I made the decision. If I told the driver to drive, then it was finished. All the people in the field will go on. It'll cost us millions. Or I could sit here, calm down, and do the gig. It'll be f—-ing awful. Again, I thought, f—- it, and I said, "Drive." Once I'd said it, at no point did I have any regrets. I didn't leave to go solo. I didn't leave for anything other than to be happy. I made a record, got married, got a cat, had a baby. Now here I am three years later, and I really don't think about it at all. I don't think about what I'm doing now in relation to Oasis. I don't think that was great and this is sh—. I'm just doing it, playing for people who paid to come and see me. It's great.
Q: You may not think about it, but Liam might. You saw the NME story this week?
NG: Yeah, well, unfortunately in the two years after I left the band, everyone else's tune was very different. They were quite bullish about it. All the people in Beady Eye were saying, "Oasis ran its course, we're glad we're out of it, we're more creative now." OK, fine, if that's the way they feel. But don't come to me in three years when your sh— has well and truly gone down the toilet. I've seen Liam, Gem [Archer] and Chris [Shamrock] since then, and when I've seen them [the idea of a reunion] has never been mentioned.
Q: Is anyone besides journalists like me asking you about this?
NG: Nobody gives a sh—. I do realize that the only way to get people to stop asking me about it is to do it. But I'm stubborn. If it's the last thing I do, I won't do it. To re-form it, how could it be as good? People say they want it to happen because they're younger and they missed us. Tough sh—. I've never seen the Sex Pistols or the Beatles. I still haven't seen Bob Dylan, thank God.
Q: Morrissey's getting the same onslaught now about reuniting the Smiths.
NG: Exactly. I've seen them twice, and it was f—-ing great. You weren't around at the time? Tough. I've met Oasis fans who agree with me. It ran its course, we shouldn't revisit it. But we live in a strange world now where all people want is nostalgia. It's all they want. I don't get it.
Q: So tell me about something new. Tell me about your collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous (the Future Sound of London).
NG: That's gone. We've canned that. I thought it was finished, but then I didn't like it. It needed remixing, and I don't have the time to devote to it. I've been on the road 15 months and, really, the moment has passed. I don't want to put out a record next year. (a) I don't have the energy, and (b) I'll get divorced. I don't want to get divorced. But I'll revisit those songs eventually, just as a thing it's not going to happen. I feel bad for the guys in AA who spent a lot of time working on it. But f—- it, I get to do what I want.
Q: So what's your future look like then?
NG: I'm going to try and fake my own retirement and see how it goes. I've tried disappearing, but I've got too big a nose to disappear, really. I always get recognized, even if I dress like an Eskimo. I'm not going to do anything. Watch a lot of TV. What I might do is hope against hope that that guy beats Obama in the election.
Q: Beg pardon?
NG: We don't get enough laughs out of Obama. We liked George Bush. He was funny as f—-. The comedy value would be great with Romney. Not for you guys, though.
SNOW PATROL WITH NOEL GALLAGHER
• 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3
• The Venue at Horseshoe Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive in Hammond, Ind.
• Tickets: $35-$140; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
You hear about John Lydon, but you think Johnny Rotten.
Who could blame you? In their few short years together in the late 1970s, Rotten's squawking snarl made an indelible cultural impression as leader of British punk band the Sex Pistols. The quartet crashed music's barricades and made a deep enough impact on modern music to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
But at the end of an ill-fated U.S. tour in 1978, the band disbanded. John Lydon was left stranded here in America, angry (personally and professionally) and hungry (literally and artistically).
His next project, Public Image Ltd., would have more staying power, lasting 15 years and proving influential in a less blatant but deeper and perhaps more meaningful way. The Pistols, sure, fired up a bunch of punk wannabes — many of whom Lydon still despises for their lack of originality (read on) — but PiL's innovative weave of dub beats, pop production and the angry energy of Lydon's vocals threaded into bands from U2 to Nine Inch Nails.
Lydon, 56, in our recent conversation with the California resident during a visit to London, admitted his heart wasn't ever fully committed to the Pistols — a band manufactured by Malcolm McLaren, a hipster clothier, with intentions largely as cynical and commercial as any contemporary boy band — at least beyond their initial run. There was no pining for the band's return, even though they re-formed for tours five times.
PiL is very much his drug of choice. Lydon managed to pay off old record company debts with money from a series of reunion shows in 2009 in the UK, as well as appearing in a much-mocked commercial for butter, and bring the band back this year with a lineup now featuring guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith. Their new album is plainly titled "This Is PiL."
"I love PiL," he says. "It's the heart and soul of me. When the Pistols fell apart, I wanted to do something completely honest and open and sharing and generous for the world."
His tone is soft, cooing, positively wistful. Lydon isn't really that Rotten. He's quick-tempered and a live-wire on TV chat shows, no doubt, but at heart he's a pussycat — a devoted husband of 30 years and a loyal father figure (taking time out to help raise the children of Nora Forster's daughter, Ari Up, herself the lead singer of a band, the Slits, before her death in 2010).
"I don't make commitments lightly," he purrs, about his marriage to Forster. "I picked the right woman, and she picked the right man."
Precious, no? But have no fear, Lydon's still as mouthy as ever, and during our chat he sounded off on numerous topics while celebrating the welcome return of his dear PiL:
On punk's unoriginality: "Punk has to learn to progress and stop imitating itself. That's a direct dig at punk bands out there at the moment, trying to live in our shadow. They don't understand. They keep doing this same bit over and over. I don't need whippersnappers to tell us what's what — again. I know the price of cheese."
On the Occupy Wall Street movement: "I love the Occupy thing. It was legalist, but what it did was passive resistance, like one of my old political heros, Gandhi. It raised questions, made you think things. The climate in the news shows was one of sarcasm. That's unfortunate. There's much to consider, and they were raising the questions that needed asking. ... No, I didn't join them. I'm not one for the tents. Johnny's literally not a happy camper."
On Russian punk band Pussy Riot: "Well, it got very dangerous when Madonna got involved. That could have upped the ante on their sentencing. One thing the Russian government wasn't prepared to listen to was a spoiled pop star ranting at them. You've got to be careful supporting these issues. She should put her crucifix away and put her knickers back on. ... But really, what they did wasn't very smart. It's no good running into a church screaming and shouting. It's pointless, really. I know what I'm talking about. I was discussed in Parliament under the Treason Act [for the Pistols' recording of 'God Save the Queen'], which carries the death penalty."
On the future of the Sex Pistols: "I can't write for them. I love them as friends and all, but I just can't go back to that space in time and create anything new. As a band, we never progressed beyond that period. I was just talking last night with [drummer] Paul Cook; we're really good friends. We just don't feel the need to do that ever again. ... We're all up to different things now. No plans to trot the boards with the boys."
On recording the new PiL album live: "We've all been around long enough to know how to use a studio properly. One thing we don't ever want to get caught with is studio trickery. If we can't play songs in somewhat of a live format, then we shouldn't waste time in recording them. ... These tracks proved well worth the decade wait, arguing with record labels who wouldn't let me out of their contracts."
On playing new shows: "We have to get out and play live. That's the bread and butter of what PiL is. We view ourselves as a live band, and we're trying to bring back the concept of live music. How much longer can you watch Las Vegas performers jump up and down with disco dancers? I've had enough. There's no humanity in it — no sharing, no give, no take, just money. It's become very ugly. 'American Idol' is part of this nonsense of removing you from your humanity. I don't want to be part of the sh— storm."
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.
• 9 p.m. Oct. 21
• House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
• Tickets, $37.50; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Earl Klugh is a jazz guitarist — one of the greatest, no doubt, with a sweet, signature style on the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar — but don't think less of him just because his initial inspiration to the craft was a TV Western.
"The first exposure I had to the guitar really was on 'Bonanza,'" Klugh told the Sun-Times. "They always had a guitar by the fire, you know, and it was a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I would look at it, and it wasn't like any of the guitars you'd see on, I don't know, 'American Bandstand' or something, or like Chuck Berry. That stuff was all great, but once I started playing a nylon-stringed guitar, there was no going back for me."
Well, he had some second thoughts.
"We had a stage band [in high school], and back then there wasn't any great pickup system. What I had was this little microphone you'd put on your guitar with a rubber band over it. You could turn the volume up, but the cavity of the guitar would feed back," he said. "It was primitive and, boy, I got teased a lot for that. ... But I look back now and, well, I showed 'em!"
More than 30 acclaimed albums (23 of them in the top 10 of Billboard's jazz chart, five at No. 1) and 12 Grammy nominations (the most recent for 2008's "The Spice of Life") — yes, he showed 'em.
Klugh took a break during a vacation stop on the South Carolina coast to talk to us about Crossroads, collaborations and, uh, "Hee Haw":
Q: The last time you were in Chicago was for Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, right?
Earl Klugh: Oh yeah. There was a show.
Q: I love that performance, because here's a blues and rock festival, you're surrounded by Eric and Buddy [Guy] and all these plugged in guys, and you come out with your acoustic guitar and play "Angelina" just as delicately as you please. Was that bill daunting in any way?
EK: I've had pretty good success with kind of integrating the acoustic stuff into places like that. I was certainly different than the other players there. I do what I do. It went over well. But when you're a guy like me backing up to ZZ Top, yes, it's kind of intimidating.
Q: You came up in the '60s. Why did the classical guitar speak to you instead of all those shiny new electrics?
EK: When I first started playing guitar was right at the folk music craze — Peter, Paul & Mary, that type of thing. So acoustics were common, though not as much in jazz. The nylon-string just stuck all the way for me. It just felt like my instrument. When I tried to play a steel-stringed or electric guitar, I was already so far into the other it never occurred to me to switch.
Q: Is it true you were on [country-themed variety TV show] "Hee Haw," and why isn't this on YouTube?
EK: [Laughs] Me and Chet Atkins together, yeah. We were in the cornfield and everything. ... Chet was my idol. I love Chet Atkins. That was our first television appearance together, actually. I love Chet from the perspective of playing finger-style, the way he was able to play the bass and the chords. Once I saw him, it changed my life completely. I knew I wanted to play guitar like Chet Atkins. Then I was fortunate to play with him many times.
Q: What was it about Chet Atkins that appealed to so many players beyond his basic country classification?
EK: He was really a pioneer with the instrument. He was very much a tinkerer. He had a workshop, had all types of electric stuff. He'd do stuff like, one time he had his regular Gretsch guitar and he put a low D string, lower than the [bottom] E, added to it so that when he'd play it sounded like he was carrying the bass tones the whole time. He did several records with that.
Q: Sounds like something Les Paul would toy with.
EK: Very much like Les Paul. He loved to create different sounds and was always trying to come up with something new and fresh that would tickle his ear.
Q: You first connected with another guitar great, George Benson. How'd you meet, and what cemented the bond between you?
EK: Growing up in Detroit, we had a jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge. In its heyday, everybody who played jazz, literally everybody, played at that club. I really got the chance to meet a lot of the great musicians. George was just going into his career in a big way, and he played Baker's five, six, seven times before he really broke big. We got to talking, and he was fascinated by my acoustic guitar. He said, "You're trying to play jazz on that nylon-string guitar!" He said, "Boy, you gotta keep doing that. That's gonna set you apart from everybody else."
Q: I've always thought you two had a lot in common stylistically, as if sometimes the only difference between you is who's usually plugged in and who's not.
EK: I learned a lot from him, it's true. What I mostly learned from him is, you know, he's a workaholic. When I first went on the road with him, we did a two-month tour. We went to breakfast one night after the show, and we're headed back to the room and I was saying, "I gotta go get some rest." The next day, the bass player, Roland Wilson, is coming out of his room, and he says, "Man, Earl, you and me are gonna have to get on it." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "You know what George did after going back to his room last night? He started practicing. He practiced from 2:30 in the morning till 5." And this is after playing a show, you know. Roland said, "We gotta do that, too!" That's a work ethic there.
Q: Which I'm guessing you still draw upon in your manic schedule as writer, performer, arranger, recording artist, bandleader, collaborator and event organizer [the semi-annual Weekend of Jazz concert festivals]?
EK: I work real hard and it's a lot, but it's really great fun. I enjoy doing solo shows, but I enjoy playing with the band, as well. I feel very lucky.
Q: You're 59, correct?
EK: Yes, and ooh that came too soon! [Laughs]
Q: If I may: Fingers and joints don't exactly get looser with age. How do you keep those hands nimble?
EK: By taking care of the rest of my body. I go to the gym, I stay physically active. If I don't I'll really end up in a knot. My hands are still flexible. My thumb cracks, though. I can hear it now on my records. Like, there'll be a solo part in a song, and my thumb will crack.
Q: It's just extra percussion.
EK: [Laughs] Yeah, but that's a new phenomenon I really hope goes away.
Q: "The Spice of Life" is four years on now. Any new recordings coming?
EK: I'm working on a new CD now. It's going to be kind of interesting — a lot fo solo playing, but a few duets with some of my favorite players. I'm trying to track George down. Vince Gill seems to be interested. After that, I'll have another band and orchestra record before the end of the coming year.
• 8 p.m. Oct. 6
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $30-$34; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
One of my all-time favorite concerts was a Dirty Three show, an opening slot for Beck in 1996 in an Oklahoma ballroom. The trio's instrumental rock is haunting enough on record, and in concert the players crackle with intensity.
This particular night violinist Warren Ellis (pictured above, left) sawed at his fiddle like a troll possessed, which isn't unusual. But he kept ... spitting, and straight upward. Lost in concentration, he would occasionally snort, hack and fire off a gob of goo at the low ceiling directly above him. His expulsions collected and collected — and drooped and sagged — until the inevitable occurred.
"That was the show when the loogie fell on my head? Yeah," Ellis remembers, impressively. "That was the only applause I got all night."
Unknown and from Australia, Dirty Three had just broken through with their third album, "Horse Stories," hailed in critics polls and voted by Rolling Stone as one of the top three albums of '96. Since then, Dirty Three has recorded five more albums of dense, emotional instrumental rock — including this year's "Toward the Low Sun" — and Ellis has joined the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, bands led by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, and worked with him on film scores.
Before launching the new tour, Ellis chatted with the Sun-Times from his Paris home about his hard-driving creative process, his position as a default front man and his new soundtrack with Cave for the upcoming film "Lawless," featuring Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Emmylou Harris and 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing songs by the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt and more.
Q: You go into a zone when you perform live. What's happening?
A: I don't know any other way. I've always been like that. When I first started playing, there was an addictive thing about it. It's very much like taking drugs in that you get this kick from it. You don't get it every time, but when you get it you want it again. Nothing else gives me that.
Q: What happens when that doesn't happen?
A: It's terrifying. I get nervous about a bunch of stuff, but the two constant things are going into the studio and thinking, "Is this the day it stops?" and going on stage and it all goes horribly wrong. There are moments when it crumbles and I realize I'm just a dick with a violin. I feel healthy that this happens. It helps me keep my place in the scheme of things.
Q: That's a tough form of self-motivation.
A: It makes me stretch further. The next record I do, I always want to be the best thing I've ever done. I'm still waiting for the day I feel I've done something really, really great. That there's still a part of the experience that's mysterious is what's really attractive about it. Like doing a film score or trying to play a four-string guitar, or a few years ago I put the fiddle down and tried working with things I had no idea how to approach. It renews my interest in the whole thing.
Q: Do you consider yourself a front man?
A: I never have. Usually a singer is, by default, the front guy. That's how bands work. If I'm alluded to as the front guy, it's 'cause I'm closer to the front. But we've never thought about this band in that respect. It's always about the way the three of can go together — the sum of its parts as opposed to anything else. Without any one of us, this would cease to exist. That's always been the really strong attraction of the band.
Q: What — musically more than logistically — made "Horse Stories" such a breakout record for Dirty Three?
A: I don't know. That album was recorded under pretty bad conditions. I was a real mess on every level. The three of us were at war with each other, too. The record was shelved, but we played it for a couple of people who said, "You should put this out, there's really something here." ... I guess there's something quite desperate about it, pretty and desperate. It feels like you're privy to something, like you're sitting in a room with us. It's certainly a very charged album.
Q: The new record, "Toward the Low Sun," had its own difficulty in getting under way. You had writer's block?
A: We kept coming up with material, but it felt like we knew it, knew what was going on with it; it felt familiar. But every time we played live, something great happened. We realized we needed to get the live show into the new material, to give the music space to move around like in concert, open it up to how we react to each other on stage. That was the key. I'd started wondering if we'd ever make another record, thought maybe we'd said as much as we could. ... I was in a creative stalemate. It's a thing that happens to anybody no matter what you're doing. I don't want it to feel easy. I want to surprise myself.
Q: What was the spark that ignited between you and Nick Cave?
A: I don't know. We met in the '90s and I played on a record or two. We push each other. For the time being, it's a relationship that's very creative and productive.
Q: On the "Lawless" soundtrack, you've got some interesting versions of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." How'd those come about?
A: That was a joy to be a part of. Getting Ralph Stanley to throw his voice on our versions of these, it just sounded so insane. And it wasn't easy. We couldn't get Ralph to sing in 4/4, and he wouldn't sing in key. But he came out with these amazing versions. The real thing was when we brought Lou Reed into the studio and played them for him. His reaction was extraordinary. He really welled up. He couldn't believe it. Ralph took the song back to a place where it had come from. It was amazing. It certainly feels like one of the things that resonates the most historically that I've been involved in.
with the Cairo Gang
• 9 p.m. Sept. 26
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $18; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The title of the first song on World Party's newest batch of recordings — "Arkeology," a five-disc, closet-cleaning retrospective, just left of a traditional box set — is a massive understatement for the project's central figure, singer-songwriter Karl Wallinger.
"Waiting Such a Long Long Time" finds Wallinger singing, in his world-weary voice over a party-pop guitar jangle, "I don't even know what I want anymore."
Which isn't really true. Not anymore.
"What I've been through, it's made me feel that all the stuff we worry about is not worth worrying about," Wallinger told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's very true. In my case, it's made me fatter. I had to be stronger to carry it all."
What he's been through is a virtual decade-plus absence from music following a brain aneurysm in 2000.
Following a brief stint with the Waterboys, contributing as keyboardist to the albums "A Pagan Place" (1984) and the phenomenal "This Is the Sea" (1985), Wallinger formed World Party — essentially a solo project but frequently featuring guitarist Dave Catlin-Birch, drummer Chris Sharrock and, early on, multi-instrumentalist Guy Chambers — then quickly charted a hit with the song "Ship of Fools" and enjoyed wide acclaim for an album of prescient environmental themes, "Goodbye Jumbo" (1990).
"Bang!" (1993), a superb album seamlessly blending genres from soul to rock to (briefly) opera, charted in Wallinger's native UK. But by the fifth World Party LP, "Dumbing Up" in 2000, many had stopped paying attention. Wallinger was already gone before he was really gone.
In February 2001, Wallinger was cycling with his son, Louis, when things went wrong.
"I just had a headache and said, 'I'm going to go to bed.' I came out half an hour later and said, 'I've got this headache — phone an ambulance,'" he recalled. "I woke up a day or two and two hospitals later. ... I came to feeling I'd just gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali and thinking, 'This is a bit strange.' I seemed fine, but it was a test weeks later when I looked into this periscope thing that we found my vision was wrong."
Wallinger, now 54, has no right-side vision in either eye.
As you might imagine, this poses two separate problems.
"I'm a menace when Christmas shopping. I do a lot of collisions and have to say I'm sorry a lot," he said.
More to the professional point: "Playing instruments is a bit weird now. I used to look at my right hand as I played piano. That's how I learned. Now I can't see my right hand. Same with the guitar — I'm right-handed, but I play upside down like Bob Geldof or Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, I've gotten the hang of both again."
Two months out of the hospital, Wallinger tried his first gig, a benefit show — just to see where his abilities stood. Also on the bill: Edwyn Collins, a contemporary of Wallinger's from the '80s band Orange Juice and his own subsequent solo career ("A Girl Like You") who'd suffered a double aneurysm in 2005. ("We're so competitive. He just had to have the bigger one," Wallinger quipped.)
His skills were largely intact, he found, but the recovery would be long and steep. Fortunately, Wallinger received an unexpected financial windfall.
The aforementioned Guy Chambers heard one of Wallinger's songs, "She's the One," and took it to his new songwriting partner, pop singer Robbie Williams. The 1997 piano ballad, which Wallinger said was knocked out "in 10 minutes and recorded in about half an hour," became a big hit for Williams.
"So we didn't have to sell the kids to chemical experiments or anything," Wallinger said. "I think I'm a bit of a lucky person."
Using his down time constructively, Wallinger began going back through old recordings. He wound up compiling an iTunes playlist with a runtime of 79 days — B-sides, rarities, Beatles covers, interviews and a lot of tour tapes. He whittled it down to five and a half days, and his manager edited that to four CDs, which would become the bulk of "Arkeology." Some extra DAT tapes and one new project, a sweet ballad called "Everybody's Falling in Love," comprised the set's fifth and lead-off disc.
"Like 'Words,' that track's a great one," Wallinger said. "We did it, put it in a box and forgot about it. Great fun, that one. It was good going back and kind of recapping the 25 years, a good thing for me to do at this point in time. I've got stuff that I've done during the last 10 years I'm still going through, but really I'd like to get in and record new stuff. I'd like to get a new 12-song record out next year."
"Arkeology" — 70 tracks, and a bargain at less than $40 — immediately sold out a limited run and is now on its third pressing.
After this string of acoustic dates in America — a half dozen shows featuring violinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull — Wallinger returns home for his first full-fledged British concert in 15 years.
Everything you need to know about how his career has shaken out geographically is in this sentence: He plays the Cubby Bear sports pub in Chicago, but in November he headlines the Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I'm burning the candle at both ends," Wallinger said, "but I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm up for this. I'm told a few fans might be, too. So we'll give it a go."
• 8 p.m. Aug. 30
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Sold out
• (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh — you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations — but not too far.
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story — about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' — I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's complicated, but it's all right.
Getting the sprawling musical family that is Poi Dog Pondering together for a reunion weekend is a Herculean task. Frank Orrall, the band's pater familias and grand poobah, says the time is right.
"It's the 25th anniversary of the band," he says. Then he starts worrying me. "It just feels like the time to do it," he adds. "People are having kids, their work or other projects are taking them in different directions, they're going through different things in life. It seemed like an important time to document who we are while everyone is still here. It's getting harder to go out on the road. People have commitments."
This isn't a swan song, is it?
"No, we're still totally vitally strong and present as a band. But we don't move like the gypsies we once were. We just need to sit for a musical portrait while we can."
So Friday and Saturday the band reassembles for two reunions — the band's Austin lineup (1987-1992) on Dec. 2 and various incarnations of its Chicago existence (1993-present) on Dec. 3. The shows will be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD.
Austin-era bassist Bruce Hughes agrees about now being the right time for this reunion.
"Everybody is still extremely active in music," he says. "It's not like it was a little blip in college rock and now we're a bunch of accountants, paunchy and dejected, saying, "Hey we should get the band back together again."
The members from Austin have been rehearsing — they haven't played together in 18 years — and getting nostalgic.
"People are losing weight, growing mullets back out," violinist Susan Voelz says. "I was gonna get a perm."
We spoke with four members from throughout the band's lifespan for this brief oral history of how the band gelled in Austin and eventually transported to and transformed itself in Chicago:
Poi Dog Pondering originally came together in 1986 as a small nucleus of buskers and film enthusiasts in Honolulu, including Orrall, singer-songwriter Abra Moore, guitarist Ted Cho and drummer Sean Coffey.
Frank Orrall (singer): We started meeting in Hawaii and traveling, spending a year going across the mainland in sleeping bags, busking our way from Los Angeles to New York. That was the original gypsy creed of the band. ... The dance thing that came out in our music in Chicago — that was something always in me, even back in Hawaii. I cut my teeth in Hawaii going to these two clubs, one of which was a gay disco that kicked in at one in the morning. But punk and new wave bands played before that and would hang out. So there was this big mixture of new wave and dance music, and even in Austin that started coming back out, especially later. You can hear it in "Get Me On" and "Lackluster," on the same record with some full-on Hawaiian sounds.
Deep in the heart
As the band traveled the mainland, they started to stick — musically and physically — in Austin, Texas. A few local players were attracted to their spirit and sound.
Bruce Hughes (Austin-era bassist): The Austin origin story verges on mythology. I know I saw Frank and Abra and Sean come through and play. The way I remember it: At the time, I was hanging with a bunch of musicians that included Alejandro Escovedo, hanging out on Avenue D [near the Univ. of Texas campus], making barbecue and playing music. Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces had moved to town. He was sick with multiple sclerosis and wanted to get away from L.A.. Alejandro put a band together to help Ronnie play music and got me involved. Susan Voelz, too — I already knew her from a band we were in together with Arthur Brown. The Ronnie Lane band was the Seven Samurai, and one night at the Continental Club this little band opened up for us.
Susan Voelz (violinist): It was a Tuesday at the Continental Club. It was raining. I didn't even dress up. I just wandered over and played the gig. But that was a transformative show. I was playing with good musicians, plus Poi Dog — they were coming through and I happened to see their show, and I remember meeting Frank that night.
Hughes: They had a little wooden marimba and acoustic guitar and a snare with brushes, and accordion and penny whistle — Frank, Abra and Sean. I remember listening to them and seeing all this joy on stage. I thought, "I love these guys! It looks like so much fun!" They had so much spirit and joy and freedom. I ended up meeting Frank through another friend of mine, and we kept in touch.
Voelz: Later, they called and said, "Come play violin!" ... I hadn't intended to join the band. They were very open in the studio, and I liked that. They invited me to play live with them at the Texas Union ballroom. I walk in, and it's already this big Poi Dog show, lots of energy and enthusiasm in the room. I was like, "Oh, that's what this is about." I liked the fire.
Hughes: That fall — I think, 1987 — Frank called and said, "Hey, I'm out in Oakland, and me and Abra want to start putting together demos for a record. Come help me." I caught a ride with Frank's girlfriend, and we spent several days in this cold, warehouse space cooking food and making music, and we had a residency in the [Mission] district. I came home for the holidays and convinced Frank to come down to Austin. Half of Poi Dog was already here, and San Francisco was so expensive. "Just come to Austin," I said.
Orrall: I said, "OK, let's go to Austin and track this record." I meant to stay there a month and I stayed four years. Austin has a nice lifestyle, a strong self-identity. People are proud to be from Austin. In that period, also, there was a real spirit of collaboration, not just among Austin musicians but every kind of art. That movie "Slacker" [Richard Linklater's classic, in which Orrall appears for one brief, hapless segment] is all about that — that thing made by everyone contributing.
Poi Dog Pondering's self-titled debut appeared in 1989 on the independent Texas Hotel label.
Hughes: We finished the record, and we were still busking on campus. We slowly set up shows at clubs and on campus and around, close to the university youth culture. More songs were added, more fans were added, more excitement. Soon there were seven, eight, nine, 10 people on stage. It definitely gelled and found the nutrients it needed.
Voelz: Part of it, I think, is that the camaraderie in the band is real, was from the beginning in Austin. It's ridiculous — we really do like each other. We enjoy each other. I enjoy when Ted or Max hits high notes, or when Dag plays something I've never heard before. It's a hurricane, or an ocean. We want to get into that realm. It's big. I never know where everything's going, but I follow it.
The debut album includes the song "Aloha, Honolulu," written by Hughes, who was not part of the band's Hawaiian beginnings.
Hughes: My family were musical. My grandfather was a Dixieland cornet player from Chicago. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the '30s and '40s, so it wasn't foreign to me, that Hawaiian style of music. Not traditional, of course, but that Hawaiian style — Bing Crosby, etc. I developed a deep love for it, and after I got to know Frank and his friends from Hawaii I wrote that song in L.A. as we were getting ready to go to Hawaii, my first trip. It was my way of saying, "Hey, welcome me."
PDP released two more albums in a contentious relationship with Columbia Records — 1990's "Wishing Like a Mountain, Thinking Like the Sea" and 1992's "Volo Volo."
North to Chicago
Restless spirits all, the band began contemplating a move north. Maybe New York? Maybe Chicago? Only three core members make the move: Orrall, Voelz and multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford.
Orrall: I enjoyed Austin, but I didn't plan on living there. I really had a strong interest in urban music and dance that wasn't in the forefront in Austin, or even happening at all. I wanted to live in a bigger city, either Chicago or New York. I planned to go to New York, but I had a lot of friends in Chicago so I stopped to visit on the way. I ended up staying, and it was the totally right choice.
Voelz: I was tired of the heat and really missed the snow. I grew up in Wisconsin. And I wasn't ready to be done with Poi. It was musically rich for me. Right away, we met really great players and went into this whole other dimension.
Hughes: Family ties — I had a lot of reasons to stay in Austin. ... One of the reasons the band moved there was because we had so many fans there already. The groove thing had already started happening in Poi Dog, and Chicago picked up on it immediately and embraced it like no one else.
PDP began picking up new players to round out the now Chicago-based collective.
Dag Juhlin (Chicago-era guitarist): I had been working the door at Lounge Ax back in the late '80s-early '90s, so I'd seen Poi Dog and the rather respectable hysteria they inspired in town. Long lines, multi-night stands, etc. ... Frank, Dave Max and I were already working together at Milly's Orchid Show to back up noted chanteuse Syd Straw, and they very casually asked me if I wanted to be part of their first Lounge Ax show. I said yes. The shows went on for months, and there was always a rotating cast of players, but I kept on getting invited back. Somewhere along the line, Frank and Dave Max had decided to put together a new Poi Dog made of Chicago players.
Into the groove
In Chicago, in the early-1990s, house music was literally booming. Orrall began steering the band in that direction. PDP's next album, 1995's "Pomegranate," shows the clubby influence on their otherwise earthy sound.
Orrall: I didn't realize how strong the Chicago house community was. I started realizing the impact it had on everything I liked, including the Manchester stuff, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. They were all inspired by Chicago.
Voelz: I loved what we were doing [in Chicago] from the get-go. Thinking back around "Pomegranate," you can really hear Chicago in that record. Austin is hot, you wear less clothes, it's a smaller city. Chicago was winter and there were mittens and pasta in the studio. "Pomegranate" is super song-based, but I knew Frank was into that whole other dimension of house music, less structure and more groove. I love a good song, but when the songwriting opened around the grooves — it felt more orchestral to me right away. There were more places for strings and orchestration, so we added more strings and horns. It was super fun, and I knew how to write for that. Then came the Sinfonietta and "Carmen."
Orrall: In Chicago, the full-on house stuff became part of Poi Dog Pondering — to the chagrin of some fans and even band members. We went through a shakedown. Some people weren't happy with the incorporation of that. ... It was too jarring a change.
Juhlin: I had resisted the stuff like "U-Li-La-Lu" [from "Wishing Like a Mountain"], but I fell immediately for "Pulling Touch" [from the debut]. It had this insistent, four-on-the-floor kick drum and sidestick that absolutely hypnotized me. Once I started getting further into the catalog, I realized how much heart was in the music. Chicago was a town of punk snobbery, and [Juhlin's band] the Slugs, god bless/help us, were standing in the fringes of that nonsense. I let go of the posturing and was proud to be part of Poi Dog and the type of honest, soul-searching music they were making. I think the "hippie" tag that the band got slapped with is just really dumb, cooler-than-thou shorthand.
Hughes: When I heard Poi Dog getting into real deep house culture there, I was not surprised. I knew Frank was heading there. There's a lot of that stuff going down on "Volo Volo." ... There's a lot of equatorial influence, not necessarily Hawaiian, in Frank's music. It's music from all over the Caribbean, from zouk to some deep Samoan stuff going on. Anything that was exciting and energetic and spiky, African pop, Caribbean pop. The groove was there, even if you couldn't hear it right away.
Juhlin: As far as the groovy stuff goes, well, that was a learning curve for me, as well. I always secretly fancied myself as versatile, and actually loved retro-fitting my sort of power chord style into something more supportive, colorful and textural. I still was/am able to add the grit when appropriate, and Susan Voelz, bless her heart (and eardrums), will tell you that I have yet to truly learn to turn my amp volume down onstage, but playing with Poi Dog forced me to listen and adapt, and to be aware of the sound as a whole. I've had some of the most thrilling musical interactions of my life with my PDP bandmates, and it's almost shocking how routinely and effortlessly they can occur.
The band that eats together
Rehearsals, performances, any occasion with Orrall is one for food, as well. (He sings, he feasts — how many living puns will he spin from his name?) Every conversation with a PDP member mentions grand dining as part of the experience. Today, Orrall hires himself out as Chef Franc (cheffranc.com); he'll come to your house, cook a dinner party and bring his guitar.
Voelz: Frank and food — he has appetite for life. Touring and traveling, our compass of curiosity included food, music, bookstores, record stores, nothing was left out. It was never "Oh, that restaurant is too swanky for us," it was always "No, we're going for it!" Max used to say, "Hold on to your per diems, we're going to dinner with Frankie!"
Hughes: We were traveling carnival auteurs, with a deep familial sense. No matter what we had, we could get together and make a big party, a big supper. ... [Orrall] is a master chef, as fun to cook for as to cook with. It's a lot of fun to sit back and let him take over the kitchen. It's almost exactly the way he approaches music, too.
Orrall: I've always loved the dinner party. I love what happens when a group comes together to drink wine and talk story. It relates to when I was a kid. My family had parties, and Mom would bust out the guitar. People brought instruments, and at the end of the night all these adults are playing Roy Rogers and Carter Family songs. ... In the early days of Poi Dog, as street musicians, we'd make 12 dollars some days. We always had to fiure out how to make that work. So it was always about being creative, buying pasta and frozen peas an making our own meal, and it eventually became this social thing for all of us in the studio. My cooking has always been combined with music, and the other way around.
Pondering the future
Orrall: Would I move again? I'm originally from Hawaii, and I've been trying to make more of an effort to be in Hawaii more. I'm always going to be in Chicago. It's my creative home. But I'm becoming more of a gypsy now, like I used to be.
Orrall is working on his first solo album, likely a set of instrumental, Brazilian-inspired tunes. Voelz has completed a 50-minute orchestrated suite for Thai yoga. She also promises to finish a long-delayed record of Prince covers.
Voelz: I'll never put that out. No, I think I will next year. That's such a lie. I've been saying that for four years. Maybe a show with Robbie Fulks. He's got his Michael Jackson covers record out. OK, that for sure will happen next year.
Hughes has played with numerous others (Cracker, Bob Schneider, Jason Mraz). He is currently finishing his third solo album and leading his own band, Bruce Hughes & the All Nude Army.
Juhlin reunited the Slugs for one show last year. He now leads an inventive local covers band, Expo '76.
Juhlin: I like to say that we're not a cover band, but a band that does covers. It's one of the most fun musical experiences I've ever had in my life. ... Don't count out those Slugs, though. I think we may end up doing a show before too long.
POI DOG PONDERING'S "TALE OF TWO CITIES"
• 9 p.m. Dec. 2 — The Austin Years
• 9 p.m. Dec. 3 — The Chicago Years
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.
The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.
In the scene — see it and other great Muppet music moments here — the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.
"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.
Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years — "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters — and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."
For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, the music made an impact beyond celebrity moments on "The Muppet Show," the syndicated TV variety series Henson produced from 1976 to 1981. Those moments included Elton John performing "Crocodile Rock" with the song's namesake and Julie Andrews donning Maria's dress again for "The Lonely Goatherd" on a farm.
"The Muppet Show" celebrated pop songs by reimagining them, adding narratives and creating set pieces in the years just before MTV — always stopping just short of parodying them. Like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a show aimed chiefly at adults; kids could LOL to Muppets dancing around to the Village People's "Macho Man," but adults were ROTFL when Gonzo's disco-dressed chicken gang rumbled with a posse of butch, leather-clad pigs. The show also unearthed folk classics, mid-century lounge music, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and rhythm & blues.
"We covered everything — every genre and every century," Muppet performer Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot and others) told the SF Weekly in 2007. "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical. I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy."
The new Muppet movie, fortunately, works with music in the same spirit. "The Muppets" soundtrack is not, thankfully, "The Green Album," an unnecessary, marketing-driven collection released in August featuring current indie-rockers (OK Go, Andrew Bird, Weezer, etc.) covering classic Muppet songs. The Muppets are doing their own thing again.
The film's director and music supervisor both come from a musical-comedy project that isn't just a kindred spirit; its title sounds like its own Muppets production number: "Flight of the Conchords."
"The Muppets and 'Flight of the Conchords,' yeah, there are quite a lot of similarities," says Bret McKenzie, half of the Conchords duo and music supervisor for "The Muppets." (The film's director is "Conchords" co-creator and director James Bobin.) "I really didn't have to shift gears, like, at all."
"Flight of the Conchords" was basically an adult "Muppet Show." Few actors are more Muppety than Jermaine Clement, and the songs he and McKenzie wrote for each episode of their acclaimed HBO comedy series (and live concerts) kept things movin' right along in the same adventurous, wondrous and usually optimistic spirit. Henson no doubt would have loved the "Bowie" episode, with Clement dressed up as "1986 David Bowie from the movie 'Labyrinth,' " a puppets-'n'-people fantasy film that Henson directed.
"There's a quality to the production [of 'The Muppets'], a looseness that reflects the looseness of the Muppets themselves, and I think you could say the same about [the Conchords] most times," McKenzie says. "This guy Chris Caswell, who worked on the original Muppets music as a piano player, told me Henson said, 'If it sounds too good, it's not right.' I kept thinking about that a lot. Finding the line between that looseness and a grand musical number — it's a challenge."
Plus, the Muppet universe has a few commandments.
"I quickly had to learn a few things," McKenzie says. "Like, in the Muppets' world, they've always existed. Kermit was never a piece of fabric. I had one lyric with Kermit saying, 'I remember when I was just a piece of felt,' and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that.' Another thing is that all these characters have specific vocal ranges. If they go too high or too low, they stop sounding like the character we know. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds like a squeaky mouse.
"Also, all animals can talk — except chickens. They can only cluck. I had this big finale with everyone singing along, and we cut to the chickens, and I said, 'OK, chickens sing.' 'Oh, no, chickens can't sing.' So it's even funnier, because it's, 'OK, cluck,' and they cluck, cluck, cluck."
McKenzie's "Life's a Happy Song" has such a finale — a classic Muppet cluster-cluck that even includes lines sung by Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and indie rocker Feist. It's one of four new songs McKenzie wrote for "The Muppets" (the others are "Let's Talk About Me," "Man or Muppet" and "Me Party"), and he oversaw the production of other original songs, as well as the film's reprise of favorites like "Rainbow Connection."
The film also includes actor Chris Cooper, who plays villainous oilman Tex Richman, performing — ye gods — a rap song.
"The rap song was a very dangerous idea," McKenzie says. "I arrived and that was already in the script, so I had to make it work. The risk is that it will be a joke from the late '80s. We've all seen people rapping badly. So I gave Chris some rapping lessons — on Skype. If you can imagine, Chris Cooper and I rapping on Skype. It was so bizarre, one of many bizarre moments in this experience. God, it was funny." He laughs.
"He does a stellar rap performance, I must say. We had to make it Muppety, though, you know? We joked about adding, like, some Kanye AutoTune, but it's not about making some contemporary, winking reference. I didn't want this to sound like a Hannah Montana album."
A star is reborn
"Muppety." It's an adjective they all use. Williams says it's a quality he first spotted early in the morning.
"I was a solid fan of everything Henson before he asked me to come over and do 'The Muppet Show,' because living on the road at that time, the best, most intelligent entertainment we could find on television while getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to the next city was 'Sesame Street,' " he says.
The diminutive Williams was once a huge star, lest we forget. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (from "A Star Is Born"), the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson (48 times!). By the '80s, he fell off the radar due to deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, a story that's told in a new documentary currently making the film-fest rounds, "Paul Williams: Still Alive." Williams also is in his second term as president of ASCAP.
"Everybody wanted to do 'The Muppet Show' because it was so very hip," Williams says. On the set of the show, "I understood the magic of what was happening when I was standing there talking to Jim and Frank [Oz, founding Muppet puppeteer and voice actor], and Frank has Miss Piggy on his arm and Jim has Rowlf and Kermit on his arms, so it was all of us in this conversation. There was this extra level of engagement, a kind of medium, that really made it special. Songs came alive in that."
After his "Muppet Show" appearance, Henson asked Williams to write some songs for another project he was working on, a holiday special that would double as a workshop for some production techniques later perfected for "The Muppet Movie" (1979). The special was "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" for HBO.
Their relationship cemented, Williams went on to co-write the now-classic tunes for the first Muppets film. He remembers a moment in the creative process during that film that summarized the unique nature of creating with Henson.
"I love Gonzo most of all," Williams says. "We're all landlocked birds, you know? There was a great scene where the Muppets break down on the road in the desert, and I said to Jim, 'You know, I'm a child of the '60s' — I'm 21 years sober now, of course, but in those days, there were a variety of chemicals involved, and people were having a lot of spiritual awakenings as a result. I said, 'What if we write about that? Here's Gonzo experiencing that feeling of connectedness.' Jim said, 'That's really nice. What if we also get beyond the metaphoric and allow Gonzo to actually experience flying?' So he wrote that whole fair scene where Gonzo gets the balloons and is taken away just to support the song. It's so Muppets — it's a lofty dream squarely rooted on the ground."
So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments
As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" — read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection — here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.
Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.
'Last Time I Saw Him' with Diana Ross
Performing with Muppets is a transformative experience for some singers. In this clip from the fourth season of "The Muppet Show," Diana Ross appears more natural, relaxed and happy than she ever did with the Supremes, first sitting on the stoop and jamming with a few Muppets, then turning it into a full-on production number with a great arrangement that ambles like a Muppet road reverie. By the end of the tune, Muppet horn players are in a Dixieland breakdown, and Ross puts a period on the number with a hammy vaudeville face.
The Muppets started a comeback a couple of years ago with a series of YouTube videos — more respectful pop song covers — like this Muppety take on Queen's popera.
'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Sure, "The Muppet Show" had a laugh track, but some poignant moments found their way in. Sgt. Floyd Pepper, of the Muppet band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, occasionally turned in cool, calm readings of pop songs. His performance of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (a duet with Janice, "fer sure") is smooth, but this take on this George Harrison song is a piece of pre-MTV perfection, setting up a little narrative in the scene — complete with Miss Piggy in silhouette during a very "Eleanor Rigby" kind of moment — and creating a transcendent moment, especially when Floyd caresses his guitar and says, "Oh, baby, don't cry."
How do you celebrate St. Patty's Day in Muppetland? With the three tenors, of course — the Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal. Assembling three of the Muppets no one can understand to sing such a classic tune is only the start of the hilarity. The rest of it follows when Beaker overcomes his anxiety for a solo, Animal goes off actually looking for Danny, and the turtlenecks.
'Sad Song' with Paul Williams
After singer-songwriter Paul Williams made this appearance on the first season of "The Muppet Show" in 1976, Jim Henson asked him to write more Muppets music. That turned into a collaboration that lasted decades and produced some of the Muppets' most iconic songs, including "Rainbow Connection." Williams said of the scene: "I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles."
Animal vs. Buddy Rich
"The Muppet Show" showcased all kinds of music, including jazz. In this scene, Animal is let off his chain to challenge revered jazz player Buddy Rich to a drum battle. While Animal hollers like a tennis pro during the match, Rich flies over his kit with power and panache. Animal's drums, incidentally, were performed on the show by British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell.
'In the Navy'
First, this is the second Village People song the Muppets covered (the other, well ...). For this musical number, the navy in question is a horde of marauding Muppet Vikings, and when they chant "We want you as a new recruit!" — they're not kidding. They come ashore and proceed to shanghai villagers into shipboard service. Educational on sooooo many levels.
'Grandma's Feather Bed' with John Denver
John Denver forged a lasting kinship with the Muppets — he made several "Muppet Show" appearances, hosted a Christmas special and the 1982 special "Rocky Mountain Holiday" — which began with this odd performance. Perhaps it was a less jaded era, so creators and audiences didn't see anything creepy about Denver hopping into bed with a bunch of Muppets, having a pillow fight with them, or dressing in drag as Grandma.
The movies are filled with great Muppet songs (one of my favorites is "The Happiness Hotel" from "The Great Muppet Caper"), but the benchmark was always Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated gem from the very first opening credits.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When we catch up with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, he's in his Los Angeles studio doing what comes naturally. He's fiddling with computers.
"I'm working with some technology here, trying to improve on some of it, trying to adjust the software — adapting it for the tour," he says.
The tour he speaks of is one of three he has scheduled this fall. In the coming weeks, the revered and influential Chicagoan will be on the road with his current quartet, as well as playing more dates with orchestras (performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue").
This week, though, Hancock returns to the Chicago area on what's being billed as his "first-ever U.S. solo tour" — a surprising claim for the 71-year-old pianist whose career stretches back, past MTV hits and years with Miles Davis, to the 1950s.
"This is not a solo acoustic piano tour," he clarifies. "It's acoustic piano and synthesizer and my iMac. I'm integrating them all so there are more sounds I can produce in a solo context that go beyond the acoustic piano. I can build an accompaniment. I can alter, modify the sounds on the fly."
As a teen in Chicago, Hancock didn't necessarily think music was his destiny. A child prodigy in classical music, he played the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. But he never had a jazz teacher, and when he left Chicago it was to study electrical engineering at Iowa's Grinnell College.
But his penchant for techie tinkering and the ease with which he goes gaga for gadgets both shaped his career as a pioneering figure in post-bop jazz. An early missionary for the clavinet and electric piano, in the late '60s Hancock was one of the first jazz musicians to perform and record with synthesizers. A decade later, he was the first person I witnessed jamming out with a keytar.
On stage in Philadelphia earlier this month, Hancock lamented the recent death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, listing the various archaic Mac computers still littering his home.
"Technology fascinates me," he tells the Chicago Sun-Times. "I started toying with things like that when I was a boy in Chicago. . . . I've always loved science. With this technology now, I can do both. For me, it's fun and challenging at same time. Really, I have to focus and balance the personal enthusiasm I may have for the science with the idea of communicating life through music with an audience.
"Music uses sound to tell its story. It doesn't say what that sound has to be, doesn't say it has to be acoustic or electronic. It just wants out. What I'm able to do with all of this extends the possibilities of how I can orchestrate that story."
Turning toward jazz — and the future
Hancock's futurism has shaped his sound so much that when he was given the music award at this year's BET Honors, he was introduced as a player who has "changed the way we listen to music" and is "undoubtedly the master of innovating new sound."
Last year, Hancock was feted several times on the occasion of turning 70, including a special tribute concert hosted by Bill Cosby at Carnegie Hall. A West Coast tribute focused on Hancock's post-Davis group, often called Mwandishi, an early-'70s sextet (eventually septet) that consciously mixed electronic and acoustic instruments.
Christian McBride, bassist and co-director of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, said then, "I'm the biggest Weather Report fan, but I think Mwandishi was the most futuristic band of all time. With other bands, certain elements really give away their time in history. But Mwandishi was so far ahead of the pack . . . They were somehow able to balance the old traditions of jazz and the futuristic, electronic funk sound."
The aha moment that put Hancock on that forward-thinking jazz path, steering him away from engineering and classical music, occurred at Grinnell. He started learning to play jazz at 14 by listening to records, but at college he decided he wanted to perform.
"I wanted to put together a jazz concert and construct a big band," Hancock says. "There weren't a lot of jazz musicians at that small liberal arts school in Iowa, so I had to teach all the sections how to phrase so that it wouldn't be so wooden and mechanical. I tried to give them a sense, at least from my perspective in those early stages of my development as a jazz musician, you know, how they should approach it and play certain things. . . . I was 18, I was able to improvise by then." He pauses, chuckles. "I had more sense of what to do than any of them did."
Hancock spent a semester working with this group, and his schoolwork suffered. Had he not crammed at the last minute for his engineering finals, he says he would have flunked most of them. The struggle showed him the light.
"After the concert was over, I just remember going to my dorm room, looking in the mirror and saying to myself, 'Hey, Herbie, who are you trying to kid?' " he says. "The next day I changed my major. It wasn't an either-or situation, it was just a realization that music is what I must do and there was no plan B. I think I made the right decision. I hope people think so."
During summers home in Chicago, Hancock worked as a mail carrier during the day and jammed in local clubs at night. He reels off names of mentors and peers from that circa-1960 Chicago jazz scene — fellow pianists Willie Pickens and Chris Anderson ("I learned a lot from him") and Harold Mabern, sax player Eddie Harris, horn player Ira Sullivan — and venues, from the Gate of Horn to Robert's Lounge.
In addition to the general praise for Chicago's nurturing musical climate, Hancock when pressed gets down to what the city's scene specifically contributed to his arsenal.
"Especially for piano players, I'm certain, Chicago was an incredible place for the development of a keen sense of harmony, how harmony can work in music — between players and between your fingers," he says. "The way these guys were open to playing with each other, you just were able to pick up how it all could work much easier.
"We used to have jam sessions there with piano players, and we'd just take a ballad, for example, and each one would play one chorus and we'd harmonize the ballad. The next guy would keep playing it, and we'd harmonize a different way. We did it for fun and shared ideas. That was great. For harmonic development, Chicago was the place."
He took those skills to New York in 1961, where he joined Donald Byrd's group before becoming the pianist in trumpeter Davis' second acclaimed quintet. The jazz career that took off from there included a long string of solo albums spanning hits from the loping acoustic piano of "Cantaloupe Island" in 1964 to the MTV-embraced synth-funk of "Rockit" in 1983.
Even as Hancock passed the age of AARP eligibility, his music continued to impress. His 2007 album "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to Joni Mitchell's folk-pop songs, surprised everyone at the 2008 Grammys by beating the odds and winning album of the year — only the second jazz album to do so (the first: "Getz/Gilberto" in 1965).
Turning back toward Chicago — and his classical past
Today, however, Hancock says he's spending a lot of time thinking about the classical music he played as a boy in Chicago.
A combination of events pointed him back toward the symphony hall. First, Hancock says he came across some tapes someone had made of orchestrations to solo performances Hancock had given as part of a 2000-'01 duet tour with former Davis bandmate Wayne Shorter. If someone else could envision simple, synthesized and sequence orchestrations around his solo piano, then surely he could come up with his own, he says. The tinkering began.
Also, in 2009, Hancock began a joint series of performances with classical piano star Lang Lang (which stopped at Ravinia with the CSO). The recent "Rhapsody in Blue" revival began there, and Hancock says a door was opened. Last year, he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
At the time, Quincy Jones, who has known Hancock since both were grooming their talent on Chicago's South Side, said he was eager to see what more Hancock would bring to classical programming.
"He can do it all," Jones said.
Hancock returned to L.A.'s Disney Hall last month with the Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.
"I hadn't been playing classical since I was 7 years old in Chicago playing Mozart and Bach and Scarlatti. I did a Bartok piece once with Chick Corea years ago," he says. "But then I found there was actually interest from various orchestras in concerts. . . . I've got three more in December." He laughs. "So I've had to get my chops together!
"These things just happen. They present themselves. When I see a doorway opening or an opportunity or a direction that seems to be telling me, 'Examine this,' I follow it. It's the curious part of my nature. It's what's led me all the great places I've gotten to go."
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 29
Where: Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College Fine Arts Center, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville
Tickets: $85-$95, (630) 637-7469, northcentralcollege.edu/showtix
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lindsey Buckingham solo albums have been rare treats for rock fans — until recently. After averaging eight-year interims between albums throughout the '80s and '90s, the Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist has delivered three new albums in the last five years.
"There was a time when I was the Terrence Malick of rock in terms how the projects were spread out," Buckingham, 61, told the Sun-Times during a recent interview.
It's not that he's suddenly more prolific. He's simply been able to keep Fleetwood Mac's grubby paws off these batches of songs. Several Mac albums started as Buckingham solo projects, including 1987's "Tango in the Night" and the 21st-century comeback studio set, 2003's "Say You Will," which is virtually the Buckingham solo album it started out to be plus a few harmonies and Stevie Nicks songs.
The new album, "Seeds We Sow" (Buckingham) [★★★], finds Buckingham not only solo but independent — self-releasing the record after ending a three-decade relationship with Warner Bros. We spoke with Buckingham about the new album, new personal challenges and plans for Fleetwood Mac ...
Q: We last spoke amid the Fleetwood Mac's Unleashed Tour in 2009. You described the experience then as "hang time" for the band and "a proving ground." What came out of the experience, what was proven?
Lindsey Buckingham: To me, it kind of revealed itself to be a freeing experience. You know, I've got this large machine with Fleetwood Mac, and then this small machine with the solo work. As any filmmaker who's done an indie vs. a big-budget project will tell you, it's the small projects where you're able to take the risks and grow and follow your heart to the greatest degree. Fleetwood Mac went out on that tour without an album to support; we were basically doing a body of work. I think any band that's been around for a while, eventually you get to a point where your audience is less interested in hearing anything new from you. When you come to terms with that, it's kind of cool! I can go out now with the solo stuff and grow and reaffirm the transcendent aspects of playing, and then I can bring that back to Fleetwood Mac to enhance what we already have.
Q: Mac is planning a tour next year, again without a new record to support?
LB: That's what I've heard through the grapevine. I've read Mick [Fleetwood, Mac's founding drummer] saying that in interviews. I'd be surprised if something didn't happen.
Q: It's always funny to me, hearing you talk about how you communicate — or don't — with the other band members. We always think rock bands are closer than they usually are. But you're hearing Mick's thoughts via the media.
LB: Well, yeah, I spent some time with Stevie recently making her album. I speak with Mick once in a while. We don't feel a need to hang as a community at this point. That's probably best.
Q: It's been nice to see three solo albums in a row, none of which have been hijacked to become a Mac album. How'd you manage to keep the band away from these songs?
LB: After "Under the Skin" and "Gift of Screws," I had to tell them: "Don't bother me for three years!" My material on the last Fleetwood Mac album, "Say You Will," was meant to be a solo album, and if you take that material on its own it would hold up well as a solo album. The hijacking phenomenon has happened several times. So I started by telling them to leave me alone — and they did! I did two albums back-to-back and toured both, and I wasn't planning to make this third album. It just came out of me, a very spontaneous thing.
Q: The press sheet for the new album makes a big deal out of your DIY approach — writing, recording, producing, mixing it all yourself. But that's not unusual for you, right?
LB: I always make the analogy to painting. Working with a band is more like movie making; it's more political to get from point A to point B in the creative process. When I work alone, it's me slopping colors on the canvas. I don't have to have a notion for a whole song. It can be a far more meditative process. The point of departure on this project is releasing it myself.
Q: You're a full-fledged indie-rocker now.
LB: Yes, and it feels good. Warner Bros., even in the best of times for the record industry, never stepped up to the plate for my solo work. They always said, "OK, fine, but let's get back to what's important," i.e., the band.
Q: So you're on your own, but Mac is still on Warner?
LB: Well, that's a whole other complex question. Technically, no, the band is not on Warner. There are legal snags I don't even want to go into. If Fleetwood Mac does do another album, I'd love to see us do something like what the Eagles did with Walmart.
Q: You've mentioned a lot recently that part of what has made you more prolific is how content you are in your family and personal life. I thought an artist had to be discontented to produce his best work.
LB: I thought that, too. Isn't that funny? Certainly part of the appeal of Fleetwood Mac has been people buying into the struggle of our private lives and realizing we're writing about what's actually going on between us — the musical soap opera that's been a subtext of everything, the history of us having successful careers but being utter failures in our personal lives, I would say. ... I was lucky to meet someone [wife Kristen] and have all this happen at a late point in my life, after I was done with all that garbage. It's allowed me to completely dispel the notion that family and children are death to an artist. It depends on the individual. There are, though, a lot of artistic things that can be approached and written about within the balanced framework of a stable family life.
Q: Your son is almost a teenager now. Has he started his own musical journey, and has any of it had an impact on you musically?
LB: He's 13 and hormonal. He turned on a dime 10 months ago into a different person. You hear about that, but nothing prepares you for it. He's an intent listener. He'll burn CD compilations of things he likes. I'll listen; some of it makes sense to me, some of it doesn't. It's all pretty thoughtful, though. He also has a healthy ... not a disregard but a healthy ambivalence for what I do. He looks at me on stage and basically thinks, "There's Dad showing off again."
Q: Has he turned you on to anyone in particular?
LB: I don't know the names of some of the people he's been listening to. He takes it in one song at a time.
Q: Does that bother you, as a traditional album artist?
LB: It gives me pause and it doesn't at the same time. When I was a young boy, all we listened to was singles, 45s. People made albums, but it wasn't an art form. Albums then were two singles and a lot of throw-away. Then the Beatles defined it as an art form, and some of us are still doing that. I had this discussion with [my son] the other day a few months back, in fact. I was struggling over the sequence of the album. He said, "Dad, why are you spending so much time on the running order?" I said, "Well, it's like a movie. You can have a lot of great scenes, but if you don't edit it together in the right order, the relationship to each other, the story you're trying to tell — it won't be a good movie." He just looks at me and goes, "Yeah, whatever."
• 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $55, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman's last gig in Chicago was as unexpected as one would expect, at least from this quixotic local character. He headlined last Friday's Flesh Hungry Dog Show bill at the Jackhammer, a cozy Rogers Park gay bar.
Maybe not as unexpected to fans — after all, among the many different people Furman makes out with in this year's video for "Bloodsucking Whore" (below) is Gary Airedale (G. Thomas Ward), Flesh Hungry's creator — but still not a traditional venue for his barking, rootsy, ever-more-frequently rockabilly-influenced songs.
"I don't know how this looks up here to you out there," Furman said Friday from the Jackhammer stage, typically wild-eyed in his light yellow duster, "but it feels all right to me."
That was the last time Chicagoans will see Furman for a while. He plans to wrap up the recording of his first solo album (funded by fans) in Chicago during the next couple of weeks, and by the end of the month he'll be a San Franciscan.
I caught up with him Wednesday afternoon before he returned to the studio. (Also read our chat from earlier in the year, on the release of his third album with the Harpoons, "Mysterious Power.")
Some snatches from our conversation:
Q. You're always a bit edgy on stage, but you seemed more nervous than usual [Friday night].
A. I haven't played that often by myself. I'm still working through the possibilities. I was a little bit nervous.
Q. It's always nice to see you singing like Buddy Holly about Buddy Holly.
A. I've been doing a lot of rockabilly songs when I do shows by myself. I like to explore the intersection of my influences. Music journalists know about my influences usually before I do. I usually don't know who I'm influenced by till I read the article. I've heard about a lot of bands I really like from people who see my shows. I was 15 and people would come up and say, "So you're a Violent Femmes devotee?" I was like, "Who?" Or the Modern Lovers. Our manager couldn't believe we'd never heard of the Modern Lovers. He said, "I thought you were trying to do that."
Q. So why San Francisco?
A. A few reasons. Mostly, you know, these songs, all these women's names — "Wild Rosemarie," "Portrait of Maude" — these names of women. Well, now I'd like to refer to one real person who's going back to San Francisco to get her Ph.D. I'm going to follow her.
Q. Is she aware of this?
A. [Laughs] Yes, she's invited me. I'm accepting.
Q. San Francisco's nice. Good music, good punk.
A. I was just buying a ticket to this one band's concert there. Their being from San Francisco also actually factored into my decision to go there. They're called Girls. Their first album in 2009, it hit me like a sack of cement. They're my favorite band now.
Q. So you'll finish the solo album here and then take it with you?
A. I have to finish before I go. It's well on its way now. Being as the band is not involved, it's a very different experience to me. I'm totally masterminding every decision. I'm rounding up musicians who play instruments I've never played along with before, like double bass and there's some saxophone coming.
Q. Maybe you'll self-release it from the West Coast?
A. Maybe. I might just see who's interested among labels I think are cool. I feel pretty empowered about it, though.
Q. I imagine, after doubling your fund-raising goal on Kickstarter.
A. I had no idea if that would be successful at all. I reached my $4,000 goal in three days. Over the next 30, it doubled. It's really helped.
Q. Is solo the way ahead?
A. Well, before you ask: the [Harpoons] are not broken up. We're in sort of a waiting period. ... We'll likely make another album as a four-piece band.
By Thomas Conner
© The Washington Post
Rapper and actor Common is usually cool as a cucumber, but in 2006, he got a little nervous. He was working with Black Eyed Peas member and in-demand music producer Will.I.Am on a song for a movie soundtrack, and Will had assembled the tracks using liberal samples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“So this was serious, you know? Now I’m collaborating with Dr. King,” Common says. “Ain’t no playing around now. Not only do I have to be good, I can’t let down Martin Luther King.”
The fact that Common speaks of King in the present tense is telling of the personal and conversational flow to the rhymes he applied to the song “A Dream” (from the soundtrack to “Freedom Writers”). “In between the . . . hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one,” he coolly and reverently raps before King’s voice returns to the mix.
Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking hip-hop has always mentioned King this much — and this reverently. Since Common’s posthumous collaboration with King, MCs have been all over MLK. Sometimes it’s 50 Cent just citing his name, but others have equated King’s dream with the election of the nation’s first black president (rapper Jay-Z: “Now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther”).
Even Common was at it again a few months ago. At the White House (an invitation that caused apoplexy among certain pundits over the rapper’s controversial song about a cop killer), he performed a song from his album due in November, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” using more of King’s dream speech between verses.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“King was invisible in the early days” of hip-hop, says Michael Hill, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches racial identity and African American literature. “He wasn’t ‘sampled’ widely, even though his speeches were readily available. . . . He just wasn’t making his way into hip-hop songs. But that changed as agitation for a Martin Luther King holiday began in the 1980s.”
Stevie Wonder cited King in his cheery 1981 R&B song “Happy Birthday” (“There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration”). The federal holiday for King’s mid-January birthday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the first holiday was observed in 1986 — but some states hesitated, which prompted Public Enemy’s scathing attack in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (“The whole state’s racist / Why want a holiday? / [Expletive] it, ’cause I wanna”).
King’s voice was introduced, years before hip-hop, by an iconic DJ, Joe Gibson, known as “Jack the Rapper.” Throughout the late 1980s and the ’90s, though, the most frequent civil rights icon cited by Public Enemy and other rappers was Malcolm X.
“Once they bring out Malcolm X, King goes away again for 15 to 20 years,” Hill says. “That Public Enemy sample [of] Malcolm — ‘Too black, too strong!’ [in ‘Bring the Noise’] — it’s one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop. They patented Malcolm X as the voice that should be associated with this particular hard-edged framework, connecting the music with the notion of militancy.”
• • •
King’s absence makes sense to some. “The philosophy of nonviolent protest or redemptive suffering runs counter to the confrontational tone of so much hip-hop,” says Adam Bradley, co-editor of the groundbreaking Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press). “More than that, the Martin Luther King vision is harder to fit into a slogan than Malcolm’s. For Malcolm, you have ‘by any means necessary,’ catchphrases that capture, albeit imperfectly, his vision. With King, the closest we come is ‘I have a dream.’ It’s not surprising that’s one of the most prominent ways he appears in hip-hop.”
Even Common, for all of his use of King’s iconic speech, agrees. “Malcolm just represents more of the . . . the fire of hip-hop,” he said.
Not that it has to be one or the other. MCs in hip-hop frequently drop both names into the same song, often among a torrent of proper names.
“The main uses for name-dropping in hip-hop are as a simile,” Bradley says. “ ‘I’m like this person.’ Or occasional self-aggrandizement. Lil Wayne has this song [‘Playing With Fire’] where he says, ‘Assassinate me, (expletive) / ’cause I’m doing the same [expletive] that Martin Luther King did.’ That’s arguable,” Bradley says, then chuckles.
How serious are rappers when they link themselves so directly to a potent or polarizing figure?
For someone like Lil Wayne, Bradley says, “King’s name gives him the sound he wants to use. . . . It has little of the reverence,” Bradley says. “It’s delivered with a knowing sense that its audacity may resist the comparison, and through that it will nonetheless achieve the desired effect, which is to cast himself the giant.”
Sometimes the name-dropping, though, is didactic, often from artists who style themselves as socially conscious or political. King’s name is often employed as a means of teaching history to young people. Chuck D once famously referred to hip-hop as “the black CNN,” and even in today’s hyper-informational online culture, some MCs still take that role seriously.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, known for recently calling President Obama, on TV, “the biggest terrorist,” believes names are talismans, that dropping them will create ripples in the pond.
“It’s really a triumph anytime some rapper mentions his name,” Fiasco says of King. “The hope is that you say his name and some street dude in a car at a strip club smoking weed, that something triggers in him to go, ‘Now who is that guy and what did he do?’ ” Fiasco adds, “The names still carry weight in my world. Sneaking them in is very important.”
• • •
For Fiasco, there’s little sneaking going on. He opens his non-album track “BMF (Building Minds Faster)” announcing, “I think I’m Malcolm X, Martin Luther / add a King, add a Junior,” then proceeds through a list of figures he wants you to know about — “I’m Tupac, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Marcus Garvey . . . I’m Rev. Run . . . I’m T-Pain” — between his various critiques of social and foreign policy.
“I don’t even really break down who those guys were in the ‘BMF’ freestyle,” Fiasco says. “The names carry their own weight. Keeping them alive is all we need to do. It’s all we can do.”
Common understands this default duty of hip-hop — “Rap music in the hood plays the fatherly role,” he raps in “A Dream” — but when he was writing his rhymes to accompany King’s speech, the experience wasn’t so objective. It was personal.
His first verse describes every kind of darkness — gunshots fire from “sounds of blackness,” he’s followed by “dark clouds” and in his struggle to better himself, he says, “I just want some of your sun.” By the second verse, he’s turned introspective, speaking words as a letter to himself, telling “my story” about “tryna make it from a gangsta to a godlier role.” King’s dream becomes his own, though he initially worries he “ain’t using it for the right thing.”
“A lot of the struggle or fight that Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about was more for unity and about the rights of human beings,” Common says. “The character I took on in that song, you know, he says that fight exists in me. . . . I believe the change begins with you. You hear President Barack Obama speak and say, man, our work is just beginning. Well, our work is my work. We’ve got to take responsibility for the work. In the end, Martin’s dream starts with having a dream yourself — and then working to realize it, wherever and whoever you are.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza wasn't supposed to last 20 years. It was a miracle it survived 20 dates. The tour was a death knell, a tick on a bucket list, the proverbial last hurrah. That first tour, Lollapalooza 1991 — that was meant to nail a particular coffin shut.
"It was the farewell tour for Jane's Addiction," says Perry Farrell, leader of that storied — and now revived — alt-rock band and inadvertent founder of Lollapalooza. "Marc [Geiger, his agent] called me up to discuss what we wanted to do, how we wanted to send ourselves off. He said we could do whatever we wanted. Well, my background was putting on shows and parties in L.A. I would never play the straight clubs, I was always finding the weird loft or setting up in front of a hot dog stand or taking people into the desert. I was used to putting on parties that had extra things. And Marc said 'whatever you want.' So I said, 'All right, I'll call you back.' I wanted to really think about it."
Geiger, now head of music at William Morris Endeavor and still booking the new stationary Lollapalooza, recalls the idea for a roving festival being sparked in London.
After a Jane's Addiction club show, Farrell lost his voice, thus forcing the band to cancel its appearance the next day at Britain's Reading Festival, an annual multi-band music event dating back to the 1970s.
"I went on to the festival the next day and had an amazing time," Geiger says, "and we go back to the hotel, where the band is sitting around pretty depressed, and said, 'Man, you should have seen this. This is what we should try to do with the breakup tour.' Perry said, 'Absolutely,' and we sat in the lobby sketching out the format and making lists of bands. ... This being Jane's Addiction, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on. One day a while later, Perry called me at 1 a.m. and said, 'I've got the name!' He'd heard it on a Three Stooges episode."
Fried from drug abuse and exhausted from touring, by 1991 Jane's Addiction was ready to call it a day. Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro were at each other's throats. They finished recording "Ritual de lo Habitual" and were able to agree on one last thing: the tour supporting that album would be their last as a band.
Farrell had no reason to think it would repeat itself.
"I wanted a longer lineup, just because I wanted to have a wilder, bigger party," Farrell says. "If it's a farewell, then let's invite some of our musical friends and peers. Nothing was supposed to come of it, you know. I had no intention of doing it again. I mean, the thing was over and William Morris and Marc and these guys are all really enthusiastic and saying, 'We think we can get the Red Hot Chili Peppers for next year!' — and I went, 'Wait, what? Next year?'"
Farrell's musical Frankenstein (created also with help from Jane's manager Ted Gardner and booking agent Don Muller) would become the undead monster stomping through popular music and the summer concert scene for years to come. Lollapalooza lived, died, and in 2005 was born again as an annual, stationary "destination festival" in Chicago's Grant Park. This weekend the event is sold out, meaning 90,000 fans a day over three days will hear 130 bands on eight stages.
Lollapalooza — one day and one stage — debuted July 18, 1991, at a dusty, shade-less amphitheatre in Phoenix. For the next month and a half, the tour's nine performers visited 21 cities, including Aug. 3 at the World Music Theatre (formerly the Tweeter Center, currently the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre) in nearby Tinley Park.
By the end of Lollapalooza that year, Jane's Addiction would be over — but more popular than ever. The rift in the band, however, was clear from that first show.
"The guys in Jane's Addiction got into a fist fight on stage. It was a hell of a way to debut," recalls Andy Cirzan, vice president of Chicago's Jam Productions. Jam would be producing the inaugural Lollapalooza when it reached the Chicago suburbs, so Cirzan had flown to Phoenix to see how it was going down. "The fight continued off stage. There was some definite roundhousing going on. I don't know if anyone landed a punch, but I specifically saw some punches flying as they left the stage."
"Yeah, well, that's why we were leaving," Farrell admits.
The rest of the Lolla lineup that first year: Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Living Colour, Ice T & Body Count, the Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, the Violent Femmes and Fishbone. (See where the Lolla class of '91 is now.)
Emergency Broadcast Network, a group of video artists, bewildered fans at some of the shows by projecting soundtracked films between sets (basically the kind of electronica videos now all over YouTube). In San Francisco, an all-black heavy metal band, Othello's Revenge, played 1991's only side stage.
(That same Aug. 3, 1991, weekend in Chicago also offered Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak at Poplar Creek, the O'Jays at the Arie Crown Theatre, Kelly Willis at Schubas, Dizzy Gillespie at Ravinia, and the South Shore Jazz Festival featuring the Count Basie Orchestra at the South Shore Cultural Center.)
The idea of a multi-band festival wasn't that unusual in 1991. One that moved around the country was.
"The festival scene had been in Europe for a long time, and lot of this was modeled on that idea. But those were all destination festivals. To take this thing a put it on the road, that was unheard of," Cirzan says. "You're not talking about two or three bands and their equipment. Now you're talking about eight or nine bands, stages, vending, kiosks, and moving it all across America."
The more Farrell thought about what he wanted to do, brainstorming after that initial "whatever you want" phone call, the more he wanted to do.
"I was thinking in terms of what else would happen on the grounds. I really wanted an art gallery," Farrell says. "That's the first extracurricular, front-of-house idea I had, to have a traveling art gallery. From there, I started thinking, well, that covers the ground, but what about the sky? So I wanted hot-air balloons. I kept on going. I didn't get resistance on anything except the hot-air balloons. We managed to do it one year, but a balloon only holds two to four people at a time. It wasn't cost effective."
Even the first Lollapalooza provided plenty of extra, non-musical distraction to fill the long hours in the summer sun. In addition to shops full of trinkets and food vendors, numerous organizations were spreading their gospels. Greenpeace had a heavy presence, and informational kiosks abounded for groups such as Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Abortion Rights Action League, Handgun Control Inc. and the Citizenship Education Fund. The Amok Bookstore sold banned books.
Jeffrey Othello, namesake leader of Othello's Revenge, christened Lollapalooza's first side stage. After working his way through college in concert security for legendary Bay Area promoter Bill Graham, Othello's first band was booked at Graham's 1990 festival, A Gathering of the Tribes. A precursor to Lollapalooza, this two-day event — a mini-tour organized by the Cult's Ian Astbury, with the first day outside San Francisco and the second outside Los Angeles — featured a diverse bill that included Soundgarden, the Indigo Girls, Ice T, Queen Latifah, Iggy Pop, Joan Baez and more.
"Our music got resistance from the booking agency for that festival, but you don't say no to Bill Graham," Othello recalls. "He liked our music, so he built a second stage especially for us on this grassy area at stage left. ... We were a big enough hit that we got the call to try the same thing at Lollapalooza that first year."
Lollapalooza '92 included a full-time side stage on all the dates, as well as the addition of the briefly notorious Jim Rose Circus Sideshow.
Diverse but not everything
The first Lollapalooza lineup and several subsequent ones were diverse, which is not necessarily the same as today's smorgasbord, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. In 1991, the industry still filed many of these bands under "college rock."
"The other reason I wanted so many bands to come with us is I felt there was strength in numbers," Farrell says. "This is before the title 'alternative rock.' There was no name for it. It was just this underground phenomenon now getting a presence on radio and showing good numbers on the live circuit. I figured if I just brought my friends and my record collection out there with me, together it would be very powerful."
The booking philosophy of the first Lollapalooza was considerably looser than subsequent tours.
"It was us in a hotel room with the manager and the band, and everybody could pick one band," Geiger says. "It was the non-scientific, choose-your-kickball-team approach. Dave wanted Siouxsie, because he's a Goth. Perky [Jane's drummer Stephen Perkins] loved Rollins. Perry wanted Ice-T. Eric [Avery, former Jane's bassist] wanted the Butthole Surfers. I wanted Nine Inch Nails and the Pixies. I got one. Living Colour was no one's choice; they were exploding at the time, and we thought they made sense."
"It was all hair metal at that time," Farrell says. "We were fighting against that. We were not pop, and rock had become pop. I don't want to pick on people like Styx and Journey, but you understand they would say they're rock bands. To me, they're pop groups. We didn't want to be that."
Farrell and Gieger also say they wanted those early Lollapaloozas to stay manageable. That '91 show seemed like such a big deal — with nine bands. This weekend's hootenanny in Grant Park showcases 130.
"I have to say, that's what was nice — and, I think, most effective — about those early tours. It wasn't about a million bands. It was a marquee slot, and everyone lobbied to be on it. It was a strategy about breaking your band nationwide," Cirzan says. "Today, it's, what, 150 bands? The average consumer — I mean, how could you even digest more than, say, 20 bands in a day? It doesn't seem that helpful to bands, just the promoters."
"The cool part came later," says Debbie Cohen, an English teacher at Glenbrook South High School. She attended Lollapalooza '91 at the World. "After seeing the bands you'd never heard of and then, after they became huge, you were able to say, 'Wow, I saw that show!' ... It was a whole day of music, and that seemed very cool, but it wasn't so much that it was too much, like today. Plus, at 15 years old, Tinley Park seemed very far away and exotic."
Cohen tagged along with her older brother, who was there "because Jane's Addiction was his favorite band in the whole world." They had tickets on the lawn; she remembers the day being slightly rainy. For Jane's Addiction, they managed to squeeze against the barrier between the lawn and the pavilion, and Cohen was hoisted onto "the shoulders of this 6-foot-4 dreadlocked boy named Todd, so I had the best seat in the house."
Her current students were astonished to learn Lollapalooza had a history.
"They were so excited this year, and I'd never heard of most of the bands. I said, 'You know, I was at the first one.' They looked at me like I was an alien," Cohen says. "I named some of the bands. 'Who's that?!' they said. ... They were totally flabbergasted."
Stephanie Katsaros, a Chicago sustainability consultant now who was 16 at Lollapalooza '91 at the World, got her view by standing on the pavilion armrests, "headbanging and fist-pumping to 'Head Like a Hole' during NIN."
Her experience at the first Lollapalooza was so satisfying and eye-opening, Katsaros says she's been to every one except 2008. The music was great, she says, but the crowd was amazing.
"The scope of the people — it was almost like the high school cafeteria, with punks on one side and preps on the other, had been mixed up," she says. "This mélange of people and ideas. It was the first time I'd seen that kind of movement. ... It started in the parking lot. People had cooler and food and drinks at their cars, just hanging out. It was definitely not a Grateful Dead parking lot scene. I remember black T-shirts and piercings and Mohawks. All these people kind of finding each other. ... We didn't know there was an us!"
Within a few years, the organizers of Lollapalooza began to realize that the scene was as important, if not moreso, than the music. They thought they'd try an experiment — in Chicago.
"They called us up in '95 and said, 'We want you ready to go on sale next week,'" Cirzan says. "I said, 'Well, you've got to tell me who's on the show.' They said, 'Ah, we're not going to announce the artists yet. We just want to see what we've got, and you're the test market.' I'll be damned if we didn't sell out 28,000 tickets with no lineup."
This is now the routine: Lollapalooza passes go on sale, and often sell out, sometimes weeks before a single artist is announced. That this now occurs in Chicago is because of that 1995 venture.
"When I thought about where we would put this as a destination festival, I never forgot that," Farrell says. "Chicago and I have had a love affair for a long time."
That same year, '95, Geiger told the Sun-Times, in response to a question about the festival's scaling back of shows that year: "I think in 2010, people are going to look back and see that we did what we had to in 1995 to ensure that Lollapalooza would still be around. ... It would be nice to be involved with something that lasts that long, given that the trends of the business go so fast."
Just as Lollapalooza came back from the dead, Jane's Addiction also lived, died, lived again and died again, but has reunited once more and is back this week with the first single — perhaps aptly titled "Irresistible Force" — from a new album, "The Great Escape," their first in eight years due in late September.
Oddly, given the perfect timing, Jane's Addiction is not performing at this year's Lollapalooza. As I speak with Perry, he's packing for another gig early this week — in Australia.
"We're going down to do one show at Splendour in the Grass. It's a destination festival!" he says. "We played Lollapalooza there a few years ago. We've got a great lineup this year, they don't need us. Maybe next year. I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
I checked out Sleater-Kinney one night in 2000 in New York City. As they took the stage at the Bowery Balloom and plugged in, some yokel in the balcony shouted, "I hope you're better than you were at Irving Plaza!" The crowd ooh'd, then booed. A challenge had been made, a gauntlet thrown. The next two hours were one sweaty, thousand-watt rebuttal.
There weren't many fair-weather fans of Sleater-Kinney. During their late-'90s, turn-of-the-century reign as the country's most intense and credible female alt-rockers (always with that gender qualifier, if not the dreaded "riot grrrl" tag), their emotionally raw performances and feminist convictions inspired fierce devotion among fans. Even Time magazine called them "America's best rock band." But by 2006, utterly spent, the trio announced an "indefinite hiatus" and hasn't regrouped since.
But late last year two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein (now a co-star of cable sketch comedy show "Porlandia") and drummer Janet Weiss (also still half of the long-running indie-pop duo Quasi), reappeared in an emerging new band, Wild Flag, with ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders). You could say they're a supergroup — but the Fugazi comparisons are closer than those of the Traveling Wilburys.
In March, Wild Flag made its debut at the annual South by Southwest music showcase, playing a rousing, irresistible set. The music was chunky, strong and urgent, but also lighter, bouncier, full of Cole's kitschy keys and layer upon layer of sunny ooh's and ahh's. Their energy positively crackled — and they have successfully captured that on the band's self-titled debut album, due Sept. 13.
It's as if another gauntlet was thrown, and this new quartet feels they have even more to prove. We spoke last week with Weiss about that and more ...
Q: I absolutely love the record. It's a blast.
Janet Weiss: Oh good. We haven't talked to too many people who've heard it. Hopefully it's different and surprising in some ways.
Q: It is surprising. Were you going for the element of surprise?
JW: Any time I make a record or walk onto a stage, I'm hoping to surprise people. It's getting harder to do, though. There's so much information about a record and a band before you even hear the music or see the show, as in YouTube or an online presence, that gives a lot away instead of intriguing people. I think surprise is one of our greatest weapons, and I think we wield it well here.
Q: What's first surprising is the level of energy, absolutely bristling from the songs. You recorded the whole thing live, right?
JW: Yeah, there are only maybe three or four overdubs, besides the vocals. It's a real energy record. We're all four looking at each other while we're playing. The intricate moments that feel vibrant are actually us playing together, really finding out who we are as a band, and focusing on that instead of fancy production. We're not making an epic, 18-song double record. It wasn't about that. This is like shaking your hand, "How are you? Nice to meet you!" We're still finding out who we are. We're not sure.
Q: Where is all the excitement coming from?
JW: We just really want this to go off. Carrie hadn't been in a band for a few years, so she was probably dying to get back up there and play. Mary had been teaching guitar but not playing. Rebecca went back to school. The three of them especially were chomping at the bit to express themselves in that way again. I've never lost that. It's what I do in my life.
Q: Tell me how Wild Flag got started.
JW: Carrie asked me to help her with a soundtrack she was doing for a documentary. I'd known Rebecca and played with her for years, always thought she was awesome. We got her to play on it, as well. The three of us recorded, wrote some ditties, some instrumental incidental music. Spending the days in the practice space just reminded me of our connection, how prolific Carrie and I can be when we sit down to write. It went really well. It was a very organic unfolding. It wasn't, "Oh, we're gonna make this new band and take over the world!" Mary and Carrie create this dynamic that I really love in music with this tension and contrast. It's a little like Sleater-Kinney, but there's more bravado here, more pushing and pulling.
And I've never seen two women playing guitar solos at the same time. [Laughs] I've never seen that! Have you? I've been watching music my whole life, and that's something I've never seen!
Q: Why does that confound you? Why, in 2011, is that such a funny, shocking thing to realize?
JW: I'm just surprised. I just sat down and thought about it. Have I seen this? I haven't. And without going off into a conversation about women in rock, because I don't do that — I don't discuss "women in rock" because I don't "men in rock" — I just thought: I've seen two guys play solos together. I'm just saying.
Q: The chemistry you're describing, part of that is already well established between you and Carrie — and it seems pretty intense. Why is that?
JW: We do have this intensity. It's a language, an ability to be open with each other. There's an easiness there.
Q: And what does that mean specifically for the music?
JW: It means we get to important ideas very fast. It means we already feel like we're getting somewhere in this band. It's a language for working through how to unfold a song.
Q: Does that turn into music that's otherwise more intense than the usual pop fare?
JW: Well, we definitely feel music has gotten a little soft in the last few years. We've missed seeing truly cathartic, emotional, visceral performances. We miss seeing people letting go, daring you to let go.
Q: Sleater-Kinney always maintained a similarly intense relationship with its fans. What contributed to that?
JW: We totally exposed ourselves on records, and [our music] was a desperation to share our experiences, to create — it was our desire, our need to have the experience between us be meaningful and intense and revealing, every time.
Q: Was any part of the creation of Wild Flag linked to a desire to return to that Sleater-Kinney intensity?
JW: Not in the way of, "Let's relive this thing that existed." This was a brand-new discovery on its own. There are very few situations you get in and think, "This is really exciting, this has some real possibilities!"
Q: Will this lead toward or away from a Sleater-Kinney reunion?
JW: Sleater-Kinney was so in the moment — every show was a big deal — and that relationship with the fans was so intense and meaningful, to do it again as a reunion would feel so much less to me, less than what it was. I would never want to touch that. ... Why go on tour if we'd be less than we were? We value what we stood for. It's bigger than us.
Wild Flag will return in the fall as part of a proper tour. They're scheduled Oct. 9 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Tickets: $15, (773) 276-3600, emptybottle.com.
with Mickey and Radar Eyes
• 10:30 p.m. July 22
• Subterranean, 2011 W. North
• Sold out
• 9 p.m. July 23
• Wicker Park Fest, Milwaukee and North avenues
• Tickets: $5 requested donation at festival entrance, wickerparkfestchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Finn, the leader of Crowded House, has a new music project inspired by his empty house.
"The kids have left home, and we've got a bit more time on our hands," Finn told the Sun-Times this week. "This is the kind of thing you do when you're rattling around the place."
Finn's speaking of his wife, Sharon, with whom he's formed a new band, Pajama Club — so named because the songs grew out of late-night jams the couple had while drinking wine in their PJs. Their son, Liam Finn, 27, now has an acclaimed career of his own.
Pajama Club is the latest outing for Finn, whose lengthy career began in the late '70s with down-under pop band Split Enz and was followed by his own trio, Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong"), a solo career and occasional albums with his brother, Tim Finn, as the Finn Bros. After the death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005, Crowded House reunited and has since recorded two more albums ("Intriguer," the latest).
For Pajama Club, the Finns are joined on stage by New Zealand indie-rocker Sean Donnelly — who had a broad hand in "updating" the PJ Club songs, Finn said — and drummer Alana Skyring. The group's self-titled debut album is due Sept. 13.
Finn spoke with us about the new project — and his many others ...
Q. I understand this started late at night at home, but you're also playing different instruments.
A. That's right. I played drums and Sharon played bass, instruments on which we've no skills. All the songs came from these bass-and-drums grooves. I've never written like that before, and it sounded to my ears quite fresh. To find new angles at this point is a joy. It's really fun to play, and we came up with stuff I wouldn't normally come up with.
Q. Are you playing drums on stage?
A. I play some guitars on stage, and drums for one song.
Q. Of all new instruments, why drums?
A. Every singer fancies himself a drummer. I thought I was totally challenged in that department until one night at [Los Angeles nightclub] Largo with Jon Brion I ended up on the drum kit for an extended period. I held it down rather well until "All You Need Is Love," and those bars of five completely stuffed me up. But that was the incentive. I can't do anything flash, but I can hold down a feel.
Q. How much have you thought about Paul as you play the drums?
A. Not much overtly, though it's reminded me what a great drummer he was. The way he played his high hat and the feel he got is very important to the way I play guitar. I'm attempting to provide the same feel, but it's not easy to find. There's something in the way he swung that matches exactly with the way I play acoustic guitar. I've got that same swing in my head because my body is genetically programmed to him now.
Q. The Pajama Club songs are ... I want to say dark, at least for you. Is that accurate?
A. It's got a jammy, dark atmosphere to it, sure. Some songs on the album are a little darker, a little more open-ended than you might be used to from me. There are psychedelic touches, if I may be so bold. But there's also a lot of simple, groove-oriented stuff. It's quite eclectic in the true sense of the word.
Q. You're finally working out your love of [early-'80s dance band] ESG, I guess?
A. That was one of the initial inspirations, yes — those first dabblings with ESG, early-'80s bass grooves, wit that chanty stuff on top. We were attempting an homage to that concept, though it's more songy, for obvious reasons.
Q. What's the status of Crowded House?
A. We've got songs circling there, too. I was in the studio with them earlier in the year. Hopefully something will emerge next year.
Q. Anything with Tim?
A. Not currently, but we've been talking, trying to will it back into being.
Q. Will you work directly with Liam?
A. We've shared the stage on occasions, and we've talked about and will do some recording together. It's almost overdue now. He's doing his own thing, which is right and proper. I think we've got an album in us, too, he and I. They're backing up, all these projects.
Q. It's not easy to keep track of you.
A. I'm naturally restless. It's possibly confusing for the general public.
8 p.m. July 1
Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $20-$22, ticketfly.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When you've shot your mouth off and claimed that your band is the best in the world, what do you say when that band dissolves and you form a new one?
"We're the second-best band in the world."
So says Liam Gallagher, singer from '90s Britpop leaders Oasis and now leader of Beady Eye.
After 18 years of quarrels while Oasis tried to make good on that boast — two Guinness World Records for their chart and sales success in the UK but only two No. 1's in America (for the songs "Wonderwall" in 1995 and "Champagne Supernova" in '96) — in 2009 Noel Gallagher, Liam's brother and the band's chief songwriter, stormed out after a backstage fight. The Gallagher brothers fought all the time, but two hours later Noel posted a statement online saying he'd quit the band and "simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer."
Liam, though, intended to go on working, and so did the rest of the existing lineup of Oasis: Andy Bell (formerly with Ride), Gem Archer and Chris Sharrock. They initially said they'd continue as Oasis but later adopted the new name, Beady Eye.
A new sound, too? Sort of. Beady Eye's debut record, "Different Gear, Still Speeding," released in February, is the same mash-up of Beatles, Stones, Kinks and some more Beatles. The difference is in its tone — lighter, breezier, sunnier, free from all that heavy expectation and Very Big Importance that so often weighed down Oasis records.
"That was Noel. He's very important, don't you know?" Liam told the Sun-Times, and he chuckled. "I'm only half joking."
The Noel-free band, Beady Eye, is booked solid throughout Europe this summer, but they're swinging through North America for only four shows this month in Chicago, then Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. Before they played last weekend's Isle of Wight Festival in southern England, Liam Gallagher and Archer talked to the Sun-Times about the new songs, making music without Noel and how life goes on.
Q: You're playing just four dates in North America this month. Why?
Liam Gallagher: We're just going to test the waters and see if you guys are up for it. No point in going over and slunking it if you're not into it. Things are selling out. We're going to get on stage and do what we do. Hopefully, that's enough.
Gem Archer: We're a brand new band with a brand new set. We can't book an 18-month tour yet.
LG: We've done all that with Oasis. We're not 20 years of age. We're not desperate to crack it, you know?
Q: So how is what you're doing that different from Oasis?
LG: I don't think we're trying to be different than anything. We're staying true to what we do. We're making music we like. There's no big gimmick around it.
GA: We love melody, and we're just giving something out. It's not going to change people's lives. It's rock and roll, isn't it?
LG: We're not trendy. I hope we're not. Our style of music will always be played. It might remind people of the '60s ...
GA: And '70s.
LG: ... and, you know, we're certainly not trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheels' good.
Q: You feel like that now, but did you feel like that when Noel left Oasis?
GA: It's funny, man. When the band split, we knew we weren't finished with music, but we didn't have a great master plan or an agenda or anything. We knew we wanted to keep going. We wanted to keep making music.
Q: The debut album is so breezy and easygoing. Would it sound like that if it were an Oasis album?
LG: If Noel hadn't left, we'd probably be trying to do this with him — and not having any f—-ing luck. But it's not some new experiment. You can only go so far with a f—-ing experiment before you go, "That's not f—-ing us anymore." Anyone can record a tea bag being squeezed out of a monkey's ass, but it's stupid. We like guitar, bass, drums and piano. It's what we do.
Q: You clearly still love the Beatles.
LG: Everybody goes on about that, saying, "That's all they do is that f—-ing Beatles thing." We all love Lennon and George. They're the best band in the world. I'm not going to stop listening to my favorite band in the world just because some f—-ing pervert doesn't get it.
GA: Take the song "Bring the Light." It sounded a different way when we demoed it. Liam said, "It's not quite there." We tried bringing it back toward a Beatles thing, and then Liam wanted to go a little Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and we said, "Imagine if the [Sex] Pistols had a piano player."
Q: What's missing from the formula without Noel?
LG: He made a lovely cup of tea. [Laughs] No, I mean, Noel's a great songwriter, but so's Gem and Andy, and I'm getting there. Andy's better than Noel on guitar. People have this f—-ing bee in their bonnet because Noel's not there. We're not lacking anything. We've got great songwriters in the band. I'm not going to paint on big eyebrows to make people happy.
GA: It doesn't feel like a wonky table.
Q: What was the backstage fight actually about?
LG: You'd have to ask him. I might have had a couple of beers and things were coming to the surface, but that's f—-ing life. Noel wanted to be a solo star. I think he honestly had enough of Oasis and wasn't getting his own way and wanted to do his own thing. He wanted to sing all his own songs and take all the glory. Let him go do it. The rest of us weren't enjoying the creative process. ... That's sh—. If you're not doing that, you might as well go work at McDonald's. I'm sure he'll be f—-ing great, but there's a lot f—-ing more lacking in a Noel Gallagher gig, a lot more missing in his stuff than in ours.
Q: So you're not going to his wedding [on June 18 to Sara MacDonald]?
LG: No, I'm busy playing gigs in Chicago.
GA: This schedule's been in for a while.
LG: He goes on about how he wasn't invited to my wedding. No one was at my wedding but Nic's [wife Nicole Appleton] mum and my mum. Get over it, mate. I've not been invited to his wedding. I'll be in Chicago. I'll come cry about it to Oprah. [Muttering in background] What's this sh— about Oprah retiring? She needs to stay on it. She needs the [vitamin] B12.
Q: You're already at work on a second record?
LG: We're definitely doing a second record when the tour ends. We'll get it out next year. We like putting out songs in the summer. We're not going to rush it, but we're not going to dick about with it. The tunes we've got so far are absolutely big.
GA: It's really getting us off. We did this [first] record out of sheer adrenaline, rehearsed it like a brand new band. There was no concept behind it except, "See you at the end of the tune." The next one will have a sense of ourselves, some breathing space.
Q: So if Oasis was the best band in the world, what's Beady Eye?
LG: We're the second-best band in the world.
GA: It's not arrogance. I just don't get why people would be in anything or a band if they don't think it's the best.
LG: Oasis was the best band in the world till Beady Eye. We'll take it over. Noel can't do it by himself. It's a lock for us.
with the Dig
• 8:30 p.m. June 18
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Bob Mould has always avoided living in the past — except for the last two and a half years.
During that time, he's been writing an autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (with Michael Azerrad, Little, Brown, $24.99), which publishes June 15. It tells the story of a punk rock pioneer consistently dodging his own past. He plays in bands — the bracing fury of Husker Du (1980-88), the ear-splitting pop of Sugar (1992-95) — then avoids reunions like a plague. He practically chucked rock altogether, shocking hard-core fans by reinventing himself in the new century as a DJ and electronic music maker. He lives in cities and then flees, never to return. He quits alcohol, quits smoking, no relapses. The man moves forward.
See a Little Light tells of Mould's struggles with homosexuality, personal relationships and various addictions, but this is not just another titillating rock 'n' roll memoir. There are good anecdotes, for sure — Mould almost got the job producing Nirvana's "Nevermind," and his friendly rivalry with the Replacements' Paul Westerberg actually resulted in some demos together (which were stolen from a van, but "don't worry, the stuff wasn't very good") — and makes certain we understand that we shouldn't expect a Husker Du reunion. It's a clear, plain account of one troubled musician's life, with a lively and happy present-day ending.
"I think longtime fans will be shocked but not really surprised by some of this stuff," Mould said this week from his home in San Francisco. "The plain storytelling is what they're used to from me. I didn't try to make it something it isn't. ... It's definitely my voice."
Mould will be in Chicago twice in the next three weeks, performing shows that illustrate the two sides of his personality and career. He spoke with the Sun-Times about the shows, the book and where music intersects with — or divides — a life ...
Question: In the book, you refer to Chicago as "a key city for me," with some fun tales about shows at the Riviera and Aragon. Why has Chicago been important?
Bob Mould: Strictly by numbers, Chicago is my biggest market. I do my best business there, whether it's selling records or tickets or the amount of airplay or media coverage. It's my biggest town. I always emphasize to whoever I'm working with that Chicago has to get special treatment.
Q: Why do you think we like you so much?
BM: I don't know, I've just always connected there. Joe Shanahan [owner of Metro] has been a key part of that over the years, and Norm [Winer, music programmer] at WXRT. ... It must just be the ethic of Chicago. It's a hard-working, no-nonsense town.
Q: Yet in all the different cities you've lived in — Minneapolis, New York, Austin, D.C., San Francisco — you've never landed here?
BM: That aaaaaalmost happened in '02. It was the winter, though. I've lived in the Adirondacks and Minneapolis and had about 30 years of hard winters. But my partner and I at the time said, "Do we really want to do this winter thing?"
Q: Your show this weekend is another Blowoff party. How have those volved over the years?
BM: It's myself and Rich Morel, both singer-songwriter musicians, producers, whatever. We started this party in 2003. The idea was to meet people. I'd just moved to Washington, D.C., and I wanted to meet people. We had a shared love of disco and electronic music, and we just started these DJ nights that, over eight years, have morphed into this big seasonal dance event that we take around the country.
Q: You were somewhat new to electronic and dance music when this started, right?
BM: Going back to my punk rock days, I had no time for disco and little time for '80s electronic music, which now I know is a shame because there was so much great stuff I was missing at the time. I had to go back and re-educate myself.
Q: The solo show next month will feature you playing songs and reading from the book, is that right?
BM: Yes. [Laughs] I don't know how I'm going to do that. I'm waiting for a call back from Ray Davies to see how he did it. [Laughs]
Q: Now that you have the book in your hand, how do you feel about it and the process of writing it?
BM: I'm very proud of it. It's been a lot of work. ... It's not at all what I thought it would be.
Q: What do you mean?
BM: Well, the obvious route would have been: Here's a cursory look at my childhood and some things I liked as a kid, and then, oh, I was in this band and then another band, and all these wonderful things happened. Everyone who picks this up is going to know that story already. It was clear to me that my job was to let people really know who I am, to take ownership of my life, the good and bad.
Q: This comes out just a few months after Andrew Earles' Husker Du biography (Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock). Bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton are interviewed in that book, but not you. Is that because this book was under way?
BM: Yes. I haven't read that book.
Q: You've written before. Why not write this memoir on your own? How did Azerrad help shape the story?
BM: Where he gets credit is, as an outsider, getting me to shed the stories that had no bearing on the greater story. And also, things that I'd drop as an aside, he'd be like, "Wait a minute!"
Q: The book has a different tone in the grumpy first half (when your homosexuality was an open secret) than the cheery second (when you were completely out). I'm intrigued by why you felt it so necessary to "bid a farewell to rock" in order to fully pursue a life as a gay man.
BM: I wanted to reinvent myself as a person. For whatever reasons at the time, it was not possible to be fully myself being constantly beholden to my rock 'n' roll career. I needed to step off that. I was basically planning my gay identity in '97-'98, starting to brush up on and then immerse myself in the gay life. I'd never allowed myself that, never had it. The more I sat in the van, the less I was going to have it. I just needed to spend time around other gay people and basically learn how to be one, which I wasn't getting in punk rock. The two were not going to co-exist. Now I know better, but at the time I thought I really needed to let go of this.
Q: How did the transition from rock to electronic music facilitate this?
BM: Electronic music was the soundtrack of that life. The coffee shops, restaurants, gyms where I was spending time were all playing this music. Instead of going to a rock bar every night of my life and hearing rock all the time, I was in environments hearing keyboards and processed vocals and divas. Once it was in my head — I'm a musician, I wanted to learn how people made that music. It took a number of years to get it. It's not as intuitive as pop music.
Q: What will your next music be?
BM: I'm still figuring that out. I stopped writing music when I started writing the book. So I'm just getting back to it.
with Bob Mould and Rich Morel
♦ 11 p.m. May 28
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ $16, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
An evening of reading and music
♦ 8 p.m. June 16
♦ Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport
♦ $25, (773) 325-1700, mercurytheaterchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I spoke with Ian McCulloch, leader of Echo & the Bunnymen, he was typically humble. "I've got the best voice in the history of time," he said. "That's how people know my music is real, that I'm not lying to them. I'm not singing for the sake of it. I've got one of those voices that tells you it's the truth."
Echo & the Bunnymen features his dark, brooding and now a bit croaky Jim Morrison-ish voice plus the often wild and tortured sounds Will Sergeant wrings out of guitars.
The two modern-rock collaborators regrouped in 1994 after a sizzling spat and now have been together longer than the first go-round from '78 to '88. Now they return this week with one of those album concerts — playing the entirety of their first two, "Crocodiles" (1980) and "Heaven Up Here" (1981).
During this chat from his home in Liverpool, McCulloch was just as modest and more reflective ...
Q. We spoke last year when you were touring "The Fountain," which you said was the best record you and Will had made since "Ocean Rain." Does that opinion still stand?
A. "What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?" (1999) is also up there as a great Bunnymen-sounding record. That isn't to discount "Siberia" (2005). "Flowers" (2000) is not me favorite.
Q. What makes "a great Bunnymen-sounding record"?
A. The ingredients that made "Crocodiles," "Porcupine," "Ocean Rain." The lyrics and melody and sound of this band, combined. Time helps. Time can give you that insight into what you're about. Doing these "Crocodiles" shows we see, ah, these songs really are as good as we thought and a lot of people thought. The gigs are a master class in rock 'n' roll.
Q. They must be long, too.
A. 30 songs. We're approaching Springsteen territory.
Q. Time has improved the songs, you say, but how has it changed them?
A. Well, it doesn't seem that long ago. It's mad to think that between whatever demos John Lennon did in 1960 to 1970, this is three times that amount of time. Some of these songs — it's the first time we've played them since we played with the drum machine. They sound like we've just written them. We tried not to make records with clichéd sounds of the time. Synthesizers sound horrible.
Q. So why start at the beginning with these two albums?
A. We thought of this before we did the "Ocean Rain" shows [in Britain]. Some of it was to throw down the gauntlet and say, "Which of the bands out there could play their first two records and they'd still ring true?" ... We'll have to wait 20 years to do "Siberia" and "The Fountain" when people realize how great they are.
Q. So what are you getting out of this experience?
A. An extensive "I told you so," as much as anything. Of course, we're preaching to the converted.
Q. Do you find that you're carrying yourself in some way that is different?
A. They're very intense gigs. There's not a lot of "Howdy, folks." It reminds me how I used to be on stage — that important thing of attitude.
Q. Will you tour other albums?
A. Maybe. We could do "Porcupine." Tough one, that. The best way to do that one is with headphones on loud and very much in the dark.
Q. What about the final, self-titled album? It always gets a bad rap.
A. I'm pleased that it looks like it at least got out there a bit, but a lot of it I couldn't listen to. In some ways, it's the one type of Bunnymen with "The Game," but in others, with "Lips Like Sugar," there are so many songs that don't feel like us. A lot of people bought it and loved it. I have mixed feelings. Obviously, it's the one that made me think we should call it a day.
Q. When you write new songs, do you try to reach back to whatever well you drew these early ones from?
A. Whatever inspiration for "The Killing Moon" is also there on "The Fountain" in "The Idolness of Gods." If anything, I've gotten much better. I'm still trying to find that best-ever song. People say "The Killing Moon" is the best we song we've written. Nothing lasts forever, and as important as that song is to us, I try to always think of that next song that strips another veil away. It doesn't weigh on me mind. Every day I've got a head full of tunes.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
performing "Crocodiles" and "Heaven Up Here"
with Kelley Stoltz
• 7:30 p.m. May 17
• Vic Theatre, 3159 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $30, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.