By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts — "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes — Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born — are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
"We opened for them five years ago, at the Riviera, and we've been friends ever since. At some point, those guys said, 'Hey, we should go on tour sometime.' They were the first ones to say, 'You're getting pretty big. We'll go out with you.' They're the band we put on a pedestal. We never considered them as support. It speaks to our respect of them and how much we want to introduce our young fans to them. There's not much out there currently that we have an affinity toward, so this is perfect."
We caught up with McIlrath to chat about his band's success, its fierce social messages and how those translated to a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in February.
Question: You just got back from a tour in South America. How does your music go down there? I would think your message is popular, but I don't hear about too much South American punk ...
Tim McIlrath: Those parts of the world are hard to figure out. They're way more into dance music than rock. A guy like me screaming into the microphone is a minority. The dance music scene there is massive. But, yeah, progressive things and social justice in that environment are way more common. The right wing party in Brazil is treated with the same attention level as the Green party here. The only question in their politics is how left wing you are.
Q: You recently joined Tom Morello in Madison to sing for the protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill against collective bargaining for unions. How'd that happen?
TM: I was in Denver when that started happening. I got a call from Morello and flew back home. I went from O'Hare right to Madison. It was incredible, and it was right in my own backyard, this attack not just on the people of Wisconsin but on the Midwest ideology or the working class. ... I was grateful for the opportunity to play for them. As someone from Chicago, I don't find myself arm-in-arm with people in Packers jackets very often.
Q: Have you much experience as a protest singer — at an actual protest?
TM: No, I've gone to protests but have never played before. I said yes before I thought about it. I kind of leaped before I looked. We've got six records, I can figure something out. Then I get there on the capitol steps, it's freezing, with my guitar in hand. My friends are doing all these union songs I'd never heard before. I look at the crowd, and this is not a Rise Against show. There are not a bunch of kids waiting for me to play. There are people from all walks of life, and they need inspiration. I had to energize this crowd. I felt like some of the songs I could have played wouldn't translate. I started to rethink my strategy. I need something that would bridge the gap between me and this audience. The two songs I thought of were "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" by CCR. As I played that one, it started to rain a little.
Q: You've been playing "Ohio" in concert. Why that particular protest song?
TM: I read about its inception. Neil Young rushed in with it, said, "Here, it's tracked," and got it out. He said, "This song needs to be out right now." In the recording, you can hear it. It's not complicated. In the few words he says, he gets his point across. ... It's a song about a governor who goes too far. I didn't want it to be irrelevant to what was happening in Wisconsin, and I didn't want to somehow compare [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker to people being shot and killed, but I thought maybe it would express that this kind of thing has happened in the past and people have fought it in the past — that we can fight and win.
Q: The new Rise Against album, "Endgame," is apocalyptic and seems pretty bleak. Am I wrong?
TM: "Endgame" is my strategy to find a different approach to attack a lot of the same societal ills. Instead of being a guy tugging on your shirt sleeve, saying, "Check out what's going on in the world. Let's do something!" I imagined a character who says, "OK, I've tried tugging and begging you. Now let's paint a picture of the repercussions of our actions." So it's a story, kind of, that shows where the world is headed in the event of a financial or environmental collapse, war, worldwide poverty. Let's paint a picture of what that looks like — and then imagine the world that could be born from those ashes. You get people to picture that future possible world, and they can learn from their mistakes right now.
Q: It's pretty much a concept album.
TM: I shy away from "concept album." There are songs on this record that don't talk about this. But the "Endgame" concept does pop up in several places.
Q: Lyrically, it has a kind of "Life After People" tone to it.
TM: Yeah, we're not reinventing the wheel here. "The Road," "Life After People," we've got apocalypse on the tip of our tongues right now. It seems like the world is ending, there's a lot of doom and gloom. We've tried many approaches to get people to wake up. This is a different one.
with Bad Religion and Four Years Strong
♦ 7 p.m. May 13 and 14
♦ Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Johnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music — and he has, read on — but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?
The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template — soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid — through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.
"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."
Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?
"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."
Then he starts chuckling again, remembering some of his off moments. There have been a few.
"One of the first songs I sang was a Burt Bacharach song," Mathis recalls. "Burt is a task master, always has been. He wants you to do it exactly as he hears it in his head. ... But I wasn't taking direction well. The song is called 'Warm and Tender'" — Mathis sings a few bars, sounding creamy and light even over the cell connection from his California home — "and I ended up sounding like Frankie Laine. It was so bad. It's on the other side of one of my biggest records, 'It's Not for Me to Say,' which sold a million copies. I hear it and think, 'How could he possibly have let me do that?'
"There's a lot of that. I made a few songs years ago under the care of a doctor who gave me amphetamines, and that didn't sound good, either."
Mathis, who tours only occasionally now at age 75 and spends most of his time at home and playing golf five days a week (he now boasts an impressive seven holes-in-one), credits his very straight-and-narrow style to a small group of good advisers, most notably Gil Reigers, his guitarist for more than 40 years.
But despite the gentle but firm guidance, the Velvet Voice occasionally has veered off the sweetened path, from trying his hand at Brazilian music ("The one place I'd like to get back to is Brazil," he says, "because I fell in love with the people there and their music, and I still sing a lot of Brazilian songs") to making frequent guest appearances with the Muppets (his duet with Rowlf the Dog on "Never Before, Never Again" during a 1979 TV special is worth YouTubing).
Two recent projects, in fact, have brought his varied tastes full circle.
Late last year, a Jewish organization called the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation compiled an intriguing CD, "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The album rounded up rare instances of notable black singers taking on Jewish music, such as Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his scatting during "Utt-Da-Zy" and Eartha Kitt's orchestrated delivery of "Sholem."
The society also dug up a relevant Mathis recording. One of the four albums he recorded in 1958 was "Good Night, Dear Lord," a collection of religious songs dedicated to his mother. Amid the expected Christian music — from spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep Night") to formal pieces ("The Rosary," two versions of "Ave Maria") — were three Jewish songs: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about a Warsaw ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and the Yom Kippur prayer chant "Kol Nidre." The latter appears on "Black Sabbath."
"People ask me to explain why someone like myself would get involved with religious Jewish music," Mathis says. "It's the way you're brought up. Me, growing up in San Francisco, I had this extraordinary opportunity to listen to all kinds of music and studied voice for seven or eight years with a wonderful teacher. She first introduced me to it. As a singer, when you hear something extraordinary like that — and a lot of Jewish music is musically quite challenging — you want to sing it, you want to at least try it, to see if you can do it."
Back to his roots
Mathis' latest album, also released last fall, is off-track, too — "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville." A good friend of the late Ray Charles, it may have been inevitable that Mathis — a native of Texas — would tackle a country record. But Mathis says this actually has more to do with his roots in rock 'n' roll.
"The first music I heard was country music. My father sang it for me," Mathis says. "That's the reason I started singing. This country album is really a throwback to what my dad taught me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Over the years, I've performed with extraordinary people always in the background of my arrangements, especially the guitar players. This time, they're in the forefront. It's a guitar record! It's such a joy to listen to the recordings when I stop singing and hear this extraordinary guitar music."
So he made a record that kinda rocks, after all?
"Is it so hard to believe?" Mathis asks, laughing again. "My little brother [Michael], you know, had a band and did mostly rhythm and blues. He did stuff with Sly Stone there in San Francisco. Michael got me involved with a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. But I studied, as I mentioned, with a classical teacher, and most of the music I heard was pretty much Broadway and classical, and that's what I got involved with. In the household, my dad was singing country and Michael was playing rock 'n' roll, and I had six other brothers and sisters bringing in other stuff. If the slightest thing had changed, who knows, I could have been a rock 'n' roll star."
• When: 9 p.m. April 30
• Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets: $65-$75, (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music — I recommend it highly, it's damn good — but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad — I dream of greatness, you know — I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."
He's nothing if not quixotic. Stammering in his speech but blistering in his singing, Furman idealizes the artist as idealist. He's having this chat with us from the living room of his parents' Evanston home, where his band rehearses because they can't afford anywhere else. He mentions several times how poor he and his bandmates, the Harpoons, are despite having met each other at Boston's private Tufts University.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey," Furman says. "I've been a little too poor sometimes. Now may be one of those times."
But his confidence in his music is well placed. Whether its existence attracts money or not, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — guitarist Andrew Langer, bassist Job Mukkada and drummer Adam Abrutyn — make rootsy rock 'n' roll that's fiery, fierce and, above all, honest. The songs on their third and so far best album, the new "Mysterious Power," are at once familiar and exciting. Furman's not doing anything we haven't already heard from Dylan in the early '60s or Neil Young across the span of the '70s or the Violent Femmes in the mid-'80s, but he's doing it with such ferocity and abandon that makes him an individual stylist rather than a mere imitator. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in rock 'n' roll just to get it rolling.
Question: You seem pretty cavalier about claiming to walk the poverty line.
Ezra Furman: It's the life of an artist. It's fine with me. My only real goal is to be good at this. I've idealized all these people who were never very successful. I don't know. Maybe I should care a little more. I'm getting by. ... I don't need much money. I like the 99-cent loaf of bread better than the $3.50 one.
Q: Who's one of those not-very-successful people that you idolize?
EF: Paul Baribeau, for one. Nobody's heard of him, and he's the best songwriter in America, basically. He's always playing people's houses or basements. He's in his 30s. He's such a heart-stopping, great songwriter and performer. He can write a really passionate song, and he mostly just plays acoustic guitar and screams. He's my No. 1 evangelical project.
Q: So what would success look like for you?
EF: My version of success is someone finding my album in a bargain bin one day and falling in love with it. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
Q: What could lead you to the point of "selling out"?
EF: I don't think I'll get there. I was reading this article recently by the guy from OK Go [singer Damian Kulash, in the Wall Street Journal] all about how making money in the music business is different from what it used to be. He's talking about selling music to corporations for commercials and all kinds of stuff, and how it's not selling out anymore. Nobody sees this as impure anymore. He was so cavalier about it — just do it, this is how you get rich now, and you wanna get rich, right? I was like, shut up, stop. Not everybody is in this just to chase money.
Q: You're chasing, what, gratitude, affection, artistic credibility?
EF: Just some sign that what we do is good. I know how I feel about my favorite records. I want people feeling that about us. To be somebody's favorite record, at least for a period in their lives — that's the ultimate success in being a musician. What could be a greater honor than to always be in someone's car stereo? I'm not going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. F—- that. I'd rather be in someone's stereo.
Q: The new record, "Mysterious Power," sounds more energetic and cohesive than the previous two, which is saying something. What's behind that?
EF: We just had more time. It's a more carefully chosen album. The first ones were slapped together pretty quick. Each one was done in five or six days, like, "This is our band, this is how we play songs live, there you go." We didn't have a record label, no one was asking for the album. We made the album and then found a label for it. We spent time on it, and some songs I thought were throwaways wound up being turned into some of the best ones simply because we had time to find out.
Q: Give me an example. Which songs followed that course?
EF: "Bloodsucking Whore" is a good example. That was a bitter joke. That was me in a messed-up relationship, and I was, like, listing off Buddy Holly songs. I wanted to write some simple, classic Buddy Holly ballad. I just threw it out and didn't think much of it. It was a joke to me. But the Harpoons, believe it or not, they're musicians. People probably don't know that enough about this band. I'm just sort of a strummy, singy guy. I write these songs and the Harpoons know what to do with them. They picked that one out and masterminded the sound of it. It's one of the best on the record.
Q: What compels you to keep writing songs?
EF: Dissatisfaction with what I've already done, I guess. I listen to so much music. The real answer is I listen to so much and I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's a healthy sort of jealousy. It's like the competition. The past year, I started getting into the Replacements. The things they got away with. I think, "I could do that better than he does!" Or some great record like [the Beach Boys'] "Pet Sounds" — man, I could totally pull off my own version of this.
Q: What are you recognizing in this other music? What makes a great album great?
EF: Well, that's just it. They didn't know they were making a great record when they were making it. They didn't think they were capable of writing the greatest album ever. That's what keeps me going. Who knows what could happen if I keep writing? Maybe I'm about to drop a total masterpiece if I keep pushing myself. I see some sort of potential in myself. You just never know. You should always write another song.
EZRA FURMAN & THE HARPOONS
with Tristen and the Apache Relay
♦ 9:30 p.m. April 23
♦ Subterranean, 2011 W. North
♦ Tickets, $10-$12, (773) 278-6600; subt.net
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").
In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality — and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.
"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" — Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" — "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.
His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.
Q. Did the process of evaluating your catalog for this box set begin when you reconsidered old songs for the "Recovery" album?
A. If you've been doing this and as you get older, you look back. Can't help it. In my songwriting, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. It has to do with coming to the end of something, I guess. "Recovery" was a way of revisiting songs, some 40 years later, in the context of the band I work with out in L.A. This box set starts all the way back to the first track of the first record.
Q. Did you select the tracks?
A. Yes, I had to pick the tracks, which was very painful. A lot of things didn't make it. You only have 80 minutes on a CD. Hopefully it has some sweep for the listener, some interest for old fans and new fans alike.
Q. How did you make your choices?
A. Some people let others decide for them. I could have gone that route. I have friends who are familiar with my canon and whose judgment I trust. I checked in with those people and asked their opinion on what was essential. I requested the same of some fans that I've met at gigs over the years — they always seem to be guys. At the end fo the day, it was difficult. In the liner notes I say it was like drowning kittens. I left off some of my favorites.
Q. Like what?
A. Two songs: "Missing You" and "Man's World." Those are favorites of mine, but there was just no room for them.
Q. Yet you included a lot of extras on the bonus disc. Tell me what transpired to make you feel that "Laid," a song you say you always felt was too mean to put on a record, is OK to lay out there now?
A. It's a little rough, but I like it. The idea of bonus tracks is to put out stuff people wouldn't normally have heard, and "Laid" fit right into that pocket. "Laid" is a pretty bleak look at getting laid. It's not something I do anymore. It's just an interesting snapshot of where I was at the time.
Q. Were there discoveries for yourself when digging up some of the rarities?
A. Well, in terms of the bonus tracks, yeah. There's a song on the box called "McSorley's," which is a song I only performed about three times, in 1970. The oldest saloon in New York's East Village was this Irish bar called McSorley's, and until 1970 only men were allowed. Coinciding with the rise of the women's movement, there was a lot of pressure put on the place and that tradition was broken. They forced it to go co-ed. At the time, I was a twentysomething sexist pig and wrote this song as a kind of protest. This was a great tradition, women are turning into men, that sort of thing. It was very sarcastic. I think politically I've moved away from that stance [laughs], but I put it on the box as an interesting look at where I was in 1970 — wistful about the idea that there are bars where only men can go.
Q. You talk about these songs as if they're photos in an album.
A. That word "snapshot" is very good here. These songs are three-minute pictures of something. There's a lot of stuff behind them — the good songs, anyway.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and listening to the old stuff?
A. [A pause] I'm not a guy who sits around and listens to his own records. That's not my idea of a good time. When you make a record, you listen to it hundreds of times; you kind of wallow in it. Once it's out and you can't change anything, I don't want to hear it again. I'm not going to be listening to this box set.
Q. The Irish version of "The Hardy Boys at the Y" on the box was nice to hear. It makes much more sense in that arrangement. I never understood why the ends of the verses repeat until now.
A. I love that kind of music. The Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore — we knew each other playing folk festivals. I can't recall why we didn't put that song out this way instead of the live version [on 1975's "Unrequited"].
Q. Tell me about writing "No Sure Way."
A. I once lived in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful part of New York, and there's this thing called the Promenade Walk out there where you can see all of lower Manhattan. When 9/11 happened, I was out here in this Long Island house, and I went back a day or two later to the Promenade and looked at that ... smoking mound, I guess is what it was, of rubble and humanity. When you face something that huge, you think, "I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin." I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. But later that week I found myself taking a subway ride that went directly underneath the mound, and I wrote and recorded this song three days later. Like the words I used in the song, it felt "obscene."
Q. In the liner notes, David Wild describes you as "fearless." Do you feel fearless?
A. In my part of the liner notes, I address that point that David and others have made. Take the song "Hitting You." It's about hauling off and hitting [daughter] Martha. That's an example, I suppose, of a fearless song. If you're at a performance in a dark room with lights on you and a microphone and people are sitting there listening, it sounds and looks fearless — but it's a natural habitat for me. I feel pretty safe. I'm aware of the fact that I'm getting into areas that maybe people have strong feelings about, but for me it feels quite natural, not any act of courage. It's what I do. It's my shtick. I write about my personal life and the people in it. I haven't masked it too much. It's just what I do.
Q. That's what folk music is supposed to be all about.
A. It's about what's happening to you, and what's happened to me is in manyways what's happened to everybody. My life is not particularly unusual. There's identification. That's what art is about. People say, "I know what he's talking about."
Q. I read that [Wainwright's son] Rufus is assembling his own box set, true?
A. Yes, Rufus and I are recording a song next week to be on his bonus disc.
Q. What song?
A. "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson.
Q. And congratulations on becoming a granddad again. [Rufus Wainwright announced earlier this year he and his partner became parents to a child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, via Lorca Cohen, daughter of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen.]
A. Thanks. I was in L.A. when Viva arrived. I love being a grandparent. It's so much easier.
Q. What's next?
A. Writing new songs, and I suspect I'll think about making another record.
Q. Any acting gigs?
A. I have an audition tomorrow! Thank heaven I have folk music to fall back on.
with Kim Richey
• 7 and 10 p.m. April 15
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $24-$28, (773) 728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done — by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The party game should have been called The Six Degrees of Joe Boyd.
A now-legendary music producer, the American-born Boyd (right, above) was a central figure in London's music scene during the mid-'60s. He ran Elektra Records' office there as well as the famed UFO club. In both capacities, he worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nico, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd. He's loaded with stories about many of rock's iconic figures and watershed moments. Before London, he was a part of the folk revival in the states, working with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. When Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Boyd was the guy who plugged in his guitar.
While Boyd was shepherding seminal music in the '60s, Robyn Hitchcock was hoarding it as a gangly teen and aspiring rocker. Within a decade, the eccentric and occasionally loopy Hitchcock was reproducing those sounds in his own music — in the Soft Boys in the '70s, with the Egyptians in the '80s, on his solo albums still.
Now the two have joined forces for a short tour. Boyd tells stories, some of which he reads from his superb 2007 memoir White Bicycles, and Hitchcock chimes in with songs to illustrate a point, pop a punchline or simply revel in '60s nostalgia.
They've performed the show together a handful of times, at South by Southwest and other festivals, but it's hardly rehearsed.
"No, no, we wing it," Boyd said in an interview from London. "Robyn was actually worried about committing to too many of these shows, afraid they'd start to get rehearsed and structured. One night in Portland [Ore.], they'd scheduled a second show, as we have in Chicago, and some people from the first show said they'd buy tickets and stay for the second if we'd do different stuff. We cobbled a whole new show together in 10 minutes. It helped convince him we could keep this spontaneous and loose and not let it calcify."
"We decide before each show which episodes he's going to tell, then I select the songs accordingly," Hitchcock said in a separate interview. "Joe tells his stories very well. There's so much. This is Joe's story, and I come in as the winged messenger singing the songs he midwifed into existence and asking persistent questions about Syd Barrett. He's very good, and the camera loves him. We're filming the Chicago shows, in fact, to make an amalgamated compound version for video."
Spontaneity, after all, has been the hallmark of Boyd's producing career. "I'm always in favor of not rehearsing too much," he said. "I try to do things as live as possible in the studio."
This, he said, is one of the reasons his producing career has slowed to a trickle in recent years. Boyd rarely picks up producing gigs anymore. "The people that do call me up, I say, 'Well, if I really like the music, would you be up to doing it live in the studio? A week to record and a week to mix?' They look at me like, uhhhh. 'A week, is that all?' Why would anyone need more? What are you going to do in there with more than a week other than overthink it? They say they'll get back to me, and they don't. ... The recording process has been demystified now. Many artists think, probably rightly, Robyn included, that they don't need a producer. In the '60s, groups would come in wide-eyed and need someone to show them what to do. I still think that process was a good one. I'm not sure the ProTools and democratizing of the process has really empowered artists as much as they think."
Boyd revived his producing duties in the '80s, tackling emerging bands such as R.E.M. ("Fables of the Reconstruction"), 10,000 Maniacs ("The Wishing Chair") and Billy Bragg ("Worker's Playtime"). Boyd and Hitchcock first met in London while Boyd was working on R.E.M.'s album, Hitchcock said.
I asked Boyd for an '80s story instead of a '60s one. He told one — by way of last year's remastered anniversary reissue of R.E.M.'s "Fables."
"I always had a problem with those mixes. The group was unhappy, I was unhappy," he said. "No one liked the room we were mixing in. Michael [Stipe] was always saying, 'Turn me down, turn me down,' and Peter was saying, 'Turn me down.' How could you mix a record if everyone wanted to be turned down? Peter's the one who brought me in on this in the first place. He was a big Nick Drake and Incredible String Band fan. So when it came time for the 25th anniversary, I approached the group — we're still good friends — and said, 'Let me try remixing a couple of tracks, see what you think. If you like it, we'll do the whole record.' So we did, and I was kind of thrilled by it. It sounded great. Everyone agreed it finally sounded really good — but at least one person in the group felt the moment is the moment, that the mixing is part of the art, and he was uncomfortable remixing it. I understood, I didn't disagree. Normally I would never suggest remixing a record. We'd all agreed that this decision would have to be unanimous, and since there was some resistance, I said fine and left it. Then they remastered it, and somehow they managed to do not everything but some of the things I was trying to accomplish in the remix. It sounds much better."
But this show, titled "Live & Direct From 1967," concentrates on that formative era.
"It's all about the '60s, really, which technically started in about 1965," Hitchcock said. "This is when Joe was tour managing and intersected with Bob Dylan. He's putting his coat into a room at a party, and there's a guy on the floor serenading two young women. It's Dylan singing 'Masters of War' and 'Hard Rain.' You can imagine his voice muffled by all the coats but somehow still hypnotizing them. ... If the world went into color in 1965, the color were defined by '67. There was pop music sounding very different, and people were getting very hairy. Something changed in the molecular structure of society, and a lot of it had to do with music. Music either symbolized or caused it, I don't know which. I was changing myself. I was 14. I'm emblematic of it. That change is part of my DNA."
"This show only works because of Robyn's connection to the music I had a hand in, and it's a deep, unfathomable connection," Boyd said. "Here's somebody whose music is completely original — you couldn't possibly accuse him of being derivative — so out and completely Robynesque, and yet it's so in the spirit of the '60s. He didn't absorb much into the '70s. The loam in which his curious musical plants grow is very much the rotting — and now I'm sounding like Robyn, I've been around him too much — the rotting carcasses of the '60s are the loam in which his fruits grow."
Boyd's roots reach all the way to the soil here, in fact. His musical career might not have taken off without what he calls his "turning point in Chicago."
"Chicago was very important to me, and I've hardly been back there since," he said. "I had some cousins who lived there, and I'd come out to visit with my father. We discovered Bob Kester and the Jazz Record Mart, and Delmark Records. We'd hang out at that shop, and Kester was amused by our precocity as teenagers. He would allow us to thumb through his 78 [rpm record] collection. It was great to get to go to Chicago because we got to hang out at Kester's. After my freshman year at Harvard, I decided to take a year off and go to work at a record company. Kester gave me the introduction to Les Koenig at Contemporary Records [a jazz label in California]. After that, I became a distributor back in Boston for Delmark and others. Then I happened to hear about [blues musician] Paul Butterfield, and told [producer] Paul Rothchild what I'd heard. He went to Chicago, saw Butterfield, signed him to Elektra. I suggested adding Mike Bloomfield, too, and that worked out so well that's how I got the job offer from Elektra to go to London. So the key things in my life happened in Chicago, and since 1965 I've barely been back."
ROBYN HITCHCOCK & JOE BOYD: 'LIVE & DIRECT FROM 1967'
7 and 10 p.m. March 19
Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $31-$35, (773)728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Revered '90s emo band the Dismemberment Plan has re-membered.
The quartet (singer Travis Morrison, guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley) is back together for one more go-round, a tour celebrating a classy vinyl reissue of the band's best artistic achievement, 1999's "Emergency & I."
That does not mean they'll be playing the whole album in concert.
"I hate that! I hate that!" Morrison cries. "Who would want to see that? Who, who would want to see that? I don't want to go see a band play the album start-to-finish. What kind of parlor trick is that? Why not pay $30 to hear them play longest to shortest, or alphabetical, or group them by key? Part of the joy in seeing a band live is seeing all the places they've been over time all scrambled up. Hearing them young next to old — I love that. What they have to say now adjacent to what they were doing then. Any band that reads this that does that album-in-concert thing: I am no longer a fan!"
It's so like the Plan to tour behind an LP release of a 12-year-old album. Granted, it's a supreme package: four bonus tracks, color photos, new and in-depth liner notes, a gatefold, and the whole thing's pressed on 180-gram audio-nerd-grade vinyl. "Oh, yeah," Morrison says, "if it weren't for the vinyl, we wouldn't be doing this [tour]."
This was a band, after all, that practically skipped through its career as if everything was a lark, and then abruptly shut down eight years ago, eventually tossing out a belated retirement announcement. The band, Morrison insists, was always an excuse to travel the world (they just returned from another week playing in Japan). The lack of ambition created a more creative space in which they were able to spice their jagged post-punk with dub and dance without too much worry over commercial concerns. That lost them a record deal, of course, but it also then produced "Emergency & I."
In conversation, Morrison is easygoing and remarkably carefree, and here are his takes on a few salient points ...
On looking back over the band's catalog: "I think we're lucky. Yeah, lucky. Lucky that we wrote songs that don't totally embarrass us at this point in our life. I think [they have] emotional intent that we're comfortable with. I don't want to get too pompous about it. We wrote songs we can still relate to. Not all, some are really juvenile. The more emo ones from later on seem a little much to me. But for the most part there's a core of songs that we still feel good about playing, and that's what keeps us together when we come back together."
On vinyl and the reason for the tour: "We had always been longing to do vinyl, but vinyl was a dead medium for about 10 or 15 years. Then people started to bring it back to life. We always pined to do vinyl, always wanted to hear our music and I think just really hold a vinyl record with our music on it. It's such a great medium to hold and feel and lick, if that's the kind of person you are. It's beautiful. It flatters anything that's on it. The offers we got while the medium was on life support were not attractive; they needed money to pay for half the production, and it just never appealed. Then vinyl came back and we started talking to people and were suddenly able to consider things we'd never been able to before — gatefold, double vinyl, liner notes. Then we had this beautiful product [from Barsuk Records] that cost a lot of money. We owed it to the people paying for it to help them sell it. I mean, that's not the only reason we're playing shows. If shows felt like a root canal, we wouldn't have done it and would have scaled back the product. But it was easy to say, 'Of course,' if playing some shows gives us the opportunity to put this out."
On why the band ceased: "We weren't too keen on the songs we were writing. We could feel the call of real life at that point in each of our lives. One of the things I've been proudest of is that we made that decision. You know when a group of musicians is on fire? It's phenomenal: You walk in and leave with four incredible new riffs and grooves, and you come back the next day to work on those and come up with four new things. That's the head space bands should be in when they're writing. Some bands shoulder through because they're committed to the life choice and want to find their way over that hump and regain their creative chemistry, by hook or by crook. For us, it just felt like when that energy waned it was better to stop."
On the chance new music will be written: "Uuuhhhhhhhh ... no. [A beat.] No, no, no. I think we are enormously focused on playing the old stuff well. There's been none of that head space. If we were to enter that head space, we would all go for it. But we're not going to will it into being just to have a fifth thing to sell."
On his obsession with Gladys Knight: "She's a very emotionally intelligent singer. I just think she's great. I always learn so much from her. Those songs are really smart, yet they don't sacrifice emotional resonance. People who think analysis has no place in art, especially rock 'n' roll, that the conscious mind has no place in rock — you want both. You want the feeling and the analysis. It's a challenge to make art that has analysis but also a visceral thrill. So many of her songs are these incredible, intelligent analysis of human relationships. Not many people have that going on. It's more common in country. She's really a country singer. For that reason, I've always locked onto her heart."
THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN
with JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound and Kid You'll Move Mountains (Feb. 19); Maritime and the Forms (Feb. 20)
♦ 9 p.m. Feb. 19, 7 p.m. 20
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
David Lowery has a way with the college kids. A quarter century ago, his first band, Camper Van Beethoven, kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). He capitalized on that formula for the upper classmen with his next band, Cracker, dipping a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). He still tours — with both bands, frequently at the same time — and this week he releases his first solo album, "The Palace Guards," out Tuesday.
But now he's back talking to college kids again — only this time, there's going to be a quiz.
This spring, Lowery is teaching a class on pop music business at the University of Georgia. He previously had been a guest lecturer in the school's music business certificate program. When we caught up with him, he was making his lesson plan, and he said something that's pretty much all an aspiring musician or label exec needs to know: "I can make more money teaching than playing live shows, in general."
Even as concert ticket prices have begun to approach the levels of college tuition, Lowery has written eloquently on his own blog (300songs.com) and others in recent months about the real struggles of working musicians. Sure, as was recently reported, Dave Matthews made half a billion dollars during the last 10 years, much of it from constant touring. But, as Lowery points out, not everyone is Dave Matthews, nor do they want to be. The valid and valuable musicians playing for fewer than a guaranteed several thousand ticket buyers each night still have to crunch the numbers to make it work.
"As an artist, you have to really learn about this stuff in order to make a living. But I tell students, the model doesn't really work based on live stuff. First, there are not enough slots for people to go out and play live — everybody can't be on the road at once — and expenses are really high. There are a lot of holes for the money to go down. There are buses and hotel rooms, and you figure that — we don't do this, but a typical artist does — you're giving 20 percent to a manager, 10 percent to an agent, and 5 percent to a business manager. That's 35 percent of your gross to start with. The actual cost if you go into a theater starts out around $10,000 just for the staff and the PA and the security. ... When we go out with Camper, we're taking 10 people with us every night. You do make money, but you've got to be smart about it."
Lowery is smart about it. His California college career focused on math and business. This isn't the first time he's explained his independent music business strategies to college classes. He's got a head for business all the way around, in fact — Lowery was on the board of advisors for the company that eventually became America's newest online buzz word, Chicago-based Groupon.
In December, Lowery explained how it began in a letter to Bob Lefsetz, who writes a popular online column about the music business: "In 2008, I was appointed to the board of advisors of a small web startup called thepoint.com. The site, the brainchild of Andrew Mason, was a 'tipping point' mechanism, a social networking site that allowed people to 'commit' to taking group action. In particular the hope was they would take group action for social change. The investors quietly noted there was not a clear way to monetize Andrew's experiment. However, they hoped that by watching the way users used the tipping point mechanism, a viable way to monetize this website would present itself. I was asked to start a campaign on thepoint.com, 'to get a feel for it.' Not being very socially conscious, I decided that I wanted to use The Point for my own narrow self-interests."
He used it to gauge fan interest in a festival that the two bands, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, put on each year in a remote part of California.
"I was in the right place at the right time. That's the case with my music career, too," Lowery said. "I mean, here we are talking about all this business, but it's inevitable. It's also fine to drive around in a '78 van eating mushrooms outside the university in Columbia, Mo., but eventually you have to figure out what's going on and make a business. I got more serious and learned about these things. I still find time to smoke pot."
Lowery describes "The Palace Guards" the way most bandleaders do of their solo albums. It's just a batch of songs that didn't feel like they fit with the band. Each member of Camper Van Beethoven has made his own solo record over the decades, but Lowery's been building up to it gradually. Even with two bands, Lowery said, "eventually I stopped trying to fit songs that didn't naturally work with either of them into the box." The leftovers collected until they looked like an album.
One of Lowery's other business moves years ago was to establish his own studio, called Sound of Music, in Richmond, Va. He has a base of musicians there that help with the studio's projects, which have included the Sparklehorse debut. Some of the same players were recruited to be "The Palace Guards." The title song sounds like an Elliott Smith nursery rhyme. "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me" could have fit into the Cracker box just fine, save maybe for its soft, psychedelic refrain. "I Sold the Arabs the Moon" might have been a nice foil to Camper's "Sweethearts."
"The songs here are softer, a little more mad — as in crazy," he said. "I mean, not always softer, because I do a lot of screaming on 'Palace Guards' and 'All Those Girls,' but softer as in sort of introspective in tone. More Skip Spence than Syd Barrett."
The bands have fallen prey to the concert industry's latest gimmick. At a recent joint show, Camper played the "Key Lime Pie" album in its entirety while Cracker played "Kerosene Hat."
"We just wanted to do something different on these dates we traditionally play in the Northeast in the dead of winter," Lowery said. "People have been calling for Camper to do 'Key Lime Pie' for a while. Cracker's played 'Kerosene Hat' before. We tried to figure out if there was an anniversary with it. I think it was the 21st for 'Key Lime Pie.' That doesn't sound as good as the 25th. But the band used to have this obsession with the Illuminati [a legendary secret society]. On the blog, we were joking about the formula that makes a Camper song. It has to refer to the Cold War, or communists or a dictator, or acid and psychedelic drugs, or a conspiracy theory of some kind like the Illuminati. Their number was 23, so maybe we should tour on the 23rd anniversary. That would be a very Camper thing to do. Great business move, don't you think?"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
They say the devil is in the details. For DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the devil is hard at work in the lack of them.
"Hip-hop has been hijacked by a Luciferian conspiracy," he says, quite matter-of-factly. "People have used hip-hop in a lot of ways that cause a lot of mind problems. They use the word wrongfully. They use it to mean a part instead of a whole. Like many of these [radio] stations say they're hip-hop, they're playing hip-hop. I go to these stations, and these so-called program directors don't know jack crap about hip-hop culture. They know rap to a certain extent. But I question them. I say, 'Where's your go-go, your hip-house, your electro-funk, your raga, your R&B and soul?' They get real quiet."
As the man often credited with inventing the term "hip-hop," Bambaataa has the right to quibble over its application.
The history of the enigmatic Bambaataa — his real name is a mystery, though it's often reported as Kevin Donovan, and you absolutely do not ask him how old he is — has been told and retold and should be on tablets by now. Grew up in the south Bronx projects, became a warlord in the Black Spades gang, then decided to use his powers for good instead of evil. With a natural talent for community organizing and an innate charisma, Bambaataa formed his own gang, the Zulu Nation, and started throwing the coolest parties in his 'hood.
When people gathered for a block party, the distinction between audience and performer was nebulous. A DJ plugged his system (illegally) into the lamppost and played some records; to keep the energy up, he only played a minute or two of the song before cutting to another one. Kids would dance, showing off some crazy new moves. Someone might grab a microphone and tell stories or rap. Someone else colors a nearby wall with spray-paint. These would become the four pillars of what Bambaataa would enshrine as "hip-hop": DJing, break dancing, MCing (rapping) and graffiti art.
"It was a word that was being used in cliche raps, by Keith "Cowboy" [Wiggins, later of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] and other people," Bambaataa says. "Once this became a thing, you know, we had to call it something. It's hip-hop. It's hip, and you've gotta hop to the beat to get down to feeling what you're feeling."
This is why Bambaataa is still going, still touring as a DJ without much fanfare, still throwing block parties in whatever club will have them: It's about "getting down."
"I can't stand it when the audience just stares at you," he says. "I tell these promoters, 'I'm coming to DJ. It's about the audience and the party. People are gonna dance, so be ready.' ... Dancing brings out the inner self of people, lets certain things go. You're stressed out, got problems at home, hard times at work — the vibration of the music does many things to many different people. Has throughout history. We're never more human than when we're moving to music. Dogs run, birds sing, bees work. Humans do all that, but only humans dance."
Bambaataa's party culture thrived throughout the '70s. Then rappers started making records. Bambaataa's output during the last three decades has been erratic but influential (he recently collected his '90s output in "The Decade of Darkness: 1990-2000"), especially at first. His penchant for mixing old music with new also led him to blend styles, as well. His 1982 single "Planet Rock" was revelatory: Instead of a funk band, Bambaataa clipped beats and sounds from a record by Germany's dance-rock pioneers Kraftwerk. A new approach to music making (and copyright lawsuits) was born.
Today, though, Bambaataa is one DJ who doesn't show up to the club with a lot of precious vinyl.
"I love having a digital crate now," he says. "I still go looking for certain vinyl records, but I put 'em into my digital crate.
"This way I can have a variety of so much different music I can spring on any audience I play for. ... It helps me take people on a journey. The last gig I was at, I said, 'I want you to dance like your mom and pop used to.' I started throwing '60s records. People went crazy. Once you've got 'em, you keep 'em going. I jump back to a style they enjoy today, then hit 'em with James Brown. I play stuff even from the '30s and '40s, stuff I didn't even know I had. Whatever the moment presents."
The music Bambaataa is hip to now
Afrika Bambaataa still combs record stores for the purpose of loading up his digital DJ playlists. Here's what he's been grooving on lately:
• "I finally found Sly & the Family Stone's 'Dance a la Musique' in French. It's this thing they did, they re-cut 'Dance to the Music' and sang it like Alvin & the Chipmunks. It was serious to find that."
• "Brazilian electro-funk, rio-funk, Bali-funk — that's killing now. I'm pushing a lot of that."
• "In hip-hop, I like this Lore'l from Brooklyn. Very refreshing."
• "I'm liking a lot of the underground stuff people are making right off their laptops. What about that Gorillaz album they made on an iPad?"
• "Janelle Monae, man, I love her. I DJ'd for some of her shows. I'd like to do more."
with Intel, Maker, Trew and Shred One
• 10 p.m. Jan. 26
• The Mid, 306 N. Halsted
• Tickets: $10, (312) 265-3990, themidchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Liz Phair knows the indie-rock party line. She's heard it stated and restated for coming up on 18 years: Her first album, 1993's landmark-knighted "Exile in Guyville," was feminist rock 'n' roll genius on every level — and everything else she's ever uttered since, as speech or song, is utter crap.
Perhaps that's because "Guyville" is such a strong, confident statement from a Wicker Park woman who seemed quite uncompromising, and each follow-up record has seemed unsteady, whimsical and quite compromising. When Phair surprised fans last summer with a new album, "Funstyle," released through her website, the wrath returned. Critics were universally dumbfounded by the album's tuneless talent, dreadful rapping on one track ("Bollywood") and wide-of-the-mark execution, few more colorfully than those around her adopted hometown. The A.V. Club called "Funstyle" a "box of dirt." Pitchfork said it was "horrible on just about every conceivable level." The Reader said listening to it gives you a good case of the "douchechills."
But unlike Phair's stab at mainstream pop in 2003, much of the vitriol flung at "Funstyle" was tempered ever-so-slightly by an underlying fascination. In my own review, I held out hope that Phair was in on her own joke (one song, "U Hate It," foretold all the bad reviews, and the music was posted with a note explaining "How to Like It"). It's a difficult work of art but, for better or worse, it's certainly daring. When we consider art outside the typical commercial, consumerist frame of pop music, that trait is usually respected, if not always revered.
Before she started another tour this month — on which she and a full band will indeed perform songs from "Funstyle" — we caught up with Phair to find out just WTF is going on.
Q. You've taken another beating over "Funstyle." How does this one rate?
Liz Phair: I feel less beaten up about this than on previous things. The first two weeks of press was so, "Blah blah, I'm freaking out, why wasn't I told?" My career has been riddled with controversy, which I never fully understand. I don't know why it surprises people that I surprise them.
Q. Your intent then was to spring something wacky on us?
LP: It was really done in the spirit of good-hearted fun. ... That's part of why I wrote the little blurb to go with it. I didn't expect people not to get that. I called it "Funstyle." I was trying to be direct. The first round of reviews — I don't think they even got that it was funny. Really, you think I'm actually trying to start a rap career now? It stopped me in my tracks, like when you're at a party and someone says something and you just don't know how to respond to further the conversation? It's, like, OK, I'm going back to the bar to get another drink now ...
Q. And this isn't just your damage-control explanation now — ha ha, it was a joke, get it?
LP: No, I've been as consistently clear about this from the very beginning of the project. I don't see how it could be clearer.
Q. So what was the beginning of the project?
LP: The stuff on "Funstyle" came from two things. First, there's stuff influenced by my TV scoring career. [Phair's day job these days is scoring television shows. Her music has set the mood for episodes of "90210" and "In Plain Sight," winning her an ASCAP award for composing.] You spend long, long hours in a studio messing with soundscapes, and you get slap-happy. So you try to have fun with it, you try to crack yourself up. And there's a mania that develops having all this stuff, these sounds, at your fingertips, which I tried to put into a quasi-serious but mostly tongue-in-cheek piece of work. ... The other part was born in very natural jam sessions and a friendship with Dave Matthews. [Phair was briefly on Matthews' record label, ATO. Some of his playing appears on "Funstyle."] I would fly around and piggyback on various recording sessions he does when he's on the road when he wants to get ideas down. It was truly just two artists meeting and wanting to make music together. It was very simple on my end.
Q. Dave wasn't thrilled about the results, I guess. You just lost your ATO deal and your management — directly as a result of "Funstyle"?
LP: Yeah. ATO is a lovely label, but the guy that signed me left, and you know what that does. There's a reassessment, and suddenly the new people don't know who you are or care. And the stuff I was doing, they didn't know what to do with. My management said, "Hell no, I am not taking a rap song into a radio station! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard." I said, "Really? I think it's the funniest thing." I took it hard. I loved my management team. But sometimes it's time to part ways.
Q. So you wind up with this batch of songs, you know they're going to throw people for a loop. How much thinking about the situation did you do before posting?
LP: I waited a year sitting on this stuff. I wasn't trying to blow this up. I waited to see if I liked it as much as I thought I did. Now I'm writing a more mature and serious record, but it felt really wrong to skip over this. It's who I am intrinsically as a person, someone who puts it all out and takes a chance with an unbroken chain and doesn't stop to make sure I look just so before I leave the house.
Q. You're unfiltered. You think: Why not only try rapping but let's even display the results?
LP: Sure. It's about the journey and the process. I do things because I love doing them, or trying them. I'm less invested in protecting or even developing a brand. Obviously. ... And who cares if it's outside your comfort zone? I've always been a little daring. My parents like to joke that if there's something I'm totally unqualified for, that's of course what I'll be doing next.
Q. Can there be a Liz Phair album other than "Guyville, Part 2" that will please the masses?
LP: Uh, no? To do "Guyville 2" because I'm supposed to do it or because it's the only thing people like feels — meh. I'm writing stuff now that's really touching me, some stuff that's actually made me weep. I don't know if it's "Guyville 2," but it's off-kilter and very heartfelt and very personal, directed at a single person. It feels authentic, maybe in the same way.
Q. Does this free-wheeling spirit you're describing have anything to do with raising your son, who's now in his teens?
LP: He's just 14. All parents gush about what it's like to be a parent. I love it. His little world — he's basically sound, he's independent, and I enjoy him. There's kind of a rock 'n' roll way a 14-year-old boy thinks, and there's definitely a resonance between my job and what his brain is like. It's partly uncomfortable and partly really inspiring. He keeps me in touch with that part of myself.
with the Horse's Ha
8 p.m. Jan. 22
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $25, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In describing her most recent stage production, "Peaches Does Herself," Peaches (aka Tornoto-born Merrill Beth Nisker), said she wanted it to be a show "that Broadway would never be able to present." A jukebox musical of songs from the pop singer's last 10 years of suggestive dancefloor hits, from "F--- the Pain Away" to "I Feel Cream," the show premiered in Berlin and featured simulated sex acts, dancers in plush vagina costumes and prosthetic penises, and lots of parading by a 6-foot-5 nude transsexual. Peaches herself undergoes a sex change during the show.
Broadway might shy away from that. Peaches, however, doesn't shy from Broadway. The button-pushing, gender-defying, self-described "stage whore" brings her latest show to Chicago this week just in time for Christmas: a solo performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Given that she bills the show as "Peaches Christ Superstar," the mind reels as to what she's done to the popular rock opera about the Christian messiah. "What's the Buzz," with hair clippers? An instructional and graphically acted-out "I Don't Know How to Love Him"? Something that out-Herods Herod?
Actually, the most shocking element of this show is just how normal it is.
"It's played completely straight," she said in her recent conversation with the Sun-Times. "I've had this in mind since I was 15. I knew a lot of musicals when I was a kid, from my parents, but not that one. It was mostly 'West Side Story' and 'Hair' or whatever. Then someone gave me a tape" — she laughs — "literally, a cassette! I got obsessed with it, with the idea of being in a rock opera. It was '70s rock music I could relate to. It was easy to get obsessed by it. I would sing all the parts by myself, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to do the whole thing myself one day?' Even then I knew it was a ridiculous thought, but I really wanted it to happen."
Peaches, 44 (the moniker comes from the end of Nina Simone's song "Four Women," when Simone shouts, "My name is Peaches!"), was contacted early this year by the historic Hebbel am Ufer Theatre in Berlin, where she now lives. "They were fishing for a production, and I said, 'I've got one!' I pitched this, and they said great. Then I thought, uh-oh — now I actually have to do this. Because when I'm alone and I sing this show, I skip all the high notes I can't sing, all that white-man Jesus metal voice. So now I had to dig deep into it and make it sound good, make it into something I could sing."
At first, the company that held the rights to the musical balked. The premiere shows planned for March were canceled when Peaches was refused performance licenses for the songs.
She immediately took to Twitter to voice her anguish. "[They] claim that this project is of no interest to them due to its unconventional form," Peaches wrote in a series of tweets. "It's a shame that the authorities feel threatened by this fresh approach. I know a lot of people who really love the music and would appreciate this stripped-down solo performance. I have so much respect for the music and lyrics from the original score and this was my way of honouring that."
"It's because of who I am, and I understand," she told the Sun-Times. "But it was never my intention for this to be a campy performance at all. It's a tribute."
Eventually, composer Webber and lyricist Rice cleared the way for "Peaches Christ Superstar." (Perhaps they felt a kinship with Peaches: "Jesus Christ Superstar" was controversial when it first appeared in 1971 and was banned in some countries.) Rice himself attended one of the first Berlin performances.
"Before the show they told me, 'Tim Rice is on the guest list tonight.' I was like, yeah right. I'll believe that when I see it. Then they're like, 'Tim Rice is here!' Oh God. What if I get a lyric wrong? Which I did — I sang 'king of God' instead of 'son of God' once. I was so nervous. He came backstage after the show and said, 'I can't believe they wouldn't let you put this on.'"
"Peaches Christ Superstar" is, aside from pianist and longtime collaborator Chilly Gonzales, a one-woman show. Peaches sings every part of each song herself — the characters of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Mary Magdalene and more.
"The song 'Everything's Alright' — that has Jesus and Judas and Mary in it, and I didn't want this to seem like I'm singing to imaginary people," Peaches said, explaining that she crafted the show so it wouldn't seem that she had a multiple-personality disorder. "I found that if I trusted the music the way it's written, it's naturally clear who's singing through me each time. It's not like I put on an extra piece of hair when Mary's lines come up, or a beard for Jesus. I wanted the emotion of the song to bring that out. I wanted my minimal Peaches approach to strip this down — like Peaches, not like a stripper — and show the raw emotion that exists naturally and plentifully in these songs."
As most reviewers noted about the March 25-27 premieres in Berlin, this performance shows off something we don't always pay attention to when Peaches is slinging double and triple entendres over dance and hip-hop tracks: She has a great voice.
"People are surprised by my singing," she said. "In a Peaches show, I'm jumping around, jumping on you, screaming, yelling. This is straight. ... Sure, a lot of people are expecting a lot of different things, but when we did it in Berlin some people wound up very emotional and crying. People were saying, 'What the hell? I didn't expect Peaches to do that to me!'"
She just hopes the audience at the Portage Theater is more easygoing than the group she encountered years ago at Park West.
"We opened for Elastica there [on Sept. 27, 2000]. This is back when M.I.A. was their videographer. We had this crazy little thing where we decided to play every song we knew through the course of the tour. Chicago was the fifth night, and we'd already gone through 40 or so songs. So we got there and it was — I wouldn't say we were at the bottom of the barrel, but we were making stuff up. The crowd wasn't having it. It was a rough night, but I thought it was the funniest place to do that. All of Chicago's not that uptight, is it?"
'PEACHES CHRIST SUPERSTAR'
• 8 p.m. Dec. 14
• Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee
• Tickets: $25, (773) 736-4050, portagetheater.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
John Mellencamp wants to go back and start again. He doesn't want to become Johnny Cougar again — God, no. He has nothing but contempt for his own early work as a late-'70s/early-'80s, floppy-haired heartland poster boy. When he speaks of his first eight albums of pandering pop-rock — full of Top 40 hits, mind you, like "I Need a Lover," "Hurts So Good," and signature songs like "Jack & Diane" and "Pink Houses" — it's with a scoff and a sneer.
He's tried to reboot several times. The name change, for one — Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp, cat-free since '91. The turning point came when Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Ind., released 1985's "Scarecrow," a transitional album that gave us "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." but also rootsy, populist tracks like "Small Town," "The Face of the Nation," "Justice and Independence" and "You've Gotta Stand for Somethin'." It was a bid for critical respect, and it worked. (That same year, he helped found Farm Aid with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) Each album since — an admirable catalog of a dozen more records with a thoroughly Midwestern blend of Friday-night fun and corner-diner speeches — has received various and consistent acclaim.
But people at the shows still expect him to do the splits.
"I talked to my next-door neighbor this morning," Mellencamp, 59, said during our recent interview from his Indiana home. "She was at the show in Bloomington [Ind.]. She said, 'Really, I like the old John better.' And I said, 'Well, Cathy, that guy doesn't exist anymore.' It'd be foolish of me to try and do at my age now what I was doing at 32. It's not dignified. Jumping off an amp at my age would be stupid. Singing 'Hurts So Good'? Please. If people are coming to see 'The Coug,' they should stay home."
If he could erase parts of the past and start over, he said he would. And this is what much of our conversation was about: looking to the past without being nostalgic, back-tracking through decades of "progress" to a point further back — and taking a different route from there. Anything, he said, that might detour around, say, 1983's "The Kid Inside."
Q. You have pretty clear contempt for your early work.
A. I did what I had to do. I did what people told me. There was no way those folk songs were ever going to get anywhere unless I had hit records.
Q. By denouncing those early records, aren't you also insulting your fans?
A. Am I worrying about insulting people? Well, there's no winning that. No matter what you do, someone's going to be insulted. Playing "R.O.C.K." tomorrow night would certainly be insulting. To me.
Q. If you played it like you did in 1985, perhaps.
A. The only thing to do is to try and figure out a way to get to people who want to hear songs like "Easter Eve" [a new, nearly seven-minute song] and do a good job at it. I'll play "R.O.C.K." again, but not in a way you'll imagine. Last night during a show [at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium] during a slow, quiet section, someone yelled out, 'Jack and Diane!' I said, 'You're impatient.' I play it, but you don't know what it is till I start singing it. It's the first time I've enjoyed playing it in 20 years. It's a brand new song. It's the folk song it always meant to be. It doesn't sound anything like that version on radio. I always looked at that song like a graphic novel, and now it takes on a whole new seriousness I never realized existed in it.
Mellencamp's new album, "No Better Than This," showcases his desire to rewind and replay. Released in August on revered folk label Rounder Records, its 13 new songs were recorded at three historic locations, and in mono. Much of the album was captured in single takes at Sun Studios, the Memphis storefront where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash made landmark debuts. Other songs were taped at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (the first stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War), and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where a young Robert Johnson sat and recorded 16 now-legendary blues songs (including "Sweet Home Chicago") this week in November 1936.
"The only song written especially for one of the locations was 'Right Behind Me,'" Mellencamp said. "I looked at the songs I'd written and realized I hadn't written a song about the devil. How do you walk into Robert Johnson's house without a song about the devil? So I wrote 'Right Behind Me' real quick." The song's narrator is off to see his baby ("She in Chicago"), and the devil's over his shoulder. "He thinks he's got me / but he ain't got me," he sings — either victorious or overconfident, it's never clear.
Mellencamp sees demons all around him, mostly technological ones. CDs? "A con," he said. MP3s? "A terrible way to listen to music." This lead into a lengthy rant that peaked with his favorite declaration: "The Internet is the most dangerous invention since the atomic bomb." Before this, he had some choice things to say about the recent election, such as: "I love it when the right starts talking about all they've done — referring back to World War II and what their grandparents did. You weren't even born, what the f—- do you have to do with it?"
The world has progressed, he says, but in the wrong direction. So for "No Better Than This," he wanted to go back — sort of, not to relive and re-create, but to start anew from back there. Or at the very least steer back to the path that could have been. As he talked about the new record and his choices of location (interest first, ability to reach them while on tour with Willie Nelson second), Mellencamp insisted he "wasn't trying to go back" by using the old methods and sites. He "looked at this as a forward move."
"Calling something progress doesn't make it better," he said. "That's what the song 'The West End' is about. Things are worse now than they've ever been. There's a line that says, 'Look what progress did / Someone lined their pockets / I don't know who that is.' This is not some old guy hanging on to the idea that things were better when he was a kid. F—- that! I'm not nostalgic at all. I just think we went the wrong way with progress back when we had the chance."
Still, he describes his new tour as "a modern-day vaudeville show." Each concert begins with the showing of a documentary by photographer Kurt Marcus about the making of "No Better Than This." Mellencamp and his band play on "a wild variety" of acoustic instruments, then Mellencamp plays solo for about 40 minutes. The concert closes with a full electric band, all-out rock 'n' roll.
Q. So you still give a little of the old John, rocking out some hits in the end?
A. I'm playing the songs I want to play. At this age, to be doing anything else would be a waste of time.
Q. "Pink Houses," I'll bet.
A. All I've gotta do is start playing that song in the show, and I don't have to sing a note. People know every word to that song. Of course, that song was totally misunderstood when it came out and wound up related to some kind of community, or having pride, pride in ourselves, which is not what it's about but is what people took from it. That can't be bad.
Q. You won the Woody Guthrie Award back in 2003. His songs have been misunderstood more than a few times. Ever thought about writing new music to some of his old lyrics the way others have done?
A. Nora [Guthrie, Woody's daughter and keeper of the Woody Guthrie Archives] has sent me hundreds of lyrics. The fact that so many people have done that is exactly why I won't do it. I wouldn't even pretend I would know what to do with his words. But Wilco and — what's his name? the British guy? — Billy Bragg, they did a hell of a job. ... The world sure needs more music like that now.
Q. Because of hard times?
A. When times are good, you end up with stuff like the Charleston, that kind of music, light stuff, "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" When times are tough, you turn to what is stable, what makes the backbone of this country. Music from the land.
Q. The "heartland"? Do you claim that kind of identity?
A. Years ago, I was fussing around, worrying about what to wear on stage. My wife looked at me and said, "John, put on a pair of blue jeans and get out there. You're a blue jeans man. Don't mess with that." That's what people come back to. People don't need smoke and mirrors. I'm an old pair of brown shoes — worn out, but comfortable. Things like that, you just sometimes don't appreciate till later on.
6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 and 27
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $42.50-$125, (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In September 2008, a crew of 40 artists, poets, architects, actors and musicians boarded a science vessel and set sail for Greenland. Their destination — apropos for the musicians, which included Laurie Anderson, Robyn Hitchcock, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, beatboxer Shlomo and others — was Disko Bay.
The journey was part of the Cape Farewell project, an organization that puts artists and scientists together, hoping the latter will be inspired by the out-of-the-box thinking of the former. Really, though, the goal is to get the artists to "communicate on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge."
"What I saw was a gigantic world of ice and water," says Ryuichi Sakamoto, another participant in the Greenland voyage and a pianist who operates in both rock and classical worlds. "The landscape, the wild nature — it just blew my mind. Giant chunks of ice crashing into the sea. We saw much, we learned much.
"I'm still concerned — climate change is going to be even more harsh in the future — but on the other hand, I'm kind of calmed down. This nature, this planet — it will be OK whether we are concerned about it or not. The planet will be here. Maybe some ice will be melted, but it will be back in 200 years. You get to see the big picture of it. It's gigantic. The way we talk about it — the problem of global warming is not nature's problem, it's our problem as human beings. What I'm concerned about is not the planet or nature but the harsh environment for my children and grandchildren. Nature will be OK, just fine. We're hurting ourselves, not nature."
Sakamoto, 58, is the first artist from the trip to express his Greenland experience through his music. (KT Tunstall claims the voyage inspired the "nature techno" approach of her new album, "Tiger Suit," released a month ago.) If the others get around to doing the same, they'll likely make more of a racket than Sakamoto. His two new albums are ambient, delicate affairs.
"Playing the Piano" features solo piano re-readings of some of his own greatest hits: pieces of music from his days in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (once hailed as the Kraftwerk of his native Japan), his solo albums (particularly from the early '80s, when he was collaborating with pop figures from David Byrne to David Sylvian) and film music (the title theme from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which he starred alongside David Bowie, and the Oscar-winning music for "The Last Emperor").
But it's the second of the two new discs that features sounds drawn, sometimes directly, from Disko Bay. The dozen compositions on "Out of Noise" blend soft melodies and manipulated noise to create some very discreet music. Sakamoto's career has drawn as much inspiration from Brian Eno and Alva Noto (with whom he's collaborated on three recent CDs) as from Steve Reich, John Cage, even Debussy or Satie. Here, Sakamoto turns a piano phrase into a chopped-up round ("Hibari"), weaves stringed instruments over an electronic piano background that sounds like Eno's Bloom iPhone app ("Still Life"), rings Asian bells alongside electronic transmission noises ("Tama"), even employs recordings he made of the environment itself in Greenland ("Ice," "Glacier"). It all sounds chilly and cold, icy and isolated.
"I was inspired by the sounds I captured there," Sakamoto says. "The sound of the water, of the glacier, of the ice — they are used on this CD. ... There were hours sitting in front of the computer, listening to the recordings of the ambient sound from the Arctic Sea. Hours and hours and hours, carefully listening. I found some good moments. Then I repeated them, looped and looped. Then I started trying to find the nice musical elements on top of it, going along with those ambient sounds. That's how I designed the tracks. Sometimes it was a guitar sound or a piano sound — whatever spoke from the water or the ice."
He had hoped to include native music from the arctic island, he says. To his dismay, he found none.
"I asked the local people, the Inuit, to give us a chance for us to hear their music," he says. "They arranged a party, and they started singing. I was blown away. I was sad. It's almost church music. I expected something maybe a little bit Asian. Those Inuit people came from Siberia; we Japanese and Inuit are brothers and sisters genetically. But the music they sang was almost pure church music. That was sad. Their culture — at least their musical custom — is totally Christianized and Westernized."
Sakamoto's first musical inspirations came from another island. Growing up in 1960s Japan, he was captivated by the wild, hyper-ethnic instrumental sounds of lounge musicians like Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny — the ones based on or frequenting Hawaii.
"Martin Denny was big in Japan," Sakamoto says, remembering that the first piece of music YMO tackled was Denny's broadly drawn "Firecracker." "He kind of imitated Japaneseness, and it was easy to imitate him." He laughs. "In a way, [the Yellow Magic Orchestra] kind of followed his method of imitating the image of Japaneseness. That might have been the wrong image. It's like you see in old Hollywood movies, that in-between Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese, mixed image of the Asian person. We loved it at the time. Misunderstanding is always interesting. It's good, funny and fun. Creation is always misunderstanding, maybe."
He says he experienced similar feelings of misunderstanding when going back through his own catalog, selecting pieces for "Playing the Piano."
"Every time I listen to an old song, I'm surprised at how wild or powerful it is. I don't always understand it, or at least how to recreate it. Most of it I'll never be able to do again at this age. It's the youth. Youth has its own character, in a way. I'm getting older, so there's something I can do now which young Sakamoto couldn't."
He pauses for a moment, thinking.
"One clear example is, I play piano much more festively, more carefully, more deeply in a way. I was much more technical when I was young. And stronger, more powerful. My piano playing is much more delicate now and in a way more deep."
In concert on this tour of American theaters, Sakamoto is alone — but with two pianos. Often, he plays a segment on one of the pianos, which a computer records and plays back at intervals while Sakamoto continues on the other.
"It's a duet with myself," he says. "I wish I could add a 3-D image on the second piano, a hologram of myself. ... After the ice melts, maybe that will be all that's left of me, a hologram playing the piano."
• 8 p.m. Tuesday
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $45, jamusa.com, (800) 514-ETIX
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Writing about these power-pop gods, it demands two posts each time. You need one for the guys — and they're almost always guys — who actually know who you're writing about. That's usually, let's see, you, you and definitely the guy in the back with the jean jacket and Chuck Taylors. Then you need one for everyone else, the one where I try in vain to inform without proselytizing and wind up practically berating you, dear reader, for not having discovered this genius before, you slacker.
Rock is littered with underappreciated pros, from Shoes and the Spongetones to Jason Falkner and Brendan Benson, and power pop is its landfill. Dwight Twilley is a name you might even have heard of, once upon a time. Try his biggest hit, 1975's "I'm on Fire" ("and you ain't, you ain't, you ain't got no lover!"). Or his next one, 1984's "Girls," with Tom Petty singing backup. Album after album of this stuff continued well into the '90s, beautifully crafted post-Beatles guitar pop with the consistent affectation of a rockabilly slapback on the vocals.
Twilley 2010 sees the arrival of the "Green Blimp," another dozen tracks Abbey Road-meets-Sun Records rock. (Sun's Sam Phillips was the first to give Twilley a break.) By now, he's got his formula down.
"It doesn't take me much time to write songs anymore," Twilley said in a recent interview from his Tulsa, Okla., home and studio. "Once I have the idea, it's a done deal. It can be done usually in a day. I get the body of the song in about 15 minutes. Then it's a matter of walking by it every once in a while, changing a lyric, teetering with the arrangement. ... We just have gotten better and better at what we're doing, more comfortable with the studio."
That's Big Oak Studio, a converted garage behind his midtown Tulsa home. The "we" included Twilley's wife and recording partner, Jan, plus original Dwight Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV and, on this album, guests Susan Cowsill and Rocky Burnette.
The "Green Blimp" title track is very "Yellow Submarine," a dreamy, childlike tale about a fantastic dirigible domicile. "It's kind of a hats off to 'Yellow Submarine,' sure," Twilley said. "It's a fictional kind of thing, a kind of shelter" — Twilley's band started out on Leon Russell's Shelter Records — "a warm and fuzzy thing about floating above the clouds where everything's peaceful. The album itself ends up having that theme, a kind of anti-war theme, an anti-violence message. The 'Green Blimp' lyrics go, 'All the fighting beneath us / if we're lucky won't reach us.' It's about drifting through the clouds and not worrying about being robbed or hit by a bomb. A lot of the songs carry that same message. It just happened that way. It's been on my mind. It's not like I'm a protest singer but, for the love of God, we've got two wars going on. Yesterday on the TV they said 350 kids were killed in one day. That's a lot of kids. I don't feel comfortable talking about that. I'm not a political-type person. But I can say, hey, we could all be a little less violent."
"Green Blimp," Twilley's first studio disc since 2005's "47 Moons," includes real rockers ("Speed of Light," "Stop"), breathy acoustic ballads ("Let It Rain"), some swampy boogie ("Witches in the Sky"), all of it clocking in just under four minutes. The production might sound dated, but Twilley's consistency over the years is as much an advantage in his music. And he's as forward-looking in his business model as he is in his lyrics. "Green Blimp" is available as a free download at dwighttwilley.com and in as-needed batches of CDs. His Facebook page keeps the faithful informed and raises funds for the recordings.
Of which there are plenty more on the way. "I don't want to be one of those guys who retires. I want to make records. I've got a new one and another one almost done," he said. That includes music for an upcoming film about him, a documentary being filmed by Youngblood Productions. "I have no control over the film," Twilley said. "Every now and then, they come by and do an interview. I saw the proposal, and I heard them talking about hiring someone to score the thing with music that sounded like mine. That didn't sit well with me at all. I perked up, said why don't I do the music for you? It's the only thing I have control over. The soundtrack will be done and out before the film ever surfaces.
"And it's different, it's interesting. I'm doing stuff on a biographical slant. I'm thinking about the things I did with [late music writing partner Phil] Seymour, how we got started. It's a damn good excuse to make another record. There's one song called 'Tulsa Town,' another called 'Bus Ticket.' That one tells the story of how Phil and I, these dumb little kids, just drove through Memphis with our little cassette, looking for a record company, and some guy named Sam Phillips listened to it, and we had no idea who he was or what Sun Records was. He was just this guy who sent us a bus ticket to come back and record."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
A month ago, Roger Waters was in Chicago rebuilding Pink Floyd's "The Wall." One of the many themes in that show and its 1979 concept album is the barrier between artist and audience. Waters erects that barrier, building a 30-foot, white-brick manifestation of theater's "fourth wall," behind which his band continues to play. On the other side, the audience is left to watch synced animation projected onto the wall. It's true musical theater.
The Gorillaz ape a similar theatrical approach. A band of cartoon characters, created a decade ago by Blur singer Damon Albarn and "Tank Girl" creator-illustrator Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz presents its live music the way the Wizard of Oz presented his edicts: A screen, sometimes a holographic projector, depicts the larger- and loonier-than-life animated players, and we're to pay no attention to that band behind the curtain making the actual music. Like Waters, the whole conceit began as a way to separate sender and receiver to make a statement about the consumption (or not) of music.
"It's a very hard point to get across, still," Hewlett said during a recent interview from his London studio. "We live in a time where, for a lot of people, celebrity is everything. We have thousands of huge celebrities who have no talent to offer, but because you see their face all the time you're conned into thinking that they're celebrities. With Gorillaz, we wanted to show that imaginary characters could be bigger than actual celebrities, who are really imaginary characters, anyway. Tough battle that one. We've persevered with it. I think Murdoc [the Gorillaz bassist] is a legitimate rock star — and believable at that, and a funny one and one of my favorites alongside Keith Richards and Tom Waits."
Gorillaz emerged from the mist when Hewlett and Albarn shared a flat and began spending evenings making fun of MTV. But it's grown beyond mere snark.
"Of course, now I'd like to think that our perspective is much larger than just poking at MTV and the idea of public image," Albarn said in a separate interview. "Now we're to the point where it feels like a comment on popularism itself, our approach to pop music and how it's relative with consumerism. On this record especially, we treat pop culture as a kind of adversary, really. Although it's a loose narrative, and plastic and rubbish is dealt with on a more metaphysical sense, there's something very much worth meditating on with this record.
"We ourselves are a part of the pop culture, but it's OK to dissect it and look at it from not necessarily an entirely positive aspect. Which is not something pop culture is terribly comfortable with. I mean, look at pop music, if you can bear to. Find me some social conscience in it."
The album he refers to is Gorillaz' third full-length effort, this summer's star-studded "Plastic Beach." The album is a set of more pop-oriented electronic and hip-hop songs, many of which make vague statements about the plasticity of culture or the literal plastic humans consume and discard. It features a range of guests, including Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Mark E. Smith, De La Soul and more, not to mention Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from the Clash. Womack, Jones and Simonon are on the tour, and others are popping onto some dates as special guests.
That's part of the reason the current Gorillaz tour pulls the cartoons back a bit, piercing the veil. With such star power onstage, why hide it? ("I couldn't entertain the idea of putting Lou Reed or Bobby Womack behind a screen," Albarn said. "I'm not that daft.") Hewlett has completed plenty of visuals for the entirety of the concerts, but this time they're on a screen that's up and slightly behind the human band onstage. There's a nautical theme. Jones and Simonon wear sailor suits.
The visuals almost became more central to the live shows, though, instead of less. The original plan was to move past the existing 2-D animation and into a concert of 3-D holograms. They tinkered with the technology and got it to work for their joint performance with Madonna opening the Grammys in 2006. Well, it sort of worked.
"It looked fantastic on TV, but that's it," Hewlett said. "Live, it's impossible to do, it turns out. You can't turn your bass up, you can't turn anything up, because it vibrates the invisible expensive holo-screen stretched between the band and the audience. The holograms go to pieces. At the Grammys, there was not really any sound in the actual theater. The [technicians] we did that with, since then, have fixed the problem, but it's too nerve-wracking to attempt."
"If it were at all possible, we'd be doing it," Albarn said of the holograms. "You just can't do it yet. It belongs to the brave new world, really. ... So the cartoons are back. It's a complete animated narrative above me now. Watching it as we're playing, it feels really strong. I think it's more satisfying, easier for people to watch us and the screen. They're a very strong presence in the ether above us, looking down on us from some kind of digital pantheon."
Albarn said "Plastic Beach" began with 80 pieces of music, so he expects Gorillaz to keep lumbering forward. After this tour, though, he's back to working on even grander stage projects. He and Hewlett collaborated on an opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West," which enjoyed an extended run in London, and Albarn currently is at work on another project "with operatic elements" about a 16th century mystic, due next summer. He also reports that he and the other members of Blur are "still in communication and are intending to do something in the new year."
• 7:30 p.m. Saturday
• UIC Pavilion, 1150 W. Harrison
• Tickets, $49.50-$95;
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Crowded House called it quits in 1996 after four albums and several modest hits. Granted, most of those hits were on the front end ("Don't Dream It's Over" in 1987, "Better Be Home Soon" the following year), and the band fared better in Europe and its native lands down under. But singer and songwriter Neil Finn's McCartneyesque melodies have survived as a credible, inspiring body of work.
Rumors and requests of a reunion persisted, but in 2005 founding drummer Paul Hester killed himself. The reunion, however — of Finn and bassist Nick Seymour, adding Mark Hart and a new drummer, Matt Sherrod — eventually happened in spite of this tragedy, possibly because of it.
Crowded House Mach II has been a more complex affair, thus far delivering two albums ("Time on Earth" in 2007, this summer's "Intriguer") of densely arranged tunes with wilder undercurrents. We caught up with Neil Finn this week to hear how the new venture is holding together.
Q. How's this tour going?
A. We're in really good shape as a band. It's a very generic answer, but it's true. We've clocked a lot of miles, and our instincts are serving us very well. We're jamming more.
Q. Beg pardon? I certainly don't think of Crowded House as a jam band.
A. Well, as much as our spirit of adventure will allow us. It's not always going to be particularly appealing for the audience to hear us go off together, but we're striking a balance. But I do love the way some songs can be, to some extent, redefined. When I say jamming, I mean throwing a few new angles on the tracks. There are quite a few points in the set where we depart from the script.
Q. Like where?
A. "Private Universe," "Hole in the River" — these have allowed themselves to become quite sprawling, quite intense. Generally speaking, most audiences have seemed quite thrilled with them.
Q. Is there something about the new lineup that lends itself to this happening?
A. We always had that inclination in the old band, though we were regarded as this tight pop band. I think we always had a sense of openness on stage, though. ... We began our career in the first incarnation by busking, the three of us, on streets, in houses, restaurants. So early on there was a freedom, a willingness to get the audience involved and go where you wanted to go. Our drummer at the time [Hester] had a mad sense of abandon and humor, and that became a part of our show. We don't have his presence anymore, but our approach to performing is still looking for those moments that jump off.
Q. You ended the band saying you needed some creative space. Did you find it?
A. Absolutely. I felt hemmed in by Crowded House at the time. I went and made two solo albums, another two with my brother [Tim Finn]. In the course of that I got to play with some amazing people. It was good for the natural restlessness of creativity.
Q. The solo songs called out to be outside the band?
A. It's hard to talk about, but yeah. I suppose I could have done this with the band, or I could've kept the name and done the same thing with other people. But I attached myself to the idea that the band is a fairly involved, encompassing thing and you had to be in it completely; you couldn't come and go.
Q. I remember Rhett Miller speaking about his first solo album away from the Old 97s. People were always asking him, "These sound like Old 97s songs. Why couldn't you just do them with the band?"
A. Right, he toured with me once; I remember that same conversation. He could have; I could have. Sometimes you just have to feel around outside your comforts.
Q. Was re-forming the band inevitable after Paul died?
A. It was part of the sequence of events, no doubt. I was seeing Nick quite a bit in the aftermath of that awful thing. We reconnected and found ourselves playing music, as we do. I was working on what was to be a solo album at the time, but he started to be a part of that process. By the end, we were reconciled to some new spirit of the band. ... It put a good history to our story, so that it wouldn't end in that dark place.
7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones are slumped in a suite at Chicago's Dana Hotel, utterly discombobulated. Granted, these are rock stars, and it's mid-morning, but Jones — a feline Welshman, neatly groomed but, he admits, hungover — and Hynde wear the vacant, resigned stares of natural disaster refugees.
"I don't know what the f—-'s going on," Hynde says, running a hand through her trademark black mane. "Every day I look around and go, f—-, what is going on? We came over to spend two weeks here, now we're living here. I've never had anything catch fire like this in my career."
She's referring to some intense media and fan interest in her first-ever side project, a rootsy new band called JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys. It's a departure from Hynde's three decades leading rock's defiant Pretenders, a moniker that still exists solely because of Hynde's stubbornness and determination in the face of personal tragedy and commercial whim. Last May, without a record even being finished — the CD "Fidelity!" is finally released this Tuesday — she and Jones were trotting across the country, including a stop in Chicago, teasing fans with short sets of the new songs.
But the whirlwind promotional tour was even getting to a seasoned road warrior and expatriate like Hynde.
"I'm totally displaced," she says. "I don't know where I am most of the time, or where I'm supposed to be. I don't know if I'm man or woman. I don't know if I'm American or British. I don't know where I live. ... Men think I'm a man. The guys treat me like one of the guys."
"I treat you like a woman, don't I?" Jones asks.
"I don't know," Hynde replies.
The silence that follows that exchange is beyond awkward, but very telling. Everything there is to know about the mournful music and sighed laments on this record is communicated just as effectively in those several seconds of uncomfortable staring at boots. The union of Hynde and Jones is a dynamic musical partnership, but it's based on a star-crossed, May-December romance.
Jones, 31, met Hynde, 58, in a bar in late 2008. (Yes, gents, you can still meet people like Chrissie Hynde in a bar. Still wanna call it a night?) There was chemistry, then there were text messages. There was a spur-of-the-moment getaway to Havana, where their personal relationship flamed and fizzled. But it fueled a musical collaboration, and they wrote the 11 songs for "Fidelity!," each of them a naked confessional of an irresistible romance that they say could never really be.
"We made a record that is, yes, very honest. It's some pretty gut-wrenching stuff," Hynde says. "All the songs are written to each other, about each other. ... You know, a lot of people fall in love with people they can't be with. That's what this record is about. It's about falling in love with someone and realizing you can't be with him. He wants kids and a family. I'm too old. It's too late for me."
Right away, over the lilting, sad guitar of the opening song, "Perfect Lover," Hynde and Jones get to explaining what Hynde calls their "unrealistic" love:
Hynde: I smoke and drink and eat too much and other things I shouldn't
(JP: That's why I love you, baby)
I'd like to think I'd never touch what other women wouldn't
(You're not like the others)
I'm a hotbed of addictions, contradictions rule my day
(You're just like me)
I know it's wrong, but the pull's too strong, Lord, help me walk away
I found my perfect lover, but he's only half my age
He was learning how to stand when I was wearing my first wedding band
"Music is a distillation of love and pain," Hynde adds. "Everyone's suffering something. I was crying when I wrote some of this stuff. I mean, it's not that serious. The nature of rock — if you're watching a rock band, you should be laughing at least half the time. We didn't make an album to depress people."
The thoughtful Jones pauses, mulling that over during another strange silence. Finally, he wonders aloud, genuinely worried, "F—-, maybe we have."
A little 'fairground luck'
Hynde, Jones and a supporting guitarist, Patrick Murdoch from one of Jones' former bands, trotted into the Near North studios of JBTV last May, hitting the stage before a small audience of maybe 50 fans. But the instant Hynde appeared under the lights, someone shouted a request for the Pretenders' hit ballad "Night in My Veins."
Hynde's face fell. She hadn't even sat down yet. With a little of the sneer that's endeared her to rock fans for 30 years, she laid down the law for the evening: "Anyone else who says something like that tonight will be ejected from the premises."
Not that the song would have been inappropriate for this pair ("He's got his hands in my hair and his lips everywhere / It feels good, it's all right / even if it's just the night in my veins"), but Hynde is determined to prevent her rock star status from overshadowing her new project with Jones. She was insistent about the billing: JP first, no Hynde.
The relationship began, after all, musically. "I just liked his songs," Hynde says, a little sheepishly, which is saying something for this typically brassy woman. They originally bonded over a discussion of fairgrounds. Hynde has a lifelong love of them, and Jones grew up on the one his parents owned in Wales.
One night, Jones texted Hynde to wish her well before a Pretenders show, on tour supporting the band's last album, the country-rock set "Break Up the Concrete." He said he was sending her some "fairground luck." Hynde liked that phrase and replied, instructing him to write a song called "Fairground Luck." Two days later, it was in her in-box.
"I sent her the song, and she liked it," Jones says. "When she got off the tour, she said, 'Hey, you wanna go to Cuba?' We took guitars to Havana and wrote the basics for the album."
"Fairgrounds just always meant freedom to me," Hynde says, recalling her youth in Akron, Ohio. She's lived primarily in London since the early 1980s. "I loved these fairs that would show up, like, in a strip mall parking lot. I loved that. I loved the gypsy nature of it. The way these people showed up and then moved on to — somewhere else. It was very romantic. And I knew I had to keep moving like that. I left when I was 22 and moved to London. I just left. I feel like I'm still doing that."
Jones had been in a band called Grace, once groomed by EMI as a next-big-thing. It fell apart after two years, and when he met Hynde he'd been fronting a band called Big Linda. Many of those players are now rechristened as the Fairground Boys.
"I was offered a development deal through Universal before all this came about," Jones says. "They were going to put me with, like, 10 big-name songwriters. When a record label wants to put you with 10 different songwriters, how can any truth come out of that? How can you communicate who you are? I felt very pushed, pulled and manipulated. They wanted me to wear certain things, dye my hair. Chrissie and I got together and wrote our album, and it felt so much more natural. I found myself musically through her. She's my muse. I just walked away from it all."
"I didn't encourage that," Hynde interjects. "I didn't want to be that guy."
Jones laughs. "That guy!"
'The kids are safe'
Hynde and Jones returned to Chicago early this month for a 20-minute set at Lollapalooza — on the children's stage, following Dan Zanes. With old fans and tiny tots watching them play their naked songs about cross-generational lust, Hynde was open about the pair's difficult dynamic. She explained the new album was about "when a woman meets a much younger man and they realize they don't have a future together."
"But don't worry," she added, "the kids are safe as long as I'm on this stage."
The frustrated desire plays out across the span of "Fidelity!" In the first single, "If You Let Me," Jones' coarse, scoured voice warns, "If you don't want me to come in, you'd better lock this door." Hynde describes their first encounter in "Australia," her amazement ("I was propping up the bar on my own / Mostly, guys like you say goodbye to me") as clear as her submission ("OK, pal, take me outta here"). The songs are tuneful, built on guitars and a more pleasing variation of the Americana leanings Hynde explored on "Break Up the Concrete."
That album, she says, didn't get the grassroots interest this one has. But while the promotional efforts have been exhausting, she finds the response exciting. She's especially glad they came to America.
"There's nothing happening in music over there right now," Hynde says. "It's all pop crap. ... We came over here five weeks ago looking for interest. People don't do it like this anymore. There's still all this waiting and planning a strategy. I just wanna get on with it. Why not? I mean, we met in a bar.
"When the Pretenders started, we were in the '70s, coming out of that dreadful prog-rock period. And then punk happened, which was so refreshing in so many ways. It was like bands started being taken seriously without all this posing and styling. They were just themselves. I mean, later today we have to go to some photo shoot for Women's Wear Daily, and they told me to bring four different 'looks.' You know, that is just so not me. This is my look." She gestures to her high, black boots, jeans and black T-shirt. "There's just one, really. But even with that, it just feels fresh now. We've been taken seriously based on our music ever since we came ashore six weeks ago. The whole industry has collapsed, and people are finding an audience without all the trappings and the corporate strategies. Today feels more like 1977 than ever."
But after the flush of new romance is gone, both personally and commercially speaking, what will happen next? Hynde says she and Jones have enough material for a second album, but she hedges.
"A second album would be of a different nature," she says. "We were each other's muse on this album. The next one — I dunno." A beat. "Things have changed."
And they both fidget through another lengthy silence.
JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys are scheduled to perform Oct. 10 at Chicago's Park West, with Amy Correia. Tickets, $25.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Listening to Jimmy Webb's stable of once-upon-a-time hit songs — "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — you'd think he had a GPS in his writing room.
The Oklahoma-born songwriter left home at age 16. In short order, he was writing songs for artists in the late '60s and early '70s, songs that became big hits, like "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer. Those other hits all belong to Glen Campbell.
Webb, 64, is on the road again, out playing some dates this month to support his first CD in a few years, "Just Across the River." The album features many of Webb's hits reborn in loose new arrangements and featuring guest singers such as Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Campbell and more.
"We're in Chicago in a few days, then playing Largo in L.A. — I've got five sons and a daughter out there, plus my father, who's 87 — then Seattle, Nashville. I thought it was just a bunch of gigs, but I guess that's a tour," Webb says in his easygoing Oklahoma drawl. He's chatting from his home on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., where he says he's really a homebody. But in order for home to have real value, you have to be glad to see it again.
Q. Why are you still traveling and touring?
A. Mainly because the alternative is to ossify and die. It sounds corny as hell, but music is my life. I've been lucky that I got away with this for so many years, that I've been able to do something I love doing and sometimes even get paid for it. To be honest, making music is not a real job, not like running a metal press on an assembly line somewhere. It's full of great moments of joy and passion, and interaction with the audience — which I enjoy more and more. Shaking hands, signing autographs, collecting anecdotes from people who've spent their lives on the other side of the speaker listening to what I have done and what my friends have done. I take a lot of energy from that. ... But at the same time, there's no place like home.
Q. Once Glen Campbell and the others had hits with those geographical songs, were you pegged as Rand McNally?
A. Success begats a certain kind of success. If you do a certain kind of photograph and it's successful in an ad campaign, you become known for that kind of photograph. It's like typecasting in movies. When I started writing about places, it was because I wanted to. I remember being a little uncomfortable once people started asking me to do it. [He pauses.] I started to say I don't do that anymore, but on Judy Collins' new album, which came out the same day as mine, she's got my new song "Paul Gauguin in the South Seas." So there I go again.
Q. Can you just not help yourself?
A. It's something at a very deep level in my consciousness. I tend to relate to places. I have a backlog of cinematic images and of places I've seen that I fall back to.
Q. Are your geographical references essential to the lyrics? Could the song have been "By the Time I Get to Seattle"?
A. It wouldn't have been a hit. [Laughs.] In that case, the location was important because I was in a real circumstance of having trouble in a romantic relationship, and I had decided to pack it in and drive back to Oklahoma. That whole song is about that trip back to Oklahoma, even though I never got around to making that trip. Phoenix is on Route 66, as is Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. I was born on Route 66 in a little town called Elk City. ... It had to be Phoenix for that song.
Q. Because you say, or because the song demanded it?
A. Sometimes these things, they make their own decisions. They take a certain line and you follow along and keep up because the song knows where it wants to go. Sometimes it's too good to be true and writes itself. Sometimes it's like scaling Mt. Everest, or being born and dying and being born again. ... "Gauguin" was a very difficult song to write. I knew the story was in there, and I knew I knew that story. I knew what it was like to work and have it unappreciated and want to run away from all the trappings of civilization. I Still sometimes pull my hair out with frustration at the whole urban groove and the rut we allow ourselves to get into, how hard it is to break out, how silly it is when you're sitting in, say, a place like Lanai, Hawaii, and thinking about New York. That's silly. But by the time you negotiate security and get yourself back on the plane, you've slowly indoctrinated back to the discipline and rigidity of the confines, the prison-like atmosphere of the urban areas we live in.
Q. So what places do you escape to?
A. Part of me is still an Okie. I like wide-open spaces. I like to get on my boat ... [On my end of the conversation, a siren screams through north Chicago streets. Webb pauses, hearing it, and says, "Speaking of the urban prison."] I like to have a nor'easter rattling my front teeth. I like to see nature acting out.
Q. You've revisited your catalog before, particularly in concerts. Why take the celebrity-guest approach on the new album?
A. It was never intended to have a lot of celebrity artists with it. That's a fact. If we discussed it at all it was to say let's not have celebrities involved. ... The main purpose of this album was to shed all the affectations of urban life, including the southern California pop roots I have. I at least have some capillaries. Some aspirations of my recording career have included the desire to make big production albums along the lines of Elton John or Billy Joel. Now that's silly. It's been done and done well by guys who will always do it better than I can. Freddy Mollin [the album's producer] said, 'We should go to Nashville, get top-line musicians, literally the very best, line 'em up and work it out so we're all in the studio on the same day.' These are busy guys. 'We'll cut 13 tracks in two days, and you'll have an epiphany. You'll have the most joyful time you've ever had in the studio.' He said, 'Just go back to the kitchen table in Oklahoma with your father sitting there strumming his old steel-string Silvertone guitar, singing "Red Sails in the Sunset," ... and let it go. It's the way you sound best.' I've learned Freddy is right most of the time. ... Sure enough, we had a ball. ... It was a nostalgic plunge into the swimming pool of memory and sentiment and the DNA of growing up as a country kid.
7 p.m. Saturday
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $25, lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright has been busy. Lordy, has he been busy.
In the three years since his last studio album, "Release the Stars," he's ping-ponged from one ambitious project to the next. He performed sensational tribute concerts to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. He wrote music for 24 of Shakespeare's sonnets and performed them for a theatrical production, "Sonette," with director Robert Wilson in Berlin. He sang Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'ete" in New York. He even composed an entire opera, "Prima Donna," which enjoyed a successful premiere in Britain.
So perhaps it's not surprising that for his return to the recording studio, he sought to back off, downshift, quiet things a bit. "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu," released this spring, finds the sweeping, murmuring singer-songwriter sonically naked — just his voice and piano.
"I threatened to do this a while ago," Wainwright says in an interview from a brief oceanside respite before beginning a U.S. tour. "Unfortunately, I needed the proper life circumstance in order to dig into it. Given the sad opportunity with my mother's passing and the exhaustion from working on the opera, the lone piano became my cocoon, shield and confessional."
Rare is the news article about Rufus Wainwright that doesn't allude to the musical dynasty from which he sprang. The mother that passed — that's Kate McGarrigle, beloved Canadian folk singer, who died of cancer in January. His father, still kicking, is rascally American folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. His aunt, Sloan Wainwright, writes and records, as does his sister and omnipresent backup singer, Martha Wainwright.
But Rufus and Martha were raised by Kate in Montreal, and Kate's death is an occasional and prominent lyrical thread on these 12 new compositions. They're not pop songs. They're sometimes complicated odes to grief, love and the tempest of life. In "Zebulon," it all begins piling up on him: "My mother's in the hospital / my sister's at the opera / I'm in love but let's not talk about it / there's so much to tell you."
"It all happened in concert," Wainwright says. "This album was finished right before she passed away and was released after her death.
"As Mom was passing, I had to face myself and the possibility of being alone. We had been so close. The piano was her main instrument, a vision I always acquainted with her presence. The technical difficulty of this enterprise was synonymous with the grief itself."
In "Martha," he puts music to plaintive phone messages for his sister, as if turning his father's song "OGM" inside out:
Martha, it's your brother calling
Time to go up north and see mother
Things are harder for her now
And neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore
Martha, it's your brother calling
Have you any chance to see father
Wondering how he's doing
And there's not much time
For us to really be that angry at each other anymore
"It is like something my father would write," he says, "perhaps as a kind of directness and slight aggression there, too, which he's well-known for." He laughs. "But I just hit 37. I'm well past the youthful bohemia I once inhabited so grandly."
The current tour presents a show in two acts. The first half contains the entire new album as a song cycle, with Wainwright at the piano and no applause. Then Wainwright returns for the second act "and we have fun and sing the old favorites."
Part of the first act, though, includes some of the Shakespeare sonnets, a project he says he tackled as a theatrical warm-up ahead of his opera. Wainwright includes three of them on the new album, including "Sonnet 10" ("For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any / Who for thy self art so unprovident") — the "gay one."
"I think of it as gay, anyway," he says. "For me, it reeks of a drunk old queen who's gone a little too far in one of his histrionic lessons. I can visualize it. You can definitely tell the poet has overstepped his bounds emotionally with this young man and shown a little more than he intended through his affection." A discussion of Shakespeare's sexuality follows.
"Shakespeare got it," Wainwright concludes, meaning he understood two sides of sexuality, but then he chuckles the punch line: "He probably gave it, too."
Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall on Dec. 29, around which time he promises an "exciting" announcement related to a U.S. production of "Prima Donna."
• 8 p.m. Friday
• Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
• Tickets, $46-$56
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Twas an esteemed watchdog of modern society who once said, "I say, whip it. Whip it good!"
The music of Devo is chirpy and chilly, perky and punky, and the pioneering synthesizer band's early hits are enshrined in the seeming fluff of 1980s pop culture. But when Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale assembled the band in the late '70s, they had serious social commentary in mind.
The name itself is a shortening of "de-evolution," an idea that humankind actually regresses as it moves forward in time, instead of evolves toward an ever-brighter enlightenment. In the cold but still tuneful medium of electronic new wave, Devo was able to match the message to the medium, producing catchy but often controversial songs about the apeman on the train next to you ("Jocko Homo"), the perils of having "Freedom of Choice" and a rockist-riling cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."
The latest revival of the Devo brand came this year with a new studio album, the lively and toothy "Something for Everybody," and a new tour, which includes a stop this weekend at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.
Mothersbaugh spoke with the Sun-Times about the band's revival of misfortunes, how they have tried to use advertising against itself and the pitiful state of the world overall:
Q. What drew you back to the studio after 10 years?
A. We're old-timers, and we forgot what made us stop in the first place. Kidding. Actually, we met with our label [Warner Bros.] and instead of pontificating to us about what a record company is and what an artist does, they said, "We're trying to reinvent ourselves. Maybe you can help us."
Q. The brave new world you've been singing about has arrived. Why join them on their quest?
A. We always want to be a part of something new and changing. The Internet has changed the way musicians and artists create art, and the way audiences experience it. It's even changed what art is. I like it. To me, YouTube is much more interesting than MTV ever was. For what you lose in some sort of quality, just the idea that you can watch this incredible encyclopedia of all sorts of music and art and information, well, I think it would be a really great time to be 20 years old and thinking, "I want to be an artist, but I don't know what to do."
Q. Your first experiences with Warner Bros., I'm guessing, were not open, round-table discussions.
A. [Laughs] There was a marketing meeting when we first landed at Warner [in 1977]. We're sitting around a table with these guys, and one guy goes, "Here's the marketing plan for your music: We're going to put life-size cut-outs of you in every major record store in the country." And then he just leaned back and smiled and the other guys tipped their coffee cups. We looked around. That was it. We said, "How much will that cost?" $5,000. "Can we have that money to make a film instead?" They were like, "A film? What can we do with a film?" We took the $5,000 and made the "Satisfaction" video, and they indeed had no idea what to do with it. We mostly showed it on a screen before we started our shows. But we kept talking about sound and vision, sound and vision. Then along came MTV, and instead of killing rock outright it kind of propped it up for another 10-15 years.
Q. Why is Devo always wrapped up inextricably with marketing and advertising?
A. It goes back to our beginnings. Gerry [Casale, the other Devo co-founder] and I were at Kent State in 1970, protesting the Vietnam War. Gerry was there the day they shot the kids on campus. I was protesting because, OK, they're commies, I don't care. They can have bad government if they want; I don't want us to be napalming them for it. After the shootings, everyone went quiet. So the first thing we learned was: rebellion is obsolete in capitalist culture.
Q. Even though that's the founding image of rock 'n' roll.
A. Exactly, but look how they all change. The Sex Pistols turned into groovy fashion statements. Anything political they were about was turned into a way for capitalists to make money. We wondered: How do affect change in a democracy? Who does it best? Even then, it was Madison Avenue. They don't do it by attacking, they do it by hugging you to death. So while we don't like most of the things they sell us — it's mostly conspicuous consumption and mindless consumerism — the techniques they use work. So we thought: What if we use those techniques for good instead of evil?
Q. You had this conversation with a major record label?
A. This time we did. They wanted us back. We said, "On one condition: Let us use an ad agency for marketing instead of you guys." We talked them into hiring Mother [a new ad agency in Los Angeles], and we talked to them about marketing a brand that had been off the marketplace for 25 years. We did focus groups, color studies, all kinds of things. We wound up using advertising techniques to skewer themselves but also advance our cause, so to speak.
Q. Haven't Devo songs have been used in ads for years, hawking all manner of products?
A. We've licensed Devo songs a thousand times, always have, always wanted to. "Whip It" has been "flip it" and "strip it" and Swiffer, I think, made it "Swiff it." To me, if that stupid commercial puts Devo in your head, and some kid who doesn't really know the song hears it and makes a connection to Devo, maybe he'll be proactive to find out what we're all about, hear the real lyrics, make it more important. It's like when "Freedom of Choice" gets used in a beer commercial. I don't drink beer, but if a beer drinker hears the lyric and it makes him think, "What do they mean by that?" that's better than not thinking it.
Q. You play both sides of this game. You write a lot of music for TV commercials. You even used to slip in subliminal messages, right?
A. I did do that early on, yes. I'd sneak in Devo catchphrases, like "Duty now for the future" and "Be like your ancestors or be different." If I didn't like the product, I'd put in "Sugar is bad for you" or "Question authority." It's easy to do. I lost interest after about 40 of them. It's funny, though, when you're unveiling these things in meetings, and you get to the part where you can barely hear "Choose your mutations carefully." I have to be careful not to blush.
Q. Why did you stop?
A. It's not necessary anymore. More people believe in our original concept of de-evolution than ever. Years ago, they thought we just had a bad attitude. We're just about the Captain & Tennille at this point. Honestly, I didn't think de-evolution would happen so soon. But here we are waiting in incredibly long lines at the airport for incredibly old planes with not enough food or water or air, and we have way too many people and no one is talking about the biggest problem on the planet, which is overpopulation. I never thought it would be like this so quickly. But, hey, we do have portable cell phones.
WITH DIRTY PROJECTORS
• 7:30 p.m. Thursday
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• $35-$100; congresschicago.com
• 4 p.m. Friday
• Grant Park, Michigan and Congress
• $90-$850; lollapalooza.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Which band in this year’s Lollapalooza lineup has accomplished all of the following?
— Sold out a 55,000-seat arena — 18 times.
— Created and popularized its own form of glam.
— Sold 30 million albums.
— Recorded a classical album with Beatles producer George Martin.
It ain’t Lady Gaga.
The band is X Japan, the biggest rock band in Japanese history. The quintet came together in 1982 (originally called just X, but John Doe had something to say about it), disbanded in 1997 and re-formed in 2007. They started as a speed metal band with delusions of grandeur and evolved into a power-ballad powerhouse. Their shows are equal parts Anthrax and Celine Dion.
In their homeland, their presence still creates Beatlesque hysteria, with screaming fans and impenetrable throngs. When the founding guitarist, Hideto “Hide” Matsumoto, died in 1998, nearly 50,000 weeping mourners crowded the funeral; last May almost twice that number mobbed a memorial service marking the 12th anniversary of his death.
But thus far, only Asian fans have had these opportunities to go wild for X Japan — because the 4 p.m. Aug. 8 performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park will be X Japan’s U.S. debut.
“Yes, we’re a huge band in Japan, but that doesn’t mean anything here,” says Yoshiki Hayashi, usually known only by his first name. Yoshiki is the band’s drummer, songwriter and core idea man. He’s also a classically trained pianist. “We feel like a new band again, trying to make it. It’s a very pure feeling. It feels like it did when we started, which is good.”
Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but America has given plenty of second chances to foreign acts. Yoshiki — who now lives in Los Angeles, where he’s wrapping up X Japan’s first new studio album in 14 years, due this fall — hopes X Japan will live and thrive again on these shores. When he speaks, he struggles with his English, but his ambition is clear.
So is his realism. After Lollapalooza, X Japan will launch its first U.S. tour, hitting 10-15 cities. They won’t be selling out or even playing arenas like they do at home.
And that’s OK with Yoshiki.
“We’d like to play clubs or small venues. We cannot do that in Japan anymore,” he says, noticeably excited by the prospect, and maybe a little relieved. He misses the old days, pre-mobs, pre-stadiums. “When we were an indie band, right after we graduated high school, we were performing for 50 people, maybe 200. That was a great moment. By the time we were signed to Sony [in 1988], we were already performing for 10,000 people or bigger. … We weren’t supposed to make it big, you know? We were — how do I say? — the black sheep of the family. The Japanese scene was very poppy. We were playing speed metal. Nobody thought we could be mainstream. Then it got very, very big.”
Back to basics
The American shows will be stripped down. X Japan fills arenas like the Tokyo Dome with massive productions — lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, enormous stages with catwalks, lots of running around and dramatic performance. Yoshiki has played several times on a drum riser that not only rises above the stage, it takes off and flies around the arena, trailing smoke and neon lights.
And, oh, the costumes. X Japan pioneered a style of presentation now known as “visual kei,” meaning flamboyant outfits and hairstyles, many of which resembled Kool-Aid fountains. In other words: glam rock, hair metal.
For the U.S. jaunt, Yoshiki says X Japan will be “back to basics.”
“The bigger we got, the bigger our personalities,” he says. “We just want to go back and focus on the rock. Either way, you know, you don’t see good rock shows anymore. Rock doesn’t sound mainstream these days. We’d like to contribute something to help bring rock back. Rock doesn’t have enough drama now. Rap, R&B, dance music has taken that. Our band wants to be a part of bringing that back to rock.” He laughs. “But our band has enough drama.”
Yoshiki and X Japan’s singer, Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama, have known each other since kindergarten. When Toshi left the band in 1997, it wasn’t amicably. Yoshiki says the two didn’t speak for up to eight years. When Hide committed suicide, Yoshiki thought X Japan was dead, too.
But in that time, the Internet flourished. X Japan’s music — and especially its videos — went viral. The band that’s still only performed two concerts outside of Japan (last year in Hong Kong and Taipei) now has fans from China to France.
Meanwhile, Yoshiki pursued solo interests. He recorded a best-selling classical album in Japan, the double-CD “Eternal Melody” in 1993, co-produced and arranged by George Martin. The next year, he contributed a symphonic version of “Black Diamond” to a classical Kiss tribute record. He composed and performed a piano concerto for Japan’s emperor. And he cashed in. There’s a Yoshiki line of jewelry, a Yoshiki wine, a Yoshiki racing team, even a Yoshikitty — the only time Hello Kitty has combined another name with its famous toy brand.
Still, he missed his childhood friend.
“It’s weird, when you have that vocalist next to you all the time for many years, you take for granted how great he was,” Yoshiki says of Toshi, who spent the intervening years performing spiritually minded acoustic concerts of what he called “eco rock.” “When we started talking again, he said the same thing about me. We discovered these fans around the world, and they were demanding a return from us. It made me — I still feel like I’m dreaming. I never thought we would reunite this band. And we can’t completely.”
Coming to America
At the first X Japan reunion shows in 2008, the band performed its 29-minute opus “Art of Life” — during which Yoshiki collapsed from the exertion — and featured a floating hologram of the late Hide playing his guitar parts. (There you go, William Gibson fans: Rei Toei lives!)
“That was too much for me,” Yoshiki says, assuring the band will not continue the stunt. “That was so real. It brought me to tears.”
But are there fans in the United States? Lollapalooza may be the band’s first ticketed performance, but on Jan. 9 X Japan filmed four new videos on the roof of Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre. Thousands crammed the streets to get a glimpse, fans who’d driven from Texas and Chicago for the occasion.
“Their music is a cross link of my generation,” says Chicago photographer and fan Nobuyoshi Fuzikawa, 38. “That’s why I’m so excited they’re still playing for a major audience after all these years. It’s inspiring, and makes me want to try new challenges. … Lollapalooza is [a] well-known concert around the world, so I will be happy to see a Japanese performer have a presence there.”
Takeshi Tsukawaki, 24, will be driving to Chicago from New York just for the Lollapalooza show. He’s a younger fan who discovered the band during its hiatus.
“I have two older brothers. They were always listening to X Japan,” he said. “I didn’t know they were such a big band in Asia. I just listen to them again and again. … I have no idea what a show will be like. Maybe they can’t play very well like before, or maybe they’re better and more powerful. I never expected to be able to see them, so I’m coming. There are lots of people coming.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Jon Bon Jovi is standing up.
The only reason that's news is because he blew out a calf muscle on stage July 9 during a concert at New Meadowlands Stadium in his home state of New Jersey.
"I got another leg," he told the crowd. "I don't need this one."
He hobbled back to the microphone and finished the show with "Livin' on a Prayer."
"The leg's back now, miraculously, with all the rehab I've had," Bon Jovi told the Sun-Times in an interview Wednesday. "If I was a football player, I'd say I'm 'probable' to play. Really I've just nursed all the sympathy I could get at home, and now I've gotta go back to work."
Work is a prominent theme on his latest record, "The Circle." Bon Jovi's job has looked the same for nearly 30 years — playing one massive stadium show after another. This weekend, he returns to Chicago for two nights at Soldier Field. After that, more stadiums and arenas in 30 countries for the next two years. Again.
The Circle Tour already is the top-grossing tour in North America. Bon Jovi's last tour also had that distinction, in 2008. Amid all the reports of canceled shows and trimmed-back tours this summer, Bon Jovi's stadium gigs emerge as one of the few winners. Thus far in 2010, he's played 38 shows, selling half a million tickets and banking $52.8 million, according to Pollstar.
Since long before the band hit it big with the 1986 album "Slippery When Wet" ("Livin' on a Prayer," "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Wanted Dead or Alive"), Bon Jovi has been playing the big venues. "It's what we've done since the inception of this band," he said during a conversation that reflected on the first stadium shows, the new music business and writing a song about Jennifer Hudson.
Q. These tours are clearly huge undertakings. Do you have a limit? What would be too big for you?
A. Well, I was the guy quoted saying that I wanted to play and sell out the desert — more than once. I've always been very comfortable in the big venues. It's not an issue of being too big as long as it's manageable, for us and the fans, and the business calls for it. And we're having fun, which we still are.
Q. Do you remember the first arena you played?
A. Yes: 1983, opening for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden. Talk about a daunting venue — this was before we'd even released a record. It took courage, but we did it. ... It was really only daunting inasmuch as this was the fabled Madison Square Garden, a place where heroes have walked. Every kid out there thinks that tennis racket is going to turn into a guitar and they're going to have the chance to speak to someone. We got there. We got in trouble, too. We had more people backstage than ZZ Top had times 10. We invited everyone. There was one case of beer between about 150 people. We didn't even get to meet ZZ. It was a fantasy.
Q. Do you still get nervous at all?
A. Not so much nerves, but anticipation. I ask: "Are you prepared?" I've never had stage fright, if that's what you mean.
Q. What do you attribute that to?
A. If you really want to dissect it, it goes back to the drinking age in New Jersey being 18 back in the '70s, which meant you could sneak into bars as young as 16. You'd get to see bands, and you thought that was the big time. And every step along the way, that was the big time. From the dance to the club to headlining a club to theaters and stadiums — every step on that path you said, "This is it! I've made it!" ... It all goes back to that naivete or innocence at 16. I didn't have to go to the service, and I was young enough I could live at home, and I didn't have a family to support, so I could chase this dream. When the drinking age changed to 21, it changed the opportunities for the next generation of kids. Now you had to get to about 19 before you could sneak in and see a rock band, and by then things can be different.
Q. In the '80s, you had the quintessential success story: make a record, hand it to a DJ, he plays it, it catches on, sign the record contract. Could you pull that off today?
A. Yeah, but in a different way. The public spaces are on the Internet now, and the audiences aren't as big. "The Loop" [Chicago's WLUP-FM] had a voice back then. There were places like that where DJs had influence and were style makers. There are a couple of those guys still in the world. Pierre Robert in Philadelphia [at WMMR-FM] is a throwback to that. He guides you through what's going on, including some social activism. But if a kid like me walked into a Clear Channel chain now ... no one's going to come out and say, "Sure, let's spin this on the air in Chicago!" He'd get his ass whooped.
Q. When did you realize that had changed?
A. One day in Chicago. I remember walking Michigan Avenue — right? where all the stores are? — to that huge Virgin Megastore that was there until three or four years ago. I'd go there whenever I was in Chicago. I'd buy DVDs and CDs and whatever junk, anything and everything. I walked down there one day to see it all gone and thought that's the beginning of, not the end but — it was definitely my nose slamming into the face of the record business and thinking, "Well, the new generation better find us a trick, because the old generation has given away the keys to the kingdom."
Q. Puts "7800 Fahrenheit" in a new light, eh?
A. You know, I had a conversation with Doug Morris, now the head of Universal [Media Group, Bon Jovi's current record label]. He was president of Atlantic Records when they tried to sign me in 1983. There we were in a meeting with [Atlantic founder] Ahmet Ertegun and Doug and all these guys trying to sign me, and we didn't sign. I did my deal at Polygram. But Doug wound up at Unversal, and I asked him, "What would have happened if I'd signed with Atlantic?" He said, "To tell you the truth, I don't know if we'd have made 'Slippery When Wet.'" I said, "Why?" He said, "You know, your first two albums did OK, but chances are we wouldn't have given you that third shot. That's the way Atlantic used to think. If you're not headlining after two records, move on." And now here he is the president of my label, saying, "Sure glad we didn't drop you."
Q. I'm guessing this is why you remain in at least some contact with aspiring bands, putting contest winners on your stadium bills [like Chicago's 7th Heaven, opening Friday's concert].
A. I've been doing the opening band contest for years. I love it. I want them to get the opportunity to go out there and see what it would be like on Christmas morning, the way we lived. If anything, it's a motivation tool. When they've tasted that ZZ Top moment, they go back home and work harder and figure out things, whether it's soliciting fans in the aisles with fliers they've made or giving away CDs 'cause they've made 500 of them or calling the newspaper and telling them what you do, getting an article written about you. My day or this day, you've got to work hard at it.
Q. How's "The Circle" doing?
A. Well enough, in this day and age. I think it's a fabulous album that says a lot.
Q. You do seem to be tackling topical matters more than ever here. How do you approach current events without crossing the line into folk music?
A. We think universally and timelessly. Case in point: the song "Bullet." One Sunday morning Richie [Sambora, guitarist] was at my house, and I'm watching "Meet the Press," and it's about Jennifer Hudson's brother-in-law, what's his name? The guy who killed her family members on a rampage? [On Oct. 24, 2008, actress-singer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered on the South Side. Hudson's estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour, has been charged with the murders.] He's this guy going, like, "Why didn't I get mine?" Awful. But instead of sitting down and writing a song with his name in it or hers, with a specific day and date, you make your case because this same situation is going to happen again in five years somewhere else. You speak to the larger issues. You ask whether the song will stand up 20 years from now and is the message going to be clear.
with Kid Rock and 7th Heaven (Friday)
with Kid Rock and the Worsties (Saturday)
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Soldier Field, 1400 S. Museum Campus Dr.
Tickets: $36.50-$500; ticketmaster.com (Friday is sold out)
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The members of Hanson are good Christian lads, but this week they officially began a mission from God.
On Thursday, the fraternal trio debuted a video for its new single, "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'," that pays loving tribute to the Ray Charles scene in one of Chicago's landmark movies, "The Blues Brothers."
The video — which re-creates the interior of Ray's Music Exchange and features more than 300 people dancing in the street — was shot not on location in Chicago but in Hanson's hometown of Tulsa, Okla.
And, eldest brother Isaac Hanson is eager to impart, this is not tongue-in-cheek.
"We want people to know that we're not making fun of this movie," he said. "This is not a parody. This is not us using some iconic film as a way to make us look hip. You've gotta understand, we love this movie. This comes from the fact that this movie made us want to dance."
The idea for the video came almost on a whim early this year as guitarist Isaac, singer-pianist Taylor and drummer Zac tried to wrap production on its new album, "Shout It Out," due for release on June 8.
"Taylor came in and dialed up the 'Blues Brothers' scene on YouTube," Isaac said. In the film, Charles performs the jumpy tune "Shake Your Tail Feather" while Jake and Elwood (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) dance. "He presses play on our song, then plays the video clip on mute. Everyone's jaws dropped. It synced up almost perfectly. It totally worked. We looked at each other and said, 'We have to do this.' "
Kelly Kerr, the director of photography for the video, was one of those left with his jaw hanging. "The beats-per-minute were almost identical. And I thought, 'We're gonna replicate this.' ... We got real close to the movie but also took some liberties with it, as well."
The crew called in set designers to re-create the interior of Ray's Music Exchange inside the Hanson rehearsal space in Tulsa. Then they determined that Tulsa's Greenwood Avenue looked roughly like the similarly historic Chicago streets used in the film. They choreographed and filmed a dance sequence there on March 6.
The video for "Thinking 'Bout Somethin' " is now making the rounds online. The single itself becomes available April 27 via iTunes.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
ON MONSTERS: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY OF OUR WORST FEARS
By Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $27.95
Quiz time! A monster is:
(a) A psycho killer.
(b) A seven-headed hydra.
(c) Under the bed.
(d) All of the above.
Stephen Asma is a Distinguished Scholar at Chicago's Columbia College, teaching philosophy and history of science, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he'd ask such a question on one of his exams. Particularly now that his new book about monsters is available.
Asma — who has previously explored the topics of Buddhism (The Gods Drink Whiskey) and natural history museums (Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads) — would give you an A if your answer was (d). In his new spelunking adventure through the caverns of world history, culture and thought, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Asma explores not only what frightens us and why, but also how our individual and group minds have learned to deal with scary new concepts by labeling them monstrous, from Alexander's "enormous beast" and the Bible's Behemoth and Leviathan ("God's lackeys," Asma describes them) all the way to terrorists, zombies and Cylons.
But it's more than beasts and behemoths. "Monster is a flexible, multi-use concept," Asma writes. "The concept of the monster has evolved to become a moral term."
Q. Why now? Is there something about this moment in history that makes an examination of the monster concept worth pursuing?
A. Well, we're seeing every day now the kind of demonization happening in the political sphere. We're led to believe there's this clash of wild-eyed jihad monsters vs. the civilized West. That's how the "war on terror" has been cashed out. The more paranoid part of our culture has been dredging up this monster archetype. But it's not just a one-way depiction. Some corners of Muslim culture demonize us, as well. One of the goals of this book was to provide examples of how we've done this many times in the past and how it relates to what's still going on.
Q. And the uptick in horror movies lately must be an indication of something.
A. You always see more monster movies when the culture is feeling stressed. Film scholars show a huge explosion of horror [movies] in the wake of the Vietnam war, from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to David Cronenberg's stuff, etc. There's a similar correlation between post-9/11 and the new hunger for paranoid, frightening films. This stuff really taps into universal human fears.
The guy who made the "Hostel" films, Eli Roth — I talk about this in the book, about these "torture porn" films and how they can actually take something away from your humanity. But Roth defends them this way: He says he gets e-mail from soldiers, and they love this stuff in Iraq. You might not think that an incredibly scary, violent movie would be great relaxing, popcorn stuff for soldiers, but after they've spent all day repressing fears and anxieties in order to do their jobs, it's a big relief for them to let it all out in the safe moment of a movie like this. That doesn't really defend them for me, but it makes some sense of why we love these movies. They're little holidays from our worst fears.
Q. Is it as simple as that — a catharsis, a release valve?
A. Yes and no. It's slightly more psychologically complex. We enjoy monster stories because they allow us to imagine what it's like to meet our enemies. It's a rehearsal. "How would I react if ...?" That's why people sometimes can't help but yell at the screen: "Don't open the door!" So a monster movie, or even to a degree the depiction of another person or another culture as "monstrous," allows us a fictitious buffer zone to practice and maybe even work through our fear response.
Q. Have you read Pride and Prejudice With Zombies?
A. [Laughs] No, but isn't that funny? I have read Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide. That's something really interesting, culturally speaking. It tells you in plain terms how to handle a zombie attack. It's serious, but it's funny. It's that same rehearsal idea.
Q. How does "monsterization" differ when we apply it to just one person, like the perpetrator of a heinous crime?
A. We now understand that serial killers and the like are not actually that different from us. We all have aggression, but they have more. We have empathy, they lack it. Twenty or 30 years ago, we never would have thought that if you pick on someone as a child, you could trigger monstrous events. If you take a kid, submit him to all this abuse and disconnect him from family and other support, the violence is not predictable but there is a pattern. In the medieval era, they'd say you were possessed. The devil did it. Now we understand that your immediate social circle can make you a monster. That's a new way of thinking about monsters, as products of social processes.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lindsey Buckingham is attempting to explain why his on-again, off-again megastar band, Fleetwood Mac, is on the road again without an album to support. Nothing to sell. Just the classic band (himself, Stevie Nicks, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood — still no Christine McVie), together again, playing the hits. He provides lots of deeply considered reasons, yadda yadda — but then he says something extraordinary.
"Maybe someone came to the conclusion that it might not be a bad time to go out and do some dates to use as hang time, as a proving ground," he says. "It's an inverted model, for sure, but there's something to it."
Proving ground? What could Fleetwood Mac — author of one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, 1977's "Rumours" — possibly have to prove at this point?
Buckingham chuckles. He's used to people straining to square his massive insecurities with his equally massive successes.
"In a general sense, every time you get together to do something new, you have to start thinking after all these years there are still things for us to work out emotionally, historically. We are a band of couples who broke up and got through it living in various states of denial and never getting closure — at least from my perspective — and it leaves a lot of stuff hanging out there.
"I took off in '87 to regain my sanity, and the band died a slow death without me. That didn't make me feel too bad," he snickers. "Without sounding too vindictive, it was nice to know they needed me. ... But we're still a work in progress in terms of those interactions. There are still things that need to be worked through."
Kind of amazing, isn't it? More than 30 years after Buckingham and Nicks split up at the dawn of the band's success, the "issues" remain that palpable between them. He still considers the band a "band of couples who broke up." And that was always part of the appeal — the telenovela-like drama and tension between two of the fiercest artistic personalities in Southern California.
Buckingham, at least, still hopes to harness that tension for more musical magic. He and the other members seem to be viewing this tour as a casual way for the quartet to settle a bit, to get back into some kind of rhythm that would produce a new record.
It's the elephant in the room that each member treads carefully around.
"There have been discussions, for sure, that we would love to make some more music," said founding drummer Mick Fleetwood, during an earlier teleconference with the band. "I think it's really down to the whole sort of biorhythms of how everyone is feeling and what's appropriate."
They're still so careful when speaking of each other, except Nicks, who remarked — with discernable astonishment — how well they were all getting on so far and added, "Lindsey has been in incredibly good humor since we started rehearsal. When Lindsey is in a good humor, everybody is in a good humor."
They still look to him, take their cues from him, and he remains the band's creative linchpin. The last few Mac albums he was on — you know, the successful ones — each began as Buckingham solo projects that the record label and the band begged to turn into band efforts. "Tango in the Night" sounds like his crystalline solo work with a few warmer Nicks and McVie songs added. Buckingham had asked Fleetwood and bassist John McVie to back him on another solo album that, with the addition of four Nicks songs, became Fleetwood Mac's 2003 comeback CD, "Say You Will."
But he'd like that pattern to change.
After "Say You Will," Buckingham told the band to leave him alone for three years, during which he exorcised two back-to-back solo discs: the quieter, almost indie-rock outing "Under the Skin" in 2006, and last year's slightly harder rocking "Gift of Screws." As a result, Buckingham says he feels refreshed and at the height of his creative powers.
"Having accomplished what I wanted to do with both solo albums, I'm really in the best place I've been artistically," he says. "I tapped into things I wanted to get to for a long time. And I have a lot of new material — I could drop another solo album at any time — but no one's talking yet about a new Mac album, at least for a while. Still, I'm pointedly not fleshing out my new stuff, so that I might be able to show it to the band and let it take on a life in the context of that.
"The way we used to do it, we'd each have rough ideas and would get together and the songs would get formulized and brought into some sort of life for the first time through a set of Fleetwood Mac eyes. More often than not, over the last few experiences it's been my solo material that had to be slightly altered to make it feel more Fleetwood Mac-like. So I'd really welcome the chance to come to these people with things a little less fleshed out, something that might be born as Fleetwood Mac rather than being just ... painted like it."
So he speaks of this tour as a "way to create a level of ferment" among the band again, and adds uncharacteristic optimism of "bringing things to light in a more organic way by being together without a real reason."
The question is: Do you want to pay $50 to $150 for a ticket to watch four grizzled but talented music makers "hang" and "ferment"? Buckingham says the band is not using the tour as an expensive woodshed.
"We've very pointedly stuck to catalog for this tour," he says, adding, "There is still validity in looking at this body of work, the irony being that this is what most people want to hear from us, anyway. I figure, let's make our mantra just hanging and working on the rough edges in terms of personal interactions with band members. That in itself will be part of the preparation for making an album, whenever that does happen."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
Phone: (312) 559-1212
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.