Jeff Bridges Abides: The Unedited Interview

ww-1-2With the recent release of his new movie, “Seventh Son” and his strange series of zany zen-like internet ads advertising his “Sleeping Tapes,” it seems to be the perfect time to share this unedited interview with the one and only, Jeff Bridges.

Most of us already knew Jeff Bridges as the coolest, most humble mofo in the movie industry, but then he went and added to that image by proving he’s a great musician and songwriter as well. After playing the tragic country music hero and winning an Oscar as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart,” he soon after presented the world with a stellar self-titled country/folk album. A positive collection of well-constructed songs, Bridges teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and proved that he had even more to offer his fans. Hot on the heels of the recent movie, “The Giver,” Bridges somehow found the time to take his band of Abiders on the road this past fall. The show was immensely entertaining and if you were already curious about just how damn cool Bridges is, lets just say that in addition to performing his own songs, he covered Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is To Fly,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” by Creedence, and sat down at the keyboard for an emotional rendition of a rare Tom Waits song from the “One From the Heart” Soundtrack. Not even Tom plays that one anymore. I was blessed to talk to Mr. Bridges over the phone just a few months ago to ask him about the music and more. Included are exclusive photos I took at his recent performance at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. Ladies and gentleman… Mr. Jeff Bridges….

ww-1JB: Hello. Jeff Bridges here. Hey Nolan. Is this Nolan? Hey Nolan, how are you doing?

NG: I’m doing all right. How about yourself?

I’m doing alright.

Gearing up for the new movie I assume?

That’s right. We’re doing a lot of press for that. And we’re prepping for the next tour which is coming up.

When did you start making music? Was it something you did before movies and did you ever have to choose between movies and music? Or was it something that came after?

I’ve been playing since I was 13 or 14, and as far as a time when I wondered if I wanted to go into that, I seriously questioned and asked myself whether acting was going to be my path. And as I grew older it became the path of least resistance. I took that path with the most energy, but the music has always been part of my life. I have a little studio and I like writing music and playing with my friends.

Tell me about the timeline of your self-titled album and your role in “Crazy Heart”. Which came first and did one inspire the other?

“Crazy Heart” came first and it certainly inspired my record. T-Bone Burnett and I have been friends for a very long time and I met him, oh about 30 years ago on “Heaven’s Gate,” and we played a lot of music on that. And that in a way gave birth to “Crazy Heart”. And after “Crazy Heart” was over, I became deep into the music and kinda restarted my musical thinking there and I thought if there was ever a time to live my teenage music dream, that would be the time. So I called up my buddy T-Bone and gave him a bunch of songs that I thought would be good and he liked them and that was that.

 What kind of advice has T-Bone given you over the years that has helped you along the way musically?

He gave me some great advice during “Crazy Heart” that stuck with me through the album as well. T-Bone really likes to make a universe that comes from an alternate universe. When we did the music from “Crazy Heart” he didn’t want to copy anyone’s style, he wanted to make music that was fresh, familiar, but different. He didn’t want it to sound like anyone else. He made me a list of all of the guys that my character Bad Blake would have listened to while growing up in Fort Worth. He knew what he was talking about because that’s where he grew up. He said “you’d be listening to Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and those guys, but you’d also be listening to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles.” I asked if I’d be listening to Captain Beefheart? And he said “Oh yeah! You’d be listening to Ornette Coleman too.” That was also for the idea for the Jeff Bridges album too. It didn’t have to be a pure country album or a pure anything.

You were also on “Heaven’s Gate” with Kris Kristofferson, and he was someone who went the opposite way—from music to film. Did you learn anything from him? Did he have an impact on you? Was he someone you looked up to that merged the two careers?

He’s a big inspiration as a songwriter. He’s just phenomenal. Getting to act with him is just wonderful and he’s just great in that movie. We saw each other not too long ago at the Austin City Limits 40th anniversary and we had a great time together.

I read somewhere that when you envisioned the Bad Blake character you envisioned him. Is that true?

That’s not true. He’s certainly one of the guys. I didn’t model it after Kris or anything. Our director Scott Cooper said that Bad Blake was the fifth Highwayman. You know, Willie, Johnny Cash, Kris. Merle Haggard? No, not Merle.

Waylon?

Yeah Waylon! Waylon was it. He was a great, great one.

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Bad Blake plays a character who has a rough, rough life and that’s where his songs come from. And I feel a lot of great country musicians get their inspiration from that as well. I don’t want to assume, but I feel like you have a pretty great, relaxing, exciting life. Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you feel the blues? Where do you get your songs from?

Well, I think everybody suffers man. You know, that’s just a part of life. I just kind of pull things from my own life. And things don’t always have to be about struggle. They can be about happy things. I also like working with my friend John Goodwin (misheard as John Goodman for obvious reasons). And we bounce stuff off each other. And things don’t always have to be about struggle. They can be about happy things.

So John Goodman helped you with your songs?

Well no. It’s not John Good MAN, It’s John Good WIN. Yeah those are two different cats.

So how long were these songs in the making? Were they written all at the same time? Were they culled from all over your life?

What songs? From the Jeff Bridges album? Yeah, I don’t remember all the songs on there, but a lot of the songs are older songs that I wrote in the past and I think I did some John Goodwin songs. There’s a song I wrote with T-Bone on the album. I was trying to write a song for Bad Blake, but it didn’t quite work for Bad Blake or that album. It was called “Slow Boat”. I did the lyrics and T-Bone did the lyrics for that.

ww-1-5Were you upset in any way that they didn’t use any of your original songs as the theme to “Crazy Heart”

No, not really. They use a lot of really great songs.

Your first record was very different then your most recent self-titled record? What changed in your songwriting and how do you see the overall change in style?

Well, there are some songs that I wrote on the Jeff Bridges album that are from the same period as the “Be Here Soon” album. With that album a lot of the difference was in the casting of the album. I produced the album with my dear friend and current musical director of the Abiders, Chris Pelonis and Michael McDonald. And both of those people influenced the record quite a bit. And with T-Bone, the band that he uses often became the sound of the Jeff Bridges album. For the “Be Here Soon” record, it was an eclectic mix, it wasn’t any of the people in the Abiders except for Chris. But there are some similarities, but overall the tone is much different on those albums.

Do you remember your first show and what year was it? How old were you?

My first show? The first thing that pops in my head is probably a hootenanny at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. It was with my buddy David Greenwald.

Were you in anyway nervous? Was there a feeling different than being onstage acting?

I find most often that I’m most nervous right before I get on stage and while I’m on stage I’m kind of relaxed. I’m kind of in character.

You’ll always have this place in people’s heart as the “Dude” and I was wondering if that gets old or if you relish it. Then I saw that your band is called the Abiders and realized you must find joy in that.

Hahaha (laughs). Yeah I’m very proud to be part of that film. It’s a wonderful movie. It would be one of my very favorites even if I wasn’t in that film. The Cohen brothers… they’re nasty.

ww-1-3Speaking of the Abiders, do you always tour with the same band or does it change over time and become about who is available?

It’s pretty much the same. Occasionally I tour with T-Bone, with the “Speaking Clock” tour, I toured with Elton John, Leon Russell and Elvis Costello among others. We toured a bit. But I love playing with the Abiders. They’re my homeboys. They’re the cream of the crop.

How many are in the band?

Five all together.

Do you have a favorite person you’ve felt blessed to shared the stage with?

Ah, yeah. A couple come to mind. John Fogerty invited me onstage at Sturgis– you know the big motorcycle festival. That was great. And then I did a movie with Bob Dylan and got to do stuff with him, which was fun.

How do you compare film and music performance? With film its almost like you put it in the oven and see what develops, while with music you get an immediate response. What do you like about each? Do you prefer one over the other?

In a way I look at performing sort of like doing an improvisation with the audience… like we’re working on something together. If the audience enjoys the music it makes me enjoy it more. And vice versa, We feed off each other like that. And that’s like working on a scene with somebody. Because that’s my realm, the acting realm, I think of it in those terms. But it is great to get that immediate feedback.

You’re obviously not Bad Blake in real life. Who do you think most resembles you in a role you have played?

Well, gee I think physically, between movies I let my hair grow and my beard grow because I can always cut it off—so physically it would probably be the Dude. Inside, gee you know I think about the ethics and myself parallel to the character I’m playing. There’s an element of myself in every character. If there are things that are unshared in between me and my character, I kind of kick those to the curb.

You’re playing the Ryman and pretty amazing places like that. Do you feel like you’ve been accepted by the country and folk communities, or do you not even care about that?

I have in my mind been accepted. People I admire dig my stuff. I’m not sure about the whole community. I try not to think too much about that. I try to enjoy myself and have fun.

Is there anyone you’d like to sing alongside that you haven’t been able to yet?

I don’t really don’t think in those terms really. There are so many wonderful artists that I like and respect. I kind of take it as it comes. I’ve been talking to Judy Collins. She’s invited me to sing on an album of duets that she;s putting out.

You’ve been in Boston a bunch for movies. Are there things you like to do while you’re in town?

Boston, oh wow. Boston’s a wonderful place. Unfortunately on tour we don’t have much time to hang out, but there’s that wonderful little park. I’ve made a few movies there. They have swans. It’s not too big a park. I dig Boston a lot. Even when I was making movies I didn’t get to tour around as much as I would have liked to.

So, I read the William Hjortsberg biography of Richard Brautigan…

You read that whole thing. Wow! [Note it’s 864 pages].

So you are mentioned in that book a few times as being part of the Montana Gang when Brautigan was hanging out with the Fondas, Jimmy Buffet, Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates and a lot of notable people in Montana. Since I may never get to talk to anyone else who has met Richard Brautigan, I wanted to ask you what he was like.

He was such a great talent. Man those were some times. I met my wife during that period.

What’s your favorite of his books?

I really love the Tokyo-Montana Express. I feel like he fits so much into just a few words and simple sentence structure.

Oh yeah, that book is like poetry. He was just such a great talent. I always thought me and my brother would make a movie out of “Hawkline Monster,” but we might be getting too old at this point.

Ok, last question. I have to ask… What are your true feeling about the band the Eagles. Do you really hate the f**king Eagles?

That’s not me. That’s the dude, man. I ran into those guys at a party and those guys gave me a lot of shit. I said don’t take it personally man. It’s a movie man. The Eagles are fine. I dig Creedence too.

Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s… The One That Got Away in 2014

ww-1-4When the end-of-year “Best Of” lists came out in December, every publication seemed to have the same mediocre picks at the top. For the most part, it was a year where middle-of-the-road reigned supreme. It seemed every publication felt the need to put the same records in the top 10. Not that those records aren’t good… or even great, but very few of them got stuck in my head… certainly not the way Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s “Slingshot to Heaven” did. The band’s records have always combined infectious pop hooks with an inherent evil and riddled lyrics that you may not understand, but you also cannot shake. Nobody ranked this record at the top, but it never left heavy rotation in my 2014. I think it’s time the record got it’s due.

I interviewed Richard Edwards back in early 2014 for the Boston, NYC and Philly Metro Newspapers to talk about “Slingshot to Heaven.” It was an interview long in the making, While the conversation is dated, it still seems relevant, and these exclusive photos live from the Middle East in Cambridge should provide some proof of the band’s prowess. Enjoy.

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ww-1-8Richard Edwards makes music on his own terms. You could see it early in his career, but his hands-on, no-compromise mentality toward his recordings and releases has only become more pronounced over time. As the founder and lead singer of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Edwards took the money from the advance on his debut record and built his own studio. He signed to Epic records for his second album in 2008. When the record company didn’t like his song selection, he convinced them to release two records simultaneously. “Animal” was his ideal release, while “Not Animal” was Epic’s chosen offering. From then on, Edwards and the band have gone on to self-release three records on their own label, Mariel Recordings. This interview was conducted shortly before the release of their latest, “Slingshot to Heaven.”

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How far along is the record? I know the songs are done, but as far as putting it out do you have a precise date?

April 22.

So you’re doing special online release options where you can pick and choose some rare treats. Do you want to talk about that at all?

Well we finished the record almost a year ago. That usually happens with us and we just figure we’ll have to sit on it for a minute. We release our own stuff, but we go through a distributor and all, so there is a long process of getting records set up that maybe doesn’t exist for other bands who just hand it to the label. So I think we were just going to think of projects to keep that momentum and to keep boredom from setting in. The idea was to shoot these songs in one-take performances that were stripped down and taken with 16mm. I have a friend in Chicago who has these cameras and he’s also very generous about letting people use them—especially people who don’t know what they’re doing–which is a dangerous thing when you’re talking about an old Éclair. So he lent us these cameras and it sort of snowballed into being almost the whole record performed on 16mm… which turned into a 40 minute set. It was just colored in Chicago at Film Workers. So yeah it’s done. It turned into a much bigger project than making the record, which it wasn’t supposed to but…

Is the cover of the album a still from the movie? Or something else?

No, I wish it was. I just decided that this was the cover I wanted. My friend Bart, who is a really good photographer, just decided to go out there at the Golden Gate Bridge every day for a couple of weeks–just waiting for it to be an overcast day, which can be hard to find. He just had a bunch of rolls of film for me on a day that was overcast and we put together that cover which is the first image we had when we started recording.

And you guys recorded again on tape, right?

Yeah, which we’ve done before, but this time we didn’t use any computers at all, which made it different than any way we’ve recorded in the past.

ww-1-3Between that and the 16mm film and the cover photo, would you say you have an affinity for the analog and beauty of the old style?

Yeah we do. I don’t think it’s political or anything. The idea to not use computers was Tyler’s idea. We always like using tape because I’m one of those people who thinks you can tell the difference. Tyler, the bass player and engineer, wanted a challenge– which we always try and do to sharpen our focus. His idea was that we finally have this studio set up to do primarily analog recordings so why are we fucking around with the monitor and sending that into ProTools. So he just wanted to try it and it was my favorite way of recording so far. It definitely makes a difference on focused performance, I think.

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So, from what I remember, when Rot Gut Domestic came out, you had said it was going to be part of a 3 record trilogy. Is this record the third part or was that idea sort of abandoned?

It was supposed to be; I think it kind of works out that way because this record happened in my 20’s right before I turned 30. It feels that way to me, but sonically they don’t hold together as a trilogy so much. With the musical vibe I think it’s important to make records that radically depart from one another. Thematically I think it works like that still, but sonically if you put Buzzard on and then this one it wouldn’t make sense I guess.

What would make them a trilogy? Is it just times and age?

I just considered it when I started doing it…. It’s like a growing up trilogy. The first 2 or 2.5 records seem like their own thing to the extent that the band name could have even changed after that. I like the idea, whether good or bad, from when you’re young to when you’re older, of housing it under one name. But after those records, starting with Buzzard, the band was moving on. We weren’t living in a flophouse anymore. I had a baby in 2009. Then this one ends and I just turned 30, which isn’t a big deal, but it did seem like a growing up or that something else is starting.

These songs all sound a little more quiet and stripped down than some of your other records. Would you agree with that and was that a conscious decision or the evolution of songwriting for you?

It was just the evolution of songwriting for this one. I’ve already written the next one– and it’s rowdy– not as rowdy as Buzzard is– but it’s pretty up-tempo and a pretty pronounced pop thing, which I like. With this one, I think the reason it ended up that way– it was constantly brought up while we were recording– that this was becoming a pretty mid-tempo affair. At some point you just have to say, “this is what it is.” My friend Cami and I sat around a lot and played the songs on acoustic guitar and sort of arranged them before we started, and that really set the tone for what ended up happening in the studio. We were listening back to the demos done that way and we were encouraged to keep writing. I sort of unconsciously continued to write songs that I thought would feel nice to play with my friends in my living room. That’s the only thing I think that would have pushed the songs in that way. There’s definitely not a place in the writing process to take a sharp turn.

I’ve always found your lyrics very intriguing; this album seems a little more straightforward, maybe a slightly less riddled…

I’m not sure. There’s not “out there” stuff like “Tiny Vampire Robot,” but still when I hear “Long-legged Blonde” I am reminded that I’m always getting yelled at by the publishing company at how unplaceable my lyrics are, so it’s hard to differentiate between weirdness. But yeah, it’s a little bit narrative based.

There are references to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but you’re still in Indiana, right?

I was in Chicago for 5 or 6 years, but yeah, now I’m in Indiana.

Are these travelogues? Are you inspired to move to California?

I don’t know. I think I’m still figuring out stuff about what I write. It’s like “oh shit we have like 5 songs referencing how I want to move to California.” And the first record I did was always New York, New York, New York. When I wasn’t on tour, I would just fly to New York and stay on people’s couches. Maybe with this one it’s because the winter was so bad. I listen to a lot of modern country radio when I’m driving, like Hank FM. Really, really modern, “country” in quotes. And so, for a long time, I thought, I’ll make a new record, and if this one does okay I’m going to move to LA and write songs for Kenny Chesney or something like that. It was actually something I really wanted to do. It would also be nice to be a little warmer than I’ve been for the past few weeks.

Yeah, you guys have been getting hit pretty hard up there, huh?

Yeah it’s been rougher than I can remember.

Tell me about the evolution of the band personnel-wise. I hear a female singer, but haven’t seen any women on stage when you perform. Is there a recording band versus a touring band?

There’s a girl coming back in, but I’ve been musically very promiscuous when it comes to touring since that first band dissolved. By design– I guess just like getting divorced– I want to do what I want to do and whomever I want to do it with. This time around I sort of stumbled on my dream band, but I’m sure that will change because everybody’s got to do there own thing. But I’ve had a pretty steady group of touring musicians since the old band and a lot of those people play on the records too. I generally bring in one other guitarist, and usually a female singer that I collaborate with the harmony treatments. But I think the next record will pretty much be the same band as on this record, but will be a faster tempo record.

How has self-releasing been going and does this all go back to the bad experience early on with Epic?

I think it’s a mixture of things. There aren’t very many people knocking on our door. You know what I mean? We are in a position where we have a small, passionate fanbase, but it’s not certainly big in the traditional sense. I never really considered the Sony thing that bad. They released the thing that I wanted them to release. I know some people get really pissed off when they don’t think the label is doing what they can to promote the record. I just don’t really care about any of that. As long as I can make it. So that’s fine. But as far as self-releasing, I really wish we had done it from the beginning, because I really underestimated the pride in owning the shit that you do. When I have a stack of things that I’ve made, even if they’re not really worth that much, it’s really, really important for me to own it. It’s amazing to me that there was a period in my life where I thought ‘Yeah $50,000 it’s yours.” It’s so little money and what does it last 8 people? A year maybe? So that side of it, I wouldn’t be opposed to working with a label. We almost did with Rot Gut, we almost did with Buzzard, but I can’t see us ever again where I wouldn’t want to own it. That means a lot to me as I get older.

Is it an added difficulty when you’re self-releasing? Is there an added amount of personal work you’re doing it on your own, or even just for it to get heard or distributed?

Yeah there’s a part of that for sure. And this time there’s been more than I’ve ever had because the guy in the band who always helped us with that is sort of a grownup now and has a job. So a lot of it is on me now, but at the same time, I sort of like that work. I like boxing those records as much, or more than I like making records. My head hurts so much that I just want mindless work where I don’t get stuck inside the pattern of thought that I’m always in. Some of that mindless stuff I sort of enjoy and I find gratifying. It’s super, super cheesy, but it’s like I have a small business and the act of transporting these records to people has some sort of meaning to me as I get older. You get meaning from a lot of lame stuff as you get older.

Where did the title of the DVD portion of the record come from [“Tell Me More About Evil”]?

I think I told my friend– the movie ended up demented and scary in this way and I told my friend Heidi who is simultaneously trying to make her own record. She’s a really, really good songwriter who always has trouble finishing a record. She’ll always have mixes and she always needs one more song mix and that’s enough to derail the whole thing. I think I told her something like her record needed a little more evil in the songs.

I found the title intriguing because your songs have always had this strange inherent evil to them. So that must be something your aware of?

I think it gets more skillfully articulated as I get older, but there’s always sort of like a Catholic/Christian guilt thing, a mixture between that which most people don’t shake, even as they get older and cast that stuff aside. I’ve always just sort of said that I like writing hit songs for the same reasons that I admire Robert Crumb. It doesn’t mean that I like everything that he draws, but I like writing songs that feel, both better and worse, are real reflections of how young men think and behave. Not all of those, not most of those, especially now are pulled from my life. I have a 4-year-old daughter and I’m very much in a situation where I’m a dad. But I also don’t ever want to mellow that stuff because I’m not somebody whose brain changed when I had a kid. Of course it did in tons of ways, but it did not change that part of me that’s super fucked up and gross. Part of the problem with the world, like the problem between men and women, is I think that I think just this thought is doing harm to like …the times. You know? I embellish a lot of things too. I always wanted to make songs that… I just never wanted to make myself look good, but maybe I should do more of that. I want to try and be honest, especially now more than ever, every problem with society is boiled down to “10 things you need to know about a failed something”. You know, “mean culture.” I feel like its changing actual meaning… I’m just rambling now. I’m saying something I don’t have words for. I just think it’s important, now more than ever, to just be honest and stuff. People need to be honest with themselves before they get on a soapbox about what’s wrong about the rest of our culture. If I was a little less shitty of a person, some of this would be better just by that.

Does your daughter like your music?

My daughter– she likes it a lot, but the two songs I’ve written that have any meaning are “Getting Fat” and “Prozac Rock”. For whatever reason, those are the two. She likes them and she likes hearing them in the car and she gets a kick if she’s at her friend’s house and it comes on Pandora she gets excited. She likes a lot of music. She’s pretty well-rounded. She can listen to Merle Haggard and she can still listen to the Frozen soundtrack. I suspect in 3 or 4 years it’ll be no more Merle Haggard.

For more info: http://margotandthenuclearsoandsos.com/

A John Waters Christmas: The Complete Interview

 

John_Waters003Over his career, John Waters accomplished the seemingly impossible. The cult director and lo-fi shock artist with a focus on exaggerated filth and humor has, in time, gained a following so large that he’s become a reference point for the mainstream. With a cinematic resume that includes infamous works like “Pink Flamingos” and more accessible, but still edgy films such as “Hairspray,” “Cry Baby” and “Pecker,” John Waters’ films have made him a pioneer in well-crafted unsavory cinema.

Granted the public perception of filth has gotten filthier over the years, Waters has always been a reference point in the irreverent arts. In addition to his 16 films, Waters has written five books, the most recent was a New York Times Bestseller called “Carsick” in which documents his cross-country hitchhiking trek from Maryland to California. Every December, Mr. Waters makes his rounds for “A John Waters Christmas” where he combines storytelling and stand-up comedy as a way for fans to brace and embrace the upcoming holiday season. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. John Waters.

Christmas John

Mr. Waters?

Yeaaasssssss.

This is Nolan from Boston. How are you?

I’m well. From the Metro right.

Yes sir. How was your Thanksgiving?

It was very nice. I just got back from visiting my sisters in Virginia. It was very nice. Then tomorrow I start 17 cities. So the calm before the…. You know you and I may be the only ones working today. I’m getting ready and trying to get all Christmas-y even though my first shows are in Southern California, which makes it all the more surreal. I love to the Scientology Center on Hollywood Boulevard because they decorate with fake snow.

What does Christmas mean to you and when did you decide to take it on? Some people consider that the Holy Grail of the entertainment industry.

Well I took it on the way Johnny Mathis took it on– only the opposite way. I wrote a book called “Crackpot” and I had a chapter on why I love Christmas, and I think it sort of started there. I mean I DO love Christmas. Now I love it because I have 17 jobs. I’m always like a drag queen on Halloween; if it’s Christmas I’m working. I tour up until the night before I throw my annual Christmas Party which I’ve had for 45 years. It’s a busy month and then I’m always shocked when I’m on the road when it really is Christmas. I think of Christmas now as my material. Then I think, “oh you have to go shopping. You have to do it too.” So I give advice to everybody about how to get through it, the only person who I don’t give advice to it is me. But somehow I manage.

Is there a fine line between reverence and irreverence?

My show is. My show is for people who love it and who hate it. I understand if I wasn’t Christian that I would be pissed off looking at a Nativity scene in front of the State Capitol. And I am against that. But I do go, like a crazy person goes to haunted houses on Halloween, I go to living crèches because they are the scariest things in the world to me. I’m a connoisseurs of bad human crèches.

Do you have fond memories of Christmas growing up? Was it a big deal for you?

Yes it was a very big deal. Nothing bad ever happened on Christmas except a Christmas tree did fall on my grandmother. But that turned out to be good because I based a scene on it in “Female Trouble,” a very popular scene. My grandmother eventually thought it was funny that it left such a memory on me. People around the country tell me how that happened to them as well. It turns out that happens a lot. I didn’t realize this. I thought we were the only Christmas where the tree fell on my grandmother. But the tree falls over a lot. It’s a common trauma. I tell people they should rig the tree so it falls at the height of opening presents so you can all embrace for a Kodak moment at the fallen tree.

Do you every have problems with audience members?

No, the only problems are with people that are such fans that they’ve been there for hours waiting to get in and they’re drunk. Then they’re in the first row and they applaud too much at what I’m saying and then at the time it’s supposed to be funny they’re passed out. But they’re not really a problem. I’ve never had a problem. If people are coming to see the John Waters Christmas, they pretty much know what they’re getting in to.

Do you have any standout Christmas memories outside of the tree falling on your grandma?

For me it’s for when I sell out a show. I sold out the Sydney Opera House one year. When it comes to Christmas when I was young, it has to do with photographs. If your parents kept photos of you—and during the radical 60’s nobody took pictures of their children because they hated how you looked. So I wish I had pictures of me in front of the stockings that I did with my brothers and sisters when I looked like a yippy. They never took them then. I like those pictures in front of the mantle with the stockings. One year I got “The Genius of Ray Charles” album when I was really young and a hand puppet. So that was exciting. I used to get a carton of Kool’s in my stocking. That was exciting. My mother was very strict and that was thought of as normal? I wish I had a picture of that. It’s really like an art piece. Can you imagine that? Giving a child a cartoon of Kool’s for Christmas. She’d probably be arrested if she did that today. I’m also so amazed that they still have candy cigarettes. I like giving those to children around Christmas. I can’t believe they still allow those to be on the market. It is really like training. They give out that smoke from the sugar. I’m shocked that they still allow that. Michelle Obama missed that one. You can’t even have large sodas, but you can have candy cigarettes. It’s like why gay people can’t be married in 13 states, but Manson can.

So you go right up to Christmas and then have a proper celebration?

Yes I do. I have two sisters and a brother still living and we switch turns. It’s not my turn this year. I like hosting it though. I cook a dinner and do the whole thing. Sadly, and you’d probably be shocked, but my Christmas can be very traditional.

What are your thoughts on Christmas music? I know you curated a Christmas album. But do they get to you? Do you really deep down like Christmas music?

Yeah those have always been my favorite Christmas songs. “Happy Birthday Jesus,” “Santa Claus is a Black Man,” “Fat Daddy” by Fat Daddy, who was a big black deejay in Baltimore when they first did Negro day and the show that I based “Hairspray” on. I still love Christmas songs. There aren’t enough of them. Why doesn’t Future Islands have one? Just think how great Sam Herring would be singing “O, Little Town of Bethlehem.”

So you had a children’s Christmas movie that you were going to do. Has that officially been abandoned?

No, I’m still pregnant with it for five years and I still don’t want an abortion. That’s the only time I’m pro-life.

Can you talk a little bit about it?

Oh, it’s SO boring. I’ve talked about it for five years so it’s such old news. But I will talk about it if you want. It’s about a happy family of meat thieves in Baltimore on Christmas Eve when they’re out stealing. It’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure. We’ll see; it could get made.

Are you stepping away from movies in general? Is there a reason you haven’t been focusing on that medium?

Well, there’s one main reason and that’s that no one is giving me the money to make them. It’s not about stepping away, it’s like unemployment, but they don’t have an unemployment line. I’ve always had many careers and I’ve done books. My last book was a best seller, all of my other books are still in print and I have a spoken word show the rest of the year called “John Waters’ Filthy World” as well as my Christmas show. So I’m fine. If I never make another movie, I’ve got 16 of them, it’s not like I haven’t spoken. But I am still in the middle of trying to do a TV show and another movie. We’ll see.

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What did you learn from doing the hitchhiking book?

Well, I learned I’ll never be stuck, because no matter what– if I don’t have any money, if I lose my passport, if I lose everything– I will be able to hitchhike. It reinforced everything I’ve ever believed, that people are good people. I had a great time. It was more insane thinking up the fictional parts of the book about the worst that could happen and the best. It was definitely more extreme than the part of the book of what actually happened. The cliché of middle America was completely belied by all the people I met. Yes they were middle Americans, but the things they believed were sometimes so unpredictable. The kinds of people who pick up hitchhikers are a special breed of people.

Did doing the hitchhiking book lead to any inspirations as to what you’re going to do next?

I joke in the book that for the next book I’m going to take every drug I’ve ever taken in the order I took it. But I really don’t think that’ll happen. I really can’t imagine tripping at 70. Although… the idea itself is intriguing. I never had a bad experience with LSD so I don’t why I would now. I always say I’m not going to tell young people that, but I just did.

Do you have another book in the works other than that one?

No I do not. Not yet. I just came back from the London book tour. I have the Christmas tour. I have a big art show in New York, and after that I will determine what happens next.

Does Baltimore still inspire you?

Oh completely. I live a couple of places, but it’s more than ever my favorite. I get good ideas here. It’s the last city on the East Coast where it’s possible to be a bohemian anymore.

I lived in Phoenix, Maryland, but I was too young to have never seen Pink Flamingos or even know it was filmed there…

Oh I thought you were talking about Phoenix, Arizona. Yes, if you follow the directions in the movie, it’s exactly where the trailer was and I went there recently. It’s now the lawn of a big mansion. But you can see in their lawn, it’s discolored where the trailer was and it’s like an Indian burial ground. I went up to the door to tell them. Little do they know that the fumes of filth are still on their lawn coming out. I want people to make little spiritual visits. My friend Bob Adams used to live there, but if you walked up into the woods behind it– we had to build a path– but that’s where the trailer was. Now in the woods where that house was there’s a suburban development of McMansions.

Are you surprised as a cult director that the cult would become so big that it’s even part of the mainstream repertoire?

How long it lasted? It has made its way into the mainstream. I’m an insider now– the final irony in my life. Am I surprised? Yes, I’m surprised Pink Flamingos is shown on television. Yes I’m surprised that I got a check for Pink Flamingos playing in Venezuela. What do they tell people? “This is capitalism and people eat shit there?!” I don’t know why. It’s a hit in Venezuela, on television. I don’t understand that. But I’m happy.

Do you have your own idea of what your legacy is?

My legacy? Just hope you have one is what people say. History will be the judge of that. Who knows what will last. It’s amazing the things from when I was young that people don’t remember now. You don’t know what will happen. But by then I’ll be dead so it doesn’t really matter. I’ve already bought my grave. It’s in the same graveyard as Divine. Mink bought one… Pat Moran. We’re all going to be buried there and it’s Disgraceland: my final dissipation.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra and their Merry Metallic Christmas

tsoWhen I got the call to interview the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I was intrigued, but knew next to nothing about the band. After a day’s worth of research, I quickly realized I must be one of the very few people in the world who didn’t. One of the biggest bands, both in members and ticket sales, I was surprised TSO had remained under my radar. Well, any lack of information on my end was soon filled by one of the strangest interviews I’ve ever conducted—not to mention one of the most gracious interviewees I’ve ever shared a telephone line with. Some interview subjects don’t want to give you anything to work with. Paul O’Neill wants to give you everything.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is the epic creation, constantly evolving, and hugely successful progressive rock band conceived by the prolific Paul O’Neill. With a history writing, producing, managing and promoting such notable acts as Aerosmith, Joan Jett, AC/DC, the Scorpions and his integral role with Savatage, O’Neill’s success with a band of his own was decades in the making. After forming and promptly disbanding the prog-rock band Slowburn in the mid-1970’s, O’Neill entered the business side of the industry, eventually becoming Japan’s most successful festival promoters in the 1980’s.

After decades of success from “learning the industry from the inside out,” Atlantic Records asked O’Neill to start his own band in the mid-90’s and he was finally able to live out his Slowburn aspirations, and on a much grander scale. Founded in 1996, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s albums have also been hailed as rock opera masterpieces, but their Christmas trilogy has become an undeniable force in the band’s touring career. In the midst of its annual tour of tidings, the band breaks into both an East and West coast touring band, allowing TSO to perform four shows each day (two shows, each day on both coasts).

The TSO is a force to be reckoned with and everyone seems to admire their annual tradition of metallic merriment. Below is the unedited, painstakingly transcribed interview with TSO founder Paul O’Neill who took me on a 90+ minute expository whirlwind that reads like a slightly disjointed biography. I asked very few questions, but got all I needed to know from his feverish tales, filled with personal anecdotes and extreme charm. Thank you, Mr. O’Neill. Happy Holidays.

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Hi this is Paul from Trans Siberian Orchestra.

How are you?

Fine, Nolan. I’m a little tired. It’s been a crazy year. We have today off today and you are my last interview of the day. So I love it and right after I get to go to McDonald’s.

Haha. So you’re gearing up for the holiday season?

Yeah, the tour is already in full swing and it’s really been a crazy year from day one. When we were doing the last winter tour in 2013 we got a call from Berlin asking if we could ring in the New Year by playing Brandenburg Gate at midnight. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Berlin, but it’s huge. Brandenburg Gate was designed to hold military parades by Frederick the Great and they were expecting around 900,000—1 million people. So I told my agent we had to do it. They said, “Paul, you have 2 shows the day before and you got that puddle thing in between called the Atlantic Ocean and also you’re flying against the clock.” There have been times when I’ve played Europe and do shows the next day in America, but when you cross time zones you gain an hour. They said, “Do it next year.” And I said, “They didn’t ask about next year.” So I decided to go for it. I had the jets on the tarmac in between shows and we took off and we had about two hours for error, but luckily there was no turbulence and we landed and did soundcheck with 15 minutes to spare, and then it really got magical when we hit the flightdeck, or stage, whatever you want to call it. Right before midnight one of the stage managers comes up to me and says, “Paul, you’re never going to believe this but we were hoping to peak out at about 1.1 million, but it’s just crossed 2 million and it’s still growing.” That many people where you couldn’t even see the end of it, it was maddening. It was just a great way to start the year.

Then we did the European tour, which was also a big jump for us because we’ve been touring for 15 years non-stop. Every TSO show has been a rock concert for the first half and then a regular concert for the second half. In 2014, when we toured Europe we figured we’d just do straight rock concerts, not breaking new ground. All the great rock opera bands like the Who and Pink Floyd have done it, but it was a first for us. And then we also decided to do the :”Christmas Attic” which was the only Christmas opera from the trilogy that we hadn’t done live. And basically, that happened by accident, Nolan. To be quite honest the success of the Christmas trilogy blindsided everybody by surprise. In 1999 when we first started touring, it was so successful and our agent said “Paul you’re going to have to start touring in October and finish up in February.” But I grew up in New York City, Nolan and I didn’t want to see a Christmas Carol outside of Thanksgiving through New Years. To me that’s the end of the holiday season. In the TSO we want to do everything we can, whether it’s an album or a concert, to have to most emotional impact. And so I said, I will never do anything from the Christmas trilogy outside of the holiday season. And then one of my agents said “Paul you’re breaking your own rules,” and I said, “Which rule is that.” And they said, “You always said that the fans own TSO.” Which is true. They’re the reason we are a band. “The Christmas Eve and other stories,” the first rock opera, just resonated with us across the board—all ages, all nationalities, every economic class, that William Morris was like if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

So for 13 years in a row the winter tours open with that rock opera. And we didn’t have any other rock band to look at and give us guidance. But TSO always does things backwards. Normally you don’t take on Christmas– which in the entertainment world, Nolan is the Holy Grail– until you have multiple platinum albums before that. And it’s not just music; it’s any one of the arts. If you’re doing a painting on any other subject you’re competing with Andy Warhol, the best of our generation—but with Christmas you’re competing with Norman Rockwell, Botticelli, Michelangelo. Movies…Frank Capra. Novels… Charles Dickens. Music, forget about it, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mendelssohn. Also, again you have to compete against art that has to get past the ultimate critic and the only critic you can’t fool, which is time. The only person we had to look back at was Charles Dickens. He was kind of like us in that he wrote about subjects that were larger than life. He wrote “Tale of Two Cities” about the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, “David Copperfield,” “Oliver Twist.” He wrote five books about Christmas. And when his predecessors asked why five books about Christmas, he said it’s too large a subject to take on in one book, so he wrote 5 novellas about it. And very few people know– but some people know– he made some of his biggest money in his career by reading those books live.

After 13 years we switched to “Lost Christmas Eve,” which made everybody nervous but it went over phenomenally and ticket sales actually went up in 2013. But when did “Lost Christmas Eve” we got deluged by fan letters asking when we were going to do “A Christmas Attic.” Number one, Nolan, a bunch of people realized we did them out of order. A lot of people thought “Lost Christmas Eve” is the darkest of the trilogy. The deeper the abyss, the better the happy ending. But it’s actually the “Christmas Attic” that’s the darkest, but it’s really hidden. Like all of my Christmas operas, everything is based on historical events or things that really happened in my life. When I was growing up in New York City, feel free to print this Nolan, because the statute of limitations is now up. But they were always knocking down buildings or whole blocks to put up new buildings. When we were kids, you’d see families move out and furniture move out and then they’d board up the lower floors and bring in a wrecking ball and knock it down. During the holidays though, us little kids would… I think the technical term is breaking in, and we’d pull down the plywood and explore these old buildings, especially the brownstones from the 1800’s, which were so gorgeous. The living floors were generally always empty and the attics were always the best because they were just filled up with stuff that people had put up there for decades upon centuries. For famous people, the momentous artifacts are kept in museums, for the rest of us people it’s kept in attics. The one that was by far the most amazing… we broke into an old brownstone that they were going to tear down and we reached the top floor and all the windows had broken out, rain had gotten in and the wallpaper was wet and you could see that behind that wallpaper was a door. This is a totally true story. The door creeps open and a musty smell came out. God knows the last time any one had been up there. And we climb the stairs and Wham! We are in wonderland. The first thing we see is this old gramophone and all these old things, but right in the middle was the large trunk—the kind people use when they travel by train or by ocean liner, and when we opened it up, it was filled with letters from the 1850s and 1860s. I learned things, people from the 1800’s had much better penmanship than they do now, and also that the letters were like new because the letters were made out of cotton as opposed to woodpulp with the acid. Me and my friends just read letters until the sun went down. And the trunk was given to a school, so it went some place good, but that’s where the idea for the child going up the stairs on Christmas Eve came from. And she reads all these letters and all these adventures and the heaviest one, which inspires the character in the rock opera sing the song “Dream Child”. It refers to a journal and a letter where this individual has done something so wrong in life that he thinks he can never be forgiven for it, but then he has this dream and he is. People have always sent in letters and asked, does this journal exist, and Nolan, I left it off the album because it was so heavy, and our audience goes from 7 to 107 and I didn’t think it was appropriate for people under 14 or 15. But last year, Amazon and Kindle called us and they know I have a bunch of books that I’ve written but never released because the rock opera is always based on a novel I’ve written first. And they asked if I had anything that I would like to release and I decided that this would be the perfect test.

Despite the fact that we have the biggest production out there traveling, as far as fireworks, special effects, lasers, I mean we’re way over 40 tractor-trailers and way past 360 people on the crew, I think that was the last time we took a count. But we’ve always agonized in keeping between tickets between $20-$60, and now they’re $25-$70, anything beyond that is shipping fees, handling fees, whatever, but we’ve never done Golden Circle Seating or VIP seating because what’s the point if only corporations can afford it. And not to mention when I grew up in NYC, going to see The Who was $5, and going to see Led Zeppelin was $7.50, and I remember my friend saying $7.50, how can they justify this.

The worst part was I recently went to see a show at the Garden. The floor seats were in the thousands of dollars, the nosebleeds were in the hundreds, and the worst part, Nolan, is that the first 20 rows were sparsely occupied. And it’s not because they weren’t sold– it’s because corporations bought them as perks for their clients and those people were in bars making business deals while their hardcore fans, who should have been up front were relegated to the back. So not only is it important for us to keep our concert tickets affordable, but because of Kindle we don’t have to print the book, distribute the book, store the book, we just have to inconvenience a bunch of ions—and we were able to release the journal which was based on a novella I wrote called “Merry Christmas Rabbi.”

I knew the first thing I had to do. I knew a friend who knew a Rabbi who survived the Holocaust, and I would always say to the kids in the band, if you have to make one person in the audience feel bad to make the rest of the arena roar in happiness its not worth it. I asked my friend to give this book to his Rabbi, which he did, and I called him and asked if anyone could be upset or take offence to this. He said “Paul, I read it twice in one night and it’s the only thing I’ve ever read about the Holocaust that gives me hope about humanity.” So I passed test number one. Last year we put it out on Kindle hoping it went to 100, and it went to number one and hung out there for awhile and more importantly the letters back were mind-bogglingly positive. So I realized we would do the “Christmas Attic” and now all the Christmas operas from the trilogy will have been performed. And then once that is done, right after New Years weekend we will sleep like cantaloupes in a bed– and we just bought our first recording studio.

As you know Nolan, the music industry has just been so destroyed in the past 15 years, which so hard to comprehend. When I started in the industry in the mid 1970s there were over 45 major labels worth billions putting out between 20-30,000 albums a year, only 400 recouped, only 50 made real money, but they made so much money that they recouped on the tens of thousands of mistakes. You can’t build prog rock bands in particular unless your dad is David Rockefeller. Thank god we were signed to Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun. He’s the one who signed Ray Charles, Crosby Still Nash, Kid Rock, Matchbox 20, Aretha Franklin, the list goes on and on. He’s as important to rock as much as any singer or songwriter has been. When he first approached us about doing a group, I said okay, but I want it to be something completely different. He said “alright, what does that mean.” I said I want 4 guitar players like the Outlaws, two drummers like the Grateful Dead and the Doobie Brothers, a full symphony in the studio like Emerson Lake and Palmer– but not with a full symphony on the road because I remember when ELO toured with a whole symphony and sold out and lost millions– Pink Floyd-like production and 24 lead singers. They were like, “Why?!” And I said because I discovered a long time ago, writing a great song is only half the battle. Then you need the right voice for the alchemy to bring that song to life. Cat Stevens is a great singer and songwriter and he wrote the “First Cut Is the Deepest,” but Rod Stewart is the guy who made it a hit. I worship Bruce Springsteen. I mean “Born to Run” changed my life. He wrote “Blinded by the Light,” but Manfred Mann had the voice that made it work. If I need a voice like Joe Cocker, I have it. If I need a soprano, I have it. Also with 24 lead singers, if I need choral numbers, I have enough voices where I can actually do them. TSO is also, and this is accidental, the first band to never play a club, to never have an opening act, and to never be an opening act. And I actually feel guilty about that because having an opening act allows those bands to grow. We do that on the side of caution. We have lasers that could blind people. And not just for a little while. For life.

There are only two times I’ve been nervous with this band, the first time was when we split the band in half to do East and West. One of my agents pointed out, you have 80 members, you could split this band in half and you’re still 5 times larger than your average bear and you have enough keyboardists, guitarist and singers to do the albums exact. But when we first did that I was honestly petrified. Even bands with a large number of members like Earth Wind and Fire or Lynyrd Skynyrd don’t do east and west, but our fans understood and knew what we were trying to do and that went seamlessly—and the only other time was when we did “Beethoven’s Last Night” in Vienna. And that’s where Beethoven and Mozart lived. Are they going to like us or grab pitchforks and burn us at the stake? Thank god they liked it. This year we are going to headline Wacken, which is the largest festival in Europe.

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I realize I’m going all over the place with you Nolan. It’s just so much has gone down. It’s gone from 45 major labels to 3. And also a lot of your average readers I would assume, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Genesis, Bob Seger, were all hits out of the box, but they were nurtured by the label system which allows you to make mistakes and correct those mistakes and tour support until you can stand on your two feet. Our first record was supposed to be about the Romanov Empire, but then William Morris said it should go to Broadway, which Atlantic agreed with it. But they eventually pulled the plug because what Broadway considers special effects, we consider high school. They didn’t have the ability to do what I had in mind. But when the first album did come out in 1996, what’s the technical term for it—it did not sell. If it was 2006, I think they would have pulled the plug on it. But Atlantic was positive and told us we were on to something and to keep going and we did Beethoven’s Last Night in 1999 and started the tour and that’s when it exploded. I think the Trans-Siberian had two lucky breaks. The first was I think we were the last band to have a blank check artist development. That doesn’t exist any more. I had a little warning at the beginning of the new millennium. I came home and my daughter was five and she was listening to my music on her computer. I said “where did you get all of daddy’s music” and she said “Dada, guess what, all your music is on the internet and it’s free.” And I was like, oh, Et tu Brute!” The Wall Street Journal had a great article where the journalist was talking about the meltdown of the music industry, which has basically gone from a trillion dollar industry to less than 1% of that in a very short amount of time. He said musicians and actors, before Thomas Edison, had to make their income by life touring and that musicians and actors are going to have to learn that what technology giveth, technology taketh away. And he has a legitimate point. We were lucky in that we had already established a hardcore live touring base. And more importantly, one of our promoters who is a demographic nut– I’m sure you know these type of people Nolan– he said, “Paul you’ll never guess your demographic.” And I said, “it’s really late, can you tell me.” He said, “we have every class from the super rich to the super poor. We have every nationality.” He said, “here’s the thing, your average age is 21.” That seems impossible, but the 7,8,9 year olds cancel out the people in the 60’s, the 10,11,12 year-olds cancel out the 50’s and I thought about it for several weeks and I came up with this pet theory—it was TSO’s second lucky break. In 1949, when Les Paul and Leo Fender invented the electric guitar PA systems, you had a great schism in music. You either grew up with Perry Como and the Dorsey Brothers where guitars were noise, or you grew up with Elvis and Chuck Berry where it was rock. When we started to tour it was half a century later, now it’s 60 years later, even if you have a great grandmother in the audience she’s from the Woodstock generation. So we all have rock in us. When you jump the generation wall, that feels the best, especially the last couple of years. When a couple comes up to me in their 20’s and 30’s and says, they first saw you when they were in high school or junior high school on their first date, and now they’re back with their kids. When I started in the industry, Nolan, there was an industry. There were 50 great state-of-of-the-art recording studios within ten blocks of where I lived in NYC alone. The first was Record Plant on 44th Street. Record Planet had 5 rooms, and we were just a baby act back then, but I remember John Lennon walks in and says, “Paul this song is really great, but the chorus, you really need to rethink that.” It’s where the old acts used to pass on tricks of the trade to the younger acts. They were very kind. I finished a Classics Live for Aerosmith and I was doing another band in the 80’s called Savatage and one of the guys from Aerosmith comes over and says, “Paul you’re really over budget on this aren’t you?” and I said, “You have no idea.” And he says we have 50 rolls of 2-inch that we didn’t use. Just take them and use them for Savatage. But honestly, Nolan, within the last 5 years, at least 95% of those studios are gone. Record Planet is bankrupt, Media Studio is bankrupt. It’s not only are we losing these studios, but we’re losing these transfer points from the elder statesmen to pass along tricks of the trade. That’s why this year, there was one studio left out of the 18 I used to work in, and somebody said it’s going bankrupt. So to make a long story short, we bought it. You can’t make Trans-Siberian Orchestra records at home on ProTools just like you can’t film Ben Hur in your backyard on your iPhone. And some of my friends think I’m out of my mind. Friends of mine ask how I think I’m going to recoup on this and the thing is I don’t.

How old are you Nolan? I’m afraid to ask.

I’m 34.

God bless you. At least you’re there. Sometimes 21, 22-year olds I say “artist development” and they say, “what do you mean?” You’re in the perfect spot where you’re old enough to understand when an album was an album and young enough to understand today. You know I’m the oldest guy in the band and there was an industry when I joined the band. And there is now this lady, Gabriella Gunčíková who just joined us from the Czech Republic. When I first heard her voice I said “get her down here.” And she sang and I asked if she wanted to join us on tour. And she said, “I was just getting ready to leave the industry because there are no record deals out there. Trust me, Nolan, fifteen years ago, people would have beaten a path to her door. But the one thing we are lucky to have is that TSO has always been live and so many bands lip-synch and play to track these days. And I’m not even just talking pop bands, I’m talking rock bands. And that’s just not healthy. After the next TSO album and touring this summer, we’re doing rock arenas already, but we intend to get involved in more Broadway rock theater. I love Broadway, but there’s only one thing I’m taking from Broadway, which is its coherent storytelling. There are so many bands that, even after describing their rock opera to me, I don’t understand it. But on a negative side, Broadway is so Byzantine. If you and I got into a time machine and went back to 1914, we could reproduce all of those shows out now and have them look exactly like 2014. You couldn’t get back in a time capsule and go back 5 years and do a TSO show. But the other great thing– not to get over-philosphical Nolan– but human beings by nature are very social. I read a report a few years ago that said the 70’s and 80’s, the average kid spent 14.5 hours outside playing with other kids. Now they spend 45 minutes playing outside. Now when they play football and baseball they play it on their computer screen. And it’s also spread to adults with World of Warcraft and my favorite, Farmville, where you plant imaginary seeds in imaginary dirt and feed carrots to imaginary rabbits and it just goes right over my head. I like anything that gets human beings together in the same place. I love the look in people’s faces when a new special effect drops out of the season or they hear a new solo, when you see a father and his son jamming out to the same guitar solo that’s kind of magical. And again, especially these days, people work in cubicles, and instead of going out they get even more cubicle-ized. I have a 6-year old daughter who brings me to things and she brought me to an IMAX theater where we saw an orchid open up in 3D– and it was actually pretty magical– but I remember being in the rainforest where we saw an orchid open in front of us and there’s no comparison.

The other thing about live music is you can hear a great album or see a great movie and get a rush of endorphins, but if you hear a great solo or vocal performance, you pick up the endorphins or the guy next to you or in front of you. It kind of creates an energy that goes to the stage that takes the song to the next level and then that energy goes back into the audience and you get a rush that you simply can’t get from watching in your living room.

TSO is also the first band to draw members from every age group. People like Al Pitrelli, who has been in Asia, Alice Cooper and Megadeth. Jeff Scott Soto whose been in Journey. They are able to teach the tricks of the trade to the younger kids, and the younger kids are just able to bring this youthful enthusiasm and never let you get jaded and keeps the whole thing rolling forward and right now we feel really lucky that we are well-established and we feel really lucky to be self-generating.

I was asked to describe the band early on and I said it’s easy, it’s like the Who, because it’s a rock opera, meets Queen who merge classical and rock, meets Pink Floyd because of the production show, meets the Yardbirds. And they go, the Yardbirds?! From that one band came several bands came from that band. When anyone joins this band I ask, “If you could be doing anything in 5 years, what would it be?” And some members have been with us for all 17 years. Some have left to do something else they feel passionate about and came back. And some left to pursue their dreams. Katrina Chester was the first to really do it. When Kat first joined us she said, “Paul, I love Janis Joplin and one day there’s going to be a Broadway show about Janis and I have to be Janis.” Not long ago, “Love, Janis” came through and she goes, “If I don’t get it, can I come back?” And I said, we’d not only do that, but we’d hire a publicist to help her get it. And one day she goes, “Paul I got the gig. Get this they’re going to pay me to get on stage, smoke cigarettes, drink whisky and sing Janis songs.” I saw her recently and she was in her 10th year of being Janis on stage. It just makes me worry. If I don’t find the next Joan Jett or Steven Tyler before they leave high school, will they just go into another industry? Also always feel free to call my doctor and up my Prozac dosage.

How did you go from not playing clubs to playing arenas to selling out stadiums? Did you have apprehension that it wouldn’t work?

I had a band called Slowburn in the 70s, but I was writing free octave ranges, and I just couldn’t find someone to sing them. That turned out to be incredibly lucky because I got a job at Leber-Krebs that managed Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC etc. They were the college of rock. By getting a job there I found out how you book bands in Europe versus America, Asia, South America; how radio works differently form country to country. I was basically forced to learn the industry from the inside out and then I became one of the biggest promoters in Japan in the 80s. We were one of the biggest promoters to book festivals in Japan. When Atlantic offered me this opportunity, I went for it. I always wanted to have an over-the-top progressive rock band that really pushed the envelope. Getting back to your question… early on, I was really dragging my feet about doing this live just because I was really, really nervous. But there was a deejay in Cleveland named Bill Lewis who just kept nagging me about doing a live show in Cleveland. Then one day a deejay for NYC said he was doing a benefit show for the Blysdale Hospital. They basically help people that have gunshot wounds to the head. He said before you say anything, just go up there and see it for yourself. You take one look and it puts everything in perspective. And then Bill says oh you can do that but not play Cleveland, so we said okay and it sold out in 4 hours. Then a guy from Detroit said, you’re playing Cleveland but not Detroit. Then we sold out that show. Then New York, then Philly. It went bigger than we ever could have imagined. Not having an opening act, that was an accident. Other things that happened along the way made me appreciate how lucky we were. I think we’re number 2 for the number of tickets sold in the first decade of the new millennium, but normally if you have three acts on a bill and it sells out an arena, everybody gets credit for those tickets… not just the headliner. But we never had any help. When I used to go to the Garden, you would go see George Harrison, Eric Clapton would come out at the end of the night for an encore. Or you would go see Bob Dylan and Billy Preston would come out for an encore. It was not uncommon for bands to come out at the last second to do an encore, so we decided that at the last second we would call out a band that had an influence on us in some ways and do an encore. But, because our audience is so wide, they had to be iconic. The first one was Joan Jett. If you grew up in the 70’s, you knew her from the Runaways. If you grew up in the 80’s, you knew her from the Blackhearts. The funny one was Greg Lake who I became friends with from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In my opinion, just like Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, Greg Lake invented prog-rock. The test I have is I always ask my daughter and her friends, “Do you know Greg Lake from Emerson, Lake and Palmer,” and they’re like “No.” Then I say, “Welcome my friends…” and they finish with “the show that never ends.” And the first time Greg Lake from Emerson Lake and Palmer came out he said, “Paul you really get prog-rock,” and I said, “I have no idea what that means.” He says, “Paul if you’re in a jazz band and play blues, it’s no longer a jazz band. If you’re in a blues band and play reggae, it’s no longer blues band. But progressive rock has no limits; hence it’s name. Progressive rock has no limits.” And besides the production value, you have no limits as to what you can do musically. He’s the Aristotle, OB1 Kenobi of rock. Every time he opens his mouth I want to take notes.

The other thing I wanted to do with TSO, Nolan, was I found two glaring errors encased in the system that the system no longer noticed them. The first of them is the strain we put upon lead singers. I won’t mention the name of any bands. It was well over a decade ago. I had to take this friend, who was going to have a node operation—which is a very scary operation. You’re either going to get your voice back or nothing. The doctor said, “Paul, your industry is insane. You’re not designed to scream every night for two hours. It’s not if you’re going to destroy your voice, it’s when. And there may be freak exceptions, but it’s really destructive to the human voice. You can think of dozens of people who had great voices in their teens, 20’s and 30’s and then in their 40’s their voices started to fall apart. With TSO, with 24 lead singers, no singer ever has to sing 4 or 5 lead songs a night and you can do that until your 90.

This other one really gets esoteric. The prevailing wisdom from the CEO’s of labels was that when artist reached a certain level of financial of success they lose the drive to create. And this never made any sense to me. What the label systems said to me did not hold up to logic and reason. If you go back to the 1800’s, Beethoven, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were all household names and all world famous. They wrote great when they were young, in their middle ages, and when they were dying. So, I thought, why could these guys in the 1800’s produce great art, but in the 1900’s wasn’t possible? I have a pet theory that it’s mass media. Even though Beethoven, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens were household names, there was no paparazzi, no magazines at the checkout counter. People could walk down the street and Victor Hugo could see a policeman chasing a convict down the street. Dickens could see a pornshop owner negotiating with a client and get a story. But let’s use Michael Jackson as an example because he’s in Heaven now and in peace. If 15 years ago, you and your girlfriend through a 4th of July Party… if you invited 30 friends, say one of your friends was a little arrogant. One of your friends was a little O.C.D., one of your friends was a practical joker… when Michael Jackson walked in the room, the one friend probably wouldn’t be arrogant. The other friend probably wouldn’t order his silverware in the proper order and you childhood friend probably would’nt tie his shoes together. Artists get their inspiration by observing humanity. When Michael walks into a room, he can’t observe the world because the world revolves around him. His mansion wasn’t really a mansion– it was a gilded cage. If you think about Pink Floyd and look at “The Wall,” there are no pictures of the band. It’s the story log. I worship Gilmoure and Waters and the geniuses, besides Barrett behind Pink Floyd. But if we ever went out to dinner Nolan, and you brought Gilmour and Waters, I would have no idea who they were. About ten years ago, I was crossing a street in New York City and I was waiting for a light to change and there were two ladies talking. One said to the other, “I came home last night and he was so drunk that he slapped me. And I grabbed the can opener and ripped his chest wide open and he fell down on the ground crying like a little baby.” And I’m like “ladies, can you say that again? I want to take down this dialogue. If that had been Michael Jackson next to them that never would have been said.

No one at TSO is on that flight deck for the money, it’s because no one wants to be anywhere but that flight deck. And TSO is technically a prog-rock band, but it’s really an idea and an ideal. Number one is the fans of the band. It’s our job to spend our money and our time to give them the best concerts and charge the lowest possible price. The older members mentor the younger members. It’s a series of ideas and ideals. Anything great is an idea or an ideal like Athenian Greece or the Roman Republic. And even the United States, the founding fathers came up with these ideas and ideals and wrote them down and they carry on today.

This may seem like the most boring question, but I just can’t figure out where the name come from.

That’s a very legitimate question. The very first rock opera was about the Romanov’s, so that was the first musical, but when it moved to Broadway we were going to call it the Trans-Siberian Orchestra because the Romanov family build the Trans-Siberian Railway. But I couldn’t come up with the title to replace it. One day I get a call at 6am and they say, by 9am we need a name or we’re going to call it “Billy and the Boingers” and you’re going to have to live with it for the rest of your life. And it had that ring that he wasn’t kidding. It was really late and we were really tired and I was lucky to be in Russia the year before. And Siberia is really beautiful, but it’s really big, harsh and unforgiving and the only thing they have to transport them to relative safety is the Trans-Siberian Railroad. So the idea that life is very beautiful but also harsh and unforgiving and music is one thing that we all have in common that runs across to relatively safety and I love the initials TSO. And there’s a little bit of a side benefit, Nolan, you can always tell rookies in the audience because they think of people in folding chairs, but like someone said we’re more like Pink Floyd on steroids.

It’s a true pleasure to talk to you and thank you for taking the time.

It’s a pleasure to talk to you sir. Did you always want to be a journalist Nolan?

 

I did for a long time, but less now more than ever. It’s a tough time. It seems like everything is folding.

It’s scary. When I was younger I toyed with the idea of being a journalist. We’re both writers, but you have the harder job. You have to write under fire. You have a deadline. This guy wrote this and it just happened yesterday. If I had your job I’d just now be turning in Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal. Journalism is the hardest part of writing. The cool part is you get to meet all kinds of people. Again, if there’s anything we can do for you just give us a call. And this is the perfect end to the day and now I get to go to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac, which my wife says I will die from a McTumor.

Thanks so much for your time.

Thank you Nolan. God bless and with any luck we will bump into each other on the road one day.

Aaron Freeman: Life After Ween

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For nearly 30 years, Aaron Freeman was known endearingly to his listeners as Gene Ween. The co-founder and lead singer of the surrealist and whimsical psychedelic band Ween, Freeman was a vocal shape-shifter that helped define the continually evolving sound of a band that innovated through emulating. From a lo-fi bedroom band to an epic live act, Ween recorded 11 studio records in 28 years before Freeman put an end to the project in 2012. Realizing the band’s loose lifestyle had led to a life of addiction, Aaron decided to get help.

Thankfully Aaron has come back to music. After battling a creative block and recording an album of Rod McKuen covers, Freeman, now two years sober, returns with his first album of original work since the band’s demise. While the album is a rebirth for Freeman, fans will still find those unmistakable Gene Ween stylings that have always tied his songs together. Using his given name with an undeniable and inherent metaphor within, FREEMAN shows Aaron at his most honest and heartfelt, but it certainly didn’t come easy.

 

NG: Hello sir. How’s everything?

AF: Everything is good, man.

 

Are you still living up in Woodstock?

Yeah, I’m in Woodstock, but I was in the city for a couple of days. I did a couple of shows and New York City-when-your-record-comes-out stuff.

 

How long have you lived up there?

I’ve been in Woodstock about a year and a half now.

 

Has it been a good place for creative energy?

Yeah, absolutely. I lived in the same town of New Hope, Pennsylvania since I was 11, so I’ve never really lived anywhere else. But yeah, the New Agers and the Jewish momma hippies will tell you that there’s some sort of crystal alignments in the geology of Woodstock.

 

Oh well that’s good.

It’s good for creativity and things like that. And I think it’s true. I came up here and I love it.

 

How did you get into teaching at the School of Rock?

That was through my really good friend Paul Green who started the School of Rock and he sold the franchise a few years ago and I called him from New Hope right after Ween broke up and said “Hey Paul, this town’s getting kind of weird. People are turning on me. I’m getting all kinds of weird glances and I want to get out of here and Paul said, “why don’t you come to Woodstock? I just moved up here and I’m starting basically a school of rock but with me as the head.” And he had some other plans too, like maybe a college of music. He basically convinced me to move up here and it was the greatest move I could have made, because now I work with kids doing the School of Rock thing.

 

Do your kids know your pedigree yet, or do you try and keep that part of your past hidden?

They do, but just by default. They don’t because they’re young. Their parents have heard of Ween, that’s for sure. But I’m just a 90’s guy to them. “Push the Lil Daisies” came out before three-quarters of these keys kids were born. It’s really good, I basically found myself playing guitar all day, teaching these kids how to play songs by other bands and that’s just been really inspiring and it kind of broke me into getting back into music. I really do. I love the kids. I walk around Woodstock and they’re like “Hey Aaron.” They look at me like I may as well be a math teacher at their school. I absolutely love it.

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How long were these songs on the new album in the making? Were they written over time or did they all hit at once?

Yeah, I think with my music it all gathers in my subconscious for a while and a lot of these songs (and this isn’t a negative thing or a recovery thing), but they’ve been playing around in my brain. Some of it is stuff that I’ve read or done or explored. Anyway, usually what happens is it gets stored in there and then it just spills out. That’s just always how I’ve worked. One day I was just sitting here on the porch that I’m sitting on now, looking out at the rocks and the chipmunks with my guitar and it just came out. It just kept coming and all of a sudden I had 15 or 16 songs. It was great. I really didn’t know if I could write again, so to feel it coming out of me from that same place that it always had was just great.

 

Would you say these songs are more honest than a Ween song? For the most part this seems like a more personal and from-the-heart kind of record.

Yeah, absolutely. Sure. I’m 44. I really do believe in that stuff. I remember thinking ‘oh everyone I know has two kids” or something like that. We’re all getting up there. I don’t have to sing about that Jimmy Jack Pammity Flack like Ween did. And it was fun and it was great. Mickey and I were growing up, but my songwriting hasn’t changed much. If you listen to songs like “Birthday Boy”, I wrote that was when I was 20 and I think it’s very similar to songs on this record. “More than the World” is like my second “Birthday Boy.” Things change, but they don’t change that much. This record is stripped-down too, which I’ve always wanted to do. There are no bells and whistles on this one. Basically because I did write it on acoustic guitar and I did want it like that. I was feeling simple and tender and I wanted it to feel like that. And we only had 8 days to do it. This was just bare bones, all about the songs and get them out. And I love that about this record.

 

Were you at all afraid that you would have trouble writing in sobriety after all these years of doing the opposite?

Yeah, absolutely I was. I think anyone in recovery has that problem. Especially when they’ve been in the act of addiction most of their life like I have. You realize that you don’t have many coping skills. Especially if you’re in rock n roll, you don’t have many responsibilities, even though I probably should have. I DID have responsibilities; I just pretended that I didn’t have responsibilities. I got out of it and in the last two years I feel like I’ve been catching up on 20 years of growth, just on real simple things and how to be an adult. It’s cleared up my creativity for sure, but that’s just one of those things, I’ve read so much on artists and writers block and how the creative mind works, but in the end you don’t have much control over it. You can work on trying to be creative for two hours a day and it still might not come back. It’s just one of those random things in the universe. I don’t even want to talk about it because I’m superstitious, but it came back to me and I’m just so glad.

 

When you first went solo, what prompted you to do Rod McKuen songs? Was that in anyway because you had your own writer’s block? Use someone else’s stuff?

Yeah, it really was that simple. After the last Ween record, “La Cucaracha,” even before that, I hadn’t written anything. I’d written two songs and really, the writer’s block went on for 7 years. It really was that simple. My friend Ben Vaughn had this project that he always wanted to work on, and that was bringing Rod McKuen to more people. I thought it was perfect for me because I love to sing, I wasn’t writing anything and it sounds great. So that’s why I did it. And I liked his music and I liked his lyrics. It was just a great opportunity to do something and get out of my headspace a little bit. It was great though. I got to meet Rod McKuen, he said he loved the record–there was a lot of good energy. I was pretty fucked up, but it was still good energy.

 

In the in between time, were you curious about what would happen next? After the Rod McKuen thing were you already considering your restart?

No, because I was too lost in my addiction. I really can’t say. The only real thing I thought about was how to get some help. And I did. But at that point, I just kept thinking about how to make this better– maybe I could just do festivals and not tour so I don’t have to tempt myself. But basically my brain was fried and I just couldn’t get out of the cycle of addiction. Everybody knew it like my family and friends, but it takes the person to finally get it. So that was it and I went in and 6 months in, it finally clicked and I realized things had to change. If you sit in the barber shop long enough, you’re going to get the haircut. I knew that I had to change a lot about my life and change things about my life and really protect myself from things that aren’t necessarily other people’s fault. I have to protect myself because I may not be strong enough to protect myself. Really it was just a one-day-at-a-time thing and that’s how I live now. When I first got home from rehab, I didn’t know if I was going to write another record. I didn’t know if I was going to make music again. I had to get my priorities straight with sobriety. They say if you keep going with something, good things will happen by default. And they did. I just see this record as a really nice bonus to the bigger picture. I really identify myself as an artist and songwriter and I can do it in a healthier way.

 

The Ween audience probably has addiction issues similar to yours. Do you have any advice for them, or do you stay out of those matters?

I mean it’s hard. It was hard. I’m really sensitive to things, especially in recovery, you’re just an open sore. I had to end all that stuff. I made the mistake of going on the internet all the time. I was reading what the people were saying and this and that and getting vibed out. But I’ve always given credit to Ween fans for really going through just about everything with Ween. We put them through all kinds of shit and they stuck there. I think and hope that this is the biggest thing that they’ll be stuck with. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because they’re Ween fans. But then the whole time I had to think, none of this matters– whatever anybody thinks, says, talks about, pontificates about, it doesn’t matter. Only the music matters. You know, that’s really the bottom line. I made this record, and even if this record sucked, it would be a statement that ‘hey you can move on and you can do this’ and I think a lot of people appreciate that in life. I’m glad to maybe be an example for some people. If there are some fans that are pissed because maybe we broke their adolescent dream, whatever! There are always going to be haters and lovers. I mean the record has only been out for two days and I’m already getting tremendous feedback from EVERYBODY. I’m really happy about that.

 

Are you excited to get back on the road? Or does that make you nervous?

It’s all new to me. It’s a new band. What I do know is it’s all great people and incredible musicians. We just did two shows in New York. They were cool. They were definitely new shows where we’re trying to figure out where we are as a band and its definitely going to evolve into a new and different thing. Being on the road is always a grueling thing to do in general. You’re living on truckstops and crappy food and hotels, but what’s nice is I can have control over how things go. If I don’t want to party backstage then there’s no party backstage. And there’s nobody that argues with me. I’m looking forward to it. I’m playing with younger guys and I’m psyched and they’re excited and it’s going to be really positive when we gel. I know what I’m doing. I know how to put on a good show whether I like it or not.

 

So are Ween songs off limits?

No, not at all! That’s never an issue and it was never an issue with Mickey either. He plays shows as the Dean Ween Group and they play Ween songs. It was never a thing. It was never that dramatic. This never had to do with the music itself. That’s something that Mickey and I can both have for the rest of our lives to be proud of. I will definitely be playing Ween. I’ll be playing things you never heard from Ween that I’m excited about, Rod McKuen songs, the new record, some covers I’ve always wanted to do. I got a lot to pull from.

 

When you went into doing the new record, was there a conscious idea to sound or not sound like Gene Ween or is that something inherent that never came up?

Yeah, it’s never anything I thought about and never anything I thought about when I was in Ween. The motto is it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a good song. If it sounds like Ween, that should be obvious. It’s a very fine line. When you start making efforts to sound like something else and don’t let it come somewhat naturally and somewhere it feels good you can really screw things up. It was when I dumbed myself down enough to make music, that’s when it happened.

 

Did you embrace your Jewish roots with this record?

I did! I did. I did. I’ve always been interested in Jewish history and religion. What happened? I was reading the Kabala right before I went into rehab and they have this old thing where you would envision the word of god which is the name of god which isn’t to be spoken. You’re supposed to envision it burned on to your forehead facing the sky and I remember thinking WOW. I read the Kabala and the Old Testament. My family has never been completely practicing, but I am very interested in that stuff. I think Jews have very similar blood and DNA going through them and that always fascinated me. There’s that and I was really into New Age stuff when I was a teenager.

 

Who are the “fuck you’s” for in the opening song?

Haha. I don’t know. Maybe the whole world. Maybe everybody who, I don’t know. Maybe it was a 9-year-old Aaron screaming from his bedroom when his family divorced. But maybe it’s a latent “fuck you all”. It came from the last couple of years when there isn’t a single person who believes a fucking word you say, except maybe 5 people. You are getting better, you are getting sober and maybe you are doing it for the right reasons. It’s one of those things where you figure out who your friends are when you go through something like this. And you have to be okay with that. I had a lot of people who I was seemingly friends with who dropped off the face of the planet when I left Ween and proceeded getting healthy. I mean fuck them.

 

Was it a conscious decision to start off with that song and move on from there? A clearing of the air and then the rest of it…

Absolutely. It’s totally autobiographical. Okay, this is the past two years, get this out of the way and here we go on the new journey. Who knows where we’re going together but we’re going.

 

So how are relations with the old guys?

You know it’s such a loaded question. I know you’re not doing that on purpose, but there’s not really much of a relationship, but we all had so much time together, so SO much dysfunction, I think everybody just wants some peace and quiet and that is just perfect with me right now.

 

Well, congrats to you and thanks for taking the time. I know you probably have to do a million of these when a record comes out.

It’s cool man. This is good. Some interviews are good; some are torture. This is good.

Sun Kil Moon: Mark Kozelek Tells it Like it Is

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Mark Kozelek has been making solid records since the mid-90’s– and his recording career has been anything but by the book. From his early work in the Red House Painters to bouncing back and forth between the Sun Kil Moon moniker to a solo project under his given name, his hushed voice has always defined his sound and the quietude of his instrumentation has become even more delicate since he moved on to a nylon string guitar. He’s even made whole records of cover songs, one of AC/DC deep cuts, and another of quality Modest Mouse gems.

Despite his prolific past and the continued greatness of his rapidly growing discography, it’s only recently that the “taste makers” in the music press mafia given him his due credit. And it’s come at what may seem like the strangest of times. Recently Kozelek has become exceedingly honest, almost uncomfortably so. His lyrics have begun to read like journal entries, delivered with a nonchalance, void of typical phrasing, rhyme scheme and verse-chorus-verse formula.

On his latest record Benji, Kozelek writes about two relatives that died from exploding aerosol cans (… yes, two), watching “The Song Remains the Same”, listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”, his first sexual encounters, sucker-punching a kid in grade school, his reaction to Newtown, and even going to see Postal Service and realizing that he’s going through a midlife crisis while watching his old friend play in a new band. In a way he seems as though he’s letting it all out there, to anyone who cares to listen. And in ways it seems like he played the biggest joke on his listeners and he unexpectedly succeeded. Mark Kozelek has always surprised and delighted. He’s always kept us guessing. And it’s great to see that the world is finally following along. Below is the brief Q-and-A email that Kozelek graciously answered mid-tour in August. Since then he’s gone on to offend much of North Carolina by calling them hillbillies, and wrote a really interesting song with an even more intriguing song title and chorus, “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock”. You can listen to it for free on Kozelek’s website, www.sunkilmoon.com . Get ready for a Kozelek Christmas record set for November, and in the meantime enjoy the interview.

NG: How often do you play with a band vs solo nowadays? And do you prefer one over the other?

MK: I’m currently in Malmo with a very much-needed night off on a band tour. I like both solo, and band. Solo is nice because it’s logistically less headache. Band stuff is complicated… all of the organizing that comes with it… but when you’re onstage with a band and everything is clicking, it’s pretty uplifting and worth all of the bullshit. Solo is also very nice – it’s more of a 1-on-1 experience. At my roots, I’m a solo artist and overall prefer playing solo.

The last time I saw you, you played in complete darkness with very few candles as your only light, is that a situation you prefer?

Yeah, I don’t like too much light. My shows are usually 2- to 2 and 1/2 hours long, and the heat from the light dehydrates me, make me sweaty and uncomfortable. I also don’t like movement in the light because nylon string guitar is a temperamental instrument. The lights changing cause temperature changes and mess with the guitar tuning.

In this day of reunions, do you ever get offers to reunite the Red House Painters? Do you ever consider? It seems some people have the “if the price is right mentality?”

We have never received 1 offer, and I wouldn’t take it if we did. SKM is doing just fine. That’s where my heart is, and I’m doing A-OK financially.

Were you surprised at the way Benji was received? Was it weird that people say you’ve found your voice or hit your stride after all these years of solid records?

I think if Pitchfork would have gave it a 5.1 and said it was middle-aged ramblings about dead uncles, people would have jumped on that boat and agreed. People have no minds of their own these days and believe whatever the internet tells them to believe. A 25-year- old girl recently told me, “you finally made a masterpiece”. I said, “baby, I’ve been making masterpieces long before Pitchfork existed.” For some people, music history started 5 years ago.

How do you decide on a performance setlist? Is there a mood you feel? Does it remain the same or similar? Are some songs off limits? Is there an art to the order or do you just wing it?

I play whatever I’m inspired to play. Currently it’s material from 2012 onwards.

How do you view the results of starting your own label? Has the freedom made you release more? You seem like your more prolific than ever? Are the ideas flowing that fast or are you releasing as much as possible because you’re not at the mercy of a label’s schedule?

It’s a combination of a lot of things. Yes, labels held me back to some extent, but I also took my time, with songwriting, recording. But it’s like a guy who works in construction– when you first start, you pay attention to all the details– after a while, you just build fucking houses. I make records. That’s just what I do. Some people do this, some do that, I live and breathe music. I go to bed with music in my head.

Why Caldo Verde?

My favorite soup.

You’ve done a bunch of live records? What makes a live show good enough to release? Do you record all your shows? Do you know going into a show that you’re going to release it or does that come later?

I record live shows from time to time. I release many of them for free, as incentive for fans to buy music directly. It’s easy to record solo performances. If the elements come together– the EQ, no digital distortion, performance is good, it might get released.

Do you have a good memory? It seems like a lot of these topics happened a long time ago? Does something trigger the memories to put them into song? Something that made you say, ‘oh I have all these memories why hide behind metaphor, let’s lay it all out there?’

Ah, hard to explain. When you get older, you just start realizing there is no guarantee you have another 20, or even 10 years left. You think about the things that shaped you. I felt the need to pay respect to my roots in this record… to tell both my mother and my father that I loved them, in song.

Now that you’ve gone the autobiographical route, is it hard to consider writing a song that is just pure fiction or covered in a veil of verbiage?

I just write. I don’t think about it. I just respond to my surroundings and my feelings and I write.

I’ve always meant to ask you… you’ve written many songs about others, and Mojave 3 wrote “Krazy Koz” about you. What do you think about that song?

It’s catchy.

How do you differentiate between Sun Kil Moon and Mark Kozelek? 

Ughh… Dude I’m in Malmo on a day off.  I’m really tired…

You seem to lay it all out there? Why do you want people to know your life and does that make it awkward at all? Do people tend to identify with you through your tales, or less so now? Did you in any way think people were ready for truth or was it just something that changed in your songwriting.

Ughh… Man, I’m getting sleepy….

I saw you played Newtown, what was that like? Have you ever played shows where it went from just playing songs to having to play a show to people that you wrote a song to that was so serious?

Newtown is in September. I won’t be playing ‘Newtown’ when I’m in Newtown, just like I don’t play Alesund in Alesund. That would be cliché.

Thank for your time. I’m in the middle of a tour and this is the best I can give you.

all of my best to you,

mark

 

Wildcat! Wildcat! and the Shimmering Sounds of Summer– The Interview

WWIn today’s industry-driven musical climate, it’s very rare and all the more refreshing to see a band grow strictly through word-of-mouth and hard work. And if there’s any justice out there, you’ll be hearing a lot from Wildcat! Wildcat! in the near future. A Los Angeles three-piece (and sometimes more) featuring Jesse Taylor on bass, Jesse Carmichael on drums and Michael Wilson on keys, the players have known each other since high school, and while they’ve worked together before, Wildcat! Wildcat!’s musical journey began somewhat recently– and at first had no intention of becoming an actual long-term project. Beginning 2013 year with only a limited edition 7-inch and a few tracks on Soundcloud available to their listeners, the band continued to build a loyal hometown fanbase and performed well-populated residencies before hitting the road for SXSW. Playing eight shows in just four days, they quickly became my favorite discovery of 2013’s festival and became known around Austin as one of the festival’s hardest working unsigned bands. ww-1-11On record, Wildcat! Wildcat!’s sound is a sonic onslaught of majestic and perfectly polished pop electronica, providing an intensive listening experience made for both headphones and dancefloors. The twinkle of the keys provides a blinding, shimmering summertime feel, while thunderous drums and bass-led grooves culminate in three-part falsetto harmonies and addictive melodies leaving their fans hungry for more. ww-1-15 Wildcat! Wildcat!’s exquisite four-song, self-titled EP was released nearly a year ago on Downtown Records, with their first LP hitting stores last week. The band came through Boston this week and showed they still had that magic summer sound and a slew of great new songs. I caught up with Michael Wilson last year to talk about the band’s future as they got ready to play their first east coast shows. It is most likely one of the first interviews with the band. No, it’s not completely current, but it’s not outdated either. Enjoy, and check them out at https://soundcloud.com/wildcat-wildcat ww-1-13 Hey is this Michael?

Yes this is Michael.

Where are you at now?

We are in Indiana.

That’s a pretty epic journey from LA to Montreal.

Yeah it’s pretty nuts. It’s definitely the most gnarly journey I’ve ever had in a car. I think we did 32 hours straight the first day or whatever you want to call it. Stupid is probably what you would call it.

I caught you guys down in Texas and you were one of the best things I saw down there. I know you guys played a ton out there and were warriors at that festival.

Which ones did you see?

I saw the Sonos show and the Fader day party on the last day.

Those were really good shows for us. We weren’t even sure we were going to make it that far.

ww-1-8 So you guys were doing one tour and now you’ve totally changed to doing another tour.

Yeah it’s super intense in this business and things change so quickly and it’s funny because you usually have a while to make these “big” decisions, but then the big decisions all of a sudden need to be changed in like four hours. We had literally four hours to find out whether we wanted to change the dates or not, and it was really hard for us because even though we hadn’t sold a ton of tickets, we really appreciate people buying tickets early. It was really hard for us to play our own show, but we are basically trying to work out some other things. We basically created an email account specifically for that reason and so that people can reach out to us. We’re trying facilitate things so people can come see us quicker, maybe even to some of the Ms. Mr. dates.

When I saw you in Texas, you guys were a four-piece, but everything I’m reading about you only mentions three people. Was that just a rare occurrence?

No, as far as live goes it’s always been four and it will probably always be four because we don’t ever want to be a track-heavy band. We want to always play the music that you hear. There are really minimal background sounds that we put on tracks, but as far as main parts, when we’re on stage you’re never wondering where certain sounds are coming from. We always have a four-piece live, but as far as writing and producing and band decisions, it’s always been me and the two Jesses. We just hire guys out. It’s another tough situation as far as who plays and if they’re friends or not. Sometimes it can be bit sticky with that situation because it’s really hard to explain that situation. They’re in the band essentially and everyone sees them onstage and they’re playing the parts, but they’re not really in the band I guess.

There’s very little information about you guys out there, which is intriguing. It says that you guys have known each other forever and played in other bands, is that true?

Essentially, yes. I’ve known them since I was 14. We all pretty much met in high school. I had done a few isolated projects with them individually, mostly with Jesse Carmichael. I never really played with Jesse Taylor, but they had been in bands together, probably too many to count. They are on another level as far as knowing each other musically. They’ve been playing together forever and I just kind of jumped in there and started working from there.

What was the sound of their other bands? Was it at all similar?

No, it was way different. They were doing more traditional guitar and bass music. I don’t even think they ever had keys in their music at all. Maybe a few little shimmers here and there. I think that was just more my musical influence on them. I think its funny because we started making these songs and they were stems from some of my ideas, so there were no guitars, just keys. We’ve obviously thought about putting guitars in there and we’ve tried a few times, but I think it’s just fine as it is and we are happy how it sounds. I think when some people come to see us live they think we’ll be less than or not as good as a traditional indie band with a guitar on stage, but I think people are okay with us not having one.

ww-1 It’s cool seeing you guys perform live. Even though you have an electronic sound you’re playing actual instruments. When did you guys first conceive this project?

I think we played our first show Jaunary 31, 2012, so it will be two years in February. It was literally supposed to be just one show that we just wanted to play. We landed up putting out a couple songs before the show and it landed up being super-packed, which was really weird for us because we didn’t expect that at all. But sometimes these things happen with the internet these days. It’s good because there was a moment there when we had to decide if we were going to slingshot forward into very fast decisions like getting managers, getting agents and getting all these people onboard super fast and work on their time schedule, but we chose to kind of get to know ourselves and our sound and our band a little bit more. It felt a bit quick. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I think we are definitely benefiting from it because we know who we are as a band and what we’re going for and the trajectory of what we are about which is more or less gaining one fan at a time and making good albums, not just making good isolated songs. We want to make good songs, but to make them part of a collection.

When along the way did getting signed happen?

Actually it was just recently. It’s funny because we kind of went away. After we got on the scene initially, we went away to finish up our album. I don’t think that’s traditionally how you are supposed to do it because you can get off of people’s radars and finally when we had this demoed album out and we started sending them off to labels some of them were like “Hey you’re a new band, and we like your music a lot, but we just don’t know if the investment is there.” Which is fine. We didn’t want anyone to be half onboard. We were in limbo for a little bit and didn’t really know what we were doing. And even though it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to do, Downtown had offered to do the EP and see how the partnership works and how we are together. So essentially it was a couple of months ago now. It’s an EP deal with and option for a full length.

ww-1-7 So you have a full-length ready, but you don’t know where it will end up?

I mean, it’s hard to say, but we are definitely wanting it to be on Downtown. We want to get our music out as quickly as possible. We don’t have that many fans, but the fans we have have definitely waited a while. We also move on as artists as well. We want to do a new album and write more. We basically want to take the path that would get the music out quicker. We had mentioned early next year like March or April and we’re really striving for that. We would love it to be on Downtown and things are looking good as far as that goes, but you never know.

Will the songs that have been out there, the ones on the EP, appear on the new record?

It’s pretty funny because a lot of people on the business side are wanting to put some of them out there, but we feel like we would cap it at one song. We want to give people new stuff and we are excited about the new stuff and not really worried about people missing the old stuff, especially because it’s on the EP as well. We don’t feel like we’ve extended ourselves and don’t feel like we can’t write more songs.

How many songs do you have ready to go?

It’s tough to say because there are alternate versions and depending on how we want the album to flow they can be switched out. Basically we have staple songs that we definitely know will be on the album.

ww-1-5 Are these your first ever east coast shows coming up?

Oh yeah, we were able to come out to New York and played a pre-VMA show and that’s the only time we’ve ever been on the east coast.

As far as songwriting goes, is it a unified effort or is there someone who does more than the rest?

Totally, we all have our strengths and the process is different every time, which we really like. We all trust the process enough to know where a song starts and if we stick with it til the end we know it will be a Wildcat song because it will go through all our filters and all of our individual musician gears and our talents are going to come out on that song. It’s pretty even and we all have our hand in each part of the song. If there was something of a starting point, the keys goes are on my end, the groove stuff with drum and bass is Jesse and Jesse and vocals and melodies are all of us.

Was it strange to play with only a 7” out and have all of these people coming to all these shows?

It was really strange because they started singing the songs that weren’t even out. They knew the songs because they had been to so many shows. And that goes with what I was saying earlier, people are so hungry for songs that people are coming to the shows just to hear the songs. They know them already. We know if we put it out that there’s going to be more of those people– maybe not millions– but people that want to come along to the shows and sing along which we are all about. We want to give our music and have people enjoy it.

ww-1-6 Are you guys all from LA or did you land up there?

Yeah, we all grew up in Ventura Country, which is like 40 miles north of LA. The two Jesse’s live in downtown LA now, and I live in Long Beach.

Were you able to quit your jobs?

Somewhat– it was a bit of a progression as far as that goes. Right now none of us have conventional day jobs. Every month getting money is different. We are by no means solely supported by music. There are different avenues we have to make money. It’s exciting, but it’s nerve-racking to not know how you’re going to pay your bills without the consistency of a job.

ww-1-3 Who is Mr. Quiche?

I don’t know. It was definitely a progression of writing that all of our songs have been. I think the vocals are definitely a process. He’s been a different person every step of the way to be honest. Which, to be honest, I kind of like that. I like songs that change their meaning, even for the artist. We’ve been changing as a band a lot even just over our past few years.

From what I remember you did 4-part harmonies.

Yeah, it’s definitely all about that and our group effort. It shows that everybody is equal and there are definitely songs where only one person is singing, but there are no songs where just one person is the lead singer. It just kind of fills the thing out. We are all really good friends making music and really participating in every ounce of the song.

As far as lyrics and background, do you start with the backing sound? Is one more important than the other?

Sometimes, especially working with some of my original ideas, there were really loose vocals or an idea, but there would be a larger arrangement before it. But recently there has been a little more of the opposite. With a lot of the stuff we are taking the lyricism of the song first and it really is different every time. That makes everything really fresh and exciting for all of us.

Is there are marked difference between recording a song and playing it live? Obviously you have less access to certain elements when you’re on stage.

Yeah, we kind of had to learn a lot of it. It was just a project that we were doing for fun and for ourselves and for us to listen to on our own and be excited about. It was just one of those things that at first we recorded the songs in parts and then we had to figure out how we are going to play it. A lot of the stuff is different live because there are too many keyboard parts and we don’t have enough hands to play all the keyboards. Parts need to be thought through, but I really enjoyed that because we really wanted us to really embody the song live in the performance and really wail and have a good time to make up for any different parts that maybe we can’t put in the song.

Do you feel like there’s a unified scene in LA? Do you guys feel that you have a lot of camaraderie with other bands?

To be honest it’s such a big music town that it’s just so hard to find that. We definitely have bands that we get along with and have played shows with, but there are so many. I think it’s almost more venue-based than promoter-based. They basically choose who they like, and in LA there are also huge booking agents booking huge bands that everybody wants to see. I wouldn’t say we’re part of any LA scene or movement or anything like that.

Well thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I’m so happy you’re finally coming east. It’s very exciting.

You should definitely come say hi. No problem. You were a very nice interviewer.