Days of Why and How: An Unedited Interview with The Kills

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When the Kills were first introduced to the world in 2002, they quickly seduced the rock n roll realm with their sexy swagger and an intimate onstage chemistry. What began as a transatlantic, tape-trade collaboration between newfound friends has since grown into world-renowned force to be reckoned with. The thundering pulse of programmed drum machines and an avant approach to electric guitars elevates the sound of a boot-stomping blues and stripped-down garage rock taking it to new creative heights. With five solid records,  (the fifth, “Ashes and Ice” released this past June), Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince continue to evolve, and while their core dynamic remains in tact, some things have changed.

While Mosshart spent her downtime returning to the studio and stage as the lead singer of Dead Weather, Jamie Hince spent his time soul-and-sound-searching on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and on the island of Jamaica while trying to mend the tendons in his hand. When these two separate paths led back into the studio, the duo brought very different batches of songs to the table. I caught up with Jamie Hince the week before the released of the latest record. The following is the unedited interview with exclusive live photos taken at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Enjoy.

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Hello is this Nolan. Where are you?

Im in Boston and we are finally haven’t a nice week of weather. Last week seemed a bit wintery.

Really? Oh god, I wish I had this interview the other day before I felt London, because I was trying to work out what to pack. It’s so odd when you’re going away for a month and going all over the place. Do I need a warm jacket? Do I need raincoat? I got this straw colored raincoat and now I wish I had packed it because it rains in Boston.

Where are you right now?

I’m in Atlanta. I woke up really early and went wandering around and I thought, “oh gosh, I really love Atlanta.” It’s great. I really like the vibe and right near my hotel there are three places that I’m really excited about going for food at already.

With the new record, did you come into the studio with songs individually or did you write the songs in the studio?

Yeah, we came together with songs. That’s always, at least since “Midnight Boom” and “Blood Pressures,” it was the same thing where we’ve come together with songs we’ve written separately and we’d get together when we thought there were nearly enough songs for a new record. Normally the way I work is I will come up with a load of things and just discard lots of them and concentrate on the ones I think really work and slowly develop them. When we got together I had about 8, 9, 10 songs and Alison probably had 38 songs. She writes in this beautiful explosion where she just puts herself in front of a mic and writes whatever comes out. Sometimes she goes through a stage where she’ll have 5 Neil Young ballads and then there will be 3 Krautrock songs. So it’s really good to sift through things like that. We sort of met up in LA for the first time and played each other what we had. We never really had a break from each other, but LA was the place where we sort of auditioned our songs in front of our engineer. Alison said “Oh we have lots of songs, let’s go,” and I sort of depressed everybody by saying “I don’t think we’ve got a record yet. I think we need to keep on writing.” So that’s what we did. We kept on working on about 8 of the songs that were going somewhere and then kept on writing.

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Did you find that when you came together you were bringing similar stuff, or was it so different that you had to hone it in?

It was really different. It was to the point that I was frustrated to be honest. I’m always going in search of something and trying to find the things that’s like “oh my god, this is it.” I always think I’m going to be super excited about trying to find a sound, find a blend… finding a secret almost. I’d literally, physically gone in search of it and that’s what going on the Trans-Siberian Railroad was all about, or going to Jamaica. It’s always about physically going in search of it. Also, when I’m physically in the studio, I’m desperately hunting for the things that going to be the theme for me. Much of my rhythms were inspired by dancehall and digital dancehall, dub and R&B sometimes. I wanted to make a record that was really forward thinking and not just a retro bizarre record– and then I met up with Alison and her songs were very traditional—bluesy, Neil Young ballad kind of things and it was frustrating to me because, “You’re not doing what I want.” And then it kind of dawns on me that because it’s my job to make these things work and make both of our things to sit right in one place– it kind of dawns on me that that’s what the Kills really was– my lunacy about trying to reinvent the wheel and trying to take guitar music somewhere else, and it’s Alison’s absolute confidence and how sure she is about whatever snapshot is in her life at the moment. Not having crazy changing influences in the moment like I have, but having influences rooted in the Velvet Underground, Charlie Patton, Captain Beefheart– the things she’s constantly inspired by. And that’s the blend, her consistent inspirations and my ever changing, crazy, whirlwind ones.

How was the Siberian Express? Was it as romantic of an idea as movies suggest? Did you bring anything back from it?

It’s like a working train really. It’s not like the Orient Express. It’s like a pedestrian train and there’s a lot of military on there returning from Moscow to their various Siberian villages. Gentry people going to camps and villages along the way. I would say a tiny percentage of the train were taken up by people like me who were doing this TransSiberian journey. I think there’s another version of it you can do on another train, but it takes about 3 or 4 weeks and you stop at places and you have a guide that takes you places and shows you what to do. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to ride this retreat where I didn’t feel stuck or stagnant and I was constantly moving.

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Did you get anything out of it?

Yeah, I mean I always go by that adage– I think it’s Flaubert… “You have to drink an ocean to piss a cupful.” It’s really true. I think he was talking about writing history, but it’s true with my writing. I don’t just write lyrics to a song. I always just write pages and pages and pages of stream of consciousness and that turns into prose which turns into poetry and then it goes back to stream of consciousness, and at some point I find things that I like and they jump out and I’m inspired to finish a song. And of course “Siberian Nights” was written on that train.

Did you guys do anything differently in the studio?

Our whole approach was completely different. We rented a house in LA, which was different because we used to just hide ourselves away in the middle of nowhere in Benton Park, Michigan. In LA we were excited to make a record in the chaos and noise of LA. I wanted it to be a change as life went on. I wanted to bump into people and have them come over and play… which happened, you know. We had Carla from Autolux play some drums and we had Homer who played on Amy Winehouse records. As opportunities arouse, we made the most of them.

How is your hand doing? Is it fully recovered?

No. I have about ten percent movement in my middle finger on my left hand, so I don’t use it to play guitar. It just hangs out stiff, flicking everyone off while the other three go change the dozen.

Were you or are you nervous that you’d never be able to play guitar again?

Yeah I was. One of the things that came out of it– one of the most impactful things– is I realized I’m really fucking positive. I just thought, “How am I going to make this work?” And part of that was considering I may not be a guitarist anymore. So I immediately started putting a studio together. I bought myself a 1968 Neve mixing desk, which was my dream come true. I knew I wanted to make a record using dub production, so I bought lots of gear like that: reverb units, echo. I just made myself busy by building a studio. I thought maybe I’ll just be a producer.

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So is your studio in London?

Well it’s a mobile studio. My mixing desk is a 10-channel desk that wraps up in a flat case and I have all of my compressors and stuff in another unit. Right now they’re in LA, but I always wanted it to be that if I to decide if I wanted to make a record in Jamaica, I could just fly my studio out there.

Would you say this record has taken on a more introspective feel? It seems to have a more tender feeling and the lyrics a little less wrapped in metaphor, maybe?

Yeah. It’s less cryptic. Being cryptic is easy because you can blend meaningless rock n roll clichés with code that means something and people will actually never know which is which, but they might hopefully confuse clichés for something meaningful. I’m not ripping up what we’ve done apart, I’m just obsessed with the way rock n roll music is gong and where electric guitar music is going. I’ve been obsessed with why it’s so retrospective and why it’s so referential and why its so stuck in the 90’s or the 80’s or the 70’s, but never trying to invent something new for itself like hip-hop and R&B, you know. One of those things was maybe I had too much time on my hands because I only had one hand, but I started thinking about lyrics and I wanted to write a guitar record that spoke to people in a language that I was proud of, that I understood, and that other people would understand– and not dip into the skulls and devils and that kind of shit, which has been a sort of staple industry for rock n roll music in one way or another.

Would you say the general dynamic of the Kills has changed?

Not really. I mean we’ve never really had a mission. I remember saying that in 2002 when we were doing interviews that I don’t think its really smart to make a mission statement or have a plan because when we started a band it was at the beginning of the cyber revolution which changed the fucking world. And it changed it so much that it was apparent even then that to have manifesto you were going to have a cult that was like the dinosaur. You know? It changed so much, capitalism was going to implode on itself back then and a new thing was going to work out. I think we’ve always just changed with what’s going on. People have always told us that we’ve done our own thing. Well, it doesn’t feel like that. It really doesn’t. It’s always when you look back and say, “Fuck, I always think we’re hindering ourselves by doing this and not doing that,” but I guess we’re proud of what we’ve done.

The single is a song called, “Doing it to Death.” You obviously don’t think you’re beating a dead horse when it comes to the band?

No, I don’t think that. It’s not a song about the band; it’s about constant pleasure-seeking. It’s about partying and addiction and having so much fun that it’s boring. You get so high that you’re low. That sort of shit. That’s “doing it to death.”

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The Kills live vs Recording? What do you have the most fun doing?

It’s funny because we always used to say, “We like them both.” One was a good anecdote to the other. These days the studio is my domain and it’s what I’m most excited about and the band’s moving forward in terms of writing new things. That’s what I’m most inspired by—that’s where my heart is… making new things. Also I’m the King in the studio. I’m the king of the Kills. I’m the boss and I like it. When we play live I’m completely usurped and Alison is the King or Queen or boss. That’s her domain. It works really nicely like that I think. I get more out of the studio, and for Alison, her place is the stage.

Do you guys still tour with the drummers in the background?

We have a different setup now. We have one drummer and we have Scott who is playing bass, keyboards, sub-bass and reverbs.

Would you say it’s a more live band set up?

Yeah, I guess. But we’ve always got heavy drum machine and sequencers. I never want it to be live where there’s no sequenced drum track. That’s what I love about it– it doesn’t speed up or slow down.

You guys seem to have an affinity for Boston. Last go around it was one of your only US dates, and this time you’re doing two shows in one week.

We always say that. The last time around we got really superstitious about Boston because the last couple of times it’s been the show that has completely woken us up and turned it up a gear. I don’t know what it is. I have no idea, but this time around, because we sold the first show out, we wanted to do a second night. There were bands playing the next night, but we were so superstitious and concerning that we decided to come back a few days later.

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The Hold Steady: Yesterday’s Kicks and Tomorrow’s Bruises

hs3 Over their ten-year career, the Hold Steady strategically amassed a catalogue of songs often centered on a recurring group of characters. Formed from the amalgamation of acquaintances and fictional figures, frontman Craig Finn introduced us to tragic heroes and fallen friends caught up in the life of the party. His skillful wordiness and spoken- word delivery embraced witty double entendres, juxtaposing modern day jargon with scholarly diction as he portrayed the ups-and-downs of the down-and-outs. And somehow he always seemed to stay positive. With their recent release of Teeth Dreams, the band’s sixth studio record and the first on their own Washington Square label, Finn’s songs seem to have naturally evolved from the post-adolescent after-party to the inevitable adult hangover. These are cautionary tales and proof that yesterday’s kicks become tomorrow’s bruises. As an aging songwriter with a repertoire of decadent characters, Finn acknowledges that his narrative had to change and that those on the continual stumble from the straight and narrow will inevitably fall. If rock music becomes classic rock by finding a sound, surviving the party and embracing maturity, then the Hold Steady may be well on their way to being considered “classic rock” in an indie-rock generation. If their message seems heavy, their instrumentation is even heavier– any somber sentiment quickly finds solace by leaning against the towering guitar solos that were hinted at before, but now actualized in skyscraping realities. The guitars have finally soared to reach Thin Lizzy heights, while Finn’s lyrics are still born to run like the Boss. I was privileged enough to catch up with the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn days before the release of their new record Teeth Dreams, and just weeks before the band’s very recent shows in the Northeast.

hs2 Where are you guys at now?

We’re in Brooklyn. We leave for tour tonight. Our first show is in Portland, Maine tomorrow.

So tell me about Teeth Dreams. I’ve always had teeth dreams and it’s definitely my most recurring dream theme of all time. You even take it a step further and talk about having tooth dreams about other people. I find that especially intriguing.

Yeah, it’s funny, since we named the album Teeth Dreams… as soon as the title came out there have been a lot of people that have come to me and said, “God I’ve had those dreams too.” And actually I’ve had teeth dreams, but I haven’t had tons of them. I’ve had them where I’m brushing my teeth and they fall out. Which I think is fairly common. When we talked about naming the record, we did some searches on Google and found a ton of stuff on teeth dreams. Supposedly they’re caused by anxiety, but people will tell you specifically about money and personal appearance, but I think it’s just a lack of control in general. But you know, I came up with “last night her teeth were in my dreams”—someone else’s teeth and I thought that was funny and I was re-reading Infinite Jest and I realized there was a scene in there where one of the characters is explaining his dreams to his brother and he’s been having dreams about teeth and they’re someone else’s teeth. In his dreams, not only do someone else’s teeth keep showing up, but then all these bills for them. So he was not only getting these other teeth in his dreams, but being asked to pay for them which kind of amps up the idea that they might be about money.

Was that something that connected these songs? A unified anxiety?

Yeah, we started talking about it. When we started writing the record I was thinking a lot about anxiety. I met this doctor at a cocktail party and he’s a general practitioner in New York and he was saying over half his visits are because of anxiety. People are thinking that something is wrong with them, but it isn’t. I thought that was kind of interesting. I don’t know if that was true 20 years ago or 40 years ago. Then the New York Times has an anxiety column. So I started thinking, “Jeez are we living in particularly anxious times?” I’m not sure. I think we do. I think we’ve just gotten so self-aware about our anxiety and so respectful of it that we almost nurture it. And obviously the pharmaceutical industry has some sort of influence over that.

You’ve had a lot of reoccurring characters in your songs. Are these new characters in any way? Has the songwriting changed?

I think some of the characters are the same. I’ve just gotten away from mentioning so many proper names. I wanted to explore a more elliptical thing. I think a great short story like Carver or something like that, it’s just as much about what they leave out as what they put in. I thought maybe always explaining who it is and what exactly they’re doing might end up hindering putting their own wholesome dreams and lives into the songs. I wanted to create a little more space for people to inject themselves into this world.

But when you get down to it, were these reoccurring characters real people that you knew in your life, or accumulations of many people?

They don’t relate 1-to-1. I’m from Minneapolis and a lot of these songs take place there over the course of the Hold Steady. People from Minneapolis always ask me, “Hey is that character this person?” They’re not any one character, but they are certainly the type of people that I knew and I might take a little bit from somewhere and a little bit from somewhere else. But they weren’t ever one specific person.

It seems like this time around, instead of talking about the party, this seems like the hangover from the party and more of cautionary tale.

It’s definitely the darkest Hold Steady record. While the others had been especially hopeful and maybe positive and optimistic, this one may hold back on that optimism a bit. But you know, the last song on the record, we put a coda on the song. We knew we were going to end with that song, but the way we handled it was just so bleak. I mean I liked it, but it was like we can’t end things this way. Let’s give them a little bit of hope. Writing this record, I wasn’t in a particularly bad place or anything– I just wanted to explore that part of it a little more. And just being fascinated with this idea with anxiety and the idea of mental health and the way we treat it nowadays and the way we deal with our neurosis.

Would you say that by getting older it’s harder to hang on to these characters and narratives? Has your songwriting changed partly due to that?

Yeah, I think that… we started the band ten years ago and for the past ten years I’ve known a lot of people close to me that have struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. It’s a pretty common thing, you know. I’m 42– when you’re 32 you might still be going along and having a good time, but at some point it starts to drag you down. It might be a change in perspective a little bit. At the same time, I’m drawn to and I’m trying to write characters that are a little older. I think that’s a challenge and it always has been. Rock and roll is often about a teenager and a convertible. But it’s also rock and roll so its 50 to 60 years-old now, so it doesn’t have to be. Great artists like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young have written great songs about adults. hs Talk about starting your own label and how that came to be. Has that presented new challenges for you and the band?

Not really. The big thing is we did this covers EP for a fanclub thing. We needed some way to get it out to the fans. So we thought should we start a label? As this industry changes and more and more people hear music digitally, it allows us to in the future to escape album cycles and maybe put out more regularly. There’s a big gear up to put out an album and find a publicist and it allows us maybe in the future to put out music in smaller portions, and maybe be a bit more agile when it comes about. It’s yet to be seen what it will mean, but that’s the idea.

You talk a lot about unified scenes in your music. Is that something you’ve seen change over time? Are there still unified scenes like there used to be? Is it still alive and well in certain places?

Well, the record industry is certainly not alive and well. How many records you can sell in the age of Spotify is certainly very diminished, so I wouldn’t say the record industry is alive and well. But the music industry as a whole, people look at the licensing of music differently than they used to. You used to get in a lot of trouble if you gave your music to a car ad or something like that. Now it’s more accepted. But the last thing is that the live thing is always healthy. If you can get people to come to your shows, you can be okay. I always thought that the live shows had always been the crux of it because even if you’re selling a lot of records, there are still 4 people that are going to handle the money before you get it. There’s the guy in the store, the distributor, then there’s the label and maybe it gets to you, but not much. That’s a lot of hands. With the live show they pay you and you pay your agent. So you touch it first. In that very simple way the live show is always the biggest component of it.

You have always had a crazy amount of energy on stage and listening to the records versus seeing you live, you are an unsuspecting energetic frontman. Have you always been that way? Is it hard to conjure up that energy night after night?

I have to work on it a little more at [age] 42. I have to think about what I eat and drink—especially since I drink a little more than I used to. At the same time there are nights when I’m pretty sluggish when I get on stage, but it’s pretty easy for me to get into it with the loud music and the fans and the celebratory vibe. I get into it quickly. I’m not always great before or after a show, but it’s pretty easy for me to get into a good place while we’re playing.

You’ve spent a good amount of time in Boston, but with few exceptions your characters are very much Minneapolis based. Did you not find any inspiration here? Do you still have a little Boston in you?

Well, I was born in Boston. My parents lived in Massachusetts. I went to grade school in Boston and went back to Boston College. I spent some time there and there are parts of it that still fascinate me and I still have friends there. It’s definitely a part of my life, but I certainly don’t know it as well. If you put me in a car, I would definitely get lost. Whereas in Minneapolis I know it like the back of my hand, so that’s why I feel much more comfortable setting songs in Minneapolis. But I still do have love, a lot of love, for Boston.

Is the RAGE EP still available or was that just a limited time thing to get on?

I think you can still get it. It was a fanclub thing, but I think you can still get it on the website. If not we’ll probably re-release it. The big thing is it was for the fanclub. A friend of ours passed away and he was the unofficial leader of the Unified Scene Fanclub. He was kind of the center of it. He passed away suddenly, December 2012, and he left two kids behind, so the idea behind the RAGS EP was to raise money for the foundation for his kids, but for us we were able to formalize the fanclub and know where everyone is and how to get a hold of them.

The Past and Present of The Future Bible Heroes

FutureBibleHeroes_smallBack in 1996, a few years before the Magnetic Fields went from an indie band with a cult following to the critically acclaimed collective that they are today, Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson became involved with a Boston sideproject headed by Chris Ewen called Future Bible Heroes.

After releasing two LPs and 3 EPs in 7 years, the band remained dormant for a decade. Now, 11 years since their last release, the band returns with Partygoing, available on Merge Records, on its own–or even more appealing– as a box set with all of their previous recordings together in one package.

Picking up where the band left off, Future Bible Heroes’ sound is still steeped in analog synths, and while the band dives into darker and dancier terrain, Merritt’s signature whimsy and witty sarcasm provide some humor to their seemingly somber tales. With song titles like “Digging My Own Grave”, “Keep Your Children in a Coma” and “Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)”, the Future Bible Heroes remain scathingly satirical and inherently fun.

I was especially lucky to catch up with the band’s founder, Chris Ewen for a rare in-person interview at the MIracle of Science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a day before tour and a few hours before the masses crowded the streets to jockey for positioning for that evening’s 4th of July fireworks. Below is the conversation that transpired.

FBH2What is the timeline history of Future Bible Heroes? Is this an official Boston band? I know Stephin lived here for awhile.

Yes it was. It started in Boston and it evolved when he moved to New York. It started when my own band Figures on the Beach broke up and I was still writing… which is funny because one of the members is now touring with Future Bible Heroes. But when that band broke up I was still working on a lot of instrumental things and one day Stephin said, ‘why don’t you just have someone write lyrics and sing songs to your music,’ and I said, ‘well then why don’t you do it because you’re a great lyricist.’ So we messed around with some songs and wrote some songs.

What year did this take place?

I want to say 1996-ish.

So your band broke up, you were doing instrumentals and then Stephin came into the picture? And then Claudia? The first EP sounds like it’s mostly Stephin and the second seems like it’s mostly Claudia…

Well the first one is definitely boy/girl. It alternated. Stephin and Claudia alternated each track. At that point it was an approach to differentiate them from the Magnetic Fields, where at that time Stephin was singing most of the songs because it was pre-69 Love Songs.

And how did Claudia become involved?

It was weird because Stephin and I put together a bunch of songs and one of then got picked up by a friend of mine– Steve Lau– who used to be in a band called The Ocean Blue. He had a record label through Warner Brothers and through Reprise called Kinetic. He was putting together one of those “Red Hot” compilations and he asked me for a track. So Stephin and I submitted a song called “Hopeless”—a really early version of it. They accepted it, put it out on the comp and someone who was at another label called Slow River, which was associated with Ryko, heard it and wanted to sign us with just that one song. At that point this thing went from being a fun little hobby to being a real band. When we recorded everything for the first record with Slow River, Stephin sent me a recording with Claudia singing and I thought it sounded great. So suddenly she was the third member of the band. So from then on we started writing songs with her in mind as well as Stephin.

So was it just you doing the instrumental parts, or has it changed over the years?

It’s changed over the years. Stephin has always added a little Stephin magic, but most of the instrumentals are mine though.

Does it start with instrumentals and you write with their lyrics in mind or is it a more collaborative process?

In the past it was very much me sitting at home with a bunch of keyboards plugged in. The first two albums were basically me programming MIDI synths and recording live onto a two-track recording… DAT or something like that. Stephin would then write around them or come at them with melodies that mimicked or complimented what was in the tracks. And then occasionally he would add some extra things. It was really hard to change things though. We didn’t really collaborate on the musical end of it. Since everything was recorded live all the time we did it, and it would have to be redone much differently. This time around it was much more collaborative. I would send him demos this time around instead of completed, finished tracks, so he would say change the key or add choruses there, and we would build things up together. Or he would send me different versions of him singing things and we would work around that. This time around he would actually send me lyrics and we would go from there. We were a lot more collaborative this time around.

Would you say the band has always been made up of the same people? Or would you say this is more YOUR band, with guest singers? Or has it evolved from one to the other?

When it initially started out, it was Stephin and myself. When we started getting serious about it and recorded our first record, Claudia was definitely involved and I always thought of this as a band with the three of us. Maybe it’s not a band; maybe it’s a project. It’s definitely not just me and guests. It’s the product of all of the things that each of us brings to it, which keeps it different from the Magnetic Fields. It is it’s own entity.

FBHHow are Claudia and Stephin able to differentiate and step out of the roles together in the Magnetic Fields to make this different?

Even with Stephin’s other bands like the Gothic Archies or the 6ths, he basically writes all the words and the music.

When is the last time you actually toured?

Well we haven’t done an album in 11 years, so we haven’t toured in ten. I realized the last live shows we’ve played were in London with a few shows in Spain.

What is the live show setup this time around? And how does the live show differ from the early incarnation of the band?

The first tours we did, Stephin and we brought out all old synths and hardware sequencers and brought out all of our delicate equipment and just did it. The stage always looked great because it was chock full of all these synths, but it was really a pain to carry all of these heavy things around, they were really delicate, they were breaking a lot. So we had to scale that back a bit. Actually, the very first time we toured we had all these synths and had Sam and John from the Magnetic Fields play with us too to flesh things out. Then we scaled it down a bit, as best we could. By the time “Eternal Youth” came out we decided that touring that way was totally impossible. So we scaled it down to a piano and a synthesizer and maybe a drum machine. And Stephin played ukulele and guitar. We basically did an electronic band acoustically. And that was really fun. So this time around, it’s been awhile, we decided to bring out some synths again. There are four of us now. I’m playing synthesizers and drum machine tracks. Claudia is playing synths. I’m playing soft synths. Claudia is playing synthesizer and singing. Shirley sings—she was with the Magnetic Fields. She also plays ukulele and this great electronic autoharp called omnichord. The fourth member of our touring band is Tony Kaczynski who was in Figures on the Beach. He’s playing bass and singing. So we’re playing a lot of stuff live.

In the in-between times did you know the band would pick up again? What brought it back together?

Earlier when I said we like to impose a lot of rules on ourselves… a lot of the rules we impose upon ourselves weren’t rules that we put on ourselves… it was technology at the time and the fact that we lived in different cities for a long time. I mean we were doing the Postal Service thing before the Postal Service. We would send tracks back and forth. A lot of mail, a lot of DATs and cassettes and a lot of phone calls, so it was a pretty unyielding way to work. Now we both have our own fully operational recording studios and can send huge files back and forth. I think that’s made it really easy to actually do it. It was a good time to do it, because it became easier for us to do it. The second album was a real pain to record because digital technology was not at its peak, lets say. We were both using different formats of recording devices so it was tough to synch things up and convert things to each other’s formats. I don’t think it was a pleasant experience. This time it became much easier. This time when we decided to write again, and that is largely based around the Magnetic Fields and his other projects, it seemed like a good thing to do. It just started coming together really quickly.

Was Stephin supposed to be on this tour?

I don’t think it was ever decided that he would be on this tour, but I know from him that touring with his ears is not a good thing. I think the last Magnetic Fields tour really took a toll on his ears. So when we discussed putting this tour together, from the beginning we tried to figure out how we could tour if Stephin can’t tour. That’s why we listed Troy and Tony from the very beginning. Shirley was obvious. Claudia had worked with her for a long time. I had been aware of her since Buffalo Rome, Stephin’s pre-Magnetic Fields band. Tony I knew, and he’s a great musician. It was never something where we wanted to make Stephin tour. I knew it would be impractical for him for medical reasons. Personally, I’d rather make another record with him than have him go out for a month of tour and then lose more hearing.

What made you decided to re-release all of the old work as a package with the new record? Was everything out-of-print at this point?

Yeah, a lot of it was really unfindable and it was all on different labels. We had one EP on Merge, something on Slow River, licensing deals in Europe for different things that had come and gone. The second record was on Instinct records and I don’t think they’re around. We owned the rights to them all. So it seemed like a good thing to do to make all of our stuff available again and have it all on one label and to have Merge do it. It’s worldwide and it’s all available again.

With the new record, the title seems to be tongue-in-cheek. The songs are quite dark, but they also are quite humorous at times too. Is this always a conscious concoction with FBH?

I think that we have always straddled that line of being really perky and fun with lyrics that maybe aren’t as upbeat. I love that juxtaposition and Stephin does too. I think it brings some depth to the songs. Maybe part of it is that Stephin will write lyrics to counteract the perkiness of the music. The last time we toured we put together a setlist and we put all the songs in a row and we looked at the list and it was so horrifyingly depressing that we burst out laughing. It was so ridiculous in a really fun way. And we don’t really think about that until we see all the songs listed in a row. We realized this in Hudson when we were playing “Hopeless” and then there was “Lonely Days”. It just made us laugh.

Is it meant for humor? Is it storytelling? Or does it seem real when you’re doing them?

In some cases, maybe especially on “Eternal Youth”, Stephin got a Sci-Fi vibe from the instrumentals, so I think his lyrics tended to reflect what he was getting. Then the theme developed around an album. Was it supernatural, or human, or one versus the other with this whole Sci-Fi vibe he was getting? I think the albums have tended to be loose concept albums. The first one was love songs or anti-love songs. The second was about people’s obsessions with death, youth and beauty. I think that carries through now that we’re a little older and now people are even more obsessed with beauty and youth and youth culture, and maybe even more divorced from reality. I’m not saying we are feeling our age, but we have a different perspective than we had 10 years ago. Maybe “Partygoing” is our reaction to who we are, as opposed to people we were when we would go to parties, or what parties are like now and us vs. the youth culture. Stephin may disagree with me here though.

Because it was so long in between, were some of these songs ready a long time ago?

We started talking about this two or three years ago, so I started writing for whatever the album was going to be. Whereas in the past I would send Stephen a certain amount of tracks and he’d pick the ones he wanted on there and sculpt his melodic bits, this time we had more freedom and I sent him a LOT of demos that were very loosely arranged to see what he liked and what he could work with. Then he’d work on them and send them back and I would work more on them and send them back. It didn’t take us as long as it has in the past to come up with an album, but there was a time when it was much more of a loose process. Once we got done to recording and making it final, it happened very quickly.

Do you complete all of the finished product and post-production in your studio?

I have in the past, but usually the vocals have been recorded wherever Stephin is living, usually New York. I don’t think we did stuff when he was in LA. This year we did the final mixes in New York, so he took control of that. We could actually have different tracks this time around, so I sent him all the stems. They were mixed much more sympathetically in the past I will say.

You were saying there was a lot of analog stuff and trading things digitally, but have you changed the way you record and the instruments you use?

For a long time my studio has been a hardware and software hybrid. I love the sound of old analog synths and I like to use as many as possible. There are some software things I’ve used, but since we’re so multi-tracked we can use the old analog synths with some updated software as well.

When you’re trading tracks, you are here, Claudia is in New York. And Stephin…

Stephin’s in New York. He lives in Hudson now, which is kind of upstate.

Obviously right now you’re dealing with the present and the current tour and recent record, but do you ever think about whether this project will happen again?

I would like it to happen sooner rather than later. I’d like it if it happened before another decade passed. Besides Stephin’s schedule, I think one of the major problems was how hard it was to make “Eternal Youth”. I think that now we have proven to ourselves that we can have fun making a record together and it’s easier than it was in the past. We can come up with something we’re really proud of. So I think it will happen again sooner rather than later. And I think it’s gotten me back in it as well. It’s one thing when you’re not producing something, or when people are living in different parts of the country– it’s difficult to get in the mindset. But with the ease of this new process, I’m not going to stop now. I’m going to keep writing when the tour is over and catalogue a bunch of new demos for the next time we start recording.

Drunk History: An Interview with creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Konners

dw2What began as a single short film for Derek Waters’ comedy act would eventually grow into an internet sensation picked up by “Funny or Die”. Now, seven years later, Waters and co-creator/director Jeremy Konner are bringing their “Drunk History” to Comedy Central (Tuesdays at 10pm).

Gathering comedic friends and notable fans, Waters and Konner film drunken narrators as they tell enthusiastic historic tales warped by inebriation and then reenacted by A-list celebrities resulting in true hilarity. While it’s hard to imagine that the participants are actually that drunk, Waters assures us that everything, even the vomiting, is the result of unscripted excess.

In their Comedy Central debut, “Drunk History” hosts some return guests, but also add a new echelon of A-listers. Jack Black and Michael Cera are back, and alongside Dave Grohl, Bob Odenkirk, Lisa Bonet, Bill Hader, Kevin Nealon, Aubrey Plaza, Winona Ryder, Fred Willand and Owen and Luke Wilson, the all-star cast takes on stories about Elvis, Nixon, Nader, Lincoln, Mary Dyer and the Kellogg Brothers among others.

I was lucky enough to catch up with comedian Derek Waters and director Jeremy Konners (separately) on the phone to discuss the past, present and future of their hilarious “Drunken History”. Below are the unedited and exclusive interviews that transpired.

Derek WatersPart 1: Drunk History: An interview with Derek Waters

Are you excited for the premiere?

Very excited. Very excited. I finally hear from parents, you know? No, I’m just kidding, I’m very close to my family, I hear from them every day. I hear more for them now.

I saw you talk down at SXSW, but could you reiterate how this thing came to be? Was it really just supposed to be one web episode until Jack Black contacted you?

Yeah, it was 2007 and it’s only intent was to be for a live show I was doing for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade called “LOL”. It was my own show and I was trying to show videos. I figured it was better to make people laugh than to put it online. It was right when the internet was being judged by hits over comedy. I’m still a snob, but I was a bigger one back then and I was hesitant whether people would accept just that. I sent it to Conan and the Daily Show in hopes that it could be a monthly sketch. But nothing really happened until we put it on the internet and it got on the front page of YouTube and then Jack Black who knows Jeremy Konners the director, he saw it and said ‘I always wanted to be Ben Franklin’. And that was that. So basically what you said is true. But those were the specifics. You can’t really turn down Jack Black. Why would you?

How did the show come together after all these years? Did you just keep pitching it around?

Well, it never really… people always said what about a “Drunk History” show, and I said it’s not a show, it’s a five minute idea. I never want it to get old and I know what it is. So I thought, well what is it going to be like? What if it’s me going across America trying to understand our country? But that didn’t feel right, so we just broadened the world so it’s just a history show. We’re trying as hard as we can to tell you about history; it just so happens that it’s slightly altered. But each episode is about a certain town and there’s a thru line between three stories and the idea of broadening the world of history so its not just about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Now there can be stories about Elvis and all kinds of new worlds. And we can do all stories now if we set the bar here.

How many States did you make it through?

Well what do you mean by that?

How many States do you touch on in the show by wanting to do it as a travelogue from city to city?

We did 7 cities, and the season finality is about the Wild West. But there’s Boston, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, San Francisco. We’re still working. Oh my god, are we still working? Holy Shit, we have got so much to do. But it’s gotten through a lot of different stages. Comedy Central is the best and they had the best response to the pitch. Anytime you have something, especially if it’s your own project with your friends in your backyard and it becomes semi-popular, I don’t know many stories where people have said ‘Oh I got to do what I wanted at that big network’. Comedy Central has allowed us to stick to that tone where it still feels like you’re with your friends in your backyard making little videos… there are just more movie stars.

dw4Yeah, how did you get such big names? Are these people all your friends? How did the A-list cast come to be?

It was craigslist, that’s all it was. It’s tough times out here right now. No, I knew some of them, but we had a casting director and we would dream a little dream and be like ‘Oh man it’d be cool if Jack Black and Dave Grohl would do the Elvis story’ and they would be like ‘ok here you go’. There’s no real way to say how this all happened, because I still don’t know. I mean, we got Luke and Owen Wilson to play the Kellogg Brothers, I’ve often thought I’m in the Make a Wish Foundation and I’m about to get really bad news. It was very surreal. Most of them, if we didn’t know them, we knew they had an interest in Drunk History or wanting to do it. I guess a lot of people know it’s a lot of fun or they have people who work on it and know it’s a lot of fun and really laid back, so everyone wants to be there and it’s a really rare place to be when you’re working.

Who do you play in the upcoming season?

I’m the host and then I play random parts throughout the series in every episode. I pop up in little parts here and there. I will play Davie Crockett in the season finale, which is probably my biggest role. I don’t want to give away the ending and what happens to me. [Laughs].

When it’s being filmed are you guys drinking or are you fictionalizing what it would look like if you were drunk?

When we’re shooting the reenactments? Never. I mean, definitely in the narration, but when we shoot it we , no—I don’t mean, no that wouldn’t be right—I mean, no we don’t because… There’s the drunk part, but then there’s the other part. I always think of it as ‘man we really want to tell this story so here’s the footage we have and here’s the footage we have of this drunk person’. The comedy comes from trying so hard from something that is so ridiculous that people try and take it seriously. There’s a preview we just put online of Winona Ryder getting hung in the 1600’s and a car drives by in the background. Those are my favorite things that happen during the show. The mistakes. The purposeful mistakes.

wrIn Texas you said you were going to get audience members to help out with the story ideas in each destination. Did that still happen? Is that how the story ideas came about or is it all you guys?

The on the road stuff was more about interacting with people about their towns and getting their reactions about the subject. The stages of filming were we had researchers and we would all dig through books and everything we could find and figure out which towns we would go through. Then we would assign our favorite stories to our favorite narrators out here, shoot them and then based off of our favorite stories, we would go on the road. Doesn’t that sound hilarious?

It’s hilarious that you have researchers only to blur the research.

Here, find something really good so someone can forget it. [Laughs] The people that do get assigned the stories DO have interest in it. I wouldn’t let someone do a story that they wouldn’t want to do. It has to be like ‘oh, oh, oh, oh’, or ‘oh my gawd I had no idea about that, I want to learn more’. There has to be a genuine passion about it, where mixed with alcohol is especially funny and hard for them to articulate why they love it so much.

sw6Who are some of your favorite portrayals of characters in the upcoming season?

MMM, so many. Jason Ritter, I call him the master of Drunk History—so good. He plays my favorite character, Stetson Kennedy. It’s in our Atlanta story. In our Atlanta episode we have a story about J. Edgar Hoover vs. Martin Luther King and we have the invention of Coca Cola, America’s favorite soft drink. Then this one, Stetson Kennedy, who in the 1940’s is the man who came closest to taking down the Ku Klux Klan. It’s really, really cool. He joined them in the 40’s and infiltrated them and learned their secrets and tried to learn a way to fuck with them. Back then radio was a big entertainment facility and “Superman” was the biggest show and “Superman” was looking for a new villain, so Stetson called them and said ‘I think I found a new villain for you; I infiltrated the Klan.” They loved it, so each week Stetson Kennedy would meet with the Ku Klux Klan and called the people at the “Superman” show and each week Superman would take down the Klan with the exact actions that were actually happening within the Klan. All these guys got freaked out and dropped out at the end because their own kids who loved Superman were running around the neighborhood dressed as these really stupid villains known as the Klan and making fun of them. That’s a story where I think it’s fun to get people drunk and have funny tales, but I want stories like that that are true where I’m like ‘holy shit, how do I not know that story?’

If you guys are not drinking during the filming, how do you guys get in character?

Getting in character? I don’t know. Hold on, you know the narration part is the drinking part, right? The reenactments are sober. You’re saying because the people are acting drunk? I don’t know how to answer that.

Does Comedy Central impose any limits on what you say or do? Any quality control if you will?

The only quality control is we have a medic with us when we do it. Luckily having a little more money we have a real medic that stays there so every narrator is taken care of. It should be noted, that every narration is done at their homes. They’re always in good hands. Comedy Central was very good at keeping it in the same light. I don’t think anyone will say you guys changed what used to be good about this. There’s more puking, which I love, but it’s remained true to what the original web series was. It looks a little prettier though.

Is all the puking real?

Oh yeah! Do you know that it’s real.

No, not really.

It’s 100% real. The narrators are completely drunk and the reenactors are completely sober. It’s okay, it’s confusing, but that’s how it goes.

So what does the medic do?

She’s just there to make sure everything is okay. She has a breathalizer. Hilarious, right? A breathalizer! But they’re in their home, so they’re okay. It never gets too crazy. And all the narrators are my friends.

dw3What are your favorite drinks?

Um, Zima. 

But that’s hard to find nowadays.

It is. But I’m an oldie. I have to go to the vintage store to find it. Yeah, I’m going with Zima. I don’t have favorites.

Do you have tips for drinking etiquette?

Man, don’t drink. I don’t know. For this show—I would say it helps when you’re passionate and when you hold back bullshit, but as soon as you realize you’re repeating yourself, stop! As soon as someone you’re with says ‘you already told me that’, you go ‘okay I’ve had enough. I think it’s time to stop.’ And whenever you think you’re hilarious, you should probably stop.

Do you have any drunken regrets?

Jesus, Nolan. My God! I don’t think I can… How about drunken achievements? Well this is my only drunken achievement. No I don’t have any drunken regrets.

Well that’s good.

Yeah that’s alright. You should get a quote from my therapist though. Ask him about that.

Is there anyone you tried to get before the show that you were not able to?

Well yeah, I wanted Marilyn Monroe… um, yes, but I don’t wanna say their names because it will make them seem like they didn’t want to do it. A lot of it was scheduling. I mean also, if you’re an established actor and someone says do you want to make $0 for one day’s work for a comedy show called “Drunk History”. If you’ve never heard of it, you think where is the evolution of television going. On paper you’re just picturing a bunch of jocks running around and puking, so I understand if people don’t want to do our show in this first season.

Is there anyone outside of the show that you’d like to share a drink with?

Yeah, Eddie Vedder. Yeah, I drank a little bit of wine with him once, but it was too weird to even… sometimes you love someone…like you love Santa Claus, but you’re kind of scared of him too. But Eddie Vedder.

Well thank you, I really look forward to the shows. Congratulations man.

Thank you Nolan, I really appreciate it.

 

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jk

Drunk History Part 2: An interview with Director Jeremy Konners

So you were co-creators with Derek?

Yeah, we started it together and we turned it into a television show together.

So what is your role as director on a show like this?

The role of the director is a lot of initial research and vetting of stories, and figuring out which stories are great and which stories will make great “drunk histories”. We’ll go to an interview and Derek will interview someone and I’ll sit behind him with the camera making sure everybody stays on point… because drunk people tend to veer off the path a little. So, I’ll make sure everyone is telling a story correctly and that we’re going the right way and when we get back it’s very collaborative. Me and Derek have to figure out how to edit these five hour monsters into an elegant drunk history. All of those aspects are collaborative. We don’t write it, but we write it through editing it. That is something that the narrator is responsible for, as is Derek and the narrator and the editor—to make it coherent with just the right amount of incoherence. And then once we get on set its much more of a director role.

dtDo these stories get warped off the cuff or do you guys know the way you’re going to take them? Or does the drunkenness allow the story to take its course?

We absolutely allow the stories to take their course. We go in with a plan and the plan goes out the window immediately. What’s been funny and interesting in this process is that people who are funny and know the story very well, they are very ready to tell the story. Before the story they do the research– which they should– they brush up and read over their books. We think we know how the story is going to go—but no. We sat down with [the person] who was doing the Scopes Monkey Trial. We sat down and said “tell us about the Scopes Monkey Trial” and he says, “it’s all bullshit. It’s all propaganda.” And we said, “well what’s the story?” and he says, “it’s all propaganda to bring tourists and to sell trinkets.” But it’s the trial of the century and he says, “no it’s all propaganda and it’s a metaphor for McCarthyism.” So we told the story that he told us. Which is more factually correct. Inherit the Wind is not the Scopes Monkey Trial. It’s an inherent retelling of the story with and agenda. And it was not our agenda. We’re very open to how stories are told and who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. I think we’ve done some really cool episodes. We deal with the Haymarket riots in Chicago. We have the story of Ralph Nader’s rise to fame when he took on GM. We have the fact that we have Watergate from someone who knows who Mark Phelps is and we know who Deep Throat is and we do the story on him.

Did you find yourself having to “can” any footage because people were TOO drunk?

There’s a lot of unpredictability. People are drinking excessive amounts. We have never pushed people to drink to their physical limit. That is not our interest. We like people getting drunk and telling stories– they don’t need to get sick and they don’t need to pass out—but, it sometimes happens and we have to roll with the punches. The great thing is when people throw up they feel great. If there’s a moment when people are getting sick we always think well, in five second they’re going to feel a million times better. I like to say that is it very strange that people are getting drunk and sick on television, but if everyone at home who was getting drunk was talking passionately about history, it would be an awesome world. So, I’m alright with this. I don’t think it provokes bad behavior, I think it’s a cautionary tale.

So when this first came together was this something that came together randomly when hanging out and you thought ‘let’s film this’?

Yeah, we were hanging out a lot and we were friends and we were making a lot of shorts together and Derek came to me and said I was talking to my friend Jake Johnson and he was talking about Otis Redding and he was really wasted. And we thought it was really funny and we could get someone wasted and have them tell a story and reenact it. I said “that’s fucking great, let’s do it”. But you know what, it didn’t go so well the first time. It was a mess. He didn’t tell any of his story. It was boring and it didn’t work. Then we went over to our friend Matt Gaglioti’s house. We got there late, so he already had way more than he thought he was going to have. He was getting pretty tipsy and he asked “Can I tell you about Alexander Hamilton”? Then he literally goes on a 4 and a half hour rant on Meritocracy. He would be like “Do you know what Meritocracy is?”. And we are like “yes you’ve told us, please tell us there’s a way to weave this into the story”. And like magic, he told the story about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and it was so amazing the way he did it. It was so simple and funny and the way he said Hamilton called his wife and family. Everything he said had us crying laughing. We had to bite our lips because he was so into the zone and his eyes were closed. We were like little kids at the back of the teacher’s classroom and we didn’t want to snap him out of it. He told it so quickly. What happened with the first one, he told us so quickly as opposed to the other ones, which have lasted hours. We knew we were onto something the second we left. I was such a huge History Channel guy. I love that stuff, but I love it and I was so excited to make fun of it, because MAN it takes itself so seriously.

Describe the setting… You go to the narrator’s house? You drink together? Who knows when it’s time?

Well we’ll ask them to have a couple of drinks before we get there. It is a requirement that it is their booze. We’re not feeding them booze. They’re drinking their own drinks. We’ll get there and because of camaraderie we’ll have a drink with them so they feel comfortable. It’s a strange thing to have a film crew staring at you when you’re getting drunk. But yeah, we’ll hang out and eventually start filming. Derek will go around with them and ask them about pictures on their wall and get comfortable with them.

sw5Have you ever been unable to perform the roles of the director because you have had too much to drink?

I have never indulged too much. I waited for the wrap party to indulge too much. And then I caught up. At the wrap party I was a mess. It was embarrassing.

What are some of the more outrageous or interesting cues you give to actors while they’re playing the roles?

They only thing that I’ve had to do is make sure that people tell the historic parts of the story. Like one person told the story and then started talking about his thoughts on circumcision for an hour. Which really happened. At a certain point I’m like “Hey let’s make sure we get the end of that story because we could easily walk away and not get that story.’ I try not to direct them to change how they are acting. You just try to get them to talk about certain things.

Have you ever had to scrap a story because it wasn’t funny or outrageous enough?

There were stories that we filmed before television, yes. We were very lucky because we have been able to incubate this show for 7 years before having a television show, so we know what works and what doesn’t. Someone would say ‘I know everything about Garfield. Let me tell you about Garfield.” And they would start saying all of the facts and about his life and they knew everything and about every war. But at the end of the day it was a list of facts and not a story. After filming a few of those we had to make sure to that the stories are great, but it’s such a weird thing to have your friend go through with that and not have a finished product for them.

So needless to say you probably don’t do this in your drunken spare time any more.

It’s not what we do in our drunk spare time anymore, but it is the same amount of fun. We haven’t lost that. It’s the same show. Comedy Central has been great. It’s still all the things that we love. It could have very easily been one of those things that was once one thing but then got bigger and everything changed. And then everyone would hate it because it was bigger and everything changed. Everybody can hate it, but it’s the same thing that it always was.

wrDo have anything that sticks out when you were filming where you said “this is genious, this is gold”?

Aha. Ha. A highlight… it was pretty crazy working with Alfred Molina. We were in this incredible theater downtown. He was having so much fun. Having Alfred Molina say, “This is so great. This is so much fun. I love this.” It was really a surreal moment and it had taken on a whole new level that I had never ever expected.

The Band Who Helped Define Punk and Refused to Live Within Its Confines: 40 Years of the Stranglers

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While punk rock veterans and astute audiophiles are no strangers to the Stanglers’ punk pedigree, the band feels as though they’ve never received their due respect in America—to the point they even started ignoring us.

Their new record, “Giants”, was released in the US this May, but has already been out in Europe for a year. And their North American tour, which starts next week, will be their first in 17 years.

If the Sex Pistols gave a snarling face and attitude to the genre while the Clash and Ramones would go on to define its boundaries of sound, the Stranglers’ legacy lies in their longevity and diversity. They preceded the previously mentioned bands, and their music never stopped— it only progressed.

With a career spanning 17 records and closing in on 40 years, perhaps the term “punk” is just too simplistic and vague to describe the band’s vast catalogue. Their sound has always been far more complex and diverse than the three-chord, two-minute anthems of their contemporaries. With classics as disparate as the bass-heavy rumble and crass spoken-word, “Peaches”, to their sinister harpsichord waltz, “Golden Brown”, the Stranglers’ never subscribed to a specific attitude or formulaic sound.

I was lucky enough to catch up with founder/songwriter/bassist JJ Burnel over the phone to preview his recent North American tour. Cynical and smart, his attitude provided the perfect and appropriate repartee for a seminal punk pioneer still hacking away at socio-political boundaries. For the privvy, the punks and the poseurs alike, I give you JJ Burnel.

So the new record comes out next week in America. Is it already out in Europe?

Yes, it’s been out in Europe for a year.

Wow! Why was there a delay for it getting to America?

We didn’t consider releasing it in the States until people asked us if they could release it in the States and North America. We’ve accepted and we’ve accepted to come and play in North America as well. I’m not sure which came first. And for once we’ve accepted.

Why is America still the last frontier for you guys? Why has America been off the grid?

Well we’ve just been doing other things you know. It’s been quite a few years since we’ve toured the States and we’ve been offered a few tours, but we didn’t feel ready for it or didn’t feel like it. And now we do. The band is very strong at the moment and we’ve been breaking records all over the UK and we’ve just been asked to do the BBC London Proms, which I don’t know if you know about…

I was just reading about that actually.

Yes, it’s quite a big deal over here actually. We feel in a good way and accepted to come over to America. It’s not the be-all end-all, you know. Also we’ve never really busted our balls in America. It’s wonderful and we’re very excited to come over to the other side of the pond. 

Do you remember the last time you played America?

I think it was 17 years ago.

Wow, do you remember any specific times from Boston or New York?

No, I remember I have played in America since then. I played with my friend Pat DiNizio, a member of the Smithereens, an American band. And he invited me to do a tour with him. It was a good education for me and I must say I learned a lot from that bloke, but no its exciting and so long ago, it’s almost like I’m a virgin.

[UNINTENTIONAL] Is it harder? Is it a bigger commitment to go on tour you’re your drummer being over 70 and your ages?

Well, you are being very diplomatic, the drummer Jet doesn’t travel with us any more. He plays with us occasionally, when his health can stand up to it. But for instance these past two UK tours, which were quite extensive, he was only able to come in for a few songs. The fans and the band are very happy to see him but he’s not really part of the touring party. To be diplomatic as well, he… well… he lived the rock n roll lifestyle a bit too much. The rest of us, we’re fine.

Did the Stanglers ever officially break up or was there just a periodic break?

We have NEVER ever split up. We have continuously been busy, but we have had 6-12 months sabbatical because we had other things to do. There is life outside of the Stranglers fortunately, and that’s what gives us our freshness and zest to continue. You don’t live in a musical vacuum. I think you’d have nothing to say. Plus, we been learning and absorbing different influences past and present along the way. I’d hate to think we were on an assembly line, you know?

Right. You guys are continually grouped into the category of punk. Where do you think you fit into the punk rock lexicon, and is that too simple of a word to describe the band?

Well, the term is interesting because it has meant more for us over the years. The first time it was used it was a bit of a broad church, I think the first time I heard it used was 1975-76. I’m not sure if that was the reason we were the first band asked to play with Patti Smith in Europe or the first band ever to the play with the Ramones in Europe, but the term quickly got ambushed by fundamentalism, and it started to describe a much narrower field than I was able to accept. Joe Strummer of the Clash used to come see us regularly when he was in a rhythm and blues band and certainly the Pistols were coming to see us before they started their bands. I’m not sure if we really subscribed to their philosophies, but certainly we were slightly ahead of the game, and of that whole generation of bands we were definitely the first. I hate to interject, but we’ve actually outsold the Pistols in the 70’s. But we didn’t do the big American thing. We didn’t want to do 9 months in America. That wasn’t our agenda.

What does “Freedom is Insane” [the title of a track on your new record] mean to you?

“Freedom is Insane” is… have you heard it?

I have, yes.

Generally speaking it’s about the West and how it supposes its vision called democracy, and it imposes it on the whole world, when it actually isn’t appropriate. We’ve taken 2000 years to get to something we call “approaching democracy” and however, people in other countries have no concept of it and it breeds a kind of mischief that we are sort of inheriting now. I mean attacking in Iraq and Afghanistan, did it really make the world a safer place? I don’t think so. We impose this Western vision on the world by force of arms and we harvest the results. I don’t think it’s well thought out. So, freedom is insane. I’ve put myself in the position of an Iraqi veteran who is on a desert island and who does not want to be liberated. We thought they were going in as liberators and they were thought of as conquerors or invaders. There are heavy losses of life as well. I think the invasion of Iraq was more revenge of the Twin Towers more than anything, and of course American public opinion was in favor of it and the Allies were in favor of it, but they didn’t really think it through. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that is how it is. It’s like Robinson Crusoe, but the opposite—he doesn’t want to be liberated.

Would you say this is one of your more political albums?

No, it might be for you, but no. I’m not trying to ram it down people’s throats. The Stranglers have always written about the world that we live in. I think that it’s our right and prerogative. If the world was just a bedroom where I was fucking, or a blingy thingy, it would be appropriate that way. But we have a “world view” like anyone. Even a cab driver has a “world view”, and no one’s “world view” is less valuable than the next man’s. Maybe some are less informed, but we try to stay informed and have an opinion. We try to approach it in terms that people will listen to it. I wouldn’t say we are more political than usual on this one though.

Is it strange being defined by charts and singles? Has it changed in Europe like it’s changed in America– for the worst?

In the past it was, but now the charts mean ‘fuck all’ right now. I don’t know who they serve and they have less value than ever right now. We managed to sell out more than anyone else in the UK last year and this year without getting really any huge chart action or even being played a lot. Maybe there’s some sort of resurgence in underground, or maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that people can find out and access music in different ways now. They’re not spoonfed anymore. So if we don’t get much radio play and people still know about us, it must reflect something else. Also, people don’t necessarily want to be spoonfed. Some people do, but more inquiring minds want to find out from themselves.

How did the US release come to be? Is this a different record label?

I believe it is. And yes, I believe they did. This last album for some strange reason had the best reviews ever in the history of the Stranglers from Day 1. So, I think a few people must have sat up and taken notes outside of the places it was released. We had a very successful European tour and also doing 15 different countries, so someone may have noticed.

What do you feel about the rebirth or re-education of a song based on movies like Snatch? I know much of my generation found out about you through “Golden Brown” when it played such a key part in a movie role. What do you think about the cultural impact of something like that on your past career?

I think in a roundabout way you’ve sort of answered your own question. Don’t you think?

Yeah, but is it something that you’ve noticed too?

Yeah, I mean it’s great from my point of view, but a song, which has been hugely successful all over the world, gets recycled. I mean lots of songs get recycled. If you have a song that’s obscure, it has less of a shelf life. But if a record that’s slightly successful or highly successful then it gets played. I mean the dictatorship of the airwaves and the commercial imperative kind of obscures the fact that there’s a lot of talent out there that doesn’t get played. There are a lot of artists out there struggling to make a living and maybe even to be heard. And it’s not even a reflection on the quality of their output, it’s on the powers that be that dictate what gets played and what gets get exposed. Of course I’m pleased that a song like “Golden Brown” got played in a movie like Snatch. I wasn’t even aware that the movie had been released in America… it’s great.

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What does the cover of the new “Giants” record signify to you?

Well, you have seen the artwork?! Well if I tell you I will have to kill you [laughs]. Is that an option? You don’t really want me to spoonfeed you anything? You wanted a shortcut.

What do you think the Stranglers legacy is and will be?

Well that’s what the French call nominalism…”bellybuttonism”. It’s something that I really don’t spend any time thinking about. But it is perhaps something that journalists and commentators will mire over if we’re lucky and talk about. But we’re still alive and kicking, so the legacy can wait a bit longer.

What do you do when you’re not focused on music and the Stranglers?

I teach in London. I am the chief instructor in the UK of Shotokan Karate. I also love to ride my motorcycle around the UK and Europe, because I can. But the Stranglers are quite busy. Last year we played God knows how many countries– maybe 20 countries. The fact that it’s taken all this time for the US to seduce us back is more a reflection on you guys than with us to be honest.

Did you headline the last time you were in the US?

Yeah, we headlined, but I think it’s a bit pretentious for some of the small places we played. Some are a bit bigger than others, but it’s such a vast country, the U S of A—some places you are virtually unknown and some places you are hailed as a star. Especially when you haven’t really worked it so much, every state is almost like a different country isn’t it.

Thanks I look forward to the show. Thanks for taking the time.

Oh thank you very much. Hey, do you know where we’re playing in Boston? What’s the venue like in Boston? Do you know remember or heard of the Rat? Or is it still going? Because that is very first place we ever played the first time we played America. Look it’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

Well I look forward to seeing you.

Well we’ll be there. So if you’re not there I reckon you’ll be somewhere else.

Mouse on Mars: Interplanetary Electronica

Mouse on Mars

The rockers don’t know what they are doing or how they are doing it. The dancers are often perplexed at a seeming lack of structure. And the deejays couldn’t and wouldn’t dare venture into such dangerous territories. And all the while, despite their experimental endeavors, Mouse on Mars intrigue music appreciators of all types.

This German avant-garde electronic band is an especially eclectic outfit that can’t possibly be grouped into any specific category. Their discography ranges from ambient chill-out to abstract bombastic sonic onslaughts—and most times a combination of both. Deconstructing source material and rebuilding it piece-by-piece, Mouse on Mars juxtapose obtuse oscillations with anxiety-filled clicks, clangs and hisses, provoking chaos, just to tame it later and massage it into a blissful soundscape or straight up dance beat.

I was blessed to catch up with Jan Werner over the phone from his home in Germany for an interview to preview their recent North American shows. Together with collaborator Andi Toma, Mouse on Mars have covered more sonic landscapes than most other electronic outfits and Werner’s descriptive mission statements about the band’s sound are some of the most profound and poetic that I have ever heard—not bad for someone whose first language isn’t even English.

The photos and videos that follow are exclusive from the band’s February show at Great Scott in Boston, Massachusetts.

Enjoy.

 

Is Jan there?

Yup, I’m on the phone. Hi.

This is Nolan from Boston. Is this an okay time to talk?

Yes, It’s a perfect time. How are you Nolan?

Not bad, how about you?

I’m good. I’m on the couch.

What time is it over there?

It’s 10pm. People are sleeping. The street is calm. It’s nice. mom-1-4 It’s freezing over here, literally.

Yeah, here too. I think its -20 Celsius here. I don’t know what it is in Fahrenheit.

When’s the last time you toured the US?

The last time was a really long time ago– 2006 or 2007– much too long.

So, you went 6 years between records, yet you released 2 records within a couple of months. Was that due to a wave of inspiration or was there a preconceived timeline in your minds made it that way?

We’re just timing things. We have a very special approach with timing where people prefer a predictable schedule. We are kind of free for a few years and then suddenly have far too many releases at once. If you think one way or another we might not go that way or we will. It’s all part of our path. We want to keep the unpredictability and that transcends our touring and release schedule. But we haven’t been unproductive. It’s just that we didn’t make any records. It’s not that the band split up or anything. mom-1-2The records are vastly different. Did you foresee the path ahead of time or did you have different ideas going into each one?

Parastrophics was basically a record that we had five years in the making and WOW was obviously a record completely out of the moment and a few weeks in production. It’s much more casual and actual and contemporary. I think that’s basically the concept. In ways those records are blending together basically where Parastrophics is basically a riddle and a map or a house of leaves, where WOW was about a much more immediate expression of a feeling and a moment that in an instant takes everything that would need reflection or need a sentence or even a word to express would be a waste of time. I feel like Parastrophics Is the complete opposite of WOW. Parastrophics is really rhythm encrypted and has edges and angles for a type of situation. The way those records back each other up and belong to the same sound and same cosmos describe the same planetary system relationship of sound and size of sound and sound material.

Back when I last saw you in 2001, you guys used a lot of live instrumentation and were said to use a lot of live instruments in the studio. To what degree has that changed? Do you record and perform primarily digitally now? Is it mostly computer based now?

It’s a good point actually. We use a lot of computers and programs nowadays because computers and software have become so incredibly complex and flexible in different ways and various ways, and definitely we’ve become more interested in software these days than with real instruments. It doesn’t mean that we’ve thrown it completely overboard, but I have to say that the computer possibilities are especially attractive—especially as a group who grew up with computers and digital technology where there’s no better time than now. It’s in all of our genes and we’re bathing in technology at the moment. Even in the visual way we work with computer generated visuals and we bring a video beamer, which makes the live situation more complex than if we would have brought instruments. The way we produce music is with controllers and a few hardware things that we still have, but less than if we had a hard band in a more traditional way.

How do songs change from recordings to a live setting, and what part does improvisation play live and on record?

Improvisation for us is important because it makes us aware of the moment. It means more to let go and try different directions. If you were to just reconstruct songs the way they were on the record or on paper, it would just be repetition of a formula that we don’t fit good in. Which leads me back to your first question. It doesn’t fit our rhythm or our behavior. We have to have the possibility where things are cut or stretched– the dynamic range has to be maximum for us to even be interested in what we are doing. This is what triggers our attention, and what translates live to an audience. That’s why it makes sense for us to play live—this tension. You never know what you’re going to get at the end of the night, but we know we’ll get through it and it’s the experience you have after all these years. You don’t know how it will work or what will happen. mom-1-3How does being a duo (like you’ll be on this tour) change things? Does that change the sound and setup entirely?

Yes, it changes the sound quite a bit. Working with our drummer and singer, he has a laptop linked into our laptops and we send sounds back and forth and we change his drum sounds and trigger new sounds. I would say the duo thing is even more immediate and even more improvised because its quicker and throwing out different interests to what each other is doing. Also, standing next to each other live at the table is definitely different to the other live setup where we’re spread out. It’s definitely different, but I can’t say what it’s like in the audience. I’ve never seen Mouse on Mars live [Laughs]. I don’t know how different it is in the end, but I know how I feel and I know how the duo thing has a more immediate and punchy sound and it is more driven and more improvised and chaotic at times. Is it more electronic sounding at times? Yes, it’s probably more electronic sounding at times.

Were you guys really born in the same hospital on the same day?

Yeah, that’s what we say. I have no memory of it at all. I think my earliest memory is of age 4 and I don’t remember Andy until later. So we are kind of like twins, you know?

Is there something that each of you bring to the table when you’re recording? Do you each have different strengths that are different from each other, but come together as Mouse on Mars?

Yeah, for sure. By making music together and the different ideas—sometimes I think we are so different that I think I don’t understand at all what the other person is about or why they want to do things that way. Sometimes I think there’s a massive discommunication between us, which is actually very creative I think—trying to figure out what each of us wants on a track and that, for some reason, creates part of the sound. That is one of the recipes of why we’re still working together. None of us understand what each other is doing. I can’t tell you where Andy’s music energy is coming from. I know he’s infinitely musical and incredibly restless and manic and he seems to have an infinite sound supply and idea supply, but then again each of us could do a record on his own. I could do a record on my own, and so could Andy.  He’s not dependant on me. But, either way we come together and create Mouse on Mars and it’s really different and it’s just so tense and it’s such a challenge for us. The music we’re doing together is a massive challenge– one of the great life challenges that we have at some point. You meet and you realize that this is really dangerous. If I hang out with this person I will end up in a mental hospital—it’s dangerous and you enjoy that. It’s a bit like what happens when you very deeply fall in love with a person. You see this person and you think I’m falling and I’m falling endlessly. You want to escape it, but you’re also hyper-attracted to it. And that is what happened musically with Andy. It’s kind of weird, but it’s endless. You start making music with this person, but there’s no end to it. Coming back to your question, I can’t tell you that Andy is very good at making a crazy bassline, or that he’s the weirdest hi-hat wizard you ever met. He’s just so great at everything and he can do whatever he wants to and it’s great. But it’s not so much his or my talent. It’s what happens when we sew these qualities together and see this massive music monster appear and we feel like we’re fighting it and we feel like Jedi knights and we’re fighting this beast of sound. This is our job and this is our task. Sometimes I feel like… like right now, I am at home and I have a nice home and I have a beautiful wife– she is traveling right now, she is an artist, she’s also quite busy at times. But when we are together at home it seems like the perfect world. And I don’t want anything but to be hanging out with my family, but when Andy’s calling I know we have to go on tour or we need to do something in the studio. When that happens I know I need to face the world and I know I need to go and fight this beast of doing music… and I know that only Andy and I can do it. I’m so sorry, I know. I’m so sorry. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, and my kid is crying and wife won’t let me go, but I can’t help it. I have to do it because this Mouse on Mars thing is back out there and the only people who can contain it are Andy and me; and that’s our job.

mom-1 Well, that’s one of the greatest answers I’ve ever heard in the course of interviewing. Do you prefer playing live or recording—or does it not really matter to you?

Um, well, we started in the studio. We started there and you never lose touch with that. I think the studio is our home and it’s really the source of where this Mouse on Mars thing comes from. We do enjoy playing live and we are very curious people and we like to strut around and each of us have our own paths in ways, but we are like cats in ways as well, playing live fits that attitude pretty well. You just go up there and see what happens. You create your music, and it was new and it was fleeting and then it’s gone. It was just for that moment. You don’t have to struggle at how you would record a track properly or how you would master, or which tracks will go on there. You just throw it out there each night and turn your back on the club and leave. It’s great. iI’s fantastic. The studio, though, it’s there everyday and it’s really like a dungeon. But again, this is where we started and this is still our home.

What happens if a computer crashes onstage, and has that ever happened to you?

Um, KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK, it’s never happened. But it would have been a nightmare, even from the very first gig. The computer isn’t just a sound producing machine, it really links the elements together. We’re using MIDI and we’re still linking through MIDI and these days its also processing the visuals which are happening in the moment and which are computer generated and different each night. Yeah, it’d be a nightmare if that happened, but at the same time, it’s life. If it were to happen it would be worse to have a stroke though, right?

I remember when Nobekazu Takemura was playing with you live and his computer crashed and he just got up and left the stage. The show was over.

Yeah! Wow, crazy! That was probably the only time we have ever played together, ever. I can’t believe you remember that. Maybe we had a gig in Japan?

This one was in Austin, Texas in 2001.

Wow! Crazy! Who else was playing, do you know?

I think it may have been Tortoise headlining.

Yeah. Absolutely. That can happen. We can still find a way. We have two computers and even if one would crash, we could just work and do something else with the other computer and find a way. We could find something to do…maybe a song contest with the audience or….

Do you ever consider the danceability of songs when you create them, or does that not matter to you?

To be honest, we have no idea. Our mind is very concerned with every person and individual. So, even if you play a show for a lot of people, for us all of the people out there are different. If were trying to make them dance we would assume that each one does their own dance. We would have to say “Everybody dance now” [laughs] which is already happening. We wouldn’t start a concert and say “everybody dance”. We don’t know how each person responds to what we’re doing and if people dance they do so for their own reason. Each person might start dancing at their own set point—we wouldn’t want to synchronize people, so we don’t think about what track would make people dance. We only know which tracks make us move and get us excited. We don’t have a recipe, though. Like if we said let’s put in a drum roll here. I know people can do it. I know deejays who know exactly when to make the drop and when to bring the bass back in. Plus, we don’t really think in track terms. We think more in story terms. Each song has a narration and has its peaks and ups and downs and comes back together. Each track is really a story, or a drama rather than a set of codes. People usually dance though, and we are happy about that. But if they don’t, we are not sad.

What is the state of the iPhone App that you’ve been working on?

Oh, don’t mention the iPhone App; it’s a nightmare. No, the iPhone App is going great. We are also working on an iPad App for a long time and it doesn’t seem to be coming together. This iPhone App is just the nicest project and is coming together really well. The person who coded it, Peter Kern, he is really just a great person. We kind of have a demo version together and in a couple of weeks we should have it ready. The biggest thing for us is to get this iTunes store running. It’s something that we are really bad with. You need all of this legal stuff and accounting stuff, so for that reason we need a bit of help. But once we have out iTunes store up and our own account, we can throw the App up there and people can download it and use it. I don’t know how long it takes for things like that to happen with applications, but it might be another three months and it will be in the store.

But do you think that over-simplifies what you guys do, or the effects that it creates? Does it give someone too much power who doesn’t know the technique? Is it cheating?

I see it as part, not of the bigger picture, but I see it an element within the picture. This App is definitely something that doesn’t substitute for a whole track. It is obviously a very specific element that you can dip your head into and you can really dig deep in that element and trying to explore it, but it won’t provide you with a full thing. For us it was really important to consider this as an instrument instead of a full production platform. It’s not like you throw in a couple of beats and then you throw in a bunch of synth sounds and then you put the track together. Also, some people won’t be able to use this at all. It can drive you crazy. It is really a thing of its own. It’s an uncontrollable device within its own right and I think for that I think its great. I think it’s super that you can have it on a phone and it’s cool that it’s simple. It’s important to realize we are not trying to do something complex in a simple way. It doesn’t pretend anything. It just stands there naked and tells you look, “I’m just a simple instrument and if you give me too much information I just produce a massive amount of feedback”. But if you just want to come up with sounds you’ve never heard before and find your way, then you are right. That’s what it does.

South By Southwest: In Our Year of the Lord 2013

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It was 80 degrees and I was lakeside sipping $5 margaritas in the warm glow of a sunny Austin afternoon when I received a photo of the terrible weather back home in Boston. Deep in the heart and soul of Texas, I was on location, on assignment and pretty much on vacation for the Lone Star State’s yearly festival of musical madness, South by Southwest.

SXSW started early this year, but despite the extra day and even more venues, the growing number of bands and fans were already overwhelming Austin, providing an increasingly difficult itinerary. Press passes aren’t what they used to be and it is quite easy to get stuck in line long enough to miss a few hours and a few acts. It’s important to have a few backup plans, and not to be discouraged when your first choices fall through. After all, the festival is supposed to be about discovering new talent.

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The freaks and the fashionable parade the streets from noon until the early morning hours, making people-watching alone worth the price of the plane ticket. I joined the masses on Tuesday looking for something new, and I quickly found it. Making my way to the Paste Magazine/Newport Folk Festival’s showcase, I arrived just in time to see the start of Hooray for Riff Raff’s set. They were news to me and the female duo (sometimes more members) from New Orleans played a riveting stripped down set of country-tinged blues combining cover songs by Billie Holiday and Fred Neil as well as a slew of originals. Alternating between acoustic guitar and banjo, backed by a fiddle and the occasional toy piano, their set seemed perfectly at home on the front patio of the rickety old house now known as the Blackheart Bar. Not only will Hooray for Riff Raff make their debut at the Newport Folk Festival, but they found out just hours before their set they will be the opening act for the Alabama Shakes upcoming tour.

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From there it was on to Viceland to catch the Skaters’ Austin debut. The buzz around them, combined with sharing a bill with Wavves and Japandroids created a line of about 2000 people snaked around the block. It would be my first letdown… but not my last.

After watching a few songs from the street, I decided to make better use of my time and headed over to the Mohawk to hear the Danish band, Indians. A three-piece consisting of more keyboards than people, the band combined layers of loops, Moogs and a brain-rattling drum pad to create dreamy, slightly dancey music while Enya-like atmospherics and the Copenhagen croon of lead singer Soren Juul filled in the empty spaces.

Looking to for some more traditional rock n roll, I drifted off to The North Door to catch Vietnam. After taking the past 5 years off, Michael Gerner is back with a new six-piece lineup and a new record, but their sound remains the same. Dark, lengthy and often druggy narratives are delivered without traditional verse/chorus structure and set against a heavy shimmer of blues guitar riffs.

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After seeing the line for Jim James a couple blocks from the entrance. I decided to go back to my hotel and rest up for Wednesday. It was going to be a long week.

WEDNESDAY

The first thing you learn at the festival is of the numerous unpublicized daytime shows that go on throughout the week. Whether planned, secret or last minute, there are hundreds of shows that go on throughout the week at SXSW with the sun still up. They provide you with a chance to catch those acts that you might otherwise miss– not to mention the fact that these gigs are often accompanied by free food and drink. This makes the days extra long, and the unforgiving Texas sun does not help.

Waking early, I headed straight to Club de Ville, one of my favorite old haunts, as the Austin band Feathers took stage. A five-piece comprised of four women and a male drummer manning an electronic drum kit, Feathers wore tall heels and looked like the Runaways years later and sounded like a gothic Pat Benatar.

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Heading to Main and Jr., previously the staple venue known as Emo’s, I was surprised to catch Indians, again. It would be show #2 of their 8 shows of the week. Back in the day, bands usually had only one official nighttime showcase and played as many daytime shows as they could. Back then three shows was a lot, now bands play as many as ten shows in a week and it’s not out of the ordinary to catch a band several times on your sonic quests.

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From there it was off the too Austin Convention Center. A multi block, 4-floor maze filled with just about every facet of the music industry at any given time, every day, talks and trade shows are hosted as part of the festival. While they might not be the most popular or promoted events of the week, I decided to take on two in a row. The first was “Drunk Comedy at SXSW”. The internet sensation that became popular on Funny or Die, will now be a new series on Comedy Central. On hand were the hilarious Kyle Kinane and creator Derek Waters. With tallboys in coozies, they were in character as they talked about the conception of the show, confessing that it was originally only supposed to be one video short until Jack Black asked if he could be Ben Franklin. The rest is history… drunk history.

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From there it was up a few floors to see Devendra Banhart. Pretty and polished he sat and played a handful of songs with his signature falsetto warble and intriguingly absurd banter like wishing everyone a Happy Halloween or commenting on how Audrey Hepburn “emotes”. A strange and large business meeting room show, this was a very strange place to witness such an avant-folk-weirdo.

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Even with a press pass, sometimes you need to jump through hoops to get into certain shows. And Nick Cave was one of them. I had won a raffle of tickets for definite entry, the only stipulation being that I had to arrive before 7:45. After regrouping at my hotel, I was on the shuttle bus back to town, and all was well until the British dude in front of me complained that the driver had missed his stop. Heading back uptown in a detour, the shuttle rolled into town at 7:40. After a short sprint to the venue, I made it, shall we say, in the “nick” of time. Mr. Cave and the Bad Seeds were scheduled to take the stage at Stubbs Amphitheater while the sun was still up—a strange and rare occurrence. But, as expected, he stalled until the darkness fell and opened with a few tracks from their new record as the smell of BBQ lingered in the air. Almost possessed, he brought life to the quiet new tracks on the band’s recent release and followed them up by an epic run through his some of his best work. “From Her to Eternity” was followed by “Red Right Hand”, “Jack the Ripper”, “Deanna” and “Stagger Lee”. While much of the band is new, the Bad Seeds complimented Nick’s stage presence with tense reserve, all except violinist Warren Ellis who has, in time, become Cave’s maniacal right-hand man. I knew going into the show that Nick Cave was too big to report on, but it turned out to be one of the best shows of the week.

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Next up was the Love Inks, an Austin band whose single, “Black Eye” has been in constant rotation in my headphones for the past year. A modern day girl-group with fuzzy reverb, the band backed up the sound on their record with remarkable poise.

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For the remainder of the night I decided to post up at the pop up venue, Hype Hotel for what should have been an excellent lineup. The Orwells kicked things off and after noticing the X’s on their hands, I learned that everyone in the band is a teenager. They didn’t look it, and they didn’t sound like it. Sure, the lead singer had a bit of Jim Morrison’s snotty angst, but the band played well… until they were told it was their last song. The guitarist told the soundguy that they had been lied to about their set time provoking the lead singer to swing his microphone around smashing it into the cymbals before sending it into the crowd. After a physical altercation with the soundman, they left the stage for good. It was a rock n roll moment that you don’t see very often anymore… for better or worse. It almost seemed like a media ploy, but that might just be the cynic in me.

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Whether it was the Orwells’ fault or not, the sound would not be same for much of the show. Cords were busted, sets were delayed and the sound went southward. The anticipated Phosphorescent shined despite the ordeal. Seven members deep and with two keyboardists, their sound was fleshed out roots rock with an expressive backwoods voice. Making it through most of the set without complaints, they also threw their mic after their last song. What in the world was happening here?

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Things would only get worse as the well-recorded Foxygen landed up playing an awful set with the leadsinger sounding like an out-of-tune and out-of-work showtune crooner. The sound and showmanship would only return as Jim James closed out the night with a shortened set. Fun, energetic and far from his My Morning Jacket sets, James and his band brought the audience a great set with some amazing surprises. Leave it to that man to always give it his all. It was a night that combined the crass with the class.

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THURSDAY

Today a HUGE show was scheduled at Willie Nelson’s Ranch, 30 miles from town, and every year, Willie takes the time to hold a charity event, drawing people from SXSW to his farm, but drawing people away from the music at hand. And usually Willie isn’t there. I wasn’t allowed to go, but all day I longed to see the extravaganza. What could be more Texas than being on Willie’s ranch?!

It was Day Three at SXSW, and everything on my itinerary was louder, harder and heavier than the days before. For anyone seeking solace in cerebral modern day psychedelia, this was surely the place to be.

Starting at the Thrasher/Converse Party at the Scoot Inn early in the day, I was happy to find I was one of the only members of the press at the party. Yes, the show was somewhat of a secret, but with such an eclectic mix of some of the festival’s most sought after acts, I figured word would have gotten out.

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With skateboarders grinding on a half-pipe next to a relatively small open-air venue, this daytime party provided some of the best acts under the hot Austin sun. Bleached took the stage around 2pm and rocked the crowd with a hard and tough bubblegum take on pop-punk girl group music.

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King Tuff followed an hour later, and with a full band in tow, he superceded the sensitive sounds of his recent record with a more aggressive, more intense and heavier psychedelic set that put his recent release in a new perspective.

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Chelsea Light Moving was up next. The new band fronted by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth with Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Maloney on drums, their recent debut came out last week on Matador and is most reminiscent of Moore’s 1995 record, Psychic Hearts. Thurston arrived fashionably early in a laidback style, entering the venue on a bicycle and riding it through the audience just before taking the stage for soundcheck. Combining his alternate tunings and surrounded by Marshall stacks, Moore and company combined Sonic Youth’s pastoral and intricate riffs with heavy drowned out pedal stomps and intensive guitar solos. Proving he’s one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, Moore’s combination of sensitivity juxtaposed with harsh, high-decibel 6-string serenades provided the perfect dynamic to coincide with his poetic meanderings.

After giving into the elements, I returned back to town around 9pm. Snoop Dogg (aka Snoop Lion), Stevie Nicks and Dave Grohl were all scheduled to perform tonight—not together of course. With the long lines and my general lack of interest, I skipped the “hot ticket” shows and headed to East Austin for some more psychedelia. Once considered the wrong side of the tracks and a home to artists looking for cheap studios, I was surprised to find East Austin as a hotbed of cool. It’s a tale as old as time, but I never expected it could happen so quickly in Austin. This week East Austin would prove to be worth its weight in heavy metal.

Just a few blocks beyond this newfound center for up-and-coming greatness and unfortunate gentrification, I found my way to Hotel Vegas. With a retro neon sign lighting the landscape, I headed inside to catch some of music’s greatest and heaviest sonic surprises. With four stages, I bounced back and forth, catching a sampling of sounds. The Go, a longtime Detroit-based garage band, has only gotten better and heavier since former and future famous member Jack White left the band.  MMOSS, a New Hampshire bred/Boston-based band combined acoustic guitars and ethereal drones, often summon the sounds of early Floyd on record. But more notably their live show has brought the flute back to the forefront of the rock n roll frontier.

Running to the Mohawk, I was finally going to catch SKATERS. Sounding like that guitar driven magic of the first Strokes record, the band gave you something to move to, but also something to think about. Combining angst and disaffection but also channeling driving guitar rhythms and rocking fun, SKATERS continued to make a name for themselves.

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Though I had just missed Philadelphia’s Bleeding Rainbow at Hotel Vegas earlier in the evening, I was able to catch them a few hours later at their second showcase of the night. Combining an awesome name with spaced out male and female vocals against a bed of deep driving guitars, and chugging rhythms, they evoked a speedier and grittier My Bloody Valentine.

Seeing just how many shows I could catch within the hour, I continued on to Maggie Mae’s where the Seattle band Kinski was still spacing out. I’ve been bearing witness to Kinski’s heavy and heady rumblings for almost a decade now, and they always deliver. Combining searing and soaring guitars with spacey solos, the band played songs from their recent release on Kill Rock Stars and brought a slight darkness to the overlit and well-stocked cocktail venue.

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Finishing the night at Red Eyed Fly, I caught the Generationals who have continued to grow in sound and popularity. Recording as a duo and performing this tour as a four-piece, the band combined rock and electronics to produce a sound that combines the old with new

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FRIDAY

Growing weary of the constant lines and the lack of sleep that came with noon til 2am non-stop music, I rolled into town, still in search of the greatest thing I hadn’t heard. And I think I found it. Making my way to Sonos Studios, I waited in a long line for about an hour, crossing the threshold just in time to catch Wildcat!Wildcat!. After the first few minutes of their set, I knew I had found a new musical sensation to write home about.

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The band took the stage with two keyboards, bass, live drums and 4 mics. A live band with an electronic sound, the four-part vocal harmonies that fluctuated from falsetto to natural voice created an added warmth to already summery sound. This band was having fun; they were humble, and they were hardworking. They would eventually play 10 shows in their 5 days in town. Each time I saw them they carried the same graciousness and modesty that they had the time before—pleasing the ears of new audience members each time. Upon investigation, I saw that although the band has played music together before and known each other forever, the Wildcat!Wildcat! project was created only in the last year, and with only a 7” to their name, this was surely the band to watch, and the band that will go on to make it.

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Running to the shit show that is 6th street, I hurried to catch another Indians’ show at Peckerheads. Playing the same great set in perhaps their most grimy, unheralded show, I was happy to interview the band on the street corner a few minutes after their last note. Sharing smokes, I spoke to Søren Løkke Juul about his unexpected signing to a label and the fact that he had only written two or three songs before being signed. Surely a genuine and kind musician, he was on show 6 of 8 and surely overworked. I thanked him for his time and know I’ll see him in the near future.

After trying to take in a few shows in the early hours of the nighttime showcases and being shut out by impenetrable lines, I joined up with my famous and favorite writer friend and mentor, Luke O’Neil. Also bummed about the current claustrophobic state of SXSW, we took to the city’s few cocktail bars and got some rich foods and expensive mescal at Peche. If there’s one thing we knew as much about as music, it was the craft of cocktails. And they did it right. Luke even taught the bartenders how to make his new and favorite creation.

To give you a sense of the strange state of affairs at SXSW’s move from up-and-coming bands to bands of all rank and file, we passed a crowd of people on the streets that even reached and crowded each level in the multi-deck parking garage across the way to see… Third Eye Blind! It was perplexing. But to be fair, after giving it a quick laugh we immediately started talking about how we actually found a good deal of goodness in the band. Still it was strange that they were here… now.

After splitting up, I ran over to Club de Ville to catch the last few songs of Youth Lagoon. Yeah, you know them, and so did I. But I figured it’d be a good way to end the night.

SATURDAY

My day started at the Filter Party at the Cedar Street Courtyard, and besides brief taco truck trips, this was the place to start and stay… all day. I never saw that “Free BBQ” that they advertised, but I did see a great set by San Cisco, a decent performance by K.I.D.S., and excellent shows by Wildcat!Wildacat! (again), and Surfer Blood who ended the weeklong daytime shows at the venue.

When the sun went down I decided to make it a point to see some foreign showcases and headed to the two floors of Maggie Mae’s for the Austrialian BBQ Showcase. There was no BBQ here either!?– and after the huge lines to get in got through the door, the crowd hardly filled either of the venues spaces. The opening bands were hard to get into, and after a few minutes by the band The Beards, it was obvious that this was a novelty act. They wore beards, of course, but their songs were ONLY about beards. The laughs were only possible for about a song and a half. I have no idea how this act made it all the way to Austin from Australia for that.

It seemed best that I head back to Hotel Vegas. Their 4 venues would again play home to the best in strange and psych and was promoted by Burger Records who manned a makeshift record shop under the tent. I don’t know if I had a sign on my back saying to walk into me or if people were honestly that tanked, but it was an arduous experience.

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Many of the bands all week at Hotel Vegas were repeats, and welcomed ones at that, but I tried my best through confidence and consequence to see the bands I hadn’t seen before. Teenage Burritos were great, but that name cannot be taken seriously.  In fact, it was the amazing set by Pangea that proved to be the best surprise of the evening. Talk about surprises, the band wasn’t even published in the printed or online schedules. Nevertheless, word must have gotten out because it would go down as the wildest show I’d seen all week. This was not for the weak of heart, but that was the point. Switching speeds between punk and heavy rock, they were always loud and very energetic. And the fans gave as much back as they were getting. Fists in the air, slamdancing, moshing, crowdsurfing and throwing beers in the air, this tiny space became filled with a contained and maintained brief party riot. At one point a speaker even started swaying about to fall. This is what rock was and should be about. I bought a record. It was the best I could do.

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From there it was on to see the Royal Baths. Friends and former members of Ty Segall, I was first intrigued by the band based on their nearly perfect name of their record, “Better Luck Next Life”. I had bought this a year ago based on the name alone, and for some reason was a bit discouraged to see their live act as sparse and unaffecting as their record.

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Not knowing what to do now, I ran over to see Kid Congo. A former member of Gun Club and the Bad Seeds, his band’s uniforms proved more interesting than the music. Was it back to see Warlocks? Pharcyde? George Clinton? No, I headed to the most beautiful hotel in town to catch Boston’s own David Wax Museum play their roots blues in one of their most cushy settings.

Instead of looking for the best way to end my night, I decided getting in the hotel shuttlebus line might be the best bet of all. On the way to the queue, I saw Smashing Pumpkins play from a closed down street with everyone else who didn’t get in. It made me wonder, has it gone too far? Sure seeing a few old school Pumpkins songs was great, but most people couldn’t even get in. They even made the gate JUST high enough that you couldn’t really see them. Plus, Prince had played a show earlier, with special privileges given to people with Samsung Galaxy phones who also had to do an intricate scavenger hunt.

Have big names and big business made SXSW something better? Or as many bands and fans continue to question– has SXSW become a distraction and unnecessary next step for a festival built on showcasing the new and the worthy? There are more #hashtag big and small business options per square foot than I’ve ever seen in my life. Long gone are the days of walking the streets of Austin with a printed schedule and a highlighter. In an atmosphere that is already all about sensory overload, technology ruled SXSW this year. Parties were announced via Twitter, there was an app for schedules and oftentimes when you got to the shows, most of the audience members had their heads down to text or tweet. Smart phones made people dumb. Business was business as usual, maybe ten-fold, but fans would also become a product of the biz. Even if no one cared, the texts, the tweets, the FB posts seem to seep into the same social fabric that made SXSW what created its true value. Now, technology has become so self-indulgent and pointless that the fans have gone the way of the industry—bored, disillusioned and self-important without a true value outside of themselves and what they think is important to others. I watched industry people sit at their own showcases, bashing the bands that thousands came out to see. I was asked by a management company if I played that night. When I said “no”, they responded, “Good!, I represent all these bands on this showcase and it would have been awkward otherwise.” Well, that’s awkward enough for me to know people aren’t doing their jobs. And I’d hate for that person to be my manager.

One thing is for sure, despite the long lines and overpopulation of a relatively small town, the city of Austin has adapted to the yearly influx incredibly. What began as an event with less than 1000 attendees in 1987, now claims upwards of 20,000. Streets are blocked off, there’s a general order and a surplus of information. Much has changed since my last trip to SXSW. Pedicabs flood the streets, bars have changed their names, temporary venues spring up and business is thriving. There are food truck trailer parks and makeshift marketplaces, and even a whole string of bars on Rainey Street that until recently was completely residential. Austin may be the coolest town in all of America, but while it may seem like it’s whole existence leads up to this week of international influx, I think that Austin is fine on its own. I think if I lived in this fine city, I might seek refuge elsewhere in the month of March. I love this town. I love it. SXSW may have brought it to the rest of the world’s attention, but that doesn’t mean the city appreciates the rest of us. Regardless, this cool town seems cooler to the rest of the world for SXSW, and there’s no denying it’s importance. But won’t it be better to be here on an off month?!

Despite limited shows on Sunday, Saturday was essentially SXSW’s grand finale. By Sunday morning, all of the people flooding the streets would either be in cabs or already at the airport. I always try to stick around a little longer to enjoy the town for what it is, a first class city—and perhaps the coolest town in America.

As for me, I decided to stay a couple days and recover from the over-expenditure of serotonin that had begun messing with my emotional stability. It had been a week full of Lone Star beer and Shiner Bock. A week of BBQ, taco trucks and huevos rancheros. A week of northern eyes focused on the southern dress codes. I had witnessed so much and yet I had still missed so much. And I’ll probably do it all over again next year.