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.

Fishbone: Teach a Band to Fish…

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From punk to funk, ska to hard rock, Fishbone is a band defined by its diversity. While their genre-jumping would go on to influence countless bands– many of whom would go on to superstardom– it became a self-induced curse for them as pioneers. The lack of a centralized sound eventually grew unappealing to record companies. And that’s when things started to go wrong.

Shown explicitly in the 2011 documentary, Everyday Sunshine, the Laurence Fishburne narrated film comes complete with tip-of-the-hat respect from big names, but in the end, the movie is about struggle and perseverance. Following the band through its mile highs and tragic woes, the struggle to “break through” is only compounded by power struggles and the constant departure of band members.

Members came and went—and some even come back again—but only founding members Angelo Moore and John “Norwood” Fisher stayed with the band through the entire journey.

Pursuing a multitude of sounds with satire, a social consciousness and a reputation for being one of the best live acts of all time, Fishbone weren’t the most marketable of bands, but they remain one of the most respected, and they continue to play to this day.

I was lucky to catch up with “Norwood” over the phone from his Long Beach home as he prepared for his upcoming US tour. The following interview is unedited, and the photos and video clips are exclusive and taken from their March 3, 2013 show at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts just a few weeks after our chat. Enjoy!

Hello, is Norwood there?

Yeah, that’s me.

Hey this is Nolan. How are you doing?

I’m doing great.

So when does the tour get under way?

Ultimately on Friday.

Did you have to cancel part of the European tour?

Yeah. That was last year. We had to cancel last year’s tour because of Angelo’s unfortunate staff infection situation.

So, I watched the documentary “Everyday Sunshine” last week and I though it was very well done. I was curious what your thoughts were on the final product?

Ultimately, I think it is honest. That was my initial reaction. It’s honest and accurate to the stories as they were told. It didn’t seem to me like added anything. They got things as they happened and went with them. It’s something I can stand by.

There were some big name fans and friends interviewed to help tell the story. Were those all people that you guys knew well and considered friends and longtime supporters?

That was the intention. There were a lot more interviews with a lot more people, but the ones that they actually chose, most of them, were people that we actually had relationships with and were pivotal at some point in our career. At some point these people were actually considered friends… almost all of them.

You guys went through a lot of ups and downs, but did Fishbone ever officially split up?

No, the band has always been continuing on. The band never stopped. For better or worse, we figured out a way to keep it rolling. Many times it was bad, but more times than not, it was pretty cool.

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Do you have any person specific highlights from over the years that you hold dear to you?

There are a LOT. There is a long, long list of those, but really some of the things like our first club date. Our first club date where we got paid $25. That was an unexpected moment for me. I got called into the office and somebody was giving me money for what we had just did. That wasn’t the part I was thinking about that day. And I was like “Whoa”. You couldn’t do much with that $25, but it was like ‘damn, we got paid for that’. And actually, that place was Madame Wong’s Chinatown, a place that nurtured punk rock. It was like CBGB’s West. That was what it meant for LA punk rock. So, yeah, there’s times like that, and then there are times rolling with different bands. I like to think about the time in the early 90’s when Fishbone and Primus were touring. We were in a stripclub in Atlanta with Les Claypool, right, [laughs] and we went to this black club and all these black dancers were ALL over Les Claypool, right [laughs]… I mean that happened and it was an amazing moment. Girls come in high heels and stripper garb for the time and they take off their shoes and actually sweat. It was amazing. Black strippers LOVED Les Claypool.

Do you see any cohesive scene in punk rock anymore– specifically LA punk rock. Is LA even a place where underground punk rock, or music with a message is possible anymore? Or is there less of a time and place for that now.

I’ll tell you what man—we, as a nation, as a culture– by in large, I think that those days have passed. What the new emerging paradigm is, I don’t know. You know, punk rock was the last thing that was really scary and bands with a political statement… it’s been so long… because I think the generation that went to go fight in Afghanistan and Iraq missed those opportunities to make those political statements. Those statements were made by people that were too old to have the same stake. People who are 16, 17, 18, 20 years old were not the ones writing the protest songs. When Green Day started doing their political thing, they were out of that age ring. And I appreciate everything they had to say, but there were bands I was looking for it from. They were the ones who, if they didn’t go to the front lines, their friends were—their high school buddies, their uncles, their aunts, their brothers, sister, parents, whoever– were the ones doing it. And they didn’t by and large speak of their concerns. It may have been the climate around 9/11 where you’re either with us or against us. That kinda drew a line in the sand, you know. When I think about it, the very first people that I saw stand up and say– whether you believe it or not– but they did suppose the question that they think it was an inside job, was the Black Eyed Peas. I was like, ‘Whoa’. A lot of people we thinking it, but no one was saying it. That’s where it came from. Not the 18 year olds who could have been in that war—they were out of that age ring. So, anyway… I think that that time will come again, but right now there is something happening politically that is pretty amazing. The Right is out of step with the majority of the population. And there’s a lot of conversation about that Right and about the GOP knowing where the fit. I’m one of those people who feel that you DO need both sides. You need that and you need MORE. You need a lot of ideas and I don’t need to agree with everyFUCKINGbody. But again, we live in a time where it would be pretty cool if there were a lot of young people expressing themselves. Like, I don’t with everything Obama says and does, but I like the guy. I like him like I like Bill Clinton. I liked Bill Clinton. It’s the same kind of “like”. I’m not looking to follow anybody or for anyone to express my feelings. But I think it’s great to have a guy who connects and you can tell your kid, ‘hey you can be like that, dude’. Because he’s intelligent. Bill Clinton was like that and Obama’s got the same kind of thing—it’s different, but I like that part of it. I think it would be nice to have some 18-year-olds who can say, ‘hey, my interests are possibly being overlooked,” in a song.

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So there’s a part in the movie where your former manager, Roger Perry suggests, “Had Fishbone been less of a democracy, they might have been a more successful band. But had they been less of a democracy, they wouldn’t have been Fishbone.” Do you agree with that statement?

Yeah, I absolutely believe that statement. There is a point where not everybody in a democracy is speaking about the best interests as a whole. You have some people who are making decisions based on personal feelings. I guess yeah, in a way, we turned into a band that that whoever was screaming the loudest… well, you know… the squeaky wheel was getting the oil. And as I saw it happening, I saw what it was, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I didn’t have the tools to distinguish it exactly for what it is and reason with everybody and say ‘Hey!” We reached that point and that was when… you know. And sometimes in hindsight it all wasn’t bad, you know. Sometimes it was really bad.

Can you talk about the initial struggle of people leaving the band and the strain it put on the band. And did that ever make you question if you wanted to leave, or for the band to breakup?

Yep! Absolutely, because my respect for the original members was so strong that I didn’t actually honestly think there could be a Fishbone without those original six guys. And the fact that we continued on without them was me breaking a promise to myself. I made a promise to myself that if any of those original six guys ever left, I would break the band up. Well, I broke that promise. And right now, I’m glad I did. I’m glad I broke that promise because it brings us… I got to see that it’s not the same and every change and every band member who left and every band member who replaced them made it different. But, hundreds of thousands of happy faces in the audiences later blessed it.

Do you keep up with the former members, or at least some of them?

Yeah. Absolutely. If they were all available I would talk to them all.

Did you and Kendall ever reconcile the whole lawsuit situation officially after you rescued him from a religious cult?

Well it wasn’t a lawsuit, right. It was a trial—a criminal trial where me, his fiancée, his brother and one more person were all facing 9 to 11 years of a prison sentence [for kidnapping]. Personally, me… the fact that I didn’t spend a day in prison for it. We got a full acquittal for it. Was that really Kendall? No, that wasn’t the guy that I know who did that. It just drove his, brainwashing, or whatever. I don’t really know what it was. But it allows me to forgive. However I was feeling, I knew that wasn’t the same guy. It allows me to know that whenever I see that guy, the person who I grew up with, I can get right with that person.

What would you say Fishbone’s legacy is and will be, and to what do you owe the band’s longevity?

The longevity is really that we were in a very unusual position of having artistic license and full creative expression. That is our legacy. We are the band that opened the door for more people to do that on a larger scale. And as actual people, in the landscape of rock n roll, we made it a little more colorful—in a physical and ethnic way as well as the musical tapestry, so that people could wear their influences on their sleeves freely.

In the movie it seems that everyone is interviewed separately and by themselves, and some people seem like they have so much animosity that they can’t even be in the same room as the others. Is that just the interviewing style or is their some truth to it?

Nah, it’s a stylistic thing. You might be forgetting at this point that they captured a couple of connections that were made during the making of that movie. Me, Kendall and Chris were actually in the same room—and that’s something that hadn’t happened in 15 years. And it was an awesome moment; it wasn’t a setup. Me and Kendall actually connect for the first time. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you what, everybody else was cool. That was the only thing that couldn’t happen. But it happened and you get to see it happen. You see Kendall and Chris see each other. I had seen Kendall and Chris each separately. But I think when Kendall and Chris saw each other it was the first time they’d seen each other since 1992. [Laughs]

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At the end of the movie it shows you and Angelo expressing your issues with one another, but trying to find ways to meet half way and fix your dynamic. How is that going? And are you guys planning on making more music?

You know what? It’s ROUGH. It ain’t easy right. We recorded five songs which we agreed upon to release an EP and then beginning to work on a full-length record. And right now, I’m ready to release those songs and Angelo’s saying he doesn’t want to release them. So I have to sit down with him and ask him why. He agreed to do these things and at one point… more than one point… he said he really liked these songs. So, he’s having a power struggle within his own head, you know. I’m not struggling with him, so it’s like if you don’t want to release the songs then they don’t get released. I’m not going to whine and cry about it. It’s unfortunate, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what happens. Other than that it’s been a slow process getting the songs together for the next full-length. I knew that that would be the case, so that’s why I wanted to put together the EP and put something out before working on the full-length. I wanted to take a little time, because as a producer I want it to be EPIC. I want it to speak our future into existence. Right now there is something with Angelo and I in our relationship that is making it difficult. I don’t know what’s going on in Angelo’s head right now. I just want to sit down me and him and talk about and figure out where he’s at. It ain’t easy.

 

I’m assuming playing live is more what defines Fishbone than the recordings.

Yeah, like really. I actually like all of it. I like recording, I like…LOVE… live. In the past few years, actually, I’ve been producing records more than any other time in my life. I love being in the studio. I’m going to the studio as soon as I put down this phone! I’m doing this project with members of Mars Volta, P-Funk and Eric Burdon of the Animals. We’re doing a project together and I’m headed to the studio to lay down a bass line and record some rough mixes. I love it all. The thing is, with Fishbone, there’s nothing like impacting the audience and looking people in the eye and seeing the joy and seeing the dancefloor do what you imagine it could be. There’s a moshpit, people skankin’, girls winding it up… it’s all lovely.

New Multitudes: Woody Guthrie’s memory lives on through a supergroup quartet

In honor of this month’s PBS premiere of Ken Burns’ amazing new documentary series, “The Dust Bowl”, featuring the music of Woody Guthrie, I give you this year in the life of New Multitudes.

A supergroup of sorts, yet leaving any ego behind, New Multitudes is a quartet formed to honor and record unreleased songs of Woody Guthrie on this, the centennial year of his birth.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t just the voice of a generation– he was the voice of several generations, and his legacy is destined to live on forever. Known reverently as America’s premier folk singer, Guthrie was the voice of the people, the voice of protest and a voice of peace. He sang for children, for the workers, for the underdog, and always against injustice. One of the most important storytellers of all time, he is not only known for his original songs, but also for keeping traditional tunes alive and relevant in our nation’s historical repertoire.

It is within this history of retelling the tales of others that the recent New Multitudes record came to be. Paying homage to Woody, and released as a tribute to the centennial anniversary of his birth, four of America’s most earnest troubadours have united to honor Guthrie by recording an album of his previously unreleased songs and taking those tunes on the road for a brief American tour.

First conceived by Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Gob Iron) back in 1995 as a potential collaboration between him and Billy Bragg, the idea fell through and eventually his old bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, would pursue the project with Bragg instead. Farrar would eventually return to the project, enlisting Anders Parker (his band mate in Gob Iron) and later Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Will Johnson (of Centromatic and South San Gabriel). Invited by Woody’s granddaughter, Nora Guthrie, Farrar and company were invited to the Woody Guthrie archives in New York City and rummaged through an overwhelming and well-organized file of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs.

Recording the songs over an extensive time frame, the four participants released New Multitudes on February 28 of this year on Rounder Records. Each member assumes the position of lead vocalist for three tracks each, alternating in sequence, and with each of the members joining in at the harmonies and backing instrumentation. In spring 2012, the band did a small big city tour to showcase the record with each member adding some of their own material to the each show’s set list.

The following interviews with Will Johnson and Jay Farrar were conducted separately, over the phone, and just a few days into the tour. Accompanying the interview are exclusive photos and videos from the band’s shows in Boston and at the Newport Folk Festival. Enjoy….

An interview with Will Johnson:

Nolan: Hey Will, how are you?

Will: Hey Nolan. I’m doing okay. I appreciate your patience in doing this and keeping the volley going. This might be a record. This might be one for the books in trying to organize an interview.

I know you’re busy and I’m just glad we get to talk. Where are you guys now?

We’re in Portland right now. We got in about midnight last night.

How have the shows gone so far?

It’s just been a ton of fun. We only have 2 under our belt and it’s been fun trying to assemble it and its been quick. We’ve had to do soundchecks basically as full-set run-thru rehearsal to make sure we have all our ducks in order. But I’m around some really great folks and just as I said when I was doing the Monsters of Folk tour, I have the best seat in the house [as the drummer]. This is a pretty good band and I feel very lucky to be part of it.

Is it just the four of you on stage?

Yes, it is.

Let’s start with the beginnings of this project. Who approached who and who joined on in time?

I guess going back to 1995-1996, Jay [Farrar] was in contact with Nora Guthrie [Woody’s granddaughter] and the idea was to work with Billy Bragg on some Woody Guthrie recordings. I guess the timing didn’t work out. I don’t exactly know the details, but it didn’t happen. But Jay attained to eventually get around to that on his terms. Toss that forward to 2005 and 2006, I guess he and Anders had Gob Iron and they went to the archives and started tracking with Nora’s blessing to put music to these lost and unrecorded Woody lyrics. That gained a little steam. Then in 2008-2009, Jim went by the archives and heard some of those recordings just to say he liked the songs that he heard. Then Jay extended the invitation to Jim and soon after they discussed it, they extended it to me. Then it started to snowball. Jim and I went to New York and cut our songs and got together for a followup session about a year later in March of 2010. So this record came from various corners of the universe in a way—recording sessions and different locations. But the cool thing is that we’ve all known each other for years and years and years through touring and recording and mutual admiration. I guess I go back to 1998 with Jay and Anders and Jim and I have known each other for years of course. It takes awhile to tell that story because it took that long to make the record.

Was everyone in the studio at once or did you guys do it in pairs?

Jay and Anders had the bulk of their tracks done before Jim and I came along. And they had various musicians record with them. The session that took place in ’09 shortly after I was invited involved all four of us. We were at the studio in Brooklyn for a week and we cut Jim’s three songs and we cut my three songs and we all played all over theirs. The session that took place in 2010 was mainly to get mine and Jim’s background vocals on Jay and Anders songs so that there’s a continuous run of fingerprints—everyone’s fingerprints are on all the recordings.

Did you get to go to the archives?

I still have not got to go. The way I received my choices and selections and song choices was from Jay, who had been to the archive several times. He sent me photocopies of 16 to 18 pages of Woody’s writings and scribbles and metered song lyrics… things like that. I went through those on my own time, but I still have to get to the archives.

Where is the Guthrie archive?

It’s in Manhattan as far as I know.

Is it open to the public or do you have to be specially invited?

I guess I’ll find out. I think people have to be in touch with Nora.

What has her roll been in this project?

I hope she goes to the New York show.

So you recorded for a week and just started practicing for the shows this past week?

That’s right. We went down to St. Louis and had three practice days at Jay’s studio doing the best we could to work out a set.

Does the song each person sings on the record reflect the song that they individually decided on to do, or was it a united effort?

I would say so. Speaking from my own experience, I got that mailer from Jay sand spread those pages out on the couch and just decided to find the things that came most naturally. It sounds a little cryptic but I started cutting demos within twenty minutes of opening the mailer. As far as the set we’re going to go straight through and then a mini second set where we do a solo song a piece and a solo song with the full band backing. It’s a full night of music for sure, but I think going in we wanted to perform every bit of the record for sure.

What did Woody Guthrie mean to you and did that view change in anyway with you participating in this project and recording his unrecorded songs?

It’s one of the most humbling feelings I’ve ever experienced. I feel I’m repeating myself with this, but I feel that it is truly one of the most highest honors that I could have ever experienced, either artistically, or in life. Woody Guthrie was always important to me as a kid, thanks to my folks and my grandparents and adults around me. By 1997, I really started exploring deeper into how complex and encompassing he was on all life levels. Just the breadth of his pallet became apparent to me. That Joe Klein biography sticks out to me as an important stage in me learning more about Woody and just how many people he affected. Once I read that book I started to look for more recordings. I guess it didn’t hurt that I was living with a semi-Woody obsessed roommate. So it was always around the house. We actually had a record player in the bathroom and whenever you flipped on the light switch it activated the record player. So, if we were taking a shower, the record player would go and there were a couple of Woody records that were on that record player for the better part of a year, which is great. Use the rest room, brush your teeth and you’d always hear Woody. That was such an important part of my life where I chose to dive in and wanted to learn more about this person.

I know that you and Jim are roadwarriors. Do you see an affinity with Woody Guthrie and that aspect of bringing his music on the road while rambling around the country?

Yeah, Jim and I met just from that sort of setting. It was the Jacket’s first U.S. tour and a good friend of mine was promoting the show in Austin. My friend had some really keen insight and is really responsible for forging the friendship and our friendship’s to flourish. He kind of insisted that South San Gabriel play that show with My Morning Jacket. And we played that show and friendships were forged immediately. Jim and I would send recordings to each other and we did tours in Europe and the US. That friendship flourished into the Monsters of Folk tour and this project as well.

When you approached Woody’s unreleased songs, to what degree did you try to consider how Woody would sing the song versus giving the song your own treatment?

That’s a really good question. On one song [“No Fear”], I took into account how Woody would have sang it and I could hear his voice so clearly when I read those words. Such simple lyrics and if you see the page, it’s scrawled out, it’s later in his life and his faculties were…um… his handwriting was a little shakey, and that makes reading those lyrics all the more intense. There’s still this fire, despite the condition he was in, but he was struggling with his handwriting. That song I did in fact hear his voice and I always kind of thought that Woody was one of the original punk rockers and when those lyrics–to my eyes, and eventually my ears– were very punk rock. Looking death straight in the eye and not being afraid of it. With the other two songs, I tried not to bring in too many outside influences and tried to let the lyrics guide me and let it unfold in a way that felt most natural. I thought it would be incredibly daunting, but I found the songs came very naturally and quick and I think that’s a testament to his voice and his songwriting.

An Interview with Jay Farrar

JF: Thanks for being flexible and thanks for your patience.

NG: No Problem. So are the shows going well so far?

JF: Yeah, really well. Even the first show. There’s always a first show aura I guess and it felt like we’d already been doing it for a while, so it’s going well.

Do you wanna give a brief history as to the beginnings of this project. I know you spearheaded it because you did stuff awhile back.

Yeah the idea of working with Woody Guthrie goes back to 1995-1996 when a request came through the record company. Son Volt was on Warner Brothers then and the idea was to work with unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics and to work with Billy Bragg. That didn’t happen, but the idea started then. Then in 2006, I approached Nora Guthrie and she said sure. At that point we started going into the Woody Guthrie archives.

So as far as the Billy Bragg thing, did Jeff Tweedy [former bandmate in Uncle Tupelo] just take and run with that?

I don’t know, but frankly I don’t really care which is important. This project finally came to fruition and it’s a great experience working with Will, Jim and Anders.

So you did some songs before this band got together?

That’s right. That’s reflected in the bonus deluxe version of the New Multitudes record, which has a lot of extra songs. Those were songs that Anders Parker and I got a head start on. We started recording, sometimes together and sometimes individually in 2006 and we started the process. Since the beginning this has been a side project and we just did what we could. Probably for the best, there was never any record company involved. The best example of that is that I once traded a guitar to make a recording situation happen. It’s always been an ad hoc situation to make this happen.

How did you come about meeting Nora Guthrie?

We met her while visiting the archives. She’s been supportive all along.

Tell me a little bit about the archives. Do you have to be invited there or can anyone go?

That’s a good question. I was invited because I approached Nora about doing a project with Woody Guthrie lyrics and I’m not sure what she thinks about anyone stopping by, but…. At the time in was located in upper Manhattan and it just occupied just a few relatively small rooms, but there was a vast amount of Woody Guthrie stuff there. It was essentially a repository of all things Woody and lyrics that had never been put to music. Originally I started with the letter “A” with the intention of making it all the way to the letter “Z”, but after about two days, I realized I was only on the letter “C” and wasn’t going to make it and started picking letters arbitrarily that I thought might be good like the letter “S”.

So everything is that well organized?

It is. It’s organized by pre-existing lyrics and then there are journals, which Woody often engaged in more of a free-form style of writing. Sometimes it was a stream of consciousness style, like in the song “Hoping Machine” which reflects Woody’s charms.

What was the craziest thing you found in the archive?

There are too many to mention, but when we found the song “Hoping Machine”, it was just in the middle of his journals where he would be writing routine stuff like “I woke up and drank coffee” and right after that he would launch into something philosophical, along the lines of  “Hoping Machine” which struck me to be a song where he’s talking about music as a language… where the mind which travels back to the laws of time and space.

Were all of these songs from a similar time period, or do you even know?

I started out concentrating Woody’s work in the 1940’s. That particularly interested me because it was a period where his guitar said “This Machine Kills Fascists”. And it was also a period where Woody went in and out of St. Louis, which is where I’m from. I think that “Hoping Machine” comes from the period. But, as Nora pointed out, most of the work that we chose was from a later period, maybe in the 1950’s when he was in California.

What did Woody mean to you before and has that perspective changed now that you’ve recorded his songs and even discovered his unreleased works?

I think going into the project I always thought that Woody was the first guy who though music could change the world. He was essentially the archetype. You can draw a flowchart with people that Woody Guthrie influenced along the way. But I think just visiting the archives it was amazing how prolific he was at creating. I think his first profession was a sign painter.

When you went into these songs, what part of you was conscious of giving the songs your own treatment versus the was Woody would have played them?

We didn’t really go into the writing or recording project with any game plan. We just wanted it to evolve and would reflect each of the various backgrounds that each of us bring to the background.

Would you say you wanted the songs to sound like how Woody imagined them, or did you try and do your own take on things?

There was never any conscious thought about how Woody would have sang it. But I think there are instances where we’re gelling enough to sound like Woody would have done it.

The Clean: America Learns about New Zealand’s Seminal Indie Band… again.

The Clean had already broken up before their music gained its first taste of long-lasting reverence on distant shores. Formed in Dunedin, New Zealand by brothers Hamish and David Kilgour in 1978, The Clean signed with Flying Nun Records. Even though their first single “Tally Ho” hit the Top 20 in the New Zealand charts in 1981, the band prematurely called it quits just a year later.

During their hiatus, the Kilgours eventually learned that their influence was crossing continents– even if their records weren’t readily available overseas. Flying Nun quickly became the most important independent label in New Zealand music history, and The Clean began being referenced as influences for standout US indie rock acts like Yo La Tengo and Pavement.

The Clean’s notoriety seems to come in waves, with each generation of in-the-knows gaining proper knowledge over time. Back in the day, Homestead, Rough Trade and Matador made portions of their records available to anyone who cared, but most recently, it’s Merge that has given The Clean a label in the States. Giving a home to their two most recent studio records and a 46-song anthology, The Clean have done everything from punk to pop and the comfortable combination in between. And there may even be a new record down the line.

I was lucky enough to speak to David Kilgour last month in the midst of a North American tour to talk about the then, the now and the future.

So first off, I know it’s probably old news, but I wasn’t privy to it while it was happening, and there isn’t a lot of information out there… How and when were you guys able to break out of New Zealand and make a name for yourselves overseas?

It seemed to be a word-of-mouth thing I suppose. But at the time, when the Clean first broke up in 1981, we had very little feedback from the rest of the world at that time really– except for vinyl junkies from around the world. So I didn’t really click on to the interest of the Clean and my solo work until probably the late 80’s. It seemed to just be a word of mouth sort of thing. It was just music freaks turning each other on to the music and it made its way through the grapevine. That seemed to be the way it worked I suppose. I didn’t really click on to the world spectrum til the late 80’s and the Clean performed a series of shows in London in the late-1980’s and I was astounded at the amount of press we got and the crowds we got. It’s a very valid question.

How did the fans and friends and alliances between other musicians come to be? Did they come to New Zealand or was it from you guys touring the States?

American friends you mean? Because of touring, the Bats and the Chills had already done a few tours of Europe and American before the Clean started up again in the late 80’s. We started touring sporadically from then on. I guess the first one was Yo La Tengo. We had been touring Europe in the early 90’s and just bumped into them. We had known of them because we had just had a track on a compilation at the time, I think it was called Hannibal Music. I think Homestead put that out and we kind of knew each other through that and we bumped into them and things became as well as they could have ever been and they’ve been very good buddies ever since. You know, you tour and you meet people. The more were toured, the more friends we made. Back then the so-called “indie-rock” thing was alive and happening through the 80’s and 90’s.

Were your records even readily available in the US at the time you were releasing them at home, or is that something that came later?

No, it was later. Flying Nun exported a lot of stuff back in the day and Homestead put out a few things. They might have put out a compilation of Flying Nun stuff, but the first major release we had was, because of the reunion shows in the late 80’s was when we were signed to Rough Trade and we made the Vehicle EP on Rough Trade. That was the first major release we had in Europe. And then Flying Nun did some licensing deals here and there with Homestead. Later on we landed up on labels like Matador and Merge. We had little deals here and there.

Did you guys ever officially break up or were there just breaks and hiatuses?

We broke up in 1982 and got back in the late 1980’s. When we got back together we decided to keep the Clean as an ongoing project, an open book, as such. We thought we should just get back together, keep making music and play. We found that the old magic was still there and we still loved playing, but we never treated it from that point on as a serious career option or anything. It’s just something we wanted to do and it’s been that way ever since then, you know?

Is this tour the biggest one you’ve done in awhile?

No, we’ve done a bunch of touring recently. We toured the States about 18 months ago and we toured Europe the year before that. But I guess we haven’t done a long month or more tour since the early 2000’s. But this is a short tour for us really.

Is there any new Clean material in the works?

It’s hard for us because we like to write together. We don’t much like to write secretly and bring stuff in. It’s kind of difficult, Hamish is living in America, so it’s kind of difficult. We’ll try to write stuff together on this tour I guess at soundchecks and stuff, but nothing new at the moment.

Have you been doing anything besides music since you started playing way back in the 1980’s?

Not really, just my solo career, the Clean, and on the side I paint a bit. That’s pretty much been my life really.

Do you know anything about the current New Zealand scene? You guys are part of an era which will always be defined as the height of New Zealand music. Is there still a strong and unified scene in NZ today?

I don’t know how united it ever was, but the music scene there is still very healthy. There are a lot of things happening now, a lot of different types of music going on. The government funds a lot of new acts, and even some older acts. It’s a small country, but it’s still quite active.

Were you guys celebrities at home back in the day?

I don’t know if I’d use the word celebrities, but “Tally Ho” went on the Top 10. We were in the high rotation on video shows. If that’s celebrity, I guess we were. We sold a lot of records in New Zealand. I have a couple of gold records actually.

If you guys were the first people to break out of NZ, who were the people you looked up to and influenced you, both home and away?

In world music? New Zealand had a very healthy scene in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Some people broke out, like John Rowles. He toured around the world. The Thin Boys. Crowded House. A lot bands did pretty well. But the one kind of music that made me pick up instruments was punk rock.

Newport Folk Festival 2012: Photos and Video from the Historic Rhode Island Music Festival

Saturday’s festival began with the anxious lull of miles and hours of traffic and ended with chaotic torrential downpour, flash flooding and a lightning storm that would cut My Morning Jacket’s headlining set a few songs short. This however, made the experience all the more memorable.

With four stages of music overlapping in simultaneous performances, it would be impossible to witness everything, but nevertheless, one could try. The previously mentioned traffic made just about every commuter late, we had sadly just missed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but we strolled in just in time to catch bits of Deer Tick and more importantly, the Alabama Shakes. Heavy-hearted and soulful, the band delivered a spirited set for a massive audience posted up on the lawn of the main stage. Luckily this wouldn’t be last we’d see of the Shakes.

Seeking a bit of space, we headed over to the Quad to see Sharon Van Etten. Unfortunately, while her sultry croon was spot on, the experience as a whole became a little off-put with her awkward banter. Consistently asking why she was even performing at a folk fest, the comments seemed more disrespectful and snide than appreciative and flattered.

Iron and Wine followed Van Etten, and did so with a bit more poise. Despite a full-band that included an eclectic array of instruments including a clarinet and a pump-harmonium, Sam Beam and company’s set remained at a pleasant hush. Hitting on elements from their whole catalogue, the band even went into a unique rendition of the often covered “Long Black Veil”, first recorded by Lefty Frizzell.

The crowd on the usually spacious Quad had tripled in size for I&W, and it seemed that this year’s Sold Out festival brought a much bigger audience than previous years. Even the amount of vendors in the area had multiplied. Packing up our blanket, we headed to the Harbor Stage to catch the remaining minutes of First Aid Kit. The Swedish sisters who broke through the US market with the help of Conor Oberst, the band seemed to be right at home purveying their foreign folkish selections that, if you were wondering, were in English.

About this time, we had a quick bite and took our place in a lengthening queue to watch My Morning Jacket from the side of the stage. Finding a place in line with the lovely Laura Jean, who had spent the previous night making the band intricate boutonnieres with medallions and ribbon, we were overjoyed to see the band take stage wearing the beautiful arrangements. Patrick Hallahan even drummed the entire set in his specially made floral lei.

The Jacket’s set was, as we had assumed, a true highlight of the festival, and the reason we had come in the first place. Despite the fact that they are known primarily as one of the greatest and intense live rock bands of modern day, Jim’s roots could easily be deemed folkish– and he explored the softer side of his catalogue early in the set to prove it. Beginning with their newest number, “Welcome Home”, from their 2011 Christmas record, the band dove into the “Golden”, “The Way That He Sings”, “It Beats for You” and “Wonderful” which featured Ben Soille on cello and Laura Veirs singing backup. It would be the first of many songs in a set filled with special guest appearances.

Will Johnson of Centro-matic, New Multitudes and Monsters of Folk joined the band for their next selection, a devestating rendition of the always beautiful “Bermuda Highway”.

From there things became a bit more whimsical, and how do you say it… FUN. With Jim rocking a cape, the band broke into “Victory Dance”, the opening track from their latest full-length, Circuital. Imagine Dylan being persecuted for playing electric guitar at this same festival in the 1960’s and think about how strange it is that Jim James is now wearing a cape and sampler around his neck. My how times have changed. A once traditional and hard-nosed genre of music has come been blurred a bit in definition, but has grown exponentially with its tolerrance to change.

 

From fun to serious, the band segued into “Dondante”, a heavy-hearted and spacious tale about a fallen friend. Following the extended saxophone solo that ended the song, the band paid tribute to another fallen friend, Levon Helm, who was no stranger to headlining the Newport Folk Festival himself. Playing an emotional cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”, the Jacket was joined by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes on backup vocals and Clint Maegden of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on saxophone.

Levon must have been impressed, because as soon as the song ended, the heavens opened and the rain began. Plastic wrap was quickly draped over equipment and guitar pedals as the stage crew scrambled behind the scenes to keep the show going. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes joined the band for “Smoking From Shooting”, standing on a chair, yelling spirited backups and headbanging to the beat.

Just two more songs and the set would be cut short. The brass section from Preservation Hall was set to take the stage to join in what the set list referred to as “Carnival Time”, but do to the lightning, the players were escorted to safety, and we in the crowd were soon to follow.

Those of us with press and all-access passes were lucky enough to take cover in the fort while thousands of others began heading to the crowded parking lots drenched and up to their ankles in flash flooding. After waiting for even the smallest sign of letting up, we rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and made a break for it. During a disheartening wait in heavy parking lot congestion, we got word of an impromptu set back at the tent in the Quad and hurried back through the gates. Originally set up to be an after-hours electric set, the generator had failed and all hopes of amplification had gone out the window with the rain. Nevertheless, a handful of people took the stage with guitars, banjo and cello. Sarah Lee Guthrie took charge, eventually joined by a number of others, passing around the guitar and playing traditionals and sing-a-longs for the 50 or so lucky and patient people who stuck around waiting to see something special. THIS was folk. THIS is the spirit that inspired the movement, and here IT was happening, in a secret, unscripted and joyous manner and a pickup setting just like the early days of the genre.

While the rain continued, a quiet Jim James was recognized in the shadows and invited on stage. Always sincere, witty and unpredictable, James followed up the traditional hootenanny with a cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”. Stripping down the song and removing any sort of irony, the selection was a far cry from the standards that the others were playing, but with Jim singing it, at that particular moment, the song could be seen at its core for what it was originally intended to be… a really beautiful and simple love song.

Here it is. See for yourself.

Newport Folk Fest: Sunday

After returning to Boston to avoid hotel inflation, I arrived back in Newport only to get stuck traffic of the same stress level. An hour drive became 3 hours by the time I parked. Luckily I was just in time for New Multitudes. A Woody Guthrie tribute band consisting of Jim James, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk, South San Gabriel), the foursome took unreleased Woody Guthrie songs from his archive and released them earlier this year in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

Just like the record, the set was beautifully planned with each member alternating lead vocals and the others singing backup. Ending with the powerful “New Multitudes”, the band seemed to provide the same hope and change through music that Woody Guthrie insisted upon through his life’s work.

Woody Guthrie was and is American Folk Music. He gave purpose to the song, a message to the melody, and without him, there probably wouldn’t even be a Newport Folk Festival.

From here it was onto see Charles Bradley. A tragic life story of survival and persistence, Bradley, despite his love of music, didn’t release any music until the age of 51. Inspired by James Brown, Otis Redding and sounding like 60’s soul without being a revivalist, I caught the last moments of Bradley’s set and a striking renditon of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.

The next time slot may have been the toughest of the festival. People would have to choose between Tune-Yards. Conor Oberst, or Carl Broemel. For me the choice was simple. As My Morning Jacket’s guitarist, Carl Broemel’s solo shows are rare. Mostly because he has no time. But with a great solo record released last year, I wanted to see how the performance carried out live.

Performing and recording primarily as a one-man band, Broemel loops lyrics, guitars and pedal steel culminating in meticulous vocal harmonies and instrumental layers. After a handful of songs, Bo Koster of MMJ joined him on keys and Ben Sollee on cello. Still when Broemel was alone, he filled the room as if he were backed by a full band. Ending whimsically with a  cheeky-yet-respectful version of “Lollipop”, the rains came again. It seemed like a good time for me to leave. Instead of watching Jackson Browne, I chose to write this until 8am.