After over 20 years as a fixture in the compact and complex music scene of quaint Ithaca, New York, AJ Strauss of The Sutras and countless other musical endeavors packs up and moves to Brooklyn. Walter the Fish wants to know more.
WTF: After many, many years in Ithaca, you are moving to Brooklyn. Why the move now? Will the whole band now be based in Brooklyn?
AJ: The reasons are all boring. I’m getting old, and the lure of the fantasy world that is Ithaca had its hold on me. I was disgustingly comfortable, unchallenged artistically by anything around, all hippy smiles—and BAM 15 years had passed in the wink of an eye, especially when you’ve been sitting on your ass. Half of the band is in Brooklyn, particularly my main editor and guitarist Kevin Denton. There’s also entirely too much weed per capita back there as well. Once my 20 year old cat died, I felt a little freed up to go.
WTF: Who are the current members of The Sutras?
AJ: Well, there’s me, Jeremy Allen on drums, Mandy Gurung on vocals with me, Kevin on guitar and synth,and Mike Smith on bass. (Did you know there are so many Mike Smiths in the world they have their own society and conventions?)
WTF: Any plans for a new record?
AJ: Well, I’m constipated with two different records already written. One is classic rock, the other disco. My microphones began to grate on me at my old studio, and you can’t buy a Neumann when you need a new roof, car, etc. I ran out of time upstate, because of my sluggish ways. There will be an EP released in January that’s so disparate, it sounds like a resume instead of a record, but…. Screw it!
WTF: What, if anything, will be your day job after the move?
AJ: Day job? Ha. My goal is to never have one. I’ll just be a music whore, my favorite job. Not a male prostitute who plays music, a musician who un-discerningly takes any job. Teaching, playing wedding bands, jazz combos, cocktail piano, anything for the moment… and my new gig writing promo material for HBO and MetLife, which can be done virtually from the comfort of my couch. George Takei posted a good one—“If you haven’t grown up by fifty, you don’t have to.”
WTF: What other musical projects will you be involved with once you are settled in Brooklyn? What projects have you had to abandon to accommodate the move?
AJ: I’ve stacked up enough connections to be working regularly, although the weirder the project, the better. I’m pushing to be my Oscar winning conductor friend’s score-boy, but that job doesn’t really exist. I had to abandon my 20 students, 4 bands, my standing 4 night a week jazz gig (my fave-I played over 1,100 gigs for those guys!), and my ongoing squirrel wars.
WTF: What excites you about living in the city?
AJ: Learning a new mode of living that involves people instead of solitude. I’m a bit of a reclusive hick, I’ve learned.This pace is faster, the folks are fascinating, the stories, the history (super nerd for that stuff), it’s like living in a huge spaceship filled with joy, pain, and culture, and every band I love seems to be playing every night. I’ll soon be a foodie.
North Carolina’s See Gulls will release its debut record — recorded by legendary Mitch Easter — this fall. In the meantime, they will play a slew of shows around their home state. Kelly Rosebud of The Rosebuds recently conversed with Sarah Fuller of See Gulls, and the pair shared that conversation with Walter the Fish.
Kelly: Your vocal delivery reminds me Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde. I love her style and uniqueness, and I think you got that swagger. I’m always amazed by the associations people make when discussing my music. Sometimes, I’m like, “WHO? I don’t know that band!” Does that happen to you? And, who would you want people to hear when they hear you sing? I know lyrics and style are two separate things, so, maybe who for each?
Sarah: I have never listened to that band.
[Time lapse of listening to Concrete Blonde then listening to See Gulls...]
Our breath usage is similar. I’m wondering what songs in particular you are into by them. Give me some suggestions. Large catalogue. Not to be like “never heard of them”, but that is true. On the subject of swagger – I try really hard to have it. I do believe, however, that admitting you try to have swagger isn’t very swaggy. On comparisons… I get Carrie Brownstein from Sleater Kenny and I believe that’s the vibrato coming in, like the vocals of older women when they sing in church. I like to get squeaky with my vocals too! Who do people say you (specifically you, not Rosebuds as a whole) sound like? I really just wish I could sing like Bonnie Raitt and write lyrics like Courtney Barnett.
Kelly: People haven’t compared me to female vocalists, that I can recall. I think it’s because I have zero idea what I’m doing or how to actually sing. In our songs, I’m expressive and weird in creative ways, so I would compare my Rosebud self (my creative self) to some inner-kid version of me, but with a deep, nearly contralto voice. For Concrete Blonde, I really liked the song “Joey,” which was kind of a hit for them. I had their albums when I was younger, but not a lot of the songs or lyrics appealed to me, but something about her vocal approach fascinated me. It was so interesting, and not like the radio. She was daring enough to do something totally different. I can see that in you, in your performative self.
Do you like people to note that you’re a woman in a band? Or does that bother you? It doesn’t bother me so much, I think it’s kind of funny. But I know that recently Neko Case took some people to town for saying it. Her point was, women playing music isn’t a niche. I can see that, and I think she has a valid point. What do you think?
Sarah: When Neko Case said that I felt like rockets were going off and I wanted to do somersaults.
I remember texting you a month or so ago jokingly saying “You’ll never believe it, I saw the most incredible ALL GUY band tonight”. Music promoters who make a musician’s anatomy the first adjective in describing her music (and let’s say “her”, because I will live for 7 days in a dumpster if you can find any man made music promoted this way) instill that you are a female first, musician second. It can give you this idea that you’re some kind of exception. Making music about gender because it’s female made has no purpose – just as it would be silly to make a list of 12 MALE fronted bands and slap that puppy on a blog. What’s the point?
That said, a lot of music writers, male and female do not understand this. The truth is, if a well meaning writer wants to do a piece on See Gulls that relates to us being female, we don’t disregard that. We’ve been playing for less than a year, and I’ve said yes and no, based on the tone of premise for a piece. Still, we were asked to play a show that’s “Going to be a lot of chick bands”, so I asked why not have a show with a bunch of black bands. The venue owner realized what I meant and is a great dude. I think your experience may be slightly different because of the balance of gender in The Rosebuds. What kind of silly shit have people said to you regarding being both female and in a band?
Kelly: My situation is unique because I’m in a band with guys who treat me like one of the guys, mostly. And I’m really feminine and I see them being sensitive to that, too. My people–I’m around people who are interested in Kelly, and how Kelly wants to be, and I forget about gender being part of anything. I’ve always felt special for being a lady in a mostly male environment, like I’m seeing inside a secret world. My band is all guys, and I think they’re so cool and funny and kind. If I were in an all-female band, I’d be like, HEY WE ARE ALL FEMALES! because, well… Not because I think girls in bands should be a point of interest or a cute kinda freak-show attraction (Like, “Well, I’ll be dag… A girl with a guitar”), but because I think ladies bring a special feeling to a project. A heightened identity. I was in an all-female performance art group called Brawdeville, and we pretty much put it on blast that we were women writing and producing our own shows. But this has always been my approach to feminism. I forgot to think about gender supremacy, like ever, and so it’s never applied to my life. I sometimes forget it even exists because I so rarely see it. But I’m also insulated–I travel in a world of my own making where my people, the men in my life, wouldn’t even think of being gender-weird. And the only few times we’ve run into a sound man or someone who talked down to me at sound check, we all laughed at him.
Melody or lyrics, which comes first in your writing?
Sarah: Definitely melody! If I come up with a melody, it’ll usually be right before I go to sleep, and I’ll sing it to my phone. In the morning when I listen to it, I’ll be either elated or disgusted. Lyric writing is such a challenge. I hear people writing in metaphors and I sing along to that shit in the car and really feel it, but I can’t write like that. At this point, I feel good writing more conversational lyrics. I would be uncomfortable singing dramatic metaphors. You’re good at that though – but you are a writer in other realms and not just music. I don’t know how to do it with cachet.
Kelly: Oh girl, you know I love a dramatic metaphor.
Would you ever be a rapper? Do you like rap music? What would be your rapper name?
Sarah: Oh I’ve rapped a time or two. One time was a slumber party at my house. The audience sat on my Lion King comforter, and you better believe I tore up Left Eye’s part in Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls. I like rap, but am a dunce when it comes to rap. Growing up, my sister played Method Man’s “Tical” a lot – his attitude – his swagger definitely left an impression on me. He was so badass. Rap is so complex. I really liked Lil’Kim and Foxy Brown when I was growing up, because they were throwing really sexual content in your face, and that felt empowering to me as a 13 year old. That music is maybe not suitable for 13 yrs olds though. See Gulls played with Sara Autrey’s band Wing Dam and found out she also raps under the name “Glittoris”, so I’m pretty certain any rapper name game is gonna be a wash after that one.
Kelly: Right. No one’s anything is better than Glittoris. Case closed.
How long can you do a handstand?
Sarah: I’ll use this time to brag about beating you AND EVERYONE ELSE ever in a handstand contest. That’s an exaggeration, but pretty much if someone challenges me to a handstand contest (which I really wished happened more often) I will win. You do a lot of yoga now though, so you might win. My endurance can only be measured in the presence of other challengers. The answer is – longer than anyone else in the contest. My handstands are all ego based. Not very yoga.
Kelly: Waaaaaayyyyyy longer than me. I’m working on it, but you’re definitely the master. I put this question to you because I wanted to see how much you’d brag about your insanely long handstands. Aaaaand, it’s still a lot. Respect.
Dolly Parton: love, or just really love?
Sarah: I would really like to hang out with her. She’s got the best comebacks, and seems so genuinely herself. She’s hilarious. I was listening to “Dumb Blonde” the other day. Her delivery is powerful yet delicate. That’s the good stuff. How many books have you read on Dolly Parton?
Kelly: Oh, you know, I’ve read a few (62). She’s a boss. You remember I dressed like her to go to her concert at the RBC Center in Raleigh. Long blonde wig, satin tassle-y top, push-up bra, cowgirl boots. When she came out onto the stage, I lost control of myself, my eyes went teary, and my false eyelashes popped off. Eyeliner went everywhere. It was a mess. Yes. She’s a true original. I’m not a very adequate impersonator, but I sometimes have to do what I can to get closer to her spirit.
Some upcoming See Gulls shows in NC:
July 31, Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro, NC
August 14,, Tir Na Nog, Raleigh, NC
September 6, Hopscotch Music Festival, Raleigh,NC
September 20, Nice Price, Raleigh,NC
September 23, The Cave, Chapel Hill, NC
Vanessa Anne Redd and Marc Makarov of the London duo Six Years — and also the well regarded Rubicks — graciously answered a few intrusive questions about the wonderful new Six Years record Rivers.
WTF: You were both already in an excellent band together: Rubicks. So why Six Years? How does having this other creative outlet affect Rubicks?
Vanessa: We like to keep on our toes. We’re greedy so we need to have as many bands as possible! The opportunity to make this record came up, and we’re just enjoying going with the flow. Creativity runs in strange ways; you’ve got to follow the grooves.
Marc: Sean McLusky asked us to record a duet of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” for a feature film he was producing. We decided to write an album as well. It seemed natural to call this something else. Not sure how this affects Rubicks. Tomorrow never knows.
WTF: How do you share song-writing duties for Six Years? Who writes what using what instruments and what tools? Do you write separately then come together or do you sit together and explore ideas? Do the words or the music come first?
Vanessa: We usually set the black room up with curtains, low light then show and tell each other what we’ve got; that could be a drum beat, bass line or sometimes a whole song, lyric and chords. Then if it passes our “duet test” it gets to be a fully grown Six Years song. I mainly write on guitar or piano or just write words, and Marc will work more on beats and bass lines.
Marc: I tend to sing to write lyrics, Vanessa tends to write poems and then sing.
WTF: You get great sounds. What instruments, tools, and devices are in the Six Years arsenal?
Vanessa: Thanks! We go into the woods and record branches crunching under our feet and set up four mics at odd angles throughout the trees to catch the lonely howl of the endangered shrew, but when that doesn’t work, we stick to drum machine, guitars, synth/organ and vocal chords. Alan O’Connell did a great job of working on some sounds with us in his studio too.
Marc: Back room of an old art gallery, late nights, an electric guitar, bass guitar, a 70s organ, Korg Poly 800 synth, 80s Linn drum, MPC 2000, some shakers, tambourines, 70s amps, couple of microphones, flip flops and some random people walking in and out occasionally.
WTF: Were there any new approaches, motivations, or instruments for your excellent new record “Rivers”?
Vanessa: Marc found his voice in a glass in a Berlin bar, after catching pneumonia, so the new approach was to add our husky new member. We also wanted to be much more ruthless as to what instruments went in. We’d ask ourselves “Do we need a Sousaphone?” and “Would the orchestra really work on this track?” We tried the less-is-more approach in every instance and also focused more on the storytelling in the songs.
Marc: Once we’d worked out the main melody and lyrics, we recorded the performance without rehearsing. We wanted to record the album as close to the original thought/first idea as possible, without changing and not judging too much. Our motivation was to be anti production.
WTF: Since it is only the two of you making the music, there is obviously much layering happening when you record. How do you know when to stop adding parts and textures?
Vanessa: You generally know when enough’s enough as it gets too confusing and that’s usually when our speakers break.
Marc: Our rule was not to record more than three parts playing at the same time. Instead, we used simple reverbs and delays to create the dynamics and layers. I mixed the album, but we still wanted more depth to create the space and feel we were looking for. Fortunately, Alan O’Connell has a studio in the basement, below our rehearsal room. He mixed the album using a couple of 80s outboard reverbs and compressors and fed some sounds through various amps and rooms in the building.
WTF: “This Is the Day” is the song that I cannot shake. It’s a wonderful song, and the recording is perfect. Is the “Stand By Me” allusion in the bass part intentional? Vanessa, do you intentionally sing off-mic at times? There is a moment in the video when you look away as the vocal recording sounds off-mic. Is this intentional?
Vanessa: Why, thank you. Well, I am always very distracted! On stage I use two microphones. One of them’s a more heavily reverbed mic. I think you’re getting some of the movement that happens when I change between mics on the record too. The video moment is probably down to the ingenuity of the editing from the video director. I can’t remember if I did it intentionally on the video performance or not!
Marc: I wasn’t thinking of “Stand by Me” when I recorded the bass line, but it’s a great classic! The bass was the last instrument to record on “This Is the Day.” It was recorded in one take and I made the bass as simple as possible to follow the vocals. It was refreshing to play like this, normally my bass lines comes first.
WTF: I get a Terry Jacks/Jacques Brel feeling when I hear “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” That may be a coincidence, but it’s certainly a good thing. Whether that feeling has merit or not, what are your musical influences and inspirations? What have you enjoyed hearing (or watching or reading) lately, even if its influence on your music is not perceptible?
Vanessa: I’ve been enjoying lots of male/female duets across all genres and eras but there seem to be a lot in the 60s and 70s, so you’re definitely picking up on that I guess from your Brel feeling. “Help Me Make it Through the Night” is the only song we didn’t write ourselves on Rivers‘ It’s by Kris Kristofferson, written in the early 70s and around the same era too as Terry Jacks/ Jacques Brel’s “Seasons in the Sun.” The version we most listened to, to inspire ours, was the one Kris Kristofferson sung as a duet with Rita Coolidge. Elvis does a great version too. Some references have definitely found there way in from what I was reading too at the time. Walt Whitman, his line from “Leaves of Grass” in our song “Perfume (War’s Perfume),” Murakami’s influence of his surreal world of the lift in our song “Elevator,” Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot makes an appearance in “This is the Day,” Dante’s and Huxley’s heavens and hells, and some other ideas from other myths. Another big favourite from his writings and drawings is the eternal William Blake. Music wise, I can listen to Carole King all day long and Holly Golightly, who I have the pleasure of knowing, is also a big influence. I’ve also been really enjoying the latest beautiful instrumental records from Cindytalk and Tetine. Super filmic gorgeousness.
Marc: I’ve always been mesmerized by Jacques Brel’s music. Brel’s beat on “Seasons in the Sun” is perfect. At present, I’m enjoying Suicide, Beach House, our friend’s band The Veees, and Jaakko Eino Kalevi. We hope to play a few more gigs with the Veees in the not too distant future.
WTF: I visited London for the first time last August and now am anxious to get back there and explore more. How does living in London affect your music? What are your favourite spots in the city? Where do you feel the most inspired there? Do rural settings inspire you also?
Vanessa: My favourite spots are usually the quiet ones. One’s definitely the Art Gallery black-box space where we recorded. It definitely affects the music. It’s a great place to retreat to and hide from the hecticness of town — our version of nature. Sometimes the lack of nature means imagination becomes very important. Even imagining being on the banks of the river can be as good as being there in reality.
Marc: We recorded and wrote the album at the back of an art gallery in Redchurch Street. The room has a distinct sound; the walls are brick, no windows, low ceiling, no heating, concrete floor. It’s the type of place where you have to switch off from the environment, or else you wouldn’t stand staying there. In one way this stopped us from writing or recording anything which didn’t involve us wholly, as when this happened, we’d get out and see the outside. This room was probably the biggest influence, but maybe Redchurch Street influenced are recordings too. We’d mainly people watch and view the free exhibitions and art openings. Now the street’s lined with 4x4s, Maseratis, Jaguars and newly opened designer shops. It’s crazy to see the road change so much within a year or so. Presently, my favourite area is Dalston for it’s venues like Birthdays and The Kings Head Members Club and interesting goings on.
I shouldn’t review a Schooner show. And I shouldn’t start a review of a band’s show by talking about myself. And I certainly should not make myself the subject of the first four sentences of a review about a band. But, I just did.
Schooner, based in the enviably fertile and great music scene of North Carolina’s Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) has existed for years. And years. They’ve always been a great band. Even when they weren’t a band, but were founder and leader Reid Johnson’s unfiltered musical ideas on warbly four-track recordings. Somehow — I still don’t understand why — they haven’t ever become as big as they are supposed to be. But, somehow, they stay great, and probably get better, and don’t show that they care that some of their NC music peers graduate to professional or near-professional status all around them while Schooner remains the band that everyone knows, likes, and respects, but that stays “local.” I’m sure that they do care, but they don’t show it, and that garbage somehow never gets in the way of the music.
This brings me to their most recent show in Brooklyn at the cozy Cameo Gallery in Williamsburg. I also caught their previous appearance at Cameo. That was a weird night. I pretend-mugged Johnson in a bodega before the show. And there weren’t as many people there as I had expected or hoped. And one of the people was a genius at the bar shouting things that were vaguely rude and aggressive but not quite rude and aggressive enough that someone could go over and shut him up. (Plus it seemed like he knew the bartender.) That was a mid-week show. This recent show, on the other hand, was on a Friday night. I had recently attended another show at Cameo that was packed, and I expected there to be a good crowd.
The size of the crowd this time around, though an improvement over the last time, disappointed me. Schooner deserved better after a miserable day on I-95. But they took the stage after Air Waves finished its excellent set and delivered the most Schooneristic show I have ever seen. And I’ve seen many, including packed shows down in NC in front of their local devotees.
There’s nothing trendy about Schooner’s music, which is one of the reasons I like it so much and that it isn’t as popular as it should be. The music is pure Schooner, nothing else. It’s Southern, but not at all country. It’s Southern in a way that translates well to an urban hipster audience. It’s exuberant at times and forlorn at others, and the recent performance at Cameo displayed all of this. Cameo drenched Johnson’s vocals, per his request, in reverb. And he drenched his own weird green guitar in reverb and tape-emulating delay. There was dreaminess aplenty. But there was also genuine joy and confidence and sweat. The musical and social interplay between Johnson and his bandmates — bassist Nick Jaeger, tambourinist and vocalist Maria Albani, and drummer Josh Carpenter — was jovial and true. The banter with the audience was warm and friendly and appreciative. The audience responded in kind. Johnson’s vocal delivery was superb. (That sounds corny, but it’s true!) And the rest of the band joined in where appropriate to add the necessary vocal accompaniments, at times resulting in pure, ear-splitting raucousness. Albani doesn’t always tour with the group, but her vocals and presence enhanced the performance tremendously. In short, they rocked. Schooner played like there were 300 people crammed in the room. They did what a band is supposed to do. Only the music was much better than that of most other bands.
After Schooner finished and had moved their gear from the stage, some guys began loading their equipment onto the stage. I said to Johnson, “Is there another band? I though that you were last.” He said that those were DJs or something. I envisioned hundreds of hipsters, who had skipped Schooner’s set, crowding into the room to listen to whatever prerecorded hipster crap the guys would be spinning. I grew angry and muttered something about “kids these days.” Johnson just grinned and walked away with his guitar case in hand.
Swedish pop band Stars in Coma made its US debut in late May of 2014 at the NYC PopFest. Though a WTF contributor caught the excellent show in Brooklyn, we weren’t able to connect with the band until they had returned to Sweden, but bandleader André Brorsson found time to answer some questions via electronic mail.
WTF: Did Stars in Coma enjoy its first visit to the US? How long were you here, and what cities and places did you see? What were your favorite places and experiences?
AB: Yes, we certainly did! I, for one, have mythologized the US since I visited Hawaii in 2004, so it was good to come back after 10 years. Of course, Hawaii and New York are a lot different, but there are similarities too, such as the grocery stores and the candy. We stayed in NY for about a week and did a lot of touristing. We visited Coney Island, Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, the usual stuff. The first day was really Seinfeld-inspired, as me and my friend are really into that sitcom. We rented a small flat in Chinatown, which was interesting. In a way it’s a lot like Malmö (our home town in Sweden) only way, way bigger. But Malmö has this kind of miniature Asiatown, which is quite uncommon in Sweden.
WTF: How did your appearance at NYC PopFest 2014 come to be?
AB: I’ve been emailing with Maz, who arranges NYC PopFest, for some years but for various reasons we couldn’t play the festival until this year. I’m really glad we were able to bring the whole band to the US.
WTF: Your set (Cameo Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, 30 May 2014) was fantastic. You and the whole band had great energy and a level of ease, confidence, and enthusiasm that helped the whole crowd enjoy the songs immensely. Does Stars in Coma have a particular philosophy about performing live? Do you all enjoy it as much as you seem to?
AB: Thank you! Yes, we want our show to be groovy and colorful, and we want the audience to have a good time. It’s kind of a reaction to all those shy indie-pop bands. Some of us also put some effort into what we’re wearing on stage. I’m quite introverted myself, but on the stage I find myself to be extroverted, provided the feeling is right. This was really easy to achieve at the NYC Popfest, because the crowd was really into it. When the atmosphere is right, like it was at Cameo, there is nothing that beats playing live.
WTF: Tell me about the personnel in the band. How long have you been playing with each member?
AB: We’ve been going through a lot staff changes over the years, but the current lineup has existed since last Fall. I really enjoyed playing with these people, and they are all very talented musicians. Nicole and Daniel, who both play keys, also play flute and saxophone, but unfortunately we weren’t able to bring those instruments so we had to do a more synth-y set.
WTF: When it comes to songwriting, what roles do the other members of Stars in Coma have? Do you present the band with complete ideas, or do you all work out the details of the songs together?
AB: Stars in Coma started out as a studio project, but it has evolved to a communal thing over the years, at least when it comes to playing live. Basically, the songs are finished when we start rehearsing them, and then they slightly change in the live setting. I have some plans to start being more collaborative with the band though. My girlfriend Nicole, who plays keys and flute in the band, is valuable when it comes to listening to rough mixes and also laying down backing vocals and flutes when needed.
WTF: Talk about the excellent new record, The Confessional Sun. Did you approach the writing and recording any differently than your other recordings? Did you have a particular vision or goal for this record?
AB: The Confessional Sun was very hard to make, because the songs are mostly about my father, who passed away in 2012. I’ve had a rough couple of years following his death, both on a personal level but also trying to complete an album dealing with such a tragic topic. But in a way, I felt that the NY show was a catharsis of sorts, and that I came full circle with my grief. I finally could put the last couple of years behind me, in a way. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like it’s the end of an era, and the start of something new.
WTF: What are your musical influences?
AB: They are all over the place. A lot of pop from the 60s and 70s. Soft rock, afro-pop and funk, obviously. I’m also into some of the US indie pop bands like Of Montreal, Real Estate and Ariel Pink. I don’t really like Swedish pop, which perhaps is a sign of self-hate. [Laugh.]
WTF: How does the reaction to your music in Sweden vary from what you saw here in the US? In what ways, if any, do you think that your music is particularly Swedish or Scandinavian?
AB: From my point of view, it varies greatly. In Sweden, I have the feeling no one really cares about what we do. It may not be true, and on a theorical level I know I’m wrong, but I feel that we’re basically left out of the music scene in Sweden. I think it’s about Sweden being such a small country, so we can only “deal” with so many hypes at one time. But there’s also something else, something in our culture, which is harder to describe.
We’ve been around for some time now, and the scene we were possibly associated with in like 2006-07 doesn’t really exist anymore. There is really no pop scene in Malmö, for instance. But if you play punk, you instantly have an audience, at least from my point of view. People that liked us back in 2007 have perhaps moved on. But we’re gaining new fans from all over the world, especially in the US, which is really nice.
But after the show at the NYC Popfest, I had like 10-15 guys coming up telling me how great the show was. It’s usually the same in Germany and Italy, where we’ve play a bunch of times. But that never happens in Sweden. Of course, there is an exotic aspect to it; it’s more fun to watch a foreign band for the first time than some local band playing their umpteenth show. Obviously that is true for US bands coming to Sweden as well. On some level I feel more connected to the scene in your country that I will ever do here in Sweden, even though I have no experience being in a struggling US band.
WTF: What is the origin of the name Stars in Coma?
AB: It just came to me one day. I’ve been wondering what it means myself.
WTF: Thanks for answering these silly questions and for bringing your wonderful music to the US! Please come back soon!
Missy Thangs of The Love Language and Soft Company joins John Harrison of North Elementary at the Orange County Social Club in Carrboro, NC to talk about writing and recording music, the new North Elementary record, and visual art.
MT: You just released a record called Southern Rescue Trails, and this is your sixth record with North Elementary right?
JH: That’s correct.
MT: I heard your interview on WKNC last week and it sounded awesome. I heard a lot of the songs, and also peeped them out online. Super cool record. Love it. So my first question: What are Southern Rescue Trails?
JH: Well first I just like the combination of different words together for lyrics and everything, but that one has special meaning because the subject matter of the record is me getting back in touch with southern music or where I grew up which is North Carolina. As a kid, I loved the Pixies and all this music was coming from so many other places. My mom likes Appalachian music and stuff like that and that was a turn off, you know? As I get older, I’ve been like, I need to be familiar of the music from my area. This record doesn’t sound like that, it’s just me growing up in the South, a lot of it lyrically and musically.
I’m getting married next year, which is super exciting. My girlfriend’s on the cover of the record actually, the dance party.
MT: She looks awesome. Like she’s partying!
JH: I think that was after a 506 show. The “Rescue” is about falling in love with somebody. A lot of the lyrics are about my time meeting her, in a weird cryptic way. I don’t really spell things out very much in my lyrics I don’t think. “Trails” is just the journey. It’s just sort of like falling in love in the South and my journey.
MT: Moving to your songwriting process: What is the first thing that you do when you start a song?
JH: I don’t even really know where a song starts, but, honestly, at this point it’s in my head most of the time. It’s something I hear while I’m walking around or maybe even I hear something in another song like a little piece and I’m like, oh that’s pretty cool, I’d like to expound on that. But I play guitar a lot and have my studio set up to demo all the time just so when that I happens I can go in there and do something.
MT: So a lot of times, you’ll start with a guitar as opposed to a beat or a vocal melody?
JH: Pretty much everything starts with an acoustic guitar. It’s what I play the most.
MT: What’s the last thing you do when you’re ending a song, when you decide “OK this is ready to go to production?”
JH: I have to be sold on the lyrics. That’s huge for me. Some songs will be waiting for that process. Like, the song’s done, it’s ready, but I have to get behind lyrics I might possibly be singing for a couple years. I think about that, like, “That lyric sounds really great. Can I get behind this, do this every night and feel semi-real about it?” You’re not going to be in the moment all the time, but I have to sell myself on it.
MT: That sounds like an experienced songwriter and performer talking.
JH: You’re already up there doing your thing and it’s cool and people are really into it, but some nights you’re playing for ten or twelve people and I’ve got to find ways to enjoy playing it myself as well. So my barometer is if I dig it. I can’t expect other people to dig it if I don’t.
MT: What ran through your mind when you realized Southern Rescue Trails was ready to go to production, or ready for mastering?
JH: Oh you know, out of money, out of time. I mean, I’m pretty methodical with that stuff. I have a way I do things that I’ve learned works well for me and actually I’m on a budget. I usually do it in three parts, like a tracking phase part, then I purposefully take of two or three weeks off, work on overdubs myself, then return to the studio and do the overdubs that are on the actual recording. Then I take a few weeks off and we go mix. I need that time away. But then it’s like as soon as possible, as soon as I’m done I want it out.
MT: So a little impatience and excitement?
JH: Well there’s something really fun about putting out a record. Every time it comes back in the boxes and you’re unwrapping the shrink-wrap. You know that feeling never gets old. But you know, I’ve usually written a lot of songs by time that happens.
MT: Which song from the record crept into your psyche during the recording process. You know, the one that followed you around the most, in your dreams, while eating dinner, alone time…
JH: That’s a tough one. There’s probably two that fall into that category. One that is the more acoustic song on the record, “Southern Elevators,” because I didn’t know what I wanted to do because it’s not sonically as expansive as some of the other stuff. Eventually I just decided I wanted to have my friends play on it, like Sarah Bell, and Margaret White who I used to play with in The Comas. There’s so many ways you can do every song. That one I really had trouble selling myself on how I wanted to present it.
Then “Hillcrest 101” just because that was one of the earlier songs written. I had that song around for about two years before we recorded it. So the longer I have to think about something the more I realize there’s a million ways to do it. So the easiest song, and my favorite songs, are generally my last songs that I’ve made because I don’t have time to do anything with it. I tend to tinker.
MT: This one is probably something you could pass along to other aspiring songwriters, engineers, producers… What was the biggest lesson you learned in the making of Southern Rescue Trails, anywhere from songwriting process to mixing..
JH: I prefer going to studios to have designated space and time to do stuff. I don’t go to the studio (this is going to sound horrible), I don’t go there to be ultra creative, I’ve done all that stuff. It’s too expensive for me to be there with a song out of thin air. I think being prepared and being patient. You know, it’s a long process, it’s exciting when you first hear the basic tracks, but I feel you really need to be patient with stuff and let it come to you. Sometimes your ideas aren’t going to be the ones that sound the best, and you have to be open to that. I don’t know how that happens, but the longer I do it, the more open I am to it.
MT: What was another artist’s record you listened to the most while recording Southern Rescue Trails, or did you listen to anything else during that time?
JH: I’m always listening to other peoples’ stuff, but, and this sounds kinda crazy to say, but I’m always listening to my stuff too and not my past songs I’ve written, but just whatever demos or songs we’re currently working on. When I’m recording a song, I want to hear the demos before we went into the studio, the basic tracks after that, so I spend a lot of time listening to my own stuff. I know that sounds weird, but it’s absolutely true.
I think I was listening to a lot of My Morning Jacket at the time. There’s a song off their Z record that I based a lot of “Sharp Ghost Mind” off of. I do that a lot. I get a record and I think, oh I want to figure out how to write that kind of song.
JH: I’ll take a song I want to figure out, inevitably by the time I do, it’s not like I’m aping it completely because I don’t play cover songs really, I don’t know how to do that. But it’s an inspiration for my version of a song. Dinosaur Jr’s Farm came out around that time, and it’s sonically awesome. I was also listening to the last LUD record a lot, Kirk Ross and Lee Waters.
MT: Now I’m going to name a song, and you must respond with the first word that comes to mind.
JH: Oh nooooo.
MT:It comes To Everyone JH:Flashlight MT:Midwest Bug JH:Hat MT:Sons of Turbo Town JH:Orange MT:Murder By Memory JH:Knife MT:Sharp Ghost Mind JH:Knife MT:Southern Elevators JH:Grass MT:War For Kicks JH:Cannons MT:King of Sundays JH:Crowns MT:Hillcrest 101 JH:Cars
MT: I love the videos of the songs you posted on your website. They’re the songs from Southern Rescue Trails and I notice they’re all done by colleagues, artists, musicians like Maria Albani, Nathan White, Billy Sugarfix, Zeno Gill and more. What inspired your idea for doing this?
JH: The last couple of years I’ve been getting into video editing for show fliers, videos of my own and stuff. For my glee and joy, I thought everyone would like to do this as well. I was, like, “This is so easy! Everybody can do it! Hey!”
I wanted the record to come out in the Spring but it couldn’t come out until this Fall, so I wasn’t sure what to do. It was sort of a way to just do something. So I asked a lot of my friends and people I know who did that stuff and everybody was so awesome about it.
I can’t believe more bands don’t do that. Maybe it’s a lot to ask; I don’t know the scope of what’s a lot to ask of somebody sometimes, or what’s weird or crazy to do. Lou Barlow did it so that gave me the idea. So it has been done, but I was just amazed that everybody was into it. They picked the songs they wanted to do. I didn’t realize until they started coming in that it was a lot to ask these people to do. I think it was received pretty well and we had fun doing it.
MT: Music is often as much of a visual experience as an aural one. I understand that you’re a visual artist. Who are your favorite artists that also lead lives as musicians?
JH: Honestly, Laird Dixon. Shark Quest took me out on my first tour in 1999 for more than two weeks, and I love Laird who does a lot of stuff with molds. Ron Liberti is another who is my go-to guru for screen-printing from Pipe, Ghost of Rock, Victory Factory and all the bands he’s been in. Honestly, I derive a lot of inspiration locally. Otherwise, David Byrne does some pretty cool stuff, and David Bowie, but mainly Laird and Ron.
MT: With regards to your record, Southern Rescue Trails, I hear a lot of texture and collage in your music. Since you’re a print artist, doesn’t that have a lot to do with layers and textures? How similar is printmaking to recording a song for you?
JH: I think they’re very different. Printmaking you can do a lot quicker. It’s an individual sport rather than a team effort, at least for me. Even though I’m a songwriter, it’s important for me to have a band. I like communicating with other musicians. I need that.
In terms of layering, I think they’re a lot of similarities. I tend to latch onto something that is fundamentally good, a good song. All the collaging doesn’t matter if the song isn’t any good, it’s just a lot of cool noises, but it’s only interesting if the song is good.
It is the same with printmaking. I spend a lot of time trying to make something that’s definitive, but then you spend the rest of the time trying to make it interesting, or deconstructing it.
MT: You are one of the co-founders of The Sound Minus Research Project curating local musicians’ work. You’ve receive national press for this project from sources like Pitchfork, so you’re getting attention outside of the Triangle, which is really cool. You’ve featured works from artists in Superchunk, Bower Birds, Pipe, yourself and a lot of other folks from around here. You’ve been doing this with Maria Albani since 2006 — five long years!
My question to you is: What are the criteria for being a part of the collective beyond just being a musician? This is for people interested in participating in your project.
JH: Nothing really. It’s funny, we joke about the rules and how they’re subject to change at any time. Basically you have to have some affiliation with North Carolina music. You don’t have to currently be one. It’s very loose. We would like to include people who do R&B and bluegrass. We’re definitely curious to see what’s out there that we’re not familiar with in terms of musicians. Who knows what the future holds.
MT: Thank you so much for taking time with me for this interview today. [hug]
Robert Sledge (a founding member of Ben Folds Five, International Orange, and Robert Sledge & the Flashlight Assembly) sits down with Andrew and Russell of The Honored Guests in their practice/recording space to talk about their approach to recording and music and their excellent new release “Please Try Again.”
Andrew Whiteman of Apostle of Hustle and Broken Social Scene sits down at a computer to have a digital conversation with Maria Albani about her Organos project and the new Limbs EP.
Andrew: Percussion looms large on your EP. Poundy and goooddd…. Name your top 6 records that go THUMP in da Night. The first place I heard amazing hand / anything percussive was during my “Wild Honey/Smiley Smile” Beach Boys phase…. When did you know you were gonna make beats? When did you first first love rhythm?
Maria: I always knew I’d be “makin’ beats” since I was a tiny. I loved music and was always singing and trying to play things that weren’t instruments. My mom told me that I use to sit on the console of my grandfather’s Caddy and belt “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” by Neil Sedaka. Hmmm. Top 6 records that go thump for me would be…
1. Animal Collective: Feels
2. Welcome: Sirs
3. Boss Hog: Boss Hog
4. Talk Talk: The Colour of Spring
5. Juana Molina: Tres Cosas
6. 3Ds: Hellzapoppin’
Andrew: How deep into the drums do you like going? Er, Clipse & derty souf, anyone? Is there a difference between the drums you like on your own music and what you like at other times? I guess I’m askin’ how many times per week do you all Hit da Club? Do all southern peeps like ‘da club’?
Maria: The derty souf is in my soul, and I like to keep it there. I ain’t trying to be Trina. There aren’t full drums in many of my songs. I like a very tribal, yet elementary, aspect to drums. For me, it’s about finding the rhythm that immediately comes to mind, and making it work with whatever else has already been laid down. Drums are usually last when I record, so it’s really about what kind of room is left for them. Unless I’ve come up with other percussive rhythms using bottles or spoons early on in the recording process. I don’t think any of us go to the club. Carrboro, very sadly, lacks in Da Club department. Although the last time I hit a club in Chapel Hill, I got lifted off the ground by my crotch from an anonymous hand, so…no. I don’t believe ALL southern peeps like “da club.”
Andrew: What’s yer DJ name if you’ve got one? If not, tell the folks what it would be and what your first 5 tunes would be and where we could go check the vibes…
Maria: My DJ name is 9LIVEZ. My 1st 5 tunes would be remix jams of songs about/that mention cats.
“What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones
“Black Cat” by Janet Jackson
“Stray Cat Strut” by Stray Cats
“Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin
“Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart.
And you could catch me throwing vibes in alleys with the strays, or inside of a Pet Smart near you.
Andrew: Onto the strings…all kinds of great riffage on the record. Very melodic, very pointed, and angular. I find that lotsa people these days are definitely not into the strum-thing. Why is everyone so down on strumming…. What? You dont like Velvet Lou?
Maria: I don’t know chords, notes, or how to properly play guitar. I think a lot of the angles come out of a lack of knowledge on the instrument. Perhaps I would strum more if I knew more, but probably not. It’s a style thing I think. Plus I write my songs on bass 1st. 90% of the time, when I have a song in my head, I will go to the bass to hash it out, not the guitar.
Andrew: I read a long time ago a blog that you wrote called “O Florida.” Your description of the place was like watching the summer heat wave up from the pavement and getting tar in yr toes when you’re young. Tell us about how Florida might be speaking thru you on this record.
Maria: I don’t think that Florida speaks through me on the record. Maybe it does, and I don’t know it yet. I think if anything, the heat and solitude of being a kid there helped gear me towards this music that comes out of me. Growing up as an only child with 1 parent, I entertained myself a lot. That often meant drawing and singing and then sharing it with whoever was around! Including the pets.
Andrew: I watched a recent performance of Organos on the YouTube: masks! Can you weigh in on the whole performance issue? Is it cooler to just come on stage and play the music and try to get out of its way (Wilco, Dirty P’s ) OR make it a thot-out entertainment for people — music is the focus, but there should be much more going on (Beck, Gogol Bordello, Gonzales). Again, do your opinions differ when it’s your own thing or when you’re going to check something new out?
Maria: The masks are worn by the musicians who help me when I play out live. My friend Theresa (who occasionally plays in Organos) came up with the idea for the very 1st Organos show. She created paper mache masks that resembled my face for the band to wear. It made perfect sense, because recording, I do everything myself, one instrument at a time. Obviously I can’t pull that off live, so the masks put my face on all of them who were playing my parts. We got a really positive response to them. I think that people like to be surprised once in a while. You go to see a show, and for the most part, you do just expect folks to walk out, pick up their instruments, and play the songs. There is definitely so much more beyond that that can be done, but I think it just depends on what people are shooting for.
Andrew: My favourite song is called “Wasted”…you fill the phrase up with intense reverberation of meaning by simply removing it from its usual party place, altho not entirely. How did this song come to be?
Maria: Honestly, I was battling some very heavy depression/anxiety stuff at the time of writing that song. I wasn’t meaning for it to come off like I was saying that I was “wasted on drugs.” I WAS wasted (felt spent) as in NO ENERGY, and feeling like I was so depressed that I was completely on something that was affecting my vision and my life. For the most part, I was just going through the motions of routine and whatnot, which is where the repetitive, drony bass line came from.
Andrew: Maria, you used to work at a pretty famous indie record shoppe…. Sometimes listening to new artists, the track can be great, but then when the vocals kick in, you get disappointed: the singer isn’t firing on your wavelength. How persistent are you with listening to new music? Do you give a thing 30 seconds and then into the trash — or maybe put away and come back? What makes you stay with a certain musician?
Maria: Working at the record store made it so easy to sample so many different types of music. I was surrounded by music and by people who loved music and/or played music. It was the best job I’ll ever have had. As far as giving things a chance, I usually do have about a 30 second bar. Sometimes I can tell sooner than 30 seconds whether or not I’m going to like something. I’m pretty impatient. The musicians I tend to stay with are those who I have a visceral reaction over their voice(s). Neko Case is a perfect example. She could sing Clay Aiken songs, and I would love it because it would be HER VOICE. And then there are those that I want to stay with because their sound intrigued me or changed my perception of the art of song-writing, but they haven’t done anything new with it! They are still doing the same shit they were doing in 2000. That is a very tricky thing for musicians; keeping their uniqueness while growing into new directions. You can’t do it too quickly, and you can’t do it too slowly! It’s all about timing!
Andrew: Tell us what kinda circus you’d curate given the financial freedom. Please include 3 bands/muses, 3 animal acts, 1 clown, one MC, and the location.
Maria: Good lord. Ummm. 3 bands would be Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, & Stevie Nicks. 3 animal acts: Keyboard Cat, Mr. Winkle, and Toonces the Driving Cat. 1 clown? I wouldn’t have a clown because I HATE HATE HATE clowns. I would MC my own circus. I will have this circus when I am in heaven.
Andrew: Who would be on your ultimate rock tour and play with Organos?
Maria: 3Ds, Polvo, and Swirlies. But I would probably have a heart attack and throw up everywhere.
Andrew: Well, I did get to hear some of these track in an earlier form, but i gotta say: your album still ExHalts the 4Track old styles so well! It’s like the White Stripes’ song where he sings about being “in yr little room, and workin’ on somethin good”…. Was the transition a) easy b) not easy) c) difficult d) damn near impossible) for you to make.
Maria: You were the first to hear many of these songs, and that was when I was fumbling with trying to figure out how to even record! I am soooo happy I was able to keep a lot of that feel when I went into Pox to record “for reals” with Nathan Oliver. That was something that both Nathan and I were very concerned about. We literally did everything pretty much the same when we got to recording together. Recording each instrument one at a time, with the parts pretty exact to how they were on the demos. We were careful not to embellish on anything just because we had the opportunity and easiness of being in a studio with many different instruments and effects. We went in with the same goals and clear communication about it, so in this instance, it was very easy.
Andrew: Finally — sorry, but gotta ask, being that I’m a Canuck— wow, but Obama isn’t turning out to be the leftie we’d hoped for up here. You?
Maria: I’d say no, but considering the political climate in the States, you can’t really expect much more from the man. He’s passed major legislation (health care, financial reform, stimulus) during a recession, and though the bills aren’t quite as progressive as I’d like them to be, at least he’s getting things done. One man can’t change the culture by himself.
Django Haskins, the creative force behind The Old Ceremony, takes a few minutes to IM with Anna Bullard about her debut record Split Heart.
Django: Let’s talk about your album! First of all, congrats on putting it together — it sounds great.
Anna: Thank you! I’m so excited! It’s finally come together.
Django: I didn’t get track names from the CD. What’s the third track called?
Anna: “The Problem.”
Django: To me, that’s the centerpiece. Halfway through, when that rich, thumping orchestral sound comes in, it changes the whole game.
Anna: That is actually the last song written for the album.
Django: Huh. Did you have that arrangement in mind when you started recording that song, or did it build on its own?
Anna: I just knew that I wanted to experiment with textures. That song, like the entire album, is really a collaboration between Zeno, Nathan and myself.
Django: Did you record it at Zeno’s studio in Durham?
Anna: Yes. I started recording there in 2007 with “I’m Sorry” for the Pox Compulation Volume III. Then Zeno invited me back to record for an album.
Django: Got it. It’s a beautiful old house. Doing it there rather than in an airless studio allows some ghosts to creep in.
Anna: Definitely. The space is very comfortable and inspiring with all the old cameras, trinkets and records everywhere. It was a long drive, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it anywhere else.
Django: There are a lot of really nice textures in the record, but your voice comes through as the guiding force. Have you always sung? It seems like it.
Anna: I wrote my first songs at about 15. Then I started writing a lot of songs about ten years ago when I was 20. I never really considered myself a “singer” or “musician.” It was just a hobby — something I did when I had to get something off my chest. But I guess I have been singing for the last ten years pretty regularly, to answer your question. Unwittingly.
Django: Was there a turning point where you started realizing, “Hey, I can do this professionally!” or has it been more of an easing-in?
Anna: It was definitely a wake-up call when Tripp Cox told me Zeno was going to ask me to participate in the Compulation. Past Compulations had been full of my favorite bands from NC, and I was so honored. I guess it was then I realized that some people actually enjoyed my songs and might want to hear them.
Django: Well, you’re a wonderful addition to the NC music world. The track “Bear’s Eyes” kept reminding me of a Russian folk tale. Where did that one come from?
Anna: Well, that song came in the morning as an exclamation of freedom from a situation I had felt chained to for some months. Writing it on the keyboard was one way to express that freedom as I wasn’t held back with my limited guitar knowledge. When I brought it to the studio, I can’t remember if it was Zeno or Nathan who had the idea to call Scott Phillips with his accordion, but it gave it that Eastern European folky vibe that I love. It became its own animal.
Django: A bear.
Anna: For sure. But that song is the perfect example of why I enjoyed working with Zeno and Nathan. They just had the vision from the beginning. They are not afraid to step out and do exactly the thing you’re not supposed to do while at the same time showing incredible restraint.
Django: That’s a great asset. You also create visual art, right? Your photography is striking as well. In fact, The Old Ceremony is using your photos for our new album art, and I didn’t even know it was yours until later. Do you think visually when writing or arranging?
Anna: I do. It makes me so happy that someone else is getting some use out of those photos. I have taken thousands of photos with that film camera and have yet to print a single one. (Just process straight to disc.) The ones you’re using are some of my favorites. Um, yea, I think visually when writing — like, depicting a picture in my head or a feeling in my heart. Although, many times I urgently jump right into the song without thinking ahead one note, but things tend to balance out in end.
Django: Speaking of jumping directly into a song, a lot of the songs seem to be very direct, emotional stories directed at specific people. I’ve had songs where I’ve written them about/to particular people where it just felt like I was calling them by name, so they stayed in the vault. But others I’ve sung for years and hardly think about the person who inspired/required it. Lyrics like yours obviously come from pretty personal experiences. What’s your feeling about writing about your friends/family/exes? Are you able to separate yourself from the initial inspiration, or do you still feel the association when you sing them later? I’m thinking specifically about “You Were a Good Friend” here….
Anna: Excellent question. Well, I do write songs about specific people and events; I have a hard time hiding my feelings, anyway. Honesty is the most important element in my music and art. These songs — they come when I have no other way of expressing myself — the emotions and feelings — to the person. Writing a song becomes my relief. Sweet release. Then I’m able to move on. I feel so lucky to have this outlet!
Django: That makes sense. It’s just that sometimes you have to see these people regularly. It’s like my friend’s TV show pilot, “Craptown,” which was about a writer whose first novel talked about everyone in his old hometown Craptown and then he had to move back there and face them.
Anna: That would be tough. Hopefully he was honest with everyone before he went off writing his book.
Django: Okay, last question — this is something we always agonize over — how did you choose the closing track? Were you thinking about how it would leave the listener, or is that whole album idea antiquated in the age of iPod Shuffles? If the former, what is the last thought, image, feeling, color, animal, flavor that you’d like your album closer to evoke?
Anna: Nathan Oliver came up with an idea for how to sequence the songs early on, and I thought it was right on. We all agreed that “Seasons” was the perfect way to close. I think Nathan said it best: “I’m moving on, seasons pass, time is moving (knowing that I’m growing.)” It’s all about going through the ringer and coming out the other side stronger.
Django: Perfect. Great idea. It’s been fun talking with you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you play sometime soon.