which is why I never got around to posting this week’s story links. Now I’m gonna set that right. Two pieces. Bombpop, which is about the fine new Quasi record Hot Shit, and a Journal News feature on quiet indie rock.
Magnolia Electric Co.
Had a piece in last week’s Journal News about the Jason Molina’s current band, Magnolia Electric Co. Looks to me like they ran short on space and ended up cutting the piece down pretty significantly, which is fine. But I like what I wrote a bit better than what ran (though what I wrote certainly needed an edit), so I’m gonna post my original story here. If you’d rather read the shorter, edited version that showed up in print, you can do so here. Otherwise, I hope you dig this.
Jason Molina doesn’t insist on a vinyl pressing of every record he makes because he wants to offer something to collectors. He doesn’t do it for the sake of vanity, either. He doesn’t really even do it because he’s one of those people who thinks music sounds better coming off a turntable.
Molina, the Chicago-based singer-songwriter who’s calling his current band Magnolia Electric Co. (after the title of the final album recorded under his previous project name, Songs: Ohia) insists on vinyl because, unlike CDs, records are expensive to manufacture. And when Molina takes a band into the studio, he believes he owes it to himself, his fans and his label, Secretly Canadian, to produce a work that’s worth the expense of pressing on vinyl.
“There’s a finite number of people who we can expect to buy [a record] on vinyl, because people don’t buy it as a novelty, they’re buying it because it’s the way that they prefer to listen to music,” Molina says. “So we always said that if you don’t think that this record is worth putting out on vinyl, then it’s not worth putting out. And I’ve always really stuck to that. I’ve never put out an LP that I wasn’t happy with.”
That’s fairly astounding given the volume of music Molina has produced as the leader of various projects over a recording career currently in its tenth year. With Songs: Ohia, a “band” that amounted to Molina and whomever else a particular group of songs suited, Molina made seven full-length records and an assortment of EPs and singles between 1996 and 2003. After wrapping up Songs: Ohia with Magnolia Electric Co., Molina last year stepped aside and offered the solo disc Pyramid Electric Co. under his own name. And this year, working for the first time with a stable-membership backing band, he’s been behind two full-length CDs already — the live Trials and Errors and the studio effort What Comes After the Blues — and has a five-song EP, Hard to Love a Man slated for release in October.
The fact of the matter, however, is that both fans and critics, by and large, have echoed Molina’s satisfaction with his recorded output. Songs: Ohia’s records, which typically rang with the stillness of spaces too big even for the sorrows and passions spilling out of Molina’s mouth and guitar, were embraced for Molina’s uncanny ability to evoke distance and intimacy at once. Pyramid Electric captured the ear and the mind by presenting songs more aching, more raw, darker, and a Molina more pitiless in self-examination than anything Songs: Ohia had produced. And then Magnolia Electric came forward and put the muscle of a real band, a country-rock band with the hard, dangerous edge of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, behind Molina’s still mostly sorrowful lyricism and expert guitar playing, giving the songwriter the ability to rock out like he means it — or not to rock out in a manner that leaves little doubt but that he means not to.
What all of Molina’s work shares is an unrelenting sense of immediacy. And that derives nearly as much from the way in which Molina has chosen to create his records as it does from his considerable skill as a songwriter. While every record Molina makes is carefully thought-out — the songs written with care, the players selected with an eye to commitment and work ethic as much as for talent — Molina prefers not to belabor production of his releases.
Molina has chosen, from the very start, to record his music live in the studio. He doesn’t even use scratch vocals (vocals recorded in live performance that are later overdubbed) as many “live in studio” bands do. He wants the authenticity of a band playing all at once, even if it makes the recording process more difficult. He says he understands, though, why his technique is uncommon.
“We like the character of the performances,” Molina says. “We don’t want there to be obvious mistakes, but this is the kind of presenting of songs that tries to keep all the human elements in there. And so, you know, in the middle of the song, I’ll play the chord, but because I’m playing guitar and singing live, I might not hit the chord hard enough for it to ring out all the way and you just get two notes instead of five. And I don’t worry to go back and fix that, because I think overall people are listening to it as a whole unit, and if anything that stands out to someone.”
If everything goes right, Molina says, he believes he and his band can get an album tracked, start to finish, in four hours of recording time. That’s helpful, he notes, when you like to put out a lot of records and you tend to spend eight months a year on tour.
Indeed, Molina notes that during a recent short break in touring, Magnolia Electric spent a few days at producer Steve Albini’s studio, Electrical Audio, putting down tracks for the band’s next full-length CD. Molina expects to release the disc early next year.
“They’re finished,” Molina says of the new songs. “We did at least 13 songs, I think, by my count. I’m hoping that we can get at least 11 or so of them on the record. It just comes down to however much we can fit safely on the LP.”
Are You People On Dope?
Lemme ask this question: What kind of utter fucking moron would pay $5,000 to see the Rolling Stones? Or any rock concert? Or any single entertainment event? And doesn’t the fact that there apparently are people who will plunk down that kind of money for a ticket absolutely cry out for the institution of a federal stupidity tax? That is, shouldn’t someone who will play five grand to go see a bunch of geriatric has-beens pretending to play rock and roll also be required to play an equal amount into a national fund that could be used to pay for actual worthwhile things, like schools and roads and health coverage for the uninsured?
Look, Jack, I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan, OK? (Says so right here, so it’s gotta be true, right?) This isn’t about the Stones. But to the extent it is, let’s be honest, shall we? Whatever Stones fans may want to believe, the band’s best days are easily three decades behind them. That’s 30 years. More maybe. That’s a mighty long time. I mean, you know, the band was still pretty good 25 years ago, marginally decent 20 years ago, and worth a sideways glance just out of curiosity’s sake 15 years ago. But now? Nothing. They’re totally faking it. Keith can still play like hell when he cares to, but Mick can’t sing for shit (and he mostly doesn’t sing — he mostly talks his way through songs). And there’s nothing even remotely relevant about these guys. They’re done, done, done. And it’s sad, sad, sad.
But you know what? Even then, if you wanna pay $64 to see them, well, that’s your business. If you wanna pay $454 to see them, you’re too damned stupid to talk to, but, again, you earned it, and if you don’t throw it away on the Stones, you’ll probably throw it away in Vegas or something, so whatever. But $5,000 plus? No. Sorry, Charlie. Doesn’t wash. You don’t deserve to have enough money that you can drop $5,000 on a concert. You don’t deserve to have enough money to spend $10 on a movie for that matter. You should be stripped of most of what you own and your money should be used for the betterment of society. We can’t do that, of course. But I see no reason not to take it from you one stupid decision at a time.
I propose instituting exactly what I mentioned above: a national stupidity tax. You pay $5,000 to see a rock concert (high-end benefit type events excepted), you pay an equal amount in idiot tax. I’ll be in charge of collection. All everyone else has to do is watch what’s going on around them and report to me when you see stupid-ass shit like this happening. I’ll draft up a bill and send it off to the dipshits, who can make their checks out to the IRS, but who will have to write “my abject stupidity” on the memo line (or face a stiff penalty). The money will be used for important stuff in hopes of offsetting the silliness with which its twin amount was wasted. And stupidity tax payments will not be deductible come April 15.
$5,000 to see the most broken down acts in rock. What a goddamned joke.
You know what else (before I go)? Let’s start shutting these ticket-broker scumbags down, shall we? I don’t give half a shit about free market this or that. These guys make their living stealing from people who just want to see a band (or team, or musical … ) they like and it ought not to be tolerated. Yeah, stealing. That’s what these fucks do. They steal. They take a ticket that, in this case, the band and promoter decided was worth $454, and mark it up by 981 percent. And because there are such enormous profits to be made, they make it pretty much impossible for anyone who actually wants to see one of these shows to get a ticket at face value. That’s not capitalism, it’s exploitation. And the pieces of shit who make their living that way shouldn’t only be put out of business, they should be tied up and poked repeatedly with sharp sticks (or subjected to something slightly less pleasant than that, perhaps). The certainly shouldn’t be allowed to continue doing business.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.
Had a piece in last Friday’s Boston Globe about the Montreal-based pop band Stars. I’ve been a fan of Stars for a few years now, and I’m really, really loving their latest CD (their third) Set Yourself on Fire. Great songcraft. Nice male/female vocal thing going on. And the music, while heavy on the new wave/electronic influences, is actually far more organic than it seems on first listen. They’re part of that Broken Social Scene-centered Toronto-Montreal circle. In fact, Stars’ place in that community of musicians is a big part of what the Globe piece is about.
Had a really nice chat with Torquil Campbell, who co-founded the band and is one of its vocalists. Lots and lots of nice leftover quotes, which I offer now in the usual broken Q&A format. [As usual, the interview doesn’t really begin where the conversation begins. There’s small talk first, which I leave out, because of how it’s small talk.]
Do some of the members of Stars still take the stage with Broken Social Scene?
Oh, we all do. And some of them take the stage with us as well. It tends to be that when we’re together everyone just plays in each other’s bands. That’s the way it always seems to work out, because nobody wants to be left out. And we all just don’t wanna hang out back stage, so people pick up a tambourine or play guitar, or whatever.
I remember speaking with Kevin [Drew, of BSS] maybe a year ago and hearing him tell me how important that cooperation is for him and the band.
It’s a great joy for everybody. It’s something that we’ve never really planned out too much or thought about too much. I think it was just a natural outcropping of the fact that it used to be that the only people who were at each other’s shows were ourselves, so we just sort of did it as a way of hanging out together. And now it’s become part of what we do as bands. But it’s not something that we ever planned out or sat down and thought about. I think we all are very big fans of one another, so we have that experience of being excited to just be on stage with a band you really like and be playing music with them. Yeah, it works out wonderfully well.
And it works out even though you guys are in Montreal and Broken and some of the others are in Toronto?
Well, you know, they’re relatively close. They’re about five hours away. And there does seem to be more and more — I mean, we all grew up in Toronto but Stars live in Montreal and Jeffrey our manager who runs Arts & Crafts has moved down to Montreal recently. We do go back and forth a great deal. And when people are talking about the Montreal scene or whatever it’s sort of deceptive, because really it’s just a group of people who live in a few different cities and all get together to make music. I mean, I certainly lived in Toronto for a lot longer in my life than I’ve lived in Montreal, even though we’re thought of as a Montreal band, because that’s where we live now.
But Stars actually started out in New York, right?
Yes. I was in New York for seven years, acting, and we started the band there, and then when it became something we really thought we were going to do for a while, New York just seemed so prohibitive in so many ways. And it seemed like the scene there, and what was happening musically, was something that we didn’t really feel connected to. And we wanted to go back to Canada, but I think we all felt that Toronto was a place where we’d been children and we had a lot of past there and we kind of wanted to reinvent ourselves and find an identity for the band that was our own away from all of our friends and away from all of the influences of the outside community that we have there. So Montreal seemed like a good place, because it’s so easy to move in here and become an artist. It’s so cheap. So it just made sense for us. It wasn’t like we really knew what we were doing or that we’d been to Montreal a lot, but it turned out to be a good choice, because it’s a place with no market. There’s no place to sell what you’re making, so you have a very long time to just make it apropos of nothing. And I think the results of that is that are that you get people who have a very considered and a very thought-out, unique way of expressing the music that they wanna make. It allows you a lot of gestation period, I guess. And that was a good thing for us.
When you say you started the band in New York, who do you mean? Was it just you and Chris [Seligman]?
Me and Chris were living in New York and then we finished Nightsongs, which was our first record, which was put out on an indie label. And then when we realized that if we had to play it live we couldn’t play it alone, so we got Amy and Evan involved. And they were living at the time in Toronto, and so it wasn’t easy for them to go and move to New York and … . You know, New York’s a funny place. It’s like, unless you’re from there, I think there’s always a sense of being lost in a crowd and kind of struggling to have yourself heard or find a place for yourself over the enormous amount of hype and bullshit that is surrounding that place all the time. So we just … yeah, it was a collective decision to go someplace where we could be influenced a bit more by what was around us and where we might have a bit more influence as well.
So did you find that New York kinda lives up to its reputation as being a city without a real music scene?
It’s a marketplace, so it’s very hard to make a scene, because you’re either in the market and you’re selling your stuff and you’re doing great, or you’re not in the market and you’re serving salads to people in restaurants. It’s such a struggle to live there and to make a living out of it that I think it leaves artists very little time to have the energy to make great art. And I don’t know if always was that way. I don’t think it was. I think there was a time when you could live cheaply in New York. But it’s sort of killed it’s own reputation in a strange way by becoming such an enclave of the rich. It’s not very good for indie rockers.
[I’m taking out a little bit of chatter regarding who’d be on stage with the band for the Boston show, which Torq wasn’t entirely sure of and which consequently made for quite boring conversation.]
It’s still fairly amazing to me that you’re able to just add and subtract pieces with such fluidity. How … I can’t figure out how it’s even possible to prepare for shows that way.
There’s the five of us who are the core of it. We’ve rehearsed so that if worse comes to worst we’re capable of doing a show that way. But the music is very layered and ornamental and it’s kind of easy if musicians are good to get them to come in and add another layer. It doesn’t alter very much what we’re doing. There’s a lot of space in our music, so it’s easy to find space for other people to play, which we like to do. It’s nice to have other people come in and give their perspective on what we’re doing.
But, then, your music, on the record, at least, sounds incredibly carefully crafted.
[Laughs.] It’s torturously carefully crafted.
And yet you’re able to let people come in and just add to it sort of as they will.
[Lifted some stuff for the Globe piece from here.] … And again, I mean, all these people who are playing with us are people who are dear friends of ours and who know the music very, very well, and who we kind of idolize in a way as musicians, so it’s … . What am I gonna do, tell Andrew Whiteman not to play guitar on my song? I’m a huge fan of his work. And it’s like, even if he sc
rews up, it’s just exciting to have him there. And I know that sounds kind of weird and Pollyannaish, but it literally is the way that it goes down with this crew of people. There’s a great deal of kind of idolization of each other. And I think in a way we’re each other’s heroes. So if your hero fucks up, who cares? It’s still your hero. They’re still there playing with you.
Does that play a role in your songwriting as well? Or, that’s probably too broad a question. I mean, how do you go about writing?
Well, with this record in particular, Stars tend to isolate ourselves a great, great deal when we’re writing. That outside influence doesn’t really come in. On Set Yourself On Fire we wanted it to, but for some reason in the end we decided we had to say what we had to say exactly the way we wanted to say it, and not let anybody else be responsible for it. The one person who always seems to get involved is James Shaw who plays in Metric, who was my first guy that I was in a band with, and the first guy that Chris was in a band with, and is a dear friend. And he always seems to show up and participate on some level. But with Set Yourself On Fire, we were very determined to make it a record that we wrote in a room together as a band with a drummer playing. You know, the previous two albums had been in a bedroom with a computer and the song would start with a beat or a bass line or something and we would slowly, slowly layer something together that eventually became a song. With this we wanted very much to make sure we were writing songs that kind of stood up immediately on their own just being played in a room.
[Pulled more stuff for the story from here — all the stuff about the full-band writing process.]
Maybe it’s just that I’m outside it and I don’t see it at work, but it seems like a pretty complex and … . You know, it seems like I’m always hearing songwriters — and I guess this probably goes for anyone who does any kind of creative work — tell me that they worry that it’ll go away. You know, that ability to write. And you’ve got that times four. Or five. Am I assuming too much, or is it that much scarier your way?
It is. It’s a constant sort of source of amazement to me. And it’s not always easy. And there’s always that thing of having finished a record and thinking, Christ, can we actually do that again? That was such an intense and subtle experience. Can we recreate that again? And, you know, we have three times, so hopefully we’ll be able to do it again. But it’s rare that you find people who you can do that with and I think that was just dumb luck. We had a sense that this particular group of four people were capable of writing songs together. And it worked. And it’s, you know, it’s one of those things that you don’t really talk about for fear of jinxing it. We never sat down and sort of went, wow, this really works this way and, wow, I like it when you do that. It’s sort of an unspoken thing. Nobody wants to mention it in case it all disappears into the ether. It’s like writing. It’s like can I write this again? When I sit down today will I be able to do what I did yesterday?
So then, what? You can’t help but tempt fate by taking those songs and inviting a bunch of other people to contribute to them?
Yeah. But again, as I say, it’s like we come from such a communal approach to music and there are so many other bands involved in our career — it’s sort of like, if they hear what we’re doing and they don’t like what we’re doing then it can’t happen. Almost. In a way. It has to be part of some kind of collective decision that we’re all making to make a certain kind of music. Certainly, there’s no veto power there, but you feel their passion or their loss of interest and it means a lot. It moves you forward into directions that you might not otherwise go But there’s a lot of options. We’re very lucky, you know? There’s all kinds of people around and in that sense it makes it easier, because there’s always energy. There’s always somebody who’s willing to help out or has an opinion, or, you know, has something to contribute.
[I ask him whether this collective approach, which one sees elsewhere in indie pop these days, though certainly not to the extent to which it’s manifest in Toronto/Montreal is something that’s been there all along and I missed it, or if it’s something new. And the first few sentences of his response are in the Globe piece. It’s the bit about the expanding gang mentality of pop bands. And I think the rest of what he had to say is interesting. So we’ll pick up his response after those two sentences.
… I think that it’s partly a sort of outcropping of the way our generation perceives family, and have lived in the world. You know, the family structure is not the way it used to be, and people are making their friends their family. There are communities of friends that kind of look after each other more and more in our generation. People are living together as roommates and not getting married as early — all that kind of stuff. And so there is much more affinity to the idea of a community, being a cog in a wheel, you know. And I think that pop music has to expand somewhere, right? It’s got to get more orchestral. It’s got to get more complicated. I’m always in favor of there being great four-on-the-floor pop bands, but in order for the musical form to last, people have start pushing it into different areas. Just like jazz kind of imploded — you know, like, jazz started with orchestras and with horn sections and arrangements and all those things, and eventually bebop came along and it was like, no, we’re gonna do this with three guys or four guys, I think kind of the opposite is happening in a way in rock and roll. People are getting slightly more grandiose in what they feel they might be able to do with rock and roll. And because of that they need more people. They need more instruments. They need more arrangement. So I think it is new. I think it is a relatively new thing.
You know what occurred to me as you were making that comparison to jazz — talking about that inverse movement — is that it seems to me that as jazz bands got smaller, the music started to require more from its audience. And in the same way it seems that as rock bands get bigger, their music starts to require more of its audience.
I think that’s true, too, and I think the audience wants to participate more. I think we live in, obviously, dark, dark times. Often very frightening and very confusing and very alienating times. And I think I think what a lot of pop bands are choosing to do at the moment is try to create community experience where people feel together and supported and sort of hopeful in the idea that there might be a whole bunch of other people who are feeling the way they do. And I think the audience wants to have things demanded of them. They want to go to shows and have their lives be affected, feel like something important is happening to them. And rock and roll for so long in the ’90s was an interior thing and was so much about people’s inner experience and about irony and about darkness and that kind of stuff, which is all valid and beautiful, and there was some great music made. But the natural progression, I think, becomes to try to head out into the sunshine a bit more and try and find some universal points, some points where we all agree to experiences that we’ve all shared, you know? [Here’s where he told the story, that’s in the Globe piece, about the audience response to “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.”]
I find it really interesting to think about the fact that you’re using bigger bands, more instruments, to look at little moments.
I really enjoy that aspect of it. Pop music is a pretty simple form, you know? There’s a 4/4 beat and a bunch of chords. But what it’s good at is really acting as a signpost for people about certain moments in their life. And when they come to a concert
and they’re cheering and they’re singing along, they like the song, but it’s not so much the song they’re celebrating as it is their lives, their own lives, the feelings that those songs evoke for them about themselves. Everyone is the epic star of their own movie. Everybody else in the world is just a minor character in that huge drama that is their lives. Every single, solitary person is living out that huge drama, and has massive hopes and makes massive decisions and goes through massive moments of fear and joy. Life is epic, even if it’s only happening inside you. Everybody sitting on the bus is having some huge fucking emotional experience — if they’re anything like me, and I think they are. So that’s the dichotomy of pop music — it’s one of the things I like most about it — is that it can be simultaneously very grand and very important and portentous, and extremely dumb and throw-away and simple. I think that’s what the name Stars refers to. There are stars in the sky. there’s the universe, there’s all those profound questions about life. And then there’s Jennifer Anniston and what we know as stars in our world.
[And that’s about it. I tell him I think that’s a good note to end on. We make a bit more small talk. And that’s that.]
Leftovers: Howie Payne of the Stands
I’ve taken most of a week to get around to this, but so it goes. Had a piece in last Thursday’s Journal News about the Stands, a British pop band that is just incredibly fun to listen to. I hope they succeed in building an audience here in the States.
Howie Payne, the band’s songwriter and frontman, was a very pleasant interview subject. Engaging, good humored and down to earth. If you’re from the Valley, I can give you a bit of a sense of what he’s like in conversation by telling you that he reminds me very much of John Allen of the Big Bad Bollocks in both temperament and voice. In case that’s not helpful to you, I’ll say that Payne’s speaking voice sounds a bit like Jon Langford’s singing voice (which is pretty much the same a Jon Langford’s speaking voice, for whatever that’s worth).
I’ve got plenty o’ leftover quotes from my chat with Howie. And here, in the usual rough Q&A format that they were never meant to be presented in, they are.
[Note: We’re gonna jump in sort of in the middle here, because the first quotes in the piece come from the beginning of the interview, with Howie responding to a question about what it’s like to be in the States supporting a two-year-old record just as a brand new disc is being released at home.]
That is a strange thing, because in England and in Europe when we do shows, we’re doing new stuff. So that is a bit strange, the fact that when we come over here and people are asking us about it in interviews: “So Howie, how are you feeling about … ? What does this song mean …? Where were you when you wrote this?” I don’t remember, man. It was like eight years ago. So it’s kind of strange to come over. It feels like we’ve stepped back in time a little bit, which is kind of strange.
But that can only go so far, right? I mean, you’re not over here trying to rediscover the mindset you were in two years ago. You just play the songs the way you play them now — I mean, assuming that’s changed some. Does this question — I’m not sure it’s even a question — does it make any sense?
[Laughing] Yeah. We’ve always done a fair amount of jamming on stage anyway. I don’t like to play the same stuff every night. It’s just something I don’t like to do. So a lot of the songs, we’ll just go off somewhere and have a little groove for a little bit with something or other. So it’s not like we’re trying to just repeat the same things every single night. You know, I’m always sort of careful. I don’t like playing one song too much. I always change the sets around and things like that, you know? How I’m feeling tonight kind of thing, you know?
[Here’s where we got into all the other stuff that’s in the print piece, the stuff about how All Years Leaving got made in a hurry. We come out on the other side with Howie just having told me that he feels like the finished record is the American version, which just came out.]
But you didn’t ultimately change all that much, right? I mean, it’s not like you decided to go back and start from scratch. You tweaked one song, used a different mix of another. It’s not a radically different version of the record that we got here.
I look at it like a photograph, you know? It’s kind of like, you don’t look at a photograph and think I should have had my hair cut differently. It’s done. What are you gonna do?
So was making the new record a completely different experience for you?
The biggest difference is that I felt like I’d exhausted my knowledge of the studio with the first record. I have an amount of knowledge, but … it’s different. I just didn’t want a very polished record for the first record. I just wanted, like a kind of “microphone in the room with the band” record, you know? With all our frailties and warts and all. These are the songs. This is real people playing real songs, you know? But it puts a lot of pressure on you, you know? Not from like an outside source, but, you know, internally. Because you kind of get too attached to it, and I found I couldn’t really get a perspective on exactly where I was at with it. But I was determined to finish myself and not get somebody in. But for the second record I didn’t want to do that. I just thought, OK, I want to work with someone now, I want to learn some more. So we went in with a producer in the form of Tom Rothrock and we got together and worked really closely on the pre-production. You know, we did like weeks of pre-production and then three weeks recording again. So to me, it was a much smoother process. I could concentrate more on, you know, just keeping the band playing the parts that we’d focused on, and just getting the sounds right in the room.
So now here you are and — you’ll be here in the States touring this record when the new one comes out in England, right? I know we talked about this already, but I’m still thinking about it, because it’s starting to hit me just how strange that has to be.
We just left England and everyone’s geared up for the next record and then we come to America and it’s all happening for the first record. That’s what’s really strange.
And it’s not like you restrict yourselves to your old stuff on stage here, right?
[Laughs again.] No, man, no. We’re kind of playing some of the new stuff anyway. We’re not being snobbish about it and being like, hey, we’ve moved on. It’s not like that. We just kind of like playing some of the new stuff, so we’re playing some of the older stuff and some of the newer stuff. But we kind of do that anyway. Half or our sets that we do in England is b-sides, you know?
So that tells me that you just trust your audiences to go along with what you’re doing.
Oh, yeah. Our audiences are not ignorant about what’s good and bad. You don’t do your gig for your audience as much as you do your gig with your audience. There has to be a respect of your audience’s ability to know if you’re doing a good job or not.
[Everything after this pretty much amounts to small talk, so we’ll end it here.]
OK, so after not blogging in any real way in who the hell knows how long, here I come with what might well be the most inane post in the history of inane blog posts (which is actually saying something). Still, I’ve gotta write something somewhere, because this is driving me nuts and I’ve gotta get it out of my head.
Let’s start with some background. In the town where I live (Northampton, Mass.) there is a terrific park called Look Park. It’s privately held and managed, but open for public use. I buy a season pass every year, and spend lots and lots of time there, mostly strolling and picnicking. It’s pretty. And it’s big. There’s an outdoor amphitheater there where a company I used to work for presents some pretty impressive concerts every summer. There’s a little zoo. There’s all variety of playgrounds and playing fields. There’s a little pond where people go for paddleboat rides. There’s a little shed near the pond where people get married. There’s a little choo-choo for kids to ride. So, you know, like that.
And there has always been, for as long as I’ve been going to the park, a pretty sizable sord of mallards that just kinda hangs out there and gets fed like crazy. The ducks don’t leave during the winter, probably because there are still plenty of folks who go to the park and feed them (plus I’ve seen park staff showering them with little duck corns scooped out of a giant bucket, so even if no one were showing up, they’d be doing pretty well).
So, OK, those ducks are there all the time. You go to the spot where the ducks hang out and there they are, hanging out. You put a quarter in the little gumball type vending machine, get a handful of corn and delight your toddler by getting the duckies to come right up to his feet in pursuit of a free meal. It’s just ducks, but it’s big happy shit when you’re a little guy.
But here’s the thing. The ducks are gone. Gone where? I don’t know. Just gone. Three, maybe four weeks ago, they disappeared. And they haven’t come back. So now, you go to the spot where the ducks used to hang out and there they aren’t. Not a duck. Not a drake. Not a nothing. So what I’m wondering is, as a particular little fellow I know puts it, “Where duckies go?”
I’ve got a pretty good idea where they didn’t go. They didn’t go off to breed. Mallards breed in August. And, sure, summer does seem to be coming on a lot more quickly than usual here in New England. But no one’s likely been fooled into thinking it’s August, especially not ducks. So there’s that.
I’m not the only one thinking about this. I’ve overheard a good number of conversations about it while at the park. No one seems to know the answer. No one even seems to have a decent guess. But everyone seems to think something weird is afoot.
On my way out of the park yesterday, I decided to ask about it. I stopped and asked the kid “park ranger” at the gate if he knew what was up. He might have, but if he did he wasn’t saying. He looked startled by the question, but not in a “there’s a weird question I would never have seen coming” kind of way. He looked started in a “oh, shit, they’re asking about it now” kind of way. Or that was my read, anyhow. And, not to pat myself on the back too much, but I’ve always been pretty good at reading that kind of thing. “I don’t know,” he shrugged after taking a few seconds to recover. “They all just sort of left.”
I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that after however long it’s been, this great group of ducks just decided en masse to leave a nice little spot filled to overflowing with easy eats just as the lean season was winding down and the buffet was set to open. That said, I can’t imagine what else could have happened. Would the park have had them removed? I can’t imagine it. Why? What would be the point? And there’s no way duck rustling can be in any way profitable. (Or at least not enough so to make it worth the risk of hanging. Duck rustling is a hanging offense, right?) So tell me, what gives? Where duckies go?
story and leftover quotes
Haven’t done this in a while. Haven’t done much blogging of any sort in quite a while. Why? Dunno. Doesn’t matter. Right now, what I’ve got is a link to a Journal News feature on Crooked Fingers and some leftover quotes from my interview with Eric Bachmann, the guy behind Crooked Fingers. Before I get into the disjointed Q&A bit, though, lemme tell you that if you’re digging the new Crooked Fingers disc, Dignity & Shame as much as I am you should try to get out to see the band live. Bachmann’s out with six pieces right now. It’s everyone from the record except, unfortunately, Lara Meyerratken, who’s vocals on the disc are so awesome. Eric assures me, though, that those female vocal parts are well covered in the live sets, so it’s not that huge a deal.
Actually, Eric and I started our interview, which took place about an hour before the band’s first live show in support of Dignity & Shame, talking about the live band and their sets. We got to chatting about arranging some old songs, originally written for Bachmann to play solo on the early Crooked Fingers records, for the new band and I asked him if he found he liked certain songs better in their full band permutations.
I like ’em the same. I mean, it’s just a song, man and it’s different every time. You have to change it up. I like to do things where you record them one way and you take them out differently every time you can. I don’t believe there’s the perfect version of a song. I believe if a song works with any arrangement, you’ve written a good song. At least that’s my attitude.
Have you always operated that way? I mean, I ask that assuming the answer is no. Like, it sort of sounds to me like you used to believe there was a perfect way to perform or record a song.
Yeah, I used to do it that way and it didn’t work for me. I would spend five years on a record. And I just took on a belief through that painful process that you’ve just got to let it go; it’s not that important. It’s important, but it isn’t important. It’s important to me, but it ain’t important to anybody else.
So now you look at it as … um, well, how do you look at it?
You’ve gotta just take it as a document of where you are at that time.
That sounds like a pretty major change in approach. Do you feel like it’s made you better? I mean, I suppose at the least it has to have made it easier to get your work done.
It was huge, man, it was really huge, because it’s like it makes your ego smaller. It’s a … I just realized that I wasn’t getting anything done. I would go back and fix something that I thought was broken and it wouldn’t be better. It wouldn’t be better at all. It would just be different.
And does it then open things up for you when you go back to revisit a song, like when you do a new arrangement?
That’s a great question, because, yeah … I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t wanna know what I’m doing. And the only time I figure out what a song is about is after the fact. I like to think that if I’m writing a song it’s not up to me. I like to feel like I’m just sort of putting it out there, but it’s not me. It’s like that whole idea that you just get working and whatever comes out of you comes out of you. It’s, again, essentially reducing your ego. If you think of it that way, that you don’t have to know what it means until later then you can look back and … it also keeps things from being too rigid, because if a song means one thing and that’s it, then how many times are you going to listen to that over and over again, you know?
So you’re obviously someone who writes when he’s inspired, right? I mean, you’re not one of these guys who sets aside two hours a day to write and just pumps out song after song.
No, no, it’s inspiration.
Is that scary in a way? Are there times when that inspiration hasn’t come along in a while and you’re wondering when it will, or are you pretty much always getting something, or is it … you know, something else? Did that question make sense?
Yeah. The key is to be ready for it to hit you 24-7. You can have months go by when nothing hits you and then you can write a song in an hour. Like on the new record, “Sleep All Summer” took like three years and “You Must Build a Fire” took like an hour and a half.
How does that work — when a song takes three years to write and it’s a matter of inspiration? Is the inspiration just sort of coming and going?
For me, it happens in chunks. Like, I’ll write different parts, like a first line and I’ll think, that’s a good first line, I’ll keep that. And I’ll work on it, because I like the line, but I’m not gonna force it if it doesn’t work. So I’ll set it aside. I’ll work on other stuff and I’ll come back to it months later. Ah, nothing’s coming again, I’ll leave it alone. Then, all of a sudden three months later, you’ll be asleep and you’ll wake up, oh, yeah, that’s what it is. And you have another part of the song written. Then you put it away for another six months. But that song, oddly enough, was pieced together. For years it was just pieces and then when I was writing for Dignity & Shame it just fell out and was finished in an hour.
[Took a good chunk of stuff from here for the Journal News piece. We’ll come back in toward the tail end of the interview, with me asking Eric about whether he thinks he’ll stick with the approach he took in making Dignity & Shame (full band in the studio; songs written by EB, arranged by all; 11 days making the record — six tracking, five mixing).]
I guess the results sort of speak for themselves, but I’ll ask anyhow: Are you happy with how this record turned out? Do you think you’ll keep making records this way?
I know the next one, I’ll work this way, because I’ve already written a lot of songs for that record. But the thing is, you always wanna throw curveballs to yourself. Like, I did the first two Crooked Fingers records pretty much by myself, and I had to do that because I’d just spent eight years collaborating with a band and I had to change that formula. … So for me, if I’m doing this collaborative thing now, maybe two, three records from now I might want to do it by myself again, or just do something completely different, whatever it might be. You’ve just got to listen to the voices in your head and whatever they tell you to do, you do. Trust it.
Is that belief in change something you’ve always had, or did you have to grow into it?
I’m sure it’s something I’ve grown into. I mean, I never thought about it, man. And I don’t even think about it now when I’m writing. But I do think that I’ve always had that in the back of my head, because I knew when I was making the first records I was making that I didn’t want to repeat myself. I didn’t call it what I just called it, but I knew.
I guess I haven’t been posting much of anything here lately. Too busy spouting off about football stuff (including, just today, the Randy Moss trade) on This Football Blog. That should change soon. But for now, here, at least, are some links to some recent pieces, most of which I should have posted as they appeared, but so it goes.
I’ve got a piece in today’s Journal News in which Lou Barlow discusses his new record, Emoh, and the upcoming Dinosaur Jr. reunion (that’s right; J, Lou and Murph are getting back together for some shows).
So there’s some stuff to read.
Guess Whom I Blame
Ah, hell, never mind with the guessing. I’ll just come right on out and tell you: I blame all the so-called “progressives” who voted for John Kerry in November because it was just soooooo important to get George Bush out of office. All the pseudo-progressives who decided it was important to embrace a candidate who didn’t represent, or even pretend to give a shit about, their values, because, you know, by compromising a little bit now, we’d get more of what we want over the long term. All the well-meaning but hideously unrealistic folks who dismiss my warnings about the ongoing rightward creep of American government as unwarranted fretting from a lefty ideologue.
I blame you for what I read about in the Boston Sunday Globe yesterday. Reporter Susan Milligan wrote about how the Democratic Party is moving to soften its stance on abortion rights, which is a nice way of saying that the chickenshit Dems, having failed to nominate a candidate who could beat George Bush, the worst president in U.S. history, are, precisely as I (and others) predicted, getting ready sell out their core constituency on one of the most important issues of our time. Why? Because they’ve got their fat little fingers in the wind and they figure it’s blowing in from the right. So rightward (once again) is where they’re headed. Wow. What a fucking shock.
Get it through your skulls, kids: The Democrats were never concerned with progressive values. They’re not concerned with anything except power. They think they know what they need to do to win some elections going forward, and that’s precisely what they’re going to do. And if abortion rights don’t survive, they can live with that (no matter what some of them may be saying at the moment). Indeed, you’d better believe me now even if you haven’t in the past, the Dems can be trusted to safeguard nothing of what progressives value if they believe there are votes to be got by going the other way. They’ll work their asses off to spin their moves, to claim they’re not actually betraying what were supposedly deeply held beliefs, but they’ll be betraying progressive causes everywhere you look just the same.
So why do I blame Kerry voters for that? Surely, those progressives who settled for Kerry, who bought into the lesser-of-two-evils bullshit the Dems were laying down during the campaign, did so out of a sincere belief that the best choice for president was Anyone But Bush. Yup. They did. And they were wrong. They were wrong then, and they’re being proven wrong now. And, as I said then, they fucked the lot of us by going along with the Dems. Dig what Milligan wrote (and didn’t write):
Offering a warmer welcome for antiabortion voices would give Democrats a chance at bringing back voters who might agree with the party on economic and foreign policy issues, but balk at what they perceive is an uncompromising stance on abortion, Democrats said.
She doesn’t go on to write about the voters this move will force out at the other end — i.e. “progressives” — because she doesn’t need to. You folks proved to the Dems this time around that you’ll readily swallow whatever steaming pile of shit they offer you, because you’re so fucking scared of Bush and the GOP. (And why’s that? Well, if I’m to believe what a lot of you told me earlier this year, one reason is that those guys wanna take away a woman’s right to choose. Oops.) The Dems aren’t worried that they’ll lose you by moving rightward because they won’t. You’ll vote for whatever candidate they nominate in 2008 and you’ll buy into whatever moves they make to weaken the pro-choice planks in their platform, because you think they’re better than the other guys. Once again, you’re wrong. They’re the same as the other guys.
If you’d stood by your beliefs. If you’d cast a vote for a progressive candidate this time around (as many of you did in 2000), we’d have the same guy in the White House as we do right now, but the Dems would be talking about what they need to do to bring progressives back into the party rather than how they can more effectively court regressives (not conservatives; the Dems are conservatives; abortion foes are as regressive as the ignorant religious nuts who want to teach creationism as science in public schools and the homophobes who want to write discrimination into the Constitution). They’d be talking about firming up their fight against Republicans who want to eliminate choice rather than trying to find a quiet way to join them. They’d be preparing to do battle to keep right-wing ideologue Nino Scalia from becoming Chief Justice, rather than hinting that they’ll support his nomination.
So, yeah, like I said, I blame you. I also trust most of you to make the same mistake again in 2008. So let me say this for now and for then: Fuck you. Fuck you all.
At The Mall
or Hickory Vin
You’re not gonna get anything meaningful out of this, so if you’re looking for something meaningful, go on ahead and look somewhere else. Or, you know, stop surfing fucking blogs and go volunteer to help the needy somewhere or something. And my god, man, stop complaining to me about how your life has no meaning. Did I tell you to sit around reading this stuff? No. No, I most assuredly did not. Quite the opposite, in fact.
If you’re not looking for something meaningful, then good. I’m glad we’ve found each other. Keep reading. I’ll try to kill as much of your time as possible.
So this is a story — actually it isn’t a story at all; it’s mostly just a bunch of random bullshit — that starts with a trip to Target. But that’s only because I had to go to Target this afternoon. Not for anything important. Just stuff. But the stuff I needed was a Target, so there I went. And I needed a good bit of stuff, too, so the getting it and the standing in line with it and the paying for it part of my trip took a good while, which meant I had to pick up lunch at the Hampshire Mall (which is where the Target where all my stuff was at was at), because there simply wasn’t time left for going anywhere else. And, you know, because sometimes horrible mall Chinese has a pretty strong appeal (though don’t ask me what that is; I ate chicken wings today that were so poorly an incompletely plucked it left me to wonder whether the poor bird had actually been slaughtered properly or simply rent wing from wing on its way into the deep fryer).
All of this crap you’ve now waded through, by the way, is just a hideously overextended mechanism for explaining what it was that set me walking through the Hampshire Mall (which, I suppose I should explain, on the off chance you’re not a resident of the beautiful Pioneer Valley, is one of these lame little malls that should have died a quiet little death 10 years ago but is still going, and, except for Target and the movie theaters — and maybe Ground Round if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t know Ground Round stopped mattering when they stopped giving you peanut shells to throw on the floor — is just getting sadder and sadder all the time), which is when I had the following two utterly meaningless thoughts.
Pointless thought for the day, number one: Is a Hickory Farms gift basket anything more than a way to say, “Not only can I not begin to give half a shit about you, but I’m fairly resentful of the fact that, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself in a situation in which I’m obliged to buy you a gift”? Hickory fucking Farms? There’s still such a thing as Hickory Farms? I’m quite certain that I know no one who has ever either given or received a Hickory Farms gift basket — or if I do, they’re not saying anything about it, most likely because, a) it’s enough to have been forced to deliver that message, and they can see no need to relive the experience; or b) it’s enough to have felt the heartache of receiving such a message, and there’s no need to relive the experience. How on earth does Hickory Farms stay in business? Who’s eating all that summer sausage?
Pointless thought for the day, number two: So you know how every year you walk past the booth at some mall or another where they’re selling the poorly painted, framed portraits of various celebrities, pseudo-celebrities and assorted fictional characters (the one that caught my eye as I walked past today was a portrait of Vin Diesel) and you think (or say to whomever you’re shopping with), “Who buys that shit?” And you never know the answer because you never see anyone buying that shit and you’ve never walked into anybody’s home and seen a portrait of Vin Diesel or the cast of The Sopranos hanging above the mantel. And you don’t really even think about the answer because it’s really just a rhetorical question, because you’re really just thinking (or saying to whomever) that clearly no one would ever buy that shit. But you know what occurred to me today? There’s an actual answer to that question. There has to be. Know how I know? Because I’ve been asking that question every year at this time for probably 20 years, and no business keeps running for 20 years if no one ever buys the shit it’s trying to sell (just ask Adam Smith). And the thing that really baffles me is that this means there’s someone out there other than Vin Diesel’s mother (who, I’m gonna go ahead and assume, already has all the poorly painted portraits of her son holding some impossible pistol that she could ever want — I mean, Mrs. Diesel must be proud of her boy, but at some point it just becomes ridiculous) who wants, who believes he or she has some use for, a poorly painted, framed portrait of Vin Diesel. And so the very real questions now become, a) who is this person? b) how many of this person are there? (because, you know, once you’ve got your Vin Diesel portrait, you’re probably all set and I’m guessing these guys have done a nice business in portraits of the Rock — should I capitalize the T in the? — and C. Thomas Howell — I don’t know why I picked C. Thomas Howell just then, but you’re in this deep already, so you might as well stick it out with me, right?) and c) Is this person (are these people) familiar with Mr. Diesel’s work? Because … I don’t know … I saw Pitch Black when it came out and that was pretty much all I needed. I mean, the fact that Pitch Black is an absolutely awful fucking movie isn’t entirely (or even disproportionately) Vin Diesel’s fault — this film wouldn’t have been good with Marlon Brando in the role of Riddick (though it would have been pretty fucking funny), but that doesn’t really let Vin off the hook, does it? Or to the extent that it does, OK, I gave Vin a second chance. I did. Not on purpose or anything (though maybe it should have been on purpose because you really can’t tell from one role whether someone’s bad — look at Jim Varney, for example; he stunk as Virgil Simms on Fernwood 2Night but then turned it all around with his masterful portrayal of … ah, shit, never mind), but really just because of cable television, which is evil for a good number of reasons, the biggest of which is that it forces me (and when I say forces I mean … well, forces, which I would think would be fairly plain) to watch really bad movies, like, say xXs, a, yes, Vin Diesel vehicle which is something to do with spying and such (it’s not that I didn’t get it, just that it was late and the movie was mercifully forgettable). The point, anyway, is that I know Vin Diesel isn’t at all good at what he does. Not even a little bit. So say you liked Vin Diesel for some reason (maybe you just like the cut of his jib, which would be odd, but, you know, to each his own), but then you went out and saw one or two of his movies, wouldn’t you then stop liking him? Or at least come to some understanding of the fact that its a bit embarrassing to have poorly painted, framed portrait of him hanging up somewhere? You might think so, as I did, but as it turns out, for some reason, for someone, somewhere, you’d be wrong. Just wrong.
Of course, I suppose there’s one other explanation: Maybe all the Vin Diesel portraits (except for the ones Vin’s mom buys) are purchased as gifts. Maybe it’s the thing you give to the person who gave you the Hickory Farms gift basket.