Tuesday, December 5, 2000

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been

• Courtney Taylor talks about life — and love — on the road as the Dandy Warhols finish their 2000 World Tour.

By Steve Stav, for Pandomag, Seattle, 2000.

After a two-day marathon bus ride from Michigan to the Coast, Courtney Taylor is exhausted. The bus parked outside Seattle's Catwalk Club (the band's been bumped from the Showbox, in favor of a surprise Snoop Doggy Dogg concert) looks like it's been driven through hell, and the pensive Dandy Warhols frontman feels like he just emerged from Hades itself.

Ensconced in a restaurant-turned Green Room, Taylor is getting his second, or rather, umpteenth, wind. Like a shell-shocked soldier on the eve of a much-needed furlough, this head hedonist of a band of modern-day Merry Pranksters is as giddy as I think it's possible for him to be. After a tour that's consumed most of the year, home -- Portland, Ore. -- is just a night away.

SS: What did you read between Detroit and Vancouver?

Taylor: I started David Copperfield, but for some reason I just couldn't focus...I just tried to sleep alot. I just OD’d on Tylenol PM, we've all been sick, our bus is like the plague ship. It smells godawful, our bus driver is the craziest, most bitter, resentful, passive-aggressive psychopath ever. It's just awful in there, it's hell.

SS: How was the Midwest leg of the tour?

Taylor: It was...great. We've been on the road too long, (with) all the weird cycles of emotional and psychological trips you go through as a unit, as an organism.

SS: Who's the peacemaker on the bus?

Taylor: Everybody. We're like a fuckin' bunch of comedians -- very witty, mildly alcoholic. It's not like we have any tensions or any weird shit, it's just when people like this bus driver enter into it that there's tensions.

SS: Have you seen Almost Famous?

Taylor: No, I really don't watch movies. I own Doctor Zhivago, I watch that a lot...it's my favorite movie.

SS: That's my mom's favorite movie.

Taylor: It's my parents favorite movie.

SS: I think Doctor Zhivago was a big "date movie" back in the 60's.

Taylor: Probably because the men wanted women to know it was possible to have a dual relationship -- that no one woman has everything a man needs...like petite, frail, sensitive, dark-haired; and then blonde, strong, chiseled, that whole powerful, independent thing -- that's the underlying crux of the story. The man, Yuri, he's so well-balanced up until the end -- he's so childlike in his innocence and his joyful approach to the world. It's fucking great, it's just an incredible movie.

SS: And a long one.

Taylor: Thank God. (Watching that) was the last thing I was doing. I was kind of on a strange, every-night coke bender. I was drinking and snorting coke at the bar I do those things at. We only had six days off -- three months ago. I spent six days getting wasted, chain-smoking cigarettes every night. We have three months off, now, so we're going to try to get relatively healthy. I'm gonna hang out with my parents, go on a cruise -- one of those grandma cruises to the Bahamas, the Caribbean.

SS: What's a better environment for you -- Europe, where everyone is into you, or touring through Lubbock, Texas...

Taylor: Everyone's into us in Texas. Everybody's into us everywhere...though people don't show up to our gigs. It's not like we're huge, we're kind of a cult band. We have certain kinds of fans...at least fifty percent of them wear glasses, they generally have pretty good haircuts, but they're not so obsessively hip that they don't have social skills. They're nice people, probably went to college and got good grades. They resent that most people are too stupid to understand them. And we're this classic, deviant, intellectual, kind of spaz-arrogant-geek band. Nobody gets it, except our people. We get it. There's a couple hundred thousand of us in the world... I think we provide affirmation and comfort for these people. Put on our record, and you have things you think and feel affirmed. When we make a record, in our minds we're making it us, because we need them, some other people need them. And then to try and translate that to a record label who's more concerned with chart position...why would you release "Bohemian Like You" as a single? 'Cause it's catchy? So what, people don't need "catchy.”

We're not fooling anybody that we're some "smokin' pot" band. We're just art weirdos who are into folk harmonies and melodies -- Simon and Garfunkel -- and we like the Spacemen 3, so that's what you get -- Simon and Garfunkel harmonies over Spacemen 3 repetition. And then our label is supposed to understand that, and of course, they don't. You explain it to them, and they get it, and two days later, they don't get it. So they don't release "Godless" or "Good Morning" or songs like that. Instead, they release "Bohemian Like You" or "Last Junkie On Earth." Like it matters to anybody...those songs are just fun, just a release valve from being wrapped up in wondering what decisions to make in your day.

SS: The one thing about 13 Tales is that the music is really strong, you don't really even need lyrics to get the mood and message of the songs.

Taylor: The lyrics are just me showing off, or having a good time playing around with words...no, they're really not necessary to convey the mood.

SS: I read that you did some recording with Massive Attack recently. Is there going to be a new musical direction for your next album?

Taylor: Yeah, it was fun working with those guys. Pete and I got into the "digital world" a couple of years ago, right before we started on this record. We were really excited about going hardcore into "digital land," and then everybody was doing it, it kinda seemed like no one was ever going to make a record without loops and Protools stuff again; we get mostly ignored by our label -- at least at that time, that previous regime of weirdos, psychopaths and liars that was Capitol Records when we signed with them. So we said, "Let's not," and our Protools rigs have been sitting idle for a couple of years now, (we've) just been home-recording and noodling. So we said, "Yeah, let's do it" -- somebody's got to do it right -- actually, some people have -- Tricky did some stuff that's pretty good.

Pando (photographer Justin Renney): What do you think of Primal Scream?

Taylor: Pete loves it, I don't even notice Primal Scream that much...all my friends are really into them. I heard a couple of remixes from Kevin Shields, and they were a little too smarty-pants, too noise-messy. I like Simon and Garfunkel...

SS: On those two-day bus rides through the dreary rain, do you ever stare out the window and start humming "America"?

Taylor: That one is not on any of the Simon and Garfunkel records we have on the bus, but yeah, it comes to my head a lot -- that and "Homeward Bound." Amazing.

SS: Back in the 60's, it was like lightning hit Paul Simon for a few years...

Taylor: We listen to Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Freewheelin', the White Album, Plastic Ono Band... even those guys, who are revered so far beyond Simon -- I don't think they ever touched him at his peak. I operate under the impression that the most people you can touch in the deepest way as an artist, that's the only thing that matters. I tend to think that people are the only thing that matters -- cars and dogs and soup cans, they don't matter -- they're trivial compared to the "We are here as a species.”.. and we're freaked out and lonely all the time.

Paul Simon was just a lot deeper and more poignant than Dylan or Lennon was; he just wasn't as consistent, he wasn't a "tough guy," or cocky...Bob Dylan was a fuckin' asshole, he was crazy, he liked to be mean to people. We watch Don't Look Back every now and then, and now it just makes me sick to my stomach to look at that little fuckin' brat, that little shit...he had pretty much used Joan Baez to get his credibility, so she walks around and sings -- and he doesn't speak to her, he makes these mean, bitter jokes, hurts people's feelings. There's that famous scene with him and a journalist, he's got a harmonica and a guitar...(proceeds to re-enact Dylan's antics with some flair)...he was being a dick to this guy, showing off for the camera. Yet that guy wrote all of those incredible songs. Dylan and Lennon seemed uptight, bitter, really focused on themselves in a big way...they were all telling great stories, I don't know what the difference is...(Simon's work) is just so touching, comforting.

SS: I think Paul Simon has always been this guy that anyone can relate to. He's not particularly good-looking -- no pin-up, he's this regular little guy...

Taylor: But they looked good, they were hip, with pegged trousers and Beatle boots...they weren't hyperactive...Dylan and Lennon were hyperactive, mentally.

That Yoko thing that she just released, with those two at their house, and George comes over and it's just a zoo, with all of the press there. (Taylor comes to life again) Lennon is singing, "I was feeling insecure..." and his eyes are furtively darting around the room, seeing that everyone's doing what they're supposed to do. He's being honest, expressing his genuine insecurities about Yoko, in between making sure that everyone's in their place, everyone's paying attention, no one's fucking off!

Paul Simon is probably a fuckin' sweetheart.

SS: Do you ever listen to Carole King?

Taylor: No...I was hanging out in Austin once with my girlfriend there -- she's really cool, an ultra-hipster -- we were having a cigarette with her next-door neighbor, and he said, "I have to go listen to this Carole King song." We were going to go in and listen, but we realized that we had to get up in six hours, and we needed to have some serious sex, so we said, "Fuck it." I've yet to have the Carole King experience.

SS: I know you love Portland, but have you ever considered buying a house in Europe to record in, like the Beach Boys did for their Holland album?

Taylor: Greece. I think I'm actually going to go to Greece to finish some songs before we record the next album. It's just amazing there...we're huge in Greece, we're bigger than 'N' Sync there. Greece is the hippest place in the world right now -- their Top Ten is like Mogwai, Nick Cave, the Dandy Warhols...they have no corporate money, no corporation has bothered to spend money there, so they're making decisions by themselves as to what they are as a culture. Their DJ's get hired for their taste -- so if you're a DJ that's playing music that people like, you keep your job, if people don't like the music you pick, you get fired, because people aren't listening to your fuckin' show. So it really is an honest system there. We played for like 12,000 people in Athens...they knew every word. Chumbawumba opened for us in Athens...they got stoned -- people were throwing rocks at them. It was fucking awful, scary...and then we went on and the crowd went "Yeah!.”..we were scared shitless.

We went to this tiny island that had nobody on it -- Syphnos -- we made a lot of money in Greece, so we gave ourselves a week's vacation on this little island. We would fish...this guy Costa, we would trade him fish for booze. (Taylor takes a break to call Seattle's notorious Friehl brothers).

SS: Can you get drugs in Greece?

Taylor (to Mark, the band's British tour manager): Did we get any grass in Greece? We didn't get any on Syphnos, did we?

Mark: Uhh... we did in Athens. We got particularly baked in Athens. The last night... remember that girl?

Taylor: Oh, fuck! The last night we were there, I was gakked out of my head...in that car, she was pulling her skirt up...

Mark (to me): Are you taping this?

(Another break)

(Mark strolls by and gives a condom to Courtney, informing him that there's a whole jar of them in the bathroom.)

Taylor (as he's putting it away in his bag): I love women who carry condoms in their purses.

SS: You see it as a sign of confidence or something?

Taylor: No, it just makes everything easier... maybe it is confidence -- "Oh, you like sex? Me, too" -- I love women.

SS: There's something about latex, though. Those cats back in the 70's weren't too preoccupied with it.

Taylor (rolling his eyes): Ohh, I know... I'm so envious.

SS: Now that you're stars, do you think you can persuade Capitol to release the Black Album?

Taylor: I don't know if they even know about it. There's only two people or so there that were at Capitol when we made it. That record was made with the remainder of our Come Down budget... out of a $125,000 budget, me made that with $30,000. I don't know... our first record, that was ours. T/K (Tim Kerr), they fucked up the contract, they owed us tons of money, we just took the record. Capitol, I don't think they know it exists, they don't pay attention.

I want to finish up some harmonies, and just release the fuckin' thing.

SS: This has turned into something like Smile. A lost album.

Taylor: It has...it is really cool.

SS: What is the craziest thing a fan has done for you -- or to you? (Renney: And were you aware of it at the time?)

Taylor: (Laughing) I don't know, it depends on your definition of "crazy.”

SS: Wild...unexpected...stupefying.

Taylor: Probably the best thing is... I like the women who are six feet tall, smart, artsy, beautiful, comfortable -- a couple of my girlfriends have been like that -- who say, "You're amazing, I want you." That's about as stupefying as it gets. Generally, those are the ones that... we have an amazing relationship for a year, and then they dump me for... Alice In Chains. I got dumped for Alice In Chains, I got dumped for Guns 'N' Roses... I got dumped for big bands...

SS: At least that's a consolation...

Taylor: ...Trent Reznor... Yeah, kind of, but it's also a little insulting. It's like, "Am I dumb?" Then I write "Godless.”.. it just keeps happening to me.

SS: Are you the type of man who can trust a woman?

Taylor: I actually feel like that, yeah. I never have open relationships, I don't do that. Whenever I start to get jealous, I think, "Fine, whatever, what is she going to do? She'll find someone that's more caring, that will take care of her when she's sick, the way I do? Someone that flies her to Manchester on our two days off, rents a car, drives to Wales, sleep in the car, get really stoned and run around that village where they shot The Prisoner -- you know, the TV show -- go white-water rafting with my uncles and cousins in Idaho? Are they going to find somebody like that? Are you kidding?" And then, of course, they do.

SS: Women can wake up one morning and change their minds.

Taylor: Well, they don't tell you... they start not being home and stuff, and you know what's going on. When you tell them, they say, "You're crazy, I don't want to talk to you." You call her house, and her roommate says, "I haven't seen her, she hasn't slept here in five days." Then she finally calls and says, "I have to move along, I can't see you anymore, you're going crazy." And you say, "I know what's going on, you don't have to lie to me -- don't insult me... whatever, goodbye." And then you see it in some gossip column in the back of Rolling Stone or some shit like that. I think, "All that time we went out, and she thought I was stupid, an idiot." That's sad (sighs).

SS: Have you ever gone through periods of paranoia about women's attraction to you, because you're a rock star?

Taylor: Yeah, a lot. Paranoia? Fuck, yeah. I've thought -- me being absolutely beautiful as a human -- that maybe they thought they were falling in love with this rock-star, glamourous thing...and there's almost nothing glamourous about this job. It's non-stop insults, it's filthy, it's smelly -- and it doesn't get any better. It's not any better for David Bowie. It's fucking disgusting, it's a white-trash mistress. Any girl that wants the glamourous rock-star thing had better fall in love with the man that's doing it. So you just try to be a lovely...man, I guess, and then they'll love you...and then they don't (laughs).

I'll meet somebody, it'll be good. I was stalking Parker Posey for awhile. She's perfect, she knows the "un-glamourousness" of it, she knows what it's like to be a cult figure -- how you're the whole world for certain people, and then other people have never heard of you. We feel alienated in the same places -- we feel good here. We go to a club -- we feel like we don't fit in. So we go for a walk across Manhattan, bouncing a rubber ball and laughing. Perfect -- except that she's got a boyfriend (laughs). But we call each on the phone and do that whole thing. I keep stalking her, but I can't have her.

I'll find the one... maybe in the grand scheme of things, I still have work to do, in my tiny little Christ-like way. Comforting people, keeping people from becoming serial killers, helping them exorcise their demons, in the comfort and security of our records. Maybe that's what I'm supposed to do for now -- make about a zillion dollars and then meet somebody and then... I'm tired of traveling...it's a lovely thing to be 30 and be tired of traveling. My parents are like 60 and are really into traveling... fuck that. I want to hang out on my ranch when I'm 60...get on my horse, not get on an airplane. When I'm 60, there'll be a river by my house, and there'll be horses, and my kids and grandkids will come over... my wife will be writing a novel, and I'll be writing children's stories, and making soundtracks for movies that I like.

I'll be playing $180-a-plate dinners, Brent and I in our tuxedos or sharkskin suits, with my silver bowl haircut and him with his huge white Garfunkel afro, singing harmony, playing acoustic guitar, covering Simon and Garfunkel songs or something. (Cocking his head to one side) Listen to that, isn't that amazing? (we hear the Dandy Warhols' opener, SF's brilliant Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, begin their soundcheck).

Originally published in Pandomag, Seattle, 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Wednesday, November 8, 2000

A history lesson from Dave Alvin

 • Blaster-turned-balladeer revisits America’s past

By Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2000.
After his well-publicized, slightly acrimonious split with his older brother Phil and their fiery, influential rock band the Blasters in the mid' 80s, Dave Alvin became one of Oakland, Calif.-based Hightone Records' brightest and most respected stars.

Twenty years spent sharpening the cutting edge of roots music has culminated in "Public Domain," an effort worthy of a Grammy nomination. With this latest venture, Alvin explores his own musical roots, unearthing mostly forgotten treasures from America's rich blues, folk and country landscapes. Alvin and his ace backup band, the Guilty Men, have polished these reworked jewels into a lustrous, fantastic shine that will mesmerize even those indifferent to "heritage music."

I recently spoke to Alvin via telephone as he was preparing for a two-night stand in New York City. Though he was still a little groggy from the night before, the singer-songwriter still managed to be humorous, candid, and, ultimately, profound in relating his thoughts and observations on the music that he cherishes so dearly.

SS: You've gone a long way to make this kind of music, um, 'accessible'...

Alvin: That's not a bad word.

SS: I imagine that there were some challenges in making some of this material swing without going too far afield from the songs' original feel.

Alvin: There was a little tightrope-walking, but not too much, really. Most of these songs are things that I play around the house, so once we got into the studio I knew what I wanted them to sound like.

The hardest part of the record was "whittling down" to what we wound up with. "What Did The Deep Sea Say" has always been my favorite drinking song. It was an elimination process with my favorite public domain songs -- which ones would be the most effective to make certain points about America's folk music and so on.

For example, "Walk Right In." I had in mind to do a couple of other numbers, sort of hokum blues songs. But I finally decided on that one ... I figured that it would be good to do a song that everybody takes for granted as a cornball song -- it's had all of its dignity stripped away from it, all of its danger and ambiguity and wildness has been taken out of it. "Walk Right In" and "Shenandoah" have been taken out of the folk music morgue, have had all of the blood drained out of them. "Walk Right In" started out as a Saturday-night, too-much-to-drink kind of a song, and it became a campfire, Mitch Miller-type singalong. So I decided that, instead of doing another obscure jump blues song, let's take a song that everybody knows, but doesn't think of in its original form.

With "Shenandoah," I think we managed to make it a new song again - it's been done by everyone, even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But the lyrics are amazing -- they're spare and simple and they tell eight million stories -- every person's going to get a different story when they hear that song. There's a bittersweet, American paradox that the song captures - the longing for home, and the longing for the new frontier at the same time. Maybe the reason why that you're heading for the frontier is that you can't go back home, who knows? I'm pretty proud of our version.

"Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" is predominantly a bluegrass song, but I decided to take it over to Chicago and do a Muddy Waters version of it. We have a tendency to over-label everything, even the musicians do it. There's such a vast reservoir of indigenous music here... but people act like there's no relation between, say, blues and bluegrass music, and there
certainly is.

Society might have been segregated -- might be still segregated -- but the music never was, which is one of the points I was trying to make.

SS: Since some of these songs go way back with you, could you tell me a little bit about your childhood, and how you and Phil first got started in music?

Alvin: Well, I grew up in Downey, Calif., in the far southeast side of L.A. county. It was a melting-pot area, some farm towns that were being urbanized... When I was a kid, it was still about half rural, agricultural based... you wouldn't recognize it now. There was a lot music there, if you looked for it. We were fortunate that we had these older cousins that were pretty hip, musically. I had this cousin Donna, that was a hardcore R&B gal - she was into Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner and stuff like that. And she'd give us her old records when she was done with them. I had this cousin, J.J., that lived on a ranch, he was into Buck Owens and music like that. And we Mike. who played banjo and guitar, he was into Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. When we'd have the family gatherings, he and J.J. would bring their guitars - we were just little kids - and these older cousins would play and put each other's music down, but it was all the same stuff to Phil and me.

Then, my dad was a union organizer for the United Steel Workers of America, so his record collection was everything from union songs to the Almanac Singers to... he was Polish, so he had lots of polka records. I was about 12 when Phil and I started to collect 78s and 45s from junk stores, old warehouses, places like that. We started sneaking into bars when I was about 13. For a four to five year period, we were out three to four nights a week. Our parents were very "understanding." We literally, I mean literally, followed people around, at their heels - guys like Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, people like that. So we learned right from the source.

SS: Who taught you to play guitar?

Alvin: Nobody... totally self-taught. [Laughs] It's been a hindrance, but I'm trying the best I can. My brother is a great 3-4 finger-style, finger-picking guitarist, always has been and I would watch him. And there were guys in the neighborhood.

This one guy, Gary Massey, could only do two things on guitar, but he did them great. He could play like T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed, and that was it. I'd watch neighborhood guys, we always had guitars in the house, and they'd come over and play. After they'd left, I'd try to do those fingerings and so on.

SS: Apart from a Blasters reunion, are you and Phil ever going to work together again?

Alvin: Probably not, no. We do some things... a couple of years ago, my band and I were playing in Long Beach, and the encore wound up being a Blasters reunion, because out of the blue, everyone was at the gig. That kind of thing's fun, but as far as rehearsing, making a record, making decisions together, that ain't gonna happen (laughs). The Blasters grew up together, we're still "neighborhood guys" to each other, and Phil and I are brothers, and you can't change that though we've tried on occasion (laughs). We're all still close, we're still the same old guys, it's just that the Blasters stopped being fun... that's really the bottom line. Without sounding too one-dimensional, to make this kind of music work, it's got to be fun. The audience has got to feel that vibe coming off the stage. it can be serious, angry, thought-provoking, whatever, but it's also got to be fun. Phil's got a band called the Blasters, but it isn't the same band.

SS: That's sort of like the Beach Boys without Brian, Dennis and Carl...

Alvin: Yeah, I wish he would call it the Phil Alvin Band, or even the Mike Love Band (laughs). If you missed seeing us all play in the '80s, you missed a great live band, I think... apart from our first album, which we recorded in a garage [1980's "American Music"], very little of the original Blasters' records are available, and they probably won't be reissued until we die.

SS: But you never know ...

Alvin: Oh, but I know. There's so much legalese involved, it will never happen.

SS: How is the tour coming along?

Alvin: Things keep getting better every year. Playing live is my biggest thrill in the world, but the actual touring side of it checking in and out of cheap hotels, loading and unloading your gear, that kind of thing's getting really old. On the other hand, the gigs keep getting better ... I feel very fortunate.

When we started the Blasters, our whole goal was to quit our day jobs and play what we wanted to play. I was very fortunate to be able to quit my day job 20 years ago, and I haven't gone back. Even in the worst conditions... recently, we did this gig in northern Alabama, and it was hotter than hell, and raining, and we were playing an outdoor gig. It was just a mess, everything about it was screwed up -- muddy, filthy, humid, everything that could have gone wrong did. Even under those miserable conditions, it sure beats the alternative.

There is a famous quote -- this may or may not be true - but Willie Nelson was playing these dives in the old days, and one night his drummer asked him, "Willie, how long are we going to keep playing these dives?" And he said, "Hopefully, for the rest of our lives." That is very true for me.

Dave Alvin • Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land • 2000 • Hightone Records

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2010, Steve Stav  

Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Building the perfect Sushi

• Talking rock ‘n roll, fish and the Fastbacks with SushiRobo

By Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2000.

Above the din of a tone-deaf singer strumming a guitar, I asked this oh-so-clever band, just exactly who or what is a SushiRobo?

"There's a restaurant in Vancouver, Wash., that has a Sushi Robo -- a robot," answered bassist Barry Shaw.

"We thought that it was a mythical thing, this robot that makes perfect sushi every time, but it turns out that it actually exists," Clay Martin, who provides the percussion, earnestly added.

Frontman Rick Roberts sighed. "That's going to come back and bite us one of these days, do we have to talk about it?" he said as his cohorts nodded.

Turning to me, Roberts explained, "There's this Japanese company that cranks out the sushi robots, and they have this cool ad where on one side, there's a master chef's hands building a sushi and on the other, the Sushi Robo. it's a 'John Henry' competition -- at the end, there's the perfect sushi made by each, the one made by the robot is just as good as the master's."

Half of SushiRobo had just returned from New York City when I interviewed the quartet at the Raindancer on University Way. Martin, guitarist David Einmo, his wife Diana and their six-month-old daughter had journeyed to the Big Apple for the recent CMJ conference, where they represented their label, Pattern 25.

The fledgling company has just two bands on the roster at the moment, SushiRobo and atmospheric-rockers Spyglass; with threeforths of SushiRobo playing in Spyglass as well (Roberts is the sole holdout), it's a cozy family affair.

Though Sushi Robo and Pattern 25 have just gotten off the ground during the past year, the names were known to many industry reps at the showcase.

"We were in line to see Tenacious D, At The Drive ln, Granddaddy, and a band called Sunshine, and we met the music supervisor," recalled Einmo. "He was very familiar with the SushiRobo cover, he had seen the poster of it... knowing that cover, it's only a matter of time before SushiRobo is in a soundtrack," he concluded, laughing.

Taken by artist Kevin Freeberg in Portugal, the photo gracing the cover of the band's debut CD, "Action Causes More Trouble Than Thought," has garnered more attention than the band could have predicted. In the eye-catching picture, a helmeted figure is pedaling a bicycle emitting a shower of sparks from mounted fireworks.

"Everyone seems to remember the cover," Martin wryly mused.

Knowing that Einmo, Shaw and Martin go way back together, I inquired as to when ex-Posie, ex-Peach Roberts entered the picture.

"Dave and I were in a band with Jon Auer when the Posies were just starting," Martin recalled.

"The first time I ever saw Rick was at the Moore Theater when the Posies were opening for the Godfathers," Einmo chimed in, as Roberts worked out the group's convoluted origins in his mind.

Satisfied with his computations, the singer replied, "I had leftover songs from jam sessions that I wanted to record ... basically, all of the people who are now in Spyglass, except Dave, we had all been jamming together in combinations. I had these fragments and arrangements, and Clay and Barry brought the rhythm section -- that was almost a year ago."

"He asked Clay and I to do this recording just for fun, it wasn't going to be any kind of ongoing thing, really," added Shaw, whose rugged romance novel looks and long hair volunteers him for the role of sex symbol. "We enjoyed it, we liked the results so much, that we wanted to keep going. I remember your (Roberts') e-mail saying, 'Let's take it to the stage'... we decided to get Dave involved, start doing shows and start functioning like a band."

Einmo, who had observed the album's mixing sessions, was eager to contribute to the band's blend of Tom Verlame-Adrian Belew guitar art and driving, moody rhythm undertones.

"It was very exciting music, I wanted to see where it was going to go," he said.

As the band discussed their unique sonic stylings, Martin theorized, "I think the reason why people notice the rhythm section is that the guitar playing is very selective, every note has a purpose and they hardly ever just strum chords, so if they're coming in at selected moments, you really notice the backbone... to really understand SushiRobo, you have to see us live. With Dave in the band, it takes it to another level, a whole new world of guitar weirdness."

"After every show, there has been a lot of people coming up to us and commenting on how different the band sounds, and how much they enjoyed it," Einmo said. "It's been really fun for me. As a guitar player, one of the most frustrating things for me is... playing the guitar. It's such a boring instrument, everyone plays it. It's fun to play in a band with Rick, he's so inspiring, he takes the guitar to a level where it doesn't sound like a guitar anymore."

The avant-garde group recalled their highly-prized inclusion in the NXNW showcase in Portland at summer's end.

"They were trying to put bands wherever they could, and we wound up playing at nine o'clock in a pizza restaurant," Roberts said.

"But it was a good show," Einmo quickly assured me. He added, "I was actually kind of disappointed with this year's NXNW. There were a lot of good bands there, but there were a lot of really horrible bands as well ... I don't know how they made the selections."

Martin agreed. "It didn't make a lot of sense. Spyglass didn't get in, but SushiRobo did; it all seemed sort of arbitrary."

Roberts remembered "walking around after the show, at 11:30, going to three clubs in a row. All I could find was acoustic singer-songwriters, which was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear - these morose guys singing these maudlin songs to these comatose rooms, all simultaneously.

"We found this Ukrainian band," he continued. "Eight guys on stage, ranging from around 18 to 40 years old, playing this heavy-metal stuff, and then there was this guy with them that was playing a tuba, he looked 16, and he looked really scared up there. It was by far the most entertaining thing that night."

"The highlight of NXNW was (Seattle singer/performance artist) Jason Trachtenburg," Martin flatly stated.

"Yeah, it was packed and everyone was yakking away, but after he played for 10 seconds, everyone was just glued to the stage, and it just got better and better with each song," Einmo said, shaking his head.

With a noticeable buzz circling the band's every gig, SushiRobo is eager to get back in the studio to record more Roberts originals for a follow-up; they're also in the idea stage of a tour, where a tandem trip with Spyglass would be a logical, yet unorthodox approach.

Shouting to be heard above the highly annoying singer-songwriter behind us, I concluded the interrogation by wondering what they considered to be SushiRobo's most memorable performance.

As his bandmates searched their memories, Martin spoke up. "I can think of a great moment... I know Dave's a huge fan of (Fastback and Seattle icon) Kurt Bloch, I've seen Dave up front watching Kurt at shows. We were doing a show at the Crocodile, and I saw that Kurt was up front, watching what Dave was doing with his pedals and stuff, and I thought, 'this is pretty cool, nice reversal.'"

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav 

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Dorkweed at full throttle

• ‘My Motor’ sacrifices gadgetry for more horsepower

By Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2000.

Every once in a while, you come across a CD that's so addictive, you eventually have to ration the spins in order to relieve pressure on the cranium and the delicate hearing instruments contained within.

Brent "Dorkweed" Amacher's last album, "No. 2 - Send These Shoes To Hell," was not one of those CDs. A loose, promising bundle of "experimental" electronic noise and an even more promising display of unorthodox songwriting, "No. 2" won over a substantial number of fans, but it was an effort that the mainstream might have politely described as "odd."'

Oklahoma native Amacher, known in certain Jet City circles as a mildly eccentric sound tinkerer, has been very busy in the garage since then. With three veteran mechanics -- Martin the drummer, Forrest the bass player, and J6ff Saltzman the producer -- and a stethoscope on the block, he's been tapping, twisting, fine-tuning the precision parts, smoothing errant hiccups into a low, throaty roar. Last week, Amacher and company turned their bombastic creation, "My Motor," loose on the public -- and, after rationing became a necessity, I corralled this unassuming band into an interview at the Sunset Tavern.

The conversation's first topic was Saltzman, who until recently was one of the driving forces behind Portland's Sunset Valley.

"He's a drill sergeant, the guy's brilliant," Amacher asserted. "It took a strong ego [to work with him]... he would come in and say, 'Why are you playing that? Is there a reason you're putting that part in there, or is that just to show off?'"

"'I don't hear that' -- he would say that all the time," interjected Memphis-born Forrest (no last name).

Guitarist Amacher continued, "I think it worked because I was such a big Sunset Valley fan to begin with, I listened to their last record, and thought, that style could work with the songs we're doing... these guys were a little skeptical."

"I was very skeptical, but it soon became apparent that he's a pro," Martin (the only Seattle native; also, no last name) said.

"I think we were lucky to share some of the same visions of the finished product ... we just happened to be on the same page," concluded Forrest.

Until a year ago, Dorkweed was a solo act, which began shortly after Amacher moved here from Dallas four years ago. He had kickstarted his foray into the Seattle scene by performing at the OK Hotel's open mic nights and
doing some guerrilla marketing, slapping up stickers in bathrooms across town. Shortly after releasing "No. 2" he placed an ad in The Rocket, searching for bandmates. After exhaustive tryouts, he decided upon Forrest and Martin, a rhythm section that had struggled with a previous group.

"The key thing with these guys was personality and bond," Amacher remembered. "I auditioned a lot of people, it was a pain in the ass... people could play well, but they had an attitude -- 'Hey, I'm cool.'"

Forrest said, "The first time I heard the CD ["No. 2"], I thought, this is pretty good, I could do this for a while."

"You had that attitude for a while," the guitarist interjected, laughing.

"But the more I listened to it, the more I liked it," the mild-mannered bassist responded. "After he explained to me how he comes up with some of the songs, it made sense, some of the songs write themselves."

"Did I explain that?" Amacher asked. "Forrest, how do I come up with songs?"

Playing along, the bassist explained, "Well, you sit home and practice guitar, and since you don't know anybody else's songs, you make up your own." Turning to me, Forrest intimated, "He really doesn't know how to play other people's songs."

"Yeah, that's true," the songwriter confirmed from across the table.

"His dad came to see us rehearse, he's probably in his 70s, and it the end of 'Pipe Bomb,' he said, 'is that about the time you blew the fish up in the back yard?' and Brent said, 'Yeah.'"

"The older he gets, the more he's gotten into the music thing," Amacher says of his retired father. "It's funny, because he's my artistic influence... when I was a little kid, we'd sing along into a microphone along with Jim Croce records -- that's who he was into -- I remember singing with him into a microphone, singing 'Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.'"

One of the brilliant aspects of "My Motor" is the memorable, off-kilter lyrics that Amacher has somehow channeled into song. The man would give a psychiatrist fits playing the old word-association game.

"The songs come from either childhood or chicks," he said with a shrug. I brought up the dark-as-an-attic, deep-as-a-well feel to the new approach, which Amacher's low voice pulls off with great flair.

"I was tired of being the good guy, the 'good guy syndrome,' and it's worked so well," Amacher replied.

"Women really like that," Martin quipped.

"But have you really had your heart stepped on so much?" I asked. "It seems like you're drawing from a lot of turmoil."

"Well, I've had a lot of relationship issues," the songwriter said.

In one number, "Laundry Song," Amacher likens a relationship to underthings mixing in the dryer. His motivation for writing it?

"Girls keep leaving their underwear at my house," he explained with a straight face. "I'll find something and wonder whose it is, and sometimes I'll just throw it away, because you can't ask... you either throw it away or you collect it."

And "Starfish," a commentary on people paying a high price for success, wherein he likens someone to a starfish waiting to die in the sun?

"I'm surprised that people like that song. One of the things I liked about it was the stupid simplicity of it," Amacher said. "I remember being in the studio, I've got the headphones on and singing, and Jeff said, 'Brent, is there any more lyrics or is it just 'It sucks to be you' over and over? and I said, 'It's just 'It sucks to be you,' that's the humor of it,' and he just said, 'Okay.'

"The beginning part of that song, the noise, comes from the nursing home where Curtis (Andreen -- friend and the Tremens' drummer extraordinaire) works," he continued, "I walked around with him carrying a DAT and recording background sounds. I like to just hang around, town, carrying my DAT, and just record stuff, and then when I record a CD, I have all of these sounds to work with."

"My Motor" has resurrected Shaky Records, which is operated by another member of the Tremens power trio, bassist John Mitchell (the third, Quentin Ertel, will be joining Amacher on guitar for a few shows). Shaky hasn't been active for a while, but is currently planning to re-release Dorkweed's last two CDs. Besides his admiration for Mitchell's business savvy, Amacher is delighted to be working with a good friend.

"Mitchell really knows what he's doing ... when he speaks, people listen," the guitarist/songwriter asserted.

Dorkweed has just begun to play around town in support of the new album, and is in the planning stages of a West Coast tour, as well as short jaunts around the Northwest. In just a couple of weeks, "My Motor" has received an enthusiastic response (it's starting to get airplay on band-making KCMU; the band will perform in "The Live Room" Dec. 9). and it's just beginning to sink in to Amacher and his genteel cohorts that their refined-yet-muscular, slight departure from "experimentation" might just become a huge success.

"['My Motor'] doesn't have nearly the weird sounds that the last one did," Amacher admits. "It's smoother, but that's because we had a really great producer. I'm excited, there seems to be a 'buzz' about it, which is great, because we all worked so, hard on it."

Dorkweed is in the middle slot of a Tractor Tavern show Oct. 26 that features Thee Heathen as well as Jason Trachtenburg, whose "Family Slideshow" incorporates estate-sale slides and his 6-year old daughter's drumming skills.

At press time, it was unknown whether his daughter will be able to perform at the Tractor but check it out, regardless. Trachtenburg has been getting a lot of attention lately.

Dorkweed • My Motor • 2000 • Dorkweed Records

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Friday, September 1, 2000

Northwest Rock 101: The times they are a changin’

• In 1965, Northwest folkies plugged in, grew their hair and hit the road, and their music would never be the same again.

By Steve Stav, for The Rocket, Seattle, Sept. 2000.

By 1963, rock 'n' roll -- only about seven years old or so -- was dying. Elvis Presley was making more movies than records, Buddy Holly was long gone, and rock needed something new -- and rock was about to get exactly what it needed.

A wind started blowing in from the East -- the Beatles -- and from the California Coast -- the Beach Boys (ironically, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson all were influenced by the same sounds: Chuck Berry-style R&B and American folk music). In the lonely, isolated land of the Pacific Northwest, local musicians were getting ideas of their own, re-inventing rock by seeing the rest of the world through rain-clouded visors, and interpreting those leaps-and-bounds developments in their own unique ways.

The folk music scene, particularly around Seattle's University District, was a quietly thriving, underground scene at the time.

"There has always been a direct connection between the UW and Berkeley," says former Daily Flash singer/guitarist Steve Lalor. Idealists, beatniks and comparatively square young people all gathered in coffeehouses, listening to Woody Guthrie and the Kingston Trio. It was harmless music and ingested by invisible people. "At the time, folk was a politically liberal, but socially acceptable art form," Lalor says.

It's difficult to pinpoint the catalyst -- and even the exact time --for the change in their weather, but most would agree that it started with Bob Dylan, a bonafide circuit hero whose "plugged in" 1965 milestone, Bringing It All Back Home, pulled the curtains back to expose a whole new realm of possibilities. Subsequently, Columbia producer Tom Wilson and engineer Roy Halees decision to flesh out Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence with Dylan session musicians opened the floodgates even wider.

For Steve Lalor, who left his highprofile gig on TV's "Seattle Center Hootenanny" to play the San Francisco scene with a folk group (that included "Hey Joe" writer Billy Roberts), another sound changed the way he looked at music: the 12-string ring of Roger McGuinn's electric guitar.

"I heard 'Mr. Tambourine Man' by the Byrds. and said to myself, 'I can do that: so I came back to Seattle and put the Daily Flash together," explains Lalor, who was familiar with McGuinn's earlier work with the Chad Mitchell Trio.

In a period of a couple years, there was an exodus of Northwest bands -- both fledgling and established -- who, having learned by the Fabulous Wailers' example that one couldn't get a decent record deal by staying around town, packed up and set off to see the world.

The Daily Flash, harried by an unsuccessful drug raid of Lalor's Capitol Hill digs, went to L.A. with nomad Danny O’Keefe -- initially staying at the Tropicana. The Crome Syrcus, who took music to new, psychedelic heights, lived in New York City for a time, performing a score for the Joffrey Ballet and playing gigs at the Filmore East. Portland's Kingsmen and Boise's Paul Revere & the Raiders all but left home, spending years on the road. Straight-ahead rockers Don & the Goodtimes found initial success in L.A. Jerry Miller, along with the Frantics, tried to leave, but a car accident in Oregon postponed the trip to San Francisco. Miller, along with drummer Jon Keliehor, were almost killed. Keliehor, seriously injured, was replaced by the Daily Flash's Don Stevenson.

It was on the road that these bands discovered that, while their clothes might raise eyebrows, the length of their hair raised blood pressures.

"If you had long hair, you were a hippie maggot," says Lalor, chuckling. "We got physically threatened by people with short hair. Long hair was a dangerous thing to have in those years, it was a badge that you wore.

"Between L.A. and San Francisco, there was this whole other world," he continues. "We had to go in pairs into stores, because people wouldn't serve us. Sometimes they wouldn't sell you a pack of gum. I had to send my girlfriend in to register for a motel room. When you got to San Francisco, you were in the tribe again, but between San Francisco and Eugene was yet another wasteland."

Jerry Miller remembers seeing some early hippies when the straight-edged Frantics first visited San Francisco.

"We thought we were pretty cool, we might have had hair past our ears -- really pushing things. Then we saw these guys with hair almost down to their butts, and said, 'Whoa!' We knew right then that this was a totally different scene," remembers Miller, who later made some fashion statements -- with the legendary Moby Grape.

Long hair was just the tip of the iceberg. Before people like Miller and Lalor knew it, a crack in the sky appeared, and suddenly, everything was a psychedelic free-for-all: free love, sometimes-free drugs, and a subsequent freeing of the mind. Some bands thrived in the new climate, and actually helped create it -- The Jimi Hendrix Experience principally. The Crome Syrcus' trippy 1967 album, Love Cycle was a bold move in the realm of psychedelia for any band-especially one from the Northwest. Miller and Stevenson, with Moby Grape, recorded one of the finest LPs of the period -- the band's eponymous 1967 debut.

Other Northwest acts faded or folded after a brief brush with fame -- The Daily Flash, who never recorded a full-length record, nonetheless influenced many bands as they toured the West Coast. The Viceroys (known for their regional hit "Granny's Pad"), after changing their name to Surprise Package, recorded some psychedelic material for Columbia and Lee Hazlewood's LH1 label before a lineup (and another name) change. Local guitar gods Rich Dangel and Joe Johansen's powerhouse psychedelic-blues venture, the Floating Bridge, recorded for Vault, but classic misfortunes quickly eroded their career. Legendary punk precursors the Sonics, one of the Northwest's most influential bands, began internal combustion in 1967, thwarted by, among other things, a lack of national success.

Like exhausted knights returning from the Crusades, most musicians eventually returned to the Northwest. Bands dissolved, lineups revamped, and some walked away from the rock business entirely, but a surprisingly large number of those artists continue to rock today. Others, unfortunately, are no longer with us.

The '60s, as everybody knows, claimed a freakishly large number of music casualties. The untimely departures of huge artists like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are well-known; the car-crash deaths of Rockin' Robin Roberts and Tom "Thumb" Blessing, along with the heroin overdose of Daily Flash bassist Don MacAllister, barely made the AP wire, but struck the music community like a hammer. Others managed to survive the '60s, only to pass away in the decades since: stellar Dave Lewis Trio/Floating Bridge guitarist Joe Johansen and B3 master Dave Lewis, who never reached the heights that their talents deserved. Others included Ventures drummer Mel Taylor, singing star Ron Holden and Waders multi-instrumentalist Ron Gardner (who was killed in a fire in '92).

These artists, and the musicians that remember them, are more than footnotes in Northwest rock history. However large or small their contributions might have been, everyone involved in making music in the turbulent '60s played a role in electrifying not only rock 'n' roll, but a culture that we take for granted today.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in the Seattle music magazine The Rocket in Sept. 2000, was originally intended as an introduction piece to a series of articles about the history of Northwest rock, had the long running magazine not abruptly folded less than a month later.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Case launches ‘Flying Saucer Blues’

• An interview with the former Plimsouls frontman

By Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2000.

Throughout his career, Peter Case has followed his own intuition, and the Midas-like results have always left the genre-hopping singer/songwriter sitting pretty.

Most music aficionados over the age of 25 remember Case as the rough-voiced frontman for the semi-legendary Plimsouls, whose 1983 album Everywhere At Once was considered by many to be among the best of the decade. Before that, he was in another L.A. group -- the Nerves, a groundbreaking punk band. And before that effort? Case started his musical odyssey by playing pretty much what he's been performing over the 15 years since the Plimsouls initially broke up -- folk and the blues.

Sound a bit far-fetched? Not really, when you consider that Case considers himself to be an American songwriter first and foremost -- to him, a style of music is simply a tool to get his ideas across. Case conveys his thoughts magnificently on his new CD, Flying Saucer Blues, an instrumentally rich departure from the bulk of his raw earlier works. Admittedly inspired by the Beatles' later forays into country-folk music, the album also draws from the workingman blues of Case's youth.

SS: We've had Tim Finn, Lloyd Cole, Stan Ridgway and Colin Hay - all singers who fronted bands in the '80s - roll through Seattle over the past six weeks. How does it feel to be a trendsetter for the pop star turned singer/songwriter movement?

Case: Yeah, I guess I was probably the first guy from that whole gang to quit my perfectly good rock band and go solo. For me, it felt really natural, it was something I had to do, it was dictated by the songs. The band was still gaining altitude, actually. Some people thought I was nuts to break it up, but it was sort of one of those musical decisions. I guess these days the label would have encouraged me to try to do both, but back then I felt that everyone really laid it on me -- I had to choose one direction or the other. I felt that I needed to write the songs I was supposed to be writing -- "true writing," the story-songs that popped up on the first album.

SS: Commercially that was certainly a bold move to make, embracing folk and blues in the mid-'80s. Was there ever a time where you were discouraged enough to think about quitting and trying something else?

Case: No, I had a really strong feeling that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. It hasn't been easy, though. I've always been a musician, only for a few years I was in any sort of limelight. I used to be a street musician, and now I play these shows ... it's like I'm coming onto the radar of people who want to hear this sort of thing now.

SS: It must be nice to reach point in time where you have some people coming to your shows that have never heard of the Plimsouls.

Case: Yeah, that's been going on for a while now. There was a break ... I took some of the Plimsouls fans with me, but a lot of them just couldn't make the leap. It just might not a natural leap for everybody, but it was a natural leap for me, coming from where I came from. For a lot of the fans out here in California, they might not have gotten it. I had to build up a whole new thing. So, really, from the first album onward, there was a lot of people that liked it that never got into the Plimsouls. I feel that what I do now is a lot stronger than the Plimsouls. The Plimsouls were my first attempt to put anything together... it had a lot of power to it, we were a great live band, but I've written better songs than "A Million Miles Away."

SS: I read that you journeyed to North Beach as a teenager. People always associate San Francisco with psychedelia, but there sure was a lot of folk music there.

Case: There were a lot of folk musicians and blues musicians... You know, Sonny Terry and Doug Sahm were living there at the time, Jorma Kaukonen, the guys from the Charlatans as well. There, was a great folk club called the Coffee Gallery, which was the first place I played... an incredible scene of street musicians, a lot cooler than it is now. It was very exciting around '73.

SS: Growing up in upstate New York, did you ever see Dave Van Ronk play?

Case: Yeah, I saw Dave Van Ronk and other artists that were lesser known, like Cedric Smith, people from Canada... there was this whole folk scene up in Canada. I used to take off from home and hitchhike up to Ontario and see these guys. I also used to hitchhike to Boston, and see people like Lightnin' Hopkins play. There was this traveling R&B scene back then, these road shows that would come and play a while. Guys like Muddy Waters, or the Bo Diddley Band or Charlie and Inez Foxx, they would come to Buffalo and stay a week, play two-three sets a night ... that was a lot cooler than these onenighters.

SS: Do you still look for inspiration in old albums?

Case: Yeah, I do, actually. Especially the old blues guys... for years, I've listened to Sleepy John Estes, and I just re-purchased this album that I've had on vinyl forever.

SS: I've never heard of Sleepy John Estes.

Case: You've never heard of Sleepy John Estes? Dude, order this record called Broke and Hungry on Delmark. It's one of the greatest blues albums ever made. It's recorded as if Memphis was on the Nile or something.

SS: You're an excellent storyteller, which implies you're a good listener. Whose stories do you enjoy the most these days?

Case: I don't know, man... most of the stories in my songs are from people I know or things I've seen happen... like the story on my new album, "Two Heroes," that happened in the building a little while back, this guy I was writing songs with, he was the guy that broke up the robbery and went to jail. I had to listen to myself tell that story a few times, in different bars and places, until someone told me I had to put that to song.

SS: Are you touring solo, or will you have some accompaniment?

Case: I'm with my fiddle player, David Perales, he sings and plays violin, he's from San Antonio. He's a really great fiddle player with a deep tone, and he sings harmony as well.

SS: You recently met Sir George Martin (he performed with Martin and an orchestra). Have you ever met Sir Paul, or the most overlooked Beatle, George Harrison?

Case: No, I haven't. But I am really influenced by the Beatles on this record. I think part of it was due to that show with Martin, and hearing those songs, and singing them with all those people at the Hollywood Bowl. It really moved me -- the Beatles had a way of being deep and catchy at the same time, and that was what I was trying to catch on this album.

SS: Perhaps Lennon provided the "deep" and McCartney supplied the "catchy."

Case: I'm not so sure of that. I think Paul, in many ways, is a pretty powerful songwriter. The best song the Beatles ever wrote, in my opinion, is "Penny Lane" -- which I believe is Paul's song. It's inspired by Lennon, it's about his neighborhood... but it's possibly the closest they came to writing a Dylan-esque lyric, held together as in a poem.

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav