Monday, November 1, 2004

Bird soars into the 70s... again

• An interview with Seattle’s Huge Spacebird

By Steve Stav, for Disheveled magazine, Seattle, 2004.

Ah, the Seventies. A decade of recovery from the 60s, a self-indulgent era dominated by Camaros, Trans Ams, cocaine and Steely Dan. A pre-Ipod, pre-Internet, simpler time of deep recession, high gas prices, cheap wine, condomless sex, house parties, avocado-colored furniture. We spent the better part of two subsequent decades bemoaning the 70s, and the music and culture that accompanied it. 

Of course, that’s all changed now; folks are deciding that the post-hippie years weren’t so bad — save for Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor and their sorry, sissy brethren — and those who weren’t even born yet are discovering that 8-tracks, Kiss, ELO and Hong Kong Phooey were pretty cool, after all.

Huge Spacebird — whose three members’ ages all hover around the mid-thirties — remember the decade well, especially the rock that continued to pump through their stereos throughout the 80s until present day.  

Guitarist Mark Hoyt, bassist Jeff Taylor and drummer Peter Lansdowne have been friends since high school. They've also been been rockin' since their teens, in such fondly remembered NW bands as Stumpy Joe, the Purdins, and Sister Psychic. They formed Huge Spacebird in the mid-90s, but it wasn’t until late 1998 that their brilliant, 70s-influenced sonic creations were captured on disc.  For more than a few fans and critics, that eponymously titled debut was an instant classic, and remained a jukebox staple in several Seatown establishments for years.

Last month, the Bird resurfaced after many months away from the public eye with Three, their second album (released on Book Records, a consortium created by current Seattle rock godfathers Scott McCaughey and Kurt Bloch), in tow. Though the band correctly insists that Three is not a ‘70s album” per se, the disc captures the decade’s feel-good spirit like no other in recent memory. 

For fans of fuzz guitar, Joe Walsh, Thin Lizzy, super-heavy rhythm sections and memorable lyrics that you can actually sing along to, Three is a months-early Christmas present. A meticulously crafted jewel filled with sonic surprises, the album is the kind of record that makes an astonishing first impression, and keeps getting better with every listen.  It would have been a sure-fire Top Twenty album in 1977; in this century, Three has to be worth another seven years of jukebox notoriety, at the very least. 

Before and after a mind-melting set at their Oct. 1 CD release party at the Sunset Tavern (in which guitar god Bloch, who contributed to Three, joined them for several numbers), I spoke to Mark, Peter and Jeff — two apostles and a bass player — about friendship, their career, and, of course, about making great records.

SS: Where’s (guitarist) Andrew McKeag?

Jeff: He’s back ‘out.'

Mark: He’s touring with the Presidents [McKeag has been filling in for Dave Dederer on some PUSA tour dates - SS].

Jeff: We were a 3-piece, originally.  Andrew joined us for awhile a while back..

Peter: And from time to time, he’d play shows with us.

Jeff: There would be shows we’d be playing, and he’d be busy doing other things, and hadn’t practiced with us for awhile.  He’d show up at a gig out of the blue with his amp and go, “Hey dudes!”

Peter: Andrew remains a really good friend to the band.

SS: The most obvious question for the band would be: Why did it take seven years to spit out another album?

(All laughing)

Peter: We probably started this album three times.

Mark: The first one was paid for…we had free studio time, and some friends of ours paid to put it out.

Jeff: We then built our own studio, and it’s taken some time. We call it 'Arthur Studio.'

Mark: There’s a lot of material that’s really old, and some that’s really new. We were in the process of building the studio, so there’s stuff (originally) done in a “four track” style, where we began by getting loaded and working on songs. There’s songs that are 12 years old, and others that are a year old. (The CD) may not be as focused as the first one.

SS: I haven't seen your name in the club listing the last two years or so.

Peter: We played a lot in the first five years, not much in the last couple of years.

Jeff: Every time we’d go to some recording, it seemed like a show would come up. We would stop working on the new stuff, and have to put a set list together, practice it. We only have so much time, with our day jobs.

SS: How do you manage being musicians with day jobs?  That must be frustrating, and humbling. I know it is for me, as a writer trying to pay the bills.

Jeff: It’s hard work. We have a really groovy practice space, and Thursday we get together there with beers. Once the music starts, things are good.

Peter:  I think we all really look forward to Thursday nights.

Mark: I love it, it’s a good reason to get away from everything.

Jeff: I think we’ll practice every Thursday until we’re dead.

SS: Peter, the one question I've always been wanting to ask you is why did you get rid of the oversized, old-school kit you used to play? 

Peter: [Laughing] I had three or four drum sets at the time, and I sold that one, thinking that I kinda outgrew ‘em and could just play with the set I had started with, I’ve had that one forever. I bought my wife’s wedding ring with the money. Drums come and go…

SS: Was that a Gretsch? I remember the kick drum and the floor tom were massive.

Peter: It was a Ludwig...it was the exact same kind of kit that Bonham played in ’73… they were huge, and they was hard to lug around. I miss that drum set, actually… It was the coolest drum set, ever. I bought it in Burien, and paid about a third of what it was worth.

SS: How has the Seattle music scene changed over the last five to 10 years?

Peter: To tell the truth, I really don’t go out to shows very much anymore, unless I really want to see somebody, as opposed to the old days, when it didn’t matter who was playing.

Mark: I think we used to have a lot more friends that played in groups that we’d go see… some of ‘em are still around, in other bands.

SS: It's like Old Home Week around here tonight, though... Rusty Willoughby, Scott Sutherland, Kurt... everyone's here.

Mark: Yeah, a lot of good friends. I don’t know if we’re out of the loop or what, but it seems like there used to be more going on.  When the Rocket and Backlash were around, more things seemed to be happening.

SS: How did you first meet up?

Peter: I moved from Hawaii to Burien, and met Jeff the first week of school, in 1984. I met Mark in 1986, when he was in Stumpy Joe and I was in the Purdins.

Mark: I tried to get Peter to join then, but he wouldn’t quit the Purdins.

Peter: I liked Mark right away…we wound up hanging out and drinking beer for 20 years.

Mark: Around '94, Peter and myself were out on tour together in Sister Psychic and were ready to move on. We started sending Jeff postcards from the road telling him about the hands of fate and whatnot, and to be ready to play when we got home. Needless to say, we got home, quit that band and formed the Bird with Jeff. Haven't looked back since.

SS: I get a kick out of the fact that you've been friends for so long now. How has your relationship with one another changed over the years?

Jeff: We are extremely lucky to be better friends than ever. Best friends even. As far as playing together for so long goes, it's weird how much ESP you end up with. I can tell what drum fill Peter is going to do by the look on his face.  'Oh, quads comin'....two times!'  Mark and I will often go to the same chord at the same time when we're jamming or making stuff up with not so much as a glance at each other. Peter and Mark were born to play music together and it shows, they're both just so damn good. Things have evolved. The Bird has gained consciousness and has started demanding that we record. We're like an unstoppable rock monster at this point.

SS: This is not meant to be insulting at all, but some of the material on Three sounds like it could have been on the soundtrack to a great 70s movie or TV show. Specifically, what are some of your influences from that era?

Mark: No insult taken. The mid-to-late 60s through the 70s were in my opinion the best times for genuine rock,  with or without herbal moon cigarettes. Most of that music just shines brighter to me. I’ve always liked Deep Purple, Creedence, psychedelic stuff.

SS: Is it true that everything can be traced back to Deep Purple?

Peter: Even stuff before Deep Purple can be traced back to Deep Purple.

SS: What advice, if any, has Kurt Bloch given you over the years that sticks in your minds?

Jeff: Kurt's very existence is advice to live by. Kurt showed us how to operate our studio properly and continues to do so. He's such a nice and brilliant guy. 

Mark: Don't let the bastards grind you down.

SS: What prompted you to cover Neil Young's "If I Could Have Her Tonight?"  It's one of my favorites on the album.

Jeff: Neil Young has always been a huge inspiration for us. We owned an ADAT together and kept it in Mark's basement. Mark has this excellent Tascam mixing board we were going through. He went down there one day and fired up the optigan and layed that shit down.

Peter: [It was during] an early attempt at starting Three although it wasn't called that then. It may have been called "Endless Bummer" at the time, no one can be certain.

Mark: That whole first [Neil Young] solo album smokes, I always liked that ethereal stoner vibe he got with Jack Nitzsche. Strings, man... There are plenty more where that came from, we've got tapeloads.

SS: "Jalopy" and "Come Back Again" are other favorites.  What can you tell me about writing them, or the inspiration for them?

Jeff: I am no stranger to creating the vacuum of space on the bass.  We played this country show for some reason, and at our one practice for it I'd been watching Mark's fingers and was doing OK. At the show we were sitting down. I couldn't see Mark's hands and if he'd turned around he wouldn't have have been facing the audience. I quickly realized I had no idea how the songs actually went. The result was unfortunate... It seems that rock jam gymnastics don't play well in a country song. In short, the song "Jalopy" is loosely based on the Bird, a bad Sunday show, then sounding fine on Friday... with some references to stripper girlfriends thrown it to spice it up a little. No, they didn't actually work at Sugar's...Sugar's just sounded better.

Peter: I wrote "Come Back..." about my wife, before she was my wife. I wanted to flatter her and make her feel bad for dumping me. It worked... magic. I came to the band with two verses and a chorus. 

Mark: The first two verses are all about his love for her, I added the dark cloud third verse and the funky ending.

Peter: Mark and Jeff came up with some stoney grooves and it just fell together. This is typical for the Bird. I don't even try to finish songs that much anymore. It always changes at practice.

SS: Now that the disc is out and has 'sat' with you awhile, what's your favorite song on it?

Jeff: "Come Back Again" wins for me. "Rock Chylde" gets nosed out in a photo finish.

Peter: "Jalopy."

Mark: The last one I really listened to was "Beverly," so I'll say that one. Jeff is truly a badass, and Peter, too, for that matter... It'll be funny when the Bird turns into a jug band and we are old and gray.  Funny, and funky. 




Originally published in Disheveled Magazine, Seattle, 2004.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

New ways to feel lonesome

• Ballard-based singer releases “Reckless Burning”

By Steve Stav, for Ballard News Tribune, Seattle, Sept. 2004.

"The 'lonely' sound? I think it was always in me, though earlier on, I had been smitten with more 'rocked-up' stuff. Everything from the title to the concept of this record came from me going through a divorce, and Phil (Wandscher) leaving his band, Whiskeytown (a popular Raleigh, NC-based combo.) We (had) met each other at the right time in our lives...when we first started hanging out together, we were both estranged from our 'communities,' so to speak. We spent a lot of time alone, out in the wilderness fishing and camping; a lot of these songs come from being out in the open space. There was a lot of loneliness, there was a feeling of being very 'lost' in my own hometown for a period of time." -- Jesse Sykes

Sitting in the misty-yet warm spring air on Market Street, an apologetic Jesse Sykes was fumbling for words to describe her enchanting new album, Reckless Burning.

It was mid-afternoon (mid-morning for those in the music biz), she had had a fitful sleep, and hadn't had her coffee yet: nonetheless, the Ballard-based singer-songwriter was fielding questions rather eloquently.

She continued, "Yes, (the songs) are very 'lonely' sounding, but there's also hope and forgiveness. Ultimately, I was falling in love when a lot of them were being written; it was a weird time-I wasn't in a band, we weren't actively playing music-it was an absolutely pure, peaceful time. I didn't know that there was a record coming down the line; at the time, I didn't care.

"I began to get inspired to get in the studio, and had been saving money. I just wanted to do something creative, and to have fun...I think we got something that was much more than what we had anticipated."

Reckless Burning is much more than anyone could expect from a semi-unknown band gigging about town for a year. With a haunting blend of Cowboy Junkies-like lonesome sparseness with a lush, Chris Isaak-echoing, lonesome twang-the common ground here being 'lonesome' -- the record's desolate sound reverberates through the most tender parts of a listener's psyche. These nine narrations of heartbreak, longing and regret won't quite have you reaching for a bottle of sleeping tablets, but the disc does make you want to slide deeper under the covers, or pour another drink. Though the album's lyrics and concepts are her own, the upstate New York native is quick to credit her band, the Sweet Hereafter (the name inspired by an ethereal epiphany of a dream), with making her ideas come alive.

"Phil, Anne-Marie Ruljancich (the semi-legendary Walkabouts' violinist/cellist) and I began playing together-it started out with a little gig at the Sunset," recalled Sykes, whose slightly breathy, emotionally intense voice drifts through the album like a ghost. She added," When it came time to get more players, I just kind of chose people that I admired from afar (including Evangeline drummer Kevin Warner and Bill Herzog, who's worked with Joel Phelps and Neko Case) and they said yes. I'm honored that they wanted to be a part of it, and that they wanted to stick around afterwards. Without them, I couln't have done this."

Though each musician's talent is easily recognizable- from Wandscher's striking guitar style to Warner's subtle pulse-all of the disc's dark paths lead back to Tucker Martine, a local producer and musician whose reputation as a superb "facilitator" had grown in leaps and bounds in recent years.

"Tucker Martine is one of those guys who...any sort of vision that you have, or are aspiring to evolve, Tucker will push you in that direction and open it up," Sykes said. "The sound that Phil has one this record is much like on 'Reckless Burning,' the first song...that weird, echoing stuff (a fantastic use of feedback and reverb, reminiscent of whale songs) was Tucker's idea."

"That first song is sort of like my' movie soundtrack," the slender siren explained. "It's kind of clich├ęd -- 'Imagine driving down a dark road at four in the morning -- but it's based on a true story about Phil and I. We were camping, and it was getting dark; for some reason, we decided to take this 17 mile logging road that was supposed to connect back to the highway-and it didn’t. It got really scary...I was stupid enough to let him get us in that position-I should have seen what was going to happen. There was that freaky Northwestern darkness, and rain coming down. There were ravines, and trees across the road; we were in a pickup that could handle it, but...

"It was one of the most terrifying experiences, on one level, but it was also one of the beautiful experiences. I had just fallen in love, and I was right on the fence, thinking, 'I might die tonight, but I don't care-because I'm so in love.' That's why I named the record Reckless Burning', and put that song at the beginning; to me, the record is about vulnerability... and forgiveness, in whatever context it might be taken."

With such an attention-grabbing debut, Jesse Sykes (who refers to the Ballard Avenue regulars as her "extended family") joins an impressive list of country-inspired, Seattle -spawned female vocalists, including Christy McWilson, Neko Case, Evangeline's Jennifer Potter, and the Believers.

However, she's quite aware of the unlikeliness of lightning striking twice, of achieving another extended moment of clarity and passion that inspired this disc.

"This record was like... fate," she said after a few moments of thoughtful silence. "There's part of me that's a little scared (about recording again), because there was something very magical about this (CD)... but, then, there's another part of me that thinks that there could be a continuation. I wouldn't want it to be an identical thing, but it could be sort of a 'sister' record, to some degree. Some of my new songs are coming from that residual energy... I'm still on a 'high' from making this record -- we all are -- and hopefully, we can tap into that energy again."


Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter • Reckless Burning • 2002 • Barsuk Records


Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Sept. 2004.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav