Saturday, December 31, 2011
What a wild, strange year for music... and for myself. I absorbed a lot of the excitement, but not nearly as much as I should have; various personal crises and odd situations conspired to restrict my aural input and writing output. As the last days of December wind down, my limited, yet memorable exposures ironically serve to help me avoid making any "Top 10" lists that I'm not qualified to write, anyway.
Instead, I've chosen to slap together some personal highlights in the realms of writing and photography. If you're thinking this might akin to those ego-driven, year-end Christmas card-newsletters from friends whose lives seem much more exciting than yours... it's not. Trust me, though I've been at some of the right places at the right times, you've had more thrills over the past twelve months than I've had. You might even have better pictures to prove it.
I guess I should begin close to home... my acquaintance with singer-songwriter Michael Dean Damron has reached the point where I can no longer professionally critique his work, but ethics do not prohibit me from chronicling his profound comments and wild adventures. Portland's favorite hillbilly released his annual offering of raw Americana, Plea From a Ghost, in the spring, and spent much of the rest of the year promoting it on the road... in between appointments with ink artists and whiskey bottles. Seriously, though, Mike D proved once again that hard work and honest lyrics often earn a lasting place in people's hearts.
Speaking of hearts, who in Seattle doesn't love Nick and Heather Millward, the town's First Couple of rock? Few keep it as real as the Millwards and their long-running outfit, the Riffbrokers. This year's Every Pilot's Blinded By The Sun was the album that fans and fan-friends have been waiting for. Their Rubber Soul is still on the horizon, but this disc proved without a doubt that Nick — one of the Northwest's finest songwriters — has even more greatness lurking in his noggin than I had imagined. The Riffbrokers were, once again, seemingly omnipresent in area clubs this year; I hope the band makes a return to roads beyond in 2012. Genuine and rollicking and thought-provoking in all the right places, The Riffbrokers are what rock 'n' roll is all about, Charlie Brown.
Blancmange didn't stick around as long as say, Depeche Mode, but there was a time during the 80s that the influential duo stood shoulder-to-shoulder with DM, Heaven 17, Yazoo, Soft Cell and every other synth-pop giant of the era. Last spring, Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe released their first album in 25 years, Blanc Burn. I talked to Arthur in May, a real treat for myself — as I still have their hits on my record shelf and on my computer. Arthur was as warm, honest and interesting as I could have hoped for. Unfortunately, a serious illness prevented Luscombe from performing at some UK reunion shows; hopefully, the band will make it to the States in 2012, with a recuperated Luscombe at center stage.
I wish I had taken this picture, but alas, I've never been to England.
Synthesizers and 80s-influenced music seemed to be a recurring theme in 2011, both on the alternative charts and in my choice of interviews. I rang up pioneer Thomas Dolby at his seaside home twice this year, in May and again in September . The subject? His first album in twenty years, A Map Of The Floating City — and an accompanying, interactive online game. Interviewing Thomas Dolby is a fantastic experience; extraordinarily fascinating and expectedly intelligent man. And funny.
I then caught up with Dolby in October at the Triple Door, where he was making a stop on a solo performance/lecture tour. The next day, at Redmond's PlayNetwork studios, I shook hands with one of my idols. Dolby will be touring the States with a band in 2012.
2011 was another banner year for women in rock. What an understatement. I could tie a noose for missing Lykke Li at the Showbox, but catching Telecaster-slinging chanteuse Anna Calvi at the Crocodile on the first day of June almost made up for it. Occupying an ethereal aural otherworld somewhere between Siouxsie Sioux and Maurice Ravel, Calvi put on a show that I'll never forget. Her critically acclaimed debut album saw limited airplay Stateside — and she didn't tour much here. However, this was offset by numerous big gigs in the UK and Europe, where she's made a lot of year-end lists.
Somehow, Imelda May topped herself in 2011... and I was again front and center. Waiting at the cozy Neptune Theater's stage for two hours in August — for my ten minutes' worth of photography — was worth it, and then some. After taking my pictures, I usually bug out to the back of the room for a drink - but this time, standing about five feet away from heaven made me forget my aching feet.
In July, Carrie Akre said goodbye to Seattle, moving to Minneapolis. Still unbelievable. The former Hammerbox and Goodness frontwoman has been a sister, a mentor, an influence for so many. It seemed that everyone in town was either on the stage or in the crowd for a Crocodile sendoff concert. The night was perfect, if farewells can be characterized as such. An equal mix of tears - including beautiful Rachel Flotard choking up at the microphone—
— and smiles and laughter. This photo of Seatown rhythm-section demigods Chris and Rick Friel is one of my favorites of the year.
Jesse Tabish not only gave Robin Pecknold a run for his money in 2011's "Best Bearded Countenance" competition, his band — Oklahoma's Other Lives — rivaled the vaunted Fleet Foxes in the "alternative folk" genre this year. Frequently likened to Seattle's darlings by critics, Other Lives actually have little in common with the Foxes, other than the capacity to make astounding music. Other Lives' sophomore disc, Tamer Animals, proved to be not only one of my most listened-to records of 2011, but one of my favorite albums of the last ten years, as well.
After interviewing Tabish for a feature, I spent two nights in July watching, photographing and chatting with this oh-so-talented, yet genuinely well-grounded group. Cramming everything from a cello and xylophone to antler bells and keyboards on stage, they played clubs in Seattle and Bellingham; it was like hearing a symphony in a garage. Other Lives toured incessantly this past year, zig-zagging across America, plus the UK and Europe — garnering praise wherever they performed. The quintet is resting comfortably at home now, but they'll be back on the road soon, opening for Radiohead.
I went to a picnic this summer, and wound up at a power-pop extravaganza. Shortly after arriving at a nearby private party/overnight campout, I stumbled into Kurt Bloch, Seattle music's reigning godfather. Which wouldn't have been unusual, except for the fact that we were 30 miles from Bloch's domain, in the middle of a farm. The reason? The freakin' Fastbacks were playing a show on the sly. The immortal band had just reunited, out of the blue, for a couple of gigs the previous weekend - and decided to keep the good times rolling. You haven't lived until you've seen the Fastbacks blow out a converted garage... Bloch's on-the-fritz mic only added more authenticity to the fracas.
The only thing is, I had forgotten my camera.
The Psychedelic Furs seemed to have made a pact with the devil sometime in the past few years. Impossibly, yet certainly, they have never sounded better onstage than they did in 2011. I managed to bump into these icons three times this year, beginning with a May interview with bassist Tim Butler, whose youthful enthusiasm is equaled only by a great sense of humor. Later that month, after a mindblowing Furs gig at the Showbox, I ran into legendary saxophonist Mars Williams on the sidewalk...and forgot to chat him up about The Waitresses.
The Furs also played the Redhook Brewery's 30th Anniversary bash in September. While they were in top form - and openers Tom Tom Club were even more fun than I'd imagined them to be — the night belonged to Devo. In the midst of a rainstorm, my age-defying heroes performed as if their first record contract depended on it. One of the best, most entertaining concerts of my lifetime.
My music-journalism year was capped by another dose of the Dark Prince. Peter Murphy returned to Seattle in December, supporting his glam/raw-power Ninth album; unfortunately, it wasn't the best of nights. Minor technical issues and a could-be-tighter band slightly marred the show, seemingly — to the diehards who paid attention — throwing Mr. Murphy off a quarter-step. Nonetheless, catching the icon on an "off night" is infinitely more enjoyable than listening to most of those he's influenced on their best evenings.
Happy New Year, and may the coming months bring you close to the music you hold dear.
- Steve Stav
Friday, October 7, 2011
Part One: The Cellular Telephone, And Drama's Demise
Two decades ago, the thought of calling someone while walking down the street, or while driving a car... well, it wasn't thought of. In a relative handful of years, the cell phone has made the once-fanciful concept more than a reality — it's an immediate reality. An answer to a question, dinner reservations, a call for help... all are now at our fingertips — or in a Bluetooth shoved into an ear.
My movie-buff father-in-law pointed out recently that film studios are having to produce increasingly complex plot-twists — or produce more period pieces — in order to side-step the advantages of the cell phone. Certainly, many classic horror, murder-mystery and epic adventure storylines would be moot if an iPhone was handy.
Most people over the age of thirty have at least a few pre-cell phone, lack-of-communication-related adventure-anecdotes to tell. I know I do. My favorite occurred when I was 19, during the summer of '87.
My pal Ryan and I went with our friend Craig one lazy Sunday afternoon to the local marina, to kill some time by drinking a few beers on Craig's parents' boat. We had a rendezvous scheduled with some lovely young ladies at an infamous, now-defunct drive-in that evening. There was no intention of going anywhere; we were just going to sit there, moored, while anticipation for the night's adventures built up.
After an hour or two of shooting the breeze, we three aspiring Huckleberry Finns packed up to go. Craig reached for his keys, fumbled and into the drink they went. Uh-oh. There were no spare keys readily available - no handy spares for his car, the boat, or his house.
After a period of requisite cursing, we had a look around. The water was sludgy black, as many marina waters are. No was volunteering to see just how sludgy it was, or how nasty the bottom could be. There was no one around; our fellow yachtsmen had all set sail. The dock master's office, which often keeps a magnet-ended pole for such mishaps, was closed. We stared forlornly through the windows of Craig's car at the hidden wallets that contained cash and other valuable scraps of paper.
There was a phone booth, however. With no change in our pockets, Ryan, Craig and I began performing the antiquated act of placing collect phone calls to the few numbers in our memories, including our own. Alas, no one home on this sunny Sunday, anywhere.
We began to get a bit desperate as the day wore on. After all, there was the Thunderbird Drive-In — and possibilities with girls — at stake here; the thought of Craig getting in hot water with his folks placed a distant second among our concerns. Thoughts of bashing the car window and subsequent hot-wiring were ruled out. Then we considered deep-sea diving. Flipping through a soon-to-be-antiquated device known as a phone book, we started calling dive shops. Collect.
They all seemed to be closed, as it was a sunny Sunday in a region where sun and Sundays were treasured, even in summer. Then we struck pay dirt. A series of collect calls and answering machine messages led us to a fellow hosting a barbecue in Seattle, some 45 minutes away. Yes, he'd come look for the keys, for an (to us) exorbitant price. Whether he found them or not.
After calculating how much we had combined in those locked-up wallets — minus the looming evening's expenses — we agreed. The fellow arrived, we helped him into his dry suit and breathing apparatus, and into the murky deep he went. About the time we leaned over to look for bubbles, he came to the surface with the keys. Boat was locked, car was unlocked, and the man had the grace to take our money without muttering, "dumb kids."
We went on to have a night that was fun, but completely forgettable.
Now, if we had just had a cell phone that afternoon, we could have quickly located spare keys, a ride... or at least someone to let me into the house so I could get my old dive mask and a plastic bag-wrapped flashlight. All of this anguish and shouting and grief could have been avoided.
The three of us would also not have a good story to tell, 25 years later.
- Steve Stav
Steve Jobs and Apple didn't invent the cellular telephone, but the Star Trek-inspired iPhone has certainly taken information technology to the next level. Jobs' tragic passing has prompted countless fans across the globe to pause and consider how profoundly the tech innovator has changed their lives. In the coming week or so (this is "Intermittent Signals," after all), I'll pause for reflections on how profoundly "Jobs' World" has impacted mine.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
NBC's The Playboy Club filled a time slot for three awful episodes before being put out of its misery yesterday. Cancellation came as no surprise; bad script, bad dialogue...a half-assed Mad Men ripoff with Leann Rimes' husband put in the obviously uncomfortable position of imitating Jon Hamm.
Though a "morality on TV" group or two is claiming victory in the wake of The Playboy Club's plug-pulling, one of the shows biggest problems is that it wasn't provocative enough. Rival retro show Pan Am's flight crew, modestly attired in the classic blue, is infinitely sexier. And they've been given considerably better dialogue to deliver. Not Emmy-worthy, but enjoyable entertainment that's pleasing to the eye and not half-bad filler until Mad Men gets its act back on the air. Ratings are good; Pan Am's not going anywhere but Paris and back anytime soon.
Jessica Lange eschewing the loathed "retard" to refer to a Down Syndrome child in favor of "mongoloid" is one of the least eyebrow-raising aspects of FX's new Amityville Horror-meets-The Shining foray, American Horror Story. Lange, who plays a once-aspiring actress-turned-crazy-neighbor, will probably win an Emmy on the strength of the show's debut last night.
American Horror Story isn't going to tell any new tales, I suspect, but will frighten and titillate scary-flick fans as it repackages old themes. "Family in crisis gets a fresh start in haunted house with weird characters lurking about" is a pretty tired formula, but with this cast and some pretty vivid cinematography, the show looks like a winner. Amazing babe Connie Britton plays the wounded wife; Dylan McDermott stars as the troubled husband who's being seduced by the grandmother-aged maid who appears only to him as a naughty ingenue.
I'll take bets as to when the family finally determines that it might be time to get out.
- Steve Stav
Friday, September 23, 2011
One of this country's great singer-songwriters has lived in the Pacific Northwest most of his life, but a relative few northwesterners recognize Danny O'Keefe's name. More will recognize at least two of his songs, however. Jackson Browne covered O'Keefe's "The Road" for his Running On Empty album; what doubtlessly earns O'Keefe even more in royalties is a true American masterpiece called "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues."
Covered by everyone from Cab Calloway and Elvis to Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam, "Good Time" is one of those songs that sticks in your head the first time you hear it. It's a lonely song about — among other things — loneliness. O'Keefe's 1972 single was a huge hit, and it appeared on his eponymous sophomore album.
After spending the previous decade honing his craft, O"Keefe seemed to regurgitate all he had learned and observed in a series of 1970s albums for Atlantic Records. In a period known for songs lamenting the loss of youth — and the loss of the Sixties — O'Keefe's background and signature was at least as authentic as any of his peers. Indeed, O'Keefe had learned, observed and experienced lot: playing Minneapolis coffee houses a la Dylan (whom he later recorded with); surviving a motorcycle crash that left him seriously injured; performing and recording with Seattle psych-rockers Calliope, and briefly joining in a California migration of Seattle/NW musicians — a motley assortment of folk, rock and psychedelic-rock artists that included the Daily Flash and future members of Moby Grape.
What's always stumped me is why the masses haven't acknowledged O"Keefe's remarkable, distinctive voice. Too many of his songs seemed to go straight from his amazing pipes to the likes of Ute Lemper (!) and Mel Torme (!), without mom 'n' pop America hearing the original version. Sure, he hasn't been ultra-consistent with album output... however, from O'Keefe and Breezy Stories to So Long Harry Truman and The Day To Day — among others — this songwriter's songwriter has recorded a sizable catalog of compelling material. He continues to do so; O'Keefe's In Time was released in 2008.
Merle Haggard once recorded a great "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," but I would hazard a guess that he — and even Elvis — would've insisted O'Keefe's original was the best. It remains the singer's calling card, and for good reason.
Danny O'Keefe has started to accumulate some fascinating and moving memoirs, short stories and poems on his website.
My 2001 interview with O'Keefe about his career and his passion for promoting songbird-friendly coffee can be found in this website's Aural History archive.
Friday, September 16, 2011
Honoring the anniversary of the release of Almost Famous this week, I've transcribed my 2000 interview with filmmaker Cameron Crowe for the highly influential, now-defunct Seattle music and arts magazine, The Rocket.
Inexplicably, the studio really hadn't reached out to the magazine for coverage of Almost Famous; I think a movie review is all we would have done. I asked my editor about interviewing Crowe... after all, the man was enormously popular in Seattle after Say Anything, Singles... and of course, his marriage to Heart's Nancy Wilson (sadly, the couple divorced in 2010). Up until then, my newbie work for The Rocket had been mostly album and concert reviews. The assignment was given to me as a test, I felt, to see if my abilities matched my eagerness — could I track down Cameron Crowe without any help? I pulled out my Day-Timer and started working my way up the ladder of contacts.
Within 36 hours, one of my heroes since a high-school read of Fast Times At Ridgemont High in Playboy was leaving me messages on my answering machine. It turned out that Crowe was a fan of The Rocket, and had hoped someone would call him! Needless to say, the resulting, wide-ranging interview was an enormous confidence builder, and remains one of my favorites.
Our chat was originally titled "That '70s Crowe" back in Sept. 2000.
The Rocket: How much of Almost Famous really happened, and how much of it is fiction?
Cameron Crowe: All of it's true, except the reconciliation between my mother and my sister, which we're still working on. Everything else is true.... the movie is kind of a Cuisinart — put it in and hit "blend" — though a lot of it happened as it was. Over the years, someone would ask what it was like to be on the road with Led Zeppelin, and I'd say, "Pull up a chair, and I'll tell you a story." I've always been really proud of those experiences, they were things I've always wanted to get down — at least on paper. The movie is sort of like a living novel that I don't know if I was comfortable directing until now... it's a novel on film, and it all happened.
Rocket: So your mother (played by Frances McDormand in the film) really is a New Age, intellectual conservative?
Crowe: Yeah, kind of a free-thinker and a fan of knowledge — and she's got a bullshit detector like nobody else. My mom's a big rock fan now, but she's still that person, she's a college professor and everything. Basically, she thought that rock was false advertising — "Don't pretend to be grand and literate when really, you're selling sex and drugs... so let's be honest here." But, at the same time, she was bringing Dick Gregory and Cesar Chavez to the classes to speak. At the same time she was telling me, "Don't listen to rock 'n' roll," she was saying, "I want you to meet Dick Gregory, he is a secular saint." I'll never forget it — my mom introduced me to Dick Gregory.
Rocket: Did Gregory tell you any jokes?
Crowe: No! Dick Gregory said, "Let's run in the park, I'm fasting over the end of the Vietnam War." We went running with this guy in one of mom's classes, Bob Brown. We ended up at Brown's house, listening to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." It was the coolest.
Rocket: Your films have always been noted for their soundtracks. Almost Famous seems like the collaboration that you and Nancy would've been waiting for. Is "Fever Dog" one of those by-products of the film that you didn't expect?
Crowe: We've been preparing for this for years. It used to be a different project with a different name, but always our little tribute to a very specific year in rock — 1973. We started writing these songs on our honeymoon in 1986, but we continued, out of pure fun, to work on the Stillwater (Almost Famous' fictitious band) songs after that. Nancy has given an intoxicating feel to everything I've done as a director, with the exception of Singles, which was me trying to get Paul Westerberg to be Nancy Wilson, in a way (laughs). Which he was happy to go for, because he digs Nancy. This is the movie where her stuff really shines. (With) "Fever Dog," our goal was to do something that would've sounded good between "Money" and "Aqualung" on FM radio in '73. We wanted to artfully rip off Led Zeppelin, and be real, instead of a parody.
Rocket: How important was it for you to include Led Zeppelin songs in the movie?
Crowe: Without Zeppelin, it wouldn't be real. I never knew what kind of mood they would be in. In fact, we'd heard they had loved Trainspotting, that they wished there was a movie like Trainspotting that was musical and visual to lend their songs to. We'd also heard that they didn't want to be associated with the 70s. When we flew to England to show it to them, we didn't know what sort of attitude was there waiting for us. What was waiting for us were very open minds.... I think (Page and Plant) appreciated the sincerity of the movie, and they asked for more of their music to be included — which we were only too happy to accommodate.
Rocket: Apart from the movie, how did they react to your choice of their material?
Crowe: Jimmy Page said, "That's The Way" is the one that was used best. The question became whether we could add more film to "The Rain Song." The rest of the songs you get to hear at length. "The Rain Song" was used least of all, and Plant said, "You know 'The Rain Song"' is a pretty full and textured song to be used quickly." I said, "Hey, man, I'm looking for any excuse in the world to make that scene longer." He replied, "Well, send me the tape."
Rocket: So you tried to flesh out a scene to include more of that song?
Crowe: The movie wasn't finished when we took it to them. It was almost finished... and there was a great shot of Fairuza Balk (who plays a groupie) that I always loved, which was Fairuza coming down a dark hallway into the light. The scene sort of launches the end of the movie. We had a four-hour cut of the film, and we kept cutting it down to the bone and building it back up — and that was the one thing I'd always missed. So when I was talking to Plant, that scene came to mind. Courtney Love was on the set the day we shot that scene, so I have a really good memory of that day. I thought, "This was not meant to wind up on the cutting room floor."
Rocket: The soundtrack isn't your average 70s compilation — it's a bit adventurous, with some obscure numbers. Did you choose all of them yourself?
Crowe: Yeah, all of the soundtracks have been from "road tapes." I work really closely with (music supervisor) Danny Bramson, one of my closest friends. I was dying to get "I'm Waiting For The Man" on there, because there was a semi-bootleg version available in England for a minute. There was a contract dispute with Bowie's former manager, and it was withdrawn pretty quickly. But I had it, I had this good-quality version of the Santa Monica Civic show, and I loved that song. I wrote the whole sequence of them going to Cleveland for the song... the beginning of "I'm Waiting For The Man" sounded like a bus trip.
Rocket: You've got to be a big Beach Boys fan to put "Feel Flows" into a movie.
Crowe: Yes! it's the one thing you can't get on CD — you can't get Surf's Up on CD. We had this really scratchy record... we were lucky to get the master.
Rocket: Lester Bangs is an essential figure in the film. Did a mentoring relationship develop past your initial meetings?
Crowe: It actually did develop; he was a very honest critic of my stuff. He'd tell me when I'd written something he'd liked, and told me when I was buying into rock-star dogma. The last conversation I had with him was a few months before he died, and we discussed the merits of Peter Frampton. I've since talked to people who said he actually appreciated Frampton as a guitarist — privately, late at night, he would confess that. He was really quite a guy.
Rocket: Was Phillip Seymour Hoffman in your mind for the role from the beginning?
Crowe: In my dreams! He is the hardest-working guy in show business today, and we weren't sure we could get him. We got him for about four days.
Rocket: Through Bangs, the film pokes fun at Ben Fong-Torres and magazine editors in general. Was Jann Wenner aware of this when he agreed to a cameo?
Crowe: He was... he'd read the script, and had a good sense of humor about it. The ironies were deep... he had a stormy relationship with Lester. Lester left Rolling Stone shortly before I met him. A lot of people don't know how close Jann has stayed with with all of his memories of the time.
Rocket: As a rock journalist, so many aspects of the movie hit home for me. How do you feel those not associated with the music industry are going to interpret the film?
Crowe: (Sighs) I don't know... I don't know if anybody will show up.
Rocket: You're not serious, your name alone will sell tickets.
Crowe: I'm completely serious. I've certainly never made a movie to be successful — well, I actually hoped The Wild Life would be successful, and I got slapped down so hard that I never cared after that. I felt, on some superstitious level, that if you worry about popularity it will never appear. All of the stuff that I've loved the most could not have been made with a desire for commercial success.
Rocket: I spotted Pete Droge's and Peter Frampton's cameos, but where was Eric Stoltz?
Crowe: Oooh, that hurts. That's a sad, sad, story, my friend. I'll tell you what happened: I tried to get him to play Bowie, because I thought it would be hilarious — people would ask, "Where's Stoltz?" And I'd say, "He plays Bowie!" (David Bowie's face does not appear in the film.)
I've been surprised that it's become sort of a game - Spotting Stoltz! I think I insulted Eric by offering him too small a part. The way I was going to tip my hat to him, and come back with a bigger part on the next film, was a shot where the band was coming into Cleveland and they see the marquee. It was a cool thing, I really loved the idea — the marquee was changing; there was a guy on a ladder in front of the Cleveland Arena changing the letters to "Stillwater — Tonight." But, on the side, it was gonna say, "Upcoming Shows — July 9 — Miles Davis, July 10 — Gram Parsons and July 12 — The Eric Stoltz Experience." That was how we were going to get Eric in... but we took too long filming the "Tiny Dancer" scene and two other scenes. Everybody said, "You can come back and shoot the marquee later," but I could never get the dough to go back and shoot it.
So, I've broken the streak, and I'm very depressed.
Rocket: Is Eric Stoltz depressed?
Crowe: I don't know, I got some e-mail from him last week that was... enigmatic. It made me even sadder. I feel like I have to do penance. Telling you this story, I can see his point of view really well. "I played a chicken for you (Say Anything); I played the lead in the worst thing you've ever written (The Wild Life) like a trooper; I played a mime (Singles), and I played the guy throwing a bachelor party for Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire). Where's the love?"
(Laughing) There was another scene that we ran out of time to shoot: A scene where the kid walks in on Jeff Bebe (played by Jason Lee) doing cocaine. He goes into a bathroom to write down some notes, and looks up and Bebe is being given some cocaine by the leather-clad local Topeka coke guy. So the kid's busting Bebe, and Bebe's busting him for taking secret notes. This was the dialogue: The kids says, "Hey." Bebe goes, "Hi." The kid says, "Hi," and the coke guy says, "Hey." And that was the end of the scene (laughs).
I'm bummed... I could've made the coke guy Eric Stoltz and I would've solved the problem!
Rocket: Stoltz has already played a dope dealer, in Pulp Fiction.
Crowe: Yeah, once again, all thankless parts for a guy that deserves so much more.
- Steve Stav
Thursday, September 15, 2011
In celebration of the anniversary of Cameron Crowe's masterpiece, Almost Famous, I've taken a 2001 interview with drummer Ben Smith out of the vaults. Smith, at the time one of Seattle's top hired guns, had played in Ann and Nancy Wilson's Lovemongers prior to getting tapped for the Almost Famous soundtrack. His thunderous, (dare I say) Bonham-like drums, along with Mike McCready, Peter Frampton, et al., provided the music for the fictitious, bombastic band Stillwater. Smith followed up this feat with work on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack.
I knew Smith from some of his Jet City gigs, knew his reputation, knew him to be one of the most genuine souls in the business. What I didn't know — until we sat down at a Ballard sidewalk cafe — is just how deep and fascinating his career had been up to that point. 42 at the time, he had been playing professionally for 27 years.
Of course, Smith's career became even more fascinating shortly after our talk - he's been Heart's drummer ever since.
This article is slightly condensed from the original, which ran in the now-defunct Seattle music magazine, Rock Paper Scissors.
SS: What were your early experiences with Ann and Nancy Wilson like?
Smith: I knew they were great, but I had never listened to the music. I saw them play a couple of shows when I was playing with another band. I thought, ‘Wow! That’s cool.’ That was when I started trying to get some work with them - this was about 1995. We recorded some tunes in Nancy’s basement...we played some shows in Seattle, and then I played about 30 gigs in the summer of ‘95, from the Midwest to the West Coast. We did some TV gigs that fall - we played the Tonight Show, and the Rupaul Show.
SS: Did Rupaul give you a hard time, try to sit on your lap or anything?
Smith: I just met, um, her. I was really surprised at what a professional show that was. The clip from that show is still being played - on VH1’s Behind The Music. I haven’t seen it, but friends keep telling me they’ve seen me on TV.
SS: I’ve heard that the Wilson sisters have a pretty tight circle. Were they stand-offish when you began working with them?
Smith: No, they are always really sweet. Like many professionals, if you’re a musician working with them and they like what you do, they recognize your work and respect you.
SS: Nancy really nailed that big mid-70’s sound when she produced the Stillwater music for Almost Famous.
Smith: Yeah! In the studio, we modeled it after Bad Company’s Bad Co. record, which was released in ‘74. So, we had to go for parts that, in our imaginations, that were something that might have gone down in those days. The sounds couldn’t be too good, because of the technology that they had back then. We would do passes that sounded pretty good, but not too good, because Stillwater was an opening band. It was first passes on almost everything. I’d listen to them and say, ‘I’ve got to do it again.’ Nancy, Peter Frampton, Mike McCready and some of the other guys would say, ‘Can’t be too good - I think you’re there!’
A classic thing about session recording is that by the time you get to the third or fourth take of a tune, you’re sometimes thinking about it too much and working too hard. Not often do you go with the very first take, either; on this record — even if it wasn’t exactly right — we kept it, because we knew it was the right vibe for the movie.
SS: When did you begin drumming?
Smith: I began drumming seriously when I was 14. I went to Garfield High School...the music teacher there, Clarence Acox, was very inspiring. He still teaches there. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a drummer - I thought I was a drummer. Then, when I went to Garfield, I said, ‘Oh, I’m not a drummer. I’d better practice.’
SS: You played in the jazz band there?
Smith: They didn’t really have a jazz band then - it was really hard funk. The Gap Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power - whoever was hot back in the 70s. By the time I was 15 1/2, I was gigging. I practiced 3 hours a day the summer I turned 15. By that fall, I was out playing gigs with a lot of the black horn bands that were working around Seattle at that time - this was probably about 1974.
SS: That’s incredible.
Smith: Yeah, I was the anomaly - the white boy who could play funky and keep time and not destroy the groove.
SS: The club scene must have been pretty wild back in the ‘70’s.
Smith: In some ways it was. The greatest thing that I ever saw, as far as craziness goes - was this club called the Jet Inn out by the airport that was run by this guy from Guam. He booked all kinds of music, but what made the most money were these black bands or mixed-race bands that would draw tons of people - Acapulco Gold, Onyx...anyway, this Guamanian club manager was out of his mind. There was a lot of drugs around, a lot of people were smoking herb. One time, I went to work early one night, and saw this guy do this crazy thing - to inspire fear in his staff, he had a busboy lay on two chairs - his feet on one and his head on the other. He then put a raw potato on this kid’s stomach and broke out this samurai sword, this blade was as sharp as one can be. He then came down with all his strength and cut this potato in half, without cutting the busboy at all. Who knows what kind of drugs this guy was on. He had these little Samoan guys bouncing at the club, these guys could take anybody - I mean anybody - out, just like that.
SS: Things must have been pretty lax around here back then for you to be getting into clubs.
Smith: It was totally lax. By the time I was 21, I had stopped playing clubs for awhile - I was tired. I made more money between 15 and 21 than...I was 28 or so before I made that kind of money again. There was a lot of gigs to be had back then, and the scene was so open. Then, everything shut down, a lot of clubs closed in the Northwest by the time I was 18 or 19. A lot of clubs that hired those great black horn bands, they stopped booking them. It was a weird thing - it was partly due to the economy, partly due to the racism that sprang up. Black bands from the Northwest traditionally had to go to Canada or Asia or the East Coast to get work, but from about 1972 to 1980, there was all this activity happening here.
SS: How did you talk your parents into letting you do all this?
Smith:As long as I stayed out of trouble, they were fine with it. The guys in the band picked me up and took me to work.
SS: That must have been a sight to see. Who were some of your early drum heroes?
Smith: I had two grooves that I listened to when I was fifteen or sixteen. Hard funk was one of them, so a lot of the funk drummers really knocked me out then, like Bernard Purdy, and also James Gadson, a session drummer who played on a lot of records. I also liked fusion, so Billy Cobham was really big for me. I didn’t even think about playing rock until I was 30 or 32. I moved to New York when I was 24, and played mostly jazz and r&b.
SS: That must have been something, playing r&b in New York in the early ‘80s.
Smith: That was a gas, I loved it. I was in this weird group of guys there. Some of the guys that are in the Conan O’Brien and the Saturday Night Live bands are some of the guys that I played with back then. We’d play these club gigs - some rock, some funk, some r&b. A lot of those guys are still doing that. Their TV gig would be over by 6, and then they’d go record or play clubs or weddings. I’d do a recording during the day and go play a wedding that night with guys that were playing on Steely Dan records or something like that. There was good money in private parties - better than playing clubs, most of the time.
SS: What was your first movie soundtrack?
Smith: My first soundtrack was probably Smoke Signals. Sherman Alexie was there for the music recording.
SS: I understand that he’s a very intense fellow.
Smith: I think he’s an intense guy, but he immediately picked up on the essence of working in the recording studio, and he was very sweet about it. He saw how B.C. Smith and I were working together, and he made comments on things we could try. Some things worked, and some things didn’t - you try different angles. He was a great guy about it all.
SS: So are you tight with Cameron Crowe now?
Smith: (Chuckling) We know each other. I’m honored to know the guy - what an amazing talent.
- Steve Stav
TOMORROW at Intermittent Signals - My 2000 "Almost Famous" interview with Cameron Crowe.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
A stellar, yet strangely obscure Peter Murphy track has just been released on CD worldwide for the first time; however, it's just one jewel in a veritable diamond mine.
"Tale of the Tongue," for some reason, was only widely released as a 12" single in 1986. With a hair-raising vocal performance soaring above a hard-charging sonic maelstrom, one would think, today, that it was one of the Dark Prince's biggest hits. But alas, no.
Hopefully, it will get much more exposure as it has just been included in Cherry Red Records' anniversary packaging of Murphy's first solo album, Should The World Fail To Fall Apart (Oddly, "Tale" was only included in Polygram Canada's 1986 release, bumping "Canvas Beauty"). Though the album wasn't as popular, in the Peter Murphy catalog, as say, Deep or Love Hysteria, it is an important bridge between the singer's days in Bauhaus, his project with the late Mick Karn (Dalis Car), and later, more mainstream success... if the Goth icon has ever been "mainstream."
Twenty-five years later, Should The World Fail... remains a beautiful record that reflects an artist boldly taking steps in new directions without completely abandoning his past. Besides a famous cover of Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me" and the live staple, "Final Solution," it contains the aforementioned "Canvas Beauty," which has long been a sentimental favorite of mine. Though we have never discussed the mystery of "Tale of the Tongue" in our interviews, Murphy did explain "Canvas Beauty" to me back in 2000.
Murphy has just finished a spring-summer tour of the U.S. in support of his new album for Nettwerk, Ninth.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
One of the most breathtaking films I've ever seen, 1983's Antarctica is a beautiful, sometimes harrowing speculation of what might have happened to a team of sled dogs immediately after they were abandoned in a South Pole storm. The Japanese film is based on a real incident/adventure that occurred in 1958; the ill-fated expedition also inspired the Disney film, Eight Below — which I refuse to see. Antarctica's a quiet classic, very spare on dialogue and heavy on first-rate cinematography as it follows the dogs' efforts to survive.
"Quiet classic" may be a misnomer, as the soundtrack by Vangelis is as vivid and tone-setting as the camera work. I'm not the biggest Vangelis fan, but this is a minor masterpiece — and as integral to this film as his previous work was for Blade Runner. Chariots of Fire certainly made Vangelis white-hot for awhile; after Antarctica, he scored the hauntingly gorgeous music for the Hopkins-Gibson film, The Bounty.
While the Antarctica soundtrack is readily available on CD, inexplicably the movie has never been released on DVD outside of Japan and Hong Kong. Hopefully it will make its way west soon.
Friday, July 15, 2011
The ingeniously cute poster art first attracted my attention... the gang floating in a frame-filled sea of honey. Then Disney floated Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know" through the trailer (below) to further pull heartstrings. I didn't get to preview it, but according to Roger Ebert's review, the new Winnie The Pooh movie delivers on the beauty - and nostalgia - promised in the ad campaign. I'll go see it with my wife; if only we could borrow a small child to share the film with.
Winnie The Pooh draws from three original Milne short stories, and features all of the characters we began loving so long ago — altogether in the gentle, hand-animated style of the classic films. The introduction of Craig Ferguson as Owl and John Cleese as the narrator certainly has potential. I'll miss Sterling Holloway's and Sebastian Cabot's famously reassuring voices, but time marches on.
Thankfully, Pooh is still in his 100-acre wood, a tubby bear with a shirt a few sizes too small for his appetite... and a de facto caretaker of our childhood innocence.
- Steve Stav
Friday, July 8, 2011
After so many years of saying hello from the stage, Carrie Akre sure knew how to say goodbye, as well. With the help of some friends, last night's sendoff at the Crocodile was more than poignant, more than memorable... it was a great, great night of music.
Seattle's Princess of Rock (Ann Wilson will always be Queen) has taken a job in Minneapolis. Her house is packed up, and presumably she's on the road this weekend. Once you get past the eyebrow-raising fact that one of the greatest voices and songwriters in Northwest rock history has a day job (such is life), the idea of such a fixture, such a backbone being gone is a hard pill to swallow.
Last night made it a bit easier, and a bit harder, to wash that pill down.
Her musical cohorts, admirers and quasi-protegees came out in full force, of course. Those on stage included Amy Stolzenbach, Sean Bates, Rachel Flotard, Mark Pickerel, the fabulous Friel brothers, Danny Newcomb... I lost count.
After Hammerbox and Goodness, Akre boldly launched a genre-crossing solo career that revealed the true, vast extent of her talent. Last night's show seemed to not only remind of us of what we'll be missing, it reminded us of Akre's many facets: soulful singer-songwriter, duet balladeer, ass-kicking rocker.
The show began emotionally — Akre came out early to sing with one of her heir apparents, stunning opener Star Anna — and finished on a raucous, yet even more emotional note. In between were amazing duets with Flotard, Jared Clifton, Matt Gervais... the Friels and Kim Virant came out to sing "Thank You For Being A Friend." Tears were shed. Then Goodness reunited, with Rick Friel added on bass. The place went nuts for an indeterminable duration. Akre sang her heart out, — as she always has — shed some more tears, signed some autographs, and then was gone.
I broke one of my rules and got an autograph, it seemed like the thing to do. I hadn't seen Carrie in several years, and it's been a decade since my only interview with her. But she remembered me immediately. That's the kind of performer Akre is — thoughtful, funny, brilliant, generous. We'll see Carrie Akre again in Seattle - on tour, on vacation, whatever. But it is an end of an era. Akre wasn't part of the community's fabric, she was part of its stitching, a stitch that has flowed through two decades of music here.
Much more could be written today, but last night was the perfect "Aloha," saying all that needed to be said.
- Steve Stav
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
In the wake of successful reunion gigs and a Best Of disc released in 2010, UK dream merchants Suede (known elsewhere as The London Suede) announced on June 29 the reissue of all of their studio albums this summer.
Deluxe, vastly expanded editions of 1993's Suede, 1994's Dog Man Star, 1996's Coming Up, 1999's Head Music and 2002's A New Morning will be released, in turn, every other week from now until late August. The highly influential band's website is taking pre-orders, with bonus incentives attached.
For those who spent the Nineties preoccupied with grunge, Lilith Fair acts or other phenomenon, this might be an opportune time to discover (or re-discover) some major players in a scene that was playing itself out across the Pond. Clearly inspired by mid-80s Manchester and other forces, Suede in turn laid a sonic bed of roses - thorns and all - for later acts to rest their heads upon. Their timeless offerings could certainly be mistaken for "new" on alternative radio today.
Heartthrob frontman Brett Anderson stated in a press release that "... this is the definitive collection of pretty much everything we released in 14 years together - and some stuff which we didn't. It's all re-mastered and includes unreleased, never-before-heard oddities and gems which even I'd forgotten about. It's the complete audio history of a band and, like any band of interest, it's flawed, strange and sometimes beautiful".
The band is scheduled for an exotic summer tour that includes dates in the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
It may be an odd admission to hear from a music journalist, but I don't think I've enjoyed new music this much since the 1980s. Great, "independent" sounds seems to be pouring into my radio and computer in a torrent from all over the globe, making me as giddy as a 16-year-old waiting in line for tickets to see a new sensation named Madonna.
In between yelling at kids to stay off my lawn and cleaning the heads on the Betamax, I'm catching up on the comings and goings of Swedish sensation Lykke Li. "I Follow Rivers," produced by her pal Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John, is my obsession for the week, though it was released this spring.
Though the video by Swedish director Tarik Saleh is breathtakingly gorgeous, I actually prefer the acoustic "Live On The Moon" version (see below). Not only does simplifying the arrangement accentuate the sensuality of Li's voice, the clip gives a deserving, nifty nod to the song's Sixties roots.
- Steve Stav
Monday, June 27, 2011
Classic episodes of Perry Mason have been irresistible to me for about 25 years now, since high school. Its predictability was part of its appeal, strangely enough. Episode after episode, the famed Los Angeles attorney, his secretary, Della Street, and private eye Paul Drake would come to the aid of someone falsely accused of murder. Forty-five minutes' worth of cool cars, Mad Men wardrobes and fresh-off-the-bus-from-Kansas starlets later, Mason would extract the truth from the real culprit.
Indeed, Perry Mason was all about justice, no matter how damning the evidence seemed, or how little money the defendant had. In turn, actor Raymond Burr became synonymous with justice with his iconic portrayal of Earl Stanley Gardner's legendary character.
Offscreen, Burr's philanthropy and humanitarianism was impressive, and well-known. His beneficiaries included countless law students and numerous needy children. He had the strongest of work ethics, and was reportedly widely admired by Perry Mason's cast and crew. Barbara Hale (Ms. Street), for one, remained loyal to Burr until his death.
I write about Perry Mason today because, during Gay Pride Month and in the wake of the fortuitously timed legalization of gay marriage in New York State, I must confess that — of all people and situations — it was Perry Mason who prompted me to fully accept the concept of a same-sex union.
You see, Mr. Mason, defender of so many damsels in distress, was homosexual. Raymond Burr, to my astonishment, was a gay man.
I, like most others, did not learn of this fact until years after Burr died in 1993, at age 76. According to various articles and two biographies, the very private actor fabricated some of his personal life, including possibly more than one marriage. In the innuendo-only Forties, Fifties and Sixties, the idea of an openly gay celebrity was obviously unthinkable; you couldn't even get Liberace to address the subject. And for good reason. Twenty-five years after the public learned of Rock Hudson's preferences, the revelation of an actor's homosexuality still prompts a scandal of minor or major proportions... somehow.
Burr reportedly willed the bulk of his estate to his dedicated, yet secret partner of thirty-plus years, who was at the actor's bedside when he passed.
I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, when the terms "homo" and "faggot" were almost as common in school hallways and playgrounds as "dork" or "loser." That's a difficult environment to forget, especially with my Don Rickles - inspired sense of humor. Though I've never been on a mission to prove my heterosexuality, you've never seen me at a gay bar or on the sidelines at a Gay Pride parade, either. You still won't, even though I have gay and lesbian friends... not acquaintances, but friends. Though some of my favorite actors and musicians are gay or lesbian, I will still avert my eyes from two men kissing on television, or in public. I can't help that; human sexuality has been and will always be a tricky, often unfathomable subject. It certainly makes for some interesting contradictions.
Today, it's odd to think that I had to learn, over time, that a person's sexual preferences — which are often cast not in black & white, but in varying shades of grey — aren't any of my business. They're not anyone's business.
Opposing same-sex marriage, to me, is not a vote for decency, nor is it a "nay" vote for granting "special privileges." It is a vote to marginalize and demonize someone — a bus driver, a soldier, a schoolteacher, an actor — for what they might choose to do in the privacy of their home. Let's not pretend it's anything else. Let's not pretend that this legislated prejudice doesn't trickle down to the bullying of gay kids, or doesn't translate into denying someone other freedoms and/or opportunities. Marriage is often overrated, but human beings are technically equal under U.S. law, and everyone should have the right to be as potentially foolhardy as the next hooplehead. Life is hard enough without our government and our religions judging our neighbors, family and friends by who and how they love, for god's sakes.
Ah, the elephant in the room. If one's god dictates that someone made in His image is wrong, even Hell-bound, for loving another person... then perhaps one should reconsider his choice of deity. Church leaders who want to legislate "decency" should be using their considerable political influence to ensure that the poorest among us can afford food, housing and a doctor. That's decency.
It's time for evil distractions to cease. It is past time to officially ignore those whose ridiculous upbringing in fear and ignorance has caused so much pain for others. Cops no longer assault and courts no longer incarcerate our neighbors for their sexual preferences. Let us, state by state, take the next magnanimous step and seat the busybodies, the charlatans, the fear-mongers and the apathetic in the back of the bus for a change.
We can discuss this topic forever. In the end, though, it all boils down to Perry Mason, to Raymond Burr. I know that it's a simplistic, perhaps odd example. However, it's shamefully sobering to consider that a man of such fine character had to hide his identity, had to hide his lover and companion from the world. Even more importantly, the irony that our society decided Burr was not fully entitled to the justice he so memorably championed is not only sad, it's also so very, very wrong.
- Steve Stav
Friday, June 24, 2011
Paramount has just released a final, full-length trailer — and a new poster — for Captain America: The First Avenger. The comic geek in me is salivating in anticipation, even though the clip/highlight reel still leaves questions yet to be answered. Marvel fans will just have to wait until July 22 to see if there's an all-important good script to match the period cinematography, and if the relative lack of star power (Tommy Lee Jones excluded) will be a plus or a minus. Oh, and there's that little bit of odd casting to swallow — actor Chris Evans (The Fantastic Four's Human Torch) is now playing Steve Rogers, aka Captain America.
This effort certainly has a lot going for it: The film appears to stray very little from Cap's classic origin story, and everyone loves a WWII film. There's the Red Skull, Nazis, even The Howlin' Commandos... most of the essential elements seem to be in place.
Given that Captain America is the "rock" of the Marvel Universe, it's odd that so much time passed before a studio spent any real money on a film adaptation. The super-patriot has had to weather a by-the-numbers 1940s serial, two crummy 1979 TV movies (in which actor Reb Brown tooled around in a date-rape van and a dirt bike), and a feature film starring J.D. Salinger's son that was so weird and cheap, it bypassed U.S. theaters.
With three solid superhero flicks ahead of it this year, there's a lot at stake... and a lot of competition in a busy blockbuster season. My fingers are crossed, for Cap deserves some glory.
- Steve Stav
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Thomas Dolby's ingenious Internet game, A Map Of The Floating City, was released June 22, and I've already set sail for adventure. Dolby discussed this free, promotional tie-in with the upcoming album of the same name in an interview with me last month. The trailer itself is stunning, the graphics are gorgeous, and the game... well, I'm no game player, but with music to be discovered and apparently real prizes at stake, I'm on board. It's a map/treasure seeking experience that relies on trading with other participants to propel your vessel across a map. The player chooses a ship, captain's name, and can write his own bio before taking the plunge. Locales, ships, et cetera refer to Dolby's lyrics.
The singer/songwriter is no stranger to online community-building; Dolby's fan site, The Flat Earth Society, is one of the most diehard clubs around... we'll see how this fares as an auxiliary of sorts. A Map Of The Floating City has all the tools and encouragement needed for fans and novices to have fun exploring Dolby's world together. At first blush, it's certainly wondrous... from the creator of a song such as "Windpower," one could hardly expect anything less.
Steve Stav (Skipper, DSV Miss Sakamoto)
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I don't review nearly as many concerts now as I did when I was a man-about town columnist in the Jet City, so it is good that my trained nose (or ear?) almost never steers me wrong in choosing a show these days. Case in point: Anna Calvi's June 1 show at the Crocodile, which I reviewed for Ink19.com. www.ink19.com/issues/june2011/eventReviews/annaCalvi.html
It was one of those truly thrilling situations where the performer actually tops the hype and expectations. Calvi, an up-and-coming Siren from England, is somebody special. Touted and supported by Brian Eno and Nick Cave, this gal is going places. And on a Wednesday night, she stopped in Belltown to blow everyone away before starting another round of UK/European engagements.
If my review seems too enthusiastic or embellished, it's not. Check her out on Youtube, and you'll be buying the album.
ps. When my webmaster is feeling better, a gallery of additional photos from the show will be posted.
- Steve Stav
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Premier instrumental combo Los Straitjackets have announced a number of benefit shows for master guitarist/co-founder Danny Amis, who has been battling bone marrow cancer.
In an open letter on his website, Amis, AKA "Daddy O Grande," mentioned his stem cell transplant procedure, and a recuperation that is expected to last through the summer. The procedure is expected to knock the cancer into remission.
Amis had no health insurance, but was partially covered via The Affordable Care Act. As one might expect, the ongoing out-of-pocket expenses are staggering.
The benefit gigs will be interspersed among a heavy summer touring schedule (which includes a number of gigs with Dave Alvin), and a slew of guest appearances have already been slated - with more doubtlessly to come. The band has enlisted Greg Townson (dubbed "Gregorio El Grande") of the Hi-Risers to step in for Amis.
Revered by their fans (i.e, anyone who has ever heard or seen them), Los Straitjackets' in-turn reverence for all who came before them is even cooler than their Mexican wrestling masks and super-abundance of talent.
Direct donations can be made through www.daddyogrande.com. Tour dates and news updates can be found at www.straitjackets.com.
Keep rockin', Danny!
Friday, June 3, 2011
It's no wonder that the most popular stills from the new X-Men : First Class are of January Jones — she makes for a great Emma Frost, White Queen of the Hellfire Club. Why were no photos of the lovely Rose Byrne available? After all, her Moira MacTaggert is a bit fetching in lingerie, as well.
I explore this exciting new installment of the Marvel franchise — a great date movie — at Ink19.com today.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Coastal snobs such as myself might marvel at how exquisite music such as Other Lives' "For 12" can originate in Stillwater, OK... until we remember that those dreamland darlings, The Flaming Lips, hail from dust bowl country, as well.
It's amazingly convenient how one can include music/video clips in reviews nowadays, as a critic would be hard-pressed to adequately describe the beauty-benchmark attained in Other Lives' new album, Tamer Animals (USA-May 10, TBD Records). Their approach is sometimes dubbed as "chamber folk," which covers about half of it — and any band who features a cellist and violinist earns double coupons in my book.
The band was doubtlessly inspired by a multitude of more modern forces in making their second record, but the production style traces back to the 1960s CBS studios that transformed Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel... an approach that has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Additionally, "For 12"'s reverb and atmosphere suggests a subliminal nod to Lee Hazlewood's genius... but perhaps that's just my imagination. Certainly, this is the sort of disc that prompts the mind to wander.
Other Lives could go toe-to-toe with the (justifiably) vaunted Fleet Foxes, but this isn't a competition. We should just be thankful, in these often ugly times, that such pursuits of beauty and perfection are still being successfully engaged.
(note: I included a live clip of "For 12" along with the studio version, for the amateur video from Norman, OK certainly captures the group's mesmerizing onstage magic.) - Steve Stav
Friday, May 20, 2011
By Steve Stav
Blinded by science, indeed. Sometimes it seems as if the general public only has the capacity to absorb one burst of brilliance from an artist during a particular era. They seize it, savor it, assign it a place on a shelf or in the memory, and move on. Thomas Dolby was not yet 25 when his first brilliant burst, 1982's The Golden Age Of Wireless, made him a synth-pop/"New Wave" icon almost overnight. Thirty years later, millions in the 15-50 demographic recognize his most popular hit — but if asked to name another, most will draw a blank.
Of course, Dolby has always had an aura of misconception-prompting mystique surrounding him; perhaps the keyboardist was so busy in the 80s, he was merely one step ahead of listeners. A look back at Dolby's credits can surprise even someone familiar with the man's work. For example, he played on Foreigner's 4 and Def Leppard's Pyromania, and produced several gorgeous Prefab Sprout albums... when he wasn't busy making his own records, writing songs for other artists, and appearing on dozens of albums in a number of genres.
A near-departure from recording in the early 1990s to delve into cellular ringtone technology seemed to encase Dolby's mystique in legend-preserving lucite. In 2006-07, however, the synth phenom emerged from cold storage with a successful, one-man "Sole Inhabitant Tour."
Further whetting fans' appetites have been a pair of download-EPs released as precursors to Dolby's first album in twenty years, the upcoming A Map Of The Floating City. The EP-appetizers are expectedly wondrous; his thematic signatures of romantic adventure and imagination-sparking observations have certainly survived the decades, and have exquisitely matured with time. Moreover, the new album (which features guest appearances by luminaries such as Mark Knopfler, Natalie MacMaster, Imogen Heap and others) will doubtlessly reinforce the fact that behind the electronic wizardry and technical prowess, there's always been a very gifted singer-songwriter.
From his beachfront home on England's east coast, Dolby recently discussed via telephone new ideas, faded memories... and vintage lifeboats.
SS: I just saw a picture of your lifeboat studio... you couldn't possibly require further inspiration. What an amazing place to work.
Dolby: I know... that's the only bad thing, there is no excuse; if I have a day where I'm not productive, I say to myself, "You spoiled little brat! Living in a place like this and not getting anything done today!" (laughs). It is a wonderful place to be.
I sort of have the best of all worlds... I can go record with other musicians, or I can send stuff to musicians elsewhere - there are two or three musicians on the new album that I've never met in the flesh. It's incredible, really, how technology has made places like this not so remote anymore.
SS: I imagine you sit out there and witness the storms?
Dolby: Absolutely, in all sorts of fierce weather. It gets pretty intense out here. I love working out there when a gale blows, it's wonderful. I record everything; the ambience of the lifeboat ends up on the record; the song "To The Lifeboats" has some creaking in the background, which is actually the turbine on the mast creaking through the deck. I sit and watch the ships, I have binoculars; when I have the blinds closed, I have a periscope so I can peer out at the ships. They're building a wind farm out there, which you can just about see with the naked eye when the light is right; otherwise you have to use binoculars. There's currently 56 of them on the horizon, there's going to be 141 when they're done.
This is so great... I wrote "Windpower" in 1980-1981, and I'm so pleased that's it's actually come to be.
SS: What was the inspiration, or motivation, for your "Nutmeg of Consolation"?
Dolby: Our garden floods... not often, but about every five years or so, we get an extremely high tide and the sea comes in a bit. So, it was impractical for me to have the proverbial "garden shed studio," which I did have in California when I lived there. So I came up with the idea of having a boat in the garden. At one point, I thought it would be a seagoing vessel — I thought I would sail around the world to record my album, and occasionally go up the Siene or the Hudson or the Thames and give a concert on the deck! This would have taken some serious sponsorship, of course, and I didn't have the energy to traipse around with my hand out. Part of the reason for the name, "Nutmeg of Consolation" was that it was a consolation prize - a boat on blocks in the garden.
I spent about six months looking for a suitable vessel... I was looking at fishing boats, as they have good wheelhouses with all-around vision; however, they can be a bit "fishy." I eventually found this converted ship's lifeboat from the 1930s... it was about to be scrapped, as part of its hull was stove in. I found some local boat builders; in the process of rebuilding the hull, we installed a doorway where it was damaged. It has a drawbridge with an anchor as a counterweight... so you wind a big wheel in the wheelhouse and the drawbridge goes down, the anchor goes up with a system of pulleys and chains and ropes, making a fantastic clanking sound.
There used to be a diesel engine below the wheelhouse, and I took that out and installed a bank of batteries. On the mast there's a 450 watt wind turbine, and on the roof of the wheelhouse there's solar panels. So, provided there's some sun or wind, the batteries stay charged, and I can work quite happily without needing any power off the grid at all.
SS: You own the ultimate treehouse.
SS: Your upcoming album, A Map Of The Floating City... the name sure fires the imagination. How long have you had this idea for a record, and what prompted it?
Dolby: Well, for probably 15 years I've been wanting to make an album with this title. It means various different things to me... there was a floating city in Tokyo in medieval times, where the merchants used to bring their barges into Tokyo harbor to trade. Eventually, there were so many of them, it was girdlock. No one went anywhere, they just stayed roped together, and it became this sort of heathen city outside the jurisdiction of the rest of Tokyo. During the day, you could trade silks and spices and things there, and at night, it was a den of inequity. It sounded like a nice place to be.
Secondly, from my lifeboat studio here in East Anglia, facing out across the North Sea towards Germany and Holland and so on, I see the container ships coming and going. They're stacked high with containers, and sometimes in certain lighting conditions, it looks like you're looking at the Manhattan skyline off in the distance. When they're several of them, it looks like an archipelago of Manhattans. That, to me, is very evocative.
The final piece of it, really, is that the idea of a floating city as a kind of different dimension, sort of an invisible reality... so that's how the title came about. Then, the three continents, Amerikana, Urbanoia and Oceanea - as I started to assemble the songs for the album, they seemed to be falling into three distinct categories. So, they ended up being three segments on the album. The first, Amerikana, is really sort of a farewell to America, where I lived for 20 years... I might be back there someday, but at least for the time being I'm in my native England. During the time I was living in the States, I became very fond of indigenous Americana, whether it be cultural or places I visited — parts of America that seemed to be frozen in time.
In a way, we're very "Pan-European" in Britain, everything is sort of "brie on a baguette," served to you by a Polish immigrant. Which is fantastic about England, actually, but by contrast, when I go to the United States - especially away from the coasts - it seems very indigenous there. So Amerikana is my contribution to folk storytelling, but definitely told from the point of an outsider.
Oceanea is more about my return to my spiritual homeland. My mum's family is from here, I grew up around here. I learned to sail here as a kid; it's very dear to me, and it's very relaxing for me to come home.
Urbanoia is about cities... I obviously still visit cities - New York, London, L.A. or wherever - but cities are not the place for me. I'm not a city person, they're deeply unsettling to me — but sort of thrilling at the same time. Urbanoia definitely has a darker tinge to it.
So it's sort of a little triptych of portraits of these different continents, pushed together to make up the album.
SS: Are you finished with the record?
Dolby: I'm very, very close. I actually assembled it for the first time a few days ago. It's got a few "t's" to cross, "i's" to dot, but it's getting close.
SS: Do you have a date set for the release of the Urbanoia EP?
Dolby: I'm actually not going to release a third EP. I've been working on a game with the same title as the album — that's going to be released very soon.
SS: A game?
Dolby: Yeah, sort of an alternative reality game. Free, on the web. Instead of the EP, if you want to hear music from Urbanoia, you'll have to discover it within the game. The game involves my entire catalog — it contains every item, character, every location named in every song I've ever written. It's going to be very exciting, I think, for hardcore fans... and, from a marketing perspective, the goal is to turn some of my 'casual' fans into hardcore fans, to convert some of the former into the sort of nutjobs that get on the Flat Earth Society pages — and I mean that in the most affectionate way (chuckles).
It will be on thomasdolby.com, and it won't require any software download; it's in a web browser.
SS: Wow. It's great that it will be free. It always chafes me when an artist releases EPs, you buy them, and then he releases a box set of them all - plus a new song you just have to have.
Dolby: I was a bit wary of that; it seemed like a bit of a ripoff to do that. That's why I talked myself out of releasing a third EP. Although there are additional songs that aren't on the EPs, it still seemed like a chore, to expect people people to pay for three EPs... and then pay another $15 or whatever for the album. I think it will be very interesting, it's a whole other aspect of things; I hope it will build some anticipation for the album's release.
SS: I imagine that speculation abounds among your fans as to what other tracks will round out the album... indeed, I can see from your website that suspense for the whole thing has been building.
Dolby: My hardcore fan base has known for three, four years that I've been working on a new album. For some of them, I think it has been quite frustrating — "Where is it already!!" But by and large, they've been very patient. A lot of 'em say, "Hey, we've waited for 20 years; we'd rather wait another year and have him get it the way he wants it. I'm not exactly prolific... I was talking to Peter Gabriel the other day, and I told him, "You're prolific by my standards!"
SS: It can be frustrating, from a fan's standpoint... yet, an artist such as Peter Gabriel is worth waiting a bit for.
Dolby: He is worth waiting for, and there's a fanfare, an excitement about it. Things have changed a lot since I started, or since he started. In those days, everything was about the "street date." Everything was clouded in mystery until you pulled the trigger on a "street date," and suddenly there's an album and a tour and a video, and the rest of it. These days, given how accessible we make ourselves to the audience via social networking and blogs and things like that... unless you want to turn your back on all if it, say, "No! I'm going to stay a private person; it's nobody's business what I'm doing, and it'll be done when it's done."
Personally, I enjoy the interaction, I enjoy the fans being involved and feeling they have an investment in the album. I think that's sort of the "modern way;' I think the whole "street date" thing is obsolete.
SS: When did you become the leader of this cult, The Flat Earth Society?
Dolby: (Chuckles) Oh, I think it dates back to '83 or '84, right when that album first came out. I don't even know if it was me who coined the term, or it was the fans themselves who named the fan club that way. Back in those days, it was just a physical mailing list. It stuck around; for all the years I wasn't doing any music, there was still an interest. The Internet had emerged, and people were analyzing the music, doing tribute cover versions and sharing chord sequences, things like this.
I'm not sure if they ever thought I'd come back and do any more music at all; I think some of 'em assumed I was like a dead guy, like Nick Drake or something.
SS: Are you ever surprised by the level of interaction on the website? You've even got people researching the history of your lifeboat.
Dolby: Things like that are fantastic, obviously — the collective sort of "mind share" that you get on the Internet. I guess because I have a relatively large number of well-informed people following me, I'm able to stick up a picture of my lifeboat and ask if anyone can help me identify it — and someone's going to come out of the woodwork who's an expert on 1930s British vessels. That's pretty great.
That's the plus side. On the negative side, there are times when I feel a little intruded upon. To give (the fans) early access to a bit of music... many people will say, 'Wow! It's really fascinating to see the process as it unfolds." But others will say, "This is not polished! This is like a demo that I could do."
SS: I've long been fascinated with your collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Field Work." How did this song come about?
Dolby: I can tell you how we met, initially. For the song, "Radio Silence," from The Golden Age of Wireless, I was looking for a Japanese singer. This was at a time when Japanese pop was first getting some exposure in the UK... bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra had been doing some interesting stuff. Anyway, Akiko Yano was a well-known singer in Japan, I'd heard some of her stuff and she seemed to have the appropriate voice. I found out she was going to be in London, so I called up and arranged for her to do a session for the album.
She came with a friend who was introduced to me as "Luigi" — or that's what I thought I heard. I started to explain to her the harmonies I wanted, which were jazzy and quite tight. She said, 'I think the best thing would be if Luigi writes them down for me.' So "Luigi" came into the room, and based on hearing the chords I was playing from the control room, he notated them for her in about five seconds flat. And I was rather proud of these complex, tight harmonies! (laughs)
It suddenly occurred to me that this guy was some sort of musical genius, and then it dawned on me the mistake that I had made. I'd seen Ryuichi's name written, but I had never heard it pronounced by a Japanese person. I had been thinking, "Wow, a Japanese guy with an Italian name, that's kind of unusual."
SS: So that was the beginning of your friendship.
Dolby: Yeah... I didn't know they were an item at that point; I did know she had sung with YMO, but I hadn't put two and two together (Sakamoto and Yano were married in 1982; they divorced in 2006 - SS). So, we exchanged our info, and a while later he asked me to collaborate on this song. He send me some backing tracks, and I sent back an idea for the vocal. He said, "Yeah, this great, but let's do it together in the studio." He spoke almost no English at that time; a lot of this (communication) was done through an interpreter.
We arranged to meet at New York City, sort of halfway between London and Tokyo. We then realized to our embarrassment that we had each checked into the downtown Hilton under assumed names, names that the other person wasn't aware of. We wound up simultaneously calling our respective offices and having it sorted out - a kind of "Spinal Tap moment." We ended up meeting in the bar.
So we wound up recording the vocal there, he liked what I was doing, gave me pretty much a free hand. Then he asked me to direct the video, which was pretty great.
SS: The video for "Field Work" was rather bizarre, a juxtaposition of themes... but it worked. Did you share the creative input for it?
Dolby: The concept was basically mine, as I recall. But the personality of this Japanese guy now living in the States was something that Ryuichi came up with — the big old sweater and shopping bags, et cetera. I honestly don't remember very much about it. It's kind of dangerous, I've discovered in some ways, to tell stories from twenty-five years ago — because people remember them differently (laughs). I was just reading a bit in a David Bowie biography where someone that I know was recounting a story from Live Aid... it wasn't how I remembered it at all!
SS: It's been almost 30 years, and yet with all of your accomplishments, so many people primarily associate you with "She Blinded Me With Science." Does this frustrate you, or do you view it as the calling card you've been dealt, and an opportunity to surprise listeners?
Dolby: In reality, it might be a calling card, but I get more feedback along the lines of, 'Oh, he's so much more than that' than I get "Oh, he's the guy who did "She Blinded Me With Science." I get that sometimes, especially from people on the periphery, or people who were too young to know anything other than that. So, I'm resigned to that. It's not my favorite song, either, but it's not a piece of junk. I'm very proud of it as a record, and I think it was a good video.
I see it as sort of a commercial now. If I had just done songs like "Screen Kiss" and "Weightless" and "I Love You Goodbye," I probably would have remained a totally obscure figure. Those songs are not mainstream; they're challenging, an acquired taste. They're not for everybody. So I might have easily done an album or two, get dumped by the label and would never be heard from again. Instead, because I was able to have commercial success with "Science" and other singles from that period, I had a springboard for hundreds of thousands of people to discover the rest of my music, and some of it stuck.
That's great news, because when I sat down and wrote those songs, they meant a whole lot to me. I'd come up with a chord change and go, "Oooh! That felt great. I wonder if anybody else will get the same jolt that I just got." And evidently, some did! This is what's so fantastic about it.
Nowadays, it's not just numbers. Back in those days, it was like, "Wellll, Thomas, your album just went gold." Now, was that because 'Science' was a big commercial hit, or was it because people liked "Airwaves" and "Cloudburst At Shingle Street"? You had no way of knowing, and the record company certainly couldn't tell you, because to them it was like selling soap powder. "Great, half a million people came out of the woodwork and bought this, let's aim for three-quarters of a million units next time."
These days, you know with incredible precision exactly how people found out about (the record), what songs they downloaded the most, what fans are saying... you even see the cadence to things. When I put out Oceanea, my gut feeling was, "The title song will bowl people over. But 'Simone' is kind of a sleeper, and down the road, once people have gotten over the title song, they'll realize how good of a song 'Simone' is." Sure enough, you see that sort of arc to things; you can almost watch it happen in real time. You can even stimulate things by releasing an alternative mix of "Simone" at just the right moment. All of this I find incredibly positive, and it's healthy for an artist to be working in this atmosphere — versus the old days, when it was all about the industry... it's much more gratifying.
SS: Will you be touring the U.S. in the coming year or so?
Dolby: I really hope so. I'm trying to figure out a way to do it economically... it's a tough time for the touring business. I don't have a long track record of putting bums on seats; it's a puzzle to put together a concert tour with a four or five piece band. For my last tour, I was performing mainly sequenced versions of songs in my past catalog; the new album really demands "real musicians," I don't see how I can do it solo. I'll figure it out; it might have to be a double bill, or a package tour or something. I'm open to suggestions.
SS: Perhaps you could anchor the tour with gigs at some steampunk conventions.
Dolby: Oddly enough, someone said to me the other day, 'You are to steampunk as Iggy Pop is to punk."'
SS: It could work, you know. With your image — and your imagery of retro-science — it's not that far-fetched, the idea of you being a de facto musical icon of the scene.
Dolby: I think such a show could be a nice idea, though I might be accused of "jumping the bandwagon"... though that would be ironic, as I'm more or less doing the same thing as I was in 1980. There's certainly a lot of heat around steampunk at the moment, though I don't know how quickly it might dissipate. So far, I haven't noticed a strong musical movement to go along with the fashion-and-culture one.
SS: Some folks regard you as a bit of a genius. What aspect of being a professional musician has challenged you the most?
Dolby: Um... it's sometimes hard to remains passionate about something when you're required to be so analytical about it. It's a bit like being a '"foodie"... it's hard for someone to cook for a "foodie" — "They eat some of the best food in the world; how could they possibly like what I have to serve up?"
It's kind of hard... because when I listen to music, I can tell so many aspects of it from my own experience about the production, the songwriting, the choices the artist made, and so on. And I kick myself for being so dispassionate about it — why can't I just respond to it in a visceral way, as I did when I was 14, 15? That's probably the most challenging thing for me.
On the plus side, that's kind of why I took a break from music in the Nineties; I felt that sort of professional apathy setting in. The good news is that coming back to it now in my fifties, after all this time, I don't have any of that sort of cynicism. In a way, I've got a broader mind in regards to being open-minded to other people's music, collaborations, things like that. I'm really enjoying it, I feel fresh and energized about it in a way that I wouldn't have been if I had kept treading the boards and trying to do a revival every couple of years (chuckles).