Monday, December 18, 2006

2006: Top 25

I've spent much of the last two weeks in bondage to blurbs, writing year-end material for various outlets. It's a miracle I'm still able to use adjectives in everyday conversation anymore. So for the next little while you'll get my top 25 of 2006, along with another 25 I found interesting.

One of my colleagues just emailed out his top 66 or something, on top of his reissue list, singles list, import list, and best of posthumous releases... you get the picture. All ranked, of course. Rob Gordon/Fleming walks among us. As much as I think that's rather ridiculous, I didn't have any trouble coming up with a list of 50 myself.

This material is shamelessly frankensteined from material I've written for Exclaim, Eye Weekly, the K-W Record, and my Idolator ballot. This is 95% post-consumer recycled material, folks.
[Edit January 30, 2006: this was originally spread over five posts. I've condensed it all into a single one for archival purposes.]

I'm a little concerned at how conservative it is, but this is the album format we're talking about. Many other acts thrilled me for the duration of a few singles, or while witnessing the live show, or with the audacity of their approach, but that doesn't mean I kept their album on the shelf and in high rotation. Hence, no Matmos, who nonetheless put out their finest album this year. Non-existent hip-hop. A handful of electronic releases. This isn't an objective list of what I think is cool or important or artistically cutting edge. But for whatever reason, these are the albums that effected me the most, the ones I'd recommend without any hesitation, the ones I'd put in a time capsule for 2006.

One final caveat: there's still a bunch of 06 releases I haven't heard yet, for a variety of reasons. I can't figure out why I haven't seen Jon Rae and the River since they put out their new record, but I haven't. And because I prefer to buy at the merch table than stores whenever possible, nor have I heard it, and therefore it's not here even though it was one of my most-anticipated albums of 06.

Here we go. Happy Hannukah.
In alphabetical order...

The Acorn – Tin Fist EP ( Pacing is everything. Opening with the brooding, insistent pulse of "Heirlooms," Tin Fists begins as beautifully ominous as the first snowfall, foreshadowing a season of melancholy and long distance love affairs. From there, this EP's thematic thread of urban decay and withering faith slowly blossoms four songs later into the anthemic "Spring Thaw," where windmill guitars and flurries of drum fills suddenly don't seem out of place. This is epic Canadiana at its finest, tapping similar texture and rhythms from Melville-era Rheostatics, while distilling the tension of Godspeed's brooding epics and injecting melodic optimism into the mix to create tiny perfect pop songs. After two years of most-promising status, it's frightening to realize that this slice of brilliance is merely a stop-gap before their full-length early next year.

Ellen Allien & Apparat – Orchestra of Bubbles (Bpitchcontrol). No wonder Ellen Allien is considered queen of Berlin: she’s one of the few from that city’s notoriously navel gazing electronic scene to inject a genuinely radiant warmth and ever-so-subtle pop touches to pulsing minimalist club music. Here, she and one-off collaborator Apparat (a fellow label impresario: he runs Shitkatapult, she Bpitchcontrol) detune pianos, employ skittering synths and slices of schaeffel beats, and unleash crackling microtonalities that embark on ear-tickling ping-pong panning, all with the sombre elegance of Kraftwerk at its most oblique.

The Awkward Stage – Heaven is For Easy Girls (Mint) The cover image depicts an orthodontic-ridden man (singer/songwriter Shane Nelken) in the back of a limo, trying to pin a corsage on his blow-up doll date. Lyrically, Nelken’s sugary pop songs doesn’t directly revisit prom night, but they do dwell on the perils of prolonged adolescence and fragile psyches. They’re populated with anorexics, psychopaths, deluded paranoiacs, and vengeful circus animals—all of them just a few genetic mutations away from a Barbara Gowdy short story. Match that with music that equals Nelken’s former employer A.C. Newman, and you have the hallmarks of a classic pop songwriter.

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador). Their second album in sunshiny pastures brings Belle and Sebastian a backbone, a large leap away from their typically foggy, rain-drenched melancholy lit-pop. The Life Pursuit is the first B&S album you’d actually put on at a party—not at home alone when you’re wondering why you weren’t invited. They tried this before, on 2003’s aptly titled Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which simply tried too hard. Here, however, every track here stands with their best work, drawing heavily from Motown and R&B, with tasteful new wave moments and even some—gasp!—screaming guitar leads. And yet all the band’s vintage strengths still shine through: the songwriting that’s clever without being cloying; the classy 60s pop arrangements; the tender vocals cooing incongruous offhand profanity. It’s rare that an already decent band suddenly comes into their own on their seventh album, but long gone are those days of Belle and Sebastian being a secret passed on a mix CD between two geeks at the library.

Beirut – Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing!). After the bombs tear apart the fertile landscape, you make do with what you have left. In the devastated battlefields of his imagination, Zach Condon scavenged a ukulele, hand drums, accordions, and a blast of Balkan brass to accompany his plaintive, practically wordless melodies that simultaneously invoke hope and the saddest music in the world. Every time he lifts his stately trumpet it evokes a new national anthem for a nascent country, a tabula rasa where we’re free from the suffocation of history. And being a debut album, the possibilities here are just as enticing as the immediate gratification.

Benni Hemm Hemm – s/t (Sound of a Handshake/Morr). Now that we’ve lost the late great Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, this Icelandic band is ready to step up with their own take on pastoral orch-pop sung in an exotic European language. Benni Hemm Hemm is the name of both the band and the bandleader, who wrote this material on an Italian vacation. Some of the passion of that country’s indigenous music is fused with the more elegant restraint that other Icelandic exports are known for, with lovely layered vocal harmonies backed up by jangly guitars, glockenspiels and stately brass sections that rarely coalesce into expected patterns—even with the recent proliferation of traditional European music in indie rock. Benni Hemm Hemm can play it straight, too—perhaps not coincidentally on two songs sung in English: the wispy country song “I Can Love You in a Wheelchair, Baby,” and the downright dorky “Ku-Ui-Po,” a horn-y pop song with swelling slide guitar about his Hawaiian sweetheart. Fans of our very own Hylozoists should take note—in fact, so should Mr. Hemm Hemm, if he’s looking for a North American back-up band.

Blood Meridian – Kick Up the Dust (Outside). Dead-end jobs. End times. Unrequited love. Urban alienation. Religious wars. Sounds like a good time, right? The kind of lyrical material that makes you want to link hands with your surrogate family of friends and sing to the heavens? Yet that’s what happens on this album’s title track, which is an atheist anthem, a grungy, godless gospel song that laments: “We’re God’s little jokes, so let’s show him how little we care.” And the dust of the title? “It’s just the bones of our friends.” Musically, Blood Meridian is Western Canadian gothic at its finest: twangy guitars, murderous blues, mountainous percussion, and ranch-hand whistling, performed with a façade of classic rock confidence masking the over-the-shoulder paranoia that subtly imbues Camirand’s fragile vocal delivery throughout this ghostly masterpiece. When the apocalypse comes, these are the songs we’ll take to the Rockies and sing around the campfire every night. Cormac McCarthy should be proud of his spawn.

Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways (American/Universal). Death is at the door, but the old man still has more stories to tell, more conscious than ever not to waste a single breath. In a voice of vulnerability, he confesses, “I never thought I needed help before. I came to believe in a power much higher than me.” Choking at the recent memory of his losing his beloved, he whispers as if she’s still in the room: “Love’s been good to me. You are the rose of my heart. I’ll meet you further up the road.” As Death becomes impatient, the knocking sounds like an army coming to carry this mighty spirit away while the old man tries to bellow “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Only instead of judgemental righteousness, his fragile voice is a word of warning from one who’s already felt the crushing wrath of the Almighty. As a reprieve, he retreats into an old Canadian pop song that seems like a non-sequitur until he croaks with what sounds like his final breaths: “The feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.” Surrender never feels this satisfying, sobs and all.

Decemberists – The Crane Wife (EMI). Much is made of how difficult the Decemberists supposedly are. And what is it, exactly, that we're supposed to be afraid of? Vocabulary! Long songs! Graduate degrees in creative writing! Are our expectations of our songwriters really so low that these traits are considered anomalies? The Crane Wife marks the band's first foray into major label territory, so they're made out be even more of a freak show in the larger pop culture discourse. Yet his epic narrratives survived intact, simultaneously broadening his pallett and providing bonafide pop thrills. Meloy's literary pursuits are matched by melodic ambition, and his backing band is a remarkably versatile unit—not everyone can pull off a track that sounds like Emerson Lake and Palmer covering the Pogues.

Angela Desveaux – Wandering Eyes (Thrill Jockey). Heartbreak is the most common theme in country music, but not many singers can evoke the sentiment at first breath. Angela Desveaux, on the other hand, can have you weeping at her opening lines. The melancholy Montrealer excels at both radio-friendly roots rock in the Lucinda Williams mode, the dead slow, haunting heartwrenchers best experienced during post-breakup 3AM drives. Wandering Eyes draws equally from both, taking a tried-and-true formula and adding some killer songs to the canon. Desveaux stirs the ashes of heartbreak and infidelity, managing to reflect with wisdom and strength, questioning the natural flurry of irrational emotions that come with the territory. Sarah Harmer should watch her back.

Devotchka – Curse Your Little Heart EP (Ace Fu). Devotchka are a melancholically Eurocentric quartet of Denver multi-instrumentalists—playing bouzoukis, theremins, tubas, violins, accordions, and a “tenor triangle”—led by the swoony, soaring voice of Nick Urata, whose Orbisonic operatics provoke escapist fantasies of carny bands roaming the American west. Their own songwriting is nothing to snicker at—check 2004’s How It Ends for proof—but here they turn to cover material as diverse as the Velvet Underground, Frank Sinatra, and Siouxie and the Banshees, giving each their own unmistakable stamp.

Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier – Malphas: Book of Angels Vol. 3 (Tzadik). You know you spend too many nights in rock clubs when, during a groggy early morning jazz festival gig, an unamplified violin/piano duo cause you to smack your forehead and utter: “strings and wood, who knew?” The cutest married couple in the Tzadik roster deliver a spinetingling performance of some of John Zorn’s most delicate Masada material to date, literally crawling inside their instruments at times to deliver exquisite performances.

Feuermusik – Goodbye, Lucille (independent). Believe it or not, but one of the year’s most intriguing records features only saxophones, clarinets, and bucket percussion. Jeremy Strachan and Gus Weinkauf extract a variety of tones and rhythmic possibilities from these traditional tools, and over eight originals and a cover of Gershwin’s Summertime they balance an unusually funky approach to composition with more improvisatory flights.

Fiery Furnaces – Bitter Tea (Fat Possum). Bitter Tea is the Fiery Furnaces’ fifth full-length in three years, and once again it’s chock full of playful pop songs overflowing with melodic ideas, delivered with angular tempo and mood shifts. Unlike the sprawling 2004 classic Blueberry Boat, most of the songs clock here in around five minutes, making the jarring moments more digestible. Even the strangest moments still fit into a pop format. Matthew Friedberger has stripped almost all the guitars from the mix, utilising an arsenal of ancient synths. Sometimes they’re sweet, sometimes they’re sour, but most of the time they’re run on backwards tape, along with vocals and drums, to give a discombobulating effect to otherwise lovely pop songs. His sister Eleanor drops the rhyming couplets and stretches her vocal range to great effect; the single edit of “Benton Harbor Blues” is perhaps the swooniest three minutes in the band’s entire discography.

Final Fantasy – He Poos Clouds (Blocks Recording Club). Even more than the fact that Owen Pallett makes a compelling concept album about D&D schools of magic, it’s the musical coup he pulls off here that’s most impressive: balancing dynamics, dexterity and the delightfully ridiculous in a combination of the Beatle-y, baroque and Bartok. Pallett pens classical compositions in a pop format, deftly dodging many of the string section clichés that litter the rock landscape, both past and present. This isn’t a full record of “Eleanor Rigby”: Pallett’s principal strength is his ability to turn the complex into the catchy, to write longform melodies that lodge in the brain as readily as the most obvious rock riffs. The album’s most-discussed track was “This Lamb Sells Condos,” where the subversive lyrics—about a ubiquitous and allegedly impotent Toronto real estate maven—made great gossip fodder for anyone oppressed by condomaniacal gentrification. It opens with ragtime piano and riffing harpsichords, with soaring strings hovering lightly above the surface. A perfect pop melody eventually unfolds into an angel’s choir underscoring a domestic dispute, escalating in a spiralling scale of a coda that winds its way into the stratosphere even quicker than the “conjured erections” of the Toronto-specific title. All in four and a half minutes: all pop, no pretension.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere (Warner). An inspired mash-up of old-school Motown, sci-fi hip-hop, and funkadelic pop, this ran laps around all the competition in 2006 and forged a template for 21st century soul. Danger Mouse unleashed a whole new genre of “go-go gadget gospel” that took trip-hop beats, 60s psychedelic pop, secret agent guitars, and spooky strings to score Cee-Lo’s lyrical visions. Because for all its pure pop pleasure, St. Elsewhere probed much deeper into Cee-Lo’s dark and paranoid mind than the generally upbeat music would suggest: he thinks he’s crazy, he’s tried everything but suicide, and he’s staring in the mirror trying to find the man he used to be and scared of the man he might become. When these conflicts of identity pair up with such a sonic smorgasbord, the end result is sheer brilliance.

The Gothic Archies – The Tragic Treasury (Nonesuch). A gleefully Gorey-ous series of songs that not only are the most nefarious nursery rhymes you’ll ever hear, but they’re set to some of the most evocative melodies Stephin Merritt has ever penned—and this from a guy who unleashed 69 Love Songs that never once sounded repetitious.

Habitat – s/t EP ( This innocuous EP from the cutest couple in Guelph, Ontario has stayed in high rotation ever since I first heard it in January, making it four songs that more than any other shaped my own personal 2006. Sylvie Smith (Barmitzvah Brothers) and John O’Regan (D’Urbervilles) document the breathless hesitation of a relationship about to take the big plunge: hoping desperate to build a house, not a home, and promising to each other not to mess it up. It’s all set to charmingly simple Casio-pop and acoustic guitar, and their individual voices croon while we swoon in ways not evident in their other projects—which I also recommend, but this is a dart to the heart.

Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk and Reggae 1967-1974 (Light in the Attic/Koch). Unlike most reissues, this collection of forgotten Caribana Canadiana is so good it almost seems like a hoax: how could stone cold soul classics like these have been neglected and forgotten for all these years? You could blame the growing pains of 70s Canadian multiculturalism, or the country’s classic inferiority complex—after all, this did come out on an American label. But no matter, because the triumphant revisionism didn’t end with the disc itself. At the CD release in Toronto, watching sixtysomething Jamaican soul men sing “I Believe In Music” while dancing and singing into one shared microphone—in front of thousands of multigenerational new fans on a swoony summer night by the water—was enough to make this grown man cry. Lloyd Delpratt’s ace house band backed up consummate showmen like the dynamo Jay Douglas and the 500-per-cent man known as The Mighty Pope. Their collectively electrifying vitality made this much more than a museum piece.

Love is All – Nine Times That Same Song (What’s Your Rupture). As soon as the tenor saxophone swoops into this herky-jerky post-punk pop fronted a strong female vocalist, the ghost of Romeo Void immediately shows its face. In a year when disco punk died yet again and the Slits rose from the grave, these Swedes succeeded not only because they had the songs to match the attitude, but they didn’t seem calculated in the least, due largely to the deliciously lo-fi production. It also helped us forget the appallingly blasé Comet Gain album.

Man Man – Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu). Gnarls Barkley scored the single of the year questioning their sanity. Zach Condon dreamt of Balkan fields from afar. These Philly greasers, on the other hand, got their hands filthy with some musical mayhem that, in its darker moments, sounded like the last waltz of a defeated man losing his shit during some Eastern European extraordinary rendition. Not that they’re a downer: this is music to celebrate the fact that we’re all still standing, even if barely. Led by a lycanthropic lunatic, Man Man come off like a drunken Deerhoof doing cabaret tunes in a Belgrade brothel, backed up by a Russian chorus revelling in its hoarseness on the night before the war. After being infuriated by yet another year of incredulous headlines, Six Demon Bag is what I’ll be playing on December 31 to put the nix on 2006.

Paul Simon – Surprise (Warner). He’s opening the book of his vanishing memory, paying off his debts. He’s ridding his heart of envy and cataloging his regrets. He’s the grumpy old grandpa muttering: “Anybody care what I say? No!” Cracking a 15-year old creative coma, the 65-year old songwriter bounced back with meditations on mortality set to folk music of the future, aided by collaborators old (Steve Gadd) and new (Brian Eno). The lyrics are steeped in hindsight, yet the sparkling electronic soundscapes successfully sidestepped any potentially embarrassing bids for Botox techno-pop. Unlike his geezer peers’ 2006 output, Simon’s wartime prayers and crises of conscience proved to be both resonant and relevant.

Sunset Rubdown – Shut Up I Am Dreaming (Absolutely Kosher). Spencer Krug’s cascading keyboard melodies and pirate-ship vocal approach are an integral part of the sonic avalanche that is Wolf Parade. But in the—dare we say it—more mature Sunset Rubdown he puts the same skills to work with less amphetamines, more mushrooms. New wave synths collide with accordions, saloon pianos, and—because he hails from Montreal—the inevitable glockenspiel, alongside electric guitars that sing countermelodies to Krug’s surrealist tales. He scores a few direct pop hits and genuinely affecting ballads, though the best moments unfold patiently—the epic title track moves from fragile acoustic guitar to a rousing indie rock middle and Men Without Hats closer. His unique gift is his ability to make a series of 90-degree left turns seem like a straight line.

TV On the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope/Universal). TV On the Radio’s post-millennial zeitgeist is one where paranoia battles hope, one about life during wartime, one where opiated gospel harmonies clash with electronic dissonance. The guitars sound like they’re dissolving before our ears, the beats stutter like the dystopian hip-hop of their neighbours at the Definitive Jux label, and the fog of electronic textures often obscure the album’s inherent beauty. Early Funkadelic records are run through an apocalyptic futurist filter, articulating the struggles of courageous hearts battling “cruel, unusual fools.” It sounds like 9/11 happened yesterday.

Tom Waits – Orphans (Anti). The only real surprise here is this 56-song collection's consistent excellence, considering some of the filler that's padded every album of his post-1999 comeback. Sure, he has his formulas, but underneath his signature arrangements—which continue to delight, 25 years after Swordfishtrombones and his marriage to Kathleen Brennan—are undeniably great songs that he can obviously spit out whenever he wants to. These collected secrets confirm Waits's status as the most consistent songwriter and performer of at least the last quarter century, casting a downright towering presence over the rest of his generation. (And if anything, that sleepwalking Dylan album this year only confirmed this.) "Through the wind, through the rain of a cold dark night—that's where I'll be" We always know where he is, though how he leads us there is never a given.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Howe Gelb 2006

As promised (that post contains background for the uninitiated), here's the full transcript from my recent chat with Howe Gelb, regarding his Sno Angel project that plays Montreal tonight, Ottawa tomorrow, and Toronto on Sunday.

The actual article ran in Eye Weekly yesterday.

Side note: after last night's show at the Tranzac, my most-anticipated 2007 release--other than a certain album by a certain band that shares a drummer with Sno Angel, which I had the pleasure of hearing parts of a few weeks back--is by Toronto's Phonemes, whose long-delayed debut full-length should be out on Blocks Recording Club sooner than later. You can hear older material here.

Howe Gelb

November 29, 2006

Locale: cell phone interview in Tuscon traffic

Seeing as how you now have a group of Canadians, why did this band play New York City, Chicago and Spain, before playing Montreal or Toronto?

On paper, none of that stuff ever makes any sense. Itineraries never add up. We squeezed in those two U.S. dates in between our European dates and when I was moving to Denmark for a few months. Every country has some kind of momentum, and for some reason there were some festivals in Spain that really wanted the choir. You can’t be everywhere at once, so we figured we’d get everywhere eventually.

What do you think excited the Spanish so much in particular?

I don’t know. Could have been that I have a new non-agent agent, someone who’s getting me shows but isn’t an agent. Ever since then, things have been going really well over there.

Had the Voices of Praise ever toured before?

I don’t think so.

How did they react to the Howe Gelb style of touring?
They vowed to bring smaller luggage next time. I think they had a good time, and I’ve had the best time I’ve ever had on the road.


Yeah. It’s like having a small town out there. There’s about 17 of us, with crew and band and choir. The shows play themselves effortlessly. They’re so simple and fun and exuberant and sweaty. It’s a jubilation of sorts, a small pocket of celebration of humanity. Right after that, I go out alone, totally solo, and somewhere in there I do the four-piece Giant Sand thing. Between all three factions it’s the full sonic gamut.

Who is the backing band? Is [drummer] Jeremy [Gara] with you on any of those dates?

No, because fortunately Jeremy got that gig with Arcade Fire after we recorded the album. They’re doing so well so his time is limited. He managed to give us those couple of U.S. shows. These days we have Andrew McCormack [of Wooden Stars], who lives in Toronto, and he sounds great. Lots of fun to play with. There seem to be some possibilities for some swingin’ jazz with him, but I don’t know where the songs will go yet.

My understanding is that this germinated at the Ottawa Bluesfest in 03, at a church show with Jim Bryson.

Jim and I were surrounded by gospel choirs.

You were bookended, weren’t you?

There was one or two before us and one or two after. Later, after I’d left there, I felt like I was hammered by the sensation. The sonic aftertaste was resounding, and I was in my hotel room at the Lord Elgin, which was half a block away from the Baptist church. I couldn’t shake it. Even though it didn’t make any sense my instinct was to go back to the church, even though I knew the show was over for the day and no one would be there. But I had a whiskey and went back over there, trying to talk myself out of any logical explanation. When I got there, there was one unannounced late night event, another gospel choir. The hunch paid off again, and I took it in again. It was there that I approached the director of the church to see if he thought a collaboration was possible without religious material, just using the sound and the vibe. That’s when he gave me the green light. He said, ‘Yeah, if you keep it positive.’

Unknown to me at the time, that unannounced set was the Voices of Praise. I didn’t realize that until they assembled in the studio later, that they were the last band I had seen.

They were also friends with Jim, somehow.

The director, Steve Johnson, had gone to high school with Jim. It was all happenstance that later, when I mentioned it to other people—especially Dave Draves, who was playing with Jim that night—that Jim knew someone who might know a gospel choir, which turned out to be the same folks that I had seen.

What was your exposure to gospel music before? Because this sounds like quite a revelation to you.

It was fairly minimal. I was arms-length to it. I’d never seen it live.

Surely you’d heard it on record.

Yeah. It wasn’t impressive to me on record. Certain sounds don’t translate to recordings. Some bands blow you away live, but things get too contained in a studio, trying to fit into that small two-track stereo scenario that doesn’t have the same thrust of movement as the live ordeal.

I got to the church early that day to find a piano I could use for my set, because there’s always a piano hidden in a church somewhere. There I found the director of the church and asked him if I could use it. After I’d set it up, the first choir had arrived and were rehearsing, and I was riveted. The overtones of the human voices and how they were meshing just kept getting mightier and mightier. Later that night there was a choir with 35 people in it, and it was mindblowing. I couldn’t move. My feet could move, but I couldn’t leave.

Did it resonate with any of your own spirituality?

Those beliefs are singular. I don’t think they can be put into any accurate wordings. I never think words cut it anyway. Sometimes they come close to portraying our feelings, but they never accurately represent. Whereas music does. From the moment your ears form in the belly, that part of your sensory perception develops before any other. You can hear the sound of human voices, the white noise of the blood rush. That gets exaggerated in development, and music becomes way more powerful and accurate than any kind of description, be it lyrics or explanation or reason or logic. My spirituality, I allow it to be wordless.

Do you feel that most when you’re on stage, in a communion with the audience?
When I’m getting dizzy, I know I’m on to something. When that occurs, I stick around and investigate and allow the flow—whether it’s flowing through me or I flow through it or whatever. But in terms of explaining it to anybody, I don’t feel the need to do that. I can’t align with anything organized anyway.

Did you have any conversations about common ground with the choir?

In the beginning, before he signed on to this thing, Steve asked to see my lyrics to know what he was getting into. That was kind of funny, because I’d never even thought of that before. I handed him some of the lyrics, and I wondered about them myself. Sometimes I don’t know what these things mean until way later. That’s a fun part of the process, re-examining myself. I used some old Giant Sand songs that could’ve or should’ve had a choir. That’s how I found my first live group, was looking for backing singers. I’d been meaning to accumulate a choir for a while.

Was the Giant Sand material chosen for lyrical purposes? Or musical?

Both. There’s something about how those songs were assembled that I thought they could benefit from a choir.

Which songs are those? “Chore of Enchantment,” obviously.

That’s one of the later ones, and it was never really released anyway. It was written during the time of the album Chore of Enchantment, but we didn’t really put it out.

Was that on the B-sides companion release?
Yeah. The Rock Opera Years, we called it. “The Robes of Bible Black” was an old one. Those lyrics came to me in a weird dreamstate of half-asleep, half-awake. I’ve never really written anything else like that, where the words tumble out. “Get To Leave” I always thought was a positive spin on when the time comes to end this life. There’s another one, but I can’t think of which one it is now.

The Rainer Ptacek songs are well suited to this, and I think those are my favourites on this record.

Good. Because he woulda been there. He woulda been part of this thing. He helped lead me there from the beginning. Those two songs are among the earliest things he did, and “The Farm” is the last thing he did. The earlier songs were almost just one chord, which is really fun because you can really get into the rhythm and the thrust of it without worrying about how the song is constructed.

Was the other material stuff you had lying around, or was it written specifically for this project? A lot of it deals with themes of redemption, afterlife and inspiration.

They’re just core issues. Most things that take up our time here are just diversions. It always comes back to survival and what you think right and wrong is and problemsolving how to get through life. The only thing you know for sure is that it’s going to end, and what happens then? So playing the hunch and trying to get through everything no matter what’s clobbering you—everything else is a diversion.

When I started coming up with this material—when I realized that this thing might actually happen, and that wasn’t until I was on the plane there for the first time—I had nothing arranged. I had been in touch with a woman named Susan Odle, who was a folksinger. When I told her my idea that night after I’d seen the choir—I’d just met her there, and then I ran into her again—she was really helpful in keeping that idea alive.

Then I sat in with Jim that night and Dave was playing keyboards with him, and Dave told me that we had met before, that he had stayed at my house when he was on tour with Julie Doiron, and that he had a studio. I think it was Susan that emailed me his number, so I kept in touch with Dave about the studio. Dave told me that Jim knew a fellow he went to high school with, so that was it.

I bought a plane ticket—I guess you could call it a leap of faith. This was December 2003. I didn’t know what I was going to do or what I was going to play or if the choir would sign on. I had no musicians lined up. That’s the way most of my life has been: I decide I’m going to do it, and if anything more happens, that’s great. There I am on the plane, and I started getting excited and three songs wrote themselves on the plane. When I landed, more kept coming in the hotel room there. Then I went to the studio and I loved it—perfect for me.

That’s where I met Jeremy. Supposedly he had placed himself there. He was playing guitar, not even playing drums, and Dave mentioned that Jeremy played drums if I needed someone for this project. I thought, ‘Might be a good idea—that’s how I found [John] Convertino [longtime Giant Sand drummer, co-founder of Calexico]. He was put in front of me, and I figured it was an omen.’ And man, I loved the way Jeremy played. I was excited about the new material, but then to sit down with him—that is the way I work, mostly. Just to sit down with a drummer and play guitar and get the songs on the first take, just going with your gut.

That’s how it all started to happen. Then we met Steve and the choir and they started piling in, and that studio is tiiii-ny. It was cold and it started to snow, and it was all very exciting.

I understand that most of the bed tracks are you and Jeremy, with the choir added later.


How do you think it would have sounded if it was all live with the choir?
Yeah, well that’s the thing! That’s there for next time! As you get older, you get into this business because it’s non-routine. Routine becomes your enemy in a way, or you can’t handle normal routine because you’re used to the rock’n’roll lifestyle where everything is different. But things eventually fall into routine anyway, and that’s why folks get jaded or disgruntled or not as exuberant and fascinated as they get older, because they’ve seen it all before. When something happens to wake you out of that, you just embrace it. And this cut through the routine and everything I knew.

What does the image of the snow angel convey to you?
We did most of the tracks those couple of days in December. Right near the end it started snowing, and I’ve spend too many years in the desert, so when it’s cold or even rainy, it makes me happy. The snow is just over the top. I started going outside the studio and playing in the snow. At first we were playing basketball. I remembered being a kid in Pennsylvania and making snow angels, and the whole image made sense to me, as a good summation of the project. Then I thought, what if I get everyone in the choir to make snow angels at the same time, and then get someone on the roof to take a picture? Then when you look at it on a CD, it won’t look like everyone’s on the ground, it will look like they’re standing up and flying around. But I didn’t have the heart to ask them to lay in the snow when it was –20 or something. I only admitted to that idea way later, on the road. I still have that to look forward to someday.

You grew up in Pennsylvania, then?
I was born in Pennsylvania, and then in ’72 when I was 15, our house got smashed by a big flood in the river. Hurricane Agnes had moved up the coast. That’s when I started spending time in Arizona with my dad; he had moved out there already because he was divorced and remarried out there. Then I just stayed.

I was reading on your website about your collaboration with [the Austrian electro-acoustic band] Radian. I know your method is to be always be recording and whatever comes out whenever—this album was in the can for three years—but is there an album’s worth of Radian material in the can?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure! I’ve spent a few days at a time on different occasions with those guys. I know they work slowly, which cracks me up. When I first heard their stuff, I thought it was very random. I asked them one time, ‘How do you guys know what song you’re playing?’

That’s not normally a question musicians want to hear!

(laughs) And they just said that they work out everything meticulously and play it the same way each time. That blew my mind a bit. There’s no telling when that thing will come out or when they’ll be done with it.

Or how you’d do it live, because it sounds like the polar opposite approach to your live shows.

That’s part of it. Just the fact that it can happen at all in the studio means that it can happen.

That was a wonderful thing about the choir, too. For someone as scatterbrained as me to take on—without a manager—the logistics and details of assembling a tour to Europe—several times—of nine people in a choir and four people in a band, all from Canada, all from a place that I’m not, and all the travel arrangements—oh man, the insanity of all that.

In fact, on the first leg of the tour, things got easier because we had an art grant from England that paid for the flights. But I had arranged a few warm-up shows in Europe before that, and we had no vehicle and no tour manager. I had a sound guy, and it was just me organizing everything. It started in Brussels, and then we all took the train to the two German shows and then on a plane to fly to London. It was hysterical.

There are moments when my brain just shuts off, when there are too many details it’s handling. The only thing that made all that happen was the excitement of never having played with them live before. The only song recorded live was ‘Get to Leave.’ I thought, once we get going and playing live, it’s worth anything.

It sounds like the planning took several years off your life, but the shows added many more.

(laughs). That which taketh away also giveth? Is that what you’re trying to say? I believe in the church of reverse psychology!


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Howe Gelb 2003

Today's Eye Weekly has my piece on Howe Gelb, in advance of his Sno Angel show at Lee's Palace this Sunday. They also play Montreal tomorrow (Friday) and Ottawa on Saturday.

I'll run that transcript tomorrow. In the meantime, we'll precede that with a 2003 conversation I had with Gelb. There were two reasons to talk at that time: one was as a secondary source for a Calexico cover story in Exclaim, and the other was to promote his new solo record Howe Home: The Listener, which he wrote and recorded in Denmark.

Gelb is a very inspiring figure, consistently throwing caution to the wind, constantly in motion, constantly writing and recording, constantly collaborating and championing new talent. At the risk of turning him into a cartoon, he does have that certain twinkle in his eye that suggests his everyday life is a work of art in itself. He's charming and charismatic; it's impossible not to see how so many people get sucked into his world.

Yet I've always had more respect than love for Howe Gelb's music. His scattershot approach has produced very few albums that you'd ever want to revisit, and his live shows are alternately transcendent and tedious. Like many great artists, we stick with him because we know that when the payoff comes, it's a thing of magic and beauty.

The Listener came out when the future of Giant Sand was in doubt, due primarily to the unexpected success of the band's rhythm section, who had formed Calexico. Their last proper album was 2000's Chore of Enchantment, which underwent a long birthing process due to label trouble before it surfaced on Thrill Jockey, his home ever since. I certainly can't claim to have heard even half of Gelb's discography, but these are the two records I'd recommend to beginners. The Listener is mostly piano-based, and finds Gelb in full Euro lounge singer mode; it also just happens--by fluke, as is often the case--that it's one of his best collections of songs.

His most recent album--and apparently his most popular ever--is called Sno Angel Like You, recorded in Ottawa with Dave Draves, Jim Bryson, Jeremy Gara and the Voices of Praise gospel choir. More on that tomorrow.

Here, he discusses why he's always done better in Europe, the lucky series of coincidences that led to his new Danish life, and his approach to recording in general. For the casual reader, I'd recommend skipping right to the question about Danish band Under Byen--who now, by the way, comprise the latest version of Giant Sand--and his Danish anecdotes.

Howe Gelb

February 13, 2003

locale: phone interview from his Tuscon home

When was your very first solo record?

It wasn’t so much a solo record. There were parts where I was completely alone, but I was going about that one pretty much the exact same way I’d make a Giant Sand record. Back then, we used to come out with records so quickly, that finally our European company said that we can’t put out another Giant Sand record so close to the last one, so they called it a solo record for practicality purposes.

Didn’t the last one come out at the same time as Chore of Enchantment?

I don’t think so. For sure Confluence was worked on for a long time before, because we got slammed by V2 and it took a while to get out of the contracts and get the rights back. That all took so many months or years. I’m always recording something, so it might have seemed that way by the time it was released.

I read that this one was refined over a period of time, and I know that COE was also laboured over in different places at different times. Yet you’re known for rather being rather spontaneous.

The actual recordings of both these things were done pretty fast, in a short amount of time. After that I’ll labour over getting a better sound of them: taking mixes I already have and running them through different studios to see how they sound. Every board has its own sound, so even if you mix things down, a rough mix or final mix and put it on DAT, if you run that DAT through someone else’s board, it brings certain elements alive that weren’t there before. That’s what I did on this record.

As far as recording in different places, that’s just a conducive way of life. Instead of working one time out of the year or every two years, you work all year around, and when the time comes when you want to put out a record—or should put out a record, or can put out a record—you can take a look at what you collected. I like that. I like the different moods that each session has. Otherwise things sound too much the same.

That also means you’re never finished one until you arbitrarily say, “we’ll cut off here.”

There’s no beginning or ending point anymore. It’s more an atmosphere. You try to put enough songs together on a given album that lends an atmosphere. It’s a non-descript atmosphere, but the songs describe it and there’s something there compared to all the other stuff you have. Did you ever get the companion CD to Chore that we sold on the road? That was all from the same sessions, and it’s a good way to see how on Chore I used those songs to give the album a certain atmosphere. But if you listen to the other songs, some people liked the companion CD better. It’s definitely more fun.

I heard you quip once that all Giant Sand albums are outtakes.

Yeah, or at least first takes.

On this one, there’s a musical mood. Do the songs link up lyrically at all? Or are they just at a given time?

It’s a happenstance. But the general mood I’m in over a period might lend itself to something. If anything I was aware that I didn’t want anything to be brooding or moody. That’s almost a comfortable habit that a songwriter gets into. I was happy that there wasn’t any of that.

It’s a sexy record.

Is it? Oh, that’s good, thanks! Especially at my age, it’s good to know you still got the juice on occasion.

Are you entering your Chet Baker phase?
When I was younger, I wondered why when rock musician folks got older, they started making all these different records. Too many people go and make blues records, I guess. But I think what happens is a natural pattern of evolvement, sonically, and as you get older, certain sounds that you were toying with that were so experimental when you were younger, become more… not cliché, but they only take you so far and then you have all that information. That’s why some guys get jaded when they get older and listen to new music: “I’ve heard this before, in 1972, or 1983, or whenever.” There are similar sounds that everyone discovers and has fun with and it’s enough for you for that moment.

All that being said, I think you always gotta look for things that excite you that are usually in places that you aren’t that comfortable or aware of, so you’re trying to discover that stuff. All of those are reasons why you discover other kinds of music, and you drag everyone who’s listening down that road with you, I guess.

And hope that they’re still listening!

Yeah! But you can only worry so much about that. Other people who are getting older with you might be in the same headspace. And then there are a few who are younger who say, ‘Wow, this isn’t like any of the music I can buy in the underground.’

How old are you now?

46. But I think the key word here is sophistication. It’s a really great sounding word that has many different meanings.

What did you find in Denmark, and were you there for a full year?
It was about four or five months. I married into the country. My wife gave me the country as a wedding present. She was born and raised in Denmark. It was a great gift on so many levels. The obvious is that we went there in the summer time, and I got to wear a wool sweater all the way until June. Here in Arizona, the swelter kicks your ass from April on. That was a nice break. I can’t remember the last time I spent a summer out of the desert, must have been 25 years ago. You get a little sluggish here, you slow down in the summer time. You gotta embrace the heat and it’s cool. But to all of the sudden not have that and be in Denmark… it’s on the North Sea, where they get those little squalls during the day, those refreshing rains that put a smile on your face. They’re so cool. It’s literally the polar opposite of Tuscon, because we deal with summer eight months of the year and they deal with winter eight months of the year. And then, it was like when I was in Edmonton – in fact I think it’s on the same latitude…

When were you in Edmonton?

We have friends up there, and I don’t get up there enough. But every time I’m there it feels like I live there.

What do you like about it?

It’s a good vibe there. All the women there are beautiful and all the guys are like Neil Young. It’s heaven! We were there once during the summer to play and we spent a few extra days with our friends, fishing and stuff. The sunsets in Denmark are four hours long, and that’s the best light of the day. It’s so calming and beautiful. So, that helped! And the beer is really good, and available every 100 feet or so. There’s a real café culture. And you don’t drive – you don’t have to drive, so your mind has all this extra time. It’s like American in the 50s: the roads are small and wobbly and cobblestone. Plus, we had a baby, and it’s my third child.

Was the child born in Denmark?
The third one was, yeah. Tallulah. There’s less stress factor in Europe in general, having kids. A lot of the towns are built with kids in mind. There are all these roads that don’t allow cars on them, just bikes, so you don’t have to worry about kids getting run over. Or stolen. They have this culture where they leave the kids outside the café in baby carriages, they’ve always done it. A Danish couple came to New York a couple of years ago and did that and they got arrested for child abuse. So, it’s embedded in the culture: kids don’t get kidnapped and shit. And nobody has guns. Your mind gets freed up in thousands of ways you didn’t even realise. That’s why it was a gift.

Is that why you’re a “satiated expatriate”? [a lyric from The Listener]
Yes, that’s right! I definitely missed the Mexican food and the Arizona vibe, because I love it here, but I was pretty satisfied, yeah.

I know that you always get questions about the influence of the desert on your music, and I read a quote once where you said you always downplay that because you don’t want to blame the area for your mess.

Yeah! And then I got Joe[y Burns] and John [Convertino] to move to town and they said, wait a minute, what would happen if we capitalized on this? [with Calexico] And now they’re making beaucoup bucks!

Are you blaming Denmark for your mess?
Sure, because it’s such a happy mess. It’s not a dark and brooding too-much-time-on-your-hands crap.

Giant Sand has always done better in Europe, has it not?

Only in certain places. Certain places in America do as well as Europe, like New York and San Francisco and Chicago, and L.A. and Austin. I think it’s that way because we’ve played those cities a lot through the years. They also have a decent culture there for music. But the reason why things took off in the beginning in Europe was logistical. When I first put out a record, I licensed it; I never sold the rights to those records. You wouldn’t get any money in the early ‘80s to license a record; they called it a P&D deal. But they would give you money for it in Europe. They had a different system. They would speculate as to how many thousands of records they’d sell, and they’d give you about a buck for each record up front. And for us that was a lot of money, because we were making the records for next to nothing. Actually, we still are.

But the money would pay for your plane ticket.

Yeah. And there’s a few differences. Like when you’re on the road in America, as well as England, you’re responsible for finding your own hotel and your own food, so you shove a bunch of people into one room or sleep on the floor or whatever you have to do. Over there, everybody gets a bed and a room and a great meal, and they have a different standard for dealing with bands. It made it something to look forward to, and there was money to be made; we came back with money.

Did you ever get the urge to move there?

Hmm. Well, I don’t think I was capable of making that much coin, because most places over there are pretty expensive. Unless you go south: Spain and Italy are pretty cheap. Italy’s the best place to eat. There were urges, I guess. But I had my first kid when I was 30, and I only started making records when I was 28. So the idea of moving that far away from her was never an issue.

Are you tempted now?

I still like Arizona too much to leave it completely. But my hair’s getting grey, and I thought maybe it’s time I start doing one of these summer home/winter home things.

Who are Under Byen [pron. Onor Buen] and where did you meet them?
Okay: the true course of events. We get to Denmark, and it was fucking hard to get there. The amount of detail and the schedules of everyone in the family. Pregnant wife, teenage daughter doing good in high school—don’t want to fuck that up—a two-year old son, and then tour schedules. Then finding someone to rent our house and take care of that crap, and making it all work money-wise. Tons of juxtapositioning. We finally get over there, and it was exhausting to get over there. The family went first, then me, then the teenager. We finally get there and immediately upon arrival, we rented this apartment over there sight unseen. And it turned out to be a great place. Plenty of room, no fucking clutter. That was another thing: none of your usual crap lying about the house. It really freed my mind up enough to come up with all this new material over there and record it really quick, in a day and a half. I get there, and it feels like a perverse elongated holiday. We go for a walk to get something to eat, and we go half a block from the house and there’s this expensive French café. We’re looking at the menu outside thinking it’s a little pricy, and the guy comes out who runs it and starts speaking Danish with my wife. And he says, “You’re Sofie? Sofie Albertsen?” Yes! And he turns to me and says, “Then you must be Howe Gelb!” I went, yeah! It turns out that they play Giant Sand music every night in this café after 10PM.

But only after 10!

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s to drive people out or what, because then his friends start coming over and start drinking some really good wine until 1 or 2. All I know is that he played the stuff in there. Then it turns out that his partner, this woman, was actually with my wife when I met her 12 years ago. So right away there was this welcoming place to hang out. To the point where they had a piano put in there so I could play for my meals. For me, it was great because they don’t open until 6 at night, so I’d go in there at 11AM and learn how to use the espresso machine myself and hang out there with my friend Jannick, and it was like a couple of old fucks on the porch watching the daily promenade, sipping on really good coffee and this incredible homemade bread. Oh, and playing piano. It was like some Leonard Cohen dream.

Now that Joey and John are increasingly busy with Calexico, what do you think the future of Giant Sand is? Would you call something Giant Sand without them?

Specifically inspired by the agenda conflicts, the omens are suggesting that it had a great run over a decade, but the most conducive thing at this point would be to let the pieces fall where they may from this point on. Especially since the band was going for so long before they were involved. And when they became involved, it was one at a time. Everybody knows them as a package deal, but I know them as singular situationals.

This weekend I’m beginning to start the next record, and I know that it’s more of a band record with drums and electric guitar. I don’t know what I’m going to call it, if I’m going to give it a new name and be completely anonymous, depending on how it comes out. There’s a certain weight to lugging around the same old name.

When we put OP8 out, I was insistent on changing the perception by giving it a new name. It was the same band with a guest, but the whole purpose of that album was to start over without seniority, to be like U2 or REM where everyone does an equal amount of work. It’s a big relief to do it that way, and I think it’s more creatively rewarding. You also get rid of the old name and perceptions. The old fans will always find you. Whether this new one will be called Giant Sand or not, I’m going to wait until the last minute to decide.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

She was your goddess

In yesterday's Globe and Mail, a short obit ran for Mariksa Veres, the Dutch singer best known for her work with 60s group Shocking Blue (1968-1973). Their biggest hit, "Venus," went to #1 in 1970 and is still an oldies staple. According to Wikipedia, she left the group in 1974 and went solo, landing one hit single in Europe. She toured as Shocking Blue in the 90s with a completely different band, apparently with the blessing of her ex-bandmates.
She died of cancer on December 2. She was 59.
There's a fan bio here.

Here's some video footage of "Venus." Note the subliminal splicing of album covers into the mix, and the hopelessly out-of-synch drumming.

Here's another one, where she looks like she's having a slightly better time.

I always loved "Venus," even before the bastardised Bananarama version came out in the middle of my high school experience. It was on a 4LP K-tel set called Party Mix that my dad had, a comp that contained many cherished favourites and immersed me in otherwise ephemeral 60s pop: "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells, "Chapel of Love" by the Dixie Cups, "Indian Reservation" by Paul Revere, Tommy James, et al. The wordless bridge of "Venus" summed up so much that I loved about bubblegum psychedelia, instantly prompting images of go-go girls silhouetted against kaleidoscopic backdrops.

I didn't think about Shocking Blue again until the first time I saw the New Pornographers, at their official Toronto debut in 2001. They encored with a killer song I'd never heard before called "Send Me a Postcard," which--needless to say--Neko Case totally nailed, and the fuzzy guitar riff fit in perfectly with the rest of Mass Romantic. I later found out it was a Shocking Blue song, and that when he started the New Pornographers, Carl Newman had told Neko that he wanted her to emulate Ms. Mariska Veres and her robotic pop vocal approach. Listening to both bands, it's not hard to see the similarities.

"Send Me a Postcard" is one of the most underrated songs of the last 40 years, and a surefire club night/mix tape pleaser. You can find it on iTunes, hopefully other online sources as well. If I wasn't such a Luddite, I'd provide you with the mp3 myself.
(Edit: 21st century girl and Brave New Waves host Helen Spitzer has helped us out here.)

Shocking Blue's one other minor claim to fame: Nirvana covered their song "Love Buzz" on their debut, Bleach. Maybe their biggest North American fans all lived in the Pacific Northwest, who knows.

Beyond a couple of great singles, a Shocking Blue compilation (like the one I found years ago at Sam the Record Man's supposed liquidation sale) contains many riches: the country soul guitar licks that punctuate nearly every track, the occasional fuzzbox or sitar simulator, the Manzarek-esque organ lines, great melodies all around, and at the heart of it all is always Veres's voice: a strident, confident and striking instrument, not unlike Grace Slick's. Her Kraut detachment (she was half-Hungarian Roma, half-German) and demeanour suggested a Nico that could actually belt it out.

Yet she didn't totally transcend the ESL lyrics that give Shocking Blue more than its share of kitsch value: it's hard not to giggle when Veres sings of "making love in the hot sand" with her "demon lover." "Put some love in your heart like you put the ink in the inkpot!" "Mighty Joe with the bass, boys!"

But she had it, yeah baby, she had it.

Someone tell Neko and Carl to get in the studio soon and pay their proper respects; many of us have been waiting for them to record "Send Me a Postcard" for five years now.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Evan Dando

I don't have any qualms admitting that I still love the Lemonheads' 1992 classic It's a Shame About Ray. Like most, however, I'm a fairweather fan and that's about as far as I go; I never bothered to investigate the back catalogue, and certainly didn't have the patience to navigate Evan Dando's drug-fuelled disaster of a career ever since. His 2001 acoustic comeback album Baby I'm Bored only lived up to its title, an all-too-obvious open invitation for cheap shots.

The new, self-titled Lemonheads album is out on Vagrant Records. It's certainly not embarassing, but it's of no great consequence, either. If you're the kind of fan who still pulls out Ray on a regular basis, I'd recommend it. It will help pad the live show well enough so that he doesn't become a museum piece. A major career resurrection is unlikely.

These days, however, disdain for Dando seems to grow with each passing month. He has the gall to be an unapologetic recovered addict, one who freely admitted to being hooked on crack in the 90s, and who got out not only alive but with his California blond good looks relatively intact. His hero Gram Parsons--another creative rich kid who did too much drugs--didn't get out alive, but Dando did. The nerve! On top of that, he's happily married to a model (his mother was one as well), whose body is proudly displayed in the CD tray of the new Lemonheads album. He formed said band with an entirely new rhythm section (borrowed from classic California punk band the Descendents), and has already replaced them in the ever-growing list of former bandmates and collaborators (or, his harshest critics would argue, crutches). But for many rock history geeks, his cardinal sin was talking his way into the role of co-lead singer for the recent MC5 reunion, which many saw as outright sacrilege. What's not to hate/envy?

I don't have any strong feelings for or against the man, but thought it was would be at the very least interesting to talk to him about the recent Lemonheads reunion--if you can call an all-new band backing the original singer/songwriter a reunion. It's more like the resuscitation of a brand name.

As you'll see, he's a bit of a goof. There's not a lot going on underneath the surface, shall we say. I've read other articles on him that treat the subject like a turkey shoot. I don't like that kind of writing; it's usually done by a writer trying to prove how cool they are after they've had a perfectly normal conversation with an unsuspecting subject. But in the case of Dando, he ended up saying some pretty ridiculous things and, as you can see, I did not put words in his mouth.

The article this was commissioned for ran in Eye last Thursday. The Lemonheads play Lee's Palace in Toronto tomorrow: Tuesday, December 12, with Vietnam.

Evan Dando

December 1, 2006

Locale: walking on his cell phone in Salt Lake City

Situation: third attempt at this interview, after two scheduled times fell through due to him not answering his phone.

Hey, is this a good time?

I’m ready. I’m sorry we had to put it off a couple of times. I was actually asleep. It’s been a gruelling tour. But I’m happy to speak with you.

What’s made it so gruelling?

I guess it’s because I’m older now, and not using, uh, crutches so to speak. I’m not taking speed, which used to make it easier. But hey! That’s life on the road and it’s my chosen profession and I’m not complaining. We’re having lots of fun at the shows. It’s all the in between stuff that’s typical Spinal Tap stuff.

What about coffee, is that a crutch?
Coffee, yeah. I mean, at this point I don’t rule out anything. I just don’t do anything regularly anymore.

The new Lemonheads include the Descendents rhythm seection on the album, but I understand there are new guys on the road.

Karl [Alvarez] was in Gogol Bordello right before we started the tour. It turns out he left that band and we could have had him, but I had this plan, these two aces from Indiana who were my first choice, so I hunted to see if they were available. Lo and behold they were, and they’re both musical and can both sing. It’s going great and we’re getting better every day.

Would anyone recognize their other projects?
United States Three, the Pieces, Mysteries of Life… all Indiana stuff you might not have heard before. We brought the Pieces on tour before and I got hooked on them.

How does it feel fronting the Lemonheads after so many acoustic tours in recent years?
It feels really great to play loud again. We’re starting to get there where we’re hitting some nice, transcendent moments. We’ve been playing for two months now, so we’re starting to get good.

Do you think the Lemonheads has a specific sound no matter who’s in it?
We have characteristics, sure. Quirky sounds, weird chord changes, abruptness, nonsense, fantasy. There are themes. The sound of the music is there. They’re a good version of the Lemonheads. It’s a liquid organisation, granted.

Your songwriting …

Ah, shit. (beep)

Uh, hello?

Oh, sorry. That was a typical 21st century moment. My iPod fell out of my pocket and then I dropped my cellphone. I feel like such an idiot. I was jaywalking here in Salt Lake City, which is dangerous in itself.

Those Mormons are crazy.

I actually like this town, and I like it more each time I come. I have a couple of girls stashed here that I’m married to.

Only in Salt Lake City. During the time you weren’t playing music, did you consider other careers? Did you think, ‘Maybe I won’t play music anymore’?

I always thought I was a writer so I never thought it was over. I knew I was going to go back to it. I took two long breaks. One from 94 to 96, and then another one from 97 to 2000. I was basically spending tons of money and living it up. Then I got close enough to the bottom of my bank account again to be motivated artistically. It’s weird, money is bad for me. I’m by nature a lazy person. If I have tons of money in the bank, I just want to go skiing or bird watching or take a nap. It’s good when you need to work again.

Does that reinforce notions that rich people can’t make rock’n’roll?
Yeah, man, I don’t know. I definitely don’t feel it when I have money. Recessions often brings lots of good music. The dustbowl had Woody Guthrie and stuff. And I think the crash of ’87 had something to do with the whole alternative whatever, grunge thing, because that’s when it started to heat up. Hard times are good for real music.

Should Lemonheads fans hope that this album doesn’t do very well, then?

With any luck, this record will do terrible, and we’ll still be working really hard. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had enough success, and I still want to do better. It’s a good place to be. I wouldn’t know what to do if I sold 10 million records. A lot of bands who do that, their next record is awful or they kill themselves or something like that, or they’re sleeping with eight-year old boys. That’s what happens when you sell millions and millions of records. Look at the Stones—they haven’t put out a good record in ages. They still do a great live show, though.

You’ve seen that up close, I imagine. You’ve had friends who have sold millions of records, have you not?

Totally, yeah. It’s funny, because the press makes it out like we were some kind of critics’ darling band who never sold any records, but we actually sold quite a bit. It’s a Shame About Ray, worldwide I think is about a million records now. It’s enough for me, I’m happy with it. With the internet these days, it’s hard to sell 100,000 records. I’d be very happy to sell 100,000 of this record. Obviously, that’s not what it’s all about. There’s a bigger picture.

Reading the liner notes here I’m wondering why [ex-Doughboys, All Systems Go’s] John Kastner is credited as being “Pittsburgh guidance counselor.”

He helped me write part of the segue into the verses of the song “Pittsburgh,” so I’m chucking him some of the publishing money for that song. He helped me with one section of it, but it’s my song. I’ve done that before with my friend Tom [Morgan], who might have done one little thing in a song, so I chuck him ten percent and that’s that. I think of that as being like a guidance counselor. That’s what they call it in the States, anyway, I don’t know if that’s the term they use in Canada.

They do, actually. You’ve played with All Systems Go, then?

They were on the first Lemonheads reunion tour, which was in South America. That’s really why we’re all here now, because these people did a festival in Brazil of all Brazilian bands doing Lemonheads covers. That inspired me to get the brand name going again. If that’s happening, then fuck it. Then I found the perfect people to call with Bill [Stevenson] and Karl. I didn’t want it to be half-assed. The musicianship had to be ratcheted up quite a bit, and those two are the people to do it with. They’ve got real character and heart in the way they play.

Was that a large festival, or was it just a night in a club?
I don’t think it was that big, but it happened.

Have you seen the Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh reunions?

We did a gig in Spain with Dino. My pedals got lost, so I borrowed some of J’s, which was excellent.

Did you automatically play better with his pedals?
Actually, one of them was amazing.

What do you learn from seeing bands like that or the Blake Babies reunite?

It’s just really great. Lou, Murph and J, man, they’re the best band in the land. I definitely prefer them to Nirvana, which might be a controversial thing to say. I just like their style. They’re my favourite band of that era. They’re ridiculously great live. And we got J on the new record, which is great.

What did you learn about reunions from the MC5 experience?
That set me into band mode, that experience.

What about watching those guys recapture something from so long ago?

That was just really fun. I had an amazingly fun time with that. I got a bit of shit about it at the beginning, but I got really good at it by the time we got to Japan. Anyone who was negative about it might have been a little jealous. Singing those songs—“Looking at You” and “Shakin’ Street” and stuff—it was so much fun. I’d be jealous too, if I was watching from the audience.

The first show was in Toronto, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was rough. I was a little lackadaisacal about it. I knew the records so well, I thought I could just get up there and it would come out of my mouth. But I had to do my homework a bit.

What are your memories of that night in general?

I flubbed the words on one song, and I think people noticed that Mark [Arm of Mudhoney] and I had cheat sheets on the ground. But it was alright. It wasn’t one of the great shows. We started getting really good on the west coast, and by the time we hit the Pacific Rim it really took off.

I was doing some research, and the last time you played Toronto, it sounds like you left the stage early because people were talking in the back.

I did a full set. Saturday night is not a smart night to do an acoustic set, I’ve learned. People want to hear drums that night. It was a perfectly good gig, but it ended semi-sad. We’re going to erase all that with this show, which will be a joyous rock’n’roll experience.

For a guy who’s happily married, there are two very bitter love songs here [“Become the Enemy,” “Baby’s Home”]…

Yeah, you know.

You didn’t write either of them, though.

That’s the thing. (laughs). I’m off the hook. But I love singin’ ‘em.

Where do you think they fit into the record? Because one of them is really violent.

It’s a song I’ve wanted to do since 1991 when my friend Tom wrote it. He was 19 then, and you can tell that he’s trying to sound more mature than he was at the time. It’s a well-crafted song and one of my favourites. It’s great live.

Can you talk about what “In Passing” is about? [“You’re welcome/ you just overstayed it/ I simplify the card was dealt before you played it/ Your sense of community is kinda dated/ Taking care Jerusalem is locked and gated/ Making sure we all hate who we always hated/ Till your lust for blood is well and truly sated.”]

It’s a bit of stream of consciousness, it’s a bit of politicising on the second verse. It’s a bit of a jam. There’s a Sabbath part on the middle, complete with sirens. It’s the most typically Lemonheads song on the record. I don’t know really know what it’s about. It’s about Bush sending people to war and whimsical wordplay in that not-really-the-best-song-on-the-record kind of deal. I like it, though.

I’m curious, because that and “Let’s Just Laugh”…

That’s my favourite one.

George Bush has inspired a lot of previously apolitical people to come out and comment, and to the best of my knowledge, that song is the first time you’ve written something that could be construed as political.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. “We got two more years to kill.” Exactly. “I hope you’re tried and fried before you’re finally fired.” That was fun to write.

At the same time it seems to glorify apathetic defeat. [“Let’s just laugh/ we can never do anything about anything anyway/ Whatever will be I guess we’ll see/ so let’s just laugh.”]

Yeah, it slacks off majorly. It’s an apathy anthem.

It’s a real mixed message.

Yeah, it is. Ying and yang. Me and Bill, we wrote it together. I wrote the angry part and he wrote the beautiful chorus.

What’s going on with Garth Hudson [keyboardist of The Band] on the last track, “December”?

Yeah, he’s all over the place, man! That was inspired by the whole MC5 thing too. I’ve been listening to that song “Skunk (Sonicaly Speaking)” a lot. It’s the most free-form shit we’ve ever done, for like two minutes. I’m really proud of that, I love it. I’m making these weird noises in the back, too. I you listen closely, there’s a lot of shit going on in there! And I found this tape of people reading from this weird—I don’t even know what they’re reading. You hear that on there, in the jam, people’s voices and stuff? In the old Lemonheads we’d always put cassette stuff in songs. It’s sort of vintage.

Garth Hudson is not a guy I’d really expect to find on a Lemonheads record.

No shit! It was a lucky thing. We did a thing together. Hal Wilner set this thing up together in 98 where we all read Edgar Allan Poe poems together on Hallowe’en, and he was playing this church organ. I met him, so I thought it would be okay if I called him and said, ‘Please, please, please play on the record.’

So you purposely left that part in the song open for him to go nuts.

Yeah, that’s where he shines.

Are you based in New York or Paris these days?
It’s a dream we have to live in Paris. We were just there the other day and we were tantalised again. But we’re in New York, the prison built and guarded by its own inmates. I think it’s in that movie My Dinner with Andre, where everyone’s always saying they’re going to leave New York but they never do. Manhattan is an addictive place.

What keeps you there, then?
When you go anywhere else, everything seems so slow.

What attracts you to Paris, then?
It’s so quiet and beautiful and I love French. My wife’s English so we can live there, and if you can do things, sometimes you want to. We want to move to Madrid, too. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

One final question, and it’s a ridiculous one.

Oh, good.

Speaking of Paris, you played the Elysee Montmartre in 1994. A 16-year old girl gave you a hand crafted Fimo necklace shaped as a lemon.

Oh, I remember that! Michael Hutchence and Helena Christiansen were there. He was a really nice guy. We were labelmates and all, and his girlfriend was awful nice, too. I remember that night, and I do remember that thing. I think I still have it in a box somewhere.

Well, she’s going to be at the Toronto show, so I’ll let her know.

Cool. We’re totally looking forward to it, coz I love Lee’s Palace. Call me hokey, but I love it.

You’ve played there many times, right?

I think in the 80s. We played with the Nils there, I think.

Oh, you probably heard that tragic news.

Yeah, just horrible. I loved that guy’s songs. Kastner told me all about it.