I’ve been listening to a lot of Maya Jane Coles lately. Cannot wait until she makes her way back to the U.S.
John Waters hates Easter.
Well, the popular version of it, anyway.
He hates the hunt. He hates hard-boiled eggs. He hates the pastel-colored baskets and the shredded plasti-grass that goes in them. But, most of all, he hates the bunny. Man, does he hate that bunny.
Christmas, on the other hand, is a different story.
Since releasing A John Waters Christmas in 2004—a compilation album of hand-picked holiday oddities from artists like Tiny Tim and Jimmy Donley—the cult filmmaker and best-selling author has used every December to star in a Christmas-themed, one-man show of the same name.
What started as a handful of stand-up dates in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., has now become a well-polished show that makes an annual trek through 15 cities, as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
“I hope it sounds like I’m just talking without any planning,” Waters says, speaking by phone from his hometown of Baltimore. “But it’s completely written out and rehearsed. I need to remind people of important things—like to never ask the fat person in your office to play Santa Claus. That’s the worst, rudest thing you could ever do.”
And while it’s impossible for the transgressive auteur not to infuse his perverse holiday monologues with the same kind of bawdy humor he used in films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester and A Dirty Shame, the man once dubbed “The Prince of Puke” swears the show—which comes to Belly Up Tavern on Dec. 4—is more therapy than anything else.
“I don’t have much tongue-in-cheek in this,” he says. “I’m serious when I say I’m going to tell you how to get through Christmas no matter your religion, creed, sexual preference or relationship with your family. If you’re a criminal, a capitalist, Republican or Democrat, I can tell you how to get through it. It’s like a self-help meeting.”
Despite the current version of his traveling support group unabashedly celebrating things like Christmas-tree violence and chocolate, Santa-shaped butt plugs, Waters’ own Yuletide celebrations are relatively tame.
He designs and sends out a Christmas card. He gives gifts. He throws a party. And Waters always takes his turn when it’s time to cook for the family.
“It’s traditional,” he says, “but everything has a twist to it. My mantle has the Unabomber birdhouse on it. My sister does a wreath on the front door, but it has prickly bushes that scratch you on the way in. I decorate an electric chair instead of a Christmas tree. But I’ve always said that to celebrate bad taste, you have to know good taste.”
And gift giving and receiving? For the 66-year-old iconoclast, it’s all about books. A bibliophile with a massive collection, Waters finds as much joy in fringe pulp fiction as he does Tennessee Williams. Whether it’s a cheesy, soft-core sex book with a hilarious cover or an obscure piece of literature he hasn’t yet acquired, Waters wouldn’t want to unwrap anything else on the big day. For years now, on the top of his wish list are movies made into novels.
“I collect those because no one collects them anymore,” he says. “It’s a dead genre. And if anyone can ever find me the novelization of Pootie Tang, I’ll give them a lap dance.”
Waters is an accomplished author himself, with five books to his credit. The latest, 2010’s bestselling Role Models, is a collection of essays, including reflections on Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, singer Johnny Mathis and Baltimore stripper Lady Zorro.
He’ll follow that next year with Carsick, a chronicle of his recent hitchhiking adventure across the country. In it, he both imagines what might happen and documents the actual pickups by, among others, a city council member, a married couple and the indie-rock band Here We Go Magic (they tweeted in disbelief at the time).
“The first third of it is a little novella,” Waters says, “and I’m imagining the very best that could happen on the trip—vicious characters, sex, adventure. Next, I wrote the 15 worst rides possible. The day before I left, I wrote my own death, and then I went and really did it. Twenty-one rides in nine days. Most people thought I was homeless at first. The rest you’ll have to read in the book.”
If it seems strange that an iconic writer / director of 16 films has spent the last eight years doing one-man holiday shows and authoring books, it is, especially considering that Waters’ 1988 film, Hairspray, was turned into a Broadway hit—before Hollywood remade it in 2007—and went on to become the forth-highest grossing musical in U.S. history.
But he hasn’t stopped trying to make movies. He’s been attempting to get his children’s Christmas film, Fruitcake, which he describes as “The Little Rascals on acid,” made since 2008. The studios haven’t been cooperating.
So, instead, at least for now, all of that unrequited holiday commentary is channeled into his live act.
“I hate Easter,” he says. “But I do like Christmas. I just think everyone’s neurotic at Christmas, even if you don’t acknowledge it. And that’s just another form of neuroses. And that’s why I’m here to tell you how you can both love and hate Christmas at the same time.”
Waters is going to keep writing books, and he’s going keep doling out Christmas advice and observations, until someone decides to finance Fruitcake. And if that day never comes, well, he’s fine with that, too.
“It may never go into production,” he says. “That’s why I’m writing a book. But it’s OK. I have many ways to sell stories. It’s not that big of a shame. I’ve made 16 movies. It’s not like I haven’t spoken.”
Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on November 28, 2012
Legendary turntablist Eric San, aka Kid Koala, recently brought his “Vinyl Vaudeville” tour to San Diego. Not only was I lucky enough to see him and his amazing showcase turn the Casbah into a gigantic, paper-airplane-throwing party, I got to chat with the Ninja Tune craftsman for a while before the show. Check out this quick segment wonderfully shot by Albert Rascon. While it’s not as good as being there, it gives a nice little peek into an amazing evening of music.
Go HERE for a brand-spanking-new, FREE, downloadable, 17-minute DJ Shadow Mix by Irn Mnky. It’s being shared in conjunction with the limited edition box set release “Reconstructed: The Definitive DJ Shadow.” And if you live in one of the cities below, don’t miss the live show. It’s incredible. I shot this picture the last time he was in San Diego.
|12/6/12||Madison, WI||Majestic Theater|
|12/7/12||Chicago, IL||The Mid|
|12/8/12||Detroit, MI||Majestic Theater|
|12/9/12||Boston, MA||Royal Nightclub|
|12/11/12||Brooklyn, NY||Brooklyn Bowl|
|12/13/12||New Orleans, LA||Bassik @ Republic|
I can’t tell you the alias that iconic frontman John Lydon was registered under when we spoke from his New York hotel recently. I’ve been asked not to share that information. But if I could, it would tell you all you need to know about the current state of affairs for the one-time ringleader of punk rock pioneers the Sex Pistols. Lydon, performing at the House of Blues on Monday night with his other band, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), is as vulgar, hilarious, and controversial as ever. Despite the Pistols famously imploding after only a single album in 1978, Lydon switched gears and formed the “anti-rock” group, PiL, immediately after. While initially alienating those looking for a Sex Pistols re-tread, PiL’s dark, methodical sound became every bit as influential — and recognizable — as the band that came before it. And then, after the band’s eighth album, 1992’s That What Is Not, Lydon practically stopped making music altogether. He wrote a memoir. He briefly reunited with the Sex Pistols. And perhaps most surprising, the man once known as Johnny Rotten spent time doing various nature programs on television.
But now he’s back. And by touring on PiL’s new album, This Is PiL, he’s hoping to jump back into the fold with both feet.
Scott McDonald: May I speak with John, please?
John Lydon: Yes, speaking! Hello! How do you do? Who are you? What do you want? How can I help you? [laughs]
SM: I’m great. Thanks. Calling to do the interview.
JL: Well, that must be just fantastic for you! [laughs]
SM: So far, so good.
JL: [still laughing] Yeah, we’re rocking and a rolling here!
SM: How’s New York treating you?
JL: Well, it’s a town I know very well. So it’s not like I want to run around like a tourist anymore. But it’s hard work. I get precious little sleep. We’re trying to set up a brand new record label — our own — and remain completely independent of that filthy thing we call the recording industry. And we’re performing live every night. It’s harrowing! [laughs]
SM: But it has to beat working in a factory.
JL: Done that. And it’s actually kind of similar. I remember, when I was young, they threw me out of school. I wanted to pass my exams, so I worked on the building sites from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then was at night college until 10 p.m. It’s very much like that. I’ve never been shy of hard work at any time in my life — except for when I’m watching television.
SM: Looking forward to PiL coming back. Caught some of the set out at Coachella in 2010.
JL: Coachella was very interesting. We pulled an enormous crowd away from the Jay-Z thing that was going on. No disrespect and all that, but looking across the field at all them flashing lights and fireworks, it looked like a hideous Las Vegas fiasco.
SM: Despite all of that, there were a lot of people out there to see you.
JL: Yeah, some 15,000 it turned out to be. That really surprised us, and we were really, really chuffed. I mean, before we went on, we were looking at a black, empty field. [Laughs] But I think it’s the music that did it. I think a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have given Public Image any time or attention were drawn in. And that’s the thing. How do you get the alleged masses to pay attention?
SM: Well, hopefully, people will give some attention to This Is PiL. It’s as good as anything the band has done. But why did it take 20 years to make?
JL: Thank you. And I’ll tell you. It’s the record labels I was on. They were all deals that were extensions of the Sex Pistols, so I couldn’t get off of them. It kept me in such a state of financial ruin that it was impossible for me to function. It took me nearly two decades, really, to buy my way off and out of it. And that, to me, was a great personal tragedy to endure. But I’m not the only one whose had to run that gauntlet. There’s many, many people I know who have had to face similar challenges in life. And then there’s a terrible thing that goes on in journalism, where the journalists seem to sneer at bands re-forming. They’re not re-forming, they’re just getting the opportunity to get themselves back together again because of the mess the record company put them in. You know? Bands should be celebrated for having the endurance to recover from such stifling negativity. It’s so overwhelming, the burden they’ve got us all in. A lot of us are jumping up and down with joy at the demise of corporate record-company thinking. But at the same time, it’s left an enormous hollowness, and it seems like there’s no way of filling the void.
JL: The demise of record stores, for instance. Things like that have been taken away from us. And in many ways, I see that as the stealing of my culture. I’m very upset and angry about that. I’d like to reintroduce that old school style of sharing and tearing, because that’s where we learn all our acts of rebellion: from music. It is so vital to the young and old, all of us. It’s our freest form of communication. And in one way or another, the entire record company shit storm took it off us, fucked it up and then buried it.
SM: Well, even if it’s 20 years later, things like This Is PiL are still getting made. Was it strange to reintroduce yourself?
JL: It happened instinctively in the studio. We don’t spend a lot of time twiddling with instruments when we work. We just get on. We know each other so well, it all happens intuitively. And I do clarify my position in life. I did that using my very early childhood as a paving stone to base the album on. One thing led to another, and we ended up with a concrete staircase. And I don’t want to have to go through the drudgery of explaining to people that, ‘Yes, I was a Sex Pistol, but I was a human being before that, too, you know?’ More than anything, we wanted to clarify our positions to ourselves. Twenty years is a long time to be away from something that you love the most.
SM: Is the idea that with [record label] PiL Official going, this entity can get its sea legs and go again?
JL: Yes. That is definitely the ambition. And really, it’ll be sink or swim according to the live performances. It’s the major way of earning money, and that money then finances the next record.
SM: The current state of things does allow for a lot of different ways to make an album.
JL: Yes. We can alter all of this and make it for the best. Out of every calamity, there is a positivity. For 20 years, I couldn’t function in the way that I was born for, so I went through a great deal of learning. Rather than make this new album all misery, spite, hate and resentment for what tried to keep me down, I decided that revenge was for children. We just did what we love to do and celebrated life.
SM: Also, it’s not like you didn’t do anything in those 20 years.
SM: You wrote a book, released a solo record, did all kinds of TV stuff, and you even reunited briefly with the Pistols.
JL: Yeah, in 1996 we did a Pistols tour. We did that because we felt we needed to perform an act of friendship and bond between each other — because of the way the band fell apart originally. We’ve done that, and no more. No need for it. Never. And I’ve had great conversations with them, particularly Paul Cook. We absolutely see it clearly along the same lines. It was a very healthy ending.
SM: Getting together, with both bands, and playing live is one thing, but getting back into the studio with PiL is another.
JL: Yes. It’s a full-on operation. And the press has somehow perpetrated that this is the Johnny Rotten Road Show and it’s not a proper band. But if you listen to the record, you realize what a bunch of nonsense that is and what level of commitment we have to one another. This is how life really is. And one further little point: What the hell would be wrong with the Johnny Rotten sideshow anyway? [Laughs] I mean, really? I have some value and worth in the world. Enough people have copied, imitated and followed my beliefs and musical principals. It’d be a good thing.
SM: Better than all the auto-tune out there.
JL: Oh! That is the worst! There is no need to listen to anything once that is put on it. The one thing as a species that we have to communicate with each other is the accuracy of our voices. And if you robotize that, you’ve eliminated humanity, and the whole thing becomes rather pointless.
SM: And now you’ve got [longtime collaborators] Lu [Edmunds] and Bruce [Smith] back to help you stay on point.
JL: Absolutely. With us, there’s a deep love and a sensibility of sound, point and purpose.
SM: And if nothing else, it sounds like friends playing together.
JL: Exactly. There’s a real warmth between us, and we fully respect each other. You can hear that. We’re creating new, adventurous musical landscapes, but we’re doing it naturally. And we’re doing it instinctively, with a great respect for everyone’s sensibilities. We’re not sitting around manufacturing weirdness. It’s the little details of our life experience. And it’s very enjoyable to make records this way.
SM: So that begs the question: More PiL albums to come?
JL: Yes, yes. We’re very prolific when we record. We have a whole bunch of songs we haven’t finished. The possibilities and capabilities are endless. We’re hoping it’s an ongoing process. But it’s an uphill climb.
SM: You talked about your influence earlier.
JL: Well, I hear it all the time. Even in the Top 30, I can hear our sound ideas, our viewpoint on mixing, balance — all of it. I can hear how PiL-type sound structures have been absolutely taken lock, stock and barrel. I mean, rap music is full of PiL structures. But that’s all right. That’s fine. No problems.
SM: So how does the process work?
JL: For me, a song is always subject-matter-led. Then, the sound will automatically fit the emotion I’m trying to express in the words. Nothing can be contrived, because we all know that doesn’t work. You can smell that so clearly, can’t you? You’ve got Radiohead and Green Day for that. [laughs]
SM: Your music seems as political as ever.
JL: That’s the world we live in. Can’t really avoid politics. That’s the modern religion. These people are trying to tell us how and who we are. They’re trying to tell us what we have the right to do and what we don’t have the right to do. You’d be a fool not to pay attention. And I’ll always stand up and argue a point for the disenfranchised. I come from that: I come from poverty, I come from the slums. And many people like me do. Down there, we’re very mixed. We’re multirace and multicultural. We have multiple beliefs, but we do have a sense of equality about ourselves. And that’s what I’m trying to constantly push forward. That loyalty we hold among one another, it’s our main value. That’s my cultural bond and duty: to represent it as accurately and as well as I can at every opportunity. And until governments realize that if you don’t help your poor that they’re going to help themselves, you’ve got a real problem.
SM: Is it strange to be singing about the same things that you did when you started? I mean, punk rock has really changed, but it seems nothing that inspired it has.
JL: Well, a lot of the alleged punk rockers thought, “Oh, look at the Sex Pistols. They’re famous. We can be famous, too.” And they didn’t pay attention to what the songs were saying and didn’t understand the social significance of the message. They just adhere to the clothing. And that’s the current climate of punk rock. It’s coat hangers, spikey hairdos, and studded leather jackets. And Green Day’s at the forefront of it all, which I think is a travesty. It’s a shame. But at the end of the day, at least I can take some credit for having been fashion-forward. [laughs]
Originally published by NBC San Diego on October 29, 2012
Patti Smith could retire if she wanted to. Her service record to the artistic community was cemented long ago. There are no accolades left to chase, no accomplishments to reaffirm, no career goals to conquer, no creative stones left unturned. Not that she cared about those things, anyway.
As a singer, writer, poet, painter, photographer and performer, she’s proven herself time and again during a storied, four-decade career. So, why does the 65-year-old, recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee keep producing art at such a breakneck pace?
Because she can.
“It’s sort of a non-stop situation,” Smith tells CityBeat, speaking by phone from her Copenhagen hotel room on the last night of a European tour. “I’m always working on something. I’m a worker. And I feel very privileged that I can communicate in so many different ways.”
In recent years, that’s what she’s been doing. That is, in every manner but musically. Once the face of high-brow rock ’n’ roll, she seemingly abandoned songwriting after an extended absence from music, choosing instead to explore the art and literary worlds. But that all changed this summer.
Released in June, her new Columbia album, Banga, offers up her first original material since 2004’s Trampin’. Tempered by motherhood and the decades of distance from the punk jams that made her a household name in the 1970s, her solo material is far mellower these days—her latest album is a meditative, guitar-driven affair. But it’s no less challenging. Smith explores themes of forgiveness, loyalty and environmental apocalypse—all gleaned from personal experiences during her time away from the studio.
The title track comes from an obsession with Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1937 novel, The Master and Margarita, a book she read four years ago. She wrote the rocking rambler “Fuji-san” in response to the tsunami in Japan. Late-album opus “Constantine’s Dream” works through the deaths of the venerable St. Francis and early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, ending with images of Columbus dreaming of the world in flames.
Smith recorded the album at New York’s famed Electric Lady studios, working with longtime bandmates Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty—just as the threesome did on her 1975 debut, Horses.
“It’s nice to have the collaboration of my band and crew,” Smith says. “It’s so energizing and such a great way to expand our cultural voice. But if I desire solitude, I do have that option. I can always take a photograph or work on a poem.”
Much has been made of Smith’s eight-year hiatus from making music—she’s been quoted as saying she needed to “evolve”—but the time wasn’t exactly ill-spent. She helmed the 2006 closing performance at New York’s CBGB nightclub. She had high-profile exhibitions of her visual art and photography, like last year’s Camera Solo show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. She acted in the 2010 Jean-Luc Godard feature, Film Socialism. And she spent time with her two children.
Perhaps most importantly, the break gave Smith the opportunity to really focus on her lifelong passion.
“Of all the disciplines I’ve pursued, I identify most with writing,” she says. “I’ve written all my life. I started when I was 10 or 12 years old, and I’ve never stopped. So, even if I’m not writing for the public or having something published, I keep hundreds and hundreds of notebooks. I write every single day.”
During the downtime, she penned the starkly honest and beautifully written Just Kids, her memoir about coming of age in New York City with artist and lover Robert Mapplethorpe. A New York Times bestseller, it was translated into 30 languages and picked up the prestigious National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010.
“I was thrilled,” Smith says. “You know, for a girl who worked in a bookstore for almost eight years, I really had to grasp what a wonderful thing it was. And what a privilege it is to have a National Book Award. It’s something I never even dreamed of.”
A true labor of love, Just Kids started as a promise to Mapplethorpe the day before he died. Despite never having written a single piece of extended nonfiction, Smith was determined to see it through.
“It took a really long time,” she says. “I started it, shelved it for a couple of years and started it again. And then I’d re-write it, and that was almost like the process of writing the first draft. I had the story I wanted to tell, I just had to get the confidence and take the time to write it.”
And she had help—not from another writer, but from highly detailed journals that she kept since childhood.
“I mean, I knew exactly what day I chopped up my hair like Keith Richards,” she says. “I knew what day I met Janis Joplin. I knew where the moon was in the sky on a night in 1972. I kept such good notes that I could draw from them and really picture everything.”
Smith will be in San Diego this week for a special two-date run, unlike any others she’ll play in the U.S. As she does occasionally in Europe, she’ll play two distinct shows. At Downtown’s Spreckels Theatre, she’ll do some reading, be the subject of an interview, participate in a Q&A and perform acoustic songs. The next night at House of Blues, she’ll play a rock show with her full band.
“It’s been a long time since I played San Diego,” she says. “And we’re not doing a whole lot of dates. But I promise you one thing—each show will be different. I have a lot of freedom in the way that I can communicate. That’s part of the beautiful challenge of performing every night—the way it unfolds in front of you.”
Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on October 10, 2012
Blake Mills isn’t a household name. Yet. But it’s likely this 25-year-old guitar player from Venice Beach will be very soon.
He’ll be in San Diego on Sunday, playing guitar in Fiona Apple’s band at FM 94/9’s Independence Jam in Oceanside. But if things continue to go the way they have, it won’t be long before Mills is headlining major venues across the country on his own. After playing in Dawes with childhood friend Taylor Goldsmith, Mills released his solo debut, Break Mirrors, in 2010. He’s also amassed a more than impressive roster of collaborators along the way, including Cass McCombs, Lucinda Williams, Dangermouse, Rick Rubin, Fiona Apple, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas, Jackson Browne and Band of Horses.
And if that wasn’t enough, Eric Clapton just personally invited him to play his Crossroads Benefit.
I recently spoke with the down-to-earth Mills, who was on a tour stop in the Bay Area.
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Blake Mills: I’m very good, man. How are you?
SM: Good. How are things going?
BM: Really good. We just got started back up with some new Fiona dates, so today we’re in San Francisco.
SM: The list of people you’ve either recorded or played with is unbelievable. Is it hard to also try to squeeze your own thing in?
BM: They kind of do come hand-in-hand. Being on the road with amazing people definitely is inspiring when you come back off the road, so it’s this natural sort of balancing act that figures itself out with not too much fuss.
SM: Really, it’s an embarrassment of riches. And time is on your side.
BM: Right. I just hope that when I’m 40, I still do have options.
SM: When you did Break Mirrors, were you already working with all of these other people, or was that album the catalyst for it all?
BM: Well, I had already been going out on tours doing some opening stuff, and I got a little stressed out with that. So I decided to spend a few years going out with other people instead. I continued to write the entire time, but never really had any plans for where the songs would go. And when a little window opened up between tours, I’d do some more writing and little by little I came up with enough material for an album.
SM: On the other hand, it has to be advantageous to just know your role, and be part of the background each night as well.
BM: Absolutely. I do enjoy being out of the spotlight with only needing to react to what someone else is doing. It feels like a natural place to be. But with the solo stuff, it really just seems more like leading a new conversation than striking out on my own. And it’s a lifesaver in that way. I’m not just out there alone.
SM: There are a lot of people out there saying really nice things about you — namely that you’re slated to be “the next big thing.” Does that create any pressure for you?
BM: There’s only pressure if you buy into it. And it’s easy to fall into that. But my career path hasn’t really been designed, and because of that, it’s headed in all kinds of cool directions. I find myself getting so much out of these experiences that I didn’t plan. I like to keep my hands off of it. I love being proven wrong about what’s right for me or what’s best for me. All of my experiences thus far have been really great because I haven’t had to give anything up. I think if I had ambitions to become a household name, I would have to give a lot of things up that I get a lot out of.
SM: Did you start as a kid?
BM: I did. I asked my dad for what seemed like forever to get me a Strat. In ’94 we got Microsoft Encarta on the computer. And every time you opened the computer, it did a year in review. Kurt Cobain had committed suicide and they were highlighting clips of him. I was obsessed with Kurt and Nirvana for a few years, and I bugged and bugged and bugged my dad for a guitar. And when I was about 10, he got me one. I went straight into learning how to play Nirvana, Soundgarden and Metallica songs. That was the goal at first. A friend of my dad’s came over and asked me what I was listening to, so I put on [Weezer’s] Pinkerton. He was like, “Ok. Yeah. That chord progression: 1, 5, 6, 4.” He explained to me how the chords had numbers and you could pick them out without having an instrument around. And it was then that this magic art was illuminated for me. And I knew that I had to find out how to do that. I don’t know if I took it more seriously, or it was just fascinating to me, but it became my everything, all the time, and it still is.
SM: How was it having Eric Clapton call you to do the Crossroads gig?
BM: Oh, man. It was pretty heavy. I was about to go out on the first leg with Fiona, and my dad was having some health complications. I got this letter in the mail from Clapton, and it was the invitation. I went to see my dad in the hospital and I shared it with him. He was pretty moved by it, because Clapton was the very first concert he ever brought me to in Scottsdale, Ariz. The thing I remembered about it was his Stratocaster and the cool paint job it had on it. Anyway, so I wrote him back asking things like, “How did you find me?” and “Are you sure you have the right person?” [laughs] He said yes and that he’d heard me play some slide on a Dixie Chicks song that ended up on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy but that he thought it was Derek Trucks at first. And if there’s any guitar player out there, for me, it’s Derek. So he calls Derek to say how much he liked it, and Derek tells him that it’s not him, it was me. So it was one thing for Clapton to be aware, but then to know that Derek was aware — that really messed me up a bit. That pressure you were talking about earlier is dwarfed by the pressure from knowing that now both of those guys are aware and watching what you’re doing. That’s a different arena.
SM: That’s crazy for any musician, but for a guitar player …
BM: I know. It’s mindblowing. And just to be a fly on the wall for some of these conversations that I’ve managed to finagle my way into …
SM: It seems like a lot.
BM: It’s a pinch-yourself kind of thing. I don’t want to take advantage of any situation in the proximity, but I also don’t want to take any of it for granted. I want to make sure that I glean all of the rock & roll wisdom I can. It’s so precious.
SM: What’s next?
BM: Well, I know that I’ll make another record. Not sure when, but it’s something I’m going to do. I also really want to do some more work with Cass McCombs. But mostly, I just want to keep with the momentum I already have going and see what happens.
Originally published by NBC San Diego on September 16,2012
Things are really looking up for Oceanside-bred outfit The Burning of Rome. The wildly eclectic ensemble was just voted Best Alternative Act at the San Diego Music Awards, and the band’s highly anticipated debut, “With Us,” drops Sept. 18, courtesy of Encinitas label Surfdog Records. Frontman and bandleader Adam Traub now lives in Los Angeles, but after a handful of years wowing audiences in America’s Finest City, things are finally starting to pay off.
“This band started as a recording project,” Traub said from his car as he made his way from San Diego to L.A. recently. “I was showing it to a lot of my friends and really wanted to make it happen live. And this generation of the band is actually the second one. There was a bit of a cycling process until I finally settled on the current lineup. And thank God I did, because they’re perfect.”
It was guitarist Joe Aguilar, keyboardist Aimee Jacobs and drummer Lee Williams who helped Traub release a few independent demo CDs, one of which finally caught the attention of multiple labels. And to the band members’ surprise, it not only got them signed, but it gave them options.
“This is the full-fledged effort of everyone in the band,” Traub said. “We kind of had our pick of the litter as far as people to work with. That’s something I never dreamed could have happened. And it ended up with us working with a producer that I have an intense amount of respect for. It was a situation when all of the cards fell into place at the same time. It’s just been incredible.”
The label the band chose was locally run Surfdog Records, and the producer was one-time Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith collaborator Tom Biller. But those choices were informed far more by what was going to happen in the future, instead of what had been accomplished in the past.
“Surfdog fully embraces what the band does,” Traub said. “And they want to do nothing but see us perpetuate it. And I dig that. They’ve never shunned the idea of us being weird, or trying strange things, or our theatrics, or any bizarre idea we’ve had for videos or photo shoots. They’ve always embraced it, and that, to me, is pretty awesome.”
And while the band’s onstage penchant for costumes and props is as diverse as their multitude of divergent musical influences, Traub insists that it’s anything but shtick.
“I never wanted to hit ‘record’ and try to be as quirky as possible,” he said. “It’s been more of a natural process. I love theater and musicals. I grew up on them. But there are times when we try to incorporate it more, and times when we try to pull away because we don’t want to be pigeonholed. But I still love it. I want people to be taken out of their element to a completely different world when they listen. That was the goal of the record. ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ did that for me. I’m not trying to make it complicated or weird. To me, it just makes sense.”
Not everyone will think a band dressed like the solar system playing the glockenspiel over punk rock and white noise makes sense, but it’s hard to deny the entertainment value. And that’s not the point anyway. The band never wants to become predictable or cliche. That’s why the members switch it up, and many times, wear normal clothes and leave the maternity mannequins at home.
“David Bowie wasn’t always ‘Ziggy Stardust’ onstage,” Traub said. “Every now and then, he took the makeup off so people would just listen to him and fall in love with the music, not the theatrics.”
The Burning of Rome presents its vision Sept. 15 at a San Diego Music Thing showcase at Eleven in San Diego. The band plans to keep the focus on music, but Traub doesn’t see a time when costumes, theatrics or an overarching theme to the presentation isn’t welcomed with open arms.
“We want to conceptualize things,” he said. “I want people to be in a different world. The goal of the album is to put people on a different planet. I want to release literature and all kinds of other tidbits with it, so all of it will pull you down the rabbit hole. We’re even trying to synchronize animations from our videos with our live set. We want the outside elements to combine with the music to send a cohesive message out there to people.”
Originally published in the North County Times on September 14, 2012
New York sextet Ra Ra Riot has accomplished quite a lot since its inception five years ago. The chamber pop-infused indie rock band, which includes a full-time cellist and violinist, has released two full-length albums and four EPs, and has toured the country and globe extensively.
After meeting at Syracuse University, the members formed the band and began playing shows on a whim, without any kind of master plan. In less than a year, the band had earned a spot performing at New York’s annual CMJ Music Marathon and opened shows for national headliners such as the Horrors and Bow Wow Wow.
In 2007, tragedy struck the young band when drummer John Pike drowned in Buzzards Bay off the coast of Massachusetts. The decision was made by the remaining members to carry on, and they’ve been doing just that ever since.
Fresh off a successful Canadian tour, Ra Ra Riot’s national coast-to-coast swing finds the band performing Wednesday night at the Belly Up. But with six schedules to reconcile, and live dates running through Thanksgiving, it’s unknown when fans can expect a follow-up to “The Orchard,” the band’s 2010, critically acclaimed sophomore release.
“We’ve done a lot of touring in the last four years,” said guitarist Milo Bonacci from a recent tour stop in North Carolina. “And we’ve really been in cramped quarters. It’s been a pretty difficult thing to try and write on the road. I mean, we’ll work on ideas during sound check and in minor ways. But the songs have never been conceived or fleshed out while we’re traveling around. The logistics just haven’t been incredibly conducive to having productive time while we’re out doing shows.”
The group’s members had to force themselves to hole up in an upstate New York peach orchard for a couple of weeks to write and record demos for the previous album.
Nothing that extensive has been planned for the new record, but Bonacci said that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been on their minds.
“It’s been a topic of conversation since we finished the last record,” he said. “We’ve made plans to record and have decided on whom to work with as a producer. We have a bunch of demos and a lot of ideas for what perspectives we want to approach on this new album. But we haven’t recorded anything just yet. That’s coming soon.”
Although they don’t have anything set in stone, it’s likely Bonacci’s promise will come to fruition. Even with its rigorous touring schedule, the band has still been able to produce six releases in five years together.
That’s just the way things happen with this longtime group of friends.
Even hitting that half-decade mark wasn’t something the members initially expected. And it’s a milestone they’ve raced past without time to give it much thought.
“It’s actually a strange thing to think about,” Bonacci said. “It really depends on the day. Sometimes it seems like it’s been no time at all. On those days, it’s completely fresh and exciting. But sometimes, I’m surprised when I look back and think of all the things we’ve done, and all the places we’ve gone since we started. Overall, it’s a bit shocking to me that it’s already been five years. This is something that really started as a temporary project.”
While things haven’t exactly gone according to plan, no one is complaining. And at this point, it’s not even an option. They just have too much more to do.
“It’s true that no one expected we’d still be doing this now when we started,” Bonacci said. “But it’s never been a situation where we suddenly found ourselves doing something like touring the country, or even the world, either. The whole thing has been very progressive and steady. And we’re certainly still having fun with it, so we hope it keeps moving in the same direction. It’s all very exciting and satisfying.”
Originally published in The North County Times on November 03, 2011
I’ve always been a fan of Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, and his ever-changing collage of auditory sketches. I was lucky to be part of the team that brought his Private Press Tour to the Belly Up in 2002, was absolutely blown away by the multi-screened, artistic envelopment of that show and have wanted to see him again ever since. So when I found out he would be spending one of only a precious few dates on his current North American Tour at 4th and B on Saturday, I was elated.
Oddly, the conversations lately about the one-time untouchable, enigmatic producer have been more about a supposed move away from his core sound on 2006’s The Outsider (which I actually don’t understand — I mean, it’s not his best, but the three-song punch of “Seein’ Thangs” into “Broken Levee Blues” into “Artifact” stands up against any three-song set in his catalog) and his recent decision to talk about the ills of music sharing, it’s effect on artistry, and technology’s overall detriment to music’s current downtrodden situation. Hopefully, his just-released The Less You Know, the Better will get people refocused on the art. But for now, here is our recent conversation in which Davis thoughtfully and carefully discussed the current state of music and his place in it.
Scott McDonald: Glad to be able to catch you before you leave for Mexico and the UK.
Josh Davis: It’s an honor and a blessing to be able to do it, but the travel aspect of it all gets really old. After you’ve been on a certain number of international flights, there’s absolutely no glamour to it. You’re packed in, uncomfortable and tired. Any touring musician will tell you that it gets old pretty quickly, but it ends up being worth it, because the shows are always great.
SM: There was a massive visual component the first time I saw you. Keeping with that tradition this time around?
JD: The first time I toured on a broad scale was 1999. That’s when I started playing in front of European festival audiences that are quite large. On that run, it was novelty enough to see a DJ onstage next to rock groups. Visuals weren’t really needed. It was just me and two turntables and a mixer. But I quickly realized that if I was going to do it again, I would want some kind of visual component to the show, just so people had something to look at other than me. I came up in an era where I wasn’t trying to be a celebrity DJ or famous in that way. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an entertainer or bigger than life. So I came up with visuals for the 2002 tour, and we did a bigger and better version of that in 2006. We had nine screens, and I was on top of a one-story platform. It was quite a spectacle. But when we were planning this tour, I sat down with my same visual collaborator and told him that we didn’t want to go bigger, but more conceptual. What we came up with is something I’m pretty proud of and something that seems to work well when I’m playing before and after all kinds of different groups. It holds people’s attention.
SM: This new record sounds like an old-school mix tape.
JD: Honestly, I feel like that’s what I’ve always gone for — and that’s all the way back to my very first record. I’ve always tried to follow up any single with one that sounds nothing like the one before it. To me, Entroducing’s “The Number Song” sounds nothing like “Midnight,” which sounds nothing like “Stem.” And that’s the same with every record I’ve ever done. I think The Outsider got knocked for having that quality, among other reasons, but I’ve always been curious as to why having different styles on one record is OK for certain artists but not for others. I think rock critics, particularly, don’t care for when people like myself claim to come from hip-hop or another area. It’s almost like they’re saying, “You’ve got to stay in your lane. Don’t be trying to do rock stuff and don’t be trying to do this over here.” I’ve never identified with that sentiment. To me, at this point, I can’t close my ears off to any style of music — even country/western. Now, I don’t particularly care for the current breed of country pop, but there is some ’50s and ’60s stuff I think is amazing, both on a songwriting and performance level. Now that’s something I wouldn’t have been able to say 10 years ago, but you mature and learn from music, and let your prejudices go. Everything is there to be taken in, admired and learned from. I feel like sometimes people want me to apologize for having that attitude, but I can’t. I like music a lot, I feed off of it and have a healthy diet of it. To keep things interesting, I like to switch up both what I listen to and what I make. And that’s the way it’s always been for me.
SM: For me, by putting “Border Crossing” [a song comprised entirely of metal guitar samples] second on the record, it said, “I’m not catering to people who didn’t like The Outsider.” Is it a statement song?
JD: I think it is, just because of where it ended up on the disc. It’s funny, because the guy that used to run A&M Records — the label Mo’ Wax used to go through — would call that my “here comes trouble theme.” On The Private Press, it’s that “bom bom, bom-bom, bom bom.” I never really identified it like that, but on records I like, there’s always a point near the beginning that says, “This is gonna be some crazy s—. Watch out.” I like that about music. I want to give people that, “Uh-oh, oh, s—, what’s gonna happen?” feeling. I know that probably sounds pretentious, but it’s something I admire in other music. In the process of trying to make this record make sense for myself, in terms of the sequence of songs, I always thought “Border Crossing” was going to be somewhere on the first one-third of the record. It felt good to have it where I have it. I like that in real time, people are redefining what they think I am and what they think my music can be.
SM: I personally prefer an artist to reach instead of play it safe.
JD: Me, too. But I don’t think we’re in the majority on that. I think we’re living in an era where people feel like they have an ownership over people who make art in the sense that fans are there to dictate to the artist what to do. I’m still of the mindset that I have no other choice than to do what I want to do first and hope that it coalesces with peoples expectations. However, if it doesn’t, I can’t modify my own taste to try and fit it to the majority. I have to be true to who I am and make music that I can stand behind first. And while that might make sense to some people, you’d be surprised how many people think that translates as: My fans don’t matter. And, obviously, that is not my sentiment or intention at all. I just have to please myself first, the same way that when an artist sits down at a canvas, hopefully they make something that they have artistic ownership of, and not some kind of advertisement that will please as many eyes as possible.
SM: You’ve been incredibly vocal about the negative aspects of technology lately. At what point do you commit to talking publicly about it?
JD: I think sometime in the last two years, the number of conversations I was having with my peers — and a lot of times they’d be household-name type of artists — where they were saying they couldn’t do it anymore, was what got me started. And I’d say that we needed to go on record and talk about it, and I’d always get “No, I can’t. Nobody wants to hear about that.” These are people I respect and need to keeping making music because they inspire me and keep me going. It reached a tipping point, where to me, it became this great, unspoken truth. You can now be in the Top 100 in America by selling 3,500 units – and that’s including downloads. Thirty-five hundred units is what we used to sell of a 12-inch in one shop in L.A. in a week, and that wasn’t that long ago. When people hear this, they always say the same thing: “This is just pampered, spoiled artists going wah, wah, wah.” But for me, this is about trying to move beyond that and letting people know that no one is trying to take your candy away. This is about finding a way that music can continue to thrive and artists can be rewarded for putting time and energy into their art. Otherwise, the art, on certain levels, will cease. And I think, in a lot of ways, it already has. Music is not moving forward at the clip that it used to. Sure there are people making music in their dorm room on a laptop, but it’s becoming almost untenable to be a band that goes to a studio, rents a tour bus and does all of the things you need to do. I just want to have a rational dialogue about it instead of this irrational, binary true/false, love/hate communication that seems to define the Internet.
SM: Can this conversation really change things?
JD: There are times when you look at a topic and say it had its heyday between this period and that one. I’ve felt for a long time that there’s really no job — other than maybe a barber — where you can say that people will always need this, that it’s safe. But if you would have said to me 15 years ago that this gigantic music industry and everything else will someday cease to matter, I would have laughed. I think anyone would have. I would’ve said that people will always need music in their lives and will continue to define their lives through music in some way. And to see the way it’s gone down … I love music. I don’t care about what people have decided is more worthwhile. Music is my life, so I have an opinion on the subject. But it doesn’t really matter what I say. People will read into it as they want to. And if they want to write it off as a bitter rant, that’s cool. I jut hope it isn’t a Lars Ulrich vs. Chuck D. kind of mindset. I’d like to find a middle ground. At the core, I’m trying to get to somewhere that we can all figure it out collectively. The current situation doesn’t work for anyone.
Originally published by NBC San Diego on October 21, 2011
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