Category Archives: Music

Henry Rollins: One Man Band

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Muscular. Shirtless. Sweaty and screaming. And in the most chaotic moments during his punk years, beating the shit out of hapless members of the audience who somehow thought it’d be a good idea to mess with him. These are just a few of the images conjured by the name Henry Rollins—at least for anyone who grew up listening to his music or saw him playing it.

As the longest tenured singer of pioneering L.A. hardcore punks Black Flag, and later with his own Rollins Band, the iconic frontman reinvented performance intensity on a nightly basis. But, as it goes with the brightest burning stars, his time in music faded somewhat quickly.

Last performing with Rollins Band in 2006, the now 55-year-old actor, writer, radio/TV host and activist has sworn off music and spent the last decade further diversifying his career in a multitude of ways.

One thing that remains from the old days, however, is his penchant for spoken word. Meticulously honed over the last 30 years, Rollins’ “talking shows” combine experiences from his world travels, the politics that have defined much of his work and daily, on-the-fly personal observations.

Equal parts humor-tinged journalism, self-help workshop, and current affairs briefing, Rollins actually sees only slight differences between these performances and his first ones.

“I’m a one-man folk music band now,” he tells CityBeat from his Los Angeles home. “I make vocal music for folks. That’s it. I’m just not interested in collaboration at this point in my life. I’ve done a lot of it. And it’s not a democracy that interests me.”

He does still take great interest in the democracy of America, and feels confident expounding on it each night, having experienced everything he talks about on stage first-hand. If he speaks to global climate change, it’s based on his time in Antarctica with a team of scientists. If a bit involving North Korea makes its way into the set, it’s drawn from his trip there.

His travels to nearly 100 countries and all seven continents inform almost every facet of the show, continuing to make good on the tagline from his last big spoken word tour: Knowledge Without Mileage Equals Bullshit.

“That’s my life,” says Rollins. “I put the miles in. And that’s why I know what I know. There’s nothing put on. I’m not winging it. I’m coming with a solid gut punch.”

Fortunately for current fans, he means that figuratively. But it’s that same ferocity with which he used to rail on Reagan and Thatcher that continues to drive his fight against today’s unfortunately similar problems. While the recent election results are sure to create a never-ending source of material to help build solidarity at his shows, Rollins is aware that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they better.

“This is going to be very rough,” he says. “It’s going to be rough on poor people, lower middle class people, non-white people, gay people and women people. I spent most of my life on the street. And I can see a grift coming in my sleep. This is a grift.”

Perhaps it comes with the nuances of getting older. Maybe it’s just a result of aggressively and systematically deconstructing information, trying to understand it, and synthesizing it on a nightly basis for audiences all over the world. But Rollins is anything but dejected by the thought of Trump’s New World Order.

In fact, he’s feeling quite the opposite.

“America is a Philly Flyers game,” he says, referring to the professional hockey team. “There are teeth and blood on the ice. But I don’t think there’s a more interesting time to be alive and awake in this country. The people you don’t like no longer hide in the shadows. And if you want to see what the problems are, well, there they are. We’ve now got all the lights on and can get to work.”

Never one to talk it without walking it, Rollins plans to fill 2017 with benefit shows, direct support for specific causes such as Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and stepping up his already ridiculously active schedule. He’s even thinking about single-handedly trying to reach and inspire the 45 percent of eligible voters who didn’t bother with the election in the two years we have before midterms.

He is also holding onto the thought that the deep divisiveness of the country could actually be the catalyst for youth to shake off their rampant apathy and unite in raging against the machine.

“Hopefully,” says Rollins, “these young people that Clint Eastwood deemed a generation of pussies can actually lead. Because, eventually, these old crusty bastards like myself will fall away. And you’ll be left with the residue of everything from Brexit to whatever damage Donald Trump does in the next four years. Maybe this is where the positive outcome happens.”

Regardless, it’s a safe bet that Rollins will be out there doing his part until he’s no longer able. And much like the Nietzschean warrior who craves a good battle, Rollins is ready to mix it up the same way he used to with the fans even if this time around it’s with words and not his fists.

“Whether you voted for this guy or not,” he says, “here we are. And as they say in the octagon, here we go. We’re all going to see. Unless you disappear, or go into denial and live in a thick-walled cave, you’re going to get some on you. We’re all going to get some on us together. Let’s get into it and start thrashing about.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Kool Keith Beats The Odd

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“I make more songs than I can remember.”

Kool Keith isn’t lying. The prolific Bronx-based rapper born Keith Thornton has at least 26 albums to his name. Add endless collaborations, compilations and one-off appearances, and the number of musical contributions from the emcee and producer far exceeds expectation from someone 32 years in the game.

As a co-founder of pioneering New York hip-hop crew Ultramagnetic MCs, Thornton quickly became known for his distinct delivery, offbeat production and abstract, often sexually explicit lyrics. His long-running solo career, now more than 20 years old itself, has only added to the unique legacy through an unparalleled cast of alter-egos and aliases he’s created with near-method fervor. Whether as Dr. Octagon, Black Elvis or Dr. Dooom, the pseudonym-happy performer never fails to engage listeners with tales from his idiosyncratic bizarro world.

On his latest, the September-released Feature Magnetic , the rapper’s most compelling role is behind the scenes under the alias of Number One Producer.

With an all-star cast of rappers including MF Doom, Ras Kass and Atmosphere’s Slug guesting on every song, Feature Magnetic has no shortage of distinct and hilarious wordplay. But it’s Thornton’s tailor-made beats that steal the show.

“I customized each track for the person on it,” he tells CityBeat from his longtime home in the Empire State. “Most of the stuff that’s out there right now is the same. And it’s time for something different in the rap world. There needs to be a real drastic change musically. People need to know there are different sounds to work with than what’s been in hip-hop for the last 10 years. And originality means a lot.”

While that last statement could stand as Kool Keith’s career mantra, his journey to full-fledged beat maker was actually born of necessity.

“For a long time,” says Thornton, “I had to beg guys for beats. I got tired of that. It’s a scenario like when I always had to ask people to drive me places. I ended up having to buy a car. It’s the same thing with beats.”

It wasn’t just the supply and demand chain that drove Thornton into production, he adds. “It was the politics of it as well. A lot of producers want you to feel handicapped. When you don’t have a way of making beats, people don’t want to give you any. And as a rapper, that’s my food. My mind and creativity has to have that food.”

Self-sufficiency and sustainability are assets to any artist. But for a 53-year-old emcee who refuses to retire the mic, it’s like the gift of eternal life. Fueled by an undying passion to create, the rapper’s unshakeable persistence also burns with the refusal to follow rap’s systemic ageism.

“Rap is the only style that has an age limit,” says Thornton. “It’s still seen as urban hood music and people don’t respect it as art. They respect jazz. People respect rock. But stereotypical rap protocol is five or 10 years before throwing it away to ‘move on’ to something else. A rock star can have a family and play guitar until he’s 99 years old. But there’s a limit on rap.”

Surprisingly, Thornton believes a pair of unlikely sources is responsible for the lion’s share of the problem.

“Most of it comes from black people,” he says. “They’re the only demographic that puts an ending on it. And it’s not just the audience but the rappers themselves. People just use rap to go on to do other things. They start acting, they get into television, do radio. And when they make it, they never have any compliments back about how rap is why they’re popular. But they used it to gain these things. It kills me how people take the art and abuse it.”

Thornton cites T.I. as an example of a successful rapper who not only juggles a massive family, multiple revenue streams and an ongoing creative output, but someone who didn’t forget what got him there in the first place.

Yet the lack of like-minded peers is anything but a deterrent. If anything, it’s just another thing that helps to stoke his creative fire.

Inspired equally by Curtis Mayfield, the Ohio Players and New York street artists creating aluminum menageries from Dr. Pepper and Shasta cans, the rapper is content funneling it all into his singular passion as long as he’s able.

“Some people need a bottle every morning,” says Thornton. “I’m a record-aholic. I like making records. I like going into the studio. And even though Feature Magnetic just came out, I feel like making more music right now. It’s my cause. My creative technique never dries up.”

As can be expected from an artist as prolific as Thornton, there are plenty of Kool Keith projects in the works. While he’s anything but a predictable artist, that all-inclusive role of rapper/custom producer is likely to be around for many years to come—probably until the day someone is able to pry the microphone from Thornton’s hand.

“I never feel like there’s going to be an ending,” he says. “Recording is what makes me happy. There are a lot of people out there who don’t like their jobs. And it’s not like a basketball player that can’t dunk no more. People can do this in a wheelchair. Music is in your heart. The creativity and dedication keep me going.”

Originally published by San Diego CityBeat

Warpaint Get Their Groove Back

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Warpaint doesn’t care what you think. Over the course of 12-plus years, the Los Angeles quartet has worked to refine their genre-busting brand of moody, atmospheric rock without a care for much outside of their own creative impulses. Backed by the ride-or-die solidarity of a street gang and an occasional assist from studio magicians such as Flood and Nigel Goodrich, they’ve been able to do it all without compromise.

After taking most of 2015 off to work on individual projects, the foursome of Stella Mozgawa, Emily Kokal, Theresa Wayman and Jenny Lee Lindberg resurfaced earlier this year with Heads Up—their third full-length release for Rough Trade Records.

Self-produced in conjunction with longtime friend and collaborator Jacob Bercovici, the album features some of Warpaint’s most pop-influenced material to date (“New Song,” “Heads Up,” “Whiteout”), but also some of their strongest. It additionally serves as the band’s first product of a recording process that didn’t involve all four members sitting in a room together.

Coupled with the year off to work on solo projects, the band’s newfound autonomy could have signaled unseen strife behind the scenes. But instead of being a sign of implosion or the subtext of division in the camp, drummer/keyboardist/programmer Mozgawa says it was simply a much-needed step in the right direction.

“We’ve basically developed a new muscle,” she tells CityBeat by phone from her L.A. home. “The four of us coming up with ideas in a room together, talking about them and having to try every single one is very time consuming. I think we’ve transcended any of those old energy blockages. We just decided to make the album we wanted to hear, go with the method that was naturally occurring and deal with all the other shit later.”

That naturally occurring method meant that when Mozgawa was helping Lindberg record her now year-old solo album, switching gears to bang out a few ideas for Warpaint was encouraged. And while Kokal was recording with Saul Williams or Wayman was dividing her time between her own solo album and new trio BOSS, Mozgawa was free to record with Kurt Vile, Kim Gordon, Jagwar Ma or any other collaboration that helped her stay creatively engaged.

“You’re constantly learning things you’re going to use,” Mozgawa says. “It’s just this beautiful, swirly pattern of activity. Everything just feels a bit clearer now in terms of the way we do things.”

And that “shit” part Mozgawa says they had to deal with later? It isn’t really a shit part at all. Their new tasks are defined by a band working to implement the best of their divergent ideas and whole-heartedly participating in the constant process of refinement. With everyone working smarter and not harder, morale is up.

“Action breeds enthusiasm,” says Mozgawa. “And being involved in that world, perfecting your craft and working on it every day allows you to do more things. It allows you to be enthusiastic about what’s coming next because you’re honing skills and ideas. And I don’t think it’s wise, unless you really, really need it, to take too much of a break.”

Warpaint’s new methodology also influenced the band’s decision to forego bringing in another big-name producer and instead turn to longtime band collaborator Bercovici to help them guide Heads Up.

The L.A.-based producer and bass/ synth player in Julian Casablancas kknd The Voidz has a long history with the band. He produced their self-released 2008 debut EP, Exquisite Corpse, as well as a pair of David Bowie and Duran Duran covers that made their way onto compilation albums.

Although Mozgawa didn’t join the band until after Exquisite Corpse was done, she still considers Bercovici an integral part of their history.

“He’s a friend,” she says. “And creatively, he is the one who was the catalyst for Warpaint getting out of the garage and putting something to tape. That’s a really beautiful achievement. He really is like the fifth member of our band.”

It’s unlikely that the next time Warpaint releases new music they’ll be a quintet. But then again, the two steadfast rules for this group are that creativity is encouraged and explored, and nothing is set in stone. As they move through their second decade together, adhering to those rules continues to bring positive returns and the kind of steadfast reinvestment that breeds longevity.

“The thing that I love so much about being in this band,” says Mozgawa, “is that we start from scratch every time. Even though the way it ends up may sound like something you’ve heard before, or is influenced by any number of different styles, ultimately, we just play our own individual interpretation of what our music should sound like in the moment.

“For better or worse, that’s what we do,” she adds. “It’s never ‘let’s make a punk record or let’s make a disco record.’ And to me, it’s so much cooler that way. It’s pure.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Mekons Forever

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In some parallel universeMekons are huge rock stars. They’re worshiped for their legacy as first-wave Brit punks and adored for spending four decades evolving into something else entirely. Their hodgepodge of influences, from the Sex Pistols and Balfa Brothers to George Jones and King Tubby, only add to their popularity, and the one-time Leeds-based socialist collective are both recognized and respected as transformative pioneers.

It’s a nice thought. One that the band’s shamefully small legion of fans and advocates know is far more deserved than their status as perpetual underdogs.

Widespread adulation, however, as well as its accompanying trappings, allows many artists to become complacent. And that is the one thing Mekons will never be.

In an age where most bands spend more time on their social media presence and identity branding than staying rigidly true to their core ideals, Mekons just keep thinking up quixotic ideas and acting on them.

So it makes perfect sense that the group’s latest release, Existentialism (out now on Bloodshot Records), is yet another exercise in pushing limits.

Recorded at a Brooklyn theater in real time last summer, an audience of 75 “mekoristers” got lyric sheets, directions from an actual conductor and were politely required to break through the fourth wall.

With the band not much more versed than the audience in the recently composed material, the initial goal was to see “just how spontaneous and immediate the thing could be,” says Mekons cofounder Jon Langford, in a phone interview with CityBeat from his home in Chicago.

“We never really thought of it as a live record,” he adds. “It was a recording session where the audience was forced to be part of the band. That was the initial premise. We wanted to make a record that completely discarded any need for modern production values. We just thought we’d try and make something that sounded quite barbaric.”

If held to today’s standards, the objective was definitely met. But for anyone even remotely familiar with Mekons’ music, it’s just another charming and successful endeavor from a band that never seems to worry about much more than making sure to see things through.

“Does the world need another overly produced, heavily compressed Mekons studio album?” asks Langford. “I don’t think so. If you have a formula for how you approach each record, I think it makes it kind of lazy. And I really like the way this one sounds.”

Existentialism also comes with a 96-page book of art and writing responding to each of the album’s 12 songs, along with a download of Mekonception, Barry Mill’s 30-minute surreal take on the politically infused recording session.

It also comes on the heels of Joe Angio’s 2014 documentary on the band, Revenge of the Mekons.

Angio tells the band’s story through both past and present members, as well as a wide-range of fans, from National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen to filmmaker Mary Harron.

While Mekons knew the film was unlikely to be a merited watershed moment, Langford admits it has been a boon to the band.

“It’s been a very useful thing for us,” he says. “It’s something that both pleased and satisfied people who were interested in the band and provided an introduction for those who didn’t know anything about us. Joe did an incredible job because he actually finished it. He didn’t just run away screaming after dealing with us for that length of time.”

The film also seems to have prompted the group to recalibrate their desire to join forces creatively. Despite band members being spread across the globe and not a cent coming from any kind of corporate backing, the Mekons have three—three!—tentative albums in the works for next year.

“If we had the air miles,” says Langford, “we could probably do a couple of them every year. But then it would become a formula and become crap. So we have to change it up. But at the moment there are three achievable, but slightly scary, projects on the horizon.”

One of them will celebrate the collective’s impending 40th anniversary, one will find them returning to a proper studio in Joshua Tree (“We have mechanisms in place to booby trap that process”), and one is still in the early planning stages.

But regardless of what ends up materializing, the indomitable ensemble is undeniably re-inspired. And for both old fans and new, that’s good news.

“There’s something in the water at the moment,” Langford says. “You just reach a point in your life where life takes you over. You’re too busy with the things of having kids and earning money. It makes something like the Mekons a desirable thing to do, but just too hard to get to.

“And now, we’re suddenly entering this age where weíre like, ‘Fucking hell. If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it.’ There’s a lot of stuff on the agenda. And there’s a greater sense of urgency than we’ve ever had.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Lucy Dacus Lays Burden Down

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Too bad there’s not a better way to say “wise beyond her years.” Lucy Dacus deserves more. But it almost seems impossible to imagine anyone coming to a different conclusion after listening to the 21-year-old singer/songwriter’s stunning debut album, No Burden.

Recorded in a single day thanks to a friend who worked at Reba McEntire’s Starstruck Studio in Nashville, Burden sounds like anything but a rush job. Filled with big rock hooks as well as nuanced slow-burners, Dacus’ undeniably big voice moves effortlessly between them all.

Knowing that it was the singer’s first time in a studio, and that she and the band had only played together for a week prior, makes it all the more impressive. But it also seems to be perfectly in line with the Richmond, VA, native’s genuine and unceremonious path to a career in music.

Adopted by a piano-teaching mother and guitar-playing father, Dacus had a childhood filled with musical theater and sneaking into rock shows. Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent her from enrolling in film school. But when a planned semester off from Virginia Commonwealth University coincided with the studio availability, a new trajectory was set in motion.

If No Burden sounds more like a seasoned effort from a mid-career pro and less like a whirlwind debut from a film major, it’s a testament to the potent combination of Dacus’ big-league voice, forthright storytelling, and a determination to get better.

And she’s just getting started.

“We’re all ready to get back into the studio,” Dacus tells CityBeat during a recent roadside stop for hot dogs between gigs. “We have enough material. And I know I’m going to have a much more hands-on part in the production of it. When we recorded, I had never been in the studio. I didn’t know anything about the technology or terminology of recording. Now, I’ve got a much better grip on that stuff.”

No Burden was released in February on Richmond label EggHunt Records and was picked up shortly after by veteran indie label Matador Records. They just re-released it digitally and will be serving up physical copies on September 9.

Considering the album was getting substantial buzz before Matador got involved, it’s easy to understand why the floodgates have opened since. Everyone from Time and NPR to Pitchfork and Noisey have nice things to say about it. And because Dacus already has a stockpile of new songs ready to go, whatever comes next has a great chance to escape being tainted or shaped by everything that’s going on now.

“I wrote a lot of these new songs,” she says, “around the same time that the No Burden songs were written. Or since then, but before the album took off. A lot of the new stuff is uninfluenced by how our lives have changed. I mean, there has been some reaction to what it’s like to be a full-time musician, but it does seem a bit preserved and lucky that we had so much content before any of this happened.”

Essentially having another album in the can also means that Dacus won’t have to adjust her writing style any time soon. Pressure to adhere to a timeline doesn’t jibe with the singer’s current “capture it when it comes” method. And while inspiration seems to be coming to Dacus plenty these days, it’s nice to know there’s a reserve ready to cover any dry spells.

“I don’t push to create,” she says. “Whenever I try  to write, it comes out bad. I just have to pay attention to when my mind is moving. Listen to my thoughts. I think some people fall into the pitfall of wanting to immediately translate their experience into creative work. You have to process your thoughts. I don’t have a lot of control over it.”

For now, Dacus and her band are enjoying the ride. They’re content to share their music with a host of new cities (the band’s first ever San Diego stop comes August 12 at the Casbah) and know there is plenty more music making to come. But with all the planning, execution, and adjustments needed to make it all happen, there is one thing that they didn’t see coming.

“I didn’t realize I was basically agreeing to move away from my hometown for the first time,” says Dacus. “When most people move to another city, they usually plant their roots in that second place. They meet people and build a new circle of friends, a new network. For us, we didn’t move to a new city. We’re just roaming. It’s hard to maintain everything that I knew, all of the relationships, while being on the road.”

She’ll adjust. They all will. The music is too good and the potential too promising. It might still be a bit early for all that’s happened to truly sink in, but it’s definitely started.

“We’re way more pleased than we expected to be,” Dacus says. “We had really low expectations at the beginning. But at this point, it’s definitely exceeded them.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat 

The Geography of Kevin Morby

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Kevin Morby isn’t flashy.

He isn’t known for on-stage antics, run-ins with the law, or heroic battles with substance abuse. The 28-year-old singer/songwriter is the kind of performer far more likely to be found writing new songs in his hotel room rather than trashing it in some kind of Dionysian stupor.

Yet, despite his workmanlike approach and matter-of-fact demeanor, Morby’s backstory reads like a page out of the “How To Make It In The Big City” playbook.

He escaped Kansas City at 18, heading to New York by train at the request of the one friend he had there. With little more than a sleeping bag and wide-eyed ideas of making music, Morby made ends meet working short-term jobs from bicycle courier to babysitter.

It didn’t take long before the affable singer was playing bass with Brooklyn folk-rockers Woods and cranking out a couple of albums (as The Babies) with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. But much like the icons that initially inspired him, Morby was destined to carve out a path of his own.

Recorded after a move to L.A., 2013’s Harlem River served both as the young musician’s solo debut and an eight-song homage to his time in the Empire State. He followed it a year later with the 10-song collection Still Life, and just released his third album, Singing Saw, in April.

“I like the metaphor of something that’s beautiful,” Morby says while driving to a recent show in Minneapolis, “but also eerie.”

The first release for indie label Dead Oceans, Singing Saw was again inspired by geography. This time around, musical ideas were sparked by a move to the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington.

Nighttime walks – with the expansive city lights as a backdrop – first led Morby to the sparse and otherworldly sounds found on his new record.

Perhaps more than anything, it was an upright piano left behind by previous tenants that helped to shape Singing Saw’s collection of songs. Never working on piano before, Morby was excited by the serendipity that was seemingly directing him to shake up his songwriting process.

“The guitar is my go-to,” he says. “And it’s always been that way. But things get a little boring when you’re writing and recycling the same chords that you always do. To stumble upon an instrument like that opened up this whole new world for me.”

Even as a beginner, Morby found that dealing with basic mechanics again was anything but a hindrance. Things like not realizing what key he was in while on the piano allowed him to forget his own accrued musical prejudices and simply concentrate on sound.

Renewed energy and a creative push weren’t the only benefits the piano brought, either. Working on a new instrument allowed the songwriter to blow off steam in a newfound way.

“It’s really percussive,” says Morby. “I’m a big Fiona Apple fan and I read this interview with her where she said that she liked to write on the piano because she could take out her aggression on it. And it’s true. You can bang it. It’s almost like you’re hitting it. Even now, I write something on guitar and I’ll take it out on the piano. It’s like having two different lives or something.”

Singing Saw’s arrangements were fleshed out by Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds), who Morby met while playing in a Cohen-led live recreation of The Band’s final performance. Although the two became friends, it wasn’t until he heard one of Cohen’s self-produced solo albums that Morby thought about working with him.

“We had gotten along really well,” he says. “But it was never my intention to record the whole album with Sam. It was more just about testing it out – a ‘hey, let’s get together, record a few songs and see what happens’ kind of thing. But then we got together for four days and it went so well, the album was basically done.”

Morby has since moved from Mount Washington and taken a sublet in Echo Park, but for all practical purposes is on the road for the foreseeable future.

“I’m living in the town of tour,” he says.

But no matter where Morby ends up, the creative shift and expansion of musical arsenal he acquired in the L.A. hills left an indelible mark.

And while he admits that his next project is already close to completion, it will be interesting to see what comes when the singer has a long stretch of nights to just walkabout and absorb his surroundings again.

“I’m always working,” says Morby. “But a big part of this record was the time and space I had from touring. There was a lot of reflecting and being appreciative of music in general. It sounds cheesy, but I really found an appreciation for all instruments and aspects of music. And that’s exciting.”

Originally published in San Diego City Beat

Cressey: Padres Piano Man

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Padres organist Bobby Cressey has probably “taken you out to the ballgame” more times than you know. Since 2010, the lifelong Friars fan has provided live organ music to select games at Petco Park from his perch in the Upper Deck along first base.

Now in his 7th year, Cressey is scheduled for 28 games this season – including the July 12 All-Star Game. But landing what the 34-year-old calls “the coolest job in San Diego” wasn’t as simple as catching a routine fly ball.

Growing up in a musical household led by the choir directors of a Carlsbad church, Cressey started playing piano at 10. When the family moved to Scotland, music was part of the curriculum. And when they moved back to the States a handful of years later, the teenaged keyboard player worked at an L.A. music store.

Cressey returned to San Diego after high school to attend UCSD and graduated with a degree in structural engineering. Likely the only student to take a fluid mechanics final early so he could tour with a reggae band in New Zealand, the University Heights resident has yet to use his degree.

“I’ve never made a dime from that,” Cressey told DSD over a cup of tea at Lestat’s. “I stuck it out because so much of my time, and parents money, had already gone into it. But the idea of going back and actually having to make a career off that terrifies me.”

Cressey moved back to L.A. after graduation and made a name for himself, among other places, as part of the House Party band at the now non-existent House of Blues, Sunset Strip. Playing with L.A. luminaries from Snoop Dogg to Ice Cube, the bearded musician seemed destined to put his roots down two hours north of his hometown.

His wife, whom he first met at UCSD, lured him back to America’s Finest City. After dating by distance for two years, Cressey moved back to San Diego in January of 2010. By chance, he heard through the local musicians’ grapevine that the Padres were planning to add a live organist. Just a few weeks later, at that year’s Padres Town Hall Meeting, Cressey handed his card to then-CEO Tom Garfinkel.

When February rolled around and he had not heard anything back, Cressey kicked things into high gear. He made a video, tracked down the director of in-game entertainment, and put together a list of reasons why he was uniquely qualified for the gig. “I’ve probably never hustled so hard for anything in my life,” Cressey said.

The musician had all but given up on the gig when he got the call to audition three weeks before the season started.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to his continuing role at Petco, Cressey also plays with top 40 act The Mighty Untouchables, r&b/soul crooner Tiffany Jane and The Kicks, and The Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra.

“I try to be as versatile as possible,” said Cressey. “It’s allowed me to be a part of so many different scenes. And it makes sure I don’t go too far down any one rabbit hole.”

As a life-long and die-hard Padres fan, being at the ballpark for all 81 home games each season is one rabbit hole the musician wouldn’t mind completely falling down. But Cressey is also aware of the balance his schedule gives him, and cherishes his role as part of the team he loves.

“I still feel the passion,” he said. “If I was there every game, it might start to feel like a grind. When I walk into Petco, it still feels fresh and I’m still completely stoked. I mean, I tune into the ball games when I’m not playing at the park. I’m into it.”

Originally published by DiscoverSD

Banking on Santigold

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Santi White is nearing the end of her proverbial rope. She’s over-worked, bone-tired, and making a concerted effort not to burn out. But mostly, the artist also known as Santigold is wondering just how long she can continue the energy and acuity needed to push her third LP, the February-released 99 Cents, released in February via Atlantic Records..

“It’s really intense. Honestly, it’s hard to be a human being and sustain this pace,” says White with a laugh from Austin, Texas, where she’s holed up between multiple SXSW appearances. “And it’s especially hard with me because I’m so hands-on with everything and approach it all as art. It’d be a lot easier if I were one of those corporation artists that had millions of dollars, still actually sold records, and had crazy teams behind me. But because I’m the type of artist I am, it is so all-consuming.”

The performer/producer is undoubtedly stretched thin, but it’s not like she didn’t know what she was getting into. A former big-label A&R rep, she had written songs for the likes of GZA, Lily Allen, and Ashlee Simpson before releasing her own 2008 self-titled debut as Santogold – later changed to Santigold after a legal challenge from a filmmaker and owner of a mail-order jewelry business.

Earmarked by significant contributions from Switch, Diplo, and producer John Hill, her first record was a genre-bending mixture of pop, new wave, punk, and dub. She followed a similarly eclectic blueprint on 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe, an album that made it to number one on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart. But it isn’t the music or the process of making it that is throwing White for a loop this time around.

“It’s all the new technology,” she says. “Everybody is trying to utilize it, but for the actual human trying to move through it, I just don’t know how it can be sustainable. The quantity of content you’re expected to be doing now is too much. Luckily, I’ve been trying to create content daily. The creation is what I love. It’s the pace and the budget that are really fucking difficult.”

White is well aware that a lot of the pressure she’s currently feeling is self-imposed. No one is forcing her to promote 99 Cents with mini infomercials on tumblr, art installations, parties at actual 99¢ stores, and a seemingly never-ending laundry list of press commitments – all on top of directing videos, choreographing live-show dancing, making costumes, and producing social content.

But when big-name artists backed by production crews and creative teams are setting the standards, regular artists are forced to keep up.

“It’s almost as if the music is a side note at this point,” says White. “And that’s what I think is the real danger. You just can’t spend as much time on the music. Everybody is at their max. There are no budgets. There is no help. And there is a lot of expectation.”

Despite the inequalities, pressure, and increased workload, the 39-year-old singer is anything but deterred. Instead, she’s taken on the new challenges of technology-based self-promotion with a spirited tenacity. And she’s done it all while raising her nearly two-year-old son.

While she doesn’t hesitate to criticize the current state of the pop music machine or its non-musical burdens, White is bolstered by the thought that good music will always survive passing trends.

“I think the fact that people are buying vinyl again is telling,” she says. “But it all comes down to values. Do people value talent? Do they value hard work? Immediacy? Disposability? Empty celebrity? Culture is moving without thought or direction for where we’re headed, and is letting us be guided by the wave of new technology, rather than driving the ship. I just really hope it swings back to valuing something more someday.”

Until that day comes, expect Santigold to keep producing her unique blend of musical stew and designing the entire experience around it. Whether she continues to keep stride with the system she routinely calls out remains to be seen. But just because she’s got all of her chips on the table doesn’t mean there still aren’t a few tricks up her sleeve.

“I do have in the back of my mind where I’d like to go,” says White. “But I also feel like it’s really important to be in the moment. It’s hard work right now and it’s all I can do to barely hang on. I’m just trying to see this thing through.

“I’m an artist, I love creating, and I want to participate. I want to be part of the pop world. I like pop music. And I love making pop music. But I want to keep the integrity. Honestly, I just want to keep the art of what it is that I’m doing.”

Originally published by San Diego CityBeat

Exploring Julia Holter’s ‘Wilderness’

Julia Holter - Credit Juri Hiensch

Julia Holter readily admits she isn’t a huge fan of touring. Perhaps she’s only saying that because the L.A. singer/songwriter is currently enjoying the waning days of a 6-week break between extensive runs. Or maybe it’s the fact that she hasn’t yet figured out how to get any work done on the road. Either way, it isn’t going to matter for a while.

The 31-year-old released her fourth full-length, Have You In My Wilderness, in September. She spent October opening dates for New Mexico indie-poppers Beirut, and the rest of last year zigzagging the globe from Germany to China and Korea to Australia.

Holter is kicking off her first full-fledged U.S. run for Wilderness this week with a 6-date West Coast tour starting in San Diego. Then it’s off to Europe for a few more shows, and back once again for some East Coast and Midwest dates, as well as a few in Canada.

Although it won’t be until mid-March before the classically trained multi-instrumentalist will be back in her own ZIP code for more than a few days, she does recognize the upside that comes with performing every night.

“Things surprisingly change,” Holter tells CityBeat from her Los Angeles home. “Songs from the albums end up sounding a lot different when they’re played live. And that’s always something that I’ve been comfortable with. We have different instrumentation when we play and there aren’t a million layers of vocals and keyboards. You do something different with what you have and I like that.”

Born from a trio of songs that once exclusively lived in her live set – “Sea Calls Me Home,” “Betsy on the Roof,” and the album’s title track – Have You In My Wilderness sets itself part as Holter’s only record that doesn’t construct an overarching theme from literary sources.

Her 2011 debut, Tragedy, was inspired by the ancient Greek play Hippolytus, and 2012’s follow-up, Ekstasis, leans on references from Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, and Canadian poet Anne Carson. It was Colette’s Gigi that helped to color Loud City Song in 2013.

Breaking from that tradition, Holter has described Wilderness simply as a “collection of ballads.” And while producer Cole Marsden Greif-Neill made sure the singer’s voice was far more prominent in the mix this time around, the new album still rests comfortably where pop and experimental music intersect.

Does that mean Holter is done with literary references or operating under a thematic umbrella? Not necessarily.

“I like to work with overall stories,” she says. “There’s something very exciting to me about having recurring characters, even if it’s an abstraction of that character that’s not always fitting. I’m sure I’ll do something like that again. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Even if she does return to an academic text or outside source for inspiration in the future, the singer is skeptical of anyone with the idea that her music is any more fraught with ideas than other things out there.

“I don’t think my music is high-concept at all,” says Holter. “And I don’t think I’m pushing the boundaries in terms of conceptual music. Some people might say it, but that just has to be semantics or something. There’s far more conceptual music that exists these days. And I’m not really strategizing my music in any way.”

She’s also not about to switch things up by incorporating direct life experiences into the narratives of her songs. First and foremost, Holter sees herself as a storyteller.

“Nobody really wants to know about my weird relationships,” she says. “I mean, don’t people want to listen to a song and apply it to their own lives anyway? Then it has a universal quality and is much more engaging than a song that’s about this very specific, weird person’s life. Nobody needs to know that. It’s kind of boring.”

Fans would likely enjoy debating that, but it doesn’t really matter. Even if Holter fancied the idea of completely re-designing her creative approach, she doesn’t have the time.

In addition to her current tour schedule, Holter was just tapped to compose the musical score for “Bleed For This,” an upcoming Ben Younger directed/Martin Scorsese produced boxing film. She also recently joined her father – historian, author, CEO of Downtown L.A. Motor group, and folk singer Darryl Holter – on his 2015 release, “Radio Songs: Woody Guthrie in Los Angeles 1937-1939.”

Performing alongside Ani DiFranco and Sara Watkins as the album’s guest performers, it was a surprising first for the father/daughter duo.

“It wasn’t exactly a familiar experience,” says the younger Holter. “I’ve definitely listened to him play for years. But that’s very different than playing with one another. And it was the first time that we worked on something like that together. It was fun and very moving.”

She’s excited to repeat the process again on his next album, but has plenty of her own work to do in the interim.

After the breakneck pace of four albums in five years, as well as her first foray into the world of film scoring, Holter is content with just concentrating on her upcoming tour dates before making a commitment on the next creative project.

“I’m actually trying to figure that out,” she says. “But there’s not a clear process for it. For now, I’m just trying to make sense of the ideas I already have.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Leon Bridges’ Old-School Cool

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It’s apparent within a few moments of speaking with Leon Bridges that the cool he exudes is genuine. The singer-songwriter’s subtle southern drawl and off-the-cuff humility are undeniably infectious. And both perfectly reflect his conservative Fort Worth upbringing as the son of a church-going single mother.

He begins more than one response with “I’m a simple person,” and measures each question before answering thoughtfully. His polite and straightforward manner never wavers.

In an age dominated by shameless self-promotion, Bridges’ modesty is almost at odds with his unbridled success. His June-released, retro-leaning debut, “Coming Home,” premiered at number six on the Billboard 200 and he’s currently in the midst of a completely sold-out world tour.

“It’s insane, man,” Bridges recently told CityBeat before playing to a capacity crowd at Chicago’s Vic Theatre. “Everything’s moving so fast. It’s totally blowing my mind. I just had no idea. Some people might think I did this because I knew it would be successful. I didn’t think that at all. (laughs) I wish I did.”

Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the 26-year-old’s meteoric rise to stardom is the mythology that is helping him get there.

And it reads like a Hollywood script.

Once on a path to becoming a choreographer, Bridges spent downtime between college dance classes writing songs with a fellow keyboard-toting student. When his Usher and Ginuwine knock-offs sounded more like the “old school singers” to a friend, Bridges was encouraged to check out Sam Cooke via YouTube. It stuck.

Combining his already astute fashion sense with the simplicity of Cooke-era songwriting, Bridges initially floundered as a retro-soul act in Fort Worth clubs while working as a dishwasher on the side.

That is, until high-waisted Wranglers came into play.

One night, Bridges was introduced to Austin Jenkins of Texas garage rockers White Denim because they were both wearing the same kind of jeans.

A week later, Jenkins saw Bridges perform and asked him to record in the studio that he and White Denim drummer Joshua Block just set up. That was a year ago. And they haven’t looked back.

“What’s crazy is that none of this was forced,” said Bridges. “I had my own thing going on when I met Austin. He was like, ‘Let’s record these songs,’ and we did. The fact I found the most amazing band, team, management, and record label just from that is amazing. And now everything is going so well. I did not expect any of that.”

He also didn’t expect the label frenzy that hit epic proportions when he first released a few of his songs online. But that didn’t stop high-level execs from flying in from overseas or the endless barrage of invitations to a variety of pitch meetings.

Although he finally settled with historical powerhouse Columbia Records, Bridges did it with the caveat that “Coming Home” would remain unchanged from the way he delivered it.

“If the labels weren’t down with what I was doing,” he said, “then I’d be totally fine being an independent artist. And really, it was almost like an experiment for them, because they didn’t know how the crowd was going to react. We’re doing the old school formula and you just never know. But to see how people are reacting to it, and to see labels totally accepting of what I’m doing, it definitely gives me the confidence to keep doing my own thing.”

Confidence isn’t exactly an innate quality for Bridges. But with each sold-out show, he’s admits to gaining more and more traction. Things like a recent collaboration with rapper Macklemore haven’t hurt either.

But despite the many requests for contributions to various other projects, as well as past opening slots for a diverse range of headliners like Lord Huron and Sharon Van Etten, the low-key crooner has absolutely no plans to change his formula.

“I mean, I do want to make the next record better than the first,” said Bridges. “But it’ll be the same approach. Right now, I’m just really presenting it to the crowds and saying, ‘this is what I’ve got.’ We only have a 10-song record out and a lot of those songs aren’t the types that immediately get the crowd up and dancing. But it’s working.

And I think it’s great that what I do is nothing new.”

Bridges isn’t divulging any of the surprises his follow-up to “Coming Home” might contain. But it’s obvious that his interests go beyond classic-era soul/gospel when he casually mentions his love for singers like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zant.

And while his current tour has now been extended all the way through next summer, Bridges admits new material could arrive sooner than later.

“I write wherever I am,” he said. “I could be in the grocery store and think of a whole song right there. I don’t need a certain place to do it. I just write whatever is in my mind at the time.”

Whenever the next thing comes, Bridges knows it’ll be hard to compete with the unfathomable run he’s currently enjoying. But he’s determined not to lose himself along the way.

“I look at myself as a songwriter,” said Bridges. “I want everything I do, and everything I put out, to be a reflection of me. I write under the umbrella of soul music, and my songs are about love. I’m just trying to package it in my own way.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat