Category Archives: Performances

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

Leon Bridges’ Old-School Cool

Leon Bridges press photo 2 - record player - photo credit rambo

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

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Kid Koala LIVE video

 

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.

CLICK HERE FOR KID KOALA VIDEO

Johnny Not So Rotten

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.

SM: Hollowness?
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.
JL: Right.

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

 

The Freedom of Patti Smith

 

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

Not So General Mills

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

The Burning of Rome is on FIRE

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

Wherefore Art Thou, Chromeo?

These days, it’s not that difficult to find Patrick Gemayel (P-Thugg) and David Macklovitch (Dave 1), the childhood friends who comprise the retro-electro-funksters Chromeo. They’re on tour, of course, wrapping up the third, and final, round of dates around their 2010 release, Business Casual. The pair, based in Montreal, Quebec, first burst onto the scene in 2004 with their debut, She’s in Control, and it’s worldwide club smash, “Needy Girl.” But it wasn’t until 2007’s Fancy Footwork that things really blew up. Since then, the tongue-in-cheek mobile dance party has funked-up the biggest stages across the globe including Glastonbury, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Reading and Leeds — among hundreds of others. On Monday night, they’ll be in town converting wallflowers at the House of Blues downtown. I recently caught up with Macklovitch before a gig in Boulder, Colo., and talked new music, putting his teaching and student career on hiatus, and that signature Chromeo sound.

Scott McDonald: How goes it?
Dave Macklovitch: Everything’s cool. But it’s the autopilot tour grind right now. We just try to maintain and make sure every show is good. We want each performance to be better than the last.

SM: Has that been working?
DM: People love it. And they react that way because it’s real. You know what I mean? There’s no big label telling us what to do. We don’t make songs for the radio. And we’re not thinking about anything but making it a party. We’re just two childhood friends, making weird music and having fun with it.

SM: Have you started working on new material?
DM: I started writing about a year ago. But we’ve both been writing on our own and when the touring stops, we’ll put all of the ideas together and really get crackin’.

SM: Seems like you have a lot going on outside of the band as well.
DM: Yeah. But I’m just doing music right now. It will stay that way for the next couple of months. I’m going at (his PHD in French Literature) at my own pace now. And at this point, all I’m doing is writing. So when I get off tour, I’ll be headed to the library and I’ll start writing again. They know I’ll finish it, when I finish it. I haven’t been teaching as much, but when I want to teach, I teach. Before, I was teaching 3 days, then I’d fly out, do a Chromeo show, fly back, and teach again. But I wanted to do a real tour this time. Thankfully, this does make me a little bit flexible when I want it.

SM: Does it ever seem like too much?
DM: Naw. We’ll never burn out. We’re too smart. We plan everything very carefully. And we try to stay healthy and balanced in how we strategize all of the Chromeo activities. If you look at the touring we did around Business Casual, no one can fuck with us. We did one before it came out, we did one at the height of the promotion, and we’re doing one now – to make sure we go out with a bang on this record.

SM: How do you reconcile all of your influences?
DM: Well, for example, things like hip-hop and R&B are more of an attitude for us. While our music might not exactly reflect it, people like R. Kelly and The Dream directly influence us because of the way they approach their lyrics. To us, that is really, really important. And we’re the kind of band that wants to turn all of the love song tropes on their head. But it’s a vortex. The 80s are our backbone, but there are a whole lot of other influences in there as well.

SM: Could they ever change the formula?
DM: I don’t think so. There’s one Chromeo sound. And if we lose that Chromeo sound, we lose who we are. But I feel like we can really stretch it. Everyone we admire can do that. A LCD Soundsystem song is unmistakable, but it could be anything from a jam to a ballad. He (James Murphy) can stretch it, but it still makes sense. Same thing with Kanye West. And that’s exactly what we always want to do as well.

SM: You said lyrics are important. Yours are pretty funny.
DM: It’s the classic high-brow/low-brow trick. There’s no middle ground. If you want middle ground, you can listen to Maroon 5.

SM: What’s next?
DM: Back to the studio to make some new music.

 

Originally published by NBC San Diego on October 17, 2011

10 Questions for Jonny from The Drums

 

Who: Frontman Jonny Pierce from the Drums
What: The Brooklyn-based five-piece plays ridiculously infectious pop tunes with an edge
Why: The Drums just dropped their sophomore release, Portamento, and it trumps their acclaimed debut
Where: The Casbah
When: Saturday night, with opener IO ECHO


Scott McDonald:
 You and [Drums co-founder] Jacob [Graham] have been friends for so long. Does it help the band knowing someone that long?
Johnny Pierce: Well, Jacob and I have been very close since before we were even teenagers. I think we thought we knew all there was to know about each other, but touring for three years has shown both of us that there is so much more to know. I feel as though we are growing together through all of this. Some of this growth has been lovely — other parts of it have been ugly.

 

SM: Portamento keeps the energy of the first record and builds on it. Was there a difference in the process?
JP: One of our goals with this band is to stay consistent sonically. Our favorite bands always sounded the same with every song and usually to critical fault, but we never really cared about critics. We just do what we do. I think the only main difference here is subject matter. I wanted to write an honest album … one that was less escapist than our previous releases.

 

SM: Production sounds a lot cleaner this time around. Did you just have access to better equipment?
JP: Well, we didn’t buy a single piece of new recording equipment. I think it’s just like anything else one does. You just get better with practice.

 

SM: Is that you on the front cover? The pics seem to mirror each other.
JP: Yes, that is me as a boy. I found that photo while looking for a cover that reflects the autobiographical nature of the album. I like that you used the word mirror in your question because that was the exact intent.

 

SM: Sick of the Joy Division/Smiths/etc. comparisons yet or does that just come with the territory?
JP: Those are all good bands that got me into the bands that I obsessed over growing up — like the Wake and Blueboy — so I don’t mind the comparisons. I do have to say I haven’t personally listened to Joy Division or the Smiths in years … I just can’t anymore.

 

SM: It was publicized that you guys almost split recently. What happened and how did you guys keep it together?
JP: Oh, it’s like anything else. If you run too fast for too long, you’re gonna crash and burn. Touring was starting to grate on all of us. Thankfully, working on Portamento helped unify us again in some ways.

 

SM: You write some damn catchy tunes. Can you see the formula ever changing?
JP: I have such a big fetish for perfectly constructed pop, and I think that will always dominate this band. But I also have a soft spot for linear, repetitive house — like some of the smart house that Kompakt has been releasing for years.

 

SM: What is the current incarnation of the band? Are you at the kit when you play live?
JP: We are five onstage. Jacob has moved to synth, and Connor has moved to guitar. We have a couple friends joining us on drums and bass. I just sing, but I did record and program all the drums on Portamento.

 

SM: Two years and two albums. Is the plan for a new record sometime next year?
JP: I think we are going to take a year and focus on some other things. For one, I’d like to meet someone and fall in love.

Originally published by NBC San Diego on October 15, 2011

Trentemøller Ready For New Journey

Last time he was in California, the closest that Danish producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist Anders Trentemøller got to San Diego was playing at April’s Coachella festival.

No stranger to huge crowds, the minimalist electronic musician made a name for himself playing to an estimated 50,000 fans at the 2009 Roskilde Festival in his native Denmark.

Audiences are sure to be a bit smaller during his North American club and theater swing, but those who catch his Wednesday set at the Belly Up will get the same large-scale performance the DJ designed for hordes of festivalgoers in the past.

“We are so looking forward to coming back again,” Trentemøller said recently from his home studio in Copenhagen. “We’ve added some new visuals to the show, but we’re also keeping a lot of the elements we had from the last time. We also have the chance to play in some new cities and some new venues, so we are excited. When we played Coachella, we were only allowed to play for 50 minutes and only played one song with vocals. We are looking forward to playing a full set and doing more of our songs with singing. It’s going to be a totally new kind of journey.”

The journey won’t include scaling things back despite the change in audience size, but it will still be kept in proportion. While the visual component is an important aspect of the shows, Trentemøller refuses to let it take over.

“The music is definitely cinematic,” he said. “We really don’t have a lead singer, and so much of it is instrumental, so I feel it’s really important to have something that can ‘set the scene,’ so to speak. Without dictating too much, the visuals can make a vibe for the music. But it can’t be too much —- then people watch it more than the band. We are six people playing onstage together, so I like to use things that incorporate well with all of us.”

Switching between solo performances as a DJ and full-band performances, Trentemøller also transitions between the electronic and rock worlds. He first gained exposure from creating house music and playing keyboards, guitar and drums in indie bands in Copenhagen. Being recognized as an international ambient DJ is somewhat of a newfound role for the 37-year-old composer. But he said he cherishes the opportunity to indulge in multiple genres and responsibilities, and doesn’t plan to change things up anytime soon.

“That’s the thing for me,” he said. “I always try to be both. I always say to people that I have one leg in the club scene, and one in the rock scene. And for me, it’s not hard to mix those two. I love that people can have such a different experience when they come and see me as a DJ than they do when they come and see me play with a band. And I think that people are now realizing that I can be both. They’re much more open-minded to it now.”

Trentemøller has also remixed a lot of other artists’ songs, and his new album —- a double CD aptly titled “Reworked/Remixed” —- highlights much of that work from the past few years. But the multi-instrumentalist sees the new release more as a compilation and will not be playing songs from it during the live show.

“This is effectively the second part of the Great Wide Yonder Tour,” he said. “But we change it up by playing new versions of the songs and reworking things from the last time we were in the States. But the music seems to change just by us playing it over and over. New things appear, people switch it up, and it happens without us trying.”

Whether scripted or on the fly, the DJ and his band want to create a special experience for fans every night.

“These shows really have their own life,” Trentemøller said. “We don’t know where they’re going to go a lot of the time. But then again, that’s what makes them fun for everyone involved.”

First published by North County Times on October 20, 2011