Captain Sensible in repose (with fLUSH issue 11), 2002 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
They shoulda been finished by 1980. In the DIY world of late ‘70s punk rock, which saw bands implode (or explode) sometimes within days or weeks of forming, the Damned were releasing their fourth album in 1980, what I consider to be their magnum opus, THE BLACK ALBUM. Of course, by 1980, the band had already split after the departure of guitarist and primary songwriter, Brian James following the release of their second full-length, MUSIC FOR PLEASURE; thankfully, the call of the stage (and a nice payday) brought the remaining band – vocalist Dave Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies and bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible – back together, this time with drinking buddy Lemmy filling in on bass. By the time the sessions for THE BLACK ALBUM began, the group was already on to their fourth bassist, Paul Gray having supplanted former Saints bass player, Algy Ward. Over the years, twenty-five full-time or touring musicians have been a part of the legendary aggregation, with Vanian being the only constant; however, the band coalesced into a solid line-up with bassist Stu West joining Sensible, Vanian, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron and drummer Pinch in 2004.
And, so, forty years after releasing the first UK punk record, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED, the band are back with a major tour underway and a new album in the offing. With a stop scheduled at the Delmar Hall in Saint Louis on April 21, I reached out to the responsible parties to check in with the band before the commencement of the North American leg of their tour. It was agreed that e-mailing some questions to Captain Sensible would be the best approach. This, then, is the result of that communication; other than a minor tweak here and there, Captain’s answers are left intact, exactly as he wrote them. No animals were harmed in the exchange. Well, maybe a couple, but… they deserved it!
DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED
THE MULE: You’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of your debut album, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED and forty years of a general wreaking of havoc with an extensive world tour. How has the tour been going and what can we expect when you hit the shores of North America for a two-month long jaunt?
CAPTAIN: The band gets on great; probably why it’s the longest lasting lineup in Damned history. But, the important thing is they play the material, particularly from the classic period, with real gusto. Stu and Pinch are a phenomenal rhythm section which allows Monty (an improv genius) and myself freedom to be playful with the songs… it’s never quite the same twice. Which is good, because love music shouldn’t be too predictable. I like an element of danger… I’ve always seen my role in the band to add a touch of chaos.
THE MULE: Of late, a lot of groups have been celebrating these types of anniversaries by playing the entire record live. Can we expect to hear those twelve songs played front to back or do you have other surprises in store?
CAPTAIN: We’ll be playing a special career spanning 40th anniversary set – with the Damned you’re getting three bands for the price of one – we were the first UK punk band, had a hand in creating the Goth scene and veer towards garage psych whenever the inclination takes us. The setlist can change mid gig, depending on the audience… and well timed heckling is encouraged. It’s all about the live experience – to hell with choreography and set routines – we like to live a little dangerous and just go with whatever happens.
From the punk material, I have to say my favourite is “Neat Neat Neat,” with its fabulous Eddie Cochran-esque riff. Perfect for a quick jam and eminently danceable. On the other hand, “Eloise” is simply epic… a theatrical, mad, desperate declaration of love for a “lady of the night,” These things happen… quite often, probably.
The Damned and friends, circa 1977 (Chrissie Hynde, Tommy Ramone, Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible, Dee Dee Ramone, Brian James, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: The album was among a number of firsts for the band: You were the first punk band from the UK to release a single with “New Rose,” DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED was the first UK punk album and you were the first English punk group to tour the US. What do you remember from those first few months of the band and the explosion of punk that followed? There must be a great sense of pride in what you, Dave, Brian and Rat accomplished in such a short amount of time.
THE CAPTAIN: Brian put the original ad in a music mag looking for like minded musicians. He wanted a gang that played with aggression. You can hear the results on the first two albums… but, when he jumped ship in ‘78, it left the rest of us with a huge problem. None of us had any history of songwriting. Also, with me now on guitar, we needed a bassist.
We used to hang around in the pubs in Portobello Road, where Lemmy was a permanent feature – propping up some fruit machine or other. Apart from speed metal, that was his passion. He’d let us sleep on his floor if we missed the last bus home, and was a good chum.
We were broke and had been offered some money for a London Damned show if we could get some kind of lineup back together.
As ex-guitarist of the Johnny Moped band, I fancied a go at 6 strings again, so we called up our old mate Lemmy to play bass and knocked together a setlist of Damned and Motorhead favourites during a short boozy rehearsal. The reaction of the audience on the night of the performance was splendid so we arranged another show… and then another…. and then, someone suggested writing some new tunes.
Lemmy had a tour coming up, however, so we found ourselves having the difficult task of finding a bassist with equally uncompromising attitude and sound… and then someone mentioned this bloke they’d heard of that plays his bass with metal picks. His name was Algy, he demonstrated his thunderous technique and was immediately offered the job. Finally, the Damned was ready to record its psychedelic punk rock record… MGE (MACHINE GUN ETIQUETTE – Editor).
The Damned, circa 1976 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (photo credit: JOHN INGHAM)
THE MULE: I’m reading Steve Jones’ book, LONELY BOY. He kind of gives short shrift to the Pistols’ ANARCHY TOUR that the Damned were a part of. Do you have any memories – fond or otherwise – of that tour and the other bands on the bill?
CAPTAIN: Damned, Clash, Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ band got on great – more than could be said for the four managers who all wanted preeminence for their bunch. MacClaren put the package together cos his lot couldn’t sell tickets outside London… a situation which changed when Steve Jones swore on a teatime TV show. At that point, with Rotten and company on all the front pages the next day, the Damned were no longer required to fill venues so we were given the heave-ho.
I bump into Steve every now ‘n’ then, and put it to him recently that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to curse and swear on a TV programme – I could’ve quite easily done that myself. More than capable! His reply? “But you didn’t, Captain… WE did”
You have to laugh…
The Damned play the Galaxy in Saint Louis, 2002 (Captain Sensible; Dave Vanian) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
THE MULE: The Damned has certainly had their share of ups and downs, with members coming and going, breaking up and reforming, legal issues regarding the use of the name, signing with and leaving record companies. For you, what are the high points and low points in the band’s career?
CAPTAIN: High point was the reception of the first album. It caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly, we were on front pages… the record is manic and riff heavy – Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.
We had no idea the record would be popular… let alone talked about 40 years on.
We were just making the music we wanted to hear cos there was precious little around at the time that had any get up and go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had left was country, disco and prog.
But mainly, I was trying to change my own world cos for me, as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort… I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne’er do wells – then punk rockshowed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor… and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.
During rehearsals, I was sleeping on Brian’s floor; we spent our days traipsing around clubs attempting to blag support gigs – which paid peanuts so we were generally starving. When Stiff Records offered us a record deal, the promise of a visit to a Wimpy Bar was the clincher.
As for low points… Maybe the rows and punch ups? But all bands have them, I think… even the Mamas and the Papas.
THE MULE: A couple of fairly well known musicians produced the first two Damned albums. What are your thoughts on those first two records and the producers, the Nicks: Lowe and Mason?
CAPTAIN: Nick managed to capture the live sound of the band… it’s not “posh,” that’s for sure. If you play the record loud and close your eyes, you could be in London’s sleazy basement Roxy Club watching the band. It is pure punk – unlike some of our contemporaries, who polished and perfected their sound in an un-punk like manner, I thought.
Nick Mason stood in for Syd Barrett… our original choice. But we were getting Floyd’s studio for free, so couldn’t tell him to eff off.
The Damned’s Abbey Road moment (Stu West,Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian, Pinch, Monty Oxymoron) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: One of my all-time favorite albums and my favorite Damned album has always been THE BLACK ALBUM. What are your memories of writing and recording that record? How do you think it holds up 37 years later?
CAPTAIN: Somehow, the Damned had a role in kick-starting the punk AND Goth scenes – and moving into the ‘80s, I’d noticed Dave Vanian’s songwriting was moving into darker territory – which culminated in the appropriately titled …BLACK ALBUM. We were fascinated by the possibilities a little experimentation in the studio would give… It was a very creative time of Dave and myself having all night brainstorming sessions. The other guys would listen the next day, open-mouthed at the wild departure from the two minute thrashes we’d been famous for. These are the most fun songs to perform… but demand a lot of concentration.
THE MULE: It’s been nearly ten years since the last album of new material, SO, WHO’S PARANOID. I understand that you’re working on a new record. Can you tell us about the PledgeMusic page and when we’ll see the finished product? Do you have something unexpected up your collective sleeves? With the new record coming, your fans have to wonder: Where do the Damned go from here?
The Damned, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Pinch, Dave Vanian, Stu West, Monty Oxymoron) (uncredited photo)
CAPTAIN: The Buzzcocks guys told us about this PledgeMusic thing, which I’d no idea about – but when told it allowed us to make the album we wanted to make… without a record label bloke peering over your shoulder, I was there. So, we can pretty much do what we like – which in the ‘80s would’ve meant getting comprehensively sloshed and wrecking the studio and getting thrown out of a few along the way for those sort of capers. Probably not this time though, being considerably older… and marginally wiser.
Pinch, Stu and Monty are such great players though… they’re going to get a chance to flex their muscles musically. This is a band that can break out of a song structure and really jam it up.
Each album we’ve made sounds different from the last one – and this one will continue that trend. It’s fun to experiment, to be creative… take a few risks. The only shame is not releasing before the world tour, but to have boshed out a half finished album would be wrong. I have SERGEANT PEPPER… and PET SOUNDS in my record collection, played ‘em to death over the years and, unlikely as it sounds, always aspire to achieve those standards.
An album to celebrate forty glorious years of the Damned seemed a good idea. We don’t make many… it’s quality over quantity. We’ll go off on a tangent, as per usual, as we don’t care to repeat ourselves. It’s been a musical journey in the Damned. I love the experimenting in the studio… all night brainstorming sessions fueled by copious amounts of quality ale. That’s the way to do it – it’s gonna be fun!
There will be some surprises, but plenty of energy and melodic content, too. Oh, and some darkness, too.
The Pledge campaign was an instant success. Thanks, everyone! We are currently trawling through the best material we have and putting it through the Damned machine. Who knows how much longer this band can go on, so we are really going at it with a Big (Brother) eye on the quality. Rest assured, it will be as different as any album the band has ever made. Move on or croak!!! We want people to discover this record and be aurally challenged. Dave, in particular, has some really wacky ideas that he wants to put on here and we are all pretty excited that he is vibed up about it. We may have to tour with a full orchestra and dance troupe to realize it properly! Hahahahaaaaa.
THE MULE: You had a successful solo run in the early ’80s and you continue to release music outside of the band. Is there any news on that front? If so, what and when can we expect something?
CAPTAIN: I did an album with Paul Gray… A POSTCARD FROM BRITAIN, it’s called. It’s a concept piece which reflects our views on our home country… not all of them glowing!
THE MULE: Looking back on a forty-plus year career, where do you think the Damned places in the pantheon of rock music?
CAPTAIN: I really don’t care about any of that… it’s all been fantastic fun. And, a wonderful musical adventure. The Damned are outsiders – we don’t have celeb friends or go to swanky parties. We are the same as we’ve always been… just a bunch of…
The Damned play the Royal Albert Hall, May 20, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (Photo credit: DOD MORRISON PHOTOGRAPHY)
THE MULE: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Look forward to seeing you in Saint Louis on April 21.
CAPTAIN: Cheers!!! I have to be real careful these days not to overdo it, as hangovers are gruesome when you get to this age. The getting carted about all over the place is tough on the system too – I always say I do the gigs for free… but I wanna get paid for all the traveling.
Having said that, there is a theory that you stay the same mental age as when you first join your band… to a certain extent I’ve not had the responsibilities and worries that normal people have, I’ve shifted a few records… but been bankrupt and everything in between, as well. To be honest the pursuit of money and fame means nothing to me… who needs a flashy car anyway – I’m happy to get around by train.
I’m a perennial juvenile delinquent… my hero is still Dennis the Menace. There’s more than a bit of him in my act.
After a year of loss (drummer Darius Minwalla and former bassist Joe Skyward both passed away) and of new beginnings (the release of their first record in six years, SOLID STATES), the Posies – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, with drummer Frankie Siragusa – hit the road with a string of secret, “Pop-Up” shows. Playing in unconventional locations and venues, the newly revitalized band has hit upon one of the more intriguing ways to get their music out to the most die-hard Posies fans. I had the opportunity to speak with Jon Auer before a recent show in Minneapolis, which found him traveling and taking a ferry to his appointed destination.
THE MULE: So, you’ve been doing this since you were… what, seventeen? The Posies, solo work, REM, Big Star…
JON AUER: Well, yes…there’s solo work and I’ve been in Big Star. Ken’s done REM and also Big Star… we’ve both done many other things and worked in many different situations with different people… for instance, I’ve also worked on a record with William Shatner and Ben Folds (2004’s HAS BEEN).
THE MULE: Well, there you go. That’s even more important; that’s really impressive!
JON: Right, haha! But, anyway… you were saying?
THE MULE: How do you keep things fresh? How do you maintain that initial excitement? You know… what you felt at the beginning?
JON: I think it’s by trying to not repeat ourselves. That’s had a huge impact on the amount of enjoyment that I or we get out of what we do. I mean, I think it’s the same in life; if you’re sorta coasting and doing what you’ve always done perhaps it’s nice for awhile but eventually it can become stale. I mean, it may be comfortable in a way but… is it exciting? That’s the question. And, I think we’ve been very good about making the effort to not just take an easy route when we make a record or try something new. I think that if you examine every one of our records there are common threads for sure but they are all very different, each their own distinct thing… like little aural time capsules of where we were at the point in time we made them. I don’t know, man… I mean, there are bands that just try to do one thing and they do it – like Orville Redenbacher, you know? “Do one thing and do it better than anybody else” haha! – That works for certain groups… AC/DC springs to mind; I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be expecting a new AC/DC record to surprise me. If they do, that would be kinda cool but, by the same token – no offense to AC/DC – will I really need a new AC/DC record if it doesn’t? I mean… I could be wrong but I’d wager it’s probably just gonna sound like what you would expect. The Posies aren’t like that. We fall into the camp of musicians and artists who ask “What’s the point of repeating yourself?” But, the funny thing is, though we often make concerted efforts to sound massively different and then, you know…. we are who we are anyways. It may be different from what we’ve done before, often very much so, but it still sounds like “us.” It doesn’t ever sound like a completely different band because it still has the vocals and the harmonies and the way that we write songs, it’s just… It’s more like buying a new outfit ’cause you wanna try a new look or feel or maybe like trying some kind of new food that you’ve never had before because you don’t want to keep the same items on the menu all the time. It’s that kind of vibe. That’s what keeps it fresh: The new ideas and approaches.
The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)
And, adding to that, this whole method of touring that we’re utilizing now is another way in which we’ve been able to re-invigorate the process because it’s not being done in way that we’ve experienced ourselves before. It’s a new format, a new line-up… we’re going out as a three-piece, playing unlikely spaces, unusual venues. We’ve turned it into a way of doing things where it’s just… the band. We are the crew, we are the roadies, we are the ones who sell the merchandise… we’re the drivers. We do it all.
THE MULE: So, it’s almost back to the beginning again.
JON: In a way, yes. We’re finding… you’d think it would be kind of like, “Oh jeez, what have we taken on? It’s too much!” But, the opposite has occurred where I feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a real sense of purpose here” because there’s always something to do and nobody’s doing it for us. You either succeed or fail by your own hand, whatever you have to accomplish on any given day. It’s really kinda up to you; there’s no one else to shoulder anything on. All the activity morphs into having a lot of satisfaction with what gets accomplished, which is a ton.
THE MULE: Right. Uh… how did this idea of the pop-up show come about and how does that exactly work?
JON: Well, as far as this recent touring we’re doing, Ken toured in a very similar manner with an artist named Holly last year and he thought it would work really well with us… and he was right, big time. Due to scheduling, we missed a window in 2016 to do a regular club tour and this is what we did instead and it was a real eye opener, a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve got to go back a little farther even. I realize that playing living rooms or atypical spaces isn’t a new concept. I mean, other people have been and are doing it and I admit that even as a solo artist, I’ve done… I had a nice little… what would you call it? Not a tour per se, but I had a nice little thing going where I would do certain house concerts every year at the same places since the mid-2000s. I had a nice group of regulars, really cool people, that would have me to visit and perform and they were always super great places and people there were just people there to listen. The audiences were a nice cozy size and merch sales were always good. Often there would be excellent bottles of wine around, you know… nice meals and you were well taken care of and had a great time hanging out around the show as well. There’s a lot to be said for that way of doing it; you take that and compare that to the model of maybe playing a dingy rock club in some city and then staying in, say, a Motel 6, if you wanna be cost effective, and it’s not quite the same equation, is it? Haha! Don’t get me wrong… there are many cool, classic clubs in America but then there’s often the issue that not everybody in the club is there to see you. Like, maybe there’s someone that comes because they’re a friend of the bartender or they just come to casually check you out for a few songs or they just come because they got on the list for free and wanna drink beers and talk in the back and they aren’t listening to you anyway.
That’s why this whole pop-up thing, playing in these unique venues, is so… works so well, because you really don’t get anybody there that’s just a casual audience member; they’re all usually, generally, fans that have many of your records. Or, they’re bringing people with them who’ve never heard really us but are very curious, like they’re friends are trying to indoctrinate them into the ‘ways’ of the Posies, pass it on to them. People are very respectful and they’re there because they want to listen and have a fun hang. Not only that, they’re also willing to hear us play new stuff, you know? It’s not just someone showing up to hear the hit. You know what I mean? Like they want to hear the one song and then they’re gonna leave? That never happens. We actually play our entire new record in our set… we mix it in with other stuff, of course, but, we play all twelve songs most nights. Nobody seems to mind and I think we did a very good job of designing our set list so there’s just enough familiar stuff and new stuff mixed together in the right combination at the right times so that nobody gets bored or too anxious…us included. It’s worked out incredibly well. I mean, when you experience something like this and everybody has such a good time, you kind of wonder, “What’s the point of doing it the other way?” And, also, in terms of the whole pop-up concept, it really does add mystery to the whole event as well and I mean, hey…who doesn’t like a little mystery in life? That also keeps things interesting, keeps things humming. It makes everyone more curious and filled with more anticipation and then there’s also the surprise and payoff of showing up and finding out, “Oh, this is where the show is tonight!” Okay… I’m in a back yard in Phoenix. Or, I’m at some recording studio I’ve always wanted to go to that I didn’t know they did shows there. Or, my God, look at this amazing house and how good it would sound in here.” Anyway, it’s surprising how well it’s worked… and that’s why we’re doing it again: Because it was so good.
THE MULE: Very cool. So, you’ve kinda half way answered one of my… well, actually a couple of other questions. The first, about how the tour is going; obviously, it’s going swimmingly well. And, the other thing is, obviously, I’m talking to you not only because of SOLID STATES, but also because you are playing in kinda my back yard, next Wednesday, in Saint Louis. So, I was going to ask you what we could expect at the Saint Louis show.
The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)
JON: Well, you know… uh, it’s cool because I don’t think we’ve done a Posies show in Saint Louis since… I want to say… 2005 maybe? Is that even possible? Hmm… Maybe it was even longer ago than that, maybe Ken and I played as a duo last time around, in 2000 or so… it’s been a while, you know? The last time I was actually in Saint Louis for anything, I think, was to play with Big Star, at a small outdoor festival with Son Volt, I believe. I forget where it was…I want to say it was downtown by some impressive looking architecture, some State buildings or structures like that. This time around I think you can expect us to be psyched to be playing a place we haven’t really done enough playing in. And you can also expect something visceral … there’s a lot of energy in our show; I mean, the record’s very… it has a lot of energy in it but, it’s also rather lush and pretty and moody and the live show kicks all of it up a couple of notches at least, because it’s just… well, it’s louder for one thing! Word to the wise: Bring earplugs! I’d tell everybody to do that. It’s not a quiet show and a lot of these shows are in smaller and/or unusual spaces where the acoustics are more explosive sounding… So, it’s always good to have some protection for your ears. Seriously, folks. You can really expect some… We don’t phone it in, you know, just because we’ve been doing what we do for quite a while now. I mean, we really try to give it our all every night, no matter how far we have traveled to get there or if our bodies are aching or whatnot. I mean, there’s no point coming to do it if we’re not having… we just want people to have a great time and enjoy it ourselves.
THE MULE: Okay… this may be kind of a hard question for you to answer. But… uh, I’m gonna ask it anyway. How did the deaths of Darius and, later, Joe effect the recording process and plans for the tours you’ve been doing since?
JON: Well… Darius was… Oh, jeez… I mean, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t do justice to in an interview, honestly, you know. Explaining just how much of an impact not having Darius and then Joe around anymore had… just how much of an impact that’s had on my life, on our lives…well, I mean, in the case of Darius, you’re talking about someone who played in my solo band three years before he joined the Posies and then he was with the Posies fourteen years afterwards. He was pretty much my best male friend and I was devastated when he died. And, he died right near the beginning of… I’d say a third to maybe almost halfway through making SOLID STATES? So, the question for me then became, “What do I even want to make a record for anymore?” I was super distraught and confused by the loss and I was constantly trying to make sense out of losing him when ultimately there was no sense to be found in any of it. Eventually, what ended up happening was it worked its way into some of the remaining songs I hadn’t written yet and… how could it not, y’know? It’s funny, because I always think it’s kind of obvious but, many people, they need more direct clues or a clearer road map to figure it out because they often misconstrue a song’s meaning… and fair enough, people interpret songs the way they want to interpret them unless they’re clearly spelled out, sure. And, I bring in some… we often use unusual imagery and metaphors so, actually, it’s not always so straight forward. For instance, there’s a song “Unlikely Places,” I’ve seen many reviews of it now, and unless people knew what it was about, some seem to consider it… they think it’s about a boy and a girl relationship, a romantic relationship and it’s so far from that. It’s really about me dealing with the loss of Darius, what it did to me and where I was trying to go or get to to figure out how to deal with the loss. People can help you and you can get advice… you can do therapy and you can do whatever but, no one can really totally… It’s such a personal thing. No one can get you through it, to a place where you can live with it, but yourself in the end. I don’t know what you’ve experienced as far as loss… parental or… but, it was a total ‘before and after’ moment for me in life, losing Darius, and…well… that’s just the way it is. We did eventually soldier on and got back to the music but it was painful. There’s another song, “Rollercoaster Zen,” that is for Darius. If you really look at the lyrics to that, you can see that I’m talking about him… almost to him. The dreams I’ve had… I had… oh, God, I had some incredibly vivid dreams about him, like he was still here. I don’t know. I don’t wanna keep going on too much about it because it’s too hard to explain, totally. But, you get the vibe, right?
THE MULE: Yeah. I actually just lost my mother a few weeks ago and… I was actually her caregiver for the last ten years and… it’s rough, man.
JON: So you’ve been… You know – in an even more primal way, since it’s your mother – probably the stuff I’m talking about. It just is what it is but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve just got to learn live with it eventually, you know? And it takes time. And it can bubble up at the weirdest times in the weirdest places, the grief, yes?
THE MULE: Right and, like you were saying, everybody is trying to help… there are the platitudes, “It’ll get better” and I know all that stuff but, there are times where it’s just like, “Leave me alone. Let me deal.”
Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)
JON: Yeah, and you know what?… It’s so true… at times, often there’s nothing worse than a platitude because… you know people mean well but, it really doesn’t do justice to the loss. It’s nobody’s fault, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t really help so… it would almost be better if people would… So, yeah, I feel for you, man. There’s been a couple for me recently… As mentioned, Darius… and right before we went our first tour this year in Europe, Joe passing as well…In his case, Joe had been dealing with his cancer for awhile so we knew that he was in trouble and trying to work through it but when he finally passed it happened so fast that it was shocking too. I mean, one day I just woke up to a Facebook message from our old drummer, Brian Young, who was in the band when Joe was in the band, and… it was just pretty much, “Joe passed.” and I was just…I felt like… it was hard to believe. So then it became not only one friend lost in the last couple of years, but two. It’s still hard to believe, to wrap my head around it all, that they are no longer with us. I don’t know how old you are; I’ll be forty-seven this year.
THE MULE: Yeah… I got you beat by a few years.
JON: Okay. Still, my brother and I were just talking about this… he mentioned that really we’re just getting to the point in our lives, the ‘season’ you could say, where that’s gonna be part of our lives from now on. Like, simply, the older you get, more loss can occur… Okay… we’re getting pretty philosophical here now but… it seems true enough.. The record ended up being a way to help me deal with some of that and it kinda does a little bit and helps me celebrate lost friends… but, I don’t think anyone likes that kind change, losing people close to you, learning about loss the hard way. It hurts. My God! But, ultimately…what else can you do? We’ve gotta get back to life and live as best we can.
THE MULE: Exactly. Well, let’s get back to some more, uh… rock and rolley kind of things. Actually, last question and I will let you get back to life. Beyond SOLID STATES and this tour, what is next for you, personally, and the band?
Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)
JON: I have some other projects that I’d like to promote more, spend more quality time with. There’s a duo project with Tiz Aramini called Dynamo Royale that I’m working on a proper release for. The record’s called STRAIGHT ON THE DIAGONAL and there will be more time to spread that around. You can find it and us on Bandcamp as well. It’s quite different from the Posies, perhaps more layered even, but it still has that kind of… it’s got my melodic sense woven in there with hers as well. It’s a very unique collaboration. I’d also like to make another solo record. It’s been… Jeez, the last one I put out, SONGS FROM THE YEAR OF OUR DEMISES was in 2006 so, like… I’m way overdue! And, there’s also a group I’m part of called Unseen Beings with Stephen Becker from Le Concorde and Brian Young, who played with Fountains of Wayne and now plays with The Jesus and Marychain, we have a record called AKA INFINITY due to be released next year. Then, hopefully, along with all that, we’re going to continue to realize some Posies reissues that we’ve been talking about. One of them has been out for a while – our first record, FAILURE – on this great label called Omnivore Recordings. They do excellent reissues with deluxe packaging and a lot of care, the works…we feel they like do things right, let’s put it that way. They’ve been asking to do our three major label records too: DEAR 23, FROSTING ON THE BEATER, and AMAZING DISGRACE. That’s been in talks for a while and I think 2017 might be the year for it, when they actually do come out or at least they start to come out.
And then, beyond that…I had so much fun doing this last round of touring, it was so reinvigorating and life affirming after everything we went through so, I think we’d… You never can predict what’s going to happen exactly but…I think we’d really like to try to make another Posies record and sooner than later, you know? Not wait another six years… Try to get one out in the no so distant future because… hey, we’re not getting any younger and we’re having so much fun. I think we all thought this, you know, that this is working, what we’re doing now feels good… we’re playing great, we’re enjoying it, we are a good working unit … and I don’t think we expect to enjoy it as much as we did. I certainly didn’t. To me, it feels like we thought, well, let’s see if we can do this even, after what we went through with losing our bandmates and… we pulled through and it feels… It feels really good. So, uh… I’d like some more of that feeling, please.
The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)
Jon and the Posies are playing a pop-up show in Saint Louis, on Wednesday, September 28. For ticket prices and location, visit the band’s website. Other upcoming tour dates and more news about the Posies are available there, as well.
Having been introduced to the Nashville band Blackfoot Gypsies, via their recently released second long-player, HANDLE IT, I have been on the lookout (begging their publicist, actually) for a Saint Louis date. That date has arrived! The newly engorged group will be playing at the Demo – on Manchester, in the Grove – this Sunday, October 11, 2015. For tickets, directions and everything you need to know about the show, check out the Demo’s site.
Founding members guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige and drummer Zack Murphy have added bassist Dylan Whitlow and harmonica player Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton to the mix, freeing the duo up to concentrate on their instruments of choice (Matthew has added the fiddle to his instrument list) without sacrificing the larger, fuller sound that they are known for. The ten tracks on HANDLE IT range from Country to New Orleans Blues, Nashville Soul to straight out Rock ‘n’ Roll… sometimes, all within the course of one song. “Scream My Name” opens the album with a dose of RAW POWER-era Stooges punk; Paige’s fiddle and over-dubbed harmony vocals give “Spent All My Money” an authentic Country feel, while “In Your Mind” is a Stonesy “Gimme Shelter” rocker. There are Steve Marriott/Humble Pie hard rock tunes (“Dead On the Road”), a pop ditty that I find rather reminiscent of PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys or, believe it or not, early Sonny and Cher (“So Be It”) and a slice of punky Americana (“Too Bad”), all of which I’m certain will sound great in a live setting. In anticipation and preparation for a night of bluesy, rockin’ Country hippified honky-tonk, I sent a few questions to the band via e-mail; Zack Murphy replied. Here’s that interview, wherein Murphy discusses the new dynamics in the band and what we can look forward to on a Sunday night in the Lou.
Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)
THE MULE: One of the biggest recent changes has been the doubling of the band, going from a duo to a quartet. What prompted the change?
ZACK MURPHY: Nothing other than finding the right people. We wanted to have a full band all along. At first, it just meant Matthew and I. After we found Dylan and Ollie Dogg, it was a perfect and natural fit, so there was really no reason not to add them. They have enhanced our sound so much, we would’ve made a mistake not to add them.
THE MULE: Discuss how the change in the band’s make-up has impacted the over-all sound of the group’s performances, both in the studio and in a live setting.
ZACK MURPHY: Matthew and I don’t have to worry about filling out the sound as much. We can play what we would normally want to play for each of our parts instead of having to also worry about if the sound is too sparse or not full enough. Also, Dylan plays better bass parts than either of us would, and Ollie Dogg plays better harmonica than either of us would, so that definitely helps in the studio.
THE MULE: How has your approach to writing changed since the additions of Dylan and Ollie? Is there more of a group approach with the new songs on HANDLE IT?
ZACK MURPHY: Definitely. Matthew writes the lyrics and such and then the band kinda shapes the song after that with all of our parts and we arrange and change and figure out a good foundation for the song. The songs never stop changing and growing cuz we like to play them at least a little, if not a lot, differently each time. But yeah, they have helped change what we would normally play, write, think of, et cetera.
Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow, Zack Murphy, Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)
THE MULE: The new music has sort of a very modern feel and sheen, production-wise, but the lyrics and the vibe are very much based in traditional Blues and Country. Can you give us a bit of insight into the things that have been most influential in giving Blackfoot Gypsies their sound?
ZACK MURPHY: Real music made by real people. We aren’t going for a vintage or modern vibe, we’re simply trying to be our own natural selves. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Blues… it’s all there and it pretty much is the same stuff. It’s what we do best. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it move and groove.
THE MULE: Plowboy Records is a relatively new label run by veteran musicians and long-time industry insiders. What considerations went into the thought process of signing with a small indie label? How did the past experiences of Don (Cusic, who has worked in virtually every aspect of the music industry in a career spanning more than forty years), Shannon (Pollard, a thirty year music veteran and grandson of Country great Eddy Arnold) and Cheetah (Chrome, a co-founder of Cleveland’s legendary punks, the Dead Boys, as well as a producer and solo artist) influence that decision?
ZACK MURPHY: They just seemed really cool and laid back. Obviously they all knew the business, which has helped a ton, but they weren’t looking for a bunch of stuff that they could take from us and it seemed like a real natural and easy fit. Each one of those guys brings a lot of good experience to the table, so it’s nice to have them on our team.
Blackfoot Gypsies (Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton, Zack Murphy, Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)
THE MULE: When was the last time you played Saint Louis? Can you give us an idea of what we can expect when you play the Demo on Sunday night?
ZACK MURPHY: To shake your ass. We haven’t played STL since summer of 2014, so we’re pumped like Arnold to be back. We’re playin’ with some friends, Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, so it’ll be nice to see those guys. Bring the confetti, we’ll bring the pinata. It’s gonna be a real good time, so treat yo’ self.
THE MULE: The tour runs through just before Christmas. What’s next for Blackfoot Gypsies?
ZACK MURPHY: Currently, we’re planning a European tour for 2016 and working on the next album. We are writing, rehearsing, and recording songs for the new album as we speak.
Thanks, Zack, for taking the time to answer these few questions. We look forward to seeing Blackfoot Gypsies at the Demo on Sunday!
You can order a copy of HANDLE IT on vinyl or CD at the band’s site, at Plowboy Records’ site or you can probably pick one up at the show. Come up and say “Howdy” if you make it out… I’ll be the guy right in front of the stage, drooling like an idjit.
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.
THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?
JAMES:I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.
THE MULE:Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?
JAMES:So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!
THE MULE:The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?
JAMES:The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
THE MULE:Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?
JAMES:I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!
THE MULE:Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?
JAMES:Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!
THE MULE:The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
JAMES:My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.
THE MULE:Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?
JAMES:Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!
THE MULE:Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?
JAMES:I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.
THE MULE:Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
JAMES:The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.
THE MULE:I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?
JAMES:“Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.
THE MULE:You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.
THE MULE:Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?
JAMES:Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.
THE MULE:Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?
JAMES:The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.
THE MULE:Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.
THE MULE:A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?
JAMES:We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!
THE MULE:Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?
JAMES:As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.
PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY
When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…
PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)
The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…
(MCA RECORDS; 1971)
In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.
(MCA RECORDS; 1972)
As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.
The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”
THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT
(MCA RECORDS; 1974)
The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.
As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.
(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)
With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
“Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.
(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)
The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde - to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.
PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY
The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…
THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)
After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.
The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY
With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.
UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.
WISHBONE ASH AT THE WILDEY THEATRE, SEPTEMBER 12/13
Wishbone Ash ROAD WARRIORS TOUR
Wishbone Ash have released some of my favorite albums over a very long career, including WISHBONE FOUR, THERE’S THE RUB, LIVE DATES, NUMBER THE BRAVE and the latest, BLUE HORIZON. The band – founding member and guitarist Andy Powell, fellow guitarist Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen, longtime bassist Bob Skeat and the youngster of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree – are bringing their ROAD WARRIORS TOUR to the beautiful Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville IL on Saturday, September 12th, followed by a special show on Sunday, the 13th, featuring a performance of the seminal album, ARGUS, in its entirety.
Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)
Powell told the Mule what to expect both nights in a recent interview, “You know, it’s a forty-five, forty-six year career for Wishbone Ash. We’re going to dip into those decades, we’re going to do a very nice feature of the new album… we want to feature the BLUE HORIZON album, give the people a bit of that album.” He goes on to explain what fans of the band expect in a live setting: “We have people, when they come see the band, they expect to see guitar playing and there’ll be a ton of guitar playing, of course, especially featuring the twin lead guitar sound that we’re known for. The bottom line is the fact that it’s entertainment… and we want to give the biggest bang for the buck that we can in concert. We go out with all guns blazing, we use everything that’s available to us in terms of what we’ve created in the last 46 years.”
Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)
As far as the Sunday show, Andy said this about the ARGUS set: “They added the second show because that’s what’s going up. We will, in fact, take a spot in that set, we’ll play the entire album, the songs in order as they would have been heard on the album. I believe it is the only show on the tour that we’re doing that. It will just be a small variation on the first night… well, quite a substantial variation, in fact. We’ll be featuring that album. It’s something we’ve done before in concert, in Europe and we’re happy to be doing it in the United States in a theater situation. It’ll be great.” And playing at the Wildey? “Awesome theater! We have not played there for two or three years now and we’re really happy to be going back there.”
Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)
What about the band? With Crabtree coming on board in the middle of the last decade, this version of the band has been together longer than the original group of Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton. Andy is rightfully proud of the group’s accomplishments. “This current entity has been together for about ten years. It’s so road tested, we’re such a sort of a unit now; it’s almost like a complete… another career, in a way. We put out some really solid albums in the last several years. It’s a band that just seems to be able to function in any context: We can go into a club, or into a theater, we can play festivals in the summer… wherever I take the band, whatever the setting, it seems to rise to the occasion and I’m so happy. I don’t think that was always the case at various points in the band’s history. I’m really happy to be doing it… it’s given me such a great peace of mind because at this point in my career – I’ve been with the band 46 years – it’s great to have the latter part of the career so solid, so strong.” He goes on to point out, “We’re not a tribute band, we’re a living, breathing band, a band that reinterprets the original songs, modernizes subtly here and there… and all of that stimulates me, kicks me up the rear end in terms of being a musician. Every night is a workout and the band – Joe Crabtree, our drummer, he’s half my age. We’re not lagging in any way because of the longevity of the band, in fact, it’s the opposite, we’re more stimulated than ever and creative. We’re not a band just resting on its laurels, although we could do. I know a lot of band’s do that.” Emphasizing the creativeness of the current band, Powell describes crowd reaction for songs from BLUE HORIZON, exclaiming, “Without blowing our horn, it’s pretty amazing! You can see their eyes are wide open, they’re very engaged… I mean, it’s very intricate material and what we do with two guitars, bass and drums is pretty ambitious, actually. You hear when we… you can just see it on people’s faces, they respond immediately.”
EYES WIDE OPEN (Andy Powell book cover)
So… your an author. Tell us a bit about that. “Yeah, I just penned a biography. So many people encouraged me to do it because I’ve got loads of road stories and that’s just part of it; I’ve been in the business long enough now that I can look back across the decades… not just music in this band, but music in general. I felt I had something to say. I didn’t want to write anything until I had something to say.” And, wherecan we find a copy? “It’s available at Amazon. It’s called EYES WIDE OPEN: TRUE TALES OF A WISHBONE ASH WARRIOR, ANDY POWELL. It’s a wry look at the music business and my life in it.”
The Wildey Theatre (publicity photo)
Andy left us with this message regarding the Wildey Theatre shows: “I think it’s going to be a great weekend. All the best to all our friends and fans.” For more information on Wishbone Ash at the Wildey Theatre or, to order tickets, visit wishboneash.com or wildeytheatre.com.
The “Fish” swims no more. Chris Squire, bassist and co-founder of legendary prog-rock band Yes, has passed away at age 67 from complications of leukemia. It’s an absolute shock how fast it happened, as we were only informed of his diagnosis this past May. But barely a month later, Squire is gone. As the only member of Yes to play on every single one of their albums, Squire achieved the ultimate in perfect “attendance,” and should’ve been given the opportunity to write a book about what it’s like to survive multiple incarnations of a mega-famous, influential band. The tall, lanky musician developed a signature pulsing, hypnotic style on bass that captivated millions of classic rock fans on Yes’ trifecta of ’70s masterpieces THE YES ALBUM, FRAGILE and CLOSE TO THE EDGE. While other bass players of note may have been more immediately engaging or melodic (Paul McCartney) or anchored their bands with more economy and finesse (John Entwistle of the Who, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin), it was arguably Squire who did the most to make the bass guitar a lead instrument in the ’70s, or to at least show that it could be one of the most prominent sonic elements in complex arrangements. Along with Jack Bruce of Cream and Les Claypool of Primus (who clearly took inspiration from Squire), the Yes visionary demonstrated new horizons for the bass guitar, new ways for lower frequencies and unexpected harmonics to provide dazzling depth and variety to what ultimately was still “rock” music. Squire was revered by fans, and certainly helped write a few new chapters in the book on what bass guitarists with imagination could achieve. It was easy to take his virtuosity for granted; he made it look easy. But it wasn’t. No way, or lots of guys would’ve done it.
A young Chris Squire, back row, center (uncredited photo)
Squire was born Christopher Russell Edward Squire in March 1948 in a northwest suburb of London called Kingsbury. He sang in choirs as a boy, and was greatly affected by the Beatles and Paul McCartney as a teenager. He dropped out of school in 1964, and soon formed his first group, the Selfs. A bad experience with LSD and subsequent recovery at his girlfriend’s apartment apparently led to Squire’s developing his unique style on the bass guitar. He purchased his signature Rickenbacker 4001 in 1965, and soon spent time in promising British bands the Syn and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, a kind of precursor to Yes featuring Peter Banks. Influenced by Jack Bruce, John Entwistle and Larry Graham (bassist for Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station), Squire had a fateful encounter with vocalist Jon Anderson at a Soho bar in early 1968. The two men shared a love for vocal harmonies and the melodic records of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the Fifth Dimension. Together with drummer Bill Bruford and keyboardist Tony Kaye, the band Yes was formed, releasing their self-titled debut in 1969. While the first two Yes albums hardly made the band superstars, interesting originals like “Beyond and Before,” “Survival” and “Time and a Word” complemented ambitious covers to reveal a band definitely aiming high and displaying a fearless attitude. THE YES ALBUM, their third effort (released in 1971), shot them to a whole new level as guitar genius Steve Howe joined and completed the “Anderson/Howe/Squire” co-composing credit that would grace many a classic at the time. “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” were all from this great album and remain staples of classic rock radio to this day. Squire’s inventive, riveting playing on these tracks was impossible to ignore, and by the time of 1972’s FRAGILE, on which keyboardist Rick Wakeman now completed a truly virtuoso lineup, Yes were one of the most popular bands on FM radio, and Chris Squire began topping magazine polls of beloved bassists. The band’s second release of the year, CLOSE TO THE EDGE then sealed the deal for the whole band, becoming one of the most enduring prog rock masterpieces of all time and greatly expanding the sonic palette for ambitious, large-scale rock music. It’s astounding, the distance the band traveled from covers of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield on their first two records, to the side-long “Close to the Edge” and dense, wildly ambitious pieces like “Siberian Khatru” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” The music sounds thrilling even today.
Chris Squire (uncredited photo)
There will be many tributes to Yes and Chris Squire in the days ahead. It’s not necessary to talk about their many personnel changes and controversies, or the way the band (and prog rock as a genre) fell out of favor many times. Here’s what is worth mentioning: Chris Squire hung in there, like the most stalwart, dedicated musician imaginable, through ALL of the band’s 21 studio albums (this does not count all the live recordings). When Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman departed for 1980’s DRAMA, Squire spearheaded a new version of Yes, with a pair of Buggles in tow. When things really got bizarre between 1982 and 1983, with Steve Howe nowhere to be seen, and a group called Cinema featuring Squire and new guitarist Trevor Rabin somehow turning into yet another version of Yes, one that would invite Anderson back into the fold, ride the early wave of the MTV video era, and have their first top 10 single with the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” well, imagine how it must have felt to be Chris Squire at the time, enjoying a level of success that even he had to be surprised by. And thereafter, a whole series of members that came and went, came and went, sometimes old and sometimes new, with hugely controversial developments like beloved singer Jon Anderson being squeezed out of the band for having health problems that took too long to improve, and the lead singer of a Yes TRIBUTE band actually replacing him for a while. The Yes story kept changing and unfolding in real time, annoying many fans, earning begrudging admiration from others. But always, Mister Chris Squire was there, keeping the flame alive, talking about the value of the music, and showing immense respect for the fans around the world. Squire knew that this prog rock behemoth he’d helped invent was too special to let it die. And apparently even when he knew he could not be part of the band’s scheduled 2015 summer tour due to his illness, he made public statements that the show would go on, and that fans would still get the “Yes experience” they had come to expect. But, would it truly be Yes without THE MAN, the amazing bass player and singer who’d been on every album in the band’s considerable canon? Isn’t a Squire-less YES more of a MAYBE, a true question mark when the chief anchoring force has gone to rock heaven? Let the debate begin. But honestly, I just can’t imagine Yes without Chris Squire. I go back too far with him. I met Chris Squire twice, after legendary shows in the late ’70s in Saint Louis. Dapper, charismatic, and unfailingly polite, Squire was amiable at signing autographs, and never anything less than dignified and attentive when it came to answering questions and talking up the legacy of his band. To be a musician of such stature, doing what you do throughout changing decades and shifting musical tastes, requires a level of resolve and confidence that not all possess, to say the least. Squire’s achievements in Yes and on the bass are staggering; he was unarguably one of the best musicians in the history of prog, and one of the most unflappable. Few fans would say that Yes were still making indispensable music in recent years, and Squire, who only released one solo album (1975’s excellent FISH OUT OF WATER), didn’t seem that set on adding much more solo work to his legacy. Instead, he seemed content to keep changing and adapting Yes to every new challenge that came along. But his illness was one challenge he could not overcome, and now millions of fans will be reeling from the loss of this singular musician. The records will always be there to listen to and rediscover, however. And even if Yes are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as they should be, Chris Squire belongs in any bass player hall of fame, as well as on ANY listing of musicians who proved what dedication, discipline and adaptability are all about through a lifelong body of work. Rest in peace, Mister Squire. You got “close to the edge” throughout your work and life many times, and now you have crossed over. Thanks for “going for the one” in almost every recording you made. It’s a legacy that is anything but “fragile,” for sure. High vibration, go on…
FIVE NOTABLE CHRIS SQUIRE PERFORMANCES:
1.YOURS IS NO DISGRACE – This 1971 fan favorite was a surging, soaring piece of prog rock bliss that featured shifting tempos, dynamic breaks and a stellar early example of Chris Squire’s throbbing, upfront bass playing. The medium had to accommodate a NEW message from here on.
2. LONG DISTANCE RUNAROUND/THE FISH(SHINDLERIA PRAEMATURUS) – Without a doubt, 1972 was the year of YES. These days, it would be hard to imagine an artist putting out two all-time classics in one year, but imagine putting out two gems like FRAGILE and CLOSE TO THE EDGE within mere months of each other. Squire’s supercharged ascending lines on “Runaround” coupled with his 4- and 5-note punctuation phrases while Jon Anderson sings, comprise some of the best bass playing ever recorded. Then couple THAT with his harmonics-laden, experimental solo segue “The Fish,” which becomes transfixing in a short time, and you’ve got, well, six minutes of Squire showing why he’s a legend on his instrument.
3. CLOSE TO THE EDGE – Much has been written about this side-long thematic epic; it is arguably one of the all-time high points of progressive rock performance and arrangement. Squire’s bass becomes a lumbering, wandering beast that stomps its way right through every formula or “template” ever made for the instrument, like a brainy, determined dinosaur. Electrifying in every sense of the word, from the famous opening chords that follow the slow ambient fade-in, to the riveting climax and fade-out. Yes belong in the Hall of Fame for this album alone, damn it.
Chris Squire (photo credit: GLENN GOTTLIEB)
4. ON THE SILENT WINGS OF FREEDOM – The 1978 album TORMATO was not a classic by any means, but this amazing song WAS. Co-written by Squire, it’s a propulsive, uplifting gem seemingly about potential and pushing past limitations, something Squire could write the book on. His bass playing is magnificent throughout, featuring a dynamic, repeating 7-note plus sequence that is killer, and some gorgeous, haunting overtones later in the piece. Absolute splendor from their sometimes maligned late ’70s period.
5. OWNER OF A LONELY HEART – One of the most unlikely hit singles in rock history, the epitome of Yes reinventing themselves in the early ’80s after punk and new wave changed all the rules, and after that thing called MTV forced artists to adapt and think of new ways to showcase/present themselves. Chris Squire, Trevor Rabin and Jon Anderson proved they were up to such daunting challenges, and delivered something fresh, sassy, melodic and -gulp – even danceable. WTF? And yeah, Squire’s awesome bass playing still shone through, albeit in a wildly new context.
A FINAL NOTE:
Squire had a pleasant voice, high and slightly reedy, and it blended amazingly well with the even higher-voiced Jon Anderson. Those stellar Yes harmonies were generally the result of the tightness of Anderson and Squire’s vocals offset in an interesting way by the lower, edgier voice of Steve Howe. Subsequent band members changed things a bit, of course, but most Yes classics feature this threesome. Squire’s lone solo album, FISH OUT OF WATER, has some wonderful singing from him and a fresh showcase of his songwriting and arranging talents. “Hold Out Your Hand” is a catchy single, and “Safe” has moments of epic, soulful beauty and more lumbering bass from the master.
Jerry Jeff Walker and Patrick Tourville, 2011 (uncredited photo)
This is the story of two men – two visionaries – and how their lives have intersected, not only with each other but, also with those of us who can appreciate people who are unafraid to “buck the system” for a principle they believe in. Both are steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to doing the right thing and making things better.
The first, an upstate New Yorker named Ronald Crosby, became Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, embarking on a fifty year (and counting) career of musical and personal highs and lows that can only be described as “legendary.” During his early busking days, Walker landed in a New Orleans jail cell with a down-on-his-luck drunken tap dancer known as Bojangles; Jerry Jeff turned the experience into one of the most recognized songs of the last half-century, “Mister Bojangles.” That experience and that song has colored Jerry Jeff’s career ever since. However, it was the decision to make Austin, Texas his home base that thrust Walker into the forefront of the outlaw country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ray Benson’s Asleep At the Wheel. Suddenly, the wayward troubadour found himself on the major label treadmill, cranking out an album (or two) a year for MCA and, later, Elektra, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. During this time, an angel named Susan came into his life, grounding and stabilizing the wild life Walker had led for most of his adult life. As the grind of being a major label recording artist began to take its toll, Jerry Jeff, with Susan’s blessing, walked away from the insanity in 1982. In 1986, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker formed Tried and True Music, an independent label dedicated to releasing new music from Jerry Jeff, on their own terms. Always being a man who believed in causes and, looking for a way to give back, the couple eventually founded the Tried and True Foundation, which is a reflection of their commitment to the fostering of young musicians’ talents.
Jerry Jeff Walker onstage (uncredited photo)
Those final few sentences lead us, quite naturally, to the second visionary: Filmmaker Patrick Tourville. Patrick was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker through his first MCA Records album and that record’s lead track, “Hill Country Rain.” A couple decades later, with Patrick already a well-respected commercial director, he was contacted by a large telecom conglomerate to produce a spot to sell their company to the Texas audience; as Tourville pitched his concepts to a room of suits, he found that he had a divided audience – half of the Board loved the idea, the other half weren’t completely sold. Eventually, the company’s president (an old friend of Patrick’s) suggested Patrick approach Jerry Jeff and ask him to appear in the commercial. Tourville contacted Susan (who has been Jerry Jeff’s manager for quite some time) with the proposal; when it came time to talk money, Patrick said that he knew the company had set aside a certain amount of funding to go to Walker; Susan countered with, “I think they have this to offer, so let’s meet in the middle and be finished.” From that short phone conversation, a friendship and a true kinship of hearts and minds developed. As Patrick became more involved with societal and political issues, he began seeking out projects that would truly uplift, rather than simply promote. The real Jerry Jeff Walker story is much deeper than a simple retelling of the career of a sometimes out-of-control singer/songwriter; at the heart of Jerry Jeff’s tale is a story of redemption and salvation, a story of a man wanting to do better and, above all else, a love story. These are the things that brought a well-respected filmmaker named Patrick Tourville to direct OK BUCKAROOS. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and fleshed out via several phone conversations with Patrick. But, first…
A REVIEW: OK BUCKAROOS
(PUBLIK PICTURES/TRIED AND TRUE MUSIC (121 minutes; Unrated); 2014)
OK BUCKAROOS is a straight-forward biographical sketch of one of the founding engineers of what has become known as “Outlaw Country,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Director Patrick Tourville, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on some of Jerry Jeff’s more widely publicized proclivities, highlighting the under-publicized family man and champion of the underdog aspects of his life that make him a much more interesting and uplifting subject... I mean, if you wanna see a musician self-explode, you can catch that any night of the week on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or VH1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC. Along the way, however, we do get to see some of those wild stage performances and antics that Walker was so famous for, through archival footage from his Gonzo heyday. Through interviews with Jerry Jeff and his wife of 41 years, Susan, as well as friends and fellow musicians, we get a true vision of the creative and influential mark that Walker has left on popular American music.
Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson on the set of THE TEXAS CONNECTION, 1992 (publicity photo)
Interspersed with those manic snippets (and later, more laid back, elder statesman performances) of Jerry Jeff onstage, with friends such as Bob Livingstone and Gary P Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band or with legends like Willie Nelson, are also intimate solo acoustic performances – reminiscences, really – from the man himself, giving new depth and insight into the song and the songwriter. Archival interviews with Walker, Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson and new musings and stories from singer/songwriters influenced by Jerry Jeff like Todd Snider and Bruce Robison and from old friends likeRay Wylie Hubbard (who wrote that song about the “Redneck Mother”). The eagle-eyed will recognize David Bromberg, iconic Austin musician Joe Ely and others among the mass of humanity onstage with Jerry Jeff and, variably, the Interchangeable Dance Band or the Lost Gonzo Band from some of those early live clips.
Patrick Tourville with Ray Wylie Hubbard (publicity still)
Patrick Tourville has gone above and beyond with OK BUCKAROOS, digging deep and hitting the right nerves to bring out the story and the man behind some of the greatest American music written in the past fifty-plus years. Being a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker since my brother played RIDIN’ HIGH for me back in 1975, this film has certainly given me a new appreciation for his music and for who he has become over those passing years. OK BUCKAROOS should be required viewing for anyone interested in music or a career in music; the film offers valuable life and business lessons from a man who has looked at life from the bottom of the pile and from the top of the heap. As a cautionary tale or as a redemptive love story, the documentary works on enough levels to keep even non-fans interested. By the way, there are several bonus music-only videos (“Mister Bojangles,” “Hill Country Rain” and others), from live shows in 1982 and 2009… they’re great additions to the package. OK BUCKAROOS is available here and at all the usual locations.
Patrick Tourville (publicity photo)
THE MULE: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Jerry Jeff Walker documentary, OK BUCKAROOS. Despite some moderate successes in the ’70s, Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t exactly a household name. So, how did you come to direct and co-write a documentary about the man? What initially drew you to the project?
PATRICK: I won’t guess at your age, but assume your location. If you were “of age” in the early seventies and living in Texas, Jerry Jeff was huge. So, my household included Jerry Jeff, along with my Rolling Stones and my sister’s Beatles; so, it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories. However, something “household wise” was happening or all the fat cats from LA would not have descended on the Austin scene, en masse.
I was lucky. There are two songs that are seminal in my early (transistor) radio experience: “ …Satisfaction” and “Hill Country Rain.”
THE MULE: While Jerry Jeff certainly isn’t a recluse, he is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. How was he convinced that his was a story that needed to be told? And, equally as important, how did you convince him that you were the person to tell that story?
PATRICK: Susan… PERIOD! I had done some commercial work with the Walkers years earlier. Then, I found myself with five cameras and a crane on July 4th, 2009, at Dell Diamond for a Kellie Pickler show. JJ was on that stage and I kept rolling. The rest is history… Thanks to Susan for trusting me with the family… LOL.
Patrick Tourville with Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, 2011 (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: As you researched your subject and interviewed him, his family, his friends and bandmates, were you surprised by anything you learned or by anything you were told?
PATRICK: Yes… what a truly decent, loving and hard core family man he is. And, with his incredible wife, Susan, they beat the rock and roll odds… they are still together. Do you know how cool that is?!!!
THE MULE: He’s very much a “songwriter’s songwriter,” as exemplified by the number of great songwriters who appear in OK BUCKAROOS, extolling his virtues. After filming the documentary, what insights into, not only Jerry Jeff’s music, but his psyche, as well, did you glean from the experience? In your opinion, what do you think makes him and, really, all great troubadours tick?
PATRICK: When I interviewed Bruce Robison for the film, off camera he told me that without Susan, JJ would still be playing in a bus station for tips. I related the story to JJ and his response was, “He is right and I would have no problem with that.” Need I say more?
Jerry Jeff Walker, circa mid-1970s (photo credit: SCOTT NEWTON)
THE MULE: At any time, did you find yourself second guessing your decision to make OK BUCKAROOS? If so, why and what kept you going?
PATRICK: OMG… Yes! It was the rear end of the process that did me in… the business, the licensing, the marketing. For all filmmakers out there: Do not take refuge in the creative process… find rest in the creative process, but don’t expect that bliss to translate into commercial success.
THE MULE: Let’s delve into your history and background a bit. How did you get into the movie and documentary game?
THE MULE: OK BUCKAROOS is your first feature. What advice can you give to first time documentarians or film-makers in general?
PATRICK: Do your film with enough passion to sustain what will be huge waves of opposition to your “dream.” I think it’s called a tsunami… LOL… of questioning, doubt and otherwise negative influence on your story.
OK BUCKAROOS executive producers Beau Ross and Daniel Trube with Patrick Tourville (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Do you prefer to work on documentaries like this or would you like to try your hand at a more traditional scripted movie? Are there any other people that you would be interested in helming a documentary about?
PATRICK:Good question. Yes and yes. Film-making came to me as an inspiration very young. I won my first national film award at age seventeen and got some money from PBS to remake it. I think everybody at that age wants to make the Great American Movie, which is, you know… America. It was worth it, though. Ultimately, I became a very successful commercial director, made a lot of money, doing what I do, from a craft standpoint but… at the same time, evolved emotionally, spiritually and politically and, the more that I looked at my successful commercial work, the more I realized it was about real stories, it was about real people as opposed to displaying shrimp on a grill or milk being poured on a peach or Tide being poured into a washing machine. So, when I decided to leave the marketing world, documentaries just felt like a natural thing to do; I just wanted to talk about stories… That’s not to say that I would not – given the right circumstances – engage in a narrative feature and all that entails but, right now, I’m very comfortable in a documentary format. I mean, a narrative? I would still be tempted to cut to archive footage.
The last part of the question is… For whatever reason, I have a rich history in music. I did a lot of music videos with those early southern California rockers… a lot of those guys are friends of mine: Jackson Browne and Little Feat and Joe Walsh. So, music just seems to keep following me around and, so, would I want to do another music documentary? Yeah… Maybe. Based on the experience with Jerry Jeff, I’d rather do some other socially important or politically important things. I am in sort of a holding pattern, developing a film on Eugene McDaniels, who was a black pop artist in the late ’60s who performed a song called “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” He became this sort of pop icon, as a black man with a huge white female audience. Long story short, by the time the ’60s had ended, he was a full-blown radical and had written a song called “Compared To What” that Les McCann recorded; it’s a Vietnam… sort of an anti-Vietnam rant. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few years ago. Eugene is considered by many – including the Roots’ Questlove – to be the Godfather of Hip-Hop… his was a soulful spirit that went from light to dark and found his way back to the light. So, we’re working with maybe developing a film there. That embraces both things. It’s a music thing, it’s a political thing. I’m also working on a project that will take me to Senegal to explore the Hip-Hop scene there so, I guess I’m stuck with music. That’s the bottom line… I’m stuck with music.
I was a big fan of Godard – Jean-Luc Godard – who sort of pushed that envelop to its limit in terms of authorship and aesthetics and, basically, said, “you don’t need to put your name on the film, you just need to help change the world.” I’m sorta stuck in that.
Patrick Tourville, Jerry Jeff Walker and OK BUCKAROOS executive producer Marty Garvin (publicity still)
THE MULE: When can we expect to see finished product for these projects?
PATRICK:I don’t know about finished product. Eugene McDaniels is on the back burner; Senegal and its music scene is on the front burner. I’m supposed to leave for West Africa on the 22nd of this month (May) for ten days… I don’t know, man. What can I say? Here’s the answer to that: If you’re doing this stuff, you never know. You never know when you can expect finished product. You know it’s a year from now… if then. That’s the problem with making a documentary. I do believe in the written word; I do not approach anything without scripting. Obviously, with a documentary, the script gets written at the final edit, in terms of something that you would turn in as a script; but, you have to start with writers, you have to start with a structure, you have to start with three acts and, you have to define those acts and you have to determine what scenes are relevant and salient to those acts. You have to figure out classic Greek storytelling. But, as you get into it and you research it and, then, you’ve got people telling you what you should do, ’cause they heard things… it evolves. But, at the end of the day, if you wrote the written word right, you’ll be happy to see that it’s pretty close to what you originally wrote down.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but if you don’t go in with a preconceived notion, you’re in trouble… you’re in big trouble. You have to have scaffolding in place, you have to have a structure in place, you have to know… I’ll tell you what, you don’t shoot anything unless you know what the log line is; you gotta know in the elevator pitch what this is about. So, as you’re discovering and you’re getting influenced and you have people telling you, “What about this? What about that?,” you’ve got that structure to fall back on. You’ve got to have that. That’s my most important recommendation to any… ANY filmmaker. You know, cinema verite, I get it… you’re gonna follow someone around for three years or four years… that’s cool but, if you’re trying to do a narrative piece, via the documentary platform, don’t think that you don’t have to have something written down before you turn on the cameras.
THE MULE: Thanks for spending a little bit of time with the Mule. And, thanks for telling Jerry Jeff Walker’s story.
Once upon a time, in the mystical, fjord-side town of Bergen, Norway, there were three clever and ambitious teenage girls who loved music. Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen spent many hours together talking about music, songwriting and life itself, and they decided to form a singing group. They called their trio EPHEMERA, a word meaning “something transitory or short-lived.” The girls had voices that could soothe the most hardened soul, and when they blended their three voices together, the universe itself seemed to smile and nod in approval. In 1996, they excitedly released their quirky first album, GLUE. But then they met a wizardly producer named Yngve Leidulv Saetre, who instinctively understood the depths of the music these three girls were capable of making, and he wanted to guide them a bit. With Yngve at the helm, the trio released SUN in 2000, the first album to truly capture the beautiful, luminous sound they would come to be known for over the next five years. They built a following in their native land, and fans in other parts of Europe and even Japan began to rave about them. Their third album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, won them a Spellemannprisen Award (the Nordic equivalent of the Grammys) for Best Pop Album in 2002. They toured, recorded and made magic together, and they kept growing as musicians. Across the ocean in America, one curious writer for a new publication discovered Ephemera’s music and fell in love with them. He became the first in that country to interview the band, and he told anyone who would listen how incredibly lovely and heartfelt Ephemera’s music was. America, though it seemed to be intrigued with many other popular artists emerging from Scandinavia, preferred flashier, more commercially aggressive or “obvious” type musicians, and did not take notice of Ephemera, despite one of their songs landing in a teen movie. Or maybe America just couldn’t keep up with all the Scandinavian exports of the new millennium and needed an urgent memo. The girls of Ephemera, however, decided to take a long break in 2005 to nurture relationships and raise families. But some fans, including the undaunted American writer, continued to listen, enjoy and talk about the band’s gorgeous music. “It’s like an amazing secret,” the writer said. “And more people should know about it.”
Ingerlise Storksen (photo credit: ORJAN DEISZ)
Oh, there are many ways to start an article about the female Norwegian musical trio Ephemera and the superb new solo album Ingerlise Storksen has just released, but since their music is so far above the norm, I thought we should begin with a fairytale flavor. The writer in that preface is yours truly, and I won’t hide the fact that this band has moved me to tears countless times with the transcendent beauty of their sound and songwriting. No other band in my adult life has given me shivers of emotion like Ephemera; I learned the word “frisson,” which means just that, because of them. I have digested every one of the songs on their five albums and even sublime rarities like “Puzzle” and “It Could Have Been Me.” I’ve had conversations with girlfriends, therapists and good friends about some of Ephemera’s most stellar compositions, which include “Maple Tree” (one of the most heartbreakingly life-affirming songs ever written), “One of a Kind” (should be an anthem for lonely or troubled people everywhere), “Little Lion,” “Bye,” “Thank You,” “Paint Your Sky” and many others. Ephemera’s music is sweet, romantic, sensual, empathetic, encouraging and hopeful. It is melodic, catchy and rendered with crystalline sonic clarity. It is free of cynicism and any sense of defeat; the songs are about living, loving, leaving (sometimes when you know you HAVE to) and learning to keep the fire burning in your heart. It may be classified as “pop music” stylistically, but the intimate vocals and engaging emotions in any Ephemera song make it something so much more, something more poetic and involving than just about anything you’ll hear in American popular music. It’s a gift, this band’s body of work, one with the kind of repeat listenability that only the best songs achieve. I have cherished and enjoyed a great deal of music throughout my life, but… sometimes, I see it like this: There is EPHEMERA. And then there’s everything else. The girls themselves may not truly realize how special they are…
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
Ingerlise Storksen isn’t the most prolific songwriter in Ephemera; that honor goes to Christine Sandtorv. But Ingerlise wrote some of the band’s most beautiful, heart-tugging tunes. No matter how many times I listen to her songs “Perfect,” “Close,” “Air,” “Bye” (simply a stunning gem of a song), and “Thank You,” the unmatched intimacy of her vocals sends shivers up my spine. Her songs are often “hushed secrets” that the listener gets to be privy to. And there’s a song called “Dead Against the Plan,” from the 2004 release MONOLOVE, a blue diamond of a pop song written by Ingerlise and Christine together, that is quite simply one of the most dazzlingly catchy, perfect songs EVER, not just out of Scandinavia. If I were teaching a class in songwriting and music arrangement, this is one of the songs I would have the class listen to and discuss. Yes, it’s that good.
It’s a big deal that Ingerlise is finally giving the world ALL THE GOOD THINGS, her first solo album. A big deal both for her artistic journey, and for fans of her contemplative songwriting style. While her mate, Christine Sandtorv, released FIRST LAST DANCE in 2006, followed it with several albums of children’s songs sung in Norwegian, and collaborated with other Nordic artists like Ralph Myerz, Ingerlise had not been so publically active. Those of us who are enthusiastic fans were quietly waiting and watching to see what she might do. And now here it is, the exceptional Yngve Saetre-produced gem that any Ephemera fan is going to adore. The album contains 11 original songs and Ingerlise performs with a band that includes Jorgen Sandvik on guitar, banjo and strings, Paul Inge Vikingtad on bass, Odd Martin Skalnes on keys and Vegard Fossum on drums. Ingerlise plays her distinctive acoustic guitar and also keyboards. It was no small thing for the artist to step away from Ephemera for the first time, and that was one of the first things I wanted to ask her about.
“At first I was a bit concerned and anxious that it was going to be too close to the Ephemera sound,” said Ingerlise via email. “But I concluded quickly that I am a big part of the Ephemera sound, and I cannot change my voice or the way I play the guitar or make music, just to keep a distance from what might possibly sound like something Ephemera did. The studio session was very focused and very good; I never thought about being on my own, or that it was scary or difficult. It was all very natural. The band was in the studio for only two days… so I had a good picture of what I wanted. Almost all the arrangements were already done, I had recorded them at home as demos. The band played and put their sounds and feelings into the songs and it went really great, I think.”
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
When a singer has been primarily known for being in a group with tight vocal harmonies, they must be cognizant of listeners’ expectations, and even though Ephemera were far from being “superstars,” they made a tremendous mark in the Norwegian music scene. But there is no trace of the other girls on this album, it is definitely all Ingerlise. Wasn’t that a bit strange?
“Actually, it wasn’t strange or difficult at all,” she said. “I love those girls, no question about that! But I have the need to make my own music, to make decisions and choices without always meeting others halfway. It’s been such a strong experience for me. Of course, I’ve had thoughts like, ‘what if I can’t do this without them? What if it isn’t good enough?’ But most of all, I’ve been excited and confident about this record. ALL THE GOOD THINGS is a turning point in my life. It’s a really personal album, and it is all about making the world the best it can be. To make the right decisions for yourself, spending the time right and doing what means something to you.”
Ingerlise is justifiably proud of this record indeed, as it’s a tremendous showcase for her sublime songwriting. “In the End” and “Hearbeat” are fine examples of the kind of achingly emotional, haunting ballads that Ingerlise contributed to Ephemera and now offers here in a different musical setting. It’s authentic and real, hearing songs such as these. Ms Storksen is incapable of ever hitting a false emotional note. On “Velvet Voice,” a phrase that could easily apply to the sound that comes out of Ingerlise’s mouth, unexpected harps add a surprising texture to a song that starts out somewhat plaintive and soon turns sublime. “If you have anything to say/Use your velvet voice in your best way,” the singer advises, and this could be directed to a struggling friend (“A poor lily lost her grounded view/Too much to lose… All the guilt, the endless wall/Insecure, even smaller… “) or possibly an affirmation for the singer herself. Such things are up to the listener to decide, but it’s a gorgeous song. There are simpler, acoustic guitar-driven tunes such as “Defender” and “The Birds Would Cry” that are the kind of songs Ingerlise seems to be able to write in her sleep. There’s an organic purity to these kinds of songs; if they were food, the label would say “organically grown, no artificial ingredients.” Like any normal person, Ingerlise has undoubtedly experienced plenty of hurt and disappointment, but the empathy in her voice at all times is a wondrous gift far beyond the ability of most singers to convey. “I keep breathing to keep you alive/I am your defender in every fight/I am floating, you’re dragging me down/I keep breathing, watching you drown,” she sings in “Defender,” a tune about someone that has clearly made some big mistakes and is NOT listening to our heroine. As for “Birds,” in one simple lyric, Ingerlise lays it on the line about the risk of loving: “I know you’re scared, so am I/The trees will mourn and the birds would cry/If we let it go without a try.” This is a singer who, when she sings words like that (in flawless, softly breathy English, by the way), you can’t imagine the kind of idiot who would NOT take her advice. Elsewhere on the album, there are some more rocking songs like “Knockout” and “No Need For Sleep,” both of which are incredibly catchy and should be on the radio. Of that former song, it is worth mentioning that the peerless arrangement and production provides a rare moment of apt comparison. It’s not often that Ingerlise (or the other Ephemera girls) particularly reminds me of any other artists, but there is a breathtaking chord change in the chorus (“Night and day/High and low/I’ve been looking for you”) and a big, sweeping vocal ascension that is absolutely reminiscent of latter day Cocteau Twins. Nothing about Ingerlise’s normal singing voice would remind one of Liz Fraser, but this amazing moment truly does. High praise, I assure you. It’s also worth mentioning the stylistically uncategorizable first single, “I Killed Your Horse.” The unsettling title is metaphorical, one assumes; this is a love song with some high stakes, apparently, about a “strong cowboy” (or IS he?) and the woman asking him questions he may or may not be able to answer. The chorus is again, excellent, and Ingerlise has already gotten some plaudits in the Norwegian press for the tune. What is most interesting is to see her expand stylistically; this song in particular is NOT reminiscent of Ephemera, while some of the ones mentioned above, definitely are. At any rate, she’s made a fantastic, smoothly consistent, emotionally stirring record. And that wonderful voice? It oughta be playing in therapy centers and mental health clinics everywhere; I have to believe that at least SOME patients would soon find themselves feeling less anxious…
There were many, many questions I wanted to ask this amazing artist, and it was difficult to try to limit myself to a dozen or so. But the bulk of them follow; they cover the new record, the past and future of Ephemera, Ingerlise’s formative years, et cetera. Initially it might require some patience to get ahold of the vinyl (yes, it IS released in that format) or CD of ALL THE BEST THINGS, but I’d advise you to persevere if you like intimate, emotionally cathartic music of uncommon melodic beauty. Ingerlise Storksen is worth whatever you have to go through to hear her music. Personally, just knowing she is on the planet makes me feel better!
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: You seem to have this trademark style that is primarily acoustic guitar, your amazing voice, and then various quirky sounds that emerge during the production process. Do you generally have your songs finished as acoustic arrangements before you go into the studio? And do you also have the keyboard parts in your head?
INGERLISE: Yes, the songs are all finished and arranged in acoustic composition before I go in the studio. I’m working a lot at home, recording demos where I arrange and compose melodies for keys and choir and even strings. I love working out harmonies, and I love putting them together, chasing for that little magic touch.
THE MULE: There are some very intimate, melancholy songs on this album, like “You Are Love,” “In the End” and “Heartbeat.” You do these songs with such gentleness and emotional clarity. Do you ever get overwhelmed with emotion by your own songs? Are songs like this always about people or situations from your own life? “In the End” strikes me as a song that could be either about a character talking to herself, like therapeutic “self affirmation,” or advice to an insecure friend who is suffering.
INGERLISE: Those songs you mention are all very important songs for me. They are written in “real” moments. Moments when I really HAD to write them out. They are all very personal and emotional – especially “Heartbeat.” That song is about my dear, dear grandmother who passed away in May 2014. She and I have always been very close, and still I think it is so strange and so sad that she is gone. This song is for her. I managed to sing it at her funeral. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do. I know she knows. So, yes, sometimes a song can be overwhelming – even for me.
THE MULE: I love the song “Velvet Voice” and it sounds like one of the album’s highlights. Could you talk about the recording of this song? I don’t recognize one of the string instruments, but the arrangement is startling. Is Yngve Saetre proactive about suggesting unique instrumentation like this? Does he surprise you, or do members of your band surprise you with suggestions that maybe you would not have thought of yourself?
INGERLISE: This song is one of my favorites, as well. The string-thing was something that happened in the studio, all spontaneous. I think maybe Jorgen picked up one of the harps in studio, just to play along with me while going through the song before we started recording. And all of a sudden, Paul Inge and Odd Martin were playing harps as well. It sounded great right away, and we jumped into takes. I think we played through the song two or three times, live – and there it was. It is two small harps and one Guzheng used. Plus two acoustic guitars. And Odd Martin is humming, as well.
Ingerlise Storksen I Killed Your Horse single
THE MULE: “Knockout” and “No Need For Sleep” are the upbeat rockers on the album. Is it more fun to do songs like that in the studio? What made you choose “I Killed Your Horse,” a more eccentric song, probably, for a single rather than one of the upbeat tunes like this?
INGERLISE: It is really fun to record upbeat songs. It’s a whole different energy and way of working. I think “I Killed Your Horse” is such a strong song. It is not a typical single right away, but still it’s got a good chorus, but maybe more; it’s got catchy verses. The lyrics are very important for this song, and it really comes through. The next single release will be “Knockout” – a much more easygoing radio song. But when that song comes out, I will have already established a “deeper” image. About myself and my music. And I like that!
THE MULE: “Defender” is also a marvelous song, what inspired that one? It’s a great example of your style and your musicality. Do you need a “defender” in your own life?
INGERLISE: “Defender” is an important song for me. It’s about the need to “keep on walking”, and to leave things behind. To put something into sleep, while still keeping hold of the good feelings and the soul and the moments. It’s one of those sad love stories. I would like to have a big and strong defender in my life… but sometimes I think we all need to just lay down and let somebody strong and safe take care of us. Without any questions.
THE MULE: Your producer, Yngve Saetre, is a genius in my opinion. He worked on all the Ephemera recordings, and now he has produced your solo album. It would be an understatement to say he has good ears. What makes him such an ideal producer for you?
INGERLISE: Yngve has this unassailable way of working with music. He is a man with strong meanings, without any filter. So… we have had some good discussions on the road. He is stubborn and I am stubborn, but we both agree that we have to do what’s the best for each song. He is a very creative soul, and can often see things that I never would. Still, the songs on ALL THE GOOD THINGS were so ready when I went into the studio, and with all the preparation I already had done – the arrangements and harmonies – so there was not so much to discuss. I love working with Yngve, and I hope I get the opportunity again.
THE MULE: Bergen, where you live, has consistently turned out amazing musical artists. We think of it as a mystical, almost mythical music town here in the US. What is it like for you who live there? What makes it so unique?
INGERLISE: Bergen Is a small, but big city. Small in its size, but big in its facilities due to music and art and soul. The one thing that actually is kind of unique with Bergen, is that everyone who’s from this city is really intensely committed. Proud and loud about it! Even the mayor is really well known throughout Norway because of her big love for Bergen. There’s a little something special about Bergen that is hard to explain. When it comes to the music scene, there has always been a lot of generosity around. It seems everybody is cheering for each other – there is no fighting for the spotlight. The main thing is the music. Not money. Not fame or any of that.
THE MULE: What is it that first made you want to write songs and sing? What were your biggest influences?
INGERLISE: I have all my life felt this big and natural passion for music. I remember being a small girl, yearning to sing out loud, being on stage, singing for people – it was an intense urge. I grew up in a very musical family, and both my parents always played music in our house. Actually, they both played in bands as youngsters, my mom in a girl band, and my dad as a lead singer in his band. So there were guitars and a piano around me at home, and I was 12 years old when I sat down in my room and started to figure out how to play the guitar. I loved it! And I preferred to stay home in my room, playing and singing, than to be outside playing with my girly friends. I began to write my own songs at 16 or 17, with no other ambition than just for the love of it. When we started to play gigs with Ephemera, we suddenly understood that people out there liked the music we made. And all of a sudden it meant something more… There was never a question about playing together or spending all our time doing music.
THE MULE: Did you set any particular guidelines or rules for yourself when you first started writing your own songs? Were you shy about the process?
INGERLISE: Hmm. No guidelines or rules. But just always hunting for the good melody. I think it is possible to learn a method, or follow rules and setups for how to write a song – but I don’t believe you can provoke the real soul that you can sometimes feel in a song. I write my best songs when I experience the darker days. I love writing songs when I NEED to. I remember I felt a bit shy early on, when I was performing a new song for the girls in Ephemera. Was it good enough? Would they like it? But we were all a bit shy back then.
THE MULE: How much did Christine and Jannicke, your partners in Ephemera, influence the way you composed? Did they give you a sense of what did or didn’t work? How much collaboration was there?
INGERLISE: Well, Jannicke, Christine and myself are so much alike when It comes to taste in music in general. We grew up together, and we shared our youth and the “basic time” …if that makes sense. Still, we are very different souls and we have different preferences. I would say that the three of us together IS the sound of Ephemera. We’ve influenced each other on the road, and we grew as a band and as songwriters together. That is quite beautiful, actually. We have shared some really great things together. We have mostly written songs on our own – taken the song to the band rehearsal, and together, making it an Ephemera-song. I developed my way of writing during the intense time in Ephemera, and of course I’ve been influenced by the other girls. Still, I have always had a clear view of my own music, and how and what I want it to become.
THE MULE: The first Ephemera album, GLUE, came out in 1996. It was a pleasant recording, but didn’t truly showcase the “Ephemera sound.” That came to fruition on SUN, when you started working with producer Yngve Saetre. What did he bring to your sound that made such a difference? What happened in the group during that period between GLUE and SUN, which was in 2000?
INGERLISE: Wow, it was a long time ago. I’ll try to think back. That first record, GLUE, was very pure. I was only 17 years old when we were recording this album. And we were very concerned, and focused on the “live sound,” making sure everything was clean and organic. And real. It was a great first experience, and we learned a lot during this recording. We met Yngve during the mix of GLUE, he is the one who mixed the album. He really liked the way we worked and our songs, and wanted to work some more with us. I remember recording the album SUN like magic. It was in summertime, late evenings, and we just had a really good process. Working with Yngve went very well. He understood us, and together, we found the Ephemera sound during this recording.
THE MULE: It’s hard to analyze what makes something “magical” in music, but I just want to tell you that for me as a listener, what you and Ephemera have achieved often sounds like pure magic. There is some special ingredient that makes it soar higher than mere “excellence.” What makes music achieve that magical level, in your opinion?
INGERLISE: The magic in music… that is so powerful. And, so hard to explain. For me, it is those times when you write music because you really NEED to – when there is pure and real feeling and meaning in your words. When you manage to get pieces of hurt or soul, fervently into a song – I think some of that soul keeps on living in that song, and other people can feel it when they listen to it. That is magic!
THE MULE: My impression is that you were not that assertive about songwriting in the early days of Ephemera, but became more so between AIR and MONOLOVE. Is this accurate? What was your “evolution” as a songwriter?
INGERLISE: Hmm… I think I have always had it in me. Remember – we were young back then. At least, that is what I kept saying to myself. 17,18,19, 20 years old. I think it was more about confidence than ability. For every year that went by, It became easier for me to write songs, and to believe in myself as a songwriter. Still, I have this fear of, “what if I never write a good song ever again?” But deep inside, I know it’s there. That there will be more songs. I hope!
THE MULE: All three of you have fantastic voices, and you each add something special to the mix. Christine has written a ton of great songs. And I have to say that a lot of your songs, your vocal performances, give me chills. There are many songs I could ask you about, but I specifically wondered about two songs from MONOLOVE, the last Ephemera album. “Thank You” features a heartbreakingly beautiful vocal from you, with a level of hushed intimacy that few singers could ever hope to achieve. And “Dead Against the Plan” is, to me, one of the catchiest and most dazzling pop songs ever put on record. Can you tell me a little about what it was like working in the studio on those two songs? Did you know you were capturing some amazing musical moments on record when you did these songs?
INGERLISE: “Thank You” is a song written to one of my favorite persons in my life, my grandmother. I have now written a song for both of them – but both were amazing, you see. Really. “Thank You” is about everything she gave to us. The beautiful perspective of life she gave us. She lost two of her children when she was young, and went through such hard times. Still, she was always there for my dad and us grandchildren. She gave us all the love in the world. She was so strong and small at the same time; she was broken, but she never broke. It just makes me so sad to think about. Life can be so brutal. “Dead Against the Plan.” This is a song I started writing, the melody and the story. But I needed some help from Christine to finish up. So this one is a collaboration. The story is about a girl and a boy, they have been really good friends through many years. Always there for each other, in the ups and downs. It all changes the day he starts to feel more. They ruin the friendship by not figuring it out, and they never get back to where they once were. Stupid, right? This was a special song, and it was recorded not long after it was written, so there is some real energy there.
THE MULE: What is the current status of Ephemera? Obviously you guys keep in touch, but some fans were disappointed when the “break” you took turned into over a decade long. What happened? Will the group ever record an album again?
INGERLISE: We will never fully break up the band. We are on a long break. You see, we started up when I was 15 years old, and Christine and Jannicke 16. From early on, Ephemera got a lot of attention and it quickly became a busy pleasure. So the life with Ephemera was committed, and it held us back from doing a lot of other things in life. BUT… I would never miss that for the world. We got to keep doing what we really loved, we traveled around and experienced a lot that other “kids” didn’t get to do. But after all those years together, we needed to do some stuff on our own. All of a sudden, there were babies coming into the band, and family life was a fact. It’s not easy to leave your kids behind, to travel and tour. So we decided to take a real break, with no pressure or expectations. And then came more kids, and we had time to finish our education and try out the “adult-life” for a bit. Will Ephemera ever make another album? I would say yes.
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Do you have any insights as to why many Norwegian recordings don’t get released in the US? Many albums I love from Norway cannot be found ANYWHERE here, they can only be ordered as special imports. That is gradually changing, as downloading becomes the prominent way for listeners to get music, but still… why didn’t Ephemera records, for example, get released here?
INGERLISE: Hmm. I don’t know, actually. A lot of Norwegian bands typically tour and release their music in Germany, England and Europe in general, but not so often in the US. But yes, it’s changing now. I see more and more bands traveling over to you, and making things happen over there. Sondre Lerche. The Last Hurrah! They are both working in the US these days. With Ephemera, I don’t think we had the right contacts. And we were so busy touring in Europe, Japan – and we didn’t get to the US before we took this break. We did have some songs on some TV series and some movies, but it never quite got to anything else. Maybe I will try with my solo project! I would love to release my music over there.
THE MULE: During the long break since MONOLOVE, I understand that you were all raising families, but it has certainly been a much longer break than bands usually take. The only new recording the band made, I suppose, was your cover of the Prince song “Manic Monday” for a tribute album. How much were you working on music yourself those years? Did you ever lose interest in it? Or were there particular “barriers” to overcome?
INGERLISE: I could never lose interest. This is about so much more than just an interest. I’ve been writing music all the way, for all these years. It is such a big part of who I am, and I will never stop making songs and writing lyrics. It was just time for me to jump off the wagon for a while. I needed time home with my son, and this was a choice I made. I have been working as a journalist as well, and I tasted the “everyday-life.” I love being at home with my son, but working in front of a computer all day… no! It kills me. In the end, it makes me sad and “sick” if I can’t keep working and spending time with my passion and music. So I have recently quit my job, and will be focusing only on music now. And Oskar. There is one life. One chance.
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
ALL THE GOOD THINGS is due for release this Spring on iLs Records. You can follow Ingerlise’s activities at www.ingerlisestorksen.com. Most of Ephemera’s music is available on iTunes, and some of it can be heard at Spotify.
FIVE EPHEMERA GEMS
Although on hiatus, the Norwegian trio has recorded a clutch of albums that are stellar examples of luminous, emotionally compelling modern pop. Here are five of their very best songs to seek out:
1. PERFECT – From their 2000 release SUN, Ingerlise sings this delicate tale of a troubled relationship in which the boy begs unsuccessfully for forgiveness for the way he’s messed things up. Spine-tingling harmonies only add bliss to the impossibly fragile lead vocal.
2. BYE – Another Ingerlise tune, this is one of the most perfect melancholy pop songs you’ll ever hear. Sweetly sad, flawlessly sung and graced with a soft chugging rhythm and singalong chorus. If that weren’t enough, the song unexpectedly breaks into a semi-jazzy piano break halfway through that sends this straight into “blue diamond” territory. Transcendent.
3. MAPLE TREE – Christine Sandtorv penned and sang this gorgeous romantic song from the 2003 release AIR. A seemingly simple song about a girl sitting under a tree on a sunny day, “holding a leaf with my toe,” with an unnamed romantic companion suddenly showing up. So perfect, sweet and life affirming is this song, it has brought me to tears on several occasions. “When the sky is blue, right in front of you/Touch it while you can/It may never happen again,” sings our angelic protagonist, and I don’t know of any advice on ANY recording that gets you right in the heart the way Christine does here. Nordic magic so sublime it puts the overproduced and melodramatic works by most American female artists to shame. Probably one of my ten favorite songs of all time.
4. ON MY FEET AGAIN – Another tune from AIR, this is a lovely collaboration between Christine and Ingerlise in which, improbably, almost every line begins with the word “Maybe.” It comes across as a girl talking to herself, trying to figure out, perhaps why things aren’t so great. The repeated refrain is a simple “Maybe I’ve got a lot to learn about falling down/Maybe I’ve got a lot to learn about getting up on my feet again.” Melodically rich, catchy as hell, featuring an evocative keyboard sound, and oooh, those sweetly feminine harmonies. Beautiful simplicity, something Ephemera does better than anyone.
5. DEAD AGAINST THE PLAN – Before their fifth album, MONOLOVE, came out in 2004, Ephemera had raised their own bar so high that one could be forgiven for thinking they were finally going to make something LESS wonderful, something maybe a bit, I don’t know. Self-indulgent? Repetitious? Ordinary bands do that sort of thing, after all. But gee whiz, MONOLOVE turned out to be deeper, richer and more multi-layered than ever before, with a full slate of gorgeous new songs like “Thank You” and the anthemic “Paint Your Sky” (one of Jannicke Larsen’s finest songs). “Dead Against the Plan,” however, another Ingerlise-Christine collaboration mostly sung by the former, is ridiculously brilliant. Every single second of this song is so meticulously sung, performed and arranged for maximum musical impact, that you can only shake your head in awe. Multiple hooks, rich harmonies, odd little detours and breaks, one of the best uses of a banjo on a pop song ever, and an A plus plus plus production by Yngve Saetre put this song in a class by itself. It’s so damn good that I only allow myself to listen to it once in a while, because I don’t want to ever take for granted or “get used to” pop music this dazzling. Anyone who wants to quickly find out why I am so in love with this band just needs to put this song on, turn it up loud, close your eyes and experience Nordic songcraft at its most enthralling.
You could be forgiven for not immediately knowing who Mabel Greer’s Toyshop are. That name has not exactly been pervasive in the music press. However, hardcore fans of the legendary progressive rock ensemble Yes will recognize MGT (whom we will sometimes also refer to as just “Mabel,” as fans are starting to do) as the place Yes came from, a long, long time ago. Yes indeed, way back in 1966, founding members Robert Hagger and Clive Bayley, together with original Yes-men Peter Banks and Chris Squire, were starting to make music as MGT, something pop oriented and even a little folksy. Then, that Jon Anderson fellow had to come along and start having long, late night talks with Chris Squire, and everything got messed up. Depending on how you look at it, of course. MGT did not continue as an active entity, although material had been written and performed at the time. So, it’s more than a little unexpected that, 45 years later, they have a new album called NEW WAY OF LIFE due out, featuring Hagger and Bayley, along with Yes alumnae Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood, and bassist Hugo Barre as the main newbie. The album succeeds in not only being eminently listenable, but in setting itself far apart from Yes-pectations (a word that might as well be officially used to describe the always-changing state of Yes fanship through the years and the rotating lineups). Such tunes as “Get Yourself Together,” “Images of You and Me,” “Singing To Your Heart” and the melodic title track are muscular, well-conceived tracks that feature pleasant harmonies, energetic playing and a joyful spirit that is almost celebratory in nature. After all this time, the band probably knew that full surrender was the best way to go with a project that has taken so long to be realized. One thing that is a bit surprising with regard to Yes is that two songs on the first Yes album, “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness” have been totally redone here. We’ll let the band explain how that came about in the following interview, conducted via email.
Whatever preconceived notions that listeners bring to this project, it’s fair to say that if you set those aside and just listen, you’ll hear some classic old-school British rock that is influenced by its prog roots to an extent, but also straightforward in its desire to showcase the melodies and tight musicianship of this new-old ensemble, with nothing pretentious or self-indulgent to mar the result. There are a couple of instrumentals, and a few tunes that probably won’t set the world on fire, but this is just pleasant, well-crafted rock with hints of nostalgia that should make most listeners smile. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop clearly had a barrel of fun with this album, and it’s an easy bet that they will keep it going. They are doing exactly what they want to do, and the intimidating musical legacy that they’ve come from, while echoed here and there, does not straightjacket this new record in any way. It’s an admirable feat they’ve accomplished, one that is a bit unprecedented in the annals of progressive music. There were many questions worth asking the band, but the following interview tells a great deal about their unusual journey to this point:
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, 1967 (Robert Hagger, Peter Banks, Clive Bayley, Chris Squire) (photo credit: ROWAN BULMER)
THE MULE: Although it’s not unprecedented for a group that was better known as the earliest incarnation of a more prominent group to “reunite” and release new music, it’s also not common. How did this project ultimately come about?
ROBERT HAGGER:Ironically, I think it may have been the death of Peter Banks that was a catalyst. On March 15, 2013, I was on a flight from Dubai to Johannesburg and read in a newspaper that “Peter Banks, former lead guitarist with Yes and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, died on March 7 from heart failure at the age of 65.” THE (London) TIMES dedicated three-quarters of a page to the story. Mabel Greer’s Toyshop was mentioned in the article, although inaccurately reporting that, “the band was formed by Banks and Chris Squire.” In reality, Clive and I asked Chris to join following my audition with the band, the Syn. Chris then invited Peter and Jon Anderson to join us. Peter made a huge contribution to what we were doing at the time. I started swapping emails with Clive and we agreed to meet up in July in France at the Le Petit Maison in Nice, a restaurant opposite the opera house. It’s a surreal experience to meet someone again after 45 years! We had a lot to talk about and during the meal he blurts it out, “we should reform Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.” We all fall about laughing, but it hits a nerve, and we agreed to book some studio time in August.
CLIVE BAYLEY:Mabel was always “unfinished business” for both of us; we thought the music deserved to be carried through to a larger audience.
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop becomes Yes (Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson) (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Most hardcore Yes fans will likely know of you guys, but perhaps not the prog audience at large. What would you say distinguishes the current musical style you’re creating from the ‘60s incarnation of the band?
CLIVE: Back in the ‘60’s our style was likened to a crossover of Pink Floyd and the Byrds; strong melody lines and good harmonies, albeit a little more classic rock oriented (as was carried over to the Yes incarnation). If anything, the Mabel melody lines are perhaps even stronger and heavier now and include 45 years of influences from far and wide.
THE MULE: It was a bit of a surprise to hear the tracks “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness” redone on this record, as those tracks were on the first Yes album and heavily featured Jon Anderson. What made you decide to record those songs, and are you concerned at all that your take on them will suffer by comparison to Anderson’s distinctive style?
ROBERT: “Beyond and Before” was always the Mabel opening piece at gigs, even before Jon Anderson joined us. The song, written by Clive and Chris Squire, is part of our history, we couldn’t possibly leave it out.
CLIVE: Jon is a great singer, and we all enjoy the Yes version… but, we wanted to do the melody lines more like the original Mabel version. Regarding “Sweetness,” which I co-wrote with Jon and Chris… again, Jon’s version is great, but my voice is an octave lower and a different style. The interesting thing about the Mabel version of “Sweetness” is the lead guitar running through the song in counterpoint which twists it into another style, I think.
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop rehearsa, circa 2013 (Annouchka Bayley, Alex Keren Robert Hagger, Clive Bayley, Hugo Barre) (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Talk about your compositional process a little: How did tracks such as “Get Yourself Together” and “Images of You and Me” originate and develop into the arrangements we hear? Then elsewhere, you have tracks that are mostly instrumental such as “King and Country” and “Oceans”… how are aesthetic decisions like that made? Does everyone have to agree on the elements of a song, or do a couple of you get to pretty much determine the direction of a tune?
CLIVE: I think songwriting and arranging really is my thing. So in a lot of the arrangements I was trying to create a fuller, more interesting sound than we had achieved on the older material. The new songs just kind of fell into place. On “New Way of Life,” Billy altered the bass line from what we had originally and this seemed to change the style of the song quite a bit. He just did it, we all liked it, so we kept it. Billy’s style worked well as he intuitively caught where the European part of the band were coming from… great job from both him and Tony Kaye.
ROBERT: “Get Yourself Together” and “Images” were, again, written back in 1967. When we went back in the studio to record them we did it from memory, which was an interesting experience in itself. It’s important to note that the only rehearsal we had was to play the numbers through once or twice and then lay down the tracks. There are advantages and disadvantages in doing it this way. We sacrificed some quality to retain the vibe and energy.
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Clive Bayley, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: “Oceans” makes it pretty clear that you guys are comfortable with long instrumental passages and “painterly” style soundscapes. Might you consider doing an all-instrumental recording someday?
CLIVE: The music piece determines if vocals are required… alternatively, if a strong melody line is created then the backing can be hard rock or delicate, it just kind of evolves. Yes, I would like to do an instrumental with strings and a choir sort of thing, but I suspect a melody line will creep in somewhere as a vocal. I do like Rock Opera, music telling a story. I wrote an album called KING AND COUNTRY, (which has) not yet been released, that does this. Strangely, it was based on TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, which is now about to be released as a major movie. I would like to re-record this album or update it at some point in time.
THE MULE: Clive and Robert, what was it like revisiting something you did so long ago? Were you at all concerned about being in the shadow of Yes as you embarked on this project?
CLIVE: I don’t want to emulate Yes, they are a wonderful band and they are Yes. However, you can detect where some of the Yes sound came from, and with a little imagination, you have a different take on where it could have gone if we had remained involved. I don’t rate myself as a great guitarist like Steve Howe or Peter Banks… but, I think I can write and arrange some nice sounds, and want to share that.
ROBERT: When Clive and I formed Mabel back in 1966, we knew we had something special. Even at the age of 16, Clive was writing stuff like “Beyond and Before” and “Jeanetta,” still one of my all-time favourites and also included on the new album. There is no question of being in the shadow of another band, we are just making our offering and if a few people enjoy it, then we will be happy.
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Tony Kaye and Billy Sherwood are in the unique position of having played with later versions of Yes; in fact, Tony played in early AND later incarnations. Would love it if you guys could share your insights into what it was like during your particular eras with Yes, and how those experiences influenced you for this new MGT project. Do you still have contact with Chris Squire, any of you? Has he heard the new work?
BILLY SHERWOOD: I was lucky enough to tour with the 90125 (Yes) lineup in 1995, for their TALK record, after that, the band reverted back to the classic lineup as it’s known, with Howe and Wakeman. I was called in to produce/mix for that lineup during the KEYS TO ASCENSION sessions. After that phase, they broke up and it was at that point that Squire and myself began writing and sending tracks around to Anderson, who got involved in this new writing wave… which became the OPEN YOUR EYES record. This is when I joined as a full member, touring that record and the following record THE LADDER. This would be the third Yes lineup I had the pleasure to play with. I left the band in 2000 to go back into the studio production world, making many records, some of which included various Yes members… (THE PROG COLLECTIVE 1 and 2, the Fusion Syndicate, William Shatner‘s PONDER THE MYSTERY among other records). As a result of my ongoing relationship with Yes, I was asked to come in and mix their most recent studio record, HEAVEN AND EARTH, as well as their live DVD from Bristol called LIKE IT IS. I am currently just starting to mix another Live Yes DVD from Mesa, Arizona… Regarding Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, it was a part of Yes history in that the early seeds of Yes were housed within that band in many ways. When I was asked to come on board to make their new record, it was an honor. As a Yes fan, knowing the backstory of where it all began, I felt it was something special to be involved with such history by pushing it forward into the future. I really enjoyed playing on the record and producing/mixing, it was a labour of love indeed!
(Tony Kaye was also part of the Mabel Greer’s Toyshop/Yes transition in June to August 1968 in London, and was of course the keyboard player on the versions of “Beyond and Before” and “Sweetness’ that featured on the first Yes album. Tony was very pleased to be involved in the revival album with Clive and Bob, and enjoyed playing the old material again. He has also been working with Billy Sherwood on their joint-project and new album with the band Circa… Tony was not available for this interview).
THE MULE: You are billed as an “English psychedelic rock band” on your web site. What does the term “psychedelic” mean to you. Has audience perception of that word changed since the ‘60s?
ROBERT: We used the term “psychedelic” with the meaning “mind-revealing” in that the music was designed to change the state of the listener’s mind by sound effects and reverberation. As an example, just listen to some of the intros and specifically to the track “Oceans” on the new album.
CLIVE: Yes, audience perception of “psychedelic” has changed. We were dressed differently then, and when we started out it was the pre-Flower Power era. The ‘60s were a great time of peaceful protest and desire to change the establishment, too. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, we were all breaking new ground. I think we tend to use the term “psychedelic” loosely… it could encompass a protest movement, new way of life, breakout… But, using the word “psychedelic” also brings back images of that era where all these things were going on.
THE MULE: Talking about this area a little more, progressive rock sort of had its heyday in the ‘70s with groups like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Then it fell out of favor for many years, partially due to punk and new wave, but a new crop of bands like Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard and many more proved that prog rock still had a massive audience in the ‘90s and beyond. What do you guys see as the importance and appeal of prog rock? Do you see yourselves fitting into that realm, even though some of the tracks on your new record are essentially straightforward pop songs?
CLIVE: I think we are flexible enough to try different styles. The title track, dare I say, is more country and western than prog rock. A bit like the last Muse album where they introduced some R&B tunes, that shocked a few people. We like to experiment a lot, which again, is that psychedelic label, but it doesn’t ALL have to sound like Flower Power… if that makes sense?
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop’s Robert Hagger, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Does it affect groups like you that made your first mark in a very different musical era, that the technology and distribution systems have changed so much? Do you think music has been devalued by mp3s and the like, or is it just the inevitable change that musicians have to adapt to? How do you personally see the music business these days?
CLIVE: Well, Bob and I are getting back in so we are seeing the music business in a new light after a long gap. It clearly has changed. I think we all have to constantly adapt quickly as the world is speeding up now and more and more will change. Go with the flow but keep your integrity and create what you believe in.
ROBERT: In the old days, musicians could not rely on record sales to make a living, they had to go out and play in front of an audience. Funny that today is the same…
THE MULE: For those who don’t know, what is the origin of the band’s name? Was there ever any thought about going out under a different name when you got together again?
ROBERT: Back in the ‘60s, interesting, way-out names were the way to go: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, et cetera. So we became Mabel Greer’s Toyshop. This whole project was about reviving the vibes that we had going in the beginning, so it would have been counter-productive to rename the band, although it seems that everybody now refers to it as just plain “Mabel… ”
THE MULE: What are your biggest hopes as you launch into this new phase of the band’s career? Will you be touring a lot? Will you be doing other early Yes songs besides the ones on the record? And do you think there will be more albums down the road?
CLIVE: No, I don’t think we will do any Yes songs. We will do some showcase gigs and see what happens. I am definitely arranging the next album soon; we already have a lot of new songs for it. And I want to do that Rock Opera thing or themed album. We are happy to do a new album every year if the audience likes it. Constantly trying to create exciting music, whatever shape it takes. Let’s see where this “NEW WAY OF LIFE” takes Mabel after March 9…
NEW WAY OF LIFE will be released as a digital download and CD on March 9, 2015 by RSK Entertainment. For more information, visit the band’s website at mabelgreerstoyshop.com.
It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…
14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)
FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)
This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…
15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT
FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)
I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.
16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND
ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)
I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1″ in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.
17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND
VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)
Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.
How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.
18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)
This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.
19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2
AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)
Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”
How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.
20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER
OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)
Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.
How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.
21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20
LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)
This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.
22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE
BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)
It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.
23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK
TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)
I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.
How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.
24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG
LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)
I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.
25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS
FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)
for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!
TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:
NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:
ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT
MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)
Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!