Thursday, October 11, 2018

"The Art of Rush" reprint

Here's a video that peeks inside the recent reprint of The Art of Rush, which I wrote in 2015. The band Rush and its longtime art designer Hugh Syme commissioned me to write 40,000 words for the beautifully designed tome. Interviewing Neil Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson about their extraordinary back catalog was a dream project. (I wrote this lengthy post about the project a few years ago.) Here's a peak inside its pages...

Friday, August 31, 2018

Playlist June/July/August



As usual, my eclectic tastes in my latest playlist spans indie-rock, hip-hop, ambient, blues, singer-songwriter/folk, progressive rock, classical, Americana, and jazz.

ALBUMS
  • Low—Double Negative (2018)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Dissolution (2018)
  • Interpol—Marauder (2018)
  • Neil and Liam Finn—Lightsleeper (2018)
  • Hermit and the Recluse—Orpheus vs. the Sirens (2018)
  • Iceage—Beyondless (2018)
  • Iron and Wine—Weed Garden (2018)
  • Lunatic Soul—Under the Fragmented Sky (2018)
  • Richard Barbieri—Variants.4 (2018)
  • Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck—Arthur Buck (2018)
  • Sweet Billy Pilgrim—Wapentak (2018)
  • Henrik Freischlader—Blues for Gary (2017)
  • Steve Earle and the Dukes—Terraplane (2015)
  • Steve Reich, feat. Jonny Greenwood—Radio Rewrite (2012)
  • Jaga Jazzist—One-Armed Bandit (2010)
  • Laura Veirs—Year of Meteors (2005)
  • Howlin' WolfMemphis Years compilation (2004)
  • Ray LaMontagne—Trouble (2004)
  • Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Steve Howe—Symphonic Music of YES (1993)
  • Frank Zappa—Sheik Yerbouti (1979), Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)
  • Joni Mitchell—Both Sides Now: Isle of Wight (1970), Miles of Aisles (1974), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977), Shadows and Light (1980), Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm (1988)
  • Jeff Beck—Wired (1976)
  • Brian Eno—Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) (1974)
  • Jeff Beck—Beck-Ola (1969)
  • The Beatles—Revolver (1966)

My Latest Album Liner Notes

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to write liner notes for two new albums, Blackfield’s Open Mind and Vertical Horizon’s The Lost Mile.

The pressure was on. It always is. I wrote sleeve notes for the previous Vertical Horizon record and I’ve written numerous sleeve note essays for Steven Wilson but, like any writing assignment, it’s always slightly daunting and a fresh challenge.

BLACKFIELD



The brief from Steven Wilson was as follows: Could I pen sleeve notes for an upcoming best of Blackfield album, and could I write it without doing an interview but “maybe something more poetic,” or just highlight how the long-running side-project collaboration between him and Aviv Geffen came together.

What Steven envisioned by "poetic" was something akin to the sleeve notes of the first Roxy Music album. Those liner notes, penned by Bryan Ferry’s good friend Simon Puxley, are a blast of fun. They read like a hallucinogenic fever dream in which random thoughts and observations are scattered on the page with ellipses as the only connective tissue between them. Cut-and-paste Beat poetry with shifting time signatures!

Not very easy to emulate....

 

In my first attempt at writing something inspired by that style, I also took cues from, variously, Susannah Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a sort of literary Harry Potter for adults), the fanciful origin story of Porcupine Tree, and the terminology of 19th century medicine peddled by quacks.

The result was as bizarre as it sounds. There's a perilous line between the ridiculous and the sublime and I teetered over into the former territory. It had to be scrapped.

Back to the drawing board.

The final version of the sleeve notes was a more straightforward telling of the Blackfield origin story combined with some of the more toned-down elements of my attempt at bizarrely styled sleeve notes. The end result retains a bit of mystique and mischief, I think. (Though Aviv modestly axed my line about how he’s such a superstar that even Gal Gadot wants to take selfies with himwhich is true!)

VERTICAL HORIZON



Speaking of Steven Wilson, the first time I met Matt Scannell was backstage after a Porcupine Tree show in Los Angeles. Matt's band, Vertical Horizon, was the soundtrack of 1999, the year that I first moved to the USA. Their #1 single, “Everything You Want” was the single most played song on all American radio that year. Other singles “You’re a God” and “Best IEver Had (Grey Sky Morning)” were also ubiquitous. The first time I heard the album Everything You Want was through my then-girlfriend, now wife.

That night in Los Angeles, Porcupine Tree decamped to a bar a block from the venue with a few friends in tow. I recall that Porcupine Tree were in great spirits after their show, laughing about how an Italian girl in the front row kept lifting her top and flashing them while they were trying to play very complex parts! My pal John Wesley, the touring guitarist in Porcupine Tree and a solo artist in his own right, introduced me to Matt. He and I sat down and began talking about music. We are both Rush fans and I was aware that he is one of Neil Peart’s best friends. I was thrilled to find out just how wide-ranging Matt’s music tastes are and how many favorites we enjoy in common, including—to name but just a select few—Peter Gabriel, Yes, Robert Plant, Kate Bush, and, of course, Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree. Soon after, Matt came over to our little West Hollywood apartment on a sweltering hot day for a listening session to some music from my collection. And thus began one of my most treasured friendships.

It’s hard for me to adequately express just what a special person Matt is. He’s someone whose focus is outward, rather than inward. His natural instinct is to be attentive and attuned to others. He gives of himself, selfless and egoless. He has such a joyful zest for life as he pursues his various interests, which include test-driving sports cars and collecting wristwatches.

Matt is a very talented songwriter. How does he continually come up with such great melodies and hooks? I once told him that he writes the best middle-eights so that his songs suddenly veer off in a thrilling new trajectory midway through. Matt told me that Alex Lifeson had also commended him on that aspect of his songs. Matt’s a killer guitarist—the last few Vertical Horizon albums really showcased his six-string solo skills. The dude's also just, well, naturally cool





It was an honor to receive Matt’s invitation to write a short essay for Vertical Horizon’s sixth album, Echoes from the Underground, which included the rare privilege to go into a studio to watch Neil Peart lay down drum tracks on two songs. A few years later, I've now written sleeve notes for Vertical Horizon’s new album, The Lost Mile. It’s Matt’s best work to date (he keeps one-upping himself). This was the most difficult and boldest project he’s undertaken. I attempted to capture in words just how difficult the act of creation can be, and how transformative it is when an artist breaks through barriers to achieve what he set out to do.

I am very blessed to work again and again with both Steven and Matt. They’re each incredibly talented and I am such an admirer of their respective work. Make no mistake, it is work. Their albums are so good because they both put in the blood, sweat, and tears into their music. In my own writing endeavors, I continue to learn a lot from both of these artists.


Blackfield: Open Mind is released September 25th and can be ordered on Amazon or Burning Shed.

Vertical Horizon: The Lost Mile can be ordered on Amazon, and is available to download/stream at all the usual outlets.




Friday, May 11, 2018

Playlist April/May



ALBUMS
  • Laura Veirs—The Lookout (2018)
  • LUMP (Laura Marling + Mike Lindsay)—Lump (upcoming 2018)
  • Father John Misty—God's Favorite Customer (upcoming 2018)
  • Ry Cooder—Prodigal Son (2018)
  • Sonar with David Torn—Vortex (2018)
  • Beach House—7 (upcoming 2018)
  • Jess Williamson—Cosmic Wink (upcoming 2018)
  • Buddy Guy—The Blues is Alive and Well (upcoming 2018)
  • Sting and Shaggy—44/876 (2018)
  • Marillion—Brave box set (2018)
  • Richard Barbieri—Variants 3 (2018)
  • Snow Patrol—Wildness (upcoming 2018)
  • Adam Holzman—Truth Decay (2018)
  • Steven Wilson—How Big the Space? (Record Store Day single 2018)
  • Led Zeppelin—Rock 'n Roll (Record Store Day single 2018)
  • Botany—Deepak Verbera (2016)
  • Nik Bartch's Ronin—Stoa (2006)
  • Jah Wobble + Bill Laswell—A Dub Transmission (2001)
  • Fleetwood Mac—25 Years: The Chain box set (1992)

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: SINGLES

S 

My interview with Loma in The Boston Globe


Many musicians compare being in a band to a marriage. In the case of Loma, their debut album almost prematurely ended in divorce.

I'd been anticipating the trio's eponymously titled debut for quite some time. Loma is a hybrid of two great groups from Austin: Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater + the two members of Cross Record. Shearwater has long been one of my top-five favorite bands. I first came across the band's 2007 masterpiece Rook and I think my review of it at the time, below, captures my astonishment at my discovery. It was like finding America's answer to Talk Talk.

SHEARWATER: Rook (Matador Records) 

This Texan art-rock group, fronted by Jonathan Meiburg, has caught the ear of music critics but has yet to colonize the charts. Perhaps that's because there's little evidence that the four-piece has ever thumbed through the Lennon/McCartney songbook. There are few discernible choruses and the tracks eschew conventional pop-song structures. Opening track "On the Death of the Waters," for example, is structured like a bell curve: It starts out hushed as a prayer, swells into an outburst of guitar and trumpet, and then subsides into the ether once again. That's not to say that Shearwater can't pen a good hook. "Rooks" is propelled by a sure-footed backbeat, a glissando guitar progression, and horns straight out of Morricone Western as Meiburg, a part-time ornithologist, sings of birds ensnared in washing lines to evoke the natural order in disarray. Just as compelling: "Leviathan, Bound" is built on a duet between a hammered dulcimer and a piano. Elsewhere, the band employs violins, harp, banjo, tuba, French horn, trombone, and vibraphone, but the organic music feels minimalist and spacious rather than baroque and cluttered. Shearwater's main instrument, however, is Meiburg's one-in-a-million voice, a sonorous vessel of unfiltered emotion. The headphone album of the year.

Since then, I've done many interviews with Shearwater's songwriter, singer, guitarist and sole constant member Jonathan Meiburg. (See the right-hand side column of this page to find them.) He's one of rock music's most intelligent, erudite, and interesting musicians. Who else spends their spare time outside of music doing ornithological research in some of the world's remotest regions. Over the years, Jonathan's work as a naturalist has taken him to the Falklands, Masoala peninsula of Madagascar, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, a tiny Inuit village in the Canadian Arctic, and an Aboriginal settlement in the croc-filled swamps of northern Australia? Jonathan was once stranded for a month on an uninhabited volcanic desert island.

One of my favorite aspects of Shearwater is that its sound is constantly evolving. So when I heard that Meiburg was making an album with the duo Cross Record (who were the impressive support act on the last Shearwater tour), I was highly intrigued by the prospect of the collaboration. But then I heard a rumor that the project had fallen disastrously apart.

I recently interviewed Loma for The Boston Globe to get the full, fascinating story of how they overcame difficult circumstances to finish their glorious debut record - You can read the story here.
Catch Loma's current tour of the US and Europe at these dates: https://www.subpop.com/artists/loma/tours



Thursday, March 29, 2018

Playlist March


  • Wye Oak—The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs (2018)
  • Soccer Mommy—Clean (2018)
  • Ed Schrader's Music Beat—Riddles (2018)
  • I'm With Her—See You Around (2018)
  • Francis Dunnery—Live in Japan (2018)
  • Snow Patrol—Wildness (2018)
  • Loma—Loma (2018)
  • Mark Pritchard—The Four Worlds (2018)
  • Sufjan Stevens—Age of Adz (2010)
  • TV on the Radio—desperate youth, blood thirsty babes (2004)
  • Sigur Ros—() (2002)

Monday, March 26, 2018

Steven Wilson tour program

'Twas a pleasure to interview Steven Wilson for his new tour program. The focus of my piece is the live side of Steven's work. An in-depth look at artistry behind how Steven designs his concerts from the setlists to the staging, lighting, and visual display. The program is a handsome production thanks to the design of Carl Glover + photos by Lasse Hoile and Joe del Tufo. Look for it at Steven's current tour of Europe and upcoming US tour (see: http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/tour-dates/)



Here, below, are excerpts from the interview with SW that didn't make the cut for the tour program:

When you’re performing on stage, what sort of things go through your mind? Are you thinking, “I have to tap that guitar pedal in the next bar and then go over to the keyboard next?”

There comes a point where all those things have become automatic, they become instinct and you don’t even have to think about them. Actually, the worst thing that you can do is think about it too much. Because the moment I start to think about it, that’s when I suddenly panic and forget lyrics or what I’m supposed to do because you’re no longer relying on that subconscious instinct. So it’s better not to have that stuff in your mind.

When I'm actually in the middle of playing songs, I'm not sure what I'm thinking really. We have a lot of fun on stage and we have a lot of in-jokes. A lot of the time I might be thinking, “How can I put Craig off?” Or, “How can I make Nick laugh?”

How do you deal with hecklers? 

The hecklers that I get at my shows tend to be smart-arses who want to shout something out to show everyone else how clever they are. Being a smart-arse myself, I enjoy engaging with those kind of people, in fact I’m probably guilty of conversing with them for too long sometimes. The band will start to look at their watches and wonder when we’re going to play the next song!

I guess I do talk quite a lot between songs. I can’t abide clichéd showbiz stage banter, so I’ve learned that it’s best to talk to an audience like you’re talking to a single person one-on-one, relaxed and don’t be self-conscious about what you’re saying. That way you’re not doing the “reading from a script” thing.

Do you ever find your mind wandering—seeing someone in the audience that you recognize or who looks interesting for some reason?

Sometimes you have people literally leaning over the front of the stage and you can’t help but engage with them. I might be admiring a pretty girl or marvelling at a particularly grotesque T-shirt someone in the front row might be wearing!  The one thing that’s very difficult to avoid is obsessing about someone in the audience that doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. They might be a partner who has been dragged along to the show; it’s not really their thing but they come along to keep their other half company. You start to fixate on that person. It’s almost like the show for me becomes just for that person. If I can make that person enjoy the show, then it’s a success!

What does an audience have to do to merit a rare additional, unplanned encore?

Haha! Obvious, just don’t let us feel like you’ve had enough, don’t let the enthusiasm drop. But they have to do it as a collective, it’s no good if just a few people are screaming for more, it has to be the whole audience. Although in theory the show ends when the setlist ends, I have been known to come back on for an impromptu extra song or two if the audience were passionate enough about it.

What sort of mishaps have you or other band members had on stage?

Ah, Spinal Tap again!  Well, we have a lot of visual elements in the show, as well as some audio on backing track, mainly sound design and backing vocals. Not massive amounts, but things that make the musical tapestry more immersive. Because of that, we have to play to a click track which synchronises the music with the visuals. I remember when we were on stage in Sao Paulo in Brazil and we made a big entrance playing “Luminol”, but for whatever reason, we got out of synchronisation with the backing track and all the backing vocals were coming in at all the wrong moments, it was a total train wreck!  So much so, that it was just not possible to recover, so after about 3 minutes into the 14-minute song, I said, “STOP THE SHOW!”, and made a joke about it with the audience. I told them, “We’re going to walk off stage and we’re going come back on stage pretending as if nothing happened.” And of course the audience loved it. The worst thing you can do is be embarrassed, because then they feel embarrassed too.



Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Playlist January/February


  • Vertical Horizon—The Lost Mile (2018)
  • Snow Patrol—Wildness (2018)
  • Loma—Loma (2018)
  • Calexico—The Thread that Keeps Us (2018)
  • Nils Frahm—All Melody (2018)
  • Field Music—Open Here (2018)
  • Jonathan Wilson—Rare Birds (2018)
  • Richard Barbieri—Variants 2 EP (2018)
  • Joe Satriani—What Happens Next (2018)
  • Francis Dunnery—Live in Japan (2017)
  • Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch—Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack (2017)
  • Max Richter—Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (2017)
  • Johnny Clegg—King of Time (2017)
  • Ride—Weather Diaries (2017)
  • Jon Durant—Parting Is (2017)
  • Elbow—The Best Of, deluxe edition (2017)
  • Seth Lakeman—Ballads of the Broken Few (2017)
  • Flock of Dimes—If You See Me, Say Yes (2016)
  • Lana Del Rey—Born to Die (2012)
  • Fistful of Mercy—As I Call You Down (2010)

Friday, February 16, 2018

My Robert Plant interview in The Boston Globe



I interviewed Robert Plant for today's Boston Globe. (You can read the online version here.)

It's the third time I've interviewed the singer, who is my all-time favorite artist. (You can read the other two pieces here and here.) The first album I ever bought, at age 12, was Robert Plant's Shaken 'n' Stirred upon its release in 1985. I'm not sure I had even heard of Led Zeppelin at that point but all I knew was that the lead single, "Little by Little," was the greatest thing I had ever heard (check out the music video, below).


 

Since then, I've followed every step of the vocalist's career. I love the fact that every one of his records is different and that I have no idea what he'll do next. He's one of the few artists of his vintage who hasn't lost his artistic thirst and curiosity, a theme I explored in my piece. I think that the reason I'm drawn to his work time and time again is that he's such an expressive singer - he doesn't feign emotion, he channels his most intimate feelings into his vocals.

If you're unfamiliar with much of Plant's solo career, then I'd recommend his latest album Carry Fire (2017), Mighty Rearranger (2005), and Fate of Nations (1993) for starters. Or try this Spotify playlist, below, compiled by Plant himself as a survey of some of his best songs.