Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Playlist: November/December

  • Steven Wilson—Hand.Cannot. Erase (2015)
  • The Waterboys—Modern Blues (2015)
  • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
  • TV on the Radio—Seeds (2014)
  • David Bowie—Nothing Has Changed (2014)
  • Marissa Nadler—July (2014)
  • Wovenhand—Refractory Obdurate (2014)
  • Elbow—World Cafe live (2014)
  • Marillion—Recycled Gifts (2014)
  • Sloan—Commonwealth (2014)
  • Nick Mulvey—First Mind (2014)
  • Vieux Farka Touré—Vieux Farka Touré (2006)
  • Interpol—Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
  • Joni Mitchell—Both Sides Now (2000)
  • Mansun—Six (1998)
  • Catherine Wheel—Adam and Eve (1997)
  • Rickie Lee Jones—Traffic from Paradise (1994)
  • Shawn Colvin—Steady On (1989)
  • Genesis—Genesis (1983)
  • Frank Zappa—Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar (1982)
  • Lou Reed—Transformer (1972)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

New on Newsstands

I have a couple of front-of-book pieces in the two most recent issues of American Way magazine. In the issue now in seatbacks of American Airlines jets, I interviewed LeRoy Bennett, the music industry's leading stage and lighting designer.

Stages have come a long way since the ’60s and ’70s, when the most lavish rock shows were simply rainbow lights, a riser for the drums and maybe an inflatable doll or, in Led Zeppelin’s case, a cardboard set of Stonehenge at one of their stadium shows. The late, great designer Mark Fisher changed the game completely by creating mammoth sets such as Pink Floyd's The Wall and, later, Peter Gabriel's Millennium Dome show and U2's extra-extravagent extravaganzas.

LeRoy Bennett is the natural heir to Fisher's throne. He's not only designed Super Bowl halftime shows for Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, but also stages for Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Nine Inch Nails and Madonna to name just a tiny fraction of the superstars he's collaborated with.

I interviewed Bennett about several of the stages he designed for American Way, but here's an excerpt I couldn't fit into my story about his design for Jay-Z and Beyoncé's "On the Run" tour this year.
They’re very different in their music and their approach to a show. When Jay goes out and walks on stage, it’s a lot more casual. There’s a more masculine look for Jay. Beyoncé is very physical on stage with her dancing and singing.  So I had to meld those two worlds together.  There is a bit of illusion. With the Beyoncé song, “Baby Boy,” there are dancers out there, but then there are images of other dancers so sometimes it looks like there are 12 dancers out there. This whole show was based on Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a lot of little innuendos about them as a couple and their relationship. The storyline is about forgiveness and what love is all about. There’s a moment when they start showing pictures of [their daughter] Blue and they stand there and watch that. They’re both really good parents to her.

I also briefly wrote about the reissue of Led Zeppelin's fourth album, newly remastered by guitarist Jimmy Page and boasting a bonus disc of alternate mixes of the songs, for the previous issue of American Way

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Playlist: October + review of Pink Floyd's "Endless River"

  • Pink Floyd—The Endless River (2014)
  • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
  • Flying Lotus—You're Dead (2014)
  • Burnt Belief—Etymology (2014)
  • Steve Rothery—The Ghosts of Pripyat (2014)
  • Knifeworld—The Unraveling (2014)
  • Aphex Twin—Syro (2014)
  • Amplifier—Mystoria (2014)
  • David Bowie—"Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" (2014); The Next Day Extra edition (2013)
  • Joseph Arthur—The Ballad of Boogie Christ, Act 2 (2013)
  • Bjork—Biophilia (2011)
  • Big Wreck—The Pleasure and the Greed (2001)
  • Tool—Lateralus (2001)
  • Justin Adams—Desert Road (2000)
  • Boards of Canada—Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
  • The Cure—Disintegration (1989)
  • Dire Straits—Brothers in Arms (1985)
  • Depeche Mode—Black Celebration (1985)
  • Talking Heads—Remain in Light (1980)
  • Goblin—Roller (1976)
  • Terje Rypdal—Odyssey: In the Studio and Beyond (1975)
  • Can—Future Days (1973)
  • Led Zeppelin—IV (1971, deluxe reissue 2014); Houses of the Holy (1973, deluxe reissue 2014)
  • Frank Zappa—Hot Rats (1969)
There's been something of a common theme to my playlist this past month—they're mostly instrumental albums. A famous rock band has commissioned a book from me and, for some reason, I find it difficult to write while listening to songs featuring singers. My mind tends to automatically largely tune out music with vocals when I'm on my computer. Instrumental music works much better. My wife and I have also just moved from Los Angeles to Boston, so these albums have provided a great soundtrack to the chore of packing moving boxes.

First, I gotta tell you about the album that most surprised me this year—electronic hip-hop artist Flying Lotus' You're Dead. Now, if you stopped reading at the words "hip-hop," I implore you to carry on because this album isn't really a rap record. You're Dead does feature guest appearances by rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, but it really sounds like a great progressive rock album.

It's a tight 38 minutes of mostly ethereal, organic instrumental music that draws upon jazz, electronica, hip-hop, prog, fusion and funk. It sounds like  a 21st-century take on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. Indeed, Flying Lotus cites King Crimson, Soft Machine, Slayer, Pink Floyd and Weather Report as influences on the album. I hear Funkadelic's Maggot Brain in there, too.

You're Dead features saxophonist Kamasi Washington, ex-Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks and Metalocalypse guitarist Brendon Small. And Flying Lotus also roped in Herbie Hancock with the idea of making hip-hop music that'd impress Miles Davis—"a jazz record, that would fuck him up."   Thankfully, he insisted that Hancock ditch his crappy modern keyboards and play Fender Rhodes. Result? Consistently gorgeous and adventurous music that's genuinely progressive.

One of 2014's very best records. Take a listen to this sample from it, below.

As a massive fan of Porcupine Tree, I've followed the solo endeavors of each of its musicians. Each band member has produced very strong work since Porcupine's Tree's extended—perhaps indefinite—hiatus. Bassist Colin Edwin has pursued a hydra career, flitting between his longtime band Ex-Wise Heads, his new Twinscapes bass duo, and guesting on various Tim Bowness projects. He's also established an exciting band called Burnt Belief with an American guitarist named Jon Durant.

I hadn't previously come across Durant who, like me, lives in Boston. Here's a tweet-length bio: The one-time Berklee College of Music student used to be the demo guy for Lexicon's JamMan guitar looping technology, which was utilized by the likes of Joseph Arthur. In 1996, Durant founded Alchemy records, which has released albums by Michael Manring, Wayne Krantz/Leni Stern and, now, Burnt Belief.

I was knocked out by the debut Burnt Belief album in 2013. The duo's new release, Etymology, defies easy categorization. Not quite jazz, not quite fusion, not quite new age, not quite prog. It's guitar-based instrumental music that sounds as if it's seeped through the cracks of an alternate dimension.

Durant's cloud guitar will appeal to fans of Robert Fripp and David Torn and Carl Verheyen, though the Massachusetts guitarist doesn't quite sound like any of those players. His often textural guitarwork is distinguished by brazen and fierce lead parts. For instance, Durant's guitar sounds like a chorus of trumpets during the opener, "Chromatique," On the Middle-eastern flavored "Dissemble," Durant's underwater guitar sound tangles and twists around crystal clear violin parts by No-Man's Steve Bingham. "Rivulet" showcases two signature aspects of Durant's guitar playing: His shimmering vibrato and the way in which he deliberately smudges his way between notes. For a change of pace, check out the minimalist "Hover," in which Durant's guitar notes gleam like bells.

Burnt Belief's sound, which often draws on eastern modes, is a natural fit for Edwin. He is a master of slow-churn grooves and ethereal textures. I love Edwin's bass undertow in "Not Indifferent" and "Hfraunfosser" as well as his lancing lines during "Squall." Edwin's sinewy treble is one of the most beautiful aspects of Etymology's sound. This stuff will take your head to outer space.

I recently received a review copy of Pink Floyd's The Endless River. What does it sound like? Put it this way: Remember how Steven Wilson created a library of his sounds for the Ghostwriter software? Well, this sounds like the Pink Floyd version of that—a compilation of its best known and classic sounds. Which is to say that little here that's remotely new or different from anything we've heard from these musicians before. Like the latest albums by Aphex Twin and My Bloody Valentine, this Floyd record is more a consolidation of a distinctive sound than it is a progression. Like those other two records, The Endless River is gorgeous music if you accept it on those terms.

Though The Endless River was pieced together from hours of soundscape noodling and jamming, the result sounds more focused than one might expect. Unlike The Orb/David Gilmour record Metallic Spheres, which meandered without any compass, these instrumental tracks have been tightly edited. Nine of the tracks clock in at less than two minutes. The result is a continuous flow of musical ideas that don't outstay their welcome. Each instrumental segues into the next to create a holistic listening experience in which the sum is greater than its parts. For that reason, I'd recommend the CD version of the album rather than the vinyl version for an uninterrupted listen.

The opening track, "Things Left Unsaid," begins in Dark Side of the Moon style with candid admissions by several disembodied voices. "We have an unspoken understanding, but certain things left unsaid as well," says one band member. "Well, we shout and argue and fight and work it all out," says the voice of David Gilmour."The sum is greater than the parts," adds a third voice. Over the next four minutes, Richard Wright's keyboards breathe and sigh in pastoral bliss as Gilmour's Glissando guitar parts shimmer like a heat haze.

The pulse picks up during "It's What We Do." Wright's Minimoog evokes the introduction to "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." Nick Mason reminds listeners that his unhurried fills and drizzled cymbals are a unique and essential component of the Floyd sound. When Gilmour's guitar solo comes in like a laser beam refracted through a prism, your ears will swoon. For the next several minutes, his blues-y guitar notes swoop and dip over a gentle acoustic strum that sounds as it had been lifted from "Dogs" on Animals. Beautiful. "Ebb and Flow" circles back to the slurred guitar sound of the opening track and features candy-sweet keyboard lines. This trio of pieces is a stunning start to the album.

"Skins" begins with the same keyboard sound that opens "Cluster One" on The Division Bell. It's soon subsumed by crackling sounds, a trembling keyboard figure and the snarling guitar Gilmour deployed on "Sorrow." Mason plays the sort of tom-tom figures last heard on "Time" and "Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun." His drums come to the fore for an extended solo on "Skins," which is psychedelic and spooky and harks back to "A Saucerful of Secrets." The extended tenor sax solo and a glass-cut guitar solo of "Anisina" comes as something of a surprise. It's joyful and jubilant, musical qualities seldom associated with Pink Floyd. 

My other fave part of the album is the seven-song suite that begins with the reflective piano piece of "The Lost Art of Conversation." By turns playful, whimsical and then brooding, the suite begins with atmospheric noodling (one track is even titled "On Noodle Street"). The music come to a boil with "Allons-y Pt. 1" and "Allons-y Pt. 2," which is bridged by Rick Wright's majestic turn at the organ inside the Royal Albert Hall on "Autumn '68." "Allons-y Pt. 2" takes off with a heatseeker solo by David Gilmour that wholly plagiarizes"Another Brick in the Wall," but is no less enjoyable for it. The awkwardly titled "Talkin' Hawkin'"—which features the processed voice of Stephen Hawking over "Great Gig in the Sky"-style ululations of a female singer—continues the album's loose theme of the importance of communication.  

Wright's keyboards are front and center during the final suite. "Calling" would be a fitting alternate theme tune to Carl Sagan's Cosmos. The dramatic mood piece "Eyes to Pearls" could work as the soundtrack to a suspense theme in a spy movie."Surfacing" is a direct lift of musical motifs from The Division Bell's "High Hopes." The album concludes with "Louder than Words," the first single and the sole song with vocals. Its lyric summarizes the troubled history of Pink Floyd, a band cursed by musicianly acrimony, yet blessed with musical alchemy. I was initially underwhelmed by "Louder than Words." But it snuck up on me and has taken up residence in my mental jukebox. I adore it now. 

Gotta admit that the first time I listened to The Endless River, I was underwhelmed. I imagine some people will be disappointed in the album given that it only has one proper song. Some may feel that the album lacks the substance and weight of previous releases. After all, it's not a proper album as much as it is a burnished compilation of fragmentary leftovers. But my opinion of The Endless River changed with repeat plays. The key to getting the most out of this album is, a) to listen to it as a continuous piece without distraction, and b) to accept that it's an album fashioned from used parts. I prefer this album to The Division Bell, which I felt was a poor album with just a handful of good tunes. To me, The Endless River is a stronger farewell from Pink Floyd.

I've played this album over and over and over, which is testament to its strengths.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Playlist: September

  • Robert Plant—lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar (2014)
  • Thom Yorke—Tomorrow's Modern Boxes (2014)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Different Shades of Blue (2014)
  • Aphex Twin—Syro (2014)
  • Interpol—El Pintor (2014)
  • Amplifier—Mystoria (2014)
  • Burnt Belief—Etymololgy (2014)
  • Ryan Adams—Ryan Adams (2014)
  • Steve Rothery—The Ghosts of Pripyat (2014)
  • Opeth—Pale Communion (2014)
  • Plaid—Peachy Prints (2014)
  • Mogwai—Rave Tapes (2014)
  • SAND—SAND (2014)
  • Gary Moore—Live at Bush Hall 2007 (2014)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Magnolia (2014)
  • EngineersAlways Returning (2014)
  • King CrimsonIslands (1971), The ConstruKction of Light (2000), The Power to Believe (2003). 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Now on newsstands: Joe Bonamassa interview

Earlier this year, blues rocker Joe Bonamassa showed up to play a sold-out show in Kingston, New York, only to be turned away at the theater’s backstage door.

“They changed the security guy and he tried to throw me out of my own gig. I said, ‘Dude, probably not good for business,’” Bonamassa laughingly told me when I interviewed him for the current issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. (You can read the interview here.)

To me, the incident sums up the paradox of Joe Bonamassa: The 37-year-old is America’s biggest guitar hero since Stevie Ray Vaughan but he's hardly a recognizable name to most people. Blame the US media, which has scarcely profiled the guitarist even though he sells out 2-3,000 seat venues per night. (In Europe, he sells out arenas.) His last album went to number 23 on the Billboard charts. And, in Britain, it went all the way to number two, only missing the top spot by a mere 81 copies. Not bad for a blues rock album released by Joe's own record label.

Yet that feat barely garnered any press in the US. Joe's response to the apathy of most music journalists is a sigh.

“I’m not trying to be the hippest thing,” says Bonamassa told me. “I know my fanbase and what they want to hear. I don’t think we’re hip enough. I’m like Opie Taylor plays the blues in sunglasses and a suit. I’m not sure that’s edgy enough for them to brag about at their cocktail parties.”

Joe Bonamassa’s anonymity may not last for long: His eleventh studio album Different Shades of Blue, released this week, articulates what a singular talent he is. (I wrote a brief review of it here.) Produced by longtime cohort Kevin Shirley, Different Shades of Blue is Bonamassa's first album of entirely original songs since his debut. Until now, his albums have typically been a mixture of original compositions and cover versions.

“I’m not a very confident writer," Bonamassa told me. "I’m not a very prolific writer. But some of the best songs that I have—fortunately and unfortunately—are the ones that I write myself or the ones where I have a good amount of input.”

The singer and guitarist holed up in Nashville with a few writers to work on songs that range from blues shuffles to galloping rockers. By the time he was ready to enter the recording studio in Las Vegas, he had a number of catchy melodies, including "Love Ain't a Love Song" and "Get Back My Tomorrow."

“I kept stockpiling material,” says Bonamassa. “I had some good songs, I had some solid material, but I didn’t have that big stomping, swampy blues thing that I’ve become known for. I wrote this song with my friend James House called ‘Oh Beautiful,’ which was nothing but an a capella verse and then a crazy kind of Led Zeppelin riff. I knew when I came back from that particular writing session on that particular day that we had the record done.”

"Oh Beautiful" is, indeed, the standout track. During the epic solo, Bonamassa’s fingers hurtle down the tracks of the guitar neck like an express locomotive.

Joe is typically modest about Different Shades of Blue. “I listened back to it all the way through and thought, ‘This is not so bad,’” he told me Bonamassa.

Now, if he can only get that British number one...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Playlist: July

  • Robert Plant—lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar (2014)
  • Jenny Lewis—The Voyager (2014)
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers—Hypnotic Eye (2014)
  • Big Wreck—Ghosts (2014)
  • Rival Sons—Great Western Valkyrie (2014)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Magnolia (2014)
  • EngineersAlways Returning (2014)
  • Tim Bowness—Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2014)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Different Shades of Blue (2014)
  • Knifeworld—The Unravelling (2014)

Now on Newsstands: Syd Arthur

I interviewed British band Syd Arthur for the new issue of Under the Radar magazine, currently on newsstands and also available digitally.

The British four piece, which recently released its excellent second album Sound Mirror, is an intriguing proposition. The band's sound is, in part, a welcome throw back to the long-dead Canterbury Scene of bands of yore such as Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and Soft Machine. But Syd Arthur bring a modern, threadbare edge to their music, which explains how they're able to straddle the dispirate worlds of indie rock and progressive rock. Syd Arthur played at Coachella and Bonnarroo this year and now they're on tour as the support band for YES.

Fittingly, they're on the reactivated Harvest record label, once home to Pink Floyd, Roy Harper and Kevin Ayers. I chatted with band member Raven Bush (violin, mandolin, keyboard) for the magazine. Turns out that he's the nephew of Kate Bush, who has given the band "positive feedback."

Here's a bonus interview I did with Syd Arthur for Under the Radar's website with material not included in the magazine article. In the meantime, take a listen to the band's music videos, below.

"Garden of Time":

"Hometown Blues":

Friday, June 27, 2014

Playlist: June

  • Robert Plant—lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar (2014)
  • Jack White—Lazaretto (2014)
  • Lana Del Rey—Ultraviolence (2014)
  • Yes—Heaven and Earth (2014)
  • Tim Bowness—Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2014)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Different Shades of Blue (2014)
  • Bass Communion—Box Set (2014)
  • Steve Hackett—Genesis Revisited Live at Royal Albert Hall (2014)
  • Umphreys McGee—Similar Skin (2014)
  • Natalie Merchant—Natalie Merchant (2014)
  • Steven Wilson—Cover Version (2003-10)
  • National Health Communion—Of Queues and Cures (1978)
  • Led Zeppelin—Deluxe edition reissues I, II, III (2014)

Monday, June 02, 2014

My Interview With Emily Blunt

When Emily Blunt entered a small French café in West Hollywood to meet for our interview for American Way, no one seemed to recognize her. Maybe it’s because the café patrons were already distracted by Dexter actress Jennifer Carpenter, who was sitting in a corner. It could be that filmgoers are so accustomed to Blunt as a brunette that they failed to recognize the Golden Retriever blonde in sunglasses. Or perhaps it’s because the actress was heavily pregnant, her belly orbited by a silk scarf. Two and a half weeks after the interview, Emily and her husband John Krasinski had a baby daughter named Hazel.

I'd half expected a trail of paparazzi in the actress's wake. Prior to the interview, I'd been following Emily's activities on Google—she was a daily fixture in the tabloids.

“They just want my water to break in front of them,” Emily told me. “It’s the most exposed I’ve felt when I have my picture taken. So I feel more protective. They all want to sort of see how big the bump’s getting and predict when the baby’s coming. It’s a bit of a frenzy.”

I asked her if she'd ever considered getting a bodyguard.

"It’s not that bad compared to some people. I can always wade my way through them," she said, laughing. "I’ve never felt the need to have that."

On the day of our interview, Emily managed to briefly elude her professional stalkers and we enjoyed a lengthy breakfast together. She's genuinely lovely. A great sense of humor and she laughs a lot. Also: entrancingly beautiful. If Hollywood was to cast the part of Helen of Troy, "the face that launched a thousand ships," she'd be first on the list.

Here's a few excerpts from the interview that didn't make it into the article for American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, which you can read here. The story, which will be in seatbacks throughout June, is timed to the release of Edge of Tomorrow, her sci-fi movie with Tom Cruise.

What inspired you to take on the role?

The two things that drew me to it were Doug Liman and Tom Cruise. I love Doug’s movies. He always manages to carve out new space for himself within a genre. He puts his stamp on it. You know that’s a Doug Liman movie. Tonally, he has something that’s quite fresh and humorous. I love it when sci-fi movies aren’t earnest. I want to shoot myself when they’re too earnest or sentimental or dramatic. I think what Doug manages to do is to create a story where the stakes are very high and he plays stuff very much for real. But you find within it that there are moments where it’s very humorous and you can relate to these characters when you can envision yourself in their shoes.

Tom Cruise probably did all his own stunts. How many did you do?

We both did stunts. I thought, ‘Well, if he’s doing them, I have to do them. I don’t want to wuss out.’
I actually had an Asian mad doubling me for some of the massive hits. Because the suit was so heavy, they needed a guy to carry it.

What was worse to wear – the corsets and crown in Young Victoria or the exo-skeleton in Edge of Tomorrow

I spent days on set praying to be in the corset. That’s how heavy it was. But it was so heavy, you kind of get used to it. It’s something you endure, initially, and then you have to embrace it otherwise you’ll just cry.

After Gideon’s Daughter, you broke into Hollywood very quickly – you had to fight to get the part in Devil Wears Prada – tell me about that.

I went on tape for it and then I went on tape again. It wasn’t this drawn out process. I read for it and then four days later I read for it again. They called me the next day. Oh my god, that film changed everything. I don’t think any of us expected it to become the event it was.

If Revenge Wears Prada, the book sequel, gets made into a movie, are you game to do it?

I think we’d only do it if all of us did it. I spoke to Meryl about it when we were doing Into the Woods and she was like, ‘I don’t want to lose the weight.’ I’m very cautious about sequels. The film was so good and worked so well that it could take something away from the original by trying to replicate it.

Lightning round: Give me a few sentences on your memories and enduring impressions of working on the following movies:

  • Gulliver’s Travels 

Staring at green tennis balls on green walls.

  • Dan in Real Life

Dancing with Steve Carell. And it was awesome. I like to dance. It was a scene where we dance stupidly in a bar. It was hilarious.

  • Five-Year Engagement

Just a stupid laugh, the whole thing. Jason Segel is a good friend of mine and it was a film that was exciting and kept you on your toes because we improved so much and it’s always exhilarating working like that.

  • Charlie Wilson’s War

[Laughs] Cripplingly embarrassing. Crawling all over Tom Hanks in my underwear. He was such a gent. I don’t think he’d ever done that kind of role. He doesn’t play those kinds of characters. So we laughed about that. I remember I had the flu as well doing that scene, so I’m sure I infected him with all kinds of horrific germs during the process. I remember feeling like crap that day.

  • Sunshine Cleaning

I met my friend Amy [Adams] on that. Albuquerque, New Mexico, was not my favorite place to shoot. Everything’s beige. But we had a laugh.

  • Looper

That was the most awesome experience. [Director] Rian Johnson is a gem. He’s spooky good. That was three and a half weeks and it was one of the most rewarding, if not the most, rewarding experiences I’ve had on a film set. He has an extraordinary vision that he communicates to you with the utmost clarity. The dialogue is completely rare and not like anything else out there. So you’re blessed with these lines that you think you’ll never get a chance to say again. Shooting with the little kid was so magical. He was amazing. I remember we auditioned three boys and I flew down to read with a few of them. They narrowed it down to three. Pierce was the youngest. He was barely six. He’d just turned six. It was like the atmosphere froze in the room.

  • The Adjustment Bureau 

Matt Damon in a Fedora, which made me laugh every day. We did really hit it off and he’s now one of my dearest friends.

On YouTube, there's a video of the scene in The Adjustment Bureau where you and Matt Damon meet for the first time in a men's bathroom. That video has a one-word description: Chemistry.

We not only hit it off as friends, but I think we found a rhythm as characters that really worked for that scene. We riffed around the dialogue and improved some stuff. So the scene felt quite spontaneous and fresh. George Nolfi let us play around with the scene a bit, which was nice. I think we really needed that scene to work, otherwise the movie doesn’t work.

Would you ever go back to doing TV?

Oh my God, yes! Yes, please! Please. It would be amazing. One hundred percent. We all want to. You speak to a lot of actors, they all want to. I love what HBO are doing. Have you seen True Detective? I really want to see it. Breaking Bad is so good, but I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me.

What’s the last time you can remember laughing hard?
Last night. Something John was doing. No one makes me laugh more. To the point where I think I’m going to give birth. And I just said, ‘You have to stop. You have to stop now, my water’s going to break.’

You’re at a momentous stage in your life – your life is about to change profoundly. Has it sunk it at all? Do you feel ready?

I know. It feels as if something magical is about to happen. John said this the other day: It’s like somebody is taking your hand and saying, ‘You’re going to meet your husband tomorrow. And then looking you dead in the eye and you know it to be true. And then it’s a combination of that and also somebody saying to you, ‘You’re going to football practice tomorrow and you’re going to get the stuffing knocked out of you. But you have to go.’ [Laughs.]

So, it’s like the combination of the most glorious experience of meeting this person that’s going to change my life and also not knowing what to expect from the birth. Everyone has their story and I’ve heard some horror stories and some lovely stories. Everyone wants to overshare. And now I’ve actually stopped listening to any of it because everyone wants to give you their advice and wants to give you their story. I think that mine is going to be mine. It’s different for everyone.

What do you still wish to accomplish in your career?

There as some directors that I’d like to breathe the same air as them. I loved Wolf of Wall Street so much. I thought it was filthy brilliant. It could have gone on for another three hours and I wouldn’t have cared. Leonardo was my favorite performance of the year. It was extraordinarily raw and his ability to be that ugly. It took my breath away. I felt pinned to the couch. I’d love to work with Scorsese.
I love David Fincher. He likes people to feel uncomfortable. That’s what I like. He’s not an obsequious director. He likes people to feel rocked and very uncomfortable. I like that he doesn’t cater to the audience, because so many films cater to what they think people want to see or what they think people want to feel. That’s why I like movies like Wolf of Wall Street, which is just a spectacle of filth. I want the shock factor.

You once said that you don’t wish to be defined by the job you do – how do demarcate that part of your life so that it’s not all-consuming?
I think it’s quite easy. You just walk through the front door of your house. When you walk into your house, it’s a different world and when you walk outside, it’s another world sometimes. Don’t do too many movies. [Laughs]

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Elbow: a live review


Elbow live at the Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, CA

May 29, 2014 By Stephen Humphries
“Charge,” the first song of Elbow’s concert, is aptly titled. The British band storms the audience with startling vigor, urged on by Richard Jupp kicking his bass drum with the force of a Clydesdale. Midway through the new track, a pair of female violinists seated at the rear of the stage swoop in. Their dramatic musical squall increases the barometric pressure inside the room. The audience somehow finds its breath for a loud cheer.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Playlist: May

  • Wye Oak—Shriek (2014)
  • Toni Childs—Citizens of the Planet (2014)
  • Tim Bowness—Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2014)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Different Shades of Blue (2014)
  • Swans—To Be Kind (2014)
  • The Black Keys—Turn Blue (2014)
  • Syd Arthur—Sound Mirror (2014)
  • California Breed—California Breed (2014)
  • Nils Lofgren—Face the Music (2014)
  • Jonathan Wilson—Gentle Spirit (2011)
  • Pink Floyd—The Division Bell (1994)
  • The entire Kate Bush catalogue

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Playlist: April

    • School of Language—Old Fears (2014)
    • Se Delan—Fall (2014)
    • David Crosby—Croz (2014)
    • Sonar—Static Motion (2014)
    • Syd Arthur—On and On (2012), Sound Mirror (2014)
    • Joseph Arthur—Lou (2014)
    • Wye Oak—Shriek (2014)
    • Damon Albarn—Everyday Robots (2014)
    • Nils Lofgren—Face the Music box set (2014)
    • The Cadlillac Three—The Cadillac Three (2013)
    • Talk Talk—London 1986 (1999)
    • The SundaysReading, Writing, and Arithmetic (1990)
    • Kate BushHounds of Love (1986)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Now on Newsstands: John Wesley interview

Photo Credit: Photography by Andy Wright,

Fact: John Wesley has just released one of the year's strongest albums.

The 10-track album, titled Disconnect, is the career pinnacle of the the solo artist first discovered by Marillion and renowned as a tour guitarist for the likes of Fish, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson. 

Every single song has is hooky melody, strong lyrics and fantastic production. When I interviewed Wes for the new issue of Prog, he told me that he picked up all his production skills from working with Steven Wilson over the years. (In turn, Wes showed Wilson how to shoot a gun.) Also, Alex Lifeson of Rush lays down an epic solo on the song "Once a Warrior." Quite appropriate given that Disconnect has a very Rush vibe. 

Watch the video for the title track and lead single, below.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Now on Newsstands: Imogen Heap interview

Imogen Heap's new album, Sparks, is one of the most ambitious records ever made. It boasts a cast of thousands of collaborators from around the world who helped Heap with her sound collages. (Read more about them in my interview for the new issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines.)

“I quite liked this idea that, instead of it always being me, the spark would come from the outside world,” Imogen told me.

For starters, Imogen asked her two million followers on Twitter to help out.

"I asked my fans to send in anything they wanted, any kind of sound," says Heap. "Within the first hour there was maybe two or three hundred sounds. The first sound was a Ukelele sound generated by a man named Robert Ponto. He was a fan who came on and uploaded the sound of a ukulele being played – one chord of a ukulele and then putting on an effect, which sounds like a digital delay."

That became the initial spark for the song "Lifeline." The songwriter described how the rest of the song quickly came together.
My brother sent in the sound of his daughter, who had yet to be born, the sound of her heartbeat in her mother’s womb. The tempo of the heartbeat was perfectly in time with the sound of a slinky going down a staircase sent in by someone named Toby Barnett. There was a perfect contra rhythm.  I thought, ‘Well, that’s meant to be.’ So I had the tempo and I had the rhythm and I had the key and now I just needed a melody.   
I had 900 sounds all-in-all.  I had started to build a piece of music quite quickly together. Later on that evening,  I knew my brother was watching and they’d just had their first child. So now, I’m an aunt for the first time ever. Very exciting. So I thought, ‘Ok, Giles , you’re online. Everyone’s online. I’m going to sing the first thing that comes into my head. That’s going to be the melody I use in the song. The first melody I sang ended up being the beginning of the verse.  I’ve never done that before –online, live in front of people. I felt like everyone was supporting me. I wasn’t just singing it for me, I was singing for everyone. I was so inspired lyrically to write this song. I was literally beaming with excitement. 
It was a wonderful way to begin a record – not scared and lonely and in room wondering, ‘What am I going to write about?’ It was a magical beginning and it just kept on getting more magical. 
You can hear the end result, "Lifeline," below.

Heap created the album over several years, aiming to finish one song every three months. As soon as each song was finished, it was released as a digital single with its own music video. (I've included a few, below.) The songs now comprise Sparks (which also includes one or two previously unreleased new tracks.) Heap famously hates deadlines. But her piecemeal approach to the album freed her both creatively and physically.

"I realized that, any project I wanted to do, for the first time in my life, I could say, ‘Yes.’ Because the record didn’t have to be done in a year. For the first time, I could integrate my touring life, my family life, my musical creativity. All these things together fitted into each other. Instead of feeling isolated, making the record on my own in my basement, I was outside, collaborating with people on all sorts of different levels."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Playlist: March

    • The War on Drugs—Lost in the Dream (2014)
    • Jimi Goodwin—Odludek (2014)
    • Elbow—The Takeoff and Landing of Everything (2014)
    • Joseph Arthur—Lou (2014)
    • Beck—Morning Phase (2014)
    • The Civil Wars—Between the Bars EP (2014)
    • Real Estate—Atlas (2014)
    • Warpaint—Warpaint (2014), The Fool (2010)
    • Se Delan—The Fall (2014)
    • St. Vincent—Actor (2009), Marry Me (2007)
    • Walter Becker—Monkey Circus (2008)
    • David Bowie—Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (deluxe edition, 1976), Low (1977) 
    • King Crimson—Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)
    • Yes—Yes (1969), Time and a Word (1970), The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Now on Newsstands: Elbow interview

When I interviewed Elbow's Guy Garvey about the band's sixth studio album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, he said, "It’s a dense first listen, I will say that, but utterly rewarding." 

The album is, indeed, a grower. At first, I was disappointed that The Take off and Landing of Everything doesn't boast the immediate wow factor of Build a Rocket Boys! tracks such as "The Birds," "Lippy Kids,"  "With Love" and "Neat Little Rows." But now that I've spent some time with the new album, I'm smitten with it. Some of the tracks that initially passed me by, such as "Colour Fields" and "Real Life (Angel)" and "This Blue World" and "Blanket of Night," are now among my favorites. And the single, "New York Morning," will sneak up on you and become your ears' new best friend - take a listen to the music video, below. 

If the album has a weakness it's this: It doesn't take Elbow to too many new places - honorable exceptions "Lunette/Fly Boy Blue" and "The Blanket of Night" - but the band compensates with gorgeous melodies and Guy Garvey's never-more-soulful singing. Indeed, The Take off and Landing of Everything is consistently strong. I love every track. (Tip: Doesn't work well as a background listen. Headphones and a dark space are a must.)

True to Garvey's word, the album is utterly rewarding.

My interview with Guy Garvey about the making of the album is in the new issue of Under the Radar magazine (more details on its contents here), which is now on newsstands or available as an e-version (download the magazine's new app for free.) 

Also, here's a bonus interview I did with the band for the magazine in which Garvey talks about his favorite cities and the songs he associates with each of them.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Playlist: February

    • St. Vincent—St. Vincent (2014)
    • Elbow—The Takeoff and Landing of Everything (2014)
    • East India Youth—Total Strife Forever (2014)
    • Neil Finn—Dizzy Heights (2014)
    • Jesca Hoop—Undress (2014)
    • Shearwater—Missing Islands:Demos & Outtakes 2007-2012 (2014)
    • Suzanne Vega—Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (2014)
    • Bigelf—Into the Maelstrom (2014)
    • Imogen Heap—Sparks (2014)
    • Don Airey—Keyed Up (2014)
    • John Wesley—Disconnect (2014)
    • Fish—A Feast of Consequences (2013)
    • Portico Quartet—Live (2013)
    • Marillion—Brave (2013)
    • Big Wreck—Albatross (2013)
    • Jonathan Wilson—Gentle Spirit (2011)
    • Field Music—Tones of Town (2007)
    • C.C. Adock—Lafayette Marquis (2004)
    • Ian Brown—Music of the Spheres (2001)
    • Jeff Buckley—Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998)
    • Mansun—Attack of the Grey Lantern (1997)
    • Stevie Ray Vaughan—In Step (1989)
    • Funkadelic—One Nation Under a Groove (1978)
    • Pink Floyd—Ummagumma (1969), Obscured by Clouds (1972)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Now on Newsstands: Neil Finn interview

Rumor has it that Paul McCartney was once asked what it's like to be the greatest songwriter in the world. "I don't know," McCartney reputedly responded, "Go ask Neil Finn."

That was the first thing I asked Neil Finn when I interviewed him for the new issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines.

"I've been told that on numerous occasions, but I've never really gotten to the bottom of when and where he said that," Finn told me. "I have a slight reservation—unless you can inform me otherwise—that it's a popular myth. He may not have said that at all. So, go ask Paul McCartney!"

It doesn't really matter what McCartney might or might not have said. Those who know Finn's work as the songwriter behind Crowded House and, before that, Split Enz, can attest to his superior melodic gifts. He and his brother Tim (a founder of Split Enz) have also recorded two albums as The Finn Brothers. Finn side projects includes the The Pajama Club and two albums with The Seven World Collide collective, which includes members of Radiohead and Wilco and artists such as Johnny Marr and KT Tunstall.

Finn has just released his third solo album, Dizzy Heights. It is one of the pinnacles of Finn's remarkable career and shares the rarefied air of previous peaks such as Crowded House's Together Alone and his solo debut Try Whistling This. It's also a new sound for the songwriter. Producer Dave Fridmann (Mogwai, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) helped Finn create a sound that's more lush, orchestral and experimental.

“With this record, I was aware of trying to upset some expectations,” Finn said. “I think that’s a good thing after all these years.”

To achieve that new sound, Finn changed up the way he wrote songs.

“I enjoy the process of editing," he said. "Now that I know how to operate ProTools, I have more of an arsenal at my fingertips. It enables me to come up with an atmosphere and then forming a song around it, so the way songs are forming is often back to front.”

You can read more about the making of Dizzy Heights, which is now in stores, in my interview at American Way. And take a listen to the videos embedded in this blog post for a small taste of the feast of the album itself.

Finn will be touring the album this year (see tour dates here). After that, who knows? He's recently been writing new songs with his brother Tim. And Crowded House will return to action at some point, too.

“We did start some recording on the Crowded House front and I think there are some strong things in the cupboard that will see the light of day at some point," Finn said. "But I just started these other songs and they seemed more urgent to me and not necessarily suited to Crowded House. The decision of what to call things or what entity to use is slightly confusing to people - even for me, it’s confusing – because there’s some history attached to each entity. But, to some extent, I try not to think about it too much."

Indeed, it's best to regard Finn's work as a continuous whole, regardless of the name of the project. He's one of the best songwriters out there, as Paul McCartney would surely attest.

Now on Newsstands: Bigelf interview

During the 1960s, Laurel Canyon developed a reputation as an enclave for folk and rock musicians seeking quiet sanctuary from the hustle bustle of Los Angeles. But on the drive up to the studio of Bigelf, a single neon-lit peace sign on the roadside was the sole reminder of a time when Laurel Canyon was more hippie than yuppie. The band, a trio that has been recording its distinctive psychedelic-pop prog, has long been based here.

"When we recording Money Machine and the demos for Hex, we lived across the street from from the garage where The Who used to rehearse in the '60s," bandleader Damon Fox told me. "Laurel Canyon has a vibe and, if that energy is inside you, then you channel it."

On assignment for Prog magazine, I interviewed the band about Into the Maelstrom, its long-awaited followup to its last album, 2008's Cheating the Gallows. During the interim, Bigelf underwent significant lineup changes. "For Bigelf to survive, it had to be torn apart and put back together," Fox said. Indeed, the band has endured more setbacks and struggles than most bands, which I chronicled in my article. As they put it, "Our Behind the Music special would be pretty devastating." 

The resulting album is a triumph. Bigelf recruited drummer Mike Portnoy to guest on drums and recorded its best produced and most forward-looking album to date. Seek it out when its released March 3 on InsideOut. And, in the meantime, read the latest issue of Prog, currently filtering onto newsstands (including Barnes & Noble in the US) and available as an e-magazine via iTunes and Google Play.

Monday, January 06, 2014

My interview with Kristen Bell

I interviewed Kristen Bell for the cover of the current issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. (Here's a link to the online version. Note that the story ends of page 7 but there's also a sidebar on page 8.)

It was a nerve-wrecking assignment. The publicist only gave me 60 minutes to interview Kristen. I was told that the interview would take place entirely in her trailer. After that I was to leave the set of her television show House of Lies. I was nervous that I wouldn't get enough interview material for the in-depth piece, let alone any color for it.

That was before I met Kristen. She was so welcoming and warm. She gave me 75 minutes, shooing away people who wanted to curtail our time. And then she spontaneously asked if I'd like to just hang out on the set for the rest of the day. I got to watch her film a scene which gave me a great lede for the story. She spent the entire time with me when she wasn't filming. By then, we were well past the actual interview and just chatted for hours and hours about everything from her trip to South Africa to Breaking Bad to life with her new baby - who is incredibly cute. (Kristen is protecting her daughter from public view, but she was happy to show photos to everyone on set.) 

She's a blast to hang out with - as genuinely lovely as you hope and nothing fake about her either. 

And the Veronica Mars movie sounds very promising.  I asked Kristen about how, on the one hand, the movie has to cater to the hard-core fans of the TV show and, on the other hand, it has to stand on its own for people who have never seen it. How on earth did creator and writer Rob Thomas approach that task?

Kristen's response: 

He does it brilliantly, as he does everything. But if I had to choose who he’s writing for more, without question it’s for the long-term fans. He has chosen to disregard exposition that may or may not be necessary for new viewers because we didn’t make this movie for new viewers. We feel that people will want to watch it, knowing nothing about the show, and it’s important that we keep that in mind. But ultimately, the people we are working for are the people who funded it – our long-term fans. Everyone else is irrelevant. Even the studio is irrelevant, to be honest with you, because Rob raised the money through Kickstarter, he was able to do what he wanted. He had complete creative control. Rob is a very unselfish writer because he doesn’t write what he wants. He writes what he know will light a fire under the fans. He writes what you want to see. I think that’s what makes him such a good writer. 

Can't wait for the release of the Veronica Mars movie on March 14!