Feature – Hard Drugs June 10, 2010

The following was originally published in Beatroute Magazine. It is my first time being on the cover of anything, so I’m pretty excited about it. I like how it turned out. Be sure to grab a copy on stands in June if you are in Vancouver.

My Photos | Hard Drugs

If Hard Drugs, the band, were a hard drug (a substance), which would it be? Based on the stellar alt-country rock opera by the same name, it would likely be a cocktail – the addictiveness of heroin with a touch of the lower lip-burn associated with some less than optimal ecstasy. It’s a burn that stays with you for a few days, something the album has no problem doing and that listeners will have no problem dealing with, scabs and all. The band bailed on Vancouver and are returning home by circumstance. They’re traveling back by way of concert tour, finishing up with a homecoming show at the Biltmore Cabaret. As a rock band going by the name of Hard Drugs, surely their road trip is peppered with cheap barbiturates and expensive misdemeanors, leaving a trail of empty liquor bottles and chaos across the American southwest, right?

“We’re actually just stopped right now. My wife likes to stop at every thrift store along the way she can find. We just walked in the door”. Jeffry Lee is of course talking about his better half and the current second half of Hard Drugs, Jenni. Currently a husband and wife duo until being reunited with their full band in Vancouver. Having for a long time called East Van home, the band created a rock opera about lovers on the Downtown East Side before relocating temporarily to Brooklyn. “Jenni was transferred by her company, and I followed not long after that”, says Jeffry from a store in New Mexico. It’s an innocuous enough reason to uproot from a place so clearly ingrained in two people. “I knew we wouldn’t be moving to New York forever, or at least that was my mindset. For me it was like an extended holiday. It was hard for me to get by that”.

The two are a couple of many talents, Jenni a fashion designer by trade and Jeffry a graphic designer and illustrator in addition to their musical endeavors. “I moved there with a plan to do more graphics and less music. New York was and is a good place to do that”. It didn’t take long for music to come back to the fore for Lee, as an acquaintance took an interest in the work Hard Drugs had done and pulled him back into the fold. “I ended up still concentrating more on music than I’d planned. I still do both, though”.

You would never guess that the musical aspect of their lives at times took a back seat to other ambitions. A wonderfully cohesive and emotionally raw rock opera was created by the band before their pilgrimage. A valentine to the city they left, the self-titled epic follows the trials and tribulations of Lloyd and Aline, two black tar-crossed lovers trying to make it work surrounded by poverty, drugs and prostitution. From a rousing and hooky introduction to the protagonists, through violence and strife and joy, Jenni and Jeffry take listeners down to the wrong side of Pigeon Park and into the lives of a couple you just can’t help but root for.

“We had a record finished when we left. We didn’t have any real solid interest and nobody was throwing money at us. We didn’t have any big plans, but then we found someone interested in it”. From there it just made sense to play some shows around it, Lee says. It’s a history that quickly repeated itself, with new contacts made in New York offering to produce new material. “I had the opportunity to do this recording with Michael Tudor, a producer that was willing to work with us. I was just like, that would be like the ultimate souvenir of living in New York, making a record while we were there”. The new record remains incomplete, another record left in another city. Having a singular recording experience is on their list of goals. “Hopefully that will happen sooner than later. It would be nice to make a record where it got released in the same city that we were living in, but that probably won’t be until the next, next one”.

The album Hard Drugs tells the story of the two lovers trying their best to leave their circumstances behind, fighting addiction and hopelessness and a pimp named Slim over the course of the LP. It sways between country and folk and even flirts with some crooning piano ballads. It all combines into something that is not only intensely listenable, but something that grows with you over time, it’s emotional intensity amplifying over multiple plays. Stand-out tracks like “Happiness” and “Aline & Lloyd (Reprise)” exhibit a seemingly endless font of talent and vision as to make you furious that it found so many obstacles in the way of it’s dissemination. It spits and stomps and finds more moving moments in the span of a track than most albums find in their entire runtimes. It’s a tour de force through the gutters of dilapidated district.

Influenced heavily by Hedwig and the Angry Inch and created by a pair of fairly multi-faceted people, the narrative was designed to be multimedia compatible, which comes in handy when one finds themselves so close to Broadway. “That was part of the original idea. The thing was, I didn’t really have plans to produce it myself, but I did put it out there”. The shopping of the Hard Drugs story as something that could be put onstage acted as the catalyst for contacts instrumental in the creation of their latest, unreleased work, but as of yet Lee says there have been no Broadway producers biting. “It could still happen someday if someone is interested. I don’t really have the direct interest to take it to that next step.”

The idea of being in a rock band with one’s spouse has the historic precedent to be cringe inducing, but Lee is unfaltering optimistic about their musical interactions. “I think that maybe sometimes I have these expectations of her that you would have of someone in your band, which maybe isn’t something you should probably bring into the marriage. But we make it work and we both have a good time doing it. It’s sort of more my thing and I just love having her a part of it”. Compromise and innovation are the keys to success, he says, adding they “have fashioned this new approach to touring. We’re basically, again, on holiday. There’s no pressure for this tour to be anything but a fun time. It’s working out really well”. At this point Jenni pipes in, jokingly telling Jeffry to “get off the fucking phone”. He laughs, saying “It’s good. It’s probably not great for the band, because we don’t put any pressure on ourselves to succeed. It’s just an excuse for us to be together”.

While Hard Drugs remains the brainchild of Jeffry and Jenni, the record is the product of a veritable all-star Vancouver music roster. Jeffry is former member of Vancouver based alt country act Blood Meridian, of which drummer Joshua Wells and vocalist Matt Camirand would go on to blow up with psychedelic rockers Black Mountain. “Black Mountain blows up, they go on tour and the other three of us were just like ‘well, what should we do?'”. Upon deciding to take up the task of making a rock opera, members of Bend Sinister, Fan Death and Lightning Dust were recruited to help out. “It was just gonna be a side project, so I just asked who I wanted to spend time with. Most of my friends have pretty similar musical taste. I just had a lot of friends who played music. Ninety percent of those people made time and we were able to make a pretty epic record”.

Hard Drugs was fashioned as a story-driven epic in the vein of Hedwig, but something that made more sense and was easier to follow than Ziggy Stardust or Tommy. The idea is one with precedent, but is not without it’s disadvantages. “I wanted to do something that had a bit more of a story to follow”. The effect has been varied. “You’re trying to listen to lyrics in a song and some people catch on more than others just based on how they listen to music. Some people are like, I rarely listen to words so it took me about twenty listens before I found out what was going on in the story”. In a live setting, Lee shies away from playing out of order. “I certainly like to play them all together. It was written as this narrative. It’s fun to play it with a full band. There’s a couple songs we have had to play with the instrumentation. I don’t have a nine piece band so we have to work with whoever is available”.

While the album deals with current political and social issues, Lee does not consider it a political album. “I don’t think I’m offering any solution, but I think it’s a lot about raising awareness”. Lee notes the lack of knowledge of the situation in East Van outside of the city, and bemoans some of the opportunistic coverage of the area during the 2010 Winter Olympics. “It was certainly just negative. What I read was not focusing on the good done by volunteers and organizations on the Downtown East Side. Just on how run down it is and how much of a drug problem there is. Basically for me all I wanted to do was say, yes, anyone who has been there knows that there is something going on down there, but there is two sides. There is some light in the darkness”.

On second thought, maybe some arcane cocktail of entirely illeagal substances doesn’t peg Hard Drugs for what it is. More appropriate is love. Love surrounds and seeps out of the band and has found itself pressed squarely into each track they’ve made. The album is a chronicle of tragic love and romance, and the struggle of Lloyd and Aline only serves to endear them to us, to addict us to them. Jenni and Jeffry even state matter of fact that “love’s the hardest drug of all”. If that’s the case, how does Hard Drugs make it look so easy?

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Interview – Darby Cicci of The Antlers June 7, 2010

The following originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. I ducked out of a lecture to perform this interview. It was very rock and roll. I just need a leather jacket to be James Dean now, they tell me.

hospice-by-the-antlers_5u1ixuvpkb4x_full

Darby Cicci is sitting in the middle of an electrical storm. One third of the experimental indie rock band the Antlers is struggling for cell reception and watching as the storm takes its toll on wayward paper products. “I literally saw, like, this blue napkin thing under the gas station thing… It just sort of exploded.” The setting is more than appropriate to talk about the success of their latest album, Hospice. The intensely layered and nuanced record has lead to extended tours, singles, videos and, apparently, some bad weather.

Few albums release to the critical reaction of Hospice. The Antlers’ third full-length album in around four years hit with such fanfare as to launch it toward a label release and numerous year-end best-of lists. The album tells the story of an abusive cancer patient in the Sloan Kettering Cancer Ward and a man that becomes entangled in the complexities of their shared grief. The record has a cinematic edge to it, and has received the music video treatment before, but the new video for Hospice’s loudest track, “Sylvia,” takes pages right out of the Hollywood playbook.

“I started brainstorming with the director a lot about ideas. I think the starting point…we wanted to have this duality. I wanted something volatile…almost violent without being too dark.” The video portrays a man in a run-down cabin sharing (and not exactly enjoying) a meal with ghost of his dearly departed. The imagery works well with the song, the sepia tones and flashback memories meshing tonally with an album preoccupied with remembrance and loss. “We talked about ideas about ghosts and images and holograms, in a way. We wanted this ghost figure to be kind of real and kind of not.” He continues, “It’s kind of about claustrophobia and dealing with a problem that might be imaginary.” Director Trey Hock made the decision to film the video in black and white, pulling influence from classic auteur D.W. Griffith.

The Antlers lined up a long tour with the momentum of Hospice, including summer festival appearances including Lollapalooza. The problems with playing the particularly wrought and emotional material to a festival crowd is not lost on Cicci.

“It makes it very stripped down. We can’t really do the theatrics on an outdoor stage. There’s usually a lot more people at an outdoor show. It’s a little more of a rock show, in a way. We try and open it up.” Cicci says the band shies away from the quiet and subtlety of the album when faced with a crowd swimming in beer.

Hospice was conceptualized by Antlers frontman Peter Silberman, but built upon as a collaborative effort, an Antlers first. Cicci admits that his attachment to the very personal material in Hospice is different than Peter’s or bandmate Michael Lerner’s, but is no less potent. “I have to experience it in my way and develop it. I have a lot of similar experiences that I can use to understand it. It’s very natural to me.”

Darby says that what worked on Hospice is not going to be the way into the future for the band. Instead, he insists that something distinct is on the horizon.

“It’s going to be dramatically different. It already is.” Recording has been ongoing on new material, and Darby is confident that while different, the Antlers will produce something just as worthwhile.

“It’s sounding a lot different, and we’re going to play some on this tour.” Cicci says, though he remains pragmatic, adding, “Unless they sound horrible. Then we won’t.”

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Interview – Doug McCombs of Tortoise June 3, 2010

This article originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Big thanks to Doug who found time in their insane touring schedule to answer questions he has likely heard many times before. Such things happen with longevity.

tortoise_band

The problem with inventing a genre is that no one will ever let you forget it. Chicago post-rockers Tortoise are no strangers to this phenomenon, and whether they agree with such acclamations or not, they have come to define a band that made it’s mark consciously trying to defy definitions. “Being the reluctant poster child for “post rock” has it’s drawbacks” says Doug McCombs. Their ability to take the familiar component pieces or rock and turn them into startling Frankenstein monsters of tight instrumentation and seemingly loose, improvised composition earned them founder status in a movement that would influence a countless number of newcomers.

This status as pioneers comes with it’s own challenges, as expectations are often higher for the band internally and externally. “We are often trying to defy expectations, but it’s mostly to do with our own expectations” says McCombs. He is, however, cognisant of the effects those expectations have on their audience at large, remarking that “the steps forward that we take in our approach to making music are often imperceptible to people who are looking for something negative to say about us.”

In operation since the early 1990’s, Tortoise has moved in countless directions. Such longevity is usually associated with a thinning of options and the suffering of creativity, but McCombs is optimistic about Tortoise’s chances to continue innovating. “The longer we stay a band the more often we hit creative blocks. We usually try to push through them by trying experiments. Either that or take a break. We don’t really feel any pressure to produce product although it might help if we did”. The band’s output is characterized by long gaps between LP’s, something that McCombs admits the group is not wholly in favor of. “As a band we’re pretty active all the time, but it occurred to us that the 5 years between our last album and this one might have been a little too long”.

A single band has proved simply too little for the output of Tortoise members, with McCombs and bandmate John McEntire combining for more than a dozen projects between them, including The Sea and Cake, Brokeback and Gastr Del Sol. The brackish between the projects is kept to a minimum, however, McCombs commenting that “Choosing which songs go to which band often comes down to which band we’re concentrating on at the time. If TRTS is working on an album then I’ll give whatever I’m working on to TRTS”. The creative process Tortoise takes part in is unique from the others though. “The best TRTS songs often start with very small unfinished ideas” he says, adding “if a song is too finished or if I have a concrete idea of how it should go then I’ll probably save it for another band”.

Tortoise seems like a band destined to reform after a lengthy hiatus, but McCombs sees no practicality in this trend. “I think we all feel that there is something special about the way we work together, special enough that we think we can do it for a long time”. Their legend only growing and evolving, McCombs speaks with a kind of confidence fans of most bands could only hope for, saying “monetary concerns aside, there seems to be no reason to stop making records.” It seems for now, Tortoise is here to stay.

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Live Review – Immaculate Machine/Sun Wizard April 6, 2010

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for photo/moral support.

Photo Credit: Katherine Green-2.jpeg

Two reliable west coast stand-bys took to the stage at the Biltmore for some energetic and well-received sets. Though the start time was greatly delayed, a good sized crowd stuck it out to end a string of tour dates for the Victoria-based Immaculate Machine, and they punctuated with flair.

Warming up the crowd was Vancouver-based Sun Wizard, a band that is almost as famous for their controversy as their talent. Sun Wizard took to the stage with all the confidence and swagger their reputation entails, for a moment halting discussion in favour of rocking out. The set seemed to drag in the middle but was more than made up for with a solid send off and an appreciative charisma that perfectly set up the veteran headliners.

Immaculate Machine’s set – as usual – proved that they are among the most talented (if least heralded) groups in Mint Record’s intimidating stable. Their songwriting has gained dimension and maturity over a string of LP releases in the recent past, but by and large, their back catalogue sounds as refreshing as always. Favourite “Phone Number” came off slightly dated in comparison to richer material off Fables and new release High On Jackson Hill, but the one-two punch of “Broken Ship” and “So Cynical” remain a pillar of the Immaculate Machine live show. If one criticism existed, it would be that some parts of their more serious lyrics fall flat when the band looks as if they are having the time of their lives playing music together. Always entertaining and at their utmost in front of a crowd, Immaculate Machine demonstrate time and time again that they stand among the very best in the country.

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Live Review – Midlake/Matthew and The Arrogant Sea

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for sitting through this with me.

Photo Credit: Katherine Green-1.jpeg

In previous decades, the keys to success were acid wash jeans and the occasional robe of sequins and leopard skin. Now, it seems the shortcut to popularity is the one-two punch of a buttoned plaid shirt and a mass of facial hair. Playing to a packed Biltmore Cabaret, Midlake seemed ready to up the ante with some cross-demographic success and copious flute embellishments in their music. Touring with Denton, Texas cohorts Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, Midlake brought their brand of pretty acoustic folk-rock to an appreciative (if overly reverent) crowd.

Matthew and the Arrogant Sea were almost too appropriate for the bill, their style blending so seamlessly with Midlake’s as to feel too similar. Where they diverge is Matthew’s penchant for drum-driven epics. Whereas Midlake feels like a walk through a forest, the Arrogant Sea evokes a more powerful intensity, a Tarzan to Midlake’s Mowgli. Being joined onstage by members of Midlake (the added manpower and chemistry was beneficial) and mentioning a meal they had at Foundation were just the right notes to make the crowd show some love.

For Midlake, even stepping onstage seems like an act of logistical might, as the ensemble packed the Biltmore’s stage with band members. The group powered through he majority of their LP tracks and were amiable and entertaining throughout, garnering applause only when it was polite (after each song) and prompting at least one fan to throw up the devil horns during a particularly moving flute section.

Midlake, for better or worse, garners an exaggerated amount of comparison to fellow crooners Fleet Foxes. This is unfortunate because this comparison will always serve to expose the truth about the band: their output is neither exceptional nor poor, just as middle-of-the-road as their name would suggest.

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Live Review – Postdata/Julie Fader/Clinton St.John

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for making it out.

Photo Credit: Katherine Green.jpeg

In 1999, a movie called Detroit Rock City added a little KISS to a tired college road trip subgenre. In it, Sam Huntington would remark to his cohorts about how in 1973, KISS was opening for Blue Oyster Cult, and how in one year to the day, B.O.C. would open for KISS. This conversation was running through my head all through the set A Place To Bury Strangers played for relative newcomers The Big Pink.
A Place To Bury Strangers brought their noise rock styling to an increasingly likely place at Venue. As if to emulate the fuzz and obfuscation of their sound, they turned their stage into a photographers nightmare with about a cigar bar’s worth of smoke. Slicing in and out was an epileptic lightshow, one that elicited at least a few pointing fingers from the sparse early start crowd. If anything, The APTBS experience is heightened by the theatrics, owing in no small amount to the fact that their sets are, while remaining true to their trademark sprawl, a markedly tight, rehearsed feel to them. Album standout “Ego Death” was particularly exciting, and they ended a short set with “Ocean”, the outro to which had them sounding like Hell’s own string section. It was the opening act any band would be lucky to have, with an energy following that was ripe for the picking.
The Big Pink followed and seemed oddly out of place. Gaining all kinds of popular momentum off the strength of a well received series of singles and an album, they differentiated themselves from APTBS well – something that should have been a bit difficult given their similarity. But the way in which they differentiated themselves was less desirable.
The Big Pink simply could not follow the powerhouse that was A Place To Bury Strangers. Their set paled in comparison, and while it would have been merely uninspired in any other situation, following a atypically strong opening act was unfortunate. Despite their enthusiasm, they failed to reach any meaningful climaxes.
Which is what brought me to a late 90’s film about KISS. Just like the young men in that film, I am incredulous that The Big Pink follows A Place To Bury Strangers on the bill. Maybe next year things will have changed.

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Live Review – A Place To Bury Strangers/The Big Pink

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Sarah Kloke for coming out and fighting the fog with her camera.

The Big Pink.jpeg

In 1999, a movie called Detroit Rock City added a little KISS to a tired college road trip subgenre. In it, Sam Huntington would remark to his cohorts about how in 1973, KISS was opening for Blue Oyster Cult, and how in one year to the day, B.O.C. would open for KISS. This conversation was running through my head all through the set A Place To Bury Strangers played for relative newcomers The Big Pink.
A Place To Bury Strangers brought their noise rock styling to an increasingly likely place at Venue. As if to emulate the fuzz and obfuscation of their sound, they turned their stage into a photographers nightmare with about a cigar bar’s worth of smoke. Slicing in and out was an epileptic lightshow, one that elicited at least a few pointing fingers from the sparse early start crowd. If anything, The APTBS experience is heightened by the theatrics, owing in no small amount to the fact that their sets are, while remaining true to their trademark sprawl, a markedly tight, rehearsed feel to them. Album standout “Ego Death” was particularly exciting, and they ended a short set with “Ocean”, the outro to which had them sounding like Hell’s own string section. It was the opening act any band would be lucky to have, with an energy following that was ripe for the picking.
The Big Pink followed and seemed oddly out of place. Gaining all kinds of popular momentum off the strength of a well received series of singles and an album, they differentiated themselves from APTBS well – something that should have been a bit difficult given their similarity. But the way in which they differentiated themselves was less desirable.
The Big Pink simply could not follow the powerhouse that was A Place To Bury Strangers. Their set paled in comparison, and while it would have been merely uninspired in any other situation, following a atypically strong opening act was unfortunate. Despite their enthusiasm, they failed to reach any meaningful climaxes.
Which is what brought me to a late 90’s film about KISS. Just like the young men in that film, I am incredulous that The Big Pink follows A Place To Bury Strangers on the bill. Maybe next year things will have changed.

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Live Review – Vacant City/The Stumbler’s Inn

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Thanks to Katherine Green for her war photography.

Vacant City - Photo Credit: Katherine Green.jpeg

Vacant City invaded the Anza Club to release their new album Forgotten Street. Sharing the stage with the Stumbler’s Inn, they aimed to usher in their recording with gusto. Gusto was had, but not from the headliners.

The Stumbler’s Inn played to a large crowd, but it was about half as large as they deserved. Their mix of rock and blues is infectious, with much of their charm attributable to a dynamic onstage charisma and fantastic songwriting. One of the highlights of their set was a song called “The Blues,” a masterful mix of compelling songwriting and hilariously ironic lyricism that had more than a few audience members laughing in between shouts and applause. It is unfortunate for Vacant City, however, that they set the bar so high.

Vacant City seem to have a dedicated following. Though there was a definite drift to the Anza basement (and to the door) a few songs into their set, the remaining fans were treated to a good mix of new and old material. Dressed like the Hives and sporting the requisite fedoras, they interspersed their songs with detailed descriptions of their content, revealing that one song was about making love in the back of a pickup truck. After a brief encounter with a guitar knocked out of tune by “rocking too hard,” their set concluded with a few less than it had to begin, but with satisfaction all around.

The CD release party was a success, but that success is not reflected in the new material. Despite their enigmatic presence, their tracks hearken to a dated era in rock, sounding like Stone Temple Pilots without the drama. Fans will find the new material more than satisfying, but newcomers may find the first half of their name a little too apt.

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Review – The Monitor by Titus Andronicus March 23, 2010

This review first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Before I wrote it, I listened to the album front to back twice. I was intrigued, as you can probably tell. By the fifth listen I realized I was listening to nothing else. By the tenth time through, I was plotting it’s position in my Top 50 Albums Of All Time with great prejudice.

If given an opportunity, I would probably recant what I said about the way this album develops; it’s savvy didn’t dawn on me until way after the copy date. Titus Andronicus injects a ton of an arrested adolescence we have seen spoken of in recent albums by The xx and others, but then they decide to just grab their crotches and rock out. The QOTSA comparison holds water in the sense that this album is good and whereas the other album failed to inspire me, but the gloss and pop sensibility that characterized Songs For The Deaf is not present. The Monitor finds it’s voice in as many places as it possibly can, finding refuge in punk and rock, anthems and dirges, post-rock and alt-country. As a loose concept album about the American Civil War and as a something to bang your head to (against?) to it succeeds on levels of nothing else I have heard in quite some time. Not that I listen to concept albums about national struggles over slavery very often or anything…you get what I mean. It’s awesome.

The gravel in Patrick Stickles’ voice might not evoke the response often, but a friend of mine mentioned how it sounded like Bright Eyes. I was kind of aghast at this comparison (Desaparecidos maybe, but Bright Eyes?), but as I thought about it more, it really is fairly apt.

The major reason (in my mind) that people dislike Bright Eyes is because the lyricism of Conor Obrest makes people intensely uncomfortable. When you listen to a song by Journey or something, the emotion and topics that form the similar foundation of poetry for both exists, but the quality of the poetry and songwriting is disparate enough that Obrest simply expresses those emotions far clearer and more precisely. Emotion is only cool to an extent to that in a group, one would not be mocked for the enjoyment of such language of loss and pain. The word “Emo” was quickly drawn up to disparage an entire demographic that identified with some fairly dour subject matter in their iTunes library. While they didn’t help themselves by subverting that musical subgenre with some fairly shitty material and questionable purchases at Hot Topic, the message was clear: if you are sad or take part in perceived sad-sackery you are uncool and are open to acceptable mockery.

The Monitor is an album that nearly wallows in frustration, and that anger is (as Dr. Melfi would say) depression turned inwards. While it is easy to pin Obrest as “depressed” due to the style in which most of his discography is presented, they meet lyrically like Lego, Titus only deciding to punch a wall instead of weeping against it. Both are perfectly acceptable to some, but will always be rejected by a movement that is as stoney as it is erudite. This anti-sadness brigade is really just a railing against any public inclination towards emotions they themselves share, but are too reserved to share. Which, of course, is total bullshit. Do you think Jim Stark had no emotion? Do you think that wasn’t just a front and a lamented mask? Wasn’t that the whole point of Rebel Without a Cause and the whole brilliance of James Dean?

People are going to point to this album with the same derision they do anything by Bright Eyes, and I still cannot explain why. Maybe it will be punk rock enough not to threaten anyone’s masculinity.

Yet Fleet Foxes and The Antlers are cool. I don’t get it.

Here is the review, as printed. This is the best album of 2010 so far. Seek it out.


The Monitor

Titus Andronicus is a band that never shies away from bombast. From naming themselves after a fairly popular Roman military figure and Shakespeare character to opening their new album “The Monitor” with a truncated speech from former United States President Abraham Lincoln, the band gets as close your face as possible without treating it to a smart head-butt.

It’s strange, however, that this outing has more in common with “Songs for the Deaf” by Queens of the Stone Age in terms of the career arc of a band. “Songs for the Deaf” represented a streamlined QOTSA, bringing out the hooky, accessible aspects of the band’s sometimes monotonous sound. Though Titus Andronicus lacks the extended precedence for such a qualification, the metaphor is fitting; “The Monitor” is an incredibly listenable album, chock full of anthems and entertaining guitar work that the previous “Airing of Grievances” seemed patently opposed to.

Lyrically, Titus seems to want to distract from these dangerous flirtations with pop with full on punk-rock cynicism. The marriage between the two, however, seems to cleanse the sentiments of the scorn. Chants of “You’ll always be a loser” and “The enemy is everywhere” seem less like statements of defeat (or victory, or admonishment) and more a call to community, as if to say you’ll always be a loser, but we will too.

Though “The Monitor” seems to run out of new tricks in it’s last act with shoegaze dirges that would seem more at home on “Grievances”, it proves to be one of the finest albums of the young year. The director of this Titus Andronicus seems more focused, and with that brings out the best in some already promising ideas. Plus, you’ll want to keep it in mind when they tour, as “The Monitor” sounds like it will foment a jaw-dropping live effort.

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Review – Heligoland by Massive Attack

The following first appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Massive Attack is awesome and I hope if they meet me they don’t hold my opinions against me. I’m awesome, I swear.

Heligoland

There are very few bands that have reached the almost sacred status with music aficionados like Massive Attack has. The problem with becoming sacred is that it’s a whole lot farther to the ground when you fall.

   Enter “Heligoland”, the fifth collection of original tracks from the group and with it one of the biggest targets for critical vitriol this side of “Dig Out Your Soul”. The problem is that both it and the supposedly final album from Oasis are only middling. It is the history of their respective bands that do them a disservice. Neither of those records is bad by any metric, but they simply lack whatever chemistry that launched previous efforts into the realm of breathless hyperbole.

   There is no “Angel” on “Heligoland”. Certainly not. There is also no “Teardrop” or “Inertia Creeps” or whatever song fans would rather just go back and listen to again instead of hearing new material. Those tracks are memorable and iconic for the sole reason that they are exceptional. Exceptional is, by definition, tough to attain.

   “Paradise Circus” and “Babel” are pretty good tracks. Most of the stuff approaches “Black Milk” levels of energy and prowess, but never quite attain either. Whereas the down-tempo style of Massive Attack was never boring or sleepy, “Heligoland” waxes into some fairly sedate territory. While it never reaches a state of Mum-type lullaby, it is certainly the least sinister and immediate of the band’s material. “Saturday Come Slow” featuring Damon Albarn and “Girl I Love You” are the standout tracks on the album, but again, will not go down with the majority of “Mezzanine” into the canon. While their general thesis’ are sound, their execution fails to arouse the same emotion and interest as anything on “Blue Lines”.

   That said, this is still Massive Attack we are talking about. If this is truly their most lacklustre album, then it is only so in comparison to the rest of their work. Like Yo La Tengo, Massive Attack at their worst are still better than most at their best, and “Heligoland” is still more than worth the time it takes away from playing “Unfinished Sympathy” on repeat.

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Live Review – Peak Performance Finale (Bend Sinister/We Are The City/The Left)

The following was first published in Beatroute Magazine. Photos by Rachel Hurst. Snark by Clinton Hallahan. It appeared with an edit that truncated it quite a bit, so here is the full thing. Big thanks again to Miss Hurst who did a great job with the shots.

We Are The City

   The gong show that was the Peak Performance finale at the Commodore Ballroom was, at times, adorned with an actual gong. Though it’s musical use was limited, it’s symbolic presence behind the drum kit underscored the corporate vapidities surrounding the showcase of the last three bands standing in the contest.

The Left

   First up was We Are The City, a band so youthful it’s unclear whether the Commodore staff could even serve them liquor. That said, their set was the opposite of what one might expect from a band so young. It was a testament to their talent and more than evidence that they deserved to share the stage with their more aged counterparts. Their brand of indie rock was a crowd pleaser driven by tight drumming and catchy guitars. Say what you will about the death of radio, but the sold out event sponsored primarily by The Peak 100.5 (in association with MusicBC) was filled for what casual audience members might consider the opening act.

   But We Are The City was not the story of the night.

   The Left followed and with them brought the comparatively mellow, safe stylings of a band that seemed slightly out of place. Sandwiched between the vigor of their predecessors and the tour de force of Bend Sinister following, their more than competent radio rock that would have killed in many other contexts seem to fall on less enthusiastic ears.

   But this was not the story either.

Bend Sinister - Dan Moxon

   Vancouver veterans Bend Sinister finished out the night in rare form, playing a set that was packed with their hits. Reports of a stellar Bend Sinister show are plentiful to the point of becoming redundant, but this particular show had the atmosphere and crowd energy that each of those shows deserved. Joined onstage by Nat Jay and Adeline, the Bend Sinister experience was only enhanced by a stage that seemed fitting of their talents.

   This, again, was not the story of the night.

Bend Sinister

   The story of the Peak Performance finale was in the handing out of the awards. Running away with first prize and the not insignificant sum of $150,000 was We Are The City, with The Left placing second and Bend Sinister taking third, taking $75,000 and $50,000 apiece. With full knowledge that it was a contest scored by judges (who previously offered a suggestions on how to improve each band at a development camp, imparting such sage advice as “you shouldn’t play keyboard standing up” to Dan Moxon of Bend Sinister) and was not a popularity contest, the crowd revolted over the results. By far the loudest reaction of the night was the boos and anguish of the crowd when it was announced that Bend Sinister took up the rear. In acts that utterly overshadowed a trio of stellar performances, the night’s shrill emcee had to calm the crowd with sadly prosaic admonitions, assuring the angered audience that fifty grand was not “losing”.

Good music with a chaser of righteous indignation was the story of the night. That, and the gentleman screaming “shenanigans” at people being handed what some consider a year’s salary.

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Interview – Tristan Thompson of Cairo

This interview originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. It was supposed to be there a few months ago, but an art snafu kept it out until nowish. Cairo is a great band and you should check them out posthaste.

Cairo

When there is a delicious meal set in front of me, the last thing I want to be doing is pacing myself and trying to add to the conversation around me. So while Tristan Thompson of Cairo is answering my questions, the guilt I feel over making him talk instead of eating his Victoria sandwich from Theresa’s is second only to the pleasure I take from eating my stuffed French toast. I’m speaking to him ahead of the release of their self-titled debut recorded just down the street at Fadermaster Studios. As with any new band, conversation quickly turns to origins.

“I think tacking up a poster on a lamp post somehow exists on a lower level than Craigslist even,” says Tristan of his time before the formation of Cairo. While the drummer was advertising his services, he came up with no shortage of creative mismatches. “You get calls from dudes who just play Metallica covers in their dorm room. I was like, ‘You don’t actually need me to do that.’”

Thompson relates how he met up with his counterparts JP Lancaster, Mark Crawford and Dan Crawford as a fairly innocuous occurrence. Linked through mutual friends, Thompson was the late addition to the band.

“I was actually in England, got an email from Mark who I hadn’t seen in a while and he asked if I wanted to play with them.” A sound was already emerging when he joined, and the chemistry was immediate. “They already had about five or six solid song ideas, and I really liked the dynamic, I really liked the sound of it. There was never really any discussion about what we wanted to be like or what we should be like.”

Thompson describes how each member of Cairo was responsible for his or own “portfolio” in the songwriting process. “We just trust it all works together.” In spite of its disparate origins, each part of the album is remarkably cohesive, with each member’s pieces fitting like a jigsaw puzzle. The result is a taught package of clever tracks that sounds more collaborative than Thompson admits. This dynamic may be changing, however. He adds, “There is more (collaboration) lately – I think we’re kind of growing up and leaving less to luck.”

Cairo’s sound is also a departure from much of Thompson’s background. Frequenting punk bands in his youth, postings on streetlights led to flirtations with many genres at odds with the influentially diverse Cairo. From the post-rock leanings of album opener “Cogs” to the standout sing-along “A Hot Minute (At The Tech-Noir),” it’s a far cry from some previous project’s he found himself in.

“My band in Victoria was extremely pop-y. The keyboard player tried to call it ‘party pop,’ but we rejected that and told him it had to be called ‘slumber party pop’ because the only legitimate demographic for it would’ve been twelve-year-old girls at a slumber party.”

Though he has traveled across Canada and around the world, Thompson sees no issue with being a musician in Vancouver. While bands will sometimes head east to seek fortune, the prospect of leaving is foreign to him, though Cairo seems centered around travel, if in name only.

“I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. I love other places and other cultures,” he says. But with an anticipated new album forthcoming and a seemingly endless reserve of enthusiasm, Tristan Thompson counts himself a die-hard local. “But man, I am from B.C. I am from Vancouver. And I want to live in my home. Please. Thank you.”

For more information, check out www.myspace.com/whenincairo.

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Interview: Asobi Seksu January 6, 2010

Originally appearing in Beatroute Magazine.

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Yuki Chikudate doesn’t think definition gets you anywhere. Or rather, attempting to define her band, Asobi Seksu – the New York-based shoegaze group – is a fool’s errand.

“This question of fitting into a genre or fitting into a specific sound, it’s always a question that people ask bands,” she says. “I never even really know if that clarifies anything or if anyone is every really satisfied.” Indeed, following the release of the band’s breakout album Citrus, there was an almost fevered attempt to define the band as one genre or another. “We have always agreed with the shoegaze thing; it’s definitely part of our sound,” she says, listing off current and prior influences that have been prescribed to the band almost since its inception. “Hopefully we are growing and evolving as a band with each record.”

Despite the collective effort of journalists attempting to define the band musically, Chikudate admits there are clearly other factors at play. “The fact that I look different, I’m an Asian female…it’s very confusing, I guess, for some people.” The questions arising out of their sound (fuzzed out guitars and lyrics lapsing into Japanese at will), ethnicity and the name of the group (Asobi Seksu means “playful sex” in Japanese) are surprising to Chikudate. “Maybe I’m being naive…I just don’t know where that desire (to define us) comes from.”

Just when audiences were getting a handle on the Asobi Seksu sound and talking in earnest about standout tracks off Citrus such as “New Years” and “Red Sea,” the band threw another curveball and released Hush, an album that leans very little on an established formula. The result is clear in songs like “Transparence” and “Gliss,” representing a side of the band more concerned with tight thesis statements than thick dissonance. “We toured with Citrus for about three years and…we kinda got tired.” She laughs and adds, “I think more than anything our ears got tired.” She says the evolution was a natural reaction to a fatigue with the successful sound on Citrus, and the result was a more “minimalist place…a stark place,” born out of keyboard and drum-centric songwriting. “We wanted to go with something a little more uncomfortable.”

Following Hush, Chikudate and co-mastermind James Hanna recorded a remix album of sorts called Rewolf. The album features re-imaginings and acoustic renditions of their songs, and, despite being another departure, ties together their material into a cohesive package where most bands at this stage would have merely put out a token EP. The record was the product of a short recording stint at Olympic Records, the legendary London studio where they competed for studio time with U2. The studio closed its doors shortly after Rewolf had wrapped, so a history coloured with everyone from the Beatles to Björk is capped with Asobi Seksu. “You look at the list and it’s legends, and then there’s us. It’s kind of comical. We were honoured.”

Despite all the hand wringing and questions about the band, it’s clear Asobi Seksu has enough problems worth solving to remain intriguing. Chikudate is able to internalize the conflict. “I take it as a compliment, that people are left with more questions than answers.” She adds, “I guess it’s not a bad thing, being difficult to define.”

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Live Review: Hey Ocean!/Current Swell/The Zolas

Originally appearing in Beatroute Magazine.

HeyOcean14

Photo by Paul Boechler

To talk about Hey Ocean! is, inexorably, to talk about Vancouver music as a whole. Being cogent of this fact, the band decided to put a tidy little cross section of the scene up on the marquee at the Vogue on December 18.

The Zolas started the night and set the bar incredibly high. The brainchild of Zach Gray and Tom Dobrzanski playing their first show in Vancouver (despite it being their hometown) added an effortlessness and charisma that only enhanced some undeniably strong tracks off their latest, Tic Toc Tic. Current Swell sought to clear the bar and did so admirably, their neo-blues stylings meshing oddly well with the bookending acts. Their tight set was a credit to a sound they have nurtured to maturity over three albums. Hey Ocean! took to the stage with the buzz of the crowd hovering at a dull roar and managed that energy expertly with a commanding performance.

The show was a worthy milestone in each of the bands’ respective legends. Gathering three of the most talked about Vancouver (and Victoria) bands under one roof for a pre-Christmas show was exactly the no-brainer it seemed. The Zolas racked up a truckload of new fans, Current Swell cemented their status as one of the west coast’s most creative and entertaining group of musicians, and Hey Ocean! used their time at the Vogue to prove what most of the crowd already knew: that their talents are every bit as deserving of headliner status as any band working today. Add in guest appearances by Said the Whale and Dan Mangan and you have an almost parodic number of Vancouver’s finest in one room (and, sometimes, singing into one mic).

Hey Ocean! is, at this point in their career, living up to every shred of hype and promise they have cultivated. They can do seemingly anything; whether imbuing old songs with new meaning and dimension (“Fish,” “Fifteen Words”) or cranking out some remarkable new material (“Last Mistake”), they’re a young band looking like consummate professionals. They capped off a night of music that made it patently clear that any discussion of Vancouver music omitting the three acts is incomplete, and that they are all more than worthy of being remembered as highlights of the closing decade.

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Show Review – Shout Out Out Out Out December 8, 2009

ShoutOut0001

With a bass output usually reserved for dubstep shows and Honda Civics, the Edmonton electro sextet Shout Out Out Out Out pounded out a tight set at the Rickshaw Theatre with precision.

Touring behind their latest effort Reintegration Time, the inordinately personable Albertans returned triumphantly to Vancouver to a voracious crowd dedicated to dancing just as much as the T-shirted artists onstage.

Seemingly determined to master the timely high kick and to steal the dance-rock cowbell crown from the Rapture, Shout Out Out Out Out tore through the vast majority of their catalogue to the delight of a packed theatre. Their short career was duly represented, with old favorites, like “Nobody Calls Me Unless They Want Something,” and some promising new numbers, like the stellar “Bad Choices.”

The heat was off in the Rickshaw, making sure the crowd and the band stayed bundled up in heavy coats, but by mid-way through the set, Shout Out Out Out Out made sure we all warmed up.

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Categories: Official Works

Vancouver Choice Cuts 2009

Originally in Beatroute Magazine. Choice Cuts is a list of the top local albums of the year, and these are the ones I did reviews for.

Pink Mountaintops – Outside Love

pink

Always defying shoegaze, the ever-inventive Pink Mountaintops issued the intensely layered and evocative Outside Love to a storm of praise. Equal parts rousing and introspective, late album standout “The Gayest of Sunbeams” closes out one of the year’s best with a track that’s as infectious as it is skillfully written.

You Say Party! We Say Die! – XXXX

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The Abbotsford five-piece has finally decided on a sound, ditching dance-punk textures for a little more shine and gloss. Becky Ninkovic’s vocals ring clear over their tested formula of charismatic guitars and punchy beats. Howard Redekopp lends his expertise to craft a sound that remains fresh and vital.

Yukon Blonde  – Everything in Everyway

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A massively promising EP from an already exciting band, veteran go-to opening act Yukon Blonde showcase their talents in this new offering. Thesis track “Nico Canmore” showcases a method and energy that excites and leaves you wanting more. The band formerly known as AlphaBaby is all grown up.

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CD Review – Weezer’s “Raditude”

Originally in Beatroute Magazine.

If all work and no play made Jack a dull boy, all work and no sex made Rivers Cuomo a completely different person. Such are rationalizations I have to make when listening to Raditude, the new album from a band that purports to be Weezer. I say purports, because since Rivers made a vow of celibacy, I can’t recognize this new band. Even worse, he has said that the vow improved his songwriting. Can we infer that he regards Pinkerton as bad songwriting, and everything since Make Believe the new Weezer aesthetic? I hope not.

The album is one landmine after another. It meanders through inconsequential pop-rock devoid of innovation, products of a hit machine that has veered into the painfully cynical with gusto. Throwing Lil Wayne onto a track seems terribly desperate in the context of the depressingly uncreative album preceding the inexplicable “Can’t Stop Partying” mid-way through.

The train finally flies off the rails at the incredibly bad “Love Is The Answer”, a song I have to believe a Green Album Cuomo would have mocked without mercy. There’s a Brad Neely comic strip with that song’s title as the ironic punchline, the character’s in the strip writhing in the agony of the sentiment verbatim. The effect is similar here.

As if the wound needed salt, the two least offensive songs on the record (the Daniel Johnston evoking “Run Over By A Truck” and the catchy “Prettiest Girl In The Whole Wide World”) are relegated to a more expensive deluxe version of the album.

It’s awful that an album made after Chris Cornell’s Scream evokes nothing but memories of it. It’s the kind of album that makes it required that fans denote their value in terms of “I like most of their stuff except Raditude”, a cheesy afterthought stapled to the underside of a storied career. Skip it.

weezer-raditude-aa

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Interview – Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces November 3, 2009

Going away, but not on vacation.

Eleanor Friedberger has been away for some time and has come back with a cold. The female half of the brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces talks to me just having returned from a long stint in Europe touring behind their seventh studio album, I’m Going Away. While the album starts with a title track and ends with the song “Take Me Round Again,” Friedberger is hesitant to assign the music parallels to her life touring the planet. 

“That’s certainly a nice way to think of it,” she says, but insists that the album was created with no thematic imperative. “We wanted to make a record that people have more fun making their owns stories for.” 

While every album represents a unique sound, Friedberger calls it the first equally collaborative effort in their catalogue. “The way we first started was I was telling Matt [Friedberger] a story, and we made up a song around that story. It kinda changed from him helping me make music to me helping him.” In her mind, the process has come full circle. “Now it’s kinda like we’re helping each other.” 

That philosophy of new songwriting approaches led to a series of intriguing projects that are now on the horizon for the band. In May, a post on the Fiery Furnaces blog put out a call to fans for “deaf descriptions,” for what they thought the new album would sound like without having heard it. The plan was for the descriptions to be turned into an album to be released simultaneously with I’m Going Away. Instead, they have been immortalized on the Fiery Furnaces website.

“I almost can’t read them because I feel overwhelmed and embarrassed because people spend so much time on something that has to do with us.” She continues, “It’s very flattering. It show so much about people who like our music, they’re so creative themselves.” Another project was dual cover albums of I’m Going Away, with all the songs redone individually by the Friedbergers. Eleanor says the albums are being mastered for an upcoming release. 

“The cover record is something I have wanted to do for a long time.” She credits the idea to being sometimes unable to recall how a song is played and making up new songs when she practices her singing. “I thought it would be funny to make a record, like a fake, folk ‘60s record called Eleanor Friedberger Sings The Songs Of The Fiery Furnaces. As if I hadn’t sung them all already.” She goes on to say her songs are mostly her vocals accompanied by guitar and Matthew’s are mostly his vocals accompanied by piano. These plans were joined by yet another projects, a so-called “silent record.” 

“We’re going to be putting out a book, but we’re calling it a ‘silent record’ because it is going to be a book of music.” The book, which will include sheet music, lyrics and graphic notation for improvisation, will hopefully be put out in both record and book stores. Between all these projects, turning shows into rallies for health care reform in the United States, a U.S. and Canadian tour and plans to return to Europe, the Fiery Furnaces may indeed need to go away for some rest in the near future. 

The Fiery Furnaces will be performing at the Red Room (Vancouver) November 17.

As seen in Beatroute Magazine.

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CD Review – The Flaming Lips’ “Embryonic”

All twelve of the Flamings Lips’ albums are worth throwing into a CD player (or three) and Embryonic continues this long tradition. Wayne Coyne and Co. have made a career out of thrusting the word “safari” into your brain while you listen to their music and are rightly known for augmenting their neon aesthetic with a stage show to match. The aural backflips and occasional electronic dissonances that have characterized much of their late career come to a sharp point on their latest LP.

While never recapturing the flagrant abuse of standards they displayed during their Zaireeka days, the Fearless Freaks have nonetheless attempted to recapture that spirit, with Embryonic making their output since 1999 look almost accessible. With songs running the gamut from intensely listenable to merely damned interesting, Embryonic exhibits their unique flair for turning the improbable into the improbably great. Karen O. making animal noises over speakerphone mid-way through the album doesn’t even sound out of place.

Embryonic is the Flaming Lips high on maturity. It is the logical, measured progression of themes they have experimented with for years and is more than worth the time and effort it demands.

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Interview – James McNew of Yo La Tengo October 6, 2009

James McNew is talking to me from Durham, North Carolina where Yo La Tengo is set to play a show in support of their seventh full-length album, Popular Songs. While the band has had undeniable longevity and success over long history, critics are quick to point out a lack of mainstream notoriety. The album name seems in reference to that, but McNew disagrees.  “We didn’t think of the title as being a commentary on anything” he says. “I think we mostly just thought it was funny. It was appealing because it’s open to many interpretations, and I think we are happiest with anything that doesn’t just give you directions to what it means and what we mean by it.”

Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan started Yo La Tengo in 1984, making the band a quarter century old. McNew says existing through the span of five U.S. Presidents has not numbed him to his fortune.


“Are you kidding? This is my job! I get to do my dream job as my real job.” He admits, however, there are moments where this attitude escapes him, saying “there are moments in a day, when we’re on tour or in the studio or just working…where you feel like screaming. But it’s very easy to step back and look at the big picture.”

With a steady mix of longer, ten-minute plus epics and shorter rock tracks, Popular Songs stays true to the varied landscape Yo La Tengo songs are known for. “It would probably be a more efficient process if someone went home and wrote the songs by themselves and showed up to practice and showed us all how the new Yo La Tengo songs go. We would probably put out a whole lot more records that way.” McNew prefers the collective approach. “We basically just get together and play.” With an improvisational method like that, McNew values the relationship they have with longtime producer Roger Moutenot. “Its good to have a more objective set of ears with us to give us perspective.”

Whether the crowd at a show remains stoic (a prevalent characteristic of the modern “indie rock” concert) or is a little more animated, McNew has mixed feelings.  he jokes “if we’re playing something quiet and I hear someone talking, then I get mad. But if we play something loud, and everybody is too quiet, then I get mad too. There’s no pleasing me. I’m just happy there’s people there. God bless them for showing up.”

When talking about Yo La Tengo’s vast covers repertoire, he cannot say for sure what a band covering Yo La Tengo should sound like. “I don’t know. I think with all the liberties we have taken with other people’s songs we’re fair game.” He adds, “I did think it would be funny if all the people slighted on the ‘Murdering The Classics’ record got together and did a revenge album”.


McNew has fond memories of his time with the band, but finds it impossible to predict what the next 25 years of Yo La Tengo will bring. “Golly. I didn’t know what the first 25 years was gonna have.” He says, “I couldn’t tell you how the rest of the week is gonna go.”

As appearing originally in Beatroute Magazine.


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